Highlight below for (spoilery) trigger warnings:
homophobia (especially religiously based), transphobia (as part of a character's background story, not actively perpetrated within the plot), colonization, brief mentions of marital rape, psychological abuse and coercion, something like but not exactly suicidal ideation, intimate partner abuse (as relayed by one character to another character but it doesn't actually happen within the confines of the story), and COVID (in a pretty direct, harrowing way... not just the constant hovering presence mode).  Also, I've jokingly... but only sort of... subtitled this "YOU WILL LOVE THIS GAY DEMON OR I WILL HIT YOU (not really)!!!!" so buckle in!

The Lost Sheep

A Very Special Hostage Situation        Meet Cute        The First Morning        The Truth Comes Out

The Bathtub Incident        This Is Happening       
The Truth Comes Out, Part II        The Possession

Maren        Echoes of the Past        Home        Like Real People Do

The Plot        The Trial of Ed and Steve        Free        The Book of Ed

The Fleetwood        Epilogue        Author's Notes and Playlist


A Very Special Hostage Situation

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

A little before 9:00 AM, JenniAnn slipped through the gazebo portal and into St. Genesius' blue room.  She hadn't initially planned to arrive until around 1:00 but that was before she'd realized her cell phone was no where to be found.

"Not like my mind was taken up by idiots waving signs or anything," she muttered as she made her way to the office.  She searched the area where she put on Joshua's make-up but found nothing.  Maybe the lobby...  She had spent time in the lobby after the show.
 
JenniAnn exited the office and made her way backstage then halted.  She thought she'd heard something.  After a few seconds of silence, she shrugged it off and stepped on stage.  She looked out onto the empty seats and smiled, imagining what Joshua must feel when he stood there, seeing the faces of his children.  She let out a contented sigh, determined to think more on that and less on the idiots waving signs. 

JenniAnn was halfway down the aisle when the doors leading into the lobby slammed closed.  She shrieked and hurried towards them, trying to rend them open but they wouldn't budge. 

"We're not here to hurt you," an accented voice called from behind her.  "Not if you do as we say."

"No!  That still sounds too ominous, Ed!"

Ed?  JenniAnn wondered if this Ed and Joshua's Edgar happened to be the same...  Surely so.  Remembering Joshua's words, she calmed down.

"Sorry," Ed grumbled, interrupting JenniAnn's thoughts.  "We just, umm, need you to get your boyfriend here."

"Boyfriend?"

"Andrew."

JenniAnn laughed.

"I think he moved past boyfriend a long time ago.  We have five kids."

Ed's eyes went wide.

"Adopted," JenniAnn clarified. 

"Oh."

"One small problem...  I don't have my phone and..."  JenniAnn waved towards the lobby doors and then the curtains which were blocking access to stages left and right.  They looked as solid as stone.  She pushed down some panic as she realized how trapped she was.  "Can't get to the office phone."

Ed reached into his pocket and handed JenniAnn her phone.

"You stole my phone?!"

Ed shrugged.

JenniAnn stared at him.  She knew she should probably feel at least some worry.  After all, she was being held hostage by at least one demon... how else to explain the doors and curtains?... and a blonde of indeterminate species... but she was banking on human.  He had the look of someone who had been ill.  Recovered... but the illness had taken a toll.  And that didn't seem very angelic.  Or demonic.

And the demon was wearing makeup...  He looked like someone who had been preparing for a KISS concert but gotten interrupted.  She had a suspicion the black eye makeup was there for her benefit... to scare her into compliance.  But what sort of demon needed an assist like that?  One who clearly thought he wasn't very scary on his own.

And then there was the outfit... black leather pants, a purple T-shirt that was a size or two too small and yet perfect.  Tattooed stars covered his arms.  And his hair...  It went half-way down his back in gorgeous salt and pepper curls that matched his long, full beard.  And his eyes...  Disney prince eyes.  JenniAnn shook her head.  She really didn't want to end up in the Guinness Book of World Records for the quickest development of Stockholm Syndrome.  But he looked an awful lot like...

"You remind me of Blackbeard."

JenniAnn hadn't meant to say it aloud but no sooner were the words out of her mouth than the blonde whirled around to face her.

"He is NOT a rapist, woman!" he screamed.

JenniAnn blinked.  He'd looked so mild-mannered that it surprised her he could be that loud.

Ed shook his head as tears began to creep down his cheeks.

"Why should she be-believe you, Steve?  I kidnapped her!  Look at... at me...  I'm... I'm a monster!"

Ed collapsed at the edge of the stage, his legs dangling listlessly.

Steve settled beside him and wrapped his arms around him.

"I... I didn't mean the historical Blackbeard.  Has... has no one told you about Our Flag Means Death?  It's a TV show.  Very fictionalized.  With a very fictionalized, much nicer, non-rapist Blackbeard.  Who is... is gay," JenniAnn explained.

Ed and Steve looked up and blinked at her. 

"Or maybe bi.  Or pan.  I'm not really sure.  But he's way into this other pirate named..."

"Oh..."  Recognition lit up Steve's face.  "We've not watched, no.  But our housemates have.  They tried to get us to watch but...  We've been too busy.  Planning for this trip."

"All right...  Well...  I meant it a compliment, really.  He's a very likable character.  At least... well, I've not finished the show.  But from what I've seen," JenniAnn explained.

Ed continued to cry.

JenniAnn cocked her head and studied him.  Whatever the purpose of his dark eye make-up really was, he looked quite pathetic with it streaking down his cheeks.

"So, umm, is the make-up a cultural thing or..."

"No," Ed answered miserably.  "Thought it looked scary."

"Ah.  Well, then maybe...  I mean one bit of good news is the person you're holding hostage is a mom so..."  JenniAnn reached into her purse and pulled out some wet wipes.  "Could I..."

Ed nodded.  The entire fiasco was embarrassing enough.  He could at least do without her angelic paramour seeing him looking like a depressed clown.

JenniAnn began to wipe at the streaking make-up.  And then she became aware that someone was staring at her. 

Steve, who had resumed looking panicked and guilty following his outburst, was shooting daggers with his eyes.

"Would you like to take over here?" JenniAnn offered.

"I would, yes," Steve answered with some smugness.

"We'd do better with soap and water but, well, I can't get to the sink so... have at it."

JenniAnn handed the wet wipes to Steve.

"There now...  Don't cry..." Steve murmured.

JenniAnn couldn't hear Ed's response but saw him lean forward and rest his head against Steve's.  Her eyes went wide.

"Saints Serge and Bach... pray for us," she whispered.

"What's that?" Steve asked.

"Mmm... nothing.  I'm going to text Andrew.  You want him to come here?"

"Yes, please," Steve replied.

"All righty..."  JenniAnn unlocked her phone and typed out a message. 

Come to St. G's when you can.  Being held hostage by a very sad sack demon and his boyfriend???  Don't worry.  Bring chocolate, please.  Love you!  XOXO

Once the message was sent, JenniAnn returned her attention to the two.

"So...  He might be a bit.  This is usually when he's mucking our donkey's and horse's and goats' and sheep's stalls.  He might not see the text right away.  Maybe, umm, tell me how you two met?  To pass the time?" she suggested.

Steve lifted Ed's chin, checking to be sure he hadn't missed any of the make-up.  Ed managed a teary smile and nodded.

"All right.  Well, it was March 22nd, 2019..." Steve began.

*~*~*

Meet Cute


2019.  The Year Before the Plague.

The demon Edgar is sent to possess Stephen Thomas, head of a sober living house.

Things did not go as planned...

Or did they?


"And Lucky's taken his meds?" Steve asked as he did a final check of himself in the hallway mirror.

"Yes, captain.  Even swallowed them," Lucky called from the living room. 

"He did," Ollie confirmed.  "Saw him with my own eyes.  And Rocky took out the trash and Karl loaded the dishwasher and... we'll be fine."

"Go have some fun!" Jess encouraged.  "God knows you need it.  When's the last time you went out?"

"Oh, umm, been a while, I suppose."  Steve turned his head left and right.  "Does my hair look all right to you?  Looks a bit poufy..."

Lucky ambled out of the living room and studied Steve with a critical eye.  He arranged a few of Steve's curls then nodded with satisfaction.

"Your hair looks fine.  Now go.  Maybe you can find us a daddy."

Steve turned beat red.

"I... I'm just going to spend time with some old friends, Lucky.  Not find a... a daddy.  Is that... like a sex thing?" he whispered.

Jess muttered to themself and walked away.

Lucky burst out laughing.

"Oh Steve...  My precious, sweet, Steve...  No.  I mean maybe.  Eventually.  For you.  Sue me for wanting to live in a stable two-parent home for once in my life."

Lucky patted Steve's cheek then waltzed back into the living room and plopped down beside Rocky, his boyfriend.

Ollie squeezed Steve's shoulders.

"Don't listen to him.  Just go have fun, okay?  Dance wildly to ABBA or whatever it is you do."

"I do like ABBA..."

"There ya go!  Don't think about us.  Jess and I have everything under control."

"All right..."

Steve let out a shaky sigh.

Ollie steered him towards the door.

"Cell phone?"

"Yeah."

"Wallet?"

"Yeah."

"Great."  Ollie pushed Steve out the door then hurriedly pulled it closed. 

Steve gulped.

"Bye then..." he murmured.  When he reached the edge of the yard, he turned back to the house.  He was tempted to run back inside.  But everyone had been so excited for him.  He gave a resolute nod, turned away, and headed to a nearby nightclub.

*~*~*

Unbeknownst to Steve, he was not alone as he made his way to the club.  Two men trailed behind him.

"That's your assignment, Edgar.  His name is Stephen Thomas.  He goes by Steve.  He runs a home for a bunch of reprobate drunks and druggies."

Edgar looked down at the shorter man and grimaced.

"Take what time you need to get to know him.  Then... possess him." 

Edgar startled and shook his head, curls flying about.

"Iggy, I don't like the..."

Iggy halted and stared at Edgar.

"I'm sorry.  Possession a little too... demonic... for you, demon?" 

Edgar startled when Iggy grabbed the front of his T-shirt.

"I'm trying to get you out of that godforsaken cell."  Iggy laughed unpleasantly.  "Of course it's all godforsaken.  But you could be so much more, Edgar.  I remember the first time I saw you... so full of rage, so powerful... so promising.  Where did he go?  Where's Rawiri?"

Edgar pushed Iggy away then pinned him to a nearby telephone poll.

"Don't you ever call me that," he sneered.  "Ever."

Iggy grinned.

"There he is."

Edgar hastily released his supervisor and turned away.  He returned his attention to the man walking ahead of them, to Steve.  He watched as he paused to admire some fall foliage.  Then... was he talking to a bird?

Iggy rambled as they resumed walking.

"Try to befriend him.  Better yet, try to befriend them all.  Learn what you can about his ridiculous household.  That way it'll be easier to get to them when you take over their beloved Steve."

Edgar refused to look at Iggy. 

"Yeah.  Okay," he replied without having really heard what he said.

As they rounded a corner, they heard loud pop music.  Edgar smiled as the club came into view, a glitzy banner over the door reading "70s Night!!!"  He'd had a few short assignments in the 1970s and remembered enjoying the music.  And Crowley...  Crowley had gone on once about a band.  Queen, was it?  Had that been the 70s?  Edgar rubbed at his temples.  Everything was a blur.

"In you go," Iggy ordered.  "Might make sense to remain invisible for a while.  Observe your prey.  Learn what you can.  Then make your first move."

Prey...  The word echoed through Edgar's mind.  He had prey.  He was a predator.  He fought off memories of another time.  Of babies and storytelling around the fire and sailing and...

"Go on then.  He just went inside."

"Right."  Edgar nodded and entered the club.

*~*~*

Steve sipped his beer and peered around the club, admiring the men dancing.  He wished he had their confidence.

"So how's Maren?"

Steve's face lit up at the mention of his ex-wife/current best friend.  Like his companions, Maren had gone to college with him.  Unlike Patrick and Craig, Steve had not realized until later that he was gay and married her straight out of uni.

"Doing wonderfully!  Just got hired on to paint a mural on the side of the kids' school.  Dan still teaches there.  They're all hoping to come visit this summer."

"Didn't Maren have a brother... a very cute brother?" Craig asked.

"Yes," Steve replied.  "Very cute... and very straight.  He also has two kids with his wife.  Besides... I wouldn't go after my former brother-in-law even if he was available.  I'm not that desperate!"

"All right... so does Dan have any brothers?"

Steve glared at Patrick.

Craig slung an arm around Patrick's shoulders.

"We just get concerned about you is all, Steve.  You spend all your time and energy on that house and those guys and, don't get us wrong, that's very admirable.  We're proud of you.  Really.  But you deserve to be happy, too.  And you definitely deserve better than that awful Jas..."

Steve held up his hand.

"Let's not talk about him.  C'mon, guys!  I came here to have some fun with my old friends.  To relax.  Not..."

Craig clapped excitedly as the song changed.

"Ooh!  I love this one!  Hold that thought, Steve.  We gotta dance!" 

"You coming?" Patrick asked as Craig yanked him out of his chair.

Steve shook his head.

"Maybe the next one."

Craig sighed dramatically before stomping away with Patrick.

Left alone, Steve tapped the table in time to the music.

"'Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise...'" he sang. 

Steve looked over to where Craig and Patrick were dancing.  He wished they knew how easy they had it.  They'd been together since fourth year... twenty plus years before.  It had to have been easier to meet people when you were young and dumb. 

Then, just behind them and glued to the wall, Steve saw him...  He looked just as ill-at-ease as Steve felt.  He didn't understand why no one else was paying attention to him. 

He was... beautiful.

*~*~*

"'Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies...'"

Edgar startled.  Steve was staring at him.  How?!?

And Steve was standing up... and Steve was walking towards him... and Steve was smiling at him... and Steve was...

"Hullo, my name's Steve.  What's your name?"

"Ed..."  Edgar's throat closed up. 

"Good to meet you, Ed!  Fancy a dance?"

Edgar opened his mouth to correct Steve but decided not to.  He liked the way it sounded... Ed.  Simple and friendly.  He would be Ed now.  As if of its own volition, his hand took Steve's.

"Yeah... Yeah, okay."

Then they were on the dance floor and moving together with the music swirling around them.

"'And if you don't love me now...  You will never love me again.  I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain...  Never break the chain...'"

*~*~*

"The Chain" gave way to "Dancing Queen" which Steve danced to with great joy.  Ed tried to follow along but spent much of the song laughing.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd really laughed.  Next had come "YMCA."  It took Ed a bit to catch on but he realized soon enough that people were miming the letters with their arms and joined in. 

When the song ended, Steve fanned his face.

"That last one took a bit out of me, I'm afraid!  I need to pop back over to my table and grab my inhaler.  Then a drink, maybe?  My treat?"

"Sure.  Thank you."

Ed followed Steve back to his table and waited patiently as he used his inhaler.

"Sorry.  My asthma acts up a bit when I get too wound up," Steve apologized.

"No worries, mate."

"I'll go order.  What're you having?"

"Hmm?"

"To drink.  What's your favorite drink?"

"Oh... umm..."  Ed looked around, panicked.  He saw several people with drinks.  But he didn't know the names of any of them.  He knew the basics, of course.  Wine, whiskey, vodka, rum, etc.  But none of that seemed right. 

"You don't have to get anything alcoholic, of course.  I know not everyone..."

Remembering what it was Steve did for a living, Ed shook his head.

"Not an alcoholic or anything like that.  Just... not been to a bar in a long time's all."  Ed tried to recollect when the last time had been... maybe the 1400s?

Steve blinked in surprise.

"Ah okay.  Well... I'm fond of mai tais.  How about we give that a go?"

Ed nodded.

"Then I'll be back in a jiffy... unless you wanted to tag along?"

Ed nodded again.  In truth, he was feeling overwhelmed.  So many people after so much solitude...

"Great!"  Steve beamed then led the way over to the bartender.  "Do you live far from here?" he asked as they waited in line.

"I... yeah.  It's a ways but... close," Ed replied.  "You?"

"Just a few blocks away.  Walked here.  I love this little neighborhood.  I inherited the house I live in from my gran.  So this area has been a big part of my life ever since I was a little boy.  I feel... safe here."

Ed's gut twisted. 

"Ah, here we are!"  Steve stepped up to the counter.  "Two mai tais, please!"

Ed watched with interest as the bartender mixed their drinks.  The result looked quite pretty.

"Here you go, Ed!  Oh..."

Ed accepted his drink then followed Steve's gaze.

Craig and Patrick were back at the table and looking at them with great interest.

"Would you like to meet my friends?" Steve asked.  "I've known them since college but it's okay if..."

"Sure," Ed replied before sneaking a sip of his drink... then quickly going for another.  He almost cried over the sweetness. 

"Well, hello..." Craig greeted as the two reached the table.  "Steve, you been holding out on us?"

Steve blushed.

"No.  Ed and I just met.  He was kind enough to dance with me.  Ed, this is Craig and his husband, Patrick."

Ed waved with his right hand, still clinging to his drink with his left. 

"Hi.  Nice to meet you.  You went to college together?"

"Bible college, even," Patrick replied with a laugh.  "If you can believe it...  Steve here was going to be a pastor."

Steve's blush deepened.

"Well, I...  It was a thought.  Once.  Went a different way," he hastened to explain.

"As did we all," Craig added.  He squeezed Steve's shoulder.  "This one's a saint, though.  You caught him on the very rare night he actually steps away from work, Ed."

"Where, umm, do you work?" Ed asked.

"Oh...  Well, I run a sober living house.  My gran's house that I mentioned before."

"Right.  Nice." 

"How about you, Ed?  Where do you work?" Craig asked.

"Oh, umm...  In between jobs at the moment."

"What do you do for fun?" Patrick followed up with.

Ed couldn't remember the last time he'd done something for fun.  The dancing had been fun.  But he didn't think he could say that.

"Sailing," he settled on. 

Steve's face lit up.

"Sailing!  How wonderful!  You know, it's long been a dream of mine to own a little boat one day.  Sail away whenever I want...  I'd take the boys, of course.  Might be good for them.  Learn some new skills, get that fresh sea air..."

Ed smiled.

"Nothing like it..."

"No.  There's not, is there?"  Steve reached over and patted Ed's arm.

Their eyes met for a moment before Ed pulled his gaze away and took a long sip of his drink.

Something was going on in his belly... and he didn't think it was the alcohol.

*~*~*

When the quartet parted for the night, Ed offered to walk Steve home.  Delighted, Steve had agreed and provided a running commentary as they moved through the neighborhood.

"And this is my favorite spot to grab a cup of tea!  They're also so kind as to let us sell our soaps there."

"Soaps?" Ed questioned.

"Yeah!  The guys and me make soap!  One of our little side projects to fund the house.  We like to keep busy.  An idle mind... well, that can be dangerous when you're talking about addiction.  And here we are!  Home!"

Ed studied the three story house which was surrounded by a sizable yard brimming with well kept plants. 

"Nice," he complimented. 

"So how much farther are you headed?  I could walk with you if you'd like," Steve offered.

Ed shook his head.

"No... No.  It's fine.  I just... few blocks... Not much."

Steve frowned.  The other man wouldn't meet his gaze and was shuffling his feet.  He recognized a lie when he saw it.  He reached out and gently set a hand on Ed's arm.

"Do you... have a home, Ed?"

Ed's eyes flashed.  He rebelled against the empathy in Steve's eyes... empathy he knew he didn't deserve.

"Course I have a home!"

"Hey, hey... okay.  No offense meant," Steve assured.  He'd spent enough time working with men down on their luck to know not to take Ed's anger personally.

Ed grunted quietly, regretting his outburst.

"Do you... feel safe there?  At your home?"

Something cracked in Ed's chest when he heard the tender kindness in Steve's voice.  No one had spoken to him like that in a very long time.  He looked up, meeting that caring gaze, and shook his head.

"N-no...  Not really."

"All right then.  You're staying with us!" Steve declared.  "We've got a spare room already made up!  You'd have your own bathroom even!"

Ed blinked.  Was this guy for real?  Who took in a man they'd only just met?  Well...  He wasn't so naive as to think that didn't happen.  But he didn't get the impression Steve was being anything but generous.  He had no ulterior motives. 

Before he could answer, a nearby church's bell began to toll 10:00.

Ed didn't understand why it made his eyes well.

Steve patted his arm.

"Do you need to skip town?  I have some cash if..."

Ed shook his head.

"No...  No.  I can stay.  I... I'd like to stay."

Steve grinned.

"Wonderful!  Let's head on in then, get you settled."

Ed followed Steve into the house.  They passed a room full of people, intent on a very busy looking movie featuring a tall blonde man and another man wearing a horned helmet.

"We'll do proper introductions at breakfast," Steve whispered as he waved Ed down the hall.

They came to a decent-sized room that was nicely furnished if dated. 

"Here you are!  Sorry it's a bit... old ladyish.  This was my gran's room and I haven't had the heart to change it up much."

Steve made his way to the bathroom and pulled a box out of the closet. 

"Toiletries kit.  Should be..."  He returned to the bedroom and opened a drawer.  "Oh good!  We keep a few clothing items in all of the rooms.  Never quite know how people will arrive and what they'll be needing.  All of it either new or laundered.  Feel free to wear whatever you'd like.  These are comfy.  I have a similar pair myself."  Steve held up some flannel pajamas. 

Ed only gaped.  This man was either very dumb... or a living saint.  Craig's words echoed in his mind.  Trust Iggy to give him a saint...

"We have breakfast at 9:00 although we always have some grab and go items if you're running early or late.  But I do hope you'll join us so you can meet everyone!"

"I'll be there at 9:00," Ed promised.

"Wonderful!"  Steve motioned towards the door.  "If you need anything, I'm just at the end of the hall on the right.  Don't hesitate to let me know.  There's a sign reading 'Captain' on the door... a bit of a joke."

"Thank you.  I... appreciate this." Ed choked out.  He suddenly felt very discombobulated and hoped Steve didn't notice.

"It's no problem at all!  I'll let you be now.  G'night, Ed!"

"Night, night, Steve."

Once his host was gone, Ed began to study the room.  He didn't see what was wrong with it.  Looked nice to him.  He picked a throw pillow up off a settee and ran his fingers along the silky, braided cord that edged it.  Then his gaze fell on a crocheted blanket.  He let out a little gasp when he felt the softness of the yarn.  All of it was so different from stone and metal.

It hit Ed all at once that he was exhausted.  He grabbed the pajamas Steve had laid out and stepped into the bathroom.  A heavenly scent filled his nostrils.  He followed the trail to the little kit Steve had pulled from the closet.

"Lavender..." he murmured, grabbing the bar and bringing it to his nose. 

Ed changed and washed up quickly then returned to the bedroom.  He was just turning down the covers when he paused and looked back to the bathroom.  Looking around nervously, as if he expected to find someone spying, he hastened back into the room and grabbed the soap.  He set it on the pillow next to the one he intended to use.  Now he could smell the soothing lavender aroma all night.

Ed sighed when he got into the bed.  He wasn't sure what material the sheets were made of but it was wonderful.

Everything was wonderful.

*~*~*

The First Morning

Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

When Ed awoke, the clock next to him told him it was 7:32.  Remembering what Steve had said, Ed wondered what he could do to keep himself occupied until 9:00.  Firstly, he supposed he could get ready for the day.  He made his way to the chest of drawers and surveyed its contents... then he looked back over to a chair where he'd laid out his purple T-shirt and leather pants.  The items in the drawers were decidedly less cool... but also very soft.  He selected some khaki pants and a sweater. 

Once he was changed, Ed splashed some water on his face and stepped into the hallway.  It suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea what the layout of the house was.  But it seemed obvious enough which rooms were bedrooms and which were common areas.  He found the room where the people had been watching TV.  He walked through it and came into a kitchen.  At the back, there was a door leading out onto a patio.  Ed stepped out into the sunlight.

Ed couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the sunrise.  The colors of the sky were... heavenly.  And too much.  He closed his eyes but tilted his face upwards, feeling the sun against his skin.  An errant tear trickled down his cheek.

"Well, hello there then."

Ed's eyes shot open.  He turned to find a wiry man with long, thinning blonde hair staring at him.  To Ed's amazement, a kererū was perched on his shoulder.

"Tawera said we weren't alone." 

"Tawera?" Ed asked.

The man indicated the bird who was eying Ed.

"Name's Karl."

Ed shook the man's hand.

"Ed.  I, umm...  Steve..."

Karl peered into Ed's eyes. 

Ed began to feel uncomfortable.

"Tawera says yer a good sort... but if ye hurt him..."  Karl moved closer and his voice became guttural.  "We'll dismember ye and bury ye under the rosebushes."

Ed let out a very undignified squeak of surprise.  That had gotten very dark, very quickly.  That Karl couldn't dismember him (or could he?) didn't matter... just that the thought had crossed his mind!

Karl stepped back and grabbed a bucket.  He waved to a second one.

"Help me fill the feeders?"

"Yeah... yeah, okay," Ed agreed.

And for several minutes, Ed obediently filled bird feeders.

*~*~*

Steve stepped out of his bedroom, whistling happily.  He made his way to the kitchen and, just as he was filling the coffeemaker, noticed movement in the yard.  He chuckled when he saw Karl advising Ed as he filled bird feeders.  Steve hoped Karl hadn't said anything too off-the-wall to their guest.  He was a kind, well-meaning soul... but sometimes he didn't have the best sense of what should be said aloud and what should be kept to himself.

Karl noticed Steve and waved.  Ed followed suit.

Beaming, Steve stepped outside.

"Good morning!  Karl, how are the birds?"

"Doin' well, cap'ain.  Tawera says we need more houses for the wee ones."

"Right...  Well, we'll get right on that.  Ed, how did you sleep?"

"Well.  Thank you.  Very comfortable."

"Do you drink coffee?"

Ed nodded.

"Great.  I've started some.  Should be ready soon.  And then Ant should be around shortly to start breakfast.  Do you have any dietary restrictions, Ed?"

"No.  Don't think so, anyway."

"Oh good.  Karl, can I steal your helper?" Steve requested.  "I'd like to speak with Ed."

"Course."  Karl eyed Ed up and down.  "Just remember what I said," he grumbled.

Ed nodded then hurried away, towards Steve.

Once they were in the kitchen, Steve smiled and handed Ed a mug.

"I hope he didn't say anything to upset you.  Karl can be... a bit much, to be honest.  He takes a while to warm to people.  Understandably."

"He threatened to dismember me and bury me under the rosebushes if I hurt you," Ed admitted with a grin.

"Good Lord!"

Ed laughed.

"No worries.  He seems like a protective sort, yeah?"

"He is.  He's actually...  He doesn't have to be here.  He finished the program years ago.  We had a farewell party, got him settled in his own apartment, and he just... wilted.  So I brought him back as a sort of groundskeeper/bird tender."

"No wonder he's so loyal."

"Yes... though I don't love him threatening my guest with murder.  How very Game of Thrones."

Though he didn't understand the reference, Ed chuckled and shook his head.

"Don't worry about it.  And please don't say anything to him.  But if I disappear... check under the rosebushes, I guess."

Steve laughed.

"Well, thank you for being a good sport about it.  I'm sorry... I shoulda offered you tea, as well.  Would you prefer that?  I usually start with coffee and move onto tea for the rest of the day but..."

"No, no.  Coffee's good.  Thank you."

"You're very welcome."  The machine beeped and Steve poured some coffee into Ed's mug.  He filled his own mug then waved to a tray.  "Cream and sugar?"

"Oh, yeah.  Sure."

Steve watched with amusement as Ed poured a generous amount of each into his mug.  He made a mental note that Ed, seemingly, had a sweet tooth.

"Would you like a tour?" Steve offered.  "We can do a proper one later once everyone's up and about but I could show you the common areas now?"

"Sure.  I'd like that."

"Right this way then."  Steve stepped into the TV room.  "We spend a lot of evenings in here.  Big fans of movies."  He waved to a shelf brimming with DVDs and BluRays. 

Ed blinked.

"Those are movies?"

"Of course."

"I thought they looked like... those blocky things...  Black with the white bits."

"You mean VHSes?"

"Spose so."

"No...  Those...  Wow.  Those went out of favor about twenty years ago."

"Oh..."  Ed stared into his mug.  He'd known it had been a while since he'd been allowed out of his cell in Hell.  He hadn't realized it had been twenty years.

Steve rested a hand on his shoulder.

"It's okay.  You can ask me anything.  No question is stupid, only the one left unasked.  I do wonder... and pardon me for asking but... did you escape some sort of regressive cult or something?"  Steve had noticed Ed staring at the most random things the previous night: his cell phone, the DJ's setup, the credit card reader... even the coffee maker that morning.

Ed cocked his head and considered the question.  He supposed he had.  A charismatic leader/liar breaks away from the establishment and creates his own society, promising everything but giving nothing?  Sounded like Hell.

"Yeah, spose so."

Steve clucked his tongue.

"I'm so sorry.  I know it's not the same but I grew up in an evangelical Christian community and, well, you can imagine how well that went when I got older and realized, well...  They're not very fond of 'the gays.'  So... I left.  But it wasn't easy.  I left behind people I truly cared about.  I imagine you feel the same."

Ed slowly shook his head.  The only people in Hell he'd felt any fondness for were Yehuda and Crowley... and it had been years since he'd seen either.

"Only people I cared about stopped coming around."

"I'm sorry.  Well... you're here now!  And you can stay as long as you'd like."

"Thank you," Ed murmured, guilt gnawing at him.  Steve was so kind...  If only he knew why he was really there.

"You're most welcome.  Oh!  I'll show you the craft room in a bit.  We have all sorts of projects to help keep the house afloat.  Like making these frames."

Ed accepted a mosaic frame from Steve.

"That was my gran and her longtime friend."

"They look very kind.  And the frame is beautiful."

"Thank you!  Lars made it.  You'll meet him later."

Ed noticed another framed photograph.  To his surprise, it held an image of Steve kissing the cheek of a beaming woman holding a bouquet and wearing a short, white dress and floral crown.

"You're... married?"

Steve laughed and shook his head then picked up the photo.

"No, no.  Not any more.  That's Maren, my ex-wife.  This is actually our divorce photo."

Ed laughed.

"Wait... what?"

"Long story short, it was very nearly an arranged marriage.  Our parents were friends, very involved in the church.  And very, very eager to marry the presumed next pastor... that's me... off to the deacon's daughter... that's Maren.  And we did love each other very much.  Still do.  As friends.  Neither of us were very strong-willed at the time.  So we went along with it.  Poor Maren ended up in this huge, fluffy monster dress.  She hated it but her mother insisted.  So... we decided that when we signed the divorce papers, we'd do what we liked.  So she got her dream dress and we celebrated at a gay bar with friends."  Steve picked up another photo.

Ed studied it, smiling.  In this image, Maren was wearing a peasant dress and a different floral crown.  Her arms were around a man donning a a beige tunic and khakis.  Steve stood beside them, grinning in a retro blue suit.

"That's Dan.  Maren did a whole finding herself thing after the divorce.  She took up art classes.  Met Dan there and, well..."  Steve proudly showed off an image of himself with two adorable children.  "Their kids.  My godchildren."

"Look at them..."  Ed smiled.  "So what did your parents make of all this?"

Steve's face clouded.

"Oh...  Well...  Maren's parents came around.  Grandchildren are a great incentive to reconcile.  My parents...  Disowned me, basically.  I send them a Christmas card every year so they know I'm still alive."

Ed's eyes welled when he saw the grief that Steve was fighting to hide.  He could relate to parental alienation.

"Sorry, mate.  It's rough... being estranged from your family.  It can make you feel... past-less?"

"Yes," Steve agreed.  "Yes, that's it exactly."

Steve took Ed's hands and squeezed them affectionately.

Ed met Steve's watery gaze and felt his breath catch in his throat.

Steve let out a ragged sigh.

"Well, thankfully, we can make our own families, yeah?"

"Yeah..."

Steve looked past Ed's shoulder and smiled.

"Ah and there he is!  Ant, come meet Ed.  Ed... this is Ant, our esteemed chef."

Ed turned around to find a thin man with golden brown skin, a closely cropped beard, and a halo of dark curls.  He smiled kindly but, as with Karl, Ed could sense wariness.

"Good to meet you, Ed.  What are you in for?"

Steve chuckled and shook his head.

"No, Ed's not part of the program.  He's here as my guest."

"I see..."  Ant's gaze sharpened.

"Don't grill him, Ant.  Karl's already said his peace.  It's a wonder Ed hasn't escaped out a window to get away from us."

Ant relaxed and chuckled.  He held his hand out to Ed.

"Welcome, Ed."

"Thank you!"  Ed warmly shook the man's hand. 

"Ant, what are your plans for breakfast?"

"Mmm...  Sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits?  Hashbrowns?"

"Sounds delightful but could we, ah, have something sweet along with it maybe?"

"Waffles?"

Steve turned to Ed.

"Do you like waffles?"

"I'll eat anything.  No need to add anything."

"But..."

"I'm happy to make waffles," Ant interrupted.  "I like waffles." 

"Well, then that's settled!"  Steve beamed.  "Ant, I'm just going to show Ed our craft room then I'll be back to help you."

"Sounds good, cap."

Steve led Ed away.

"Why do they call you captain?" Ed inquired.

"Oh... it's just a bit of a joke that caught on.  The sailing thing.  They say it's practice for when it becomes a reality.  I hate to tell them we'll probably all be old men by the time I can afford even a small boat."

"Did your family have a boat when you were growing up?"

"Oh, yes.  A yacht.  I loved it.  Of course, looking back, I do wonder what a pastor was doing with a yacht but well..."  Steve sighed.  "Anyway..."  He opened a door and flicked on a light.  "The craft room!"

Ed followed Steve into the room and marveled.  There was an abundance of paints, assorted ceramics, multi-colored tiles, woodworking materials, and the room itself smelled heavenly. 

"The soap is our most lucrative endeavor.  But we're always trying something new.  Keeps the guys occupied and engaged.  Do you do any crafts, Ed?"

Ed ran his fingers over a bin of colored pencils.

"Used to draw.  Haven't for a long time."

"Well, now you know where to come if you want to get back into it.  Nice to have an outlet.  And you can always take some supplies back to your room.  When you meet everyone, you'll see that they can be a bit... chatty."

Ed smiled.

"I like chatty.  Been around silence too much.  But I'll keep that in mind.  Thank you."

"Of course.  I should get back to Ant but if..."

"I can help," Ed interrupted.  "I'd like to help.  Earn my keep."

"Ed...  You don't have to..."

"I want to."  The sick, guilty feeling was causing Ed's stomach to churn.  He hoped making himself useful might do at least a little something to calm it.

"Well...  Sure.  Ant gets irritated if there are too many people in 'his' kitchen but you could set the table?  It's a lovely morning.  We could eat on the patio."

"Yeah.  Yeah, I could do that," Ed eagerly agreed.

Steve smiled.

"Then it's settled."

Ed returned his smile then followed him out of the room.

*~*~*

Ed was counting place settings... Steve had said there should be eleven... when he heard someone clear their throat.

Turning around, Ed found himself face-to-face with a large, bearded Black man and a slighter, shorter person with black hair hanging down to their shoulders.

"Who are you?" the man asked.

"I'm Ed."

The other person whispered to the man in what Ed thought was Spanish.  He wished he remembered Spanish but it was gone.

"Steve invited me," Ed explained.  "We met at... at the club."

"You just met last night and you're here?"

Ed nodded.

The man sighed deeply and stared up at the sky.

"Jesus, Steve...  Not this again."

"Ollie!  Jess!  There you are!"

Ed turned around to find a smiling Steve.  He didn't think he'd ever felt so relieved to see someone. 

"I see you've met Ed.  Ed, this is Oliver... Ollie, my right hand man, and Jess, his spouse and our house manager.  They manage our finances, make sure we have everything we need.  The brains behind the operation."

"Someone needs to be," Jess muttered. 

"A word, please, Steve," Ollie requested. 

"Umm... okay." 

Ed moved into the yard to give them space.

"You just met him?!" Ollie demanded.

Steve nodded.

"Steve, I know it's been a long time but... don't you think you're moving a little fast?" Jess questioned.

"I didn't sleep with him or anything!" Steve protested.  "We just... danced some and hit it off and he's going through a tough spot so I told him he could stay here in my gran's room."

"Steve..."  Ollie squeezed his hand.  "Your business is your business... except when it becomes our business.  I just don't want a repeat of... last time. "

"We were afraid we were gonna lose you, man," Jess murmured.

"I know... I know."  Steve squeezed their hands.  "But Ed isn't Jason.  And this isn't that.  I'm not even thinking like that.  I mean, well..."  He glanced over to where Ed was studying a plant.  "He's obviously very nice to look at.  But we're not together.  I meant what I said.  I brought him here because he's in a tough spot.  Poor fellow ran away from a cult.  And, well, I know something of what that's like.  My heart went out to him.  If he causes problems for anyone here, myself included, then, of course, we'll part ways with him.  But until then...  I dunno.  I just... I feel like he belongs here."

Ollie and Jess looked to each other.  The latter shrugged.

"I mean you never did let Jason stay here...  So the fact that you felt comfortable bringing Ed here... I think that says something."

Ollie sighed again.

"Yeah.  It does.  But that's also why this makes me uneasy.  You knew enough to keep Jason away from us.  But... but you didn't protect yourself, Steve.  You let him get into your head and... and that concerns me."

"I was in a bad spot back then, Ollie.  I'm better now," Steve insisted.  "And if you really are worried about Ed... doesn't it make you feel better that he's here?  You'll be able to see how he treats me.  How he treats everyone here."

Ollie nodded.

"Yeah... that's true.  But if I see any red flags..."

"Then we'll talk it over.  I promise.  I won't hide anything."

Jess patted Ollie's back.

"Right.  Okay."

Steve pulled the couple into a hug.

"Don't worry!  I have a good feeling about all of this!" he enthused.  "Now... can I call Ed back over here?"

"Yeah, sure," Ollie relented.

"He does have nice hair..." Jess admitted.

Steve chuckled then waved Ed over.

Ed returned with a shaky smile.

"As I was saying..." Steve resumed.  "Ollie.  Jess.  Ed.  Ollie and Jess have been with me for what... going on seven years?"

"Yeah, seven years in May," Ollie confirmed.  He held his hand out to the newcomer.  "Ed.  Good to meet you."

Ed took the man's hand and shook it.  As he met his gaze, Ed knew that despite the outright threat from Karl and Ant's wariness... it was Ollie and Jess who were the greatest threats to his mission.

Well... them and the fact that he was very uninterested in accomplishing it.

*~*~*

At breakfast, Ed was introduced to the rest of the household.  There was Lucky, the youngest member, a brunette with a baby face and flirtatious manner.  Ed caught the boy looking at him frequently and couldn't shake the feeling he was taking mental notes.  Beside Lucky was his boyfriend.  Rocky was a few years older and a balding, solidly built fellow who laughed at every quip Lucky made whether or not the others did.  Demi-John was a hulking man with silver blonde hair who all at once seemed capable of breaking a man in two yet handled a teacup as if he was having tea with the Queen.  His roommate was named Baptiste.  He was a tall, thin man with an abundance of curls and a ready smile.  Ed noticed he'd brought a guitar to the breakfast table.  It rested against his chair and he sometimes brushed his hands over the strings as if he just needed to remind himself it was there.  Whether Baptiste and Demi-John were more than roommates, Ed wasn't entirely sure.  Finally, there was Lars, a sweet-tempered man with long blonde hair who spoke with a soft voice that he seemed not to use very often. 

The way Steve introduced them all touched Ed.  His pride and love was evident.  And he never lost patience with them... not even when Karl wandered away from the table to begin conversing with a bird or Lucky and Demi-John started bickering over whose turn it was to clear the able.

"I can do it," Ed offered, hoping to bring the argument to an end. 

"Ed, no," Steve declined.  "You set the table.  Lucky AND Demi-John can clear it.  It'll only take half the time, boys.  Besides, we didn't finish our tour, Ed.  You still need to see the gym and the library and the meditation room."

Ed chuckled.

"Right.  Sorry, boys." 

Lucky shrugged.

"No worries.  You can make it up to us... with a game of twenty questions."

Ed began to grow nervous.

"Umm..."

"Lucky, be nice," Steve chastised.  "You're not subjecting our guest to twenty questions."

"Five," Ollie countered.

"I could handle five," Ed agreed, wanting to be a good sport.

"When did you realize you were gay?" Lucky blurted.

Ed blinked.

"He never said he was gay," Demi-John pointed out.

"I mean, hello, he was at a gay bar."

"Could be bi.  Or pan.  Or ace.  Could be anything," Lars offered.  He smiled gently at Ed.  "It's okay whatever you are."

"Okay, maybe we need some ground rules," Steve suggested, casting an apologetic look towards Ed.  "Let's not get too personal."

"I've just always been how I am," Ed replied. 

"What's your favorite color?" Baptiste asked.

"Red, I think.  Also like purple."

"What's your favorite food?" Ant questioned. 

"Don't wanna say..." Ed replied with a teasing smile.

Steve laughed.

"This is the question you balk at?"

"I mean... I only had it once but... I loved it."

"Oh god...  It's something awful like Marmite, isn't it?" Lucky guessed. 

"Worse."  Ed drew in and let out a deep breath.  "Fairy toast."

The table erupted in good-natured laughter.

Ant patted Ed's arm.

"Well then... tomorrow morning we'll have fairy toast for breakfast.  In honor of our new friend."

"Really?" Ed asked, trying not to sound too excited.

"Of course!" Ant affirmed.  "It is awful... but fun."

"How old are you?"

"Forty five," Ed answered Rocky, feeling a twinge of guilt for lying.  But he couldn't very well say he was just over a thousand years old.

"I get the last question.  So... what's your happiest memory?" Steve asked.

Ed's eyes misted.  He hadn't allowed himself to think much about his past... not for a long time.  But surrounded by this group of merry, friendly people, he found it easier to remember.

"Let's see...  Well...  Umm...  It was many years ago and I was working in a little village.  I have another name.  A Māori name.  Rawiri.  Anyway, that's what they knew me as.  One day, a woman gave birth to her baby and she and her husband named him after me.  When they handed me my little namesake... I think that was my happiest memory."

"Ed..." Steve murmured tenderly.

Ed swiped at a tear and smiled.

"So now you know... I'm a fortysomething sap who likes fairy toast and red and purple."

"Well... I for one am pleased to know you, Ed," Steve replied, reaching over to squeeze Ed's hand.

Ed noticed Lucky flutter his eye lids in a teasing manner but he didn't care and set his other hand over Steve's.

*~*~*

The Truth Comes Out

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

In the week that followed, Ed's life settled into an easy routine.  He woke up at around 7:30 every morning and helped Karl fill the bird feeders before settling down with a cup of coffee and Steve's company.  After breakfast, everyone piled into the craft room to work on their various projects.  While Ed hadn't yet gotten the hang of making soap, he loved being nearby when the men worked on it.  He'd sit at a desk and draw designs and assorted scenes onto note cards, sucking in the alluring, calming scents.  At 10:30, they would all take a break and Ed would join Steve for tea.  He was touched that ever since the first morning when Steve had watched him prepare his tea (with a bit of milk and six... no seven... seven was better... sugars); Steve had started bringing the tea to him like that.  Then the group shared lunch together.  In the afternoons, sometimes they went on excursions or partook in a group activity.  Ollie might lead a meditation session or Jess would teach self-defense.  There would be nature walks, weather permitting.  Ed loved watching Steve light up whenever he saw an interesting bit of flora or fauna.  Then there was afternoon tea at around 3:00 followed by chores.  It had taken three days but Ed had convinced Steve that he should be assigned something just like everyone else.  If Ed was completely honest, he felt like Steve might have expected a bit more of the men.  They each had a chore, yes, but Steve appeared to have five or six.  It was the laundry that Ed eventually wrested away.  He liked the soft floral scent of the detergent and it calmed him to sort the laundry into neat, little piles.  Then he'd pick up his basket and wind his way through the house, returning everyone's clean clothes to them.  It gave him a chance to get to know them all better.

Ed learned that Lucky had grown up in foster care, bouncing from house to house.  Rocky's story was not unlike his boyfriend's.  He, however, had run away at thirteen and spent some time living on the streets.  Both had turned to alcohol to dull the fear and pain. 

Demi-John had grown up in a stable, loving home.  But then his mother had died of breast cancer, sending his father spiraling.  There'd eventually been a step-mother but she hadn't taken to a teenaged Demi-John.  And so, like Rocky, he'd run away and spent some time homeless.  Alcohol use had given way to drug use until he'd been arrested for attempting to steal a book of all things. 

"What book?" Ed had asked.

Demi-John had proudly shown off a gilded copy of Little Women.

"It was my mum's favorite.  Even named me after one of Meg's kids.  I'm definitely more of an Amy, though."

"So you actually managed to steal it?"

"No.  Steve got it for me later."

And that had sent a little pang of something tearing through Ed's heart.

Baptiste, unsurprisingly, was the child of two musicians.  Unfortunately, his parents had both died of drug overdoses when he was only fifteen.  Like Lucky, he'd been hauled into foster care with only a paper bag of belongings and his prized guitar.  Desperate to belong, he'd been easily swayed into using by other kids in the home.

Ant had been born in Ethiopia and immigrated to New York with his parents when he was seven.  When he was twenty two, his mother caught him with a boy and promptly kicked him out of the house.  He'd spent some time bouncing around amongst friends' couches before, after a drunken evening spent binging the whole of the The Lord of the Rings series, he'd ended up trading in his savings for a ticket to Aotearoa.  One day, Steve had found him passed out on the lawn... and from then on he'd been a member of the household.

Lars was a bit of a mystery on account of his quiet nature.  All Ed had gathered from him was that he loved to sing and didn't like being alone for too long.  Lucky had volunteered that Lars had been the lone survivor of a car crash that had killed his parents and brother.  One day five years previously, Steve had found him busking outside of a grocery store, high as a kite and looking like he'd been beaten up.  Good Samaritan that he was, Steve had brought him back to the house and Lars had been there ever since.

No one seemed to know much about Karl's past beyond the fact that, at some point, he'd immigrated from Scotland.  He'd been there the longest of the men and, as Steve had informed Ed, was very unlikely to ever leave.

That left Jess and Ollie.  They were polite enough when Ed brought them their clean clothes.  But they never spoke to him beyond pleasantries.  Ed had a suspicion they still didn't trust him... and he couldn't fault them for that.  Based on a photograph in the living room, Ed knew they'd been married for three years.  Steve had performed the ceremony in the backyard.  Lucky was, once again, Ed's primary source of information on the two. 

He'd learned that Ollie had once been a Catholic priest, stationed in Puerto Rico.  That's where he'd met Jess.  The precise timing of their romance wasn't entirely clear to Lucky.  At some point, Jess had come out as non-binary and been ostracized from their family and their parish.  Eventually, they'd decided to leave and, no doubt to the great shock of the parish, had taken the priest with them.  From then on, the two had been a unit.  When Ollie had accepted Steve's job offer, it had been on the condition that Jess be hired, too. 

Ed was inclined to think this was a good thing.  Steve was many things but even in a week's time, Ed had gathered that managing money was not among his talents.  But Jess ensured that bills were paid and groceries were stocked.  They truly were the brains of the operation whereas Ollie was the hands, often shuttling the men back and forth from doctor's appointments and other errands.  Steve, of course, was the heart.  He was always available, always willing to listen.

In the evenings, after dinner, they usually watched a movie.  Usually it was a blockbuster.  A Marvel movie or Star Wars or the like.  That Thursday, Steve had prevailed upon the group to give something smaller and softer a try... and so ten men had blubbered through The Notebook.  Even stoic Jess had tears in their eyes by the end.

It was only the nights when Ed was unhappy.  When everything quieted and he was alone in his room, there was no distraction from why he was there.  During the nights, Ed thought of Iggy and of Hell, of the cell he'd spent so long in.

On Saturday at 2:23 AM, Ed couldn't handle another night of tossing and turning.  Making himself invisible, he snuck out of his room and into Steve's.  He told himself it was for research.  Maybe Steve talked in his sleep.  Maybe he'd learn something useful.

In reality, Ed simply felt calmer when Steve was nearby.  So he settled into a chair and watched the sleeping man.

He could have entered into his dreams... could have even swayed Steve's dreams.  But Ed hated the idea.  And so he sat and watched and waited.

Steve looked so peaceful as he slept.  And younger.  The day's worries and vexations didn't line his face.

Ed sat for three hours in silence save Steve's soft snoring.  He was just about to give up, convinced Steve didn't actually talk to his sleep, when he heard it.

One word.

"Ed..."

Ed's heart thumped in his chest.  Maybe he was just hearing things.

"Mmm... Ed..."

Ed's belly started doing the fluttering thing again. 

Then he lost control of his own mind.  He imagined himself slipping into Steve' bed... imagined Steve smiling wearily and wrapping his arms around him... imagined tucking his face into the crook of Steve's neck and falling asleep... peaceful and comfortable and... loved.

Ed bolted out of the room and back to his own. 

He threw himself into the window seat and rested first one cheek and then the other against the coolness of the glass. 

What.  Was.  Happening???

He had been an angel.  He had been around generations of beautiful and kind men and women, whakawahine and whakatane.  He'd loved them, cared for them, lived among them.

But he hadn't felt whatever... this... was.

Ed peered up at the stars and, for just a moment, thought of praying.  But no.  He couldn't do that.  They didn't want to hear from him.

"Try to befriend him," Iggy's voice sneered in his memory.  "Better yet, try to befriend them all.  Learn what you can about his ridiculous household.  That way it'll be easier to get to them when you take over their beloved Steve."

Ed whimpered and tears slid down his cheeks.

*~*~*

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

Steve began to fret over Ed.  While he was keeping on top of his tasks, he seemed spacey and jumpy.  Steve had tried to get him to open up but Ed only smiled and insisted he was fine.  So Steve decided that, perhaps, he needed distraction.  And maybe some mental stimulation, too.

So following afternoon tea, Steve brought Ed to his office.

"I know you missed out on a lot of things.  So I thought you might appreciate having a way to catch up, to learn about things you're curious about so I introduce... YouTube."

"You too?" Ed repeated. 

"No, no.  YouTube.  Tube.  Like a tube of toothpaste.  Here."  Steve sat down in front of his laptop and patted the seat next to him.

Ed sat down.

"It's a video site.  Now, I'll warn you that not everything on here is accurate," Steve stressed.  "Because anyone... absolutely anyone... can upload whatever they want.  I mean there are guidelines but they can be easy to flaunt.  So just keep that in mind.  But name something you'd like to learn about."

An image of Crowley flicked into Ed's mind.

"Queen.  The band."

"Great!  So because 'Queen' is such a common word, we're going to search 'Queen Freddie Mercury' because he was the lead singer.  And..."  Steve typed then waved to a screen.  "Look, you can watch concerts.  Here are some interviews.  Music videos.  If you want more of a history, you could add 'documentary.'  See?"

Ed's eyes were wide as more videos loaded.

"But remember..."

"Not always accurate."

"Exactly.  Now, you try!"

The two switched places.

Steve watched with interest as Ed slowly typed, hunt and peck style.  He felt a wave of empathy as he realized he was searching "Māori."  He'd been afraid that Ed felt isolated from his culture.  No one else in the house was Māori.

"So many results..." Ed murmured.

Steve nodded.

"There are."

Ed clicked on a video of a group performing a haka.

Steve split his attention between the moving video and Ed who watched with rapt attention.  He thought he saw tears forming in his friend's eyes. 

"It's beautiful," Steve complimented once the video had ended.

Ed nodded.  Then he added a term to the search.  "Music."

Ed closed his eyes as the traditional music played.

After a few moments of listening, Steve squeezed Ed's shoulder.

"I'll let you have some privacy now, Ed.  Yell if you need anything.  And let me know if you'd like to learn about anything else on here."  He waved to the laptop.  "If I don't know... well, Lucky's young enough to know it all."

Ed gave Steve a teary smile and nodded.

"Thanks, mate.  'Ppreciate this."

"Of course.  Enjoy."

Steve patted Ed's hand and moved towards the hall.  Just before he left, he thought he heard Ed beginning to sing along.

*~*~*

Friday, April 5th, 2019

Even though Ed had taken to YouTube and numerous other offerings of the Internet, Steve noticed that he'd continued to be out of sorts.  He wasn't grumpy or short-tempered.  Just quiet, sullen.  And so he'd decided that a break from routine was in order. 

"There's this lovely little shop a few blocks away that sells the best chocolates I've ever eaten!" Steve gushed as he slipped into his coat.  "As much as you love sugar, you'll adore it there, Ed."

Ed gave him a weak smile.

"Yeah, okay.  Sounds good.  Thanks, mate."

"We'll bring some back for everyone.  Ooh and they have delicious cocoa, too.  It'll be nice for the walk back, hmm?"

Ed nodded.

Steve chattered as they walked, pointing out other shops and restaurants he enjoyed.  He tried to encourage Ed but he remained quiet, only offering a few words here and there.

Once they'd reached the chocolate shop, Steve tried to draw out Ed's interest.  But, while he seemed impressed by the array of treats, Steve couldn't get him to commit to anything.  Finally, he ordered an assortment of chocolate and two cocoas.

"Let's sit for a bit before we head back, hmm?"

"Sounds good."

Steve pulled out a chair at a little bistro table and motioned for his friend to take a seat before settling into the other.

"Are you... happy, Ed?  And, if not, is there anything I can do to help?"

"I'm fine.  Just... got a lot on my mind, I spose."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

"All right...  Well, is there anything that would help?  Anything you want?  Your drawings are wonderful, Ed.  Truly.  But is there anything else you'd like to do?  Actually... I've been wondering...  Culture... belonging... that's important.  I have some Māori friends.  Would you like me to introduce you?  I mean... I would love to listen to anything you'd like to share but, well, I'm not Māori.  No one at the house is.  So if you need that sort of engagement then..."

"No.  I'm fine, Steve.  Really.  I... I don't want that.  Not right now, anyway."

"All right." 

Ed flinched when Steve patted his hand.

Steve frowned.

"We can head back... if you'd like?"

Ed nodded.

The two left the chocolatier.  Steve was quiet.  He couldn't think of anything to say.  He kept sneaking looks at Ed, wondering what he'd done wrong.

Then he saw a look of absolute terror cross Ed's face.

*~*~*

"It's been two weeks, Edgar.  And you've done nothing but swan about," Iggy accused as he walked alongside them, seemingly invisible to Steve.

"Ed...  Ed...  What's wrong?  You look... stricken.  Ed..."

"Do it, 'Ed'.  Surely you know enough now.  Possess him," Iggy ordered.

Ed shook his head.  His hands began to tremble. 

"No..."

"No, what?  Ed..."  Steve wrested the cocoa from his seizing hand and set it on a ledge.

Ed's eyes closed tightly as he felt Steve's hand brush his.

"Do it, Edgar.  Do it now.  It would be so easy..."

"Go away!" Ed snapped.

"Oh... all right."  Crestfallen, Steve began to step back.

"No... No!"  Ed shook his head wildly and reached for Steve.  "Not... not you."

"Ed, darling... no one else is here."

"Darling?" Iggy scoffed.  "Damn it, Edgar.  If you won't then I'll..."

Ed's eyes went wide as Iggy reached for Steve.

"NO!" he roared, pushing at Iggy.  Then he grabbed Steve's arm and began to run.

The two ran as fast as they could back to the house.  Once inside, they blew past Ollie and Jess.  The couple, who had been calmly preparing lunch, stared.

"Right...  That's not good," Ollie murmured.

"Follow them?" Jess checked.

Ollie nodded, reaching under his shirt to pluck out the vial of holy water he'd stashed there.

"You've got the..."

Jess pulled up their shirt just enough to reveal a knife... a knife that had been soaked in Communion wine. 

Ollie nodded. 

The two left their sandwich fixings and followed the two older men.

"Ed...  Ed who were you talking to?" Steve asked as he attempted to open his friend's bedroom door.

"Leave me alone!" an unseen Ed shouted.

"Boss, everything all right here?" Ollie asked.

Steve shrugged.

"Dunno.  Don't think so.  We were out for a walk and suddenly Ed just... lost it.  Started screaming and pushing at... air.  Now, well, now he's holed up in there."

Steve returned his attention to the door.

"Ed...  You know, it's really best to talk things through when we're..."

Suddenly, the door unlocked.

"Oh!  Good!"  Steve beamed and stepped into the room.

When they heard their boss gasp, Ollie and Jess pushed their way into the room, too.

The three stared at Ed who was bathed in a cool, blue light. 

"Ed...  Ed, where's that light coming from?" Steve questioned.  "It looks... it feels..."  He shivered.  "Cold."

Books spilled off a nearby shelf.  A glass candle holder shattered.

Ollie placed himself between Ed and Steve.

"Steve, let me handle..."

His eye line with Steve cut off, Ed began to look around wildly.

"Ollie, I've got this."

Steve pushed himself in front of the other man.

Ed settled down... a little.

"Ed, this is quite the talent but maybe let's talk before...  I mean I'm rather fond of that tea set so if you could refrain from doing whatever you did with the candleholder... which that I didn't mind.  Rummage sale junk!"

"Jesus..."  Jess muttered. 

"I'm not a good person, Steve," Ed spat out.  "I'm not even a person!"

"Oh, now, Ed...  You know that's not..."

Ed glowered.

"That was a demon, Steve!  That I was yelling at.  My... my boss!"

"Told you!" Ollie hissed to Jess.

Jess sighed and shook their head.

"Poor Steve.  Finally finds a guy after the Jason disaster... and he's a demon.  Still a step up, though," they muttered to Ollie.

"Well, we can't help how we're born but we can help..."

"Wasn't born this way," Ed spat out, interrupting Steve.  "You know the story."

There was another cascade of books.  Appropriately, Paradise Lost landed on top of the heap.

Steve stared at the books for a moment then returned his gaze to Ed.

"The Fall," he murmured.

Ed shrugged.

"A more personalized one but yeah."

"Well, maybe you can, umm, take it back?" Steve suggested.

Ed laughed. 

The trio cringed.  It was a pained, awful laugh.

"'Abandon all hope ye who enter here,'" Ed recited.

"Dante," Steve recognized.  "That's Dante, Ed.  Not... scripture.  Not even anything from the non-canonical books.  It's just... Dante."

"Still true."

"But, I mean... you're here.  You're not in Hell," Steve pointed out.  "So, well, it can't be entirely true, can it?"

Ollie shook his head.  These two idiots were going to have a literary debate?

"Can't stay here.  Not until I do my job... or run out of time."

"And... what is your job then?" Steve pressed gently.

Ed tried to form his expression into something menacing... but the only result was a few tears trailing down his face.

"To possess you," he replied, barely audible.

"Ah, hell no," Ollie rushed forward and dumped the holy water on Ed. 

Ed began to howl in pain.

"No!" Steve bellowed.

Ollie and Jess watched in horror as Steve threw himself at the demon...

Steve himself wasn't even sure what he was doing... not until he had his arms around the trembling, agonized demon... around Ed.  He reached up and buried a hand in his hair... his beautifully messy hair... and then he kissed him.

Suddenly, everything quieted.  Items on shelves stopped rattling.  The blue light went away.  Ed ceased howling.

Jess reached for their knife.

"Sh-should I?" they asked Ollie as they raised the knife.

Ollie had never heard their voice tremble... but at least Jess had a voice.  He couldn't speak.  He only shook his head.

Ed's hands were stroking Steve's back.  Whatever pain he'd felt was gone... and, if he was honest with himself, he wasn't sure he'd actually felt pain.  Only expected pain.  But this... this was delightful. 

Steve pulled back a little and studied Ed's face.

"You all right, Ed?" 

Ed nodded.  He was all right.  More than all right.  But exhausted.  He lurched forward and rested his head on Steve's shoulder.  He smelled like the soap... yummy lavender soap.

"You look exhausted, Ed.  Let's get you into bed, hmm?  Ollie, could you please fetch Ed's pajamas?  Top drawer.  Right side.  Then maybe you could make us some tea.  You and Jess.  And maybe put that away, Jess."

Hearing their name, Jess snapped to attention.  They realized they were still holding the holy knife aloft.  They lowered it and returned it to its scabbard.

Ollie handed the pajamas to Steve.

"Thank you.  Now if you could give us some privacy..."

"Not sure that's a good idea, cap."

"Tea, Ollie.  We would like some tea, please," Steve replied in a voice he seldom used but one Ollie knew meant further discussion was unwelcome.

"Right."  Ollie nodded and left the room, pulling Jess with him.

Once they were alone, Steve gave Ed all of his attention.

"Right, arms up."

Ed obeyed.

Steve tugged the sweaty T-shirt over his head.

"Very good."  Steve smiled then plucked up the pajama top.  "There we go!  Looking more comfortable already!"

Silent tears trailed down Ed's face as Steve buttoned the shirt.

"Ed...  Oh, Ed..."

"I'm... sorry, Steve.  So sorry."

"What for?"

Ed gaped at Steve.

"For... for being here!"

Steve shook his head.

"I'm not.  I'm not at all sorry."

"I was sent to possess you!" Ed cried.

"But you haven't."

Ed closed his eyes as Steve rested a hand on his cheek.

"Don't deserve..."

"You do."

Ed rested his forehead against Steve's.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Steve offered as he stroked Ed's back.  "Or maybe a rest first?"

Ed pulled back and yawned.

Steve chuckled.

"That'll do for an answer.  Do you need more help changing or..."

"I can do it.  But... can you stay and just..."  Ed mimed turning around.

"Of course."

Once Steve's back was turned, Ed stumbled out of his cargo pants and into the pajama bottoms.

"I'm sorted."

"Okay."

Steve turned back around and turned down Ed's bed.  Ed wasted no time in climbing in.

"Ollie will be by with tea soon.  Is there anything else I can..."

"Sit with me?"

"Planning on it."

Steve squeezed Ed's hand then sat down on the bed.

"Why... aren't you... scared of me?" Ed questioned.

Steve thought for a few moments.

"Because I've seen who you truly are.  I've seen you... listening to Karl drone on about his birds when everyone else is bored to tears.  I've seen you volunteer for all the household chores no one wants.  I've seen you be kind to each and every person here.  To me."

"You... you don't know what... what I've done..."

"No.  But I know you're a good person, Ed.  I just do," Steve insisted, taking Ed's still shaking hands into his.

Ed was too exhausted to say anything more.  He stared at his and Steve's joined hands.  He felt something kindling in his heart... something he'd not felt for a very long time.  And never like this.

Love.

*~*~*

Ed was asleep by the time Ollie returned with the tea.  The former priest took one look at the two... Ed out cold with his head resting on a pillow in Steve's lap... and rolled his eyes.

"Damn it.  Friggin' demon's gonna make me feel sorry for him, isn't he?"

Steve smiled and gently stroked Ed's hair.

"He had quite a scare, poor thing."

"He had a scare!  You were out with a demon... with another, scarier demon apparently nearby."  Ollie handed Steve his cup.

Steve took a sip then rested a finger against his lips.

"Shh.  He needs to rest."

"Steve..."

"Just look at him, Ollie..."

"Yes...  He looks very sweet and innocent like that but..."

"Why did you and Jess have the holy water and knife ready?" Steve interrupted.

Ollie frowned.

"Just... had a bad feeling.  I don't think I ever told you but... I was actually training to be an exorcist before, well, Jess and I had to make our escape.  I witnessed exorcisms, Steve.  And when Ed showed up... I just got the same feeling I got back then."

"Fear?"

Ollie shook his head.

"No.  Not really.  More like... intense loneliness.  Grief.  But not normal grief.  Something else.  Grief mixed with... sharp, sharp guilt.  Coldness.  It's hard to explain.  None of that seems like enough."

Steve peered down at Ed.

"You think he feels that?"

"Maybe."

"Oh, Ed..."

"I didn't want to believe it.  I saw how much you were starting to care for him so I tried to talk myself out of it but... Jess and I still took precautions.  Steve..."  Ollie drew closer and rested a hand on his boss' shoulder.  "I'm not sure it's a good idea to get any more attached.  Even if he's the nicest demon to ever exist... he's still a demon, Steve.  They're not meant for... for romance."

"But he... he kissed me back, Ollie."

"Maybe he's an incubus?"

It was Steve's turn to roll his eyes.

"Ollie...  That's a myth dreamed up to explain unplanned pregnancies and to get people out of accusations of adultery."

"I dunno, Steve...  After what I saw earlier...  I'd believe just about anything."

Steve nodded.

"That's the thing, though, isn't it?  If... if Ed is a demon... and after what we saw how can we believe any differently?... then that means Satan is real.  And if Satan is real...  God is real."

"Yeah..."

"You never did stop believing in the Big Guy.  Even after everything that happened in Puerto Rico.  I always envied that... admired you for that.  Jess, too.  I... had doubts.  And I missed... I didn't miss going to church, really.  Definitely didn't miss my dad's preaching.  But... I missed Him.  But if He's real... and it seems He is then... then maybe there's a reason for all of this.  7.7 billion people in the world.  7.7 billion people he could have been sent to possess... and he was sent to me.  And I... I felt something the moment I saw him, Ollie.  Something good.  The Devil can play his tricks... but maybe God decided to turn this one back against him."

Ollie watched as Steve started softly stroking Ed's back.  He closed his eyes for a few moments and prayed before speaking again.

"I want to believe that, Steve.  I really do.  But keeping you and Jess and everyone we're entrusted with safe is my number one priority.  So... see if you can figure out why he fell.  I'm really curious about what he meant by a 'more personalized Fall' or whatever he said.  If it's really bad... Jess and I are going to have to leave.  And I'm going to tell the guys who... and what... Ed is.  I'm sorry.  But I have to."

"I... I understand.  They're owed the truth.  We all are.  Just... give me tonight?"

"Sure."

"Thank you."  Steve smiled sadly as he peered down at Ed.  "He must have been such a beautiful angel..."

Ollie nodded politely.

"I'll give you some privacy.  Yell if you need anything.  I mean it."

"I will.  Oh... maybe ask Ant if we have what we need for fairy bread?  Might be nice to have some for Ed when he wakes up."

"Will do."

Ollie exited the room.  Just before he closed the door, he turned back to see Steve still peering down at Ed and singing softly.

"'I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain... Never break the chain.'"

*~*~*

Eventually, Steve dozed off.  He awoke when Ed began to tremble and cry in what looked like a panic attack.

"Ed...  Ed... look at me."

Steve hauled Ed up by his shoulders and peered into his tear-filled eyes.

"Ig... Iggy...  No...  No, no..."

"Ed..."  Steve rested his forehead against the other man's.  "Ed, try to take a deep breath.  Good.  Now... I want you to tell me five things that you can see, all right?  Can you do that?"

Ed nodded.

"You.  Your shirt..."  Ed turned a bit to the side.  "Window.  Cushion.  Tree branch."

"Wonderful!  Now what are four things you can touch?"

"You."  Ed managed a trembling smile.  "Bedding."  He reached out a few inches.  "Table.  Lamp."

"Very good.  Now what can you hear?  Three things this time."

"You."  Ed concentrated.  "Music...  Baptiste playing?  Branch tapping window."

Steve gave Ed's shoulders a gentle squeeze.

"Two things you can smell?"

"You... smell like lavender and... and chocolate."

Steve chuckled.

"Well, yes.  I did spill a bit of cocoa on myself earlier.  Now, is there one thing you can taste?"

"Chocolate," Ed repeated.

"Good.  Good job.  Feeling any better?"

Ed pulled away just a bit and nodded.

"Thank you."

"Oh, darling... of course.  Trust me, it's not the first time I've done this.  Panic attacks are fairly common around here.  And you had quite the scare.  Now... would you tell me about it?"

Ed nodded and slumped back against the pillows.  He hated breaking contact with Steve but he felt like he'd been run over by a truck.  Every muscle, bone, and brain cell was tired.

Steve tucked the blankets around Ed then took his hands in his and gently peered down at him.

"Saw Iggy.  My supervisor.  The... the one who sent me.  Who... who told me to possess you.  He... he wanted me to do it right then.  A-and when I wouldn't... he tried to... to grab you.  To do it himself.  That's why I grabbed you and ran... back here."

Steve startled when he saw movement out the window.  He relaxed when he saw it was just Ollie... seemingly sprinkling holy water around.  Jess was trailing him with a censer. 

"Thank you for that.  Iggy doesn't sound very pleasant.  I don't think I'd like him possessing me."

"Not gonna let that happen," Ed vowed.  "But everything... it... it's been off since the beginning."

"How do you mean?"

"You weren't supposed to be able to see me in the club, Steve.  I... I still don't know how you did.  I was supposed to be invisible.  I was supposed to observe.  But... but then you saw me.  And once you did... everyone else did."

"Yes, well... I have some thoughts about that."

"You do?"

Steve nodded.

"So... can I assume that Satan is real?"

Ed grimaced and gave a quick nod.

"And so then... God is real?"

"She is, yeah."

Steve's eyes went wide.

"She?"

"Well... no... I mean... sort of.  I perceive the First Person as a Mother.  Others don't.  Not really either male or female.  Just... is."

"Well, Jess is gonna love that."

Ed smiled.

"Yeah."

"But... you said First Person.  So... the Trinity is real?"

Ed nodded.

"So... Jesus is... is..." 

"Doesn't really go by that but yeah.  I mean... he answers to it.  But he was Yeshua when he was on Earth.  Still uses that.  Joshua, too.  Leo.  Heard he was using Jack for a while."

"Jack?!"

Ed chuckled.

"Apparently.  He has lots of names.  He..."  Ed's face clouded with grief for a moment.  "He's not what a lot of people think."

"No?"

"I just mean...  He's good, okay?  He wasn't joking about the whole not judging thing."

"Oh...  But then how..."

"How did I fall?"

Steve nodded.

"I... I'm afraid I need to know, Ed.  I'm sorry.  But after what he witnessed... Ollie is threatening to leave if... if I don't find out..."

"I understand.  Smart man.  Loyal.  Protective.  I get it, Steve.  It's just... a sad story.  And... and an embarrassing one.  But... you deserve to know."

Steve squeezed Ed's hand.

"I... I was a principality.  Do you know what that is?"

"It sounds familiar but... I can't place it."

"That's an angel who's sort of like a guardian angel but assigned to an entire people, not just a person.  So I was the principality assigned to a particular Māori iwi... tribe.  I was with them when the first members traveled to Aotearoa in canoes and I... I was the last to leave."  Ed let out a shaky breath.  "The iwi was mostly peaceful.  We had to engage in the occasional defense of our lands when other iwis tried to move in.  But... we always tried diplomacy first.  I... I hated bloodshed.  Still do.  But... I loved my people.  I loved it here."  Ed peered out the window then closed his eyes for a few moments, remembering how the land had once looked.

Ed drew in and let out a deep breath before proceeding.

"Then the Europeans started to arrive.  And... at first... it was fine.  Nice even.  Everyone was eager to learn new things.  Many were really drawn to Christianity, weaving it into their lives and practices.  And that was fine by me.  After all... I knew Joshua.  But then they introduced their guns."

Steve winced.

"I was opposed.  And I made that known.  I... I refused to have them around.  And... some people left because of that.  They... they didn't crave violence or anything.  They just...  Maybe they were right.  Maybe... maybe we would have been safer but..."  Ed shook his head.  "I hated those muskets.  And... I began to hate the man who was supplying them."

"Ed... I'm not gonna judge you for that," Steve assured.

"It... it gets worse."

"All right...  I'm here."

Ed smiled weakly at Steve then peered into the room, at nothing in particular.

"People... they started to get sick.  The healers and I... we tried everything.  But... but people kept getting sick a-and dying.  The disease... it tore through the iwi."  Ed winced and tears trailed down his cheeks.  "We... we had to... to separate children from... from dying parents.  Husband from wife... Just... just trying to contain it.  B-but... nothing mattered.  Soon... soon it was just me a-and a handful of children.  Then... then it was just me."

"Oh, Ed...  Oh, God...  How horrible..."  Steve embraced him tightly as tears streamed down his face.

Ed sobbed for several minutes as Steve stroked his back.

"I... I lost myself," Ed choked out.  "Then... then I fell..."

*~*~*

1836

"Rawiri...  Rawiri, dear...  Please look at me."

Edgar remained focused on the burial rites he was performing but the pleading continued.

"Leave me alone," he snapped.  "I... I'm the only one left to... to do this.  I failed at keeping them safe.  I at least owe them this."

"Can I help?"

Edgar shook his head.

"Rawiri... you did everything you could."

Edgar whirled around to face his supervisor.

"Maybe I did.  But what did he do, Hahana?  What did he do when they cried out to him?" he demanded.

"He was with them, Rawiri.  You know he was."

Edgar laughed darkly.

"Course he was.  If only he'd come earlier.  Coulda done with some of his healing."

"Listen, if you don't want to talk to Joshua, that's fine.  But talk to Moth..."

"No.  Now... let... me... be..." Edgar ordered through clenched teeth.  His tears fell onto the little body he was preparing for burial.

"Rawiri..."  A gentle hand rested on his right shoulder.

Ed shrugged the hand off.

"Too late.  Nothing for you to do here."

"I'm here for you, Rawiri."

Edgar grunted, wiped the ochre and oil from his hands, and turned around to face Joshua.

"Don't call me that!  You don't get to call me that.  'Go and make disciples of all nations'...  You said that.  Well, look at your disciples now, Joshua."  Edgar motioned towards the dozen wrapped bodies that surrounded them.  "You sent me to them...  And then you took them away... using Bibles and guns."

"Edgar... that's not what I wanted.  That was never what I wanted and I'm so sor..."

Rage filled Edgar.  Before he'd realized what he was doing, he'd shoved Joshua to the ground.  He stared down in horror.

"Edgar...  Edgar...  It's okay."  Joshua pushed himself back up onto his feet.  "I'm all right.  I love you and I want to help you.  Let's just sit down for a few..."

Edgar shook his head wildly.  Then he turned and ran away.  He ran for several minutes before he finally stopped when he saw someone approaching.  It was a short, graying, bearded man.  A European.  No... not a European.

A demon.

"Ah...  Edgar...  Rawiri...  Not sure which you prefer.  But it doesn't really matter.  My name is Iggy and I've come with an offer I think Edgar AND Rawiri might want to hear..."

Edgar shook his head and began to back away.

"I can give you something neither Hahana nor... he... can give you.  I know the man who caused all of this.  The one who sold the guns... the one who spread this horrible, devastating disease to your people.  And I can show you how to make him pay... all you have to do is come with me."

"I... I'm not going to Hell," Edgar insisted.

"Who said anything about Hell?  I didn't," Iggy pointed out.  "I just mean a house... just across the way there.  Where that rotten man lives..."

Edgar looked back the way he'd come.  His memory filled with the faces of every person who had been lost.  He needed to finish burying the last of them... but he also needed to avenge them all.

Edgar turned back and nodded at Iggy.

*~*~*

Friday, April 5th, 2019

"Iggy taught me how to enter the man's dreams...  How to show him every-everything I'd witnessed...  All... all the death.  Slow... agonizing deaths.  I kept at it.  Night after night.  I thought it was only... only fair.  I... the same visions haunted me so... so why not him?  But... he just... snapped after a month or two.  I left him alone after that but... the damage was done.  I just... roamed.  Hahana tracked me down... she's the principality of all of
Aotearoa.  Joshua... Jesus... he came back, too.  They tried to... to coax me back.  Mighta worked eventually.  But... but then Iggy came again.  He was... gleeful.  Proud.  He said the man and his family were ruined.  The father hadn't been able to manage anything after... after what I'd done.  They'd had to marry off their oldest daughter just... just to stay afloat.  She... she was fourteen, Steve.  A-and she didn't have a choice.  Iggy dragged me to the wedding.  Still... still gloating.  She... she cried through the whole ceremony.  And the groom... he had to be at least thirty.  The way he leered at her...  And... and I had caused it.  I'd... I'd damned a child to... to that.  I couldn't go back Home after that.  Didn't deserve Heaven.  So... so I went with Iggy.  My... my obliteration of that man had been so complete that Iggy thought I... I'd be quite the force.  Kept saying how... how I'd spent so long among people that I knew what made them tick.  A-and that was useful.  But... I was exhausted.  Heartbroken.  I just... shut down.  Wouldn't talk.  Wouldn't do anything.  Iggy ended up throwing me in a cell.  Said he'd come back when I came around.  But... I never did.  He'd drag me back up a few times.  I'd cause minor mischief.  But not much else.  He was disgusted.  Threw me back in.  Then, after nearly two hundred years a-and when the only people who ever visited me st-stopped coming... I was desperate, Steve.  I... I was losing my mind.  When Iggy showed up a couple weeks ago... I agreed.  I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry..."

Steve couldn't believe what he was hearing.  Well, he believed it.  He just didn't want to.  It was horrific.  The anger he'd once felt at God began to kindle again.

"A-and God... all powerful God... did nothing to help you?"

Ed shook his head.

"No.  Not nothing.  Every time I'd come back to Earth... Joshua tried to see me.  Tried to talk to me.  But... but I'd run.  I have free will, too, Steve.  Just like you.  I... I don't deserve his mercy."

Steve shook his head, still reeling.

"I... I disagree.  But I know I can't convince you of that.  Not right now.  A-and... oh, Ed...  You look so tired.  How about we get a little food into you then you try resting again?"

"You... you don't want me to leave?"

"No.  And, besides, you're in absolutely no condition to go any where.  So you... just sit tight and I'll be right back, okay?"

"Okay."

Steve squeezed Ed's hands once more before leaving the room.  Dazed, he walked down the hallway.  At the end, he collapsed against a wall and began sobbing.

Overhearing from the TV room, Ollie and Jess hurried over.

"Steve... Steve what happened?  Are you hurt?"

Jess grabbed Steve's chin and peered into his eyes.

"This is Steve, right?" they pressed.

"Of course, I'm Steve!  I'm not..." Steve lowered his voice.  "Possessed.  I'm just...  He explained how..."

"It... it's bad?" Ollie questioned.

"Very.  But... but not like you're thinking.  We'll explain more tomorrow.  Ed's... he's not in a good way.  I just need to get some food into him and then, hopefully, he'll go back to sleep.  He needs rest.  I'm sorry to be so vague.  I really am.  But I just... it's not my story to tell.  All I'll say is that for right now... Ed is to be treated like you would treat a refugee.  Okay?"

Ollie and Jess nodded. 

"Now... I need to speak to Ant."

Steve stepped into the TV room to find the rest of the household gathered there.

Lucky jumped up from a couch.

"How's Ed?" he questioned.  "Is he all right?"

"Ed will be fine," Steve assured.  "He just needs to rest.  He ran into someone unpleasant from his past and it's left him shaken... brought a lot up.  Ant, how are we on fairy toast?"

"Coming right up, captain," Ant replied.  "Anything else?"

"He needs some protein," Demi-John answered.  "Let's make him up a little charcuterie board.  Are you eating with him, Steve?"

"Yes, I suppose I am."

"Enough for two then."  Demi-John hugged Steve then joined Ant in the kitchen.

"I could play for him?" Baptiste offered.  "I mean... not in his room.  Don't wanna crowd him.  But crack his window and I'll play on the patio?"

Steve beamed. 

"I think he'd like that a lot, Baptiste.  He heard you playing earlier and I think it helped."

Baptiste smiled proudly.

Karl approached and rested a hand on Steve's shoulder.

"Tell him Tawera sends her regards.  We hope we see 'im tomorrow morning but understand if he's not up for it.  We'll expect 'im on Sunday, though."

"I'll do that.  Thank you, Karl."

The others offered their own well-wishes which warmed Steve's heart and made him even prouder of his men than he'd been before.

*~*~*

Steve's breath caught in his throat when he re-entered the room with a tray of food and saw... no one.

"Ed..."

"Under here."

Steve looked back to the bed and realized it wasn't empty.  Ed was just completely covered by the blankets.  Slowly, he peeked his head out.

Steve smiled.

"There you are."

Ed smiled back.

"Just... needed to rest my eyes."

"I understand."

Steve returned to the bed and set the tray down.

"I'll have you know that every last person out there insisted on helping prepare this in some way.  They were all very anxious for you.  Even Tawera sends her regards per Karl.  Ah... and that's Baptiste."  Steve moved to the window and cracked it open.  "He wanted to play for you."

Ed's eyes welled.

"Everyone's been so kind." 

"You've been kind to them."

"I... I lied to them."

"Yes, well, you wouldn't be the first.  When Baptiste first came, he told everyone he was the lost prince of an African tribe.  I'll admit I believed him."

Ed chuckled.

"Still... I owe them the truth."

"Yes.  That would we best.  But... you don't need to tell the whole story again.  I saw how much that took out of you.  Here."  Steve handed Ed a piece of fairy toast.

Ed nibbled on it then looked down.

"Gonna get crumbs all over..."

"We can wash the bedding tomorrow."

"Okay.  You... you think they'll believe it?  My story?"

"I do.  I'm just so sorry, Ed..."

"Nothing you did."

"I know but... my heart breaks for you."

"I... I just don't understand how... how you can be so kind?"

Steve opened his mouth to reply...  "Because I love you, darling"... but thought better of it.

"Well...  Turns out the Golden Rule is definitely in effect, hmm?  I'm treating you like I'd like to be treated."

Ed smiled at that. 

"Now, eat some of the cheese and nuts.  Demi-John insisted that you need some protein."

"You're having some, too, right?"

"Sure."

"Good."

The two ate in companionable silence, listening to the strains of Baptiste's guitar.

After a few moments, Lars began to sing.

"'I would shun the light, share in evening's cool and quiet.
Who would trade that hum of night?
For sunlight, sunlight, sunlight...
But whose heart would not take flight?
Betray the moon as acolyte.
On first and fierce affirming sight
Of sunlight, sunlight, sunlight...'"

*~*~*

The Bathtub Incident

Saturday, April 6th, 2019
 
To Ed's amazement, the following morning passed like all of the others before.  He helped Karl feed the birds.  He shared coffee with Steve.  Seemingly following his direction, Steve didn't make any allusion to the previous day's events.  He'd checked in with Ed, of course.  Asked how he slept.  If he needed to talk more.  But, mostly, they'd just talked through the plan for the day.

It was when Ed was alone in his room, folding laundry, that the confusion and panic filled his mind.  He tried the 5-4-3-2-1 trick Steve had taught him.  But he couldn't manage it.  He kept replaying the previous day's events.

Steve had kissed him.

He'd been sent to possess the man and, instead, gotten kissed.

And it hadn't even been a quick peck.

It had been a proper kiss.  One he'd returned.

And he'd enjoyed it which made no sense.

Angels, and by extension demons, weren't designed to crave romantic love.

Well, usually not.

Ed remembered old Crowley, the Serpent.  The way he spoke about a particular angel...  Well, it was hard to say but it had seemed like love.

And then there was that angel... the one Satan got all riled about.  Aaron?  Adam?  Andrew!  Andrew, an angel of death.  And some woman.  Ed couldn't remember her name.  He'd heard it once or twice but, usually, she was referred to by some derogatory slur or another.

Hadn't she almost died?

Yes...  A gun shot wound.  Almost.  But she hadn't died.   

A lump formed in Ed's throat.

Demons weren't kind to those humans beloved by angels... and they would probably be especially unkind to those who grew close to demons.

Tears of frustration welled in Ed's eyes.  He couldn't possess Steve.  He'd never wanted to.  But now?  Now Steve had kissed him and he'd felt things and... Ed wasn't sure he could stop feeling them.

But he couldn't go back to that cell... back to that isolation... back to the pending madness. 

He'd rather die... if only he could die.

Ed thought again of Crowley, of discorporation.  Ed hadn't been sure what the term meant but had been made to understand it was something to be avoided, something terrible... worse than any torture Hell could dream up.  He'd confessed to Crowley about his terror.

The Serpent had chuckled.

"That nonsense still making the rounds?  I'll have to tell Aziraphale about how influential we are.  Happened to me.  More than once.  First time, got burnt up in a fire.  Instant discorporation."  Crowley had lowered his voice.  "Went... elsewhere... to get fixed up."

"Bad elsewhere?"

"Nah.  Just... elsewhere."

And then he'd said no more.

"Elsewhere..." Ed murmured to himself. 

If he was discorporated, then he would go elsewhere.  Not back to that cell.  Not into Steve.  Just elsewhere.

But how?

Ed didn't very much like the idea of setting himself on fire.  He wished Crowley was there to advise. 

Maybe he could drown himself?

Ed stepped into the bathroom.  He turned on the tub faucet... then he turned it off.

He was in human form.  Human instinct would be to thrash, to get out of the water, to breathe.

Drowning wouldn't work.

Ed approached the medicine cabinet.  He doubted anything useful would be there.  A mild pain reliever at most.  Steve was careful to secure anything that had any chance of being addictive or harmful.

Just as he'd suspected, there was only ibuprofen... and not much of that.  But there was something else.

Ed picked up the razor.  He'd never used it.  He'd stopped shaving long ago.  But it would be useful now.

Ed returned to the bathtub and climbed inside. 

He briefly considered what Steve would find.  Hopefully, his body would just disappear once it had ceased functioning.  But, if not, he didn't want to leave a mess.

Besides, he was comfortable there in the tub.  Even when not in use, the scent of the lavender soap filled the air.

It wasn't an entirely unpleasant way to say good bye to the land he'd once loved... smelling the lavender, remembering Steve's lips pressed to his, his hands in his hair.

Ed rolled up his sleeve.

Suddenly, the door flew open and Steve rushed towards him, grabbing his wrist and then wrenching the razor out of his grip.

"What are you doing?" a teary-eyed, frantic Steve cried.

"I... I..." 

"Have you cut yourself?"

Ed shook his head.

"I... I don't understand.  Surely a demon can't... can't kill himself?" Steve questioned.

Voice shaking, Ed let it all out.

"The... the Serpent of Eden told me that if a demon discorporates then... then they go elsewhere.  And so I was going to do that.  So... so I don't have to possess you a-and I don't have to go back... back there.  I... I can't go back there, Steve.  I can't... can't."  Ed began to tremble.

Taking the razor with him, Steve stepped into the bedroom.  He returned quickly with a blanket which he wrapped around Ed.

"I'm not going to pretend I understood that...  And I'm also not going to pretend I'm very religious these days.  But I know enough to know that when the Serpent of Eden tells you something... don't do it, Ed!"

"He... he didn't tell me to.  Just... about it."

"Ed...  God, Ed..."  Steve shook his head wildly.  "Don't do that again.  Don't ever do that again.  Please don't!"

Ed's eyes fluttered closed when Steve rested a hand against his cheek.  He leaned against it.

"Besides," Steve continued in a aggrieved tone, "I've already bought our Halloween costumes.  So you have to be around for Halloween, Ed."

Ed sat up and peered at Steve.

"Isn't Halloween in October?"

"Yes..."

"Steve...  It's April, ya nut."

"I like to be prepared!"

Ed chuckled.

"Well, what are they then?"

"Hmm?"

"The costumes.  What are they?"

Steve's eyes lit up.

"Pirates!"

"Pirates?"  Ed raised an eye brow.  "You don't strike me as the pirate type."

Steve shrugged.

"They looked fun.  And pirates were anti-establishment.  I like to think I am, too."

Ed opened his mouth to question that then thought better of it.  Sure, Steve looked quite mainstream.  But looks could be deceiving.  He'd chosen to spend his life among those wider society cast to the outskirts, if not outright rejected.  Something twisted in Ed's gut as he thought of someone else like that. 

"Hey, there...  I can always return them.  Get something else.  And I... I didn't mean it about you having to be here.  I mean alive... yes.  But not... here.  You're free to leave whenever..."  Steve stared down at his hands which were gripping the edge of the tub.

Ed rested one of his hands over Steve's.

"Naw.  Sounds fun.  I'll be looking forward to it.  And... I'm sorry.  For the scare.  I... I'll figure something else out."

"We'll figure something else out," Steve corrected.

Ed blinked back tears.  There was absolutely no reason for Steve to help him.  But he was.  Overcome, Ed rested his head against Steve's hands.

The two sat quietly for a few moments before Steve tapped his nails against the porcelain.

"Let's get out of here, hmm?  Go for a walk, maybe?  Admire the changing leaves.  We could bring cocoa?"

Ed raised his head and smiled.

"Yeah, I'd like that."

"All right then."  Steve beamed and helped Ed out of the tub.

Just before they exited the room, Ed grabbed Steve's right hand, halting him.

Steve turned around and looked curiously at the demon.

"Why did you come in here?" he questioned.  "How... how did you know?"

"I didn't know.  Just... a little voice told me you needed help.  I listened."

Ed sniffled.

"Ah.  Well... thank you."

"Of course."

The two exchanged shy smiles before preparing for their excursion.

*~*~*

For several moments, Steve and Ed walked together in companionable silence, sipping their hot cocoa.  In contrast to his earlier mood, Ed felt calmer than he had in a very long time.  Something about Steve planning for Halloween together had sparked hope in him.

They came to a park and Steve waved to a nearby bench.

"Perhaps we could sit for a bit?"

Ed shrugged.

"Sure.  Nice spot."

The two sat down and Ed tilted his face towards the sun.  He closed his eyes, listening to the birdsong.

"Are you, um, glad you didn't... you know?" Steve asked.

Ed opened his eyes and smiled at Steve.

"Yeah.  Feeling pretty blissful right now.  Good weather, beautiful foliage, yummy cocoa, nice company."

Steve's face flushed with happiness.

"I'm glad.  Very glad." 

"I'm sorry... for the scare.  Yesterday and today."

"I suppose yesterday couldn't be helped and today... well, I can see how that seemed like a solution to your... situation.  But I'm glad I came in when I did."

Ed patted Steve's shoulder.

"Me too."

"I did wonder... worried... When I, ah... kissed you yesterday...  I... I panicked.  I thought the holy water might... might send you away and I couldn't bear you... not knowing... how I felt," Steve struggled to get out.  "But it occurred to me later... kissing is maybe not something you enjoy."

Ed gave Steve a shy smile.

"Never tried it before.  Thought it was nice.  Liked it a... a lot... actually.  Wouldn't mind doing it again... sometime."

"Oh!  Well... good!  I'm glad."  Steve beamed.  "I... wouldn't mind, either.  Sometime.  It's just... I hope I'm not prying but... so  you were an angel once..."

Ed looked into the distance and nodded.

"Right.  So I figured... romance must be off limits."

"Romance... or something like it... is rare.  But not off limits.  Sex, on the other hand...  We aren't... built for it.  I mean... the relevant parts are there when we're in human form.  But they don't... respond.  Don't... feel."

"Oh.  I see.  I figured as much."

Ed noticed Steve's disappointment.

"Sorry."

Steve shook his head.

"No... no, don't be.  I wasn't...  I mean... I wasn't planning..."

Ed laughed and again rested a hand on Steve's back.

"It's all right, mate.  I'm not offended... if you were planning, I mean.  And just because I don't feel anything down there doesn't mean... I...  Well, I still feel a lot... here."  He rested a hand on his chest.

"That's more important."  Steve smiled.

"I think so.  I, uh, heard of this couple...  An angel and a woman.  They've been together for... I dunno... a decade?  Maybe more?  And they're happy.  Never met them but... I think it's love."

"I should think so."

"So... It happens."

"Good to know."

Ed and Steve locked eyes for a moment then quickly looked away.

"Cute dog over there."  Steve pointed a few yards off to another park visitor walking their pet.

"Very.  I like dogs."

"I think I'm more of a cat person but... dogs are good, too."

"And birds.  Birds are good."

Steve chuckled.

"Glad you think so since Karl talks your ear off about them."

"He's a good sort.  It makes him happy."

Steve nodded then gripped Ed's hand tightly.

"What happens...  If you don't possess me, I mean?  What... happens to you?"

"I'm not going to possess you," Ed insisted.  "And... I don't know.  Demons... they're... we're... not the best about staying on task.  Hopefully I have time before Iggy remembers to check in on me again.  But I dunno."

Steve looked around, suddenly nervous.

"We were able to run away yesterday... thanks to you... but... is this even safe for you?  Maybe we should go back to the house or... or would sanctuary in a church work?"

"I'm not living in a church."  Ed gave an adamant shake of his head.  "Never."

"Then how... how do we keep you safe?"

"Maybe Jess or Ollie will have some ideas?"

"Yes.  We could ask.  But the holy water..."

"Didn't work on me," Ed finished.  "But I know it has on some."

"Maybe you're special.  I... think you're special."

Ed smiled and rested a hand over Steve's.

"Thanks.  Means a lot."

"Sure thing."

The two were quiet again for several moments.  When Ed turned back to Steve, he saw a tear trickle down his cheek.

"Hey now..."

"What if... if we can't figure it out?  What if they... they take you back?" Steve fretted.  "I haven't been so happy in so... so many years and if..."

"And I haven't been so motivated in... in almost two centuries.  We'll figure this out.  We will," Ed vowed.  "Trust me, I don't want to go back there.  And I... I don't want to leave... you."

Steve peered into Ed's eyes, calmed by the determination in them.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"We'll figure this out," Ed repeated.  "Promise."

Steve smiled at him as he squeezed his hand.

*~*~*

When Steve and Ed returned from their walk, laughing about a chatty old lady they'd run into, they found Jess and Ollie waiting for them.

"We need to talk," Jess announced as Ollie nodded beside them.

"Oh...  All right."  Steve glanced over at Ed who looked panicked.  "Umm... my office?" he suggested.

"Sounds good."

Steve and Ed followed the two to the office, the former reaching for the other's hand.

Once they were all inside and the door closed tightly, Ollie began.

"Right, well...  I'm just going to jump right into it.  Steve, Jess and I have been proud and happy to work with you for these past seven years.  And we hoped to continue doing that for many, many more years.  But... I think it's understandable that we have reservations about..."  Ollie looked to Ed then quickly away.  "Him.  Being here."

"How do we know this isn't all an act?" Jess demanded. 

Steve's face reddened with anger.

"I thought we all agreed that any body who came here... we'd assume best intentions and... and not hold their pasts against them."

"He's a demon, Steve!" Jess shouted.  "We're not talking about an alcoholic or a drug addict!  He's... a... demon!"

Ed held a hand up before Steve could snap back.

"They're right, Steve.  They have every right to be concerned.  Demon thing aside...  You... you brought me home from a bar, Steve.  We'd just met."

"But I have good instincts!"

Ollie arched an eye brow.

"Well... except for one time," Steve corrected.

"I coulda been a serial killer, mate," Ed pointed out.

"But you're not!"

"No but... I am a demon.  Like they said."

"But... but the holy water didn't do anything," Steve protested.  "That has to mean something, right?"

"That... it was a surprise to me, too," Ed admitted. 

Ollie and Jess shared a look.

"Ollie, what does that mean?" Steve pressed.  "You've told me that you've witnessed exorcisms...  So you had to believe holy water works.  But..."  He waved over to Ed.

"I... I don't know, okay?" Ollie answered, flustered. 

"Maybe he's too powerful," Jess suggested, glaring at Ed.  "What's your title?"

"Title?" Ed repeated, confused.

"In Hell.  What's your title in Hell?" Ollie pressed.

"Don't have one."

"Then what was your title before you fell?  When you were an angel?  Which choir were you in?"

Ed squirmed uncomfortably.

"Principality."

"Of what?"

Ed straightened up and stared at Ollie.

"Of a Māori iwi."

There was an awkward silence for a few moments before Steve rested a hand on Ed's arm.

"Remember, you don't have to tell them everything.  I know it's hard," he counseled.  "I can if..."

Ed continued to stare at Ollie and Jess but he rested a hand on Steve's.

"They died.  All of them...  No...  Not all.  A few left.  When I wouldn't let them have guns.  Those that were left... wiped out by the colonizers' diseases."  Ed brushed at the tears running down his face.

"And... and God banished you to Hell for that?" Jess asked, incredulous.

Ed shook his head.  His anger at God aside, he couldn't let them believe that.

"No.  I... I was so... filled with anger.  I wanted... vengeance.  I met someone... Iggy.  A... a demon.  And he... he taught me how to get revenge.  I found their leader.  I... drove him insane.  I entered his dreams... made him see what he had wrought.  Made... made him see the... the life go out of... of little bodies."

"Ed..."

Steve wrapped his arms around Ed when he began to sob.  Steve's own tears fell into Ed's hair as he buried his face.

Ollie blinked back his own tears.

Jess shook their head.

"I don't understand that...  How did you get cast out for that?  You should have gotten a medal.  Piece of crap deserved worse."

Ed answered, his voice muffled by Steve's shoulder.

"Didn't.  I just... left.  Avoided Him.  God.  And when He found me...  All I could do was scream at... at Him.  His people did that!  They told themselves they were 'sharing the good news!' but... but... there was only death.  Then I found out... I heard...  The man's family... he'd fallen apart so badly that... that they were financially ruined.  They... his fourteen year old daughter was forced to marry a... a terrible man to... to save them.  And... and..."  Ed choked on a sob. 

"Have you heard enough?" Steve asked Ollie and Jess, his voice uncharacteristically sharp.

"No..." Ed protested.  "Don't...  They deserve... the full truth."  He straightened up and cleared his throat.  "That's when I fell... when I left with Iggy.  I was as good as a rapist.  That... that happened to that girl because... cause of me."

"Ed!  No, Ed!"  Steve shook his head wildly.  "That's not true!"

"He's right, man..." Ollie agreed.  "Not buying that.  You didn't do that.  They invaded a land that wasn't theirs.  They disrespected and stole and killed.  If some poor kid was made to pay the price... that's on them.  Not you."

Steve peered at Ollie, his expression softening.

"Thank you," he mouthed.

Ollie shrugged.  Beside him, Jess grimaced and rubbed at their temples.

"He's right," they agreed.  "I just don't understand why...  Okay, maybe what you did wasn't angelic.  Maybe it was wrong.  Why... why didn't He fight for you?  God, I mean."

After a few moments of soaking up Steve's tender sympathy, Ed pulled away and looked to Jess.

"He did.  Every time I've been sent here...  He's come to me.  Asked me to... to let go of my anger a-and guilt and... come Home.  Every time but... this time.  Maybe He... He gave up."

"Oh, Ed, no..."  Steve protested.

"Or maybe He's trying another tactic," Ollie suggested.  "Since the more direct route didn't work."

"What do you mean?" Ed and Steve asked in unison.

"Yes, what do you mean?" Jess echoed.

Ollie shrugged.

"I just mean... sometimes God is direct.  Sometimes He works through other people.  And... and maybe the holy water thing...  Holy water works against evil."  Ollie waved to Ed.  "Ed's not evil.  Just... troubled."

Relaxing just a bit, Steve looked back and forth from Ollie and Jess.

"So... so you won't make me kick him out?  Because if... if he goes, I go."

"No one is leaving," Ollie asserted.  "We'll... figure this out.  I'll look through my books.  Maybe there's some way we can... right this."  He peered at Ed.  "But if you try anything with him..."

"Won't...  I promise I won't," Ed insisted.  "Couldn't..."  He looked to Steve and smiled.

Steve returned his smile then cupped his face.

"I'm so sorry for... for everything you went through.  So sorry."

"Not your fault."

"No but... my people..."

"Not your fault," Ed repeated.

"Oh, Ed...  Darling Ed..." Steve cooed.

Ed gave him a trembling smile then rested his forehead against Steve's. 

"We'll figure this out," Steve vowed.

"Yeah...  Yeah, we will."  Ed buried a hand in Steve's hair then tilted his head and moved in.

Ollie and Jess exchanged looks that were a mixture of amusement and disgust.

"Right, well, thanks for the talk.  Really cleared some things up.  We're going to leave.  Now."

"Mm hmm," Steve replied.

Ed only smiled deliriously before Steve initiated another kiss.

Once they were in the hallway with the office door closed behind them, Ollie shook his head while Jess made a retching noise.

"All those years in seminary... they never tell you what to do when your friend and a demon start necking..."

In spite of their discomfort, Jess laughed.

"Write to the Pope and ask for guidance."

Ollie chuckled.

"Dear Holy Father...  My friend/boss has fallen in love with a demon and it appears to be mutual.  How do I stop them from making out in front of me and my partner?"

Ollie laughed again before sobering.

"This sucks, though.  God, that story sucked."

Jess nodded and squeezed his hand.

"I've heard of principalities before.  It... it just never occurred to me to think what happened to them when... when their people died out.  And like that..."

"We owe it to them to free Ed," Jess declared.  "Their angel."

"Yeah... yeah we do."

As Ollie let out a ragged sigh and sunk against the wall, Jess embraced him tightly.

*~*~*

That evening, Steve called a family meeting.  After dinner, the entire group gathered in the TV room.

"Thank you all for coming," he began.  "It means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to Ed who asked that we do this.  He has a few things he'd like to say to you so I'm going to turn this over to him.  Ed..."

Ed stood up and gave everyone a shy smile.

"Thanks, Steve.  I..."

"You... aren't dying, are you?" Lars asked quietly.

"Jesus, Lars!" Rocky exclaimed.

"I... No.  I'm not dying," Ed assured.  "I just... I... I wanted to come clean.  That first day I was here... when we played five questions... I... lied.  And I kept a lot to... to myself."

"You don't like fairy toast?" Ant asked, aghast.

"No!  No, I love fairy toast."  Ed chuckled.  "Too much.  And I like red and purple, too.  And the memory... the baby... that was true.  But... I'm not forty five.  And... I've not always been how... how I am now.  The truth is... I'm more like 1,045.  Not quite but... but close.  I... I was created as an angel in the year 1,000 A.D."

"Oh, come on...  Is this some sort of joke?" Lucky questioned.  "Because it's a really, really weird one."

"He's not joking," Ollie insisted.  "I mean... I don't know about his birth year.  But he was an angel.  That much I'm convinced of.  Jess, too."

"Me too," Steve added.

"Was..." Demi-John echoed.

Ed nodded.

"I, umm, I fell...  So... so I'm actually a demon now."

"All right, I'll bite."  Lucky rolled his eyes.  "Why did you fall, demon Ed?"

Ed proceeded to tell the same abbreviated story he'd told Ollie and Jess. 

"I... I'm sorry," Lucky choked out, his levity gone.  Others had tears in their eyes.

"Thanks, man.  'Ppreciate that.  And I know it's hard to believe and... and I'd prove it to you but... but I'm afraid to use my powers.  It might... attract them.  I... I got so worked up yesterday that I... I did.  And that concerns me and I don't want to make it worse."

"Ollie and I saw it.  Steve, too," Jess affirmed.  "He... well, he had this eerie blue glow and things fell from the shelves and... he's not lying."

"What did happen yesterday?" Karl asked.

Ed heaved a sigh before continuing.

"Steve and I went for a walk.  To get the chocolate."  Ed waved to a partially eaten box on the counter.  "On the way back, Iggy... that's my boss... came up to us.  Steve couldn't see him.  But I could. Hear him, too.  See... I... he'd brought me here to... to possess Steve.  Something I am NOT going to ever, ever do," he hastily assured.  "Iggy was mad that I'd not and... and threatened to... to do it himself.  That's when I panicked, grabbed Steve, and ran back here.  That's why I was so out of sorts yesterday."

"I trust Ed," Steve added.  "If he wanted to possess me... he's had ample opportunity.  Even yesterday.  I mean... I barely left his side.  We were alone.  He could have done it.  But he didn't."

The group sat in contemplative silence for a few moments before Karl spoke.

"Frightenin' stuff.  But... at least he's a good few steps up from that Jason bloke.  Hated him."

"Never even met the man.  Still hate him," Lucky agreed.

Steve's face flushed.

"All right then...  That's enough of that.  Does anyone have any questions?"

Baptiste's hand shot up and Steve waved to him.

"Yes, Baptiste?"

"What are we going to do to keep this Iggy guy away?"

"Ollie?" Steve called.

"Right.  Yeah.  So Jess and I already went around the house with holy water and incense.  But I was thinking we could all add some things.  Whatever you believe... whatever you want to do.  I would think that, together, we'd be pretty powerful."

"What if someone isn't so much into the God/gods thing but is very, very gay?" Lucky asked.  "Might said person be able to... I dunno... sprinkle some glittery rainbow things around in the yard?"

Jess laughed.

"Sure, why not?"

"I mean there's that Noah story.  So, like, rainbows are kinda religious, right?" Lucky added.

Steve smiled.

"You can add all the rainbows you'd like, Lucky.  So... shall we forego a movie and work on that?"

Once the others readily agreed, they hurried off to the craft room.

When only he and Steve remained, Ed let out a shuddering breath.

"They took it so well..."

"Of course they did, Ed.  You're their friend."

Ed rested his head on Steve's shoulder as he hugged him tightly.

*~*~*

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

The following afternoon, Ed and Steve spent some time winterizing the house.  Steve pushed copper mesh into little crevices while Ed trailed behind him with a caulk gun.  Once they were finished, they toured the yard, admiring the various talismans and symbols that had been added.  Saint statues and crosses mingled with Scottish rowan charms and Ethiopian kitabs and rainbow pinwheels.  Wind chimes had also been added to most of the trees and bushes.

"Not really sure what the thought there is but Lars insisted."  Steve smiled lovingly as he batted at one, eliciting dulcet tones.

"Music is its own magic, I suppose," Ed mused.  "I appreciate all of this.  Truly."  He reached into his shirt and pulled out the vial of holy water that Jess had given to him.

Steve clutched his own vial.

"I just hope something in all of it works.  I want you to feel safe."

Ed squeezed Steve's free hand. 

"I do, Steve."

"Can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"Did something happen... before that Iggy showed up, I mean?  You seemed out of sorts all of last week."

"I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to upset you."

"You didn't.  Just... worried me a bit."

Ed blushed.

"I... umm... have a confession to make.  Another one."

Steve waved to a nearby swing.

"Shall we sit?"

"Okay."

Once the two were seated, Ed slowly let out the breath he was holding. 

"So... umm...  well... last Saturday... very early... I went invisible and..."  Ed winced.  "I snuck into your room.  I told myself it was to see if you talked in your sleep and if I could learn anything useful.  But really it was just that I feel better with you close by.  So... I just watched.  But... then you did talk in your sleep.  And... you said my name.  And it sounded kind of... fond.  And... and that got to me.  And... I thought some things.  Not anything crude!  Just... fond," he repeated.

"I see..."

"I'm sorry, Steve!  It was creepy and..."

"I snuck into your room last night.  And the night before.  I didn't stay long either time but... I just needed to make sure you were all right," Steve confessed.

"Oh."

"Oh?"

Ed began to laugh.

"We're both creepy."

Steve chuckled.

"So it would seem."

"But since we both are... that makes it okay, hmm?"

"I think it does."  Steve returned Ed's grin then moved closer.

Relieved, Ed leaned in to meet Steve's kiss.

*~*~*

Friday, April 12th, 2019

Ed was humming to himself as he stood in the laundry room, folding clothes and sorting them into neat little piles.

"Ah!  There you are."  Steve entered the room and cocked his head.

Ed gave him a beatific smile.

"Hullo there.  Need something?"

"No...  I just wanted to ask you if you might prefer going to the tea shoppe up the street for a change?  But now that I'm here..."

"Hmm?"

"Well... it just strikes me as odd now...  There's a thousand year old being folding my... my boxers."

Ed laughed.

"Not just yours.  Everyone's.  Briefs, too.  No need to get precious about it, Steve.  I'm perfectly capable of folding clothes."

"Oh, I know.  It's not about being capable, Ed.  Of course you are!  Just seems... beneath you."

"Beneath me?  I'm a demon, Steve."

"But..."

"I like it, okay?  I like sorting the colors.  And I like the smell of the washing and the drying.  Love these little things!"  Ed chuckled as he held up a couple of dryer balls, one shaped like a bee and another like a sloth.  "Cute!  Then I like the sense of accomplishment I get when these nice, little piles grow.  Most of all, I like handing them out, chatting with everyone.  You most of all.  It's okay, Steve."

Steve smiled and nodded.

"Okay then..."

"And I would like to go to that tea shoppe.  Sounds nice.  Oh... But I would like a word about this."  Ed pulled an inhaler from his pocket.  "Found it in your jeans.  Need to be careful with that, mate.  Gotta make sure you have it when you need it."

Steve blushed.

"I do, yes.  Sorry.  Thank you for rescuing it!"

"Course."  Ed handed it over then squeezed Steve's hand. 

Steve smiled gratefully then gave him a quick peck.

Ed beamed.

"So we off then?" he asked.  "I can come back to this later."

"Yes, let's!  You've got to try their London Fog, Ed.  It's delectable!"

Ed continued to smile as they left the house and made the quick walk.  Steve never released his hand, even as they entered the shoppe.  And that made Ed very happy.

*~*~*

This Is Happening

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

A little over two weeks after the "bathtub incident," Steve had arranged a quiet tea for himself and Ed while Ollie and Jess led the others on an excursion to the zoo.  He had something he wanted to say and he didn't want witnesses in case he fell spectacularly apart in the aftermath.

"Here you are... seven sugars and a bit of milk."  Steve chuckled as he handed Ed his mug.  "I've been wanting to ask... do you actually like tea?  Because it's okay if you don't.  I just wonder if you're trying to cover the taste."

"Tea's delicious," Ed replied.  He took a sip then let out an exaggerated, delighted sigh.  "Hmm?"

Steve laughed.

"All right then.  Well, dig in."

Steve watched with amusement as Ed loaded up a plate with sweets and tiny sandwiches.

Ed took a bite of cucumber sandwich then looked to Steve with a raised eye brow.

"You're not eating?"

"I will.  In a bit."

"All right..."  Ed took another bite but the flavor that had so delighted him was gone.  He felt uneasy.  Steve looked on the verge of tears.

"Ed..."

"Y-yeah?"

"Ed, I've been thinking about what happened a couple of weeks ago... with the tub."

"Oh."  Ed's face crumpled.  It all seemed so stupid now.  "Listen, I wasn't thinking.  Or... I was.  Just not thinking... well."

"It... it's not about that, Ed.  Not exactly.  It's about... what I said.  The... the costumes and... I worry sometimes that... that I've trapped you and you're just too kind to..."

"Too kind?" Ed scoffed.  "Mate, I'm only here because I planned to possess you just to save my own skin."

"Well... yes.  At first.  But... but that's been off the table for quite a while, hasn't it?" Steve asked.  There was no uncertainty in his voice, no distrust.  He knew the answer.

"Course..."

"So... why are you still here?  I'm afraid that in my excitement... desperation even... I... I've just kind of pulled you along.  And I... I don't want this to be another prison."  A tear trickled down Steve's cheek.  "I don't want you to be here just because... cause you don't think you have anywhere else to... to go.  I could figure something out for you."

Ed bowed his head.  It was true.  He had no where else to go.  Well, maybe to a homeless shelter. 

"Do you... want me to go?" he asked quietly.

"No... not at all.  But..."

Ed moved to sit beside Steve.

"You're right that I don't have anywhere else to go, Steve.  But... even if I did... I'd still want to be here.  I like it here.  I like... the friendly chaos.  I like waking up to the sound of Karl chattering to his bird friends.  I like watching Ollie look totally smitten whenever Jess walks into the room.  I like helping Demi-John and Baptiste with their constant room renovations.  I even like being sniped at by Lucky."

Steve laughed though tears still fell.

"But mostly... I like being with you.  I... love being with you.  You... make me happy."

"Ed...  Oh, Ed...  I'm so glad.  I was so worr..."

Ed planted a kiss square on Steve's lips.  He sighed when Steve buried his hands in his hair and pulled him closer.

"Oh... my... God...  Is this really happening?"

Steve and Ed froze for a second... then jumped apart.

They looked to the entry and saw Lucky, gleefully gawking.

"Hey there...  So sorry to interrupt you gorgeous, little lovebirds but... just wanted to let you know Rocky and I are back.  He's having a little trouble with his tum-tum.  Okay, byeee."

Lucky winked and grinned before departing.

Steve and Ed exchanged panicked glances.  Then they began to laugh.

"Well, then..."  Steve cleared his throat.  "That was... an experience."

Ed continued to chuckle.  He pecked Steve on the cheek then got up to make up a plate for him.

"Oh... thank you." 

"You think he'll tell the others?" Ed asked.

"Oh, definitely."  Steve blushed.  "He's not in the least bit discreet.  Not like Ollie and Jess."

Ed shrugged.

"Do you care?"

Steve thought for a moment then shook his head.

"No...  No, I don't."

"Good... because I don't, either.  And I meant what I said.  You make me happy, Steve."

"And you make me happy, too, Ed, darling.  So happy..."  Steve rested his head on Ed's shoulder.

"I love it when you call me that, you know?  And good.  And I don't want to leave," Ed stressed.  "But...  I spent hundreds of years taking care of other people.  And now I find... I like being taken care of.  But... I also... I need to contribute, Steve.  You shouldn't have to bear the financial burden of this house alone.  I thought I might... get a job?"

"A job...  But...  How can we be sure you'd be safe?"

"We can't.  Not entirely.  But... I have the holy water.  I'll always wear it around my neck.  In case of emergency.  I saw a 'Help Wanted' sign on Fangs, Fins, and Friends.  I think I might like that, if they'd have me.  Always liked animals."

Steve was distracted by the all too charming image of Ed snuggling kittens and puppies.

"What do you think?" Ed asked hopefully.

"I... I think you'd be a wonderful fit.  But you don't have to..."

"I know.  I want to."

"All right then.  I know Ihsan and Fitz.  Not terribly well but they let us sell some of our soap in their shop.  Good guys.  I could put in a good word."

Ed's smile lit up his face.

"'Ppreciate that.  Thank you.  Now... let's not waste this food."

"Yes, yes...  Ant really went all-out."

"Good man," Ed complimented after taking a bite of eclair.

"Ooh...  Got a bit of cream and chocolate in your beard.  Let me..."

Ed waited for Steve to wipe the bits of food away then rested his forehead against his.

"Can't believe you thought I might want to leave."

"Oh, well...  I know I can be a bit much."

"Naw.  Just enough.  Perfect."

"Oh..."

Steve's face radiated joy as Ed hugged him.

*~*~*

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

By breakfast the following morning, everyone knew what Lucky had walked in on.  Rather than be embarrassed, Steve decided to lean into it, much to Ed's delight.  They greeted each other with a quick peck in the morning and held hands during a group nature walk.

For their part, the men gave Steve and Ed space, deciding amongst themselves to vacate the TV room every Tuesday night so the couple could enjoy a romantic movie night, starting that evening.

That wasn't to say there wasn't some awkwardness.

"Chocolate-covered strawberries?  Really Ant?" Rocky balked.

"Isn't that one of those fancy, sexy foods?" Baptiste questioned as he mixed virgin margaritas for the group's cook-out.  "Apro... dizzy..."

"Aphrodisiacs," Lucky piped up with.  "And yes."  He nabbed a berry and batted his eyelashes at Rocky.

Ant shrugged.

"But, like, can they even?" Demi-John questioned.  "I mean... Ed's not human."

"But he looks like a human," Lars replied.  "Acts like a human.  So... human?"

Ollie walked into the room with Jess beside him.

"We need more napkins."

"Hell, we need to just wrap Karl up in them.  Where did he learn table manners?" Jess scoffed.

"Ollie!  Ollie would know!" Demi-John exclaimed with excitement.

"What would I know?"

Lucky rolled his eyes.

"They want to know if demons can, ya know, do the deed," he relayed.

Jess stifled a laugh when Ollie grimaced.

"Nope.  Don't even want to think about that.  Nope, nope, nope."  Ollie hastily grabbed more napkins and began backing out of the kitchen.

"Sex is a natural thing," Lars pointed out, his voice airy and childlike.

"Right, yeah, it is.  Totally," Ollie agreed.  "But like... they're like... our dads.  Just... no."

The kitchen went quiet.  Ollie had given voice to something they'd all been feeling.  Steve and Ed were like their dads.

Ant shrugged.

"Well, I'm giving Dad and Dad chocolate-covered strawberries and whatever happens... not my concern.  Prudes."

He marched out of the room and into the TV room with his tray covered in treats.

"I mean... I would like to experience coming from a stable, two parent home," Lucky jested... although with genuine feeling behind it.

"Would be nice..." Baptiste agreed. 

Ollie sighed.

"Listen, I don't know the answer.  My instinct is no.  But... sex isn't everything.  They love each other.  So like, yeah...  They're fine.  We're fine."

"Do you suppose we need to get them both Father's Day gifts now?" Demi-John asked.

"Let's see what September brings," Rocky suggested.  "God help us all if this turns into Jasonpocalypse Part II."

Ed chose that moment to step into the kitchen. 

Everyone froze and stared at him.

"Umm, hey...  Dropped my spoon on the floor so just wanted to swap that out..."

Ed popped the dirty spoon into the dishwasher and grabbed a clean one. 

"Is everything all right?" he asked.

Everyone started talking all at once, assuring him all was well.

"Okay...  Great.  Just gonna... go back out there."

Ed gave them an awkward smile then practically ran from the room.

"I feel like someone should tell him about Jason," Jess mumbled.  "But I don't want to."

"Steve won't.  He should... but he won't."  Ollie frowned.  "I don't want to either, though.  Bad memories."

Lucky let out a dramatic sigh.

"I'll do it.  Easier for me, anyway.  I wasn't around for the drama."

Baptiste clapped him on the back.

"Thanks, man."

"Yeah, yeah...  Now gimme one of those margaritas."

Once Baptiste had handed him one, Lucky pulled Rocky onto the patio.  The others cleared out, too, leaving Steve and Ed alone in the house.

*~*~*

Ed re-entered the TV room just as Ant was exiting.

"Enjoy!"

"Thank you.  Really.  Everything looks incredible," Ed praised.

"Happy to do it... Dad."

Ant giggled and hurried out.

Ed blinked in confusion before making his way to the couch where Steve was waiting.

"Ooh...  Look at these!  Don't they look delightful, Ed?"

Ed glanced at the tray of strawberries then smiled at Steve.

"Yeah, yeah they do.  Delightful."

Steve frowned.

"You seem... off.  Did someone say something to you in the kitchen?"

"No," Ed answered truthfully.  It wasn't anything they'd said to him, after all.  But what was the Jasonpocalypse?  Who was Jason, what had he done, and what could he do to never, ever be spoken about like that man was?

Steve's eyebrows raised in concern.

"Ed..."

Ed hugged Steve, wanting to calm him.

"'S nothin'.  Just had a moment.  Have em sometimes.  When... when I'm struck anew with... with the reality of... this.  You."

"Aww.  Well, I am really and truly here, darling.  And so is Pride and Prejudice.  So... shall we?"

Ed kissed Steve's curls then nodded.

"Yeah.  Let's watch.  Saw lots of gushing on the YouTube about this."

"Well, then I hope it lives up to your expectations!"

Steve chuckled and hit the Play button before snuggling against Ed who let out a contented sigh.

Whomever Jason was, he didn't matter.  Only Steve did.

*~*~*

The Truth Comes Out, Part II

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

"Well, hello there!  Steve is going to be very upset he wasn't here for this," Lucky commented as he approached Ed the following morning as he was washing Steve's car sans shirt.

Ed glared then sprayed the younger man with a hose.

"Hey!"  Lucky spluttered.

Ed only grinned at him and resumed sudsing up the car.

"Well... not that I want to hang out with you now but... can I have a word when you finish up there?" Lucky requested.

Something about the way he asked dampened Ed's playful mood.

"Yeah.  Let me just rinse this door off.  Then we can talk."

"Thank you."

Ed hurried to finish up with the door then put his shirt back on and moved to a bench where Lucky was waiting.

"So... everything all right, then?" Ed asked.

"Yeah... yeah.  All's good.  I just... I thought we should have a little chat.  When you first came did you notice that some of us were a bit... hostile?"

"A bit, yeah.  I mean Ollie and Jess already had suspicions about the demon thing.  Did the rest of you?"

"No.  Total shock there.  It's just... you've heard us mention Jason, right?"

Ed nodded.

"Yeah, Steve's ex.  Sounds like a bit of a nightmare.  I figured he'd tell me about him eventually.  His past is his business."

"I love that philosophy.  I really do," Lucky praised.  "But... Jason was more than a 'bit of a nightmare.'  I wasn't here when he was in Steve's life but I know the story and I think, before this goes any further, you need to know it, too."

"Okay...  Just... feels a bit weird.  Gossipy.  Feel like Steve should be telling me this."

"And if I thought he would then I wouldn't be here but... okay, look, it was an abusive relationship.  Steve doesn't like talking about it.  At all."

Ed felt like he'd been punched in the gut.

"But before we get to Jason, we need to talk about Mike."

"Another ex?"

"No, no.  Mike was one of us guys... one of Steve's charges here at the house.  He'd struggled with all sorts of drugs.  Landed here about six years ago.  Got clear through the program.  He moved into an apartment and did really, really well for two years.  Steve regularly checked up on him... like he's doing now with some of the old guys.  But Mike...  No one knows what happened.  But he got sucked back in.  Steve didn't know.  No one knew.  Steve showed up for a visit and found him passed out.  ODed.  Steve called for help but... Mike died in his arms.  Ollie got there not long after emergency services.  He said Steve kept begging them to keep trying to bring him back.  But he was gone.  It... it wrecked him."

"Poor Steve...  Poor Mike..." Ed murmured as tears pooled in his eyes.

"Yeah.  Steve blamed himself.  Because of course he did.  Steve takes too much on, takes too much to heart.  Everyone told him he couldn't have known, couldn't have done any more than he did.  But... it just didn't sink in.  And that's when Jason entered the picture...  Typical story.  Love-bombed Steve.  Right when he was so desperate for affirmation.  Chocolates, flowers, new clothes, love notes... Jason was on top of it all.  But when they hooked up... once they were official... Jason changed.  Nothing Steve did was right.  He'd show up for one of Jason's business functions and be told he looked frumpy or 'too gay.'  Which... how!?  He's gay!" Lucky exclaimed.  "And they always did what Jason wanted to do.  Even on Steve's birthday!  Steve wanted to go to the botanical gardens but do you know where they ended up?  A rugby match.  How is that the same?  And Jason said the tickets were Steve's present!!!  The man hates sports!"

"I... want to hurt this man," Ed sneered.

"Yeah... well, you'd have to get in line."

"Did he ever hit Steve?"

"That's one thing no one was ever quite sure about.  It was Ollie, Jess, Demi-John, Karl, and Rocky who were around at the time.  None of them ever saw bruises or anything... but they also noticed Steve didn't wear short sleeves for a while.  And he's never liked wearing shorts so... hard to say."

"I... I hope not.  But emotional abuse... that's bad enough."

"It is.  Anyway... Steve did have one rule that he held fast to.  Jason was never allowed to stay here.  If they had sleepovers, it was always at Jason's house.  That's part of why no one knows the full extent of what went on.  And remember... all this is happening after the crap childhood that Steve had.  I mean I know you had your trauma... and lots of it... more than anyone should ever bear... but..."

"But I know my Mother loved me," Ed murmured.  "Knew Joshua loved me... accepted me."

"Yeah.  Steve didn't have that.  In fact, he was told that your Mother... Father... hated him... would never accept him.  And he knew his parents wouldn't either if they knew the truth.  You know someone's had a suckfest of a life when the lone bright spot for several years is their ex-wife.  Oh and he had his gran before that.  But she died before he and Maren got married.  By the way... I'm like 99% sure she was a lesbian."

"Maren?  I thought she was married to a man?"

"No!  Sorry.  Steve's grandmother.  When her husband died when she was forty two, her spinster best friend moved in and never left.  I mean... draw your own conclusions but...  Anyway, I keep getting distracted.  Oh but one last thing...  Steve's idiot father even tried to sue him for this house... despite his grandmother being very, very clear in her will.  Didn't work, of course.  But that caused Steve even more anguish.  Thankfully, that was long before Jason so at least it didn't coincide but... disaster of a family life.  As for Jason... the loser ended up killing someone because of his road rage.  Which Steve, of course, blamed himself for because Jason had jetted off after a fight.  Just horrible all around.  Someone died because of that awful, awful man...  The only bright spot was Jason's locked up for twenty years.  So... that was the end of that.  But Steve just spiraled.  He never outright tried to kill himself but... he wasn't eating, wasn't taking care of himself.  Ollie and Jess sent him to stay with Maren and her family for a while.  They still think that's the only reason Steve made it through."

Tears poured down Ed's cheeks.  His fists clenched with rage.

Lucky noticed and frowned.

"Anger isn't going to help him.  The main reason I'm telling you this is... okay, well, I may have overheard a bit more than I let on on Monday.  I heard the whole prison thing.  Steve thinking he'd trapped you.  And that... that's screwed up, right?  You never gave him that impression.  Hell, you're downright clingy... sorry but it's true.  And you handled it really, really well.  But you're probably going to have to keep dealing with that sort of stuff.  Steve has a really hard time thinking anyone would actually like him for him.  Let alone... love him."

Ed nodded.

"Yeah... yeah, I... I'll do... say... whatever..."

Lucky hugged him.

"Thank you.  And... I hope you realize how much I trust you in telling you this.  I can only imagine how helpful this sort of information could be if... if the whole possession thing was still possible."

"Not possible..." Ed stressed.  "I..."

Ed was cut off when Ollie's car came into view.  After it was parked, Steve hopped out. 

"We're back!  Everyone is doing wonder..."  Steve frowned when he got close enough to Ed and Lucky to see their facial expressions.  "What's wrong?  Why do you both look so..."

Ed hurried over and took Steve's hand.  Mindful of Ollie and Lucky and wanting a bit of privacy, Ed led Steve to the other side of the lawn.

"Steve... Steve..."

"What's the matter, darling?  You're scar..."

"No... no.  Don't be scared.  Just... just had to tell you..."  Ed cradled Steve's face in his hands.  "I... I love you, Steve.  I love you so much."

Steve's eyes filled.

"You... love me?"

Ed nodded then tenderly kissed Steve.

"I... I love you, too, Ed," Steve replied once they'd moved apart.

Ed beamed... then gladly accepted another kiss.

*~*~*

Testing out the driving skills Steve had spent the last couple of weeks instilling in him, Ed drove the two of them to the botanical gardens that afternoon. 

"Oh, Ed...  Look at the camelias!  They're so beautiful, aren't they?" Steve gushed.

"Very.  Love all the colors.  The trees, too.  I think autumn is my favorite season."

"That or Spring for me," Steve replied.  "Oh, Ed, look, darling..."

Ed smiled when Steve grabbed his hand and pulled him towards an interesting looking moth. 

They studied it for a few moments before Steve settled onto a nearby bench.  Ed took a seat beside him.

"What were you and Lucky talking about when Ollie and I got home?  I mean... if you can say?  You both looked so upset."

Ed took one of Steve's hands in both of his and brought it to his lips.

"Lucky told me about... about Jason, love."

"Oh..."  Steve's face fell but he managed a smile.  "I like that, by the way.  Love..."

Ed returned his smile.

"I'm sorry you experienced that, Steve.  No one deserves that but... especially not you."

"Oh, well, I should have known better and..."

"Steve, love...  That's the sort of thing everyone says until it happens to them.  Listen, I'm over a thousand years old, mate.  I've seen domestic violence.  More than I'd like to admit.  I've seen how insidious it can be.  Everything starts out wonderfully and then... then it's not.  But you want so badly to believe it'll go back to what it was...  None of that was your fault.  It's all on him."

Steve said nothing for several moments.  When he did speak, his voice was shaky and barely more than a whisper.

"I... I didn't want you to know about all... all of that... mess.  I don't want you to think I'm... weak or... or fragile or..."

Ed gave an adamant shake of his head.

"I don't, love.  Trust me, I don't.  I think you're strong.  So strong!  You overcame so much.  And... and it could have turned you bitter and angry and I wouldn't have blamed you for that.  But... you didn't let it.  And you didn't even let it keep you from trusting people which... Steve, that's so impressive.  It really is.  You... you'd been so badly hurt.  But that didn't stop you from coming up to a total stranger in a bar and... and asking him to dance."

Steve smiled.

"Best decision I ever made."

Beaming, Ed planted a kiss on Steve's forehead.

"And if you ever find yourself doubting this... just know that I met an awful lot of people.  Thousands upon thousands, Steve.  Many who I loved very, very much.  But... none like I love you.  Not even close.  A... a thousand years and... and it was only you, love."

Weeping, Steve wrapped his arms around Ed and buried his face in his neck.

Ed kissed and nuzzled Steve's hair.

Steve sighed, feeling truly safe for the first time in years. 

*~*~*

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

By the following week, Ed was proudly working as an assistant caretaker at Fangs, Fins, and Friends.  The owners, a couple named Ihsan and Fitz, had accepted Steve's recommendation of Ed without question and had offered him the job on the spot.

The only wrinkle had come when they'd asked for his last name.

Scrambling, Ed had glanced out the window and noticed a car drive by with an audacious hood ornament.

"Bonnet," he'd replied.  "Ed Bonnet." 

And so at 3:00 PM on his second full day of work, Ed Bonnet returned home contented but exhausted. 

He was greeted at the front door by Steve and a cup of tea.

"You look so tired," Steve observed, setting a hand on Ed's back.  "Long day at work?"

Ed nodded.

"Bath day.  Fun... but exhausting."

Steve chuckled.

"I can imagine.  Do you want to try taking a nap before dinner?"

Ed shook his head.  As exhausted as he was, he didn't want to go to his room.  Alone. 

"Well, then maybe you could at least get comfortable and rest a bit?"

Steve led Ed to the TV room, sat down, and placed a pillow in his lap.

Ed blinked.  That was new.  Then he laid down.

They were silent for a few moments, watching a TV show Steve had turned on.  After a bit, Steve began to card his fingers through Ed's hair.  Once he became aware, he paused.

"Sorry.  I should have asked.  I wasn't think..."

"Felt good," Ed interrupted.  Really good, if he were honest. 

"Oh, all right then."  Steve smiled and resumed.

Soon, Ed had dozed off.  He awoke when he heard Steve's voice.

"I'd love to see you both but... well, Ed's started a new job and I'm afraid he's tuckered out so I'm not sure a night at the club is..."

Ed stirred and then sat up, peering at Steve through blurry eyes.

"Who is that?"  He waved to the phone Steve was holding.

"Just a moment."  Steve covered the speaker.  "Patrick.  He and Craig are back in town and headed to the club but..."

"We should go," Ed encouraged.  "I'll be fine."  He smiled.  "I think it'd be fun to relive the night we met.  I'll just start chugging coffee."

"Are you sure?"

Ed kissed Steve's cheek then bounced off the couch.

"Absolutely."

"Patrick...  We'll be there.  8:00?  Sounds good!  See ya then.  Thanks for calling."

Once he'd hung up, Steve joined Ed in the kitchen where he was making coffee.

"We won't stay very late.  I know you're tired."

"Already got a second wind and the coffee will help.  I'm looking forward to it.  Love dancing with you.  I just... I hope I meet with Patrick's and Craig's approval."

"They liked you that first night."

"Yeah but that was different.  Easy to like a person for a night."

Steve looped his arms around Ed's waist and nuzzled his shoulder.

"They'll love you."

Ed wriggled around to face Steve.

"Hope so."

He stepped back then held his hand out.

"Practice?"

Steve nodded and began to dance with Ed.

Lucky popped into the kitchen and abruptly halted.

"God...  You two are disgustingly cute," he commented before grabbing a soda from the refrigerator and hurrying out.

"Thank you, Lucky!" Steve shouted after him, grinning.

Ed and Steve laughed and continued their dance.

*~*~*

Though both Steve and Ed considered themselves to be together, they hadn't given any thought to how to describe themselves.  It was simply understood around the house that they were a couple, no label needed.

Until it was.

While Steve caught up with Patrick and Craig, Ed waited at the bar to place their orders.

A man sidled up to him.

"Hey, man."

Ed glanced over.

"Hey."

"What ya ordering?"

"Haven't decided yet."

"Let me buy it for you."

"No, thanks.  I'm good."

Ed stared straight ahead, ignoring the unwanted attention.

Then the man grabbed his arm.

"Cool tats..."

"Don't touch me..." Ed warned through gritted teeth.  The man was clearly tipsy but that was no excuse for being grabby.

"Just wanted to..."

"He said not to touch him."

Ed and the interloper turned to see Steve staring at them.  Ed had never seen such a look in the man's usually gentle eyes.

The drunken man raised his hands.  Then he looked back and forth between Steve and Ed and laughed.

"You're... together?"

Ed saw Steve's steely gaze falter.

The man clucked his tongue at Ed.

"Honey...  You could do so much bet..."

Ed swiftly moved to stand directly in front of the drunk and stared him down.

"I warn you not to finish that sentence," he sneered.  "Now apologize.  Apologize to my boyfriend.  And to me... honey."

The word had never sounded less sweet.

"Boyfriend..." Steve murmured, his eyes going dewy.

"Sorry... sorry..."  The man raised his hands again and backed away.

Ed looped an arm around Steve's waist and continued to glare at the man.

When he was far enough away, Steve turned to face Ed.

"Boyfriend..." he repeated.

Ed smiled and shrugged.

"I feel a bit too old for that.  But he seemed dumb enough to think we practiced law or did taxes together if I'd used 'partner.'"

"Boyfriend..."

"Yeah, you said that already," Ed teased.  "After I did."

Steve giggled, too overcome with happiness to say anything constructive.

Ed chuckled.

"Right, well, let's get a drink to celebrate.  Just... wait with me?"

Steve nodded and hugged Ed's arm.

Ed sighed contentedly.  So he had a boyfriend now.  And that felt fine.

*~*~*

Ed was sipping his mai tai when he felt eyes on him.  He turned to find Patrick staring at him.  The man smiled sheepishly once he realized he'd been caught.

"Sorry.  I'm glad you're still around and that things are going well," he whispered while Steve and Craig carried on their own conversation.

Ed smiled.

"Me too."

"We've just all been really worried about Steve after..."

"I know.  Lucky told me all about it.  I'm glad he's in jail."

"Join the club..."  Patrick's expression softened.  "But he's really happy with you.  Just everything about him... he's so much more relaxed."

"I love him... I don't ever want to hurt him," Ed assured. 

Patrick patted Ed's arm.

"Good."

"Oh!  I adore this song!  Ed..."  Steve turned away from Craig.  "Please dance with me, darling?"

"Love to."

Ed took Steve's offered hand and followed him out to the dance floor.  As they began to sway, Ed listened to the lyrics and peered into Steve's eyes.  It felt as if the singer was speaking about them.

"You saw through me
All this time
I'd forgotten
People are kind.

I was hurting
And you knew
So you showed me
What to do.

You said, "I will listen
Tell it all
When you're finished
We'll talk more"

But I didn't know how
So we took it in turns
And to my surprise
We found my words."

Ed rested his forehead against Steve's.

"I love you."

"I love you, too, Ed.  Forever."

"Forever."

*~*~*

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

"That... that's just so incredibly romantic!" JenniAnn gushed in between sips of the chocolate milk Ed and Steve had given her.

The couple beamed.

"You don't think Joshua will be mad, do you?" Steve asked.

"I don't know why.  I mean we know he was okay with Aziraphale and Crowley when Crowley was a demon.  And we know he's okay with Andrew and me... and others.  So if he's okay with an angel and a demon and an angel and a human... not sure why he'd be opposed to a demon and a human so long as it was a consensual, loving relationship which... clearly."  JenniAnn waved towards her captors. 

"Still...  We'd feel better if you and Andrew would, well, plead our case to him," Ed shared as he opened a packet of Pop-Tarts.  "Want another one?" he offered to JenniAnn.

"What flavor?"

"Looks like...  Wild Berry?"

"Sure."

JenniAnn accepted the treat before answering.

"I mean... I don't think it's really necessary but we can do that if it would make you feel better."  She took a bite.  "Hmm...  Interesting.  I like it.  Thanks."

"It really would help us out..." Steve pressed.

"We'll do it," JenniAnn assured.  "So... not to bring up a nasty subject but... did Iggy every pop back up?"

Ed sighed.

"It took a while... but yeah.  Right after Father's Day, actually..."

Steve squeezed his arm as he resumed the story.

*~*~*

The Possession

Wednesday, September 4th, 2019

For nearly six months, Ed's and Steve's romance had been allowed to blossom into something comfortable and lived in.  They'd settled into a new routine that incorporated Ed's job.  The two still shared coffee in the morning followed by a family breakfast.  Then Steve walked to the pet shelter for mid-morning tea.  On the days he worked, Ed often missed the group's afternoon activity but he was nearly always home in time for afternoon tea.  Since Ed had started contributing to the household, not once had Jess had to ask to dip into Steve's savings... his retirement... to keep the house afloat.

After Ed returned home on Father's Day, he and Steve moved to the patio to take their tea.

Following a few silent moments, Ed squeezed Steve's left hand and brought it to his lips.

"Has today been difficult for you, love?" he checked.

"A bit, yeah.  You?"

"Mother's Day is harder for me.  But yeah."

Steve hugged Ed's arm.

"Well... I'm just grateful I have you.  And everyone."  He waved towards the house.

"But?" Ed prompted. 

"But...  I do find myself wondering what he's up to.  If he's thought of his only child at all today?  If he's well?  If he ever has regrets?"

"I don't know how anyone could let you go and not regret it.  Deeply."

Steve smiled at Ed.

"Thank you for saying that."

"Mean it.  I... I still regret the bathtub incident," Ed confessed.

"Oh, darling...  Don't trouble yourself about that.  It was such a confusing time for you!"  Steve pulled Ed into his embrace.  "You stayed and that's what matters."

Ed set his hand on Steve's chest and smiled.

"Well... that was quite a kiss.  Very persuasive."

"Was it now?  Worth revisiting?"

"Mmm hmm."

Steve chuckled then pressed his lips to Ed's.

They were on their fourth kiss when they heard the door squeak behind them.

Peeking over Steve's shoulder, Ed's eyes went wide.

"Is it someone's birthday?"

"No..."

Steve turned around to find all of their housemates parading out.  Ant led them, carrying a candle covered cake.

"Happy Father's Day!" they cheered as Ant set the cake in front of Ed and Steve. 

"Demi-John insisted on candles," Ant explained with a shrug.

"But..."  Ed pointed at the cake.  The icing read "Happy Fathers' Day, Ed & Steve."

Ollie squeezed his shoulders.

"Of course we included you!  You're Steve's partner."

"And you're out there, supporting the house... supporting us," Jess added.

"You all...  This is so lovely and so appreciated.  Thank you," Steve gushed.  "And, yes, Ed... you definitely deserve to be included!"  He hugged him tightly then rose to begin embracing the others.

Ed followed suit, his eyes rimmed with tears.

"I mean I think I deserve some credit here.  That night they met, I told Steve he should find us a daddy," Lucky boasted before hugging Ed.

"That you did, my boy!  Oh... I love you all so much!"  Steve beamed at them. 

"Yeah...  I just... I love... you..." Ed choked out.

"Eh, stop your bawling," Ant teased.  "Eat some cake!  I tried a new recipe!"  He thrust plates out to Steve and Ed.

Steve took a bite and oohed.

"Ant, you've outdone yourself!  Am I tasting orange?"

Ant nodded enthusiastically. 

"Delicious," Ed complimented.

"Well, you both deserve it," Ant affirmed.  "I think I can speak for us all when I say how much it means to have someone who accepts us... loves us... encourages us."

"And I finally have my stable two parent home!" Lucky cheered.

Ed smiled at Steve.

"Well, neither of us is going anywhere," Steve promised.  He sighed happily.

As everyone dug into their cake, Ed's gaze traveled over all of them.  He had a family again and he would do everything he could for them.

*~*~*

Sunday, September 8th, 2019

A few evenings after the Father's Day celebration, when he was working late because Ihsan and Fitz were vacationing, Ed was feeding the last of the cats when he got an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.  Beside him, Fitz's puppy whimpered.

"Hey there.  It's okay, mate," Ed cooed as he picked up Lil Fang.

The other animals began to pace anxiously and bark and hiss.

"What... what's wrong, everyone?"

"Well... isn't this a sight...  This doesn't look like possessing your assignment to me."

Ed shivered when he saw movement near the front counter.

"But then... you've probably been too busy shagging that stupid, little clod of dust, haven't you?  Well... as much as you're capable of it, anyway.  Freak..." Iggy sneered.

Lil Fang began trying to burrow into Ed's shirt in an attempt to hide.

Anger flared up in Ed but he focused on the poor, terrified puppy.

"Shh... shh... we're fine.  We're fine." 

"Pathetic..."

Lil Fang's front left paw got caught in the necklace Ed was wearing.  Then he heard a snap.

"No!" 

Ed tried to catch the vial but missed.  His heart sank when it clattered to the floor and the stopper popped off... right near the drain. 

Iggy sniffed the air.

"Holy water...  You've been wearing holy water?"

Before Ed could answer, the demon began to laugh.

"How adorable...  And how unhelpful it is now, eh, 'Ed'?"

"Go away, Iggy!" Ed shouted.

Iggy shook his head.

"No.  You're not getting rid of me as easily as last time.  I've been sent to make sure you do your job... or to drag you back to Hell with me."

Ed didn't reply.  He was looking around wildly... searching for something that could help.

"Maybe you just need to do it in baby steps...  Possess the dog, Edgar."

Ed froze and snuggled Lil Fang closer.

"No."

Then a foul, burning smell filled his nostrils.  Ed spun around and saw Iggy holding a cluster of hellfire.

"Do it, Edgar.  Do it or I light this whole place up... and you'll get to watch another of your families suffer and die," Iggy spat out.  "Or... you could go back home.  With me."

Ed swallowed a sob and buried his face in the scruff of Lil Fang's neck.  Then, gently, he set the dog down.

"I... I'll go."

"Very well then."

The hellfire disappeared.

"Hands out in front of you," Iggy ordered as a glowing blue rope appeared in his hands.

Ed obeyed.

They both startled when they heard a clattering sound.

The next thing Ed knew, Iggy was on the ground.  Jess was on top of him... with their knife planted straight through the demon's chest. 

"Didn't count on me, huh, Iggy?" they taunted as they pulled the knife out and drove it through Iggy's neck.

Iggy screeched and thrashed.  He began to blink in and out of visibility.

"That's it... away you go," Jess hissed. 

Then Iggy was gone.

Jess sighed and admired their spotless blade.

"Don't even have to clean it.  So handy..."

Ed began to shake as they sheathed the knife.

Jess at last made eye contact with Ed.

"Steve sent me with some dinner for you but, uh, kinda dropped it on the lobby floor when I saw that dumbass.  I have a granola bar in my pocket if..."

Ed opened his mouth to reply but only a strangled sob came out.  He stumbled back against one of the crates and sunk down.  Lil Fang clamored into his lap.  Ed sobbed into the dog's scruff.

Jess watched, uncomfortable with the display of emotion.  Then they sighed and sat down by Ed, gently stroking his back.

"Hey now...  You're okay.  Got him twice.  Looked uncomfortable.  I figure that'll buy us some time.  Just, uh, don't ever, ever go with him.  First of all, he seems like crap company.  Second of all, I don't want to deal with Steve if that ever happened.  God, normal Steve is emotional enough.  Heartbroken Steve...  I think I'd lose my mind."

Ed managed a hoarse laugh in between sobs.

With an eye roll, Jess looped an arm around his shoulders.

"Hey... it'll be okay.  We'll figure this out," they encouraged.

"So scared..."

"I know."

"Weren't... weren't you scared?"

"Didn't really have time to be scared."

"Oh."

There was a pause.

"That's a lie."

Jess brought their hand up and Ed saw it was shaking. 

"I... I'm sorry.  Sorry you had to... to experience that.  You... don't deserve that," he apologized.

"Neither do you."

Jess withdrew their phone and sent a text message before beginning to hum, hoping to lull Ed.

The job was fully done when their housemates arrived and, as soon as Jess let them in, Steve gathered Ed up into his arms.

*~*~*

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The next morning, when Ihsan and Fitz returned home, they were startled to find all the inhabitants of Steve's house sprawled across their lobby in sleeping bags.  In the center, Ed was curled up with Lil Fang.  Steve slept beside him, a protective hand on his back.

When they awoke, Ed offered an explanation.

"Just, umm...  Had an intruder.  Got scared,."

"Of course you did!  How horrible!"  Fitz patted his employee's hand gently.

"The dogs and cats noticed before I did, thankfully.  Dunno what would have happened if they hadn't alerted me."  Ed sniffled as Steve stroked his back.

"They're wonderful in all ways, of course.  But security is definitely one of them.  You should take a pair home.  A bonded cat and dog.  You've been talking about it.  I think now's the time," Ihsan suggested.  "Our treat.  Fitz and I meant to bring you back a thank you gift but, well...  We got a bit carried away."

Fitz giggled and blushed.

"I'm afraid we did...  What about Ihaka and Kiri?" he suggested.  "They adore you, Ed."

"You're sure?"

"Of course!" Ihsan affirmed.  "Go introduce them to Steve.  See what he thinks."

Ed looked to Steve.

"Sounds like a good idea to me.  Let's go say hello, hmm?"

Ed smiled then led Steve by the hand to one of the stalls.  Inside, a golden retriever laid curled around a tomcat. 

"Kiri, c'mhere, girl," Ed called.  "You too, Ihaka."

"What do their names mean?" Steve asked.

"Kiri means 'tree bark.'  She loves chewing up sticks.  Ihaka means 'he will laugh.'  I thought the markings on his face made him look like he was laughing."

"You named them?" 

Ed nodded as he stroked the dog and cat.

"Well... then I think they're definitely meant to be ours.  And if they can offer even a few moments' worth of warning if Iggy returns... I'll be grateful to them."  Steve reached in to pet Ihaka.  "You're a very handsome fellow... just like your new daddy, hmm?"

Ed laughed.  He hadn't really thought about the fact that the black and gray cat matched him.

"And you... you're very sweet.  Aren't you, girl?  Oh, yes..."

Ed's smile grew.  Even though Steve wasn't the biggest fan of dogs, he could tell Kiri would win him over in no time.

Demi-John hurried over.

"Are we getting a dog and cat?!" he asked with evident excitement.

Steve nodded.

Demi-John hurried back into the lobby to share the good news.

Once they were alone again, save the pets, Steve wrapped his arms around Ed and pressed a kiss to his temple.

"I'm so glad Jess got here in time...  So glad you're safe.  God, Ed...  If... if I'd lost you..."

Ed clung to his boyfriend and wept, letting out all the fear and anguish he'd felt when Iggy was there.

*~*~*

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

For two months, all was peaceful.  Ollie and Jess replaced Ed's necklace with a stronger chain.  Kiri and Ihaka settled comfortably into their new home and were soon spoiled rotten.  And Steve and Ed fell more deeply in love.

On the morning of Halloween, Steve proudly dropped a cardboard box into Ed's lap as they sat on the patio.

"Open it, open it!"

Ed chuckled.  He knew what was in the box... had known since that fateful day in the bathtub.  Nonetheless, he pulled away the tissue paper with excitement.  Inside were some purple velvet pants that Ed was quite sure weren't historically accurate.  Nonetheless, they felt heavenly and he couldn't wait to try them on.  Also inside was a billowy beige shirt, black boots, and a bandana that matched the pants.

"Aww, thanks, mate.  It's great.  Can't wait to put it on."

"It came with an eye patch but I took that out.  Seemed stereotypical.  And maybe ableist.  And... I didn't want one of your eyes covered.  I love your eyes," Steve gushed.

Ed cupped his boyfriend's chin and kissed him.

"I love your eyes, too.  Since I'm off today, should we put them on now?  Make the most of the day?"

"I'd love that!  Meet you back here?"

"Sounds good."

The two parted with a kiss.

Ed was the first to finish changing and made his way to the patio.  As he waited for Steve, he perused the yard.  He was inspecting an old, decaying shed, searching for evidence of termites, when he heard laughter.  Turning around, Ed saw one of their neighbors gawking at him.

Niles and Chad were twins... tech bros who spent half the year in their native U.K. and the other half of the year next door to Steve's place.  Unfortunately, that half year had started in September and had brought the household nothing but annoyance since.

"A little old for Halloween, aren't you, gramps?" the twin scoffed.

Ed had no idea which twin was speaking.  He didn't care. 

The second twin stepped into the yard and started laughing.

"My God...  Never know what to expect from you lot.  Argh, matey!"

Ed rolled his eyes.

"And a good morning to you, too."

"I suppose Steve has a costume, too?" Twin #1 asked.

Ed only shrugged.  He hoped Steve wouldn't come into the yard.  Even though he knew the two were rotten, he was still susceptible to their taunting.  Apparently they'd played together as children, back when the twins had lived next door with their parents.

"Well, in any case, we're off for the day... going to work like actual adults," Twin #2 sniped.

"How very dull for you," Ed shot back. 

He glared at the two as they got into their expensive, pristine car and drove off.

Ed sighed with relief when they disappeared around the corner.  Steve wouldn't have to deal with them. 

"Oh, Ed...  You look so handsome.  I mean... you always do, of course, but..."

Ed sized Steve up, too, as he approached.  He looked very fetching in his black pants and black tunic with quite the deep V-neck, matching laces criss-crossing his chest.  A red sash was tied around his waist as a belt.

"You look... wow...  You look incredible, love," Ed praised.  "Happy Halloween!"

"Happy Halloween!" Steve echoed before kissing Ed.

"Oh look...  Gay pirates.  Fun," Lucky teased as he stepped onto the patio.

"Oh, shut up..." Ed responded with a smile.  "You're just jealous you don't have a cool costume."

"I'll have you know that I'm dressing up as Loki and Rocky is going as Thor... both of whom I believe are very cool.  Anyway...  Ant's having a meltdown.  Baptiste accidentally spilled the milk and now we won't have any for his special Halloween biscuits," Lucky reported.

"I can run to the store and grab some," Steve offered.

Ed shook his head.

"You stay.  Let me handle this.  We still have to get the party decorations up and you're much better at that than I am."

"Can I tag along?" Lucky requested.  "You may need help fighting people off because you are wearing that costume, Ed."

Steve giggled.

"You really are...  Very... hot."

Ed blushed but was quite pleased with himself.

"Fine, Lucky.  You can go.  Be back in a jif."  Ed promised before kissing Steve's cheek.

"Be safe!" Steve called as the two headed to the garage.

*~*~*

At the grocery store, Ed and Lucky retrieved the milk... and a few impulse purchases.  While Lucky's assistance wasn't needed in fighting anyone off, his services were sought as a photographer.  Multiple people approached Ed to get their pictures taken with him.  He happily complied... although he winced a little when a young boy said he looked like "an old Blackbeard."

The duo's jovial mood shifted when they were loading their groceries into the car.

Lucky gave a sudden yelp.

Ed's eyes shot up and he saw two demons, one with his hand over Lucky's mouth.

"Iggy sent us.  He's lost patience with you, Edgar," the one not holding Lucky barked.

"Let the boy go," Ed demanded.  "This has nothing to do with him."

"We'll let him go... if you come with us."

Lucky squirmed, trying to get away.

"All right...  Just... let me leave a note.  Please," Ed begged.

The unusual request caught the demon off-guard.  He shrugged.

Ed turned around... then untwisted the vial of holy water from around his neck.  He whirled back around and poured the contents over the two demons.  As they screamed, Ed pulled Lucky away and threw him into the car.  He climbed over the hood of the car, got inside, and gunned it.

"They're following us!  Why are they following us?" Lucky screamed.

Ed's gaze remained focused on the road.

"Wasn't really enough for two.  Just delayed them, I guess."

"Jesus... Jesus... Jesus..." Lucky cried out.

"Don't let us get stopped, don't let us get stopped..." Ed repeated over and over as he continued to speed.

"They're so close!  How can they run that fast?!"

"They're demons, Lucky!"

"You can't run that fast!"

"Could if I wanted to."

"Yeah, sure...  Oh, God.  One's on the boot!"

Ed sped the car up, sending the unsuspecting demon flying.

Soon, the house was in sight. 

Ed raced into the driveway, hitting the mailbox in the process.

Peering behind them, Lucky gasped.

Ed stopped the car and turned around.

The two stared at the demons... pounding on the air as if it was a wall.

"The charms and all that...  They actually work..."  Lucky exclaimed.  He turned to Ed, his eyes huge. 

Ed nodded. 

"Thank God.  Now...  Run inside."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to get the groceries and then I'll be right in."

"Forget the groceries, Ed!"

"Ant needs milk!  Just run, Lucky!"

"You're an idiot!" Lucky screamed before hurrying out of the car and bolting for the front door.

Ed exited the car and walked to the trunk.  As calmly as possible, he collected their bags then looked once more at the two demons.

He simply shook his head then entered the house.

*~*~*

Ed peered out the window as Lucky relayed the story to the entire household.  He could still see the two, skulking around... looking for a weak spot in the perimeter.

"It wasn't enough holy water..." Ollie lamented.  "We were so stuck on that Iggy guy that I didn't think about what would happen if more than one showed up."

"Maybe Ed needs a spray bottle," Jess suggested.

"And what about when a whole army shows up?" Rocky questioned as he stroked his boyfriend's back. 

"What if... if Ed just did what they wanted?" Steve offered.

Ed whirled around.

"What did you say?"

Steve rose and went to his side.

"What if you... possessed me?"

"Absolutely not!" Ed shouted.  "Not a chance in... well, hell."

"Agreed," Ollie seconded.

"But what if it was only for, say, fifteen minutes?  Ollie, if for some reason Ed should lose control, you have prayers that would expel him, right?"

"I mean... theoretically.  But I only ever witnessed exorcisms, Steve.  I never performed one.  What if I... can't?"

"We are NOT actually having this conversation!" Ed interjected angrily. 

Steve embraced him tightly.

"I don't believe you would lose control, darling.  I really don't.  I was just asking for a back-up plan.  If we did this... and did it well... they would have to believe that you were doing exactly what you'd been sent to do.  That everything had been a long con.  That... that you didn't really love me.  Then they'd leave us alone, wouldn't they?  For a good while surely?"

Ed shook his head and his eyes filled.

"You don't understand, Steve.  I... I've never done that.  I have no idea where you would go, okay?  What if you went to Hell?  And fifteen minutes doesn't sound like much.  But... time moves differently there.  You... you could go mad or... or worse and I... I would never, ever forgive..." 

Steve stroked Ed's hair as he broke down in sobs.

"I know it's hard, darling.  I know.  But... I have spent my entire adult life trying to make this a safe place... trying to help others to... to be free.  And I'm not going to let that dream die and turn us all into inmates of this house.  I won't, Ed.  I... I can't."

"Steve...  My love...  Oh God..."

"Let's just talk it over, okay?  Make some plans.  And if you still hate the idea after... we'll figure something else out, all right?"

Ed let out a shuddering sob.

"All right..."

*~*~*

Two hours later, Iggy's henchmen still hadn't given up.  And so, with plans made and a determined Steve, Ed had reluctantly agreed to possess him.

The two stood in the middle of the meditation room, holding hands.  Ollie and Jess were facing Ed.  Ollie was clutching a prayer book and Jess had their knife.  If worse came to worse, they would stab Steve's body in a non-vital area in a last ditch effort to expel Ed.

The others were clustered around in a circle, anxiously watching.

"I love you, darling," Steve murmured.  "With all that I am."

Ed was sobbing so hard he could barely speak.

"Love you..."

Steve covered Ed's face in kisses then squeezed his hands.

"I'm ready, Ed."

Ed winced at the ground.  A blue light began to form around him.  He stared at Steve, his face awash in anguish.  Then he stepped forward, into Steve, and disappeared.

Steve flinched then he met Ollie's and Jess' gaze.

"Ed, is that you?"

Ed-as-Steve nodded... then clutched his stomach and hurried over to a wastebasket where he proceeded to vomit.

"I... hate... this..." Ed choked out.

Lucky knelt beside him and stroked his back.

"Hey... hey there...  I know you do.  But none of this is going to be worthwhile if we don't follow through on the plan, right?  So... give me a scary face."

Ed tried.

"Oh god... that's pathetic.  Try again."

Ed tried once again to form Steve's face into something terrifying.

"Better!  Hey, that's better!  There you go.  One more time."

Ed grimaced. 

Baptiste and Lars stepped back.

"Good job!" Lucky cheered.  "Okay, everyone... and scene!"

The others all fled the room and then out of the house, screaming.

Ed tore out after them.

"I'm sick to death of all of you!  All of you!" Ed shouted once they were in the yard.  He noticed the two demons were staring at him.  Good. 

"Steve... Steve, why are you acting like this?" Rocky questioned.

"Because you're all..."  Ed paused.  He'd forgotten his line!  "You're all... all..."

"He told me I was a waste of space!" Lucky bellowed.

"You're all wastes of space!" Ed screamed. 

"Captain...  But... but we love you," Lars cried. 

"I hate you all!" Ed roared.  "I'm gonna burn this whole place down!" 

The men's shrieks and cries grew in volume as Ed pulled a lighter from Steve's pocket.  He struck it against the old shed and soon it was ablaze.

"But that shed means so much to you!" Demi-John protested.  "Why are you doing this, Steve?"

Ed-as-Steve only cackled and watched with a look of perverse enjoyment as Jess and the men feigned being frozen in place, unable to intervene as the flames overtook the shed.  When he looked to where the demons had been, there was no one.  He walked all along the perimeter, searching.  They were gone... hopefully off to report to Iggy that Ed had finally done what he'd been sent to do.

Ed hurried over to the others.

"Time?" he demanded.

"It's only been ten minutes," Ollie reported.  "We're doing fine."

Ed shook his head.

"They're gone.  I... I don't want to wait another five minutes.  I... need to get him back."

Ollie patted Ed's back then motioned for Jess.

"Back to the meditation room.  Guys, we'll be back.  Keep an eye on that, please."

"Can we keep a bit simmering?" Demi-John requested.  "Could make s'mores later."

"Uh sure," Ollie agreed.  "C'mon, Ed."

Ed was shaking by the time they got to the meditation room.

"Do you think you can do it on your own?" Ollie checked.

"L-let me tr-try," Ed chattered.

"All right...  Go."

*~*~*

Steve wasn't entirely sure what he'd expected... but it wasn't this.  There was no fire.  No screams of the damned.  Just silence... and a very long, cold stone cell. 

When he'd first arrived, he'd been surrounded by drawings of people he didn't recognize but took to be members of Ed's iwi.  Names were inscribed under each one.  There were animals, too, many of which Steve did recognize.  As he walked, the quality of the drawings degraded.  The names disappeared.  Detailed images became only outlines... then devolved further into scribbles.

"Ed... My poor Ed..."  Steve wiped away tears.

Eventually, Steve came to metal bars... the end of the cell.  He peered out but there was only a void... and then he saw a shape in the void.

There was a man... or a demon he supposed.  Short, bearded, and gray.  His eyes were cold and sharp but, in that moment, shocked.

"What are you doing here?!" he shouted.

Then everything disappeared.

*~*~*

Steve came to with Ed clinging to him and sobbing.

"Hey... hey, I'm back.  It's okay.  Ed... calm down, darling," he soothed.

"Steve..."

Ed continued to cling and peppered Steve's face with kisses.

Steve smiled at him and brushed tears and matted hair from his face.  Then he grimaced.  He had a very unpleasant taste in his mouth.

"I... I threw up," Ed confessed.

"Oh...  Poor darling..."

Steve held Ed until he finally calmed down.

Once he did, Steve smiled at him.

"So, uh, how did it feel to be inside me?" 

"Awful.  Bloody hated being inside you." 

"Well, then hopefully you'll never have to be inside of me again.  I imagine it was awful."

"Oh my God... make them stop," Jess hissed.

Ollie, so relieved that everything had worked out, couldn't stop giggling.

"But if anyone had to be inside of me, I'm glad it was..."

"Stop it, Steve," Ollie finally got out.

Ed and Steve both turned to him.

"What?" they asked in unison.

"Think about the things you've just said and how they sound," Jess huffed.

Ed and Steve looked to each other, their heads tilted in confusion.  Then, in the same instance, it came to them.

"Oh..."

"C'mon...  Steve, you still gotta get outside to do your last bit just on the off chance someone is still lurking about," Ollie directed.

"Right... and then I'm going to brush my teeth."

"Really sorry..."

"Completely understand, Ed.  And... and we'll talk.  Soon."

Steve squeezed his hand then left with Ollie and Jess.

Ed followed them to the kitchen and watched from there as Steve ran into the yard and surveyed the damage.

"No!  No!  Not the shed where my dear, dear grandpapa proposed to my dear, dear grandmama!" he lamented.

Ed chuckled.  So dramatic.

Then Steve was back at his side.  Ed followed him to the bathroom and, even though he felt more than a little silly, he wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in his back as Steve brushed his teeth.

Once Steve was finished, he kissed his boyfriend.

"Everything's fine now.  Let's not let it ruin the day, darling.  This is our first Halloween together."

"Yeah... yeah, okay."

"Good."

Steve squeezed Ed's hands.

"Now, come help me finish with the decorations."

Ed nodded and let out a deep breath.  He was safe.  The household was safe.  And, most importantly, Steve was safe.

*~*~*

That evening everyone, including Kiri and Ihaka, gathered around the remains of the shed.  They were all wearing their Halloween costumes and filled up with candy and other treats... but there was always room for s'mores.

Ed and Steve sat a little ways off, snuggled together on a swing. 

"Ed?"

"Hmm?"  Ed raised his head from where it rested on Steve's shoulder.

"I... I wanted to talk about where I went when you possessed me."

"Was it very scary?" Ed asked, regret writ all over his face.

"No...  Not scary.  Just sad.  I... I think I was in your cell, darling.  I saw your drawings... of... of your people?"

Ed nodded as tears welled in his eyes.

"And I saw how... how they degraded.  How you must have struggled...  Oh, Ed...  I'm so sorry you went through that.  Never again.  Never, ever again..."

"Thank you," Ed murmured, snuggling back down into Steve's neck. 

"I think I saw Iggy, too."

Ed shot back up.

"He seemed surprised I was there.  That's odd, isn't it?  I mean... that was what he wanted, right?  But I think it's good that he saw me.  He'll know with his own eyes that you did what he told you to do.  He doesn't have to know that it was also what I told you to do."

Steve smiled gently.

"I think we'll be fine.  I really do."

"Hope so.  I... I missed you so much."

"It was only ten minutes."

"Too long..."

Ed settled back down and drifted to sleep as Steve stroked his back.

Steve let out a sigh.  His memory traveled back to "the bathtub incident" when he'd first told Ed that he'd already gotten their Halloween costumes.  He couldn't quite remember what he'd imagined.  But it hadn't been this.  Not Ed asleep in his arms...  Not them loving each other so deeply that they'd out-tricked Hell.

For the first time in a long while, Steve stared up at the moon and imagined its Creator looking down on them.

"Thank You," he whispered.



*~*~*

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

Following the possession, Steve watched Ed like a hawk.  While he was his usual thoughtful, affectionate self; he seemed sluggish.  And very clingy.  But then Steve had expected... and certainly didn't mind... that last bit. 

On Sunday afternoon, with Ant's help, Steve planned a picnic in the backyard for the two of them.  He was relieved when Ed seemed to be taking pleasure from the food and the frozen lemonade.

"Darling, is there anything I can do to help?" Steve asked between bites of chicken salad.  "You haven't seemed yourself since..."

"I'm okay, love," Ed assured.  "Spose it did take a bit out of me."

"I'm sorry.  I didn't even think of the strain it might put on your body," Steve apologized.

"Don't think it was that.  Just...  Not been that scared in a long time.  Scared we... we wouldn't get you back.    Shock to the system, I suppose."

"I'm sure.  Well, we won't do that ever, ever again."

Ed gave him a smile.

"Good."

In hopes of furthering brightening his boyfriend's mood, Steve withdrew a small box from his pocket once they were finished with their lunch.

"I picked something up for you when Lucky, Rocky, and I went to the farmer's market a couple weeks ago.  I meant to give it to you on Halloween but well...  Slipped my mind with everything."

"Aww, mate...  You spoil me.  Thank you."  Ed's smile grew as he accepted the package and tore off the lid.

"The moment I saw it, I couldn't stop thinking about how lovely it would look in your hair," Steve explained. 

Ed examined the silver, star-shaped barrette.  The shape mimicked the tattoos on his arms. 

"Steve...  It's beautiful.  Thank you, love.  Could you..."  He held the barrette out to Steve.

"Of course.  It'd be easier with a brush but... my fingers will do for now, I think."

Steve moved behind Ed and gently brushed his fingers through his hair.  Then he took a handful from each side of Ed's head and brought them together at the center in a partial ponytail.  He used the barrette to keep it in place.

"There...  Just like I thought.  I liked that the star was hollow so your hair fills it in.  Like a galaxy of stars... silver against black."  Steve snapped a photo then handed his phone to Ed.

"It... it looks beautiful."

"Of course it does!  You have beautiful hair." 

"Thank you."

Steve gave Ed a squeeze then pulled him back so he was reclining against his chest, his arms locked around Ed's chest.

"You're so welcome, my darling."

Ed felt his eyelids begin to droop as Steve softly swayed and hummed.  He felt so comfortably drowsy for the first time in days.

With his last bit of energy, he smiled and gently pushed Steve to the ground.

Steve smiled back at him and buried a hand in Ed's hair as he kissed him.

Then Ed rested his head on Steve's chest and went to sleep with a smile still on his lips.

*~*~*


Maren

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

"STEVE!!!"

Ed stood on the front porch and looked on, feeling a bit nervous, as a woman jumped out of a van and barrelled towards his boyfriend.

Steve laughed as he caught her up in a hug.

"Ah, Maren...  I've missed you so much!  How was the ride?"

"Oh, fine.  Definitely need a break from the children, though..."

A man, Dan surely, opened the back door of the van and two children rushed out.

"Uncle Steve!"  The little girl, like her mother, launched herself at Steve.

"Annie!" Steve scooped her up and hugged her.  "Oh, I've missed you...  Are you having a good summer?"

"Yeah.  Can we go to the zoo?"

"I think that can be arranged!"  Steve set her down then turned to her younger brother.  "Lance...  How you doing my good sir?"

Lance smiled shyly from behind his mother's skirt then stepped forward to hug his uncle.

"Good," he answered.  "Long ride."

"I know.  But I'm so glad you braved it."

Dan approached and clapped Steve on the back.

"How you doing, Steve?  You look great!"

"Oh, well, thank you.  I am great.  I... well..."  Steve waved Ed over.  "Everyone, I'd like you to meet my boyfriend, Ed Bonnet.  Ed... Maren, Dan, Annie, Lance."

Ed smiled at them all.

"Hullo, nice to meet you all."

"Are you our uncle, too, now?" Annie asked.

"Oh, well, umm..."  Ed wasn't sure how to reply.

Steve looked to Maren who shrugged.

"Yes, he is," Steve answered, squeezing Ed's hand.

"Great.  Can I have a snack, Uncle Ed?" Annie requested.

Ed chuckled.

"As it happens... I believe Ant was just taking some biscuits out of the oven.  They looked very yummy.  Should we go inside?"

"Yes!"

Annie tore ahead with the others following.

As Ed walked back to the house, he felt Maren's eyes boring into him.  However, he was seemingly forgotten once they were inside and the group descended on their guests, fussing over them.

Ed drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out, hoping he could impress Steve's best friend.

*~*~*

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

Ed awoke at a little after 5:00 and struggled to get back to sleep.  After fifteen minutes, he gave up, pulled on his robe, and ambled down the stairs to start coffee.  He startled when he saw movement on the patio.  Then he realized it was Maren.  She'd set up an easel and was painting.  She turned around then and saw him.

Ed waved and, when she smiled, stepped onto the patio.

"Another early bird!  Even earlier than Steve."

"Yeah.  Usually sleep for another hour at least but... wasn't happening this morning.  That's beautiful."  Ed motioned to the canvas.

"Thank you.  I love sunrises.  Steve tells me you draw?"

"Oh yeah...  Nothing nearly so impressive as that.  Doodles."

Maren scoffed.

"Modest.  So unlike..."  She shook her head.  "He showed me some of your drawings.  I think they're more than doodles, Ed.  Anyway... would you mind if I painted you?  Always nice to have someone new to paint."

"Oh, umm,  yeah.  Sure."

Maren waved to a chair and Ed obediently sat.  She switched to a blank canvas. 

"You're very handsome...  Beautiful but in masculine way."

"Oh... thank you.  'Ppreciate that."

"Just the truth.  So how long have you and Steve been together now?"

"Nine months."

"And how's everything going?"

"Good.  Really good.  I... love him very much."

Maren smiled.

"I know."

"You... you do?"

"I have spies here."

Ed wondered who they were but Maren offered no further explanation.  Maybe Ollie, Jess, or Lucky.  Possibly all three.

"Look, I know it's weird," Maren continued.  "He's my ex-husband.  I shouldn't be involved in his love life.  But... he's also my best friend.  And after...  You know about Jason?"

Ed frowned and nodded.

"Well, then you understand.  I don't ever want to see Steve like that again.  Never.  God, he was skin and bones when Ollie dropped him off to me.  But... he looks healthy now.  Really healthy."

Ed smiled. 

"Who knew dating a demon could work wonders?"

Ed froze.

"You... know..."

"Spies, like I said."  Maren grinned.  "Look, I'm not gonna pretend that I didn't wanna come over here the minute I heard and boot you back to Hell.  But... I was assured that things were under control.  I even heard about the possession.  Sounds like that was worse for you than it was for Steve."

Ed shuddered.

"Anyway, I figured that if you were willing to risk getting locked up eternally just to be with Steve... you were worth giving a chance.  I do find the whole thing highly ironic given our religious upbringing.  Most of the kids we grew up with who got married in the church are divorced now.  And some of those marriages blew up in pretty spectacular ways."

"No cute divorce ceremonies at the courthouse?" Ed asked with a smile.

Maren laughed.

"You've seen the photo?"

"I have.  I love looking through Steve's old photos."

"I'm glad.  It's good that he has someone here to talk about the past with.  Because it wasn't all bad.  But, anyway... I just think it's funny that those marriages imploded but I married an atheist and did just fine.  Well, former atheist... now agnostic.  Dan had to do a little rethinking once I told him about you.  And now you and Steve...  This is definitely the healthiest relationship he's ever been in."

Ed's face flushed with happiness.

"I mean... I think I was a good wife.  No... I know I was a good wife," Maren continued.  "But no marriage can be healthy when someone's hiding a secret... especially when he's hiding it from himself."

"He loved you so much, he's told me that.  And still does, of course."

"I know.  I've sometimes wondered if he might have come out sooner if he didn't love me so much, though.  But...  Can't change the past."  Maren shrugged.  "He was a good husband, though.  Never forgot an anniversary.  Always made me feel special.  So you've got that going for you."

"He bought us couple Halloween costumes two weeks after we met," Ed shared with a chuckle.

Maren howled with laughter.

"That is the most Steve thing I've ever heard.  The pirate costumes?"

Ed nodded.

"He sent me a photo.  You both made for very handsome pirates."

"Thank you much."

The screen porch squeaked and Steve stepped out.

"Uh oh...  This looks like trouble.  Ex-wife... current boyfriend," he jested.  His face softened when he saw Maren's canvas.  "Oh Maren... I can already tell you're going to capture Ed perfectly."

"Thank you!"

Steve settled an arm around Ed's shoulders as he sat down beside him.

"Has she said anything to scare you off?"

"Not possible."

Steve smiled and kissed Ed's cheek.

"Steve, would you please be a dear and get me some coffee?" Maren requested.

"I can do it."  Ed moved to stand up but Steve pushed him down.

"No, no.  You're posing.  I'll get us all coffee," Steve insisted.

Once he was back inside, Maren spoke again.

"I just... I need to know that you're doing everything you can to keep yourself safe.  Because if he loses you..."

"I am," Ed promised.  "I really am, Maren.  And... and... if Joshua ever comes looking for me again... this time I'll beg for his forgiveness..."

"Joshua?"

"Jesus."

"So... he's real?"

Ed nodded.

Maren let out a sigh.

"And... what's he like?"

Ed's eyes filled.

"Like everything you would hope for him to be."

Maren blinked back tears.

"I... I'm glad.  Steve used to love him so...  I mean I did, too.  But... it was harder for Steve."

"I know.  I promise I'll do everything I can to make things right."

Maren smiled after she wiped at her eyes.

"Good."

When Steve returned with the coffees, conversation turned to the children and Maren's latest commissions. 

Ed felt great warmth for the painter and gratitude to her for being there for Steve when he'd needed her.

*~*~*

Later that morning, the entire crew plus Maren and her family went to the zoo.  The children insisted on seeing everything and the adults tried their best to keep up.

As they were headed up a hill, Ed noticed that Steve was struggling.

"Steve...  maybe we'd better rest.  You're looking a little piqued.  And I think maybe you should use your inhaler," Ed counseled.

Overhearing, Maren, who had been walking ahead with the kids and Dan, dropped back.

"Yeah... yeah probably should."  Steve reached for his pocket then grimaced.  "Damn...  I think I forgot it."

"No worries, mate.  I brought the extra one."  Ed pulled an inhaler from the pocket of his cargo pants and handed it to Steve.

"Oh... thank you, darling."

Ed steered Steve to a bench and gently patted his back as he used the inhaler.

"Is he all right, Maren?" Dan asked as he approached his wife.

Maren let out a shaky sigh and nodded.

"Yeah...  Yeah, he is.  I... I think I can step back now, Dan.  I think... Ed's the one."

Dan pressed a kiss to his wife's hair, recognizing it was a bittersweet moment for her.

Maren gave him a trembling smile then embraced her husband.

"You all right?" Dan checked.

"Yeah.  I... I'm great, actually," Maren assured.  She let out another deep breath then squeezed Dan's hand and hurried forward to rejoin their children.

*~*~*

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

On Christmas Eve, Maren persuaded everyone to go caroling, ensuring Steve and Ed had a couple of hours to themselves.

The two sat curled up together in front of the fireplace in the library, half drunk mugs of cider on the coffee table.

"Should we do presents now?" Steve asked, his lips grazing Ed's hair.

"Sounds good."

The two went to their rooms then returned, each carrying a bag which they proudly handed off.

"Should we open them at the same time?" Ed suggested.

"Yes, let's do."

Eagerly, the two tore into their packages.

Steve clapped excitedly when he opened his first gift.

"Marmalade!  Four different kinds!"

"I know you love it.  I thought it might be good to branch out beyond orange.  Though there's some of that, too."

"I can't wait to try it!  Thank you!"

"Course." 
Ed laughed with delight when he opened a tin that contained over a dozen types of sprinkles and colored sugar.

"So you can really go crazy with your fairy toast," Steve explained.

"That'll be so much fun!"

"I hope so
.  Now... onto the next?"

"Onto the next," Ed assented.

"Oh, Ed..."  Steve admired the hand-drawn greeting cards he'd pulled from his bag.  Each one bore the image of a different shade of camelia, some with moths resting on them.  "I won't want to send any of these... they're so beautiful."

"I figured.  So I made two of each design.  Keep one, send one."

Steve grinned.

"You know me so well, darling."

"I do," Ed averred, returning Steve's smile.  "And... how appropriate.  Look at all those colors!"  He showed off the array of colored pencils Steve had bought for him.

"I hope they work well.  Maren told me they were the best."

"Then I'm sure they are.  I'm excited to try them out, love.  Now... last one?"

"Last one."

When Ed opened his final package, he stared down at it in awe.

"Steve..."  Ed picked up a set of red silk pajamas and rubbed it against his cheek.  "And a matching robe..."

Steve beamed, glad that Ed was so happy.

"Bit of a selfish gift, though," he confessed.  "I know you'll look especially gorgeous in that shade."

"They're so nice, Steve...  So soft and smooth," Ed murmured, still caressing the fabric.

Steve reached over and patted Ed's knee.

"You deserve to have nice things, darling."

Ed smiled softly at his boyfriend.

"Thank you."

"You're most welcome and now... feels like a book..."  Steve unwrapped his final gift then let out a squeal of surprise.  "How... how did you..."

Ed beamed.

"Took a bit.  Lucky had to help me on the computer.  Found it on the web site of a seller in London.  Quirky fellow.  Is it the same edition?"

"The very same...  Oh, Ed..."  Steve proudly held up an old but beautiful copy of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  "Even the wear and tear is so similar to my gran's copy.  I mean... I know it's not the same, of course, but... it might as well be."

Ed smiled sadly, recalling a story Steve had told him about how his gran read A Christmas Carol every year from her ancient copy... until the hateful twins next door had once stolen it from Steve and thrown it into a mucky pond.

"Darling..."  Steve plopped down beside Ed and squeezed him tightly.  "This means so much to me.  So much.  Oh... I love you so."

"Love you, too.  Steve... love..."  Ed buried his face in Steve's hair.  His feelings were too big for words.

*~*~*

Echoes of the Past

Friday, January 31st, 2020

After an exhausting but rewarding day at work... five pets adopted out... Ed had returned home and collapsed on the couch.  It hadn't taken long for Steve to appear, cup of tea in hand.  Soon after, Steve sat on the couch with Ed's pillowed head in his lap.  They were watching a nature documentary about the Amazon.

Ed tried to focus on the show.  It seemed interesting.  But it wasn't keeping his attention.  He'd been in a contemplative mood of late.  He'd been wondering a lot lately about the nature of his relationship with Steve.  He never doubted it.  He couldn't.  But the why of it was a mystery to him.  Why was he feeling these things?  What exactly was he feeling?  Was this "in love" or just love played up to the nth degree?  Why did it feel so different from what he felt for Jess, Ollie, and the guys?  So different, even, than what he'd felt for his people?  What about romantic love made him feel so... clingy?  It made sense with humans who had drives and hormones.  But he had neither.  And yet...  He was happy at the shelter... but several times he'd wished Steve was nearby for a quick hug or peck on the cheek.

And was any of it really that new?  Or just a form of something he'd felt long, long ago?

He remembered celebrating unions and blessing babies.  His work had made him so happy and yet... when the ceremonies and celebrations ended and everyone else went back to their homes together... paired up... in families... he'd felt something.  A twinge in his chest.  He was loved by everyone.  He'd loved everyone.  And yet... he'd been alone.  And he'd felt it sometimes, particularly in the middle of the night when all was quiet.  If he had a nightmare, there was no one to tell it to.  Nor was there anyone to share a private joke with.  God, of course.  But She wasn't there beside him.  Not physically.

Longing.  He'd felt longing.  And now he felt...  Happy.  Contented.  Comfortable. 
Encouraged.  Loved.  Whole.

And deeply, deeply worried.  Because now he couldn't imagine not feeling those things.  He wouldn't be able to cope.

"Ed...  Ed, what's..."

Steve gripped Ed's shoulder and pushed so he was laying on his back, peering up at him.

"Ed... you're crying.  What's..."

Ed sat up and wrapped his arms around the other man.

"Don't... don't lea-leave me.  Never, ever," he begged.  "Everyone here at our house... Fitz and Ihsan a-and the animals... a-and you... you most of all... you... you're my whole world, Steve, a-and if..."

Steve kissed his hair.

"I haven't the slightest intention of leaving you, Ed.  Never, ever," he vowed. 

A fresh sob escaped Ed.

Steve wouldn't always have a choice.  His people hadn't had a choice.  And he was left alone.  All by himself.  And then he'd lost himself, too.

Ed clung to Steve like a drowning man.

*~*~*

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

The house was unusually quiet.

Ed and Steve stood in the kitchen, sipping tea and staring out the window.  They startled when Lucky approached and set a hand on their shoulders.

"You might want to come into the living room now.  Jacinda's speaking."

Steve squeezed Ed's hand.

"I'd like to listen.  Would you like to stay here, darling, or..."

Ed squeezed his hand back.

"Let's go."

Everyone was gathered together in the TV room.  Kiri and Ihaka were snuggled in the arms of Rocky and Baptiste.

As the prime minister spoke, Steve noticed Ed's face begin to crumple.  Then the color started to drain from it.

Ed began to hyperventilate.

"Ed...  Ed, darling, let's step out of the room."

Ed rocked forward, falling off the couch.  Once on the floor, he curled into himself.

"Is... is he sick?" Lars cried in a panic.

"No.  He's having a panic attack.  He'll be fine," Steve assured as he knelt beside his boyfriend.  "It's happened at least once before.  Ed, it's going to be okay.  Remember what we did last time?  Tell me five things you can see."

Ed only shook his head, blind panic in his eyes.

"C'mon, darling...  Five... five things..."

"Turn off the TV!" Jess shouted.  "And stop crowding him!"

"I think we should try to move him to his room.  Get him where he feels most comfortable," Ollie advised.

"Yes.  Yes, let's do that," Steve agreed.  His own mind was filling with images... hand-drawn on cave walls, names lovingly written beneath. 

Ollie wrapped Ed's left arm around his shoulders while Steve took his right.  Together, they got him off the floor.

Lucky hurried ahead, throwing open Ed's door and turning down the bed.  Then he ran into the bathroom, grabbed a fresh bar of soap, and settled it beneath Ed's pillow.

Ed let out a pitiful whine as Ollie and Steve wrestled him into bed. 

Steve untied his shoes and then stood beside the bed, rubbing circles into Ed's hand.

"Don't just stand there!" Lucky cried.  "Lay down with him, Steve!"

"Sh-should I?"

"Yes!  Just... hold him."

"All right."

Steve crawled into bed beside Ed and wrapped his arms around him.

"Deep breaths, darling...  Deep breaths.  Like me.  In...  Out..."

Ed managed to suck a deep breath in then slowly let it out.

"There you go...  Good job, Ed.  In...  Out..."

Gradually, Ed's body untensed.

Ollie and Lucky quietly showed themselves out and shut the door.

Steve loosened his hold enough so he and Ed could lay on their sides and face each other.

Though his hand was still shaking, Ed reached up and cupped Steve's cheek.

"Sorry..."

"You have nothing to feel sorry about.  All of this...  It's terrifying.  A-and I imagine... especially for you."

Tears slid down Ed's cheeks.

"Can't... can't watch another family die, Steve.  Just... can't."

"I know, darling.  We'll all be as careful as we can.  I promise.  We'll get through this, Ed."

Ed shifted, resting his ear against Steve's chest.  He listened to the thump-thump-thump and felt the gentle rise and fall of his breath.

Steve ran his hands up and down his beloved's back and through his hair.

"We'll get through this," he repeated, praying he was right.

*~*~*

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

Eventually, Ed found solace in activity.  As part of lockdown, Ihsan and Fitz had told him to stay home.  So he focused his efforts there.  He sewed masks.  He canned fruits.  He cleaned and sanitized.  He baked bread.  He ensured everyone had a stock of their medications.  He ordered a couple of extra inhalers.

If anyone ordered soap... and there were a lot of people ordering soap... Ed met them at the end of the drive, masked and wearing gloves to exchange the goods for money. 

Since he alone hadn't gotten sick before, he assumed he wouldn't get sick this time.  So he did all of the grocery shopping.

After a month, Steve staged an intervention.

"Just because you can't get coronavirus, that doesn't mean you can't get sick, Ed.  You need to slow down," he insisted.

"Steve's right," Karl agreed.  "No offense but yer clothes are hangin' off ye."

Ed frowned.  He had started needing a belt whereas before most of his pants had stayed snug around his waist without one.

"Also... not to be that guy but... you're looking a little more salt than pepper lately so..."  Lucky winced.

"Lucky!" Steve hissed.

Ed chuckled.

"Leave him alone, Steve.  It's true.  And... I spose you're all right.  But... I'm the least susceptible."

"Right...  But I'm going to assume that every other household in
Aotearoa is managing without sending a demon out to run their errands," Jess pointed out.  "I mean how many demons have you seen in the cereal aisle?"

"None..." Ed admitted.

"Exactly.  So Jess and I can start taking turns.  We'll mask up.  Do the whole thing," Ollie assured.  "Because we'd have to do it anyway if you ended up having a nervous breakdown."

Steve patted Ed's back.

"They'll be very careful, Ed.  I trust them."

Ed nodded.

"All right."

Steve hugged him.

"Good.  Thank you."

"You're welcome but Steve..."

"Hmm?"

"You stay away from the stores.  You can't take any risks, especially with your asthma," Ed stressed.

"100% second that," Ollie agreed.

"I know... I know," Steve assured.  "But now... let's all calm down and try to have a little fun.  Who's up for Charades?"

While there was some grumbling, everyone ultimately agreed and formed teams, ready to put the cares of the world aside for an hour or two.

*~*~*

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

Ed hummed softly to himself as he readied the coffee.  He had to admit he did feel better after four days of not running himself ragged.

That was until he noticed the time.  8:02.  Steve should have appeared by now.

A sick feeling forming in his stomach, Ed made his way to Steve's room and rapped lightly on the door.

"Steve... you all right, mate?"

"You can open the door but... stay where you are," Steve called.

Ed obeyed.  When he peered into the room, he found Steve still in bed.  His nose was red and he looked flushed.

"I'm afraid I have the sniffles, darling.  I'm sure it's nothing but... out of an abundance of caution, I think I should stay in my room."

Ed felt like he'd been stabbed.

"Ed... darling...  No, no.  Don't panic.  I'm sure it's just a cold.  Really."

Ed rushed into the room and sat beside Steve on the bed.

"Ed...  You shouldn't have come in," Steve gently chastised.

Ed said nothing.  He rested a hand against Steve's forehead and cheeks.  He felt warm.  Too warm.  He began to cry.

"Shh...  Oh, darling...  Don't cry.  Shh..."  Steve brushed his hands through Ed's hair.  "It's nothing, I'm sure."

"Steve...  How..."

Steve's face flushed deeper.

"I... I wore my mask.  I swear I did."

Ed's eyes went wide.

"Steve... where did you go?" he demanded.

"No where!  It was only...  Someone showed up for soap a couple of days ago.  You were napping a-and Ollie and Jess were at the store and the guys were watching a movie and so I... I met them at the curb.  We chatted for a bit.  Their mask did slip for a moment but... but only a moment and we were outside so..."

"No... no... no..."

"Ed... I'll be fine."  Steve pressed a kiss to his boyfriend's forehead.  "Now...  Go take a shower.  Change clothes.  Just because you can't get sick... I suppose you could still carry this nasty cold bug.  Then I need you to keep the men calm.  Okay?  Can you do that, darling?  I'll rest so much easier if I know they're okay.  Then I'll be good as new!"

Ed nodded.

"Yeah... yeah.  Okay, love."

"Good.  And if you could just set a tray out in the hall at meal times, I'd appreciate it.  No one is to come in here, okay?"

"Yeah... okay..."

Steve squeezed Ed's hands.

"It'll be okay, darling.  It really will.  We should plan something to look forward to.  Maybe we could make s'mores in the yard next week?  Everyone enjoyed that.  Hmm?"

Ed managed a smile and nodded.

"Sounds good."

"Good!  Now go wash up and then if you could bring me some coffee?  Just to the door, remember."

"Yeah, sure."

"Thank you.  This will give me a chance to catch up on my reading!"  Steve smiled brightly then patted Ed's hand again.  "Thank you, darling."

"Welcome, love."

Ed kissed Steve's brow then left the room.

Once he was in the shower, he broke down in sobs.

*~*~*

Monday, April 27th, 2020

Lucky froze when he stepped into the hallway and, in the dim light, saw Ed curled against the door frame of Steve's room.

"Ed..."

Lucky sat down beside him.

Wild-eyed, Ed looked to Lucky.

"He... he's been coughing a lot.  I... I don't think it's just a cold."

Lucky let out a shaky breath and patted Ed's hand.

"We should call 111.  It'll make him angry but... better safe than sorry.  You can still turn invisible, can't you?"

Ed nodded.

"Great.  So you should go with him.  Keep him company.  We'll manage here."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah.  Actually... I'm going to wake Ollie and Jess.  Loop them into this."

"Okay."

Ed watched as Lucky knocked on the couple's door.  They appeared quickly... as if they'd half-expected to be roused in the middle of the night.

Ollie and Jess hurried over to Ed.

"All right.  Here's what we do...  Jess, go call 111.  Lucky, go turn on the porch light and stand out front so the ambulance sees you.  Ed, pack a bag for Steve.  But first..."  Ollie hugged Ed tightly.  Jess and Lucky followed suit. 

Ed wept, knowing it could be a while before he'd be with them again. 

"A-and you give Steve hugs for us.  When you can.  Please," Lucky requested.

Ed nodded.

"Th-thank y-you," he choked out before hurrying into Steve's room.

"Ed...  Ed, what... are... you..."

Ed winced.  It sounded as if every word was a struggle.  He went to Steve and squeezed his hand.

"I'm packing you a bag, love.  It's time to go to the hospital."

"No..." Steve whined.  "I... I want to stay... here.  With you."

"I'm going with you, Steve.  I won't leave you.  I promise."

"The... men..." 

"Ollie and Jess will take care of them.  And then you'll be back.  But we need to get you well."  Ed rested a hand on Steve's forehead.  He was burning up.  Ed began to panic but pushed it down.  He needed to focus.  "I'm going to get your things now, love.  But I'll be right back.  We'll ride in the ambulance together, okay?"

"Won't... let... you..."

Ed grinned.

"How are they gonna kick an invisible man off, love?"

Steve responded with a gravelly chuckle.

Ed kissed his hair then stepped away to pack.

When the emergency workers entered Steve's room, they saw only a very sick man and a backpack resting at the foot of his bed.

"Ed..." Steve called as he was loaded onto a stretcher.

"I'm here, love...  I'm not going any where," Ed assured.

Just before the ambulance doors closed, Ed saw all the housemates clustered together... holding onto each other and weeping.

*~*~*

Monday, May 4th, 2020

"Now for some good news... Aotearoa New Zealand has now moved down to Alert Level 3 and no new cases of COVID-19 have been reported," the newscaster shared.

Ed closed his eyes and let out a sigh.  He was relieved... but also pained.  Things were improving... but not for Steve.  He'd been intubated two nights previously.

Ed rose from his chair and approached Steve's bed.  He lightly stroked his arm.

"Did you hear that, love?  No new cases.  And I overheard one of your nurses speaking to Ollie.  Everyone's fine back at the house.  No... no one else got sick."

Steve's eyes fluttered open.

Ed smiled at him and stroked his hair.

"There you are, love..." 

Ed bent down to press a kiss to Steve's forehead.

"I love you, Steve," he murmured.  "So much..."

Ed began to softly hum.

Tears trailed down Steve's cheeks as he said the words in his head.

"'Chaaaaainnnn... keep us together...'"

*~*~*

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

Ed awoke from a fitful sleep to the sound of a monitor screeching.  Suddenly, doctors and nurses ran into Steve's room.

Sobbing, Ed stationed himself near Steve's feet and gently rubbed his calves.

"No!  Steve...  Love...  No!  Stay with me, love.  I'm here, Steve.  Stay..."

Ed felt a gentle hand settle on his shoulder.  Surprised, he whirled around and came face to face with Azrael.  A warm, golden light shone around him.

Ed shook his head wildly.

"No...  No...  You can't...  He's not...  No!" he screamed. 

"Edgar..."

"No!  Go away!  He's not going with you!  You can't take him!"

"Edgar...  Neither of us can make that choice," Azrael reminded, his voice soft and soothing.

Ed fell to his knees and grabbed the angel of death's right hand.

Azrael tried to pull the demon up but Ed didn't cooperate.

"Don't... don't take him, Azrael.  Pl-please, please... n-no.  He has... has so much he want-wanted to-to do.  Take... you can take me!  Drag me... right... right back in-into Hell.  Or... or... banish me into... into oblivion.  Any-anything...  Just don't...  Not him...  Please, God, no..."

"Edgar...  That's not how God works.  You know that.  He doesn't trade one life for..."

"I love him!"

"I know that.  God knows that.  But..."

Ed was overtaken by a memory... him raging at the arms dealer, telling him he hoped his descendants died rasping, struggling to breathe just as his loved ones had.  What if, unknowingly, he had damned his own beloved?

"I... I didn't mean it!  God, I didn't mean it!" Ed bellowed.  "Didn't know...  Sorry...  'm sorry...  Take me...  I... I did this...  Steve...  sorry, love.  Oh, love... 'm so sorry..."

"Edgar...  Edgar, stop that!  That's nonsense!  That's not true!  Don't..."

Azrael grabbed Edgar's hands as he started tearing at his hair. 

"Steve...  Steve... I love... I love... you," Ed bleated as Azrael held him tightly, his arms pinned at his sides. 

Azrael gently rocked.

"Love..." Ed moaned.  "Come back..."

He saw Azrael peer upwards.  An odd look crossed his face.

"What... what are you..."

"I've got a pulse!" a doctor shouted.

Ed felt a tight squeeze.

Then the light evaporated and Ed was free to move.  He rushed back to the foot of the bed.

"Steve..."

The medical staff continued their work but the heart monitor beeped normally.

"Love...  Oh, Steve...  Thank you.  God... thank... thank you.  Steve, love...  I'm here.  I'm here..."  Ed resumed stroking Steve's legs until the doctors and nurses eventually left.  When they did, Ed moved to the head of Steve's bed and kissed his forehead. 

"I love you," he rasped, his voice hoarse but tender. 

Ed settled into a chair, rested his head near Steve's hand, and wept quietly.

*~*~*

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

Steve didn't regain consciousness.  Ed knew the doctors were concerned about brain function.  But he wouldn't allow himself to fixate on that.

He remained at Steve's side, telling him stories... stories of his life before.  He pointed at the multitude of stars on his arms and told Steve what each one meant, what milestones in the life of his people had prompted him to add another.  And he told Steve their own story... how he'd felt when Steve had approached him at the bar... how that first kiss had sent him reeling.  He told Steve about every skip of his heart. 

That night, it occurred to Ed for the first time that if he snuck Steve's cell phone into the bathroom at night, he could use it to call the guys.  There would be no nurse seeing a phantom cell phone floating through Steve's room. 

Once it was dark, Ed kissed Steve.

"Just stepping into the bathroom for a bit, love.  Won't be long.  Just want to talk to Ollie.  Hoping to arrange a surprise for tomorrow!"

Ed smiled and patted Steve's hand then grabbed the phone and plopped down onto the tile floor.

It occurred to Ed that if he just called, Ollie might think Steve had awoken.  Ed couldn't bear to hear the disappointment that would cause so, before calling, he sent Ollie a text.

It's Ed.  No change.  Want to talk.  Calling now.

There was only one ring before Ollie answered.

"Ed?"

"Yeah."

"No change, huh?"

"Fraid not.  I think his color is a bit better today, though."

"That's good and... wow.  It's good to hear from you, man.  How are you holding up?"

Ed choked back a sob.

"I'm sorry...  I wish one of us could be with you.  I hate that you're going through this alone."

"Miss you all.  So much.  B-but mostly miss..."

"Steve...  I know, Ed.  I'm glad you figured out a way to call, though."

"Hiding in the bathroom.  So they don't see a floating phone on the camera."

Ollie chuckled.

"Good thought.  We wouldn't want them calling in an exorcist or anything."

"Ouch."  Ed laughed... the first laugh in a long while.  "I'm glad I thought of this, too.  But I think I have an even better idea."

"Oh?"

"Do you think you could call the nurses' desk tomorrow and ask them to prop up Steve's laptop.  I packed it for him.  Not... not realizing how... how bad...  Thought he'd be able to use it, ya know?"

"Yeah..."

"I was thinking you could use it to do those video calls.  You could tell them you were going to...  What's the word?  The tech guy did it the one time when your laptop was dodgy.  Looked like a ghost was controlling it."

"Remote in?"

"Yeah!  You could tell her you're going to remote in to work everything.  But really I could do it."

"That's actually...  That's a really genius idea, Ed!  Good thinking!"

Ed smiled.

"Thank you.  But I... I do want to ask you..."  He let out a shaky breath.  "He... he looks better.  He really does.  But he's still got the tube down his throat and... and he... he doesn't look like himself.  So... do you want me to turn his camera off or..."

Ed could hear Ollie speaking to someone, probably Jess.

"Leave it on, Ed.  I think it would help everyone to see him.  Just... just in case..."

"Yeah... yeah.  I... I think so, too."  Ed peered out into Steve's room.  "Helps to see him."

"I'll call the desk first thing in the morning.  Thanks, Ed.  You... you're doing a great job.  Is there anything else I can do for you or Steve?"

"Just... pray."

"Already on it, man.  Now you try to get some rest, okay?"

"Yeah, okay.  Night, night."

"Good night, Ed."

Ed ended the call then returned to Steve's bedside.

"Got it arranged, Steve.  You'll get to hear from the guys tomorrow, love.  Everyone misses you so much."

Ed brushed some hair from his boyfriend's forehead and kissed him.  Then he reclaimed his spot at Steve's side and prayed.

*~*~*

Friday, May 8th, 2020

True to his word, Ollie connected with a nurse who happily arranged Steve's laptop on a tray in front of him.

Ed opened up Steve's Facebook page and waited for the calls to come in.  He tried not to be too upset by the shock on people's faces when they first saw Steve.  Thankfully, to a one, they quickly moved past that and began talking.  Each of them shared their favorite memories of Steve, many of which included Ed.  For the first time, they learned about an awkward conversation concerning chocolate-covered strawberries among other things.

In addition, Karl gave Steve a report on all of the birds he'd seen coming and going and the assorted houses and feeders he and the men had made.

Lucky supplied a wealth of gossip he'd obtained from the neighborhood's Facebook page while Rocky added his own color commentary.

Demi-John and Baptiste played "Amazing Grace" for Steve on the piano and guitar, respectively.

Ant listed off all the amazing treats and meals he was going to make for Steve and Ed as soon as they were both home.

Ihsan and Fitz popped on, encouraged by Ollie to show off the shelter animals, not realizing it was actually for Ed's benefit.

Not to be outdone, Kiri and Ihaka made appearances, wishing their Daddy Steve well... and sounding amazingly like Lucky and Demi-John.

Ollie and Jess showed off cards Steve had received from the men he'd helped in the past.  They assured him all was well at the house but that he was needed and missed greatly.

In the evening, Maren called.  She showed Steve some artwork the children had made for him... and her finished portrait of Ed.

"You've just gotta wake up, Steve.  We need you!  And the best part of your life... it's just beginning.  You've got Ed now.  And you've got your whole lives together ahead of you.  So you... just do what you need to do but tell Jesus he can wait and you come back to us, okay?" she pleaded, tears in her eyes.  "I... I love you, Steve.  And I'll see you soon."

With tears in his own eyes, Ed sent Maren a heart emoji.

In the last call of the day, Baptiste softly played his guitar as Lars smiled at the camera.

"For you, Steve... and for Ed."

Ed let the tears cascade down his cheeks as he softly stroked Steve's arm and listened.

"I had a thought, dear
However scary
About that night
The bugs and the dirt
Why were you digging?
What did you bury
Before those hands pulled me
From the earth?
I will not ask you where you came from
I will not ask you, neither should you
Honey, just put your sweet lips on my lips
We should just kiss like real people do."

Ed leaned down and kissed Steve's forehead.

Once Lars had finished and the call had ended, Ed sat in silence for a few moments.  He had hoped hearing from their loved ones might give Steve the strength he needed to keep fighting... but it also occurred to Ed that it might have given Steve the closure he needed before letting go.  Fearing the latter, Ed knew there were some things he had to say.

"Love...  I... I would give anything to keep you here with me.  Anything.  But... but if that's not possible... if... if you just can't...  I... I don't want you to be scared.  God loves you, Steve.  He really, really does.  Think... think of how much I love you.  Now... multiply that by the highest number you can think of, love.  That's how God feels about you.  God the Mother... God the Spirit and... and the Son, too, Steve.  No matter what anyone else told you...  I need you to know that Joshua loves you, Steve.  So much.  He... he wouldn't want you to be scared of him.  Never, ever.  I just... I need you to know that.  And... and if you decide to... to go to Them... I... I'll do everything I can to find my way back to you, love.  I promise.  Anything and everything.  I... I love you so."

Exhausted, Ed kissed Steve's hand then rested his head on the edge of his mattress and fell asleep.

*~*~*

When he awoke, he could barely move.  But he could tilt his head just enough to see the gorgeous mop of black and gray hair spread out over the blanket.

With all the strength he could muster, he slid his hand, gliding it over the silken tresses.

Suddenly, Ed's head jerked up.  His warm, brown eyes widened.

"Steve..."

Steve couldn't speak but he peered into those beautiful eyes and hoped they could see the love shining in his own.

*~*~*

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

Steve patted Ed's hand as he paused in their story and wiped at his eyes.

"That... that was you two?" JenniAnn blurted out as she dabbed at her own eyes.

"Whadya mean?" Ed questioned.

JenniAnn shook her head and rubbed at her temples. 

"Azrael...  I know Azrael.  I have this sort of program where angels come to my place and we do crafts and just talk.  Last year, we did a special session where a bunch of em just talked through how they felt about various COVID-related assignments.  And Azrael... he was so emotional.  He didn't name names, of course.  Not even the continent.  But he told us he'd been sent on a tentative assignment with a man who was romantically involved with a demon.  And just the way the demon acted...  The... the desperation and the devotion and the love... it really got to him.  This woulda been nearly a year later and he still... he shook when he told us about it.  That had to have been you two!"

"I imagine so."  Steve smiled at JenniAnn then settled an arm around Ed's shoulders.  "I was in the hospital for another month after that.  Darn virus laid waste to my lungs.  But Ed... You were wonderful, darling.  He never left my side.  And that held true even once I came home."

*~*~*

Home

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

"Oh... look at all the decorations..." Steve murmured.

Ed beamed at him and kissed his hair.

"You deserve it all, of course!  Now... let's get you out of here, mate."

With Ollie's help, Ed got Steve out of the backseat of the car and onto his feet.

Ed hovered near as Steve walked a few paces.  Then he noticed him panting.

"Just need a moment to rest, darling..." Steve assured.

"All right.  But... if you'd prefer I be all romantic-like... I could carry you," Ed offered with an eager smile.

"Oh... well...  Now that does sound rather nice.  Yes, let's do that then," Steve agreed with a grin.

Beaming, Ed lifted Steve into a bridal carry and moved into the house where they were enthusiastically greeted.

Though reluctant to let him go, Ed settled Steve onto a couch in the TV room.

"Can I hug you?  Can I hug you?" Lucky asked as he plopped down beside Steve.

"Oh yes... I would love that."

"Gentle," Baptiste cautioned. 

"Of course!"

Lucky embraced Steve, mindful of how fragile he was.

Ed was glad they hadn't seen Steve in person in the days after he'd first awoken.  He'd been even more thin and frail then.

Everyone took turns hugging Steve and fussing over him.  Then Ant appeared with trays upon trays of treats.

They all ate happily and attempted to fill Steve in on all that he'd missed.  When he occasionally dozed off, they quieted but remained close, sometimes just staring at him in awe.

Knowing that Steve was well taken care of, Ed stepped away and surveyed the house.  He frowned when he saw it didn't meet Steve's standards of tidiness.  He understood how distressing the past weeks had been and how it must have been hard for everyone to focus on chores.  But, for Steve's sake, he would see to it that things were put back in order.  He didn't want anything distracting him from continuing to get healthier and stronger.

Finally, Ed made his way to his bedroom.  It seemed foreign after so many long days and nights at the hospital.

"Are you looking for your stuff?"

Ed turned around to find Jess standing in the doorway.

"My stuff?  It's missing?"

"No.  And we didn't move everything but... Ollie and I took it upon ourselves to move some necessities to Steve's room.  We just figured...  I mean... if I'd watched Ollie code in front of me then, well, I think I might want to watch him like a hawk for a good, long while.  Day... and night.  So I think you should do that.  If you want."

Ed gave Jess a tearful smile and nodded.

"Yeah... Yeah I do want that.  Thank you.  So... can I hug you or..."

Jess smiled.

"Yeah okay.  But just this one time."

Ed chuckled and pulled them into his embrace.

"Thank you."

"Yeah, sure."

Ed stepped back and the two smiled at each other before returning to the TV room.

*~*~*

After dinner, Ed carried Steve to his bedroom.

"As much as I enjoy this... I hope my energy returns soon," Steve admitted with a frown.

"It will, love.  Ollie and I met with a nurse and went through your rehabilitation plan.  You'll get there!  But... baby steps."

"When did you talk to a nurse?  You were invisible."

"Oh, yeah.  Not then.  It was yesterday while you were napping.  We had a socially distanced meeting in the hospital garden.  Went through all the breathing exercises... exercise exercises."  Ed stared down at his and Steve's intertwined hands.  "She said you were the most severe case they had who... who didn't die."

Steve pressed a kiss to Ed's temple.

"I'm very glad I'm still here with you, darling."

Ed nodded and gave him a tearful smile.

"Nurse Elizabeth gave me a good talking to," Steve reported.  "She told me I'd have to accept getting help with, well, just about everything for a while.  So..."  He blushed.

"Whadya need?  Anything, Steve.  I mean just consider that a principality is really nothing more than a glorified carer.  I've seen it all so..."

"I would love a bath."

"Absolutely."  Ed squeezed his hands.  "I'll go get that started then I'll help you."

Steve looked on fondly as Ed fussed around the bathroom, pouring various concoctions into the water until it was bubbly and smelled like a field of flowers.

Once he was satisfied, Ed returned to Steve's side.  He helped get him into the bathroom and undressed.  Steve's face flushed.

"Relax," Ed counseled.  "Not to be presumptuous but... if I wasn't what I am, I think we woulda seen each other in the altogether a while back, hmm?  I can strip down, too, if it'd make ya feel better?"

Steve laughed and spluttered.

"Tempting... but best not.  I'm light-headed enough as is and that just may do me in, darling.  But thank you for the offer."

Ed smiled and helped Steve into the tub.

"This... is... sublime..." Steve exclaimed as he soaked.

"I'm glad.  Let me know if you'd like your hair washed."

"That would be lovely, actually.  Need to get it trimmed at some point.  It's gotten so shaggy."

Ed carefully poured some water onto Steve's head then began to lather it up.

"I like it shaggy."

"Mmm..."

Ed handed Steve a dry washcloth.

"Can you hold this over your eyes, love, while I rinse the shampoo out?"

"Yes.  Thank you."

Ed hummed softly as he worked.

"I recognize that...  What is it?"

"'Like Real People Do' by Hozier.  Lars sang it for us... over the computer... the day after... after you coded."

Steve grabbed one of Ed's hands and brought it to his lips.

"I can't imagine what this has been like for you, Ed.  What it must have brought up for you..."

Ed squeezed Steve's shoulders.

"The important thing is we made it through.  Together.  We can talk about the rest some other time.  Right now... I just want to focus on you."

"All right..."  Steve sighed.  "I've found myself wondering..."

"Hmm?"

"It's... odd, isn't it?  One wouldn't think having a demon sent to possess you would ever be a good thing.  But... had you not been... who would be taking care of me now?"

"You know Ollie and Jess and all the others woulda stepped up.  Maren would probably be here, too."

"Hmm... yes.  But... I would have been alone at the hospital."

Ed nodded.  He had no counterpoint to that.

"Perhaps I should write Iggy a thank you note."

Ed laughed.

"That would absolutely destroy him."

Steve grinned.

"Something I've been wondering..." Ed began.

"Yes, darling?"

"What made you come over and talk to me?  That first night, I mean.  In the bar."

Steve smiled at the memory.

"Well, for one, you looked fabulous.  Easily the best looking guy in the bar."

After a chuckle, Ed puffed up and twirled his hair.

"Well, thank you..."

"You're welcome.  And I mean it but... that wasn't really why.  Normally, that would have made me unlikely to approach you.  I mean... you could have had your pick.  Why me?  So no.  It was your eyes.  I saw... gentleness in them.  But anxiety, too.  Like you didn't think you belonged there.  And I've felt that all my life.  So I thought... just maybe... you were a kindred spirit.  And... you were.  Are.  More than I could have imagined that night."

Tears pricked at Ed's eyes then pooled out.

"I love you, Steve," he murmured into his wet hair.

Steve stroked his arm.

"I love you, too, darling.  Now... I'm feeling much more like my old self.  Could you help me out and then... could you... stay with me?"

Ed nodded and smiled.

"Of course, love."

Working together, the two got Steve out of the tub, dried off, dressed, and ready for bed.

Steve watched curiously as Ed opened one of his drawers and pulled out his pajamas.

"How'd those get in here?"

"Apparently Jess and Ollie were one step ahead of you.  Moved some of my things in here.  Just gonna go change and wash up then I'll be back in a jif."

"Sounds good."  Steve smiled, touched at his friends' compassion.  His breath caught in his throat for a moment when Ed reappeared, clad in his red silk pajamas and robe.  He'd forgotten how beautiful he looked in them.

"Just gotta comb my hair, love.  Then I'll be right there."

"Okay."

Steve studied Ed as he paced around the room, combing his hair.  Sometimes he could scarcely believe someone so enchanting had chosen him.

"All right then."  Ed set his comb down, dropped his robe at the foot of the bed, and then carefully settled beside Steve.  He curled around him protectively.  "This okay?"

"It's wonderful," Steve replied sleepily.

Ed kissed his shoulder.

"Good.  Night, night, love."

"Good night, darling.  I love you."

"Love you, too."

Steve smiled as Ed gave him a gentle squeeze.

Then they drifted off to sleep together.

*~*~*

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

Once they'd heard that Steve was coming home, the men had installed a sturdy hammock in the backyard so he could rest in the fresh air.  A heater was placed nearby to ward off chill.  It was perfect... except for when the twins were also outside.  Ed cursed the fact that the pandemic had kept them from leaving for the U.K.  More than once he'd heard them scoff at him and Steve, even using a few slurs. 

But that day they were either gone or staying in their house. 

Steve and Ed were spooning in the hammock when the former twisted around to face his boyfriend.

"Ed?"

Ed, who had been dozing, opened his eyes.

"Hmm, love?"

"What happened... the day I almost died?  I... I remember seeing a beautiful, golden light but then... nothing."

Ed blinked back tears.

"Did He... not want me?" Steve asked.

"Oh, love...  That... that wasn't it.  At all.  It just... it wasn't your time, Steve.  An angel of death was there... Azrael.  They come whenever there's a chance of someone passing on.  He... he was glowing.  Such a beautiful light.  I know he would have taken you to Heaven if... if things had gone the other way.  I... I begged him not to.  That's not why you didn't go.  I don't have that kind of power, of course.  Neither does Azrael.  Only God.  And... you."

Steve closed his eyes, trying to remember.

"I... heard you.  You... called for me to come back."

Ed nodded, his tears falling freely.

"So... I did."

"Yeah... you did.  Thank God."

Steve pressed a kiss to Ed's forehead.

"Yes.  I couldn't leave you.  I... I couldn't go to Heaven without you, darling."

Ed gently snuggled into Steve's chest.

Steve sighed and stroked his back.

"I'm so sorry you went through that, Ed.  This whole thing... with your past..."

"But you came back," Ed murmured.

"Yes.  And I'll try my best to never, ever leave you again."

"Thank you, love."

"But... I think we need to make a concerted effort to make things right between you and God.  Just in case..."

"Yeah."

Steve gave Ed a squeeze.

"We'll figure it out, darling."

Ed moved so he could look into Steve's face and smiled.

"Yeah, yeah, we will."

*~*~*

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

Ed glanced out the kitchen window and beamed at Steve as he did some light gardening.  Though he'd been diagnosed with Long COVID and still struggled, he was improving day by day.  He was reclaiming more and more of the activities he enjoyed.  Ed was thrilled.

He grabbed two glasses of iced tea and headed out to join Steve.

Before he reached him, he heard that voice.

"Well, look at you, Thomas!  You've come a long way... from drowned sewer rat to looking a bit plump."

Rage swelled in Ed's chest.

"Oh, well, yes...  I suppose I have been enjoying all the delectable things Ant prepares for us.  I should probably..."

Ed set the glasses down and tromped over to the fence line.

"Can I help you?"

The twin... Chad, he thought... Chad had thinner hair... rolled his eyes.

"Oh, no.  Mommy's here."

"Why are you such an ass?" Ed demanded.

The other twin, Niles, stepped outside.

"Problems?" he called.

Chad glanced back at him then sneered at Ed.

"No.  Just being sassed by Thomas' nursemaid."

Steve struggled to his feet and stood by Ed.

"He is not my nursemaid.  He's my boyfriend.  At least I have someone who likes to be around me who isn't a womb mate," he sniped.

Niles laughed.

"Oooh...  Look at that...  Widdle baby Thomas standing up for his playth..."

The next thing Ed knew, Chad was on the ground and Steve was rubbing his fist.

"Ow..."

"What the hell, Thomas!" Niles screeched as he crouched over his twin who was rubbing his right eye socket.

Ed peered at Steve, impressed.

"You socked him right in the eye, mate!"

"Long time coming."  Steve cleared his throat.  "Now if you'll excuse me... gentlemen... my boyfriend and I are going to... to go inside and... and snog!"

Ed stifled his laughter.

"Come along, Ed."

"Happily."

Ed took Steve's hand and walked with him back into the house.

Once they were safely in, Steve crumpled against Ed.

"They're going to retaliate...  I just know it.  I... I shouldn't have but I'm just so sick of them, Ed!"

Ed stroked Steve's back.

"I know...  I understand.  And thank you.  For defending me."

"You were defending me first."

"Well... that's what people do when they're together.  We'll figure it out."

"All right..."  Steve sighed then hugged Ed.  "Well, let's go to our room for a bit."

"Okay.  Why?"

"Well... I said we were going to snog.  I mean if you don't want to..."

Ed laughed and shook his head.

"Oh... I very much do."

Giggling, the two headed back to their room to ensure Steve was not made a liar.

*~*~*

Thursday, November 19th, 2020

The loud music had started the night of the dust-up with the twins.  It had played well after midnight, much to the chagrin of everyone in the household. 

Despite the lack of sleep, Ed awoke at 5:30 on Thursday morning.  He desperately needed coffee.  He set a gentle kiss on Steve's cheek then got out of bed and headed to the kitchen.  When he looked outside the window, he saw Karl slumped in a chair.  Alarmed, Ed hurried out to him.

"Karl... what's wrong?"

"No birds...  Tawera says they don't want to come 'round any more tween the music and the beeping."

"Beeping?"

Karl nodded.

"Idjits next door installed one of those pest control beepin' thingies.  Birds can 'ear it."

Ed frowned.

"I'm sorry, mate.  We'll figure something out, eh?"

"Hope so..."

Ed patted his shoulder.

"We will," he promised.  "How about some coffee?"

"I spose."

Ed steered the dejected man inside and served him some coffee.  They were each on their second cups when Steve appeared.

"You're up early!  I feel like I could have done with a couple more hours..."

Ed rose and prepared Steve's coffee for him.

"Birds are gone," Karl reported.

"What?  How?"

Karl explained.

"Oh, Karl...  I'm so sorry," Steve apologized.  "I shouldn't have antagonized them."

"They started it," Ed reminded.  He handed Steve his coffee.

"Thank you, darling.  And, yes, they did.  But I ought not to have punched Chad."

Karl laughed.

"I saw 'im yesterday.  Looks a sight.  All purple an' green 'bout the eye."

Steve grimaced.

"Well, one should never embrace violence but..."

"No need to use any more violence," Ed interrupted, a sudden thought occurring to him.  "I could take care of them."

"Ed..."

"I could go invisible... sneak into their house..."

"Ed..." Steve repeated.  "I... I know what that did to you last time."

Ed shook his head.

"No, no.  Not like that.  I won't get into their heads at all.  Just... move some things around.  Make them think the place is haunted.  Maybe they'd leave.  I mean... not like they'd be homeless.  They have another house.  Maybe more."

Karl cackled.

"I love it!  Let 'im do it, cap'ain!"

"I don't know..."  Steve eyed Ed.

"I won't harm them," Ed stressed.  "But if their keys end up in the freezer...  Serves them right."

Karl continued to laugh.

Steve sighed.

"Well, yes... it would.  If you're sure it won't make things difficult for you..."

Ed grinned.

"Won't.  Sounds like fun, actually.  I mean... really... what's the point of having a demon for a boyfriend if you can't profit from a haunting now and again?"

Steve chuckled.

"Well, I can think of several points but... okay.  Let's do it."


*~*~*

Thursday, November 26th, 2020

Ed had started with the keys in the freezer.  Then he had stashed a cell phone in the dishwasher.  One night, he turned every shirt in Niles' closet inside out.  The following night, all of Chad's trousers received the same treatment.  He spelled out "HELLO" with sugar on the kitchen counter.  On Tuesday night he'd picked up a globe and bobbed it around in the air.  Chad and Niles had run screaming from the house and jetted off into the night. 

They didn't return on Wednesday.

On Thursday morning, Demi-John came tearing onto the patio where Ed and Steve were enjoying their coffee.

"A moving truck pulled up next door!"

Ed and Steve exchanged smiles.

"They're loading things up!"

"How lovely..." Steve murmured.

Ed could only laugh.

*~*~*

Saturday, February 6th, 2021

"Oh...  A moving truck.  Looks like we're getting new neighbors," Steve observed.

"I hope they're better than the last ones," Rocky muttered.

"How could they not be?" Lucky replied.

Ed approached the front window and peered out. 

Two men hopped out of the truck and made a beeline to a flag pole.  The Union Jack that Niles and Chad had left behind came down.

Ed and Steve watched with great interest as another flag went up.

As the flag reached the top of the pole, their new neighbors tied it in place then embraced and peered up at the rainbow fluttering above them.

Ed and Steve dissolved into laughter. 

Curious, Lucky leaped up from the couch and joined them at the window.

"Oh... and they're cute, too!"

That was enough to pique Rocky's interest and he hurried over.

"We should talk to Ant.  Ask him about making a welcome basket of goodies for them," Steve suggested.

"Definitely," Ed agreed.

He and Steve beamed at each other, confident that all would be well on their little block.

*~*~*

Like Real People Do

Monday, March 22nd, 2021

Since Steve was still being exceptionally careful about when he went out and where, the decision had been made to celebrate his and Ed's second anniversary with a barbecue in the backyard.  Patrick and Craig and
Ihsan and Fitz were in attendance along with Paulie and Jake, their new neighbors and fast friends.  Maren and her family had also made the trek to celebrate.

Steve was admiring Ed working behind the grill in his cute, floral apron when Maren plopped down into the chair beside his.

"It's so hard for me to believe it's only been two years!  You and Ed... you just fit.  Seems like you've been together for years and years."

Steve beamed.

"Thank you.  When we invited Paulie and Jake, they thought we meant we'd been married for two years but together for much longer."

"He loves you so much, Steve.  I'm so happy for you."  Maren kissed his cheek. 

"Thank you.  And... it's definitely mutual."

"Oh, honey... I can tell," Maren assured with a smile.

They sat together in companionable silence for several moments before Steve looked over and noticed that Maren was chewing her bottom lip.

"Something on your mind?"

"A bit, yeah..."

"Is everything all right with you, Dan, and the kids?"  Steve looked to where Annie and Lance were playing with Kiri.

"Oh yeah.  Everything's great.  It's just... when I ran to the dairy on Saturday to grab some snacks for the car trip... I saw your mom.  I was hoping she wouldn't recognize me with my mask but well..."

"Oh..."  Steve bowed his head.  He hadn't heard a single word from his parents since he'd been sick.  And he knew Ollie had notified them.

"She... well, she asked how you were doing.  And just the way she asked...  Like you were my second cousin who twisted his ankle!  I told her you were fine.  But something just broke in me and I started screaming at her.  I told her that you'd coded and it was a miracle you were even alive and that if she was so curious she coulda picked up the damn phone and spoken to her only child.  Also told her that your boyfriend was smoking hot and that I hoped you had mind-blowing sex every night."

"Oh my..."

"I know... I know.  I shouldn't have said that last bit but she just made me so bloody angry.  I wanted to see her squirm."  Maren looked with tenderness at Annie and Lance.  "I just can't understand a mother being so... so cruel.  I'm sorry, Steve... for her.  But also if I caused any trouble."

Steve squeezed her hand.

"I don't care if you did cause trouble, Maren.  It... it just feels good to know that someone's mom stood up for me."

Maren squeezed his hand back.

"I'm always here for you.  And so's he."  She waved to Ed.

Ed smiled, handed the barbecue tongs to Ant, and joined them.

"What's this then?" he asked.

Steve smiled.

"Oh... Maren was just telling me a delightful story about her going off on my homophobic mother in the dairy.  She told her I have a smoking hot boyfriend."

"Do you..."  Ed settled on the arm of Steve's chair and stretched his legs across his lap.

Steve patted Ed's knees affectionately.

"She also told her she hoped we had mind-blowing sex.  Exact words."

Ed howled with laughter.

"Good God, woman!  Were you trying to murder her?"

Maren grinned.

"Maybe a bit."

"Well... it wasn't quite true.  But the whole thing's been rather mind-blowing in the best of ways."  Steve beamed at Ed who bent down to kiss his brow.

"That it has been, love," Ed agreed.  He sat up and grinned at Maren.  "Just don't ever let me piss her off.  Might murder me."

"Don't give me reason to and I won't," Maren teased before taking out her cell and snapping a photo of the couple.  "Hmm...  May have to paint that later."

Ed rested his chin on Steve's hair and smiled as Maren showed off the photo.

"Text it to me, will you?" Steve requested.  "I'd love it for our scrapbook."

"Happily."

"You're working on a scrapbook for us?" Ed asked.

"Mmm hmm.  Since someone had the bright idea of introducing a chore wheel..." Steve shot a sly glance at his boyfriend.  "And I've got some extra time on my hands, I thought I would."

"Aww...  Love that."

Steve gave Ed a squeeze then looked around happily at their little party and sighed with contentment.

*~*~*

Naturally, Ed and Steve had to dance to "The Chain" as the celebration continued into the night.  But as the song ended, Lars and Baptiste settled into chairs facing the happy couple.  Baptiste began to pluck at his guitar.

"Oh..."  Tears filled Ed's eyes.  "They sang this song to you when you were sleeping," he whispered to Steve.  "I... I wished I could have danced with you to it."

Steve smiled gratefully at Lars and Baptiste then cradled Ed's face in his hands.

"No time like the present, darling."

Arms around each other, the two danced in the moonlight as their loved ones looked on with friendship and love.

"I will not ask you where you came from
I will not ask you, neither should you
Honey, just put your sweet lips on my lips
We should just kiss like real people do."

As the last few notes played, the two kissed while their friends cheered for them.

*~*~*

Monday, January 10th, 2022

Ed awoke to the sensation of Steve gently carding his fingers through his hair.  He let out a soft sigh then kissed Steve's neck and nuzzled closer.

"Big day," Steve murmured.  "But you don't have to if you don't want..."

Ed sat up, kissed his boyfriend, then shook his head.

"No, no.  I do.  I've missed Fitz and Ihsan and all the animals.  Time to get back to work.  But..."  He kissed Steve again.  "I'll miss you."

"And I'll miss you, darling...  But I'll be there for morning tea."

"Steve..."

"It'll be good for me to get a little exercise!  And... I am going a bit stir crazy.  I would love to get out.  We can drink it outside.  I'll wear a mask the whole time.  Well, obviously not when we're sipping tea.  But I'll only be with you then."

Ed bit his lip and considered.  Then he looked down at Steve's pleading gaze and laughed.  Like he'd be able to deny him.

"All right...  Then I'll look forward to it."

Ed groaned slightly as he got up.  Sometimes he wished he'd been created in a younger body... maybe something like 32.  But then Steve moved behind him, pushed his hair away from the back of his neck, and planted soft kisses there.  Ed smiled as he leaned back.

No... he was perfectly happy with the body he had.

*~*~*

Monday, February 7th, 2022

"And Ant's just been absolutely abuzz all morning," Steve reported between sips of tea.  He and Ed were seated together on a bench behind Fangs, Fins, and Friends, watching some of the dogs run about in the yard.

"Hmm, why?"

"That cousin, you know?  The one who got cast in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar... Loreena, isn't it?"

Ed nodded.

"She got invited to brunch with the director and his wife yesterday.  And the fellow playing Jesus was there.  So she was thrilled and, of course, Ant was thrilled for her.  They've both landed on their feet since being rejected by their family."

"Glad for our Ant, of course.  But also the girl.  Must mean a lot.  The Christians, by and large, haven't exactly been accepting of gender diverse people."  Ed frowned.  "We ran into that... when the Europeans came.  So much of their religion grabbed the people's imaginations.  But they didn't know what to do with the whakawahine and whakatane.  Got ugly sometimes."

Steve gently stroked Ed's back.

"Glad Loreena found a good group."

"Me too."  Steve chuckled.  "Needless to say...  Jesus Christ Superstar has been blasting through the house nearly since you left which is very interesting for me.  My parents thought it was sent straight from the Devil."

Ed laughed.

"Trust me.  He wouldn't trouble himself with something like that."

"No, I see now that he wouldn't.  I've seen the show performed since.  Quite sympathetic.  And... it has some bangers, as the kids say."

Still laughing, Ed kissed Steve's hair.

"Bangers...  God, I love you, Steve."

"I love you, too, darling."

Steve slid closer and rested his head on Ed's shoulder.

Ed gave a contented sigh before making a strangled noise and jumping up.

"Oi!  Chester, move away!" he shouted at a dog.  "Cassie's not into you.  Consent is important, mate.  Don't make me come in there, young man!"

Steve giggled.

"It is important," he agreed.  "So glad you impress that upon the dogs."

Ed grinned then reclaimed his seat beside Steve.

"May I kiss you?"

"Absolutely."

So they did.

*~*~*

The Plot

Saturday, February 19th, 2022

Steve was preparing coffee... and sneaking peeks at Ed as he enjoyed some shirtless sunbathing in the backyard... when he heard someone thundering down the stairs.

Ant hurried into the kitchen, a wide grin on his face.

"Look at the photo my cousin sent me!"

Steve accepted the phone that Ant thrust towards him.

"Oh, Ant...  That's lovely!  She looks absolutely radiant.  And they've got a very good Jesus.  I like him.  He looks gentle but strong.  Accurate looking, too."

The screen door opened and Ed stepped inside.

"Whacha looking at?"

"My cousin sent a photo of herself and the man playing Jesus."

Ed grunted.

"Let me guess.  White boy with blonde hair?  No offense," he added when Steve cast him a look.

Steve chuckled.

"None taken.  I'm very aware I don't look like a Middle-Eastern Jewish man.  But no.  This fellow is actually..."

Ant handed Ed his phone.

Ed peered at the image then stumbled back into the door.  His head shook wildly.

"Ed...  Ed...  What's wrong, darling?"

Ant grabbed his phone before Ed had a chance to drop it.

Steve wrapped an arm around Ed's shoulders.

"That's... him."

"Who?"

"That... not an actor.  Him," Ed choked out.

Steve blinked.

"Ed, surely not..."

"That's Joshua!" Ed cried, pointing towards Ant's phone.

Ant's eyes went wide.

"Darling, are you sure?  Possibly he just looks a great deal like..."

"With the same bloody birthmark!?"

"Birthmark?"

Ant looked at the photo. 

"Oh, yeah.  I see a birthmark.  There."  He held the phone out for Steve's inspection.

"Ed...  Why would he..."

"I... I don't know!  He's always had crazy schemes going!  I mean... good schemes," Ed clarified.  "But this..."

"I should tell my cousin!"

"No!" Ed bellowed.  "If she doesn't know... he doesn't mean for her to know.  At least not yet."

Ant shrugged.

"Okay.  But... this is good, right?  You know where Jes... Joshua is.  I mean..."  He scrolled through some text messages.  "The show runs up til Easter.  That gives you time.  You could get to New York City by then, couldn't you?"

"It's so expensive..." Ed murmured.

Steve gripped him by the shoulders.

"Ant is absolutely right.  I don't care if we have to drain my savings.  We're going.  We're going there and we're going to speak to him."

"Steve, I..."

"Ed...  When will we have another chance like this?  And you said he schemes... maybe this is one!  What are the odds?  One of the cast members has a cousin halfway around the world who just happens to live with us!"

Ant smiled and waved when Steve gestured towards him.

"Yeah... that's something," Ed admitted.  Tears welled in his eyes.

Steve patted his cheek.

"It'll be all right, darling.  It really will!"  He hugged him tightly then embraced Ant.  "Ant... thank you!  This... this is huge!"

"Didn't do anything but brag about my cousin but... you're welcome."

Steve smiled at him then turned back to Ed.

"Once Jess is up, I'll speak to them.  See what we can figure out money-wise.  But we will figure it out."

"I could do a bake sale," Ant offered.

Ed gave him an appreciative, teary smile.

"Thanks, mate.  We... we'll see.  But thanks."

Steve embraced him again and pressed a kiss into his hair.

"Now...  Let's have some coffee.  Get our heads on straight... and figure this out!"

Buoyed by Steve's confidence, Ed nodded.

"O-okay..."

Steve beamed then went to fetch his laptop so they could start pricing things out.

*~*~*

Sunday, February 20th, 2022

Steve slept restlessly.  How was one supposed to sleep peacefully when they'd just learned Jesus Christ was back on Earth...

And Steve's future... and more importantly Ed's... rested on their ability to make peace with him.

A demon and a gay man... confronting the Son of God.

Ed's absence from their bed suggested he, too, was battling insomnia.

Steve's throat felt scratchy... probably from crying himself to sleep.  Ed had been weepy and it'd been catching.  He got up and headed to the kitchen in search of something to drink.  Or maybe an ice block.  As Steve neared the kitchen, he heard clicking.  He wasn't entirely surprised to find Ed sitting at the table, open laptop in front of him.

"Hey," he greeted.

"Hey."

Steve approached and squeezed Ed's shoulder.

"What are you..."

Steve stopped when he saw Ed was on Facebook, clicking through a photo album.

"They have a page.  The theatre, I mean.  Look..."

Ed pointed to a photo of Jesus... Joshua... in a chair.  A blonde woman was crouching behind him, her arms around his shoulders. 

Steve's eyes went wide.

"Oh God... he doesn't... he's not got a girlfriend, does he?"

Ed began to choke on the tea he'd been sipping.

"No!"  He scrunched his nose is disgust.  "Gross...  No, that's his make-up artist.  JenniAnn, it says.  And if I'm remembering correctly..."  He navigated to another photo and pointed.  "Look.  A note in the program from the director from a previous production."

Steve sat down and read where Ed was pointing.

"'JenniAnn, I love you more every day.  Thank you for being part of this with me.'  Ah.  So she's the director's girlfriend... wife.  Something."

"Something.  And the director..."  Ed opened another photo.  "Is Andrew.  The Andrew.  An angel of death.  The one..."  He tapped the floor.  "Is afraid of.  And those two... they've spent years working with Him on this.  He's put a lot of trust in them.  So...  When we get there, we go through her.  JenniAnn."

Steve blinked at the photograph of Jesus and the woman that Ed had re-opened.

"We can't just... go to him directly?"

"Do you feel comfortable with that?  Because I don't.  I'm a demon, Steve!  I rejected him!  But her... she's probably like some sort of modern day apostle or something."

"So he'd be more apt to listen to her?"

"I would think so.  This Andrew guy, too."

Steve tilted his head.

"She has kind eyes."

"Yeah.  She does." 

"And so... so she's in a relationship with an angel.  So she might... understand us, take pity on us," Steve continued.

"Might...  Probably would," Ed corrected when he felt Steve tense.

"We have to try."

Ed brought Steve's hand to his lips.

"We do, love."

Steve sat down.

"Can you show me the photos?  I think it might calm my nerves to see who these people are."

"Sure.  There are clips, too.  I've looked at everything.  You go ahead.  I'll get you something to drink.  Your throat sounds scratchy."  Ed put his hand on Steve's forehead.  "No fever at least."

"I'm fine, darling.  But thank you.  That would be nice."

Ed moved away to make some tea with honey.  The ritual of it helped calm him.

"And how are we going to make contact with her?" Steve called.

"Still working on that."

"Hmm.  They look like they have fun."

"They do."

"He also... Jes... Joshua... he looks kind, too."

Ed swallowed a lump in his throat.

"He... he is."

Steve met Ed's teary gaze for a moment.  Right then, he vowed to himself that he would put his worries aside.  They would try this.  Because Ed had to be safe.  He couldn't return to Hell.  Ever.

After a few moments, Ed returned with the tea.

"Mmm...  Wonderful, thank you," Steve praised after a sip. 

"Welcome."

Ed let his head loll onto Steve's shoulder as they watched a clip of "Hosanna" together.

*~*~*

Jess frowned as they typed on their laptop.

"So... between airfare and hotel... we're looking at around $7,000 for you both to go," they reported.  "It's... a lot.  But you do have it in your retirement account, Steve."

"Then I want to take it out.  I don't care if there's a penalty!"

"Maybe just take enough out to pay for the tickets?" Ed suggested.  "Those are the most pressing.  We have a little over a month.  I'll take on extra shifts at the shelter, if I can.  To cover the hotel and incidentals."

"No," Jess replied.

"No?" Steve repeated, aghast.

"I mean, sure, take on extra shifts if you want, Ed.  For spending money maybe.  But... no one wants you exhausting yourself.  You've both put a lot into this house.  We all need to give back now.  I've spoken to Ollie and we'll cover $2,000."

"Absolutely not!"

"No way.  This is our choice and we should pay for..."

"It's too late," Jess cut them both off.  "We already transferred it into your savings account, Steve." 

"Jess..."  Tears welled in Steve's eyes.

Ed sniffled.

"And Ollie's talked to the guys.  Ant already mentioned a bake sale.  Everyone else has agreed to put in extra time making soap.  Whatever we get above the usual amount needed to fund the house... you'll take," Jess informed.  "I'll take only enough out of Steve's account to cover the airfare, like Ed said.  I think we can get the rest covered.  We've sent word to some of the old guys, too.  They want to help."

"Jess..." Steve repeated.  "I... I don't know what to say."

"You reap what you sow, captain.  Seven years ago you took a chance on a couple of disheveled weirdos who wandering out of a hostel and applied for jobs they definitely didn't have proper qualifications for.  You gave us a home.  And you did it again and again with all the others.  Now we want to help you.  And you..."  Jess shifted their focus to Ed whose head was bowed as he softly cried.  "When you first told us your story... Ollie and I agreed that we'd do what we could to free you.  We love it here, Ed.  Aotearoa is our home.  It's where we were truly welcomed.  We owe it to your people to get them their angel back.  And, like I've said before, I don't want to deal with an Ed-less Steve."

Steve and Ed both laughed through their tears.

"Now..."  Jess stood and held their arms aloft.  "This isn't really my thing but... bring it in."

The three shared a group hug with Ed and Steve continuing to murmur thank yous.

*~*~*

Saturday, March 5th, 2022

True to their word, the men had put their all into making soap over the next two weeks.  Additionally, Ant had devoted several hours a day to baking and making candies.  All hands were on deck as they manned two tables at a farmer's market.

Despite the nerves he'd been feeling as their departure date approached, Ed was happy as he buzzed about from table to table, lending a hand where it was needed.

And then he saw him.

Iggy.

"Ed... what's wrong?" Steve asked when he noticed his boyfriend was staring across the street, his jaw set in a stony grimace.

"Iggy...  I see him over there.  Staring at us."

"Oh Ed..."

"We... we're so close.  I... I'm not letting him..."

"Darling!" Steve cried out as Ed tore across the street.

He was halfway there when he realized Iggy no longer seemed to be staring at him... but through him. 

Nonetheless, Ed continued walking until he was standing directly in front of the demon.

"What are you doing here?" Ed hissed.

"Damn it, Edgar...  Where the hell did you go?" Iggy asked, irritation evident in his voice as he continued to stare across the street.

Ed stepped back in surprise.

"Damn it all!" Iggy shouted, still ignoring Ed.

Then he was gone.

Shaken, Ed made his way back to an anxious Steve.

"What happened?"

Ed shook his head, trying to make sense of it.

"Nothing...  He...  It was like he couldn't see me.  Couldn't sense me.  Then he cursed... and disappeared.  It... makes no sense."

Steve gently stroked Ed's back.

"That is... odd.  But it's good isn't it?"

"I... I think so?"

"Everything all right over here?" Ollie asked as he approached with Jess at his side.

"You look like you've seen a ghost, Ed," Jess added.

"I... feel like I am a ghost.  Sort of."

Steve gave him an affectionate squeeze.

"He saw Iggy... but Iggy seemed unable to see or sense him."

Ollie blinked in surprise but then he smiled.

"It's like from Psalm 27.  'For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.'  You were hidden, Ed.  By God, I assume.  Maybe have been since the last time we had run-ins with them."

"There you go!  Makes sense to me!" Jess affirmed.

"You think?" Ed asked, wide-eyed.

Steve gave him a wide smile and nodded.

"I think that makes perfect sense.  And that used to be one of my favorite verses."

Ed smiled, touched by the idea.  It gave him more hope that all of this was God's plan... that he and Steve were meant to go meet Joshua. 

"Thank you.  I feel better.  I... yes, I think that may be it, Ollie.  Thank you."

Ollie patted Ed on the back.

"Good.  Now...  We just sold a case of soap to a lady.  Wanna help me haul it to her car?"

Ed smiled and nodded.

"Yeah, sure.  Sounds good."

Steve smiled after them as they walked away.

"It would be so wonderful if he didn't have to worry about that Iggy fellow any more," he mused aloud to Jess.

"I hope he doesn't come around any more.  But if he does... I got a knife waiting for him."

Steve's eyes grew wide but Jess only smiled confidently and walked away.

*~*~*

Saturday, March 26th, 2022

"Darling... are you still up?"

"Mmm hmm."

Steve snuggled up against Ed, spooning him.

"Are you worried about tomorrow?"

"Less about tomorrow.  More about when we actually talk to her.  To JenniAnn."

"Well... we'll have a few days to observe.  Maybe even figure out a different plan.  But if it is her... I think it's a mark in our favor that she seems to enjoy the company of well-built, long-haired men of a supernatural bend."

Ed chuckled and twisted around to face Steve.

"Not trying to seduce her, mate."

Steve smiled and brushed some hair from Ed's face.

"Of course not.  I'd be quite jealous if you did.  But people tend to be more sympathetic of people who remind them of themselves or loved ones."

"That's true."

"And if she absolutely won't help us...  Well... there's always the option of going right up to Joshua a-and pleading our cases ourselves.  I know it's not what you'd prefer... but it is an option."

"Spose."

"All I'm saying is that whatever happens... it'll be you and me.  Together.  We've overcome so much, darling.  We'll get through this, too.  Although..."

"Although?"

"I am very much starting to regret our decision to get a room with two twin beds..."

Ed squeezed Steve's hand when it rested over his heart.

"Me too, love.  But... I just want to make the best impression... if he should happen to come over or anything.  Never exactly knew what was allowed."

"I know.  And... even if we do have to... be a little less... close, well, it'll be hard.  But worth it.  Just to know you'll be safe," Steve stressed.  "But... I won't stop hoping that's not asked of us."

Ed buried his face in Steve's hair and nodded.

"I won't either."

Steve gently tugged a strand of Ed's hair.

"Now try to get some sleep, please, darling.  We've got a very early morning."

"Yeah.  Okay.  Love you, Steve."

"I love you, too.  G'night."

"Night, night."

In the moments before he drifted off, Steve prayed that the week ahead would go well and that his words to Ed would be true.  They had to be allowed to stay together.  Anything else was unimaginable.

*~*~*

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Steve so badly wanted to pull Ed into his arms and tuck him safely away.  He was so nervous as they waited in the security line.  Of course, part of that may have been that Ed had confessed during the car ride there that he'd never flown in an airplane.  But Steve knew that most of it was because of what... or rather Who... was waiting at the end of the flight.

Ed was waved through the body scanner.

Well, that was one source of his anxiety over with, thank God.

Once Steve was also through, he hurried over to Ed who looked anxiously around as travelers went to and fro.

"And so we're off!  I meant what I said back there.  You really ought to try to get some sleep, dear," he encouraged as he patted Ed's shoulder.

"Mmm.  Yeah.  Okay."

Steve saw a slight twitch of Ed's right eye that gave him pause.  He hoped he wasn't headed towards a panic attack.

"Let's get you sat down.  Our gate's over there."

Steve looped his arm around Ed's waist and steered him to a couple of chairs.

"Do you need anything?  A drink?  A snack?" Steve asked, hoping for something to do to help his boyfriend.

Ed shook his head.

"Just need... you."

"Aww, Ed..."  Steve looked tenderly at his beloved and hugged him tightly.  He smiled when Ed gave a contented sigh.

"Just think... by this time on Friday or Saturday or so... everything could be sorted.  You could be free, hmm?"

"Yeah."

Steve held out his phone, showing Ed the photograph of Joshua and Loreena.  He was encouraged when Ed smiled at them.

"Maybe let's look through the theatre's albums, hmm?  Might help settle us down?"

"Yeah.  Sounds good, love."

Steve handed Ed the phone, letting him scroll through and gently stroking his back, trying to ground him.

It worked until they were called to board and Ed grew agitated again.

"What if... if I can't fly?  What if I throw up?"

"Darling, you'd hardly be the first person to vomit on a plane.  And, umm, not that it's the same but... have you never flown like... at all?  Like..."  Steve mimed wings flapping.

Ed gawked at him.

"You think I had wings?" he whispered.

Steve had never really thought about it... not until now.

"I mean... maybe?"

"Naw.  Too young for that."

"Ah.  So is it like... a driver's license thing?  You get them at... I dunno... 3,000 years old?" Steve whispered.

"Naw.  Never will.  Not a Watcher."

"Hmm...  Tell me about these Watchers, will you?" Steve asked with genuine interest... but also eagerness to keep Ed distracted and talking.  If someone overheard... oh well.  They'd just think he was a theologian or mythological author.

"They're the earliest angels.  Created first.  The only ones with wings," Ed began to explain.

They came to their seats, stowed their bags, and sat down.

"Metatron...  He's the oldest of all," Ed continued.

"Very interesting!  And what's he do?"

"He's a scribe.  He writes down everything that happens."

"Busy man!  Err... well, not man but... well, you know what I mean."

Ed smiled and nodded.

"Next came his twin brother, Sandalphon."

While Ed was telling Steve about someone named Wahkan, the plane took off.  Ed squeezed his hand tightly for a moment but continued speaking.

Steve smiled.

They were off and, he hoped, all would be well.

*~*~*

Monday, March 28th, 2022

It was nearly 5:00 PM the following day by the time Ed's and Steve's shuttle dropped them off at their hotel.  Exhausted, they trudged up to their room.

As much as they wanted to immediately crash and go to sleep, they were both still nervous about COVID and so Steve rushed into the shower.  By the time he came out, he noticed that Ed had made a significant alteration to their room. 

"Just thought... not like he's gonna show up today, surely," he reasoned.

"No, surely not," Steve agreed as he looked at the two beds that had been pushed together.

"You rest.  Don't wait up for me... but I'll be quick," Ed promised before disappearing into the bathroom.

"All right."

Steve collapsed onto the bed.  He knew he ought to brush his hair out but he was too tired. 

In his last moments of wakefulness, Steve felt Ed settle onto the bed beside him.  He smiled as Ed's arm curved around his waist.

*~*~*

They were both starving when they woke up three hours later.  They'd snacked a bit during the flight... but that had been minimal since it meant taking off their masks, a prospect which frightened them both.

"You stay here.  I'll walk a bit, bring us something back, okay?"

"You're all right with that, darling?  Because I can go with you if..."

"No sense both of us being completely knackered.  Besides, I've got a second wind.  Any preferences?"

"Well, New York is known for its pizza..."

Ed smiled.

"Then I'll look for a pizza place."  He stooped to kiss Steve's cheek.  "Be right back then."

"Thank you!" Steve called after Ed as he left.

"Welcome, love."

He smiled once more before stepping into the hallway and ensuring the door closed and locked behind him.

At the front desk, Ed asked for guidance then stepped outside and began walking in the direction the clerk had told him.  He was still a couple of blocks away from the pizza parlor when his gaze traveled to a little cafe on a corner.  It had outside dining and looked very cute.  Maybe he could take Steve there for lunch tomorrow.

And then Ed saw him.

Crowley.  The Serpent.

And then Crowley saw him...  Ed was sure he had. 

Ed turned and ran a block away, back towards the hotel.  He dashed into an alley then collapsed against a brick wall.  He could hear his heart thumping wildly.

All he'd wanted to do was get some dinner for himself and Steve and now he'd likely been spotted... by the Serpent no less.  And Crowley was redeemed now...  He had to be.  Only a few days before, someone named Peter had uploaded a photo of Joshua and Crowley warmly embracing to the theatre's Facebook.

Crowley might tip Joshua off and ruin everything!

Unless... Joshua didn't know who Crowley was.

Ed fought back tears as a chill went through his entire body.  He needed to get back to the hotel.  And he needed to see to get back.

He hurried back down the few blocks he'd come, his heart only settling down a bit once he crossed the threshold of the hotel.  He rushed to his and Steve's room and hurled himself inside the moment he had the door unlocked.

Steve startled when he saw him.

"Ed...  Ed what happened?"

Ed couldn't speak.  He only shook his head and began to sob.

"Oh, darling..."

Ed rested his head on Steve's shoulder, melting into his embrace, and wept.  He could manage nothing else for several minutes until, finally, he'd pulled himself together enough to explain his behavior to a worried Steve.

"I... I was on my way to a pizza parlor the desk clerk recommended when... when I passed a cafe.  A-and Crowley was there.  The Serpent.  And I'm sure he... he saw me."

"Did he speak to you?"

Ed shook his head.

"Too far off...  B-but... What if he tells Joshua?  Tells them all?  A-and if they're on the look-out for me... we... we may not even get into the theatre a-and..."

"Darling, I thought you said that Crowley was one of your only friends?"

Ed shrugged.

"He... Crowley visited me.  But friend?  Not sure anyone's really a friend in... in Hell."

"All right, well... you had a bond of some sort.  And since he was also a demon... and a pretty significant one at that... don't you think he'd want to help bring another demon back into the fold?"

"I dunno...  Maybe.  But... there's something else that occurred to me."

"What's that?"

"What if... if Joshua doesn't remember me?"

"Ed... how could he not remember you?"

"He didn't remember everything during the Incarnation.  What if it's like that?"

Steve frowned.  He hadn't considered that.

"Then Crowley could... could tell him who I am.  What I did...  And that would be all... all he'd know.  Or... or Crowley's still a demon and Joshua doesn't even know and he's here to... to drag me back."

"I just... I'm not sure that makes much sense.  Any of it, darling.  Firstly, even during the Incarnation, Joshua knew when demons were afoot.  And I mean... the Incarnation was about redeeming humanity, making us right with God.  I don't think it's something that needs to be re-done.  You said yourself that Joshua used several names.  Has several schemes.  Maybe he just pops in every once in a while because he wants to... fully knowing who he is, who everyone else is."

"Yeah...  Yeah, that makes sense," Ed agreed, beginning to relax.

"So... I think we should, one, have something delivered... just stay in tonight.  Then, two, we should go to the show on Wednesday... just like we planned.  See how that goes.  And, three, if we're still unsure of what's happening with Joshua then you can do your invisible thing, listen in, and gather information.  Okay?"

"Yeah...  Yeah, okay."  Ed let out a shaky breath then smiled and rested his forehead against Steve's.  "Thank you.  I feel... better."

Steve smiled and cupped Ed's chin before kissing him.

"Good...  And we'll both feel even better when we get some food in us.  I saw some delivery menus on the desk so..."

Steve rose and went to retrieve them.

Welcoming the distraction, Ed perused the offerings and let Steve's excited chatter further calm him.

*~*~*

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Steve was no stranger to Passion plays.  And he'd seen Jesus Christ Superstar before.  He'd been moved by it.  Mostly by outcast, lovelorn Mary Magdalene.  And Loreena... she was magnificent.  Steve wished Ant could be there to see how wonderful his cousin was. 

But Steve realized, too late, that he should have given more thought to the emotional toll of watching Jesus... Joshua... re-enact his own death. 

And he definitely should have thought more about how Ed would react.  He was genuinely afraid that he was a few moments away from a panic attack.

Thank God they had aisle seats!

Ed hunched forward, sobbing, as Joshua asked his Father why he'd been forsaken.

Steve squeezed his shaking hand and whispered into his ear.

"Darling... oh, Ed...  It's just pretend...  Well, this time.  It's all..."

"'It... is fin-nished.  Father... into... your hands... I commend... my... my spirit.'"

Ed howled, a ragged, guttural noise that hurt Steve just to hear.

When the lights dimmed, Ed bolted from his seat and ran down the aisle, into the lobby.  Steve hurried after him.

"Need... need to go..."

"All right, darling.  All right."  Steve pressed a kiss to Ed's sweat-covered brow then gripped his hand.  "Let's go."

Ed's sobs lessened as they made the short walk back to the hotel.  But every time Steve glanced over at him, he still looked wild-eyed.

Once they were back in their room, Ed had ceased crying and was only making soft, hiccupy noises.

"Let's, umm, let's draw you a bath, hmm?" Steve suggested.  "Might help with nerves?"

Ed nodded.

"All right.  Good.  I'll go do that, darling.  You just... try to relax, okay?"

"Mmm hmm."

Seeing that he appeared to be a little wobbly, Steve steered Ed to a chair before heading into the bathroom.  Soon, he had the tub filled.  He was grateful he'd thought to bring some soap and bubble bath from home.  The scent of lavender filled the room.

Steve returned to Ed's side. 

"Okay...  Let's get you in there."

As Ed was still shaking, Steve helped him undress and get into the tub.

"There now...  That feels good, hmm?"

Ed nodded.  He hugged his knees and rested his head against them.

"'m sorry, I'm such a... a mess."

"Oh darling... no...  It... it was more emotional than I'd been prepared for, too."

"Sorry for him...  Hate...  Hated seeing him like... like that but... also reminded me of... of you.  In... in the hospital.  Right before they... they intubated you.  A-and... my... my iwi."

Steve's eyes went wide.  It hadn't even occurred to him that Ed might make that connection.  Joshua had been gasping an awful lot.

"Oh, Ed..."

Steve leaned over the side of the tub and wrapped his arms around his beloved Ed who had begun to sob again.

"Oh, darling.  My darling..." Steve cooed as he stroked Ed's hair.  "I love you so."

Steve knew there was really nothing more he could say.  He could only be there.

*~*~*

Thursday, March 31st 2022

By the following morning, Ed was feeling much calmer. 

Though it made him a little nervous, he took Steve to the cute outdoor cafe for a breakfast of scones, fruit, and marmalade with tea.  After that they visited the Met where Steve oohed and aahed over the art.  Then they made their way to Central Park for a stroll.  Steve had insisted they have hotdogs from a cart for lunch because it was a "New Yorky" thing to do.

Then, a little after 5:00, Ed escorted Steve back to their hotel.

"I wish I could go with you," Steve murmured as he combed Ed's windswept hair.

"Wish you could, too, love.  But unless you've developed the ability to make yourself invisible..."

Steve chuckled.

"No.  Not yet, anyway."

Ed smiled.

Steve pulled a few strands of Ed's hair back and put it into a ponytail then secured the star barrette.

"Just wanna listen in for a bit.  See if I can figure out Joshua's... capacity?"

"Yes, good idea."

Ed turned around and hugged Steve.

"I'll be all right.  Last night was just a shock.  Being so close to him a-and watching that and being reminded of... everything."

"I know, darling."

Ed caressed Steve's cheek as he accepted a kiss to the forehead.

"I'll bring dinner back with me."

"I'll be looking forward to it."

Steve flashed Ed a smile.

Ed rose, planted a kiss amongst Steve's curls, and then disappeared.

*~*~*

The evening was illuminating.

Joshua was definitely fully aware of who he was and who everyone around him was.  When JenniAnn had playfully grumbled about Andrew leaving his dirty socks on the floor, Joshua had jested that he could temporarily demote the angel of death to the "angel in charge of collecting the unpaired socks" for a couple of weeks.  JenniAnn had declined the offer.

And if that hadn't clued him in, listening to a twenty minute conversation between Joshua and a young girl named Amala had.  She'd quizzed Joshua all about the fashion of his day and he'd answered every question, throwing in references to the Twelve and others as he did.  When Amala had detoured into questions about Muslim dress in the Middle Ages, Joshua had answered those with equal certainty.

After an hour, moving unseen among the close-knit group, Ed had started to feel a bit lonesome and hid away in the private box he'd discovered upstairs.

That had been nice until two Native Americans kids had burst in and started making out.  Ed had skedaddled then... wondering to himself if his senses were deceiving him.  Was the boy an angel???

Ed continued to roam the theatre, getting a better sense of the people there.  He liked JenniAnn.  He began to feel more hopeful on that front.

As the theatre began filling up with people... and because he'd seen Romeo and Juliet sneak back down from the private box... Ed returned there.  But during Act II, his solitude was once again interrupted.

By Yehuda.

Yehuda?!

Ed gaped at him.  Then he panicked when he realized Yehuda was staring back at him.

Without saying a word, Yehuda left.

Ed let out a strangled cry.

He hurried out of the box, through the lobby, and onto the sidewalk.  Remaining invisible, he ran back to the hotel and into his and Steve's room.

"Ed!" Steve cried as he materialized.  "What's wrong?"

"Some... someone saw me."

"Who?"

"Yehuda."

Steve looked at Ed with confusion.

"Judas," Ed clarified.

"Judas?!" Steve exclaimed.  "Iscariot???"

Ed nodded.

"But... isn't he in Hell?"

"He was.  But... I'd heard rumors..."

"About?"

"That he left.  Got to Heaven."

Steve gawked.

"Wow..."  Then he grinned.  "But that means...  Oh, darling...  If Judas was welcomed back then... then surely..."

Ed gave Steve a half smile.

"Yeah... hopefully.  But... but now that he's seen me...  Him and Crowley both...  If they all think a demon is skulking about...  JenniAnn might... might turn against us before we even get a word out."

Steve's expression faltered.

"Oh..."

Ed sucked in then slowly let out a deep breath.

"We'll figure it out, love.  Just... may need to alter our plan a bit.  If... if they've scared her then... well, maybe we need to lean into that a bit."

"Ed..."  Steve grimaced.  "Not sure I like the sound of that."


*~*~*


Friday, April 1st, 2022

"Hey... hey, look at this guy.  Even looks a bit like me.  Looks scary."

Steve glanced at the image on the phone Ed was holding and frowned.

"He looks sad and a little crazy, Ed."

"I'm sad and a little crazy sometimes," Ed replied with a grin.

Steve wanted to challenge that... but had to admit it was true.

"Where'd you find that, anyway?"

"Was just scrolling through Twitter.  Some guy from a show called Our Flag Means Death.  Sounds weird."

"Isn't that the pirate show the guys have been watching?"

Ed shrugged.

"Dunno.  Caught my eye.  Maybe I could do something like that with my eyes.  Wouldn't be hard."

"I'm just still not seeing why scaring JenniAnn is going to help our case."

"If... if she's scared then... then she'll do as we say?" Ed replied.  "I don't like it, either, but... surely they've told her there's a demon lurking about."

"Yes...  I would think so.  Seems like pretty important information.  If you're sure."

"I am.  She'll be on the defense now, unfortunately.  Just... need to pop into a shop to get some make-up.  Then... I saw an ice cream parlor a few blocks away.  Might be nice."

Steve smiled.

"That does sound nice."

Ed squeezed his hand.

"Be back in a jif then we'll go, love."

*~*~*

Steve was thoroughly enjoying the sundae he and Ed were sharing when Ed began to sputter and cough.

Alarmed, Steve pounded on his back.

"Careful there, Ed!  Bit of chocolate go down the wrong way?"

Ed shook his head and met Steve's concerned gaze, his own eyes wide with surprise.

"I... I coulda swore... John the Baptizer just ran by here."

Steve smiled widely.

"John the Baptist...  Well, isn't that something?  I suppose it's not entirely surprising given... everything.  Here, have a sip of water."

Ed obediently took a sip.

"Better?"

"Yeah."

"Wonderful!"

Ed chuckled and reached across the table to squeeze his beloved's hand.

*~*~*

After finishing up with their ice cream, the two returned to Central Park for a stroll.  As it neared time for Ed to go back to the theatre for some last minute intel, he squeezed Steve's hand.

"Let's sit over there by the pond for a bit, love."

"Sounds lovely."

The two settled onto a bank, side-by-side.  They peered out at the serene scene, welcoming the break from the busy city.

"Steve, I..."  Ed struggled to speak past the lump in his throat.

Steve circled an arm around his back, encouraging and strengthening him.

"I... I feel hopeful about tomorrow.  But... if it should not go our way... there are some things I need to say."

"Ed, no..."

"Please..." Ed rested a hand on Steve's cheek and set his forehead against his.  "Just in case."

"O-okay."

"You... are wonderful, love.  And you deserve only kindness a-and support and... and everything good.  Don't ever, ever let anyone make you think differently.  I love you, Steve, with... with all I am.  God...  I... I just...  Words aren't big enough.  You are behind every... every good thing in my life over these past three years.  And even in Hell... if it comes to that... I'll be in Heaven.  Because... cause I'll live in those memories, Steve.  I'll cherish them.  I won't ever, ever let them go... won't let you go.  Every word... every touch... every kiss..." 

Ed brought one of Steve's hands to his heart.

"Here...  It'll all be here, love.  Forever.  But..."  Ed peered up at the darkening sky.  "God... if I can stay..."  He returned his gaze to Steve.  "I... I'll be by your side.  Forever.  I'll love you forever, Steve... no matter what.  No matter where I... I am.  I... will... love you."

He kissed Steve and let out a little sigh as he melted against him.  They broke apart for a moment only to come back together.

Finally, Steve moved back just enough to peer into Ed's teary gaze.

"I love you, too, Ed.  More than... than I've ever loved anyone.  More... than I thought I... I could love.  A-and... I'll never stop fighting for us.  I won't let you go, either.  Never, ever, darling...  Never, ever."

The two clung to each other and prayed.

*~*~*

Steve peered over at Ed... asleep on the other bed.  Knowing they had an early morning ahead of them, they'd separated the beds before turning in. 

While at the theatre, Ed had managed to snag JenniAnn's phone after she'd distractedly set it on the ticket counter while visiting with a Superstar fan.  It had been quite the boon.  Surely that meant she'd come back to the theatre early in the morning.  Maybe even alone.  Having gathered from overheard conversations that she was an early bird, Ed and Steve had decided to get to the theatre no later than 5:00 AM.  Ed would sneak in invisibly, disarm the alarm, unlock the door, let him in... and then they would wait.

Steve rubbed at his forehead.  He wanted so badly to believe their plan would work out.  But Ed was still set on that horrible make-up.  And he'd also brought news back of picketers.  Maybe JenniAnn wasn't going to be in the most understanding and forgiving of moods...  And what if Ed had been right about her?  If she really was a modern-day apostle... wouldn't that mean she could expel Ed? 

Steve shuddered.  He needed to distract himself.  He moved onto the balcony of their room and peered up at the sky.  The moon was especially beautiful.  Unbidden, a passage from The Chronicles of Narnia, much loved in his childhood, came to him.

“But all night, Aslan and the Moon gazed upon each other with joyful and unblinking eyes.”

A sudden gasp from inside the room caused Steve to tear his gaze away from the majestic orb.

"Steve... Steve..."

Steve hurried over to the bed furthest from the window.

"I'm here, Ed.  I'm here, darling," he murmured, sitting on the edge of the bed and enfolding the other man in his arms.  "Nightmare?"

Ed nodded wordlessly against his shoulder.

"I'm so sorry.  And you'd only just fallen asleep."

Steve planted a kiss in Ed's tangled mane.

"Was the show harder to watch tonight?  Do you want to talk about it?"

"No... to both.  Just... stay with me?"

"Of course, Ed."

Steve gave Ed another squeeze and kept his arms wrapped tightly around him.

He closed his eyes and prayed that the following day would bring his beloved peace.

"Steve?"

"Yes, darling?"

"Shouldn't have moved the beds back."

Steve chuckled and kissed the top of Ed's head.

"No.  We shouldn't have.  But we'll make due."

He released Ed so he could lay back down.  Carefully, they managed to arrange themselves so they both fit on the small bed.

Maybe it wasn't the most comfortable... but on the chance it was their last night, at least they'd spend it together.

*~*~*

The Trial of Ed and Steve

Saturday, April 2nd, 2022

JenniAnn blinked twice.

"I... I just..."  She shook her head.  "My God..."

"Do... do you think Joshua will hear us out?" Steve questioned, his eyes filled with hope.  "Will you help us?"

Before JenniAnn could answer, the curtains off stage left flew open.  She and Steve shrieked as Andrew barrelled towards them and pinned Ed to the ground.

"Andrew!  Andrew, no!" JenniAnn shouted as Steve continued to scream hysterically.

"What did he do to you?!" Andrew yelled.

"I didn't hurt her, mate!" Ed cried out.

JenniAnn watched, wide-eyed, as Ed stretched his foot out to lightly tap against Steve's.

"Oh my God!  It's like..."

"EVERYONE STOP SCREAMING!" Marty bellowed, alerting everyone to his presence.

And they did.

JenniAnn resumed speaking, at a decent volume, first.

"Marty...  Hi..."

"That's Metatron..." Ed whispered to Steve.

"What is going on?" Marty asked through gritted teeth as he moved to stand in front of her.

"Oh, well...  Just got myself in a lil bit of a hostage situation, I guess.  But, really, it's all good," JenniAnn explained.  "Heard the most lovely..."  Her voice drifted off when she saw that Andrew looked like all the color had drained from his face.  "Oh love... 
Come with me."  She held her hand out.  "Now."

Ed watched in amazement as the angel of death's face began to soften along with his grip on his shirt.

Andrew moved away from Ed and towards JenniAnn.  He took her hand.

Steve scrambled to reclaim his place beside his boyfriend.

JenniAnn led Andrew backstage... presumably to be out of sight.  And they would have been if not for a large practice mirror that reflected everything.  Ed's eyebrows quirked upward.

JenniAnn motioned towards a chair and Andrew, obediently, sat down.  Then she straddled his lap and...  Ed knew he shouldn't be watching.  But he was transfixed.  They were so... close. 

JenniAnn rested her forehead against Andrew's.  She appeared to be speaking to him.  He nodded.  Then they kissed.  Then his lips trailed to her neck and...

"Ed...  Ed, stop watching!"  Steve elbowed his arm.

"She's... on his lap," Ed whispered.

"Yes, I can see that!  But... there's no reason to watch two strangers do... well... that.  Especially when..."  Steve glanced over at Marty who was glaring at them.

"But...  He's an angel.  A highly favored angel and he's allowed... that.  And she's... his make-up artist.  They're his... his golden children.  And..." 

Steve quieted.

Ed's eyes filled as he turned to look out towards the audience seating.

"They're... lovers."

"But I thought you said things below the waist didn't ah... work."

"Don't.  I didn't mean sex.  I just mean..."  Ed snuck another sly glance.  "They're very... handsy."

"Oh."

In the same instance, Ed and Steve looked to each other then quickly away.  They'd kissed many times... countless times... but not like that and if that was on the table...

One of the lobby doors opened, interrupting their thoughts.

And there he stood.

Joshua.

His soft gaze settled on Ed and Steve for a few moments.  The latter thought... hoped... he saw kindness and even a touch of longing there.

Joshua let out a quick sigh and rubbed at his temples.

"Where are Andrew and JenniAnn?" he asked.

A chair scraped against the floor and then Andrew and JenniAnn returned to the stage.

"We're here!  G'morning, Joshua!" JenniAnn greeted.  "We, umm, have a lil bit of a situation."

"So I see."

Joshua proceeded down the aisle.

Steve felt Ed flinch.

Joshua stopped walking.  His gaze traversed the whole stage.

"Well, looks like it's a wonder I'm not having to revive anyone from overdosing on sugar," he teased, waving towards the Pop-Tarts wrappers and boxes and chocolate milk cartons.

"Oh...  Oh...  We'll pick that up."  Steve hurriedly began to do so.

JenniAnn stepped forward but Andrew caught her arm.

"They were sharing with me.  Only fair I help clean up."

Andrew looked to Joshua who nodded.  He released JenniAnn.

The task gave Ed and Steve a few moments to focus on something else and at least begin to calm down.

"Thanks for your hospitality.  I mean if I had to get held against my will... at least breakfast pastries were involved," JenniAnn jested.

The mirth in her eyes gave the two hope.

"Definitely think the apple fritter one was my favorite."  JenniAnn smiled then briefly rested a hand on each of theirs.  "I'll do what I can.  Promise."

"Thank you," Ed choked out as Steve clutched his arm and nodded.

Once the clean-up was finished, Joshua spoke again.

"Could someone please explain to me why kidnapping JenniAnn seemed like a good idea?"

"I'd like to know that, too," Andrew added as Marty nodded.

Ed sucked in and let out a deep breath.

"We wanted her to help us.  A-andrew, too.  Loreena's cousin lives with us.  In
Aotearoa New Zealand.  He showed us the photo of... of the two of you.  That's when I knew... you were back.  We wanted to come see you.  To... to plead our case.  I... I don't wanna go back to Hell.  Don't wanna leave Steve.  I... I love him."

"I love him, too!" Steve declared, wrapping an arm around Ed's waist.

"How lovely," Marty sneered.  "But how does that explain..."  He gestured towards JenniAnn.

"Thought Joshua might... might take her word over ours.  We saw the Facebook photos.  Saw how close you all are.  For years.  Were... were just gonna ask nicely for her... her help.  But then...  Crowley saw me.  And Yehuda saw me.  A-and I thought they might tell her who... who I was.  What I'd done.  Turn her against us before we... we even had a chance to get her on our side.  So..."

"So you held her hostage," Andrew cut Ed off.  He glared at him.  "You decided to compel her to plead your case."

"I... we..."  Tears flooded Ed's eyes.  He'd mangled this all up so badly...

"Can I please weigh in here?" JenniAnn requested.

Steve thought he saw a bit of annoyance when she looked at Andrew and Marty.

"Please do," Joshua encouraged.

"Okay, yes, it was a little scary when the theatre doors snapped closed and the curtains got all...  Wait...  How come Andrew and Marty got through the curtains?"

Ed stared at his feet.

"Got caught up in telling our story.  Forgot to keep the blocks up."

"It's all right, darling," Steve comforted.

"Aww...  Anyway...  That was about the extent of it.  Ed was wearing dark make-up and... well, I knew it was supposed to scare me.  But if someone's really scary... they don't need a sloppy make-up job to convey that.  The other demons never did that.  So...  It actually made me less scared," JenniAnn explained.  "It was actually... well, kinda endearing."

Ed looked to her and gave her a quick smile which JenniAnn returned.

"Then they told me their story.  About how they met... Ed was sent to possess Steve but... feelings took over.  First kiss, first 'I love yous'... and oh... Steve got so, so sick with COVID and..." JenniAnn's eyes welled and she shuddered.  "Not my story so I won't keep going but... it moved me."  She turned to look at Andrew.  "I... I know what it's like to think you... you aren't meant to be with the one you love a-and yet...  Yours hearts don't... refuse to... know that."

"Laja..." 

Andrew pulled her close and buried his face in her hair.

Joshua smiled fondly at them then diverted his attention to Steve and Ed.
  He dragged a hand through his hair then nodded.  If this is what they wanted... he would go with it.  He settled into a front row seat.

"All right.  So... Steve and Edgar..."

"Edgar?" Steve interrupted.  He turned to gape at Ed.  "Your name is actually Edgar and you never told me?!"

Ed gave him a sheepish smile.

"Got all tongue-tied when we met is all.  Only got the Ed part out and... and then... I liked the way it sounded when you said it.  So I went with it.  Ed became my name," he explained.

"Aww," Steve and JenniAnn cooed in unison.

Joshua chuckled and shook his head.

"So Steve and Ed...  You want Andrew and JenniAnn to hear you out and then plead your case to me about why you shouldn't be separated and why Ed shouldn't be sent back to Hell, correct?"

"If we could, please.  Yes," Steve answered as Ed nodded. 

"Fine.  Let's go with your plan.  You have your advocates.  Plead your case," Joshua directed before gesturing for Marty to come join him.

On stage, Ed and Steve looked to Andrew and JenniAnn.

"So do we each get one of you or..."

"I've got Ed," Andrew interrupted Steve.

Ed frowned.  He thought his chances were better with JenniAnn... even if he did understand the angel's desire to put as much distance between himself and his girlfriend... wife... was that allowed now?... whatever. 

"So... this is like a trial?" JenniAnn checked, looking back down to Joshua.

He nodded.

"If they want a trial... they get a trial."

"Okay..."  JenniAnn flashed what she hoped was an encouraging smile at Steve.  "Never been a lawyer but... here we go."

"Take five minutes.  Ed, you need to familiarize Andrew with your case."

"Right.  Okay."

Andrew, JenniAnn, Ed, and Steve formed a little huddle on the stage.  Steve gently stroked Ed's back as he spoke.

"I was born in 1,000 A.D.  I was in Annunciations.  Then Search and Rescue briefly.  Caseworker.  Then... then I sailed with the Māori to Aotearoa.  I became the principality of an iwi.  I... I was so happy.  With them.  For hundreds of years.  Then in 1836... a... a man came.  He sold them guns.  And... he spread disease.  My..."

Steve pressed a kiss to Ed's temple when he was overcome with emotion.

"His entire iwi was killed off, barring a few who left before.  He was the only survivor because, of course, he was an angel.  His supervisor and Joshua tried to console him but he, quite understandably, I think... wanted revenge.  So he drove the arms dealer crazy.  He knows it wasn't right.  He does.  But... it happened.  Unfortunately, that financially ruined the family and... and the man's young daughter was married off to save them.  Ed was devastated.  So... he was susceptible when a demon named Iggy coaxed him away."

"Horrible..."  Andrew rubbed at his eyes and shook his head.  He thought of Takoda, of his anger when he'd first arrived in Dyeland.  How easily he could have ended up in the position Ed was in.

"Ed didn't do much.  Minor mischief.  His... his heart wasn't into it.  He never wanted to hurt people," Steve stressed.  "But... he... he was isolated in a lonely cell with very, very few visitors.  He started to lose himself.  So he agreed when Iggy said he was taking him to Earth to possess someone."

"Knew something wasn't right... or... or rather was very right... from nearly the first," Ed picked up.  "Steve wasn't supposed to see me.  But he could.  A-and when we touched... my insides got all... funny.  Steve sensed I didn't have anywhere to go so he invited me to stay with him.  In his group home.  And I did and I felt... happy.  First time in a long, long time.  But then Iggy came back a-and threatened to possess Steve himself and I panicked.  Went all demonic with things flying about and the blue light a-and two of Steve's friends tried to exorcise me but... but...  Steve kissed me a-and... and then nothing was the same." 

Andrew studied the pair as they peered at each other.  He knew that look.  He knew it well.  He squeezed JenniAnn's hand.

"We've been together for three years now.  A-and like JenniAnn said... nearly lost Steve to... to COVID.  It was... so awful."  Tears streaked down Ed's cheeks.  "Knew after that... that we had to figure this out.  Can't be parted for... for eternity."

"Couldn't even manage sleeping in separate beds for one night," Steve murmured.  "For all of my early life I've been told that who and what I am is... is wrong... sinful.  Evil even.  But... with Ed... I... I just know it can't be."

"I am sorry.  About the way we did things this morning.  Really am," Ed stressed.  "Just panicked..."

Andrew dragged a hand through his hair.  While he'd certainly never taken anyone hostage, his feelings for JenniAnn hadn't always prompted the most reasonable of behavior.

"All right.  I've got it.  Let's do this."

Ed smiled with relief and patted Andrew's arm.

"Thanks, mate."

The four rose to their feet and turned to face Joshua and Marty.

"Laja, you go first," Andrew prompted.

"All right...  Well, having spent a chunk of this morning hearing Ed's and Steve's story... I believe my client deserves to continue on living his life with his beloved Ed because what's shared between them exemplifies true love as expressed in the hallowed words of 1 Corinthians 13.  'Love is patient.'  They've taken such great care of each other, Joshua.  Never hurrying the other.  Just... just accepting each other's love as it came to them.  'Love is kind.'  They're generous with each other.  When one is struggling, the other eases their burden.  They watch out for each other.  'Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.'  I mean... there's good pride and bad pride, right?  In them, I see only the former.  They are proud of the life they've built together.  But they're also humble.  They care for each other and those around them even when that means dealing with unpleasantness.  They've dealt with sickness and all the mess that comes with that.  Steve has worked hard and selflessly for the men who seek his aid.  He's advocated for them, loved them, grieved for them.  And Ed... Ed devoted years to living among his people.  Working alongside them... suffering alongside them.  Though in... in a different way, he carries their triumphs, their struggles on... on his skin.  Like... like you."

Joshua let out a shaky sigh and nodded.

"We've all made mistakes.  We've all done things we regret.  Well, except for you, of course."  JenniAnn gave Joshua an adoring smile.  "And Ed does regret what he did.  But... I think whatever penance he should have been made to fulfill...  It's long over.  At risk to himself, he repeatedly put the well-being of Steve and their friends above his own.  And... and I think that should count for something.  Andrew?"

Before speaking, Andrew embraced JenniAnn and kissed her.

"That was wonderful, Laja.  You did so well!  I'm so proud of you.  Maybe we should look into law school?" he teased.

JenniAnn laughed and caressed his face.

"Too busy with kids and my very handsome anam cara but I appreciate the thought."

Andrew beamed at her then looked over at Ed before turning his attention to Joshua.

"I second everything my esteemed colleague just said."

JenniAnn giggled.

"I would also add that Ed and Steve took a considerable risk in coming here... one that I think shows a lot of respect for you, Joshua.  And even trust in you... despite the struggles they've faced in the past... the spiritual abuse, even, that others have visited upon them.  They could have remained in Aotearoa.  They could have continued on as they had been.  They were happy.  And, yes, they did have concerns about the future.  But they could have prayed.  Could have stayed in the comfort of their own home and prayed.  But as soon as they knew you were here... they came.  They wanted to see you, face-to-face.  And I think that says a lot after the nearly two centuries of torture, really, that Ed faced in Hell.  And the rhetoric... the judgment... the alienation that Steve faced.  Maybe their method wasn't the best..."  A slight edge crept into Andrew's voice.  "But they were panicked.  I... I know what it is to... to sit by the bed of the person I... I love with my whole heart, mind, body, and soul.  But to do that a-and have to worry about being separated for eternity?"  The angel of death shook his head.  "That I can't imagine.  So, please, forgive them their sloppiness, Joshua.  Sometimes love makes us do crazy things."

Joshua nodded.

"Thank you for your opening statements.  Very well done."  He beamed.  "Now... I have some questions.  Ed, is it true that, despite your issues with me, you repeatedly defended me when questions arose amongst Steve and your housemates regarding my character?"

Brightening, Ed nodded then conferred with Andrew.

"He did, Joshua.  He didn't want them thinking you agreed with the homophobic stuff.  Or that you hadn't given him opportunity to make things right."

"Very good.  Thank you.  Steve...  You kissed Ed moments after learning he was a demon.  Did you have any hesitation?"

Steve's face flushed but he smiled at Ed before whispering his response to JenniAnn.

"He didn't.  Ed was Ed.  Anything else was beside the point.  He loved Ed."

Beside Joshua, Marty groaned.

"It's like a soppy movie..."

Joshua patted his shoulder.

"Thank you.  Ed...  If you could have only one word to describe these past three years what would it be?"

After a brief conference, Andrew spoke.

"Heaven."

Tears welled in Steve's eyes.

"Steve, same question."

Steve whispered in JenniAnn's ear.

"Everything."

"That's..."  Joshua's voice cracked.  "I appreciate that.  Thank you.  As much as I'd like to hear what I'm sure are very eloquent closing statements, I think it's best if we skip to the judgment part."

Sensing where this was going, Marty burst up from his seat.

"He kidnapped her!" he bellowed.  "He... he could have hurt her!  He deserves to go straight back to..."

Panicked, Steve rushed to the front center of the stage. 

"No!  Please, no!  If... if anyone has to go back to Hell... send me.  I'm gay.  For years I... I thought I was headed there, anyway, so..."

"Absolutely not!"  Ed pushed his way in front of Steve, blocking him from Joshua who he glared at.  "YOUR people made the... the kindest man in the whole world think he was unworthy... think he... he had to be someone he wasn't.  If you send him to..."

"No one goes to Hell for being queer!" JenniAnn screeched as Andrew wrapped his arms around her waist.

"No one is going to Hell, period!" Joshua shouted just to be heard over the din.  "Everyone... calm down!  First..."  He turned to Marty.  "Jamie, Vonnie, and Rhiannon are coming to the show this afternoon.  You are going to meet with Jamie... and Vonnie since she seems to be one of the few people who you really talk to... between shows.  No more putting it off, Marty.  It's done.  Got it?"

Chastened, Marty nodded.

"JenniAnn...  Little bird... you're right.  No one goes to Hell for being queer.  Please, take a couple of deep breaths.  There you go."  Joshua smiled gently at her then turned his attention to Ed and Steve.  "Ed...  I love you.  But you are stubborn.  You get a plan in your head and that's the plan.  And sometimes that serves you well.  And sometimes not.  It didn't serve you well two hundred years ago... and now... this whole trial idea?"  Joshua shook his head.  "Didn't you know I would have already made up my mind?  Didn't you realize I already knew everything?  I created you.  Both of you.  I... I know your thoughts before you do.  I know what you'll feel before you feel it.  You're mine."  Tears slid down Joshua's cheeks.  "But since you're so hung up on this trial theme...  I have evidence to present.  Evidence that was shared with me via several impassioned Facebook messages St. G's received."

Joshua waved to the screen above the stage.  The projector flickered on and the screen descended.  He withdrew a cell phone, borrowed from Violeta, and pressed a few buttons.

Steve and Ed were shocked when an image of Ollie and Jess appeared.

"Move to the seats, please.  So you can see better," Joshua requested.  "Andrew and JenniAnn, take Marty into the office.  He left the chocolates you requested there, JenniAnn.  Get a few into him."  Joshua gently elbowed Marty.  "You need to calm down, my own."

JenniAnn took Marty by the hand and, with Andrew, led him to the office.

Joshua began to play the video.

"Hey, so...  Hi."  Ollie waved.  "It's good to speak with you... Joshua.  Never thought I'd talk to you like this but... here we are.  Jess and I...  You know we left the Church.  I left the priesthood.  And I'm sorry... we're sorry... if we disappointed you.  But... we did what we had to do.  And that's what Steve and Ed are doing."

"'The greatest of these is love,'" Jess quoted.  "We believe that.  You said it and... we believe it.  Steve and Ed love each other.  So much.  Too much maybe.  Honestly, I could do with a little less PDA."

Ed and Steve chuckled.

"But I'll deal with it, I guess.  I'd just really like for them to come back.  Together.  And to stay together."

"Steve needs someone to love... to be loved by," Ollie pressed.  "And he found that person in Ed.  Please don't separate them.  Please.  Thank you."

The clip shifted to one of Lars, Demi-John, and Baptiste.  Accompanied by Demi-John on the piano and Baptiste on his guitar, Lars sang.

"'I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses.
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me.
And He talks with me.
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.'"

After the song had finished, Lars drew in and let out a couple of calming breaths before speaking.

"My... my mommy used to sing that to me.  I... stopped believing when my family died.  No one was left to care for me.  Then Steve did.  He... made me believe in goodness again.  In... you.  Please... please help Steve and Ed.  I don't want Ed to go away.  Too many people I've loved have gone away, Joshua."

With tears in his eyes, Ed turned to look at Joshua who was openly weeping.

Karl appeared next, Tawera on his shoulder.

"Right...  Just talk to 'im?  Like he was right 'ere?  All right."  Karl peered at the camera.  "So you're real then?  I'll be...  Well, Old Man...  Not sure what to make of ye.  But reckon if ye created all of my feathered friends 'ere then you've got a lot goin' for ye.  Ed's a good sort.  Helps me with the birds.  Never been unkind to any of us.  Good with Steve.  Not like that..."

The clip cut off when Karl began to curse.

"Sorry about that...  Oops."  Lucky turned the camera around to face himself.  "Hi!  So... you're real.  Yay!  So good for you.  Listen, I'm sorry about the times I said you were just as real as unicorns.  Oh my god... are unicorns real?"

"Stay on task, Lucky," Rocky directed from off-screen.

"Right.  Anyway...  Steve and Ed are great.  So great!  And if you could send them safely and happily back to us... well, I'd say I'd become a priest but we both know that would be a disaster so... I'll just say that I'll be very, very happy and I'll pray every night.  And morning.  You'll get sick of hearing from me, really.  It's just... Josh...  Can I call you Josh?  Always liked the name Josh.  Friendly sounding.  Well, anyway... Josh, they love each other.  So much.  It's embarrassing, really.  But... I never had a stable, two-parent home and I know it's not always all it's cracked up to be but... but this one...  It is.  I'd like it back.  I'd like them back.  Together.  Please and thank you.  Bye!"

The camera briefly showed Rocky who nodded.

"What he said.  Please and thanks."

Ant appeared next.  He only giggled and looked into the camera with a manic smile, frantically waving.

The screen went black and then Ant appeared again, somewhat more calm.

"So pleased that my cousin and me could be part of this!" he gushed.  "I hope Loreena knows soon.  She will be so excited!  I'm excited!  Please forgive Ed.  He's a good man.  Really.  Even if he does eat too much fairy toast.  And Steve... Steve deserves the best.  And for him... that's Ed.  So, please, Joshua... let them be together.  Thank you."  There was a brief pause and Ant's eyes welled.  "Love you.  Miss you."

That time, it was Steve who looked over at Joshua and saw that he was crying.  He also thought he mouthed "I love you" back.

Lastly, Maren appeared.

"Joshua...  Hi.  Joshua, you know I love my ex-husband more than anyone reasonable could love their ex-husband...  But I've known and loved Steve since I was five years old.  And I've only ever wanted happiness for him.  Once upon a time, I thought I could make him happy.  But I couldn't.  But Ed...  Ed has made him so incredibly happy.  He... he brought back the Steve I knew at five.  The Steve who... who loved himself.  And Ed...  I mean I'll be honest with you because if I can't be honest with you then who else?  If I didn't have Dan... and I love Dan so much, thank you... but if I didn't have Dan... well, Steve might have to fight me for Ed.  He's pretty darn dreamy."

Ed and Steve chuckled and hugged each other.

"Anyway... just some things to consider.  I hope you do.  I love you.  Bye for now."

The screen turned black for just a moment before Maren re-appeared, now closer to the camera and whispering as the sounds of playing children could be heard.

"And one last thing... I didn't have actually fulfilling sex until I was twenty seven years old, Joshua.  Twenty.  Seven.  And that's because of all the bull they fed me about you.  So... not sure if I get any special sort of points for that but if I do... I'd like to transfer them to Ed and Steve.  Thank you."

"Oh, Maren..." Steve murmured fondly. 

"God love her," Ed added.

"I do," Joshua responded as he wiped at some tears.  "I love all of them.  And I love you both.  And, like I said before, my mind's already made up.  I'd like to give my verdict now.  If it's all right with you, I think your 'lawyers' would like to be present when I give it."

Too nervous to speak, Steve could only nod.

"Yeah, yeah, we're good with that," Ed confirmed.

Andrew and JenniAnn stepped back onto the stage.

"We were told to come back out," the latter shared.

"Yes.  Thanks.  I'm ready to give my verdict."  Joshua turned to Ed and Steve.  "I've heard a lot of compelling testimony today.  And that's meant so much to me.  But, more than that... I was there.  Alongside you both for every moment of these past three years.  I've seen the love you share grow and blossom into something... something that, well, breaks all the rules society... human, angelic, demonic... has setup.  It's been beautiful.  And... I want to continue to watch that love grow.  So... Ed and Steve, I sentence you both to grow old together.  At the end of Steve's life, Ed will be remanded to the custody of Heaven... to his own self... and to the immortal soul of Steve."

As Andrew and JenniAnn cheered and Joshua beamed, Ed and Steve collapsed into each other's arms, laughing and crying and kissing.

Once they had settled down at least a bit, Ed and Steve ran towards Joshua.  Ed embraced him first then pulled Steve in.

"Thank you... thank you, Joshua," Ed enthused.  "I... I don't have the words to express..."

"I know," Joshua assured.  "I know."  He set a hand on their shoulders and peered into their eyes.  "You are my beloved sons in whom I am well pleased."

Ed squeezed Joshua's hand and kissed it then stepped back, leaving room for Steve to collapse into Joshua's waiting arms.

"I love you, Steve.  I've always, always loved you and I'm so sorry you were given reason to doubt that," Joshua soothed as he gently patted the man's back as he sobbed.

After a few moments, Ed spoke.

"So... what am I now?  Am I still a demon just... okay?"

Joshua smiled and shook his head.

"You've not been a demon for two years, Ed."

Steve lifted his head from Joshua's shoulder.

"Wh-what?"

"Ed's been a... let's just say a free agent since the night you almost died, Steve.  When Azrael was there... I sent my power through him.  I severed the bonds between Ed and Hell."

Wide-eyed, Ed shook his head.

"Was that why Iggy couldn't see me?"

"In part.  I also hid you from him."

"Like Ollie said..." Steve whispered.

"Yes.  I wanted to tell you but...  You were living your life as you wanted to, anyway.  So I waited to tell you.  Until you came to me.  But now... now you have a choice to make.  From this moment on, you are once again an angel, Ed.  But whether you remain that way..."  Joshua smiled and shrugged his shoulders.  "That's up to you.  Although I would urge you to take your time in making your decision... a few months at least.  After that time... Ed, you can decide if you'd like to remain an angel, living alongside Steve as Andrew lives alongside JenniAnn, or... you can become human.  It's never happened before but... your Mother, the Spirit, and I want you to have that option.  So... think about it.  No rush."  Joshua patted Steve's back once more before releasing him.

"Human..." Steve marveled before moving into Ed's waiting arms.

"I... I don't know what to say.  I..."  Ed reached out for Joshua's hand.  "Thank you.  I will think about it.  But... but in the meantime, I'm glad... overjoyed... to be your angel again, Joshua.  And... and to..."  He peered at Steve then rested his cheek against his hair.

"I know," Joshua assured.  "I know.  But now...  The rest of the cast and crew will be coming soon to get ready so...  I think the two of you should get some rest and relaxation in Asteriana, where Andrew and JenniAnn live.  I have just the accommodations in mind.  I'll have your things packed and transferred."

"They'll be in Asteriana... unsupervised?" Marty questioned from the stage which he'd quietly snuck onto before the verdict.

Joshua sighed.

"No, Marty.  Not unsupervised."

Two figures stepped out from the curtains to stand near Marty.

"We'll be there."

Ed gasped as he looked upon Azrael and Hahana.  He squeezed Steve's hand.

"Steve, love...  I... I want to introduce you."

Steve nodded and followed Ed onto the stage.

"This... this is Azrael.  He was there the night you almost died.  And this... this is my old supervisor.  Hahana, principality of all Aotearoa."

"Rawiri..."  Hahana gave Ed a tearful smile then, when he approached, she pressed her forehead and nose against his.  "Welcome back, dear."

Ed smiled at her and sighed with contentment.

Azrael rested a hand on Steve's shoulder.

"Good to see you again.  You look so much better."

Steve chuckled.

"Thank you.  Wouldn't take much from what I hear...  Thank you, Azrael.  For being with Ed when... when all that was happening."

"It was my honor.  Truly."

JenniAnn and Andrew joined the group on stage with Joshua.

"Well...  We probably have at least a half hour before things start up here.  Why don't we show you the portal to Asteriana, get you settled, and then Andrew, Joshua, Marty, and I will come back while you two get some much deserved rest?" JenniAnn suggested.

"Yeah...  Yeah, let's do that," Ed agreed.

"Thank you... All of you for your kindness and understanding and..."  Steve hugged JenniAnn.  "Thank you.  I'm sorry I was snappy about the make-up."

JenniAnn laughed.

"All's forgiven.  I woulda been miffed, too, if someone had their hands all up in Andrew's face."

"Okay...  You can explain that to me later," Andrew kidded before pressing a kiss into JenniAnn's hair.

The group was halfway to the blue room when Ed suddenly froze.

"The house... the guys...  Will word get to Hell that... that I've... what's the opposite of fallen?"

"Risen," Joshua replied with a smile.  "And don't worry.  I've got the house and the guys taken care of."

Unsure what that meant but content in knowing Joshua had everything under control, Ed and Steve smiled at each other.

*~*~*

"It's barely after 4:00 in the morning!  Some people need their beauty sleep!" Lucky grumbled as he made his way to the front door after hearing the bell.

Behind him, Rocky let out an unintelligible groan.

Lucky flicked on the porch light and peered out.

"My God...  Oh... my... God..."

Shocked into wakefulness, Rocky hurried to see what had set Lucky off.

Two men with shining swords and shields stood on the front porch.  Unbelievably, both were wearing jeans.  One sported a "Love is love" T-shirt while the other wore a rainbow tie-dyed hoodie.

"Hey there!  Joshua sent us," the "Love is love" man called.

Lucky scrambled to unlock and open the door.

"Who are..."

"Sergius... this is my soul mate, Bacchus.  We're fourth-century martyrs and soldiers.  Joshua thought it might be good for us to hang out here until Ed and Steve come back.  Just in case."

As Rocky gaped, Lucky nodded.

"Uh huh... Okay...  Come on in.  Love your shirts."

"Thanks!" Serge smiled at Lucky then waved Bach in ahead of him.

"So... Ed and Steve... they're good?" Rocky asked once the power of speech had been returned to him.

"Oh yeah, totally.  Met with Joshua.  Everything went great.  Ed's an angel again.  There are some specifics to be sorted later but Joshua signed off on him and Steve growing old together.  It was all very sweet from what I hear," Bach reported.

Lucky and Rocky clasped hands then wept in each other's embrace as all their worries for their friends dissipated.

*~*~*

After receiving a quick tour of Dyeland City and a promise of a more thorough one later, Steve and Ed had been escorted to the Aurora Mist.  Azrael and Hahana had promised they'd be nearby if they needed anything but the couple were left alone on the ship to process everything that had happened.

Steve and Ed stared out at the ocean for several moments before the former spoke.

"What are you thinking?"

Ed smiled briefly at Steve to relax him.  Then his gaze returned to the water.

"About my decision.  Our decision."

Steve shook his head.

"Your decision.  This... it's your... your life... your identity!" he protested. 

"But whatever I choose... it impacts both of us."

"Yes..."  Steve stared down at his hands which were nervously running along the railing.  "Are you... leaning in a particular direction?"

"Maybe."

"And that's..."

"Never was really close to any other angels.  Nice enough, of course.  Just… never hit it off.  Did better with humans.  And so… everyone I ever loved died.  Even Joshua.  Not Mother, of course.  I’d miss her.  But I’ve not seen Her in two hundred years.  What’s another few decades?  Maybe… maybe I’m meant to experience what all my people did… what Joshua did… what you will.”  Ed shuddered and Steve gripped his hand.  “Not scared of dying… scared of being left behind.”

"Ed..."

"I... I just hope I go first."  A tear trickled down Ed's cheek before lodging in his beard.  It was soon joined by another.

"Ed..." Steve repeated as he embraced him.  "You... you sound like you've already made up your mind."

"And if... if I had?"

"I would support you.  I would stay by you.  Either way.  For as long as I could."

Steve curled his fingers into Ed's hair and kissed him gently before resting his forehead against his.

"I love you.  I love Ed.  I loved Ed the demon.  I love Ed the angel.  And I would love Ed the human.  Because you're always Ed.  That's all that matters to me."

"Love... love you, too," Ed murmured before resting his head on the other man's shoulder.  "So tired suddenly..."

"It's been a day!  Kidnapped a girl, almost got knocked out by an angel of death, reunited with Jesus...  Ah and Metatron was there."

Ed laughed as he brushed his thumb against Steve's smiling lips.

"So, yes, let's get you settled.  I believe JenniAnn said the captain's quarters were just down this way..."

The two made their way below deck and examined their surroundings.

"And there are our bags!  Just like Joshua said.  And... ah..."

"One bed," Ed noted.

"Yes, well, you should lay down.  I'll make us some nice cups of chamomile and then figure out..."  Steve looked around.  He supposed a nearby settee would be comfortable enough.

Ed gripped his hand.

"Stay... with me?  In... in the..."  He waved towards the bed.

"Oh...  Well..."  Steve's face flushed.  He remembered Andrew and JenniAnn and the mirror.  And then he remembered they'd been sent there by God Himself... God who knew every lily of the field and every sparrow.  He knew the contents of the Aurora Mist.  He knew them and how they were.

Steve hugged Ed.

"Of course, love."

Ed smiled.

"Thank you."

"As if it's a sacrifice," Steve replied with tenderness.  "Now, you get settled and I'll be right back with that tea."

Ed nodded and watched Steve pop into the kitchenette they'd been told was next door.  As he listened to the man hum, he got into his overnight bag and pulled out the red silk pajamas Steve had bought him for Christmas.  He loved the way the material felt against his skin... and how it smelled like the lavender soap Steve had insisted they put in their bags to "freshen things up a bit!"

Once changed, Ed settled into a chair situated in front of a mirror and brushed out his hair.  As he did, he peered at his reflection.  He truly looked like his old self... the self who had been happy in Aotearoa for hundreds of years.  The years with Steve were literally imprinted on his skin which was no longer sallow and dry as it had been when he'd first exited Hell.  The dark circles under his eyes had long since disappeared.  He looked like an angel again... had for a good while.  The reunion with Joshua... his embrace... it had made Ed long for his Mother in a way he hadn't allowed himself to for hundreds of years.  And yet...  With a twinge of guilt Ed realized that he wanted to remain with Steve more than he wanted to go Home.  He could have both.  Andrew had both.  But...

Ed set down his brush and made his way to the bed.  He'd just slid under the blankets when Steve returned with a tray bearing two cups.

"Comfy?" he asked.

"Very," Ed confirmed.

"Can't wait then."  Steve's face flushed as he set the tray down on a bedside table.  Despite the years he and Ed had spent sharing a bed, it felt different... more special... knowing Joshua approved.  "I'll just go change and be back in a jiffy!"

"Good."  Ed smiled over the rim of his mug.  Seven sugars.  Just like he liked.

Steve returned swiftly wearing his own silk pajamas... turquoise for him, a gift from Ed.

"Well, then...  It's a bit small but..."  Steve shimmied into the bed.

Ed curled against him and rested his head on Steve's left upper chest.

"This... this is nice," Steve murmured.

"Mmm hmm."  Ed tilted his head back to smile contentedly at Steve.

Steve returned his smile then gently kissed the top of Ed's head before he resumed softly humming.

Ed began to drift to sleep, lulled by the music and Steve's hand gently brushing over his hair.

And then he recognized the melody.  He couldn't remember the artist.  But he knew the song. 

"'Let's Get Married,'" he announced.

Steve startled.

"Uh..."

Ed laughed.

"The song.  The song you were humming.  'Let's Get Married.'"

Steve chuckled.

"Oh!  Yes!  By Mitski.  Yes, it is.  Baptiste turned me onto her music.  A cover, I think."

Ed gripped Steve's free hand.

"We... we could.  Get married.  If I was human."

Steve froze.

"Yes...  But we could also have what Andrew and JenniAnn have if you remain an angel."

"Mmm.  Yeah.  Spose so.  Seems nice.  But... JenniAnn's asexual."

"How do you know that?"

"Saw her ring.  Purple, white, gray, and black together.  Plus... the way she got upset when she was pleading your case at the end there.  She's definitely queer."

"I... I didn't notice.  Now I feel bad.  Poor girl."

"Had a lot on your mind.  We both did."

"Yes..."

They were silent for a few moments before Ed spoke again.

"I... don't want you to give that up."

"Hmm?"  Steve, who was beginning to tire himself, wasn't following.

"Umm... marital relations.  You... never really got to enjoy that."

"Ed..."  Steve shook his head.  "Don't let that sway you.  Please.  I'm happy with what we have... with just knowing that we get to keep what we have!"

Ed's gaze faltered.

"Would you... not want to?"

"Oh, Ed..."  Steve wondered for the hundredth time how someone so ancient and strong could look so vulnerable.  He lifted Ed's chin.  "Of course I would.  I love you.  Under different circumstances, I would love to marry you... and all that entails.  But it's a big sacrifice!  Your health... your life...  Once you're human, all bets are off."

"I... I know."

Steve brushed some hair behind his ears.

"I know you do, darling.  Let's... let's just sleep on it?  Maybe... maybe we could talk more to Joshua.  Get more information.  And... oh!  You could talk to Andrew.  Feel him out.  See how he likes sort of having the best of both worlds.  And besides... Joshua said you have months to decide.  So let's not rush into anything.  Hmm?"

Ed smiled and nodded.

"Yeah.  Yeah, that sounds good."

"Good!  Now..."  Steve took one more sip of tea before sinking down into his pillow.  He smiled when Ed adjusted, still resting his cheek on his upper chest.  "Sleep well, darling."

"Night, night."

"Love you."

"Love you, too."

And then, to the sound of the gentle waves, the two fell asleep in each other's arms.

*~*~*

Free

When the two awoke, it was to a string of text messages from JenniAnn.

So sorry we won't be able to make it back in between shows!  The crowd at the afternoon show lingered for quite a while and we had to go right into prep for the evening show.  I feel like a bad hostess!

If you're hungry, we do have snack-y stuff in the kitchen there on the ship.  But you should probably have actual food after the Pop-Tarts smorgasbord.  To that end, our friends, Isolde and Marco, would love to host you for dinner.  Map attached with their #.  Or you can head to the castle and Azrael will show you to the kitchen.  Help yourselves.

Joshua says that... only if you want... you're welcome to come to the show tonight.  We'll put you in the private box.  He knows Steve didn't get to see the Resurrection.  It's really nice but that's totally up to you.  We understand if you don't feel up to it.

Update: You don't have to stay for the show but if you could pop by... Crowley is driving me insane.  He's really quite mad I knew Ed was around and didn't say anything. 

Ed chuckled.

"Sweet girl.  Are you okay with that?"

"Of course!  I'd love for you to reunite with your old friend!" Steve affirmed.  "And we owe it to JenniAnn.  Honestly... she has no reason to feel any guilt.  I don't think one generally owes their captors any sort of hospitality..."

"I think the rules are a bit different with them.  Spose it makes sense with Joshua around...  The seventy times seven thing and all."

"Yes...  Seems like they actually believe the things he said.  Unlike some Christians," Steve murmured with a hint of bitterness.

Ed pressed a kiss to Steve's temple.

"In any case... what would you like to do for dinner, darling?"

"Spose we should go meet her friends?  I don't want to cause offense by turning down an invitation.  Then... did you want to stay for the show or just meet Crowley?"

"If you're up for it... I would like to see the Resurrection."

"Course."  Ed smiled at Steve.  "It'll be easier now.  Now that everything's put right.  Now that we can talk to him after."

Steve returned Ed's smile and caressed his cheek.

"Yes, I think so, too."

Ed rested his forehead against Steve's and his eyes welled.

"Still hard to believe... I had so much hope but I was also s