Life goes on, it gets so heavy
The wheel breaks the butterfly.
Every tear, a waterfall.
In the night, the stormy night,
She closed her eyes...
She said, oh,
I know the sun must set to rise.
Paradise - Coldplay
Thomas had worked at Isis for what seemed like eternity but had, in reality, been just about seven years. He had started the job after he’d graduated from secondary school and enrolled in online classes through a public college somewhere up in Leeds. He took business classes that were too easy and he spent more time trying to get in contact with his professors than he did doing any actual work. He didn’t even drive up for graduation. Regardless, he got his degree and a t-shirt to boot. He was already an exemplary employee, so it was only a matter of time before he was promoted to manager, or, at very least, shift lead. He was loyal, experienced, and he deserved that godforsaken raise.
So he waited. And waited. And waited.
Seven years, and he’d gotten three notable raises: one for becoming a photo technician, one for his year milestone, and one for his five year. In between, his salary had been bumped up a cent or two, but it was nothing near what he felt he deserved. He’d been living in the same crap apartment since he was twenty-four, rooming with a prostitute so he could make rent. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t where he wanted to be, but he couldn’t afford to move and nobody seemed interested in hiring him. Moreso, he didn’t even really have a life plan, so that made job hunting even more difficult. He was stuck.
Isis wasn’t a shitty store, though, not by a long shot. It was a pharmacy and a high-end one at that. The staff was small, giving the place a more personalized feel, but everyone (save for Miss O’Brien, one of the cashiers) was pleasant and professional. The prices were steep, even with the employee discount, but their minimum wage was higher than average and there was an almost constant stream of people. Nobody seemed to mind the exuberant prices and Thomas envied them a little bit.
His coworkers didn’t suck, at the very least. For the most part, anyway. The store manager was a large man called Carson who had an affinity for things being done the right way. He appreciated Thomas’ work and told him so once in a blue moon, though they didn’t always see eye to eye. Thomas sometimes wondered if that was the reason he was still at the bottom.
Beneath him were Mrs. Hughes, assistant store manager, and Mr. Bates, head shift lead. Mrs. Hughes was an older woman, kindly and helpful and almost motherly. Thomas liked her best out of management. Bates, though – that was one man he couldn’t stand. He had waltzed in with zero company experience but was immediately given a management position. Apparently he had served with Robert Crawley, CEO and founder of Isis, in the military at some point. Thomas didn’t know why he hadn’t just asked for a job in corporate what with his limp and with retail sucking ass, but, hey, to each their own. If Thomas had the opportunity, he’d want to get the fuck out of retail and away from the general population. He hated customer service more than he was willing to admit. Anyway, he and Bates had gotten into it on multiple occasions. Luckily, as soon as Thomas put on his pin-striped uniform, he was In The Zone. Otherwise, he probably would have already punched Bates in the mouth. Several times.
Then there were the understaff: Miss O’Brien, mentioned above; Anna, a sweet girl who stuck primarily in cosmetics; Mrs. Patmore, a round woman with the ability to be heard clearly across the store; Jimmy, a young kid who was more interesting in flirting than working; Alfred, Jimmy’s partner-in-crime and O’Brien’s nephew; Ivy, the primary object of Jimmy’s misguided affections; Branson, an Irish chap skilled in colognes; and Molesley, a tall gangly man who was more trouble than he was worth.
For the most part, everyone got along, though Thomas tried to socialize as little as possible. When he had first started, O’Brien had taken him under her wing and they had become the store’s yentas. He never liked her, in all honestly, but she was someone to look down on everyone else with, so it was nice.
He’d tried starting something up with Jimmy once, but they’d barely gotten their trousers off before Jimmy had freaked out and left. It was a shame, honestly; he was a nice looking boy and a convenient one at that. He was closeted, though, clinging to Ivy even though he’d never take her out, and Thomas knew a closet case was hopeless.
The majority of them rotated departments, but Thomas’ seniority gave him somewhat of a choice. So, because of the low traffic rate and the little room he got to hide in the majority of the time, he chose photo. He didn’t have to talk to many people but he got to see glimpses of their lives in a way that allowed him to know them without having to, you know, know them.
That’s how he came to know Gwen Dawson, history of art student at Oxford University and photographer extraordinaire. She was slender and thin with red hair and wore a bracelet full of camera charms that clinked every time she moved. She was one of his better customers, and she came in rather often to get new pictures developed. She was relatively new to the area though, only in London for school; she was originally from Scotland, like Mrs. Hughes. She brought her photo book one day and showed him shots of the fields and hills all around the village where she grew up.
Thomas didn’t like many people, but he did like Gwen Dawson.
He got an internet order, her preferred method of ordering photos, one Thursday in early September. He smiled to himself and pocketed the pack of cigarettes he had just taken out of his pocket. Her pictures were always wonderful, often of landscapes or portraits. He enjoyed looking at them just as much as he enjoyed talking to her, and a smoke break could wait.
These, though, were different than her normal trade. Instead of artistic backdrops and clever lighting tricks, these were personal. It looked like a party – a small gathering, just Gwen, a mousy brunette girl, and a blond man dressed in a military uniform. They were all taken either in a bright green living room or a small white kitchen and featured a lot of posed, semi-stock images. Gwen and the girl were both in dresses, their hair curled lightly and hanging at their shoulders. Gwen’s hair was shorter than it was now, so Thomas figured that these pictures weren’t so recent.
Thomas’ favorite picture of the batch was one of Gwen drinking a glass of red wine, arm outstretched to hold the camera. He also liked the last one, a shot of the three of them sitting on the couch, arms around each other, a WELCOME HOME! banner visible in the reflection of the window. They all looked so happy. Thomas touched the picture on the screen with his fingertips.
That set had barely printed out when another order came in. These, too, were older, and they took place in a hospital. There was a brunet boy lounged in bed, dressed in a gown with tubes and wires twisting around him. The most notable thing about him, though, was the mass of bandages wrapped around his head, covering his eyes. Gwen and her two friends were in these pictures as well.
They all sat around the bed – or in the bed; one picture had the mousey girl tucked into the side of the brown-haired boy – talking and laughing. Even from the pictures, though, Thomas could feel the underlying tension. Something had happened, but the bandages didn’t give Thomas much of a clue. The boy could’ve gotten LASIX for all he knew.
Gwen came in to pick up her photos just before Thomas’ shift ended. He heard the jangling of her bracelets as soon as she entered the store and he emerged from the photo lab before she reached his counter.
“Ms. Dawson,” he said, smiling pleasantly. Her hair was pulled up in a messy bun on the top of her head and was wearing an oversized red sweater. “How are we doing today?”
She sighed and placed her bag heavily on the counter, folding her body over the top of it. “I’m so tired, Thomas. I’m not ready for school to be starting all over again. I don’t think I can take it.”
“Chin up. You’ve only got a year left.”
She groaned loudly and stood back up. “I don’t want to do it anymore. Everyone should just buy my photographs and then I won’t ever need to open up a textbook again.”
Thomas reached behind him and plucked her envelopes from the D tray. “Different set of photographs today, I saw.”
She looked up from where she was digging in her purse for her wallet. “Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to get those printed for a while for my scrapbook but I never got the chance to. That was early last summer when my friends got back from the military.”
Thomas didn’t ask about the boy with the bandages even though he wondered. “I missed your portraits this week. I’ve still got that one of the old man’s hands up above me dresser.” He ran the barcodes beneath the scanner and waited patiently for the computer to add up her total. “It’s really lovely. If I ever had anyone in my bedroom they would probably compliment it.”
She laughed and swiped her Isis member’s card. “God, that one’s so old. I’ll give you some new ones to choose from. And I’ll discount it because now I’m feeling bad for your poor, cold bed.”
“I’ve got a bed heater,” he whispered conspiratorially and she smiled. “I’d love to see more photographs. I need a new one for the living room anyway. My roommate had a, uh, gentleman caller and they knocked it clean off the wall. It’s smashed and mangled now.”
Gwen grimaced at him. “I’ll be sure to find something that will encourage them to do more appropriate activities, such as watching television or reading novels.” She glanced down at the screen of the credit card machine and counted out her notes before handing them to Thomas. “I’m going into the city later this week with some friends. Maybe I’ll be able to get you a shot there.”
“Looking forward to it.” There was a ding and a bang as the cash register popped open. He slid her notes into the drawer and gathered up her change, then closed it with his hip. “Drink coffee,” he advised. “Don’t stay up late. And whatever you do don’t start watching Lost right before midterms. I know that’s still a ways off, but remember that. Biggest mistake of me college career.”
“You went online, you tool,” she laughed. Then she straightened her face out into something resembling serious. “I’ll keep that in mind. No masturbating to Driveshaft.” She smiled smugly at him and began to walk away.
“Been there, done that!” she called over her shoulder. She raised her freckled arm and waggled her fingers in goodbye.
When Thomas got home, Ethel was with a client, so he put in his ear buds and started to boil some water for spaghetti. He emptied a jar of store brand tomato sauce in another pan and stuck a wooden spoon in, too. Then he broke the strands of dry pasta in half and dropped them into the pot.
When spaghetti was at good consistency, he was carried it to the hand basin in the loo to drain. He was halfway across the floor when Ethel’s client came out of her bedroom. It was one he’d seen before. She had a handful of guys that were regular enough that she just invited them to the house. They were, in basic terms, her boyfriends, aside from the fact that they paid her for sex.
Charles smiled and waved at Thomas as he passed. He was kind of a scumbag and had a mustache to match it. Thomas didn’t like him, didn’t like Ethel wasting her time and energy on a piece of shit like that, but her income was far heavier than Thomas’ so he didn’t complain (though he did argue, for the sake of his own pride) when she helped pick up the bill on his week’s grocery shopping.
Ethel came out of her room wrapped in a bathrobe and stood behind Thomas at the basin until he took the colander and pasta back to the kitchen. Then she shut the door and, through the short lapse between songs, he heard the shower start to run. He pulled two deep teacups out of the cupboard (one of Ethel’s stupid-ass ‘boyfriends’ had broken their last bowl the week prior) and filled both with pasta.
He left Ethel’s cup on the counter next to the sauce and went to sit down on the couch, using the chunky remote to turn on the television. It buzzed and clicked and, after a moment, the picture and sound began to slowly fade in.
Ethel emerged from the loo not long after, her hair twisted up in a towel in a way that still fascinated Thomas. He idly watched her pour sauce over her pasta and then pad, barefoot, to the couch, where she sat next to him. She folded her legs beneath her.
“I think rule number one in the prostitute’s handbook is that you’re never supposed to bring your clients home.” Thomas pointed his fork at her and watched as a fleck of sauce stuck to the collar of her robe.
“I think rule number one of the good roommate’s handbook is that you shut the fuck up.” She rolled her eyes at him. They’d had this conversation more than once; sometimes, Thomas liked to bring it up just to annoy her. “What’s somebody going to do? Steal our shit?”
Thomas looked around at the couches, which were falling apart, and their ancient tube telly that only played in black and white. He laughed.
“The only reason you have an iPod that new is because you stole it from Philip.”
“Philip was a douchebag.” He looked down at the sleek black screen and remembered nicking it from the bedside table after they had break-up sex. Fucking Philip had always been nice, but it was just about the only part of their relationship that went smoothly. Thomas is pretty sure he got into more fights during the five months they were together than he had gotten into the entirety of his high school career. And he had gotten into quite a few rows.
“He really was. I’m glad you finally dumped him.”
Thomas laughed humorlessly and stirred his spaghetti around with his fork. “The only thing I got out of leaving him was a black eye and blue balls.”
“First of all, you got the black eye when he kneed you in the face during sex. Second of all, you also got an iPod. That’s more than I’ve got.”
“Speaking of, how is old Charles?” Ethel rolled her eyes, mouth full of spaghetti. She had sauce in the corner of her mouth.
“Charming as always,” she said, her voice muffled. Thomas wasn’t even sure that she liked him. Or had ever liked him, for that matter. “His wife’s kidney transplant went well and all that. Rich is probably going into the military or something, so they don’t have to worry about putting him through school for a while yet. The twins have started sixth grade. He started giving me that bullshit again about how he’d leave his wife for me. Yeah, like I’m going to fall for that crap.”
Thomas sighed tiredly and leaned forward to set his cup down on their coffee table, which was actually just a cardboard box stuffed full of newspapers that he had swiped from work. On one hand, he felt bad for Ethel that she had to sell her body to make money. Charlie wasn’t the first one to have said that he loved her – there was Raphael and Aiden and Kian, who had all said they wanted to start a new life with her. She’d never fallen for it, not once. Mistakes aside, Thomas couldn’t deny that Ethel was a sharp girl. But prostitution had been the first thing she’d turned to when she lost her job two and a half years ago and, despite Thomas’ constant urging, she’d never seemed to look for a new occupation. It worried him sometimes, especially when money was even tighter than normal and she couldn’t go in for her check-ups.
Ethel was the closest thing he had to family and he wasn’t about to lose her to an STD.
When she finished, she got up and brought both of their cups into the loo to wash them out. He listened to the water running and looked down at the iPod he had stolen. His mind wandered a bit and he wondered about the boy with the bandages. Had he been one of her friends that had come home from the war? Did he hurt his eyes in battle? Thomas thought about what Gwen might say if he was to ask.
Ethel came out of the loo without the towel around her head and placed the two cups on the counter to air dry. Then she sat back down on the couch and put her feet up on Thomas’ lap.
“Give it here,” she said, pointing to the remote that sat on the arm of the couch next to his elbow. “I’m the lady of the house, I get to choose what we watch.”
“We’ve got like ten channels,” he said, but handed it over anyway. “There’s not much to choose from.”
“I still get that privilege.” She scanned quickly through before it took her back to the first choice. She sighed and shut off the set. “I’m going to sleep.” She made no move to get up so Thomas jostled her feet.
“I’m not carrying you,” he said. “You’re not five years old, nor are you my child.”
“But dah-deeee.” She wiggled her feet in his lap before swinging them around onto the floor. “You should get some sleep too. You’ve got early shift tomorrow.”
He groaned and rolled his head along the back of the couch. “Don’t remind me.”
She disappeared into her bedroom, calling goodnight over her shoulder, and shut the door behind her. Thomas got himself up not long after and went outside for a quick smoke. When he returned, he went into his bedroom. It was small and had been painted a yellow-beige by the previous owners. Thomas had put off redoing it for a long time because he liked to think he wouldn’t be living here for long. But they’d lived together for three years already and his hopes were starting to falter.
The door faced his bed, which was covered in the cheapest, thinnest comforter he could find. It was grey, the color grey he wanted on his walls, and it had a tear down the middle from that time Philip wanted to try something new. Two mismatched side tables sat on either side of the bed. He found the one on the right sitting alone outside a housing unit near Isis, and the other one was from the summer Ethel talked him into going to the little workshops their local hardware store offered. She said it would make him a bit more handy around the house. (Thomas had made a joke in bad taste about how he still wouldn’t be the handiest in the flat and she had shrieked with laughter. She was the only woman Thomas had ever met that appreciated crude humor.)
There was a dresser next to the door, and this is where he placed his iPod. He opened the second drawer and pulled out a pair of track pants before shucking his work clothes, leaving them crumpled on the floor. Ethel would come round tomorrow morning and gather his laundry. He kicked them into the corner where the rest of the dirty clothes were and flicked off the lights. He collapsed into bed, idly aware that he hadn’t brushed his teeth.
He fell asleep, mouth still tasting of smoke.
Gwen’s order came in two days later and, as promised, they were all from her trip downtown. He looked at each of them carefully, taking his time adjusting the colors and lighting. There was a good mixture of panoramic shots, pictures of strangers, and a bit of more touristy photos – food, store merchandise, and the like.
Gwen’s friends had also seemed to come along; there were several portraits and artistic shots of each of them. There was one side-shot of the mousy girl’s face that he liked quite a bit. She was smiling, dimples indenting deeply in her cheeks. He could see an array of buildings and people in the background. It was noisy, but at the same time so simple. It was very Gwen.
The bandage boy was back, this time without the white mass obscuring his face. Instead, he was wearing bright blue sunglasses in every shot. There was one in particular that Thomas liked – it was taken on the terrace of one of the many restaurants lining the river. He was mid-laugh, head thrown back and mouth open. There was a sun glare in the corner of the picture, but otherwise the frame was completely of his face. Thomas thought he was very, very handsome.
The blond boy had gained weight since the last batch of photographs. He looked healthier. In every picture, he was looking off to the side towards the mousy girl, a soft smile on his face. Thomas could recognize a look like that anywhere. He felt kind of bad for the poor guy, in love with a girl who constantly had her arm tucked against the bandage boy’s side.
Gwen wasn’t in many of the pictures, and he told her as much when she came by to pick them up.
“Oh, gosh,” she said. “I’m much better behind a camera than in front of one.”
He thought back to the party pictures she’d brought in the week before and the picture of the boy with the bandages, smiling and laughing. He shook his head. “I think you’re just as good.”
“I think they pay you to say that.” He handed her the envelope. “I haven’t found a photograph that would suit you well enough yet. I’ll keep looking. What color are the walls?”
Thomas thought about their living room and grimaced. It had been (badly) painted a messy cream color, but the wall with the door was a dark evergreen. The attached kitchen was all bricked, though in some places it had been scratched white. There was also a patch above the stove where it looked like someone had started painting a bright, sunshine yellow, but had decided against it after one stroke.
“Cream,” he said, because it was the simplest answer. She nodded and smiled, the big white sunglasses on top of her head bouncing.
“I’ll look into it.” She handed him the money and then held her hand up to the receipt machine. “I don’t need that. I’ll see you next week!”
In the few months he had known her, Gwen had never had so many photographs of the same people. Usually, if they were to reappear, it was for artistic purposes. Thomas remembered vividly a picture of a blond man and a severe looking woman painted and twisted together to create the silhouette of a swan. The man reappeared in only one other picture, a similar shot except of an elephant.
But the same three people – the mousy girl, the blond one, and the bandage boy – were featured in almost every batch of photographs that came through. Not that Thomas minded; they were still beautiful pictures, and he would be lying if he said he didn’t like looking at the boy with the brown hair. He was handsome and Thomas wasn’t about to deny it.
The boy was almost always in sunglasses, even on cloudy days and indoors. He did have a great collection, though, despite the fact that they lacked a name label. He had several pairs of aviators; red and purple oversized frames; a pair of tea shades; and even a set of cat eyes. In one photograph, he wore Gwen’s red heart frames. He also had an impressive amount of knockoff Wayfarers of every color, from pink to radioactive green. Some of them had doodles on the side. His favorites, though, seemed to be the blue sunglasses that Thomas had first seen him in. Thomas thought they suited him best.
Gwen took a lot of photographs over the next few weeks. There were pictures of the four of them in class; studying in the quad; hanging out on a front deck with a porch swing. There was a set of them at the roller skating rinks that Thomas liked. The bandage boy had his arm draped around the mousy girl as he leaned heavily against her. He had on a pair of sunglasses that were purple on the front with yellow bands, and they really should have been ugly, but they looked good on him. Of course.
In mid-October, they were joined at the beach by a man with a perpetual smirk. He clung to the bandage boy in place of the mousy haired girl, his hand wrapped around his waist. Thomas could see it coming before he found the picture, but there it is: the man with the smirk kissing the place above the bandage boy’s upper lip. It was such an intimate shot that Thomas felt strange looking at it. There was something in the pit of his stomach, disappointment-tinged relief that made him think he likes blokes while acknowledging that he wasn’t single.
The last shot was unmistakably of the two of them again, this time silhouetted against the ocean. Both men were about the same height, but the one with the smirk was just a pinch taller. The bandage boy’s face was turned up, his expression invisible in the darkness. Thomas could make out the man’s thumb against his bottom lip. He couldn’t help but stare into the small triangle of ocean between their mouths.
The man never made an appearance again.
The bandage boy started to appear in his mind outside of the photo lab. One night, in the middle of cooking frozen ravioli on the stovetop, he found himself wondering how he kissed. Or how he liked to be kissed. Thomas imagined himself running his thumb across his bottom lip like the man in the photo had, and stopped there. He couldn’t. It didn’t feel right.
Ethel got sick around the same time as the beach photographs. She was down for about a week before she finally decided to go to the doctor. These two factors combined put a lot of stress on Thomas. He ended up pulling some money from the savings jar beneath his bed and giving it to Ethel for her appointment. He told her it was a bonus on his paycheck, but he knew she didn’t believe it.
That Wednesday, Gwen had come in to pick up some more photos, and Thomas had finally worked up the nerve to ask about the boy with the bandages. She was in the middle of a story about one of her professors when Anna’s voice rang out over the loudspeaker.
“Thomas, pick up on 101. Thomas, 101.”
Gwen stopped talking and Thomas gave her an apologetic look. He reached down and pulled the phone from its cradle.
“Thank you for calling the Isis photo lab, this is Thomas speaking. How may I be of assistance?”
“Thomas,” a voice said on the other line. “Thomas, I need you to pick me up.”
“Please come get me.” She sounded broken. Her voice was raw from what he presumed to be crying.
“Are you okay?”
“No,” she said, then, “Yes. Just come here. I’m at the clinic. Please.”
He whimpered quietly and glanced out across the store. “I’ll need to find Bates. I’ll be there soon, okay? Just hold tight. Where are you?”
“In the waiting room.” She sniffled.
“Okay, great. Stay there. I’ll see you soon.”
She hung up without saying anything else.
“Is everything okay?” Gwen asked. Her face was creased with concern.
“My friend,” he said, and stopped. He didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know what’s wrong. She needs me to pick her up.”
“Oh,” she said, looking surprised. She took her envelope out of Thomas’ hands. “I’ll go up front then. Go find Bates.”
“I’ll see you later,” he told her and smiled. Then he went to go find Bates, which wasn’t in itself difficult; he was at the cosmetics counter as usual, chatting with Anna.
“Is everything okay?” Anna asked as soon as she saw him. She was dressed in a black and white blouse, the very picture of the perfect Isis employee.
“My roommate had a doctor’s appointment today,” he told them. “I think something’s wrong. I need to go pick her up.”
“Of course,” Bates said. Sometimes Thomas hated that they didn’t get along. “Go ahead. I’ll cover in the photo lab for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bates.” He walked briskly to the back of the store and pushed through the employee door. Jimmy and Ivy were having lunch in the staff room, but Thomas didn’t stop to say hi. He punched out on the time clock outside the office and left the store as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t until he was halfway to the clinic that he realized that Gwen could’ve taken “my friend” the wrong way.
Ethel was pregnant.
She began to cry as soon as he walked into the waiting room and he held her tightly, not caring who was staring. She followed him out to the car and they just sat for a while, her hiccupping furiously while he held her hand.
“I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” She kept repeating it like a mantra in between heaving breaths. “I don’t know what to do, Thomas, oh my god, what do I do?”
“Breathe, for starters.” He rolled down her window and she leaned against the door, hyperventilating into the multi-story. Thomas felt numb. He wished he could tell her what to do. Once she calmed down a little, he drove the both of them home.
She immediately went into her bedroom and burrowed beneath the blankets. Thomas quietly went about making a cup of tea, not quite sure how her stomach was feeling. He changed out of his stiff work clothes before crawling into bed next to her.
“How are you feeling?” he asked. She stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. The fingers of one hand were drawing patterns across her stomach.
“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered after a while. Thomas rolled onto his side to look at her. “It’s Charles’, I know it’s his. Please don’t ask me how. I just do. He’s not going to want it. Do I keep it? Do I raise it by myself?”
“You wouldn’t be on your own.” Thomas put his hand over hers and ran his fingers along her knuckles. “I’ll be here if you decide to keep it.”
Ethel smiled at him and laughed breathily as she blinked back tears. “God. It’s still an it. I don’t even know what it’s going to be.”
There was a long moment of silence before Thomas asked, “Do you want to keep it?”
She chewed on her lip and shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“You don’t have to decide now.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Go to sleep, okay? I’m going to run down to the store and get some ice cream.”
She gripped weakly at his wrist. “Don’t. We might need that money.”
“Yes,” he said. “But right now, we need Rocky Road.”
Thomas didn’t see Gwen again for another few days, but he saw her envelopes in the D tray so they must have been just missing each other. It had happened before. Thomas didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her or bandage boy anymore. Ethel had fallen into a depression that left her weepy and bed-ridden.
He finally ran into Gwen on Sunday, and she hugged him when she saw him.
“Is everything okay?” she asked. “God, I’ve been so worried.”
He blinked at her. “Yeah. No, everything’s fine.”
“Is your friend okay?”
Thomas grimaced at her. “She, uh, she found out she’s pregnant. She hasn’t decided if she’s going to keep the baby.”
“Oh,” she said, looking surprised. “Wow.”
“It’s not mine,” he said unnecessarily. She smiled at him, all teeth. “She’s my roommate, actually. I’m, uh, I’m not dating anyone.” That brought his mind back to bandage boy. He glanced down at his feet then back up at her. “I actually wanted to ask you –“
“Oh, god,” she interrupted. She bit her lip and crinkled her face apologetically. “Thomas, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
He looked up at her, confused. When it dawned on him what she was insinuating, he laughed. “No, no, not you. You’re gorgeous, really, but I’m, uh, I’m gay.”
She looked relieved. “I couldn’t stand it if it was me. I’m sorry. I adore you, Thomas, but I really, really like us as friends.”
“Should I feel insulted?” He smiled at her and shook his head. He went around the back of the counter and fished out her envelopes. She stood on the opposite side of the counter and bounced on the balls of her feet, waiting. “I’m a bit embarrassed to ask.”
“Go on,” she urged. She sounded excited.
He stuttered for a moment and then laughed at his own stupidity. He felt so juvenile. “Uh, the boy in your photos. With the sunglasses.”
She looked surprised, but not unhappy. “Edward?”
“Edward.” He smiled at how it felt in his mouth. Then he glanced down at the counter and tried to tamp it down. “It’s weird knowing his name.”
Gwen made a squeaking noise. “He’s such a sweetheart. He really is.”
“That guy from the beach,” Thomas started, and felt pleased when she groaned.
“Fucking Larry,” she said. “God. He was such a prick. He and Edward dated for like a week before they broke up. Really, he did not deserve Edward. But you…” She bit her lip to hold back a smile, her eyes flicking across his shoulders. “God, he would love you.”
Thomas ducked his head and ran the back of his hand over his mouth. He was blushing; he could feel it.
“When are you working next?” she asked. “Here, give me –“ She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and pressed a few buttons before handing it over to Thomas. “Punch in your number. I’ll text you and you can send me your work schedule.”
“Oh, God,” he said, but did as she said anyway. “I feel so fuckin’ dumb.”
“I’ll bring him here next to time I have an order.” She clapped her hands. “I’m so excited! Edward, he – well, I’ll let him tell you. But I’m ready for him to be happy again. And, God, you’re his type. Tall, dark, and handsome. The accent too, he is going to go balistic.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” He tried to will down the pink in his cheeks and rung her up. They traded notes and, as usual, she gestured for him to throw away the receipt.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” she said in a sing-song voice, and started to walk away. Thomas was just about to go back into the photo lab, possibly to freak the fuck out, when she said, “Oh!” and ran back to the counter. She pulled her photographs out of the envelope and spread them out over the counter. She picked up a picture of the bandage boy – Edward – and handed it to him. “Just in case you need to show your friends.”
Thomas held the photo between his fingertips and looked down at it. Edward was lying on the couch, head resting on the arm. His arms were folded over his chest and he was smiling up at the ceiling, his bright blue glasses a splash of color against the beige couch.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. He ducked back into the privacy of the photo lab before he checked it.
Unknown Number: I’m so fucking excited!!!!
Thomas added Gwen’s number to his contacts list and typed out a quick, noncommittal reply. His hands shook a little bit from the adrenaline. He tucked his phone back into his pocket, set the photograph on top of the printer, and mentally calculated the time until he got to go home. It was only twelve o’clock. He still had three and a half hours to go.
He sighed heavily, smoothed a hand over his carefully pomaded hair, and went outside for a cigarette.
The entirety of the staircase going up to their third floor flat smelled like paint. That in itself wasn’t weird, but when Thomas found it was the strongest on the landing between their door and that of the Shores.
“Ethel?” he called as he unlocked the door. When he pushed the door open, the smell was even worse. “Fuck, Ethel, what are you doing?”
She was dressed in a pair of pink kitten pajama pants and the complimentary t-shirt the college had sent Thomas when he had enrolled. Her hair was pulled up in a messy ponytail and she was holding a roller in one hand.
“Oh, good,” she said, as if it was an everyday thing to walk in on her redecorating the apartment. “Come here and hold that pan for me.”
Thomas shut the door and looked around the apartment. The evergreen wall behind the television had become a nice navy blue, while the other three walls were painted a color that could actually pass as cream. She was about halfway done with the wall behind the couch and hadn’t done a bad job; actually, it looked nicer than what the previous tenants had done.
Speaking of, “Did you talk to the landlord about this?”
“Of fucking course I did.”
He hated the next question on his tongue, but he had to ask. “And where did you get the money, exactly?”
“I fucked a rich guy.” She said it like they were talking about the weather. “I did weird shit and he gave me extra. I put some aside for groceries and used the rest for paint.”
Thomas shrugged out of his jacket and gingerly opened the door to his bedroom to throw it onto his bed. The pile of clothes was still on the floor in the corner. “I’m not going to complain,” he said. “I was this close to blowing my fucking head off, having to look at that green all day long. But I have to ask: is this pregnancy hormones talking, or is this Ethel?”
She sighed long-sufferingly at him and he went into his bedroom to change. He pulled the photo of Edward out of his pocket and leaned it against the wall above his dresser. After he changed, he looked at the pictures again and wondered if it was too creepy, having the photograph of a guy he’d never met in sight distance of his bed. He laid the picture down so the faint Isis logo on the back faced up.
“That color’s Regatta,” she said, pointing over her shoulder to the blue. “The rest is Greek Villa.”
“I’m not going to lie, it looks really nice.” She turned and smiled at him.
“What’s for dinner, mamacita?”
“Nothing now.” Thomas gave her the sassiest look he could muster up.
“Seeing as how I’m doing all the manly stuff around here, it’s only natural you’d be mother duck around here.”
“At least I’m not gestating,” he said carefully. He gauged her reaction, but she seemed unaffected by his joke. He let out a breath and opened the refrigerator, pulling out bread, cheese, and margarine.
He didn’t mention talking to Gwen or the photograph of Edward until Ethel was off the ladder and sitting at the table. She had a smudge of blue paint on her chin and a glob of the cream on the shirt. She had sat down and was touch-testing the top of her grilled cheese when he got up abruptly from the table and brought the picture from his room.
“So remember the guy I was telling you about?” he asked, sitting back down.
“The one from the pictures?” She reached out for the photograph and stared down at it as she chewed. “He’s cute.” Then she looked up, alarmed. “Did you fucking steal this?”
“What? No!” Thomas pulled his feet up onto the chair. “I asked Gwen about him and she gave it to me. His name’s Edward.”
Ethel studied it for a minute longer before she handed it back. “You should totally bang him.”
Thomas picked up his sandwich. “She’s bringing him in next time she comes for pictures.”
Ethel made an excited noise through her mouthful of cheese. “God! I hope he’s as perfect as you think he is. He’s really hot, though. Ethel Parks seal of approval.”
“That means something somewhere, right?” Thomas wiped off his fingers on the paper towel they were sharing as a napkin before picking the picture up again. “What if he’s a dick and I’ve wasted all my time fantasizing for nothing?”
Ethel shrugged. “Bang him and then dump him. Every male in this godforsaken city is everlastingly horny. He is, let me tell you, no exception. He’ll probably thank you.”
“Oh, bugger off,” Thomas said. He stood up and brought the picture back into his room. After a beat, he leaned it up against the wall again, looking out over the bedroom. And, God, you’re his type, he remembered Gwen say. Tall, dark, and handsome.
He ignored Ethel’s shout of, “Stop wanking off in there!” and allowed himself a moment to cross his fingers. He crossed his toes, too, for good measure.
He got a text from Gwen on Tuesday morning telling him to “get ready!! we’re coming to visit today.” He showed the text to Ethel, who was refinishing the bedroom doors, and then had to lie down for two hours with a stress migraine.
It wasn’t Edward alone that was making him anxious. It was the baby, which Ethel still hadn’t made a decision about, and the apartment, and the money. It was the paint that made the whole flat seem more open and airy but at the same time was just cash being sucked down the drain. But he didn’t want to say anything to Ethel because he didn’t want to go back to the constant staring.
She crawled into bed with him about eleven o’clock, smelling strongly of wood and bearing cold leftover pizza and some headache medicine. He was feeling well enough again to sit up and eat with her. She told him about some show she had watched on television the night before, and this one-sided discussion lasted until they had finished the rest of the pizza. The reminder of her newly developed insomnia was just another ache behind his eyes.
She pulled him out of his bed and pushed him into the loo. “He’s not going to like you if you don’t shave, you fucking caveman.”
Thomas smoothed his hand over the stubble on his face. He wondered if Edward liked facial hair, then promptly shaved it off. Ethel said he looked more professional clean-shaven, but “fucking hot” (her words) when he had five o’clock shadow. He wanted to get to know the guy first, not screw him in the stockroom the second they met. He had some decency.
He did take a quick shower, water conservation ever-present on his mind, but sat on his bed in his towel for a good twenty minutes before getting dressed.
“You know when you’re sad,” he called to Ethel, who had taken his bedroom door off its hinges and was currently repainting it in the living room. “And then shit happens and it reminds you of all the other reasons you’re sad? That’s how I’m feeling right now. I’m anxious about meeting Edward and it’s reminding me of all of the other things I’m anxious about.”
“Stop worrying, you pussy,” she responded. “If he doesn’t like you, he’s not worth it. Look at goddamn Jimmy. You chased him for like three months before he even agreed to get a drink with you, and then he wouldn’t even let you blow him. And you know he wanted it. Fucking closet case.”
Thomas couldn’t disagree with that. Fully dressed, he joined Ethel in the living room. She pulled the white mask away from her mouth and looked up at him. She whistled appreciatively.
“Looking sharp, Mr. Barrow. If he doesn’t blow you, I will.” She grinned up at him devilishly. “Now go get your man!”
Thomas eventually got the nerves to fade (with the help of some of Molesley’s anti-anxiety medicine, which he nicked from his locker). Photo always started to pick up a bit as Christmas drew nearer, and as it was, it was a little over eight weeks away. This kept Thomas busy enough that he had almost forgotten about Gwen and Edward until he heard the familiar jangle of her camera bracelet.
He came out of the photo lab and stood at the counter, waiting for them to cross the store. When Gwen saw him, she waved ecstatically and leaned up to whisper excitedly to the man next to her.
Edward was taller in person, but Thomas should have expected that. He was wearing a black Coldplay t-shirt, a pair of jeans, and 3D glasses. He was slender and pale and so, so gorgeous. He had his arm looped through Gwen’s and they were walking at a slower-than-normal pace, but it only gave Thomas time to calm his breath a little.
“I’m so excited for this,” she said when they got closer. “I don’t know why, but I am so excited.”
“Nice to meet you, Edward.” Thomas would deny that his voice shook until the day he died.
Edward’s ears seemed to perk up a bit and a smile tugged at the edge of his mouth. God, he was brilliant and he hadn’t even said a word. “Thomas, I presume?”
“You presume right.” Thomas held out his hand for him to shake. Gwen nudged Edward’s elbow and it was only then that they shook hands.
“I’m, uh,” Edward said, and pointed at his sunglasses. He looked uncomfortable. “I’m blind. Sorry.”
So that explained the bandages. Thomas didn’t really know what to say. He’d never met a blind person before. He did feel a shock in his stomach, but it wasn’t panic. He felt guilty that he had just assumed, after all this time, that Edward could see. “I – no, that’s not – don’t apologize. You’re lovely.”
Edward blushed a bit but he smiled regardless. “The sunglasses make it a bit more festive.”
“I like the blue ones,” he said, and then felt stupid. But Edward laughed a nervous, bubbly laugh and said, “Those are my favorites.”
“He’s learning Braille,” Gwen said. “We write the color on the inside so he can read it.”
“Gwen,” Edward said, blushing. Thomas thought he was wonderful and wanted to kiss him everywhere.
“Oh, hush,” she said. “He cried watching Grease.”
“Gwen.” Thomas covered his face with one hand. Edward bit his bottom lip.
“You cried at Grease?” he asked. He pressed his fingers against his mouth to stifle his laughter.
“I was fifteen years old and high off my arse,” Thomas said, because somehow it was better. He let out a breath when Edward laughed again.
“Gwen,” he said bluntly. “Go somewhere else.” Gwen made sure he touching the countertop, smiled at Thomas, and then disappeared into one of the food aisles. Edward listened for a moment. When he was satisfied that she had gone, he said, “Hi.”
“Hi.” Thomas was grinning like a fool.
“So you’re the one who started fancying me just by looking at my photographs.”
“Gwen says you’re handsome.”
“Some people think so.”
“Do you eat, Thomas?”
“I do. Do you?”
“Only sometimes.” He grinned.
“Well, if you give me your feeding schedule, I’d be glad to take you to dinner within your allotted time slot.”
Edward laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’d like that. A lot.”
“Good.” Thomas wanted to touch his hand. “Where and when?”
“Is Friday all right?”
“I work morning shift,” Thomas said affirmatively. “When should I pick you up?”
“Seven? I, uh, I share an apartment with Gwen. I used to live alone but, you know.” He gestured to his glasses again.
“Seven sounds perfect.”
Edward gave him the address, which he tucked into the breast pocket of his uniform shirt. Then, reluctantly, he paged Gwen back to photo. She smiled brightly when she came around the corner, but very pointedly did not ask what had transpired between them.
“Friday,” Edward said, like a promise, and they left.
Edward and Gwen lived on the opposite side of town in a newer building near Oxford. On the drive over, Thomas wondered vaguely why Gwen bothered to drive ten minutes from her flat to get to Isis when there was a Kodak Print right down the block. The store was halfway to Thomas’ house.
Thomas had dressed in a nice pair of black slacks and a dark blue dress shirt. He hadn’t been sure what, exactly, he was expected to wear, but Ethel had reminded him of two things: “You look fucking hot in black. Besides, he won’t be able to tell if you look like shit. He probably won’t care either because you won’t be wearing it for long.”
Thomas parallel parked his crappy little car outside the building, then stayed where he was for a moment, trying to calm himself down. He almost felt like this was an awful time to start dating again. He was practically drowning in debt and had the possibility of raising a child – that wasn’t even his – hanging over his head.
But God, Edward looked so good. He seemed so nice. Thomas knew he should be freaking out, even just a bit, that Edward was blind, but he found that it didn’t bother him. He figured there would be some baggage that went with that as well, but it was more intriguing than terrifying. Ethel had aggressively said, “You’re a fucking gentleman, you know that, Thomas? Your new boyfriend can’t fucking see and you’re worried about how he’s coping more than you’re worrying about how he can’t fucking see.”
Thomas eventually pulled himself out of the car and jogged up the front steps of the building. He pressed the buzzer for flat sixteen and waited a moment for the speaker to crackle to life.
“Hello?” It was Gwen.
“I’ll buzz you up!”
Thomas wrenched the door open and surpassed the elevator, choosing instead to climb up the stairs to the fourth floor. When he got there, he knocked on the second door on the left. It opened almost immediately.
Gwen was dressed in a blue pajama set decorated with cupcakes. She was barefoot, her toenails painted a bright red that stood out against her pale complexion. She grinned when she saw him and pulled him into the house.
Their flat was much, much nicer than Thomas and Ethel’s. He recognized the living room from her photographs. The walls were a dullish lime green – not too bright – and all of the other furniture was mismatched, but in an artistic way. Thomas thought sheepishly of the side tables in his bedroom.
“Edward’s just getting ready,” she said. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Sounds lovely.” He followed her into the kitchen and was mildly surprised to see the mousy girl sitting at the table, tapping away on a sleek grey laptop. She looked up when he walked in and gave him a small smile. “Thomas, this is Daisy. Daisy, Thomas.”
“Hi,” she said shyly, and went back to typing. Every so often, she would glance up at him and then look away quickly before he could meet her gaze
Gwen rambled on about what the rest of them planned on doing tonight, but Thomas couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. The kitchen was set off from the living room, but the design was open enough that he could see two doors leading out of the living room. He kept glancing at them, waiting, wondering.
Then, suddenly, the blond man from the photographs emerged from one of the rooms and took stance outside the bedroom door.
“Now presenting,” he said in his best military tone. Gwen turned away from the stove to peek through the doorway. “Lieutenant Edward Courtenay!” He mimed a trumpet noise, but Edward stayed in his bedroom.
Faintly, Thomas could hear him say, “I’m not going to fucking come out if you’re going to be a prick about it, William.”
William sighed dramatically, as if Edward’s refusal to play by his rules was a personal jab, and said, “Fine. Come out when you’re ready, then.”
He joined the three of them in the kitchen and immediately made a beeline for Thomas. Thomas stood and they shook hands.
“Private William Mason,” he said proudly.
“Thomas Barrow.” Thomas wondered if he was one of those blokes who put all self-worth on military status. He didn’t mention Thomas’ apparent lack of title, though, so he supposed not. William rounded the table and sat down next to Daisy.
“He’s going to fight you on the cane,” he told Thomas in a low voice. Thomas didn’t understand. “He doesn’t like carrying it with him. He’s much happier if you’ll just hang onto him and be his guide.”
Oh. The blind cane.
Before Thomas had a chance to respond, Edward finally came out of his bedroom. He looked uncomfortable and kept smoothing down his shirt at his waist. Thomas and William both stood up and watched him guide himself to the kitchen. He seemed to be familiar enough with the floor plan to make his way easily. If Thomas didn’t know better, he would think Edward could see.
When he reached the kitchen, Thomas said, “Hello.”
Edward leaned against the doorframe a bit self-consciously. “Hi.”
He was dressed much the same as Thomas, though his shirt was black and buttoned up almost to his neck. He also had on a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. He looked really, really good.
“I was thinking…” Thomas moved closer to Edward and lowered his voice. He was very aware that William, Daisy, and Gwen were all watching them intently, and he could tell that Edward knew it too. “You don’t have to bring your cane tonight. You could hold on to me.”
Edward frowned briefly, which surprised Thomas. “Yeah, fine. It embarrasses me anyway.”
Thomas felt a bit shocked, but kept his voice quiet.“No, I’m not – Edward, this is a date, right? I might like to hold your hand. I can’t do that if you’re holding your cane.”
Edward seemed to understand – he dropped his jaw a little bit before he smiled. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Everyone’s staring at us,” Thomas whispered, leaning a bit closer. Behind him, Daisy’s typing resumed and there was a clattering as Gwen took the kettle off the stovetop. Edward grinned when he heard them moving again, and Thomas became suddenly aware of how close they were. He didn’t want to move, but he took a step back and cleared his throat anyway. William was sitting behind them and Thomas didn’t want to find out how well he handled his guns.
“Right,” Edward said definitively. “We’re off, then.”
“Have fun, you two,” Gwen called.
Thomas offered Edward his arm, bumping his elbow lightly against Edward’s chest. When he took it, they made their way across the living room and out of the flat. When the door was shut, Edward said, “I’m sorry about all of them. They’re off their rockers.”
“They’re nice.” Thomas led Edward to the elevator. He pushed the down button and they waited, listening to the machine whir. Edward’s hand tightened briefly on his arm.
“You’ve got nice biceps,” he said, sounding pleased. “Do you work out?”
Thomas looked down sheepishly. “Not really. I used to play tennis a bit, but I don’t really have the time anymore. Or the money.”
“I used to jog along the riverfront. I bet I’m nowhere nearly as toned as you, though.”
Thomas thought of the slight bulge his stomach had become and decided not to mention it. The elevator finally arrived and they stepped inside. When they started to drop, Edward leaned against him.
“Do you like Italian?” Thomas asked. “Or would you rather go somewhere that has fish and chips or something?”
“There’s an Italian café around the corner,” he said. He was blushing slightly. “I don’t care for expensive food. It just makes me feel guilty, like I’m swallowing money.”
Thomas laughed and reached up to touch the hand on his arm. “Don’t get me wrong, I dream of eating steak every night, but the portions are miniscule.”
Edward grinned, happy to find he wasn’t alone. The elevator grounded and the doors slid open. “Right. You get more food ordering an American barbeque at a street stall. It’s more delicious anyway, and you don’t have to know how to pronounce words like foi gras en terrine or canard à la rouennaise.” He shook his head. “I fucking hate the French.”
Thomas laughed and held the door open for Edward to pass through. “Now, this Italian café. Should we walk or should we drive?”
“Walk,” Edward said. “It’s a nice night.”
Normally, Thomas would say something like, “Lead the way,” but it obviously wasn’t an option here. Instead, he asked, “Can you give me landmarks? I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Neither do I,” Edward laughed. “I didn’t live here before. But, uh, if I remember correctly, we turn right. There’s a cigar shop on the corner and we turn there. Then it’s on that street.”
“You’re good at directions,” Thomas said as they began walking.
“Yep. Never need a GPS or anything. I was in charge of the compass out in Afghanistan. It’s actually really helped me a lot. Apparently I have mental maps of all of these places. The doctors were really excited to hear about that.”
“I can imagine.” They walked in a comfortable silence for a few moments. Thomas could see the cigar shop coming up on their right.
“Have you ever dated a man before?” Edward asked.
Thomas glanced over at him and smiled. “I have.”
Edward looked somewhat relieved. “Good. I dated this guy right before I enlisted and he was such a closet case. I’ve got too many problems of my own; I don’t want to have to teach someone to be gay on top of all that.”
Thomas laughed and pulled Edward a little closer. “Turn here,” he said, and they rounded the corner. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m really good at being gay.”
“Me too,” Edward said a little clumsily. He grinned at Thomas. “This is so weird. I haven’t been on a date in – god, in like two years.”
Thomas thought about the beach pictures and couldn’t help but ask. “What about Larry? God, sorry, I know I’m not supposed to know these things.”
“Gwen,” he said fondly. “She can’t keep her mouth shut. But no, Larry never took me out anywhere. He, uh, he said that he liked me before I was shipped off and that he always wanted to call me his boyfriend. He hung out with us for like a week before I couldn’t stand him anymore. He didn’t like Gwen or William or Daisy. He said he wanted me, but I think the blindness scared him a bit. He wouldn’t admit it, though. Just kept on pretending like I could see.”
“It, uh, it doesn’t scare me.” Thomas could see the Italian cafe across the street. “It’s kind of hot, in a weird way.”
Edward looked surprised, then burst out laughing. Thomas tugged him across the street. “You’re the first person who hasn’t been all freaked out by this. I’ve been blind for six months and you’re the only one who doesn’t give a shit.”
“I give a shit,” Thomas said once they were safely on the sidewalk again. He pulled Edward against his side again. “I just think there are more important things to a person than their sight. Besides, you can’t see how hideous I really am.”
“You’ve got biceps and this really fucking nice voice,” Edward said earnestly. “I don’t think it’s possible for you to be hideous.”
“Oh, come on. There are plenty of hideous people with nice voices.” They were standing out on the sidewalk in front of the café, facing each other. People were passing by, but neither of them moved.
Thomas drew a blank for a minute. He watched a slow smile grow across Edward’s face and then it dawned on him. “My boss, for starters.”
“He has these awful eyebrows but he’s got a nice voice. He could be a butler.”
“A butler.” Edward had this goofy smile on his face and Thomas couldn’t help himself; he leaned forward and kissed his cheek.
“Sorry,” he said dully.
“You should be,” Edward said. “You missed my mouth.” His hand detached from Thomas’ arm and skimmed up, mapping a path, until he reached his neck. Edward tucked a hand along his jaw and stepped closer, waiting for some sort of approval. Thomas bumped his hand against Edward’s hip, unsure if he was allowed to touch.
Edward kissed him uncouthly, his mouth not quite lining up correctly with Thomas’ at first, but his fingertips traced the line of his lip and his mouth followed. They kissed quietly on the sidewalk for a moment, then Edward teased his tongue along Thomas’ bottom lip and pulled away.
“Look at us,” he said. He was flushed. “We’re like teenagers. We haven’t even had dinner yet.”
Thomas laughed. Edward hadn’t moved back and he could feel his breath ghosting across his mouth. “Let’s go eat, then. We can continue after.”
There was a confliction of expressions on Edward’s face: part of him looked like he wanted to be embarrassed or humble, but the other half, the half that won out, looked pleased. Thomas kissed him one more time.
The hostess led them to a tiny table in the corner of the room. Thomas pulled out Edward’s chair and guided him into it, then sat down across from him. Edward’s foot brushed his ankle and he smiled to himself.
Their waitress was not far behind. She was a short girl with a large forehead, but Thomas supposed she seemed sweet. “Hello!” she said cheerfully. She pocketed her order pad. “My name is Jane and I’ll be your server today. What can I get you two to drink?”
Thomas waited a beat for Edward to start, and he picked up on it quickly. “A Coke sounds lovely,” he said. She nodded and turned to Thomas.
“Just a water for me. Thanks.”
She disappeared to fetch their drinks and Thomas opened the menu.
“What looks good?” Edward asked. It hadn’t even dawned on Thomas that he wouldn’t be able to see the menu. He stuttered for a moment, embarrassed, and then cleared his throat.
“What are you in the mood for?”
“I’m a carnivore,” Edward replied. His eyebrow twitched up. “Anything with meat and pasta.”
“Lasagna,” Thomas said. Edward’s foot bumped his again. “They’ve got a lobster ravioli. Carbonara. Spaghetti.”
“What are you having?”
Thomas scanned over the menu. “The Chicken Parmagiana sounds nice.”
“That’s excellent here. Everything is excellent here.”
Thomas read him off a few more choices until he decided on Chicken Saltimbocca. Jane came back with their drinks and left with their orders. When she was gone, Thomas broke a breadstick in half and nudged part of it into Edward’s hand.
“Have you got siblings?”
“One brother.” Edward took a moment to chew. “His name’s Jack. He’s in, uh, Kandahar, now. I think. They move him a lot. It’s hard to keep track.”
“No. I decided to enlist and Jack exists solely to one-up me.” He sighed. “He’s going to Oxford once he gets home. And Mum and Dad love him best because he’s the one who’s going to give them grandchildren. He is the more desperate, kiss-ass version of me. Edward 2.0.”
“I’ve always liked the originals best,” Thomas said. Edward grinned stupidly.
“What about you? Siblings?” His hand hovered across the table, looking for his glass. When he found it, he made sure his grip was tight before raising it to his lips.
“I don’t have any family. Not that talk to me, anyhow.”
“Your mum and dad?”
“I, uh, they kicked me out. Nobody talked to me after I came out.” Thomas shrugged, but Edward looked upset, so he touched Edward’s ankle with the toe of his shoe. “Don’t look like that. There’s nothin’ wrong with the way I am.”
“They don’t deserve to know you, then,” Edward said. “It’s their loss.”
Thomas had heard this a hundred times from everyone he’d ever told, but the way Edward said it with such confidence made him believe it. He took a drink of his water and changed the subject.
“What are you studying at Oxford?”
Their food took longer to arrive than Thomas had anticipated, but he barely noticed. Edward was studying agricultural business at the university, something he said got him close enough to his lifelong dream of farming than anything else. He said he wanted to own a piece of property in the country where he could grow vegetables, ride horses, and fish, and nobody would bother him.
He talked about his life before the war: how he and Gwen had been best friends in secondary school; how Daisy had been her dorm mate and William had been his and they had all sort of just come together and hadn’t been apart ever since. He talked about how much he liked looking at Gwen’s photos, and if there was one thing that he missed most about his eyesight, it was flipping through them.
He was on the track team and spent most of his mornings jogging along the river. He was allergic to tomatoes. He’d gone vegetarian once with Gwen, but it last all of twelve hours before he was craving hamburgers again. He liked watching Mad Men and was dying to know what had happened while he was gone, but he didn’t like listening to the narration for the hard of hearing. He did like listening to music, though. It had become the easiest form of entertainment besides audio books. He liked Coldplay and Florence and the Machines best.
His brigade had been ambushed by a guerilla group while they were on their way to intersect a known group of terrorists. He and the other soldiers in his Humvee had gotten the least of the attack – out of the five other men in the car, four survived. Edward had been blinded by debris and bits of metal from the explosion. He didn’t remember much more than that, and didn’t feel the need to listen to all the medical words his doctor spewed at him. “Blind is blind,” he said. “Something’s torn and I have scars all around my eyes. I don’t know what it looks like, but it feels ugly. That’s the main reason I wear the sunglasses.”
Thomas told him in deeper detail about coming out to his parents. He had been smart enough to wait until he had an apartment of his own secured, but he hadn’t expected them to react the way they had. He told Edward that he thought he’d still be included in Christmases and Easters, no matter how tense, but he hadn’t heard from any of his blood since. He’d tried to regain contact several times, but they all had either hung up on him or ignored his calls.
He told Edward how he’d met Ethel by publishing an advertisement online in search of a flat mate. She had been one of the only five to respond and they had hit it off immediately. He told Edward about the baby (but left out Charles and the prostitution) and how it didn’t have a father, and that Ethel didn’t know if she would keep it.
He took off his glove and guided Edward’s fingers over the ugly scar on his hand. “I was downtown one night and I got jumped by these three guys. I put up a fight and they stabbed me in the hand. They didn’t want to kill me, but they really fucking wanted me money. I couldn’t afford plastic surgery to fix it.”
Edward had taken his hand in response and pressed them against the inside of his wrist over his own scars. Thomas felt shocked; he hadn’t noticed them before. He pushed his empty plate out of the way and traced his fingertips over the blemishes.
“I couldn’t take it,” Edward said. “I came back and everything was different. I felt like such a burden. I still do. I have to rely on someone to drive me everywhere I need to go. I can’t even pick up milk at the supermarket without a chaperone. I felt guilty, so I slit my wrists. It only made me feel guiltier.”
Thomas picked up his hand and kissed the pulse point.
“I don’t know why I told you that,” Edward said. “I just – I feel like I can tell you anything. I feel like I’ve known you a million years.”
“Hey,” Thomas said gently. “We all have our shit to deal with. You’re no exception.”
“There are so many men out there who have lost limbs or their memories or – or their mind. They’ve lost their lives. And I’ve just lost my sight. I can still do things. I can do just about anything. I’m so selfish to hate that I can’t see.”
Thomas pressed his thumb against Edward’s wrist and felt the pulse going steady there. “Of course it could always be fucking worse, but it’s not. It could always be worse. I hate when people call you selfish for feelings the things that you do. If your leg got blown off they would tell you that you were selfish because you still had your arms. If you were limbless you’d be selfish because you could still talk. If you were comatose for the rest of your life you were selfish because you’d still be alive. You know what? They’d be complaining too if they fucking lost their eyesight.”
Edward was quiet for a long time.
“If you want to be a victim, be a fucking victim. But don’t let them tell you what you can and can’t think and feel and be. Don’t let them make you into someone you’re not.”
Edward flipped over his hand and trailed his fingers across Thomas’ open palm. “You’re really well-adjusted, you know that?”
Thomas laughed. “I’m really fucking not.”
Jane came back with the bill and Thomas paid, despite Edward’s arguing.
“This is the only time I’m ever going to take advantage of your blindness,” Thomas said. “You can’t find the bill so you’re not paying.”
When they left the restaurant, Edward pressed even closer to his side. Thomas put an arm around his waist. It seemed to disorient Edward at first, but eventually he wound his arm around Thomas as well and they found their footing.
“I wish I lived alone,” Edward said sadly. “I want to take you back to my flat and kiss you until you can’t breathe.”
Thomas tried not to groan at that sentiment. “I wish you lived alone, too.”
They chatted about nothing in particular on the walk back to Edward’s apartment. Thomas told Edward about Ethel’s new redecorating craze and Edward told him about how William was in love with Daisy. The conversation turned, somehow, to childhood pets. Edward had had a Golden Retriever in his youth and Thomas had kept a stray cat in the garden shed for a few months until he had nursed it back to health.
When they reached the building, Thomas readjusted his grip on Edward to help him up the steps, but Edward was having none of it. He walked Thomas back until he was pressed against the brick wall, then kissed him.
Thomas didn’t know if it had come from practice or was just natural, but Edward was a really, really great kisser. He kept pulling on Thomas’ bottom lip with his teeth, something Thomas had felt before, but never like this. Maybe it was just Edward. He had one of Thomas’ wrists gripped in his hand and the other on his shoulder blade.
Thomas kept Edward against him by anchoring himself to his hips. He felt a little weak in the knees, so the support helped. Edward’s body was hot against his own and Thomas wondered subconsciously how long they could keep this up before it stopped being PG. Judging by the slight movement beginning in Edward’s hips, he didn’t bet on long.
Edward seemed to catch on because he pulled away, but not before kissing Thomas a few more times. These were tamer, though, nothing like before. He nudged their noses together and then released Thomas from his grip.
“Sorry,” he said, a bit sheepishly as they panted into each other’s space.
“Why?” Thomas reached out and took his hand. “Because you stopped?”
“Yes,” he said. “And because I’m so attracted to a man I met earlier this week that I’m going to make a fool of myself.”
“Trust me,” Thomas said, wishing very much that Gwen, Daisy, and William weren’t upstairs, “you’re not the only one.”
Edward looked particularly pleased with himself. “I wish I could see.”
Thomas dropped his head back against the wall. “I’d let you touch, but you’re not going to finish what you start.”
Edward flinched like he’d been punched in the gut and groaned. “I’m going to have to take the longest cold shower after this.”
“I’ve already got a bit of a record for fighting people on the street when they fuck with me,” Thomas said tiredly. “Public indecency would get me arrested for sure.”
Edward sighed heavily and tugged Thomas up off the wall. “We’d better get inside, then. My cockblocking friends will keep us off of each other.”
Thomas helped him to the elevator, though at this point he felt like he was leaning on Edward just as much as Edward was leaning on him. When they made it safely inside and the machine started to whir around them, Thomas pressed him against the wall and they kissed languidly for the few beats it took to read the fourth floor.
Inside the flat, Gwen and Daisy were asleep on the couch in front of the television. When Edward and Thomas let themselves in, William came out of the kitchen barefoot, holding a cup and a saucer. He looked over the two of them and smirked.
“Should we clear out?” he asked.
Thomas was just wondering if the offer was genuine when Edward said, “Oh, bugger off, William.”
William went back into the kitchen chuckling.
“I guess I’ll say goodnight, then,” Thomas said. Edward sighed.
“I wish I lived alone,” he said again. Thomas smiled at him and kissed him on the mouth.
“We’ve already snogged against the building,” he whispered. “I think we’ve done quite well for a first date.”
“Right.” Edward kissed him again. “Now go before I do something I’ll regret.” Thomas stepped away from him, laughing. “And thank you. For everything.”
“Especially the kissing.”
Edward laughed and reached out to shove his shoulder. “Go,” he said. “Goodnight.”
Thomas was out in front of his building smoking a cigarette when his cell phone started vibrating in his pocket. He looked at it and was surprised to see that Gwen was calling. He picked it up quickly, his heart rate picking up.
“Is everything okay?” he asked abruptly.
There was a silence on the other end of the line; and then, “God, sorry, this is Edward.”
Thomas pressed a hand to his forehead, which was wet from the water droplets still in his hair, and tried to calm himself down. “No, hi, you’re fine. What’s going on?”
“I realized that I never gave you my phone number,” he said. “And I didn’t tell you that I had a great time tonight.”
Thomas grinned up at the night sky and put his cigarette back into his mouth. “Well, I definitely want your number. I’d like you to have more great times.”
Edward laughed on the other end of the line, sounding relieved. “I was scared I was going to seem desperate, calling from Gwen’s mobile. But you – yes. Let’s go out again. Soon.”
“I’m not off until next Thursday,” he said. “But we could get lunch or something. Or dinner, if you don’t mind me being rank and exhausted.”
“I like lunch,” Edward said, then paused. “Do you have something in your mouth?”
Thomas took the cigarette out of his mouth and tried not to think too hard about that. “I’m smoking.”
Edward was quiet again for a moment. “Fuck,” he said quietly. “What do you smoke?”
“Richmond Regulars,” he said.
“I’m going to hang up,” Edward said breathlessly, “because I’m on Gwen’s mobile and you sound really, really hot right now.”
“I could,” Thomas started, voice going rough, because phone sex sounded really good right about now. But he thought about Edward’s bony wrists and the heat from the length of his body and decided he’d rather wait until he could touch Edward and watch him come. “Yeah, we need to hang up.”
“I’ll talk to you later,” he said, and the line went dead.
Edward came by for lunch the next day wearing a pair of bright red Wayfarers. He smiled a lot and let Thomas lead him into the photo lab so they could kiss against the printer. Thomas took his thirty and they spent it in the break room eating the Chinese carryout that Edward had brought with him. Their conversation was lighter than it had been the night before, though Thomas found his gaze dropping occasionally to run along the scars on his wrists.
Edward told him stories about everything, from things he’d read on the internet to how Gwen acted when she was drunk to useless film trivia he had memorized. When Thomas’ break was finished, he followed him back to the photo lab and stuck around for another few hours, sitting quietly when customers came up and standing against the printer while Thomas filled orders. It made the work day go by so much faster.
This became a regular occurrence over the next few months, as did dinner dates and kissing outside of Edward’s building. It became increasingly frustrating for the both of them with the constant presence of roommates that would not leave no matter how many hints they dropped. So they were limited to dry humping in Thomas’ car for a while. He fantasized far too often of spreading Edward out onto the new, blood red sheets Ethel had sewn and taking him apart piece by pale piece to have their first time be in the backseat of his 2003 Honda Civic.
In the middle of November, he finally convinced Ethel to go out for at least a few hours. Gwen dropped Edward off at about seven. He was wearing jeans, a vintage Superman t-shirt, and his favorite blue glasses. When Gwen left, Thomas pushed him against the door and they just kissed there for a while.
“I’ve made you dinner,” Thomas said. He tipped his head back against the door as Edward kissed up his jaw. “We don’t have to eat, though.”
“No,” Edward said. “Let’s – yeah, let’s eat.” He kissed Thomas on the mouth once more before stepping back. “I’ve never been to your flat before so you’re going to have to show me around.”
Thomas almost wished Edward had brought his cane so he could gage the space in front of him, but he knew how much he hated that cane. They’d been seeing each other for a little over a month and Thomas had never even seen it before.
“It’s a bit of an open floor plan,” he told Edward. He guided him a few steps to the left. “We have bookshelves on this wall and a window between.” Edward stepped away from him and mapped it out with his hands. He ran his fingers along all the book spines, occasionally asking, “What’s this?” He stood at the window and looked out at the lot below as if he could see beyond the panes of glass.
“What’s down there?” he asked.
“Nothing special, just a car park.”
He skimmed over the other shelf, which was sparser than the one on the left, then turned to find Ethel’s door. Thomas told him as much and he nodded, his hands continuing along the wall until his knee hit the couch. Thomas watched him explore the small flat in this way, smiling and answering any questions Edward had. Finally, they moved into the kitchen.
“I splurged,” he said, half-joking. “I made hamburgers and chips.” He didn’t mention that they’d come from the frozen section of the supermarket. “What do you take on it?”
“Pickles and a little bit of catsup.”
Thomas fixed up their food then sat down, pushing one plate across the table to Edward, who smiled at him and nudged his ankle with his shoe. They talked comfortably while they ate, swapping random stories and bickering half-heartedly about nothing in particular.
Sometime during the meal, Thomas mentioned that his father owned a clock repair shop on the other side of town. He drove past it sometimes, but never stopped in.
“You should,” he said. Thomas shook his head and laughed humorlessly.
“He doesn’t want to see me.”
“It’s been a long time,” Edward continued. “Maybe he’ll want to talk to you again. I can go with, if you’d like.”
“I don’t – Edward, I can’t.” Thomas put down his hamburger and wiped his hands off on the legs of his trousers. “He’s not going to accept me back until I’m out of this phase.” He used air quotes for emphasis, but felt silly when he remembered that Edward couldn’t see and dropped his hands. “I’m not going to sacrifice me life – I’m not going to sacrifice you for a man who won’t love me unconditionally.”
“Good for you. I really – you are very well-adjusted, even if you don’t want to admit it.”
“I’ve got daddy issues,” Thomas groaned. “I take care of other people’s problems because I don’t want to think about my own.”
Edward was quiet for a moment; when he spoke again, his voice was soft. “You’re lucky, then. I’ve got enough baggage for ten.”
“I like you well enough,” Thomas said, smiling. “You keep my hands full."
“Do you mind if I, uh, if I ask.” Edward laughed awkwardly. “When, uh – when did you lose your virginity?”
Thomas locked his ankle around Edward’s. “Seventeen. You?”
“Nineteen.” He ducked his head and pushed the chips on his plate around. “Have you, er, been with a woman? Or only… men?”
“Only ever men.”
Evelyn and his clumsy hands, Kemal willing to be “friends with benefits” (and Thomas wanting to be so much more), Philip and the ring on his hand that cut his cheek ever time it connected – “Three that mattered.” Thomas smiled at him despite the fact that he could clearly see Edward sweating across the table. “Why the interrogation?”
“No, I,” Edward said. He laughed nervously and kept his face turned down. His ears were starting to turn red. “I’m a little bit nervous. About taking off the glasses.”
“You don’t have to,” Thomas said quietly. He wanted Edward to feel comfortable and he told him as much.
“It’s weird to kiss with them on,” he said. “I’m going to take them off, I just… if it’s hideous, if you’re turned off, tell me. Okay? We don’t need to do this.”
Thomas paused for a minute. He couldn’t imagine Edward doing anything that would turn him off. “Do you want to do this?” He suddenly felt unsure.
“Yes.” Edward sat up in his chair and looked straight at Thomas, though Thomas knew he could see nothing. “Yes, I want this. But if you don’t, let’s not. I don’t want you stuck with a blind man who doesn’t know up from down.”
“Don’t talk about yourself like that.” Thomas stood up from the table. “Fuck, Edward. You’re so brave and kind and caring. You’ve done so much and I’m so fucking proud of you. Anyone would be lucky to have you. I would be lucky to have you. I am lucky. And if I’m going to be stuck with you, I’m going to enjoy every fucking second of it because you are, fuck, Edward, you’re…” He cut himself off by dipping down to kiss Edward on the mouth.
Edward gripped the lapels of his shirt and allowed himself to be pulled up and led across the kitchen. Thomas’ back hit the bedroom door and he fiddled with the doorknob behind him, trying to open the door without breaking away from Edward’s mouth. He succeeded and they stumbled backwards into the darkness of the room.
Thomas pushed Edward down onto the bed and kissed him hard. Edward kissed him back with the same ferocity, one hand fisted in his hair and the other keeping him upright. Thomas could feel his attraction and he wanted to do this, fuck, he wanted to do this now.
He pulled himself off of Edward to take off his shirt and Edward made the fucking neediest sound that he stumbled back into the dresser. Edward sat up, hair mussed and glasses crooked, and said, “Are you okay?”
Thomas laughed and pulled off his shirt, then reached around to shut the door before crawling back onto the bed and Edward. “You’re so hot, God,” Thomas said into his mouth. Edward hitched his leg up around Thomas’ hip and bucked against him. Thomas groaned.
“Take them off,” Edward panted, his hands sliding all across Thomas’ back and chest like he wanted to learn every inch of him “My glasses, take them off.”
Thomas leaned down to kiss his neck, then leaned up to nudge his nose against Edward’s ear. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he said breathlessly.
Thomas took a few deep breaths to slow himself down a bit, because he wanted to savor this. God, Edward was going to show him everything, starting with the part that hurt and scared him the most. He wanted to be all there for it, not lust-blind from the tightness of his jeans.
Supporting himself on one arm, he used the other to reach up and slide the sunglasses off his face. Beneath him, Edward was breathing erratically and shaking slightly.
His eyelids and skin around and between were scarred heavily, a mess of white and pink blemishes against his pale skin. The left was worse than the right, but he was staring up at Thomas with clear, open eyes. They were green, cut through with scars running across the irises. Thomas leaned back and took in the scars on the right side of his face as well, putting the whole picture together.
“How are they?” Edward asked. He laughed, trying to sound casual, but his voice shook. “Not too hideous?”
“Close your eyes,” Thomas said. Edward’s face ran through a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, resignation – before he obeyed. Thomas leaned down and kissed both of his eyelids lightly and Edward reached up to grip his elbow, his breath quickening.
“You’re not—?” Thomas moved down and kissed him on the mouth.
Ethel had taken it upon herself to completely renovate the entire flat.
She started with the living room, giving it the new coats of paint that she still knew the names of. Then she went shopping at a second-hand store to find a dining room table that didn’t collapse when Thomas put his feet up on it. From there, she worked on the kitchen and started attending pottery classes so they could actually have dishware. All her bowls were lopsided – one even had a hole in the bottom, which they didn’t realize until Thomas’ soup emptied itself onto his leg – but she was making an effort and Thomas felt proud.
She stopped sleeping with men for money in interest of the baby. Her stomach had started to swell ever so slightly, but she still hadn’t made a decision. At this point, Thomas had accepted the silence as a refusal to abort it, but he wasn’t positive she was going to put it up for adoption. On the other hand, he didn’t quite expect her to keep it either. They were in a kind of baby limbo because she didn’t want to talk about it despite his constant nagging.
“If the flat looks nice, it’ll be more welcoming to potential parents,” she finally snapped at him one day as she furiously painted over the brick in their kitchen. “But it could also make it more welcoming for the baby.”
She started looking for a job the morning after Edward stayed the night. She was sitting at the kitchen table in her panties and Thomas’ college t-shirt, which still had a paint stain on it, no matter how many times it was washed, when Edward and Thomas emerged from the bedroom.
She wolf-whistled and continued eating her cereal. “Nice bedhead, Edward. Looks like you two had a wild night.”
“Oh, bugger off,” Thomas said. He crossed to the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of juice. Edward guided himself to the kitchen table and sat down across from Ethel. “Do you want anything, Edward?”
“No, thank you. Gwen should be here in a moment. I can eat when I get home.”
“I am. Thanks.” Thomas poured himself a glass of orange juice and leaned against the counter. “How was your night?” Edward asked Ethel.
“Not as exciting as yours,” she said, cheeks puffed out with a mouthful of cereal. Thomas rolled his eyes at her. “I went to the second-hand store and looked for some nicer shit to put in our flat.”
“I like the décor you have now,” Edward said. There was a moment of silence, then Ethel shrieked and Thomas choked on his juice.
“Can we joke about it?” she said excitedly. “Fuck, can we? I’m starkers, Edward. Completely starkers. And Thomas is giving me bedroom eyes.”
“You should be institutionalized, Ethel,” Thomas said. There was a knock on the door and he set down his juice. He kissed Edward’s cheek as he passed and Ethel aww’d with her mouth full, milk dribbling down her chin.
Gwen waved when she opened the door. “Did you have a nice night?” she asked with none of the insinuation that seemed to leak from Ethel’s pores.
“It was lovely,” Thomas said. He stepped aside so she could come into the flat.
“Wow.” She turned in a full circle, looking at the paint job. “I love these colors.”
“The blue is Regatta,” Ethel said. “The other is Greek Villa.”
“I love it.” Gwen smiled brightly. “I’m Gwen, by the way. Edward’s friend.”
“I’m Ethel.” She reached over to shake Gwen’s hand, seemingly unconcerned that she was in a state of such undress. Thomas noticed suddenly that she hadn’t shaved her legs in a while. “I’m Thomas’ roommate.”
Recognition dawned on her face, but Ethel missed it by turning away.
“I’ve got to go,” Edward said, turning in the general direction of Thomas. He stood up. “I’ll call you later?”
“I’m working tonight,” Thomas said. He wanted to put his arms around Edward, but he felt weird having Gwen and Ethel watching them like hawks. He felt fifteen all over again, having his parents stare as he greeted the girl they’d set him up with. “But if you don’t catch me, I’ll call you back when I get home.”
“Okay.” Edward leaned in a little. “Thank you,” he whispered. “For everything.”
“You said that already,” Thomas said, but leaned in and kissed him quickly on the mouth. “Now get your arse to group. I’ll talk to you tonight.”
When Gwen and Edward left, Thomas poured himself a bowl of cereal – checking first to make sure it wasn’t the one with the hole and wondering why they bothered keeping that one – and sat opposite Ethel, who raised her eyebrow.
“Was he good?” she asked.
“He didn’t forget where anything is, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Ethel snorted. “Was it different? Sleeping with a blind guy?”
Thomas paused for a moment, considering. “He overcompensated a little bit. But it was – fuck, it was so good. It was better than Philip.”
Ethel gave a low whistle. “Man, and Philip pounded you. Literally and, well, literally.”
“I know.” Thomas shook his head. “God, and he – he got off on the sound of my voice.”
Ethel widened her eyes at him. “I didn’t think anyone liked your voice enough to listen to you talk, let alone get off on it.”
Thomas lazily flipped her off and sighed. “I really fucking like him.”
“What are you up to today?”
Ethel looked around the apartment. “I’ve got pottery at two, and then I’ll probably head over to the store on Pembroke and see if I can’t find another chair or two for this table. I’m going to refinish them once I’m done with the walls.”
“Ethel,” Thomas started. He could feel the ulcer in his stomach start to burn.
“Don’t worry about the money,” she said exasperatedly. She stood up and went into the loo, taking her bowl with her. “I’ve got it covered, okay? Before pottery I’m going to go to the library and look at job listings online.”
Thomas didn’t quite believe he was hearing her correctly, so he got up and stood behind her at the sink as she washed her bowl. “Did I hear you right? You’re looking for a job?”
“Bugger off,” she said. “It’s not like I haven’t been bringing home the bacon, too.”
“Oh, you definitely have,” he said. “All sorts of bacon. Bacon that got you pregnant.”
“Thomas!” She shut off the tap and turned around, jabbing her finger into his chest. The bowl and spoon clattered loudly in the sink. “Shut the fuck up, okay? My money is not your concern.”
“It’s my concern when you pay half the rent,” he said, raising his voice along with hers. “It’s my concern when, if you miss a week, we might not eat.”
“You’ve got a place to go!” she shouted. “If shit hits the fan, you can run off and live with your boyfriend. I am so fucking alone, Thomas. Do you think my parents are going to take me back in when they find out this is a bastard child? I don’t even know if I fucking want it! I don’t know if it fucking wants me! But guess what? I’m going to be alone with it no matter which fucking way I turn.”
She tried to leave, but Thomas grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “I told you that I’m going to help you, Ethel,” he said severely. “I’m not going to abandon you. But you have to be more conscious of how you spend your money. If you keep the baby, we’re going to need it.”
“I want us to have a home,” she said softly. “I want us to have a nice place to come home to at night and not call it a shithole. If I do keep the baby, I don’t want him to grow up in a crappy little flat. I want him to grow up in a home.”
“I know,” Thomas said. “I want things too, you know. I want a new job. I want a new flat. I want to wake up in the morning and not get a stress headache from everyone else’s shit.”
“It’s not your shit to take care of, though,” she said. “All of Edward’s baggage is not yours to carry alone. And don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about, because you do. You do it with everyone because you don’t want to think about yourself and where you are in life.”
“I honestly don’t know if you’re attacking me or talking through a realization.”
Ethel shook her head. “You’re such a selfless person to the people you care about,” she said. “I don’t understand why you won’t let anyone take care of you.”
“I don’t need anyone to take care me, that’s why.”
“You will one day,” she said matter-of-factly. “And when you fall apart, I’m going to be the one there to catch you.”
Edward was pulled away to visit his grandparents in Manchester for Christmas, and that time became increasingly lonelier as the two weeks stretched on, even though they talked every day over the phone. Jack had come in for the holidays and Edward moaned about it for a good half hour before Thomas reminded him that at least Jack was alive. Edward grudgingly agreed. He even let the two of them talk, briefly, before he snatched the phone back and went up to sit in his bedroom.
Thomas and Ethel spent Christmas eating popcorn and watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special on their black and white television. It wasn’t until later that Edward called and said, “I’ve got a Christmas present for you. Go in your room,” and proceeded to give Thomas the filthiest phone sex he could dream up. He couldn’t imagine Edward saying these things, though he supposed the distance made him braver.
“Are you blushing?” he asked after. His whole body ached. “You’re blushing, aren’t you?”
“Maybe.” There was a creaking noise and suddenly Edward’s voice was a lot closer. “I know we’ve only been going out for two months, but could I give you a Christmas gift when I get back?”
“I suppose,” Thomas said. “But you don’t have to. More of that would surely suffice.”
Edward laughed quietly into the phone. “I don’t know what came over me. I think it was the eggnog.”
“I think it was me.” Thomas rolled, with some effort, onto his stomach. “I miss you.”
Edward sounded a bit surprised. “I miss you too.” He paused for a moment. “Are you – I’ve been telling my parents you’re my boyfriend. Is that – is that okay?”
Thomas grinned into his pillow. “That’s more than okay. In fact, you can call that me Christmas present. But, uh, just for the record, I’ve been calling you me boyfriend since you spent the night.”
He could practically hear Edward grinning over the phone. “Really?”
“Come home and find out.”
“Just a few more days.”
“How was your Christmas? Did you do anything fun?”
“Me and Ethel watched Doctor Who,” he said. “And then I wanked off to the thought of you touching me. What about you?”
Edward stuttered for a minute and Thomas smiled. He liked that he could do that to him, get him all flustered. “They, uh, they went sledding. I listened to some audio books and sat outside for a bit. Not much.”
Thomas could feel his grin fading. “They left you alone?”
“No,” Edward said. “No, my grandpap was home with me.” He paused for what seemed like a very long time. “I had to make sure he didn’t take out his oxygen by accident.”
“Edward, fuck,” Thomas said quietly. “You should have called me. I would have talked to you.”
“They just don’t know how to deal with it,” he replied thickly. “Mum and Dad gave me a book for Christmas and then got upset when I didn’t get excited over it."
Thomas wanted to tell him that maybe they were still coming to terms with it, maybe maybe, but he didn’t want to defend them. He wanted to punch them, and he hadn’t wanted to punch someone for a long time. “God, Edward, I wish you were here. I would read that book to you.”
“That’s not,” Edward said, and made a frustrated sound. “Everyone is always on tip-toes, skating around the fact that I can’t see. I don’t know what their fucking problem is. It’s a bigger change for me than it is for them and it’s not like they haven’t had the opportunity to cope with it. Gwen does the same goddamn thing. She acts like I’m going to fall down or some shit every time I stand up. Nobody seems to understand that I still have legs. I can still walk around. If there’s something I’m going to trip over, fucking tell me so I can go around it. But I’m not going to collapse every time I go to the toilet. I’d like to take a piss without somebody wanting to hold my hand.”
“I know.” Thomas threw the arm not holding the phone across the opposite side of the bed, closing his eyes and pretending that Edward was next to him. “If I ever do any of that, call me out on it. I don’t want to baby you.”
“It’s funny, because you’ve known me the least amount of time and you’re the only one who doesn’t treat me like a complete invalid.”
“Maybe I’m selfish,” Thomas said quietly. “Maybe I treat you like that because I’m secretly happy that you can’t see me. You might not like me so much if you could.”
“None of that is true,” Edward said forcefully. “I know you seem to think that you’re a perpetual screw-up because you’re stuck working at a chain chemist’s on minimum wage, but you’re fucking not. Okay? You are the most level-headed and selfless person I know. You don’t – I wish you could see you the way I see you.”
“But what if you’re seeing me wrong?” Thomas felt safe beneath the darkness, felt safe in the whispers over the distance between them.
“I couldn’t see you any better if I had my eyesight.” Edward sighed quietly on the other end of the phone. “Now, let’s – let’s talk about something else. Tell me about the unicorn stickers Ethel pranked you with on April Fool’s Day.”
Thomas laughed in spite of the silent tears on his cheeks. “So at work, we have these name tags…”
Towards the end of February, Gwen dropped Edward off at the flat along with his backpack and a mound of homework. He and Thomas sat at the kitchen table picking at crackers and apple slices while Thomas translated the material for him. Eventually, Ethel came home from pottery class, carrying a mug that exactly resembled all of the other mugs that were in their cabinets.
She was just over four months along and it was really starting to show. She had taken to wearing Thomas’ shirts, but Thomas wouldn’t be allowing her for much longer. “You’re not stretching out my shirts,” he had told her. “You had better go out and get some maternity clothes.”
“How are my lovebirds?” she asked, crossing to the fridge and filling her new cup up with some of the lemonade Gwen had brought them. She held it over the counter for a moment once it was full, checking for leaks.
“The lovebirds are studying,” Thomas said. He was staring down at one of the essay problems on Edward’s worksheets and trying to decipher what the professor was asking. “So if you would kindly hush.”
“We could move.” Thomas looked up at Edward. “If you want to watch telly or something.”
“Oh, you’re going to go study. I see how it is.”
“I’m an Oxford student,” Edward said. “Innocence is my middle name.”
“I believe that for a moment.” She went into the living room and plopped down on the couch. “Go ahead, go grope each other.”
Thomas ignored her because she was probably right anyway. He gathered Edward’s books and papers and went into his room, depositing them on the corner of his bed. A moment later, Edward joined him and collapsed into his sheets. Thomas shut the door and crawled on top of him, slipping off his orange sunglasses.
They made out lazily for a while, Edward’s hands rubbing up and down his back. Thomas liked the warm weight on top of him and let himself be rolled over. Edward pinned his wrists above his head and leaned down to kiss his neck.
He had just gotten Edward’s jeans undone when the door opened.
“Ethel, what the fuck,” he said as Edward scrambled for his sunglasses.
“He’s kicking!” she whispered excitedly, and started moving towards them. Thomas held out his hand as if it would ward her off, but she crawled up onto the bed and sat against the headboard right between them. “And don’t act like that. It’s not like you’ve never walked in on me before.”
“Not in your bedroom, I haven’t,” Thomas said. He glanced over at Edward, who had partially covered himself with the blanket.
“Feel,” she said, ignoring him, and picked up one of Edward’s hands to place on her swollen belly. Thomas sighed, seeing no way out of this, and did the same, overlapping Edward’s fingers with his own. “Aw. Gaybies.”
For a moment, nothing happened, and Thomas was just about to throw her out when he felt it. A slight bump, just underneath the surface.
“Holy fuck,” he said. “Edward, do you feel that?”
“Yeah,” he replied, voice awe-struck. “Yeah.”
Ethel smiled over at Thomas, teary-eyed, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. She turned and did the same to Edward.
“I’ll let you two get back to your shenanigans.” She crawled off the bed. “Thanks for putting up with silly pregnancy hormones.”
After she shut the door, they laid there for a moment in silence.
“That was really fucking cool,” Edward said. “That was honestly – wow.”
“I know.” Thomas ran a hand through his hair. He was painfully aware that he wasn’t in the mood anymore. “It kind of killed my buzz though.”
Edward looked over and laughed. “Thank God. I didn’t want to be thinking about fetus while you touched me.”
Thomas sighed and pulled the books up from the end of the bed. “I guess we can finish your homework.”
“I guess.” Edward sat up and leaned against Thomas. “I wish I was still in the mood for snogging. I really fucking hate economics.”
There was a rare patch of nice weather at the beginning of March, and Gwen was not about to let it slip away. She showed up at Isis that morning, dressed in a nice little polka dotted sundresses (the kind that used to make Thomas’ eldest brother go wild; at least, while Thomas knew him) and a big floppy sunhat.
“We’re going to the park today, she announced. “All of us. You, me, Edward, Daisy, and William. I asked Ethel, but she’s having morning sickness. But you don’t have a choice.”
“I’m at work,” Thomas said. He looked down at his uniform and then around at the photo lab. “I am, aren’t I? This isn’t that wet dream where Edward comes along and fu –“
“Do NOT finish that sentence!” she said loudly. He grinned devilishly at her. “Anyway, after your shift, you’re going to go home and change and then meet us at the park. This is not optional. This is for the mental wellbeing of your boyfriend.”
Thomas frowned. He’s noticed Edward had been a little down on himself lately, but he hadn’t realized that Gwen had seen it, too. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Gwen shrugged. “His therapist Isobel says he’s going through a spell of depression, but it’s not the first time, so. He’ll be okay. He just needs some TLC and fresh air.”
“I’ll be there,” he said. “I’m off at three thirty, but I can leave at three if I don’t take a lunch.”
“Take your time,” she said. “We’re going to take him shopping first. New sunglasses always cheer him up a bit.”
Gwen left after she paid for her photos – some artistic landscape pieces for class that turned out fantastic – and Thomas was left to wait impatiently for the end of his shift. The rest of the day passed by slowly, save for a handful of St. Patrick’s Day collage orders that made Thomas roll his eyes.
Finally, three o’clock came around, and he clocked out (with permission from Mrs. Hughes, who had met Edward more than once and liked him very much) and headed home. Ethel was asleep on the couch, belly very noticeably swollen, and Thomas tried to be as quiet as possible as not to wake her up. He changed quickly into a pair of blue jeans and a black t-shirt and sent Gwen a quick text, letting her know he was on his way.
William, Daisy, Gwen, and Edward were all seated together on a picnic blanket, playing Braille Uno. Gwen grinned when she saw him and waved, her bracelet jingling. Thomas pressed a finger against his lips and snuck up behind Edward. When he was close enough, he crouched down and whispered, “Hey there, sexy,” in the throatiest Cockney accent he could muster.
Edward grinned and leaned back to kiss him on the mouth.
“You kiss all the creeps that hit on you at the park?” Thomas asked him, and sat down.
“Only the prettiest ones.” Edward kissed him again and Gwen made fake gagging noises, which she used to cover up the click of her camera.
“You guys are being gross,” she said. “Nobody’s allowed to be cuter than me and my boyfriend.”
“You don’t have a boyfriend,” Edward said. He had leaned into Thomas’ side.
Gwen dealt Thomas into the game and they played a few rounds before Gwen decided that she wanted to walk around.
“I need some pictures,” she said. “You all know I like pictures of people moving more than I like pictures of people sitting around playing children’s games.”
Edward accepted Thomas’ hand up, if only just to be pulled flush against Thomas.
“Can I come over tonight?” he asked quietly as Daisy, William, and Gwen cleaned up. “We can get pizza and then I can suck you off.”
“Ethel and I have been a bad influence on you,” Thomas laughed, delightedly shocked at Edward’s bluntness. “And yes. I would like that a lot.”
They followed Gwen around the park, all chatting while Gwen’s shutter snapped. Thomas learned that Daisy had grown up in a small village in Yorkshire and actually knew one of Thomas’ first cousins. She was studying culinary arts at Oxford and was hoping to become a sous chef at one of the fancy restaurants downtown.
“I like the little servings,” she said, and Edward turned his face into Thomas’ shoulder to laugh. “They’re so cute.”
William had been studying animal husbandry, of all things, before the war, but once he returned he had switched to physical education. “I’d like to go back into the military,” he said. “If they don’t want me on the front, I could work at one of the academies.”
At one point, Gwen broke away from Daisy and William and approached Thomas. “If I rent it, will you ride a tandem bicycle?”
“What the fuck?” he asked, laughing, and looked over at Edward. “Uh, I guess. I don’t see why not.”
“I take some really fucking cool photographs,” Gwen told him. “I’ll be back in a minute. There’s a stall over there.”
“Do you know how to ride a bike?” Thomas asked once she had walked away.
“Of course I know how to ride a bike. I haven’t done it since before the war, but I can figure it out.”
“I know you can.” Thomas grinned at him even though he knew Edward couldn’t see it. “It’ll be like running along the river again.”
Gwen returned a few minutes later with the bicycle and two helmets. She handed one to each of them and stood holding up the bike as they strapped themselves in. William and Daisy had rejoined the group and were trying to hold back their laughter.
“You’re next,” Thomas said, adjusting the chin strap.
Edward, it turned out, didn’t have any problems with riding. He actually seemed to really enjoy it, and they made three laps around the park before he shouted that he needed a break. They stopped the bike in front of Daisy and William and climbed off, handing off their helmets.
They sat against one of the trees and watched Gwen chase after William and Daisy. Edward leaned over and kissed him on the mouth every so often.
“You’re just trying to wear me down,” Thomas said after it happened the fourth time. “You want to go riding all the time, don’t you?”
“It’s really fucking fun,” Edward said. “I haven’t felt this good in ages. Not with my clothes on, anyway.”
Thomas laughed and tucked his face against Edward’s neck. “Fine. We can ride on the weekends. Just don’t tell Gwen or else she’s going to follow us around again. I can only hear the snap of a shutter so many times before I want to hear the snap of her neck.”
Edward snorted and put a hand over his face. “Jesus fuck, Thomas. Don’t let her hear you.”
“Are you hungry? After they get back, I’m going to buy you all dinner. And then you’re coming back to my flat with me.”
Edward smiled stupidly. “Let’s skip the dinner part.”
The next afternoon, Thomas came back from a smoke break to find two orders waiting on the computer: one from Gwen Dawson and the other from Thomas Barrow. He was confused at first and opened the second order, only to be confronted with twenty-five photographs of him and Edward.
They were all from the park and the restaurant, and Thomas spent a good twenty minutes looking at them. Some of them were just so – God forbid – cute that Thomas felt a little bit embarrassed. He knew he looked like a dumbass whenever he was in love, all soft face and big doe eyes, but he hadn’t realized just how bad it was. He looked completely smitten.
(He felt it, too, a kind of tremor in his chest. He could feel Edward making his way into the space that Philip had left bleeding and gaping open, that space that had always been occupied by dickwads and assholes that treated Thomas like shit and who Thomas treated like shit in return. He had never had anyone make him feel the way Edward did – like he didn’t have to be constantly on his toes, wondering if he would be attacked over every little thing; like he could stop and sit down and take a breather. Like maybe, just maybe, he could let Edward carry some of the weight on his chest.)
Two weeks later, Thomas was startled awake at three in the morning to his bed vibrating. He sat up groggily and rooted around beneath the blankets, looking for his mobile. He had fallen asleep talking to Edward last night. When he found it, he flipped it open, not bothering to look at the caller ID.
“Hello?” He tried to rub some of the sleep out of his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Edward’s voice came through loudly. Thomas cringed a bit, but he could feel himself waking up. Something wasn’t right. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Thomas, I can’t, I’m sorry.”
“Edward? What’s wrong?”
“This didn’t happen last time,” he sobbed. “God, there’s so much blood.”
Thomas kicked the blankets off his legs and grabbed his keys off of his dresser. Then he wrenched open the door and practically fell down the stairs, listening to Edward hiccup and plead on the other line.
“Is Gwen there? Where’s Gwen? Where are you?”
“Not here. I sent her away.” Thomas didn’t try to figure out what that meant. “I’m in the loo.”
“Put pressure on the cut. Get a towel or something and put pressure on it. Did you call an ambulance?” He was talking loudly, but he didn’t care if he disturbed his neighbors; his heart was pounding right out of his chest and his main concern was being twenty minutes away as quickly as possible. “Edward, did you call an ambulance?”
“No,” he said. “No, I don’t want an ambulance. I want you. God, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m going to call for one,” Thomas told him sternly. He burst through the front doors of his complex and raced to his car. It was only then did he realize he wasn’t wearing shoes. “I’m going to hang up and call you right back. When I call, you pick up the phone, okay? Okay, Edward?”
“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t.”
“I’ll call you right back.” Thomas started up the engine and pealed out of the car park. With the other hand, he dialed the emergency number. A dispatcher picked up immediately.
“999, what’s your emergency?”
“My boyfriend’s slit his wrists,” Thomas shouted. “He’s blind. I’m twenty minutes away, I don’t know if I can make it in time.”
“Sir, what’s the address?”
“He’s on Crawford,” Thomas said. “567 Crawford. He’s flat sixteen. I need to hang up. I need to call him back.”
The dispatcher sounded as if she was about to advise him otherwise, but Thomas hung up on her. When he called Edward’s phone, it went to voicemail.
“Fuck!” he shouted. He sped through a red light and tried again. “Fuck, fuck, Edward, come on.”
Edward picked up on the second ring.
“Thomas.” The hysterical crying had stopped, but Thomas could tell he wasn’t in good shape. His voice was lethargic. “Thomas, please. Thomas.”
“I’m on my way.” He blinked the tears out of his eyes. He could cry later. Fuck. “I’m close, Edward, I’m coming. I’m on my way. Talk to me, love, Edward. Come on.”
“I can’t see how bad it is,” he said clumsily, “but everything is hot and slick. I’m cold. I don’t want to die, Thomas. I don’t want to. Please come.”
“I’m on my way,” he repeated. “I’m halfway there. There’s an ambulance on its way. I’m almost there, Edward.”
“I love you,” Edward said. “God, I’ve never loved anyone like I love you…”
“Hold on, Edward,” Thomas said desperately. “When I get there you can look at me and tell me that you love me. Okay? But you need to hold on.”
“Do you love me, Thomas?”
“I love you so, so much, Edward,” Thomas said. He wished he could say it to his face. He wished he could be saying this in another situation entirely. He thought of the photographs Gwen had sent into the lab and how stupid he was, how it had taken him so long to realize that he loved Edward. He should have said it sooner. “That’s why I need you to hang on. For me. When I get there I’m going to kiss you and tell you that I love you, but you need to be alive for that. Okay?”
“I don’t want to die,” Edward said again, and started to cry.
Thomas turned into Edward’s neighborhood. There were no empty parking spaces outside the building so he pulled up into the grassy lot across the street. “I’m outside, okay? I’m outside. I’m going to come in and see you, Edward. Hold on, love.”
Edward didn’t respond to that, which made Thomas’ heart race even more, but then he hiccupped and Thomas breathed a sigh of relief. His hands shook as he jammed the key into the door. Once inside, he propped the door open with an abandoned, rolled-up newspaper. Seconds later, he was racing up the stairs to Edward’s flat.
Distantly, he could hear the sirens wailing. Edward must have been able to hear them too because he let out a weak, “No…”
“I’m outside,” Thomas said. It took three tries to get the key in the lock and he dropped it once. He burst through the door, leaving it open in his wake, and made a beeline for the loo.
It was worse than he had been expecting. Edward was laying on the tile in his boxer shorts and a blood-stained t-shirt. There was a towel over his left wrist, but his right hand was putting no pressure on it. There was a small puddle of blood surrounding him and his face was paler than normal. Thomas noticed with a pang that his lips were blue. One of Gwen’s cameras sat broken on the sink next to a thin trail of blood.
Edward looked up at him with some effort. His face was tired. He rested his cheek back on the tile and closed his eyes. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses.
Thomas dropped down and pulled Edward’s head into his lap, stroking the gummy hair away from his face. He reached for Edward’s left arm and applied pressure there, making him twitch noticeably and groan. Thomas’ hands were shaking so hard he could barely keep the towel on without moving Edward’s whole arm.
The sirens had gotten louder and Thomas, who had never been the boy with the cross around his neck, closed his eyes and thanked God that Edward’s flat was so close to the hospital.
“We’re going to make it,” he whispered. “The ambulance is here. They’re going to take you and fix you.”
“Don’t leave,” Edward whispered weakly. “Don’t.”
Thomas leaned down and gave him a shaky kiss on the forehead, blood smears be damned. His mouth tasted coppery when he pulled away. “I’m coming with. I’m not going to leave.”
“I’m sorry,” Edward hiccupped, and the paramedics burst through the door.
Doctors and nurses were in and out of the room all night, checking to make sure the blood was going through his system well. Apparently his therapist had urged him to keep some of his blood at the hospital, even if it was just a safety net, so when Thomas was finally allowed to see him, he was slowly being refilled. (God.)
Thomas had thrust out his arm immediately and said, “Give him some of my blood.”
His color came back slowly, but Thomas wasn’t looking anywhere but the bandages around his wrist. He sat on Edward’s left side, needle in the crook of his elbow, and rested his head on the mattress. He felt numb.
Edward woke up a few times, but he became increasingly hysterical each time, so the doctors kept putting him under.
Thomas fell asleep briefly, still leaning on the bed, but was awoken by the sharp click of heels and the sound of crying. He looked up to see Gwen coming down the hallway in a dress, her makeup running. He stood up and met her outside Edward’s room.
“Let me see him,” she said, trying to push past, but Thomas gathered her into his arms and hugged her. She sobbed into his t-shirt and he ran a hand up and down her back, trying to soothe her. Eventually, her tears subsided and she stepped out of his arms hiccupping. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. They said he cut himself pretty bad, but it wasn’t anything they couldn’t fix.” He rubbed the back of his neck and considered for a moment before asking, “Where were you? I’m not blaming you, I just – I don’t know what happened. He freaks out every time he wakes up, so I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to him yet.”
Gwen pulled her bottom lip into her mouth then took a deep breathe, trying to get herself under control. “He told me you were coming over later,” she said in a shaky voice. “There was this little party at the college for all the photography students, and I really wanted to go. And I thought, hey, he’s been okay for the past few months. I can trust him to be alone for twenty minutes.”
Thomas closed his eyes. “He never invited me over. We talked on the phone for a while then went to sleep.”
“I figured,” she said sadly. “He wouldn’t have done it if someone had been around. Especially not you.”
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get to him on time,” he admitted, then cleared his throat. He could feel the tears prickling in the back of his eyes but he held them back. “God, I thought he was done for.”
Gwen started crying again, but she had it more under control this time. She pressed her hand against her mouth and made squeaking noises until an apologetic looking woman came up to them, clipboard in hand.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” she said, touching Gwen’s shoulder lightly. Thomas was surprised to find she was American. “But I have some questions about Mr. Courtenay. Would you be the ones to ask?”
“Yes,” Gwen said. “I’m Gwen, his roommate, and this is his boyfriend Thomas.”
“I’m Dr. Reed,” she said kindly, shaking their hands.
She started reading off her chart, asking all of these questions. Did he have night terrors? Insomnia? Trouble sleeping? Thomas just stood there, unable to answer any of the questions. He felt awful. He didn’t have a clue what was going on inside Edward’s mind.
He listened to Gwen, stomach churning, as she rattled off all of this information about symptoms and medications. Yes, he still had night terrors occasionally, but it wasn’t as bad as before. The PTSD had started to wear off, but he still had trouble sleeping. He startled easily in the mornings and sometimes went through brief periods where he wasn’t himself.
He felt sick when she told the doctor that once in a while he would talk to people who weren’t there or reacted to situations that hadn’t happened. He had fallen and hurt himself once trying to take cover from a phantom bomb.
The doctor asked about his previous suicide attempt, and Thomas had to lean against the door. He was starting to get dizzy. Gwen reached out and squeezed his hand before informing the doctor, in a shaky voice, that it had been right after he had gotten back from the war. As soon as they had released him from the hospital, Gwen had taken him to her flat, where she, Daisy, and William had set up a room for him. That night, he had slit his wrists with a pocket knife he had stolen off of William.
Daisy, who had been on watch at the time, heard him cry out. They rushed him to the hospital and had been told that the cuts were deep, but not in a bad place. The doctors had been able to fix him back up easily, and Gwen was sent him with specific instructions on how to take care of Edward post-suicide attempt. His therapy sessions had also been increased to four times a week instead of three.
“He hasn’t been bad since he met Thomas,” she said, voice hoarse. “He’s been really happy. I don’t know what happened.”
Thomas raised a shaking hand to his face and pressed his wrist between his eyes. Gwen leaned into him and the doctor thanked them and hovered for a moment before walking away.
“He didn’t tell me any of this,” Thomas said eventually. “None of it. Not about the suicide watch, not about the symptoms – God, that must be what it is. He’s got PTSD and that’s why he keeps flipping the fuck out whenever he wakes up.”
“He was supposed to tell you about the suicide watch,” she said quietly. “He said that he told you. I’m sorry that you didn’t know.”
“I don’t – God. How did I go all these months without knowing? He didn’t do that around me. He was always awake before me and he probably never fucking slept. It didn’t even dawn on me.”
“They say most people don’t see the signs,” Gwen said, face creased. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “God, I tried so hard to keep him out of trouble.”
“He hated that,” Thomas said, and smiled a little bit. “He said he couldn’t get a good wank without feeling like you all were listening.”
Gwen laughed abruptly and then stopped as if she didn’t think she was supposed to. “I called William and Daisy. They’re on their way.”
“He’s going to be so mad that everyone’s going to be here.” Thomas smiled a little bit. Gwen chuckled and rubbed at her red eyes.
“Why don’t you go down and get something to eat?” she asked. “Maybe call Ethel or something.”
Thomas looked at the clock over the nurse’s station and shook his head. “It’s barely five-thirty. I don’t want to wake her.”
“Go walk around for a bit,” she urged. “I’ll watch him. Okay?”
Thomas glanced over his shoulder and looked at Edward for a moment. He looked so small and helpless, pathetic without his sunglasses. It would probably do Thomas some good to stop staring for a while. “Fine. If he wakes up, call me. Immediately. Okay?”
Gwen nodded and reached out to squeeze his arm, then walked past him into Edward’s room. Thomas heard her start to cry again, but he forced himself to move way.
He walked aimlessly along the halls, not quite sure where he was going. He turned his ringtone on, as well as vibrate, and checked constantly to make sure his mobile was still working. He eventually came across the dining hall, where he stared at food behind the glass case for a while before leaving.
The gift shop was directly across the hall, so he headed there next. Most of the merchandise was overpriced plush toys and get well soon cards, and Thomas browsed those half-heartedly. He was about to leave again when something in the back of the store caught his eye.
There was a rack of sunglasses next to the window, beyond which the sun was starting to rise. He spun the rack around once, looking over the options. Most of the pairs were regular black men’s glasses, but a few were for children – Dora the Explorer, Spongebob, Peppa Pig – and Thomas would have definitely gotten those for Edward, if only they were a little bit bigger.
He decided on a pair of Wayfarer-like glasses that had a Union Jack print. They were awful and flamboyant and he knew Edward would love them. He set them on the counter and waited quietly as the cashier rung him up. When she was done, he smiled politely at her.
“I hope everything turns out okay,” she said genuinely.
Thomas glanced down at her nametag. “You and me both, May.”
His phone rang.
When Thomas got back to Edward’s room, everyone was crying. Gwen had her arms around Daisy and William was standing next to the bed, silent tears tracking down his face. God, Thomas didn’t want to do this. He inhaled deeply through his nose and walked to the end of Edward’s bed.
There was a cup of water on the bedside table, but otherwise nothing had changed. Edward was lying on his back staring up at the ceiling without expression, though every so often his face would crumple.
“Edward, Thomas is here,” Gwen sniffled, and Edward lifted his head up, looking hopeful.
“I’m here,” he said. He put his hands on Edward’s ankles and squeezed gently. He didn’t want to go nearer just yet. “I was just out walking around for a bit.”
Edward clenched his mouth, but didn’t say anything.
“The doctor’s been in,” Gwen said a moment later. She had stopped crying, but her eyes were red-rimmed. Daisy leaned down and put her head on Edward’s chest. “Edward’s therapist Isobel is going to come by and evaluate what’s going on. They say his vitals are okay and he’s got enough blood and all that. Everything’s fine.”
Thomas thought about that, Everything’s fine. He looked at the heavy bandages on Edward’s left wrist. No, everything was not fine. But he could pretend that it was, for the sake of Daisy and Gwen and William.
“Can I talk to Thomas?” Edward asked. Daisy picked her head up off of his chest and smoothed back his hair. Thomas realized with a pang that someone must have washed the blood out of it at some point. William rounded the bed and put his arm around Daisy, leading her out into the hall. Gwen reached down and squeezed his hand before following.
When the door closed behind them, Thomas told Edward that they were alone.
Edward didn’t say anything for a long time. He worked his mouth, biting his lip and whatnot, and began to look increasingly upset. Finally, he asked, “Do you hate me?”
Thomas moved to sit down at his feet. “No,” he said. “I’m really fucking angry, but I’m more relieved than anything.” He paused. “You almost died.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know why you didn’t talk to me,” Thomas said softly. “I was there. We talked – God, we talked last night. You could have told me what was going on.”
“It didn’t happen until after,” Edward whispered. Thomas could see it in his face: he was humiliated, embarrassed, really fucking guilty. “God, I’m so sorry.”
“There are nicer ways to wake up,” he said, but didn’t put anything behind it. He didn’t know what he was feeling. He felt so, so numb. He looked down at the blood on his track pants.
“I don’t know what happened,” Edward said desperately. He scrambled to sit up, dragging his left arm like it was dead weight. “Sometimes I get this roaring in my ears and it’s like I’m drowning. I can’t breathe. You know when something shitty happens and then suddenly it’s like you have to reevaluate your whole life? That’s what it’s like. The roaring starts and I think of Gwen and William and Daisy and how they’re giving up their lives to babysit me and I think of my parents, who don’t want to accept that I’m blind, and I think of you, because I always think of you, and I think of how you make me feel, and then I hate myself. I hate myself so fucking much, because you’re all stuck with me, this suicidal fuck-up who doesn’t even know what he fucking wants anymore. I resent myself, and I’m so, so scared that you’re going to resent me, too. I don’t want that. I don’t want you to be here because you feel like you have to. You – all of you deserve so much better.”
“I don’t want better,” Thomas said. He moved his hand up slightly until his palm cupped Edward’s knee. “I want you to be happy and I want you to realize that none of that is fucking true. Nobody is just sticking around so you don’t off yourself. We all fucking love you. I will never resent you. You think I’m so fucking fantastic, but I’m not, Edward.”
“I’m not either,” he said desperately. “There’s no reason for you to stay. I’m a blind piece of shit who thinks he can play fucking God.”
Thomas tightened his grip on Edward’s knee. “Don’t you dare fucking say that about yourself, Edward. You are so fucking brave.”
“I slit my wrists with bits of Gwen’s camera,” he countered. “I’m a pretty fucking shitty friend.”
Thomas remembered Gwen saying, He’s not himself sometimes. He can get aggressive. Dr. Reed had said that it was residual PTSD as well as his depression. Thomas gritted his teeth.
“Do you want to be a better friend?” Thomas said angrily. He knew he needed to calm down, knew that this wasn’t Edward talking. But he was so fucking pissed, so hurt and stuck seeing blood on his hands over and over in the back of his mind. “Do you want our forgiveness? Don’t fucking do it again. Don’t do it again because we’ve all been here since three in the goddamn morning, waiting and worrying and wondering what the fuck we could have done to push you to this. What could we have done differently?” Thomas rubbed a hand over his mouth and looked away. He lowered his voice. “Do you know how it felt to see you lying in a pool of your own blood on the toilet floor? I thought I was going to fucking die. It felt like someone had ripped the heart out of my chest. Do you think I would feel like that if I didn’t care about you? Do you think we would all be here if we resented you?”
Edward had started to cry, curling in on himself, left arm still lying uselessly off to the side. There, Thomas thought, feeling no success, there’s the real Edward.
“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry. God. I don’t know what to do. I want everything to go back to normal.”
“It will,” Thomas said. He reached behind him and picked up the sunglasses, turning them over for a moment before pressing them into Edward’s hands. “Here. Your first bit of normalcy.”
Edward’s fingers skimmed across the glasses, feeling their shape, before he put them on. He looked much more like the Edward Thomas had fallen in love with, though his face was still guilty underneath.
“What do they look like?” he whispered. His lower jaw was still trembling with adrenaline.
“The Union Jack,” he said.
Edward smiled before his face crumpled again. “Thank you.”
“What you’re feeling isn’t stupid. I know that you think it is, but it isn’t.”
Edward’s fingers found his and he tangled their hands together. Thomas raised them to his mouth and kissed Edward’s pale fingers lightly before standing up. He watched Edward’s face fall. “I’ll let them come back in,” he said, pointing unnecessarily to the door. “I know they want to see you.”
Edward looked like he wanted to ask Thomas to stay, but Thomas knew he didn’t feel like he deserved the right to ask, so he just nodded. “Okay.”
“I’ll be back later.” He crossed to the door and pulled it open. Gwen, Daisy, and William, who had all been sitting on the floor outside the door, jumped up immediately. “You guys can go ahead,” he told them.
Daisy and William went ahead, but Gwen stayed behind. She put her hand on Thomas’ arm. “I called Ethel,” she said. “She’s on her way over.”
He panicked, briefly, thinking about Ethel having to find a ride from someone other than him, but he nodded. “Thank you.” Gwen smiled at him sadly and went into the room.
Thomas stayed outside Edward’s room, listening through the wall as Gwen, Daisy, and William tried to cheer him up. He thought about what Edward said about the roaring and wondered if he was sad now.
He hadn’t cried yet, which he tried not to feel bad about, but it was weird. He felt empty and numb, like he was missing a limb or had been outside in the sun for too long. He just kind of sat there in a daze until Ethel appeared around the corner.
Something about seeing her dressed in consignment leggings and an oversized t-shirt, her red hair piled on top of her head, made him break down. It was so familiar. He was crying before she reached him, but when she did, she sat down and put her arms around him.
“I don’t understand,” he wept into her shoulder. He had a clump of her hair in his mouth, but he was snotty and tear-stained so he didn’t care. “I don’t know why he would do that. I don’t.”
“I don’t know either,” Ethel said. She rubbed her hand up and down his back. “It’s going to be all right. He’s alive, isn’t he?”
Gwen was allowed to take Edward home that afternoon, and everyone followed, even Ethel, who had thoughtfully brought a spare change of clothes for Thomas. He gratefully changed out of his blood-stained track pants and t-shirt into another set of pajamas.
Most of the time at the hospital was spent by Dr. Isobel talking to Edward and doing a psych eval. She was a short woman, but Thomas didn’t doubt that she packed a punch. She was very sharp and straight-forward, but she was also kind and motherly. She had hugged Thomas when Gwen introduced them.
She had decided that Edward was mentally fit enough to go home, though she wanted to talk to him every day for at least three weeks. She wanted to prescribe some medicine that might make that roaring noise go away. Or so Edward told him.
The house was back in order, looking as if nothing had ever happened. Gwen must have seen Thomas’ furrowed brow because she said, “My dad came by and cleaned up.”
Edward didn’t feel like eating, so he went into his bedroom. Though he left the door open, nobody really felt comfortable with him alone. Thomas volunteered to sit with him while the rest of them ate in the kitchen. He took two bowls of cereal into Edward’s room and shut the door behind him.
Edward was sitting on the floor in front of a big Rubbermaid container full of sunglasses. He was still wearing the ones that Thomas had got him at the hospital, but he was holding a pair of cat eyes, his thumbs rubbing absently against the shape. He looked up when Thomas came in.
“Just me,” he said, and sat down next to Edward. He handed him a bowl of cereal and Edward moved to go put it down, then seemed to decide better of it. When he hesitantly ate a spoonful, Thomas said, “You don’t have to eat.”
“I’ll eat if you want me to.”
“Edward, you don’t owe me some kind of debt. I’m not tip-toeing around this, so you don’t have to either.”
Edward put his bowl down carefully and put his hands in his lap.
“Is this your sunglasses collection?” Thomas reached in and fished out a pair of aviators.
“Yes,” Edward said. Then, a moment later, “I’m sorry again.”
“Stop saying that,” Thomas told him. He put the sunglasses on. “Just don’t do it again. That’s apology enough for me. Besides, you’ve got my blood to look after now, so don’t go spillin’ it.”
Edward furrowed his brow and touched the bandage on his right hand where they had stuck the IV tube. “You gave me your blood?”
Thomas shrugged as if it was nothing. God, it was nothing. He would give Edward half of his soul if he was able to. “You lost a lot of it. Thought I’d give you some incentive to keep it in this time.”
Edward leaned down and rested his cheek on the side of the plastic box.
“I missed you when you went away for Christmas,” Thomas said quietly. He stirred the cereal in his bowl around. He didn’t have much of an appetite anymore. “Don’t you think I’d miss you if you went away for good?”
Edward was quiet for a while, so Thomas looked through some more of his glasses. He inspected the Braille inscription on each of them, running his thumb along the dots like he was sure Edward did every morning.
They sat like that for a while in silence. Ethel came in shortly after nine to say she was leaving, but Thomas told her he was staying the night. Edward looked mildly surprised at this and Thomas was almost afraid that he would burst out in tears.
Gwen switched shifts with him briefly so he could go brush his teeth. He had to take several deep breaths before he was able to walk into the loo, but when he did, he couldn’t find a trace of evidence that less than twenty-four hours before, he had found Edward bleeding on the tile.
He fell asleep wrapped around Edward, his arms a protective shield. He would help Edward heal if it was the last thing he did.
Things were more or less back to normal by July, save for the increased amount of psychiatric visits Edward had and the pills he had been prescribed. They seemed to help stop the roaring. Everyone had agreed that a mental facility wouldn’t be a good place for him, so he was free for now. The scars on his wrists had healed, creating even more white lines around his hands. But he was alive, he was breathing, and that’s all Thomas could ask for.
It was particularly hot day, an excuse Edward used to take all of his clothes off and climb on top of Thomas. They were both sweaty from the heat and sweaty from the exertion of rocking against each other, but Edward was making delicious noises into the base of his throat and Thomas couldn’t find the effort to care.
“I’m so close,” Edward panted against him. “Talk to me. Fuck, Thomas, talk.”
Thomas was just about to open his mouth and talk Edward through it when Ethel shrieked in the next room. He tried to ignore it, figuring she was just watching another of her American soap operas, but he had to pause when she did it a second time. He heard her stumble across the room; then she started pounding on his door.
“It’s time!” she shouted. “My water just broke!”
“Fuck,” Thomas said, and shouted, “One minute! Get your fucking duffel, one minute, Ethel.” He quickly finished the both of them off and Edward groaned. It took Thomas a moment to recover, but when he had, he cleaned them both up and reached for his boxers.
“Why did the baby chose this moment to decide it wants out?” Edward asked sleepily against the pillows. He rolled himself over and started searching the floor for his own pants.
“It’s Ethel’s child,” Thomas responded. He wiped the sweat of his face and chest with one of his shirts, then threw it in the laundry pile. “Did you really expect anything else?”
Ethel shrieked again, but Thomas was 99.9% sure she was just trying to hurry them along. He helped Edward find the rest of his clothes before he stumbled out into the living room. Ethel, predictably, was sitting on the couch eating peanut butter on a bagel.
“I’m in labor,” she said. “Are you two finished fucking, or should I drive myself to the hospital?”
“Can you make it down to the car by yourself?” he asked. “Or do I need to carry the tote and support both my laboring roommate and my blind boyfriend?”
“You should be nicer to me,” Ethel said. It took some effort, but she stood up. “I’m about to push a child out of my vagina. I don’t see you signing up to do that.”
“Hallelujah for that,” he responded. He scooped up her bag and slung it over his shoulder, then went to check that Edward knew where he was going.
The traffic to the hospital wasn’t bad, and if he sped a little, the cops were too heat lethargic to give a crap. He pulled up right to the front doors and shut off the car.
“I’ll be back for you,” he said to Edward, and helped Ethel out of the car and to the front desk.
“I’m in labor,” she said cheerfully. The woman looked at her like she was certifiably insane, which Thomas didn’t doubt, but couldn’t deny her statement when she doubled over in pain. “Contraction.”
They took her in back.
Once Thomas had parked the car, he and Edward stood in the waiting room for a moment, wondering what to do. Luckily, a nurse came out and said, “Thomas Barrow?” They followed her into the back, where Ethel was lying in one of the bed dressed in a gown. She looked a little sweaty, but otherwise intact.
“I’m getting an epidural, Thomas,” she said forcefully. “I don’t care how much it costs. Unless you want to push this baby out of your vagina, you’re not going to fucking tell me I can’t have it.”
Thomas nodded in agreement and Edward leaned into him. “Was that a jab at your sexuality? Because I can vouch for the fact that you’ve very much got a penis down there.”
The nurse taking Ethel’s vitals stifled a laugh.
“Do you want us to stay?” Thomas asked.
“Yes,” she said, exasperated. “Do you think I’m going to fucking do this myself?”
Thomas went to stand next to Ethel’s bedside, gripping her hand tightly. “Just breathe, okay? Just breathe.”
Epilogue: 9 months later
Thomas woke up to the sound of Charlie shouting from down the hall. He groaned quietly and turned over, throwing his arm over the empty side of the bed and looking wistfully at the open door. The yells turned to babbles and Thomas dragged himself out of bed.
Charlie was sitting up in his crib playing with a stuffed rabbit, but when he saw Thomas, he started smiling and clapping his hands.
“Hey, big boy,” Thomas said. He scooped Charlie up and swung him around. “How are you doing this morning, huh?”
Charlie babbled happily and hit his fists against Thomas’ shoulder. He carried him into the loo, humming, and sat him on the counter. With one hand on the baby’s thigh to keep him still, Thomas dug around in the right top drawer of the vanity, finally coming up with two tubes of toothpaste and two toothbrushes.
He put a small dot of toothpaste on the smaller of the two and handed it to Charlie, who immediately put it in his mouth.
“Are you going to brush your teeth with Papa?” Thomas asked. He picked up his own toothbrush and started brushing his teeth. Charlie watched him wide-eyed, as he did most mornings, and followed suit. Thomas leaned down to spit in the sink and couldn’t help but laugh when Charlie did the same. His saliva ended up as a big, toothpastey clump on his chin and Thomas wiped it off with his thumb.
When they were finished in the loo, Thomas carried Charlie across the hall to the kitchen, where he put him in a high chair. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked, and Charlie banged his hands against the table. “Cheerios, you say? I think that’s a good choice. Mummy would approve.”
While Charlie munched on his cereal, Thomas got himself some juice and eggs and ate standing against the counter, despite the four-chaired kitchen table. Charlie offered him a piece of cereal and he took it, giving the baby a bit of egg in return.
Once they were done eating, Thomas put Charlie on his bedroom floor with blocks to play with while he got dressed. Thomas had learned not to dress Charlie until the very last second. He always seemed to find a way to dirty his clothes the second Thomas turned his back.
Thomas sang to Charlie while he pulled out a pair of black trousers and a powder blue dress shirt. “It’s a big day today,” he said, pulling on socks. “Are you excited?”
Charlie had built somewhat of a block tower and knocked it over gleefully.
“Let’s get dressed, big boy.” Thomas picked him up and held Charlie over his head, then swooped him down and around as he walked. Charlie screeched happily, his little feet wiggling in the air, and Thomas made a whooshing noise as they turned into his bedroom.
“What do you want to wear today?” he asked, hovering Charlie in front of the closet. Charlie reached out with both hands and grabbed two different outfits, and Thomas clutched him to his chest to take out the one on the left. It was a pair of baby trousers and a red shirt with a fire truck and Dalmatian on the front. Charlie clapped his hands.
Once they were done dressing, Thomas collected the changing bag from the corner of the nursery and tucked his mobile and camera in the side. Then he grabbed Charlie, set him in the crook of his arm, and went out to the car.
Charlie really enjoyed car rides, so getting him into the car set wasn’t a big deal. He started babbling again, intently, like he was telling Thomas a story, and Thomas leaned down to kiss him on the head. Once he was all settled, he went round the front and got in on the driver’s side.
He put in a Wiggles CD and Charlie shrieked with delight before beginning to dance in his seat. Thomas laughed and pulled out of the driveway.
The university wasn’t a far drive from the new house, so Thomas took the time to drive once around the park. Charlie stared out of the window, awed by the colors, seeming to have forgotten all about the music on the radio. He stayed in that sort of daze until they reached the car park outside the auditorium.
“Mummy’s going to be here soon,” Thomas said, unstrapping Charlie from his car seat. He still couldn’t understand why the graduation ceremony had been schedule so early, but, he figured, the sooner they could go home and celebrate, the better. He was looking forward to a night without books spread out all over the bed, papers and notes crunching when he accidentally lay on top of them.
He and Charlie followed the throng of people into the open doors of the university. Then they took to the wall and followed the stairs down to the stage. Thomas looked around to make sure nobody was looking blatantly at them before he slipped behind the curtain.
He went down the hallway on the left and turned into the big conference room on the right. Charlie looked around, expression serious, at all of the people around them. It was a sea of graduation gowns. Thomas was starting to worry he might begin to cry.
Gwen spotted them first and ran up, bracelet jangling, and swept Charlie out of Thomas’ arms. “Hello there, baby,” she said, giving him a wet kiss on the cheek. She wiped her red lipstick off with a lacquered thumb. “And hello to you, Papa.”
“Morning, Gwen.” He leaned over and kissed her on the temple. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Daisy’s graduation isn’t until tomorrow, so she’s out in the auditorium holding seats. William and Edward are still trying to find their gowns, if I’m not mistaken. Did you have trouble finding the building?”
“Not at all. There’s a pretty steady stream of people out there.”
“I wonder if my dad’s here yet,” she said, grinning. “He’s going to take us all out for lunch afterwards. You should come. I’m sure he’d like to hear about your new job.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Thomas said modestly. It was. God, it was his dream job.
“Not that big of a deal?” He turned to see Edward and William, doused in black, coming towards them. Edward was wearing a pair of bright yellow sunglasses. “You’re basically the fucking president of a really successful company. That’s a pretty big deal.”
“Good morning, love.” He pulled Edward against his chest and kissed him. “You weren’t there when I woke up.”
“Ethel gave me a lift on her way to classes,” he said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“I was going to give you your graduation present.” He smiled when Edward colored on his cheeks.
“I guess you’ll just have to give it to me tonight, then.” Thomas quirked his eyebrow and leaned forward for another kiss.
“You guys have been together for over a year now,” Gwen said. “And you’re still really fucking gross.”
“Cuter than you and your boyfriend,” Edward agreed. Gwen good-heartedly made a frustrated noise.
“Which I still don’t have.” She sighed and glanced at William, quirking an eyebrow. “Hey, pudge, you looking for a wife?”
William made a face at her.
“What’s it feel like to be finished with school?” Thomas asked.
William widened his eyes and reached over so Charlie could play with his fingers. “I’m about to graduate, man. It’s a really fucking weird feeling.”
“I know that,” Edward agreed against Thomas’ throat. He left a soft kiss there before pulling away and moving to Thomas’ side, left hand on the small of his back. “Now we all have to go and get jobs.”
“You’ve got your real estate courses, now,” Gwen said. “William’s going to the military academy. You two don’t need to worry about squat.”
“I told you,” Thomas said. “If you want the job, we need a new photographer in marketing. Mr. Carson gave me a really fucking nice recommendation. They’ll listen to me if I put in a word for you.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” she said genuinely, adjusting Charlie on her hip. “I will keep that in mind.”
One of the graduation directors started talking loudly over the hubbub of the crowd, and Thomas took that as his cue to go. He took the baby back and kissed Edward once more. “Wish Daddy good luck, Charlie,” he whispered, laughing at Charlie’s smile when Edward kissed his cheek. He snuck out of the conference room and went back to the auditorium.
Daisy and Ethel stood up and waved when they saw him, and he side-stepped through their row to sit between them. Ethel immediately took Charlie into her lap and hugged him good morning.
“How are they doing back there?” Daisy asked. “Are they freaking out yet?”
“William is a bit,” Thomas said. “I don’t think it’s really hit them yet.”
“It hasn’t hit me, that’s for sure.” She shook her head. “Did Edward tell you? I got a job downtown at Carlisle’s.”
“He did! Congratulations, Daisy.” He smiled at her. He’d always liked her, even though he thought she was a bit daft. “When do you start?”
“I go in for training on Friday.” She shook her head, eyes wide. “It’s so scary.”
“You’ll be great.”
“How’s Edward?” Ethel asked, leaning forward a bit to join the conversation. “He felt bad about not waking you this morning. I think he wanted his graduation sex.”
“I would have given it to him,” Thomas said. “I’m not really one to complain when I wake up to Edward wanting me to blow him.”
Somebody behind them cleared their throat loudly and Daisy turned to apologize. Ethel grinned madly at Thomas. On stage, the man from the back room appeared and began to introduce the graduating class.
Four schools were graduating, so the ceremony was very long and boring with lots of clapping and cheering. A small group of business students went first, and Thomas recognized Larry Grey, Edward’s ex, among them. He looked such as smug and douchey as he had in his photographs.
Edward’s school was second, and he carried himself along the stage easily. He had his stick with him, but he had convinced Thomas to paint it Oxford colors. His bright yellow sunglasses stood out sharply against the black of his robes.
Thomas clapped the loudest out of everyone. Edward looked out to the crowd and picked him out, only on sound. Thomas grinned at him even though he knew he couldn’t see it. He was surprised when Edward smiled back.
Gwen was next, and William last. After a while longer of listening to different people speak about their experiences at Oxford, the ceremony ended. The four of them met the graduates outside.
“I’m so proud of you,” Thomas said, pulling Edward against his chest. “Look how far you’ve come.” Edward gripped him back just as tightly and they stayed like that, swaying slightly, until someone cleared their throat politely from behind them.
It was Jack and Edward’s parents, all looking a little bit awkward. Thomas hadn’t exactly made a good first impression to them, what with the aggressive argument he had gotten into with Mr. Courtenay over Edward’s blindness, but he smiled at them now. At least they had shown up. Edward had worried himself sick that they wouldn’t.
“Hello, Thomas,” Mrs. Courtenay said. Her voice was a bit pinched. “Nice to see you.”
“The pleasure is mine, m’am. You look lovely as always.”
“Congratulations,” Jack said to Edward, who responded with a stilted, “Thanks.”
“Would you like to go for lunch?” Mr. Courtenay asked. Thomas looked over at Edward. They had planned on going out with the rest of the group, but those arrangements could be easily broken. It wasn’t up to him, though.
“We’ve got plans,” Edward said. Then he paused for a minute. “You could come along, if you’d like. Gwen’s dad is taking us all to lunch. You’re welcome to join.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Courtenay said, looking surprised. “That – I would like that.”
“I think we’re going to Downton Deli out on fifth,” he said, and turned to Thomas for confirmation. Thomas nodded.
“We’ll be leaving in a few minutes. Daisy’s just having a word with her culinary professor about tomorrow’s ceremony, and then we’ll be off.”
“Very well,” Mr. Courtenay said. Thomas did not like the man in the slightest, but he suddenly wanted to thank him. If it wasn’t for him, he wouldn’t be standing outside Oxford University, his arm around Edward. Edward might not have existed at all had it not been for Mr. Courtenay. It was a dumb thing to think, but Thomas felt a surge of gratitude.
Once Jack and his parents left, Thomas kissed Edward on the mouth.
“That was really nice of you,” he said between kisses. “I know we don’t get along with them, either of us, but that – that was nice. You made them really happy.”
“I’m shocked they came. They still think I’m going to fail, a blind man selling farm lots. They don’t understand that I’m going to be working behind the scenes, not as a realtor. They’ll figure it out eventually, I suppose.”
“You are going to be amazing whatever you do.” Thomas picked up his left hand and kissed the scars on his wrist. They had faded, but they were still there. They always would be, a reminder of what had almost been. “I’m so proud of you, Edward. I love you so, so much.”
Edward returned the sentiment and pressed their mouths together once more.