The young man was sitting by the side of the road, to all appearances as if he had come to a halt for a mid-morning cup of tea. It was a brilliant spring day and with the colleges between term for the Easter holiday the Yorkshire roadways had been heavily populated with tweedy young men with knapsacks and stout boots.
Tom Branson, behind the wheel of Lord Crawley’s Oldsmobile, pulled the wheel a touch to the right, preparing to steer well clear of the bank where the young man sat. The young man, however, appeared to have other ideas and began waving an arm wildly in the air.
Through the open window Tom heard him calling, “Hey! Hey there!” Tom engaged the brake and pulled the car to a halt a dozen years ahead of the traveler. He was on his way back to Downton Abbey from the 10:17 from Manchester, upon which Lord Crawley had correctly anticipated the arrival of several parcels. A delay in his return would hardly inconvenience anyone.
“Can I help you?” He opened the side door and stepped out onto the verge.
“Tripped over that stile about an hour ago,” the seated figure said, waving to the fence half a dozen paces behind him. “Caught a boot lace on a rusty nail. Stupid really. But I’m afraid I’ve twisted my knee something awful.” His accent was oddly flat, one Tom couldn’t quite place. “You’re the first form of transport to come along -- is there somewhere nearby I might be able to find a doctor?”
By the time the man had finished speaking, Tom was at his side, and could see the awkward way the man was seated with his left leg out in front of him, the knee supported by a tatty sweater rolled into a ball. The joint was visibly swollen, pushing against the wool of his trousers. A knapsack was at his side, as well as an open thermos and a half-eaten apple. Tom hadn’t been entirely wrong, then, about the mid-morning tea break.
“The house isn’t but a mile or two up the road,” Tom said, refocusing on the problem at hand, “and Carson can call for Doctor Clarkson.”
“The house?” The young man was screwing the cap back on his thermos as he spoke, readying to move.
“Downton Abbey. You’re on the estate here -- this is all land owned by the Earl of Grantham.”
“Aha! Yes. The post mistress in Grantham said something about an Abbey. I thought she meant -- but never mind. What luck! Are you sure I won’t be imposing? I did try to stand on the leg, but I’m afraid to do it further damage. Here -- would you give me a hand?” He reached up and laid a warm, broad grip on Branson’s arm. Tom put out his other hand, reflexively, and pulled the stranger to his feet, steadying the injured man so he didn’t have to put weight on his bad leg.
“Name’s Miles, by the way,” the stranger said into Tom’s right ear, his left arm slung over Tom’s shoulder, “Thaddeus Miles. Friends call me Miles. Secretary for the Young Men’s Christian Association, lately from Manchester, though Chicago born and bred.” That explained the accent. Miles’ breath was warm against Tom’s cheek.
Tom adjusted his grip around the man’s waist, and had begun moving them toward the Oldsmobile before he realized that Miles probably expected him to reciprocate: “Tom. Thomas Branson. I’m Lord Crawley’s chauffeur.”
“Chauffeur! You must have fun tooling around the countryside in automobiles like that. His lordship have a fleet of them hidden away somewhere?”
“Only two,” Tom said mildly, helping Miles into the back seat of the car before trotting back up the road for the abandoned knapsack. He handed the canvas bag through the back window, then climbed into the front of the car and started the engine once more.
“Thanks awfully about this,” though injured, Miles apparently felt the need to be social. “I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you. If you need me to, you know, explain or something, to the -- you said he was an Earl?”
“Earl of Grantham. Lord Crawley. And no, no harm done. I was just on my way home from the station, with some parcels for his lordship.” Tom eased the throttle forward, allowing the speedometer to climb passed twenty on the little dial. He always enjoyed the final, well-groomed sweep of drive up to the house which allowed him to pick up a bit of speed. “They’re good people. Don’t always agree with his lordship’s politics, but he’ll do right by you.” What had possessed him to allow such an impolitic thought to escape his lips? He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel of the Olds. Something about the man’s open face, the firm, warm grip of his hand as he’d leaned into Tom and introduced himself. It inspired a certain sense of -- intimacy. One that, God help him, Tom knew from previous experience would be deeply unwise to indulge. Or even to do so much as acknowledge the existence -- oh, bloody hell. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, as if to banish such thoughts from his mind, to unthink them. If he could just -- if only --
-- and then they were pulling into the broad gravel courtyard by the kitchen door, and William appeared to help with the parcels. And soon enough the two of them, Tom and William, had helped Miles into the kitchen where Mrs. Patmore grumbled but provided him with a cup of tea and a heaping plate of biscuits. And Carson was consulted, and then Tom bundled back out the door and set on his way back to Grantham with a note requesting the presence of Doctor Clarkson.
What with the usual bustle of the kitchen, the stream of familiar voices, and tasks to be performed, Tom felt insulated, protected from the prickling of his skin where the warmth of Miles’ hand had held firm to his shoulder as Tom helped him into the house. He couldn’t possibly, standing out of the way of Daisy and Mrs. Patmore and Carson in orbit around the injured visitor, become too aware of the way Miles seemed to be watching him, his eyes flicking back to Tom’s face even as he answered Carson’s questions and thanked Daisy for the tea she thrust into his hands.
Miles couldn’t possibly be looking at Tom -- at least, not in the way Tom knew Tom himself was looking at Miles. Studying him. Considering the way the man’s worn wool vest was a shade of green that brought out the green tint of his eyes, and clenching a hand to stop himself from reaching out in order to tuck a wayward curl behind the man’s left ear.
Again Tom Branson closed his eyes firmly, and shoved his hand into a pocket to grip his rosary. … Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death … Couldn’t. Shouldn’t. Impossible. Unthinkable.
Except, of course, that he was thinking it.
At which point Carson was saying, “Branson, I’ve written to Doctor Clarkson requesting his presence, if you would motor to town and deliver it,” and Tom couldn’t recall a time in recent memory when he’d been so grateful for something to do, something to take him away.
Yet at the same time, Tom realized (the drive to Grantham and back being, ultimately, thin on distraction from the fluttering in his stomach and the thoughts buzzing ‘round in his head), a part of him was experiencing an unwarranted sense of bereavement, as if he’d lost something before he’d even realized it was there to have. Something warm, solid, full of easy attention and sharp interest.
What if he was watching you in the kitchen? It wouldn’t have been the first time Tom Branson had been the focus of another man’s interested gaze -- it had happened more often, in fact, than had he found himself reciprocating the attention, or observing unobserved. But this was the first time in a long while such a spark of recognition had been mutual.
If it had been mutual.
He’d realized, almost immediately upon taking up his position at Downton, that with a man like Thomas Barrow on the prowl, the slightest hint of a taste for his own sex would open him up to blackmail or worse. So he’d schooled himself against betrayal, and thus far escaped detection.
Miles’ presence was threatening to shake apart that scaffolding of protection he’d built up around himself -- and perhaps even more worthy of his alarm, Tom Branson found himself wishing he could afford to let it collapse, and the chips fall where they may.
He wanted to find out whether Miles’ gaze meant what he thought it did.
He knew he couldn’t afford to. And likely would not have a chance to. By the time he returned to the house with Doctor Clarkson, Miles would have been whisked away to a guest bedroom somewhere, to be visited by Lady Crawley as hostess who would invite him formally to stay until he was able to walk again. He’d rest for a few days, a week maybe. To pass the time he’d converse with Lord Crawley and be introduced to the daughters. Miles wouldn’t be a desired match for any of them -- unless his position with the YMCA and his well-worn clothes bespoke a penchant for public service and a material thrift that masked a family fortune -- but he’d be introduced nonetheless. And with those introductions be moved firmly from one world (the one Branson inhabited) to another.
Sybil’s lively conversation and political ideals aside, Tom was old enough and observant enough to know that playing Sybil’s game, the one in which she acted as though class distinctions did not exist, had consequences. Most often for people like himself, rather than people like her. His mother and sisters back in Derry were depending on him, depending on the money he sent home, and they couldn’t afford for him to jeopardize his position for anything as foolish as a passing fancy.
All of which brought him back to where he’d begun, he acknowledged with a sigh as the car rolled to a halt outside the main entrance of Downton and Doctor Clarkson stepped out into the waning slant of sun. Thomas had somehow maneuvered himself to the front door, ushering Clarkson inside with a light touch to the back of Clarkson’s thigh. The sort of touch that, to the unsuspecting eye, would have seemed to be a simple miscalculation of velocity and mass rather than a declaration of intention.
Tom engaged the clutch and disengaged the break, rolling forward to make his way around the house to the garage. It was late enough in the afternoon that Clarkson would be invited for tea and then, likely, remain for supper. After which there would be a reason to remain overnight -- it was a well-established pattern. He might as well park the automobile and give her a wipe-down before the bell rang calling them all in for the afternoon meal.
Perhaps working in the quiet, cool privacy of the garage would help calm his mind and his body, and reconcile him to the unattainable.
In the end, the garage proved to be the very last place in which to reconcile himself to unattainable, since it was at the garage that Miles sought Tom out several days later, moving gingerly and leaning heavily on a borrowed cane.
“Wanted to thank you for picking me up like that,” he said, appearing beside the open hood of the Rolls-Royce, where Tom was bent over in his coveralls cleaning the fuel leads. The sunlight was shining in through the open door of the garage, causing Miles’ brown curls to glint with russet highlights. Miles’ eyes, Tom found himself noting, were a hazel green flecked with gold.
He shivered. “You did thank me at the time,” he remarked, pulling a grease-stained rag out of his pocket to wipe his hands, hoping to cover the slight tremor that betrayed the way his stomach was in the business tying itself in knots. Why had Miles gone to the trouble of seeking him out? Perhaps he was polite to a fault, but given the sincere thanks he had voiced at the time, tracking Branson down now to thank him again seemed like a paper-thin excuse to seek out the chauffeur in order to -- in order to what was the question.
Tom wanted to know, but couldn’t ask -- couldn’t admit to himself that he wanted, hoped, for certain answers to the unspoken question over others; Miles presumably knew his reasons for being there, but was in no hurry to share them.
“So. How long have you been a chauffeur?” Miles, with apparent unconcern for the fact that guests of family didn’t fraternize with the staff, sat down on an upturned barrel to watch Tom work. Tom felt his cheeks going pink, and hid himself behind the bonnet of the car, hoping Miles wouldn’t notice.
“My uncle, back home, he runs a shop -- cycles, carriages, motorcars, a little bit of everything. I used to help him out when I was small, before my da died. And then, well, there was an accident at the shipyards -- steamship boiler blew, sixteen men died, Da among them -- and Uncle Rob couldn’t support his family and mine on what he could make in the shop, and my sisters were too young to be sent out to work. So I went as a stable hand to a family in Coleraine.”
Tommy boy, what game do you think you’re playing, prattling on like this? Yet he couldn’t seem to stop the story, and there was Miles leaning back against the rough-hewn boards of the garage wall, settling in as though he meant to stay for a good long while.
“When they bought an automobile in aught-nine they discovered I knew my way around the engine and how to get her going and keep her going, so they gave me charge of the motorcar.”
“A self-made man, then.” The comment was wry, but lacked any bite. “How’d you come to be in Yorkshire?”
“Better pay,” Tom shrugged, not wanting to discuss the delicate position of working for one of the Protestant landowners as his friends back in Derry became more politically involved. He’d known it was only a matter of time before their probing questions about political loyalties turned into demands that he show his allegiance by leaving his position -- or worse. And three of his sisters were still at home; the family couldn’t get by without his salary. So he’d begun to make inquiries, and Lord Crawley’s household had come up, and been spoken well of, and one thing had led to another. He’d sailed across to Liverpool two years ago and hadn’t been back since -- though the weekly letters from his mother kept him abreast of all the family comings and going.
“Fewer politics?” Miles asked in an offhanded tone. Tom nearly dropped the spark plug he was holding. Sweet Mary mother of God, this man is going to make life difficult. Did he have to be handsome and knowledgeable? He fumbled the plug back into place and cleared his throat. “Right. Yes. Less political.” He tried again. “Safer that way, for my mum and the girls.”
“For yourself, too,” Miles pointed out, mildly. “There’s no shame in that.”
Tom didn’t know how to respond to the observation -- how was he expected to respond to it? -- so he kept silent.
It was not an uncomfortable silence. He continued working on the car, fine-tuning the cleaning tasks he’d set himself for the morning, and Miles leaned back against the wall of the garage and … rested, would be the word. Rested his eyes on Branson. Tom could feel the weight of Miles’ gaze on the back of his neck as he worked. Heavy, yet somehow undemanding and curiously warm. It felt … comforting, he thought with surprise. Like the warm woollen shawls his mother used to settle across his shoulders when he sat up late in the evening, reading by the light of the oil lamp. Heavy with care and attention, and a sort of proprietary fondness. A feeling entirely out of proportion to the two men’s brief acquaintance. He felt his cheeks growing warm once again with the awareness of being looked at.
He wondered what the other man saw.
“So we’re both foreigners here, in a way,” Miles observed thoughtfully, as Tom finally admitted to himself that there was nothing on the inside of the Rolls that required an extra polish, and straightened his back, wiping his hands on the crumpled rag he’d stuffed up the sleeve of his coverall. “You, Irish; me, American. And, I’m willing to bet, both here in the effort to get away from something back home.”
Tom pulled the bonnet back over the engine until he felt the latch catch and hold. He tossed the dirtied rag into a corner. “I suppose you could put it that way,” he admitted, finally lifting his eyes to meet the other man’s, mossy green behind his spectacles. “Though there’s gettin’ away and there’s gettin’ away. Some things are easier to run from than others.” If he’s going to make this difficult, I can bloody well make it difficult in return.
Miles sucked thoughtfully at a bottom lip, arms crossed loosely across his chest, and met Tom’s eyes without hesitation. “I’ll grant you that, but sometimes those are the things you’re not meant to be running from.”
Tom lost the contest he hadn’t realized they were having, and looked away first. “So what about you?” He asked, hoarsely. “Why Manchester?”
Miles shrugged, “Why not Manchester? The YMCA offered me the secretarial position just as my father was starting to make noises about the family business, and how newspaper men don’t make a living worth the time it takes to write home about.”
“What newspaper would that have been, then?”
“Chicago Daily News. And before that staff writer for the Daily Maroon while I was earning my degree in Economics at the University of Chicago. But mostly I was writing, since Economics was my father’s idea from start to finish. Though I suppose you could say I learned a few things on the way by.”
“And then he wanted you to …?”
“Freight rail. Well, finance really. Investments. Speculation. But it started with movement of goods from point A to point B way back when. And I imagine the company still does that, on some level.” Miles pulled pushed his spectacles back up his nose in a well-practiced movement, leaving the smudge of an index fingerprint on the right lens. Tom had to stuff his hands in his pockets to stop himself from reaching out to pull the specs off and wipe them clean on his pocket handkerchief.
In the distance, a bell sounded announcing the noontime meal in the servants hall.
“I --” Branson yanked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the walk from the garage across the gravel courtyard to the big house.
“Right.” Miles collected his borrowed cane and rocked forward off the crate onto his feet, visibly leaning on the walking stick for support and favoring his uninjured knee.
“Do you --?” The offer was already out of his mouth before Branson realized what a bad idea physical contact would be.
“I can --” Miles was halfway through automatic decline of assistance before he seemed to realize what he was doing, and shut his mouth with a little shake of his head. “I’d appreciate that,” he said instead, shifting the cane to his other hand so that his left arm was free.
There was nothing left for it but to follow through on the offer, and Tom ducked under the proffered limb, reaching up to capture Miles’ wrist and pull the man snug against his own waist. And there they were: hip to hip, with Miles’ left arm wrapped behind Tom’s neck and Tom’s left arm across the small of Miles’ back, in order to steady the slightly shorter man as they stepped out into the sun.
Miles didn’t need this, and they both knew it. He’d made his way to the garage earlier that day on his own, and Doctor Clarkson had been confident it was only the mildest of strains. He’d be well enough to leave in a day or two -- Tom had heard from Gwen, in fact, that it was expected he would leave before the week-end; something about a meeting he was required for back in Manchester.
And yet here they were, and if there had been room for mis-interpretation and wishful thinking in the warmth of their initial contact, the exchange of glances in the kitchen, Miles’ motives for seeking Tom out and conversing with him, the way Miles now leaned into Tom’s body left very little up to the over-heated imagination (and if anyone’s imagination was over-heating at the moment, it was most definitely Thomas Edward Branson’s). Not that an outside observer would have seen anything other than the chauffeur assisting an injured house-guest across the courtyard, from the garage to the closest entrance of the main house. In fact, Miles was deliberately playing up the limp in order to justify the physical contact. Yet at the same time, he was tracing a thumb under the collar of Tom’s coverall, against the sensitive skin behind his right ear. And lacing the fingers of his left hand -- the cane had been forgotten on the garage floor -- between Tom’s, where it rested on Miles’ hip … and appeared, Tom noted to his own chagrin, to be sliding beneath the hem of Miles’ sweater vest and cotton shirt in search of bare skin.
Bloody hell. Please let no one be watching. Please let Thomas be far, far away from here right now.
He was panting -- in as much as he was remembering to breath at all -- by the time they reached the door. Miles slid his arm off Tom’s shoulders, trailing warm, lazy fingers across the back of Tom’s neck, and squeezed the captive hand one more time before releasing him altogether and limping across the threshold.
“There might also be things you don’t want to run from,” Miles said quietly, almost under his breath. It had a wistful tone, almost sad.
Tom licked his lips, desperately hoping he is voice would come out composed and knowing it wouldn’t. “I -- we --”
Miles shook his head slightly, and reached out lightly to press his fingers against Tom’s lips. “I know,” he said. And turned, and was gone.
That night, Tom woke up from a dream in which he was back on the sunny verge where he’d first encountered Miles, and, in fact, Miles was there seated on the grassy bank just as he had been. But in the dream, when Tom walked up to Miles they exchanged a few words -- upon waking Tom could no longer remember the conversation -- and when Miles had reached up to catch Tom’s arm, instead of helping Miles to his feet Tom fell to his knees, leaned forward, and kissed this man softly on those soft, pale lips.
Miles’ lips were were warm and dry. Tom flicked out his tongue to wet them, and found they parted at the touch, allowing him to enter. Tongue flickered against tongue as Miles reeled Tom in, pulling him closer and pressing sturdy knees to either side of Tom’s thighs.
A broad hand, warm as Tom remembered it, steadied him with a firm grip on the arm, while the other hand slid up against the nape of his neck, fingers sliding into Tom’s hair. Warm, so warm, with the comforting solidity of another body. It had been years since Tom had dreamt with such specificity, and even longer since he’d actually had the chance to hold, to kiss, to cling. They were on the ground now, Miles’ compact form wrapped around him, mouths and hands moving across skin, in agonizing too-much-yet-not-enough ghosting sensation.
Tom whimpered, burying his face against Miles’ collarbone. Miles laughed, warmly, lovingly, dipping his head to suck hard at the soft, exposed skin at the base of Tom’s neck. Tom arched up into the touch --
-- and woke up panting slightly, his heart racing. For a moment or two, he was disoriented in the dark of the room he shared with Amos Lynch, the family groom, up over the stables. He could still feel the weight of Miles against his chest, the press of Miles’ lips across his skin. He lay motionless, reluctant to shift and destroy the dream-memories traced along his flesh.
In the soft cocoon of night, in the privacy of his bed -- that rare space so completely his -- Tom allowed himself to yearn.
He sank into the fictive sensation of Miles’ caresses, the intense, alive interest of his gaze, the light in his eyes when he smiled. In this Neverland outside of time, he could leave aside fears about consequences -- dismissal, arrest, violence, shame -- and imagine that he could say yes oh God yes to Miles’ overtures.
With the practiced silence of someone who’s shared a room -- and often, a bed -- with others, Tom pressed his hips down against his lumpy mattress, feeling the slide of the blankets over his sensitized skin. He’d gone to bed with a nightshirt on, but in sleep the shirt had rucked itself up leaving his thighs and groin bare, the drag of the sheet against his half-hard cock drawing his attention downward. Sucking in a careful breath through his open mouth, Tom slid a hand down across his chest. He raked deliberate fingers through the tangled auburn curls to settle the palm of his hand around the silky length between his legs. It jumped slightly at his touch, and he took another careful, deep breath through his mouth. Lynch was a deep sleeper, and it wasn’t as if either man imagined the other never indulged. But having Lynch wake and in any way acknowledge what Tom was about would kill the lingering wisps of dream-Miles that skimmed his skin and slipped through his lips with each indrawn breath.
He wrapped his free hand into the bunched-up hem of his nightshirt and gave his dick an experimental tug. He had to turn his head into the pillow so that the whimper that rose into the back of his throat didn’t escape into the room. Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph he was so full of want. He hadn’t felt this way since his fourteenth year when Jim O’Hanlan from across the road had been tapped as a soloist in the choir at St. Anselm’s nearly every Sunday. He’d never been so eager to attend mass, before or since, and he still felt himself going a bit tight in the trousers on the Sundays when certain hymns cycled through the liturgical calendar.
But it wasn’t tow-haired Jimmy singing Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence that Tom thought of now.
He tightened his grip and dragged his thumb along the underside of his length, feeling the loose skin pull and slide under his fingers, twisting slightly, exquisitely with the movement of his hand.
And then he stopped thinking about individual motions at all because the tension was building low in his belly, and he could feel his balls pulling tighter, and the image of Miles looming above him against the sun on that bloody roadside bank was sparkling in and out of focus before his eyes -- dark curls -- wire-rimmed specs -- eyes that changed from brown to green to gold when the light hit them -- gentle lips -- warm hands -- and above all the warm, constricting, overwhelming safety of Miles’ body pressed against his, an echo of their journey across the courtyard.
The knowledge -- the hope -- that he might be desired, wanted, eventually loved. The thrill at having the audacity to hope, desire, want, and love in return.
It was all over too quickly, with a silent arch up against the bedclothes, a wordless, near-silent gasp of pleasure, the shuddering pulse of release against his hand. In a moment he was thrust rudely back into the now, left scrabbling at the beside table for the handkerchief he’d dropped there before blowing out the lamp the night before.
And then, mopped up and spent, Tom drifted back into sleep trying not to hope, in even a tiny corner of his mind, that Miles might -- just might -- be dreaming similar dreams.
Two days after Tom dreamt of kissing Miles on the sun-drenched verge, Carson catches him just after tea to inform him that the Oldsmobile -- with Branson as driver -- will be required the following morning to transport Mr. Miles and his knapsack to the Grantham station in time for the 8:34 to Liverpool by way of Manchester.
“Yes sir,” Tom nodded. “Does his lordship require anything else while I’m in town?”
“I believe not, but I’ll be sure to provide you with any further instructions before you depart in the morning.”
“Thank you sir.”
Miles hadn’t come looking for him again since their conversation in the garage, although they’d caught sight of one another in the distance once or twice. Once as Miles was taking a tour around the garden with Lady Mary. Once when Tom had been assisting William and Thomas to shift a heavy furniture in the morning room and Miles had passed through on his way to the Lord Crawley’s library. In both cases the presence of others had constrained both men, and Tom had just enough self-possession left to realize the comic humor in their desperate, mutual attempt to avoid looking at one another without appearing to avoid looking at one another.
If he hadn’t had a quiet laugh about the absurdity of the situation, he probably would have felt another wave of bereaved sadness wash over him.
When Tom pulled the Oldsmobile around to the front entrance to the Abbey the following morning, Miles was waiting with his knapsack at his feet. He was wearing a pair of neatly pressed blue trousers, a white shirt and necktie, and a disheveled brown coat with patches on the elbows.
Tom engaged the break and stepped down to open the side door for Miles. Miles bent down to pick up his bag and joined Tom by the car. But rather than slide into the rear compartment, he dropped his bag on the seat and then walked around to the passenger side and climbed into the seat opposite the steering column.
Tom blinked, shut the door, and then returned to his place behind the wheel.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Miles said, as they pulled away down the drive. “Sitting back there suddenly felt -- lonely.”
“No -- I, I don’t mind.” Tom cleared his throat and kept his eyes on the roadway. It was a cloudy morning, and a smattering of rain dashed across the windshield. He turned the knob to activate the wipers which swiped across the glass and back again.
For several minutes they road in a silence that felt constrained, the ease of their conversation in the garage a distant memory. Tom felt uncertain of what Miles expected from him: should he ask the man more questions about his life? Should he find a way to acknowledge the unacknowledgeable tension between them? Had Miles’ suggestion that some things weren’t worth running from imply that Miles wanted Tom not to run from him? That Miles himself wasn’t running away from Tom? But he was, in a way -- here he was returning to Manchester, to his work, eventually (Tom imagined, though he had not asked) to America. Had Miles expected Tom to seek him out at Downton, to offer his services the way Thomas offered himself to Doctor Clarkson or the handful of others Branson had seen him with? Perhaps Miles was angry at him for not doing so, or disappointed? But if so, then why had he ignored the back seat and joined Tom in the front? Was he --
-- at which point the rising swirl of panicked words in his mind were abruptly burst by the warmth of Miles right hand on Tom’s thigh.
Tom jumped and nearly drove off the road. “What the bloody--!” He bit off the exclamation as Miles’ hand jerked away as if he’d been burned.
“I’m sorry, I -- it’s nothing, please. Don’t --” Tom put his foot on the brake and pulled the Oldsmobile to a stop, turning to look at his passenger. Miles had pulled into himself, and was looking out the front window. Not allowing himself to think too much about what he was doing, Tom reached out and laid a hand on Miles’ wrist.
“No -- please -- I didn’t mean -- you just surprised me.” Miles let his hand be pulled into Tom’s own, clasped between them across the unoccupied stretch of bench that yawned between them. He turned to look at Tom, his face slightly flushed and his eyes clouded with something Tom couldn’t quite discern. Uncertainty? Fear?
“Please,” he said again. “I’d like you to --” he stuttered, and tried again. “I like it when you touch me. Please,” he added for good measure, pulling the warm hand with its soft palms and blunted fingernails, back toward his lap, pressing the hand down against the wool of his pant leg. The contact felt so like the imagined, caressing warmth of his dream that he hand to squeeze his eyes shut for a long moment and recite a rapid Hail Mary, then two, so that the tide of sensation threatening to drag him into its undertow could ebb and the task at hand could re-assert itself.
“We -- I have to get you to the train station,” he reminded Miles, clearing his throat.
Miles flexed his fingers experimentally against Tom’s thigh, the clouded look in his eyes receding slightly, replaced by something soft, half-frightened, but gilded around the edges with a pleasure so openly acknowledged that Tom felt his throat close up entirely, and had to feign sudden interest in the roadway before them so that Miles wouldn’t see him blinking tears from his eyes.
“I do have that meeting to make,” Miles admitted softly, also seeming to find his voice only with difficulty.
Tom wondered what they could possibly think they were doing, but with a final squeeze over top Miles’ warm fingers he shifted his hands back to the steering wheel and re-engaged the idling engine. The automobile lurched forward and resumed its journey toward Grantham.
“It’s an important meeting then?” he tried, thinking perhaps conversation about more mundane matters would distract them both from the achingly distracting physical contact.
“What? Oh, well --” Tom could hear the shrug in Miles’ voice, although he kept his eyes on the road. “Yes, in a way. The monthly meeting of the advisory board. They make the decisions; I’m in charge of implementing most of them. I imagine it’s a bit like you and the rest of the staff at Downton Abbey -- Lord Crawley and his family say ‘jump’ and you ask, ‘how far?’ ”
Tom laughed, as much from the nervous, reckless-feeling bubble of -- was that joy? -- in his chest as from the analogy.
“When’s your next day off?” Miles blurted suddenly, the fingers of his hand sliding imperceptibly closer to the growing bulge at the inner seam of Tom’s trousers.
“I -- what?” Tom blinked at the seeming change of topic.
“Your next day off -- you do get them, don’t you?”
“Every Monday, as a rule,” Tom cleared his throat. “I -- why?”
“Would you -- would you be interested in coming to Manchester? To see -- me?” The question was tentative, almost a whisper, and Tom suddenly found himself wondering how often Miles had done something like this -- or whether he’d ever done something like this before.
“I --” his brain scrabbled to find language to articulate what he wanted, which was singularly difficult given that he wanted to say “Yes, oh yes please!” but knew the prudent course would be to head the whole thing off at the pass. “I -- I want -- I don’t know,” he said miserably, helplessly. Please don’t pull away again.
Miles hand stayed where it was, though he immediately began to apologize. “That’s all right, that’s -- I realize it’s a lot to ask and -- your position is -- must be delicate -- I shouldn’t have --”
They were pulling into the Grantham station. The rain was falling harder than it had been back at the Abbey, obscuring the ticket office and waiting rooms from view. Branson rolled to a stop at the side of the platform, deliberately putting a bit of distance between the Oldsmobile and the three carriages, two other autos, and a delivery wagon that were assembled in anticipation of the train which would be arriving in -- he glanced at the clock on the platform -- less than a quarter of an hour. They really should make sure Miles had purchased his ticket and was ready to board.
But there was something Tom needed to do first. Because suddenly he’s realized that he’s had it -- not the wrong way round, exactly, but slightly out of focus -- these past few days. He’d been around Thomas too long, he thought angrily to himself. Been caught up in relentless policing of his own desires. Watching Thomas, he’d forgotten there were other ways of being with a man. Ways that didn’t involve some measure of exploitation, the leveraging of power and position, the danger of losing the game.
Perhaps there were things he not only didn’t want to run from, but from which he didn’t have to. He’d been telling himself all this time that it wasn’t worth the risk.
But maybe Miles was.
For the first time, caution didn’t seem worth it -- worth losing this young man and his reckless offers of Manchester -- his warmth and solidity -- his sparkling interest and the naked pleasure in his eyes when he’d realized Tom wasn’t rejecting him outright.
Tom yanked off his driving gloves and twisted in his seat, in order to face Miles and really consider him for the first time that morning.
Miles had pulled his hand away from Tom’s leg when the Oldsmobile’s motor had ceased turning over, and had his hand on the level of the door in preparation for departure.
Once again Tom reached out to grasp the arm of this man who was threatening to slip out of his life, now, as suddenly as he had slipped in.
“Miles--” At the sound of his name, Miles stilled, and Tom realized that was the first time he’d said it aloud. “Miles, I want -- God. Yes, it’s dangerous. And I hardly know -- but I want to. Know you. And maybe -- maybe there would be a way for me to come to Manchester. I just -- I need to think. And there’s no time.”
“You want to?” Miles turned back from the door and looked up at Tom’s face, eyes flickering with something clearer, more like hope, than Tom had seen earlier in the drive.
“I want to,” Tom repeated firmly. “It’s just -- I’m not the only one who matters here. There are people who depend on me. And I need to think this through.”
Miles slid a hand up Tom’s arm and neck to cup his cheek, to turn Tom’s head slightly so their eyes could meet. His face was close. Tom was still leaning over, half prepared to bodily arrest Miles’ exit from the car. Miles had his body turned awkwardly at the hips, but adjusted as he moved his hand to Tom’s face. Tom felt their knees bump, felt the brush of Miles’ chest against his arm, the anchor of that hand against his face -- so warm, dry as he’d imagined it, but soft like well-oiled kid gloves.
Without thinking, he turned his mouth into the caress and pressed a kiss against Miles’ palm.
Miles’ fingers convulsed, there was a sudden surge of motion, and Tom felt himself pressed against the leather back of the seat with Miles half-kneeling on the bench and -- oh-- then -- this -- they were -- oh God -- kissing. Pressing warm, hurried, slightly sloppy mis-aligned kissing against one anothers lips, cheeks, throats.
Hands -- there were hands -- warm, solid, non-ephemeral -- gripping his arms. He thought hazily he would surely bruise, hopefully fervently he would bruise. After Miles stepped out of the car into the rain, and then off the platform and onto the train, bruises would be the only visible sign Tom had left that this had actually happened. And he had a feeling he was going to need that.
Especially if this was going to -- oh God -- be recurring at regular intervals.
The clock on the platform chimed the half hour. The sound somehow seeped through the thick fog of lust in the Oldsmobile and reminded its occupants that not only did Miles have a train to catch but also -- rain and fogged-over windows aside -- that they were in the very public, very visible location of the Grantham railway station yard. And one ill-timed, curious glance would be all it took to ruin the slim chance they had before they’d so much as unbuttoned a single button.
“Miles--” Tom slid a hand -- oh God -- up Miles’ chest, to settle over his pounding heart.
“I know.” Miles whispered, reluctantly, into Tom’s mouth. He pulled back, panting slightly, and leaned his forehead against Tom’s. At such close proximity, Tom noticed the length of Miles’ lashes, and the slightly crooked tilt of his glasses. Their breath, trapped between them, was fogging up the lenses. “I know.”
They sat there breathing heavily into the silence. Tom felt a pounding not only in his chest, but also, slightly painfully, between his legs. He shifted slightly in an effort to accommodate himself. Miles noticed the movement and reached down, cupping Tom in his hand. Even though the cloth, Tom felt himself pulsing in response to Miles’ touch, and laugh-whimpered helplessly.
“Not. Helping.” He ground out, betwen clenched teeth.
“I know.” The acknowledgement was tinged with both regret and wonder. “Sorry, I’m -- sorry. But -- next time?”
“Yeah. Next time.” That came out far more ragged than he’d intended. He groped in his pocket for a handkerchief and wiped his face with shaking fingers, merely for something to do.
“Here, can I -- you go buy your ticket and I’ll meet you on the platform with your luggage.”
“It’s a single knapsack.”
“I’ll meet you on the platform.” Tom repeated. And this time Miles got the message and nodded.
“On the platform then,” he echoed, and in one movement had the door open and was moving -- with a slightly stiff gait -- through the rain to the ticket office.
Tom crossed his arms over the top of the steering wheel and leaned his head against his forearms. One breath, then two. He felt the shaking subside, and the twitch in his trousers drop back from nearly unmanageable to merely uncomfortable. Perhaps on the return journey he’d have to find a place to pull over and -- ooooh, that really wasn’t helping.
He thought about what Thomas would do if he ever caught them.
It was about as effective as an ice-cold douse under the pump in mid-January.
Miles met him on the platform just as the train was steaming and hissing its way to a stop at the platform. Only two or three people were waiting to climb aboard, and an equal number could be seen collecting their belongings and stepping down from cars along the train.
Miles reached down to take his bag from Tom’s hand, giving Tom’s fingers a tight squeeze before letting them drop. “Here.” He said, stuffing a bit of paper into Tom’s breast pocket. “My lodgings in Manchester. There’s a landlady, but I’ve a private room and as far as I can tell she doesn’t steam open the mail. Write me?”
“Yes.” Tom feels breathless -- Miles is already stepping away toward the conductor who’s obviously watching them, impatient to signal the all-clear. He has a timetable to keep, after all.
“Is it safe to write you?” Miles asks, and Tom knows what he’s really asking: How carefully worded do my letters have to be?
“Yes, it’s safe, I -- please.”
“Yes. Tonight. As soon as I’m done with that rotten meeting.” Miles cocks a grin, salutes, and he’s off.
Tom watches his progress up the platform, the grace of his hand on the rail as he hauls himself up into the car, and then the turn and near-imperceptible nod toward Branson as the engine picks up steam and the train begins to lurch forward once more.
Perhaps one day soon, Tom will be on this train himself. He touches his hand to his breast, feeling the crinkle of paper there, upon which Miles has scratched out an address. A location. Not neverwhere, but here. In the now.
They might just possibly have a chance.