I cannot count my day complete
'Til needle, thread and fabric meet.
[Author's note: I owe so much thanks to my betas. Everything I know about embroidery I learned form rikibeth, who talked to me about history and let me ramble until things made sense. afigureofspeech reminds me of characterization when I get off track and always knows where the writing needs a little extra help. And llamabrains is not only my favorite writer in this ship, but a very encouraging person to talk to about writing. Thank you all so much!]
Annie liked for them to eat dinner together. She wasn't subtle about it. When Hal and Tom got home from work, a pot of tea was always brewed and the kitchen table set. She would sit with them as they ate, cradling her cup of tea and making light conversation. Occasionally she'd close her eyes and take in a deep breath, smelling the food. Hal imagined smelling without ever being able to taste would be like subjecting yourself to the torments of Tantalus, but she smiled contentedly, seeming to enjoy it.
Tonight's routine was different. When they came in with their Thursday fish and chips, Annie pulled out a thick file folder and announced that it was time to pay the bills. She then removed neatly organized payment schedules and started passing Tom checks to sign. Though the house was hers in every way that mattered, she had to act through Tom's name.
"And this one, please," she said, sliding another check across the table.
Tom wiped his fingers on his trousers and picked up the pen. He didn't even read it, just signed. He'd done that with all of them so far. Hal was fascinated by the way the young man put himself in Annie's hands.
"I wouldn't mind you signing 'em," Tom said as she passed him the next one, further confirming Hal's musings.
Annie shook her head. "We do not forge checks in this house, Tom." She raised a lecturing finger, ticking off points on her other hand. "Nor do we wash checks or bounce checks or..." she trailed off, "uh, any of the other unsavory things people do with them."
Tom shrugged, sliding the check back to her. "That the last?"
"Mmhm," Annie said.
Tom returned to his dinner.
Hal had just opened his mouth to ask if anyone in this house had heard of direct debit when he saw the look of pleasure on Annie's face as she retrieved the final check. She began carefully placing each within its envelope. She couldn't lick the stamps or seal the envelops, so she had a special pink secretarial sponge for that purpose. Hal watched as she wielded it with a happy little flourish.
Instead of speaking, he took another bite of fish.
She paid the bills by mail for the same reason he washed the dishes by hand despite the kitchen having a perfectly serviceable dish washing machine. They were holding themselves together with chores and schedules. Hal felt a familiar tightness in his chest, moved once more by Annie and the strange little family she'd welcomed him into. There were times he wanted nothing more than to cup his hands around these broken people, as if holding them together could fix something inside him too.
Annie tucked everything away in the bill folder and then launched into a description of her day. The park, Hal soon learned, was something of a fashion parade for infants.
"Eve and I were watching the other babies go by in their prams," Annie was saying. "They have such beautiful things." She sighed. "Cheerful little outfits with," she pinched her fingers together, "tiny buttons and miniature bows. Little baby hats and cute baby shoes."
She went on from there at some length. Hal admired her attention to detail. Tom tossed in a polite "uh-huh" or "that so?" now and then without being deterred from his single-minded attention to his fish and chips.
Annie paused at the end of her description, breathed in the steam from her tea. "But our Eve doesn't have any of that, does she?" she said, her voice taking on a sad tone. She reached over to the nearby laundry basket, pulled out a plain white onesie. "She's got a bunch of these. All the same. Eve wears the same outfit every day." Annie made a face. "It's like she's in prison!"
When he'd first met her, Hal would have found the melodrama ludicrous. But not now. Annie was worried about more than baby clothes. That was clear. This place - the need to protect Eve did make it like a prison. Utilitarian, regimented. They couldn't afford the niceties other children had. By talking about the clothes Annie was talking about all of that, too. Things too painful to speak.
There was something almost courtly about the way she preferred to clothe unpleasant subtext in trivialities.
Tom was empathetic enough to understand what Annie needed without having to analyze it as much as Hal did. Tom leaned forward in his chair and said: "We'll just save up, yeah? Get her something nice."
Tom touched Annie's hand with an easiness that Hal admired more than envied. The gesture worked: her posture relaxed and she smiled at them both. "All right."
The conversation moved on. Hal listened, throwing in a comment now and then. In his mind, he was turning over what Annie had said. He would consider it an assignment, something to fix. A solution didn't have to wait for their next paycheck.
Decided, he stood.
They both looked up at him.
"I'll just... put these away," he said, snatching up the laundry basket. He nodded to them both and started walking out. It was weird and abrupt and he knew it.
"Okay... thanks!" Annie called out after him.
They liked him enough to tolerate weird and abrupt. He cherished that acceptance more than he could say.
After telly that night, Hal went to his room and pulled out the onesie he'd taken from the clean laundry. He looked closely at it, considering what he could do with it. Like all children of the Industrial Revolution, Annie and Tom thought in terms of buying garments pre-made. That was their world. But Hal spent the majority of his life in a world where every single item was handmade, often at home.
Where Annie saw a drab, plain white prison uniform, Hal saw a blank canvas for a little decorative embroidery. Pulling out his craft box, he dug through the threads. He had a good supply of thread in purple and green. There was enough gold left over to be useful, too.
He drew a quick sketch of a simple flower pattern in his craft notebook, then copied the design lightly in pencil onto the fabric of Eve's garment. The stitching itself was the work of an hour.
He could have just left it out for Annie to find. But he wanted to see her face. If she liked it, she'd smile-Annie had a beautiful smile-and if she didn't he could be right there to fetch the seam ripper and return Eve's onesie to its previous condition. The worst that could happen was hugging, which wasn't so bad.
He got up early, just after sunrise and found Annie in the nursery, sitting in the rocking chair. She sat there most nights, watching over Eve. Her constancy was the pivot around which their world turned.
Having failed to think through how he'd hand his project over, he just walked up to her and held it out.
Annie reached out to take it, looking astonished. "Oh, Hal! It's beautiful," she breathed, stroking the pattern. She glanced up at him. "But where did you get it?"
"I made it. You said Eve needed clothes..."
She marveled. "But that was just last night!"
"It doesn't take very long," he explained. "It's a simple enough design and I... I have a lot of practice." He shrugged. "It's not my best work," he admitted, painfully aware of the flaws. "I should have used a miniature hoop to stretch the fabric- so the stitches would be neater. More perfect," he said, gesturing at the cloth.
Annie's expression said he'd lost her. "I don't know about... hoops. But I think," she ducked her head for a moment, and then looked back up at him, smiling so brightly that he found himself smiling back. "I think it's perfect," she said.
She paused. "And I'm going to have to hug you now... okay?"
"All right," he said. And then there she was, arms encircling his waist, head pressed to his shoulder. He raised his hand and settled it lightly against her back. She felt cool and smelled faintly of baby powder.
She raised her head and spoke close to his ear. "You're a good man, Hal." She pressed a tingly kiss to his cheek and then pulled back. Speaking louder now she said, "Eve is lucky to have you around. We all are."
Her kindness was everything he'd begun to hope for, living here. It was salve to the wounds mistrust had made. But the pleasure it brought him was fraught with his own anxiety. There was so much she didn't know about him - centuries of crimes, a burn on his arm he didn't dare mention. He felt tongue-tied by the warring emotions and took comfort in routine, as always.
"I could make more," he offered. "I was thinking of a design with stars," he pointed at the onesie in her hand, "around the sleeves and collar, with a moon just here," he touched the part of it that would rest right over Eve's heart. "There's... all manner of flower patterns," he assured her. "I could do one with her initial in calligraphic lettering. Or if you have a request..."
Annie laughed. "No, that sounds great."
"How many would you like?" he continued, pushing for certainty. "And by when?"
"Hal," she said, looking bemused, "it's not an order. Do what you like."
"Could you-" it was difficult to explain what he wanted, but he tried, "be specific, please?" He wished she would understand. It wasn't so strange, was it? "I like having things to do. A schedule. You know this."
"I know. I've seen your schedule," she said, making a face. "It's very... thorough. And I know schedules."
He nodded. "I like order. Routine. And special assignments, too. Obligations. Directives. Specific things."
"Oookay..." she said, appearing lost.
He was going to have to offer a plan. "What if I embroider one item a day until we run out of clothes. And then- you mentioned baby shoes? I have a crochet hook. I could make booties to match."
"Are you sure that's not too much?" she asked, her brow furrowed in concern.
"No. I like keeping busy."
"Okay." She bit her lip. "Then, um. Maybe you could make her little hats too?"
Hal was so pleased he nearly laughed. Not only had she accepted his offer, but she was prepared to impose on his good nature. She looked adorably conflicted about it, too.
"Of course," he said.
"And maybe little matching jumpers?"
That could get expensive. But he should have enough yarn to make a few before having to buy supplies. "Jumpers, too," he assured her.
"And when she grows out of these..."
Hal smiled again. "I'll make more."
With his promise to Annie, Hal could see days, weeks, years of purposeful activity stretching out before him. He felt elevated by the mere prospect. He should have come to Annie sooner: she knew what to do with a willing servant.
She glanced down, smiling brightly as she gazed at the pattern he'd embroidered. "Thank you," she said, looking up at him.
She was very beautiful when she smiled.
Feeling wrong-footed, he nodded to her and silently made his way out to start his morning routine.
He wasn't sure if she understood what he had been asking or if she just wouldn't say no to a good offer, but he hoped she knew some small part of what it meant to him. Letting him help kept his condition in check. But it wasn't only that. When he fed, he was not... a person the way he was now. His life was driven by biological appetite, his finer feelings blotted by the gnawing bloodlust. All of his routines, every chain he bound himself with, was a struggle to be free.
Everything was fine for a couple days. Annie and Eve enjoyed trying on the new outfits Hal was making. He worked fast. And now that he was properly engaged in the task, he did increasingly intricate work. She hadn't believed him when he said the first one was simple, but when she saw a design with three little blue birds and scores of tiny yellow flowers, she had to admit the extent of his talent. The first bump in the road came on Monday, when the boys stomped in, arguing. "You could have worked in the back," Tom was saying, "like I asked!"
Hal shook his head. "I told you that I refuse to act like one ashamed-"
Catching sight of Annie, Tom sent her an appeal. "Help us out, will ya? Just," he pointed at Hal, "tell this one here he's not meant to do his needlepoint at work."
Hal looked down his nose at Tom. The expression reminded Annie of a cat: disdainful and a touch ridiculous. "The proper term is embroidery," he sniffed. "And I was on tea break. In this country, even the lowliest workers are allowed some small portion of the day to themselves."
Tom rolled his eyes. "But did you have to do it out front like that?"
Annie stood up, waving her hands for quiet. "What happened? Exactly."
The boys exchanged a glance.
Hal folded his arms and leaned against the bar, giving Tom a speaking look: you tell her.
"Er," Tom said, rubbing his head. "There was this customer what got into a row with Hal here-"
"The customer was clearly intoxicated," Hal interjected.
Tom sent him a glare. "Do you want to tell it?"
"You left out a key detail."
"Right. When the customer saw Hal," Tom mimed a sewing motion, "working on something for Eve he, ah." Tom frowned. "He called Hal a not very nice name for gay blokes."
"Cocksucker," Hal said and for a shocked second Annie thought he was insulting Tom, but then he added, "The customer called me a 'cocksucker.'"
Annie had never heard somebody say the word so precisely before, like it was the Latin name of a flower.
"But that wasn't what kicked it off," Tom continued. "This one said," he said, pointing at Hal and doing an imitation of his accent, "'I have, thank you. But I don't see what that has to do with making something for my niece.' That was when Hal nearly broke his arm."
"First, I did not say 'thank you,'" Hal said crisply, looking offended.
"Sorry. Must be the accent," Tom said. "Everything you say sounds polite."
Hal raised his eyebrows. "I see. Second, I did not assault him without provocation. The..." he seemed to search for the right word, "stinking swine called Eve a 'little cunt.'" He sounded quietly enraged at the memory. "Then I escorted him out."
"You nearly broke his arm!" Tom repeated. "He could have had you arrested!"
"He impugned Eve's honor," Hal said firmly, like he'd just walked out of Pride and Prejudice.
"That's really kind of sweet," Annie said, touched that he'd stick up for Eve like that. And distracted by the thought of Hal as Mr. Darcy - in a cravat, or soaking wet during the famous swimming scene. It made for a very distracting mental image. Hal had a nice chest.
Said chest visibly puffed up at her praise. He inclined his head to her regally, "Thank you, Annie."
"Annie," Tom said, looking shocked. "I thought we're meant to keep under the radar? If he'd been arrested, photographed..."
"Yeah," Annie admitted. "He is right, you know," she told Hal, regretful. She liked the thought of him working on things for Eve: he seemed to really enjoy it, and the little clothes were always so cute. "Maybe you should keep it out of sight from now on, just in case?"
"If you'd like," Hal said. "Radio led me to believe the recent generations had become more tolerant," he continued, in what might have been an apology.
"Sorry, mate," Tom said.
With great dignity, Hal removed a onesie with a pattern of daffodils. As he always did, he walked over and handed it to Annie directly. There was an air of ceremony to the gesture that touched her inexplicably.
Looking over Hal's shoulder, Tom smiled. "I didn't get to tell you earlier, but... that's brilliant."
His honest admiration broke the earlier tension. Hal turned toward him, "Thank you. There will soon be a jumper to match," he said proudly, then paused. "Earlier I neglected to say that... I am glad you dragged me off that cretin."
They exchanged manly nods and Annie grinned. They were such good blokes at heart. She took a risk, reaching out to put her arms around both of them, pulling them into a hug. Tom leaned into it easily enough, hugging her back. Hal stiffened and then raised his left hand to awkwardly pat her back. She let them go sooner than she'd like, not wanting to ruin the moment. "I've set the table," she said, leading the way into the kitchen with a spring in her step.