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I've Never Felt So at Home

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Today

Stede was panicking; though on the outside, it might appear that he was merely zoning out and staring through the front windows, his mind was an absolute overwhelming swirl of plans, worries, and doubts.

“Stede?”

The opening was days away now. What if he’d misjudged everything? What if everyone hated it? What if no one came?

“Stede!”

“Mm?” Stede hummed, turning from the windows.

Lucius, one of the bartenders, held one palm over the bottom of a phone. “Having another totally normal crisis?” He stage-whispered.

“Oh, no,” Stede said. “Just thinking. Thinking, thinking, thinking! Lots to think about.”

“Mhm. Mkay,” Lucius said. “Well, someone on the line for you about the kitchen staff position. I think he said his name is Roach? But that can’t be right.”

Lucius handed over the phone and sauntered away toward the bar.

The bloke’s name was indeed Roach. He had no prior professional cooking experience, but said that he could make the best damn grilled cheese you’d ever tasted. “We’ll want a vegan option, too, I think,” Stede said.

“Cheese isn’t vegan?” Was the man’s reply.

Stede sighed through the line. They were out of time. They’d had nobody else apply. “When can you start?”

–-

 

Early Last Year

Just days out from Stede’s 45th birthday, he’d had a realization: he wanted out.

It wasn’t that he hated his life, per se. Mary was lovely, and the kids were just darling. But Stede could no longer deny the fact that he’d married too hastily, settled down too readily, and given up too easily. Mary Allamby was a friend of the family—one of those girls he’d been in the same circles with all his life—and when he was nearing 30, with no love interests on the horizon, it just seemed right to give it a go with somebody. Somebody he knew was nice enough, and liked artistic things and poetry, and who, Stede had figured, at nearly 30 herself, might not be so choosy. Maybe that had been harsh, but it was the early 2000s, and Stede wasn’t thinking as progressively back then. About a lot of things.

They’d gotten married to the delight of both of their families, and bought their first home in an upper-class lovely neighborhood full of young, wealthy families. It will be nice to have families around when you have children, his mother-in-law reasoned. Stede wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, not with the upbringing he’d had. Still, he took to fatherhood like he took to most new things—with gusto.

As the children got older and became more independent, however, it seemed as if Stede was a guest in his own home. The kids didn’t have time for their silly dad and his lame jokes. They were too busy playing their Switch games and scrolling through their phones. And Mary, who had never been particularly fond of Stede to begin with, had her own interests and friends and life. In his heart, Stede knew he just didn’t fit.

In the end, it was Mary who had brought it all to a head.

They were laying in bed one night, the TV droning some insistent nonsense in the background. Stede was trying and failing to sleep, and it seemed that Mary was, too.

“Why did you ask me out, all those years ago?” She asked.

Stede had to temper his response, which wanted to come out, It seemed like a good idea at the time. Instead, he sighed. “You were… kind, and I already knew that I liked you,” he said.

“But you didn’t love me.” It wasn’t a question.

Stede didn’t say anything.

Mary shifted, turning on her side to face him. “Stede, you’re not happy. I’m not happy.”

“No,” he agreed.

“What is it, d’you think?” Mary went on. “It’s not another woman?”

Stede scoffed, despite himself. “God, no.”

Mary paused. “Do you think… maybe you’re gay, Stede?”

He opened and closed his mouth, stuck his bottom lip out. Mary watched the side of his face.

Stede had quite literally never considered it.

“Hm.”

 

--

One Year Ago

Stede hadn’t been this happy in a long time. He and Mary had come to a mutual agreement to separate. No need to get the courts involved, they reasoned. They each brought family money into the marriage, so they would divide everything evenly. And as for the kids, they would co-parent. Stede left Mary and the kids with their home, though. He had taken up residence in a one-bedroom condo out on the Island, just a short ten-minute drive away, and getting to bring the kids over for a day at the beach brought them much more fun family time than they’d had in a long time.

Mary’s suggestion that maybe Stede was gay had been a bit of an eye-opener, to say the least. They’d spent the rest of the night up talking, and Stede realized he had a lot of thinking to do. Since then, he’d been doing a lot of reading. He’d learned all about the Kinsey Scale, about the difference between romantic and sexual attraction. He’d learned that some people didn’t experience romantic or sexual attraction at all! That wasn’t him, he didn’t think. He surely felt he had the capacity to fall in love, and knew that the idea of sex in general didn’t put him off, even if he’d never had a very pleasant experience in the past.

Some people identified as male or female or both or neither, some people were gender-fluid or non-binary or intersex. To be fair, he’d known about a lot of these things in theory, but he’d never done much in the way of trying to understand them. But he had a sudden urge to learn everything he could about the LGBTQ+ community. His community, he suspected.

For though he’d never been with a man, he’d done a lot of imagining. And that was enough for him.

He’d found a gay bar in the next largest town called Spanish Jackie’z, and decided to try it out. It was marvelous. With its red-tinted floor lighting, thumping music, and a host of curious drink selections, it was just the thing Stede needed.

The dance floor was full of a wonderful mix of people—young and old, tattooed and pierced, and, blessedly, a fair share of average-looking middle aged people just like Stede.

“I’ve never felt so at home!” Stede yelled to the bartender over the music.

“What’s that?” The young man asked.

“I said I’ve never felt so at home!” Stede repeated, louder. “Being here with all of these lovely queer people!”

The bartender flashed him with a wide-eyed, dubious smile. “First time?” He asked, as the music changed to a thankfully mellower and quieter tune.

“Mm,” Stede agreed, taking a sip of his drink. “I’ve only just recently ‘come out,’ as it were.”

“Well, you’re doing great,” the bartender said.

Stede smiled. “I’m Stede!” He said, extending a hand.

“Lucius,” the young man said, giving him a shake. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you Lucius. I might start out with another one of these delicious Nose Punches. Why on Earth have you called it a ‘Nose Punch,’ by the way?”

 

--

Ten Months Ago

Stede loved meeting people in the community, but he hated driving all the way up to Jacksonville to do it. And Spanish Jackie’z, exciting as it was, was awfully loud.

“I’m thinking I might open up my own queer bar, down in St. Augustine!” Stede shouted to Lucius one day over the sizzle of the music.

Lucius’ eyebrows went into his hairline. “Oh, really? You know, I actually live closer to there than here, might be nice to have something closer to home.”

Stede had a brilliant idea. “Lucius,” he yelled, “How would you like to come work for me?”

“Are you trying to poach me, right out from under Jackie’s nose?”

“You said it yourself, it would be nice to have something closer to home. I’ll pay you a salary, you won’t have to rely on tips all the time!”

Lucius arched an eyebrow.

“I mean, you would still be able to keep all of your tips, don’t worry about that! But a fair wage across the board. $15 an hour to start. What do you say?”

“Stede,” Lucius said. “Do you have any bar experience?”

“Not a lick!” Stede replied.

Lucius thought a moment. “Alright, reckon it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot. Let me know when you’re up and running.”

 

--

Eight Months Ago

“So you’re renting space in a strip mall?” Mary asked.

Stede nodded unconsciously, losing grip of the phone he’d had nestled between his chin and shoulder. He rescued it before it dropped. “Yep, that one on the Island, about halfway down to the Ampitheatre.”

“Oh right, the one with the little diner,” she said.

“Yep! I’ve got the plans all laid out. Shelving for the books, a nice little seating area with some plush couches maybe. A stage for music or story time, and of course the serving area,” Stede mused. “I’m thinking I might hang a few chandeliers. You know, for fun.”

“...And it’s going to be a bar?” Mary asked.

“Yep!” Stede said, shuffling through his paperwork. “An all-inclusive queer bar.”

“Well, that’s great, Stede,” she replied, though he could hear her cautious hesitation through the phone.

“I know what you’re thinking, but I’ve already leased the space and hired a contractor, so there’s no going back now.”

“No, you know what,” Mary said, “I think it’s great. I’m glad you’ve found something you’re so excited about.”

Stede beamed. “I hope you’ll come and see it, when it’s all done. I can’t wait to show you.”

“And I can’t wait to see it.”

 

--

Six Months Ago

“So over here are all of the bookshelves,” Stede said, gesturing broadly to an entire wall. The handyman scratched something down on his notepad. “I’m thinking floor to ceiling, probably set in if you can? Or at least, faux-inset, if you have to bring the rest of the wall forward. And then we’ll want the stage over in this area. Maybe not so much a stage as a platform, because we’ll want people to be able to get on and off of it easily. No more than…” He paused, showing a rough height between his two hands, “what is that, seven? Eight inches? And of course, we’ll want a ramp for that platform, for accessibility.”

The handyman continued to scribble down notes.

“This is where the sitting nook will go, over in this area,” Stede said, more to himself than the handyman, “And of course, I think we put the bar counter over here next to the kitchen window, so the food can be served right with the tea. So, no, perhaps the seating area will go over here. Or we’ll have two seating areas—one with tables and one with some plush armchairs for reading or just enjoying the music?”

The handyman, a thin, balding man with an incredibly thick Scottish accent, looked up from his notepad. “Are ye askin’ me?”

“Ah, no, sorry, Mr. Buttons,” Stede replied. “What do you think, Oluwande?”

His recently hired bar manager looked between Stede and the handyman for a moment, then held a finger up. “Just a moment, would you?” He led Stede by the arm a little ways off.

“D’you think you might be more comfortable opening a coffee shop, maybe, or a bookstore?”

Before Stede could protest, he went on. “Because, y’know, bars are a bit rough. A little haphazard, disorderly even. Most of us don’t get into the bar business expecting… plush armchairs.”

Stede smiled kindly. “Perhaps not. But, nonetheless, my vision is a bar. A proper bar. And rest assured, it’s about to be the most popular bar in all of St. Augustine.”

Oluwande just nodded, and gestured for Buttons to rejoin them. “Pr’aps some family-style seating would be best, maybe along the windows there…”

 

One Month Ago

“Uh oh, there goes your boyfriend,” Lucius called. He nodded toward the front windows.

Stede turned from the wall he was papering in time to see a handsome, long haired man striding out into the parking lot. Today he was wearing a short black shirt, and his many tattoos were on full display. The man mounted a motorcycle and kicked it on with a low grumble that could be heard even inside the building.

“Think you’ll ever just say hello to him?” Lucius asked. “Maybe casually park your car by his bike, happen to be walking in as he’s leaving work, say, ‘oh hello, very cool gentleman in your leather outfit, my name’s Stede, I enjoy staring at your arse through the windows every day—”

“Oh, leave him alone,” Oluwande interrupted. “Stede’ll talk to him when he’s ready. Or he won’t.”

The motley crew of the nearly-completed Revenge Bar was all assembled and working hard to get things ready. Stede and Oluwande had been here almost daily prepping drink menus, arranging decorators, and hiring new staff. Stede had hired on Lucius as a full-time bartender and part time drag performer, and had also recently hired a serious and responsible-seeming bartender named Jim. Oluwande had seemed particularly flustered during that interview, but Stede hadn’t commented.

Around 5:00 every afternoon, the staff from a few neighboring businesses in the shopping plaza would descend to the parking lot to leave their jobs for the day. But it was around 6:30 or 6:45 every evening, Stede had noticed, that a certain leather-clad hunk of a man with a glorious greying beard would exit one of the shops off to the left of the bar and saunter over to a gleaming black motorcycle. Stede and Lucius figured he was probably one of the artists over at Lucky Jack’s, the tattoo shop three stores down from theirs.

Stede had spent a lot of time secretly watching him walk through the parking lot. Or, at least he’d thought he’d been doing a good job at hiding it.

“‘M only joking,” Lucius said. “Stede, you keep on pining away after that probably-totally-straight man. Lord knows I’ve done my fair share of pining after totally straight men.”

Stede went back to affixing wallpaper, and tried not to think about how far that curling serpent tattoo went.

 

--

Today

The books were all in place, and Stede had even gone so far as to categorize them by genre, and then alphabetize by author. “They’re just gonna get all messed up,” Jim had reasoned, but Stede waved them off. It was just a nice thing to make it easier on people. And he would re-organize the books if he needed to.

It turned out that Lucius was a fairly good artist, so Stede commissioned him to design a lovely logo for the bar. He’d had it printed up on napkins and at the top of the tea selection menu. It was done up in neon on the wall above the stage, and was even in a colorful decal affixed across the front windows. There was no mistaking The Revenge Bar now.

Opening night was this Friday. Saturday nights would be two-for-one drinks (the staff had convinced him to obtain a liquor license, even though Stede strongly suggested that they push their selection of handcrafted teas over the booze). Sundays would bring a brunch buffet. Tuesdays and Thursdays would be Drag Storytime, which Lucius had reluctantly agreed to start, even though he wasn’t confident that he could do all of the voices.

Jim had even offered up that they did a little drag on the side, which Stede found delightful.

Roach, an eccentric yet enthusiastic young man, was scheduled to come in for training starting tomorrow, though Stede barely felt qualified to train someone on grilled cheeses. He could make a mean brunch spread, though, so he’d excel in that department. Perhaps he’d just serve brunch himself.

Stede had asked Oluwande to put out feelers for someone to be in charge of music, and thus Frenchie had come onto the team.

“So, Frenchie, what sort of instruments do you play?” Stede had asked, and the man looked a bit confused.

“Well, I do play guitar, and mandolin, and a bit of piano actually, but I thought you was hirin’ a DJ?”

“Ah,” Stede said. “Well, I’d actually like some live music, if you can swing it. Might match the general vibe around here,” Stede said, gesturing to the place as a whole.

Frenchie had looked around, taking in the colorful patterned wallpaper, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the plush velvet couches and settees, eventually landing on the faux-fireplace.

“I’ve got some original stuff that might work,” he’d said. Stede clapped his hands and hired him on the spot.

A man imposing in size but gentle in soul named John had been hired on as security. Frenchie had affectionately nicknamed him “Wee John,” and the name stuck. Stede had even had a SECURITY shirt printed up with the monicker on it. (It was just Wee John’s size. Stede had an eye for clothing, after all.)

“Alright, the lighting setup’s all been tested, that’s good to go, and Buttons is on that electrical issue with the speaker system,” Stede said to himself, ticking things off on his fingers. “We’re stocked with grilled cheese supplies, I’ve got to make a run to Diane’s for the Daiya cheese though—”

“Get Violife instead, it’s much better,” Oluwande said. “Melts just like real cheese.”

“Violife,” Stede muttered, writing the name down on the back of his hand. “Thank you!”

“Hey Stede?” Lucius called from the front door. “Can you help me bring in some boxes from the car?”

Stede didn’t even question it. “Coming!” he called.

Lucius thumbed over his shoulder in the vague direction of his car. “Just the, um, boxes. In the backseat.” He disappeared back into the bar.

Stede noted that his hands were empty, but shrugged it off. It wasn’t until he had rounded Lucius’ car that he noticed the shiny black motorcycle parked to its left. Stede checked the time on his phone. 6:37 pm. The cheeky bastard.

Stede opened up the back door and bent in, hefting a box full of barware into his arms. As he turned, he saw the handsome guy from the tattoo shop just stepping down onto the asphalt of the parking lot. He was wearing a clinging purple top and had his hair done in a half-up half down style, with little white wisps escaping to just frame his face. Stede had to stop himself eyeballing the man, realizing the open car door was blocking his bike.

“Need a hand, mate?” The man called out. His voice was rough and somehow smooth all at once.

Stede pivoted where he stood, hefting the box up onto the top of the car so he could close the door. “No, nope, I’m…” He trailed off as the man approached. He’d never seen him this close before, and Stede had severely underestimated the man’s attractiveness. His eyes were brown and deep, and there was a bird tattooed right between his collar bones. “I’m good, actually,” he continued, casting his eyes back toward the bar, where he could see no one at all through the tinted windows. “I’ve got someone helping, he should be along… sometime.”

“This your new bar?” The man asked, tilting his head in said bar’s direction.

“That it is,” Stede said. “Opening up this Friday!”

“So I’ve heard,” the man replied.

“Oh, you’ve—” Stede started, but the man just pointed over his shoulder.

“The signs.”

Right. Stede had had 36x24 signs printed up advertising their big opening night. They were plastered all over the front windows. “Ah, right,” he said.

The man just smiled, his lovely, expressive eyes crinkling up around the corners. “Ed,” he said, and extended a hand for a shake.

“Stede.”

They shook. Stede noticed that Ed was wearing leather gloves that only covered his palms.

“Are you, ah,” Stede began, “Do you work—” he gestured behind Ed toward the tattoo shop and the row of businesses beyond.

“Oh, yep, that’s me,” Ed said. “Actually, I own the place. And I’m still a designer, when I’m needed.”

“Very cool,” Stede said, a little lamely, but Ed just chuckled. “I figured you must be the boss, looks like you’re always the last to leave.”

Ed smirked a bit. “Been watching me, have you?”

Stede could feel his cheeks instantly coloring. “Oh! No, I—”

“Nah, mate, I’m only joking. I know you’re just setting up right when I’m shipping out. I’ve seen you all coming and going too.”

“Right,” Stede said, still a bit flustered. “Well, erm, come by on Friday if you can, we’ll be open until 2. I should mention,” he said, his heart thumping a bit harder, “It is a queer bar. But we’re very accepting of all, of… everyone. It’s inclusive, is what I’m saying. It’s meant to be a space where all are welcome.” He was rambling, but he had to get this part out. Better to make Ed uncomfortable now and never speak to him again than have him walk unprepared into a gay bar and be potentially embarassed. Or worse, upset. Ed looked like he could seriously do some damage, if he wanted to. Stede just had a gut feeling that he wasn’t the type.

“I get it,” Ed said, seemingly unphased by Stede’s fluster. “I’ll try to come out. Been so busy these days, I hardly get a meal in before I’m passed out after work.”

“Oh,” Stede said. “Busy week?”

“Busiest of the year, man,” Ed said. “Mother’s Day’s on Sunday.”

“Ah, right,” Stede said, though he had no idea why that might make a difference. “Well, it would be lovely if you could make it out, but if not, we’re open all week. Sunday brunch, drag storytime on Tuesdays and Thursdays, if you’ve got any little ones. And I’m trying to get a book swap going as well, so keep your eyes peeled for that.”

Ed’s eyes sparkled. “I like it.”

They shared a quiet moment while Stede tried to think of something cool or interesting to say. Ed mercifully broke the silence. “Hey, um, stop by the shop anytime, I’ll give you the friends and family discount.”

“Oh,” Stede said. “That’s very kind of you. I’d never really thought about it, but, I suppose there’s a first time for everything, eh?”

Ed looked a bit confused, but quickly recovered. He clapped Stede on the shoulder. “Well, good luck with your opening, mate. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

He mounted his bike and a bit of skin around his midriff peeked out. Stede busied himself with gathering the box back up in his arms. “See you,” Stede said as the engine roared to life.

“What’s that?” Ed called over the noise.

“I just said I’ll see you!” Stede yelled.

Ed winked, backing the bike out of its spot. His long hair flowed behind him in graceful grey waves as he sped away.

Oluwande held the door open as Stede returned, and the rest of the staff tried very hard to appear as if they hadn’t been watching the whole thing through the windows.

“Right,” Stede said to no one in particular. “Back to work.”

 

--

Friday

It was Friday afternoon, just six hours until showtime. Stede had hurried through a quick lunch and driven to the bar, even though he didn’t expect the rest of the staff until 5. He just needed to be there to make sure everything was perfect before the chaos began.

As he pulled up to the bar, he noticed a flower pot sitting just outside the front door. It held one single orchid. Best of luck on your opening! -Courtesy of Queen Anne’s Florist, the card read. “How lovely,” Stede muttered, turning the card around. There was nothing on the back. Queen Anne’s Florist was a shop in the strip mall, just a few doors down from his. Stede opened up the bar and set the orchid in a place of honor on the fireplace mantel. The purple orchid matched the deep plum wallpaper swimmingly. “Fab,” he said to himself.

He had some time, and he had no idea how to care for an orchid, so he set off down the row of shops and let himself in to the florist.

A bell on the door jingled, but there was no one at the front desk.

“Can I help you?” Came a raspy voice to Stede’s right.

He turned to see a small man with a severe face and greying hair seated at a computer. “Ah, yes, I was just gifted a lovely orchid from your shop, and I wanted to express my thanks. I’m Stede, I’m running the bar down the way. The Revenge.”

The man didn’t look up from his work. “That’ll be from my boss.”

“Lovely,” Stede said, though the man’s general demeanor was anything but. “Could you please give her my thanks?”

“Him,” the man corrected, “But yes. He’s out on a delivery just now, but I’ll pass along the message.”

“Ah, sorry,” Stede said. “Figured it was someone named Anne. Anyway, sorry to continue to bother you, but could you by any chance tell me how one cares for an orchid? It’s just that there was no care card attached—”

“Ivan!” The little man called out, interrupting Stede.

A man with stylish dreadlocks emerged from the back. “Can I help you?” He asked Stede, much more pleasantly than the other man had.

“Yes, I was just wondering how to care for an orchid.”

“Of course,” Ivan said. He reached behind the front counter and pulled out an accordion file. “Here we are,” he said, handing Stede a pamphlet. “Now you’ll want a good fertilizer, there’s a couple suggestions in there. And don’t overwater it, they hate that.”

--

A few hours later, Frenchie was up on the stage testing out the sound system. Buttons had gotten the speakers fixed up, and the resulting volume was loud enough to be heard throughout the bar, but not so overpowering that you couldn’t hear the person you were speaking to. Just right.

Jim had their short hair styled flawlessly and had accessorized their uniform with a bow tie. Stede heard Oluwande complementing them on their look, and didn’t miss Jim’s smile.

Wee John was set up with a comfortable chair at the door, where he would be checking IDs and marking hands with a customized Revenge Bar stamp if they were old enough to drink, or a skull and crossbones flag stamp if they weren’t. Stede had found it at the art supply store and found it amusing. The stamp pads were teal and orange, respectively.

“How d’you do,” Stede heard Wee John say. “We’re not quite open yet—”

Mary and the kids had just entered. “Sorry, we’re just here to see Stede,” Mary began.

Stede rushed over and gave her a big hug. “Oh, thank you all for coming,” he said. He bent down and gave Alma and Louis a hug and a kiss on their cheeks. “So what do you think?”

“Oh, it’s all lovely, Stede,” Mary said as she took it all in.

Stede joined her for a look around. It was well and comfortably lit in the forward spaces, with extra hanging lamps above the tables to read and eat and converse by. An artful display of teas and decorative bottles stood behind the bar, framed on all sides by a gorgeous seascape mural Stede had commissioned Mary to paint a few months back.

The bar had a glass case full of delightfully decorated baked goods. It turned out that, while Roach wasn’t much of a chef, he was one hell of a baker. Stede suspected that his orange-glazed mini bundt cakes would fly off the shelf.

The dance floor was warmly-lit by the double chandeliers, which Buttons had rigged with color-changing LED lights. Currently, the colors were smoothly gliding through the rainbow, giving the center space a softly kaleidoscopic glow.

“Well, I love it,” Alma said. “I think it’s great.”

“Thank you, darling,” Stede said, and gave her another kiss to the top of her head. “It means a lot that you came, really,” he added to Mary.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” she replied. “Now we have to go get a bath and get ready for bedtime, but we’ll be back for Sunday brunch! 10:30 okay?”

“Perfect,” Stede said. He blew a kiss to them all and waved as they left.

It was time.

--

By 9pm, the bar was full of people. All sorts of people. Stede took it upon himself to try to greet every single one of them, giving them a hearty welcome and asking them if they’d tried the monkey-picked oolong yet. “I know it sounds a bit silly, but it’s one of the rarest teas in the world. Well worth it, I assure you.”

Groups of people were clustered on the sofas, and Stede was thrilled to see that many people were perusing the books. He’d have to make a checkout system soon, he noted.

Roach was grilling cheeses at lightning speed, and Stede was pleased that he seemed to be keeping a properly separated kitchen between the vegan and non-vegan grills and prep stations.

Frenchie bopped his head as he strummed a lively tune on his guitar, and many people stood to dance or grooved from their seats.

Stede could almost pick out hair from every color in the rainbow, and so many different styles of dress. It was beautiful. A beautiful rainbow of humanity, all brought together to celebrate life and community.

“Love what you’ve done with the place, mate,” a voice said behind him. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Ed!” Stede said. He turned, taking him in. Ed had opted for one of his more fascinating jackets, which only had one sleeve. Stede's favorite arm was still visible. “Thank you for coming,” he said. "I know you're busy."

“Well, I let the staff go early," Ed explained. "We’ve been pulling double shifts all week, and the lads got all the processing done early, so.”

Stede couldn’t really parse what that meant. “I’m glad,” he managed.

Ed turned on the spot, looking all around him. “Two chandeliers,” he noted, pointing up above the dance floor. “Mental.”

“You don’t think it’s too much, do you?” Stede asked.

“No, man,” Ed said. “I love it.” His eyes lit on the fireplace. “Oh, the orchid!”

Ed strode over and Stede followed, helplessly caught in the man’s wake.

“Orchids are meant to give good luck,” Ed said. “Thought it might be nice for your first day.”

Stede’s brow knit. “Wait, you?”

“...Dropped off the orchid for you?” Ed finished. He looked as confused as Stede felt.

“You run the flower shop?”

Ed cocked his head. “I thought you knew that?”

Stede laughed. “Oh, no, we all figured you ran the tattoo shop down the way.”

Ed joined him in a laugh. “Nah, mate. What, was it all this?” He spread his arms out, encompassing his leather outfit, his tattoos, his long beard. “Jack’s a buddy, though,” he said. “‘s where I get all my ink done. But no. I work in flowers.”

“How wonderful,” Stede said. He meant it.

Ed looked a little taken aback.

“I just,” Stede began. “I’ve always loved flowers.”

They shared a smile.

“I met your, er,” Stede said. “Little, angry guy? Looks like he sucked on a lemon?”

“Izzy,” Ed supplied.

“Izzy. Is he always like that, or…”

Ed huffed a small laugh. “He’s just… yeah, he’s always like that, a bit. Don’t take it personally.”

“Oh, I didn’t,” Stede assured him. “So, can I get you a drink? Do you like tea? Or… we have alcohol too, of course.”

Ed’s eyes did that crinkly thing around the corners again, and Stede felt his heart swoop. “Tea sounds nice. Decaf, though. Gotta get up early. Big day tomorrow.”

“Oh!” Stede cried, and covered his face with both hands. “Mother’s Day.”

Ed just laughed. “Mother’s Day,” he agreed.

--

Sunday

Sunday brunch at The Revenge turned out to be a massive hit, with the staff having to take names and phone numbers for the waiting list. Stede was very glad Oluwande had suggested family-style tables; with everyone sitting together, it made for excellent, lively conversation.

Mary and her boyfriend Doug came with the kids, who sat across from another family of two moms with a few small kids of their own. Lucius and Jim waited the tables, and Frenchie was back playing a slower, folkier set of music.

Ed didn’t come, but Stede hadn’t expected him to. It was Mother’s Day, after all.

After the rush died down and people had all been fed, Stede surveyed what he had left and realized that there were enough eggs, bacon and toast to make up meals for a handful more people. He let Roach go so that he could spend the afternoon with his mother, and stayed in the kitchen a bit longer, preparing several to-go boxes worth of food. He packed it all into bags and made the short trip over to Queen Anne's.

Today, a statuesque and harried-looking woman stood behind the front desk. She wore an eye patch. "How can I help?" She began. "If you're here for roses or carnations, we're all out."

"Ah, no," Stede said, "Sorry to bother, I know you're all very busy today. I was just wondering if I may have a quick word with Ed, if he's available?"

The woman actually gave him a full once-over before holding up one finger. She disappeared into a room to her left, which appeared to be a walk-in cooler. Moments later, she was back. "He'll be right out. How can I help you?" She asked a woman who had entered the shop behind Stede. "If you're looking for roses or carnations, we're all out."

Stede shuffled off to the side so he wouldn't be blocking the counter. Now that he was here amidst the hustle and bustle of the flower shop, he felt a bit silly. It was nearly 2pm, and surely everyone would have eaten lunch already. Before he could make a break for it, though, Ed emerged from the cooler, this time wearing a black henley with the sleeves rolled up his biceps. Stede politely tried not to stare too much.

"Stede," Ed said, wiping his hands on his pants. "How was your first weekend?" He didn't seem annoyed that Stede was here, disrupting his busiest day of the year. In fact, he seemed a bit pleased to see him.

"It was lovely, thank you for asking," Stede said. "Are you surviving Mother's Day?" He asked.

Ed just held up a hand and rocked it back and forth in a seesaw motion. "Eh," he laughed.

Stede held up the bags in his hands. "I figured maybe you wouldn't have time for a proper lunch break today, and I had all of this extra food, so... I made up some meals for you and your staff. There's eggs, bacon and toast, a few sausages, and then a handful of vegan grilled cheeses in case anyone here is vegan. I've marked that one with a 'V.' Oh, and I packed up some napkins and plastic utensils as well."

Ed was just looking at him, a little curiously. "Um. I hope... well, I'd thought you might need the energy. I hope it's not an imposition," Stede finished. He held out the bags for Ed to take.

"No, 'course not, mate," Ed said. "This is very kind. The lads'll be thrilled. I promise I'll give 'em a proper break so they can sit and eat."

Stede beamed. "Well, I'll leave you to it," he said. "See you."

They said their goodbyes, and Stede waved to the tall woman behind the counter. As he left, he thought he might have heard her whisper, "Was that him?"

--

Wednesday

Tuesday was their first drag storytime, and it was also very popular. It turned out that Lucius could do all of the voices, and he could do them in heels.

Mary had come again and brought the children, who had loved the performance and ensuing Disney music dance party that ended at 6:30 sharp. This might have been an inclusive bar, but Stede still knew he had a responsibility to get a gaggle of children out before opening up the bar properly for the evening.

Stede had seen Mary and the kids out to their car, and given them each a kiss on the cheek as they left. It warmed his heart that he could have this with Mary; it was the loving, understanding relationship that they'd never had when they were husband and wife.

Things finally slowed by Wednesday night, but Stede hadn’t felt this energized in years. It was a success. He was a success. Despite the ever-present voice of his father in the back of his mind, reminding him that he was a spoiled little rich boy who’d never amount to anything, he’d actually accomplished something that he was proud of. And perhaps his father’s voice was quieter these days.

Stede was in the back room, preparing a spreadsheet that they could use to keep track of book lending.

Jim popped their head in. “Handsome leather guy is here,” they said.

Stede’s heart skipped a beat.

“He’s got flowers,” Jim added, and gave an eyebrow wiggle before disappearing around the doorframe.

Stede stood, smoothed his clothes, patted his hair down. Cleared his throat. Coughed a bit. Cleared it again.

Ed was indeed sitting at the bar, holding a fistfull of delicately pink flowers. His hair was up in a messy topknot, and he wore the purple top that Stede was so fond of. There was baby’s breath braided into his hair.

“Hello,” Stede said, coming to a stop just beside him.

Ed turned, lighting those huge brown eyes on Stede and melting him on the spot. God, they were like cartoon prince eyes. How did he do that?

“Hey,” he said. "Y'know, I saw you out last night as I was leaving. Beautiful family," he said. His eyes were hard to read.

"Oh, thank you," Stede said. "Those are my kids, and my ex-wife, Mary." He felt the need to explain this bit. "We're still very close friends."

"He's single!" Stede hadn’t noticed Lucius sidle up between them at the bar. He gave him a look.

“I’ll just,” Lucius said, getting the hint. “I’ll go and find a vase or a big pint glass or something. For the flowers.”

Seeming to remember, Ed held the bundle of flowers up. “For you.”

“They’re lovely,” Stede said. “What are they?”

“Peonies,” Ed replied.

“And what are those meant to represent?” Stede asked.

“Prosperity, wealth,” Ed said. “Romance.”

Lucius nearly dropped the pilsner glass he was holding. “Oh my god,” he whispered. “This is happening.”

Jim gave him a light smack to the back of the head and dragged him away by the sleeve.

Ed ignored the pilsner glass and handed the bouquet directly to Stede. It was tied together with a red silk ribbon.

Stede took the bouquet, holding it to his nose.

“Can I take you to dinner sometime?” Ed asked. “If you ever decide to take a night off, that is.”

“We actually don’t need him here,” Oluwande called from clear across the room. “Like, ever, actually.”

“Thank you, ‘Wande,” Stede said.

"I can grill you up some cheeses right now!" Roach yelled from the kitchen.

"THANK you, Roach," Stede said, and turned his eyes back to Ed. “I’d like that.”

Ed’s eyes sparkled. “It’s a date.”