"Let's just say, he's not the first man I'd choose as a valet."
Thomas pushed open the door to the dining room just in time to catch the end of Lord Grantham's quiet remark. Laughter erupted from the few people around Lord Grantham, but as Thomas entered and took up his spot by the wall, the chuckles died away. The eyes of Lady Mary, Lord Hexham, and Lord Grantham flickered over to him before Thomas fixed his gaze on the wall opposite, keeping his face carefully blank. So. Lord Grantham had been talking about him.
And fuck you too, my Lord, Thomas thought, standing as straight as he could manage. He imagined his spine unlocking itself, vertebra by vertebra, growing taller until his hair hit the dining room ceiling. Then he would bend down and take Lord Grantham's head off in a single bite. Snap. And slither away like an adder before anyone could catch him.
As though it wasn't enough for everyone downstairs to think him an untrustworthy pervert, Lord Grantham was spreading rumours upstairs. At least downstairs he could defend himself. Up here, all he could do was stand silently and dream of floating away.
That night, Thomas sat in the rocking chair reading a magazine. Jimmy had sent it in his last letter just over a month ago. It wasn't really to Thomas's taste, but he was bored of the newspaper and its reminder of his failure to find another job.
Thomas was the only one in the servants' hall. Andy and Molesley had been up early to make sure everything was ready before the arrival of the guests they were hosting in the days before Lady Edith and Bertie Pelham's wedding. The two footmen had been yawning for hours, so Thomas had sent them to bed, saying that he would clear away the drinks on his own. Thomas had been up as early as they had, but he was always tired these days, so it didn't seem to matter if he lost sleep.
"Still awake?" came Miss Baxter's voice.
Thomas put his magazine down and shrugged. He had to rub his weary eyes before he could focus on Miss Baxter. "They haven't gone to bed yet, so neither can I."
"I'm sure they won't be long," Miss Baxter said kindly.
"Let's hope not, or the maids will come in tomorrow morning to find a sleeping under-butler at the table," Thomas quipped, though it was a bit too plausible to be very amusing.
"I'd best get to bed, or I'll be in the same boat," Miss Baxter replied. "I was just finishing a dress repair." For a few seconds longer, she stood and gave Thomas that pitying smile that made Thomas want to give her a shove. He picked the magazine up and very pointedly scrutinised it. This turned out to be a mistake, as Miss Baxter said: "Is that the magazine from Jimmy?"
Thomas barely restrained the urge to roll his eyes. "Yes, it is," he said, a little too loudly and in a hard tone that indicated she should not enquire further. He found it embarrassing to mention Jimmy with her; it was true that Jimmy's leaving had triggered a desperate fall into loneliness, but it wasn't the cause of his sadness and fears now. He still loved Jimmy - suspected that some part of him always would, just as some part of him still loved Edward, and Philip, Jack Snow and Lionel Cunningham - but he no longer wanted anything from him. He had moved on from Jimmy specifically, accepted that Jimmy would not love him in the way Thomas had once wanted him to, though the yearning for someone who would had not left him.
Maybe, he often thought, lying in his bed at night, or as he went about his duties; maybe I'm just unlovable.
"Goodnight, then," Miss Baxter said. "I've a lot to do tomorrow."
Thomas lifted his chin slightly in acknowledgement, but said nothing. With Miss Baxter gone, Thomas was now the only servant left up. The ladies upstairs had already retired, which allowed their lady's maids to do the same. When the gentlemen had decided to stay up late, they had let their valets off for the night. So it was all down to Thomas. Thomas could barely find the energy to be angry about his lack of control over something as basic as being able to go to sleep when he was tired, though somewhere in his brain the annoyance sat, matter-of-factly, without provoking any particular feeling in him.
At last, the ringing of the bell put an end to his late vigil. The sound let him know that the guests were clearing out now. In his eagerness to find his bed, Thomas was quicker than usual in hauling himself up the stairs; the last couple of guests were still filtering through the hall when Thomas reached it. He waited for them to pass before approaching the room they had vacated and paused to listen for a moment at the door, to ensure that it was truly empty.
It wasn't; a voice passed through the door with an anxious shiver in its inflection. "- sorry, I just felt that I should mention it."
Thomas wasn't sure who the voice belonged to, but he was intrigued by the snatched phrase and heard Lord Grantham reply: "Mention what, precisely?"
"I don't wish to be rude," the first voice said, and Thomas had to press a little closer to the door to hear, as the words were low and tripped in nervousness. "I think we're making friends and I wouldn't want to - to jeopardise that. It's only that I - I felt that the remark you made at dinner about your under-butler seemed rather uncalled for."
Eyes widening with shock, Thomas froze, suddenly conscious of the thumping of his heart in his chest. He wondered if he had fallen asleep at the table downstairs and was only teasing this fantasy out of his own desires to give Lord Grantham a telling-off for what he had said - and implied. But then, if this was one of Thomas's dreams, there would be a lot more strangling and shaking going on.
"I'm not saying he's not a hard worker, just that I'm not comfortable with him as a valet - and I did have him as a valet for a while, so I'm basing this in fact."
"And yet you survived," came the reply, in an odd tone that sounded like an attempt at humour gone flat. "So y-you should know that just being of that sort, if he is, doesn't make him s-some uncontrolled animal."
"Oh please, I do know that, Lord Hexham."
Thomas started as the identity of the disembodied voice was confirmed. Lord Hexham, previously Peter Pelham, was sticking up for him.
"Good, then," Lord Hexham said shakily. "I just felt I should say something."
"And now you have," Lord Grantham said jovially. "And we ought to get out before the servants arrive to clear away."
Hastily, Thomas retreated out of sight behind the green servants' door to let them pass. He could hardly believe what he had been hearing; why would a Marquess say anything about him?
As the two Lords moved away, Thomas peeked around the door and observed the Marquess with a fresh eye. He was an inch or so shorter than Thomas, with sandy-blonde hair -- not fiery, like Jimmy's had been, but soft and slightly unruly. It was just the sort of hair that seemed to be an invitation to run one's fingers through it. Thomas could only see Lord Hexham's retreating back, and had not been paying enough attention at dinner to picture his face properly; but the fluttering in Thomas's stomach was a sure sign of his curiosity.
A letter from a friend turns into something highly unexpected.
The following morning brought with it a letter from Jimmy.
Dear Thomas, it read;
I went to Leicester Square the other day. It's massive. I like it. Nothing much has changed since I last wrote to you. Still working at the pub. It's good fun. Have you found a job yet? You should look in more than just Yorkshire or it'll take an age to find anything.
Mr Knott still hasn't let me have a go on the piano. I suppose he doesn't want anyone who's not really good going on it and terrorising his customers. I'll just have to sneak in when he's not looking. I know I can impress him.
I met this girl in the square. She asked me for directions because she's new to London. She's really pretty, we're going for a drink tomorrow.
All the best to you, mate.
At first, the briefness of Jimmy's letters had been frustrating, but now Thomas just found it amusing. He didn't even feel a pang at the news of Jimmy meeting a girl he liked, beyond the jealousy that Jimmy could find someone so easily and speak of it so openly. Thomas would never feel safe enough to put word of his own romantic entanglements (if he ever had one again) in writing.
All morning, Thomas was rushed off his feet with wedding preparations and seeing to the guests, so it wasn't until he was eating his lunch that Thomas had time to pen a reply to Jimmy's letter. He planned to take a walk to the village Post Office once he had finished eating.
"I'm going to the village today," he said while they were all sat around the big servants' table. "Does anyone have a letter to send?"
Mrs Patmore gave him one for her sister, after which one of the hallboys asked shyly: "Mr Barrow, could you send one to my mother?" Thomas agreed and after lunch he waited for the boy to run upstairs for his letter. Mr Hexham, Lord Hexham's valet, approached Thomas.
"I wondered if you'd object to a companion on your walk, Mr Barrow," Mr Hexham said.
Thomas thought he saw a certain glint in Mr Hexham's eyes, but he doubted himself on such things now. "I can run an errand for you," he offered hesitantly. He barely dared to hope. Mr Hexham was not especially attractive, but he wasn't ugly, and Thomas hadn't touched or been touched by another man since after that incident at the fair. It had been once he was well enough to get up, but not yet well enough to work, when he had taken a trip to Ripon and the man who worked in the bakery had thought his bruises handsome.
"It's the walk I'd like," Mr Hexham said. "Perhaps some… peace and quiet." He smirked slightly, looking straight into Thomas's eyes.
"Well," Thomas said, feeling shy. "You're welcome if you'd like to see the village, but it's not very interesting."
"Perhaps we could find something new to interest us," Mr Hexham replied in a low voice. Thomas definitely wasn't imagining the suggestion in it this time.
The corners of Thomas's mouth lifted of their own accord. "Perhaps we could," he said noncommittally.
At that point, the hallboy returned to hand over his letter, and Thomas and Mr Hexham did not speak again until they had donned their coats and were on their way down the drive.
"My real name's Eric, by the way," said Thomas's companion. "Eric Newman."
"Pleased to meet you," Thomas replied automatically. "You already know my name."
"Only your surname."
"Well, I need to keep some secrets to myself, don't I?" Thomas said, quirking one eyebrow at Eric. "Or I won't be so interesting any more."
"I'm sure that's not true," Eric argued, one hand settling briefly on Thomas's forearm as he leaned over emphatically. "I'm very interested in what's beneath your secrets."
Thomas pressed his lips together to suppress a smirk. Eric was not at all subtle. It was rather refreshing.
They continued flirting with each other right into the village. Thomas decided not to expend too much energy, and to just let happen whatever would happen. Eric put enough energy into the pursuit for both of them, anyway.
As they walked down the pavement, Eric suddenly gripped Thomas's hand and led him into an enclosed, sunless alleyway. The temperature dropped as they walked into shadow. With a fluttering pulse, Thomas let himself be pushed back gently against the wall, before Eric kissed him. It was a heady mix of leisurely and assured that had Thomas actually aroused for the first time in months. Such a relief it was to feel something - something other than blank sadness and distant anxiety - that instead of breaking the kiss and suggesting they find somewhere more private, Thomas reached out and unfastened Eric's trousers.
"So forward, Mr Barrow," Eric murmured between kisses. He took a steadying breath as Thomas touched him for the first time.
Thomas hadn't bothered with teasing through layers of fabric, but Eric didn't seem to mind a direct approach. He gasped into the jacket covering Thomas's shoulder and Thomas moved his hand and thought vaguely, oh… I'm really here.
Once Eric had come, he stood in silence for a few seconds with his forehead still on Thomas's shoulder. Thomas waited for him to gather himself, wiping his sticky fingers on a corner of the handkerchief he had used to keep them both clean.
Eric raised his head and gave Thomas a thoughtful look before saying: "I'll do something you'll like."
He got to his knees. Thomas leaned back against the wall for support, hoping it wouldn't leave marks on his jacket. Eric unfastened Thomas's trousers and pulled them down along with his underpants. It was a bit surreal to be standing there with his legs - and what was between them - exposed.
Eric stroked him at first. It took longer than it had used to for Thomas to get hard. He wasn't sure if that meant that he was getting old, or just a function of his general disinterest in such matters lately.
Or maybe he was just overthinking it.
Taking Thomas in his mouth, Eric rested his hands on Thomas's bare thighs for balance and probably as a reminder for Thomas to be still. He set up a steady rhythm, sometimes pulling almost completely away to draw his tongue over the tip. Thomas breathed deeply, trying not to be distracted by how relieved he was that this part of him had not died away completely.
Eric's thumbs slipped over Thomas's skin to his inner thighs, and Thomas trembled. He came, clutching at the wall behind him, scraping the first joints of his fingers on the rough brick. His head tipped back against the hard surface, his eyes closed to the sky high above him.
He didn't move until he felt Eric pulling up his underwear and trousers for him, whereupon he recovered himself and took over the process of making himself look respectable.
"You take me to the best places," Eric quipped in a rough voice while he refastened his own trousers.
"This was a terrible idea," Thomas said.
"A monumentally terrible idea," Eric agreed. Then they met each other's eyes, and grinned.
They took a few more minutes to catch their breath before re-emerging onto the Downton streets.
"Why me?" Thomas asked, when he meant to say how did you know?
Eric grinned cheekily. "'Cause you're the most handsome man in the Abbey, of course."
By the time dinner rolled around, Thomas had a healthy appetite. He tucked into his stew with abandon, particularly enjoying the soft, fat dumpling floating in his bowl. The first joints of his fingers stung as they curled around the spoon, stretching the shallow grazes he had picked up from the wall earlier. He paid the small hurts little mind, however; he was surreptitiously listening in on Baxter and Molesley's conversation and quietly despairing of them both. Not that he didn't always despair of Molesley. The worst that could happen, if Molesley or Baxter finally admitted to having feelings for the other, was rejection. That was nothing. Men like Thomas risked fines, prison sentences and beatings if they ever revealed themselves.
There was a clatter from the head of the table; the chatter quietened as everybody turned to look. But it was only Mr Carson dropping his spoon into his bowl, so talk quickly resumed.
Eric soon engaged him in conversation and they flirted a little, only very subtly, right there at the table. It was scary to do so, but invigorating to know that it was going unnoticed.
Once the stew had been cleared away, there was a treat: Mrs Patmore had made an apple crumble. Thomas ate his portion slowly, savouring the sweetness.
"Mr Barrow, have you hurt your hands?" Miss Baxter asked after a while.
Thomas was careful not to glance at Eric as he said: "I just scraped them when I was… picking something up, earlier." In his peripheral vision, he could see Eric turning his head in quite the opposite direction, perhaps hiding a grin.
"I can make a honey salve for you," she offered. "You don't want it getting infected."
"Oh - but Miss Baxter, I thought we were going to discuss that book tonight?" chimed in Mr Molesley.
Miss Baxter looked between him and Thomas.
Thomas watched her trying to choose between her prior engagement and a non-essential medical service that Thomas could do himself - and that Molesley would criticise her for. Before she could rescind the offer, Thomas got in there first and turned her down; "Don't concern yourself," he told her, trying and probably failing to sound aloof. "It'll be fine. I can see to it myself."
Miss Baxter smiled at him gratefully. Thomas bent his head and turned his attention back to his pudding, but it didn't taste quite as good as it had done before.
Thomas dreamed that he was Isis, being dragged around on a silver lead. He wasn't sure who was leading him; he could only see the bottoms of a pair of charcoal-grey trousers. Thomas-as-Isis whined and dragged his back end, because he knew, in that dream way, that he was being taken to the river to be drowned.
Just before he reached the edge of the lawns, Thomas woke up, his gaze on the ceiling, and sighed.
He washed and dressed in a daze; the dream had left him disoriented. Though he mostly passed the night in a blank void lately, when he did dream, they were often so vivid that when he awoke, he couldn't be sure whether the images had really happened or not. Their apparent tangibility was only increased by the mundanity of the visions; he would dream that he was eating lunch, or polishing silver like a footman, or having a strange conversation with Lady Mary.
This made it difficult to believe in the Lords Grantham and Hexham's overheard conversation. Thomas knew it was real, though. He knew because Lord Grantham gave a guilty twitch when he saw Thomas at breakfast.
Today, Thomas's own breakfast was a gloomy affair. Carson asked him once again whether he had found another job, to which Thomas had to answer in the negative. Thomas distracted himself by making a mental list of what he would pick up when he returned to the village on Downton duties later. With the extra guests, the house was running out of several things faster than expected, even with the extra provisions they had laid on. The main necessity was cigars; they seemed to be disappearing at an almost alarming rate.
On his way down the front path, Thomas heard his name being called from behind him: "Barrow!"
Thomas turned and saw Lord Hexham, raising a hand in a friendly - and entirely inappropriate - wave.
"Good afternoon, your Lordship," Thomas greeted him. "Can I help you?" He tried not to stare as a desperation to figure Hexham out rose up inside him.
"Oh, gosh, no; I'm just enjoying the sunlight. I've grown used to Tangiers - a lot more sun over there, of course."
"So I've heard, sir," Thomas said noncommittally, and then, for a reason he could not wholly be sure of, added: "I like the sun."
Lord Hexham gave him a small smile. His eyes sparkled. "Well, I won't keep you; I only wanted to ask if you're a smoking man."
"I am, sir," Thomas replied.
"Then I beg of you, Barrow," Lord Hexham said - and Thomas started slightly as he put one hand on Thomas's shoulder. "Please, may I take a cigarette from you?"
"Ah - yes, sir." Thomas was thrown at such a trivial request being made with such import; it confused him. And then there was Lord Hexham touching him to consider, though he withdrew his hand as Thomas fumbled in his pocket for his cigarette packet. Thomas pressed the packet and lighter into Lord Hexham's palm.
"Thank you," Lord Hexham said, very sincerely, and Thomas was further baffled by this; Lord Hexham seemed to be speaking to him as though they were peers. Thomas watched the Marquess light up, holding the first lungful of smoke for several seconds before letting it out in one grateful, audible whoosh. His pale lips pursed around the exhalation.
Thomas waited as Lord Hexham took another drag, having no rulebook for lending a marquess cigarettes and a lighter but sensing that it would be rude to ask for them back.
Peering at the cigarette box, Lord Hexham observed: "Black Cats, eh? Do you buy the brand to match your hair?"
"No, sir. That's just a happy coincidence," Thomas replied sardonically.
The Marquess smiled at him and handed the cigarettes and lighter back. "Serendipity," he said in a low, deliberate tone. A shiver tickled Thomas's spine. "I prefer Gauloises, personally," Lord Hexham went on in a more normal voice while Thomas pocketed the returned items. "I can't stand cigars, so mild you have to smoke three of them to taste anything."
Thomas had a sudden revelation as to why the cigars had been disappearing so quickly. "I'm sorry, sir - " Thomas began, but Lord Hexham interrupted.
"Oh, gosh, no - I'm sorry. That was terribly rude of me. You've been very hospitable." He was reaching out one hand imploringly, Thomas's cheap cigarette nestled next to a large ruby ring. It was a sharp reminder of their differences - and yet, the last time someone of Lord Hexham's wealth had spoken to Thomas with such friendliness, they had been sharing a bed by nightfall.
Thomas had been braver then.
"I'm… glad you find us so, sir," Thomas replied hesitantly, tearing his attention away from the soft-looking skin of Lord Hexham's hand. That was the intriguing thing about him: from his appearance, the Marquess seemed soft - gentle. As twitchy and as boring as Molesley. But Thomas had heard him stand up for a stranger, potentially pitting himself against the father of his brother's bride, on a topic which many people would shun him for even mentioning. It was fascinating.
"My Lord - there's something I would like to say."
Lord Hexham looked at him expectantly, brown eyes resting on Thomas.
"I heard what you said to Lord Grantham two nights ago, sir. Concerning - the accusations regarding myself." Thomas's heart was thumping. It was an accepted part of having servants, that they would hear conversations - which was why it was so important to find trustworthy ones. Thomas did not fear being reprimanded for eavesdropping, even though it was certainly not the done thing for a servant to bring up anything they had heard. He was nervous because - because this moment was important, and because it was rare for him to have cause to thank someone. And because acknowledging Lord Grantham's words felt a little too close to admitting his own nature. "I wanted to thank you for what you said. There are few people who would have done what you did, sir, and I want you to know that I appreciate it."
Lord Hexham's cheeks had turned a bashful shade of pink. "I'm - er - I'm - that is - you're welcome. Of course you are."
"Though I can't think why you'd want to defend me," Thomas added through a shy chuckle, forgetting to call him 'sir'.
Lord Hexham looked at Thomas seriously, with eyes that seemed to see too much and a small, sad smile on his lips. "It was the look on your face when you walked in," he said quietly. "It says something that you knew straight away what was happening… but there's still some fire in there somewhere." He pointed at Thomas's stomach, his finger almost touching the button of Thomas's suit jacket. "I know there is."
Thomas swallowed, quite unable to look away, and cast about for any kind of appropriate response he could make. In the end, he settled for a polite: "Yes, sir."
Lord Hexham gave him another smile, before his gaze dropped, almost shyly. "I'll let you get on," he said. "I'm sure you're a busy man and I don't want to take up any more of your time."
"It's no trouble, sir," Thomas replied, the correct response - but also the truth.
Lord Hexham backed away a couple of steps before turning and striking out across the lawn. Thomas forced himself to turn around, not to stand and watch. As he went on his way, he found himself in need of some deep, steadying breaths. The conversation had left him more rattled than it had any right to.
The walk to the village helped to settle him, though he found himself dwelling on the lift of Lord Hexham's cheeks as he smiled, the crinkles that deepened at the corners of his eyes. It was difficult to guess his age; he had an open, boyish face - a little rounder and softer than most men Thomas had found himself attracted to - but those small wrinkles indicated that he was older than he appeared at first glance. Thomas would have pegged him at somewhere around forty.
Eventually, Thomas managed to turn his thoughts away from the Marquess and onto the list of provisions he had to buy. He thought about the stocks of cigars and cigarettes available in Downton village.
Without making any conscious decision, Thomas found himself boarding the bus to Ripon.
Thomas was sat at his desk with his chin resting on his hand, looking at the two packs of cigarettes in front of him and questioning his own motives. This was not something he did often; usually, his motives were very clear to him, even if they might not make much sense to anyone else.
It was true that it was Thomas's job to keep the guests happy, which included ensuring that they had a steady supply of their favoured tobacco product. The problem was, Thomas was not at all sure that that was the reason he had ridden the bus to Ripon in search of Gauloises. And it wasn't that he felt he owed the man any debt; Hexham had spoken to Lord Grantham - in private - of his own accord, and Thomas had thanked him because he had happened to overhear. That ought to be the end of the matter.
The problem was, Thomas liked the man. He was sweet, and not in the cloying, almost self-righteous way Thomas had encountered before. He was gentle, and yet not; the overheard conversation proved that on both counts.
Before Thomas could fall too far into his contemplation, someone knocked quietly on his bedroom door. Thomas hastily swept the cigarettes into his desk drawer as whoever it was swung the door open without waiting for a response. An admonishment was on Thomas's lips as he turned to glare, but the sight of Eric and the realisation of why he had come swept the words away. It was probably best that he hadn't waited for Thomas to call out and draw attention to them.
"Good evening, Mr Barrow," Eric greeted him, pushing the door closed behind himself. "I wondered if you wanted to continue our conversation from the village yesterday."
"Certainly," Thomas replied. "I think there were a few things we didn't quite get to."
"I don't know…" Eric pretended to muse as he stalked over, though the effect was undermined by the grin on his face. "I think we covered all the important points."
"This is just sex to you, isn't it?" Thomas said when it was over, and they were both lounging naked on Thomas's bed luxuriously. Or as luxuriously as two people could lounge on a cot made for one. Thomas was half-sitting against the pillows at his headboard.
Eric, meanwhile, was on his side, leaning his head in his hand and his elbow on the mattress - but his head was at the end with the footboard. In answer to Thomas's question, he gave a one-sided shrug that contained only the barest edge of apology. "Yes," he said frankly.
Thomas nodded, unsure whether he was disappointed or not to have his understanding of the situation confirmed. He half-fancied a cigarette, but his Black Cats were in the same place as the Gauloises and he didn't feel like opening that drawer just yet. "You'll be gone soon," he said obscurely.
"Mm," Eric agreed, rubbing his eyes. "Only three days until Lady Edith becomes Mrs Pelham." He was quiet for a few moments, before giving a small, amused snort at some thought that had apparently occurred to him. Thomas didn't ask what the thought had been.
In lieu of a cigarette, Thomas tapped his fingers restlessly on his stomach, hunting for something to say; he wasn't quite ready for the night to end yet. Tiredness, lack of nicotine and the kind of recklessness inspired by a short acquaintanceship caused him to comment in a flat voice: "An' then I'll be on me own again. Hidin'."
Eric fixed him with a strange, considering sort of look. "Thomas, you know, it's -"
"Thomas? How did you know that?" Thomas interrupted.
"I can't reveal my sources," Eric replied. Then, at Thomas's narrowed eyes, he relented; "Mr Carson told me."
"Of course he would," Thomas said gloomily, looking up at the ceiling. It wasn't really Carson's style to uphold Thomas's right to privacy and respect as under-butler. "He's hated me even more since he found out about… you know. Just like everyone else does."
"That's what I was trying to say," Eric began, laying a serious hand on Thomas's bare shin. "Thomas, you do know it's not like this everywhere?"
"Everywhere I've ever seen," Thomas muttered, though when he really thought about it, he wasn't sure that was true. Downton, certainly, was a messed-up, toxic place that clearly wanted anyone like him to disappear forever. Manchester, in his mind, was the same, but his memories of the place were clouded by his parents' attitudes. London wasn't so bad. He was there only infrequently, and didn't always have time to socialise, but he had found one or two bars there that were frequented by men like him. America, too - he had found a number of kindred spirits there after happening across someone in a park. He had stayed in contact with a few of them, for a while; he wasn't sure which side had let the letters drop off. Probably him.
"No," Eric said, and Thomas watched his muscles move under his skin as he pulled himself into a sitting position. "I promise you. In Tangiers, the residents all know about me and Peter."
"They… know?" Thomas echoed blankly, wondering both how that was possible - and how much there was to know. Eric and Peter? Did that mean - that Lord Hexham was…
"Nobody cares," Eric assured Thomas. "Honestly. It's not like everyone is in everyone else's business all the time. Well, it's not wise to flaunt it, but - honestly, everybody knows, and they don't care."
Thomas stared, hardly able to imagine being able to live freely, if not entirely openly, without the pointed comments, cutting pity and the constant undercurrent of fear of violence. "So that's why you're so bold," he murmured after a moment.
"I've been lucky," Eric said with a shrug. "When I was young and still trying to make sense of my feelings, I was going to the park to meet men - I had nowhere to live and no other job, so I worked as a rent boy. Plenty of boys are fine with doing that but I - it wasn't the best for me. I didn't like the uncertainty, never knowing if I would be sleeping in a bed or on a bench that night. And I hadn't been there too long when I made a pass at Peter. I didn't know who he was, at the time - that sort of stuff doesn't matter in that situation, anyway. I don't know how things are here."
"Sometimes it's the same," Thomas said, deciding not to mention that he had once held a duke as a lover - and he really had loved Philip, with a youthful enthusiasm that was almost embarrassing to recall. Only almost, though.
"Alright, well - we spoke, and he ended up offering me a job as hallboy," Eric went on. His eyes became distant as he looked past Thomas to the wall and beyond it, while his mouth curved in a fond smile. "There was little for me to do, at first. I don't think he needed another hallboy at all, but he took me on anyway, and I worked hard where I could. I used to wash his paintbrushes out, I remember. None of the others wanted to do it. And then one day a footman died of some illness - I don't remember what, but it scared us all for a while, even though it all happened while he was at home to visit his family - and I found myself being promoted." The cloud of memories faded from Eric's eyes. "I'm sure you can guess the rest," he concluded. "It's none too exciting, really."
"Lord Hexham seems very kind," Thomas said carefully.
"He doesn't employ me out of kindness," Eric said sharply. "It's true that that's why he took me on, but I have earned this job every day that I've had it."
"Of course," Thomas agreed sincerely. "I didn't mean to imply otherwise." He wanted to ask whether Eric and Hexham had ever been - together - the question was on the tip of his tongue - but he thought that Eric would only be offended and be unlikely to give any reliable answer.
So, instead, Thomas just glanced at his pocket watch on the bedside table, and suggested that it was time for Eric to get to bed.
There was usually a lull in the servants' workload for a few hours in the afternoon - the time after clearing away lunch and before setting up for dinner. Once any other tasks had been completed, the time was the servants' own to do with as they wished. Thomas sometimes used the break to go and see Sybbie, George and Marigold. In the early days, he had only been going to see Sybbie, and then mostly just because he felt the absence of Lady Sybil. Soon, however, he found that he genuinely enjoyed spending time with all three of them.
That, if Thomas was honest, had been a surprise. His only real experience of children until then dated back to when he himself had been just a boy - schoolmates, and his wailing, obstinate younger sister. His other sister was four years older, and so seemingly ancient to the young Thomas no matter how old he got. Since going into service, Thomas had spent little more time with under-14s than it took to pass them in the street. He had always assumed he wasn't interested in them - too noisy, messy, and chaotic. The three Grantham children could certainly be all of those things, but they also lit up when they smiled, and their imagination was boundless. Being around them was… not easy, exactly, but uncomplicated. Unweighted. It was no substitute for friendly adult conversation, of course, but it was nice all the same. He liked to think that he made the kids happy while he was there - and that, maybe, somewhere, Lady Sybil appreciated it.
Today, the day after Thomas's evening with Eric, Miss Baxter called his name as he stood up from his lunch. She came closer to him and enquired: "I wondered if you were going to see the children today."
"I might be," Thomas responded guardedly; "What of it?"
"There's no need to be so suspicious," Baxter smiled. "It's just that I've made some little toys, and I hoped you might ask the family if I could give them to the children."
"Why ask?" Thomas said with a shrug. "They'd never notice. Just give them the toys." He paused while she considered it, finding himself curious to know what she would decide.
"Very well," she said. "Only, I've a dress to mend this afternoon - would you be able to take the toys up for me?"
For a brief moment, Thomas considered refusing, but there was no real reason to, so instead he agreed and waited for Miss Baxter to fetch the toys from her bedroom. They turned out to be three dolls, each about the length of Thomas's hand, and seemed to be made of scraps of material cut off from other projects. There were two girls and a boy, presumably to match the genders of the children upstairs.
Thomas made his way up to the nursery via the servants' stairs. As he entered the room, he saw that Lady Mary was there, as she sometimes was when Thomas went to see the children. As always on these occasions, he paused in the doorway and waited for Lady Mary to invite him in. Sybbie clapped happily at the sight of him.
Since Lady Mary was actually present, Thomas thought he had better ask about the dolls after all. "My lady - Miss Baxter has made the children a doll each, and wonders if they might be allowed to have them."
Sybbie and George looked up eagerly.
"How kind of her," Lady Mary replied. "I'm sure they'll be delighted."
Thomas thanked her, as he must, before holding the toys out. "Come on then, you three, you've got presents."
The children toddled over. George immediately grabbed for the girl in the yellow dress, while Sybbie plumped for the boy in shorts. Marigold was left to cuddle the girl in the pink dress, though she cast a couple of covetous glances at George's doll, which hung from the boy's hand as he raised both arms at Thomas and begged: "Horsie!"
"Just a short one, then," Thomas agreed, so George scrambled up onto the toybox to make it easier for Thomas to lift him into a piggyback ride. He flapped his new doll on Thomas's shoulder as though it were a whip. Thomas obliged him for a few circuits of the nursery and then managed to divert his attention.
It still felt a little strange to be playing with Lady Mary's child right in front of her, but Thomas refused to let it stop him.
He was letting Sybbie show off her new toy to him when he heard an unexpected voice at the nursery door.
"Lady Mary!" said the new arrival.
Thomas cast a furtive glance over his shoulder, wondering whether he ought to make a tactful servant's disappearance. The nanny wouldn't, but he wasn't a nanny. Thomas turned away from Hexham's open smile and decided to stay where he was. He ruffled Sybbie's hair, mostly for something to do, and she grinned up at him from under her brown tresses.
"And Barrow, too," Hexham went on, to Thomas's surprise.
In one smooth movement, Thomas spun on his heels to face Hexham, clasped his hands behind his back and covered a genuine smile with a polite, non-committal one. He nodded once. "Good afternoon, Lord Hexham." As he looked at Hexham's lovely brown eyes, pressing on Thomas's mind was the thought of the cigarettes he had bought, burning a hole in his drawer upstairs. Hopefully not literally.
"And how are you, Lord Hexham?" Mary asked.
It was probably Thomas's imagination that it took Hexham just a second longer than it ought to turn his gaze to her.
"Very well, thank you. I was just exploring the house a little."
"There's a lot to see," Lady Mary remarked, and as they fell into a boring (to Thomas, who had heard it all before) conversation about the Abbey's history, Thomas slipped out of the room largely unnoticed by any except George, who waved at him, the yellow-clad doll flapping in his hand.
"Did you see them?" Miss Baxter asked.
Thomas paused on the bottom step with a jug of gravy in his hand. "See what?"
"The children," Miss Baxter reminded him gently.
"I did." As he resumed climbing the steps, Thomas called back: "They loved the toys!"
Thomas had to keep a close check on himself during dinner, to make sure he didn't look at Lord Hexham unduly. At the same time, he was keeping a wary eye on his own thoughts, which were tending towards the maudlin tonight. The flurry of activity associated with the arrival of a lot of guests, plus the distraction of Eric, had briefly diverted his brain from its quagmire of despair. Now, however, the pattern of his thoughts was reasserting itself, like a thumbnail running down a familiar tabletop groove; Jimmy had often fidgeted by running his nails back and forth in a small split in the servants' hall table when his hands weren't otherwise occupied by cards, cutlery or other items.
All Thomas wanted to do was to sit down next to Lord Hexham at the dining table and see if Hexham would strike up a conversation with him as though they were equals. But they weren't. Thomas was just a servant, and barely that if he couldn't find a new job.
Though he would never have admitted it to anyone outside of his own head, Thomas was afraid. Being a servant was all he knew, but the kind of jobs that he was looking for were vanishing fast. He had no other skills or experience, and although being in service meant long hours and little time off, it also meant a bed to sleep in and three guaranteed meals a day. He was afraid of losing that security, even though Downton held no more friends for him than the world at large. And people might not accept his preferences here, but so many of them knew and had not cast him out. It could be so much worse elsewhere.
The last time Thomas had felt like this, he had sat on his bed in a numb daze for an hour, the images of his razor and of poor Edward's blood on the floor playing over and over in his mind.
He didn't have to be stuck on this earth, alone, unliked. The razor could take him away.
Once the family and their guests were finished with dinner, Thomas stood by the door as the men filed through for a post-meal smoke. He felt as though he was watching himself from the outside, with no emotional investment in whatever might happen to him and no control over his own actions. He had intended, however, to give Hexham his cigarettes, and so, mechanically, he did just that. When Lord Hexham passed him, Thomas held out a box of Black Cats.
"I hope these are to your liking, my Lord." Thomas hoped his tone sounded polite, instead of utterly flat, like he thought it did. He hadn't always been good at hiding his emotions, but lately he thought he had become rather adept at acting as though he was alert and present, even though he usually felt entirely absent.
But maybe his acting skills had remained the same, and it was simply that nobody cared whether he was there or not. That seemed more likely.
"Thank you, Barrow," Lord Hexham replied as he took the packet from Thomas's fingers. "That's kind of you."
He swept on, and Thomas watched him fitting effortlessly into the men making their way across the hall. Thomas would never be like that. There was always a distance between himself and other men. Apart from Jimmy (damn Jimmy, forever the exception), Thomas's strongest friendships had always been with women; he didn't count Philip, since they had been lovers, rather than friends.
Once the dining room was empty and the servants had cleared the table, Thomas joined Mr Carson to supervise the drinks. Hexham seemed to have started with one of the cigars Thomas now knew he disliked, just to be polite, but not long after Thomas had entered the room, he saw the Lord pull the Black Cats packet absently from his inside jacket pocket. He was engrossed in conversation with his brother, Bertie Pelham, and so barely glanced at the cigarette he took out of the box and held between his lips. Thomas watched him lighting it with a match and wished he could enjoy the moment more. All he could muster up was a kind of dull curiosity. He saw Hexham's chest rise with the first drag of smoke.
Hexham held the breath for a moment, pulling the cigarette from his mouth and frowning at it before exhaling. He looked quickly around the room, and when he caught Thomas's eyes, a grin spread over his face. It showed all his teeth and made his eyes sparkle. Clearly, he had immediately detected Thomas's little trick of presenting Hexham's favourite Gauloises in the Black Cats box.
Thomas wanted to smile back. He wanted to feel pleasure for causing Hexham's. All he managed was a nod.
For a few more seconds, Hexham beamed at Thomas, before returning his attention to his conversation and his cigarette.
Later that night, once all the toffs were in bed and their mess cleaned up after them, Thomas was finally able to trudge up to his own bedroom. He changed lethargically into his pyjamas and sat on the floor, leaning against his bed. He recalled Hexham's grin and tried to feel something about it - happiness, smugness, lust… But he just felt flat and tired.
His sluggish thoughts drifted blankly. He had not been invited for an interview for weeks. He wondered if Edward had been happy before they had dragged him off to the Front. If Thomas had met him then, might they have stood a chance?
Eventually, Thomas became aware that he was shivering with cold. He didn't feel able to move, so just dragged his blankets off his bed and over his head, huddling into them. Unseeing, he stared across the room at his chest of drawers.
I'm so tired, he thought, but didn't get into bed. I need it to stop, played on a loop in his head until he finally fell into something approaching a doze.
He slept fitfully, still half-aware of the chill and the physical discomfort he sat in.
It was 2am when his body admitted defeat and prodded him awake. He was deathly tired, too tired to sleep, almost, and he dreaded the thought of sleeping away these quiet, dark, private hours, only to wake and have to start his pretence all over again tomorrow.
Thomas thought he might go outside, smoke a cigarette in the fresh air and look at the stars for a few minutes. The stiffness of his legs made him slow to move as he used the bed to pull himself to his feet, slipped on his dressing gown, and made his way down the many stairs to the back door. His state was such that he wasn't alarmed to find the door unlocked, and merely walked out through it into the yard.
Shivering, Thomas realised he had forgotten to pick up his box of smokes, so just stared up at the cloud-marred sky.
Thomas started violently, not having been expecting anyone to be out here at this hour of the night. The voice had come from a figure sitting on a crate on one side of the yard. It was Lord Hexham. He was dressed in blue pyjamas with a matching blue flannel dressing gown.
Thomas had to unstick his mouth to reply, a little hoarsely: "No, my Lord." He was just pondering whether he cared enough to ask how Hexham had got out when Hexham said:
"I have something of a habit of going outside at night. I persuaded Carson to let me borrow the key for tonight."
Thomas almost managed to be impressed: he had never heard of anyone persuading Mr Carson to do anything, especially something so vastly out of the ordinary.
Although desperate to creep back inside without another word, it went against all Thomas's years of training to be so rude to an aristocrat. Admittedly, he ignored much of what he had been taught, but some impulses just couldn't be overridden at 2am on a dark night. "I see, sir," he said. He waited to be dismissed.
"Won't you come and sit with me, Mr Barrow? Only if you want to - I'm not ordering it. It would be nice to have a little company."
It was strange enough that Hexham had called him Mr - such a gentle request tipped right into the category of bizarre. Thomas hesitated, and thought about being alone in his room again and how much he both wanted it and dreaded it. He teetered on the edge of the decision, and ended up walking over to sit on one of the crates next to Hexham. The other man smiled at him, looking genuinely pleased with Thomas's choice. Thomas tried to smile back, but it didn't quite feel right on his face, so he made up the deficiency by giving a polite nod at the same time.
Thomas looked up at the dark sky again. Clouds were covering Orien's Belt. His chest felt too heavy; he took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh, but the feeling did not go away.
"Thank you for the cigarettes," Hexham said, a bit abruptly, as though the memory had suddenly returned to him. His voice became warmer as he went on: "It was a lovely surprise."
"You're welcome, sir," Thomas said dully. He almost resented the smile he could see Hexham giving him at the corner of his vision. Just now, Thomas could not imagine smiling ever again.
They sat in silence for a few seconds, before Hexham said: "The house is interesting, isn't it?" He was looking over his shoulder at what he could see of the building in the dark.
"New visitors always find it so, sir - yes."
"Ah. But not for seasoned inhabitants like yourself, eh?" He nudged Thomas with his elbow as he spoke, finally pulling Thomas's gaze away from the sky to engage with him.
"I've heard most of the stories already, sir, more than once. Mr Carson and one of the footmen, Mr Molesley, probably know more about the place than anyone." He laid gentle emphasis on the last word, enough to show that he included the Crawleys in this (and his mind was particularly on Lady Mary as he spoke), but not so much that he could not deny it if challenged.
It seemed that Hexham understood his meaning, however, and was oddly pleased by it, judging by the look on his face. "I'll know who to employ as a tour guide next time, then."
Hexham considered him for a few seconds; Thomas avoided his eyes and fidgeted listlessly with the end of his dressing gown tie. Hesitantly, Hexham said: "Barrow… Where do you come from?"
"Manchester, sir." He shifted on the crate, uncomfortable with this more personal line of questioning.
"What brought you to Yorkshire?"
Unwilling to discuss or even think about that period of his life when he already felt like going off into the woods, curling up under a tree and never coming back, Thomas wondered how best to deflect the enquiry. "New opportunities," he said at last, shortly.
Silence fell between them again; Hexham must have got the message. Thomas almost wanted him to press for a better answer, to be interested, to care. He cast around for something to say, but his brain felt sluggish.
When Hexham finally spoke, it was the last thing Thomas would have expected him to say. "I hope you don't mind my saying, but you seem a little out of sorts."
"I'm fine, sir, thank you," Thomas said expressionlessly.
Hexham rested one hand lightly on Thomas's knee. "I know I'm not here for long, but if you want to confide in me, I'm rather good at keeping secrets."
Thomas looked from his kind, earnest face to the hand on his knee - which was then withdrawn - and then to the ground in front of his feet. What other sorts of secrets might Hexham be referring to? Perhaps he and Eric were in fact a couple, and that was what Eric had meant by everyone knows about Peter and I. Thomas's thoughts returned to the impossibility of finding a partner of his own, making his eyes sting with tears. Once he had blinked them back to normal, he said in a low voice, still addressing the ground: "Sometimes I think about killing myself."
There was a quick, quiet intake of breath from beside him. Thomas refused to look round. It was perhaps as shameful to admit to that as it would have been to confess that his attraction lay with men, rather than women. Either sin would send him to hell, in the eyes of most. Thomas had never quite made up his mind whether he believed in such notions. Certainly, he hoped they were untrue.
"Why?" asked Hexham, a strange kind of sorrowful warmth in his voice. Thomas would have called it pity, except that it did not quite sound like it. It sounded more like compassion.
"I have no friends here, sir - nor anywhere else, for that matter," Thomas began, his throat closing up.
"Oh, don't call me sir now," Hexham said imploringly.
"I tried helping the new footman here learn to read - and - he did well. We were making progress. But everyone kept saying I'd - corrupt him or something. And then he started going to the school instead. No one ever trusts me."
"But there must be those who love you. You're so -"
Thomas looked up curiously.
"There must be those who love you," Hexham repeated, and it was dark enough that Thomas couldn't be sure but it looked as though Hexham was blushing.
"Once, perhaps," Thomas allowed, thinking of Jimmy, and of long-ago-Philip. Maybe even O'Brien, in her way. "But now…" He eyes and his thoughts wandered away from Hexham, his mind going to a small boy playing with two tin soldiers in the lane on his own.
"Who gave you the toys?" Hexham asked.
For a disorienting couple of seconds, it seemed that Hexham had seen the image in Thomas's mind's eye as clearly as Thomas had done - but then he remembered the Crawley children and the three small dolls. "Miss Baxter."
"Why did she not take them up herself?"
"She knows I visit them sometimes," Thomas mumbled with a small shrug, feeling embarrassed. He wondered where these questions had come from.
"So you speak to her?" Hexham asked, in a tone of polite interest. "And she let you be the one to bring joy to the children she knows you like to visit -"
"She was busy -"
"Seems as though she likes you at least a little."
Thomas couldn't think what to say apart from: "We're practically siblings." He meant it say that any warm feelings she appeared to show were therefore through obligation rather than choice, but Hexham seemed to take it another way.
"Then she also loves you."
Thomas frowned down at his hands, his thoughts in such turmoil that he couldn't express a single one.
Hexham patted him briefly on the shoulder. "You should get to bed, my dear chap. I expect you'll have a far earlier start than myself in the morning."
Thomas was so distracted that he did not utter a word of complaint as he was ushered indoors. Hexham locked the back door behind them, hung the key on the hook in Carson's office, and climbed the first few flights of stairs with Thomas before bidding him goodnight where Hexham went out onto his own floor and Thomas continued on. The last words Hexham spoke before being swallowed in the darkness were: "I'm glad you haven't gone through with it."
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The following morning, Thomas awoke from a vivid, though mundane, dream, in which he had been serving Lord Grantham tea in the library. He had to lie in bed for a few minutes, sorting through what was real and what was not. To his surprise, he was forced to conclude that the late-night conversation he remembered having with Lord Hexham had really happened. Which meant that he had confessed to considering suicide. Thomas shivered to think of it, embarrassed and regretful. He was lucky he had not been carted off to an asylum.
As he dressed, he did not lose the fear that he still might be dragged away by men in white coats or even policemen's hats when he went downstairs.
His concerns were not to be realised, however. He sat down to a breakfast that was identical to the one the day before - and indeed to the day before that, and countless days previously. Taking his seat and a few slices of toast, Thomas found himself glancing repeatedly at Miss Baxter as she sipped tea and chatted to Anna and Mr Molesley by turns. He had never noticed how much she smiled before - not large smiles, by any means, just small, polite curves of the corners of her mouth.
Eric interrupted Thomas's wandering thoughts by asking something about wedding attire. Thomas turned to answer him, and as he spoke he watched Eric's face. It suddenly struck him that if Choose Your Own Path had succeeded in destroying his desires instead of his savings, he would never have given Eric a hand job in an alleyway or had sex with him in his bedroom. And while Thomas had no illusions that he was part of some great romance, the thought of how easily it could have not happened - if the treatment had not been such a fraud - was - was something. He might have died from the infection, even, if it wasn't for -
Thomas stopped talking mid-sentence and looked back at Phyllis Baxter. She had helped him then, with few questions and no judgement, only gentle understanding. They understood a lot about each other, really - it was the main reason he pushed her away so determinedly. Accustomed as he was to being apart from the rest, to being separate, it was a deeply uncomfortable feeling to be understood when he snapped at a hallboy or scowled at someone's light-hearted comments. It made him feel exposed, as though he was exhibiting the whole contents of his brain for examination. He hadn't wanted to be close to her, had only wanted to use her relative closeness with the rest of the staff to gather information that would keep him safe.
"Mr Barrow?" said Eric, looking confused by how abruptly Thomas had fallen silent.
Thomas was still staring at Miss Baxter, and it was at this moment that she noticed.
"Did you want something, Mr Barrow?" she asked across the table, politely enough, but with slight apprehension in her face.
"You helped me," Thomas said stiffly, keeping his voice down so as not to draw attention to their conversation - Eric was the only one who watched them, with a bemused frown on his face. "That time… you remember? I owe you thanks."
"We'll make a gentleman of you yet," she said, so gently that it was several seconds before Thomas realised that she was teasing him. He hadn't been teased in a long time.
Smirking to cover his discomfort, Thomas said: "I only acknowledged a debt; I haven't actually addressed it."
Miss Baxter laughed lightly before saying sincerely: "You owe me nothing."
"What did you do?" Eric asked Miss Baxter. Clearly, he already knew Thomas well enough to know that Thomas was perhaps the least likely of anyone to give him a straight, honest answer about his past.
Miss Baxter smiled slightly, her eyes flicking briefly to Thomas as she said: "Only what a sibling should."
"She's your sister?" Eric demanded, turning back to Thomas.
Thomas wondered if he ought to remind Eric not to look too interested in his private affairs. He looked at Miss Baxter and considered his answer; she looked back, waiting to hear it. He couldn't figure out the expression on her face. "Near enough," Thomas said at last.
Miss Baxter smiled at him.
Thomas concentrated on his last few bites of toast, listening as Mr Molesley recaptured Miss Baxter's attention. An idea was forming in his mind.
As people began to stand up, ready to carry out their duties, Thomas rounded the table. "Mr Molesley, a private word, if you will," he said, in a tone that allowed for no refusal. Turning his back on Molesley's alarmed expression, Thomas led the way to Mr Carson's office, for he knew the butler would likely be out of it for a while yet. After waiting for Molesley to pass him, Thomas shut the door behind them and said: "You must ask Miss Baxter to the pictures."
Molesley, if anything, looked even more alarmed at this. "I couldn't do that."
Thomas resisted the urge to roll his eyes at Molesley's affronted tone. "Whyever not?"
"Well - she might say no!" Molesley spluttered.
Thomas bit back a retort that if a 'no' was all Molesley had to fear, he was a lucky man indeed - instead, he said simply: "She won't. There should be a late showing tonight you can go to."
Molesley stuttered wordlessly before managing to speak. "But - the wedding is two days away!"
"Ask her," Thomas said firmly. "You'll have time."
The day passed in something of a blur, what with how busy everybody was. Thomas and Eric found a few moments after lunch to hide in the boot room for a quick snog which Thomas was unmoved by. For him, kissing always had to mean something for it to stir him, or else it was just… well, it was just this.
Thomas was frustrated with himself. He had known all along that this was only sex, but when he so rarely met others like himself, even that was a valuable opportunity for closeness, for escape from solitude. Only he seemed to be losing interest even in this. When Eric whispered "your room or mine tonight?", Thomas almost said 'both; you in yours and me in mine.'
But he didn't. He just murmured: "We'll see."
It was obvious where Thomas's interest had strayed to, of course. This fact was betrayed every time he idly brought the empty Gauloises box to his nose, or dwelled almost obsessively on the previous night. Hexham had been kind to him, kinder than Thomas had any right to expect from a stranger. In a life where Thomas felt he had finally been beaten into place, it was disorienting to be treated like a real person again.
Phyllis smiled as she passed him in the corridor and Thomas saw a glow of happiness about her. Aha. Molesley had asked, then.
By the time evening arrived, Thomas found himself lingering in the servants' hall even long after Eric had gone upstairs, throwing Thomas a wink as he left. Thomas even offered to lock up so that Mr Carson could go to bed, and Mr Carson accepted. Thomas tried to read the paper, but he couldn't really concentrate. He was oddly nervous to discover the outcome of Miss Baxter's outing.
After a while, Eric came back downstairs. "Where is everyone?" he asked, pulling out the chair opposite Thomas's and sitting in it.
"In bed. 'Cept for the picture-goers." A sudden feeling of sickening déjà vu clouted Thomas around the head. "They're not back…" he finished slowly.
And then he remembered. Word-for-word, that was what he had said to Jimmy the night he had kissed the man. The night everything had gone wrong and he had almost lost everything. Thomas swallowed, hoping the nausea would go away. It made no difference.
If I'd thrown a bucket of slop in the old lady's lap, I wouldn't be allowed to go to the flicks.
"Are you alright?"
There was a rushing noise in Thomas's ears. "What are you saying?" The sounds fell flat and meaningless against the grey fog closing in on him.
"Thomas - calm down. Breathe properly, come on -"
Hands on him -
"Should I get -" Mr Carson doesn't like me
No matter what Alfred does he
"Still prefers him," Thomas mumbled. His heart was beating so quickly it must surely thunder out of his chest. It was three years ago all over again. Thomas was trapped. He was going to make the same mistake and he would be thrown out, ruined, alone, this time Mr Carson -
"You'd prefer Mr Carson?"
"No! No! Don't tell him, please Alfred."
"Thomas… Why are you crying? Please calm down, it's alright. Thomas, come on, everything's fine…"
"You won't tell Mr Carson?" Thomas said urgently. The world was beginning to reform itself gradually around him.
"As if I'd tell that old coot anything at all," Eric said scornfully, then glanced guiltily over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. That was when Thomas realised that he could see properly again.
Eric squeezed his shoulder. "It's alright," he said again. "Everything's fine."
There were tears on Thomas's cheeks. He hadn't noticed that until now. Wiping them off with embarrassment, he said: "I'm sorry… I don't know how that happened."
"Don't worry about it," Eric said with a smile. He looked relieved that Thomas wasn't crying any more. "Are you coming upstairs?"
Thomas's whole body clenched at the thought, ready to jump right back into its state of abject panic. "Not tonight," he forced out. "I've got to wait for the others and lock the door." It was true, but it wasn't the reason he didn't want to spend the night with Eric. His heart still hadn't settled to a normal rhythm. The very idea of going upstairs now, of doing anything sexual, even changing his clothes… He was too close to the memory of that terrible, fearful night.
"Right… see you tomorrow then, I suppose."
"Goodnight," Thomas responded vaguely.
When Eric had left, Thomas concentrated on breathing very carefully and felt the thudding of his heart fade to its normal unnoticeable beat.
What on earth had that been? The closest Thomas had ever seen was soldiers after the war, their minds slipping back into unspeakable memories. But this wasn't the war.
It had been terrifying to lose his grip like that, to be taken back to a time he thought he had left behind. He dreaded the thought that it might happen again, when there were more people than Eric to witness it. The image of Carson looming over Thomas as he gabbled made Thomas shudder. Carson had little enough respect for him as it was, without Thomas making a spectacle of himself like that.
A sudden, shining notion occurred to Thomas: soon, he wouldn't have to concern himself with Mr Carson's opinion or disapproval ever again. And anyway, the whole sorry affair hadn't worked out so badly, in the end; he was under-butler now, and Jimmy had eventually become a close friend.
Lighting up a fag, Thomas tried to focus on the newspaper as he waited for Baxter and Molesley to return. It shouldn't be long now; the film would have ended ten minutes ago. He was more keen to know how the night had gone than he had expected when he first suggested the plan - and certainly more than he would admit to.
Finally, he heard the heavy back door swing open, followed by footsteps and quiet voices in the corridor.
"I'd better let Mr Carson know we've returned," Thomas made out, in Molesley's voice.
Thomas merely waited as Molesley knocked on the door of Mr Carson's office and found it vacant.
"There must be somebody around," reasoned Miss Baxter.
At least one of you has got some sense, thought Thomas.
A moment later, she appeared at the doorway, with Molesley at her shoulder.
"Ah, Mr Barrow," Molesley said, upon seeing him. "I suppose you're in charge of locking up."
"Indeed," Thomas agreed curtly.
"Right, well, I'll say goodnight, then."
Thomas ignored him.
"Goodnight, Mr Molesley," said Miss Baxter. "And thank you for tonight."
"You’re welcome!" Molesley blurted. "And thank you for agreeing to join me. I had… a most enjoyable evening."
Thomas rolled his eyes. He hated how graceless Molesley was. The man was an embarrassment of a footman.
"As did I," Miss Baxter said graciously, smiling at Molesley.
Molesley gave a jerky nod of his head before going on his way.
After watching him leave, Miss Baxter watched Thomas as he busied himself lighting a final cigarette. "Are you quite well, Mr Barrow?" she asked gently. "You do look tired today."
Thomas breathed in his first drag of smoke and removed the cigarette from his mouth. That was the last thing he felt like discussing, especially after the - the episode earlier. "How did the evening go?"
There was a slight pause while Phyllis decided whether to accept his subject change or not. Then she came closer and sank into the chair Eric had vacated earlier. "It was lovely. I know you're not keen on him but he is ever so kind."
"You won't make me like him," Thomas warned. "But if you do, I'm glad it went well."
Miss Baxter gave him a curious, yet pleased look. "Thank you, Thomas. And I hear I have you to thank for it, in any case."
Shrugging and gesturing vaguely with the cigarette, Thomas said: "You're welcome."
Phyllis smiled at him. "I've only acknowledged a debt. I haven't yet addressed it."
It was exactly what Thomas himself had said earlier. Thomas raised an eyebrow at Phyllis but couldn't suppress a slight smile of his own. "Cheeky."
"I learned from the best," Phyllis said, giving him a meaningful look.
Thomas smirked. "Naturally. Does this mean you two are courting now?"
"Perhaps. We'll see. We've time enough to work things out."
Lucky for them. Time and openness and not having to hide; all these were such fantastical luxuries and they didn't even see them as such. Miss Baxter and Mr Molesley didn't even realise what a gift it was to be able to court without every word and glance being a secret. Without having to limit one's questions at the breakfast table to avoid looking too interested and raising suspicion. "Good job too," Thomas said snidely, his anger finding an outlet. "With Molesley the useless lump that he is. You'd never get anywhere in a hurry."
Phyllis looked at him steadily. "That's not very kind."
"It's not FAIR," Thomas burst out. "You can go out to the pictures together and have a great time and stay out late - and nobody bats an eyelid. But me, I can't even count on meeting someone like me from one year to the next and if I do, how do I know? Neither of us want to say anything in case we get put in sodding prison." Thomas pulled himself up short and breathed deeply. It was dangerous to lose his temper like this. He deliberately unclenched his hands and brought his cigarette to his mouth, only to realise that he had snapped it in two. He stubbed it out on the saucer of a long-finished cup of tea and lit up another.
"I'm sorry," said Phyllis gently.
Thomas didn't look at her; it would be too much to see pity in her face. "Yeah, well…" he mumbled.
"I'm sure nobody here would turn you in," Miss Baxter added.
"Alfred did," Thomas said at once, eyes boring into hers now to drive the message home. "Even Jimmy nearly did."
Phyllis looked stunned. "Jimmy? But you're such good friends."
"Eventually. At first he thought I was scum." It hurt to admit this, even though he knew Jimmy's attitude had changed.
"I'm sure he didn't."
"Oh, I'm sure he did. Wasn't too pleased when Carson and his Lordship said I wasn't bein' sacked after all."
Phyllis looked to be struggling to take all this in. Never had Thomas been so open with her - certainly not in their adulthood. It must be a lot for her to process, as someone who didn't have a clue what his life was really like. "They didn't sack you, though," she said. "It sounds like Mr Carson and his Lordship came through for you."
"But can't you see I can't rely on that?" Thomas said, leaning earnestly over the table towards her. There was something oddly freeing about revealing so much to somebody who had known him for so long. "I can't just rely on people not ruining my life just 'cause they're in a bad mood. It was only 'cause I knew Miss O'Brien's secrets that I got through it then. Knowledge always pays. God… I shouldn't even have bothered. I should have just gone to India like I was thinking…"
"So that's why you brought me here," said Phyllis.
Thomas tapped the ash from his cigarette onto the saucer and frowned at the table. Would he really have been better off in India? Maybe he should have tried it. He would not have been under-butler, true, and he would never have become friends with Jimmy - though he also would not have been subjected to a year of the young man's snide remarks. He would not have been passed over as reading teacher or under suspicion every time he so much as spoke to Andy. He would have met new people, kinder people, perhaps even a man who might have loved him. Thomas couldn't quite imagine such a possibility.
"I must be off to bed," Miss Baxter said softly, but Thomas barely heard her, his head full of heat and sunshine and possibility. Would his cousin have welcomed him?
It was all only in his mind, in any case. The cousin had died a year previously.
"Thomas," he heard, and Phyllis was right next to him, putting her arms around him. Thomas stilled in surprise, a smell he hadn't realised he remembered filling his nostrils. Though he didn't return the hug, he let it happen, closing his eyes and drinking in the comfort offered to him. It was a terribly inappropriate thing between two unrelated adults, and the fact that Miss Baxter gave it showed that she truly still thought of them as something like siblings.
She pulled away after only seconds, of course, and it was too short and too much at the same time.
"Don't stay up too late, little brother," she said fondly, and rustled away with only a word of goodnight more.
Thomas only lingered in the servants' hall long enough to dry his damp eyes before clearing away his crockery and making his own way up the long, winding stairs.
Thanks so much to everyone who has left me comments so far! It's great motivation to keep on editing and posting. I hope you've enjoyed this chapter (it has several things in that I really liked writing). Please leave me a comment to let me know what you think!
The next morning, the day before Edith's wedding, Thomas felt calmer than he had in weeks. While shaving, he looked into his own eyes in the mirror and gave himself a tentative smile. His mind felt quiet, rather than its usual buzz of anxieties and contingency planning. For the first time, he felt a blip of optimism; somehow, things would surely work out.
The mood might soon disperse, like the early-morning haze even now being burnt away by the sun, but it was certainly pleasant while it lasted.
He had woken earlier than usual, and so when somebody knocked at his door half an hour before breakfast, Thomas was already dressed and perfecting his hair in the mirror.
"Come in," he called.
It was Eric who did so, watching Thomas's precise hand wielding the comb. "Are you feeling better?" Eric asked, and Thomas could have sworn he heard an unspoken: 'after that weirdness last night' tacked onto the end.
"I'm perfectly fine," Thomas told him calmly, flicking back the final few unruly strands of fringe with careful precision, as if to prove the remark. Eric was quiet as Thomas made the finishing touches. "Was there anything else you wanted?"
Eric smirked. "I'd quite like to mess up that hair you spent so long on," he said, coming closer. "You're looking far too well put together for this time of the morning, Mr Barrow." Eric reached out to hold Thomas's waist, but Thomas caught his hands and held them in the space between their bodies. "Come on," Eric pressed; "We'll have time to straighten up before breakfast."
"I'm sorry, I… I don't want to do this any more." He hadn't truly realised this until that moment, but now that Thomas had said it, relief flooded through him.
Eric blinked, looking mildly taken aback. "Oh. Any particular reason?"
Another nugget of truth surfaced from the muddle of Thomas's thoughts, glinting gold with sincerity despite its previous opaqueness: because next time I have sex, I want it to mean more. By this, he did not mean that being with Eric had been meaningless - in this morning of strange clarity, Thomas could acknowledge that his time with Eric had given him renewed confidence in himself - in his desirability, in his skills as a lover. What he wanted was to once again find himself in a situation where his partner's pleasure felt infinitely more important to him than his own, a situation where he was so filled up with emotion that sex seemed almost to be a result of that. It had felt like that for him before, but it seemed a long time ago now.
"Not really," he said, in answer to Eric's question. "I just… want to stop."
"Alright…" Eric scratched the back of his neck as though he was thinking, then shrugged. "Sure. That's fine." He paused, narrowing his eyes in consideration. "Is it rude of me to ask if you know any other…"
Thomas laughed, feeling light, despite the nature of the truth he had to give: "No. I don't know anyone else around here any more."
Eric pursed his lips. "It must be hard," he said after a moment.
Not wanting to dwell on that and spoil his rare-of-late good humour, Thomas sought to change the subject, and found himself asking: "What about… What about, ah… Lord Hexham?"
"What about him?"
"Is he… like us?"
"Well, yes," Eric said, looking surprised at the question.
Thomas felt his heart in the back of his throat. Did that mean Peter really had been… had been… doing something with Thomas? He had had an inkling, but tried so hard not to succumb to hope.
"I told you, I met him at the park when I was lookin' for a bed," Eric went on, looking nonplussed by the shock Thomas must be betraying on his face.
"I didn't know he was there on purpose," Thomas said weakly.
Eric shrugged, unconcerned. "Sorry," he said, not sounding particularly apologetic. "You moving on to my boss now, that it?"
Unsure what to say, Thomas kept quiet. He hadn't thought Eric would care, but what if he did? Would that matter?
Would that stop Thomas?
But it didn't come to that. Eric chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. "I'm teasing, Thomas. Good luck to you. Right, I'm going to get downstairs for a cup of tea. Coming?"
Thomas mentally shook himself. "Certainly."
After lunch, Thomas found - or, rather, stole - a few minutes to get a little fresh air. There were hundreds of tiny last-minute preparations and decisions still to be made, but Thomas thought he would lose his head without a glimpse at the sun and a chance to breathe easily for a little while.
He wandered across the lawn with no particular plan in mind. It had been sunny and dry for the last few days, so his shoes ought to stay clean enough on the springy turf. The sun was warm, the blue sky dusted with only a smattering of fluffy clouds that were more decoration than detriment. Almost immediately, Thomas had had to remove his jacket, and he now walked with it draped over one arm.
It was glorious to feel the warmth on his face, the breeze drifting over him. Weather like this made it so much easier to be happy.
A vague thought materialised that he would walk to the bench under the oak tree, smoke a cigarette and make his way back. It would be pushing his luck a bit but Carson already wanted him gone; how much worse could it get?
There were people on the bench, though. Thomas spotted them when he was a hundred yards away, and altered his course to give them a wide berth.
It was not to be.
"Ahoy, Barrow!" called Lord Hexham cheerily, and Thomas was obliged to approach.
"Good afternoon, Lord Hexham, Lady Mary," Thomas said politely. It was difficult to concentrate with Hexham looking at him like that.
"I wouldn't have expected to see you out here," remarked Lady Mary. It was unclear whether she was admonishing him or not.
Thomas considered how to word his excuse without making himself sound redundant. "I have just a few moments now that I'm not required, my Lady."
"And what a happy chance it is that you came this way," Hexham put in. He sounded a touch too enthusiastic.
Lady Mary cast Hexham a strange look.
"Is there something you require, my Lord?" Thomas asked, carefully professional.
"Ah - n-no, we're just bothering you, I'm afraid."
"Speak for yourself," Lady Mary retorted, not unkindly, as she rose gracefully to her feet. "I'm going inside. I'll see you at dinner, Lord Hexham."
Hexham stood politely to wish her goodbye, before sinking back onto the bench once she had departed. The air felt suddenly charged, now that they were alone.
"I think the Crawleys are rather hoping Lady Mary and I will hit it off," said Hexham, watching her walk across the grass back to the house.
Thomas's heart sank. "I see, sir," he replied dully.
"Perhaps they think it rather neat, to have the elder sister married to the brother of the younger's fiancé."
The way he worded it didn't make it sound neat at all.
"Luckily," Hexham went on; "Her disinterest is matched only by my own."
Thomas laughed, his heart picking itself back up again.
"Mm… I'm afraid my attraction has never lain with her." Hexham gave Thomas an unwavering look.
Thomas glanced instinctively over his shoulder to ensure that they were alone before admitting: "I've heard something about where your attractions lie."
They watched each other in silence. Hexham's brown irises were radiant in the bright sun.
The moment broke when Hexham smiled and placed his hand on the bench next to him. "Would you sit with me?"
What Thomas ought to have done was politely decline, explain that he needed to get back to work, and leave to do just that.
What he in fact did was join Hexham on the bench, sitting gingerly on the edge of the seat, his hands folded nervously over the front.
"You seem brighter today."
"It was night last time we spoke, my Lord," Thomas responded without missing a beat.
Hexham looked at Thomas sharply and saw the smirk at the corners of his mouth; a smile broke over Hexham's face, and he laughed. "Very true," he conceded with amusement. He held Thomas's eye and turned towards him on the bench. "You know, I'd like for you to call me Peter." An apologetic sort of grimace flashed across his face; "At least when there's nobody around to scold you for it."
"Peter," Thomas repeated with a smile, his whole body fizzing. "You're not exactly the sort to follow convention, are you?"
"I won't compromise what I want for what I must be seen to do, even if my heart must stay private," Peter said softly. One hand alighted like a hesitant bird on Thomas's leg, his fingers curling around to Thomas's inner thigh. "I think… you are the same way, are you not?"
"I've never really been one to do what people expect of me." Thomas was barely conscious of what he was saying. Peter's earnest face was very close to his.
"People never quite understand me, for that," Peter murmured. His forefinger moved very slightly on the fabric of Thomas's trousers.
After a furtive glance around them at the deserted grounds, Thomas reach out a hand to cup Peter's jaw. Peter nodded, his eyes fixed on Thomas's, which was the final boost to Thomas's confidence that allowed him to press his lips briefly against Peter's. He kept his eyes open until the last moment, alert for any sign of resistance; but there was none.
"Excellent," Peter sighed as Thomas pulled away, and he leaned in to return the kiss. After pulling back, he patted Thomas's leg with the hand that had remained there throughout. "I do like you very much, Thomas. I was only afraid I was reading our interactions wrongly."
"Understandable," Thomas smiled. "I was just the same."
"I'm glad I was correct," Peter added.
Thomas's smile faded as a thought occurred to him. "There's something I should tell you."
Peter suddenly looked very nervous. His hand tightened on Thomas's thigh, an action that had the unintentional effect of making Thomas's stomach swoop with arousal. "What?" Peter asked apprehensively.
Thomas didn't think Peter would care, but there was still a chance that he would, and this made him hesitant as he explained: "This past week I've been - carrying on - with Eric."
"Oh!" Peter's face flooded with relief. "I see. I hear he's rather good with his mouth, that one."
Thomas raised his eyebrows. "It doesn't bother you, then?"
"Not at all. Though… I confess I'd quite like to have you all to myself now."
"We've already decided to stop." Thomas looked towards the house, hidden as it was behind the cluster of trees that leant this bench privacy. He had been out far longer than he had intended. "I really have to go, Peter."
Peter nodded and leaned in for another kiss, longer this time, a lingering touch that spoke of their reluctance to be parted. "Would you come to my room tonight? Only if you want to, I mean."
"I want to." Thomas stood and paused to take a last look at Peter, feeling warm and sad and elated all at once. He wished Peter didn't have to go so soon.
Thomas turned and hurried back to the house.
He needn't have worried about his tardiness: Mr Carson looked so relieved to see him that it didn't even seem to occur to him to enquire where on earth Thomas had been. His expression harried, Mr Carson claimed to be too busy to decant the wine, and asked Thomas to do it instead.
As Thomas watched the clear scarlet liquid flow, he pondered how strange it was for this, one of the butler's most defining duties, to be the one that Mr Carson chose to delegate.
Thomas waited as patiently as he could for night to fall, but that didn't stop Eric from throwing him a knowing wink on his way out of the servants' hall to bed. Thomas sat downstairs in his shirtsleeves reading some more of Jimmy's magazine - which was surprisingly entertaining, now that he had got into it - until everybody else had gone upstairs. He wondered what he would tell Jimmy about this encounter - he wondered, too, what there would be to tell. How would he disguise his meaning such that only Jimmy could understand it? Dear Jimmy. I've met someone - someone rather like me…
At last, Mr Molesley yawned, bid Thomas goodnight, and went to climb the stairs. After waiting ten minutes to ensure that nobody would return, Thomas followed, though he left at a lower landing than Molesley would have ascended to.
The house was dark up here: in the corridor Thomas emerged into, not a single lamp was shining. The summer sky was bright enough, however, even at this time, to give Thomas just enough light to navigate by.
Tapping very softly at Peter's door, Thomas let himself in. Peter was sitting at the desk with a book open in front of him. He turned as Thomas entered, quickly standing and smiling at Thomas.
Thomas's mouth went dry at the sight of him. Peter was wearing deep green silk pyjama trousers, and a white undershirt that was so similar to Thomas's that it seemed to brush away much of the difference between them. His chubby arms were exposed, his hair appealingly ruffled. He looked youthful and wild and timid all at the same time. Thomas swallowed.
It was Peter who spoke first. "You came."
"And I'm very glad I did," Thomas responded, his gaze still roaming Peter's body uncontrollably. Obviously, he had thought Peter attractive before, but out of his formal suits he looked even more enticing. The novelty of the sight had given Thomas a jolt. Peter's eyes were like warm amber in the lamplight. He was a little plumper than Thomas had realised before; he found that he liked it. Peter's hands were broad, his fingernails short and well-cared-for.
Thomas remained still as Peter approached, appreciating the way his body moved. Then Peter lifted Thomas's chin to look in his eyes and kissed him.
It wouldn't have taken much for Thomas to start getting hard, and the way Peter kissed - both fierce and sweet, as he ever was - was more than enough to get him there. He rested his hands on Peter's hips as the kiss went on, feeling the waistband of his silk trousers beneath the undershirt.
"What do you want to do?" Peter murmured between kisses.
"Some more of this for a start," Thomas said, one hand sliding up to Peter's shoulder to draw him even closer.
"I want to see you out of this damned livery," Peter muttered, tugging at the trouser brace on one side.
Thomas kissed his way across Peter's round, flushed cheek to his ear and whispered: "Then why don't you take it off?" He felt Peter shiver under his hands before stepping back slightly, making Thomas lean unconsciously into the scant space he left behind.
Peter slipped his hands beneath the braces at Thomas's shoulders and glided them down the length of his arms until the braces hung loosely from Thomas's hips and his hands were held by Peter's. "What do you want to do?" he asked again, regarding Thomas seriously.
His intense gaze gave Thomas a shot of bravery, and he found himself saying: "I want your prick in my hand."
He might have been embarrassed by his forthrightness if not for Peter immediately breaking into a wide grin. He raised Thomas's right hand and kissed the inside of his wrist tenderly, his eyes falling closed as he did so. The sensation of fabric under his lips as well as skin seemed to provide fresh impetus for Peter's desire to undress Thomas: he immediately brought his other hand to bear in unfastening Thomas's right cuff, and then the left.
Thomas pliantly let himself be moved, preoccupied by the eager concentration on Peter's face. He did truly seem to be interested - some part of Thomas had still doubted it, all along. He wanted to ask Peter if this was only about sex to him, but he wasn't sure how to deal with the answer. Either Peter would say it was just sex, which would crush Thomas, or he would say it was - or could be - something else, which… Thomas wasn't sure that he would believe. At least this way, he could pretend that he could possibly be liked by someone like Peter.
With this thought in mind, Thomas surged forwards for a kiss, not wanting to wait a moment longer. It caused barely an instant's pause in Peter's unbuttoning Thomas's shirt, which he yanked impatiently out of Thomas's trousers. A moment later, it flew heedlessly across the room as Peter moved his attention to Thomas's undershirt. He shoved the fabric up and pressed his lips to the hairy chest he uncovered.
"Mm," he half-moaned. He brought his hand to the front of Thomas's trousers and palmed him roughly. Thomas's knees quivered. A moment later, Peter gripped Thomas's undershirt with both hands and dragged it right up and off. It was flung in the same general direction as the shirt, and with an equivalent lack of care as to where it ended up.
"Much better," Peter murmured, his eyes darting over Thomas's body. "But still not quite…" He reached for Thomas's trouser fastenings.
"Is it not your turn?" Thomas tugged the bottom of Peter's undershirt indicatively.
Peter licked his lips, a thoroughly distracting sight. "Could I undress you first?"
"Why?" Thomas asked, surprised that Peter was so keen to see him.
Peter shrugged one shoulder, his gaze dropping shyly. "I'd like to."
"Alright, then," said Thomas, thinking that he would probably agree to anything when Peter looked like that.
As Peter returned to Thomas's trouser fastenings, Thomas leaned in to kiss his neck slowly, his arms looped loosely around Peter's waist. When the trousers flapped open, Peter slipped his hand inside and stroked Thomas through his long johns. Thomas's hips shifted at the first contact, though he managed to keep himself still as Peter went on touching him through the fabric. Thomas panted wordlessly against Peter's neck.
Before things could get too far, Peter pushed Thomas's trousers and underpants off his hips together, uncovering Thomas's erection. He seemed to pay it little mind as he knelt to hastily help Thomas removed his shoes, followed by his remaining clothes. He was apparently oblivious to the implications of this position, to the lovely dirty thoughts now filling Thomas's mind.
But then Peter looked up at Thomas and winked, and an electric shiver caressed Thomas's spine, travelling up until the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
Peter kissed Thomas's knee before rising to his feet. He still wore his undershirt and silk trousers, while Thomas was now naked but for the half-glove on his left hand. Peter now peeled the glove off, barely glancing at the wound before interlocking his fingers with Thomas's and using the contact to tug him along. Peter walked backwards until he could sit on the edge of the bed. His gaze dropped lingeringly down Thomas's naked body, raising goosebumps on Thomas's skin as though it had been a physical caress.
Watching Peter's face, Thomas thought he detected awe. But then the eyes closed as Peter laid his free hand over the bulge in his own trousers, as though he was trying to collect himself. Silk trousers kissed Thomas's calves. He glanced downwards, curious to see what was concealed behind Peter's hand and clothing. He wanted his hand where Peter's was.
Swallowing, Thomas looked up to see that Peter was meeting his gaze again.
"Now it's my turn," Peter said quietly.
Briefly, Thomas caressed Peter's cheek, before freeing his other hand from Peter's too. He placed them both on Peter's chest, though the angle meant that his palms didn't quite make contact, and ran down to grip the bottom hem of Peter's undershirt. As he pulled it up, Peter raised his arms helpfully. The shirt's removal left Peter's hair messier than it had been before.
At last, Thomas gave in to the urge to run his fingers through it. It slid faultlessly between them, soft and lovely. Peter hummed at the attention.
"I like that."
"I'll give you a headrub one day," Thomas murmured, momentarily forgetting the difficulties of their future.
Punctuating the moment with a kiss to Peter's forehead, Thomas reached for Peter's silk pyjama bottoms. Their emerald colour made the cream of Peter's soft stomach even more fetching. "Now get these off," Thomas said breathlessly, entranced by the juxtaposition of Peter's clothed thighs and his own naked erection jutting out from his body.
Peter lay back to remove his trousers - and - god - he wasn't wearing anything underneath. Shoving the trousers off the edge of the mattress with his foot, Peter shuffled back properly onto the bed and lay on his side, his torso propped up on a crooked elbow. Thomas joined him at once, balanced on hands and knees for a long kiss. Thomas rested one hand on Peter's upper arm, warm flesh under his palm, as Peter slipped his tongue past Thomas's lips. A quiet moan escaped Thomas's throat.
"Lie with me," Peter whispered.
Thomas stretched out facing him.
"Remember what you wanted?" The words were almost lost amongst the butterfly kisses Peter was dropping on Thomas's mouth.
"Yes," Thomas breathed.
Peter drew back, revealing the intensity in his gaze. "I want it too." He reached up and took Thomas's hand off his shoulder, guiding it down to his erection. He closed his eyes as Thomas took over and started touching him.
Thomas was just curious at first, exploring the size of his balls, the shape of his cock. Then he began to stroke, from the base to the very end, his palm picking up the drop of fluid leaking from the tip. Peter's breath touched Thomas's lips as Peter bowed his head closer, his fingers digging into Thomas's hip.
Edging closer, Thomas took both their erections in hand together. He stroked quickly, not interested in taking things slowly - he just wanted to come, he needed to come. Every time their hips stuttered, their cocks were dragged against each other.
"Ah - god -" Peter muttered.
Somehow Thomas managed to say: "Don't invite him into this," and Peter laughed brokenly even as Thomas felt his release against his abdomen. That was all it took to finish Thomas off too; he came seconds later, his groans melding with Peter's.
As they caught their breath, Peter nuzzled into Thomas's neck.
Thomas blinked back tears as the contentment in his chest turned suddenly sour. However wonderful this was now, however much it helped distract him from his loneliness and impending unemployment, Peter was only going to be around for a few more days. Soon Peter would leave him and he'd be alone again.
Peter's voice cut through his gloomy thoughts. "I wish I didn't have to go so soon. I feel as though… as though we could be starting something important here. What do you think?"
His words lit a tiny spark of hope somewhere deep inside Thomas. He wondered if he dared to imagine that Peter might care about him one day. "I think you could be right," he said slowly.
Peter kissed his collarbone. "I'll give it some thought," he promised, though Thomas wasn't quite sure what he meant.
Super nervous about this chapter eeep. So I'd love if you left me a comment to let me know what you think :)
As someone pointed out on an earlier chapter, Peter and Bertie are actually cousins, but I've decided to leave it as-is for this fic. Just in case the 'brother' remark in this chapter gets you wondering.
The day of Edith and Bertie's wedding dawned clear and still. Thomas awoke with a start to the sound of the hallboy's knock on his door, jolted out of another dream that slipped away when he tried to recall it. It was difficult to drag himself out of bed, despite the quickly gathering heat of the day. He stumbled through his duties, reminded at every turn of the young couple's happiness and of how much the family, the house, the world as a whole, approved of such a match.
The wedding itself progressed precisely as planned: a more orderly ceremony could not have been wished for. Thomas's attention constantly landed on Peter, who looked sincerely delighted by his brother's happiness.
Most of the wedding party retired for drinks in the house when the ceremony was over, spreading out over much of the ground floor. Thomas hurried around directing the footmen and ensuring that every glass was full. The gathering turned somewhat merry, fuelled by alcohol as it was. One guest knocked over a mercifully-almost-empty glass of champagne on a table. As Thomas approached with a cloth, he passed by Peter, who blew out a cloud of Gauloise cigarette smoke for him to walk through. Thomas's chest tightened at the scent, so much had he come to associate it with Peter. However, as he briefly met Peter's mischievous gaze, he had to fight the childish urge to stick out his tongue at the man.
Thomas had barely finished mopping up this spillage when he heard a crash from the hallway. That'll be a glass, then, he thought absently, hurrying in the direction of the disturbance.
The scene awaiting Thomas in the hall was so shocking that he paused briefly in the doorway. Mr Carson stood in the middle of the hall, surrounded by bemused noblemen, almost as though the tableau had been posed specifically for Thomas to see. Carson's expression was horrified, his posture affronted, as though he had been frozen in the act of a silent gasp. At his feet lay the broken remnants of a bottle, sluggishly bleeding wine onto the wooden floor.
"Not to worry," Thomas said smoothly, careful to address the spectators rather than Carson himself, who would have been offended by such a remark; "I was never fond of that wine in any case." A few titters: the quip and Thomas's calm demeanour assured the assembled aristocrats that the matter was well in hand, and much of the attention on the scene drifted away.
"Andy!" Thomas hissed at the boy as he came out from the library, tray in hand. "Get some cloths! Now!"
Andy nodded once and fled.
A hallboy with higher ambitions scuttled up to Thomas with a dustpan and brush and presented it to him. Thomas nodded in approval and gestured for him to begin sweeping. The boy went about the task with commendable enthusiasm.
There was a dazed look in Mr Carson's eyes when they met Thomas's, as though he couldn't quite take in what had happened. "Mr Barrow, I…" he trailed off.
"It's all under control, sir," Thomas said. "There is wine on your trousers." He made a mental note of that to put in his account of this moment for Jimmy, later on. He thought Jimmy would find it amusing in its dryness: There is wine on your trousers, sir.
Mr Carson looked down at himself, regaining some of his poise, though there was still a strange distance in his voice as he said: "I had better go and change. All is well in hand here." He turned and made his way in the direction of the servants' stairs, passing a red-faced and panting Andy who carried an armful of towels and rags.
Andy and the over-eager hallboy set about soaking up the spilled alcohol while Thomas watched. He dearly wanted a cigarette. Briefly, he entertained the thought of promoting the hallboy and dropping Molesley down in exchange. What an idea. He couldn't even imagine the look on Molesley's face.
Better not, though. He couldn't have Phyllis courting a hallboy, even the oldest hallboy in the country.
Thomas was leaning in an alcove in the hall when Peter found him. The party was fizzling out, and Thomas was taking a quick breather before he had to contemplate clear-up.
After kissing him quickly, Peter leaned against the opposite side of the alcove, facing him. Thomas, who had automatically straightened up at the arrival of an aristocrat, relaxed again.
For several long moments, Peter watched him. He seemed to be contemplating something, weighing it up in his mind.
"What is it?" Thomas asked.
Peter tipped his head and pursed his lips. "Very recently, I founded a school," he said at last. "Near my estate."
"Alright…" Thomas answered slowly, wondering where on earth this was going. Peter looked too nervous for this to be small talk.
"I haven't yet employed a literacy teacher for the young ones," Peter went on. "It would hold a decent wage and I'd supply a cottage close to the schoolroom. It's only a small school: perhaps fifteen students in the class, varying ages."
"It sounds lovely," Thomas said wistfully. A cottage, and shorter hours than as a servant, and a chance to help the working class instead of serving the upper.
Peter frowned at him as though he was missing something. "Thomas… I'm offering you the job."
"You're what?" Thomas said loudly, before he could stop himself. He had surely misheard.
Peter looked nervously over his shoulder at the empty hall. Luckily, Thomas's exclamation had not drawn any attention. Stepping closer, Peter elaborated: "You said you'd started teaching the footman to read - I asked him about it, and he speaks very well of you. You could get out of here. You'd only be a mile away from my house, and of course I'd like very much for us to see each other every day - but even - even if you don't want to talk to me again, or - well, I know it's early days and I like you very much but if we weren't to work out, the job would still be yours. As long as you want it. You wouldn't… owe me anything, is what I'm saying. I just - I have this opportunity for you, if you want it, and I hope that you want me too." Peter's brown eyes were wide and hopeful.
In the silence, Peter's words swam around and around in Thomas's head. Another job. A place of his own. Peter… Peter liking him enough to do this, to ask Andy about him, to couch his offer in so many assurances that he didn't expect anything. Thomas could leave Downton, the place that had held him since he was a boy. Leave Mr Carson's interference. Leave Mrs Patmore's brusque kindness, Anna's uncertain smiles, the memories of so many years. Leave Mrs Hughes, who knew and accepted his nature. Leave Phyllis, whom he had finally begun to open his heart to. And for what? A job he didn't know if he had the confidence for and a lover he barely knew.
Thomas began to feel sick. Such a choice. Such a risk. He forced himself to speak: "Can I think about it?"
"Of course." Peter took another step closer and held Thomas's gloved hand softly. "I wouldn't want you to answer straight away, in any case. Take as long as you need."
After the war, Thomas had thought he would leave Downton. His excitement and pride had made him overconfident.
One dodgy business deal later, he was forced to come crawling back, and, with his savings decimated, he had had even less chance of leaving than before. He had lost a lot of confidence that day.
Then after he had kissed Jimmy, he had thought he would be thrown out. Shaken, only India had seemed a viable alternative for him. But then, too, he had stayed, and his self-assurance had taken another knock. He had resolved to make the best of things at Downton: the only future he had tried to envision had been trapped within its walls. But butler was a good position, and Carson was only getting older. Thomas had accepted his lot in life.
The offer from Peter… well, it scared him. It wasn't just a case of leaving a good job and the only place he had ever called home: he might not be a good teacher. He might be just as alone in a new town as he was here. And he wasn't sure he had the courage to risk his heart again. Peter might seem sweet, and loving, and they might get on wonderfully now, but Thomas had known him only a week. It was a lot to take a chance on.
"You're looking very pensive, Mr Barrow," said Miss Baxter.
Thomas looked up from the eggs he had been eating with abnormal focus. "I was thinking about whether there's anything still to tidy up, after yesterday," Thomas lied.
"I think we've tidied the whole house by this point," Andy put in cheerfully.
Mr Carson fixed Andy with a quelling look. "As is your job," he pointed out sternly.
"Of course, Mr Carson," Andy gabbled, then stuffed his mouth with toast before it could get him into any more trouble. Carson had been in a bad mood all morning.
He was only joking, Thomas thought bitterly. He stuck a forkful of scrambled egg in his mouth and chewed moodily.
"Mr Barrow, I'd like a word with you after breakfast. Come in to my office once you've finished," instructed Mr Carson, accompanied by a flurry of movement as he got to his feet, thereby prompting everybody else to do the same. He had barely touched his breakfast. Mrs Hughes watched him with a frown.
Thomas suspected he was going to get a telling-off about his attitude. He therefore took his time in finishing his meal before ambling over to Carson's office.
Carson was sitting at his desk with his fingers steepled in front of him. Thomas blinked, wondering if he had ever before seen Mr Carson simply not doing anything.
"Shut the door, please, and sit down."
Thomas did so, trying to read the look on Mr Carson's face.
"You've been here a long time," Mr Carson began. Thomas wondered if he was about to be dismissed.
"I have, sir, yes," he said warily.
Carson regarded him sombrely. Thomas waited. There was a long silence.
"Very soon, I am going to find myself unable to do this job," Mr Carson said heavily at last. "It's my hands, you see," he explained, holding them out for Thomas to see. They were shaking like a drunkard's. "An illness…" he went on vaguely. "My father had it too."
Thomas was confused, but it didn't look like he was being sacked, so he relaxed minutely.
"It makes many tasks very difficult, especially those which require a steady hand. It will only get worse, I'm afraid. I can still advise and make suggestions for staff and so forth, of course, but… Lord Grantham and I have agreed that you must take over the very great privilege of being butler of Downton Abbey." Carson spoke with such gravity, he might have been bestowing a knighthood.
It was probably a disappointment to Carson that Thomas did not immediately leap up, shake his hand and thank him profusely. Instead, Thomas sat there quietly with a feeling of very great excitement slowly filling him up. "You're asking me to be butler."
"Yes, Mr Barrow, I am."
"But… you would still be around… giving advice… hiring the staff…"
"At least for a while, yes." Carson was starting to look annoyed that Thomas wasn't more visibly thrilled. "Lord Grantham thinks it best that I share the benefit of my experience."
Butler of Downton Abbey. This was the best Thomas could ever have hoped for here.
Thomas looked Carson right in the eyes, savouring the moment. "What a tempting idea," he said, so insincerely that Carson could not have failed to detect the sarcasm. This, this, was the best he could hope for? Ordering around hallboys, pandering to the whims of the rich and still, still under Carson's thumb? "I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline."
Carson looked horrified. "Decline?" he spluttered. "Why on earth would you decline this honour?"
Thomas was declining for the chance to do more. To teach. To make a difference in poor children's lives. And not only that, but to have a place of his own and a chance at love. "I got a better offer. You see, my skills are really quite in demand. Sir."
Thank you wholeheartedly to everyone who has commented on this fic. It has been wonderful to know that you are reading and enjoying. It would mean a lot to me if you left one last comment to let me know whether you liked this final chapter :) Concrit welcome.
I'm currently working on a non-shippy Thomas fic, which I'll probably start posting in a couple of weeks.