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Under the skin

Chapter Text

Jimmy woke up staring at a ceiling he didn’t readily recognise. His first thought was that he had drunk too much, stumbled around aimlessly like he sometimes did, and ended up falling asleep somewhere. But that was an unlikely explanation; he usually did his drinking with the staff at Mr. Bellamy’s bar, and the chaps there were nice enough to walk his drunken arse back to the inn where he was living. Either that, or he’d sometimes wake up in some woman’s arms. But he was alone now, and he didn’t remember drinking the previous night.

He blinked a few times, vision still blurry, as he sat up. Now that was weird. His surroundings included a dresser, an old armchair, too many lamps, a desk against a corner. The walls were painted white with impersonal portraits on them. There were two skylights and a window in the small room. A chair was pushed under the door’s handle so as to prevent unwanted visitors from barging in.

If Jimmy wasn’t completely sure he had left Downton over a year ago, he’d say that was exactly where he was. And not just in the estate, but in Mr. Barrow’s old room. After spending so many hours there reading him newspapers, playing cards, or just chatting while he recovered from what happened at the Thirsk fair, Jimmy was sure he would always recognise that room.

But what was he doing in a room identical to Mr. Barrow’s?

He stood up slowly, rubbing sleep away from his eyes. A strange sensation overtook him—he felt so tall all of a sudden. Well, perhaps he was drunk still. Drunkards always felt taller, braver and smarter than other people. He didn’t feel drunk, though, just a little dizzy. He wobbled all the way to the dresser, wanting to look at himself in the mirror, hoping his face would give him a clue to what might’ve happened to him the night before. Hopefully the clue wouldn’t turn out to be a black eye, or a busted nose. Jimmy had been trying to avoid fights near the bar.

When he looked in the mirror, a surprised yell forced itself out of his throat. The face Jimmy saw staring at him wasn’t his. It was Mr. Barrow’s. Jimmy looked away from the mirror at once, the wind knocked out of him, heart thundering in his chest. This must be a dream. It was a dream, and now that he had realised he was dreaming, he’d wake up. So Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself awake. When he opened his eyes and looked in the mirror again, Mr. Barrow was still there, staring at him with a set of wide eyes and an agape mouth.

Jimmy’s mind must be playing tricks at him; this was a hallucination of some sort. It was understandable, really; he missed his friend, and while he couldn’t say he missed working in service much, he had lived in Downton for many years, so it was only natural to get confused like that. But now that he had acknowledged the feeling, he would close his eyes, and when he looked in the mirror one more time, he wouldn’t be seeing such nonsense anymore.

Jimmy squeezed his eyes shut one more time. Everything would be all right. He just had to take a deep breath and open his eyes on the count of three. One. Two. Three. A moment passed before he slowly pried his eyes open. The irises that greeted him were of a greyish shade different from his own.

That was a nightmare, a nightmare; he needed to wake up now. Jimmy pinched his own arm. When that didn’t work, he slapped his own cheeks, the left one, and then the right, hard and even harder. None of that worked, but he saw that Mr. Barrow’s usually pale cheeks were now bright red. His own skin felt warm.

“Mr. Barrow?” A voice boomed from outside the door, followed by two heavy knocks. It was Mr. Carson’s voice. This was Downton. “Are you all right?”

Jimmy looked around, desperate. He couldn’t let Mr. Carson see him like this. He needed to do something.

“Mr. Barrow?” Mr. Carson called again, knocking on the door more insistently, impatience colouring his tone.

Jimmy glanced at himself in the mirror. He was somewhat decently clothed, wearing Mr. Barrow’s pyjamas. Mr. Barrow’s face looked clean, and despite having just woken up, his raven hair wasn’t dishevelled at all. Jimmy looked proper enough, if not for the fact he was wearing someone else’s body.

Mr. Carson pushed the door open, but the chair kept it from swinging free.

“Mr. Barrow, open up at once.”

Jimmy needed time to assess his situation, and he could only do that if bloody Carson wasn’t right outside, getting on his nerves.

Cold sweat all over his body, Jimmy took the chair from underneath the handle, pulling the door open only just enough so he could stand between it and the frame. Mr. Carson’s inquisitive eyes fixated on him.

“I’m—” Jimmy began, but couldn’t finish, startled to hear Mr. Barrow’s voice coming out of his own mouth. He coughed and cleared his throat before starting over. “I’m sorry, sir, I was getting dressed.”

Carson looked at him from head to toe. “You are wearing pyjamas.”

Jimmy swallowed and said nothing, hoping Carson wouldn’t reprimand him for barring the door.

“Mr. Barrow, are you all right?” Carson asked once more, squinting at him. “I heard noise. Are you getting ill again? You gave us quite the scare yesterday.”

Jimmy blinked a few times, trying to come up with something to say.

“I... am not... Feeling ill, I mean. But I might be. My stomach is a bit upset, indeed.” Jimmy wondered if Carson was in fact looking at him with such suspicion or if he was imagining things due to the panic in his head.

“Well, if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re feeling better. You look well, a little flushed, but well. You fever has broken, I assume?”

“Y-yes, it has,” Jimmy stuttered.

“Good. I’ll send Miss Baxter upstairs with a light breakfast and a tonic for your stomach. You should rest today, Mr. Barrow.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carson.”

Jimmy watched the butler turn on his heels and stride down the corridor in his usual solemn pace, and closed the door softly when the man turned around the corner. He was a little calmer now and his heart had slowed down to an acceptable rhythm, but he drank a glass of water from the pitcher to tranquilise himself just the same. Then he approached the mirror haltingly to inspect his face—Mr. Barrow’s face.

It was kind of impressive how his hair managed to always look so proper even without pomade. Jimmy’s own hair was always curling itself in all directions, to Mr. Carson’s chagrin when Jimmy still worked at Downton.

He looked down his body and flexed his fingers, staring at Mr. Barrow’s palms. The two fingers on his left hand, the ones covered by the half-glove, felt stiff and didn’t bend completely. It was the oddest feeling in the world—he was in full command of that body, it felt like his body, but it didn’t feel at all like his body used to feel. Because it wasn’t his, naturally; it was Mr. Barrow’s.

Jimmy sat down on the bed, trying to make sense of things. This was impossible. It was impossible that one night he went to sleep in his own body after coming back from the night shift at the bar, only to wake up the next morning in another man’s body. It was impossible, but, be that as it may, something was happening. Jimmy just had to figure out what.

Maybe he’d been drugged. It was a possibility, but he couldn’t think of any drug in existence capable of such a staggering effect. And even if such a powerful drug did exist, Jimmy couldn’t fathom why he would have consumed it.

Maybe he was crazy. Maybe he had lost his wits, and only thought he looked like Mr. Barrow. Then again, Mr. Carson had seen him and did not demand to know what Jimmy Kent was doing back in Downton—in Mr. Barrow’s room, of all places. So the old butler must be seeing what Jimmy saw as well.

Maybe he was even crazier than that. Maybe he was in fact Thomas Barrow, who went insane after years of unrequited love for Jimmy and had now deluded himself into thinking he was his own object of affection. The idea was so complex it made his head hurt.

But he didn’t feel crazy. Scared out of his wits, yes, but not crazy. His mind felt like it always had, and he didn’t have any strange urges. He didn’t want to bang his head on the wall, he didn’t feel like setting things on fire, and that was what nutters did, right? He had hit himself, though.

If he truly wasn’t crazy, then he should try to look at things like a sane person would. What did he know about his current situation? Carson had said something about Mr. Barrow being ill the day before, sick enough to frighten the rest of the staff. Now that Jimmy was thinking about it, he hadn’t felt so good the day before either. He remembered having a headache and feeling nauseated. He had only decided to go to work because it was the band’s day to play. The bar would be so crowded that he’d risk being fired if he didn’t show up. Besides, sometimes Mr. Bellamy let Jimmy play along in the piano, and that was the best part of the job.

Remembering last night’s events brought him to the question: if he was here, where was his own body? His first guess was that Mr. Barrow had it, but then worry overtook him again. He could be seriously injured, lying in a gutter somewhere. Heavens, what if something horrible happened, what if bandits jumped on Mr. Barrow and killed him, and Jimmy was stuck like this forever? That was a grim thought that dug a hole in his chest. If that happened, he’d never see Mr. Barrow again. Well, he would see Mr. Barrow every day for the rest of his life, but he wouldn’t ever talk to him again. Hell, he wouldn’t see his own face ever again.

For a moment, Jimmy regretted never having given Mr. Barrow his photograph. It would probably have been an ill-advised thing to do, considering their history, but Jimmy already missed seeing his own face.

Jimmy stood in front of the mirror again and tried to smile Mr. Barrow’s smirk, with only the corners of his mouth tilted slightly upwards, but it looked different when he did it. Besides, it was a worthless smile because it wasn’t the real Mr. Barrow controlling his own lips after a snide comment.

Jimmy wished he knew what to do to make things right. Maybe he needn't to do anything, maybe he would fall asleep and wake up in his own body. That was how he'd got into this mess, right? He had done nothing but go to bed, so maybe falling asleep again would get him out of it.

He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes, waiting. He willed himself to be very still, wanting sleep to take him, but the more he tried to relax, the more he tossed and turned on the bed.

There was another knock on the door, but this one was very soft, and a moment later Baxter walked in, balancing a tray on her arms.

“Oh, you’re still asleep? I can come back later,” she said.

Jimmy sat up on the bed.

“No, leave it here.” He didn’t want interruptions later. “Off you go now,” he said, raising his eyebrows expectantly when Baxter just stood there in the middle of the room, staring at him.

Coming to think of it, if he did have to get stuck in someone else’s body, it was a good thing that it happened to be Mr. Barrow’s. What an awful thing it would be if he’d got in, say, Mr. Molesley’s or Mr. Bates's bodies, with everyone expecting him to act very noble and self-forgetting.

“I’m sorry; it’s just that we were worried about you downstairs. There is no love lost between us, but we don’t wish you any harm either,” Baxter said with a caring expression.

Baxter might have been sincerely worried, Mrs. Hughes too, maybe, but the rest of them? Jimmy doubted it.

“Was I... really that bad?” he asked tentatively. He needed as much information as he could gather, but he couldn’t ask too much, lest people think he had amnesia. “I must’ve been. The... sickness left me a little forgetful this morning.”

“Oh, it was. You had a scalding fever and terrible cramps in your stomach. You were trying to keep to yourself, but all the servants could hear your pained groans echoing in the halls. We were about to ring Dr. Clarkson when your fever broke, thanks to Mrs. Hughes. She made you cold compresses and stayed with you until you fell asleep.”

He didn’t remember being sick other than headache and queasiness, but apparently Mr. Barrow had suffered a whole lot the night before. “Interesting,” he muttered to himself.

“What is interesting?”

“Nothing.” Jimmy looked at Baxter some more. Could she really tell no difference? Couldn’t Carson before her? Could none of them?

She hesitated a little before talking again. “For a moment, I was worried that you were doing that thing again.”

Jimmy tried to tread lightly as Mr. Barrow probably knew all about what Miss Baxter meant, but Mr. Barrow was also in the habit of pretending not to know things he obviously did when it served his purposes, so Jimmy guessed it was safe to do just that.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jimmy said, averting his eyes in a guarded way that was only good to make people prod further.

Fortunately, Baxter took his bait.

“You know very well, Mr. Barrow. If you’ve answered another advertisement, please stop now. You can’t have forgotten what happened. Remember what Dr. Clarkson told you.”

Jimmy pursed his lips. This was almost worse than being left in the dark; now that Baxter lit a match in the obscurity of Mr. Barrow’s life, Jimmy had no answer for her, being acutely aware of how little he knew of someone he had dared to call his friend.

“You mustn’t worry about me,” he ended up saying. It was general enough not to give away his ignorance, but he could tell she didn’t trust his words.

Eventually, she gave in. “Fine. Don’t tell me then. I’ll be on my way.”

She excused herself, and left the tray next to Jimmy on the bed.

When she closed the door behind her, Jimmy finally looked at the contents of his tray. A cup of tea and a bowl of watery porridge, with a bottle of tonic for his stomach on the side—a meal for a sick person. He ate and drank just the same, feeling famished all of a sudden.

What business could Dr. Clarkson have with Mr. Barrow? They’d got somewhat close during the war, that much Jimmy knew, but the war had been over for many years now, and Jimmy didn’t remember Mr. Barrow saying anything about them keeping in touch. The way Baxter phrased things… what was the connection between an advertisement and Mr. Barrow being ill? And what was Dr. Clarkson’s role in this? Anything other than what was expected of a doctor?

Anxiety always made Jimmy hungry, and by the time he swallowed down his last spoonful of oatmeal, his stomach was still growling. He wished this bloody day would end so he’d feel tired enough to fall asleep and be done with this whole nonsense.

He had just set the tray aside and drained another glass full of water when it dawned on him—he would have to actually live as Mr. Barrow for hours and hours before the day was finally over. Jimmy didn’t expect it to be overly difficult, since he was convalescing from sickness, and wasn’t expected to perform Mr. Barrow’s duties as under-butler, but he would eventually have to tend to his own needs, such as going to the bathroom. Jimmy felt like kicking himself for not thinking of that sooner, immediately regretting his meal and the tall glasses of water he had drunk. Maybe he was imagining things, but he thought he could already feel some pressure in his bladder.

In a couple of hours, at the very most, he’d have to go to the bathroom and hold another man’s prick—Mr. Barrow’s prick—just so he could have a piss. And that meant Mr. Barrow, if he was in Jimmy’s body like Jimmy thought he was, would go through the same thing.

Heat shot up Jimmy’s neck, warming his face. Mr. Barrow would be able to look at his naked body, do anything he wanted with it, and Jimmy would have no way of knowing. Still, deep down Jimmy didn’t think Mr. Barrow would behave like that—not after being so respectful after the kiss incident. He probably didn’t even care about Jimmy that way anymore, considering how distant he had been when Jimmy still worked at Downton. Friendly, yes—Mr. Barrow had been the only real friend he had there—but he had stopped touching Jimmy at all. Which was what Jimmy wanted, right? But it still was strange to notice the blatant effort he put in not coming in personal contact with Jimmy even when they were spending time together. After the kiss, the only time they touched was when Jimmy offered him a hand after saying good-bye.

In the end, it had been Mr. Barrow who failed to keep in touch. Despite not being much into writing letters, Jimmy wrote him a quick message, asking how he and everyone were. Jimmy got a response that was equally short, and read as quite disinterested and formal, and when he wrote again, Mr. Barrow never wrote back. He was surely over Jimmy.

Hoping to postpone the inevitable, Jimmy tried to distract himself as best as he could by inspecting the things he found in the room. He supposed it was impolite to go through someone’s belongings, but he had nothing else to do with his time, and he was already in possession of the other man’s body—what was going through a few drawers compared to that?

He first went to the set of drawers close to the door. The contents of the first one were varied: socks and underpants mostly, but there was also a first-aid kit, sewing utensils, a pair of cufflinks, a watch, and a half-empty jar of petroleum jelly that made Jimmy wonder why it was kept separate from the first-aid kit. He shrugged and closed the drawer. In the second one he found all of Mr. Barrow’s uniforms. In the last drawer, there were more clothes, personal ones this time. He pushed it closed with a sigh. No cure for boredom there.

He sat back down on the bed, thinking maybe he could give sleeping another try—if he succeeded, perhaps he could go back to his own body before he had to take a piss—when another piece of furniture caught his attention. There was a nightstand next to the bed, with a drawer of its own. Inside, he found a pack of letters tied with a string, a couple of pens, a pencil, and a notebook. When he untied the bundle of letters, a picture fell on his lap. It was a photograph of a man with dark hair in an army uniform. Jimmy tried to look at the picture through Mr. Barrow’s eyes, imagining what this unknown man meant to him. Whatever their relationship had been, it must’ve mattered, if Mr. Barrow kept his picture. Lovers, perhaps. He imagined Mr. Barrow must have found this man very handsome.

A strange feeling ran through Jimmy. He had never given any consideration to what Mr. Barrow did in his private life—Jimmy was the one who used to brag, while his friend kept to himself. He supposed Mr. Barrow did that to preserve Jimmy, which he was grateful for. But at the same time, Mr. Barrow being in love with him was such an established fact in Jimmy’s mind, almost like a rule of nature, that he was a little shocked to realise he wasn’t the only man in Mr. Barrow’s life. Well, now that he thought of it, of course he wasn’t. Mr. Barrow was past thirty, and a well-lived man. He must have taken dozens of lovers in his life. It was just strange to Jimmy to finally put a face to one of those unknown men.

Behind the picture, elegant handwriting read, “Lieutenant E. Courtenay.” Jimmy wondered if they had met during the war or after. Was this someone from Mr. Barrow’s present, or his past? Was his affection for this man more or less intense than what he felt for Jimmy? Well, Mr. Barrow had all but saved Jimmy’s life, so he figured it was a bit hard to top that.

He spent the next half an hour or so going through the letters. Judging by how many he kept, Mr. Barrow was indeed a prolific letter writer—just not when it came to Jimmy, apparently. He had letters from O’Brien, sent to him during the war. Jimmy skimmed through them, trying to understand why would he keep letters from such a devilish woman; maybe she revealed some secret in them, one that he wanted to secure proof of, but there was nothing of the sort. He quickly put the letters aside, not to be touched again.

Then he found a few letters from Baxter, and reading them proved far more interesting than reading what O'Brien had written. Learning about Baxter's past made it more understandable that they would know things about each other. Still, the letters made no reference to any advertisement Mr. Barrow might’ve answered, or to anything Dr. Clarkson might’ve said to him, which only piqued Jimmy’s curiosity.

The next letter in the bundle was more of a note.

Dear Thomas,

I am writing to say how much I enjoyed our time together in New York, but you already know that. If you ever have a change of heart and decide to reconsider my offer, let me know. It would make me happy having you here. Write back and tell me how the journey home went.

A. Collins

Jimmy flipped the note, but the back of it was blank. As far as Jimmy knew, the only time Mr. Barrow had been to America was almost three years ago. And when he got back, all he had to say was that things had been “interesting and modern.” No wonder Mr. Barrow had told him, prior to his leaving, that he wanted to see Jimmy courting a girl from the village by the time he got back—he must already be thinking of all the shameless American men he’d meet on his journey, like this Collins fellow who had the nerve to ask Mr. Barrow to leave the country for him.

And all this time, Mr. Barrow hadn’t said a word on the matter. Jimmy told him all about Ivy, and Lady Anstruther, while his best friend wouldn’t say anything about having a lover. Or lovers, he reconsidered, eyeing the picture of Lieutenant Courtenay again. Which brought him to the next letter in the bundle—addressed to Edward, the lieutenant’s name. Had Mr. Barrow written this letter and changed his mind about sending it? Jimmy read the first lines avidly before realising this one wasn’t from anyone he knew. It was from the lieutenant’s father. Why would Mr. Barrow keep it?

Once the correspondence was over, the notebook drew his attention, but the first pages were nothing but a detailed account of Mr. Barrow’s expenses and income. The man put everything on paper with details. There were also extensive entries on topics related to his position as under-butler. Jimmy would rather not bore himself to death with such dull reading. He could scarcely understand how Mr. Barrow managed to keep himself awake long enough to write it—if this was what it took to be an under-butler, Jimmy would rather spend the rest of his life waiting tables at Mr. Bellamy’s bar.

He was about to put the notebook aside with the letters when the word “advertisement” caught his attention. Lost in the myriad of dull notes, there was a small paragraph that didn’t seem directly related to service or finances.

It’s been a week since I first saw the advertisement in London’s magazine. I suppose what caught my attention was that they addressed such issues at all, no matter how enigmatically. It will probably be a big financial investment. Considering her Ladyship’s words, there shouldn’t be bad news regarding my position or wages any time soon, but caution is still advised. I can’t have a reprise of what happened after the war.

Jimmy understood the need for secrecy in one’s personal affairs, especially in a house where servants were given little to no privacy at all, so it was obvious there would be nothing compromising written in detail, but the more Jimmy read, more doubts he had. What was the bloody advertisement about? What happened after the war? Weren’t they friends? Jimmy thought they were. So how come he never knew any of this?

Next, Mr. Barrow had written down some expenses on personal toiletries—shaving cream, pomade for his hair, and a jar of petroleum jelly.

Jimmy wanted to go on reading, but he was forced to put the notebook down. His bladder was about to burst. He had been feeling the constant increase in pressure for the past half an hour, but had decided to ignore it. Apparently, the more he tried to ignore the problem, hoping it would go away, the worse it got. In addition to desperately needing to take a piss, he was parched. The water in the pitcher looked like it was provoking him, daring him to take a sip.

Finally, when he could barely move for fear of wetting himself, he admitted defeat and stood up carefully, putting on Mr. Barrow’s slippers. As he got down the stairs, searching for the men’s washroom, he wished he had admitted defeat a little sooner. It was a little painful to walk with how full his bladder was.

He got into the washroom, closing the door behind him. As soon as he was inside, he saw Mr. Barrow’s reflection in the mirror. When he was not seeing himself, it was a little easier not to be so disturbed by his current situation, but considering how small the bathroom was, he was constantly glancing at some part of Mr. Barrow’s body. Even so, his bladder wouldn’t let him forget what he came here to do. He stood facing the toilet, wondering about the best way to do this—no, not the best way. The least horrific way, because there was no good way of touching another man’s prick.

Perhaps he could close his eyes, so he wouldn’t be haunted by the sight of it on future occasions—but no, that wouldn’t work. With his eyes closed, he wouldn’t be able to aim, and would end up pissing all over the toilet seat, maybe even on the floor.

His bladder kept making itself known, and Jimmy knew he didn’t have another minute to spare thinking of his problem. He summoned all his courage, but even so, his fingers shook a little when he unbuttoned Mr. Barrow’s trousers, tugging his underpants down only enough to pull himself out. As soon as he did, warm urine started flowing, hitting the toilet bowl with a loud sound. Relief spread all over him, and he hummed with pleasure. Once the stream stopped flowing and he was ready to tuck himself back in, he stopped for a moment. Despite himself, now that he had seen it, he needed to actually look at it.

He wasn’t at all used to seeing other men naked, and it surprised him how different Mr. Barrow was from him. Well, it was essentially the same thing; Mr. Barrow had all his bits and pieces, just like Jimmy did, but everything else was different. Mr. Barrow’s pubic hair was dark against his pale skin, whereas Jimmy’s was golden. His prick was different, too. Even soft, Jimmy could tell it was bigger, thicker than his. It made him blush, but it also made him awfully curious all the same, even if he didn’t readily know what he was curious about. He tucked himself back inside fast, turning to the sink to wash his hands. Mr. Barrow stared at him in the mirror, as if he was watching, trying to figure out what Jimmy was up to in his body.

Back in the bedroom, Jimmy picked up the notebook again. He had trouble finding another personal entry. They were always short and easy to lose in the midst of finances and work. The one he found said:

I wrote them a letter asking for a brochure, which arrived this morning. Full package—treatment in their facilities as well as medication—comes at a slightly higher price, but they offer an installment plan. The brochure advises patients to look at their condition from a scientific and objective point of view. According to the booklet, “symptoms are severe, but manageable; the patient should expect significant improvement within the first month. The urges will disappear and be progressively replaced by desired behaviour.” I might telephone them later this week, if Mr. Carson agrees.

Treatment and medication—was Mr. Barrow sick? Whatever he meant by “condition”, Jimmy hoped he was feeling better now, wherever he was.

The next entry was easier to find, which led Jimmy to believe they were only a few days apart.

Everything is set. I’ll stay in London for a week. The prospect of electroconvulsive therapy isn’t a thrilling one, but something must be done. The “symptoms”, as they put it, are getting out of hand. Change is needed. I’ll leave to London on the first train in the morrow. The spike in fares means I won’t be eating until I get to the clinic.

Electroconvulsive therapy—that meant electrical shocks. What disease on Earth could possibly be cured by that? Mr. Barrow would be hurt; such a thing couldn’t be safe. What illness could afflict him to the point it would convince him of such sacrifices?

A soft knock on the door pulled him out of his musings. Baxter walked in with another tray; he had forgotten to place the chair underneath the handle. Reflex made him push the notebook under the mattress at once, as if he had just been caught doing something he shouldn’t, despite the fact that it was Mr. Barrow’s notebook and he was Mr. Barrow as far as the rest of the world was concerned.

“Oh, you look a lot more like yourself,” Baxter said, as she placed the new tray on his lap, picking up the breakfast one. “I’m glad to see some colour returning to you before I leave tomorrow with the family.”

“Leaving, are they?”

“Yes, to London. Mr. Bates and Anna are coming along, too. You know that.”

Jimmy gave her a small nod. Then, when she was about to leave the room again, he called after her.

When she turned back around, Jimmy hesitated some, wondering if he wouldn’t make things worse trying to inquire her about his own past. Still, he ended up asking, “Why... Why did you think I had replied to a different advertisement? Wasn’t my—my last experience enough?”

Miss Baxter gave Jimmy a smile he knew Mr. Barrow would hate seeing directed his way.

“It was just a thought. You got me worried for a moment when I saw how bad you were yesterday. But you’re a lot better now. You wouldn’t do that again, would you? Not after what Dr. Clarkson told you.”

Jimmy hadn’t the vaguest clue of what Dr. Clarkson might have said, but he nodded anyway. “You’re right, I wouldn’t.”

Baxter nodded back at him and left him alone with his tray. He ate slowly, savouring the food. He had missed Mrs. Patmore’s food. He was allowed to dine every day at the bar, but it was never this tasty.

Once he was done, he placed the tray carefully on the floor by the side of his bed, and pulled the notebook back again. He had never been much of a reader, but he felt almost like this was some big mystery he had to solve. Like there was some hidden answer in Mr. Barrow’s journal that he had to find out.

The next entry he found was easier to spot because it was longer than the ones before it. It was preceded by a few financial notes, like the price of his train ticket, and the meal he'd paid for at a local pub after all.

Their facilities are far smaller than expected, considering how pricey their services are. There were only three other men here when I arrived, despite their claim to be fully booked. First therapy session went without a problem. The electrical shock part of it got me scared, but they injected me with some form of sedative before strapping me to the gurney. As I dozed off, I could feel them pushing something into my mouth for me to bite on, but it was all over when I woke up—even my mouth was empty. Oddly enough, they gave me a series of pictures and instructed me to indulge into my symptoms. So far “Choose your own path” feels more like “Continue on your old path but on a different bed.” I’m not the professional here, so I’ll do as I’m told.

Mr. Barrow was mysterious enough that, not knowing him, Jimmy might be in the dark, but he thought he was beginning to understand what he read. For a reason he couldn’t explain, his gut instinct told him the whole thing was wrong, cruel, a mistake.

Second day was quite different. I was strapped to a chair and there was no sedative this time. The nurse put electrodes on the soles of my feet and on my palms. Then they presented to me the same pictures they gave me yesterday, but in a much larger size. With each image, electric current passed through my body. I held my ground for as long as I could, but I got sick, lost all my lunch, and the session had to be interrupted. I was nauseated all afternoon.

Jimmy stared at the words open-mouthed. It took him minutes to recollect himself enough to close his mouth. Suddenly, he remembered the time Baxter arrived at Downton with her sewing machine, and how Mrs. Patmore was too scared to even touch it. Most people he knew, old or young, were still quite wary around electricity. And Mr. Barrow had voluntarily electrocuted himself in hopes of... choosing a different path.

He threw the blankets away from his body and stared at his soles, looking for a scar of some sort. He didn’t find any, but he couldn’t help but imagine a bright red electrode shocking him there, and he shuddered.

He wished Lady Anstruther had never showed up at Downton; that way he would have been there to convince Mr. Barrow not to do such a thing.

They say it’s all a matter of conditioning, making appropriate associations. They say what they’ve been doing is part of a series of aversion techniques. I was supposed to have started the reinforcement part of the treatment this morning, but I was too nauseated to even think about it. Everything is nauseating as of late.

Jimmy put down the notebook. Reading those words made him feel like he had seeing Mr. Barrow’s bruised face all those years ago, but this was somehow worse now that he couldn’t offer any form of comfort.

His bladder was full again. He had never paid attention to how much one pisses in a day but being in someone else’s body forced him to acknowledge it every time. When he made his way to the male’s bathroom downstairs this time, he didn’t feel anxious in the least. He bolted the door shut and took his prick out with the same ease he always had before today. He supposed things were always easier the second time around, but after reading what he read, he felt childish for having worried that much about seeing another man’s body—it was petty compared to what Mr. Barrow had gone through.

When he was leaving the bathroom, he nearly stumbled into someone he’d never seen in Downton while working there. It was a young man with an appalling haircut. His eyebrows were too low, his eyes too big, and his nose bigger still. He was skinny and all gangly limbs. By his livery, Jimmy could tell he was a footman.

“Oh, hi, Thomas,” the man greeted him.

Thomas? What happened to Mr. Barrow?

“I’m so happy to see you well. You had me so worried last night. Will you go back to work tomorrow?”

He wouldn’t even be there tomorrow. Not him anyway.

“Yes, I think I will.”

“Good,” the other man said with a sincere smile. “If you’re feeling all better by then, maybe we can have a chat after work? It’s been weeks, and we still haven’t found a way for me to make it up to you. You were so good to me ever since the night at the club and I never got the chance to pay you back.”

“Um—we—we’ll see,” Jimmy said hesitantly, trying not to give away the fact he had no idea who that was, or what was his business with Mr. Barrow. And why they were intimate to the point a footman would feel comfortable calling an under-butler by his first name.

Jimmy felt something akin to rejection for thinking of Mr. Barrow so formally. Jimmy had started calling him Thomas before leaving Downton, hadn’t he? They had been actual friends by the time Lady Anstruther caused his downfall, and Jimmy had called him Thomas a handful of times before they parted ways. The name had sounded natural and familiar to him every time, like it was a precious thing that belonged to him.  And now he was hearing it on the mouth of this footman, whatever his name was. It made him feel robbed.

“Thomas?” the man said.

Jimmy realised he had been distracted for a moment. “Yes?”

“Would you fix my tie? Mr. Carson complained today that it was a poor knot, but he had no complaints when I first got here and you fixed it for me. And your own clothes are always so neat.”

“Fix your tie?” Jimmy said before he could stop himself. “Suppose you want me to teach you how to wind the clocks as well?” Standing up close to your back, with our hands touching, like Mr. Barrow—like Thomas used to do to him?

“Would you really? I look forward to it,” the nameless man said, oblivious to the snideness in Jimmy’s tone.

“Ah, I see you’re better, Mr. Barrow, already standing in the corridors having a nice chat,” Mr. Carson told him, coming down the stairs and running into them.

“I’m convalescing, Mr. Carson,” Jimmy answered politely. “Just came down to use the washroom.”

“And you?” Mr. Carson said, raising eyebrows at the boy. “Shouldn’t you be getting down, Andrew? You’re needed in the kitchen.”

“I’ll be on my way, Mr. Carson,” the young man—Andrew—said and left, his tie forgotten to Jimmy’s relief.

Mr. Carson followed Andrew downstairs without another word to Jimmy, who went on his way back to Thomas’s bedroom—he made a point of thinking of the name now.

But who was this Andrew fellow anyway? Why were he and Thomas so close? He was a footman like Jimmy himself had been once. Was that a habit of Thomas's, making special friends out of footmen? It couldn’t be—surely not in the way it had been with Jimmy. He thought of the lieutenant in the picture: a fine looking lad who Jimmy had no difficulty imagining as Thomas’s lover. But Andrew? Judging by himself and the lieutenant, Thomas liked his men comely, and that wasn’t something Jimmy could easily say about Andrew. Besides, Thomas wouldn’t have replaced him so fast. Except it wasn’t fast; it’d been more than two years since he took that beating meant for Jimmy, over three if he counted back to their kiss. After all that time, and especially with everything Jimmy had put him through, it was understandable that Thomas would be over him. Judging by the letter from A. Collins, the mysterious American, Thomas got over him even before he left Downton. Jimmy had no right to feel slighted over Andrew.

Besides, maybe there was nothing between them. After all, Thomas had endured great sacrifices in an effort to go against his nature. Maybe he had succeeded, Jimmy mused, despite how strange that possibility was to him. Even so, they needed to have a very special friendship for them to be on first name basis, going to clubs together, fixing each other’s ties. Well, they weren’t going to be that close anymore, not while Jimmy was using that body, that was a given, no matter how long Jimmy’s stay in this predicament was.

He tossed himself on the bed and retrieved Thomas’s notebook from the nightstand, flipping the pages to where he was previously reading. He wondered if he would find any mentions to the footman in future pages. At first, he hoped not, but at the same time, he wanted to understand what the nature of their relationship was. It wasn’t any of his business, but while he was living in Thomas’s body, it bloody well became his business.

He put Andrew away from his mind as he read on.

Things can’t continue how they’re going. I’m giving up the shock therapy, and sticking with medication and serums alone. I simply can’t stand it anymore. Tachycardia hits before I even enter the treatment room. At night, phantom electrical shocks keep me from sleeping. The doctor said all of this is to be expected and pleaded with me not to end sessions this soon. But I need to return to Downton—who knows how long will it be until someone decides they can do without an under-butler after all.

Thomas wrote down the price of his train fare to Downton, and the cost of another meal in the city. And then the next entry:

I will be at Downton by luncheon. The nurse showed me how to inject myself properly. I’ll take three syringes a week, and daily pills. It will be a fairly long treatment, but according to the doctor, that is the price to pay for abandoning the sessions. He assured me I could write or telephone to comment on the treatment, and said I have to practice the exercises he recommended me. I can’t say it’s a prospect that thrills me, but hopefully the medication will take care of that.

And then, for a few pages, Jimmy saw nothing but writings of financial nature, lists of things to buy, mindless notes to self—don’t forget this, do that, his Lordship needs that other thing—and was nearly exasperated needing to know what had come of Thomas’s quest.

A thought flashed into Jimmy’s mind: how odd was the idea of Thomas with a wife. Jimmy tried to imagine Thomas kissing a woman, like he had tried to kiss Jimmy in his sleep, and couldn’t. It was like he was trying to imagine waking up one day and seeing the sun rising from the west—unlikely to happen, and if it ever did, the world would have spun out of its axis.

But eventually he found the type of entry he was looking for.

This whole thing is proving to be more difficult than anticipated. There is little pain I can compare to taking the last injections. Getting shot during the war was painful enough, but I’d gladly take another bullet if it just meant the end of this. Fever has been constant for the past four days. The infection makes the wound hurt so badly that it is now compromising the strength in my leg. I can’t sit down. I can’t sleep. If I didn’t grit my teeth with every step, I’d have a limp. I’ve been applying hot compresses on it, but it keeps getting worse. The pain makes me border on despair. People are starting to notice, despite my best efforts, that betraying woman especially. And her watchdog hasn’t left her side, nosy and annoying beyond measure. On the bright side, the treatment might be successful. After all, with my eyes sunk so deep in my face, and the sickish aspect I’ve got, I don’t think anyone would offer me an opportunity to indulge. And even if they did, I wouldn’t have the energy. Last night, I had a dream I was in that chair again.

After reading that, Jimmy had to take a break for a moment. He was too revolted at what he read. Thomas had been severely sick with an infection he got from whatever those horrid people gave him. Their whole lot needed to be put away. The entire thing was outrageous. And Jimmy had no way of giving Thomas a hug and saying how sorry he was for him. Jimmy wasn’t good with words. Every time he had something important to say, he rehearsed several times in his head and it never came out the way he planned. It had been like that when he visited Thomas’s room after he took a beating, and when he was telling Thomas goodbye. Both times, he wanted to say something grand that could convey exactly how he felt, but he always botched it someway. He had been meaning to give Thomas a hug that last time at the courtyard. Thomas and he had been friends, actual friends who looked out for each other. And wasn’t that what friends did before a long separation—embraced? But Thomas was too respectful to do anything, and Jimmy felt too awkward initiating a hug after overreacting so badly when Thomas kissed him, so a handshake was all they had for each other. Tonight, however, if Jimmy could see Thomas, they’d hug, and Jimmy would say he was sorry for not being there while Thomas needed a friend.

After dinner, Jimmy had another call of nature, and by the time he was done, he chose to take a bath. The prospect of being naked had stopped scaring him. He wasn’t a child—he could handle this. He placed his towel on the hanger and the clean clothes over the sink. Then he stood in front of the mirror, staring at Thomas’s face and body in front of him. The blue pyjamas he wore complimented Thomas’s complexion.

Jimmy raised his right hand and started unbuttoning. The pyjama shirt fell to the ground. He’d never seen this much of Thomas before; his skin was creamy and unblemished. Jimmy’s stomach and chest were completely smooth, but Thomas had some hair adorning him. After a moment of consideration, Jimmy ran his palm over the width of his chest, on his shoulders and across his stomach. Thomas’s body felt soft in a way that Jimmy wasn’t expecting. His hand slid further down, touching the waist of his trousers and underpants. He unbuttoned himself, letting them fall to floor, so he could step out of them.

Thomas stared at him from the mirror, naked except for the half-glove covering his scarred hand. Jimmy spent a few moments looking at Thomas’s cock—it was different seeing it while standing in front of the mirror instead of looking at it from above like when he had to piss—but he also stared at Thomas’s legs, his arms, and even his feet. If before Thomas seemed like a regular bloke to him, with weaknesses and strengths just like any other man, right now Jimmy felt an immense admiration for him. Thomas was strong. Resilient. The stuff survivors were made of. He had gone through a lot and was still standing.

Jimmy lowered his eyes to his left hand, studying the half-glove covering it. He touched it, hesitating. Somehow, removing this garment seemed like it would leave Thomas more naked to Jimmy’s eyes than stripping his pyjamas had, but he eventually took it off. The skin was harsh and rugged. His little and ring fingers looked different than the rest of his hand, like they didn’t belong to the same person. They felt rather different, too, stiff as they were. Jimmy wondered what being shot had felt like, and if Thomas had been afraid. And exactly how desperate he had to be to think being shot again was preferable to what he was suffering.

Jimmy didn’t know why, but looking at the scar up close like that made him feel compelled to kiss it, like it could somehow make up for the hug he couldn’t give Thomas. Jimmy had the scarred palm centimetres away from his face when he realised what he was doing, and mentally chastised himself.

He filled the tub while trying to rearrange his thoughts. These were his last hours as Thomas. Soon, he’d be asleep, and when he woke up, that day would have been nothing but a dream. Once he was back to his own body, he’d send Thomas another letter, maybe make a telephone call to Downton, so Thomas would be more likely to answer. It had been good having Thomas as a friend, he shouldn’t have let that slip away.

The water was warm and pleasant when he stepped into the tub. He soaped himself lazily, taking his time. He had always enjoyed taking baths. While he was soaking in a tub with his eyes closed, water was always water, no matter if you were a servant or a lord, and Jimmy’s dreams and ambitions could flourish.

But the water eventually started to cool, and Jimmy called his bath to an end. He wiped himself dry, dressing himself in clean pyjamas. As he climbed the steps up to Thomas’s bedroom, he felt a little nostalgic. He almost didn’t want to go to bed—it was like saying goodbye to Thomas all over again. And this was yet another time when he couldn’t get a proper farewell.

He turned off the lights and tucked himself into bed, but sleep had trouble finding him. Jimmy’s hand found its way into his hair and he started curling their ends around his index finger. He used to do that absent-mindedly until he fell asleep every time he was insomniac. His own blond curls used to wrap easily around his finger, but Thomas’s straight threads felt different and it wasn’t the same thing. So Jimmy touched his chest instead, palm flat open on his sternum, feeling Thomas’s heart beating steadily inside his ribcage. Did it beat this calmly when Thomas was in love with him, or did it race every time their hands touched? It must have raced—Jimmy’s own heart always hammered when he felt Thomas’s warm breath on his neck, or his hand on Jimmy’s knee.

Jimmy lowered his hand from his chest to his stomach. He didn’t know what he meant to do, but his shirt was in the way, so he hiked it all the way up to his armpits. The skin on his belly felt warm to the touch. He lowered his palm past the navel, going down—down all the way until his fingers dabbled a little under the waist of his trousers. He drummed his fingers all the way back up to his chest, only to flatten his palm and lower it smoothly all the way down again.

Jimmy didn’t know if he enjoyed touching himself like that, or if he enjoyed the feel of Thomas’s skin under his palm, but a wicked thing happened—he felt himself swelling. He was by no means fully hard, but he could feel the surge of blood making him bigger. Jimmy remembered his surprise at seeing Thomas’s size when he first went for a piss, and his eyes snapped open. In the partial darkness, he could see the bulge Thomas’s prick made in his trousers. Jimmy’s skin prickled with curiosity, but he left it be. He only had to wait a few more minutes until he fell asleep. Tomorrow, all of this would be over.

Chapter Text

Jimmy realised he was awake before he opened his eyes. The sheets felt comfortable underneath him, and some light was seeping into his room. His room—what room was that again? He opened his eyes, blinking a few times, trying to adjust focus. A dresser with a small mirror, an armchair, too many lamps, a nightstand beside his bed, two skylights, and a window. He looked down at himself; hands bigger than his own used to be, a body taller than his own body was. He was still inside Thomas.

Sudden panic shook him. He had been so sure things would be solved simply by falling asleep again. And now that they weren’t, what was he going to do? How in hell was he going to fix this? Could it even be fixed? How did this awful thing even come to happen? Was it a drug, a spell? What? He sat on the bed, throwing his legs to the side. Resting his forehead on his palms, he tried to take easy, calming breaths, but they kept turning into shallow, rapid ones. He held his breath for a few seconds and tried again until its rhythm was under control.

He glanced at the clock beside him and noticed it was almost five, the time he used to get dressed if he wanted to be ready for service in time. Carson would probably be expecting him—Thomas—to go back to his duties this morning, considering how well he spent the last day. And Jimmy would have to be there; he couldn’t risk missing another day of work and infuriating the old butler—it would be putting Thomas’s unconventional position in jeopardy, one that hadn’t been easy for him to achieve. It would be a terrible thing if Jimmy had destroyed his friend’s career by the time they fixed everything.

Jimmy didn’t even know what tasks an under-butler was expected to perform. It took him months on the job before he learned how to be a proper footman; there was no way he could act as an under-butler overnight. He remembered Thomas’s notebook, and all the entries he had skipped. Thomas was very detailed with his job and the majority of things written down there concerned his new position. Notes on wine choosing, on Carson’s demands regarding inventory, and on activities Jimmy didn’t even know Thomas had to do, like the managing the hall boys and supervising reports from the stable master. Jimmy immediately regretted not having read them, so caught up he was with Thomas’s personal notes.

The minutes ticked by fast. Whatever his plan was, he couldn’t go anywhere without looking proper, so he put on his uniform and began shuffling through Thomas’s belongings searching for hair pomade. When he was finally done, he looked at himself in the mirror, wondering if Thomas would be proud if he could see how Jimmy had groomed him. But when he took a few steps, he realised he’d have to add more elegance to his stride if he ever intended to play a convincing Thomas Barrow. God, this would be so bloody difficult.

He descended the stairs slowly, his heart beating fast in his chest, but trying to appear calm. All the servants were gathered around the kitchen table. There were no cries of Impostor! as he walked in, so maybe he was fine so far. But then habit made him look for the seat he used to take as a footman; he had already pulled the chair out when that boy, Andrew, walked past him, taking the seat as if Jimmy had offered it, thanking him with a nod. Jimmy nodded back, relieved to have avoided an awkward situation, but cursing at himself inwardly for not remembering such details, and sat down where he remembered seeing Thomas sit every day.

“Good morning, Mr. Barrow,” Baxter said, offering him her candid smile. “It’s good to see you back with us before we leave.”

Carson was the last one to arrive, sitting at the head of the table. During the meal, it was easy to get lost in the sound of cutlery softly hitting the plates, and the staff’s conversations. Jimmy wondered if he should be trying to make small talk now, lest he look strange—no, it’d be stranger if Thomas started acting friendly all of a sudden. He usually only opened his mouth unprovoked if a snide remark was in order; Jimmy had been the only one with whom Thomas actually conversed.

The meal was almost over and Jimmy still hadn’t come up with a plan to avoid his daily tasks as under-butler. If he managed to get through the day, he could read as many work-related entries as possible before going to bed so he could actually know something tomorrow, now that simply waking up out of this nightmare no longer seemed an option. But what was he going to do today?

“Would you like more eggs, Mr. Barrow?” Andrew asked, offering him the tray from where he was helping himself.

Jimmy eyed the odd lad with annoyance. At least he had the decency not to call him by his given name in public. Even so, everything about Andrew bothered Jimmy—the unknown nature of his relationship with Thomas, and that it was precious enough for them to hide it from the public eye. His annoyance grew as he noticed how poorly made the knot in Andrew’s tie was.

Carson seemed to have noticed it as well.

“Andrew, didn’t I tell you yesterday to fix that horrible tie of yours? You are no longer a hall boy. Your attire must be perfect in every way when you present yourself to the family before they leave.”

Andrew opened his mouth to speak, but Jimmy cut him off, struck by an idea. “Actually, sir, I’ve meaning to ask you something. I believe it may be a good idea for me to supervise the footmen’s work more closely today. Their skills need some honing, and now that the family is gone, I see it as a perfect opportunity to give them a good impression when they return. I wouldn’t mind teaching them a thing or two.”

That was something he could do. Thomas had taught him many things, especially after they had decided to be friends, and Jimmy could stomach spending this day teaching Andrew a few of his tricks if it meant surviving the day with Thomas’s job intact.

Before Carson could respond, though, Molesley intervened. “I’m pretty sure all of us know how to do our jobs without your aid, thank you very much, Mr. Barrow.”

Jimmy swallowed dry. He remembered his first weeks at Downton, telling Thomas how nobody liked him there, how it always felt like he was Jimmy contra mundi. Well, it wasn’t any different for Thomas. Had it been Bates to make that offer, wouldn’t all of them thank him for being so generous and kind?

Carson, however, was having none of that. “I believe Andrew would benefit from some tutoring. And as for you, Mr. Molesley, you may have been a butler, but the Crawley House is much smaller and demands fewer responsibilities than Downton Abbey, I’m afraid.” And then, to Jimmy: “You are right, it would be good if the family came back to find footmen more properly trained. You have my permission.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carson,” Jimmy said, relief washing over him.

By his side, Andrew smiled at him with complicity, as if they just shared a personal win. Jimmy didn’t know why, but he disliked their proximity.

The day ran almost without complications, to Jimmy’s delight, despite the uneasiness of having a position above his capabilities. The family’s departure took most of the morning, with the loading of the cars. When they were about to leave, Jimmy stood there in the courtyard in his best posture, eyes staring forward and nose tilted up, but he was shaking inside when Lord Grantham passed by him. The last time Jimmy had seen his Lordship’s face, his expression had gone from concern about the fire to distaste over finding Jimmy in Lady Anstruther’s bed. Jimmy was momentarily afraid he was going to be discovered, that Lord Grantham would look at him and somehow know, but then again, who on Earth would come up to him and say, “Blimey, you look like Thomas Barrow, but you’re in fact Jimmy Kent, aren’t you?” Jimmy himself still couldn’t quite believe it was real, and he was living it, so he put his worries to rest and focused on work.

After luncheon, his make-believe task of helping Molesley and Andrew as footmen turned out to be quite real. Thanks to the days of autumn he and Alfred had spent doing little more than polishing all the silver in the house—the autumn when Thomas took a beating meant for him, when they finally started being friends—he was able to instruct them in the most efficient ways of getting silver to shine in the least amount of time. When their fingers started cramping, Jimmy showed them how to remove the polish stains that somehow got on their clothes, despite their aprons.

They had no meals to serve the family, but he revised most of the serving rules and names of cutlery utensils with Andrew. As much as he tried, he couldn’t find a reason why he disliked Andrew so; he was a fine lad, and he listened to Jimmy with actual interest. Then again, it wasn’t to Jimmy Andrew was so attentive—it was to Thomas.

When they were done, Jimmy sat with them both in the yard, teaching them how to wind the clocks. It made him feel very nostalgic for Thomas, as he couldn’t help but remember all the afternoons they spent together doing this, or that time when Thomas first talked to him about clocks being living things, and how their hands touched. But soon Molesley and Andrew finished that as well, so Jimmy had to shake himself out of his memories.

“I want to teach you how to take lint off a jacket without damaging the fabric,” Jimmy said. It was another thing Thomas had taught him. “If you had a light day of work, which is not the case today, obviously, but if you happen to have one, you could wear the—”

“Should I remind you I was Mr. Crawley’s valet for years before his unfortunate passing?” Molesley cut him off. “I don’t need lessons in tending to clothes.”

Jimmy didn’t remember Molesley having an aggressive bone in his body, but today the man acted like his sole intent was to disrupt Thomas’s authority. Jimmy himself had been a footman not that long ago, and he knew how the work routine could make one short-tempered, but he simply couldn’t empathise with Molesley when he disrespected Thomas like that.

Jimmy raised his eyebrows and lifted his chin, his words a drawl of contempt. “I was talking to Andrew, Mr. Molesley, but you would do well to remember that Mr. Crawley, while no doubt dear to us all, was also a middle class man, with little regard to tradition, who wouldn’t have recognised the difference between a mediocre valet and none at all.”

Carson would have his skin for talking like that about the family, but he wasn’t there to hear, so Jimmy went on. “Do you think his Lordship or his Lordship’s guests have such low standards?” Until then, he had purposefully antagonised Molesley with his tone, but his next sentence was uttered in a softer voice. “You don’t want to be a footman for the rest of your life. Next time, listen to what I have to say, before claiming you don’t need advice.”

Jimmy was glad to see that Molesley looked humbler as he walked away.

Carson, fortunately, seemed to be getting soft with the years, as they were released from duty a pair of hours earlier for no special reason other than the family being away. Or maybe, he wondered, Carson just never liked Jimmy—the likely motive why the old butler was always so reluctant to give him time off. No matter the reason, those were two fine hours to have, because Jimmy still hadn’t come up with a plan to deal with his situation, and he still had to figure out Thomas’s attributions as under-butler—he didn’t think helping the footmen was a ruse likely to work two days in a row.

As soon as he was dismissed, he went straight into Thomas’s room, fetching the notebook. This time, even though he absolutely needed to read anything Thomas might’ve written about his duties on the job, he couldn’t resist searching for the personal entries. He thought he might have just found one when there was a knock on the door.

Pushing the notebook under his mattress, he said, “Come in.”

It was Andrew. So now Thomas received nightly visits, instead of paying them.

“Hello,” the boy said with an unsure smile. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I really needed to say thank you.” It sounded as if Andrew had rehearsed this a few times. “Mr. Carson already didn’t want me to work here because of what happened at the club back in London, and I think he was ready to fire me. It was nice of you to stand up for me like that, offer me help.”

“Think nothing of it,” Jimmy said. “Just trying to be a good under-butler.”

“No, it’s more than that,” Andrew said. “You’re a good friend, Thomas.”

A good friend—not a good lover? Perhaps he and Thomas had never got past flirting. Jimmy hoped this wasn’t the night Andrew expected to change that. He looked at the boy with more attention; after Jimmy, and the handsome lieutenant, could Thomas be interested in such a… common looking fellow? Could this boy be the reason why Thomas didn’t answer his last letter?

Andrew looked at Jimmy with such admiration and lack of mischief in his eyes that Jimmy couldn’t hold a grudge.

“Come here,” he said. “Let me teach you how to fix that tie, so Mr. Carson won’t strangle you with it.”

He got up, and stood by the mirror with Andrew. First, he untied the whole thing, and then began tying the knot very slowly, taking it step by step, teaching Andrew a few tricks to make the sides look more balanced and neat.

He remembered when Thomas taught him that; it had been almost two months after they’d started talking again. Thomas didn’t touch him—come to think of it, he never did after the kiss—choosing to knot his own tie, and have Jimmy repeat after him. In the end, his bowtie looked marvellous and Jimmy felt bad that he used to spend twenty minutes in front of the mirror everyday troubling himself over the damn thing, instead of just asking Thomas for help.

As he gave the final pull in his own tie, finishing his explanation to Andrew, he wondered if Thomas would have any new trick to teach him now if he could. If before Jimmy was set on edge when Thomas touched him, now it would only be natural for them to touch each other; switching bodies made people intimate, despite what they might think of it.

“I have to go now,” Andrew said. “Thank you so much for your help. Really. But I must get going, otherwise I won’t be ready for dinner and Mr. Carson won’t like it.”

Andrew turned to leave, but Jimmy called after him. “Andrew?”

He turned back around, and smiled awkwardly. “Andrew, eh? Now you sound like Mr. Carson.”

When Jimmy just looked at him expectantly, not knowing what to say, Andrew gave him a hint.


“Right. Um, Andy, could you please tell Mr. Carson I won’t be getting down for dinner? I think I still need some rest,” Jimmy said. He needed time alone to think, plan and read, and he wouldn’t have nearly as much if he was expected to have a meal in the kitchen and act proper.

“You want me to bring you a tray?” Andrew—Andy—offered.

“I’m not hungry,” Jimmy lied.

“All right then. I’ll see you tomorrow. Good night, Thomas,” Andy said, walking away.

Jimmy closed the door and started to undress, in a hurry to get out of his suffocating uniform. He was inside Thomas’s body, which meant Thomas was probably wearing Jimmy’s own. Perhaps all they had to do was meet, and then whatever happened to get them in this situation would un-happen. And if it didn’t, they could think of a solution together. Jimmy didn’t think Thomas was any happier with their predicament.

If Jimmy woke up here, then Thomas had probably woken up at the inn across from Mr. Bellamy. Jimmy wondered if Thomas’s surprise in seeing him working in a dirty bar had been too great. One day working in a grand mansion like Downton Abbey, and the next slaving himself off in a dirty public house, that was Jimmy. But it hadn’t seemed such a bad decision at the time, when he made it. After all, it was supposed to be temporary. He had been dismissed from work with a good reference, so he could find work in some other house, but when it came down to it, Jimmy was so very tired of all that. Of all the courtesies, the “yes sir” and “no sir”, of being at the mercy of a strict chain of command. He remembered telling Ivy of his dreams of meeting beautiful women, dancing the night away, and drinking champagne. Working at Downton, he’d never drink any champagne unless he stole it.

As for beautiful women, what was the point in meeting them if they were never any fun? If they were kitchen girls, like Ivy, he had the likes of Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore barking in his ears every time he got close to them. If they were highborn, the only words out of his mouth had to be along the lines of offering another canapé. And it wasn’t like he could ever do more than talk to them. Girls like Ivy would never actually do anything—virtue was their only richness—and women who would, like Lady Anstruther, held little appeal. As a matter of fact, the whole episode with Lady Anstruther made him a little repulsed; it was as if he had no say in whether he bedded her or not. She had him in her hands, and manipulated her way into Downton only to draw him into her bed. She made him feel robbed, even if his own two feet carried him to her bedroom.

Besides, he didn’t think virtuous girls held much appeal either. With them, he was expected to follow steps in courtship, to be always gentle and polite, and have nice things to say. It was like being in a play; he had to play a character with whom he had no affinity, one that bored him to no end. And all of that to win a prize he wasn’t even sure he was interested in.

Lady Anstruther’s guilty conscience made her give him a considerable sum of money, when he didn’t accept his offer to be her footman again, and he wasn’t honourable enough to decline—deep down, he believed she owed him that. So, when he left Downton without a destination, and ended up spending the night at the Willow Tree in Ripon, it all felt... easier.

He wandered through Yorkshire for weeks, hopping from one town to another with no particular objective in mind. He hadn’t bought nice suits, or a fancy watch, like he had always imagined he would if he ever came across the amount of money of which he was now in possession. In one of those towns, he stayed in a room across from Mr. Bellamy’s. At night, he visited the bar for lack of something better to do. He was drinking a stout and chatting amiably with the bar keeper, when he heard the man complain about missing staff. Jimmy was a little inebriated by then, just enough that his tongue was a little loose, so he offered help for the night. He had waited as a footman for an earl and a dowager countess; it wouldn’t be hard serving working class in a common bar.

Then one night became every other night, and every other night became his every day job. For someone without an end game to work for, it was as good a job as any. And it turned out to be good work. He earned tips, not that he had immediate need for money, he worked fast, and he sometimes got to play the piano when the band was there. Mr. Bellamy was happy with his efforts, and showed it in a way Carson never did. It struck Jimmy that he missed that, the easiness of relaxed environments, where his work—albeit simple—was appreciated with loud words. Every morning he repeated to himself that it was only temporary, that he’d get his savings and the money Lady Anstruther had given him and find himself a nice house to get back to service, but he felt ever less interested. He glanced a few times at the newspaper, but he seldom saw any advertisements requesting a footman.

Besides, he probably would never drink any champagne where he was working, but every night after the shift was over, the staff gathered together in the kitchen drinking beer, and chatting happily, and no one barked at how improperly he behaved. He flirted occasionally, and no one seemed to think it a scandal. His wages were meagre compared to what he received at Downton, but he didn’t think much of it. As a footman, he was always working too much to enjoy his earnings, and Carson rarely gave him leave to go to the village. Every time he got a half-day, he was so tired he just wanted to sleep. Working at the bar, Mr. Bellamy couldn’t care less what he did in his spare time, and life in town was much more exciting. He ought to go to London, if he ever left the bar.

Jimmy wondered what Thomas must be thinking of all of that, and how he was adapting to Jimmy’s new life—and if Thomas wondered how Jimmy was adapting to Thomas’s life as under-butler, too.

It was all very simple. Tomorrow he’d ask Carson’s permission to use the telephone so he could ring Mr. Bellamy and ask for Jimmy Kent. He’d talk to Thomas and they would work things out. After making up his mind in that regard, he felt more at ease. Now all he had to do was survive through the next day until he could meet with Thomas and reverse their situation.

Trying his best to hold his curiosity in check, Jimmy opened the notebook at the very first page and started to read all the ones he had skipped. He read brief notes about selecting wines as Thomas and Carson were sharing cellar duties. Thomas was responsible for luncheon wines, while Carson occupied himself with dinner wines and brandy. Thomas was now also responsible for buying cigars—fitting, considering how many cigarettes the man smoked. Jimmy realised the financial notes weren’t just Thomas’s personal ones. He was given some of the house’s money so he could purchase certain things the household needed, all of them carefully written down. He wondered if Thomas did that because he was naturally organised, or because he needed to cover his back in case something went missing and people started pointing fingers. Either way, Jimmy would have to read all of them and hopefully make sense of what was written, so he’d know what to do in case he had to purchase anything.

As he read on, he realised Thomas’s attributions were so meticulous he could barely understand how Thomas was capable of keeping all those tiny bits of information in order in his mind. During the almost four years he had worked at Downton, Jimmy had looked at Carson—and sometimes even at Thomas—thinking that their work was merely to look down on footmen and valets and bark orders, but apparently it was so much more. Jimmy also realised that, with Thomas as an under-butler, Carson’s workload had diminished considerably. Jimmy would dare say that the bulk of a butler’s responsibilities had fallen heavily on Thomas’s back. Maybe that was a way of grooming Thomas for the position once Carson retired.

Jimmy had no idea being an under-butler was so difficult. He was a bit in awe of his friend and all he was capable of managing, but a little humbled as well—how was he supposed to double for Thomas, when he had been working in a bar for months? He couldn’t even take pride in his work as a footman, not when he got hired over his looks, instead of merit.

He read and read, studying, but was ultimately too tired to keep going. His stomach growled a little, but he held his ground and drank nothing but a glass of water from the pitcher. When he was down to the last sip, there was a knock on the door.

Jimmy stood up and went to the door to remove the chair he had placed under the handle. It was Andy, carrying a tray with a sandwich, an apple, and a glass of milk.

“I know you said you weren’t hungry, but—” Andy said sheepishly, nodding at the tray in his arms “—just in case you changed your mind.”

Jimmy was thankful not only because he was hungry, but because Thomas had been able to find such a good friend in Andy after Jimmy left. It seemed less likely that they had a liaison—had it been the case, surely Andy would have tried to kiss him in one of the occasions they were alone, wouldn’t he?—but that still didn’t mean Andy wasn’t the reason Thomas hadn’t answered Jimmy’s letter. It was already obvious that Andy was a better friend than Jimmy had ever been—he had never threatened to get Thomas in prison for starters—so maybe Thomas felt he needn’t two best friends.

“Thank you, Andy,” Jimmy said sincerely, and took the tray from his arms. “You’re a good friend,” he added with a little hesitancy, wondering if he was overstepping a boundary.

“I’m glad you think so. Good night again,” Andy said, before turning on his heels and walking back to his own room.

Jimmy closed the door, hearing it click shut softly, and pushed the chair underneath the handle again. With Andy’s visit, Jimmy’s tiredness lifted some, and his curiosity on Thomas’s personal life reawakened. He sat on the armchair with the tray on his lap and the notebook in one hand, eating slowly, while looking for personal entries to read. He found one and read along, hoping the events in Thomas’s life had taken a turn for the better.

I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being right, given how she betrayed the terms of our arrangement, but she is right. I don’t feel inclined in an opposite direction—I don’t feel a change in passion. I don’t feel the need to pursue a different objective. I feel nothing. I feel emptiness.

The symptom was never... my nature. The symptom I wanted to be rid of was solitude.

Jimmy looked at the page carefully. They made him melancholic like most of the personal entries he’d read so far. He traced some of the words with a fingertip. Passion. Need. He knew what they meant in an objective way, like knowing something existed and being able to explain what it was, but never having seen it, touched it, or smelled it. When he tried to remember an occasion when he felt roaring passion or lust, he came up with nothing. He remembered flirting with girls, hoping a feeling would spark in him. He remembered putting his hand up their skirts, like he had tried with Ivy. What gave him pleasure the times he succeeded was never the feel of an aroused woman. What made him try was that succeeding felt like he had conquered something he wasn’t supposed to have. In Lady Anstruther’s bed, he had to concentrate on the feel of his own hand rather than the woman beside him in order to be hard. Jimmy had chased women not out of passion or a burning desire… but because it always seemed like what a virile man would do.

Now that Jimmy thought of it, it felt empty, too. It felt... like nothing.

That entry was over. He skipped a few pages, looking for another to read. He wished Thomas had been more consistent with his writing, more detailed. He could understand why Thomas hadn’t, though. Everything he wrote there had to be enigmatic or inconspicuous enough not to give him away in case the notebook fell into the wrong hands.

I finally surrendered to her meddling. Then again, maybe it wasn’t to her meddling that I surrendered precisely. I surrendered to pain, despair, hopelessness. In a way, I guess I should be glad for her interference. Had she never cared—and I can’t figure out why she did—how long would I have gone on with this? Until I was dead, most likely. No matter what she says, I could see the horror in her eyes as I showed her what I had unintentionally done to my own flesh.

I wasn’t mocked, not by her, not by Dr. Clarkson, at least not with words or gestures, but I feel as if the whole world mocks me by giving me this god damned luck. I was moulded differently, made unhappy, condemned to a life of illusions—of cure, of companionship. It makes me so tired.

The infection is entirely gone, and I’m feeling healthy again. I took the last of the antibiotics this morning, and my previous wound is now nothing but a pinkish scar.

The entry went on for another paragraph, but as soon as he read about the scar, Jimmy stood up, going to the mirror, notebook still in hand. He lowered his trousers and underpants far enough for him to see the scar on the top of Thomas’s right buttock. He had seen it before getting in and out of his clothes, but he had never paid much attention to it until now. After admiring it for a minute, he pulled his clothes up again and went back to the bed, reading along.

During my ill-fated treatment, I had been trying to avoid certain thought patterns—then I was simply incapable of such thoughts, given how sick I was. Now, for the first time in quite a while I was curious whether I could feel like my old self again, or if I would remain like an empty shell for life. After last night’s dream, I think I may have my answer. It was strange dreaming about the Duke, of all people, considering I hadn’t thought of him for the longest time. Maybe I dreamed of him because that summer was a long one. And then, very small, like an afterthought, Or because he had so many talents.

Jimmy put down the notebook, frowning. Could Thomas mean what Jimmy thought he meant? Could a duke be... Thomas’s lover? Maybe "duke" was a nickname—no, because then Thomas would have said he dreamed about Duke, not about the Duke. When he reached for nightstand to put the notebook away, he saw how late it was on the clock. He’d be very tired in the morning if he didn’t fall asleep soon, so he turned off the lamp on his nightstand, even if he didn’t want to.

There, in the darkness, Jimmy’s eyes stayed open. So Thomas had a duke for a lover? Jimmy wondered if this duke was as handsome as the lieutenant had been, and which of them had a bigger space in Thomas’s heart—and if any of them could be compared to Jimmy, in looks or affection. Jimmy would wager that the lieutenant had been an emotional connection—Thomas had kept a picture of him, not of the Duke, whoever he was. And the comment about the Duke’s talent... that had to mean something carnal. In the context of that entry, Jimmy couldn’t imagine Thomas mentioning a man due to his talent in cricket or horse-riding.

Thomas thought the Duke was good in bed, that much was obvious, but how did he mean it? Jimmy tried to think of ways that could be said of a woman, despite being less experienced than he’d like. A woman who was good in bed curled her legs around her man’s body when he was on top of her, and she touched his hair and scratched his back while they were doing it, but that was between men and women. But what did it mean for a man to be good in bed with another man? A shiver ran through Jimmy, giving him goose bumps. He ought to be sleeping, not wondering about these absurd things. He closed his eyes obstinately, but it was too much of a conscious effort to keep them shut for Jimmy to be able to sleep.

An errant thought came to him: how strange to be inside the body of someone who had done all manner of mysterious things in bed with another man. Yet Jimmy had no unwholesome feelings being in Thomas’s body. In fact, Thomas had a very comfortable body to be in. Jimmy scarcely had grounds for comparison, but still. Thomas had so many fine things about him. His eyes were clear and very beautiful. Jimmy couldn’t pass by a mirror without glimpsing at Thomas’s grey eyes. The blackness of his hair gave him such a masculine presence. Thomas was the first man with those proclivities that Jimmy had met—to his knowledge, at least—but he had heard stories. People said they were weak and girly, and had rude names for them. But Thomas was unlike any of the stories Jimmy had heard. He was strong and determined, and it was no wonder a duke would take him into his bed.

Jimmy knew what sodomy was. Two men went to bed together and did things in an unnatural way, but he didn’t know the specifics of it. Jimmy knew they kissed like men and women did. Thomas had kissed him that night, had sucked briefly on Jimmy’s lips before Alfred interrupted them, but how did things go from there? There had to be hands involved. They probably touched each other like Jimmy sometimes touched himself at night.

Would it feel different than doing it to himself? No woman had ever touched his prick like that; if they were willing to touch him, they usually were willing to spread his legs for him as well, and the choice had always seemed obvious. But if a man did it, it would probably feel amazing; men had pricks, they knew how to make it feel good. Even so, it had to be more than that. No one would risk going to prison over stroking each other, no matter how good it felt.

Well, there were mouths too. At the bar, sometimes men told some nasty stories when the women weren’t around, and another waiter mentioned a whore he had bedded once during the war. He said she had perfect cock-sucking lips. Jimmy supposed that was something men could do to each other too, do with their mouths what they could do so well with their hands. If the Duke was talented, did that mean he had a talented mouth? Cock-sucking lips like the whore in the waiter’s tale? Warmth rose up Jimmy’s neck all the way to his face. He didn’t want to think of Thomas putting him aside because of some other man with sensuous lips.

He wondered if Thomas ever returned the favour, if the Duke thought Thomas had many talents as well. If Alfred hadn’t barged in, what would Thomas have tried to do to him? Would he have tried to use his mouth on Jimmy? It was possible.

Before Jimmy realised what he was doing, his hand was over his lips. These lips had kissed him, and this mouth would have sucked him off. He traced Thomas’s lips with his fingertips, feeling how soft they were. Thomas was willing to let Jimmy put his cock there, was willing to let Jimmy defile his mouth and his tongue, was willing to do such a wicked thing. Jimmy’s tongue darted out and touched his fingertips; it felt warm and wet, and the goose bumps returned. If Thomas’s tongue felt so good on the tip of his own fingers, he wondered what it would have felt like if he had let Thomas have his way with him.

He opened his eyes slowly again. They were far more used to the shadows now; as he looked down his body, he could see the bulge in his underpants, covered by the sheets. If yesterday he had been half-hard, today there was nothing half about it. This wasn’t his cock; it belonged to another man, and it was impossible not to notice the differences. Thomas was bigger than him in every way, but what amazed him was how thick he looked from this angle. Jimmy wondered if it felt as hard as it looked. His hand lowered to his crotch as if in automatic response to the sight. He shook under his own touch like it was someone else’s hand on him. And it sort of was and wasn’t at the same time.

It was nothing to be worried about, Jimmy told himself. He was just curious, as was his right to be. It was no different than when he took a bath yesterday and soaped himself. He was just... not in a bathtub right now.

Slowly, his movements so hesitant he was barely moving at all, he kicked the sheets away from his body, and then his finger rested on the waist of his trousers and underpants. He stopped there for a few moments, his heart beating so loud he could almost hear it in the silence of the room. And then he pulled his clothes down, exposing what he was so eager to see. He took himself in his right hand, stroking up and down a couple times. It was nothing, really. He was just checking to see how it felt, trying to have a proper look. He’d tuck himself back in a moment.

The Duke must have really been a talented man if he could fit all this in his mouth. Jimmy knew he could never do it himself. He wondered if Thomas would find it difficult to put Jimmy’s prick inside his mouth, if sucking him off would get Thomas hard like he was now, if he’d be willing even if Jimmy wasn’t going to suck him back. Jimmy had never had anyone’s mouth on his cock before. Was it better than fucking? Was it in any way like fucking? Was he supposed to put his cock between Thomas’s lips and thrust, or Thomas would just work his lips and tongue on him like a kiss? Jimmy supposed Thomas could do both, see what Jimmy liked better.

They could do it with Jimmy lying on his back, but thrusting would be easier with Thomas on his knees. The scene came to Jimmy’s mind bright and clear: Thomas kneeling in front of him, naked, his cock hard as it was now, looking up at Jimmy, sucking on him, doing marvellous things with his tongue.

Jimmy’s eyes closed on their own again, as he got lost in his own imagination, working fast on the erection in his palm, the heaviness of it so unlike what he was used to. It felt different under his fingers, thicker, shaped a little different, a complete novelty. Jimmy wondered if Thomas would touch himself while he had Jimmy in his mouth, impossibly aroused for finally getting what he wanted after so many years. Because Thomas still wanted him, he did, right?

Jimmy thought of the richness of Thomas’s voice. Would he say anything to Jimmy while he was at it? His mouth would be full, sure, but every now and then, would he let go just to whisper nonsense to him like women sometimes did? Jimmy had never imagined words of abandon in a man’s voice. Would Thomas call his name? Hesitantly, he tried and muttered something, so low he could barely hear himself.

“Jimmy—” and then his voice got caught in his throat, heat flushing his face and his neck. But Thomas’s voice whispering his name like that was too arousing to be ignored, so he tried again. “Jimmy, how long I’ve waited for this,” he said, but the voice he heard was Thomas’s elegant one, now sounding completely wanton.

And Jimmy wanted to make it sound even more debased. God, who would imagine Thomas could sound so desperate when aroused; Thomas, whose voice was usually inflexed in a bossy manner, was somehow at Jimmy’s command. He could make Thomas say whatever he wanted. Blushing, he moaned a few times, still imagining he was Thomas—because he was, at least for now—gorging himself up on Jimmy’s prick, so aroused he couldn’t keep his hands off himself.

The sounds of Thomas’s low moans made the tips of Jimmy’s ear burn; maybe they would make more sense if Jimmy was the one giving him pleasure. Jimmy couldn’t put Thomas in his mouth, but maybe, after Thomas had sucked him off, he could take Thomas in his hand. It wouldn’t be that different from what he was doing now. Thomas’s first moan would be of surprise, but all the others would be of intense pleasure, and he’d whisper God, yes, Jimmy—oh, that’s it, I’m almost—

And then Jimmy realised he was actually muttering the words in the darkness, and that he was, in fact, about to come. He could feel the build-up in his gut, could feel how close he was to the edge. And when it happened, Jimmy had to bite down on his free hand to keep from being too loud. Seed covered his hand and part of his belly as spasms shook his body. He was panting, his heartbeat felt like a thunderstorm—strong and irregular.

He closed his eyes, trying to slow down the rhythm of his breathing. Sleep took him before he could mull over what he had just done.

Morning gave him no respite from it, though. When he woke up, the first thing he noticed was how his hand felt stiff when he tried to move his fingers. Dried come on his hand, on his stomach, and on his bodily hair. He hadn’t even pulled his underpants up before falling asleep, he noticed with embarrassment. As late as it was, he’d need a bath before getting dressed to work. When he went to the dresser to fetch a towel, passing quickly in front of the mirror, he glanced at Thomas’s reflection through the corner of his eyes, and it seemed accusatory, like the actual Thomas, wherever he was, was whispering in his ear I know what you did with my body.

His bath was a fast one. He had to be at the breakfast table without delay, if he wanted to be in Mr. Carson’s good graces so he could ask for a telephone call.

Apparently, being on his good side wouldn’t be a problem because midway through breakfast, Mr. Carson said, “I must congratulate you all for being so diligent with the extra work assigned. Especially you, Mr. Barrow. Thank you for returning to work so soon after being severely ill. In light of those events, I have decided to grant you all permission to go to the Winter Fair in Ripon.”

Everyone’s face beamed with joy with the news. Jimmy appreciated it too, as he needed as much free time as he could get. Mrs. Hughes looked at him with concern, however.

“You take care of yourself at the fair, Mr. Barrow. Heavens forbid you get jumped by bandits again. They could have killed you,” she said.

Jimmy hadn’t imagined a mention of that day could still get him to feel so guilty, after nearly three years. Mrs. Hughes was right; Thomas had taken a great risk saving Jimmy. He owed to Thomas to fix this mess they were in.

“I will, Mrs. Hughes.”

When breakfast was finished, Jimmy had to handle the anxiety of not being able to ask for his telephone call right away. The bar only opened for luncheon and Mr. Bellamy always slept in late, so as to make up for the late hours he worked.

So, during the morning, Jimmy worked as hard as he could, trying to keep his mind occupied until their next meal, but his restlessness was so great he barely had an appetite when luncheon came.

“Feeling ill again, Mr. Barrow?” Andy said quietly next to him.

Jimmy forced a smile. “Just fine, thank you.”

Andy’s concern reminded Jimmy of how badly he wanted to know what had happened in that damn club in London. There had to be a way he could find out without asking Andy directly. But that was for later. After everyone finished with their plates, Mr. Carson retreated for coffee in his office, and Jimmy followed suit.

“Mr. Carson?” he said warily. If Carson denied him the call, he’d have to wait for a half-day so he could go to the village and make his call there. “Could I please make a telephone call?”

“I believe I told you not make it a habit?” Carson said, sounding displeased. “I suppose you want this call to be a private conversation as well?”

Jimmy pursed his lips, trying to think of something to say, but Carson went on.

“Go and make your call, but only because I appreciate your work yesterday with the footmen. Don’t be long,” Carson said, in that way of his making a compliment sound like a scolding. “I've run out of sugar. When I get back from the kitchen, you'd better be done with it.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” Jimmy said.

As soon as the door closed behind Carson, Jimmy hurriedly took the earpiece out of the hook and connected himself to the operator, informing her who he needed to call. The time it took for him to finally hear Mr. Bellamy’s lazy voice got his stomach fluttering with nervousness.

“Mr. Bellamy?” he said, and cleared his throat, repeating in his mind in his mind everything he had to say. As far as his boss knew, he was talking to a stranger. “I’m a friend of Jimmy Kent. I believe he works for you. Is he there?”

“No, Jimmy Kent isn’t here,” the man answered with an upset tone.

Damn you, Thomas. How could he be late when Jimmy was doing everything he could to keep Thomas’s position at Downton?

“Is he running late? I need to give him a message.”

“You can leave a message all right, and I’ll deliver it if I ever see him, but he left work two days ago. Came in, told me he needed to take a few days off. When I said I couldn’t spare him, that he’d need to wait a fortnight, he quit. Nice friend you’ve got. Hung me out to dry, he did.”

“He quit?” Jimmy repeated in disbelief.

He could already hear Mr. Carson’s voice down the hall as he came back. Jimmy would have to wrap it up quick; Carson couldn’t know who he was calling. Jimmy didn’t think he would appreciate his under-butler using the telephone to get reacquainted with an old pal—especially if it was Jimmy.

“Did he say where he was going? Did he say why he had to leave?”

“Did not say a thing, only that it was very important that he left, that he hoped to make it up to me soon. You have a name? If I ever see him, I could tell him you called, but I don’t think he is coming back.”

Jimmy was floored; his stomach dropped, and his hands were cold all of a sudden. Where the hell was Thomas?

“Are you there?” Mr. Bellamy said.

“Oh, um, yes, I am,” Jimmy said, the other man’s voice yanking him out of his distraction. “My name is Barrow. Tell him Thomas Barrow called. Thank you.”

After hanging up, thankfully just before Carson’s return, Jimmy was rooted to the spot for a moment—long enough for Carson to look expectantly at him, probably wondering what Jimmy was waiting for to leave his office.

“Bad news?” Carson inquired.

Jimmy stared at him blankly. “No, sir...” he said. “The person I hoped to reach...was not there.”

Thomas Barrow had run away with his body as a hostage.


Chapter Text

Jimmy still had all afternoon to work as well as the evening, but it was hard to focus on the tasks at hand. Yet somehow he managed to keep his wits about him during all that; fortunately, no one made any comments regarding how strange he seemed. He wondered if people noticed his distraction, or how out of depth he was with his tasks, but no one said anything, so either his struggle didn’t show or people knew better than to be on Thomas’s bad side.

At least the family was absent; a butler’s and an under-butler’s workload diminished significantly when the family wasn’t around, which couldn’t be said about footmen and maids. For once, Jimmy was on the right side of things—which was a queer thought to have considering everything else.

He nearly skipped dinner again, but Mrs. Patmore’s food smelled too good to be refused, and his stomach grumbled showing it wouldn’t accept being ignored. Despite how desolate he felt, Jimmy ate well, and went back to the male servants’ quarters with a filled stomach.

But as soon as he closed the door, pushing the chair underneath the handle, Jimmy came undone. He took the nearest cushion and screamed into it, muffling the sound as best as he could. He could still be heard, but he was too frustrated to care at the moment. He screamed once more, pulling at the cushion shoved in his face as if he wanted to rip it apart. Eventually, he sat on the floor, tired and breathless. He needed to get himself under control. For all he knew, this might be his life for the rest of his days; Jimmy had already lost one job at the bar—losing his position at Downton would be far from ideal. They weren’t both his jobs, but right now he could hardly see the difference.

Defeated, Jimmy made his way to the bed, sitting down and fumbling through the nightstand’s drawer, searching for the notebook. He inspected it for a moment before opening it where he had last stopped. Thomas’s habit of keeping tally of his own life was unlikely to be new. He wondered if there were other notebooks like this one. Maybe there were, but in places hidden from view. Inside a drawer’s false bottom, perhaps? Or under a loose plank on the floor? Thomas might have a hiding place with more interesting things. Jimmy just hoped he could find it, wherever it was. It would do him no good if Thomas had stuff hidden away in a safe whose combination Jimmy wouldn’t know, or in a storage deposit somewhere. Jimmy could only find those things through his own investigations. It wasn’t as if he could go around asking people, “Pardon me, but would you happen to know where, other than my own room, I would choose to keep my belongings?”

If there were, indeed, other notebooks, Jimmy wondered how far back they went and if Thomas wrote anything about Jimmy in them. He could accept Thomas not mentioning him even once in his current notebook now that he didn’t work there anymore, but it would be almost disrespectful not to write anything in previous journals considering all there was between them.

The memory of a line said by his own lips came to Jimmy’s mind of its own accord. The only thing between us is my fists if you don’t get out. But that was then, right? Now they did have a lot between them. A past friendship, if not a current one. And this... situation.

As he had the day before, tonight Jimmy dedicated himself first to the notes regarding work—out of conformity rather than responsibility. He didn’t know whether to curse at Thomas for being far more detailed with work related topics than his personal life or thankful for it. It was very dull reading, but without it, Jimmy would be lost.

An hour later, his mind was swirling trying to memorise so many specific wine harvests and different brands of whiskey, when he finally found a personal entry.

He would read it, he knew he would, but he couldn’t keep a shudder from running through his body when he remembered what sort of thoughts clouded his brain after he read Thomas’s last personal entry—all that talk of strange dreams of a talented duke. He shouldn’t berate himself so much for what he had done, as difficult as it was. One couldn’t help having thoughts. He had read something that made him curious, that was all. Curiosity was a human instinct. At the same time, Jimmy wondered if he had always been curious about this particular subject or if it came with the body. Maybe it did. Once he got back to his own flesh and bones, thoughts about such unnatural things would disappear; that being the case, he was allowed to indulge his curiosity for the time being. It meant nothing.

There is something to be said about trying to deceive a schemer, the entry began. I don’t know why I care, only that I do care. Perhaps I don’t want that old bat prancing around, acting like she’s smarter than the rest of us, like she knows every trick in the book. Or maybe it was how incredibly naïve he was, the helpless look on the poor devil’s face. Maybe it’s because I was a footman once, too. I’ll take action on it, even if for lack of something better to do.

A footman, so he must be talking about Andy. Given how much animosity there had been at work yesterday, Jimmy doubted Thomas would lift a finger to help Molesley. Who did Jimmy know that Thomas might refer to as an old bat? Certainly not Mrs. Hughes, considering how caring she’d been. Besides, she was not the type to play tricks on people, whatever Thomas might have meant by that. O’Brien didn’t work at Downton anymore. The old bit ruled out Anna as well as all the maids, and while Baxter might not be living her best years, she wasn’t that old. And no one from upstairs could possibly fit that scandalous description.

After that short paragraph, for pages on end all Jimmy could see were more unimportant notes, until finally he found what he was looking for.

I think I did it out of vanity. It felt... good to see that he liked me—no, not liked me—that he was grateful. Those big brown eyes of his shone at what I could do with a deck of cards. Well, I’ve always been good at that, but I suppose I have Jimmy to thank for—Jimmy’s heart skipped a beat. So there it was; Thomas finally mentioned him, even if it was over something so trivial—All the time we spent playing cards together certainly paid off. But maybe I did it because her trick at the club held too many similarities with another situation, one that I wish was in my power to prevent—an older woman taking advantage of an unsuspecting footman. Things went sour that time, but there was no need for it to happen again. Maybe I did what I did just to know that this time I wouldn’t be bested like the first woman did.

Jimmy felt his heart beating strong in his chest. This was the first time he had read anything written by Thomas directly related to him. It must be him, right? The “unsuspecting footman” from another time. He probably meant O’Brien as the “older woman” who took advantage of him. Jimmy didn’t want to be levelled with Andy—if this old woman, whoever she was, was tricking Andy and somehow cards in a club were involved, it probably had to do with gambling, and Jimmy never made bets he couldn’t afford to lose—but he did feel quite ashamed of how gullible he had been, letting himself be taken by O’Brien’s machinations.

Jimmy realised with dismay that the notebook was quickly reaching its end. About five to six pages later, Thomas had stopped writing. By the looks of it, his writings had reached the present time. His last entry was nothing but a to-do list of personal chores.

Jimmy flicked through the blank pages with unnecessary force, trying to see if there was a hidden message somewhere, something he might have failed to read. That was it? No clue at all to his problem? Nothing Thomas deemed worth mentioning besides ironing his bloody shirts? Jimmy’s previously subdued frustration came back anew. This notebook had been his last hope. What would he do now? Accept his fate and live forever as Thomas? And what was Thomas doing with his body? Where had he taken it?

He walked to the pitcher, needing to splash water on his face. When he was walking back to bed, he caught a glimpse of Thomas in the mirror. He stopped on his tracks and looked at the reflection with a stern look on his face. Why would Thomas flee with Jimmy’s body? What did he intend to do? If Jimmy had traded bodies with the likes of Andy, he could understand the need of running away—any man would take his chance to trade up. But Thomas was already handsome. The Duke certainly seemed to think so. Thomas must attract the attention of all the blokes who shared his inclinations.

Staring at the mirror, Jimmy noticed he still hadn’t taken his uniform off. And then he absolutely had to; it was as if his tie and collar were cutting off his air, strangling him slowly. The black jacket went to the floor at once, and he almost yanked his tie off his neck. He hated all this, being in a situation out of his control, forced back into service when he had made the decision of staying away from it. Jimmy unbuttoned himself so fast that there was a chance one or more buttons had popped out, vest, braces, and shirt joining his jacket on the floor as well. With each piece of clothing he took off, he felt like he regained a little more freedom, as flimsy as it was. He felt taken by a spell, and he couldn’t stop his hands from undressing himself until he was stark naked in the middle of the room. It was cold outside, but not so much that the sturdy walls of Downton couldn’t keep the worst of it away.

Glancing at the dresser, he saw Thomas’s pack of smokes, forgotten ever since he had woken up in this body. Jimmy himself had smoked before in his life, but it had only become a regular habit when he was with Thomas. He liked that they smelled the same, that it was something they could bond over, an activity only the two of them partook in at the Abbey. Right now, Jimmy felt so estranged from Thomas, despite being in his body, not knowing where he had run off to, that the cigarettes felt alluring. A lighter was next to the pack, so Jimmy quickly lit one, taking a long draft from it, feeling the familiar scent surround him. If anything, it made him a little calmer. He sat down on the armchair, letting the smoke embrace him. When the cigarette was over, he lit another, the last one before bed. A bit of smoke got in his eyes, and he squinted a little, glancing at his reflection in the mirror again.

He never looked so much like Thomas as he did now. He wished he could freeze this moment, have it photographed at least. It would make an interesting picture, wouldn’t it? Thomas Barrow, naked on an armchair, with a cigarette in his hand, surrounded in smoke.

Jimmy stood up, cigarette in hand, and tried again the insincere smirk Thomas frequently had on his lips when saying sardonic remarks to everyone at Downton. Jimmy found that he could mimic it reasonably well. The hairs on his arms stood on end as he watched Thomas in the mirror bring the cigarette to his mouth. Jimmy closed his lips around it and Thomas in the mirror did the same thing. It brought yesterday's thoughts to the surface of his mind—Thomas with his mouth on him.

He had nice lips, pinker than Jimmy’s own. He wondered if Thomas had looked at Jimmy like he was doing now, appreciating the body he was currently living in. It was a shame service didn’t allow beards. Thomas would look even more handsome with one; he hadn’t shaved for nearly three weeks after the beating he took at the fair, his face all cut and bruised like it was, and he had got a nice looking stubble on his face during that time.

Jimmy put his cigarette out on the nearby ashtray, always glancing at the mirror, paying attention to the way Thomas moved in the reflection. He took a step closer to the looking glass, and touched himself on the chest like he had done the night before, feeling the texture of Thomas’s skin—yesterday, an unknown feeling, but today a sensation to which he was pleased to return.

He slid his hand lower, trying not to think of what he was doing, just focusing on the image before him, letting his body decide what it liked best—letting Thomas in the mirror show him what he liked best.

When he touched his cock, he was only half-hard, but when he saw Thomas stroking himself slowly, he could feel it swelling fast. He squeezed himself from root to tip, and he saw fluid leaking from Thomas. He let out a low, throaty moan, and Thomas’s voice ringing in his ears made him twitch in his hand. Looking at the reflection, it felt like he and Thomas were close enough to touch, but he knew the spell would be broken if they did—the cold rigidness of the mirror would yank him out of this make-believe. His own hand wrapped around himself combined with Thomas’s expression of abandon made Jimmy ache. So he touched himself more, slowly, teasing himself, forcing Thomas in the mirror to put on a show for him. The redness spreading on Thomas’s cheeks told Jimmy he was blushing at his own wantonness. But he was just a bloke alone in his room with his hand. It was all right, wasn’t it? It meant nothing.

His hips pushed into his fist, trying to follow the motion of his own hand. Would Jimmy’s hips buck like that if Thomas took him in his mouth? Eyes still focused on his reflection, he brought his left hand to his face and sucked on his index and middle fingers, left uncovered by the half-glove. The view of Thomas doing exactly that in the mirror was so obscene Jimmy realised he wouldn’t last long.

He tried moaning again, less enthusiastically this time; the darkness of the previous night had made him braver than tonight’s bright room. Still, Thomas’s rich voice muffled around his own fingers—like it would sound if he moaned while having Jimmy in his mouth—was enough to make him climax.

Jimmy’s body went taut as he squirted, white come painting a contrast on the wooden floor; he milked himself until all he had was a tiny drop of fluid hanging from the tip of his softening cock. Heart still beating fast, he felt an inexplicable wave of embarrassment upon realising he’d have to clean his seed off the floor. It was probably his imagination, but he felt as if he could smell nothing in the room except his own release, his own debauchery.

When he looked at Thomas’s image in the mirror again, it had lost the poise it had up until a few minutes ago. Now, he seemed to look at Jimmy accusingly, as if he was saying I know what you did to my body, and I know that you liked it.

After finishing the embarrassing task of wiping the floor clean, Jimmy fetched his clothes off the floor and dealt with them properly, getting a clean uniform from the drawer to get it ready for the next morning. When he lay down on the bed, he thought he’d feel insomniac and anxious, but a kind of calmness washed over him, the accusing part of his mind forced to be quiet as he fell asleep.

He woke up feeling refreshed, and his muscles were loose. As he got dressed, pleased for having taken care of his uniform the night before, he couldn’t help but glance at the spot on the floor where he had come. There was nothing there, not even a stain as he had been very careful cleaning the proof of his lewdness, but there might as well be a huge sign pointing to it.

He had never felt release like the ones he experienced these past two days. It felt like there was a magnifying glass on his body, amplifying all sensations. The build-up was more intense; his climax shook his body and left him almost dizzy. Not even bedding someone had ever felt that good. How could that be? How could fucking his own fist feel better than being inside a woman? Jimmy wondered if it had anything to do with being in someone else’s body. Maybe Thomas was wired differently than him. Maybe Thomas’s nature made his body more prone to carnal pleasures.

As he stood in front of the dresser to comb and apply pomade to his hair, he eyed Thomas’s reflection with close attention. He could make Thomas smile, frown, blink, and sneer. He took care of his clothes, of his shaving, made him look handsome and neat. But Jimmy could also make him undress, moan, call Jimmy’s name, touch himself in many ways. It made Jimmy feel so strangely powerful. What else could he get the Thomas trapped in the mirror to do? The fact he was the one actually doing those things to himself was irrelevant. What he saw was all that mattered. And if he enjoyed the sensations those nasty acts brought him, it was because his body did, and since it was actually Thomas’s body, that meant Thomas enjoyed it too, in a way. Thomas’s reflection gave him a coy smile like they were sharing a special secret. A deep, dark, shameful secret.

In the back of his mind, he realised this was perhaps something he shouldn’t be doing, but he also knew he wasn’t stopping anytime soon. It was a private guilt he was capable of carrying. He could paint whatever expression he wanted on Thomas’s face, and right now he chose the one of a perfect under-butler, keeping his chin up and mimicking Thomas’s elegance as best as he knew how.

Breakfast tasted different in his mouth now that the temporary aspect of his situation was questionable. Even if it was still temporary, it seemed like it would take a lot longer than Jimmy had previously anticipated. How long would it be until he could take action and start treating this like his own life? So far, he had been avoiding making permanent choices, even if Thomas apparently hadn’t paid him the same courtesy. Jimmy hadn’t even done the simplest things, like buying Thomas his toiletries. His aftershave was nearly finished. When applying it this morning, Jimmy thought he had never considered how much surrounding himself with Thomas’s exact smell helped him to portray the other man to the eyes of the world. He would make sure to buy the exact same kind when he went to Ripon for the Winter fair.

The sound of a bell broke the indistinct sound of chatter and Jimmy was brought back from his musings. It was the back door. Being a footman for so many years, Jimmy almost got up, but Molesley was already on his feet. In the meantime, Jimmy heard one maid making a comment to another, right across the table.

“—so Lady Caitlyn wouldn’t hire Sebastian, saying he was too homely to be a footman,” she said, gossiping to her friend. “I think that was an excuse. I’ve heard the Donovans can’t afford footmen anymore. Besides, Sebastian isn’t that ugly, the poor boy.”

Now that his ears had picked up the conversation, Jimmy said, despite himself, “Having a good-looking footman is a sign of prestige. I certainly brightened a dining room when I worked as a footman.”

“I had never taken you for vain, Mr. Barrow,” Carson said from his end of the table.

“Mr. Carson is right,” Daisy said, with funny grin, leaving a tray of toast on the servants’ table. “You sound like Jimmy now.”

Jimmy almost choked on his coffee. Of course she suspected nothing, but the comment made him nervous all the same. She was just returning to the kitchen when Molesley came back from answering the door.

Mr. Carson raised his eyebrows, surprised, and said, “Speak of the devil.”

Jimmy’s heart skipped a beat and he turned around at once, only to see himself standing at the door, wearing his old leather cap, which he took off to greet everyone with a nod, and say, “Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, everyone, hello.”

Jimmy’s mouth was dry all of a sudden. He never imagined he’d be so glad to hear his own voice. It was more than being glad, he was elated. A huge genuine smile spread on his lips. He didn’t know if he was happier over seeing his own body after days without it or because Thomas was finally there with him.

“It’s good to see you, James, but what brought you here?” Mrs. Hughes asked Thomas, just as surprised as Carson.

“I’m sorry for dropping by unannounced, but I was at the village,” Thomas said, sounding exactly like Jimmy did when he was trying to be nice. Heavens, Thomas was much better at impersonating him than Jimmy was at impersonating Thomas. “So close to the Abbey I imagined I could come here, say hello, see how everyone is doing.”

Surprise had worn off from Carson’s face. He looked positively cross right now. He was probably thinking of the reasons that caused Jimmy to be fired from service; Jimmy had to do something to placate Carson, otherwise he might send Thomas away and they needed to talk to each other.

“Then it’s a good thing that you came today,” Jimmy intervened, “now that the family is away. Right, Mr. Carson?”

Carson stiffened in his seat, looking like he had just swallowed a whole lemon. Jimmy could almost hear the gears turning inside the man’s skull. He couldn’t be openly discourteous; the rest of the servants didn’t know the real reason behind Jimmy’s departure as it was Lord Grantham’s explicit request. Sending Thomas away would raise too many questions. Jimmy remembered how happy everyone was receiving letters and visits from former employees Jimmy had not known, so it wasn’t odd that an old servant would try to stay in touch with them. Except the former workers who kept in touch seemed to be well liked by everyone there, while Jimmy had never really had a friend at Downton besides Thomas.

“Well, I suppose so,” Carson answered, struggling to keep composure. “As long as it doesn’t divert any of you from labour, I suppose James can visit.”

“It is a surprise that you came see us,” Mrs. Hughes said, “Ivy is no longer here, and neither is Alfred.”

Jimmy couldn’t understand why Mrs. Hughes thought he’d be interested in seeing Alfred—or Ivy, for that matter.

Thomas gave them a small smile. “Mr. Barrow still is, and I enjoyed my time working here. I wanted to know how everyone fared.”

He heard the words coming out of Thomas’s mouth and they sounded true, like something Jimmy himself might have said.

 “Would you like to eat with us, Jimmy?” Mrs. Hughes offered, always nicer than Carson.

“Thank you, Mrs. Hughes, but I already ate.”

Jimmy fetched the pack of smokes he had tucked inside his inner pocket earlier this morning, as he had planned on smoking in public this afternoon, lest people find his change in habit strange, and took the opportunity, pushing his plate aside. “Care to join me outside for a smoke, Jimmy?”

Thomas looked at him straight in the eyes, silent understanding in them. “I’d like to, yes.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Carson,” Jimmy said with as much deference as he could muster.

Carson, despite his obvious look of distaste, didn’t say anything to stop him, dismissing them both with a wave of his hand. Jimmy wondered if he was still being so lenient on account of his solidary behaviour to the footmen the other day, or because he was just eager to be rid of an unwanted visitor.

When they got to the yard, he wasn’t surprised to see Thomas really wanted a cigarette. Jimmy imagined they would start talking as soon as they were alone, but he found that both of them needed a moment in silence, smoking together. It felt like something from another life, just enjoying the breeze with his good friend, accompanying him in a smoke break. He tried not to think of the liberties he’d taken with Thomas’s body, or else his cheeks would end up crimson. Instead, he wondered if Thomas thought he looked any different.

Thomas, for his part, was spot on with how identical he looked to Jimmy’s usual way of dressing himself. His hair was combed the exact way Jimmy liked, but the soft curl falling on his forehead looked better than Jimmy remembered. Thomas had also chosen Jimmy’s favourite casual attire. Did Thomas know that—that it was his favourite?

When their cigarette was finally over, Thomas spoke to him. “We can’t talk here. Too many ears.”

It was Jimmy’s voice, and Thomas had been imitating him perfectly in the kitchen, but now that it was just the two of them, his tone sounded all Thomas, low and conspiring, as if they were plotting.

“Sneak out after supper, and meet me at The Dog and Duck in the village. You know where it is, right? Don’t let anyone see you leave. We’ll talk there.” Thomas looked over his shoulder back to the house, as if to make sure he wasn’t being heard. “I’ll go back inside, make small talk with everyone else,” he said, as if the very thought was a nuisance to him, “so my coming here won’t seem too suspicious.”

Jimmy nodded at him, dropping his cigarette to the floor and stepping on it. “I’ll be there,” he said. It shouldn’t be hard to sneak out; he had done it once taking Ivy out, that time she couldn’t stomach the alcohol.

As he saw himself walking back to the house, he felt a little hope return to him. Thomas was a smart man; he’d rescue them both out of this situation. Jimmy had faith he would.

Thomas’s visit was a short one. He talked mostly to Mrs. Hughes and Daisy. Jimmy wondered what they talked about, and whether Thomas made any comments on Jimmy’s current occupation—or rather, former occupation, after Thomas got him fired. When Thomas was ready to leave, he put the cap back on, and nodded to Jimmy as he headed to the back door again—they didn’t share even a handshake this time. No matter; they would have time to do that and more, later that night.

Jimmy’s day of service passed slowly, and he couldn’t focus. He was so distracted he got his sums wrong over five times. Luckily, he noticed his mistakes before writing them down on the cellar’s inventory; Carson was so meticulous with his books that he’d no doubt make Jimmy copy the entire page again if he blotted something out or failed to write in perfect handwriting. For a moment, Jimmy even wished he was involved in a menial job, like polishing the silver. The repetitive labour was easier to perform when in such a state of anxiety, instead of intellectual ones.

When dinner came, despite being hungry, Jimmy was almost nauseated with anticipation, but he ate anyway so people wouldn’t ask questions. He even lingered at the table for a few minutes after they were done eating, making sure everyone saw him puffing out clouds of smoke. But as soon as he saw people retreating for the night, he went to the washroom for a quick bath, wanting to be his best self when meeting Thomas in the pub.

As he undressed, it dawned on him that those were his last few hours in this body. Thomas had brought the solution with him, or they would find one together in no time. Jimmy stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror again. He remembered his initial resistance at even taking a piss, just so he wouldn’t have look at or hold a penis that wasn’t his own. Then he remembered how intensely he had come, how his hands had travelled Thomas’s body, how pleasurable it had been. He wanted to go back to his flesh and bones, he missed himself, but he couldn’t shake the feeling he was somehow losing something.

At that very moment, Jimmy felt as if there was no way for him to win; he’d lose himself if he stayed as he was right now, and he’d lose... he’d lose Thomas if he went back to his former self. Jimmy imagined going back to the paleness of his previous life and the thought depressed him. At the same time, he felt utterly ridiculous for feeling like this over touching himself. He wasn’t an adolescent anymore.

It was a strange notion; it wasn’t his body, not really, but he wasn’t ready to let go either.

There was a tight knot in his throat when he stepped into the tub. He considered touching himself, but he couldn’t be late. Besides, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep his embarrassment under control if he saw Thomas shortly after doing that.

Once he was done bathing, he wiped himself dry, dressing himself as best as he could in casual attire. He chose a dark grey suit, a pristine white shirt and a deep purple tie. The chosen colours complimented Thomas’s eyes and complexion. He even put on a drop of perfume, thinking Thomas might like to see that Jimmy paid attention to details.

Sneaking out was easy. As under-butler, he had his own set of keys, and age was making Carson retreat to his bedroom early. The walk to the village was calm. The night was a bit windy, but the sky was clear, full of stars, and it wasn’t too cold. His coat and jacket kept him warm enough.

The pub was mildly crowded when he arrived, loud chatter filling the hall. Jimmy surveyed the surrounding tables, wondering where Thomas would like to sit. Probably in a dark corner, hidden from sight, so they wouldn’t be seen or heard. He was already making his way to the most hidden seat he could find, when he caught a glimpse of a blond man raising a hand in his direction. Jimmy was momentarily surprised to notice it was Thomas. All the while, he had been looking around searching for a dark-haired tall man, forgetting Thomas was blond and shorter now. Unlike Jimmy’s assumption, Thomas was seated next to a window, in one of the busiest places, nursing a beer. Jimmy pulled up a chair and sat in front of him.

As if reading his thoughts, Thomas explained, “Here is better. They always expect people with suspicious business to lurk in the shadows.”

Jimmy nodded his agreement, wondering if Thomas’s ability of acting inconspicuous came from having had many furtive encounters.

“You want something to drink?” Thomas asked, already lifting his hand at the waiter.

“I’ll have a dark beer,” Jimmy said when the boy in an apron stopped by their table. “But make sure it’s not from the end of the barrel. Otherwise it’s all foam and no drink.”

“So you know everything about beer, now that you’re working in a public house yourself. I bet you’re great with fish and chips as well,” Thomas said once the boy was gone, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

“Don’t laugh. It’s honest work. And it’s more exciting than being a footman,” Jimmy said, stealing the cigarette Thomas had just lit.

“And it’s not like you care about the wages, is it?” Thomas asked, lighting another cigarette. “You were always a big spender. You couldn’t have saved that much money I found in your room.”

Jimmy was quiet for a moment, but then his beer arrived and he took two large draughts before admitting. “Lady Anstruther gave me the money.”

“You devil.” Thomas smirked at him. “Blackmailing an older woman; couldn’t have done it better myself.”

“I didn’t blackmail her. She felt guilty for what happened, and when I wouldn’t go back to her service, she offered the money.”

“Even better. You’ve got money, and now you don’t have Carson telling you what to do or Lady Anstruther forcing her way into your trousers,” Thomas said, shrugging.

Jimmy grinned, taking another sip of his beer. Thomas was always able to get to the core of things. Then an upbeat song started to echo through the hall.

“They have a gramophone,” Jimmy exclaimed. He missed hearing music. It wasn’t the same as the band in Mr. Bellamy’s bar, but the village only got so modern.

“Yes, it’s a new addition. I suppose the owner was worried he’d lose all his customers to the Grantham Arms.”

“Well, if the Grantham Arms plays music, then he’s right to worry. Every once in a while a band plays at Mr. Bellamy’s. The bar gets so crowded those nights that he’s considering making it a regular thing,” Jimmy said, the exciting song from the gramophone lifting his spirit.

Thomas enjoyed the music too, it seemed. “I saw amazing bands when I went to New York with his Lordship. The clubs there are something else.”

Jimmy was suddenly reminded of that American fellow, and his letter about a mysterious offer. The question was on the tip of his tongue—Is that how you met A. Collins?—but Jimmy wasn’t brave enough to ask it.

“Oh, I didn’t know valets were allowed to leave their masters unattended just so they could be off to clubs,” he said instead.

“Don’t criticise me,” Thomas said with fake modesty. “You’d have done the same. But his Lordship wasn’t pleased, I must admit. But what could I do? It was my chance to explore the new world. New York is so different from Yorkshire, so… alive. They have places for all sorts of people. No matter your definition of a good time, you’ll find it in New York.”

Places for all sorts of people—even Thomas’s sort? When Thomas had told him rather succinctly that America was “very interesting and very modern” two years ago, Jimmy hadn’t imagined it was that much. Could a city really have a place where men could meet other men in that manner? If it did, it must be a hidden place, a secret society of sorts.

“For a while, I even considered not coming back,” Thomas said after a moment of contemplation.

Jimmy glared at him. Of course he did. He had his secret clubs with exciting music, and Collins’s offer, whatever that was. Why would he want to come back to bow his head for people who despised the very sight of him?

“If you were so happy there, why did you? Come back, I mean.” Jimmy said, giving voice to his musings.

Thomas went quiet for a moment, finishing his beer, and asking for another. When he opened his mouth again, Jimmy had nearly forgotten what he’d asked to begin with.

“Because of you,” Thomas said.

Jimmy was taken aback with that answer. He finished his beer as well, keeping himself under control. “Really? Because, unless memory fails me, your words of goodbye to me were ‘I want to find you courting a girl from the village.’ You were ready to throw me into the arms of the first dame around.”

“I also said I wanted to find you happy, and I didn’t know what could make you happier than a girl.”

Thomas’s words made sense in a general way, like the way things are expected to be, but real life rarely happened the way people thought it would—Jimmy had never felt happiness in the company of a girl, not in the way Thomas meant.

The men sitting at a table closer to the gramophone were quite happy with the songs, or maybe it was just the drinking. Either way, they showed their enthusiasm by hitting rhythmically on their table and chairs like they were drums, and a few women around them were clapping. Soon, there were couples dancing in the hall, while bystanders sang at full volume.

“Speaking of girls from the village, that one is looking at you,” Thomas said. “I think she wants to dance with you.”

Jimmy looked at the girl Thomas mentioned; dirty blond hair, small round nose, modest bosom, wide hips, very pretty, and she was indeed looking at Jimmy with a playful smile on her lips. It took Jimmy a moment to realise that meant she was actually attracted to Thomas, considering that they were in each other’s bodies. Somehow, Jimmy liked the idea of Thomas getting attention from a woman even less than he liked the idea of him getting attention from men.

“I came here to meet you,” Jimmy said, a bit displeased. “Not to dance with some girl.”

“Go on, Jimmy,” Thomas urged him. “Have some fun. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt my reputation to be seen with a pretty girl in my arms for a change.”

That convinced him. After taking another sip from the glass, he went to the girl and took her hand, guiding her across the hall, swaying her to the beating of the song. It was a very fast rhythm, and the effort soon got Jimmy flustered, laughing with the girl in his arms. His eyes, however, kept searching for Thomas whenever he could. When the song was over, Jimmy was panting. He dragged the girl by the arm to their table.

“She wants to dance with you, too,” Jimmy said.

“I do?” she asked, but her laughter showed she wasn’t cross about his assumption. “He’s right. I’ve never been to a pub before. I didn’t know they were so fun.”

“See? I’m tired and old,” Jimmy said, highlighting his last word teasingly. “But you’re a young lad. You wouldn’t leave a girl without a dancing partner, would you?”

Jimmy could see Thomas’s initial resistance, but before he could say a word, Jimmy stole the nearly finished cigarette from his lips, taking the last draught and putting it out on the ashtray.

“Go on, Jimmy. Have some fun,” Jimmy said, repeating Thomas’s own words to him.

Finally, Thomas threw his hands up in defeat, standing up just in time for the next song to begin. As they danced, Jimmy was surprised to see the other man’s skill as they danced expertly between the tables, his movements sure but delicate. Jimmy joined the drunk men in their singing, as Thomas and the nameless girl danced for three entire songs; Thomas looked so carefree and amused that Jimmy didn’t want to interrupt.

Finally, he could see the girl thanking him for the dance before they parted ways, each coming back to their own tables. Once Thomas sat down, Jimmy ordered two more beers.

“We should go easy with the drinking,” Thomas said. “I don’t know about you, but I only brought a little money.”

Jimmy was about to agree, when he spotted a pool table next to the bar. “That will not a problem,” Jimmy said with a smirk.

If Thomas could marvel people with a deck of cards, Jimmy himself had a few tricks up his sleeve when it came to billiards. The players gathered around the table looked serious, their sleeves rolled up, and their faces frowning with focus, unaffected by the light mood of the rest of the bar. Only two balls remained on the table; by the looks of it, the next man to pocket a ball would win. The next strike was well-aimed; one of the players pocketed his remaining ball. The defeated man groaned in frustration, shoving money in the other man’s hand with reluctance.

“Fancy another game?” Jimmy asked the victor.

The man raised his eyes at them, like he was annoyed by the question. The billiard cue looked like a twig in his huge, thick hands.

“I’ve already got the money I need.”

Feeling brazen, Jimmy said, “I’ll bet you all the money he just gave you plus two quid.”

The man scoffed at him, probably thinking Jimmy didn’t even have that much money on him—which happened to be true.

Thomas pulled him to the side, and whispered, “Are you sure you want to do this? Let’s just pay what we drank and call it a night.”

Jimmy smirked. “Mr. Barrow, do I make losing bets?”

Thomas studied him for a moment before returning his smile. “Then go and win us that money, will you?”

Jimmy and the man agreed on three matches. The first game began even, with Jimmy pocketing a ball for each one the man did, but he eventually lost the first match; he missed a couple plays and still had two balls left when his opponent pocketed his last. Jimmy won the second game, but it was a close score. By the time the third game started, a small audience had gathered around, watching them play. There was even cheering in both sides when they scored a point. Thomas watched the game from a distance, arms folded and biting his nails; he had given Jimmy strategy advice between the matches that made him feel a little like he was a boxer in a ring and Thomas, his trainer.

By the end of the last game, it seemed like everything was lost. Jimmy had two balls left, while his adversary only had one—so close to the pocket even a breeze could make it fall inside. As he studied his possibilities on the table, Jimmy also tried to think of how he’d explain he didn’t have the money without getting his arse kicked. Beside him, the man had a smug grin.

Jimmy glanced at Thomas; his friend was staring at him, unblinking. They nodded at each other, and Jimmy positioned himself to make his move. The cue hit the white ball, and Jimmy was somehow capable of pocketing two balls with one strike. The crowd gasped and cheered, and in a moment, Jimmy and Thomas had their arms up, screaming with joy, celebrating their victory. Some people clapped Jimmy on the shoulder, complimenting him for a game well played.

When Jimmy turned to the man and extended his palm, he put the money on Jimmy’s hand, but didn’t let go.

“Three out of five,” he said.

“No, it was two out of three, you agreed,” Jimmy said, but he could already feel the tension in the air.

When he saw the man closing his other fist and raising his arm, Jimmy didn’t wait for the blow.

Yanking the notes from the man’s hands, he shouted, “Run, Thomas,” pulling his friend by the wrist and sprinting towards the exit.

He didn’t look over his shoulder, but he knew the man and possibly his friends were coming after them; he didn’t care about that, or that he had skipped his bill. The only thing that mattered was Thomas’s hand clasped to his own, and that they were running together.

“Come, Thomas, run,” he shouted once again, breathless, their steps echoing as they crossed the streets and sidewalks, distancing themselves from the pub, reaching the outskirts of the village.

When they finally ran out of breath, their chasers seemed to have lost track of them, but Jimmy didn’t want to take any chances. He spotted an abandoned barn a few yards away from the road.

“Let’s hide there,” he whispered to Thomas, ignoring the fact he was shouting but a moment ago.

They approached the barn, walking into the field with grass and bushes as tall as their thighs. He couldn’t hear or see anyone coming after them, but he pulled Thomas inside all the same. They were panting, tired of all the running, but Jimmy was a little exhilarated as well.

“What was that, Jimmy?” Thomas said, looking at him with joy and awe. “Not that I didn’t like it, but what was that?”

“I don’t know,” Jimmy answered honestly. “I just had you by my side, and I felt I could do anything.”

Thomas leaned against him, putting a hand on his shoulder to steady himself as he regained his breath.

Jimmy looked around them, trying to realise where they were. The barn was old and obviously abandoned. There were holes on the roof, and hay everywhere; it wouldn’t offer much protection against cold further into the night. Jimmy pulled out his pocket watch to check the time; it was getting pretty late.

“I think they’re gone now,” he said just to break the silence. It was obvious there had been no one following them for a while. He cracked the barn’s gate open and peeked outside just the same, seeing nothing but empty road.

Thomas leaned even closer, peeking outside with him for a moment. Then he tried to take a step back, but Jimmy held him by the lapel.

“Hey. This was fun, you know?”

Thomas lowered his eyes, and smiled. “It was. But it’s getting late now. We’ve distanced ourselves from the Abbey, and you need to go back before someone notices you’re gone.”

“I know.” Still, Jimmy felt like a child whose parents had just said they needed to go back home from the park. “But we still haven’t talked about… well, almost anything.”

“Tomorrow is my half-day,” Thomas said. “Yours, I mean. If I recall. You could pay me a visit. We could meet somewhere more discreet… then we could talk more freely.”

Jimmy noticed Thomas was trying to sound nonchalant, even throwing in a shrug, but he didn’t understand why he was so tentative about it. Of course Jimmy would visit him tomorrow.

“Where are you staying?”

“I have a room for the night at the Grantham Arms,” Thomas said. “But I won’t be staying there tomorrow, not after what happened tonight.”

Jimmy thought for a moment, and then said, “Go to Ripon in the morning. Get a room at the Willow Tree Inn. It’s very cheap, and they won’t ask you many questions because I stayed there for a couple of nights right after leaving Downton. I’ll meet you there after luncheon.”

“Willow Tree Inn,” Thomas repeated. “Will you be safe walking alone to Downton?”

“I’ll take my chances. Is this good-bye then?”

“Yes. Until tomorrow.”

Jimmy noticed how close they were standing to each other; he could even feel Thomas’s warm breath when he spoke, smelling faintly of beer and cigarettes. Jimmy must smell the same. He wondered what Thomas saw when he looked at him, if he just saw a reflection of himself, or if he could see Jimmy underneath all that. Thomas put one hand between them, and it took Jimmy a moment to realise it was supposed to be a handshake.

Jimmy shook his hand, but he couldn’t let go. He felt Thomas’s palm touching his and that touch was very important, all of a sudden, like it had been when Jimmy grabbed his hand so they could flee The Dog and Duck.

“Will you be waiting for me?” Jimmy asked.

“Always,” Thomas whispered. But then he cleared his throat, and added, “I mean, yes, I will.”

Reluctantly, Jimmy let go of Thomas’s hand. “We should go now,” he said.

Thomas nodded, and they stepped out of the barn, making their way to the road again. They walked side by side in silence until they reached a bifurcation. The Grantham Arms and the Abbey were in opposite directions. They stopped for a moment, staring at each other. Then Thomas smiled, and turned his back on Jimmy, walking away.

Jimmy watched him leave for a moment before turning away as well and walking back to the Abbey.

Chapter Text

Jimmy walked the first few metres after parting ways with Thomas, but once he realised he was alone on the empty roads of Downton with too much money in his pocket, he started to run, stopping only when he was at the service door to the Abbey. He had to unlock the door on his way in, locking it after himself as quietly as he could, but the sound was still too loud in the desert darkness of the servants’ hall. It was late, and thankfully he saw no signs of anyone still awake. He stopped by the bathroom to take a piss—drinking so many beers had got his bladder about to burst—before climbing the stairs to his room.

Jimmy still had a fluttering feeling in his stomach about the night he’d just had. That wasn’t at all what he had expected when Thomas asked them to meet. In his imagination, they’d be hunched over a table, where Thomas would explain to him the complicated things they had to do in order to reverse whatever had made them switch bodies, or they’d retrace their steps up until the morning they woke up switched, trying to find clues together. Not that… exciting night in a public house like they had no other care in the world.

The fluttering in his stomach wasn’t only because of an adventurous night, though. It was because of their meeting the following day; they would do no more than talk, but it still felt like he was getting ready to go for a risqué encounter. There was sense of impropriety about a secret rendezvous in an inn, especially considering what kind of inn they would be meeting at. Jimmy hadn’t done it on purpose, at least he didn’t think he had, but the Willow Tree Inn wasn’t a respectable establishment. The innkeeper never asked many questions because whores and drunkards lived there. Jimmy wondered if Thomas’s shock would be too great once he realised what kind of place Jimmy had sent him to. But he was just being reasonable, really; they needed privacy, and if there was a place in close proximity where discretion was the ultimate requirement, it was the Willow Tree.

As he undressed to change into his pyjamas, he couldn’t help but look at Thomas’s body again. When Jimmy had seen that his best friend was back, the guilty weight on his shoulders had got a bit heavier—it was time he showed Thomas respect and stopped doing things to his body. It was one thing when he had no idea where Thomas was, but behaving like a cad now that they had met up was bound to make things awkward. But now, alone in his room, his heart still racing over their night together, that line of thinking made less sense. If these were indeed his last hours in Thomas’s body, if tomorrow they somehow found a way to switch back, shouldn’t he make the most of them? Just thinking of going back to his own body and losing this passion that ran in Thomas’s veins made him sad. And if these weren’t his last hours, he could spend days, weeks, maybe even months like this. Was he supposed to go through all that time without release? Maybe Jimmy should enjoy this situation as much as he could while it lasted. He’d never be with Thomas like this again, after they separated. Things were certain to become… estranged. This was as intimate as they could ever get, because surely there was no intimacy greater than this; everything would go downhill from this.

When they went back to normal, would there be any way of Thomas knowing what Jimmy had been up to during their time swapped? Once they switched back, and Thomas was himself again, would he be able to know all the ways Jimmy had fondled him, and just how many times? He blushed thinking of Thomas knowing how he had touched his thighs, palmed his chest and abdomen, cupped his sac, stroked his cock, and even pinched his nipples sometimes, which wasn’t even a thing he used to do to his own body. That, too, made him wonder—wonder if there were caresses whose sensations only felt good because this was Thomas’s body, and once he went back to his, everything would be like it always had been. Bleak as it always had been.

Could Thomas have touched him like this? If this had happened before he accepted Thomas’s offer of friendship, he’d have said yes, Thomas was probably doing all kinds of nasty things to his body, the pervert. It wasn’t like Jimmy was there to complain, right? But after over three years, Jimmy knew he wasn’t like that. He had seen how respectful Thomas was; friendly, but always very proper, keeping his hands to himself—which was kind of ironic, because then, when they were actual friends, Jimmy wouldn’t have thought it so bad if Thomas touched him on the neck while he played the piano.

Perhaps it was Thomas’s way of showing respect for his denial. Jimmy wasn’t used to being respected like that. How different he was from Lady Anstruther. Once Jimmy told him no, Thomas backed away completely, while the Dowager saw his silence as lack of effort on her part, insisting until his disinterest became a reluctant acquiescence. Thomas had never been like that; it had probably been wrong of him to sneak into Jimmy’s room and kiss him while he was asleep, but he hadn’t known any better. Neither of them had with all of O’Brien’s meddling. Maybe he was expecting too much of Thomas, but ravishing his body while he wasn’t around didn’t seem like Thomas at all. That did not mean, though, that Jimmy held himself on the same high standard. Touching himself while occupying Thomas’s body felt almost like part of life now, the same as pissing, eating, and bathing.

But even if Thomas hadn’t touched him, he must have seen him naked at least. Did Thomas like what he saw? Did he spend hours comparing the differences in their bodies, searching for personal details that made Jimmy’s skin his own and not someone else’s? The dimples on the small of his back, or the mole Jimmy had on his left collarbone? Probably not. Thomas must’ve seen too many naked men to still be amazed at tiny things like that.

The Thomas trapped in the mirror, however, was eager to put on a show, spreading his legs for Jimmy to see, stroking himself, moaning and gasping—even calling Jimmy’s name sometimes. Something in the back of Jimmy’s mind kept telling him it was unacceptable and wrong, but it was hard to do—or not do—anything about it when simply being alone in his room and catching a glimpse of Thomas in the mirror was enough to make him half-hard.

That night, Jimmy came so hard his cock was still twitching nearly a minute after his climax. Guilt came shortly after. He tried to tell himself it meant nothing, but he believed it less and less. So he hoped to find comfort in something else instead—if it did mean something, no one but him needed to know.

The next afternoon, Jimmy looked in the mirror a dozen times before leaving. He wore a dark green tie that brought out Thomas’s eyes. Then again, he thought Thomas had dashing eyes, so most colours agreed with them. This was another good thing he was going to miss, Jimmy mused as he checked himself in the mirror one last time: being able to simply admire Thomas for as long as he wanted. After they switched back, he wouldn’t be able to just stare at him; it would be impolite. Maybe he could get his picture taken and find a way to take it with him when they switched back. It was hardly the same as looking at Thomas in the flesh, but it would be better than nothing.

Jimmy felt a bit late to his meeting with Thomas. They hadn’t set a specific time, “after luncheon” being their agreement, but he still had the feeling he should already be there. He was almost on his way out when a wicked idea took root in his brain. No one was in sight when he exited the servants’ quarters, so instead of descending the stairs to go on his way, he made a quick stop by the cellar first. He spent all of half a minute inside, but his heart was still pummelling his chest when he reached the street, bottle of wine secure inside his jacket, making a bulge in his coat.

He was eager to leave Downton, but first he stopped by The Dog and Duck to pay their tab from the previous night and apologise for the trouble. If his Lordship got word that he and Thomas were acting like hooligans getting themselves in trouble in the village, he might want to take action against Thomas, so Jimmy paid the innkeeper a little extra for his silence.

After that was taken care of, Jimmy waited for the bus that connected the village to Ripon. It was a short trip, and no one sat by his side, which made him happy enough. He was nervous as it was without having to chitchat and pretend to be polite with anyone too friendly. Once the bus arrived at its destination, Jimmy walked to the Willow Tree slowly, kicking pebbles along the way. The streets changed as he neared the inn. The buildings got darker, and some of them appeared to be crumbling. A river of dirty water ran down the gutter, and Jimmy had to hop over holes in the street’s pavement. Finally, he turned around a corner, and saw the faded sign against a three-storey building reading “Willow Tree Inn”, with the peeling painting of a tree.

Jimmy tried to swallow down the lump in his throat. Before entering the inn, he breathed deeply as if he was about to take the first step in dangerous quest, like slaying a dragon. When he felt he was ready, he pushed the door open, and stepped inside. The inn hadn’t changed at all since he was last there. The hall doubled as a reception and a modest bar. There were four small tables there and plenty of liquor to sell behind the counter. A woman with a heavily painted face and a generous cleavage was talking to a balding man in a corner, trying to lure him into a room most likely. Jimmy swallowed down once again, and made his way to the counter.

The man behind it wasn’t fat, exactly—his limbs and face were actually lean—but his distended belly suggested many years of heavy drinking. In fact, he seemed a little drunk right now, his eyes sunken in his face.

“Hello,” Jimmy said, his mouth dry. “I’m looking for Mr. Kent.”

The man didn’t even raise his eyes from the magazine on his lap. “Room 14, second floor, last door on the left,” he said, licking his finger to turn the page.

Jimmy nodded, fighting the impulse to blurt out a poorly crafted excuse as to why he needed to be alone in an inn such as this with another man. Only the guilty ones rambled and fidgeted, he thought, shoving his hands in his pockets. Light-headedness overtook him, and the corridor felt like a funnel as he neared the room, watching the numbers on the doors increase. Ten, eleven, number twelve was missing from its door, thirteen—and, finally, fourteen. He knocked on the door and waited.

A moment later, Thomas pulled the door open, placing himself between it and the threshold. Once he saw Jimmy, his lips curved in a smile that tried to become a grin. Jimmy walked in, and Thomas closed the door behind him. The room was rather simple. A mirror, a bed—larger than the ones servants had at Downton Abbey—and a dresser. There was no chair in the room, so Thomas sat on the bed, his back against the headboard. He was wearing trousers and an undershirt, and he was barefoot.

Jimmy looked over his shoulder to the door Thomas had just closed behind him. He hadn’t locked it. Jimmy wanted to ask why, but he didn’t have the courage. Maybe Thomas didn’t think they’d do anything that would justify locking the door. After all, they were there to talk, right? And Jimmy knew that, he did, still he could never have felt at ease with the door simply closed. So he rested his hand on the key stuck in the flimsy keyhole, and turned it locked. Thomas stared at Jimmy’s hand while he did so, and there was a pregnant moment between them as they stared at each other. It made Jimmy awfully nervous and he didn’t want to prolong the quiet any further.

“I, uh, brought us some wine,” he said, showing Thomas the label of the red wine he had got them.

There was only so much deliberation one could do in half a minute, but Jimmy had tried to make sure he got the best wine in an affordable price range. Hopefully he had made a sensible choice, with all the time he had spent that week going through Thomas’s notes. His palms sweated as he waited for Thomas’s verdict, whether he’d think Jimmy had done his homework right.

“Wow,” Thomas finally said, in a bit of awe. “This is the good stuff. I love this. Did you… Jimmy, did you steal this? I know we’re supposed to impersonate each other, but you don’t have to get that much into character, you know? You could have let go of the thief aspect.”

Jimmy couldn’t help but laugh, surprised. “You steal wine from the cellar?” He’d never have guessed that, considering how precise Thomas was in accounting for everything in his journal.

“A transgression from youth that I have no intention of repeating,” Thomas said, admiring the label a bit more. “So, did you steal it?”

Jimmy pressed his lips together before answering. “It’s just… I was on my way out, when I thought… I had a fun time drinking beer with you. Figured we could do a little more drinking today.”

And, looking at Thomas’s face now, at the controlled excitement in his expression, the only thing Jimmy regretted was not having taken two bottles instead of one.

“So, technically, I did steal it, but I’m going to buy another bottle to replace it. Not with your money, of course. With Lady Anstruther’s money. You did bring it with you, I trust?”

“You should stop calling it her money. You earned it, it’s your money. You’d still have a job if it weren’t for her convenient car trouble.”

“Well, I would still have a job if you weren’t so eager to quit my current one,” Jimmy said, feigning an annoyance he didn’t feel. He was glad Thomas was here, that he came to Downton looking for him, but he imagined he had to say something on the matter.

“The only thing I was eager for was to see you. But yes, I brought the money, not that it was easy to find. I could have easily mistaken it for used tissues or some other rubbish in your room. You really need tidy up.”

Jimmy worried his bottom lip thinking of the condition his room was in, comparing it to the neatness in Thomas’s room at Downton. His was the best kind of tidiness: looking at his room, you could tell Thomas was organised, that he was careful with his things, but not obsessed with it. Carson and Mrs. Hughes insisted servants kept their rooms presentable, but while that had always been a constant struggle to Jimmy—sometimes it felt his bedroom messed itself up while he was asleep—it seemed to come naturally to Thomas.

“Pardon me if I didn’t make preparations for your Lordship’s arrival,” Jimmy said, using an irritated tone to cover up his embarrassment. “I had no idea a sophisticated man like yourself would be paying my room a visit, let alone my bloody body.”

“Touché,” Thomas said, smirking.

Jimmy thought Thomas’s smirk looked equal parts petulant and amusing even when it was on a different face.

“Do you have a corkscrew?” Thomas asked.

Jimmy grimaced. How could he have forgotten the bloody corkscrew?

“No. I was in a hurry trying not be seen smuggling a bottle out of the cellar.” He couldn’t believe he had been so daft.

“It doesn’t matter. Give me my shoe.”

Jimmy looked around briefly, searching for any shoe in sight, but he saw nothing. So he took his own off instead, handing one to Thomas, who smiled at him.

“The secret is pressure,” he said, placing the bottom of the bottle inside the shoe. He then placed the shoe’s sole against the frame of the bed, banging it twice on the wood, until Jimmy saw the cork being popped out of the bottle enough for Thomas to pull it with his fingers. “I’m imagining you don’t have glasses either?”

“I don’t,” Jimmy shrugged, smiling. He didn’t care about glasses; they could make do without them.

Thomas took a sip from the bottle. He moaned at the taste, and said, “This tastes better than I remembered.”

Jimmy sat down on the bed in front of Thomas. He still wasn’t used to seeing his own face on someone else. Was this how twins felt or were they all just inherently used to it? If this went on long enough, would Jimmy ever get used to it? Thomas took another sip, and when he lowered the bottle, his lips were coloured by a drop of wine that his tongue was quick to collect. This must not be how twins felt—unless twins were mesmerised by the sight of their siblings’ tongues.

Jimmy was the first to speak. “I settled our tab at The Dog and Duck. The bar keeper was less cross than I figured he’d be.”

“Guess we weren’t the first fight he’s seen there. The difference is I don’t think many brawlers go back to pay what they owe.”

“I guess I wouldn’t have either if it was any other place, but everyone must know you there. I didn’t want to get you in trouble.”

Thomas stared at Jimmy for a moment before offering him the bottle.

God, Thomas was right, it tasted good.

“Because I already got us in a big trouble, right?” Thomas said, his tone a bit heavy. “No need to add bar fights and stealing to that.”

Jimmy laughed. “It wasn’t your fault. Those blokes couldn’t honour a bet, and I did the stealing, not you,” he said, even if he doubted Carson would see the difference, should they be caught.

“I wasn’t talking about that.” Thomas sighed. “I got us in big trouble, Jimmy.”

Jimmy stared at him. “How…? Tell me.”

“I’ll explain it to you, and you’re free to hate me after I do, but first I need more of this,” he said, taking the bottle from Jimmy’s hands and tilting it over his lips. He took such long draughts Jimmy thought he intended to empty the whole thing in one go. Finally, he put the bottle down.

“You might want to go easy on that. I’m not as tall as you, you know?” Jimmy said. The amount of alcohol to get him drunk would only make Thomas tipsy, considering their size difference, and Thomas might not be paying attention to that.

But even with the aid of alcohol, he was taking too long to start talking, so Jimmy figured he could prod him a little. “What took you so long to get to Downton?”

“I—I was looking for him.”

“Him? Who?” Jimmy asked. When Thomas offered him nothing, he went on. “I didn’t know what to do. I rang the bar, and Mr. Bellamy told me you were gone. I didn’t know where you were off to. I was—” Jimmy cut himself short. His tone was getting a little inflamed.

I was scared, he wanted to say, but admitting to fear wasn’t Jimmy’s strong suit. He was scared and Thomas wasn’t there to think things through with him, to look out for him, like he had so many times.

“The man who got us into this”, Thomas said, but he immediately corrected himself. “I mean, I got us into this. No matter what he said, it was my choice to do what he told me. I just didn’t know it would involve you.”

“You’re not making any sense,” Jimmy said, stealing the bottle from Thomas’s hands and taking a sip of his own.

Thomas took a deep breath and started over.

“A week ago, I was in a pub in Thirsk. There are tables of card games there. And while I don’t fancy gambling on high stakes, sometimes I play just enough to buy myself drinks for the night. It was my half-day, I was already a bit drunk, not drunk enough that Carson would notice in case I stumbled on him back at the Abbey, but enough that I wanted to go back home. But then a man joined my table, and asked me to play a few hands. I was on a lucky streak, so I agreed, and as we played, he started to talk to me. First, it was just taunting, you know? ‘Such a sour face’, ‘people who work in service all have a stick up their arse,’ and shite like that. At first, I didn’t care. I thought he was just trying to see me sweat, figure out when I was bluffing. But when the other players folded, our conversation took a different turn.”

Then Thomas took a break. Jimmy waited for him to continue, and three times he looked like he was about to say something, but he just opened and closed his mouth with no sound coming out of it.

Finally, he said, “You see, Jimmy, this conversation is very difficult for me to have. I try, and I think, but I don’t see a way I can readily talk about it without—without talking about—the way I am. And you don’t want to hear that.”

Jimmy felt a little cold. Had he kissed—had he lain with this man? Still, they would go nowhere by withholding information, so Jimmy said, “You can tell me. It won’t bother me. I understand it better now.”

“A few months after you left, I did something,” Thomas began. “I wasn’t well, and I thought I could find solution in medicine.”

Jimmy knew where he was going with it—the awful shock treatment. He didn’t know what that had to do with poker, but Thomas wouldn’t have brought that up unless there was a connection. Jimmy was queasy to admit he had read the journal, but he didn’t want Thomas to relive awful memories. Besides, Thomas was nothing but honest to him—Jimmy owed it to him to be just as truthful.

“I know. ‘Choose your own path.’”

“Blimey, you’re up to date,” Thomas said, raising his eyebrows, and palming his pockets, looking for something, probably cigarettes.

“I found your notebook,” Jimmy admitted.

Thomas looked a little taken aback by that, and he said, lowering his eyes, “Did you read all of it?”

“I did, yeah.” Jimmy took the pack of smokes from his jacket and offered it to Thomas with a lighter.

Thomas seemed to consider Jimmy’s confession for a moment while he lit a cigarette. “Of course you did. It’s for the better, I think. It’ll make my explanation easier. Except... there is no easy way to explain this. Jimmy, the thing you have to understand is that—I am miserable. If you did read everything I wrote in that wretched notebook, you might remember my saying that what truly made me miserable, desperate enough to hand most of my savings to charlatans, was not... was not...” Thomas took a long draught from his cigarette, letting the ashes fall on the floor, and raised his face, staring at Jimmy. “Desiring men. Loving men. Because that’s who I am. I want men the way you’re only supposed to want girls.”

It was a little scary for Jimmy to see his own face, his own mouth uttering those words. But Thomas laughed and his face looked relieved.

 “It’s the first time I’ve said it like that, with all the words. I’ve known this all my life, yet this is the first time I actually say it. Until today, the rare times I’ve mentioned it, it was always along the lines of ‘being the way I am’, ‘men of my sort’, ‘because I’m different.’”

It was the first time Jimmy heard it as well—someone admitting to being like this. There was little Thomas could do to deny it after kissing him in his room all those years ago, but hearing it out loud was something else.

“You said I could talk,” Thomas warned him, as if sensing Jimmy’s tension.

“And you can. Go on.” Jimmy said, reaching out for the bottle between Thomas’s legs, taking a sip as well. He needed as much courage to hear this as Thomas needed to say the words.

“I made peace with who I am. I will never feel about a woman the way I feel about men. What made me desperate and miserable was… solitude. When you left—” Thomas closed his hands into fists and reopened them “—I felt more alone than ever. We were just friends, but you were my only friend at that house. And I knew you could never give me what I wanted, but—”

Wanted? Thomas didn’t want him anymore?

“—I still mean what I told you before... before I kissed you. We are quite a pair.”

“We like to look very sure of ourselves, but underneath we aren’t so sure.”

Thomas frowned at Jimmy quoting him. Jimmy himself hadn’t even known he remembered Thomas’s words—they had just come unbidden to his mouth from some forgotten corner of his mind.

“Yes, that. I had you as a friend, so I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t ideal, but I wasn’t on my own. And when you were gone, I finally realised how truly alone I was.”

Jimmy almost bit his tongue trying to keep from saying it, but the urge was stronger than him. “But you found a friend. Andy is your friend, isn’t he? Judging by how he treated me at the house, he’s your mate.”

Thomas snorted dismissively.

“You see, the thing is—Andy is a fine lad. But he only made me feel more alone. Because if he did know who I truly am, if he knew about my nature, he’d be wary of me, disgusted even, like the lot of them.” Thomas took the last drag of his cigarette and used it to point at Jimmy when he said, “But you... you knew. For god’s sake, I snuck into your bedroom and kissed you in your sleep. And the entire household knew. And you were still my best friend. Do you see now why I was so sad to see you go?”

“You never answered my letter.” He drank some more.

“By the time your reply came, I was trying to commit to ‘Choose your own path’. Talking to you was too tempting,” he admitted. “And once it was over, it had been too long, and I didn’t see a point in writing anymore.”

Thomas put his cigarette out on the floor and continued. “As I was saying, the other players folded, and the man’s words to me got more personal. At first, I thought he was trying to distract me, probably had heard gossip about me or something. I tried to stay impassive, just finish playing that hand and leave, but he told me things about myself that I hadn’t told anyone. It wasn’t just you or the treatment, or being the way I am. He knew how I felt about those things, he knew things I had only thought, that no one could ever know. I was frightened. And when I won, he said he could give me something that would change my fortune in ways cards and coins never would. That only a few people were ever capable of beating him in a game, and that it was his gift to me for having that honour. He offered me a flask of a drink.”

Jimmy felt goose bumps on the nape of his neck. A poker game with a mysterious man who knew things he had no right to know, offering strange potions—it was surreal.

Thomas shook his head. “You must think I’m crazy.”

“I don’t.” How could Jimmy think he was crazy? They were in each other’s body. After seeing the world through Thomas’s eyes, how could he have anything but the highest regard for his friend? “Did he say what the potion does?”

“He said he was offering me true sight in a bottle. The potion would show me what I truly needed to be happy, my heart’s true wish. I came home with the flask, thinking of throwing it away, but I couldn’t. The potion was like a siren, I was hopeless to resist it. I drank it the next morning. It hurt so badly I thought he had given me poison. I thought he was a demon, or a wizard, killing me out of spite for beating him in a game. I’d never believed in magic, not truly, yet… here we are. I was in your body when I woke up.”

“You said you were looking for him.”

“I went to Thirsk,” Thomas said. “But no one remembered a man fitting his description. He was just an ordinary looking fellow, scrawny, brown hair, going bald. I don’t even know his name. If it weren’t for the present situation, I’d say I dreamed him up. I’m sorry I brought you into this. I had no idea.”

It was such a fantastic story Jimmy wasn’t sure he could find reasoning behind it. Still, he could try.

“What do you think the magic is trying to tell you, making us switch bodies?” Jimmy asked, not quite believing the words coming out of his mouth.

“I don’t need a bloody magical potion to tell me that—” Thomas blurted out, but cut himself short, choking on the words.

Jimmy could tell the wine was starting to hit him. When Thomas reached past him for the bottle by the foot of the bed, Jimmy tried to stop him, but it turned out he wasn’t entirely sober either. He lost balance and fell on the bed, his back against the mattress with Thomas on top of him, hands on each side of his head and arms supporting his weight. The world stood still for a moment where Jimmy could do nothing but stare at his own eyes, seeing repressed emotion in his own face, wondering what Thomas was feeling now.

And then he asked, “You don’t need a magical potion to tell you what?”

“You know what,” Thomas said.

Jimmy stared at him a moment more. Trying not to think, Jimmy closed the distance between them and made his lips touch Thomas’s. He didn’t want to think of what he was doing or why—he was scared of the answer, of thinking perhaps he had always known the answer. They were barely kissing, their lips were just brushing, and Jimmy could feel Thomas’s warm breath on his skin, smelling of fruity wine and smoke. He was more nervous than he’d ever been before. Was this how Thomas had felt when he kissed Jimmy in his room? Like he simply had to do something, as crazy as it was, even if common sense screamed at him not to?

“Maybe I needed it to tell me,” Jimmy said against Thomas lips.

“What are you doing?” Thomas asked, as if he wasn’t as much an active subject in this as Jimmy was.

Thomas was asking the wrong questions, ruining Jimmy’s attempts at not thinking. He closed his eyes for a moment, revelling in the sensation of their lips together. Had Thomas felt this much surrender during the two seconds their first kiss had lasted, like he was completely powerless against an urge? Right now, they were alone in a hotel room together. Their door was locked, and there was no Alfred or anyone to block their way to wherever a kiss could take them. It fell onto them to put a stop to it, and Jimmy knew with blinding clarity that he wouldn’t be the one to back away.

Thomas’s arms shuddered, and he rested some of his weight on Jimmy. His thigh got between Jimmy’s legs, and as their hips touched, Jimmy could tell Thomas was hard under his trousers. He was almost trembling at their proximity, but it still wasn’t enough; it teased him without placating his yearning. Jimmy put his palm on the small of Thomas’s back, pulling him closer, bringing their crotches together, feeling their clothed erections pressing on one another, and hoping it felt as good to Thomas as it did to him.

They rocked together a few times, the fluid motion of their hips seeking each other, until that wasn’t enough either, and Jimmy’s free hand moved to the front of Thomas’s trousers, starting to unbutton him with nimble fingers.

“Don’t do this to me,” Thomas said, “I don’t think I can bear it if—”

But then Jimmy took Thomas’s length in hand through his underpants with no hesitancy, and Thomas’s sentence turned into a throaty moan. Knowing Thomas was hard with Jimmy’s own prick got him tense with want. Judging by the way Thomas began pushing against Jimmy, following the movement of his hand, he wasn’t much better. His head was bent, touching Jimmy’s shoulder, and he was panting. Then one of his hands popped open the first couple of buttons of Jimmy’s trousers; he didn’t even finish unbuttoning him, he just wormed one hand underneath Jimmy’s clothes, direct touch between his warm palm and Jimmy’s cock.

This was completely new, and Jimmy gasped, still rubbing Thomas through his underpants. Liquid was gathering on the tip of his prick where Jimmy’s hand was, and the cloth was damp now. He wished he was as skilled as Thomas was, but he was no match; Thomas was too good at what he did, his grip just tight enough, with a maddening rhythm that got Jimmy breathing heavily through his nose. He did his best not to moan, under the irrational fear Thomas would just know everything he’d done with his body the moment a broken sound escaped his lips. He came biting his cheek, spilling on Thomas’s fingers and wetting his own underpants, like he was a goddamn boy, both his hands flying to Thomas’s hair, entwining his fingers in the threads.

Thomas embraced him, rubbing his erection on Jimmy’s hip, his thigh occasionally brushing Jimmy’s spent prick, making him gasp and curl his toes, a sensation so intense it was near torture. But Thomas…Thomas lost in pleasure on top of him, Thomas grunting as he thrust, that was almost as good as coming himself, so Jimmy didn’t want to protest.

It didn’t take him long to spend, soiling his underpants like Jimmy had. Thomas was right—they were quite a pair.

Thomas lifted his head from the curve of Jimmy’s neck, facing him, and their noses touched. Jimmy raised his head and kissed him because it seemed like the natural thing to do, the only thing he could do. Thomas exhaled against his lips as their mouths fit together. Their kiss was hungry, sensuous, perfect.

Thomas’s mouth was made for kissing. It was made for kissing him. But it wasn’t Thomas’s mouth exactly, was it? It was Jimmy’s. Maybe that meant their mouths were made to kiss each other.

Jimmy just wished he’d known it sooner.

Chapter Text

Thomas blinked his eyes open. His head hurt, and he was parched, his tongue feeling two sizes too big inside his mouth. The first thing he saw was his shoes on the wooden floor, because he slept on his stomach; his shoes, black and very polished, resting near the bed with his socks carelessly discarded next to them. He hadn’t put his shoes there. Thomas liked to keep things in order; if he had touched these shoes last night, they would be next to the dresser, and the socks would be in his laundry basket. Jimmy had worn these shoes and these socks yesterday, not him.

He extended his left arm in front of him. The hand he saw was scarred and ugly. Someone had fallen asleep without his glove on. He was back to his own body, but he had little clue of how that had happened. It was still hard for him to believe that the potion the mysterious man gave him had caused such a bizarre effect. He only believed it because it was undeniable. And now he was back, despite not knowing what had made him go back. He could make a few educated guesses, though. Maybe he and Jimmy had switched back because of what had happened at the inn, because they had kissed—because Jimmy had kissed him. They had done a lot more than kissing—more than Thomas had ever dared to hope—but it was the kiss that made his skin feverish after Jimmy was gone.

Instead of feeling violated, he was relieved Jimmy had read his journal. Repeating all that was written there would have made him feel pitiful, and he had no urge to go into detail about the things he had submitted himself to. Jimmy’s indiscretion had made his mission of recounting his poker game in Thirsk much easier. Even so, he wondered if Jimmy had truly understood the reason he’d done all those things—spend almost his entire savings in a lie, subject himself to electrical torture, drink a foul potion a stranger gave him. If he had, he was more enlightened than Thomas himself, who still hadn’t made up his mind if his motivation had been utter despair, or a refusal to kill his last shred of hope.

Thomas rolled on the bed, lying on his back, touching his own lips. How he wished he remembered the taste of Jimmy’s mouth, or the smell of his skin. Those weren’t things you could notice wearing someone’s body. He hadn’t even touched Jimmy’s body while they were switched, not more than he absolutely had to. The thought had crossed his mind—he was only human, and not above having such thoughts—but he’d never succumb to that sort of impulse. He hadn’t even looked at himself in the mirror until he was fully dressed. The look of disgust in Jimmy’s features on that ill-fated night still haunted him. Jimmy’s rejection pained him, but Thomas wouldn’t take advantage—his soul couldn’t bear that kind of stain. So he’d chosen to hold on to the small trust they had built over time, and the honest smiles Jimmy had sometimes given him.

Thomas eyed the clock on his nightstand. He still had half an hour to doze off in bed before he had to get up. Was Jimmy up yet? Had he already noticed they were back to their own bodies? Thomas hoped he got his job back, if he wanted to. Mr. Bellamy seemed to be fond of him, reluctant to let him go, which made Thomas trust Jimmy’s odds. If Mr. Bellamy didn’t take him back, he was willing to give Jimmy part of his own wages until he was able to find another job. It wasn’t for the money, since Jimmy had no immediate need of it. Thomas just wanted to do the responsible thing.

Thomas and the mysterious man had talked about loneliness—a soul that saw itself as one of a kind because it was separated from a kindred spirit. He had, of course, avoided using those words when talking to Jimmy; he hadn’t wanted their conversation to be any more awkward than it needed to be. The potion was meant to be light, guidance, showing the spirit where it needed to go; its effect was unpredictable, life-changing. The last thought Thomas had had before draining the flask was whether death was one of the possible outcomes. At that moment, he was perplexed at how little he cared.

But now… now he was trying to make sense of things. If the man was right about the potion and it truly showed him where he needed to go, then Jimmy had something to do with it. Worst case scenario, making them switch bodies had been just a poor taste magical metaphor, a lesson not to want things he couldn’t have. Just his luck to have a potion giving him an allegorical slap on the hand. Best case scenario… Thomas didn’t dare to think of what that was.

Jimmy’s actions and words didn’t help him understand what the potion meant either. After lust had cleared from them, he had got so tense Thomas could see the stiffness in his muscles. There was still daylight but he had excused himself saying it was late, and that he needed to go back to the Abbey. But the kiss… God, that kiss.

Eventually, Thomas sat up in bed, throwing his legs to the side. Being back to his own body was strange, but nice at the same time. It felt like being home after an exciting trip—you missed the wonders you’d seen, the experiences you had tried, but you knew you were back where you belonged. It was just sad to know he belonged to a service uniform, a single bed, early mornings, rules, and using proper words to talk to his betters.

Breakfast was exactly like a thousand other breakfasts Thomas had had over the last five years. Thomas was so unimportant to everyone else around him that they hadn’t even seen that something major had changed in the universe right there beside them. They had no comments to him other than “Good morning” and most of them not even that. Thomas was so detached from them that they hadn’t noticed anything was off even when someone else took his body for a ride for four whole days. He hadn’t expected accusations of witchcraft or demonic possession, but truth was that if anyone actually knew him, they would’ve noticed something was different. Not that he cared. He had no reason to care.

It was just depressing to see how easily one got back to old habits, to a prior life. There were no surprises in the life Thomas had settled into. The routine of an under-butler was laid out for him—dress properly, a bad tie was the death of you, eat, work, do inventory, manage the hall boys, a bad choice of wine got Carson on your ear, sound the bell for dinner, do this, do that, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Each day a carbon copy of the one before.

Except that last day had been a radical change. Maybe that was what the potion had been trying to show him all along. Jimmy had left service and changed his life, hadn’t he? Thomas could hardly say that slaving away in a bar was the kind of change he wanted; nevertheless, change was possible. Jimmy. It all went back to him. It had been so long since Thomas had had a lover in his arms, since he had bonded with anyone. Every thought of yesterday set Thomas on edge. Even the smell of fruit during breakfast reminded him of the fruity scent of the wine he had shared with Jimmy. His cigarette break reminded him that the bitter taste of tobacco had still lingered on their tongues during their kiss. Maybe the potion’s worth was the shock it provided Thomas.

He distinctively remembered thinking, I could be dying, while terrible pain gripped at his insides as the potion worked its magic. If the agony he felt had allowed his body to react in some other way than shaking, he would have felt inclined to shrug. Yet he didn’t want his view of the world to be a shrug. By drinking the potion, he had taken a life-threatening risk, so what made this particular life at Downton so precious that he couldn’t leave it now that the magic was over? Living in the Abbey had become synonymous with boredom, blandness, and loneliness. The moment he drank that awful thing he had stripped himself of all cautiousness. Couldn’t he apply some of that boldness to his daily life and have one that was worth living?

With over fifteen years of service under his belt, perhaps he could find work as a butler in a different estate and have servants calling him sir and rising to their feet when he arrived at the table for a change. Or perhaps he could leave service, and open a clock shop. His father had intended to have a clockmaker for a son, so Thomas could have inherited the family’s shop, but their falling out had made that impossible. His sister and her husband would probably inherit the shop now, once his father passed away. If Thomas was truly feeling bold, he could always leave the United Kingdom altogether and go to America. It had been years since Arthur’s offer to go there, and he might have not even meant it, but maybe he could help Thomas find work in the hotel and club industry? And as someone had once told him in jest, Thomas could make a living selling bootleg whisky there. He was past his days of wine stealing, but this was selling—a completely different transgression.

He was just thinking of the letter he would write to Arthur—if he even had the same address—when the bell to the service entrance rang during luncheon.

Andy rose from his seat and went to answer the door, returning shortly after.

“Back here? Again?” Carson exclaimed, looking dangerously close to livid. “Were you in the village again?”

Thomas turned around in his seat, heart skipping a beat. “Jimmy,” he said, and forgot to close his mouth.

Jimmy was frowning, his fingers twisting the hem of his cap, as if he didn’t know what to say. Thomas jumped at the opportunity to save him before Jimmy said anything foolish that gave them away.

“He forgot his… pen,” Thomas said, taking a little too long to come up with the word, but once he did, it all rolled off his tongue. “It’s a dear pen, his father’s. I was planning on posting it to him, but since he’s here now, may I be excused, Mr. Carson?”

“A pen?” Carson’s brow was furrowed. “Why would he—” Then he interrupted himself, sighing. “Yes, you may. And take care of that fast. You’re not paid to keep getting visits during working hours, Mr. Barrow.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” Thomas said, rising from his chair and showing Jimmy the way out to the yard, touching him on the back as he did so.

He wanted to give Jimmy a scolding—coming here so soon was hardly being subtle—but he felt his lips curving in a smile despite wanting to keep a serious face.

He waited just enough so that they were out of view, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was around, before saying, “I thought I wouldn’t see you again.”

Jimmy frowned like Thomas was the daftest creature alive, and that frown made Thomas so happy—happy to see it happen before his eyes and know it was Jimmy himself pulling the strings behind it. No matter what his feelings for Jimmy were and whatever joy he might have found in seeing his friend after such a long time, waking up in his body made him feel like a ghost animating a corpse.

“Why would you think that?” Jimmy said.

Because yesterday you couldn’t leave me fast enough and the last time you went away, it took you nearly a year to come back, Thomas wanted to say, but he didn’t. He had no interest in tossing the blame of their separation back and forth; he was too dumbfounded basking in the surprise of their reunion.

“Well, for one, you’re free,” Thomas still argued, once his wits returned to him. “I figured you’d either go back to Mr. Bellamy or be off somewhere to celebrate now you’ve got your body back with all that money Lady Anstruther paid you.”

“I’m sorry for coming here like this,” Jimmy said, shifting his weight from one foot to another. “But there was no telephone in the inn, and when I was walking around Ripon, trying to find one that I could use, I figured it would more be practical to come here and see you instead. We… still have things to talk about.”

Thomas’s eyes went wide at that. Jimmy wanted to talk? Not that Thomas had given much thought to how Jimmy would react if they ever had a drunken one-off, but if he had, it had always gone along the lines of Jimmy acting like it never happened. Thomas pursed his lips, trying to keep his expression under control. Just because Jimmy wanted to talk, it didn’t mean he wanted to say the things Thomas would like to hear. But he would also be lying to say those words didn’t stir wild hope in him.

“Tomorrow is the Winter Fair in Ripon,” Thomas said. “Carson gave leave to the staff to attend. I could meet you at the inn again.”

Jimmy bit down on his bottom lip, like he was summoning the courage to say something. As adorable as it looked, Thomas wished he’d just say it. They didn’t want Mr. Carson to come and see why returning a pen was taking so long.

“I just rented a room at the Grantham Arms. We could meet there tonight.”

Thomas’s efforts in keeping a neutral expression went down the drain. His eyes went wide once again, and he looked over his shoulder, convinced that he would see Carson standing right behind him.

“I can’t go to your room just like that,” he whispered, suddenly afraid even the trees would denounce them. “We’re at the village, not some red light district in York. Everybody knows me here.”

“You could come up to my window. It would be very easy for you to climb, I made sure of it. It’s the second window from the left on the first floor. Will you come? Sneak out after everyone has gone to bed?” Jimmy said, and he was blushing, the little devil.

The “no” was on the tip of his tongue, countless excuses running through his mind—it’s too dangerous, someone could see us, someone could hear us, I could fall from your window and break my neck—but what Thomas said was, “I’ll be there. If you want me there, I’ll be there.”

The smile shone on Jimmy’s face like the sun. “I’ll be waiting,” he said.

Thomas walked him to the door and watched him walk away, looking beautiful in the cloudy day.

As Thomas walked, his brain told him to go back, that this was a ridiculous idea, that if someone saw him hanging from Jimmy’s window, he’d be thrown in a prison cell faster than he could blink. Because, truly, if someone saw him, what could he say? At best, he was a burglar; at worse, he was a deviant. He wanted to get there as soon as he could to see things through, but he couldn’t even find a proper pace to walk at. He’d run if he could, but that would draw too much attention to himself and he had already run the streets of Downton enough times lately. But taking too long increased his risk of being seen and of dying of a cardiac arrest with how fast his heart was beating in nervous anticipation.

Finally, he approached the Grantham Arms, and as he circled the building, his mind kept repeating at him, what are you doing what are you doing what are you doing. He desperately didn’t want to think this was the same as five years ago. It wasn’t. It was worse—bloody hell. This wasn’t simply sneaking in someone’s bedroom while they slept. He was climbing through someone’s window, for fuck’s sake. This time, he had been invited, sure, but if someone saw him, like Alfred had five years back, would Jimmy stand up for him? He would, wouldn’t he? They weren’t the same people they were in 1920. This time, they were friends who wouldn’t let their best mate be sent to prison. Damn, his palms were sweating. That wasn’t a good omen when he was about to climb a wall. The last wall Thomas had climbed happened when he was fourteen, running away from his father’s belt. Another bad omen.

At least it was easy to identify the window whose room he was supposed to be sneaking in. There were several bricks jutting out from the wall that he could use for footing, and it wasn’t even that high of a window, but Thomas still felt like Jean Valjean trying to climb his way into Paris. At least the masses are sympathetic to his crime, Thomas thought as he looked for a pebble he could throw at Jimmy’s window.

“Psst,” someone said above him.

Thomas looked up. Jimmy was staring at him from above, a large smile on his lips.

“Did you hear me arrive?” Thomas asked, smiling as well.

“I didn’t,” Jimmy answered, and retreated into the room again.

Thomas wanted to call after him, ask him where he was going, but he daren’t raise his tone, and anyway Jimmy was back in a moment. He threw something out of the window. It took Thomas a moment to realise what it was, but then he saw it was a rope made of blankets.

“Is this safe?” he couldn’t help but ask. “I’m a heavy man.” He didn’t want to be rushed into the cottage hospital trying to explain an exposed fracture on his shin.

“It is, I’m holding it, and I tied it to the foot of the bed. Now shut up and come.”

Thomas obeyed, searching for a brick where he could place his foot. Once he found it, he used it as leverage to hoist himself up, stepping on the wall, and holding the makeshift rope in his hands. Good God: approaching mid-thirties and acting like an adolescent. He had never been this excited or afraid.

Once he finally reached the top, he passed one leg over the sill, then the other. When he was safe and sound inside the room, he sat down on the floor. Jimmy looked at him, and suddenly they were laughing, trying not to be loud, but laughing until tears came out the corner of their eyes. It made Thomas want to kiss Jimmy, but he didn’t.

“Close the window,” he said instead. “Before the room gets too cold.”

Jimmy obeyed him, and sat down on the floor in front of him.

“I’m glad you came. Do you want wine?” he said, already standing up again to fetch the bottle, wherever it was.

Thomas touched him on the elbow, urging him to sit back down.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” he said, and he could swear Jimmy looked disappointed. “I woke up with the worst hangover—my head felt like it was going to explode.”

And that was mostly true, even if a bit of an exaggeration. He just wanted to avoid drinking for the night. He was still afraid that his drunken self had induced Jimmy to do something he hadn’t wanted. Sometimes, when people were drunk, they thought they wanted something only to regret it once they sobered up, and Thomas didn’t want Jimmy to feel that way about him.

“Oh. A cigarette at least?”

Thomas would have taken the cigarette anyway, but the sound of Jimmy’s voice was so hopeful that he’d take hemlock if it was offered in that tone. He already kind of regretted his decision to say no to the wine.

“Yeah, I’ll take one,” he said, taking the pack and lighter Jimmy offered.

He kept trying to light the cigarette, but the lighter only made a weak spark and not a flame. His hands were still sweaty. Thomas wondered if Jimmy could see his nervousness when he took the lighter from his hands and lit the cigarette that was hanging from his lips.

Thomas nodded by way of thanking him, and said, with the cigarette between his lips, “What did you want to talk about?”

“I think we should be together—”

Thomas stared at him.

“—for a while, you know, until we’re sure. That this thing that happened won’t happen again. I mean, we returned to our bodies out of the blue, what if we wake up one day and we’re changed again?”

Squinting, Thomas pointed out, “I think that’s rather unlikely considering I have no more potion to drink nor card games scheduled with wizards.”

“I see. All right then,” Jimmy said, and went quiet.

Then there was silence between them.

Jimmy fidgeted for a moment, and then lit a cigarette for himself.

They puffed away without speaking for a few minutes. Thomas had almost finishing smoking, Jimmy was halfway done and they still hadn’t said a word.

“Blimey, you’re awfully chatty for a bloke who just made me climb a wall just so I could hear all the stuff he had to say.”

Jimmy gave him a lopsided smile. “I’m giving you a chance to take the first step, show me you really are my friend.”

“Hah, what do you mean by that?”

Jimmy hesitated for a moment, toying with the laces of his shoes, before saying, “I used to tell you everything. About Lady Anstruther, Ivy, even that my first time was with me mother’s best friend. And you…You never told me that your lover was a duke.”

“Ah, my notebook, of course.” Of all things he expected Jimmy to bring up from that journal, the Duke of Crowborough wasn’t one of them. Memories of his last meeting with Philip flashed Thomas’s mind. “That story didn’t end well. Our last meeting was nothing but accusations and loud voices.”

“But that didn’t stop you from… dreaming about him. In your notebook, you said he was talented.”

Thomas frowned, scratching his scalp. That was a strange topic. If anything, Thomas expected Jimmy to talk about yesterday, not a duke he hadn’t seen in over a decade. But he’d follow Jimmy’s lead; he wouldn’t be the one to mention the kiss they shared or the way Jimmy thrust in his hand, coating his palm with seed. He’d talk about Philip, if that was what Jimmy wanted to discuss. Thomas suddenly decided he wouldn’t be the one to frustrate any of Jimmy’s plans.

 “I’ve changed my mind. Do you still have that wine?” he asked.

“Yeah, and I have a corkscrew this time,” Jimmy said, looking pleased at Thomas’s change of heart, and getting up to fetch the wine.

It was an interesting detail, the corkscrew. It meant that Jimmy had planned this more than their last encounter. When the bottle was open, Thomas took the first sip. As soon as he tasted it, memories of the previous afternoon came back to him so fast he felt instantly inebriated.

“So…the Duke of Crowborough. You want to know about him.” At least Thomas was drinking. If he spoke more than he should, he could always pretend to be drunker than he actually was and blame it on the alcohol.

Thomas handed Jimmy the bottle, and saw him bring its neck to his lips, taking a sip. In the faint yellowish light of the bedside lamp, their only source of luminosity other than the moon, Thomas could swear Jimmy kept the bottle on his lips a bit too long after his sip was over, making it seem like he was drinking more than he actually was. Hmm. Maybe both of them needed alcohol as an available scapegoat.

“You said he was talented,” Jimmy repeated.

“If you think beauty is a talent, then yes, he’s talented,” he said dismissively.

“That’s not what you meant in your notebook, is it?” Jimmy insisted. “What did you dream about?”

“You can’t expect me to remember a dream I had months ago,” Thomas snorted. He wasn’t sure why he was deflecting so much. He’d rather not think of Philip, but there was no harm in answering Jimmy’s questions, was there? “And no. I meant something else, but you don’t want to hear that.” He was perfectly aware he had just said the kind of thing that would only make Jimmy pursue the matter more.

“You’re my mate. You said you were. Friends talk about these things. All blokes do.”

Yes, but they talk about pretty girls and their breasts and the curve of their hips. They don’t talk about how much a duke could take up his arse and how he begged for it. That’s what he had been thinking when he wrote about Philip’s talents, how roughly he liked to be fucked, but somehow Thomas knew that was too much information, no matter what Jimmy said and what he thought he could handle knowing. Thomas wasn’t sure Jimmy even knew people fucked each other up the arse.

When Thomas kept his silence, Jimmy asked, his voice barely above a whisper, “Did you mean his mouth? That he was talented with his mouth?”

How long had Jimmy been wondering about this? Thomas felt his face growing a bit warm, but it was a  pleasant warmth—there was a thrill in the embarrassment he felt, and he sought more of that ambivalent feeling.

“He was all right,” he said, shrugging. “When it came to mouths, I was the real talent, not him.” He paused, waiting for the meaning of his words to sink in. There was an itch on his tongue to say more, but he didn’t know whether he should. Finally, it was stronger than him. “You wouldn’t believe how delirious he was the first time I sucked him off.”

Jimmy was staring at him with a gaping mouth, not even blinking. Thomas felt like he was Scheherazade telling a fantastic story with how entranced Jimmy seemed by his words.

“Tell me,” Jimmy said.

Thomas took a sip of wine, hoping it would make him remember things with some exactitude and help him colour the details he didn’t remember. “It was one of my first summers as a footman. I was in London with the family, and one of his Lordship’s guests was without a valet.”

“You mean the Duke,” Jimmy said, like someone who tried to guess the end of a film.

“Yes. I had seen him looking at me during dinner, but when you’re my sort, you only hint at things, rather than saying them. You need to be able to deny everything if you’re ever confronted, to claim your actions or words were misinterpreted. So when he called me to his room, all I did was what any proper valet would. I removed his clothes.”

“It couldn’t have been that easy.”

“It was, trust me. His eyes were on fire, following my every move. When I went on my knees to take off his shoes, he put a hand on my hair. I unbuttoned his trousers, staring up at him. He was already half-hard. He got so loud when I finally had him in my mouth that I was convinced Carson had heard it in his pantry.”

“I never did that—had it done to me, I mean.” Jimmy’s Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. “No one ever… sucked me off.”

There, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, Thomas could see a bulge in Jimmy’s trousers that suggested an erection. God, he could make Jimmy stiff without even touching him, just with the things he was saying. His body would probably respond beautifully to Thomas’s touches.

“Then you don’t know what you’re missing. Having someone’s mouth around your prick, wet and warm, an agile tongue licking you… it’s heaven, really,” Thomas said, barely believing the crudity in his own words.

Jimmy touched his own crotch, and Thomas could see that he was adjusting the erection in his trousers. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out of it. Thomas wouldn’t take the first step; Jimmy had to be the one to do it, but he wasn’t above steering him in the right direction.

“Do you have anything you want to say to me, Jimmy?” Thomas asked. “You want to ask me something?”

Jimmy swallowed once more as he stood up, hands reaching the waist of his trousers as his fingers worked slowly on its buttons, popping them open and exposing the white pants underneath. The shape of his cock was outlined with detail on the fabric.

“Please,” Jimmy said.

Thomas knelt, his face aligned with Jimmy’s hips. It was only fitting that Thomas was on his knees, because when he looked up, he saw the gold of Jimmy’s hair, the softness of his mouth, the smooth lines of his muscles, and there was nothing that wasn’t divinely beautiful about him. Hell, Jimmy was perfect.

Thomas touched his hardness first, stroking it over the underpants, squeezing it, feeling it harden further under his hand. It was just his fingers, a feeling Jimmy already knew, but he was already throwing his head back. Thomas mouthed the head of his prick from over his pants, letting saliva wet the cloth. Part of him wanted to yank Jimmy’s underwear down and just get him inside his mouth, but mostly he wanted to make things last, considering he didn’t know if or when he’d ever do this again. He had to savour the moment, so he prolonged Jimmy’s and his own pleasure, mouthing Jimmy’s cock until his underpants were almost transparent.

He could feel the anticipation in Jimmy when he finally touched the waist of his underpants and pulled them down with his trousers to the middle of his thighs, exposing his hardness. It was invigorating to be allowed to actually look and take pleasure in the view instead of averting his gaze in a hurry, like when they were in each other’s bodies. This time, Jimmy was giving him permission, Jimmy wanted this as much as Thomas did, and that was what made it even more special. He grabbed a hold of Jimmy, and stroked him a few times, his thumb caressing the underside.

“Please,” Jimmy said again, which made Thomas smile—this wasn’t even teasing yet.

Jimmy was more sensitive than all the other lovers he’d had, Thomas noticed as he rubbed the flat of his tongue on the head of Jimmy’s prick, feeling him shake under his hands. The faint saltiness tasted so good he couldn’t resist more of it. He sucked Jimmy inside, feeling the weight on his tongue, revelling in how full his mouth was, and he was so hard it was difficult to focus on what he was doing. He pressed the heel of his free hand on his own cock; he was dying to pull it out and stroke himself while he had his mouth full, but he’d rather not distract himself from the task of giving Jimmy the best sucking he would ever get. So he tortured himself briefly before placing both hands on Jimmy’s hips and sucking him inside again, all the way, down and down until his nose was brushing Jimmy’s pubes. Thomas looked up again, mouth full of cock, and stared at Jimmy, whose eyes were glossy, mouth agape. Jimmy had a look of adoration and unabashed arousal that made Thomas feel like the roles had reversed and he was the deity.

“Fuck, Thomas, how can you—” Jimmy began, but he didn’t finish.

Instead, one of his hands went to Thomas’s hair, and he grabbed a fistful of it, not hard enough to hurt, but enough to make his scalp burn in the most delicious way. Thomas bobbed his head back and forth a few times, making his tongue work on the head, but he could also feel Jimmy thrusting his hips tentatively, in an attempt to follow the movement. He held onto Jimmy’s hips, trying to keep his mouth in place, but Jimmy’s hand on his hair pulled harder, so his face got a little sideways, following the curve of Jimmy’s cock as he started to fuck Thomas’s mouth, deeper and faster.

It was a little rougher than Thomas was used to—then again, it had been so long since the last time, anything would have felt rough on him—he could feel Jimmy’s glans on his tonsils, and he had to fight to keep his gag reflex under control, which made him drool all over Jimmy’s prick, but it was a discomfort he welcomed happily. He wanted Jimmy to be rough, to use his mouth. He had waited too long for this, and the wait had made him far too eager.

He gave another try at rubbing himself over his trousers while Jimmy thrust in his mouth, until Jimmy said, “Thomas, I’m gonna—I’m gonna come—”

And then he was forced to stop what he was doing, freeing himself from Jimmy’s tight grip on his hair, and squeezing the root of Jimmy’s cock tight.

“Aah, fuck, Thomas, what—” Jimmy moaned, but Thomas just rubbed a soothing caress on his hipbone, hoping it would calm him down.

They’d barely begun, it couldn’t end now. Soon this would be nothing but a memory in Thomas’s mind, fading away with every minute, so he was determined to make it last as long as he could, even if it meant making Jimmy shake with the need for release.

He pushed Jimmy onto the bed, sucking on his cock a couple of times more before deciding the position could use improvement; he pulled Jimmy’s shoes off along with his trousers and underpants. The way Jimmy spread his legs when he came nearer sent a shiver through him. He didn’t take Jimmy back in his mouth yet, choosing to stroke him for a moment, admiring the way he lay on the bed, dressed in nothing but a white undershirt, hips swaying in time with Thomas’s touch on him, and he seemed to be blushing, but it was hard to tell in the light. Thomas might have stayed there all night, just staring at Jimmy and gliding his palm on him, if Jimmy hadn’t fucking moaned and begged again.

“Thomas, your mouth. I want it.”

While Thomas was happy to oblige, covering Jimmy with his mouth again, he wanted to set the pace this time. So he sucked on the head and stroked the shaft, cradling his sac softly, but Jimmy was so close to the edge that it only took a few moments before Thomas felt him twitch under his hands again. Jimmy screwed the sheets in one hand, while the other was closed in a fist against his mouth. Thomas could see he was about to come again. He would eventually let Jimmy come—he wasn’t a monster after all—but just not now, not now. Thomas needed it to go on bit a longer than that. He wasn’t ready for things to be over, so squeezed the base of Jimmy’s cock again, pressing a finger to Jimmy’s slit at the same time.

Jimmy clasped his two hands over his mouth, but Thomas could still hear his muffled groan, as his hips bucked and his cock twitched.

“Fuck, Thomas, why—god—why are you doing this, I need to come.”

“I know, Jimmy, I know. You’ll come, soon enough,” Thomas whispered to him.

He sucked Jimmy inside his mouth once again, and Jimmy hummed, placing one thigh over his shoulder. He was so close Thomas barely had time to suck him more than a handful of times. Jimmy shot a load on his lips, then on his tongue, and Thomas closed his mouth around him, mouthing him gently until release finished running through his body. He let Jimmy slip free from his lips, watching the spasms on Jimmy’s stomach, while spunk rested on his tongue—the taste of it impregnating his mouth, its smell branding itself in his senses. If he could remember the taste well enough, maybe he could remember the whole experience better. His cock was throbbing in his trousers when he swallowed it, and his balls ached.

Jimmy opened his eyes and stared at Thomas. “This was… it was…” he trailed off, closing his eyes again, laughing as he panted.

He was the embodiment of perfection like this, spread out on the bed, cock softening as saliva dried on it, blond hair dishevelled, his expression pleased. That was how Thomas chose to remember this moment. He knew how these things worked with men who weren’t of his sort, but still dabbled on this side of the world. Now that Jimmy had come, his interest would subside, and he’d start to overthink what they had done. The sight of Thomas, still hard, would make everything too real, would make him sick to his stomach. It had happened before, and it was bound to happen now, and Thomas thought he could handle anything but seeing the look of disgust back on Jimmy’s face like when Thomas had tried to kiss him all those years ago.

“I think I should go,” Thomas said, making his way to the window, and pulling it open. “People will notice I’m gone.”

“What?” Jimmy said, attempting to sit up, still drowsy after climaxing. “Now? At least let me help you, you could fall from there.”

It was true, Thomas could fall, but he figured going down was easier than climbing up. All the same, he felt a little ridiculous straddling the sill with his trousers bulging like they were. That was another reason why he needed to go, he thought as he grabbed the makeshift rope still tied to the foot of the bed to aid him on his descent. He really needed to take care of his erection, and he wouldn’t inflict the sight of his arousal on Jimmy. He wasn’t ready to see another man’s cock. It would disgust him.

Thomas thought he had reached a height that was safe enough to let go of the rope, and he did so. The ball of his feet felt the impact a little too hard, and he lost a bit of balance in his landing, but he was fine. When he looked up, Jimmy was looking down at him with bewilderment.

“Thomas!” Jimmy cried out, but still keeping his voice in a whisper.

“Don’t worry,” Thomas said. “I’ll be fine.”

He stared at Jimmy just a moment longer before turning his back on him, walking back to the Abbey as fast as he could.

The tension of getting home and into his room without being seen made his erection subside a little, but as soon as he closed the door behind himself, placing the customary chair underneath the handle, arousal flooded his body like a dam had been broken somewhere inside him. He unbuttoned himself fast and took himself in his hand, stroking.

He could smell Jimmy all over himself. The taste of come was still in his mouth, and when he brought one hand to his nose, it smelled of Jimmy’s cock. He thought of Jimmy’s face twisted in pleasure, and he wished he had kissed him before sucking him off—Jimmy had come in his mouth, and would never kiss him after that, and Thomas missed kissing him. But as he worked his hand fast on his prick, he couldn’t even decide what he truly wanted, because there was something really vulgar in sucking Jimmy until he came without even kissing him first, and it made Thomas’s blood boil.

He wanted to take off his clothes and finger himself, thrust inside his body with the same fingers that had touched Jimmy—it would be like Jimmy was fucking him, in a way—but he was too aroused for that. He came shortly after stroking himself a few times more, coating his hand with seed.

Thomas had trouble falling asleep that night.

Chapter Text

Thomas was on his feet before the sun rose in the sky. That wasn’t an impressive feat among the servants at Downton. In fact, if you wanted to make a life in service, be it at Downton or anywhere else in the world, getting used to sleep deprivation was the lowest pre-requisite. That part of the job was the least aggravating, in his opinion. If he managed to get up just fifteen minutes before the rest of the staff, the halls would still be empty when he left his room and he’d avoid a line at the bathroom door—an extra minute in bed was a minute less in the tub, and he needed a close shave more than he needed a wrinkle on his cheek from the corner of a pillowcase pressed against his face.

But when he looked at himself in the mirror, the circles under his eyes were a shade darker than usual, betraying a restless night. Thomas thought he should have got used to it by now; were they in close proximity or set apart, there was no escaping Jimmy Kent. From the day they met, he was a constant presence in Thomas’s thoughts. Sometimes more pressing matters pushed him to the back of Thomas’s mind, but it didn’t take long for him to resurface, and that often meant lying awake, thinking of him. This time had been a little different, though. Jimmy had been the only thing in his mind for close to a week.

The only time he had felt this single-minded about his feelings for Jimmy had been when they’d first met and over the course of the following month. At first, what got him out of balance was that he had never seen someone so beautiful. Sure, you could see beautiful people all the time in magazines and in films, but it was entirely different to see someone that exquisite in the flesh, living the same kind of ordinary life Thomas had, struggling with the same inanities of service Thomas was forced to deal with, working too hard for wages that made a mockery of their efforts. There had been no one, upstairs or downstairs, that was ever as dazzling to Thomas as Jimmy was—and it made Jimmy look detached, like he somehow couldn’t belong to this world where everyone was utterly plain.

At the beginning, Thomas had felt like he had to take his chance to look at Jimmy, to admire him and interact with him as best as he could before the order of the world was restored and the universe realised it had screwed up monumentally at some point; that it was not how things worked, that the exceedingly beautiful and charming did something else in life other than rub an earl’s silver until their fingers were sore. It wasn’t fair, but life had never been fair.

But then things had changed. It became more than looks or charm. Something nagged at him, a feeling that chewed at the back of Thomas’s mind—like when you didn’t want to think about something, but the more you tried to forget, the more you thought about it. It seemed that Jimmy behaved one way when they were alone and in an entirely different manner when they had company; that got him intrigued because it was how all men of his sort behaved. Thomas used to have little doubt whether a man wanted him or not—if there was room for doubt, that generally meant they at least shared his inclinations. There was always something in the way they looked at him, or how they phrased their sentences, or how they uttered their words that gave them away, but with Jimmy Thomas had never been sure where he stood.

When they were alone, Jimmy’s every word sounded like innuendo. Thomas remembered their first conversation after Jimmy had been hired. So can I come to you if there’s anything I need to know?, Jimmy had asked, his eyebrows quirked in a way that would make half the housemaids swoon, so comfortable with his bared chest that it almost seemed like he was putting on a show for Thomas.

In another time—before Philip tossed their passionate letters into the fire while calling him a summer dalliance, before the horrors he had seen in the war, before he’d failed to save Lieutenant Courtenay from his own fears and ghosts, before losing all his money to a crook—he might have walked into the room, closed the door behind him and asked, “Is there anything you’d like me to teach you now?” And then he’d have his answer. If Jimmy said no, he could always excuse himself, claim it had been a misunderstanding—Thomas just wanted to fix his tie—but something had stopped him. Later on, Thomas told himself the opportunity just hadn’t been good enough; it was too early in the night, someone might see them or hear them. But deep down he knew it was something else. He couldn’t stomach the thought of being wrong.

As the days passed, the ground beneath Thomas’s feet became even more unstable. The duality in Jimmy’s behaviour grew; how relaxed he had felt in Thomas’s arms as they wound the clocks together, laughing, so at ease next to each other as Thomas spoke against his ear—close enough to kiss the skin of his neck if he had wanted to—only to get tense and distance himself when someone walked in. As he should have, of course: it would do neither of them any good to be caught in a compromising position, but other people’s presence—O’Brien’s especially—got Jimmy so defensive that Thomas’s mind was permanently caught in a whirlwind, wondering if it was all wishful thinking or if there was anything to it.

Thomas took care of his morning hygiene as he thought back to it. Nothing got his thoughts in gear quite like soaking in a bathtub, and today they needed very little to be set in motion. He mused that he would have been able to notice something was wrong back then, had he not been so blinded by how much he wanted O’Brien to be right. She had never paid that much attention to any of his affairs before, and after the whole Alfred business, her sudden interest reeked so much of a scheme he had been a fool not to see.

Then that fateful night had happened, and everything went to shite. Nothing like public humiliation and the threat of prison to make him acknowledge he had been indeed imagining things and put a lid over his inner turmoil: Jimmy wasn’t of his sort, they had never flirted, it had all been his wishful thinking combined with O’Brien’s manipulation. His gut instincts had still made a few feeble attempts to riot at the facts his brain knew, but he chose to hold onto the cold hard truth. As bad as rejection felt, it was good to find some respite from obsessing about Jimmy’s nature—he had been dangerously close to starting to pick at flower petals, he loves me he loves me not, and it made him feel like a fool.

Over the course of the following years, as the dust settled and they finally started a friendship—no matter how odd the circumstances—Thomas found himself paying attention to things entirely unrelated to Jimmy’s looks and whether he actually fancied women. It was the way he talked, the unworried way he walked, the confident sound of his voice, how graciously he played the piano, his passion for films and the arts, how ambitious and full of dreams he was. It was like everyone was more of the same, and he was the one who dared to be different—a little like Thomas himself. It was a calmer feeling, with the occasional sting of hearing Jimmy talk about a girl, but softer and more stable than what he had felt during the first month.

It was understandable that Jimmy had always been on his mind, Thomas thought as he wiped himself dry and dressed himself in casual attire. For the past five years, his life had always somehow revolved around Jimmy. First, he fell in love with him, then he was almost sent to prison because of that kiss. Then he refused Arthur Collins’s offer to leave the country because he couldn’t leave Jimmy. Then he subjected himself to Choose Your Own Path because, among other things, there was a Jimmy-shaped hole in his life that he didn’t know what to do with. And a similar reason had made him drink the potion—even the bloody magical potion knew Thomas needed to sort things out when it came to Jimmy.

And now, he thought, standing in front of the mirror, giving the last pull that made a perfect knot in his tie, they had been together, sharing each other’s bodies in more ways than one. When he sat down for breakfast in the servants’ hall, Thomas noticed how the story of his life and his story with Jimmy blended with these very walls, with his fellow servants, with his current routine and how everything in his life could have been different if only the some of the rules had been different.

“Andrew, don’t forget to put the crates on the wagonette when we are done with breakfast,” Mr. Carson said, “Mrs. Patmore wants to buy all sorts of products in Ripon. I don’t know what is wrong with the supplies we get right here at the village. They look perfectly fine to my eyes.”

Carson’s know-it-all tone reminded Thomas of the inflection his voice had assumed when calling him twisted and foul.

“That’s because you’re a butler, not a cook, Mr. Carson,” Thomas couldn’t help but say.

Silence fell over the table as everyone turned to stare at Thomas. Carson looked as shocked as if Thomas had just insulted his Lordship himself.

“What on Earth has possessed you today, Mr. Barrow?” Carson inquired. “Are you that eager to have your permission to attend the fair revoked? Spend the day dusting the cellar perhaps?”

“He didn’t mean any harm, Mr. Carson.” Mrs. Hughes came to his defence. “I’m sure you remember what happened the last time you tried to make Mrs. Patmore use ingredients beneath her standards? Besides, there will hardly be any good wines left on Mr. Hanshaw’s shelves if we go after the fair. And his Lordship will need cigars for when he comes back from his trip, no? Unless, of course, you’d rather go to Ripon yourself.”

Thomas pressed his lips together to keep from smiling out of turn. Mrs. Hughes was right. If Thomas didn’t go to Ripon today, there was no guarantee the best wines and cigars would still be in stock in a later date, and who could be so cruel as to inflict the family the horror of drinking and smoking anything of subpar quality? Besides, it had been years since Carson had last put himself through the trouble of going to the nearby towns to purchase anything. At most, he wrote a shopping list. To ask the old butler to go to Ripon for a fair, when the town square would be especially crowded and loud, was the same as asking the Dowager Countess to be Mrs. Patmore’s assistant cook.

“Mr. Barrow apologises, doesn’t he?” Mrs. Hughes said, raising her eyebrows expectantly as if she was telling him not to ruin the opportunity to escape the trouble he had seen the need to dig himself into.

Thomas plastered an artificial smile on his face, and said in an agreeable tone, “Of course, Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I was just commenting on Mrs. Patmore’s talent as a cook.”

Mr. Carson harrumphed, sitting straight on the chair with vexation, but was appeased enough to return his attention to the food. Mrs. Hughes smiled softly to Thomas. She was a nice woman, he supposed; she had stood by his side when O’Brien pitted him against Jimmy, albeit without much conviction—in his life, people had usually been willing to move heaven and earth to condemn him, not come to his defence. Even so, Thomas was having difficulty accepting Mrs. Hughes’ placation and her patronising tone.

It was strange how little distinction his brain made among those who had blatantly wronged him—like Alfred, calling the police on him, and O’Brien, with all her plots—those who had somehow helped him, no matter how condescendingly, like Bates and Hughes—and those who had nothing to do with the story and had only seen it unfold from afar. They all had something in common. They had seen Thomas as either a pervert attacking a helpless victim in the dead of the night, or as a poor deluded wretch lead on by someone who would never want him. And now Thomas couldn’t tell them how wrong they were. That Jimmy might just be confused, that it could be nothing but a phase, that he might be just experimenting, just to see what it was like, and Thomas happened to be the only man of that sort he knew, but still. He had wanted Thomas. They were still wrong. It might’ve been five years late, but Jimmy returned his interest. They were wrong.

Not being able to say this made him feel smothered, and he found that he couldn’t eat anymore. The servants’ hall and all it represented became suffocating. He wanted to get out of there so he could laugh and feel as alive as he had the night before.

“Mr. Carson, would you excuse me? I’ve been meaning to go to the Post Office before we make our way to Ripon.”

Carson glared at him as if he wanted to say no, and Thomas thought it was exactly what he was going to say, but then the man dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

“You may go. I think it’s best for my digestion if I don’t have to see your face for the rest of the meal.”

Thomas smiled as if the insult had been a compliment and bowed his head in a courtesy as he made his way to the washroom, so he could brush his teeth and get ready to leave. It had been a mild winter month, very wet. It had rained during the night, and it was still cloudy, but Thomas didn’t pick up an umbrella when he was leaving. He just put on his coat and his gloves before stepping out to the village. But he wasn’t going to the Post Office and he didn’t have anything to post to anyone; the streets he was crossing lead him to the Grantham Arms.

This time, he entered the inn like one was supposed to: through the front door, stopping in front of the innkeeper’s counter.

“May I help you?” the man asked him.

“Yes, I’m looking for Mr. Kent. He checked in yesterday,” Thomas said, keeping his expression impassive in a way that only many years of scheming could have taught him. If this man or anyone else had heard anything coming from Jimmy’s bedroom last night, Thomas wouldn’t be the one to give them away with cheap jittery.

The man didn’t give him any signs anything was out of the ordinary either.

“I’m sorry, but he checked out this morning.”

Thomas pursed his lips. This was all very sudden. Perhaps Jimmy had taken more offence in Thomas’s hasty departure than he’d imagined.

“Did he say where he was going?”

“No, I’m sorry. Do you want to leave your name and a message in case he comes back?”

Thomas eyed him for a moment, wondering if the question was a formality and how much the man did actually know. Maybe the innkeeper didn’t know Thomas’s given name, but there was a likely chance he knew of him—it wasn’t farfetched to assume he might have heard stories, rumours. Thomas might be paranoid—yet could one blame a man of his sort for being suspicious?

“No, thank you,” he said, at last, turning on his heels and walking back to the Abbey.

When he got there, the servants were nearly ready for the fair. It was a small one, more focused on trades than on festivities. This month had been mild, but there were times when the roads to more distant places got closed off due to bad weather, so the local market flourished during winter. The fair was also an opportunity to indulge in typical winter amusements, like drinking mulled wine at the stands or going for a ride in a sledge, if you were into that sort of thing. But the major difference wasn’t the fair itself or the cloudy weather instead of a sunny sky, it was the household. Three years ago, when they went to the fair in Thirsk, they had to take two wagonettes. Now one was more than enough, and only because they would be shopping. Mrs. Hughes would be staying at the Abbey with Mr. Carson, and Mrs. Patmore had chosen to stay in too—apparently, seeing if Daisy managed to buy everything right in her shopping list was some sort of responsibility test. Mr. Molesley had been confined to his room with a bad cold. So it would be just him, Andy, one of the maids and Daisy going to the fair.

Daisy drove the wagonette to Ripon, chatting with Sarah, the maid, about her expectations for the fair, but their conversation fell on deaf ears; Thomas was too distracted, watching the fields on the side of the road. It had been a bad move to leave Jimmy in such a hurry after their meeting at the Grantham Arms yesterday—like Jimmy himself had done at the Willow Tree when they were still in each other’s bodies. It was true they were quite a pair, but they had to stop mimicking each other’s mistakes.

“Are you all right, Mr. Barrow?” Andy asked, sitting next to him. “You didn’t sound quite like yourself the last couple of days. And now you’re so quiet.”

Hearing someone speak directly to him shook him out of his absent-mindedness a little. “I’m fine, yes. Tell me, do you have errands from the Abbey to run at the fair or are you just visiting?”

Andy looked at his shoes for a moment before answering. “Just visiting. I don’t have much money to spend buying stuff of my own, but I thought it would be nice to take a look at the stands.”

Thomas smiled at him. “I have some things to buy for the household—” and a stolen bottle of wine to replace, he added in silence, “—but I think we can find something for us to share in one of the food carts.”

When they arrived at the town, there were bonfires here and there at the square, radiating heat and light. Daisy and Sarah went one way and he went on the opposite direction with Andy, the four of them agreeing to meet back at the wagonette in an hour. As promised, Thomas’s first stop was on a food and drink stand, where he bought Andy a mug of mulled wine.

“Don’t you want some?” Andy asked.

Thomas felt tempted, as the heat would be welcome, but he had been drinking more than his usual share for three days and his liver could use a rest.

“No, I’m fine with just a cigarette. It will warm me enough,” he refused, pulling the package out of his inner pocket and lighting one, smoking carefree while Andy sipped on his wine, drinking it slowly.

“Look, there’s a skittles lane over there. Do you want to go throw some balls?”

Thomas considered it, taking a few more draughts of his cigarette. He had his to-do list, but there weren’t that many items, and what was the harm in throwing a few balls? He nodded, to Andy’s delight. Unfortunately, his friend was terrible at the game, and his first couple of balls only knocked down a pair of pins, while a single throw from Thomas took them all down at once. Bystanders around them clapped when Thomas made a strike, Andy joining them, and Thomas felt something warm and silly in his chest with the appreciation of strangers.

“You’re good,” Andy complimented him.

“It’s an easy game. You’ll get the hang of it in no time,” Thomas said, not wanting Andy to feel bad for taking down so few pins.

He used the next balls to teach him how to improve his throw, and by the time they got to the last, Andy had got quite a bit better. But as much fun as Thomas was having, he was there for work, not play, so they made their way to one of the stands, where Thomas bought soda crystals, shoe polish, a new brush for their jackets and some other things. It was a valet’s work, but Bates was away and the staff needed supplies. Even without the family to look after, the staff themselves still had uniforms that needed tending to, and it was Thomas’s responsibility as under-butler to make sure they had the means to do it.

Their next stop was at the tobacco shop. This day was indeed proving to have taken a turn for the better because Thomas found a box of cinnamon-coloured cigars that just by their deep rich smell he knew his Lordship would enjoy immensely. That was his favourite task, one that made him feel that he had something Carson couldn’t offer. Thomas couldn’t afford the kinds of cigars his Lordship smoked, which didn’t mean he wasn’t good at purchasing them. Carson, on the other hand, didn’t smoke, so when it came to buying Lord Grantham’s cigars, he was no better than a blind man choosing a painting.

The last stop on Thomas’s list was Mr. Hanshaw’s store, where the old man sold most things alcoholic. Thomas was happy that Jimmy had made a sensible choice when he snitched wine from the Abbey, stealing something tasty but of an accessible price; if he had taken just any bottle, he’d have risked taking something that Thomas couldn’t afford to replace now. Andy watched him closely as he took his time choosing wine and other liquors, studying him with awe as if he was doing something very impressive.

“You know so much about so many things. How did you learn all that?” he said, at last.

Thomas smiled at the compliment, shrugging as he finished his purchase and took the money out of his pocket. “Some of them I read. The smallest part of them to be honest.”

He waited a few moments as Mr. Hanshaw put their bottles in bags so they could take them away. Thomas only resumed his speech when they were back on the pavement.

“Some things come from paying attention to your surroundings. When you’re a footman and you’re standing by the dinner table, you don’t let your thoughts go idle. You focus on what the family is saying. You don’t let them notice, of course. But how will you know what’s what, how will you learn anything without opening up your ears? You hear what they say about the drinks, food, company, politics, nobility, until you know enough to make up your own mind. One day you might find out you know more than someone upstairs.”

Andy smiled self-consciously. “I don’t think that’s something I can do.”

“Come, let’s take these things to the wagonette,” Thomas said, urging him on.

When they got there, Daisy and Sarah were already by the wagonette, and a man from the village was helping them load boxes of supplies from Mrs. Patmore’s list.

“Oh, there you are,” Daisy said. “It’s a shame we have to go so soon. Did you two have fun?”

“Yes,” Andy said. “Mr. Barrow taught me how to play skittles.”

“Sarah and I only had money for one ride at the carousel. But we might as well be as rich as the King for all it mattered. Mrs. Patmore list was so long we hardly had time for anything else, unlike the two of you. If you’re all done, we can go back home.”

Thomas and Andy loaded their bags with the bottles onto the wagonette, but as they were closing its back door, Thomas couldn’t stop thinking of the last fair he had attended—the one in Thirsk. He didn’t mean to be ungrateful—Andy was a good friend, and he enjoyed his company—but he couldn’t stop thinking how he wished he’d done these things with Jimmy when they went to the fair in Thirsk four years ago, instead of following him around like a love-struck puppy just to end his day taking a beating. Not that it had been a bad beating. He’d take that beating a thousand times to save Jimmy, to earn his friendship.

“You go ahead,” Thomas said. “I have business to handle in Ripon, but tell Mr. Carson I’ll be home in time for dinner.”

Daisy frowned. “You’re staying at the fair?”

“We can wait for you,” Andy said.

“Oh, no, we can’t,” Daisy cut him off. “You have no idea what Mrs. Patmore would do to me if I don’t come home soon with her list. Mr. Barrow can handle whatever he needs to handle and ride the bus.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Thomas said, his heart beating fast all of a sudden, as he turned around and walked away.

This was very reckless behaviour, he thought, as he walked by the lanes he didn’t know all that well. He wasn’t even sure Jimmy was there. Perhaps the most reasonable option now was to turn around and let a few days go by before they tried to reach out for each other again. Downton was a village, and Ripon a very small city. Who knew how many people had been paying attention to their comings and goings between the two places in the last week? Was it too late to start giving fake names if they kept on meeting in lousy inns? Good God—talk about getting ahead of himself. He didn’t know if Jimmy was going to be there or if they would ever be together in that way again.

When he got to the Willow Tree Inn, the same man with the round belly was sitting behind the counter with a glass of something, flicking through a magazine. Everything was the same, even the position in which he was seated. It was like time had frozen him on the spot from the time Thomas had last seen him until now. One thing was different, though: the last time that man had seen Thomas’s body, Jimmy had been wearing it.

When Thomas approached the counter, the man said, almost without raising his eyes, “Second floor, same room.”

Thomas was caught off guard, his mouth hanging open mid-movement, any words he might have said stuck in his throat. He couldn’t tell how bad it was that this man remembered him enough to know exactly who he was looking for—then again, how many men in Ripon met other men in a room in this inn?—but at the same time it was a relief not having to talk to him more than necessary. Even so, Thomas decided in that moment that this would be the last time he’d ever set foot in the Willow Tree Inn.

He climbed the steps to the second floor, glad to know Jimmy was there. He had got one thing right at least. When he reached the door with the number 14, he knocked and waited. Jimmy opened it less than ten seconds later, pulling Thomas inside. His touch on the inside of Thomas’s wrist felt like liquid fire.

“What took you so long?” Jimmy said as soon as door was closed and locked. “I’ve been waiting forever.”

Thomas looked around wide-eyed, confused for a moment. “I... didn’t know we were supposed to meet. I’d decided to try my chances by coming here, thinking this might where you were off to. I passed by the Grantham Arms this morning. The innkeeper said you’d already left.”

“You suggested this meeting,” Jimmy said, defensive. “You said you could meet me here, that you wouldn’t have work because of the fair.”

“I did, but then you told me to meet you at the Grantham Arms. Made me climb up to your window and everything,” Thomas said. He didn’t even know why he was having this argument. Despite his wrong assumption that it had been an either/or agreement, and the ridiculous stumbles in communication they were having, he was right where he wanted to be. Well, not where exactly, but with the right company.

But Jimmy seemed to be going in another direction, looking displeased, more willing to hold onto the edges of their conflicts.

“I didn’t mean instead. But you can go, if you want to,” Jimmy said, pouting, the little bastard. “You don’t have to stay just because I asked you to come.”

Thomas approached him until they were only half a metre apart. He stared down at Jimmy, at his frown of annoyance at being kept waiting, at his bright eyes. How could Thomas explain to him how all the things Jimmy made him feel? He was well into his twenties, but he looked so young—almost an adolescent with his poorly disguised tantrum. Then Thomas was suddenly afraid Jimmy was like a child with a new toy—and Thomas was that toy. He was showing Jimmy a world that was unknown and mysterious. And, like an excited child, Jimmy would play until he got bored, needed someone else to play it with or got sick of the game entirely. Thomas wasn’t a boy anymore; he had long gone through the phase Jimmy was just now experimenting with. He knew what he wanted, who he was, and it hurt him to think that Jimmy’s excitement about him might be doomed not to last.

But right now? He was powerless to say no. And Jimmy wasn’t thinking straight if he thought there was a chance in the universe Thomas would walk away from him.

“I want to stay,” Thomas said. “I want to be with you.”

Jimmy nodded, still staring at him, and Thomas could see him gulping. His hands were shaking a little when they reached all the way up to the nape of Thomas’s neck, pulling his face down, bringing their lips together. He was happy that Jimmy was younger than him, not as hardened, braver. Happy that he wasn’t asking things that would he too difficult to explain, like why he had fled yesterday. Thomas was still trying to figure out if there was a positive way for him to be daring, and Jimmy made him believe there might well be.

Thomas sucked Jimmy’s bottom lip, licked into his mouth, and Jimmy moaned into their kiss, saying, “I want to feel your mouth again.”

“You are feeling my mouth,” he whispered, knowing exactly what Jimmy meant, but feigning ignorance. He wasn’t doing that just to be mean or because he got a twisted pleasure in making Jimmy red-faced and uncomfortable, but because it was important that Jimmy admitted what he wanted—to himself and to Thomas.

“I want to feel it here,” Jimmy said, grabbing Thomas’s right hand from where it rested on his waist and placing it between his legs where his hardness was.

It was like Jimmy’s body already knew the touch of Thomas’s hand because they already had a cadence together, despite having been together so few times. He rubbed Jimmy with the heel of his hand, feeling the shape of the head of his prick, as Jimmy embraced him and lay his head on Thomas’s shoulder, panting and bucking his hips.

But Jimmy was too impatient, and it wasn’t long before he moaned, “I said I wanted your mouth.”

It would be a lie to say Thomas himself wasn’t just as eager to do this. And it was maybe pressing his luck to ask, but he couldn’t hold his tongue. Not when the future was so uncertain. “Can we do it with you naked?”

Jimmy stared at him for a moment, and Thomas almost regretted having asked. He didn’t want to make it seem like he was unsatisfied with what Jimmy had to offer. Jimmy himself was a gift to him. If he said that what they’d done so far was all they would ever do, Thomas would be fine with that. If he said that what they’d done so far was all right but would never happen again because it wasn’t what he was looking for, Thomas would suffer and feel bitter, but he would accept it and keep Jimmy’s friendship no matter how much it hurt because... well, because he had no choice. The feeling he had beating inside his chest left him no other option.

But then Jimmy nodded and his fingers went to the collar of his shirt, but Thomas took that task for himself and Jimmy didn’t resist. He undid the buttons slowly; his need to see Jimmy naked was great, but he wanted to savour the moment as his skin was revealed. So first he removed the shirt, letting it fall on the floor, and then the belt. Then he made Jimmy lift his arms, and pulled his undershirt off. Jimmy hadn’t taken his shirt off the night before at the Grantham Arms, and now Thomas could see his chest in all its glory, instead of averting his eyes like he had when they were swapped. His skin was unmarred and smooth, his nipples small and dark pink, his navel deep and round.

He pushed Jimmy onto the bed, lying beside him, one hand working the buttons of his trousers.

“Can I put my mouth anywhere on your body?” he asked.

Jimmy nodded vigorously.

You probably have no idea what you just agreed to, Thomas thought as he mouthed Jimmy’s neck, making him squirm under his touch. As much as the very thought of eating Jimmy’s arsehole out got him trembling with want, he bloody well knew that was not what Jimmy meant when he gave Thomas permission, and he wouldn’t trick Jimmy into submitting to things he wasn’t ready for.

So Thomas settled for making his way down Jimmy’s body and tonguing his nipples, until he got Jimmy clasping a hand over his mouth to muffle his moans. He had done that to control himself at the Grantham Arms, too. It got Thomas wondering if he ever had to work that hard to be quiet the times he bedded women, or if he only found such pleasure in Thomas’s arms.

Next he kissed Jimmy’s sternum, going down until he reached his navel, dipping his tongue there briefly—it never ceased to amaze him how smooth Jimmy’s chest and abdomen were in comparison to Thomas’s own. And then, when he hooked his fingers on the waist of Jimmy’s trousers and underpants, ready to pull them down, he noticed Jimmy’s hesitancy.

“Are you all right?” he said.

“Can I see you naked too?” Jimmy asked.

Thomas raised his eyebrows. That wasn’t a request he expected to hear. If anything, Thomas imagined his naked body with all its flagrant... manliness would put Jimmy off.

“You want that?”

Jimmy nodded, his expression a mixture of enthusiasm and nervousness.

And it dawned on Thomas he couldn’t set apart Jimmy’s nervousness from his own—was Jimmy actually even nervous or was it all in Thomas’s head? He had always assumed Jimmy would be the one shy and tense because of his complete lack of experience with men, while Thomas had had his fun here and there; but the truth was that the prospect of guiding Jimmy, of finally being with him, wasn’t being easy on his nerves either. He took a step back and raised his fingers to his tie, but his hand started to shake, so he closed it into a fist, opened it, and started again. He threw his tie on the floor as well as his jacket. He kicked off his shoes and bent to remove his socks. He unbuckled his belt, but stopped there.

He could feel Jimmy’s expectant gaze on him, and that was the only thing that made him move again, but he did so very slowly. The undershirt was the next to go; he pulled it over his head, feeling it ruffle his hair a bit. He saw Jimmy’s eyes roaming the span of his shoulders, chest, and belly. Was he noticing how very hairy Thomas was in comparison to him? Or how age was making him put on weight around the waist?

“Your body is perfect,” Jimmy told him.

Thomas felt incredibly silly for the smile that stole his lips. He unbuttoned his trousers and let them fall over his hips, stepping out of them. He would be getting out of his underpants sooner or later, but he’d rather do it while he was sucking Jimmy off, so Jimmy would be distracted and would have something else to focus on if the sight of another man’s cock proved to be too much, despite what he had said.

He dragged Jimmy’s hips to the edge of the bed, pulling his trousers and underpants over his hipbones, down his thighs and off his ankles. Jimmy’s prick was hard, shiny with fluid, and the scent of arousal that hit Thomas made him thrust his hips a little in the air.

His first lick was a long stripe from below Jimmy’s balls to the tip of his cock. Above him, Jimmy lifted himself onto his elbows to look at what Thomas was doing. Thomas had noticed the previous night that Jimmy liked to watch. So he put on a show, licking, sucking, stroking, doing everything he could so Jimmy would surely know Thomas loved the taste and smell of him. His own cock was proof of that, hard and leaking in his underpants. He wormed one hand inside and started to stroke himself slowly, in time with his sucking.

“Are you touching yourself?” Jimmy asked.

Thomas nodded, mouth full of cock.

“Good,” Jimmy said, gasping.

He looked so relaxed, not nervous in the least, and Thomas was almost shaking with how turned on he was, that he just couldn’t resist asking. It was worth the risk when every time could be their last time together. I can handle a no, he told himself, summoning the courage to ask. I’m expecting a no, I can handle a no, but I want to give him the chance to say yes.

“Do you want to take me?”

“What?” Jimmy asked, his expression a question mark. “Take you where?”

“Do you want to fuck me?” Thomas rephrased. He would laugh if he could, but he was too nervous and turned on to be able to.

Jimmy’s cock gave an interested twitch, showing that while its owner might not have a clue what Thomas meant, the words were enticing, but Jimmy still looked just as puzzled. Right. Jimmy was new to this. Thomas would need to be more explicit if he couldn’t trust Jimmy figure things out on his own.

“Do you want to put your cock inside me?” he said, and Jimmy frowned, probably thinking that he was already putting his cock inside him—inside his mouth—so Thomas completed, “Up my arse.”

Jimmy blushed so furiously that Thomas knew at once it had been too much. It was best to apologise and forget the whole thing; Thomas just hoped the idea of sticking his prick up there in someone’s body hadn’t been disgusting and off-putting enough to make Jimmy not even want his mouth, maybe thinking Thomas and all men of his sort were perverted filth for doing that.

“I—I do,” Jimmy said.

Once he recovered from the shock Jimmy’s consent had caused him, Thomas smirked, shifting between Jimmy’s legs to take his underpants off. It was such an irony that he had nothing but spit to ease the way while there was half a jar of petroleum jelly lying in his drawer back at the Abbey. He ripped his half-glove off his scarred hand with his teeth and sucked a finger inside his mouth, coating it with saliva, spreading his knees.

“I—I said I want to,” Jimmy repeated, as if he was waiting for something to happen, but uncertain as to how to make it happen.

Thomas stroked Jimmy’s erection with his right hand, a soft grip, just to remind him that his hand was still there.

He pulled his finger out of his mouth, and said, “I heard you, but I can’t take you inside me just like that. It’s been a while. I need to get myself ready first.”

Jimmy blushed further. “I see.”

The first finger slid inside easily. He did it like this often when touching himself in his room. He held Jimmy with his right hand, stroking him slowly just so he would stay hard while Thomas worked on his opening with his other hand. He added a second finger soon, probably more eager than Jimmy to see this happen. With two fingers, he could now feel more of a stretch, breathing in deeply as he fucked himself on his hand. He pulled his fingers out and spat one more time on his palm, noticing how Jimmy paid attention to his every movement, cock oozing fluid.

Thomas himself wasn’t in a better shape. He thrust three fingers inside himself and bent them towards his balls, searching for that place that made his legs feel so weak. Once he found it, he stroked himself there a few times, feeling pleasure unfold inside him. He had only done this—taken someone inside using just spit—a couple of times, and none of them had been after such a long dry spell, but Thomas wanted it too much to back away now. He mouthed Jimmy’s cock some more, drenching it in saliva.

So far, he had been kneeling on the floor while Jimmy lay on the bed, and everything he was doing to himself had been hidden from view. Jimmy still hadn’t seen his hard cock; he hadn’t even touched it—that day when Jimmy stroked him until he came they were still in each other’s bodies, which meant Jimmy had touched his own cock—so Thomas felt a little embarrassed when he climbed on top of Jimmy, straddling him, and his cock bounced heavily between his legs. For some reason, he thought making Jimmy fuck him on all fours would be too intimidating for someone who had never been with a man, and doing it with Thomas on his back would too greatly resemble men and woman’s roles. So he straddled Jimmy, taking his cock in hand, seeing him gasp as he did so, and lowered himself slowly on the head of his prick. The stretch burned, and he hissed, knowing he’d be sore once this was over, but loving every second of it.

“Oh, God—” he gasped, once the head was all the way inside.

“Are you all right? Are you in pain?” Jimmy was frowning with concern, but it was plain how his face was twisted with pleasure as well, his cheeks flushed red.

“I’m fine,” Thomas exhaled, lowering himself a bit more only to lift himself again, fucking himself slowly on Jimmy’s cock, hearing him moaning softly, until he bottomed out, thighs touching Jimmy’s hips, and he stayed there for a moment, enjoying that feeling of fullness.

Then he rode Jimmy, swaying his hips back and forth and making his thighs push him up and down. One hand was on the mattress to steady himself, but the other was on his cock, so it wouldn’t bounce so much with his movements. Jimmy seemed like he didn’t know where to look. His eyes travelled over Thomas’s entire body and face.

First, Jimmy’s hands rested by the side of his body on the mattress, but as Thomas picked up speed, they touched him hesitantly on his thighs. When Thomas didn’t complain, he held onto his hips. Just the faint touch of ten fingertips over his hipbones—it was strange to notice such a light sensation when he had Jimmy’s entire cock shoved inside him, rubbing against that place—but soon those fingertips became his actual palms when Jimmy rested his hands flat on the sides of his hips, at the same time following and guiding the rhythm with which Thomas impaled himself on him.

But soon Thomas’s thighs started burning with fatigue, and he was forced to brace himself on the headboard, leaning against Jimmy, shifting their angle. Their faces got a lot nearer and they could see less of each other’s bodies, but now Thomas’s cock brushed Jimmy’s stomach every time they moved and he felt tortured with pleasure inside and out. Jimmy’s hand on his body changed as well. Those ten fingertips were now possessive as they dug themselves into Thomas’s skin, moving from his hips to his arse cheeks, grabbing handfuls of it. That, combined with the way Jimmy had started to thrust from beneath, made Thomas feel like Jimmy was actually taking him in every sense of the word. Jimmy was taking him, like he always had—his body, his soul, his heart.

“I think I’m—” Jimmy started, but cut himself short mid-sentence, kissing Thomas.

Thomas could feel Jimmy coming inside him, but his cock slid outside while he was still shooting, and come leaked out of Thomas while he was still straddling Jimmy. It suddenly seemed very important to get off him so he wouldn’t make Jimmy disgusted at what they’d just done, but when Thomas left the bed, his movements felt weird with how slick his thighs were and how heavy his stiff cock felt. He turned his back on Jimmy, who was still sitting on the bed, and tried to find his underpants, but he couldn’t remember where he’d left them. He was shaking a little. But then he felt Jimmy touching him on the waist; when Thomas turned around to look at him, Jimmy touched him between the thighs where his spunk was cooling off.

“I did this,” he said, his voice low.

Thomas stared at Jimmy, not daring to move. The hand in his inner thigh travelled farther up, all the way up to between his arse cheeks. There Jimmy seemed to hesitate a little before his finger touched him between them, searching for his hole, tracing the rim, feeling how abused it was.

“I did this,” he said, swallowing, the blush returning to his cheeks and neck.

“You did,” Thomas answered. “And I loved every minute of it.”

Jimmy’s fingers left his arsehole and he touched Thomas’s cock instead.

“I can see that,” he said, stroking Thomas a couple of times.

It made him feel goosebumps. It was more than just the feel of Jimmy’s soft palm on his erection. It was many things. The fact that they were both there, sweaty and naked. That Jimmy wanted to touch him even after he had come, that he was still interested in Thomas after reaching his own climax. That they were doing this when Thomas’s own body was still covered in the evidence of Jimmy’s claim over him.

“You don’t—ah—have to,” Thomas protested all the same. “If you don’t want to, I mean.”

“I want to,” Jimmy assured him. “Lie down beside me?”

Thomas considered the position they were in—Jimmy sitting on the bed, Thomas standing in front of him—and could see Jimmy’s point. His hips levelled with Jimmy’s face made it seem like he was trying to force a situation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Thomas lay on his back on the bed next to Jimmy, his erection jutting out from his body. Jimmy took him in hand, stroking him slowly. Thomas noticed at once that Jimmy wasn’t rushing to make him come as fast as possible like someone who just wanted to meet his end of a bargain. He was interested in Thomas’s body, watching him like he was something precious and rare as his hand moved up and down.

“Tell me how you like it. I want to make it good for you,” he said, not that he needed much guidance. Thomas could already tell he was a natural with the way he gathered the fluid leaking through the head of his cock and spread it on his glans with a fingertip.

“I like everything you do. But I like it when you kiss me, too,” Thomas admitted.

Jimmy complied, and for a moment they shared a soft and warm kiss, Jimmy’s hand still tugging rhythmically at his prick, but he pulled back soon.

“I like kissing you too, but... I can’t... hear you... when we’re kissing.”

“Hear me? What do you want to hear?”

“Everything. You. Your breathing. Hear you—moan if you like what I’m doing. My name sounds so good in your voice,” Jimmy murmured, looking down at the task at hand. “Especially when you’re coming—”

Jimmy looked up, mortified, and his hand went completely still.

Thomas frowned at what he’d just heard. “Especially when I what?”

Jimmy took so long to talk again that Thomas thought he wasn’t even going to. “Especially when you’re coming.”

Thomas didn’t understand. They had only come together once, when they were in each other’s bodies, in this very room, making a mess in their underpants and breathing heavily on top of each other. But other than the occasional grunt, both of them had been very quiet that time. The only time either of them had been more vocal about their own pleasure had been the night before when Thomas took Jimmy in his mouth, and Jimmy had begged so prettily. Thomas, on the other hand, had never moaned or come in a way Jimmy could hear.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

He could see tension taking over Jimmy’s body and he disliked it. Whatever was disturbing him, Thomas wanted him to know it didn’t matter, but he didn’t know how to make Jimmy understand, so he inquired further.

“You mean when you came here to talk?”

Slowly, Jimmy shook his head. “No. I mean before. I... I touched myself when I was in your body.”

“What do you mean? Touched yourself how?” Thomas asked, feeling a little daft.

“What do you mean what do I mean? I mean it like this,” Jimmy said, squeezing Thomas’s prick for emphasis. But then he let go of it entirely, shying away to his side of the bed. “I brought myself off while I was in your bloody body. But no more than five times.”

“Jimmy, we were in each other’s bodies just four days.”

“You’re mad at me. I shouldn’t have said anything,” Jimmy said, and he was throwing his legs to the side of the bed in an instant, sitting up, looking for his discarded clothes.

Thomas was having none of that. It was strange that Jimmy had thought this conversation had killed the mood, when in fact it had only got him more turned on. He touched Jimmy on the elbow, dragging him back to bed.

“I’m not mad,” he said, making sure Jimmy lay down next to him again.

They kissed for a moment before Thomas spoke again.

“It was just a little surprising for me to think of you touching my body while I wasn’t there. If anything, I thought the idea of intimacy with me scared the hell out of you.”

Come to think of it, it was a little ironic that Thomas had been so apprehensive of showing evidence of his arousal last night when Jimmy was already so intimate and familiar with Thomas’s cock.

“At first, it did, but... I don’t know what happened. I swear I don’t. It was like this thought was eating away my brain. I was just curious at first, but then... I did some things.” Jimmy looked like he was embarrassed but not entirely uncomfortable. His words came out with some trouble, but Thomas could see his soft cock showing signs of interest in the direction their conversation was taking.

“What things?” Thomas asked.

“I thought of you,” Jimmy said, taking Thomas’s shaft in his fist again, “with your mouth on me. In my mind, you loved sucking me off.” He kissed Thomas’s shoulder and then his neck.

“Not only in your mind. I love sucking you off in reality, too,” Thomas said, hoping to sound lighter and less affected than he felt. Heavens, why was Jimmy confessing he touched himself while thinking of him the most arousing thing in the world?

“But not only that. I... imagined I was you. I... moaned my own name, pretending I was you.”

“Why?” Thomas asked, voice hoarse, pushing into Jimmy’s palm. Jesus, he was getting way too good at that way too fast.

“Because I wanted to hear your voice, because it turned me on, because I wanted to pretend you were crazy about me,” Jimmy said, almost fully hard now, his cock grazing against Thomas’s hipbone on the bed.

“What did I say?”

“Not much. I was embarrassed to try a lot more. Just my name, and some moaning. You said please, and that you were going to come. I—” Jimmy hesitated for a moment, but then he went on. “I even did it in front of a mirror once so I could see your body better.”

“God, Jimmy, you know what you do to me?” Thomas breathed out, covering Jimmy’s hand with his own, and they pumped his cock together a few times, but Thomas wanted more body contact than he was getting, so he pulled Jimmy on top of himself.

They slid against each other slowly, their cocks rubbing together as Thomas stroked them with one hand. It was good that he was the one doing the touching now; Thomas had been on the verge of coming for a while and Jimmy still needed some time to get there.

So Thomas took advantage of their positions to worship Jimmy’s skin, mouthing his neck, licking his nipples, kissing his mouth, nibbling at his ear, as he stroked both their cocks.

He still came a little sooner than Jimmy, getting their stomachs slick with come. In the haze that came with his own climax he considered taking Jimmy in his mouth but there was little time to turn that thought into action, because in a moment Jimmy was adding to the mess on their stomachs.

They lay side by side on the bed, panting. Above them, the ceiling had a big ugly water stain and the plaster was puffing out with water damage. He wished he could take Jimmy some place better, somewhere beautiful, that showed Jimmy how much these meetings meant to him.

“You’re not jumping out of any windows today, are you?” Jimmy asked.

Thomas laughed. “Not today. But only because we’re one floor higher.”

Jimmy mock punched him on the shoulder, laughing as well, but then he said, “I’m serious. I know you have to go back, but—“

“I’ll stay,” Thomas cut him off. “I’ll stay as long as I can.”

Jimmy smiled and kissed the back of his hand.

Chapter Text

“You have to admit it’s not... practical,” Jimmy said, after a while. “It sticks all over.”

Thomas’s eyes snapped open, the suddenness of the comment startling him.

They hadn’t been exactly asleep, just in bed together for some time, still naked, dozing off. They were lying on their backs, side by side, close enough that their arms were touching. For the past minute, Thomas had been contemplating the possibility of having Jimmy’s head on his chest—was it all right to just pull Jimmy closer or was it better to ask first?—but Jimmy’s words distracted him from his dilemma. He shifted on the bed, lying on his side, resting his face on his fist to have a better look at Jimmy.

“What sticks all over what?” he asked, despite already guessing the answer.

Jimmy dropped his mouth for an instant, about to say something, but then he just waved a hand between them, gesturing at their bodies vaguely. Maybe there was something Thomas liked in seeing Jimmy at a loss for words, no matter how wicked that made him. Perhaps it was because Jimmy’s lack of modesty when he was first admitted at Downton had seemed a tad rehearsed, exaggerated even, like a bravado uttered by someone with something to prove, whereas what Thomas witnessed in these intimate moments looked natural and spontaneous.

“All the... spunk. It sticks all over us,” Jimmy said at last. “I never had to think about it when I bedded women. I never had to deal with it. All I had to know was whether to come inside or outside. But with us it’s...” He looked up and swallowed.

“Twice the spunk,” Thomas completed for him.

Having sex with Thomas was nothing like having sex with a woman. It was surely unlike anything Jimmy was used to. It was messier. Thomas’s kisses must feel different—his skin rougher under Jimmy’s mouth, his muscles firmer under Jimmy’s fingers, his gasps and grunts low and masculine. And from here on, everything would only get even more different. He wondered if Jimmy was paying attention to those differences, and what he was thinking of them.

“When we met here the other time and we came in our trousers—“

Thomas snorted and Jimmy ended up laughing mid question. It was probably a bit soppy that Thomas found it so lovely every time Jimmy admitted something about them out loud, but it was like their affair was validated each time Jimmy did that; hearing him say the words assured Thomas that things hadn’t been a figment of his imagination, that things had happened, that there was even a slight chance they would go on happening, that he wasn’t a dreamer deluding himself after all.

“You have no idea how awful it was coming back home in those underpants,” Jimmy said, a playful smile still on his lips.

“Let’s do it differently today, then. Do you have a washcloth?”

Jimmy nodded and got up from the bed. There was a suitcase in a corner of the bedroom; he squatted beside it and rummaged through its contents for a moment until he retrieved a handkerchief.

“This will have to do,” Jimmy muttered as he stood up and made his way to the water basin to wet the cloth before coming back to the bed.

Thomas thought he was going to hand over the soaked handkerchief—Thomas was in greater need of cleaning of the two of them—but Jimmy just stood by the bed, staring at him.

“Can I—Can I do it?” Jimmy said.

That was something Thomas hadn’t expected to hear; he had no idea why Jimmy wanted to wipe dry come off his body, but he was still happy to indulge. He nodded and Jimmy sat by his side, holding the moist handkerchief in his hand, tiny droplets of water running down his fingers. There was a pause where Jimmy did nothing, just looked at him, and Thomas wondered if he was missing something—maybe it’d been a joke Thomas hadn’t understood, or Jimmy could have just changed his mind about wanting to do such a personal task. But then Jimmy moved closer and touched the wet cloth to Thomas’s skin, cleaning his lower belly where both of them had come, then trailing down to Thomas’s inner thighs, where Jimmy’s seed had leaked out. His touches were feather-light.

“I’ve never seen a woman naked before,” Jimmy said like it was something he had forgot for a moment, but then suddenly recalled.

Thomas was clueless for a moment, unable to see where that had come from.

“But you’ve bedded women before,” he said, preferring that indirect approach to a point-blank question as to why Jimmy had chosen to reveal that particular secret and right now, specifically.

“I did, but...” Jimmy hesitated, losing himself at the task at hand, not that there was much of a task left—Thomas was as clean as he would get without a proper bath.

They were both soft and would stay that way for at least a while longer, so it wasn’t lust that Thomas saw in Jimmy’s scrutinising eyes as he studied Thomas’s nudity, touching him slowly under the excuse of cleaning him, the handkerchief crumpled in his palm.

“I’ve always done it under the covers,” Jimmy resumed. “I’ve seen naked women in pictures, but I’ve never really seen one. I’ve had flashes of bared breasts or thighs, but no one has ever been completely naked for me to see. Not when my seeing them is the whole point why they’re naked. And most definitely not we were, you know, actually doing it.”

It was a little unexpected, Thomas would give him that, and even more so considering it wasn’t an absurd request to make to a whore. Still, it was only mildly surprising, but Jimmy’s self-conscious tone made it sound like he had just revealed a family skeleton kept secret for generations. It got Thomas thinking that excessive modesty had never been an issue with any of the men he bedded; if there was any truth to it, Thomas couldn’t know, but he always felt like men of his kind weren’t interested in being prude in the bedroom. Of course some men would always be more libidinous and playful than others, but when you risked going to prison, you might as well make it worthy of the danger. In the end, even the most restrained men Thomas had been with were still up for quite a bit of fun.

But that was then.

“It’s hard to blame women with everyone preaching about how proper they have to be,” Thomas said instead, shrugging.

Jimmy stopped his pretend task and brought the cloth to his own stomach, but Thomas took the handkerchief from his hand.

“You did me, so now let me do you.”

There was no resistance. Jimmy lay back on the bed, as Thomas went briefly to the water basin and back, just so he could make the handkerchief feel freshly wet again. He tried to be gentle as he wiped Jimmy’s stomach.

“You let me see so much of you,” Jimmy said. “You let me... do so much. When you were... on top of me, you know... riding me. I could see myself going in and out of you. I don’t even know how I managed to last as long as I did. I felt like I was going to go off at any second.” Redness spread from Jimmy’s cheeks down to his neck.

Thomas put the washcloth down on the floor and brushed a lock of blond hair away from Jimmy’s forehead.

“I don’t let you do things to me. I don’t submit to anything. The things you did to me—” Those weren’t the right words. “The things we did together, we did them because we wanted to do them. Or am I wrong?”

Jimmy shook his head almost unnoticeably.

“In the bedroom, you don’t do things you don’t like just because someone wants you to. You don’t.” Thomas had been forced to learn that through experience, but there was no need for Jimmy to walk that same path. “And I assure you I loved what we did this afternoon, all of it. Or wasn’t my getting you sticky all over evidence enough?”

“Yes, but...” Jimmy was scratching Thomas’s upper-arm absent-mindedly. “You mean this part, when we’re kissing, touching, and that I understand, but... When you asked me to take you, I felt how you got afterwards. Back there. It must’ve hurt. It felt so good to me, but you must have—“

Thomas kissed him; he sucked on Jimmy’s lips, licked into his mouth, made sure Jimmy was stirring beneath him before he pulled back to say anything.

“I wanted it. You saw how hard I was while we were doing it.”

Jimmy pushed one thigh between Thomas’s legs, and the hand scratching his arm was now busy running its fingers through Thomas’s hair. Perhaps Thomas had been wrong when he thought they’d take a while to get hard again. However, a part of him didn’t want that to be the case; as much as he loved losing himself in Jimmy’s body, he also loved that they could explore each other in this calmer way, getting to know each other’s skin, taste, smell, without having climax as their endgame, with it just being... affection.

“I wasn’t entirely sure why,” Jimmy said. “Mostly, I thought it was just because you were stroking yourself.” He lowered his eyes, seeming intrigued by the hair between Thomas’s pectorals, drawing circles there with a fingertip. “I thought I was going to hurt you, but you said you liked it, and—” he gave a short chuckle “—it sure looked like you did. But does it... does it hurt?”

Thomas tilted Jimmy’s chin up and gave him a peck on the lips. He wasn’t at all eager to leave the bed and the comfortable heat of Jimmy’s body against his skin and he didn’t know where this conversation was going, but he had an inkling it would be easier to navigate it if he had a cigarette. Disentangling himself from Jimmy, he got up from the bed, and started to look for his jacket. He was sure he had a pack of smokes in one of his pockets. Of course he did—he’d had a fag with Andy at the fair. He palmed his jacket all over twice before he remembered his cigarettes were actually in his coat pocket. After finally finding what he was looking for, he went back to bed, cigarettes and lighter in his hands.

Resting his back against the headboard, he lit a cigarette for himself and took a drag.

“Want one?” he offered.

But Jimmy’s face wasn’t very happy; it was as if Thomas had offered him a mug of sour milk instead of the cigarette they used to share.

“What’s with the grumpy face?” Thomas asked, smiling and frowning at the same time, the cigarette hanging from his lips.

Jimmy yanked the cigarette from his mouth and brought it to his own lips, taking a draw, like he was indeed drinking from the said mug of sour milk out of childish spite.

“I know my questions are tiresome and ridiculous to you, but you didn’t have to be that obvious,” he said, taking another obstinate drag from the cigarette, inhaling the smoke deeply, very differently from how he usually smoked—just getting smoke inside his mouth and puffing it right out, the cigarette resting more between his fingers than between his lips.

He faced the opposite side of the room, like he was forcing himself not to look at Thomas.

“Hey,” Thomas said, but Jimmy crossed his arms in front of his chest, balancing the cigarette between his fingers clumsily.

Thomas grabbed him gently by the chin and made him look his way. At first, Jimmy resisted but his struggle was more for show than actual refusal.

“Hey,” Thomas said again, looking at him in the eyes.

He pulled Jimmy closer and kissed him eagerly, tongues touching, but then he remembered their cigarette, presumably still in Jimmy’s hand, and pulled back; he didn’t want to end up burning the inn down because a lit cigarette set a blanket on fire and they had failed to notice it, too busy devouring each other’s mouths.

“Your questions aren’t tiresome or ridiculous. Ask away. I like your questions. But a cigarette makes the talk flows better and I love having a smoke after a good shag. Don’t you?”

“I suppose I do,” Jimmy said, nodding, and he even smiled, but he didn’t seem entirely convinced.

Thomas took a deep breath, and thought out loud, “Does it hurt? How am I going to answer that?”

When Jimmy realised that hadn’t been the end of the subject, his posture changed in a way Thomas found almost flattering. Jimmy was acting like Thomas was about to reveal the secrets of the universe.

“It can hurt, but it doesn’t have to. Not if you want it to happen, if you’re relaxed, if you start slowly, and if you don’t go in dry. And even so it’s more of a stretch... It’s not a feeling everybody enjoys, and not everyone has to, but—“

“But you do,” Jimmy cut him off.

Thomas smiled, feeling a bit awkward. Heavens, this was an odd conversation—not that he disliked it—but with all his past lovers, this had never been a topic for pillow talk. They had never discussed what they liked, how anything felt, what anything meant—not in detail, anyway. And to have Jimmy asking questions whose answers no one had cared to know before, to have Jimmy probing unmapped depths, shone light to how fleeting everything Thomas had experienced until then had been.

“I love it,” Thomas admitted. “Especially the first thrust. It’s like you couldn’t possibly fit inside me, but my body wants you so much it makes room for you, it welcomes you in.”

“That sounds so hot,” Jimmy said, hypnotised by his words, a little like he had been the night before at the Grantham Arms when Thomas talked to him about oral pleasure—but now it was much better, because he was talking about something they had shared, something that was theirs, something that had already happened, was in the past and couldn’t be tarnished.

“It is,” Thomas said, taking the cigarette from Jimmy’s fingers.

That cigarette had been forgotten for a while and was mostly ashes by now. Thomas tipped them on the floor of the bedroom, taking a final drag before putting it out and tossing the butt on the floor.

“And there is that place up your arse that makes everything better.”

“What place?” Jimmy asked, curiosity colouring his tone.

“I don’t know the proper name, the one doctors would call it. I myself like to think of it as ‘biological evidence nature wanted men to be buggered.’”

“You’re not making any sense,” Jimmy said, but he laughed.

“There’s a place inside your arsehole that feels...” Thomas searched for a word that could translate the all-consuming sensation he felt when his fingers or Jimmy’s cock had brushed there, and he couldn’t find one. “Ah, I can’t explain. It’s pleasure, it’s pure sexual pleasure, but it feels like your entire body is involved, not just your prick. And you know what’s funnier?”

“What?” Jimmy asked at once, hanging on his every word.

“I feel—it’s my arse, but it feels connected to my prick somehow. When I’m hard, and I put my fingers up there, I can feel how swollen it gets. And I come so much faster and stronger when I rub myself there. It’s like I’m forcing come out of my body.”

Jimmy looked mesmerised but incredulous at the same time.

“You’re messing with me,” Jimmy said, but his tone was uncertain, like he was sitting on the fence, daring Thomas to prove he wasn’t messing with him.

Thomas brought their faces closer and said, “When I was going up and down on top of you, did it seem like I was?”

“No. You were amazing,” he said, and kissed Thomas once again.

Thomas loved that Jimmy wanted to kiss him, how easy it had become for Jimmy to initiate a kiss.

But when Jimmy pulled back, he hesitated, opening his mouth and closing it a couple of times without saying a word. Thomas wondered if Jimmy needed further assurance that all questions were welcome.

“Did you... like it as much when the Duke took you?”

That wasn’t a name he thought would resurface. Later on, if he and Jimmy kept meeting like this, maybe he’d have to ask why the constant questions about Philip. Was it because he was a duke, someone above their station? That seemed rather unlikely, considering Jimmy himself had been with Lady Anstruther and as far as Thomas could tell, Jimmy had seen highborn women and servant girls like Ivy with same eyes—they were only as good as what they could offer him. Besides, Thomas had always assumed he and Jimmy shared a worldview, one that working many years in service had helped to cement: aristocracy’s shit smelled no better than working class’ and birth rights hadn’t made much difference when you were in the trenches and there was a bullet with your name written on it.

But no matter the reason, he wouldn’t criticise Jimmy for his question—hiding something could only make him think Thomas’s past with Philip was something he wanted to treasure.

“The Duke never buggered me,” Thomas said, nonchalant.

“Oh, so it was just mouths,” Jimmy said, his expression betraying such relief that Thomas felt instantly guilty.

It was irrational to feel guilty, he told himself. Why would he feel guilty over something that had happened eight years before even meeting Jimmy? Simply nodding—lying—and being done with that subject flashed Thomas’s mind, but he couldn’t do that, not if he wanted to have a chance with Jimmy in the long run. And good God, how he wanted to have that chance. He’d screwed up too many times already—five years ago, kissing him in his sleep; the night of the fire, when he couldn’t keep Lord Grantham from catching Jimmy red-handed; last night at the Grantham Arms—he couldn’t lie, no matter how insignificant the lie seemed.

“No, I mean that I used to fuck him,” Thomas admitted.

While the idea of aristocracy and working class as fundamentally different types of people carried little appeal to Thomas, Philip had always got a kick out of being on all fours to a servant. At the time, Thomas had been persuaded to see through Philip’s perspective to some extent—their power exchange could be very satisfying in bed and pleasure was a powerful argument. But considering how things between them had turned out, Thomas had finished their dalliance—as had Philip had phrased it—stripped of his weapons, beaten, humiliated. It was different between Jimmy and him. They had grown together. They could yield to each other, give in, surrender, but they didn’t remove parts from one another.

“So this was the first time you’ve been fucked?” Jimmy asked.

The question sounded a little hopeful, but the way he looked at Thomas made it plain he had guessed the answer.

“No, I’ve been buggered before. But usually I do the fucking.”

“I see,” Jimmy said, nodding almost imperceptibly.

Thomas wondered if the latest turn in their conversation had made Jimmy uncomfortable and what he could do to remedy that; he also wondered if he was wondering too much, and that was... most likely true. He’d been squeamish about showing Jimmy his cock, in a ridiculous conviction it would scare him away, unaware of how well Jimmy knew his body. Maybe those countless questions weren’t a sign that something was wrong—perhaps quite the opposite. It was possible that nothing was the matter; Thomas just had never learned how to be optimistic.

“Are you hungry?” Jimmy said all of a sudden.

Even if its motivation had been genuine, the question sounded like a deliberate attempt at changing the subject. And if Jimmy was doing that on purpose, Thomas was fine with moving on because Philip was pretty low on his list of favourite topics, but it was still upsetting that the subject had ended on such a depressing note.

But then Thomas’s stomach chose that particular moment to grunt so loudly that it was all the answer Jimmy needed, making it impossible for them not to burst into laughter. When their breathing returned to their regular rhythm, Thomas felt no tension between them anymore.

Jimmy walked to his suitcase again and rummaged through it briefly, returning to the bed with a bag in his hands. He placed it on top of the mattress and sat down next to Thomas.

“I picked up a few things earlier for us at the city, in a couple of the public houses nearby. I thought we could have luncheon together, but then you were too late.”

Thomas lowered his eyes to the brown paper bag, not knowing what to say.

Jimmy opened the bag, displaying its contents over the bed.

“It’s not much. I bought us a few sandwiches. I didn’t know which one you’d like, so I got us one each. There’s tuna, cheese and ham with mayo. I got us two apples as well. There is a bottle of beer and a flask of tea. I don’t know if it’s still hot, and I don’t even know if you want it. I’d just figured you’d probably want something to drink...” Jimmy was running his mouth as he fumbled with the food, arranging it over the bed as if he were setting the table for Lord Grantham. He quieted down and raised his eyes, “I still don’t have glasses.”

Thomas looked at Jimmy, naked and arranging a few sandwiches on a lumpy mattress like lobster on a silver platter. He pictured Jimmy walking around Ripon, getting them tea and beer, trying to guess what Thomas would like to eat. The cheap room at the Willow Tree Inn wasn’t a fancy restaurant and there were no flowers in a crystal vase or mellow jazz playing, but it was abruptly clear: Jimmy had planned their first actual meal together, just the two of them—now as two lovers who had shared a bed and would then share a meal, not as footman and under-butler, in the servants’ hall under the eyes of a dozen others.

But then he imagined Jimmy expecting Thomas’s arrival, waiting alone with humble and delightful surprise as the minutes turned into hours. No wonder he was so cross when Thomas finally showed up. But it didn’t mean it was too late to mend that mistake.

“We can drink from the bottle again. And I love tuna sandwiches.” And cheese or ham with mayo, apples, and tea; right now, Thomas would love anything that came from him.

Jimmy sighed with mock-relief and said, “Good, because truth be told, I had my eye on that cheese, and I was ready to fight you over it.”

They ate and drank slowly, their meal taking a lot longer than it normally would because they talked a lot. This time, their conversation stayed on lighter topics. Thomas asked about things that drew his attention back when they were in each other’s bodies, like Mr. Bellamy’s bar and Jimmy’s life working there, all of which turned out to be fertile topics. Jimmy looked at ease sharing stories about his days after leaving Downton. He spoke well of his former boss, talking about the man with a deference that revealed a hint of fondness, but nothing got his eyes shining as much as talking about playing with the band. Those stories were far more detailed.

“Have you ever tried singing?” Thomas asked.

Jimmy cleared his throat and hid his face by taking a sip of tea.

After that initial reluctance, he said, “Before... before we got swapped, I had been practicing a bit, you know, alone in my bedroom. I had already talked to Jack from the band about singing with him in a few songs. He said there was no reason to share the microphone, that I could carry the songs on my own, but we switched bodies before I got a chance. Mr. Bellamy kept reminding me I was a waiter, not a showman, and I wasn’t sure of my voice.”

“I would love to hear you sing.”

Jimmy looked about to object.

“Not before you’re ready, of course,” Thomas cut him off, leaning over the leftovers of their meal to kiss Jimmy, pulling him closer by the nape of the neck, not caring one bit if their mouths tasted of sandwich, apple, tea or beer. It was Jimmy he was kissing.

He was happy to see that Jimmy seemed beyond caring as well—when he tried to pull back, Jimmy sought after him, keeping their lips together a bit longer.

But they eventually stopped kissing, and Thomas took a moment to admire the picture they both made in the scenery. The bedroom was overflowing with the remainders of their afternoon. There were crumbs on the bed, and the sheets were crumpled. The smell of smoke still lingered, trapped, mixed with a scent so faint Thomas wasn’t even sure was actually there, but that he identified as wantonness. Jimmy’s hair was dishevelled and his lips were red.

Thomas wished he could return to the beginning of that afternoon and relive everything that had happened until now. And when he hit this point in the day, simply go back to the same moment hours ago when the moment to decide presented itself to him: return to Downton or take his chances by going to the Willow Tree Inn. A fantasy of staying trapped in that loop indefinitely, just so he could go after Jimmy time and time again, relive that afternoon a thousand times.

Alas, it was impossible, and when he looked at the small, nailed-shut, window in the room, he saw through the thin curtain that it was growing dark. The last thing he wanted to do was leave. But the last bus to Downton was scheduled to depart from the city square soon and missing it meant he’d have to walk nine miles on his way back. He knew he had to say goodbye, get dressed and leave, but the words wouldn’t come out. Thomas didn’t think he could handle the consequences of saying, To hell with Carson, and staying the night—not now, anyway—so there was no use in tempting himself with that possibility.

But maybe there was something he could do instead.

“Listen, Jimmy, it’s late, and I can’t stay anymore, or else I can’t get back to the Abbey—“

“I understand,” Jimmy said, cutting him way off too fast.

“—but I wanted us to meet again. Like today, like at The Grantham Arms.” He put emphasis in the words, making their meaning as clear as he could. “But no more inns, no more public houses. I want us to meet someplace else.”

Only now Thomas realised how dry his mouth had become; he tried to swallow, but it was of no help. It should be getting easier by now; Jimmy hadn’t done anything but show him signs that his interest in Thomas would remain, if only for the time being. But every time they got to this moment, when their meeting was over and it was solely up to them to make sure there was a next time, Thomas found himself worried all over again that he was mistaken, that he had misinterpreted those signs.

“Where?” Jimmy asked with such undisguised enthusiasm that Thomas knew he couldn’t be that wrong.

Jimmy did want him—even if it weren’t the same way Thomas wanted him, even if it was just wanting while Thomas was starting to crave him.

“The Crawley House,” Thomas said, the idea taking shape in his head—he wanted to steal Jimmy away, kidnap him and drag him to the moon, to another century, another country, but for now, the Crowley House would have to do. “Mrs. Crawley is away somewhere on another of her save the world missions, and she barely keeps any staff. There is only a housekeeper and she’s taken the fortnight off to visit her family.” Thomas could scarcely believe the boldness of what he was suggesting. “We could have the entire house for ourselves.”

“When do you want us to meet?”

Thomas had expected Jimmy to err on the side of caution—once burned, twice shy or something like that—given what had happened the last time he’d lain on an aristocratic bed, so the prompt acceptance caught him off guard.

Thinking fast, Thomas recalled the staff’s itinerary, hoping to determine a likely window of opportunity to snitch the keys to the Crawley House. He also needed to pick a day and a time when the streets wouldn’t be too crowded as to make it easier to sneak in without causing suspicion or gossip among the villagers.

Going in the dead of the night was Thomas’s first impulse, which was the first reason why he shouldn’t go with it. If anyone saw them getting into the Crawley House during the day, Thomas could fabricate a cover story as to why they were there; if they were caught in the middle of the night, anyone would know they were up to no good. Thomas still had a fresh memory of the ache in his chest, as his heart pounded with anxiety the night he climbed Jimmy’s wall, and that was a feeling he wasn’t eager to relive.

“Everyone goes to church on Sunday,” Thomas said at last. “I’ll have plenty of time to get my hands on the keys by then. Meet me at the graveyard by the smallest gravestones, the ones in the far back, during service.”

“The ones hidden by those bushes?”

Thomas nodded. It was an inconspicuous rendezvous: it was relatively shielded from prying eyes, and in case someone did see Jimmy waiting for Thomas or vice-versa, they were just random men paying respects to a deceased relative—and there was the added benefit that the graveyard was just across the Crawley House.

There were three days left until Sunday; waiting that long felt like an eternity now that they had been seeing each other daily for a week now. Just a week—barely anything compared to the almost entire year they had spent apart. A year that could have become a decade or their entire life, if Thomas hadn’t drank that potion or if he hadn’t had the best hand in a poker game. And now they would only have to wait three days.

Still, getting up and leaving felt akin to pulling out a tooth.

“Are we agreed? Sunday, behind the bushes at the graveyard during service?”

“I’ll be there,” said Jimmy.

“I need to get dressed now,” Thomas said, his tone apologetic, as he got up from the bed and collected his clothes, piling them up over the bed.

Under Jimmy’s watchful eye, he stepped into his underpants and pulled them up. But when he did the same with his trousers, Jimmy stopped him with a touch of his hand. Thomas really needed to go, but he wasn’t confident he’d be able to say no if Jimmy was trying to get him back to bed.

But that wasn’t the intention: Jimmy pulled Thomas’s trousers over his hips and buttoned him up carefully. Then he took Thomas’s undershirt and helped him don it, lifting Thomas’s arms and pulling it over his head. Next was the dress shirt; Jimmy closed each of its many buttons as carefully as he had buttoned up Thomas’s trousers.

Other than his mother, no one had ever dressed him before. He couldn’t offer anything except his gut feeling as support for his claim, but he just knew this wasn’t how a lord felt when a valet dressed him for dinner. As Lord Grantham’s valet, Thomas’s work had been perfunctory; as Philip’s, the only change had been the occasional fucking, but getting dressed and undressed had been just as mechanical.

Jimmy’s touches were affectionate and made Thomas feel taken care of.

 “Do you remember when you taught me how to do this?” Jimmy broke the silence as he started to knot his tie.

“I think so,” Thomas said, though he didn’t.

“We were in your room. You did your own tie, then you made me repeat after you all by myself. The entire time, I was thinking why wouldn’t you just touch me, if you would never again.”

“I’m surprised you learned anything, if you pay so little attention to my lessons,” Thomas said, with pretend indignation.

“But I learned, and I still learn a lot from you,” Jimmy said, giving the final pull to his tie.

Thomas was just wondering if it was too soon to joke about those supposed things he had to teach—what goes where, for example—when he realised that all this time he’d had his ragged hand bare. Heat rose up his neck and he felt naked all over again, but the wrong kind: the kind that made you want to hide.

Unconcerned, Jimmy took the scarred hand between his palms. Thomas thought Jimmy was going to dress him with the half-glove, hide all that roughened skin, so it was a shock when Jimmy lifted Thomas’s bad hand and kissed it. It wasn’t flirtatious; Thomas knew what flirtatious Jimmy was like, he had seen plenty of it when Ivy was still around. The kiss was... soft, almost naïve in its sincerity. It was also brief; Jimmy lowered Thomas’s hand from his lips and put the glove on him.

Jimmy tried to reach for the coat on the bed, but Thomas didn’t let go of his hand, pulling him closer and embracing him instead. They kissed, and Thomas was again graced with the softness of Jimmy’s lips against his. Be it in romantic novels, or bawdy short-stories from cheap magazines, kisses were often described as either aggressive, like battles, or through an overly sentimental metaphor. He couldn’t say if Jimmy’s kisses were aggressive or gentle—they felt like both and neither. The only thing he knew was that they fit, that they were a match—like puzzle pieces that came together smoothly, like an arrow belonged to the core of a bull’s-eye. Even when they were different, Thomas still felt that way, and maybe that was only fitting—a sheath couldn’t hold a sword if they were the same.

Right now Thomas was getting a taste of one of his favourite differences. Kissing while standing made their height difference more pronounced. Thomas wasn’t so much taller that Jimmy had to stand on the tip of his toes, but he had to tilt his head up, keeping his back straight, and even reach up a little if Thomas didn’t bow his head low enough. It was a minor gesture that should be insignificant, but it felt like Jimmy was seeking him, pursuing him—it was evidence that he wanted Thomas.

Would he ever stop needing these silly reassurances?

He pressed Jimmy’s naked body tightly one more time against his clothed one and let him go, breaking their kiss.

“See you Sunday,” Jimmy said, lips swollen from kissing.

“See you Sunday,” Thomas repeated. Putting on his coat and hat, he made his way to the door, unlocked it, and walked out without looking back, lest he lose the courage to leave.

He crossed the hallway in a fast stride and went down the stairs taking two steps at a time. When he reached the lobby, he avoided looking at the counter, hoping never had to see the Willow Tree’s innkeeper again. Drizzle fell softly as he hurried back to the square, crossing streets and pavements indiscriminately, ignoring the many puddles he was probably stepping in—as violent a crime as it was to his shoes and the hem of his trousers, he had no time to worry about keeping them pristine.

Fortunately, his disregard for proper attire paid off: he was able to catch the bus to Downton when it was about to leave. Sweat from the effort of rushing to the square mixed with cold drops of the fine rain that had reached his skin despite wearing a coat. Breath slowing down as his heart resumed its normal pace, Thomas found a seat on the bus. It wasn’t deserted, but he wasn’t alone either; some villagers had stayed at the fair until the very end and were making their way back now as well. Thankfully, no one seated by Thomas’s side.

The ride to Downton went by undisrupted and Thomas dozed off a couple of times, listening to the sound of the rain hitting the roof of the bus. The puddles seemed to have multiplied and deepened by the time he arrived at the village, though, and despite being no storm, the rain was enough to get his clothes fairly wet as he walked to the Abbey. He pulled his collar up and tucked his chin into his chest, sheltering himself with his coat and hat the best he could, but mostly it just helped keep water from hitting his eyes directly or getting into his nose.

Thomas could only imagine his own state by the silence that fell over the dining table when he stepped into the servants’ hall. All heads snapped towards him, except Mr. Carson’s, who kept staring straight ahead. Andy raised his eyebrows so high he looked about to lose them into his hair. Thomas could tell he was biting back a number of questions about his afternoon, as was probably the entire table.

“Oh my, aren’t you soaking wet?” said Mrs. Hughes, slowly rising from her chair. “Go change into something dry and come down to eat with us. Mrs. Patmore can heat a chicken broth to warm you up.”

Thomas had always felt awkward when Mrs. Hughes showed concern for him; it seemed genuine of her, but he had never done anything in particular to warrant her good will. So why did she care?

“No, thank you, Mrs. Hughes,” he answered, his stomach still sated by the meal Jimmy had got them.

She sat back down on her chair and picked up her fork, a cue for the rest of the table as they, too, picked up their forgotten cutlery and stopped gaping at Thomas to focus on their plates instead.

Mr. Carson, however, turned around in his chair in a pompous fashion and glared at him as if hoping to channel Medusa and turn Thomas into stone. After a few uncomfortable seconds, he abandoned his mythological aspirations and turned to face the table again in the same inflated manner.

Still facing the dining table, Mr. Carson said, “Today was not your half-day, Mr. Barrow. I hope whatever business you attended in Ripon was important enough to explain your disregard for your responsibilities to personally deliver the purchases to the Abbey.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson, it was,” Thomas said, but Mrs. Hughes’ warning look and the unpleasant feeling of cold water soaking through his socks made him sense this was a bad night to test his limits. So he restarted, apologetic and aiming to please: “Were my purchases were up to your standards, sir? I trust you noticed the year of the Syrah bottle. A very rare and exquisite harvest. We were lucky to find it. His Lordship will be pleased. Sir?”

Carson couldn’t be even bothered to look at Thomas while dressing him down as if he still were that hallboy who kept getting lost in the Abbey, a week into service. Not that he was complaining. After fifteen years of public scolding for every misdeed attributed to him and facing the humiliation of standing before Carson, forced to disclose things the man had no right to know, Thomas was glad to be free of that pair of eyes on him for a change. Especially since he didn’t need to see the old man’s face to know he must be having a hard time hiding his defeat.

Charles Carson was too good a butler, too proud and committed to his proficiency in oenology, to fail to recognise a good wine.

“The purchases were adequate,” Mr. Carson said, his tone final.

Thomas had never got a praise from Carson without at least a slight backhanded tone to it. He wouldn’t go as far as to place “adequate” under a praise category, but the absence of a rebuttal intrigued him. It was rather unlikely that Carson would let Thomas get off so easy just over money well spent and a successful play at his butler’s pride. Something else must be clouding his mood.

Now that Thomas was paying attention, he realised his arrival seemed to have interrupted an important discussion. Thomas excused himself and made a show of leaving the servants’ hall on his way to the staircase, ducking behind a wall as soon as he was out of view. His years at Downton had taught him people were prone to talk more freely when he wasn’t around.

“As I was saying,” Carson’s voice reached him as he resumed his argument, “I know you can’t choose when to burst an appendix, but Spratt couldn’t have picked a worse time to get sick. I can’t make a competent a butler out of thin air. The Dowager will want her house in impeccable order when she arrives with the family, as is her right, and Mr. Spratt has left it in grievous conditions.”

“Only because he had been feeling ill, but was afraid of speaking up,” Mrs. Hughes intervened. “And ended up almost killing himself, the poor man. Had he said anything when he first was in pain, Dr. Clarkson would have noticed something was wrong, and Mr. Spratt wouldn’t have needed an emergency surgery.”

“Yes, and now the Dower House has no butler,” Carson complained.

“Mrs. Crawley has no butler,” Mrs. Hughes said, like that settled the debate.

Carson sounded outraged. “Are you suggesting that we—that the Dowager—”

No matter how skewed Carson’s set of priorities was, it had just presented Thomas with an opportunity he intended to take. As for Spratt, Thomas had no quarrel with him and wished he’d recover, but he hadn’t known him well enough to harbour guilt over using the situation to his advantage; the infection had probably been going on for a while, Thomas was just thankful that the timing worked out in his favour.

Frowning with an expression of concern, he returned to the servants’ hall.

“Did I hear that right—someone was taken for surgery? I was just coming from the boot room, and I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying. What happened, an accident?”

“Yes, an emergency surgery, but it was no accident. Mr. Spratt had a burst appendix,” said Mrs. Hughes. “You don’t know because you were still in Ripon, but it was a ghastly afternoon for the rest of us. Mr. Spratt had come here precisely to tell Mr. Carson how poorly he had been feeling and ask to be temporarily replaced, but he was already heaving before even making past the yard. It went pretty much downhill from there. We drove him to the hospital, but Dr. Clarkson was away on a house call. The nurses were able to reach him, thank God. The doctor operated on poor Mr. Spratt and the surgery went well, but it was a nerve-wrecking afternoon for all of us.”

Mr. Carson pierced him with a judgemental look unrelated to his wet clothes.

“While all that was happening, you were at Ripon doing who knows what instead of here, assisting us in this chaos. And now I have a house without a butler, as if the workload at the Abbey wasn’t already piling over our heads.” Mr. Carson’s voice boomed across the servant’s hall.

No one dared to say a word. One of the younger hallboys was actually trying to make himself look smaller, hiding behind the person sitting next to him. A vein was throbbing in Mr. Carson’s grey temple. Thomas had a flare of solidarity towards him—growing inexorably older and more feeble and expected to hold up to the standards of another time with a staff that only got smaller—but it burned out faster than it had ignited.

“Then let me redeem myself. I can perform as the Dower House’s butler while Mr. Spratt is unwell. That will avoid the nuisance of having to hire someone new, and all the trouble of posting ads, conducting interviews...” Thomas said, knowing fully well how much Carson loathed interviewing candidates.

“Mr. Carson, sir,” came Molesley’s meddling voice from his end of the table. He raised his hand and smiled nervously. “Please, if I may. I know I’ve already offered my services, but in light of Mr. Barrow’s offer, I would just like to remind you that my offer still stands. I used to be a butler at the Crawley House, and I feel—” but Molesley speech of self-importance was cut short by a noisy sneeze followed by a coughing fit he tried to unsuccessfully keep from happening.

Thomas felt a surge of irritation from seeing that snot-ridden man attempt to steal an opportunity that had been practically gift-wrapped for him.

“So you intend to leave Mr. Carson alone at the Abbey with just one footman? Just let Andy have all the heavy work? Even if you haven’t been much of a help, with that disturbing cold of yours. As a matter of fact, you should go see Dr. Clarkson about it. It would be such tactlessness if Downton lost a butler to a burst appendix and a footman to bronchitis or pneumonia.”

“We haven’t lost anyone,” Mrs. Hughes said, looking at him so sternly that Thomas worried for a moment that he’d gone too far and botched his entire plan.

But Carson’s expression lightened for the first time since Thomas had walked into the servants’ hall. Molesley had most likely offered himself as temporary butler the moment Spratt vacated the job—and people called Thomas a vulture—but from what he could tell, turning Joseph Molesley into butler was the farthest thing from Mr. Carson’s mind. Thomas wondered if Mrs. Hughes had taken a stand in the situation and if she had favoured Molesley. But it didn’t matter anymore: he had offered Carson a solution to his quarrel. There was evident relief on the man’s face, no matter how much he tried to hide it.

But as per usual, Thomas’s motives was never readily trusted.

“You know there will be no bump to your wages,” Carson said.

Thomas put a hand to his chest, touching a moist coat beginning to feel stiff. “You wound me, Mr. Carson. I only have the family’s best interest at heart, as well as the staff’s, of course. Once Mr. Spratt makes a full recover, I’ll resume my duties as under-butler here at the Abbey.”

Everything in Thomas’s offer was ideal to solve Carson’s current crisis, but he still mulled it over, reluctant, like he was handing Thomas a bag of gold or a royal pardon instead of extra work.

“It’s settled, then,” he said at last. “You take over as butler at the Dower House until Mr. Spratt is back to his former health. You can start there tomorrow.”

Thomas expected to hear some whiff of complaint from Molesley or at least a sour face aimed at him, but apparently the itch in his throat was still keeping him busy.

“In that case, Mr. Carson, I think it might be best I moved there for the time being,” Thomas said with as much deference as he could muster. His plan had mostly worked out, but if Mr. Carson said yes, it would make things a hell of a lot easier. “If the situation at the Dower House is as grievous as you say, sir, then I’ll need to work extra hours as there are only a few more days until the family’s return. I can’t waste time going back and forth between the Abbey and the village every day.”

Carson raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’d never have expected you to be this eager. But yes, yes. You are right. The staff at the Dower House is far smaller the Abbey’s, and with the Dowager away, only Mr. Spratt and the housekeeper, Mildred, were there. A gardener goes there five times a week. I trust you can make it work with that number of servants?”

Thomas thought of Sunday and the chance of spreading Jimmy on sheets that were soft and smelled luscious, in a bedroom that was beautiful and comfortable. The set of keys would be handed to him, so there would be no need to steal. Thomas would be expected to get in and out of the Dower House constantly—with that, sneaking Jimmy inside would be an easy task. For that perfect Sunday, Thomas would even play footman at the Dower House if he absolutely had to.

“You can stop worrying, Mr. Carson. I’ll take care of it.”

With that, Thomas excused himself and climbed the staircase to his room, wet and cold, his mind on a reel. He’d have plenty of scheming to do from here until Sunday.

Chapter Text

Getting Mildred Abbott, the housekeeper, out of Thomas’s way was no lofty task — it was rather plain and involved little more than menial labour, in fact. Of course, had someone suggested no more than two weeks ago that he’d be on his hands and knees scraping the floor clean alongside a dignified maid, precisely when he’d finally ascended to the position of butler... well, that person would have benefitted from a lesson or two in what kind of person Thomas Barrow was. Then again, two weeks ago, an entire day and possibly even a night with Jimmy Kent didn’t hang in the balance. A lot had changed in a matter of days; Thomas was just adapting.

After an exhausting routine, the major chores were finished by Saturday afternoon. Mrs. Abbott wasn’t stupid; she must know no butler in the world would ever give a servant time off just for the sake of it—even more so with specific instructions not to mention it to the rest of the staff or the family. But she also struck him as a pragmatic woman; the kind of people Thomas knew how to deal with. A far cry from Anna, always righteous and wholesome to the point of vexation, Abbott’s primary concern wasn’t what villainous thing this evil butler could possibly be up to all alone at the Dower House. Instead, all she cared to know was what was in it for her. Thomas admired the practicality of her mind-set.

Every other day since Thomas had left the Abbey, Mrs. Patmore had sent a hallboy over with a big basket packed full with provisions and leftovers from the meals she prepared, so Thomas and Abbott never had to waste time cooking. Carson came over to inspect Thomas’s work the first chance he got, most likely expecting to find him basking in idleness. Were it an ordinary situation, Thomas would have considered it a humiliation to be painted black with coal from cleaning the chimney, like the greenest of hallboys and not a butler. That day, however, the utter bewilderment on Carson’s face counted as a victory. They all thought they had Thomas completely figured out, but he was still able to keep them on their toes. Good.

Carson hadn’t returned after that day.

Time off was a reward on its own, but when Abbott left on Saturday night, vowing not to return before Monday morning, Thomas placed a pair of coins on her palm as further incentive. Hopefully, she’d see no reason to double-cross him. When the back door shut behind her, anxiety gripped his chest like a vice now that the bulk of his plan had finally been set in motion.

On Sunday morning, Thomas was up on his feet extraordinarily early, even by his Spartan standards. He took that extra time to revisit the things he had prepared during the week; the bottles of liquor he had hid inside the pantry were still where he’d left them, and he had been careful storing Mrs. Patmore’s dishes so they’d remain as tasteful as possible. In his suitcase, there was a jar of petroleum jelly he strongly hoped they’d use. Deciding to which room he’d take Jimmy had required a moment of consideration, though. Spratt’s bed was out of question—he wouldn’t even sleep in the man’s bed, let alone have sex in it—and as sumptuous as the Dowager’s bedroom was, the thought of doing it on her mattress wasn’t very thrilling either. In the end, he might not even take Jimmy to a room at all. Maybe they’d surrender themselves to lust right there in the sitting room, where the old Lady entertained her guests, debauching themselves in some scandalous manner that respectable, highborn men would never do.

Surveying the empty house, Thomas tried not to mull over what could go wrong with his ploy, still fighting his own mistrustful nature that warned him not to trust the housekeeper. Mildred Abbott was the least of his concerns; should she blow the whistle on his scheme, it’d be far too easy to pin it all on her. Carson wouldn’t find hard to believe Abbott had tried to sneak out to spend the night with a lover at the village, and was trying to get back at Thomas for catching her in the act. Feigning ignorance was another escape route. There was no reason to worry about her: ultimately, it would be her word against his. Besides, what would she accomplish by betraying him? An entire day and night away from work, not a penny cut from her wages, and all she had to give Thomas in return was her silence. She wouldn’t get a better deal anywhere.

Thomas prepared himself a warm bath in one of the guest bathrooms. It was entirely different from bathing in the cramped tub he shared with the servants at the Abbey; he could melt into the water and relax for as long as he wanted, knowing there wouldn’t be a line of impatient servants forming outside should he take too long. No one would knock on the door urging him to get on with it. So he enjoyed his own company, skimming his hands over his own body, soaping and fondling himself underwater. As he scrubbed himself clean, he focused on how sensible his skin felt to his own hands. It had always been like that; his nerve endings had always responded eagerly to his touches or those of his lovers, but that hardly compared to how he felt on fire whenever Jimmy pressed against him.

Three days past, he had straddled Jimmy and ridden him, but today…Today he would love to feel Jimmy taking him from behind on all fours, rutting against him like they were beasts, gripping his hips hard enough to bruise as he slammed into Thomas’s body. Now that it wasn’t the first time, such passion might not be as intimidating. Come to think of it, Jimmy probably had more self-assurance than Thomas gave him credit for.

Blood filled his erection steadily as rubbed a fingertip against his opening and he stroked his swelling hardness a few times. The caresses felt very different underwater than they did in the lonely darkness of his room at the Abbey and even more different than what it had felt to play with his own arse at that lousy inn in Ripon, using his own spit to ease his fingers inside him. He was hard right now, and coming would feel good, but not nearly as much as it could feel because this time he was alone. He wasn’t stretching himself to welcome Jimmy in—at least not right away. He still had to pick him up at the graveyard and there was no reason why Jimmy shouldn’t be a part of this, too. Thomas inhaled deeply, stilling his hands. He stepped out of the tub and pulled the lid of the drain, towelling himself dry afterwards.

On his way out, he stopped in front of the mirror to admire himself, even if there was nothing new in his figure—clean-shaven jawline, a three-piece suit, a coat, and perfectly combed hair that his hat momentarily hid. How long would he maintain his pristine looks once he brought Jimmy inside? Would they trace circles around each other in that hesitant dance that ruled the dynamics of their first encounters? Would they need pretences and excuses or would they just haul into each other’s arms as soon as they were alone?

As he walked to the graveyard, a dull fear that Jimmy would stand him up insisted on seeping through the cracks of his mind.

The tall bushes did hide the line of tombstones at the back of the cemetery; at first, Thomas saw no one, and was already trying to decide whether Jimmy was just late or simply wasn’t going to come. But then, as he took a few steps closer, Thomas saw a young man standing near in front of a grave and his heart soared in his chest.

Jimmy noticed him from afar and walked towards him, meeting him halfway. They stood in front of each other and smiled, tension thick between them. Thomas was clueless as to the appropriate way of greeting him; in the end, he chose to forgo the greeting entirely.

“Follow me,” he said, turning his back on Jimmy and leading the way. He had been right; this was the best time to sneak into the Dower house. The Sunday morning service at the church kept the streets mostly deserted, but they shouldn’t push their luck.

“Where are we going?” Jimmy whispered behind him. “You just missed the Crawley House.”

Thomas looked over his shoulder briefly and gave him a smug smile.

“We’re not going to the Crawley House.”

By the time the service entrance of the Dower House finally came into view, Jimmy seemed to have guessed their actual destination and his eyes shone with pleased surprise.

“Do we have the entire house to ourselves?” he asked as they reached the back door and Thomas fished for the key ring in his pocket. “No one is going to come over here?”

“No one,” Thomas said as he turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.

“How on Earth did you pull this off?” Jimmy asked in awe, stepping inside.

“I’m very resourceful,” Thomas said and locked the door behind himself. Better an enigmatic answer than to reveal just how much backbreaking labour he’d endured to earn this.

Thomas was about to suggest they shared a drink as a way of breaking the tension between them, but Jimmy didn’t care for such niceties and pulled Thomas towards him by the lapels of his coat, the intensity behind the movement knocking down Thomas’s hat on the floor. Jimmy pressed their bodies tight together, crossing his fingers on the nape of Thomas’s neck and bringing their faces closer.

“Those were the longest three days of my life,” he said and kissed him before Thomas could reply, fingers already busy tugging off their coats and jackets.

For a moment, Thomas considered warning Jimmy of the risks of doing it right there in the servants’ hall. Regardless of being the only one in possession of the keys—which made it impossible for anyone to walk in on them—doing it in a room would give them time to recompose themselves in case someone dropped by unannounced and Thomas had to answer the door. But then Jimmy loosened his tie, fumbling with the buttons of his waistcoat, and Thomas threw caution to the wind, kissing him back just as hungrily. In his eagerness, Jimmy gave a sharp bite to the thin skin of Thomas’s bottom lip; the sudden sting had him hard and shivering.

Their movements were uncoordinated as they undressed, wanting to free themselves of their clothes, but unwilling to part their mouths. Thomas had just managed to unbutton his own shirt when Jimmy—young, brilliant Jimmy—abandoned their struggle and reached straight for his crotch, popping Thomas’s trousers open and then his own. Their erections mirrored one another, stretching the fabric of their underpants. Jimmy embraced him again, pressing their hips together, exhaling on Thomas’s neck.

The warmth of his breath still lingered on Thomas’s skin when Jimmy pulled back just enough so he could worm a hand into Thomas’s underpants and fish his cock out, stroking him from root to tip, wrist settling easily into a rhythm. He let Jimmy explore his body for a while, stroking him leisurely any way he wanted, but then Thomas was once again overtaken by the need of introducing Jimmy to unknown pleasures. So he reached for Jimmy’s groin and pulled his cock out as well, holding it firmly into his fist, dragging him closer and closer until he was holding both their erections in one hand, pressed flush against each other. Thomas stroked them that way, rubbing them tight together, and the pleasure didn’t come just from the slide of his palm on their flesh, but from the way their pricks grinded together every time Thomas stroked them. Jimmy’s hips bucked softly into the motions and his eyes darted fast between their joined erections to Thomas’s face.

“Wait, wait—” he said at last. “Let me try.”

Thomas let himself be replaced, revelling in the feel of Jimmy’s hand on him. He was definitely enthusiastic as he brought his hand up and down, but his lack of practice was showing: his grip was too loose and he couldn’t find a cadence that worked on them both. Not that Thomas actually cared—Jimmy could practice on him all he wanted. But then Jimmy let go of himself and focused solely on Thomas’s hard-on. Before his wrist resumed its motion, Jimmy spat a well-aimed mouthful of saliva right onto the swollen head of Thomas’s prick. For some reason, it looked absurdly erotic and Thomas could barely stifle his own low moans as his cock slid fast, smooth, and so good in Jimmy’s fist.

“Don’t hold back. Moan for me.”

Right. He’d forgotten Jimmy got off on hearing him.

"If you keep touching me like that, you won’t have to ask me to moan. You’re so good at this.” The grunt that escaped Thomas right then wasn’t faked at all.

He reached for Jimmy’s cock, hard and digging into his hipbone, only to have his hand slapped away. “You can take care of me later. I want to do you now.”

His knees weakened at knowing Jimmy’s only goal was to make him come. The saliva had mostly gone dry already, but his cockhead was making up for it by leaking copious amounts of clear fluid. They had stopped kissing a while ago, and just their foreheads touched now, eyes downcast, both of them watching Jimmy’s hand work on his shaft. Then Jimmy stopped himself and scooped up with a fingertip all that transparent liquid that had gathered on Thomas’s glans—and after a brief moment of consideration, he stuck that slick-covered finger into his mouth, sucking eagerly around the digit. Thomas’s abandoned cock twitched at the sight.

"Please—" he began, but Jimmy was already stroking him again, faster now, keeping his hand closer to the tip.

Thomas’s toes curled inside his shoes and he held onto Jimmy’s hips like he was afraid of collapsing if he let go. Jimmy pressed their bodies even closer, leaving just enough room between them for his hand to keep moving, and placed his chin on Thomas’s shoulder, lips against his earlobe.

“You tasted salty. I liked it. I didn’t think I would. One day I’ll have you in my mouth just like you do to me.”

Hearing those words in Jimmy’s hushed voice didn’t just tip Thomas over the edge: it catapulted him over it, making him spill almost instantly, seed coating Jimmy’s palm in white. Spasms still riddled his body when Thomas grabbed the hand Jimmy had used to get him off and licked his fingers clean. The taste of his own come had always felt a bit alien in his mouth, unlike a lover’s somehow, but the aroused shock in Jimmy’s expression was worth it—he was still rock hard and it was Thomas’s turn to take care of him.

He sank to his knees and swallowed Jimmy down to the root in one go, the faint smell of his arousal mixing with the taste smell of Thomas’s own come on his tongue. Jimmy’s thighs were quivering, but he felt tense all over.

Thomas let Jimmy’s cock slip free from his mouth, a string of saliva hanging between it and his lips momentarily, and looked up expectantly.

“Can you—can you do that thing again?”

Thomas honest to God had no idea what that thing was.

Jimmy shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable, before trying again. “That thing you did... at the Grantham Arms. Suck me off and then... stop when I’m almost there. And again and again. It was agony, but it hurt so good and when I came, and I—please?”

Thomas felt wickedly proud of how he was helping Jimmy broaden his horizons and blur the lines of morality, pain and pleasure, teaching him to crave the tortured ecstasy of being on the edge. But that was something better done in more comfortable surroundings, and the suggestion of going to the bedroom crossed Thomas’s mind again. But then Jimmy stripped bare, and Thomas’s mouth fell shut. He was showing a severe lack of self-control whenever Jimmy was involved.

Grabbing Jimmy firmly by the back of his thighs, Thomas lifted him in his arms and carried him across the servants’ hall, laying him on the table. Jimmy lay back with his legs parted, resting his weight on his elbows, sprawled on the surface where Spratt, Denker, Abbott, and the other servants shared their meals. But to Thomas, Jimmy’s naked, perfect body was the only feast this hall had even seen. So he pulled out a chair and sat at the head of the table, ready to take in all of Jimmy’s offerings.

They stared at each other briefly before Thomas covered the head of Jimmy’s prick with a hand, stroking him softly, watching the sway of his hips. But it was Thomas’s mouth Jimmy wanted, so Thomas gave it to him, swallowing his cock until he felt it throbbing down his throat and the only thing he could smell was Jimmy’s arousal.

It was interesting to see how fast Jimmy was getting used to Thomas’s oral attentions. Not in a bad way, like he was getting bored, but Thomas noticed that a second before he dragged his tongue on the underside of Jimmy’s glans or used Jimmy’s cock to fuck his mouth, he could see him bracing himself for the sensation, hands seeking purchase on the edges of the table, as if he already knew what was coming.

Those three days they’d spent apart had taken their toll on Jimmy, because Thomas broke him far sooner than expected.

“I’m close.”

“How close?” Thomas asked, lips so near they brushed the swollen head of Jimmy’s prick with every syllable he spoke.

“Very,” he said, inhaling sharply.

Thomas smirked and let go of his hardness, bringing his hands to Jimmy’s inner thighs, scratching them softly as he lowered his mouth Jimmy’s balls. His sac was wrinkled, pulled against his body, a soft and nearly invisible layer of blond hair over it. Jimmy hummed above him as Thomas licked at the juncture of his thigh and mouthed his balls next, sucking each of them softly. Then he traced the crevice where Jimmy’s thighs met his torso, his balls, drawing their contour with the tip of his tongue. It was just an ordinary caress until Jimmy could be edged again, not meant to be particularly arousing, but Jimmy kept pulling his knees closer and closer towards his chest. With his buttocks on the edge of the table like they were, he was exposing himself quite generously.

Thomas took his mouth off Jimmy’s sac and spat onto his palm, stroking Jimmy’s cock as best as he could, watching how desperate and beautiful he looked, writhing on top of the table. His eyes wavered from Jimmy’s face twisted in pleasure to between his legs where his arsehole was almost entirely on display. Jimmy must know how much he was letting Thomas see, mustn’t he? Or was he so lost in sensation he couldn’t grasp the spectacle he was making of himself?

Before Jimmy could protest the absence of his mouth—and Thomas noticed he was about to—he sucked his cock once again, feeling Jimmy even more impatient under his lips. But then Thomas felt Jimmy’s hesitant fingers tapping on his shoulder, and he looked up, mouth still full.

Jimmy’s cock slipped softly from his lips when Thomas asked, “Close again? So soon?”

His tone was amused. He was good, but not that good.

“No, but...” Jimmy said with a half-smile. A nervous smile. “I want your mouth... lower again.”

“On your balls?”

Jimmy frowned, swallowing dry, and then nodded. “Lower felt good.”

Thomas aimed to please, so he went back to Jimmy’s balls, sucking them into his mouth gently, one of his hands stroking Jimmy’s cock with a firm grip, but slowly. Yet that still wasn’t what Jimmy wanted.

“Do that thing with the tip of your tongue. I like that,” he panted, impatient.

Thomas raised an eyebrow, a bit surprised to see how demanding his young pupil had become after being sucked only twice, but he complied nonetheless, licking his crotch and dragging his pointed tongue beside and behind his balls. When he reached behind the sac, Jimmy’s knees, already high against his chest, lifted even higher. Thomas had never had a lover expose himself like that before.

Could it be—could Jimmy want—? Tentatively, he slid his tongue in that direction, lower and lower, keeping the rhythm of his touch on Jimmy’s prick. If he was reading the signs wrong, the worst that could happen was getting kicked in the nose. But when his warm tongue found the centre of Jimmy’s arsehole, where he was dark pink and tight, Jimmy wailed, pressing down on the table and against Thomas.

Confident he was giving Jimmy what he wanted, Thomas ate his arsehole with the same eagerness he had sucked his cock with. He kissed it and sucked on it, licked at it in broad swipes as well as traced the rim carefully with the tip of his tongue. Jimmy’s kept pulling his knees back, forcing his thighs farther and farther apart, giving Thomas far more access than he even needed. Eating Jimmy’s arsehole on the kitchen table—definitely not a part of his plans. The unexpected was good.

“I’m close, but—“ Jimmy gasped, and Thomas pulled back for a moment to stare at him. “—forget what I said before. Keep going, don’t stop, keep going until I come.”

If Thomas ever intended to play at edging Jimmy again, they would need some sort of code, a secret word that would let him know which Jimmy he should obey: the one from before, who claimed he wanted to be tortured because it hurt so good, or this one who wouldn’t stop shaking under his touch and didn’t seem like he could hold on a minute longer. This time, Thomas felt sorry for him and increased the speed of his hand, squeezing just the tip of Jimmy’s cock as his mouth went back to work. In that final moment, Thomas felt especially brave and touched the skin of Jimmy’s arsehole with the tip of his thumb, just to feel what the texture was like, between one long lick and another.

Thomas had loved the feel of Jimmy shooting spunk in his mouth and on his lips, warm and viscous, cock twitching against his face, but now he had to admit there was something highly obscene in seeing him cover his own stomach in white.

Jimmy let go of the back of his knees and his legs fell over the table, thighs still parted, his laboured breathing taking a while to ease into a regular pace. His gaze was foggy and his expression had a rapt quality to it. Thomas wondered if he’d be embarrassed of what they’d just done once the afterglow was over and if there was any way to prevent it. He rose from the chair and fetched a dishcloth so he could wipe Jimmy’s stomach clean, remembering how intimate it had been at the Willow Tree. Thomas’s cock was a bit hard, but he ignored it, knowing it would go down eventually. They still had time—time that slipped away incessantly, but there was still time.

Staying naked in the room at the inn had felt natural, but not so much at the Dower House, so they put their trousers and undershirts back on. Thomas picked up the rest of their discarded clothes and folded them neatly.

"I prepared us one of the guest bedrooms. There is plenty of food as well. We could eat something together or... you could take a nap if you’re tired.”

Thomas wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say or do right now.

Jimmy took his hint and didn’t mention anything about what they had just done, but his expression didn’t tell Thomas whether he wanted to talk about it or not.

"Food first. I didn’t have breakfast before I left.”

Thomas was also on an empty stomach; anxiety had always made it hard for him to eat.

"I overslept and was afraid of being late, so I just came here as fast as I could.

Thomas smiled, feeling a bit awkward. Jimmy had no reason to be the bundle of nerves he had the propensity of being. It was understandable, though, that Thomas had a harder time keeping his cool. After all, he had made the entire meeting possible, while Jimmy only had to show up. If they were caught, Thomas would have to answer before Carson, Lord Grantham, perhaps even the police.

Jimmy started to go through the cabinets, looking for food.

"I was thinking of setting the table,” Thomas suggested hesitantly. They’d just fucked in the servants’ hall; perhaps Jimmy saw no point in ostentation. “Having a breakfast table like the ones we set for Lord Grantham at the Abbey. We could read the paper together.”

“Setting a table we actually get to sit at? You’re a bold man, Mr. Barrow.”

Thomas gave a low chuckle and urged Jimmy out of the servants’ hall. “Let me fix the table. You don’t know where they keep anything. Go explore, and I’ll get you when breakfast is set.”

Jimmy didn’t argue and stayed out of his way as Thomas walked back and forth several times between the dining room and the servants’ area, carrying trays, silver, china, and probably more food than they’d be able to eat. His posture remained forever impeccable, despite being half-dressed.

Jimmy was back by his side as Thomas placed the last tray on the table. Sitting next to each other, they began their meal in silence. It was strange at first, as they unknowingly tried to mimic the aloofness of the Earl’s table, but then Thomas remembered how fun it had felt to be spontaneous and eat a greasy sandwich at a lousy inn and soon enough they were laughing, eating and chatting, unconcerned with how elegant they looked.

After they had eaten and drunk their fill, Jimmy turned his attention to the newspaper.

“What’s got your eye over there? Looking for a new job?”

“No,” Jimmy said, putting down the pages. “Just checking out the films. It’s a pity we can’t be seen on the village; otherwise it would be nice to watch something tonight.”

Jimmy had once invited Ivy to the cinema with him. It was nice that Thomas had become the person with whom Jimmy wanted to see a film, but it had a bittersweet tang to it. They could never have anything of the sort as long as they stayed in Yorkshire. Even when they managed to have an entire day to themselves, they weren’t free to do most things they wanted.

Thomas got a bit skittish again. They had never spent that much time together, not after they had first kissed. Jimmy’s time as a footman didn’t count; they might’ve been close in a physical sense, living in the same house and whatnot, but they’d rarely been alone together and work had always kept them busy. Now, other than sex, their pastime activities weren’t particularly vast. Their previous intimate meetings had been filled with urgency and the thrill of uncertainty. Could Jimmy get bored now?

"Cards and a fag, what do you say?” Jimmy offered. "Let me see that room you got ready for us.”

It was probably too early in the day to worry about running out of things to do, Thomas mused as he led Jimmy upstairs. There were at least a handful of games they could play, plenty of alcohol to drink and they had only fucked once. So what if they couldn’t go to the flicks—they would still find ways to fill their day.

The next two hours had them sprawled on the bed, playing cards, chatting casually while passing a cigarette from mouth to mouth. Thomas had two packs of smokes, which meant they could easily have had a cigarette each, but Thomas liked to know Jimmy would rather have the cigarette Thomas himself was smoking.

Until finally, after staring at his cards for over two minutes, Jimmy threw them up in the air with a long sigh, giving up.

"This is useless. You played poker with a wizard and stripped him of his own sodding potions. I’m no match.”

Thomas grinned, but argued anyway. “We didn’t bet on the potion. He just gave it to me.”

“Just be thankful the Dowager doesn’t play pool. If she had a billiards table here, I would own you. I’d make you get on your knees and say you’re sorry,” Jimmy was all bravado, oblivious to the innuendo in his words.

“Bend me over; force me on my knees... I’m yours to command.”

A weak blush spread over Jimmy’s cheeks, but he didn’t look away. “I can’t speak for—” he swallowed audibly “—bending you over, but getting you on your knees...”

“What do you think about getting me on my knees?” Thomas inquired. This type of talk usually led to interesting outcomes.

“You do things with your mouth that—what you did today to my—God—” Jimmy reddened further as he fumbled with words, voice hushed all of a sudden.

“I wanted to do that ever since that first night I sucked you off at the Grantham Arms.”

“Why didn’t you?” Jimmy sounded almost disappointed that he hadn’t.

The air in the room felt warmer and thicker around Thomas, like it was the last week of July.

“Honestly? I never thought you’d go for it.” Even now after they had done it, Thomas was still a bit perplexed that it had actually happened.

"It would have been a bit shocking, I reckon, but...”

"But what?”

"All those things you said about... doing stuff to your arse, what it felt like. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after you left the inn. I tried to forget, but I kept hearing your voice inside my head.”

Thomas licked his lips. “And... what did you make of the stuff I said?”

"I was so curious about that place that makes you come. I kept thinking of you going up and down on me and how much you seemed to like it.”

There was a soft instability to the edge of Jimmy’s voice. It turned Thomas on in a way that was almost perverse, but he couldn’t escape the fascination he felt witnessing Jimmy unravel the pleasures his own body had to offer him—it was more than that, Thomas was part of Jimmy’s self-discovery.

Then Jimmy leaned against him and whispered against his ear, “I tried to do it to myself.”

“What?” Thomas sat back, getting aroused vertiginously fast. “You did what to yourself?”

“I touched myself there. I stuck a finger inside me while I fisted my prick. It hurt a little at first, but I closed my eyes, pretending it was your finger until it didn’t hurt anymore. It didn’t feel bad, but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find that place you spoke of.”

Thomas’s mouth went dry. Until that very moment, he thought that admitting to touching himself while wearing Thomas’s body was the hottest thing Jimmy could ever tell him, but this... Fuck, the idea of Jimmy fingering himself while stroking his cock and thinking of Thomas after they’d just had sex... it was enough to make him ache.

“It isn’t easy to find the first time. Not on your own, at least. It takes practice. But it’s there. All blokes have it.”

A moment of expectant silence hanged between them as they stared at each other. A glance revealed that Jimmy was at least half-hard in his trousers. He was the one who broke the silence.

“You’ve had plenty of practice. You could show me.” Jimmy’s tone was casual, nonchalant even—so artificially composed he’d have sounded less nervous with a stutter.

Thomas remembered what he had fantasised about earlier that morning—Jimmy fucking him from behind, on all fours, panting on his neck, slamming into him hard enough to make him sore—but taking Jimmy was a delightful prospect, too. That it had been Jimmy’s own initiative was also reassuring, but Thomas couldn’t avoid a spark of insecurity. He used to consider himself damned good at taking the lead, but now it had been way too long since he’d last fucked anyone.

Sensing his hesitation, Jimmy said, “It’s fine if you think we better not.” He shrugged in that ridiculously casual manner, as if they were discussing headlines in the paper. “I wouldn’t be able to move like you did on top of me, and you’ll find me quite boring.”

The absurdity of that comment prompted Thomas into kissing him. It might have been a blatant attempt at manoeuvring him, but Thomas was past caring. Their kiss deepened and Jimmy pushed him over the bed, pressing his erection against Thomas’s hip.

“When I was lying on the table and your mouth was down there,” Jimmy whispered against his lips, “I kept thinking you were going to do it, that you were going to put your finger inside me.”

It was good to know how badly Jimmy wanted it, but Thomas shook his head. “I wouldn’t do it without being sure.”

“I know you wouldn’t, but I hoped anyway.”

Thomas unbuttoned the slit of Jimmy’s trousers. He hadn’t bothered putting on underwear after spilling all over himself in the servants’ hall, so Thomas was immediately greeted by the sight of his mouth-watering erection. Jimmy’s smile died down on his face and he swallowed dry once again, as if bracing himself for what was about to happen. Thomas helped him out of his trousers and undershirt, watching him carefully. He’d seen Jimmy naked several times now, but he’d never quite got used to just how astonishingly beautiful the man was.

“I want to eat your arse out first.”

Just oiling up his fingers and breaching into Jimmy was an option, but not Thomas’s preference. It would all feel much better if he ate Jimmy out again, if he could feel Jimmy’s arsehole softening under his tongue and his kisses, inviting him in.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Jimmy blushed. “Can I lie on my stomach? The way we did it on the table felt good, but I’m not as limber as I’d thought.”

Thomas nodded and Jimmy turned around on the bed.

“You should have told me you were in pain.”

“It was only uncomfortable when it was over and I had to move. I was... too distracted before,” Jimmy said, face half-buried in a pillow.

Thomas took his time looking, admiring, before moving in to touch. In this position, he lost the privilege of seeing pleasure written on Jimmy’s face, but now Thomas had to use both hands to spread his arsecheeks apart and gain access to Jimmy’s hole. There was an exceedingly erotic thrill in holding him open. As he licked, Jimmy sobbed faintly into the pillow. Thomas’s caresses quickly grew bold and daring, spit pooling on Jimmy’s twitching rim. The pads of Thomas’s fingers joined his tongue, rubbing, massaging the tender flesh, pressing just enough to tease but not breach. Jimmy was panting into the pillow, half-choking himself. Then he hesitantly moved his body, lifting himself on his knees while keeping his shoulders on the mattress, arse tilted up.

“Can I—Can I touch myself?”

The fact Jimmy was fucking asking permission got Thomas’s blood racing.

“All right. But no coming,” he said, authority in his voice. If Jimmy surrendered such power to him, he might as well wield it.

Thomas’s words set Jimmy into motion, one of his hand working fast—maybe too fast for someone intent on not coming—on his prick, moaning constantly, but quietly. Still rubbing the tender flesh of Jimmy’s opening, Thomas pulled back a little to take in the sight before him: Jimmy, golden and perfect, flushed from head to toe, legs spread open, so needy and wanting. Thomas wondered if coming in his pants before he even got a chance to get inside Jimmy was something that should worry him.

Saliva flowing freely from his mouth, Thomas sucked on Jimmy’s arsehole a bit longer before making the first attempt at getting his index finger inside, alternating thrusts from his digit with the pressure of his soft tongue. Once the first knuckle breached in, he slowly buried his finger until the end in the heat of Jimmy, whose breath suddenly sounded stuck in his lungs. Thomas kissed the meat of Jimmy’s left arsecheek and dragged his teeth over the mound.

Jimmy was breathing again, shallow intakes of air, and his hand was still between his legs, holding his cock firmly, pinching the head between his fingers. The sensations Jimmy was feeling now—were they anything like what he had felt when he fingered himself?

“May I?” Thomas asked, not specifying what.

Jimmy nodded emphatically.

Thomas started to curl and uncurl the finder inside Jimmy, trying to maintain a rhythm, aiming towards his balls, stroking, but also searching, probing, feeling, while his tongue licked every inch of skin it could reach from the outside. Jimmy’s grunts indicated he was pleased by the careful exploration, but that wasn’t the kind of reaction Thomas was after. He wanted to make Jimmy come undone. Thomas pulled his finger out and licked at the tiny gape his digit left, letting his saliva flow and pool before pushing his finger inside again. But this time, as soon as his fingertip rubbed a spot inside Jimmy, he whined, loudly and surprised. Exhilarated, Thomas stroked it three times more in quick succession, feeling Jimmy squirm on his hand.

Jimmy’s legs were quivering. Thomas tried to sooth him, sliding one palm up and down his thigh, amazed at how warm his skin felt to touch

“Shh, you’re doing so good. Can you take another? Do you even want another?”

“I—I can. I do,” Jimmy gasped.

Once again, Thomas pulled his finger out entirely. This time, Jimmy grunted at the loss and his hips pushed back, seeking what had been taken from him. Thomas tongued the small gape his finger had left again; the next time he touched Jimmy’s arsehole, he used his index and middle fingers, pressing them together against Jimmy. His flesh offered resistance, but Thomas was willing to be patient. Apparently, he was the only one.

“Go on, I can take it. Give me both of them,” Jimmy said. He stopped for a moment, and then added, “Please. You’re not hurting me. I... I was able to take three on my own.”

“Fuck, you’re killing me,” Thomas breathed out, but obeyed, sinking his fingers in slowly, but relentlessly until they were all the way inside and he resumed stroking that spot in Jimmy again.

But that stage was equally short-lived. Jimmy was too eager, thrusting his hips back on Thomas, who was powerless to resist.

“I want you to take me,” Jimmy said, looking over his shoulder.

Of course that thought had crossed his mind—for a while, quite obsessively. Thomas had just assumed it was one of those things that belonged to the realm of fantasy, daydream and wishful thinking. And now this.

Convinced his heart was now beating in his throat and he’d choke on it at any second now, Thomas pulled his fingers out of Jimmy.

“Lie down on your side.”

“On my side?” Jimmy asked, still looking over his shoulder, and fuck, on all fours like that with his pretty arsehole fingered open, Thomas could sink into his body and it would feel just perfect.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s better on your first time. It’ll feel more comfortable for you. Less likely to hurt.”

Kneeling on the bed, Jimmy started to protest, pride filling his mouth. “I said you won’t hurt me. I used three fingers—”

“Taking my prick—” Thomas said, popping his trousers open, his heavy erection bouncing free “—is not the same as three fingers.” Only after the words were out of his mouth Thomas realised how arrogant he sounded, like an excerpt from a raunchy magazine sold by half a penny—which didn’t make them any less true.

He let his trousers fall over his hipbones and stepped out of them, pulling his undershirt over his head. Truth was, any position was a good position to fuck Jimmy Kent—but on their sides, Jimmy’s back would be pressed against his chest, and Thomas would be able to stroke his cock as they fucked. He’d bury his nose in Jimmy’s hair and kiss his neck all he wanted.

Hard cock bouncing with every step, Thomas took the jar of petroleum jelly from his suitcase and brought it to the bed. Jimmy looked briefly at him when he felt Thomas’s weight on the bed. Doing his best to keep his nerves under control, Thomas positioned himself behind Jimmy and dipped his fingers into the jar, scooping a large portion of jelly onto his fingertips. Finding the way between Jimmy’s arse cheeks, he pressed both fingers against his hole. Jimmy grunted, but didn’t complain, pushing down on Thomas’s fingers instead and his body opened up easily to the invasion. Thomas nibbled on Jimmy’s ear as he tried to squeeze his ring finger alongside the two others already inside Jimmy’s pliant body.

All he could hear was Jimmy’s ragged breathing and it didn’t sound like he was in pain. But he asked all the same. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. It’s tight, but... You were right. The way you rub me in that spot... It’s so hot even the stretch starts to feel kind of good.”

Hearing Jimmy say that made Thomas’s ears burn. Maybe it was too soon, maybe he was ruining this, but he couldn’t wait anymore, so he pulled his fingers free, drawing out a moan from Jimmy, and coated his cock generously with jelly. He placed the flushed head of his cock against Jimmy’s arsehole and attempted to thrust home, but got nowhere. His palms found no purchase in Jimmy’s hips either; they were sticky with jelly and too slick to provide him with a firm grip. When he tried to push in again, his cock was so slippery its angle shifted and it thrust upwards, instead of inside, rubbing along the cleft between Jimmy’s arsecheeks. It shouldn’t have felt good enough to make him moan. Bloody hell, it might as well be his first time.

“It’s all right, just hold it steady,” Jimmy said, sounding extraordinarily calm.

Thomas obeyed, taking hold of his prick and holding it against Jimmy’s opening. Then Jimmy started to press himself against him, one inch at a time, going at his own rhythm, hissing as he impaled himself on Thomas’s cock. When he was about to bottom out, Jimmy reached behind Thomas’s body, grabbing a handful of his right buttock, and pulled them together until Thomas could feel Jimmy’s round and pert arsecheeks pressed flush against his pubes. His cock twitched inside Jimmy and not coming then and there required every ounce of self-control he still had.

When they finally started to move, Thomas didn’t know if he was fucking into Jimmy or if Jimmy was dancing on his lap. Maybe they were doing it all together. Thomas reached for Jimmy’s cock, needing reassurance that he was enjoying this and found him leaking all over himself, so much that it almost felt like he was coming already.

“Thomas—” Jimmy gasped.

“What?” he said, kissing one perfect collarbone.

“I want you on top of me. I want to feel you—pounding into me. I want to feel your weight pinning me down. Can you do that?”

Thomas was so far gone he’d have done anything Jimmy asked of him—as long as it was soon, because he wasn’t sure how long he’d still be able to last. He tried to stay inside while they shifted positions, but slipped out anyway. In the end, it was a good thing, because when he plunged inside Jimmy again—God, that thrust was nearly as good as the first one. In a way, it was even better. Jimmy parted his legs wide beneath him and crossed them around Thomas’s midsection, dragging him deeper and deeper with each thrust. They kissed and kissed, and Thomas’s eyes were closed, feeling Jimmy’s nails scratching his back.

He wanted to tell Jimmy he was going to come, that they had to stop if Jimmy didn’t want him to yet, but the suction of Jimmy’s mouth on his lips was too good to pull away from, the grip of his thighs too vicious. Thomas moaned as he spilled inside of Jimmy, filling him up with his seed. He was still squirting when he pulled out and buried his mouth between Jimmy’s parted thighs, swallowing his cock down to the root and thrusting two fingers at once into his fucked open arsehole.

Thomas didn’t know if Jimmy’s yelp was of pleasure, surprise or pain, but he was flooding Thomas’s mouth with a rich stream of come less than a minute later.


Thomas couldn’t tell precisely when he had fallen asleep after he and Jimmy had come. The only thing he was currently aware of was the distant and insistent pounding at the door. His confusion lasted just a moment before his senses came back to him all at once.

He was at the Dower House—with Jimmy. And there was someone very insistent at the door. He got on his feet at once, putting on the first clothes he saw in front of him: those very same trousers and undershirt he had worn before laying with Jimmy, who was still sound asleep. He considered waking him up, but that would only delay him further, and taking so long to answer the door was getting more suspicious by the minute. Throwing a robe on, Thomas put on a pair of slippers and left the room. He hesitated for a moment before taking the key from the door and locking Jimmy inside. He’d come back to unlock him as soon as he could, but he couldn’t risk having Jimmy come down the stairs oblivious to the fact they weren’t alone anymore.

The vigorous pounding came from the back door. Somehow, it would have seemed more ominous if the person was knocking on the main entrance.

“I’m coming,” he yelled.

Trying his best to look composed, he opened the door. It was Andy, looking worried and dishevelled like he had been running. Whatever it was, maybe it wasn’t such a calamity, or else Carson would have come in person, wouldn’t he?

“Thomas, hello. I’m sorry to show up like this, but Mr. Carson wants to see you at the Abbey at once. It’s about Mrs. Abbot.”

Chapter Text

Thomas blinked a couple of times, fidgeting with the doorknob for a moment. His first instinct was to mumble an excuse and slam the door shut, but that would accomplish nothing except making him look dodgy, so he stepped outside instead—not that further exposing himself while looking so dishevelled was less questionable, but at least it kept Andy in the yard.

“What do you—” Thomas cut himself short. He had aimed at a semblance of vague puzzlement, only the sound that escaped his mouth was high-pitched and pathetic.

Andy didn’t look any more alarmed now than he had upon arriving; the boy must be far too deep in his own jitters to notice Thomas’s uneasiness. It was a small mercy that Carson hadn’t sent someone with sharper eyes or more stable self-composure, yet Andy’s disturbed state was far from comforting.

“It’s about Mrs. Abbot,” Andy repeated, as if Thomas had misheard him the first time. “You better come quickly. Mr. Carson looked ready to boil over.”

And when wasn’t Carson ready to boil over?

“What about her?” This time, Thomas managed to sound reasonably collected despite weighing every word that passed his lips.It was damn hard to fabricate his defence when he barely knew what he was being accused of or how much they even knew.

“Oh, bloody—” Andy threw his hands up in defeat. “You better hear it from Mr. Carson. I can’t even make proper sense of it myself. I’d be no good at explaining.”

When Thomas had no immediate reply, Andy’s frown deepened. “Can we go now? Mr. Carson was quite impatient.”

No matter how severe, Thomas would wager Carson’s impatience was no match to Andy’s anxiety. The boy kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other—if Thomas didn’t know better, he’d think Andy was about to piss himself.

“You go back now and tell Mr. Carson I’m on my way.” Stalling was his only strategy so far. Every minute was precious: if he had to spin a story, it was better to think of something beforehand and leave as little as possible to chance.

Andy shook his head vehemently. “No. Mr. Carson said I should not leave without you. I’ll never hear the end of it if I go back there by myself.”

Thomas couldn’t feel slighted by Andy’s attempt to dig his heels.Carson wielded his authority with an ascetic demeanour that never failed to intimidate newcomers. The man made sure to constantly point out every mistake one had ever made as well as any perceived flaw of character, and his interpretation of what constituted such could be wildly far-fetched if it suited him. Thomas had been at Carson’s mercy far too many times not to sympathise. Even so, he needed to sway Andy in his favour.

“Andy,” Thomas said kindly. “I’m not even properly dressed. If you make Mr. Carson wait too long without an answer, he might think you’ve got lost on the way. You should go back to the Abbey and set his mind at ease. Tell him you spoke to me, and that I’m just making myself presentable before I go see him.”

Andy considered his words for a moment, the frown seeming frozen on his forehead, but soon he caved in.

“Fine. You could be right. You do know Mr. Carson better than me after all.”

Thomas offered the reassuring words Andy so desperately needed. “Of course I do. Just tell him I’m on my way and everything will be all right.”

Andy turned to leave, but he’d barely taken two steps before he looked back over his shoulder.

“Don’t be long. Please? I don’t like being around Mr. Carson when things don’t go his way.”

“I won’t,” Thomas said, hoping he would stay true to his words. He might not have a clue of how he’d get himself off the hook—whatever said hook was—but he wouldn’t make a target out of Andy for no reason.

Once he was gone, Thomas walked back inside and closed the door softly behind him. The sound of the lock clicking shut was barely audible, but it might as well have been a dam breaking with the way worry washed over him like a tide.

What the hell had happened to Abbott? Something must have happened to her, because she wouldn’t just go and break their agreement. It wasn’t denial; he didn’t refuse to believe she’d betrayed him—not that breaking their deal qualified as a betrayal. She couldn’t be disloyal to him if she had never been loyal in the first place. It simply made no sense that she would tell on him. It had to be something else—but what? Had Abbott stuck her foot in her mouth somehow and exposed them inadvertently? Perhaps something had happened to her at the village, an accident of sorts—which would unavoidably raise the question of what she was doing there to begin with.

Most people in this situation would claim to be concerned for well-being, but Thomas felt indignant, as if he’d just been robbed.Today was his; he had worked hard for it, had earned it, and now someone had disrupted the little time he had with Jimmy.

Jimmy—God, he was still locked inside the guest room. Thomas hurried up the stairs at once, berating himself for not remembering that as soon as Andy was gone. He might not be a specialist in romance, but unintentional incarceration was unlikely to win Jimmy over. Thomas could be persuasive, but even so, there weren’t many ways to justify locking your lover up while he was asleep.

When he walked into the bedroom, though, Jimmy was still fast asleep, oblivious to what had happened. Thomas tiptoed around him, picking up his scattered clothes and putting them on; he should probably wake Jimmy up to let him know he was leaving, but he couldn’t make himself do it. Not when Jimmy looked so peaceful and relaxed, pink lips parted and shiny with saliva, breathing heavy and low. Even so, waking up to find yourself alone with your lover gone was a sensation Thomas knew all too well to wish it upon Jimmy.

The inner debate made him scoff at himself. Anyone with a lick of common sense would have already thrown Jimmy away that very minute after avoiding exposure so narrowly. In the end, Thomas just scribbled a short note saying he’d bedside table. No use in saying anything about the housekeeper and getting Jimmy alarmed when he didn’t even know what they were dealing with.

As Thomas made his way to the Abbey, he realised he was far calmer than he

had assumed he would be. As long as he and Jimmy weren’t caught in the act, they would always be able to deny the true nature of their involvement, no matter how obvious it seemed—even a formal accusation to the police wouldn’t be more than hearsay. Not that Carson ever would involve the authorities, considering his dread of scandals. Thomas has expected his march to the Abbey to be frantic with silent scheming, but there was an overall sense of… calmness. He’d face whatever he had to with open arms.

Andy was waiting for him by the service entrance of the Abbey, looking down the road eagerly—presumably trying to discern Thomas on the road as soon as possible.How tough had Carson’s scolding been when Andy had arrived alone?

“Oh, come on. I can’t have taken that long,” Thomas said in jest, but Andy remained just as uptight.

“Mr. Carson is waiting for you in his pantry.”

Thomas nodded and walked past him. He bid good morning to those he met at the servants’ hall, hoping their expression upon meeting him would anticipate the depth of his troubles, but the environment was sterile of clues. Maybe that was a good omen, after all. Five years ago, when the kissing incident had happened and the entire staff had been aware, the mood in the hall had been nigh unbearable; for months on end, moving around the estate had worn him out just as surely as wallowing all day through mire.

Up in the pantry, Mr. Carson was sitting behind his desk and Mrs. Hughes stood by his side, both of them with grievous looks on their faces. They looked like statues of flesh, like they hadn’t moved a muscle for years beyond count. How long would Mrs. Hughes have kept standing if Thomas hadn’t shown?

They were the only ones in the room, so whatever Abbott had accused him of—if he was indeed being accused of something—she wouldn’t be there to confront him.

“Good morning, Mr. Carson,” Thomas said with caution and waited a moment, but went on when his greeting went unanswered. “I got Andy’s message asking me to come at once, but I’m afraid I don’t know what this is about. Is something wrong, sir?”

Better to withhold everything he knew—which amounted to next to nothing—and wait to see what they’d say. Not that it did him any good, because Carson allowed him no room to manoeuvre.

“Mr. Barrow, answer me, if you’d be so kind. When was the last time you saw Mildred Abbott?”

Thomas blinked, feigning innocent disorientation.

“Why? Has something happened to her?” His tone was the same he had used to inquire about Spratt’s surgery.

But Carson wouldn’t be so easily manipulated today. “Stop drawing circles and just answer the question, Mr. Barrow.”

“I last saw her yesterday, at nightfall, shortly before I retired to my room at the Dower House.” The fact that his answer was in fact true granted conviction to his tone.

Carson considered his answer for a few seconds.

“If what you’re saying is true, then why didn’t you report to me at once when you woke up this morning and noticed her absence like it was your duty to do?”

Thomas swallowed on a dry mouth.

“Mr. Carson, I...” He glanced down. “It’s hard to admit, sir.”

“I don’t care if you’d find it easier turning back time. You answer me right now or, so help me God, I’ll have you leave this room with no job and no reference.”

“I wanted to give Mrs. Abbott time to return, in case she intended to,” Thomas said, a bit impressed with how easily the words unravelled on this tongue. “It’s no secret there is no love lost between me and servants at the Abbey, so I suppose...” The pause was calculated. “I tried to do things differently at the Dower House. Perhaps they would like me better over there if I were more agreeable to them. It’s never too late to change one’s ways, is it? Mr. Carson, sir, I would report her eventually, but I… I wanted to be sure it was my only alternative.”

Mrs. Hughes disquieted expression was momentarily touched by pleased surprise. Carson wasn’t moved, however.

“So you’re telling me that after last night you had no contact whatsoever with Mildred Abbott? During the days you spent together, she never revealed to you any… out of the ordinary plan?”

Thomas frowned, but his confusion was real this time. “No, sir. We only talked about our duties. What has happened to Mrs. Abbott?”

“Mildred Abbott—” Carson said, using the woman’s full name once again “—was seen this morning boarding a train at the rail-station carrying far too much luggage for someone who planned on returning shortly. It’s the gossip on everyone’s lips at the village.”

Thomas had no idea Abbott had been planning to leave her job, even more so without a reference, but it wasn’t entirely unheard of.

“I can’t say I was expecting that, sir. She mentioned nothing to me about leaving Downton. Then again, when O’Brien was gone, it’s not like we had time to throw her a send off party.”

Maybe Thomas had no cause for concern—this might not have anything to do with him and Jimmy after all. Still, Mrs. Hughes apprehension kept him on his toes.It was her who talked next.

“The point is, Mr. Barrow, that Mrs. Abbott wasn’t alone. She… left the village with someone else in tow.”

Interesting—so much reluctance in sharing that bit of information could only mean Abbott had run away with someone she shouldn’t. Perhaps someone’s husband? A wayward thought of Abbott running away with Bates had Thomas fighting a sneer. Now that would have got their knickers in a twist. But no, Bates was in London with Anna and the family; besides, the two of them were the picture of the perfect doting couple. Thomas couldn’t think of anyone at the Abbey pulling a stunt like that either, so it must have been a villager.

“Tell me, Mr. Barrow,” Carson said. “When you were there, did you see Mildred Abbott get any visitors? A young girl, perhaps under the guise of delivering groceries?”

Thomas must look pretty lost, because Mrs. Hughes attempted to clarify when he simply stared blankly at them.

“You see, Mr. Barrow… Mrs. Abbot left Downton with the butcher’s daughter, and she was had luggage as well. The girl’s father assumes they might have… run away together.”

“Together?” Thomas blurted out, gobsmacked.

He tried to recall as much of her as he could: a stocky girl with coal black hair and plump lips. Wasn’t she lined up to marry Mr. Hanshaw’s son? The old man had eagerly shared the news with every customer that had entered his store for the last month, seeming over the moon with the prospect of having her as his daughter-in-law.

“We are trying not to jump to conclusions,” Carson hurried to say. “But Mr. Carter, er, I mean the father, shared his concerns with us regarding the… boundaries of their friendship. His daughter was of age, but still quite younger than Mildred Abbott. Mr. Carter worriedthat, being so young and reckless, she might damage her reputation irreparably, going down a path that sows nothing but regret. So he attempted to promote a union between his daughter and a suitor from the village, and now the poor man blames himself, thinking he might have driven her into running away. I only wish he’d come to us and voiced his worries before all this… chaos.”

For once, Carson’s bigotry fell on deaf ears. Mrs. Abbott was—

Thomas never would have guessed. Then again, he supposed this wasn’t the kind of thing you could guess about people. How many women like Abbott—like himself, in a way—did he see every day and was none the wiser? How many men? He thought back to the days he’d worked by her side from dawn to past nightfall, without ever knowing they shared a secret that made them so alike—he wondered about all the things they could have shared and what it would have been like to have a friend who knew what it mean to have to hide such a huge part of oneself.

“We just meant to ask if you know where they might have gone, if you’ve heard her anything that could be a clue,” Mrs. Hughes said, consternated.

Thomas wouldn’t say anything even if he knew; he just hoped the fear of public embarrassment was enough to keep anyone from accusing Abbott of kidnapping or something equally absurd. If the girl was of age, surely they must know there was nothing they could do. Either way, it was best if Thomas deflected any interest people might still have in what he could say on the matter.

“You should ask Spratt about it, should his condition allow such conversations. I’ve only known her for a few days, while he’s lived with her for months. He ought to know better than me.” Thomas added special emphasis to the last sentence. The last thing he needed was anyone suggesting he had planted unnatural ideas in a housekeeper’s mind.

“I suppose you’re right,” Carson conceded. “But don’t go thinking you’re altogether blameless. A servant should never be able to leave the house the butler’s notice. Not reporting her was inexcusable. Your silence abetted her escape.”

Thomas grit his teeth so he wouldn’t rub in Carson’s face how completely incapable of preventing anyone’s nightly walks the man had always been. Keeping silent was as far as his self-control allowed him to go; there would be no more hollow apologies from him. Not in this house, not to this man.

He addressed Mrs. Hughes instead. “Is there anything else I can assist with?”

“Not now, I don’t think. But the family is coming back the day after tomorrow and we obviously will need to talk about this with Lord Grantham. His Lordship will decide what to do, but until he’s fully aware, I think all we can do is wait.”

“Of course, Mrs. Hughes.” Of all the unpalatable situationsin Thomas’s life, the mere prospect of said conversation had he dubious honour of being one of the top worst. “Mr. Carson, do you still have need of me or should I go back to the Dower House? With both Mr. Spratt and Mrs. Abbott gone, the house would be left unattended were I not to return.”

That was an argument even Carson couldn’t rebuke. Losing a housekeeper to a woman and a butler to a burst appendix paled in comparison to presenting the Dowager with a house stripped of any resident staff. Whatever admonishment Carson was planning for Thomas, it would have to wait.

“You are dismissed, Mr. Barrow. Now that you are a butler without a staff, at least your stellar leadership is unlikely to scare even more workers away. Still, it couldn’t hurt to mind yourself next to the gardener.”

The offence lodged in his throat, and for a second, Thomas thought he wouldn’t be able to swallow it down quietly—his lips had parted before he even knew what he intended to say. Something impossible to take back, most likely. But then an image flashed into his mind unbidden: Carson how he must have looked like in his youth. The man had been young once, even if he did all he could to look like he’d been born already in a suit and over sixty. Thomas imagined him on a stage: young, dancing, singing and performing silly antics as one of the Cheerful Charlies. Carson had left a life in the theatres to embrace one of servitude. Thomas didn’t know—nor wanted to—why Carson had changed so dramatically, and he surely harboured no sudden sympathy for the man, but looking at him now, it was staggering how tired, old, and, above all, frustrated Carson looked.

Nodding slightly, Thomas wished them good morning and excused himself. He had almost reached the yard when Mrs. Patmore called him back.

“Mr. Barrow, if I could have a moment, please.”

Thomas stopped on his tracks and looked back at her. She was standing by the servants’ hall doorway, a basket hanging from one arm.

“Yes, Mrs. Patmore?”

“I—I got this basket ready for you. I reckon you’ll need it, all alone at the Dower House.” Then she added, like an afterthought: “But just… keep this to yourself, will you?”

“All… right,” Thomas said slowly, eyeing her questioningly. “You, the cook, cooked me a meal; I’ll try to keep such a scandalous secret from getting out, but I make no promises. The walls have ears, you know?”

“Oh, don’t get cheeky with me, young man.” For a second, it seemed she would smack him across the ear. Yet she appeared affectionate even then.

Thomas lifted the lid of the basket, but had barely got a peek inside before Mrs. Patmore placed a hand on it, shutting it again. But even with that quick glance, Thomas could already tell it wasn’t the kind of food the servants usually ate at the Abbey. He hadn’t identified the contents, but it smelled like food people ate upstairs.

“Mrs. Patmore, there is—”

“Will you just take it?” She sounded like Thomas was her new assistant, one especially daft.

Thomas argued no further, even if the reason for such an impromptu offer escaped him entirely.

But Mrs. Patmore seemed incapable of holding her own tongue.

“Mr. Carter’s daughter is a nice girl, and— her heart is in the right place. It was good of you… being discreet. At least while you could.”

Thomas exhaled. This side of the woman was unknown to him. “I appreciate it, Mrs. Patmore, but I honestly knew nothing.”

“No matter,” Mrs. Patmore said, but the look on her face suggested she still thought he was pretending. “Just take it and be gone already.”

Thomas nodded as he took his leave, surprise keeping him from saying a word of good-bye.

On the way back, Thomas kept reminiscing about Mildred Abbott. It was likely she already had another job waiting for her somewhere else, if she couldn’t be bothered to give notice and wait for a reference. The butcher’s daughter impending marriage had probably hastened their plans of escape. Still, it had been a bold move. Abbott was close to his own age, mid thirties or so. Unless she had a secret chest full of gold buried somewhere, she was no significantly richer or poorer than Thomas. And while women tended to be more affectionate towards each other than men, Thomas didn’t think the masses were more forgiving of Sapphism than sodomy. Yet none of that had stopped Abbott from going after what she wanted.

Why should Thomas be even a shade less brave than her?

Under his feet, the grass looked greener than it ever had; the breeze ghosting on his face as he strolled was cool and refreshing. Thomas had never believed in life-changing moments; one’s existence and destiny were a result of everlasting construction, past choices and habits adding to new ones; a continuum rather than punctuated by dramatic turning points. But right now it was as if the entire world had shifted and Thomas could see a new dimension of it where everything was more colourful and vivid—a world where he could live if he was only bold enough to take the leap.

Finally back at the Dower House, Thomas leaned against the kitchen table with a heavy sigh. The moment he’d drunk that potion, something inside him was forever altered and swapping bodies had only been part of it. Now the change had finally reached its peak, Thomas could never go back to being the same. Like a tree couldn’t reverse into a seed, he’d outgrown the confinement of his previous life.

This time, Jimmy was awake when Thomas went to the guest bedroom. He was sprawled on the bed, dressed in his trousers and undershirt, a half-smoked cigarette between his fingers.

“Your fag has burned out,” Thomas pointed out, not that it could’ve somehow escaped Jimmy’s attention.

“I know.” Jimmy rolled the cigarette between his fingers, ignoring the lighter right next to him on the bed.

Thomas shrugged his coat off and placed it over the vanity’s chair. He sat on the bed to take off his shoes right as Jimmy seemed to have grown tired of his old cigarette and crushed it in the ashtray on the little table by the bed.

“Thank you for the note. It was nice of you to let me know you were going out. Even if I only found it half an hour after I woke up and looked for you in every room.”

Jimmy poked idly at the small collection of fag ends in the ashtray.

“We’ll have to air this room out before the Dowager arrives. All I can smell is smoke and spunk. Maybe I should take a bath.”

Thomas realised how little he cared about the state of the room. What did it matter if it stank of cheap cigarettes and soiled sheets? The Dowager had probably never even entered that room in close to a decade. She wouldn’t notice if they cleaned the room today or two months from now. They’d fucked on the kitchen table, for crying out loud—they’d lacked a sense of propriety from the start.

“What happened? What did they want with you at the Abbey?”

Thomas finished taking off his shoes and socks and lay on the bed next to Jimmy.

“Mildred Abbott eloped,” he said with raised eyebrows, still a bit stupefied himself.

Jimmy frowned. “Eloped? I—come again? Who eloped with whom?”

“Mildred Abbott was the Dowager’s housekeeper. Yesterday, I bribed her to leave the house for a day, so you and I could be together. It seems she took advantage of the day-off to run away with the butcher’s daughter.”

“You mean… run away together? Like… with each other?”

Thomas nodded, slightly amused with Jimmy’s astonishment. He had to know women like that existed. He couldn’t not know, right? Then again, considering how little he had known of sodomy until only days ago, Thomas wouldn’t be too surprised if Jimmy truly had no idea women could love each other in a non-platonic manner.

“Yes. God. That is—I really need to leave all this.”

“Leave Downton?”

“Yes, Downton. Service. Yorkshire. I could go to America,” Thomas was rambling, his mind caught in a whirlwind as he tried to figure out the sea of possibilities.

Jimmy, however, was far less enthused with the idea of leaving the country—at least that was what Thomas gathered from the scowl on his face.

“I suppose Collins’ offer still stands?”

“Collins? You mean Arthur? I don’t know. I could look into it, but we haven’t spoken in… How do you know about his offer?” Thomas tried to remember if the subject had ever come up in a conversation, or if he’d written something about it. “I don’t think there’s anything about him in my notebook.”

“I read the letter he wrote to you, asking if you please wouldn’t reconsider moving there,” Jimmy admitted. “Good to know America has left such a lasting impression on you. Sounds like Arthur was keen on making you feel at home.”

“What if I liked America?” Thomas asked, with an uncertain smile. “I’d never have pegged you for the proud patriot type. But it doesn’t even have to be America. I could go to Australia or India. But it was good of you to mention Arthur. If I could get a hold of him, it wouldn’t hurt to ask if he’d still consider taking me in.”

Colour vanished from Jimmy’s face. “Who would have known a week with me would get you pining after your American lover, but it serves me right.”

Thomas’s jaw dropped. “Lover? What are you on about?”

“Your lady friend flees with a woman and of course that reminds you of your very interesting and very modern American friend. Why didn’t you take him up on his offer, really.”

Thomas was baffled; it looked a lot like Jimmy was jealous of him—very much so—but Thomas wouldn’t dare be so presumptuous. Even if it seemed such a sure bet.

“Jimmy... Arthur wasn’t my lover. He owned a club I went to one night in New York.”

Jimmy wasn’t so easily placated. The whole outburst was… unexpected, to say the least.

“I know what kind of clubs you went to in New York.”

Thomas didn’t dispute that; he had, in fact, been to a very particular establishment during that travel, but that had nothing to do with Arthur.

“Arthur Collins was a man I met in a jazz club. He was accompanied by a friend, a very entertaining woman named Phryne. The three of us danced, laughed and drank our fill the nights I stayed there. The two of them were quite invested in New York’s night life, and because we hit it off so well, they hoped we could form a partnership to open our own night club. Arthur wanted me to join him in a business, not in his bed.”

Before Jimmy could say anything, Thomas dragged him into an embrace. He’d rather be accused of coddling than risk Jimmy feeling overly embarrassed for losing his temper over something so innocuous.

“In you, I’ve found a friend and the perfect lover. Why would I turn away from such a treasure now that it’s finally within my grasp?” After a lifetime of ingrained reservation, Thomas’s unusual bout of candour shot heat up his neck and face. He shrugged, attempting to ease the tension on his shoulders. “It’s just… I don’t belong here. I don’t want to. There is a world out there where magic and potions are real, and wizards can root out your deepest secrets while playing bloody poker. The world is—” He sighed. “I can’t stay here knowing that. I can’t spend another day bowing and scraping after them just to earn their contempt.”

Thomas braced himself for scepticism at best, and sneering at worst. So Jimmy’s hungry kiss caught him pleasantly off guard.

Eventually, Jimmy pulled back and asked, “So what is our plan?”

Goosebumps spread over Thomas’s skin. Our plan?

“You want to go? With me?”

Jimmy smirked. “I don’t see why this Abbott woman should be the only one making a grand exit.”

Thomas smashed their mouths together again.

For the rest of the day, Thomas and Jimmy were naked. Sometimes it was on the bed, in each other’s arms, and at least a couple of times it happened in the bathtub as they washed their bodies. Not even having a meal was reason enough to get fully dressed. Neither of them ever saidanything on the matter, but there was no need. Today was their last chance to be together like this, at least for a while: carefree, like the walls of that house were a sanctuary in which they didn’t need to pretend.

At night, they set blankets and pillows in front of the fireplace and lay down together, the flickering light of the flames casting tall shadows behind them and the embers crackling softly.

Theyhad started on their sides, unhurried kisses just to taste each other’s mouths, but then Jimmy’slips and touches grew more frantic and demanding, like Thomas was his for the taking. He pushed Thomas on his back and rested his full weight on him, hips locked in a rut.

In the intimacy of these moments, Thomas could see new sides of Jimmy unfolding every time. When they were still in each other’s bodies, Jimmy had proved how bold hecould be: old scars as well as the oddity of their situation wouldhave kept Thomas restrained, but Jimmy coaxed him out of hiding and brought them together. Then, once they switched back, he’d sought Thomas out relentlessly—his excuses so poorThomas had to wonder why try tocome up with a pretext at all. Thomas couldn’t fathom Jimmy actually thinking he’d be denied; perhaps Jimmy himself had needed the pretence to follow through with his own desires. Thomas was fine with that. Different people had different rhythms and he’d enjoyed every step they’d taken. Jimmy fascinated him with everything he did; his fumbling attempts to give their meeting at the Grantham Arms a sexual nature had been delightful to see, yet the look of relief mixed with anticipation he’d got once Thomas took the lead was enough to make his blood race. That night, as Jimmy melted under his tongue, Thomas didn’t know what aroused him more: how beautiful Jimmy looked, the taste of him, the sounds of his desperate pleading or how oblivious he was to the effect he had over Thomas.

Later on, Jimmy had taught him there was a big difference between bashfulness and inexperience. Thomas could hardly deny the wicked surge of pleasure he felt every time they did something new and he got to see Jimmy marvelled that people actually did that. But what always got Thomas throbbing with want was how eager Jimmy always seemed to be. Not to say didn’t get nervous on occasion, but Jimmy was constantly yearning to explore all the way the could be together, with such an avid interest Thomas could hardly realise how leery he must’ve been not to notice for so long.

At first, he couldn’t stop fretting over what would happen to Jimmy’s interest if or when they ran out of shiny new things to do. Now it seemed a pointless concern, ludicrous even, when everything only seemed to feel better the more they did it.

Tonight, lying on top of him, Jimmy was particularly intrigued with Thomas’s nipples. After kissing his lips and sucking on his tongue long enough to make Thomas gasp for air, Jimmy devoted his attention to Thomas’s chest. At first, he just traced them with a fingertip, one at a time, until they wrinkled into tight nubs. Thomas hissed at the too sharp sensation. He wouldn’t go as far as deeming it unpleasant—his hard and leaking cock was proof to the contrary—but there was only so much of it he could handle.

Still, he made no move to stop Jimmy as he rolled Thomas’s nipples between his thumbs and forefingers; closing his fists on the thick blanket under him, Thomas braced himself against the sensation that travelled down his body and made his groin twitch.

Jimmy’s lips closed around one of his nipples as he let go of the other and Thomas sighed in confused relief—it felt so fucking good, so why was he relieved it was over? The warmth and wetness of Jimmy’s mouth was a softer caress, easier to give into, and Thomas hummed softly as his hips thrust up.

Thomas’s eyes were closed, so he felt, rather than saw, Jimmy shift on top of him, placing himself between Thomas’s legs.

His eyes flew open and saw Jimmy staring at him, his hair looking even more golden under the light of the fire; his face was so close to Thomas’s cock even his breathing felt like a faint and warm caress.

Thomas could guess where this was going and just thinking about it got him leaking enough to feel it, and wasn’t it bizarre that his cock was drooling all over itself when it wasn’t even being touched? He briefly considered telling Jimmy he didn’t have to do it just because Thomas did, but it no longer sounded appropriate for him to say at this stage. They were past that line of thinking now.

The past couple of weeks, he’d assumed too much of anything would scare Jimmy off. Either the intimacy would feel excessive, or Thomas’sbody would look too flagrantly masculine, or… soon, something would be too much to handle. Thomas had been certain something was bound to drive Jimmy away—yet, he’d been wrong each and every time until today, so perhaps right now it was time to give both of them some credit and accept that Jimmy was lying between his legs for no other reason than because he wanted to.

Jimmy stroked his length a few times, spreading all the fluid that had gathered on the tip as he did so. Then he sucked the head of Thomas’s cock into his mouth in one fluid motion—no prior teasing of his tongue, no tentative licks to test the waters. He pulled back, letting Thomas slip free of his mouth only to suck him back in again, swallowing half of it down this time. Jimmy did it again, and again, trying to take Thomas’s cock a bit deeper each time.

There was no denying it was the first time Jimmy had done this. The suction of his mouth felt delicious, just strong enough, and he had very good sense of rhythm, but his hands were still, one of them resting on his hip while the other held his cock in place. Thomas was grateful for it—if Jimmy were any better than this, Thomas would have spent himself faster than when he was fourteen and found that place up his arse for the first time.

Jimmy wasn’t very imaginative with what he did; he limited himself to bobbing his head up and down, hollowing his cheeks at different rhythms, but the enthusiasm he did it with was enough to get Thomas close to coming surprisingly fast. Prior to this moment, he’d probably say he’d never get to see anything more arousing than Jimmy on all fours, looking over his shoulder, asking to take Thomas’s cock up his arse. But right now, seeing Jimmy’s mouth stuffed full of his prick, Thomas wasn’t sure of anything anymore. He cradled the back of Jimmy’s neck, running his fingers through the blond hair, trying very hard not to thrust his hips into Jimmy’s mouth.

The palm resting on his hip moved as Jimmy reached for Thomas’s free hand, intertwining their fingers together. It was a very small gesture, its nature affectionate rather than sexual, but that was what pushed Thomas past the point of no return.

“I’m coming,” he said, the warning coming out of his throat mixed with a groan.

Jimmy released him from his mouth just as Thomas started to shoot, milking the last gushes of seed with his hand, watching closely as they landed on Thomas’s lower belly. Heart pounding in his chest, Thomas panted softly. At least he had managed to warn Jimmy in time instead of surprising him with a mouthful of come he wasn’t expecting.

In his haze, Thomas noticed Jimmy was sliding his fingers through the pool of spunk cooling on his stomach, so focused on what he was doing it almost looked like he was studying Thomas’s spend. His own cheeks felt warm.

Then Jimmy gathered some of it on his index finger and thrust the fingertip in his mouth before Thomas could warn him not to. It was pretty obvious by his expression that he had not approved of the taste.

Thomas smiled sheepishly. “If you’re going to swallow, it’s a lot easier to do it while it’s warm. It doesn’t taste as strongly.”

Jimmy chuckled. “You eat mine, and yours, all the time.”

Thomas felt his blush deepen. “It’s an acquired taste. Not everybody likes it, and that’s all right.”

“But you do.” Jimmy was tracing the come on his stomach again.

“I do,” Thomas confessed, feeling utterly indecent.

Jimmy coated his fingertip with come once again and brought it to Thomas’s lips this time. Thomas sucked the finger inside obediently, savouring the cool taste of himself.

“I want to fuck you,” Jimmy said, adjusting himself between Thomas’s thighs.

“Then fuck me.” Thomas brought his knees close to his chest, granting Jimmy all the access he needed.

“Do you want me to get the jelly?” Jimmy’s voice was hoarse when he asked.

Thomas considered it briefly; the jar was still in the guest room, and he felt no desire to stop this just so they could fetch the damn thing. There was a sweet agony in having that sweet spot inside pounded right after he’d come, and he didn’t want to risk missing that feeling.

“No need, just—just use my come. And spit if you have to.”

Jimmy gathered all he could from Thomas’s stomach on his fingers and proceeded to finger him open. He’d just got two of them inside when Thomas urged him on.

“Go on, I can take it. I want you to.”

To his surprise, Jimmy didn’t argue. His hand was shaking when he spat on his palm. After spreading the saliva on his cock, Jimmy positioned himself against Thomas’s arsehole.

“Are you sure?”

Thomas nodded, emphatic. “Just go slow and I’ll be fine.”

Jimmy needed no further encouragement. He pushed into Thomas slowly, without stopping. Spit and come were nowhere as slick as the jelly, so his body resisted Jimmy’s intrusion a bit more, but even the burn in that stretch was the good kind of ache. When Jimmy was nearly fully inside, Thomas reached around him, grabbing him by the arse cheeks, and pulled him closer, burying the last couple of inches at once deep inside of him. They moaned together.

Jimmy fucked him hard and shallow after that, his thrusts gaining speed fast enough to get Thomas panting again. Jimmy’s hips smacked harshly against his parted legs and the onslaught had made Thomas half-hard again, but he didn’t reach for his cock. All he wanted was to feel Jimmy fuck him until he filled Thomas with his seed.

Jimmy kissed him on the verge of coming, and the moan he let out against Thomas’s lips sent shivers down his spine.

Almost a minute after his orgasm, Thomas could still feel the faint spasms of Jimmy’s cock inside him, weaker each time as he went soft.

Jimmy stayed on top of Thomas even after his cock slipped out. Judging by how wet Thomas felt between his arse cheeks, some of his come must have dribbled out too. It didn’t bother him; the weight of Jimmy and the kisses he was now scattering across his neck compelled him to stay like that as long as he could.

He was happy.

The next day, Thomas made his way to the Abbey before the sun rose in the sky. It was so early not even Daisy was down yet. Good. It was just as Thomas had intended. No farewells, no apologies and no regrets.

He climbed the stairs to his bedroom as silently as he could and opened his well-worn luggage over his bed. In there, he tossed his clothes, all of his toiletries, as well as the letters and notebooks he had kept over the years. It surprised him to realise he hadn’t written a single line ever since taking the potion. He wondered if he’d get back to keeping journals and notebooks wherever he was going to live now.

This bedroom had been his home, akind of refuge, for way too many years. Yet he had managed to pack everything that was truly his in little more than ten minutes. He wondered what everyone would say once they realised he, too, was gone. Not that he particularly cared. He might write to Baxter after some time, though, after things had quieted down. Probably Andy, too.

Thomas left the Abbey as quietly as he had walked in, holding his luggage firmly by the strap. As he walked back to the Dower House, Thomas wondered for a fleeting moment what he’d do if he got there and Jimmy was gone. He reached his destination before he could dwell on that thought, though, and then it didn’t matter any more. Jimmy was still there, already packed and waiting.

As far as plans went, all they had come up with so far was getting to Liverpool. They could take a ship from there to God knows where in the world, or they might as well try to make a living there. It was all a mystery. Thomas had no idea where he’d be a month, even a week, from now. Jimmy had suggested they make up a story, something that would make two bachelors travelling and living together seem less suspicious; they could pretend to be cousins or half-brothers who first met after the war. Physically, they were nothing alike, but if they could pass as relatives, then it wouldn’t seem so odd that they were close.

Thomas and Jimmy waited for the train at the station sitting side by side on a bench near the platform. It was hard to fight the urge to kiss Jimmy. He wondered if he’d get to sneak a peck out of him on the train. The wind blew cold on his face again. The sky was light blue, promising a beautiful day and the prospect of a pleasant travel.Boarding would begin in less than half an hour.

As he waited, his thoughts wandered.

There was still time to back to Downton if he wanted. Being scared was a sensible response. He was abandoning a career he’d dedicated his entire life to, with no reference that would help him get another job. His savings would hardly last him more than a few months if he didn’t find work. His relationship with Jimmy might not even last through the end of the week, and then he’d be left with no job—no job and a broken heart.And even if their relationship did go well, someone might find out the truth about them and get them tangled up with the police. If they went through with the idea of leaving the country, they might end up dead like that Gregson fellow who had been Lady Edith’s suitor, with no one to claim their bodies. All things considered, Thomas should be afraid.

On the other hand, he was finally leaving a career he’d loathed his entire life. It would be hard at first, of that he had no doubt, but he might be lucky enough to find a job—and not just any job either. He might even end up working with something that would make him feel glad to leave the bed every morning, instead of resigned. He’d reach out to Arthur and maybe they’d end up opening their own club after all. And who knew? Maybe Thomas and Jimmy could open a business for themselves further down the road. They couldalsobreak up in a week, that much was true—but it didn’t mean Thomas wouldn’t heal with time, he knew it now. So maybe they would part ways, but maybe they would grow old together.

Up until two weeks ago, Thomas had felt as if his entire life was laid out in front of him. Now, everything was unknown. There were no more certainties in his life.

Thomas laughed, a laughter so light and effortless that shook his shoulders and reached his eyes.

Jimmy smiled beside him. “What? What’s so funny?”

Thomas shook his head, sighing. “It’s nothing.”

Jimmy stared at him and gave his hand a soft squeeze. “Really?”

Thomas looked down at their joined hands and back up at Jimmy’s eyes.

“I just realised I’ve never felt so free.”