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what are you doing the rest of your life?

Chapter Text

 

Once upon a time in London there was a red jumper…

jumper

 

While southern England was shaking out her green dress for the season, throwing pollen over every available surface in the lengthening days, the department store alcove where James Fitzjames stood was apparently stuck somewhere back in mid-January. Overhead, the jaundicing yellow lights thrummed in their casements and the heating rumbled on, spitting out enough gritty hot air to make him feel like an over-done fillet.

He wished he could peel himself like an orange, skin and all.  

Unfortunately, he was human and there were only so many layers one was able to unbutton and unzip publicly. Desperate, he settled for letting his coat hang off his elbows, halfway to dragging the floor, but he found little in the way of true relief as he cursed and dug around in the back of his shirt collar where sweat was starting to make it itch. 

He tried to focus; a wave of nausea incited by the heat cresting. Thankfully he knew this particular alcove well and, though he didn’t need to resort to extremes just yet, there was a black bin just to the left of the permanently abandoned check out desk that he may or may not have had to use before.

He willed a thick swallow of watery bile down, turning all his attention to the task at hand. The circular rack was full of fine men’s shirts, recently marked down, and just before the current state of dizziness he’d been hurriedly sliding hanger after hanger aside looking for the proper size.

 

Not that it particularly mattered.

 

Thomas was wide through the shoulders and needed everything sized up for tailoring anyway. He wasn’t looking for something specific, either. Just something. Anything, really, would do to get that temporary surge of relief that came with his impromptu retail therapy sessions. One well cut blazer or clearance pack of dress socks and his brain was dispensing the subsequent hit of dopamine like he was a lab rat.

 

It was short lived. He was forced to pause again, fitting a he was forced to pause and fit hand on the back of his neck, squeezing his eyes down against the unfortunate rolling sensation. Nobody had properly prepared him for the amount of residual shit he felt all over during treatment. Well, maybe they had, but he didn’t stoop to believing them. But in the privacy of the empty department store he thought of himself in visions of a deflated, abused, football being kicked on a school lawn, or asphalt baking to a melted puddle under a gigantic, vicious, sun.

 

The electric eel, a new resident to the list of endlessly evolving bodily complaints, somewhere just over his sciatica gave a gross shiver at the image and he tensed even harder against the sparking zaps now spitting up and down his spine.  

 

Eventually it dulled to a manageable tension and he let out a slow five count breath, glancing around to face the collateral damage.

 

A man over by the ties was peering at him over the display. 

 

James couldn’t quite read his expression at the distance; it vacillated between bland curiosity and what could be akin to sympathy in the right light, but there was no doubt he’d witnessed the little spell.

 

James raised his eyebrows in a blatant address.

 

The man blinked, head nodding back down to the ties in embarrassment. He lifted a hand to take up the end of one and inspected it thoroughly, the other shoved deep into his pocket. 

 

“You can do better than that, surely,” James called over the rack, hangers clacking again. The man’s head jerked up and they locked eyes for another anguished, awkward, moment that was nearly as painful as his fried nerves. Then, generously, James smirked and tipped his head toward the audaciously green paisley patterned fabric pinched between the stranger’s fingers. “Unless you have an interview with the circus later.”

 

What little color remained in the man’s face drained, reducing him to shell-shocked silence. He returned to looking down at the tie with reinvigorated interest and then dropped it, helplessly pretending to be busy with the others folded on the table.

 

“I should apologize,” James said, drifting across the faux laminate flooring to him. The man flinched visibly, cornered, but otherwise frozen in place. That was curious. Most people bolted immediately after being caught gawking, but this one was hunkered down like a scared rabbit

 

“Impolite of me to comment,” James continued, shifting his strategy and attempting at assuaging. “Nearly as bad as staring.”

 

“Sorry,” the man mumbled at last, like an afterthought. Closer inspection yielded a remarkably dazed sort of person: dark puffy skin ringed his brown eyes and one of his brows slouched in an exhausted asymmetrical droop, aligning perfectly with the uneven lines of his shave and nondescript clothes that bore a wrinkled fished-from-the-hamper flavor.

 

“No bother, I’m very used to it at present,” James replied, eyeing him again. He had to admit, he was growing used to, even fond of, these new peers. What a motley crew they were the elderly, the harrowed and othered, and of course, the ill, who found themselves baking under the rattling tube bulbs and resigned to picking things up and putting them down on slow and boring Tuesday afternoons while the well went on being well.

 

“It’s because of the hat,” he sighed, feeling the Pavlovian scratch of the beanie adorning his prickly recently we’re-being-empowered-about-it shaved head at its mere mention. 

 

It was a gracious understatement, and one he hoped was appreciated.

 

He couldn’t blame anybody for staring, even this sad sack. James looked microwaved, literally, thanks to the chemo.

 

Beyond that people could practically smell the impending possibility of death and hospital grade antimicrobial wafting off of him and it kept them away on the off chance his looks didn’t get the job done right. The disease was stretching him out to bizarre proportions, taking him from the long-lined thoroughbred of his prime to a nightmare haunting a funhouse mirror.

 

He smiled tightly to himself. Standing side by side now, he and the stranger might have looked like some sort of fucked up Laurel and Hardy.  He’d have said as much if Frank were there just to see the puss he’d get on his face, which always made James laugh more than the actual joke. His old man made him feel weaknesses that predated prognosis; afflictions of the heart long and so lovingly suffered.

 

Frank never thought the jokes were funny, but of course they were. They were hysterical. Prostate cancer might drag him (kicking and screaming) to an early grave, but James would take along the image of his husband beet red and steaming with anger, sawing ineffectively at baked salmon while James and Tom volleyed increasingly lewd euphemisms back and forth across the dinner table, clutched to him till the bitter end.

 

“What’s the occasion?” James asked, coming back into the moment and canting slightly to show off just how properly nosy he felt like being. 

 

Like a conjured spirit Francis intruded in his subconscious, whining about at least wearing a mask while communing with these unwashed masses, but he’d long decided to spare himself that further indignity. His ears stuck out enough as it was, an insecurity he’d never even considered before the diagnosis.

 

“Funeral,” the man breathed, not seeming to care very much that he was speaking to James Fitzjames, tumor-riddled ghoul at large. 

 

“Oh, a classic.”


The man’s bleary expression snapped tighter, eyes sharp with recognition that another human being was offering something other than an apology. Instant telepathic understanding pinged between them in the damp magic of shared suffering. 

 

“Well, black then, obviously,” James said, looking at the darker colors once more with a wave of his hand. “Every man ought to have a black tie. Or charcoal if you’re feeling especially festive. Who died?”


“My brother,” the man said, still looking at James. He was vetting a few examples, holding them up so his eyes tick between them. “He killed himself.”

 

James dropped his hands back down to the table, looking at the stranger with genuine concern. The man lifted his eyes briefly.

“He jumped off a building.”

 

James allowed himself to feel fully, truly, transported in surprise.

 

“I didn’t know people really did that.”

 

It blurted out of him before he could stop it. There wasn’t even time to slap his hand over his lips as the man, to his astonishment, lifted a corner of his mouth in a weird smile. 

 

“I didn’t either,” he agreed with a devastated laugh. “He left a note and everything…” 

 

James stared at him. The man’s eyes grew impossibly wide and then  flooded with tears.

 

 “I - uh.” 

 

The man floundered with partially formed words and redirected his attention back to the merchandise, blood flushing up his neck. “I figured I’d get a new one,” he cleared his throat, pawing at his cheeks.


“You can’t go wrong with black,” James said quickly, lifting the first one he saw. It was by Drake with a subtle sheen of diamond patterning in the silk. He grimaced. “I don’t think any of these will do, though. Usually I’d suggest Hackett and be done with it, but it’s a bit too flashy…”

 

The man stared emptily at the table. James sensed that he had reached the precipice of some unseen internal edge, a feeling he was getting to know very well. He didn’t mind toeing at it when it came to himself, but this man looked like he might be capable of walking straight out in front of an oncoming bus if pushed too hard. 

 

“But hope is not lost!” James insisted, seizing the silent mission of comforting him literally. He took the man’s arm and gently steered him over to a smaller display. “It’s quite incredible what clothes can do. They can say everything for you, even in dire circumstances. They’ve saved my life countless times.”

 

He pulled open the display’s drawer and sifted through a few options till he found one he felt fit the bill. He unfurled the tie and looked at the tag.

 

“For instance, this one says:  young, sober, Englishman. Stiff upper lip and all that rot. And a good wool blend to boot. Just look at that weave.”

 

“Absorbent,” the man muttered, examining the threads. James couldn’t help but grin.

 

“Exactly. Here,” he held it up to the man’s chest. He squinted, then nodded decidedly and forced him to take it. “They look terribly dowdy on me, I’m more of a Paul Smith man, but this will suit you and your mum will love it.”

 

He closed the drawer with a rumble, the man draping the tie carefully across his palm, thumb rubbing at the fabric. 

 

“Thank you,” he said blankly.


“Think nothing of it. I was about to give up on looking for something for my son, as the staff here are so entirely helpful.” He looked around the deserted alcove. The sales people usually vanished into thin air as soon as they caught him lurking about. “Probably better off, frankly. If I come back with another bag from this place my husband will have my head.”

 

“I’m so sorry if I’m keeping you,” the man said, sounding dismally apologetic and James shook his head gently at his hangdog expression.


“No, no, no. Anything for a fellow in need,” he replied. “James Fitzjames-Crozier, by the way. I’d ask to shake your hand but unfortunately you are a walking petri dish and at this point I’m in enough trouble as it is wandering about all exposed.”

The man huffed and curled his fingers more protectively around the tie, folding it loosely with his other into a neat wad. 

 

“Edward,” he said, still looking down. 

 

“Very nice to meet you Edward,” James smiled.

 

“That red thing there is nice,” Edward said, choicely tilting his head toward the clearance rack that he’d first seen James sorting through. “For your son. I saw it when I first came in.”

 

“Look at that,” James praised with a cocked eyebrow, going over to pluck the jumper out and hold it up. It was a wonderful bright red, and the cut was decent. “You’re catching on, Edward. Tommy hardly wears enough red. He’s always blue, blue, blue. And scrubs,” he frowned. “Which is a waste. He’s got such a look.”

He shot Edward a gloating smirk over his shoulder. 

 

“Least I can do,” Edward replied, still messing with the tie between his hands, winding it and unwinding it. He was smiling faintly again at James across the floor. “It’s a good color. It stands out.” 

 

“It is, isn’t it. Sort of lucky,” James appraised, pursing his lips. He stretched the sleeve of the arm along his own. “I reckon he’ll be impossible to miss in this, don’t you?”

Chapter Text

I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.
Punch Drunk Love (2002)



I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody,
you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)

 

 

 

Can you buzz me in?

 

Thomas looked up from his phone just in time to catch the muffled commotion of James scolding Neptune to stop jumping, which could only mean that someone was at the door.

 

“Billy! It’s so good to see you- down Neptune!”

 

Thomas frowned, checking his phone again as he climbed off his bed. He wasn’t hallucinating. Billy’s message was still there. 

 

“You as well…”

 

Neptune’s tags jangled loudly, followed by James’ soft swearing. Thomas pushed into the hall, padding the short way to the front of the flat, managing to step into the sitting room just as Billy slipped inside.


“Neptune,” Thomas said automatically when he saw James struggling to hold his collar, the huge black Newfoundland lunging for Billy’s legs again as the door swung shut.

 

“Neptune -,” he repeated, more sternly, coming down the narrow runner rug between the wall and the back of the formal white sofa to help. 


“Oh, I have him Tom,” James puffed, Thomas rolling his eyes. He batted James’ hand away and seized Neptune’s scruff, directing the dog back towards his regular post: a window seat cushion carpeted with stray black hair overlooking the street.

 

“Lay down there, alright,” Thomas said. The dog obediently clamored up into his spot, the folds of skin on his shaggy head obscuring his eyes as he grumbled petulantly at them and thwapped his tail loudly against the cloudy smudged windowpanes, rattling the casement

 

“You just can’t stand being left out, can you? You’ve just got to work on your manners, darling,” James chuckled, Neptune panting heavily. “You know, he’s Francis’ dog, technically,” James continued to Billy who snorted in reply.

 

“It shows,” Thomas sighed, reaching out to ruffle Neptune’s ears. Soon he was enduring a rigorous bath as Neptune began licking all over his hands nervously.

 

“Oh, Billy, we’ve got the lint roller make sure to nab  it before you go. I just need to remember where I stuck it,” James said as he brushed off his clothes, noticing that their guest was doing the same.

 

“Go?” Thomas snapped, pulled back into the conversation.

 

Billy glanced over James’ shoulder to Thomas, clearly appraising.


“Well, I don’t think a lint roller will help that,” Billy said plainly, watching him wipe excess drool on the front of his hoodie.

 

“Certainly not,” James agreed, taking in Thomas’ joggers and bare feet. Thomas frowned.

 

Smirking traitorously, Billy moved further into the room to center himself on the couch where he proceeded to flop down in a heap of limbs, smoothly pulling his phone from his back pocket.


“No, please,” Thomas said, folding his arms and turning to his friend who was now busy with his phone. “Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything?”


“You can hurry up and put on something decent,” Billy sighed, crossing his ankles neatly on the occasional table just short of the candy bowl full of stale Werther’s. He flexed his feet. “I know it’s the White Bear but even they have standards…”

 

“Oh, the White Bear,” Thomas repeated sarcastically, turning now to James who was already making his escape towards the kitchen. “I wonder whose idea that was, exactly -,” Thomas raised his voice a bit to be sure he heard.


“You forced me to take matters into my own hands, Tommy!” James called back, disappearing through the doorway.

 

“Just put on that red thing you always wear,” Billy said, not looking up from his screen and adjusting himself on the over-stuffed tasseled cushions. He leaned his head back and peered up at Thomas from the back of the sofa as he passed. “I told Harry we’d be there at nine.”

 

“Nine,” Thomas tsked, looking at the hands on the heavy clock on the mantle over their defunct fireplace. 

 

Forty-five minutes. Grand. 

 

“Well, then yes, I suppose I should get going.” He stood there expectantly, bearing down on Billy who flicked his eyes back up and then back down again. 

 

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said flatly, scrolling through Instagram. “I was merely conscripted…,”

 

“Unbelievable,” Thomas muttered, petting his hair down. Neptune let out a loud boof from his window, nose on the glass to spy on cabs and buses going by and the people going in and out of the Indian takeaway across the street.

 

“James,” Thomas said, coming upon him in the kitchen. There was the tell-tale thunk-thunk of Neptune following after him and the skitter of his paws on the wood flooring, but he didn’t stop. Thomas tracked him as he trotted past for the study at the back of the flat. He stopped outside the door, pawing to be let in. A few moments later Thomas saw the study door open and his dad leaned out briefly and then pulled it closed again with a snick

 

When he blinked back to James he was standing at the island, readers perched on the end of his nose, dropping pills into a huge multi-week scheduler opened in front of him.

 

“What on earth is this about?” Thomas leaned forward on the marbled counter, tipping the lid closed so that it fell on James’ fingers. 


“What is what about?” James went on, pettishly flipping the lid open once more with a glare. He dropped the pills into the slots with practiced clunks. “Am I not allowed to throw parties?”


“I - no,” Thomas said, squinting at the pills piling up in their cubbies. “Party?” He swept his hand down and moved a few of the pills around, staggering them out over the appropriate days while James scoffed, tossing an empty blister pack aside.

 

“Since when are you throwing parties?” Thomas interrogated, eyes narrowing. “And not inviting me?”


“Thomas,” James plead, reaching over to put his hands on Thomas’ arms and squeeze. “It’s just a little boring dinner - all grownups. It will bore you to literal tears, so I had Billy come up with a fun way to divert you for a bit. It was just supposed to be a funny surprise.”

 

Thomas’ mouth screwed into a grimace, shaking him off while James tutted

 

“You do realize I’m a grownup, right? You don’t have to find a babysitter for me anymore.”

 

“Don’t remind me,” James sighed, taking Thomas’ face between his palms. He cupped Thomas’ cheeks and smushed them together to his own amusement.

 

“You were so cute,” he cooed. “Just the sweetest boy. Oh God, I’m getting misty just thinking about it.”

 

“James,” Thomas said, less amused.

 

“You never let me have any fun anymore,” James sniffed, pulling away to start assembling what would end up being a very involved charcuterie on the massive plank they’d bought him specifically for that purpose three Christmases ago.

 

“So who is coming?” Thomas said, still suspicious. He watched James puttering about and put his own hair back into place, smoothing the strand a few times. He was already lamenting his late day decision to let it remain a grease trap.


“The usual suspects,” James said distantly, cutting a bit of sausage and taking a nibble for himself. “Dundy, Uncle Blanky…and don’t you pretend that you want to sit and listen to them tell all the same stories you’ve already heard. You don’t fool me for one second.”

 

Thomas grunted, sinking down so his elbows were resting on the island’s hard granite top. He scratched at a little bit of adhesive still left over on the top of the pill case from where he’d worried the tag off months or even years ago.

 

“What about Dad? Is he in on this conspiracy?” 

 

“Of course he’s in on it,” James laughed. “It was his idea. He knew you’d never agree to leaving the house on your own volition.”

 

Thomas made a betrayed face at his back.

 

“I just know he’s been…,” Thomas worried the bit of adhesive more, watching it pill and roll on the blue opaque plastic. “Stressed,” he said, keeping his tone light and choosing his words carefully. He glanced down the hall to the closed door.

 

“Thomas, I think I know how to handle your dad by now, even if he’s stressed,” James said, his knife making a dull sound on the block when he put his weight into a hard hunk of something. “Besides, your Auntie Sophie will be here too, so you know he’ll be on his best behavior.” He gave Thomas a weighted look, but it shifted into something more annoyed when he took him Thomas’ expression. 

 

“Stop sulking,” James chided, pointing at him with the knife. “This isn’t a mutiny. It’s a surprise! Go out! Have some bloody fun!”

 

“I could have done with some notice, is all I’m saying,” Thomas muttered. James huffed something unintelligible and dismissive about his attitude and then set the knife down so he could turn around and fumble through the refrigerator, piling deli cuts and bacon and breakfast sausage on the counter. 

 

“Do you think we still have prosciutto, or has Daddy eaten it all?” He asked aloud, voice muffled.

 

“Check the drawer,” Thomas sighed from his folded arms, sinking even further against the counter top to press his now throbbing forehead into the cool surface.

 

“Tommy-kins, could you please kindly hurry the fuck up?” 

 

Thomas bristled at Billy’s sing-song voice as he ambled into the kitchen to slot his hip against the edge of the island next to him. He reached out and rubbed the material of Thomas’ hoody between his fingers with disgust. 

 

“This is just tragic,” he sighed, Thomas busy watching James’ skinny shoulders move from where he was slumped over. His father was purposefully rifling through their over-packed shelves and Thomas worked his jaw back and forth in frustration.

 

“Fine,” Thomas said loudly in defeat, heaving himself up and heading down the hall to his room. “Give me fifteen minutes…,”

 

“Fifteen? Princess,” Billy clucked, following close on his heels.

 

“Wear that red jumper I bought you Tomkitty, you look so handsome in it,” James sounded, smugly, as they passed. Thomas seethed at the manipulative use of his childhood nickname. 

 

“Told you to wear the red thing, Tomkitty,” Billy said coolly, bouncing down onto the double bed pushed nearest the window when they were safely inside, the springs squeaking.

 

“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” Thomas groused, opening his closet while Billy cast his eye moodily about.

 

It was like stepping in a time warp whenever he stopped over at the Fitzjames-Crozier residence – a disconcerting wormhole that began at the door and ended eons ago in Thomas’ boyband-postered, silly, teenage bedroom.

 

Not that there weren’t artifacts of the recent past there as well. He could see how Thomas slowly, over the course of many trips, had managed to transport nearly all his wardrobe from his flat to his old room as well as an excess of other shit Billy didn’t know why he bought. 

 

He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d properly visited Thomas’ flat. He wracked his brain. It must have been Thomas’ birthday party, or errand of a trip to make sure that the gas was still on, or something else that barely counted towards justifying the rent. If you asked him what it looked like he’d probably only be able to draw a rough, generic, picture.

 

His gaze came to rest on Thomas while he puttered around. He couldn’t help but figure that Thomas, who had he audacity to be his best friend despite all their ridiculous bickering, was in much the same boat.

 

He also noticed, as he pulled his phone out again, that Thomas was still leaving the door mostly open and winced internally. 

 

“He looks better,” Billy said drolly to break the cloudy silence, rolling restlessly onto his stomach and elbows. His long legs hung off the edge of the bed as he scrolled through his various profiles. “James.”

 

“I suppose,” Thomas said, distracted by pushing and pulling hangers aside in a fruitless search for the red jumper. 


“Good old Jim,” Billy puffed. “I haven’t seen him looking that much like himself in a long time.” He stretched his neck to one shoulder, feigning disinterest. “Still getting good news, right? You never tell me anything.”

 

“If I told you everything, you’d beg me to stop,” Thomas replied, finally finding it. He wiggled it out from among the others and held it up for a moment of intense contemplation. “But, yes, his counts are very good.” 

 

He brought the sweater to his own body, and then turned. He looked at Billy with a rare uncertainty. 

 

“You really think this is alright?” His nose wrinkled. “It’s too flashy.”

 

He waited, expectant, for Billy to say something. Thomas wasn’t one to ask for opinions, and nearly never from him, but James was not the only one who had stopped being themselves for a while when he got sick.

 

Billy - who was unsentimental by nature, a point that was often in contention within their friendship - felt a sharp twinge. God he was getting soft in his old age. 

 

“It’s good for your coloring,” Billy said noncommittally. Thomas gnawed at the inside of his cheek, inspecting it again.

 

“Thomas,” Billy soothed. “I highly doubt the qualified candidates of the White Bear will even notice it.”

 

Thomas turned back around to face the closet. Billy rolled his eyes.


“How have you been?”

 

“Fine,” Thomas was too quick to reply. “Why?” 


“Oh, I don’t know,” Billy mused, fitting his cheek on his fist. “The fact that you’re living here still. And your parents begged me to take you out since none of us could remember the last time you even went out on Friday night for more than a carry out pizza. And you’re walking around like a 29-year-old virgin since you haven’t been laid in God, four years? But who’s counting…”


“That’s an exaggeration,” Thomas huffed, snapping the sweater a bit to shake out the nonexistent wrinkles. 


“Is it?”


“Yes,” he said firmly, glancing back at Billy, the sweater hanging over one arm. “I have a phone just like you do,” he said to the clothes.

 

“When was the last time you had a dick appointment with your brimming social calendar?”


“Will you stop being ridiculous?” Thomas hissed. 


“Alright, I’ll pretend you’ve done more than sext with RawMeDaddy69. Casual, deeply unsatisfying hookup sex with local strangers aside: when was the last time you went on a date? Or, better yet, bought some new clothes? Went to a stylist and got something other than that quick cut hack job -,”

 

Billy was standing now, directing Thomas aside to file through the options himself. He pulled out a soft blue chambray button up with pearly white snaps, immediately distracted.

 

“Tom what in fucking western denim hell is this?” He presented the evidence to Thomas who only regarded it and leaned back into his open closet door.

 

“Is this Calvin Klein? Where did you get this? TK Maxx?” He peeked giddily at the tag.

 

“Are you quite done yet?” Thomas protested. “And Marks and Spencer’s, arsehole...”


Billy held the shirt out for him like a peace offering.

 

“It’ll go with it,” he insisted, pushing it against his chest. 

 

“Maybe it’s been a while,” Thomas sighed, taking the shirt reluctantly. He worked it off the hanger and put it back on the rail. “I just -,” he laid it on top of the jumper and aligned the sleeves till he appeared somewhat satisfied. “It’s not like I didn’t sign up for it. I knew it was going to be work getting everyone on the other side.”


“Well,” Billy said, giving him a patented half lidded stare. “Now you’re through it. Everyone made it with their lives. Now you can move on with the rest of yours.”

 

Thomas gave Billy a halfhearted smile, but it quickly fell.

“How long has this been in the works?” Thomas whispered, glancing at his bedroom door. “Really.”

 

Billy shrugged.

“I don’t know, two weeks?”

 

“Two weeks?” Thomas rushed. “And you didn’t tell me?”

 

“I’m shocked you couldn’t sniff it out with how you shove that absolute beak of yours into everything,” Billy scoffed. 

 

Thomas was winding up what would most likely be a searing come back when they were surprised by a rap at the door frame. 

 

“Hello Mr. Crozier,” Billy beamed, defaulting to university habits when the paunchy older man appeared.

 

He’d emerged at last from his den – the mysterious closet-turned-computer room where he conducted his business like the oracle of Delphi - whiling away retirement playing internet chess or pontificating on history message boards over crumbs of dispute between bouts of book research. He had his one hand perpetually in the pocket of his trousers, readers hanging from a thin chain around his neck making his naked eyes look beady and uncertain. The oatmeal colored cardigan draped over him gave his craggy face a rosy glow by contrast. 

 

In short, he looked exactly like he did the last time Billy saw him.

 

“Thought I heard you Billy,” Crozier replied in his cigarette and whiskey rasp, the only leftover clue that evinced his storied and often belligerent career as a watch-dog journalist stretching back to nineteen-eighty-something.

 

Billy waved at him permissively and he opened the door more with a meek smile.

 

“Getting ready to go out, are we boys?

 

“As much as we can,” Billy said, going to perch on Thomas’ old desk chair. He swiveled it smoothly and crossed his legs. 

 

“I heard it was your idea,” Thomas accused. 

 

Francis’ smile turned abashed.

 

“I think it’s a fine idea,” he offered, very diplomatically. “Reminds me of when you were both in school and I would hear you chatting away, getting ready to go somewhere.”

“More like fighting is what you heard,” Thomas said, shoulders sloping when he hung the garments on the closet door and began to shrug off his hoodie. 

 

“Hugh Laurie is attractive, whether you agree or not,” Billy said, directing the response at his phone. 

 

“He’s too skinny,” Thomas argued, shaking his head. 

 

“Some people like skinny, right Frank?”

Frank coughed a sudden laugh that filled Billy with unexpected delight.

 

Thomas sneered. “There’s nothing to him. I’d be afraid of breaking him in half -,”

 

“Liam Neeson though,” Billy cut him off with a knowing wink. Thomas immediately fought against a laugh. “How many times did we see that one bloody movie?”

 

“Kingdom of Heaven? Must have been five or so. I don’t know how we afforded it. It wasn’t even good.” 


“Who cares about the movie,” Billy groaned, arching the back panel of the chair against the desk. “He can run that sword through me any time he’d like.”

 

Francis took the salacious turn as his cue, clearing his throat and smiling at them again, this time with relief. He lingered, and Billy got the sense that he wanted to say something else, but with Billy there and James clattering in the kitchen so near he couldn’t figure out what it would be.

 

“Have a good time, Thomas,” he said finally. “You’ll have to tell us all about what you get up to and  we’ll say hello to everyone for you. No worry there.”

 

“Oh thank goodness. What’s my curfew?” Thomas said and now it was Billy had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing, glad his back was to Crozier.

 

“You’re such a brat.” He kicked his leg out far enough to graze the back of Thomas’ knee and his friend glared.


Crozier chuckled again.

 

“Just please text me if anything happens,” Thomas said, folding the hoodie loosely and laying it on the bed instead of hanging it up like he meant to not be away long. He gave his dad a pleading look and Frank visibly softened under the scrutiny.

 

“Of course, Thomas, we know, we know,” Crozier smoothed over, shifting on his heels a little as he made to leave. “But only if you promise to try to have a bit of fun, alright? You deserve it.”

 

Thomas tilted his head at him, imploring and Crozier hesitated.

 

“I’ll make certain he has a good time, he’s in my well-manicured hands,” Billy assured Mr. Crozier before Thomas could set in again. He plastered on a closed-mouth smile, eyes slitting a bit too much with the crinkle of his cheeks.

 

Frank nodded and backed quietly out of the room with a soft click of the latch.

 

“Henry says he’s got a man in mind for you, by the way,” Billy said, swiveling to face Tom head on once they were safely alone. He licked his thumb and rubbed a stray scuff mark on the pointed toe of his loafer. 

 

Billy could tell Thomas was irritated with this information by the way he shucked his joggers and threw them carelessly on the bed with the hoodie. He pulled a pair of trousers off a hanger and stepped into them, zipping the front in the mirror with his t-shirt held up in his teeth.


“Please tell me it isn’t anyone from his work,” Came Thomas’ muffled reply. It was a fair question; Henry met a lot of interesting characters taking yachts up and down the Med for rich people (The Fitzjames-Crozier’s sailboat included). 

 

“Picky, picky,” Billy said, puckering as he looked at Thomas’ trim waist and back while he yanked the t-shirt over his head. “But I suppose you get to be. God, how do you keep so fit with the way you eat? You spent half of practicals calling boxed cake dinner.”

 

“Billy if you say one more fucking word to me I’ll shove you out that window,” Thomas sniped, tossing the shirt with the rest, but when Billy caught his reflection in the mirror on the back of the closet door his expression was all too pleased. He shrugged on the chambray button up, eyes trained on the task.

 

“I don’t know if he’s from his work or not,” Billy yawned, watching him tug the jumper over the shirt next, pulling the red fabric into place. He fussed with his collar in the mirror and then expertly cuffed the sleeves to his wrist in a neat fold. “He just said he had a man in mind.”

 

“Well?” Thomas said, smoothing his front and turning about. “I was thinking about wearing the Bruno’s…”

 

He pointed with his foot at a pair of boots on the shoe rack at the bottom of the closet (Thomas’ perfect taste at work - Bruno Magli, perfectly broken in leather Chelseas, divine).

Billy stared at him and then the shoes. He blinked slowly.


“I hate you,” he replied after a momentary silence, and Thomas nearly shocked him when he bared his teeth in his old grinny laugh.

 

“Should I French tuck it?”

 

“Try it,” Billy breathed. In the past he’d been very used to martyring himself due to Thomas’ stupid good looks but it had certainly been a while since the fact of it was rubbed so delightfully in his face. 

 

Thomas French tucked the stupid fucking red jumper.

 

“I really fucking hate you,” Billy repeated sourly. “It’s unfair. You can’t just go from that to this -”

 

Thomas turned back to the mirror and smoothed his hair into place and ran his thumbs over his eyebrows.

 

“Is it good?”


“Of course it’s good, fuck right off Jopson,” Billy bitched, punching the address for the White Bear a little too aggressively into his phone as he called for an uber.

 

 

*

 

The minute Tom managed to get through the front door of the White Bear was the minute he realized why he had not been back in so long, and also why it was his favorite pub. 

 

For one thing, it was packed to the gills - typical for nine on a Friday - and most everyone inside seemed well on their way to being hammered due to the healthy post work happy hour specials. The music playing was so loud it was indecipherable, which did not do the person howling into the karaoke mic any favors.

 

“I see him -,” Billy said, able to pick out Henry’s tiny frame among the crowd. He was sitting on a stool at the thin side rail screwed to the wall, and had his foot curled around the leg of the one next to it, looking around like he was daring someone to come and take it. 

 

“Harry!” Billy called, and Henry’s permanently adorable face unfolded into a bright grin as they waded through the bodies.

 

“Tommy!” Henry exclaimed, jumping up to drag Tom into a hug as soon as he was close enough to net. “It’s so good to see you,” he said in his ear, planting a scruffy kiss on Tom’s cheek, clapping his back hard. “We shouldn’t let it get that long again.”

 

“I know,” Tom admitted as he rubbed between Harry’s shoulder blades affectionately. “And so sorry about the wait…”

 

“I didn’t think you’d be on your own - John couldn’t make it?” Billy said, taking the stool opposite them, already fiddling with his phone. With Harry being very short and Billy very tall and Thomas somewhere in the middle it always evened them out in this arrangement. 

 

“Not tonight,” Henry chuckled, settling back with his drink. “He’s probably fallen asleep in his recliner about now if he’s gotten through all his marking.” He glanced at his watch, a bulky waterproof thing with every bell and whistle imaginable. “Someone’s out on maternity leave in the department, so he’s been helping to fill in and it’s keeping him very busy.” 

 

“Wasn’t he talking about retirement?” Thomas frowned.

 

“He’s always talking about retirement. He’ll talk your ear off about that,” Harry laughed, rolling a shoulder and then prodding at Thomas’ side. “What about you Tommy? Are you back to the children’s ward?” 

 

“Just starting to get back into it,” Thomas said, changing his weight to the other foot. “Dr. Goodsir’s been a saint about it -”

 

“Harry, didn’t you say you had a guy you thought Tom would like?” Billy cut in before they could start talking about work of all things. They exchanged a look and Henry nodded, a crooked smile on his face. 

 

“That’s right,” he said theatrically, glancing at Thomas. “I did!” 

 

Thomas groaned, but Harry was moving closer to drape his arm around Thomas’ back.

 

“Pegs, I mean this in the best way, but if it’s another kid on their gap year doing galley work, I really don’t need to know…”

 

“It’s John’s work, actually!” Henry exclaimed after throwing his head back to laugh. He pulled out his weather-beaten Samsung with the cracked screen and started scrolling through his photos (boats, mostly). “You’ll like this one Tommy, I swear. He’s really good looking. Really fit. He’s a footballer - or, was, before he started teaching.”

 

Billy’s eyes flashed in interest and Thomas rolled his own to the paneled ceiling. 


“Here,” Henry said triumphantly, presenting the phone more to him. A man in his early thirties with thick shiny brown hair stared back in a staff photograph pulled from the University website, tan and grinning with very straight white teeth. “Graham Gore.”

 

“He looks like he should be on a soap opera,” Thomas said, a bit shocked, pulling Harry’s hand closer. “From John’s work?” He’d been expecting someone older and way stuffier.

 

“He teaches some kind of History course. Eastern, I think. Newly brought on. John says he’s fresh.”

 

“Annnnd,” Billy coached, spinning his hand for Harry to continue.

 

“And, he’s single,” Harry said pointedly. “He and John attended a conference together and he found out he’s interested in men.” 

 

“I’m sure that was a charming conversation,” Billy said under his breath, and Harry laughed.

 

“I don’t know,” Thomas said nervously, after a moment of inspecting Graham Gore’s overtly handsome face. “I appreciate it Harry, I do, but now’s just not really the time…”

 

“Come on Tommy,” Henry said. “I can get his number from John you know! Let me set you up! John says he’s a real laugh - very charming.” 

 

“Will you stop being such a ninny,” Billy groaned, clamping his hand down on Thomas’ other shoulder. “I mean, look at him. Look Thomas! With your eyes! You could have that.” He tapped the screen emphatically. “He’s practically screaming long-term committed relationship. That’s like your wet dream, Tom.”

 

“He’s… very good looking,” Thomas relented. It wasn’t like it was an exaggeration. 

 

“You’re so clever, Tommy, you get along so well with those types,” Henry continued, nudging him with his elbow. “And, John says he’s going to be a fixture, no doubt.”

 

“Think of it Thomas. Think of the alumni dinners. Your 2.5 perfect little surrogate children with those veneers.”

 

Thomas smiled weakly at Billy’s pushiness, handing the phone back to Harry. 

 

“I’m not thinking about anything at the moment,” Thomas said, more insistent. “Things have just calmed down with James and I’ve just really got back into the swing with work. I wouldn’t even know a good man if he hit me in the back of the head,” he laughed. Billy was clearly not buying it, glowering from his stool.

 

“You never know,” Henry said sagely, his eyes crinkling. “I’ll save it just in case you need it, alright?”

 

“You should take him up, Thomas, I’m telling you,” Billy said, crossing his arms over his chest. “You need it.”

“What I need is a drink,” Thomas said, shoving Billy so that he had to put his foot on the floor to steady himself in a desperate ploy to change the subject. “I believe you owe me, William Gibson, since you are sponsoring this night out.” 

 

“Fine,” Billy conceded, standing up and adjusting his shirt crisply. “Please do yourselves a favor and talk about me while I’m gone.” 

 

He pushed off into the crowd funneling to the bar and Thomas looked back to Henry who was sipping his beer and smiling at him.

 

“He’s been worried about you,” Henry said with a shrug of his shoulder, swallowing.  

 

“He has a very funny way of showing it,” Thomas replied, unbuttoning the top button of his collar - it was damnably hot inside the crowded bar. “But if he were being any more touchy feely it would be worse.”

 

“He’s missed you a lot,” Harry continued, turning his pint glass back and forth on the rail. “We all have been, if I’m being honest. We don’t know how to plan anything like you do,” he continued, lighter. “This is the first time I’ve even seen Billy in a while…”


Thomas didn’t know what to say, so he simply leaned over to hug at Harry’s shoulders, Harry patting his back again.

 

“Bugger. Bugger fucking shit.” 

 

Thomas and Henry looked in unison as Billy came shoving back towards them, drinkless, his face ashen and furious. 

 

“What?” Thomas asked, frowning as Billy sat back down at the stool and immediately hunched his shoulders forward, pivoting away. 

 

“Block me,” he hissed, grabbing Thomas’ waist and canting him so he was hiding Billy from some unseen force. 

 

“What are you on about?” Thomas said, trying to turn around. 

 

“Don’t look now!” Billy blurted. “It’s Cornelius.” He cupped his hand around his face and Thomas and Henry’s eyebrows both shot skyward. “Of all the fucking nights,” Billy continued, glaring at the sticky floor. He cast his eye up to Thomas. “We made direct eye contact at the bar. This is like Casablanca but a fucking nightmare.”

 

“Billy, you comparing Cornelius to Humphrey Bogart is offending me,” Thomas chided and Billy growled out something unintelligible.

 

“Doesn’t he have a new boyfriend?” Henry offered, looking between them hopefully. 


“Does he?” Thomas responded. 

 

“He’s some ex soldier something or other,” Billy grunted. “It’s so typical. He’s like a bloody rat in a trash heap. He can find the scraps that don’t mind another bite or two taken out.” He pawed at Thomas’ arm.

 

 “Do you fucking know they went to Hawaii? A month after they met! Fucking unbelievable! I couldn’t get him to leave London let alone the fucking country! Do you remember what a fucking chore it was getting him to do anything? And now he’s just flying halfway across the fucking world -!”

 

“Now, that’s not fair,” Thomas said, trying to surreptitiously look around. He was sorry he hadn’t known. “I mean. It’s a bit better, isn’t it? Than him stalking you. If he’s here with some other person he’ll let you alone...” 

 

“He’s trying to rub it in my face,” Billy said shakily. “Do you see him?” 

 

“Yes,” Thomas said flatly. Unfortunately.

 

There he was, across the bar, holding court with his usual suspects. The only one Thomas remembered from the few encounters with the old lot from the firm was Charlie des Voeux (of course) and the rather wan looking admin assistant Edmund Hoar who he remembered everyone calling Remy for some reason. Then there was the man that Thomas didn’t recognize at all: tall, built, with a mop of scraggly blonde hair nearly grown to his eyes and an untrimmed beard. This year’s model was nothing like Billy, but he was staring at Cornelius as he spoke the same way Billy used to. He was silent, blinking now and then as he took pulls from a bottle of dark import beer.

 

Thomas could only begin to imagine what sort of manic nonsense was coming out of Cornelius' mouth. 

 

“Does he still fancy himself an attorney?” Thomas said offhandedly, still training his eye on Cornelius’ sandy blonde hair and the faint strawberry sheen of his beard as gave the scraggly man a sharp smile, toying with the point of his elbow.

 

Billy barked a harsh laugh. 

 

“He’s never going to be more than a fucking paralegal,” he spit. 

 

“Do you think he did it on purpose?” Henry asked, voice low.

 

“He doesn’t do anything not on purpose,” Billy snapped. “Do you know he’s going by Neil now?” He was holding Thomas’ arm in a pinching cling. 

 

Thomas had to give Cornelius credit: he certainly didn’t do anything halfway.

“Just relax,” Thomas said softly to Billy, his voice slipping into the mode he usually used for patients, or his parents. He patted his hand and shook him off. “Let nanny get you your medicine and he won’t bother you.” 

 

“Thomas, please try not to threaten him this time,” Billy said, the fight wilting out of him all at once. “He’s dating the fucking Terminator or something.”

 

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” Thomas placated. He knew his face was flinty - he could feel it.

 

Cornelius knew better than to fuck with him, but it never hurt to broadcast it openly. It also made the task of getting to the bar less arduous. People parted more easily for him once they got a good look.  

 

He posted himself at the end of the bar, by the swinging door and the sink, waiting for Diggle to notice him. After a few moments of chatting with Mr. Honey and Mr. Reid, true regulars, the older man looked up and did a double take when he recognized who it was. 

 

“Tommy Jopson at my bar?”

 

“Tom!” Reid and Honey chorused from afar with a raise of their glasses, Tom smiling sheepishly back.


Diggle grinned, banging his hand on the bar and hitching up his trousers as he walked over.  

 

“How have you been, son? It’s been God knows how long since I saw you washing up at this lousy joint.”

 

“I’m doing alright,” Thomas replied, taking Diggle’s damp hand when he offered it. The older man squeezed it hard and patted his arm a few times, tickled.

 

“That’s wonderful. Frank getting on?”

 

“As always,” Thomas said, and Diggle laughed loudly, mopping at his face with the towel always over his shoulder. 

 

“The stories I could tell about your dad and Tom Blanky sitting just where you’re standing,” he went on. “Jesus H. Christ. Now that was a long fuckin’ time ago.”

 

“I’ll save them both the embarrassment,” Thomas chuckled, Diggle shaking his head at some recollection. The pub’s owner took a short breath. 

 

“We heard about James. Terrible stuff, that cancer.”

 

“He’s doing much better,” Thomas said brightly, folding his arms on the bar. Diggle’s expression shifted into relief. “Scans all look very good and he’s back to all his old tricks, no worry there.” 

 

“That’s fantastic,” Diggle nodded, reaching out to clap his hand on Thomas’ shoulder and then point at him. “You tell them to come in to celebrate soon. I miss listening to that lot argue.”

 

The old man’s eyes softened, and then a furrow crawled between his brow before Thomas could say anything about it. 

 

“Wasn’t that Billy Gibson I just saw right before you came over here?” He tugged at the bandanna keeping his bald head from dripping all over everyone. 

 

“He got a little spooked,” Thomas said, nodding over towards the other end of the bar. Diggle turned and his already ruddy face flushed. Thomas stared at the back of Cornelius’ head and he must have sensed it, because he glanced over, pointed face pinching in recognition. 

 

There it was. That tenuous thing between the two of them. Even when things were good with Billy (however fleeting) there was an instant, silent, recognition of just exactly where the other’s soft spots were whenever they encountered each other. 

 

Tom knew, quite plainly, that Cornelius thought he was no better than himself: a fraud, with a better, more expensive, mask. Nothing but a poor, trashy, cast off from government services who somehow managed to belly-crawl his way out. There was more than one veiled remark to prove it; all Tom would need was something even slightly more explicit to give him an excuse to make himself plain on just what he thought.

 

Thomas unclenched his fist to give a wave, the picture of innocence, and the taller man - the new boyfriend, he figured – brushed at his shoulder, no doubt asking who he was. Cornelius did nothing in response, giving Thomas a long unblinking look. Finally he smirked before turning back around. 

 

Better in the long run, and for his record, that Hickey had the perverse tendency of only openly acknowledging anything at his own convenience.

 

“He’s no sight for sore eyes,” Diggle sighed. “Usual for you Tommy? I think I remember.”

 

“Please,” Thomas said, fishing for his wallet. “And vodka on the rocks for Billy.”

 

“He has the lemon twist, right?” 

 

“That’s the one,” he tapped his credit card out on the bar and Diggle bent down to get a clean glass. He let his eye slide back to Cornelius again, squinting slightly at his lean frame. It had been two years since their nuclear explosion of a breakup and he still couldn’t conceive of exactly what the fuck it was that Billy ever saw in him. 

 

He’d barely caught sight of his profile when his view was obstructed by a brown head of hair. 

 

“Sorry, bit tight,” the man said and Thomas edged over where he could. 

 

“No worries.” Thomas moved his shoulder so it wasn’t prodding the man square in the chest. 

 

“Be right with you,” Diggle said, pulling a bottle of Smirnoff off the backlit shelf, and the guy didn’t say anything. 

 

“Make that a double, Mr. Diggle,” Thomas called as an afterthought, trying to see around the man for another glance of Hickey. Off to the side Diggle continued to tip the vodka into the glass. 


“That sort of night?” 

 

Thomas looked to the man standing beside him and his mouth quirked at the unexpected address. 

 

“Hopefully not,” Thomas laughed lightly, fidgeting with his credit card, turning it over between his knuckles. “But one never can tell…” 

 

The man gave him a sidelong glance.

 

“It’s for a friend,” Thomas added, as if that made any difference, or he cared. The man lifted his chin and a sliver of a smile dug into his cheek and then vanished a moment later. 

 

“Here’s that,” Diggle said, setting the vodka in front of him. “What were you having, mate?”

 

“Guinness and a Stella.”

“Right -,”

 

Thomas stood in silence, looking at the memorabilia tacked up to the walls: pictures of local sports teams and newspaper clippings. There was one over the cash register – a lengthy article (a glowing love-letter, really) with a grainy familiar square photograph of the pub’s grimy storefront - that Thomas knew very well by the name just below the blocky title: F.R.M. Crozier.

 

He smiled, eyes moving along alleged visitors to the establishment, the famous people and football stars who may or may not have actually signed the headshots behind dusty glass frames. Then there was, of course, the ancient, moldering, stuffed polar bear on the wall above the bar. It’d been there as long as Thomas could remember, frozen with its mouth opened in a shiny growl and its black marbled eyes a bit too round to be particularly scary. 

 

While he waited he pulled his own phone out, taking a poorly lit picture of its ugly head and dropping it into a text to Silna. 

 

“You think it’s real?”

 

Thomas snapped his eyes up from where he was texting those literal words, thinking he’d tricked himself into the narration. 

 

He was looking at the bear, his face turned away, and Thomas stared at the back of his ear and the angled edge of his jaw for a moment. 

 

He was about his height maybe a half inch under, and well-proportioned for it. He needed a haircut, and his sideburns were a mess, which wasn’t doing him any favors, but when Tom chanced a semi-interested look down he saw he filled out his plain straight cut tan trousers all right.

 

Good legs, meaty arse but not from working out - he was soft at the edges. His shoes were plain brown loafers that had seen better days, but Thomas had to fight mentioning it when he saw that he was sporting loudly patterned socks. He must have come out just after work.  

 

He immediately pulled his eyes up when the man reached around, pulling a money clip from his back pocket.

 

“The bear,” he went on, as though Thomas didn’t know, or clearly hadn’t heard him. “I’ve always wondered.”


He faced Thomas more fully now. On any other build his head might have been too big, but he was square in the chest and shoulders and his features were balanced by his straight nose and mild mouth below his heavy brow. 

 

He met Thomas’ eyes and for a brief moment Thomas was a bit taken aback. For some reason, it hadn’t sunk in properly that he was talking to him, let alone read his mind out of nowhere. His heart drummed a little quicker. He searched the man’s face again, and saw nothing but sincerity, not the smarmy sort of chatting up he was used to when he got picked out by men he didn’t know. 

 

“I don’t know,” Thomas replied with a slow blink, looking back up to the bear. “I-I’ve never bothered to ask. You’d think I would have by now,” he smiled but when he met the man’s eyes again, they were expectant. Like he was waiting to hear the rest. Thomas’ mouth parted slightly, wracking his brain for something more to say. 

 

Someone at the karaoke mic started up a pretty convincing rendition of George Michael’s Faith, even if the lyrics were a little garbled, and just as the person got going Diggle carefully set down the three beer glasses before them, separating Thomas’ from the others.  

 

Thomas slid his credit card forward and Diggle gave him a knowing look, winking. 


“I’ll put it on the tab, Tom. And you mate?” 

 

The man laid a bill down to settle up and told him to keep the change, Thomas hurrying his card away and picking up the drinks. 

 

“Is that bear real?”


Thomas paused, looking where the man was leaning in towards Diggle again.  


“What?” Diggle said, and then looked over his shoulder when the man tipped his head in its direction. 

 

“Oh, fuck if I know,” he laughed loudly, shrugging. “Found it at a flea market ages ago. Must have been ninety-seventy-something. Thought it would do well to have something uglier than I was by the till. Certainly gives the place its name, right?”

 

“Thanks,” the man said, monotone, picking up his drinks. 

 

“I sent a picture to my boss’ wife,” Thomas suddenly said and both of them - Diggle and the stranger - hesitated.

 

The man was wide-eyed this time, like a deer caught in the headlights, at the sound of his voice. 

 

“To ask her,” Thomas said quickly, realizing that what he’d said made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Diggle’s pale eyes bounced from Thomas to the stranger and then back again, his expression muddled. 

 

“His wife is from Canada. Northern Canada. So, she ought to know, right?”

“Ohhhh,” Diggle said after a moment, the clarity striking him. He beat his palm on the bar. “Best something? Doctor Best? Or was it Goody? That’s right. His wife is from there - what’s her name again? She’s real quiet.”

 

“Silna,” Thomas said, flashing a quick smile and feeling his cheeks heating up as the man’s brown unrelenting eyes bore into him. He didn’t bother to explain that Silna was actually hard-of-hearing. “I’ll be sure to let you know, if she tells me,” he laughed, waving his phone and picking the glasses, focusing on them instead of the way the man was still staring at him. 

 

“Christ, sorry,” Thomas said, finding that he and the man had knocked into each other as they tried to step off at the same time, beer splashing in a spot on the floor out of his glass. “Did it get on you?” Thomas automatically stepped far too close, searching over his front for signs of a stain. The man’s chin tipped to his chest, showing off an impressive cowlick at the crown of his head. 

 

Thomas caught a sudden whiff of generic cologne. 

 

“Don’t think so,” the man said a bit stiffly, looking up at Thomas. His eyes were a meltingly warm dark brown and confused, but the rest of his expression blank. “Er, after you,” he gestured awkwardly with his elbow and Thomas gave him a grateful look. 

 

“Cheers!” he said, trying to cover his embarrassment. The guy’s mouth twisted. He managed to bite out a rather grim sounding Cheers as well, heading off in the other direction.

 

Thomas blew a large breath out of his mouth as he made his way back to Billy and Henry, tossing his head to try and get a strand of hair back into place before it fell into his eyes. To say he was rusty with human interaction was becoming a very obvious understatement. He tried to extend the performance to Graham Gore and found the result a resounding and spectacular failure. 

 

“Where did you go for this?” Billy said, as soon as he was in earshot. He reached greedily for the glass. “Russia?”

 

“I don’t think he cares,” Thomas said quickly, realizing he had forgotten all about Hickey. “I waved and he didn’t seem interested.”

 

“He’s biding his time,” Billy muttered darkly, taking a drink with a bit too much enthusiasm. 

 

“You seemed like you got a bit caught up,” Henry said.


“Catching up with Diggle,” Thomas said lightly, finally taking a drink of his beer. His mouth was quite dry. “He asked about how James was doing...”

 

He glanced down at his phone when it vibrated. 

 

definitely fake. 🐻

 

Tom felt himself blush unexpectedly and looked up and around, searching for the guy from earlier, gnawing on the inside of his cheek - 

 

“I need a cigarette,” Billy said, leaning his head down dramatically into the palm of his hand, the ice in his vodka clinking. “Come out with me, please?” He pleaded, looking out from his thin pale lashes, cheekbones flushed.

 

“You quit,” Harry said to Billy. “Remember?”

 

Billy moaned.

 

“Billy, he’s moved on,” Thomas said firmly, stashing his phone and taking another deliberate sip before he continued. “You need to stop torturing yourself. I know you still follow him on all your things. It isn’t healthy.”

 

Billy took a sharp breath and then laid his face entirely in the crook of his arm, making another low, despondent noise. 

 

“I think that’s what he was afraid of, Tommy,” Henry said, sympathetically rubbing Billy’s shoulder, and Thomas rolled his eyes again. 

 

joey

 

“Do we know him?”

 

“Who?” George looked up from his tequila sunrise, craning his head past Edward’s body as he sat back down across from him at the cramped high-top, pushing John’s pint towards him a bit too hard so a little bit of beer sloshed out.

 

“That guy back there,” Edward continued, ignoring John’s scowl and jerking his head in the direction he had come from. There were knots of people drifting to and from the bar, the lines swirling and eddying as they got distracted and moved by each other. “In that red jumper. I nearly knocked him over coming back. Is he a server or something? I swear I recognize him. Or he recognized me.”

 

George looked around and then his eyes rounded in interest, lighting on who he suspected was the man in question. He was tall, with the physique of some kind of swimmer: all shoulders and long lean lines everywhere else. His jumper, as Edward mentioned, was quite red and quite smart looking with his chambray shirt (a stand out in a sea of young professional light jackets and casual Friday t-shirts and designer trainers). Whether or not George could say he recognized him or not was hard to decide. His hair was very black and cut a bit old fashioned with a deep side part, which was a bit striking, but truly he didn’t know.  

 

Based on how his nights at the White Bear usually shook out it wasn’t a surprise to him that he could have been convinced either way. What was far more interesting was Edward deigning to notice anybody, which forced him to play along out of sheer curiosity. 

 

“I think he might be, you’re right! Look again, to be sure.”

 

“Well, George, now that you’ve made a point to stare you might as well go up and ask him,” Edward grunted, refusing to turn around even when George prodded his arm. 


“He’s not a server,” John interrupted, blotting at the spill with a square napkin. 


“How would you know?” George tutted, pinching his two straws together and taking a pull off of his own drink. 

 

“Because,” John huffed, eyes bouncing between the two of them and his shoulders drawing up. “I pay attention.”

 

“I pay attention! I pay all kinds of attention, don’t I Ed.”

Edward looked at him over the rim of his glass in a way that communicated he had no comment on the matter. 

 

“He’s not a server,” John repeated, before George could launch into anything properly. “He’s a regular that’s all. He usually sits in that corner by the karaoke with a few of his friends.”

 

“Why do you know so much about this?” Edward said with clear suspicion, his brow furrowing. 


“My Lord, are you stalking the man? That sounds positively deviant Johnny,” George added, and John could only cough in disgust, busying himself in his drink.

“What else am I supposed to do when you’re watching your games,” he mumbled, taking another long sip. 

   

“Do you suppose we’re regulars?” George said after a moment of blatantly ignoring John. 


“What?” Edward replied, swallowing. 

 

“You know! Regulars, here,” he tapped the table top. “I mean, we come most Fridays now.” 

 

“Sure,” Edward agreed. 


“I just think it’s sort of exciting! I’ve never been a regular anywhere. Except maybe the chippy near my office.”

 

“I don’t see how this has anything to do with anything,” Edward remarked and George put his hand flat on the table. 


“Well, it just goes to show if that man is a regular, and he’s here enough that John can stalk him, then we have to be too, right?”

 

“I’m not stalking him,” John said, shaking his head. 

 

“Well, praying over him, whatever it is you do,” George waved off. “The point is maybe we should put in a bit more effort. Try to get to know this place! Make ourselves known. Show our appreciation a little more.”

 

Edward blanched. 

 

“You make it sound a bit like harassment, George,” John said and George scoffed. 

 

“He was friendly with the bartender,” Edward added. “He didn’t have to pay.” 

 

“What?” George exclaimed, agog. 

 

“That is something a regular would do,” John said, tipping his glass thoughtfully towards Edward.

 

“I think there was something going on.”

 

“Between him and the bartender?” George looked at Diggle over Edward’s shoulder. “I mean...“

 

“Not like that,” Edward coughed, his face getting hot. “No, like he knew his situation. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter…”

 

“A situation, eh?” George cocked his eyebrow and looked back towards the man-in-the-red-jumper. “His friend looks like he’s had too much already,” George commented, taking another drink of his tequila. 

 

“Will you mind your business?” Edward muttered. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

 

“That’s your problem Ed, you never have any interest in others,” George pointed out, smacking his lips, sticking a pale finger at him. “Sarah and I were just talking about this - it wouldn’t hurt for you to speculate every now and again. It adds a little mystery to life. A little spice! That man in the red jumper could be anybody, and he caught your eye. Don’t you feel like that means something?”

 

“George, you’re getting a little carried away,” John said gently. “I think they just bumped into each other on accident.”

 

“If Ed didn’t want me to get carried away he shouldn’t have brought it up on Mad Lad’s night,” George replied.  

 

“Mad Lads?” John aske. George leaned towards him, his voice lifting incredulously.

 

“Yes, Johnny, from the snapchat group. Do you ever even check it?” 

 

“Check it?”

 

George grumbled an unintelligible noise around a handful of Bombay mix from the little paper tray centered between them. 

 

“He took a photo of the bear.”


“That thing?” George said, squinting as he crunched on a noodle. Edward nodded.

“I asked him,” he continued, swallowing a drink of beer. “If he knew if it was real, and he said he didn’t know - but that he ought to have known.” 

 

“Why?” John said. “It’s fake,” he went on, looking between his friends as though this was a painfully obvious fact (it was) and he was stunned at it being called into question (he was).

 

George and Edward ignored him (as usual).

 

“He started talking about his boss’ wife, who is apparently from  northern Canada and would know if it was or not.”

 

“He told you all that?” George marveled. 

 

“That can’t be a real bear’s head,” John insisted, sounding disgusted with the very idea. He was trying to see it around Edwards bulk, frowning. “I mean - it can’t be real. I think the paint is literally chipping off its teeth.”

 

“I think he might have recognized me,” Edward investigated his Guinness for a beat, voice dropping so he was talking mostly to himself. “I just can’t figure where from.”

 

“Hmm,” George considered, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Do you think you’ve maybe gone home with him?”


“What?” John sputtered, before Edward even had the chance to retort. 

 

“What?” George furthered. “He’s clearly Ed’s type.”

 

“I do not have a type -,”


“Of course you do,” George scoffed. “Everyone has a type! My type,” he splayed his hand on his chest. “Is perfection incarnate, Sarah, and yours is twinks. That guy, he’s a twink, right?” 


“A what,” John gasped and George leaned back, affronted. 


“A twink! Edward likes those. I think. Do you like those? Sarah said that last one you were talking to was a twink. Whatever happened to him?”

 

“Was it?” John boggled, blinking. 

 

“I’m not drunk enough for all this,” Edward grit out defeatedly, lifting his glass and draining half of it in one very impressive go. “And stop, for the love of God,” he said, using his free hand to rub his thumb at the deep wrinkles on his brow, shaking his head like he was in a great deal of pain, lowering his voice.  “Saying the word twink I am begging you. You don’t even know what it means.”

 

“I’m just trying to be more in touch!” George bleated. “With the,” his hand circled in the air and he looked to John for help. 

 

“The community,” John supplied, beet red and with the energy of someone slamming the buzzer on a gameshow. 

 

“Yes! The community! This is all very new to us, you know, well - I mean, new-ish, now that you’ve made it official.” He shrugged and John nervously fidgeted with his glass while Edward pinched the bridge of his nose. 

 

“Sarah says you’re what they call a cub, by the way,” George observed after a moment, giving Edward a once over. “You could be a bear if you had more of a gut - ,” he stopped in his tracks. “Edward, do you think that man was coming on to you, with the bear? He was making a signal maybe! A code.” 

 

John’s mouth dropped open. 

 

“No!” Edward bit, now red himself. “Jesus -,” he looked around to be sure no one nearby was hearing the insane conversation he was now captive to, particularly the guy in the red jumper. “And stop talking about me with your girlfriend,” he hissed as an afterthought, picking his glass up, and then putting it down only to think better and pick it back up. “Buy me a fucking shot for every time you just said that.” 

 

“That’s the spirit. That’s Ed The Head,” George said, his light eyes blazing as he watched Ed down it in a few impressive gulps. He banged his fist on the table, John scrambling to cover the top of his glass with his palm. 

 

“Hold on to that Johnny, I have a feeling this is going to be an absolute one for the books.” 

Chapter Text

It was becoming that kind of night.

 

“Harry Peglar! I thought I saw you back there!”

 

“Oh, Cornelius -.”

 

Thomas met Harry’s panicked eye, Hickey’s hand on his shoulder to pull him around. Thomas cursed. They nearly made it out the door unscathed.

 

“It’s Neil now, isn’t it?”


“Billy,” Thomas hissed, snatching Billy’s elbow even as he yanked it back. Thomas mentally groaned again and leaned in, mouth as close to Billy’s ear as he could get it. “Let it go, Billy, come on.” 

 

You let go,” Billy snapped, shrugging him off, and Thomas bit down on the desire to take him by the ear and drag him out. He could just see Hickey around Billy’s side, and watched him pat Harry on the back twice.

 

Billy balled his fist at his side.


“It is,” Hickey replied with a soft smile, flicking his eyes up and down. “You haven’t changed a bit, Billy.”

 

“Billy, let’s have a fag,” Thomas leaned up to whisper as Billy scoffed. Thomas circled his hand around the top of Billy’s arm imploringly. “The door is right there. Say ta and we’ll fuck right off -”

 

“How have you been, Tom?” Hickey’s voice sliced across the noise. “I heard about James. Terrible,” he made an exaggerated frowning face, eyes glassing. “How’s Frank taking it? I hope he didn’t relapse. I know it’s a hard disease – that booze. Sure the stress didn’t help.”

 

For one blink the anger that exploded inside of Thomas’ head was so white-hot he considered throttling Hickey right there.

 

But then Billy’s neck twisted, and Thomas saw his friend looking back at him with his eyes wide and terrified. He swallowed the rage down, forcing a smile.

 

“How thoughtful of you to ask,” he said. “You always had a knack for remembering little things. We’re all doing wonderful.”

 

“That’s good, I was worried. Haven’t seen you around much at all so I knew it was serious,” Hickey said, that false sympathy still hanging in his fair eyes for a moment before his brows lifted in exaggerated surprise. “Oh, how rude of me – God,” he touched his own temple, chuckling.

 

“Sol,” he laughed, reaching around Harry to tug on the shirt of the shaggy blonde. Sol.

 

Sol turned around, wobbling slightly, taking them all in. Billy leaned slightly back, pressing against Thomas’ front.

 

“This is… well. This is Solomon,” Hickey smiled, tugging Solomon closer, hand smoothing down his bicep. “Solomon, this is Billy – I’ve told you. He was my partner before.”

 

Billy tensed.

 

“Right,” Sol said in a rough voice, staring at Billy, clearly sizing him up. “Yeah.”

 

Thomas felt Billy’s hand blindly catch his own where no one could see and he squeezed it reassuringly.

 

“And this is Harry Peglar,” Hickey continued, patting Harry again on the back, and then looking to Thomas. “And Billy’s good friend, Thomas Jopson. You do prefer Jopson, right? Or Fitzjames-Crozier?”

 

“Enough, Cornelius,” Billy snapped, and Hickey sighed.


“I’m not trying to play any games, Billy. You’re always so suspicious.”

 

Solomon’s eyes ticked between all of them.

 

“I was just telling Sol how we’ve all been running into each other for years,” Hickey continued. He brushed a speck off of Solomon’s shirt. “I was really proud of that it hadn’t changed. I don’t want it to be contentious. I want us to always be able to talk. It’s so troubling when exes can’t even talk to each other.”

 

“Devastating,” Thomas said through another clenched smile before looking to Harry. “Speaking of talking, Harry, didn’t you say you were going to call John? He must be waiting.”

 

“That’s right,” Harry said. “Signal is bad in here,” he added, looking at Hickey who appeared purposefully upset.


“Don’t let us keep you!” He exclaimed. “Please, there’s plenty more time to get caught up,” he gestured at the door. “Tell him I say hello! I always liked John.”

 

“Will do,” Harry said, following Thomas where he was already steering Billy out the door and into the cold air.

 

They said nothing, walking all the way down the sidewalk to the corner of the pub where they stopped and Billy finally raised a shaking hand to his face.

 

“Do not even start,” Thomas said, smacking his hands away. “You’re just drunk,” he went on. “Or not drunk enough.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Billy sniffled, and Thomas shook his head, reaching for the cigarette Harry procured from his pocket. He let Harry light it, took a few puffs, and passed it to Billy who began greedily sucking it down. He hunched his shoulders to his ears, bouncing on his toes, to stave off the tears.

 

“Well, he deserves the fucking BAFTA for that performance,” Thomas said airily after a moment of them puffing silently away. He flicked ash off onto the pavement, glancing at Harry who gave a sudden laugh. “But I think we handled it surprisingly well.”

 

He reached up to fuss with one of Billy’s curls and Billy leaned away from him, slumping against the corner of the building.

“He’s such a fucking prick,” Billy hissed, dropping the cigarette and grinding it under his loafer. “All that fucking new-age bullshit. God. You know he doesn’t actually believe half of what he’s even saying…”

 

Harry immediately started tapping another out for him. “I’ll buy you another pack Pegs,” Billy said sullenly, and Harry reassured him it was fine.

 

“Here’s to trying to fucking quit,” he muttered around it as he spun the lighter wheel behind his cupped hands.

 

Thomas chuckled, blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth. His nose twitched in the cold and he tugged down his sleeves, resting the hand not holding his cigarette in the crook of his arm. It was a pretty night, the fresh air and nicotine sobering him up. Earlier drizzle was drying on the pavement and the road, reflecting the sheen of cabs and cars rolling by and the glint of the White Bear’s lit sign.

 

He closed his eyes, listening to the chatter of other smokers and the pub’s old door opening and closing with a faint squeak.

 

“We should do shots when we go back in,” he said, suddenly.

 

“I’m game,” Henry said, clearing his throat. “What have you got in mind?”

 

They looked at Billy, who blinked in the dim light.

 

“Lemon drops,” Thomas smiled, and Billy made an unamused sound.

 

“Lemon drops, come on Thomas,” Henry dismissed. “Better be tequila.”

 

“William Gibson loves lemon drops,” Thomas insisted, getting excited. He rocked closer to Billy and bumped their elbows together. 

 

“You’re just trying to push your luck,” Billy croaked, taking another drag and eyeing him over the cherry. “Don’t.”

 

“Me? Never,” Thomas tutted, tapping more ash. “I just want to have a lovely time with my dear friend Billy. I wouldn’t get into trouble on purpose.”

 

“Ohhhhh yes,” Billy chuckled, coughing slightly into his fist. “Oh yes, I remember you. The most well behaved little girl in the world. She never picks fights.”

 

“That’s right, I’m just adorable,” Thomas said back, fluttering his lashes and kicking one foot out. “Do you want to see my report card?”

 

“Your daddy’s already shown me,” Billy teased and Thomas laughed harder, tipping forward, Billy adopting an over-wrought RP accent. “She’s such a good girl officer, she would never-ever-ever -”

 

Thomas straightened up, still laughing. He glanced aside, twitching the cigarette in his fingers as it pared down almost to the end. He looked back at the bar, smoke pillowing around his face, shifting his hips and then stilled.

 

Billy’s voice drifted on in the background, along with a swell of music from the bar as the door opened.

 

The man edged along the outside wall a few feet down near the door. He was wearing a blue jacket now, the shoulders bunched awkwardly over his shirt. It rucked even more as he began searching the pockets for something, feet scuffing on the sidewalk in a drunk amble.

 

He paused his walking for a moment, swaying gently in place and digging around till one of his hands came out clutching a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Thomas watched him sort it out, juggling them both and hold his phone - which was lighting up at regular intervals. It was interrupting the process to the point that Tom nearly laughed in shared frustration.

 

The hair shaking over his forehead when he bent over the screen was wavier than Thomas remembered, but it had been about an hour and the bar was always so bloody hot.

 

It made him look silly and unkempt – boyish. He didn’t seem to notice it at all, or care. Thomas wondered if that’s what had driven him outside.

 

He stopped again; lifted his head.

 

God he was handsome. At this distance he reminded him of someone. Richard Rankin? The hair was long enough, so maybe.

 

Richard Rankin with brown eyes.

 

Richard-Rankin-With-Brown-Eyes looked around confusedly and Thomas took another distracted drag on his cigarette.

 

What was it James was always crowing about? Find someone with brown eyes so I have somebody to talk to -

 

He met Thomas’ gaze across the short distance.

 

“Tom, careful!” Harry said suddenly, Thomas jumping back and dropping the cigarette that was nearly burning to his fingers. He watched it smolder and then tapped it with his boot, frowning. 

 

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Billy hissed. “Is he really coming over here?”

 

Thomas’ heart skipped and his head snapped back up. The man was still staring at him –

 

Thomas’ brow furrowed as Hickey knocked roughly past him.

 

“Pardon me,” he heard him simper on his heel, the man jostled and rocking back to get his balance. Thomas opened his mouth to say something, looking on as Hickey got closer and closer, the man standing still and peering at him again.

 

“Mind if I bum a smoke, boys?”

Hickey was leaning in now, hands hidden in the pockets of the Army surplus coat he wore everywhere. He smiled at each of them, Henry sighing and doling out another cigarette.

 

“Aren’t you ever satisfied?” Billy said icily, watching him light up. “You have a new toy to tear the head off of.”

 

Cornelius said nothing but grinned crookedly, moving the cigarette to the corner of his mouth. Thomas’ eyes narrowed in disgust.

 

“HEY!”

They all jerked, turning in tandem.

 

Two strangers smoking on the opposite end of the sidewalk parted for a figure lurching out of the bar. Thomas watched, puzzled, as it stumbled, cursing and shouting.


A few steps ahead, Richard-Rankin-With-Brown-Eyes was walking slowly towards them, not paying attention to the commotion unfolding. He was too busy looking at Thomas.

 

“Oh my god - ,” Thomas heard himself say breathlessly at the same time he realized it was Solomon behind him. Solomon, who was furious. Solomon who was shouting Hickey’s name.

 

Solomon yelled.

 

Thomas saw his own hand reaching out like he meant to somehow catch the heavy pint glass that flew from Solomon’s hand. It cracked gruesomely against the back of the other man’s skull –

 

The man pitched forward, staggered, and then caught himself, his hand flying to the back of his head. Glass exploded all over the pavement. He seemed steady for a moment, staring forward in shock, but then he wobbled, swinging harshly to the right. He dropped his lighter and the cigarettes, his own feet sending them kicking out in opposite directions.

 

“Watch out!” Harry yelled just as someone else did, but it didn’t matter. He smacked face first into a light pole hard enough make it shiver. Thomas made an involuntary sound in the back of his throat, the man’s legs buckling.

 

He fell unevenly to the ground, hard.

 

Thomas didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he started yelling at Billy to call an ambulance. Hickey’s body bounced off him as he ran forward, coming to a skidding stop beside the man.

 

He was clearly unconscious, and blood was pouring down his face.

 

“Tom, Billy doesn’t know what to tell them!” 

 

“Just say head injury!” Thomas called back. He tried to think – berating himself for being drunk on his night out. “Uh – head injury, back of the head – definitely lacerations – and that he’s been drinking -!”

 

He dropped to his knees and began opening his jacket – thankful it was a snap -  to get at his shirt, quickly unbuttoning the collar. The man’s eyes fluttered and his face twitched.

 

“Sir?” Thomas shouted. The man’s face twitched again as Thomas checked for his pulse. He hurriedly pulled his sleeve back with his teeth to see his watch, shaking his hand slightly to get it to blink to life. He timed it, mouthing the numbers to himself. Not terrible, all things considering.

 

“Sir?” Thomas said loudly again, looking back at him. He was moving his head slightly, probably because of the blood dripping all down his face. He made a soft noise and Thomas reached for his hand, pinching his finger tips.


“Sir can you feel that? Can you squeeze my hand if you can hear me?”

 

The man’s hand flexed and then curled around his own, squeezing faintly.

 

“Absolutely fantastic,” Thomas praised, voice lowering with relief. “Sir, you’ve gotten hit on the head and you’ve lost consciousness – I’m a nurse and I’m going to loosen your belt and your buttons a little so you can breathe better and be a little more comfortable, ok? Can you squeeze my hand again?”

 

The man squeezed his hand and then muttered something unintelligible. Thomas started untucking his shirt but had to stop halfway through to put his hand firmly on the man’s chest as he tried to sit up. The man’s arm flopped up to clutch at his wrist.

 

“Don’t move, alright! Can you lie still for me? Squeeze my wrist if you understand – just, that’s it. Brilliant. You just lay there, sweetheart, and I’m going to work on this for a moment...”

 

He got the belt undone and shook his head at the sheer irony of it all, feeling gently over the man’s pockets. The man had his hands raised awkwardly now, and he was craning his head to look down. Thomas put his hand on the center of his chest once more, making a note to keep it there.

 

“Darling, lie back, please, you’ve got to keep your head down. I can’t check your neck – Harry?!”

 

“Here Tom!” Harry said, closer than Thomas expected. 

 

“Harry, can you run in and get some towels?” He flicked his head, to keep some hair out of his face. “Oh wait, wait – let me check something hold on,” he held up a hand as Harry went backing away.

 

He looked back at the man’s face, trying to see his eyes under all the blood and mop of his hair.

 

“I’m going to reach in your trouser pocket here and get your wallet for ID, ok?”

 

“Sure,” the man slurred, Thomas probing more. Nothing in his fronts. He looked up to the dark sky, blinking in the streetlight as he wedged his hand under the man’s backside. He grunted, moving him as little as possible so he could dig the money clip out of his back pocket, wiggling it loose. He yanked the folded over bills out and held the ID out under the light from the lamppost.

 

“Can you tell me your name?”

 

The man said something and Thomas leaned down to hear him better.

 

“Andrew…” he muttered. Thomas looked back at the ID.

 

“Tom, they’re on their way, police as well,” Billy puffed, jogging over. Thomas looked up at his troubled face.

 

“Can you run in and see if anyone knows an Edward Little, I think he has friends in there – and towels. I’ll need several – thick ones, please, we’ll use them for his neck. Edward? Can you listen to me carefully: Do you feel anything in your back? Or your neck? Anything hurting? Don’t shake your head – just say yes or no if you can.”

 

“…Nuh,” the man said softly, which Thomas took as a mostly good sign. Billy and Harry’s footsteps trailed away back into the bar.

 

“Can you wiggle your toes? Can you wiggle your foot for me?”

 

He looked down is leg and Edward shook his foot roughly side to side, his moccasin coming loose.

 

Thomas glanced up, catching the sight of Hickey talking low to an equally horrified and dazed looking Solomon.

 

The man pawed at his hand and Thomas looked down, holding the ID in his palm.


“A-star. Now can you tell me your full name?” The man mumbled something again, his eyes bouncing around in his sockets.

 

“ED!”

 

Footsteps pounded and two men spilled out onto the curb, coming immediately for them.

 

“Edward! Oh Christ!” A voice sobbed. “George! George – is he dead? Oh Christ - !”

 

“He’s going to be ok!” Thomas said loudly, holding up a hand. “He’ll just be just fine, just give him some room for now!”

“Who are you?! Wait -,” The pale blonde cried, stepping forward despite the direction. The other, younger looking one, was falling to pieces, near weeping in duress and hanging off the blonde for dear life. “You’re that guy that Ed was talking to!”


Thomas felt his heart do something funny.

 

“Mr. Red Jumper something-about-a-bear!” The blonde continued, now pointing at Thomas accusingly. “Did you see what happened?”

 

“I’m a nurse,” Thomas offered, ignoring the rest, switching to his calm work voice. “I’m just doing first aid. He’s got a head injury and he was knocked out for a moment.”

 

“Knocked out?” George cried.

 

“I told you he wasn’t a server!” His friend yelled, still clutching George’s arm. Thomas was taken aback momentarily. Server?

 

The brunette peered at Thomas over George’s shoulder, and Thomas could see he was getting angry, face going red. “Is he going to be alright? If someone – if someone did anything! I’ll kill somebody, I s-swear it! That’s my BEST FRIEND!” He sobbed. Thomas blanched, holding up his hand again. 

 

“It’s alright Johnny!” George bleated, putting his own hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Just pull it together, I’m handling it!” Then, turning back to Thomas, “is he going to be alright? Did someone – what happened?”


He looked around.

 

“Does anybody know what happened?!” He demanded again, and Thomas started to say something before Billy intervened, stepping into frame behind them.

 

“Easy lads, easy, just come over here, gentlemen, I’ll try to explain – we’ve got the ambulance on the way,” he coaxed, herding them along the building and away from the murmuring accumulation of onlookers.

 

Thomas looked down at Edward Little again. He was blinking slow, affected, blinks.

 

“…What h-hit me?” Edward Little said, puzzled.

“A beer glass,” Thomas said with a shake of his head, his hand still on his chest.

 

If Thomas knew Edward Little any better he would know he wasn’t really a man for philosophizing. He considered himself far too practical for that sort of thing and found (from a well of personal experience) that people who worried about it usually were just trying to distract themselves from more urgent matters at hand. 

 

That being said, he had to admit the first thought that naturally crossed his mind with this knowledge was if it had been empty or full, and whether that mattered at all in the grander scheme of things. 

 

His second thought was that George had certainly been right about it being one for the books and that he would absolutely never hear the end of it. 

 

This was all to say that the occurrence was entirely unexpected and had come on with no warning whatsoever and he was still struggling to get a grip on it. He felt like his brain was literally wobbling around in his head like jelly on a plate, everything wiggling.

 

One minute he’d been tottering outside to have a smoke (which he didn’t usually do, but once he’d gotten going on drinking he’d gotten the itch for it and after slamming a few well-timed shots backed away from the table) the next he heard someone shout something incredibly rude and then the beer glass had come flying out of the dark and his vision popped with bright spots as he hit the pavement. 

 

Which was sort of how he felt just trying to remember -

 

“Sir? Can you hear me? Sir! Stay with me!”

 

Edward felt the odd rush of his consciousness being tugged back from the brink again with a resounding OH! OH! OH! flooding his ears from somewhere, like he’d stumbled into the pit at a show and everything was heaving and whirling and roaring about. 

 

That was very strange, seeing as he’d only been to a few of those sorts of shows, and that was mostly when he was in university. He was not in university any longer - he’d been out of that business for a long time. 

 

At least, he felt like he hadn’t been to uni in a while. He also felt like an anvil was sitting somewhere on the top of his head, and it was very, very, heavy and pushing his neck down like an accordion so that his chin was touching the collar of his shirt.  

 

He was also sweating a lot. 

 

Something pushed back against him, keeping him from moving any further, and he dizzily blinked, trying to focus on the blotchy shape in front of his eyes. It was dark, and looked a bit like a head, but who could really say. 

 

“Sir…?” there was a pause, and the shape - the head -  blurred in movement. He felt his stomach turn a deep somersault just from seeing it and his vision spotted.

 

“Shit’s spinning…” he mumbled.

 

“…Squeeze my hand!”

 

He squeezed his hand. Then he did it again. He couldn’t see very well.

 

Andy would know what the fuck was wrong with him. He was supposed to be the doctor, right?

 

“Andrew…”

 

There was a lot of noise. Too much noise – he couldn’t make sense of hardly any of it. Someone was holding his hand, then they weren’t, then they were holding it again. He still couldn’t see.

 

“Can you tell me your name?” Another shape, fancier than just the head, appeared presented a little rectangle at him.

 

Is that my ID?

That’s what he thought he said. What he actually said was “What?”

 

“Your full name!”

 

“…Little. Edward Little…”

 

He tried to look side to side, away from the rectangle, but the head didn’t want him to do that.

 

“Stay still for me Edward. Do you remember what happened?”

 

It was still very dark. He could tell from the air that he was outside and the hard and damp thing underneath his hand felt gritty as he scraped his palm over it. Pave. He looked down at it, a high-pitched ringing spearing through his head along with the louder, more present throbbing.

 

“Is there a jet?” He asked, reaching up a hand to paw at his forehead. His hair had fallen all in his eyes and he tried to push it away, but no matter how much he moved it he was unable to make out anything any better. Why did he wait so fucking long between haircuts?

 

“A plane? No sir - I’m a nurse,” the voice insisted, a soft squeeze lighting on his shoulder like a Vulcan nerve pinch. “Can you feel that?”

 

He could.

 

“I saw you inside, do you remember? I almost spilled my drink on you - !”

 

“The one in the red jumper?”

 

There was a slight pause. 

 

“Yes, I’m a nurse, did you hear me? They’ve dialed the hospital and some paramedics are going to come and check you out as well - do you remember what happened?”

 

“I’m in the Navy,” Edward clarified, muddling over all the words that weren’t quite making sense. “Was - why’s my hair wet?” 

 

“You’ve had quite a crack on the head and taken a spill, darling.”

 

Darling…

 

“I’m going to gently check you over now that you’re with me a little more, is that alright?”

 

“Sure,” Edward said, admittedly not hearing most of it, though it sounded like a question. “I’m sorry, my ears are buzzing.”

 

“I’m sure they are,” the voice said kindly, with what almost sounded like a laugh (a little strained), and he felt hands prodding along the back of his skull through his sopping hair that he kept blinking out of his eyes. “Is any of that hurting you?”

 

Edward couldn't feel it, so he supposed not. 

 

“No,” he said. 

 

“Ok, I’m going to put these towels down for your neck - I’m just going to move your collar a bit more, ok? I think it’s alright – but better to be safe,” there was a gravely scraping sound as the figure shifted around his side.

 

“Sure,” Edward parroted and felt something moving dully about in his shirt collar before it withdrew. He tilted his chin slightly, looking at himself. The light coming off of the lamp post just in front of him was flickering and he could sort of make out that he was wearing his casual Friday work shirt and the blue jacket his mum got him for Christmas, only there appeared to be a good sized stain on it now. His legs were splayed out in front of him and the laces on one of his mocks was untied because it was loose on his foot. His belt was also open.

 

“Fuck -,” he said, wiggling his foot, like it was the most pressing issue - and maybe it was. The head reappeared slightly more in focus. “My trousers will fall…”

 

As he looked closer he could see The Head held a pair of eyes made dark by the lack of light, and dark hair slashing across a high forehead. The man’s - The Head’s -  The Nurse’s - pale face was like a gibbous moon. 

 

“I won’t let that happen,” The Nurse said. They were holding his face, padding gently. 

 

“That feels nice,” Edward said.

 

The Nurse winced. 


“Edward, you’ve got some some abrasions from the fall and at least two lacerations - can I borrow someone’s phone?” 

 

“Here, mine!” 

 

George came into frame, leaning down with his hands on his knees to stare at him and look worried. 

 

“Edward, can you watch this light for me?” The Nurse used their hand to shield some of it but shone the flashlight from the back of George’s phone back and forth a few times. 

 

Edward squinted, trying to fight closing his eyes. 

 

“Is that good?” George asked, and the Nurse sighed.

“I think he’ll live,” he said calmly. “I think you have a concussion, Mr. Little. They’ll take you to the A and E and make sure, ok? But I think you’ll be alright, just be careful and lie still a tad longer.” 

 

“What happened?” Edward said, blinking heavily. He hated ambulances.

 

“There was a little bit of confusion, and you got nailed with a pint glass, I’m afraid. And then you sort of walked right into that post. Your friends are over there a way, talking it out -,” 

 

“Oh.”

 

John, his brain supplied. Probably John, he was usually a bit more sensible - or was it George? He felt the pieces of the evening smacking about aimlessly in his brain like moths.

 

“What day is it? Is it Friday?” he was starting to feel uncomfortable, the pressure growing though he wasn’t quite sure where to place it.

“It is,” The Nurse said, a little brighter, as though Edward had said something especially clever. 

 

“Oh, thank you,” The Nurse leaned away. He’d turned to someone else and had been handed a towel. There was the sound of water splashing. His head throbbed and he gasped, palming harder at his forehead and the Nurse’s hand gingerly pried it aside. 


“You’ve got an incredible gash on your eyebrow, and it’s bleeding into your eyes, which is why you can’t see too well - I’ve got towel here, and I’m going to try and tidy it a bit for you, ok? It’s going to sting just a little bit ok? But you’re tough, I can tell.”

 

Edward couldn’t say anything, but he felt a sharp sting and the rough texture of the bar towel blotting before the hand still holding his limp wrist positioned his palm flat over it. “Can you hold that for me, Edward?”

 

“I think so,” he muttered, muzzy. He could see quite a bit better now, though his vision was doubling and shaking back into place with every blink. The pavestone was stinging his other hand where he was propping himself up.  

 

“Keep holding that, there we are, you’re doing excellent,” The Nurse said softly, repositioning his hand where it was already beginning to droop. “Are you feeling sleepy?” 

 

“Eh,” Edward thought, assessing. It felt more than sleepy. “Drunk,” he slurred. The streetlights lining the sidewalk were beginning to multiply and list.

 

“Edward, keep talking to me if you can, you only need to stay awake just a bit longer. What were you doing out tonight?” 

 

“Mad Lads,” Edward grunted. 

 

“Like... a boys’ night?” 

 

Edward nodded. His head felt like it weighed a ton. 

 

“That’s sort of fun, me too,” The Nurse said, shifting a little, checking his head. “I have to admit, I didn’t really want to come out tonight - guess we got a bit more than we bargained for?”

 

“Is it bad?” 


“I’ve seen worse,” The Nurse said, and Edward knew they were being honest, which was a relief. “But it won’t be any fun, no. I think you’ll need several staples,” he sighed, still hovering close to him. “I’m sure your friends will tell you later, but I’m very sorry about it -,”

 

“Wasn’t your fault, was it?”

 

“No,” The Nurse started to say. Edward shrugged. 

 

“Did I get blood on you,” Edward pointed at his jumper and The Nurse looked down and made a little surprised noise. 

 

“I suppose we’re even, since I nearly got you earlier. So, Edward Little, where did you get your socks? I wanted to ask -”

 

“Lucky you wore red,” Edward said, still trying to catch up with the first half of the statement, but the words were rolling about in his mouth and everything tasted like coins. 

 

“What was that?” The Nurse leaned in close and Edward’s eyelashes fluttered. 

 

“They’re Primarni.”

 

“Should have guessed that -”

 

“You’re very nice,” Edward started to say, but the words jumbled. Without warning he pitched forward, up onto his elbow, as his vision tunneled, and retched all over. 

 

 

“It’s positively grisly,” George said with unadulterated delight now that it was clear Edward was not going to die and not going to have any permanent damage. He was leering at the back of Edward’s head, eyes wide. John was far more stricken, hovering silently near the curtain of the small cordoned off area where they were sat in the emergency ward. He’d always been squeamish about blood, particularly if it wasn’t his own, and Edward had produced quite a bit since he’d been drinking. 

 

Up on the light-board above a buzzing computer system, the results of Edward’s scans glowed white and Edward looked blearily at the pictures of his own head and brain with marginal interest. They told him he had a contusion. Or swelling. Something like that. The word laceration kept coming up, but that was more to do with his scalp and the scrapes on his face from where he’d kissed the pole and then the sidewalk.

He wanted, very desperately, to go home and have the longest lie down of his life. 

 

“Almost done, Mr. Little,” the doctor said, a fair-haired middle aged man with a very kind smile. Edward couldn’t even feel where he was stitching him up -  ten on the back and five on the front. The ones on the front had pinched much more (more nerves, the Doctor said). “We’ll have you on your way in no time.” 


“Will his hair grow in?” George went on, leaning even further over, studying the spot where they’d shaved Edward’s brown mane down, and Edward sighed heavily. He felt more awake and more sober, but he was still incredibly nauseous and was doing his best to ignore it. He kept eyeing the  bin in the corner like it was about to jump out of reach.

“Should come back in fine,” the doctor, Dr. McDonald Edward tried to remember, continued, snipping something off. “Although, some like a scar. A bit rogue, isn’t it? What did you say it was? A bar fight?”

 

“Some kind of goon was aiming for someone else and Ed’s massive dome got in the way of the pint glass,” George answered, and Edward dropped his eyes closed.

 

 “Good Lord,” The doctor chuckled, touching Edward’s shoulder as a sign that he was finished. 

 

“There you are, young man,” he sighed, rolling his stool over to the small counter where he began busily writing something down, licking the tip of his pen when he clicked it. 


“Now,” he said. “I have witnesses here,” he scrawled something on a pad and tore it off. “So if you don’t mind these instructions I’ll know who to blame - your concussion is very minor, which we can all be certainly glad for, but we need to treat it carefully nonetheless. No gallivanting around, no exercising, no strenuous activity - physical or mental - for the next week…”

 

“Drat!” George said. “You’ll miss the cricket tourney,” he groaned, and Edward raised his bloodshot eyes to him. 

 

“Well, I’m just saying you’ll be missed,” George lamented, patting his back gently, throwing in a rub for good measure. 


“Definitely no cricket,” Dr. McDonald agreed, clicking his pen again and rolling back over to Edward after keying things into the computer for a few moments. “For the foreseeable future - sorry lads.”

 

He flipped through the packet he was holding and then handed the smaller slip to Edward who looked at the inscrutable scrawl with open disdain. 


“That is for some extra strength acetaminophen,” the doctor instructed, drawing an invisible line with his pen. “The rest is all in here,” he gestured to the page which said AFTERCARE at the top. 

 

“WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:” Edward read, scanning the words. “A concussion is a mild brain injury. It is usually caused by a bump or blow to the head from a fall, a motor vehicle crash, or a sports injury. Sometimes being shaken forcefully may cause a concussion - ,”

 

Before he could read any further John has stepped forward to pluck it out of his hands. 

 

“Say anything regarding thoughts and prayers there, John?” George asked, coming over to investigate, and John glared. 


“Bedrest,” he confirmed, scanning and flipping through with the wrinkles on his forehead showing. “Bedrest and more bedrest…”

 

Edward had a flash of memory seeing John’s absolutely horrified face hovering overhead, those same worry lines on his face deepened by distress. His eyes were still red rimmed.


“Head injuries are very dull, I’m afraid,” the doctor said, interrupting the sudden flow of thoughts that left Edward blinking hard and reeling a little. 

 

His hands on his thighs, Dr. McDonald looked pointedly at Edward who had unconsciously let his fingers come up to touch on the edge of the dressing on his forehead. “Do you have anyone to look in on you? You’ll want someone to check in every now and again, if you can, especially tonight.”

 

The doctor’s eyes slid to his two friends stooped over the instructions. 


“My sister lives nearby,” Edward said, mouth dry and hands clammy. He had absolutely zero intention of alerting anyone in his family that this had happened. He intended to put himself into bed and not get up until everyone who saw anything at The White Bear had died so there was no chance of it surfacing amongst his siblings. 


“Good, I’d give her a call, then. We’ll only discharge you if you have a ride, alright?”

 

Edward nodded. Fuck.

 

“Well, gentlemen, the hospital will phone in the next few days to check in, but otherwise,” he shook his head gently. “Simply do as that packet says and don’t exert yourself for a while. After two weeks you can go back to regular activities when you’re cleared by your regular physician. Obviously, if you have anything major - like a seizure - or a sudden change in personality please come back in.”

 

As he spoke, Edward remembered his own phone and wrenched it out of his pocket, the screen lighting up immediately. 

 

Hattie
iMessage - I’M CALLING GEORGE - Now

 

Luce
Missed Call - 3m ago

Little, Richard

Missed Call - 10m ago

 

Frederick Little
Missed Call - 12m ago

 

Hattie
Missed Call - 20m ago

 

“geo.hodge’s live story has ended”

 

GMAIL
EDF EasyOnline - Your bill is due - 

 

Luce
Missed Call - 31m ago

Sibs.
imessage

 

“geo.hodge has gone live on Instagram - swipe to join -”

 

14 new snaps from 😈Mad Lads😈

 

“He lived, Hat!” George exclaimed, Edward looking up to see his own blurry expression in the frame of George’s phone as George held it up above his head, making sure to get the whole room in, his own sister’s face tiny and fuming in the corner. 

 

Fuck, Edward thought. Much louder this time. 

 

It was Dick who picked him up, grinning like mad in the driver’s side as George opened the door for him and John helped him inside.

“Do you two need a lift?” he asked, and John tipped his head towards George where he was on the phone again, talking loudly and pacing along the edge of the curb, describing what entrance they were at.

“Sarah is coming to get us, she was working late anyway,” he said, referring to George’s girlfriend, a seamstress for a local atelier and semi-professional cosplayer. “She should be here in a few minutes.”


Edward sat down, holding the prescription in one hand and the AFTERCARE booklet in the other, hissing as he leaned his head on the headrest and a shock of tender bruising pain rocketed through his scalp. 


“You’re fucked going to sleep tonight, Ned,” Dick said, and John grimaced in sympathy.


“Can we please go,” Edward rumbled, cracking his eye at John still hanging in the doorway. 


“Feel right soon,” he said timidly. “It was fun...you know, despite… this,” he went on, before the look on Edward’s face stopped him. “Right. Get some rest,” he insisted and shutting the door carefully.  

 

George tapped his palm on the window and waved, and Edward closed his eyes.

“Drive. Please,” he growled and Dick did as he was told, easing away from the curbside at the hospital, circling through the car park.


As they pulled off Edward could feel the pain starting to truly surge, waves of it slamming into him over and over to the point that he could only sit forward and cradle his forehead in his hands. 


“So,” Dick said, drumming his hands on the wheel, and Edward said nothing, but the silence was bristled in warning. 


“Well, let’s get your scrip at least,” Dick said, always cavalier, tugging it out of his hand. “What pharmacy did they tell you?” 

 

“I don’t remember,” Edward muttered. 


“Great, well, I’m sure Hattie has something at her place.” 

 

“What?” Edward snapped, lifting his head too fast and bracing himself on the dashboard against the dizziness.

“It was either her or mum’s,” Dick said, glancing at him and Edward moaned into his palms. He just wanted to be home. In his flat, in his bed. 


“Jesus bloody,” he bit out, the achy pain overwhelming him again. 


“Which, she’s going to come ‘round tomorrow. Frankly, you should just expect everyone. Hattie’s sending Emory to the shops first thing…”

 

“What about Joey,” Edward remembered with sudden guilt thinking of his dog who had no idea where he was, and probably needed to go out pretty desperately. 


“I’ll go get him after I drop you off,” Dick replied. “My landlord won’t mind if it’s just a day or two till you can go back home.”

“I’m not staying past tonight,” Edward said, and Dick snorted. 


“I don’t think you realize how properly fucked up you look,” he said, his voice tinged with the slightest echo of worry. “What even happened?” The car came to a stop at a light. 

 

Edward squeezed his eyes shut. 

 

He’d gone out to have a smoke, and saw him again. 

 

The guy in the red jumper. 

 

He was standing there, facing Edward on the sidewalk, talking animatedly with his friend, one arm crossed over his midsection, the other straight out, holding a cigarette elegantly in his tapered fingers - the barest twitch sending a flick of ash. He’d been spying on him all night as he went to and from the bar, easy to spot in the red jumper.

 

God, he looked good.

 

There was a shorter man with him, and a taller guy. Very tall. Or maybe it was two short guys. He hadn’t been paying enough attention to them, because he was distracted by that guy in the red jumper. The Nurse, he suddenly thought, wishing he could open the car door and roll right out onto the street. 

 

Maybe a lorry would just take him out and put an end to his misery. 

 

He remembered  the Nurse's dark hair when he swept it out of his face, head tilting and tipping up to laugh at something one of his friends was saying, and his wide smile, the dimples of his cheeks, and he remembered thinking I’ve seen him somewhere -  

 

A shorter man jostled past him and called out something to the little group of men - he was rather short, now that he considered it. His army surplus greatcoat was  baggy and ridiculous, and he was nowhere near big enough to fill it out.

 

Rude, Edward had thought, blinking in the aftermath. He didn’t have time to turn around when he heard the angry shout following the man out of the pub, and it was probably better he didn’t, as that’s when the thing lobbed across the air and struck him directly in the back of the head.

 

The man in the red jumper looked horrified – they’d been looking at each other.

 

What he didn’t remember very clearly, but what had happened just the same, was how he ran straight into a light pole at full clip. His forehead and nose crashed into the edged metal. Then nothing.

 

“Ned,” Dick said and Edward shook out of it, brows furrowing. 


“I just -,” he says. “I just ran into a pole.”



“A pole,” Dick says, obviously not believing it. “George said some guy fucking tried to kill you – were you trying to chat somebody’s girl up?”

 

Edward’s blood froze.

“I’m dr- was drunk, Richard,” he said quickly, looking at his younger brother whose expression was still incredulous. “I was having a smoke and some guy was getting in a fight with some other guy and I guess got me by mistake. Who told you I was chatting someone up? George?”

 

“No,” Dick laughed, looking back to the road. “I was just joking…”

 

Relief flooded through him, until Dick gave him another concerned look and Edward felt his whole-body tensing. Why was he worried? He wasn’t chatting him up. He hadn’t gotten that far. They’d just looked at each other.

 

They sat in a second of silence, Dick’s mouth pursing.

“Hattie is never going to buy that story,” he sighed, shaking his head and lurching them forward as the light turned green. 

 

“Well, she will just have to if she wants to be all in my business,” Edward snapped. Dick made a shocked face. 

 

“Sorry,” Edward said softly after a moment, and his younger brother reached a hand over and gently pet his head. 

 

“Don’t worry Neddie, I’m just glad you’re alright. We all are.”

 

Edward swallowed thickly and tried to focus on not puking all over the car. 

 

 

Thomas sagged as he finally closed the door, leaning against it to rub his face for a moment. He’d come in the back of the flat, through the alley, throwing away all the bloody tissue that he’d hurriedly stuffed into his pocket in the  skip before quietly opening the back gate and going lightly up the steps that led down to the garden. He toed off his boots in the motion-activated light coming in through the curtain from the back stair and left them in a heap, by the bench by Neptune’s lead and James’ trainers. 

 

Looking through the long hall past he could see the television glowing in the family room, the black and white screen reflected in the french doors. As he went down the hall past the master bedroom and the study he peeked into the kitchen - dishes were piled in the sink and the dishwasher was going, and there were several bottles of wine sitting out to be recycled. 

 

He opened the fridge and searched in the back for the orange juice, pouring himself a glass in the dark as he listened to laughter from the telly as he drank it all.

 

He set the glass aside and leaned up into a cabinet, pawing through till he found what he was looking for. He tucked it under his arm, and slipped into the bathroom.

 

He flicked on the light above the sink and closed the door, tugging the sweater over his head, immediately running the cold water.

 

He put the jumper in the basin, and used his teeth to flick open the tab on top of the bottle of meat tenderizer he was holding, sprinkling it all over the blood stains. He mixed the cold water into it, the paste forming under his fingers, working into the fibers –

 

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he turned off the tap. Soapy apologies from Billy, a Goodnight! From his father.

 

A new notification popped up over the newest one and he swiped it open.

 

This one won’t hit you in the back of the head, I promise … he read, from Harry.

 

Thomas stared at it. What?

 

He watched the “…” shimmer on the other half of the conversation.

 

You know, what you said about a good man haha

 

Harry dropped in a phone number. He was in the midst of typing Whose is that? when he remembered. Graham Gore.

 

“Graham Gore,” he whispered to himself, typing the contact name in.

 

Haha thanks Pegs

 

He went to the kitchen, not turning on any lights. He poured himself more orange juice and drank it just as fast. It was cold and tangy and helped get the weird hoppy taste out of his mouth. He washed his hands again.

 

When he finally wandered into the  family room he felt like he’d just ran a marathon, the last of his adrenaline finally slipping away.

 

James was up, his back to him in his chair, a slipper hanging precariously off of his foot. 

 

“Thomas!” he whispered excitedly, sitting up a little when Thomas padded into the room, the floorboards creaking.

Neptune didn’t even bother to lift his head from his spot on the couch, his tail thumping as Thomas came over and bent around the side of the chair. 

 

He kissed James’ cheek and leaned his head against his for a long moment, breathing deeply as his heartbeat slowed.

 

He kissed James' cheek again.

 

“Hi,”Thomas said, James’ hand fussing with his hair. “I forgot to text you I was coming in.”

 

“How was it?” James asked, smiling and taking the remote from his bathrobed lap and adjusting the volume a few clicks. 

 

“Fine,” Thomas said, pulling away and drifting to sit down on his side of the couch, scratching Neptune’s rump lazily. James dropped the remote back into his lap.  

 

“The old man is snoring like a bear in there,” James said. 

 

“He really should go see someone about that,” Thomas mumbled, looking tiredly at what was playing - some old movie James had probably shown him before that he didn’t remember. James reached over to the end table to put the lamp on, bathing the  family room in warm familiar light. 

 

“You’re welcome to try that line,” he huffed. “He listens to you, occasionally…” 

 

When James set his sight on him again, he tilted his head in confusion.


“Where’s your jumper?” 

 

Thomas lifted his arm as though he expected to see it there and James narrowed his eyes.

 

“I spilled something on it,” Thomas said vaguely, and James seemed unconvinced.

 

“Did you leave it somewhere?” He said slyly, smirking.

 

Thomas groaned, rubbing between his eyes.

 

“No, no,” he dismissed. “I wish…”

 

“Well what then? Tell me everything!” James hurried, crossing his arms and his leg primly over the other, exposing the pattern of his silk pajamas. His hair, still chemo-thinned and grayer every day, was swept up in front from tossing about and his thin fingers squeezed his bathrobe more closed in a nervous hug. “I’d been hoping it was productive, I always thought it was a lucky color,” James commented and Thomas suddenly let his head roll back on the couch to laugh. 

 

“You know, he said the same thing -,” he said, wiping under his eyes a bit tiredly. 

 

“Who?” James said, desperate, and Thomas shook his head.

 

“Don’t get your hopes up. This poor man,” Thomas replied on a groan. He looked over at James. “You remember Billy’s ex?”


“Hickey?” James’ face looked like he’d smelled something offensive. “With that awful first name. Cory something?”

 

Thomas nodded. 


“He was at the pub tonight. I have no idea how he knew...anyway,” Thomas took a deep breath. “I - well, I bumped into him at the bar.”

 

“Corey?”

 

“No, the other man - I don’t know him. Or, now I do, I suppose. His name is Edward Little.”


James looked blankly at him and Thomas went on. 

 

“I was waiting for a drink and he came up next to me.”

 

James face twitched. 

 

“Not like that,” Thomas said and James sniffed. 

 

“I nearly spilled a drink on him,” Thomas added. “I think that seriously lowers the odds of anything.”

 

“I don’t know,” James said. “It’s memorable. It gets a conversation started. But how did you end up with something on you?”

 

“Billy and Cornelius got into a bit of a thing,” Thomas said. “He’s dating someone new and the guy didn’t take it particularly well. He threw a pint glass.”

 

James’ eyes betrayed his shock, but he let Thomas continue.

 

“He was aiming for Hickey, I think. Or maybe Billy, I don’t know. He was soused and this guy, Edward Little, just happened to be walking between them. We were all outside. He got caught in the crossfire. It cut him up, and I think the shock didn’t help - he smacked into a lamppost and went down on the pavement right there in front of the pub.”

 

“Christ,” James said. “You know, I remember those lamp posts they’re those big old iron ones aren’t they, too?” Tom nodded. “Thank God you were there, Tom. Wait till Daddy hears about that - he’ll be absolutely stunned. Good Lord, I almost want to wake him up…”

 

“I did what I could,” Thomas said softly. “They took him to the hospital, and I think he’ll be alright. He threw up everywhere, so I’m certain he got a concussion.”

 

“Oh Thomas, tell me that isn’t what it was.”

 

Thomas shrugged, looking at the snaps on the chambray shirt. “More blood, honestly. I’ve got it soaking in the bathroom.”

 

“That man should press charges. I’m sure I could make a few calls -,”

 

“Don’t get all riled up,” Thomas laughed, shifting on the sofa. “They took down a report, but I highly doubt anyone wants to do that. Getting all...tangled up with that sorry lot. He seemed like a person who wouldn't. His friends were talking to the boyfriend, and he seemed very sorry. I’m sure they passed that along. I wouldn’t have minded if it was Hickey…”


He grimaced at the idea of giving Cornelius first aid. He’d be more inclined to congratulate Solomon in that case.

 

“Still,” James said, a bit softer. He looked at the television. “I wanted you to have a good time. I’m sorry Thomas.”

 

“It was fine,” Thomas said quickly. “Some excitement? Right?” 

 

“Not the right kind,” James said, moving his shoulders. “I was hoping you’d end by saying you went home with Edward Little or something of that nature...” 

 

Thomas laughed dryly, but found that he wasn’t bitter. It certainly hadn’t been the night any of them expected, but it had also been a night where he’d been worried about other things for the first time in a long time, which was a bit refreshing. 

 

He didn’t know if he was glad he’d had to leap into action but, it wasn’t like it was unbearable. 


“Well. He was sort of cute,” Thomas said, shrugging to cover up the memory of Edward’s face as it looked at him helplessly. He pet at his hair, clearing his throat.

 

Thomas fiddled with his cuff.


“He looked a bit Richard Rankin.”

 

“Did he now?”

 

“He said I was nice,” Thomas added, folding his legs up under him. 

 

“You are nice,” James said, a little indignantly despite yawning. “The nicest, most wonderful, charming gay nurse in London - he’s the lucky one.”

Chapter Text

Thomas liked the hospital; it was cold, and the air was prickly with strange chemical smells, and it was very clean and bright. 

 

The nurse had told him to sit in a hard plastic chair outside the room, and had given him a towel to put over his lap to keep him warm. There was a lady coming, she said, who wanted to talk to him and once she was there she would take him to a room where it wouldn’t be so chilly. 

 

“How’s my mum?” he asked, squeezing his fingers on the edge of the chair.

 

“She’s going to be ok,” the nurse said. “She’s going to sleep for a long time and the doctors are going to look in on her. Do you want a sweet while we wait?”

 

Thomas looked at the policeman down the hall by the big desk and then back at her. She gave his shoulder a little squeeze.

 

He said no thank you, but she brought him one anyway, walking down the hall to a vending machine and getting him a whole  chocolate bar. He ate a few bites and then folded it up in his pocket for later.

 

He knew the lady, but he never remembered her name. She had talked to him before, when this happened. She was very out of breath this time when she showed up. She complained to the nurse that she had not been able to find parking, but when she saw him she smiled big and Thomas had felt himself smiling back at her. 


“Hello Thomas, do you remember talking to me last time?”


Thomas remembered. 

 

They went to a little room made up of concrete blocks, like building blocks, with blue carpeting and a mural of different cartoon characters painted on the wall. They brought him a  juice and let him sit up at the table and the lady pulled a lot of files out of her bag and spread them out on the table and clicked her pen a few times. 

 

“Are you hungry Thomas?”

 

He wasn’t, but she stood up and poked her head out of the door and asked someone to bring them something to eat and then came back and told him they were getting him a tray. 


She smiled at him, her lipstick feathering a bit.

 

“You know,” she said after a while of talking about the different pictures painted around and which ones were his favorites. “I wanted to tell you that you did a very good thing bringing your mummy in to the hospital. That was so clever of you. She was feeling quite ill, wasn’t she?”

“She was getting noddy, like last time,” he said, taking another drink of the lemonade. “Like this.” He imitated it, leaning forward in his chair till his face almost hit the table. “And she was breathing like this -.”


He breathed in and out very slow, like he was sucking through the straw. 

 

“I remember -,” she went through her papers, licking her finger. “I remember she got noddy last time we talked. Yes, and last time she had a nasty - uh - her arm was bleeding quite a lot wasn’t it.”


“All over,” Thomas said. 

 

“That’s right, that’s right. But this time you didn’t phone anybody, right? You didn’t call anybody?” she said, smiling again, folding her hands on top of the pages. “I heard you got a taxi-cab for your mummy? Did the driver man came upstairs and help her down to the car?”


“Mum said not to phone if there wasn’t any blood - she said just go downstairs or get Mrs. Phillips to get a cab for us and tell them she was feeling poorly. She got noddy, and then she was making sad sounds, so I went to ask Mrs. Phillips but she was working, so I went down to the corner and got a cab. I told him she was sick and he said he would help. His name was Jamar.”


Jamar was nice. He was tall and handsome and when he’d gone up to the flat he’d been able to pick up mum princess-style and Thomas held the door for him. He held Thomas’ hand when they parked at the hospital and walked him inside and he explained to the receptionist that there was a woman in his cab who was sick. The receptionist kept asking him to repeat himself before Thomas took over and told her that she’d taken too much of her medicine again. 

 

What medicine does Mummy take?  The woman had said, leaning over the desk. She had a little heart-shaped sticker on her name badge.

 

Rock and Roll, Thomas said. The woman had stared at him. 

 

Do you mean Roxanol, darling? 

 

“Did your mummy tell you why she didn’t want you to phone anybody to come help out?”

 

“She says it isn’t anybody’s business.”

“I see,” the lady said, her eyes squinting up.

 

“I put Bobby in his pen, in the sitting room. I gave him his books and his lovie.” 

 

The lady’s eyes widened significantly. 

 

“You did,” she said, nodding, pressing her lips together and nodding her head up and down very fast. She suddenly looked at her watch. “Ok. Ok, ok, so that was - er, maybe an hour ago - do you have anybody at home?”

 

“I thought it wouldn’t be very long,” Thomas said. His tummy dipped like when he went high on the swing when he saw the look on her face.

 

“Do you have a nanny? Or - anybody who would come look after Bobby?” 

 

“I don’t know, I don’t think so.” 

 

The woman got up suddenly and jogged to the door. 


“Excuse me? Excuse me - can I please speak to someone?” She said loudly, waiting for someone to respond before she slid outside the room and the heavy blue door shut behind her. She stood in front of the little criss crossed window for a moment, holding the arm of a nurse with smiley-face scrubs very tightly. 

 

Thomas squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, sitting up on his knees and then sitting back down again. He chewed on his fingernails, even though he knew he wouldn’t get his smartie when Mum checked that evening. That was the deal. If he didn’t bite them he got a smartie before he went to bed. 

 

The woman came in after a long while, smoothing her hair down and the front of her pinstripe jacket.


“Am I in trouble?” Thomas asked, whispering it, and the lady looked immediately very upset. Her brows pinched together. 

 

“No, no not at all Thomas you are not in trouble,” she said, sitting down again and reaching out to pat his hand. “No absolutely not, I just want to make sure that Bobby is ok.” She gave him a wan smile. “They’re going to send some people over to go and make certain.”

 

“That’s good,” Thomas sighed, relieved. “Maybe Jamar can go and get him. Can I see him? When can I see Mum?”

 

The woman looked uncertain and patted his hand again before pulling it back across the table and picking up her pen. 

 

“I don’t know love, but the doctors are making her feel very cozy and she’ll be all better in no time.”

 

At that moment there was a knock and the woman got up and opened the door. 

 

“Look,” she said brightly as the orderly smiled and handed the tray over. Thomas lifted his head to peek over the edge and saw a sandwich. He hoped it was strawberry jam. “Just in time for tea!”

 

*

 

“Your hair smells funny,” Thomas said, nose wrinkling as he sniffed it. His mother looked at him from the pillows with tired eyes. He was finally allowed to visit her, which was relieving, but his mum didn’t look like she wanted to have much fun. He’d been asking and asking all week and nobody had given him a good answer. Just soon. He asked when, pointed to the clock. They couldn’t tell him.

 

Today, though, Mrs. Kline had told him that they would go see her when the little hand was on the two and the big hand was on the twelve and Thomas had watched it move sloooooooow all day long.

 

Mrs. Kline waited in the hall and the woman with the lipstick did too. She’d brought a game for them to play, but it was still sitting in its shabby cardboard box on his mother’s nightstand next to a big yellow cup of water with a straw poking out.

 

“I know,” she said, her voice raspy. She looked like a cartoon ghost from the telly without her makeup – pale and thin and going Boo hoo hoo! She adjusted her arm so that he could sit more comfortably near her, wiggling into the space on the scratchy sheets.

 

“It’s because of the hospital shampoo,” his mum explained, moving his hair out of the way of his face and sniffing.

 

She looked at him all over, her eyes big and round and shiny, like googly eyes.

 

“Are you feeling better?”

 

She nodded, smiling at him, but it was small and shaky like her fingers.


“When we go back home, we should watch Land Before Time. Mrs. Kline doesn’t have any movies I like,” he sighed, playing with her hospital bracelet. He traced the letters with his finger. S-a-r-a-h J-o-p-s-o-n.

 

His mother stroked his hair over his forehead some more, blinking fast. She took a big swallow.

 

“Which one?” she asked, clearing her throat. He looked at her eyes and then looked up, thinking. “Number 3?”

 

He shook his head.


“Hmm… Number 2?”

 

He shook his head again.

 

“One? First one? But that one’s so sad,” she whined, and he giggled.

 

“It’ll make you go boo hoo hoo,” he explained, and she made a funny sound sort of like a laugh.

 

“Boo hoo hoo?” She pinched his nose. “What’s that mean?”

 

“Mrs. Kline says it’s alright to cry. She keeps saying all the time and asking if I’m sad.” He explained. “She gets sad when she watches her stories. She goes boo hoo hoo.”

 

“Are you a nice boy to her?”

 

“Yeah mum. She doesn’t have anybody or any kids.”

 

He leaned against her.

 

“Good. Be nice to her, alright? Mind your manners ok. And if she says things are rules, that’s the rules alright?”

 

He made a little whiny noise and she hugged him, squeezing him tight tight, and kissed the top of his head. She hugged him for a long while, till he started to get squirmy and she let him go. 

 

“Tommy, look me in the eye,” she said after a moment. He did, but it was hard to look at it for long. Her mouth was wiggling around.

 

“I have to talk to y-you, alright, so be a good boy and listen,” she pet his cheek, her long nail scratching at something and then wiping it away, “You know how Mumma has been feeling poorly?”

 

“Yeah,” he said, frowning.

 

“Mumma has been feeling so poorly, the doctors think that I should go away for a little while to make sure I get better.”

 

Thomas frowned harder. “Where?”


“It’s – it’s just a different kind of hospital. The doctors there will help me get better. In fact, I’ll get so much better I won’t have to take any of my medicine anymore.”

 

Thomas considered her words, shifting a little.

 

“Tommy,” she said, touching his chin. “Look me in the eye – listen.” He did. She was crying. Big fat tears were rolling down her cheeks and making her nose red.

 

“It’s going to take a bit,” she said, her voice all squeaky like she was sick. “For me to get better, and I’ll have to work very, very, hard you see. I’ll have to be so strong and clever and I won’t be any fun at all. I won’t be any good.”

 

“How long?”

 

“I don’t know, presh, a month?”

 

“How long’s that?”

 

“It’s –,” she wiped at her eyes. “Do you remember when it was Christmas? And we had to wait until the 25th day for it to be Christmas? It will be like that, but just a little bit longer.”

 

“I’ll help you,” he said. She nodded her head, putting her hands on his face.


“You can,” she said, sniffing hard. “You absolutely can. What you can do, Thomas, is you can stay with Mrs. Kline for a little while. Just a little while while Mumma gets better. And you can do so much. You can go to school and see your classmates and Mrs. Peterson. You just keep being a good boy and being good for Mrs. Kline.”

 

“What about Bobby? Who’ll take care of him?” Thomas said, picking at her bracelet again. She rubbed under his cheeks and he frowned, pulling away.

 

“Tommy, you know how Bobby is so little? Well the doctors think that it would b-best if he stayed with me right now. But you’re such a big boy, they think that you should just spend some time with Mrs. Kline.” 

 

Thomas looked up at her. She was still crying. She was crying so hard she could barely talk and had to keep taking big breaths.

 

“Like sleep over?”


“Yes, like a sleep over,” she said. “Just for a little bit. You can do that, can’t you? You’ll do so well.

 

“Tommy, I love you so much, do you understand? Tell me you understand what I’m saying to you!”

 

“I understand, Mum,” he said. His voice was tiny, like a mouse, hiding in the back of his head. He didn’t like this.

 

“And!” His mum said, suddenly, holding on to his arms. “And! You can come see me! You get to come see me once a week! We get to have visits. They have a special room just for children and we can play games!”

 

“What sort of games?” Thomas asked, eyeing the box on the nightstand.

 

“I’m sure all kinds. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

 

“Do you think they’ll have HiHo Cherry-o?”


“I bet they do,” she sniffled, reaching over to grab tissues out of the little container beside her. She mopped at her face but no matter how much she wiped her cheeks the tears were fast as raindrops. “If they don’t, I’ll buy it for you,” she said. “Ok? I’ll buy you one and we’ll play it…”

 

She stopped talking, putting her hands over her face. She cried big terrible cries, her knees pulling up under the sheets.

 

“Mummy?”

 

She didn’t say anything. 

 

“Mummy?” He pushed up to his knees, the bed creaking. He moved aside her hair and felt a pang of guilt. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said that about your hair. It’s pretty. Can I give you a kiss?”

 

She lifted her hands from her face – it was smushed up and red and wrinkled like Bobby’s face got when he cried. She nodded her head slowly up and down. He kissed her mouth, and her cheeks.

“Like bunnies do,” he said, rubbing their noses together. “And butterflies too,” he leaned in and blinked softly against the corner of her eye. When he pulled back she was still crying, hiccuping little sad breaths.


“Is it better?”


“You always make me better,” she whispered, holding out her arms.

**

 

 

When Edward woke up he felt like there was one of those lead X-ray blankets still lying across his chest.

 

This was most likely because, as he opened his eyes, he could see his niece Simone was straddling his stomach - bony 8-year-old knees jabbing his sides - with her hand hovering right over his mouth. His other niece Chloe was perched just at the corner of the mattress on top of his foot, staring owlishly at what her sister was doing. 

 
A twin - one of Annie’s - was looming near the nightstand and Harriot and Emory’s old, fat, beagle was also standing in the open doorway to complete the picture. 


“Simone Alicia!” 

 

Edward lifted his head just long enough to see his sister Anne hovering beyond, face caught between horror and fury, and all three girls turned in sync. Chloe, the three-year-old, immediately slid off the bed and ran out of the room.

 

“Mummy said we have to make sure he’s breathing -,” Simone insisted, sliding off of Edward and thunking to the floor. 

 

“You leave Uncle Neddie alone right this minute young lady,” Anne snapped. “And Meggy you know much better than to peek on people when they’re sleeping,” she said to the twin - Meggy, clearly - who glanced down at Edward again with ten year old disgust as she skulked towards her mother. 

 

 “Uncle Dick says he looks like he got run over by a cement mixer,” she said, tossing her brown ponytail, and Anne bit off a scoff. 

 

 “Don’t you go around repeating that, it sounds rude!”

 

 “It’s alright Annie, I’m up,” Edward said, heaving himself to his elbows. His elder sister caught a proper look at him from her post by the door and her expression spoke volumes to just how accurate Dicks’ assessment must have been. 

 

“Is it that bad?” he mumbled, trying to open his eye more. 

 

 “Oh you’re very swollen,” she said, biting her lip, and Edward just put a hand gently over where he could feel it.

 

“Don’t touch it, Neddie - boys!” She shouted as a herd of his nephews darted by in the hallway kicking a neon-green football. 

 

 “The entire Calvary is here,” Annie said, looking at him with exasperation. 

 

 “Everyone?” Edward said and Annie waved him off. 

 

“Don’t start, Neddie, everyone wants to be sure you’re alright. Mum’s got Tim on the line and Julie said that you ought to see if they have any of the cc footage. Kev could have a look, you know.” She moved into the room and started picking up Edward’s clothes and folding them roughly, tossing them on top of the dresser.

 

 Edward wasn’t sure what to be indignant about, his head foggy, like he was still half asleep. 

 

 “Can you,” he started, shutting his eyes against a sudden burst of pain. “Can you just tell mum not to get Tom excited by all this…,”

 

 “Tom?”

 

 “Tim,” Edward corrected, not certain about where that slip had exactly come from. 

 

 “Well, you can tell her yourself,” Annie said, balling his socks. Something about socks... “Mary headed up breakfast and everyone brought a little something - it’s downstairs.”

 

 “I don’t know if I can eat,” Edward muttered and Annie tutted at him. 

 

 “Nonsense, I picked up those danishes you like. The little cherry ones! And I brought sausage rolls, if the boys haven’t eaten them all.”

 

Edward was annoyed to admit his appetite raised its head at the prospect and Annie must have sensed the shift in his demeanor because she smiled at him and ventured closer.

 

She moved her pashmina so she wouldn’t sit on it as she perched on the edge of the bed, her red glasses falling a little down the straight ridge of her nose.

 

“You really don’t have to do all this,” Edward said, letting her pad at his bandages ineffectively. She sighed and put her hands in her lap, tangling them together in a thread of long red fingernails and chunky bead bracelets.

He noticed the distinct lack of her wedding ring and she flinched self-consciously.

 

“Well,” Annie began. “Can’t have our Neddie getting hurt, can we?” She reached out to pat his arm, her jewelry clanking. “Do you need any help getting changed?”

 

 Edward told her quite plainly that he did not.

 

 “Alright, alright,” she said, putting her hands up. “I’ll give you a bit of privacy.”

 

However short-lived that might be. 

 

Edward watched her leave in a swirl of baby blue cashmere and rustling wide-legged pants, her long ponytail coming loose down her back. She shut the door behind her and Edward found himself blessedly alone and able to lay back down. He ignored his sister’s warning and gingerly touched around his face, feeling the tight skin against his fingers, jerking when he tread too close to a tender place.

 

His stitches were itching and there was a stinging prickly sensation where the bottle had torn his scalp open and the longer he remained awake and cognizant the more persistently the headache began to unfold from the base of his skull.

 

There was a low sound from downstairs, someone coming in the door to a rush of greetings, and he let out a long, long, sigh, shutting his eyes.

 

He laid there, completely still, until he started to smell bacon. 

 

Very reluctantly he stirred and began to slowly drag himself out from under the covers.

 

 

When Edward woke up he felt like there was one of those lead X-ray blankets still lying across his chest.

 

This was most likely because, as he opened his eyes, he could see his niece Simone was straddling his stomach - bony eight-year-old knees jabbing his sides - with her hand hovering right over his mouth. His other niece Chloe was perched just at the corner of the mattress on top of his foot, staring owlishly at what her sister was doing. 

 
A twin - one of Annie’s - was looming near the nightstand and Harriot and Emory’s old, fat, beagle was also standing in the open doorway to complete the picture. 


“Simone Alicia!” 

\

Edward lifted his head just long enough to see his sister Anne hovering beyond, face caught between horror and fury, and all three girls turned in sync. Chloe, the three-year-old, immediately slid off the bed and ran out of the room.

 

“Mummy said we have to make sure he’s breathing -,” Simone insisted, sliding off of Edward and thunking to the floor. 

 

“You leave Uncle Neddie alone right this minute young lady,” Anne snapped. “And Meggy you know much better than to peek on people when they’re sleeping,” she said to the twin - Meggy, clearly - who glanced down at Edward again with ten-year-old disgust as she skulked towards her mother. 

 

 “Uncle Dick says he looks like he got run over by a cement mixer,” she said, tossing her brown ponytail, and Anne bit off a scoff. 

 

 “Don’t you go around repeating that, it sounds rude!”

 

 “It’s alright Annie, I’m up,” Edward said, heaving himself to his elbows. His elder sister caught a proper look at him from her post by the door and her expression spoke volumes to just how accurate Dicks’ assessment must have been. 

 

“Is it that bad?” he mumbled, trying to open his eye more. 

 

 “Oh you’re very swollen,” she said, biting her lip, and Edward just put a hand gently over where he could feel it.

 

“Don’t touch it, Neddie - boys!” She shouted as a herd of his nephews darted by in the hallway kicking a neon-green football. 

 

 “The entire cavalry is here,” Annie said, looking at him with exasperation. 

 

 “Everyone?” Edward said and Annie waved him off. 

 

“Don’t start, Neddie, everyone wants to be sure you’re alright. Mum’s got Tim on the line and Julie said that you ought to see if they have any of the cc footage. Kev could have a look, you know.” She moved into the room and started picking up Edward’s clothes and folding them roughly, tossing them on top of the dresser.

 

 Edward wasn’t sure what to be indignant about, his head foggy, like he was still half asleep. 

 

 “Can you,” he started, shutting his eyes against a sudden burst of pain. “Can you just tell Mum not to get Tom excited by all this…,”

 

 “Tom?”

 

 “Tim,” Edward corrected, not certain about where that slip had exactly come from. 

 

 “Well, you can tell her yourself,” Annie said, balling his socks. Something about socks... “Mary headed up breakfast and everyone brought a little something - it’s downstairs.”

 

 “I don’t know if I can eat,” Edward muttered and Annie tutted at him. 

 

 “Nonsense, I picked up those danishes you like. The little cherry ones! And I brought sausage rolls, if the boys haven’t eaten them all.”

 

Edward was annoyed to admit his appetite raised its head at the prospect and Annie must have sensed the shift in his demeanor because she smiled at him and ventured closer.

 

She moved her pashmina so she wouldn’t sit on it as she perched on the edge of the bed, her red glasses falling a little down the straight ridge of her nose.

 

“You really don’t have to do all this,” Edward said, letting her pad at his bandages ineffectively. She sighed and put her hands in her lap, tangling them together in a thread of long red fingernails and chunky bead bracelets.

He noticed the distinct lack of her wedding ring and she flinched self-consciously.

 

“Well,” Annie began. “Can’t have our Neddie getting hurt, can we?” She reached out to pat his arm, her jewelry clanking. “Do you need any help getting changed?”

 

 Edward told her quite plainly that he did not.

 

“Alright, alright,” she said, putting her hands up. “I’ll give you a bit of privacy.”

 

However short-lived that might be. 

 

Edward watched her leave in a swirl of baby blue cashmere and rustling wide-legged pants, her long ponytail coming loose down her back. She shut the door behind her and Edward found himself blessedly alone and able to lay back down. He ignored his sister’s warning and gingerly touched around his face, feeling the tight skin against his fingers, jerking when he tread too close to a tender place.

 

His stitches were itching and there was a stinging prickly sensation where the glass had torn his scalp open and the longer he remained awake and cognizant the more persistently the headache began to unfold from the base of his skull.

 

There was a low sound from downstairs, someone coming in the door to a rush of greetings, and he let out a long, long, sigh, shutting his eyes.

 

He laid there, completely still, until he started to smell bacon. 

 

Very reluctantly he stirred and began to slowly drag himself out from under the covers.

 

 

They were all assembled in a sprawl from the dining room, the overflow (the vast majority of which were kids) scattered through Hattie’s sitting room like flotsam. The house, which was usually a tremendous mess, looked like a bomb had gone off while he was asleep. Light coats and beanies and shoes were thrown everywhere and Edward knew at a glance that several were missing their partners and would never be recovered. 

 

It was a cacophony. 

 

A cluster of his nieces and nephews were hunched over a game system and muttering profanities every few seconds while several more trundled upstairs and out in the backyard he could see the same boys kicking the football and beating the shit out of each other. The elder teenagers were conspicuously missing - absent or out in the garage. He could hear one of them, at least, toying with the drum kit in the studio, which was particularly unpleasant. 

 

Usually he rather liked the fact that Hattie had married a the owner of a lucrative jazz label and successful musician in his own right, but today he could only ask himself what the fuck she’d been thinking. 

 

His younger brothers were crowded at the table and he could hear the girls in the kitchen banging about and talking over each other, vying for the last word about God knew what. Something metallic fell and he reeled at the noise, coming to a stop on the bottom step with a squeak. 

 

It was like he was thirteen, all over again and wading through the mess of everyone getting ready for school. The only thing missing were the kits strung up everywhere to line dry while his mother attempted to get everyone out the door with the right homework. 

“Morning Ned,” his eldest brother, Hale, said. He didn’t look up from his copy of The Times, turning a page with a rattle. He had a large coffee stain on his polo already and he wondered if he’d been trying to drink it on the car ride over. “They’ve got Brian Eno on This Morning.” He nodded where the television across from his armchair was blaring the interview at an unreasonable volume.

 

“Great,” Edward said flatly before pausing. “Is that Katie Price?” he asked, staring at the woman perched on the sofa. “Since when has she been back on telly?”

 

“No clue,” Hale sighed. “Sheryl says hello, but she couldn’t make it. Figured it was better to just have me come.”

 

“That’s alright,” Edward said.

 

“Shit,” one of the kids on the floor yelled, others groaning and fighting for the controller. 

 

“Hey,” Hale snapped, at the same time four other voices sounded. 

 

“Watch that language,” Edward heard his father grunt. “Good, you’re up Edward. Come sit down. I want to go over what this is all about.” 

 

Simon Little was frowning where he sawed at a piece of bacon on his plate and Mary’s over-cooked eggs.

“Rachel, he’s up!” he shouted, a moment later, and Edward sighed, picking his way around furniture and legs and the beagle to the empty chair between Dick and Fred. 

 

Fred slapped him on the shoulder as he sat down and Dick grinned as he chewed on a piece of toast. 

 

“You look beautiful this morning, Neddie,” Dick said and Edward said nothing in reply, Fred kissed his temple, making him hiss and shove him away. 

 

“Boys, enough horseplay,” Simon said sternly. “Rachel!”

 

“Daddy, stop shouting,” Mary barked, appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, her bangs frizzy from standing over the stove. “Jesus, Edward!” she cried, catching sight of him and clutching at her shirt in surprise. Dick and Fred had to hide their laughs in their food, their father glaring at them. 

 

“Is he up? Is he up - let me see!”

 

Rachel Little was a tiny woman. Even after twelve children her body had snapped back to a fresh-faced, padded, but still rather diminutive state. This was regarded with absolute appellation and jealousy from her sisters (of which she had four) and her friends (of which she had quite a few more than four), and though she often claimed to be taller she was no bigger than five foot two in her slippers. It got her a lot of jokes, naturally, but she found all of them to be very funny in the most un-ironic way, which is how she found most things to be. She was the sort of woman who was just tickled to be talked about at all. 

 

At sixty-three she was physically quite a bit away from the nineteen year old holding her first baby in his Christening gown, posed in front of the car next to her primary school sweetheart in the Catholic Church parking lot, but by most other accounts she had not changed very much since. 

 

She was still an adorable (if not a little ditzy) dirty blonde with a relentlessly sunny disposition and the strict impression that none of her children had ever actually aged past ten years old. 

 

It was with this in mind that Edward braced himself and tried to look as fine as possible while she rocketed around the table and took his face gingerly in her hands, turning it this way and that. 

 

“My baby,” she said, brown eyes shining with tears immediately despite his best efforts. “Teddy,” she cried, lip quivering. “Look at your poor handsome face!”

 

Dick and Fred snorted, shoulders heaving, and Edward fought the intense urge to smack them both upside the head and say “see how it feels?”

 

“Look what they did to our Teddy, Simon!”

 

“It wasn’t a they, mum,” Edward tried to say calmly, touching her arm and rubbing it gently. “Just one guy - and I did most of it myself.”

 

“You should see the pole, mummy,” Fred managed to get out and Dick had to cover his mouth so he wouldn’t spit tea everywhere. 

 

“Pole?” Rachel bleated and Dick banged the hand holding his fork on the table. 

 

“Boys,” Simon scolded but they were well-practiced at getting away with murder, and it was a well known fact that Simon Little was all talk and no follow through when it came down to it. 

 

“What’s all this about a pole, Teddy?”

 

“It was - I just ran into a lamppost mum,” Edward tried to explain. She stroked his forehead and sniffled, cheeks shiny and red as apples. 

 

“A lamppost?”

 

“You ought to press charges,” Simon sighed, redirecting his attention to Edward and looking very worried and displeased. “That’s what Timothy says.”

 

“Against the pole?” Dick said and this time Fred coughed on a bite or bacon and Edward realized he wasn’t too impaired to not reach around his mother and whack him on the ear, which only made the 26-year-old laugh harder. 

 

“Dad, I don’t think that’s going to be necessary,” Edward said, putting his arm around his mother’s waist again and stroking her back now as she clung to his neck, kissing the top of his head. 

 

 “You’ve always been a little clumsy. Ever since you were little - remember that time you fell down the stairs? You don’t look where you’re going, oh, you get it from me,” she hiccupped. “Teddy bear,” she ran her hands gently over his hair, arranging it the way she liked and Edward closed his eyes reluctantly. “Simon tell him what Tim said.”

 

“I don’t want to hear what Tim said,” Edward tried to insist. His brother might have been a lawyer but only in the loosest sense of the word. 

 

 “Just listen Teddy, Tim says you have a good case, and you ought to do something -,”

 

“Your brother said you have a good case,” his father said. He cleared his throat. “Rachel, let him go all right, so I can talk to him.”

 

“Fred get up and fix Neddie a plate,” Mary’s voice floated to his ears from nowhere, all cigarette hoarse, and Fred groaned.

 

“Don’t think his legs are broken,” he muttered.

 

“Move it,” Hale said, as he was coming up the table, smacking Fred with his folded up newspaper. Fred glared and wove a tapestry of curses as he pushed up from his seat and wormed around the table, sauntering into the kitchen.

 

They heard him putting on a high Julia Child type voice as he rattled in the cabinets for a plate and Mary telling him to shut up. 

 

“Get me more toast!” Dick yelled, and upon hearing no reply got up and sidled after him. There was a muffled clatter of what was sure to be Dick tackling his brother at the middle and the further wails of his sisters as they tried to get them to get themselves together - for God’s sake! 

 

“God save me from these children,” Simon huffed, pushing his own plate aside. “Julia!” he yelled, Hale sitting down in Fred’s chair. 

 

“What!” came his sister’s belated answer from the other side of the kitchen wall. 

 

“Have you got Katherine on the telephone yet?”

 

“No, Daddy - I can’t, Kitty’s in Bali!”

 

“Los Angeles,” Simon grumbled. “Runs off with some plastic surgeon in Los Angeles and now can’t even get on the telephone because she’s in Bali. We’ll have to schedule a appointment...”

 

“Daddy isn’t mad at you,” Rachel said, kissing Edward’s face again. “He’s just upset seeing you look so hurt.” 

 

“Mum, it’s alright, really,” Edward managed as he felt the collar of his t-shirt growing damp from where she was hanging off of him. He bit down reminding her that he was, in fact, 35 years old. 

 

“We’re back!” 

 

Everyone looked across the room, except Edward, who couldn’t move due to his mother’s vice-like grip. The front door opened and some chilly early autumn air poured in. 

 

“More OJ!” Emory announced in his booming baritone. When Edward could finally turn he saw him holding up the reusable shopping bag triumphantly, cradling Cam, the one year old, in the other arm, his dreadlocks sprinkled with fresh rain and looking bedazzled. 

 

His face fell when he caught sight of Edward, who obviously looked worse than he had the night before when Dick helped him through the door at half past three. 

 

“Mummy!” Simone said, appearing out of nowhere as Hattie’s eight-months-pregnant frame made its way in. 

 

“Take this to your gran,” she puffed, hoisting another grocery bag at Simone and putting her hood down to shake her dark hair out. 

 

“Feelin’ any better this mornin’, Ed?” Emory said gently, passing Simone the orange juice bag as she went by. 

 

At that moment Hattie locked eyes with him and it was a look Edward knew very, very well. It was the same look she had been giving him since that moment in the hospital room but now out in full force. She let the other grocery bag in her hand thunk loudly on the wooden floor of the entry and she stopped shrugging off her raincoat and stamped her foot back into her galoshes. 

 

“Hat -,” Ed started to say, his mother rubbing his shoulders now. 

 

“I don’t have anything to say to you!” Hattie exclaimed, throwing her hands up as she went straight towards the back patio. She fumbled with the lock and wrenched open the door and looked at the boys now covered in wet grass and soil dog piled in the garden. 

 

“Go downstairs and be quiet!” She shouted and they all immediately obeyed, disappearing in a pack around the side of the house to the other door. Hattie waddled down onto the brick and slammed the sliding door shut behind her, sitting down heavily in one of the damp lawn chairs with her swollen feet up.

 

The beagle got up and whined to go out, beating its paw feebly on the threshold. Emory sighed. 

 

“Sorry bout that,” he said, letting Cam down so he could toddle off. “She’s just a little overwhelmed.”

 

“She’s just hormonal,” his mother added, petting Edward’s scruffy cheek. “You gave us a  good scare, Teddy. That’s not nice to do to your sister when she’s in that state - Simone, precious, take that into the kitchen and give it to your auntie Mary.” 

 

She shooed her granddaughter along and Simone did as she was told, nearly crashing into Julie as she came out with a mug of tea in one hand and a baby in the other. 

 

“Mummy,” Julie said exhaustedly, tipping forward just enough to set her mug down on the dining room table and not disturb the baby in her arms. She shifted it tiredly and it stirred making a short gurgle and she rolled her bloodshot eyes to them. “Let Neddie have some air, alright?”

 

“Here’s your food!” Fred said, holding the plate up as he re-entered the room, Dick on his heels with a piece of toast in his mouth and two in each hand. Fred grimaced uncertainly when he realized that the tension hadn’t resolved itself. There was a suspicious amount of jam on his face, as well as Dick’s.

 

“Go on, set it down,” came his father’s stony voice. “Edward,” he patted the table to get his attention. 

 

“Daddy,” Julie scolded, fighting a yawn and shifting the baby - one of her twins - a little in the crook of her arm.

 

Edward figured it was Christopher judging by the powder blue sleeper it was wearing, but with so many children it was just as likely she’d put Violet in it by mistake. She rubbed her eye behind the curtain of her wavy hair. “He just woke up...let him get his bearings.” 

 

“You need to eat something, it’s not good to take all that medication on an empty tummy,” his mother said, patting his chest. She bustled over to Fred and inspected the plate. 

 

“Freddie,” she tutted, a hand jutting from her hip. “No, no, come here he doesn’t like mushrooms -,” she tugged Fred back into the kitchen by his shirt sleeve and there was chatter as his mother fixed his plate and Mary said quite loudly that it wasn’t mushrooms, it was the tomatoes that he didn’t like, and Annie said it was the eggs and Edward didn’t bother to remind any of them that none of it had bothered him since he was eight and he’d long outgrown being picky because he was sure there was a drill making a hole somewhere behind his right eye. 

 

“That Hat brooding out there?” Dick said around his toast, flopping back into his chair. He prodded Julie’s shin with one bare foot, long leg stretching across the distance under the table and she glared. 

 

“Dick don’t touch me with your grimy toes - God look at your nails that’s horrific.”

 

“Let Harriot be,” Simon said and Dick looked over to Edward who now had his elbows on the table and his head cradled in his hands. “She’s too far along for your nonsense.” 

 

“Should have warned you,” he said, scratching at Edward’s back lightly with his grubby butter-soaked finger. “She’s been that pissed off all morning.”

 

“Richard,” Simon said. “Hale, pass me the paper I want to see the race results.”

 

In the background, Emory changed the record and the beagle began to bawl along in time, which started the baby crying. 

 

 

When Edward stepped carefully onto the patio he saw that the back garden was in its usual chaos; toys were strewn around and there were several grubby pairs of cleats and children’s sandals kicked under the patio table along with a hula hoop and a deflated beach ball. 

 

Edward nudged Hattie’s shoulder and she sighed, clenching her fists on the armrest. 

 

“You done giving me the silent treatment?” Edward asked, brushing dirt and cobwebs off of the chair opposite her and sitting down with a dull squeak. 

 

“Depends,” she fired back before her hand flew to her stomach, rubbing around. 

 

“Moving?” He leaned forward, watching her as she craned her head off her chest to frown, disgruntled, at the stretched-out stripes of her maternity shirt. She looked hot and flushed in her jacket but undecided on what she wanted to do about it. 

 

“I think it’s just heartburn,” she said, head falling back and knocking on the chair. “Just looking at you makes me nauseous,” she added, closing her eyes tightly. “You really look like someone beat the absolute shit out of you - you know that right?”

 

She opened one eye to look at him and then shook her head, closing them once more. 

 

“Well, they didn’t,” Edward said, leaning back and trying to fight the urge to mess with his stitches. “Unless you count the pole.”

 

She scoffed a laugh. 

 

“I think I’m a little too old to start getting into bar fights, Hat,” Edward said with a grimace, looking at the garden. 

 

“It isn’t funny,” Hattie snipped, still mindlessly stroking her stomach.

 

“I didn’t say it was - “

 

“I just want to be sure you’re telling me the truth.” 

 

“Why wouldn’t I tell you the truth?”

 

“Well,” Hattie said, looking away. “I just. Considering.”

 

“Not this again,” Edward groaned, trying to find a way to rub his forehead without causing himself more discomfort. “Harriot, how many times are you going to force me to have this conversation with you?”

 

“Don’t you Harriot me,” she snapped. “You know, I try to be sensitive - I try to respect you!” She bit off her words. 

“I know you like your privacy,” she said after a beat. “But you can’t expect me to just see this happening and not get worried! I’m allowed to ask about things, Edward! It’s different than just prying!” He could hear her starting to get emotional and his whole body stiffened. “I think about how long you just sat on it, you’re you know, the gay thing…,” she trailed off to a whisper and Edward took a short breath.

 

“I need you to know that I’m here for you, whatever it is. I don’t care, so if someone said something to you, or did something to you -!”

 

“Hat,” Edward said, turning to her again and reaching out to grip her elbow. She wiped her face and sniffed. “It wasn’t a hate crime,” he said gingerly. “Or… anything remotely like that.”

 

“Well if it was I’d beat the absolute fucking tar out of them!” She cried. “If anything happened to you, if anything happened like Andy - ,”

 

“Hattie, this doesn’t have anything to do with Andy,” Edward was sure to say. “For the final time. It doesn’t.”

 

“You picked up bad habits from him,” Harriot continued, her voice hardening. “You did,” she looked at him, cheeks blotchy. “I know you don’t want to admit it, but you did. You both kept things to yourselves - or, God, between the two of you - and it didn’t do him any good.”

 

“You sound like you’re blaming him,” Edward said and she folded her arms over her belly. [That's an American term. You could say stomach, or “tummy”, but that would sound  more juvenile.]

 

“I’m not blaming him,” she grumbled, rubbing at her eyes. “I know better than that. I’m saying that Andy lied quite a bit about things. I don’t want you to start lying to me, or keeping things from me. Lying by omission,” she stopped rubbing her eyes and bent her face more into her hand. He knew she was crying again. 

 

Edward looked up at the gray autumn sky. 

 

“I’m not lying to you, Hat,” he said quietly. “It was just a stupid accident. Some… stupid man trying to go after someone else and my big head got in the way because I was drunk. The rest I did myself.”

 

“George said that there was a nurse there who helped, thank Jesus,” she began wiping her face with a wadded up tissue from her pocket. 

 

Edward tipped his head back and then immediately thought better and leaned forward, nerves screaming.

 

“We should find a way to thank them,” she went on, voice nasal as she blew her nose. “I mean it. You could be dead.”

 

“I think it would take more than a pint glass to kill me,” he said, still trying to bite down against the way the back of his head felt like there was a coal ?being pressed to it.

 

“You don’t know that,” she griped. She swung her hand blindly out and he took it, rubbing her sausage fingers with his thumb as they sank into silence.

 

“The nurse…” Edward started, and then clamped his mouth shut.

 

“What?” Hattie swiveled her head, digging her tissues into her nose a little bit and sniffing hard. “I’m telling you,” she went on. “We ought to send her flowers or something.”

 

“He.”

 

“What?”

 

“It was a he.”

 

“Oh, well. He then. Did you get his name or anything?” 

 

“I actually,” Edward looked away. “Uh. Well, I thought I might have known him, actually, but I don’t think I did. His name was Tom. Apparently.”

 

“I guess you wouldn’t have gotten a last name,” she sighed, squeezing his hand and then letting it flop back onto her stomach. “Bless him, wherever he is. He’s your guardian angel or something.”

 

“I - the reason I was walking out of the pub that way,” Edward said, dryly. “Was because I was going for a smoke and he was out there. I’d met him inside.”

 

He could feel Hattie staring at him and his face got hot. 

 

“You mean to chat him up?” He could hear the self-righteous grin in her voice and he wanted to die. If there was one thing that Hattie worried over more than him meeting an untimely death it was meeting said untimely death alone. 

 

“No,” Edward stammered and then sat forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t know. Maybe. I was plastered.”

 

“Was he good-looking, then?”

 

“Yes,” Edward said, rubbing at the bruised hollows under his eyes. “Very.”

 

“A hot nurse. I’m impressed. Well...even more reason to try and say thank you,” she said lightly, and Edward chanced a look at her smug face. 

 

“You cannot tell them,” he said seriously, and her playful expression wavered. 

 

“I won’t,” she said reaching back over to take his hand again. “I have to be honest though…,” she said after a moment and something in Edward’s stomach dropped like a stone as she glanced at the ground between them. “I already knew,” she rushed, gripping his hand so he couldn’t twist away. “The first thing George said was that the nurse was a twink and you threw up on him -,”

 

“Jesus Christ,” Edward exclaimed, going scarlet, and standing up abruptly. Hattie fell into sobs of laughter behind him. 

 

“That’s what you get for scaring your pregnant sister!” She called between giggles and Edward let himself back into the house and the overly familiar sensation of too much all at once and nowhere to get away from it.

 

Chapter Text

He wasn’t stalking him. He simply wasn’t. 

 

Thomas typed “Edward Little” into the search bar of Facebook for what was becoming the twentieth time, scrolling past all the profiles he had already inspected.

 

It turned out there were quite a few more people by that name in the world than he has previously imagined there to be. 

 

“Has Hal been through yet?”

 

Tom looked up when Dr. Goodsir came into the room, presumably to fix himself another mug of tea, and was grateful for the excuse to quickly put his phone back into his pocket.

 

“He’s due in about fifteen, he’s leading an art group in a few minutes.”

 

“Fantastic!” The doctor cheered, going to the refrigerator on one end their little lunchroom and pulling out the milk, setting on the counter.

 

“How’s Henry been doing?” Thomas asked, recalling when he’d seen him on the schedule earlier that week.

 

Not that he doubted anyone’s judgement, or Hal’s capability as an occupational therapist, but Thomas also knew Collins told Goodsir everything (to a detriment, at times) and after being in and out for so long he felt horribly guilty for leaving Harry to deal with that all on his own. 

 

The Hal he’d known before taking his official leave of absence was frail, just beginning to sew himself back together from the overworked and barely coping depression he’d been spiraling into. Quite the opposite in every imaginable way of the burly teddy bear who stopped doling out art supplies in the school room to bundle Tom into a vice-like hug and cry on his shoulder about how happy he was to see him.

 

“He’s doing very well,” Goodsir said brightly, tipping a spoonful of sugar into his mug. “The kids are just eating out of his hand because he got them that room.” Thomas thought of the bright green spare closet newly-converted into a teenage haven complete with donated consoles and two laptops. It had certainly improved morale significantly, and Goodsir wasn’t the only one who noticed. Thomas had to admit that his patients were much more willing to cooperate with him with the new promise of being able to play Mario Kart between treatments.

 

Billy didn’t know how he stomached it – being a pediatric nurse was one thing, but being a pediatric hem-onc nurse was another kind of masochism all together.

 

 Thomas' entire day was doing ports and setting up chemo and distracting kids through all manners of torturous and painful tests, but he was good at it.

 

And he loved the kids. He really did. Even the bratty ones who made his job the occasional nightmare; the ones who squirmed and screamed and smacked him or bit him or cussed him out, picking fights the minute their parents were out of the room. Even the ones that just cried hysterically because there was nothing else they could do.

 

From the wide-eyed babies to the sixteen-year old squinting at him with disgust, he adored them all for whatever amount he was allowed. Sometimes it was perilously little. Others it felt as though time was a wound that wouldn’t close, raw and terrible and endless.

 

Whatever the case he was willing to be whatever they needed him to be.

 

He’d played best friends, “boyfriends”, confidants, consultants, comforters, coaches, princes and paupers, villains and mortal enemies, always perfectly in character.

 

Sometimes he just got to be Tom, too, but that was usually the most demanding role.

 

Tom could be heartbroken. Tom was always worried for them, always devastated when it didn’t go right, always elated when it worked out. Tom cried on the bus home, Tom went to wakes and to wish fulfillments. Tom got flowers from grateful parents, Tom had boxes of thank you cards and got email updates full of pictures. Tom stood next to little caskets and next to the big brass bell they rang to signal their final treatments.

 

He much preferred playing Superman.

 

“He can literally get them to do anything, even forgive him for those awful knock-knock jokes of his…”

 

Or standup comedian, Thomas thought, smiling. He pulled his phone back out, worrying his lip with his teeth. Sometimes he thought he found him and his heart would leap excitedly into his throat, but then he realized it was just some other brunette bloke and begrudgingly moved on.

 

It wasn’t even Thomas’ fault this time. It was Billy’s for putting the idea in his head. He’d posed it in typical Billy fatalistic form, that he should make sure Edward Little was alive and also able to be a witness during trial, but Thomas had taken the excuse and run with it.

 

He scratched his nails through the back of his hair. He couldn’t decide what was annoying him more - the fact that he was so hung up, unable to shake the niggling feeling that there was something more to all of it, or that after all that fuss fate was no longer lending a hand and the enigmatic Edward Little who stumbled into his orbit was proving so bloody hard to find. 

 

“How’s the search?”

 

Thomas stiffened, meeting their deputy clinician’s eye. He knew he would find absolutely no judgement, and for some reason this tripled his embarrassment.

 

“A lot of people have very strange hobbies,” he admitted, resuming his scrolling and leaning further back on the edge long galley-style counter behind him. Goodsir laughed outright, setting his mug inside the microwave and touching a button. 

 

“Have you tried just Ed,” he went on, putting his hands on his waist. The carabiner of keys he kept lashed to his belt loop jingled slightly. 

 

“There’s even more of them,” Thomas sighed, perplexed. “He also didn’t come off as an Ed.” He tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the side of his phone. “Not officially. Very much an Edward, you know?”

 

“How mysterious!” Goodsir chimed, his intrigue obvious and unironic. The microwave dinged and he grabbed the tea towel to take it out, dumping more milk into it with a clanking swirl of his spoon. 

 

“This is so stupid,” Thomas muttered after a moment, and Goodsir made an admonishing noise.


“I wouldn’t say that,” the doctor was quick to comment, rifling around a cabinet for a packet of crisps. “You know, when I was volunteering at the clinics in Canada when I met Silna there was a young man who would come in for social services from time to time and once he stopped by my desk and gave me a plate ring - ,” 

 

Thomas looked back up from his phone, confused. 

 

“A plate ring?”


“Strange isn’t it?” Goodsir continued, still rooting around for the flavor he wanted. “It’s really remote up there, and people don’t have a lot to go on,” he pulled out a bag of prawn with a crinkle of the bag and looked it over skeptically. “He had finally gotten a job working on a pipeline, but he was worried about leaving the ring at home because he was convinced his mother would sell it, so he gave it to me for safekeeping.” 

 

“Anyway,” Goodsir went on, tucking the crisps under his arm and picking up his tea. “Half a year went on, he never came back,” he shrugged, shaking his dark curly head. “I couldn’t remember his name, and the records were terrible - there was no guarantee he’d even been at the same address anymore.” 

 

Thomas gave the doctor a sympathetic look and Harry waved him off, smiling. 


“Nowadays I keep it in our safety deposit box. I like to hope he knows I’ve held on to it - but, regardless,” he nodded towards the phone in Thomas’ hand.“I know how it feels to have a loose end.”

 

A pregnant pause hovered between them before Harry’s expression dimmed.


“Oh, I’m sorry Tom – I don’t mean to say you need to do anything drastic!” He rushed, Thomas quickly trying to get a string of No no no’s over him.

 

“It’s not… it’s not weird is it?” Thomas asked, when they’d recovered. “It’s not creepy, right?’


“No, I don’t think so at all!”

 

Thomas leveled his gaze. It was one thing to convince himself – it was another to ask his psychologist boss – that it was sane and fine to track down the stranger you helped at a bar.

 

Really, Harry? In your professional opinion?”

 

“In my professional opinion,” Goodsir said, stepping over and putting his hand on Thomas’ shoulder warmly, looking directly into his eyes. “I don’t think it is weird or creepy! I think it’s very kind.” He smiled behind his thick beard and glasses, ever sincere, which was the only thing Harry was able to be (to his credit). 

 

“Non-professional opinion?”

 

Goodsir’s eyes brightened once more, his whole body springing with a new kind of energy.

 

“I have to tell you Tom, as your friend, I think it’s terrific fun.”

 

Fun?” Thomas laughed.

 

“Well yes! I mean – you meet this fellow at the bar, right, he asks you about the bear, you text Silna, next thing you know!” He threw his hands up, nearly forgetting he was still holding the bag of crisps and struggling to keep hold of them before they went flying away.

 

“What kind of odds are those! It’s serendipitous!” He tucked the crisps back under his arm. Thomas gave in and rubbed his hands over his face.


“I don’t know,” he said, muffled by his palms. “It’s – I don’t know.”


His hands fell and slapped against his thighs. He blinked at the speckled tile of the lounge, trying to read it like tea leaves.

 

“Maybe I’m mad,” he sighed. “But I thought…there was something about him. You know when you get that kind of feeling? I don’t usually do these things. This is more James’ gambit.”

 

“It’s marvelous, Thomas,” Goodsir repeated. “Really marvelous. I love things like this. A natural conspiracy! I hope you find him! What a treat that would be! The mysterious Edward Little…” 

 

“And that he’s alright,” Thomas was sure to say and Goodsir nodded sagely.


“Oh yes, of course, yes – that he’s alright.”

 

 

He took vitals and charted, sat in on the meetings, followed up on a few of his outpatients, doled out medication, the usual swirl of activity, and he didn’t bother to think about Edward Little, or who he was, or how he was doing, or if Thomas had made up the fact that he was coming on to him.

 

Even his brief update with Dr. Stanley, their prickly lead consultant oncologist that they shared with the main hospital, was worth the distraction. It was a relief to be back to helping people that weren’t his parents. Kids had an entirely different vocabulary and it was fun to puzzle through the language of new memes and inside jokes, even while tiptoeing the thin wires between patients, their concerned families, and the MDs.

 

So when he found Edward’s profile – for real – it was on the tube. He was surrounded by other commuters, and he was exhausted, lights from the tunnels blinking by in a hypnotizing rush.

 

Edward Little’s Facebook was …sparse.

 

From what Thomas could see his profile picture was from 2018. In it Edward Little wore a white shirt, black tie, and khaki pants. It wasn’t good quality – a slightly blurred, cropped version of a larger photograph that was no question from a wedding.

 

He had four other pictures for public perusal. One of him holding a fish in overall waders with the men he recognized from the other night as George and Johnny. There was one of him with a guy who looked like his brother, and another of him in university with extremely long stupid hair. The last was a mobile upload from six years ago of a tiny collie puppy speckled in white and gray and black with bright blue eyes.

 

The caption was brief: “His name’s Joey”.

 

It had over 100 likes and zillions of comments, the vast majority hidden or from people with the last name Little.

 

Thomas stared at his grainy face, tucking his elbows in so he wouldn’t bother the people next to him. He scrolled down as far as it would let him. Edward Little wasn’t what he’d call an active user.

 

His mother, or somebody named Mary, it appeared, was very active. She tagged him in things about 400 times a day and all of them were unacknowledged. He slowed his flicking when he came across one single post from Edward – it was the profile picture of him and the man.

 

Beneath it were countless condolences.

 

Thomas frowned in sympathy. The date was not that long ago, either. Everything after was relatively much of the same: a few odd pictures and tags stretching back to his time at university, but that was really all.

 

Even the info section was otherwise unrevealing. He was a Sagittarius. He had four or five brothers and sisters on Facebook as well, and he listed a few work references but those seemed outdated.

 

There was no relationship status, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

 

Thomas’ thumb hovered over the add friend request.

 

He tapped it, watching as the dialogue box popped open, always the same inquiry. Would he like to add a message?

 

He ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth.

 

Hi! I’m Thomas, the nurse who helped you a few weeks ago. I just wanted to see if you were feeling better. If you want to ask me anything about that night I’m available.

 

He stared at his words.

 

Hello Edward. You probably don’t remember, but I’m the nurse who helped you a few weeks ago. I promise I’m not stalking you! I just wanted to see if you were feeling better. If you want to ask me anything about that night I’m available.

 

He considered the edits, sighing as the train came to a squeaking halt and the doors opened with a gentle chime and prerecorded message. People emptied and he was able to spread out a little bit more.

 

Hello, Edward. I hope this doesn’t seem weird. I’m the nurse who helped you a few weeks ago and I just wanted to see if you were feeling any better or if you needed anything. Head injuries are no fun. If you have any questions you can just message me back here 😊 Cheers!

 

He hit send, putting his phone in his pocket and pretending he wasn’t going to look at it again.

 

 

Three days later Thomas’ phone buzzed unexpectedly during rounds, the one time he wasn’t obsessively checking it for notifications.

 

Hi

 

Edward Little said.

 

Thank you.

 

It buzzed again a half hour later.

 

I’m doing alright, thank you again for asking.

I’m so sorry for the other night.

I’m feeling better.

 

I’m so glad! Thomas typed back, heart hammering up into his throat. Was recovery ok?

 

It was ok. Not allowed to do much.

Feel horrible about it.

Can I buy you a coffee?

 

Thomas stared at the words, several seconds passing before he got a hold of himself long enough to reply. 

 

That’s typical. You have to be careful. You don’t have to do that – I was just doing my job 😊 Very relieved you’re better!

 

This time he watched as Edward’s side of the chat danced in a series of stopping and starting “…”.

 

I’m so sorry that it happened. Please let me get you something

 

Thomas swallowed worrying his tongue between his teeth.

 

There’s a place near my work if you don’t mind coming in? I’d be happy to meet for a coffee if your GP says it’s ok! I’m sure you have questions.

 

Forty five minutes later Edward replied.

 

Thursday 12 ok?

 

I’ll be at Whipp’s Cross on Thursday. Monday? I’ll be at St. Bart’s.

 

Sounds good.

Chapter Text

The café was just as Thomas Jopson had promised on Facebook messenger: a short walk from the Barbican and spitting distance from the hospital. While St. Bartholomew’s dome was visible across the street, the rest was hidden by a web of scaffolding and a rather obnoxious blue privacy fence set up to cover the construction taking place.

 

A bell chimed as he walked in, the door sucking closed behind him in a gust of cold fall air, and Edward was instantly overwhelmed by the strong smell of coffee which somehow made the air inside feel even warmer.

 

The shop was cramped; there were a few wobbly looking tables and sleek modern chairs butted up to the window and a narrow bench built into the wall on the opposite end of the counter was clearly set up for those waiting on their orders to congregate on instead of clogging up the entry, which he was currently doing.

 

“Good morning! What can I get for you?”

 

Edward looked forward at the youth who was manning the counter, no older than Lucy, with a pierced nose and a bright red apron that emphasized the bright green beanie on his head.

 

“I’m just – uh,” Edward fumbled, looking down at his phone and then stepping forward, closer to the register so he wouldn’t stop up anyone who came in behind him. He tried to take in the multiple chalkboard menus behind her at once, but found that he couldn’t make sense of what any of the trendy handwriting said. Giving up, he let himself get distracted by the mounds of pastries and cakes behind the curved glass display.

 

The boy waited patiently, expression benign behind his clear-framed acrylic glasses, and Edward was glad that there seemed to be nobody else in to witness his struggle to think straight.

 

“I’m just waiting for someone,” he managed after a few more seconds of bouncing his eyes over everything, praying that did not sound as creepy as he felt it did.

 

To his immense relief the young man smiled, albeit a little awkwardly.

 

“Wonderful! Do you want to go ahead order now or wait for them?”

 

 He pointed at the table with two chairs near the window behind him and Edward turned to look and then looked back. Edward blanched, guilt-ridden at the thought of sitting around without paying and scrambled for his wallet.


“I’ll get something now,” he said quickly. “Uh - what’s good?”

 

He looked at him and the kid seemed to fight some initial reply before raising his eyebrows.


“Our house roast is really popular!” he said, gesturing to her left at a pot of regular brewed coffee with a clear tower of un-ground beans above it that said Brick House in painted block letters.

 

“Sure,” Edward agreed.

 

“What size?”

 

He blanked.


“Regular?”

 

He nodded.

 

The kid rang it up, taking his card. It took about thirty seconds for him to fill the cup, and that was only because he paused halfway to ask him if Edward wanted it with room which he said yes to.

 

Afterwards he huddled over the station to dump half and half into it, swirling it with a long wooden stick and a heavy-handed plop of sugar. Finally, he came to rest at one of the awkward little tables by the chilly window, waiting. He did his best not to seem expectant, scrolling mindlessly through articles on his phone that he wasn’t even reading and ignoring notifications.

 

“Oh, Georgie!” A surprised voice sounded as the doorbell chimed again and Edward’s head snapped up in immediate recognition. “Is Evans working today?”

 

“I’m covering for Tommy today,” Georgie said. “Flat white, right?”

 

“Aren’t you an angel? Thank you very much! I’ll be right back to pay for it.”

 

It was the same voice that had been rattling around in his subconscious for two weeks, the one he couldn’t get rid of. It belonged, of course, to Thomas Jopson. Thomas Jopson from Facebook.

 

“Hi! Edward?”

 

Edward looked at him when he turned, dumbfounded, and then realized he was standing up with his chair scooted out behind him. He was just as handsome as Edward remembered, if not more so, and Edward took the brunt of it like a sock to the stomach.

 

There was nothing else to do except look at him, and Thomas Jopson made it worth his while. He was relentlessly charming just standing there in his tan overcoat and the kind of  trainers people traded work shoes with before commuting home. His eyes were dark, mirroring the scudding clouds outside – gray or blue or green, they couldn’t decide – and appallingly excited to see him.

 

His hair was still black and neat, trimmed a bit shorter in front than Edward recalled but there’d been plenty of time between meetings for a haircut. He was certain Thomas Jopson kept a regular schedule of that kind of thing; even his posture was perfect.

 

Edward knew his hair was at what Hattie kindly called an awkward length. He’d never made up his mind on what to do after they’d buzzed it down in back and now he felt like a proper slob with his whiskers and Reeboks and faded cardigan (he ran hot, sue him).

 

He felt his lungs squeeze, core tensing while his arms and legs went weak with anxiety.

 

“Were you waiting long? I’m so sorry,” Thomas Jopson hurried to say, stepping over easy as anything and holding out his hand. Edward took it, boggling at the firm, sure, grip.

 

His nails were beautiful. Edward’s cuticles were picked to shit after two weeks with nothing to do but louse about.

 

“No, not at all,” he replied, uselessly, squeezing his fingers too hard and then letting go.

 

Thomas Jopson took his coat off, draping it over the back of the opposite chair; he dug through the pocket while Edward stared at him. He was wearing the red jumper.


“What did you get?” he asked, nodding at Edward’s drink on the table just as Edward found the wherewithal to sit again, dropping his body down heavily into the chair.

 

“Uh, just coffee.”


“Need a top off?” Thomas asked, holding his hand out. Edward yanked the cap off the cup even though he knew already he was nowhere near it.


“No,” he said, after staring in at the mostly full cup.

 

“Just be a second then!”

 

“No, wait,” he said suddenly, realizing he was about to let Thomas pay for himself, which defeated the entire point of this whole venture. He rushed to stand and went for his own wallet, the chair making a terrible loud sound on the polished floor.

 

“Oh, no, it’s really ok. I don’t mind getting my own.”

 

Please,” Edward nearly begged, already walking clumsily out from the table to stand beside him. “I mean – it’s the least I can do.”

 

Thomas Jopson looked at him strangely. 


“Just a flat white, right?” Edward asked and Thomas nodded slowly. Edward nodded back, and then went past him back up to the register. Georgie was staring at both of them, his eyes bouncing back and forth silently. He was holding the drink now, about to set it down on the counter next to the till. 

 

“Just the flat white,” Edward said shakily, clearing his throat.

 

“Here you are,” he said in a very put-upon tone. Even with Georgie'sgood customer service, Edward had seen that look more times on his sister Lucy’s face to not he thought Edward was the worst kind of clueless.

 

He took Edward’s card for a second time, glancing over his shoulder as he swiped it. Edward turned, expecting to see Thomas shrugging his coat back on and making his escape, but he was sitting at the table, waiting patiently. He fussed with his hair, clicking through his own phone.

 

“Thanks Mr...” Georgie/the baristatrailed off, glancing at the card. “Little. Enjoy!”

 

“Thanks,” Edward said quietly, stowing it back in his pocket and bringing the drink back. He could feel Georgie’s eyes on him as he held out the drink for Thomas to take, which he did with torrent of enthusiastic gratitude’s, their fingers brushing.


“It’s nothing,” Edward kept repeating, sitting back down for what he hoped was the final time for a while.

 

He flexed his hand restlessly and then picked up his own cup, taking a drink and swallowing it down with a grimace at how hot it still was. He loosened the cap and set it aside, steam puffing out of the top.


“Your color looks good!” Thomas said, and Edward glanced up to see him looking at him thoughtfully. “Much better than the last time.” He smiled, eyes crinkling, and Edward watched in despair as the dimples that were wiped from his memory made themselves extremely known all over again.

 

“Does it?” he replied distantly, touching his own forehead where the butterfly bandage had been. Thomas agreed.

 

“I saw that they had to shave your hair down,” he pointed out with a little wrinkle of his nose. Edward flushed, instinctively moving to pet the back of his head with his hand, feeling the uneven growth himself.  “How many stitches did you end up getting?”

 

“Fifteen,” Edward replied, leaning back a little more in the chair and dragging his palm on the thigh of his trousers restlessly. “Uh, ten in back and then five in front. I just got them out last week, actually.”

Thomas made a small displeased sound. “It heals much quicker when it’s on your head, thankfully. I’m glad you’re alright. It’s no joke, concussions.” He took a sip of his coffee, his pinky slightly out.

 

“I – uh,” Edward started, wishing he’d asked for water as well. “I want to thank you for doing what you did. You probably saved my life, and I’m sorry for ruining your night out – I really am.”

 

Thomas let the coffee cup rest back on the tabletop, eyes round.

 

“Please don’t say that. You would have been fine.” Thomas Jopson’s voice was exquisitely calm, his hand creeping forward a little more on the table like he meant to reach out and put it on Edward’s forearm instinctively. “You don’t have to thank me, or do any of this. It was nothing.”

 

“I appreciate it, regardless. My family does as well – uh. They send their thanks.”

 

“It was no trouble at all!”

 

They sunk back into silence, Edward taking his turn with his coffee. He had to admit, it wasn’t half bad now he could taste it more with the business of apologizing over.

 

“I even got the stains out, so no worse for wear!” Thomas said brightly, and Edward looked to where he was gesturing at the red jumper. The short-lived relaxation slithered away, replaced by agonizing regret.

 

That was right. He’d thrown up all over the poor man – probably bled on him too.

 

Jesus Christ.


“Did you have to get it dry-cleaned?” He asked, his voice saturated with penitence. “Please let me give you money for the bill.”

 

“No! I used meat tenderizer!” Thomas exclaimed, looking down and brushing the nonexistent lint off of it.

 

Edward stopped going for his wallet, caught off guard by the statement.

 

“Meat tenderizer?” He moved his head to look closer.

 

“It’s basically all salt,” Thomas explained, stretching the jumper out for him. “Cold water and then you make it sort of a paste and rub it in,” Edward watched his hands pantomime. “Let it soak. Cold water, always for blood. Heat will set the proteins and then it’s just that ugly brown mess and you’re never going to get rid of that. After that just ran it on regular cycle, cold, threw in some vinegar for the smell, dried flat!” 

 

“You must have a lot of experience with it,” Edward thought out loud, remembering that Thomas Jopson was a nurse in the first place.


To his horror Thomas Jopson laughed, tipping slightly so that his hair fell across his forehead and he had to quickly replace it.

 

“Understatement,” he said, recovering. “I’m in paedeatrics so it’s never boring. I’ve had just about everything you can imagine wind up on me. You were a model patient.”

 

“Pediatrics – so kids?”


“Mmm,” Thomas hummed, touching the back of his hand against his lips, Edward’s question catching him mid sip.

 

He’d set the top of his drink aside, lining it up with Edward’s across the table. “I’m part of the care share hem-onc program, so half the week across the street there,” he gestured out the window, “and then I do two days at Whipp’s for outpatient procedures.”

 

Edward puzzled through the slew of jargon and Thomas caught himself.

 

“Hematology and oncology. Whole gambit of that,” he shrugged a shoulder.

 

“That’s got to be tough,” Edward muttered, filling the gaps in himself. “Especially with kids.” He winced but Thomas met his eyes without trouble, his smile subdued.

 

“It has good days and bad days,” he remarked with that awe-inspiring tranquility, fixing the cardboard sleeve on his drink where it was beginning to slide down. “But it certainly comes in handy in a pinch like yours.”

 

Edward lifted his drink a little bit in a silent toast, taking a long sip of it – it was cooling, but still hot enough to make him feel more awake on the dreary autumn day. He shook his head, glancing at Thomas who was looking at him again.

 

“I hope you didn’t think I was making a point, wearing this,” he blurted and Edward blinked at him in confusion. Thomas Jopson’s face went a little rosy right at the apples of his cheeks and the tip of his nose. “I really didn’t mean anything by it – I actually thought it would make me easier to spot just in case it was crowded or I got here first.”


“I didn’t think that at all,” Edward offered, watching Thomas relax in real time. “I’m glad to see it’s looking alright. It’s very smart. Where did you get it?”

 

“I wish I remembered,” Thomas said with a little clear of his throat, fiddling with a cuff and then pushing his hair behind his ear again. “It was a gift....”


“Well, it’s unforgettable on you,” Edward said, forcing himself to look away from the collar and the way it rested on Thomas’ chest over the shirt underneath, just a peek of skin showing –

 

His ears went red hot and he lapsed into distressed silence, finding his coffee nearly empty when he took another gulp.

 

Thomas cleared his throat and moved is chair back to stand and Edward didn’t blame him.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he said, and Edward braced himself for goodbye. That would be it. All it should be, truly. He’d done what he came to do. He could be satisfied with that.

 

“I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to the cookies here.” Edward heard Thomas say. He watched him stand, righting the creases on his dark blue trousers. He sighed helplessly, eyes glimmering down at Edward uncertainly.

 

 “I’ve been distracted by that case the whole time, which is despicably rude of me – can I treat you too?”

 

“Oh, no thank you,” Edward said, shaking his head. “I uh. I don’t need one.”


“Are you sure?” Thomas asked, one hand on his waist, and Edward willed himself not to be distracted by it. “Because I won’t let you have some, even if you beg me.”

 

A strained laugh bubbled out of Edward’s throat but what else could he do? 

 

This cosmic joke was turning out to have multiple punchlines.

 

The first was what the confidence of beer at the pub tricked him into not seeing the first time: Thomas Jopson was exponentially out of his league. He was so out of his league that it had almost literally killed him. Further, nearly dying was the only thing that had somehow orchestrated him sitting across from the most competent, attractive, all-around pleasant person he’d met in god knew how long.

 

Thomas Jopson, unfortunately, got the raw end of the deal: a front row seat to sober daytime Edward.

 

Before he could take a mental step back and politely ask the universe to excuse him, Thomas put his palm on the table and leaned forward.

 

“I’ll get you one just in case,” he stage-whispered, using his hand to shield his mouth from Georgie’s hunched form in the background. He winked, then turned and trotted up to the counter.

                                                                                                                      

Edward was glad his back was to him. He turned to the window, the cooler air coming off it soothing to his burning face. He caught sight of his partial reflection in the mirror and was shocked to find he looked generally sane despite how crazy he felt.

 

Just to the side of his own face he saw Thomas bent over the glass case, staring down at the cookies fanned on one of the display stands.

 

He pointed out the ones he wanted – or had Georgie? move them aside so he could inspect more thoroughly.  He? laughed at somethingThomas said, but Edward couldn’t hear it. Edward continued watching him, blood pounding in his temple slowing to a reasonable pace. He turned his almost empty coffee cup in his hand nervously, swallowing.

 

Taking a shallow breath, Edward watched him scratch one ankle restlessly with the opposite foot. He tossed small talk to Georgie effortlessly as he waited for him to warm up the cookies in the microwave lining the back shelf, shifting his weight in a subtle stretch as he did so. Edward stared at him in the window, eyes traveling up the line of his leg to where he went and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and his hip -

 

Edward felt the stiff side of the cup give, denting under his thumb.

 

Suddenly a woman passing up the sidewalk caught his eye and scowled at him openly and Edward jerked, looking back to the table in shame. 

 

“Fair warning,” Thomas said, returning with two cookies in rustling wax paper. “I may be about to ruin your life introducing you to these.”

 

Edward gave a empty chuckle, taking the cookie from him. It was warm in his hand, chocolate smearing at the inside of the wrapper and when he peered in at the melty mess of it inside the scent immediately made his mouth water.

 

“Napkins,” Thomas said abruptly, and Edward watched him dart to the back. When he returned triumphantly, he set the handful between the two of them and then sat down in his chair with his legs swung out, one crossed over the other, and began digging into the paper with no other ceremony.

 

He broke off a chunk of the cookie, a mess of double chocolate, and took a bite, immediately getting chocolate on the side of his face. He closed his eyes, chewing, but they soon opened and fixed on Edward. He tilted his head at the cookie.

 

“No need to be shy with me,” he laughed, taking another bite – pausing briefly to shuffle a napkin from the pile. He crumpled it into his fist and scrubbed it against his mouth, shaking his head and clearly digging some out of his back teeth as he unwrapped the remaining cookie more. “Sweets are my vice,” he mumbled, using the hand with the napkin to cover his mouth.

 

Edward huffed, setting the wrapper down on the table and pulling the cookie out. He leaned over and took a timid bite of it, but then quickly recalibrated, cramming more into his mouth. He glanced at Thomas who was fighting a smile, bobbing his foot in the air.

“Told you,” Thomas said, taking a more modest nibble of his own. Edward tried to keep the crumbs off of him as he took another bite. He’d been living off of Hattie’s cooking for weeks and this thing was a sorely needed wake up call to his senses.

 

“What do they put in these?” Edward asked, wiping his hands when he was down to the last bit or two.

 

“I think it’s sea salt,” Thomas said, crushing the wrapper and stuffing it into his empty coffee cup. He brushed crumbs off of the table into his hand and then dumped them in as well.

 

“Do you mind if I ask you something?”

 

Edward stiffened slightly, thumbing at the corner of his mouth self-consciously. Thomas was settled back with his resting on his lap.

 

“Sure,” Edward said, clearing his throat a little bit. He took the last cold sips of his coffee and then did as Thomas did, folding the wrapper and putting it inside.

 

“When you were coming-to you asked me if there was a jet going by,” Thomas said, one dimple showing. “You said you were in the Navy.”

 

“I was,” Edward replied. He’d been bracing himself for other kinds of questions. Mainly: what the fuck were you thinking that night?

 

“It was just such a funny thing, so I’d been wondering about it,” Thomas elaborated, clearly curious. “Men in uniform, and all that,” he added, and Edward’s heart clenched into a fist.

 

“I – well, I worked for the Ministry of Defense, but primarily with the Navy.”

 

“Oh, really?”

 

“I’m an engineer – logistical stuff, systems mainly,” Edward explained. “So I just went around and assisted with the uh, reliability and operations testing and other things. It’s part of procurement and support.” He could see Thomas’ eyes glazing over.“But since I was single they had me traveling quite a lot and I spent time on ships,” he clarified. “A carrier, in particular, and the jets were quite loud.Do you have any family in the services?” Edward asked, and Thomas shook his head.

­­“My parents are journalists,” he said breezily. “Though both of them would probably try to convince you that’s as good as being in the armed services.” He smirked. “We did spend a very interesting few years in China when was a teenager.”

 

“I’ve never been,” he admitted.

 

“Mostly Hong Kong,” Thomas said, seeming a little bashful. He tucked his hair behind his ear. “My school there was basically exactly the same as the one I left.”

 

“I’ve only been back in London for about a year,” Edward confessed. “I’m still getting my land legs again.”

 

“How long were you away?”

 

“A few years,” Edward said, preparing the speech about Andy in the back of his mind. My brother died. I left. I started working for the MoD, I didn’t come back for three years  -

 

“Who looked after your dog?”

 

“Joey?” Edward said automatically, interrupting his train of thought. Thomas brightened.


“I saw his picture on your Facebook,” he said, leaning in.

 

Edward actually found himself smiling broadly.

 

“He stayed in Bristol with my things when he couldn’t come along,” Edward said. “But I took him everywhere I could. He’s a great traveler. Gets along with people better than I do.”

 

“I cannot imagine taking a dog on a plane,” Thomas said skeptically, but his face bespoke of true admiration. “My parents have an enormous Newfoundland -” As he spoke Edward heard the telltale sound of a phone buzzing and checked, but it wasn’t his.

 

Thomas took his out with an apology and scowled at it before his face went lax.

 

“Oh, blimey,” he whispered, texting something quickly. After a few seconds he looked up at Edward, remiss. “I’m so sorry Edward, but I’ve got to dash,” he glanced at his watch. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Do you think I can beat the rush?”


Edward looked at his own watch and shook his head sympathetically.


“I don’t think so.”

 

He watched as Thomas Jopson hummed in exasperation at whatever it was, putting his phone down on the table so he could stand and shrug on his coat again. He glanced out the window before moving closer, looking up at the awning in front of the building. He frowned at the grey sky.

 

“You ought to get where you’re going too, looks like it’ll open up any second,” he said, looking at Edward as he wormed his into his sleeves. Edward stood without thinking and suddenly found himself behind him, pinching the corners of Thomas’ coat in his fingers.

 

“Here,” he said, and Thomas stiffened for a moment, but then relaxed and shrugged into it the rest of the way.

 

“Thank you,” he said quietly, in a puzzled voice. Edward saw him glance at Georgie and then back to him over his shoulder. Edward took a good step away, pretending to be busy with taking Thomas’ empty cup. He didn’t know why he’d done it. It just reminded of what his parents did. Or something.

 

His face was hot again.

 

“I’ll toss this,” he said, gesturing with it and walking to the self-bus station where he shoved it into a bin. As he went back he took a second to pause watch as Thomas Jopson adjusted his sleeves under the coat, the cuff of his red jumper poking out.

 

He committed it to memory.

 

“I want to thank you again,” Edward said, holding out his hand and grimacing unsurely. Thomas looked at his hand and then at him. Their palms met, a warm clasp for a brief second, before, shockingly, Thomas tugged Edward into a sudden hug.

 

“Thank you so much for the coffee!” He offered cheerfully, pulling away after a squeeze that left Edward unsteady and breathless. “I’m always looking for an excuse to come here and bother the boys.”


Georgie looked up from the book he was buried in.

 

“See you Tom, I’ll let Evans know you popped in.”

 

Thomas grinned, and then looked back to Edward who was still frozen in place.

 

“I’d really like to see more pictures of your adventures with Joey! You should put them on Facebook!”

 

“I will!” Edward said abruptly back but then Thomas took an unexpected step, ducking into Edward’s space more directly.

 

“Actually,” he said hurriedly, “how about you text me? That way you don’t waste your data.”

 

“S-sure,” Edward barely manage, fumbling for his own phone. He rushed through his passcode and then pulled up the dialpad.

 

“Ready?”

 

Edward nodded and Thomas rattled the numbers off. Edward watched as his head dipped closer, checking the numbers.

 

“Great! It was really so great to meet you Edward.  I’m so happy you’re looking better. Please take care.”

 

“It was great,” Edward said dizzily back.

 

“Promise me you’ll go easy, alright?”

 

“I will.” Then, just like that, he watched Thomas leave the shop. The bell chimed, and watched him walk past the window.

 

He waved, rain just beginning to fleck the glass between them.


Edward waved back.


Not even half a second went by before his phone buzzed in his hand.

 

Hi Edward, it’s Tom! Cheers!

 

He saved the contact in his phone immediately, not leaving anything to chance. Thomas Jopson he put in the appropriate box. He stared at it and then backspaced and then re-entered three short letters.

 

Cheers, he replied.

Chapter Text

“So, what you’re saying is you took that hot nurse who fixed your head on a date?!” 

 

Edward bit back a curse, blocking John’s attempt to get the football past him. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, watching John shuffle the ball over to try again. George was off to the other side, hands on his hips, staring at Ed from behind his sunglasses.  

 

“It wasn’t a date,” Edward grunted, kicking the ball back to John, who made a frustrated noise and dribbled it forward. He looked determinedly at Edward, and Edward lifted an eyebrow.  

 

“How do you always do that!” John yowled, raking at his hair in frustration.  

 

“Because my brothers are better than you.” He didn’t have to tell John that. They’d all suffered the misery of trying to match against Dick and Fred in pickup games like these enough times over the years to know it.  
 
“Well what the hell was it then?” George scoffed over John’s whining. He toed at the ball that Edward had tossed over after stopping it just short of the goal post. “You took him for coffee!” 

 

“I was just trying to thank him,” Edward attempted to explain, taking the small break to bend down and get his water. “I bought him a coffee. I said thank you. That was it.”  

 

He spun the cap off and took a drink. It was still cold and combined with the cool air it made his throat ache, but it was a pleasant pain. He felt more awake than he’d felt in nearly a month (and admittedly longer than that) and couldn’t have asked for a better day to be officially cleared for light physical activity. The sky stretched over the public pitch was a bright postcard blue and only a few clouds dotted the sky. The sun sat like a pat of butter over the trees and gardens off on the other end, and a breeze kicked up, rattling the clips on the netting and giving Edward a slight shiver. 

 

George stood with his foot still on the ball, rocking it back and forth. The wind pushed his hair forward against his head, only held back by the wide band he used for his more athletic moments. Edward didn’t have to see his eyes to know he was squinting at him across the short distance.  (Thank you for the mental image of George Hodgson in a headband.)

 

Edward leaned against the goal, the metal cold against his arm.  

 

“What?” 

 

“You got his number!” George said, pointing at him. “How is that not a date!” 

 

“Because it wasn’t!” Edward snorted. “We’re not even really friends…” 

 

“Yet,” John sounded. Edward scowled. 

 
“So why the hell do it then?!” George squawked, throwing his arms out in exasperation. “I swear to God, Edward, only you could sabotage this much romantic potential…” 

 

“Johnny,” Edward pleaded, looking at John who had wandered closer to take a drink of his own. He wiped his mouth, looking at Edward and then sliding his eyes back to where George was still ranting.  

 

“I mean,” he started, playing with the fabric loop on the case of his water jug. Edward rolled his eyes.  

 

“Really?” 

 

“EVEN JOHNNY CAN SEE IT WAS A DATE!” George cried, gesturing wildly.   

 

“If Ed says it wasn’t, it wasn’t,” John said firmly and George made a strangled sound. “But I get what George is saying.” 

 

He leaned suddenly back, out of the way from where George chucked the ball directly between them. It swooshed against the net.  

 

“Do you understand how awkward it would be if I hadn’t said anything?” Edward countered, watching John toy with the ball and then pass it back to George. “If we’d all run into him again, acting like nothing happened?” 

 

He moved back to the center of the goal.  

 

“Edward,” George said, pushing his sunglasses up over his head. “What the fuck are you talking about? John, can you please phone an ambulance, Ed is exhibiting drastic changes in personality.” 

 

What?” Edward all but yelled, blocking George’s kick, albeit not as easily as he had previously. He passed it back. 

 

“Ed that’s called being ENGLISH!” George did yell. “You literally just fucking pretend it didn’t happen!” 

 

Edward could see his point. The ball zoomed by him and he let it get past, his hands on his hips. 

 

“Do you think he thought it was a date?” He asked worriedly, looking at George. He felt a little nauseous and considered sitting down. The sun felt too hot and everything a bit overwhelming.  

 

“Ed, think about it this way,” George said, raising a hand to his chest. “If a girl saved my life, and she started chatting me on Facebook messenger (Facebook messenger, Edward!) and I started chatting her back, and I invited her for a coffee, and we met for a coffee and exchanged numbers…?”  

 

“That doesn’t make it a date,” Edwards said firmly. “It doesn’t – it doesn’t make it something. This is different.” 

 

“It isn’t nothing is it though,” John said, scratching at his head. A ripple of delight shivered over George and he grinned. “I mean, thinking on it. If I were Sarah, I’d be a little.” He shrugged vaguely. “Right?” 

 

“EXACTLY!” George pointed suddenly at John. “Exactly! It’s not nothing is it! There’s a difference!” 

 

“George!” Johnny snapped, George loping over to wrestle him into a hug.  

 

“I do love it when you defend me Johnny,” George simpered. “I think I’m falling in love with you -!” 

 

“I wasn’t defending you!” 

 

“Now that is something,” Edward said loudly, watching George indelicately try to kiss John’s face. 

 

 

"I hate people who just tie their dogs up like that," Billy said, peeking over his sunglasses. Thomas looked over to where he was pointing and his shoe scuffed on the pavement unevenly as he tripped on a crack. "Just leave it at home if you're going to park it out on the curb like a moped. You know they do that  near my work all the time and never clean up after them..." 

 

"Holy hell," Thomas recovered, catching himself as Billy continued rambling. He pushed his own sunglasses over his head, blinking across the street at a merle colored sheltie whose lead was lashed to the bike rack in front of a store called 'Three Square',a trendy gift shop that specialized in overpriced art prints and candles that smelled like patchouli and dove tears. That wasn't what he was interested in, though.  

 

"I know that dog." 

 

"What?" Billy scoffed, taking his coffee straw out of his mouth. He watched Thomas put his hand over his brow to stair across the way, between cars and cabs, at the dog where it was lying under the thin shade of molting sapling tree in its caged planter. "What do you mean you /know/ that dog?"  

 

"I mean I know it," Thomas tossed back, already turning on his heel and walking back to the crosswalk with Billy hurrying behind him.  

 

"At least, I think I know that dog," he added under his breath, jogging across the street just before the signal counted down to '0'.  

 

"Thomas," Billy hissed, trying to keep up. Thomas was hustling between people far faster than he'd been walking earlier but he eventually slowed. As they reached the storefront Thomas tiptoed up to the dog and Billy watched in sheer horror as Thomas bent down and held his hand out for the dog to sniff. "Tom, have you lost your bloody mind? What the fuck are you doing?" 

 

"Hello darling!" Thomas cooed, his voice lifting several octaves. He ignored Billy as the dog stood up from the ground and shook himself out, coming closer with a little nervous dance of its white front paws. "Hello my angel, oh my what a handsome boy you are! Can I check something?" 

 

The dog's muzzle worked along Thomas' wrist before his little tongue darted out and his thick fluffy tail began sweeping the leaf-strewn ground shyly. He blinked, one of his eyes a light toffee brown and the other an icy blue, standing politely still as Thomas reached into the mane of impressive blue and white and black speckle ruffing his neck for his collar.  

 

"Jesus Christ Tom what did you lose in there? A fucking tenner?!" Billy was frantically looking around to be sure nobody was about to call in an open dognapping, trying to block him a little bit from view.  

 

"Oh, yes, just let me see this," Thomas continued speaking to the dog, trying to see through the thick hair to where he heard the tags jangling. He pushed the hair aside and squinted down at one of them - a rabies license - and then pushed it back, bending even further into the dog's space.  

 

"There it is," Thomas said quietly to himself, his eyes lighting on the J-O-E-Y etched onto the silver circle tag.  

 

"Joey!" The dog stiffened for a moment before beginning to wriggle happily as Thomas cupped his hands around his snout, rubbing him briskly up to his ears. 

 

"Joey, Joey, it's so good to meet you precious, aren't you so clever? Yes, you're such a sweetheart aren't you waiting for your daddy out here -" 

 

"Thomas!" Billy bit and Thomas finally looked up at him, Joey turning himself between his knees, raising himself up slightly to kiss his face. "What the fuck are you doing?"  

 

Thomas bit his lip and looked around Billy's leg to the inside of the shop. He couldn't see Edward Little, but the shop was rather deep and he might have been towards the back.  

 

"Ok Joey, just sit here again alright? Can you sit?" He stood up. "Sit."  

 

Joey sat, staring at him, and Thomas reached down to scratch his ear again in thanks.  

 

"Good boy, ok, just - um," he met Billy's exasperated face.  

 

"Have you got completely fucking mad?" Billy whispered. "What the fuck are you doing?" 

 

"No," Thomas said roughly back, peeking over Billy's shoulder for another glimpse of the shop. "I - just. I know who owns this dog." 

 

"Who?" Billy boggled. "Who?!" He demanded, hands on his hips now.  

 

Thomas looked guiltily at him and Billy's face transitioned into full blown disgust as he read the truth.  

 

"Him?" he spit, and Thomas fussed with the Gucci shopping bag he was holding, "Mr. Head Damage? You said you just went and had coffee with him as a gesture!" 

 

"I did," Thomas muttered, watching people glance at them as they went by no doubt wondering if they were in the middle of a typical Soho lover's spat. "I also gave him my number, so." He peered through his glasses at Billy's revolted expression. "And he's been texting me pictures of his dog because I asked him to." 

 

Billy's mouth hung open and then closed.  

 

"Don't pretend it wasn't you that told me not to find him on Facebook - " Thomas started, prodding him in the chest.  

 

"Why are you always like this?" Billy groaned in frustration, pushing Thomas' hand away and pulling at his curls frantically. "Yes, I said Facebook message him (FACEBOOK MESSAGE HIM, Thomas!), let him buy you a coffee! So that you could ask him to file a fucking police report for my psychotic ex's boyfriend nearly killing him!" 

 

"Shh," Thomas grabbed Billy's wrist and squeezed it. "Keep your voice down. I'm just trying to be his friend." 

 

"Oh that's rich," Billy said sharply, yanking his hand back and folding his arms stiffly over his chest. "That's decadent, that line you're feeding me, Thomas Jopson. What the fuck do you two have to be friends about?"  

 

"I'm serious," Thomas snapped, glaring. 

 

"That's precisely your issue. You get serious about these guys," Billy argued. "You know, this was cute when we were in school but this is just ridiculous. I handed you a fully functioning man on a silver platter, but you just have to go getting hung up on a charity case like absolute imbecile - where are you going?!"  

 

Thomas yanked open the front door of the shop, giving a stiff smile to the girl behind the counter whose bristled posture implied she'd just witnessed the entire row out on the sidewalk. 

 

"Just browsing," he said quietly, hearing Billy barreling in after. He pulled his sunglasses up over his hair, looking nervously around.  

 

He hurried over to a table near the register covered in air plants and women's jewelry before he realized his mistake, turning about to head for a tall display of snarky novelty socks and candles in marble jars. He lifted one and pretended to sniff it, all the while looking for a glimpse of Edward between the racks and covered cake stands full of of artisan soaps made to look like raw crystal.  

 

"He's by the greeting cards," Billy grumbled, scowling across from him with a beginner's book on tarot in his hand. Thomas heard him bite down on an annoyed sigh when he set the candle down and made towards the back of the shop where the far back shelf was dedicated to stationery and other paper products.  

 

As he got closer he slowed, tilting his head between shelving units and racks of curios.  

 

Edward Little had his back to him, looking at card in his hands. He was wearing thermal leggings under baggy gray athletic shorts, a pair of battered trainers, and a long black pullover, so at first he could have been anyone, but Thomas knew it was him because of the still-growing-in odd patch of hair on the back of his head.  

 Thomas swallowed, looking him up and down before he nearly jumped out of his skin, Billy leaning in to breathe on the back of his neck.  

 

"Well?" He said tartly in his ear. "Go say hello to your friend." 

 

He then took a rattling suck of his iced coffee and swirled the ice in the cup and Edward - because he was a normal person - turned to look for the noise.  

 

He looked seriously at Billy for a moment and then his eyes flicked to Thomas, and he seemed more puzzled by this until realization dawned on him and he rocked back.  

 

"I thought that was you, Edward!" Thomas said cheerfully, stepping around the shelf he realized he was half-hidden behind. "Or, I saw Joey - or thought I saw Joey out front, and so I thought that it had to be you in here!" 

 

"Thomas?" Edward mumbled, still wondering at him. He glanced back to Billy hovering by the shelf, his sunglasses on, shaking his iced coffee to get at the dregs. 

 

"I didn't mean to startle you," Thomas apologized, coming closer. "We were just down here shopping, and I got so excited thinking it was Joey I wanted to come in and be certain - and say hello, too." 

 

Edward's eyes slid to the Gucci bag in his hand and Thomas held it up illustratively.  

 

"Oh," he said, seeming a bit unsure of what he was looking at. He shook his head. "Oh, sure. Yes, I - was uh," he looked at the card in his hand and then shoved it back roughly onto the display nowhere near its proper place. "I was just. I was playing football earlier," he jerked his thumb out towards the front of the store.  

 

"At the park?" Thomas could smell the grass and sunshine on him, the tell-tale scent of man and outside and he tried not to let it seem to obvious how much the pheromones were getting to him.  

 

"Yeah," Edward said, his hand finding the back of his head. He neglected to say which one, but Thomas figured it didn't matter. "I just got uh. Cleared to do light physical activity," he elaborated when Thomas searched his face.  

 

"I bet." 

 

Thomas snapped his head to Billy who now putting on a good show pretending to be busy with the racks of single-sheet wrapping paper. Thomas' eyes skirted back to the cards. 

 

"What brings you to Soho? Someone's birthday?" Thomas asked, turning back to him.  

 

"H-how did you know?" Edward asked a bit weakly.  

 

"You're standing in front of the section," Thomas hinted, tipping his head.  Edward made a face like he'd been given a little static shock. 

 

"My sister's. My youngest sister, Lucy. Her birthday is coming up and I was trying to find something  and the search said this was a good place to get girls her age," he went a startling shade of red, "I mean, gifts for girls her age." 

 

"How old is she turning? Twenty something?" Thomas probed, acting like he didn't notice the misstep, or the testing nature of Edward's searing blush. He looked at the rows of cards with new purpose.  

 

"Twenty-one." 

 

"You're what?” Thomas looked him up and down, thoughtfully trying to recall his driver’s license, “Thirty...five?" 

 

"Yeah," Edward cleared his throat.  

 

"That's a big gap," Thomas marveled, secretly pleased at his own correctness,.“And she's youngest?" 

 

"There's a few of us," Edward mumbled, and left it at that.  

 

"Well you actually nailed it," Thomas said, considering his options. "My patients love this place - the older ones. It's very trendy," he ticked his finger along the cards and then pulled on out with a little smirk.  

 

Lana Del Hey! It's Your Birthday! 

 

"Try this one on Lucy," he said, holding it out, watching Edward bend closer to read it.  

 

"Will she know who that is?" He was clearly baffled, turning it over and then back again with a knit in his brow. Thomas nodded.  

 

"She will. I can nearly guarantee it."

 

Edward took the card and then sought out an envelope for it, appearing relieved to no longer have the choice to make.  

 

"What else were you thinking of getting her?" 

 

Edward took a deep breath, glancing around the store.  

 

"That was the next step," he admitted. 

 

"If you really want to get on her good side, buy her the new iPhone," Billy put in, ambling over to hang on Thomas' arm. He gave Edward a sardonic smile. "Great chat but we've got to go, I'm out of coffee." 

 

"Clearly," Thomas grunted, shaking him off. "We don't have to go," he said back to Edward. The older man's brown eyes were glancing back and forth between them uncertainly.  

 

"I don't mean to keep you. Is he your, uh," he paused, licking his lips. It was Thomas' turn to be confused, peering at Edward's nervous face.  

 

"Partner?" Edward said timidly and Thomas wasn't entirely sure he had heard him correctly. 

 

"What was that?"  

 

"Ha!" Billy hacked loudly, and Thomas tamped down the desire to murder him in cold blood right there in the middle of the store. 

 

"No," Thomas said lightly, breezing over the misunderstanding, "We're just particularly good friends if you can believe it."   

 

"Fuck, sorry," Edward said, voice dropping and Thomas waved it off.  

 

"Don't be! It happens all the time." 

 

Edward gave him an apologetic smile and Thomas returned it.  

 

"Ok, if she's twenty-one..." Thomas started, stopping himself from getting caught up in the plush fringe of Edward's lashes by walking away from the cards to scan the merchandise. "Is she in school?" 

 

"She is," Edward's voice came and Thomas felt him step beside him. Candles were out, as she was probably in a dormitory in that case."She does show jumping."  

 

"Horses?" 

 

Edward nodded. 

 

“It’s sort of a family thing...” 

 

Thomas clucked his tongue thoughtfully before he spied something on the off to the side. He went over, brushing past Billy who was impatiently gnawing on his straw.  

 

"These are really cute," he said, picking up a rectangular clutch with a long tassel hanging off the zipper. The fabric on front was rough and sturdy with bright colored flowers embroidered all over it, embellished with velvet and little loops of ribbon. He looked over the rest of the table, picking up a hand-made Chapstick and demonstrating it to Edward who was watching him, wide eyed.  

 

"She's on her way to a competition, she can drop all her necessities in this - or just keep it in her hand bag and throw it in with whatever she takes with her, like this," he held up the Chapstick and then looked down, picking up a sample rollerball of travel perfume in a slim tube."Or one of these, though we'll have to guess what she likes to smell like..." 

 

The tester he was holding featured peony and black currant and he unscrewed the cap, dragging it on his wrist and taking a sniff, shrugging.  

 

"That's seems good, eh?" He held his wrist out automatically to Edward who leaned down, unexpectedly taking his forearm in his hand to hold him steady. Thomas stared at where his fingers wrapped over the fabric of his shirt, his stomach fluttering. The scent of sunshine was even stronger with Edward's hair bent in front of his face - 

 

"That's nice," he agreed, releasing him, and Thomas forced a smile, grabbing a fresh box of the perfume and dropped it in with the lip balm, zipping it closed. 

 

"Done!"  

 

Edward took the bag in both his hands very carefully and tucked the card on top of it.  

 

"Thank you so much," he said, voice dripping with sincerity. "I have no idea how you keep doing that," he looked disbelievingly at Thomas.  

 

"Doing what?" 

 

"Rescuing me," Edward said, and Thomas felt his face heat.  

 

"Edward, seriously," he contested, "you're perfectly capable on your own." 

 

Edward's eyes met his and stayed there, his dark brow twitching as he contemplated whatever he saw in Thomas' own gaze.  

 

"I think your dog is on the phone with RSPCA out there," Billy injected, breaking up the moment, swirling his straw in his cup. Edward looked nervously out the front window, but Joey was still just lying in the shade, occasionally being fawned on by passerby.  

 

"We do need to get a start on our walk home," Edward said.  

 

"And where's that?" Billy asked, squinting at Edward behind his lenses.  

 

"Paddington." 

 

"God, spare me," was the earned response, Billy walking away from them entirely and out the door.  

 

"Sorry about him, he's in a mood," Thomas apologized, quickly. "My parents are in Fitzrovia." 

 

"Fitzrovia," Edward repeated, like he was remembering something. "Are you and Billy here in Soho?" 

 

"God no," Thomas laughed, "neither of us can afford it. We're going to be kicked out to Peckham with the rest of the hipsters if Shoreditch's rent keeps going up like it is. I'm practically grandfathered in at my place because my dad's friends own the building." 

 

Thomas felt his phone vibrating in his pocket and ignored it. It vibrated again and he glanced at his watch, the message flitting across the screen.  

 

How are you still awake? 

 

Thomas flicked the notification away.  
 

He walked with Edward to the check out and Edward thanked him again for his help, the two of them stepping out of the shop together and back into the crisp fall weather. Thomas was glad he did - it was worth it to see Joey leap to his feet and begin pulling at his lead just to get to Edward. He showered him in kisses as Edward untied his leash. To Thomas' surprise he literally hefted the dog under one arm where he squirmed and then eventually calmed while Edward worked out winding his lead around his hand more securely.  

 

"He's so pretty, by the way," Thomas said, taking the opportunity to scoot closer and scratch at Joey's head,."I'm so glad I got to meet him in person! Much better than just the pictures." 

 

"Say thank you to Thomas," Edward said and Joey rolled his eyes to Edward, his ears pricking.  

 

"Speak up," Edward commanded a little more surely this time, pointing up with his free hand, and Joey gave a small shocking bark, his tail wagging like crazy 

 

"Oh wow," Thomas laughed, Edward setting Joey back on the pavement. "You'll have to teach me that one." 

 

"He's a showoff," Edward smiled crookedly, nudging the Shetland with his foot. "We'll have to show you the full routine sometime, won't we Joe?" 

 

"I'd love that," Thomas said. Edward glanced at him and Thomas heard himself continue before he had a chance to really think, "We should meet at the park sometime. I take Neptune out a lot and Joey would be a good influence on him." 

 

"Sure," Edward said, clearly as surprised by the offier as Thomas was making it. "Any time. Just let us know." 

 

Thomas smiled at him. 

 

"Lovely! Well enjoy yourselves, boys. I've a feeling Billy is just up the street at that Starbucks."  

 

"Thank you again for your help with the present," Edward said, turning as Thomas began walking away in the opposite direction from him.  

 

"Let me know how it goes over with her," Thomas reminded him, waving.  

 

"I will," he heard Edward say. He watched him wave, and then he turned, continuing up the way till he saw Billy sitting under an umbrella on the sidewalk seating, a fresh latte in his hand.  

 

Thomas walked around the little fenced in partition and pulled out the chair across from him, sitting down.  

 

"You know he just moved back into the city and he doesn't know that many people," Thomas said after a moment had passed of just watching Billy stare at his phone.  

 

"I didn't say anything," Billy replied.  

 

"And after what happened to him, I'm sure he appreciates that someone is trying to look out for him right now." 

 

"I'm sure," Billy continued, taking a drink.  

 

"We're just friends," Thomas said, firmly. "I can just tell that he needs a friend. And, for your information, he's nice to me. Which is refreshing."  

 

Billy continued drinking his coffee in a forced kind of meditative silence and Thomas grit his teeth together. He pulled out his own phone, typing something in so aggressively it forced Billy to look up from his own screen.  

 

"Please tell me you're not texting him."  

 

Thomas' own quietness was stony, making Billy more curious.  

 

"Thomas," he sighed, eventually. "Look, I just have your best interest at heart. That guy is so helpless it should be funny but it isn't, and you don't need something you have to gut rehab. You need someone who has presence. God forbid some real personality, even." 

 

Thomas finally met Billy's eye again and then returned to busily typing in his phone.  

 

"I know. It's a spicy idea for you, charisma," Billy drawled, rolling his neck. "Imagine you fucking someone who can string a unique sentence together." 

 

"Graham Gore is taking me out on Friday." 

 

Billy sputtered on his latte, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  

 

"You texted him? Now? Just now?" 

 

"Yes, just now,” Thomas sniped. “You won't shut up about it, and I want to prove to you that I'm just friends with Edward so you'll stop being so bloody rude to him." 

 

Billy forced him to show his work, but he ultimately approved.  

 

"You have to promise to give it a real try," Billy qualified, after the fact, straw hovering at his mouth. "For Harry." 

 

Thomas reached over and took a sip of his latte. As if he gave anything less than 100% to anybody - especially Harry. 

Chapter Text

 

 
It was one of those places that he took his sisters when they wanted to come “into town”, which, for them, was akin to visiting the surface of the moon. There was a lot of preparation involved, and usually some cousin or out of town friend was the gracious reason for the trip, excited to feel like something other than a tourist.  

 

There was also the matter of children being schlepped along with them, which always added a certain mania.  

 

Kitty insisted on going to places like Borough Market when she deigned to grace them with her presence, but it typically ended with her lamenting how it didn’t feel like a city after living in LA so long. Edward refrained from adding that London was a city before the idea of Los Angeles was even conceived (because she knew it as well as he did), but he knew she just meant the lack of skyscrapers and so stayed silent.  

 

Borough Market, wedged at the foot of London Bridge, was (according to its webpage) about one thousand years old just on its own. 

 

“In the 18th century they made a mandate,” Edward said to Thomas as they walked up the stairs of London Bridge station, “that this thing was supposed to be here just. Forever.” Seagulls shrieked and circled about overhead, wind blowing the scent of the river over them.  

 

“Really?”  

 

Thomas didn’t look at him as they fell into step, shaking out a netted bag he’d brought along. That was a first for Edward: his sisters never bought anything when they went. They just shopped around and complained and asked for samples. There was no ambiguity to Thomas’ impromptu text yesterday evening which simply said Billy is working tomorrow but if I don’t get one of those dulce de leches from Portena I will die. Are you free? 

 

Edward was. 

 

The mission objective from there became obvious, Thomas spelling it out easily. They’d get there early, stand in line for inordinate amounts of time, get Thomas his dulce de leche, and he’d survive. High stakes, Edward commented. Thomas promised Edward fish and chips for braving the rabble and his pre-dulce-de-leche bad mood. Edward assured him it wasn’t necessary but appreciated. 

 

When they intercepted each other on the Tube as they’d planned Thomas looked raring, but also something else was in his expression that Edward couldn’t quite make out. He seemed tense, but further inspection as they swayed side by side on the train didn’t reveal anything. 

 

There was, however, ample time to inspect his outfit on the train. Thomas was wearing brown wool trousers today. The trendy sort like at Topmen; a little baggy, like his turtleneck, and pegged at the bottom to show off his white socks and converse. Edward had just worn his usual autumn uniform: khakis, flannel, the same brown corduroy jacket he’d had since he was thirty.  

 

“Yeah,” Ed said, toying with his keys in his jacket pocket. They crossed the street and wandered over to the green arched entrances, Edward more than happy to follow Thomas’ always intentional way of walking and given sense of direction.  

 

“It was a semantic error, I think, because they really just said ‘forever’,” Edward continued, drawing nearer to Thomas as the crowd thickened. Thomas insisted they get there early, but it was Saturday. Thomas followed the stream of shoppers into the main room, bathing them both in the flattering ambient light from the sustainable bulbs and glassed in arcade-style windows above them. 

 

“Did they? Well bully for us then,” Thomas tutted, moving toward one of the long crate-laden tables full of jewel-colored produce.  

 

It was directly under one of the panes. Watery sunlight haloed his dark hair in motes of dust and settled in a glow that softened the earlier hardness on the plains of his face.  

 

“Do you like persimmons?” Thomas said, picking one up and turning it in his hand. He looked at Edward questioningly, tucking his hair behind his ear where it fell loose. “I’ve never had one.” 

 

“They’re good,” Edward offered, shaking himself. He focused on the fruit in Thomas’ hand. “I like the soft ones. Taste a bit like honey.” 

 

“James loves them,” Thomas muttered, selecting a different one with the other hand, brow furrowing while he compared them. “How can you tell them apart?” 

 

“Hachiya, and Fuyu!” The man operating the stand said, turning around from where he was helping someone else. He pointed them out, one shaped like an acorn and the other more like a tomato. Thomas raised his eyebrows, glancing at his name badge which said Morf on it.  

 

“Hachiya… F-Fuyu,” he tried, mouth working around the foreign words with his accent. Edward bit back a grin and the man nodded enthusiastically.  

 

“Right on! Most people get the Hachiya,” he continued, leaning plenty close to be heard over the roaring hum of people speaking by Edward’s measure, his rather long brown hair sweeping from behind his ears. 

 

Thomas smiled at him graciously and Edward rolled his eyes, looking off to the side for a moment. “They take a little longer to ripen, but they’re good and jammy! You set em’ on your windowsill, let em’ get a little soft.” 

 

“How do you eat it?” Thomas probed, skeptical. The man grinned, taking the rounder persimmon from Thomas’ hand and pulling a knife from the pocket of his apron. Edward ambled closer from the corner of the table where he’d been standing, looking very curious about some apricots while he kept the corner of his eye on the guy.  

 

“Fuyu’s are good when they’re firm, so right about now is good!” He tossed the persimmon lightly, then tested the fruit with a gentle squeeze of his thumb. He made big show of cleaning it on his apron before putting it down on the table space behind the displays, cutting off the top and bottom. He then spun the knife slowly around in front of Thomas’ face, peel falling to the floor.  

 

“Could have said like an apple,” Thomas muttered, under his breath and Edward huffed a silent chuckle, playing it off as a shrug.  

 

He cast a sly look at Thomas, who appeared deliberately unimpressed with the showmanship. He moved so that their elbows bumped slightly -  

 

“What was that?” The man asked, cocking his ear to them.  

 

Edward bit back another laugh, using his elbow to try and find a soft spot on Thomas’ ribs where he might be ticklish. 

 

“Nothing!” Thomas said in a breathy voice, jerking unnaturally to block Edward’s next attempt. Color flushed high on his cheeks, eyes flashing. 

 

“He's just being cheeky,” Thomas explained quickly to the man, shaking his head. “I can’t take him anywhere…” 

 

If he had blinked, Edward would have missed the coy look Thomas shot him, ears still pink. He tightened his hand and the teeth of his keys dug into his palm. 

 
“Here you are,” the seller interrupted, offering them both two wedges on toothpicks. “Give that a try! And one for the joker too,” he said, and to Edward’s horror he tipped his head barely at Thomas and winked. 

 

“You go first,” Thomas said before Edward could react, turning to him. 

 

Edward ate the persimmon as directed, with little ceremony,and Thomas inspected his expression.  

 

“Your turn,” Edward insisted. Thomas ate the thing fearlessly in one bite but chewed slowly, working the fruit around in his teeth. After a long, contemplative, moment he met Edward’s eyes again and swallowed.  

 
“That’s very sweet!” He exclaimed, unbearably bright with surprise. Edward smiled at him, fiddling with the empty toothpick between his teeth.  

 

“That is like honey, that is,” Thomas continued, taking another wedge the seller held out eagerly. He popped it into his mouth. “Mm!” He turned to Edward again, wide-eyed and waiting. 

 

Edward grinned around the toothpick. He nodded slowly in agreement.  

 
“They’re good,” he affirmed, and Thomas’ eyes lit up. He looked back to the seller.  

 

“How much?”  

 

 

“Edward,” Thomas begged for the third time, “please take this from me.” 

 

Thomas’ single-minded mission regarding dulce de leche did have allowances for impromptu stops at every sweet vendor they came across. The solution to Thomas’ eyes being bigger than his stomach was apparently to take two or three sampling bites of whatever he bought, catch himself, and then shove the rest off on Edward, who finished it without complaint.  

 

This, this time, happened to be a meringue with bits of macaron sticking out of it in a variety of colors and flavors. Before that was a bar of blueberry cheesecake, and the time before that had been a giant piece of s’mores toffee jammed with marshmallows.  

 

“Is that pistachio?” Edward asked, holding his hand to his mouth to catch the bits falling and Thomas nodded, looking down the line in front of them.  

 

“I always do this to myself,’ he sighed, crossing his arms, the bag heavy with fruit shaking against his leg. He looked back to Edward, watching him brush crumbs off of his jacket with amusement.  

 

“I don’t mind at all,” Edward confessed, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. Thomas pursed his lips in a smile and then looked down the line again restlessly. It was slow service, but Edward had nowhere to be and Thomas didn’t seem to either.  

 

“I meant eating my feelings,” Thomas said, shifting his weight a little. Edward felt his face crease in confusion.  

 

“Was… did something happen?”  

 

Thomas looked around again before he finally met Edward’s eyes.  

 

“It’s stupid,” he disclaimed. “I went on – well, my friend Billy and my friend Harry set me up on a date –,” 

 

Thomas continued to speak, but Edward found himself caught on the word date like a shirt on a nail. His mouth went dry and he could feel the film of sugar on his teeth which was a sensation he never cared for, and he watched as Thomas talked, touching his hair, shifting around, shrugging his shoulders, but Edward couldn’t keep up with what he was saying. Every word of the story was pulling the metaphorical shirt more and more, splitting it down the middle.  

 

His heart was beating uncomfortably up into his throat and instead of feeling hot, his face felt tingly and numb from the shock. Shock? Why was he shocked? He blinked, trying to tune back in, because this was important, and Thomas was talking about it.  

 

“It just didn’t click,” Thomas said, the two of them moving in tandem as the queue advanced.  

 

“That’s great!” Edward heard himself say and Thomas grimaced at him. Edward realized his timing and watched as his hand landed heavily on Thomas’ shoulder hard enough to make Thomas jostle.  

 
“That’s great that you went on a date,” he said firmly. “That’s what I meant.” 

 

Thomas looked at him, lip caught in his teeth. He slowly let it go and Edward squeezed his hand on his shoulder.  

 
“Why do you think – uh, it didn’t click?”  

 

Thomas looked at him in a way he sometimes did. It was sort of like he expected Edward to just collapse at any moment and he was infinitely surprised to see him upright.  

 

“He was perfectly nice,” Thomas said finally. They took another step, close enough now to hear the staff talking back and forth over the plexiglass partition. Edward’s hand fell away back to his side before he decided to shove it back in his pocket again.  

 

“He was smart, went to school and all, teaches upper levels,” Thomas continued, and Edward nodded encouragingly. “He was interested in me, asked after my work, he’d read a few of James’ articles on China, actually, which as a little funny. He let us split the check, too.”

 

“He didn’t pay?” Edward blurted, brow furrowing.  

 

Thomas shook his head lightly.  

 
“I mean, I don’t mind going Dutch at all, but some guys try to get...” He rolled his eyes deliberately. “It becomes a thing for them, you know…” 

 

Edward pretended like he did. Thomas sighed lightly, nearly at the counter now. He stood on tiptoe to glance over people’s shoulders, perusing the wares.  

 

“He wasn’t a half bad shag, either,” Thomas said. Edward stared at his profile as he leaned closer to the partition. “Hello, could I get a dulce de leche if you’ve still got them?” 

 

“Oh, Edward, can you hold this for just a sec – I have to get my list, Dad always wants like forty-five of these empanadas even though he’s supposed to be watching his blood pressure...” 

 

Edward opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out and then he was holding the bag of produce while Thomas pulled out his phone and started scrolling through a list, apologizing to the seller who was looking a little impatient.  

 

“Could I get three each of these – mozzarella and tomato, and the spinach and ricotta as well and then could I get four of the ham and cheese? Thank you so much, you’ve got it.” 

 

 “You slept with him?” 

 

Thomas did a double take over his shoulder, shuttling them along the queue to the register where a guy with silvering hair was parceling it all together and boxing it up in a brown paper bag  

 

“With who – with Graham Gore?I didn’t want to waste the evening!” Thomas said crisply moving aside of the other patrons. He was already rummaging through the bag where he pulled out a delicate pastry in white butcher paper. “Hold on,” he gingerly tried to hold the bag without crushing the rest of its contents and slide the pastry up so he could dip his tongue into the caramel-colored filling.  

 

“Christ that’s good,” Thomas mumbled, taking a bite and then nodding  at Edward. “It’s better than Graham Gore, I’ll tell you.” He rolled his eyes again. 

 

Then he began sucking it out.  

 

There weren’t quite words, even if Edward had the wherewithal to find them. Thomas had, clearly, assumed Edward knew and therefore failed to explain or even mention that the best practice of eating the very thing he’d come here for was to basically simulate fellatio on it.  

 

Edward couldn’t stop himself from staring as he did it, watching him pat at the filling on the corner of his mouth and then lick it off his finger. He dug his tongue in obscenely to scoop what little there was left, then ate the empty pastry in a few more bites, cheek bulging like a squirrel. Bits of pastry flaked off and dusted his shirt and he flicked them off, entirely unbothered. 

 

“Do you want an empanada?” Thomas said, mouth still half full. He balled the wrapper in his hand and smiled at Edward, already reaching back into the bag.  

 

“I’m good,” Edward said weakly and Thomas’ expression dimmed.  

 

“How about we get some air?” He suggested, tilting his head towards the exit, “I need to work some of this off before I get back on the train.”  

 

 

 

“How long have you been out, Edward?” 

 

Edward looked at his feet as they walked, and he didn’t look up. For some reason the question didn’t make him feel the plummet of anxiety he usually got when he talked about such matters. It was a part of himself he was used to explaining, or never daring to bring up, but with Thomas there was no need for that.   

 

Thomas was busy looking out at the water as they strolled. They’d gone all the way up the street to Potters Field and ended up at the river walk, pausing at a Costa along the way so Edward could get a coffee for the headache he was beginning to get.  

 

“Not long,” Edward replied, lifting his head to look at the grayish water rolling by and the blurs of people traveling alongside it. “I told George and John about it, when I moved back to London but I think they’ve known longer, since uni. My sister knows. That’s about it.”  

 

“I only got the feeling it was a new subject,” Thomas explained, and Edward felt his hand on his arm. He rubbed it gently before it retreated.  

 

“Can I be honest with you?” Edward asked quietly. They came to a stop near the railing and Edward tiredly leaned his arms on it, Thomas taking the moment to drop the bag between his own feet and lean against it with him. Edward took it as permission. “You’re the first gay friend I’ve ever had. Officially.” 

 

Thomas had his chin in his hand, looking at him so that when Edward met his eyes he felt familiar little tendrils of embarrassment at the acknowledgment. He willed himself not to look away.  

 

“I’m honored,” Thomas said, dimpling.  

 

“I knew people, but I never...” He trailed off, coughing into his fist.  

 

“You’re doing fine,” Thomas reassured him. “Really, you don’t need to look at me like that. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, Edward.” He tucked his hair behind his ear where the wind kept pulling at it. Edward nodded along and took a deep breath, moving his shoulders restlessly.  

 

“How was it – uh. With your date?” 

 

“The shag?” Thomas’ eyebrows arched.“I’m sorry Edward, do you think just because I’m your friend now I’m going to give you all the saucy details of my affairs?” Edward tried not to laugh, but it helped cover his flush and Thomas tsked at him.  

 

“Since you’re burning to know, it wasn’t bad,” Thomas considered, stretching his arms out so that he was leaning away from the rail now. “He knew what he was doing but, he was really fit and guys like him – fit ones I mean – it’s like they’re your personal trainer or something. Wanted to have me against a wall and standing on one leg and all that. I don’t know what point he was trying to make but it proved I’m out of shape…” 

 

“So you,” Edward tongued at his teeth. “Even though you didn’t like him, you fucked?” 

 
Thomas suddenly laughed, bringing the back of his hand over his mouth, going a bit pink from the wind.  

 
“Yes, Edward, I did. I fucked him, among other things. You can do that. You don’t have to marry them first.” 

 

“I know that,” Edward snipped, ignoring Thomas’ grinning. “I’ve …fucked people too. Just never after a first date.” 

 

Thomas stared at him for a beat, smiling and then seeming he was about to say something before he finally worked it out.  

 

“Edward, darling, that is wonderful, I’m very proud you’re such a gentleman,” Thomas’ hand was back on his arm squeezing and this time Edward tried to shake him off but Thomas gripped harder and dropped his head to his shoulder briefly, laughing.  

 

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were in such high demand -!”  

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Edward muttered, raking a hand through his hair. He could still feel the phantom weight of Thomas on him, and he tensed, jittery from the coffee. 

 

They continued down the river walk. At some point Thomas forced them to stop at a ice cream cart.  

 

“Cold weather makes me crave cold things,” he said resolutely, offering Edward the flake and then taking a big spoonful of plain vanilla. Edward could only silently thank the powers that be that he’d gone with a cup not a cone.  

 

They strolled up and down, Edward holding the bag of empanadas now so Thomas could devote himself fully to the ice cream.  

 

“How did you know?” Edward asked after a while of silently walking. “That you were…”His face throbbed with a little anxious pulse of embarrassment.  

 

Thomas hummed around a spoonful, matching Edward’s slowed pace. Joggers in insulated tights and clumps of people were streaming by, and the two of them were ambling along against the current.  

 

“I used to interview myself in the bathroom mirror,” Thomas answered, and Edward blinked, frowning at the sidewalk. “I was, I don’t know, five or six? I used to get caught in there all the time. I called it The Judy Show.” 

 

The Judy Show,” Edward repeated. “Were you Judy, then?” 

 

“Of course. She was gorgeous,” Thomas affirmed, scraping his spoon at the bottom of the cup, “and I was all her gorgeous guests. Truthfully, I’ve always fancied men, or thought they were so handsome. I was jealous of the little girls in class – you know, that they’d get to get married to a man someday. Just green over it.”  

 

Edward nodded.  

 

“What about you?”  

 

Edward watched a seagull try to pull a carryout container out of a bin, his hands shifting in his pockets.  

 
“I was about thirteen and watching Wrath of Khan,” Edward said, attempting to articulate something that he had never spoken aloud to another living human being. Mostly because nobody had known to ask, he supposed. “I got so upset when Spock died I forced my brother to call the video store and tell me if they had the third one in, so that he could prove they got reunited. I think I realized, or, understood, at that moment you know, how heartbreaking that would have been for Kirk, and that maybe he was alone in that. That they meant so much to each other. That they were in love…with each other. That maybe I was like that. With them both being men, I mean. Or. Vulcan and man -”  

 
He scratched at the side of his face and then realized that Thomas was no longer right beside him. He did a double take, pausing his walking, to find Thomas staring at him from a few steps away.  

 

“Oh Edward,” Thomas said, in a openly devastated sort of way. His eyes were shining slightly, but he didn’t cry. “Edward, darling, that’s so sweet.”  

 

“I know,” Edward agreed. Thomas stared at him for another long moment and then took a few steps to catch up to him again, and they stood near each other, Edward feeling like he’d misspoke.  

 

Slowly he watched Thomas take the spoon he was holding and hold it towards his mouth. Edward’s eyes widened in understanding.  

 
“Tell me, Edward Little,” Thomas began, his eyes still shimmering in the gray light. “Did they have Search for Spock in stock?” 

 

He held the spoon out to Edward and Edward stared at it and then glanced back into Thomas’ face.  

 

“We’re dying to know,” Thomas said quickly, back into the spoon.  

 

“I – uh,” he pulled slightly away from the spoon-turned-microphone once again in his face. The wind tugged at Thomas’ hair, and Edward was overwhelmed with the urge to reach out and right it for him – to deflect from the attention. “I don’t make for good television,” he tried to explain.  

 

Thomas shook his head, insisting.  

 

Edward glanced around. Everyone was predictably too into themselves to notice he was being interviewed by a man with a plastic spoon. He bent slightly forward.   

 

“They did have it in stock. We watched it the next night.” 

 

“They had it in stock, ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas said with a affected gasp of relief, his hand on his heart. He turned to address an invisible audience and then back. “Edward, tell us, what did you think of the fourth one? The one with the whales?” 

 

“Well, Judy,” Edward said slowly, and Thomas’ answering smile was so dazzling it nearly knocked him off his feet. “I rather enjoyed it. I thought it earned its levity after all the hardship.” 

 

“I did as well,” Thomas said, putting the spoon back into the paper cup. “I always thought it was legitimately funny, like that bit where Kirk is going on about Italian food.”  

 

“They improvised that,” Edward said, realizing he was still fixated on Thomas’ face. He was bewildered, his heart somersaulting. He tried to look away but kept looking back to it.  

 

“Really?”  

 

“Yeah,” Edward murmured, mouth curling into a smile.  

 

“So you’re a … what do they call them?” 

 

“Trekkie. My brother was more into it than me, but we shared a room.” 

 

“Trekkie,” Thomas tried, considering it. He wore the same careful face he had before, when trying the persimmons. “Trekkie. It sounds like it should be an insult, doesn’t it?” 

 

“No,” Edward said, a laugh tumbling out of him and he suddenly reached out and touched Thomas’ arm the way Thomas sometimes touched his. “No,” he squeezed his fingers, still smiling. “No it’s not at all.”  

 

Chapter Text

“So, I figure I’ll pick Edward up at four on Wednesday morning – that way we can beat most of the traffic.”  

 

John slid into the booth across from Edward with a slight squeak, his salad plate making a dull scrape on the table top. 

 

“4am? Jesus, what for?” Edward said, startled. He finished off a text to Thomas and then put his phone back into his pocket. When he looked up he saw John and George were both staring at him, George’s hand still holding a piece of pizza mid bite. 

 
“Uh,” John said, blinking in shock. He didn’t say anything more but glared at George who let his piece of pizza drop back to his plate.  

 

“Johnny,” George said gently, trying to chew. 

 

“Did you forget?” John blurted, just over George’s voice. “About the Chalkstreams?” 

 

All the blood drained out of Edward’s face.  

 

“No,” he said. He had. He one thousand percent had. 


 
“Don’t lie!” John cried. “Don’t lie about it to my face, Ed!” 

 

“Remember, Johnny, he did just have a concussion,” George tried to interject before John could start throttling Edward in the middle of the Pizza Hut where they were currently having dinner. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to forget.”  

 

George looked pleadingly at Edward as John went back to spearing a cherry tomato on his fork, his hackles still clearly up.   

 

“I didn’t forget,” Edward said, but it didn’t come out as a firmly as he wished it would. “You just caught me when I was distracted, John, that’s all.” 

 

“Distracted by what I wonder,” John muttered and Edward’s face folded into annoyance.  

 
“Now what the hell’s that supposed to mean?”  

 

John was busy cramming an insane amount of salad into his mouth, deliberately it appeared, so he wheeled on George instead.  

 

“I think Johnny is just a little, uh, concerned about how you’ve been acting lately.” 

 

“How I’ve been acting? How have I been acting, exactly?” 

 

“You forgot about the Chalkstreams!” John stage whispered, as though the tables and booths full of families and school kids and senior citizens seated around in their section gave a fuck. “The Chalkstreams Edward, and you know I suspected this – I knew this was going to happen. You’re pulling away. It happens after trauma!” 

 

“Pulling away? Wait,” Edward squeezed his eyes closed. “Ok, hold on, just a second – trauma?” 

 

“I’ve been reading about it,” John snapped, breaking apart a halo of red onion aggressively.  

 

“He means your head, Ed, I think. Is that what you mean, John?” 

 

John said nothing, crunching in anger. Edward hadn’t been in the spotlight of his passive aggression in a long while. He hadn’t missed it very much.  

 

“That was nearly two months ago,” Edward said darkly. “And that’s not what I’d call a trauma. What the hell do you mean pulling away?” 

 
“Well, I mean,” George said gently. He’d gotten courageous enough to pick his pizza back up. “Usually by now you’d be the one scolding us about not having our licenses, or something like that. So John and I were just expecting that. But you haven’t said anything about it lately. You could see how that’s a little odd.” 

 

“Usually I’m across the globe trying to figure this out with you two,” Edward said, taking a bite of one of the bread sticks they’d ordered and scooping as much marinara as he could onto it from the salad plate they gave him.   

 

“Fair point.” George said, reeling cheese into his mouth. “That was more of a logistical undertaking.” 

 
“It doesn’t matter,” John bit off a slice of cucumber, looking at Edward across the table, “Edward doesn’t have problems with short notice, so I’ll pick you up at 4am.” 

 

“Is this because I went to Borough Market with Thomas the other weekend? Is that why your tail is in such a knot?” 

 

“Borough Market?” George asked, magically reinvested in the conversation. “Oh wow, you went with Thomas? Hot Nurse Thomas?”  

 

“Who else would it be?” John asked, nonplussed. “Ed and Thomas are best mates now. He’s always texting him.” 

 

“What the hell, John?” Edward muttered.  

 

“Not that it matters,” John went on, rolling his fork in his fingers. “It’s not like we were there, too, when you got your head cracked open. Or before that -” 

 

“Johnny,” George cautioned. “Take it easy.” 

 
Edward knew that most people would have been overcome with anger at a low blow like that, but all he felt in its place was a deep twinge of guilt.  

 

“I think we should adopt a no phones policy for this year.” John forked a piece of hard boiled egg. 

 

“What?” This time it came from George and Edward in tandem.  

 

“I think it should be unplugged this year,” John said sternly, glaring at them both, a faint blush coming to his cheeks. “No phones or computers or any of that. I think we could all use it.” 

 

Edward didn’t miss the pointed look he gave him. 

 

“That’s fine,” Edward replied, folding a pizza in half before taking a bite. 

 

“I can still talk to Sarah can’t I?” George asked, anxiously pulling a piece of green pepper off his pizza and putting it in the pile on his plate. “To let her know how we are, and everything.” 

 
“That’s fine,” John echoed as he piled sunflower seeds onto his fork. “Seeing as you’re in a relationship.” 

 

Edward took a huge bite of his pizza to keep himself from saying anything condemning. 

 

“I’m just looking forward to us all spending some time together,” John finished, sawing at something else.  

 
“Can’t wait,” Edward replied, going for two more slices at once.

 

 

Edward’s feelings were sufficiently softened by the time they were getting ready to leave. He wasn’t one to hold a grudge, and there was plenty to distract them in the days coming up – weather predictions and gear allocations and who was going to bring what and where exactly they wanted to fish this year (they always chose the same spots, but the deliberation was somewhat ceremonial at this point).  

 

John, however, he couldn’t account for. He had the tendency to muddle over things for a long time, and while he’d never change in ways that counted, Edward knew it was better to let him take the lead on getting around to forgiving him.  Perhaps, as George said, the spirit would indeed move him and it would all be fine. 

 

“I wanted to say I was sorry,” John said, poking at the fire a little bit with a long stick.  

  

“For what?” Edward pretended, chewing and swallowing the mouthful of sausage he’d just taken a rather large bite of. It would be the last meal he’d have that didn’t involve fish for the next few days and he always savored it.  

 

Secretly he was very glad  this was coming up early so he didn’t have to continue acting like John wasn’t still annoyed with him.  

 
“For getting so upset, at Pizza Hut. About saying you were pulling away.” 

  

The fire spit and popped, sparks cracking as John prodded the log more into place within the circle of rocks. It was going to be a cool week this year, something Edward was glad for. He couldn’t imagine going in the summer; even here at the end of the season he’d usually peeled off all his layers and tossed them around his tent every time he woke up.  

 

The first night always meant for getting set up and then getting terrifically drunk, typically while making big early morning plans for the next day which never went smoothly because of the hangover. It was just part of it, Edward knew, that they would stumble out to the river feeling like rubbish and be cleansed by nature herself. The sun, the cold water, the meditative silence of fly fishing, all of it helped them sweat it out.  

  

“You don’t have to be sorry about that,” Edward said, leaning forward in the camp chair and adjusting the bill of his cap over his head with the hand not holding his food. He was already wearing his fishing vest, a psychological signal that he could (usually) quit worrying about life. “It was my fault, for forgetting.”  

  

It was strange, hearing himself admit to it out loud despite both of them having known it all along.   

  

He watched John nod and then his friend turned around, his face still in silhouette against the campfire.  

  

“Do you ever,” he hesitated, his foot grinding a bit more in the dirt as he shifted his weight. “Do you ever wonder what the hell is happening?” 

 

Edward’s brow furrowed briefly, smoke ribboning with a change in the wind.  

  

“Nearly all the time,” Edward said and John nodded emphatically.  

  

“I feel like I just woke up and I was thirty-four,” John confessed, fidgeting with the long stick still in his hand. “One second the three of us were still in school and it was fine. And just as I got used to it, I woke up and now I’m thirty-four, and I have no idea how that happened. I keep finding myself in these,” he cracked the stick in half, “situations. Situations I didn’t sign up for, or, not even that...” 

  

Edward nodded, watching as John studied the branch, then snapped it in half again, chucking it in the flame, still squatting there on the dirt, scratching at the top of his head in thought.  

 
“I hardly have a clue what’s going on,” Edward assured him. “Especially nowadays. I feel like I have no hands on the wheel at all. My job is one thing, but everything else…” He trailed off, taking another bite of the sausage.  

  

“Are you depressed?” 

  

Edward stopped chewing, staring at John who was staring him down. He coughed, trying to swallow.  

 
“What?” He rasped, recovering.  

  

“Depressed,” John said, a little severely. “You know I’m depressed, too, right? I take medication for it. I – I’m even going to therapy for it now. And George and Sarah go to couple’s counseling.” 

  

“Uh - ,” Edward tried to gather himself in the wake of such direct address.  

  

“I know you don’t like talking about it,” John forged on, as John usually did when he got in a spin about something,“but I know that it’s a lot for you. What happened with Andrew. And I know that you don’t think you’re allowed to be happy because you feel responsible for it, but you’re allowed to be happy. Even when something that…,” he tilted his head slightly so the firelight caught his face and Edward could see his features twisted up around the words. “Something that… f-fucked up happens.” 

  

Even Edward felt the punch of John cursing. It was no small thing, and he knew better than anyone how much it had taken for him to say.  

  

“Because it’s not like you asked for it to happen or wanted it to happen. So, it’s ok, if you’re depressed about it. You can talk about that with us.” 

 

Edward was quiet, words never coming easy in these sorts of moments.  

 

“I look back and I wish,” John said shakily, “that I knew how to say all that to you, when it happened. Because then you moved, and I didn’t get the chance to say it, and I wonder if it would have helped.” 

 

“I get it,” Edward said. 

 

“What are you rattling on about now Johnny? I leave for five minutes to take a shit and you start up a sermon” George stamped onto the scene, flopping down in an unused camping chair. There was the dull flip of the cooler lid as he flipped it up and fished around for a beer, ice slushing.  

 

“I was telling Edward that he can talk to you and I about anything,” John said, in a slow, affected, nearly rehearsed way.  


 
“OH! Of course you can,” George said, looking at Edward steadily and holding the beer away from him as he popped it open.“You know that don’t you?” 

 
“I do now,” Edward sighed, shoulders sinking.  


 
“Be careful over there by the way, big old plot of lords n’ ladies  and I nearly sat right in them,” George went on, Edward stifling a laugh around the last bites of his sausage. 

 

“Does Thomas like camping, Edward?” 

 

Edward made a surprised noise, his mouth still full. John was readying another skewer, this time with marshmallows.  

 

“No idea,” he managed after a moment, “I actually – uh got swept up and forgot to tell him I was going away this weekend.” 

 
“Edward,” John scolded, shaking his head and George laughed out loud, kicking his legs out.  

 
“Well, it’s fine, isn’t it?” Edward mumbled, rubbing his hand on his pants. George gave another sputtering giggle into his beer and John continued to stare at the marshmallows in dismay.  

 

“You should find out,” John went on, his voice a bit crisp.  

 
“Why?” 

 

“Because he might come with us sometime! In the future!” John shot Edward a look over his shoulder and Edward scowled at him.  

 

“Your marshmallow’s on fire, mate,” George pointed out and John yanked it back to try and blow on it before it blistered.

 
“Why on earth would he come with us?” 

 

“Just take him out!” George yelled, taking advantage of the pristine solitude of the woods around them. He looked at Edward across the dark.  

 

“We’re friends!” 

 
“Oh, my arse,” George moaned, chugging the rest of the beer in record time and then jumping up to smash the can with his foot.  

 

“Edward, part of my irritation stems from you not being honest with me and George,” John said, frowning at his carcinogenic marshmallows.  

 

“I’m being honest when I say he’s seeing other people,” Edward staunchly folded his arms over his middle. “So.” 

 

“Let that motivate you,” George insisted with a wand of his fresh beer through the air. Edward scoffed. “Maybe Thomas gets off on the chase!” 

 
“Remember what I said,” John was now rifling through packages of graham crackers and chocolate, the skewer pinched precariously between his knees, “You’re allowed to be happy, Edward. If Thomas makes you happy you should go for it. You clearly talk to him a lot.” 

 

“Right, right,” George chimed in, slapping Edward’s chest with the back of his hand. “Pay heed to Father John, Edward. He has moments of wisdom despite his vows of celibacy. ” 

 

“George.” 

 
Edward scratched at the itching hair under his cap and then leaned forward.  

 

“Look, I,” he began. John took an awkward crunch of his s’more.  

 

“I do. Like him. That’s not the issue. He’s uh,” Edward was grateful for the darkness and fire because he felt like he was blushing furiously, “he’s the whole package, you know. He’s really, really, great. Nothing not to like.” 

 

His thoughts pulled towards Thomas on their own; his smile, the wink of his eyes in the light at the market, the surprised smile when Joey barked, the wind toying with his hair by the river, the scent of his cologne and how it lingered on his clothes whenever they parted ways -  

 

“I just don’t want to put that on him,” Edward swiftly finished. “I like being friends with him.” 

 

“So you’re going to let some other guy steal him?” George had an affronted look on his face. “Who says you’re not really great too? You have tremendous qualities.” 

 

“I’m not at the place in my life to be dating,” Edward went on. “Did you consider that? I just moved back and there’s everything with the family going on. Hat’s about to have this baby and if I do something else drastic my mother is liable to have a stroke...” 

 

“You can’t wait around for the right moment forever,” John licked his thumb clean of melted chocolate, “Carpe Diem, right George?” 

 
“Well... I would amend that sometimes you do have to wait for the right moment,” George said with a nervous crossing of his leg over the other. Edward found himself unexpectedly a little bewildered by the response. 

 

“Like, mm, for instance,” he screwed his beer in a tight circle in the camp chair’s cup holder, “if you’re trying to figure out a way to propose to someone. Then you really do have to consider the timing a lot.” 

 

“You’re joking,” Edward blurted, a grin unfolding onto his face. “Really?” 

 

“It is about time, I think,” George said lightly, with a shrug. 

 

“About a decade over!” Edward exclaimed. “That’s brilliant, George!” 

 

“It’ll have to be brilliant for Sarah,” John added, his voice a bit thick. He pointed at George with his skewer, “you can’t muck it up.  It’s got to be perfect.” 

 

“You think I don’t already know?” George got up and compulsively started making his own s’more, John handing him the bag of marshmallows.  

 

“We’ll help,” Edward assured him, and George flashed a grin.  

 
“That was sort of what it came down to, actually.” Edward watched his friend cram three marshmallows onto one of the prongs, “I’ve told Johnny, but it was you being back and everything, Ed, that gave me the nerve to pull the trigger finally.” 

 

“George,” Edward breathed, folding forward to put his face in his hands and groan melodramatically. “Tell me that isn’t true.” 

 
“It is!” George went on, “I couldn’t - well. I didn’t want to without you, was more the matter. I couldn’t do it without my best mates. Both of them!” 

 

“Edward are you alright?” 

 

“No,” Edward answered from behind his fingers. “You both are trying to kill me.” 

 

“Think of it this way,” George said, clearly with a mouth full of marshmallow. “Now you can worry about making me not look like a fool instead of yourself.” 

 

“That is a relief,” Edward grunted, straightening back up and smacking his hands on his thighs. “Any other topics on the agenda this evening? Huge life updates? Or can I have a beer and bloody enjoy myself?” 

 
“Yes, one thing,” John said. “Would you like a s’more?” 

 

 

"I'm just glad you're alive," Thomas said into the microphone dangling off his earbuds as he walked across the street.  

 

He heard Edward's give a small awkward laugh on the other end of the line and  smiled unconsciously. Every little crackly breath and noise was unspooling the tension he'd been carrying around since Edward stopped replying last Wednesday (and yes, of course he kept track of those things. Edward was his friend, after all, and a sensitive sort even if he didn't like to seem so. It was entirely reasonable to think that something had happened to him, or, Thomas' worst fear: /he'd/ done something unintentionally and Edward was too upset to trust him with pointing it out -)  

 

"Sorry that it worried you, truly Thomas," Edward replied, but this final apology - of which there had been several - sounded as relieved as Thomas was feeling."I'd no idea that John was going to be so adamant about the rules this trip. He wanted us all 'unplugged', for whatever reason. It was a bit ridiculous, honestly, but John can be a little high strung..." 

 

"Always wondered what that would be like - going on one of those unplugged retreats, I mean. I know I'm high strung already," Thomas continued, smiling at a baby in a pram passing on the opposite side as he stepped up onto the curb.  

 

"It takes a minute to get used to, but then it's alright," Edward explained. It always surprised Thomas when Edward didn't dwell on Thomas' self-deprecation the way other friends might have. Where Billy and him could riff for hours on just the concept of Thomas being high maintenance (and they had, he was sure), Edward only ever offered a crooked smile or a light huff of laughter in response, shaking his head. If he did acknowledge it directly at all it was only to tell him that it wasn't so, or highlight the same sort of thing in himself.  

 

It sometimes left Thomas feeling a bit exposed, his stomach doing a funny little dip as a result, and this time was no different with the words hanging in the air for a second.  

 

"I feel like I'd die," he diverted, blinking and looking down at his shoes as he walked, keeping his voice light. 

 

"I don't know. I'm sure you'd be fine once you set your mind to it."  

 

Thomas bit back a retort. There it went again.  

 

"Edward Little you're the only person who would say that to a man who spent the greater half of a week honestly suspecting you were dead because you didn't text back," Thomas tried to scold. “What else did you get up to?” 

 
“Fishing.” 

 
“Catch a big one, then?”  

 

“I did actually,” Edward replied and Thomas’ mouth hurt from smiling. “It was good eating this year.” 

 

“So you all fish, talk about your feelings I presume? Emboldened by the great outdoors to do some masculine heart-to-hearts?” 

 

“There was a bit of that. My friend George revealed he’s planning on proposing to his girlfriend.” 

 

“That’s huge!” Thomas marveled.“Big commitment, that. You think he’s ready?”  

 
“He’s been ready,” Edward muttered, and then sighed. “He told me he’d been waiting on account of me being out of the country - I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, honestly, but only George would do something that ridiculous.” 

 

“Is it ridiculous? You’re his best mate aren’t you? If you were my best mate I’d be inclined to put it on hold.” 

 

There was a beat of silence. 

 

“Well, yes, but I never would have told him to do that. Or even implied it. Sarah is like my sister. I’d have gotten there if I had to...” 

 

“Of course, but it‘s a big step, marriage, I can see why George would want someone he cares for so much to help him through it. But what can I say, I’m not his girlfriend. I don’t know how much I’d tolerate if the man of my dreams was sitting on asking me to marry him.” 

 

“That’s what I meant,” Edward said, a bit more animated, “I guess my point was that I wouldn’t see why someone would wait if they loved someone the way George loves her... then again, she’s very relaxed.” 

 

“I suppose it’s one of those things that’s worth the wait in the right circumstances,” Thomas mused, skirting a cyclist who'd come up on the sidewalk with a glare. He moved awkwardly aside for him, pushing his hair behind his ear and gritting out a little curse.  

 

"Where are you?" Edward asked, straining to hear over the street noise and Thomas' not so polite commentary. Thomas let out a long sigh, looking up the rows of shops ahead of him to see if he could spy the right one. 

 

"This will sound incredibly ridiculous in the wake of such romantic conversation," he started after a moment of hesitation, glancing at his phone to see how close he was, "but I'm picking up a wig." 

 

He was greeted with fuzzy white silence for a second. 

 

"For yourself?" Edward was making a conscious, concerted, effort to not sound judgmental and it made Thomas bite his cheek. All his irritation evaporated.  

 

Now he grinned at merchandise in the shop windows he peered through, trying to remember what the sign looked like for this place last time.  

 

"Not this time," he teased, trying to keep a straight face. "No, this is for James. My father. Well, one of them. If we ever see my dad in a wig we've got bigger problems..."  

 

"Oh, that's right," Edward said vaguely. Thomas slowed his walking a bit, holding the microphone more towards his mouth.  

 

"Edward, it's alright if you have no idea what I'm talking about." 

 

"Well, I remembered - he was sick, wasn't he?"  

 

"Yes, he was," Thomas said, a bit more truthful in his seriousness this time and all the more touched that Edward remembered. "But this isn't a cancer wig." 

 

"Oh." 

 

"It's a drag wig." 

 

"Ah," Edward said.  

 

"You know, like Divine or RuPaul?" 

 

"Like that lip-syncing show? Luce watches that, I think." 

 

Thomas bit back a small noise of agony.  

 

"God bless you, you have so much to learn," he groaned, rubbing at his face. "So much to learn, Edward Little, my innocent little gay angel. It's like… wait, what am I saying just bloody Google it." 

 

"I am," Edward said quickly and this was followed closely by "Ohhhhhhhhh." 

 

"Yes," Thomas said, right as he was coming up to the shop. "'Oh', is quite right ." He pushed open the door, which dinged with a little digital run of Fur Elise to signal his arrival.  

 

"So your father does drag?"  

 

"Close!" Thomas laughed. "Hold on just a moment Edward." He paused in the conversation, tapping mute to talk to a man at the long front counter who lit up and then disappeared into the back to retrieve the order.  

 

"Sorry about that, they're getting it for me. Where was I? Oh, yes," he leaned on the counter, glancing around to be sure that he wasn't annoying anyone else with his conversation. "When James was first diagnosed, we threw this big party for him, you know, for morale, and now that he's in remission he does this big charity party every year to raise money for other men's expenses while they're in treatment. Men and people in the community, you know - it's like a gala, he invites all these people he knows through work and the scene and business owners donate things for a silent auction. It's called 'Cancer's a Drag'." 

 

"Makes sense with the wig then," Edward commented and Thomas smiled into the phone looking up at the mannequin heads lining the shelves behind the counter.  

 

"You should see some of these things, they're fantastic," he said, straightening up when the young man from before appeared with the hairpiece and a few other odds and ends James had bought boxed up.  

 

"Have you ever done it?" Edward asked as Thomas signed the receipt with a swooping J.F-C and whispered a thank you to the man for his help.  

 

"What? Drag?" Thomas said breathily, using his shoulder to open the door once more. He threw another wave to the man at the counter for good measure. "Just once or twice in university because Billy made me," he sighed, hefting the bag onto his elbow and adjusting everything before he started back towards the bus station.  

 

"I'll be honest," he furthered. "I get awful stage fright." 

 

"Really?" Edward sounded truly taken aback. “Producer of the Judy Show gets stage fright?” 

 

"I know it’s hard to believe, but I do," Thomas laughed nervously, glancing around. "I get so twitchy in front of so many people like that when it's only me and everyone’s looking." 

 

"What about you?" 

 

"I just try not to think about it," Edward said mildly and Thomas was glad Edward couldn't see the way he rolled his eyes.  

 

"Billy was more of the diva anyway. He's been my date in drag a few times." 

 

"To this gala?" 

 

"Mm," Thomas went on, standing on the corner again and looking across the street. There was a cake shop and he entertained the idea of ducking in just to take a look. "He can't this year though, unfortunately. I'll be going woefully stag."  

 

"What day is it?" 

 

"It's next Saturday evening," Thomas answered, only minorly distracted by the overwhelming urge to get a cupcake.  

 

"I'll be your date, if you'd like." 

 

The light flicked to the little green man and people moved across the crosswalk, but Thomas found himself suddenly frozen to the ground, his mouth open. He could feel the handles of the bag digging into his arm and when he unstuck himself it slid loudly to his wrist and he had to shimmy it back into place.  

 

"You don't have to!" He heard himself blurt loud enough that several people around glanced at him. He felt his face ignite and touched his own forehead, squinting his eyes painfully hard. 

 

His heart kicked into an anxious gear, drumming up to an excited tempo and he tried to breathe more evenly so his voice wouldn't shake.  

 

"I mean - I didn't mean to sound so desperate," he quickly covered, turning fully away from the side of the curb that would take him to the cake shop. "Honestly, Edward, you don't have to. I go for my parents, anyway, and I know you aren't keen on crowds -" 

 

"It's the least I can do after worrying you all week," Edward said and Thomas' throat clicked when he swallowed. "And it's not going to be like... a thousand people, right?" 

 

Thomas made a little cut off laugh.  

 

"Wow, is it that many?" 

 

"It's not a thousand," Thomas corrected. "But it's a lot - it's a big turn out, and this year it grew. And it's fancy dress, so, you know, there's really no issue." Thomas wasn't entirely sure why he was rambling on and on about this. There was nothing wrong with Edward's suggestion. 

 

It was just as he'd said: a kind thing to do to make up for making him worry. So why did he feel like he was on the edge of a panic attack? It wasn't even like he didn’t go on "dates" with friends. He did that literally all the time. This was the first time in literal years Billy hadn't been able to be his date - 

 

"So a suit is ok?" 

 

Thomas thought about the get up he had seen in years past. He thought about his own outfit, the one he'd picked out explicitly because of how 'editorial' it was.  

 

All he could manage was a dizzy sounding "suit is perfect." 

 

"I've got a couple. Is black better?" 

 

"W-what others are there?" 

 

"Let me check." 

 

There was brief smear of static and the sound of Edward getting up and wandering to another room. He heard the tell-tale noise of a closet being opened and a rustling noise.  

 

"I've got black - just plain black. I've got Navy as well. And uh. I think you'd call it burgundy? Or no, Aubergine? There's khaki too but that's not right, is it, for the evening."  

 

"Aubergine?" Thomas said weakly, thinking of how that would make Edward's eyes look positively molten.   

 

"My sister Harriot's wedding colors were aubergine and something else," he mumbled, and it suddenly occurred to Thomas why Edward had so many suits.  

 

"Any of those are good," Thomas said, hovering outside of the steps leading down to the station now. People were evading him so he ducked under a nearby awning, chewing viciously on his lip.  

 

"I'm wearing black and white," Thomas offered while Edward continued to deliberate. "Black trousers and boots and then a white... shirt. If that helps." 

 

"Maybe I should try them on and send you pictures," Edward sighed. "I should anyway. I'm not positive they all fit." 

 

"Sure," Thomas breathed. "I - uh," he floundered briefly, patting the top of his head. "I'll text you the details, and you can show me the suits."  

 

"Sounds like a plan," Edward said and Thomas clenched his fist and then relaxed it.  

 

"Thank you," Thomas said suddenly. "For coming with me, I'm actually," he paused and then took a shallow breath. "I think it'll be fun! You'll have a laugh at least." 

 

"Sure," Edward said, the smile present in his voice. "Any time, honestly," he cleared his throat a little. "Thomas, I can hear the PA from here. Do you need to catch the train?"  

 

"I do." 

 

"I'll just send you the pictures then and you can just tell me - oh, I'll take pictures of my ties as well."  

 

"Wonderful!" 

 

Edward gave him his usual cheers and then the line went dead. Thomas stood there for a moment, everything sinking in. The bag of James' wigs and accouterments was nearly scraping the ground and he struggled to pull it up.  

 

"Fuck," Thomas whispered to himself, moving his hair back into unusual disarray. He felt as though he'd just run a fucking marathon for all the adrenaline that was suddenly surging through him. "What the fuck was that, Jopson -" 

 

His phone suddenly lit up and he nearly dropped it when he looked down and saw it was Edward ringing him back. He felt the wind prickle on the sweat on the back of his neck and shivered, shakily pressing the green button. 

 

"What can I do for you?" He tried to sound guileless.  

 

"Hey," Edward began, sounding far more timid than he had just mere seconds ago. "I just realized, I'm not stepping on anyone's toes am I?"  

 

Thomas mouthed uselessly at the air. Edward must have taken his silence as permission.  

 

"I just. I was thinking, and I thought maybe you wanted to invite someone else. I'm so sorry if I didn't take the hint, if you wanted to invite someone else. You can just spell that out to me." 

 

"Who?" Thomas said, brow furrowing.  

 

"Who? Me." 

 

"No, I mean who did you think I would go to this with? Other than Billy?" 

 

There was a weighty pause on the other end of the line and then Edward cleared his throat slightly again.  

 

"I thought maybe that guy you were seeing, Graham - uh, he had a weird name."  

 

"Graham Gore?" Thomas marveled, brow pinching even more. "Edward I went out with him one time, weeks ago." 

 

"I know, but I just wanted to be certain. You know, if you had something lined up, that it was fine." 

 

"I don't have anything else lined up." 

 

Edward was quiet.  

 

"Ed, I'm serious," Thomas said, some of the energy burning off. He felt himself unclench, hunching forward a little in emotional exhaustion. "I wasn't planning on asking anyone else, and I'm very glad you offered. It'll be a treat to see you out of that awful corduroy jacket for once."  

 

He heard Edward breathe and make an uncertain noise. 

 

"Edward," Thomas soothed. "I'm very serious." 

 

"Alright," Edward conceded. “If you’re sure.” 

 

Thomas straightened up from his forlorn slouch. This was good. It was going to be a lovely evening. Edward would meet his parents - he'd meet practically everyone - but that was fine.

It was going to happen eventually, right?   

 

Of course his parents would meet Edward. Eventually.  

 

"I'm going to go try these on now," Edward mumbled and Thomas let the thoughts tumble into the back of his mind.  

 

"Just wear the aubergine one," Thomas said immediately.  

 

"I haven't shown you yet." 

 

"You don't have to show me, I know that one will look good." 

 

"But -" 

 

"Ciao!" Thomas said, hanging up.  

 

Chapter Text

The way Hattie described a gala was 'like my wedding reception, but for charity'. Incredibly the simile made Edward feel exponentially more at ease with the situation. Thanks the industriously staffed Little family he'd been to many, many, many wedding receptions starting in his teens with Hale and by the time Hat and then Dick's turns rolled around he felt he could do it in his sleep.  

 

That, and he was literally already wearing the suit.  

 

Thomas insisted he was right about it, that the aubergine was the perfect choice, but on trying it on Edward noted that his shape was no longer that of the 30 year old who'd been forced to wear it the first time. Weight had redistributed itself in odd spots over the years and in some cases cleared out entirely. There was no getting around the fact that needed to have it tailored before Saturday or end up looking like a clown.  

 

"Not just a clown, The Joker," George said a little too gleefully when Ed solicited his advice on the matter. Before Edward could tell him off, though, he'd given the helpful suggestion that Sarah could take a look and Edward was forced to be genuinely grateful.  

 

Sarah was more than willing to help, and when Edward appeared at their flat apologizing for the urgently short notice she'd waved it off with her usual placid smile and Gigi, her geriatric and often malignantly mean Bichon Frise, growling under her arm.  

 

"I've heard about that event. 'Cancer's a Drag'," Sarah said from where she was seated on the floor, pinning fabric near his ankle. 

 

Edward shook himself from where he zoned out looking around at all of the stuff crammed in Sarah's work room.  

 

He didn't often go in there because Sarah didn't often invite him and he was beginning to see why. There was so much cool shit it gave Edward the distracting childish desire to reach out and touch everything, particularly the stuff with logos he recognized or which belonged to characters he knew of. 

 

Every time he looked at himself in the mirror leaning on the wall by her sewing table he was tempted anew by the half-formed foam armor and giant replica swords and exquisitely rendered props surrounding his reflection.  

 

"Have you?" He replied, prying his eyes off of her immaculately constructed Mercy cosplay wings and the three katanas mounted to the wall over her computer.  

 

It wasn't often he got to speak to Sarah alone, either, but George was strangely absent - too busy being verbally abused by twelve year olds via his gaming headset in the other room to be nosy and insert himself. 

 

"I know some guys who have gone a few times." She moved a little on the carpet and her long mousy brown hair fell over her shoulder. "It's a big deal - they do a big show and have a live band and this crazy auction. I've seen pictures and the outfits are really spectacular." 

 

Edward fidgeted with his cuff. That was the last thing he'd wanted to hear, but it was especially nerve-wracking from Sarah seeing as it was her literal job to know if an outfit was spectacular or not.  

 

"Don't worry," she said, sensing the way he tensed, not even looking up from her work as she spoke. "Once I've got this in order nobody will know you don't own some kitschy little tech start up or a bar on the East End." 

 

Edward was thankful she had the window cracked open as he began to sweat in his dress shirt. 

 

"And, anyway," she went on. "You'll know someone and that's half of it. The rest is just trying to remember everyone else's names." 

 

"I suppose that's true," Edward agreed. He hadn't thought of it that way, but it was true. Thomas *was* going to be there. That was really why he'd invited himself at all, to save Thomas from loneliness, not worry about his own. This time Sarah did glance up at him, reaching to grab more pins out of the container beside her on the floor. 

 

"He's literally the son of the guy throwing it, isn't he? The guy you're dating? Even more reason not to stress." 

 

"Did George pay for this therapy session?" Edward said blandly and she just flashed him a little smirk. "And I'm not dating him. I'm just going as his date." 

 

"Well," Sarah grunted, heaving herself off the floor and walking around the little kitchen step stool she was having him stand on. She started to pull in the jacket at the back a little and Edward instinctively put his arms out.  

 

She peeked around his side, inspecting her work.  

 

"If he's not dating you now, he's going to once he sees you in this."  

 

Edward went to dispute her, but when he looked at himself again and found that just with the pins Sarah had seriously improved it,  the retort died.  

 

"Why don't I have you do everything I wear?" Edward said stupidly, looking at the lines that actually fit in the right places and made him look like he was a real adult with his shit together.  

 

"Unfortunately you're a bit too conventional for my tastes," she snorted, adjusting his sleeves, "but I'll tell you what, Ed, if you ever agree to finally letting me do you up as Jon Snow I will drop everything." 

 

Edward laughed at that, shaking his head, watching her pull aside the front panel of his jacket to frown at it.  

 

"What would you say to me replacing this lining?" 

 

"Go for it," Edward said, shifting a shoulder as much as he could without sticking himself. "Whatever you think." 

 

"I think that would be fun. Help you fit in a little more," she assured him, and Edward nodded his head along.  

 

"Did you bring the tie you had in mind?"  

 

"Just that black one," Edward said, pointing it out where it was lying on the desk. Sarah nodded, gnawing on her lip. She picked it up and gave it a good once over.  

 

"This is a great tie," she said with a little surprised raise of her eyebrow, flipping it over and Edward instinctively wanted to tell her to be careful with it.  

 

"It's carried me through tough parties before," he said instead, his eyes gentling when she folded it up and put it on the table once again. "So I figured it would work well for this one." 

 

"Can't go wrong!" Sarah said brightly, a hand on her hip. "Ok that's all then, I'll get it done up and then I've got some Bemburg to jazz up that lining. Maybe I'll even get you something for a square..." She blinked seriously at his chest, fussing with the lapels and dipping her hand in the breast pocket.  

 

Finally satisfied, she turned back to the mirror and gave him a light side hug. "Alright Eddie Munster, let's get you out of all that without turning you into a kebab." 

 

"Eddie Munster," Edward chuckled at one of the more specific of the million nicknames he'd acquired from George during Uni. "I shaved those chops off years ago." 

 

"It was more your hair," Sarah continued, reaching up to tease the ends. "I noticed you keeping it longer ever since you got bonked. I always liked it when you grew it out. It's very sexy." 

 

Edward blushed unexpectedly, his mouth parting and Sarah gave him a sly look.  

 

"Well," he stuttered and she elbowed him lightly on the side.  

 

"I bet Thomas thinks it's sexy, too." 

 

"Just let me know how to pay you for it, Sarah," he mumbled, refusing to address that comment.  

 

"Send me pictures if you can," Sarah replied, slowly helping him take his sleeves out of the jacket so that he was down to his vest and sleeves, "And tell Georgie to start wearing more waistcoats..." 

 

"There's nothing like a man in a waistcoat, right Gigi? Would you like to see Daddy in a waistcoat?" She cooed, and they both looked where the white puffball of a dog was curled up in the work chair on top of Edward's folded street clothes. The dog let out a low senile grumble, and then put his head back on his paws.  

 

"See?" Sarah translated, gingerly laying the suit jacket on her worktable. "Don't know why we ever got rid of them." 

 

 

"Is that him?"  

 

"No," Thomas said for what was becoming the fiftieth time to Dundy. "I promise, you'll be the first one to know when it is." He worried at the strings hanging down the front of his blousy shirt, scanning the entrance.  

 

He knew Edward, unlike a majority of the people around him, wouldn't have much to say about what he was wearing but Thomas was already trying to come up with ways to explain the white Gucci tie-neck and trousers he was sporting like some kind of knockoff Harry Styles.  

 

"This is the bloke whose head got bashed in, right?"  

 

"He didn't get his head bashed in," Thomas corrected. "He got a concussion, and I was there, and I helped because I’m a good citizen and contributing member of society.” He gave Dundy a stern look, which only served to make him laugh all the more.  

 

“And now you’re inviting him to charity auctions,” Dundy finished for him, picking up his flute of champagne in a mock toast only to quickly kill what was left in one swallow.   

 

Thomas tried not to, but he knew he made a bit of a weird face at the statement. To an untrained ear, like Dundy’s, he and Edward’s chance encounter was not something that was supposed to mean anything - it certainly didn't merit anything like this. Their respective positions in the world prior to that intersection would never have brought them together, but here he was...  

 

"I'm just teasing you Tommy," Dundy said after the mouthful, reaching over to put his warm familiar hand on his back. "James and Frank already told me I have to be very, very nice to him so you can put those hackles down, my Cherie Amour." He dropped a kiss to Thomas’ forehead and Thomas just folded his arms over his chest.  

 

"Which one of us is babysitting who, do you think?" Thomas sighed, looking helplessly at the clinically less responsible of his godfathers. Blanky was no doubt going to give him an equally hard time about Edward, as was his self-ascribed right with Thomas being Frank's only son, but his other uncle was presently stationed at the bar where he was able to easily coerce guests out of bigger donations.  

 

Dundy laughed again, licking his thumb and scrubbing at Thomas’ cheek till Thomas shrugged him off.  

 

"I don't know! I was shocked Sophia wasn't the one left in charge. Whatever the case, I'm sure more champagne will help." He snapped his fingers at a waiter passing with a tray and selected two, handing one to him.  

 

Thomas rolled his eyes, but accepted the drink, drumming his fingers on the side as he took nervous sips.  If he had to guess, Sophie had also been drafted and was probably halfway up James' skirt at present to get him microphoned up.  

 

Thomas envied them. All day he'd had plenty of lovely deviations to keep him from getting anxious about this exact moment - chairs to set up, event coordinators to harass, his parents to soothe (and scold in some cases) - but now there was nothing left to do but wait and take in the atmosphere as James said.  

 

The space was gorgeous; they'd out done themselves this year. They were in an old converted loft that served as a blank canvas for James' uncanny eye, taking it from ex-mill to dreamscape of floating light and symphonic colors. While James never chose themes officially this one was leaning towards fanciful English garden, or a version of Midsummer Night scored exclusively by David Bowie.  

 

But even that could not take his attention enough to let him relax, even for a moment. He didn't even know what he was worried about. Edward already texted him he was on his way and confirmed the address and time with him earlier that day. Thomas walked him through the procedures: sign the guestbook, check in for his name card and ask the person behind the table where the seating assignment was.  

 

It was hardly rocket science, but he felt like donning a housecoat and biting his nails like a harried mother waiting by the door.   

 

"So why didn't your mate Billy come?" Dundy accused, only able to endure about thirty seconds of Thomas' fretting silence. "He's always a laugh, that one." 

 

"Something came up," Thomas began, half moving his head to address the fact that if Dundy tried to poach any more of his friends for a quick fling, he would have none left.  

 

"What? Did he have a rendezvous?" 

 

Thomas didn't answer.  

 

Edward had just drifted in through the arched entrance flanked by sash curtains and flowers and floating votives like some kind of prince in a Disney film.  

 

At least, Thomas recognized it was Edward, but not an Edward he’d ever seen before. In the low glowy ambient light Edward looked, for lack of a better term, fucking incredible. His hair was pushed back and away from his face , clearly sporting a fresh trim from the neat lines on his sideburns and neck and Thomas had been so fucking right about the color on him he felt like Tan fucking France.   

 

The suit, a duller and deeper purple than the pictures off Edward's phone had given away, highlighted the honey tones in the front of his hair, the lighter pieces that caught the most sun, that deepened into a richer brown. Thomas could only imagine what his eyes would look like, and when he started to he found that he nearly lost a grip on his champagne glass.  

 

The suit was three piece - a delicious detail he hadn't known till now. It was  tailored so well that Edward looked utterly mouthwatering in it.  

 

Someone from the front check in came behind Edward and tapped his shoulder, looking rushed, and pointed at the VIP table where Thomas and Dundy were standing.  

 

Edward followed his finger, and then found his face.  

 

"My Tommo, is this your man?"  

 

Thomas couldn't formulate a reply. He nearly could not watch Edward coming closer - he felt like he ought to turn around, pretend he didn't see him, or just fully walk away from the table and out the emergency exit door in the corner and keep walking till he hit the ocean.  

 

It wasn't because he didn't want to, it was more because suddenly he felt so seen himself he could hardly bear it. He felt like a teenager, desperate to fade into invisible oblivion, his palms sweating and his heart hammering in his throat. He longed, in that moment, to disappear completely or melt away into the background. Anything to get out from under Edward's eyes, which were fixed on him like he was the surest point on the map. His eyes, which, Sacred Heart of Jesus, looked like two polished rounds of Baltic amber -  

 

"Made it on time," Edward said on a breath that he'd clearly been holding as he came to a stop. Thomas felt like he was about to break the glass in his hand and shakily had to put it down on the table, a bit of champagne nearly splashing out onto the creamy linen underneath.  

 

"You're perfect," Thomas said, no idea if it was even audible, or in English, too distracted by the fact that Edward Little had acquired a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose during his trip south. His trembling hands came to rest on Edward's arms as he tipped gracelessly forward to kiss his smooth cheek - one, then the other - and then hug him tightly. "You look," he pulled away from the divine scent of Edward's cologne, blinking dazedly at Edward's suit. 

 

"It's good?" 

 

Thomas was suddenly unable to keep his hands off. He touched the lapel and the jacket, Edward looking down, so he got a clear look at the perfect lovely wave of his hair.  

 

"Edward. Really," he said, still too dazzled. "I mean – just..." He pet at Edward's shoulder seams in rapture. "Why don't you ever wear this?" 

 

Edward gave a short laugh and looked up at him with a funny shake of his head.  

 

"I don't know," he said, shrugging. "Just. Not a lot of reason to and I can't take credit - uh, my friend is a seamstress and she spruced it up." His eyes bounced all over Thomas as well and he seemed to puzzle it all together, starting at his feet and then working his way up. "You look great, too. Just. Fantastic."  

 

Thomas felt another wave of intense shyness come over him and he fumbled with his thank you, trying not to read too far into the compliment. 

 

With a well-timed clear of his throat, Thomas suddenly remembered Dundy standing there and felt himself stiffen like cold water was tossed over his head.  

 

"Edward," he said, Edward's eyes widening. "This is Henry Le Vesconte - my godfather. One of them," he stepped aside so that Dundy could lean in more. He smirked at Edward, holding out his hand.  

 

"Fascinating to meet you, Edward...?"  

 

"Little," Edward said, abruptly meeting Henry's hand. "Edward Little. Pleasure." He tried to pull his hand away, but Dundy tightened his hold, grinning at his captive.  

 

"Well, Edward Little, I'm under strict orders not to tell you about the time I got frostbite skiing in the Pyrenees and had to get my bloody toe whacked off. At least, not till sweet baby James is here." 

 

Edward blanched. 

 

"Why don't you let me get him a drink, first, before you really start in," Thomas said, tugging at Edward's arm illustratively. Dundy finally released Edward's hand only to land a gentle slap on Edward's shoulder.  

 

"What are you having, Edward? I'll run up and get it for you if my parole officer here lets me," he nodded at Thomas and Thomas pinched the bridge of his nose lightly.  

 

"Uh - s-scotch is fine," he said, as it was the first thing that came to mind. Dundy gave a low whistle of approval.  

 

"And how would you like that, young man?" 

 

"Neat. Please. No need for a fuss."  

 

"Frank is going to like him," Dundy said in a well-rehearsed aside and Thomas sighed, rubbing his brow.   

 

"I shall be right back," Dundy leaned in to say to Edward and then raised the hand not holding his champagne in the air, shooting off a finger gun. “Five minutes! Time me, Tommy!” 

 

"I promise they aren't all like that," Thomas was quick to say as soon as he was out of ear shot and Edward turned to fix him with a rather amused look.  

 

"My dad, for instance," Thomas said, Edward's smile curling more and more with each word he was saying," is actually relatively sane."  

 

"I figured, since he likes scotch whisky," Edward chuckled, eyes soft all over Thomas' face for a moment and Thomas just gave a breathless laugh himself. He was struck, again, with the realization that he hadn’t seen Edward in nearly two weeks, which felt so odd, and looking at him he felt like he’d forgotten all the best parts of his face and also remembered them all in astounding clarity because he missed them.  

 

"He doesn't drink at all any more,” he rushed, remembering himself.  

 

Edward seemed conflicted by this statement, but Thomas was quick to assure him  his dad didn't begrudge anyone their vices.  

 

"He always appreciates good taste," he added, for good measure, and that seemed to put Edward more at ease.  

 

"So, Henry is your... uncle?" They were still hovering about the table, the room slowly beginning to fill to full capacity as the pre-dinner cocktail hour stretched on.  

 

"Basically," Thomas said, trusting himself enough to pick his champagne back up. He glanced back towards the bar where Dundy's gray head was bobbing above several others in line. Thomas knew it was a 50/50 chance of him returning with a drink within the next half hour.  

 

"He's my godfather, though I'm not entirely sure if that's official," Thomas sought the words to explain his relationship with Dundy, turning the stem of his glass between his fingers.  

 

"He's incredibly loving, but there's a reason my parents have done their absolute best to remain alive, do you know what I mean?" He decided on eventually, warming at the sight of Edward laughing lightly.  

 

"I do," Edward assured him.  

 

"Anyway, I'm sure you'll hear all about all the embarrassing things I did when I was twelve," Thomas mumbled, the bubbles making his nose itch as he drank.  

 

"I promise to forget it all," Edward stepped closer to him as a waiter passed behind and then got caught when they paused to offer him a tray covered in canapes.  

 

"Do you want one?" 

 

"Please," Thomas smiled, glad for something to do other than ramble. Edward balanced both of them carefully on the napkin. "Ooh, these are the ones I picked. Goat cheese, and then the caramelized onion and fig." He pointed the ingredients out before he took it from Edward’s hand, popping it into his mouth in one bite. Edward did the same. He watched Edward chew his, noticing for the first time how Edward's left eyelid dropped when he did so.  

 

"Good," Edward commented, looking up and wiping his mouth with the cocktail napkin and Thomas blinked, once again struck by how handsome he was. His mind was literally starting to race over it, because of course he’d known how handsome Edward was. He’d always been very aware of that. He thought that the first time he ever met him – but this was something else entirely.  

 

He could tell he’d really tried, and the thought that it was Thomas he was trying for was making his stomach erupt with butterflies every time he even chanced to glance at him, because this iteration of Edward wasn’t just handsome.  

 

He was hot. 

 

“Is there something on my face?” 

 

Thomas opened his mouth, but no words came out.  

 

"Hold your applause," Dundy said loudly as he approached once more, both of them twitching and moving at the same time to accommodate him. It brought them close enough that their arms brushed, and their shoulders bumped. Thomas felt a jolt as Edward's hand swept down over his back unexpectedly as a way to make more room for the three of them in the narrow aisle between tables once more. His hand stilled at Thomas'  waist for a long moment.  

 

"Sorry," Edward said, his hand falling away to tuck into his pocket and Thomas glanced at him, meaning to reply that it was fine.  

 

"Here you are sir," Dundy interrupted, bowing his head and giving the drink to Edward who thanked him and clinked glasses when demanded.  

 

"Good luck to always say salud," Dundy said, smacking his lips and looking around, "Thomas, I believe that your boss is coming right up behind you." 

 

"Oh God," Thomas coughed on another drink, trying to remember which one of his leads ended up on the guest list. Edward snapped his head to him and Thomas felt his hand on his back again.  

 

"You alright?"  

 

"Thomas!" Dr. Goodsir called before Thomas could reply, and he straightened, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He had completely forgotten about the fact that Harry and Silna were invited, and now he was simultaneously trying to remember who else he could count on running into before the night was up.  

 

"Harry, Silna!" Thomas said, putting on his best face and turning around to greet them. Silna smiled from behind her wavy hair, and Harry waved, hurrying them through the crowd with her in hand in his.  

 

"Thomas," Harry said, scooping him into a hug as soon as he was able to net him.  

 

'Good to see you!' Silna said, Thomas able to spy her over Harry's warm shoulder.  

 

"You look amazing," he told her, squeezing Harry back. She did a little turn so he was able to see the built in cape on the back of her ivory pant suit. "Stunning,” he admired.  

 

'Who's your date?' she asked, pointing at Edward who was watching in minor confusion. 

 

Thomas wheezed a soft sound, finally released from Goodsir's well-meaning death grip.  

 

"This is Edward," Thomas said, carefully, bracing himself. Harry gasped.  

 

"Edward Little!" Instead of putting out his hand like Dundy had done, Harry launched past Thomas to wrestle him into a hug as well. "It's a marvel to meet you! Absolutely fantastic!” He clapped Edward on the back several times.

 

"T-thank you," Edward croaked, looking like he'd gotten the wind knocked out of him with the force. Thomas tried to intimate that he was as sorry as possible.  

 

"Can I see the back of your head? Sorry, sorry, I’m a doctor and I’ve never met something like that I wasn’t curious to see. I heard about what happened. Just dreadful." 

 

"Oh -" Edward turned around robotically and Harry adjusted his glasses on his face, padding his fingertips through Edward’s thick hair.  

 

"This healed just wonderfully, you can't even really feel it! Thomas have you felt this? With something like a glass I'd thought maybe there'd be some more uneven scarring," Goodsir praised, and Edward implied that he certainly couldn't take the credit from the doctor at the hospital for how well it'd healed. 

 

"No,  haven't felt it," Thomas answered, Silna at his elbow. Dundy stepped readily forward, bending over Edward's back to take a better look. 

 

'Harry,' Silna scolded. He patted Edward's arm and quickly rediverted his attention to his reintroduction to Dundy.  

 

"So you got hit with a brick, was it?" Dundy said, swinging back to Edward's front.

 

"A pint glass." 

 

"Good lord! Could have sworn it was a brick!" 

 

'We're sitting with Thomas Hartnell, and Henry and his partner John,' Silna told Thomas, pulling his attention away.  

 

"Tom Hartnell!" Thomas exclaimed and Silna smiled. "And Henry and John, yes, I'm so glad that John got to get away from work for a bit, though they probably won't stay very long."  

 

'I remember them from last year, they're so sweet. Super well read.' 

 

"They really are. You’ll have to ask them what all is on John’s list this year, he always keeps up with those things. Could you tell Tom to come say hello after dinner? My dad would love to talk to him," Thomas went on, squeezing her arm and scanning the crowd for a glance of Tom's reddish hair. Tom's family had been one of the first to get funds from the charity when James got to know his older brother, John, during treatmentr. John Hartnell, unfortunately, had not been as lucky as James.  

 

'Definitely. Also, Edward isn’t anything like I pictured.’ She looked around Thomas, eyebrows raising.  

 

“What do you mean?” 

 
‘I figured he would be more of a “lad”, you know,’ she said, ‘knowing The White Bear. But he looks really nice.’ 

 

“He is,” Thomas smiled, and then felt a little prickle. He looked over to Edward and found him staring at him. He blinked and Edward's mouth turned up at one corner, his eyes soft.  

 

"Good evening everyone!"  

 

Everyone in the room stopped at the same moment, looking up to the temporary stage. 

 

"I thought he was going to go with the cheetah print this year," Thomas heard Dundy say as James glided into a view, his red dress shimmering off of him and his piled high wig wobbling with every step to a sudden blast of music.  

 

“I just wanted to sneak on stage quickly just to welcome you all, personally, for coming out tonight and making this our third annual Cancer’s A Drag. Every year I’m just shocked beyond words to see you all still turning up for this shit show – oh all of you stop moving around, you don’t have to scurry away from the bar just yet. Christ, this isn’t chapel. Though I am wearing my Sunday best…” 

 

There was a roar of laughter and James graciously accepted it at all, doing a wide turn so that everyone could see every angle of the gauzy red gown and its elegant train.  

 

"Who am I kidding, I really just wanted to show off the dress. But you all look absolutely ravishing too,” he continued, the glitter up to his repainted eyebrows shimmering in the concentrated lights.  

 

Another murmur of laughter bubbled up from the audience who were happy to stand and pay a momentary tribute to their fearless leader as he began to run through the instructions for dinner. 

 

The only person who didn't laugh at the joke, or any of the others that came after it, was Edward. He was staring at James, but he wasn't laughing at all.  

 

Far from it. He felt, quite certainly, in the space of about thirty seconds, like the entire world (which he had been feeling somewhat on top of) was about to collapse in on itself.  

 

Because while he could see him speaking, gesturing with his white gloves at his wig and his makeup and his get up, and going over the menu and what to expect, he couldn't understand much of what was being said.  

 

His whole body felt welded to the floor, that voice filling up the inside of his head with a cave-like echo till a tide washed in and swept the scenery away and he was no longer in the room at all.  

 

He was shopping for a tie on the worst day of his life – the third or fourth in what would become a ghastly blur of days rendered in the same terrible fashion. A few weeks so horrible, and so unwanted, that until this very moment his mind had hidden them away, in some kind of scuffed trunk covered in big chains and padlocks, not to be opened.  

 

He was standing in a hot, cramped, little store alcove so utterly, completely, fucked on sadness. Every atom in this new awful Andy-less universe was about to fold on him like the legs on a cheap card table, and every time he dared to breathe he felt his heart being ripped violently apart between someone’s hands like an old bank statement.  He’d no idea that a person could feel like that. That grief could feel like someone was literally stabbing you over and over with a serrated knife. Could you leave you insane in the wake of the agony – not knowing whether to laugh or cry or just start screaming at the top of your lungs. 

 

When he opened his mouth he half expected to hear himself howling like the despicably lonely soulless animal he was now. How else could he make people understand that his favorite person, his brother - who had understood him, who he loved more than anyone in the world, who he could talk to - had evaporated from the planet and now he was rudderless? 

 

He couldn’t convey how sad it was.  

 

Everything just kept on, and on, and Edward had to keep on as well. He had to carry around the mystical miserable knowledge inside him and also scrape together a will to live. Nobody cared that Edward Little had to do stupid practical shit like eat or sleep or buy a tie. 

 

Nobody, save for one man. The one he'd glimpsed now and then on the book jackets at Waterstone's and accompanying op ed's and heard the musical quality of his voice lilting over the speakers in hotel lobbies as he gave interviews. Every single time his mind had made the rational suggestion, but he'd dismissed them. Like a dream, that man had vanished. He was quite positive he'd even made him up at several points. 

 

He stared at him on the stage, watched him reach out one long arm to the side to show off a pearly white satin glove and another image interposed over it.  

 

It was of James Fitzjames-Crozier, deathly ill, standing in the same deserted alcove. He was holding out the bright red sleeve of a bight red jumper.  

 

It was the bold blood red that had always been Andrew’s favorite color.  

 

It was going to be a gift, he told Edward. A gift for his son, Thomas. 

 

 

 

"Edward, you can sit down.” 

 

Edward jerked, reeled violently back into the moment. When his brain finally checked back in it was greeted with the dull sounds of chairs scraping the floor and cutlery and the grounding feeling of Thomas' hand on his elbow.  

 

"Are you alright?" Thomas asked, peering into his eyes from his own chair. Edward shook himself, his dry lips sticking together.  

 

"I - uh. I'm fine, sorry, I just got," he went to sit, blinking at the empty charger plate in front of him.  

 

"Do you need some water there?" Dundy said, filling a crystal goblet with water from a glass pitcher on the table and passing it over. Thomas took it and held out it to Edward, eyes picking him over, obviously trying to diagnose him.  

 

"I just got a little overwhelmed," he managed to say after a drink.  

 

"Are you sure you're alright?" Thomas wasn’t even trying to hide his skepticism.  

 

"Yeah, I'm fine," Edward rasped, trying to seem so. It was clear Thomas wasn't buying it in the least.  

 

"You still have to be careful," Thomas chided, tilting his head, trying to hold Edward’s gaze. "Do you get dizzy spells like that often? Maybe you should go back to see the doctor."  

 

"No, no," Edward insisted, trying to placate some of his worry. “Just a – just got a little spaced out for a moment. I’m fine, really.”  

 

"Your friend alright there?" A rough chuckle followed, and Edward immediately looked across the large flower centerpiece to see a man hobbling forward on a cane, clearly going for the chair opposite Edward's. “You look like you’ve seen a fuckin’ ghost,” he went on, gray eyebrows lowered. 

 

"He just needs another nip of this," Dundy laughed, pushing his earlier tumbler forward and Edward was reluctant to correct him as he quickly fisted it and knocked the whole shot back to Thomas’ amazement.  

 

"He's fine," Thomas said flatly over the buzzing heat in Edward’s ears from the scotch. “Edward, that’s Thomas Blanky, my dad’s best friend.” 

 

“And worst,” Thomas Blanky barked. “Seein’ as I’m his only,” he winked at Edward, easing himself down in the seat only to scoot the chair next to him out for an elegant blonde woman in a green gown. She swirled into the frame and sat down next to him, kissing his wrinkled cheeks in greeting, before turning her attention to the rest of the table.  

 

“And that’s Sophia Franklin. You might have heard of her uncle, John Franklin, he was EIC for The Times when my dad first started,” Thomas continued. The woman lifted her head to peek over the centerpiece and blew a kiss to Thomas before her light eyes met Edward’s with interest.  

 

“It’s so nice to meet Tommy’s mystery date!” She tittered, “Everyone calls me Sophie – or Auntie Sophie if you’re Thomas.”  

 

Edward nodded, or began to, right as a hand came down on his shoulder. 

 

"Ease off him gentlemen, the night is young,” A disembodied voice rumbled and the man across from him - Thomas? - gave a funny little laugh, along with Sophie and Dundy.  

 

The hand patted him, and Edward didn’t dare to turn around. Despite never meeting Francis Crozier, he somehow got the feeling for who he was instinctively, just through his firm touch.  

 

"Dad," Thomas - Edward's Thomas - spoke, but this time it was on a breath of relief.  

 

Edward tried to focus as a man with a craggy face and reddish hair bent over the back of his chair and kissed Thomas on his cheek gently.  

 

"Who is this lovely looking young man?" He said in a low growl that somehow managed to be far more soothing than it sounded. 

 

“You just saw me an hour ago,” Thomas said, indulging another peck.  

 

"Ah, I must have been referring to this young man, then. This must be Edward Little."  

 

His face was mellow, even with the lights raised for dinner, all the shadows softened by his age and the pure kindness in his eyes. He didn’t look anywhere else except Edward’s face as he held out his hand – a stubby paw  with deeply etched lines and the large knuckles of a man who had done a lot of work in his life.  

 

"Francis Crozier. So pleased to meet you," he said, his earnesty unmistakable, talking to Edward as though he had known him his entire life. "Thomas told us what happened. Absolutely unfortunate. We were extremely glad to hear you were alright.”   

 

Francis Crozier's grip was strong and sure, like Thomas’, and warm. His whole demeanor was even more so, forcing Edward to accept the temporary state of calm that came over him as a result.   

 

"Thank you," Edward managed, feeling Thomas beaming between the two of them while his heart rate sank to a reasonable pace again. "I - uh. I couldn't have done it without Thomas." 

 

"I know that feeling very well," Francis attested, and Thomas scoffed, shaking his head as Francis squeezed the back of his son’s neck.  

 

"Where's James?" Thomas asked, watching Francis finally round to the empty chair beside him. 

 

"Should be right behind me," his father smiled, taking his napkin and unfurling his silverware and laying it across his lap. 

 

"Thomas," Edward tried to say, sensing this was the last moment to try and get ahead of it. Thomas turned to him, eyes bright, and then as if on cue, there was a soft shuffle of fabric, and two white gloves came over Thomas' eyes.  

 

"Guess!" A voice crowed.  

 

“Olivia Coleman." 

 

The table laughed. 

 

"God, I do wish. Hello my darling! Was I alright? I was sweating like a stuck pig up there," James' wig, which had some parts removed to shorten it for eating, Edward figured, ducked as much as he could to lay lipstick smeared kisses on Thomas' cheek right where Frank had just a moment earlier.  

 

"You were glistening," Thomas said, tipping his head back, and James reached down and took the napkin off the table in front of Thomas and wet a corner with his tongue and started scrubbing at his face.  

 

"Careful with that, you'll get it on the gloves," Thomas scolded and James tutted, tossing the napkin back on the empty charger.  

 

"James, you're forgetting to introduce yourself to the guest of honor," Francis said softly and he nodded across at Edward who felt all the blood in his body pool in his feet.  

 

"Oh God you're right," he wheeled, bending down into Edward's personal space. Despite the severe cosmetics, Edward knew that it was him. Despite the severe cosmetics his eyes were the same. 

 

"You must be the enigmatic Edward Little -" 

 

"I must be," Edward said, very quietly.  

 

James grinned, at first. Then he tilted his head, a little birdlike motion that sent his wig tipping to one side as he studied him. From there his face seemed to travel through an entire panel of emotions, including several that Edward recognized as the steps of grief till they landed on acceptance.  

 

"Oh my God," James breathed, and the entire table fell silent.  

 

Edward swallowed.  

 

"Oh my God," James repeated, his over-drawn eyes widening even more. "You're -" 

 

"James?" 

 

"You're that man," James went on, his glove finding Edward's arm and clamping down. He shook him gently. "The sad man from the store. I can’t believe this.” 

 

"Have you two met?"  

 

"Yes!" James exclaimed, wheeling on Thomas and Frank, "This is incredible! Just absolutely incredible - do you mind if I tell them?" 

 

"No," Edward said. "No, please." His eyes strayed to Thomas' face. He was staring at Edward, a little pinch forming between his brows. 

 

"I bumped into this fellow here years ago, in a department store - do you remember, Francis? How I would sneak off and go trolling around those stores when I was sick?" 

 

"I do." 

 

James arm had found its way entirely around Edward's shoulders now, trapping him.  

 

"Anyway, one of those times I ran into Edward. This Edward! You were buying a tie?" 

 

Edward nodded his head, and he felt everyone's gaze move automatically to the tie he was currently wearing and felt his face go even colder. Thomas' eyes, however, stayed firmly planted on his face. With every word he seemed to grow increasingly worried and Edward's stomach tightened into rock hard fist just under his lungs. He stared back at him, trying to communicate that he wished this would stop. That he could just. Explain.  

 

"It was for a funeral, wasn't it?" 

 

"My brother," Edward elaborated, fidgeting uneasily with his cutlery. "He'd, uh, just passed away and James was kind enough to help me."  He flashed a small smile, and everyone nodded in wonder.  

 

"That's right. That's right - it was just awful, I remember. We were both very lost," James went on and then he placed his free hand on Thomas' collar. "Tommy, darling, this is the part that's just," James shook his head. "Tommy, you know that red jumper Daddy and I got you? Edward showed me that on the rack. He picked it out, can you believe that?" 

 

Thomas' mouth fell open slightly and then closed.  

 

"Oh?" He said softly, looking at Edward once more, his expression clouded with questions, none of which Edward could find the right words to answer.  

 

"What are the odds? What are the odds of that? A million to one! And that you two bumped into each other as well? While you were wearing it? I can’t even believe it. What are the odds of it!" 

 

"That's serendipity," Sophia breathed, astonished. "That's just - well it really is isn't it?" 

 

"The world is incredibly small," Frank chimed in, shaking his head, studying them all. He patted Thomas' arm and Thomas looked to him. Edward couldn't see Thomas' face but Frank's was intense.  

 

"That's truly something, isn’t it? That’s quite incredible," he said slowly, and Edward saw Thomas' head bob once. Frank patted Thomas' arm again and then settled back in his chair. "Well, James, I don't think any of us can top that capital story." 

 

"I'm just so glad to see you, Edward. You really don’t know, but I am. I can't hardly believe it. And you're looking so well, too, and just. It's a wonderful thing that's come out of all that!" He squeezed Edward emphatically, emotion beginning to brim dangerously in his eyes and Edward tensed, quickly summoning a smile.  

 

"Sit down before you really cause a scene," Thomas said with forced levity, tugging on James' gown. James' attention snapped to him and the bubble of tension hovering over the table suddenly burst for the others. Once James sat down it began to simmer in conversations that quickly snowballed, all of them volleying conversation back and forth in a dictionary of inside jokes and unconstrained excitement.  

 

Soon they were descended on by servers baring salad plates and bread baskets and doling out red and white wine. It became increasingly clear to Edward that if he was going to make it to dessert, he needed to find a moment to collect himself.  

 

There was no way he'd be able to eat, otherwise. His throat felt impossibly tight in his collar and every look at the food in front of him was making him feel ill.  

 

Thomas was already eating next to him, starting in as soon as he could like someone was going to steal . Edward cautiously leaned over to him, ducking his head.  

 

“I’ll be right back,” he whispered into Thomas’ ear, standing shakily from the table.  

 

He knew everyone was watching him leave, but he ignored it. He needed a minute – or several – to compose himself. More importantly, he wanted to give Thomas a chance to maybe voice the concerns he might have had and been too worried to say in front of him.  

 

Thomas was unfailingly polite, but this was surely a test even for him. He couldn’t begin to predict what he might have been thinking. The evening was supposed to be about him – his family – and Edward had hijacked it, unwittingly, but hijacked it nonetheless.  

 

From where Thomas stood, Edward had even invited himself along to do something so dramatic... 

 

He walked out of the room in a hurry, only pausing to request directions to the restroom, which was down a blessedly long carpeted hall in a quiet corner of the building. He went into the empty  private single person stall,  locked the door, and immediately ran the tap. He wet his trembling hands and the carefully wet his face, breathing deeply for a few seconds. When he realized he didn’t have the courage to face his own reflection, he bent down and did it again, holding the edges of the sink and just listening to the water running for a moment.  

 

You’re a leaf on a stream, he told himself. You’re just a leaf on a stream –  

 

He put himself back in time, before this moment, a few weeks ago in the Chalkstreams. He centered his memory on the soft rush of water around his waders and the zzt zzt of the line when he dragged it in, the old heavy reel of his fishing pole clicking with each turn of the crank. He didn’t have to think about anything, just watch the line and the shadow of the fish downstream -  

 

When the knock came, he nearly jumped a foot in the air, water splotching his vest.  

 

“Occupied,” he said, still startled, turning the tap off quickly and grabbing a handful of the thick guest towels stacked beside the soap. He started blotting his vest, shaking his head.  

 

“Edward?”  

 

Edward froze, looking at the door.  

 

“Are you ok?” Thomas’ voice was fraught, and Edward opened his mouth and then balled the towels up and chucked them in the bin.  

 

“Just a moment!” 

 

He fumbled with the lock and opened it, Thomas literally tripping back to avoid getting bowled over by him. He looked a little sheepish at being caught with his ear to the door.  

 

They stood there, looking at each other for a stretched-out lifetime of a moment. Then, Thomas’ face fell.  

 

“I’m so sorry about that,” he rushed, and Edward leaned back in surprise, the doorknob bumping his back as it swung shut.  

 

“You’re -?” 

 

“James is so sorry, as well,” Thomas said over him, frantic to get it said. “He – he gets a little carried away at times and he could tell you were very shocked.” 

 

“Stop, Tom,” Edward said, shaking his head and stepping towards Thomas, his hands up. “Please don’t apologize.” He touched his own damp forehead to get a hold on his thoughts.  

 

“I don’t even know what to say,” he muttered, rubbing at his damp face. 

 

“Did you know?” Thomas’ quiet voice spoke, a little shiver of caution in it that Edward hadn’t ever encountered with him previously.  

 

Edward’s eyes blinked open and looked at Thomas’ drawn face, watched him fold his arms across his chest.  

 

“That James was my father?” He continued; his eyes rounded. He looked... not defensive. He looked the opposite, almost terrified, like so much was hinging on what Edward was about to say. Exposed. “He’s not exactly nobody. Neither is my dad.” 

 

“No,” Edward said. “Absolutely not. I -,” he wet his lips. “You have to understand, I haven’t thought about that...moment... in years. Literal years, Thomas. I had no clue, whatsoever. Even when I met him the first time, I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even remember his name until right now, standing there and hearing his voice.”  

 

He took another step, looking directly into Thomas’ eyes.  

 

“If I did remember, before now, I would have said something to you – and, it wouldn’t make a difference about –“ he snapped his mouth shut, heart thumping loudly in his head. “It wouldn’t have changed how I feel about meeting you, or how grateful I am, and all of that,” he said, slower. More carefully. “I wouldn’t have changed that or anything. Really.” 

 

“Are you telling me the truth?” Thomas whispered, that nakedness still presiding over his tone. “I don’t like to be lied to.” 

 

“I’m not lying,” Edward insisted. “I’m not. I really – I had no clue. Till just now, and, frankly, it’s. It’s a bit much.”  

 

Thomas’ face slackened in relief, the worry slowly unspooling from him.  

 

“That’s how I feel, too,” he said after a moment. “About not changing anything. Although, actually,” he glanced away for a moment down the dimmed corridor and then back to Edward, “I actually feel a little relieved about it. This whole thing had been feeling a little? Odd isn’t the right word, for it but I thought I was a little bit on the funny side how it’s all gone about with you and me. D’you know what I mean?” 

 

Edward nodded. Yes, he wanted to blurt. I was also wondering how the hell someone like you stumbled into my life because it certainly didn’t have anything to do with me –  

 

“It’s good to know I’m not losing my mind,” Thomas went on, tipping his head and touching his hair self-consciously. “That’s always a relief.”  

 

“If anyone’s lost their head over it it’s me,” Edward said and Thomas’ hand slowed where it was tucking his hair behind his ear, a little bit of color splashing high on his cheeks.  

 

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Thomas asked gently, eyes padding over him. “You looked like you were about to faint before and you still look a bit clammy.” 

 

“It’s just water,” Edward said abruptly, touching his own face.  

 

“My shirt though,” he chuckled emptily, looking down at himself. Thomas’ hands interrupted the view, already attempting to straighten him up.  

 

“It’s just water, so in an hour no one will be able to tell,” he said, and when he blotted his hand over the spot on his vest Edward’s stomach unexpectedly twitched under his fingers.  

 

“Sorry, ticklish,” Edward muttered.Thomas smirked at him, then went back to fixing him up.  

 

“I’m sorry James gave you that kind of… surprise. Everyone has promised to be on their best behavior.” Thomas worked at the knot of Edward’s tie with his fingers to tighten it again. He glanced up through his lashes at Edward apologetically. “I’m realizing I didn’t warn you well enough about what a circus this night is.” 

 

“It’s all fine,” Edward said distantly, a bit preoccupied with taking in Thomas’ face this close up. The light in the hallway was dim and it was incredibly quiet, nothing but the faint music from the party bleeding through the walls. His eyes were dark and soft as they fussed with Edward’s collar till he was satisfied. “Besides, I volunteered...”  

 

“They’re something,” Thomas went on with that little edge he got occasionally, his full mouth pursing slightly in concentration. “But they know you’re a good friend and I would be very unhappy to lose you.”  

 

“You won't,” Edward said on a shaky exhale, just as Thomas patted his chest. He looked Edward up and down, and then wound his arms around him in a hug.  

 

Edward stiffened,  then instinctively let his arms find their way around Thomas as well.  

 

“Thank you, Edward,” Thomas said, his voice muffled by Edward’s shoulder. 

 

“For what?” Edward said, squeezing him back.  

 

“For being yourself,” Thomas replied, the hum of it tickling over Edward’s chest. “I’m glad that I met someone like you.” 

 

Edward wondered what he was supposed to say, but Thomas was quiet again, clinging to him just for a split second.  When he pulled back, he was smiling fondly.  

 

“And for impeccable taste in jumpers,” he teased, moving aside to snake his arm through Edward’s and tug him along, back into the fray. “That’s my lucky one, you know.” He winked and Edward couldn’t help but smile back at him.  

 

“I’d heard that, somewhere,” Edward said meekly, feeling the reassuring weight of Thomas’ hand in the crook of his arm, helping him along.  

 

 

Best behavior was a bit of an understatement. What Thomas ought to have said was everyone was now bending over backwards to accommodate Edward and the gigantic eyesore of his recent epiphany.  

 

It paid off, however, and the rest of dinner was a truly enjoyable affair. Francis, who everyone called Frank save for James and Sophia, was especially interested in hearing about Edward’s engineering career. After he’d finished his dinner, he set his elbows on the table top and listened very intently to every answer Edward gave with the kind of attention that Edward figured only a veteran reporter would possess.  

 

Thomas sat back during this, eyes bouncing between the two of them as he ate both his own and Francis’ servings of trifle, looking incredibly smug. The chat gradually turned into Blanky and Frank arguing about the details of their own careers and heckling each other about the audacious things they’d wrought on each other as a result. Some of it had Edward quite amazed.  

 

Thomas, Edward noticed right away, was very quiet around his family. He was content to fold himself into the background noise, sipping on his wine and listening intently, even going so far as to stack everyone’s plates for the waitstaff when they appeared done.  

 

He wasn’t so disengaged not to jump in here and there, offering a word or a correction seamlessly in the flow of conversation so no one felt like they were being harassed. Edward was, as always, just impressed to be near him.  

 

But it was funny seeing him at this angle. Thomas typically commanded attention amongst his friends, and Edward was always more than happy to let him exercise that right over him. He was realizing, not for the first time, that up until now the scope of Thomas’ life that he saw was rather narrow. Now it was widening – or slotting into place – and he was beginning to piece together a more complete picture of who Thomas was.   

 

He’d never considered Thomas might have been more like him in this regard; that they both were used to taking the backseat at times like these.  

 

A brief image clamored in the back of Edward’s mind of Thomas seated at the long table at Hattie’s or his parent’s, surrounded by Edward’s relatives the same way Edward was, looking on with that same serenity...  

 

He brushed it away just as fast. It was an interesting hypothetical, but Edward wasn’t about to subject Thomas to that mess any time soon. The Little’s were no charity gala.  

 

More pressingly, it would require Edward to come forward about things that he had no interest in coming forward about. Just the thought of what it would entail and to what degree was daunting, and especially not now when he’d nearly tossed his friendship with Thomas out the window.  

 

He blinked, glancing around the table as he drained the last of the wine in his glass and another thought blipped through his brain.  

 

Did these people know he was gay? 

 

They obviously knew Thomas was. There was no reason they wouldn’t know that, being that James and Frank were quite literally married and Thomas in no way shy about it being raised by them.  

 

He felt the glass lower from his mouth and he set it aside and his gaze trailed around the surrounding tables.  

 

Edward rarely found himself in such situations, and a little flush crept up his neck that he blamed on the drinking.  

 

The only person who knew he was even there, beyond George and John, was Hattie.  

 

Hattie, who had tempered her clear excitement on his behalf for the sake of not making Edward get nervous and back out. She knew if she prodded too much at him over this he  would be spooked, and he’d sensed the lightness of her tread as a result.  

 

If anyone asks, just tell them it’s a charity thing and leave out the other details, please, Edward had made her promise. Hattie did, like always.  

 

Edward glanced back to Thomas. He had his chin on his hand, watching with slightly arched eyebrows as Dundy went on about something Edward wasn’t listening to.  

 

Thomas would like Hattie, he was deciding. They were both such capable people, they were sure to get along and absolutely everyone who met Emory got along with him.  

 

Thomas liked children, too, of which his sister had plenty, so that wouldn’t bother or shock him.  

 

Edward got along with his nieces and nephews, and he loved each and every one of them deeply, but it was a slow acclimation on both sides. Edward was the uncle who was gone, not dead, and he’d reappeared with not a lot of warning after his contract expired to find many of them unrecognizable. The older ones were easier, as he could talk to them more about life in general, but the middle slice had all aged into preteens who barely gave him the time of day. 

 

There were even a few he hadn’t even met till he came back, only seen on the occasional grainy Skype video or odd satellite phone call, or, in some cases via emailed sonogram on a base computer in the middle of nowhere.  

 

Maybe, if Edward watched himself from now on, he could introduce them at some point. There wouldn’t be any harm in that. He could manage that sort of situation - if Thomas wanted to meet Hattie and Emory and the kids, at some point.  
 

“What did you think of that?” Thomas said, nudging him. “Impressed?” 

 

“What?”  

 
“Do I need to repeat myself?” Dundy exclaimed, sounding all too excited.

 

“Oh, God,” Thomas moaned, covering his face and Edward turned to Henry who smirked. 

 

“I’m not supposed to say anything about Thomas because that would be so embarrassing to my angel of a godson,” Dundy continued, spinning on, “but when I took him to Dubai when he was thirteen -,” 

 

Fourteen,” Frank reminded him, cocking an eyebrow.  

 

Fourteen years old, he went off the high dive and he landed so badly he bruised his entire stomach and had to wear a t-shirt the whole rest of the trip.”  

 

“I only went up because he made me,” Thomas giggled, pink from the wine, his hand finding its way to Edward’s leg just under the table. Edward’s breath froze a little and then returned as Thomas pulled his hand away again and folded his arms on the cleared space where his plate had been, leaning forward. “He used to take me on these trips for my birthday every year.” 

 

“They were a benjo of a time,” Dundy insisted, slurring slightly.  

 

“Do you remember how much you fed me? He used to make me eat like twelve times a day.” 

 

“You were growing,” Dundy scoffed, waving him off. “Boys that age need to tuck in. And God knows where you put it all.” 

 

“I’d make myself so sick on all these buffets,” Thomas groaned at Edward and then his eyes brightened. “Edward’s seen though, unfortunately, that my willpower isn’t particularly good now either. I ate half of Borough Market the other day.” 

 

“I did help,” Edward conceded.  

 
“You did nothing to stop me!” Thomas nipped back at him.  

 
“Don’t let him blame you, Edward - this boy could eat through an entire cake if you left it out and turned your back,” Blanky remarked, sliding a tumbler of whisky back and forth gently in front of him. He was addressing Edward more directly now; James and Sophia had gotten up earlier to begin working the auction, and he’d since slid over into James’ seat to be near Frank. “We’d send him home after playing with our girls and Essie would have to check all his pockets for half the pantry. He’d have crisps and fruit and everything in there like a bloody chipmunk storing up for winter.”  

 

Thomas shrugged it off, still laughing, and Edward watched Frank reach over and rub his back affectionately in silence.  

 

“Just be glad the Rosses aren’t here,” Frank ribbed him lightly, grinning his gap-toothed smile when Thomas tried to pinch him. 

 

 

“I have an incredible favor to ask of you,” Sophia said, bending between their heads. “Could you two get up and dance? Just to get it started?” 

 

“Sophie, it’s all live slow songs this year,” Thomas said to her in a low voice, eyes darting to Edward.  

 

“I know, I know, but it’s just for a song or two? Till other people join in, and then you’re free, I promise.”   

 
Thomas sighed and looked past her at Edward, wincing.  

 

“Do you mind?” 

 

“Not at all,” Edward said easily, blinking at him. He looked out at the parquet floor laid out and the band that had begun to assemble just beyond it – a typical jazz ensemble, the key player being the baby grand that had been wheeled in while everyone was distracted with the auction.  

 

“It’s nothing,” Edward said, Thomas gnawing on his lip when Sophie departed to go help James with something and his eyes slid to Edward again and Edward understood what the issue was, stretching his arm across the back of Thomas’ chair.  

 
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Edward confided to him, “I’ve been to so many weddings at this point and done more stupid dancing than you could possibly imagine. I will not let you look silly.”  

 
Thomas smiled at him, moving his hair off his forehead, but returned to his nervous staring at the dance floor and the musicians just past it taking their places. Edward used the time to look at him. In the frazzle of arriving and James he’d been a bit too worked up to drink him in, but now in the wake of eating and several glasses of wine he was feeling much more relaxed, and very at home with the idea of dancing with Thomas.   

 

His fingers twitched as he looked at the white fabric stretched over Thomas' back. One of the tails from the elaborate necktie on his shirt was moved over one shoulder .Edward very carefully tilted his two fingers till they grazed it and lifted the end, rubbing it between them. As he worried the edge without Thomas noticing, he let his eyes wander.  

 

He didn’t know where Thomas shopped, or even how, but he always managed to look effortless no matter what he wore, and this was the sort of thing where he seemed to turn that talent all the way up to the highest spot on the dial. Edward let his gaze follow the leg of his dark trousers down to where they disappeared below the skirt of the tablecloth, the tip of his tongue running over the back of his teeth.  

 

Thomas moved, reaching for his wine glass, and Edward dropped the tie to avoid inadvertently strangling him. Edward observed him taking his drink, and all the while he felt his fingers rubbing over each other absently.  

 

He stared at the wing of Thomas’ shoulder blade, wondering what it would be like to spread his fingers in the between them and feel up to the back of his neck to the softness of his hair and trace the curve behind his ear, the contour of his wonderful head that held his wonderful mind full of clever things Edward wanted to know and ask about with words that he was typically too slow to formulate. 

 

The band quickly ran through a few scales and Edward looked past Thomas’ chair to them, expectant.  

 
When they all nodded to one another and the first chords struck the piano, though, Edward felt himself smiling in surprise.  

 

“I know this one,” he said, leaning forward and Thomas turned his head, not anticipating how close he was.  

 
“The song?” He said, that little furrow in his brow as he drew slightly back. 

 

“Yeah,” Edward continued, feeling a little giddy, in all honesty. He immediately stood and held out his hand and Thomas seized a bit in his chair, almost worrying they’d miss it.  

 

“What is it?” Thomas asked, clearly stalling, and Edward licked his lip.  

 

“Come on, I’ll tell you about it,” he coaxed, wiggling his fingers. Thomas clenched his hand on the tabletop and then timidly took it, letting Edward guide him leisurely toward the floor.  

 

“Beautiful choice,” Edward said when they were close enough, all his liquid courage making him feel wildly sociable. He nodded in recognition at the band. “Do you mind if we enjoy it?” 

 

They gave him all an enthusiastic go ahead and Edward grinned crookedly at Thomas who seemed mortified at even the idea of Edward addressing anyone during his worst nightmare.  

 

“Would you like me to lead?” Edward said, not knowing if it was needed but erring on the side of caution in Thomas’ sensitive state.  

 

“Please,” Thomas said stiffly, and Edward took this as permission to pull him a little closer, his palm politely on the middle of his back, the other holding his hand. Thomas gripped his fingers tightly, like he was hanging on for dear life, and then slid his free hand to Edward’s shoulder, letting Edward start moving them in slow, easy, circles.  

 
“When was the last time you danced like this?” Edward asked, genuinely interested, and Thomas flushed, looking up to the ceiling.  

 

“I don’t remember,” he said, eyes roaming the surrounding clumps of people traipsing too and from the bar stations and those just standing around talking. No one had come to join them, but Edward could sense most people had not even noticed yet.  

 

“Who taught you?”  

 

Thomas finally looked back to him.   

 

“My dad,” Thomas said, smiling wanly. “James. Both of them, really.”  

 

“You’re very good,” Edward praised.  

 

Thomas made a low noise, glancing off once more.  

 

“This song is called Estrellita,” Edward rattled off, trying to hold Thomas’ attention. He could thank the wine for making the words come as easy as they were. “By Manuel Ponce. It’s for the guitar, usually, but this is a version that Red Garland made popular.” 

 

Thomas looked blankly at him, still too lashed to his own nerves to get out of his head and hear what he was saying.  

 

“Just listen,” Edward said, smiling. “It’s lovely.” He moved his hand just slightly on Thomas’ back.  

 

“I’m serious, close your eyes,” Edward went on, sensing Thomas’ hesitation, and Thomas gave him a look but relented enough to do as he suggested. Like magic, after a few bars, Thomas leaned forward, tucking his elbow more against Edward’s shoulder and his breathing slowed.  

 

Edward could see the way he wrestled with himself even with his eyes closed – the deliberate way he had to force himself to unwind – but eventually it seemed to win out and he went a bit looser. Edward spied over his shoulder, looking at the several other couples who had finally wandered in around them and then back to Thomas.  

 

“It is nice,” Thomas mumbled after a moment, blinking his eyes open, lids a bit heavier. He moved his hand against Edward’s collar. “You never told me you knew so much about this sort of thing.” 

 

“You haven’t ever asked me,” Edward replied and then when Thomas seemed put off, “my brother in law works for a jazz label. He plays, too. He’s taught me a bit of guitar.” 

 

“Guitar?” Thomas tilted his head at Edward in renewed interest. “You play guitar?” 

 
“It’s probably not what you’re thinking,” Edward hurried to tell him, shaking his head. “It’s not electric, for one, and I am incredibly mediocre.” 

 

Thomas shifted more, one of his dimples flashing as he moved his chin slightly.  

 
“You’re going to have to quit with these surprises sometime, Edward. I can’t keep up at this rate.” 

 

“Surprises?” 

 

“Everything you tell me is a surprise, generally,” Thomas murmured, curling his arm more till he slid it nearly around Edward’s neck, glancing at his chest and then back up. “You keep it very close to the vest, Mr. Little.”  

 

Edward couldn’t argue.  

 

“I don’t find myself particularly interesting,” was all he could come up with.  

 

“Of course you are,” Thomas huffed dismissively. “I am very interested in you…” 

 

The words trailed off and they looked at each other as the music swelled back in. Edward waited, expecting  Thomas to say something more. 

 

“I appreciate it,” Edward said, when it didn’t come right away, and Thomas shook himself a little bit.  

 

“I just mean you should talk about yourself more,” Thomas said and, then, looking over Edward’s shoulder at the musicians, “this is a long song.”  

 

“They’re improvising,” Edward murmured. He knew what Thomas meant, and he meant what he said. He did appreciate it. Thomas never gave him a reason to think otherwise – unbelievably Edward didn’t bore him to tears, for all his useless facts and private hobbies.  

 

What Thomas didn’t know is that Edward had a terrible habit now of not bringing things up because the feeling he got when Thomas brought it up on his own was one he was getting to like too much. Thomas took the cast off, throw away comments that Edward let slip through the cracks and held them up in front of his face. He’d done it from the very first time they met, Edward laid out on the pavement, when he’d made a point to ask about his socks. Had inquired on his addled confusion about jet airplanes or that one picture of Joey on his Facebook.

 

He didn’t realize he was doing it as he pulled his hand in, curling Thomas’ under his so that it was resting over his heart. Later on he’d probably justify it by saying that his arm was getting tired, or the wine was going all to his head, but the truth was something he’d known for a while and it was less surprising than he expected. It played like the next anticipated note in a melody.  

 

He brought his temple to Thomas’, their cheeks brushing. Thomas’ watch caught on his shirt slightly as he moved his hand a bit but he didn’t pull back. Instead he shifted closer to him, leaning his weight tentatively on Edward, and Edward’s heart throbbed in response. 

 

He breathed in the scent of his hair, swaying them in their slow circles. Jazz had many rules, most of them singularly to be broken and interpreted by far more talented and intelligent people than Edward, but now he felt he had a deeper appreciation for the genre than ever. 

 

Friends, for instance, even ones acting as each other’s dates, generally were not supposed to dance like this, and songs weren’t meant to go on this long, but maybe the band could see just how in love he was.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing?” 

 

“I’m cleaning out this closet,” James said, moving his hair off of his forehead and reaching up into the top shelves of the closet, tipping shoe boxes into his arms.  

 

Thomas frowned, adjusting the drawstring on his scrubs.  

 

“Any particular reason?”  

 

“Because,” James grunted, reaching now for a suitcase, which he promptly dropped on the floor, kicking it over so it was open side up. He put his hands on his hips, breathing hard, and turned to the door where Thomas was standing.  

 

“It’s time you start taking all this, and you, my precious boy, back to your flat.”  

 

The words hung there for a moment and James studied Thomas’ face closely for signs of sting. Thomas didn’t even flinch, eyes going from James to the furniture to his clothes neatly pushed all the way to the back of the closet and then to the open suitcase.  

 

Thomas shrugged, looking at his watch. 

 

“Ok, well, if you don’t need any help - shit, I’m about to miss the bus.” He disappeared and came back with his backpack slung over his shoulder. “Just don’t toss anything I actually wear, alright?” 

 

“Alright?” James said incredulously, brow pinching. He put his fists on his hips, “Tom, wait just a moment.” 

 
“Just put it all on the bed and I’ll nab it after work…” Thomas became distracted by his phone.  

 
“Well -,” James started, half following him out, but Thomas shook his head emphatically.  

 
“It’s fine! James, I completely get it. I’ll see you after I get off and I don’t know - I’ll borrow the car and start taking it all over.” 

 

“Thomas,” James said shortly, but Thomas was saying I’ll call when I get out and adjusting the strap of his bag, and then he was gone.  

 

He heard him skirt past Neptune at the door and go jogging down the stairs, James wandering over to the window and peering through the blinds to watch him go to the corner where he crossed the street.  

 

He was texting someone as he waited for the light, barely paying attention and looking up a few seconds after the crossing signal lit only to duck his head to his phone once more as he got to the other side. James had a strong suspicion about who he was talking to, and gnawed on his lip.  

 

In a flash Thomas disappeared around a building and James was left staring at the street in wondering silence till the sound of slippers in the hall shook him from it.  

 
“So?” 

 

James shook his head, turning away from the window to face Francis. He was holding a mug in one hand and The Times in the other, face expectant.  

 

“I was imagining far more of a fight,” James said, staring at Francis from across the room. “But he was perfectly agreeable. All 'go ahead I’m off to work' - nothing! Not even a let me help!” 

 

James strode back to the closet, surveying the clutter with new eyes.  

 

“You know how he is when his mind’s made up,” Francis chuckled, coming into the room and sitting on the corner of Thomas’ empty bed. “He gets that from you.” He tossed the newspaper aside and took a drink of his coffee.  

 

James snorted.  

 

“I just wish I knew what it was he was making his mind up about,” he muttered, pawing around behind the clothes.  

 

“Good Lord, what even is all this...why did we keep it?” He made a disgusted sound as he rifled through boxes full of old newspapers and files.  

 

“Posterity,” Francis remarked, coming over and pulling a handful of papers from one of the files, taking another sip while he scanned them. “I remember this,” he mumbled after a moment, losing himself in flipping the pages and leaning against the desk. He set his mug down, studying it in earnest.  

 

“I don’t even remember what I was going to do with this room,” James said, thunking the boxes on the floor as he dragged them out. He felt around in the shelving and was met with two thick binders which he slung onto the bed without looking.  

 

“An art studio,” Francis grunted, licking his thumb and turning a page. He’d taken his glasses from where they were caught in his shirt and slid them on, looking over the grainy print out. James couldn’t help but smile at him, crossing his arms across his chest. Francis sensed it, glancing up. “You were going to paint this all some kind of gray. I remember the word ‘neutral’. And set up your drawings.” He went back to the article.  

 

“You’re exactly right,” James said, casting his eye about, pursing his lips. “Yes. I was going to do a studio and now it’s some kind of instant hotel.” He let his hands slap at his thighs, eyes lighting on the two huge three ringed binders. He leaned over and flipped the cover of one open and his eyes immediately widened.  

 

“Did you know Henry wrote this?” Francis was saying, flipping the article back to the front. His voice fell. “Some drivel about John Major -,” 

 

“Come here, Francis,” James said, waving him over. He was on the edge of the bed now, long legs stretched out on the carpet and Francis obeyed, sidling up to peek over the edge of the binder, folding the old article in half and tucking it under his arm.  

 

“Look at all these,” James smiled, turning the binder so it faced both of them, Francis’ head crowding his shoulder. “The paperwork,” James groaned. “All the paperwork, do you remember? All the reports.” He flipped pages back and forth, both of them picking through the cramped forms and paragraphs of indecipherable legalese and signatures and notary stamps.  

 

Francis’ mouth curved.  

 

“I remember doing a lot of looking stupidly at the lawyer,” he said with a chuckle, James flipping pages and stopping when he found a photograph paper clipped to a tab. Francis’ laugh grew.  

 

“Why did you ever let me wear anything but flat front trousers,” James hissed, tugging the photograph free and holding it up so they could see it better.  

 
“I believe because it was 1999. Also, I learned not to say anything about what you wear,” Francis replied, curling his arm James’ back, stroking over his very nicely tailored shirt.  

 

“You look so young,” James marveled, tracing Francis’ thicker, redder hair. “And so bloody calm - look, you can see I’ve practically sweated through that awful vest.” He touched his fingers to his mouth, shaking his head at the garment which was patterned after some terrible carpet bag.  

 

“They told us there was nothing to be worried about,” Francis said by way of explanation, rubbing at James’ shoulder gently. “Perfunctory, was that what they said?” 

 

“Well, that judge was less than friendly,” James said pointedly. “You’d think that they’d have someone a bit more jovial in family court.” 

 

They both were silent for a moment, staring at the third person in the photograph. It was a familiar picture. There was a glossy 8x10 framed version on their dresser in the master bedroom (of which, like the rest of their flat, held many photos of them), though that one was posed and this was clearly a candid from the same moment, either just before or after. If Francis remembered correctly it was Sophie manning the camera - but he could not really say one way or the other.  

 
He was so caught up at the time, and there was no prying his recollection away from Thomas in his little suit and tie, his hair wet down tight against his head and his face stricken with impending joy. There was only so much a ten-year-old could absorb about being officially adopted when it happened. In the picture Francis was tilting his face up, a thumb brushing under his eye like a stray eyelash was caught there, and James was holding him by the shoulder, so their sides were pressed tightly together. 

 

Thomas’ mouth was open.  

 

Are we all done? Francis heard it clear as day. Thomas’ careful little voice.  

 

“Yes, we are all done,” Francis answered, petting his cheek, gently arranging his hair over his forehead. 

 

“No more court?” Thomas was scrutinizing him the way he did when he suspected adults were just being indulgent. Francis shook his head.  

 

“No more court,” he said softly. James was talking about taking a picture with the gloomy judge and their social worker, rubbing Thomas’ arm briskly. 

 

Thomas went silent, mouth snapping closed. He stared into Francis’ eyes, blinking fast, and Francis pinched his cheek to make him suddenly smile.  

 

“How’s that? That sound well with you? You, me and James?”  

 

“Yes,” Thomas said, nodding up and down. “That sounds really good, Dad. “ 

 

Francis tucked his hair behind his ear, his heart swelling up against the back of his throat for how big it felt every time Thomas called him Dad.  

 

“And no take backs!” James exclaimed without warning, bending down to kiss Thomas’ face aggressively. Their social worker was dabbing her eyes and laughing and even the humorless judge cracked a modest smile. “I love you, do you hear me?! And now you’re stuck with me and it’s going to be miserable! I’m going to be like Baba Yaga and eat you! I’m legally allowed to annoy you and embarrass you and kiss your gingerbread face and make you say ‘Oh stop stop stop, James!’” 

 

“Stop James!” Thomas giggled like mad, trying to pull away. 

 

“I want to hear it! Oh stop, stop kissing me James you’re soooo embarrassing!” 

 

“Stop kissing me!” Thomas said louder through his laughter, face pink, squirming and James pecked him again for good measure, gathering him closer.  

 

“Well, alright then! I suppose I have to. Now, let’s get these photos and then we have to go meet everyone for the P-A-R-T-Y.” 

 

“Party?” Thomas gasped, looking up at James from behind the loop of his arms.  

 

“Shh,” James said, winking at Francis and squeezing Thomas so he squeaked. “It is supposed to be a surprise!” 

 

There was nothing surprising about James throwing a party for their son. If James could have celebrated every day of Thomas’ life he would have, no questions asked, but that day Francis was more than willing to go along with it.  

 
The party itself was decorated in blue and white with everything from the napkins to the balloons proclaiming It’s a Boy!. Ten years late, of course, but better late than never as far as they were concerned. 

 

“Look at that little face,” James sighed, touching the photograph with his index finger. “Why couldn’t he have just stayed like that?” He knew he was whining, but he was due the indulgence. As a parent he’d never considered he would be watching Thomas move out twice over. This time, while a victory overall, ached with something more profound than it had when Thomas was just going away to school.  


 
“What’s all this melancholy? Trying to show me up?” Francis chuckled, touching the top of James’ head. To his dismay his husband only rolled his eyes up, and Francis tutted in sympathy.  

 

“James, you know it’s the right time, as well as I do. Don’t be fickle about it.” 

 

“I know,” James huffed, “I know that, but it’s different this time. I hadn’t understood it till just now...” His words drifted off, eyes straying back out the window where he’d been spying on Thomas cross the street. He worried the inside of his lip with his teeth.  

 

“It won’t be different,” Francis soothed, petting his hair. “My love, he’s going back to Shoreditch, not the moon. He’ll be over all the time.” 

 

James felt his mouth set into a sad line, reaching up to rub his hand over Francis’ elbow. Sometimes Francis was too short to see, and that was alright. James was looking down the road for them both, taking the bitter so that by the time Francis realized it he would get the sweet.

 

It was all so much sadder than he’d imagined it to be. It left him flummoxed, staring at the clock wondering where the time had gone. It was never enough to begin with, he was compelled to complain. Illness taught that coarse lesson to him very well. But he’d grieved for this moment, thinking it wouldn’t arrive for him. Made all his peace with it. 

 

Now he selfishly thought put it off a few more years. Let him need them.  Forever, he considered. That would be fair, by his measure, after all they’d been through.  

 

But he couldn’t begrudge Thomas his independence. Not when he knew how Edward Little’s face looked every time he saw at Thomas, or the way Thomas looked back.  

 

The seconds had already been slipping by so quickly, right under his nose and he hadn’t seen it. Had blinked, and nearly missed it.  

 

Thomas wasn’t moving out this time, no. Thomas was moving on. 

 

“He’s not going to be our baby for much longer, Francis,” he murmured, sorrowful, and Francis grimaced.  

 

He continued to puzzle over it, even as James leaned back against him and Francis began rubbing his shoulders again.  

 

Their baby.  

 

When James initially proposed the idea to Francis it was on a snowy night in December 1994 after having killed an entire bottle of Prosecco on his own during their anniversary dinner. He was sloppy and drunk, tears streaming from his eyes. All 32 years of him sitting astride Francis’ legs on the couch, hair stuck to his wet cheeks saying let’s try and have a baby.  

 

So they talked about it, considered surrogacy.   

 

Sophia volunteered so readily when they finally got the courage to mention it that it brought Francis to unexpected tears right there in the middle of dim sum at Royal China Club. Children of his own were never something he’d considered prior to James – he’d felt laughably inadequate to pursue it – but now it was as though they’d been meant to have them all along. Every day since that cold winter night was one wherein Francis felt the palpable emptiness where a child – their child – was meant to be.  

 

But things hadn’t quite worked out that way, and for a little bit they let it go. Between the Blankys and the Rosses they had enough children to oblige them as doting uncles, roles they were very well suited for. They took it as a sign; adoptions, James knew from a well of personal experience, were complicated on their own, especially in the current climate for same sex couples, and Francis’ dubious history with alcoholism would serve poorly on paperwork. 

 

Francis didn’t know where it came from, his open suggestion that they should give it a shot. They were warned off by several agencies. It could be a years-long process, deadlocking often, emotionally taxing, financially trying and requiring inordinate amounts of time. A lot of work to get nowhere in many cases, especially for candidates such as themselves.  

 

Indeed, it was all those things and more. But where others might have let discouragement close them off, James saw the closed doors as just another reason to throw open his arms even wider. It was a habit he’d picked up during his career. A lot of those ‘no’s had once been in the form of Francis’ scathing critiques of his field work, which had lead to James sending so many emails that it forced them to meet in person to avoid a defamation suit.  

 

The meeting had turned into the longest, most engaging dinner of Francis’ life. It had also turned into a lot of talking, and a lot of long nights,  

 

After a lot of talking, and a lot of long nights, they decided to cast the widest net they could by offering to foster.  

 

“You could get a call anytime, anyplace,” their caseworker said. To James it was like a dare. Overnight the larger of their two offices was turned into a bedroom for a child between the ages of five to fifteen. Francis took a sabbatical to work on the first of two books.  

 

The manuscript came and went.  

 

On an unseasonably hot day in early September of 1996, the phone rang in the kitchen and Francis, thinking it was his editor, let it go to the answering machine. It took thirty seconds for him to drop his razor in the still running sink and run to pick it up, shaving cream still dripping off his face.  

 

In September of 1996, Thomas Jopson was a scrawny little boy with thin shoulders and a flop of messy black hair grown nearly into the round sea glass colored eyes that took up nearly all his face. He had just celebrated his seventh birthday on August 20th where he received a VHS tape of The Sound of Music – the only personal object that he brought with him in the donated backpack  other than some clothes and a small dalmatian Beanie Baby that he carried everywhere.  

 

“Watch him with food,” the caseworker had advised. His previous placements had reported him hoarding leftovers and they were to check his room carefully and his backpack before and after school to be certain nothing would spoil. He also had trouble with staying in his bed, often sleeping on couches or on the floor in common areas and they suggested placing a baby monitor in his room to be sure he didn’t wander.  

 

The files from the child psychologist bespoke a hyper-vigilant little boy with early signs of anxiety and another smattering of generalized responses to the neglect he’d been through.  

 

Thomas’ younger brother, much younger than him, had been placed with his father’s relatives in Manchester. His mother, they learned, was a morphine addict who had been and out of recovery several times. Once or twice a week they were supposed to have monitored visits with her for one to two hours depending on scheduling and availability. 

 

“She’s a loving woman, but try not to be surprised if she cancels or calls to reschedule,” the caseworker said, with the air of someone who had already lost faith and patience in her.  

 

There was a laundry list of other precautionary measures. Tip sheets and scribbled notes from chasing advice across networks and organizations littered every available surface in their flat. They met Sarah in a drafty playroom full of books from the 80s and ratty toys animals. She left four times during the hour for a cigarette and each time she came back they could tell she had been crying, her eyes swollen and red rimmed.  

 

“I’m so glad he’s with young people,” she said, sitting on one couch while they sat on the other, watching Thomas color in the back of an over-used coloring book on a rug printed to look like a village with dingy gray roads. “The last few were so old. I don’t trust old people. I think they’re only in it for the money.”  

 

She didn’t have many questions for them, though they both pressed, opting instead simply to make casual conversation, asking them both what they did, who they had around, what all they had planned for Christmas.  

 

She smiled her toothy smile and took all of Thomas’ pictures home with her, as well as many hugs and kisses as she could fit in and a promise to get Thomas a tape of Mary Poppins by boxing day.  

 

“He loves Julie Andrews,” she told them, fidgeting with her pocketbook on her way out the door – clipping and unclipping the front panel over and over. “You’ll have to show him Victor/Victoria for me.”  

 

She gave Thomas the red plastic bracelet she was wearing as a collar for his dalmatian. 

 

The visits became further and farther between. She showed up late or not at all. Every time, however, they dutifully rearranged their schedules and sat in the quiet little rooms waiting, watching Thomas flip through the books and kick about the blocks.  

 

He never once complained. Not about the playrooms full of toys that didn’t interest him or were for children much younger, or his mother’s absence. Thomas did not complain, they found in that first tenuous year, about nearly anything. He was a exceptionally well-behaved little boy, worryingly quiet to the point of near invisibility in their home save for his favorite activity: sitting on the counter with his feet in the bathroom sink and talking to himself. 

 

James found himself with his ear pressed to the door till his legs fell asleep listening to him animatedly interview a panel of guests, all of whom were deemed “practically-perfect in every way” by the gorgeous and excitable host of this weekday talk show.  

 

There was affection, of course, even in the early days, and no lack of usual childhood snarls to work through, but there was also a wary wall around Thomas that they consistently bumped into.  

 

“You can’t take a bath on your own, my darling, do you understand? You need to come and ask Francis or I if you would like to do that,” James tried to say as patiently as possible, having found him in the tub once again unsupervised. He’d made a concerted effort to not to panic at the thought of him drowning, which he worried about constantly once he’d started discovering Thomas’ penchant for self-sufficiency.  

 

“But I can do it on my own,” Thomas insisted, looking at James skeptically from under his hooded kitty-cat towel.  

 

“I know you can, but it can be dangerous if you just do that without asking. What if you bumped your head? That’d be terrible!”  

 

“Then I won’t bump my head,” he went on, stubbornly, as James scrubbed at his hair. Round and round they went. 

 

Independent, his teacher wrote in the rectangular box of his weekly reports, with three underlines. Shows special attention to classroom responsibilities and rules. Struggles with confidence when called on for participation.  

 

He would eat everything on his plate, even pineapple which turned the skin around his mouth an itchy angry red and made his tongue feel reportedly fuzzy. The only food he didn’t like was prawns because they looked too much like bugs to be consumed.   

 

Consistency, the experts kept telling them, was key for forming attachment but in the end that didn’t seem a deep enough word for what unfolded. No one could have pinpointed the exact moment that their affair began. It was a gradual thing, a slow siege on the heart. James should have seen it coming, honestly, as he himself had fallen for the very same long con. 

 

By the summer of 1997, the dalmatian stopped going everywhere. She was retired to live out a cozy existence overseeing the menagerie of other new friends that had been invited to stay with her on the bed because Thomas had found his new favorite thing.  

 

Its name was Francis Crozier, and they were head over heels in love with each other.  

 

Where Thomas once was reluctant to include others, he now wanted Francis present; where he once squirmed or pulled away, he now held Francis’ hand just walking to another room. 

 

James worried that it would become a wedge, that Thomas would start guarding Francis jealously, but to his astonishment the opposite occurred. Because Francis loved James, Thomas began to love James too. Now he wanted a kiss in the morning before James went to work, and he wanted to cuddle on the couch when they watched the evening news and he wanted to share the spotlight of James’ exuberant devotion, because that was where Francis also lived so Thomas had to live there too.  

 

Most importantly, he wanted to assist Francis with everything. From picking out his clothes in the morning to bringing him his plate to the table when it was time for dinner the constant refrain in their household was ‘can I help?’.  

 

Of course, was Francis’ eternal answer. He showed Thomas how to do everything he asked to be shown, talking to him in his low quiet voice and guiding him through the motions however many times it took to learn something new. 

 

“Why do Mr. Blanky and Mr. Ross call you ‘Frank’?” Thomas asked, sitting on his knee at the computer desk to watch him work. The only sound over Francis’ typing was the occasional click of Thomas’ Legos fitting together as he built a ship between Francis’ hands on the keyboard. He was like a cat, always wanting to be close to Francis by being a bit in the way of things. Francis was endlessly permissive.   

 

“Because we’ve known each other for a very long time,” Francis said, pecking away at his ancient Dell. “And it’s a nickname. James calls me Francis because he likes to be different…” he paused, looking down at the top of Thomas’ head. “Do you want to call me ‘Frank’?”  

 

“No,” Thomas said. “I’ll call you ‘Francis’. Like James does.” 

 

“Would you like me to call you ‘Tom’? Like I call Mr. Blanky?”  

 

“No, you can call me Thomas,” Thomas answered, shifting more against him. “Mumma calls me Tommy sometimes so you and James can call me that too, if you want. That’s ok.”  

 

A year passed.  

 

Sarah Jopson surrendered her rights to reunification a few days before Thomas’ ninth birthday. She cited them as competent and caring parents that have done nothing but sincerely love Thomas and encourage his health and growth and underscored her desire for their right to adopt Thomas under the stipulation that she be allowed to schedule visits and remain privy to all major life events until he was eighteen, unless it was ruled dangerous for Thomas’ well being.  

 

“I think he should be with people like you,” she said, so thin that you could have seen straight through her. All three of them were weeping in the private meeting with the caseworker and the lawyer, the first of many minor negotiations and official proceedings. “It’s been so hard already. I can’t make it harder for ‘im. He’s like you, you know. He’s going to need you.”  

 

They had known, for a while.  

 

 Francis became Dad. Thomas stayed Thomas. James called him Tomkitty, sometimes, because he liked to be different.  

 

At ten years old Thomas Jopson was getting taller every time they looked at him and no matter how much he ate he never seemed to gain a pound. He liked his hair cut short and deeply parted, like Francis’, and was meticulous about his school uniform. He still loved Julie Andrews musicals, but his present obsession was Oliver! 

 

The one thing it seemed he didn’t like very much was his mother.

Chapter Text

“I invited George and John to the housewarming, like you asked,” Edward puffed, awkwardly lifting the end of the confoundingly heavy flat packed piece of furniture he was helping Thomas haul the three flights up to his apartment.  

 

“It’s a re-warming. Hold on,” Thomas said, slightly muffled by  stooping over. Edward let the box down for a moment, wiping his forehead.  

 

“Re-warming, yeah,” he grunted, shaking his sleeve back on his jacket so it didn’t get in the way, before readjusting his hold. “Remind me again why we can’t just slide this thing up?” 

 

“Because it’s delicate,” Thomas said glaring at him through his sweat-sticky hair. “Enough chat, we’re almost to the landing.”  

 

“What the hell is it?” Edward asked, the steps creaking under his feet as they navigated it up. “Slow – ok, lift it up, I’ve got to turn.” They both raised it so the corner could tilt over the bannister, Edward doing his best not to knock it against a wall and risk Thomas’ wrath. It was the most unwieldy rectangle he’d ever seen, its proportions just off enough to be impractically cumbersome to handle.  

 

“It’s a painting,” Thomas replied, gritting his way up the final few steps. 

 

“It better be good…” 

 

“I haven’t even seen it,” Thomas exhaled, the two of them clumsily laying it down on the carpeted narrow hallway in front of his door. Thomas leaned forward, his hands on his thighs, catching his breath while Edward did the same against the wall.  

 

“You’re kidding,” Edward muttered, and Thomas groaned a laugh, straightening up.  

 

“James bought it,” he huffed, toeing at a corner and shaking his head, “online. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. It’s supposed to be a surprise” Thomas air quoted, swallowing.  

 

“I’m sensing a pattern with that,” Edward murmured, and Thomas gave another little breathless chuckle, pulling his keys from his pocket to get the door open. The building was old and he had to put his shoulder into it a bit, the door finally giving and swinging open. He darted out of sight for a moment and then a light clicked on, illuminating a narrow hallway.  

 

He stood in the doorway for a moment, hands on his hips, looking at the box at Edward’s feet a bit excitedly. 

 

“Let’s put it in the living room first?” 

 

“Whatever you say, boss,” Edward shrugged, pushing off the wall.  

 

Before long, with only a little bit more finagling, they were laying the box down on the faded area rug in front of Thomas’ squished green couch. 

 

“I’ll get shears,” Thomas said as soon as it was stationary, leaping gracefully over it and darting around a wall to what Edward assumed was his kitchen. He could only assume, as he’d never been inside Thomas’ flat. The whole situation was a little confusing to him at first. Thomas had tried to explain that while he had his own place he’d been subletting it for the past few years, only ducking in now and then between tenants to make sure it hadn’t been rendered unlivable while he stayed with his parents. 

 

Looking around Edward was greeted by Thomas’ clear efforts to move back into his own space – the recessed bookshelves by his television set were in the midst of some reorganization, the odd candle and knick-knack interrupting stacks of unsorted books and DVD’s.  

 

When he took the few steps, skirting Thomas’ coffee table, to investigate closer he saw most of them were musicals and unfamiliar black and white films, other than the few old classic creature features. The room itself was delineated by the back of the sofa to form the living room and a dining area, and while the furniture didn’t seem to go together at all if you took it in separately there was something about the art Thomas had up, the throws and pillows and rug, the random kitsch and tchotchkes, that forced it all to cooperate.  

 

It wouldn’t have surprised him at all to learn that Thomas had acquired most of his possessions at church rummage sales and thrift stores and frequented sales racks. Just the thought of Thomas sorting through dusty estate sale boxes till he inevitably found something he fancied brought the same ache to Edward’s heart he’d been suffering acutely since the gala.  

 

“I can’t remember where I put anything in here,” Thomas said, appearing again with the scissors in hand,held upside down the way protocol dictated, . It snapped Edward out of his daydream of holding Thomas’ hand again, this time as they zig zagged through the cramped aisles of an antique mall on some weekend holiday where Edward let Thomas pick out whatever unfortunate ugly thing he wanted to.  

 

Thomas ignored Edward’s spacey behavior, crouching down to start opening the packaging, wiggling the blades at especially thick and stubborn bits of tape impatiently.  

 

Edward scratched at the back of his head where his scar sometimes itched, admitting his curiosity to himself. Whatever it was, it was impressive just by how it was packed. Thomas flipped the cardboard lid open, pawing through layers of bubble wrap and more cardboard till he nearly poked his scissors through thin paper backing of the frame, and had to suddenly stop himself.  

 

The frame that Edward could see had to be the source of the weight. It was massive, at least four inches thick all the way around and full of the garish carvings that only came with things made in the seventies. Thomas cast the scissors off and then started trying to get one corner loose so he could force it free of the Styrofoam it was sitting in, Edward wordlessly helping by keeping the box on the floor with his hands.  

 

With a rather indelicate yank it finally came out, and Thomas was pulling the end up so that the front was exposed to Edward.  

 

“Oh -,” Edward said, his eyebrows lifting. “Oh.”  

 

“What is it?” Thomas said and Edward craned his head to the side to see it better.  

 

“It’s upside down… I think.” 

 

Thomas continued tipping the painting so that he was flipping it all the way over and then they both were staring down at the big reveal.  

 

“It looks just like him!” Thomas said excitedly, using the bottom of his shirt to wipe a bit of dust off the glass. He looked closer at the corner and then drew back. “Jamie Wyeth, could have guessed that. James loves him.” 

 

“It’s… big,” Edward said, as that is all he really could say about the enormous matted print (it was clearly not an original) in its equally enormous wooden frame. 

 

“Well, Neptune is a big boy,” Thomas sounded, still smiling gleefully at the rendering of a massive black dog sitting on a dim dark sea against a dim dark sky that resembled a Newfoundland. “I just love that,” Thomas went on, stroking the frame happily.  

 

Edward looked around concernedly. The painting would have to be nailed sturdily to the wall to keep it up and he had no idea where in an apartment building like this one would even put it.  

 

“Thomas, I don’t think there’s room for it anywhere in here.” 

 

Thomas waved him off, unbothered.  

 
“I guess I’ll just put it in my bedroom,” he said nonchalantly, and Edward felt an internal trip at the thought of Thomas’ bedroom, like he’d just snagged his toe on uneven pavement. He beat the thought back with a broom. He wasn’t some seventeen-year-old boy. He was nearly thirty-six fucking years old, and he knew that everyone had a bedroom. It was just that it was Thomas’s bedroom and his feelings regarding Thomas, and what he did in his bedroom, were now slightly more personal than they had been.  

 

The revelation that he was stupidly in love with Thomas Jopson hit him a little harder in the days after the gala. It ended perfectly innocent: Thomas hugging him tightly and kissing his cheek before sending Edward spilling into his ride share and then further spilling into his flat in a drunken haze. The whole evening felt like it had taken up the span of week with all the people he’d met and all the odd turns, but walking Joey in the cold down the street he’d had a cigarette – his first since the head injury – and dizzily replayed the long dance with Thomas over and over till it was exhausted. 

 

The next morning he woke up with a pounding headache. It wasn’t until he was waiting for a takeout order of Belgian waffles from the breakfast joint down the street that he realized what happened and nearly dropped the box. He wracked his dehydrated brain, trying to remember if he had said anything, but he could not come up with any definitive evidence. Not even in his phone, which he also checked, breathing a sigh of relief that he hadn’t spilled his guts in writing at least.  

 

Thomas, for his part, acted as though nothing changed. Edward was extremely content to keep it that way. The last thing Thomas would want to hear, no doubt, was that Edward’s first openly gay friend, formerly his first openly gay crush, was now the site where Edward projected a web of feelings far deeper and more substantial and infinitely harder to untangle than before.  

  

Edward Little had already interrupted Thomas’ trajectory once, unintentionally. Thomas hadn’t suffered through miserable years of James’ illness and putting his life on hold just to have Edward knock him off course again 

 

So it was lucky that the first time he did have to set foot in Thomas’ bedroom, his bed was covered in coats. 

 

“Thank you, again, for letting us bring the dog,” Sarah was saying in the hall, while George and John and himself divested of their outerwear and piled them on Thomas’ bed, as instructed. 

 

It was well into November and the radiator in the corner was beginning to hiss and make the low tink tink tink sound that meant it was on its way to spitting out hot air. Above it hung the print and the Newfoundland’s dark eyes bore down on Edward as if he knew exactly why he was anxious about being in the room.  

 

Thomas’ bedroom, unlike the rest of the flat, was a bit less cluttered. He had a regular double bed, a little on the narrow side, with a heavy headboard at one end and an upholstered bench at the other, where John was currently sitting to pull his shoes off.  

 
“What in God’s name are you doing?” George asked, watching him prying his trainer off.  

 

“Shouldn’t we take our shoes off - ?” was John’s concerned reply, staring at him over his shoulder.  

 

“Good Lord, John, we’ve got to get you out more,” George sighed, shaking his head. John looked at Edward.  

 

“He said make ourselves at home,” John said and Edward checked his pockets for nothing important before shrugging out of his coat.  

 

“Do you see anyone else with their shoes off?” 

 

John looked around the edge of the bed at Edward’s feet and then hurriedly crammed his foot back into the shoe, stomping it on the floor.  

 

“He doesn’t have a cat or anything does he?” He asked, eyes bouncing around the room at the dresser and mirror and nightstands like they might come to life at any moment and leap at him. Edward shook his head.  

 

“Oh good,” John sighed, seeming infinitely relieved, and Edward reached over to pat his shoulder in reassurance. “I only brought enough Loratadine for if Gigi starts licking me.” He showed Edward the blister packs from his pocket.   

 

“Better take it now,” he said with another pat. Gigi, who hated every living thing on the planet except for Sarah simply as a rule, made one exception for John Irving. Get togethers such as these usually ended with the Bichon on John’s lap, compulsively licking his hands so long and so thoroughly John got hives all over.  

 

“You’re probably right,” John mumbled, and Edward laid his jacket neatly on the bed to wander out to the living room. A lit candle on the sideboard serving as a bar was quickly filling the space with a faint woody smell. Soft music was playing from the TV, and the pulled back curtains on Thomas’ window faced out at the sinking sun washing the sky a rosy winter pink.  

 

“Thomas, could I get some water?” he asked, Thomas glancing up from the party tray on the coffee table he was eating off of, caught mid bite.  

 

He nodded, covering his mouth, and started to get up from where he was sitting next to Sarah.  

 

“Just tell me where it is,” Edward said, holding up a hand to stay him. “I think I can manage water on my own.”  

 

Thomas hesitated, but eventually eased himself back down, swallowing.  


 
“Glasses are next to the sink – there’s bottled water in there, and a pitcher but I just filled it so it may not have settled quite yet.”  

 

“That’s fine.” 

 

“Could you get me some as well, Ed?” Sarah interrupted, Edward knowing very well it was a request for the dog. 

 
“Sure.” 

 

“Oh!” Edward paused, looking back over his shoulder where Thomas was twisted over the back of the couch, his hand reaching to catch the edge of his shirt in his fingers as he walked by. “Could you ask Billy where he’s at on the brownies?” 

 

Edward nodded, and Thomas thanked him, his grip falling away. He turned back to Sarah to continue talking and Edward took a shallow breath, rounding the wall.  

 

The person that Edward’s spotty memory indicated was Billy was leaning against the sink, typing rapidly into his phone.  

 

“Glasses are there,” he said, not moving anything save for his hand which he raised and directed at the cabinet Thomas had indicated earlier.  

 

“Thanks,” Edward said, coming into the cramped, narrow space. He took two glasses down and opened Thomas’ freezer door somehow knowing that there would be ice inside – there were frozen pizzas tossed in as well as a large tub of Neapolitan ice cream – the cheap value size that Edward recalled from children’s birthday parties growing up.  

 

He dug his hand in plastic bin to grab the ice and clunked them in the glasses. When he raised his eyes again he saw Billy had ceased his texting and was giving him a look like he was an animal in a zoo.  

 

“You know there’s a scoop, right?” He said, looking past Edward into the open freezer door he was halfway to closing.  

 

“Sorry,” Edward started but Billy just blinked his large deer-like eyes at him and then busied himself with flicking the oven light on, crouching down to peer inside the door.  

 

“It’s fine,” he replied, on a tense sounding sigh that conveyed a certain why do I bother attitude. 

 

Edward shook it off, opening the refrigerator door and staring in. There were re-wrapped blocks of cheese and sausage and jars of olives and pickles at the forefront as well as other sorts of food crowding about, and Edward had to gently push aside an impressive tower of plastic containers to see the water bottles lined up behind it and the pitcher as well, which looked like it was still on its way to being ready. He reached in, hooking his fingers on the tops of the bottles –  

 
“So what’s your deal?”  

 

Edward felt his head bump on the top of the fridge and hissed, pulling back with the water and closing the door in a hurry.  

 

“My deal…?” He looked to where Billy was now regarding him from the stove, twisting one of the bottle caps off and glugging it into one of the glasses.  

 

“Are you trying to fuck him, or what?” 

 

“What,” Edward breathed, trying not to spill water all over the counter. “What? No. No we’re just friends.” 

 

Billy leveled Edward with a look that would peel paint from the walls.  

 

"You sure about that?"  

 

Edward swallowed and Billy's jaw clenched.  

 

"I've been with guys like you," he said, his caustic tone dimmed to a modest whisper. "So don't think you can get that spiritual guru routine past me. He's a real person. He's not just a prop in this weird fantasy you've crafted." 

 

"I really don't know what you're talking about," Edward said, his mouth dry.  

 

"I heard about the dinner the other night," Billy folded his arms defensively."How you invited yourself to James' thing and then brought up how you and James just happened to know each other already."  

 

Edward's eyes darted to the doorway of the kitchen. He could hear the sound of Thomas laughing lightly in response to something just over the music.  

 

"Look, I know that we might have gotten off on the wrong foot, but -" 

 

"Listen to me."  

 

The dagger of Billy's stare twisted in his gut.  

 

"Even if you aren’t dicking around with his head, which I don't believe, this all better not be just some weird gay thought experiment for you. You might happen to be his type," his eyes flicked Edward up down, "but I know you haven't been around the block that many times. You're what? Not even out to your family? He can't handle having someone telling him one thing, like they're meant to bloody be, then not committing to it."  

 

"H-his type?" Edward stuttered, trying to process the rest along with the fact that this conversation was even happening. 

 

"Yes, a big fucking mess," Billy clarified, his mouth twisting into a grimace as he looked deliberately at the front of Edward's trousers. Edward felt his blood pressure literally drop as all of it rushed to his head. In the wake of the strange insult, however, a weird kind of vulnerability shifted over Billy's face - like something had just occurred to him.  

 

"Just because he makes himself available," Billy went on, expression drawn save for his eyes, which were no longer narrowed so suspiciously but round with worry or exasperation, or both, "doesn't mean you have an open invitation to take advantage of -" 

 

"Is that water?"  

 

Edward could have kissed John for his always terrible sense of timing, Billy's mouth snapping shut.  

 

"Yeah!" Edward said a little too loudly, offering him one of the glasses. "I was getting that for you, actually." John gave him a relieved smile.  

 

"Hi, John," he said to Billy, his hand sticking out. Billy took it in a exaggerated pinch.  

 

"Billy. Charmed," he said with a smirk. "I was just explaining to Edward here that these brownies are my secret special recipe."  

 

"Oh, really?" John asked, clumsily opening his packets of pills, which Billy watched with some genuine concern.

 

"...Yes." 

 

A timer went off on Billy's phone and they watched Billy open the oven door and pull the tray out with a towel, plunking them down on the range with a rattle.  

 

"What's the secret?"  

 

"They make you gay," Billy said with a Cheshire-like grin, using a knife to test the middle while John choked on his water.  

 

Edward thwacked him on the back, grabbing the other glass with a shaky hand and making his escape. 

 

"Brownies are done," he said, trying to sound normal, and it came out as a rough grunt that made everyone look at him.  

 

"Brownies? Is that what I'm smelling?" George said, shoving a cracker with a piece of a cheese and a gherkin into his mouth.  

 

"I didn't feel like drinking, so Billy is making some for me," Thomas said with a spotty blush while Edward handed off the glass to Sarah over his head. Sarah took a prim sip then offered it to Gigi to lap at.  

 

"You're all welcome to have some, too, they're just a little strong," Thomas added, and Edward took a seat on one of the dining room chairs that Thomas had pulled around the coffee table.  

 

"Strong?" Edward heard himself asking. "Like the chocolate or something?" 

 

"Ah, no," Thomas laughed, tucking his hair into place. "They just have extraordinarily strong pot in them. It's the kind James' gets with his cancer card." 

 

"Cancer weed? Oui, oui," George marveled. "That'll send you to outer space and I'll say, Tom, I've always wanted to be an astronaut." 

 

"Georgie," Sarah laughed, feeding Gigi one of the ice cubes.  

 

"Did you not get a drink Edward?" Thomas asked, staring around her. Edward realized he hadn't thought to bring anything back for himself.  

 

"I'll grab you one," George intercepted, getting up off the floor and brushing his thighs off. He plopped his hand on Edward's head briefly, making Edward scowl. "Was just on my way to fix something for me'self. Do you want anything Sarah-Bearah?"  

 

"Is it all beer?" she asked, stroking Gigi's fluffy curls.  

 

"My lady," George scoffed, a hand on his chest. "Noble Queen of My Heart, do you think that I would allow bitter ALE past your SWEET GLUTEN INTOLERANT lips?"  

 

"Seeing as you left a coffee on the roof of the car this morning I wouldn't put it past you," she said mildly and Edward felt some of the uncomfortable feeling from Billy slough off his shoulders like slack rock when he watched Thomas screw up his face not knowing whether to laugh or not.  

 

"I brought your wine!" George said and Sarah smiled placidly.  

 

"Thank you," she sing-songed and George trotted off to fulfill her request.  

 

"Sarah was telling me about all of you in university," Thomas said, leaning forward once more. He picked up one of the plates from the end of the table with a soft rattle and began laying out an assortment of things on it.  

 

"I hope it was all good," Edward said choicely, wishing now he had the beer just to keep his hands busy.  

 

"Just the usual nonsense," Sarah replied, rolling her head to him. "How all three of you had long ugly hair and listened to stupid music and did stupid shit like roll around on the beach at night to make yourselves look like crumbed fish." 

 

Thomas barked a sudden laugh and Edward rubbed his brow.  

 

"Did you know, Thomas, that Ed-the-Head will eat just about anything if you dare him when he's drunk enough?"  

 

"I did not," Thomas said and Edward uncovered his eyes to see that he was leaning far over, offering him the plate.  

 

He took it. 

 

"Ed-the-Head is a far braver man than I," Edward said, still feeling Thomas' eyes on him.  

 

"Ed-the-Head?!" George cried, juggling two beers, a glass of wine, and towing Johnny along while Billy followed. Edward was glad to see John in one piece and relatively intact after abandoning him, and even Billy appeared more even tempered.   

 

"What's that git up to," George teased, handing over Ed's beer and sitting down on the floor between Sarah's knees while John took the other dining chair still open and Billy went around the other side to land on the other, smaller sofa, stretching out.  

 

"Here you are Tommykins," Billy said, passing a napkin with half a brownie to Thomas, steam still wafting from it.  

 

"Nothing," Edward mumbled finally, ripping the can's tab and taking a sip of the foam.  

 

"Well I walked in on these two exchanging medical histories," George said, waving his hand between John and Billy who both rolled their eyes.  

 

"I love meeting a fellow hypochondriac," Billy smirked, taking a sip of what looked like straight vodka with a hunk of lime in it from where Edward was sitting.  

 

"I want to know where you got that nickname, Edward," Thomas insisted, between taking chunks of the brownie and eating them slowly.  

 

George gave a startled laugh into his beer, and John said a soft 'Oh Lord', both looking to Edward all too smugly. Edward could only close his eyes in dismay at the memory. He had somewhat prepared himself for this scenario - for all his greatest hits to be trotted out like show ponies before Thomas and Billy because they were strangers.  

 

"Johnny and Ed and I all had this entry level class together at some point and I sat behind Edward and Johnny sat next to him," George regaled, his beer swishing around in the can. "And I said to Edward one day that his head looked like one of those Easter Island Heads because I couldn't bloody well see around it -" 

 

"I thought Olmec Heads!" Johnny argued, like he literally always did according to the script.  

 

"No, Johnny,  I said, 'you look like one of those Easter Island Heads'. Those big mammoth ones." 

 

"We get your point," Edward grumbled testily, daring to look at Thomas who seemed indecently amused by it, his cheeks pink from smiling and his tongue poking out of his mouth. "Anyway, we lived together for a year or two." 

 

"I always thought it was because he played rugby in secondary school," Sarah said and George cackled.  

 

"You fit the bill," Billy added.  

 

"I didn't play rugby," Edward quickly dismissed and then, a little bashfully. "My hair was too long, they wouldn't let me unless I cut it."  

 

"I never knew that!" George squawked and Edward shrugged, taking another long drink of his beer.  

 

"Ed was a zealot about his hair back then," John spoke quietly to Thomas and Billy, tapping his finger on the side of his beer can.  

 

"Big words coming from you," Edward said and John cracked a real smile, huffing into another drink.  

 

"I remember from the picture I saw it looked nearly to your waist," Thomas said, lifting an eyebrow and Edward met his eyes, chewing on the inside of his cheek, till he caught Billy's eye as well. 

 

"Not quite that long...," He busied himself in his neglected plate, noticing that Thomas had put nearly one of everything on there for him to try.  

 

"It was a glorious, beautiful mane," George said solemnly, passionately crossing himself. “We gave it a proper Satanic burial (George, John sighed) and burned it in effigy. May it rest in peace.”   

 

“So, did you and Billy attend university together?” John asked in the brief silence that followed and Thomas glanced at his friend, his eyes sparking with the secret look they exchanged, chewing on another hunk of brownie.  

 

“Tommy and I had the great privilege of being two lonely, desperate, homosexuals in the King’s College nursing program,” Billy answered loftily after a moment, and Thomas laughed, covering his mouth shyly.  

 

“I think some of those practice dummies got more action than we did,” Thomas grinned.  

 

“Some of those fucking cadavers got more action than we did,” Billy snorted. “Like being on a desert island for three years. Surrounded by hot, successful men who don’t give you the time of day.” 

 

“It was just a lot of work,” Thomas said to the room, reaching forward for something more to nibble on now that he was done with the brownie.  

 

“Getting dates, or school?” 

 

Thomas’ head snapped up to Edward and a slow sideways smile began to dig into his cheek. He took a bite of a cracker, snapping it in half and leaning back into the couch and Edward took another drink, not believing his own audacity or where the little quip had come from.  

 

“Well, school certainly didn’t stop me,” Billy chuffed and Thomas toed his leg with shoe.  

 

“Nursing school is difficult,” George said, blinking around. “Claire, Sarah’s sister, is a nurse.” 

 

“I think that’s just because Claire isn’t very smart, Georgie,” Sarah said, taking a drink of her wine carefully to not disturb the sleeping dog on her lap. “She doesn’t practice.”  

 

“One of your sisters has to be a nurse, right Ed?” 

 

“Uh,” Edward paused, the question catching him off guard. “Kitty has a degree, no idea if she uses it.” He took another drink.  

 

“Oh Katherine,” George swooned, hand to his forehead. “John do you remember how she used to make you sweat?” 

 

“Shut up,” John muttered. “I’m thirty-four years old, I don’t have a crush on Edward’s sister anymore.” 

 

“Katherine is hot. Have you seen her Instagram, Edward?” Sarah nudged, a little flushed from the wine.  

 

“No,” Edward said firmly. He specifically tried not to tail Kitty on Instagram because of the hordes of weird fangirls and thirsting forty-year-olds who insisted on commenting every time she moved. 

 

“What’s her handle?” Billy asked, already whipping out his phone, Thomas draping himself over the arm of the sofa to get a better look at the screen.  

 

“Little.Kittyxo,” Sarah said, looking at her own phone and Edward breathed a sigh.  

 

“I’m getting another beer,” he announced, standing up just as Thomas and Billy gasped.  

 

“Edward, why didn’t you mention your sister is an influencer?”  

 

“Because I don’t know what that is,” Edward said, already walking back to the kitchen.  

 

 

The music was getting progressively louder from the TV as the night wore on, which was effective, as most of them were phasing into the part of getting obliterated where talking over each other was constant.  

 

He found himself on the couch, at Sarah’s insistence, shoved in the middle with John on one side and Thomas on the other.  

 

John was petting Gigi with one hand, and letting the Bichon do his usual licking on the other, his eyes shiny and red and squinting at everyone in the room with a vague sort of recognition.  

 

George and Sarah were sprawled on the other sofa now, George talking animatedly about how they’d met and Billy was sitting in one of the dining chairs with his feet on the other, busily scrolling through his phone and knocking back his third straight vodka of the night.  

 

Edward, who had declined the brownie at first, enjoying the steady buzz from the beer instead, but now he was starting to get that warm fuzzy feeling from the corner he’d taken the last time he was in the kitchen. Pot had a tendency to make him paranoid when he was younger, but now even if it made him think he didn’t remember how to swallow or breathe or some other inane worry he was grown up enough to just let himself be relaxed and unbothered by it.  

 

Thomas, he noted (because he was staring at him a lot) was radiating like a lightbulb. The brownies had turned him into a soft eyed bubbly mess, his cheek on his hand where he was folded up against the arm of the couch, one of his socked feet pressing into Edward’s thigh with how he was sitting. To John’s ignorance, he had taken off his shoes at some point and they were now neatly tucked away under the end table between the two sofas.  

 

“This is so good,” Edward said, leaning farther back in the cushions as George got started on the story.  

 

“What is?” John asked, blinking at him, and Edward tilted their heads together, his arm going around John’s shoulders over the back of the couch.  

 
“He’s telling Thomas about how Sarah used to troll him at the cinema.” 

 

John laughed his light wheezy laugh, his head tipping back on Edward’s arm.  

 

“Hey what time is it?” John said after he recovered, looking blearily at Edward again.  

 
“You just asked that,” Billy said from his spot, glancing up. He hadn’t partaken of any of the brownies as far as Edward knew, opting for liquor instead, and his eyes were sharp in the lamplight. He held his phone out for John. “It’s 12:30. I guarantee you in about a minute it’ll be 12:31.” 

 

“In the morning?” John mumbled. “That’s late,” he told Edward who nodded, ruffling his hair gently.   


 
“So, when playing keyboard for her didn’t work, I go to the cinema, because I find out she’s a manager,” George rambled, Sarah’s feet in his lap. She was already covering her face with one arm to cover her embarrassed giggling, her nearly full wine glass in the other, a new bottle that Thomas had dug out from his fridge sitting opened on the table with the picked-over remains of the snack tray.  

 

“And I buy all these tickets to see these movies so I can speak to her, and every time she would get on the PA and say ‘an ugly man is in the building’.” 

 

Sarah squealed an unintelligible sound, her shoulders shaking, and Edward felt his own chest stutter with laughter, checking for Thomas’ reaction.  

 

“Sarah,” Thomas said with a little crack in his voice, looking at her across the short distance. “That’s so mean!”  

 

“It gets better, Tom,” George went on and Sarah set down her wine on the floor so she could bury her face in both hands, laughter still sobbing out of her. “Hear me out.” 

 

“I finally get her to go on a date with me, and we fall madly in love, real Hallmark card nonsense. I pledge my undying devotion to this woman, I swear unwavering fealty to her,” he smacks his hand on Sarah’s calf, “and this woman, this absolute angel who I love and adore, has been writing me off as deduction on her taxes, Thomas for years as a prank to our government.” 

 

“What?” 
 
Sarah peeked her eyes between her fingers, wiping her cheeks where silent tears of laughter were beginning to pour off of her rosy face.  

 
“I -I say listening to my ugly boyfriend play piano is a charitable act,” she managed to eke out, and suddenly everyone in the room was laughing so hard no sound was coming out of any of them. “I write it d-down in the box at the bottom of the form…” 

 

“Fuck,” Edward cried into the palm of his hand, rubbing his eyes and John was completely slumped over, Gigi’s tempo picking up with the change of energy in the room. “That’s so fucking brilliant, Sarah.” 

 

“She got a cease and desist,” George said in a voice that was making its best attempts at being serious. “A formal letter that she needed to stop trying to steal money from the Crown because of – and I quote – her partner’s ‘unconventional attractiveness’.” 

 
Even Billy was sitting up now, laughing into his knees. There was a shift on the mattress next to Edward as Thomas moved, hiding his face in Edward’s shoulder as he shook.  

 

“But then, Georgie,” Sarah sniffed, coming back to herself and taking another long sip of wine, “you took me to see the Cats for what? Our first anniversary? Because I liked the costuming so much. That’s when I knew it was serious.”  

 
“Cats?” John said, lifting his head, “you took Sarah to Cats and not me?”  

 
Edward snorted, pushing John’s face with his hand.  

 

“Go back to sleep,” he laughed, and John scowled at him, sitting up further.  

 
“George knows I love musicals,” he went on, “I want to see Cats! Can we go see Cats?” 

 

“I’m not sure it’s running anymore.” 

 
“Cats is always running,” Billy drawled, his legs kicked out awkwardly now from the chair.  

 
“Cats is the best,” Thomas sounded, and Edward could feel that Thomas was still leaning on his shoulder as he spoke. He was throwing so much of his weight at him that he was almost to the point where Edward would have had to put his arm around him just to keep him from falling into his lap.  

 
“Cats?” Edward asked, incredulous.  

 
“You know they just said they’re making a remake and it looks wretched,” George went on and Thomas gasped loudly. 

 
“A remake? Like the old one? I had that on tape!” 

 

“The 1998 one?” Edward looked to where John was now holding Gigi like an infant, bent forward to look at Thomas over Edward’s legs.  


 
“Yes!” Thomas cried, picking up the remote on the coffee table and pulling up menus. They all watched, mesmerized, as Thomas diligently clicked in the prompt for the soundtrack, pressing play.  

 
Soon the flat was being flooded by the unnerving synth of the opening number which all swam into one long chant of Jellicle the longer Edward attempted to follow the lyrics.  

 
“This is awful,” Edward remarked, feeling a bit ill just listening to the chaotic barrage of voices out of time with Thomas and George and John literally singing along.

 

“It’s wonderful, darling,” Thomas assured him on a brief break, now propping his chin on Edward’s collar bone. He grinned moonily at him as the music swirled, his nose wrinkling. “You know you look like Rum Tum Tugger, you do.” 

 

“No,” Billy said loudly and Thomas put his hand on Edward’s thigh, leaning across Edward’s lap.  

 
“Yes. He is, absolutely.”  

 

Billy shook his head.  

 
“No, no, no, Rum Tum Tugger is the sexy cat – all the other cats want to literally fuck him Thomas.” 

 

George was wailing with laughter on the other sofa and Sarah was staring at Ed with her mouth open in a full grin.  

 

“If I’m Mr. Mist-misto,” Thomas paused a moment, collecting himself, “Mis-ter Mi-stof-fe-lees, then Edward has to be the Rum Tum Tugger.” 

 
“Why’s that?” 

 

“Because he introduces the song!” Thomas cried, as if this solved everything. “And they’re all flirty with each other!”  

 

Billy gagged.  

 
“Which one is that? Mr. Mistoffelees?” George wondered aloud, looking at John who was too busy with taking the remote to put on ‘Memory’.  

 

“He’s a conjuring cat, he is small, he is quiet he is black, from his ears to the tip of his tail,” Thomas was saying, “The magical – the mystical – the greatest Mr. Mistoffelees!” 

 

He heaved himself up off the couch now, wobbling to get his balance and Edward, still dog paddling slowly through all the words that were being spoken – or sung, in some cases – managed to grab his elbow to steady him. 

 

“Thank you,” Thomas said seriously and then he lifted his arms over his head and spread out his hands in a wide arc.  

 

“Presto!” he said. Edward watched his own hand drag down Thomas’ side to his, right under where his shirt was riding up, feeling him lean into it as he posed to Sarah and George’s applause.  

 

“I wanted to be him,” Thomas said. With clumsy choreography he twisted around - Edward’s hand now on his opposite side - putting his weight on Edward’s arm and staring directly into Edward’s eyes. “I really did, I wanted that jacket – you know the one that lights up. It’s beautiful. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” 

 

Edward nodded, not knowing anything about what he was talking about and Thomas looked down on him, squeezing his forearm.  

 

“Presto,” he whispered again, suddenly running his hand through Edward’s hair and Edward’s eyes fluttered shut, his hand edging up under Thomas’ shirt to where he could feel the warm skin waiting there.  

 

“You’re a big gay cat, alright,” Billy said, laughing drunk for the first time all night and crooking his finger, “Here Tomkitty-kitty!” 

 

Thomas broke their eyes apart to look over his shoulder and then he was pulling away from Edward, his hand brushing over Edward’s, to stumble over him and John and into Billy’s open arms and land on his skinny lap, cuddling against him.  

 

“Georgie,” Sarah whispered, George blinking at her in a daze. She leaned forward, setting her wine glass gently on an empty spot on the table and pointed just past Edward where John was crumpled forward, him and Gigi both asleep.  

 

George smiled, and looked at Edward. 

 
“I am so stoned, mate,” he said distantly, and Edward nodded, Sarah unfolding herself from the couch and picking her way over to John to wake him up.  


 
“Johnny! Wake up, Johnny! I’m going to take you back to ours, you can get your car in the morning.” 

 
Edward rolled his tongue around in his dry mouth, his eyes heavy every time he blinked. Eventually John was awake, passing Gigi to Sarah so he could shuffle off to the loo, and Thomas had gotten up off of Billy’s lap to start cleaning up.  

 

“We had such a lovely time, it was so great to meet you,” Sarah said, when Edward followed them all into the hallway a bit later, George heaving him off the couch and straight into a tight hug.  

 
“I love you,” George said, kissing him sloppily on the cheek and Edward hugged him back, rocking them slightly.  


 
“I love you too.” He kissed the side of George’s head and slapped him on the back. When they broke apart George clung to him still, watching Sarah help John into his coat like a child.

 

“Could I ask a terrific favor,” Billy said, slurring slightly. He looked at Sarah and then slid his eyes over to Edward, which was confusing.  

 

“My phone is nearly dead and I get nervous – could I bother you and share a cab?” 

 

Sarah stared at Billy and then at Edward, which was increasingly confusing.  

 

“Sure,” she said after a moment and they conferred silently with their eyes.  

 

“Eddie, you don’t mind getting your own do you?” Sarah said, slower, turning to Edward with a funny look on her face, “I don’t think that there’ll be enough room for all five of us in one.”

“No, that’s fine,” Edward replied, shrugging against George.  

 
“I think Thomas could use some help anyway,” Billy said flatly, and Edward suddenly could hear the faint clatter of dishes on the other side of the wall and the sink running –  

 
“Ed-the-Head,” George snickered, rubbing his back, then waltzed away to go put on his own coat and fetch Sarah’s. Edward rubbed his eyes, overseeing them all shifting on their outerwear and packing up their things.  

 

“Tell Thomas we had a lovely time,” Sarah said, pecking Edward’s lips. Over her shoulder George was basically keeping John upright as they stumbled out into the hallway. The last thing Edward saw was Billy winding a muffler around his neck and fixing him with a long look before he closed the door behind them, and all that was left was the sound of them trundling down the stairs below.  

 

Edward stared at the closed door, blinked a few times, then lurched forward and locked it, since it wouldn’t do to leave it open.  

 

Then he turned around, wandering back into the living room. He picked an abandoned cracker off of the table and crunched it, wondering how he was able to even swallow it with his mouth being so dry. 

 

He looked at the rest of the table and picked up the empty cans, tucking them under his arm one after the other, and wandering into the kitchen.  

 

“Thomas,” he said, Thomas bent over the sink rinsing things off.  

 

“Thomas,” he tried again, looking over his shoulder at the living room. The TV had timed out, shifting into some kind of sleep mode, and the quiet in the absence of Cats was like vacuum. 

 

“Tom!” 

 

Thomas jerked, looking at him.  


 
“Everybody just cleared out,” Edward reported. “Do you have a place you put the recycling?” 

 

 
“Yeah,” Thomas said, reaching down and pulling out a paper grocery bag under the sink. He pointed in it and Edward tipped the beer cans inside, watching them settle on top of each other.  

 

“Can I get some water?” Edward asked, replacing the bag and closing the cabinet door a bit loudly.  

 

“Of course,” Thomas told him, staring at him for a moment with a little furrow between his brows. “Is – is Billy still here?” 

 

“No, he left with Sarah and them,” Edward grunted, heaving the pitcher out onto the counter. “He said I should stick around to help you clean up.” Edward looked at the drying rack next to the sink and plucked out what he figured was one of the glasses from earlier, filling it with water. 

 

He took a long drink, which helped a bit with the cottonmouth.  

 

"I don't think your friend Billy likes me," Edward said, before taking another big drink. He knew that being so honest would probably get him in trouble, but he was a little fucked up and more importantly he respected Thomas too much to sit on it. 

 

Thomas continued rinsing plates, dragging a brush over stubborn spots without much interest.  

 

"Billy doesn't like anyone," Thomas sighed, his voice low. Edward set the glass on the counter and then wandered back to the living room, coming back with the last of the dishes, setting them down next to Thomas with a faint rattle.  

 

"I mean, I think he doesn’t like me. Specifically."   

 

"Hmm?" Thomas lifted his head from where he was staring into the soapy water, concentrating. He’d pushed back his sleeves and the hair on his arms was wet and slicked down to his skin.  

 

"He thinks," Edward began again, looking back up to his face, "that I'm just here to take advantage of you." 

 

Thomas' eyes were unreadable - maybe because of the drugs, maybe just because what Edward was saying was hard for him to wrap his head around. Whatever the case he didn't betray any kind of initial reaction when Edward spoke.  

 

The words hung between them, finally brought into existence.  

 

"He thinks all I want to do is shag you, or something," Edward went on, figuring that Thomas was at least fine enough with hearing it to let him continue, “at least, I think that’s what he was suggesting." 

 

“Do you?”  

 

“What?”  

 

Thomas’ glassy eyes were fixed on his face. The water was still running in the sink, and his hair was all over his forehead and his outfit was rumpled from getting up and down and general antics.  

 

“Do you want to,” Thomas stared at him, his mouth opening a fraction, “want to…what Billy said.” 

 

“Well, I mean,” Edward said, thinking carefully about it so he didn’t offend him, “I do, a lot...” 

 

“A lot,” he shook his head, “but it’s more – I would have explained better, if he’d let me -” 

 

It took him a second for his slow mind to catch up to the fact that Thomas’ wet hands were on the back of his neck, and that water was streaming down under his collar and rolling down his spine, and that Thomas was kissing him. Or, less kissing, more pressing his mouth to Edward’s, his hands suddenly combing up into his hair against the grain.  

 

Edward stiffened, his back automatically arching with the odd sensation, and he stuck his arm out, feeling for the tap that was still running, pushing the handle down so the water cut off.  

 

“You can leave it,” Thomas whispered, kissing him again, and Edward made some kind of surprised noise and let Thomas push him till he was pressed against the counter. He felt his hip knock the glass of water slightly and his legs automatically widened to accommodate him as Thomas pressed between them, his hands still raking through Edward’s hair, his mouth working against Edward's own.  

 

Edward heard himself make another sharp sound when Thomas bit his lower lip, the feeling of it strange and tingling while he was high – just a little throb between Thomas’ teeth – and then Thomas was tilting his jaw, slotting their mouths together and all Edward could do was scramble to put his hands somewhere – anywhere.  

 

They found their way to the small of Thomas’ back and immediately, his fingers tightened in the fabric of his shirt because Thomas’ tongue was in his mouth and he couldn’t even remember the last time that had happened.  

 

Even if he did, the memory was inaccessible because of the profound nature of the now, where Thomas Jopson was kissing him, by his own volition.  

 

 Edward instinctively pulled him closer, dragging the tips of his fingers on the skin of his back before he let the palm of his hand rest there, feeling the muscles tense underneath it as he slid it up and down Thomas’ spine, spreading his hand between his shoulder blades the way he’d thought about doing a dozen times a day.  

 

Distantly, he thought, that he ought to be looking at him; that this was something he should be committing to memory in real time because there was a large chance that he was dreaming and any minute he would wake up. 

 

He wanted to look at his face, very badly, if only to prove it was real, but also his eyes were closed and the sensations he was registering were incredible all on their own. Time was syrupy, tripping forward and back with every push and pull of Thomas’ mouth against his. Thomas’ hands were beginning to dry, but there were damp patches left all over Edward’s shirt from where they’d managed to press – his shoulders, the back of his arms, his sides – clinging to his skin and making him shiver and smirk every time he felt them. 

 

Thomas’ nose was brushing against his, and their cheeks touched as they kissed and kissed and kissed, trading off in some kind of lazy rhythm. It wasn’t until Edward realized he was literally grabbing Thomas’ ass in both hands and squeezing it, pulling him up, harder, against him that Thomas broke away, gasping a harsh noise, pushing back with a little tremble.  

 

Edward did it again, dipping back in to kiss him and Thomas this time answered with another surprised gasp, winding his arms around Edward’s neck and stuttering something around Edward’s tongue as it rolled back into his mouth.  

 

“E-Edward, hold on, hold on,” he breathed, prying himself off again after a while, and Edward finally felt his eyes open blearily , looking at Thomas’ kiss-swollen mouth. He smiled, shifting just slightly, but his eyes widened in recognition of what he was sensing, just to the right of his own zipper, long and firm and straining through Thomas’ trousers.  

 
“You’re…” He moved his leg, testing, and Thomas bit off a sound, swallowed, nodding. Edward felt like someone had just poured a bottle of honey over his head, the sticky-hot knowledge of Thomas’ arousal making him inordinately happy to the point of giddiness.  When he refocused, Thomas’ eyes were squeezed shut and Edward leaned forward to gently lay kisses all along the corner of his mouth, and up his cheek,“You want me to…?”  

 

Thomas made a little noise of protest, but Edward drew him into a kiss again, one hand dragging slowly from his ass to his hip where he squeezed and then continued.  

 

“I won’t, if you don’t want,” Edward whispered.  

 

“F-fuck,” Thomas panted, biting his own lip. Edward skimmed his hand over Thomas’ stomach. 

 

 “Fuck,” Thomas breathed, opening his eyes. Edward smiled at him, running his hand back and forth over his shirt. Thomas nodded. Emphatically. 

 

 “Yes. Yeah…” 

 

His voice broke and he grabbed Edward’s arm, kissing him harder but stopping between to breath against Edward’s mouth as Edward slowly started to test how far he could slip his hand down the front of his trousers before he had to resort to fucking with the buttons.  

 

“Holy hell,” Thomas keened. Edward palmed Thomas’ cock for a moment, then rubbed gently along the outline with the heel of his hand, feeling Thomas’ hips rock forward against his. Reluctantly, he involved the hand on Thomas’ ass in the matter of getting his trousers undone.  

 

He gently pulled aside Thomas’ briefs – baby blue and white with words Edward couldn’t make out on the band – and got his hand down around Thomas cock.  

 

“These are really cute,” he laughed, snapping at the elastic with his pinky playfully. “Where do you get these?” 

 

Thomas couldn’t answer, as he was kissing him again. It was sloppy and inelegant, a messy smear of his mouth all over Edward’s as Edward slowly began to pump his wrist, sensing the shape of Thomas’ prick with his hand, all velvet soft and warm and slick as he worked up to the head of it.  

 
“Shit, Edward,” he whined, dropping his forehead against Edward’s chin for a moment, one hand digging in the back of Edward’s hair, the other clutching at Edward’s arm, squeezing in time. “Oh god – your hand feels so bloody good,” he whimpered, and Edward could feel every exhale as Thomas'  chest pushed against his.  

 

He rubbed his nose at Thomas’ hairline, his other hand cupping his ass again and feeling the tense muscle of his thigh just underneath before he let his hand fall on Thomas’ back, rubbing slow circles under his shirt.  

 

“H-hold on, hold on,” Thomas was panting again, but Edward only slowed the drag his hand up and down. He could tell Thomas was very close. Not even a moment later, he felt Thomas go still and then bury his face in Edward’s neck as he came with a gutted sound in Edward’s palm. Even as he shook Edward kept stroking, absently smearing his thumb over his slit in a move that made Thomas’ knee buckle.  

 
“Oh -,” Thomas breathed, righting himself a little, and Edward kissed the top of his head, rubbed his nose in the part of his hair, wiping his hand on his own jeans without thinking about it.  

 

“Jesus…g-goodness,” Thomas rasped, shivering and twitching as Edward gently tucked him back into his pants and then wrapped his arms around his back again, squeezing him hard.  

 

“Edward,” Thomas mumbled, coming back to himself. “Did you r-really just – I’m sorry…” 

 

“It’s nothing,” Edward hummed, squeezing him tighter. “Was it ok?” 

 

“Yeah,” Thomas huffed, and then, softer, “it’s all gone to my head… good lord…” 

 

Edward looked down on him in a moment of concern, feeling his leg shaking hard.  

 

“Are you ok?” 

 

Thomas lifted his head, wincing a little.  

 

“I have a weak t-tendon in my thigh, sometimes it a-acts up,” he whispered, holding onto him and trying to put his weight on it.  


 
“Your hamstring?” Edward wondered aloud and Thomas said nothing, looking up at him instead. His eyes, still dark and eating up all his iris, were full of what looked like literal stars to Edward’s own understanding. He nodded slowly.  

 

 “Yeah,” he murmured, leaning in to kiss him again. 


 
“I can lift you up, I think,” Edward said, distracted, and Thomas just gave him a bewildered look, tilting his head.  

 
“Lift me?” 

 

Edward didn’t have any business lifting him up, really, but being high he found it to be a completely sound idea, which was why in the next second he’d hooked his arms under Thomas’ knees and picked him up. Thomas gave a little yelp.  

 

“You’re not that bad,” Edward grunted, testing his weight, and Thomas made a shocked noise again, tightening his arms around his shoulders. 

 

“Ed,” Thomas hissed, Edward already walking as carefully as he could through Thomas’ apartment until he was nudging open his half-closed bedroom door and rolling him on the bed. Thomas lifted his head dizzily from the mattress, blinking at him in the light from his bedside lamp.  

 
“You really carried me,” he giggled, dimpling, and Edward shrugged, kicking off his shoes and then stopping before he got on the bed beside him. He left the room, and walked through the flat, flicking the lights off, then wandered back in, finding Thomas had moved so he was on his side. He gave him a tired, dreamy smile from his pillow.  

 

“So noble,” he whispered once Edward slung himself onto the mattress, turning his head on the other pillow.  

 

“Yeah,” he chuckled and Thomas reached out, toying with his hair before his hand fell on Edward’s chest, scratching lightly.  

 

“Billy is jealous of you,” Thomas said, quiet, and Edward felt himself frown. Thomas’ tongue darted out to touch his still kiss-stung lip, blinking heavily.  

 

“Jealous…?” 

 

“I didn’t see him for a while, before you and I met,” Thomas went on, looking at his hand on top of Edward’s chest, a furrow coming to his brow. “I was taking care of James and my dad all the time. I didn’t work, or anything. James almost died. He came really close, and it made me… mean,” Thomas’ eyes stayed fixed on his hand and Edward slowly brought his hand to cover it.  

 

“Billy and his boyfriend at the time were having it out, and it was really bad – and I was really hard on him when it happened,” Thomas continued, shifting his fingers under Edward’s, “We weren’t talking very much.I think he feels like you stole me out from under him,” Thomas sighed, looking up at Edward. Edward thought about it for a moment and then shook his head. 

 

“I think he’s just looking out for you,” Edward said, Thomas’ eyes glassing over with emotion, “I think he knows you were having a hard go at it, before. He wants you to be alright.” 

 

Thomas blinked at the coverlet and he sniffed slightly. He seemed to hesitate about something, but then he shook it off, looking up at Edward again.  


 
“I’ll talk all night,” he confessed, whispering again. “When I’m tired.” 

 
“Then we’ll sleep,” Edward said simply, and Thomas nodded, pulling away to roll back and click the light off. He drew his leg carefully up and then slipped under the duvet, scooching closer to Edward and peeking over the edge of it.  

 

“Edward?” 
 

“Mmm?” Edward willed his eyes to stay open.  

 

Thomas’ arm slithered out, draping over Edward’s waist in the dark. The radiator was hissing, and Edward’s body felt like it was about to sink straight through the bed and melt away.  

 

“I think this was ineffable… Effable – effable effanineffable,” he laughed, a rough boyish whisper, cuddling closer into his side,.“Like the song, you know.” 

 

The last thing he heard before he slid into sleep was his own voice answering, saying something in the dark that made Thomas laugh again.  

 

 

Thomas’ phone was buzzing in his pocket, which was odd, because his phone typically wasn’t in his pocket when he was asleep. He moved, sighed, flexed his feet as it continued to vibrate, finally waking up enough to worm his hand into his front pocket and pull it up.  

 

He cleared his throat, his tongue sandpapery where it dragged over his teeth. 

 

“Hello?”  

 

“Finally,” the voice on the other end breathed in relief and Thomas’ eyes flew open. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I was starting to think I had the wrong number there.” 

 

Thomas sat up, the blanket falling from around his body as he looked down at himself and realized he was still in his clothes from the night before. As he looked over the rest of the bed, he saw Edward lying half under the covers, snoring lightly into the sham of his decorative pillows.  

 

“Did I wake you up? I’m so sorry Tommy, I figured you weren’t sleeping in.” 

 

Thomas’ mouth opened and closed. He glanced back at Edward who was still comatose, and immediately glanced at his watch only to find it wasn’t on his wrist.  

 

“Thomas? Thomas?” 
 

“I-I’m here,” he suddenly murmured. “Just uh, hold on…” 

 

He eased himself off the bed, still looking at Edward with every step, and crept out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. Half-done dishes were piled in the sink and - his hand smacked against his forehead in disbelief as the memory of the night before careened into him. He put his palm over his mouth and sunk against the wall, his legs giving out. 

 
“Sorry, this is a bad time,” he said, finally, pinching the bridge of his nose and raking his hair back from his forehead.  

 

I’m sorry,” Robert said his tone shifting a little bit, “I mean, is it ever really a good time for you?”| 
 

“This is a particularly bad time, Bobby, I’m sorry,” Thomas said, curt. “Can’t you just wait for me to call you back?” 

 

“Thomas, I really need to talk to you. Did you get any of my emails? Even one of them?” 

 

“I did, I’ve just be really busy,” Thomas muttered, his palm rasping at his stubble. “Look, I promise, I’ll call you back and you can tell me whatever it is she’s gotten herself into now and where to send her the money.” He shook his head, forcing himself to straighten up.  

 

“She hasn’t gotten herself into anything.” His younger brother’s voice was thinning with impatience, but he cut himself off with a sharp breath. “I tried to explain it in the email, alright, she’s got this uh – thing. They, what do they call it, it’s her liver…” 

 

Thomas took a deep breath.  

 
“She had hepatitis,” he continued rubbing his face. “She got that ages ago Bobby, but she’s probably still got some inflammation, and it showed up on her blood work. I know she only goes in once every fifteen years…” 

 

“I know that, but they said she has uh, cirrhosis -  but now they’re thinking she might have h-hepato –“ 

 

“Bobby I can’t talk about this right now,” Thomas heard himself snap, before his brother could finish the words. “I have to go.”  

 

“Tom -!” 

 
He hung up, staring at the floor, his breath coming in big heaves. Time passed, and his anger churned in his stomach and in his head and made him hot and itchy all over. He clenched his hand around his phone, afraid he might chuck it across the room. He could visualize the way it would slam into the floor in front of him, and shatter into a million pieces like a little bomb.  

 

He didn’t know why he was so surprised, when all his life he’d been anticipating this exact moment, right up to the conflagration of fury that welled in him the moment Bob started to say the words.  

 

Bobby’s emails had started appearing more frequently in his inbox a few weeks ago, and he’d been especially quick to swipe and sweep them away into the archive so he didn’t have to see them, or even open them, or even acknowledge their existence.  

 

For years, on and off, Bobby acted as the occasional and unfortunate liaison between him and his mother when she didn’t have a working phone or computer, but more often than not the requests for money or for something or other came in the form of an unknown number or a weird voicemail.  

 

Her silence now was so smothering it whited out the world around him, along with  all his shame and all he could hear was his harsh breathing and his heartbeat pounding in his throat. He swallowed, tears starting to prick at his eyes that he refused to let get any further.  

 

He put his phone back in his pocket instead and walked to the sink, turning the water on with trembling hands. He finished the washing up, put everything away. He cleaned the kitchen, and when he was finished with that he searched through his pantry –  flour and chocolate chips and peanut butter and blueberries and eggs and milk appeared like magic on the counter.  

 

He heard James’ voice in the back of his head, walking him through the recipe. More milk than flour, slowly, so no lumps. Let it sit. He’d taught him over and over, made him write it down so he wouldn’t get it wrong in the future. 

 
He set the timer on the oven for ten minutes and cooked bacon to keep himself busy.  

 

Daddy likes it when you cook his eggs in the grease – I know his doctor doesn’t like it, but it doesn’t hurt now and then…  

 

He dropped two in side by side in the pan, watched them sizzle and bubble at the edges, being very careful not to break the yolks. 

 

The timer beeped. He started the kettle and the coffee maker.  

 

He was halfway through his fourth crepe when suddenly he heard creaking footsteps come around the corner.  

 

“Good morning,” he smiled, putting all of his unease away. He felt Edward’s eyes moving around the kitchen uncertainly before they finally rested on him. When Thomas risked another look something inside him give a big heave at the picture of Edward standing there in bare feet, a childlike disorientation in his eyes as he took in his surroundings.  

 

“I hope you’re hungry,” he offered.  

 
“Can I help with anything?” Edward replied, voice low and sleep-rough. His hair was falling about his forehead in a wavy tousle and when he lifted his hand to scratch at the shadow under his jaw Thomas felt another wave of hot embarrassment circulate through him. He made the mistake, however, of letting his eyes pull to Edward’s face again where all he saw was how his lower lip was patchy and reddened in spots.  

 
“You’ve done plenty,” Thomas shook his head, focusing back on the crepe again, glad he was in front of the stove and he could blame any blushing on the heat.  

 

“Thank you for, um,” Thomas cleared his throat awkwardly, neatly folding the crepe over, “helping me clean up last night.” 

 

“Oh, sure,” Edward said, from a bit closer. Thomas heard him gently looking around for something.  

 

“Spoons are in the drawer,” he said, not turning around, and there was a rattle of the silverware as Edward opened it and pulled one quietly out. There was the faint clink clink of him pouring coffee into a mug, the soft sound of him looking around for the sugar.  

 

“No milk?”  

 

“Uh, no, not usually,” Edward chuckled and Thomas made a sound in the back of his throat, sliding the crepe onto the full plate beside him, scraping the last of the batter out of the bowl into the pan.  

 

“You can get one if you want, they’re all ready. All the trimmings are over there and there’s bacon too, and an egg – start before it goes cold,” Thomas pointed his spatula at the space next to the stove where he’d put everything and then Edward was peering over his shoulder, his chest brushing against his back.  

 
“How long have you been up?” His voice crackled in Thomas’ ear, and Thomas couldn’t help the nervous smile on his face at the proximity.  

 
“Not very long,” he lied. “You were sleeping like the dead and after… everything I thought you might have an appetite.”  

 

“I hope my snoring didn’t wake you,” Edward said, miserably sweet. He took one of the plates Thomas had taken down and padded over again, using a fork to scoop three crepes onto his plate and half of the bacon.  

 

“It didn’t,” Thomas laughed, helping him with the egg. As he lifted it off the plate and slid it onto Edward’s he found himself quite close to him and his heart gave another groan at how patiently Edward waited for him to slide it into place.  

 

“You don’t have to wait for me,” Thomas continued, the crepe he was working on about finished, “I’m sure you’ve got to run and see our friend Joey.”  

 

Edward had padded back to the other side of the small kitchen and rattled through the drawer again, this time for a knife. Thomas heard the spin of peanut butter being opened.  

 

“He’s alright,” Edward said, mellow, like he wasn’t lingering in the very spot where he’d worked Thomas off mere hours ago because Thomas, high as a fucking kite, and certifiably a fool, had believed giving in to his own attractions to be a good idea.  

 

“My neighbor walks him when I work late, and I just texted him as soon as I got up – he’ll take him out for me,” Edward crunched on a strip of the bacon and Thomas’ heart swelled again, despite him trying valiantly to tell it to be reasonable.  

 

But it was hard to convince it of that when he was literally standing there, playing house, the way Billy always accused him of. There was a devastating shade of inevitably to it, him making breakfast for Edward in the wake of something clearly Billy orchestrated to prove his point about Thomas’ proclivities.   

 

You always get serious about these guys. 

 

Maybe, though, he thought, taking the crepe off the heat just before it burned, he could live with it. Maybe it could just be whatever it was. It happened all the time, didn’t it? Sometimes friends fooled around. He’d literally said it himself to Edward, a while ago.  

 

You don’t have to love them or anything… 

 

He’d neglected, of course, the disclaimer that sometimes the reason you slept with people you didn’t love was because you were falling in love with someone else. That, somewhere, between that cigarette outside the pub and some moment – like when Edward helped him with his coat at the café, right after he’d gotten the first email from Bobby so unexpectedly. That moment of sincere surprise he felt at the realness of the gesture superimposed over all the performance of leaving to deal with it – that someone was there, sensing something he couldn’t voice. 

 

It was why he hugged him. He’d reached out for more of it. More of whatever it was about Edward that steadied him without knowing it. The whole time he’d thought it was the other way round; that he was the one doing Edward the favors of friendship or whatever other bullshit he was calling it, when really, all he wanted was what he’d wanted all along. 

 
Which was, of course, Edward all to himself. It hadn’t changed since he saw him sprawled on the pavement, or next to him at Borough Market, or dancing so close he could feel his heartbeat, or with his hand down Thomas'trousers - however he could get it. 

 

“Is something the matter?”  

 

“Sorry?” Thomas snapped back into reality.“No, I was just…” 

 

“You should eat and then go back to bed,” Edward said, reading his face. “Have you drunk anything?” 

 

“I meant to have some tea,” Thomas mumbled, looking at the kettle and then Edward’s hand was pushing his out of the way.  

 

“Is this done? I can do your plate.” He took the spatula from him and Thomas let him. He side stepped away, but instead of fixing his tea he simply put his hands on the edge of the counter for a moment, silently, his chin dropping to his chest. He took a breath.  
 
“I was thinking,” Edward said, bringing the plate over. All four of the remaining crepes and all the bacon and the egg. “If you wanted, uh. I’d like to take you out.”  

 

Thomas looked up from the plate into his face. Edward swallowed, brushing his hair down in back. 

 
“On a date. A proper one.” Edward’s face was pink.  

 

“You don’t have to say yes now,” Edward pressed, and his blush deepened, “or, at all, of course. I just thought, in a few days, my brother in law’s club is doing a soft open and I was going to go anyway, but I thought, given uh,” he moved his own cup of coffee for no reason, “last night, I wanted to make sure that you understood how I felt.” 

 

Thomas was quiet because all the thoughts in his head were suddenly smashed to smithereens, because Edward was doing that thing where he was somehow reading his mind and it was making the room lurch. 

 

“It’s a nice club,” Edward furthered, “either way.” 

 

“Edward,” Thomas put his hand on Edward’s where it was covering the opening of the mug. “What did I tell you about surprises?” 

 

He met the wide scared animal in Edward’s gaze.  

 

“You’ve - you’ve got to stop doing this to me, you’re going to give me a heart attack, Edward, I swear.” 

 

Edward  tensed as if floor was about to go out from under him any second. 

 

“I shouldn’t have asked -,” he whispered and then Thomas was shaking his head.  

 

“I want to go on a date with you,” he said squeezing Edward’s hand when it tried to twitch away. Something was choking at his voice when he tried to speak, and squeezed his hand a little harder.

 

“I really, really, want to go on a date with you.  A real date. You’ve no idea. No idea...fuck. You don’t know how much I needed…” He stopped, because he felt like he was about to start laughing hysterically or burst into tears. 

 

“You do? What? Wait,” Edward’s face crumpled in confusion. “Wait, Thomas.”

 

“I’ve been wanting for you to ask me,” Thomas said, from somewhere above the floor that he was floating over in a residual high, “for a while I think.”

Chapter Text

Edward was anxiously quiet in the days leading up to the date. On more than one occasion Thomas began typing out elaborate messages to ask him if everything was alright, but held off thinking it might come across rude. Edward was taciturn, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that.

 

More so than that, Thomas was becoming increasingly aware of just how profoundly old-fashioned Edward could be. It wasn’t like it surprised him, per se, but there was a part of him that assumed maybe he’d be an exception to Edward’s rule.

 

Quite the opposite. The moment he agreed to the date Edward began handling him with white cotton gloves. Every thing he said, or did, was carefully monitored. One would have thought that impossible for Edward Little but Thomas was impressed to admit the man had unplumbed depths of painstaking caution.

 

He’d last seen Edward from behind his apartment door as he trudged downstairs back to the street. He hadn’t kissed Thomas goodbye. Not even a hug. He’d kept himself very politely distanced and particularly silent all throughout the remainder of breakfast, helping again with the dishes and then disappearing to presumably collect himself before he left the apartment.

 

“Do you need anything else?” He was holding his coat over one arm, standing in front of the half open bedroom door. Thomas could see that through the gap in the doorway he’d tidied up the bed, straightening the covers and throwing the pillows back into a better arrangement, “I can run down to get something for you if you need it, before I go.”


“I don’t,” Thomas assured him. He looked in his eyes, leaning against the wall, “Edward, you don’t have to go, if you don’t want to.”

 

Edward went pale at the suggestion, and Thomas came to the violent understanding that Edward was now going to assume every single moment they spent in each other’s company might lead to some illicit end, heaven help them.

 

He took in Edward’s faint blush, color returning to him, and the way he tensely un-balled his coat and put it on.

 

“No, no I couldn’t,” he gave Thomas a tired smile, working his arms into the sleeves, “it’s uh. Been exciting, so you need to rest, I’m sure…’

 

Thomas returned the smile and then stepped forward without being asked. He moved Edward’s hands and did the zipper up, stopping it midway up Edward’s chest.


“Remind me again, where and when for our date?” He looked up at him, pinning him in place.

 

“Friday night, say eight-o-clock? You can meet me there,” his voice caught slightly, and Thomas fought the way his mouth was twisting up as a result, remaining intent on listening instead. Had Edward always been acting like this, and he never noticed? This caught up in him? It was giving him butterflies like a teenager.

 

“Do I need to eat beforehand?”

 

“They have a kitchen. I can find out what all they’ll have. It’s also ticketed, I’ll handle that.”

 

“Brilliant.”

 

“I’ll text you the name. It’s called Simone’s after my niece – and uh, I guess Nina Simone,” Edward rambled, the fabric of the jacket making a little shush-shush as he moved his arms where Thomas was absently rubbing them.


“I’ll be there with bells on,” Thomas said softly. Edward’s phone chimed, “that your car?”

 

“Yeah,” Edward said, distracted, and he glanced at it and then back to Thomas, exhaling.

 

“You better go then,” Thomas said, glancing at the door.


“Yeah,” Edward repeated, lost in his eyes again, but then his phone chimed and he shook himself out. Thomas moved around him to undo the chain and latch, knowing he needed the out. Otherwise they were liable to be trapped there forever.

 

“Friday, at eight-o-clock,” Thomas said, Edward shuffling past him into the hall.

 

Edward paused, looking out from under his bedhead. He nodded once, but as he began to go down the stairs, he fixed Thomas with a smile he vaguely recognized. It was the soft half smile in profile, the same he’d given him that very first moment they met at the bar, as curious as it was conservative, and Thomas instinctively toyed with the lock on the door handle, his throat getting tight.

 

Then he was gone, and Thomas was alone again. The quiet in his flat was pervasive, but also calming. He surveyed the damage of the night before and spent of the rest of the day tidying it back to full health. The evening came early with freshly laundered clothes and Thomas collapsed on his sofa, mind-rotting reality television droning in front of him.

 

When his phone rang right as he was dozing off he feared it might be Bobby, but he knew his brother wouldn’t go pushing his luck after Thomas hanging up on him by calling back so soon. Bob was too timid, and too protective of their fragile relationship, to go telling him off just yet.

 

He wouldn’t have reached out at all if he didn’t truly need him, but Thomas didn’t want to talk about it, or think about it – if not now, ever. He was content to remain suspended in the honey bubble of Edward Little asking him on a date. He pushed everything else as far away as possible, guarding his happiness like a mongoose. That was something that his mother wouldn’t be allowed to infiltrate. They’d both made choices in their lives, and Thomas’ was Edward.

 

“I’ve been waiting all day for my thank you,” Billy said peevishly, when Thomas did sleepily answer his video call. He was standing in his bathroom on the other end of the screen, his curls slicked back and some kind of dry clay mask caked on his t-zone.

 

“For what?” Thomas yawned, adjusting his position on the couch. Billy set his phone down and Thomas watched an oblique angle as he bent over the sink basin and began chipping the mask off his face.

 

“Your dick appointment with Mr. Little,” Billy said, leaning over with water dripping off his gaunt features to glare into the phone. He tapped something then went back to stooping under the faucet.

 

Thomas’ eyes widened.

 

“William Gibson,” Thomas said, “I’m surprised at you. Helping your fellow man.”


“Don’t get used to it, I want it out of your system,” Billy muttered, then a bit more modestly, “he still around?”

 

“No, he left,” Thomas’ eyes drifted to the hallway.

 

“Well?”

 

“Well what?”

 

“Don’t play coy, how was he?”

 

“It didn’t get that far,” Thomas grumbled, sighing and frowning at his own damp hair in the small window view.

 

Billy looked blankly at him, then began rubbing at his face with a hand towel.

 

“Thomas, this man is terminal,” he said, tossing it into the sink when he was done. “What the fuck. Am I supposed to literally lead him by the prick? I tee it up for him -”

 

“Will you stop talking about him like that,” Thomas clipped, rubbing at his face, “he’s not like that, alright, he’s polite. It wasn’t a complete wash. We made out in the kitchen, then we went to bed.”


Billy was silent.

 

“He’s taking me out on Friday.”


Billy made a short, annoyed sound, picking up his phone and walking to his own living room where he tossed himself down, staring up at Thomas with blatant irritation.

 

“You’re really alright with it? Him not being out?”

 

“He is out.”

 

“His two bozo friends don’t count. That John Irving might be slightly more useful if he wasn’t wound so fucking tight…I mean his family. You know Neil was a pathological liar but at least he never lied about that.”

 

Thomas glanced sideways, scratching his stomach under his t-shirt.


“I think he just needs the chance to talk to me about it,” Thomas reasoned, “I don’t even know much of his family. Just his brother passed away, and he has a few sisters. He doesn’t just give things up. He’s very private.”

 

Billy huffed again, rolling over, a cushion jammed under his face, his eyes falling closed and then opening again.

 

“Why does this bother you so much, really?” Thomas pressed, looking at his friend whose eyes narrowed.


“Because, you twit, you get on these crusades to save these stupid men, and then you let them leave you when they get enough bollocks to look after themselves.”

 

Thomas couldn’t contest it. Billy knew him better than anyone else that he laid out the white carpet for stunted men who barely knew how to do their own laundry and possessed a battery of other personal issues. They did, eventually, outgrow him.

 

“The reason it bothers me,” Billy went on, sitting up slightly more, “is because I see how much you like him. You literally wilt whenever he’s around.”

 

“I do not.” He very well did, and he knew it.

 

“You kick your brain across Hyde Park when Edward Little is in the room you’re so bloody keen for him. It’s nauseating seeing you so stupid…”

 

Thomas blushed, hiding his mouth with his hand.

 

“I don’t want you to let yourself become his dirty little secret, Thomas,” Billy said with an air of finality. “You have to promise me you won’t hang on if he makes it into something like that.”

 

“I won’t,” Thomas promised. “I wouldn’t let that happen, Billy. I think, until now, he’s kept a lot of things to himself. Obviously to himself,” he mused, thinking of Edward’s hands on his ass with a low hum of residual arousal in his stomach.

 

“There’s something else, isn’t there? I know when you’re not telling me something,” Billy sighed, rolling a shoulder and Thomas played it off.

 

“I was just thinking about all of it,” Thomas mumbled, rubbing his chin.

 

“I don’t know what you see in him,” Billy sighed and Thomas couldn’t help way the corner of his mouth turned up.

 

“He’s truly a good person,” Thomas said, clucking at the way Billy rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you ever wanted to date a good person? Sometimes it’s nice to be boring, Billy. Not everyone has to want a maniac like you.”

 

Billy made another dismissive sound.

 

“He’s a good person, and he’s very funny. You don’t give him a chance, but he is. He knows all these little things and he tells me about them, and it’s interesting,” Thomas rolled his eyes to the ceiling, staring at it, “and he listens to me. You can just tell he’s really hearing me when we’re talking to each other. And he’s extremely considerate of everything and polite. He never complains, either…”

 

“Thomas,” Billy interjected and Thomas caught himself.

 

“Next time just say you think he’s hot like a normal person and move on.”

 

“You asked,” Thomas could only shrug.

 

“Right, and I never will again.”

 

 

 

Thomas wasn’t a typically nervous person. He usually went through life with a built-in understanding that the worst things that could happen to him had already happened, which made him notably tolerant of most inconveniences. He had a perspective that allowed him to remain patient in a world that continuously recycled its demands with more and more urgency. The only person who could usually get him going was James, but that usually took a lot of wearing down.

 

Edward Little tested this patience so royally he felt like he was at the precipice of a nervous breakdown. He thought, at first, that knowing where he stood – that Edward was attracted to him, and the chemistry between them wasn’t manufactured by obligations, that he might even want a relationship with him – would make waiting for Friday a warm and thrilling little excitement.

 

He was pretty sure that it was driving him insane.

 

First date jitters aside, there was also a far more pressing matter looming over him and throwing a dark shadow on his entire existence: he could not stop thinking about what he’d done with Edward in his kitchen. The memory drifted in murky happenstance for a day or two, but as he began to examine it closer without the fog of the drugs the details quickly sharpened. That, or his mind just simply filled in the gaps on its own volition.

 

For the first few days of this closeted reminiscing he was mortified by his own audacity more than excited by it; of all the completely uncalled for things, to just kiss Edward with no warning could have gone so sour so fast and he’d acted like it was nothing at all. It felt like a trick, nearly, that he hadn’t been rejected outright, but then he was forced to remember that no, it was Edward who had brought it up. Edward who admitted, sloshed but still, that he wanted the same things.

 

There was a vagueness to the confession, naturally. An Edward-patented circling of the real meaning (literally dancing around it, Thomas inwardly groaned, thinking back to when he’d been too distracted by his own stupid anxiety to understand when Edward was holding his hand, holding him close, what Edward wanted) but if Thomas dared to read between the lines now (and he did. Effusively.) he knew what Edward meant – and it wasn’t just to give him a sloppy high hand job while Thomas kissed him like the world was fucking ending right there in his apartment.

 

The issue was it was torturous to try to imagine what that would entail. He loved to lie to himself and pretend he never thought of Edward that way prior to these ventures, or wave off the way Edward plucked on his newly reignited libido.

 

For so long his body was not so much his body as it was a  system of muscles and limbs that propelled him through from one hard plastic chair to another, from relentlessly bright light to relentlessly bright light, from pharmacies and clinics and the grocery store and from room to room. Work, James, work again. On and on. He’d disconnected from it entirely.

 

For four years he felt nothing but fluorescents and air conditioners, heard the blips and beeps and whirs of machinery and pills rattling and the plastic pop of James’ case opening and closing and everything had the crunchy starched feel of hospital bedding and the rubbery grip of a slipper sock. His bedfellows were tireless dedication and the uneasy relationship between him and dreadful acceptance that James could die despite the effort. That life would be reoriented, and he best be prepared for it.

 

Then Graham Gore temporarily took the edge off of living nearly in nun-like celibacy (save for the occasional desperate virtual hookup when it was too much even for him to bear) but Graham Gore was Graham Gore, not Edward. Edward knew him and cared for him differently. He’d tasted in Edward’s mouth, felt in his hands, how much he needed Thomas the same way Thomas needed him. 

 

It went straight to Thomas’ head.

 

Sure, he’d wondered in passing about what Edward might be bringing to the table. Edward wasn’t a monk, for all the front he put up. Thomas’ interest was only the way anybody might be interested in those things. He considered strangers when he was out with him, sorting them by who Edward might fancy, or who could have resembled former conquests. Edward had the quiet-guy lack of care about sex that spoke volumes with its silence; why bring up a non-issue? Again, no harm in noting your friends were attractive.

 

He’s got to have a nice cock, he’d thought a few times, watching him do completely innocent things like scroll through movies at the cinema kiosk or less innocent moments like when he stood in front of him on the tube, swaying along with the train and Thomas’ view was more direct.

 

With one kiss Edward Little sent him roaring back to life. He was extremely glad he lived alone for all the privacy it afforded him; he could see to his new needs in exploratory solitude.

 

Every atom in his skin was straining when he relived the most casual contact with Edward. Edward, he fooled himself into dutifully ignoring, was - he nearly winced at the recollection of him at the gala - was so bloody good looking. Just by standing there in his stupid jacket and trousers. Edward, who in the entirety of the time they’d been friends, been completely sexy in such an innocuous, oblivious, way it made Thomas want to wilt into a puddle of utter degradation just how Billy accused. Just smelling the echoes of him on the pillow next to him or on Thomas’ unwashed clothes from that night in the kitchen made Thomas feel like he was going to combust.

 

There was an emptiness inside him that he wanted Edward to fill, and it was no longer strictly hypothetical.

 

Friday Edward texted to tell him not to wear anything branded, as there might be a photographer floating around, and Thomas nearly laughed out loud.

 

 

Thomas spotted him easily in a dark corner of the busy cellar bar. His eyes simply pulled to him on their own, moving over the lush velvety greens and dark wood glossed by warm rich lighting to where he sat.

 

He wasn’t watching the door, instead he was transfixed by the musicians onstage across the room, a drink next to his hand already.

 

He was beautiful, really, framed by the music and the atmosphere. Terribly handsome in a way that Thomas thrilled at being able to enjoy. His hair, as always, was making him swoon. It was all roughly pushed back – not the same formal way it had been at the gala, but loose, begging for hands to be run through it - and curling into the collar of his shirt to show off his face. The shirt was quite good too. It was a creamy ivory which accentuated the slight tan his skin held, his jacket draped on the high-top chair next to him, saving Thomas’ seat. He had one hand hanging slightly off the rounded edge of the bar and shook his wrist so his watch moving back and forth and catching the light with nervous energy.

 

“Hi! This is a closed event, can I get your ticket?”

 

Thomas snapped his eyes to the hostess stand where a girl in teetering in sky-high heels and a slim black dress was poised, her curly hair clipped to one side and cascading over one shoulder.

 

“Sorry,” he said loud enough to be heard over the trumpet wailing in the background, stepping closer, “I don’t have a ticket, but my name’s Thomas Jopson.” The girl began flipping through a heavy covered reservation book, but was quickly interrupted as a tall handsome man appeared from a small passage obscured by a large ornately potted plant.


“Did you say Jopson?” He grinned, and Thomas knew without knowing that it must have been Edward’s brother in law because why else would he be asking?

 

“He’s with Ned,” he said to the girl whose eyes widened in understanding just as Thomas found himself seizing the large hand over the station.

 

“You must be Emory!” he smiled and the man radiated at the recognition, squeezing his fingers, “This place is beautiful!”

 

“So glad to have you out! Ed’s at the bar back there? Can I take your coat? Check’s right round that corner,” he nodded his heavy dreadlocked head to the passage he’d come from.


“You don’t have to,” Thomas tried to dissuade, but Emory insisted. They traded a few little strings of cheerful small talk while Thomas gave over his things, Emory glowing at him every time he looked at his face. It was very obvious that he was more than only excited about the bar and Thomas felt unexpected excitement from the knowledge that Edward mentioned him to someone so clearly important and kind.

 

“You let me know anything you need, alright?” he said, smiling again and Thomas assured him he would, promising to enjoy everything, and then he was set loose. He excused himself around the people packed in, finally working his way up to Edward, who was still so absorbed in the band he had no clue he was there.

 

When he finally was close enough to put a hand on his shoulder he jerked violently and looked up at Thomas in surprise, and Thomas wondered if he was allowed to kiss the dumbfounded look off his face.

 

“Sorry, bit tight,” he said instead, giving into the déjà vu and giving Edward a moment to collect himself while he slid around and sat down. His eyes pried off of Thomas just long enough to bounce around behind him and then came back with full force.

 

“Did you just get here?”

 

“I met Emory first,” Thomas smiled, settling in so that he was canted toward him. He looked at Edward’s drink, pulling it towards him.

 

“It’s a Ward Eight, careful -,” Edward said meeting Thomas’ eye as he brought it up to taste. It was too late, Thomas already recoiled from surprise.

 

“Strong,” Thomas finished, looking back to it, “but good, is that orange?”

 

“And Rye Whiskey,” Edward explained, tracking how Thomas slid it back over to him.

 

“He called you Ned,” Thomas went on with a quirk of his brow, before the bartender in his sharp black bowtie descended and he had to dedicate several moments of deliberation to whether he wanted a Vesper or a Gimlet. In the end he was talked into something called a Sazerac, a cognac concoction from New Orleans they were pushing for the event.

 

“My family calls me that,” Edward said once Thomas had his drink and satisfied Thomas’ need to cheers to it, “Ned.”

 

“You never told me which sister Emory belongs to,” Thomas probed, leaning a bit closer to Edward, looking up at him. The band was still playing on full force, each set interspersed with extremely enthusiastic praise from the patrons in crushes of applause and whistles.


Thomas tried not to make his reach for conversation so blatant but if Edward minded at all it was quickly overtaken by his usual bashfulness when he was directly addressed.

 

“He’s my sister Harriot’s husband,” Edward answered, also drifting closer so they could hear each other better, “she’s my closest sister. I grew up with her in the house and all that.”


“How many brothers and sisters do have?” Thomas squinted, eager for the answer to the questions he’d never felt he was allowed to ask till now.

 

“Eleven,” Edward replied a bit cautiously. Thomas paused, his glass hovering off the bar in his hand for a few seconds between drinks.

 

Eleven?” Thomas marveled. This time Edward’s mouth slid into a coy smirk and his eyes sparked with amusement.

 

“I didn’t know they came in sets like that anymore,” Thomas resumed after a moment of getting over the initial shock, combing over Edward in a new way now that he possessed this kind of information. It hadn’t been so apparent before, but there was definitely something about Edward that was explained by the chaos that twelve children must have wrought. Like if the ceiling had sprung a leak suddenly Edward wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

 

“We were a bit of a neighborhood novelty,” Edward shrugged, swirling his glass a little, “four bedrooms and two bathrooms between us - I’m not even sure how we managed when I look back.”

 

“Well now I have to know everything. How many boys and girls? What are their names, if you can remember.”

 

Edward snorted, shaking his head, eyeing Thomas sideways. 

 

“Long or short version?”

 

“Long,” Thomas said immediately, resting his cheek on his fist, “I am very interested in this.”

 

Edward leaned back on his stool, shifting slightly.

 

“Well, there’s Hale, he’s oldest. He’s an accountant. Then Timothy - Tim. He’s an attorney.” 

 

“You Littles are turning out clever,” Thomas observed, taking a little bit of the warmth in his belly as courage to touch the edge of Edward’s watch band where his hand was on the table, “engineers and attorneys.”

 

“I wouldn’t give any of us that much credit,” Edward sighed glancing down at the motion.

 

“Then there are the girls, uh, Mary, Annie, Julie. Mary practically raised us -” (I thought she was your mother, Thomas confessed). “- Annie is sensitive - recently divorced. She teaches art. Julie is,” Edward paused and smiled haplessly. “She used to do catalogue modeling.”

 

“Is she pretty?”

 

“Very,” Edward said, then speaking of his sister when she was eighteen and boys were falling over themselves just to talk to her - which meant talking to him. “Always. Still,” he continued. “And sweet. She doesn’t have a temper like Mary.”

 

“That’s,” Thomas did the math, holding up his hand, “five. Hale, Tim, Mary, Annie, Julie.”

 

“Right,” Edward said, “twins come next. Katherine and Andrew.”

 

“Twins,” Thomas said, feigning surprise. 

 

“Twins,” Edward said, eyes crinkling with his smile, “Kitty’s the one on the Instagram. Lives in Los Angeles, married a plastic surgeon. I don’t know - half the time she’s on a boat. No idea what she’s up to.”

 

“Yes, yes the influencer!” Thomas laughed, his hand closing around Edward’s wrist fully, “is Andrew some kind of genius too?”

 

A sudden graveness swept over Edward’s face but instead of retreating he moved so that he was holding Thomas’ hand fully, his thumb moving over his knuckles over and over.

 

“Andy died, oh,” he rubbed the back of his neck with his other hand, “four years ago? Nearly five now.”

 

Thomas watched Edward carefully reconstructed the nonchalance in his expression as he said the words which now hung quite heavily between them. Thomas’ stomach dipped – he’d forgotten, in his over eagerness, about that sore spot. A shiver of sadness muted the sound of the bar - chatting and clinks and the plodding of the band’s bassist in the midst of a solo. 

 

“I’m so sorry I didn’t think about that,” Thomas murmured, chasing Edward’s eye. He squeezed Edward’s hand, his heart panging.

 

“It’s alright,” Edward said quietly, meeting his gaze with a subdued smile, “it’s not your fault.”

 

“Was it an accident? He couldn’t have been that old,” Thomas considered, stroking at Edward’s hand before he pulled reluctantly away to get another drink, “James never told me about it.”

 

“He was…uh, very unhappy,” Edward said, carefully insinuating something, and Thomas finally realized and his fist clenched on his glass.

 

“Oh, Christ,” Thomas murmured.

 

“It’s fine, really. He was a doctor though, before all that, so uh,” Edward supplied, eye twitching nervously, “it’s funny, I’ve always wondered if you might have seen him when you were at school or working,” he looked at Thomas’ face and his expression quickly slipped into mortification at what he’d said.

 

“Not that, you know, it matters if you did or not,” he apologized. 

 

“I would have remembered if he was as handsome as you were,” Thomas said lightly and Edward made a low noise, adjusting his collar sheepishly.

 

“I’m only sorry it happened,” Thomas went on, “I mean, I can’t imagine. I’m not close to my brother the way it sounds like you were.”

 

It was Edward’s turn to be surprised.


“You have a brother?”


“Half brother,” Thomas said, “his name is Robert.”

 

“He wasn’t adopted with you?”

 

“No, he’s with his father’s family in Manchester,” Thomas said, knowing his own tone was chilly. He swiped his tongue on his bottom lip, “when my mother gave me up I didn’t have any other relatives, she never told anybody anything about my father...”

 

“Thomas,” Edward said quietly, broken hearted. Thomas shook his head, wiggling his fingers.

“It’s really not that serious,” he dismissed, “I’ve got dad and James. You still have four more brothers and sisters to tell me about!”

 

He nudged Edward’s shoulder with his hand and then let it stay there for a moment, rubbing over the line of it. Edward colored and nodded, blinking slowly.


“There’s Andy, then me,” he looked through his lashes and Thomas smiled at him, genuinely, “then Harriot – Hattie – and then Richard, Freddie right after. I was in the house most with Kitty, Andy, Hat, and then Dick and Fred. Then Lucy came along when I was fourteen.”

 

Lucy!” Thomas recognized, hand sliding down to Edward’s elbow, “you never told me how she liked her present!”

 

Edward gave a breathless laugh, “as far as I can tell she loved it.” He tried to convey the actual surprise on his baby sister’s face when she opened the gift bag at his parents’, her weird stare at him across the room as she held up the clutch and things inside with true admiration. She then acted like he’d been replaced by an extraterrestrial for the rest of the evening.

 

It was certainly a step away from Edward’s M.O. of a gift certificate to a clothing store she no longer shopped at or cash impersonally shoved in a generic card. His siblings had plenty of comments on it, but Edward refused to explain, letting the gift speak for itself.

 

A few drinks later Thomas’ chair was scooted considerably closer (a necessity, but a welcome one) and Edward’s hand was fitted over his knee as they continued to talk. Topics drifted from one thing to another. The music, the musicians themselves and how Edward knew them, how Emory and his sister met and Emory’s longstanding dream of owning a business like this and the effort he put into it. As he spoke, Edward’s palm inched forward and back, his looks becoming heavier and more direct as the night wore on, and Thomas wasn’t sure if Edward knew where it was going as well as he did.


“Emory knows, right? Why I’m here?” Thomas found himself asking. It was a little past midnight, and a good deal of people had come and gone, but the bar was nowhere near empty, the band’s playing settling into less standard fare. Emory, he noted, was kept very busy and did not come over to say much to them and the photographer rambling the premises didn’t look their way at all tucked back in their corner.

 

Edward, working his way through a neat glass of whisky without the trimmings looked up through his lashes and swallowed.

“He does,” he said roughly, his fingers curling around Thomas’ thigh slightly harder, “Hattie knows. Not about you… exactly, yet, but…”

 

Thomas nodded, looking at the reluctance in Edward’s eyes to continue the topic further, deciding to press anyway.

 

“You weren’t worried that people you know here would see you with another man?”

 

Edward hesitated, setting his glass down and taking a breath.

“I only say this,” Thomas said gingerly, “because it’s important to me that you’re comfortable with it.”

 

Edward’s eyes were wounded when they met his again, but he shook his head.


“It isn’t you,” he said, “Or the fact of it, even. It’s,” his eyes closed, brow pinching.

 

“I know that, if I do bring it up, there’ll be so many questions – w-where and when and what have you.”

 

“It’s a lot of unwanted attention, and putting yourself out there,” Thomas said, tilting his head. He reached forward, moving a stray hair out of Edward’s face and then petting his cheek, Edward opening his eyes.

 

“Yes,” he breathed, “I wish I’d done it ages ago, when I was younger. I was more afraid then, but I had no idea.. that was the last thing I should have been worrying about. It’s not that exactly, now, it’s more I don’t want to stir anything up. It was hard. It was hard for a long time, with Andy, and a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer then,” he stopped speaking abruptly and Thomas stroked his hair behind ear, fascinated by how soft it was.

 

“Maybe,” Thomas said, lowly. “We should go somewhere else less crowded, if you want to talk about it more?”

 

A moment of silence drifted between them, and Edward touched Thomas’ wrist.

 

“I live not far,” Edward offered and Thomas, who could read a map and had already assumed such things, pretended not to want to intrude.

 

“I only meant somewhere quieter,” he said, toying with the first button on Edward’s shirt.

 

“No, let’s,” Edward said, “let’s… go back to my place.”

 

“What about it being our first date?” Thomas laughed, and when he looked up expecting to see Edward playing shy or blushing instead, he looked incredibly certain.


"I'm not very worried about that," Edward said. 

Chapter Text

“Like this?” 


“Just like that,” Edward said, even as he reached forward and adjusted Thomas’ hand on the fretting gently, “that’s a D.”

 

“As in dog?”


“Right.” 

 

Thomas gave an experimental strum, glancing from his hand up to Edward’s face. 

 

“You’re a quick learner.”

 

“Doesn’t feel that way,” Thomas wrinkled his nose.

 

“You’re only not used to it, that’s all,” Edward went on, studying Thomas’ expression while he was busy with his experimental strumming. Two glasses of wine sat on the table in front of Edward’s couch – a stiff cushioned industrial style thing ordered in modular parts from a website the same as all the other furniture in the room. They’d come up quietly, Edward telling him to help himself to whatever while he quickly ran Joey outside, so Thomas had.

He’d peeked through all the rooms, sizing up the decor (or lack thereof) and the unpacked boxes still in Edward’s office area taking up one corner and the bland inoffensively neutral palettes he’d gone with. There were a few personal touches – the refrigerator was covered in pictures and cards and quite a few child’s drawings. The freestanding bookshelves on either side of his television set hosted a few other family pictures and an impressive number of books on an array of subjects.

 

After pouring himself a healthy amount of red wine, Thomas tiptoed back into the hallway past Joey’s wire crate and into the bedroom (under the guise of looking for the washroom). It was what he expected; dirty laundry piled in a basket in the corner, a flat screen on one wall and shoes kicked about the floor by a well-loved dog bed covered in stuffed toys. On Edward’s sleek modern dresser under the television was a shallow tray that held spare change, another watch and a framed photo of a young man who looked shockingly like Edward in a dark green shirt.

 

Thomas picked it up, the streetlights coming in through the half-closed curtains, and winking off the glass. He knew it was Andrew. He stared at his face, his dark eyes shaped like Edward’s, and his nose like Edward’s and his mop of wavy dark hair. His smile was impossibly sweet where it looked out of the frame, like he knew Thomas as well.

 

He set it back down, taking another drink of the wine and looking around some more. As he came out of the bathroom attached (impressed, honestly, by the presence of not only sunscreen but a daily moisturizer) he saw the guitar tucked beside the bed by one of the nightstands.

 

He went and picked it up by the neck, walked it out to the living room where he put it on the couch and poured Edward a glass of wine, and waited.

 

He didn’t wait long, Joey and Edward spilling back in moments later. Busy with Joey’s enthusiastic greeting, he didn’t have to explain why the guitar was there with him.

“I don’t usually try things I can tell I won’t be good at right off,” Thomas grumbled, putting his hand back on the body of the guitar and meeting Edward’s eyes over his shoulder. “Music is one of those, unfortunately. Besides, the point was to hear you.”

 

“Here then,” Edward offered, suddenly moving so that he was on the cushion next to him, his arms coming around so that his chest was flush with his back. He angled Thomas slightly so he could fit himself up with a bit less awkwardness and pushed Thomas’ left hand off of the neck, covering his right with his own. He leaned over so his chin was nearly resting on Thomas’ shoulder. “Just let your hand here go limp, I’ll do all the work for you, and you can just pretend you’re playing,” he shook Thomas’ hand lightly and fingered the strings with the other. 

 

Thomas let out a nervous breathy laugh, but did as he was told, Edward’s hand manipulating his own into the proper shape before he tested a strum.

 

“Arch your wrist a bit so it doesn’t scrape on the strings – that’s it,” Edward praised, and Thomas found himself smiling, brow furrowing as Edward strummed again. Perhaps Edward’s suggestion that he should toy around with it himself wasn’t so bad after all, “brilliant.”

 

“Play something, really,” Thomas demanded and Edward chuckled, the sound of it vibrating through Thomas’ back.

 

“Alright, alright,” he hummed, Thomas wiggling his hand out from under his and watching intently as Edward situated around him, “you probably know this one…”

 

Thomas’ smile unfurled in delight as Edward played as best he could, squeezing him on all sides. After a moment he started singing along, soft little dum dum dum’s that Thomas began to remember.

 

“…that’s amore,” he laughed right in time, and Edward snickered, warm breath on his ear.

 

“Good Italian,” he grunted, Thomas leaning back in his arm a bit more.

 

Thomas turned his head away from the movement over the guitar to find his nose was nearly pressing into Edward’s cheek. 

 

“Edward?”


“Hmm?” Edward replied, concentrating on his own playing – Thomas glanced down to where his hand was now free to trace along Edward’s thigh, and when he did so his playing tripped.


“I think you should fuck me,” Thomas said, before he even knew he was saying it. It was so funny – he might even have laughed.

 

“What’s that?” Edward managed, finally. He was still plunking out notes, and his hair brushed on Thomas’ as he tipped his head in clear confusion.

 

“I want you to fuck me,” Thomas continued, shocking himself with how sane he sounded despite the ludicrous nature of the statement, which was not lost on him. “Right now,” Thomas continued, his voice dropping to a whisper.

 

The guitar stopped.

 

“I – wouldn’t you like to go to the other room?” Edward replied, a little too quickly, bewildered. Thomas shook his head, placing both hands on either of Edward’s legs and squeezing firmly.

 

The guitar hit the rug with a tunk, and Edward said something – an expletive – as he reached for it, but then he met Thomas’ eyes and Thomas felt no need to apologize as he started to turn in his arms.

 

“Do you really – is that alright?”

 

“Yes,” Thomas confirmed, deliriously close to Edward’s mouth, the wine making him feel smooth and mellow and warm everywhere. “Right here, on this horrible sofa,” he repeated, like Edward hadn’t heard him the first two times.

His own chest hitched against Edward’s as Edward pressed ever further back against the couch.

 

“You don’t like my couch?” Edward said, utterly sincere, the little knit coming to his brow. 

 

“It’s not my taste,” Thomas smiled, pulling his knee up so it slid and he was straddling Edward’s lap.

 

Edward got the picture then, tilting forward so that their mouths finally met and Thomas moaned, his hands already buried in Edward’s hair with a bit more force than might have been necessary. 

 

“I’m so stupid,” Thomas panted, chasing Edward’s mouth as he finally broke away, his eyes closed. “We should have done this from the start. The very start.”

 

“Should we?” Edward’s lips mumbled against Thomas’ and Thomas touched his neck, using his thumbs on the edge of his jaw, below his ears, to kiss him harder. 


“Yes,” he breathed into his mouth, sliding forward so that his hips pinned Edward’s, squirming slightly. “Fucking absolutely.”

 

“Christ,” Edward gasped, unable to move much himself but letting Thomas grind against him through his dressy trousers. His hands bumped along the sides of Thomas’ thighs and finally cupped his ass, and Thomas arched forward into the all-too-familiar feeling overwhelming him again. Edward squeezed hard and then used one hand to start pulling Thomas’ shirt out from his waistband. He felt one of Edward’s fingers slip through his empty belt loop and for some reason it made him moan harder – nipping at Edward’s lip.

 

Thomas moved his hand a bit frantically between them where he could feel Edward starting to swell against his zipper, and fumbled a bit with the fly before managing to wedge his palm against the soft cotton of his underwear. 

 

He squeezed lightly and suddenly laughed, breaking the kiss and pushing his face into Edward’s shoulder. 

 

“Oh god,” he groaned, Edward stilling in confusion and Thomas shook his head, not bothering to explain, kissing his neck instead and adjusting so that there was more room to get his hand more around him.

 

“Fuck,” Edward barked, hips jerking, and Thomas sucked at the joining of his throat and his jaw, feeling Edward’s hands grip at his ass again and push up the back of his shirt, palms rubbing at the small of his back.

 

“Fuck – Tom,” he said, stroking at the dip of Thomas’ spine in fits and starts. 

 

“I’m going to blow you,” Thomas said stupidly in his ear, the words rushing out of him like he’d been holding them in for a while (maybe he had). He pushed away with no flourish, sagging clumsily to the floor and shoving Edward’s knees wide to make room for his shoulders. 

 

When he chanced to look he found Edward to be a proper mess – his mouth was slightly parted and his eyes wide and unfocused as they stared down. His shirt was rucked up unevenly over his belly, cock poking from the waistband of his boxer briefs into the rough hair leading up to his navel, red marks dotting the left side of his neck and a cowlick sticking up from Thomas’ hands. 

 

It made for a very inspired image, and Thomas didn’t waste time, burrowing against Edward’s thigh and mouthing at it as he drug his cheek up to his cock, Edward automatically lifting his hips to help him tug his pants down so that they pooled at his ankles. With a smirk, Thomas pulled off Edward’s shoes and yanked his trousers free, throwing them aside where they landed on the guitar with a thwang. 

 

“Now’s the time to tell me if you have some horrible disease,” Thomas said, moving his underwear down so that he could see it for all that it was, half hard and sloped to the side. “So I can get gloves -,”

“What?” Edward said dazedly, hand finding its way to cup Thomas’ cheek and Thomas only smirked a little ruefully, biting his thumb.

 

“Nothing,” he breathed, pumping him a few times and relishing how he thickened up before slowly moving his closed lips back and forth over the head, precum beading up and Edward making a low sound, the hand on Thomas’ face moving to the back of his head where it rested, heavy, twitching suddenly when Thomas let his mouth sink down onto him, toying about halfway to gauge before he went for it.

 

He felt Edward’s blunt nails scratch at his scalp as a result, and heard him breathing hard when he laved his tongue where he could, letting the weight of his cock prod at his cheek every few beats as he sucked.

 

 Thomas didn’t want to brag, but it was something that felt second nature, really. Save for the first few times, he found he never had to think about it much, and he knew he was lucky in that regard. Some people, certainly, had to put more effort in – but Thomas felt a zen lack of concentration when he went down on someone, a startling effect on his usually disproportionately active mind. It made him feel relaxed, and open, pleasure heavy in his eyes and hips rocking so his own cock could rub against his trousers while he imagined someone doing the same to him. 

 

Edward, he thought, as he took him to the root, had a cock he wouldn’t mind having in his mouth all damn day. It was thick, and curved, and had a lovely vein that his tongue could trace. Fucking gorgeous.

 

“Jesus,” Edward said softly, Thomas bobbing a few times. Edward’s hand was fisted loosely in his hair, like he was daring himself to further the action along, and when he didn’t Thomas pulled off to see the effect of his work and mouth gently at the delicate skin at the base.

 

“What the fuck, Tom,” Edward rasped when Thomas rolled his eyes up, thighs clenching as Thomas let it tap against the flat of his tongue once and then closed his lips around it. Edward broke off a noise, his head falling back against the couch.


“Don’t move,” Thomas said in a rough voice, squeezing his calf and Edward’s head lifted again just in time to watch his cock disappear into Thomas’ mouth and slip down his throat. Thomas held it there, relaxing into the sensation carefully, his hands anchored to Edward’s thighs.


Edward took a ragged, wrecked breath, his hand now tight in the hair at the base of his neck and Thomas waited, breathing in the heady smell of him before he slowly pulled off, spit clinging till he wiped it off with the back of his hand.

 

“Tom, Tom, Tom -,” Edward chanted, but Thomas only rolled his eyes up again, slowly deep throating him once more. His eyes watered, and he blinked away the small tears, but it was worth it to see Edward staring down at him, slack jawed and red faced.

 

Thomas pulled off, a little sooner than last time, gasping for breath, but it was quickly swallowed up by Edward’s mouth. He kissed him and kissed him, Thomas’ hand replacing his throat, working him off still as Edward’s tongue mapped his mouth.

 

“You’ll have to get me ready for this,” Thomas said, viciously enjoying the way Edward shuddered and panted when he squeezed his fingers as much as he could around his heavy length, “this fucking cock, Edward…I want you to fuck me with it till I can’t see straight.”

 

“Tell me what you want,” Edward mumbled, “anything.”

 

Thomas began shakily standing, Edward’s hands already going for his fly. He helped him out of his clothes, smearing hot kisses all over his stomach and his chest as he peeled his shirt off, but then Thomas was climbing back into his lap, wrapping his arms around him.

 

He kissed him, then lifted one of Edward’s hands to his mouth, sucking on them liberally, his tongue worming between them and coating them with a generous amount of spit. When he sucked particularly hard, or curled his tongue he could feel Edward’s hips rutting against him, his cock pressing on the inside of his bare thigh.

 

“Get me open for you,” he breathed, and Edward nodded. Thomas kissed him to distraction as he pulled his briefs down, feeling over the freshly shaved smoothness. He made a needy sound, Edward circling over his hole with the pad of his finger before pressing in, and Edward took advantage of the moment to kiss his neck. The tip of Edward’s cock was still moving over the inside of his thigh, hot and hard and he slid his hand back to it, tugging gently while Edward bit over his pulse.

 

“God,” Thomas bit out, sometime later.

 

Edward was moving his fingers harder into him – three now – making his back curve upwards on its own when he hit his prostate. Thomas squeezed and fisted his cock slowly along with it, hiding his forehead in the crook of his elbow, sweat making his hair stick to his skin. At some point Edward had moved him so he was better positioned so that he apply his mouth, and the result had Thomas in a state.

 

“Yes,” he whined, his breath shallow as he tried to chase the raw spark in the pit of his stomach without letting himself fall over the edge. Every time Edward’s tongue dragged over his hole when his fingers withdrew there was only the drum tight, taught urgency holding him together. His desperation to come on Edward’s prick was beginning to feel like a distant dream while Edward slowly ate him out.

 

His toes curled against the rough fabric of the couch, Edward laying a final kiss over him before he felt him shift, hovering over his back. He bent over him, his temple falling somewhere on his shoulder blade as he continued to fuck him open, thumb digging into his asscheek with a dull pinch, three fingers lazily twisting. 


“Do you still want me to fuck you?” Edward asked, breath heavy on his neck, and Thomas could only nod dumbly up and down, mouth slack. 

 

“Please, oh fuck, Edward, please,” he begged, Edward pulling his hand away and replacing it with the blunt tip of his cock. Thomas waited, but Edward halted a moment. Thomas lifted his head to peek at him just in time to feel Edward squeeze at his thigh.

“Turn over,” he murmured, and Thomas let his shaky legs slide up till he could move to his back, his neck curled up unnaturally on the arm of the couch, though he could not give less of a solid fuck. He looked up at Edward, and if he wasn’t feeling properly debauched then, he certainly did as Edward greedily grabbed his hips and in one move that made Thomas moan loudly, pulled him further down, the fabric burning at his back, and pushed his knee till it nearly touched his chest. 


“Yes,” Thomas murmured, watching as Edward swallowed hard, curling further over him and lining himself up with the hand not holding Thomas’ leg. Thomas felt his tongue swipe at his lower lip, hand clutching Edward’s elbow, and then he was spitting, and then he was slipping inside and Thomas’ mouth fell open, his other foot scrabbling at the carpet and knocking into the guitar as he tried to widen the space more for Edward to fit. 


“Oh, bloody hell,” Thomas whimpered, moving his hand to Edward’s shoulder, before letting it wander to his chest. He drug his nails down one of Edward’s nipples, watching the skin score, his eyes widening.

“Edward fucking Little -” he cried weakly, once he felt Edward bottom out. To his astonishment and overwhelming pleasure, Edward grinned at him, laughing softly. 


“That alright, then?” Edward said breathlessly, still smiling with his hair hanging in his face as he peered down. He pushed slowly into him again and Thomas fought to keep himself composed. “You like that, Tommy?”

 

“Oh my god,” was all Thomas could say, pushing against Edward’s stomach with his palm as Edward started to fuck him harder. Thomas craned his head back and tightened his fist before grabbing the soft handle of Edward’s hips, hole throbbing around the burn.

 

“O-oh my god,’ he continued stammering, Edward rocking back out and then back so he could feel every centimeter pushing back into his body. Heat shot up his neck, his head pounding with it, and he no longer was able to keep down the sounds he made every time Edward fucked into him – a little harder each time.

 

“You’re incredible,” Edward whispered, and Thomas chanced to look past his cock to where Edward was splitting him and Edward pushed his knee back even more as though he meant to give him a better view.

 

Edward was looking too, the two of them zeroed in on the place where they were connected like they’d invented the act. Thomas felt a far higher noise break out of the back of his throat as Edward tilted his hips a bit, his vision fuzzing at the edges.

 

“Edward,” he gasped, watching him disappearing inside of him in long careful strokes. “I’m going to come like this,” he palmed at his cock where it was hot and very hard and twitching with every drag of Edward in and out of his body. 

 

“Good,” Edward hushed, bending down, his weight pinning Thomas’ leg and Thomas’ cock between them. 

 

Thomas made an embarrassing, needy sound into his mouth as Edward kissed him, tongue wet and hot and heavy as it slid over his own, the same as Edward’s damp chest brushing on him every time his hips kicked forward. 

 

“Fuck,” Edward ground out, suddenly pulling away from his mouth to kiss his neck before his forehead fell to his shoulder, leaving him panting into Thomas’ collarbone. He hauled Thomas closer again, Thomas’ knee slipping loose from his grip, so his leg was free to wind around his back and pull him even further in. 

 

Thomas bit off another moan, head settling back on the cushion with a bounce, his fingers raking at Edward’s side.

 

“Edward, more – just like that,” he panted, “it’s so good like that, you’ve no idea -.”

 

“I think I have some,” Edward replied from somewhere close to his ear, sounding very much on the edge himself.

 

He let gravity do part of the work, hips slapping heavily onto him at the deeper angle and Thomas’ hand trapped under him tugged at his cock, each squeeze of his fist sending a deafening pulse through him. He was vaguely aware that his mouth was open and he was being entirely too loud – humiliatingly so – but Edward was managing to hit him spot on in a way that was making him feel like he was going to slam into the ceiling at any moment had he not been holding him down. 

 

“Oh, f-fuck,” he sobbed, fainter and fainter each time till he felt the muscles in his stomach jumping, his back twitching and arching into it. 

 

His eyes spotted as he came, and his cock jerked in his hand, spilling on his stomach with a few weak pulses as he squeezed down, forcing Edward to huff a string of half-made curses and suddenly sit up, staring at the mess, his hands tight at Thomas’ waist.

“Fuck me,” Thomas said, dizzily, reaching out to knead his chest, Edward’s jaw clenched as he fucked into him a few more times and then pulled out. Thomas touched his own cock tenderly and his stomach leapt again when Edward bent forward and took them both in his hand. His head rolled to one side and he leaned on the back of the couch, pushing his hair back as he jacked them together a few times, Thomas’ hand sliding down between his legs. 

 

“Jesus Christ,” Edward said, watching Thomas’ fingers padding and circling over the place he had been just been. Thomas gave a fucked-out laugh, moving his hand away and wiggling so he was more comfortable.

“Get that fat bloody cock back in me, Edward Little,” he giggled, stroking Edward’s stomach gently with the tips of his fingers. “Red wine makes me a whore,” he tittered giddily again, swallowing a groan as Edward fucked into him, kissing him into silence. 


Thomas found his arm hooked around Edward’s neck for a few moments before he felt Edward’s movements stutter just slightly. He focused on kissing him, letting both his hands rub lazy circles in the thick hair growing in at the back of his head, gently stroking at the raised scar forming underneath. 

 

He hummed, and Edward made a wordless noise into his mouth. Their kissing slowed, as did the frantic beat of Edward’s heart as the sweat cooled on them. Thomas shivered as he slipped out, Edward lowering himself down so he was settled heavily between his knees. He laid his cheek on Thomas’ chest after a while, catching his breath, and Thomas carded his hands through his hair, laughter bubbling out of him every now and again.

 

“Jesus,” Edward sighed.

 

“Well done, you,” Thomas teased, swirling his finger in patterns along his scalp. He wasn’t sure what he was more drunk on anymore.

 

“Thank you,” was Edward’s tired reply, rubbing his nose against Thomas’ collar bone, his hands running warmly up and down the back of Thomas’ bent thigh. There was a soft sniffing sound and Thomas jolted, Joey’s cold nose dragging at his bare arm. The sheltie swished his tail back and forth timidly and Edward lifted his head.


“I know, Joe,” he said softly, reaching out to scratch his ears and smooth the fur on his forehead.

 

“He wants us to go to bed,” he breathed and Thomas looked into Edward’s dark questioning eyes.

 

“I suppose you can’t carry me this time,” Thomas smiled in answer to the silent question and Edward smiled brazenly back at him, shaking his head. This time he laughed.


“No,” he groaned, “I cannot.”

 

He heaved himself up and Thomas smirked as he fished for his boxers, stretching his legs languidly, rolling his ankles in bliss.

 

Edward shimmied into them, and then bent to pick up Thomas’ clothes, offering him his briefs and his shirt, which Thomas took, sitting up with a wince.


“I might shower before I lie down,” he said timidly, easing his legs into them and teetering to his feet.

 

“Whatever you’d like,” Edward assured him, then paused picking up the empty wine glasses, “let me be sure there are towels,” he set them down and vanished back into the bedroom.

 

“Don’t tell,” Thomas said to Joey who sat nearby. He tipped the rest of the wine into the glass and threw it back with a smile.

 

He showered quickly, helping himself to Edward’s shampoo and conditioner and soap, the warm scent of him seeping into every pore and the water hot and making him tingle all over. He toweled off, stretching his quickly stiffening shoulders, and shook his head at the steamy reflection in the mirror. When he reemerged into the bedroom, he found Edward was still awake and crawled onto the bed. He reached over Edward’s chest to get the glass of water on the nightstand on his side, knowing he was making a show of it. He drank a bit then set it back down, Edward surprising him by catching his hand as he pulled away.


Thomas looked down at him, sinking more into the mattress as Edward kissed his palm and down the underside of his wrist.


It didn’t take long for Thomas to slowly spread himself along his side so his mouth follow.

 

 

 

Edward scratched at the back of his head, turning on the electric kettle and leaning against the worktop. 

 

His chin dropped forward, neck stretching to his chest with a slight twinge and he let his hand fall to rub at where a knot was beginning to form. His eyes lit on the bread bag wedged on top of the toaster and he reached for it, inspecting the packaging for the sell-by date. 


A few past, but it looked alright. He slid two pieces out and dropped them in the slots, pushing the lever down. The clock on the oven said four thirty am. He scrubbed at his face, sighing.

 

He nearly jumped out of his skin, looking up where Thomas was stifling a yawn and staggering to the kitchen. He blinked sleepily and half-smiled. 


“Did I wake you?” Edward said softly and Thomas began to disagree, though it was interrupted by yet another yawn. He waved his hand, coming to a stop next to Edward. He studied the open bread bag with interest, feeling mindlessly over his chin. He sniffed. 

 

“We do need to stop meeting in kitchens like this,” he joked, eyelid twitching while he adjusted to the light.


“I couldn’t sleep,” Edward explained, Thomas looked at him and folded his arms around himself. The toast popped and Edward set the lever down again. 

 

“I hope it wasn’t me,” Thomas said, eyes fixed on the toaster. 


“Only a little,” Edward replied and Thomas smiled unsurely.

 

“Sorry,” he shifted his weight, using one foot to scratch his leg. It was charming to see him in his briefs and unbuttoned dress shirt, though the combination did make his legs look especially long and Edward felt very distracted by his bare stomach. “I take all the covers.”

 

“I just drank a bit much, it gave me funny dreams,” Edward said, looking at the high arc of the briefs where they cut to his hip.

 

“Hmm,” Thomas considered, crossing his arms over his chest, “good funny or bad?”

 

“Couldn’t tell you,” Edward shrugged. “couldn’t make heads or tails.”

 

They lapsed into silence, the toast popping up again and this time Edward retrieved it, pulling the plate with the butter towards him and fishing a knife from a drawer. 


“I’m sorry I fell asleep,” Thomas said after a few more ticks of silence, watching Edward messily scrape butter over it. “I’m usually better about that.” He lifted a hand to fuss at his hair, glancing around Edward’s kitchen, no doubt taking in the mis-matched dish towels and random appliances. 


“Oh,” Edward blinked, lifting his head from the toast. “No, no,” he insisted, “I’m happy you stayed.”

 

Thomas’ eye found him again, mouth quirking.

 

“I mean… I’m just sorry if I went… a bit fast,” he continued, awkwardly.


“You didn’t,” Edward said, cutting the toast in half. “Here,” he pushed the plate so that it was centered between them like a peace offering.

 

“Gourmet,” Thomas laughed, sounding relieved. He took a bite, rubbing the crumbs off of his fingers onto the plate before looking down at the floor in dismay as Joey dutifully began licking the tile. “Sorry,” he said, covering his mouth with his hand. 

 

“That’s what he’s there for,” Edward chuckled. Joey lifted his head expectantly, tongue washing his muzzle. He sat back again, nose twitching. “And stop apologizing,” Edward smiled gently, glancing at Thomas who didn’t acknowledge it so much as smile back. 

 

“He really is such a pretty boy,” Thomas observed, reaching out his hand to scratch at the collie’s head, thumb dragging on the long blaze between his eyes. 

 

“Takes after me,” Edward said around his own mouthful of toast, leaning over the plate. Thomas laughed, scratching Joey’s ear and then settled back against the counter, looking at Edward as he bent over, brushing off his chest. 

 

His mouth twisted up. 


“What?” Edward asked, straightening up.

 

“I know you’re only joking, but you’re…,” Thomas rolled his eyes to the ceiling, and then back down like he had to give it some time before answering, “but I was just thinking you’re very good looking. Like that.”

 

Edward’s brow lowered to a slash of disbelief over his eyes. 

 

“Sure,” he said gruffly, reaching up to get two mugs down from a cabinet so he couldn’t see Thomas’ face studying him anymore. 

 

“I mean it,” Thomas furthered.


“You do remember you’ve shown me pictures of Graham Gore, right?” Edward went on, setting the mugs down. Thomas rolled his eyes, sliding one towards him to pick it up. He turned it to study the design – a faded old car. “You don’t have to sweet talk me, Thomas. I think we’re past the need for that.”

 

“Trust me,” Thomas said, rubbing at a little bit of dishwasher powder caked to the ceramic, “You’re nothing like Graham Gore.”


“You’re not exactly helping my case,” Edward replied, dropping a tea bag in and pouring the water over with a hiss of steam. Thomas set the mug back down, nudging so it clacked against Edward’s. 

 

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Thomas said quickly. Edward flashed him a look and Thomas’ face colored unexpectedly. He fidgeted, straightening his shirt though it was wrinkled to hell and back. Edward looked back down, pouring water. 

 

“I know,” Thomas started, breaking his concentration for a moment, the stream wobbling. “I know I might have come across a certain way, earlier.”

 

“I didn’t say anything,” Edward said, burying a smile. 

 

“I mean,” Thomas started, “I know – I know that I told you I went out with him for a reason.”


“I’d say plenty of reasons,” Edward chimed in, smirking, but when he looked at Thomas’ face it was quite solemn. 

 

“I’m serious, Edward,” he said, glancing away to look at the very shiny and barely used pots hanging above the range, “you’re different. It’s different with you.”

 

He plucked at his shirt.

 

“I used to try to be with men like that because I thought they would take me somewhere in my life. You know,” Thomas said suddenly, his sleep-white face going pale pink.

 

A vision of Kitty flickered through Edward’s mind – her Christmas card photo, alone on a yacht in a bikini, huge sunglasses masking half her face. 

 

“I was picky, and kept up with myself and all that business,” he plucked at his shirt again. 

 

“And?” Edward said, automatically. 

 

“I don’t know,” Thomas said softly, tucking his hair behind his ear. “I’m sure if I’d committed it would have been different, but there was always this disconnect…,” he trailed off. 

 

“That probably sounds so ridiculous,” he added, weighing his own words. “I mean – James and Dad are well off. They’re affluent. I’m – I’m well off. I got a great education. I saw so much, but when I was around these men I’d be sitting there and they’d look at me like I was a dog that could stand on its hind legs. Like they could tell I wasn’t really like them…”

 

“That’s ridiculous,” Edward huffed, frowning down at the tea steeping on the counter. “Not you,” he amended, seeing the look on Thomas’ face, “them.”

 

Thomas’ blush deepened.

 

“Sorry for getting into it that way, I was really just trying to compliment you,” he said, rolling his shoulder.

 

Edward fell silent, considering.

“Alright then,” he said firmly. He nodded towards him. “Tell me what I’ve got over Graham Gore.”

 

Thomas’ face suddenly lit up. 

 

“You have an appetite, for one thing,” Thomas said, picking up another half of the toast. He tore it in half and then went at it, speaking around the crust. “You eat bread. And hamburgers. You’ve no idea how sexy that is when I’ve been sat across men picking through a mixed green salad for the five thousandth time. Though I have some questions about your side choices at Nando’s.”


“What’s wrong with peas?” Edward’s face fell. 

 

“Nobody orders peas,” Thomas laughed, the sound an echo from earlier that made Edward’s throat tighten. Thomas put the crust back on the plate, “save you.”

 

“You always get that wrap thing,” Edward muttered defensively, and Thomas tipped his head back.

 

“You’ve seen me eat, Edward! I go home and eat an entire sleeve of custard creams,” Thomas corrected, “balance, Edward Little.” He swirled the tea with his finger and then sucked it into his mouth, a gesture Edward found entirely unfair.

 

“All I had to do was tell you I don’t like rocket?”


“Would have saved you some stitches if you’d tried that line a few months ago,” Thomas teased, playing along.


Edward flashed a grin and then scratched his head, Thomas’ eyes tracing over him. 

 

“I like that your hair gets wavy,” he said, eyes drifting to his chest. “And that you don’t wax,” he pursed his lips. 

 

“Seriously?” Edward laughed and Thomas closed his eyes, rubbing at his eyebrow. 

 

“I’m telling you, Edward, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he sighed, shoulders going up and down. He looked listlessly at the tea and Edward studied him – his five o’clock shadow and the puffy skin under his sober eyes. 

 

He continued rubbing at his eyebrow, opening his eyes tiredly when Edward’s feet made a sound moving on the tile. He put his hands on either side of the counter behind Thomas and looked at him closely.

“What do you like best,” he asked softly. Thomas studied him silently. 

 

“Your eyes,” he said at last with a sleepy flutter of his lashes, “I’m afraid those are just my favorite kind.” 

 

“Brown?” Edward smiled and Thomas huffed, touching the waistband of Edward’s boxers. 

 

“Don’t laugh but when I saw you at the pub that night, I thought you looked like Richard Raskin with brown eyes…”

 

“Get off,” Edward laughed, deliberately disobeying, “first time I’ve ever heard that.”


Thomas smile deepened, those lovely dimples appearing.


“You don’t know how sweet your eyes are,” Thomas whispered, as Edward leaned in further, nudging at Thomas’ neck. “You don’t look down on people,” he continued after a moment, tilting so Edward could kiss below his ear.

 

Thomas’ hands smoothed over Edward’s warm back and for a while they just held each other, and then Thomas was taking his hand and the tea was forgotten on the counter as Edward let him pull him back towards the bedroom.

 

“I’m sorry darling, but I just can’t be having you anyplace else but a bed right now,” he chuckled, drawing Edward into kissing him again as soon as they were horizontal. They rolled lazily from one side to the other, the sun eventually peeking shyly through the curtains and striping over Thomas’ skin where Edward was pushing his leg forward to fuck into him again. This time he’d pulled a bottle of lube from his dresser drawer and it made the go of it very pleasant despite them both being sore.

 

“Do you plan on being exclusive with me?” Thomas murmured, rubbing his hand over Edward’s arm and lacing their fingers together over his hip once he’d adjusted to the position and could settle into Edward’s slow rhythm.

 

Edward paused and Thomas’ mouth made soft oh because he’d stopped at just the right angle. He moved back slightly, tugging Edward’s arm up around his chest.


“Like…uh,” Edward floundered, and instead of feeding him the answer Thomas waited till he worked it out, “like your boyfriend?”

 

“Yeah, like that,” Thomas said, adjusting his head on the pillow.

 

“If it means I get to do that whenever I please,” Edward mumbled at the back of his neck and Thomas smiled to himself.

“It’s alright, if you don’t want it official right now,” Thomas continued, toying with Edward’s knuckles, Edward rocking up into him again. Fuck it was good. It was beyond good - 

 

“It’s official to me,” Edward answered, kissing his neck and slipping his hand free to drift between Thomas’ legs.

 

“Ok,” Thomas whispered, tired of talking anymore.

 

“I’ll work on it with everyone else,” he heard Edward promise, Thomas tilting back to kiss him.

 

Chapter Text

“- Edward!”

 

Edward flung himself so violently out of his vivid daydreaming that he nearly rolled off the bed. His hands flew up to pry his headphones off his ears where they yoked against his shoulders in a tangle of chord, the music cranked up so loud it could be heard even off of his head.

 

“Well no wonder you can’t hear me with that noise!”

 

He looked to where Mary was hovering half inside the doorway, an irritated expression tweaking her face when she took in his body sprawled on the covers and the way he’d let his shit land everywhere on the floor when he tossed it down.

 

“I’ve been calling you for half an hour, Ned!”

 

He stared at her, and she sighed.


“Get up, alright, it’s time for dinner.”

 

He blinked, dazedly watching her come in and begin moving about the room on autopilot, nosing through his belongings without being invited. She picked up his discarded duffle and slung it on the end of the mattress by his feet, digging around and cramming the contents of it into the dresser scrunched in the nearest corner.

 

Edward thumbed the dial down on the side of his CD player so the music faded to a more reasonable level, the heavy thoughts clearing from his head like cobwebs. He continued to stare wordlessly at his eldest sister, watching her shake loose one of his messily folded shirts and then snap it to get the wrinkles out.

 

She frowned at the darkly themed design on the front and his cheeks heated.

“What’s this creepy thing about? Pantera?” She held it up for him to see (like he’d never seen it before) and he sat up in time to snatch it out of her hand, balling it up and shoving it under his pillow.

 

 “It’s nothing,” he mumbled, “what’s for dinner?”

 

“Daddy brought home KFC for everyone,” she replied slowly, eyeing him suspiciously as she shoved the bottom drawers closed with a kick of her hip. She scratched her long red nails at the back of her wildly permed ponytail, looking back at him with what he recognized as concern. He shook his head slightly so his hair fell more deliberately across his face.

 

 She sighed.

 

“You’re going to give yourself hearing damage listening to that stuff if you aren’t careful Neddie,” she protested, pointing a finger at him and kicking at the corner of his bed frame lightly with a white ked, “get a move on before there’s only dark meat left, and bring your laundry down later. I’m doing the boy’s things next.”

 

“Half the stuff in my bag was dirty,” he bristled. She took a sharp breath.

 

“Well why didn’t you say anything?” She stood there, popping her gum at him, and when he went to open his mouth her thin penciled eyebrows shot up in challenge. He bit off the complaint, picking up his pillow and hugging it to his chest.

 

“You don’t have to wash it, it’s not like I asked...” he muttered, and she threw up her hands at him.

 

“Just sort it and bring it down please! I’m not your maid you know! I’m doing you a favor!” She was already partially down the hall by the time the last words reached him. He rubbed his wrist tiredly over his eyes, glancing at the darkness behind the open blinds.

 

After a moment of staring at the street he finally found the urge to move.

 

He slid over on his squealing mattress to unwind himself from his headphones and tossed the snarl of wire on his desk, setting the clunky player beside them. Then, timidly, he took the dusty stack of albums - Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, his beloved Sabbath - and tucked them back into the shoe box among the rest and slid them safely back under the bed and out of reach from prying eyes and disrupting hands. Then he sat  still in the blessed alone-ness once more before he stood up, forcing his foot more into his loose shoe.

 

Christmas music and television noise floated up from downstairs, seeping up through the carpeted floor in a dull throb, and he gazed disappointedly across the room at the un-creased blanket on Andrew’s bed. He’d been hoping that Andy would have appeared by the time he got up again, but there was still no sign of his brother as he followed Mary’s creaking footsteps down the stairs.

 

The first night home was usually this brand of disorienting – everyone coming at odd times from various places and getting used to being back under one roof after being away. As a one of the little kids at home he’d always felt a sort of excitement at the thought of his older siblings returning, but now it was like acclimating to a new altitude, with all of the cramping included. It was why he’d ducked upstairs as soon as he’d been able to dart from under his mother's arms – there was just too much vying for territory on the first floor with him, Hale, and Tim all crammed together with the girls.

 

As long as they let him have his own room he was happy to let them have it.

 

 “There’s my Teddy bear! Did you fall asleep up there lovie?” His mother chirped now as he came into the kitchen, not noticing or ignoring all together his slow uncertain steps.

 

 “No, I was just listening to my music,” Edward replied, coming up behind her shoulder to watch her move spoonful after spoonful of baked beans from a stack of Styrofoam containers into a huge melamine serving bowl.

 

“Well I’m happy to see you either way,” she said, shifting as he laid his head briefly on her back, his eyes falling closed. He breathed in the familiar smell of her - laundry soap and Elizabeth Arden - and felt her reaching back to pat at his arm.

 

“Go ahead and help yourself, sweet boy,” she smiled.

 

“What kind of song were you listening to this time, Ned? Some rubbish about sacrificing goats?”

 

Edward shrugged the comment off from Hale, scratching at the itch of new hair on his face and going to inspect the contents of one of the plastic bags sitting on the counter. His older brother was sitting in the middle of one of the counters, lording over everything and camming chips into his mouth while his foot thunked against the door to one of the cabinets, his shoelaces dragging on the floor.

 

“Yeah, didn’t you hear? He’s worshiping Satan now mum,” Tim snickered, not looking away from the portable television his mother kept by the fruit bowl, piling chicken out of one of the cardboard buckets beside him onto his plate.

 

“Oh, Tim, don’t talk like that. That’s not true. Edward is a good boy, he just likes making a statement! Isn’t that right Teddy?” She turned so that Edward was able to see the faded lettering on her stained apron that spelled out ‘365+24/7 = mummy!’ surrounded by flowers and sweet-pea pods.

 

“Sure thing, mum,” Edward breathed, abandoning the bag which proved full of trash while his older brothers smirked at each other.

 

“Careful, don’t want to get any more grease in that statement of yours,” Tim said, reaching to tug back on Edward’s hood when he started to lean over, inspecting the bucket as well. Edward glared and smacked Tim’s hand off with the arm not busy pulling a thigh and drumstick out, which only made Tim try harder.

 

Soon Hale jumped down from his perch and had his grip on Edward’s wrists to help.

 

“Fuck off -!” Edward grit, trying to twist away from them, but Tim was already wrapping his arms around his shoulders.

 

“He’s just checking you for nits, Neddie,” Hale cackled, Tim trying to pull his hood back for real.

 

“Yeah Ned, just hold still!”

 

“Boys! Be nice please! Gentle!” Their mother cried, looking over to find them already in the middle of full-on wrestling.

 

“That’s enough of that!” The disembodied voice of their father boomed from the living room and they all froze, Hale letting go of Edward’s wrists and immediately hoisting himself back up on the counter. The chip bag crinkled in his hand as he started shoveling them back in, the picture of innocence.

 

Tim was slower to relent, only releasing Edward out of his headlock only when their mother gave him a stern look, pointing her finger and then waving Edward over to serve mashed potatoes and watery green peas to him from the two pots on the stove.

 

 “It’s Christmas time, and we all should be happy to be together. It’s the best gift we can ask for,” she glowed, her shiny eyes undeterred by Edward’s grimacing over his shoulder. His brothers lay in wait, no doubt telepathically convening on when to spring on him next.

 

“Rachel, please. Do you have to be so maudlin? We’re trying to eat,” Hattie interrupted, wandering in. She set her eyes on Edward because he was the closest, “do we have more chips? Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum have inhaled them all.”

 

“Nice vocab Hairy-Rot where’d you learn that? J-14?” Tim sniped and Edward cracked a smile watching his older brother flinch when Hattie faked a punch.

 

“Can’t open the pages because you were too busy jerking off on them,” she sneered, “freak.”

 

“Harriot!” Mrs. Little hissed while Hattie threatened to whack Tim in the head with the bowl she was holding in retaliation.

 

“What does that mean Teddy? Maudlin?”

 

“It just means emotional,” Edward told their wide-eyed mother quietly as she pinched at the fabric of his hoodie. She bit her lip and sighed, going back to slopping the last of the beans into a bowl.

 

“Hattie sweetpea, take this in there will you? Oh, oh, the corn too -”

 

“Chips, mum, I’m looking for chips,” Hattie said shortly, shaking the bowl at her while Mrs. Little held out the plate of quartered corn on the cob.

 

Edward pointed at Hale with his fork and Hattie tried to snatch the packet out of his hands, causing their oldest brother to bite off a curse and lift them far over his head where she couldn’t get them.

 

“Where’s Andy?” Edward asked, rounding on Tim who’d recovered enough to resume eating right where he stood.

 

Edward shoved his hand in his hoodie pocket, and Tim struggled to get himself together around a bite of chicken, the skin trailing out of his mouth.

 

“Had some final, Kitty says he’ll be in late,” he said, chewing with his mouth open, “he rang earlier. Coulda asked him yourself if you weren’t upstairs doing your weirdo rituals or whatever.”

 

Edward scowled, moving past him into the mayhem of the dining room. His father was still in the sitting room, the TV droning some Holiday pageant in front of him, but Edward knew he probably wasn’t listening. His form, and his attention, were obscured by the newspaper unfolded around him and his plate sat empty on the side table along with his ashtray and a half-drunk glass of whole milk.

 

Katherine was curled up in her usual stiff-backed armchair beside the settee, cutting pieces of skinless fried chicken off with a knife and fork and bringing them daintily to her mouth, her eyes glued to the screen. She glanced up at him, the blue and white light flickering on her face. Slowly she pointed at the empty spot on the floor with her knife.

 

He shook his head and she went back to watching.

 

He considered going to join them in their attractive island of silence, but he knew as soon as he sat down his father would put down his paper to start up on a checklist of questions – most of which he’d been trying desperately to avoid since his arrival.

There was no reasonable explanation for being so nervous around his father. They got along fine, even with the recent developments of his look since moving away (both his parents were so tolerant it embarrassed him and any real acts of rebellion were rendered a complete waste). His grades were also fine, his flat with George and John spectacularly fine, and he split the rest of his very fine time working the graveyard shift monitoring servers for a local corporate office and doing data entry at the student center. 

 

He could communicate that, but when he stopped to consider having to do it he felt frozen up inside, nearly paralyzed, like he would accidentally reveal something unintentionally crazy or embarrassing in the middle of regular conversation. At least in the crowded noise at the table he wouldn’t suffer the spotlight as harshly, so he turned away from Kitty and plopped down at one end in an empty chair and tucked his hair into his hood so it wouldn’t get messed in his plate.

 

 “Here,” Mary said, dumping a handful of chips around the rest of his food when Hattie reappeared and flounced into her own chair. Julie was on the phone at the other end of the table, the wire stretched around the wall and her shoulder pressed to her ear to keep the receiver in place while she ate, laughing loudly at whatever the other person (probably a boy) was saying. Annie was in her own world, picking slowly through her dinner. Every so often she lifted a hand to swipe at her red nose with a balled up tissue, watery eyes ticking back and forth on the thick romantic paperback novel she had pressed against the table behind thick rimmed glasses.

 

It was hard to tell whether her runny eyes were due to her head cold or her emotions and Edward didn’t feel like asking.

 

“Neddie! Do you think you can take us into town tomorrow? I want to go to the game store, and mum said we can’t go unless you take us.”

 

Edward looked up from his chicken to find Dick waiting eagerly for his answer while he chewed. Fred was next to him, bent over the Gameboy they shared, his tongue caught between his teeth and a bowl of destroyed chicken bones piled in front of him.

 

“Make Julie take you,” he said after a moment, the sound of his voice cut through by Lucy’s persistent whining.

 

“No!” Julie snapped, her hand over the receiver to glare at him, “I’ve got plans!”

 

“Well so do I!”

 

“Fuck off,” Julie mouthed, going back to the phone, “no, no, it’s just my dumb brothers getting into it. What were you saying?”

 

Edward rolled his eyes at her and went back to his food, trying to ignore the growing volume of Lucy’s fit across the table. He was saving as much of his time as possible for Andy, who was only staying for a handful of days before heading back up to Edinburgh again.

 

When he found that out he was nothing if not devastated. The whole trip didn’t feel worth making if he wasn’t going to get time for the two of them, and he’d been looking forward to it for weeks.

 

He didn’t care about the rest of his family (well, his parents and some of his sisters were ok) who ‘didn’t get him’ at best and were unbearably, oppressively, unlike him at worst. Then Andy promised that it would be fine, and miraculously he became willing to put up with every form of familial torture they could conceive.

 

In a world of hand-me-downs and sharing everything and nothing being his (not even his own voice sometimes) that was the one thing that he had over all of them: Andy. Andy, everybody’s favorite, the one who everybody loved, even Tim, was his best mate. More so than Johnny or George combined.

 

To distract himself from being bummed he even planned out as much as he could on the trip up to maximize the time: a tight schedule of movies and visits to their favorite haunts and childhood pastimes.

 

He’d also finally made up his mind that this was the trip where he was going to tell Andrew about…other stuff. He felt his throat tighten around a bite of corn and forced it down.

 

Important stuff.

 

“Ned, she wants to sit with you,” Mary said tiredly, no longer tolerating the way Lucy was squirming on her lap, her little face bunched up and a bright pink with impending tears. Knowing he would just be set in a losing battle he obediently scooted his plate over to make room for Lucy’s smaller one as it was passed over the table, moving his chair out so the five-year-old could run around and climb up onto his legs.

 

“Make sure she eats all the veg, ok?” Mary said, now at liberty to stand freely and take her dishes back into the sink. Edward glared at her as she worked around the table and many chairs, Lucy settling in and taking a bite of mashed potatoes that ended up mostly on his sleeve.

 

“How does this always end up my job? She’s getting it all over me,” he complained, looking down at the glob of gravy on the cuff of his hoodie and scraping at it with a napkin from the pile in the center of the table. He was lucky she hadn’t gotten in on his shirt, which had cost him 35 pounds at the record store near campus because it was limited edition from the tour he hadn't been able to go to. He was halfway to explaining all of this when his mouth fell closed at Mary’s sharp glare.

 

“Oh, Edward just hush up and hold her! It won’t kill you to spend a second with the baby!”

 

Edward shifted Lucy a bit, trying to eat around her. Nobody was paying attention to him anymore. Julie was whispering gossip into the telephone again, half turned away from all of them, and Annie was still buried in her book, her mouth moving slightly along with the words she was reading. Dick and Fred were bent over the Gameboy, Freddie’s head resting on Dicks’ shoulder, his teeth gnawing on the cartilage end of a drumstick. He met eyes with Hattie who chewed silently as she watched him, her fist propping up her cheek.

 

“Luce, quit playing with your food,” she said, and Lucy yowled.

 

“Here,” Edward tried to coax, scooping peas onto his own fork and offering it to her. She leaned forward and put her mouth around them before spitting the half-chewed mess back out onto her plate with an exaggerated noise and a laugh.

 

 “Lucy, seriously! You’re like five now,” Hattie barked, jamming as many chips as she could onto her plate and sinking further against the table. Lucy giggled harder and then looked at Edward with her wide baby eyes while he hopelessly scrubbed at the mess of food off on her chin.

 

 

“Ned.”

 

Edward hunched away from the sound, folding his arms tighter around him. He was in the midst of an intense dream where he was on some kind of fishing boat and the waves were getting choppier and the wind was trying to pull his hat off his head every time he righted it. He was smart enough this time to avoid sleeping with his headphones on, but he’d hoped that his hood would suffice as a buffer against interruptions. A muffled laugh followed, something pressing down on the back of his head and rubbing through his hair.

 

“Stop it Tim, I’m busy,” he said breathily into his pillowcase, legs twitching on top of the blankets, trying to cling harder to a mast against the violent rise and fall of the deck.

 

“Fine then, stay asleep,” the voice went on, in tandem with the clanging of a far bell and Edward opened his eyes from the stormy sea and his yellow slicker, turning over to see Andy leaning against the corner of the desk that sat between their two beds.

 

“Did you just get in?” Edward couldn’t help the childish excitement that leapt into his voice, propping himself up on one elbow so that he was sitting up more and could get a better look at him, “why didn’t you wake me up earlier?”

 

“Relax Edward, I just wanted to say goodnight,” Andrew assured him, stifling a yawn into his elbow, illustrating how late it must have been. He looked blearily at him, his brow furrowing slightly over his lopsided smile.

 

“Woah, has your hair gotten even longer?” He tilted his head at where a long brown strand had escaped Edward’s collar and was sticking slightly to his neck.

 

“Yeah,” Edward said quickly pulling himself upright and pushing his hood away from his face, showing his brother how it fell past his shoulders now in a thick heavy sheet starting at the deep part over his eye, “I did what you said and try to cut it more so it grows faster.”

 

“Looks sick as fuck, Neddie,” Andrew said quietly out of respect for the others crammed into their parent’s house, and Edward grinned at the approval, “seriously, you’re like the real deal now. Like one of your posters.” He nodded at the shrine of CD inserts behind Edward, still sticky-tacked to his wall.

 

His hand found Edward’s head, ruffling his hair appropriately before he drifted over to his side of the room, shedding his clothes and stooping to dig through his backpack as he did so.

 

“I’ve been working on my guitar too,” Edward went on, moving so his back was against the wall and his legs were crossed on top of the blankets, his happiness uncontained now that Andrew was right there in front of him again, flopping on his own bed with a tired whine just like always.

 

“You found anybody to be in a band with yet?”

 

“Well,” Edward began, trying to keep the lid on all the things he had wanted to tell Andrew about for nearly half a year since they last saw each other in person. Better to pace himself and not end up talking the whole first night away, “my friends, uh, Johnny and George, we mess around sometimes. Uh, George plays drums and Johnny plays guitar ok, so I let him. I play bass like normal.”

 

“You gotta find a proper band,” Andrew said sagely, rolling his head on his pillow to look at Edward, “like an actual one. And lean the guitar, not just bass.”

 

“I know. It’s only for fun, for now,” Edward said, attempting to appear cool on the subject, “it’s nice just to practice.”

 

Andrew smiled at him softly.

 

“How’s mum like the hair?” He said after a few more moments of studying him and Edward rolled his eyes.

 

“She just keeps saying I shouldn’t cover up my face,” he muttered, scratching at his scalp nervously.

 

“I have to agree, you shouldn’t hide those good looks,” Andrew teased, Edward hissing a soft shut up at him.

 

“Dad doesn’t really care,” Edward added after they slid back into silence.

 

“I doubt Simon’s even noticed what with Kat home,” his brother yawned again, “his pride and joy and all.”

 

 “All they’ve been talking about is her jumping,” Edward replied, referring to his sister’s equestrian scholarship.

 

“Sounds about right.”

 

Edward watched him stretch his arm up over his head, moving it till his elbow made an audible click and then folded back over his stomach. With every second exposed to Andrew’s presence in the quiet of their childhood bedroom at the end of the long upstairs hall he felt more of his discomfort melt away. It was exactly the same as it always was, like neither of them had gone away to school yet and were just up talking late about anything and everything – all the geeky shit that their other siblings didn’t get or appreciate – and all the things that Edward was too insecure to say out loud to other people, but trusted Andy with because Andy was smart, and kind, and never made him feel like an idiot.

 

“I thought we could go to the video store tomorrow,” Edward tried, Andrew’s eyes starting to shut and then cracking at him again. Andy gave him a low sound of approval and kicked his covers down the bed, curling up under the top sheet, “see if they have Reservoir Dogs. We could go to get lunch at Wetherspoons, too, since it’s right by there.”

 

 “Get good and loaded before family game night?” Andrew laughed, turning over so he was facing towards Edward, his back to the wall and the stripes on his sheet gathered under his chin, “…excellent idea Number One. Make it so.”

 

Edward grinned at Andrew’s Picard impression, his knee wiggling excitedly. He was still in street clothes, having fallen asleep again shortly after dinner, avoiding everyone under the guise of having a headache.

 

“Lie down Ned, it’s like arse o’clock,” he mumbled, Edward watching his body settle into sleep, face going slack.


He did as he was told, shimmying out of his jeans and under the covers, turning over to face his brother in the fuzzy dark. He listened to the familiar pattern of Andrew’s light snoring and fell asleep faster than he’d been able to in months.

 

 It was a typical shit winter day - grey and drizzling - but it somehow served to make everything feel better. The rides to the video store and other places felt close and cozy, the heater in Mary’s car blasting on them while Edward forced Andrew to sit through all the new bands he’d discovered since being at school.

 

“Edward, these all sound the fucking same,” Andrew complained, taking a drag off of the cigarette they were sharing. Edward said nothing at first, turning the dial up instead and insisting that he just needed to really listen.

 

He headbanged and air guitared and beat his hands on the dashboard to the drum solo to prove the point, his hair flying all over his face and Andrew trilled his stupid laugh from the driver’s side. 

 

“Fucking hell, Edward, I get it!” He yelled over the impressive sound, Edward turning it up even more so that when he screamed along with the shrieking lyrics he could barely be heard. The car shuddered in the empty car park where they were sitting, the noise crackling out of Mary’s terrible sound system, and after a few moments Andy stubbed the cigarette out and gave in, shouting with him once he’d figured out the chorus.

 

Now they were both hoarse and three beers in at the local Wetherspoons, rainy wind kicking up trash and leaves in the street outside the window. Somewhere in the past few years it had become their spot. No other version of the chain ever lived up to it, probably because when Edward was younger Andrew brought him in after school sometimes and nobody ever questioned Andrew because he was the trustworthy type. He was also good looking and flirty enough with the waitresses (who usually knew one of their sisters anyway) that they brought Edward a pint before he was technically allowed to have one without batting an eye.

 

While Hale and Tim were girl obsessed, bouncing through half the town with their exploits, Andrew never bothered with dating because he was an academic first and foremost. He wanted to be a doctor, which informed all the decisions he made. Secretly, selfishly, Edward was always glad for this; there was no threat of someone taking Andy’s attention, and he didn’t have to pretend to care the way he did with George about what girls were interested in romantically. Of his two goofy friends and new roommates Andrew was far more like John, but without the weird church youth group hang ups.

 

“You should come down for a break and meet them, they’re pretty cool,” Edward said hopefully, on the tail end of a story about how the three of them – George, Johnny  and ‘Ed’ – attempted to make a lemon cake earlier in the term and failed miserably.

 

“I really want to,” Andrew offered.

 

“I know you’ve got a lot of work and stuff, so it’s alright if you can’t. How’s school been? For you I mean,” Edward asked, leaning over and scooping as much sauce onto the fried prawns they were sharing as possible before he put it in his mouth.

 

“It’s fine,” Andy said, looking out the window at the flecks of rain dotting the pane as he rubbed at his hairline with the pads of his fingers, “it’s hard to pay attention all the time, there’s so much to learn. I feel like my brain is about to explode with all we have to remember. Who thought being a doctor was supposed to be hard and high pressure, you know? Not like I’ll have people’s lives in my hands or anything.”

 

In the weak sunlight trapped under the clouds his brother’s face looked a bit more lined than he’d noticed before, bruising shadows beneath his eyes, but Edward blamed it on residual tiredness from the trip home and his insane course load. He was at his dream school, following the footsteps of his personal heroes, the ones lining the shelves over his bed along with Tarantino and Scorsese: Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Bell, Charles Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson. It was tough, and Andy tougher for taking it on. Edward would never have dared to do something like that.

 

“I keep thinking about how the rest of school is going to be more of the same fucking shit for three more years, and then there’ll be the residency afterwards - which is supposed to be a living hell,” he laughed, strained and suddenly sounding exhausted, before glancing back to Edward. There was something in his eyes that made Edward’s hand involuntarily clench.

 

 “Yeah,” he said, knowing the words sounded unhelpful as he puzzled over his brother, “but then it’ll be over and you’ll be a surgeon or specialist on creepy diseases or something. That’s metal as hell.”

 

 Andrew stared at him, and then sighed.

 

“I just wonder if it’s worth it,” he mumbled, taking a deeper drink that turned into draining the glass. He pushed it away and reached for the fresh one standing by that the waitress had delivered a few minutes before.

 

“Maybe I should have gone with something else easier and more fail proof, you know,” he continued, moving his shoulder listlessly. Edward opened his mouth and then closed it softly.

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so serious on you,” he chuckled, catching sight of Edward’s furrowed brow.

 

“You’re not going to fail,” Edward said, hurriedly getting another prawn, “and it’s way more worth it then mine. Like, you’ll be a doctor and help tons of people. That’s really cool.”

 

 “Cool? Ned, you're a wizard with that program stuff,” Andrew smiled, the troubling weight on his features lifting away to Edward’s relief, “that’s lucrative. Plus someone’s got to show mum and dad how to set up all their computers.”

 

“When you say it like that it makes me feel like Wesley Crusher,” Edward wrinkled his nose and Andrew tipped his drink at him in recognition of the awful comparison.

 

“You get more dates than Wesley I bet,” Andrew said, “or me. God I’ve got no time for that even though everyone in my program is sleeping with everybody else. It’s practically incestuous.”

 

Edward fidgeted with his drink, huffing an awkward laugh.

 

“Neddie, don’t get shy on me now!” Even with his eyes on the tabletop Edward could feel the weight of Andy’s stare, “I know you said you had something to tell me, so I figured it might be a girl.”

 

“Y-yeah, kind of. Uh,” Edward ran his hand through his hair compulsively.

 

“So? Who is she? She in the scene or whatever? What is that even like?”

 

 “Uh, kind of,” Edward repeated.

 

“So she’s like super goth or something?”

 

“Do you promise?” Edward began, meeting Andrew’s dark eyes, his face tingling, “not to tell anybody? Not even mum or dad? Not even Kat – or – or your friends at school? Like nobody. Absolutely nobody, Andy. I mean it.”

 

 Andrew’s face sobered, but his smile stayed on, which was infinitely reassuring. Blood was pounding in Edward’s temple, and he squeezed his hand into a fist and then hid it under the table.

 

“Neddie, you know me, I won’t tell a living soul,” he vowed, shaking his head gently.

 

Edward took a shallow breath and then pulled his drink closer to him.

 

“I think. Uh. I think that maybe,” he lifted it to his mouth, as though he could just spill the words in there instead of out loud, “I think, sometimes, that I like guys.”

 

He let the silence sit, not daring to look at Andrew’s face again as he drank. Rain was picking up outside, and the wind stroking along the window under the awning was making a kettle-like hiss grating on his otherwise strained nerves.

 

“Sometimes?” Was Andrew’s probing reply, when it finally came, “or all the time.”

 

Edward took another anxious drink of his beer. Andrew didn’t sound one way or the other about it. He just sounded like Andy. Neutral.

 

“I think. More than sometimes. But I don’t know.”

 

“Well have you done anything? To figure it out?”

 

Edward’s face flushed, sweat breaking out all over him, and his fingers slipped slightly on his glass. He shrugged one shoulder, clearing his throat.

 

“I’ve like,” he tried to swallow the lump in his throat, “made out with a guy. After a show – uh, kind of. I think we might have done some more, too…but it’s hard to remember with everything.” He wished he could shut his eyes against the overwhelming nature of the memory because he didn’t think they did more.

 

They had done more. A lot more.

 

 “Yeah,” Andrew said pensively, brows drawn, “I can see how that’d be.”

 

“You really can’t tell anyone, ok,” Edward choked out, feeling his body tense with sudden tears. “I know it’s weird – I don’t even know if it’s – I don’t even know if that’s how I really am. So.”

 

“Neddie, relax,” Andrew’s hand was on his forearm now, rubbing over his sleeve, his voice easy, “seriously, why are you getting worked up? If you are, you are. If you’re not? Well you’re not, so what’s the issue? I’m not going to tell anyone. I’ll take it to my grave.”

 

“Yeah,” Edward whispered, looking into the pale brown of his beer, “exactly.”

 

“It isn’t weird, I don’t think. To have a thought about it one way or the other. That’s normal. I think pretty much everyone thinks what if or maybe? Like they have to. I know I have.”

 

Edward scowled at him.

 

“I’m not joking! Everybody asks themselves.”

 

“Whatever,” Edward said darkly and Andrew squeezed his arm.

 

“Neddie, I think it’s good for you. However it happens – like, it’s good to get close to people. You should do that more. Like, you need to, I dunno, find a person. Even you can do that, knucklehead.”

 

“That just makes them stupid.”

 

 “Good point, stupid people manage it all the time so even better chances for you.”

 

“Fuck off,” he glowered, ducking his head.

 

 “I know you, Edward. I know you want to fall in love and live happily ever after and all that mushy stuff as much as anybody,” Andrew snorted, looking at him over his own glass, ignoring the quick tears of enormous relief that Edward was brushing away and badly hiding.

 

He couldn’t be surprised. It was Andrew. Of course he could diagnose it.

 

“Besides, somebody’s going to have to take care of you when I’m gone being a rich and famous heart surgeon or something, who cares if it’s a guy or a girl?” He went on, scooting the waxy paper with the prawns towards him, “now finish those, I know you want them.”

He was staring at the shrimp ring centered on the table among the trays of finger sandwiches and turkey rolls and pastries. The sandwich trays had quartered oranges, their wedges flared out like flowers on the black plastic in beds of curly parsley, but the shrimp ring had a plastic container of cocktail sauce - a pool of red. Nobody had touched it.

Nobody had hardly touched anything.

 

“Ned?”

 

 Hattie was next to him now. She’d been hovering around him like a gnat for the past few days, not unlike the rest of them.

 

 “Neddie?”

 

 He stared emptily at the table, at the Italian cookies and pan of lasagna with the foil peeled back; more tokens of sympathy meant to try and fill some of the vast hollow ringing inside them all. His sleepless eyes lingered on the large framed picture of Andrew sat in the middle of the table. He could hear his voice in the dull murmur breathing from everywhere in the house. It wasn’t made up; he could hear him if he focused enough and tuned out the other noise clamoring in his brain.

 

If he phoned him, he’d pick up. He knew that. He felt it. He wasn’t gone. He couldn’t be. The person he was asked to identify days ago was not his brother. That meant he was dead. Thrown himself off a building. The man at the store was right: people didn’t do that. It only happened in fiction, in his crazy films that he loved.

 

“Edward? Are you feeling alright? You look pale, sweetheart -”

 

“Shh,” Edward said, holding up his hand to his sister, his breath coming hard.

 

 His eyes pulled towards the window at the front of the house. It was a wet spring day.

 

The kids were sat outside on the damp curb: a row of them in uniform black suits and dark colored dresses all becoming untidy from the trek between the church and the funeral home and then the clumping cemetery grass that now stuck to their ankles. One of the older boys was playing with a football and while he couldn’t hear it from the other side of the glass each time it struck the ground his mind replaced it with an imagined one. Something heavy – like wet cement - falling.

 

 His mother was weeping in the next room, just loud enough to be heard over the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the foyer. She’d been crying since he phoned her four days ago. He didn’t anticipate she’d be stopping any time soon.

 

“It’s so quiet in here you can hear the clock,” he said to Hattie, fingering at his tie absently, “when was the last time you heard the clock? All my life I just wanted it to be quiet in this house – for just a second, so I could hear myself think…”

 

He was trying to think now, but whenever he stopped moving the conversation at Wetherspoons that rainy Christmas break kept replaying in his head in a crackling feedback loop and for days he couldn’t figure out why.

 

He kept turning the words over and over, sifting through the ashes for bone fragments, for evidence, for anything. Was that when it started? Had it been there all along? The seed of it; the root of the sadness that wound around him.

 

How the fuck did he miss it? Was he so up his own ass at the time - so consumed with his own idiotic issues - that he couldn’t see the first tendrils braiding together and slipping over Andy’s head like a noose?

 

There was some unspoken consensus amongst his family that if they just lingered near him long enough maybe he might finally tell them something useful. If he couldn’t figure it out, then that meant there was nothing to say. There was nothing illuminating or enriching to add to the conversation he kept having with them each in turn. He didn’t know why it had happened. They hadn’t spoken in about a week, just a few emails back and forth between work. The last one was still sitting at the top of his inbox.

 

Nothing was making any sense. Hale pulled him aside, hours ago, and told him ‘let it do what it’s supposed to do, Ned’ before they walked into the private viewing to look at Andy one last time.

 

They’d all been crying so hard. Edward stared down at him in the coffin, had kissed his face.

 

Was he supposed to feel something other than like he was going through a shredder? Was it supposed to inform him in some way?

 

“Why don’t you come sit down for a moment, Teddy. Annie made you up a plate in the other room. Do you want me to get you something else? Something to drink?”

 

Hattie’s voice was strong, but soft, her thin arm a warm weight around his waist. Only their mother ever called him Teddy, but for whatever reason it was the only name he registered, and only when Hattie said it. Hattie. Hattie who came to the police station to pick him up after he called their mother, and she’d run around the side of the car and come straight to him.  She’d been the only thing keeping him from kneeling on the sidewalk when the words left his mouth: it was really him in there.  

 

Brief images pulsed through his head and he flinched away from the glare of them.

 

Mr. Little, we’re just trying to collect some details and rule everything out. Do you know what your brother was doing at the Hilton this evening?

 

What did that even mean? No. He didn’t know why he’d been at the Hilton that evening. He didn’t know the answer to any of these questions.

 

When he looked back to his sister her eyes were tear-swollen, her face ghostly white, the color all drawn away, save for her mouth which was a violent pink -  lipstick smudged from kissing everyone in sight. Pieces of her hair were falling from the formal chignon wound tightly at the back of her head.

 

He didn’t usually see her looking like that. Not since her wedding. He and Andy had wrangled Dick and Fred into singing Please Stand Up during the toast and she’d laughed till she cried at the sight of them.

 

 “He was trying to tell me he was scared, but I couldn’t read it for what it was,” Edward confessed, frozen in place.

 

“No, no, you have to stop saying that,” Hattie whispered.

 

“He was struggling, Hat. We told each other everything and I didn’t see it was killing him. I just left him down there in it. How could I do that to him? My entire job is running for system error. Finding the issues. I’m supposed to see the issue – they pay me for it - ”

 

“Teddy, no,” she was holding his shoulders, or he was holding her. He couldn’t tell. Her hand folded around his.

 

“That’s not how it is. None of us knew. There wasn’t anything we could have done.”

 

“He should be here,” Edward said, vaguely. He felt like he was reading lines that weren’t his. This was backwards, like the mirror verse, an alternate reality. He knew without asking that they all thought the same: Edward was the moody one, the depressive one, the odd one. He listened to funny music, had funny friends, had that funny dog. If it was going to be any of them that offed themselves it wasn’t Andy. He agreed. He wanted to reassure them all how much he thought the same, how crushed he was by the weight of all their collective disbelief and how eagerly he would trade their places if he could.

 

His eyes landed on Kitty, standing on the staircase. She was diminutive in her dark drapey wrap and black dress, looking at the spot on the wall between her and Edward’s portraits where Andrew’s photograph was usually hung and now there was nothing but a square of off-white paint.

 

“I can’t figure this out,” Edward whispered, looking around some more, further up the stairs, back out the window, out of the corner of his eye. The world of rooms and walls over Hattie’s small shoulder as she pulled him close to her was rearranged. It was muted, the gradients of beige and gray and black shimmering like a mirage, and stretching on endlessly, aching with absence.

 

Outside, his mother’s crabapple was starting to flower and the blossoms were a beautiful velvety red. 

Chapter Text

“What do I call them?”

 

“Whatever you’d like,” Thomas said, his breath puffing about his face with the words. The two of them turned the corner, continuing onto the street of rowhouses where Francis and James lived. Edward frowned, adjusting the bag with two bottles of wine in his hand, Thomas squeezing his other where he was holding it.

 

“They don’t care about that,” Thomas reminded him, “really. Just Francis and James is fine. Or Frank. He really doesn’t care.”

 

Edward heaved another short sigh, watching Thomas break away to open the front gate, beckoning him in and swinging it shut behind him with a squeal. Above them the Crozier-Fitzjames’ flat stood in a smooth light-colored façade, honey gold squares from the upper windows casting a warm glow on the dormant flower beds and rose bushes surrounding the narrow walk to the front door. A small bistro dining set was neglected in one corner, but he was certain come spring it would be occupied often and all the shrubs surrounding it awake with flowers. Thomas buzzed on the little panel by the front door, waiting patiently till the door gave a loud clang and he was able to lead them inside and up a flight of narrow stairs to the next floor where they resided.

 

“They rent out the bottom floor, but they’re between tenants right now I think,” Thomas said, looking already hot in his coat as they came up to the landing where he proceeded to knock once and then let themselves in. They were greeted by a flood of music and the strong smell of something slightly burnt, Thomas waving Edward in and closing the door behind him.

 

It was warm and friendly inside, the front parlor outfitted in his own mother’s fantasy of cream sofas and vases of fresh flowers and warm patterned rugs. Narrow bookcases towered everywhere – positively crammed with books and photographs from all over the world, some featuring one of the family of three, others just declaring the sights as they were.

 

“Here darling, I’ll take your jacket,” Thomas helped him out of it while Edward set the bag of wine on the floor gently. He passed over his hat and gloves and Thomas hung it up on a coat rack that was hidden behind the door by the street facing window, trying to find a spot among all the other sweaters and scarves.

 

It was a good thing, as suddenly a mammoth black dog came bounding down the corridor straight for him, and it was all Edward could do to crouch down and try to catch him before he bowled him over.

 

“Look Looney Tune,” Thomas said as he hung up his own jacket over Edward’s, Neptune wheeling and slobbering between Edward’s arms, “I’ve brought your best friend, haven’t I?”

 

“There’s a big boy,” Edward growled out with a few heavy pats to Neptune’s shoulders and sides. The dog whoofed in excitement, sniffing all over his jeans when Edward stood before lunging up to get at him with his long legs outstretched and his tongue lolling out of his mouth. He was used to seeing the Newfoundland in the green expanse of the park, and his size was now far more impressive with the room for real scale.

 

“You smell your pal Joe?” Edward grinned, Neptune trying to kiss his face and sniff his shirt at the same time, Edward nearly staggering under the weight of the paws on his forearms. Neptune whined and then let Edward drop him back to the floor, sauntering back the way he came with his tail wagging like a flag.

 

Thomas picked up the wine and made to carry it back to the kitchen, waving at Edward to sit down on one of the plush seats available.

 

“You’re company so I’m sure we’ll start out in here,” he directed, and Edward did as he was told, sitting gingerly on the shorter settee. There were a few magazines on the occasional table and an expensive, heavy, coffee table book of art. He ended up thumbing through a glossy issue of something called The Mariner with a large wooden boat on the front cover before glancing around the rest of the room. It was a nice place.

 

He heard Thomas calling deeper in the flat, and the sound of a door being opened, and another voice joined his over the soft sounds plinking from a stereo cabinet against one of the walls. He ran his finger around the inside of his collar a little, looking down at his button up restlessly.

 

He figured it was fair to be nervous. Even if he’d already met Thomas’ family under much different, arguably more existentially stressful, circumstances, he’d never met anybody’s parents like this. He got along famously with George and Johns parents, the latter of whom thought Edward was a gift from God next to George who could be (as Mrs. Irving described) a bit much. Mrs. Irving was so pleased with him she was even willing to overlook his dark metal t-shirts and long hair because he always helped her carry groceries in and washed up after himself when she graced them with her cooking on weekends away.

 

That was all well and good and platonic. He felt his face get hot.


What he had with Thomas was decidedly anything but platonic anymore. For almost three weeks that had been thoroughly dispelled. Just this morning, even – he bit down against the vivid memory of Thomas’ hands winding around the decorative slots in his headboard and nearly put his teeth through his tongue.

 

In a desperate ploy for distraction he stood up, wandering to look for the source of the music. He gently pulled open the smooth cherrywood doors on the beautiful cabinet to reveal the amplifier inside and a multi CD player. He picked up one of the cases stacked beside it, turning it over.

 

Chet Baker Quartet. He thought he recognized the trumpeting -

 

“We heard you liked jazz,” Frank Crozier’s voice delivered from on high, Neptune reappearing at Edward’s side to investigate the interior of the cabinet with him.

 

“I do,” Edward rushed, a little too fast and a little too loud, realizing he’d been caught.


“Not live this time, I’m afraid. That any good?”

 

Crozier looked at the case Edward was still holding with the gaze of a man who clearly knew the answer to his own question. Edward nearly dropped it in his haste to put it back.


“Yeah, it’s great stuff,” he hurried to set the CD back in the cabinet, Frank smiling mysteriously on, “can’t go wrong.”

 

Edward quickly closed the doors at last and stood, offering his hand after wiping it on his slacks.


“Thank you for having us – me,” Edward attempted, and Frank chewed silently on a word or two while he shook Edward’s hand before he slid his own back into his pockets.

 

“It’s nothing at all,” he said slyly and Edward followed him back to sit like a child. Neptune went dutifully to his master’s feet, while Edward rubbed his hands on his knees, searching for something to say. His eyes lit on the magazine cover.

 

“Thomas says you all have a boat,” he tried and Crozier tilted his head in affirmation. He scratched lightly at his temple, stricken with bright silvery gray and white creeping along his hairline.

 

“We do, it’s an Elan E4. James has family in Portugal and we keep it up there with them for most of the year. Have you done any sailing? Recreational, I mean.”

 

“Once or twice when I was abroad,” Edward said, “not on my own.”

 

“We'll have to get you out sometime. Thomas is a fiend for the ocean,” Francis said, voice shifting to a lower cadence. He scratched Neptune’s ears, “as is this one. He’ll jump right in after you – dives like a seal. It’s why we bought him.”

 

“My dog hates the water,” Edward said.

 

“Sheltie, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Fine little dogs. What do your parents do?”


“Ah, my dad is an engineer,” Edward said, fidgeting, “mum just stayed home with us. There are uh. Twelve of us, total.”

 

“My word,” Frank remarked with a dry chuckle, eyes twinkling, “she’s the real professional.”

 

“Please stop interviewing him,” Thomas interrupted, Edward craning his neck at the sound of his voice. He was holding a plate of something and carefully carrying glasswear as well.

“This isn’t an investigative piece,” he said, looking sternly at Frank who sucked on his teeth, taking the bottle of San Pellegrino that Thomas had hidden under his other arm and opening it with a crack of his wrist.

 

“Edward is an interesting fellow,” he replied mildly, leaning forward to pour some in the empty glass Thomas sat in front of him. He looked back to Edward with a cattish curiosity, “I was quite enjoying getting to know him better in a more intimate setting.”

 

Thomas pulled a face.

 

“James still crying over those Cornish hens?”

 

“I told him it wasn’t that bad,” Thomas grunted, setting the rest of the glasses down with a series of clinks. They were beautiful, probably real crystal. 

 

“Burnt to a crisp,” Frank said lowly to Edward and Edward let himself laugh in response, glancing up to Thomas who was busy with the wine screw.  

 

“I’m sure we’ll manage to choke it down,” Thomas went on, finally pulling the cork out with a pop and divvying it out, “he’s just collecting himself at present.”

 

Once he was finished he found his way to the spot next to Edward, their thighs touching, handing him a glass.

 

Moments later James floated in, apologizing profusely about the state of everything, only to have everyone tell him it was quite alright. It did the trick and within seconds he was fully interrogating Edward, matching every story with one of his own, Francis guiding him back to the rail every now and again when he got too enthusiastic about a tangent and Thomas topping off everyone’s wine as he saw fit.

 

Edward was silent for most of the conversation with the Fitzjames-Croziers, not because it was uncomfortable, but more because he found it interesting to listen to them. They preceded themselves in that way, being accomplished journalists and unafraid to talk about anything at all. It was no surprise to Edward, really, with the history of his encounters with James especially, but after the first prickly uncertainty with Francis he found him to be nothing but gentle and accommodating.

 

“You should tell Edward how you and dad met,” Thomas said at one point, looking at Edward from over his wine glass and winking.

 

“I’m sure Edward is just burning to know that,” James said between bites of salami.

 

“What, like your hen?” Francis said, one eyebrow cocked. James scowled at him, reaching across the distance between their chairs to swat at his hand. It was exactly the same way Thomas sometimes swatted at Edward playfully and he nearly pointed it out but refrained. At the moment Thomas’ hand was rubbing gently at the back of his neck, his arm having found its way around his shoulder on the back of the sofa, and it felt too nice to risk ending.

 

“It’s very tawdry, Edward. Real spy vs. spy stuff. I just published a rather involved piece from my first stint in China, mainland, mind you. My utter life’s work up until that point at thirty two, and Francis quite generously offered me a very public and precise opinion in the Times and was invited to add his further inspired thoughts in several other publications as well,” he bit into a dry point of toast and stared at Francis’s scholarly, sage face.

 

“At the time I found the critique warranted,” he shrugged softly, “you were young, and young people can be short-sighted…I only felt your style was somewhat immature. At the time. The content - ”


“It was like being shot at point blank range,” James said to Edward, “or when they pierced Christ’s bloody side – he crucified me. Hung me right up. I was furious.”

 

“You had no issue defending yourself,” Francis was quick to point out and James settled back in his chair, biting his lip.


“I made your life a relative nightmare. I sent you everything, didn’t I? At some point I was sending you every scrap I had – I’d mail them to you. Back when you had to mail things - like walk into the bloody post office. I was sending you my manuscript at some point I think too? Never even wrote that damn book.”

 

“Boxes, reams,” Francis groaned, thumbing at his brow, “from overseas. Proved how keen you were to have me wrong in every way imaginable which meant I had to read all of it. And no qualms of offering your own appraisals of my work.”

 

Melodrama, wasn’t that what I said about your bit on the Pergau Dam business? You'd been working on that for what? Years by then.” Frank nodded. “Nearly sent him over the edge in that email. Edward you can only imagine - when John Franklin finally got us to agree to meet in person when I was back in England I thought he was going to yank me into the car park and knock me flat out. I’d heard stories about Frank Crozier’s right hook, the literal and metaphorical one,” James mouth suddenly split into a shit-eating grin, “but then I saw how short he was.”

 

Thomas let out a laugh, his head falling back on the couch and Frank blushed slightly, shaking his head.

 

“My hair was so long I suppose you could have just snagged me by that – or I was wearing these just. Tremendously over-sized Armani suits at the time. Ridiculous.”


“You thought you were something alright,” Francis admitted, still looking baffled. His eyes twinkled in the soft light of the room, “unfortunately you were quite charming and well-read in person. Put a damper on my plans to personally put an end to your career.”

 

“I have that effect,” James preened, taking a sip of his wine, “anyway, once he finally got dried out it was just peachy keen, right my darling? All lollies and roses. ”


The tips of Frank’s ears were pink and he gave James another wry look.


“Did the two of you ever collaborate?”

 

James and Francis both looked at Edward, clearly surprised by the suddenness of his of his question.

 

“I’d say you’re sitting next to it,” Francis finally replied and Edward smiled at him. Of course.

 

“That’s our best work, that,” James appraised, smug, raising his glass to Francis. Francis clinked his water glass against it.

 

"Stop," Thomas muttered, face red from the wine and bashfulness, his hand coming to cover his eyes.

 

 

The Cornish hen was, indeed, scorched, but Edward made no complaint, going back for seconds to James’ dismay while Thomas and Frank descended into some minor argument about the current state of Francis’ ancient computer system. 


“It does all it needs to do,” Francis said reluctantly, “I don’t need it to do anything else.”

 

“I know, dad,” Thomas was saying, as patiently as possible, Edward’s eyes darting between the exchange as he ate mouthfuls of fingerling potatoes and green beans off a beautiful Majolica plate.

 

Francis’ face sank into an unconvinced bulldogged expression, new to Edward, but Thomas was being familiarly feisty, sat on the edge of his chair and scooted towards him to illustrate something on his phone, “I’m only saying that it could do what you want it to do better than it’s doing it. Look at this one, it’s very basic,” he showed Frank something on the screen and Frank put his readers on his nose, then frowned.

 

“It’s flimsy,” he commented, “your Uncle Jim has a one like that and it about broke the moment he set it down.”

 

“Uncle Ross has enough money to use these as coasters if he likes,” Thomas replied testily, scrolling again. Edward looked down at his plate to hide his smile at the spark of Thomas’ tone.

 

“Look here at this one. That will do everything you need and also won’t blue screen every other time you try to boot it up.”

 

“Well that’s why I keep it on.”


“That’s so wasteful, Dad!”

 

“Edward, do you want to see some pictures from when Tommy was little?” James said out of nowhere from over by the sink, having cleared all the dishes other than the one Edward was picking off of.

 

“What?” Thomas barked, head snapping up, “No!”

 

“Yes!” James argued, grinning at Edward and beckoning him over the island, “when Tommy moved out we found them all in the back of the closet.”

 

“James, why?” Thomas demanded.

 

“Because that’s what I get to do when you bring someone over,” James said with another sunny smile, “it is my legal, contractual right to do meddlesome things. A judge ruled on it.” He knocked his hand on the granite decisively.

 

“Incredible,” Thomas grumbled, fixing his pleading eyes on Edward. He shook his head and Edward lifted an eyebrow. Francis was still busy frowning at Thomas’ phone.


“I’ll have a look,” Edward said, saving the memory of Thomas’ disgusted face for later when he made up for such a betrayal. “It’s too good,” he shrugged and Thomas bit back a sigh of frustration.

 

“I want a normal desktop, I don’t want one of these laptops,” Frank was saying, tugging Thomas’ attention away as Edward stood and took his wine and followed James through a pair of French doors.

 

“You’ll have to pretend these are organized,” James said, bending to pull out an old shortbread tin from the bottom of a bookcase beside a television set. He sat down beside him on an over-stuffed couch with a dog-hair covered blanket draped across the back and popped open the lid and began handing them off to Edward, one after another, filling him in on the details of each and pointing people out.


Edward paused on a photograph of Thomas holding a large fish with a sunburned face, no older than sixteen, in a bucket hat and baggy cargo pants.


“That was on the Yangtze in China,” James explained, tapping the brown water around the narrow boat Thomas was sitting in, “absolutely amazing experience. We were all in these villages while I was researching and one of the families offered to take us out and show us what it was like. Incredible stuff. We should have stayed another year if I hadn’t gotten injured. I fell off a ladder and broke three ribs and my arm. Excruciating. I was laid up for weeks.”

 

“Did he like fishing?” Edward asked, thinking of John’s comment that one day Thomas might also be going along to the Chalkstreams with a far more grateful heart.

 

“You know, I don’t know if he liked it or not,” James mused, shifting closer, “he’s competitive. You put him in anything, and he wants to be the best. That’s more what I recall.”

 

Edward smiled at Thomas in the photograph, looking triumphant. There was a brief commotion on the other side of the french doors which proved to be the sound of Thomas leading Frank further down the hall where they heard another door opening and closing.


“They go round and round about that damn computer,” James muttered, flashing a look at Edward, “it’s the one thing they don’t agree on. It drives Tommy batty that he’s chained to that old thing. I think Mr Crozier is just being stubborn because it gives them something to argue over. He’ll try to pretend he’s a sage but he does testy things like that now and then, so don’t let him fool you.”

 

Edward laughed, watching as James slowly withdrew an envelope from among the rest of the glossy pictures.


“Now, he’s not seen these,” James said quietly, dipping his long fingers under the envelope’s flap to sift through a few pictures. He looked past Edward’s head, at the empty hall, as though he was worried Thomas might suddenly reappear.

 

“I got these from his mother I don’t even remember how long ago,” he turned one over and presented it to Edward. It was a square photo of a woman with long dark hair holding a tiny baby on her lap, her arms around him.

 

“Do you speak to her?”

 

The man beside him shuffled the photographs from the envelope to his hands and paused to fuss with his hair, thin silvery strands catching the light, the shadows around his mouth and eyes lengthening. He was far healthier now, of course, but there was a residual brittleness to him that settled on his features when he was out of the spotlight.

 

“As much as I thought I could get away with,” James said, considering one of Thomas’ mother crouched behind Thomas who was perched on the seat of an old red tricycle, “but when all that cancer nonsense turned up I reached back out. Properly, I mean.”

 

“He’d be furious, if he knew,” James confided, glancing at Edward again and clearly gauging his reaction. Edward long suspected that Thomas’ relationship with his mother was tenuous, but he’d no clear visual of the extent. Even now he was faced with the same unsureness. Part of him knew that perhaps he shouldn’t be looking either, but the photographs being put in his hands were the same sort he had of him and his own mother. They were at varying stages and ages: Thomas stood in driveways, and shabby apartments, or in front of birthday cakes, or holding Christmas presents in the shadow of stubby pine trees. Innocent moments where he appeared happy.

 

Nothing that would warrant something like fury from Thomas, who, as far as Edward knew did not get furious with anything.

 

He paid special attention to the few of Thomas with an infant that had to be his brother. In these he was always smiling, the grin very big on his thin face, or looking at the baby intently like he was anticipating some need.

 

“This has got to be one of the last times he saw her in person, I think,” James murmured, showing Edward a small picture of Thomas with his mother in front of a brown-brick wall. Her arm was around Thomas’ chest, holding him close, and Thomas was staring into the camera with an unreadable expression, clutching a small toy dog in both his hands, “I might even have taken this one.” He turned it back, bringing it closer to him.

 

“I wanted her to know if something happened to me,” James said quietly, “that Francis would try to help her reach out. It can change your perspective when something of that nature goes on. He might have needed her.”

 

Edward didn’t have to voice his agreement for James to know.

 

“She’s never said an unkind word,” James mentioned, looking at the picture still, “even now not even once. Someone else might have been bitter, or mortified, but she treated us like royalty. She’d write cards and things every now and then, ask for pictures. It was easy to forget how awful it must have been for him. Why he’s so hard on her…”

 

Edward inspected the woman who was Thomas’ mother: bony, with frizzy black hair and a lot of makeup, her long red nails clinging to Thomas’ shirt. It seemed harmless. Thomas’ eyes were flat and his face pale, the set of his mouth uncomfortable. He looked like he wanted to be out from her embrace the moment he could.

 

“I think she’s been ill lately, poor woman,” James sighed, taking the pictures back and closing them up in the tin, he looked at it and tapped the top once, turning to Edward.

 

His dim eyes hardened, a slight flintiness coming over James as he sat there.


“You’ll take care of him, won’t you? If anything happened?”


Edward blinked in surprise, meeting James’ intense, unwavering, stare.

 

“I don’t mean to be serious with you. But do you understand me? He’s very precious, and I’m not a man guaranteed anything these days, so I try not to waste time where I can,” James’ voice creaked around the words, and his mouth closed into a long thin line.

 

“I understand,” Edward said, carefully. “I know how important he is.” Edward confessed. James’ demeanor instantly lifted. He let out a soft sigh of relief.

 

“I suppose you do, of all people,” he said, studying Edward further, lingering on his head with a smirk. His hand suddenly smacked his knee and Edward nearly jumped at the abrupt shift in the atmosphere.

 

“Listen to me getting all maudlin and forgetting I’ve got a whole bloody cake waiting for us!” He poked at Edward’s shoulder, “don’t worry I picked it up – it’s red velvet Tom’s favorite. He’ll absolutely love it.”

 

 

The evening dragged on in hours of cake (which Thomas ate two slices of) and Irish coffee and then night caps and by the time they were being shooed out the door into the cab back to Edward’s apartment Thomas was slumping against his shoulder in a doze. He dragged behind Edward on the walk up, rubbing his eyes and complaining about how the container of leftover cake in his hand kept slipping about and smearing icing on the lid with a kiddish pout.

 

“You’re going to have to roll me out of bed tomorrow,” he yawned, eventually landing on the mattress when the returned from putting the cake in the fridge and starting the dishwasher. He toed off his shoes without looking, a sign that he really was tipsy because Thomas was meticulous about his shoes, and they tumbled to the ground.

 

Edward closed the blinds and pulled the drapes into place, the light from the street striping Thomas disappearing.

 

“Might have to do something sooner if you keep that up,” Edward said, seeing Thomas’ eyes were closed and his arms were spread over his head on the duvet, his shirt riding up. He cracked an eye suspiciously at him.

 

“Edward Little,” he said with newfound perkiness from the dark blue duvet before Edward stumbled over a stray dog toy to turn the bedside lamp on, “are you trying to be cheeky? Are you trying to imply that I’ll just let you roll me over and have your way with me?”

 

Edward struggled to find the dial under the shade, laughing to himself as he heard the faint rustle of Thomas moving about. When he looked over, the bulb flickering on, Thomas was shimmying out of his trousers and unbuttoning his shirt, walking on his knees to where Edward was still poised at the edge of the bed.

 

“Fine, fine, force me,” he sighed dramatically, looking at Edward as he turned over and slid so that his hips arched up off the blanket in an open display of his intentions. He grinned at Edward’s open-mouthed regard of his ass in the air, yelping a laugh and flopping back down to his stomach when Edward simply smacked it and continued on around the bed.

 

“Give me a minute,” he said gruffly, heading for the bathroom, but Thomas quickly followed, winding his heavy drunk arms around him while he brushed his teeth, rubbing his face in the back of his neck.

 

“Did you see all the terrible pictures of me as a teenager?” He growled into Edward’s ear over the buzz of his toothbrush, making his skin prickle and his arm jerk as he tried to keep a hold on it. Thomas’ teeth grazed along his throat experimentally, his hands rubbing Edward’s sides and trying to pluck at the buttons on his shirt. He glanced at Edward in the mirror, hair falling over his pink face so all he could see was one eye staring at him.

 

“I did,” Edward said, pulling away to spit.


“What did you think?” Thomas whispered, smiling and kissing at his shoulder, making quick work of his buttons now that he was getting his momentum.  

 

“You were very cute,” Edward said, feeling Thomas glue himself to his back, his knees bumping against the back of his thighs. Edward hesitated for a moment, looking at him where he was now bowed into his shoulder, swaying slightly.

 

“I was such a goody goody,” he huffed, putting his chin on Edward’s shoulder and looking blearily at himself in the mirror.

 

“Overachiever?” Edward asked, wiping his mouth on a towel. Thomas nodded.


“Mmm, chronic.” His hands wormed under Edward’s shirt, untucking it from his slacks while Edward ran a wet hand through his hair and over his face, “I didn’t even lose my virginity until I graduated and met Billy. That’s when it got very saucy…”

 

Edward chuckled, putting toothpaste on the toothbrush that newly resided beside his and passing it to him. Thomas frowned petulantly.

 

“You’ll thank me later,” Edward teased, Thomas extracting himself with a twitch of his nose. He snatched the toothbrush, sighing as he began to brush but all his attention still on Edward. Even when Edward slipped back into the bedroom Thomas followed just to whine at the sight of him rifling through drawers for a change of clothes.


“You’re sexy in that,” he mumbled around the foam, and Edward shook his head, sitting on the edge of the bed where Thomas directed and then muffled something else at him.

 

“What was that?” Edward called as he stumbled back into the bathroom to rinse.

 

“I said I like seeing you all dressed up,” he said, turning the light switched off and coming directly to Edward’s empty lap, pushing him back till he was straddling his waist, toying with the front of his shirt.

 

“I’m going to let me take you out to the shops,” he said decidedly. “I am,” it came, more insistently against his mouth as he kissed him, his mouth cool and minty, “I’m going to make you try on so many things…”

 

Edward made a noncommittal sound, Thomas curling even more over him.

 

“How did you lose yours?” Thomas asked abruptly, lifting his head and staring at Edward who blinked, smoothing his hands down Thomas’ sides.


“My virginity?”

 

“A golf bag fell on me,” Thomas whispered, flushing, “when I lost mine. Isn’t that stupid?”

 

“A golf bag?”

 

“It was on an air mattress. We were visiting some of my dad’s friends – and there was a guy there, someone’s friend visiting,” Thomas was distracted with his fly, “and he was around my age... I lied to him and said I’d done it before. I don’t know why. It was in a spare room and a golf bag slid the closet door open and fell on me halfway through it.”

 

He stopped digging around in Edward’s pants long enough to reach up and thread his fingers through Edward’s hair, his eyes glinting.

 

“I made him keep going. Think I was just sick of not having done it,” he continued, Edward thumbing at a wet patch on his face. He pursed his lips, “I’ve never told anybody that. Not even Billy. I think I told him it was extremely good and romantic.”


He laughed at himself, kissing Edward again.

 

“I don’t remember mine too much. I was very drunk,” Edward confessed, when he could catch a breath, “with a guy, I mean.”

 

Thomas shifted, subdued.

 

“We could pretend,” he said after a moment of quiet and Edward squinted at him.

 

“What?”

 

“I mean,” Thomas went on, rocking a little against the place where Edward’s cock was starting to show more interest. He had one dimple showing, his tongue poking between his teeth, “make some new memories.”

 

He sat up more, looking at Edward with an overacted nervousness, chewing on a fingernail.


“Like, I’ve never gone all the way before,” he said, Edward puzzling through the slightly slurred words.


“O-oh,” he managed, at last, “uh. That’s – that’s fine.”

 

Thomas tilted his head shyly, shadows smudging his face.

“You sure?” He put his hand on Edward’s crotch, rubbing over him, “you feel pretty big.”

 

Edward took a shallow breath. Thomas pawed sleepily at his own eye but then smiled at him, lashes heavy.

 

“I’m being stupid,” he said after a moment of Edward’s reactive silence, but Edward was quick to put his hands up and stop him from rolling over and away.


“No, it’s not that. It’s – uh. I just. I think about myself at that age, I wonder if you even would have liked me.”

 

Thomas’ brow furrowed, eyes raking over Edward’s face.

 

“What? Of course I would,” he said sharply, eyes narrowing, “why wouldn’t I like you?”

 

“I was a bit weird,” Edward said, with a despondent stutter of a laugh. Thomas broke his hands free to rub over his chest, his face more serious, “I had long hair and wore all these silly black clothes. Listened to loud music. I barely even spoke to anyone other than Johnny and George. I was sort of an asshole and I didn’t have myself very sorted out.”

 

“So?”

 

“So,” Edward stared up at him, watched Thomas make a short noise of frustration, “maybe you wouldn’t have liked me as much. Then.”

 

“I bet I’d have still fancied you, if you let me,” Thomas mumbled, petting through his hair. Edward regretted the fact that he’d closed the curtains, as at this angle the lights out from outside would have looked like stars themselves in Thomas’ eyes.

 

“I’m sure for you I might have made exceptions, even if you were terrifying,” Edward said and Thomas flashed a smile, leaning into the press of Edward’s hands where they were on his hips. He traced his fingertip between the gaps of Edward’s knuckles.

 

“I wasn’t half as scary as I am now,” Thomas said and Edward gave another nervous chuckle.

 

“Well, you’re very gorgeous, and I know for a fact that hasn’t changed,” he said, “so I would have been intimidated to that end.”

 

Thomas momentarily stilled and then looked away, his mouth contorting.

 

“Even if I wasn’t a metal head and didn’t listen to your scary music?” He asked, sounding legitimately shy, as though the answer really did matter to him far more than Edward could imagine.


“Even then,” Edward assured him, “probably even more so. I’d have to think of things to talk about other than that just to not stare at you like an idiot.”

 

“You wouldn’t have to bother with talking in certain situations,” Thomas hinted and Edward smiled crookedly at him, kneading at the crease where his thigh folded against his hip.

 

“That’s true,” he whispered, and Thomas let him tug him forward till he was close enough to slip his cock out of his underwear and lay gentle kisses it, relishing the feeling of it growing hard against his mouth. He wasn’t a virtuoso like Thomas, but he’d certainly picked up on a few tricks. For instance Thomas liked it slow, and shallow, Edward’s tongue curling around the head over and lapping at the underside till he was twisting his fingers in his hair and whimpering with each shivery motion of his hips.

 

But he also knew that Thomas liked other things even more, and most of the time where he began on one place he often ended on another.

 

“Edward…I want to come while you eat me out,” he pled, without Edward even having to ask. The words went straight to Edward’s prick and he hummed in enthusiastic agreement; he'd decided earlier he was going to make it up to him. He couldn’t think of a better way to put it into action.

 

Edward teased his fingers under the hem of his underwear and drug his nails lightly down the lower portion of his back as a warm up and soon Thomas was pulling back, his hand splayed on Edward’s chest as he flopped over, Edward sitting up to help drag his briefs off.

 

“Keep your clothes on, it looks so good,” Thomas murmured, eyes bright, and Edward did as he was bid, dropping Thomas’ briefs to the floor and settling onto his stomach while Thomas shoved a pillow under his back. He’d already begun stroking his cock while Edward started at his calf and began lazily kissing up the length of his leg, dragging his stubble against the inside of his thigh hard enough to leave the skin blushing. After a few more unhurried minutes of devotedly kissing and biting up to Thomas’ hip Thomas was fighting to keep his eyes open, his hand squeezing hard at the base of his cock to make himself last.

 

“Scoot,” Edward breathed, kissing just shy of his stones, and Thomas made a soft sound, moving up on the pillow and tilting his hips and one leg curling back so that Edward could wind his arm around to hold him open. He kissed reverently on his cheeks, thanking God for the arse he’d gifted Thomas Jopson as he did each time.

 

Thomas was trying to rock against his tongue before he’d even touched his hole, and Edward tightened his arm to slow him down, always tickled by the way he tried to fight against it a little at first before relenting into letting Edward do as he pleased. As he slowly worked his tongue inside he looked up to where Thomas had resumed a steady pace tugging on his cock, every once in a while stopping all together to grind against his mouth and squirm before resuming, and each time the sounds he made became louder and a little more strung out to cover up the lewd noise of Edward sloppily sucking at him. 

 

“Fucking… G-god almighty,” he gasped, his leg twitching and his foot dragging over Edward’s back as he took a moment to drag his teeth along the sensitive skin on the back of his thigh.

His name was the next thing, Edward reapplying his tongue and pressing it as far as it would go inside him and he looked up to see the blurry motion of Thomas working himself off, his breathing sharp as he tried to arch into it, Edward’s arm keeping him from going to far, even as he finally came over his own stomach, cock tightening up and his hole twitching against Edward’s mouth as he continued to lay kisses and licks against it. He brushed his fingers over it in a slow circle, spreading his spit, and Thomas made a broken noise, jerking unexpectedly and finally going boneless, one arm thrown over his eyes and his hair damp.

 

Edward released his leg gently and kissed up his hip and over his cock again, listening to Thomas giggle and snort at him when he lapped at the mess on his stomach.

 

“Careful, watch your trousers,” he whispered and Edward rolled his eyes inwardly before he felt Thomas’ slow handed exploration resume on his belt and fly.

 

“May I please take this shirt off?” Edward muttered into his neck, knee nudging between his legs and he felt Thomas’ little laugh jump against his chest.

 

“Yes, I’ve had my fun,” he teased, and Edward eagerly stood up to peel everything off, not missing the slight rustle of fabric. By the time he was finished Thomas had rearranged the pillow so it was under his hips once ore, but this time he was stomach down. He lifted his ass a bit as Edward settled behind him, and smiled sleepily at him from his arms. Edward tried to watch his face, even as he slicked his cock with the lube Thomas had tossed onto the bed from its spot on the nightstand.

 

Thomas’ lashes fluttered as he pushed into him and he never got tired of it, or the way he buried his face in the crook of his elbow to muffle his whines, knees shifting on either side of Edward’s to accommodate him. Edward, already quite eager to come, fucked into him a bit harder each time and every time Thomas squeezed his arms tighter against the second pillow he’d tugged towards him, his shoulders shifting and low soft sounds breathing out with every thrust.

 

“That’s it angel…let me see you do it,” Edward mumbled, feeling him tighten around him with the pet name that only ever slipped out during times like these. He let his hands lift off of him, watching Thomas fuck himself back for a few mindless moments, his cock disappearing in and out into that tight wonderful heat, before he couldn’t stave it off anymore and had to pull him back, hands clamped around his hips.

 

He bent down and kissed the back of his neck and his hair. Thomas turned his head, smiling faintly.


“Good?”

"So much," he exhaled, his eyes drifting closed, and Edward kissed at his neck again, breathing in the scent of him before he slipped out to take his cock in his hand. Thomas let his hips relax down with a sleepy, spent sigh, squirming to get comfortable and then stilling as Edward pinned his legs together with his knees and came on his ass, his hands squeezing the backs of his thighs as he caught his breath, finished.


After a few seconds he reached over and yanked tissue from the box on the nightstand and gently cleaned Thomas up.

 

"Alright," he whispered, kissing his back and patting his bum. Thomas rolled over, reaching out for him instinctively.  


He was asleep by the time Edward was rearranged next to him, fucked out and snoring, his arm looped over Edward’s back and his legs already twining with his like they usually did. 

 

Edward pushed his hair back, kissing his forehead quietly. Thomas' nose twitched in response and he laid his cheek on his chest, burrowing closer. Edward smiled, running his hand gently up and down Thomas' back, the meditative, repetitive motion sending him immediately into pleasant dreams. 

Chapter Text

John was making a strange face at the skates in his hand, moving the laces so that they didn't touch his hand directly.

 

"Don't worry John, they allegedly disinfect them," Billy said where he was stretched out along the locker-room style bench in the tiny humid tent where you rented them out. John frowned and sat down at one end of the bench. 

 

"I think mine are the wrong size," Thomas mused, lacing his as tight as he could. Bending over his foot meant his hair was perpetually falling in his face and he kept distractedly moving it aside.

 

"Do you want me to get you another pair?" Edward asked after a moment of being sucked into the overwhelming charm of it. Thomas shook his head, lifting his head to smile.

 

"I think they'll do," he grunted, swinging his leg down so his skated foot landed to the matted floor next to Edward's. Out the foggy window Edward could just barely see George and Sarah drifting by in the crowded rink. George was showing off by skating backwards, impressively smooth at it. Sarah, by contrast, was laughing too hard to do much, her cheeks red and rosy as she struggled to keep up and also upright.

 

Edward was ok, by his own measure. Every Little had an ice skating party at some point in their lifetime, so once every few years they all schlepped out to the rink for cardboard-bottomed pizzas and pitchers of watery sprite and wobbly games of red-light-green-light refereed by underpaid teenagers, many of whom had dated a sister at some point.

 

The outdoor park rink was much more cheerful than the dilapidated domes of childhood with wreathes and garlands hanging everywhere, and fairy lights laced above. The Tower looming in the background was less romantic if you thought about it harder, but Edward had no plans to.

 

"Let's see if I remember how to do this," he heard Thomas mutter, using Edward's shoulder to help lift himself up off the bench.

 

"See you out there Johnny," Edward said as he followed, Thomas already stomping over to the door again ahead of him. John was busy picking at the knots in his laces but nodded his head to show he heard him.

 

The cold air was full of humming talk and children laughing when they spilled back outside and Thomas grabbed Edward's hand as soon as he could, both of them tottering onto the ice and clinging to the low wall to keep their balance.

 

"You made it!" George panted, bumping into the wall as he came to a stop beside them.

 

"So far," Thomas laughed, the painfully focused look on his face breaking up when he bravely pushed back a little, his arms out. He held out his hand for Edward again but as soon as he took it the additional weight threw him off enough to send him shakily slipping forward on Edward's arm.

 

"Sarah-bearah's getting the hang of it," George said proudly, the three of them looking to where Sarah was doing slow clumsy circles in the center with a group of tweens. Edward looked back to Thomas, stiffening instinctively to help him as he shuffled on his skates.

 

"I'm going to let go," he said, and Edward nodded encouragingly, letting him slide away. He struggled momentarily then was able to straighten up, gliding tentatively along while Edward followed slowly behind.

 

"It's not too bad," Thomas said brightly after a while of finding his footing, George catching up.

 

"You've got good form!"

 

"I took lessons for a half second when I was younger," Thomas said and George grinned.

 

"Me too!"

 

"Really? Where?"

 

"Lea Valley Ice Center!"

 

"You're joking! Me as well!"

 

Edward looked on, listening to George and Thomas exchange stories about stuck-up instructors and waning enthusiasm for the sport once they found out how much work it required, John and Billy eventually joining so that they formed a clumsy little pack making loops.

 

"Haven't I seen pictures from that?" Billy said as George and Thomas tried to remember maneuvers.

 

"I've got pictures from everything," Thomas said, looking particularly pleased when he did a little turn in place, "ice skating, ballet, football, drama, piano," he ticked off the activities, Billy rolling his eyes.

 

"James was all about extracurricular activities," he drifted closer to Edward, hooking their arms together, his body a warm line down Edward's side.

 

More confident skaters zoomed along around them as they kept to the outside, and kids darted in between or spilled onto the ice now and then with scrabbling red hands and crocodile tears.

 

"Fuck," Billy yelped, slipping towards the ground. John caught him by the elbow just in time, looking startled, and Edward was immediately struck by the image of Bambi with his legs splayed on the pond. He stifled a brusque laugh at the incredible comparison, Thomas grinning at his friend. They made lazy loops over and over, singing along to the Christmas hits, commenting every time they passed on just how good the food stand smelled with its bratwurst and hot chocolate. 

 

"Wait, where did Sarah go?" George wondered aloud after a few cycles and Edward felt Thomas' arm squeeze against his as they looked toward the center.

 

"Maybe she went to the lady's room," John sounded, watching Billy struggle to right his beanie after another near-fall.

 

"Maybe," George mumbled, sounding unconvinced, coasting. Just as he spoke a loud voice over the intercom interrupted to tell them that there would be a brief ten-minute recess for the Zamboni.

 

"I bet we'll bump into her," Thomas said brightly as they made their way with the other skaters off the rink to wait, making a show of pushing Edward along much to his own amusement. 

 

"Do you think the ten minutes is part of the hour we get?" John went on anxiously, when they were off the ice. He started adjusting his gloves as they sat down on the long locker room benches set off to the side, flexing his fingers and looking at his watch and comparing it to the one above the skate rental tent. 

 

"Who cares, I'm finished," Billy remarked, making like he was about to go teetering back to the skate rental till Thomas reached out and snagged his wrist.

 

"Oh no you don't," he ordered, pulling him down on his other side with a loud oof.

 

Billy safely beside him, Thomas wormed his arm out of Edward's to sling it around his back, scratching at his shoulders, him and Billy falling into conversation on one side and John and George on the other. Edward took a moment to warm up, and glanced down at his phone, scrolling past the late day slack notifications and emails blurbs from work till his eyes landed on a message from his sister.

 

Edward, can you Please call mum and tell her you don't hate her? she's driving me insane. i am too tired for this bs rn.

 

Why? Edward typed back and there was the persistent {...} as Hattie launched in.

 

you don't call her to chat anymore. her words,not mine.

 

I'll call her on Sunday.

 

kitty asked her if you were seeing someone, so now she's in a spin.

 

Edward re-read the words several times, trying to formulate a response that wouldn't make Hattie manifest before him just to kick his ass.

 

Kitty? he settled on, eventually, leaning a bit more over his knees.

lucy said she thought you had a girlfriend, because of her bday present. so kitty asked if you were seeing someone and mum didn't know. she got upset about it. i said he's busy with work lately, that project thing you've got, and i think she's buying it, but please just call her this weekend?

sure. hows things? tom there???

yes. at Tower of London skating.

BIG fun!!!!! tell him i say hello please. and i want to meet him before i have this baby.

Edward pulled his thumbs away, thinking again. 

I'll see what I can do

just tell her about your work thing, it's not a big deal. she really is more concerned with you hating her. Also take a picture!!!

 

Edward paled at the suggestion, eyes darting to Thomas who was still engrossed with speaking to Billy about something, and beyond him George’s leg was bouncing nervously.

 

“Shouldn’t they be doing it by now? The Zamboni, I mean,” John was beginning to say just as a wail of feedback shuddered through the intercom and a nasally voice crackled over the intercom and the row of them looked up in confusion.

 

“Attention patrons, if you could please turn your attention to the rink, we will now be beginning an official demonstration.”

 

Thomas’ hand slowed on Edward’s back and they turned to each other in confusion.

 

“Demonstration?”

 

Music began to warble through the speakers in the wake of the announced.

 

“Is this Sheena Easton?” George said tightly and Edward looked out at the rink, brow furrowed.

 

"Is it?"

 

"This is Sheena Easton," George said decidedly, his eyes wide, "this is Sarahs' favorite song! She's missing it!"

 

“Wait, isn't that her?” Thomas said, and he lifted his hand to modestly point across the park. It was.

 

"What the hell is she doing all the way over there?" George asked, standing up and stomping over to the wall, his hand shielding his eyes from the lights which suddenly brightened.

 

She was entering the rink from the other end, a teenager in a gray thermal opening a latched gate for her to go through with an unimpressed look on his face. As gracefully as she could unassisted, she slid back to the center of the ring where Edward had first seen her earlier, only this time with a wireless microphone in her hands.

 

Edward’s lips parted slightly as she lifted it to her mouth.

 

“Pardon me, everyone, I would just like to take a moment, if I may, to page the most handsome man in the room to come and skate with me,” she said into the mic and Edward, John, Thomas and Billy all snapped their necks to George.

 

George was, understandably, agape. She waved at him frantically from the center of the rink.

 

“Yes, Georgie!” She called, beckoning him and George straightened up, having started to tip to one side and using the wall to steady himself at the last moment. For one scare moment he looked over at John and then at Edward and all they could do was shrug helplessly. 

 

“Don’t you hear it? It's our song!” Sarah continued, and he jerked his head back to her, still too shocked to speak for once in his life. “Morning Train!

 

“George, GO!” Thomas insisted, being the only one of them to have any sense, and something in George clicked on and in the next moment he was stumbling to the wall where another teenage attendant permitted him inside. Dazed, he struggled for a second on the criss-crossed ice, finally getting his footing and coming to clumsy stop beside her. 

Though he was a bit far, he was blushing so hard it was easy to make him out from the bench - his hands grasping at her coat and his mouth going a mile a minute undboutedly with questions. Sarah kept grinning at him, modestly covering the microphone as she said something that caused him to visibly recoil before blushing even harder than before. 

 

“Oh my god,” Billy gasped, right as she stuck out her hand for him to hold the microphone while she shifted through her pockets.

 

“Did you know about this?” Thomas hissed, latching onto Edward’s arm and Edward shook his head dumbly. 

 

“She’s going to propose,” Edward whispered, suddenly bringing his hands to his hair, “John! You're going to miss it!"

 

John was bent over his own knees, only lifting his head to peek out and brush the tears away from his now pink eyes and dripping nose. 

 

"I c-can't believe it," he said, trying to pull himself together, and Edward could only look back to his two friends, absolutely floored, his mouth dropping over in a hapless grin as Sarah held up the ring in one hand and the microphone in the other. 

 

"George Henry Hodgson," she wheezed, her voice thin with excitement and impending glee, "will you please do me the favor of marrying me and being my husband and also Gigi's daddy, so that I finally can wear the wedding dress I've been sewing for three years?"

 

Edward watched George tense, clearly trying not to start sobbing in the middle of the ice rink in front of about two hundred strangers. 

 

"It's my pleasure," he sniffled, the sound picked up by the microphone. "I will." 

 

Up above Sheena Easton continued to sing about how her baby worked a nine-to-five, only muffled by the sound of the microphone getting caught between their coats as they kissed, the entire skate rink breaking into excited applause - none so much as his friends. Billy, unbelievably, appeared to be crying and it was no surprise to Edward when he felt tears prickling his own eyes. When it was all said and done and the music trailed away, George and Sarah lurched towards them, their arms around each other and Sarah grinning like a mad man.


“I had to figure out a way to do it before he did,” she yelled breathlessly, still a few feet away. John was up on his feet within the second of her stepping off the ice in a race to hug one of them as quickly as possible. He caught Sarah first, picking her up off the ground with the force of his embrace. “Do you know how hard that is? Trying to get ahead of this man?” Sarah squeaked at George over John's shoulder. 

“How did you even know I was thinking about it?!” George kept asking, his voice sometimes breaking in the midst of the words. He was having to lean on the rink wall just to stay upright till John barreled into him and they both hobbled together back to the bench. 

“Georgie,” Sarah laughed, sitting down where Thomas immediately wrapped an arm around her and Edward reached rub over her capped head, “you’re the only person I know who wears their heart on their sleeve all the time. Also, you sent about four separate emails to the park service about fireworks and I kept seeing the notification every time I opened your laptop.”  

 

“That’s pretty typical for you, George,” Edward said, trying to recover a bit of his senses. George just blinked in awe at her.

 

“Those were going to be great, you know,” George moped after a moment, Sarah coaxing him away from John so that she could wrap her arms around his waist and kiss his stomach. 


"Didn't they get rejected," John said, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve. Edward's cheeks literally hurt from smiling, but he couldn't stop. 

 

"Well, yeah, but theoretically they were going to be great," George replied. 

 

“We don't need fireworks," Sarah was quick to assure him, her chin on his stomach as she looked moonily up at him, "I see them all the time when I'm around George Henry Hodgson."

 

 

“That’s so wonderful!” Edward had to pull the phone away from his ear as his mother cried her congratulations to George and Sarah at him. “How exciting Teddy. Will you stand up for him?”


“That's the idea," Edward replied, thinking of the suit options that Sarah had already started texting him the moment they'd hit wifi. According to her it would be a from the feet up bridal party, which to him spelled several fittings. 

 

“Did they have a party or anything afterwards? You’ll have to give me Georgie’s address so Daddy and I can send them a card. They came and visited a few times when you were working you know, him and John. It was so good of them.”

 

“I’ll get it for you,” Edward said, forgoing his reminder that he knew did, indeed, know about how George and John called on his mother while he was away as it had often been at his own request. 

 

“No engagement party yet. We went out afterwards to a few places and had a few rounds. George and John and I and a few other friends." 

 

“I’m so glad you’re having fun," his mother cooed, "that’s so incredible that she did it at the ice rink! How creative! You’ll have to pick her brain someday." 

 

Edward took a step so that he could see through his open door to where Thomas was slumped on the couch watching television, nursing his hangover. Only the top of his head visible and he moved now and then to reach down into his lap and bring a chip or two to his mouth, Joey begging right next to him. He watched with a half smile as Thomas offered the dog a chip, scratching through the ruff of fur around his neck after and flopping into a new position to get more comfortable. 

 

“Yeah, I’ll be sure to get her opinion...,” Edward said distantly, trying to refocus on the conversation.

 

“It’s so good to hear your voice Teddy," his mother's voice cut in again, "I’ve been worrying about you. You shouldn’t push yourself too hard with your head, but it does make me feel better to hear you.”


“Mum, that was a while ago. I think I’m fine,” he sighed, pacing back to the end of his bed.

 

“Well, still. Do you know what your plans are for Christmas yet? I’ve got to start making my lists for everything… and don’t forget to get your person from Mary.”

 

“I’ve got Ricky this year,” Edward told his mother, genuinely glad that he’d drawn his eldest nephew for the gift exchange. Patrick was at the age where he actually appreciated plain money and Edward was more than happy to oblige him. Just the thought of trying to predict what a twenty year old boy wanted gave him a migraine otherwise.

 

“How fun! What about Christmas? Are you going to be with us?”

 

Edward’s brow furrowed briefly. He caught sight of his reflection in the mirror, still in his pajamas at three pm. 


“Where else would I be?”


“I don’t know,” his mother said in a odd breathy voice, “I didn’t know if you might go out of town or go somewhere else… you’ve got options I’m sure now that you’re back in London.”

 

Edward felt a nervous flap of wings in his stomach.


“No,” he said, clearing his throat to keep his voice even, “I’ll be home with you all.”

 

“Oh, I’m so glad sweetest. It’ll be so much fun. Daddy and I think the new baby will be here by then, don’t you? I just love having a Christmas baby. That's what you were, you know! We took those little pictures of you in a stocking -”


Edward closed his eyes, rubbing between his eyes with the pad of his finger. 


“Well, he better be. Hat’s about to start making heads roll otherwise,” he said and his mother huffed. There was a beat, and then he heard her take another little breath. He braced himself.

 

“You’ll let me know if you bring anyone, won’t you?”


Edward's breath stilled, his eyes pulled towards the door again. He was glad their first holidays were falling so early on in their relationship. He was positive that Thomas, even if circumstances were different, wouldn’t be eager to spend a Christmas away from Frank and James and it gave him some peace of mind with regards to how to handle this inevitable brand of questioning from his mother.

 

All things considered this was far more mild than what he’d anticipated.


“Sure mum, but I’m certain I’ll be on my own this year.”

 

“Alright,” his mother said, sounding thoroughly unconvinced in a hopeful sort of way. He could almost picture her touching her nose on the other end of the line.

 

“You’ll have to bring your guitar and play for all the little ones again,” she said and her voice was lighter, temporarily satisfied.

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he assured her, twitching to get off the phone, “I’ve got to go take Joey out, but I’ll call you in a few days with that address for you.”

 

“Thank you lovie, I’ll be looking forward to it. I love you my Teddy Bear!”

 

“I love you too, mum,” he said, always embarrassed by her enthusiasm and hanging up after she’d sent two or three kisses into the receiver.

 

The call vanished from his screen and with the same new surprise he’d been feeling every time lately, he was greeted by the picture of Thomas and himself from the night at the ice rink on his background. It was a good picture – and he wasn’t usually one to say that. They both looked happy, if not rosy from the cold, grinning together in front of one of the bars they’d rolled into to toast to the happy couple. He’d even gone so far as to meticulously rearrange his applications so that they didn’t cover any part of their faces.

 

“Edward?”

 

His head snapped up, greeted with the image of Thomas leaning in the doorway in one of his old shirts: holes in the collar and Brown Bread Horse Sanctuary across in spotty faded lettering. He also was tugging up a pair of his old gray sweatpants, the kind that had been washed so many times the fabric was pilling. He scratched at his back, pushing the shirt up as Edward stood in the middle of his bedroom.

 

“Do you want the rest of your chips?” He asked, a sly little look on his face. 


“No,” Edward answered, thinking he should have guessed that’s what he was about to ask. Thomas smiled fiendishly and started to retreat back to the other room but Edward called for him and he paused.

 

“What are you doing uh – next weekend?” He asked and Thomas blinked at him.


“Nothing. I’m off Saturday and Sunday.”

 

“Oh, great,” Edward said, flipping his phone over restlessly in his hands.

 

“Did you have plans?” Thomas prompted and Edward caught himself.


“Yeah. I know it’s a lot but Hattie and Emory would really like to have us over for dinner one of the days – uh, the baby is due any time but she really would like to meet you before,” he said, feeling his face getting red, “I know it’s quick – and they know it’s a bit. Quick. So, if you don’t -,”

 

He stopped talking, watching Thomas’ face bloom into a smile.

 

“Hattie? As in your sister Hattie?”

 

“That’s the one, yeah,” Edward mumbled, the words further silenced by Thomas bounding forward and pulling him into a series of kisses that began on his chin and ended up on his mouth.


“Is that a yes?” Edward said, Thomas wrapping his arms around him and squeezing him so hard he nearly felt his back pop.

 

“Yes!” Thomas exclaimed, kissing him again, “that is a big yes! Please ask her what all we can bring and if there’s anything I can do.”

 

“I think whatever we do will be perfect,” Edward laughed, Thomas kissing his cheek and then pulling away to stare worriedly into the other room.


“I think Joey is getting into the chips,” he said after a moment, and then he was gone again, and Edward stood, alone, already texting his sister with butterflies still bumping all over the inside of his stomach.

Chapter Text

“Are you taking that with you to your sister’s?”

 

Thomas watched Edward folding the case shut on his guitar after he gently placed it inside, latching it.

 

“I wouldn’t, usually, but since it’s become a …thing,” Edward said, still sounding apologetic about it days later.


“You know I don’t mind, right?” Thomas said, for what was surely the dozenth time. “That your sister invited other people? It’s just George and Sarah and John. Nothing new there…”

 

Edward turned around and finished tucking his shirt into his khakis while Thomas trailed back into the bathroom as he talked, shaking out a large square silk scarf. It was gold, with red trim, and bizarrely patterned with a huge illustration of a canon surrounded by several ornate versions of its wheels. To Edward that seemed practical if you were, say, a 19th century artillery officer or something. Thomas said it was by Hermes (“Hermes?” Edward said, like the Greek god. “Air-Mes”, Thomas corrected) and that it was old, and expensive, and not-so-obviously pilfered from James’ extensive collection of such scarves. It’s Christmassy, he said as his recommendation for wearing it when Edward said he didn’t need to dress up too much, and kids love these things. On that end Edward agreed. They were liable to pull it off his neck as soon as they saw it. They were liable to never even see it again if they weren’t careful.

 

“I know you don’t mind,” Edward clarified, walking over to his dresser to begin putting on his watch. The surprise would have been far different if he thought Thomas did, “I don’t mind it either,” he reminded himself, a thought more convincing out loud than in his head. He knew very well where Hattie was coming from inviting the others. It was a sure bid to keep things casual, and also an excuse to see everyone at once which was far more convenient for a woman about to deliver her 4th child any time.

 

“This way I only have to clean my house once, Ned,” she reasoned. Who was Edward to go against that logic? He wasn’t the one living in a three story Georgian house with three messy humans under the age of ten. There were also plethora of other valid excuses – the holidays fast approaching, the last hurrah before the upheaval of the new baby, the soon to be Hodgson’s engagement, and of course, Thomas.

 

Edward spied on him again as he made work of the scarf, folding it expertly and positioning it around his neck.

 

“I can feel you staring at me,” he said, lifting his chin and sliding his eyes over to Edward in the mirror before going back to what he was doing. He had no clever justification; he just liked watching Thomas do things. He liked that Thomas thought about things like scarves. He liked all of it, still. When he saw Thomas alone he got the sensation that he was seeing him all over for the first time again. His dark hair, his bright eyes that changed like one of his niece’s mood rings, even his long toes.  

 

“Edward,” Thomas said again, coloring a little bit high on his cheeks, “don’t watch me like that I can’t think.”

 

Edward caught himself and went back to looking over his guitar case.

“Are you going to serenade us tonight?”


“Do you like children’s music?”


Thomas turned to him, flipping off the bathroom light.


“Edward, you should know by now that I consider myself a connoisseur of such things.”

 

 

When Hattie first met Emory they’d been living in a one bedroom flat where the one titular bedroom was used solely as a combination studio and practice room. His sister and her then-boyfriend sleept on a pull out couch. Edward’s parents were horrified. Edward thought it was magnificent. It was the first time he saw her as more than just his bossy, over-opinionated baby sister and realized that Hattie, as a person, was someone that he liked.

 

“Wow,” Thomas said, genuinely impressed as the cab pulled up to their current house, a three-story Georgian with five double hung sashed windows across its front to gaze down on the wide front lawn and long drive.

 

“I know,” Edward said, looking at it out the car window.

 

It’d been a long time since that first flat crammed with drum kits and guitars and taped-together recording equipment and the idea of Emory scraping together the fee money to incorporate his label was a distant memory, but that fact – the fact that he liked his sister as much as he loved her – had never changed.

 

That being said, Hattie did have the bad habit of thinking everyone was as comfortable with spontaneity as she was.


Sarah and George (and most likely John) were already there, but as Edward and Thomas walked up he nearly did a double take because there was another car parked in the drive that didn’t belong to anyone who was supposed to be in attendance.

 

“What is it?” Thomas asked, being pulled backwards by their connected hands when Edward stopped moving.


“That’s my sister Annie’s car,” Edward said, staring at the decal of two twin girls with long cartoon pigtails on the hatch.

 

“Annie?”

 

Edward turned to Thomas, stricken. Thomas’ breath clouded in the air around him. The sun was setting and the temperature along with it, and he blinked at Edward from his freshly-shaved face, the gel on the front of his hair catching the last twilight rays.


“I take it we didn’t know Annie was going to be here,” he said softly and Edward broke their hands apart to rake through his own hair.


“No,” he said, distressed, “we did not.”

 

“Do you want to go in and speak to Harriot? Before I come in?”

 

“No!” Edward said sharply, then seeing the disturbed look on Thomas’ face he shook his head and took his arm, resuming their walk up the drive and the small walk to the front door, “no, of course not – you don’t. I won’t have you waiting outside. It’s cold. And I would never let that happen, even if it wasn’t,” Edward muttered, coming up to the front door already decked out in a huge wreath. He looked at the two decorative snowmen that Hattie had put on either side of it, perturbed.

 

“Should I ring the bell?”


“No,” Edward replied, remembering himself, “I just need a moment to think.”

 

He took a deep breath, steeling himself.

 

He’d… figure something out.

 

He tried the handle; it was open, as usual.


“Edward, if this isn’t a good time then we can always pretend I got sick, or something,” Thomas said lowly, putting his hand over Edward’s wrist just as he began to push the door. His eyes were clear, and nonjudgmental, and without thinking Edward leaned up the half inch between them and kissed him softly on his mouth.


“I just need to. Get the lay of things in there,” he said, pulling away, “and I’m sure it will be fine.” Thomas nodded.

                                                                                                                                       

“Johnny and George are there too, so that will help,” he added, his voice brighter for both their sake.


“I’m not so sure about that,” Edward muttered, gathering his courage and finally stepping into the house.

 

“Hey!" Edward called, and immediately they were overwhelmed by a very strong spicy smell and a cascade of loud music the moment the door closed behind him.

 

The shock of both instinctively pulled Thomas closer to Edward while he moved further into the entry. The house was huge and open inside, and every available surface was crammed with Christmas decorations - most of which appeared to have been made by the children Thomas knew occupied the home.

 

"She probably can't hear me," Edward said with a sigh, shaking his head. He looked back at Thomas, putting a hand up.

 

“Uh, just… stay here for a second, ok?” He looked around, realizing he was still holding his guitar case and bent to set it down.

 

“Sure -,” Thomas began, but then there was a series of racing footsteps and a small brown-headed girl came flying up the main hallway at top speed.

 

"Uncle Nedward!" A voice yelled, and Edward had about a half a second to straighten up and turn around before he was hit on the side, forcing him and Thomas to step further apart.

 

"Hey," Edward grunted, taking a moment to steady himself as his niece clung on to his middle.

 

“How’s your head? You don’t look ugly anymore.”


“It’s doing better, uh. Thanks,” Edward managed, rubbing his nieces' back through her chunky knit dress. She looked up at him through her bangs and then, noticing Thomas was standing there, she turned her wide eyes to him.

 

"I'm Tom," Thomas said, waving at her when it became obvious that she might not have been fully expecting him, "I bet you're Simone?"

 

She nodded shyly, looking back up at Edward's face and then slowly pulled towards Edward's side, peeking around.

 

"Is your mum in the kitchen?"

 

She nodded again, glancing over at Thomas and gnawing on her lip uncertainly.  

 

"Can you go tell her we're here?"

 

"Noooooo," she whined, pushing her face into his jacket and squeezing Edward more tightly. Thomas smiled, watching her hide, Edward sighing.

 

"Come on," Edward nudged, trying to gently pry her off to no avail, “I need to talk to her.”

 

"Can we play a game? I want to play Lego Star Wars," She demanded and just as Edward opened his mouth Thomas let out a soft breath of surprise.

 

"Edward, you didn't tell me Simone liked games," he said under the hand he raised to cover his mouth.

 

Simone's dark eyes peered at him more readily now, her tongue poking around in her mouth and showing her missing front teeth.

 

"Uh, oh yeah, she does," Edward played along.

 

"I love to play games," Thomas said to her, "what sort of games do you like playing?"

 

Slowly, she stepped back from Edward enough to let him begin unzipping his coat, inspecting Thomas more fully.

 

"Do you know how to play games on the play station?" She tugged at her dress nervously.

 

Thomas considered the question, Edward shooting him a grateful look as he slowly made his escape. Simone leaned against the small bench just beside the door with a pile of shoes underneath it, trading weight on her black stocking-ed feet.

 

"I can play a couple, but I'm not very good," Thomas readily admitted, "I really like playing card games.”

 

“Do you like UNO?”


“How did you know,” Thomas said, squinting at her as though he suspected her of reading his mind, “do you have UNO?”

 

"It's upstairs in the playroom," she explained.

 

"I think maybe after I get settled later we could play, if you wanted to," Thomas offered and Simone's eyes sparked with interest.

 

"Ok," she said and Thomas lifted his eyebrows. She stared at him, still tonguing at the gap in her teeth.


“Are you friends with the stooges?”

 

“The… stooges…?” Thomas started and she shrugged her shoulder up dramatically, plopping backwards onto the bench.

 

“That’s what mummy calls Uncle Nedward and George and Johnny. The three stooges.”

 

Thomas bit off a laugh, touching his mouth with the back of his hand.  

 

“Does she,” he said, Simone giggling even though he was certain she had no idea why that was really so funny.


“Are you friends with them?”

 

“Yes, I’m friends with them,” Thomas answered, still fighting a smile.

 

“They’re downstairs with dad listening to his new song.”

 

Very cool,” Thomas said and she smiled shyly.

 

“We have a dog. His name is Gus. Do you want to see him?”

 

“Sounds good to me. I’ll wait here, ok?”

 

Without another word she went flying back where she’d come from.

 

Alone in the foyer, Thomas couldn’t hear much besides the music and whatever the smell was coming from the Kitchen was about to make his stomach start growling. Slowly, he unzipped his coat, looking around at the art on the walls and the garland draping over the staircase winding up to the next floor.

 

Suddenly there was a large clatter and the sound of Edward talking to Harriot, their voices carrying over the hiss of something in a pan, but he couldn’t make out the words.

 

He mentally drilled down the list in his head while gently laying his coat on the same bench Simone had been sitting on: Simone, who he'd met, Chloe, Cameron, and then Harriot was expecting another boy. He had no idea how many children Annie had, but if Hattie was any example he was sure more rather than less.

 

He felt his brow pinch at the realization that Edward probably had dozens of nieces and nephews…

 

"Thomas! I'm so sorry!"

 

Thomas’ first look at Harriot had Thomas taken aback, because, for all purposes she seemed to be just like a girl version of Edward – if not a bit shorter. Her wavy hair fell about to her shoulders, the same color and texture as Edward’s and her eyes were bright and the same lovely dark brown under thick fluffy brows. She was also quite pregnant, a fact hard to miss as she headed right for him.

 

She put both her hands out and Thomas took them without thinking, feeling her fingers squeeze down around his shockingly hard.

 

"I couldn't even hear you come in, I'm so sorry about that," she continued, "I go on and on about meeting you and then can't even answer the door!”

 

"I was just admiring your house," he assured her, “it’s like out of a magazine.”

 

"You haven’t seen the rest of it yet," she, looking around at it all with the tired face of a clearly busy mother, "but I will say it is usually even messier, so I'll take it."

 

She squeezed her hands again, eyes meeting his once more.

 

"It is really wonderful to meet you, I've been hearing about you for ages and putting a name to a face is so good. I'm Hattie. I'm sure Edward has said - we're one of about a dozen, but I'm his younger sister for what it's worth to you."

 

"I'm glad Edward let me tag along," he said lightly, sensing around for something in her reply but Hattie only fixed him with an emotional smile, rubbing the backs of his hands.

 

"You are welcome here literally any time. I mean that. Or at least any time before I finally have this kid," she looked deliberately at her massive stomach,

 

"It looks like that's going to be any second," Thomas marveled and she made a soft sound of despair.

 

"I don't want to jinx it, but I am so. So. sick of being pregnant," she said, eyes closing, "this is the last one, I'm putting it in writing." She waved her hand dismissively, "but enough of that, I want to know absolutely everything about you, so can I get you anything? Do you want wine? Emory's got all sorts of nonsense too, so you can probably make up whatever you want. I'm living vicariously through you."

 

"What would you like, then?" Thomas asked and she laughed, her face glowing faintly from cooking and the exertion of smiling.

 

"Wine, please. God I miss wine."

 

He followed her into the kitchen where she had put Edward to work babysitting a giant pot of what looked like curry. He’d seen that somewhere, he was sure, but he couldn’t remember exactly what it was from.

 

“It’s wot,” Edward said, looking up when Thomas came in. His voice was cheerful, but he could see residual worry baked into his expression.

 

“It’s what?”

 

“Wot?” Edward repeated, the knit in his brow getting deeper.  


“I know,” he said quietly, rubbing his side, and resisting the overwhelming urge to kiss him, “I was joking. I’ve had that before, actually.”

 

“It’s all Emory’s mum’s credit – I just follow the directions and add in the berbere she gave me,” Hattie said, clearly overhearing as she took wine glasses down from a cabinet with a bit of effort. Her face suddenly went pale, “you do eat meat, don’t you Thomas?”

 

“Absolutely,” Thomas said, and she put a hand over her heart in obvious relief.

 

“Does your mum do any cooking?”

 

Edward paused in his stirring, Harriot glugging a healthy pour of white wine out for them.

 

“Not that I can remember,” Thomas said evenly, accepting the question as gracefully as he did the glass, “I was adopted. My father likes to think he can cook, though. Edward’s already been subject to that.”

 

“It was good,” Edward said with a light clear of his throat, and Thomas turned over his shoulder to smile at him. “Cornish hen.”

 

“Cornish hen? That’s fancy,” Hattie marveled, “I don’t think our mum’s ever made that.”

 

“I don’t think you can get those in bulk,” Edward reasoned, but Thomas was momentarily distracted by a persistent buzzing in his pocket. He pulled his phone out and his thumb automatically swiped out of sheer habit so that the email that had just been received pulled up on its own.

 

It was short, which from the address he recognized was enough to make his nerves freeze.

 

Talked to doctor, asked everything on list. They said could be anytime. Three to six month. Have her with hospice nurse now, and looked at the places recommended. She keeps asking after you. I tell her you’ve been busy.

 

IF you visit you might let me know, just so I can tell the nurse if need be –

 

“Everything alright?”

 

Thomas jumped, Edward’s voice startling him into blipping the message away.

 

“Yes,” he replied, taking a long sip of the wine and humming his approval of it, “just an email from work.”

 

“So, Thomas, I was just telling Edward that our sister Annie is here with us this evening – I hope you don’t mind. I’m sorry it was so last minute.”

Thomas watched Edward stare at his sister who was currently arranging several large serving plates on the counter and covering them with large pieces of flat bread.

 

“I still don’t know why she decided to come here,” Edward said and Hattie flashed him a look, “when she has two other sisters who she can have dinner with.”

 

Harriot ignored him, looking directly at Thomas instead as she smiled.

 

“Annie’s just gone through a divorce, and her cheating P-O-S of an ex unfortunately lives around here – I run into the bastard all the time at Tesco – anyway, she was dropping the girls off for the week and wanted to pop by. She gets a bit lonely this time of year.”

 

“That’s too bad,” Thomas said, looking back to Edward who just shook his head and went back to the wot.

 

“How many children does she have?”

 

“Just two! Twin girls. Twins run in our family, you know! Did Edward tell you?”


Edward made a discontented noise, frowning at the pot.


“I had heard that happens,” Thomas went on, reaching out and petting at Edward’s back.

 

“Anyway, Annie’s upstairs looking after the little ones. She probably won’t even come downstairs, she just likes knowing there are other people in the house…” Hattie went over to the range where she started pulling things off the burner, Edward moving slightly out of the way for her.

 

“I’ve got Gus!”

 

All three adults looked as Simone came into the kitchen lugging not a dog but a large wooden box.

 

“Simone!” Hattie cried in surprise when she saw it, dropping a spoon on the floor so that something green on it splattered all over, “Simone Alicia you put Gus’ ashes back in the bedroom right now!”

 

“But I wanted to show Thomas!”

 

“Oh -,” Thomas began, looking at the box with new eyes now that he realized what was going on.

 

“Gus died? When?” Edward said suddenly and Harriot put her face in her hands for a breathless moment.


“Thomas wanted to see him!” Simone cried and Harriot shook her head, waddling over to turn her around and start pushing her out of the kitchen.


“Thomas does not want to see our dead dog, Simone, Jesus Christ! Go put him back before you spill him everywhere!”

 

Simone glared at her over her shoulder, holding the box protectively to her chest as she scampered away.

 

“Don’t run be careful with him! Fucking hell,” Hattie yelled, before burying her face in her hands when she was out of sight.

 

“I’m going to lose it,” Thomas heard her say sharply and he had to quickly take a gulp of his wine, hoping it would excuse his red ears as he tried to conceal his laughter.

 

“When did that happen? Why didn’t you tell me?” Edward went on, his earlier demeanor abandoned for sincere hurt by the sound of it.  Hattie gave him a seething look, waddling back over and reaching for paper towels. She shoved them into his chest.


“It happened a few weeks again. I’m sorry Edward it’s been a little busy around here, but next time an animal kicks it you’ll be the first to know,” she said, “now can you please bend down and pick up that spoon for me?”

 

“Did I miss something?”

 

They all turned again, this time it was only John standing there, carrying empty glasses from downstairs.

 

“I was just meeting Gus,” Thomas said with a clear of his throat and John’s face darkened in sorrow.


“Oh, did Simone show you his ashes? I thought the box was very beautiful, Hattie.”

 

“Thank you John,” Hattie breathed, leaning against the counter and pinching the bridge of her nose while Edward got down on his knee and started to mop up the mess.

 


 

“It’s really beautiful,” Thomas said, smiling at Sarah as she showed him her engagement ring. She was Gigi-less, sitting next to him on one of the over-stuffed couches that made up Hattie and Emory’s living room. The stone glinted as she moved her finger, casting little squares of light on the wall.

 

“He did a good job,” she said quietly, glancing over at George who was busy trying to explain the plot of a miniseries to John and Edward. While Thomas had never heard of the show, whatever he was telling them was making them look like they’d both eaten a bad Oyster in equal turn, which somehow only seemed to encourage George to go into more detail.


“Did he do anything special for it?”

 

“When we got home that night, after the ice rink, he sort of just gave it to me,” she laughed, “but for whatever reason that was perfect. He said some very sweet things. Apparently, it had been hiding in his closet for a while.”

 

“Well, you said you’ve been working on your dress for literal years, haven’t you?”


“I have,” she sighed, “it started as a Galadriel cosplay and then things got wildly out of hand.”

 

The next few hours were a blur of Emory and Hattie trading duties, disappearing in alternating cycles of putting babies to bed and then returning to dole out food and wine which was eventually brought down to Emory's studio when it became clear strict dinner etiquette was not of particular importance.

 

Thomas sat on the floor, Simone showing him how to eat the wot with the injera while forcing him (and eventually everyone else) into round after round of UNO. It came as no surprise to Thomas that once John and George got involved the competition became real and Simone was just as vicious an adversary as the other two.

 

Nearby Edward and Emory sat in two padded chairs pouring over the several monitors on Emory's desk and tooling around with the instruments scattered around.

 

“Uncle Ned!”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Thomas just gave George two draw fours in a row!” Simone reported, making sure everyone in the room was keeping up with the high-stakes game taking place.

 

“Is that bad?” Edward asked, scratching the back of his neck.


“It’s DEVIOUS!” George said, glaring at Thomas across the carpet, “but I will thwart him.”


Thomas fanned his cards under his eyes, smirking.

“We should play gleek sometime…” John said, putting down a blue card.

 

Yes,” Thomas exclaimed, following suit, “I haven’t played that in ages.”

 

"Anyone fancy a cigar?" Emory asked, George raising his hand as he scowled at his cards and then glanced at John and Thomas.


“Will you have one Thomas? These dweebs never do.”

 

“Sure,” Thomas replied smugly, “I deserve a prize for my victory.”


“Whoever smokes has to take me on my walk later," Hattie said, scrunching up her nose, “can’t stand the smell of those things.”

 

“Victory lap,” George said and Thomas laughed.

 

She began heaving herself up off the sofa that took up the back wall of the studio and started collecting dirty dishes.

 

“Do you need any help?” Thomas asked, watching her and she shook him off, Simone jumping up and abandoning the game to pester her mother.

“Can I walk with you too?”

 

“No, it’ll be way past your bedtime,” Hattie said, Emory standing up to fetch a humidor from a shelf, “which, you need to go upstairs and take a bath – ah, ah, no carrying on.”

 

“But I want to walk with Thomas!”

 

“Upstairs. If you’re good and quick maybe you can come down and say goodnight.”

 

Simone went zooming up the steps just as Thomas said UNO for the tenth time.

 

“I swear to God you cheat,” George grumbled, all of them getting up to rejoin Sarah on the actual furniture while Hattie went plodding up the steps ahead of them.

 

“Does it really work, walking around?” Sarah said as George slung himself down beside her, taking the cigar Emory offered cut for him and lighting it before passing the lighter to Thomas.


“With the labor thing?” Emory said, sitting down in his desk chair again after everyone was cared for. He put his foot on his knee and shrugged, puffing, “I guess it’s just down to the timing. Worked with Cam alright.”

 

Thomas relished the bewildered look on Edward’s face as he smoked, proving his familiarity with a bit more finesse than was probably necessary as he blew a smoke ring to Sarah’s slow applause.

 

“D’you and Sarah want kids? That’s next, y’know.”

 

“Two,” Sarah said simply as George said five with alarming speed, which made Edward tilt back in his chair as he laughed.

 

“Five is a lot, George,” John said, hunkered down in a leather armchair.

 

“Not to me!” George insisted, “I always thought you and Edward’s houses were more fun with all those people running around.”

 

“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” John said.


“How many do you have?” Thomas asked, looking at John realizing he didn’t know.



“John’s one of seven!” George exclaimed, “I’m surrounded by it.”

 

“Think of it this way, Georgie – every child that’s like you is about as much as three in and of itself. So, if we have two that roughly comes up to five if one has your personality.”

 

“I was raised an only child, so I understand the pressure George,” Thomas said, smiling at him.


“You were probably the best kid a parent could have,” Emory said and Thomas merely closed his eyes sagely, taking another draw on his cigar.


“Best and worst,” Edward said and Thomas pursed his lips at him, “seeing as there was only one.”

 

Before long, Thomas’ cigar was pared down and he laid it in the heavy ashtray Emory had brought out.

 

“You should find Hat before she comes down and drags you out for that walk,” Emory said, nodding upstairs and Thomas bid them temporary adieu as he jogged back up to the main floor. As he got to the top of the steps he heard music start up below – jazz, of course.

 

"I have to warn you Thomas, I'm very nosy," Hattie said as they started out the door again, the warmth and music cutting out behind them.

 

"Here I thought I was the one getting you alone to pick your brain," Thomas teased and Hattie's teeth glinted as she grinned, the two of them making their way back down the narrow walkway to the street.

 

Thomas matched his gait to Hattie's as they walked in the dark up the road. It was a quiet area, and the neighboring homes proclaimed it was Christmas in bright light displays, their doors and windows bedecked in wreathes and candles and fancy lit up garlands.  

 

"I'll do my absolute best," she huffed in reply, "if you promise to make sure they know I want the drugs if this works. Or just let me park right here in someone's garden and get it over with..."

 

Her face was red with the effort, but her expression particularly determined; he'd never have the pleasure of being pregnant, but he was certain she meant what she said. If the words didn't prove it, then the determined look in her dark eyes proclaimed it openly.

 

"I've never delivered a baby before, but how hard could it be?"

 

"That's the spirit, you work with kids," she grit, forcing herself to continue waddling along next to him, “that must be why you hit it off with mine so well. Simone thinks you’re like Mary Poppins."

 

Thomas felt a happy sound leave in in a whoosh.

 

"You have some very good children, I don't think they'd have any trouble hitting it off with anyone. But I very much appreciate the compliment. Julie Andrews is a personal hero of mine.”

 

Hattie shot him a look that told him plainly how unconvinced she was.

 

"You're a sweet talker," she tutted.

 

"I just like to see the best in everyone, when it's there to be seen," he clarified, lifting his chin a little bit to her amusement.

 

"So, what did you see when my darling brother's thick head was busted open? Practically perfect in every way?"

 

It was Thomas' turn to smile. He looked at the road and the square patches lit by streetlights not dissimilar to that night that felt like it happened years ago and as near as yesterday for the way it still stuck in his memory the way only intense events could.

 

He could still Edward's poor bruised face blinking up at him from the pavement, the red streaked and glittering like rubies; could feel the curl of his fingers around his own as he worked to keep him awake as much as he could. He had seen it then, shining through the cuts, in the tender way Edward had to be vulnerable with a total stranger - and Thomas was lucky enough to be the one.

 

"A good person," Thomas concluded, "an unfortunate and helpless one, but a good one. With very nice eyes under all that blood."

 

"Well, you definitely left your impression."

 

"At the time I believe he said I was very nice," Thomas agreed, fidgeting with the hand not holding Hattie's arm.

 

"I also happen to think he's very nice," he said after another moment, "more than, really."

 

He could feel Hattie preening.

 

"He loves you, by the way," he added, as if she didn't know, "I know I've only just arrived, but I think moving back to London and being close to you is good for him."

 

"Yeah," she breathed, moving a strand of hair off of her warm face. "You wouldn't believe it now, but when we were growing up he and I weren't as close.”

 

"Couldn't handle his intensity?" Thomas said, startling a giggle out of Hattie as they plodded along.

 

"Oh yes," she laughed, "he's always been Edward. That hasn't changed. But I was intense too, just in a different way." She flashed a smile at Thomas.

 

"We didn't fight or anything," she went on, "but he got along better with my older sisters more than me usually. They looked after him when he was little and my mum had her hands full and he liked to please them. And, then, of course he had Andy. They shared a bedroom for most of his life.”

 

She rubbed at her nose briefly.


“It wasn't until after he died that he started, you know, telling me things. Half of it was only because I’m a bully and made him. I can't stand secrets..."

 

Thomas looked over to be sure she didn't need to stop and take a break.

 

"Does Edward ever talk about our brother? Andrew?"

 

"Not very much," Thomas said, watching his feet carefully as the pave got a bit uneven and Hattie had more of a time stepping in the right places, "I know that he killed himself. And that Edward took it rather hard. He's got a picture of him in his bedroom, but he doesn’t talk about it."

 

Hattie shook her head, toying with the zipper on her coat, moving it down a bit to cool off.

 

"I was afraid of that," she panted, her breath feathering under the lights they passed under from the streetlamps.

 

"I don't like to press too hard," Thomas said, looking back to the sidewalk.

 

"I know," she grunted, "but sometimes that's what you have to do to fix what's hurting, you know?"

 

Thomas found a low sound humming out of his chest and Hattie adjusted her arm so their elbows knocked slightly.

 

"He's always been different," she said, quieter, "with the hair, and the music, and all that. When we were kids it didn't matter as much, but as we got into school it changed. It became more than what it had been. I look back now, and I see the front he was putting up for everyone so they wouldn't see what was really going on. I think Andy set that example for him - that you can, you know, put something on and nobody will question it."

 

"Like a uniform."

 

"Or armor," she sighed, and as she did their steps slowed even more. They'd nearly circled the block and up ahead Thomas could see what he recognized as the house.

 

"Sometimes they're the same thing," Thomas said, "speaking from experience."

 

He heard Hattie sniff again in the cold, touching her chin with her gloved fingers.

 

"Neddie doesn’t think himself very brave, but he is. The rest of us were a total wash when it came down to it with Andrew. None of us even knew what to do, let alone done what he did,” Hattie's sorrowful eyes returned to Thomas' face, "you know he went and identified him when he died? He volunteered, so my parents wouldn’t have to.”

 

Thomas felt his throat ache with the cold air when he swallowed. Hattie blinked at some middle point on the road.


“I don’t anyone else who would do that,” she murmured.

"I don't know anyone else like him," Thomas found himself saying. He thought of all the times he found himself looking to Edward, whether Edward knew it or not, just to feel the earth a little more solidly under his feet. Edward, who always volunteered, and always showed up, even if he thought he wasn’t the best qualified.

 

"I don’t think he’s met anybody like you, either," she said, nudging at him, and the raw look of adoration on her face left Thomas feeling winded.

 

 

"No baby?"

 

"No," Hattie sighed, coming into the room again and shedding her jacket tiredly. Emory gave her a sympathetic look and waved her over to start rubbing her shoulders and her neck.

 

"We’re going to get going and let you sleep," Sarah said, appearing out of the kitchen with a plastic container full of leftovers, John and George already in their coats and sitting at the dining room table playing one last, futile round of UNO from what Thomas could see.

 

“Where’s Edward?” Thomas asked, looking around the living room where Edward's things were still lying on the sofa but there was no sign of his boyfriend anywhere.

 

"He's upstairs putting Simone to bed," Emory said, seemingly reading his mind, and Hattie made a short-irritated sound, shrugging away from her husband and stretching gingerly in place.

 

"Are you serious? Ror, he's going to wind her up…"

 

"No, no, I said he could hang up there for like, ten minutes and that's it, she has to go to sleep" Emory explained.

 

Hattie rolled her eyes at Thomas and then signaled him over to kiss her cheek and pull him into a tight hug that cut off when she pulled away to prod at her belly.

 

"This kid is doing a full bloody floor routine," she muttered, rubbing under the hem of her shirt. "Thank you so much for coming by, Thomas. I'm glad Benji has held out till now so we could fit it in."

 

"I hope next time I get to meet him," Thomas insisted and Hattie gave him a wan smile.

 

"Do you want me to go grab Edward? So he can say goodnight to everyone?" Emory asked and before Hattie could agree Thomas broke in to tell them that he didn't mind running upstairs.

 

"Just follow the music!" Sarah said as Thomas went up to the upper floor. Which was, admittedly, a bit bigger than he realized.

 

With still no sign of Edward (he’d even dared himself to peek into a few of the first closed doors he saw – finding nothing but linen closets and bathrooms and a craft room) he decided to do what Sarah suggested and follow his ears. Cursing mentally, he very quietly turned around at a dead end first, praying he wouldn’t accidentally wake up a sleeping baby in the process.


Or, he reminded himself, pausing halfway down the hallway as cold fear swept over him, Annie - .

 

It was then that a door opened a woman stepped out of the door right next to him and nearly crashed into him as a result.


“Oh!” she said, looking at him from behind red framed glasses.

 

“Oh,” Thomas breathed, crowded in the hall which now felt impossibly narrow now with both of them and the impressive amount of fabric she was wearing in a long flowing dress.

 

She drew herself back, sniffling and he realized that her face wasn’t pink from embarrassment, but from crying. He watched her face flit through a range of confused emotions before she brought up a tissue to her nose and sniffled again.

“Are you… are you Thomas?”

 

Thomas blanched.

 

“I am, yes,” he whispered, and she blinked at him behind her glasses, adjusting them on her face and smoothing her hand over the braid thrown over her shoulder.  


“You don’t have to worry, the baby’s rooms are on the other side,” she said, scrubbing at her cheeks again with the tissue, her voice at a normal volume.

“Are they?”

 

She nodded, smiling weakly at him in the hall light.

“I’m Anne, Edward’s older sister,” she held out her hand and Thomas took it without thinking.


“Yes, I know,” he replied, also without thinking, suddenly blushing, “I mean, I – I could imagine. Hattie said you were upstairs.”

 

She bit her lip, bringing her hand back to her middle.


“Sometimes I just need a stop over here to collect myself,” she said sheepishly, “I’m sure she told you. I just hate dropping my girls off and going back to a dark house.” Her smile quivered.


“Do you have children?”

 

Thomas felt his face go even hotter.

 

“Oh, no, no – uh. Not yet. I work with them.”


“That must be what it was,” she said, her smile easing a bit, “Hattie said something about you and children. That must have been it.”

 

The corners of her eyes crinkled as she continued to smile at him.


“Were you looking for Neddie?”


“I was, yes,” Thomas said nervously, trying to decode the look on her face, “I underestimated my own sense of direction…”

 

“Old houses like these are so wind-y,” she said lightly and then she was gently steering him another direction, “I was just on my way to the loo, so I’ll walk you,” she said.


“They told me just follow the music,” Thomas said, not knowing what else to say. She laughed softly.


“He’s so funny with that guitar,” she said, whispering now, which told Thomas they must have been approaching the right territory, “he used to record these videos of himself for the kids when he was away overseas, for their birthdays and things… they just loved it.”

 

Slowly, she brought them to a stop and put a finger to her lips, then leaned into his ear.  


“You should go spy, he’s very cute,” she said, pulling back and touching her mouth again to reiterate that he would have to be quiet. She smiled and patted Thomas’ arm before leaving him standing there by himself again. He heard the sound of her opening another door and then closing it.

 

As he looked down the hallway, he could see a row of closed doors and then a cracked one at the end with pinkish light spilling under it and soft strumming.

 

"...I can do one more," he heard Edward say, creeping up to the door and waiting by the wall, unsure if he should intrude. He decided not to, remaining still and tilting his head to hear better.

 

"Can you do the donut song?"

 

"That one?"

 

"Yeah, I like that one."

 

"I thought you were too old for that one," Edward's voice said, totally sincere, and Thomas’ lips quirked as Simone whispered that it was ok, just this last time.

 

The strings plunked and Edward said something under his breath that made Thomas dare to peek around to see through the gap in the door just as he started playing.

 

His back was to him on the edge of Simone's bed, the guitar propped on his leg and his foot keeping soft time. Simone was on her side, watching him intently with her hair spread all over and her legs twitching under the covers, but otherwise riveted by his undivided attention.

 

"I need you like a donut needs a hole," Edward half sang half spoke, "like pianos need fingers, heart and soul - we go together like peanuts in a shell, I'm gonna hold you in my arms like water in a well."

 

"And I love you like..." his voice trailed away and Thomas watched Simone smile her gappy smile from her pillow.

 

"Flowers love the sun," she sang to him, rubbing at her face.

 

"Like birds like to fly, and kids like to run," Edward went on, nodding at her.

 

"Like trees love leaves, and leaves turn brown, like bunnies in a meadow like to hop around..."

 

Edward stopped playing to thunk gently on the body of the guitar three times and Simone sang hop hop hop softly in time.

 

"When we are together side by side it's like a roller coaster, or a carousel ride. The clouds all lift just to sing with me, the oak trees dance along with the breeze…" The verse repeated and afterwards his playing came to a coasting stop, Simone clapping her hands where they wiggled out from under the bright stripes and patterns of her covers.

 

"Ok, time to sleep," Edward whispered, moving the guitar out of the way so he could bend down and kiss her on the cheek.

 

"I like Tom, he's cool," she said as he pulled back, her voice trembling with a yawn.

 

"Yeah?" Edward echoed, and Thomas bit down on the words he wanted to say and give himself away.


“He’s very good at UNO.”

 

“He is really good at UNO.”

 

"You should play guitar for him, if you like him," she advised, looking a little sly, and Edward got up off the bed and took a long moment to regard her.

 

"That's a good call," he said. She mimicked him and the wormed her hand out of the blankets. He took it, squeezing and then leaned forward to stroke her hair a few times.

 

Thomas felt his hand involuntary come up to touch the ends of his scarf, as the breath had all gone out of him. He’d been wondering, in one small shift, if this was what it would be like, if, down the road -

 

"I can’t remember - nightlight on or off?”

 

"On is ok.”

 

Thomas ducked back out of sight as Edward dropped another kiss somewhere on her face after turning out her regular light and then came shuffling out of the door. He nearly dropped the guitar in his surprise and Thomas instinctively put his hands on his shoulders, feeling him tense and then relax under his hands. Edward put a finger to his lips and Thomas showed he understood.

 

"Sorry," he whispered, trying to keep the weird shake out of his voice, once the door was safely latched between them and Simone, and they were a few steps down the hallway, "I was sent up to tell you to come say goodbye, but I couldn't interrupt that concert."

 

"She insists," Edward said sheepishly, looking down at the guitar and then back up.

 

"I can’t blame her," Thomas said, touching his cheek.

 

 

"I think that went really well," Edward said with solace as they undressed and went through the usual routines of getting into bed. He sounded more tired than he had on the ride back, when he was parsing through the moments that they'd both enjoyed in the back of the cab.


“I didn’t know you smoked cigars so well,” he’d teased, squeezing Thomas’ thigh and Thomas had only given him a shrug back, trying to calm the weird feeling in his chest that just wasn’t shaking off no matter what he did.

 

"No thanks to your charms," he said, settling onto the mattress and picking up the remote to find something to fall asleep to on the television before drawing up the covers over him.

 

Thomas rolled over to face him, watching his breathing even out and his eyes grow more tired. He reached out, rubbing his chest to speed it along, worming closer to twine his legs around Edward's and put his head on his shoulder. Still… he rubbed at his sternum under his shirt.

 

Thomas remained awake for a long while after.

 

He watched the television with aching eyes and then restlessly got out of bed for a glass of water that he drank with Joey swishing his tail by his feet. When he returned, he paused to glance at the picture of Andrew on the dresser the way he always did and at then at Edward sleeping peacefully on the bed.

 

He looked back to the photo of Andrew.

 

The feeling grew in his chest - a bubble that expanded till he felt it was about to pop and he wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen if he let it persist. Sure, he’d thought, at times, that things were going well with Edward, but things were early enough to blame it on feeling like a honeymoon.

 

Still, objectively it was better by far than anything else he’d ever had in nearly every capacity.

 

He knew it was because Edward was a good person – an incredible person. The best person. Every single time he was confronted by that fact it became more and more clear and building up to this realization.

 

Standing there in the doorway, alarmingly, he’d thought for the first time that Edward was the person he might want to spend the rest of his life with. Not just date, not just… whatever superfluous step came after that.

 

That wouldn’t be enough. He wanted…  

 

Even now, just thinking about the future he could feel his heart starting to hammer again and he had to find his own pulse and breathe just to tell himself he wasn’t having a heart attack.

 

The feeling had been sitting with him ever since in all its terrifying and unignorable and alien glory and now he couldn’t sleep.

 

“Tommy?”


Thomas jolted, turning around. Edward was sitting up slightly, blinking in the dark at him.

 

"What time is it? Are you alright -?"

 

Thomas opened his mouth and then, slowly, padded back over to the bed. He crawled over onto it and then, instead of lying down, he hovered over Edward, fingers instinctively sweeping his hair behind his ear gently.   

 

"I want to tell you something," he whispered, and Edward stared at him in confusion from the bunched sheet and duvet. His hand landed on Thomas' arm. Thomas moved Edward's hair back from his forehead, swallowing.

 

"It’s alright," he said, “it’s nothing bad.”

 

Edward stared at him, his sleep-laden eyes trying to focus.

 

"I couldn't sleep because I wanted say to you," Thomas said, his voice thinning embarrassingly, "that I know what it means for you to let me see that part of your life. I know it’s something you’re… private about. I'm so glad I get to."

 

"Of course, Thomas," Edward mumbled, stroking clumsily at his face, holding it in his palm.

 

"I didn't think I'd ever feel this sort of thing - ," Thomas stopped himself, watching as Edward's eyes widened in the blue light of the television that was still on in the background.

 

"I joked about it. What my parents have. I thought it was maybe. Exaggerated, how people feel when they're with people like this," Thomas said, the words leaving him before he could consider what exactly they meant, “I didn't think it was real.”

 

A heartbeat shuddered between them and then Edward slowly wound his hand around the back of Thomas' neck, tugging him closer.

 

Thomas bent over him, let Edward kiss him, felt his fingers scraping in his hair. He eased down to Edward's side, felt Edward chasing kisses up his neck.

 

The television flickered over Edward's shoulder, Thomas lost in letting his hands roaming over his back, too consumed to listen to the rote, unimportant words being exchanged by the unfamiliar characters on screen.

 

For once Thomas couldn't find anything cheeky to say, could only nod his head, suck in a breath around the familiar sensations, urged Edward closer till his weight was fully spread over him.

 

It was quiet, pinned there in place, Edward breathing against him and the bed creaking in slow time to their love making.

 

"I didn’t know how much I was missing," Thomas managed, from the small space in between them, “I didn’t – I had no idea…”

 

He kissed the sweat off of Edward's shoulder, his chest. The words weren't a complaint, or even a request. Edward was inside already, every heavenly inch. That alone – he could hang his heart on it and call it a day.

 

"You’re so beautiful,” Edward said simply, “all of you.” He kissed the corner of his mouth when Thomas turned his head towards the words.

 

It was another kind of declaration, and for a rare moment Thomas forgot to feel so embarrassed with himself as much as he could be during times like that.

 

Maybe it was warranted. Maybe he really had earned some of the right to be seen through Edward's eyes. Maybe, under these circumstances, he really was. For all his faults, and everything that was unfolding quietly around him.

 

The world blotted into spots of dreamy violet as the sun rose, and Thomas let himself fall asleep with Edward’s head on his stomach, his hands in his hair, his thumb tracing over the barely perceptible arc of the scar on the back of his head.