Eleanor clung onto his arm for support, swaying slightly while her heels betrayed her.
“-and fuck him if he thinks that sending me a fucking postcard from the Bahamas counts as a Christmas present, did I mention that the last time he gave me an honest-to-god wrapped Christmas present I was fourteen? It was a stationery set, James, fucking stationery!” she yelled over the music, somewhere south of his ear. He patted her shoulder with his free hand.
“You did mention it, once or twice actually.” he said softly, eyes scanning into the hallway. Spotting his husband’s head towering over the small crowd, he extracted his arm from Eleanor’s tight grip, guiding her towards Madi who was walking nearby. “Eleanor, you’ve told Madi about your father, haven’t you?” he said, raising his voice slightly as they approached the woman. Madi pursed her lips, looking Eleanor up and down before meeting James’ eyes. He silently pleaded with her, and Madi gave in, shaking her head gently with a smile. Hooking one of her arms through Eleanor’s, she took the woman towards the garden.
James could still hear Eleanor’s voice over the music as he snaked his way through the mass of people in her living room, finding his way back to Thomas. Leaning against the staircase, cheeks pink and a grin spread over his face, he made for an irresistible picture. He was embroiled in an animated conversation with one of Jack’s friends, and cradled a large glass of red wine in one hand.
James slid up next to him, standing on tiptoes to hook his chin over a shoulder. Thomas tilted his head, grin spreading even further before he considered his husband for a moment and kissed him on the tip of his nose.
“Hello there, darling.” Thomas purred, nuzzling in towards James. “I’m having a lot of fun, but I’m afraid I lost the baby somewhere along the way.”
“I had noticed, as a matter of fact.” James sighed, bringing an arm to wrap around his waist, fingers twitching against the scratchy wool of Thomas’ hideous Christmas jumper, hand knitted by Miranda years previously. “Are you going to tell me where she is?”
The hand not holding a glass of wine was raised, and Thomas pointed towards the kitchen. “Somewhere over there. Anne stole her.”
“Anne stole her?” James echoed, frowning at his husband. Thomas gave him a cheery grin, and then reached back into the pocket of his jeans.
“I have a present for you…” he said in a sing-song like voice, shaking out a bright piece of paper. It unraveled, revealing a vivid green hat, which he loosely placed on James’ head. “Pulled a cracker with Billy while you were gone.”
He sighed, knowing full well Thomas wouldn’t be happy until he wore it properly, and tugged the paper securely over his head.
“Thank you, love. I’m going to find Ivy.” he said, bending up to kiss Thomas on the cheek. He leaned in towards his ear, whispering as the music pumped in the background. “Be good while I’m gone.” he said, the corners of his lips curling upwards.
Thomas raised an eyebrow as he stepped away, before fixing James with an amused grin.
“I’m a fucking delight, and you know it.” he said, voice raised above the music. A few heads turned to look at Thomas, and James sighed as he walked away, leaving his husband to giggle against the staircase railing.
It didn’t take long to find her. As soon as he entered the kitchen he saw the four of them, squirrelled away in the corner. Anne was sat on the counter, one ankle hooked around Max’s leg and the other swinging to and fro, Jack hung beside them taking pictures on his phone, and Max stood in the midst of it all with Ivy in her arms. Jack waved at him as he got closer.
“Managed to get away from our darling hostess, have you?” Jack asked, leaning back against the counter. James snorted.
“More or less.” he said, coming up beside Max and Ivy. Max took one pale, chubby wrist between her fingers and waved it at James.
“Look who it is! It’s papa! Say, hi papa!” Max cooed in a sing-song voice. Ivy garbed, her bright eyes finding James, and her face split into a toothy grin. He smiled and put one finger out, letting her curl a fist around it. He had decided he didn’t want to deprive Max of her joy just let, she had looked so happy with the baby.
“Has she behaved? More to the point, has her darling father while I’ve been gone?”
“Last I saw him, he’d snuck out for a smoke with Silver, when he gave us Ivy. She’s been good as gold though, ain’t you?” Anne said, leaning forward to tickle Ivy’s cheek. James had been truly stunned to see how much of a natural Anne had been with the girl. He hadn’t expected her to have much of a maternal instinct, and yet every time him and Thomas needed a babysitter, Anne would drag either Max or Jack (on rare occasions, both) at her insistence to look after the child. They got on incredibly well. He wondered if it was their shared hair colour.
“I didn’t think Thomas smoked anymore?” Jack quipped with a frown. James tssk-ed, raising his fingers to brush through Ivy’s soft ginger curls.
“He doesn’t, technically. Only on the rare opportunities he gets to have a proper drink. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself tonight, at least.” James said with an affectionate chuckle.
“He’s not the only one, you know.” Max laughed, balancing Ivy on her hip and dancing in time to the music with her. She sang to her as the girl giggled, bopping her head as she tried to copy Max.
“Belle of the ball, that one. Think it’s clear which father she’s inherited that particular trait from.” Jack said, nudging him in the side with one pointy elbow.
“You should see him dance with her at home, he’s at it all the time, it’s no wonder she’s picked up such a good sense of rhythm so well this young.” he sighed with a happy smile.
Anne stepped back from the dancing pair, squeezing her way between the two men and leaning her head on Jack’s arm.
“Always knew she’d be good at that sort of shit.” Anne said, nuzzling into Jack’s shirt. He brought an arm up behind her, wrapping it around her shoulder.
“You’re both bloody fantastic with her, I never expected to see you so moony-eyed over the little tyke.” he said. He pressed a kiss to her head, rolling his eyes at James in the process.
“You’re not telling me you’re thinking of getting one yourself, are you?” James joked, flashing Anne a bright grin. “They’re damn expensive, dangerous too.”
Anne didn’t answer him, choosing instead to keep her eye trained on where Max and Ivy were spinning in circles around the kitchen island. Jack coughed, his spare hand coming up to rub at his cheek.
“Nothing is exactly…solidly decided, shall we say. But things have been…” Jack began, trailing off when Anne gave him a sharp glare. “…discussed.”
He looked between them, quickly understanding that neither of them seemed to be joking around anymore. He picked up an abandoned bottle of beer from the counter and started idly picking at the wet paper with his fingers, tapping a foot to the beat of the music.
“You’ll all be wonderful at it, you know.” he said, much quieter now than they had been. “Whatever you decide to do. You’ve got enough of us here for support if you need it, you all certainly have helped us with Ivy. She’ll enjoy having a little friend.”
“You tell anyone-” Anne interrupted, voice low. “Anyone, even Thomas, and you’re dead.”
He held his hands up to her, earnest. “Not a word.”
“On that note…” Jack said, looking at his phone as he pushed himself up from the worktop. “Charles has just sent me a text, apparently Eleanor has brought out the candy cane jelly shots in the dining room. I’d like to try one before they both swallow down the lot, ideally.”
“Sounds like a plan. You coming?” Anne asked him, jerking her head in the direction of the door. He shook his head, stretching to check his own phone.
“I should be finding my darling husband, wherever he may be. We’ll likely be making tracks soon, don’t want to get home too late.” he said, looking at his phone clock and finding that he’d misjudged the hour entirely.
“Fair enough. I think Madi and Silver are still having everyone over for coffee and mince pies Christmas Eve afternoon, so we’ll see you then.” Jack said, clapping him on the back as he left. Anne came to stand in front of him, eyes narrowed dangerously as she jabbed a finger twice into his chest.
“Remember, not a word, McGraw.”
“I heard you the first time.” he sighed, leaning down slightly as she gave him a tight one-armed hug.
He hadn’t long finished drafting a text to Thomas, asking him where he was and when they could leave, when Max appeared at his side, a sleepy bundle curled up against her chest.
“The little princess is past her bedtime, I think.” she said with a sigh, stroking a hand up and down Ivy’s back. Seeing her father, the girl extended her arms, grabbing her hands at thin air while making tired little grumbles.
“Straight to sleep for you when we get home, hm?” he said, wrapping her up in his arms. She burrowed into his shirt with a yawn.
“I can go and find Thomas, if you’d like?” Max offered.
“It’s alright, I’ve just sent him a message letting him know I’m here, he shouldn’t be long.” he said, smiling at the woman. “Thank you again for playing with her for a bit, you didn’t have to.”
“Ah, it is my pleasure, as always. She’s delightful.” she replied, a wide grin spreading over her face and lighting up her eyes. “It has been a fun night.”
“It’s still reasonable early, I’m sure Eleanor will keep the party going until almost dawn. Just try not to let her hurt herself maybe, or drunkenly call her father.” he chuckled, before looking up to see Thomas coming into the room. He was frowning at James, eyeing him up and down.
“Where’s your hat?” he asked, sounding slightly disappointed. James patted his head with his free hand, before spinning around and looking to the floor.
“I had it a moment ago, I promise.” James said. He continued to scan the ground, before a single delicate tap to his shoulder alerted him to Max standing right behind him.
“It was on the counter.” she said, sounding amused as she held the lurid green paper hat dangling from one finger.
“Ah, excellent!” Thomas said with a clap, taking it from her to position it on James’ nest of hair. He tried to stay still as Thomas fussed, but Ivy soon noticed the activity above her and wriggled against James’ chest. “Hello, darling. Daddy and papa will get you home soon.” he said, tickling her pink cheek.
“What have you been up to?” James asked him, rocking Ivy in his arms.
“Been outside with John. I know what he’s getting you for Christmas.” he said, a bright smile spreading over his cherry red cheeks.
“Do you now.” he said dryly, raising an unamused eyebrow at his husband.
“You’ll love it. Or hate it, maybe. He loves it. Madi isn’t so sure, apparently. I, for one, can’t wait to see your reaction.” Thomas said. He looked at his husband, happy and animated, and felt a surge of affection. He never got tired of Thomas’ seemingly endless enthusiasm for anything and everything he came across. He was particularly bad when it came to Christmas, his spirit practically infectious.
“Right. Well, I should probably make the rounds and say goodbye to everyone quickly, let them know we’re off. C'mon, why don’t you cuddle with daddy for a bit.” he said, pressing a quick kiss to Ivy’s curls before handing her over to Thomas.
“Hello, my sleepy little angel.” he whispered, bringing her to his chest. Her head found his shoulder almost immediately.
James stepped back, sneaking a picture on his phone while Thomas wasn’t looking, too busy tucking errant russet curls behind Ivy’s ear. He felt a presence at his shoulder, and saw Max looking at the screen.
“Truly adorable.” she whispered to him, face crinkled. “I won’t say goodbye to her, don’t want to disturb her. Come, I’ll follow you into the room, I should find Anne again.”
She took his hand in her slim one, leading him back in towards the party as they left father and daughter together sharing a peaceful moment in the kitchen.
He’d already been awake for around twenty minutes by the time Thomas stirred, already shifting to seek out the heat of James’ body before he opened his eyes.
“Morning, love.” he hummed, moving his arm so that Thomas could snake underneath and rest his head on his bare chest. He put down the paperback he had been reading, checking the time again on his phone.
“Morning.” he mumbled, the syllables almost entirely swallowed up by James’ skin. “Up long?”
He shook his head, carding his fingers through wheat coloured hair.
“Not really. I’ll get up when I hear Ivy, take her down with me while I get breakfast started. Let you have a bit of a rest, at least.”
Thomas chuckled. stretching his legs out under the sheets with a groan.
“Could use it. My head feels rather delicate.” he said with a wince.
He reached over to the bedside table, retrieving a box of pills and a glass of water he’d left there last night in preparation. Thomas sat up, his face beaming as James handed them over wordlessly.
“What on Earth would I do without you, dear.” he sighed contentedly, before popping out some painkillers.
“Perish, surely.” James said, watching him as he swallowed the pills down. He looked over to the baby monitor, seeing Ivy still happily sleeping away in her crib, before bringing himself up to sit fully upright against the headboard.
“Spoke to Anne and Jack last night.” he began, fiddling with the corner of the duvet as he spoke. “Said that they’re thinking of having a baby, the three of them.”. He brought up a hand to his face, scratching his nails through the beard there. He’d need to trim it properly before Christmas, it was looking far too messy of late. “Of course, you know nothing of this, because I swore to Anne I wouldn’t tell you. So you haven’t heard a thing, naturally.”
“Naturally.” Thomas repeated, returning to his spot on James’ chest. He drummed his fingers on a pectoral. “It’s lovely news. They would make a wonderful family.”
“Like I said, they’re thinking still. You’ve seen how they get with Ivy, though.”
“Baby fever.” Thomas chuckled. “We’ll be surrounded by them soon. I’m sure it won’t be long before John and Madi get pregnant, too.”
He hummed in agreement, gazing up at the ceiling, lost in thought all of a sudden. When he’d been silent long enough, his train of thought was interrupted with the slide of Thomas’ lips against his, slow and languid in the chilly winter air of the bedroom.
“You’re off somewhere else, I can tell. You’re practically oceans away.” he whispered against his mouth, stroking along his beard. James grinned, giving him one last peck before pushing him back onto the pillow.
“Do you ever think about it?” he asked hesitantly. He opened his mouth to elaborate, before Thomas finished his sentence for him.
“Another baby, you mean?” Thomas said, stifling a yawn into the crook of his arm. “We could have matching ones. A little miniature version of you, and a little version of me.”
“Something like that, yes.” he chuckled softly.
“The only way we’d likely get a mini-me is if it was another blonde. It was a fluke having your genes push through with Ivy, I doubt it would happen again.” he gave James a gentle shove with his elbow, grin crooking up at the side of his face. “You think Eleanor would be happy to carry this time?”
“Hey, I’m not stopping you from asking her. You do so at your own peril, however.” James said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. Thomas dragged him down into another kiss, slipping his tongue past his lips.
“You know…” he said, the words spilling out against James’ mouth. “Miranda always said she’d be willing do it again. We’ve got enough room, and Ivy would make a brilliant big sister.”
He rubbed his stubbled cheek against James’, pressing kisses near his ear. James arched into the touch, keeping one eye over his shoulder as he caught movement on the tiny screen.
“We’ll think about it, hm?” he said, watching the bundle start to toss and turn at last. “Right now, your darling daughter needs me.”
“I need you, James.” he breathed, grabbing ahold of his wrist and bringing his hand to the hardening crotch of his pyjama bottoms. No sooner had he touched Thomas, before morning cries began to fill the upstairs hallway and the crackly speaker of the monitor.
“Later.” James said, holding Thomas’ face between both hands and kissing him on the slope of his nose. “There’s coffees and breakfasts and daughters and nappies to be seen to, I’m afraid.”
He slumped face down onto the bed sheets, snuggling into the pillow below him. James dragged himself out of the bed, wrapping an ancient dressing gown around him before stepping out into the chilly hallway.
“Love you!” he heard called after him, muffled through the pillow. He huffed out a laugh in the empty hallway. Maybe he’d bring Ivy back to bed with them for a little while after all. She could crawl around on top of the duvet for a while, bring in some of her blocks to play on the bed. Besides, it would be a lot warmer if they were all snuggled up together, he rationalised. Even if her father would rather have a lay-in.