“What is this?” Richard’s fingers catch the unsewn edges of the old footman’s glove that covers the shame of Thomas’s left hand.
He feels his face go hot, the way it often does when anyone’s eyes linger there too long. The way it does when others pointedly avoid touching it when passing a tray, a note, a cigarette.
They’d discussed the war in their letters—it appears even those in the service of the King were not exempt from its grasp, in one form or another—but not his injury. It’s something he wished he could ignore speaking of for as long as possible. But it was simple of him to think he’d never have to explain. Surely it had been noticed during their first meeting. During the royal visit. Its dressing wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, but it was the best he could do, and it was only proper for both his career and the safety of everyone’s constitution—including his own—to keep it covered.
Thomas widens his fingers as far as the injury will allow.
“The crowning glory of a self-serving coward,” he answers, glaring at it held there between them.
Richard shifts to prop himself on his elbow, grinning wryly. The smell of the crisp clean sheets blooms around them, crushed close together in the narrowness of Thomas’s bed, knees twined.
The hallway had quieted hours ago, and Thomas is sure the only light breaking the darkness comes from under his door.
(He’d been like a giddy schoolboy in his bed for an entire hour after the lights had been put out, feeling silly in his pajamas, waiting for his guest to decide, from his own room, that the coast was clear and make his way over. Richard had crept inside with practiced ease, both of them grinning like it was Christmas Day.)
Richard meets his eyes, brushes a lock of black hair from his face, fallen from its typical polished sweep. He lifts his chin, nearly making Thomas laugh, and feigns curiosity. “I don’t see him in you at all.”
Thomas smiles sadly and looks away. “He’s there. Dormant, I suppose, but sometimes so loud it scares me.”
Richard takes a few more moments to watch him, fingers tracing at the edges of the altered piece of livery. His gaze shifts there again and his fingers close about Thomas’s wrist to turn his palm upwards.
“It is a bit ghastly,” Thomas says, not really to deter him, but prepare him.
“Is it painful?”
“Only when the weather’s cold. Or when I overwork it. Or when I’m tired…”
Yes—he should’ve said, if he were being truthful—but he manages it. He had been too greedy and unfeeling to see it then, but he now knows to be happy that he has use of it at all.
“Do you not want me to…?”
“Go on, then.”
Richard pulls at the edges. Thomas’s good hand comes up to help him, and he crumples the wrapping in his fist while his stomach churns with unease when the thing is put to light.
It’s discolored and angry as ever, a grotesque ripple at the center of his palm, a web of scars crawling over the rest of the skin. Thomas turns his hand, showing the palm and the back, perhaps in hopes that he can have a good look and they can put this entire matter to rest once and for all.
Richard touches the edge of his hand, the space between his little finger and his wrist, gaze unflinching as he observes it.
“Told you it was hideous.”
But he blanches and his heart goes to his throat when lips brush the worst place, right at the center of the back of his hand, where the skin is most knotted and gnarled.
The action is repeated on his palm, soft and warm. A thumb traces what’s left of his heart line.
Richard blinks up at him under short lashes. He smiles, so handsome in the lamplight. “Was that strange?”
Thomas has to collect his mind and the breath stuck in his chest before answering. “I don’t think so.”
It sounds uncertain, as if someone’s asked him if he thinks the weather calls for rain tomorrow.
Richard’s fingers fall away and he tips his head next to Thomas’s on the one pillow.
“We’ve all done things we regret,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding the people who are good enough to forgive it.”
“And are you?” Thomas closes and opens his fingers, as if he could capture the kiss there. Pin it to his palm for when someone gives a sideways glance or when his grip trembles around a wine bottle.
He feels Richard’s eyes on him, his breath close to his ear, can sense his perennial smile set there against his cheek. “Am I what?”
Richard hums, pretending to consider. “Do you think I am?”
“Yes,” Thomas says decidedly, nearly longingly.
“And the people here at Downton, they’re good too.”
“Yes. More than I give them credit for, probably. All except for one particular old toad.”
Richard snorts and nuzzles his nose against Thomas’s jaw. “It seems you have no choice, then, with all the good around you, to dare to think it could be yours, too.”
Thomas tips his chin, turning his face to his bed partner’s, their lips daringly close. He feels hot tears prick his senses, but swallows them down, easy and practiced.
“Perhaps,” he says, and hopes his voice does not betray him. Decides not to care if it does.
He reaches, finding the curve of Richard’s cheek, and closes the space between them.
The lamp gets put out one way or another, and the room goes dark, but Thomas lays awake, feeling the warmth of someone dear, thinking on the simplicity, the terror, the ease of that one word.