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rivers and roads (til i reach you)

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It’s two years after their first meeting when Richard tells Thomas that he loves him.  They’re sitting in a park, watching ducks swim back and forth on a pond. The two of them are sitting just far enough apart to keep up the right appearances, but there’s nothing subtle in the way Richard is looking at Thomas.  Richard is so rarely entirely serious, always with some air of mischief about him, so this rare moment of earnestness catches Thomas off guard. Richard’s just been looking at him for a while, and Thomas can feel his gaze, so he looks back, and Richard just keeps staring at him.

 

He can’t imagine what for.

 

“What?”  Thomas asks, rubbing the back of his neck, self conscious.

 

“I love you, you know,”  Richard says, and the words are soft and careful but earnest all the same, and Thomas’s breath catches.  To hear those words, directed at him, of all people, feels like a miracle. 

 

“I love you, too,”  he says, in return, and they’re words that come easily, because he’s been feeling them for a while -- holding them in.  Maybe he was waiting for Richard to take that step first.  

 

He loves that Richard isn’t afraid of taking the lead -- of blowing past all of Thomas’s hesitation and fear, and taking him by surprise. 


They just sit there enjoying the moment for a few minutes, until Thomas speaks up again.  “Have to get going, I’m afraid,” Thomas stands up, brushing his pants. “Train will be here soon.”  

 

Richard nods, and stands, and walks him to the station, and Thomas watches him from the window until he is too small to see.

 

Two visits in two years, always over so quickly.  

 

It’s enough because it has to be

 

----

 

George rushes into the butler’s pantry, ball in hand, and stops short when he sees Thomas leaning on the wall, looking at a letter.   Thomas looks over at the boy as he stops just in front of him, looking up. He’s all of eight years old and he still considers Thomas a friend, and something in Thomas’s heart grows a few sizes whenever the young master stops in.  

 

“Who is the letter from?”  George asks, going up on his tiptoes, trying to get a glimpse of the page.

 

Thomas folds the letter, gently, and puts it in his pocket.  “A friend.”  

 

“That’s nice.  My friends don’t write me letters,”  George muses.


“Well, Master George, most of your friends live here, so there isn’t a need,”  Thomas reasons.

“I suppose so.  It would be quite odd if I started writing letters to you or Sybbie,”  George throws his ball up, and catches it. “Your friend lives far away?”

“In London, mostly,”  Thomas tells him, not entirely sure why he’s talking to a child about this, but figuring there’s no harm in his curiosity about his butler having a friend, as long as that’s all he knows that Richard is.  

 

George nods at this, then changes topics, holding up the ball.  “Can you come play with me?”

 

Thomas nods, because he’s always been helpless when it comes to Master George and his whims.  Something about growing a bit older has made him soft. He’s as bad as Carson. “Alright, Master George, but we can’t make it look too fun or we will distract the footmen.”  The last time all three of them had joined in and nothing had been accomplished for half an afternoon.  

 

“I’ll be sure to keep a serious face so they don’t see we’re having fun,”  George tells him, forming his expression into an exaggeratedly stoic look.  

 

Thomas holds back a laugh, ruffling the lad’s hair.  “I’m sure that will do the trick.”

 

The footmen do end up joining in, and Branson, as well, with Sybbie, when they return from a walk and  Thomas laughs to think of what Carson would think if he could see the picture they made.

 

----

 

“I wish we could go dancing,”  Thomas tells Richard, one night.  Richard snuck him up to his room, and it’s dangerous and foolish but most of the other staff are away with the Royals on an excursion.  Thomas looks around the little room, and it’s a miracle to be here and together, but sometimes he wants more.  

 

It’s not against the law to hope.

 

Richard sighs, and brushes Thomas’s cheek with his hand.  Thomas leans into his touch. “I’m sorry,” Richard breathes.  Thomas takes his hand, winding their fingers together, and looks down at them.  

 

“I’m thankful for what we have  -- don’t want you to think otherwise,”  he says. “But I can’t help but imagine more.  Do you think things will ever change, for people like us?”   

 

“I don’t know if we will ever live to see it, but I have to believe things will change one day,”  Richard says, and he stands, pulling Thomas up with him. He pulls him close, humming a tune and swaying to his own music.  “For now, no reason why we can’t have a dance.”  

 

Thomas presses close to him, cheek to cheek, and closes his eyes, focusing on the sound of Richard’s voice and the scent of him.  

 

They might not have everything he wishes they did, but they have love, and it’s worth holding onto.

 

----

 

There’s enough going on around Downton to keep Thomas busy, and the years go by, some quicker than others.  

 

His real life is lived in short bursts, here and there, in rare moments and glimpses.  

 

----

 

He throws his arms around Richard and hugs him, and it’s hardly proper but he can’t find it within him to resist the urge.  There aren’t many people around, and maybe he’s gotten a little less careful over the years. Eight years of goodbyes have come and gone and it gets harder every time.  

 

They see each other once over the period of a year or two -- never for very long at a time.  They have to be careful, and Thomas’s job doesn’t lend itself to easy time off. He usually has to wait until there’s a plausible errand he can use as an excuse.

 

“I love you,”  Richard whispers, quiet and careful, and Thomas still feels this little thrill when he hears those words, directed at him of all people.  

 

He steps back, towards the train, and forces a smile on his face, because he wants to leave Richard with that.  This thing between them shouldn’t be a sad thing. “Until next time,” he says, with a wave of his hand. Richard tips his hat and turns around, and Thomas watches as he walks away, fading into the distance.  

 

They have letters and phone calls and visits here and there, but it’s starting to feel like it isn’t enough anymore. 

 

----

 

One winter, Thomas gets sicker than he can ever remember being.  He remembers little of what happens to him for the space of a couple of weeks, he’s so in and out of consciousness, with a fever that doesn't seem to want to leave him.  

 

When he wakes up, he finds Lady Mary, of all people,  sitting nearby and paging through a book. She looks up when she hears him rustling the sheets.  “George wouldn’t leave you unless I promised to sit here and watch you,” Lady Mary tells him, when she catches his bemused expression.  “He’s been quite worried.”


“Sorry about that, m’lady,”  Thomas says, voice rough and faint to his own ears.  


“Oh, don’t be.  You’ve been there for him all his life, only makes sense that he would want to be there for you,”  Mary says. “He cares a great deal about you. I suppose we all do,” the last thought seems to surprise her.  She stands, putting down the book she had been reading. “I’m going to go get Andy to call the doctor and tell him you’ve woken up.”  

 

Later, George finds him, still in bed.  He’s sixteen now and he looks so much like his father: tall and blond and bright eyes.  He just stares at Thomas for a bit, before speaking up:


“You kept calling for a ‘Richard’ when you were sleeping.”  

 

Thomas’s eyes go a little wide, for a moment, before he schools his expression into something neutral.  “Oh yes -- Richard, well, he’s an old friend.”  

 

George watches him again, falling quiet for a moment too long.  “I know, about you,” he says, when he finally breaks the silence,  and Thomas gets this sick, panicked feeling, because if he knows what Thomas fears he knows, it’s not something that people ever want to know about him -- it rarely goes well for him, but George touches his hand briefly, to put him at ease.  “It’s okay. I know. You can be truthful with me. My mother told me about you, when I was talking to her the other day,” a breath. “You love him?”

 

Thomas sighs, and nods, and George gets this sad look on his young face.  “I wish things were different for you.”

 

“I’ve had that wish for a long time, Master George,”  Thomas forces a little smile on his face, to try and put the boy at ease.  “It’s alright.”

 

George shakes his head, and stands up.  “Well, I’m glad you’ve woken up. Get some rest.”

 

“Alright, Dr. Crawley,”  Thomas waves him off, and George rolls his eyes.  

 

----

 

A week later finds him sitting outside, in the open air.  He’s feeling more himself, finally. Andy’s been running things, and doing an alright job of it with Anna’s help, but Thomas is eager to take the mantle up again.  He misses being in command of the ship -- misses feeling whole and useful.  

 

Soon enough.

 

There are flowers blooming all around him, and he gets lost in looking around at them.  He’s glad to be back in the world, feeling alive.  

 

He’s lucky.  Things almost went another way.

 

He sees Mary and George walking up the path towards him, and when he catches sight of the man in between them that he feels like the wind has been knocked out of him.  

 

Richard. 

 

He must be seeing things.

 

He puts a hand to his forehead.  He must have a fever. 


But then, there he is, right in front of him.  Richard, smiling an easy smile, a few more lines on his face but no less handsome.  

 

This is real .

 

“Thomas, I think you’ll remember Mr. Ellis,” Mary says, smoothly, as if she doesn’t know exactly what she is doing.  In contrast, George is barely keeping his cool, almost jumping out of his skin as his gaze shifts between Thomas and Richard, eyes sparkling.  Mary puts a hand on his arm, and he stills, somewhat, but still keeps his gaze trained on Thomas. “He is going to be working here, starting today.  He felt he could use the country air and a change of pace.”  

 

“I believe I do remember him,”  Thomas says, once he catches his breath, and he can’t even control the smile breaking across his face, no matter how he tries.  “Nice to have you on board, Mr. Ellis. I’ll give you the tour in a bit.” He stands up, and offers Richard his hand, and he shakes it.  

 

It’s real .

 

Mary nods.  “Yes, good. I hope you enjoy it here.  We’re glad to have you,” she tells Richard, as she turns back to the house.  

 

Thomas motions for George to come closer, before he turns to follow his mother.  “Thank you,” he whispers. George just nods and grins before he excuses himself, terribly pleased with his success.  


“Well, I’m glad you managed to remember me, Mr. Barrow,”  Richard says, once they’re alone.  

 

Thomas can’t stop smiling.  “Hard to forget any of you royal lot after you turned our lives upside down like you did.”

 

“Oh, is that what happened? I seem to remember you being the troublemaker.  I can’t shake the memory of this young, dark-haired butler who roped me in on helping him make prank calls, and turned my evenings upside down.”

 

“Doesn’t sound a thing like me,”  Thomas shrugs.


“I’m glad you’re alright,”  Richard says, later, when Thomas is showing him around.  “When Master George called he said you’d been asking for me, and I hated that I wasn’t here.”

Thomas shakes his head.  “You couldn’t have known, and there wouldn’t have been reason for you to have come, anyway.  You’re here now. I can hardly believe it.”  

 

He pulls Richard around a corner, then, away from everything, and kisses him, deeply, and they don’t talk much at all for a few stolen moments.

 

----

 

“They must really love you, to make this happen,”  Richard muses. It’s later that night, and they’ve managed to find a minute to themselves, before they part ways for the night.  

 

“And you’re surprised about that?  I’ll have you know, I’m quite beloved around these parts,”  Thomas tells him, and the weird thing is, it’s almost true. Letting people in over the years has changed things for him.  There’s more love in his life than there ever has been before.  

 

Thomas feels light -- there’s no other way to put it.  He can’t remember ever smiling as much as he has today.  Things feel easier than they have been since the beginning between him and Richard, without the threat of goodbyes hours away, they’re free to relax a little more.  

 

Richard looks both ways down the hall before he leans in for a kiss.  “Lady Mary said she knew we would be careful.” 

 

“We will be,”  Thomas nods. Careful he can handle.  It’ll be a joy.  

 

“Goodnight, Mr. Barrow,”  Richard strokes his cheek with his thumb, before dropping his hand, and adding, in a whisper:  “I love you.”

 

“And I you,”  Thomas whispers back.  

 

For once, the words don't feel like goodbye, and it's beautiful.