When Jimmy awoke, it was dark and silent. He could vaguely taste smoke and cologne in the unlit air, and the quality of silence he woke up to was somehow subtly different than usual; as though he wasn’t the only one there to ensure its presence. It took a moment for the remnants of unconsciousness to fade and for Jimmy to remember where he was. The events of the past few days rushed through his head, filling it with questions, and he opened his eyes blearily only to be met with a subtly lighter shade of darkness.
It was still hours from dawn; the only variation in darkness was the streetlamps that flared outside on the dark London street, ebbing through the thin material of the curtains. The air against Jimmy’s face was sharp and cold in comparison to the cosy warmth under his blankets, and his eyes ached with tiredness— yet he felt inexplicably content, as though he’d slept soundly for the first time in weeks. There was no lingering unease from unfinished dreams, no tight knot of agitation in his stomach. With a soft sigh that seemed to fill the darkened room, Jimmy rolled over onto his side, pulling the blankets more snugly around himself.
His thoughts were still blurred from sleep— an anthology of questions and their possible answers— but as his eyes grew accustomed to the faint light, Jimmy was able to make out the vague outline of Thomas in the bed opposite.
The other man was perfectly still, eyes shut serenely as though he was as composed and unruffled in his dreams as he was in wakefulness. The blankets were pushed down a little, so that Jimmy could see the pale sliver of Thomas’ chest at the neckline of his undershirt, and the way his arm stretched across the mattress beside him, glove off, palm turned upwards— almost as though he was waiting for someone to catch hold of it.
Jimmy suddenly couldn’t help thinking how completely and wonderfully unguarded Thomas looked, simply lying there with his eyes closed and his chest rising and falling softly. It was only then that Jimmy realised just how cautious Thomas was in wakefulness; every action was reserved and careful, never impulsive. When he was awake, Thomas only ever disclosed a minute fraction of himself… Jimmy thought that he was rather like a black and white film at the pictures— artful to watch, but ultimately a misrepresentation of the truth because it was only arranged for the desired effect.
Jimmy wasn’t sure why, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away. It was so rare to see Thomas so simply; without the façade and the sarcasm and the cool disinterest. He somehow seemed more real to Jimmy than he ever had before; it felt as though he was tantalisingly close to the answers of the questions he’d been asking for weeks. Like this, Thomas was more like half an answer— rather than lots of little broken pieces of different ones. His face was tender and poignant, his chest rising and falling softly in the darkness. Jet black hair flopped across his closed eyes, and he somehow gave the impression of being both far away and closer than ever before. Jimmy couldn’t help wondering that someone who was only a few feet away could simultaneously so far away; if Jimmy reached out, he could almost touch the bed that Thomas was sleeping in— and yet Thomas himself seemed to far away, because Jimmy was so far away from understanding him.
The man lying there, breathing softly in and out, was more of a mystery to Jimmy than anything, and seeing him like that, so simply, reminded Jimmy not only of the extent to which he didn’t know Thomas— but also just how much he desperately wanted to know him. It was bizarre, to feel so close to Thomas and yet so far away at the same time. But Jimmy suppose that was sort of like Thomas; full of contradictions. Everything was somehow just so much simpler when he was with Thomas— and yet so much more complicated at the same time. When he wasn’t with Thomas, the questions swamped his mind and crushed the air from his lungs, but when he was, more and more and more were created.
These days, Jimmy was used to waking up with a head full of questions that desperately needed to be answered, but when he could unquestionably see Thomas in the bed across from his, they somehow seemed less urgent. Instead of feeling the desperation to get up and find Thomas and ask him questions, Jimmy simply watched Thomas’ chest gently rising and falling until his own eyelids were drooping and he was drifting back into sleep as the lamps outside on the street continued to flare, trapping the light of the stars. He knew the questions would still be there when he woke up.
When Jimmy awoke again, it was no longer dark and silent. The lamp on the vanity was lit, and he could dimly hear the bustle of the kitchen down the hall. He blinked blearily, rubbing his eyes, and Thomas swam blurrily into view. The other man was sitting fully-dressed on the bed opposite, mending the hemming of a dinner jacket. His long, pale fingers worked skilfully with the needle and thread, and his face was a picture of pale composure— he could almost have been a different person to the one Jimmy had watched breathing softly in and out in the darkness only a few hours before.
“’Morning, Mr. Barrow,” Jimmy mumbled sleepily, his voice feeling rough with tiredness. He leant up in bed, letting a hand tangle in his tousled blonde hair as he looked over at Thomas, who had glanced up at the sound of Jimmy’s voice, his grey gaze careful and unruffled— although his hands stilled on the material.
“Good morning,” Thomas replied evenly before dropping his gaze back to the dinner jacket. Jimmy couldn’t help noticing that he was slightly paler than usual, and there were heavy, dark circles weighing down his grey eyes as though he’d been awake for hours. Jimmy frowned slightly, wondering why Thomas looked so tired— he’d seemed to be sleeping peacefully when Jimmy had been awake earlier, but he supposed that was just a small sliver of the night. He wanted to ask Thomas, but he wanted to save his questions for when he knew Thomas would answer them properly.
“Pass us a cigarette,” Jimmy said instead, rubbing his eyes tiredly and trying to push his dishevelled blonde hair into some kind of submission.
“Cigarettes before breakfast?” Thomas raised an eyebrow— but he deftly threw the packet of cigarettes that had been sitting on his dresser to Jimmy. “Whatever would Mr. Carson say?” he said sardonically.
“Mr. Carson isn’t here,” Jimmy mumbled around the cigarette, fumbling clumsily with Thomas’ lighter. “Thank god.”
“Amen to that,” Thomas intoned, his expression as unreadable as ever.
Jimmy smoked in an odd silence for a few moments as Thomas continued to work on the hem of the dinner jacket. His posture was tense and Jimmy could see the muscles in his jaw were clenched. His inky black hair was slicked back seamlessly, accentuating the sharp impassivity of his expression, which was almost painful in comparison to the unguarded softness Jimmy had seen on it when the world outside was silent and only the lamps lit the street. He had never realised before just how uncomfortable if looked until he’d seen the contrast.
“So, what’s happening today?” Jimmy asked after a while, when Thomas continued to sew in silence and didn’t acknowledge Jimmy’s wakefulness further. Jimmy leant back on his arms, blowing lazy rings of smoke up into the air as he watched Thomas’ fingers deftly work the needle and thread, his expression blank. He fleetingly wondered if Thomas was as much of a mystery to himself as he was to Jimmy.
“We’re to help them prepare the house fro the ball this evening,” Thomas said evenly without glancing up. His voice was slightly rougher than usual, as if he’d been smoking frequently. “And as well as performing our valet duties, we’re also serving at the ball this evening thanks to the footmen who went down with colds.”
“What about this afternoon?” Jimmy asked, carelessly knocking ash into the already full tray on the vanity. He suddenly remembered that it hadn’t been so full when he’d gone to sleep the night before, and he couldn’t help wondering if Thomas had been sitting awake and smoking in the night.
“There’s nothing I’ve been told of,” Thomas replied, carefully snipping the fraying end of the thread he was darning the dinner jacket with and still not meeting Jimmy’s gaze.
“Well, what do you say we go out into London?” Jimmy asked suddenly, exhaling impatiently to get the smoke out of his words. He sat up properly, gaze fixed on Thomas. “I’ve never really had much chance to see it before.”
Thomas hesitated for a split second, fingers pausing on the stitching.
“I’ll have to check that we can be spared,” Thomas responded evenly, glancing up so that Jimmy caught a flash of poignant grey and bloodshot eyes.
“We can ask our questions then,” Jimmy said, grinning. He pushed a hand through his tousled hair and took another lazy drag of the cigarette, eyes still fixed on Thomas who had returned to the sewing. “Seeing as we’ve not really had the chance the past few days. I think we’re owed three each, including today’s ones.”
Thomas finished the last stitch and glanced up fleetingly, an unconvincing smile doing nothing to hide the stiffness of his expression. He had looked so peaceful while he was asleep, but now Jimmy could see the prominence of the dark circles under his grey eyes as though Thomas hadn’t slept at all. Even although the other man maintained his unruffled, measured expression, Jimmy could clearly see the shadows of sleeplessness that hollowed his face and the increased pallor of his skin.
“Did you sleep quite well, Mr. Barrow?” Jimmy asked, feeling uncomfortable just for asking the question.
“Perfectly, thank you. I have to return this to laundry before the day starts properly,” Thomas said coolly, carefully folding up the dinner jacket and any doubts that the subject wasn’t closed. “And I expect breakfast will be served shortly.”
“I’ll come with you,” Jimmy said, stubbing out his cigarette in the ash tray on the bedside table and pushing back the blankets. The cold morning air hit his bare chest like a slap and he shivered as he looked around for his robe, pushing his ruffled blonde hair out of his eyes. As he did so, he suddenly caught sight of the expression of Thomas’ face. It was stiffly expressionless, and his grey eyes didn’t quite meet Jimmy’s gaze. Jimmy swallowed uncomfortably, suddenly feeling horribly aware of his bare chest as Thomas held out the navy blue robe which Jimmy had carelessly tossed onto the vanity the night before.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, taking it and feeling a split-second brush of Thomas’ fingers against his own— but then the contact was gone and Thomas abruptly turned away, putting the needle and thread back into the sewing box. The air between them suddenly seemed too thick to move in.
“I’ll see you at breakfast,” Thomas said in a tone which was so tight it almost crushed the words. He picked up the box from the vanity and made his way to the door as Jimmy pulled on the robe, tying it around his waist with slightly shaking hands. Thomas closed the door behind him with a snap, leaving Jimmy feeling a familiar prickling sensation of anger at his own carelessness.
As it turned out, they were able to be spared for a few hours in the afternoon provided they had finished the preparations for the ball. Jimmy hurried through his morning chores with an increasingly familiar excitement bubbling in his stomach. He’d never really known the feeling before he’d become friends with Thomas; nothing had held much appeal or seemed particularly important— there was nothing Jimmy really wanted to do because he hadn’t cared. But he cared now; he cared about asking questions— asking Thomas questions.
Time seemed to drag on endlessly until Luncheon, and even then, it seemed to take forever until everyone had finished their bread and onion soup. Jimmy jiggled his legs up and down impatiently under the table and gulped down his soup far too fast so that it burnt his throat. He kept managing to catch Thomas’ gaze across the table and grinning, and although the dark circles were still heavy under Thomas’ gaze, he smiled genuinely back. Jimmy felt tremendously relieved that the other man seemed to have forgiven his carelessness that morning; but he supposed that that Thomas must be used to having to forgiving his thoughtlessness.
After changing out of his livery once Luncheon was over and everyone had returned to their jobs, Jimmy donned his hat and scarf and hurried back down to the servants’ hall to meet Thomas. The other man was already waiting for him by the back door in his dark coat, hat and navy blue scarf that somehow made him look handsome and inscrutable. He looked up when Jimmy approached, and when he smiled briefly— just a brief, perfunctory smile— Jimmy was surprised at the inexplicable happiness he suddenly felt.
“Ready?” Thomas asked, pulling on his black leather gloves and opening the door.
Jimmy nodded, and followed Thomas out of the back door and onto the icy London street. The world was full of grey; stark and beautiful in comparison to the cosy warmth of the servants’ quarters. Icy cold stung Jimmy’s skin and the sky overhead was heavy with a grey that seemed almost tangible in the bitter air, as though the snow bruising the November cloud had already begun to fall without being seen.
“Do you think it’s going to snow?” Jimmy wondered, staring up at the incomprehensibly vast and bitter sky as they made their way down the colourless street. It seemed to press down on their shoulders, yet Jimmy couldn’t reach up and touch it no matter how high he jumped. It was overwhelmingly close and far away at the same time, and reminded him of lying in bed earlier that day, watching Thomas sleeping in silence.
“Perhaps,” Thomas mused, sparing a fleeting glance at the sky before lighting a cigarette. The smoke from it clouded the icy air that was already stinging his pale cheeks a faint shade of pink. He took a long drag of the cigarette, cheeks hollowing as he sucked the smoke into his lungs, and then he handed it over to Jimmy.
“Thanks,” Jimmy said, feeling an odd pang of something that was a lot like disappointment as he felt the brush of cool leather rather than warm skin against his fingers. “Where shall we go?” he asked, looking round expectantly at Thomas.
“I’m happy to follow you,” Thomas replied evenly. He glanced up briefly at the sky, exhaling smoke so that it curled coldly up into the icy cloud as though there was no space between the cloud and their breaths. Jimmy thought that he looked like a still from the pictures; the flawless angle of his jaw and the smoke curling coldly from his lips that were dark red in contrast to the pallor of his face and his surroundings, as though he’d been drinking wine and somehow got lost in a black and white world.
Jimmy suddenly couldn’t help wondering why he so desperately wanted to understand Thomas. He didn’t understand anyone, not even himself, but that had never bothered him before. Why, out of all the strangers passing them by on the wintry London streets, was Thomas the only one Jimmy cared about knowing? Was it because he had been forced to alter his feelings of the other man time and time again? Was it because he felt somehow indebted to Thomas for saving him all those months ago? Or was it because he was the person who’d somehow got closer to Jimmy than anyone before? Maybe it was none of those things, but a mismatched combination of them along with something indefinable and inexplicable— like the pure, overwhelming happiness Jimmy had experienced the night before, standing in the smoky yard and staring up at the icy London sky.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Thomas’ voice shattered Jimmy’s thoughts, and he looked up to see Thomas looking questioningly at him, eyes impossibly grey against the frozen, overcast streets. Jimmy was suddenly struck once again by how utterly different walking with Thomas was to walking with Ivy. Thomas noticed everything but voiced very little, whereas Ivy noticed very little and voiced everything.
“I was thinking,” Jimmy shrugged, scuffing his shoe against the side of the pavement.
“I’ve warned you about that before,” Thomas quirked an eyebrow.
“Well, I wish I was in control of it,” Jimmy replied with feeling, taking a drag of the last of the cigarette Thomas had offered him and casting it to the frozen pavement. He stuck his hands in his pockets, matching his pace with Thomas. The streets were relatively quiet; it was a bitter afternoon, with grey air that stung at Jimmy’s skin and made his eyes smart with the cold. He quite liked the quietness of it, though— it reminded him of walking with Thomas back at Downton.
“What do you mean?” Thomas frowned.
“I’m too impatient to think about things properly,” Jimmy sighed, although he hadn’t really meant to say it out loud. “I can’t… I can’t understand my own thoughts.”
“Who does?” Thomas retorted, flaring his lighter and pulling out another cigarette.
“Do you ever think it might be easier to understand someone else’s?” Jimmy asked curiously, watching the way Thomas’ gloved fingers expertly lit it and slid the lighter back into his coat pocket as they rounded the corner into a quieter street.
Thomas frowned, cheeks hollowing as he took a deep drag of his cigarette. “I doubt it. If you find your own thoughts difficult, how could you possibly begin to comprehend someone else’s?”
“Maybe they’d at least be finished— I can’t finish thinking about one thing before I’m thinking about something else and then I have too many thoughts and they’re all unfinished,” Jimmy frowned. “It’s easier just to blurt them out— when they’re in my head they don’t make sense.”
“But they do when you voice them?” Thomas raised an eyebrow.
“Not always,” Jimmy conceded wryly, taking the cigarette from between Thomas’ gloved fingers and feeling the warmth from where Thomas’ mouth had been when he placed it between his lips. He took a long drag and handed it back to Thomas before continuing. “It means I’m too impulsive. I wish I thought about things before I said them— I wish I was more cautious the way you are.”
“Don’t wish that,” Thomas said impassively, blowing smoke out into the frozen air. He met Jimmy’s gaze, grey and unreadable. “You’re lucky. You don’t need to be cautious.”
And Jimmy suddenly felt distinctly uncomfortable and foolish; he’d led the conversation but he hadn’t realised its destination, which was ultimately the destination of any of his conversations with Thomas if they were pursued to the end. He wanted to ask Thomas questions, but they somehow froze on the tip of his tongue like the smoke curling through the air between them and fading as they walked. The dark circles under Thomas’ eyes made them look almost blue against all the grey surrounding them, and they somehow hurt to look at— so Jimmy stared at his feet instead, watching them move over the cracks in the pavement.
He searched around desperately for something to say, but before he could think of something that wasn’t trite or pointless, Thomas opened his mouth.
“So, where do you want to walk?” he asked coolly.
“I don’t mind,” Jimmy said honestly, his mind still caught up in the words that had been spoken a few paces back.
“Well, hat makes a change,” Thomas remarked lightly, raising his eyebrows slightly.
“How… how about over there?” Jimmy suggested suddenly, pointing across the road to slightly rusting gothic ironwork gates of a park. It looked like a room that hadn’t been opened for years; dusty with bleak frost and stark trees that shivered without their leaves. The ground was frozen and grey like the sky, and wound its way through the lonely trees in a path that was strewn with dead leaves coated in ice and decay. It should have been austere and uninviting, yet somehow so much coldness glittered.
“If you like,” Thomas shrugged easily, exhaling in a plume of smoke. “But first, I think there’s a shop just round the corner that you might like.”
Jimmy frowned, turning to look at Thomas. “What shop?”
“Wait and see,” Thomas said impassively. He tossed his cigarette to the ground and led the way around the corner and into a narrower lane that was lit with Christmas lights that made the sky look greyer than ever.
“Where are we going?” Jimmy demanded, falling in to step with Thomas.
“Here,” Thomas said, coming to a halt outside a tiny, cosily lit shop to their left. The window was slightly grimy and a slightly peeling sign that read ‘Arthur’s Music’ hung over the doorway.
Jimmy looked questioningly at Thomas, but the other man merely raised his eyebrows ever so slightly and held the door open for Jimmy.
Inside, the shop was warm and dusty compared to the sharpness of the November air outside and smelt like old books and violin resin. It was dimly lit, and the tall shelves seemed to bow under the weight of the endless music books and sheets. Jimmy gazed around in wonder, taking in the seemingly endless shelves of songs and sonatas and duets all waiting to be played under the dust.
“…How many pieces of music do you think there are?” Jimmy asked in hushed tones, staring up at the cramped shelves. He glanced around to find Thomas’ inscrutable grey eyes already on him. Jimmy fleetingly wondered how Thomas could find him more interesting than all the music in the shop.
“Pick one,” Thomas said impassively, but Jimmy caught a faint flicker of a smile at the corner of his mouth. “Or two.”
Jimmy frowned, perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“Your Christmas present,” Thomas said evenly.
Jimmy’s eyes widened. “But it’s only November, Mr. Barrow.”
“Well, I thought I might get yours early, seeing as there’s nowhere like this back at Downton,” Thomas said. His tone was cool and unaffected, but Jimmy could see his eyes glittering in the dim lighting of the shop. “Go on. Pick one, Jimmy.”
“Oh— Mr. Barrow,” Jimmy couldn’t help the grin spreading across his face. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Thomas said coolly, but he was smiling slightly too, and for the first time that day, the dark circles under his eyes looked less pronounced. “Perhaps it will give you something to do other than pester me with questions.” He raised his eyebrows teasingly at Jimmy.
“If that was your hope then I’m sorry to say it will be in vain,” Jimmy grinned, running his finger across the sheets of music on the shelf beside him and turning to look at Thomas. “I’m afraid that I can’t think that anything would be better than asking questions— not even sheet music, although that comes a close second.”
“I’m not sure I will ever understand what you find so wonderful about questions,” Thomas remarked quietly, gaze intent. For once, Thomas expression did not give the impression that he could read everything; it was tinted with a curiosity that Jimmy rarely saw on the surface.
“Well, I’m not sure I will, either,” Jimmy replied honestly, picking up a folder marked ‘London jazz arrangements’ and flipping through it.
“Perhaps that’s why,” Thomas mused.
Jimmy looked at him for a moment— the angular cheekbones and inscrutable grey eyes and black hair slicked seamlessly back— and smiled slightly. “Perhaps.”
Thomas returned it slightly before turning to look at the shelves himself. They stood in silence for a while as Jimmy looked through various arrangements and compositions, searching for the sheets that were marked ‘duets’. Outside, the sky was beginning to darken with the heaviness of the snow it held, and the lamps had been lit, even though it was barely three o’clock.
“What did you like to play? When you were young, I mean,” Jimmy asked suddenly, looking up at Thomas. He caught a flicker of surprise in Thomas’ grey eyes, but it was masked quickly.
“It’s too long ago for me to remember,” Thomas said in a tone that made Jimmy sure this was not actually the case. However, he did not press the point, and instead slid the folder he was holding back onto the shelf and held up two pieces of sheet music.
“I think I’ll go with these ones then if that’s alright with you, Mr. Barrow,” he said, unable to suppress a grin.
“It’s your Christmas present, not mine,” Thomas remarked, raising an eyebrow at Jimmy.
“Well, partially…” Jimmy held out the pieces for Thomas to see.
“Duets.” A reluctant smile seemed to be pulling at the corners of Thomas’ mouth although he tried hard to mask it. “I suppose I should have seen that coming.”
“Now you’ll have to play with me when we get back, Mr. Barrow” Jimmy grinned. Thomas said nothing, but he didn’t try to stop himself from smiling this time and simply grinned back, the smile splitting across his face for a split second and Jimmy thought that even if Thomas didn’t play duets with him when they got home, it was somehow worth it just to see that.
As Thomas went to pay for them at the counter, it suddenly struck Jimmy that all the questions had begun because he’d accidentally played something on the piano that Thomas’ mother had used to play. Jimmy wondered how it had gone from being friendly acquaintances with Thomas, sharing cigarette breaks or exchanged glances of contempt across the breakfast table, to being desperate to know Thomas better than anyone else ever had or ever would. A few months ago, Jimmy would never have imagined that he could have been so interested in someone else; that he’d end up sitting side by side at the piano, playing duets with a man whose life he’d once tried to ruin. Yet somehow, it didn’t feel as surreal as Jimmy would have expected it to have done.
“So,” Thomas pulled his lighter from his coat pocket and flared it, lighting the cigarette between his lips. “Questions.”
They had left the music shop and were sitting on a peeling wooden bench under frail poplar trees in the park, which was silent and full of frost that crunched underfoot. The clouds in the sky were greyer than ever, and the air was painfully bitter, making the frosty grass glitter in anguish and the red berries on the trees shrivel.
“We agreed that we have two extra each as well as the ones for today, didn’t we?” Jimmy asked, unwrapping the mince pies they’d bought at the baker a few doors down from the music shop. The paper around them was still warm, and the smell of spices and pastry curled into the bitter air.
Thomas glanced at Jimmy, the smallest of smirks pulling at his mouth— but he said nothing, merely exhaled in a plume of smoke that overpowered the spice of the mince pies and the taste of imminent snow in the cold air.
“You go first, then,” he said evenly, taking another drag of his cigarette so his cheeks hollowed out, emphasising the sharp angles of his cheekbones.
Jimmy paused for a moment, staring at the mince pies in his lap. He cast his mind over the array of questions he wanted to ask Thomas, but they were suddenly all a meaningless blur now that Thomas was sitting beside him on the peeling wood of the bench under the frozen poplar trees, much more real than any answers.
“Why did you start smoking?” Jimmy asked after a moment, watching the way the smoke curled from the other man’s mouth more easily than words.
“Why?” Thomas repeated questioningly, a slight frown creasing his forehead. He tapped ash to the ground at their feet, where the dead leaves were frozen in time by frost.
Jimmy nodded, breaking off a bit of one of the mince pies and biting into it. Warm, gooey fruit burnt his tongue, sweet and spicy in contrast to the bitterness of the grey November afternoon, where the snow was so prominent in the clouds that it almost seemed visible without having to fall. The tip of Thomas’ nose was slightly red from the cold, and faint pink stood out on his cheeks from where the icy wind had stung them as they walked through the park, footsteps crunching on the frosty path.
His grey eyes, instead of blending into the world of heavy grey around them, somehow seemed more vivid than ever in contrast to the pallor of his face and the jet black of his pomaded hair.
“It’s better than small talk,” Thomas replied after a moment, exhaling slowly and looking at Jimmy.
Jimmy smiled slightly, thinking how ironic it was that he had started smoking for exactly the opposite reason— to have an excuse to talk to Thomas, not avoid it.
“Why are you smiling?” Thomas’ voice broke through Jimmy’s thoughts and he looked up, shaking his head slightly.
“Never mind,” Jimmy replied, still smiling. He broke off another piece of mince pie and offered it to Thomas, who exhaled smokily and took it with gloved fingers, placing it into his mouth. His lips were startlingly red against his pale skin, slightly chapped from the cold and the smoke of his cigarettes.
“My turn, is it?” Thomas asked, swallowing. He passed the cigarette between them, and Jimmy could feel Thomas’ gaze on him as he took a drag of it, lingering and heavy.
“Go ahead,” Jimmy agreed through his exhale, looking expectantly at Thomas, his heart suddenly beating faster. The other man’s expression was completely unreadable, but the two pink spots on his cheeks from the cold were slightly darker as he took the cigarette back from Jimmy and placed it between his lips.
“Alright,” Thomas said, blowing smoke into the air and turning back to fix Jimmy with one of those gazes that Jimmy somehow found it impossible to look away from. His grey eyes were so completely unreadable that Jimmy found that he couldn’t bring himself to look away until he’d figured out even the tiniest little thing about them. If that was the case, he wondered if he’d ever be able to look away. “When did you learn to play the piano?”
“I was about seven,” Jimmy frowned, remembering.
“Did you enjoy it?” Thomas asked, smoke curling from his mouth.
“Not then,” Jimmy laughed. “I hated it at first. My teacher was a miserable old bat. She insisted on calling me James and made me play chords at the start and end of every lesson. I don’t think I actually enjoyed playing for years— perhaps not even until I came to Downton.”
“What do you mean?” Thomas’ brow was furrowed in confusion. He’d seemingly forgotten his cigarette between his gloved fingertips; it was burning down, ash dropping to the frosty ground at their feet of its own accord.
“I daresay it was just another thing to show off.” Jimmy frowned in surprise at the words he’d just uttered. Around Thomas, he so often seemed to voice things which he didn’t know to be true until that moment. Thomas provided answers for Jimmy as much as he did for himself, and Jimmy wasn’t sure why, but he was unintentionally honest around Thomas in a way he had never been with anyone.
“I didn’t really enjoy playing, just the reaction it got me,” Jimmy went on, staring up at the snow-laden sky rather than looking at Thomas, although he could feel the weight of the other man’s gaze on him. “But I do enjoy it now. And I enjoy playing duets with you even more,” Jimmy added honestly, looking away from the grey clouds and to where Thomas’ gaze hadn’t left him, as unreadable and astute as ever.
Thomas did say anything, but something in his eyes altered subtly, and Jimmy suddenly felt uncomfortably exposed. He dropped his gaze and took another bit of mince pie, letting the warm, sweet, spicy taste fill his mouth. Without thinking his broke off a piece and held it up to Thomas’ lips, feeling the warmth of Thomas’ smoky breath against his fingers. In a split second, the dynamic of their interchange altered completely. Thomas rarely let emotions seep into his appearance, but Jimmy didn’t miss the fleeting surprise that flashed through his grey gaze at the contact.
The sky suddenly seemed to press much more heavily down on the park, crushing all the oxygen from the air to replace it with pregnant grey. Jimmy could feel the soft, slightly chapped warmth of Thomas’ lips against his cold fingers, and his heart was suddenly thudding so fast in his chest that he couldn’t think straight as he stared at Thomas, frozen to the spot.
The pink on Thomas’ cheeks had flushed darker, and Jimmy suddenly realised that his fingers were still lingering on Thomas’ lips. Feeling the embarrassment burning his own cheeks, Jimmy jerked his hand away, putting it back in his lap and dropping his gaze to the frosty ground, heart thumping. He couldn’t believe how careless he had been again, how painfully easy it was to accidentally trample fragile line of their friendship in a few, simple seconds.
The air between them felt frozen, as though it had stopped the moment Jimmy had made the silly, impulsive move. He hadn’t meant to do it at all; when he was with Thomas, it was almost as though he wasn’t in control of his thoughts or actions. He hadn’t even realised he’d done it until he’d felt the blood burning beneath Thomas’ lips, so red compared to the cold— it was just how he gave Thomas answers without realising their truth until they were out of his mouth. Jimmy could feel guilt pooling uncomfortably in his stomach, curdling with the sweetness of the mince pie that he could still taste in his mouth.
For a split second, Jimmy suddenly thought that his vision was blurring as he stared out tensely across the lonely, frozen space of the darkening park so that he wouldn’t have to look and Thomas and have the guilt pool in his stomach— but then he looked up, and realised that it was snowing. Soft, tentative flakes of white were tumbling from the anguished sky and melting at the hard concrete ground at their feet.
“It’s snowing,” Jimmy exclaimed in delight, turning to look at Thomas.
“It is,” Thomas replied evenly in a detached sort of tone. He didn’t look at Jimmy, and Jimmy could see a muscle jumping in Thomas’ jaw. Silence fell between them again, as heavy and inescapable as the snow that fell from the bruised, steely sky.
Jimmy swallowed uncomfortably. There was still half of the mince pie left, cooling in the paper, but he no longer felt like eating it. He couldn’t tear his gaze from Thomas’ rigid posture. Every time Jimmy accidentally got too close, Thomas seemed to freeze like an animal under attack. Jimmy couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to be friends with someone, yet be unable to ever relax in their presence. He felt indescribably awful to think that he was the source of so much discomfort for the other man.
“Do you sometimes wish that you weren’t friends with me?” Jimmy asked suddenly, his voice feeling uncomfortably loud in the silence that had settled between them like a thin blanket of snow.
He looked up, watching the way that Thomas’ grey eyes seemed to reflect the falling snowflakes. They were more impossibly grey than the sky overhead, and Jimmy could feel the subtle warmth of Thomas’ body beside him were they sat squashed together in the cold.
“No,” Thomas said after a moment, his voice slightly quieter than usual. The pink still stood out on his cheekbones, softening the sharpness of his features despite the clench of his jaw. “I wish it was easier to be friends with you.”
“I wish it was too,” Jimmy said quietly, folding his hands uncomfortably in his lap. He looked at Thomas, who was so utterly striking against the falling snow; wine-red lips, jet black hair and intense black pupils that eclipsed the grey of his eyes and made his gaze heavy and warm despite the bitterness of the sky.
“We should be getting back,” Thomas said abruptly, but his tone wasn’t unkind.
“But what about the rest of our questions?” Jimmy asked, his heart sinking. “You’ve got two left, and I’ve got one.”
Thomas didn’t say anything for a moment; he placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it, taking a long drag and exhaling slowly into the bitter air. The snow mingled with the snowflakes uncomfortably. “How about I ask you one now, and then we both have one each later?”
“When’s later?” Jimmy pressed, watching Thomas anxiously.
“I’m sure there’ll be time after the ball this evening,” Thomas said coolly, taking another drag of the cigarette.
“Alright,” Jimmy agreed. “What’s your question, then?”
“Give me a moment to think of one,” Thomas said impassively. Smoke spilled from his lips as he stared out at the falling snow. Jimmy watched Thomas smoke his way through the cigarette, his gloved fingers perfectly still despite the fact his cheeks were still slightly flushed.
“Who’s the best friend you’ve ever had?” Thomas asked eventually, taking a last drag of the cigarette and crushing it under the heel of his shoe. Smoke faded into the air, like a fleeting idea that couldn’t hold onto reality and was enveloped by its enormity.
Jimmy pushed the mince pie crumbs into a little pile on the paper in his lap, considering. “I don’t suppose I’ve ever been particularly good at making friends,” he conceded, shaping the crumbs into a clumsy star. He could feel the weight of Thomas’ gaze on him.
“I find that hard to believe.”
Jimmy looked up, meeting Thomas’ unflinchingly grey gaze that gave the impression of seeing everything at the same time as giving nothing away.
“Really?” Jimmy challenged, more quietly than he had meant to. Snow always seemed to deepen the quality of silence. “I’ve never really been interested enough in someone other than myself to be a good friend to them. I’ve never really wanted a friend— and anyone who ever became something close I always manage to hurt by being so thoughtless. I suppose I’ve only ever really had one true friend.”
“Oh?” Thomas’ expression conveyed mild disinterest, but Jimmy could see the curiosity in his inscrutable gaze.
“You know it’s you, Mr. Barrow,” Jimmy said, suddenly feeling uncharacteristically embarrassed. He could feel his cheeks heating up, and he looked back at his lap, scattering the star of crumbs with his fingers.
Thomas didn’t say anything, but he nudged Jimmy gently with his elbow. “Come on,” he said, but the tone of his voice had softened, lost its discerning edge. “They’ll be expecting us back soon.”
The snow fell like dust motes in a lonely room, and was already covering their footsteps as they left the park, coating the rusting bench they’d sat on— as if they’d never been there at all.
By the time Jimmy finished serving at the ball, it was well after midnight and the snow was falling more heavily outside as he made his way to the servants’ quarters, a strange mixture of anticipation and nervousness curdling in the pit of his stomach. Ever since he’d left the snow park with Thomas earlier that day, he hadn’t been able to get rid of a peculiar, uneasy feeling that had settled somewhere between his lungs. It was like something he desperately needed to say yet kept swallowing down, and every time he did so it swelled up further— only Jimmy had no idea what it might be that he needed to say.
When he pushed open the door to the shared room, the feeling intensified. The room was dimly lit from the lamp on the vanity, and Thomas was sitting on the floor, back against his bed. He was smoking lazily, dinner jacket discarded and hair falling out of its pomade. There was a half-empty bottle of wine on the carpet beside him and smoke lingered above him in a murky haze as though he’d been there a while. He looked up fleetingly at the sound of Jimmy closing the door behind him, his careful expression slightly less guarded than usual, as though the alcohol had softened it.
“Bloody hell, if I have to serve one more drink, I think I’ll have a fit,” Jimmy groused, pulling off his livery jacket and throwing it onto his bed. He flopped down on the floor opposite Thomas, pushing a hand through his blonde hair and letting out a heavy sigh as he loosened his bow-tie and undid the top buttons of his shirt.
“Do you have any objections to drinking it yourself?” Thomas asked coolly, offering the half-empty wine bottle to Jimmy. His lips were stained slightly from it, making them look startlingly dark against his pale skin. The dark circles under his eyes seemed more pronounced than ever in the shadows of the room.
“Definitely not,” Jimmy said emphatically, gratefully taking the bottle from Thomas. The space between the two beds was relatively small, so he didn’t even have to stretch to reach it, feeling the fleeting brush of warmth as Thomas handed it over to him.
Jimmy took a long swig, letting the lukewarm alcohol fill his senses before setting back down on the floor between them, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
“Where did you get this?”
“No one would have noticed its absence,” Thomas replied evenly, taking a drag of his cigarette and exhaling lazily.
“How long have you been up here?” Jimmy persisted, noticing the way that Thomas’ composure was slightly less careful than usual and his movements were fluid and less measured. His dark hair was ruffled and softening from the pomade and he didn’t look so uncomfortable in Jimmy’s presence the way he had earlier. He looked different, somehow— as if a little of the composure had faded with the effects of the liberated wine.
“A while,” Thomas said composedly, knocking ash into the already overflowing tray beside him. “Lord Grantham went up early, so I had nothing left to do.”
“Lucky you,” Jimmy said sourly, taking another long gulp of wine. “Charlie, the footman I was serving cocktails with, is obnoxious.
“More obnoxious than you?” Thomas quipped, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as he exhaled in a plume of smoke that clouded the already smoky atmosphere of the dimly lit room.
Jimmy deftly swiped the cigarette from between Thomas’ elegant fingers in retaliation. “I am a delight to work with, I’ll have you know,” he said indignantly, tilting his head back and taking a long drag of the cigarette, letting the warm smoke fill his lungs.
“I’m sure Alfred would agree,” Thomas raised an eyebrow.
“Well, Charlie is awful,” Jimmy scowled, exhaling and handing the cigarette back to Thomas. “He’s so bloody clumsy, too. He knocked into me— apparently accidentally— and I snagged the thread on my jacket. It’s the only one I have with me, I don’t know what I’ll do for tomorrow.”
“I can mend it for you, if you like,” Thomas offered evenly, swallowing a mouthful of the wine straight from the bottle, somehow managing to make the action look elegant.
Jimmy looked up, exhaling smoke. “Really?”
“I still have the sewing box from mending Lord Grantham’s dinner jacket this morning,” Thomas replied impassively. He put the cigarette between his lips and stood up, going across to the vanity from where the dull light was emanating, and picking up the little sewing box.
“Thanks,” Jimmy said, taking another gulp of wine as Thomas sat back down in front of him. His shirt was slightly creased and the bow tie was undone, and Jimmy thought that Thomas looked the most relaxed he had all day.
“Where is the stitching torn?” Thomas asked, taking the cigarette from his mouth and handing it to Jimmy as he eyed the lapel of the jacket. “It might be easier if you take it off,” he added coolly.
“Can’t you do it while it’s on?” Jimmy asked. “This room isn’t particularly warm.”
Thomas seemed to hesitate for a split second, and Jimmy could see the muscles in his jaw clench and unclench before he spoke. “Fine,” he said curtly after a second. He took another sip of wine and opened up the sewing box. “Show me where it needs darned, then.”
“Just here, under my collar,” Jimmy said, pointing to the left lapel of the jacket. “I’m going to kill Johnson.”
“I hardly think that would help,” Thomas remarked coolly, threading the needle. He glanced up for a moment, expression utterly unreadable. “You’ll need to sit closer to me if you want me to fix it while you’re wearing it.”
Obligingly, Jimmy shifted closer to Thomas on the floor, so that there were only a few inches between them and Jimmy could almost feel the warmth of Thomas’ breath in the space between them. Something seemed to happen to the atmosphere between them; the distance between them suddenly felt much more pronounced to Jimmy despite the fact it had lessened. For some reason, he could feel his heart thumping in his chest as Thomas bowed his head, running his fingertips along the hem of the lapel and feeling for the broken stitching. The light pressure of his fingertips against Jimmy’s chest felt oddly lulling.
In some futile attempt to distract himself from the change in atmosphere, Jimmy took another long gulp of wine straight from the bottle.
“That stuff’s pretty strong,” he remarked, feeling the room spin slightly as he moved his head to watch Thomas’ fingers working on the fabric at his chest.
“It is,” Thomas agreed.
For several moments, Thomas sewed in silence, and Jimmy felt that the quiet was buzzing in his ears. He felt the inexplicable desire to fill it, to do something to take the focus away from the way he could taste the wine on Thomas’ breath between them and feel the slight pressure of Thomas’ knee against his.
“I’m surprised you’re not asking questions,” Thomas said after a few more moments of silence as he glanced up fleetingly to thread the needle. His gaze met Jimmy’s grey and subtly amused.
“Well, seeing as you asked…” Jimmy raised his eyebrows. He paused for a moment, taking another gulp of wine as he cast his thoughts round his mind for something to ask, the taste of alcohol overpowering his senses. The last time he’d drunk was in the pub with Ivy. He fleetingly wondered if Thomas had ever gone drinking with a girl— if he’d ever taken a girl out and kissed her the way Jimmy had kissed Ivy in the startling darkness of the walk home.
“Have you ever been with a girl?” Jimmy asked suddenly, staring at Thomas and trying to picture him sitting with someone like Ivy in the pub in the village. He couldn’t quite imagine it, but he would hardly have found it surprising; he knew that Thomas was handsome and had often thought how ironic it was that so many girls threw appraising glances in Thomas’ direction that were completely worthless.
Thomas looked up, the pupils slightly wider than normal in his grey eyes. Jimmy could feel the warmth of Thomas’ knee pressed against his, and feel the slight pressure of where Thomas’ hand was still resting against his chest.
“Once,” he replied slowly, eyes not leaving Jimmy’s. “Just so that I knew it wasn’t what I wanted.”
For some reason Jimmy suddenly got a vivid flashback of how disgusting it had felt to kiss Ivy; how her lips had been too slippery and sweet and how her hair was too long and tangled in Jimmy’s fingers, trapping him. Jimmy frowned, taking another swig of wine and setting the bottle down clumsily on the floor— only a little of the red liquid spilled over the side and onto the black material of Thomas’ trousers.
“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Barrow,” Jimmy mumbled, hurriedly reaching out to wipe the wine from Thomas’ thigh. The second his fingers made contact with the material of Thomas’ trousers, Jimmy felt him freeze— but for some reason, he couldn’t quite bring himself to let go. It was almost as if he himself had frozen too; he was barely aware of what he was doing, yet it suddenly seemed inexplicably important. Curiously, tentatively, Jimmy trailed his fingertips a little way up Thomas’ thigh, hearing Thomas’ breath hitch in the suddenly deafening silence of the room. Somewhere distant, Jimmy knew it wasn’t a good idea— but he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop. It felt as though he was seconds away from an answer, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop asking the questions that would lead to it.
He could feel the warmth of Thomas’ breath in the small space between them, and the points where their bodies touched suddenly seemed much more evident.
“Jimmy…” Thomas’ voice was throaty and hoarse, as though it was difficult to speak.
Jimmy looked up fleetingly at the sound of his voice, heart thudding, hand still lingering on Thomas’ thigh where he could feel the warmth of Thomas’ body beneath the thin fabric. When he glanced up from where his fingertips were resting on Thomas’ leg, he suddenly thought that he hadn’t remembered quite how close Thomas was sitting to him; he could count the blue flecks that were like rain in Thomas’ grey eyes, and feel the unsteady warmth of Thomas’ shallow breaths against his cheeks where the pores melted from pallor into flushed pink.
It was so rare for Thomas to wear his emotions on the outside— occasionally his eyes would flicker for a split second, unable to completely contain them— but other than that, he was seamless. But now he looked nothing short of tormented; his eyes were blazing, shadowed by sleepless circles, the black of his pupils intense and blown, colour standing out high on his cheeks, shockingly pink against the contrast of his jet black hair flopped across his forehead.
Jimmy suddenly couldn’t help thinking that he looked so wonderfully discomposed. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Thomas look so unguarded— not even when he’d been asleep. It sent a slight thrill through Jimmy’s body that made something curl deep in the pit of his stomach and tingle in the tips of his fingers that were still rested on Thomas’ thigh. It was a pulling sensation; almost like a magnetic force.
“Jimmy… what are you doing?” Thomas whispered quietly, his voice soft and anguished. He looked as though he was enduring some kind of necessary pain.
“I don’t know,” Jimmy mumbled honestly, moving his fingers slightly and gently squeezing Thomas’ thigh. He heard Thomas stifle some kind of noise as he did so, and glanced up, eyes wide. Thomas’ cheeks were burnt pink like they had been when Jimmy had got too close that afternoon in the park, his pupils huge and heavy with blackness like they had been that time Jimmy had traced the scars on Thomas’ palm, his breathing shallow and unsteady like it had been when they’d played duets together on the piano and Jimmy had sat too close.
Jimmy didn’t know quite why he couldn’t bring himself to let go— he just couldn’t quite bring himself to end the moment just yet. Even though his heart was racing, his hand was perfectly steady where it touched Thomas and Jimmy felt peculiarly calm, as though he was in some kind of dreamlike state. He tightened his grip on Thomas’ thigh, feeling the warmth of it under the scratchy material of his livery trousers.
“I— Jimmy,” Thomas sounded breathless and torn between pain and pleasure, and when Jimmy didn’t look up but continued to stare at his own hand where it grasped Thomas, he tried to push Jimmy’s hand away. Jimmy could feel the urgency in the movement, and reluctantly removed his hand, suddenly finding it hard to breathe as he looked up and got caught in Thomas’ heavy gaze.
Thomas dropped his gaze almost instantly as though burnt, even though it was his own gaze that was blazing, and made to move away— but Jimmy put his hand back on Thomas’ leg, thumb moving in tiny, tentative circles on the inside of his thigh. He audibly heard Thomas stifle the groan in his chest. The sound reverberated out into the silence and did something peculiar to Jimmy’s stomach. He could taste the wine in the air between them, feel the warmth of Thomas’ uneven breaths against his neck, and suddenly felt a lot less calm— but he still couldn’t bring himself to let go.
It felt almost as though he understood Thomas, like this, as if this was the answer to all the questions— just seeing Thomas like this. The less he knew about himself, the more important it seemed to know Thomas, and now nothing seemed more important.
Jimmy let his gaze wander over Thomas, taking it all in. He wondered if Thomas’ heart was thudding wildly the way he could feel his own doing, if his breathing caught in his lungs the way Jimmy’s felt as though it was. Two spots of pink stood out on Thomas’ pale cheeks, softening the usually angular lines of his cheekbones, his pulse fluttered in the exposed skin of his throat, and Jimmy could see his chest rising and falling sharply. Jimmy let his gaze stray lower, and with a jolt that suddenly made everything seem very real, realised that Thomas was aroused. The material of his trousers was unmistakably tight around his erection, and Jimmy felt something curl in the pit of his stomach again at the sight.
He looked up in shock, his gaze somehow getting tangled with Thomas’ blazing one. For a moment, they just stared at each other, breathing shallowly in the smoky, dimly lit room. Jimmy felt he could almost taste the tension in the air between them, and the darkness of Thomas’ pupils did not decrease— if anything, it darkened, but when he spoke, his voice was painfully even.
“Do I disgust you?” Thomas’ voice was quiet, but full of bitterness.
Jimmy looked up, hand frozen where it was on Thomas’ thigh. Thomas’ eyes were smouldering grey, and his cheeks were flushed red as he looked almost defiantly at Jimmy— but Jimmy could see the complete uncertainty behind the blown, black pupils. Being in love is being scared, Thomas had once told him. Jimmy cleared his throat, suddenly feeling as though he’d forgotten how to speak properly.
“No one… no one has ever disgusted me less,” he replied honestly. His voice felt heavy in his throat, his heart was thumping behind the confines of his ribs, and his fingertips were tingling were they touched Thomas as though they were close to something profound. The other man closed his eyes, looking serene for a split second, then he carefully pushed Jimmy’s hand away.
“You’ve had a lot to drink,” Thomas’ voice was breathless and rough. “You— you should go to bed.”
“I don’t want to,” Jimmy replied unsteadily, tracing his fingertips further up Thomas’ thigh so that they were inches away from where he could see Thomas’ erection straining against the material of his trousers. Arousal pooled acutely and suddenly in Jimmy’s groin, utterly unmistakable. He tried to shake away the blurry miasma of thoughts swirling through his head, the taste of wine overpowering his mouth. He’d never wanted answers so much in his life.
Thomas made a stifled sound as Jimmy began to rub his fingers in circles, and the sound sent a fresh wave of arousal through Jimmy.
“You… God… you don’t make it easy for me to be friends with you, Jimmy…” Thomas let out a shaky breath, his eyes fluttering closed. His fists were clenched as though he was enduring some kind of torture. Jimmy could see the little red, angry half-moon shapes on his palm where his nails had dug in. The colour stood out high on Thomas’ cheeks.
“Good,” Jimmy murmured, feeling half as though he was in some kind of dream. His heart was racing and he couldn’t think straight and he could feel Thomas’ shallow breaths against the side of his neck. He traced his hand a few centimetres further up Thomas’ thigh, and felt Thomas tense.
“You should go to bed,” Thomas said again, almost inaudibly. It sounded as though he was speaking through gritted teeth.
“I already said—”
“I mean it,” Thomas said quietly, his tone suddenly a lot harder. Jimmy glanced up, staring the way Thomas’ grey eyes blazed with colour and his cheeks were flushed and his jaw was clenched so tightly it made his cheekbones almost uncomfortably sharp. Thomas slowly pushed Jimmy’s hand away and then stood up abruptly, leaving Jimmy sitting alone on the floor, thoughts whirling.
“Get some sleep, Jimmy. You’ll be yourself in the morning,” Thomas’ voice was quiet and pained as he turned away, pulling on his livery jacket and picking up his cigarettes from the vanity.
Jimmy suddenly felt completely lost, as though he was no longer himself and hadn’t been since he’d stepped into the room. The impact of what he’d done suddenly felt as though it was crushing him, and he couldn’t bear to look at Thomas’ turned back. He staggered up from the floor and fell into his bed, head still swirling with alcohol and unanswerable questions that suddenly instead of making him feel light and dizzy weighed him down sickeningly.
Outside the snow was falling more freely than ever, and his heart was thumping so fast he felt as though it would break— not just in two, but into uncountable shards that could never be repaired to make the same picture.