The school gymnasium is nearly full when Edward and Thomas arrive, packed to the rafters with parents, grandparents, and tiny children perched on acres of folding chairs. Edward sees a flash of leopard print waving at them from near the front of the room.
“This way,” he tells Tom. Together, they move through the crowd, to where Sarah Jopson has her handbag spread across two otherwise empty seats. It's big enough for the task.
“Happy Birthday for tomorrow, Ed, love,” Tom's mother says, as they make their way apologetically down the row of seats towards her. She kisses Edward as he squeezes by, enveloping him in a cloud of flowery perfume. “It took you boys long enough to get here.”
“You know what Frank's like.” Tom sits down. Edward does the same, nodding a polite greeting at Tom's ex-partner Elisabeth on his other side.
“Ooh!” Sarah grins. “He's dead sexy, that's what Frank is. You need to invite us both over to yours after Christmas.” Tom sighs, but Sarah looks past him at Edward. “You'll do that for me, won't you, love? Be a nice gift for your old mother-in-law.”
“We are not setting you up with Francis Crozier, Mum.” It's not the first time those words have passed Tom's lips. Edward doesn't know what would be so bad about it. Frank and Sarah have a good deal in common, and, despite Tom's protests, Crozier is practically Tom's surrogate father already.
As Tom and his mother bicker back and forth, Elisabeth says, “Avery's class is going up second.” She's still in her Sainsbury's uniform, meaning she must have rushed here as well. “It was a hell of a job to get him into his snowman outfit. Tells me he hates wearing costumes. He must get that from you. Tom and I love dressing up.” Edward is painfully aware of this fact, by virtue of four Halloweens of Tom attempting to get him into a couples costume.
“Elisabeth and I went as Juno and Paulie when she was pregnant with Avery,” is his argument.
“Get me pregnant,” Edward always counters, “and I'll do the same.” Which usually succeeds in changing the subject, if nothing else.
“This is for you.” Elisabeth passes Edward a sheet of paper. It's a drawing, in nine-year-old Avery's signature Lego-inspired style, of two men, a boy and a TV. Underneath, he has written, in relatively neat penmanship: This year I'm spending Christmas at Dad and Ed's. It will be lots of fun!!! I like to draw and play PS4 with Ed. Somtimes we play Minecraft and somtimes we play Fortnite
Beneath, a more adult hand has drawn a smiling face in red pen, and added, Good job, Avery! Don't forget to use “colourful words”!
“'Colourful words'?” Tom looks over his shoulder. “He'll learn plenty of those playing Fortnite with you.”
“We only did it once.” Several weeks earlier, when Tom was ill and spent the day in bed. Later, they made him soup and a cup of tea and brought it to him on a tray. “And Mrs. Heaton means adjectives.” He and Avery have discussed this before. Before he can elaborate, the school's headteacher walks onto the stage. Edward folds the paper and puts it into his inside pocket, as a general hush falls over the audience.
If anyone had told Edward ten, or even five, years ago that he'd be spending the night before his birthday—a Friday night, no less—at a primary school concert, he wouldn't have believed it. He was a Royal Navy man, devoted to his career. He never planned on fatherhood, never planned on marriage. He wasn't even eager to have a long-term partner. He didn't need one. The Navy was everything to him. Then he met Tom Jopson, and all of a sudden, it wasn't.
Tom had been in the Navy, as well, although he never sailed with Edward. It was just as well. Edward wouldn't have been able to keep his hands off him. They met at a touristy restaurant, The Admiralty, at Francis Crozier's reluctantly celebrated fiftieth birthday party. The party was on a Friday night; by the time he and Tom finally parted ways, on Sunday evening, Edward knew he was in love for the first time in his life.
Over the course of the next few days, he spent more time texting Tom than he'd spent texting in total, ever. When they at last got together again, the following Saturday evening, it was as good as finding an oasis after months in the desert. Edward had never felt like this about anybody before. Even though they were on the street in front of Tom's flat, in full view of passersby, Edward swept Tom up into a long, passionate kiss, without even pausing to worry what people might think. Rather the reverse. Let them look if they want to, he thought. Because this man is fucking mine.
“Ed,” Tom said, when he pulled back. Nobody else called him that. Edward loved it. “We need to talk.” Those words, and the sad look in Tom's eyes, were as successful an erection-killer as Edward had ever encountered. In the space of seconds, he went from euphoric to miserable.
They'd spent the previous weekend at Edward's place, but Tom's flat was just as Edward pictured it. Neat, tidy. Everything in its place. Including a toy castle, a Thomas the Tank Engine railroad track, a pair of small shoes against the wall and a school uniform jumper on a hook.
Admittedly, those came as a bit of a surprise.
“My son Avery is five years old,” Tom said. “I share custody with his mother. That's why I left the Navy.”
Edward waited for him to go on. When he didn't, he prompted, “And?” He had to get this over with.
“And, what did you want to talk about?”
“That.” Tom frowned. “Most guys don't like to hear I have a kid.” Edward felt an absurd flare of jealousy at the mere mention of other men.
“Maybe,” Edward replied, “I'm not like them.” He meant it to be a strong statement, the staking of a claim, informing Tom he could forget any other man he'd ever known, because he had Edward now. It came out sounding more like a question.
In any case, Tom answered it, his forehead creasing thoughtfully. “Maybe you're not."
Later that night, when Tom was deeply asleep with his head on Edward's chest and his arm across Edward's waist, Edward lay awake wondering just what he was getting himself into. Even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew whatever it was, it would be worth it. Tom would be worth it.
“There he is!” Sarah hisses, unnecessarily, as Avery and his classmates waddle onstage in their costumes. She, Tom and Elisabeth raise their phones to take pictures. Edward gives Avery what he hopes is a smile of encouraging solidarity as the class begins an off-key, off-tempo rendition of "Frosty the Snowman" that nevertheless manages to be the best Edward's ever heard.
If Tom had been childless, Edward is certain they would have moved in together the weekend after they met. As it was, they were forced to take things a bit slower, which Edward has to concede was probably a better idea. It wasn't too much slower, in any case. Three months later, Edward, the man who thought he would never marry, livened up his own birthday dinner by spontaneously proposing. Tom enthusiastically said yes. As clichéd as it is, Edward had quite literally never been happier.
A week after that, they had Christmas at Sarah's house, and Edward met Avery for the first time. They didn't get off to the greatest of starts.
“I like your scarf,” Edward said, after the introductions were made. It was maroon and yellow, and long enough to wind several times around Avery's small neck. “You a Man United fan?”
“It's Gryffindor,” Avery corrected, voice dripping with disdain. He sounded, in fact, exactly like Tom did, whenever somebody jammed up the photocopier or burned the coffee in the lunchroom.
Avery was just like Tom, in a lot of ways. He looked like Tom. He spoke like Tom. But while Tom was happily buzzing between the guests, talking with everyone about their engagement and planned autumn wedding, Edward noticed Avery had disappeared.
Someone must know where he is, Edward told himself. It's probably fine. But since he had no desire to be asked by yet another of Tom's drunken uncles if Edward was planning to wear the wedding dress or if Tom would, he slipped away to look. He found Avery sitting on the floor in a corner of a bedroom, his back against the wall and a colouring book on his knee.
“You okay?” Avery nodded. “Right.” I should probably go, then, he thought, but it seemed wrong to leave a child alone, especially on Christmas Day. Instead, he went around and stood beside him. This seemed strange, as if he was looming over Avery, so Edward ignored the popping of his knees and sat on the floor.
Once down there, he realized he had no idea what to say. “Nice picture.” He didn't recognize the characters Avery was colouring, but he was staying mostly within the lines, which seemed good for his age. Edward wasn't sure. All he knew about nearly-six-year-olds was what he'd hurriedly Googled before he left the house that morning.
“It's too noisy,” Avery said, as if that was an answer.
Edward understood perfectly. “I know. Too many people.” He'd spent most of his life as part of a crowd, but Edward still hadn't learned how to enjoy it.
“Yeah,” Avery agreed.
“I have eleven brothers and sisters,” Edward said, counting his many half-siblings and step-siblings. “I hide sometimes, too.”
“Why do you have that many?”
Edward laughed. “That's a question for my parents.” And Avery, he supposed, was a subject he ought to bring up with them at some point before the wedding.
“Are you and Daddy going to have more kids?”
“What?” A knot of panic began to tie itself within Edward. He wasn't prepared to answer these sorts of parenting questions. It was only his first day.
“When Josie's mum got married to her other dad, they had a baby, and then another one. Then her mum had twins and then she had four sisters. I don't want four sisters. Or four brothers.”
“Oh. Well, you haven't got to worry about that.” He prayed silently that Avery would have no follow-up questions. It seemed it didn't.
“Daddy said you sail on a ship.”
“That's right.” He hesitated. “But I don't know if I'm going to keep doing that.” Nobody knew it, not even Tom, but Edward had been turning the idea of leaving the Navy over in his mind for a while.
It wasn't an ideal time. He'd reached a respectable rank, but there were goals he had yet to accomplish. He'd sailed all over the South Pacific, Asia and the Middle East, but he'd never gone north, never seen the Arctic region he'd been fascinated by since he was a kid. But the thought of a voyage like that, something he'd been dreaming of his whole life, soured when he remembered it would mean having to leave home for months. Any voyage would mean that, and he was due for one soon. Usually, that would be cause for eager anticipation, but now, Edward was dreading it. Leaving home never bothered him before, but then he'd never had a home he minded leaving.
Alternatives existed. Edward's former captain, Frank Crozier, had started a business doing contract work for private shipping companies. Tom was his executive assistant. Crozier would hire Edward in a heartbeat, and Tom would love having Edward in the same office, not to mention at home for good. But Edward had to be certain it was the right decision before he said anything to either of them.
“Why?” Avery asked.
“Because I don't want to leave your dad.” That was it, plain and simple.
“So don't do that,” Avery replied, as if it was just as simple.
Maybe it was. Edward stayed there, on the floor, colouring various Pokemon until Tom found them and beaming, told them it was time to eat.
The day after Boxing Day, Edward tendered his resignation to the Navy, and emailed Crozier asking if he would be free to meet for a cup of tea in the new year.
Despite his large number of siblings—or maybe because of it—Edward's family is not one in which anyone is ever encouraged to make a fuss over anything. The Jopsons, on the other hand, are very much fuss-makers, particularly Tom's mother. When the performance finishes, Sarah hoots and whistles. Edward, a little more sedate but no less enthusiastic, claps loudly, along with Avery's parents, while Avery and his classmates take their bows. Their teacher herds them offstage, and Edward feels Thomas' hand grasp his, down between their seats.
Tom appreciates how much Edward loves Avery. Edward doesn't do it for Tom, though. Not anymore. At first, he wanted to get along with Avery because if he didn't, he couldn't have Tom, and not having Tom is too horrific a situation for Edward to contemplate. Very soon, however, he realized what a great kid Avery is. Smart, kind, artistic, interesting. Eager to welcome him into the family, once they got the Gryffindor thing sorted out, and forgiving of Edward's missteps as a beginning stepparent. If he and Tom ever got divorced, another situation that doesn't bear thinking about, Edward knows he'd be just as devastated to lose Avery.
“Josie didn't even dance the way she was supposed to,” Avery complains later, as he and Edward lie beneath the tent of his loft bed. Its a pain in the arse—and the knees, and the back—for Edward to climb up into it, but there's no better place to read Harry Potter. It's taken them nearly two years, starting from The Philosopher's Stone, and they're now halfway through The Deathly Hallows. “She never listens.”
Edward slips their bookmark into their new spot, a little reluctantly. These books are damned hard to put down. “That's annoying. You couldn't tell, though. It was great.”
Avery gives a theatrical sigh. “I hate dressing up.”
“We all have to do stuff we hate sometimes.”
“We definitely do.”
“Do you want a whole list? Because that will take a while. Or do you want to hear about something I'm looking forward to right now?”
“Your birthday?” Avery guesses.
Edward shakes his head. That, he could live without. He says he doesn't care about his age, but it stings a little to be closing in on forty, given Tom is considerably younger. “Fortnite. You and me, tomorrow morning, before your Dad gets up. Otherwise, he'll want to play, and he's terrible at video games.” Avery laughs as Edward hugs him good-night, clambers down from the bed, and turns off the light.
Tom is waiting for him when he gets downstairs. The gas fire is turned on, along with some low music. The Christmas tree, strung with lights and hung with years' worth of Avery's handprint ornaments and painted baubles is in a corner, and a wineglass sits on the table. “Now,” Tom says, his head propped alluringly on one hand, “we get some grownup time.”
“Grownup time.” Edward joins him on the sofa. Tom slides in close, pressing the wineglass into his hand. Tom gets in a mood like this sometimes, wanting to serve Edward. “Take care of him,” Tom calls it. He doesn't drink himself, not after what he went through with his mum and with Frank. “I like the sound of that.”
“You deserve it. You're such a good dad.”
“Dad,” Tom repeats, gazing at Edward. His big blue eyes are just as devastating now as they were that first evening, peering at him over a glass of tonic water at Crozier's fiftieth. “Do you want another one?”
He doesn't mean a drink. It's something they've talked about, off and on, since before the wedding, never really landing on a conclusion.
Now, Edward knows. “No.” He remembers his own childhood. A packed house, but not one overflowing with love. Never having anything to himself: not toys, not space, not anybody to really listen to him, not even for a minute. “Everything is perfect as it is. Why change that?”
Tom answers him with a long kiss, which starts off sweet and ends up decidedly spicy. Edward returns his wineglass to the table, careful not to spill any, while Tom makes his way onto Edward's lap. Just as their time is becoming very grownup indeed, Tom pulls back, his cheeks red and his breathing irregular. Edward feels just the same, breathless with love, as if they were new sweethearts rather than an old married couple.
“You,” Tom says, “are the greatest gift I could have hoped for.”
Edward's heart gives a squeeze. “Tom, you don't have to...”
“And don't tell Avery, but I can't wait anymore.” He leans over the side of the sofa and comes back with a long envelope in hand. He hands it to Edward. The front is blank. Intrigued, Edward opens it.
One of Avery's pictures greets him. This time, the Lego-headed figures are standing on the deck of a boat. The next page, stapled behind the drawing, is an itinerary for a springtime Disney cruise for the three of them, from Vancouver to Skagway, Alaska.
“I know it's not exactly how you wanted to see the North, but...”
“It's better.” Without question.
“Oh, good.” Tom looks so relieved, Edward wonders if he was genuinely worried about the gift's reception. If so, Edward clearly needs to work on being a better husband. He never wants Tom to have the slightest doubt that he would be beyond thrilled to go absolutely anywhere, do absolutely anything with him. With both of them. “You have to act surprised in the morning, though. Avery's been wanting to tell you for weeks. I told him we had to wait for your birthday.”
“I'll keep your secret.” Edward feels a grin growing on his own face. It wasn't the sort of thing that happened regularly, until he met Tom and Avery. “If you promise not to tell him how good you are at video games.”
Tom laughs. He kisses Edward again, more briskly this time, and slides off his lap. “Give me a minute, and come join me, almost-birthday boy.”
Edward sips his drink while he waits, savouring the eager excitement that makes his heart beat faster and his palms sweat on the stem of the wineglass. When he can't take it any more, he switches off the fire and follows Tom into their bedroom, locking the door firmly behind him.