Thomas Barrow follows after the taller man into a building in York which looks much like a warehouse. He wonders at the knock used to enter and worries that Richard will not be able to find him if this is someplace secret. His concern, however, melts away into fascination as it becomes instantly apparent that, while the space might have originally been meant as only a warehouse, it has been repurposed into a far more enjoyable establishment.
“Come on,” the man says, Thomas remembers his name is Chris, gripping the edge of Thomas’ coat to tug him into the space.
Thomas cannot stop himself gaping. Men sit in pairs or more along the path as they walk in. He sees a blond sitting in another man’s lap laughing with drinks in both their hands. A gaggle of younger men lean into each other, one with his hand wrapped another’s waist. Another man presses a short man up against one of the support poles, kissing him so the shorter man’s head knock’s back. Thomas thinks he should look away, but he stares instead, nearly tripping over his own feet in surprise.
Thomas turns his head around as someone hoots, “Needed some fresh blood in here.”
Thomas twists again to see three men nearer the door they came in, faces close as they talk, two of the men with their hands entwined. Someone on Thomas’ other side wolf whistles making him jerk in surprise.
It is not until Thomas and Chris pass into the wide, open area of the warehouse that Thomas realizes the man who spoke of ‘fresh blood’ meant Thomas. Thomas flushes but finds himself smiling all the same. “Blimey…”
Dance music plays from a radio as at least a dozen male couples dance under naked beams and hanging electric lights. The couples all dance close together, arms about each other either, twisting and turning, some with hands clasped trotting a jig. A simple bar stands in the corner with one man behind it passing out pints of beer. Give it a bit of polish on the bar, add some glazed windows and the place could be a regular pub; a pub for men like him.
“Thomas, come on.” Chris tugs again at Thomas’ coat, pulling them both around the dance floor to some low tables and chairs on the opposite side of the warehouse.
“I’ve never been to a place like this,” Thomas says over the noise of music and conversation.
Chris smiles at him as they both take off their coats. “Now you have. Come on, have a dance.”
Thomas cannot stop smiling as they both put their coats on chairs and hats on the table. Chris rolls up his sleeves, Thomas following suit. Then Chris takes his hand and pulls him out onto the dance floor.
Chris pulls Thomas flush against him, his arm around Thomas’ back and his other hand grasping Thomas’. Thomas has never danced with another man in his life – in public or private – and now they turn together around the floor with other men around them, music playing, lights on and no one staring, other then perhaps because Thomas is a new face. Chris leads, the music lively, the two of them dipping and bobbing with their entwined hands leading the way. Thomas feels Chris’ hip sharp against his, the callouses on his hands, the buttons of his shirt snagging occasionally on Thomas’. Chris turns them around, near bumping into another couple, he says something over his shoulder and a red-haired man wiggles his eyebrows at Thomas before turning back to his partner. Chris laughs and faces Thomas again, the hand on Thomas’ back pressing them closer together.
Thomas feels half embarrassed at being seen – really seen – by so many strangers dancing like this with another man. But every other man here dances just the same, holds another man close so every man here knows just what he has in common with the others. Thomas keeps on grinning.
They dance three songs in a row, some sloppy jigs that turns into basic swing even when they try to be more proper about it. Thomas almost slips and falls on some spilled beer on the floor, but Chris catches him so they both laugh and hold onto each other.
“Clumsy dancer, eh?” Chris says near Thomas’ ear.
“Haven’t been the one following so much before,” Thomas counters as Chris pulls back again so Thomas can see his face.
Chris winks at him. “You rather lead, then?”
Thomas’ lips purse and he feels like a boy, like the first time he ever realized the attractiveness of another man. “No, you go on.”
Chris grins wider. “Oh yeah? Think I’m not so bad at it?”
Thomas beams, ducking his head because he cannot think of anything clever or charming to say. He might be a bit out of his depth here, but his pulse runs fast in the very excitement of a place like this, at the opportunity not to hide.
The song ends then, changing into one slower. Chris pulls his hands back, head twisting toward the bar. Then a voice says, “Mind if I cut in?”
Thomas and Chris turn to the man beside them now. It is Richard Ellis.
Thomas blows out a long breath of air. “Ellis…”
Chris looks back and forth between them. He makes a clicking noise, twisting his lips. Then he nods, “If you like.”
Thomas turns his head to him, to apologize, to explain, but he is not sure himself what he would say. He has not been in even a remotely similar situation.
Chris just nods as if Thomas actually said something. “One you were waiting for, eh? Well,” then he smiles like he had at the pub, “find me again if you like.”
Thomas nods, still at a loss for words. Chris walks away toward the bar, clapping one man on the back as he goes, saying something Thomas cannot hear.
Thomas shuts his eyes quickly, swallowing down the resistance in his throat. Then he turns toward Richard with open eyes. Richard smiles at him, so much more confidence upon his face than Thomas feels as he takes Thomas’ hand. They step close together. Richard slides one arm around Thomas’ lower back as Thomas puts his gloved hand around Richard’s shoulder. Then Richard takes Thomas’ other hand, threading their fingers together, suddenly intimate, even more so than Chris had been. Thomas breathes in and Richard turns them around the floor.
“Did I make you wait too long?” Richard asks, his voice not a whisper but low enough that it should just be for the two of them to hear.
Thomas smiles self-consciously as they sway. “Couldn’t be sure you were still coming.”
“No? I said I was. I wouldn’t have asked you up to York just to leave you sitting.”
Thomas looks away. “Things come up. I know that.”
“Until you got a better offer?”
Thomas looks back at him sharply. “It’s not like that. I didn’t know you… what I mean is, how could I have known that… well…”
Richard smiles at him. “It’s all right. I’m not angry with you.” Richard shrugs a shoulder while simultaneously shifting them closer together. “I was late.”
“Is this…” Thomas clears his throat – Richard’s face tilts toward him, close enough to feel his breath. “Is this where you meant to take me from the start?”
Richard purses his lips, looks amused. “I had thought about it, but it seemed like I shouldn’t rush in with you. Maybe I was wrong?”
Thomas chuckles. “I’m not sure really but we’re here now.”
Thomas frowns. “How did you know where to find me?”
Richard tips his head. “The barkeep told me. It might not be the smartest idea to mention this place to anyone you’re not sure of.”
“Chris did, actually,” Thomas says.
Richard makes a ‘hmm’ noise. “Well then.”
Richard turns them around the floor moving in a casual waltz. There is no organization to the type of dancing upon the floor. The couples appear to range in class, most men in shirt sleeves and braces but Thomas sees at least one man in formal evening attire of the upstairs type at Downton. Richard still wears his brown waistcoat though the top button of his shirt is unbuttoned. Thomas’ eyes trail down the skin of his neck toward the gap, his fingers twitching to undo another button.
As they dance, Richard moves them slow and careful, so Thomas never treads on the other man’s feet. The trumpets continue a jazz standard Thomas thinks he recognizes but cannot identify, maybe Louis Armstrong. Richard shifts their joined hands up closer to their chests. Richard’s thumb strokes over the back of Thomas’ hand while he looks at Thomas. Thomas wants to say something, ask Richard what life in the palace is like, what does he get up to in London, are there places like this there, is he hoping to become the ‘King’s page of the backstairs’ someday? He wants to ask Richard how he knew about Thomas so quickly. He wants to tell Richard he is gorgeous, how Thomas has never felt quite this elated or terrified, how he does not think he has felt quite so happy before.
“You have beautiful eyes,” Richard says softly.
Thomas smiles instantly but tries to tamp it down. “My eyes? Always thought they were more bland gray.”
“No,” Richard says, raising their joined hands so he may touch a finger to Thomas’ chin. “They’re like the sky.”
Thomas breathes in slowly and forgets to breathe back out.
The music changes then into a bouncy jazz tune. More couples join the floor, one aggressive pair cutting a line across the floor with their hands held out like a sword before them. Richard shifts their hands, putting a bit more distance between them with the change of song.
“Are you game for another?” Richard asks.
“I am,” Thomas says.
Richard shifts their hands, palm to palm and tugs at Thomas’ waist to swing Thomas about to the music. Thomas grins as Richard attempts a foxtrot but nearly kicks Thomas in the shin in doing so. They both laugh loud and shift back into a simple side to side, their hands rising up and down in time with the music.
“What were you planning then?” Thomas dares to ask.
“With inviting me up here.”
“I was planning on meeting you in the pub.”
Thomas shakes his head as Richard twirls them around again, swinging Thomas out to their arm’s length then pulling him in tight again. “Is that all? Really?”
“What do you want me to say, that I’d rented us a room for the night above the pub and meant to have my way with you?”
Thomas huffs out a breath, feeling slack jawed. “Blimey, I…”
“I didn’t do that,” Richard clarifies. “In case you were worried.”
“I wouldn’t say worried is the word come to mind.”
Richard chuckles deep in his throat. “My, my, Mr. Barrow.”
Thomas glances away as they shift around a couple starting to pull at each other’s collars in a manner that will soon need to leave the dance floor.
“So just the pub then? Just friends having a drink?”
Richard tilts his head. “Is that we are now, friends?”
“Well, I…” Thomas clears his throat, his expression falling. “I’ve been wrong before.”
“You’re not wrong.” The corners of Richard’s lips quirk up and his fingers clench against Thomas’ back. “I’m holding you in my arms, Barrow.”
Thomas breathes in again – thinks he smells shoe polish and pomade and a whiff of lavender from Richard.
“I wonder…” Richard’s voice sounds hesitant now when it has been confident all this time. “Could I call you Thomas?”
Thomas does not even try to keep the grin from his face this time. “I’d like that.”
Richard nods, his smile spreading slowly. “Then you should call me Richard.”
The two of them dance for at least another hour. They try the foxtrot again when a particularly lively jazz song comes over the radio. Another couple joins them, and it becomes something of a battle to see which pair can outdo the other. Thomas and Ricard end up winning when the other two men step on each other’s feet, tripping them up, but all four laugh through it and acknowledge the others as quite skilled. Thomas takes a turn at leading, not as adept as Richard but they both decide to blame Buckingham Palace for that. Richard twirls them around back and forth making Thomas dizzy with the movement and simple delight. He cannot stop his eyes rolling over the length of Richard’s exposed neck. He wants to kiss a line from Richard’s jaw down to his shirt collar and back again. When the music turns slow once more, Richard holds Thomas close enough that their cheeks touch and Thomas’ eyes fall closed. He wants the night to last for years.
They finally take a break to buy some drinks. They have been dancing nonstop, but Thomas did not notice how thirsty he was until Richard stopped them and suggested it.
“Bugger. My wallet is in my coat, give me just a minute,” Richard says as he leaves Thomas beside the bar.
Thomas breathes heavily still, their last song being full of dramatic piano and their feet near stomping along. He tries to calm his heartbeat as he watches the other men on the dance floor. One man has his braces loose around his hips while another rather muscled gentleman flicks open the top button of his partner’s waistcoat, a wicked grin on his face.
“Blimey,” Thomas whispers to himself with a whole new depth of feeling from when he first walked in, the surprise at this place still fresh.
“Missed my chance then?”
Thomas turns to his head to Chris beside him now, a pint glass in his hand. Thomas swallows but says nothing.
Chris nods his head, taking a sip of his lager. “Eh, no matter. Brian has been looking for a fine night with me for a while now, might as well give him a twirl.”
Thomas stutters out a laugh and nods as if he should know who Brian might be. He stands up straighter then says, “Thank you for bringing me here.”
Chris takes a big gulp of his beer and smiles like baring his teeth, though still friendly. “Perhaps I’ll catch you here again some time?”
Thomas chuckles. “Maybe.”
Chris nods and squeezes Thomas’ shoulder. “Keep me in mind, handsome, when you do.” Then he turns and walks back into the bustle of dancers.
Thomas turns to Richard walking up to him. Thomas nods. “Yeah. Maybe you should thank him too.”
Richard’s brow furrows. “For trying to take you away from me?”
“For getting us both here instead of just a pub.” Thomas cocks his head. “Am I yours?”
Richard’s lips purse. “I guess we’ll see.”
Thomas and Richard leave the warehouse-turned-gentleman’s-pub after another hour and a half of dancing, just two rounds of drinks between them, weary from dancing and not even remotely drunk. Richard leads them back to his borrowed car, their hands brushing twice in the dark.
“You going to be all right to drive back so late?” Thomas asks as Richard opens the car door on Thomas’ side.
“Oh yes. The king and palace have kept me up much later than this.” He grins. “You should be more worried at you being a distraction.”
Thomas ducks his head as he climbs into the car. “Me?”
Richard nods, “Mmhmmm,” then closes Thomas’ car door.
Thomas breathes in and out once to keep his heart rate down. Then Richard climbs into the car and starts the engine.
They drive for about fifteen minutes out of York onto a stretch of quiet road, trees on the one side and grass on the other. They do not talk, though Thomas sneaks glances at Richard almost every minute. He catches Richard doing the same at least once. He observes Richard’s profile, wanting to kiss the corner of his strong jaw, to take off his hat. Thomas wishes he had thought when they were dancing to put his hands up into Richard’s hair.
Thomas watches the sky during the gaps of watching Richard, stars above them seeming brighter and more worthy of his notice. With merely the sound of the car engine, a clear sky and woods around them, they two could be alone in the world.
Suddenly Richard breathes in sharply and says, “To Hell with it.”
Thomas frowns. “What?”
Richard, however, turns the wheel of the car off the edge of the road onto a dirt extension into the trees which perhaps was once going to become its own road. Richard stops the car then turns off the engine.
“Is something wrong?” Thomas cranes his head to see if there is any smoke coming from the front of the car. He is not a chauffeur and knows little about cars, but he knows smoke to be a bad thing. “Do you need to –”
Thomas turns his head back around and has his words cut off by Richard’s lips on his. Thomas breathes in through his nose and immediately kisses Richard back.
“Yes,” Thomas gasps just as Richard says, “God…”
Thomas raises his hand and grips Richard’s jaw – the spot he watched the whole ride. Richard’s hand cards up into Thomas’ hair, pushing Thomas’ hat off, until he cradles the back of Thomas head; it feels divine. Richard kisses him harder, his mouth opening, capturing Thomas’ lower lip between his. Thomas lays his other hand on Richard’s neck so he can feel the quickness of Richard’s pulse. He wants to take off his glove despite the wound so he can touch more skin. Richard breathes in sharply at Thomas’ touch and he inches closer over the seats, losing his hat and the gear shift jabbing between them as their chests crowd together. Thomas opens his mouth, inviting, so Richard tongue brushes Thomas’. Thomas tries to bring them closer, his fingertips touching the edge of Richard’s hair, tasting the inside of Richard’s mouth, pressing his lips firmer over Richard’s, feeling the slight scratch of Richard’s chin – absolutely divine.
Then Richard pulls away with a gasp, tipping his forehead against Thomas’. Thomas breathes slowly, his nose pressed into Richard’s cheek. He rubs his thumb over Richard’s neck as Richard's hand lazily threads through Thomas’ hair, no doubt making it stick out at odd angles.
“To hell with it?” Thomas asks quietly.
Richard chuckles. “I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to kiss you.”
Thomas smiles wide, lifting his head to look at Richard’s eyes in the dark. “I can’t say I’m upset about that.”
Richard laughs again. He grips Thomas’ neck and kisses him hard. “I wanted to kiss you as soon as I saw you dancing with that other man.” He kisses Thomas again, stealing Thomas’ breath. “As soon as I had my arms around you to dance.”
“You didn’t have to wait,” Thomas replies boldly.
“Oh, we would have danced a lot less then and I liked dancing with you.”
“We’ll have to do it again.”
Thomas turns his head and kisses Richard lightly. “All of it.”
“We can do one of those things now.”
“You want to dance in the car or out of it?”
Richard’s lips quirk up and Thomas smiles cheekily at him. Richard pulls Thomas close, kissing him even as Thomas begins to laugh. Thomas kisses with abandon, less finesse and more a desire to kiss Richard as much as possible before they are forced to be proper and distant back at Downton Abbey.
“I wish we could stay here,” Thomas whispers through kisses, his fingers scratching through Richard’s hair.
Richard makes a soft noise then moves down to kiss Thomas’ neck, sucking at his pulse point. Thomas has to blink several times to keep himself in check, his mouth gaping.
“You’ll leave a mark,” Thomas finally gasps.
Richard pulls back and kisses Thomas’ lips again. “Why, Mr. Barrow, shouldn’t you have a collar to cover that?”
Thomas sighs at the sound of his name in Richard’s voice. “Say it again.”
“Thomas.” Richard kisses his lips. “Thomas.”
Richard slides one hand slowly down Thomas’ chest over his shirt. He rests his forehead against Thomas’, stopping his hand just above Thomas’ belt. Thomas breathes in slowly through his nose – he knows they shouldn’t, but he also thinks he would not be able to say no, not now.
“Hell…” Richard mutters and slides his hand back up Thomas’ chest instead. “I wish we….”
“I’d want to but we… I mean…. We hardly know each other yet.”
Thomas smiles hesitantly. “You want to know me more?”
“I don’t want just something quick in the front of a borrowed car.”
Thomas swallows. “No?”
Richard gives him a rueful expression. “I want to dance with you again, I want… I want to see you again after this.”
“After you leave for London.”
They sigh together.
Thomas turns his head to gaze out the windscreen. He sees the road to the right of the car leading back to Downton and his responsibilities and position and a train ride south for Richard to a palace and who knows how long apart.
“I wish there weren’t so many people at Downton,” Thomas mutters. He turns back to Richard. “We could chance something at least.”
“In your bed or mine?” Richard asks, his voice turned wanting.
Thomas licks his lips. “Lord, either, better than a car.”
“But we’re in a car now…” Richard says, his fingertips straying over the exposed skin at the top of Thomas’ shirt.
“And alone,” Thomas adds, his own hand sliding around Richard’s side and just under the waistband of his trousers.
Richard breathes in deeply, his voice husky. “I think we’re starting to talk ourselves into something quick in this car.”
They laugh again. Richard makes the smart choice for the both of them, however, and sits back into his seat, hands dragging away over Thomas’ neck and arm. Thomas keeps his one hand in Richard’s hair until he can no longer reach him.
“I like you,” Richard admits, sounding young. “I thought about you all day.”
“I suspect I’ll be thinking about you every day you’re gone,” Thomas admits in return.
Richard’s lips twist. “Is it bad of me to be glad at that?”
Thomas shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”
Richard looks out the window, shifting around to face the steering wheel again. “Right, we best get on or we’ll stay here all night.”
“Is that so bad?” Thomas says, his voice plaintive but he does not try to stop it.
Thomas knows they both have positions to return to, positions they need and value. Yet, much of Thomas still would rather this night not end, that he could turn the car the opposite way and dance with Richard until their legs gave out, kissing him against pillars and asking him every question he can think of to know Richard as well as anyone at Downton, better even. He wants to know Richard better, wants to stay with him longer. He wants to hold Richard’s hand on a walk through his own village. He wants to talk about Richard to Daisy or Andy, tell them about this night, about how gorgeous he finds Richard; about how Richard danced, how Richard chose him. He wants a chance. He wants Richard to stay.
Richard touches Thomas hair, his finger playing over Thomas cheek and a press of his thumb on Thomas’ lip. Then he starts the car. “Let’s go.”
Thomas leans over and kisses Richard again, Richard clutching at his cheek. Then Thomas pulls back onto his side of the car, a grin spread over his face. Richard stares at him a moment longer then looks back through the windscreen, shoving the gear shift, a smile on his face and turns the wheel of the car.
Thomas watches Richard the whole ride back to Downton, Richard’s one hand on the wheel and the other clasped in Thomas’ hand between them.