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Better Days

Chapter Text

"The schedule is largely the same as it was when you took over for my honeymoon," Carson was telling Thomas as they walked into their now-shared office. "The biggest difference is that you should allot time every day to book-keeping -- I know you've done some of that, so I don't expect this will be a challenge. I typically do this after breakfast, in the lull before the storm. Don't rush it, but if you do find yourself finished before luncheon -- and I usually do -- I find that to be a good time to visit the nursery."

Thomas was surprised by that. "You visit nearly every day? And Nanny doesn't mind?"

"On the contrary, she appreciates the chance to leave to get anything she might need, and to take a little break. Besides which, the nursery is part of the House -- it needs looking after as much as anything else."

"Yes, sir," Thomas nodded, biting back a smile. Carson wasn't fooling anyone, but Thomas wasn't about to call him on it, intending to take full advantage himself of the excuse to see the children. In fact .... "Mightn't I do the book-keeping in the nursery in the first place? Surely Lady Mary would think the more eyes on the children, the better?"

Carson blinked, then seemed to mull the idea over. "I suppose if Nanny is all right with it -- and provided the work isn't neglected and the accuracy doesn't suffer -- that would be as good as doing it down here." He nodded magnanimously.

Thomas suspected the man wished he'd thought of it himself.

~* * *~

"It's ... that corner," Lady Grantham declared, pointing and then leading the way through the storage portion of the attic.

Apparently she had been reading old diaries of previous Lords and Ladies of Downton, looking for material for the next open house, and discovered a mention of a few items of interest said to have been packed away in the attic. She'd brought Thomas up with her to help her look things over, and to note to him what items she wanted the staff to bring down. They had to pick their way through a dusty jungle of trunks, crates, and dropcloths to get there, Thomas and Her Ladyship stifling many a sneeze along the way. Thomas had to move more than a few heavy obstructions, too, wishing he'd thought to drag a hall boy up with them.

"Well, it's no wonder these things have been left here all this while, what with so many things having been put in front of them!" Her Ladyship laughed when they finally reached the corner in question. "I bet this is the painting I want brought down." She tugged on a dropcloth, revealing a portrait of a stunning woman. "Yes, that's the one! In 1824, the first wife of the earl at the time died; he remarried two years later, and that wife did away with everything that reminded her of his former wife, who was thought considerably more beautiful ...."

Thomas had to agree -- he might not be physically attracted to her, but he still appreciated beauty anywhere it could be found. Still, he supposed it could just be that the painter made her look so.

He stepped forward for a better look, and his foot got tangled in another cloth. As he freed himself, it slipped off of the item it was hiding: the most handsome grandfather clock he'd ever seen. Even though the glass was cracked and the wood scratched, its beauty still made his breath catch in his throat, even more than the portrait.

"Oh! There's mention of that, too!" Her Ladyship revealed, catching sight of the clock herself. "It was a gift from Princess Charlotte in 1816, but the son of a visiting duke knocked it over and broke it in 1827. The duke sent them another clock in apology, so they put that up instead of repairing this one, but the earl insisted they couldn't just throw away a royal gift, so they put this one up here." She peered at it."My! It's quite lovely, isn't it? Better than the one we have now! Maybe I should look into getting it fixed ...."

Though his heart leapt at the possibility, Thomas smothered his enthusiasm, not wishing to get up his hopes of seeing such an exquisite device every day. He knew all too well how fleeting aristo fancies could be.

Then he got an idea.

He put the thought aside when Her Ladyship started looking over other items, including various bits of furniture and boxes of linen, china, and silver she toyed with the idea of putting back into use.

He wondered to himself what Mrs Patmore and Mrs Hughes would think about that.

~* * *~

"I'll wash; you dry, Daisy."

Beryl nearly dropped a glass at Mr Barrow's offer.

Then she saw something that, impossibly, shocked her even more: thin pink lines tracing the veins on the inside of his wrists, made visible as he rolled up his sleeves.

How old were those scars? They looked healed, so not terribly new, but the fact that they were pink rather than pale suggested that they were only a few months old. She remembered him falling suddenly ill a few months before he'd left, and how some of the others had acted strangely that same evening -- Baxter had even been running through the halls like a loon! And though he'd supposedly had influenza, no one else got sick. She'd even wondered at the time how he'd gotten it. And then there was how he'd become a changed man after -- more reserved, and markedly nicer.

Now, she understood why.

She'd always thought him a bit of a dark horse, but she'd never have thought him capable of suicide. Hadn't he thought too highly of himself to end his existence? Well, maybe she hadn't known him as well as she'd thought. Indeed, she certainly didn't know the man standing before her now, all smiles and laughter -- the kind sort of laughter, not the cruel, waspish variety she had come to know him by.

"Mr Barrow, is it all right if I leave now?" Andy came in asking. "Mr Mason expects the piglets to arrive any hour now."

"Off with you, then. Daisy, why don't you go, too -- don't want you walking home alone in the dark," Barrow insisted.

"Oh, I can't -- I've got the bread to do!" Daisy protested.

"I can manage this once, Daisy," Beryl assured her.

"And I can help," Barrow suggested.

"That's kind of you," Beryl replied with more enthusiasm than she actually felt. She wasn't thrilled with the idea of more time with Barrow, but she decided it was better than staying up extra late, since he'd sent her helpmate home early.

"So, what's your recipe?" he asked after stowing the last plate.

She demonstrated what to do, and he proved a quick study. "Have you made bread before?" she asked, also wondering what he was humming as he worked.

"It's been quite a while, but yeah -- my sister taught me, and her recipe doesn't seem too different from yours."

"Well, you should be careful not to spoil us, Mr Barrow! We might recruit you for the kitchen more often!"

"Feel free -- with a smaller staff, I think we have to pull together," he told her. "And really, if I know how to do something, why shouldn't I do it?"

She chuckled. "Don't be surprised if I take you at your word!"

A cloud seemed to come over him at that, and he paused. "I wish you would, Mrs Patmore. I know I've never been your favourite person -- with good reason -- but I'd like to change that, if I can. If it's not to late." He gave her a brave smile and went back to kneading. "I'm just not sure how to do it."

Moved, she laid a hand over his. "You're off to a good start, Mr Barrow. It's not too late, not at all. Just ... be patient with an old woman." She patted his hand and went back to her work.

"What old woman would that be?" he asked with an innocent air and a twinkle in his eye. "I don't see any!"

"You cheeky monkey!" she mocked chided, tossing a pinch of flour at him, earning a hearty laugh from him.

Any worries she had about him taking over as butler evaporated -- for the moment, anyway -- with the sunny sound. Then he began humming again -- then began to sing.

"Lavender's green, dilly dilly, lavender's blue
If you love me, dilly dilly, I will love you ...."

~* * *~

Thomas was only momentarily startled by the sensation of teeth around his hand."Oh, hello, Tiaa!" he laughed, rubbing the labrador pup's head. She stood on two legs and wrapped her paws around him, tongue lolling. He hugged her back, scratching her head and backside. "That's a good doggie! Hello! Hello!"

She put her teeth gently around his hand, letting out a playful mutter, then dropped to all fours, lowering into a play bow, and yipped. He scratched her raised hind-quarters, and she dropped to the floor, baring her belly, making a trilling sort of growl. He knelt beside her, rubbing her belly with one hand while holding the other over her head and waggling his fingers to get her attention. She stretched out and mouthed the hand, pretending to be vicious but barely touching him.

"You know, I had a dog once. She was mouthy too. Dad always used to yell at her for it, but I know you don't mean any harm. You just want to play, don't you, girl?"

She let go and batted at his arms with her paws, smiling her doggy smile, muttering and trilling.

"My, you're talkative today! What do you want? Do you want a tummy tickle?"

He did just that, with her pushing at him with her hind legs even as she wrapped her forepaws around his arm, stretched up her head, and put her mouth around his hand again. This went on for at least a minute, Thomas laughing as he played with the pup, and Tiaa making happy sounds as she gently chewed on him.

"So there you are, Tiaa!" came Lord Grantham's voice from across the room.

Face blazing, Thomas stood to attention. "I-I'm sorry, Your Lordship; it won't happen again!"

"Nonsense!" Grantham replied, approaching. "In fact, consider this a standing order: if you're not in the middle of something, and Tiaa wants to play, then I expect whoever is nearby to play with her. We are going to spoil this dog rotten! Aren't we?" he said that last to the dog, giving her a vigorous petting.

Thomas grinned. "As you command, Your Lordship."

~* * *~

"And where would you be going with that table cloth?" Elsie asked, puzzled upon spotting Mr Barrow coming out of the linen closet.

He stopped short and slowly turned to face her, biting his lip and looking like he expected to be smacked. "The kids wanted to play dinner party, and so I thought I'd put this on the picnic table?" He seemed to be asking permission.

"Not. That. One. In fact, I'd say use an old bedsheet instead -- I'll help you find something appropriate ...."

"Oh! Good idea!" he agreed brightly. "Just let me tell Mrs Patmore what's going on!"

Bemused, she followed him into the kitchen.

"Mrs Patmore, how are you this lovely day?" he began.

The woman sighed and turned. "What are you trying to butter me up for?" The way she said it was with an air of defeat, like it was already a given that she'd do as he asked.

"The children were saying yesterday that they wished to know what a dinner party was like, and I got to thinking just now, what if I show them, and start teaching them how to behave during a dinner?" And he went on to detail how their typical lunch items might double as "courses", asking her to plate them on adult dinnerware. "I'll wash everything after myself -- outside, in a basin, so I'm not in your way in here," he added.

Beryl sighed again, and Elsie realised it was done with fondness. "All right, I suppose I can manage all that!"

He clapped his hands together, beaming. "Brilliant! Thank you, Mrs Patmore." He then kissed her cheek before hurrying out.

Beryl looked a little dumbstruck, touching her cheek. "I don't think I will ever get used to the new, improved Mr Barrow."

"Are you complaining?" Elsie teased.

"Not, exactly, but this one's harder to say no to. And by harder, I mean impossible. That's going to mean a lot of extra work for me."

"Well, you have to make and plate lunch one way or another. If he's helping with the dishes, it all evens out in the end, doesn't it? "

"Hm. I suppose it does, at that!" She smiled.

Barrow hurried back in just then. "Where did you say the sheet I could use is, Mrs Hughes?"

"Oh! Right, I'll get it," she promised, following him out, caught up in his enthusiasm.

She allowed herself a few minutes to watch the luncheon itself, with Barrow explaining everything to the children -- an adorable affair.

Beryl had come out as well. "Huh. He would have made a good father," she remarked quietly. "Too bad."

"Well, all the better for these children he won't become one," she replied, a little annoyed with her friend and the woman's general prejudice regarding Barrow's inclinations -- a factor she suspected played a part in the loneliness that nearly ended the man's life! She couldn't say as much to Beryl, since the suicide was Mr Barrow's business and not common knowledge, but sometimes she felt like revealing that her brother liked "the same shade of purple as Mr Barrow", just to see the look on the woman's face ....

"Just like Lady Mary was lucky to have Carson, and Daisy was lucky to have you," she said instead. "There are other kinds of family besides blood. I rather think we all downstairs have become something of a family after all these years."

She just hoped Beryl at least had stopped thinking of Barrow as the black sheep. Surely the fond look in the kitchen suggested as much?

"I suppose," Beryl agreed amiably, smiling thoughtfully. Then the smile fell, and she looked worried. "Still ... is it really a good idea to encourage Master George to spend time with him?" she asked lowly.

Hughes had an idea where Beryl's train of thought was going, but decided to give her friend the benefit of the doubt rather than strangling her outright. "How do you mean?"

"You know ... is a little boy safe with a man like that?" Beryl whispered.

Elsie decided she would earn her sainthood that day. "If a man who loves women is still safe to have around little girls, then yes, a man who loves men is still safe to have around little boys. Further, one stolen kiss -- thanks to a miscommunication, no less -- in fifteen years does not a molester make. If Mr Kent could forgive what happened, and even become the best of friends with Barrow, I think we can certainly give Barrow the benefit of the doubt."

Charlie came up beside her, effectively silencing any response Beryl might have had. "What's all this, then?" He asked, waving at Barrow and the wee bairns.

"The children asked what a dinner party is like, so Mr Barrow is showing them."

Charlie smiled fondly. "I remember similar happy afternoons with the Crawley girls! It's nice to see some traditions are still hanging on."

She didn't bother pointing out that the current Crawley children and Mr Barrow had come up with the idea on their own, so it wasn't tradition so much as history simply repeating itself. Let them bond over this, even if Charlie hadn't actually had anything to do with it -- at least Charlie seemed to have mellowed towards the man ....

~* * *~

Beryl had gotten used to Barrow helping with the clean-up in the evenings, enough that she grew puzzled -- and, well, suspicious -- when he asked Andy to do it instead, saying he had something to take care of upstairs. While most of the staff lived off-property now, they did have one 16-year-old hall boy who had recently moved in. And now there was no Mr Carson to keep an eye on things ....

"Oh, dear! I've forgotten to ask Mr Barrow about something for tomorrow!" she said a short while after Barrow went up. It was half true -- she'd refrained from from asking so she'd have an excuse to be up there.

"I can go up and ask him for you," Andy offered.

"No, no, it's ... involved , so I'd best do it. But you can escort me, so's I don't get in trouble for being in the men's section!" And also so he could give Barrow a thorough trouncing, if necessary ....

Upstairs, as they reached his door, she could hear Barrow saying, "That's it, baby -- just open up a bit wider for me; I promise this won't hurt ...." Picturing the worst, she steeled herself and opened the door, despite Andy's protest that she should knock first.

Barrow yelped and jumped away -- from the backside of a clock. "Bloody hell, you scared the life out of me! Good thing I just finished, or you could have ruined it! Wait, did you ruin it?" He turned his panicked attention back to the clock, studying the gears inside intently. He sighed in relief. "It looks all right. Now for the test!" Closing the cabinet back, he started to turn it, then paused, looking back at them, concerned. "Unless there's an emergency? Has something happened? Is that why you're up here?"

"No, no," she assured him, feeling foolish -- and guilty for assuming the worst. "It's just, you left so quickly, I forgot to ask you about tomorrow."

"Oh! Quite right, sorry! Guess I got carried away." He gazed longingly at the device, caressing the wood in such a way that half made her feel like she should avert her eyes.

"Well, don't let me stop you," she insisted. "Go on with your test!"

He grinned like a child; she wondered if she would ever get used to seeing that expression on him. He turned the clock to face them, opened the glass door, and used a key on three knobs in the clock face. Using his own watch, he set the time, took a deep breath, and got the pendulum going. Ear practically to the glass, he listened intently.

Suddenly he beamed, crying "I did it! It works!" Just as suddenly, he grew bashful. "Well, it's ticking, anyway. A-and the second hand is moving. The real test will come tomorrow, though, when I see if it's still telling the right time."

"Did one of the children break it?" she asked. Maybe he was trying to keep them -- and Nanny -- from getting into trouble?

"Oh, no, no! Her Ladyship and I found this beauty in the attic, and I just couldn't bear the thought of her sitting up there forever." He fondly brushed non-existent dust off of it; clearly he had already cleaned it well. "I replaced the door and sanded the scratches and re-stained her. Thought it might make a nice surprise for Lord and Lady Grantham's anniversary on Friday."

"But ... how did you know how to fix it?" Andy asked her question for her.

"Did I never tell you? My father was a clockmaker! I was even his apprentice for a while." There was a hint of sorrow in his eyes then. She wondered what happened ....

"Oh! That's why you were always asking if I needed help with the clocks!" Andy realised.

Beryl suspected that he'd thought Barrow was flirting -- she certainly would have. But the more time she spent with the new butler, the more she came to think she never really knew him at all ....

~* * *~

Thomas felt his heart pounding as he opened the dining-room door for the family. Could they hear the rapid beat as well as he could? He almost couldn't hear the surprised gasp from Lady Grantham over the sound!

"Mr Barrow, is that ...?" she asked, eyes wide and smile delighted.

"The clock from the attic? It is indeed, milady," Thomas replied as smoothly as he could, trying to smother his pride (when had it ever given him anything but trouble?) and just be glad to have brought her joy.

He looked to Lord Grantham next -- and suddenly found himself anxious in a way that harkened back to his adolescence, when he awaited his father's reaction to his work on a clock, desperate for the man's approval. The memory made him suddenly sick to his stomach, his palms sweating in his gloves.

"Her Ladyship mentioned finding it -- you had it fixed?" His Lordship asked, walking towards the antique, face thus turned away from Thomas and therefore unreadable.

"Yes, sir -- for your anniversary."

"Well, that was kind of you! Thank you, Barrow! It's much more handsome than the one we'd been using, I must say!" His Lordship remarked.

Just like that, Barrow felt his anxiety melt away. Here was the approval his father could never seem to give him, easily granted by a man of greater importance than his father -- a man who didn't even have the reason of a familial bond to prompt it!

"It looks like new!" Her Ladyship marvelled.

"Indeed -- I can scarcely believe it's the same clock!" the dowager weighed in. "I'd left it in the attic because it had seemed like a lost cause! Oh, you must tell me who did the repairs, Barrow; I have a clock that needs mending!"

"Er, well ... it was me, milady," he confessed, feeling strangely embarrassed. "But I'd be happy to look at your clock for you!" he quickly added.

"You fixed it?" the Granthams both asked, sounding astonished and maybe even pleased, rather than skeptical.

"My father was a clockmaker," Thomas replied, that strange embarrassment still present even as he succumbed to a flush of pride. He felt the colour rise in his cheeks, and struggled to calm himself, to restore his usual blasé demeanor. It was shockingly difficult.

"Well, in that case, I'd like for you to take charge of looking after the clocks in the house, Barrow, rather than have anyone else do it," Lord Grantham decided.

"I'd be happy to, Your Lordship," Thomas replied, barely able to contain his joy -- he'd wanted to do it himself anyway, but generally speaking, that was part of a footman's work, and thus considered beneath him. But then, so was washing dishes or a hundred other small tasks he'd surreptitiously been doing belowstairs, in an effort to be nicer and help out the dwindling staff. Manning the clocks, though, while being something he really wanted to do, he could never seem to justify, seeing as it was time-consuming and meant he wasn't in one central location where he would be quickly and easily found if there was an issue. Maybe that fact hadn't occurred to His Lordship; Thomas wasn't about to point it out. Who would have guessed that doing something nice for his employers would have such a happy result for himself, as well!

For that matter, who knew he would come to have such affection for the Granthams themselves? Suddenly, he understood Carson a little better. Except, unlike Carson (or at least it seemed so), Thomas had also come to be fond of his coworkers, too.

He just wished it hadn't taken him so long to gain this family to replace the one he'd lost.