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Blistering

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The heat that summer is like a living thing, descending on the village in a heavy haze one blue evening and driving out the last of spring’s damp fingers. Overnight, it seems, the grass turns yellow and dry enough to crumble in your fists, and the sun is a constant, flared jewel etched on the horizon from dawn through dusk. The family flees north as soon as they can, in a flurry of pastel chiffon and white linen, the sharp-edged sunlight catching on the bright metal of the car’s bumper as they round out of view, sending a blinding flare across the grounds in farewell.

As often as possible, the servants retreat to the relative sanctuary of the downstairs, where the stone walls and floors offer some relief. More than once, Mr. Carson catches the hallboys and housemaids pressing their flushed cheeks and palms to the stone in search of a cool balm, until he finally relents and allows them to remove their heavy jackets and cloistering bonnets.

With the family gone and the heat making them all heavy-eyed and lazy-footed, time passes slowly, the days moving like honey spilled across the table. Thomas can’t remember a time when the Abbey was so still and quiet, when the air was so heavy with heat that it seemed to coax them to drowsy indolence no matter the time of day.

Across from him in the servant’s hall, Thomas watches Jimmy lean his head back against the wooden dining chair, the top buttons on his white shirt flipped open to reveal damp skin and a pool of moisture collecting in the hollow of his throat. Thomas swallows and looks away, trying to ignore the dampness under his arms and in the small of his back – it makes him irritable, which only makes him hotter.

“It can’t go on like this,” Jimmy mutters, eyes closed and brow furrowed, tongue swiping dryly across his bottom lip. “It’s going to finish me off.”

Thomas snorts, taking a sip of the tea that’s now tepid at his elbow. “That’s what we’ll write on your stone. ‘Here lies Jimmy, drowned in his own unfortunate perspiration.’”

Jimmy huffs, too tired to laugh, but his eyes crinkle in amusement. “Not a nice way to go.”

“No,” Thomas agrees. “I could’ve been a war hero.”

Jimmy cracks an eye over at him. “Imagine – imagine if the Crawleys returned, found us all dead in the basement from overheating.” He puts on a passable imitation of the Dowager’s thin, crepey voice. “Oh – oh my, but I thought we had cracked a window for them!”

Thomas laughs. “You’re a morbid one,” he says, not quite able to keep the fondness from his voice, but Jimmy only smiles with self-satisfaction and closes his eyes again, his brow no longer furrowed.

“You’ve got your half-day tomorrow,” he says, voice neutral. “Any plans?”

Thomas pulls a cigarette from his case and taps it against the table, eyes flicking around the room. Anna is fanning herself with what looks like one of Lady Mary’s old, lace fans and talking unobtrusively with Ms. Baxter, who looks neat and composed even in her heavy black dress. Mr. Bates appears to have fallen entirely asleep, one hand still resting on his cane and feet splayed out in front of him.

“Not particularly,” he says, quietly.

“Good.”

Thomas lights his cigarette. “Might make a quick trip to Antarctica. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

Jimmy laughs, again, and Thomas smiles through a plume of smoke. “You wouldn’t, though,” Jimmy says, rolling his neck a little and catching Thomas’ eye with a challenge.

Thomas knows when he’s being set up, but with Jimmy, he can never seem to avoid falling into traps. He flicks his cigarette at the ashtray in front of him. “And why’s that?” he asks, walking right into it. From down the hall, he hears Mr. Carson calling for Jimmy impatiently.

“’Cause you wouldn’t leave me,” Jimmy says, hoisting himself up from his chair and raising his eyebrows matter-of-factly. He leans over and takes the cigarette from between Thomas’ fingers and raises it to his own mouth, eyes not leaving Thomas’ face as he takes a deep drag. The cigarette’s only half finished but he stubs it out anyways, blowing a long stream of smoke from the side of his mouth, then turning away to straighten his vest and smooth his hair back, wandering off in search of Mr. Carson’s summons.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” Thomas mutters to himself impatiently, glancing sourly at his ruined half of a cigarette. He pulls a new one from his case and tries to ignore the sudden pounding of his heart.

+++

The next day, Jimmy finds him halfway up the stairwell to the servant’s quarters, and he looks down at Thomas expectantly, already dressed in his walking-out clothes, his eyes bright. “Ready, then?” He wags his eyebrows excitedly.

“I was just going up to change,” Thomas says, but Jimmy doesn’t move aside. Instead, he takes a step closer, until their chests are nearly touching. “I had a dream like this once,” Jimmy says, voice still light as if he’s making a joke. He looks over Thomas’ shoulder, but the stairwell is empty.

“Oh?”

“Just like this. You were going up, and I was coming down, and we kept passing each other. In the dream, that is.”

“Ah,” Thomas says, watching Jimmy’s face carefully. Then he clears his throat, “And do you often have dreams filled with such harrowing adventures?”

Jimmy laughs – a clear, bright sound -- and Thomas pushes by him. “Last week I dreamed I was polishing silver that never came clean. I was going to tell you, but then I thought I’d save it for a night we needed some real entertainment,” he calls over his shoulder. Jimmy follows him back up the stairs and into his room, which is stuffier even than the hallway.

“Lord,” Thomas murmurs, his hands going to undo the buttons on his vest, but he pauses, turning to watch as Jimmy slips through the door and shuts it behind him. “I’ll just be a moment,” he says, voice careful and polite.

Jimmy drops into the empty chair at Thomas’ desk. “Oh, I don’t mind,” he says, eyes crinkling a bit. He waits a beat and then turns so his back is to Thomas. “Oh, go on.”

Thomas looks down at his shoes for a moment and bites back on the feeling trying to crawl its way up his throat. Then he moves his hands mechanically back to his clothes and begins to disrobe. He doesn’t look over at Jimmy, but can hear him tapping his knuckles along the wooden surface of the desk and shifting in the chair impatiently.

Thomas sighs as he pulls his sweaty undershirt over his head, his skin grateful for the clean, bare air, and bends to pull a new one from his dresser. He considers the material in his hand and then says, “What with the family away, I’m sure you could get a night off to take Ivy to the pictures.” He pulls the shirt on. “If you wanted, that is.”

There’s silence in the room as Jimmy pauses in rolling his knuckles along the desk top. “Could do,” he says finally, clearing his throat.

“You haven’t gone off her, have you?” Thomas watches his fingers as he buttons up his white shirt, so that he doesn’t have to watch the way Jimmy has turned his head ever so slightly toward him, the arch of his neck long, the tilt of his jaw careful and still.

“Not sure I was ever on her, to be honest,” he admits, laughing a little, his stillness breaking as he rubs ruefully at the back of his neck. Jimmy moves so easily into this role – the chagrined, careless youth, unable to settle down -- that it takes Thomas a moment to realize, for the first time, that it’s an act. A good one, a blink and you’ll miss it routine, but a performance nonetheless – and one in which Thomas cannot determine if he’s meant to be the audience or another player. He swallows, ignores the trembling in his heart, and smirks broadly enough so that Jimmy can hear it in his voice as he says, “Well, I wouldn’t let Mr. Carson overhear any talk of you being ‘on’ anyone.” He reaches for his hat, watching Jimmy unfold himself from the chair. “Shall we?”

Thomas lets Jimmy lead him downstairs again and out through the kitchen courtyard, where he pauses to light a cigarette, the sun sharp and brutal against the back of his neck. He tips his hat down low over his eyes and frowns at Jimmy. “And why, again, have we decided to venture out into this hellscape?” He can already feel the terrible itch of sweat under his clothes.

Jimmy laughs, though it comes out more of a pant. “This is going to be worth it,” he swears, face bright and skin golden, lit up like a god at the dawning of a new world, and Thomas, helpless, can only follow after him.

+++

“There’s likely to be leeches in there, you know,” Thomas says darkly, eyeing the cloud of murk that ink-blooms across the surface of the water as Jimmy toes the pond’s edge with a hesitant shoe. The air is humid and heavy with the smell of baked earth, and Thomas privately wonders how Jimmy knew of this place. Hidden within a copse of dense trees and shivery ferns, the pond, ringed by crags of rock, seems otherworldly, like stepping into another time. Thomas pulls his gaze from watching the way the light passes amongst the leaves above and turns to face Jimmy, whose face is flushed and damp.

A bead of sweat slides from his temple to the edge of his jaw, and he looks at Thomas a little desperately. “I’m not turning back now. I’d rather be done in by blood-sucking leeches.” He starts to unbutton his shirt, heedless of the way Thomas flinches back and turns his face away to look out over the blue, still water. He finds a tree in the distance and focuses his gaze on it. He hears the rustle of Jimmy’s clothes as they are shed, and then the delicate sound of water parting and moving around a body as Jimmy steps into the pond. After a few moments, Jimmy calls, “You can turn around now.”

Thomas does, just as Jimmy dips his head back and under the water. He’s several feet away, but the water just edges past the line of his hips, and his chest is as bare and inviting as the first time Thomas had seen him. Water cascades from his hair down over his face and the line of his throat as he resurfaces, and Thomas doesn’t understand any of it.

“Don’t be a pillock, Thomas.” Jimmy calls, laughing. “The water’s clear and fresh out here and I’ve never felt anything so wonderful in all my life.” He shakes his head, sending drops of water scattering against the light. Thomas’ skin itches with dried sweat, but he turns instead to look back at the path they had walked, the soft earth imprinted with their footsteps. In a few weeks, the rains will come, Thomas thinks, and it will be like we were never here and none of this had happened.

“Shall I haul you in myself?”

Thomas turns to find Jimmy, naked, behind him. “Oh,” he says, stepping back, fixing his sight on a point past Jimmy’s bare shoulder. “Perhaps you shouldn’t stand so close.” His voice is breathless, too high, and he curses the God who made him this way.

Jimmy’s mouth twists and he sniffs. “We’re just – being lads. Don’t – don’t ruin it with all that.” He shifts on his feet, and Thomas can’t help but notice how broad his shoulders are, and the way the muscles around his neck bunch with agitation. “Don’t make something out of what’s nothing,” he says grimly, eyes black and troubled.

Thomas’ face feels wooden, but he tries to smile. “No,” he says, “Of course.” And then – “Lads, Jimmy? Haven’t been called that since before I was in uniform.” He cocks an eyebrow in spite of himself, and Jimmy grins.

“Well,” he says, chucking his hand gently against Thomas’ temple – the faintest and quickest of touches – where his hair has begun to lighten into grey. “That might have been overgenerous of me,” Jimmy concedes, smirking. He drops his hand to his side – his fingers jump reflexively – and he turns back towards the water.

“If you’re not going to join me,” he admonishes over his shoulder, “at the very least you can come watch me.” Thomas considers the long line of his back, but does not let his eyes wander lower.

“You’re terribly vain, my boy.”

A shiver of something uncurls along Jimmy’s back as he steps into the water, the profile of his face backlit by the afternoon sun. “You have no idea,” he says, and the water parts around his ankles once more.

+++

Later, after changing into fresh clothes for dinner, Jimmy finds Thomas again in his room, and he slips in and closes the door behind him. Thomas, sitting on the edge of his bed, looks up from where he has been contemplating the knuckles of his clasped hands and feels something terrible rise up in him. He has the sudden urge to grasp Jimmy by his wrists and compel him back against the wall, to set his teeth along the delicate edge of his ear and ask him if this is what lads do together. Perhaps Jimmy should be afraid of him.

“May I borrow your aftershave,” Jimmy asks, though it’s not really a question. “I can’t get the smell of pond water off me.” He steps over to the looking glass on Thomas’ dresser and pushes his fingers through his hair in an attempt to neaten the loose waves. He frowns. “And perhaps your pomade, as well.”

Jimmy’s cheeks are pink and bright from scrubbing at them with a cloth and he smells of soap and earth – he looks terribly young, and Thomas feels a familiar shame curl about his heart. He stands, his spine very straight, and joins Jimmy at his dresser, where he pulls a small, silver topped bottle of scent from the top drawer.

“Let me put you back together,” he says, quietly, and Jimmy stops fussing at himself in the mirror and turns to him, his face expectant and smooth.

Thomas dabs a drop of the scent on his finger, and then hesitates, “May I?”

Jimmy swallows, nodding, and Thomas presses the pad of his finger to the side of Jimmy’s throat, transferring the scent. He feels, for just a moment, the flutter of Jimmy’s pulse before he pulls his hand away.

“Shall I do the pomade, as well?” Thomas asks, reaching for the tin that sits next to his tortoiseshell comb.

“If you like,” Jimmy says offhandedly, but his eyes are wide and serious.

Thomas dips his fingers into the tin and gathers some of the wax, warming it between his fingers. With his other hand, he tips Jimmy’s head back gently. When his fingers smooth Jimmy’s hair back, moving from the line of his forehead to the dip of his skull, Jimmy’s eyes flutter closed. Thomas has the sudden urge to press his lips to first one eyelid and then the other, but instead he concentrates on pressing and shaping Jimmy’s hair until it is smooth and shining, one curl left to fall across his forehead.

“Be -,” Jimmy voice cracks, and he clears his throat. “Better?”

Thomas, his heart pounding, looks away and busies himself wiping his hands and putting away the pomade, but he says, truthfully, “Lovely.”

Jimmy laughs nervously. “You can’t – can’t just say such things, Thomas.”

Thomas straightens, raising his chin without thinking. “I can,” he says, “Why shouldn’t I say what I feel is true?”

“It’s just – it’s not done.” He frowns. “I thought – we’re past all that.”

Thomas looks down at his hands. The edge of his glove is coming frayed, and he’ll have to get a new one soon. He swallows and says, “I cannot change what I feel – as much as I might want it to be otherwise.” It lives where I live, he thinks.

“You asked for friendship,” Jimmy says, accusingly, looking as if he is readying for a fight, but Thomas cuts him off.

“You keep coming around, Jimmy.”

“Do you want me to stop, then?”

“I would rather shoot my other hand.”

Jimmy flinches. “I don’t wish to speak of this anymore.”

“Fine,” Thomas says, knowing that, despite the quickening of his pulse and his tongue, it is better and wiser to stop before anything starts.

Jimmy licks his lips. “Come down with me to dinner?

It lives where I live, Thomas thinks, again. He breathes out, nearly laughing, and then presses his lips together. He nods. “Of course.”

They leave together, but on the stairs, Jimmy stops Thomas once more with a hand to his chest. He leans up and, so quickly it might not have happened, presses his face to the side of Thomas’ neck. He pulls back and looks at Thomas, who bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. “Smells differently on you,” Jimmy says, flashing a tentative smile. Then he turns and continues down the stairs, leaving Thomas alone in the stairwell, his heart like a window with its shutters pulled wide and left open.

+++

Most nights, Thomas stays late in the servant’s hall, playing cards with Jimmy or listening to him pluck around on the piano or, sometimes in the winter evenings, reading the latest penny dreadfuls aloud to him softly in front of the fire. Usually, they’re there late enough that the servant’s hall is mostly empty and Thomas can look upon Jimmy openly, enjoying the fall of his hair across his forehead as he bends close to the keys or the orange blush of the fire softening his features and carving out his cheekbones. Early on, Thomas had kept his eyes to himself, even when they were tentatively being friends again, but it didn’t take him long to realize that his hesitant glances irritated Jimmy endlessly, and that his laughter was brighter and his hands more open and relaxed when Thomas watched him plainly. Thomas hadn’t questioned it, chalked it up to the boy’s vanity and a desire not to be reminded of their awkwardness.

Tonight, however, the servant’s hall is still quite full even as the moon rises high and fat in the sky, and though the men’s quarters are stiflingly hot, situated right above the kitchen and windowless, Thomas retreats early, seeking some respite from the constant noise and chatter that seems to make the wash of noise in his own mind even louder. His room is painfully warm, and he strips down to his underclothes right away, sliding the bolt on the door and pulling a bottle of filched gin from the back of his wardrobe. The heat makes sleep impossible, but he’ll take whatever help he can get in finding a bit of rest, even the honey-sweet lull of drowsy intoxication. He drops onto his bed, flexing the tight muscles in his scarred hand and taking a swig directly from the bottle, but soon the blankets are too heated under his skin and he pulls himself down to the floor, leaning back against the side of his bed and stretching his legs out until his feet touch the wall. This is the space I occupy, Thomas thinks, his toes pressed against the peeling paint. Only this.

He’s taken several more swigs from the bottle and is enjoying the way the back of his head feels as he rolls it back and forth against his mattress when he hears a knock. He considers ignoring it, but he knows it could only be one person, and before he’s really decided if it’s a good idea, he’s sliding the bolt back on his door and opening it a hands-span to peer out. Jimmy looks back at him expectantly, but Thomas doesn’t say anything, not trusting his tongue to form the words properly.

“Well?” Jimmy says, impatiently. “Let me in.”

Thomas hesitates. “I’m not – decent,” he remembers, looking down at his union suit and feeling his cheeks heat. He hiccoughs.

“Are you – you’ve been drinking,” Jimmy says triumphantly, shifting on his feet, an eager smile breaking across his face. “Oh, Thomas, don’t hold out on me. I don’t care if you’re starkers, you nutter, I’m coming in,” and he shoulders his way into the room.

Thomas bolts the door again once Jimmy’s inside and leans back on it, breathing heavily. “Go on, then,” he says and holds the bottle out for Jimmy to take. He takes advantage of the door behind his back and slides down to the floor, closing his eyes against the image of Jimmy setting his mouth around the neck of the bottle.

Jimmy laughs and Thomas cracks an eye open to see him shrugging off his vest. “You’re completely blotto,” he says, crouching down in front of Thomas.

Thomas lifts his head. “I will give you that,” he says, generously, eyes drowsy and half-lidded. Jimmy takes a swig again, and Thomas raises an eyebrow. “Going to catch up to me?”

Jimmy smirks. “Is that a challenge?”

“If you like.”

“Too good for chairs, are we, now?” Jimmy asks, flicking open the buttons on his shirt and dropping from his crouch to sit in front of Thomas on the floor, pulling his knees up comfortably to rest his elbows on them, bottle perched precariously in one hand. Thomas’ eyes are slow to lift from the vee of Jimmy’s thighs, but Jimmy’s gaze is focused on some point on the ceiling and he doesn’t say anything. Thomas shakes his head a bit, as if to clear it, and then remembers – “Bed’s too hot.”

“It is boiling,” Jimmy says, voice nearly a whine, kicking off his shoes one by one. He nods at Thomas. “You’ve got the right idea, I think.” He sets the bottle down between them and begins to unbutton his shirt.

“Ah, I’m not sure that’s --,” Thomas shifts uncomfortably, looking away.

“What?” Jimmy’s voice is pitched low and he slides another button undone. “I don’t mind,” he says, voice carefully light. Thomas hears the rustle of fabric and he can’t help himself – he glances away from the ceiling to see Jimmy shrugging his white shirt back off his shoulders, letting it drop carelessly behind him. His hand moves to the placket on his trousers, and Thomas swallows, eyes flicking away again. “You – you shouldn’t.”

“Thomas,” Jimmy says. “Thomas. Look at me.” There’s a flush of color high up on his cheekbones, but Thomas can’t tell if it’s from the heat or the drink or something else. His fingers are pale and long against the black cloth of his suit.

Thomas feels a twist of slow pleasure in his belly, and he breathes heavily through his nose, watching Jimmy’s hands move against the buttons of his trousers. His own hands feel strangely empty, cupped open on his thighs, and he wishes, horribly – with a feeling like putting his palm down on a hot stove -- that it were his hands loosening Jimmy of his clothes. He reaches for the bottle and slings back another swallow of gin, and watches with an aching as Jimmy lifts his hips, twisting out of his trousers and pushing them down his thighs, which are as golden as the rest of him, muscles flexing as he kicks the material away.

Thomas’ fingers clench spasmodically, mouth dropping open. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. His chest feels tight and his head dizzy. He wants, wants, wants –

Jimmy drops a hand onto his abdomen, muscles jumping. “You like the way I look,” he says, sighing a little in pleasure as his palm moves up to slide across his chest, fingers curving a bit around the muscle.

Thomas moans and then brings his own hand up to his mouth, biting into the soft flesh where thumb meets palm to stifle any other sounds. He’s fully hard, and he moves his legs up to hide it, but Jimmy makes a small noise and says, “No – I mean, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” He licks his lips. “Just – just don’t stop looking at me,” he says, and reaches between his legs.

“Oh, god,” Thomas says, before he can help it, white heat licking across his skin as he watches Jimmy manipulate the thin cloth of his underwear so that Thomas can see the outline of his cock, beautiful and half-hard against his hip, and the swell of his balls beneath it. Jimmy looks between his own body and Thomas’ face, breathless, shame and arousal prickling along his skin. “You like that,” he says, and Thomas pulls his gaze up to meet Jimmy’s eyes.

He nods. “I like it – very much.”

“You can – touch yourself, if you want,” Jimmy intones.

“Oh,” Thomas chokes. “Would you like to see that?”

“Maybe,” Jimmy responds, honestly.

Thomas almost laughs, but his face softens as he takes in the sight of Jimmy – eyes overly bright, a hectic flush from his nose to his chest, hand trembling where it rubs at his half-hard penis. “May I touch you, Jimmy? I – only, I want to make you feel good.”

“No,” Jimmy says, face suddenly harsh. “No – no touching.” His eyes flick up to the ceiling and back, and then he shoves his pants down his hips, leaving them wrapped around one ankle. His legs, still bent at the knee, make a wide angle and Thomas can see all of him, and it is painful and arousing and terrible. He watches as Jimmy grips his cock again in the circle of his hand and lies back on the floor, back arching away from the sudden coolness so that he is a perfectly taut bow from toes to lips. “T-tell me how I look to you,” he says, beginning to move his hand over his cock.

“Oh, Jimmy,” Thomas breathes, pushing his union suit down to his hips and taking himself in hand. “You look like a dream, I’ve never seen anyone like you in my life.” Jimmy huffs a laugh, but he keeps his hand steady between his legs, Thomas drinking in the sight of his pink cockhead slipping between his fingers, his full balls, and lower, the provocative, hidden groove that Thomas can’t help coveting. He wonders what kinds of noises Jimmy would make if he were to slide his tongue along that furrow. He moans, thinking of it, rubbing his palm in a circle against the head of his cock.

Thomas is silent, just watching, hardly daring to say more, but Jimmy makes a frustrated noise and stills his hand. “Let me show you,” he grunts, “what I would do to you.”

Then, he raises his hips off the ground, sliding his cock up and into the circle of his hand, hips flexing backwards and forwards to drag his cock against his palm. Thomas groans at the sight of Jimmy’s hips thrusting, his cock driving through his fist, and feels a dark thrill; his legs flex against the ground, knees falling open, and he tells him, “I would let you do anything to me, Jimmy.”

Jimmy moans a low, almost horrible sound, and hides his face in the bend of his elbow as he comes, back arching off the floor and release flooding through his fingers, and Thomas, overcome, lets his eyes fall closed, his cheek pressed back against the door as he shudders and finishes along with him.

When Thomas opens his eyes, Jimmy is sitting up, looking dazed and, suddenly, very young. He reaches out with his clean hand to drink from the bottle, finishing it in several large gulps. When he looks at Thomas, his face is ruined and etched, and Thomas feels a pang of dread claw up his chest. He looks like a charcoal drawing of himself, there and not there all at once. “Jimmy –,”

“I’ve got to go.” He fits his shirt quickly over his shoulders and pulls up his pants and trousers. He stumbles over one of his shoes, searching for his vest.

“I know.” Thomas pulls himself to his feet, heart still jumping, and unbolts the door for Jimmy, who is watching him with apprehension. Thomas flinches. “Please don’t --,” he starts, but Jimmy, face hard, says, “Good night,” and leaves.

Thomas feels himself trembling, and he flexes his hand several times to try to stop it. He considers the bottle, now empty, tipped sideways on the floor, and imagines hefting it in his hand and smashing it against the wall, shards exploding in a burst of sound and movement. But he doesn’t. Instead, he flexes his hand again, and then he lies down in bed and keeps his eyes open against the blackness of the night.

+++

The next morning, Thomas wakes to the early stillness of dawn, the house banked and quiet. He blinks, trying to ignore the sharp flare of pain in his skull, the way his skin feels too tight and clammy all over. He stumbles over the bottle as he gets to his feet, and it rolls loudly across the floor. “Fuck,” he mutters.

The servant’s hall downstairs is still empty, though he can hear Daisy and Mrs. Patmore bickering from the kitchen, and he drops into a chair at the end of the table, immediately searching for his cigarette case. The heat is already unbearable, and his head is in his hands, cigarette held carefully away from his hair, when he hears footsteps. He straightens up, flicking a bit of ash off his sleeve.

“You’re down early, Mr. Barrow,” Daisy says, placing a tea tray on the table near him. Her cheeks are flushed and there’s a strand of hair sticking to her forehead, which she tries to swipe away with her wrist. “Though sometimes it’s nice to wake before everyone else, get a bit of time alone, I suppose.”

“Yes,” Thomas says pointedly, “That had been my intention.”

“Oh – right,” she says, twisting her apron in her fingers, frowning at him crossly.

When she’s gone, Thomas drains the water carafe, drinks his tea, and smokes two more cigarettes, so that he’s finally starting to feel more like a person again when the others begin to assemble for breakfast. He can think of nothing he’d rather do less than face Jimmy in a crowded room right now, so he steals some toast from the kitchen and heads upstairs to get an early start on his duties for the day, and by the time the mid-morning sun has taken to the sky with a vengeance, Thomas finds himself hiding in an unused wing on the third floor, adamantly not thinking about the furious arch of Jimmy’s back last night.

Not hiding, he tells himself, straightening his vest, overseeing my duties, which includes regular sweeps of all of the rooms. Even the empty ones. He turns the corner and ducks into what he thinks is a rarely used guest room, leaning back against the door and closing his eyes.

“Well, this can’t be happening.”

Thomas opens his eyes. Jimmy is standing in the far corner of the room, face turned towards the hard, flinty light filtering in through the windows and washing his skin white-gold. His eyes are screwed up, and there’s a muscle jumping in his cheek. Thomas lets out a low breath, straightening his shoulders.

“I didn’t realize this room was occupied,” he says.

Jimmy snorts, biting at the inside of his cheek. “You weren’t following me, then,” he says, though it’s not a question.

Thomas bristles. “Actually -,” but Jimmy cuts him off, slapping his palm down on the sill of the window. “Last night were a mistake.” His hand curls into a fist, still pressed against the sill, and Thomas can see faint smears of dust on his knuckles. “Only --,” his voice cracks, and he stops himself.

Thomas says nothing. He remembers, suddenly, when he was a child and his parents took him to see a traveling circus that had come to town. After the show, the grounds had been so crowded that he had been separated from his mother and father. Afraid, he had ducked under the flap of a nearby tent, and come face to face with one of the enormous tigers from the performance, now caged, pressed back into the corner of the steel barred box. Thomas had reached out his hand, mesmerized by the black pools of the creature’s eyes, and the beast had made a sound Thomas would not hear again until he was witnessing men cry out for their mothers in the trenches.

Now, Thomas waits, watching the way Jimmy is curling and uncurling his fingers, disturbing small universes of dust on the sill.

“It were wrong,” Jimmy says, breathing heavily through his nose. He glances back at Thomas out of the corner of his eye. “I’m – there’s something awfully wrong with me.”

Thomas nods, but then, as if he can’t help it, says, “I thought it were beautiful.”

Jimmy chokes, and turns his face away to the wall, his shoulders shaking.

“Oh – Jimmy,” Thomas says, feeling undone, closing the distance between them, but stopping himself from reaching out to touch the shivery line of Jimmy’s back. “I want to help you,” he says, his voice pitched low.

Jimmy laughs hollowly. “You can’t.” He turns, wiping at his face angrily and leaving a streak of grey dust from the delicate skin of his eyelid across to his temple. Thomas thinks hungrily of following it with his thumb, kissing the high, proud line of his cheek bone.

“Jimmy --,”

“No,” Jimmy says harshly, “no.” He turns his face towards the sunlight, closing his eyes. He would look almost peaceful, if it weren’t for the hectic flush speckled along his skin. He opens his eyes and says, in a careful sort of voice, “To have done that, t-to have liked it – there must be –,” he swallows. “There is something foul in my heart.”

And then he puts his hand through the glass-paned window.

+++

By the time the sun begins to make its slow descent below the horizon line, Thomas’ nerves are scraped over and the sweltering heat of the house has stolen away any appetite he might have had – but he forces himself to sit through dinner, regardless, as he always has and always will, because he is a servant, and his life is not his own.

He smokes cigarette after cigarette, smiling cheerfully as Mr. Bates throws increasingly homicidal looks his way at the haze of smoke lingering over the servant’s hall. “They really ought to do something about the ventilation down here, don’t you agree, Mr. Bates?” he says, cupping his hand around the flame of his lighter as he brings it up to flare against the end of a new cigarette. He inhales deeply, then blows a long stream of smoke out of the corner of his mouth. It rises in a circle and hovers, cloud-like, in the sweltering room. “It’s really quite dreadful.”

Mr. Bates shakes his head. “You’re pathetic, Thomas.”

Thomas grins, baring his teeth. “It’s Mr. Barrow.”

From across the table, Jimmy makes a low, strangled sound that he quickly hides in a cough. Mr. Carson looks up. He eyes the bandage wrapped around Jimmy’s hand, then flicks his gaze over to Thomas. “How extraordinary that a sparrow could fly through double paned glass with shattering force and still be well enough to flutter away -- isn’t it, Mr. Barrow?” The rest of the staff quiets.

Thomas smiles easily, one shoulder lifting. “It’s only luck I were there to find it.”

“Fortunate, indeed,” Mr. Carson says lightly, one eyebrow lifting. He considers his plate for a moment and then says, “James, it appears you’ve done something to harm your hand, I hope it’s not hurting you too badly?”

Jimmy reddens. “No, Mr. Carson.” He shifts in his seat, and Thomas slides his foot forward until it rests steadily next to Jimmy’s own under the table. Jimmy doesn’t move away from the touch.

Mr. Carson continues, “Excellent, then you will be in fine shape to polish the dining silver tomorrow, while the family is away.”

“Of course, Mr. Carson.” Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas sees a muscle jump in Jimmy’s jaw. He shifts his foot minutely, meaning to distract Jimmy, if only a little -- and breathes out a slow line of smoke when Jimmy slides his foot back to rest flush against Thomas’ again.

Mrs. Hughes, eyes narrowed in speculation or deduction, Thomas isn’t sure, adds, “Perhaps Mr. Barrow could assist Jimmy tomorrow?”

Mr. Carson attempts a polite smile. “While I am grateful for your suggestion, Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Barrow will be otherwise occupied overseeing the installation of a new window in the east wing of the third floor.”

Thomas, suddenly needing to be elsewhere, puts his cigarette out in the overflowing ash tray and rises. “In fact, I’ll go now and see that everything is ready for the laborer to get started right away tomorrow.”

He escapes outside into the light of the dying sun, intending to circle around towards the gardener’s shed and check that the drop cloths and tools for tomorrow’s work have been assembled. He doesn’t consider it anyone else’s business that he’s already seen to this twice today, first after bandaging Jimmy’s hand with steady fingers, and then again a few hours later to quell the barb of fury in his chest that had taken shape upon watching Mr. Bates lay a comforting hand on Jimmy’s shoulder, inquiring about his injury. He does not allow himself to think of the injustice – that if he were to touch Jimmy so openly, so publicly, Mr. Carson would appoint himself judge, jury, and executioner to Thomas’ fate. He does not think of the injustice, because if he does, he will not stop screaming.

Now, he doubles back around and makes for the edge of the forest, where the trees stand like a line of tired soldiers. He drops down into the shade of a massive beech tree, and watches the flaming, orange sun fall back over the line of the horizon.

Not foul, he had said. Mr. Carson had looked into his heart and found it deplorable, and Thomas, with an old hurt that he thought he had laid to rest, had straightened his head and said, voice like a grave, “I’m not foul.”

But he hadn’t meant it. He had only heard his father’s words, twelve years dusty, coming from Mr. Carson’s mouth and had remembered an old promise to himself – to never let another man put him in the dirt, the way his father had when he was sixteen and found him with his arms around another boy. It was the first time he had heard the word abomination, spit at him from the same man who had bathed him with gentle hands until he was old enough to do it himself, and he had suddenly understood that it was he they meant when they whispered it at church. Abomination.

For years, he would wake with the word on his tongue, shaken out of nightmares in which his father, wearing a white coat and coaxing him to lie back on an operating table, traced a cold scalpel against his collarbone and split him lovingly from end to end.

Not foul, he had said, with a voice like a grave. Not foul, he had said, with the same lips that moved in prayer each night, his knees against the cold floor, his head bowed, asking to be remade into something new, something different, only not this. Why, he had asked, did You look upon each of us and choose me to be a thing made of longing and despair?

The last edge of sunlight shivers below the horizon. The Abbey stands, an eyeless goliath, against the darkening sky. Thomas heaves himself to his feet and begins the walk across the neat lawns, until he is pulled back into its shadowed embrace.

+++

He doesn’t make it to the kitchens.

As he rounds the furthest corner of the courtyard, just out of sight of the downstairs windows, he sees Jimmy pull away from the wall where he is slumped, cigarette in one hand, the other reaching out as if to touch Thomas’ sleeve, but he stops himself at the last minute, and drops his hand against his side.

“Hello,” he says, voice quiet. The fingers of his free hand flex nervously against the hem of his jacket sleeve.

Thomas smiles despite himself. He nods towards Jimmy’s bandaged hand. “How is it?” Without thinking, he reaches out to take the hand between his own, plucking the cigarette from Jimmy’s fingers so that he can check that the edges of the bandages are still secure. He runs the pad of his thumb along Jimmy’s knuckles, and in one breath, Jimmy says, “Oh,” grips Thomas roughly around the neck, and kisses him, knocking the cigarette to the ground. Thomas can feel the scratch of the bandage against his throat, the press of each of Jimmy’s fingers, claw-like, curving along the line of his jaw. He kisses back immediately, without question or hesitation, opening his mouth under Jimmy, saying yes, yes, yes, for all the times he’s been told no.

He moves into Jimmy’s embrace, feels the long line of his body, allows himself to be steered back against the brick wall. He understands that the horrible swoop rising from his belly to his chest is desire and joy – and he pushes it away, instead focuses on Jimmy’s fingers moving to cradle the back of his skull, his other hand coming up flat against the brick next to Thomas’ head. Jimmy is pressing him up against the wall like a debutante at a cotillion, his kiss turning heady and smutty, and Thomas nearly laughs, but he doesn’t. He has the strange feeling of watching his heart unraveling like a spool of thread caught on a thorn.

Thomas shifts, opening his mouth a little further to slide his tongue along Jimmy’s, and Jimmy moans, low and needy – and pulls back, gasping. Thomas reaches out for him like a reflex, but Jimmy takes another step away. “No,” Thomas says, low and harsh.

Jimmy is breathing heavily, and he brings the back of his hand up to press against his open mouth. Thomas blinks – the gesture is so familiar, and he realizes it’s the same one he saw in war, when a man had been shot point blank and his friend had watched in horror as dark matter spattered his throat and mouth. He blinks, but Jimmy is already turning away, face contorted as if he is in pain.

Thomas grabs him by the shoulder, “Jimmy, don’t --,” but Jimmy turns around and shakes him off roughly. The movement pushes Thomas back against the brick wall, and he winces as his head connects with brick in a spark of sudden pain.

“God,” Jimmy says, and he cradles Thomas’ head again. “I’m sorry.”

Thomas tongues the sore spot where he bit his lip. “I’m fine,” he says. Jimmy’s fingers move gently against his scalp, and his eyes slide closed. He feels suddenly tired, like a man who’s taken a running leap off a cliff, only to land in the cradle of the ocean’s treacherous arms.

When he opens his eyes, Jimmy is looking at him solemnly. There is a flicker of something else, but he quickly shutters it away.

“I – I don’t know why I did that.”

Thomas looks at him tenderly. “Perhaps you do.”

Jimmy smiles, a soft, sad smile Thomas has never seen before, and briefly presses his forehead against Thomas’ temple. He smells of smoke and sweat. Then he pulls away.

“Jimmy – please,” Thomas’ voice breaks and he stops. He tries again, “Please.”

Jimmy opens his mouth, closes it, shakes his head.

Walks away.

+++

Thomas wakes before light with a taste like ash in his mouth. He dresses but avoids the kitchens entirely, attending to his morning duties with such gravitas that Mrs. Hughes stops him in the hallway with a hand on his elbow. “Thomas, is everything alright?”

“Of course, Mrs. Hughes,” he says, nodding a little absently, noticing a patch of mildew that’s begun to creep along the cornice of the wall.

“My, I thought you might have had some bad news. You look as though someone’s died.”

Thomas looks at her. “Who do I have to lose?”

She tilts her head, but is stopped from answering by a hall boy, who interrupts them with an odd little bow. “Mr. Barrow, sir, the laborers are here to repair the window. Mr. Carson is asking for you.”

“Of course he is. There’s more than one?”

“Just the pair, Mr. Barrow, sir.” He nods again and Thomas claps him on the shoulder. “Thank you, lad.”

Downstairs, Mrs. Patmore is pouring tea for two men from the village. Thomas doesn’t recognize them, but they each give him a look that makes the back of his neck prickle. He nods at them. “Gentlemen.”

They follow him up to the third floor, muttering in low voices behind him. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but the sharp tug of alarm in his stomach twists uncomfortably. He knows what men who look at him like that want to do to him.

He squares his shoulders, raising his chin, and opens the door to the bedroom, trying to ignore the clamoring in his head. Inside the room, Jimmy stands facing the broken window, but he turns when he hears the door click open. His eyes flick over to the village men and then back to Thomas. “I only wanted to make sure everything was alright,” he says, in a subdued voice. The men are quiet, no longer muttering.

Thomas stares. “It will be.” He feels a sudden urgency that Jimmy not be there, that the men not be near Jimmy, not even know of his existence. “Let’s let these gentleman get to work, shall we?” He points to the rope pull in the corner of the room. “If you need me, you can call for me on that.”

One of the men smirks. “And you’ll come running, will you?”

Years of service war against a mouth that has gotten him on the wrong end of a fist, and worse, and he bites his tongue and simply nods. He gestures for Jimmy to follow him.

Once out of hearing distance, Jimmy rounds on him. “What was that about?” He looks unsure if he should feel worried or angry.

“Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

“Oh, is that how it’s going to be then?”

Thomas stops. “Isn’t it?”

Jimmy’s mouth twists into something hard and bitter. “You know nothing, Thomas.”

“Perhaps that’s true.”

Jimmy swallows, looking back over his shoulder. “Did those men in there – did they say something to you?”

“No,” he bites out. And then, “They didn’t need to.”

Jimmy stays silent, looking nonplussed.

Feeling ungracious, Thomas leans closer. “Have you ever had a man look at you like he’d like to kiss you and then kill you, Jimmy?”

Jimmy flinches, a whole body shudder that thrums through him. “Jesus,” he mutters. “The things you say…”

Thomas shrugs, but his heart is pounding. “You know a thing or two about kissing and killing, though, don’t you?”

Jimmy’s face hardens, and he shoves at Thomas, pushes him back against the wall. “Don’t – don’t you talk about that. Not here, not now.” He’s breathing hard; Thomas can feel his chest heaving against his own. A dark thrill shudders through him, and he touches his tongue to his bottom lip, prodding at the sore spot from where he bit through soft flesh last night. Jimmy tracks the movement, his fingers clenched along the collar of Thomas’ jacket, and something tugs low in Thomas’ belly.

He leans his head back, baring his throat a little, and says, “What are you going to do about it, Jimmy?”

At his words, something shutters out of place in Jimmy, and he pulls back, loosening his grip on Thomas. “Nothing,” he says, and steps back, but before he can walk away again, Thomas does it for him.

Three floors down, out of sight, he leans against the closed door of an empty room, and breathes again.

+++

The next few days pass in a slow blister, the heat of the house cloying and maddening, until even Mr. Carson succumbs and allows the servants to take the afternoons off. It’s too hot to go anywhere or do anything though, so mostly they congregate in the basement, waiting for time to pass and subsisting off of the chipped ice Mrs. Patmore serves with sweet syrup. Thomas makes himself scarce and remembers how strange it is that a house with so many rooms can be so suffocating. The last time he’d felt this way, he’d signed up to carry the dead in a war that he no longer pretends to have understood.

When Mrs. Patmore’s stock of syrup runs dry, Thomas seizes the opening and offers to go into the village. Mr. Carson looks at him skeptically, but Thomas, thinking quickly, holds up his gloved hand. “I need a new glove, anyways,” he says, smiling tightly. “This one’s all frayed and coming apart,” he adds, and it works; Mr. Carson holds up a hand against further explanation and bids him to leave.

He makes it as far as the edge of the property, then turns when he hears Jimmy call his name.

Thomas looks at him. “You following me?” He smiles, baring his teeth a little.

Jimmy laughs, but it sounds hollow. “Clever.” He shifts on his feet. “I wanted to bring you this,” he mutters, “just in case.” He holds out an umbrella.

Thomas looks up at the sky, which is wide and blue and entirely cloudless. He takes the umbrella from him. “Thank you, Jimmy.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“I’d never stop you.”

“No, you wouldn’t, would you?”

Thomas says nothing, squinting into the light. There isn’t anything to say. Jimmy falls in step beside him, and they walk on into the white sunshine. After a moment, Jimmy coughs. “Do you ever go to worship, Thomas?”

Thomas feels himself redden. He can’t know. “Not for some time, no.”

“My mother took us to church every Sunday.” He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I can still recite The Holy Rosary, though I haven’t gone since me parents died.”

Thomas stares. “You’re Catholic?” At Jimmy’s nod, he says disbelievingly, “But all those times Mr. Carson –,” Jimmy snorts. “Only -- you never said.”

“No one’s business but my own.”

Thomas is thoughtful for a moment. “Why’re you telling me now?”

“Dunno.” He palms the back of his neck, looking away. “Just been thinking on it, I guess. You wouldn’t believe it now, I know, but I prayed a lot during the war. I didn’t even realize I was doing it, most of the time.”

Thomas considers him for a moment, and then says, quietly, “Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.”

“That’s – that’s the Prayer to St. Michael,” Jimmy says, voice a little far away, as if he’s thinking of something else, but then he turns to look at Thomas. “You’re telling me you were brought up Catholic, as well?”

Thomas nods. “I used to recite it, when I were in the trenches.”

“And now?”

“And now…now, I have other things to worship and despair of.” He watches the toes of his shoes, growing dustier as they walk. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Jimmy turns his face away, a shiver running through his shoulders.

They walk the rest of the way in silence, two figures striding along the shoulder of the road, the brief smudges of their narrow bodies winking in and out of the sun’s glare, until they reach edge of the village.

A little breathlessly, Jimmy nods at the bleached sign for the Grantham Arms. “Let’s get out of the heat, yeah?”

Thomas nods agreeably, ambling along beside Jimmy. Inside, the pub is warm and stale, but blessedly dim, and Thomas moves in relief toward the bar, ordering them each a pint while Jimmy slides into a nearby booth.

“Ta,” Jimmy says, as he moves to set one of the full glasses down in front of him, froth sloshing a bit over the edges.

“Aha!” Jimmy crows, reaching out to catch the dripping edges with his finger, “That’s not the service I expect of a Downton underbutler, Mr. Barrow.” He sucks on his finger, watching Thomas with laughing eyes. So, this is how it is to be, Thomas thinks.

“And what services would you expect me to perform, Mr. Kent, if I were your servant?”

Jimmy’s breath hitches, but he holds Thomas’ gaze. “Oh, all the usual ones, I’d expect.”

Thomas takes a sip of his beer, if only to hide the sudden tremble in his hands. “Like dressing you in the mornings and taking off your clothes in the evenings, perhaps?”

Jimmy swallows. “Yes, and…taking care of other things.”

“Polishing your boots, I’m sure.”

“You would be with me, at my side, whenever I needed you.” Jimmy looks away, face suddenly tense.

“Yes,” Thomas says, slowly, “I would be yours to command.” He has a sudden image of him on his knees beside Jimmy, and heat tugs at him. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out two cigarettes, passing one to Jimmy, who is staring at him intently again.

“I like to smoke in the evenings,” he says suddenly, and Thomas is confused for a moment until Jimmy continues. “I’d call you to my room, so you could bring me a cigarette. I’d be sitting in a grand, leather chair by the fire and you’d come and kneel next to me.” He swallows. “You’d reach out --,” he nods, cigarette clinging to his lips, and Thomas raises the lighter to Jimmy’s mouth. “Mmm, and you’d light it for me.”

Thomas flicks the lighter until a flame appears. “Like this?”

Jimmy reaches up to balance the lighter; three of his fingers imprint the briefest of touches on the inside of Thomas’ wrist. He inhales, cheeks hollowing, and then exhales a thin line of smoke. “Mm, yes, like that.”

Thomas raises his shaky hand to his own unlit cigarette and lights it; out of the corner of his eye, he sees the two laborers from the village, staring openly at them. He shifts his glance away, pretends not to have seen them, but he can still feel the sear of their gaze on the back of his neck. His fingers are trembling now for a different reason, and he presses them to the tabletop. The pub is a bit busier than it normally would be at midday, filled with villagers taking refuge against the heat and advantage of the lazy pace of summer. They wouldn’t…not here with so many people watching, Thomas reasons, heart ticking like a clock. But the walk back to the Abbey is long, filled with stretches of bare land where two servants could easily disappear with no one to witness it.

“Listen to me, Jimmy,” Thomas says, watching out of the corner of his eye as the two men shift in their seats restlessly. “It’s time to go.”

Jimmy looks nonplussed. “What are you talking about? We’ve only just got here.”

“I know, and I’m sorry for this,” Thomas says, speaking quickly. “In the corner – don’t look – there are two men wanting to make trouble for us, and it’s best if we leave before anything comes of it.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“Sod that,” Jimmy says, taking a drag off his cigarette. “I’m not afraid of them.”

“Well, I don’t fancy having my face beat in again,” he says, ignoring Jimmy’s look of chagrin. “We’ll figure something out, but not today.”

Jimmy breathes through his nose, deeply irritated. “Fine.”

“Thank you.” Thomas stubs out his cigarette. “Stay near me.”

“I don’t need --,” he starts, but Thomas interrupts him, impatient. “And if I say run, we run, understood?”

Something like fear flashes across Jimmy’s face for the first time, and he nods, straightening his shoulders.

The pub hums with the low murmur of people talking and laughing, but through a haze of heat and cigarette smoke, Thomas sees the men stand as they rise and make towards the exit. “Fuck,” he mutters, thinking hard. He realizes he’s left the umbrella in the booth, and his stomach turns over. He quickens his pace just slightly, and is grateful that Jimmy matches him. He can see the men threading their way through tables and patrons, easily and unhurried.

Outside, he takes Jimmy’s arm and leads him quickly down a side street, off the main road. Jimmy waves him off, but stays near his side. “Thomas, tell me what the hell is going on,” he snaps.

Thomas shushes him, “Later. Be quiet,” he says, but his voice is still gentle, as it always is when he speaks to Jimmy, even when fear is tripping along his veins and making the rest of the world hazy and sharp at the same time.

The end of the street branches off in two directions – one a dead-end alley and the other the back lot of the butcher’s shop. Ignoring the sign asking people not to trespass, he leads them behind the butcher’s, thinking to loop around on the other side and find the main path back to the Abbey again further on up the road.

He stays close to the brick walls, listening closely. Behind him, Jimmy huffs impatiently, and Thomas relents and turns around, “Look, Jimmy, I’ll explain everything --”

“Just tell me what we’re doing.”

“Surviving.”

Jimmy looks at him, confusion knitted across his brow – then he raises his hand and carefully brushes his knuckles along the hard line of Thomas’ jaw, face etched with hunger. Thomas leans into the touch.

“Disgusting freaks of nature.”

Thomas jumps, startling at the voice behind him and pulling from Jimmy’s touch; he’s suddenly in the trenches again, the question of his life hanging before him. Next to him, Jimmy’s stance changes, his body suddenly tight like a cocked gun, and Thomas knows Jimmy feels it, too.

“Gentlemen,” Thomas says smoothly, stepping forward to angle his body in front of Jimmy. “We don’t want any trouble.”

But the men don’t seem very interested in discussing the matter – the taller one advances and reaches out for Thomas’ throat quicker than he could have thought. Panic unfurls in Thomas’ bones. “Run, Jimmy,” he shouts, again, and he dimly wonders how it can be that he is always telling this boy to run from him, but mostly he is concentrating on bringing his knee up into the man’s groin. Behind him, he can hear Jimmy scuffling and swearing, and he thinks, please, god, no, please, have mercy, a torturous litany in his brain, as the man slams him face first into the brick wall, wrenching his shoulder back.

His vision whites out for a moment, and when he comes back to himself, he can taste copper in his mouth and the man is spitting in his ear, “-- fucking sick, is what you are. You need to be taught a lesson, you goddamned abomination --,” but he stops suddenly as a noise like iron on stone splits through the air, and the man is wrenched off him. He turns and watches with horror as Jimmy brings a large brick down over the man’s head, still making that terrible sound.

The man goes down easily, almost gracefully, and when Jimmy raises the brick over his head again, Thomas lunges forward, his shoulder hanging painfully. The other man is kneeling with his hands over his right eye, blood streaming between his fingers. “C’mon, Jimmy,” he says, touching him carefully on his back, hand sliding up to take the brick from his fingers. “C’mon love, leave it, leave it.”

“Right,” Jimmy says, mouth a hard, tortured shape. Thomas drops the brick, and they run.

+++

They run until they can’t keep running, following the road at first but then branching into the woods, along the path that winds its way around the perimeter of the estate. They run until Thomas thinks he’ll faint from the pain in his shoulder, and he drops back and props himself against a tree. The sun is a blood red smear along the horizon and in the dimness of the woods, Jimmy is limned in dark light.

He stops running too, but his feet keep moving, pacing back and forth around Thomas like a caged animal. He’s breathing hard and running his hands through his hair compulsively. There’s a small spray of dark blood across his cheek, and Thomas knows it’s not his own.

Thomas reaches out a hand. “Jimmy.” He can feel himself slipping against the rough bark of the tree, his knees unsteady and aching.

Jimmy stops moving and faces him, and then he surges forward and presses his mouth against Thomas’, kissing him hard, his palm flat against Thomas’ cheek. Thomas responds in kind, pushing himself off the tree and into Jimmy’s embrace, kissing him like they’re dying, or cheating death; like they’re back in the trenches, the soldier’s minute making them hard and careless with each other’s injuries. Jimmy grips Thomas’ hair, propelling him backwards so forcefully that Thomas trips, and they fall backwards together, rolling to the ground gracelessly, mouths still hot and open against each other.

When Thomas realizes there are tears on Jimmy’s face, he pulls back. “Jimmy?”

“It’s nothing,” Jimmy says, wiping his face on his shoulder. The tears don’t stop.

“It’s alright, love,” Thomas says, tenderly, thumbing away the tears, kissing him on the corner of his mouth, the high, coveted point of his cheekbone. “I know, darling, it’s all alright.”

Jimmy suddenly hides his face in the crook of Thomas’ neck, his shoulders shaking. Thomas holds him, and when it’s over, Jimmy shudders, once, and then pulls away. “You’re hurt,” he says, as if just remembering.

“A bit,” Thomas says. The corners of his vision are dark with pain. “I just – ah – need you to put my shoulder back in place.”

“Jesus, but I – I don’t know how to do that.”

“It’s alright, I’m going to walk you through it.” He stops, panting a little. “Give me your belt.”

“My belt,” Jimmy says uncertainly, hands already pulling it from the loops in his pants. “Shall I tie it around your shoulder or summat?”

“No, just – just give it here. Now, come up on your knees so you have a bit of grounding. Good lad. Now put your hand here, right, just there on my bicep like, and the other there.” He smiles shakily up at Jimmy’s worried face. “You’re doing brilliantly, Jimmy.” He swallows. “Now, when I tell you, I want you to move my arm out, then up, and push until you feel it slide back into place, okay?”

“Right.”

“It’ll be alright, I promise. Now put the belt in my mouth.”

“Fuck, Thomas,” Jimmy curses, but he sets the wadded-up leather against Thomas’ teeth, and Thomas wants to tell him, I’m not afraid at all with you here, Jimmy. He doesn’t, though, and he doesn’t scream, not even when Jimmy pushes his shoulder back in too quickly and white heat sears through his bones.

“Good – good lad,” Thomas breathes, slumping back a little as relief and the new ache of ended pain flushes through him.

Jimmy catches him, shifting around to sit behind him and hold him up. “Better?”

“Yes,” Thomas breathes, reaching back with his good arm to run his thumb along the back of Jimmy’s neck. “Thank you.”

Thomas feels Jimmy set his chin into the crook of his shoulder again, nosing gently along his sweat-darkened hairline. “We should go,” he murmurs, quietly. Thomas can feel his lips moving along his skin.

“Yes.”

But neither of them move.

+++

When they finally do make it back to the Abbey, the evening is suffused in blue light, washing their skin deathly pale and ghost-like. Thomas hates it, decides that Jimmy should only ever be lit up in gold and yellow. They’d taken the wooded path back along to the Abbey, and Jimmy smells like earth and wood; Thomas imagines he smells much the same, and he holds that like a secret against his heart.

When they had stepped out from the cover of the trees and the Abbey had loomed up against the darkening sky, Jimmy had stopped short. “What are we going to say to the others?

“We’ll…we’ll just say there was a fight – that we were robbed. It would explain why we’ve come back without what we were meant to get, at least.”

“Thomas,” Jimmy says, with a spark of irritation. “Have you any common sense?”

Thomas bristles, “More ‘an you at least.”

Jimmy rolls his eyes and shakes his head, which Thomas thinks is taking it a bit far. “Lord, I’ve half a mind to hit you and kiss you all over again.”

“Not sure I can take much more hitting…at least, not today,” Thomas parries. “Try me again later.”

“Thomas.” Jimmy looks a little wild, and it’s not helped by the fact that he keeps running his hands through his hair.

“Look, we’ll – I’ll figure it out, alright?”

“Don’t do that. I’m not the only one here who needs protecting, Thomas.”

“I - don’t I know that?” Thomas gestures between them. Again, he sees Jimmy’s face, terrible and desperate, as he raised the brick high over his head. “God, I know that.”

“Right.”

“Well, what do you propose then?”

“I – I don’t know, Thomas!” He swipes his hand back through his hair again and Thomas wants to go to him. “All I know is – two men a-are murdered --,”

“We don’t --,”

“ -- and it won’t do for us to come back after dark looking beaten --,”

“We don’t know --,”

“- with nothin’ to say for ourselves.”

“We don’t know they’ve been – that they’re. Dead,” Thomas reasons. “And if they were – and truthfully, I don’t think they are -- there’s no cause for it to be traced back to us.”

Jimmy nods, looking very young, and Thomas does go to him this time, placing his hand along the curved line from Jimmy’s cheekbone down to the nape of his neck. “I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”

Jimmy swallows, eyes unhappy, and Thomas edges closer. “Now, we’re going to go in there, and tell them we took the train to Ripon, because the shop didn’t have the right glove for me, and that when we got there, we were robbed.” He pauses, looking out over the long lawn. “We had to walk and hitch our way back.”

Now, standing under the harsh light of the gas lamp in the kitchen courtyard, Thomas doesn’t feel so sure, but he nods when Jimmy looks to him, and opens the door. The hall is empty and for one brief, glinting moment Thomas dares to believe that they’re going to make it to their rooms without interference, but then Mr. Carson, always keen to dash Thomas’ hopes, rounds the corner looking grim.

He takes in their appearances. “An explanation.”

Mrs. Hughes, however, gasps and shoots a violent look at Mr. Carson. “Oh, mercy,” she says, stepping forward. “What’s happened? Shall we call for Dr. Clarkson?”

“No, no,” Thomas says, easily. “We’ll be fine.”

“We were robbed,” Jimmy says, stepping forward as well, and Thomas prays it doesn’t sound as rehearsed to their ears as it does to his.

“Yes,” he intervenes smoothly, “there was an incident – we were in Ripon --,”

Mr. Carson interrupts sharply. “What were you doing in Ripon?”

“For my glove,” Thomas says, holding up his hand. “The shop here didn’t have anything for me, so we decided to try Ripon, considering we had the afternoon off, of course. We made it there, but only that – we were robbed right outside the station, took us for all we had, and left us with a little more than we asked for,” he says, still talking easily and gesturing to the raw abrasions on his face.

“Heaven on earth, you’re lucky you made it out alive, it seems,” Mrs. Hughes says.

“Indeed,” Carson rejoins, still standing stiffly. “And someone took pity on you and paid your fare back?” Thomas starts to nod, but Mr. Carson continues. “Though it seems their sympathy didn’t extend to notifying the proper authorities.”

“Not exactly,” Jimmy counters. “We did – we did speak to the police. But our attackers had already gotten away, so there wasn’t much to be done.”

“Well, that’s that, then,” Mrs. Hughes says, eyeing Mr. Carson. “And, if the police wish to follow up, I take it they know where to find you, yes?” At their nod, she continues, “I’ll go and fetch the first aid kit – do you want some tea? Or perhaps something stiffer?” She ignores Mr. Carson’s affronted grunt, eyeing them expectantly.

But Thomas can only shake his head, attempting a polite smile, but mostly concentrating on not letting his knees give out in front of Mr. Carson. Behind him, Jimmy shuffles awkwardly. Mrs. Hughes leaves and, after a heavy silence, Mr. Carson sighs loudly and tuts, “Sit down, Thomas, before you give us all another strain.”

“Yes, sir,” he says, and drops down into the rocking chair by the fireplace. To his somewhat horrified astonishment, Mr. Carson reaches into his jacket and pulls out a small, ornately carved silver flask, which he passes to Thomas with a forbidding, “Not a word.”

The whiskey is rich and amber-flavored, and it leaves his chest feeling warm and loose – he considers another sip, but Mr. Carson hastily takes it back when they hear the sound of Mrs. Hughes’ approaching footsteps.

“Now,” she says, placing the heavy Red Cross emblazoned kit down on the table, “I’m no medic, but I’ve bandaged my share of scrapes and cuts in my day.”

“Actually,” Jimmy says, blushing a little, “I can do it. I had some training during the war,” he lies. “And -- whatever I don’t know, Thomas can walk me through it.”

There’s a hesitant moment of silence, but then Mrs. Hughes nods her head. “Very well. We’ll leave you to it, then.”

After they’ve left, Jimmy stretches his hand out and runs his fingers across the dusty top. “Let’s go to your room,” he says, voice low.

They trudge upstairs in the dark, feet following a familiar path – avoiding the creaky third step, the gouge along the floor from when one of the hall boys had dropped a fire iron. No one knows a house like its servants, Thomas thinks, and then blinks, trying to dislodge the thought and the sudden, acute pinprick of pain that surfaces with it.

Jimmy pauses on the threshold of his room. With his back turned, Thomas says nothing, only considers the sparse, neat corners of his cot, but when Jimmy steps through to his bedroom and closes the door behind him, Thomas remembers to breathe. He turns and smiles at Jimmy, who attempts a smile back, but mostly ends up grimacing shakily.

Thomas takes the first aid kit from him. “Go on, sit,” he says, nodding towards the cot, and Jimmy does. Thomas wets a cloth from his water carafe and then pulls the chair up in front of Jimmy, close enough that their knees could touch, but they don’t.

Carefully, he dabs at the cut on Jimmy’s lip, the raw scrape just above his eye. He works quickly and efficiently, applying antiseptic and bandaging the deeper wounds. Jimmy’s fingers are clenched tightly on his knees. “Don’t forget to breathe,” Thomas murmurs, a little tenderly.

Jimmy laughs breathlessly, and it’s the same noise he makes when Thomas catches him pretending he doesn’t feel insecure, and before he can stop himself, Thomas leans over and kisses him, a brief, dry press of lips. “M’sorry,” he says, automatically, but Jimmy catches him around the back of his neck and pulls him back in close, so that their lips are just barely touching. “Don’t,” he breathes, “I want - god, don’t make me say it.”

He takes Thomas’ hand and presses the palm flat to his chest, where Thomas can feel the cacophony of his heart. “Jimmy,” Thomas says, something uneven and raw splitting inside of him, “You can have me. In every way possible.”

With great care, Thomas leans down and touches his lips to the same spot where his hand had been, but it’s only for a moment, as in the same breath, Jimmy reaches over and hauls him up to kiss him. He brings his hand up to palm Thomas’ jaw and to gently coax his mouth open so he can press his tongue inside. Thomas makes a desperate kind of noise, pulled from a well of longing inside of him.

“Shit,” Jimmy mutters, eyes wide, and he grips the back of Thomas’ head so that his throat is bared. He licks a wide stripe from the base of Thomas’ clavicle, up the long line of his neck, and along his cheek. “I know a little,” he admits, “of what men do together.” He slides his thumb forward until it rests over the tender hollow of Thomas’ throat. “I know what I might like to do to you,” he says, and his voice is low and rusty, reveling in the secret words.

Thomas shudders, a keening rising in his throat. He feels marked, taken, and he reaches out to slide his hand up the inside of Jimmy’s thigh, along the seam of his trousers. “Let me take care of you,” he says, voice pitched low.

Jimmy’s hips flex up convulsively into Thomas’ touch, but he gasps, “Wait, wait,” and Thomas stops, immediately. “Just – just. Fix the door, first,” he says, and Thomas rises without thinking and crosses to bolt the door. His pulse feels spiky underneath his skin.

When he turns back, Jimmy is there, eyes dark, chest bared. The cuts on his face are livid against the white of his skin, and he looks at Thomas from under heavy-lidded eyes. “Come here, Thomas,” he says, and Thomas goes to him, slides his hand down over the planes of his chest, along the smooth skin of his stomach, palm coming to rest at the jut of his hip bone, thumbing the hard line of muscle he finds there.

“You don’t – don’t be gentle with me,” Jimmy protests. “I’m no girl,” he says, and he puts his palm over Thomas’ hand and moves it between his legs, to the hard line of his cock. Thomas hisses, desire etched into his bones. He drops to his knees.

“Oh,” Jimmy breathes.

Thomas looks up at him, his face full of wanting, and is – despite everything – surprised to find that it’s like looking into a mirror. Thomas feels hazy with desire, and before he knows what he’s doing, he drops his forehead to Jimmy’s thigh. He wants to put his mouth on him, but he waits, still staring up at Jimmy. “Let me --,” he stops and starts again. “Tell me, Jimmy.”

Jimmy opens his mouth to answer, but cannot – instead, he too drops to his knees and, with a desperateness Thomas didn’t know he was capable of, throws his arms around Thomas’ shoulders. “Just --,” he says tightly, “let’s just be like this.”

“O – o’ course, love,” Thomas soothes, wrapping his own arms around Jimmy carefully. When Jimmy squirms closer, Thomas tightens his hold. He can feel Jimmy breathing against his neck, can feel his chest rising and falling against his own.

“Will you touch me, Thomas?” Jimmy says, finally, brushing his lips against Thomas’ neck, moving his open mouth up to slide over Thomas’ jaw, to press unhurried kisses just under the curve of his ear.

“If I do, I might not be able to stop,” Thomas confesses, but he’s already moving his hands, sliding them across the span of Jimmy’s ribs, then dipping his fingertips below the waistband of Jimmy’s trousers, which causes Jimmy to suck in his belly and cry out, “Oh, god, go on – please, go on,” and Thomas does, undoing the fastening and shimmying them down Jimmy’s hips. Jimmy tries to do the same, until they’re all arms and legs and Jimmy giggling, honestly giggling, and Thomas never knew, in all his years, that this could be fun.

“Look at you,” Jimmy says, breathlessly, when he’s finally got Thomas laid out beneath him and shucked of his shirt, his undershirt rucked up to reveal belly and chest, his trousers and pants pulled down to his thighs. The floor is cool against Thomas’ back, but he blushes from his cheeks to his sternum, angles his hips a bit to try to hide from view his groin, his hard cock, except Jimmy plants his hand on Thomas’ hip and pushes him back, looking him up and down with something like wonder. “You’re always so buttoned up,” he muses, grazing his fingers in circles over Thomas’ skin, “I like you like this, all out of sorts.”

Thomas leans up and kisses him. “You do make a ruin of me,” he says softly, meaningfully, but it just makes Jimmy smirk triumphantly and duck his head to suck a kiss along the arches of Thomas’ collarbones. Thomas curves up under him like a fern following sunlight, and his thigh brushes against Jimmy’s hard cock, making them both gasp.

“I think you’ll like this,” Thomas guesses, and he tightens his arm to pull Jimmy in closer so that he can reach down with his other hand and align their cocks together in his fist. Jimmy makes a sound Thomas revels in. “Yes,” he hisses, “that’s it,” and Jimmy begins to rock his hips against Thomas, so that they’re moving together in a way Thomas never even dared to dream of, bodies bending and bowing against each other. Jimmy leans over to kiss him but doesn’t quite make it, mouth hot and open, panting against him, a high flush on his cheekbones, every part of him trembling. “Thomas,” he groans, fingers flexing and tightening against Thomas’ skin, “I can’t –.”

“That’s it, sweetheart,” Thomas says, kissing his temple, and Jimmy falls apart and comes, moaning in the back of his throat, pulse a thunderbeat under his skin. He rolls his forehead back and forth a little wildly over Thomas’ chest, breath coming hard.

Thomas stills under him, the pull of desire hot and heavy in his belly. He resists the urge to bring his hand up and lick away Jimmy’s release, instead watches as Jimmy surfaces back to himself. He wants to remember this moment.

Jimmy, though, looks up at him under his lashes, eyes hot and dark. “Now, you,” he commands, and he shifts until he’s sitting astride Thomas’s thighs. “Touch yourself, Thomas,” he says, and Thomas does, feeling as though he can only ever do as Jimmy commands, as Jimmy wishes.

He reaches out for Jimmy with his other hand, unable to look away, not wanting to look away but feeling far too seen. Jimmy leans forward and takes his hand, presses it back against the floor near Thomas’ head, and it hurts a little, so that Thomas moans, quickening the hand moving between his legs. “I’d let you,” Thomas says, frantically, “Oh, Jimmy, I’d let you sod me.” Jimmy chokes, and presses down harder on Thomas’ hand. Thomas can feel his knuckles grinding against the wooden floor. “I’d get down on my knees for you,” he says, feeling his release coiling in his belly. “I’d let you bend me over the dining room table where everyone could see, and they’d know that I’m yours, that I take it for you, only you --,” but his litany is cut short when Jimmy grips his chin and kisses him, harsh and wanting. When he sets his teeth against the tender flesh of Thomas’ bottom lip, Thomas comes, spilling between his fingers and across his belly. Jimmy moans.

“Thomas,” he breathes. It’s not a question, Thomas realizes, and he grips the back of Jimmy’s neck, panting in time with him. He’s never had anyone say his name like an answer, like a prayer.

After a moment, Jimmy slides off of him, wincing a little. Thomas flexes his hand underneath its glove, an ache blossoming from the center of his scarred palm and out into each of his fingers to match the one in his shoulder. Jimmy catches the movement out of the corner of his eye and guilt passes over his features. Thomas touches his bare thigh. “I wanted it, Jimmy,” he says, quietly, but it doesn’t ease the look of trouble that settles around Jimmy’s mouth.

He stands, and Thomas rises with him, watching him. “Do I,” he swallows, “do I just go back to my room now?”

“If you wish to,” Thomas says. Jimmy nods, and looks around for his shirt. “Only, I would like it if you’d stay, truthfully.”

“Oh,” Jimmy says. He sits abruptly on the narrow cot.

“Only if you want to.”

“I do. Want.”

“You’ll have to wake before the alarm. To go back to your room.”

“Alright.”

“The bed is quite small.”

“I can see that.” Jimmy smiles up at him. “Do you not want me to stay, Thomas?”

Thomas considers him. “Have you ever wanted something for a very long time, Jimmy?” He crosses to sit next to him on the cot; hands clasped, head bowed, studying the shape of his fingers. “Wanted something for so long that you stopped considering what it might be like to have it, only knew the wanting? And then, when you had stopped even daring to hope… to have it freely given?”

Thomas glances over at Jimmy, whose cheeks are tinged with pink. He shakes his head wordlessly.

Thomas breathes out. “It’s terrifying,” he says, with a sad, humorless laugh.

Jimmy says nothing. He stands and puts out the lights, one by one, until only the low glow of the moonlight through the windows is left, and then he turns and places his hands on Thomas’ shoulders and bids him to lie backwards. “Go on,” he says softly, and Thomas does, reaching up to pull Jimmy down with him, until they lie pressed against each other, held in one another’s arms.

Jimmy is quiet next to him for several long moments, long enough that Thomas thinks he may have fallen asleep, but then he feels Jimmy reach for his hand to clasp their fingers together, and Thomas closes his eyes.

+++

In the morning, Thomas wakes alone to the sound of his door clicking shut. He dresses quickly and quietly. Outside, the courtyard is lit up with white sunlight, and he shivers in the cool air. The family will return soon, he thinks, and he lights a cigarette. He smokes it, watching the paper burn and curl away, become ash.

At breakfast, he turns to Mr. Carson and asks, “That little egg trinket that was in the third floor corridor, did you find out if one of the housemaids had taken it for cleaning?”

Mr. Carson blinks at him. “Thomas, that “egg-trinket” as you so delightfully continue to call it, is one of the original designs delivered to Tsar Alexander personally by Fabergé himself. It is unutterably rare and valuable, now more than ever, and, no,” he says, with a deeply disgruntled sigh, “it was not taken to be cleaned. Mrs. Hughes finished questioning the housemaids yesterday.” He looks very dejected. “You’re quite sure it went missing after the window was repaired?”

Thomas looks at him with wide eyes. “Yes, Mr. Carson. It was there before the laborers arrived,” he says, “and I came to you as soon as I noticed it was gone that evening.”

Down the table, Jimmy upends his tea cup, earning him a glare from Mr. Carson. Thomas ignores it, his heart thumping in his chest. Everything turns to ash when it’s burned, he thinks, a little wildly, even precious relics.

Mr. Carson turns to Mrs. Hughes, a grim look on his face. “Very well, I’ll phone the constable personally,” he intones, and he rises, causing a flurry of movement.

Later that day, Jimmy corners him. “That was a pretty performance this morning, Thomas.”

Thomas glances over his shoulder, but they’re alone. “I told you,” he says, “that I would take care of it.”

“Right,” Jimmy says, looking a little unnerved.

“Are you angry?”

“No.”

“It’s no less than they deserve,” he says, voice shaking. He reaches up and gently thumbs the bruising that’s bloomed along Jimmy’s cheekbone. Jimmy closes his eyes.

“Thomas,” he says, voice solemn. “Do you know what it’s like to go for so long with no one to love you, that you start to believe yourself unloveable? And then, to wake one morning, only to find someone setting fires in your name?”

Thomas says nothing. Jimmy cups his face. His breath is hot on Thomas’ cheek, but his voice is steady as he says, “I’m bloody terrified, too, my love,” and when he kisses him, hidden there in an untouchable corner, Thomas has never felt so safe.