Smoke had filled the halls so quickly, Thomas’s adrenaline racing instantly. He’d only meant to keep an eye out, check the corridors and make sure Jimmy wasn’t caught.
The idiot, risking his position like that. He didn’t even like the woman, it seemed so pointless to have led her on and all that. And Thomas didn’t even want to imagine what happened once that door had closed, the two of them alone and the lady with very clear intentions. Jimmy deserved better, but no one should be so pressured into things. The idea sent him reeling back to the Duke, to what he thought was love but was only some fling for the gentleman. Luckily the footman was bright enough, or vain enough, not to be fooled into any affection for his former employer, and that gave Thomas some relief.
What wasn’t as reassuring was the acrid smoke, the sight of it seeping from the closed door of Lady Edith’s room. He shoved his way in, forgoing propriety and reaching her limp form on the bed, dragging her out. By then others were racing about, his Lordship opening doors and fear struck Thomas.
“Your Lordship!” Luckily the man stopped, seeming offended that Thomas would have halted him at such a moment but the sight of his daughter altered him and he reached for her instead. “You should keep your family safe, sir. I’ll make sure everyone gets out.”
“I couldn’t possibly leave you to that-“
“I insist sir, having you safe will be much more of a relief to everyone.” He needn’t say it explicitly, I’m dispensable, let me go , but the Earl nodded, taking a more sure grip of his daughter and turning the other way. Now wasn’t the time for relief but Thomas couldn’t help an exhale before he started off to rouse everyone else.
As unfortunately expected, he found Jimmy and Lady Anstruther in a rather compromising position. “There’s a fire,” he announced, looking away after having taken in the scene. The woman looked what she was: caught out, but there was something different to Jimmy’s expression. Thomas didn’t want to say it was disappointment so he decided against thinking about it and rushed off again.
With the yelling and the smoke, it seemed everyone else was up anyway, with hall boys assisting in hoisting water and sand buckets up the stairs to throw on the flames. Thomas didn’t miss when a now-clothed woman absconded down the stairs and another pair of hands from a frazzled looking footman joined the procession.
Thankfully, no one was hurt. The Lady Edith was in shock once she’d come round, and Lady Mary hadn’t missed the opportunity for a few snide remarks. Everyone was fine. The room, however, was in tatters and ashes. It was unrecognizable, like it had been painted black and the sunlight of the new day casting ghastly shadows about the place. But even with all of that, concern over the wellbeing of the upstairs was left to the people who inhabited it, as Mr. Carson so pointedly reminded them. A burned room and the ensuing fiasco did not change their duties so they best keep quiet about the ordeal, thank you very much.
The detail Thomas kept quiet about was the morning leave of Lady Anstruther, who had made a pardon to his Lordship and insisted she must be going. No one pressed the matter because truthfully who had wanted her there in the first place? At breakfast that morning Jimmy had been unusually quiet as well, eyes focused on his toast and his tea. Everyone else was just as shut up, so it wasn’t like anyone bothered to mention it. When they were all dismissed to their usual duties, Thomas spared a glance at him but it wasn’t met.
He couldn’t fathom why, since in an unfortunate turn of events things had still gone all according to Jimmy’s plans. Not like the fire had been a part of that, but he’d been able to have his fun without the consequences. There was no need for him to look like Carson had asked him to clean all the silver in the house by himself.
Thomas hadn’t planned for the opportunity that evening, just after the dressing gong. He hadn’t expected to be alone in the servants’ hall with Jimmy, who was only now flipping through the newspaper but didn’t seem to really be reading any of it.
“Did you see her before she left?” Thomas asked it quietly mid-exhale, blowing out smoke along with his question. He had his head tilted up in that usual way, looking at the other man sort of down his nose, but not condescendingly. Smugly perhaps, though he had leaned forward just enough that it was clear his question was genuine.
Jimmy didn’t glance up, but his brow furrowed enough to be noticeable and he flipped a page, a noise like thunder in the silence. “No, didn’t think it would matter.”
Another puff of smoke after a particularly long drag, “So everything went off alright?”
“Why wouldn’t it?”
Thomas has no chance to comment about Jimmy’s demeanor the whole day, how sour and distant he’d seemed when one of the hall boys came in.
The only other time there had been a tension like that between them was those years ago when Thomas had let himself be fooled by O’Brien, when he’d gone into Jimmy’s room.
But all that had been resolved after the fair and when they’d talked, when they’d settled on being friends. Thomas was comfortable with the arrangement, he had to be after all. He’d never had anything even close to a friend at Downton, O’Brien was an ally at most and it wasn’t like he could include the Lady Sybil or the children though he probably got along with them best. He’d never been close with the other footmen nor any of the staff, and his feelings for Jimmy had been misplaced and unreciprocated but now at least some companionship had come of it. The idea that in one night it had all gone pear shaped was terrifying because Thomas didn’t know what he’d done wrong but it felt like somehow he’d done something.
The staff dinner was livelier than earlier meals, the shadow of last night’s incident had passed. Chatter was still casual and light, no heavier or more substantial subjects to bother them, but at least it was something. Now only Thomas was left to his brooding, but that was the usual state of things.
“But I don’t see why she can’t have it,” Jimmy continued what could easily be labeled a lighthearted argument, “she’s young and it’s not like she’s got much else to do out here.”
“What wisdom you bestow on us James, let’s hope his Lordship gets wind so he may ask your advice on all his purchases.” Carson’s raised eyebrow stare swept the table but Mrs. Hughes shifted in her seat.
“I quite agree though, why can’t Downton have a wireless? I’d say it would be much easier than having the gramophone moved around. A little modernisation has never hurt the estate.” Her face, that almost suppressed but not quite smile she often wore, was directed at some of the younger staff, her usual way of appeasing them. It was no wonder that she commanded the downstairs so well, with her balance of authority and idealism.
“A little modernisation is the road to total upheaval,” Carson’s sincerity rivaled that of a Catholic priest.
“Oh my, I didn’t realize a little radio would be enough to topple Downton, but I hear that the moral high ground doesn’t always make for the best foundation.”
Carson huffed and the maids visibly bit their cheeks or coughed to cover laughter. With that the meal resumed much the way it always did. Thomas caught a half smile on Jimmy’s face, but it faded into neutrality as quickly as it had appeared.
He let things go like that for a while, while everyone was so caught up in normal life. His lordship, Carson, and concerns over the war monument, Lady Rose’s wireless radio, Lady Mary’s absence and discussion over whether it was inappropriate or kind for Lady Edith to care for Marigold the way she did. The fire and Lady Anstruther were a forgotten memory to all except Thomas.
Another day passed, their duties done, and almost everyone downstairs gone to bed.
Thomas went out for a smoke, the low lights and ceilings of the servants’ hall feeling a touch too stifling already. There was also something nice about the end of the day, when the chaos of the usual running had subsided, and taking a step out on a clear, cool night was like a slice of paradise. It was usually a solitary venture, but a welcome one, so he hadn’t expected to see another shape under the low light.
Not expecting things seemed to be the way of it now, since the shape was Jimmy, standing and smoking in the same melancholy manner Thomas had planned for himself. “Fancy seeing you here,” it was such a stupid thing to say but he felt he had to announce himself somehow, unlit cigarette hanging from his lips.
The footman turned, not with any surprise or hurry, but with the same level of apathetic recognition that had characterized all their interactions as of late. He made some noncommittal noise and tossed his own cigarette to the ground, stamping it out. Thomas could see he hadn’t even finished it.
“I don’t know what I’ve done to get treated like this,” he didn’t say it with any bite, but he swallowed to keep any emotion from his voice.
After some hesitation, the toe of his shoe still pressed to the cigarette butt, Jimmy admitted a low “you’ve not done anything.”
He didn’t mean to laugh, and only made some choked sound that mirrored it, “then why’ve you been giving me the cold shoulder? We’ve hardly spoken these passed weeks. I’m not often one to point out the fairness of things-“ Which wasn’t true, because Thomas had acted vindictively and resolutely his whole life based on his version of fairness.
“You’ve not done anything,” Jimmy repeatedly lamely. He quit worrying his shoe over the ground and stood a little straighter, managing to look at Thomas and it was the first time he’d done it since that night. “Just leave it alone, will you?”
“I can’t.” Thomas’ lip quirked in that involuntary way it often did when he was uncomfortable, “We’re supposed to be friends and you’ve come as close to ignoring me as you could. I don’t see how I’ve done anything, I don’t see why you’re shutting me out.” Jimmy was visibly tensing, but Thomas wasn’t going to stop for his comfort.
He’d spent weeks in this forced isolation for reasons being kept from him. His only friend and the person he cared most for wouldn’t talk to him, or look at him. There had been a lot done in his life to make him suffer, but no words or actions had made him feel as much a monster as Jimmy had lately. “Did something happen with you and Lady Anstruther? You know I don’t care about what you did- what you were doing. I’m the one who brought you up there and was looking out for you-“
“That’s just it,” he’d glanced away again, retreating into bitterness. “ I care what I did.” That was as close to Jimmy recognizing he was at fault as Thomas had ever heard. “It was wrong, the whole thing- I didn’t mean for her and I to- and then you walked in-“
Thomas had never taken the time to light his cigarette and it stayed unlit between his fingers. He glanced at it like it was this incriminating thing because somehow that’s what felt wrong about this whole situation; the unlit cigarette, not the argument or the way Jimmy wouldn’t look at him and his face kept passing between some hidden anger and frustration at the inability to voice it. He looked ready to just storm off and Thomas wanted to hold him from it but this useless thing in his hand made him aware of his limbs and the space between them and how he couldn’t just reach out and comfort Jimmy.
Because he couldn’t touch the man, not to comfort him now and not to do any of the things he usually wanted. The friendship was fine, it was mutual and so long as they had that then Thomas could convince himself everything was fine and he was normal . He could keep from lapsing into being so angry at the world, how come everyone else could be happy and safe and in love and he was damned to whatever existence this was. Rarely now, though it used to be far more often, he would think of Jimmy and what he wished for, longed for. He knew it was foolish and unrealistic and he was only torturing himself but he couldn’t get the idea out of his head, not when he had seen and felt what it was like to be the recipient of that man’s smiles or be a part of his jokes, not when he knew what it was to share glances and passing conversation in the stairs, not when he had some idea of emotional intimacy with him and it just felt so right when they connected. He tried to keep from thinking on it, torturing himself instead with that echo of Mr. Carson’s condemnation of who and what he was, thinking of all those voices calling him abhorrent, a pervert, a twisted thing of nature.
But then he would see Jimmy, and they would talk and gripe about their duties or share their ridicule of the family or of other staff (Molesley in particular) and everything was fine. He would be caught up in just the companionship of it, in the reassurance he hadn’t botched everything with that stupid kiss that he could really convince himself that he was happy like that and he didn’t want anything more.
Jimmy was looking at him with these huge eyes of sympathy and regret but Thomas didn’t know why he would ever look at him like that and why those emotions would be so surrounded by this frustration visible in the downturn of his mouth and the crease between his brows and the set of his jaw.
“‘m going in. Mrs. Hughes will lock up soon-“
And now Thomas did stop him, with just one hand out to grip the man’s arm. Barely a grip, something he could easily pull away from, but enough to stop him. Jimmy halted without a fight, but wouldn’t look up. “I’m just going to keep asking, even if you won’t tell me now.”
Jimmy wanted to hate him for that, wanted to insist he was fine on his own, but it was his own fault. There was no reason to get so upset about the thing, and now he’s gone and made it into this whole ordeal between he and Thomas. He hadn’t meant for any of that. It was just that-
He should have had the brains to figure out what was going to happen before it did. He knew, of course, why his former employer had come, and he knew quite well what she expected from the visit. He’d been a fool to think she had any other impression, what with how things were in her employ, the St. Valentine’s Day cards, and the more recent letters. He should have had the sense to cut it all out, to realize she was taking it far more seriously than he was, and there was quite a lot of danger in that. It was worse since Thomas had warned him about all of this. It was worse since anyone with a brain could see where it was all going.
Of course she was going to come see him eventually. Of course she had to stay the night, and of course she asked to see him. He hadn’t wanted to do anything with her other than end things, which Thomas had emphasized he needed to do quickly and cleanly. There always seemed to be something personal about the way the man cared to outline how horrible it would be if their relationship was found out, how it would reflect on Jimmy and not her.
He never asked if there was a reason Thomas reiterated any correspondence needed to be destroyed.
He brushed it off, said he knew and would end it all cleanly.
And then he’d arrived in her room and she’d acted quickly and there was no denying and seemingly no avoiding what she wanted. He didn’t stop her, but he also wanted it to be over as quickly as possible as she kissed him and touched him and led his hands to places on her body.
It wasn’t like he was new to this, with her or with others. He’d had more than his fair share of fun and what was this, their last hurrah? Just one more time together before they would hopefully never see one another again.
His words, his recited speech of “this has to end” was ripped from him with the force of tidal waves. And much like in the sea he decided to let the wave take him, not to fight it just yet.
They were in bed, undressed, his mind was wandering but Lady Anstruther didn’t seem to notice, or at the very least didn’t care. He wasn’t thinking about his actions, just trying to finish and it was all very unlike him, that much he was aware of. Then the door opened.
Shaken from his thoughts Jimmy finally processed that someone - multiple people more likely- had been yelling. He’d jumped back, suddenly aware of his nudity and his position in a way he hadn’t been just a moment before.
And there was Thomas, ever the image of prim society, still in uniform but looking some mix of rushed and disappointed. His voice was bland and frank, “There’s a fire,” before the door shut again. At his side, the Lady looked terrified, but not ashamed- more like the usual look any of these rich folk had when they were in the wrong. It was a minor inconvenience, she was caught having some fun but her life wouldn’t be ruined by some under butler who’d found her out. She had no shame despite not knowing they’d been fortunate enough to be seen by the one person who wouldn’t tell.
Knowing all of this, Jimmy couldn’t help the way a part of him felt crushed. He felt shame enough for the both of them. He had sworn he had it under control and would tell her off, he’d promised it to Thomas but the man had seen clear as day that he couldn’t do it.
Neither of them spoke when they dressed and managed to leave unnoticed, though the fire was obviously a dramatic enough cover that there was no worry. She’d gone to his Lordship soon as she could and made her apologies, and Jimmy had helped lead people out and stop the fire best he could. It was almost like nothing happened, and if Thomas hadn’t come in he could have pretended that was the case.
“Don’t try to say there’s nothing to tell,” Thomas continued and Jimmy couldn’t ignore the feeling rolling in his gut.
It was something like disappointment, but worse. He’d easily let down the closest person to him. He knew Thomas wasn’t the best person, they’d had their rocky start and he wouldn’t argue with anyone who called the man arrogant or troublemaking or daft, but they were mates. Friends, they’d agreed.
He wouldn’t want any old friend to find him as Thomas had, but he thought even in that hypothetical he wouldn’t feel as he did. Even if it were someone far worse, like Carson or - God forbid - his Lordship, Jimmy didn’t think he’d have that same frustrating feeling that had haunted him for weeks.
Really, Thomas was the best person to have come in on them! Their secret was safe with him, from the public and from any sort of black mail. And despite Jimmy’s treatment, the man hadn’t changed in wanting to be friends. It didn’t appear Thomas thought any less of him.
Which did nothing to allow Jimmy to figure out why he was so bothered- why he felt like he had wronged Thomas so specifically and personally. Perhaps it would have been easier if it had been Lord Grantham, and then Jimmy would have been sacked and he wouldn’t have to confront this ridiculous situation.
“It’s nothing,” which wasn’t true but Jimmy didn’t know what it was so that felt all he could really say. “It doesn’t matter-“
“It’s upset you, so it does.” Thomas had slipped into that rarely used tone, the one that wasn’t patronizing but was sincere. Jimmy had never heard him use it around anyone else, not even someone nicer like Anna or Baxter.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Jimmy snapped, pulling his arm back from Thomas’ grip which had annoyingly been a light, grounding comfort. “I shouldn’t have gone up there, I shouldn’t have kept in contact with her in the first place and if anyone else had caught us I’d be gone. It would be things back to how they were, Jimmy contra mundum again.” Some misplaced bitterness punctuated his words before he did stamp off.
Thomas stood there and decided against smoking. It felt wrong right now. He felt so thrown, still unsure why Jimmy was so bothered over the whole thing. He’d been the one to find them so what did it matter worrying over those sort of hypotheticals? He’d made sure no one else had opened the door just to prevent all that, and now it was almost like Jimmy hated him for it.
Thomas hadn’t realized that the footman cared so much about what they’d been doing, about his relationship or fling or whatever one may call it for his interruption to matter. Despite Jimmy saying it was all a horrible idea he was simultaneously saying Thomas shouldn’t have come in and seen.
Not like Jimmy had ever cared enough about privacy for him to be bothered by that aspect, and they both knew well enough that Thomas wasn’t going to tell anyone. It wasn’t some matter of modesty either- Jimmy was too vain for that.
Which left Thomas baffled, following behind after enough time had passed he felt confident that he and Jimmy wouldn’t see each other again tonight.