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it's a slow build, baby, until afterburn (65/?)

Story banner by @bettycooper!

Pairing: Bradley 'Rooster' Bradshaw x Female OC (original character) StorySummary: Some things were inevitable. Living, dying. Flying. Bradley Bradshaw never doubted he'd sit in a co*ckpit one day. It was inevitable. He hadn't counted on colliding with Maddie Maitland over and over for the better part of a decade until, eventually, he realized the inevitable wasn't the sky; it was her.

MDNI banner by @cafekitsuneOverall story Rating: Mature to explicit. Spicy, vulgar language. Violence. Mature themes (war, sex). Minors do not interact. (18+ ONLY you have been warned. Back out NOW if these make you uncomfortable. You are responsible for your own content consumption.)

Notes: This story is a giant Work In Progress, and absolutely, purely, entirely self-indulgent, full of tropes, full of cheese, and a self-insert OC who I wish I could be as cool. I make no apologies. I also haven't written it in chronological order (haha sob), so hopefully, I can fill in the blanks soon so we get to the good (sexy) stuff.

Warning: VERY SLOW BURN, VERY LONG (so many words!), spoilers for Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick

Previous Chapters: Master List

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Chapter Summary: They're husband and wife, and it's time to party!

Chapter Rating: 🚨Explicit for sex and language. Minors back out, back away, leave. 18+ only.🚨

Warning: War, combat, PTSD. Men being sexist/misogynist. Parental emotional neglect/abuse. D/s situations (soft domination), unprotected p-i-v sex between a married couple. Alcohol consumption. Consensual sex after drinking.Chapter Word Count: 16,167

Notes:

Hello, fam. I keep saying it: it's been a while, huh? Sorry for the delay. AGAIN. I was sick for two weeks, then was in a job interview cycle (four interviews and an assessment, gosh), but—good news!—I got the job, and am starting this week! A huge relief. In fact, as soon as I got the job offer, a huge weight was lifted, and—bam!—and the words came back to me! I wish I could promise a more consistent schedule, but I'm at the mercy of my words and my executive dysfunction. I do plan on keeping up with the story, though, because I've got a DOOZY of a deployment/combat arc planned.

After this, honeymoon, then back to the Boat! Thanks, everyone!

—Rooster—

This was the best day of Rooster’s life.

As soon as Mav had given him the go-ahead to kiss his bride, Rooster practically pounced on her, so damn happy that it was finally official: Madusa was his wife (WIFE!), a fact he would announce regularly as the day went on. After they shared their first kiss as a married couple, they walked back up the aisle to ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ naturally, and laughed together as they dodged celebratory paper airplanes. Madusa didn’t want the guests to toss rice, so instead, they’d had their wedding programs folded up into paper airplanes for the guests to toss around. It was pretty on-the-nose for a wedding between two pilots, but it delighted all the aviators (and present kids) greatly.

After taking a few big group pictures, the bulk of the wedding guests piled into the Hard Deck to start off with appetizers and drinks while the wedding party and families stuck around outside on the beach for pictures. They posed for all of the traditional style pictures in all sorts of compositions. Rooster got a nice shot of him and Mav, and then of him, Mav, and Slider. Madusa got a big shot with her family, and one with just her and her nieces. All the friends wanted combinations together. Everyone looked happy and glowing.

Rooster wanted a million pictures with Madusa. It was so romantic out here, on the beach, with her. There were pictures of Rooster gazing into Madusa’s pretty hazel eyes. There were some of the couple kissing sweetly, some of Rooster kissing her bare shoulder as he stood behind her, and some of them with their eyes closed, foreheads touching. He also wanted a few with them and the Bronco.

Once all the traditional lovey-dovey pictures were out of the way, Rooster called for the photographer to capture some funny ones.

“Flex for me, Darlin’,” he prompted, flashing her that crooked smile he knew made her knees weak and made her eyes go brown.

Shaking her head and laughing, Madusa flexed and rolled her eyes at her man. Rooster stepped right in, pulled up his sleeve, and flexed with her. The photographer was on it, taking a few snaps of the two newlyweds flexing and joking around. Both Rooster and Madusa had quite a set of guns on them. The posing then morphed into the entire wedding party and family members joining in for a group flex picture; Ariel was really into it with the gusto of a five-year-old and a big ‘grrrr’ face.

Afterwards, they checked some of the previews on the photog’s camera screen. All the flexing pictures amused Rooster, especially the first one with him and Madusa alone. While it was a favorite pic of his, Rooster’s absolute favorite of the day was the one where they were looking into each other’s eyes while the soft ocean breeze danced around them. He was stroking Madusa’s cheek with his knuckles and she cupped his with her hand, showing off her wedding band and engagement ring. He knew this picture was destined for his phone lock screen for a while (probably forever).

Once the pictures wrapped up, Maddie announced she had to go change before they joined everyone inside for the receiving line and dinner.

“Change?! What?! No! I love your dress!” Rooster may have even pouted a little.

His wife (WIFE!) took his face in her hands and pulled him down so she could kiss his pouty lip. “Don’t worry. I’m only changing the skirt. It’s the exact same one but shorter so I can dance and not trip over the train.” She explained that, since it was an ‘off-the-rack’ dress and so cost-effective in the grand wedding scheme of things, she was able to pick up two skirts and have one shortened for all the reception dancing action. His wife (WIFE!) thought of everything! Rooster shouldn’t be surprised. She was an organized woman who kept her squadron running like a well-oiled machine, after all.

“Can I get changed with you?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively, hoping she’d pick up what he was laying down (Rooster desperately wanted to sneak off with her for sexy times).

Since his wife (WIFE!) was so smart, she understood immediately. Madusa poked him lightly on his side. “You can join me but we’re not doing it in Penny’s office.”

“Why not?!”

“Because it’s Penny’s office! I’m not going to bang on her desk.” Rooster pouted again. Madusa knew exactly how to handle him. She reached up to cup his ear; Rooster melted like butter instantly. She pushed up onto her toes to whisper, lips brushing against his earlobe. “You will get to f*ck me tonight,” she promised, her voice deep and husky. Rooster only managed to keep himself together by sheer force of will (and because Maverick was staring at them from twenty feet away with a quirked, knowing brow and a smirk; nothing like your godfather’s presence to solidify the co*ck block).

“Okay,” Rooster told her sounding a little breathless and probably a lot desperate.

They went through the back door and down a hallway to Penny’s office where Gretzky intercepted them. Madusa’s best friend slapped a coin in her hand. “Don’t forget the sixpence.”

“I won’t forget the sixpence,” she confirmed, closing her fist around the coin.

“Because it’s bad luck if you do.”

“Don’t anger the juju. Got it.”

“I mean it!”

“I know! I’ve got it handled!”

Gretzky rounded on Rooster. “You gotta make sure she sticks it in her shoe. It’s your duty as her husband,” he told Rooster very seriously. He even poked Rooster’s shoulder to make his point.

“Yeah, I’m not going to waste any good husband capital I have so far by doing any of that,” Rooster said as he swiped Gretzky’s pokey finger off his shoulder. Gretzky was nuts if he thought Rooster was going to start off his marriage to Madusa by telling her what to do.

Before Gretzky could protest any further, Madusa stepped in. “Stop picking on my husband,” she told her best friend. “You’ve done your Best Man due diligence so let it go. I’ve got the sixpence thing handled.”

Rooster made eyes at his wife (WIFE!) because she swooped in to protect him from an unreasonably superstitious Marine and called him her husband (HUSBAND!). He loved her so much.

“Fine,” Gretzky relented in a grumble. “You’ve got it handled.”

“Thank you.”

“Lemme know when you’re ready for the reception, sh*thead,” Gretzky told Madusa before turning to Rooster. “You too, f*ckface.”

Rooster blinked and did a double-take. Did…did Gretzky just call him f*ckface? When he quirked a questioning brow at the big Marine, Gretzky just smirked. So did Madusa.

“We’ll be right out, dipsh*t; I just need to change real quick,” she confirmed over her shoulder as she walked into Penny’s office with a confused Rooster in tow.

He didn’t have a chance to ask her why Gretzky was calling him names because as soon as he closed the door and turned around, Madusa had already unzipped her skirt and was stepping out of it. Immediately, her perfect ass mesmerized him and he forgot all about Gretzky’s existence entirely. “You sure we can’t sneak in a quickie?” Rooster loved her ass, especially in those pretty white lace panties.

“I’m sure,” she replied with a laugh. Her reception skirt was already hanging and pressed nearby, ready for deployment.

“Okay,” he said, still entranced. He’d give her anything she wanted, even if it meant denying him for a while. When she stepped into the knee-length shorter skirt, Rooster mourned the sight of her amazing lace-covered ass but felt a warmth bloom in his belly because, once again, his bride was in her wedding dress. “You’re so beautiful.”

She had been concentrating on fastening herself up and looked up quickly when he complimented her; Maddie beamed a smile so bright and pretty, Rooster wanted to bottle it up and keep it by his heart forever. “And, you are very handsome,” she praised, still smiling.

“Yeah? You think so?” He loved it when his wife (WIFE!) praised him.

“Oh yes,” she confirmed with a nod and approached him. Madusa reached up to run her fingers in his hair; Rooster leaned right into the touch. “I like your hair like this. It’s all windswept and curly.”

“Mmmm.” He loved it when she played with his hair like that.

“I’m also quite fond of the Bradshaw mustache.”

“The Bradshaw mustache is very fond of you,” he teased, waggling his eyebrows. Her laugh soothed his soul. They kissed.

After caressing his cheek and kissing his lips, she pulled away to announce, “I better get this sixpence in my Converse before Gretzky has a nuclear meltdown.” She grinned. So did Rooster.

“While you fix your shoe situation, I’ll post some wedding pictures on social media,” he told her before kissing her nose.

“You don’t have to do that,” she assured.

“I know! I want the whole world to know that you’re my wife.” He really did. Rooster spent a few minutes picking the best pictures Phoenix had taken for him with his phone and settled on one where he and Madusa were kissing (he loved that one!), and a second one that looked like they were flipping the camera the bird but, upon a closer look, it was clear they were showing off their wedding bands with their ring fingers up and not actually flipping anyone off; Madusa had her nails painted white. To cap it off, he added another silly picture where he had asked Madusa to pick him up in a buddy carry like the one the Marines did during their Combat Fitness Test. In that picture, she had Rooster up across her shoulders, holding him up in a fireman’s carry, while Rooster grinned wide because his lady was so damn strong. He topped off the pictures with the hashtags: #pilotsinlove #marriedAF #thatsmyWIFE.

When Madusa was done with her shoe, Rooster showed her the post. She laughed out loud. “I’m surprised you didn’t include a clip of me doing squats with you on my back,” she teased. She had absolutely done that, much to Slider’s amazement. Rooster’s lady had assured his uncle that she wouldn’t have been able to do that if she’d selected a mermaid-style dress instead of this one. “I wanted a full range of motion,” she had said.

“In case of what? An invasion at your wedding?!” Slider had asked her incredulously.

“A Marine’s always prepared,” she quipped with some sass and a smirk. Rooster and Maverick both snorted at the exchange.

Once Rooster was satisfied his post was up and that Madusa approved, he slipped his phone into his pocket and placed a hand at the small of her back. “Ready to party?”

“Ready to eat,” she corrected. “I’m starving.”

“Let’s get some food in you,” he promised.

As they left the office, the besties greeted them. Rocksteady squealed and threw herself at them for the millionth time that day. Rooster didn’t mind; he appreciated that their friends were so happy for them. “You’re MARRIED!!!!” Roxanne yelled, arms thrown around each of their necks. Then Phoenix got in on the action and it became a big, original Girl Squad cuddle pile with Maddie, Roxanne, and Natasha. Rooster and Gretzky watched the women fondly. “I’m surprised you two came out so fast. That must have been a lightning round of a bang session,” Rocksteady said, making Gretzky snicker.

“We didn’t bang,” Madusa confirmed.

“What?! Why not?! I’d have thought you two would be hot for each other right now!”

“We are,” Rooster assured. “We’re definitely hot for each other.” Madusa rolled her eyes at him but was smiling. “Madusa didn’t want to do it in Penny’s office,” he supplied.

Before Rox could even ask her why the hell not, Madusa explained, “I’m not going to have our first bang as a married couple with my ass on accounting ledgers. We’ll wait until later.”

“Alright, I guess that makes sense,” Rocksteady said. “But, I know you two did some kissy face because your makeup needs a touch-up.” They all went back into the office so Rocksteady could reapply Madusa’s lip gloss. “Now, Madusa,” Rox started as she worked. “When it’s time for the bouquet toss, make sure that you aim that baby right at me so I can catch it.”

“I hadn’t realized you and Coyote had gotten that serious that fast. Just a few days ago, you were worried because your Granny loved him so much,” Natasha pointed out.

“Did I say he and I were serious? No, I did not. We’re getting there, but that’s not the point. The bouquet is just for the universe to recognize me as next in line; there’s no timeline. It doesn’t mean I’ll get married tomorrow, just that I’d be next.” Rooster couldn’t really argue with that bouquet logic. Rocksteady was about to swipe Maddie’s bottom lip with the lip gloss wand before pointing at Phoenix. “So, you better not try to tackle me for the bouquet.”

“What if I want the bouquet?” Phoenix challenged. “If I want it, I’m going for it, and I always get what I want.” Rooster’s best friend cast a little side glance at Madusa’s best friend and smirked. Gretzky’s eyes went wide and his whole face and neck went from pale ginger to tomato red in an instant. It was truly impressive. Rooster grinned at Phoenix, who seemed quite pleased with herself. Madusa grinned at Gretzky; the man looked a bit shell-shocked from the revelation that Phoenix might want to catch the bouquet, which was understandable since they both still kept insisting they were just ‘casual’ even though everyone knew it was bullsh*t. Phoenix’s pronouncement might’ve surprised him, but he didn’t seem to mind; despite Gretzky’s red face, Rooster spotted the small, pleased smile.

“Girl, no!” Rocksteady whined at Phoenix. “I called dibs!”

“All’s fair in love and bouquets,” Phoenix replied saucily.

“Okay, both of you stand down,” Madusa interjected with a laugh. “You’ll both get two tries to catch something. We’re not segregating the bouquet or garter toss to just women or just men. Everyone who wants to try for it can.”

“What?! Does that mean I’ll have to fight Tofu for the bouquet, too?!” Rocksteady threw her hands up.

“Yes and Hangman,” Madusa replied simply. “Because we want everyone to have a chance.”

Rocksteady thought about that for a second, hand on her hip as she considered. “You know what? That’s a great idea because Halo and her girlfriend have been together forever and they deserve a chance to have the universe bonk them over the head with a bouquet and garter.”

“Why are you okay with Halo catching the bouquet and not me?!” Phoenix asked incredulously.

Rocksteady looked her bestie right in the eyes when she said, “Because Halo doesn’t go around saying her relationship with Samantha is ‘casual’ when it’s not.” Madusa snorted real loud. Ironic statement coming from the woman who insisted not thirty seconds ago that she and Coyote were not serious.

Phoenix and Rocksteady stuck their tongues out at each other like siblings before laughing. Madusa laughed right along with them. Before they headed out into the bar, Gretzky stopped Madusa and asked, “Is it done?” Rooster suspected it was about the sixpence to ward off bad luck.

“Affirm, Knight-1,” Madusa confirmed. “Sixpence deployment complete.” When Gretzky crossed his arms over his chest and quirked a brow at her, she elaborated. “I taped it to the back of my shoe’s tongue right here,” she explained, pointing to the top of her foot. “That way, the laces will strap it down in addition to the tape securing it to the inside of the shoe. Should avoid it floating around while I’m dancing later.” Gretzky seemed satisfied with her answer because he relaxed into a big smile. “Can I go eat now?”

“Affirm, Knight-2,” Gretzky answered, mirroring her radio call out from a moment ago. “You’re cleared for tacos.”

“Finally!”

Maverick was ready for them. Not only had he been tapped as ‘Reverend Maverick’ (“You need to call me that forever, now.” “That is never happening.” “But the internet—“ “No.”), he volunteered to be the reception MC. He called everyone to take their seats for dinner, and once everyone found their tables, Maverick introduced the wedding party, who entered to the tune of ‘We Are Family’ (Rooster’s suggestion). Rocksteady, Phoenix, and Tofu danced into the reception like their lives depended on it, while Payton looked mortified that the grown-ups were being so cringe. Jackson slung an arm around her to cheer her up; it only served to embarrass her further. Gretzky, for his part, swaggered in wearing aviators because that’s how the man rolled.

Madusa reached over to take Rooster’s hand in anticipation of Maverick announcing their arrival. Rooster beamed at his bride, loving it when she publicly showed her affection for him. “I love you so f*cking much,” he whispered to her. She bit her bottom lip and smiled.

“I love you so f*cking much,” she agreed, her eyes a deep, pretty chocolate brown. He knew she meant it.

After the wedding party had danced their way to their seats and the music died down, Maverick introduced the newlyweds. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Naval Aviators of all ages…introducing, for the very first time as a married couple: Lieutenant Commander Rooster Bradshaw and Major Madusa Maitland, husband and wife!!”

The wedding guests hooted and hollered as ‘We Will Rock You’ (Madusa’s suggestion) blared through the bar speakers. Before they stepped out into the reception, Madusa squeezed his hand and pulled him down to say something to him first. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For understanding. About the Maitland thing.”

Maddie had agonized about whether or not she would take his last name since they had decided to get married. He knew it had been a difficult decision for her, balancing societal expectations with her own sense of identity. He had reassured her that the only thing important to him was marrying her; the name was something he could live without. He meant it.

“I fell in love with Madusa Maitland; I’m happy to love Madusa Maitland forever and ever.”

She nodded, smiled at him, wiping an errant tear away, and nodded toward the reception. “Let’s do this thing.”

As soon as they stepped into the bar’s spotlight, Rooster lifted his and Madusa’s joined hands up in victory (much like he had right after the ceremony), basking in the cheers and whistles and applause and pure joy emanating from the family they had gathered here with them to celebrate this day. Rooster pointed at her, and roared (much like he had after the ceremony; it was a theme, now), “That’s my WIFE!”

“Guys, I can’t be entirely sure, but I think Rooster’s excited that Madusa’s his wife,” Maverick sassed from the front of the room.

“You’re damn right I am!”

Madusa was laughing the whole time.

—Madusa—

Dinner was in full swing and, finally, Madusa was able to sit down with some tacos. Of course, her taco peace only lasted barely thirty seconds before people were calling for her and Rooster to kiss, as was usual during wedding receptions. What wasn’t usual was the method by which everyone requested said kiss; usually, the guests would clink their glasses but not their guests. Oh no.

“co*ck-a-doodle-doo, baby!” Moose called out, setting off a whole damn chain of co*ck-a-doodle-doos throughout the bar. “Now, kiss!”

“Oh my god,” Madusa lamented. “Are you guys serious?!” When she spotted Gretzky grinning like a loon, she knew he was responsible for this bullsh*t.

“You heard the man! co*ck-a-doodle-doo, baby! Kiss your husband,” her best friend heckled.

“I will end you,” she heckled back, though not seriously. She couldn’t be too annoyed with the catchphrase. How could she when Rooster looked so absolutely delighted? His joyous smile caused the butterflies in her belly to barrel roll at Mach 3. The couple stood so everyone could see them; Rooster wrapped his arms around Madusa, dipped her, and they kissed to raucous cheers. The whole ‘kissing during the meal’ tradition should’ve annoyed her but (despite the catchphrase) it didn’t, probably because she knew how much Rooster loved it when she showed him public affection. Plus, he looked so damn happy every time someone crowed a co*ck-a-doodle-doo that she couldn’t help but soak in how much she loved him.

“You’re being a good sport about my catchphrase,” he whispered in her ear between bites of her carne asada taco.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Because it makes you smile and that makes me smile.” Probably for the millionth time that day, Rooster’s eyes teared up a bit. He cupped her nape and kissed her temple before asking her if she wanted him to get her more tacos. She did.

Once her belly was full of tacos and beer, Gretzky came by with champagne flutes and a bottle of bubbly so that everyone would be prepared for speeches and toasts. “Are you about to roast me with your Best Man speech?”

“Woman, I’m gonna roast you like a marshmallow at a bonfire,” Gretzky quipped, making Rooster snort.

“Just remember that I’ll make a speech at your next birthday bash and I won’t hold back,” she challenged.

Gretzky waved her off. “Like you don’t always roast me every day anyway. I’m immune.” It wasn’t entirely true—he wasn’t always immune—but Gretzky could take a good roast like a champ. He handed her a full champagne flute. “Here. You better fortify before Rocksteady’s go.”

“Oh god.” Madusa pinched the bridge of her nose, then asked her Best Man, “Tell me it’s not as bad as I’m imagining.” Look, Madusa loved Rocksteady, but the girl could be spicy (she had been the mastermind behind Truth or Dare, after all). While most of the guests were adults, there were a few under eighteens present (and some Admirals), and Madusa didn’t want to have to explain to their parents (or to the Admirals) why they were exposed to whatever shenanigans Rocksteady was up to. When Gretzky only responded with a grin, Madusa asked again, “Gretzky. Tell me it’s not that bad!”

Her best friend took pity on her. His grin softened to a fond smile. “It’s PG-13,” he assured. “You can unclench a little.” Rooster rubbed her back as tension in her shoulders released.

It didn’t take too long to find out whether or not Gretzky’s rating was accurate because once everyone had finished up their tacos and had their champagne glasses topped up, Rocksteady took to the stage where the wedding party had set up a laptop and screen in preparation for the first dance later. She was a bit nervous about Rocksteady’s potential shenanigans, but Madusa decided that if she trusted Rocksteady with her life, she could trust her with a wedding speech. Madusa and Rooster’s names and their wedding date were up on the screen surrounded by little hearts.

“Most of you who know me know that I love to take pictures. I’m, like, the unofficial official archivist of our little group. I have folders and folders of pictures backed up on clouds and drives and phones; hell, I even printed a few because—let’s face it—I need pictures of Madusa wearing dumb shirts in my life!” Madusa facepalmed. Rooster grinned. The guests laughed because, apparently, Madusa wearing dumb shirts was a crowd-pleaser.

“Since I’ve always got a phone or camera practically surgically attached to my hand to document these glorious moments, it made sense for me to have been elected to walk us through Madusa and Rooster’s relationship from day one—in pictures!” That was when Rocksteady pressed a button on her laptop and began a slideshow?! Madusa grumbled because she’d been the one to teach Rocksteady how to use PowerPoint in the first place and now, Rocksteady was using her PowerPoint skills against Madusa! Oh, to go back to college days and refuse to teach Rocksteady the power of a slide deck!

The guest let out a collective ‘aw’ when the slide changed to a picture of young Madusa, Rooster, Rocksteady, Phoenix, as well as a bunch of other young aspiring aviators. Maddie recognized it as their first day at indoc, the very first day she met Bradley.

“Now, y’all know Phoenix and I knew Madusa from college, but this, here, is the first day we met Rooster. Look at this baby!” She clicked on a button and the next slide was a big zoom-in on Rooster’s younger face. “And this one!” Then, a zoom on Maddie’s younger face before moving on to a different version of the same picture, except Rocksteady had cropped out everyone except Rooster and Madusa. Maddie had been in the front row of the group shot while Rooster was standing right behind her because he was a giant. She remembered how he had tried to stand with her in the front but Maddie had vetoed it right away.

“Tall people in the back!”

“It doesn’t matter if I’m up front,” he’d countered. “I’m on the end. There’s no one behind me!”

“Because you’re tall and blocking the second row position with your giant body! Second row, Navy,” she ordered, hooking her thumb over her shoulder to point him toward the back. She could tell he wanted to protest but others agreed with her so he moved back. She hadn’t realized at the time that he still stayed close by choosing to stand right behind her, and now, they had a recorded memory of them, together, on the first day they met. She was so very glad for Rocksteady’s photography obsession as Maddie studied the shot of her and her now husband.

When she looked in the mirror every day, Maddie didn’t really see the differences in her features as she’d gotten older, but looking at the picture now, she could see how her face was fuller, a bit rounder back then. She saw hope for the future in that smile and sadness in those eyes because she thought, at the time, that her father didn’t care about her. Only people who knew her well would recognize it.

Rooster, on the other hand, had been grinning like a damn loon, looking like he’d been walking on air. To be fair, he seemed to always look like that to her. Rocksteady had been right; he did look like a baby! He still had the goofy mustache (that Madusa had grown rather fond of over the years) but he looked softer and less rugged than he did now. Madusa always thought the saying ‘aged like fine wine’ was such a cliché, but damned if it didn’t apply to Rooster because he had. She looked over at her husband and basked in how handsome he looked in his bright deep blue Hawaiian shirt, Bradshaw mustache, and crooked, co*cky smile. Madusa was weak for that smile.

“That was the first time I ever got a picture of those two together, but it definitely was not the last. From that first day, Phoenix and I knew—we knew!—from the bottom of our hearts that these two were destined to be together. Didn’t think it would take so long,” she grumbled in a way that made it clear she was teasing, “but we got there eventually!” The assembled friends and family chuckled.

“Now, when I say that Phoenix and I knew they were meant to be, I mean it because these two?” Rocksteady nodded her head toward the newlyweds. “They were not subtle.”

Rocksteady tapped a button on her laptop. The slide changed to a picture of Maddie as she was holding flashcards during one of their group study sessions. There were about a handful of aviators gathered around her—some sitting on chairs while others were cross-legged on the ground in the common room. Maddie had become the de facto study group leader because she was the most organized (and, she suspected, because she was the most bossy). While Maddie looked focused as she led the study group, Bradley had his chin in his hands and was making eyes at her. There was laughter when everyone spotted how absolutely obvious it was (to everyone but Maddie at the time) that Bradley was smitten.

“Look at this man!” Rocksteady guided. “If he were a cartoon character, he’d have hearts popping out of his eyes!” To punctuate her point, she pressed a button and then cartoon hearts appeared with an audible ‘pop’ over Rooster’s eyes on the picture, earning a round of laughter that persisted when the hearts kept appearing over the picture until they covered everyone except Bradley and Maddie. Maddie laughed along with Bradley with every heart pop.

“Don’t think he was the only one pining,” Rocksteady told them all. “Because Madusa did her fair share.” What was Roxanne even talking about? Maddie hadn’t even realized she had feelings for Bradley until almost a decade later! Then, Rox pulled up a picture of Rooster looking like he was doing some sort of dance? He looked to be gyrating his hips and twirling his arm over his head like he was about to throw a lasso. The people around him in the common room were laughing and looked to be having a great time. Maddie, in the picture, was sitting slightly apart from the group, but it looked like she was peering over her book at Rooster. She was even smiling a little. “See?!” Rocksteady prompted.

Madusa wasn’t buying it. “I wasn’t pining,” she pointed out. “I was studying.” Sure, she might’ve been glancing at Rooster but there was no real way to discern mild amusem*nt from pining, at least in her opinion.

“You gonna sit there and look me in the eyeballs and say you weren’t pining for this man? Girl, you were eyes locked and weapons hot on his derrière!”

“What?! I wasn’t!” Madusa protested.

“See, I knew you’d say that so I came prepared,” Rocksteady told her smugly. She tapped a key on her laptop and a big, red, cartoon arrow appeared, starting right from Madusa’s eyes and stretching out all the way to Rooster’s butt. The whole crowd burst into laughter. Madusa’s cheeks burned pink because that was pretty damning evidence. Before Madusa even opened her mouth again, Rocksteady interrupted her. “And, before you say I’m wrong, I’d like to remind you that most people in this room understand ballistics trajectory so take the loss and admit you were staring at his behind!”

Rooster rubbed her back and kept his hand on the small of her back. Without even realizing she was doing it, Madusa leaned back into the touch. He moved into her personal space to whisper in her ear, “You were staring at my ass!”

After Rocksteady’s slam dunk on trajectory, Madusa couldn’t really deny it. “You’ve got a great ass,” she admitted, much to Rooster’s delight. He smiled, kissed her cheek, and growled his approval in her ear. “Yeah, okay; I was staring,” she finally admitted out loud earning everyone’s cheer.

“I thought so,” Rocksteady grinned with a nod. Madusa laughed and shrugged because there was no point in denying any of it any further, not when he was right there with her, fingers stroking up her lower spine gently while his other hand held hers, their shiny new gold wedding bands glinting in the setting sun rays beaming through the large picture windows at the back of the Hard Deck.

Rocksteady spent the next five minutes walking everyone through a couple dozen pictures of Madusa and Rooster taken at various times throughout their friendship and eventual relationship. There were a lot of pictures from indoc and a few of the couple all shined up in whites at their winging ceremony. There were a few pictures she recognized were ones sent to Rocksteady by Rooster himself, like the ones from that time he visited Madusa for a week; there was one of them with surfboards and wetsuits, of them climbing at an indoor climb, and of them at a baseball game where Madusa was dressed up in Padres shirt and hat while Rooster was wearing Phillies regalia (Madusa was facepalming in that one). There were quite a few pictures of them during their TOPGUN training and one of their graduation celebration. That one caused a cascade of hoots, hollers, and wolf whistles because Madusa had been a total smoke show in that suit and heels. Rocksteady even included an eyeline ballistics trajectory arrow, but for Rooster this time; it traveled from his eyes right to Madusa’s cleavage. The crowd laughed at Rooster who didn’t even seem to mind one bit.

“I definitely was staring at your tit*,” Rooster whispered in her ear. She felt his smile against her ear.

“I know you were,” Madusa told him smugly. Plus, he’d admitted as much the night of.

There were even pictures of them during their deployment. Madusa’s favorite was one of her throwing eggs at Rooster. That one also seemed to be Maverick and Slider’s favorite, too, judging by the laughter. The Marines’ favorite seemed to be the one of Moose with the couple where Madusa wore Rooster’s traffic cone shirt, only to have the one with Moose and the two wearing their Truth or Dare shirts to surpass it in laughter minutes later. Madusa in dumb shirts was the bane of her existence. The whole slide show culminated with a two-picture split screen of the lovebirds slicked up for a night of clubbing taken just recently. That one also earned catcalls due to how good Madusa looked in those boots and how hot Rooster looked in that unbuttoned shirt and gold chain. In the first picture, Rooster had his arm around her waist proudly; in the next, the couple kissed. With a click of a button, a cartoon outline of a heart drew itself around their heads on screen with the caption: ‘True Love.’

Madusa was the first one up to hug Rocksteady for the lovely trip down memory lane. The two women hugged tightly and fiercely, exchanging gratitude, love, and friendship. Rooster threw himself onto the two women for a group hug. Rocksteady loved a good group hug.

Phoenix was up next with her Best Woman speech. “The minute I met Rooster, I knew we’d be great friends. He was one of those people that could instantly brighten up your day. Always smiling, always joking, always good for a laugh. But, I knew for sure that Rooster was a good person right from the jump because Madusa liked him,” Phoenix started, smiling at both her friends while holding a champagne flute. She explained further. “You see, Madusa doesn’t really like anyone.”

The guests laughed, and Madusa laughed, too, because generally, it was true. Growing up with the type of mother she had, Madusa learned real quick how to size up people and could do so in an instant. Madusa trusted her gut more than anyone’s words. If you passed the Madusa gut check, she liked you. If you didn’t…well, you were gonna have a bad day with her around. “But she liked Rooster, and I learned over the years not to question Madusa’s good person radar. With Rooster, her good person radar hit a bullseye.”

The little stage that’d been set up for the speeches was a bit off to the right of where Madusa and Rooster were seated at the main table. The couple had shifted in their chairs to face their friends as they spoke. Madusa was sitting sideways in the chair with her back to Rooster while Rooster had scooted as close as possible, and rested an arm atop Madusa’s chair back, practically hugging her. They were still holding hands. Madusa stroked her thumb over Rooster’s knuckles.

“Rooster is real deal. He’s that friend you can always count on, no matter what. Rooster’s the guy you call at three in the morning because your date didn’t work out and you can’t find your keys and you’re locked out of your apartment.” Phoenix chuckled when she added, “Yeah, that happened.” With a little smile, she pressed on. “Rooster’s also the guy that always picks up the phone or answers your texts. He’s the guy who always listens when you need it, like when you’ve broken up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or you had a bad day in the air. He’s the guy who’ll make you laugh when you’re sad and who’ll hop on a plane to fly across the country because you miss hanging out together after being stationed apart.” She paused and added, “That also happened. I’d been stationed at Oceana after the RAG. Rocksteady was at Yuma. Madusa was at Miramar. Rooster was at Lemoore. We were all scattered to the wind and one day, Rooster and I were talking on the phone; I was complaining about how far apart we all were. He immediately arranged some leave, and flew across the country because I missed my friend.” Phoenix smiled at Rooster softly.

“That’s the kind of guy Rooster is. He’ll hop on a plane for you, he’d give you the shirt off his back, he’d give you his last dollar…he’d sacrifice himself to find you behind enemy lines and bring you home.” Maverick sat up straighter, smiling proudly and fondly at Rooster because that last one wasn’t metaphorical at all. Rooster had done that.

Madusa heard Rooster’s shaky breath against her ear, and she knew that her sensitive, sweet man was feeling some feelings hearing his best friend speak so genuinely about him. Despite his gregarious and fun outward look on life, Maddie also knew that Bradley didn’t let many people in—really and truly in—and that Phoenix was one of the lucky ones who got to experience what it was like when Rooster considered you a part of his family.

“He’s also the kind of friend that isn’t afraid to call me out if I need a reality check, and—believe me—I’ve needed a few reality checks over the years,” Phoenix added, earning some soft laughs. “He’d hold my hand, hand me a pint of ice cream, let me cry or yell it out, and then he’d dish out some tough love because that’s what a friend does.” Phoenix smiled at Rooster. “Rooster is the best of us and as the best of us, he deserves the best, and that’s where Madusa comes in.”

Now, Phoenix smiled at her; Maddie felt her eyes sting with emotion a little bit. Rooster must have known somehow with his super-husband senses because he kissed the round of her bare shoulder tenderly.

“Rooster deserves someone who is loyal, who’ll support him and encourage him. Someone who’ll fight for him and challenge him. Most of all, he deserves someone who’ll love him unconditionally, and that’s you, Maddie.” Phoenix was talking to Madusa directly, now. “Rooster has never been happier than when he’s with you. It might’ve taken you a decade, but it was a decade well spent because you two are the strongest, most solid people I’ve ever met, made even stronger together.” Maddie sniffled just a bit and nodded at Phoenix, a silent acknowledgment. “As Best Woman, I want to thank you both. Thank you, Rooster, for always being that solid presence in my life. And, thank you, Madusa, for making Rooster so damn happy.” Phoenix swiped at her eyes before lifting her champagne flute. “So, before Rocksteady starts throwing tissue boxes at me—“

“I’m armed and ready, girl!” Rocksteady assured, lifting up a box to show it was locked and loaded. It looked like she’d already gone through a few tissues of her own. Phoenix laughed softly.

“I’d like to raise my glass to Rooster and Madusa. May you both continue to find love, laughter, and happiness with each other for decades to come. Congratulations, you two. I love you both.”

Rooster and Phoenix shared a long, tight hug. They spoke to each other quietly for a few moments before hugging again. Maddie wouldn’t ask him what was said because that was between them but she suspected it was sweet and heartfelt. Once Rooster parted from their latest hug, he motioned Madusa over and stepped aside so the ladies could hug as well.

“Thank you for being Rooster’s best friend,” Maddie whispered.

“You’re his best friend,” Natasha insisted. “But, I’m happy to be best friend XO.”

Maddie’s laugh was a little wet with sniffles and tears she fought real hard against. “I love you, you know?”

“I know. I love you, too.” She squeezed Madusa. “Get ready for Gretzky.

“Oh god.”

Phoenix grinned and took her seat, switching places with Madusa’s Best Man for his turn. Madusa braced for roasting.

“A little over seven years ago, my life was a mess,” he started. “I’d lost my wingman, Tater, the year before and my marriage not long after that. I wasn’t in the best place, mentally, and I took it out on everyone around me. I was going through wingmen like they were a dime a dozen, not able to keep one more than a few months at a time before they got sick of my sh*t and requested a transfer. Then one day, a woman, with the biggest chip on her shoulder I’d ever seen, walked into the ready room. ‘That’s your new wingman,’ Moose told me. ‘She won’t last the week,’ I said. Moose sized me up, then said, ‘Bottle of whiskey says she lasts.’ ‘Done,’ I said.”

Madusa smiled fondly. Moose and Gretzky had told her this part of the story more times than she could count and she never tired of hearing it.

“I had this ritual for FNGs whenever they joined the squadron. I got in their face and channeled my best Drill Instructor. I figured it was a good measure of a person. See how they handled the pressure. I lit her up for a good twenty minutes, and she took it without flinching. She didn’t move a muscle. Stayed at attention the whole time. By the end, I was hoarse and and maybe a little worn out—I’d been slacking on my cardio, so, I was a little out of breath from all the yelling,” he said with a shrug, earning some laughs. Madusa grinned.

“Anyway, after I wound down, she looked at me and said, ‘You done? I’ve got work to do.’ She kinda caught me off guard with that response but, mostly, I was a little impressed. I spent the rest of the week doing my best to get her to quit. I was an absolute asshole to her. A bottle of whiskey was on the line! No matter how much sh*t I gave her, she handled it and then handed it back. If I pushed, she pushed back. If I snapped, she snapped back. I brought her to the gym with me, thinking I’d get her in a headlock and make her tap out of the squadron altogether, but damn if she didn’t fight me for every damn inch on the mat. I did get her in that headlock but she never tapped out. Moose had to step in before she blacked out because the woman is stubborn and doesn’t understand the word ‘surrender.’”

Madusa smirked crookedly, remembering that week. Gretzky was right: he had been an asshole to her all week, but she’d been warned. Moose had told her about Tater, and how Gretzky couldn’t keep a wingman after that. She’d never lost a wingman, but she could imagine how hard it would be if she had. She figured he was being such a dick because he felt guilty for surviving and maybe even like accepting a new wingman was a betrayal. She decided it was okay; she could handle whatever Gretzky dished out. She grew up a Maitland, after all.

“No matter what I did, she took it in stride. Every time she handed me my ass right back, it solidified my respect for her. She made it the week, obviously,” he said to some laughs. “So Moose told me to get some drinks with her, get to know her. I didn’t want to, so Moose ordered me to.” Moose laughed the loudest. “At the end of the day, I tell her to get in her civvies, we’re going get some drinks. ‘I don’t wanna,’ she said to me.” This time, Madusa laughed. “If Moose ordered me to go, then I was gonna order her to go. sh*t rolls downhill and all that.” More laughter.

“We go to this dive bar and it’s packed and dirty and rough. Neither of us is good at small talk so we didn’t even say a word. We had some shots and drank some beers, all in silence. She didn’t try to get me to open up and I didn’t patronize her with useless talking. It was nice, actually, not to have someone try to get me to talk. Then, at some point, I was coming back from taking a leak when someone bumped into me and, honestly, I don’t even remember how things escalated to the point they did, but it didn’t take long for fists to start flying. Out of the corner of my eye, I see this one guy wind up to sucker punch me. I knew it was gonna hit because I was tangled up with this other dude and couldn’t defend, but the hit never came. I look over, and there’s Madusa, right up in the damn melee throwing right hooks. She clocked the guy and was dodging incoming like Mohammad Ali! Didn’t take long after that for the bouncers to break up the fight and kick us all out.”

“Did that really happen?” Rooster asked in a whisper.

She looked at her husband over her shoulder, smiling, and nodded. “Yeah. I got a lot of Gretzky stories like that.”

“I’d like to hear them someday.” He kissed her shoulder with a smile.

“I’ll tell you all my stories.”

On stage, Gretzky wasn’t done. “After getting thrown out on our asses, we were in the car and I asked her why she threw herself into the fray like that after I was an asshole to her all week. ‘I’m your wingman,’ she said. ‘I’ll always have your back, no matter what.’ And from that moment—that exact moment—she became my best friend. Whether I’m in the air with her or on the ground in a foxhole, I know I’ll see the other side because she has my back. She has my back and I have hers. And, it’s because I have her back that I’ve given her so much sh*t about Rooster over the years.” Rooster’s laugh warmed her heart.

“I knew Rooster was good dude—and the guy for Madusa—the first time I ever met him at Tailhook because Madusa blushed.” On cue, Madusa felt her cheeks flush hot. Gretzky smirked. “Not only did she blush, she blushed and she laughed at his dumb jokes!” Rooster grinned against her ear. “That’s true love, in my book, because I’d never seen Madusa blush or laugh at anyone’s dumb jokes; she only ever heckles my dumb jokes. Hell, Rooster’s still the only person who can fluster her which is great for me because that means I can bust her ass about it.” Madusa facepalmed but was smiling despite it all.

“I knew, for sure, they were both in love with each other when she and I were in Telan. We’d come back from a long, grueling patrol, and she got a text from Rooster. It was a serenade of one of her favorite Pearl Jam songs and she was speechless. Even then, she said she wasn’t sure if he had feelings for her, which was a trip to see—Madusa’s usually so sure about everything. I told her, ‘No man serenades a woman in a war zone unless he means it.’ I was right because here we are today. I love being right.” Both Madusa and Rooster laughed along with the crowd.

Holding his champagne flute aloft, Gretzky faced the happy couple. “Rooster, you’re a good dude. There’s no one else in this world who can make Madusa smile and laugh at dumb jokes and blush the way you do. Keep doing it because—God knows—Madusa needs more of that in her life.” She felt Rooster nod firmly, taking Gretzky’s request seriously. Her best friend addressed her, next. “Madusa, from the bottom of my heart: you’re a pain in the ass.” Madusa laughed the loudest. Gretzky tipped his flute slightly in salute. “Semper Fi, my friends.”

All the Marines in the room called out, “Hoorah!”

Gretzky approached her after hopping off stage. She bounced out of her chair to give her best friend a strong, solid hug. “I thought you were gonna roast me,” she pointed out. Sure, he called her a pain in the ass, but that was endearment.

“Nah,” he said, waving her off with a somewhat bashful shrug. “I’ll roast you any day of the week, but not on your wedding day. You deserve a good day.”

“Thank you, asshole,” she told him fondly.

“Thank you for putting up with me, sh*thead.” They hugged again before he moved on to give Rooster a firm, manly handshake. “You too, numbnu*ts.” Rooster blinked.

“numbnu*ts?!”

Gretzky grinned and walked off, leaving Rooster hanging.

Madusa bit back a laugh. Poor Rooster. He’d figure out why Gretzky was busting his balls eventually.

—Rooster—

Food was demolished, drinks were drunk, speeches were speeched, and it was finally party time! But first, cake.

Madusa had ordered very simple sheet cakes of varying flavors, not having seen the need for anything elaborate and fancy. “We’re all just gonna eat it anyway!” There were three cakes in total: one vanilla, one chocolate, and a red velvet option. The chocolate cake (both Rooster and Madusa’s fav) sat in the middle with the cute mini-Rooster and mini-Madusa Tofu had made for them, perched right on top. Naturally, Rooster and Madusa smashed the cake in each other’s faces because his lady was aggressive and competitive! He liked that.

After the couple cleaned themselves of icing—Rooster did take the opportunity to lick some frosting off his wife’s (WIFE!) face—Maverick invited the happy couple to take to the floor for their first dance. On the already-set-up screen, the video Rooster had sent Madusa when she was in Telan of him serenading her with Pearl Jam played for everyone to see.

‘Hey,’ on-screen Rooster rasped. ‘Just learned this and wanted to show you since you were on my mind. I hope you like it.’

Madusa smiled up at him at the collective “Aw!” Rooster wasn’t shy about it; he wanted the world to know he worshiped this woman.

As the sweet and slow guitar riffs sounded through the speakers, Rooster slid an arm around Madusa’s waist and held her hand close to their bodies. She slung her free arm around his neck and let her fingers play the hair at his nape. He sighed happily as he dropped his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. Immediately, the world around them disappeared, leaving only Rooster and Madusa.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you,” he whispered back.

They spent the rest of the song slowly dancing in a circle, enjoying their closeness. Rooster did everything he could to commit this to memory forever, their first dance as husband and wife. Funny enough, they were dancing in almost the exact same spot they had their first-ever dance together that night of their ‘platonic’ drinks. He loved this place. Every inch of this bar would forever remind him of the love of his life; that was when he knew he’d make a permanent move to San Diego and that, if the Navy ever tried to station him elsewhere, he’d leave the Navy in his rearview mirror without hesitation. Nothing mattered more to him than Madusa.

When she looked up at him, Rooster tucked a wisp of hair back behind her ear gently. Maddie was so damn beautiful. Her mood ring hazel eyes were brown and her smile knocked the wind right out of him. She radiated happiness. What blew Rooster away was that she was so happy because of him; he was the source of that brightness. He’d said many vows today; he decided to tack on another, one where he promised himself he’d always make her happy, no matter what it took.

She pushed up on her toes to brush a soft kiss against his lips as the song’s final notes sounded. As the crowd cheered, she spoke softly, for his ears only, “Thank you for dancing with me.”

“I’ll dance with you every single day, Sweetheart.”

Next, Maverick invited Master Gunny to approach for the Father-Daughter dance. He extended a hand to Rooster, who took it, shaking it firmly. “Maddie did good, picking you. You’re a good man, Rooster.”

“Thank you, Master Gunny. I’m lucky she did.”

Rooster winked at his wife (WIFE!) before stepping off to the side to allow father and daughter to share the spotlight. The two danced to ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, a favorite of Maddie’s. It had taken her a long time to settle on this one, complaining that most father-daughter songs were too sugary to properly fit the tumultuous relationship she’d had with her father over the years. Sure, they were better now, but Maddie felt it would’ve been disingenuous to pick something overly bright. Rooster felt this had been a good choice.

‘Well, I've been afraid of changin', 'cause I've built my life around you, but time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I'm getting older too,’ Stevie Nicks’ distinctive and melancholy voice sang. It was a bittersweet melody that really reflected Maddie’s relationship with her father, one that was filled with sadness, but allowed for some hope, too.

He watched them sway to the music; it seemed like they were talking as they danced, and, from here, Master Gunny seemed almost teary-eyed. Honestly, so did Madusa. Just a few days ago, Rooster was insisting she cut her dad out of her life because of the home movies they’d watched. Rooster had never been more glad she called him on his sh*t about it because, as he watched father and daughter, he realized how much he missed his own parents right then. He felt Maverick park himself next to him, reaching up to squeeze his shoulder.

“Missing your mom, huh?”

“Yeah.” His heart squeezed painfully tight.

“She’s here, kid. I can feel her and your dad looking down and they’re real proud of you.”

The thought made Rooster smile. “I hope so.”

“I know so.” Maverick paused and added, “And, I’m proud of you too.” Rooster looked at him, eyebrows all the way up. Maverick never shied away from telling Bradley he was proud of him, but it surprised him as an adult, probably because of how they left things after Maverick had his papers pulled from the Academy. Sure, they’d made up since then, but, during their years apart, Rooster had internalized that, maybe, Maverick wasn’t proud of his decisions. “I know I don’t tell you that enough—“

“You do,” Rooster insisted, aware that his thinking that Maverick wasn’t proud didn’t stem from their current reality; it all went back to his late teenage years, filled with grief, anger, and disappointment. It was a feeling from long ago, not now.

“I don’t,” Maverick insisted right back. "I feel like I lost that right when I pulled your papers.”

“You only did what my mom asked you to do, man.”

“Yeah.” Maverick nodded. “But, I could’ve said no, and I didn’t.”

“Telling my mom ‘no’ was hard on a good day; I don’t blame you for not saying ‘no’ on a bad day,” Bradley soothed. “Plus, maybe you were right; maybe I wasn’t ready then. I would’ve washed out during ejection training and that would’ve been worse than being held back four years.”

Maverick smiled sympathetically. “Because Madusa wouldn’t have been there to talk you through it,” he observed, referring to the vows Rooster spoke earlier that day. Bradley nodded.

“Exactly.” He offered Maverick a sympathetic smile. “I don’t blame you anymore, Mav. I know I did for a really long time—hell, even Slider told me I was being a dick about it, that you had your reasons, and I should trust you—but I was so messed up from losing my mom that it was easier to be angry with you.”

“You’ve gone through more loss than anyone deserves, kid. It’s not fair that you lost both your parents so young; if you being angry with me helped you through it, I’m okay with that.”

That was Maverick for you: loyal to a fault, even if it meant his own misery. Mav felt so guilty about Rooster’s dad, was so damn devoted to Bradley’s mom and Bradley himself, that he’d sacrifice his own happiness if it meant Bradley made it. “When are you and Penny getting married?” Rooster asked so suddenly that Maverick blinked.

Laughing softly, Maverick cut a glance toward his lady, who was wiping away some happy tears watching Madusa and her dad dance. “Soon,” Maverick replied. When Rooster quirked a brow for him to elaborate, he added, “I already told you: after deployment.”

“Why not now?” Rooster asked.

“Well, it’s your wedding right now,” Maverick pointed out unnecessarily.

Rooster snorted. “I mean now, as in before we head back out to the Boat,” he clarified.

“Because. I want to take Penny on a long honeymoon and we have to wait until Amelia’s out of school for the summer. She usually spends it with her dad. He’s stationed in Hawaii.”

“You can still get married now and go on a honeymoon later,” Rooster reasoned.

“I know,” Maverick laughed. “Why are you so adamant about this?”

“I just want you to be happy, man.”

“I am happy,” Maverick confirmed. He studied Rooster carefully, likely suspecting there was more to it, and Bradley squirmed under the scrutiny.

“It’s just something Slider said earlier,” Rooster confessed.

“Oh boy,” Maverick replied, rolling his eyes. “What did he say?”

“Just that guys like you and him have the itch for adventure—“

“Well, he’s not wrong about that,” Maverick replied. He patted Rooster’s shoulder. “Lucky for me, I’m in love with a woman who loves adventure, too; when there’s a kid involved, you have to be more strategic about your adventures, that’s all. Penny and I will be fine; you can stop worrying about me, kid.”

“I don’t think that’ll ever happen.” Bradley had been worrying about Maverick his whole life. “Are you going to stop worrying about me?” Rooster challenged.

“No, probably not,” Maverick acquiesced. “I guess that’s part of being a family, huh?”

“Yep.”

Maverick blinked real quick and swiped at his eyes; every time Rooster called him ‘family’ it seemed to hit Maverick right in the feelings. “Alright, fair enough. You can worry about me on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Later, during karaoke. You and me.” Maverick motioned between himself and Rooster.

The newlyweds had decided they were going to wrap up the reception evening with some group karaoke, as was tradition with the Black Knights (Moose was a karaoke fiend, apparently). Honestly, reception karaoke hadn’t been a hard sell for Rooster at all since he loved performing and belting out tunes; he even tried to convince Madusa to go for a full karaoke-only reception, but she really wanted some dancing first. (“Please, don’t make me listen to Moose’s off-key singing the whole night!” she had pleaded.) They compromised with dancing and then karaoke for the last hour or so of the reception.

Rooster sized up Maverick’s request. “I’m guessing she’s lost that lovin’ feeling, huh?”

“She has. She’s lost it,” Maverick answered solemnly.

“You know, I usually hate it when she does that, but today? I think she needs two wingmen to hit the high notes because it’s always a bullseye.”

Maverick grinned real big before the two men hugged it out.

Once Maddie and her dad finished up their dance, it was time to get down. They started the reception off with ‘Celebration’ from Kool & The Gang and boogied their way through the 70s, 80s, 90s, the millennium, and present-day contemporary jams. The crowd did everything from the Macarena, to the Dougie, to Party Rock, to the Cupid Shuffle, to Soulja Boy, to Cotton Eyed Joe. They even joined in for the Chicken Dance!

Rooster danced with his wife (WIFE!) the whole time, though did scoot over to give Ariel some room to twist and shout with the two of them; the kid loved to party! It was far more difficult for Maddie to coax Payton to dance because, Rooster suspected, Payton thought all the old people (meaning anyone over the age of twenty) were super embarrassing. Eventually, Maddie convinced Payton to hit the dancefloor with her at least once however, the teenager didn’t do more than just sway in place and cover her face with her hand in mortification. It was cute, though, when Tommy also managed to convince Payton to dance with him, their own version of a father-daughter dance. Madusa smiled fondly as the two Maitlands swayed together in a circle during the slower-paced song.

It also allowed Rooster and Madusa to slow dance together again, something Rooster loved. A lot. He nuzzled her temple before kissing her. She smiled against his cheek. “Looked like you and your dad had a pretty intense talk during your dance,” he observed.

Madusa nodded. “Guess it’s a big deal for a dad to watch his daughter get married.”

“That all?”

“He apologized. You know, for my childhood. Again,” she added. Rooster’s thumb stroked the small of her back. “I told him he didn’t need to do that anymore.”

Rooster let out an understanding breath. “I kinda had the same kind of conversation with Maverick.”

“About the Academy?” Rooster nodded. “You think he’ll ever forgive himself for it?”

“Probably not. You think your dad will ever forgive himself for your sh*t childhood?”

“Probably not,” she agreed. “I guess, in a way, it shows they’re good men, in the end. Feeling guilt about what they did, wanting to atone…”

“I didn’t think I’d ever forgive him. You know?” Rooster admitted.

Madusa blew out a sharp breath. “Oh yeah. I get it. I was very angry at my dad, for a really long time. I built my entire adult life around being mad at him.”

“Same with me and Maverick.”

“I think I’m ready to let it go.”

“Yeah? How come?”

She cupped his cheek. “Because I’ve got you to help me through it.”

“I’m glad you want me to.” Madeleine was not the most welcoming when it came to help; the fact she voluntarily sought his made Rooster feel things, deep in his soul. He turned his head to kiss the palm of her hand gently.

“You having fun?” she asked after being quiet with him for a moment.

“Yeah, I am,” he told her with a genuine smile. “This is the best wedding I’ve ever been to!”

Madusa laughed. “I should hope that our wedding’s your favorite!”

“Definitely! I don’t think any other wedding’s ever gonna top this one.”

“What if we decide to renew our vows someday?”

“Vow renewal is its own category. I’m sure that’ll win top spot there, too.”

Maddie laughed again. “You’re goofball,” she teased.

“That makes you Mrs. Goofball,” he teased right back, earning another laugh. “You ready for karaoke later?”

“Oh my god,” Madusa lamented. “I’m gonna need a couple of shots of tequila first because Moose always drags me and Gretzky up there with him.”

Apparently, karaoke had been Moose’s preferred team-building activity (something that amused Rooster immensely), which was how it became a Black Knight tradition at squadron weddings. The man even had his own professional quality karaoke machine and set-up; Moose offered it up (gleefully!) for the reception. Listening to Madusa talk, Rooster had expected a karaoke disaster, but he soon found out that, when it came to karaoke, the Black Knights went hard. Rooster could respect the karaoke hustle.

But first, they needed to help fate along with a bouquet and garter toss.

Maverick called for all single people who wanted a chance at glory to take strategic positions on the floor. Madusa was up first with the bouquet toss (she’d made sure to retrieve the pinned wings for safekeeping). She surveyed the steely-eyed competitors—Rooster noted Rocksteady right up front shoving Hangman on one side and Phoenix on the other—probably committing all positioning to memory before turning around and launching florals over her shoulder like a Boat cat-shot.

Rooster thought Hangman might have the advantage, due to his college football skills, but he should’ve known not to count Rocksteady out; she’d played basketball, after all, and was almost as tall as Hangman. The two duked it out but Rocksteady was the most determined of them all and snatched that bouquet from the jaws of defeat (Hangman’s hands).

“I GOT IT!!!” Madusa grinned at her friend. Rooster cast a glance Coyote’s way; the man was smiling at his woman. Rooster liked those two together.

Then, it was Rooster’s turn. He pulled up a chair for his wife (WIFE!) to sit on in the middle of the dance floor. Rooster pointed at Maverick to hit the music. Madusa laughed out loud when ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blared through the speakers. He did a few exaggerated stretches, making everyone laugh, before sinking to his knees in front of his lady.

“I’m going in,” he told her with a grin.

“Don’t get lost,” she sassed.

“Oh, I know my way around.” Rooster definitely knew his way around. He slid his hands up her smooth, bare leg until they disappeared under her flowy, blue skirt. Rooster’s eyes were locked in with hers the whole time his fingertips grazed her skin all the way up to her thigh. Around them, the squadrons cat called and wolf-whistled, but Rooster wasn’t paying any attention to them, entirely focused on his lady. He could’ve been naughty and teased her further, but he kept himself in check. Their families were watching, after all.

With fingers coiling around the stretchy, silky fabric, he slid it off her leg, and emerged victoriously, holding it aloft for the world to see. The singles were all ready and positioned across the dancefloor, ready to catch the garment. Rooster deliberately slingshotted it at Coyote. Cool and collected, Coyote snatched it out of the air easily, much to Hangman’s lament.

“Come on! You aimed it right at him!”

“His lady caught the bouquet; it made sense.”

“You’re my favorite, boo,” Rocksteady told him before snagging Coyote for the subsequent victory dance before they delved into the weird and wonderful world of karaoke.

Moose kicked karaoke time off by pulling both Madusa and Gretzky on stage with him to be his backup singers for Moose’s rendition of ‘Ice Ice Baby.’ Moose’s wife cheered the loudest. Moose’s kids looked like the wanted to die from mortification; Payton was there with them as emotional support. Moose, for his part, had a great time as karaoke opening act. He was really into it and doing a great job laying down the beat, dancing like a typical middle-aged dad, but what made the whole spectacle were Madusa and Gretzky deadpanning the backup lyrics, each looking like they wanted to spork their eyes out. Madusa even facepalmed through half the song.

“I hate this song! Why did I have to sing it at my wedding?!” she lamented after a rousing round of applause.

“What?! Of course, we had to do this one! It’s our song,” Moose insisted, motioning between him, Gretzky, and Madusa. “We always do this one! Plus, I outrank you both.”

“And if I have to look like a dumbass, you have to look like a dumbass,” Gretzky added.

“I know! I know! sh*t rolls downhill.”

After that strong opener, Rooster rallied the Daggers because there was no way he was gonna let the Marines win at karaoke. Thankfully, the Daggers had their own secret weapons: Rooster and Maverick. At first, he thought they should keep their showstopper for the end to really slide home with the win, but Maverick convinced him to start off strong to scare off their opponents.

That was why they started off with The Song.

And it was a f*ckin’ hit.

At one point, Rooster fell to his knees in front of Madusa as he belted out the tune, earning a delighted giggle. Maverick was working Penny for all he was worth, making his future bride smile and shake her head at his antics. Slider got in on the action and then, the whole crowd joined in.

“Whoa-o, whoa-oh, whoa. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Ba-bum. Bum, bum,” everyone sang together.

After the whistles and applause, Rooster sided up to Madusa. “So? How’d you like my performance?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows at her.

“I liked it,” she told him, looking very amused. “It’s not the first time you sang that one to me.”

“It’s always a crowd-pleaser,” he agreed with a solemn nod.

“I’m definitely pleased.”

“Are you gonna go up again?”

“Yep.”

Rooster perked up real bright. “Yeah?!”

“I’m gonna be up there singing quite a few times, actually,” she told him. “Seems like a bunch of people are cashing in Madusa Favor Vouchers.” She showed him a handful of vouchers before slapping them back onto the bar.

“Do I have to cash in a Favor Voucher?” he teased.

“No,” she laughed. “You’ve got husband privilege. All you gotta do is ask, Baby.” She called him her husband!

“Will you sing with me, Sweetheart?”

“Yes.” She smiled up at him so brightly, his heart tripped.

“I’ll pick a good one, promise.”

Slider and Maverick were giving Moose a run for his money with some classic Bon Jovi, but the Black Knights showed they weren’t messing around when Gonzo absolutely killed it with ‘Gasolina.’ He got the whole place up dancing and singing along with him. Payback was smooth with a rendition of ‘My Girl’ for his wife, while Gretzky absolutely surprised the hell out of Rooster with his slick and very in-character recitation of ‘Short Skirt/Long Jacket.’ Phoenix loved it, grinning the whole time Gretzky ‘sang’ to her.

At some point after his go at the mic, Gretzky sided up to him at the bar. “What’s up, jerkface?” Gretzky greeted.

Okay, this was getting out of hand; Rooster figured this was the best time to figure out what the hell was up with Madusa’s best friend. “Are you—?” Gretzky quirked a brow at him. “Are you mad at me or something, man?” Rooster’s voice did a little awkward squeak at the end there because the thought of Madusa’s best friend being mad at him made Rooster feel a bit queasy.

“Nope.” Gretzky grabbed his beer.

“Then, why are you calling me names?!”

“I call Madusa names,” he pointed out.

“Yeah.” Rooster nodded. “But that’s, like, your thing with you two.”

“It is.”

“So, why are you calling me names?!”

Gretzky eyed him up and down for a good minute before smirking. “You don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember what?”

“For someone with a freak photographic memory, it’s pretty funny you don’t remember.”

“The freak memory has its limits. I have to know what I’m trying to remember, dude.”

Apparently, Gretzky decided to take pity on him because the amused smirk transitioned into a fond smile. “You remember that week you visited Madusa?”

How could Rooster forget? It was one of the best weeks of his life. “I slept on her couch.”

“Yeah. And, I came over to drop off my spare key for you to use while you were visiting.”

“I remember this.”

“As I was leaving, I told Madusa something like, ‘Bye, sh*thead’ or something like that.”

“Yes,” Rooster agreed.

“You asked me something. Do you remember now?”

Rooster replayed the scene in his mind. ‘Don’t I get a nickname?’ he’d asked Gretzky.

‘Not until you make an honest woman out of her,’ Madusa’s best friend had said.

That was when Rooster understood: now, that he and Madusa were married, Gretzky was giving him his own nicknames. He looked at Gretzky, wide-eyed and touched. Gretzky’s smile widened, spotting that Rooster figured it out. He slapped Rooster on the back like a bro. “I always keep my word, f*cknut,” he said before retreating back toward his own lady’s table.

“What was that about?” Maverick asked.

“I pretty much just got the Gretzky stamp of approval. I think.”

“I sure hope so. I’d be real awkward if her best friend didn’t like you.” Rooster snorted.

When Rooster didn’t have an arm around Madusa’s waist as they watched the karaoke performances, he was with Maverick and Slider to cheer for his lady every time she went on stage. Madusa ended up in a duet with Hangman (‘The Chain’), Tofu (‘Shake It Off’), Moose again (‘Love Shack’), and Rocksteady (‘Telephone’). Rooster pulled his wife (WIFE!) up on stage for some fun with ‘I Got You Babe.’

But, the absolute cherry on top of the karaoke cake, the winning performance that solidified the Marines as karaoke juggernauts, was the group number.

“In the Navy! Yes, you can sail the seven seas! In the Navy!”

It was the best f*cking thing ever. Rooster was in tears laughing, hanging off Maverick and Slider, who were red and wheezing. The group ended the song with a full Marine salute with Madusa yelling, “Go Navy!” Then, she winked at him. All of Navy present erupted in applause.

Rooster loved that woman so f*cking much.

Eventually, the evening began to wind down. Madusa slipped her arms around Rooster’s waist, looking up at him. “Might be time to get going, huh?”

“I’m torn,” he admitted.

“You are? Why’s that?” she asked, smiling.

“Because I really want to take you home and let you have your way with me.” Madusa laughed and hummed her approval of that idea. “But, I also don’t want the day to end.”

“It’s been a good day.”

“It’s been a great day! I wish I could marry you every day.”

“You marry me every single time you smile, Sunshine.” Rooster swallowed hard, a lump of emotion stuck in his throat. She loved the sweet words he always said to her, making her weak in the knees, but his lady was quite the wordsmith herself because her words earned pleasant shivers up his spine and over his skin.

He took her face in both his hands gently, and leaned down to kiss her tenderly before saying, “I think it’s time I take my wife home.”

“Your wife very much agrees with that plan.”

This really was the best day of his life.

—Madusa—

When it was time for Madusa and Rooster to head out, they climbed into the decorated Bronco and had the flurry of guests send them off with hugs and some cheers, though not before announcing that—surprise!—Maverick had stamped off his final square in Madusa-Rooster Bingo!

“Now, I know why you kept pushing for The Song; it’s what won you the game!” Rooster accused.

“It did,” Maverick admitted without shame. “Thanks for doing me a solid, kid.” Maverick grinned brightly at his godson.

Twenty minutes later, they were driving off Coronado back toward home. Rooster had originally wanted to book a hotel for the evening, before heading out to their honeymoon the next morning, but Madusa convinced him that home was where the heart was.

“I’d like our first night as husband and wife to be in our own bed in our own home,” she’d told him. Rooster agreed immediately. The man was a big romantic softy at heart and Madusa loved him for it.

As Rooster drove, Madusa reached over and ran her fingers in the hair at his temples. “Madusa,” he purred. “I love it when you do that, Sweetheart, but I need to concentrate on driving right now and all the blood is rushing out of my brain into my dick.”

She chuckled, and tucked her hand under her to stop its errant search for him; all she wanted to do was caress and touch him right now. Usually, it was Rooster who was the most touchy-feely out of the two, but right then, as she studied his profile, it took all of Madusa’s self-control to temper the need to touch him right that second. It wasn’t even in a sexy way, either (though she definitely wanted to touch him like that); it was more of an intense need to be close to her husband.

Husband.

Madusa had thought it would take her a while to get used to the whole ‘husband’ and ‘married’ thing but apparently not. Calling and thinking of him her husband was as natural as breathing.

He spotted her watching him with a soft smile and offered her a soft smile of his own. “What are you thinking about?”

“That you’re my husband,” she told him truthfully.

Immediately, Rooster beamed, sitting up straighter with a smile so bright, she was surprised night didn’t shift into daylight. It didn’t take them more than fifteen minutes to get home, since they lived close by and traffic was lighter at this time of night. He backed the Bronco up into the garage that opened up in the back alley behind her backyard, and the newlyweds spilled out toward the back door of their little house. Rooster unlocked the door but paused.

“Can I carry you over the threshold?” he asked suddenly. They hadn’t really talked about this part because, honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to Madusa that this would be something to consider; she had so many other wedding and marriage things to think about that this had sort of fallen off her radar. Since she didn’t answer right away, Rooster kept talking, probably out of nerves or a desire to explain his request. “I know you’re a strong Marine who doesn’t need a man to carry her anywhere—which is something I love, by the way; I think it’s amazing how strong you are—but I’d just…I don’t know. I’d like it? Because I’d get to hold you in my arms when we walk into the house for the first time with you as my wife.”

The way he looked at her was—gosh—so absolutely hopeful and adorable and sweet that Madusa could only agree to his request. Sure, it was a tradition that was probably rooted in bullsh*t sexism or dumb superstition, but, as she was starting to realize with this whole wedding business, there was also power in reclaiming traditions and giving them your own meaning. That Rooster wanted to hold her as they crossed the threshold wasn’t because he believed in those sexist roots; it was—plainly and simply—because he wanted to be close to her. Because he loved her so damn much, he wanted her in his arms. The fact he asked before getting swept away was hot as f*ck, too.

Madusa reached up, took his face in her hands, and gently pulled him down for a soft kiss. She smiled up at her husband. “Yes, you can carry me.”

Since getting together, Madusa and Rooster’s sex life wasn’t just steamy, it was fun, too. Often, they end up laughing and teasing. Sometimes, Rooster would pick her up like a potato sack. Other times, she would buddy-carry him around. Every time, there was laughter and fun.

This time, Rooster didn’t haul her up over his shoulder as she roared with laughs; he carefully tucked an arm under her knees and picked her up delicately, like she was most precious. Madusa easily wrapped her arms around his neck, not because she was worried he was going to drop her (he wasn’t; her husband was strong as f*ck), but because she wanted that closeness, too.

They were both staring in each other’s eyes for minutes or maybe it was forever, before Rooster took a careful step inside, ensuring he didn’t bump her on the door frame or the hallway wall. Once they were officially, fully stepped inside their home, Maddie kissed his lips, then up his jaw all the way to his earlobe, where she whispered, “Take me to bed, Sunshine. I want to love you.”

Bradley let out a shaky breath, and closed his eyes for a moment, likely to soak it all in and lock all of this into his amazing memory. He kicked the door closed behind him without missing a step and carried her to their bedroom before gently setting her down on their bed and kneeling in front of her. Quietly, he picked up one of her feet to carefully unlace the cobalt blue Converse; it slipped right off easily once loosened. Rooster pulled her foot up and kissed the inside of her ankle, earning a soft, pleased hum on her part. He did the same with the other shoe and ankle. She’d never actually thought of ankles as erogenous zones, but every single time Rooster caressed or kissed her there, it drove her wild for some reason.

Maybe because it was so sweet and tender and intimate.

She reached out for his shirt; slowly, she unfastened each button all while gazing into his beautiful, dark eyes; the eye contact triggered a zing up her spine, especially when he licked his full lips. Bradley’s hands rested lightly on her wrists as she worked, his thumbs stroking her skin gently. They both smiled softly. Once his shirt was fully unbuttoned, she ran her fingernails lightly up his abs, causing him to suck in a sharp breath; his stomach flexed in response. Her hands traveled up his chest, up, up, tucking under the loose and open fabric of his Hawaiian shirt until her hands stroked up and over his shoulder, dragging the open shirt along with her; it slid off his shoulders and down his arms. Rooster tossed it off to the side to be forgotten about for now because his hands had accepted a new mission.

His palms slid up her calves and up her thighs, much in the same way as he’d done when fishing for the garter earlier tonight. Except, Maddie knew there was no garter to be found; Bradley had a far more interesting target in mind. She spread her thighs open wider, allowing his hands more room to explore. His thick fingers took advantage, as they grazed her inner thighs; this time, it was Maddie who sucked in a breath sharply, her abs clenching from the dizzying sensation. When his fingers brushed over her lace-covered puss*, her head fell back, her eyes closed, and she moaned sweetly.

“I love it when you make that sound,” he rasped deeply, earning another clench in her belly and between her legs.

As his fingers teased her, she braced herself with a hand on his shoulder while the other cupped his cheek. “That sound belongs to only you, Bradley,” she breathed. Her hips began to roll and writhe in slow, seeking circles, as the fire in her belly burned. She wanted to let it erupt into hard, fast passion, but as wild and contrary as Madeleine was, she also had tremendous self-control when it mattered, and it mattered now.

Madeleine liked it fast and hard and rough, but Bradley needed slow and loving and tender. When he slowed down like this, when he took his time to explore every inch, it was Bradley worshiping her, and her Bradley always loved worshiping his Madeleine, his touch and words and love so reverent and pure. Despite her molten, hot desire for him, she refused to deny him this. It was a deep act of love and a gift.

“Would you like me to take these pretty panties off you, Madeleine?”

“I’d like that very much.” She sounded breathless and happy.

Bradley hummed in appreciation when he received his answer. They held intense eye contact as his fingers curled into the panties’ waistband. She lifted her bottom up off the bed just enough for clearance; he took his time sliding the white lace down her thighs, past her knees, down her calves, and past her ankles and feet. Bradley carefully set them aside before returning to her. Maddie reached out to run her fingers through his curly, slightly disheveled hair. He kissed the inside of her wrist first, then gave her skin a soft lick, making her sigh happily.

“I’d like to taste you.”

“Yes, please,” she responded desperately. The fire in her belly burned so damn hot that she felt she’d die if he didn’t touch her soon. Bradley didn’t make her wait a second longer. He navigated beneath the pushed-up chiffon skirt and hit a bullseye on his target, moaning like he’d found heaven as soon as his tongue tasted her. She’d once confessed that she’d touched herself while thinking of him, something Rooster approved of eagerly. In all those moments when she allowed herself these intimate thoughts of him, never did she come close to how f*cking amazing reality with him felt. The man ate puss* like it was his mission in life, full of skill, eagerness, and desire. The way he purred and hummed and moaned while sucking on her cl*t made her toes curl and made everything clench so hard that she felt his smug, pleased smile against her puss*. She didn’t begrudge him the co*ckiness; he deserved every accolade.

Maddie rested back on her elbows, let her head fall back and her eyes closed to savor the moment and enjoy the pleasure her husband so lovingly bestowed upon her. He hooked her knees up over his shoulders, arms wrapping around her thighs to keep her anchored. Everything felt so good, her entire body shaking so thoroughly, that she was having trouble keeping herself propped up; even though she wanted to watch him between her legs, her body gave in. Madeleine fell back onto the comfortable bed entirely, eyes squeezed shut to focus on the feel of his mouth on her. She rewarded his efforts with fingers in his hair, stroking softly at first, and gripping more tightly as she felt that fire in her belly threaten to erupt. Between gasps and moans, she praised Bradley with affirmation and love; he was so good to her and she loved him so damn much for it.

The praise earned a needy, rumbling groan against her puss*, and it was enough to ignite the eruption of pleasure that had been heating her up. Madeleine didn’t hold herself back, and didn’t try to be quiet. She cried out her pleasure to the heavens, unrestricted and without abandon. Bradley didn’t ease up until her entire body was so damn sensitive that even the softest, fleeting breath sent her into pleasure aftershocks.

He caressed her thighs with his big, thick hands, sliding up to her hips as he peeked his head up from between her legs; he smiled, wickedly pleased with himself, as he should be. Maddie felt flushed all over her skin which tingled deliciously. She stretched on the bed, arching like a lazy cat in a sunshine beam.

“Let’s get this off you?” he suggested, nosing her skirt. Maddie agreed. She wanted both of them naked because their wedding night was meant for naked exploration. Lifting her hips up off the bed slightly, allowed him to pull the chiffon skirt off her. Sitting up, she reached behind her to unfasten the pretty, sparkly, beaded halter top and handed it over. Bradley took great care to hang up each piece of her dress. She watched him the whole time as she lay naked and comfortable atop their bed. Rooster could’ve simply tossed the skirt and top aside—especially since she knew he was eager—but he didn’t; seeing him take such good care of her wedding attire, all because it was special and belonged to her, made her heart squeeze in that good way. Madusa never thought she’d ever find a man so attentive, loving, and considerate. Rooster wasn’t perfect—God knew she definitely wasn’t perfect, far from it—but he was perfect for her in all the ways that mattered.

She was stretched out on her side, head propped up on her elbow as she admired his diligence with her dress. When he turned around, satisfied the dress was hung up, safe and sound, he caught her staring at him; she hadn’t been hiding her admiration, anyway. When he realized she’d been watching him so openly, she saw his abs jump in that way they did when desire hit quickly.

“Like what you see, Darlin’?” he drawled in a rasp, clearly pleased with himself.

“I do,” she replied truthfully.

“I love it when you say those words to me.”

“Won’t be the last time I say them to you, promise.” Her eyes met his boldly before flicking down south to the obvious bulge down front. “Take your pants off for me, Sunshine.”

He breathed in a shaky, sharp inhale, as their eyes locked again. Bradley licked his lips. “I’ll give you anything and everything you want, Sweetheart.”

“I know,” she purred. “You’re so good to me, Bradley.” He let out a soft, needy growl. Bradley was such a slu*t for praise, and Maddie was happy to oblige. When Bradley reached for his belt, Maddie instructed, “Slowly, please. I want to savor you.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Those words shot electricity straight up her spine.

Bradley did exactly as told, and took his time, watching her as he did. He pulled on the strap near the end tip to slide it out of the loop as the other reached for the buckle to angle the prong out of the holes to free the buckle from it’s leather restraint. Once unfastened, the buckle clicked metal on metal as he let it fall open and loose around his waist. There was no rush when he pulled the belt entirely out of his belt loops and coiled it to set down on the dresser. He took equal amount of time and care to unfasten his pants, first popping the button, then slowly pulling the zipper down. He wore a tight, form-fitting pair of boxer briefs beneath, visible now that his pants fell open to tease her. Her eyes trained on the treasure trail of hair pointing south and disappearing beneath the waistband of his shorts. She hummed her approval.

He kicked off his shoes and socks, kicking them off to the side; he definitely didn’t take as much care with his clothes as he had with her dress. She suspected he was too focused on his naked wife. The pants came off next but before he could rid himself of his boxer briefs, Madusa couldn’t contain herself any longer. She reached out for him; before she touched, her hand hovered over his very prominent bulge. “Can I touch you, Sunshine?”

“Yes,” he pleaded. “You can touch me anytime you want, Sweetheart.”

Maddie smiled, pleased, and cupped his co*ck boldly over the fabric. His head fell back as she caressed him tenderly and intimately. He looked blissful, his hips pressing forward slightly into her palm. She released him to a needy whine; her fingers grazed up his belly, then back down, following the treasure trail beneath his navel, and tugged on the elastic waistband with purpose. “Naked, now,” was all she said. He obliged immediately.

She settled back onto the bed, her head cradled in her fluffy pillow, as he climbed in next to her, stretching on his side to mirror her on hers. From her knee, his hand slid up slowly, over her leg, then hip, following the dip of her waist and up her ribcage. Bradley cupped her breast tenderly before dipping his head down to pull her nipple between his lips. Maddie whimpered softly, fingers flexing in his hair sharply to hold his head there for a few moments longer. She shifted onto her back, pulling him atop her, framing his hips with her knees. He released her nipple with a new target in mind. Bradley’s lips found hers; her tongue explored his. They kissed deeply, slowly, and passionately, only parting when air became a dire necessity.

Usually, he was the one who brushed hair from her face, a sweet gesture she’d grown to love (and need); this time, it was her turn. There was an errant curl dropping down his forehead that Maddie found absolutely adorable. She wrapped the short curl around her finger before brushing it aside. Bradley was eyes locked on her the whole time.

“You’re my wife,” he rasped sounding absolutely awed, like he couldn’t believe it was real.

“I’m your wife,” she confirmed. Maddie leaned up to brush a soft, barely there kiss against his lips, then whispered, “I think it’s time you made love to your wife.”

Bradley groaned desperately, burying his face in the crook of her neck to steady himself. He kissed that spot she loved, right where her shoulder and neck met, then nibbled because he knew any attention to that area drove her wild. He was right; her hips bucked up off the bed, pressing herself to him, a silent plea for more.

A moment later, wife and husband joined as one for the first time.

Bradley moaned softly against her skin; Maddie gasped happily, always enjoying the feel of that first slide. They moved together slowly, taking their time to enjoy each other’s bodies deeply. They caressed. They kissed. They licked. They moaned. They whimpered and gasped. They wrapped around each other so thoroughly, it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended. Maddie didn’t keep track of the time, too engrossed in her husband’s sounds and touch. Bradley focused on her entirely. He begged her to let him take care of her, to let him focus on her pleasure. She happily submitted to his worship.

Being the subject of Bradley’s adoration was intoxicating and, honestly, humbling. His fingers mapped every inch of her skin. His lips learned every part of her by heart. His words of love and appreciation enveloped her body, and his deep, loving gaze anchored her soul. She crested with pleasure twice more before he even entertained his own gratification; Bradley loved making it last as long as possible, edging to the brink, pulling back, only to find that pleasure’s edge again and again until, eventually, his body succumbed to hers. He came with a deep, guttural groan against her ear, as she held onto him tightly. He stayed wrapped up around her for a long, long time; Maddie loved every second of it.

After they’d both caught their breath and had come down from the heights of bliss, they settled quietly, skin warm and flushed, with a fine sheen of sweat covering their bodies. Madusa’s legs were still loosely hooked over his hips, her arms up around his neck, playing with his curls. Rooster pushed himself up slightly to gaze down at her then chuckled. He reached up, plucked something up between his fingers, and held it up for her to see.

“You’ve got a petal in your hair,” he declared, amused.

Madusa laughed softly. “The flower crown disintegrated at some point during ‘Cotton Eyed Joe,’” she giggled. “I guess I didn’t catch all the petals.”

Rooster laughed with her. “I like it. I’d planned a whole bed covered in petals for our first night, but Phoenix talked me out of it. Joke’s on her since you brought your own.”

Her laugh deepened as did his. Madusa hoped the sound of their laughter would fill their house forever. “Thank you,” she told him after her giggles faded to a smile.

“For making you cum? That was just the appetizer, Baby! We’ve got a whole main course of a honeymoon on the horizon,” he teased.

There he went again, making her laugh. “I mean: yes, thank you for making me cum. A lot,” she added with a grin. Rooster wiggled his eyebrows, making her giggle again. “I meant, thank you for all of this. Thank you for loving me.”

Rooster’s expression softened; the way he was looking at her then made her heart backflip. “Loving you’s the easiest thing in the world for me, Sweetheart. Even more natural than flying.”

Madusa hadn’t always believed she was easy to love; hell, she still didn’t think she was easy to love.

But, when Rooster looked at her like that, spoke to her with that voice, and touched her so tenderly, Maddie believed her husband. With all her heart.

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