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The new gardener's name was Thwaite, and he arrived on a Tuesday, turning up in the kitchen just before lunch.

He was young—although anything under ninety would have been an improvement on old Mr Hargreaves, who'd infuriatingly dropped dead of a heart attack just in the middle of the coldest week of the year, much to Thomas' distaste—and distractingly red-haired.

Thomas hated Thwaite from the first moment he saw him, just like he hated anyone who made his heartbeat twitch, even for a second. Sometimes Thomas wished he could reach right down inside of himself and pull out his heart and everything that came with it, every twisted feeling, every illicit want, every desperate need. It didn't work like that though, and it never had, so Thomas forced a sneer and asked if they really had sunk so low that they had to eat at the same table as the gardener.

O'Brien slid her hand over Thwaite's shoulder and told him to ignore Thomas.

"He's got out of bed the wrong side," Mrs Patmore said pointedly, but there wasn't a good side of bed for Thomas to get out of, so he raised an eyebrow instead.

Thwaite came in for his lunch right from the start, sitting down at the end of the table next to Daisy and Ivy, who seemed to have come to an uneasy truce so long as they could sit either side of Thwaite every day. He answered all the questions they threw at him: no, he wasn't married, no, this wasn't his first gardening position, he'd been under-gardener at an estate near Harrogate, yes, he did like Mrs Patmore's cherry cake. He answered everything they asked, all whilst wearing the same easy smile that set Thomas' teeth right on edge.

It didn't give Thomas any reason to change his mind—having the gardener at the table was a step too far past the natural order of things for Thomas' liking, especially when Thwaite had mud under his fingernails, and he kept smirking at Thomas whenever Thomas pointed out he had a cottage he could eat in, just like old Mr Hargreaves always had.

At least Carson was on his side. Mr Carson liked things done right, and even though Thomas could cheerfully lock Mr Carson in a room and throw away the key most days, in this at least they could agree. The two of them remained in their isolated distaste for having the gardener to table, whilst around them everyone else seemed to positively revel in the new addition. But Thomas wasn't; Thomas had ambition, and he was going to rise to the top of this small pond, and he wasn't going to do that making friends with the gardener.

Thwaite was red haired and freckled, louche and long-limbed. He was quiet, and dry, and seemed to wear a smirk like a second skin whenever Thomas was around. Thomas' enmity didn't lessen over time, but even though they weren't even close to being friends, it didn't seem to matter. Thwaite visited Thomas in his dreams every night, tantalisingly close, hands trailing over Thomas' skin in fantasies so vivid that when Thomas woke he was half-convinced it was real. In his dreams, Thwaite wore that same smirk he did in the kitchens every day, like he was laughing at Thomas, like he just knew that Thomas was going to give in to him one day.

Thomas knew that if that happened, even in his dreams, Thwaite would just laugh at him, dancing away into the night. Thwaite kept him awake and pressed to the bed every night in his dreams, and every morning, Thomas woke up knowing that it was never going to happen, that the things he wanted were abnormal, that one day everybody would know about the wrongness inside of him and they'd look at him like he was dirt.

His ambition kept him grounded. Garnering respect and reaching a position of responsibility—like maintaining his position as valet to Lord Grantham, for example, although that wasn't the extent of Thomas' ambition; his eye was on Carson at the last—would surely mean that he'd be above the rumour mill that circulated amongst the lower echelons of Downton's servants. Thomas had ruthlessly clawed his way up the ranks at Downton and he wasn't going to give that up without a fight. He wasn't going to let any jumped up pot boy like Alfred, or Jimmy, take what was rightfully Thomas', and nor would he let some outsider, like Moseley, leap frog his way to the top of the tree.

And when Thomas took over from Carson in the end, he'd banish Thwaite to the gardener's cottage, and never look at his wide, lazy smile, or his habitual smirk, and wonder what it was like if he was on his knees in front of Thomas and saying yes.

Thomas wore his sneer like a mask, squaring his shoulders every lunchtime and putting Thwaite in his place whenever he could manage to. He never once let on that he hated Thwaite so much he wanted to lie him out on the sheets and touch every inch of him, over and over, again and again and again.

—//—

O'Brien got one over on him on a rainy Friday night, feeding her twisted version of the truth to Lady Grantham. He had to stand in the butler's room and defend himself, for once an unwitting participant in one of O'Brien's schemes. He'd used to help engineer them; now he'd let his attention wander and suddenly he was the victim. He cursed himself for letting himself get caught out by her; she was a nobody, a sneering, desperate nobody and getting caught up in her lies made him just as much of a nobody as she was. He couldn't get himself out of this one, either. The shirts were gone from Mr Crawley's rooms, and they were in his room, in a suitcase he kept on top of his wardrobe, the one and only picture he had of his mother tucked into a tear in the lining. O'Brien couldn't have put them there, not without help, and Thomas didn't know whether it was Jimmy or Alfred who'd done the dirty on him, but whoever it was, they were going to pay. He'd get them both if he couldn't pin it on one of them.

Carson wanted to see him again in the morning. O'Brien had smiled all the way through dinner. Thomas had hidden his hands under the table so that nobody could see he was shaking. He wouldn't let her know that she'd beaten him, even for a moment. Not ever.

Fury coursed through him. They'd all pay, all of them. Jimmy and Alfred and Carson and the Granthams and O'Brien most of all. They'd all pay. He couldn't lose his position here. He wouldn't. It didn't matter what it took. He was stopping at Downton; he'd find a way. Somehow. His hands still shook.

It was raining outside, pitch black and wet, the rain bouncing off the gravel in the courtyard as he tried to shelter by the wall. His hands shook as he tried to light his cigarette. His matches were wet, the lighter he'd carried throughout the war broken and gone. The matches wouldn't light, and he needed a smoke, and he was going to make them all pay, if only he could light his cigarette and have a moment to himself.

He pressed his back to the wet brickwork of the archway by the garage, remembering the way he'd seen Lady Sybil and Branson inside once or twice, sneaking glances and touches. He'd kept that secret: Branson might have been better off gone from here, but Lady Sybil had been kind to Thomas, in her way. He'd liked her for that, back in the day. He hoped they were happy. He didn't want that for many people, but he made an exception for Lady Sybil.

Two matches left; one splintered in his hand, fractured and broken. The pack was too wet to strike, and he had one left. "Christ," he muttered, because the rain was heavy, and it was seeping through his clothes, miserable and cold, even standing in the lee of the arch. All he needed was a minute to himself to collect his thoughts.

"Here," a voice said. When he looked up, it was Thwaite, dry in a waxed jacket and a cap, holding out a match. There was a cigarette in his mouth, the tip glowing red.

"No point," Thomas said, giving up. "Everything's too wet. It wouldn't light."

"Mine's lit," Thwaite said. He took a couple of steps back, further into the shelter of the archway.

Thomas couldn't help but be irrationally furious that Thwaite was wrapped up so well against the rain, and that he was still wearing that stupid, annoying smirk that drove him so mad. He was furious because he went to sleep every night thinking about Thwaite and woke up every morning hard. He tried to push it to one side, but Thomas knew that he was never going to be rid of this thing inside of him that made him wrong. All it ever did was make every single damn thing worse.

Thwaite dropped the match on the floor. "Light yours from mine, if you want."

The only lights were the slithers of ones that sneaked out of the curtains in the servants' quarters, the warmth of the kitchen sending haphazard, zig-zagging stripes of light across the gravel, distorting as the rain hit them. Stepping back into the shadows of the archway and away from the kitchen, the lights seemed to slide away, leaving just the cold damp of the night and the sound of Thomas' breathing mixed in with the patter of the rain against the ground.

Thwaite raised an eyebrow, his cigarette dangling from his mouth. Thomas swallowed, leaning in, his cigarette between his finger and thumb. It was damp when he put it in his mouth, and it still wouldn't light.

Thomas stayed still and kept the tip of his cigarette touching Thwaite's. Come on, come on, he begged. Just fucking light.

Every part of Thomas was twisted up and broken, and sometimes trying to hold all the pieces together seemed far outside the limits of his capabilities. He hated it when he let that show.

His cigarette caught, and he breathed in, ragged and desperate. He unfurled himself back into a standing position, leaning back against the brickwork, back stretched, chin tilted up. He closed his eyes and took another drag.

"You in trouble, then?" Thwaite asked. It wasn't like anyone could have missed the atmosphere at dinner, but Thwaite hadn't eaten with them, so Thomas didn't know how Thwaite knew that some of Mr Crawley's missing belongings had been found in Thomas' room. People gossiped too much.

"Wouldn't you like to know," Thomas said, eyes still closed. Yes, he thought. I'm in trouble. But when was he not? He was always on the edge, no matter how hard he tried to escape past it. Trouble came with him.

"Daisy said—"

"Daisy should keep her big mouth shut," Thomas told him, shaking his head. "Daisy knows nothing."

Thwaite laughed at that, a rough intake of breath. "She reckons she's got your number."

Thomas didn't say anything. Everybody thought that they knew him, thought they could predict him and read him like a book. They couldn't. He could surprise everybody. He'd surprise Thwaite right now if he just leaned over and kissed him. He wasn't going to—there was such a thing as knowing when it was past the point where hope was useful—but no one really knew him. Daisy didn't know him.

"She doesn't know anything," Thomas said after a while. "She doesn't know anything about me." If he got the sack for this, for stealing shirts he never bloody stole, he didn't know what he was going to do. He'd take his reference, if they gave him one, the bloody bastards, and then he'd get on the bus to Ripon and then on to who knew where. There must be jobs in Leeds; he'd find one there. He wouldn't need to go anywhere he might run into his mum.

He clenched his fist to stop his hand from shaking.

"Daisy doesn't know you," Thwaite said conversationally. "She thinks she does. They all think they do. But none of them do, do they?"

It was dark, and the rain was heavy, and Thomas was shivering and cold and his cigarette wasn't helping.

"Shut up," he said. "You don't know anything." Thwaite and his smirk and his red hair and his freckles. His wide, stupid mouth and the mud underneath his fingernails and Thomas waking up hard every morning and knowing he could never have any of it, not a moment of it, not ever.

"Not everyone has it in for you, you know."

Thomas didn't believe that for a second. Everyone had always had it in from him, right from when he was a little boy. The Granthams and the Crawleys and O'Brien and Carson and all the men he's had the misfortune to get close to, and stupid, stupid, desperate Edward Courtenay, who'd thrown his future away in a way that Thomas would never be brave enough to try. All of them, each of them together, and Thomas all by himself, always and forever.

"I'm going in," he said, throwing his cigarette down onto the ground. It glowed red for a second before flickering out, the rain taking that too.

Thwaite didn't say anything, and when Thomas sat by the stove long after the kitchen was in darkness, the whole house asleep but him, he wrapped his dressing gown even tighter around himself against the cold, and didn't let himself hope for anything.

—//—

He saved his job by the skin of his teeth, and if he threw O'Brien to the wolves to keep his position, then it was a choice Thomas would make again and again, day after day. She'd watched him with reddened eyes over the table at lunchtime, and for a second, Thomas was a little unnerved by the scale of the enemy he'd made. They hadn't exactly been friends for a long time, but this was a new level of hatred burning at him from across the table.

Then he remembered that he wasn't scared of anything, not anything, and certainly not O'Brien. And certainly not an O'Brien who'd been caught crying after a tongue lashing from Lady Grantham, for supposedly getting hoodwinked in the games of young men who should have known better. Alfred and Jimmy were staring down at their plates, and Thomas still didn't know which one of them had done it, had stolen into his room when he wasn't there and hidden Mr Crawley's shirts inside his suitcase, but they'd both shouldered the blame for a game that he pretended had got out of control.

They'd taken the blame all right, Thomas had made sure of that when he took his story of young men's one-upmanship to Carson and Lord Grantham. A game, he'd said apologetically. He'd discovered that he'd been the unwitting victim of game of chance that had backfired, and Carson and Lord Grantham had believed him. They'd believed him, and O'Brien was in trouble for telling silly tales to the mistress, and she might stare at him over the table like she hated him, but Thomas had still won.

He stared back at her across the table, fierce and unyielding, and the atmosphere stretched out over the room, tense and awkward and still. The only sounds were those of knives and forks against plates, as everyone tried to ignore the scale of the row that had enveloped below stairs that morning.

But Thomas had won, and that was all that mattered. Nobody tried to back Thomas into a corner and got away with it. His story had stood up, thank God, or at any rate, much better than O'Brien's had when it came down to it, and much, much better than Alfred and Jimmy's. Lord Grantham had been furious with everyone in the end, Thomas included, even though his story exonerated himself—worse than school children, all of you, I've got a good mind to—but Thomas had stopped listening by then. He still had a job, a position, a place to fall asleep every night and wake up every morning. O'Brien had family, although if they knew her like Thomas knew her, they probably hated the sight of her, but Thomas had no one. His dad was gone, and his mum a waste of time. The only person looking out for him was Thomas himself, and he was going to do a bloody good job of it, regardless of who got in the way.

When Thomas looked up from his cleared plate, his knife and fork neatly together in the centre of his plate, Thwaite was watching him from across the table, his gaze level.

Thomas smirked then, unable to help himself, and when Mrs Patmore stood up to refill the teapot, Thomas jumped up.

"Let me," he said, with the most genuine smile he'd managed in days. "I'll get that for you, Mrs Patmore. You sit down."

"Oh, well," she said, the furrow in her brow belying her confusion at his change in mood, just for a moment. He could be helpful, he just liked to save it up for when it would be received most usefully. Thomas didn't believe in expending energy unnecessarily. "Thank you, Thomas. That would be very kind."

"You know me, Mrs Patmore," he said, leaning past Alfred to get to the teapot in the middle of the table. "Always willing to help out."

He remembered Thwaite the night before saying, but she doesn't know you... none of them do, do they? Thwaite was right about that, if nothing else. Everyone underestimated Thomas, and everyone was wrong.

Thwaite more than anyone.

—//—

It wasn't raining the next time Thomas begged a light from Thwaite underneath the garage archway. He'd escaped the kitchen because Anna had a face on her like a wet weekend. Bates showed no sign of getting out of gaol, even though Anna was spending every last minute trying to clear his name. Secretly Thomas hoped she never managed it, because whilst Bates was inside, there was no one to fight Thomas for the position of Lord Grantham's valet. O'Brien, Jimmy, and Alfred were all still in the bad books, and Moseley was firmly entrenched as Matthew Crawley's man, which left Thomas swimming right at the top for a change, and everyone else sinking to the bottom. Thomas wasn't even going to pretend it didn't feel good.

"Come on," Thomas said, because his tobacco tin was empty. "I know you have a spare cigarette for me."

Thwaite didn't smile, even though Thomas was smiling at him. The world was a great place; he was allowed to smile.

"If I did have a spare one," Thwaite said, leaning against the wall with one knee up, "there are other smug bastards I'd give it to before I gave it to you." He cocked his head to the side. "Actually, there are a lot of non-smug bastards I'd give it to, before I gave it to you. Do you always lord it over everyone when you've cheated them in a fight?"

"They cheated me first," Thomas told him, presuming that they were talking about O'Brien and her failed attempt at getting him into trouble.

Thwaite rolled his eyes. There was mud all up his trousers, and smeared across his forehead like he'd wiped the back of his arm across his head. His hands were dirty. He looked like he'd been lying in muck, but none of that meant that Thomas didn't still want to strip him naked and touch him everywhere. He wondered if the hopeless, desperate longing he couldn't help but feel was as obvious to Thwaite as it was to Thomas.

"Remember when I said not everyone had it in for you?" Thwaite said, after a minute. He held out a cigarette for Thomas to take, and Thomas shrugged, trying not to touch Thwaite or get dirt on his clothes as he took it.

"Yes," Thomas said, when it became clear that Thwaite was waiting for an answer.

"Yes," Thwaite said. "Not everybody does, but you don't exactly give the people who do any reason not to think that."

"They cheated me first," Thomas said again. He didn't live by many rules in his life, because every time he tried, the parts of him that he tried so hard to ignore, the parts of him that made him do stupid, desperate, risky things—those parts of him always won, and it always went wrong, and rules got broken and things got worse. He couldn't live by the rules that everyone else was supposed to live by. He'd tried. He lived by the rules that got him through every day and onto the next one—lying, cheating, even stealing if necessary, but doing whatever it was that needed to be done to make sure he came out on top. If it meant taking O'Brien down on the way up, then even better. He'd been happy two minutes ago; now he felt defensive and unsure. He hated the way Thwaite seemed to be able to do that to him.

"Not everyone has it in for you," Thwaite said again after a moment. Thomas fumbled with a light for his cigarette, blinking away the smoke as he coughed into a breath.

For a long, desperate second, Thomas wanted to believe him, but he couldn't. Thwaite was a gardener, maybe a gardener who spent his lunchtimes eating with the household staff instead of in his own cottage out in the grounds, but he was a gardener, and he was stupid and knew nothing about Thomas, nothing at all.

"Mr Thwaite," Thomas said, and he said it carefully, so that nobody would be able to hear the shake in his voice that he was trying so hard to hide, "I'll thank you not to discuss me any further. I'm a valet; I'm not anybody's friend."

Thwaite looked at him then like he was sorry for him, and Thomas fought the urge to hit him, to say no, stop that, don't look at me like that. Nobody looks at me like that.

Thomas took a last drag on his cigarette, throwing it down onto the floor between them, and turned around to go back inside to the house.

He was a valet, and he was going to stay one. He didn't need to make friends along the way.

—//—

Bates got out of gaol, and Bates wanted his old job back, and Thomas was probably going to be straight out on his fucking ear, and everybody was laughing at Thomas like it was a worthy comeuppance and something he deserved.

Thomas stormed out of the house whilst they were still waiting for Mrs Patmore's sponge pudding to come to the servants' table, into the wind and the rain and the cold. He wrapped his arms around himself as he wished for a better wool coat to face the chill of the autumn with. He was going to lose his job, and his position, and there was nothing he could do, and where the hell was he supposed to go? Just once, just once, he wanted to be somewhere where he could stop being scared he was going to lose it all every time he woke up and got out of bed.

"Damn, damn, damn," he said out loud, and maybe now wasn't the time to start cursing a god he might need to pray to at some point in the near future if he didn't find another position and quickly, too.

He still couldn't find it in himself to believe in a god that had made him like this, though, all wrong and twisted up inside, with feelings he didn't want. He shouldn't feel like this about other men; he'd always known he was put together wrong. He dreamed of men—of Thwaite, particularly, but Thwaite was a nightmare, brought here to drag him into temptation and ruin his sleep for weeks on end, and never want him back—and when he got hard it was because he was thinking of a man's cock, and nothing else. He'd never been with a woman. Should he admit that? There was nobody he could have told, and nobody he'd wanted to. There had just been men. He'd wanted so much, and it had always been so little. Even the feelings he'd had for Edward Courtenay—he'd known they wouldn't have lasted, even if Edward hadn't done the brave, lonely, stupid thing that he'd done.

Thomas had let himself cry for Edward, even when he hadn't let himself cry for himself.

And now he was probably going to be out on his ear, and without a position, and the Crawleys would rather have a man who'd been in gaol be Lord Grantham's valet than Thomas, and it didn't matter what Thomas did, or didn't do, he was still never wanted. There wasn't a position for him anymore, and he wouldn't go back to being footman. He couldn't.

But anyway, there wasn't a position free there, either. There was just nothing.

He leaned against the wall of the archway, head tipped back, and tried to breathe like normal. If he could just breathe normally, he could think of a way out of this, think of a way to keep his job even if it meant that someone else wouldn't. They'd find other work, they had families. They hadn't been here ten years. They hadn't held their hand up and begged to be shot just to come back here. They hadn't been so scared that they'd risked death just to run home.

Inside, Thomas was a coward. He covered it up with ruthless ambition and a firm belief in what he deserved. Sometimes Thomas wondered what he'd be like if he didn't constantly have to fight everyone and everything for what should have been rightfully due to him in the first place.

"Thomas?"

Thomas opened his eyes. Thwaite was standing in the archway, still pulling on his coat against the rain. He must have followed Thomas out from inside, and Thomas didn't know why since they hadn't had pudding served two minutes ago. Thwaite shouldn't have been finished by now.

"Mr Barrow to you," Thomas managed, since getting a grip on himself was the only thing he could trust himself to do, and there was no other reason for Thwaite to come outside that wasn't lording it over Thomas that he was about to get the sack. "You're just the gardener, and it's Mr Barrow." He didn't say that tomorrow he was probably going to be out of a job, and nobody's superior, not even his own.

"Mr Barrow," Thwaite said, but he didn't imbue it with any of the respect that Thomas deserved as his lordship's valet. Why didn't anyone treat Thomas the way he deserved to be treated? He just wanted people to treat him with respect, that was all.

"You weren't hungry?" Thomas asked. There was probably a pudding plate inside for him as well, but Thomas couldn't think of eating there in front of everyone, not right now. They all knew that Bates was out, living in a cottage in the grounds with Anna, and that he was wanting his old life back. They all knew that Thomas would be gone soon, relieved of the position of his Lordship's valet, and Thomas knew they were all loving it. He just needed a minute, that was all, a minute to compose himself and have a smoke and pretend he was just too full for afters, and that was the reason for him not wanting his pudding.

"Yes," Thwaite said. "I've been turning over the kitchen garden all morning. You think that's not the kind of work that doesn't leave you starving by lunch time?"

"I think it's the kind of work that you shouldn't be sitting down in the kitchen for lunch for, after," he snapped. "You're a gardener. That's not inside staff."

"Mrs Patmore offered, and I accepted," Thwaite said. "And that's really none of your business."

"I'm Lord Grantham's valet," Thomas said. It was so cold and wet out, and his coat wasn't good enough at keeping the rain out. He was shivering, arms wrapped around himself against the cold, and why didn't Thwaite ever stop pushing? The rest of them in there, stupid though they were, at least they were scared of him half the time. They knew what he was capable of, and when he should be left alone. Thwaite never seemed to understand that.

"I came to see if you were all right," Thwaite said.

Thomas blinked. He hated that he couldn't figure Thwaite out, that he couldn't see the endgame through what Thwaite was saying. It just made him feel like he was being played, like he was a piece on a chessboard and Thomas couldn't play. "Of course I'm fine," he said. It was either obvious that he wasn't, and didn't want to talk about it, or Thwaite was just stupid. If he was bright enough to be either of those things, he'd go away and leave Thomas alone.

"Doesn't look like it," Thwaite said. "Did they actually give you your marching orders, or what?"

"Get lost," Thomas snapped. He turned around and walked through the archway, away from the house. It wasn't the direction he'd intended to go in. Five minutes, that's all he'd needed. Five minutes to clear his head and decide what he was going to do next to make sure that either Bates stayed where he was, or Molesley got the heave-ho so that he could be valet to Mr Crawley. That should be the just way if he really was going to be asked to step down as Lord Grantham's valet. It was only because Bates used to be Lord Grantham's batman. It was always about who you knew, not what you knew. Thomas was smart but always lacked connections, not like Bates who just walked into a job he wasn't physically up to.

But if Moseley were to go—well. There was no one else for Mr Crawley's valet if Molesley was to go, as Jimmy wasn't experienced enough to be a threat for the position. Thomas disliked Jimmy anyway, for giving Thomas a fleeting hope that there might be something between them. Thomas should really know by now that hope was a poor, badly-planned emotion he should never give any credit to. It only ended up the worse for him in the end.

The rain was easing off a bit as he walked away from the house, but not enough that it mattered. Thomas tried not to look like he was running away, shoulders hunched up against the cold, but he was. There was no denying it. He was.

"I'm trying to be your friend," Thwaite said, coming after him, and Thomas scoffed at that, unable to help himself.

"You're the gardener," Thomas shot back over his shoulder, still walking. "I don't need friends like you." He didn't need anyone, nobody at all. He had himself, and that was all he needed.

Thwaite rolled his eyes at him, catching up and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Happen you shouldn't be so careless with people offering you friendship, Mr Barrow."

Thomas didn't say anything to that. People didn't offer him friendship, they never had. He had always been the odd one out, the child in the corner with the mean expression on his face, the one the adults had talked about without thinking about whether he could overhear or not. He stole things he didn't own himself, and he used people to get to where he wanted to be, and he knew all of that and it didn't stop him doing it again and again. What did it matter? Stopping now wasn't going to change anything. It never had before. "Go back inside," he said finally. "Your pudding will be getting cold."

Thwaite didn't say anything to that, but he didn't turn around and walk back towards the house, either. Instead he just kept walking beside Thomas, towards the woods, and Thomas wanted to hate him, he really did. He wanted to hate him so much it hurt, because Thwaite was there in his dreams, whenever he closed his eyes, tantalizingly close and always offering himself in Thomas' head in a way that would never happen in real life. Thomas saw people in real life like Bates and Anna, or Lady Mary and Mr Crawley, and he saw them fall in love and get married and start a life together, and the meanness inside him coiled up and up until it couldn't help but explode.

When he was a little boy, before he knew better, Thomas had dreamed of holding a big man's hand, and being hugged.

"When I was in the war," Thomas said all of a sudden, "I hated it so much, and I was so scared, I got myself shot so that I'd be invalided out." Go away, he thought. Go away and leave me be.

Thwaite looked down at the ground, but didn't stop walking. "My brother died," he said, after a minute. "War rotted him from the inside out. Last time I saw him, I hated him. Then he was dead, and I didn't know what to think. My mum keeps all of his things. My dad still talks to him like he's there in the room with us, but he's not. And he was a right bastard, that last time. Like someone had taken all the nice things about him away, and just left the mean things, twisted up inside him." He looked at Thomas, like Thomas was supposed to respond to that with something meaningful. Thomas didn't say anything, and Thwaite shook his head before saying, "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," Thomas said, and he didn't know why he was saying it out loud, why he was telling Thwaite, of all people. "I don't know."

"Where will you go if you leave?"

Thomas clenched his fists to keep them from betraying him, the shake hidden inside. "I don't know," he said again.

Thwaite didn't say anything for a while.

"Lady Sybil was kind to me," Thomas said finally. "In the war. She was a nurse. She's in Ireland now. Married. Expecting."

"I heard," Thwaite said.

The ground beneath their feet was muddy and wet; Thomas' shoes weren't meant for this. He'd have to give them a good clean before going upstairs in them. There were still a couple of hours before the family would be home from their luncheon in Ripon. There was time for a plan yet.

"Would you go to her?" Thwaite asked.

Thomas shook his head. "She hasn't a need for a valet. She married the chauffeur; turned upstairs upside down." It had turned downstairs upside down too, but Thomas liked watching events upset the natural order of things. It appealed to his sense of chaos.

"Lady Edith?" Thwaite suggested, and something flickered inside of Thomas, the first spark of an idea. "Would she speak for you?"

Nobody would speak for him. Nobody ever had. "It doesn't matter," he said finally, but an idea was beginning to come together inside of him; a possibility. What would happen, would happen. If his idea didn't come together, he'd appeal to the family in desperation at the last: all those years of service, and the war work, and the duty they had to him had to mean something.

It would work out in the end. It had to. And Thomas would do whatever it took to ensure that it did.

Thomas had never had a home, and Downton wasn't exactly the kind he'd hoped for. It was a roof over his head and food on the table, and Thomas had never had anything more than that. He wouldn't lose it. It was nothing—and everything—all at the same time.

"My name's Alec," Thwaite said, after a minute.

Thomas had turned around, back to the wood, facing the house. It was ridiculous, all of this space owned by one family. Branson had been right about the natural order of things being wrong. "So?" he said.

"So, Mr Barrow," Thwaite said, and Thomas knew he was being mocked, he knew it. "If we're to be friends, it's right you should know my name's Alec."

"We're not friends," Thomas said shortly, because he didn't have friends, and he didn't need them, and he certainly didn't need Thwaite.

When set off back across the grounds towards the house, his plan starting to come together in his head as he went, he didn't look back to see if Thwaite was watching.

He knew he was, just the same.

—//—

Jimmy wasn't talking to him for some fatuous reason that Thomas couldn't be bothered unpicking, and neither was Daisy, probably for the same reason. Thomas just smirked at them all, eyes bright, because he couldn't be bothered to work up the energy to care about their problems: he wasn't leaving Downton.

Mr Crawley's valet, he thought. The next generation. It was better this way, he told himself. A future as long as it was bright. Bates could grow old with the current Lord Grantham, grow old and turn into Carson before his eyes, and Thomas would stay with Mr Matthew. It had all worked out as he'd planned. This should have been his endgame all along.

Molesley was leaving instead, apparently unable to turn down the position of butler to Sir Anthony Strallan, and if Strallan had taken some persuasion to come around to the idea that he needed a new butler, then Thomas was going to take full responsibility for that, and then some. People like Strallan, alone and miserable and in love, were easy to persuade. The merest offhand mention of dragging Lady Edith's name through the gossip mill and Strallan was reorganising his staff to take Moseley on at Thomas' instruction.

So. It was done, and Moseley was going, and Thomas was already tired of Moseley's weak smile and wishy-washy eyes. Strallan had been an easy target, once Thomas had thought of it, and Thomas had used Strallan's feelings for Lady Edith to protect both himself, and his job. Thomas liked spark, and determination, even when he was winning. It made for a better opponent. Sir Anthony Strallan was a poor man's competition, giving in so easily. It had all been far too simple.

Thomas would never have given in so easily.

Thomas never gave in, and one of these days, Thomas was going to win big. Even the way Thwaite was looking at him over the table—my name's Alec, like Thomas was ever going to stoop to call him that—and the look on his face was tired and vaguely disappointed, wasn't enough to dampen Thomas' spirit in any way. This one was his, and it was a win he was going to celebrate, just as soon as he got a minute to himself. The fact that Thwaite appeared to have guessed that there may have been machinations going on behind the scenes at Thomas' instigation, and Thwaite's subsequent dull disappointment in Thomas' behaviour, was neither here nor there. He didn't need anyone's approval.

"I'm going outside for a smoke," he said, standing up at the end of dinner. "Thwaite?"

Thwaite didn't look up from where he was talking to Alfred. "No thanks," he said, and Thomas thought, my name's Alec, and something inside of him shifted, just a little, and hurt.

Don't let it, he told himself, keeping the smile pinned to his face as he went to take his coat from the hook, don't let it show.

—//—

It was raining again. Autumn had been nothing but rain this year, and Thomas felt perpetually damp and cold to the bone, even with the fires burning brightly in the fireplaces. Winter was almost here, and people barely spoke to him, and if he was lonely, he hid it well, but his dreams were still full of Alec Thwaite. Nothing he did seemed to rid himself of the temptation, and his sleep remained disturbed even as the weeks moved on and Thwaite did not renew his offer of friendship.

This was why Thomas didn't let himself get close to people in general, and why he didn't let himself get close to Thwaite in particular. It hurt, even though he'd tried so hard to not let it matter to him. Becoming Matthew Crawley's valet had isolated him even more than being Lord Grantham's had, and Thomas hadn't expected that.

Sometimes it felt like his heart and the way it felt towards people was a strange, alien creature inside of him, and he wished again that he could just rip it out and start all over again, with the feelings and desires of a normal person. He did his best. He no longer met Jimmy's eyes, or crowded him in the hallway, or when he was winding the clock. He mocked Alfred's inexperience and pale, freckled skin. The new chauffeur was beneath his attention, and if he could have spent longer assisting Mr Crawley to dress and touching him a fraction too long, he didn't. He got on with his job even as his exhaustion mounted, and even as the servants continued to talk around him, and past him, at every meal.

He didn't know what was wrong with him, since none of this had ever had this kind of impact on him before. He was better than these idiots, and one day he'd float to the top whilst they were still chugging away at the bottom, but for the past few weeks he'd felt even further removed from them. Sometimes it felt like he was standing at the side of the room, just watching himself go through the motions, the same thing every single day. It never changed.

Even Matthew Crawley had asked him if everything was all right, and Matthew Crawley had looked at him like he was the dirt on the underneath of his shoe ever since Moseley had left for Sir Anthony Strallan's. Matthew Crawley had an intuitive streak that Thomas didn't appreciate.

"Aren't you satisfied with my work?" Thomas had asked, which even he knew wasn't an answer.

Matthew Crawley had been satisfied, apparently, and Thomas tried a little harder to hide the way his exhaustion was beating him down. Sometimes it felt like he was the only person on the planet, just him and nobody else.

He slipped out of the kitchen after dinner, taking his coat but not stopping for a scarf or a hat, even though winter was here, miserable and cold. He saw O'Brien outside sometimes, smoking at the other end of the courtyard. Thomas always stayed away from her, in the shadows, hiding in the lee of the archway, coat pulled tight around him as he fumbled with his matches.

He was all fingers and thumbs in the cold of the evening, and his first match broke in two as he tried to light it.

"Here," a voice said, and it was Thwaite, holding out a lit match in the cup of his hand.

Thomas swallowed, ducking his head to catch the flame. "I didn't think you came here anymore," he said, after his first long breath in. "I thought you went anywhere I wasn't."

Thwaite shrugged, lighting his own cigarette from the flame before waving the match out. "Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes I just feel like checking to see if you're all right."

"Do I look ill today? You're the second person to ask that. I'm fine."

"Who was the first?" Thwaite sounded amused. "And there you were, thinking that nobody in the world cared for you."

"Matthew Crawley," Thomas admitted. He didn't know why he was telling Thwaite this. They'd barely spoken in weeks. Thomas had taken to just sneering at him across the kitchen table every lunchtime, and occasionally mentioning the state of the mud under his fingernails if the day had been particularly frustrating. He'd grown tired of hearing of Thwaite telling people about his plans for the kitchen garden in the new year. He didn't listen anymore. "I can't imagine he cares for me. It's more likely he's making sure that he doesn't have to dress himself if I come down with the flu."

"Is that what's wrong with you?" Thwaite asked. "Are you sickening for something?" Flu, and the epidemic of two years ago, was still spoken of in hushed tones.

"I'm just tired," Thomas said. He shivered, unable to help himself, the cold seeping into his skin.

"You're cold," Thwaite said, and then he was unwrapping his scarf from around his neck and putting it around Thomas' neck, even as Thomas protested. He didn't need anyone's scarf. But—it was the only time anyone had touched him in weeks. Thomas' whole body ached with tiredness and want; he dreamed every night of being held, and every morning he woke up and it was just him, and a cold bedroom.

"There," Thwaite said. "Can't have you getting ill. You'd have to engineer taking over the world from your sickbed, and I can only imagine how irritating that would be for you."

"Shut up," Thomas said, but even he couldn't manage to put any heat behind it. He didn't touch the scarf around his neck.

"The fair's going to be here this weekend," Thwaite said, after a minute.

"Yes." The posters had been up in the village, and it was all anyone could talk about below stairs. Everyone was planning on going.

"Were you thinking on going?"

Thomas hadn't really thought about it. He had nobody to go with, and he didn't fancy the idea of trying to find a man to slide into the shadows with when there were so many people he knew around. He'd have to wait until his next proper weekend off, maybe go into Bradford or Leeds. "Maybe," he said.

"I was going to go Saturday. You could come with me, if you want. Saturday night."

He wouldn't be wanted at Downton. They'd all asked, everyone, and below stairs were all free after dinner on Saturday, on purpose. "Maybe."

"Put that enthusiasm down, you'll scare someone." Thwaite laughed. "I'll meet you by the churchyard gate. Eight o'clock. You can bring me my scarf back."

"Have it now—" Thomas hated being beholden.

Thwaite held his hands up, backing away. "Thomas," he said. "Keep it until Saturday. Can't have you getting poorly."

"I didn't say I'd be there," Thomas found himself saying, even though he knew he'd go.

Thwaite just laughed as he left, and Thomas looked down at the ground. Don't hope, he told himself, although that was probably futile by now. Don't hope.

—//—

Thomas still wasn't sleeping well. He spent countless hours lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, but even his exhaustion wasn't enough to force his body to sleep, and as the weekend drew nearer, the shadows beneath his eyes grew darker every time he looked in the mirror. Even wrapping his hand around his cock didn't help, spilling into his hand and thinking about Thwaite—Alec—holding him close. He just felt cold, all of the time, cold inside and out. He took to sitting by the stove after the rest of the house were in bed, hoping that some of the residual warmth would be enough to heat him through, just for a while.

It was the only time he wore Thwaite's scarf, sitting downstairs in the dark without even a candle for company. He twined the ends through his fingers, wondering who had made it for him, and how long he'd had it. It smelled a little like wood smoke and tobacco, the wool well worn. He'd had a scarf a bit like this, once. He'd stolen it from a boy at school. He'd had it a whole long weekend, until the boy's dad had rounded on him, turning up on Thomas' doorstep on a Monday night and giving him a clip round the ear. Thomas' dad, working on a broken pocket watch with the clockwork all over the table like a map, had waited until the scarf and the boy and his dad were gone, and then he'd belted Thomas around the face and sent him to bed with no food.

He'd been cold then, too.

Saturday dawned dry and crisp and cold, but the rain held off. Everyone was going to the fair that night, even Mr Carson, and all around the house the servants kept peering out the windows to see if it looked like rain.

"It's only a fair," Thomas complained at lunchtime, rolling his eyes as Daisy peered out of the window to describe the grey clouds to the rest of the table. "It won't even be that good."

"You pipe down," Ivy told him, far too flippant for Thomas' liking. "It's dead exciting, a fair. We never get anything exciting here."

"Ivy," Mrs Hughes warned, and Ivy blushed.

"Sorry, Mrs Hughes, Mr Barrow."

Thomas rolled his eyes again. He was so tired his head was beginning to throb, and he always disliked it when people around him were excited over something he wasn't.

"Are you going to the fair, Thwaite?" Jimmy asked.

Thwaite glanced around the room, his eyes resting on Thomas for a split second, no more. "Happen I might," he said.

"You must get lonely by yourself in that cottage in the evenings," Daisy said, climbing down off her chair by the window, and dragging it back to the table. "Doesn't it get lonely?"

"Daisy," Mrs Patmore said. "Leave the poor boy alone."

"I keep myself busy, Mrs Patmore," Thwaite said, nudging his cup forward for more tea as Mrs Patmore reached for the pot.

"Of course you do," Mrs Patmore said, filling his cup again. "Mind that, Daisy. He keeps himself busy."

Thomas stifled a yawn in the curve of his elbow, and took another gulp of his tea. It wouldn't do to fall asleep at the table, but he was so tired, and so busy. Sometimes he did wonder if he was coming down with something, if he really was poorly and it wasn't all in his head. He just—he barely recognised himself at the moment. Getting out of bed was hard, and getting through the day was hard, and getting back into bed was even harder. He felt dull and heavy, his brain muffled, his bones cold. He took a long breath in, squaring his shoulders, and when he looked up, Thwaite wasn't the only one watching him—Mr Carson was too.

It's nothing, Thomas thought, plastering a sneer on his face to make them both look away. It's nothing and I'm all right.

It wasn't nothing, and he wasn't all right, and there was nothing in the world that would make it better, because he was all alone, and too tired to fight.

—//—

"O'Brien's around somewhere," Thwaite said easily, when Thomas turned up at the churchyard gate, Thwaite's scarf folded up into the pocket of his coat.

"Why should that bother me?" Thomas asked, hunching his shoulders up against the cold. There was a tightness in his chest he couldn't get loose.

"Because she's got a face on her tonight, even worse than normal, and because the two of you stalk around each other like hungry wolves most of the time. I could do with just a nice night, no trouble, that's all. No wolves."

Exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him. He and O'Brien had been friends once, back in the day. Back then, it had felt like he had a partner in crime, someone else who saw the house for what it was, saw the insides like a creature to be dissected and put back together, a cog in a clockwork clock that needed to be oiled. Like he wasn't alone. Turned out he'd been wrong about her, too, because she might well have a nasty streak a mile wide—just like him—but she was also short-sighted and stupid, not able to see the endgame for the pawns. They were better off enemies than they ever were friends, but one day he'd take her down. "She doesn't bother me," he said finally.

Thwaite stood up from where he'd been leaning against the churchyard wall. "She's going to keep making trouble for you," he warned.

"I'm going to keep making trouble for her right back." Thomas shrugged, hoping that it came over like he didn't care. Today—he cared. Today he couldn't shrug off any of it, all of the things that he'd done, all the places that he'd been, all the people that he'd hurt. He'd ended up here, and he wasn't sure that any of it was worth it. "I brought you your scarf back." He held it out, and when Thwaite took it back Thomas felt a shiver run through him, right down to his toes. Don't hope, he'd told himself, but he knew that he did, secretly. He hoped.

"Thanks," Thwaite said, unfolding it and wrapping it around his neck. "Are you sure you don't need to wear it tonight? Cold out."

His elbow bumped Thomas', and Thomas' mouth felt dry. He straightened his flat cap instead, pulling it lower, down over his ears. His tie felt too tight around his neck.

"No," he lied. "I'm fine. Come on. What's at this fair, anyway?"

"Coconut shy, beer, sweets, strong man—you want to see if you can shoot a duck off a target?"

Thomas swallowed, thinking about his scarred, ruined hand. It worked, more or less—usually more—but he couldn't imagine that precision shooting was ever going to be his strong point. "I'll watch you," he said instead, and for a brief moment in the lamplight, Thwaite's gaze met his, and Thomas really, really wanted that glance to mean what he wanted it to mean.

"Let's walk by the bonfire first, get warm."

The bonfire lit up the green, flames flickering high as the village thronged around it, buying toffee apples off a gipsy girl with a wide smile and a tray of goods. There was cinder toffee too, and parkin, and Thomas bought two slices of parkin with coins from his purse whilst Thwaite was buying them hot cider from a barrel by the fire. He didn't intend to buy two; he hadn't gone up to queue with that in mind. But two he'd bought, and two he had wrapped in a little greased paper in his hand.

"Here," he said, when Thwaite came back to him. "She gave me two."

"Nice of her," Thwaite said, swapping the parkin for a glass of cider. It was rough cider, apple-rich and strong, but Thomas gulped it back anyway, his eyes bright. Everything felt risky tonight, like one careless word could bring everything falling down around him. Thomas' secret was only ever hidden just below the surface, anyway, and even though he didn't exactly run from risk, he just—he felt like he was too tired for it all right now. He was so tired of everything, and as they walked round the fair, spotting Ivy and Alfred throwing balls at toy ducks over barrels of water, and Mrs Hughes with Mrs Patmore by the coconut shy as Mr Carson tried his luck—Thomas didn't want to be here. He really, really didn't want to be here. A moment longer and it would be too long, and he'd give himself away, all of the twisted rottenness he hid away, deep inside his chest. He couldn't breathe.

He folded his paper around the remains of his piece of parkin, and slipped it into his pocket, gulping back the rest of his cider to wet his throat.

"Thomas—" Thwaite said, looking a little confused

"I just—" Thomas shook his head. "This was a bad idea. I have a headache." It was a lie, and at the same time, not a lie. The weight of the past few weeks was heavy, and his head did ache. Sometimes he found himself wanting to walk and walk until everything was quiet and silent, and he could lie down and go to sleep and not wake up.

It was the closest he'd ever come to understanding what Edward Courtenay did, and why, but Thomas knew he'd never be that brave. He'd just carry on, day after day, doing the same things he always had, and never caring who got hurt.

He left the fair as the rain started to fall, drizzle first, then heavier. He could still hear the collective groan from the fair-goers behind him as the heavens opened, whilst he hunched his shoulders up against the rain and hurried away from the green, breathless and desperate.

"Thomas." Thwaite was following him, but there was a buzzing in Thomas' ears now, a desperation that started behind his eyes and meant he was too close to giving in to tears to speak. Why now, why this, why him. Why. It wasn't fair, this thing that was inside of him, always threatening, insatiable, wanting more. Why couldn't he want someone simple, like Daisy. So what if he was bored by her, by the scope of her imagination, by her simplicity. He could have married her, or someone like her, and had children and a life and he wouldn't be like this, alone and desperate. He'd danced with her once, in the kitchen, and why couldn't he just pretend to be in love with her and live the same kind of life that everyone else lived? Why did he have to be made wrong? Why couldn't he sleep? He was so, so tired.

A sob caught in his throat, twisted and painful. He started to run, feet slipping in the mud, half tripping and having to put his hand down to catch himself before he fell. He ran off the path and towards the wood, desperate to put the fair behind him, to be alone, to find a space and remember how to breathe.

Inside the wood it was dark and wet and muddy, and he could still hear Thwaite running after him.

"Thomas," Thwaite said again, louder this time. "Thomas."

"Go away," Thomas said, stumbling into a tree. He gave up running then, leaning full length against it, back against the trunk. He tipped his head back, gulping in air. His breath felt tight in his chest. "Alec, go away. Please." He should have been ashamed to beg, but he couldn't find anything left inside of him with which to fight. He was too tired.

"No," Thwaite said. He stepped closer, and Thomas could feel the loud, heavy thump of his heart beat in his chest.

"Please," Thomas begged, because he was this close to touching Thwaite—Alec—and he knew, he just knew, he knew where that would lead. He couldn't bear it if Alec turned him down.

"No," Alec said, softly. The rain was falling through the gaps in the branches now, the leaves all gone from the trees. The wood wasn't as sheltered as Thomas might have thought. It was dark too, the moon a slither in the sky, only occasionally visible through the clouds. "Not everyone's out to get you, Thomas."

Thomas stifled a sob, because they were. Everyone turned on him, in the end. And he deserved it. He always deserved it. He turned his face away, so that Alec wouldn't see, but Alec just reached out and touched his fingertips to Thomas' cheek. "Please," he said again, but this time he wasn't asking Alec to stop. He couldn't. He didn't care if it was set up, if O'Brien was behind the tree waiting for Thomas to give in. He was too tired to fight anymore, too tired to fight what his heart was telling him he needed. He just wanted.

Alec's thumb touched at the corner of Thomas' mouth, and Thomas couldn't watch anymore. He closed his eyes, and Alec kept on touching him, one cold hand stroking his cheek, his lips, his chin. Then Alec's other hand was cupping his face too, and Thomas could feel Alec's breath against his mouth, and Thomas thought he might die from wanting it so much.

When Alec kissed him, Thomas felt like his chest might split right in two with need, right there and then in the middle of the woods.

Alec's mouth was cold and tasted like cider, but Thomas found himself clutching Alec's coat with a desperate fist, hand sliding up and into Alec's hair, pulling him closer, holding him near. Alec didn't fight to get away from him, didn't push him away, didn't hurt him. He stayed close, hands still cupping Thomas' face, his fingers cold. He kissed Thomas over and over, soft, gentle kisses with no tongue, and Thomas knew he was crying, and couldn't stop.

"Thomas," Alec said again, thumbs touching at Thomas' bottom lip.

"I'm sorry," Thomas tried to say. He wasn't quite sure what it was he was apologising for—being so tired it hurt to breathe, or being so wrong inside that this was the kind of thing he dreamed about, or for crying. For showing someone how weak he was, really. He tried to push Alec away, to turn his face away and hide whilst he tried to cover up his tears, but he couldn't. He couldn't, and his legs felt like jelly, and then Alec was tugging him nearer, and wrapping his arms around Thomas' shoulders, and hugging him close, one hand in Thomas' hair.

And Thomas cried, face pressed into the curve of Alec's shoulder, and the rain continued to fall.

Afterwards, when Thomas had cried himself out, he pulled away, ashamed.

"Sorry," he said dully, when Alec went to touch his arm. He moved away, turning his face to the side. Shame burned inside of him.

"Thomas," Alec said for what seemed like the hundredth time. "Thomas. You don't have to run away from me."

Thomas thought about all the nights he'd lain awake, imagining being held. About what it had felt like, just for those few minutes where he'd got to have Alec's arms around him, strong and still. "You're just the gardener," he said, and he could feel the familiar sneer sliding back into place, a mask he couldn't quite shake even those his hands were trembling, and it was killing him not to tug Alec closer and kiss him again. "You think I want you?"

"You're crying," Alec said. "You think I don't know that you're lying?"

"You don't know anything," Thomas managed. "You certainly don't know me."

"I do," Alec persisted, and even in the rain Thomas could see the belief in his face. Thomas wasn't anyone's project to fix, though, and if Thomas was broken, then he could fix himself. He didn't need anyone. He never needed anyone. He was fine by himself. "Thomas, stop it. I know you're lying. You don't have to lie." He reached out and grabbed Thomas' sleeve, but Thomas shook him off.

"Don't touch me."

"You're crying," Alec said. "Thomas, it's all right. Come on, let me—"

Thomas pushed him away. "No," he said. "No."

This time, when he ran away, Alec didn't follow.

—//—

In the morning, with the mud washed away and his collar starched, it almost looked like nothing had happened. When Thomas straightened his tie in the mirror, he looked just the same as he always had, and not liked he'd pushed away the only person who'd pretended to care about him in years.

Thomas didn't need anyone. He had himself, and he had his ambition, and everything else was immaterial.

—//—

If he stood on the back stairs and craned his head to the side, he could see Alec in the kitchen garden, turning over soil and fixing a tumble-down wall.

He took the front stairs when he could manage it.

—//—

Alec didn't come in for his lunch anymore.

—//—

Thomas didn't sleep at all on the Tuesday night after the fair, nor the Wednesday. He tried everything—including hot milk, and stealing whisky from his Lordship's collection—but sleep remained elusive. His head ached and his vision grew a little blurry at the edges, but he tried to hide it as best he could. Insomnia was no reason to be bad at his job, and if there was one thing he was actually skilled at (apart from hurting people) it was his work, so he dressed Mr Crawley as he always did, neat and fastidious. He did his duty, and nodded when it was necessary, and if he sometimes stumbled, he always righted himself before anyone really noticed.

He pretended not to see the glances people threw at each other when they thought he wasn't looking.

Daisy asked him if he was all right on Thursday before lunch was served, and got her head bitten off for her trouble.

"I was only asking," she said finally, and both Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson looked disapprovingly down their noses at him, which was just about the final straw for him. His head ached and he was so far past the edge that he could barely differentiate which way was up anymore.

"And you two can stop too," he started, even though he knew he shouldn't.

"Well, really," Mr Carson said, and then Mr Carson started to look a little swimmy around the edges, which wasn't right at all, Thomas knew that. He made a grab for the edge of the table, to steady himself.

The next thing he knew, he was on the floor on the kitchen, with Mrs Hughes looking down at him and stroking his hair back so that she could feel his forehead.

"You fainted," she said. "It's all right. The doctor's been sent for." She turned around, and there was a sea of faces looking down at him. "Go on with you all. He doesn't want all of you looking down at him. Back to work."

"But—" Daisy said.

"Daisy," Mrs Hughes said reprovingly, and she was going swimmy around the edges again. "One more word out of you."

Thomas closed his eyes again, ashamed and dizzy, and tried to sit up.

"Be careful, Thomas," Mrs Hughes said. "We don't want you fainting again, the kitchen maids were scared enough the first time."

A chair was brought, and carefully, Thomas was helped up and into it, sitting close to the range whilst he waited for the tunnel vision to clear and the spots in front of his eyes to fade. He only fainted once before, and not since he'd been twelve years old, his mum gone and his dad had locked him in his room overnight after Thomas had complained one too many times about his head aching. Desperately hungry, he'd got as far as contemplating climbing out of the bedroom window—even dragging a chair over to the window to stand on it—but he'd promptly got dizzy and fainted the moment his dad came in to tell him to shut the noise up. It had been the precursor to a bout of flu that had kept him in bed for two weeks on a diet of beef tea and thinly sliced bread and butter when his dad remembered—not a diet he wanted to repeat any time in the near future.

"I'm fine," he lied, when Mrs Patmore brought him over a cup of what he suspected was hot, sweet tea.

"Of course you are," Mrs Patmore told him. "Just you sit there and drink that, then we'll see who's fine and who isn't."

Thomas knew that by agreeing, and sitting idly by, they'd all know that he wasn't as well as he was trying to make out, but by that point his headache was back and so were the black spots that danced in front of his vision, so he stayed quiet.

Mrs Hughes came back a few minutes later, with Mr Crawley, and Alec Thwaite.

"No—" Thomas tried to say, but Mrs Hughes shook her head.

"I'm no more use than an ornament, trying to get you up those stairs if you fell again," she said. "I went for Mr Thwaite, but he was in the garden with Mr Crawley, so you get the two of them and no complaints. You look as pale as milk, Thomas. Let these two help you up to bed, and then we'll send the doctor up when he comes."

"There's no need," Thomas tried to say. He wasn't sure he could stay in control of himself, and keep his secret. His tongue felt loose. "I don't need a doctor." What he needed was sleep, but it had been days and so far it had remained elusive. "It was just a little dizziness, for a moment. I'm fine now."

"I've sent Daisy up to light the fire in your grate," Mrs Hughes said, ignoring him. "Why didn't you tell us you were feeling so poorly, Thomas?"

"Indeed," Matthew Crawley said, eyeing him. "Next time I ask you if you're feeling unwell, you tell me the truth, do you hear? No more of this."

Thomas nodded, but it was a lie. Illness was a weakness, just like everything else about him. And he'd dirtied his clothes, falling like he did on the kitchen floor after they'd been baking bread. There was flour all down his side. He swallowed, and glanced up at Alec.

"Are you going to tell me off too?" he asked. He shouldn't, he knew that. His head still felt a little hazy. Alec hadn't so much as made eye contact since Thomas had pushed him away in the dark of the woods on Saturday night.

Alec managed half a smile. "Later on," he said. "When you're feeling up to it. I'll shout at you then."

Thomas nodded, and looked back down at the floor. There was milk on the floor too, pooled in a puddle under the table. And Mrs Patmore's best jug, in three pieces. He must have knocked it off when he fell.

When he stood up, he almost fell again, so Alec and Mr Crawley took an elbow each, guiding him out of the kitchen and towards the stairs.

Thomas hated every second of it.

—//—

He woke up in his own bed, with the curtains drawn and a fire in the grate. Mrs Hughes was sitting by his bedside, a book in her lap.

"Oh, you're in the land of the living again, I see," she said, and Thomas thought he could discern a little fondness in her tone. Maybe he should fall over more often. He had to concentrate on trying not to work out how he could use it to his advantage.

"How—" He tried to sit up.

"There, now," Mrs Hughes said. "Stay where you are. The doctor's been. You let yourself get in a bit of a state, didn't you? Why didn't you tell anyone you were feeling poorly?"

Thomas couldn't remember feeling poorly. He just remembered not being able to sleep, and the headache, and after the fair, Alec holding him close as he cried. He closed his eyes at the memory of the last one, shame coursing through him.

"You've had us all worried," Mrs Hughes went on. "Mr Crawley and Mr Thwaite had to almost carry you upstairs."

"Oh," Thomas said, vaguely remembering. He was out of his clothes, and just in his undershirt. He wondered who had done that.

"The doctor will come back this evening," she said. "Does your head still ache?"

"Yes," Thomas lied.

"You get some sleep," Mrs Hughes told him. "Rest cures all ills, Mr Barrow."

Thomas didn't know about that, but his eyes felt heavy again. He couldn't help but think that the doctor must have given him something to help him sleep, because sleep came easily now. He gave into it and closed his eyes.

The doctor said it was exhaustion, which was stupid. He suggested nervous exhaustion to Thomas, but Thomas begged him not to say that to anyone in the house. He had a tenuous hold on his position at the best of times, through in a bout of nervous exhaustion and it would be as good as giving his job to Jimmy. Thomas just needed to sleep for a while, and get his equilibrium back, that was all.

"In bed until after the weekend," the doctor said to Mrs Hughes, with one eye on Thomas. "I'll come back then and look at him again. All the sleep you can manage, young man, and I've given you something for the head ache, and to help you sleep."

Thomas was too tired to argue. He nodded instead, and slept.

—//—

On Sunday, tired of keeping to his bed and fairly sure it was unlikely he was going to fall over again if he stood up, he ventured downstairs for breakfast. He'd slept for about two and a half days; whatever the doctor had given him had just knocked him out, and he wasn't going to pretend that he didn't feel a bit more like a human being—like himself, if it came down to it—again. It was strange to start to recognise himself again after feeling like a stranger to himself recently.

"No duties until tomorrow," Mr Carson said pointedly, but he didn't send Thomas back upstairs to bed again, instead holding his hand out to show Thomas his seat at the table, just where he'd left it.

He hadn't expected anyone to come in and take over for him properly whilst he'd been ill, but there was a part of Thomas that was always going to expect the worst in any given circumstances, likely as not. Especially when he knew that Jimmy had stepped up from his footman's position to help Matthew Crawley over the past couple of days. Even if Thomas did still feel like death warmed up, he definitely needed to get up and put a stop to that. He liked it best when the only trouble brewing was mischief of his own making, and giving Jimmy a head start on anything was only likely to end badly.

"Good morning, everyone," he said as he sat down, nodding at Alfred, then Jimmy. "Miss Daisy."

Daisy coloured, giggling, and Thomas was reminded of how impossible it would be to ever have to put up with a girl on any long term basis, even if he had decided to put everything he felt to one side and pretend to be something he wasn't. He managed a smile, clearly faked, but Daisy never could tell the difference.

The chair where Alec normally sat was empty, but as Alec never came in for his breakfast, so that wasn't unusual. Alec's cottage in the grounds was over by the woods. It had a nice stove all of its own, so far as Thomas knew, and enough of a kitchen that the old gardener, and before that, him and his wife, had never felt the need to come over to the big house for any of their meals. Thomas wondered if Alec rattled around in a cottage by himself, or if he ever missed the sound of other people. Thomas had never slept in a place by himself, not ever. Growing up in a terrace in Hyde Park with people all around, then coming on to Downton, via the war and the hospital—there had always been people. People, and noises, and creaking floorboards and people sneezing and coughing. Never silence, or quiet, or still.

"Glad to see you're feeling better, Thomas," Mrs Patmore said, bringing over a fresh pot of tea.

"Never felt better, Mrs Patmore," he said, and even though he was lying, he still managed to curl his mouth into a smirk at Jimmy. He would be back as first footman before the morning.

"Hmm," Mrs Patmore said, and Thomas smiled benignly at her. He couldn't help but wonder if he would ever get to the point where he wasn't playing people off against each other, but he couldn't imagine it. It was nice to not feel so tired that he couldn't even work up the energy to meddle anymore.

After breakfast was over, he wrapped himself up in his coat and went outside for a smoke and a walk.

"Don't overdo it," Mrs Hughes warned, and Thomas wondered how much he'd worried her, collapsing like that on the floor of the kitchen. Everyone seemed to be acting gently towards him, which just put on edge and primed him for flight. It wasn't that he was naturally suspicious, even though he was; it was more that people at Downton genuinely weren't all that bothered about him in general. He couldn't help but wonder if they were trying to hound him out of his job, or if the doctor had mentioned his nervous exhaustion to suspicions to someone other than Thomas himself. He tried not to give in to his suspicious nature, but sometimes that was easier said than done.

"I promise," he said, sliding his hands into a pair of leather gloves so soft they felt like butter. He'd stolen them from Kemal Pamuk's belongings after he'd died, and hidden them away with the idea of getting them out again after some time had elapsed, and it wouldn't be so obvious that they hadn't started off Thomas', but then war had broken out and he'd forgotten them. He'd found them tucked into the lining of his suitcase, along with the picture of his mother he tried not to look at all that often, because then he remembered that she was still alive somewhere, out there and never wanting him.

Outside there was still frost on the ground, a cold spell having hit over the weekend whilst he'd been sleeping. The fields stretched away from him, endless and cold, and he walked as far as the wall by the wood before stopping for a smoke. He felt a hundred times less tired than he had last week, but the head ache was still there, the tension in his shoulders that even endless sleeping couldn't ease. Sleep may have come to him, but he was still plagued with dreams of Alec, and memories of him crying on Alec's shoulder still filled him with shame.

He'd pushed Alec away, just like he pushed everyone away, because if there was one thing that Thomas could do well, it was hurt people.

He lit his cigarette and inhaled for a long time, tipping his chin up against the cold. The house looked grand and imposing from here, the same as it always did, but it was hard to imagine the bustle of everyday life going on below stairs from here. Everything seemed so serene and still in the chill of the morning. Inside the place was riddled with secrets and lies, Lady Edith still in mourning for her lost marriage, Lady Sybil still spoken of in hushed tones, all that way away across the sea in Ireland. Would there be a heir to Downton? Thomas knew more than most about the difficulties that Matthew Crawley had had to go through during the war, and Thomas had heard the frustration in Matthew's voice in the mornings whilst he dressed sometimes. Married and with no child on the way? He'd already started to hear the whispers.

At least Thomas had no worries in that regard. His cock had always done exactly what it was supposed to do, if Thomas ignored the part where he got hard thinking about men and not women.

He glanced in the direction of Alec's cottage, hidden away by the trees, and then back down at his feet. It hadn't been his intention in coming out here, to think about Alec and the way he'd touched him, but he couldn't help it. Being kissed was different to initiating kissing, and even now, a week afterwards, he still remembered what it felt like to be held like that.

Thomas lit another cigarette, turning away from Alec's cottage, and he walked back to the house.

—//—

"The family is entertaining this weekend," Mr Carson said, standing at the head of the table. It wasn't news to any of them, seeing as it seemed to be all that anyone could talk about, the seemingly endless list of guests who would be descending on Downton for a four day weekend.

"I expect we'll be expected to be working all hours, and running all over for them," Thomas grumbled, tapping his cigarette case on the edge of the table.

"We will all be expected to do what is required of us," Mr Carson said reprovingly, frowning at Thomas.

Thomas rolled his eyes. The maids were already busy turning all of the bedrooms out so that they were ready for guests, and Thomas knew that Carson was about five minutes away from ensuring that Thomas wouldn't have a moment to himself until the middle of next week. They were short of staff enough as it is, without having to account for all of the extra work of the Crawley's annual winter gathering.

"Will we get to see them all dressed up?" Daisy asked. "They look so exotic, all of the ladies with their dresses."

"You'll be in the kitchen with me," Mrs Patmore pointed out, but she patted Daisy on the shoulder anyway. House parties were tiring for everyone, especially as they had to draft in girls from Ripon to help with serving, and it was all hands to the deck for the men. Even old Barraclough, who was in charge of Lord Grantham's shooting every year, was drafted in to help shift furniture and roll up rugs. Apparently Thwaite had already been primed.

Thomas, who hadn't exactly had a conversation with Alec since collapsing in the kitchen a couple of weeks earlier, busied himself tapping his fingers against his thigh, frown fixed on his face. It was only a matter of time until his feelings for Alec diminished; it was just a case of waiting, and being patient. Alec felt like a moral compass, his disappointment evident on the occasions Thomas did something he didn't approve of, like getting O'Brien into trouble. Thomas lived by his own moral compass, and he knew full well it wasn't the same as everyone else's. An eye for an eye, he thought, but I'll go for your eye first if I can.

He'd never managed to stick to anything else. Alec seemed like he was actually good, and Thomas knew that if he let himself, he'd ruin that. He had a special skill for it. He'd started to find that he didn't actually want to ruin Alec, and if the only way to not do that was to cut off all contact, then Thomas would do that, no matter how hard it was.

His fingers tightened on his trousers, and he forced himself to concentrate on Carson's orders. Anything to keep his mind busy. Anything.

—//—

Sir Marcus Kealy's valet took ill less than four hours into the weekend, which Thomas couldn't help but suspiciously think was a fortuitous opportunity on the handsome valet's part to spend the weekend being waited on by half the kitchen maids with a crush. After he'd heard the repeated sound of Emerson vomiting through the bedroom wall, he'd beaten a steady retreat into the kitchen with everyone else.

"I suppose this means someone's going to have to take over valeting for Sir Marcus," Thomas said with a frown, picking at a crumb on the table.

Mr Carson sighed. "Yes, Mr Barrow, it does. And I'm afraid the duty falls to you."

"Uh," Thomas said. "I don't think so. I'm Mr Crawley's valet."

"And Sir Marcus is a guest," Mr Carson pointed out. "Mr Crawley has generously suggested that you—as an experienced valet—take over from Mr Emerson for the duration of the weekend. He can make do with Jimmy."

Thomas tried not to be placated with experienced valet. "Why not Mr Bates? He's an experienced valet."

Bates looked up from where he was sitting with Anna at the corner of the table as lunch was served. "Mr Crawley has suggested you." He touched at Anna's hand for a moment before turning his attention back to Thomas. "Do you wish to disobey a direct instruction?"

Thomas tried not to growl. "No," he said. "But I can at least recognise what is due to me as Mr Crawley's valet—"

"The decision is made, Mr Barrow, and we'll hear no more about it." Carson sat down at the head of the table, and that was the end of that conversation.

It was the beginning of another one, however, when Thomas went to see if Sir Marcus needed anything, and found him sprawled out on the sheets in the bedroom, smoking a cigarette and reading a book. Sir Marcus had arrived late and had therefore avoided the awkward staff line-up out on the gravel, each of them bowing and curtseying as guest after guest for the weekend party arrived. Thomas had imagined someone a lot like Lord Grantham, with whiskers and jowls, and a habit of not leaving a ten shilling note on the table when he left. What he actually got was a young, reasonably handsome man with no whiskers, and no jowls, and wickedly bright blue eyes.

"Hello," Sir Marcus said, taking another drag on his cigarette, chin tilted up. "I suppose you're Emerson's replacement." He was louche and languid, his shirt untucked and unbuttoned at the collar. He looked a lot like Thomas' wet dreams.

"Yes, Sir, I am." Thomas stood by the door with his hands behind his back. "Is there anything I can assist you with? Would you like to dress for dinner?"

"I'd like to stay undressed for dinner," Sir Marcus said. "Let's give up the idea of dinner altogether. I'm bored of dressing up."

"Indeed, Sir," Thomas said.

"My, my," Sir Marcus said with a smirk. "Aren't you the staid one. Excellent posture. What do I call you?"

"Thomas, Sir. Thomas Barrow."

"Well, Thomas Barrow. I am in fact a terrible house guest, for I loathe making conversation, and hate dressing for dinner. I would much rather stay here and smoke and read my book." He was eyeing Thomas speculatively, and Thomas could read that kind of a speculative look from a mile away. Indeed, he could respond in kind.

"You look like a boy I knew at school," Sir Marcus said after a moment. "Excellent cricket player. I don't suppose you went to Oundle, did you? No. Do you play?"

"Cricket, Sir?" Thomas stayed where he was standing, still and tall. "Not for some time."

"Damn fine sport, cricket," Sir Marcus said. "I used to like playing sport with other young men."

Thomas let the ghost of a smile curl at the corners of his mouth. "Indeed, Sir. I did too."

"Ah," Sir Marcus said, unfolding himself and standing up, a lopsided smile on his face. "Then I believe I will dress for dinner."

Thomas stepped forward to help him with his shirt. Sir Marcus took a step closer, and Thomas let himself be touched.

—//—

A house party was always a lot of work, regardless of the amount of time they had for preparation, and even though he was sleeping better now, Thomas was still tired. The guests stayed up late, their evenings stretching out into the night. Thomas had to stay up until the guests went to bed, and then be up first thing in the morning to prepare for breakfast. Even with the extra help that they'd drafted in, Thomas still came downstairs on the Saturday morning to find Alec helping to arrange the flowers in the displays in the hall and the reception rooms.

Thomas didn't make eye contact, and he didn't say anything when he passed him in the hallway. He tried to pretend that Alec wasn't there at all.

He always knew where Alec was, even if he wasn't looking. He couldn't help it.

Just hold on, he told himself. This too shall pass.

He went into the dining room without a backward glance, and busied himself straightening the silverware, checking on the fire in the grate to give himself something to do. He'd already dressed Mr Crawley, but he'd dismissed Thomas in order to talk to Lady Mary. Thomas had gone easily, not expecting to see Alec at the bottom of the stairs arranging winter blooms in a large vase. He should have told Alec to disappear, that the family would be coming downstairs soon, but he'd held his tongue.

It was better not to think of him at all.

Sir Marcus ignored him when he came down for breakfast, walking past Thomas and into the dining room without a second glance, even though the room was empty except for Thomas, Jimmy, and Carson. It was something Thomas was expecting—he was still only the valet, after all, and had merely been an illicit fumble on the sheets the previous evening—but a part of Thomas still hated it all. They had spent thirty hurried minutes upstairs together, Thomas with his hand around Sir Marcus' cock, and Sir Marcus with his mouth pressed to Thomas'. It couldn't be more than that, and Thomas didn't even want it to be—he wasn't sure that there was anything behind Sir Marcus' glittering blue eyes other than a heart of pure granite—and he knew as well as anybody did that the only reason he'd gone with Sir Marcus was because he'd wanted to put the thought of Alec firmly out of his head. It had worked, for a few seconds, and then he'd just been thinking of Alec whilst in bed with another man, and Thomas had been surprised by how little he'd expected that. All of Thomas' experiences had been rushed, and hidden. He'd liked men—particular men, sometimes—but he'd never been in love. Not properly.

He wasn't in love now; he didn't know enough about Alec to be in love.

Thomas looked up from where he was standing, rigid and still in the entrance to the dining room, and found Alec watching him from across the hall, hidden in the shadow by the doorway to the kitchen.

He looked back, unable to tear his gaze away, and suddenly, more than anything, all he wanted was to go over and run his fingers through Alec's unruly red hair, stroke his fingertips over his freckles, and push up his shirt to touch his hands to Alec's skin. He wanted to stand close to him, to brush elbows with him whilst sharing cigarettes, to take him into the woods and pull him close enough to kiss. He wanted to have the freedom to touch Alec in the way that he'd just touched Sir Marcus; he wanted to lay him out on the sheets and have him take his clothes off, piece by piece. He'd been so stupid to push Alec away in the way that he had, but it was impossible. Thomas couldn't trust anyone—wouldn't, he corrected, not couldn't—and he couldn't trust Alec. And he if he stayed around Alec long enough, he'd be a perpetual disappointment. He couldn't.

Men like Sir Marcus were going to be his future. Encounters with men who meant nothing, always risking his secret, every single time he tried to read the signs and act on them. But no one was going to find out about Sir Marcus. It would remain a secret, just like all the other times, with the other men.

He knew that if he ever went to Alec and did what he'd done with Marcus, he couldn't trust himself enough to know that his secret—these feelings and thoughts he wasn't supposed to have—he couldn't trust that he'd be able to keep it a secret. He couldn't trust that Alec would keep his secret for him, even though he'd keep Alec's.

He knew he'd keep Alec's right up until the moment it served Thomas' needs to reveal it. He wouldn't be able to guarantee that in that moment, he wouldn't choose himself over Alec.

This was the person he was, and his heart twisted in his chest, because he didn't deserve the way Alec was looking at him right now. He didn't deserve Alec, because Thomas hurt people. They could put it on his gravestone when he was dead: Thomas hurt people. He'd go on hurting Alec, and the part of Thomas that was in any way good knew that that wasn't fair. It didn't matter how much he wanted it; it wasn't going to work.

He stared across the hall, and didn't look away.

"Thomas," Sir Marcus said, coming out of the dining room for a moment, leaning over to talk to him in a low voice, one hand pressed to Thomas' shoulder. "Come to my room tonight."

"I don't know if I'll be able to, Sir," Thomas found himself saying. They had seconds at best; Thomas could hear the sounds of other people making their way down the stairs to breakfast.

"You will, I think," Sir Marcus said. "Jolly good," he continued loudly, patting Thomas on the shoulder as Lady Mary came out down the stairs, followed by Mr Crawley, Lady Grantham behind them. Sir Marcus left Thomas alone, walking over to the bottom of the stairs to greet his hosts.

When Thomas looked back across the hall, Alec was gone.

—//—

Thomas didn't go to see Sir Marcus that night, but nor did he sleep, either. He sat by himself in the kitchen, helping himself to his Lordship's port, and tried not to stare out of the window into the darkness, towards Alec's cottage.

—//—

In the morning, he was snappish and bad-tempered, shouting at Ivy for spilling milk on the floor. He was carrying a large bowl of kedgeree over to the dumb waiter, and if that went everywhere they'd all know about it, but Ivy reacted badly, bursting into tears and pushing past Thomas and into the scullery.

"Mr Barrow," Mrs Hughes said. "Please."

"Tell them to be more careful," he snapped. "It's dangerous."

Upstairs in the breakfast room, he stood by the table, chest out, shoulders back, and tried to count the number of mornings he'd been here, doing this exact same thing. It was far too many to contemplate, and watching Mr Carson just made it worse. Carson had spent his whole life here, Thomas thought. He'd seen Lady Mary and her sisters grow up from being small babies, to adults considering families of their own. Thomas had always seen his future here, replacing Mr Carson eventually as butler. This house had been his home, but right now he felt detached and alone, isolated and cold, and like he always, always made the wrong decisions.

When breakfast was over, he excused himself as soon as he was able, and went outside to smoke a cigarette. He could smoke inside, but often getting outside was the only respite he had from all the idiots he had to surround himself with every day, the other servants who never saw past the end of their own noses. They weren't smart like Thomas was smart. They didn't plan like he planned.

"Got a spare match?" It was Alec, coming under the archway, wrapped up against the cold.

Thomas held his matchbook out, and then a cigarette too.

Alec took them both, standing in the shadows to cup his hand around the light and take a drag. He didn't say anything for a minute, leaning back against the wall and concentrating on the glowing red tip of his cigarette.

"They roped you in to help too, then?" Thomas said finally, pointing at the piles of holly and ivy that Alec was clearly gathering by the garage.

"Short-handed, they said," Alec looked down at the ground. "It's better than being outside in this all winter, though."

Thomas blew on his hands to warm them up. He couldn't think of anything to say. They hadn't spoken properly since the night in the woods after the fair. His elbow bumped Alec's.

"He seemed nice," Alec said finally. "Sir Marcus."

Thomas looked at him sharply. "What?"

"I saw the way he looked at you," Alec said, still looking at the floor. He coughed, and then he laughed. It didn't sound funny. "I'd look at you like that if I could."

Thomas' chest hurt. "Alec—" he said. "Thwaite—"

"I'm the gardener, I know," Alec said, pushing himself off the wall. "And I have gardening to do. This holly won't trim itself."

Thomas wanted to call after him, and tell him to stop, tell him to come back.

He did neither, looking down at the ground

—//—

Sir Marcus tried to kiss him again in his bedroom before dinner, sliding his hand up Thomas' chest as Thomas fussed with his collar.

"I expected you last night," Sir Marcus said, hand curling into Thomas' hair. "Where were you?"

"Your collar," Thomas said, trying not to push him away. He ignored his question. "I need to fix your tie. I'm just—"

"Kissing me," Sir Marcus pressed his mouth to Thomas', tongue sliding over Thomas' lip insistently. He tasted a little stale, like port.

"No, Sir—" Thomas tried to say no. It felt wrong. He pulled away. "You need to dress for dinner."

Sir Marcus frowned, his eyes narrowing, his hand tightening on Thomas' sleeve. "You seemed enthusiastic yesterday."

"I'm enthusiastic today," Thomas lied. "But you must get dressed for dinner."

"There's plenty of time," Sir Marcus said. "My cock needs some attention."

Last night it had all seemed like such a good idea. Thomas wasn't one for turning down men who had the same proclivities as he did; they were rare enough that he knew to say yes when he found one. Today it just seemed—it seemed wrong. It felt wrong. He didn't want to. "No, Sir."

"I think you should get down on your knees for me," Sir Marcus told him, and the hand on Thomas' bicep was holding him tighter now, and Thomas could feel the situation turning on him, just like it always did.

"No," he said again. He tried to step away, out of his hold, but Sir Marcus had a good grip.

"What do you want?" he asked. "Money, is that it? You thought you'd try to blackmail me?"

For once, Thomas had thought about nothing of the kind. He'd just thought of Alec, and that was terrifying enough, if being manhandled by an aristocrat with an excellent grip could be discounted.

"I want nothing," Thomas said. "I just—you have to dress for dinner."

"Oh, you're a tease," Sir Marcus said, without letting go of him. "Hot one moment, cold the next."

"It's nothing like that. The gong for dinner will be going—"

"I've met boys like you before. All over me one minute, asking for money to keep quiet the next."

Thomas couldn't even pretend to himself that he would never do that, because he would. He would be that man. And he'd do it without flinching, either. But this time he wasn't, this time he just wanted someone else, even if he knew he should never have him.

"I wouldn't do that," he lied.

"I know," Sir Marcus said. He let go of Thomas's arm, and for a moment, Thomas thought that everything was going to be all right. Then Sir Marcus drew back his arm, and hit Thomas in the mouth with his fist.

Thomas fell backwards, stumbling over the corner of the bed, clutching his face. He could taste blood. "What—" he tried to talk, but couldn't. He backed up until he was sitting back against the bedside table, one hand still clutching his cheek. He'd just been punched.

God, that hurt.

"That's how I know," Sir Marcus said conversationally. "I played cricket, you know. Gave it up to concentrate on pugilism. Don't suppose you knew that about me, did you, Thomas?" He stepped over Thomas' feet, wiping his hands on his trousers. "If you try and blackmail me, Thomas," he went on, reaching for his dinner jacket and his tie and holding them out, "then I can promise you more of that, but next time you won't be able to stand up and walk out of the room, all right? Do you understand?"

"Yes," Thomas managed, squeezing his eyes shut for a long moment. His jaw felt like it was on fire; he could barely close his mouth.

"Get up," Sir Marcus said. He kicked Thomas in the thigh. "I don't want to be late for dinner, now."

"No, Sir," Thomas said, his voice muffled and thick. His mouth was bleeding. He wiped it away with his sleeve, and it left three red drops of blood on his cuff. He couldn't serve dinner covered in blood.

He couldn't quite believe what had just happened. His hands shook as he tried to fix Sir Marcus' collar. He tried to smooth the creases away from his coat as he buttoned it up, but he couldn't breathe properly, his breath catching in his throat, hiccoughs of breath. His eyes watered.

"There now," Sir Marcus said as the gong could be heard in the distance. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"No, Sir," Thomas managed. He held himself upright with the back of Sir Marcus' chair.

Sir Marcus leaned over and tilted Thomas' chin up with the crook of his finger, thumb pressed to where he'd just hit him. It hurt just as much as Sir Marcus intended it to. "Do we have an understanding?"

Thomas nodded, unable to help himself.

"Can't hear you."

"Yes, Sir," Thomas managed, desperate and scared.

He waited until the door had closed before he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes to keep from crying.

—//—

Fury crept up on him like a mist. It curled under his skin and over his fingertips, and by the time he was downstairs, hiding in the scullery with a wet cloth pressed to his jaw, he was cold with anger. Sir Marcus wasn't going to get away with treating him like that, he wasn't. He'd hit him, and Thomas had been scared, and if there was one thing that Thomas hated more than anything, it was being forced to show what he felt. He hated being made to feel like that too, but Thomas had been scared a lot in his life, and keeping it secret was what made it bearable. Sir Marcus had got him to show his fear, and Thomas really, really hated that.

He hadn't considered blackmailing Sir Marcus until that moment.

"Thomas—oh my gosh." Daisy stopped in the doorway. "Are you hurt?"

"Walked into a door," Thomas lied. "Wasn't watching where I was going." She made an aborted attempt to reach out to him, but Thomas turned away into the corner, hand to his cheek. "It's nothing."

"There's blood on your sleeve."

"I'll sponge it off."

"But it's blood, look—"

"It's nothing," Thomas said again. "A few minutes and it won't even hurt anymore." Sir Marcus would, though, when Thomas worked out how best to make him pay. He pressed at the cut on his lip with the cold cloth. It stung. "Haven't you got somewhere else you need to be?" he said finally, sharp and mean. Sneering hurt but he did it anyway, just because.

"Fine," Daisy said, walking away. "See if I try and be nice to you again."

"Fine," Thomas snapped. He needed a mirror to check the damage, but he didn't want to come out of the scullery until he could be sure the swelling had gone down. His tongue felt thick in his mouth; he thought that maybe he'd bitten it as Sir Marcus had hit him.

It's nothing, he said to himself, holding the cloth to his cheek. It's nothing. I'll get him.

—//—

Emerson stopped being sick long enough to stumble downstairs and into the kitchen that evening, and Thomas took the opportunity to immediately hand back responsibility for Sir Marcus to him, and take back Mr Crawley from Jimmy.

"What happened to your face?" Emerson asked, peering at the bruise over the corner of Thomas' mouth.

"Walked into a door," Thomas said shortly, and went back to polishing the silverware, leaving no invitation for further questions.

Mr Emerson took the hint, thank god, and went upstairs to Sir Marcus to see when he'd be needed.

Thomas, meanwhile, was finalising the details of his blackmail plan before going upstairs to dress Mr Crawley. It wasn't a case of how much he could get, but instead, just winning one over on Sir Marcus was the prize. He knew as well as the next person that Sir Marcus wouldn't want his secret revealed to anyone, and Thomas had the ear of the Granthams.

"What happened to him?" Alfred asked, as if Thomas wasn't in the room.

"Walked into a door," Daisy said. "And don't talk to him, he's got a head on him."

"I am here, you know," Thomas said steadily, without looking up. "I can still hear you when you talk about me."

"A lesson you should learn, that," O'Brien said, from down the other end of the table. Thomas narrowed his eyes in a frown, but didn't rise to the bait. It was too easy with O'Brien, she laid herself open like a book, just ready to pick apart. She was spiteful and mean—both characteristics Thomas could recognise in himself—but she was stupid, too, and didn't know when to let something go.

Thomas glanced up at the clock. He just had time to go upstairs and pick up the gloves he'd stolen from Kemal Pamuk's things after he'd died, and slide them into his pocket before going up to Mr Crawley's room.

Plans, he knew, worked better when there was as little leeway as possible for things to go wrong. This one, though, he just needed an opportunity to get Sir Marcus by himself to put things into motion. Blackmail was easy if you were dedicated enough.

I'll tell your secret, he practiced to himself, if you don't do what I say.

—//—

It was straightforward, after all of that. He waited until dinner was over, until the ladies had taken themselves off whilst the men lit cigars and shared port. It was easy to wait by the doorway until everyone had had their first glass of port, and then go in under the pretence of re-filling glasses.

"The sky is full of shooting stars tonight, my Lord," he said, topping up Lord Grantham's glass.

"Good god," Matthew Crawley said. "I haven't seen one of those since I was a boy."

"Neither have I," one of the other gentlemen said. Thomas normally prided himself on knowing the names of the guests of the house, but the party this weekend included seven gentlemen and nine ladies, excluding Sir Marcus, and Thomas' attention had been elsewhere.

"Shall we go out and take a look, gentlemen?" Sir Marcus said languidly, from where he was reclining at the end of the table. Not a flicker of a gaze suggested that he was any more aware of Thomas than he would have been of a table, or a nondescript painting of a still-life over the mantelpiece.

Thomas didn't exactly want Sir Marcus to pay attention to him—in fact, his plan was that he did exactly the opposite—but nevertheless it still grated that he was being treated like he didn't exist. Thomas really didn't like it when people pretended he didn't exist.

Still, he followed the men out onto the terrace in the cold winter night, the bite of the chill in the air being worth it if he could just ensure his plan was put into action. They stopped for coats, coming out onto the terrace with their port and their cigars, still buttoning themselves up against the cold.

The shooting stars might have been a lie, but the men still stared up at the sky, until Matthew Crawley said, "Look! There's one!"

Thomas had never seen a shooting star before, and he missed this one, staring furiously at the back of Sir Marcus' head. Thomas had a bruise on his face, a cut on his lip, and Sir Marcus had left him breathless and scared. If there was one thing Thomas hated, it was being scared. He just needed to get him on his own, that was all.

It was the only shooting star, and after a few minutes they gave it up as a poor job. Thomas waited until they were inside before standing in the open doorway to the house and calling after them. "Sir Marcus," he said, holding up one of Kemal Pamuk's gloves as if he'd found it on the floor and picked it up. "I believe you dropped something."

Sir Marcus turned around. "I don't think so," he said.

"A glove, Sir," Thomas persisted, still holding up his glove. The other of the pair should have been sticking out of the pocket of Sir Marcus' coat, if he'd only look. In a moment he'd look.

"Sorry, gentlemen," a voice said from behind Thomas. "Mr Barrow is mistaken. That's my glove."

Thomas spun around. Alec. "What—" he started to say, but Alec was holding up the other glove, the one that Thomas had slipped inside Sir Marcus' coat pocket during dinner.

"No harm done," Matthew Crawley said, as the gentlemen filed back into the dining room. "Thank you for being so conscientious, Mr Barrow."

Desperation buzzed in Thomas' ears as he rounded on Alec as the door closed into the dining room. "What are you doing?" he hissed, but Alec grabbed his elbow and tugged him outside, back into the cold.

"What are you doing?" Alec said angrily, cupping Thomas' elbow. "What were you trying to do? I mean, apart from get yourself sacked."

"Make him pay," Thomas snapped, too angry to care about what he was saying. "I was going to make him pay."

"Yes?" Alec said. "For what? How? Lead him out here, pretend it was his glove? I saw you putting it in his coat, by the way. If it had been anyone else you would have probably already been sacked by now. You can thank me later." He reached a hand up to Thomas' cheek, to the bruise there and the cut on his lip. He didn't touch his fingers to Thomas' skin, his hand hovering. "Was this him? Did he do this?"

"You don't know anything," Thomas hissed, trying to pull away from Alec's touch. If he touched him now, Thomas knew he was lost. "And now you've ruined everything, I was going to—"

"You were going to do something stupid," Alec said, hand gripping Thomas' elbow. "You were going to get hurt again."

"I wasn't," Thomas insisted. "I had a plan. It wasn't going to be me getting hurt this time, it was going to be him."

"What, now you're a master with your fists too? That Emerson chap said he's a champion boxer, Thomas. You were going to just let him hit you again, that it?"

"No," Thomas said. He was going to blackmail him, and Sir Marcus would have paid up rather than risk his secret being made public, and Thomas couldn't say that to Alec, he couldn't. His desperation threatened to overwhelm him, another opportunity gone, a slight gone unpaid for. The disappointment hurt. He tried to pull his arm away from Alec's, but Alec was stronger than he looked, and angry. "I was going to make him pay."

Alec pushed him back up against the wall by the door. "You weren't," he said desperately. "God, Thomas. You weren't. He would have hurt you again, and you would have been given your marching orders, and when did you get this stupid?"

"I wanted to make him pay," Thomas said again, because there was a thread of reason underpinning Alec's words, and Thomas had gone into this desperate and underprepared, because that was the kind of person he was, if he'd only admit it to himself.

"Why," Alec said. "You never answered me. Was this him? Did he hit you?" He touched Thomas then, fingertips to Thomas' bruised cheek and lips, and Thomas was breathless again, his words caught in his throat. "Did you go with him?" Alec asked in a harsh whisper, not meeting Thomas' eyes. His fingers stayed where they were, on Thomas' face.

Thomas nodded, wretched. He didn't know why he felt so guilty, so wrong. Alec was nothing to him, nothing.

"Why?" Alec asked again. He was bracketing Thomas, pinning him back against the wall, but Thomas didn't feel any fear like he'd felt when Sir Marcus had hit him. This was different. He wanted Alec like he wanted no one else.

"Because he wanted me," Thomas said. "He offered and he wanted me."

"And then he hit you?" Alec sounded grim, and hurt, and angry.

"No," Thomas said. "He wanted me again, but—I turned him down. I said no."

"Why would you go with him and not me?" Alec asked desperately. "I wanted you. I offered. I liked you; he doesn't like you. He doesn't even look at you. I look at you." His hand cupped Thomas' cheek, and it stung, being touched like that, thumb pressed to his bruise.

Thomas' breathing came in ragged gasps. "I don't know," he said finally. He wanted—he didn't know what he wanted in the long term, but it wasn't Sir Marcus Kealy.

"Why do you always pick the hard choice," Alec said, not even trying to make it into a question. "Why do you do these things, pick the dangerous option, the one where you're going to get hurt. You're always getting hurt, and I hate it. I just have to stand by and watch, and I hate it. I wouldn't have hurt you, Thomas."

Thomas' mouth was dry. "I know," he said finally. His shoulders dropped, his chest deflating. "I just—" He couldn't talk. He felt breathless. Alec was so near. "I always do the wrong thing. I always pick the wrong time, and the wrong person, and I hurt people, Alec. I just keep on hurting people."

Alec's thumb stroked over his cheek. For a long moment, neither of them moved. "Say my name again," he said.

"Alec," Thomas said, his breath caught in his throat. He wrapped his fingers around Alec's cold wrist; the air was so cold he could see his breath freezing in the air between them. He was shivering.

"You don't always do the wrong thing," Alec said. "I've seen you do the right thing."

"Not often enough," Thomas said. "I feel like I'm just rotten inside." He'd never said that out loud before, not ever.

Alec tilted his chin up. "You're not," he said, which was a lie, Thomas knew. Thomas deserved a lot of things, his position as valet, a future, a break—but not Alec. He didn't deserve Alec. Alec was a good person, unlike Thomas.

"You don't know the half of it," Thomas said. Alec was still cupping his cheek in his hand, fingertips grazing the bruise, and Thomas wanted—he wanted.

"Maybe I do," Alec said softly. His eyes were bright in the moonlight. He looked away. "You have to stop doing this to me," he said. "It's not fair."

Thomas slid his hand up Alec's arm, covering his hand with his own. "Alec."

"You can have me, all right?" Alec said, still not looking at him. "I'm here for the taking. You don't need to take risks with people like Sir Marcus. You can have me, and it doesn't have to mean anything. Just—I want you to stop taking risks, Thomas."

Thomas leaned in and covered Alec's mouth with his own, unable to help himself, swallowing Alec's choked off breath in a kiss.

For a brief, brief moment Alec stayed still in his arms, and then Alec pressed him back against the wall, his hand in Thomas' hair. Thomas let go, and kept on kissing him, not knowing if he was picking salvation or perdition or both.

"I have to go," Thomas said after a minute, pulling away, glancing towards the door. "They'll miss me."

"I know," Alec said, his hands still curled in Thomas' coat, his hair. He didn't try to kiss him again. He fumbled with Thomas' tie instead, setting it straight, smoothing his coat over his shoulders. "There," he said, not meeting Thomas' eyes. "Like it never happened."

Thomas' lip stung and his cheek hurt and his heart was beating loud and furious in his chest. You're the gardener sat on the tip of his tongue; did you think for one second that I wanted you?

He stayed quiet. He couldn't say it.

"You can come to the cottage later if you want," Alec went on. "If you want me." Thomas had picked Sir Marcus over him, over what Alec was offering, and it hadn't been the right choice, but then neither was this. There was no right choice, not for Thomas and the traitor that beat inside his chest, wanting this and no other. "Later on. After everyone's in bed. If you want." Thomas remembered the Alec he'd first met, all smirk and quiet, knowing glances, and compared it to this Alec, tentative and unsure. It didn't reflect well, and Thomas could only take the blame for that like he did for all of the people around him who took him on and lost.

"They lock the doors," Thomas said, as if a locked door had ever stopped him before.

Alec nodded, not meeting his gaze. He stepped away, and Thomas felt cold in all the places they'd been touching. "You'd better get in," he said. "Don't want them missing you."

Thomas swallowed, his throat tight. He waited until he'd watched Alec walk around the corner of the house, hands pushed deep in his pockets, and then he tipped his head back and squeezed his eyes shut against the cold.

—//—

The Crawley's guests stayed up late into the night. Thomas stayed on hand to serve drinks and nod graciously, his expression fixed even when he had to bend over to take Sir Marcus' empty glass and provide him with a refill. It was long after twelve by the time the last of them had gone to bed, and then Thomas and Carson did the rounds of downstairs, finishing things up and closing and locking the doors to the cellars. Carson looked exhausted—much like Thomas had felt for days and weeks—so Thomas told him to go to bed.

"I'll finish up," Thomas said. Carson looked suspicious, which Thomas supposed he'd given him good reason for, over the years, but he kept his expression benign even so.

"Are you sure?" Mr Carson said. "I am quite happy to—"

"I'll only be a few minutes," Thomas said. His stomach felt a little like it was turning somersaults. "It's quite all right, Mr Carson."

Thomas could tell that Carson was suspicious of his motives, but it was late, and what could Thomas get up to? He wasn't exactly capable of having an alibi if Carson had left him downstairs, and yes, Thomas was more than capable of manipulating circumstances to suit him, but right now all he wanted was some quiet to think about what he should do.

"Goodnight, Mr Barrow," Carson said finally, and he looked tired and worn around the edges.

"Goodnight, Mr Carson," Thomas said, as respectfully as he could manage, and he waited until he heard the door close upstairs before he rushed around, finishing up. Then he went as quietly as he could manage to the back door, and pulled on his coat and gloves.

He slipped outside, buttoning up his coat even as he hurried through the courtyard and out of the archway by the garage.

It was lucky the moon was bright, else Thomas would never have found his way across the grass to Alec's cottage, all in darkness by the edge of the wood.

Was this the wrong thing to do? He could only think that it was, but he still couldn't seem to make himself stop. He didn't stop until he was on the doorstep with his hand held up to knock, and then it just seemed easier to turn around and go back to the house. Go back, he told himself. Go back. Stop before it's too late.

He knocked on the door, pulling his coat tighter around him in the cold of the night.

Nobody came, so he knocked again. Then there was the flicker of a candle light through the curtains, and then the sound of footsteps on the tile. The door opened with a creak, and Alec stood there in striped pyjamas and a dressing gown, a candle in his hand.

"Hello," Thomas said, after a long moment.

Alec didn't smile, though his eyes were bright. "I was hoping it would be you," he said, and he stepped back, out of the doorway, out of the moonlight, and Thomas stepped inside.

—//—

They ate toast by the remains of the fire in the grate in Alec's kitchen, two kitchen chairs pulled up close. There was only one toasting fork, so Alec toasted his first, holding the bread out above the flames. They didn't speak, not even when Thomas brought out the remains of a bottle of port from inside his coat, stolen from the wine cellar as he'd locked up.

Thomas poured it out into two enamel mugs, like the ones that he'd had in the war, a pair with his mess tin, a bad memory right there in a cup. He pushed one over towards Alec as Alec slid the toast off his fork and onto a plate, holding out the toasting fork for Thomas to take.

He couldn't remember toasting bread like this since he'd been a very small boy, on the rare occasions when his mum had been there, and lucid, and not drinking. His mum had been a drunk for almost all of his childhood, disappearing one day and not coming back. He and his father hadn't spoken of her after that. On the rare occasions he went back to Leeds, he sometimes saw people who spoke of her, round Bramley way, but Thomas wasn't interested in ever seeing her again. His family were as good as dead to him, and he was better off now. There was only him, and he could be responsible for himself in a way that he could never be responsible for either of his parents.

"I didn't think you'd come," Alec said finally, lighting a cigarette.

Thomas didn't look up from his toast. "I almost didn't."

Alec waited a minute before speaking again. "Will you stay tonight?" he asked.

Thomas turned the toasting fork over so that the heat could brown the other side. "I'll need to be up before Daisy and Ivy," he said. "How's your alarm clock?"

"A leaving gift from my father," Alec said. "You'll wake."

Thomas nodded. "All right, then," and when Alec offered him a drag on his cigarette, Thomas ducked his head and leaned in and took one, his heart beating so loud in his chest he was sure that Alec could hear it as loud as a drum.

He ate half of his piece of toast before pushing his chair back, away from the fire. "Can we—" he started, but he didn't know how to finish.

"Yes," Alec said, and he slid the fireguard back into position in front of the hearth.

"You'll need to wash," Thomas said, even though he wasn't particularly concerned with how clean Alec was right now, but Thomas was still dressed for dinner, white tie and shirt and waistcoat. Coal dust and fingerprints couldn't be hidden away before tomorrow.

Alec went to the sink and ran the tap, washing away the fire on his fingers without looking at Thomas.

Thomas cautiously untied his bowtie, and left it on the chair by the window. He undressed carefully, not turning around, and let his braces hang by his sides as he unlaced his shoes. He stood in his vest and his underwear, and when he turned around, Alec was watching him, his dressing gown untied at the waist.

"Thomas," he said, and Thomas crossed the room in a heartbeat, curling into Alec's space like a snake, hands in Alec's hair as he kissed him. He tasted like toast and port, like sleep and desperation, and Thomas licked at Alec's lips as Alec's hands slid under Thomas' shirt, tugging him closer so that they were pressed together from shoulder to toe.

Candlelight flickered, and Thomas' hands found themselves in Alec's red-gold hair, his thumbs brushing Alec's jaw. He kissed his freckles, holding Alec still, and Alec tilted his chin up and groaned.

"Come to bed," Alec said, fingertips in the small of Thomas' back, and Thomas had been with men in his life, and he'd kissed men, but he'd never been taken to bed before. Not like this.

Thomas let himself be led into the bedroom, Alec putting the candlestick down on the bedside table as he pulled back the blankets. The sheets were rough, but they were clean enough, and Alec warned him about the hot water bottle at the foot of the bed as he started to unbutton his pyjama shirt.

Thomas watched him greedily, ignoring his own vest and pants as he watched Alec fumble off his pyjama shirt and hover his hands awkwardly over his pyjama trousers.

"Please," Thomas said, trying not to sound like he was begging. Alec pushed down his trousers, and he was naked by the bed, all pale, freckled skin and red hair. His cock was mostly hard, erection jutting out, and Thomas swallowed, holding out a hand. "Come here," he said roughly, and Alec came, crawling into the space in the bed and pulling up the blankets over the two of them to keep the heat in. It was cold in the bedroom, even the crackle from the small fire in the grate not doing that much to heat the room outside of the blankets.

Alec pressed his knee in between Thomas' legs, and ran his hand down Thomas' arm. Thomas shuddered, unable to help himself. He wanted so badly to be held, but he never could ask for it. He'd never been able to ask for it. He never had.

"Take your clothes off," Alec said softly, and Thomas obeyed, pushing down his underwear and pulling off his vest. He dropped them on the floor by the bed, and rolled back onto his side so that he was facing Alec, naked and shivering, only partly from the chill in the air outside the blankets.

Alec grazed his fingertips down Thomas' cheek, over his bruise from Sir Marcus, his thumb touching at the cut on his lip. "He was always going to win," he said. "He's that type."

Thomas wondered how Alec could read him better than Thomas could. "I wanted to win," he found himself saying.

"I know," Alec said, still touching his face. "You always want to win. Sometimes you can't."

Thomas had never been able to believe that. There was always a way to manipulate the result. You just had to find it. Sir Marcus wasn't off his list yet, regardless of what Alec might think. Time stretched endlessly into the future. He didn't want to talk about Sir Marcus, though, not now. Instead he shifted a little closer under the covers, and slid his hand into the small of Alec's back. His skin was warm and softer than Thomas had expected, and Alec wriggled under Thomas' touch, pressing nearer.

"I'm ticklish"

Thomas couldn't help it; he grazed his fingers over Alec's skin just to feel him shiver.

"Never reveal your secrets," Thomas said with a wicked smile, and shifted so that he could press his mouth to Alec's.

Alec wrapped an arm around Thomas' neck, and kissed him back.

—//—

They slept for a while, pressed together like peas in a pod, but Thomas had never spent the night with anyone, not ever, and he woke up every time Alec shifted in his sleep, the shadows lengthening as the fire grew weaker. In the end, Thomas found himself running his thumb over the freckles on Alec's shoulders until Alec woke up, sleepy-eyed and half-confused.

"Whaa—" he said, but Thomas just smirked and covered his mouth with his own. Even sleep-sour and still waking up, Alec tasted sweet, and Thomas took control, running his hand down over the curve of Alec's arse before pulling him closer, and rolling him on top of Thomas.

Thomas liked the weight of Alec on top of him, the blankets twisting around them, and he tilted his chin up for another kiss, one hand still stroking Alec's arse, the other tangling in his red-gold hair, pulling him closer.

He was already hard, and Alec wasn't long in following. His hips rolled kind of lazily, rocking up, and Alec shifted position so that he was kneeling up over him, and could reach down between them to adjust his cock.

Thomas made a stuttered sound of appreciation, even as Alec wrapped his hand around Thomas' erection. He was more than a little awkward, and Thomas had a momentary realisation that it was unlikely that Alec had done this before, or at least not as many times had Thomas had. He couldn't help but rock his hips up into Alec's calloused fist, though, even as Alec continued to touch him.

Alec ducked down and licked at Thomas' lips, urging him into a kiss that Thomas was only too happy to respond to. He ran his hands down Alec's stomach, not even stopping when he reached the base of Alec's cock. He touched at him with the crook of his finger, skin velvet-soft even when hard. When he ran his thumb over the tip, Alec whimpered, hips rocking forward, and it was easy to wrap his hand around his erection and start to move his hand. Alec's breathless whimpers against Thomas' mouth just made it better.

Neither of them lasted long, Alec coming first in stripes over Thomas' belly, and Thomas following close behind. Breathless and sweating, Thomas let Alec slide off him, rolling onto his back in the cold patch on the sheets. Thomas poked idly at the stripes of come on his stomach. He didn't have anything to wipe them away with, other than the sheets, so he didn't bother.

For a long moment, neither of them said anything. Thomas felt his eyes closing, and he knew that sleep wasn't far away.

Alec reached over and stroked at Thomas' shoulder with his palm. "Come here," he said, in a rough voice, and Thomas didn't know what was being asked of him, but he went anyway, rolling onto his side.

"Closer," Alec said softly, and Thomas did as he was told, shifting so that he was pressed to Alec's side. Alec wrapped his arms around Thomas' shoulders, hugging him close, and for a moment Thomas stayed frozen, hardly able to breathe. He'd never been this close to anyone, and certainly not another man. Part of him wanted so much that he could hardly put a finger on what it was that he needed, but Alec just shushed him and hugged him tighter. "Go to sleep," he said, one hand touching at the back of Thomas' neck.

Thomas didn't know if he'd be able to, pressed so close to another person's body, but he closed his eyes anyway.

When he opened them again, Alec's alarm clock was ringing, and it was morning.

—//—

"Coming outside for a smoke?" Alec asked, once lunch was over. He'd smirked at Thomas the whole time they were eating, eyes bright. Thomas had had to force himself to paper a sneer on, pretending that he was saying do we really have to eat with the gardener? But it wasn't true. None of it was true. He'd spent the night with Alec, and it had been wonderful, and now Thomas was trapped in an unfortunate position of just wanting more.

"Haven't you got gardening things to do?" he said. "Outside?"

"Yes," Alec said patiently. "After my cigarette."

O'Brien followed them outside, eyeing them with what could possibly have been suspicion, but that was the way she usually looked, so Thomas couldn't bring himself to expect disaster today. He did, of course. He knew that relations with Alec couldn't continue forever, and that there would come a time—probably not all that soon in the future—where he'd do something to drive Alec away, but his chest felt full today, so he pushed it all to one side.

He stood under the archway by the garage with Alec by his side, neither of them touching the other, neither of them speaking. Thomas lit his cigarette, leaned back against the wall, and took a long drag.

When he was finished, he tossed his cigarette to the ground and bumped his elbow into Alec's, just for a moment. He didn't say anything, not even looking at him, but he hoped that Alec understood.

Alec looked the other way, but his elbow twitched, bumping into Thomas', just for a moment. He knew.

—//—

The guests departed on Monday, one car after another disappearing down the drive towards the gates. Thomas stood alongside Carson and the other staff, watching them depart.

"Good," he said, when they were gone. "Now we can get back to what we're supposed to be doing, instead of pandering to them that think they're better than us."

"Mr Barrow," Carson said. "Please."

"Oh, come on," Mr Bates said from the corner of his mouth, as the family filed into the house. "We all know that Thomas is never happy unless he's grumbling about something."

"I expect it's quite different being back here," Thomas said. "When you're used to a prison cell."

Mr Bates didn't rise to the bait. "Learnt some useful tricks there," he said mildly, but he didn't let Thomas walk in front of him back into the house.

Thomas rolled his eyes and followed him inside.

—//—

He and Alec didn't get another chance to be alone until the end of the week, when Matthew Crawley chose Thursday afternoon to drive into Ripon with Lady Mary.

Alec was working in the kitchen garden, fixing a wall that was down by the orchard, and when Thomas came upon him, it was easy enough for Thomas to stand and watch him for a while without making his presence known.

"I know you're there," Alec said after a while, without turning around.

"Why didn't you say anything then?" Thomas said, injured. He liked to think that he was invisible when he tried to be, the kind of man who could glide into the background given half a chance. He'd only been practicing it for ten whole years.

"Because I liked the idea of you watching me, that's why," Alec said, standing up and dusting himself off as he turned around. The frost and the cold had turned the ground to rock, and Thomas couldn't imagine having to work outside like this all year around.

Thomas made a show of glancing down at Alec's arse and then back up to his face again.

Alec rolled his eyes. "Yes," he said. "How's your day been? Managed to knock Carson off his perch yet? Butler next on your to-do list?"

"Bates first," Thomas said easily. It wasn't actually a lie, since Mr Bates was as annoying a man as Thomas could contemplate, and the fact that he could see through Thomas most of the time was just yet another frustration that Thomas didn't like to put a name to. It wasn't that he wanted Bates to have been hung for his wife's murder, but it would have made Thomas' progression in the household a little easier. It wasn't wrong to think that. He didn't care one way or another for Bates' happiness, although Anna had usually been kind to him. He was glad for Anna's sake that Bates hadn't died, but he couldn't pretend that he dreamed of Bates living a long and happy life as Lord Grantham's valet.

"You think I don't know that you mean that," Alec said, rolling his eyes again. "What are you doing out here, anyway?"

"Came to see you, didn't I?" Thomas said. "Had a bit of time to myself, thought I'd come out here."

Alec glanced towards the orchard, and back at Thomas.

Thomas wondered if the orchard was in any way overlooked by the house.

"I'd kiss you now if I could," Alec said in an undertone, even though there was nobody around to listen, Thomas had checked.

"I'd kiss you right back," Thomas said, in an equally low voice. "In fact, if you get behind that wall, I will."

Alec shook his head. "You'll be missed," he said. "And anyone could walk round that corner. How are you fixed for tonight? You think you'll be able to come to the cottage?"

Thomas had tried to work out if he could. Carson was responsible for the locking of the doors in the servants' quarters, and he carried the key to the back door. He kept it in his room downstairs, so it would be easy enough for Thomas to filch it and unlock the door, but he'd have to sneak back in early, before the housemaids were awake, and put the key back. There was the potential for a lot to go wrong.

"It'll be late," he said finally. "Carson going to bed and then another half an hour."

"I'll wait up," Alec said. They were standing a good six feet apart, and Thomas wanted to step right over to him and kiss him again, slide his hand down and cup Alec's cock with his palm. The dreams about Alec every night may have lessened since he'd experienced the reality, but they were still there, tempting him with touch every night.

"All right," Alec said. "Go back inside, Thomas. Don't want you catching cold." He flushed, and Thomas smirked.

"Tonight, then," he said, smirk still firmly in place, and Alec nodded.

Tonight.

—//—

Alec met him at the door to the cottage, stepping back and letting him walk right on in and through to the bedroom. Once there, Thomas turned around, expecting to find Alec in the doorway, but Alec was right there, right behind him, right in his space. He cupped the back of Thomas' head and drew him down for a fierce, urgent kiss.

"Missed you," Alec said, and Thomas felt the same, even though he would never say it. "Missed you in my bed."

"Missed my cock, you mean," Thomas said. He'd missed Alec's cock. Or rather, he'd thought about Alec's cock a lot, and imagined his arse, and sliding his fingers inside and seeing what it would be like to fuck him. To be fucked. Thomas had been fucked by more than one man in his life, and each time it had been wordless and a little painful.

"I've been keeping myself busy," Alec said dryly.

Thomas glanced down at the outline of Alec's cock in his pyjama trousers, and then back up at his face. He couldn't help but wonder if Alec meant bringing himself off. Thomas had done it every night since he'd been here, coming into his fist and breathlessly wondering if Alec was doing the same, somewhere out on the estate.

"Not like that," Alec said quickly, blushing a furious red. Some men got so embarrassed about it, and normally to Thomas it was a pain, since he didn't see the point in being ashamed of it, not when there was so much else to be ashamed of—wanting men in the first place, for a start. He got hard every morning as he woke up, and he balanced it by bringing himself off every night before sleep. He wondered if Alec did the same. "I've been reading."

Thomas raised his eyebrows. "Reading?" he asked. Alec was a gardener.

"Yes," Alec said a little dryly. "I can read, you know. Just because I hoe onions doesn't mean I can't enjoy reading."

"Sorry," Thomas said, without sounding it at all. "What do you read?"

"I have my brother's books," Alec said. "When he died he—well. Mum and Dad wanted to keep them, but they were just gathering dust up in his bedroom. I swiped them when I came here. I've read them all, though."

"Oh," Thomas said, who couldn't remember the last time he'd read anything. In France, maybe, concentration fixed on the pages in front of him, his breath so tight in his chest at the sound of the shells that he'd barely been able to stop his hands from shaking and the tears from falling as people died in the trenches around him.

They'd all been like that in the trenches, shaking and empty shells of men, and he didn't regret being a coward. He was always a coward, and at least he hadn't been out there the whole remainder of the war, each day dying a little more inside. He'd escaped the gas and the shells and the lung problems and being blind, and every time he thought about Edward Courtenay—brave, brave, stupid, lovely Edward Courtenay—he knew that being a coward in the trenches was the best thing he'd ever done. He'd lived. He still lived. He was alive.

"Come here," he said, holding out his hand, and Alec stepped willingly into his arms, chin tilted up. Thomas cupped Alec's face in his hands and kissed him, slow and rough. Alec groaned into his kiss and rocked his hips up against Thomas'.

"Take your clothes off," Alec told him, and Thomas had always hated being told what to do, but this felt like an exception. He took them off slowly, his tie, his shirt, his trousers—all of it, until he stood there naked in front of him, and Alec held out a hand to touch him. He shivered at the ghost of the fingertips over his chest, his stomach, his cock.

"Now you," Thomas said, his voice rough. He didn't mean it to, but his breath felt trapped in his throat.

Alec pulled his pyjama shirt over his head, dropping it on the floor, and then took off his trousers. He was naked and hard and embarrassed, his skin flushed pink and warm, the crackle of the fire in the grate turning giving everything a rosy glow.

"Let me go down on my knees for you," Thomas said, his voice hoarse.

Alec swallowed, his adam's apple working in his throat. "All right," he said, and Thomas took his hand, drawing him closer in to the fire.

Thomas got down onto his knees, naked in the firelight, and took the head of Alec's cock in his mouth. It wasn't his first time, and it wasn't even his best time, but Alec's hands tightened in his hair, and the noises he made—it was enough to turn Thomas' brain to something unintelligible, Alec's cock heavy on his tongue.

Afterwards, when Alec had shuddered and shook as he'd come, Thomas took his hand and took him to bed. He pulled the blankets up over them both as Alec kissed him, desperate and breathless and real.

"Have you ever fucked anyone?" Thomas asked after a while. He rubbed at his jaw; Alec needed to shave. Thomas wondered if anyone had ever shaved him, and lazily considered offering at some point. It terrified him that he was considering a future; he'd never considered a future outside of firmly establishing his position at Downton. He knew it would end badly; he wasn't stupid. But maybe there wasn't any harm in just letting his mind wander towards the potential of a future.

"No," Alec said, pressing his cheek to Thomas' chest. "But before you I'd never even kissed anyone."

Thomas swallowed, thinking back to that time in the wood together after the fair, when Alec had reached out to him. So brave, he thought. He stroked lazily at Alec's elbow with his fingertips, pretending to smirk. "You've done fairly well for someone so inexperienced," he said.

"Oh, shut up," Alec told him, smacking his stomach.

Thomas laughed, covering Alec's hand with his own. He lay there for a moment, not saying anything. "Would you consider it?" he asked finally.

Alec shifted so that he was leaning on his elbow, looking down at him. "Me—to you?" he said a little awkwardly.

Thomas shrugged. "Yes," he said, trying not to show how much he wanted it.

"I've never—"Alec said. "I would, though. If you wanted it."

"I'd tell you what to do," Thomas said. He was staring at a point just to the right of Alec's temple, suddenly a little unsure of himself.

"All right," Alec said. "Now?"

Thomas made a face, and looked down at Alec's flaccid cock. "Not right now," he said. "Next time." Next time. Thomas had never said that before. It felt a little like it should have been marked in a more momentous way than Alec bumping his foot against Thomas' as he rolled closer.

Alec groaned. "Fair point," he said. "But I could—like you just did for me. I could do that. "

Thomas swallowed, his mouth dry. "Yes," he said, drawing Alec in for another kiss, and then another. "Please."

Alec shifted, crawling down the bed until he kneeling in between Thomas' legs, the blankets pulled over him like a cloak. When he leaned in and pressed his tongue to Thomas' cock, Thomas couldn't help it, tipping his head back and whining as Alec tasted him, slow and hesitant.

"Like that," Thomas groaned, his hands curling in Alec's hair. "Oh god, like that."

Next time, he thought, and for the first time, his hands didn't shake at the thought of a future. Next time.

—//—

They woke before the alarm clock in the morning, crawling out of bed to stand huddled next to each other in Alec's kitchen as the fire slowly came to life, the wood crackling in the cold, flames slowly licking their way through the kindling.

"It's freezing," Thomas said, and Alec wrapped his arm around Thomas' waist, pulling him into his side.

"That's made all the difference," Thomas said dryly, He knew he had to leave, but there were still a few minutes yet.

He kissed the top of Alec's head instead, and didn't move away.

"I'm not—" Alec said after a while. "I don't think I'm like the other men you've been with. I think—I think."

Thomas stopped him. "I know," he said. "I'm—I'm not always a good person. I hurt people, even when I don't mean to. I know you disapprove of at least half the things I do."

Alec managed half a smile. He rubbed his nose against the curve of Thomas' shoulder. "I think sometimes you think I don't know there's more to you than that."

Thomas swallowed, his hands stilling. "I think—Alec. I'd like you to get to know me better. If you'd like." It was an awkward invitation, of the kind that Thomas had never made to anyone before, not that Alec would know that.

Alec let out a breath. "All right," he said, after a long moment. "Just. There can't be any more Sir Marcus's. I'm not—I'm not built like that. I can't share. I don't want to share."

"Even if you find out that the skeletons in my closet aren't that nice?" Thomas asked lightly, fingertips pressing into Alec's wrist.

"You're not all bad, Mr Barrow," Alec said.

Thomas wasn't all that sure that was true. "There won't be anyone else," he said, after a minute.

Alec nodded, and turned around. He pressed his cheek to Thomas', drawing him into an embrace. "All right," he said finally, his arms sliding around Thomas' shoulders. "Good."

The fire was starting to flicker into life, flames curling around the kindling, the wood crackling as it caught. Thomas pressed his mouth to the underside of Alec's jaw, and held on.