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A Question of You

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It was something which had happened so slowly that Jimmy had barely even noticed it until it suddenly crushed him and he couldn’t breathe.

But if he had to choose the moment where it begun, he knew exactly which moment he’d pick. It was several months earlier in late October, on a night like any other. Midnight had howled around the house and shattered rain against the darkened windows of the servants’ hall, where Jimmy had thought he was the only one left. His ached with tiredness, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop messing about on the piano, fingers still fumbling out chords and half-melodies when the sudden, heady smell of smoke curled through the air, making him turn around in surprise.

The servants’ hall was dimly lit and deserted— apart from Thomas. The other man was still sitting at the table, and had been leaning back in his chair, eyes shut, smoke curling from between his lips— but his eyes flickered open at the sudden silence, surprisingly vivid against the pallor of his face.

“My mother used to play that,” he said quietly, taking a slow drag of his cigarette and glancing briefly over at Jimmy, who watched the smoke unfurl around the other man in enigmatic tendrils, letting his fingers hover uncertainly over the piano keys.

“Every night,” Thomas added, exhaling slowly so that the smoke coiled round him more thickly. “When I was meant to be asleep.”

It struck Jimmy with surprising intensity that this was the first time in their few shaky months of friendship that Thomas had said anything remotely personal— normally they just laughed at Alfred or discussed how boring the main articles in the newspapers were or concocted ideas about Lady Mary’s latest conquests. Jimmy always talked about himself; not big things, just silly little things like how he hated Mrs. Patmore’s rice pudding or the dream he’d had last night or what he was reading— but Thomas never talked about himself. Not ever.

It somehow bothered Jimmy more than he cared to admit that he still didn’t really know Thomas any better than he had done on the day of the fair.

He wasn’t quite sure why. Jimmy couldn’t have predicted it when he made the guilty offer of friendship, but Thomas had come to fascinate him; Jimmy had never met anyone who was quite like him. His expression was always so carefully emotionless, and he rarely gave anything away. It was only when he was caught off guard— when he smiled or laughed or was caught by surprise— that Jimmy caught the smallest of glimmers of what was underneath the careful mask.

Jimmy hated that he couldn’t figure Thomas out at all, couldn’t understand him one little bit. The more time he spent with Thomas, the closer he felt to him— yet the less he understood him. All he knew was that he couldn’t but help feel an increasing curiosity towards the other man; a desperation to know more of the glimmers of sincerity that occasionally evaded Thomas’ careful façade.

“You realise that’s the first thing you’ve ever told me about yourself,” Jimmy announced, turning around properly and sitting cross-legged on the piano stool so that he was facing Thomas.

“Is it?” Thomas’s tone was expressionless through the smoke.

“You know it is,” Jimmy rolled his eyes.

“What of it?” Thomas asked impassively, eyes flickering to hold Jimmy’s for a moment. “I don’t remember vowing to tell you all my worldly secrets the moment we became friends.” There was the tiniest edge to his voice.

Jimmy rolled his eyes again. “Don’t be an idiot.”

Thomas just shrugged, expression unchanging— but he slid his box of cigarettes across the table towards Jimmy.

“Thanks,” Jimmy said, taking one and lighting it, letting the smoke fill his lungs and spill out into the air around him. He’d never really smoked before he’d become friends with Thomas, and it still hurt his lungs a little if he inhaled too deeply.

For several moments, they just smoked in silence, the only noise the autumnal rain that still battered against the windows, lost in the darkness. Jimmy watched Thomas with interest as the other man carefully put the box of cigarettes back in his pocket and continued to smoke with ease. Jimmy couldn’t help but think jokingly that Thomas was as intangible as the smoke that clouded the air between them.

“What else did she play?” Jimmy ventured after several moments.

“What’s it to you?” Thomas asked evenly, raising his eyebrows slightly at Jimmy’s question.

Jimmy sighed, waving his cigarette impatiently. “Don’t you think it’s a little peculiar that we’ve been friends for months and I don’t know the first thing about you?”

“I don’t know the first thing about you, either,” Thomas countered, tapping his cigarette over the ash tray. “Not really.”

“You never asked,” Jimmy shrugged, taking a drag of his cigarette and feeling the slight burn of the smoke in his lungs.

“I’m asking now,” Thomas said quietly, eyes impassive in the dim light.

“Well, if I answer your questions, you have to answer mine,” Jimmy said, determined to figure Thomas out, even just a little— even if only to stop himself mulling it over all the time.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Thomas asked softly, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Jimmy frowned, flicking ash in the direction of the ash tray on the table between them.

“Well, let’s just say that I find the less people know about me, the more likely they are to like me,” Thomas said coolly, expression impassive. He took a final drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out, blowing smoke slowly up into the shadows.

“That’s ridiculous!” Jimmy exclaimed, choking slightly.

“Is it?” Thomas asked calmly, eyes glittering in the lamplight of the servants’ hall.

“Yes!” Jimmy said insistently.

Thomas just raised his eyebrows sceptically.

“What, are you scared, Mr. Barrow?” Jimmy found himself challenging.

“Definitely not,” Thomas replied, eyes catching Jimmy’s in a way that suddenly made Jimmy feel as though he was under a spotlight. It was ironic; Thomas might have pointed out he knew nothing about Jimmy, but Jimmy often felt as though Thomas could know everything about him— including the things he did not know himself— with just one look. He just wished he could do the same with Thomas, but Thomas was utterly unreadable.

“Are you?” Thomas’ smooth voice startled Jimmy from his thoughts, making him choke slightly on his inhale. Thomas was looking at him questioningly, the smallest hint of amusement colouring his tone.

“Of course I’m not!” Jimmy retorted indignantly. “Why on earth would I be scared? Ask me whatever you wish, Mr. Barrow,” he said defiantly, ignoring the way his heart was nudging at his ribs.

Thomas said nothing, just raised his eyebrows ever so slightly.

“Right, I’ve got a bet for you,” Jimmy announced triumphantly, finishing his cigarette. “For the next twenty days, we each have to answer one question the other asks— the first one to back out owes the other a month’s supply of cigarettes.” He didn’t care whether he had to answer Thomas’ questions in the process— he was determined to satisfy his curiosity about the other man by whatever means he could.

For a moment, Thomas considered him, grey eyes utterly unreadable in the dim light and the remnants of the smoke that curled around them. Then—

“Deal.”

~

 

The following day was particularly busy in preparation for a visit from Lord Gillingham, and consequently Jimmy barely saw Thomas until dinner, which he found endlessly frustrating. He’d awoken with an underlying excitement that had made him restless and fidgety all day with impatience— the same kind of eager, jittery feeling he used to get before Christmas when he was young. It was the feeling of waiting for something he’d been anticipating for ages; Jimmy had been trying to figure Thomas out for weeks and now that he finally had the opportunity, a few extra hours felt like eternity. Every time he caught sight of Thomas in the kitchen or in the upstairs hall he’d want to go and ask him questions, but it was impossible in the bustle of preparations.

Dinner dragged on hopelessly; Mr. Carson was criticising Alfred and Jimmy’s work on the second floor gallery for the majority of the meal, so Jimmy didn’t even get the chance to look at Thomas— he just kept his eyes on his Sheppard’s pie and tried to let Mr. Carson’s voice wash over him.

By the time Mr. Carson switched to discussing the wine list for the following evening with Mrs. Hughes, dinner was almost over, and Jimmy looked up eagerly from the remnants of his pie to see Thomas slipping out into the yard, cigarettes in his uninjured hand.

“May I be excused to get a little fresh air?” Jimmy directed the question to Mrs. Hughes, knowing she was more likely to agree.

“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Hughes said distractedly, barely looking up from the wine list. “Don’t be long, though, there’s plenty more to be done before the evening’s over.”

With the sense of excitement curling in the pit of his stomach, Jimmy grabbed his glass from the table and made his way through the kitchen and out into the yard after Thomas.

Jimmy shivered as he stepped out into the dusk, wrapping his jacket more closely round himself as he approached Thomas. The night air was sharp and cold in comparison to the steamy heat of the kitchen, and the stars were out in the loneliness of the sky, cold and remote. Thomas was standing a little way across the yard, leaning against the wall and smoking silently, staring up at them.

“When did you start smoking?”

Thomas looked around in surprise, eyes illuminatingly grey in the dusk. Jimmy distantly thought that they reminded him of snow; fragile, fleeting, untouchable. He had loved the snow when he was little— until he held it in his hands and it melted and made Jimmy cry because it made him realise nothing was as he thought it was.

Still shivering slightly, Jimmy crossed the remaining few feet between himself and Thomas and came to a halt just in front of the other man, tasting smoke in the icy air.

“That’s your question,” Thomas stated in disbelief, frowning at Jimmy.

“The first one, yes,” Jimmy replied, casually taking the cigarette from Thomas’ long fingers and shivering at their surprising warmth. “Go on then,” he mumbled around the cigarette, taking a drag and handing it back to Thomas. “Answer it.”

Thomas shook his head slightly in a bemused manner. “As you like. I started smoking around ten years ago.”

Jimmy watched him take a brief drag of the cigarette he’d put his own lips to moments before and exhale into the cold night air, the muscles under the pale skin of his throat contracting and relaxing.

“And I thought you were going to ask me something horrendous,” Thomas remarked, lips quirking slightly as he fixed Jimmy with a subtly amused look. "And instead you ask me about cigarettes."

“Ten years?” Jimmy repeated questioningly, watching the smoke seep from between Thomas’ lips and vaporise as the ice of the air crushed it. He was still cold, he realised— his hands as numb as they had been all those years ago when they’d melted the snow.

Thomas threw the cigarette to the cobbled floor and ground it under his heel. “That’s what I said.”

“When you started working at Downton,” Jimmy stated, studying Thomas with interest.

“Around that time, yes,” Thomas said impassively. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to attend to his Lordship.”

“What about my question?” Jimmy demanded as Thomas crossed the yard briskly.

Thomas paused in the doorway of the kitchen, shadowed by the yellow light that spilled out of it into the night.

“Be patient. I’m working on it,” he replied, amusement lacing his words as he ducked back inside, leaving Jimmy standing out in the sharp October dusk with the smoke from Thomas’ cigarette still clinging to his lungs.

 

~

 

It was well after midnight and Jimmy was re-reading yesterday’s paper in the dim lighting of the servants’ hall when he dimly registered the familiar heady scent of cologne and smoke and looked up to see that Thomas had slipped into the seat beside him.

“Here,” Thomas said, offering Jimmy a steaming mug of cocoa before taking a sip of his own and leaning back in his chair, pushing a hand through his inky black hair.

“Thanks,” Jimmy said gratefully, setting down the newspaper and taking a gulp of the steaming drink. “I’m bloody shattered.”

“Go to bed, then,” Thomas said, stifling a yawn. Thomas late at night was as closer to the glimmers Jimmy occasionally got whenever Thomas was caught off guard— it was as though by this point, the day had gradually worn off the sharp corners of his manner. He looked softened, somehow— just subtly. Maybe it was because his livery was slightly creased from working all day or his hair was no longer so neatly slicked back, or maybe it was because it tended to just be the two of them left up when it was this late and out of everyone, Thomas seemed most at ease with Jimmy.

“No, I want to hear your question first,” Jimmy mumbled, setting down the mug and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

“Okay.” Thomas paused, taking a sip of cocoa from his own mug and looking at Jimmy with a typically impassive expression that both frustrated and fascinated him. “Why don’t you even give Ivy the time of day?”

Jimmy blinked in surprise. “Ivy?”

“That’s what I said,” Thomas said, taking another sip. Jimmy watched him swallow and set the mug down on the tabletop, though his long fingers stayed curled round the handle. “She’s gorgeous, she’s funny, she’d do anything you wanted, and you know it.”

Jimmy struggled for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know… She just doesn’t interest me.”

“That’s not a very interesting answer,” Thomas remarked.

“Well, I’m not a very interesting person,” Jimmy countered, feeling vaguely annoyed for reasons he couldn’t quite place.

“I don’t know about that,” Thomas said, and the tone of his voice had softened slightly. Jimmy looked up, but Thomas had drained the last of his cocoa and was standing up abruptly. “Well, I’m going to bed. Tomorrow’s going to be a busy day and I’ll need a few hours decent sleep to be able to deal with Mr. Carson. Night Jimmy.”

“Wait up, I’m coming too,” Jimmy sighed, pushing himself to his feet and following Thomas out of the servants’ hall and up that stairs, trying without success to shift the uneasy feeling of confusion. He distractedly wished Thomas goodnight when they reached the landing and went to his room, closing the door softly behind him. He could distantly hear Thomas doing the same across the hall, and frowned, slumping down at his vanity and staring at himself in the looking glass.

His blonde hair was vaguely tousled and his eyes weighed down with dark circles, and he found Thomas’ question echoing in his head as he stared at himself. Why wasn’t he interested in Ivy? He’d never thought about it before, but now that he did, it suddenly bothered him immensely. She was the type of girl Jimmy would have gone for in a heartbeat before he’d come to Downton, but now he found he genuinely didn’t care. She just wasn't interesting to him.

Suddenly, Jimmy felt as though he knew himself even less than he knew Thomas.

Shaking his head, he got up and splashed his face with water before stripping off his livery and pulling on his pyjamas, trying to shift the unsettled feeling that made him frown at his reflection as though it was someone else. With a heavy sigh, he sunk down on the edge of his bed, forcing himself to push his unease to the back of his mind and instead consoled himself with the prospect of thinking up his next question for Thomas. He couldn't help but feel the return of the jittery excitement that he'd woken up with that morning at the thought of beginning to understand even the tiniest little thing about Thomas, and it was with a smile that he blew out the candle on his bedside table, letting it go dark all around him.