Remember, Jimmy thought, setting his jaw, and willing the heat that filled him to wait just a few moments more, this is a gift. This is a gift.
The thought was a memory, spoken in his mother's voice- but in these moments Jimmy did not feel gifted- he felt utterly cursed, and lonely as the doomed monster of a fairytale. Overhead a pair of birds swooped through the dimming sky, both coming to alight upon the crumbling ledge of a stone building. The building was long since abandoned- Jimmy wasn't properly sure if he was even on the Crawley family's land. Here, in the far-flung clearing with the trees that crowded thick around it, skeletal with wintertime, Jimmy had made a place that suited his needs. And his needs were... unusual, to say the very least.
Inside the old outbuilding- or- perhaps it had once been a little farmhouse, in the distant past-Jimmy had collected bundles of sticks and dried grass. He had collected them for many months, in case of emergencies. Today had presented such an emergency: Jimmy had nearly kissed Thomas. They had been outside, during an afternoon hour when there was nothing much to do- and Thomas had been entertaining Jimmy with a tale about one of his mad acquaintances from the city, making Jimmy laugh-
Jimmy calculated against the heat in his fingertips and chest, and finally took seven bundles of sticks and three bundles of grass from his makeshift storeroom, bringing them into the clearing. There was a spot of charred earth near the center- a good distance from the building, but still mindfully far from the trees that ringed the open space. There Jimmy piled the bundles into a rough pyramid. The soles of his shoes were ominously warm and flexible- all but sweating at heat that escaped from his body. His temples pounded. Quickly, quickly, Jimmy thought- and he went back to the outbuilding, willing himself not to run. If only, he told himself grimly, if only you weren't such a stupid simpering little fool about Mr. Barrow-
They had been standing in the kitchen yard. Yes. They had been standing in the kitchen yard, and it was Jimmy's half-day, but not Thomas's. Still Thomas had found a moment to slip away and smoke with him- a gesture that Jimmy appreciated. Though not as much as he appreciated the actual company of the man. It went without saying that Thomas's company- especially if you had to choose your company from among staff at Downton- was far superior.
"I might never recover from going to London with you, if your stories are anything to judge by," Jimmy had said. He tried not to flirt with Thomas or be overly familiar- not when things were so- impossible- but the winter light had played so fetchingly over Thomas's face- and when he looked at Jimmy, Jimmy could read the affection in Thomas's eyes that the man tried so plainly to scrub clean from his countenance-
"Well," Thomas had replied, looking away from Jimmy after a protracted moment- "I didn't say I was any fun. That was an acquaintance. I'm rather dull, me."
"You are such a liar," Jimmy retorted- and he watched in satisfaction as Thomas stifled a smirk. "That false modesty fits you about as well as one of Mrs. Patmore's frocks," Jimmy added- and Thomas had given him a look, wicked and sharp and pleased and arrogant, gentle and soft. That stupid bloody look. That stupid bloody look had done him in.
"Can I help it if it's not good manners to go around admitting to my own superiority all of the time?" Thomas asked, loftily- but he was only half-joking, and Jimmy found that charming as well. Thomas thought he was better than everybody. And Thomas was right.
"As long as you don't forget your place, Mr. Barrow," Jimmy put back, trying to keep pace with the banter. He didn't banter as well as Thomas, maybe, but Thomas's proximity had the effect of sharpening his wit. As well as his other senses.
"My place?" Thomas asked, rolling his eyes- probably assuming Jimmy meant in service, or something approximate.
"Right behind me," Jimmy said- and Thomas looked surprised- and then laughed. But Thomas's laughter had an undercurrent of- something- to it- and after a pause Jimmy realized the double entendre of his words.
"Shite- I didn't mean-" Jimmy said, and Thomas laughed harder.
"I just meant because I'm so superior to you, and- oh, bugger all," Jimmy muttered, feeling his neck flush. That, in retrospect, should have been a warning. Jimmy knew by now to be on guard, to watch for the heat rising in his body- not in some metaphorical sense. Not in a sexual sense. But he had to watch the heat. It was important. He had ignored it, though, chalked it up to garden-variety embarrassment- in the pleasure of teasing Thomas and being teased by him-
Thomas's laughter had trailed into a loosely connected string of chuckles, and he threw his cigarette across the gravel- so that he could blow into his cupped hands, to warm them. About a month previous, Thomas had decided the scar from his war-wounded hand was sufficiently diminished, and had stopped wearing his glove. Indeed, however terrible the scar might've once been, it was palatable now, even for the delicate sensibilities of the upper class- all that remained was a sizeable indent near the center of his palm. Half of his hand looked a bit like- like wrinkled linen- but that had gotten better, too, as time passed and Thomas let his long-covered skin be touched the sun.
Jimmy found it singularly distracting, though. The line from where the glove once was showed a patch of pallid flesh, as distinct as if he had sunbathed in skivvies only. It was like seeing Thomas naked.
"Ah," Thomas said, at Jimmy's sudden silence. "I know you didn't mean it like that-"
"I know you know," Jimmy said- he said it brusquely, trying to cover his smile. Just- it gave him a little pleasure to watch Thomas twist on the hook. Just a little. It was the closest they would ever get to intimacy, so why shouldn't he savor it?
Jimmy lit a second cigarette. Thomas's eyes drifted to the house behind them, calculating time and duties, probably- and then he lit another, as well. There was a beat of awkward silence, and then Thomas started in on a new story, undoubtedly embellished for Jimmy's enjoyment, but Jimmy didn't listen- he looked at Thomas's naked hand.
His naked hand. The rest of him. The months of moments spent alone. The dreams that Jimmy woke from, hard and with his bedsheets burnt at the edges. Jimmy felt his cheeks get warm- and that, that should have been warning enough, but Jimmy was stupid and overconfident, always had been. He ignored the heat.
"Mr. Barrow," Jimmy said, interrupting the flow of Thomas's tale.
"-And then of course, fool that he is, he said- uh... yes?" Thomas asked, pausing in the middle of a sentence- about what, Jimmy frankly had no idea.
Jimmy made eye contact with Thomas, and cleared his throat. If, Jimmy mused, he had not at that point already been in trouble, he would have certainly gotten into it. He held Thomas's gaze for too long, that had been part of the problem- it was because of that stupid wealth of emotion on Thomas's face- irritation at being interrupted, intrigue over what Jimmy would say next, veiled affection, and some particular kind of impatience that Thomas always seemed afflicted with. Too many emotions. It was possible, Jimmy admitted to himself, that he was imagining all of that subtlety and nuance, whenever he looked at Thomas's face... that Thomas was just- you know- looking at him, perfectly normally. But Jimmy doubted it. He hadn't ever been terribly imaginative.
"Jimmy?" Thomas prompted, when Jimmy made no move to speak.
"You're..." Jimmy reached the fingertips of his cigarette-less hand out- why in the name of God had he reached his fingertips out?- and watched as Thomas's brows made for his hairline.
"Ah-" Thomas said, looking between Jimmy's outstretched hand and his face as if the answer to Jimmy's strangeness would be written on one or both.
"You're really top-tier, you know," Jimmy said. His words came out low and uncertain. Jimmy recalled that his heart had been savagely pounding in his chest at this point, and he had noted his skin prickling in warning because the heat the heat had risen up through his veins and through his fingertips and to the very tips of his hair and down into his toes and still Jimmy had not paid attention, because he was-
Appalled. By how stupid that had sounded. You're very top-tier? Really? Jimmy asked himself. That's a good one, Jimmy, that's on par with 'the moon is as bright as a lightbulb', your way with words is as dead as last night's dinner-
"Huh. Well, you're, uh... very top-tier yourself," Thomas said, looking bewildered. He stared at Jimmy's floating hand as if he could make it go away.
"No," Jimmy said- and he took a step towards Thomas- who- having years previous learned the lesson that he should never touch Jimmy- backed a step away.
"Jimmy," Thomas said, as Jimmy took another step forward- and another, until Thomas was against the wall- "What are you doin'-"
But Jimmy had reached out, with his body shaking and with the arm that he had kept suspended in the air- his chest came into abrupt contact with Thomas's chest, and it felt so good, even just that little bit of human contact after so long, that Jimmy wanted to cry. He looked up into Thomas's face- and brought his questing arm in- with the index finger of his left hand he had traced Thomas's upper lip, as if he were pressing a kiss to it.
For an instant Thomas's eyes had gone very wide and he had stood motionless, as if transfixed- but then he had yelped, an actual cry of surprised pain, and flinched back from Jimmy's touch- and only then did Jimmy feel how hot, how accursedly, familiarly, awfully hot his hands were- and how close he was to starting a fire. The air around them shimmered, as if it wasn't a frigid winter's afternoon.
"Ow, what the hell did'ya do that for," Thomas said, sounding angry- but Jimmy did not look at him- he had turned heel and fled, as fast as his legs would carry him, pulling himself and his wall of heat away from Thomas, keeping Thomas safe. Jimmy stumbled through the forest, pushed on by long fingers of panic, for many minutes. The heat that he had unwittingly conjured up pressed out around him, looking for an escape.
Jimmy ran for the clearing, and when he stopped running his cigarette had burned down to nothing and he held a little ember- the filter of it- still redhot and licking with tiny flames, between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
In the clearing Jimmy discarded the ember, which burned against his heated skin without burning him at all, onto the patch of charred earth where he would make his fire- and it went out abruptly, ending the half-life it had stolen from Jimmy's fingertips.
Remember that this is a gift, Jimmy thought, in his mother's voice. Remember, darling, that you are very special, Jimmy heard her say- and he wanted to cry.
After he prepared the area for his fire, Jimmy went back to the old outbuilding and stripped his clothes off as quickly as he was able. One of the buttons on his coat came ripping off, and rolled away over the ground. Doesn't matter, I'll fix it tonight, Jimmy thought, and he shrugged off braces and kicked off shoes and ripped away sock garters and tugged trousers and pants down and didn't fold a damned thing. There was not one moment to spare, and he strode unclothed and with brisk determination, out of the building.
God yes, fire, the fire god yes, alright, yes, Jimmy thought- his hands were trembling in anticipation, and his heart thudded dryly as the back of his throat- he did not feel the bite of the winter air as he made for his pyramid of sticks and grass-
And then, a meter away from blessed relief, Jimmy halted. Thomas was standing on the edge of the clearing, looking at Jimmy as if he had utterly lost his mind. He sported a burn on his upper lip that had already begun to blister, just where Jimmy's index finger had been.
"No, not now," Jimmy hissed, through his teeth. Thomas had glanced down, Jimmy saw, taking in Jimmy's nudity- but now he looked up, as if he'd been caught at something. For a moment Jimmy thought Thomas's eyes were wide with fright, or concern- but then Thomas squinted, and his look became a compromise of agitation and accusation.
"Have you been drinking?" Thomas asked, narrowing his eyes. His tone was dangerous.
Jimmy balked, thrown off kilter by the accusatory stare.
"Uh- no, I-"
"You put out your cigarette on my face," Thomas said.
"Wha- no, no, I didn't," Jimmy said, desperately. For an instant, in his surprise, Jimmy had forgotten his awful need, but now it came flooding back, and worse than ever. Thomas was still three meters away but he could surely feel the warmth, Jimmy thought, frantically. He had to get Thomas to go away-
"You certainly did," Thomas hissed, advancing on him, pointing at his own face. "How d'ya think I got this?"
"My cigarette was in my right hand," Jimmy said, weakly. "Thomas- Mr. Barrow, go away-"
"What the hell are you doin' out here? Why are you starkers? Where are your clothes? Have you gone raving mad?"
Thomas was very close to Jimmy now. There was no way he couldn't feel the change in the air- and Jimmy registered that Thomas did, suddenly- Thomas looked back and forth, breaking off in the middle of his tirade.
"What is-" Thomas began- but Jimmy gasped. Thomas hadn't noticed it yet, but the cuffs and shoulders of his heavy winter coat had begun to smoke. Sweat beaded on Thomas's forehead- and Jimmy watched one droplet crawl down his nose.
"Why is it so bloody hot?" Thomas asked, in a different tone of voice.
Jimmy seized Thomas by the shoulders, feeling the wool singe under his touch, and shoved Thomas as far from him as he could manage.
"Stay back," Jimmy said. "Don't come near me! Get away, you have to go-"
Now Thomas looked afraid- not of Jimmy, as he properly should, but for him.
"No, no, no," Jimmy moaned, when Thomas took a step towards him again. "Thomas please go away I have to I need you to go away-"
"Jimmy, what is happening-" Thomas began- but Jimmy bent away from him, the heat pouring through his body and through his mind and thoughts and heart and for fuck's sake if he didn't let it out it was going to come out and then he would hurt Thomas he would hurt him and he couldn't and he had to-
"Ahhhhhhh," Jimmy ground out- and he stumbled two steps backwards, towards the stick-pyramid- and threw his hands out- and pushed the heat, with all of his might, willing it away from his body and away from the vulnerable body of the man behind him-
The heat crackled through Jimmy in a roar- for a moment, as always, he thought that he would die, that it was impossible to feel this way and not die- and then the terrible warmth was gone, shimmering in the air as it passed. Yellow-blue flames burst from the pile of sticks as if it'd been doused with petrol and had a match tossed at it- no, it burned faster than that- the fire was a single point of light, a spire, so high and hot and intense that it seemed to reach higher than the treetops. As the fire grew the painful ache behind Jimmy's eyes ebbed, and he slumped to his knees. His bare legs pressed against the cold earth- he could feel, once again, that it was cold- and he wanted to stretch out fully naked on the ground, and let the blissful chill of it saturate his entire being. And weep in relief and terror at how close that had been, he hadn't had such a close call since the horrible thing that had happened in the war-
"What in bloody hell," Thomas said, from behind him, "Was that?"
"Heh. I- well. I Heh. Ha...haha," Jimmy intoned, laughing faintly. He kept his head bowed, even as the flames died down. The fire in front of him was simple, pure and less complicated than human beings. Fire wanted to live, like everything did, and it would do whatever it took to keep on living. But that was all. People were such a terrible tangle of logic and emotion.
"How did you get that fire to go so high?" Thomas asked. He sounded suspicious, now- and Jimmy knew that Thomas was rationalizing what he'd seen to himself. It was only natural.
"I didn't even see you light it," Thomas muttered, half to himself. "Why... why are you out here practicing at being an arsonist?"
"Turn your back, I'm getting up," Jimmy said. His voice sounded dry and whispery to his own ears.
"Tell me how you did that," Thomas said. His voice had a note of uncertainty to it- as if Thomas had not quite succeeded in making himself believe his own rationalizations.
"Let me... get dressed first," Jimmy said. His legs felt unsteady under him- and when he glanced back, he saw that Thomas had indeed turned around, and was facing the treeline. That shouldn't have made Jimmy's heart twist, in unarticulated tenderness- but it did, and he went quickly to the outbuilding, lest the fire find him once more.
"I have to go back to work," Thomas said, when Jimmy emerged from the building. The sole of one of Jimmy's shoes had partially melted, and he walked with a slightly uneven gait, grateful that it was his half-day and he had dressed in his regular suit instead of his livery.
"I didn't put my cigarette out on your face," Jimmy said quietly. He passed the fire- it was all ashes now, with a few embers trying to cling on to life.
"Yes. About that," Thomas said. Jimmy fell into step next to him, heading back to Downton. He could not bring himself to meet Thomas's eyes, but he could feel that Thomas was looking at him.
"It couldn't have been," Thomas said, slowly. Carefully. Jimmy could hear him choosing his words. "It... it couldn't have been so, but it looked- it looked like you started that fire with your hands. Just your hands."
"Not with just my hands," Jimmy whispered. Now that the fire within him had been banked he was trembling, and he shoved his shaky hands deep into his pockets.
"With my whole body," Jimmy said. "With my mind, too."
It felt so frightening to say it, after all of these years of silence- he hadn't spoken of it with anybody since his mother had died- and he waited for Thomas to reply, not breathing. There- it was out. Thomas would call him mad or something- and never speak to him again. Or worse still, tell other people.
Thomas paused- and gripped Jimmy's shoulder, turning him so that Jimmy was forced to look into his face. Thomas touching him when it was not an absolute necessity was an event that hadn't occurred for a long time, and Jimmy felt his heart kick up a notch, but he fought down the feeling. No more bloody feelings today, Jimmy told himself. You've had your fill, and look what it got you.
"Well." Thomas said, when they were facing eachother- he withdrew his hand from Jimmy's shoulder and reached into his own pocket. "That's a very hard thing to believe."
"Of course it is," Jimmy said, dropping his eyes. "I know that."
When he looked up again, Thomas had a cigarette to his mouth- angled away from the burn on his upper lip- and he was looking at Jimmy with an expectant expression.
"Got a light?" Thomas asked.
"Uh. Yes-" Jimmy said. He half-reached for his lighter before he realized that Thomas was- politely- demanding proof.
Jimmy lifted up the same finger that he had burned Thomas with- but to his credit Thomas did not flinch back, only calmly stood, his face a little apprehensive and a little skeptical, as Jimmy touched the tip of the cigarette. Jimmy brought forth just a little heat- it was tamped down, and easy to control, for the time being. Just a little- and Thomas's cigarette flared to life. Thomas inhaled immediately, and brought a hand to his lips.
Jimmy stayed silent while Thomas held the cigarette up, examining it. Then Thomas exhaled, shakily, and looked into Jimmy's eyes. Jimmy expected, fear, revulsion even- but Thomas's mouth quirked up, and his eyes were wide. When he spoke to Jimmy, it wasn't as an enemy- but as he always spoke. Like a co-conspirator.
"I'm going to have to see that trick a lot more before I even begin to believe you," Thomas said, evenly. He started walking towards Downton again.
"You're going to be appallingly late. We should run," Jimmy said, looking over at Thomas. Suddenly he felt shy. It had been a rather revealing scene Thomas had caught him at- in every sense of the word.
Thomas waved his hand in the air, sending ashes in every direction except for his own.
"I'll just tell Mr. Carson I burned my face on a cigarette," Thomas said, indicating his lip. "He'll forgive me. Well, maybe not forgive me, but-"
"Don't you- don't you want to ask me anything about it?" Jimmy asked, in a rush. He bit his lip, hoping he hadn't sounded pathetic. It was rough to keep the balance when it came to Thomas. He wanted to open up to Thomas, divulge secrets as some sort of- token, or something- he wanted to- to-
"O'course I do, are you daft?" Thomas answered. "An' I will. But not right now. Tonight."
Jimmy nodded, and then smiled. "Tonight it is, Mr. Barrow." For a moment they walked in silence, and Jimmy watched the shapes his breath made in the air.
"It's bloody freezing," Thomas said- and he rubbed his free hand against his coat.
"Here," Jimmy said- what wild impulse had suddenly caught hold of him he could not imagine- but he reached out, and gripped Thomas's hand. Jimmy let a touch of warmth- rightly more warmth than anybody's body should be able to produce- seep through his palm and fingers, and he squeezed Thomas's fingers between his own.
"Mmph," Thomas said.
"What?" Jimmy asked, hurriedly withdrawing his hand.
"You burned my coat," Thomas said, as if he'd only just noticed what Jimmy had done to his outerwear in the clearing.
Jimmy turned to apologize, chagrined- but when he looked at Thomas, Thomas was red-cheeked and smiling. He flexed the fingers of the hand Jimmy had warmed.
For a moment Jimmy felt so carefree- even though his life was bizarre and horrible and his work degrading and his time off far too infrequent- that he started to hum a song.
"Dah dah duh... I know you knowww, dearest, and I know you know I knowww, darling- that I love the girl with the cards-"
"Ech, your magical powers don't extend to holding a tune, though," Thomas said, with faux-disdain- and Jimmy snorted, and tried to elbow him in the ribs, but Thomas sidestepped him.
"Tell me that story you were telling me earlier," Jimmy said.
"Oh. Where was I? Right... so then he said, 'I never have done any of those sorts of holidays', the liar- and I said-"
Jimmy gave Thomas his full attention this time. When Downton came into view, he was laughing at the story that Thomas so elaborately told.
It was late, and Thomas was interrogating him. Or at least that's what it felt like. After Jimmy had split off from Thomas in the kitchen yard (Thomas had jogged off, burned face and all, to take whatever punishment Carson was in the disposition to offer), Jimmy had gone to the pub and picked at a meal. Drinking felt more natural than eating, because he was nervous about whatever Thomas was going to ask him.
The nervousness only grew into a dreamlike agony of trepidation as Jimmy has walked home. It was very late, and a large part of Jimmy hoped that Thomas had given up and taken himself to bed. Another, smaller, part of him- the part that desperately needed a confidant- was relieved when he saw Thomas, alone, in the dim servants hall, reading the newspaper with an air of definite expectation.
Thomas had begun without preamble, motioning for Jimmy to sit- and then Thomas had risen and left the room, leaving Jimmy half-tipsy and confused. Before he could stand, though, Thomas was back- with a box of half-burned taper candles that were no longer suitable for the dining room.
"Alright," Thomas said- and he drew a candle from the box without taking his eyes from Jimmy's face. "Do it again."
Jimmy looked behind himself. "I don't think-"
"Never you fear," Thomas said. "They're all asleep."
Jimmy was going to protest, but instead he gazed at Thomas's eyes, so difficult to read, and his lips- easier to read, and topped with the burn from Jimmy's finger. So stupid, tried to touch him, Jimmy thought- and that decided him. He took a shaky breath, and reached his hand out. "Give it here."
"No," Thomas said. His tone was businesslike, but his mouth revealed amusement. Eagerness. Jimmy thought Thomas might be all but dead of curiosity. "Y'could do some sort of sleight- sleight of hand or somethin'. That way. I'll hold it."
"Fine," Jimmy said. Thomas's suspicion didn't hurt- it was Thomas, after all, the most suspicious man that Jimmy had ever met. Except maybe for Mr. Carson. Both of them always waiting for someone to do something wrong. Or perhaps Thomas was waiting for someone to do him some personal wrong, and Carson was only waiting for general wrongness, but still it was a similar quality and Jimmy thought he should give Thomas grief over it at some point-
"Quit stalling," Thomas said, waggling the candle- and Jimmy huffed out a breath, and dragged his chair closer.
"Fine," Jimmy whispered- and he conjured up his fire, his fire, which had been a bit out of control earlier and which he hated and feared but also loved and cherished, because it was a part of him- and brought a fingertip to the wick of the candle Thomas held. Fire bloomed from the tip, the flame a satisfying yellow, as if to say Hello, I am here.
"Ah," Thomas said, letting out his breath in a whoosh. Jimmy looked at at him, anxiously, but Thomas was smiling, his face lit by the gold of the flame.
Thomas blew out the candle, setting it on the table, and then pulled three more from the box.
"Now these," Thomas said. Jimmy leaned forward, feeling a bizarre sensation- almost like pride at his ungodly abilities- suffuse him. The feeling was brought about the the way Thomas looked at him, as if he were the most interesting, the most spectacular marvel in all creation. Thomas had looked at him that way before. But he hadn't known was Jimmy was then- and now he did. And still, that look.
Jimmy's chest brushed against Thomas's arm, but he didn't flinch back- for time being, he wasn't a danger to Thomas. He blew carefully on the candles- a trick his mother had loved to do, as far back as he could remember- and they flickered into life, one after another.
"My god," Thomas said- a trifle shakily, now his feelings betrayed him- looking between Jimmy and the candles- and Jimmy couldn't help but smile.
"No, Mr. Barrow, only me, though I do appreciate it," Jimmy said. Thomas rolled his eyes, but his look of wonderment didn't vanish.
Thomas seemed to be satisfied by the demonstration, and then he began to interrogate Jimmy in earnest.
"How long have you been able to do this for?"
"My whole life," Jimmy said, leaning away. "It got a lot stronger when I got older." Thirteen had not been the greatest of ages for Jimmy- fires had sprung up in his house without warning, sometimes as he slept. It was a difficult time, with everyone on edge- his father had said it was causing his hair to turn silver prematurely, and his mother had been forever lamenting the state of the singed draperies and bedclothes-
"How do you do it?"
"I don't have the faintest idea. It's part of me- like a part of my mind- an'- sometimes- most of the time I can control it- but sometimes it gets so... big... that I have to let it out. Or else it will-" Jimmy shivered, not meaning to, and lit another candle without thinking when Thomas held it up.
"Or else it will get out," Jimmy added, watching Thomas extinguish the candle.
"Have you ever known anyone else who could do it?"
Jimmy nodded. "O'course. My mum. She didn't have it quite as... strongly as I did, though. I think my father was hoping I wouldn't be afflicted by it, but there it was."
"And anyone else?"
"My mum said my Granny had it, but I never met her," Jimmy answered. When Thomas pulled out a cigarette Jimmy lit it for him without thinking, with his fingertip. Thomas blinked, and then nodded appreciatively.
"How is it that you can light my fag but not light my face at the same time?" Thomas asked, taking a long, delicious-looking inhale that prompted Jimmy to hunt about for his own cigarettes.
"I can aim," Jimmy said. "Especially when I have it under control. It gets touchy when I... when I don't." He found a cigarette and lit that one with his fingertip too, flourishing a bit, because Thomas looked so intrigued.
"Today it got out of control. That's what the whole strange business- that's what that was all about, right?" Thomas asked, and Jimmy nodded, unable to look at him.
"And this, too?" Thomas asked, indicating the burn on his own face. Jimmy was forced to nod again, even more shamefacedly than before.
"Hmm. And what makes it get out of control?" Thomas asked- and Jimmy gulped, seeing what Thomas had been aiming at. Thomas looked like a cat with his claws around a mouse- his eyes gleamed in victory .
You awful clever bastard, Jimmy thought without malice. He could muster no anger for Thomas, only chagrin at his own failings.
"I... dunno," Jimmy said, ducking his head, He could feel his cheeks burning- not with the fire, just with ordinary garden-variety embarrassment- and he kept his gaze on the table.
"Liar," Thomas said- he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. When Jimmy dared to look up, Thomas's self-assured smile had grown even wider than it usually did when he was feeling triumphant.
"You. Are. A. Liar," Thomas said, flicking his cigarette into the ashtray with ease. "I think after you burned my very fine coat, I deserve a complete explanation."
Jimmy gritted his teeth. "It's to do with feeling. That's why I was so angry with you when you snuck into my room an'... kissed me- you weren't just out of bounds, you know- you could've gotten yourself burned to death. I was angry and that was dangerous for you- because-" Jimmy paused, trying to be coherent and not give too much away. "Because it's to do with feeling. The fire is. The fire's brought on by too much... feeling."
Each time you put your hands upon me I was so angry with you for being such a fool, for touching me even though it could have spelled your doom, you silly, too-forward, sentimental man-
Thomas cocked his head to the side. "With feeling what?"
"With emotions," Jimmy said, quietly- he managed to look up enough to see how Thomas's face went all soft and sweet when he said that. Jimmy prepared himself for the next thing, the inevitable questions: What were so feeling so strongly in the kitchen yard? Why did you try to touch me? What do you feel for me, Jimmy?
But they didn't come. Thomas instead rocked backward, a little- and then frowned when the chair didn't move- he stood up, and relocated to the rocking chair, while Jimmy waited in suspense. When Thomas was comfortable- he pinned Jimmy with his eyes. Again.
"Is that why you and Ivy couldn't make a go of it? Did'ya... set fire to her hair or somethin'?"
"No," Jimmy said, exasperated. "Ivy was perfect, she was safe, because I didn't feel a thing for her. Very safe. Safe for me and for her. I'll never be able to do- those sorts of- uh- things- with someone I really care for, because- strong things- things like love and fear-" Jimmy broke off abruptly, but he could see that it was already too late. He had given Thomas too much.
"Things like love and fear..." Thomas prompted, but Jimmy only huffed, and crossed his arms defensively over himself. His pulse was racing. Don't, Thomas, he begged internally. Don't don't don't don't don't-
"Are y'scared of me, Jimmy?" Thomas asked. he had made his face very solemn, but Jimmy could see the falsehood of it- Thomas was struggling not to grin.
"Obviously not," Jimmy said, stiffly. "But don't go thinking that I-"
"What on earth are you two still doing awake?" Carson intoned, from the door, and Jimmy flinched in his seat.
"We were just heading up, Mr. Carson," Thomas said, rising to his feet, and summarily sweeping the used candles back into the box. "Jimmy got in a bit late and I wanted to lock up after him."
Carson growled something about the lateness of the hour, and swept away- in his nightclothes, no less- to shut himself up in his office, undoubtedly for some dire reason or another. Thomas put away the candles and bolted the door- and he walked in front of Jimmy, up the stairs.
Upstairs, Jimmy lingered anxiously at the entrance to Thomas's room.
"You can't ever tell anyone," Jimmy said. "Never. It'd be a terrible thing for me- I'd- I'd be locked away for study or somethin', or because I was a danger to others- please, Mr. Barrow, you can't-"
"I wouldn't ever tell," Thomas whispered back, leaning against the doorframe. Jimmy could just catch a glimpse of Thomas's room, over the man's shoulder. It looked bizarrely inviting.
"And I know what it's like to have to keep parts of yourself a secret from everybody," Thomas added, significantly. Jimmy swallowed against the tightness in his throat, feeling uncomfortable.
"Thank you," Jimmy said- it didn't seem like enough to say, but it was all he had.
"But it seems to me," Thomas said, even more quietly, "-that you need to work on your... control. Or somethin'. You can't ever be with anyone you love, or else you'd burn them- but it wasn't that way for your mum, was it?"
"No," Jimmy whispered. "It weren't. But I've always had it stronger than she- and I, uh, before I got to ask her about any of that... delicate sort of stuff she- she died and father had already died so I hadn't anyone left to ask-"
Thomas had a sad expression on his face- Jimmy could see that, despite the slim amount of ambient light in the hall- and Jimmy itched to slap him. He didn't want sympathy- he wanted Thomas to think him strong and brave, not weak and alone-
But then Thomas leaned forward and Jimmy saw that he had utterly misread Thomas- he wasn't sad at all- his expression- the thinning of his lovely lips- was determination.
"I'll help you," Thomas said, so close to Jimmy's ear that Jimmy felt his skin prickle. "It's bound to be the sort of thing that's improved by practice," Thomas added, a laugh in his voice. "Yes?"
"I- ah-" Jimmy tried to make reply, but he could smell Thomas's pomade and it made his heart speed up and his nerves fray- he had lost all control in the courtyard earlier, because he was a mess when it came to Thomas, he was a fool and a disaster for Thomas-
"I think I can help," Thomas murmured- and then Jimmy felt very soft lips against his cheek. Oh, yes- he felt that because Thomas had kissed his face- and dimly, in his shock, Jimmy registered the scrape of Thomas's stubbled jaw against his face as Thomas leaned back.
"Uh," Jimmy managed. The fire inside of him surged up, for a moment, heating his chest awfully- but he forced it back- it wasn't uncontrollable, not after he had let it out only hours before. Not over just a little kiss on the cheek, Jimmy told himself, very sternly. Calm yourself.
"We'll have to practice," Thomas said. He looked a little worried, like Jimmy would begin shouting at him- and a little wry, like a cardsharp who had played a winning hand.
"R-right," Jimmy said. He backed away from Thomas, still looking at him, an grasped for the handle of his own bedroom door. "Goodnight, Mr. Barrow," Jimmy muttered- his voice sounded low and ruined- and when he heard Carson's heavy tread upon the stair, he and Thomas both vanished into their rooms, quicker than anything.
This is a gift, Jimmy thought, as he lay upon his narrow and less-than-comfortable bed, his heart beating wildly. His mind was filled with fire and with the sensation of Thomas's lips, his stubbled cheek, the burn that ornamented his red mouth.
If I were normal I still wouldn't be normal, Jimmy thought. Because I would be in love with him. But I'm not normal and I cannot be in love with him because I can't- we can never-
If he hadn't actually cared about Thomas, it would've been alright. The kiss wouldn't have made the heat lick at his chest and his palms and his heart and his foolish mind because it would've been- nothing more than an exercise, like masturbation, or cricket. The only risk would've been getting caught, but Jimmy was certain he was subtler than Thomas and he could have kept things careful. Just a simple one-off. Maybe many one-offs- he and Thomas- but now it was so loaded down with emotions that Jimmy could never have anything with Thomas. Because he was so fraught with stupid love.
Practice, Thomas said- and Jimmy shivered at the implicit promise of that deliberately spoken word. Not to have to be alone and celibate, only Jimmy with his fire- to be with Thomas- to be loved and to not have it wound or kill the object of his love- to have it be safe-
Wouldn't that be grand, Jimmy thought, tiredly. Though he was exhausted he couldn't sleep, and he found a book of matches in the top drawer of his bureau and lit them with his breath, blowing on one after another until they had each blazed into life and blazed out again. Jimmy felt fissures of arousal in his body, but if he did anything so close to the illicit hallway-kiss there was a chance that his emotions might run away with him, so he settled for splashing cold water on himself and hiding under his quilt.
I love you, Thomas whispered in Jimmy's ear, a fantasy Thomas who could control the flames, or who wasn't burned by them. Jimmy dreamed of him, and later of his mother, lighting the Christmas fire in the hearth with only her own pretty fingertips, and of his father, looking on with the amazed expression that he had never quite gotten rid of. Jimmy found that to be be quite the ideal: to be so loved that you were looked at like a miracle, a phenomenon, the sublime creation of a graceful and benevolent God.
He dreamed of Thomas looking at him with his own particular look- masked surprise, hidden affection, focused curiosity- and that was as loving as anything else. Something to build a kingdom on.
Finally Jimmy dreamed of the horrible thing he had done in the war. The dream went on and on, he tried to wake himself- but it was too strong, and he was caught by it until the reprieve of his morning alarm.
"You know I think I have a bit of your ability myself," Thomas whispered to Jimmy the next afternoon. They had stolen away to smoke- it was the first chance they'd had to speak to one another all day.
Jimmy looked at Thomas incredulously, his mouth twisting. "Hm? What?"
"Only I..." Thomas said, smothering a smile. "Only I've noticed that... that whenever I get to crying, it rains."
There- that was the look he had been trying to earn from Jimmy- Jimmy was smiling, a little. He hit the shoulder of Thomas's- now ruined- winter coat without real malice.
"Everyone gets sad when it rains, that's no ability," Jimmy said, pursing his lips.
"I don't kno-ow," Thomas said, dragging out the word into a singsong. "I recall years ago weepin' about you and your lack of love and my imminent unemployment and a terrible rain beginning to fall o'er my poor head-"
"You arse," Jimmy muttered- he hit Thomas's shoulder again, a smile playing about his mouth.
Jimmy looked better today- he had slept, as far as Thomas could tell- and he wasn't a shaking, red-faced mess, and he hadn't lit Thomas- or anyhing else- afire. So that was an improvement. Thomas himself hadn't slept- the twin revelations that magic was real and that Jimmy loved him had kept him very, very far from any kind of universe where he could have gotten shut-eye.
Sometime near dawn Thomas had come to the conclusion that Jimmy was simply using a part of his brain that other people didn't have access to, for whatever reason. It was an intellectual abnormality, passed from Jimmy's mother ancestors on down, and Jimmy was an unfortunate victim of both a unique inheritance and a society that was disinclined to accept any differences. Thomas could empathize. Thus, science had won over magic- and it was a little easier for Thomas to calm his thoughts.
Thomas was proud of himself- very terribly proud- of his conduct the previous day. His hands had not trembled- well, not much- and he had not run or screamed or fainted or been reduced to gibbering lunacy. Any sign of terror, Thomas thought, would have wounded Jimmy gravely, or else made him disinclined to confide in Thomas. He could see that Jimmy was frightened himself, though he'd supposedly had his... his powers for all his life. Thomas focused on that- on Jimmy's fear and anxiety over discovery, and the fact that it was really only Jimmy, after all, Jimmy, whom Thomas knew and loved. That was easier than thinking of a man who could probably kill you with a thought, or burn down a village in a fit of ill-temper, with nothing to light the inferno but his own mind. So Thomas thought of Jimmy, and how he wasn't remotely scared of Jimmy- he only loved him, and always had. He would be very strong and calm and collected, for Jimmy's benefit.
"And nonchalant," Thomas had told himself, firmly, in the mirror. With his eyebrow raised and finger pointing, Thomas thought, with surprise, that his reflection looked very much like his own father. "Don't treat him any differently."
Thomas was aware of the humor in the situation. Jimmy had probably once gone through a similar chain of feeling over Thomas, when he had finally dropped his grudge and agreed to be Thomas's friend. Trying to treat him normally, even though Thomas was... different- and to not mention the Large Strange Thing about Thomas that must never be spoken of.
I'll do you better than that, Thomas vowed. He loved Jimmy but still could not resist the opportunity to show him up, by demonstrating his own superior ability to remain calm in odd circumstances. I'll talk about your fire all the time. I'll help you work it out. It's worth it, even to put myself in danger, if I get you at the end. Thomas had been a hero for Jimmy before, and though he normally disdained fools who threw themselves into harm's way, there was something weirdly exhilirating about being brave for Jimmy. It had won him Jimmy's friendship after the Ripon fair- and then, apparently, at some point Thomas's considerable charms of personality had won him Jimmy's heart. Thomas had no idea exactly when- but that didn't make it any less thrilling. Jimmy had fallen in love with Thomas and Thomas hadn't even been trying to make him.
I love you too, Thomas thought, happily remembering the kiss. He had a weird feeling in his stomach, like when he had been a child and the boy he fancied at school was all he could think about. After class Thomas would rush down the street ahead of the object of his affections- his name, at the moment, escaped Thomas- and hide behind the shrubs to throw mud balls at the boy when he passed by with his friends.
This felt like throwing mud all over again, only Thomas probably wasn't going to be chased and pummeled by angry, mud-covered students. So Thomas loved Jimmy, and Jimmy could start fires. But then anybody- or anybody who wasn't upper-class- with an ounce of skill could start a fire. Thus Thomas made a shaky sort of peace with Jimmy's strange ability.
But there was still the revelation that Jimmy had feelings for him, feelings so profound that they were dangerous, so profound that Jimmy had attempted to caress his face in the kitchen-yard. For a long time Thomas had been wary of- and bewildered by- the increasing frequency of borderline-inappropriate affection that Jimmy showed him. In one fell swoop- granted, a swoop that Thomas could scarcely have imagined- it all made sense. Jimmy had been falling in love with him and Jimmy had been terrified of the implications of that- or of his own loss of control. Take away the whole fire-conjuring thing and it was the oldest story in the world: succumbing to forbidden love.
Thomas had formed a plan. He was a good planner, he thought, even if sometimes his plans were not successful- and he prided himself on his ability to take action in the face of shifting circumstance. In fact the only person he'd ever known who was better than him for a plan was Miss O'Brien. Maybe I'll write to her, Thomas thought, let bygones be bygones and then casually ask her if she's met any fire-eaters down there-
"You want to go for a walk this evening?" Jimmy asked- and Thomas pulled himself from his thoughts, and nodded. Jimmy was looking at Thomas's left hand, and Thomas turned it upwards self consciously, tilting it into the cold winter light.
"Is it really still so bad? When I showed it to Carson he said it was healed enough that I didn't need to keep it hidden upstairs if I didn't want to," Thomas said, squinting his eyes at the scar appraisingly. No, not nearly as ugly as it had once been.
"No," Jimmy said, in a very low tone. "It looks..."
Jimmy didn't say any more, but he ran his index finger surreptitiously along Thomas's palm, making Thomas take a breath in surprise. Jimmy's finger felt unbearably hot- and it conjured up intimacy, desire- but then Jimmy took a shaky breath, and pulled his finger away.
"Try not to get too emotional about me," Thomas said- and Jimmy huffed.
"I- I wasn't-" Jimmy said, in the tones of a liar.
But Thomas thought that Jimmy was too emotional about him, that perhaps he had just narrowly avoided suffering another burn. A love-burn, Thomas decided. Through his daily work Thomas felt- well, he felt lighter than air, to be honest, and more than a little pleased with himself. In love and co-conspiracy he caught Jimmy's eye during one of Carson's gruff (and daily) proclamations about how the world was, basically, going to hell- though Carson used phrases like 'changing times' and 'modern' instead of 'hellfire' and damnation', it was surely the same sentiment. Thomas caught Jimmy's eye again when some member of the family- (Lady Rose? Lord Grantham? Perhaps both-) was particularly obtuse at a meal, and again, and again, until it felt as if there were naught in all the world but the pair of them. It had felt that way for a while, Thomas allowed- but now- but now-
Thomas thought of soppy gifts that he could give Jimmy, things he'd seen various shops, from the village to Ripon- a lovely pewter pocketwatch, a volume of popular poetry that Jimmy would scoff at, prettily bound in blue- new sheet music with the most modern songs- an illustrated edition of Eliot's Prufrock, with funny drawings of mermaids and footmen around the margins. Round-rimmed specs with dark-tinted glass in fantastical colors because Jimmy was always squinting at the sun when they smoked outdoors. There was a beautiful silver cigarette case Thomas had seen and wanted for himself, swirling lines and a very modern look- he could get it for Jimmy, now that Jimmy smoked, and have it engraved with JK on the outside and Love Always, TB on the inside- or maybe just Love Always, T, for an extra measure of caution-
"What on earth has put you in such a good mood?" Mrs. Patmore inquired- and Thomas realized, with a start, that he and his fantasies had lingered by the entrance to the kitchen.
"This weather, Mrs. Patmore," Thomas said, aiming for a rude tone and htting his mark. "You know, spring, when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of- love-"
"But it's winter!" Mrs. Patmore said, with exasperation- but Thomas was already leaving, a secret smile upon his face. "An' you're not so young as to be mooning about my kitchen!" Mrs. Patmore added, from behind Thomas, who thought that was a frankly unfair assessment- he felt so young. Today he felt as if he could live a thousand years.
In the evening Jimmy met him out in the yard for their agreed-upon stroll, and without any greeting struck off towards the trees. Thomas followed Jimmy's back- he was visible enough in the moonlight- and tried to keep himself warm.
"Pretty out tonight," Jimmy said, slowing his pace when they reached the treeline.
"It's bloody cold," Thomas said, around his cigarette. Though he had remembered his gloves, his left hand- having apparently become used to an added protective layer of the other glove at all times- cried out in protest against the weather. Thomas held his cigarette between his lips and rubbed his hands together vigorously, watching as Jimmy took a few steps into the trees, and bent down.
"What are you doin'?" Thomas asked, when Jimmy stood and bent again several more times- and Jimmy whirled to face him.
"Picking up sticks," Jimmy said, showing him a handful. They were suddenly standing very close to one another, and Thomas watched as the cloud of his breath mingled with Jimmy's breath in the air.
"You keep those on hand?" Thomas asked, nonplussed.
"Mm. For emergencies," Jimmy said. "That stone building in the clearing-"
"Your storeroom, right," Thomas said, willing his mind not to flash upon the fact that he had seen Jimmy nude in that particular clearing. He was not entirely successful.
"I have to make sure I have something harmless to push the fire towards, if I need to," Jimmy said. Jimmy affected an air of nonchalance, but Thomas could see that he was quite uneasy, still, about discussing the whole business. Can't hardly blame him, Thomas thought.
"I'll help," Thomas offered- rather magnanimously, he felt, because most people who were not magical fire entities with self-heating abilities preferred to be tucked safely into a warm bed in such frigid weather. Unfortunately Thomas was also in love, so he started helping Jimmy gather sticks.
"Ah, shite," Jimmy muttered, dropping half his bundle- and Thomas bent down to help as Jimmy leaned forward, so that their heads collided painfully. Thomas's cigarette fell from his mouth, sending a flurry of sparks as it went. One spark, airborne, stung at the burn on Thomas's lip before dying.
"Bloody-" Thomas touched his lip, but touching the burn only made it throb- and he noticed that Jimmy, who had also straightened up, was looking at Thomas with some intensity.
"I'm sorry I burned you," Jimmy said, quietly. "I didn't ever mean to hurt anybody-"
"That's obvious," Thomas said. "Else you'd be burning up anyone who displeased you."
Thomas said it with humor, but it was clearly the wrong thing to say- Jimmy looked stricken, so keenly stricken that Thomas could see his pain even in the moonlight- and Jimmy took a half step back in a manner that suggested he did not realize he was moving at all.
"I- I wouldn't-" Jimmy said, and his tone tugged at a spot in Thomas's chest as if Jimmy's voice were a string tied to Thomas's emotions. Thomas stepped forward, to make up for the distance Jimmy had retreated.
"I'm not scared," Thomas said- he was scared, in some abstracted way, but not of being burned- and he held open his arms. "An' don't you be, either."
For a moment Jimmy hesitated- and then his face crumpled- Thomas could see the motion of it, although Jimmy's expression was blurry in the dark- and then Jimmy stepped into his embrace. Thomas wrapped his arms around Jimmy, his heartbeat gaining speed. The pressure of Jimmy's body against his own was both thrilling and comforting- some ache Thomas had not known pained him had suddenly been assuaged, with new aches springing up to replace it.
"You're a fool to not be scared," Jimmy mumbled, against Thomas's neck. His lips brushed against Thomas's skin, and Thomas pulled Jimmy tighter to him. After a pause, Jimmy's hands- they were hot, Thomas could feel that even through his coat- came up, and he held onto Thomas's back, as Thomas held him.
"You should be scared. You're a stupid man," Jimmy whispered.
"I'm very clever, actually," Thomas said, matching Jimmy's whisper. "You're the stupid one."
"Not hardly," Jimmy said- and he leaned up- looking at Thomas with wide eyes that seemed to be nearly black in the moonlight- and kissed him.
Thomas felt little shocks work through his body- and he opened his mouth to kiss Jimmy back, a deep kiss- he could feel the slide of Jimmy's tongue against his own and he pressed back, kissing more forcefully than Jimmy dared to- until Jimmy bit his lower lip, and Thomas took a shuddering breath, surprised, before kissing him again.
"Mmph, yes," Jimmy said, tilting his face slightly away- he bit Thomas's lower lip again, and Thomas felt his pulse jump. He bit Jimmy's lip in return, with equal force- and Jimmy's mouth opened.
"Mmmphh ysghh," Jimmy said, into the kiss- Thomas's distracted brain translated that to another Mmm, yes, and he kissed Jimmy with more fervor, foolishly ignoring the way that Jimmy's mouth got hotter and hotter until it almost hurt to kiss him-
But Jimmy tore himself away with some violence, and stumbled back, breaking their embrace.
"I- that's too much," Jimmy said, in a ragged, overly loud voice. "I'm goin' to hurt you."
"You'll just have to try and control your- your extremely intense emotions-" Thomas managed, though his voice was shaky and he was stupidly aroused.
"Shut it," Jimmy said, sounding as shaken as Thomas felt- but then Jimmy made a noise of frustration, and kicked at the ground.
"Damn it all to hell!" Jimmy said, rather viciously- and he bent to the earth and grabbed a handful of the sticks they had dropped in his left hand.
"Just be easy," Thomas advised, though he had no bloody clue if 'being easy' would help Jimmy with his fiery problem. Still- better to offer comfort than to gawp uselessly and think about his own frustrated sexual desire.
"I am," Jimmy said, ominously- and he stared at the sticks in his clenched first until they burst into a hot flame, blue-white at the center with orange all around, lighting the woods with more immediacy than the moon. Thomas tried to remain impassive, but he could feel his eyes bugging out of his head. It was a hard thing to get used to- seeing someone light a fire with nothing at all- and he stared at Jimmy's face, lit by the flames. Jimmy's lip was drawn up- he was almost sneering- but his eyes were fixed upon the little torch in his hand. Finally, when the flame had nearly reached Jimmy's hand, he dropped the sticks, and ground the embers out with his heel, making a noise of disgust.
"Sorry," Jimmy said. He was breathing heavily. "I'm very sorry. I just- we just- maybe we shouldn't go so quickly-"
It was only kissing, and Thomas was tempted to say so- but he couldn't deny that it had been very arousing, passionate kissing. He himself had felt wild emotions, love and all kinds of tenderness in addition to lust. It followed that Jimmy had felt the same. Thomas felt unbearably giddy, for an instant. All of the weeks and months and years of Jimmy couldn't ever feel the same and I can never give you what you want- had somehow come to this. Both of them undone with love for the other. Equals in feeling at last. Thomas suppressed the urge to dance, or whoop, or throw mud balls.
"Alright," Thomas said, after a beat, as if the interruption with the fire had not occurred. "We won't go quickly." He paused. "But we will 'go'."
Jimmy swallowed audibly. Thomas stifled a smile. Together they went back to the house, stick-replenishing activities abandoned- and played a few hands of twenty-one, until Thomas could scarcely keep his eyes open and had to sleep.
For three weeks they did not progress beyond kissing, but it was the most romantic three weeks of Thomas's life thus far anyhow. He did not know if Jimmy had been back to the clearing, to hoard away more fuel for his fires- or, indeed, to light any fires at all- but he doubted it. They had spent their every free hour in the company of one another. Thomas swapped his half-day to match with Jimmy's and they had gone into Ripon, and eaten at a decent pub. They had seen two pictures together: Safety Last!, which was very funny and had Jimmy pantomiming hanging from the clocks upstairs for a week, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which to Thomas seemed longer than the novel had been. He'd drifted in and out of sleep during that one, until Jimmy kicked him awake- and secretively took his injured hand. Then Thomas had sat, hardly able to pay attention to the screen, all of him concentrated on the overly warm palm pressed against his own.
Sometimes they stayed together downstairs until everybody was asleep, but Carson groused about them staying up 'too late'- as if you had to be in the servant's hall to be awake- and so Jimmy had gotten into the habit of sneaking into Thomas's room. It was risky, and Thomas protested- a little- but it was in his room that all the kissing took place, so he didn't protest overly much.
It occurred to Thomas that they were courting. Thomas had never had a relationship that echoed the conventional, between-men-and-women style, and so it was as unfamiliar to him as it clearly was to Jimmy, who admitted that all of his forays into courtship thus far had been patently disastrous.
"I wronged Ivy badly, I did," Jimmy admitted, one night, when they were taking medium-sized sips of whiskey from a shared bottle that Jimmy had brought from his room. "It really were a waste of effort. Not just on my part, though. Wronged a few other girls too, I suspect. Me lookin' for one thing and them looking for another- and I couldn't give them any caring because I hadn't any..."
"Don't forget you told me you flirted your old Lady Anstruther somethin' awful," Thomas reminded him, grinning as Jimmy passed him the bottle.
"That I did," Jimmy said, with a grimace. "I liked my job there, too, but I waded in too far with her, an' had to swim away."
"How far have you waded in with me, I wonder," Thomas said. The whiskey burned wonderfully on the way down- and he wondered if Jimmy felt the burn, too- or if he was immune to all forms of fire that were not his own.
"So deep I'm drowning," Jimmy said- but he smiled at Thomas, screwing up his face funnily, and Thomas laughed.
"I'll drink again to that," Thomas said, and took another swig.
"You know getting good and tight makes it easier for me to keep the fire back," Jimmy said, when Thomas handed him the bottle.
"Makes sense," Thomas said, nodding. "Everyone gets a bit dull about the edges when they drink, even if they're livelier than usual. Less feeling about things and all that."
"Right," Jimmy said, and took a long, hearty gulp from the bottle. Thomas watched Jimmy's throat move- if he looked too long at Jimmy, desire always came to tap him on the shoulder.
"I want to try something," Jimmy said, putting the bottle down.
"Doesn't everyone," Thomas said- and Jimmy flicked his chin.
"Ow, you menace," Thomas said, and leaned over to flick Jimmy in return, but Jimmy dodged him, and let out a low laugh.
"Lay down on the bed," Jimmy said, very quietly- and then he stood up from the desk chair, and left the room before Thomas could reply. Thomas lay back, wondering if Jimmy had meant to sound as suggestive as he had, and stared at the ceiling. After a moment he rearranged his limbs, trying to lay as... as seductively? As alluringly? As appealingly?- as possible on the cot. But then Jimmy was back, quietly pushing through the door. Though he was in pyjamas, Jimmy had put on a pair of winter gloves- and Thomas blinked at him, sitting up because he felt too stupid to keep lying there.
As he watched, Jimmy grabbed the desk chair and lifted it, carrying it over to the door. He wedged it under the handle at an angle, and Thomas felt excitement constrict his chest. This could be dangerous, Thomas thought- but he couldn't bring himself to care.
"You know what they call that?" Jimmy asked, admiring the chair shoved up under the door.
"Hmm... 'Poor man's lock'?" Thomas asked. " 'Servant's lock'? 'Chair wedged against a doorhandle'? 'A very good idea'? 'We haven't any individual rights and so aren't afforded the courtesy of a bolted door'?"
"Carson insurance, I was goin' to say. I think you talk a lot when you're nervous," Jimmy added, surprising Thomas into silence.
I'm not nervous. You're nervous. I'm excited, Thomas thought- but, considering Jimmy's ability to reduce him to ashes, perhaps it was stupid of him not to be more nervous.
"Also," Jimmy added, in an accusatory tone- "You took advantage of our lack of bolts before, didn't you?"
Thomas was going to mumble an apology, but then Jimmy was standing over him, and Thomas saw that Jimmy was smiling. Jimmy looked a bit red-faced, which Thomas thought ought to worry him. But instead it made his stomach turn over- not in the throwing-mud-balls way. Thomas felt arousal rush up to meet him, and then Jimmy shoved him back, with one gloved hand, and Thomas went down willingly.
"What are we doin'?" Thomas asked, praying to any god that might be listening for the answer he wanted.
"We're just tryin'... something," Jimmy said, slowly. He had a fixed expression on his face, and his hair was curling over one determined eye in a way that made Thomas want to touch him.
"But you can't touch me," Jimmy added, as if he had heard Thomas's thought, and Thomas attempted to conceal his groan of disappointment.
"Why not?" Thomas asked, endeavoring not to sound petulant.
"It's too much," Jimmy said, shaking his head. "I can't... just let's try this. You hold still. You bugger. Else I'll singe your hair."
"You would threaten hair," Thomas said- but Jimmy suddenly climbed on to the bed. There was scarcely any room for him, but Thomas felt giddy all the same. Having Jimmy so close-
"Budge up," Jimmy said- but there was nowhere at all to budge up to, so Thomas spread his legs until his feet were practically touching the floor. If he had an erection- and he did, or he half did- Jimmy could see it- but Jimmy, with only the slightest hesitation, crawled forward on his knees until he has kneeling between Thomas's legs.
"Don't say anything soppy," Jimmy said, avoiding Thomas's eyes. "I'm trying not to be emotional."
"Oh, but I thought you hated soppy things," Thomas said. It took most of his willpower to keep from pressing against Jimmy's knees. Thomas wanted contact, contact, anything, even more kissing would be excellent, but the delicate pace they'd been going at was keeping him perpetually on the edge, nearly constantly tipping over into lust.
"I do hate them," Jimmy said. He tugged at the bottom hem of Thomas's pyjama top with one gloved hand, catching a thread that had been threatening to come loose for some time. "Soppy things," Jimmy echoed, tugging up Thomas's shirt. "Soppiness. Sentiment. All of that is... just dull and no good..."
"Then I should say soppy things, to keep you from becoming overwrought," Thomas said. He shivered as the chill air of the room hit his chest. Jimmy was looking at Thomas's skin like it contained a wealth of wonders.
"I think you're very..." Jimmy began- and then he stopped, as if he'd been in danger of saying something soppy himself. "Now hold still," Jimmy commanded- his voice cracked a little on the last word- and he pressed his gloved hand (the left, always the left) against Thomas's stomach, moving his touch upwards. Thomas inhaled deeply at the pressure of the touch, and kept his hips from moving. And kept himself from touching Jimmy, who was leaning nearly all the way over him now, running his leather-slick fingers through the hair on Thomas's chest.
Jimmy said nothing at all, as though he'd lost any ability to speak. Thomas watched Jimmy's cheeks get redder and his brow furrow, and Jimmy repeated the touch, this time with both hands, making Thomas shift under it. Thomas let his eyes drift shut, existing only in the sensation- muted as it was by the gloves- of Jimmy's hands on him.
"You need me, don't you," Jimmy said. His voice was the roughest whisper, but Thomas understood him anyways.
"God, terribly," Thomas answered, immediately and sincerely. He didn't bother to try and disguise the lust in his voice. Though it went against his nature to expose his feelings so willingly, Thomas had made an effort to be forthright with Jimmy since the beginning of their association. And more so even now that they were- courting. Thomas had learned that Jimmy liked general banter, a bit of teasing- but didn't have a good measure of when Thomas was playing coy, and so would get upset. In some odd way, Thomas found it to be a relief- he could be honest about his omnipresent, gripping, crushing affections for the other man. And about what an effect Jimmy's proximity had on him.
"G-good," Jimmy said- and he shifted down, to lay his body between Thomas's legs. The immediate pressure of Jimmy's hip against his cock made Thomas groan, and he wrapped his arms around Jimmy's back, pulling him down. He kissed Jimmy's mouth thoroughly, and brought his legs up to wind them around Jimmy's.
"Ahhhh," Jimmy said, when Thomas rocked them back and forth together- and Thomas felt satisfaction rush through him almost as acutely as pleasure. Jimmy tore his mouth away from Thomas's and kissed the side of his neck, muttering something Thomas couldn't understand- and Thomas rolled his hips, feeling Jimmy's erection, frustratingly close to his own, not making perfect contact. Jimmy's gloved hands were on Thomas's shoulders, and Thomas rolled his hips again, finding a rhythm.
"Oh god oh my sweet god o-oh, oh my god," Jimmy hissed, over and over, his breath hot against Thomas's neck-
Through a haze of lust, some concern made itself known in the back of Thomas's mind- the tinny sounding of an internal alarm. Jimmy rocked against him again, swearing in a most creative manner, his cheek pushed against Thomas's, and Thomas forgot his concerns, because Jimmy was so warm and Jimmy was grinding against his cock and if Thomas didn't get both of them out of their pyjamas and rid Jimmy of those awful gloves he was going to die-
The alarm sounded again, and Thomas paused in his movements.
And Jimmy was... so warm-
"Jimmy," Thomas said, suddenly hyperaware of exactly how warm Jimmy was against him. "Jimmy. Jimmy. James."
"Hnn, yes, w-what...ngggh, god, oh-" Jimmy said, rocking his hips into Thomas's. Thomas gritted his teeth and tried to physically force Jimmy into stillness, employing his legs as a tether.
"I- I think you need to calm down," Thomas said, as Jimmy ran his tongue along Thomas's earlobe.
"N-nobody could be calm- ah- with you under 'em-"
"Thank you," Thomas said, as evenly as he could. "But you need to calm down because you are very very warm and I don't fancy bursting into flames-"
Jimmy froze, and Thomas tried not to panic, because Jimmy was hurting him now, the heat was like being under an oven- but then Jimmy was scrabbling backwards, all but rolling to the floor, and Thomas saw, to his horror, that Jimmy's pyjamas were smoking.
"Aahhh- shite, shite," Jimmy said, from the floor- and Thomas scrambled to his feet- he tried to reach out and pat Jimmy's clothes- but the heat pouring off of the other man was too intense- Thomas could not even touch him.
"Jimmy-" Thomas began- but Jimmy made a strangled noise and got to his feet. Before Thomas could speak again, Jimmy turned heel and fled, knocking the chair away from the door without pausing- Thomas heard his footfalls in the hall and then upon the stairs. Quickly Thomas crossed to his door and shut it quietly, then righted his chair, and opened a window- his room was now entirely too hot. At some point it had begun to snow outside, and flakes drifted into the room, landing on Thomas's face and melting to nothing.
He waited for the telltale sounds of Carson, wondering if he had been roused by the commotion- and when a minute or so had passed and there were no signs of anybody stirring, Thomas put on his warmest clothes and coat- shut the window- the wind bringing in the snow had chased away Jimmy's heat- and took his shoes in his hand.
Thomas crept through the hall and down the stairs as quietly as he could- and then put his shoes and hat on in the servants' hall, re-wrapped his scarf, checked his gloves, and ran into the snowy night.
There was not enough snow yet settled on the ground for a trail of footprints to be in evidence- but Thomas knew where Jimmy was going anyways, and headed quickly for the secret clearing where Jimmy lit his fires. Thomas's head had begun to ache- from nerves, or from thwarted arousal- or simply from having been so hot and then plunging his body into such a cold darkness- he couldn't say for certain. It was frigid out, though, and the chill that seeped in through his coat and his gloves, combined with Thomas's fear for Jimmy's well-being, pushed him faster and faster, until he was breathless from sprinting through the icy air.
The snow began to fall more heavily, and for a few long moments Thomas was afraid he would get turned around and not be able to find his way to the clearing- but then he spotted firelight, at a distance, and ran towards the glowing spot in the darkness.
"Jimmy!" Thomas called, his heart pounding- for a moment he had terror strike him- that Jimmy would somehow be consumed by his own fire- but as he breached the clearing he saw Jimmy standing by the- by the inferno he had made upon the spot of scorched earth.
The size of the fire brought Thomas up short, though he had previously sworn he would not be intimidated by Jimmy's strange abilities. He skidded to a halt, snow falling loose from the brim of his hat, and stared at the blaze. Up close it was not yellow-blue, or even orange, like the other fires he'd seen Jimmy conjure: it was red, deep crimson red, and louder than it had any right to be. It burned like a conflagration made of cities, of whole civilizations, even- and Jimmy stood in front of it, staring into it with his arms outstretched, feet bare.
Jimmy turned suddenly, and Thomas noted that in his haste Jimmy had not taken off his clothes: his pyjamas clung to him, now ruined. They were burned in multiples places, each burn a circle spreading outward, like a torch had been held repeatedly to the fabric. But Jimmy's skin underneath was unmarred, perfect. Surreal, this is surreal, Thomas thought, vaguely- and he shook himself. His skin prickled with gooseflesh, he could feel the hairs on his head standing on end.
It would be a lie to say that he was not, for one moment, afraid. But then he saw Jimmy's face, twisted and miserable and lit by the firelight and yet partially hidden by the snow that fell between them- and Thomas forgot his fear.
"Jimmy!" Thomas said, raising his voice to yell over the flames. "Are you alri-"
"Get out of here!" Jimmy yelled back, his face twisting up even more. "Leave me alone!"
This command only made Thomas take two steps forward- because, frightening powers or no, it was Jimmy, and if he said that Thomas should leave there was a good chance that what Thomas ought to do was come closer.
"I said get out of here! Leave! Stay back!" Jimmy shouted, when Thomas approached. Now he had a slightly better view of Jimmy, who was half-silhouetted against the flames. Jimmy's shoulders were moving heavily up and down with his breath, and his face looked wet- he had been crying, or sweating, or both. A smudge of ash swiped downwards over his forehead. The ash was so incongruous- so human- that Thomas had no trouble taking another step towards Jimmy.
"Are you hard of hearing? Get away, Thomas! Go!" Jimmy said- he was really yelling now, the cords of his neck sticking out, and Thomas was involuntarily reminded of the night he had crept into Jimmy's room and stolen a kiss that had not yet even remotely belonged to him.
It belongs to you now, so get it right, Thomas told himself. Pretend you're talking to a soldier- a shell-shocked soldier. You're on the battlefield and you have to get him to safety. Only he's got a gun, see, and he might shoot you with it even if he doesn't mean to-
The flames were too hot for Thomas to get any closer. Thomas stayed on the edge of the firelight, noticing how the snow had melted in a wide circle around the fire.
"You need to stay away from me," Jimmy was saying. His face was still in a frightful scowl, but now Thomas could see the telltale glint of tears in Jimmy's eyes. "It's more trouble than it's worth. I want nothin' to do with you! You stupid- you stupid lavender- you dull- ah- pouf, bugger, just leave me alone and n-never speak to me again!"
"You can't really think you're being convincing!" Thomas said back, raising his voice. He thought perhaps the roar of the fire had died down a little.
"I don't bloody care if I am! Just arse off!" Jimmy snapped, showing his teeth. "I'll kill you, you bleedin' idiot, what kind of idiot are you? What kind of idiot dies for a one-off?"
The fire was lower now, and Thomas took that as a good sign. "It isn't a one-off! And I don't think you'd really hurt me!" Thomas said- and took a step nearer.
"I c-could, I-" Jimmy paused- and pressed a hand to his face, as if something pained him terribly.
"No, you won't," Thomas said. The flames beside Jimmy were burning down, and he didn't have to raise his voice to a shout. He took another cautious step, holding out his hands, to say I am not a threat, I come here unarmed. "Your mother never hurt your father, did she?"
"She would never have- hurt anybody, but I'm not like her- I-" Jimmy protested- and now Thomas could see the very raw terror on Jimmy's face- and some kind of pain that went beyond the bounds of the fire.
"So I know you wouldn't hurt me, Jimmy, because-"
"I did hurt someone once, though," Jimmy said- they were so close and Jimmy was almost whispering now- and abruptly he put his hands to his face. The dying fire flamed higher suddenly, sending out sparks and making Thomas flinch. "I did hurt him oh god Thomas I did and then my Captain had to shoot him-"
"In the war?" Thomas asked. One step closer and he could put his arms around Jimmy.
"Everyone I was with was lost or dead- we got caught in the mortars- and only I made it and I was alone- I was alone in No Man's Land and I'd lost my- my sidearm- and then the German soldier came and he-"
"That was war, though," Thomas said. Carefully he put a hand to Jimmy's shoulder, relieved that the other man wasn't too hot to touch.
But Jimmy didn't hear him, not even as Thomas carefully put both arms about his shoulders. "-and he had a pistol, he did and I didn't and... h-he... he was going to kill me," Jimmy whispered. His mouth worked, even between words, an irregular tic. "He was going to kill me and- I wasn't trying to hurt him, Thomas, but I was- I was so frightened and then my fire came- and I-" Jimmy made a low sound, like a moan but with less inflection, and put his forehead to Thomas's shoulder.
"Burned him up, did you?" Thomas asked, as gently as he could. He pressed one of his palms against the small of Jimmy's back, holding him.
"I realized what I was doing at the last second and I pulled it back," Jimmy whispered. "It was too late. The fire had- it ate him up- but he didn't die- he was burned everywhere and n-not- not even human anymore, just a thing that moaned on the ground and I did it to him and then Captain Allworth found me and I said there was a mortar and he took his revolver and shot the soldier to put him out of his misery-"
"It was war, Jimmy," Thomas said. "Everybody-"
"Bugger everybody," Jimmy said. Now Thomas could feel Jimmy's hands on the lapels of his coat. "Everybody didn't see him burning. Sometimes I think-" Jimmy's voice hitched, and he took a breath, moving his arms from Thomas's lapels to his back. "I don't know if I believe in God, but sometimes I think when I die I'll see that soldier again- he'll be waiting for me-"
Jimmy looked up, and Thomas saw snowflakes catch in Jimmy's eyelashes before melting away, so that Jimmy's eyes were spangled with drops of water that reflected the dimming firelight.
"That isn't how it would be," Thomas said, firmly. "If there is something after this, you really think it would just be a war that went on and on? Forever? Everybody dead and revenging themselves against everybody else?"
"I suppose not," Jimmy said, softly. "I don't know."
"I do," Thomas said, though it was a ridiculous assertion. He stole a glance at the fire and saw that it was embers. "I think if you stop being so afraid, Jimmy, this fire of yours won't get out of control-"
"Don't patronize me," Jimmy said, scowling. But Thomas thought that Jimmy looked much better, as if a weight had come off of him. "I wasn't scared in your room, I was- you know-"
"And me," Thomas said, smirking. "But I reckon- if you'll think about it- you were pretty scared-"
"Shut it," Jimmy said. He leaned against Thomas. "When did you turn out to be so wise anyways, Mr. Barrow? I thought you to be a bit of a softhearted fool-"
"Only for you, and absolutely no-one else," Thomas said. "An' don't you forget it. Your fire's out."
"Oh? Oh," Jimmy said. He sounded tired.
"Now let's go back," Thomas said, waving a hand at the snow. "Before I die of cold."
"Here," Jimmy said- and he took Thomas's hand, warming it. They walked back to Downton through the storm, the snow underneath Jimmy's bare feet melting completely with each step he took.
To put it mildly, Thomas was very unhappy, because the Crawleys were going to spend Christmas abroad, in an exciting and nearly unprecedented event. In a palazzo, even-which belonged to some friend of the Dowager's called Count Tepaesti. And, once again, Thomas was stuck at Downton. With bloody Branson. Who had, like the worthless human being he was, decided to decline a free trip to Milan.
He's a chauffeur, for god's sake, I think he can feed himself, Thomas thought bitterly, for the hundredth time, as the staff around him busied themselves with packing for the trip. The palazzo said to be exceptionally fine, and the Count was himself traveling, so the staff would be sent along with the family. Except for Thomas, Daisy, and Miss Sybbie's nanny.
We unfortunate three, Thomas thought. To add insult to injury- or, more accurately, to add injury to insult- they were taking Jimmy, as well, and depriving Thomas of his company for their first Christmas together. Well, not their first Christmas together, but their first Christmas together.
It was too much to bear. Thomas, in a last-ditch effeort, tried to persuade Carson to allow him to go.
"But if Mr. Molesley-"
"We've been through this before," Carson said. He wasn't giving Thomas his full attention, and Thomas just barely stopped himself from making a frustrated noise. "You are to act as butler in my stead. This is part of your responsibilities as underbutler-"
"But Mr. Molesley was a butler!" Thomas protested, feeling his neck flush in frustration. "He'd be more than capable of-"
"I said no, Thomas, and I am not about to change the plans at the very last moment," Carson said- and he turned away from Thomas, dismissing him.
By dinner Thomas had worked himself into a temper that he had rarely known the equal of. If I were Jimmy, this whole bloody house would be in flames right now, Thomas thought, sneering at his plate. When Carson entered the room and they all got to their feet, Thomas looked over to Jimmy's spot, expecting commiseration- but Jimmy was not there.
"Where is James?" Carson said- but the words had scarcely left his lips when Jimmy staggered in to the room. Thomas's heart skipped a beat- Jimmy looked terrible- pale and clammy, with rivulets of sweat dripping from his disheveled hairline.
"I'm here, Mr. Carson, but I feel..." Jimmy said, weakly, and he leaned back against the doorframe. "I feel very badly," Jimmy added.
Mrs. Hughes stood up, and went to Jimmy, which was what Thomas wanted to do- he saw her press her hand to his forehead, and she made a noise of concern.
"He's burning up," Mrs. Hughes said. "Thomas, telephone Dr. Clarkson. James, get in bed immediately."
Thomas telephoned Clarkson and was given broth to bring up to Jimmy- and when he anxiously knocked upon the door and entered, Jimmy sat up.
"Is it the fire?" Thomas asked, worriedly. "Has it- is it hurting you somehow?"
"I'm fine," Jimmy whispered- and he grinned at Thomas cheekily. "Famished, though. You'll have to sneak me up some real food tonight."
Thomas grinned back, equal parts triumphant and relieved. "You're faking," Thomas said- and Jimmy nodded.
"You're brilliant," Thomas said. "We'll have the whole men's quarters to ourselves, even the hallboys are going-"
Then they heard a voice upon the stairs, and Thomas pressed a hurried kiss to Jimmy's overly warm mouth, left the tray on a chair, and went to back to dinner with a spring in his step.
Dr. Clarkson came and examined Jimmy, and told Carson that he was to under no circumstances travel. "His fever is very high," Clarkson said. "Thomas, I want you to-"
"It's Mr. Barrow now," Thomas corrected.
"Ah. Yes. Mr. Barrow, I want you to keep an eye on him. If his fever hasn't broken by tomorrow afternoon, you are to send for me again, alright?"
"Yes, of course," Thomas said, attempting not to smile.
"This is very bad," Carson said. "We are leaving in the morning, and now without James-"
"You can make do with Mr. Molesley," Mrs. Hughes said, sternly. "It's poor James I'm worried about. He's very ill."
"Yes, of course," Mr. Carson rejoined, in a way that indicated less concern for poor James and a great deal of worry for his precious trip.
Thomas snuck food to Jimmy late that night, but didn't linger- the house was still abuzz with the feeling of activity and wakefulness that preceded any traveling. In his own bed Thomas concocted wild fantasies about what they would do for their month of near-solitude.
Since the evening of the Big Fire, they had made slow progress towards intimacy. But still, it was progress. There had been more kissing- and fevered touches- and once Jimmy had fallen asleep wedged up against Thomas in Thomas's bed and they had experienced a horrifying few moments in the early morning when Thomas was certain they were going to be caught. And still, despite all of that, Jimmy had not lost control of his fire- though he had many times pulled back, to avoid such a loss of control.
"We could do it in the clearing," Jimmy had suggested hoarsely, one evening, when he was holding Thomas at arm's length. They had been kissing rather heatedly, and Jimmy had gone so far as to pull Thomas nearly on top of him- only to lose his nerve at the last moment and push Thomas away.
Thomas had been able to see the outline of Jimmy's erection through his pyjamas- it was hard to drag his eyes away. But he took great comfort in the fact that Jimmy, at least, was as frustrated as he was.
"The clearing?" Thomas had asked.
"Yes," Jimmy said. "It would be safe, right by the firepit, and if I needed to I could just start a fire right there-"
"It's December," Thomas said, looking at Jimmy as if he had lost his mind. Probably he had. Lust would do that to a person. "I can feel the cold, Jimmy. I'd get frostbite on my... everything."
"I can feel the cold too," Jimmy said, frowning.
"When you want to. I can't help it- and don't say you can warm me up, you can't be touching every bit of my body at once."
"I can try," Jimmy said, with a smile- but then he frowned again and made a fist with his hand, bringing it to his forehead. "There has to be a way, Thomas. We just need to think!"
"It's alright," Thomas said. "We'll come up with something."
"You won't leave me- because- because I-" Jimmy began, but Thomas waved a dismissive hand.
"O'course not," Thomas said. "I told you to stop worryin' about that. It's you and me. All you need to worry about is your fire."
"My god-damned fire," Jimmy said.
But on the morning the family left, Thomas awoke with a plan fully formed in his mind, complete, as though it'd been dropped there by some outside force. With eagerness he saw off the staff and the Crawleys- with a happy tune in his heart he went to the kitchens- and Daisy paused when she saw him.
"It's a bit strange, having the kitchen all to meself," Daisy said, by way of greeting. "I wish we could've gone to Milan."
Thomas did, too, but this way he might get to have something more exciting than any palazzo ever could have been. "Is the iceman coming today?" Thomas asked.
"Should be here a bit later," Daisy affirmed. "I feel bad for Mr. Fowler. He says those Kelvinators are putting him out of a job, an' we're meant to get one this summer- Mrs. Patmore's none too pleased about it-"
"Tell him to leave an extra cake for the icebox, will you?" Thomas asked, interrupting Daisy's unsolicited conversation.
"But we can't fit an extra one in there!" Daisy protested. "It only fits four-"
"Just leave it in the yard then, I don't care," Thomas said. "I need it. Make sure he leaves five."
Thomas went outside to smoke and wait for Mr. Fowler anyways, because he didn't trust Daisy to get it right, and paid for the extra- and giant- cake of ice out of his own money. He instructed the man to leave it by the door in a bank of snow, and then eyed it, wondering how he was going to drag the massive block of it all the way up to the attic.
Jimmy was still asleep, clearly taking advantage of his fake illness- and Thomas eventually wrapped a sheet around the ice and began dragging it up the stairs.
Daisy came from the kitchen to watch him, probably alerted by the loud thump that accompanied his every step, and by his copious cursing.
"Stupid damned thing," Thomas said, hauling it up another step.
"What are you doin'?" Daisy asked, her eyes wide.
"Bringing this ice upstairs," Thomas said. "Now go away."
By the time he had reached the washroom Thomas was silently damning Jimmy for being such a sound sleeper. He wanted to wake Jimmy up, and make him share in the labor- but another part of his mind thought that it would be better as a surprise, and so Thomas managed to get the ice all the way into the tub by himself.
Thomas went back downstairs, and hung about the front outside entrance, picking up huge scoops of the cleanest snow he could find in a dustbin, to add to the tub.
Thomas was just picking up a load of snow when he heard bloody Branson approaching . "Ah, Thomas-"
"Barrow," Thomas corrected, without turning around.
"Yes. Sorry. I just wanted to tell you I won't need anything to eat- I'm going to bring Sybbie to Ripon and we'll get food there- we'll probably be out until late."
"Yes, sir," Thomas said, rolling his eyes, because Branson couldn't see him. It was terribly disrespectful to not turn around and address a member of the family, but it was Branson. And anyways, it was equally disrespectful to approach someone who was clearly very busy and bother them with trivialities. "Will you be needing dinner?" Thomas asked, turning around at last. Branson was looking at him with a bewildered expression.
"Ah- no, no, we'll get something there," Branson said. "Uh- Barrow- what are you doing?"
"Cleaning up this snow, sir," Thomas said, looking at Branson as if it were the most idiotic question in the world. "If it isn't too forward to say, sir, I hope Miss Sybbie has a nice time. If you're going to take her to a picture, don't take her to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's long and boring and it has some bits that would probably frighten her."
Because really, you couldn't help who your parents were. Mystical fire-beings, or tepid revolutionaries- it was all luck of the draw. At least Miss Sybbie had been born of a half-decent union.
Branson's confused expression softened minutely. "Right. Alright. Thank you, Barrow. Best of luck with cleaning up that- snow."
Thomas took several full dustbins of snow upstairs, and emptied them into the tub, atop the giant block of ice. Jimmy still hadn't woken when he was finished, and Thomas informed Daisy that she had a free day, and went to knock on Jimmy's door. But he met Jimmy in the hallway, fully dressed in his going-out clothes.
"Where've you been?" Thomas asked, and Jimmy smiled.
"I snuck out," Jimmy said. "Needed to pick up my new shoes. And got you a Christmas present. You want it early?"
"Oh," Thomas said, feeling suddenly touched. "Yes. I do. Come with me to the bath."
"Is that where we open gifts now?" Jimmy asked.
"It is. Bring a blanket. And a pillow," Thomas said.
"Why?" Jimmy asked- but Thomas only smiled, and went to the washroom. Jimmy came in a moment later, holding his blanket and pillow in one arm and a small box in the other. he paused when he saw the snow-filled bath. "Thomas. What the-"
"It's my grand plan," Thomas said, raising an eyebrow. "Something to cool you off. You can push your fire into that."
Jimmy's brow furrowed, and he looked between Thomas and the tub, but slowly a smile spread across his face. "I think... that might work," Jimmy allowed, slowly. "Thomas. That might work. You're bloody brilliant!"
"I know it," Thomas said, but Jimmy grabbed his shoulder and kissed him. The box dropped to the ground, along with the pillow and blanket. "Shite," Jimmy said, bending down.
Thomas helped Jimmy to spread out the blanket, and they both took their shoes off and sat upon it.
"We're really alone?" Jimmy asked, looking behind them, to the door.
"We really are. But I know. It's hard to believe," Thomas allowed.
"Open your present," Jimmy said- and he stripped off his jacket as Thomas watched, followed by his tie. Thomas felt his mouth go dry. "Go on," Jimmy cajoled, still disrobing. "I want to see if you like it."
"I like it," Thomas said, and Jimmy snickered.
"The box," Jimmy said. "How'd you get the ice up here?"
"Ingenuity," Thomas answered- and he opened the box. Inside was a lovely pocketwatch- in fact the very pewter one that Thomas had previously admired- and Thomas gasped. "You never," Thomas said. "I'd thought to get this for you!"
"You didn't," Jimmy said, rocking back and forth with a happy expression. "D'ya like it?"
"I love it. It's even nicer than me father's watch, I'll wear it whenever there's a formal occasion- I know how much it was, too, you daft man- I'll pay you back half."
"You wouldn't! It's a gift!" Jimmy said, looking affronted. "I've saved for months to get you a good gift!"
"For months? But we didn't even- it wasn't more than six weeks ago that we-"
"I know," Jimmy said, looking suddenly somber. "But I've...cared for you for a long time."
"I've loved you for longer," Thomas said, promptly- and Jimmy leaned over, and pinched him.
"Take off your clothes, Mr. Barrow," Jimmy said, fixing him with a determined stare. Already Thomas could feel the room getting hotter.
"Try not to roast me alive, Mr. Kent, and I will do," Thomas said- and Jimmy gave him a dark look, but stripped off his undershirt, exposing his chest for Thomas to see. Jimmy averted his eyes, as if he were self-conscious of Thomas's gaze.
"You're very fine," Thomas said, swallowing around the lump in his throat.
"No, you are," Jimmy said, blushing and looking to the side. "You're the finest man I've ever met. Now get undressed."
"Ever at your service, dear Mr. Kent," Thomas said- and he pulled off his shirt and his undershirt. Half of his uniform was scattered across the floor, it would have to be pressed later- but Thomas didn't care. Suddenly Jimmy was right up next to him, and their naked chests were pressed together.
"Mm. God," Jimmy muttered. Slowly he looked up, and Jimmy met him with a kiss- a hot kiss that by now was what Thomas had grown accustomed to- was, indeed, all he could imagine ever wanting again. For a few moments they kissed, rocking back and forth while they sat, in a blissful war with one another.
"Ah- ah-," Thomas said, when Jimmy palmed his erection, through his trousers.
"Take these off," Jimmy said- and he started on the buttons himself. Thomas reached down to return the favor, but the outline of Jimmy's cock against the fabric distracted him, and he began to run his fingers over it, until Jimmy pulled back with a gasp.
"Too much?" Thomas asked. His voice sounded very small over the sounds of his heartbeat.
"Nnnnnhhh. No. Just right," Jimmy said, unsteadily. "Here-"
Jimmy shoved his own trousers down, and then his pants, and Thomas was, for the second time in his life, faced with the prospect of Jimmy entirely nude. This was very far from the time he had seen him in the clearing, however. Thomas made a low noise of appreciation, and Jimmy blushed again, meeting his eyes bashfully.
"You too. It isn't polite," Jimmy said, possibly trying to look stern but only looking as aroused as Thomas felt.
Thomas pulled off the rest of his clothing, kicking his trousers towards the door, and when he looked up Jimmy was staring at him with an expression of intense fascination. The room had gotten hotter incrementally, and now, Thomas realized, he was dripping sweat.
"Watch yourself," he advised Jimmy, who nodded, and pointed one finger towards the bath. Immediately steam began to creep into the space, pouring from the icy tub.
"Nicely done," Thomas whispered, and then he took Jimmy in his arms. Jimmy let out a shaky breath as Thomas pressed him back upon the floor, kissing Jimmy's hands, his throat, with his erection brushing against Jimmy's abdomen and sending a line of fire shooting up his spine.
"Ahhh god, yes," Jimmy said- his hand clasped Thomas about the lower back, and he pivoted his hips up, rubbing against Thomas's body. "Yes-" With his other hand Jimmy gripped Thomas's hair, bringing their mouths together- and then broke away, panting.
"I'm a-already too warm," Jimmy said- and Thomas rolled off of him, trying to catch a breath- but Jimmy rose, unsteadily, and walked straight over to the tub. He climbed over the lip, and a great hissing sound issued through the room, which was filled instantly with thick clouds of steam.
Thomas stood up, his chest heaving, and walked over to the tub. Jimmy sat with his knees against the ice block. The snow had all melted around him. Jimmy's erection jutted up from the water, making Thomas want to put his hands on it.
"Come in here," Jimmy said, splashing the water with one hand.
Thomas put a hand in the water, but it wasn't frigid or boiling, only warm- and so he climbed over the lip, sitting on the other side of the melting ice, and trying to keep his knees from touching it. Jimmy crawled around the ice, pushing at it with his feet until it was at the far end of the tub, and when Thomas stretched his legs out Jimmy laid himself upon Thomas's chest, looking up into his eyes. Jimmy's hipbone nudged Thomas's cock, and Jimmy pressed his own hardon against Thomas's thigh, straddling his leg.
I haven't ever felt this way, not ever once in my life, not before you, Thomas thought- and he kissed Jimmy's mouth, trailing fingers down his back.
"You're shaking," he told Jimmy, who only groaned, and thrust his hips against Thomas's leg. Jimmy snaked his hand between their bodies- and his fingers cupped Thomas's bollocks, and then moved up, wrapping around Thomas's prick- tugging very gently on his foreskin- and then stroking his shaft up to the tip, and down again, in a fluid motion.
"Ahhh, christ," Thomas said, and he pressed his thigh against Jimmy's erection, to return the pleasure. They rocked back and forth, making sounds, until Jimmy's grip and the motions of his body became more frantic.
"I dreamed about this, I dreamed about this," Jimmy mumbled, into Thomas's ear. "Hhhhh oh god oh sweet- oh god- T-Thomas-"
Thomas could feel the scrape of teeth against his shoulder, and the motion of Jimmy's hand quickened.
"Mmmhhh Jimmy, ah, if you keep that up I'm goin' to-" Thomas said, hoarsely- and Jimmy only began to stroke him more quickly. Thomas bucked his hips up so much that water splashed over the sides of the tub, so much that he nearly lifted them both off of the bottom of it entirely, biting the inside of his lip to keep from yelling.
"Yes, please, oh please do please-" Jimmy said, and he bit down hard on Thomas's shoulder, and his hand was so hot and Thomas was coming, all over Jimmy's hand, all over Jimmy's body and his own, with Jimmy still making movements of his wrist, with Jimmy still grinding his own cock into Thomas's thigh. It was a pleasure so intense it was almost pain- tears sprung to Thomas's eyes; for a moment the world greyed out.
"Huh," Jimmy gasped, rocking back and forth on Thomas. "-ah, oh, Thomas-"
"Come here," Thomas said, when he had regained control of his limbs- he pushed Jimmy back- Jimmy let out a little moan as his cock lost contact with Thomas's leg- and Thomas turned him 'round, and pulled him close again, so that Jimmy was sitting with his back to Thomas's chest.
"You haven't set anything on fire yet, you're amazing," Thomas said, in Jimmy's ear, and Jimmy made an unintelligable mutter in reply.
"I said you better bloody touch me or I'm going to light you on fire," Jimmy growled- and the fact that he could say that at all probably meant that Jimmy had done a lot of healing since they had talked about the German soldier and the war- but Thomas barely thought of it- he put his hand around Jimmy's prick, feeling Jimmy's body stiffen against him.
"Ahhhhh yes," Jimmy hissed- and Thomas twisted his fingers, quick and steady, just the way he liked it- watching everything. Apparently Jimmy liked it that way, too because he made a weak sound and pointed his finger at the block of ice, which half-melted before Thomas's very eyes, blowing clouds of steam over both of them- and Thomas twisted his fingers again, just so, and lightly squeezed the head of Jimmy's cock- until Jimmy, with a gasp, flexed his legs, and came.
"Ah, ah, ahhhhhh," Jimmy said, breathing heavily. "God, Thomas, that was-"
Thomas knew it was. Jimmy turned to face him, sloshing water about, his face misty in the steam- and he kissed Thomas's upper lip, right over the faded burn-mark, and then kissed his lower lip, and then his cheek, like he couldn't help himself. Thomas caught Jimmy's face between his hands and kissed him back.
"I love you, Thomas, I love you," Jimmy said.
"I know, I've known for ages," Thomas said- he tried to keep his voice steady, but it cracked in the middle.
"Don't cry," Jimmy said, his brow creasing- but it was too late- Thomas felt his throat grow unbearably tight with a simple happiness that he could not articulate- and tears fell down his cheeks.
"Don't cry, stupid," Jimmy said, wiping one of the tears away- and then he looked up, as a drop of water his hit face. Then another. Thomas looked up too, wiping valiantly at his leaking eyes- and suddenly his hair, previously the only dry part of him, was soaked in water.
"Oh," Jimmy said, in a tone of wonder.
There was rain falling from the top of the room. For a moment Thomas thought the roof had sprung a leak, but outside the window it was sunny and clear. The rain filled the whole room, coming down as lightly as Thomas's tears.
For six seconds, perhaps less, rain fell from the ceiling- a soft rain, each drop small and separate. It beaded atop Jimmy's golden hair, and cut through the fog of steam to rest upon the washbasin lip and the toilet alike- and atop the box that housed the watch that Jimmy had given to Thomas. It dripped into the tub, striking the water in loose circles- it was so transfixing that Thomas stopped his crying- and then, just as suddenly, the rain stopped, as if it had never been.
"Uh. Did you just...?" Thomas asked- and Jimmy looked into his eyes, a quizzical expression.
"Um. Thomas," Jimmy said, pointing towards the ceiling, "What?"