The servant's hall was verging on empty by the time the summer sun finally set. The Bateses had long since gone home, and Carson and Mrs Hughes had chose to dine at their cottage that evening. It was only when Molesley announced he was going to bed, and Thomas looked up from his chair by the fire that he realised how very few people remained. He could hear Daisy clattering away in the kitchen, and Baxter was still sewing something for Her Ladyship in the corner. Even Andy, who usually was one of the last to retire, had already gone.
"I should be off too," he muttered, folding his paper as he stood.
Baxter looked up from her work and smiled at him, before furrowing her eyebrows slightly and saying "Thomas, have you seen Andy this evening?"
"Come to think of it, I haven't."
"Oh. Well, he was looking for you before they had their dinner. Musn't've been that important." She smiled again, looking away. "I shouldn't be down here for much longer."
Thomas nodded, and bid her farewell. His conversations with Baxter, despite how long they had known each other, had been rather short of late. Perhaps her new friendships with Molesley and the others made her options for conversation less scarce, and after all, he wasn't exactly people's first choice for a fun time.
It wasn't like he minded. He was used to it. And he was getting more and more used to it by the day.
Thomas wasn't paying attention as he navigated the familiar stairways to his room, choosing to focus more on what Andy could have wanted from him. The young footman hadn't need him for much anything recently, but Thomas had promised himself not to think of that too often. By the time he reached his room, he was settled on the idea that Andy must have been told to deliver a message from Carson, or someone. Nothing too important.
He barely had time to take off his waistcoat before there was a gentle knock from behind him and he turned to see Andy poking his head through the door. Maybe it was important after all.
"Mr Barrow," he started, looking vaguely unsure, "I was wondering if I might have a word."
Thomas briefly considered saying no, but something held him back from whatever sarcastic comment was brewing his mind this time. He beckoned Andy in.
"I hear you've been looking for me," Thomas said as Andy shut the door.
"Miss Baxter said you'd gone up when I came in from the courtyard."
"Why were you out there?"
"It-It's not important," Andy stuttered, wringing his hands for a second before he quickly stuffed them in his pockets. "I wanted to thank you for helping me with my reading, and I'm sorry you're not teaching me anymore."
"That's what friends are for I suppose. We had a good run." Thomas took a seat on his bed, and picked up a book from his nightstand, trying desperately to signify that this conversation was over, for there was nowhere else it could go in his mind but down.
Andy seemed to have other ideas and the footman practically sprang towards him, crossing the room in half a second or less to sit in the small gap Thomas had left. He bowed his head trying to recapture Thomas' attention, and Thomas couldn't help but be reminded of the very times Andy had been talking about. The late nights of sitting with Andy in one of their rooms, books and papers scattered between them had been something Thomas had thoroughly enjoyed.
"We are friends, Mr Barrow," Andy assured. He took the book from Thomas, forcing the underbutler to look at him, even if it was just out of the corner of his eyes. "Me and Miss Baxter are you friends, you know that right?"
"That's kind of you to say." Thomas clenched his jaw, not sure of what else to say, and looked back towards the nightstand.
"It's true!" Andy asserted, any trace of the nerves he had when he entered the room seemingly gone. He put the book down on the quilt, and turned so his body was facing Thomas'. "You think I'd be here if it weren't true?"
"...No," Thomas forced out, realising the battle had been lost as he felt the corners of his lips betray him. The footman beamed.
"So there are no hurt feelings about me learning with Mr Dawes?"
"I just didn't want to think I was avoiding you. Like last time," he added sheepishly. Now it was his turn to look away.
"Last time," Thomas said, pausing to reach into his top draw and take out a flask, "you were avoiding me. Drink?" he asked, tilting it towards Andy. The footman shook his head and Thomas noted that his eyes hadn't strayed for long.
"That's what I actually wanted to talk about. You know why I avoided you."
"It's been made clear, yes." Thomas tried to sound calm, but his thoughts were running wild with the possibility of all this coming up again. It seemed to be an annual occurrence, as though whatever cruel god there was got his jollies from putting Thomas through awkward conversations about his nature with devastating ends.
Andy clenched his fists, bracing himself as much for what was about to transpire as Thomas. He found it valiant that Andy was finding it difficult to do what he had to. Being so unwilling to part with him, made his confession of friendship seem somewhat real. He understood, of course. He wanted Andy to succeed, and there was no way that could happen with Thomas holding him back.
"You have certain preferences and... And-" Andy trailed off, looking around the room desperately, as though if he would find his words in the corner.
Thomas swallowed harshly. "And you're not comfortable with it?" he supplied, pursing his lips and trying very hard to contain any trace of emotion. Andy turned back to face him, his mouth open and eyebrows raised.
"No!" he exclaimed, the look of surprise still lingering. "The problem is I think I'm... too comfortable with it."
Thomas was taken aback. "What are you trying to say?" he spluttered.
Andy had never seen Thomas look quite as unprofessional as he did now, with his eyes wide and jaw slack, and it brought a small smile to his face. He quickly shook himself out of it to focus on the task at hand, but not before the other man saw his soft look, causing the underbutler's expression to become even more amusing.
"I just want to know how you know what you feel."
Thomas swallowed, composing himself and trying very hard to figure out what precisely was going on. "It's just something you know, Andy. There's no mystery."
"Why do need to know how?" His expression had morphed into one of frustration, and he hastily uncapped the flask and took a hurried swig.
"Are you really going to make me spell it out Mr Barrow?", Andy huffed. He stood suddenly, pushing himself away from Thomas, and putting a hand to his forehead. Thomas edged forward, just about to reach out to him as Andy turned back around. He held the bridge of his nose, and took a deep breath before he began to speak."I want to know if the fact you are constantly on my mind is just friendship!" His attempt to calm himself had failed, and by the end of his sentence he was practically hissing his words in a desperate attempt to keep quiet. This conversation was really not one he wanted anyone to interrupt. "If the fact that when Daisy smiles at me I don't feel even half as happy as when you do it means I am wrong too! I want to know how you know your own heart."
By the end of his short rant, Andy remembered to breath. Thomas seemed to look ill, and Andy immediately regretted every word that had ever said. The two men stared at each other, both daring each other to say something, before Thomas opened his mouth. It took a few seconds for any sound to come out, and a few more before those sounds were anything resembling the English language. Andy could've sworn it was the longest minute of his life.
"You... want to know if you're like me?" Thomas whispered.
"That's half of it."
Thomas nodded, lips pursed. "And the other half?"
"I want to know how you think about me."
Thomas inhaled sharply. "We are friends."
Andy brought his hand to his face again, unsatisfied with the answer. "So you just look at me and Miss Baxter and like us both the same?" he blurted angrily.
He didn't mean to loose his temper and he wasn't entirely sure he had, but in the suffocating silence of the Thomas' room he felt like he couldn't've come off worse if he had yelled slurs at the man for the whole Abbey to hear. He hadn't wanted to raise his voice, especially since he'd done just that when Thomas had offered to teach him to read. He had expected this conversation to go a different way. He'd heard from other members of staff that Thomas had been rather forward with his advances in the past, and standing in front of him right now, whilst Thomas kept his distance, wouldn't meet his gaze and insisted they were just friends, Andy felt like a fool.
"I'm sorry, Mr Barrow. I should go." He nodded sharply, fists balled by his sides and turned swiftly to the door.
"Andy. Wait." The footman turned quicker than he thought he could, to find himself face to face with Thomas, who must've risen from his bed when Andy went to leave and was reaching out as if to grab him. His hands fell to his sides, and he straightened his shirt. Thomas' mouth was dry. He took a deep breath. "I like you far more than Miss Baxter."
"But only as a friend," Andy sighed, bowing his head. After all the warnings, he hadn't expected it to go this way. He shouldn't've assumed anything, and now he'd really gone and put his foot in it.
"I wouldn't say that," Thomas smiled, looking quite like Andy knew him for a split second before fear crept up on his features once more and he tried to back away. Andy could've sworn his heart stopped in that second.
"What would you say?" Andy prompted, realising that the blunt method might've been Thomas Barrow's old style, but that didn't mean it was who he was now.
"It's not easy for me to say these things, Andy. Not anymore."
"I'm rather fond of you, but thats as far as I'll go right now."
"I understand. I'll wait you know."
"Why?" Thomas' voice cracked, and Andy looked down at him to see the damages of a lifetime he had heard rumours of etched into Thomas' face. He hated to see the other man vulnerable and broken, but at this moment there was something reassuring in his pain. The great Mr Barrow, always so aloof, had a heart after all, and one Andy could easily believe had been broken many times before.
He sat on Thomas' bed, back to the near wall and long legs hanging over the side. He patted the space next to him and the underbutler sat down cautiously. Andy smiled to himself, and caught Thomas' eye. For a moment they smiled together, at each other, and Andy was content to let this feeling, this strange mix of joy and fear and sorrow and warmth, carry him through the night. He looked back to the wall in front of them and waited.