It's been a couple of days since they got home, Stephen mostly sleeping and resting, his only movement around the penthouse. Antony has to see to some things at the office - some of the handing over he'd talked to Stephen about - and it's not stuff he can do or talk about at home so he tells Stephen and Marcus he'll be a few hours at most.
Marcus is used to staying in one spot for a long period of time and most of the spots aren't even as luxurious as this, the view out over the city absolutely incredible, but that doesn't stop him from feeling like he's going stir crazy. Not at all. Fuck. "Don't mind me," he says as he gets up, Stephen leafing through a magazine on the couch. "I need to move around."
Stephen closes the magazine and tosses it aside. "Me too," he admits. "As bruised as I feel, I'm not used to being this inactive, it's making me twitchy." He's been more than content to listen to his body in recent days - and it had demanded sleep, but today he's feeling better, and he wants some air. "You think we should go out somewhere?"
"You're feeling up to it?" Marcus asks, but it's not really a question and only a small bit of surprise. "We could go for a walk, get some food," he suggests. "Antony's cooking is great but I'd like some things that don't take a recipe and hours to make."
"Yeah," Stephen nods, warming to the idea more and more. "Yeah I'm up to it I think, and I'm happy to get some food. Might actually find something I want to eat," he adds drily, it's been over a week now, and he's still struggling to eat enough to keep Antony happy. "Maybe some fruit...I don't know."
"Is there a place nearby or do we need to drive?" Marcus asks, pulling his phone from his pocket.
"There's one a few blocks over, I'm not sure I'm up for that though, so yeah a car? And if I feel okay maybe plan a trip to the beach tomorrow for some real air," Stephen carefully pushes up from the sofa. "I'll go put some sneakers on, grab a cap," and a long sleeve tee... he adds silently. Aware he looks a mess still.
Marcus nods. "I'll have Logan pull the car around," he says, already texting the man. Antony took his own car but they've had one of the company cars brought over for everyone to use going back and forth.
Ten minutes or so later, they're pulling out of the underground garage into daylight. Stephen pushes his sunglasses further up his nose and takes in the familiar sights. Familiar but still... strange, he's seeing it all through new eyes. Reaching down he tugs his sleeves down over his wrists, the cuffs caught in his palms with his fingers. He's nervous, being outside the safety of the apartment, but he needs to move, to see people, to re-engage.
Logan in the back, Marcus drives them to the market Stephen mentioned a few blocks away. He's happy to see it has its own parking lot and he pulls in, backing into a spot against the back wall, mid-way into the lot. Far enough to stretch their legs but not so far as to tax Stephen. He gets out, waiting for Stephen to meet him and for Logan to pull up the rear. He'll follow at a discreet distance while they do their shopping. "I'd say it's good to get some fresh air but I don't know that the air downtown qualifies," he says, giving Stephen one of his rare smiles.
"Maybe not fresh, but different?" Stephen retorts with a smile of his own. "I'll take different though." He glances behind him to check that Logan is in place. Marcus holds the door open and Stephen steps into the air-conditioned store.
"Do you want a cart or a basket?" Marcus asks, gesturing at both.
"Cart," Stephen shrugs and moves toward the fruit and vegetable display and starts sorting through the produce. It's bizarre he thinks to find pleasure in something so mundane, so simple, something he has done in the past without a thought.
Marcus watches Stephen examining the various fruits and vegetables, a few things placed in bags and then into the cart. It's a weekday morning, early enough that the market is still pretty empty and there's no one around to hear him say, "Antony told me he's wrapping up the loose ends on a bunch of our jobs."
Stephen glances up at that, his brows raised for a moment before he nods. "Yeah," he moves along a little and Marcus keeps pace. "When I was in the hospital, that first day, he offered to stop doing everything that wasn't entirely legitimate," Stephen picks up a cantaloupe and places it in the trolley. "I didn't say anything at the time, it didn't sink in. But that first night at home, I told him that if he wanted me, if he wanted to save our marriage then that's one of the things he has to do."
Marcus stares at Stephen for a long moment. "I guess I always knew that's where this was headed," he says finally, grabbing a bag and putting some apples in it.
"I'm not sure it would have come to that if things hadn't played out the way they did," Stephen takes over the trolley duties. "I didn't want to know what you both did, so I would never have to ask that of you, but here we are, and I can't see a way forward for Antony and myself now I do know."
Marcus nods. "No, I get it," he says, glancing behind them at Logan. "I don't like it, but I get it."
Stephen studies Marcus for a moment. "Neither of us wants to lose you," he says softly. "Will you stay with him? If he's not doing those type of jobs."
"I told you before, I owe him," Marcus says simply, picking up a pomegranate, more for something to do with his hands than anything else. "So I'll stay. I won't ever leave him," he tells Stephen, his vow one he'll never break, "but what I do? The jobs I take? As long as I don't involve him, they're none of your business."
Used as he is to Marcus's odd communication style, it still takes Stephen a moment to process that statement and when he does, he nods. "Of course," he takes the pomegranate from Marcus's hand and puts it in the trolley. "And thank you, he needs you more than he realises, we both want you to stay in our life."
Marcus nods. There's still a small part of him that wishes he'd arranged for a discreet accident when Stephen first came on the scene but now... now he counts the man as an actual friend and he can't be angry with Stephen for offering Antony the chance at a normal life. "He'll have a tough time with it," he says. "Making the change. He wants to make it, always has, but it'll still be tough."
"How?" Stephen asks as they move along to the vegetables and he starts selecting items to add to the fruit. "I don't understand that part of him." I didn't even know that part of him....
"You know he finished high school early, went to university, then joined the army the moment he was legal, right?" Marcus says, taking over pushing the cart again. "His grandfather and great-grandfather both served and his dad's into military history. It's one of the only things they ever had in common."
"I didn't know he finished early, no," Stephen shakes his head and wonders at that. "But yes, I appreciate it's a core part of who he was, being a soldier."
"He wasn't just a soldier," Marcus says, thinking over what he knows, what he'd seen and experienced firsthand and what he'd just heard about. And not all of it from Antony. "He was fucking brilliant and he was a lot more than just a soldier in very short time." He blows out a breath. "The thing about the military? They strip you down, they make you over, they... turn you into a killing machine and then try and send you home when they're done with you. And that's if they're even willing to let you go and normally they wouldn't be, but..." He shakes his head, glancing at Stephen. "Do you want to hear this? He told me I can tell you whatever I want but I don't know what you want to hear."
Stephen chews on his lip bottom lip for a moment, his tongue poking at the healing cut there. "I don't know if I'm honest. I guess I need to, sticking my fingers in my ears and trying to ignore it all didn't go so well did it?" He sighs and moves along the aisle a little more. "Just... a little at a time maybe?"
Marcus nods, trying to gauge what qualifies as a little. Finally, he says, "The short version is that something happened and he was hurt, very badly, and they offered him an out. I thought he was going to take it, we all did, but then he changed his mind. When I asked him why he told me he couldn't go home, that he couldn't subject his family to what he'd become, that he was damaged and he'd fuck up anything he touched. I didn't disagree with him, because I couldn't. If you spend any time doing the things we've done, even for your country, your government, you start to feel like you can't live a normal life. The things you've seen, that you've done? No one gets it. They can't."
It's a while before Stephen says anything, mulling over Marcus's words, matching them up with the things he did know, the hints Antony's dropped in the past. "Are you talking about when he was captured?" he asks eventually, wanting to clarify the information, one piece at a time.
Marcus nods again. "He told you about that? How they fucked up and miscounted?" he asks, shaking his head, the memory one of the worst of his life.
"No, no he didn't. He simply said he'd once been captured and held, inferred he'd been mistreated, but he gave me no details." Stephen's use of 'mistreated' is deliberate, he's not ready to use the word tortured, it's simply too close to home.
"Then let's just say they fucked up and he shouldn't have been," Marcus says, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. "You can ask him for the details if you want them." He exhales softly. "My point is, he's always insisted he couldn't go back, but with you, he actually wants to. He sees possibilities with you he hasn't let himself see for years, that he thought had disappeared, but I know he's still convinced he's fucked up, that deep down he can't have or doesn't deserve to have any of this. And I don't think he knows what a normal life actually looks like. How he slots himself into that. So my point is that it'll be tough. He can get rid of all the jobs he likes but he's still going to have to deal with stepping away from it all in here." A finger tapped on the side of his head.
"It's going to be tough for us both," Stephen points out. "I still have to get my head around what I've learned about him, and I still need to process what I've been through. We both have to try and adapt to very new realities. Whether we do that together, or apart is yet to be seen." Stephen reaches out to lean on the edge of the trolley, taking a moment as a wave of pain washes over him.
"I know," Marcus says, watching Stephen. "Maybe I misspoke. I never know. I'm not good at expressing my feelings or anyone else's. I only meant he wants to change for you. He'd move the sky and the earth for you if he could. And I've never seen two people fit together the way you guys fit together." Fuck. He knows he's probably getting it wrong but he doesn't know how to express what he's trying to get at. He shrugs. "I guess I'm saying don't give up on him. He won't ever give up on you so don't give up on him."
"You didn't misspeak at all, I know I get the brutal truth from you when I know he's more used to sanitising everything he tells me about his past and his work to the point it's barely recognisable. Why else do you think he told you that you could tell me anything?" Stephen takes a steadying breath before continuing. "I'm not giving up on him, I'm being realistic. The trust I had in him is shattered, without trust there's nothing."
"Maybe, but you can rebuild it," Marcus responds. "I'm living proof of that. If he hadn't been willing to give me another chance, I wouldn't even be here today."
"You?" Stephen casts Marcus a surprised look as they move slowly along the food aisle, ignoring all the breakfast cereals as they go. "What did you do?"
"I didn't question the count when he was taken. I didn't go out and check and count the bodies myself," Marcus says, clearing his throat. "I let the contractors recover them and by the time we realized we didn't have a body for him and they'd fucked up and left him out there, he'd already been taken."
"And he blamed you for that?" Stephen doesn't think it's the same at all. Not when you consider the layers of Antony's and his relationship, husband, boy, master...
They turn a corner, to find they are no longer alone. Head bowed Stephen throws a few more things into the trolley, then he nods at the checkout. "I need to head back, this is taking more out of me than I thought."
"No," Marcus shakes his head. "I blamed myself." As he rightly should have. He nods. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you or make things harder."
"You didn't, I overestimated what I could physically handle today is all," Stephen helps unload the trolley before he has to step back, finding it too uncomfortable. "Nothing some pain relief and a nap can't fix."
Marcus nods. "I can have Logan bring the car around?" he offers.
Stephen nods, "Yeah, please."
Their groceries all bagged up and paid for Stephen waits with the bags as Logan pulls around.
Marcus loads up the trunk and then switches places with Logan. "My first instinct is always to defend him," he says quietly as they pull away from the curb. "Despite what we do, he's one of the most honourable men I know, I'd lay down my life for him, and I know how he feels about you. But I also know that probably isn't helpful here. You're hurting, you're pissed off at him. So if you need me to simply listen or shut up or whatever, don't be afraid to tell me."
Stephen knows that must've been difficult for Marcus to say, and he appreciates it. "I know that Marcus, you're our friend, my friend. Why do you think I've asked you to stay with me since it happened?"
Marcus glances over. "Because you don't want to be alone with him?"
Stephen is about to deny that, an instinctive rebuttal of something that 10 days ago would have been laughable. But he pauses, because yeah, maybe there is a small part of him that doesn't want to be alone with Antony.
Marcus returns his eyes to the road, the urge - again - to try and fix things, suggest solutions, alternatives, there as it always is. But this isn't a job. And he's certainly not an expert when it comes to this - actual people, real relationships.
By the time they make their way back into the apartment, Stephen is leaning heavily on Marcus. He's disappointed at how weak he still feels, and how much just a short trip to the grocery store has taken out of him. He's beginning to realise this road to recovery will be a little slower and a little longer than he'd hoped for.
"You want me to put your groceries away?" Logan asks, having been up to Antony and Stephen's enough over the past few days that he thinks he can figure out where everything goes.
"Yeah please," Stephen nods as he turns toward the bedroom. "I need to lay down," he tells Marcus. "Can you get me a drink to take my meds with?" All he wants is to lay in his bed and think through what he's learned in the last hour. That and sleep, he definitely wants sleep.
Marcus grabs Stephen a glass of juice and directs Logan to the right cupboards for a couple of things before following Stephen into the master bedroom.
Stephen's managed to swap out his sweats for his pyjama bottoms, his torso is a myriad of colours as the bruises have blossomed, some already fading to a sickly yellow. He piles pillows up and slips into bed just as Marcus reappears. "Thanks," he manages a smile as he reaches for a bottle from his pill stash beside the bed.
"You're welcome," Marcus says, handing over the glass and straightening up with a glance around the room. He's never been in here before. "Can I get you..." the words trailing off as his gaze hits the three photos on the wall.
When Marcus stalls in his question, Stephen looks up and follows Marcus's gaze to the pictures. The photographs Stephen had arranged and had taken, gifting them to Antony for their wedding. Three photos of him naked, submissive, pictures that had been for Antony's eyes only.
Marcus lowers his gaze as soon as he figures out exactly what he's seeing. "Sorry." His social skills may not be the greatest but he knows private when he sees it.
"It's not your fault," Stephen looks away, those pictures even make him uncomfortable now. A reminder of what he's lost. "You've seen me in just about every other situation now, I've got nothing left to hide from you."
"Maybe not, but it's still not my place," Marcus says. "Can I get you anything else? Something to eat, read...?"
"Maybe some toast? With peanut butter. I should eat something I guess." Stephen's not hungry, but he knows he has to eat, has to at least make the effort.
"You should," Marcus agrees, happy to be of service. "I'll be right back." He doesn't look at the pictures again. He doesn't have to. Like a lot of the best in their line of work, once he's seen a page, a map, a picture, it stays with him.
Stephen's gaze returns to the pictures. He thinks about when they were taken; when Antony was away on a 'job'. And then he recalls when they were gifted; on their wedding night in New Zealand. Sandwiched between an intense D/s scene and them making love as equals.
Marcus makes up two pieces of toast and slathers them with peanut butter, slicing up an apple on the side. His phone pings and he gives it a quick glance, thumbing back a short reply. "Here you go," he says, taking the plate in to Stephen. "Antony texted. He's on his way back. He thought you might be sleeping."
"I might be by the time he's back," Stephen remarks as he takes the plate. "Thanks." Picking up a slice of toast he takes a bite, making a show of eating something.
"I gave you an apple too," Marcus says, gesturing at the unrequested fruit. "Balanced meal and all that." A hint of a smile curving his lips. "Do you want company or should I leave you alone?"
"I noticed, thank you," Stephen picks up a piece and waves it at Marcus before taking a bite. "No, I'm good, I think I'll be asleep before very long." Whilst he is indeed tired, he's also more than ready to be alone with his thoughts.
Marcus nods. "Shout if you need anything," he says. "Logan's gone back downstairs and I'm going to make myself something to eat."
"Yeah sure," Stephen watches Marcus leave the room, pulling the door almost shut in his wake. He looks down at the apple, takes one more bite before discarding it and the toast to the bedside table. Pulling the covers up further he fusses a little to try and get what passes for comfortable, before sighing and closing his eyes.
When Antony gets home, Stephen's asleep in the bedroom. Marcus gives him a quick update on their trip to the grocery store and how much it had taken out of his husband before going back to whatever movie he'd been watching before Antony came in. Dressed in a suit and tie, which he hates, Antony slips into the bedroom, turning on the light in the closet while he changes into some jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt.
Stephen wakes from his doze when Antony disappears into the closet, giving him enough time to come to properly and push up carefully to lean back against the pile of pillows. He feels uncomfortable, more than ready for a shower, his cuts and scrapes are starting to itch, a good sign they're healing, but it's infuriating. Indeed Stephen is peering at one of his wrists and trying not to scratch when Antony steps back into the room.
"You're awake. I was trying not to bother you," Antony says, coming over to the bed and leaning down to give Stephen a quick kiss on the corner of his mouth. "Is it itching?"
"Like a bitch," Stephen grouses. "And my face," he lifts his hand to the cut on his cheek. "I should shower later, and try and shave. I feel disgusting."
"You can put a cold compress on it. That sometimes helps," Antony says, sitting down on the bed beside Stephen. He reaches over and turns on the light then takes Stephen's hand in his, checking out his wrist and then his cheek. "They look to be healing well though."
"I wish my ankles were," Stephen sighs. The cuts there, from the cable ties, had been much deeper, consequently, they're slower to heal, and Stephen is resigned to the fact he'll have scars on both legs. "I'm fucking fed up of feeling like this now, and I've got weeks of this to come." He sounds petulant, and he is, tired, pissed off and more than a little low.
"Anything I can do?" Antony asks, even though he knows there's probably not, not really.
Feeling more than a little riled up, Stephen pauses for a moment before he says. "Yes. Actually. You can tell me about when you were captured. What you were doing, and what happened."
Antony's eyes widen and he sits back. Christ. He wasn't expecting that and suddenly he wishes he hadn't told Marcus he didn't have to report all the details of his conversations with Stephen. "Okay," he says finally, on a soft exhale. "I was still in the military and we were transporting supplies from one base to another, three trucks in a small convoy. They'd cleared the roads the night before but I guess they'd got right back out there and replanted. All three trucks pretty much blew at the same time and they were waiting for anyone who stumbled out. I ended up underneath, in this sort of depression, and I was out for ages. When I came to, there were these guys - military contractors, not actual military, I found out later - and they were pulling out the bodies, zipping them up in bags. I tried calling to them but I couldn't get anything out loud enough to get their attention. My leg and hand were caught and my chest felt like it was being crushed."
Stephen nods, he carefully draws his knees up and starts to chew on the corner of his thumb, his eyes never leaving Antony's face.
"When they left without me, I thought for sure I was going to die," Antony says. "And then I got pissed off and determined not to," he adds with a small laugh, shaking his head. "I broke my ankle and my wrist getting them free and then I dragged myself out from under there. It took fucking hours and I kept passing out. Finally I got most of me out and I just laid there, staring at the sky, trying to get enough strength to keep going - and then they found me. Enemy soldiers. They pulled me out, threw me into a truck and took me off to some compound."
"What kept you going? What was it that gave you that fight?" Stephen asks, leaning in a little. This part at least he can relate to.
"Just sheer determination." It seems so simple and it is, but not really. "There was no way in hell I was going to die there, like that," he says. "And I guess part of me believed that if I held on long enough our guys would find me. I didn't always feel that way. I spent hours on end thinking I was going to die after all, maybe even some wishing I would, but they never actually extinguished that spark."
"I knew you'd find me. I knew you'd get me out. But yeah... it wavers, and the more pain you're in, the more humiliated you are, the harder it is to keep believing," Stephen offers quietly.
"Yeah." Antony nods, his eyes glistening with tears. "You want me to keep going?"
"Yeah, please," Stephen urges, part of him wants to reach out, to touch, to take Antony's hand, but he hesitates, acknowledging he's not ready yet.
"They had a doctor check me over, tape my ribs, wrap my ankle and wrist, make sure I was fed and taken care of just enough to the point I could take whatever they did to me." Antony pauses, blowing out a breath. "Turned out he was the guy who was going to be doing it which meant he knew exactly how far to take things without killing me. He and his men - they beat me, burnt me, cut me, rebroke my wrist and ankle, my ribs - they threatened to rape me but the doctor, he was a fanatic and wouldn't let them touch me, although they came close a couple of times and it didn't stop them from shocking me..."
By the time Antony pauses to draw breath Stephen has tears spilling from his eyes, what Antony is describing is horrific in and of itself but in the context of what he's just been through it's especially difficult to hear. "You know, you know what it feels like..." Still raw, Stephen can't yet acknowledge the differences in what they've both experienced, but can only see the commonalities, the things that he can identify with.
Antony nods, blinking back tears. "Yeah, I do," he says, reaching out to touch Stephen's hand. "And if I could, I'd go back and do anything to stop you from knowing. I am so fucking sorry."
"How do I get past this then?" Stephen pleads, wrapping his hand around Antony's wrist. "How do I go back to normal? I can't stand this."
"I can't answer that," Antony says, shaking his head, wishing he could. "Healing from something like this is different for everyone and it never completely goes away. It just recedes more and more until you go ages without thinking about it. Until it seems like it happened to someone else."
Something inside Stephen breaks at those words, he'd almost managed to persuade himself that Antony could fix this, that he would have some wise words that would help him to start to move forward. He brings his hands up to cover his face, bites down hard on his lower lip to stop words he can't take back from spilling from his mouth.
Fuck. "Look, I'm not exactly the poster child for mental health," Antony says, feeling helpless, useless, his skills devoted to concrete things, solvable puzzles. "When I got out of the hospital, I took my mandated R&R and went and laid on a beach for three weeks. Then I went back to work. I refused to think about it, I didn't do the counselling they wanted me to do, I just moved forward..."
"So what do I do?" Stephen says from behind his hands. "You know me better than anyone... what do I need to do?"
Antony blows out a breath. "I think you need to get away," he says. "At least until the ribs are better and the bruises are gone. Somewhere you can get outside and walk around and not worry about people recognizing you. I can take the time from work, we can take the guys with us, we can bring Kim or a physio person along, and as you start feeling better, they can help you stay in shape so you're not starting from scratch when you come back. While we're away, you work out a definite plan for training and getting back to your normal routine - whatever you'd be doing when you're normally on hiatus - and you get right back into that when you return. And along the way you talk to me about all the stuff we haven't talked about and if you need to talk to someone else, we arrange that. You can Skype or we can fly back, whatever you need."
It takes Stephen a few minutes to digest Antony's suggestions, his hands fall away from his face and he leans back into the pillows, his gaze moving around the room. Well aware this place, a place that had previously been a sanctuary, a place he and Antony could be intimate with each other will start feeling like a prison soon enough. "Okay," he nods. "We can try that right? And if it doesn't work, we come back?"
"Yup, but let's give it a week at least," Antony says. "I wasn't too happy about being on a beach in Thailand, but I got used to it and it turned out to be something I needed."
"Okay, I'll give it a week," Stephen agrees. "Did you have somewhere in mind?"
"How about Thailand?" Antony suggests. "We'll rent a private island, a couple of motorboats. When you're in the mood for seeing people, we can hop over to another island, shop, eat, and when you're not, you've got a whole island to explore without being seen."
Stephen shakes his head. "Somewhere closer to home? Somewhere more familiar."
"Somewhere in the States?" Antony asks, although he's not sure where they'd go that Stephen wouldn't be recognized. "Or South America or the Caribbean?"
"Either I guess," Stephen shrugs. At least the thought of going there doesn't make him feel panicky. "Thailand feels too far."
Antony nods. "Let me get in touch with Louis," he says. "I know Citadel keeps a list of private islands and villa compounds and he should be able to help us narrow things down."
"Okay, and we'll take Marcus and Christos with us yeah?" Stephen presses for reassurance.
"Yeah, and Logan too if you're okay with that," Antony says, willing to do whatever it takes to make sure Stephen feels safe and secure but even Marcus and Christos need their breaks and having one more person with them helps.
"That's fine," Stephen sighs. He's worn out, from the trip out, from the revelations he's heard and his own distress. "I need to sleep again, I need a shower later, or a bath, okay?"
"Yeah. I'm not going anywhere so just let me know when," Antony says, leaning in to give Stephen a kiss. "I love you."
Not even close to being able to return the sentiment, Stephen merely offers his face for the kiss. "Go and make some plans for the getaway, it'll keep you busy and give you something to focus on."
Antony nods. "I will. Get some sleep," he says, trying not to let that Stephen's not once said the words back since the kidnapping get to him.
Not so long ago Stephen would have laughed and said 'Yes Sir," but he can't even joke about that title now. Instead, he nods. "Okay."
Antony gives Stephen a smile and his hand a quick squeeze and heads back out to the living room. Marcus is still watching whatever he's watching and Antony ends up making his call to Louis from the front foyer rather than use the guest bedroom which is now full of Marcus's shit. He gets Marie, not Louis, but after asking what he's looking for, she emails him a short-list of properties and tells him she'll be happy to make the arrangements if he wants to let her know which one they choose.
Hanging up, Antony settles on the couch across from Marcus and starts looking at links and layouts and flight lengths. Shortening the shortlist even further.