They'd ended up choosing a private island in the Bahamas. Eleven acres with one huge estate overlooking the water comprised of three huge villas connected by covered pathways. Gardens, walking trails, pools, beaches and private docks. Six hours direct from Los Angeles and a twenty minute boat ride from the airport with another 15-20 minute boat ride taking them to any number of islands with shops and restaurants. Antony had promised they'd return in a week if needed but the place is booked for a month, Marcus, Christos and Logan joining them and Tommy flying over to take care of all things AJS at home.
"This is amazing," Logan says, dragging his hand in the water, unable to contain his excitement. "When I retire, I'm going to buy a place somewhere right on the water."
Marcus snorts. "You retire?"
"I will," Logan protests, smiling at Stephen. "I have everything planned out."
"You had the same skepticism about Antony," Stephen aims this observation at Marcus. "And look at him now." Stephen turns to look at the island as it nears. He'll be safe here, he's been assured, will have the freedom to wander around, lay in the sun, recuperate at his own pace. In some ways it feels like running away, hiding from the reality of their situation, but he also acknowledges he probably needs this. They need this - neutral ground to contemplate their relationship and see what they can salvage from it.
Christos and Kim chuckle and Marcus gives them both the finger before nodding to Stephen. "True, but it took you to get him there and this one," he gestures at Logan. "He has nothing."
It's Logan's turn to give Marcus the finger, although part of him recognizes the truth in the man's words. Absent an actual reason to retire, he's likely to go out in a box. But hell, if he had a partner like Stephen, he'd give up whatever it took to keep him. Not that anyone even knows he goes that way.
Stephen turns his gaze on Logan and scrutinises him for a moment, he's gotten to know the man reasonably well over the last couple of weeks, this man's seen him at his most vulnerable. "He will," he says softly. "And they'll knock him off his feet," he adds with a hint of a smile.
"Thanks," Logan says, ducking his head a little, his cheeks heating.
"Okay, we're here," Antony calls over his shoulder, making the few adjustments it takes to get the boat properly docked.
Logan jumps out and secures the boat with the mooring lines, moving from one end to the other end with practised ease.
Marcus gets out too, Christos handing bags and boxes up to him.
Kim smiles at Stephen, staying back until the other men are done with unloading the boat. "It's a beautiful place," he says, nodding at the beach and the interconnected villas just up from it. It would be the ideal vacation if it weren't for the reason they're all here.
"It certainly is," Stephen agrees "The one thing Antony is exceptionally good at is seeking out beautiful things." He waits with Kim until Antony moves to offer him a hand out of the boat. He braces himself and lets Antony pull him in.
Antony smiles at Stephen, holding him close for a few seconds longer than he needs to, taking advantage of any excuse he has these days to touch his husband. "How was the ride?" he asks. "The water's pretty calm here."
"It was lovely," Stephen smiles. He may be feeling tired from the journey, but he's feeling magnanimous today, allowing Antony that extra few moments of closeness. "If I can't recover here, there's no hope for me is there?" he teases gently. "I am hungry though." And that is the first time he's been able to say that with honesty since he was taken.
"Yeah?" Antony's eyes light up, crinkling at their corners. "For anything in particular or do you want to raid the pantry?" he asks, watching the guys start to take their bags and additional supplies up to the main house, the place already fully stocked food-wise.
"Seafood, fish..." Stephen shrugs. "Maybe we could have that for dinner? Eat outside. I think I'd settle for a large sandwich and some chips for now." He takes Antony's hand as they move from the jetty to the beach and the house beyond. "Between all of you, I'm going to be waited on hand and foot aren't I?"
Antony chuckles, agreeing, "Pretty much," so focused on the fact that Stephen's actually holding his hand of his own free will, here, casually, in front of all the guys, that he can barely get that out. "There's fishing off the pier," he says, after a moment, the warmth of Stephen's hand making his chest go tight, the small hope there flourishing just a little bit more. "Might be fresh seafood for dinner."
"Ha! You're going to get them to hunter-gather too?" Stephen laughs at that. "Right now I think all I'm good for is to lay down in the sun, eat and snooze."
"That's exactly what you're supposed to do," Antony says with a smile, giving Stephen's hand a squeeze. "I'll make you up a plate and get our things settled in the master villa and you can get changed or just stretch out wherever you want. I'll make sure the guys are settled."
"Okay, but don't go too far, I'd like to know you're in shouting distance," Stephen turns to look at the villa as they step inside the part they'll be staying in.
"I won't," Antony promises, Marcus having already delivered their bags. "We've got this part to ourselves." A huge villa with king-size poster bed, sitting area, ensuite, kitchenette and its own private deck. "The guys won't be over here unless invited. Meals'll be in the main villa - outside or in - and they can hang out in the guest house living room or the main one but if they're getting too rowdy, send them back to the guest house, they won't take offence." He smiles at Stephen. "We brought radios if you want them, but the villas are pretty close together."
"I don't want them to avoid me, but keeping this place just for us is okay," Stephen wanders over to a window to look out. "I know we need time alone, but I don't want to feel isolated, I need to know they're around me, it'll make me feel safe."
Antony nods. "I'll make sure to tell them again to make themselves at home," he says. "And not worry about talking to you." He smiles. "Do you want your sandwich now?"
"Yeah that'd be good," Stephen turns around to offer Antony a smile. "I'm going to dig out a book and find somewhere to sprawl out."
That smile. It feels like the fucking sun to Antony and he returns it, eyes crinkling again. "Sounds good. Just holler if you need anything else," he says, exiting the master villa and taking the short covered path to the main one, where Marcus has opened up all the sliding doors to the ocean below.
Stephen toes off his sneakers and then spends a few minutes wandering around, familiarising himself with the villa. That done he fishes through his bag, pulls out a book and some board shorts, swapping out the sweatpants and tee he'd travelled in. He opens every window and then drags the covers back from the bed before making himself comfortable in the middle of it. He lets out a long slow breath as he relaxes, it's been a busy couple of days - and he's glad all he has to look forward to now is peace, quiet and rest.
"You want a sandwich too?" Antony asks Marcus, giving up and just making a huge platter of sandwiches for the guys, several bags of chips emptied into a bowl and set out on the dining room table. A plate with one sandwich, a pile of chips and a cold beer in hand, he makes his way back to the master villa. "Here you go," he says, handing over the plate and setting the beer on the nightstand. "Logan's already gone down to the dock to do some fishing."
Setting his book aside Stephen carefully sits up. He eyes the beer. "I hope that's for you?" he asks as he reaches for the plate.
"It's de-alcoholized," Antony says with a smile, taking a seat on the bed. "Most of the taste but no messing with your meds."
Stephen shakes his head, "No, thank you. Water is fine." He picks up the sandwich and takes a bite, his attention on how close Antony is, given he himself is wearing only shorts.
Antony grabs a bottle of water from the kitchenette and hands it over. "What are you reading?" he asks, trying to distract himself. Fuck. It's been too long and his body couldn't give a shit about all the other stuff going on.
"It's a James Patterson book, nothing serious. It's short chapters, my concentration isn't great at the moment." He offers Antony the book.
Antony reads over the blurb on the back. "Sounds good. I haven't read this one." He smiles at Stephen. "There's a whole library in the main house if you need more while we're here. It's not huge but it looks like there's a good selection."
"I packed a few," Stephen replies around the second half of his sandwich. He watches his husband for a moment, despite the rift between them, he still knows Antony better than anyone, and he recognises that tension in him. "Do you need to talk to me?" he invites quietly.
Christ. Antony'd really rather not but he promised Stephen complete honesty. "I'm not expecting or asking for sex. I said I wouldn't," he says softly. "But that doesn't stop me from wanting you."
Stephen looks down at himself, still showing clear marks from what he went through. His ankles still dressed as they slowly heal. "Even like this?"
Antony nods. "You're the most beautiful man in the world to me," he says. "Nothing could change that."
"I'm not ready for that. I'm not even sure when I might be. I know I crave the intimacy we once shared, the safety I used to find in your arms..." Stephen looks down into his lap, his fingers plucking at the sheets. "But I'm frightened if I let you in, you'll betray my trust again."
"I know and I'm not pressuring you," Antony says, settling on the edge of the bed, "but you make it sound like something I did on purpose, like cheating or outright lying to you. When Zoran went off the rails, I took every precaution. I made sure you were safe. And when I couldn't get him to see reason and stop, I made him stop. But I didn't want to do that with Janko. I wanted to give him the chance to do what I was trying to do. Get the hell out of that world. I thought I was doing the right thing." He leans forward. "I've never once outright lied to you, I made decisions and kept things from you based on conversations we had, because you didn't want to know all of it, but I would have told you. I would have answered anything you asked, and now, moving forward, I swear I will never keep anything else from you and I'm out. I'm retiring from all the stuff I know you'd hate. It's not quick, it's not easy, but I'm doing it because I love you and I want to be with you. More than anything else in the world."
"What do you want, me to thank you for that?" Stephen snaps, his head coming up to meet Antony's gaze. "You promised me, at my collaring, and our wedding, and many times between that you would keep me safe, that you wouldn't let any harm come to me." He sweeps his hand along his body. "Does this look like it was safe?" His face flushes red as he speaks, "And you did lie to me, by omission at least, because apparently, I had someone on me besides Cristos for months, people I didn't know about. Watching me, following me, was that honest Antony? Was that consensual?"
"I was keeping you safe," Antony grits back. "Like I promised, and if I'd kept them on you, you would have been. But no one could have known about Janko. No one. If I'd killed him, if I'd taken him out when we handled his dad and brother, I would've been killing an innocent man, and I don't fucking do that."
"So what do you want from me? To shrug it off? Because you tried because your conscience is clear?" Stephen pulls his legs up and clenches his fists. "I'm not just your husband Antony, I was your property, your slave, I gave you everything."
"I would never expect you to shrug it off," Antony says. "And my conscience isn't fucking clear. It won't ever be. I'm never going to forget how I fucked up and let you down. But I also came and got you. And if I hadn't had the skills to do that, I would have laid down my life for yours. So, what do you want from me?" he asks. "You have to know I'm never going to let you go. I'll give you all the time in the world but you're still mine. Just as I'm still yours."
Stephen shivers, it's violent enough that Antony can't have missed it. He lifts his head, leans in, his face mere inches from Antony's. "Say that again," he demands, his voice low, rough.
Antony can't get a read on Stephen's reaction. But he's already said what he's said and he's not about to take it back. "I'm never going to let you go," he says. "You'll always be mine. Just as I'll always be yours."
Stephen withdraws again, his thumb coming up to his mouth as he chews on his nail, trying to process his reaction to Antony's words. On one hand, the rational adult, the man who was independent before he met Antony is screaming at him that this isn't healthy, that Antony really does mean he won't let him go - but instead of fear, it sends a thrill through Stephen. It speaks to the submissive, the man who has submitted body and soul to his Sir and Master in the last eighteen months, the part of him that before Antony never thought he'd be good enough to have a 'forever'.
"I'm still not rushing you," Antony says softly, watching Stephen, still unsure of his response. "I know you're hurt and you need time and you're pissed off at me."
Stephen nods at that, his gaze flicking between Antony and his own lap. "But you're never going to let me go?" he asks, wanting to hear it one last time. Even if I wanted you to?
There's a part of Antony that wishes he could say differently, that he's not revealing himself to be someone Stephen probably should have never gotten involved with in the first place, but he can't help it. He knows himself and the idea of letting Stephen go? Of seeing him with someone else? He knows there's no way either could happen. "No," he says firmly, shaking his head. "Never."
Fuck! Both frightened and thrilled by the surety, the vehemence in Antony's tone Stephen keeps his eyes down, not allowing Antony any chance to read him. He manages a nod, however, before clearing his throat. "I think I need some time alone," he states, forcing some determination into his tone. "I need to think, and I need to sleep, but I'll be happy to join you for dinner."
Antony nods, still not sure where they stand, but he said he'd give Stephen time and he meant it. "I'm going to change and go join Logan on the dock," he says, rising to his feet and pressing a quick kiss to Stephen's forehead. "If you need anything, holler and Marcus'll come get me."
Stephen nods, watching as Antony moves to change and then leaves him alone. Pushing up from the bed Stephen makes his way to the large floor to ceiling French doors, pushing one open he steps out into the sunshine and finds a lounger to sit in. I'm never going to let you go. Antony's words ring in his ears. "Do you want to leave?" Stephen asks himself out loud, looking down at his wedding band. That had stayed in place, his collar, however, had been removed at the hospital, and had not been put back on, he's not even sure where it is - he assumes Antony has it. In his heart of hearts, he doesn't want to give up the life he's created for himself with Antony. Home took on a whole new meaning when they became a couple; it wasn't four walls, it became the love, safety the security he'd found in Antony. And as traumatized as Stephen is, he knows he can't imagine life without Antony. Stephen acknowledges to himself that it isn't if they can save their marriage, but rather how they go about reconstructing it, how they imagine it might be in the wake of his abduction, and all the revelations that had come to pass as a result.
Antony grabs his snorkelling gear and walks down to the dock where he talks to Logan for a bit, checking out his catch before heading into the water. Normally he'd be over the fucking moon about all the brightly coloured fish and barracuda and coral he's seeing but today all he can think about is Stephen, his husband, his lover, his boy, their contract and their vows. And where they go from here. What if Stephen really does want to leave? What if he doesn't want Antony anymore? What if all he can see when he looks at Antony is the killer, the man who shouldn't have even tried to think he could have a normal life. Which, of course, makes him wonder if he's doing the right thing going legit? What if it's all for nothing?
Stephen had gone back to bed eventually, and even though he'd thought he might struggle, he's slipped into sleep with ease, waking a few hours later. He was still alone, Antony clearly respecting his request for privacy. After removing the dressings from his ankles he'd stepped into the shower, taking time to enjoy the water, the scented soap, even going so far, once he's done in the shower, as to shave. Stephen pauses to look at himself in the mirror. He's lost weight, but the cut on his cheek is healing, and all the bruises have gone, he almost looks likes like himself again. Trailing his fingers around his throat he sighs, he can still feel the absence of his collar, the familiar weight of it, but he also knows he's not ready to even consider broaching the subject of Antony and his D/s relationship. Pulling on some fresh shorts and a tee, he pads barefoot down the walkway to the main house.
Antony's in the kitchen, having told Marcus he could have some time to himself. Logan's definitely going to provide enough fish for dinner so he's wrapping potatoes and skewering veggies to go on the grill, keeping his mind on the task at hand.
"Look at you being all domestic," Stephen teases gently as he steps into the kitchen. Antony's alone, which surprises him. Stephen glances around, taking in the large, high-end space.
Antony looks up, eyes widening at the sight of his husband clean-shaven. "Yeah, Logan's caught a bunch of fish, so I'm doing my part," he says, more than happy to be teased. It's something Stephen hasn't really done since before the kidnapping. "You look good. Your cheek's healing well."
"Yeah it is," Stephen agrees, he glances down at his ankles, he's not covered up the wounds there, rather letting them get some air and dry from the shower. "I just need to keep moisturizing it." He circles the room until he locates the refrigerator, from which he liberates a carton of juice.
"Did you get some sleep?" Antony asks, leaning back against the counter, noticing Stephen's left the bandages off his ankles.
"Yeah, I sat in the sun for a while after you left, then went back inside to sleep," Stephen uncaps the carton and brings it to his mouth, gulping down the cool, sweet liquid.
Antony nods. "I went snorkelling. There's some amazing marine life right off the beach," he says, watching Stephen's throat move as he swallows. His bare throat. Fuck.
"I might join you in a week or two," Stephen offers, wiping his lower lip with the back of his hand. "Well, I'll see how I feel I guess." Between his ribs, and wounds that still need to be kept dry, it might not be the best idea. "Where is everyone?"
"Logan's still down at the dock - he wanted everyone to have their own fish," Antony says with a soft chuckle. "Kim and Christos took a walk around the island and Marcus is unpacking, I think. He hung around here while I was down at the water."
Satisfied they're alone, Stephen sets the carton down. "I've thought about what we said, what you said, earlier I mean," he starts awkwardly. "I don't want to leave, Antony. But I think we need to acknowledge things can't be the same as they were before either."
"In what way?" Antony asks, the knot in his chest loosening a little at the first part.
Stephen has to push down a flare of irritation at Antony's apparent obtuseness. "Because what we had is broken, and if we try and go back to it, the cracks will appear, and it will fall apart, and I won't go through this again." He wraps his arms around himself, "For now, we work on our marriage, on rebuilding trust, on me understanding who you were, and who you are fully. But for me at least, our contract is void. It's something we can re-negotiate at a later date, when this," he waves a hand between them, "is on a more even keel".
Antony nods. He didn't really expect anything less and all in all, it's the best case scenario given what's happened and how things have been for the past couple of weeks. "I'm willing to accept all of that," he says. "Whatever we need to put things back together - not necessarily to what they were but to whatever works for us moving forward."
"I'm going to have to ask some uncomfortable questions, about the shit I was too spineless to want to know about before. And you're going to have to be honest with me. I have to know the man you really are, all of it, the dark parts as well as the parts I knew, no more lies, no more omissions, no more looking the other way, it's only from there I can start to trust you again. We based our entire relationship on my willingness to look the other way - and it didn't work." Stephen keeps his arms folded, maintains his distance as he speaks.
Antony nods again. "I'll tell you everything, whatever you want to know, but I need you to remember that I'm leaving all of that behind. It may speak to the man I really am, but I'm also trying to change and be better - for you."
"Don't do it for me, do it because it's who you are now," Stephen retorts. He sighs, "so yeah... we'll work on our marriage, but no D/s, because I have to make some decisions going forward that are for me, not you, not us... and I have to do that as my own man."
"Okay. You might have to remind me if I start to go there," Antony says, not entirely sure how that'll look but he's willing to do whatever it takes. Plus he's told Stephen more than once that he would want him regardless; this is his chance to prove it.
"Oh don't worry, I will," there's determination in Stephen's voice. He can't let himself be the victim any longer, he has to step up and assert himself to make sure that what comes of all this is healthy for him, is what he wants, and not what Antony wants for them.
Antony nods again. He's got a bunch of questions but some of them he's pretty sure he doesn't want an answer to, so instead he asks, "So, what now? Are there things you want to ask me or things you want me to do or not do?"
"One step at a time," Stephen lets his hands fall to his sides, his posture relaxing. "I'll ask as and when I need to. Just... let me lead the way with physical intimacy okay? At least to start." He's feeling his way here, judging it better to be over cautious than not cautious enough. "What about you? Do you need to ask me anything specific?"
"By physical intimacy I assume you mean sex," Antony says. "I'm still okay to give you a kiss when I come in or take your hand when we're talking or sitting together?" It might seem like a stupid question but it's not, not when he wants -- and needs -- to do this right.
"I mean anything more than hand-holding and kissing," Stephen clarifies. "I've no interest in sex at the moment, it's too tied up in our dynamic, I need to be able to separate the two before I can go there." He blows out a breath. "But I do miss you, the closeness we had, the heat of you, your smell..." his words trail off as his voice softens. "I miss us, I really miss us."
Antony swallows hard, his eyes suddenly wet. "I miss us too. So fucking much."
Moments later Stephen is opening his arms as he steps up to Antony, seeking comfort in the only place he knows he'll find it.
Antony wraps his arms around Stephen, hugging him as hard as he dares, his face buried in his husband's neck, breathing him in as he struggles not to break down completely.
"I still love you," Stephen whispers, his voice cracking. "I must be fucking mad, but I still love you."
And it's that, more than anything else, which gives Antony hope. Real hope. His chest going tight and his heart swelling. "I love you too," he whispers fiercely, lifting his head to press his mouth to Stephen's. Everything he feels for his husband poured into that kiss.
Stephen opens himself to that kiss, defaulting to allowing Antony to control it, until he realizes what he's doing, then with a soft noise, he slips his hand around the back of Antony's neck and asserts himself.
Antony groans into the kiss, Stephen's touch only affirming their connection, that they both want this.
Pulling away, Stephen takes a half step back, he's flushed, his breathing a little erratic. He lifts his fingers to his lips, as if could feel a mark that Antony might have left there. "Huh... I guess we still got chemistry?" he raises a brow to accompany his wry observation.
Antony smiles, eyes crinkling. "I'd say so," he agrees, wishing they didn't have to stop.
He can't help himself, Stephen glances down at Antony's crotch; when his husband becomes aroused it's near impossible for him to hide it. His breath hitches at the evidence of Antony's response to their kiss, and he looks away. "Baby steps," he says softly. "Okay?"
"Okay," Antony nods, Stephen's own response giving him some hope there might be sex sooner rather than later. But until then, he's probably going to be jerking off more than he has since he was a teenager.