It is a paradox—one very much in line with what Thomas knows of life—that, whilst he longed for quiet when Edward's niece and nephews were staying, the moment they leave, he finds himself missing their noise.
“You shan't be too sad to see the back of them, shall you, darling?” Thomas looks at the collie, Cricket. He lies gnawing on his soggy knotted rag as Thomas folds Edward's clean clothes. “You and Baby will have your dear Papa all to yourselves again.” Cricket had been most dreadfully jealous while the children were visiting, barking excitedly and leaping into the fray when Edward wrestled with the two older boys. The spaniel, Baby, was more tolerant, allowing the youngest boy and the girl, Alice, to stroke him and brush him and tie little ribbons about his ears, admiring his beauty all the while. Thomas has no doubt the spoiled little thing thinks such treatment no more than his just deserts.
As Thomas slides Edward's neatly folded shirts into their drawer, his gaze alights on one such ribbon, half-hidden beneath the chair. He kneels to fetch it, scratching Cricket behind the ears when the dog pads over for an opportunistic kiss.
On closer inspection, it is not one of the ribbons the children used on Baby, but rather one of Alice's own hair ribbons, a length of sunny yellow satin. Thomas has scant experience with feminine hairstyles, but Edward has even less, so it fell to Thomas to tie up Alice's hair during her stay. It reminded him, he found, of his mother's illness, although not in a sorrowful way. Plaiting Mother's hair was one of the few comforts Thomas could offer her near the end, and doing the same for Edward's young niece, even though she pulled and complained, brought that fond memory to the surface. So fond, Thomas continued to arrange Alice's hair even when the maid, Bethy, offered to take over the job.
“Dear Alice,” Thomas sighs, to a Cricket who has lost interest in both him and the ribbon, and is instead snuffling at the wainscotting. Alice and her brothers are all terribly dear. Clever, sweet, lovely, dear children. They got on splendidly as always with the Hodgson brood, and Edward doted on them almost as if they were his own.
“That's quite enough of that, then, isn't it, Cricket?” Thomas stands briskly. He puts the ribbon on top of the chest of drawers, to be returned when they next see Alice, and carries on with his tasks.
The cook, Mrs. Vale, seems to have no mixed feelings about the children's departure.
“I don't mind telling you, I was not keen on making nursery teas.”
“But you do it so well,” Thomas assures her.
She snorts, ladelling out a slightly more sophisticated mock turtle soup for the pair of them. Thomas would normally dine with Edward, but he has not yet returned from bringing the children back to their parents: his brother Fred and Fred's wife Edith. “All I can say, Mr. Jopson, is that it's just as well Mr. Little doesn't seem likely to take a wife anytime soon. He has no need, not with the way you look after him.”
Thomas' gaze flies up, but if there's any deeper meaning to that statement, she doesn't let it show. If Mrs. Vale has ever suspected anything, in all the years she's worked for Edward, about the true nature of Thomas' position, she has never made mention of it. Not with a word, not even with a look. Thomas should do her the courtesy of letting the subject drop. Instead, he hears himself replying, in a light, jovial tone to match hers, “If only I could bear his son, then he really would have no reason to wed.”
Mrs. Vale laughs. “But he would find himself looking for a new cook. I did my time. I raised my six, on my own once poor Mr. Vale popped his clogs. One week a year's all I can manage with young 'uns now.” She brings the teapot over to the kitchen table.
Thomas smiles. “I think we deserve something a little stronger than that, don't you?”
“I won't say no if you're offering.”
Thomas goes to fetch a bottle of wine from the dining room. When he gets back, Mrs. Vale already has the glasses out.
It's late when Edward arrives home. Thomas is still awake, reading in bed with a dog on either side of him. He places his bookmark carefully in his copy of Miss Charlotte Brontë's Villette, lovingly inscribed 'To my dearest catlap', a nickname Edward has not used in a long while but which brings a few particularly naughty memories to Thomas' mind, and a blush to his cheeks, each time he reads it.
“Good evening, my darlings.” Edward bends to kiss Thomas, then the dogs. Thomas counts all of them fortunate he does it in that order.
“How are Fred and Edith?” Thomas shifts, allowing Cricket to pummel him with his wagging tail as he greets Edward like they haven't seen one another in years, rather than hours.
“All the better for having a week without the children, Fred says. Edith wants me to thank you most particularly, again.” Not to be outdone, Baby steps atop Thomas, craning his neck to lick at Edward's hand.
“The children are no trouble.”
“That's what I said. I told them once I'm fully retired, we would be quite happy to have them more often.”
“Don't tell Mrs. Vale that. She left you some soup and bread in the kitchen.”
“It's all right. I ate on the train.” With a final affectionate pat, Edward steps back from the dogs. He unfastens his waistcoat and drops it carelessly onto the chair behind him, then begins to work on his trousers. There's a particular look in Edward's eye Thomas knows very well.
During the children's stay, the two of them were entirely circumspect, even going so far as to sleep in separate rooms in case a little one came wandering in the night. The severity with which Edward has missed their closeness is apparent when, once he's down to his underthings, he actually shoos the dogs off the bed and opens the bedroom door for them. Baby trots off, clearly not eager to stay where he is so rudely treated. Cricket, unwilling as ever to leave his master, turns in a circle and lies on the bedroom rug. Edward doesn't bother trying to move him. He shuts the door, pulling off his socks and drawers and slipping into bed beside Thomas.
Thomas has missed Edward's touch as well, deeply so, but the flame that would normally blaze to life when Edward kisses him remains strangely dim.
“What's the matter, love?” Edward pulls away.
“I don't know.” That's not entirely honest. Thomas sighs heavily and leans back, far enough that he can see the glow of the hearth flickering in Edward's dark eyes. “Do you ever wish I was a woman?”
Edward blinks. “Do you?”
“Not in the least.” He has known far too many women, and the lives they're forced to lead, to envy them in any way. Well, in any way, save one. “But I could give you children. A family of your own. Of our own.”
Edward's expression eases from alarmed confusion into one of such overt tenderness, Thomas is taken aback. “How might I have met her then, this enchanting Miss Jopson?”
“I don't know.” He thinks of the women back in Marylebone. “She might have been a housemaid. Or a barmaid. A flower seller, perhaps.”
“Whatever her profession, no doubt I would have fallen in love at first sight, and proposed far sooner than was prudent.”
Thomas chuckles. It had not seemed humorous at first, but having Edward so close, happy and smiling, is easing Thomas' despondency, like it always does. “Your family would have been so very thrilled.”
“Hm. And you think Hale dislikes you now. Which, incidentally, he does not.” He does. Edward's eldest brother believes Thomas to be a self-important servant of suspect motives, it's obvious to Thomas even as Edward denies it, but that would be no different if Thomas was Edward's housemaid-turned-wife. “It's true,” Edward goes on, sliding a hand over Thomas' flat stomach, “Mrs. Little née Jopson may have borne me many beautiful children who all looked like her, right down to their dimples and their charming noses.” He presses his lips to Thomas' nose for emphasis. “But I could never love her the way I do you, because she could never know me as you do.”
“She would love you.” Thomas is certain of it. But he knows what Edward means, and he knows Edward is right.
They don't speak of the Arctic. There was no deliberate decision taken to avoid the topic, but it is not a subject upon which either one of them cares to reminisce. Still, Thomas knows very well that experience is why he and Edward are as close as they are today.
The measure of a man is taken in adversity. The Arctic showed Thomas Edward's true character, along with the true depth of his love. Had the expedition gone smoothly, had they found the Passage in the first year or two and emerged more-or-less intact, he and Edward would never have come together. Thomas would have admired Edward from afar, as he'd done with one or two other handsome, able officers he knew before. That would have been the end of it. Back in England, they would have parted ways. Within a year or two, they would barely have recognized one another on the street.
Despite all the suffering he endured and witnessed, despite the illness that hounds him still when the weather turns cold and he is laid up in bed, wheezing and aching and being waited upon by Edward, as indulgent with his lover as he is with his pets, Thomas cannot regret going north. It brought him all he has. It brought him, eventually, his lovely home, his sweet-tempered dogs, and a man so caring and so good, nobody—man or woman—could ask for better.
“I love Tom Jopson,” Edward repeats, charmingly earnest. “And I would not change a single thing about him. Certainly not for so trifling a reason as the ability to have a child.” That reason is anything but trifling. But hearing the words from Edward quells whatever strange misery has been brewing within Thomas since he kissed Alice and her brothers good-bye.
Thomas huffs a laugh, ashamed at his own ridiculousness. “You do know just what to say, Mr. Little.”
“If so, it's a skill I learned from a very clever Naval lieutenant of my acquaintance.” Edward moves in for another kiss, his hand wandering beneath the hem of Thomas' nightshirt.
“Former Naval lieutenant,” Thomas corrects him, his mouth against Edward's. This time, the kiss takes, lighting the warm, comfortable desire that he has begun to take for granted. The hand beneath his nightshirt tickles at Thomas' ribs. Placing Miss Brontë carefully on the bedside table, Thomas leans over and extinguishes the lamp.
“And that, in a nutshell, is why we shall never find an alternative to coal as a functional fuel.” Edward's brother-in-law Lionel finishes, letting out a long breath, as if he was pressed against his will into making the lengthy speech he just delivered and is relieved to be finished with it. Thomas cannot recall anyone making such a request. He doesn't even think they had been discussing the subject of fuel when Lionel launched into his monologue, although that was so long ago, Thomas can't quite trust his memory.
As the pause drags on, Thomas uses his position behind Edward, filling his glass with port, to discreetly nudge his darling's shoulder.
“Yes,” Edward says, his glassy-eyed stare breaking. “Too right.” He takes his glass, drains it, and holds it out to be refilled.
“We do have some rather exciting news for you, Edward,” Lionel's wife, Edward's sister Lucy, goes on, as Thomas makes his way around the table. Edward hates for Thomas to serve, even when there are guests—especially, it seems, when the guests are his relatives—but it gives Thomas an excuse to be in the room. When Lucy, and particularly Lionel and Lucy, are visiting, Edward needs all the support he can get.
Pretty Lucy, as dark haired as Edward with remarkable blue eyes, glances at her husband, then back to her brother. “Lionel and I are expecting.”
“Expecting what?” Thomas raises his eyebrows at Edward as he pours a glass for Lionel. “Oh! I say. Congratulations. Good show.”
Lucy smiles, primly proud. “We were rather hoping you would be the baby's godfather. Weren't we, Lionel?”
“Indeed,” Lionel agrees. He, too, is remarkably handsome, which Thomas supposes is a good thing. The poor man has little else to recommend him. “You know, old man, I always got the feeling you didn't much care for me. But when you gave me that marvellous birthday cake...”
“It was Thomas,” Edward breaks in. He casts his eyes up at Thomas, then back at Lionel. There's a touch of defiance in his voice as he goes on, “Credit where credit is due, no? Thomas arranged the cake. It was nothing to do with me at all.”
Lionel blinks. “Ah, well, I...Thank you?” He says to Thomas. It sounds like a question.
“You're quite welcome, sir.” An awkward silence descends. Staving off awkward moments became something of a specialty of Thomas' in the days when Captain Crozier was drinking. As smoothly as possible, he deflects the conversation. “If I may be so bold, sir, madam, I would like to offer my own congratulations to you both.”
It spurs Edward into action, as Thomas hoped it would. “And I'm honoured to be the little nipper's godfather. Of course I am.” He goes over to his sister, bending to kiss her cheek. “What wonderful news, Lucy.” As he shakes his brother-in-law's hand, Edward's gaze meets Thomas'. Thomas gives him the approving smile he seeks, although later he will have to scold him for his moment of ill-conceived chivalry.
It's Mrs. Vale's half-day, so tea is a light affair of sandwiches, blancmange, and apple Charlotte. Thomas is organizing the dirty dishes for Bethy to undertake in the morning, tossing bits of leftover ham to the delirious dogs as he goes, when he hears someone come into the kitchen behind him.
“Madam.” He turns. Now that he knows her news, he can see a roundness to Lucy's figure that was not obvious before. “May I be of assistance?” For a brief, panicked moment he wonders if Edward has throttled her husband in the five minutes since he left them together.
Lucy's reply is more shocking yet. She draws herself up to her not insignificant height, and says, “Edward considers his family fools. We are not. Some are not, in any case. There are those of us who can see how it is between you and he.” Thomas' heart hammers, even as he can feel his face heat. Before he can issue any sort of denial, she continues, “Please, do not mistake my meaning. We are most appreciative of the care you show him. Edith is most appreciative of the care you show her children. I hope you might show the same to mine, once it is born.”
Thomas' throat is dry. “Of, of course, madam,” he stammers, trying desperately to calm his racing pulse.
Lucy seems poised to say more. Instead, she nods and takes her leave, Cricket trundling merrily after her.
“Have I died?” Edward asks, the moment the door shuts behind Lucy and her husband. “Have the last four hours been divine punishment for sins I committed in life? Because I can think of no more agonizing torture than being forced to listen to Lionel Harrison speak on any subject whatsoever.”
“What a bloody bore. Can you imagine poor Lucy having to live with him? Do you think his idea of romance is discussing the Forbes Mackenzie Act? The history of nail makers strikes? Perhaps accounting procedures?”
“You are too unkind.” But Thomas can't conceal a grin.
Edward laughs in return. “I suppose you think, dearest heart, I didn't see you abscond to the kitchen the moment you were able to. What did Lucy say to you? She better not have treated you like her servant.”
“She didn't.” Although Thomas can hardly wrap his mind around the way she had treated him, the things she said.
Thomas shares everything with Edward. He will share this as well, but not yet. Thomas wants to examine just how he feels about being accepted by some members of Edward's family before he mentions the notion to Edward himself.
Edward is clearly in too pleasant a mood to probe further. He puts his arms around Thomas' waist, pulling him in until they are pressed together from chest to knee. Thomas recalls, briefly, how fervently he longed for such casual, easy intimacy all those years ago on-ship.
“That's a pensive look, Tommy. You're not about to take a leaf from Lionel's book and embark on a lecture, are you?”
“No, no. My thoughts are quite elsewhere.”
“Do tell.” Edward raises an eyebrow.
Thomas hesitates too long, and Edward's eyebrow descends. “It's not about Lucy having a baby, is it? I know that was something of a sore spot with you.”
“Not at all,” Thomas replies, truthfully. Worries about having children, or not having them, were short-lived. If anything, they have receded even further since hearing Lucy's frank statement.
As he looks at Edward's lovely face, so full of concern, so genuinely worried for Thomas' silly sensibilities, Thomas' mood shifts quite dramatically. An unexpected emotion strikes him: a sort of saucy playfulness he hasn't felt for a long time. It takes Thomas back to the early days, when he and Edward were first home and so overwhelmed with the relief of survival and the novelty of their new, relative privacy they engaged in all manner of lascivious acts that have long since given way to sedate, predictable lovemaking.
“In fact,” Thomas says innocently, keeping his gaze on Edward even as he feels himself blushing, “it's been a good many years since I've been the least bit...sore.” Lest his point be too subtle, Thomas pulls Edward's hand around, placing it on the swell of his backside. Edward takes his meaning. Thomas can tell when he swallows visibly, his eyes round. “We may be out of practice,” Thomas adds, “but I find I wouldn't mind going for a ride this evening, if you were agreeable. Sir.”
“I...” Edward's voice is weak. He clears his throat. “I didn't...I mean, we haven't...It's been such a long...”
Thomas' daring desire begins to curdle into embarrassment. “If you'd rather not, that's perfectly fine.” It was a silly, nostalgic fancy, really. A game for younger men.
Edward has never responded more quickly. “It's not that! But I haven't got it. The, the...” It's Edward's turn to flush, cheeks stained a very fetching crimson. “The crop. It's at the country house.”
“I'm quite certain you can improvise, my love.” Smugness fills Thomas. He feels, he thinks, as the dogs must when Edward gives them a treat: full of love for Edward, and of satisfaction with himself. He heads for their bedroom without looking back, content and secure in the knowledge Edward is just a few steps behind.