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'Twas the Night Before Christmas

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Thomas stamped his feet in the servant’s yard, hands stuffed firmly in his pockets.

‘Hurry up, Jimmy!’ he called through the open back door.

‘Comin’, Mr Barrow, keep your knickers on!’

From the depths of the corridors, Thomas heard brisk footsteps and around the corner came Jimmy, face and hair glowing in the soft amber light emitting from inside. His full lips stretched in a lopsided grin, face framed under a cap and a thick crimson scarf. Heat rushed through Thomas’ face which he hoped would be mistaken for the cold nipping his cheeks as he drank in the sight of Jimmy without the mask of his work. The younger man’s smile widened as they met eyes. Thomas forgot to breathe.

‘You ready?’ Thomas asked chipperly, ‘Took you bloody long enough, is your mirror magic now?’

Jimmy shut the door behind them and lifted his chin in challenge. ‘Perfection takes time, Mr Barrow.’

Thomas rolled his eyes and began to walk out of the yard, Jimmy keeping up beside him like a jubilant puppy. Red cheeked, arms swaying side to side as they sat in his pockets of his long winter coat, Jimmy sighed and hummed happily. Thomas bit the inside of his cheek and made himself look away. He smirked to himself, hoping Jimmy wasn’t looking.

The landscape outside swam with blue and purple shadows. Each breath Jimmy and Thomas took trailed visibly behind them and surrounded their heads like halos. For a time, the crunching gravel path through the cottages on Grantham’s land was the only sound, joined in quiet chorus by rustling leaves.

‘What made you wanna do this?’ Jimmy piped up suddenly.

‘You didn’t have to come.’ Thomas retorted, ‘Actually, you invited yourself, so you’ve only got yourself to blame.’

‘I wanted to come. Better than bein’ stuck in that oven of a place with Alfred.’

Thomas raised an eyebrow at Jimmy’s indignant tone. Of course, any time spent with Alfred was time wasted, but the Christmas Eve do Mrs Hughes had arranged for them downstairs hadn’t been unpleasant. His stomach felt full and heavy with Daisy’s mince pies and mulled wine. He’d even given her a dance when Jimmy jumped on the piano. Then, there was his aching feet from marching about the abbey carrying presents for the children to put under the tree, yet he’d volunteered to do that despite it being beneath him. Thomas bit his lip as he pictured the small tins of gingerbread men he had bought for them on an impulse. It wasn’t much, but children and sugar on Christmas day seemed like a natural combination.

‘I can’t argue with some of that logic, but now you’re missin’ the party, aren’t you?’ Thomas answered after a moment.

‘Is it so hard to believe I want to spend Christmas Eve with me best mate?’

‘Oh, so Ivy wasn’t fallin’ over you all night? And you weren’t absolutely lovin’ it?’ he drawled, earning a smack on the arm.

‘Shut up, Mr Barrow!’ Jimmy laughed.

‘I saw those longin’ gazes, young man, I’m surprised you’re not stickin’ your tongue down her throat instead of walkin’ out here in the cold.’

Another smack.

‘Mr Barrow!’ Jimmy exclaimed, ‘I’m a good boy, I’d never.’

‘Yes, you would.’

Jimmy met his gaze and wrinkled his nose.

‘Yeah, I probably would.’

The two men giggled like schoolboys as they started down the hill that led to Thirsk. Gold twinkling lights spread out before them from the distant houses and streetlamps of the village ahead. Thomas had supposed when he voiced the idea of a walk to himself that he could amble to there and back for some fresh air. Jimmy joining in filled him with a dangerous happiness.

He glanced at Jimmy at the same time as the younger man took his cap off and stuffed it in his coat pocket before running a hand through his hair. Curls bounced pale and gleaming in the moonlight as his fingers sifted his locks. The same light highlighted his jaw and the cheeky smile above it as Jimmy looked back at him. Mischief sparkled in his eyes.

‘As if you wouldn’t be doin’ the same if she were a young man and prettier than me.’ Jimmy teased.

Thomas almost choked on the air he breathed and laughed while Jimmy basked in the results of his words.

‘It’s true and you know it.’ Jimmy continued.

‘S’not that,’ Thomas replied, lying just a bit, ‘I’m just shocked you’ve admitted there might be prettier boys in the world than the one and only Jimmy Kent.’

‘Small steps, Mr Barrow.’

‘Couldn’t do more than that with your stumpy legs.’

He yelped as Jimmy hit him again and returned the favour with a solid thump on his shoulder. Jimmy chuckled, rubbing the sore spot.

‘Right, for that, I’ve got a question for you.’ Jimmy said smugly.

Thomas raised an eyebrow. ‘Who says I’ll answer it?’

‘What sort of bloke would’ve made you stay at the party?’

Thomas halted in his tracks and stared at Jimmy, who trotted ahead before spinning on his heel to face him. The tip of his tongue stuck through his teeth as he grinned.

‘It’s a good question, Mr Barrow.’

Thomas swallowed thickly and forced himself to stand straighter. The cold air seeped through his open coat, flowing over him like a shield.

‘Not sure that’s somethin’ you want to know.’ Thomas said too lightly, his fingers digging into his palms, hidden in his pockets, ‘You’re just an innocent.’

‘For Christ’s sake, you can tell me stuff like this, especially tonight- ʼ Jimmy spread out his arms, ‘it’s Christmas!’

Thomas walked over to him as Jimmy lowered his arms. He smiled, hoping it was warm. Jimmy remained oblivious and tilted his head expectantly. The stars behind him framed his face as they stood on the edge of the road just a few minutes from the outskirts of Thirsk. If Thomas had been alone, imagining this scene, it would never live up to this. Something, probably amusement at his own audacity, knowing Jimmy, tugged at the corner of Jimmy’s mouth.

‘Let’s keep goin’.’ Thomas said gently.

A frown formed on Jimmy’s face and snatched away the happy moment.

‘It’s only a question.’

‘Jimmy.’

‘Thomas.’

Inside, Thomas swore. On the outside, he sighed and beckoned for Jimmy to continue walking. Hearing his first name in Jimmy’s voice didn’t happen often, let alone anyone else’s. Thomas snuck a look at Jimmy. The young man stared at the ground, head not quite bowed but eyes wide like a doe’s. Thomas flicked his gaze to the sky and offered a silent curse to himself.

‘I’d have stayed if you had.’ he said casually.

Jimmy snorted and kicked a stone, ‘And I would’ve if you’d wanted to.’

Another few moments passed as Thomas conjured some sort of passable answer to Jimmy’s frankly silly question. It was ridiculous, Thomas thought, that such a simple interaction like this had to be so complicated when it came to himself. He fiddled with the soft leather of his glove that sat around his ring finger.

‘Maybe if Rudolph Valentino was at our humble Christmas party, I’d’ve stayed.’

‘You fancy Rudy Valentino?’ Jimmy snickered as if he were twelve years old and Thomas beamed.

‘I have eyes, Jimmy.’

‘Well so do I and I don’t fancy him.’

Thomas picked out a cigarette and his lighter from the inside of his coat and held the cigarette between his teeth.

‘It’s a matter of taste.’ he responded haughtily as he lit the smoke.

‘And I suppose yours is impeccable?’

‘It is.’

‘Must be if you fancy me.’

Thomas bit back a groan and pulled the cigarette from his lips. Beside him, Jimmy smirked evilly.

‘Remind me why I let you come?’ Thomas said, glaring.

Jimmy winked.

It wasn’t long before the houses built up again and Thirsk formed around them. Candles glowed in windows like markers on the trail, highlighting their reflections in the glass. Just ahead of Thomas, Jimmy nattered on about how good their dinner was going to be tomorrow, turning on his heel and walking backwards on occasion and gesturing wildly as he imagined an over-glorified version of what they would eat. Thomas smiled and laughed, letting Jimmy’s dramatic nature flourish. Whether he noticed this or not, Jimmy carried on as though he were retelling some great adventure in a novel.

‘Mum used to read me stories, like Christmas Carol an’ that, on Christmas Eve. Dad used to act ‘em out,’ Jimmy chuckled, ‘jumpin’ up and down, flappin’ about like mad. He was so serious all the time, my dad, it just made it funnier.’

Thomas nodded. ‘You plannin’ on doin’ the same?’

The town opened out into the green in the centre of all the shops and houses with dark windows and streetlights. Head held high, Jimmy sped up a few steps, kicking up some ice on the path.

‘T’was the night before Christmas,’ Jimmy announced suddenly, ‘when all through the… the…’

‘House?’

‘When all through the Abbey,’ Jimmy continued regardless, spreading his fingers through the air as though conducting magic, ‘not a creature was stirring… ‘cept the footman and the underbutler, who weren’t asleep ‘cause bugger the rules.’

Thomas cocked his head. A smile grew on his face. As this happened, Jimmy looked progressively more worried.

‘You said your father read you A Christmas Carol?’ he asked. Jimmy nodded in reply. ‘Wouldn’t that make you… Tiny Jim?’

Jimmy’s face flooded red. He jabbed a finger in Thomas’ direction.

‘You take that back!’

Cackling, Thomas shook his head. ‘Not a chance, Tiny Jim!’

‘I’ll nick your pomade! I’ll do it!’ Jimmy declared, ‘And not a word back home!’

Thomas winked. ‘No promises.’

‘Anyway,’ Jimmy said hastily, ‘I used to love Christmas. Hated it for a while and then… Well.’

‘Well what?’

Jimmy glanced at him sheepishly. ‘Then I came here, all that nasty business happened, and I got you now. Now I love it again.’

Thomas didn’t mind that his cheeks were burning or that he was grinning like an idiot. The words played like an orchestra in his head. Thomas shook his head and prompted Jimmy to hurry a little, claiming the cold was getting to him.

They passed under one of the streetlights that lined the outside of the green. He glanced up at their ghostly light blooming through the shadows, not realising that Jimmy had stopped talking.

‘Mr Barrow?’

Thomas snapped his gaze away and looked down at Jimmy leaning back against a lamp post, smirking like he knew something Thomas didn’t. Thomas knew he probably looked ridiculous gazing at Jimmy on the edge of the empty green like the younger man was heaven itself. Tonight though, he didn’t care. The light gave Jimmy a halo, causing his hair to glow pale gold, allowing his eyelashes to cast long shadows. So much light. He seemed to radiate it, as if standing too close would set fire to anyone who touched him. Thomas swallowed thickly.

‘We aren’t at work. It’s Thomas.’ he said.

‘Alright then, Thomas,’ Jimmy replied, pointing a finger at him, ‘you haven’t moaned at me this whole time.’

Thomas frowned. ‘What you on about?’

‘I’ve just rambled on and on about myself and you didn’t tell me I’m a vain little twit once.’

‘Perhaps I’m feelin’ charitable.’

‘Thomas, you always bring me down a peg. Tell what you’re thinkin’ right now.’

Thomas let his gaze wander to the houses again. At the last time he’d checked his pocket watch, it had been approaching midnight. Everyone here would be asleep.

He met Jimmy’s eyes again. For once in his frenetic life, Jimmy looked close to serene. Thomas had never met someone so changeable or impulsive. His curls quivered in the wind, the collar of his coat fluttered along with them, yet Jimmy’s eyes were small and crinkled with a well-used smile. His tanned skin almost glowed as though he were wrapped in light. The other streetlights twinkled in the background.

Thomas tilted his face to the sky and watched his breath rise in white tendrils. Stars. He used to look up at them all the time when he was still a footman, standing outside after work, smoking. Up close, you would burn into less than a cinder. Far away, they could be whatever the eye wanted them to be; a million angels, a guide, cold light, a reminder of one’s insignificance. Thomas blinked slowly.

‘I’m happy.’ he said.

‘What else?’

Thomas dropped his gaze to Jimmy’s inquisitive eyes.

‘Leave it, Jimmy.’

‘I know there’s more.’

He bit the soft flesh inside his mouth. His name in Jimmy’s mouth.

‘I’m thinkin’… that I don’t want tonight to end. I want this to be it forever.’ he said softly.

Jimmy sniffed and nodded. The smile on his face lingered as his gaze wandered around the green, before settling back on Thomas, as though giving himself time. Thomas held in his questions about what.

‘Alright, you get to say it.’ Jimmy said.

Thomas’ brow furrowed. ‘Say what?’

‘What you’re always thinkin’ when you don’t think I’m lookin’ at you.’ Jimmy paused, his stare dropping to the frozen grass, ‘What I can see you thinkin’ right now. It’s all over your face. You can say it if you want.’

Thomas regarded himself as reasonably unreadable to every person he had ever encountered. Jimmy was the exception. Thomas raised his eyebrows. Like a child in trouble, Jimmy lifted his gaze a fraction, peering at Thomas from behind a lock of hair. Thomas didn’t even feel a blush. His heart didn’t race, he was breathing evenly. He smiled at Jimmy.

‘I love you, Jimmy Kent.’

It was like a lifted weight off his shoulders, liking breathing sweet, cold air after flailing underwater for far too long. His fists unclenched in his pockets.

Jimmy pushed off from the lamppost and sauntered up to him until they stood less than a foot apart. Thomas regarded him with a raised eyebrow as Jimmy’s own gaze meandered over his face.  Thomas’ heart clenched. He could kiss him from this close.

The corner of Jimmy’s mouth twisted into a lopsided and sparkling smile.

‘Merry Christmas, Thomas.’ Jimmy said softly.

Thomas nodded, ‘Merry Christmas.’

‘And now,’ Jimmy said dramatically, ‘the long slog back.’

Thomas glanced up at the starry sky and found himself unable to look away.

‘You’ll see them better away from town.’ Jimmy said.

‘Just a moment.’

‘What’s the matter?’

Thomas didn’t answer for a while. It wasn’t black and hollow up there. Instead, he saw indigo bleeding into white gold, a soup of colour and space and possibility. Thomas reached up and took his hat off, holding it loosely at his side, to feel the icy breeze flutter his hair.

He looked back at Jimmy, who appeared as amused as he was perplexed.

‘Alright, Byron, I’m glad the stars are still shinin’ but some of us are cold.’ Jimmy chided.

Something told Thomas not quite yet. Despite his protesting, Jimmy hadn’t moved from his spot and the smile hadn’t faded into the childish frustration Jimmy was prone to. He knew Jimmy would have physically dragged him back home if he really wanted to, yet here they were, and Jimmy’s mouth still curved into that sweet smile.

The whole world remained silent as though they were the last people left, like the universe had paused time just for them.

Thomas dropped his hat and raised his hand to cup Jimmy’s face.

‘Really?’ Jimmy breathed.

‘Just once.’

As Thomas whispered the words, he leaned in and pressed his lips to Jimmy’s.

Good God.

Jimmy’s lips were cold and soft like snowdrops. He didn’t move much against Thomas’ mouth aside from a barely audible gasp which send goosebumps down Thomas’ spine. Thomas could have swooned and fallen over there and then just as Jimmy parted his lips and the taste of cinnamon touched just on the inside of his lip.

The kiss was light for all the fireworks erupting in Thomas’ chest. He pulled away, dropping his hand immediately.

His fingers had not touched Jimmy’s hair, yet Jimmy looked ruffled and red-cheeked as though he hadn’t breathed the entire time. The night plunged the normally forget-me-not colour of his eyes into a colour almost as rich and deep as the sky above them. Jimmy licked his bottom lip.

‘Merry Christmas, Thomas.’ Jimmy repeated in a hoarse voice.

As they began the trek back to the abbey, Thomas noticed Jimmy press his fingers to his bottom lip twice before they reached the final hill before the spell would break and they would return to the real world. At the top of it, he heard Jimmy call his name. He turned to see Jimmy with three fingers hovering over his lip again. Thomas swallowed thickly.

‘Are you alright?’ he asked.

Jimmy frowned and nodded. They continued without another word.

By the time the two men were creeping down the men’s corridor to their rooms, tiredness had caught up with Thomas. He did everything he could not to punctuate his tight smile to Jimmy over his shoulder with a yawn. Jimmy nodded blankly. Thomas sighed and turned the doorknob to his bedroom with a gentle creak.

‘Hold on, Mr Barrow.’

Thomas stilled, his hand wrapped around the doorknob. When Jimmy didn’t say anymore, he turned fully.

The crisp, frozen air from outside had seeped through the stone of the walls and each floor to the very top of the abbey. It slumbered. It was thick and inescapable. It rested on Thomas’ cheeks and Jimmy’s nose, pink from the cold. It was motionless.

Jimmy padded across the corridor and closed the space between them. Before Thomas knew it, Jimmy had pressed his palms lightly against Thomas’ chest and kissed him as faintly as a sole snowflake landing in a snow flurry. Thomas started and let out a muffled yelp but melted as soon as Jimmy pushed up on his toes, wrapping his arms around Thomas’ neck.

His hands cupped either side of Jimmy’s face. Jimmy stood a fraction higher and leaned back as Thomas deepened the kiss. Thomas’ head sparked like a blacksmith’s forge.

And then it was over. Thomas exhaled a long breath as Jimmy stepped back, eyes wide and blue and glistening. Fluttering breaths filled the air. Thomas’ lips parted. He stared. Opposite Jimmy ran a hand slowly through his own hair and gazed off into the distance, his eyes glazed.

‘Uh…’ Thomas said suddenly, ‘Do you want to come in?’

Jimmy looked up at Thomas through long eyelashes and rubbed his arm.

‘To do what?’

‘Anythin’. Nothin’. Whatever you want.’

Jimmy shifted from foot to foot, staring at the ground while Thomas waited in silence. Eventually, Jimmy gave a small nod and shuffled to the door.

 

****

 

He woke early, cold, and at peace. Maybe for the first time in his life.

It was a gradual awakening, like a wintery breeze growing momentum, deeper breaths becoming shallow, from the tips of his fingers to his eyes.

The duvet bunched around Thomas’ chin, trapping warmth around his chest, yet something was absent. He opened his eyes, stretching his toes like a cat. Blinking a few times, the room formed again around him, from the pale light to the figure in the windowsill. Thomas smiled.

For a short while, he simply watched Jimmy, who had the red blanket from the end of Thomas’ bed, wrapped around him and was perched on the windowsill with his knees pulled up to his chest. Light reflected off the frosted glass, illuminating Jimmy’s face. His head rested back, dark gold hair falling in a beautiful mishap over his forehead. Though his mouth was relaxed, his eyes appeared pensive.

Thomas shifted and pushed his hair back with one hand. Jimmy didn’t move or look his way. In fact, Thomas knew he’d never seen Jimmy this motionless. The younger man tilted his head back, staring out into the white expanse.

‘Mornin’.’ Thomas said hoarsely.

A smile flickered through Jimmy, disappearing as quickly as it arrived.

‘Do you want to go out?’

Jimmy nodded, hopped down and left to dress.

A lavender watercolour washed over everything. The grass glittered with pale violet frost, the sky vast and clear and unending. Crystalised gravel slipped and crunched under their feet as Thomas and Jimmy made their way out of the yard once again towards the woods surrounding the abbey. Spindly, bare trees, like the arms of snowflakes, beckoned them into solitude.

Jimmy cut a strong figure in his black coat flapping open and royal blue knitted scarf hung loosely around his neck, the ends of it swaying as he walked ahead of Thomas along a narrow path through the trees. Deeper and deeper, the men walked in silence, with only the sounds of their footsteps to remind them that they were not alone in the world.

Though his face grew colder by the second, a tiny spark of tickling joy ran around inside him. Last night had happened, had been real. For one whole night, Jimmy had been his and he had been Jimmy’s. No one to walk in or spy, they had all been asleep even when they left. Thomas had torn off a part of himself and given it to Jimmy, who had not said a word or looked at him since they woke.

Jimmy slowed down and soon they stopped. Thomas wandered to a tree on a slight mound of hard, frozen dirt and leaned against it, while Jimmy stayed on the path. Other than a few birds chirping in the distance, they were truly by themselves.

The wound through Thomas’ hand ached, but he didn’t care. What he did care about, what was worrying him, was this silence. Jimmy liked music and activity, not this. Now, the younger man was toe-ing a stone on the ground with his hands stuck in his pockets, brow knotted in concentration. Thomas stood a few feet away. Words bundled up in his throat, threatening to burst, but he was afraid of scaring Jimmy off. After all, one perfect night together didn’t mean Jimmy had changed. For all Thomas knew, Jimmy was composing an apology to let him down gently.

‘You like these moments, don’t you,’ Jimmy asked, ‘when we’re away from everyone?’

Thomas considered the observation.

‘Yes, but not always.’

Jimmy smiled. Thomas’ heart did a somersault.

‘You like people, but no-one knows that. I think you’d like it if they did.’ Jimmy said.

‘Very astute of you.’

A branch cracked. Both men glanced up in the same direction, though it was Thomas who looked back to Jimmy first. It was probably a deer, yet Jimmy remained wide eyed and frozen for seconds longer.

‘Jimmy?’ Thomas said gently.

‘Thomas, you think I’m this magical person and that scares the living daylights out of me.’ Jimmy said out of nowhere, his voice soft yet almost breaking. Thomas resisted the urge to close the space between them and hold Jimmy against his chest.

‘Why?’ he asked simply.

For the first time that morning, Jimmy met his gaze with rich blue eyes.

‘Because that’s what I see in you too.’

Carefully and purposefully, Jimmy walked towards Thomas and stopped again when they stood a foot apart. He reached out and took each of the ends of Thomas’ own scarf, a dark red one from a Christmas in the past and stared intently at the material as if intimidating it for answers.

‘What do you want to do about it?’ Thomas asked shakily.

‘I don’t know.’ Jimmy replied in a very small voice.

‘It’s alright not to know.’

Jimmy met his gaze again. Thomas noticed his eyes widen a fraction as if something had bowled him over. He held his tongue.

‘Is it?’ Jimmy asked.

Thomas smiled softly. ‘No one can know who they are in just a night.’

Jimmy seemed to be intent on shaking the delicate tightrope on which Thomas walked. Jimmy twisted the scarf around his hands absently, throwing Thomas off-guard with his next words.

‘You love me.’

Thomas felt a lump form in his throat.

‘I do.’

‘And I have no idea what to do.’

‘Or how you feel.’

‘Maybe.’

Clutching the scarf, Jimmy stepped closer and sighed. Any closer and Thomas imagined he would feel warmth radiating off him. Jimmy’s lips burned red in the cold, yet his breath shuddered, and his shoulders hunched.

‘I feel… everything.’ Jimmy muttered.

Perhaps it was the accumulation of small braveries over the last hours of them being together, or perhaps a part of him knew that if he didn’t do something now then they may go on with their separate lives and forget what had happened. Thomas didn’t know. He didn’t need to.

‘Come here.’ Thomas said quietly.

Jimmy closed the space between them and, by some miracle, let Thomas kiss his cheek, his jaw and finally, his cool lips with feather-light pressure. He felt Jimmy smile against him.

‘Is this how you feel all the time?’

Thomas snorted, ‘Like what?’

Jimmy shoved him against the tree, grabbed his coat lapels and yanked him into a kiss so hard that Thomas not only forgot how to breathe, but also how to talk when Jimmy grazed his teeth on Thomas’ bottom lip and pulled back. Thomas’ eyes fluttered open. Everything but Jimmy spun like a Catherine wheel. Despite his boldness, Jimmy stared up at him, eyebrows meeting in the middle.

‘Like that.’ Jimmy said simply.

‘Uh… I- uh.’ Thomas mumbled, ‘Yes. That. Like that.’

Jimmy peered up on his toes at the top of Thomas’ head.

‘Pushed a bit hard, didn’t I? Does your head hurt?’

Thomas gestured vaguely to the back of his head.

‘Head’s fine.’ he said lightly.

He did not fail to notice the blush form on Jimmy’s cheeks as he stumbled back from Thomas. He almost asked him to come back.

‘We should get back. Carson’ll kill us.’ said Jimmy.

Thomas forced himself back into reality before he re-joined Jimmy on the path. He lifted his chin and smirked down at him. Before he could change his mind and be sensible, especially when they weren't half a mile from the abbey, Thomas draped an arm over Jimmy shoulders and started back.

‘We can take the long way home.’

‘I don’t fancy gettin’ me head bitten off on Christmas day!’ Jimmy protested, yet he still looped his arm around Thomas in return.

‘I love you, Jimmy.’

On the edge of his vision, he could see Jimmy ogling at him as though he had light shining around his head. The younger man even stumbled slightly. Warmth pooled in Thomas’ stomach and fizzled through his body.

‘That shut you up.’ he chuckled.

Jimmy didn’t speak. Instead, he let his head fall against Thomas’ shoulder as they continued slowly walking.

Thomas closed his eyes. Holding Jimmy was liking holding onto a star.