A/N: So, I wrote an epilogue as I just love writing these characters so much.
"Em, come here a minute."
"Joe, I really need to get everything in the suitcase. I thought we'd be home hours ago, and the taxi's booked for six a.m. tomorrow, and…"
Joe interrupted him, a playful glimmer in his voice. "I know, just come here."
Emerson padded heavily over to him, fuzzy with an effervescent tiredness. His eyes were bleary and his movements increasingly sluggish, but the tilt of his head upon his shoulders revealed that he was still running on the adrenaline of the day. When he walked within arms' reach, Joe drew him close, crushing him gently to him.
"I've hardly had you to myself all day."
"You'll have me all to yourself for two and a half weeks while we're away," said Emerson, muffled into Joe's chest. "If I ever finish packing so we can actually go." He tried half-heartedly to pull out of Joe's embrace, but did not need much persuasion to stay put when Joe refused to give way.
They had got back home much later than they'd planned. Joe had drafted a strict schedule – registry office at two, allowing time for some photographs either side of the ceremony, they would be out by three, then a few drinks at the pub before getting home around six o'clock. That left plenty of time to eat something and any last ditch packing attempts before an early night. Everything had gone according to plan, until Miles had persuaded them to turn 'a few drinks' into 'a bit of a piss up.'
"There are those of us who've been rooting for you two for nearly eight years," he had said, waving a pint in Joe's direction. "Sanders here," nodding towards the balding man beside him, "he says he clocked it from day one."
Slightly worse for wear from the far end of several glasses of champagne, Miles spread an arm across Joe's back and jiggled him amicably. "So let us have a proper chance to celebrate and show our appreciation of you, sir. You wouldn't let us give you a stag party."
"No. I wonder why," said Joe drily.
"Christ, you're such a wet blanket. I thought I'd taught you better than that." Miles' words were accusatory, but his eyes had a wicked glint. Teasing, not mocking.
Joe adopted what Miles called his 'headmaster voice', hard as his wooden desk, though the effect was lost in the honeyed atmosphere of the pub. "I'm all for having a good time, but my only experience of stag parties is the number of drunk and disorderlies we get in the cells on a Friday night."
"Mansell and I would have looked after you."
"Yes, that's what I'd be most worried about."
Miles punched him softly on the shoulder. "Oi. Haven't I taken good care of you these past few years?"
Joe smirked. "You still can't make a decent cup of tea."
Joe enjoyed the badinage he and Miles shared. It had evolved slowly over the years, from such inauspicious beginnings. Their friendship had grown over the years, becoming spiky and soft at the same time, like a feather pillow with the odd quill poking through now and then. Their blows aimed to tickle, not to wound.
"Oh, that reminds me," said Miles, "I nearly forgot. Me and the family got you something for your honeymoon." He rooted in his jacket pocket, a crooked frown pucking his face. "It's in here somewhere."
"You didn't need to, Miles," said Joe, faintly apprehensive as to what he might have come up with. Miles was not above buying a gag gift just to make Joe squirm. Then again, he said it was from the whole family – hopefully Judy would have had some moderating influence.
Miles had known Joe for long enough that he had developed an ability to read his mind. Either that, or Joe's thoughts shouted so loudly that they might as well have been emblazoned across his forehead.
"Don't worry," Miles placated. "It's a nice present. I haven't gone and got you any Spanish Fly or anything like that. I figured you were big and ugly enough to get that for yourself if that's what rocks your boat." He winked with a lewd grin.
"Very funny, Miles," said Joe, battling in vain against the spreading blush sweeping up his neck.
"Ah, here it is," Miles exclaimed, withdrawing a folded piece of paper from within the folds of his jacket and holding it up triumphantly like an Olympic medallist. "Here you go. For while you're in Tokyo. It's two tickets for one of those traditional tea drinking ceremonies they have over there. You can bring back a bit of civility to the office tea run. And if you can get a photo of Kent in a kimono you'll win me twenty quid."
"Miles," gulped Joe. "I… I don't know what to say."
"You don't need to say anything. Just enjoy it."
Miles lifted his glass in a salute and poured a flooding mouthful down his throat. The cosy light from the wall sconces filtered into the liquid with a cheerful gleam, bouncing and twinkling like fireflies in the golden liquid. Not for the first time, Joe felt a thankful weight settle in his stomach, warm like the alcohol in his own system. A round barrel filled to the brim with all the unspoken times Miles had helped him, or given him support, or simply been a friend and companion. From the very first time Miles had dragged him to that caff and force-fed him pie and mash and common sense, to the countless moments over the past few months when he had been Joe's rock and closest ally, bringing him what he needed to have and saying what he needed to hear. Some combination of parent, brother and guide. Joe had never properly thanked him, for any of it.
"Miles, I…" he swallowed.
Miles rolled a sidelong look at Joe, half a smile winding up his cheek. "You're going to hug me aren't you?"
Joe spluttered. "Do you want me to?"
Miles laughed, a full open-mouthed laugh. It was not pretty, it was not delicate. It was brash, ear-splitting and big, like a brass band imperfectly tuned. But to Joe it felt more truthful, more eloquent than anything more socially acceptable.
"Come here you great lump," said Miles, hauling Joe by his shoulders into a giant bear hug. The breath whooshed out of Joe's lungs as he was squashed against Miles' ribcage, his back bent awkwardly with his neck caught in the crook of Miles' elbow. A lack of poise evidently extended to Miles' hugs as well as to his laughter, but Joe did not care. It suited him.
Just as Joe was beginning to get restless under the sustained contact, Miles suddenly tensed and shoved Joe away from him, his gaze fixed on something beyond Joe's shoulder.
"Hey, put that down!" he shouted. "The little idiot, what's he think he's doing in a room full of policemen?"
Miles bounded like a roused wildebeest to the far end of the bar, where his seventeen year old son Liam had just bought and was attempting to drink a pint of lager. Joe was left, feeling a little like a squashed cushion, standing next to Sanders.
"Congratulations then, sir," said Sanders, making polite conversation. Though 'polite' was a relative term where Sanders was concerned.
"Thank you Sanders," replied Joe. "You're living in Rochester now, aren't you? Do you like being in Kent?"
"Yeah, deffo, it's great…" Sanders smirked and mumbled something under his breath which sounded suspiciously like I could ask you the same thing but Joe must have misheard because Sanders continued: "I can take the kids over to Whitstable on the weekends," and it would have been wildly inappropriate anyway, wouldn't it?
Joe had in fact been very touched that his former DC, Sanders, who had moved out of Whitechapel shortly after the Ripper case, had come back to wish them well. In fact, as he looked round the glowing pub lounge his stomach shifted warmly to see how many friends he seemingly had. When he had first thought about whom he would want witnessing his and Emerson's union, and who would celebrate it with them, his initial reaction was 'as few people as possible'. Miles and Judy, and Emerson's mother and Erica. And Mansell would presumably come as Erica's plus one. And it would be nice to have Ed there as well. And if they all were coming, Riley and Llewellyn and their families could not be left out. And Emerson wanted his three old flatmates to come as well. Suddenly, they had a guest list of more than twenty people, all of whom Joe found he actually wanted there. All of whom, in one way or another, to his great surprise, he counted as his friends.
The concept of friendship, mutual, affectionate friendship, was relatively new to Joe – before Whitechapel it was acquaintances only that he had collected, rather like stamps. They were neat, orderly, kept locked away until he needed them or wanted to add to them. They were only as good as how valuable they could be, how rare, how important. Acquaintances were logical, sterile, but soulless.
But friends, friends were messy. They acted unexpectedly, unpredictably, noisily, humanly. Like Liam getting a sound bollocking from Miles, or little Martha Miles playing hide-and-seek under the tables with Llewellyn's children. Or Mansell trying to initiate Ed into the delights, or dangers, of Jägerbombs. Ed playing along on the surface, but secretly pouring the shots into strategically placed pot plants when Mansell was not looking. Judy's choice of hat, which, to be perfectly honest, could have rivalled the space shuttle for intricacy and futuristic design, not to mention size. Or any of the raucous polyphonic laughter resounding from the rest of them. Friends got in the way, altered your path, changed your course unalterably. Joe had not even realised it was happening at the time, and if he had he would probably have denied it, but these people, this odd collage of characters, had formed who he had become. They had crept up on him, with their teasing and their quarrelling. Their rough edges had rounded his sharp corners, each of them in their own way. Joe found he had a fondness for them all. No, fondness was not the right word. It went beyond affection. These disparate individuals were necessary to him.
Even Mrs Kent, pursed in a corner. She was family now after all, the proverbial mother-in-law. His actual mother-in-law, in fact. Joe never thought that he would have one of those. He never really thought that he would have any friends. To need other people had always felt like a weakness, an inconvenience, until he realised that he was stronger, more functional, more whole than he had ever been before. He could not imagine celebrating such an important day without any of them.
Even the Commander had come over to offer his congratulations in a quiet corner of the bar, at a small remove from the rest of their group.
"Well, Joe," he had said, a firm handshake between them, "You know I didn't completely approve of your… um… relationship with DC Kent at first… but I can see that he makes you happy."
"He does, sir, yes," replied Joe.
"Well, very good. I wish you both all the very best." The Commander turned to leave. He did not look particularly comfortable in a backstreet Whitechapel boozer, outside of his social milieu as he was. It was a mark of his regard for Joe that he had come along at all. Joe supposed he should feel grateful.
However, just as he approached the exit, the Commander halted, captured in still-life for a split second like a broken automaton. He retraced his steps back to Joe, who threw him a curious, questioning look.
"And by the way," said the Commander, "I think your father would be proud."
An eyelid-heavy nod, a squeeze of the shoulder, and he was gone, leaving Joe alone at the bar feeling strangely moved. That was the first time in his recollection that the Commander had shown any true emotion, or even indicated that he felt anything below the surface. Even when Joe's father, his best friend, had died, he had remained repressed, buttoned-down like his uniform. As Joe had been, until Whitechapel and Emerson had together undone him.
Joe took a sip of his drink, the liquid turning solid in his throat, a sharp salty tang mixing into the bitter ale. He set his glass down upon the bar top and reached up to knead at his temples. It was an action he performed regularly when overcome with stress, but this time was different. This was no remedial massaging away of anxiety or tension, but rather an attempt to tune his mind, to fix the day into his memory so that he would not forget it. It was as though he were building a mental picture frame, to mould into his core the image of Emerson enshrined in the warm glow of the pub, the light glimmering off his wedding ring as though it shone out of him. Joe rolled his own matching ring around his finger as a talisman, the mark of his bond. It was funny, how such a tiny sliver of gold could signify so much. Joe had only been wearing it for a few hours, and already it felt like a part of his body, burnished into his skin. He didn't feel it sitting on his finger, so much had it become bound to him, but he knew his hand would now feel empty without it. Much as he had never noticed his lungs breathing or his heart beating until Emerson had caused them both to stop and skip.
Joe felt a faint pressure on his back as Emerson joined him and settled an arm around his waist.
He breathed a smile that he could feel radiating through him. "Yes. I believe I am."
As his eyes met Emerson's, he wondered whether his were as bright as those before him. Did his own eyes beam with such soft radiance, as though they were laughing at a private joke known only to the two of them?
Emerson grabbed his hand, entwining their fingers. Their rings clicked together with a bell-like sound.
"Come on, Mum and Erica want to induct you into the Kent family traditions."
The jerk of bewildered panic that he felt in his stomach must have translated onto his face, as Emerson snorted a smothered snigger. His bearing spoke of mischief.
"Yes, didn't I tell you?" he said, with half a wink, "Every summer the whole family goes camping in Wales, whatever the weather. Last year mine and my cousin Alexander's tent nearly got washed away – it was brilliant."
Against his will, Joe felt distaste wind around his mouth, twisting it into a thin arc.
"Em, I don't think…"
"Oh, don't worry," interrupted Emerson. "As the newest member of the family you'll get the good tent. It doesn't leak as much as the others."
A breathless, horrified pause was sustained between them for a taut moment until Emerson gasped suddenly in delighted mirth. He kissed Joe's cheek, making his flesh chuckle.
"Oh your face! I wish I had a camera."
Joe audibly relaxed like a whistling kettle clicking off the boil. "You were joking," he said, weakly.
Emerson trilled in amusement. "Of course I was joking. I hate camping just as much as you do. Probably more, seeing as I've actually tried it."
"You're a terrible man, Emerson Kent."
The younger man shrugged. "Well, you married me," he said impishly. "Now come on, I think Mum wants a photo of us with her for her wall. She's quite come round to you, you know."
Just like that, Joe found he was accepted into Emerson's family. Family photographs, smiles, support. Belonging. If Joe had been different, less uptight, could he have done it earlier? It would be one of his biggest regrets, that he had wasted so much time fretting, panicking over small things, picking over details like grit from an oyster, when if he had just let it happen organically they might have flourished much sooner. He could go on endlessly thinking like that – he had before. If this, if that. If he had… if he hadn't… If. On its own, a meaningless syllable, but it carried so much weight. A miniscule word that could go on, restraining forever if he let it. The groan of the 'i', the neverending puff of the 'f'. If he continued like that, he would pull the word into an infinite string to tie himself in knots with.
But it could also be a word of hope, couldn't it? Of possibility. A 'what if' rather than an 'if only'. Not a rope to hold him back but a garland to bind them together, him and Emerson. The past was just that, it could not be changed. It was a bitter, inflexible place and to try to live there was foolish. All it did was lock you up and prevent you from moving forward.
Our lives are in front of us, Joe realised. The thought fizzed inside him like champagne. Bubbles only travel upwards, after all.
He realised that Emerson was tipping his head to look at him, an anxious shimmer in his gaze. He had carried that expression too many times before. Joe never again wanted to be the cause of it.
"You sure you're alright? This isn't all too much for you?"
"Yes, I'm…" Joe struggled to find the words to convey what he was thinking. "I'm… I think you would call it content. Like I can finally allow myself to be happy. And to enjoy it… It's not a feeling I'm particularly familiar with."
Emerson reached up to kiss him softly as the concern in his eyes melted. "Well you'd better get used to it. This is just the beginning."
It had gone ten before they managed to extricate themselves, the festivities showing little signs of abating. Getting home, it amused Joe that, for once, Emerson was the more anxious one, agonising over how much wet weather clothing to pack, fussing about passports, boarding passes, baggage allowances. It was as if he had never travelled abroad before. Then again, he had not exactly had a lot of time for foreign travel in the time that Joe had known him – the job had always got in the way. Another thing Joe had to feel guilty about, except that he was done with guilt, through with overthinking, over analysing. He knew that the packing needed to be done, but they had time. They had as much time as they wanted. The tempo was theirs to control.
So when he had managed to draw his partner into an embrace, he was not about to let it end too soon.
"Stop wriggling," hushed Joe, kissing the top of Emerson's head. "I just wanted to do this."
He shuffled his feet into a steady pace and began to revolve on the spot, drawing Emerson into his sway. Emerson's legs instinctively moved to Joe's pulse, a trusting sleepwalk unconsciously stepping in sync.
"What on earth are you doing?" asked Emerson, looking up at him, a perplexed but jovial furrow on his brow.
In answer, Joe simply bent down to plant a dry kiss on the apex of Emerson's nose. "Can't I have a dance with my husband on our wedding night?"
A thin silvery shiver, like a harpist's glissando, ran up his vertebrae at that word. Husband. It amazed him how natural it sounded. How effortless it felt.
This is Emerson, my husband.
He felt a matching shudder vibrate through Emerson's body.
"But there's no music," he said.
"I know," Joe hummed under his breath, almost soundlessly. "I don't need it. I've got you."
They swayed together, to a rhythm of their own choosing, not needing anything more than just knowing the other was alongside, that their chests rose and fell in unison, that their hearts kept beating. Packing could wait. Everything could wait. Soon, they would segue on to the next movement, the next chapter, but for now, in that moment, their silent chord was sustained and the world waited.
A/N: Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. I was quite a latecomer to this fandom, but the support among Whitechapel fans is wonderful and really kept me going. This has been my first proper attempt at an extended piece of fiction, and it's been so much fun to do. I have an idea in my head for a sequel, so I may start planning that before long. Till then, Yveta xxxx