Harlequin's Slash Fic

Ted & Ralph: 04 Ever After

Title: Ted & Ralph: 04 Ever After
Author: Julien
Universe: Ted & Ralph (The Fast Show)
Characters featured: Ted/Ralph, and Jamie/Robert (Jamie is an original character)
Category, Word count: Story; 10822 words
Rating: R
Summary: In which Ted and Ralph, though happy, are still adjusting to being together. And Ralph’s cousin Jamie finds a new boyfriend.
Notes: Jamie’s boyfriend is based on the character played by Robbie Williams in a Ted & Ralph Comic Relief sketch.
First published: 22 April 2004 in Homosapien 7

 

Ever After

 

Ted savoured the last mouthful of beer, before carefully wrapping up the leftover sandwiches and putting them back in the picnic basket. Then he clambered to his feet and announced, ‘I’d best be getting back to work now, sor.’

‘Oh, no, Ted!’ Ralph protested. He wriggled a little where he lay on the blanket, looking like a beached whale trying to dance the lambada.

Trying to hide his helpless grin, Ted gazed down at his master – who, despite the whale metaphor, was really rather provokingly attractive. In fact, if Ted kept watching him like this, and the winsomely smiling Ralph kept wriggling like that, then yet another afternoon would be whiled away and come to naught. ‘If I don’t cut back the apple trees soon, sor, we won’t have half the crop we had last year.’

‘No apple crumpet – crumble for me,’ Ralph mourned. ‘Ah, Ted my darling, come down here. I made you lunch and brought it out here, I conversed with you, I listened – quite attentively, I thought – to your problems in placing the new ha–ha …’ Though Ralph dissolved into giggles once more at naming this most serious of landscape features.

Ted lifted his eyes skywards as if praying for patience, though he had to admit to himself that his own lips couldn’t help but curl at the sound of his young master’s laughter.

‘Didn’t I –’ Ralph finally managed. ‘Didn’t I earn my just desserts?’

‘Aye, that you did, sor.’

‘Then come down here and love me, Ted. It might be our last chance.’

Ted, still standing there ready to leave, shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t be saying that, sor. I’ve a few years left in me yet.’

Ralph laughed again. ‘You know what I mean, Ted! My cousin Jamie is arriving tomorrow, and this is our last chance for’ – he sung the phrase despite Ted’s wince – ‘a little afternoon delight out here in the sunshine.’ Ralph smiled wistfully. ‘I’ll miss these rendezvous.’

‘I will, too, sor.’ And Ted eased himself back down to lie on the blanket beside his young master.

It was so peaceful here in the walled garden. The sun poured in, the grass grew lush beneath them, the world remained safely without, and the only sound was the buzz of a satiated bee hovering over the espaliered apricots.

‘Ah, sor,’ Ted sighed, feeling half sad and half content. He leaned up on an elbow to kiss the man, to give and to take a luscious kiss, an involvingly passionate kiss.

Ralph responded with a familiar indolent happiness. There was something undeniably sensual about the young gentleman these days, now that the confusion was ebbing away. Now that the long–frustrated love had been set free, and had finally been matched. Ralph had been timid in his lovemaking at first. Passive. But that was changing, and changing again, in the most surprising ways, and there were times when Ted honestly feared that one day he’d fail to keep up. When all was said and done, Ted was an old dog who could only expect to learn a few new tricks.

This, for example … this was indeed new … Ralph had unbuttoned and unzipped them both, ordered and arranged Ted to suit himself, so that Ted was now lying on top of him, thrusting himself between those generous thighs, his way eased by a lotion with a spicy scent that mixed with the grass and the apricots to intoxicate him – or was it the young sor himself intoxicating him, the love, the beer, the sunshine, the sheer perverse wonder of fucking his master’s thighs – thighs that had been perfectly made for exactly this – Ted relearning this age–old motion but with his own legs straddled rather than together, and Ralph’s unbearably honest face looking up at his own more fraught expression (Ted tried not to frown, tried not to grimace), with the breath panting between them.

‘Anything,’ Ralph promised him in a rushed murmur, which only heightened the intensity of the spell. ‘You can do anything to me, Ted, anything you like.’

‘Sor …’

‘You name it, Ted, and I’m there for you.’

‘Sor, don’t. Please don’t.’

‘Anything …’ And Ralph’s eyes closed, his head tilting back, as if he’d swooned at the very thought.

Ted felt lonely for a moment, even as the end threatened. ‘Sor …’

No response.

‘This is plenty, sor. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Sor, please …’

Still no response.

Ted shifted up further, barely breaking his stride, shifted up and readjusted – and suddenly the young man couldn’t help but respond, the constant rocking thrusting motion now working them both.

Ralph opened his eyes, lifted his arms around Ted’s shoulders, smiling like the cat who’d stolen the cream. ‘Clever, Ted, you’re so clever, I always knew you didn’t just have green thumbs …’

But the last thing Ted wanted right now was talk, compliments or not, so he leaned down to press a kiss to the young sor’s mouth, and when that didn’t quieten him, Ted murmured, ‘Ralph, please.’

The shock of that sent a shudder through the master, and his thighs trembled, and Ted almost surrendered to the end right then and there, but he managed to hold on long enough to kiss the man and increase the rhythm and was rewarded by Ralph’s own surrender before giving in himself.

Ted collapsed beside his master, and they held each other close. A minute or two of peace passed by. Until – ‘Ted …’

Knowing exactly what was coming, he managed not to groan. ‘Yes, sor.’

‘You called me Ralph, Ted.’

‘I’m sorry, sor. It won’t happen again.’

A lightning–strike of betrayal marred that open expression, and the sight of that almost undid Ted’s resolve.

‘It’s not right, sor, me calling you that. It’s just not right.’

‘Not right?’ Storm–clouds were now gathering on Ralph’s face. This happened so rarely that Ted found himself watching, fascinated. ‘Not right? I gave you permission! I asked you to. I even begged! What more do you want?’

Ted remained silent.

Ralph got to his feet, and did himself up while pacing one way and then the other, limited by the width of the picnic blanket. ‘Let me tell you what’s not right, Ted! What’s not right is you not moving into the big house with me. Not sleeping with me every night. Not being my … my partner, when we’re as good as married, and I wear your ring!’

‘I never heard of any groundsman living in the big house, sor, nor any gamekeeper, nor gardener.’

‘Bollocks!’

‘It just wouldn’t be right, sor.’ Ted had said it before, and he might say it again and again and again, but it seemed that Ralph would not face this truth. ‘It wouldn’t be right.’

‘What do I care about what’s right or wrong, Ted? I don’t care about anything other than you. Never have, and never will. And if we want to live together, then why the hell shouldn’t we?’

Ted got to his feet. It wasn’t like the young master to swear, not at all. Maybe that meant a point could be made. Or maybe it meant that Ralph wouldn’t listen even more than usual, but Ted had to try. ‘Would you come live with me in the cottage, sor?’

That snared Ralph’s attention. The man stopped pacing, and just looked at Ted.

‘You wouldn’t leave the big house, sor. Your family’s house, your inheritance, passed down to you from mother to daughter through generations, from the consort of a king. You’ve fought for it time and again, and you’ve won, sor, and it wouldn’t be right for you to leave it. Not ever.’

Ralph scowled. ‘It’s not the same thing! The cottage is hardly your family inheritance, Ted.’

‘I’m not talking about the cottage, sor. I’m talking about my place. The place where I belong.’

‘You belong with me!’

‘Aye, sor, that’s not in question. But I don’t belong in the big house, and there’s an end to it.’

He stood there, defiant, watching his young master fume and pace. But Ralph couldn’t argue with him, not any further. There had always been a line the master wouldn’t cross, no matter how badly he wanted to push. It was a wonder he’d even said what he had. It was a wonder they both had.

Ralph threw a glance at him, a nod. An annoyed yet respectful glance, and then Ralph scooped up the picnic gear and headed inside, while Ted belatedly made his way down to the apple orchard.

 

They didn’t even try to talk about it that evening. Ralph made an effort to be particularly pleasant and untroubled, and Ted seemed to make a similar effort to be affable and available. Ralph was troubled, though. A lifetime of impossible dreams had come true for him, and the first two months as Ted’s partner had been unalloyed bliss. As they neared their three–month anniversary, though, it seemed that difficulties beset them both. Well, not difficulties as such, and certainly not doubts, but a whole host of irksome little things about which they seemed doomed to disagree.

Ralph had to conclude that he was at fault, and he alone. Obviously Ted knew how to make a relationship work, for he and Mrs Ted had been happy together for decades. But Ralph was all at sea in this his very first – his only ever – serious, loving relationship, and it seemed he was doing nothing but create obstacles.

Tonight, though, it seemed as if they both wanted to pretend for a while that those obstacles didn’t exist. Ted, without any quibbles at all, made it clear that he would sleep at the house; Ralph led him to the master bedroom instead of his own (the room where he’d slept ever since leaving the nursery, and the narrow bed which he still preferred, despite all Ted’s prompting). They snuggled up close together under the covers, generating the luxurious kind of mutual heat that no eiderdown or electric blanket could ever provide – but Ralph didn’t press his luck, though he was sorely tempted, especially with Ted in such a deliberately amenable mood.

When Ralph woke late the next morning, Ted’s half of the bed was already cold, but the man had left a full pot of tea waiting there on the bedside table, still warmly steaming in one of Mrs Ted’s knitted tea cosies. Ralph smiled, poured himself a cuppa, and sat there in bed drinking it. Somehow, all those irksome little things seemed irrelevant in the morning light.

 

‘Jamie!’ Ralph cried as his cousin stepped sinuously from the taxi. ‘What a pleasure to see you. Always a delightful sight for sore, um, well, eyes.’ Suddenly feeling sheepish, Ralph rubbed his hands together. ‘And this time, I trust, there are no nasty misdemeanours hanging over your head …?’

Laughing that gorgeous throaty laugh of his, Jamie said, ‘No, Ralph – unfortunately! None at all.’ And he walked right up to his older cousin, and wrapped him up in a hug.

Ralph surrendered for a long delicious moment. No one had ever really hugged him – at least, not until he and Ted had finally … Which was why, of course, he shouldn’t be ogling his beautiful cousin, or enjoying the strength of Jamie’s generous arms, the firm press of his body. Ted deserved better than this vicarious betrayal. Ralph forced himself to pull away. ‘So, then, er – er, you’ve taken your degree? You’re ready to make your mark in the world?’

‘Yes, I have. And, no, I’m not so sure.’ The smile had faded. ‘The more I see of the world, the less I care about making a mark.’

This was serious stuff! Ralph frowned, unsure quite how to encourage the young man. ‘But what have you really seen of it?’ he asked as he picked up Jamie’s suitcase and led him inside the house. ‘You – you – you should get out there, Jamie, do the Grand Tour before you make any firm decisions. I’ve always wanted to do that myself. Morocco, Greece, Puerto Rico … Any – well, any island that can produce Ricky Martin can’t be all bad, eh?’

Jamie smiled at him fondly. ‘No. It must be a little bit of heaven on earth.’

‘Speaking of which –’ Ralph had looked up to discover his own piece of heaven coming in from the gardens. ‘Ted, dar– der– do you remember my cousin Jamie, Ted?’

‘Yes, sor. How d’ye do, young sor?’ Ted asked, shaking Jamie’s proffered hand.

Ralph found himself blushing pink, warmed through by this gesture of his cousin’s. So few people treated Ted even half as well as he deserved. ‘And, Jamie, of course you must remember dear Ted – I mean, Ted. You’ll remember Ted.’

‘Of course I remember dear Ted,’ Jamie said with a mischievous smile. And, while looking at Ted, Jamie obviously began to suspect something. Maybe it was because Ted no longer lowered his head so deferentially, maybe because Ralph was glowing with a happy pride that would not be denied. Jamie looked from one to the other, his smile growing into an appreciative grin.

Ted murmured, ‘If the beets grew as red as your blushes, sor, we’d take first prize at the Easter show for sure.’

Ralph almost melted through the floor. Ah, to die of embarrassment at Ted’s teasing. What a way to go!

Jamie laughed in delight, shook Ted’s hand again in congratulations, enveloped Ralph in an even fiercer hug. ‘You pair of old rogues!’ Then he caught up his bags, and jogged up the staircase towards the guest bedrooms. Just before he disappeared beyond the landing, Ralph looked up and caught his glance – and it was a glance of the sweetest, saddest envy.

 

The three of them ate supper around the kitchen table. Indeed, Ralph couldn’t remember the last time he’d used the dining hall. This was much nicer, with the three of them gathered comfortably together, as if – well, as if they were family, Ralph supposed. Which they were. The kind of family of which he’d had no real experience before now.

Ted was asking Jamie about his plans now he’d finished at Cambridge. ‘Ralph says I should travel,’ Jamie responded. ‘I’m really not sure, otherwise.’

‘There’s something to be said for seeing a bit of the world, young sor. I saw a bit of it myself, working on various estates, before Mrs Ted and I settled here.’

‘I was sorry to hear about your loss,’ Jamie offered.

‘Thank you, sor,’ Ted replied with a genuine simplicity that belied the need for dignity. ‘But you’d be wanting to see Europe, wouldn’t you, sor? The master tells me you majored in languages. Wouldn’t you be wanting to talk with them that grew up speaking ‘em?’

‘There’s something in that, Ted,’ Jamie agreed.

‘Did I really tell you that, Ted?’ Ralph mused. ‘About Jamie’s major, I mean. Lord, how I must witter on.’

Ted smiled, but demurred, ‘Oh, no. Not really, sor.’

‘That must have been months ago … There I was, hoping your memory would fail you. It would be generous of you, Ted, to forget what a fool I’ve managed to make of myself over the years.’

‘Not at all, sor. Not at all.’

‘What an absolute nuisance I made of myself. If you weren’t such a forbearing man, such a kind man …’

‘Don’t talk like that, sor,’ Ted murmured. And when Ralph reached out to him for reassurance, Ted held his hand – clasped his hand right there on the table despite Jamie being there, though he lowered his head in embarrassment or deference or both.

Jamie was grinning. ‘So …’ he eventually drawled. ‘How did you two get together? I want the whole story!’

‘Oh, er … Well, we’d been at the pub one night, hadn’t we, Ted?’

‘Yes, sor.’

‘Almost three months ago, now.’

‘Three months come Thursday week, sor.’

Ralph melted all over again, to discover that Ted was keeping track. ‘Oh … And, er … Well, I’d been trying to tell Ted how I felt about him. I’d never managed to do that before, I never managed to get the words out, despite all my wittering. But there was something different about that night –’

‘You’d never sung it before,’ Ted prompted in the fond tone that meant he was teasing.

‘Ah, yes …’ Ralph knew he was blushing. ‘You see, Jamie, it was karaoke night, so after downing a few whiskies I chose an appropriate song –’

‘Desperate times,’ Ted reflected.

‘I was desperate, yes, and it was indeed a desperate measure. But I have to say, I think it went over quite well.’

‘That it did, sor. The whole place was calling for an encore.’

‘But that’s when you suggested it was time that I came home – and you walked me home …’

‘I only wanted to make sure you got back safe, sor, after those two whiskies.’

‘And you said …’ Ralph could feel the tears welling up in his eyes again. ‘We walked home in the moonlight, and you said …’

I hear you, sor,’ Ted murmured. ‘I hear what you’re saying to me. And I think it’s the same for me now, too, sor.

‘Then you held my hand …’ And just like that night, Ralph began weeping. Unlike that night, though, he was brave enough now to look at Ted and meet his gaze. ‘It was a miracle, Ted! You made me so happy!’

Ted passed his handkerchief over for Ralph’s copious use. ‘Very happy, yes, sor. That’s why you did nothing but cry and sleep for the next twelve hours, crying and sleeping like a newborn babe.’

Ralph hung his head, though he was smiling at this banter. ‘You made me so very happy,’ he whispered. ‘I was happier than I could bear.’

Next thing I know,’ Ted said to Jamie, ‘he’s buying us a matching pair of wedding bands. Talk about sweeping a fellow off his feet.’

Jamie walked round the table to Ralph, and leant over the back of his chair to wrap him up in another of his wonderful hugs. ‘I wish I deserved someone even half as much as you two deserve each other.’

Ralph lifted his free hand to clasp Jamie’s. ‘You’ll find your special someone, my dear, I know you will – because at last the Mayhew luck has changed for good!’

 

Life was well–nigh perfect, Ralph reflected as he walked the greenswards of his estate the next morning. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the distant woods were burgeoning, and the air – the very air was soft and warm – and the beneficent light and the sweet scents all spoke evocatively though indefinably of England.

And not only all that, but Ralph’s cousin Jamie was beside him, and they strolled shoulder to shoulder in quiet harmony. And the most perfect thing, of course, was catching sight of his darling Ted planting a new hedge along the far edge of the lower field. As one, the Mayhews turned in that direction.

‘This is simply perfect …’

For a long moment, Ralph assumed that was his own thought, or maybe even his own voice, but then he realised that Jamie had murmured the sentiment. He glanced at his cousin, and smiled. ‘Perfect, yes.’

‘Ralph,’ Jamie continued – still softly, as if he feared that the perfection was fragile and might be shattered by just one wrong word. ‘Ralph, promise me this will always be here. Promise me you’ll endure.’

‘Of course, my dear.’

‘No – no, I mean it. I know how hard it is to maintain – but we’d lose something precious if you lost the estate. We’d all lose something – not just the family, but all of us.’ And he whispered it again: ‘We’d all lose something …’

Ralph lifted a hand to run reassuringly across those thick golden–brown locks of Jamie’s. ‘We’ll endure, my dear,’ he said. And they walked on together, shoulder to shoulder, towards Ted and the lower field.

 

Ted leaned back in his chair and watched the four other men sitting round the little table, gratified that they were all getting along, at least in a clumsy kind of way. Ralph was at Ted’s right, with young Jamie Mayhew next to him, then Short Tom, and Tall Tom on Ted’s left. It was Saturday night, and none of them wanted to miss out on an evening down the pub, so they were all forced together by the changed circumstances of Ted and Ralph being … well, Ted and Ralph.

It was truly gratifying, though, that Tom and Tom were making an effort to cope with those circumstances. Ted had known Tall Tom would – he was more than a drinking mate. Tall Tom was something like a friend, maybe even a best friend. He used to come to the cottage for tea when Esther was alive, and happily drink from her best china, letting her fuss wash right over him.

Anyway, even if they were all still a bit clumsy together now, this was a big improvement on Ralph’s few visits to the pub before he and Ted had … Some of those former visits had been excruciating.

‘What about a drinking game?’ Short Tom piped up, looking around hopefully.

Ted froze, and sensed that Ralph beside him had, too. Tomato – Ted … aubergine – your … potato – wife’s … turnip – dead. Ted shuddered. He should have known at the time not to force Ralph into playing the game. The young master, even at his most persistent, had always known where to draw the line, had always taken no for an answer.

Tall Tom was groaning theatrically. ‘Think we’ve had enough of those word games o’ yours, mate.’

‘Of mine?’ Short Tom retorted with righteous innocence. ‘Weren’t my idea … and, anyhow, I didn’t know … I weren’t even there!’

Jamie was looking curiously from one to the other of them. It seemed that he soon realised no one was going to tell him the story behind that, though, so he just offered to go buy another round of drinks. Young Master Jamie was ease and friendliness incarnate, Ted reflected, so he wasn’t an issue.

And Master Ralph had always made an effort, just as he was now. The difference being that his efforts were in vain before. Even Tall Tom had just blanked him out. Deflected him with deference. Not due to anything personal – everyone knew what a decent young man Master Mayhew was – but it was difficult, sometimes, to broach the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when two different classes were involved. Perhaps it was Ted’s broaching of that gap, in such a personally committed way, that made it possible for them all to try being mates now.

On Jamie’s return, the young master suggested a game of darts instead.

‘All right!’ Short Tom cried with an unholy gleam in his eye. ‘Us workers against you landowners!’

Tall Tom guffawed. ‘That’s three against two, whichever way you count it.’ He elbowed Ted, indicating he was joshing, and said, ‘God only knows what you are these days, eh, Ted!’

Ted laughed, though he was conscious that Ralph was looking a bit pained on his behalf. ‘I hardly know m’self!’ he declared, going along with it – staring into his beer in an effort not to blush as red as Ralph.

‘Best o’ both worlds, eh?’ Tall Tom opined. He almost sounded admiring. ‘Forget about one foot in the grave! Better to have one foot on each side, a finger in each pie –’

Something in somewhere,’ Short Tom muttered.

‘Oi!’ said Ted, looking dark at him. Enough was enough.

Tall Tom cleared his throat. ‘You can keep score, Ted.’ When everyone looked at him blankly, he added, ‘Game o’ darts, eh?’

‘Aye,’ Ted agreed, and they all stood and headed for the dartboard.

Well, Tall Tom was champion at darts, of course, and young Jamie was surprisingly accurate, while Short Tom managed to hang in there. As for Ralph, though …

‘Mr Mayhew, sir,’ Short Tom said after Ralph had managed to hit everything but the board, and the nearer drinkers had moved round to the other side of the pub. ‘No offence, sir – but you throw like a girl!’

‘Ah, yes,’ Ralph replied with a self–conscious laugh, good–naturedly cutting off Ted’s immediate protest. ‘That’s what my father always said.’ He cleared his throat and went on, even though Short Tom was already looking a bit shamed. ‘I’ve never been very good at any kind of sports. Though Ted was kind enough to take me fishing a while ago, and I did catch one this big …’ He stretched one arm high and the other low – completely the wrong way round to indicate a fish, of course, which one measured from one side to the other.

Ted obligingly provided the punch line – ‘That was a tree, sor.’

‘Ah, yes,’ Ralph said, still pretending vagueness, while the others all cracked up laughing. ‘Yes, indeed it was. Thank you, Ted.’

‘Maybe, sor,’ Ted murmured once the others had quietened down a bit. ‘Maybe, sor, I can help you with your throwing action. Maybe if you let me show you …’

Short Tom was all set to protest at this assistance being offered by the supposedly impartial scorer; but Ted winked broadly at Tall Tom, who grinned in return. Jamie was watching with a wicked gleam.

As for Ralph – he was standing there, looking almost as lost and vulnerable as he had on the day Ted tried to show him how to cast a line. Ted stood behind him now, and lifted his arms round him, gently eased Ralph’s body into echoing the correct throwing stance. ‘Like that, now, sor,’ he murmured provocatively. ‘Yes, just like that …’

Poor Ralph was as flustered as he was delighted, of course, and completely distracted by Ted pressing close, so close. Nevertheless, the dart did hit the board this time.

‘Ten points, Ralph!’ Jamie cried. ‘Well done!’

‘That’s it, sor. That’s it exactly. Now you try on your own.’

Ralph, still reeling, did even worse than before on his next two shots. Nevertheless, Jamie pulled him down into the chair beside him, and slung a proud arm across Ralph’s shoulders.

Three rounds later, Ralph apparently hit on a new strategy. His third throw earned him one point – but he lifted a hand to prevent Ted noting that down on the chalkboard. Instead, Ralph walked over to Ted with a rather promising light in his eyes, and he whispered in Ted’s ear. A long, detailed, provocative whisper. Then he withdrew a little, and nodded confirmation …

Ted gaped a little. And when he regained his voice, he declared, ‘Bullseye!’

Tall Tom and Jamie both collapsed in hilarity at this, but poor old Short Tom just threw his hands up in annoyance. ‘Exploitation!’ he muttered as he stalked over to the chalkboard, and wiped off the fifty points Ted had just awarded the landowners. ‘It’s in their blood. Exploitation! That’s what makes it blue, I reckon.’

‘Give it a rest,’ Tall Tom managed over his laughter. ‘All’s fair in love and darts, eh!’

‘Perfectly fair,’ Ted agreed. ‘I’d’ve given him a hundred points for that, if I could.’

Short Tom shot him a venomous glare. ‘I don’t even want to know. You,’ he said, pointing at Jamie, ‘and you,’ pointing at Tall Tom – ‘you finish this game off. I’ll keep score.’ He glared round at Ted and Ralph again. ‘And you two can just amuse yourselves for a while.’

‘Absolutely, yes,’ Ralph genially replied, ‘thank you. I’m sure we can think of something …’

Everyone except Short Tom burst into fresh laughter, though the match eventually proceeded. It was neck and neck all the way, and finished with the workers winning by five points. Though it probably would have been a draw if Jamie hadn’t gotten distracted towards the end.

Once he was free, Jamie made his excuses to Ralph and the others, and headed off with a predatory gleam. Ted wondered if he hadn’t spotted young Jonathan Tarlington, who Jamie had seduced – to one extent or another – during his last visit.

Ted shrugged, and asked Ralph if he could have the honour of walking him home. It didn’t take much, even now, to make the master glow with pleasure. ‘Of course you may, Ted. I’d be delighted.’

They held hands while strolling the dark country lanes, just as they had on that first night. It was the sweetest thing that Ted had ever known in his life. He felt guilty about that, because he’d loved Esther as dearly as any man had ever loved his wife. Still, Ted felt sure that even Esther would agree there was something sweet about Master Ralph – purely sweet, not cloyingly sweet – that was unique and rather wonderful. Ted, who was discovering new things about himself almost every day, adored him for it.

Nevertheless – even as they walked home anticipating a pleasant night spent wrapped up together in the master’s bed – nevertheless, Ted had to admit to himself that Tall Tom’s joshing had touched a raw nerve.

Ted didn’t know himself any more, that was for sure. He didn’t know his place. He used to know exactly where he stood, but that was gone now. And that was definitely one thing he sorely missed about Esther.

 

Ted and Ralph were left to themselves for a week of evenings; their houseguest would be his usual cheerful, helpful self through the day, and then desert them around teatime.

‘I wonder where Jamie is,’ Ralph said late on the Friday night, as he and Ted got ready for bed up in the master bedroom. ‘I hope he’s made a new friend. I mean, I hope he’s not just bored with the estate, or with us two old fogies. Not that you’re boring, Ted,’ Ralph quickly added, trying to make out whether he’d offended the man. ‘Or an old fogey. Not at all!’

‘Maybe it’s, uh – maybe he’s conducting a romance, sor.’

‘Ah, yes!’ Ralph responded, with a gleeful surge of fellow feeling. ‘A romance … That must be it!’ He clambered into the enormous bed, and smiled at Ted as invitingly as he knew how. ‘Well, I appreciate the privacy,’ he continued, ‘seeing as we’re in the throes of conducting a romance ourselves. After all, without a houseguest, we can be just as noisy and as messy as we like!’

‘Yes, sor.’ Ted got in the other side, and shifted over so that he could take Ralph into his arms for a friendly hug.

Ralph sighed. He could sense already there would be no noise or mess created that night. Instead, he reverted to the previous topic. ‘I have to admit, Ted, that I’m a tad concerned about my cousin. I wish I felt – well, I wish he were settling in here a little better.’

‘I thought he were only staying for a few weeks, sor.’

‘Yes, yes. Of course you’re right. He’s on holiday, and must do as he pleases.’

They lay there quietly together for a while. Ted hadn’t turned the bedside lamp off, so apparently they weren’t going to sleep yet. However, they weren’t talking, either, or making love, and Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if he was being oblivious to some obvious alternative.

Eventually, Ralph dared to whisper, ‘I missed you last night, Ted.’

Ted shifted uncomfortably, and the hug was no longer so encompassing. ‘There were things to take care of at the cottage, sor.’

‘Yes, I know, Ted,’ Ralph said as calmly as he could. ‘And of course you must do as you please. But I just wanted you to know …’

‘I do know, sor,’ Ted replied. And, with a return of gentleness: ‘I missed you, too, sor.’

Ralph felt himself close to weeping. In the almost unbearable closeness of these major concessions they’d just made, Ralph pressed his face against Ted’s chest and said, ‘I know it’s all my fault, Ted, all these troubles – I – I – I know I’m a particularly difficult person to love –’

‘Sor, don’t say that.’

‘– and obviously you know what you’re about – obviously you never had any such difficulties with Mrs Ted. A grand woman, really grand, and nothing like me, of course – you must be wondering what you’ve let yourself in for.’ Ralph dared to look up at Ted’s forever–enduring face. ‘But if you could just be patient with me a little longer – you’ve always been the soul of patience and kindness, all my life, Ted – and if you could just be patient with me now, I’ll learn how to do better at this, Ted – I swear I’ll learn.’

Ted wrapped him up closer, and just held him for a long moment. Then he looked into Ralph’s eyes and murmured, ‘Bless you, sor. Mrs Ted and I had our share of difficulties getting settled together, sor, and none of it weren’t no one’s fault.’

‘Really, Ted?’

‘Yes, sor,’ he firmly replied. ‘From what I can see, sor, I think it’s always this way for a new pair, whether it’s man and woman, or man and man, or (God love ‘em) two women. Just when you think you’ve caught the current and are sailing safely midstream, then you hit a few rocks, or maybe even rapids, and you wonder if the boat will hold together. It’s quite natural, I think, sor.’

‘But I know I’m far from perfect, Ted –’

‘Oh, God bless you, sor. Why, you’ll be noticing me own feet of clay next.’

Ralph stared at him for a long moment, wondering if he was being teased or deflected. But, no, it appeared that Ted was in deadly earnest. ‘Oh, Ted …’ Ralph could swear that he just fell in love all over again. And why not? Ralph Mayhew had spent his life loving this man, and falling in love with him, and wanting him, wanting him, burning for him, yearning … They were kissing now, a passionate kiss that was growing gloriously heated –

But before it became all too late, Ralph forced himself to remember that Ted clearly hadn’t wanted to make love earlier that night, and that he should still be given the choice.

Ralph broke away – broke away from the kiss, from the embrace, from the immediacy of it all – and lay on his back looking up at the bed’s canopy. ‘No doubt this is all very improper of me, Ted,’ he managed to say. ‘I wouldn’t blame you for thinking me something of a nym– nym– nymphomaniac. It’s just that I – I – I feel as if half my life has been wasted. Well, no, not wasted, because there’s been love, there’s been so much love – and there’s been a planting of trees and a growing of flowers and a nurturing of – of deer. But, Ted, my dearest Ted, I still feel …’

‘I know, sor,’ Ted soothed, reaching across to hold Ralph’s hand. ‘It’s all right, sor.’

‘Sometimes, inside, no matter that the outside is burgeoning with green, the great cycle of life, and – and all that – but on the inside, Ted, sometimes I feel like a wasteland.’

‘Oh, no, we can’t have that, sor,’ Ted murmured in the same soothing voice. ‘We must certainly do something about that.’ And Ted took Ralph into his arms again, and held him close, like a physical manifestation of God’s grace. ‘It’s just that, sor, I do get a bit tired by the end of a day’s work, and sometimes even just talking seems to drain me, and, well, sor –’

‘It’s perfectly all right, Ted,’ Ralph firmly replied. ‘It’s the end of a long week, and we’re both tired, I know, though I have nothing like your excuse. Why don’t you turn the light off now, Ted, and let’s call it a night.’

‘Thank you, sor.’ But first Ted kissed him, kissed Ralph as if there were nothing better in life. And then they cuddled up together in the darkness, and swiftly, contentedly they both fell asleep.

 

Ralph had always insisted that Ted only work a half–day on Saturdays, so it was with a sense of the start of a brief holiday that the two of them settled into their chairs at the lunch table that Ralph had set on the front lawn.

‘Last of the fencing’s fixed, down the lower field, sor,’ Ted announced. ‘All’s secure now.’

‘That’s wonderful, Ted,’ Ralph replied. ‘Thank you.’ And then they eased into a peaceful munching of sandwiches and drinking of tea and gazing at the magnificent vista before them.

Just as Ralph was about to go make a second pot of tea, though, a pair of voices intruded on the quietness. Though it couldn’t really be called an intrusion when they were such happy voices … Jamie’s laughter rang clear, and there was an indecipherable murmur in reply that sounded perfectly content; the unmistakable give–and–take of lovingly teasing repartee. The crunch of two pairs of feet approached along the gravel path around the side of the house. Ralph waited there expectantly with the empty pot in his hands.

And a moment later Jamie appeared, beaming blissfully, hand–in–hand with young Robert … Ralph abruptly sat down again, and it was lucky that the chair was there awaiting him.

This was Robert, who the newly–widowed Ted had employed to take his place on the estate, so that he’d be free to go home to the old country. Robert, who’d beguiled Ralph into thinking that he wouldn’t miss Ted, not even notice his absence, until it was almost too late. Robert, who quite clearly was the cause of the light in Jamie’s beautiful blue eyes, the glow in his soul.

The two young men stood across the table from Ted and Ralph, looming tall. ‘I want to introduce you to someone,’ Jamie said, looking only at Robert, who was looking down at the ground. ‘Someone wonderful,’ Jamie added. ‘This is Robbie.’

‘Yes,’ Ralph replied, still feeling rather flabbergasted. ‘Yes, we’ve met.’

‘Good afternoon, sor,’ Robert politely said. ‘Afternoon, Ted.’

Ted nodded a greeting. ‘Robert.’

Jamie clung to Robert’s hand with both of his, frowning a little. Apparently confused about why Robert wouldn’t have already mentioned that he was familiar with the people at the Mayhew estate.

Ralph stood again, rubbing his hands together. ‘Well, well,’ he said, muddling over what on earth he should say. ‘Well …’ Then he seized, both literally and metaphorically, the teapot. ‘Well, I was just about to make some more tea. Would you care to join us? Both of you?’

‘I’ll make it,’ Jamie said, letting go of Robert in order to reach for the pot. ‘Come on, Robbie – you can help bring out another couple of chairs.’

‘Yes, sor,’ Robert murmured. And the two young men headed inside.

‘Well …’ Ralph said lamely, sitting down once more. After a moment’s puzzled reflection, he asked, ‘Ted … when you suggested that my cousin was conducting a romance … did you know …?’

‘No, sor. It were just a guess, sor.’

‘I see.’

Another long moment later, Ted offered, ‘He’s a fine young man, sor. Robert, I mean. I wouldn’t have asked him to work for you otherwise. It’s up to you to approve or not, of course, but I do believe that Robert is a fine young man, sor.’

‘Yes, thank you, Ted. And of course your opinion is important to me.’ Ralph smiled a little, starting to feel less confused. ‘Though whether my opinion is important to Jamie, well, that’s another matter entirely!’

‘Yes, sor. But he did bring Robert here to meet you, sor.’

Ralph looked at Ted, almost as gratified by this insight as he was impressed by it. ‘You never cease to amaze me, Ted,’ he murmured. ‘What a life we shall lead together!’

‘Yes, sor,’ Ted promised in reply.

Which was when the voices intruded again – though, alas, the happiness was now subdued. Ralph wondered if Jamie had forgiven Robert for not being as forthcoming as Jamie might like. It was something Ralph himself had had to learn to live with some years ago.

Once the four of them were settled around the table and the tea was stewing, Ralph said, ‘Well, I must say it’s good to see you again, Robert. I have been concerned – though whether you should take me and my concerns seriously is neither here nor there – but I’ve been very concerned about how we parted. Yes, Jamie my dear, I’m afraid I rather let the side down. I was so upset – not by anything that Robert had done, or failed to do – but I was so upset by my own foolishness, that I punched him and called him by a name that does not bear repeating. Not that my poor swing would have hurt him at all – as my father used to say, I punch like a girl –’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t agree with him about that, sor,’ Robert had the grace to murmur.

‘Well, thank you – thank you, I think! But sticks and stones, and – and all that – Well, no, actually I think that words can hurt worse than broken bones. So, I am glad to see you again, Robert, because I behaved abominably, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to apologise and to beg your forgiveness.’

‘Nothing to forgive, sor,’ Robert said, still looking at the ground. ‘No need to worry about any o’ that, sor, thank ‘ee all the same.’ And then Jamie reached to hold his hand, and Robert looked directly back at Jamie, and Jamie was beaming blissfully again, and Robert’s very soul was glowing …

Ralph melted inside, and found himself grabbing for Ted’s hand, confused all over again by having these two undeniably attractive young men so openly in love before him.

Ted rescued him with the gentle reminder, ‘Tea will be getting cold, sor.’

‘Ah, yes. Yes, thank you, Ted …’

Once they’d all calmed down again – well, once the three of them other than Ted had calmed down, because Ted had remained comparatively unmoved through all this – Ralph said, ‘Do you know, no one in my family has ever wanted to introduce me to their special someone. It’s really quite an honour, Jamie, and I thank you for it.’

Jamie grinned. ‘No trouble a’tall, sor,’ he said, echoing Robert and Ted’s accent to a T. ‘No trouble a’tall.’

Ralph tried not to laugh, he really did, but soon the mirth was bubbling out of him – and Jamie and Robert were happily chortling away – and then even Ted, after an initial splutter or two, burst out with his rare but hearty laugh. And all was, once again, perfect.

 

The four of them walked back to the big house after church the next morning. Jamie and Robert were holding hands, and Ralph was watching them, wishing that, if he were brave enough to hold Ted’s hand in public, Ted wouldn’t promptly divorce him on the grounds of grievous harm to his dignity. Young people today were so much more comfortable about the important things, such as love. Ralph reflected that he might have had a far happier life if he’d been born a couple of decades later. But then he’d have completely missed out on Ted, so obviously that wouldn’t have been better at all. On the other hand, perhaps it wouldn’t have taken Ralph so long to manage to convey his feelings for the man … But, then, leaving aside the complication of Mrs Ted, Ted would have pleaded too great a difference in their ages, so he was probably better off –

To distract himself from this circular line of reasoning, he thought ahead through the coming week, and ended up saying, ‘Next Sunday, I think we should pack a picnic lunch, and go for a drive after church. Because I really can’t answer for what’s in my larder today; I hope you realise you’re all taking an enormous risk. We should plan ahead next time! What do you say?’

No one responded for a moment, as if they weren’t sure exactly who he was talking to. But then Jamie said, ‘That’s a terrific idea, Ralph – but why go for a drive? Why not just take our picnic to the upper fields, and enjoy looking out over the estate? There’s nowhere quite like it in all the world, is there?’

Ralph smiled, pleased by this compliment. ‘No, there isn’t. And it’s all thanks to Ted here!’

‘Ah, sor, you’re exaggerating again.’

‘I swear I’m not.’

‘I only do as you ask me, sor.’

Ralph looked at him fondly. ‘It’s no good, Ted – I’ve discovered your secret. Always let the master think he’s in charge. So now I know that all along you’ve just been humouring me!’

Disgruntled, Ted kicked at an innocent fern. ‘That there Short Tom has been shooting his mouth off again. I wish you wouldn’t listen to him, sor. He means no real ‘arm, but I –’

‘Never mind, Ted,’ Ralph reassured him. ‘I take what he says with a grain of salt, and I’m sure he takes what I say with a whole shaker, so somehow we’ll all muddle through.’

‘Yes, sor.’

‘So, what do you think about a picnic next Sunday?’

‘It sounds like a plan, sor.’

So that’s what they did.

 

After they’d eaten, Robert and Jamie lay stretched out on the blanket, doing slightly more than holding hands, while Ted and Ralph sat there studiously looking out at the view – which really was magnificent from the upper fields, but which didn’t compensate Ralph for the fact he would rather be alone with Ted right now. If the presence of Robert and Jamie was going to be yet another irksome little thing that got in the way of Ralph’s relationship with Ted, then Ralph was just going to have to …

He didn’t know what he was going to have to do, actually. Half of these irksome things seemed to have no solution whatsoever. And Ted was just going with the flow, as he usually did, except for the times when he dug his heels in and became the obdurate oak. Ted rarely seemed to take the initiative – unlike Jamie …

‘You know, Ralph,’ Jamie said now, rolling over onto his front so he could look up at his cousin, ‘Robbie only has casual work, and it’s all so seasonal at the moment, what with the economy. So I was wondering if you and Ted needed any extra help around the place. Because otherwise he might have to leave the county to find another job.’

Robert sat up as soon as he realised the topic of conversation, obviously uncomfortable with this approach. But after grimacing at Jamie, he deferentially nodded in Ralph’s direction. ‘I was wanting to ask you properly, sor. I don’t expect you to do me any favours, even for the young master’s sake.’

Ralph looked long and hard at Ted, but couldn’t read him. He sighed, and turned back to Robert. ‘Er, no, actually, I think you’d be doing us a favour. I’m sure Ted could use the help.’ There had been too many times lately when Ted had actually admitted to being tired at the end of the day. ‘Um, there wouldn’t be much money in it, that’s the thing. I – I – I can give you room and board, if Ted doesn’t mind sharing the cottage, or you could convert the loft over the stables, or take a room in the big house –’ If only Ted himself was more open to these options. Especially the one about the big house. ‘Well, whatever suits you, Robert, of course. We grow most of our own food here, which you’re more than welcome to share in, so there’s no problems there – but there’s so little money coming in at the moment, and hardly any left once the mortgage is paid each month …’

‘That sounds just fine, sor, and I thank ‘ee.’ Robert hesitated for a moment, ignoring Jamie’s congratulatory hug. ‘But of course I would only accept your kind offer if Ted is happy for me to do so.’

And Robert turned to Ted, though he kept his head lowered. Ralph and Jamie turned to look at him, too, though they weren’t as discreet in their curiosity.

Finally Ted said, ‘There’s never any shortage of work here, sor.’

Ralph considered this. It could reasonably be construed as encouragement for the idea – even approval. He knew that Ted was a bit sensitive about retiring, or even working less than he used to, but now was not the time for Ralph to push for more information. And Ted would have made it clear in some way if he disapproved. ‘All right,’ Ralph said. ‘Let’s talk about the details tomorrow, or whenever we see you next, Robert. But, as Jamie says, it sounds like a plan.’

Jamie let out a happy cheer. ‘You know, Robbie,’ he said, renewing his hug with interest – ‘I think we should check out that loft over the stables. That sounds rather promising, don’t you think?’

‘That it does, sor,’ Robert replied. And the two of them walked off with their arms slung around each other’s waists.

Which left Ralph and Ted alone with a silence. A silence which even Ralph could not bring himself to break.

 

Ralph tried to watch Ted as covertly as possible, but he couldn’t stop watching him. Worrying about him. Fretting himself, even though Ted had asked him a hundred times not to. There were all kinds of reasons why it was sensible to hire Robert to take over the bulk of the labouring work, and to train him up (for as long as he wanted to stay) to eventually become chief groundsman, whether here or elsewhere – but Ted wasn’t entirely happy about it, that much was obvious. His silence and his withdrawn demeanour spoke more eloquently of dissatisfaction than any words.

One evening, after Ted and Ralph had sat silently in front of an uninspiring evening of television, Ralph offered, ‘I expect you’ll be wanting to go home to the cottage tonight, Ted.’

Ted mumbled something into his chest.

Ralph sighed. He didn’t want to push the man – Well, actually he did, but he knew it could do far more harm than good. Ralph carefully said, ‘Yes, I’m sorry, Ted, I didn’t catch a word of that.’

‘Ah, no, sor.’ Ted echoed Ralph’s sigh. ‘No, I’ll stay the night here, if that’s all right with you, sor.’

‘Of course it is, Ted,’ Ralph said in as friendly a manner as possible. He knew that Ted knew the real enthusiasm behind this reassurance, so there was no point in souring the situation even further by being demonstrative.

‘The young master, sor,’ Ted continued in explanation; ‘he’s there with Robert tonight. And I don’t imagine anyone in the cottage will be getting much sleep, for one reason or another.’

‘I see …’ Ralph sighed once more. ‘Yes, I see. I’m sorry, Ted. I’ll have a word with Jamie tomorrow. There’s no reason why they can’t use the guest rooms here. A herd of elephants in that wing of the house couldn’t disturb me in the family wing, even if they tried.’

‘Thank you, sor, but I’m sure …’ And he retreated into another mumble.

Ralph just sat there, collapsed back into the easy chair, unwilling to ask again for a translation. His dreams had come true. So why was everything so difficult?

Eventually, though, Ted said, ‘I know you’d rather I stayed here, sor.’

‘Well, yes,’ Ralph admitted. ‘But only if you want to, Ted. It must – it must be something that we both want – else there’s no point, is there, Ted?’

‘No, sor.’ Ted cleared his throat. ‘Shall we turn in, then, sor?’

‘Yes. Yes, of course.’ But as he walked around turning off the lights and making sure everything was where it should be, Ralph thought of another difficulty. ‘Er, Ted …’

‘Sor?’

‘I turned the heater on in my room. I mean, my old room. And I know you prefer that we sleep in the main bedroom, which I agree is more … Well, it has a far bigger bed, for a start, and –’

‘We can sleep in your room, sor,’ Ted conceded.

They were silent while they undressed, but once they were under the covers, Ted took Ralph into his arms in the loving way he always did, snuggling up behind him like two old spoons in a drawer, and it was clear that his proximity wasn’t imposed by the narrow bed.

‘I just think, sor, about the bedroom, sor –’

‘Yes, Ted?’

‘I just think that it’s time you claimed your rightful place, sor, as master of the estate.’

Ralph frowned. ‘I haven’t done that, Ted?’

‘Not in every way, sor. In some ways, but not in all. It’s almost as if you don’t feel quite entitled to it all, sor, even though you love it so much.’

‘Ah …’ This was food for a good long chewing–over. No doubt there was much there about Ralph himself that he should carefully consider. But at present he was far more worried about Ted than anything or anyone else. Poor old unhappy Ted. The darkness of the night, the closeness of the embrace, and Ted’s own honesty, gave Ralph permission to ask a troubling question. ‘Ted, I wonder if … That is … Well, you say that it isn’t your place to live in the big house. And you say that I haven’t taken my rightful place here. Is it … Are you … Well, I wonder if you aren’t being a bit inflexible about where we each belong.’ Ralph took a deep breath, waited a moment to allow Ted to head him off at the pass if necessary, before continuing, ‘I know we come from very different backgrounds, very different families, and we’ve had very different expectations in life –’

‘It’s not about class, sor.’

‘It isn’t? Oh! It isn’t. Good.’ But then Ralph sighed, feeling more confused than ever. ‘Still – if it’s about everyone being in their rightful places … then I don’t understand, Ted. My rightful place is beside you. It always has been. And that’s got nothing to do with where I sleep – as long as you’re there, too. And – and I can only wish that you felt the same way.’

‘I do, sor.’

‘And yet you won’t live here with me, you won’t move into the big house with me.’

Ted pressed his face against Ralph’s hair, and whispered, ‘That’s not about us, sor.’

‘Then what is it about? Please, Ted. If you can. Ted, if you can tell me … it might be something that we can fix. Between us, maybe we can fix it.’

They were both silent for a long while. In fact, Ted’s breath eased a little, and deepened, and he slowly relaxed – so that Ralph began to wonder if Ted hadn’t actually fallen asleep.

But eventually Ted murmured into the darkness, ‘It’s like young Master Jamie says, sor. About the estate. It’s as if you’re holding a part of this country in trust. In trust for all the ages. It’s a privilege, and there are some that resent it, and there are some that think it means a few people are better or worse than others, which isn’t true, and I know you’ve never thought that way, sor. It’s a privilege for you, but it’s also a burden, I can see that clearly enough. And the problem is, sor, if you don’t endure – if your family don’t endure – if you can’t carry that burden, then something precious is lost, sor, lost to us all.’

Ralph tried to blink back the tears from his eyes, but he couldn’t, and they fell, etching damp paths across his skin and into the pillow. ‘Yes, Ted,’ he whispered brokenly. ‘Yes. I’ve never heard it put so well. In fact, I’ve never even – I never even realised the whole truth of it before now.’

Then Ted said, in an oddly harsh voice, ‘I can’t give you a daughter, sor.’

‘Well, no …’ Ralph said doubtfully.

‘Then, don’t you see, sor? You’ve always been kind enough, sor, to tell me I’ve helped you carry the burden. You’ve said it time and again, that the estate is ours. That me working on it, helping you with the grounds, that means I’m a part of it. And I thank you for that, I truly thank you. But that’s very different to what you’re proposing, sor.’

Confused all over again, Ralph prompted, ‘Which is …?’

‘You want me to be part of the family, sor. You want me to be your partner, you want us to be as good as married. But that’s where I get in the way of it all, sor. Because I can’t give you a daughter, sor.’

Yes, all right … Apparently this was the heart of the problem. Ralph frowned, and thought, and frowned some more – wary of saying anything wrong, wary of trampling over such dearly–held convictions. He grasped Ted’s arms where they encompassed him, conveying at least in one small way that he would never – could never – let Ted go.

Eventually, Ralph said, ‘I love you, Ted. I love you. And I can see what you’re saying – that there’s something at stake here that’s even bigger than our love, even more important. So we must find a way through this, we must find a way that means neither of those things – the love, or the privilege of caring for this estate – neither of those things gets in the way of the other.’

‘But how, sor –?’

‘Well, we could adopt a daughter, Ted.’ Ralph frowned again, and made what he considered a major concession. ‘Or I could adopt a daughter, if you don’t feel that’s your place. In fact –’

And that’s when it hit him.

‘My God, Ted. It’s been sitting there all along, right under our noses.’

‘What’s that, sor?’

‘The perfect solution!’ Ralph struggled to turn around within his lover’s arms. He could just make out Ted’s face in the not–quite–dark of the bedroom. He could just make out that Ted was tired to the point of exhaustion, and troubled to the point of giving up everything – but he could also see that Ted had already found some much–needed peace. Maybe confronting the problem had been just as important as finding the solution … But now they had both. ‘I’ll adopt Jamie, Ted. If he wants it, of course. But he loves this place as much as we do, and he’d agree with every word you said about the privilege and the burden, Ted, I swear he would. I’ll adopt Jamie, and leave everything to him, and he can be the next mistress of the estate.’

Ted looked at him, and pondered. Ran a hand back over Ralph’s hair, stroking it gently, carefully considering all this. And eventually he said, ‘Yes, sor.’ And the trouble seemed to drain away with the simple sincerity of those words. ‘Yes, sor.’

‘Yes, Ted,’ Ralph murmured, and he leaned in to plant a kiss on the man’s forehead. When he settled back again, he saw that Ted had slipped away into sleep. Which Ralph should do, too, of course. Except he was so excited to have thought of the perfect solution, and so happy to know that their future was secure, that he lay awake for hours. He lay awake for hours, enjoying Ted’s slumbering embrace, and smiling. Above all, smiling.

 

Ralph woke slowly the next morning, still deep in Ted’s arms, and thoroughly loving being so. A quality of the light coming in through the gap in the curtains seemed to indicate that the weather that day would be as perfect as everything else in his life. Ralph smiled, and discovered that he was already smiling, so he smiled some more.

Ted stirred awake beside him, stretched, and then his embrace strengthened. ‘Good morning, sor.’

‘Yes, it certainly is, Ted. Exceedingly good!’ Ralph was rewarded with a chuckle, which only made him happier still. ‘Now, I wonder if –’

But he’d caught sight of the alarm clock. More to the point, he’d seen the time. Ralph tore himself away from the embrace, and shook his head to clear it as quickly as possible. ‘I’m so sorry, Ted! You’ll want to murder me, I know, but it’s after ten! I never meant to keep you here so late.’ It had been a matter of honour with Ralph, that he should let Ted get up when he wanted, no matter how Godforsaken the hour – and that he’d at least make Ted a cup of tea before he left, if not breakfast as well. But now! Now all his good intentions had come to naught.

For some reason, though, Ted was chuckling. ‘Don’t you mind about that, sor.’

‘But, Ted, I know you like to be out and about. Usually you’ve put in half a day’s work by now!’

‘I woke at me regular time, sor, and after doing the necessary I came right back to bed.’

Ralph propped himself up on an elbow, and carefully focussed his sleep–bleared eyes on the man beside him. He looked so … so enticing! In all Ralph’s years of dreaming, he’d never quite imagined Ted like this – bundled up under the covers, warm and happy and relaxed, and smiling up at him in perfect contentment. It was the most beautiful sight in the world. ‘Oh, Ted …’ Ralph murmured. ‘You look so – Well, I give you fair warning! If you don’t stop looking like that, I’ll just have to cuddle you!’

‘Yes, sor. That’s pretty much what I was thinking about you, just before I decided to come back to bed.’

Ralph melted. But he managed to force himself to double–check. ‘You’re sure? You wouldn’t rather be working?’

Ted shrugged. ‘Robert knows what to do.’

‘Oh, Ted!’

‘Not that I won’t check on him later.’

‘Of course.’

‘But I’ll tell you what I’d rather be doing now, sor,’ Ted said with a wicked grin, ‘an’ it involves those lovely thighs o’ yours …’

Too much, too much! Ralph felt he’d burst with delight. No, wait – there was something else claiming his attention. God damn it! ‘The necessary,’ he muttered. ‘Oh God! Don’t move an inch! I’ll be back before you know it.’ The air was crisp outside the bed covers, which only added to his hurry. ‘Ted!’ Ralph called back over his shoulder as he dashed into the corridor. ‘This had better not be a dream!’

There was laughter from the bedroom. Happy, hearty laughter. ‘It’s better than a dream, sor. Better than a dream!’

Ralph almost wept, for Ted was absolutely right. It wasn’t a dream – it was life. It was their life.

 

‘Anything, sor,’ Ted promised in the heat of it. ‘Anything.’

‘Just love me, Ted,’ Ralph replied, just as fierce. ‘And just be you.’

 

‘Ralph has made me the most amazing offer,’ Jamie said. He sank down to sit on a kitchen chair as if his legs wouldn’t support him any longer.

Robert looked up from where he was resewing the seams of the leather bag Ted took on shoots; the years and the bounty had worn them quite through. ‘What’s that, then, sor?’

‘I’m to live here, I’m to be his heir, I’m to inherit everything, I’m –’ He fell dumb, and shook his head as if still trying to comprehend.

‘And what did you say to him, sor?’

‘Why, I accepted – of course I accepted. I hope I thanked him graciously enough. No, how could I? He has no reason to trust me with all this. This … this wonderful, wonderful place …’

‘It’s a lot to take on, that’s for certain, sor.’

Jamie sighed, and then looked across at Robert. ‘I’ll need help. I’ll need a lot of help. So, if you wanted to stay, Robbie, I’d be glad of it.’ He leaned forward to meet Robert’s gaze, and said, ‘You could stay forever, if you wanted.’

Robert ducked his head even lower, and concentrated on working the needle through another hole in the worn old leather. ‘I wouldn’t really know about that, sor.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ Jamie wistfully asked.

The quiet stretched for a long moment. Jamie was just about to get up and make a pot of tea rather than press any further, when Robert admitted, ‘All right. I know, sor.’

‘What do you know?’

‘That I’ll stay. Take care of the grounds for you, sor.’

Jamie whispered, ‘Take care of me?’

‘Yes, sor,’ Robert firmly replied. ‘Yes. That above all.’

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2 responses to “Ted & Ralph: 04 Ever After”

  1. avatar KindKit says:

    I really enjoyed this. I love the realism of it–the way not everything’s perfect and they do have problems to work through. And the way they’re *learning* to work through problems together as they grow more comfortable with each other.

    • avatar Harlequin says:

      So that’s why they call you Kind, eh? You give good comment! Seriously, though – thank you. Very much. I’m really glad you liked this one in particular.

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