“Did y’like the picture?” Jimmy said, one hand on his cap as the chill autumn wind threatened to steal it from his head. He was woefully underdressed in just his suit and no overcoat, but the alcohol still thrumming through his veins from their trip to the pub before the late showing of ‘Thief of Baghdad’ kept him from shivering overmuch. And at any rate, he had deliberately left his overcoat at home, knowing he looked much nattier in just his suit - it was cut in fashionably at the waist and the trousers were almost obscene in their tightness across his thighs and arse - a fact he made sure to show off by bending across the snooker table as much as he could without raising too many odd looks. Thomas, as much as he tried, was unable to resist stealing a glance at Jimmy’s backside, and it shot a jolt of electricity through Jimmy’s veins every time he caught the under-butler looking. Best not think about why too much.
“It were alright,” Thomas nodded, smoke from his cigarette whipping around him like a miniature tornado. He looked as smart as ever in his black overcoat, bowler and grey scarf, his profile backlit by the waxing gibbous moon. He’d probably look good in a potato sack, or a bloomin’ housemaid’s apron and cap, the ridiculously handsome bastard. And see - that was the problem; he was a bit too handsome. So handsome that Jimmy had noticed - and he never usually noticed much of how anyone else looked, unless they were particularly ugly or peculiar. And once he’d noticed he couldn’t ruddy well stop noticing. And looking. And comparing Thomas to every man and woman he saw, which was a stupid pastime as there was no contest. Thomas was the most handsome person alive.
It was incredibly distracting.
“Y’always say ‘It were alright’,” Jimmy replied, in a bad imitation of Thomas’s Mancunian drawl, “y’never have an actual opinion.”
Thomas frowned. “That was my opinion. It were alright.”
“Alright ain’t an opinion,” Jimmy rounded on Thomas and walked backwards so he could properly fix the other man with his best scathing look (one he’d modelled on Thomas’s very best scathing look, but he would rather clean Mrs Patmore’s dirty underthings with his toothbrush than admit so). “Don’t y’enjoy the action and adventure? Didn’t y’think the sword fights were the berries?” Thomas gave a noncommittal shrug so Jimmy changed tack. “An’ that Douglas Fairbanks - I’d have thought you’d particularly enjoy him.”
Thomas choked on a lungful of smoke, his eyes comically wide. “Jesus, Jimmy. No, can’t say I particularly enjoy him neither.” Jimmy smirked, pleased he’d managed to rattle the usually unrattleable Mr Barrow. “And yes, I like adventure stories fine, I just prefer books, I suppose.”
Jimmy couldn’t fathom that. He liked reading well enough, but it wasn’t anywhere near as thrilling as seeing the action play out on the screen, all dangerous stunts and exotic locations and glamorous costumes. “Why’s that?”
Thomas thought for a moment, his tongue pressed into his cheek then flicking out to run across his lower lip. Jimmy’s stomach jumped at the sight - his mind very unhelpfully provided ’imagine that between your lips or in other places’ and he flushed pink. Thankfully, Thomas was too busy considering his response - and lighting a new cigarette - to notice Jimmy’s blush.
“Because when I read, I can imagine it how I want,” Thomas said finally.
Jimmy was still lost. “Meaning?”
“Meaning it’s always a romance, in’t it? It’s always some hapless woman and her handsome hero - it’s something I can’t have, paraded around before me in fifteen foot high figures. At least when I read I can pretend the damsel in distress is a - well—”
“A bloke?” Jimmy put in. Thomas nodded but wouldn’t meet Jimmy’s eye, his face downcast and melancholy, and a deep ache started somewhere behind Jimmy’s ribs. He’d never thought of that - how everything in the world, every film and every story (barring the odd degenerate and quickly banned book) was about the same thing when it came down to it: men and women falling in love with each other. And Thomas was a soppy romantic at heart, so it must hurt him doubly that his sort were never part of the great romantic tales. “That’s - m’sorry,” Jimmy said lamely, “I didn’t realise. I’ll stop draggin’ y’along to the flicks then—”
“No, I don’t mind,” Thomas replied too quickly, as if he was worried Jimmy might ban him from accompanying him. “It’s a good excuse to get out of the house for an evening.”
“It’s a good excuse t’get a bit squiffy together,” Jimmy grinned and Thomas rolled his eyes. They walked for a while in companionable silence until the Abbey came into sight, like a glowing orange jewel set between the inky October sky and the colourless wash of autumn-dormant grass. As they walked homewards, Jimmy considered what Thomas had said about Fairbanks - the man was obviously handsome and the lasses seemed to go stupid over him, but apparently he didn’t set Mr Barrow’s engine running. He wondered what sort of man did get Thomas hot under the collar - of course, he himself had gotten Thomas in such a tizzy he’d gone slinking into his room to kiss him awake like a fairytale princess, so he supposed Thomas must like compact (not short!) muscular blondes. He wished he’d seen a picture of the famous Duke Thomas had bedded, just so he could compare. Finally, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, Jimmy said; “So when y’imagine the hero of the story - your prince charmin’ or whoever - what’s he like?”
Thomas stopped. “Jimmy, I don’t think you want to hear about that.”
Now it was Jimmy’s turn to roll his eyes. “I ain’t some blushin’ maiden - y’won’t shock me into a dead faint y’daft bastard.” Thomas visibly bristled so Jimmy patted his arm placatingly. “An’ I wouldn’t ‘ave asked if I didn’t care to hear the answer. We’re mates, ain’t we? That’s the sort of stuff mates natter ‘bout all the time, in’t it?”
“I - I wouldn’t know,” Thomas said, and took a very long drag on his cigarette, “I haven’t really had many blokes as mates before you.”
“Then y’should bow to me superior knowledge on the matter of pals, Mr Barrow,” Jimmy smirked, knowing full well he had less idea than Thomas about what two blokes talked about when they were alone. The only other person who had bothered to keep up any sort of conversation with him was Alfred, and he was hardly the yardstick with which to measure manly conversations, what with all his wittering about Ivy and the constant drivel about herbs and roux and types of pastry.
Thomas pouted, seemingly at war with himself over whether to be sensible or give in to Jimmy’s whim. He must have had more to drink than Jimmy realised - or else was powerless to resist giving Jimmy whatever he asked for - because eventually he said; “Well, he’d be handsome, of course—”
“Of course—” Jimmy grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“Shut up or I won’t tell you.”
“Alright, mardy,” Jimmy smirked, “give us a ciggie an’ I’ll keep shtum, I swear it.”
Thomas handed over the cigs and lighter and talked as Jimmy lit up. “But him just being handsome isn’t enough. Lord knows I’ve been hurt by handsome, selfish bastards enough for a lifetime.”
Jimmy felt as if he’d been slapped and accidentally snapped his cigarette in half. “Oh?”
Thomas nodded and carried on, oblivious to Jimmy’s discomfort. “He’d have to be clever too - not necessarily a learned academic or nothing - just well-read and able to carry out a half-decent conversation.”
Jimmy swallowed. Often, when Thomas talked politics or theology or literature, Jimmy felt as if he were a lame, three-legged donkey trying to keep pace with a thoroughbred racehorse. He’d never considered himself stupid - and next to the likes of Ivy and Alfred he was a veritable genius - but he felt a fool now, listening to Thomas describe a perfect man who was very many leagues ahead of Jimmy.
“And he’d be funny - witty,” Thomas smiled, dimples and all, and clearly on a roll now. Jimmy wondered if all the jokes he made about Alfred being so tall counted as witty. The gnawing pit in his stomach seemed to think not. “And kind - at least to me at any rate.” Jimmy thought about the fallout after the ’horrible awkward kissing incident of 1920’ and how, fool that he was, he’d let O’Brien manipulate him into nearly ruining Thomas’s life. And then, just to kick him when he was down, every cruel comment he had made in the year between the kiss and Thirsk fair floated through his consciousness like a newsreel of awfulness, capped off with the image of Thomas’s battered and bloody face after he took the beating meant for Jimmy - a beating he’d deserved really, for cheating those ruffians out of a small fortune.
No, Jimmy wasn’t kind, or good, or even honest. He was a liar and a scoundrel and a layabout, to whom Thomas had been a mentor and a saviour and a friend. And yet, somehow Thomas had deigned to love Jimmy, once, before he’d discovered what an utter waste of air his friend really was. Of course, he’d moved on now he’d taken Jimmy down from the pedestal he’d placed him on and realised how far Jimmy fell from the mark. Because Jimmy was none of the things Thomas described - except perhaps handsome, sometimes, when he remembered to force his ridiculously malleable face to stay smooth and neutral. But as Thomas had said; just being handsome was not enough.
Jimmy was not enough - not good enough by half - and it hurt. Because of course - of bloody course he wanted Thomas now it was impossible. He felt like the whole world had suddenly made sense only to immediately be blown to bits - as if the book he’d been reading for years had been blurry and impossible to understand until he’d finally put on his spectacles and it had all fallen into perfect focus, only to realise the words he was as supposed to read - had thought he’d been reading and understanding - were actually in another language.
“And he’d kiss me and hold me like I’m the most important person alive,” Thomas finished, casting the end of his cig away in a shower of tiny sparks, until the damp road snuffed the thing out. He gazed wistfully up at the stars, likely imagining the perfect kiss of the perfect man he’d created in his mind. Jimmy walked calmly over to the nearest hedge and vomited up the peanuts he’d eaten at the flicks and what remained of the several beers and two whiskeys he’d drunk earlier. “Jimmy?” Thomas said, concerned, and rubbed his back as if to soothe him. Jimmy shrugged him off, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
“S’nowt,” he lied. It was everything. Thomas was everything and he’d only realised it now, when he had no chance.
“I didn’t think you were tight—”
“M’not, alright?” Jimmy snapped, feeling raw and rejected. Which was unfair, seeing as he’d been the idiot to do the rejecting in the first place. Thomas blinked and swallowed down his discomfort, as he often seemed to do where Jimmy was concerned, then offered him a handkerchief. Jimmy accepted and scrubbed his face as if he might be able to remove this painful new knowledge from his brain with a bit of elbow grease.
“I - I didn’t think you minded how I am,” Thomas said, and he sounded so fucking small and apologetic it made Jimmy want to bend double and start vomiting anew. “But I see it - you’re disgusted - and—”
“Stop it,” Jimmy said, shoving Thomas’s handkerchief into his pocket, “stop. It’s not that. It’s - I don’t - why are you even friends with me?”
Thomas looked exactly like Isis when Jimmy pretended to throw her ball just to confuse her. “I - what?”
“Why? Why do y’still wanna be me mate after the way I’ve treated you?” Jimmy pressed. “When I’ve done nowt but be bad to you?”
“Not so very bad—”
“Bollocks,” Jimmy spat, and sat down heavily in the patchy, damp grass of the verge. “I’ve been neither clever nor witty nor kind to you, an’ yet here we are.” And he let his chin rest on his knees like a pathetic, moping toddler.
Thomas stared at Jimmy for a long moment, dark eyebrows drawn low over pale eyes, mouth pinched with concern. Then he came to sit beside Jimmy in the grass, one elbow leaning on his knee, one pale cheek crushed against his fist. “What the hell are you goin’ on about, Jimmy? You’ve been the best friend I’ve ever had. We spend all our time together and we talk about everything under the sun. You know more about me than any other person living, me old Da’ included. You actually ask me to do things with you - it’s not just me imposing meself where I’m not wanted as usual - and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in me entire life as I do with you. We’re friends because you seem to like me and I like you - do you not know that?”
Jimmy tried not to sound completely pathetic, but couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice as he said; “But m’nothin’ like what y’described.”
Thomas fixed him with a baffled look. “What? That - that’s a fantasy. And I didn’t think you’d want to be anything like someone I’d want for a sweetheart.” Jimmy swallowed and picked at a thread on his trousers. After a moment Thomas said, very gently; “Jimmy - I think you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever set eyes on. You must know I think that?”
Jimmy felt his cheeks prickle with a blush as pride (and arrogance) bloomed in Jimmy’s chest, only to be a quashed when he remembered Thomas’s words: ’But him just being handsome isn’t enough. Lord knows I’ve been hurt by handsome, selfish bastards enough for a lifetime’.
“But handsome bastards like me have hurt you too much,” Jimmy said, hating the way his voice broke so obviously.
“Oh Jimmy, no,” Thomas said and squeezed his shoulder. “I meant the bloody Duke of Crowborough and the late Mr Pamuk - not you, you daft beggar.”
Jimmy forced himself to look at Thomas - he was smiling softly, in that way Jimmy had come to think of as his smile, a special one Thomas reserved only for him. “M’not clever or witty though - as this conversation is bloody provin’.”
Thomas huffed a laugh. “Sometimes you lack common sense, but then I can hardly judge you there. You’re not the one who misplaced His Lordship’s dog or lost all his money on the black market or got caught stealing by both Bates and Molesley.”
Jimmy snorted despite himself. “Y’bleedin’ barmpot, y’never?”
Thomas gave a very self-deprecating shrug. “That and worse, I assure you.”
“I’ve not been kind to you though.”
“I kissed you in your sleep, Jimmy, you’ve been kinder than I deserved. You agreed to be friends after I overstepped so badly.”
“You did save my arse from a beating.”
“Good job too,” Thomas nudged him in the ribs with his elbow, “those two thugs were so large if they had given you a pasting there’d have been nothing left of you ‘cept a bloody smear on the towpath.”
“Cheeky bastard,” Jimmy said, and elbowed him back a little harder, “m’not little.”
“You’re not big neither.”
“M’not sayin’ m’short but—” Jimmy threw Thomas what he hoped was a dashing smile, “s’a good job tall weren’t on your list.”
Thomas barked out a laugh, which echoed across the silent, empty fields between them and the Abbey. “See? Always making me laugh.”
“And what was the last thing on Thomas Barrow’s perfect man checklist?”
Thomas glanced away, a blush crawling up his neck from beneath his scarf. “I said - I said he’d kiss me and hold me like I’m the most important person alive. Which I don’t ask from you Jimmy—”
“Ask it.” Jimmy said, before his nerves gave out. “I don’t know how to do that, but I could try. If y’still want me to, I could try. ‘Cause to me y’are the most important person alive, I just hadn’t realised it until now.”
Thomas turned to look at him, those beautiful storm-cloud eyes searching his face. Summing up all his meagre courage (and very aware he’d recently vomited), Jimmy closed the gap between them and pressed his lips desperately to Thomas’s. Thomas made a muffled noise of surprise, hesitated for a moment, and then kissed Jimmy back just as desperately. As Thomas’s tongue slid into his mouth, Jimmy’s brain shorted out in a shower of sparks, his only coherent thought was that he’d been right; Thomas’s tongue did feel spectacular between his lips. Mindful of Thomas’s words, Jimmy kissed as if one or both of them were dying and kissing was the only chance they had at surviving. When Thomas actually moaned into Jimmy’s mouth and clutched at his lapels, he assumed his message must be getting through. Eventually the need to breathe forced them to part, so Jimmy drew Thomas into his arms, one hand splayed on the centre of his back and the other knocking off his bowler to tangle into his inky hair.
“I might not be the most handsome, or smartest or the funniest, but I swear, I will kiss you and hold you like this every day for the rest of our lives, if you’ll let me,” Jimmy said, his heart a thrumming engine in his chest, his pulse fluttering like a hummingbird’s wing against the restrictive band of his starched collar. “I’ll love y’more now to make up for all the shite I’ve put y’through, I swear it. If y’can, maybe, learn to love me again as y’used to.”
Thomas laughed, joyful and light, even as a tear spilled over and ran down his cheek, bright in the silver moonlight. “Oh Jimmy, I don’t need to learn to love you again. I never stopped - the man I imagine - the perfect man - is you. Of course it’s you. It’s always been you.”
“Oh thank god,” Jimmy said, sagging against Thomas, “‘cause I dunno what I’d have done if y’needed wooin’ or summat. I don’t exactly have a good track record there.”
Thomas chuckled. “Not if the debacle with Ivy is anything to go by.”
“I promise not to try an’ cop a feel on the way home from the pictures.”
Thomas pulled back and grinned, “Ah, that’s the difference between me and Ivy. I want you to.”
Jimmy blushed, but playfully slid his hand lower down Thomas’s back until it was resting on the top of his backside. “Seems like you’re the perfect man then, Mr Barrow.”
“I think,” Thomas said with a grin, “we’re both equally imperfect, but that just makes us rather perfect for each other.”