do you know why we have the sunflowers
Prompted by this:
I refuse to apologise for my excess of italics.
Stede Bonnet loves museums.
He always has, from the very first time he visited one as a child, on a school trip. A trip that was, in all other respects, thoroughly unmemorable. The standard ragging from the Badminton twins and their cohort, the standard lonely solitude, just Stede and his books and his thoughts.
He remembers the painting, though.
He remembers the two men on the deck of their ship, so vividly rendered in strokes of oil that he fancied he could feel the wind as it whipped through their hair and filled the sails of their vessel. He remembers the way they stood, proud and fearless. He remembers how they stood together, united, joined by an unmistakable thread of connection, palpable even through paint and across three hundred years. He remembers the ache of yearning in his young chest. How he wanted that. That unity. That connection. That someone who would look at him the way the pirates in the painting looked at each other.
No one ever looked at Stede Bonnet like that.
No one looks at him like that still. Not his parents, not his ex-wife. Not even his children. He moves through life as he moves through the streets of London, alone amidst the seething crowds of people—families, friends, lovers. But none for him. Never for him.
He still loves museums, though.
He’s the curator of the 18th century wing of the National Gallery in London now, a dream post, one he’s worked his whole life for. He should be triumphant and he is, truly. Just... quietly triumphant, and mostly to himself. The fact that he has no one to share it with doesn’t matter, really, he tells himself. Going in to the museum every day, knowing that it’s his place, a place he’s earned, that makes him happy. Happier than he’s ever been. It’s enough.
When he acquires the painting, the painting, the one he first saw as a lad in Auckland all those years ago, his happiness is complete. Every day he goes to his gallery and stands in front of that painting and just looks at it. He stands and he looks and he feels again that ache of yearning in his chest.
Gradually he comes to realise something, a most peculiar thing, a thing he’s not sure quite what to make of. One of the men in the painting, the man on the right, the blond man with the short, pointed beard and the dashing mien, the billowing white shirt and the turquoise sash around his waist, that man… he looks like Stede.
Just like Stede. To the point that it’s eerie. He never noticed it as a boy, of course, how could he have? But now that he’s older—the same age it seems as the man in the painting—the resemblance is unmistakable.
He grows a beard, out of academic curiosity he tells himself. Just to see if the resemblance is enhanced or hindered by it. He lets his close-cropped hair grow out a bit, more like the shaggy curls depicted in the painting. He introduces colour to his wardrobe, bright blues and cheery greens, even the occasional cheeky yellow. Getting dressed in the morning becomes a treat and not a chore.
He finds he no longer collides with people in the street because they fail to notice him. Instead, strangers nod as he passes and return his cheery smiles, even on occasion make small talk in queues. They chuckle when he makes a mild joke. He starts making jokes on purpose. When he does, people laugh. They laugh with him and not at him. To Stede, this is a revelation.
This more confident, more colourful Stede, delighted beyond measure at how perfectly he now resembles the man in the painting, begins to look more carefully at the other man. The one who, even as a child, he found almost too magnificent to gaze upon. That tall, handsome man dressed all in leather, his long hair and beard wind-whipped and glorious, who looked at Stede’s painted doppelgänger with the softest eyes Stede has ever seen.
His new confidence notwithstanding, still no one has ever looked at Stede Bonnet like that.
“Helluva painting isn’t it, mate?”
Stede turns from his perusal of the leather-clad pirate, surprised and delighted to hear the cadence of a familiar accent. It’s rare that he meets another Kiwi in London, despite the fact that the city is full of people from every corner of the world.
“You know, it’s funny,” the voice continues. It’s deep and resonant and it caresses Stede’s skin like cashmere. “I remember seeing this painting when I was a boy in New Zealand. I think I stared at it for a solid twenty minutes. The rest of the class moved on without me, teacher had to come back and practically drag me away. Can’t recall the teacher’s name but man, I never forgot that painting.” He turns his head so Stede can see his whole face. “This is gonna sound mad, but would you say—do you think that that man, the one on the left… do you think he looks like me?”
Stede is struck speechless, gaping. Mouth hanging open like a fish. Because yes, he wants to say, yes. The man in the painting does look like you and if anyone can declare that with authority it’s Stede. He’s only been looking at that painting every single day for the past year. The man beside him has the same height and build, the same long hair and magnificent beard. And when he turns and their eyes meet, Stede’s breath catches in his throat. The eyes are the same as well, that soft warm brown, and as they take in Stede’s face they widen first in recognition and then in awe.
“It’s you,” he breathes. “The man, the other one. He’s—he’s you.”
Stede knows he must say something, anything really, and so he blurts out the first words that come into his head.
“Are you real?”
It’s a ridiculous question and he feels foolish for asking it, but the man’s lovely eyes just crinkle at the edges as he laughs. Laughs with Stede, not at him. Stede knows the difference now.
“Real as you are, mate. I’m Ed.” He holds out his hand.
“Stede,” Stede replies, taking it. An electric thrill dances along his skin, from the point of contact clear to the tip of every nerve ending he possesses. He barely holds in his gasp. “I’m the, uh, curator. Of the museum. Well, not the whole museum, just the eighteenth-century portion but that’s not important really, what’s important is that me too.”
“You too?” echoes Ed.
Stede nods eagerly. “Me too. I also saw this painting as a boy in New Zealand. I couldn’t take my eyes off it either. And I—”
“Never forgot it?”
“Never forgot it! Acquired it the first chance I got. Only realised later that it was, er—that the man in it had—”
“Yeah.” Stede gives a little shrug. “My face.”
“It’s a nice face,” says Ed, and the sizzle on Stede’s skin grows hot. He realises he’s still holding Ed’s hand.
“Do you know what I like best about it?” he asks.
“About your face?”
“No!” Stede protests, before he realises Ed is teasing. He can feel his cheeks go pink but he presses on. “No, not about my face. About the painting.”
“What do you like best about the painting?”
“It’s the way they look at each other,” says Stede. “The way they’re so connected and the looks on their faces, it’s—”
“Love,” Ed finishes. His voice is gruff. “They’re in love.”
“They are.” The words almost choke Stede. He has to force them through the tightness in his chest. “I couldn’t see it as a boy. I mean, I saw it. I felt it. But I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I wanted someone to look at me like that. But no one ever has.”
“No. Not—” Stede breaks off, caught in Ed’s eyes. The look in them takes his breath away.
Ed holds his gaze as he releases Stede’s hand, as he cups his instead around Stede’s jaw, fingers sinking into his hair, curling around the back of his head and tugging him closer.
“Not until now,” he murmurs, and then his lips are on Stede’s.
The kiss starts out soft, tentative. Stede’s never much cared for kissing; he’s had little practice at it and none of it great, despite his ten-year marriage. But this kiss, this kiss—it lights him up from within, that electric tingle sinks through his skin and into his bones. He finds himself leaning in to Ed’s body, gripping his waist, giving a small, helpless moan that draws a deeper one from Ed and then the kiss grows hot, wet, completely inappropriate for a rainy Tuesday morning at his place of work but Stede could not possibly care less.
When it ends they just stare at each other for a moment, wide-eyed and gasping, and then in perfect unison they turn, as though drawn by a thread, to look at the painting.
The two men in it are smiling down at them. At them, of that there can be no doubt. Ed’s lookalike gives them a wink, while Stede’s nods with a pleased, proud smile. “I knew you’d find him,” Stede hears his own voice say, in his head to be sure but the words are as clear as though he’d spoken them himself.
He turns to Ed. “Did you hear—”
“Yeah,” Ed replies. “I did.”
When they look back again the painting is just as it always was.
“Come to lunch with me,” says Ed, abruptly.
“It’s ten thirty in the morning!”
“Brunch then. I know a great place, not far from here.”
“Oh?” Stede’s so happy he feels like his blood has been replaced with champagne. “Where’s that?”
“My restaurant.” Ed grins at him. “Just opened it. Blackbeard’s Bar and Grill, it’s called.”
“Ooh, fab name. So you’re… planning on staying in London, then?”
“For as long as London will have me,” says Ed, and Stede knows he’s not just talking about London. “So. Brunch? I have marmalade.”
Stede gapes at him. “How—how did you know I love marmalade?”
“Lucky guess,” says Ed. His eyes twinkle, with warmth and affection and interest and yes it’s finally real, it’s really, actually happening. Someone is looking at Stede Bonnet Like That.
Right here in his beloved museum, in front of his most treasured painting, the most beautiful man he’s ever laid eyes on either painted or in person is looking at him in the way he’s always dreamed of but never thought he’d know.
And there’s an ache in his chest again but it’s no longer a yearning one. It’s yearning fulfilled. It’s completion. It’s happiness.
“Brunch sounds great,” says Stede. “It sounds perfect.” It feels like the start of something spectacular.
And so it is.