Stephen wakes with a start, his heart hammering, his skin sweat slick, he blinks his surroundings unfamiliar to his sleep-dazed brain.
He tries to push up, only to be pulled up short by his ribs, and it makes him cry out in pain.
Antony wakes in an instant, hyper alert since the kidnapping. "Hey," he says softly, shifting closer, touching Stephen's shoulder. "It's okay. You're safe. We're on the island." Wishing he could easily wrap his arms around his husband but not wanting to hurt him.
"Help me sit up," Stephen's tone unusually directive in his panic. "I need to sit up."
Antony does, getting an arm behind Stephen and helping him upright. He reaches over and flicks on the bedside light as well. "How's that?"
Pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead, Stephen huffs out a breath. "Fuck that was nasty." He's trembling, he can feel it, an adrenaline dump in response to the images still burnt onto the back of his eye lids.
Antony lightly wraps his arm around Stephen's shoulder and gives him a gentle squeeze. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Before this... I'd never seen a dead body before," Stephen's words rush out, not thinking about how it might seem to Antony that he's jumped right into something that they've always, always danced around before. "Let alone..." he stutters to a stop. "Those two men, who were outside the room I was in, did you shoot them?" He hasn't been able to shake the image of both men, shot in the head, dead, right there as he stepped over them to escape.
"Yeah. One was firing on us and the other was trying to unlock the door." Trying to get to Stephen and kill him like Janko had ordered, but Antony's not about to say that. Not about to add to Stephen's nightmares. "I had to stop him from getting inside."
"To stop them getting to me?" Stephen finishes, he blows out another breath and rubs his face. "You just shot them..." these words are more to himself. "Fuck. I think on some level I had an idea that it was something that you did outside of your military service, but... it's difficult to understand it."
"Which part?" Antony asks. "How I can do it?"
Stephen lifts his face to look at Antony in the low light. "Yeah, and that you can talk so casually about it. I find it easier to believe of Marcus, because well... he's got this weird vibe, but you... it's almost like it's normal to you, rather..." he struggles to find the right words. "you've normalised it..."
Antony nods after a moment. "I have," he admits. "It's not a big thing to me to kill someone who deserves it. When I was in the military, the ones I'd lose sleep over were the women and kids, anyone who wasn't actually threatening us, but now, the only people I take out are the ones who have actively put themselves in my path. They're not good people, they're not innocent. I try to find alternatives where I can, but if there's not one, I don't think twice about it."
"Fucking hell," Stephen can't help the expletive. "You know how cold that sounds? You sound like some fucking psychopath."
And there it is. That word. Antony winces, hearing it from Stephen's mouth. Unsure of how to defend himself against the accusation.
Stephen's eyes widen at Antony's silence. "What? Wait... no..." he rambles before he manages to gather his words and construct a coherent sentence. "Are you? I mean... fuck..."
"No." Antony shakes his head. "I'm not. At least I don't think so, and not by the strict definition, not any more than any vet is, or any police officer, or even your Oliver Queen. I've killed people but it's not something I enjoy or get off on."
"Well it's still not fucking normal is it?" Stephen retorts. "And I don't think you enjoy it, or get off on it, but you seem pretty... unconcerned, detached..."
"No, it's not normal," Antony admits easily. "And it's a good part of the reason I didn't try to go back to normal life when I was given the chance. Because it didn't feel like it fit anymore. Like I could fit." He blows out a breath. "But I love you, I love my family, those guys out there," he says, nodding towards the other villa, realizing it's true. "Which has to mean something."
"But if you didn't think you could have a normal life... what were you doing committing to me like you did?" Stephen turns a little to face Antony more. "I mean... what do you think normal even is?"
Antony runs a hand over the back of his neck. "I was thinking maybe I'd been wrong," he says softly. "That maybe I could have that. There hadn't been anyone before you that I even wanted try with. And I don't know. My mum and dad and my sisters all have normal lives and to be honest, I still can't picture living like that."
"But you can picture living with me, our life together felt... as normal as it could be given my job and being closeted," Stephen's struggling to understand Antony's motivation. "Was I living a different life to you?"
"I don't know how to explain the difference," Antony says, more than a little stressed by his inability to express himself here. "I never felt suffocated by you or our life together. I know it hadn't been that long but I always felt - and still feel - excited to see you. We fit. You love travelling, we make each other laugh, you love your work, our life... and then there's the kink." He exhales softly. "My parents' lives, my sisters' lives, they feel stagnant, and I know they're happy so I don't want to take that from them, but if I'd gone home, I would been expected to settle down with a wife and kids and a 9-5 job and no one would have ever accepted the shit that was in my head, and I know you think you didn't know, but it felt like you did, like we talked around things enough, and you accepted enough, that I felt like you got me, that you saw that stuff and still accepted me. And it made all the difference."
Stephen doesn't respond to that, he considers Antony's words, the suggestion that he knew more than he'd let on. He's done a lot of introspection in the last few weeks, trying to square what he's learned about his husband, with the man he thought he knew. "I think I did. Finding you, the intensity of our relationship, what you offered me was everything I had ever wanted and more. So when I saw or heard things that made me uncomfortable, I looked the other way. Then when there were the few times I couldn't do that I just... I don't know... I knew you were a man of violence, and I was conflicted about how I felt about that. For someone who had been dismissed, discarded by his dominants in the past, having a man, a real fucking man who I knew on some level would do violence to keep me safe..." Stephen shakes his head and covers his eyes.
Antony reaches out, running his hand over the back of Stephen's head. "And I still would," he says, knowing he has to be completely honest with his husband. "I'm not ever going to be able to change that part of myself. If someone hurts you, it's going to take everything I have not to nail them to a fucking wall, and if they really hurt you, I'll fucking end them. But I'll do everything in my power to make sure no one's ever in the position to hurt you again."
"Do you know how fucked up this is? How fucked up this conversation is? How fucked up what I'm feeling is?" Stephen lets his hands fall away. "I feel like I've slipped into some parallel universe, I don't recognise any part of my life. Or even who I am."
"I'm sorry," Antony says, and he means it but at the same time it seems so superficial. Sorry I fucked up your life. Sorry I messed up your sense of self. If he really was a better man, he'd leave Stephen the hell alone and let him forget all about them and move on. But he's not. Or rather he's too in love with the man beside him. Doesn't have a clue how he'd return to his own life. How he'd ever move on. "I do, but it's not fucked up in my world. Any of those guys out there... most of the guys and women I work with... they'd say the same about their partners and their partners would feel the same way. It's only fucked up when you've bought into how we're supposed to feel and what we're supposed to do, and you've already kicked a lot of that to curb with the things we like to do sexually."
"It's fucked up for me, to find out my husband is what? A mercenary, a hit man?" Stephen snaps. "It's fucked up that the knowledge that he's killed to protect me, and would do so again... doesn't just horrify me... it, fuck, it... I fucking like that. It speaks to that part of me that gave myself to you. The core of my submissiveness... to have an owner that would go that far...." He's weeping now, and making no effort to hide it. "What kind of a man does that make me?"
Fuck. It suddenly hits Antony that he'd had no clue what Stephen was getting at, what was really bothering him. "It makes you the kind of man who's sick and tired of being taken for granted," he says softly, wrapping his arms around Stephen. "Who wants to know that the man he loves, who he's given his submission to, values him and their life together so much he would do anything to protect them. You're not wishing harm on random people. You're not getting off on me actually hurting them. You're craving being owned and loved and cherished by a man who values you so highly and actually means it when he says he will do anything to make sure no one ever gets to hurt you again."
It's all Stephen can do to nod as he tucks himself up in Antony's arms. He nuzzles his face up under Antony's chin and inhales his scent. Sleepy and musky.
"I love you so much," Antony whispers, holding Stephen tight. "I've never felt like this about anyone, ever, not even close. And if my crew get the kind of care and loyalty they get from me, you can only imagine the lengths I'd go to for you. Including making myself more a part of your world and less a part of mine."
"I'm not sure I want my world anymore," Stephen whispers, for the first time since this all happened he feels safe. Here in Antony's arms. "I'm not sure about any of it."
"It's normal to feel that way after something like this," Antony says, savouring the feel of holding Stephen, this quiet intimacy he'd (deep down) feared they'd never share again. "But there's no rush to make any decisions."
"Our old life... it's gone isn't it?" Stephen relaxes a little more, he can feel Antony's breath on his skin.
"Not necessarily," Antony says, dropping a kiss on Stephen's head. "We can rebuild what we had or we can create a whole new life or even something in between. You've got a blank canvas right now and you just have to take your time and see what feels right."
Stephen considers that for a few minutes. "What about you? What do you want? Do you want to go back to how it was?"
"Honestly?" Antony says, even though he's being nothing but truthful these days. "Yes, there's a lot from before that I loved. The way we've been since we took that break. Me traveling less, being home more. But I like being honest with you about everything. As happy as we were, I carried this weight around with me, scared what you'd do if you found out."
"It wasn't really the perfect life I'd convinced myself it was," Stephen muses. "I was lying to myself about your work, and you were lying to me by omission." He pauses, "What would you say if I told you I don't want to go back to Arrow... or that I wanted to come out?"
It's not often Antony is shocked by anything really, but Stephen's question floors him. "I thought you loved doing Arrow?"
Pulling back as much as Antony allows him, Stephen looks into his husband's face. "I do, I did... I don't know."
"Why would you want to leave then?" Antony asks softly.
All Stephen can do is shrug. "I don't know. But right now I can't see past the few weeks we have here. The idea of returning home, to what was normal..."
Antony nods. He gets it. He went through the same sort of questioning everything after his captivity. "I'll support you in whatever you want to do. Leaving Arrow, coming out, wherever you want to go next... Just make sure you're giving yourself the time to make the right decisions."
"I'm not making any decisions right now, but I am questioning everything. My career, myself, you, us..." Sighing he gives his head a small shake. "I don't even know where to start, I think I need to just... stop trying to figure it out and let it sort itself out. But I need some structure to my days while I'm here, so... perhaps we can plan that out in the morning? Will you help me?"
"I'd be happy to," Antony says, giving Stephen a small hug, always mindful of his still-healing ribs. "You want to try and sleep again?"
"Yeah, I guess I should." It takes him a minute or so to lay down and get comfortable. Then Stephen reaches out for Antony's hand, linking their fingers together.
They'd both slept through the rest of the night, thankfully, and now Antony's making up breakfast for the two of them while Marcus and Christos take one of the boats into town and Kim and Logan make themselves scarce yet available. He dumps the pans in the sink to soak and carries out two plates with omelettes and fresh fruit on them, Stephen having already made coffee and taken it out to the patio. "We could take a short walk after breakfast if you want," he says, placing one plate in front of Stephen and taking a seat with the other. "There's a nice cleared path around the one end. It's pretty flat. Nothing too jarring."
Stephen nods as he sips his coffee. "Yeah, I really need to stretch my legs. I'm going to talk to Kim about arranging a morning physio, exercise regime. I'm losing weight. I'm losing muscle mass and tone, and given I've not decided if I'm going back to Arrow I need to try and get back in shape. I don't like how I look."
"That's what he's here for," Antony says, digging into his food. "There's a small gym here, he brought some stuff and once your ribs are doing better, he's got all sorts of martial arts training you can take advantage of." He smiles at Stephen. "You need to eat more though. So anything you want, let me know. I'll make sure you have it."
Sighing, Stephen picks up his cutlery. "I know, but I'm just not hungry, and I don't actually want to eat." Even so, Stephen makes a slow start on his omelette.
"I know," Antony nods, scooping up a spoonful of berries, "and I'm not saying you have to clear a whole plate. Sometimes eating a little here and there all day long adds up to more than you'd be eating if you're trying to finish a meal. And at this point, some of it can be junk. Have the chocolate bar or the pastry you wouldn't normally have."
"Just the idea of pastries makes me feel nauseous," Stephen pulls a face at the thought. "But I'll try eating little and often. I don't want you to have to start bitching at me."
Antony grins at that. "It'll take a while before I'm bitching at you," he says, sitting back as Marcus steps out onto the patio.
"Morning," Marcus says, nodding at both of them but going around Antony's right side to whisper in his ear.
Stephen pauses mid-mouthful of food, his heart rate kicking up as he looks between Antony and Marcus. "What? What's wrong?" he asks, his silverware dropping to his plate.
"Nothing," Antony responds quickly before elaborating, Stephen's anxiety apparent, "Louis wants me to give him a call but he didn't want to disturb us." Telling Marcus, "I'll call him later."
Marcus nods, giving Stephen a small smile to try and allay his fears. It's not quite as innocuous as Antony makes it sound but it also shouldn't be too big a deal one way or another.
Stephen's brow is still furrowed as he leans forward. "Why would Louis call you when he knows why we're here?" he asks. "What are you not telling me?" He barely gives Marcus a look.
Antony gestures at Marcus, basically dismissing him. "He wants to know if I've talked to you," he says, waiting until Marcus has gone back inside to continue. "There's stuff I do, including for Citadel, and the government, that's not entirely legal but it's not straight out illegal either and I haven't been sure where you stood on those things. I told Louis I'd talk to you but I haven't wanted to bring it up before this and I guess he's getting antsy."
Wiping his mouth with his napkin, Stephen leans back in his seat. He looks away, his jaw ticking as he tries to decide if he can deal with talking about this. "I guess you better tell me then," his tone having gone flat, gives nothing away.
"You know about the filters we use - like when we were in Italy," Antony points out, taking a sip of his coffee. "We use those for every member, running photos and text through a set of pre-filters and image recognition software. We also scan the private rooms for combinations of words and tone that trigger a check when it seems likely that someone's in true distress or has been left on their own. No one's listening on an ongoing basis, nothing's recorded, and it only actually gets tripped for actual intervention maybe once or twice a year around the world. And then there's background checks for all members, which they agree to in their incoming paperwork but most people don't realize just how thorough they are."
"And that is outside of what is considered legal?" Stephen asks, his hands folded in his lap.
"Technically, yes, but members are safer for all of it, so..." Antony trails off with a shrug. "And the stuff I do for the government? They'd find a way to do it regardless and none of it's actually being used to hurt anyone. In fact, it's the exact opposite."
"Stuff?" Stephen quirks a brow. "That's not exactly being transparent with me is it?" He doesn't like this vagueness, even if it's for a legitimate reason this time. His trust in Antony is still too damaged to just accept his words at face value.
"Sorry," Antony says and means it. "I'm used to not explaining things in detail - and these are things we have to keep between us regardless of what you decide about whether I should continue with them. I signed a shitload of NDAs and the government takes them almost as seriously as Citadel." He blows out a breath. "I've been involved in programming the various satellites we use, mostly for surveillance purposes, but I hacked them to find you. I've developed better software for phone surveillance, line tracking, facial recognition, programs that can scan multitudes of CCTV footage in a split second. I also developed special trackers that we're now starting to work on putting into soldiers so that when something like what happened to me happens we can find and locate them our people sooner. And we're working on building sensors into those trackers that will let us monitor vitals and all that."
Stephen can't hide his surprise, he sits up a little straighter and leans in again, his gaze locked on his husband. "You developed these things? Or you've got people developing these things?" At the back of his mind Marcus's revelations about Antony's accelerated academic path resurface. He's always known Antony was wicked smart, but this?...
And once again, Antony's unsure of Stephen's reaction. "Both. Most of the initial ideas and work is mine and then I hand things over to various teams within the company to develop more fully and monitor testing. Once the technology's been handed over to the government, they have their own people to run it but I'm still responsible for oversight, troubleshooting and updates."
"How fucking smart are you?" Stephen asks, giving his head a little shake. He nudges his plate aside, having barely eaten a thing to pick up his now cool coffee.
"I love computers. I love programming," Antony says, still watching Stephen closely. "I loved hacking, emphasis on the past tense," he adds with a smile. "I joined the military to pay for my schooling originally, because my parents were going to have to pay for my sisters as well, and then it turned out I had the aptitude for both things."
Carefully setting his cup back on the table, Stephen once more folds his hands in his lap. He can feel himself withdrawing from Antony again. "I feel like I don't really know you," he admits quietly.
Fuck. Antony glances out at the water and then back to Stephen, tamping down the impatience he has to get back to some sort of equilibrium between them. "You know the most important parts of me," he says softly, urgently. "You've met my family, my closest friends and crew, you know my likes and dislikes, what makes me laugh, how much I love you. You know the things I've done and what I want to do. You have the big picture. All the rest is just details and I swear... I'll share all of it with you if you give me a chance."
If you give me a chance... Stephen is well aware that all the power in their relationship currently lies in his hands...and he doesn't like it one bit; but right now it's the only way he can cope, to be able to demand answers and information from his oh-so-secretive husband, to determine when and if he's touched. It's the antithesis of how their life together used to be.
"I didn't know you were some child genius who finished school early," Stephen points out. "I don't actually know what rank you obtained, even if you have any medals for service. And I never asked you about the scars on your body. A body I am supposed to know more intimately than my own."
"Some of that you don't know because I don't brag," Antony says. "It's not who I am. Marcus knows because he's been with me long enough to ask or put things together but hell, my parents didn't even know I had the penthouse. I don't know why I'm like that. It's not just what I've been doing. I've always been like that. I don't think of myself as a child genius. I think of myself as a really smart kid who took every opportunity to get through school and out to the things he wanted to do as quickly as possible. I made the rank of Captain and I have a bunch of medals for service, mostly regular ones for combat and various missions, but I also have a couple of special ones, which I can show you when we're home. As for the scars..." he pauses for a second then rises to his feet, pulling his shirt over his head and dropping his shorts to the floor. "This one," he points to an indent between shoulder and chest, "is from a bullet during my time in Iraq, there's another bullet one on my back from Afghanistan, this one's a knife wound from a stupid bar fight in Sydney, which I was trying to break up, and this one," the back of his right arm, "was from a machete. Job in Mexico. I was security and we were attacked."
It's on the tip of his tongue to point out there is a difference between 'bragging' and sharing who you are with your life partner - but then Antony stands up, strips off and starts detailing his more obvious scars, one by one. Stephen's not seen his husband naked in weeks, and even now, even with this rift between them, his reaction is very physical. His belly clenches and a hint of an erection appears, something he's not experienced at all since he was abducted. He drops his gaze to Antony's feet. "And the one on the back of your thigh?" he asks quietly. "The one just above your left ankle?"
"Thigh's shrapnel. Iraq. Ankle's captivity. Shackles," Antony says, twisting as needed to show Stephen each one. "There's more. There's been more," he continues. "I've had surgery for some of them, grafts for others. It's just depended on what they were, where I was when I got them and whether they could be taken care of. Sometimes there wasn't anyone around and sometimes I was dealing with military hospitals with good docs but next to no supplies."
Stephen looks away. "Put your clothes back on." He reaches down to scratch at the edge of his own ankle injury, it's presence making itself known in some perverse empathy to Antony's explanation.
"You may say it's just who you are, but I need more from you now. I need to know these things about you, I need to know you as intimately as you know me. There is nothing I haven't shared with you - whether that's just because I am... was," he corrects himself quickly, "your submissive and that's part of the deal, or just because that's who I am. But Antony... I can't learn to trust us again if I think there are things I don't know."
"I know," Antony says, pulling his shorts and shirt back on and taking his seat again. "That's why I was waiting to talk to you about Louis and the government stuff. I wanted to tell you. I wanted to talk it all over with you and get your input. There may be things you don't know yet about my past but there won't be any moving forward, I swear."
"So this work you do for Louis, for the government. If there's no theft. If it's not putting anyone in danger. If no one dies as a result of it? Then you can carry on, though I reserve the right to want to ask more at a later date," Stephen looks up from his lap, grateful Antony is clothed again. "Is that... is that where a lot of the money comes from now?"
"That and the legit security work we do, both computer or software-based and personal," Antony says. "And then there's the investments I already have in place. I could pretty much close everything down and never have to worry."
"So those other jobs, the ones you're not going to do anymore, did you make a lot of money from those?" Stephen needs to know this, wonders how much of his luxurious married life has been paid for in blood.
"It varied," Antony responds, popping a berry into his mouth. "We recovered a bunch of art for a family who had been robbed during the war and I got a painting out of that and just before we met, we'd rescued this girl from this cult she'd fallen in with and I felt sorry for the family so that was pro bono, but yes, there were jobs we made a lot from. The job I came home hurt from? When I'd stopped one of my crew from being crushed? That was a safe job - as in cracking one, and it was a corporate espionage thing, both sides as corrupt as the other. I wanted to see if I could do the job and I did but I charged them a shitload of money."
Rubbing his forehead with his fingers Stephen blows out a breath. "When did my real life get more fucking fantastical than my work life?" he murmurs almost to himself. He pushes up from his seat and walks to the edge of the patio, looking out to the water beyond. "And you think you'll be happy enough? Giving that up? The adrenaline kicks, the mental challenges, the danger?"
"Before I met you? No, I wouldn't have been," Antony says, watching Stephen. "But you made me realize there's more to life. I know I was still pulling jobs but I wasn't missing it when I wasn't. That's why I kept talking about retiring. There just always seemed to be another job already booked or favour owed or whatever and now there's none of that. If I'm going to make the break, this is when I do it. "
"If?" Stephen turns at that. "You've told me you won't let me go, and I'll only stay if you give up the kind of shit that led to this." He's got the beginnings of a headache and it's making him even more irritable. "You're planning on staying home? Playing housewife while I go out and play at being an actor? Because my movie career is just about fucked before it's started."
"I didn't mean it that way," Antony retorts, suddenly frustrated with Stephen for twisting every damn thing he says. "And no, I'm not going to be playing housewife. I'm going to be running my business from here and finding challenges on the legit side of things." He bites his lip for a moment, wondering if he should just shut the fuck up but no. "As for your career, you've got choices. There'll be other movies if you want them. Hell, you can bankroll your own fucking production if you want."
Stephen turns away again, squinting against the sunshine. "If I wanted a fresh start... you'd agree to that?" he asks, his mind skipping from one thought to another without really settling on anything, unable to see a way forward that doesn't involve more work than he's able to commit to right now.
"As long as I get to be a part of it," Antony says softly. "I'll support you in whatever you want to do."
"I want a house, with a garden. Somewhere new for both of us. Where we can start again, where we can rebuild our marriage," Stephen turns, moving back to the table where he picks up his empty coffee cup. "And I'm going to come out."
If they hadn't been through everything they've been through, Antony would question the last, and the fact that it's something he's wished for in the past has him feeling conflicted, but he's going to trust it's coming from a gut instinct, a deep down recognition of what Stephen needs to feel right again. Which only leaves him with one question. "About being gay or about our marriage as well?"
Stephen starts to walk back into the house, he wants more coffee, some pain meds, his barely eaten breakfast forgotten. "Both. I'm done with lies, with half-truths, with deception. I owe it to myself to live authentically, to be honest about who I am. If that costs me work, it's a small price to pay."
Antony brings their plates inside. "If that's what you want, you've got my full support," he says, tamping down hard on the part inside him that's fucking ecstatic he'll be able to hold Stephen's hand, kiss his husband in public.
"I'm not going to do anything until we're back, and I've talked it all over with my people, my agent and the Arrow crew, but yeah... it's past time." Stephen slides his mug under the coffee pod machine. "I need some books, some journal type things, paper, pens... I want to write some things out, make some plans on paper, get some of this shit out of my head."
"Do you want to go into town? Or should I send one of the guys?" Antony asks, such things one of the few they didn't bring with them.
"I'm not ready to go out yet," Stephen turns around his mug freshly filled. "And I've a bastard headache coming on, I need to go and lie down." He pauses before continuing. "You should call Louis and tell him it's all okay."
Antony smiles. "I will, and I'll send Christos into town," he says, moving in close and giving Stephen a kiss. "I love you."
Stephen closes his eyes for a moment. "I know," is all the reply he can give right now. He's too unsettled from the revelations of the last half an hour, of seeing Antony naked and his own reaction to that. "I'm going back to bed, we can go for a walk later."
Antony nods. "Get some rest," he murmurs, giving Stephen another kiss.