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And I For Him

Chapter Text

It had been a long time coming, and that was all he knew.

It had begun with his father, with the constant berating and judgement that left him hollow and afraid to ask for help. It had grown over the years as his father morphed into the figure of Carson, Bates, Lord Grantham, and any older male that tried to tell him they knew better. It had transformed into botched attempts at poor relationships, men that were no good for him and men that did not know him. Men that wanted one thing and one thing only, men that left before the sun rose and found Thomas alone in an empty bed. Men that schemed against unsuspecting ladies of the gentry and preyed on their foolish notions of novel like romance. Men that burned love letters in fireplaces. Men that were too lost and weak to get off their knees (despite how Thomas loved them so). Men that wanted to scale the ladder without getting their knees dirty. Men that flirted because it suited them, and fled because it suited them more. It had finally emerged on the other side of several unsuccessful love affairs as a desperate desire to change. A determination to become a different man. That too, like everything else in his life, had failed.

“Fashion as good a life as you’re able.” Dr. Clarkson had advised.

So he’d tried again.

In a way it had been a breath of fresh air to find a confidant in Baxter. Unlike O’Brien, she did not hide her feelings in the prayer that those around her would assume she had none. In youth Baxter had been loving and considerate. As an adult, she was still the same. Thomas didn’t understand how it was possible after she’d been denied in love and jailed for her dreams of a better life… but still, Baxter persisted. In a way it pissed him off even more. How dare she be so god-damn-goody-gumdrops when he was slowly rotting away and dying. If he was the cavity, falling in on himself, she was the sugar bringing him down. Andy had only been worse… a true and honest attempt at goodness and sincerity that ended up tainted by everyone in the house. Thomas felt the eyes of the staff on him where ever he went, even when he was alone in his room. Their words chased him like jackals after game:

Child Molester

Pervert

Degenerate

Filth

He deigned none of them worthy of a reply, but they still bounced around in his skull like dice in a cup. Rattle rattle roll.

In the end, it had been a long time coming, and had bloomed from the fact that nothing else could bloom in his garden. In barren soil, only sorrow had grown to fruit. He would eat it or starve. He would gorge himself on the pain to keep from feeling nothing at all. He would do what the others could not, because he was stronger than them. Stronger than anything they could throw at him. In the end, they could not destroy him because he would destroy him. And that was the way it ought to be.

He’d thought about how he would do it, and had found the answer as easy as the decision to go through with the act in the first place. There was no where to feasibly hang a noose from, and he didn’t even know how to make a noose in the first place. He didn’t have a gun, and Lord Grantham’s guns were locked away under the groundskeeper’s watchful eye. The drugs and acids (such as lye) were likewise locked up by Mrs. Hughes. He highly doubted there was enough in the depleted cabinet to do the job properly. If there was one thing he did not want to do it was botch this final act. Thomas Barrow had failed at everything in his life… but he would not fail at his suicide. He would not.

His thoughts had then turned to Edward. Sweet, beautiful, wonderful Edward with whom he would have happily spent his life as a caring valet and an even more caring lover. Edward’s misery had swallowed him whole, despite how Thomas had desperately tried to pull him up and save him. In the end the drag of death had been stronger than Thomas’ love, and he’d had to concede heartbroken defeat when Lady Sybil had found Edward dead in his bed.

And suddenly, the poetry had written itself.

Death had taken Edward from him. Had skull fucked the only good thing in Thomas’ life till all that was left was a pool of blood; so be it, death was a bitter mistress. Thomas had loved other men since Edward. He’d fawned over Jimmy like a schoolboy moping in the grass… but Jimmy was not like Edward. Edward had been a gentleman, honest and virtuous. Had they ever become lovers, Thomas was certain that Edward would have loved him tenderly. Would have treated him far better than Jimmy ever could. Thomas did not begrudge Jimmy for feigning to love him. One could not hold that as a crime against the other. He could, however, acknowledge that between the two Edward had been the one to initiate contact and warmth… Jimmy had always taken. Thomas found himself wanting to be Edward’s lover even in death. Wanting to devote himself to Edward, as Anna had devoted herself to Bates or Lady Mary to Matthew Crawley. He wanted to be consumed by something other than the enormous pain that bogged him down into a numb void. He wanted to be brought back to life even as he took his life. Wanted to feel his heart pound in his chest like he was a schoolboy in love again… like Edward was still touching his knee and whispering sweet anecdotes into his ear.

Thomas made the decision swiftly, and took savage strange pleasure in it. They’d never been united in life, but they would be united in death. Thomas would take his life in the same way Edward had taken his… and at last Thomas would find peace.

It was a Tuesday. July 11th, 1925. The sun dawned on a clear sky, bizarrely cloudless. Thomas took it as an omen of good faith, as if the universe were finally giving him the sunshine that he longed for because he was going to take his life. As Thomas shaved that morning, he cleaned his razor with care, stropping it for good measure, and stowed it in his pocket like a child might sneak a piece of candy. Carson served the upstairs breakfast… Lord Hexam was still dining with them though Henry Talbot had fled. Thomas noted these things in passing clarity. This would be his final breakfast, and so he took no pleasure in sipping a small cup of tea. Then Lord Hexam was gone, just like Henry Talbot; Thomas merely noted that there would be no guests for him to attend to (besides Lady Rosamund). All the better reason. The universe was lining up the coincidences and demanding he take notice. Next thing Thomas knew, Lady Mary and Branson had both left the house. More coincidences, more helpful hints. Finally the top of the tower came when Baxter decided to walk with Moseley to the schoolhouse for moral support. This, above everything, was clear indication that it was time. Baxter was the one who knew him best, who might be able to sense Thomas’ final act was afoot. With her out of the house, Thomas could be assured of a quiet sendoff with no one to interrupt him.

He watched Moseley from across the servant’s table with dull contentment. As servants walked around him, Thomas wondered at each of their faces and shared histories. He would soon be a ghost in a long line of ghosts. Another faceless name that faded out of their stories as time trod on. Moseley seemed quite nervous, gray faced, and kept looking bitterly down at his times table as if it had somehow cemented his awful situation. Clearly the new teaching position was not going well.

“Typical.” Thomas heard him mumble to himself, “Always my luck.”

He looked up and caught Thomas’ eye, bristling at once and instead looking away.
It did not bother Thomas anymore. Who liked to look at a corpse?

“I hope you make more of your life than I ever made of mine.” Thomas replied. Moseley blanched, looking back at him agape. Thomas looked down at his teacup and found it empty.

It was time. Rattle rattle roll.

He rose up from the table, biding silent adieu to the servant’s hall that had so plagued his existence for the past fifteen years. He observed the piano where Jimmy had once jaunted out tunes for Ivy. He noted the mantel, atop which an ashtray full of cigarette butts was perched. They would be tossed out by a maid at some point, another memento of his existence swept aside. That was as it should be.

Upstairs he went, passing by Mrs. Hughes at the base. She did not even spare him a second glance. Once again, that was as it should be.

He ascended the steps to the very top floor, and found his room slightly cluttered. It took only a second to put it to rights… making sure his clothes were neatly folded and his personal affects stowed with care. They’d probably be offered to the homeless, or the other servants. As soon as he was done he took one last look at his bedroom and wondered at the crisp corners of his made-up cot. The way his red wool curtains were drawn despite it being the middle of the day. He felt a strange detachment to the scene, like he were a ghost and already dead.

He exited his room, but suddenly found himself besieged by Andy who was entering his own room and looked rumpled. He’d split a stain on his livery, something black and seeping like ink.

“Spilt ink on my jacket. I’ll have to change.” Andy said to no one in particular. Thomas blinked at the stain, his valet experience kicking in like clockwork.

Funny he should think of clocks now.

“Put it to soak in salted water and scrub it with lye.” Thomas replied. His voice was hoarse. Andy paused, his hand on the doorknob as he noted Thomas’ pallid appearance.

“Are you alright, Mr. Barrow?” Andy asked, “You look like you could do with a lie down.”

“I’m going in for a bath.” Thomas replied. Andy nodded, content.

“Wish I had the time to take one, everything I touch seems to get stained with this blasted ink. Excuse me.” Andy said, and without another word he exited into his room, flashing Thomas one last boyish smile and closing the door with a curt snap.

Thomas blinked, and turned the corner in the hall.
Only to run straight into Anna and Baxter.

He paused, taken slightly aback as Anna stared at him bemusedly and Baxter closed the door to the women’s side. She was dressed in coat and hat, clearly on her way to walk Moseley to the schoolhouse. God only knows what Anna was doing upstairs. Was this the universe’ way of telling him to say goodbye?

“Are you alright, Mr. Barrow?” Anna asked as Baxter fiddled with the lock.

“… Of course.” Thomas replied. “Why wouldn’t I be.”
His lips felt numb as he spoke.

Baxter looked up from the door and lock with a weary smile, that same enchanted view she always took with him as if he was her son and not her co-worker. Her sugary sweetness made the cavity in his chest ache, and he watched her as Anna walked past.

He rounded the corner again for the bathroom, and as he reached the final door to his demise he opened it without pause or regret.

He closed the door behind him with Baxter still in the hall, and pressed his back to the door as he heard her walk past. His eyes were closed, unseeing of the bathroom he knew to be before him. He would not open them, he decided, until the last footstep had faded away. Until all was quiet and well. The universe had set the scene, it was time to play his part.

Silence.
Now, then.
Rattle rattle roll.

Thomas opened his eyes and observed the bathroom before him. The red checked tile of the walls, the fine waxed wood of the floor. The tiny lone mirror on the wall and, above all, the gaunt ceramic tub in the center.

As deep and cold as the grave he was about to fill.

Thomas walked to the mirror and sink, unsure of why. Perhaps he wanted to see his face one last time, observe what the others had observed to make them so question his appearance and state of mind. But the face he found reflected in the looking glass was much the same as ever, and he dismissed both Anna and Andy’s questionings as mere conveniences of the universe. A sort of private ‘are you still going to do this’ check.

Yes. He was still going to do this.

Thomas reached into his pocket and found the razor waiting there. It was a patient, quiet thing… much like a well behaved child that sat still at the dinner table and listened to their elders. He withdrew it from his pocket and set it on the counter, feigning to so much as look at it while he disrobed from his livery.

Off went his tails, and waistcoat, both of which he hung up on the clothes horse. He slipped his suspenders from his shoulders, feeling them bang about his knees as he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it free of his trousers. Suddenly clad in only his undershirt, Thomas realized that when found he would be found naked… and that somehow did not set right with him. He decided he would keep on the rest of his clothes, though still his shoes would have to come off. Part of him was rather delighting in being found clothed in the bath, a sort of final flick of the bird to Carson who so detested anything out of the ordinary.

“We know what you have to do.” Carson had leered at him over the table.

“How is your job search going, Mr. Barrow?” He’d demanded.

Thomas felt a rush of relief when he considered that he would no longer have to worry about a job or money. It was like an anvil had been lifted from his chest.

Shoes untied and slipped free, Thomas unclipped his sock garters and set the entire lot underneath the clothes horse with utmost care. For some reason he found that even in death he would not want to appear sloppy. As clean shaven as his face would be, so too would his livery be seen in proper order. After a life in servitude he knew no other way. And that was as it should be.

Thomas walked over to the tub and perched himself upon the edge, setting the stopper and turing the faucet to content himself with listening to the hiss and bubble as the basin slowly filled itself with hot water. Thomas had always liked scalding hot bathes, the kind that burned the skin and set a steam to the air. He was the same with his tea, inwardly delighting in how his tongue had stung when he’d taken that first hasty gulp. Odd he should think of such a thing now, when he would never drink tea again. He noted the tea he’d drunk that morning had been lukewarm at best… a final pleasure denied. A final prod by the universe.

Thomas glanced at the tub and found it only halfway full. It would have to do, he’d run out of patience and time. Turning off the faucet, Thomas spent an entire minute simply looking down at the tub and running his fingers through the water. It stung in a pleasant manner. Thomas noted he was still wearing his leather glove.

There would be no need for that anymore.

Unbuttoning it, Thomas pulled the glove free to observe his naked wounded hand. To marvel at the scar on his palm that so stiffened his pinky and ring finger during the winter months. Hot water often helped him to clench them better. This final bath would be the best remedy of all.

Thomas set his glove inside the pocket of his livery, and finally plucked up the razor from the sink counter.

It felt oddly cold in his hand.

As he stepped into the tub, Thomas sank down into the water and likened it to pulling blankets over his chest in bed. So warm, so content was he that he momentarily put his death on pause simply to enjoy this one last pleasure in life. This lovely, lovely bath.

He rested his head against the back of the tub and sighed, letting his eyes close as he rolled his head to the side. It was a distraction from the end, nothing more. Soon, his veins would be empty. Weightless. Lifted. He imagined he would be pulled from this tub by Edward. Taken to some different place where he could at long last lay his head down and rest. No more regret, no more loneliness, and above all no more doubt. No more wondering what on earth was wrong with him, no more contemplating why he’d been born to such a breed. No more enemies to hound his shadow. No more lies. No more needing to make up for a lacking, to pretend and hide the cracks. Let all the cracks show, he decided. Let them find a shattered china doll in this tub. So smashed that no one would be able to decipher him from a stranger.

Maybe then, duped into thinking him unknown, they would show him mercy.

He opened his eyes and drew both his wrists out of the water.
He took the blade into his wounded hand first, knowing that it would be the most difficult to wield. He pressed the blade deep into his flesh, steel biting at nerves, and pulled.

Even then, he was not content. He struck the blade like he often would have a match: once, twice, three times.

If he’d been a normal mind, he might have found it in him to cry from the pain.

The next wrist was somehow worse, the throbbing pain from his original cut stinging and burning beneath the hot water as he forced his cut tendons to function one last time. He cut with the same precision: once, twice, three times.

And then, quiet.
Rattle rattle roll.

Thomas felt the razor slip from his fingers even as they began to numb.
He closed his eyes again.

He wondered what would come next, briefly. Perhaps a white light, or a feeling of elation? A great understanding? A conversation with god?

No. He thought, even as his mind began to wander, No, let me converse with Edward instead.

That was his final wish. He felt certainly the universe would hear it.

 

A heartbeat passed, and then another. Thick, drumming, stiffening. Folding in on itself. The gentle slosh of hot water about his collarbone and nape. He felt his wrists begin to throb. Then, oddly, his wrists stopped throbbing and instead he merely felt heavy. Tired. Sleepy.

Oh thank god, he dwelled. It’s over at last.

Time blinked.
It was difficult to comprehend what happened next.

One minute he was in the daylight, his eyes closed to try and find some semblance of peace in that steaming hot tub. The next minute he was not. In all things, he was not.

He was not at peace.

The room was black, utterly black and devoid. The null had consumed him, and just like that Thomas knew he was dead. Why then was a terrible horrible fear griping his chest? Why was anxiety squeezing his heart when instead he ought to be feeling contentment and calm? He suddenly found the water about him to be freezing cold and he thrashed in it as he blinked his eyes against the blackness.

He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out.

And then, hands. Hands on his face, stroking the clammy skin of his high cheekbones.

Loving hands.

“…My darling…” A voice whispered in the dark.

In the void, Thomas reached out, blind as he fumbled for whoever it was that held him. The voice was so familiar to him- an Oxford accent. It repeated those two words over and over again as Thomas struggled in the dark: My darling, my darling, my darling.

He grasped at the hands on his cheeks, feeling the frigid water churn as he kicked and struggled. The hands were firm and strong, but so cold. So very very cold. Why was everything cold? Thomas shivered, petrified.

“Edward?” Thomas called out, finally finding his voice in the gloom.

The hands slipped, embracing him around the chest and helping him to sit up in the icy bath. Someone’s face was pressed against his own: curly haired, a scarred brow. Edward.

“Oh, Edward!” Thomas howled, his heart squeezing to finally burst in pain from a lifetime spent in absolute isolation. Edward nuzzled him, nose brushing across Thomas’ own as he kissed Thomas’ cheeks. The kiss of a corpse; the kiss of death.

Yes, kiss me, Thomas thought desperately. Kiss me and take me away from here. Kiss me and take me home.

“Edward help me!” He begged.

“I am.” Edward replied.

Through the blackness and gloom, through the sound of the tub’s churning icy depths and the pounding of his own heart, Thomas heard a wild far off pounding. It sounded like a bizarre tribal drum, as if someone was preparing for a sacrifice. Was it the drum of his own death march?

“Hello?!” He heard the familiar voice of Phyllis Baxter scream. She sounded twenty miles away. “Mr. Barrow are you in there?!” more pounding, “Will you open this door!!”

“Get back!” He heard Andy shout.

“What is that?!” Thomas demanded, frightened.

“Don’t be afraid.” Edward whispered in his ear. He was talking in a rush, as if pressed for time, “Everything’s going to be alright-“

“Edward what was that-?!” Thomas demanded, his question still unanswered.

Edward suddenly clasped Thomas’ face again, grip hard and commanding as a strange splashing sound filled the air.

“Thomas, I don’t have much time.” Edward began. “But-“

“What do you mean, you don’t have much time?!” Nothing was for certain in this void, “Am I- am I going to hell?!” It seemed plausible.

“No!” Edward’s voice was fierce and loving, “No, my darling. No.”

Thomas clung as tightly as he could to Edward, terrified that should he slip he would be lost to the frigid blackness forever. Edward was the only thing real in the world in that moment. The only thing he could rely upon for sanity and safety. His arms were as cold as the water in which Thomas sat, but he did not care. He would take comfort in this cold just as he had in the warmth of his final bath and grave. Anything over the void. Anything over isolation.

But god… he was freezing.
Rattle rattle roll.

“Edward, I’m so c-cold.” Thomas bit out, praying Edward would pull him from this frigid bath soon.

“Listen to me, and never forget what I’m about to say-“ Edward whispered in his ear. Once again he was talking fast.

But even as Edward began to speak, a strange sucking motion was taking Thomas by the naval, forcing him down and out of Edward’s icy grip so that he was almost submerged into the frigid water entirely.

“Edward-!” Thomas choked as water rushed into his mouth. He thrashed, gasping for air, for anything, but he was drowning and could not gain proper hold.

For a minute he knew nothing but hands. Hands that tried grabbed at his wrists where they throbbed and burned in an icy flame. Hands that pressed at his face and neck, as if trying to keep down a sweat. Hands that lifted him from underneath his armpits and by his feet. Hands everywhere.

This is death- Thomas thought in a terror as he was finally lifted from the bath in that blackness. Lifted not by Edward but by nameless demons that came to bore him away to hell. This is death.

But even as he was drug from his grave, like a necromancer to his dance, Thomas felt the last vestiges of his sanity slip and fade. He was washed into the gray, his sight wrapped over by a muslim cloth. Soon there was nothing, not even hands, save for a bone aching chill and a feeling of nudity. A feeling that everything had been stripped bare by the universe at long last to reveal the rotten skeleton underneath. Thomas’s eyes closed, blackness to blackness as he felt a soft surface underneath him.

Let me die. He prayed in that moment. He no longer wished for anything, even Edward- only for death. Anything but the void. Let me die.

 

Rattle rattle roll.

Chapter Text

There was no slow ‘coming to’. No gradual pull back of the gloom to help him transition into the light. He was thrown into a jumble of sensations much like a school boy being tossed into a pond on a hot summer day by his classmates.

Dizzy, vision pinwheeling and bursting with stars, Thomas heard a parade of voices stamp over his aching head. None of them were Edward’s. He was naked, covered by some kind of duvet. His arms were spread out atop the covers, palms up and throbbing. Oh, how they throbbed. He was freezing cold, despite the blanket that covered him. It was as if the demonic hands that had drug him from the bath had now flung him onto a bed of ice and forced him to lay there nude. A sort of hellish punishment meant for a sodomite.

“Is it bad?”
This was rather bad, yes.

“Yes. He’s cut both his radial and ulnar artery in both wrists.”
Cut the what?

“What does that mean?”
Excellent question.

“It means he wanted to die- can I have this room cleared, please?”
Wait, what room where? Who wanted to die?

“Andrew, Anna, Ms. Baxter-“
How many people were dead with him? Was this his actual purgatory? To remain with his co-workers for the rest of his days? Good lord what a punishment.

“No, I will not leave him.”
Leave who?

“I’ll leave.”
Who was leaving?

“I’ll go too, but you’ll let me know if there’s anything I can do-?”
Who was going?

“Mm.”
That was remarkably unspecific.

Shoes upon a hardwood floor. A door closing.
More spiraling. More shivering. More cold.

Cold.

 

Thomas could not exactly understand how one sequence of events had lead to another. In life, he’d woken, dressed, ate breakfast, worked, had tea, worked, had supper, and gone to bed. In death, there was no fluid line of time. One minute he’d been in a bathtub dying. Next minute he’d been in the same bathtub dead, but also in the dark and somehow with Edward. Then he wasn’t in a bathtub at all, somehow was nude, and Edward was gone. Thomas tried to call out for Edward again, tried to call out for anyone at all, but suddenly there was a hot stinging pain in his hands and he blurted out a broken scream instead.

Of god it was like his wrists were on fire. He jerked beneath the blanket of whatever held him down, but it was heavy as concrete upon him. Was he being pressed to death? He jerked again, trying to get free.

“Steady on…” someone murmured, an endearing phrase indeed. “Steady on.”

Someone was dabbing at his brow with a warm cloth, and somehow it soothed Thomas. He wondered if he was in some sort of purgatory still, where partly there was pain and partly there was pleasure. Pain suddenly pricked at his wrists again, not hot and fiery like before but short and sharp. In and out, in and out it needled. Thomas could make no sense of it.

More footsteps. A terse, short cough.

“I’ve just informed his…” But the voice was Carson’s and Thomas groaned audibly in distress as he realized that this realm of hell somehow housed Carson too. He could literally think of no one he’d want to share less time with. “I’ve just informed his lordship. We’d best leave Dr. Clarkson to it.”

Wait. What?

“I’ll go-“ Was that Mrs. Hughes?

“Ms. Baxter-“ How were Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and Baxter all in this purgatory with him if they were still alive? It made absolutely no sense, unless some calamity had occurred and Downton Abbey had fallen into the ground like the House of Usher. As the needling pain continued in his wrist, Thomas felt his heart begin to pound wildly in his chest. It was like his body was starting up again, trying to live despite being…

Despite being…

“I will not leave him.”

“Ms. Baxter can stay. I appreciate her help, and so does Thomas.”

Thomas opened his eyes.

He was in his bedroom, propped up on his bed against his pillows and covered with the red quilt that usually lay over his stolen armchair. He was naked, his arms and legs poking out awkwardly beneath the tiny blanket that gave him meagre dignity against the three other people in the room. Carson stood in his doorway, looking grave and gray-faced as he observed Thomas for a stranger in morbid silence. To Thomas’ right sat Baxter, dabbing at his forehead with a white cloth. She was just as nervous as Carson, somehow on the verge of tears. To Thomas’ left sat Dr. Clarkson, an entire kit of supplies arranged out on a white towel atop the red quilt.

He was stitching up Thomas’ wrists, pale lifeless thing with deep black gashes across their core. In and out he wove a needle- the sharp pain Thomas had been so perplexed by.
He looked from Baxter dabbing his brow, to Clarkson stitching his wrists.
He’d failed.

He was alive.

The screaming sob that burst from his throat was an animalistic thing, a pent up explosion of howling misery that overwhelmed him in one sharp second to send him into a wild wave of despair. He had failed, failed to die and now he would fail to live. He had lost his one chance at escape from this hellish life and now everyone would know he’d attempted to escape it in the first place. Everyone would know of his weakness, his foolishness, his ugly nature. The maids would whisper and gossip, the family would shudder when he walked into a room. The entire world would see the scars on his wrists and know. Know.

Worst of all, he was now beyond the reach of Edward.
My darling… the words floated ghostly through his mind. My darling, my darling, my darling.

Thomas screamed at the top of his lungs, tears burning down his cheeks- he jerked instinctively, arms coming up so that Dr. Clarkson’s work was cut momentarily to a pause as Thomas thrashed and howled.

“No-!” Thomas screamed as Baxter suddenly covered his face with his hands. It was like she was trying to give him dignity, but if that was her mission she’d be at it for decades. For centuries. Thomas was a wretch, a vile hollow shell at this point. He was without dignity. Without will. Without anything to align him to the human race. “Let me die, please god let me die…”

But god had abandoned him.

“It’s alright.” Baxter whispered, hands shielding his face even as he wept and sobbed. He felt a strong commanding grip take him by the arm, forcing his swollen and abused wrists back down onto the red coverlet. “It’s perfectly alright.”

Thomas wept, unable to even respond for the howling misery within him. It had rendered him mute in his inability to express all his woe at once. He choked on his own tongue, spluttering as he cried. Baxter would not allow the other men to see his face, kept him hidden from view by using her hands and the handkerchief with which she’d dabbed his brow.

“Can we keep him out of the hospital?” Carson’s voice barely registered amid the high pitched screams of hysteria drifting through his mind.

“Ms. Baxter found him in time.” Needling pain in his wrist, in and out, in and out, “He’s going through hypovolemic shock- a symptom of severe blood loss. I’ll want him kept in bed for at least five days.”

“Of course.” Carson agreed in a rush, “We’ll keep this as quiet as possible. For his sake.”

More petting fingers, more consoling whispers, more Baxter trying to give him dignity.

“Even in this day and age, suicide is still a criminal offense.” Needling pain, “Anyone with a heart and moral conscience will tell you it shouldn’t be, but-“

It suddenly hit Thomas that for the rest of his miserable fucking life, should it be long or short, he would have to bear the scars of his eternal shame. His sexuality he could feasibly hide behind the guise of servitude and questions unasked, but there would be no need for questions with scars on his wrists. All would see, all would know. Rattle rattle roll.

“GOD LET ME DIE!” Thomas screamed, his voice going as loud as he could feasibly muster under such dire circumstances. In that moment he screamed to the universe which had brought him a sunny day and a quiet house. To god, who had given him a bathtub full of icy water and five seconds with Edward in whatever realm of hell or purgatory he had momentarily stumbled through. To Clarkson who surely knew how to kill him. To Carson who’d obviously wanted to once or twice. To anyone with a gun or a blade… or a sense of mercy.

But even as his echoes stopped bouncing off the walls of his room, he did not die.
So it seemed, that too was a failed effort.

“I’m listening.” Baxter sheltered him, her arms about his face and neck to shield him from view. Only her face was viewable to him, swallowing up his whole vision like the moon on a cloudless night. Her eyes did not water, her expression did not crack. In the moment, she was as durable as an iron shield, “Talk to me, I’m listening.”

With each breath he sucked in and forced out, his aching ribs burned and bled. “I can’t do this anymore-“

“What can’t you do?”
Needling pain, in and out, in and out.
Rattle rattle roll.

“This-!!” Thomas seized. This, god damnit. This, this, this. All of this, none of this, every bit of this and whatever the fuck else lay in between. This covered any issue in his mind, no matter how big or small- whether it was the way he spent days without conversation or enduring Carson’s constant badgering. This. This.

He’d shot up, in an attempt to somehow seize control of the situation again. In that moment he had half a mind to leap from bed, find the first window he could, and fling himself out of it. But as he tried to sit up, his mind suddenly went spinning in wild directions, and he nearly fainted outright back into Baxter’s arms. She supported him around the shoulders, keeping him from hitting his head against his iron headrest. Thomas was oblivious to the way Carson jumped, shocked at his garish behavior. Unseeing to how Clarkson had to pause mid-stitch in an attempt not to rip his prior sutures. All he knew was the arm around his back. The shoulder on which he leaned.

“I-“ Carson paused, unsure whether to offer aid to Clarkson or not. Unsure of what aid he could be or if he even wanted to be it.

“It’s fine.” Was Clarkson’s only reply, waiting patiently as the needle dangled from Thomas’ unfinished wrist, “It’s fine.”

The smell of talcum powder, sweat, and floral soap. It did not sooth him. It only reminded him that he was still alive. Death did not have scent. When Thomas had embraced Edward, he had not smelt Edward’s hair slicked in Brilliantine… the musk at his neck or the detergent of his soldier’s uniform. He convulsed. Baxter rubbed at his chest, hand patting in a rhythm over his pounding heart.

“Don’t you understand, there’s nothing for me anymore. There was never anything to begin with. I have nothing, I am nothing. I’m a foul, disgusting, piece of shit-!” The damning words flowed from his mouth, endless. Needling at his wrist, in and out, in and out.

“Sh.” Talcum and floral soap in his nose, wisps of brown hair tickling his face, “Hush now. Hush now.”

“I can’t handle being alone-“ Stripped bare, light on every intention, “I can’t do this alone anymore. I’m always alone- no one will even look at me.” The burning shame and agony, “The last time someone touched me was when Jimmy shook my hand goodbye.” Holding on just a second too long to be natural.

Please touch me. Someone touch me.
Rattle rattle roll.

Slim fingers threaded through his hair, stroking his temple. The needling had ceased, brought to a stand still; the sound of scissors snipping and suddenly the tender bite of a tight wrap. Over, and over again.

“What’s the point?” He wondered aloud, “What’s the point of stitching me back up when I’m already in pieces?”

“Why are you in pieces?” Clarkson asked. Non judgmental, just mildly curious. Ever the doctor.

“I’m alone.” Thomas sniffed. More wiping, more stinging and burning. He cried out, savage pain ripping at the tender skin of his unstitched wrist. He blinked, dazed, now seeing the pain to be Clarkson wiping at his open wounds with iodine. It made the skin turn from gray to dark orange, tainted by the dye. “I’m utterly alone. I can never get married- or- or have children- or or have a-a-anything at all. I’m nothing. I’m dirt. I’m dirt!” He blurted out.

Dirt, he was more like dirt than ice. Why? Thomas couldn’t follow a steady train of thought.

“Do you think having a relationship would make your life more meaningful-“

“Yes!” Thomas shouted. What a load of tripe- it was so easy to claim relationships were unimportant when you had to ability to incur one if you wanted. Clarkson could take up with Isobel Crawley, or any other fucking woman in their village. Thomas could not do that- in their village or any village. He was loveless. Lifeless.

“Any relationship at all! A friendship, a lover- anything!” He cried out. Clarkson did not answer, did not look at him- was too busy stitching Thomas’ other wrist. With each pull of thread, the blackness was closed up into dark orange and gray. With each snap of twine, that bathtub full of ice got one step further away. Edward’s arms… My darling, my darling, my darling.

“Imagine your day from sun up to sun down, completely cut off from everyone around you!” A myriad of days paraded past him. Tasteless porridge and stale tea. Burnt toast and acrid roasted vegetables. Dull light. Gloomy rooms. No warmth, no sun- nothing but ghosts and the people that kept them trapped. “Imagine your day with nothing but your thoughts to console you, nothing but your own touch and your cold bed! Imagine if every person you tried to talk to turned away!”

Bates, Anna, Moseley-

“If every person you tried to have a relationship with died, or left, or just stopped caring!”

Edward, Philip… Jimmy-
Needling. In and out, in and out.

“Imagine it!”

But there was no amount of howling or thrashing that would bridge the gap between Thomas and another human being. He had so isolated himself from humanity that he was now adrift even in a time of absolute crisis. Despite how he pleaded, despite how he provided, there was nothing to be done. He had failed to die alone. Now he would live alone. He could not imagine a worse fate.

He fell back against Baxter, utterly spent. His head was pounding wildly, his vision blackening- for a moment he could almost delude himself into imagining that he’d never left Edward or that realm of hell. That he was once more in a frozen bath. But then the voices of the living cut through his gloom again and forced him to the ugly reminder that he was alive. That he had failed.

“You’re going through hypovolemic shock.” Dr. Clarkson said. He’d finished sewing Thomas’ wrist shut and was now proceeding to wrap it tightly in gauze. “I’m tempted to put you in the hospital-“

“No.” Though Thomas did not open his eyes as Baxter stroked his hair, he knew it was Carson that spoke. He could not fathom why he heard fear in the man’s voice, “I-… Let’s keep him here, and out of the public eye. For his sake.”

Dr. Clarkson said nothing for a moment, taking his time to repack his supplies. Thomas blinked open one eye, his heart rate finally beginning to slow, and saw him packing away supplies. He seemed so calm, so in control; it mystified Thomas to know men could be in such a state. To know that some men were not in a constant mirage of panic and confusion. Perhaps he’d spent so long under the rock of his own guilty conscience that he’d forgotten some men could sleep easily at night. He was the very definition of ‘jaded’.

“I’m going back to the hospital to gather some supplies.” Clarkson declared, rising up from the bed and taking his traveling bag with him. “I’ll be back as promptly as I can, expect me in an hour or less. Until then, I have strict orders that are to be followed without delay.” At this, he turned to Carson, a finger in the air with clear warning, “Keep him warm and calm, in that bed-“ He pointed, “And in company. Do not under any circumstances leave him alone, even if for a mere minute. Repeated attempts are common and in Thomas’ case, I don’t see any simple answers forthcoming. Am I understood?”

“Of course.” Baxter said, before Carson had a proper chance to answer. She continued to hide Thomas’ face. Allowing him to relax back against the pillow, she cared for him gently, brushing his hair with her fingers and wiping up sweat and tears. “but it might not be possible for someone to watch him all the time.”

“Then as often as possible.” Clarkson ordered, “Likewise remove anything that he could use for a second attempt from the room.”

Thomas’ head spun, marbles rolling all about the floor as Baxter rose from the bed and left him cold if only to fetch him another blanket. She flung it over his body, covering him from head to toe in flannel which warmed him slightly against the bitter sting of the night air. She sat by his head again, tucking him in- Thomas wondered when it would all end.

Clarkson was leaving, Carson following him out the door.

“May I speak to you in private?” Thomas heard Clarkson say as the door to his room snapped shut. Carson's “Of course” was cut short.

Thomas wondered what would come next and if he would be put in a sanatorium. If he would be locked in a padded white cell for the rest of his days to rot in a pool of his own piss, head shaved and arms bound. Terrified he whimpered upon his pillow, more tears leaking from his eyes as Baxter covered his face again with her hands and arms.

“I’m here.” she whispered softly in his ear, as loving as any voice had ever been, “I’m listening to you. I’m here.”

And though, for the first time, Thomas had someone’s willing ear, he could find it within him to speak.

 

It was difficult to say when he fell asleep, but when Thomas woke again he was alone.

It was night, and he lay in the dark of his room like a shrouded tomb. The blankets Baxter and Clarkson had laid over him were still tucked around his frame, and he was dripping in a cold sweat. His heart was pounding, making him wonder if he were close to an anxiety attack in his frail condition; somehow the darkness that swallowed his room made it all the worse and Thomas had a desperate desire to get out and run. To leave the abbey before Clarkson returned- before he was surely sent to a mental asylum for the rest of his days.

Frightened, Thomas had to struggle to sit up. When he finally managed it he was so dizzy and so disorientated that he nearly vomited upon the blanket. Acid bubbled in his throat as he fumbled in the dark for the edge of his bed. He found it, and barely managed to rise. Every time he attempted to stand, his legs would give out, causing him to fall back down. Only on the fourth try when Thomas threw out an elbow to collide with his desk did he finally manage to remain upright.

“My darling…” he heard the words whispered in his head, “My darling, my darling, my darling…”

He staggered to his bureau, naked cold. His hands, so heavily bandaged and weak, did not want to work properly. It took every bit of Thomas’ coordination and strength to finally open the top drawer of his bureau where he found pants inside. All he could do at this point was pick them up, hold them to his chest, and he did so with care as he fetched an undershirt and a pair of trousers. Tying shoes laces, snapping sock garters, buttoning shirts- all of it was beyond his aid now. the most he could do was stumble back to the bed, shrug on a shirt, pull his pants up, and snap his trousers closed. Clothed but laying numb, Thomas wondered how on earth he was going to pack a valise, how he would be able to get down the stairs and out the door. The consequences of staying though were so dire that Thomas knew he could not stay. The minute Clarkson returned, Thomas was certain he’d ring for a sanatorium.

There was no time to dally anymore. Thomas had failed to die, and now he would be forced to live.

Staggering back up from bed, Thomas slumped against the cold wood of his door, fumbling for the nob and slipped into the hall. He found it lit but bare; frightened of being found, Thomas headed for the stairs and began to make his way down. Every time he looked at his feet, the world pitched. With his eyes half closed and leaning against the rail for dear life, Thomas stumbled from step to step. His bare feet were freezing upon the cool stone, growing dirty from dust underfoot. He almost slid in the grime, catching himself with his cheekbone on the rail as he made it to the second landing and down to the first. The sound of chatter around him was loud, far too amplified for comfort, and frightened him intensely so the he immediately drew his hands up as if to protect his face from a beating. Slumping off the stairs, Thomas carefully poked his head around the corner to see that no one was waiting in the eaves by the kitchen. Several people were clearly sitting in the servant’s hall though. Thomas could hear laughter and knew he was on the verge of being caught should he linger. The hallway to the back door was clear, his one and only shot for freedom, and Thomas took it, staggering as he slumped from railing to door frame.

“Why are you out of bed? I thought you had the flue. And why aren’t you dressed?”

Thomas looked around, horrified, to see Daisy straightening up with a teapot in hand. She was clearly confused, her fine brow wrinkled. She’d been serving a cuppa to both Andy and Anna, who gaped horrified at the sight of him. Baxter had had her back to him, and swiveled around fast in her seat, panic making her face drain of blood as she saw him there. Baxter shot up from her seat, nearly causing it to fall on its back legs as she scrambled around it.

Thomas panicked, and ran.

He was too weak to go fast, too light headed to make it far, and he only got several paces down the hall before he tripped. In a last minute ditch to keep from being captured and sent to an asylum, Thomas diverted quick to the left into the boot room and slammed the door shut before anyone else could get through. He locked it a mere second before a quick rapping knock came on the wood, and Thomas gasped, backing up to slump against the wood of the work station. He pitched, reeled, and nearly vomited upon the wood as he fell onto a work stool that sat tucked underneath. It caused him to trip, and in a massive clatter he fell to the floor with the stool atop him. For a moment he simply lay there, shaking, practically swimming in his sweat as the hammering kept up on the door. Vision fuzzy and path unclear, an odd darkness swam close to Thomas’ face, and he opened his eyes to see two boots before him.

Soldier’s boots.

He looked up into a darkened face, framed by a stiff army uniform, but before he could fully grasp who was before him and what was going on, the soldier had vanished and the door to the boot room was open. Mrs. Hughes was on the other side, and she swooped down upon him at once to pull the stool off of him and caress his brow.

“Thomas!” She held him by the shoulders, helping him to slowly sit up. So disorientated was he that Thomas could not fully grasp who else was in the room or what they wanted. “What are on earth are you doing down here? Come back upstairs with me, we’ll get you put right.”

“Yer gonna… send me away-“ Thomas slurred, voice thick and tongue tied as his vision went in and out. Where had the soldier gone? “Asylum-“

“Oh Thomas-“ Mrs. Hughes beseeched, sympathetic. Someone was taking him under the arms, trying to get him back up. “No one is going to put you anywhere but in bed. I wouldn’t allow them to put you into an asylum, and neither would Ms. Baxter.”

“There we go, that’s it-“ Baxter was in his other ear, and though it was Mrs. Hughes that soothed his fears, Thomas found his arms blindly linking around Baxter to keep him from pitching again. Unable to see, blind and in the dark, Thomas followed her lead out of the room and surely back into the hall. Fear of accepting comfort battled with a desperate desire to be comforted, and Thomas ended up moaning into Baxter’s neck as he was steered by several pairs of hands into another room. A door was closed, and Thomas felt himself being deposited into a chair. Baxter kept holding his head up, wiping at the sweat on his face and neck. As if from down a long pipe, Thomas heard Andy speaking: “Can I help?”

But the rest was muddled. Thomas nearly fainted, slumping forward so that several loud voices were suddenly in his ear and a light hand was smacking his face. It went to gray, the hands vanishing and the cold returning so that for a moment Thomas feared he would be sucked back into that icy bath where demons wrestled him under the water. Instead, in what seemed like only the tiniest second later, Thomas was being awoken by a warm sensation at the back of his neck and a soft rag upon his forehead. He slowly blinked his eyes opened, dazzled by a warm light before him which illuminated several fretful faces. Mrs. Hughes was the closest, Ms. Baxter to her left. Both of them were watching him, their faces flickering with relief as they registered him waking. To the left of Ms. Baxter stood Andy, who looked incredibly nervous and sweaty, not to mention exhausted. Behind them all stood Carson, who kept his posture rigid and his face neutral. Thomas realized there was someone holding him up and turned to look to his left only to have several people make to stop him. Baxter and Mrs. Hughes reached out, taking his face in hand to keep him looking forward.

“Don’t move.” Baxter urged, “You have a needle in your neck.”

As if bidden by her words, Thomas realized that his head was absolutely pounding. He moaned aloud, attempting to bring a hand up to touch his temple. But even that movement was impeded, slowed down by someone at Thomas’ side who remained partially obscured as they kept his hand in his lap.

“My head… hurts… so bad…” Thomas managed to say, the words thick like cotton in his mouth.

“I’m administering a fluid replacement.” came the voice of Dr. Clarkson, so it seemed that he was the one at Thomas’ shoulder. “You’re on the verge of the fourth stage of hypovolemic shock. I cannot deny I would prefer you in a hospital.”

“If you put him in the hospital, he’ll be found out.” Baxter seemed agitated, as if she’d been arguing with Clarkson about this for a while now. “He has to stay here.”

“I agree with Ms. Baxter.” Mrs. Hughes said.

“I cannot allow his condition to deteriorate any worse without fully admitting to negligence on my part.” Clarkson’s tone was bordering on irritation.

“Asylum…” Thomas whispered. He was hushed by several hands, mostly Baxter who just seemed to want to keep him quiet and calm.

“Thomas, if I was going to put you in an asylum, I would have run for the ward hours ago.” Clarkson assured him gently, putting a heavy hand upon his shoulder, “The only place I’m putting you is in a bed-“

“Your own bed.” Baxter added gently. “Where you belong.”

“I cannot have him on his own.” Clarkson disagreed. Thomas’ eyes fluttered closed, and a sudden up pitch of voices brought the conversation to a slight fault.

“Thomas, Thomas wake up!” Someone was popping him lightly in the cheek, but for all they hit him Thomas could not seem to open his eyes.

A sharp smell hit his nose and Thomas staggered awake, nearly retching at the scent of ammonia. He got half a glimpse of a smelling salt flask wiping out of sight and back into Dr. Clarkson’s pocket before Baxter was wiping his forehead again and Mrs. Hughes was rubbing his hand.

“I will only agree to keep him here if he is kept under close surveillance.” Dr. Clarkson argued. “For gods sake he can barely stay conscious. If he needs aid, it must be given to him promptly. He could die within the night.”

Yes god, Thomas thought in bleak hope, Let it kill me tonight. Let there be no dawn.

“He could stay in my room.” Andy spoke up, causing several people to look around. “Mr. Barrow’s been very good to me. I want to help if I can. I have a spare cot in my room, I can make it up right now… he can stay there as long as he needs.”

“That’s very kind of you Andrew.” Mrs. Hughes complimented. “But it’s up to Mr. Carson, not you.”

“I’ll allow it,” Mr. Carson gruffed, “At this point I feel we have no choice.”

It was difficult to say how long it took Andy to make up his room. Time had spiraled completely out of control, to the point where days and minutes could easily reverse given his state of consciousness. The only marking in time was that Clarkson stopped the fluid replacement, withdrawing the needle from his neck to taper his skin and seal the wound. Thomas caught sight of a truly enormous syringe when Clarkson pulled away, and wondered at how he’d not been howling in pain from the needle which looked closer to a nail than anything else. He kept wanting to close his eyes, feeling as if his heart rate was returning to normal and rendering him exhausted. Every time he did though, either Baxter or Mrs. Hughes would gently tap him in the face. Had he been more alert, Thomas would have screamed from the irritation. instead he merely slay slumped in his chair and said nothing. He could dimly register that he was in Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room. That he was at her side table. Everything else was a blur as Andy returned.

“Shall we get back to bed?” Clarkson advised, gentle as he took Thomas underneath the arm. Andy got him by the other, and together the pair of them all but hauled him up out of the chair. So weak and helpless was Thomas that it took everyone’s hands to move him. Mrs. Hughes helped him by the back while Baxter carefully clung to his side. Carson opened the door and kept firm watch as they slowly exited Mrs. Hughes sitting room and made for the stairs.

“How will we ever get him up?” Thomas heard Andy muse aloud.

“One step at a time.” Was Carson’s wise response.

Time slowed down, and so it was that Thomas lived his life on the stairs. Years passed, he was certain, as the methodical drag of his feet made for the steady march of time. He passed his youth on the first landing, knew adulthood in the second, and by the fourth was in his elderly years so that as they finally reached Andy’s room Thomas likened it to his funeral. There, made up, was Andy’s spare bed. Mrs. Hughes let go of Thomas’ back to walk around and turn down the covers. Clarkson and Andy both tried to make Thomas’ descent a smooth one, but so far gone was he that as his legs began to buckle towards the bed he fell forward in a landslide and nearly took Baxter with him. Slumped on the mattress, Thomas blacked out again just as someone lifted his legs and shifted them under the covers. They were pulled to his chest, his head positioned better on the pillow by helping hands. The last thing Thomas registered was Baxter’s soft voice.

“I’ll sit with him.”

“Thank you Ms. Baxter.” was Dr. Clarkson’s reply.

 

When Thomas woke next, it seemed to be daytime and everything was changed. The sounds of the house alive around him were distant, and a chair was pulled up to his bedside with the door to the hallway wide open. There, in his chair, was Mrs. Hughes, who sat working on a cross stitch and keeping a gentle eye. As she saw his eyes open, she smiled, setting her work aside in a time-worn canvas bag by her feet to reach forward and feel his forehead for temperature.

“How are we feeling?” Mrs. Hughes asked.

There was no adjective in the English language to describe Thomas’ state of horror and denial. So far gone was he that as he looked upon Mrs. Hughes he briefly considered begging her to kill him. But he knew she wouldn’t, because she was kind and believed in the good of man. She’d urge him onward, and only pity him more. It made him want to weep, for the fact that no one seemed to be listening to what he wanted. Whimpering softly, Thomas could not find the energy in him to cry. Instead he only made pathetic noises as Mrs. Hughes stroked his brow and kept his hair off his face.

“One hour at a time, Thomas.” She whispered softly, “One minute even, that’s all you have to do.”

 

Thomas did not know how long he remained awake, but soon he drifted off to sleep for when he came to again it was night time and Mrs. Hughes was gone. The chair that had been her perch was back by the wall, and briefly Thomas thought he was alone till he felt a warmth and weight beside him. The door to the hallway was open, the lights outside turned off. Now was the hour for sleep, with even the servant’s in bed, but someone was beside him and humming gently into his ear.

“Balance yourself like a bird of a beam in the air she goes… there she goes…” The voice soothed him, along with the smell of perfume and talcum powder. It seemed Baxter was beside him tonight, though across from Thomas, Andy was fast asleep in his own bed. Thomas tried to roll his head on his pillow, to see Baxter better in the dark. But he couldn’t, he was too weak. Instead, he could only lay in Baxter’s arms as she cradled his head upon the pillow and kept him warm at his side.

“Up, up, a little bit higher,” she sang in his ear, “Oh my, the moon is on fire…”

He faded out again, swept back to sleep by her lullaby.

 

The third time he woke, it was to Baxter and the daylight again.

But something was different. He was hot.

Before, Thomas had been cold, and had likened himself back into that icy bath where Edward held him tight. Now, Thomas felt like he was on fire, like he would surely drown in the flame just as he’d drowned in the tub. He gasped, groaning, desperate for water, for air, for ice- for anything cool that might quench his need. His eyes were heavy, a futile effort to open, but as he did he saw Baxter upon his guest chair darning a lace collar in her lap. When she realized he’d awoken and was groaning, she set the collar aside at once to care for him, bringing up a rag from his beside table to dab at his brow.

“Shh…” She wiped at his flaming temple, “There now.” It was freezing, practically like ice against his skin, and as the water dribbled down his forehead onto his temple Thomas wished he could lap it up. That he could simply drink it into his veins. Groaning he turned his head to the side, trying to catch a trickle of water with his tongue. It was a fruitless endeavor, causing him to moan; Baxter seemed to realize he was desperately thirsty and let go of the rag so that it lay limply upon his forehead. She took up a tea cup, half drunk and cool.

“I have some tea.” She whispered, her voice still sounding thunderously loud in Thomas’ ears, “Would you like to try and sip some?”

Desperate, he grunted, unable to even beg for tea. Baxter set her cup aside, reaching an arm deep beneath Thomas’ neck to cup him about the shoulders and help him rise. The act was volatile, making Thomas’ entire world spin in a heated blur as he moaned and sagged. She could barely hold him up, and instead let him rest against the head board as she took up her cup of tea again and set it against his lips.

The tea slipped through his parched lists, soothing his tongue and throat. But even as Thomas swallowed he knew he’d made a grave mistake. His stomach was already recoiling, warning him of bile soon to follow, and with the very last vestiges of strength he possessed Thomas jerked aside at the lest minute to keep from spewing on Baxter’s lap. Instead, he leaned over the bed and vomited beside her chair, the tea leaving his body along with everything else. He tried to stop, to gain some self control, but it was impossible. He vomited twice to collapse back against the bed, whimpering in embarrassment as Baxter dabbed patiently at his soiled chin and lips.

“Oh god-“ Thomas groaned, feeling another wave coming. Wiser, Baxter snatched up a trash-bin from Andy’s beside and offered it for Thomas to heave into. He vomited one last time, paused, took a deep shuddering breath, then fell back into his pillow once again.

“M’ so sorry-“ He whispered, horrified that she would now have to clean up his vomit on the floor. As if she hadn’t already done enough for his sake.

“It’s alright.” She assured him. He knew she was lying.

“M’ so so sorry.” He could hardly stay awake, his abandoned strength giving out entirely as he shuddered an enormous breath.

“It’s perfectly alright.” She whispered, and Thomas fell unconscious once more to the sound of her rhythmic breathing as she stroked his face.

He blinked, it was night, and Baxter was gone.

Once again, it seemed the house was sleeping around him. Next to him in his own bed, Andy was asleep, a still solid lump beneath his thin coverlet. Thomas realized with an internal distress that he desperately needed to urinate. Too proud to wake Andy from his sleep, he knew the only way he was going to pee was if he got out of the bed himself and drug himself to the toilet. There was no way in hell he was failing to commit suicide, vomiting on a floor, and peeing in a bed in the same week. One had to draw the line somewhere, and for Thomas Barrow this was the final edge of the curve. He would not degrade himself so low as to be found in a puddle of his own urine.

Taking his time, wary of over exhausting himself and ending up the worse, Thomas slowly rolled onto his side and pushed himself up on his forearms. Taking a minute to simply sit and breath, Thomas waited until he felt secure in his surroundings again before daring to rise. Even so, it was a wobbly, ugly affair, that mostly left him crippled with a swollen abdomen. He felt as if he could not walk properly, as if he were pregnant, and groaned as he cupped his sensitive stomach. He knew he was dehydrated, but tea from the kitchens was out of the question. He’d have to drink from the faucet in the bathroom. Perhaps there would be a cup by the sink he could use. The hallway was bare and quiet, giving Thomas ample room and time to make his way to the bathroom without being impeded by “helping” hands. Though his first few steps were solid and sure, by the time he’d gotten to the bathroom he felt like he might vomit again.

He thanked god the toilet wasn’t in the same unit as the tub. He didn’t think he could stand to look at his porcelain grave now.

It was difficult to close the door with his bandaged hands. The most he could do was lean upon the wood, forcing it to close with his weight alone. Determined to relieve his aching bladder, Thomas stumbled to the toilet and reached for the lid. Unfortunately as he bent over,another wave of nausea stooped upon him and he had to stop in his quest in order to vomit. Without the toilet open, he had only one choice. Vomit on the floor, or the sink. He turned, and heaved into the basin, vomiting twice before feeling secure. Acid made his tongue feel fuzzy and numb, and Thomas reached forward with both hands to fumbled with the sink tap. It took a great deal of finagling, but he finally managed to get the water going and immediately cupped his fingers beneath the icy water to gather a sip. He hissed, fingers trembling as he lapped up little beads from his palms. It reminded him too greatly of the icy grave he’d so longed to fill. He doubted he would ever enjoy cold water again.

Thomas tried once again for the toilet, but groaned as a sudden wave of exhaustion flooded his body. He had a desperate desire to lay down on the bathroom floor and nap, but point blank refused. He would piss in this toilet or he would die trying, by god.

Yet his second attempt for the toilet was paused by the sudden opening of the bathroom door. Andy was revealed, unkempt and disheveled with curly hair askew and brown eyes wide with fear.

“Mr. Barrow-!” He gaped at the sight of Thomas bent awkwardly over the toilet, pale and sweaty with trousers still done up.

“Just need… bathroom.” Thomas croaked. Andy took a step forward, nervous but determined.

“Let me help you.” He urged, offering his hands forward as if he made to support Thomas while he took a piss.

“Andy…” Thomas groaned, wishing he had just a little bit more strength to claim so that he could bloody well empty his bladder and go back to bed. “For god’s sake-“

“Well- I mean-“ Andy fumbled, clearly just as embarrassed as he, “You nearly fainted just now! I ought to help you.”

“No.” Thomas ground out, jaw clenched in anger. He had to close his eyes, forcing himself to take deep slow breathes lest he faint. Andy paused, unsure of what to do as Thomas continued to clutch as the lid of the toilet and the lip of the sink.

“…What do you want me to do, Mr. Barrow?” He asked, “I can’t let you fall over or be alone-“

“Just-“ Thomas mumbled, desperately trying for a solution, “Stand outside the door. I’ll be there in five minutes. Okay?” though it was sure to be more like ten if he had trouble with his trouser clasp.

“I shouldn’t.” Andy just kept shaking his head, nervous and pale.

“Andy!” Thomas protested, too weak to argue.

“I’m not supposed to!” Andy begged, wringing his hands before himself like Thomas still held all the cards in his hands, “Mrs. Hughes and Ms. Baxter would have my guts for gizzard if they found out I left you alone.”

“then just- just turn around.” Thomas beseeched, desperate to hang onto his dignity for as long as he could. He’d already been found in a tub of his own blood and vomited on Andy’s floor. The last thing he wanted Andy to do was to see him take a leak. “Please, I beg of you.”

The word ‘beg’ had an odd effect on Andy, as if he could hardly believe Thomas said it at all. Turning away, Andy crossed his shoulders over his chest but refused to move an inch out of the room.

“Fine.” Andy grumbled, sounding none too pleased about any of it. “But after this straight back to bed.”

Thomas conceded minor defeat, returning to the toilet and focusing his attentions solely on lifting the lid and undoing his trouser clasp. He was still wearing the trousers he’d put on in his last minute bid to flee the abbey, and noted as he unhooked them with delicate care that they were damp to the touch with sweat. They needed to be shed entirely, and he resolved to do so when he was back in bed. As he emptied his bladder, Thomas could not help but sigh in relief. He flushed, and made to wash his hands- but something odd was happening in his stomach. The lack of urine seemed to have caused his intestines to churn, and Thomas groaned as he vomited once again into the sink. He closed his eyes, unwilling to see the world spin, but was suddenly steadied by Andy’s hands upon his shoulders.

“Do you need medicine?” Andy asked, still sounding quite nervous.

“No.” Thomas whispered. If they were on the subject of what he needed- he needed a different life. To have been born with a stranger’s brain and heart- to be able to see the world through better eyes. This was impossible, he knew; he could not live right. He could not even die right, it seemed.

Andy helped him to stumble back to bed, his hands resolutely upon his shoulders. As Thomas was laid back in his borrowed bed, he felt a great exhaustion overtake him. He was asleep again before Andy had even returned to his own bed.

 

The next time he woke, it was not by choice.

Someone was rubbing his shoulders, where it seemed he was laying on his side.

“Come on. Sit up.” Came the soft but stern voice of Baxter. She rubbed at his shoulder, forcing him awake, and Thomas’ world spun as he opened his eyes to see Baxter sitting in his guest chair with a little card table set up beside her. It was barely big enough to hold a tray, but worked perfectly for the steaming bowl and cup of tea that sat atop it. Thomas spotted a cloister of biscuits rester on the tea saucer and knew Baxter was going to attempt to make him eat. He couldn’t bear the thought after vomiting on the floor, and groaned to roll away. Damn her if she didn’t chase him with her hands, forcing him back around despite his weak protests. She forced him to sit up, pulling his arms and primping his pillows so that as he fell back he rested upright. The light was making his head pound, and he knew it was day. He groaned again, turning his face this way and that to try and get away from the disturbance- Baxter still wouldn’t let him.

“Let’s try and eat.” She urged.

Thomas pinched his eyes open and shut, unable to fully look without getting a headache. He noticed that Baxter had a bucket sitting at her feet and knew exactly what it was for. He shook his head, desperate to keep from vomiting again, but Baxter would not listen.

“Come on.” She urged, taking the steaming bowl in her hands- it was chicken soup he saw- with a wide spoon she offered him broth. Admittedly it smelt delicious, but Thomas was so far gone in nausea that he could not stand the scent and gagged. Baxter pressed the spoon against his parched lips even as he turned his head away- as a bead of broth passed his lips Thomas’ tongue yearned to taste more. Despite his desperation for dignity, for sleep, he opened his mouth and allowed Baxter’s spoon to pass. He ate slowly, spoon after spoon, but ten minutes didn’t come and go before nausea set in again. He grimaced, pulling back, but Baxter offered him her bucket instead and he vomited up the newly swallowed soup inside. As soon as he was finished, Thomas felt hungrier than ever, and gladly accepted the warm tea she offered. It was herbal, something perhaps to help sooth his stomach. After he had swallowed a few mouthfuls, she offered him more soup broth, and he swallowed it greedily. She even gave him a noodle or two, followed by a steamed carrot that tasted oddly sweet. When she tried to offer him chicken however, Thomas had to decline. He could feel the nausea coming back again, and stretched out a shaking hand for her basket. She gave it at once, still holding onto his bowl of soup, and Thomas vomited three more times. When he rose again, he could not bear to eat anymore and simply fell back upon his pillow. Baxter tried to offer him another spoon but Thomas shook his head. Sighing in slight defeat, she set his soup bowl aside and took back her bucket.

He felt her pull his blankets up a little better on his chest; in the darkness beneath his eye lids, Thomas hid from the world and pretended to be asleep. It was the only defense left to him anymore.

A clinking of cutlery later, it seemed she’d set his soup and tea aside to try for another bit of nourishment instead. But it wasn’t a biscuit she offered him; it was poetry.

“Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred.” She read. If she was hoping for him to be listening, she would be sorely disappointed. Thomas was almost asleep, exhausted from his attempt at eating lunch.

“Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred.”

“My darling…” whispered a voice in Thomas’ ear, both close and terribly far away, “My darling, my darling, my darling…”

 

 

Returning back to normalcy in regards to eating and sleeping was a difficult task. Several days passed Thomas by, and soon it was Friday afternoon. Thomas sat in bed, confined there by several orders (given from Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Ms. Baxter, and even Lord Grantham himself). He was untrusted with even the most menial task, and all sharp or difficult objects (such as pens and even paperclips) had been removed from Andy’s room. Thomas was only allowed to shave with Andy or Carson watching, and as soon as he was finished his razor was confiscated from him. Back to bed he was ordered, where he sat now reading Baxter’s book of poetry in her absence. He tried desperately not to think about the horrific loneliness that sat within his breast, begging him to try suicide again. He felt an odd sense of numbness that kept him from screaming hysterically every time he realized he was alive. He knew one day, one hour, that numbness would run out and he would attempt suicide again. He was no stranger to his fate, and understood quite calmly that despite everyone’s procrastinations to keep him alive… one day he would be successful and die. He was almost spiteful about it.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Thomas read, eyes flicking back and forth across the pages of Baxter’s loaned book, “Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.”

“There’s but to do and die.” Thomas read aloud, thinking of Edward and that icy bath. If only the others had read this book. Maybe then they would have understood and not bothered to save him.

Yet as Thomas continued to read, there was a gentle knock upon Andy’s door and he looked up from his book to find Lady Mary of all people upon the threshold with George in hand. He was carrying, weirdly enough, an orange.

“May we come in?” Mary offered, her voice disturbingly gentle. Thomas feared her presence in his room, of what it might mean, but kept his face stoically straight as George left his mother’s side to toddle over to Thomas’ bed. He offered the orange, and Thomas’ heart constricted painfully.

“Hellow Mista Bawwow.” George offered him a toothy grin, “Here you are to make you feel bettah-“ he handed Thomas the orange, he set his book down to accept it at once. It was smooth and cool in his hands, smell succulently of citrus and reminding him of pleasant summer days. Charmed, Thomas smiled as George made to sit on Andy’s stripped bed (the maids were washing the sheets), and it gave him pause when he realized that George’s presence- George’s innocence- had given him his first moment of happiness since his attempted suicide.

Sod the bowl of broth, five minutes with George Crawley perked him up right good and proper.

“Thank you very much, Master George.” Thomas murmured, letting the orange roll in his pale palms. He decided he would savor that orange, smell it, hold it, and finally eat it. He’d suck the juice out of each piece and allow it to fill him up.

“We want you to get better Barrow, truly,” Mary said, though Thomas hardly believed her, “And no one more than Master George.”

 

Now that Thomas could believe, and he offered George the smallest sweetest smile that George happily returned. “At least I’ve got one friend, eh?” Thomas said. George nodded, quite certain in his affections. Thomas wished he could have taken George into his arms. Wished he could have sat for hours in his borrowed bed stroking George’s fine blonde hair and reading him stories. He would have shared his orange with George, slice by slice, if only society could allow it. He suddenly found himself loathing the nanny, with a passionate jealousy for all the time that she got to spend with the children. If only he could have had her job.

“Have you been lonely?” Mary asked, and Thomas was surprised at the sincere affection in her voice. He couldn’t say how they’d become odd friends- perhaps through both loving George or Thomas’ defense of her against that ridiculous Gwen’s lies. Either way Mary seemed oddly affectionate towards him now, which made Thomas wonder what he’d done right… or wrong.

“If I have I’ve only myself to blame.” Thomas mumbled, repeating the age old wisdom that had been whispered in his ear since his childhood. “I’ve done and said things. I don’t know why… Can’t stop myself.” He pursed his lips, thinking of all the actions he’d committed against Bates alone. It was a wonder he still had his job in this damnable house. “Now I’m paying the price.”

Now he would have to live with his shame for as long as it took to find a way back to a knife again.

“Strange.” Mary admitted, and Thomas glanced up, curious to see her shake her head, “I could say the same.”

He was on the verge of asking her way, impertinent or no, but was interrupted by the sound of heels on the floor followed swiftly by the arrival of Anna.

“Mr. Carson has told them you’ve got the-“ She bore a tray, no doubt his lunch, and looked taken aback at the sight of Lady Mary in his shared room. She stopped dead, sentence unfinished, but Thomas already knew the rest.

Carson’s lie was a dull, witless thing. “The flue.” he mumbled, unamused, “I know.”

“Beg your pardon, M’lady.” Anna murmured, amazed that Lady Mary had thought to look in on Thomas. For some reason Thomas found himself wishing that he could scream at Anna, tell her to stop bloody gawking and leave him be. The only person to his knowledge to have sat with him in his convalescence was Baxter. He supposed it must be nice, to know someone had attempted suicide but care nothing for how they were getting on. Anna’s word was a powdered, pampered thing in Thomas’ opinion. What did she know of grief or strife?

That’s not fair, a voice whispered in his head, She’s suffered just as much as you.
Mary seemed to notice Thomas’ expression darkening, and held out her hand for George to take. He hopped off the bed, toddling for the door, and Mary said, “We’re going, Barrow. And I hope things improve for you… I really do.”

Thomas couldn’t believe the sincerity in her voice. It astounded him.

“I’d say the same if it weren’t impertinent, M’lady.”Thomas murmured.

“Goodbye, Mista Bawwow.” George said, waving a pudgy hand after him as he left with his mother. Thomas watched him go, suddenly grief stricken for George’s absence.

“Goodbye, Master George.” Thomas replied, praying Mary would not hear the desperate desire for affection in his voice. It was already gruesome enough that she knew his shame. Mary left, and Anna watched her go, careful to balance her tray with practiced hands as she stepped forward and perched it upon Thomas’ lap. Thomas saw it was a bowl of beef stew, with a cup of chamomile tea and a buttered roll.

“What on earth was that about?” Anna asked, looking back to the door. Thomas gave her no reply, suddenly finding himself oddly mute. Instead of being irritated or disappointed, Anna seemed to understand, and instead gestured to his plate with a small quirky smile.

“You’re to eat all of that.” she declared, “Ms. Baxter’s orders.”

Thomas nodded, knowing full well that if he didn’t eat enough to her liking Baxter was bound to stomp up here and shove the damn spoon down his throat herself. Instead he looked to his lap where the orange rolled about, thinking he should peel it. His fingernails were too short and his wrists too weak to do it by hand, though-

“Would you like me to peel that for you?” Anna asked, but Thomas shook his head knowing full well there should be a knife amongst his bundled silverware. Yet as he unfolded his napkin, Thomas saw to his dismay that his butter knife was gone so that only a spoon was left. he looked up at Anna, who gave him a tight lipped smile to offer her hand for the orange.

So it seemed he wasn’t even trusted with a dull knife anymore.

Hot shame unfurled in Thomas’ stomach, making him nauseas as Anna took his orange and peeled it with a knife from her pocket. It was his butter knife, nabbed from the set- it seemed Mrs. Patmore was yet to know of his fall from grace, or he doubted she’d have bothered with the butter knife. The smell of citrus became thick upon the stale morning air as Anna finished peeling the orange, but Thomas took the hull from her before she could throw it in the waste bin. He wanted to savor it, to keep it for as long as possible. Like so many other times in his life, this one little bit of happiness would have to do.

“Here.” Anna said as she handed him back his freshly peeled orange. He brought it up to his nose with both hands, inhaling deeply. Instantly his mouth began to salivate.

“Eat up.” She urged, heading back for the door. She flashed him a small smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes, “Or Ms. Baxter will be up here to scold you.”

Though it might have been shamefully rude, Thomas paid Anna no mind. Instead, he focused on his orange and kept inhaling its scent. When he finally made to peel it apart, Anna was long gone. The soft shucking sound of flesh coming away from flesh was followed by the slightly bitter taste of the skin in his mouth. It gave way as he bit down, a sudden gush of fruity acid igniting his taste buds. It made him think of Christmas time, of being allowed a slice of orange amongst his many siblings. All at once, he was a child again, this time stealing the orange to himself and leaving none for his brothers and sister. In youth he’d been forced to share. As an adult, he finally had the power to tell others to go fuck themselves.

The rest of his lunch felt bland and tasteless by comparison.

Thomas fell asleep with the tray in his lap, clutching onto the skin of the orange so that he could smell it even with his head on the pillow. When he woke again, the tray was gone, as was most of the peel- but once tiny shiv had remained untaken, clutched tightly in Thomas’ palm and hidden from view. For that, Thomas treasured it, and at once made to put it in his bedside drawer so that no one could throw it away.

He sat there in bed, gazing listlessly up at the ceiling for god knows how long. There was a speckle of mold in the right hand corner- Thomas doubted even Andy had noticed it. There were also a few cracks around the doorframe. One crack in particular looked a bit like rabbit. Thomas found his gaze repeatedly drawn back to it, and started to develop a story in his mind for the rabbit to center around. Its name, he decided, was Loda. She was a beautiful rabbit that lived in the alps, dancing about in the snowy skies where mountains towered over all else. He was just imagining her jumping in the snow, chasing clouds, when there came a soft knock upon his door. It opened to reveal Mrs. Hughes, who gave him a kindly smile and stepped inside to shut the door.

“How are we feeling?” She asked.

Thomas did not deign the question with an answer, instead closing his eyes momentarily as Mrs. Hughes took a seat on Thomas’ guest chair. Like Ms. Baxter before her, she put her hands on her lap and tried for conversation.

“Mrs. Patmore said you ate most of your lunch.” Mrs. Hughes sounded quite pleased, “Do you think you could hold down some dinner?”

Thomas shook his head, imagining that to test his luck with two large meals with put him back with a waste basket full of vomit. Mrs. Hughes frowned, reaching forward to tug at his duvet so that it might better cover his body. She patted his bed spread, sighing.

“Lady Mary had some exciting news today.” She declared, “She’s to wed Mr. Talbot tomorrow.”

That made for quite a change. Thomas immediately thought of George who would no doubt look to Henry Talbot as a father from now on. It might even result in George seeking him out less often, which made Thomas’ stomach twist. He looked away from Mrs. Hughes, desperate to keep his shredded dignity intact for as long as possible. She pressed on, her tone much more sensitive than before.

“She wants you there.” Mrs. Hughes explained, “I came to see if you thought you’d be up for it? It’d be quite a walk into the village but the air might do you good, and we could always take the wagonette. If you’re up to it, that is…. I want you to stand beside me and Mr. Carson during the ceremony. What do you say?”

Ah, the joys of servitude. The fact of the matter was that Thomas wanted absolutely nothing to do with weddings, with joy or bliss. He wanted to hide in this room under his covers until he forgot the meaning of existence. But this wasn’t an option he could take if Lady Mary had personally invited him, certainly not after she’d deigned him worthy of a visit. Bringing George to his bedside had been a blessing- one that he fully doubted Lady Mary could comprehend, but he would take it none the less. In all the attempts to save him and nourish him, George’s visit had been the one instance of healing he could gather. The taste of orange was still upon his tongue.

Thomas nodded, still unwilling to speak. To betray his silence would feel like wounding himself all over again, admitting to being alive and failing at his suicide. He didn’t want to talk anymore.

He wanted to die, and only that.

 

Time dragged on, a dance of sun and moon, and when it rose on Saturday morning it still found Thomas laying in bed looking at Loda the Rabbit. Andy roused from sleep to wash and dress, keeping a wary eye on Thomas as he shaved and stropped his razor. Thomas rose from bed, taking his time lest he fall right over into the second bed or wardrobe. With Andy’s help he dressed in a suit, careful to button his shirt sleeves over the thick wrappings of his wrists. Combing his hair in the mirror, carefully dolloping in Brilliantine, Thomas wanted to vomit at his reflection. He looked just the same as he had the day of his attempted suicide- the same as all the days before that. He existed in a miasma- he knew that now- and though Andy might be able to look at him and see a difference Thomas wasn’t fooled. There was no difference between him in the present, the past, the future- there was no change. He doubted he’d been born different- that he’d appeared from his mother’s womb just as broken and damaged as he was now in adulthood.

He wished his father had strangled him in his cot.

Shaving was embarrassing. Andy stood by his shoulder, practically breathing down his neck as he drug the razor down the columns of his neck. His fingers twitched anticipating the moment when Thomas might attempt to slit his throat instead. It was an exhausting business and one he did not appreciate as he washed his face clean of soap and buttoned up the last loops of his collar. Yet as he looked up to pat his face dry, Thomas was taken aback by the shocking appearance of Edward in Andy’s mirror. He was standing by Thomas’ right shoulder, mirroring Andy’s stance, and wore his best army suit clean of fuzz. Worst of all, his eyes were clear of acid- clear and brightest blue… Like the very ocean were pooled in his brain. His maroon tie felt oddly tight at his throat, like he was attempting to choke himself. His toes felt pinched in his shoes. His wrists itched mercilessly. Thomas swallowed, eyes wide as he watched Edward’s every move and wondered if he’d gone insane.

“You look smart.” Edward declared, looking him up and down with pride. Thomas closed his eyes, opening his mouth to tell Andy that he could not go to the wedding- that he was too ill- but when he opened his eyes again Edward was gone and his face was still damp to be dried.

“Something wrong?” Andy asked, unsure. Thomas shook his head, bitterly frightened as he dabbed his face dry and folded Andy’s towel over his bureau drawer. As he left Andy’s room, biding Loda a silent goodbye, he wished for nothing more than sleep. To lay in his bed forever and never be bothered again- least of all by love and weddings.

When he passed the washroom, he paused only slightly in his step. For one tiny moment he considered rushing into the room, locking the door and strangling himself with his tie before he could suffer another damning blow. Perhaps Edward was beckoning him.

But Andy noticed it, and took him by the elbow to gently steer him away.

They descended the stairs, Thomas all the while recalling how difficult it had been the day of his suicide to get down the stairs- to try and escape the Abbey. It made been like moving through mud, and a declaration to his slow recovery that he was able to walk down now without pause or sweat. The whole time they walked, Thomas wondered if he’d cracked- if he was just waiting to collapse and merely being held together by the bandages at his wrists. When they were unraveled would Thomas unravel too?

He walked through the halls of the downstairs like a ghost, passing straight by the kitchen where Mrs. Patmore and Daisy were fixing their hats in a mirror by a writing desk. He walked past the servant’s hall where the Bates were preening each other and Mr. Moseley was attempting to woo Ms. Baxter. He even walked past both Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson’s office, mindless to those who might have offered up his name or urged to see him better. Instead he headed for the back door which the hall boy had left open, and stepped through it out onto the back step- such a familiar cradle. Here was the birthplace of his bitterness- how many nights had he sat out here smoking while the others stayed inside laughing? How often had he longed to join them, but refused to answer his heart’s call. Instead staying outside in the cold till he himself was just as frigid inside. The table where he’d sat cleaning clocks and smoking cigarettes with Ms. O’Brien was abandoned, and Thomas found himself drawn to the bench as if by a magnet. Sheer habit alone compelled him to perch there, to sit and watch as the wagonette was brought around by the lone remaining chauffeur for the servants to pile into.

He stared at it for a moment, and pondered commandeering it to drive to the train station. He could attempt to sneak onto the train- to flee Downton and its prison. But the moment slipped him by as the back door opened again. In its shadow was Baxter, who stepped out to join him at the table.

He could recall standing outside with her in the cool night air. Watching her ponder over Coyle as he smoked a cigarette and warned her he was now as impenetrable as he might appear.

If only she’d listened to him.

“I’m glad you’re coming with us.” Baxter murmured. She reached out and had the audacity to rub at his back, straightening his jacket upon his shoulders, “You look smart.”

“You look smart.” Edward had said in the mirror.

Thomas closed his eyes, his memory flooding over with images of Edward in that bathtub. Of Edward holding him in the dark, cradling him against his chest.

“My darling… My darling, my darling, my darling-“

He rose from the bench, suddenly feeling like he could not breath. In an attempt to get more air he tugged at the knot of his tie, stumbling forward a few paces as he started walking towards the wagonette. He didn’t even know where he was going.

He could see it now… Edward’s grave being lowered into the cold infertile ground of the hospital courtyard. A final resting place for those the church would not accept. He could see himself standing at Edward’s grave side, watching that box be covered up with dirt. If tears had slipped from his eyes, Sybil Crawley had not mentioned it. She’d stood at his side and watched all the while, miserable in her inability to save a desperate soul.

“Her kindness changed me life,” that insufferable Gwen had said over her undeserved luncheon.

But it hadn’t changed Edwards.
And it hadn’t changed his.

“Wait-“ Baxter’s voice drug him mercilessly back to the cold and sterile present where he wandered aimlessly about the courtyard. She’d risen from the bench to join him at his side, and was trying to tug him back to the table. “Let’s get the others first before we go?”

“Just let me go, Ms. Baxter.” Thomas muttered, tugging his arm free of her hold. He didn’t need her tethering him to life.

“Where do you want to go to?” Baxter asked, ever the one for irritating questions. Thomas had no answers for her, and remained resolutely silent even as she clung to his side. When he feigned to answer her question, she pulled him back to the table and he was forced to sit once more at the bench as she resumed rubbing his back. He felt more like an invalid than ever in her arms, and once more longed for the comfort and quiet of his room. For Loda the Rabbit who he could dream was dancing through the snow.

Others were drifting out of the house now.

Andy walked right past him, Daisy on his arm. The pair of them headed for the wagonette with Mrs. Patmore in tow, none of them caring to spare Thomas a backward glance.

The Bates were next, once again arm in arm, laughing and chatting about their plans for the future and their excitement for Lady Mary’s happiness. Neither looked back at him.

Then came Mr. Moseley while Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes locked the back door. He alone paused by the table, but not for Thomas’ sake. Indeed, he didn’t even care to look at him, instead extending his arm to Ms. Baxter to say, “Shall we go, Ms. Baxter?”

Baxter paused, looking at Thomas, and Mr. Moseley sent him the darkest look that could only be described as jealousy. For reasons he could not understand, it burned him.

“Go on,” Mrs. Hughes had approached, “I’ll take him.”

“Alright.” Baxter said, letting go of Thomas’ arm to rise up from the bench and accept Mr. Moseley’s. Thomas did not miss the smile on her face as she walked away- how she laughed and clung to her defender to decorate his side. As they approached the wagonette Mr. Moseley helped her up, ever the gallant white knight. Mrs. Hughes was tugging him gently at the elbow, plucking him up from his seat, and though he did not want to he followed her touch.

“Shall we go?” She urged, wrapping her arm around Thomas’.

Thomas did not feign her question with a response, instead following her silently to the wagonette with Mr. Carson in tow. As they reached the stoop of the car, she urged him up. Unlike the others, who had been accepted helping hands by those already inside, no one attempted to help Thomas up. Not even Baxter or Andy; they were far too engrossed in their respective partner’s chatting. Instead, Carson entered the wagonette first and helped Mrs. Hughes up who in turn helped Thomas. She did not grab his hand, instead tugging at his elbow, and it was only through her strength that he was finally able to clamber onto the wagonette. He clung to the tilt as their driver snapped the horses reigns, and as their wagonette rolled away Thomas found himself looking (without reason) up at the sky. It was cloudy, overcast. He doubt he would ever see the sun again until the day he decided to kill himself once more. Surely that had been god’s call to him… to give him what he most wanted on the day he finally decided to do humanity some good.

As they carried along, Thomas’ memory and imagination drifted with the cool open air. He thought of Edward, endlessly. Of how he’d been held in that bathtub, and for reasons he could not comprehend he imagined dancing with Edward. Imagined the pair of them like fiends, doing a reel atop Edward’s grave in the hospital courtyard. Edward would wear his suspenders with his shirtsleeves rolled up- Thomas would leap into his arms. Edward would spin him around, holding him aloft, and Thomas would cling to his neck as the air sailed through his swinging legs. He held to that image as the wagonette rattled on, carving it into full detail even as they passed the hospital itself-

“Thomas!” A voice shouted aloud. Startled from his imaginings, Thomas glanced up, wondering who on the road had called to him. Horrified, he gaped open mouth at the sight of Edward running full mill through the hospital courtyard trying to keep up with the wagonette. He rose from his seat, causing several pairs of hands to shoot out to keep him steady as Edward kept running.

“You know what to do, Thomas!” Edward shouted, leaping over a tombstone to keep up with the wagonette, “Bring out the board! I believe in you my darling!”

Thomas gasped, wanting to disembark the wagonette if only to search the hospital courtyard. But their wagonette was pulling around the bend and Edward was cut off as they curved around a cluster of trees. Thomas made a noise of clenched despair, looking to the back of the wagonette whose tilt was raised blocking off the exit. Hands were still pulling at him, urging him back into his seat- Thomas looked around to see Mrs. Hughes, very grim faced as she and Mr. Carson both urged Thomas to sit down once more on her right side.

“Sit down, Thomas.” She reprimanded him sharply. He did so, slumping into his seat. It was only then that he realized how many people were looking at him, and none of them kindly. Mr. Bates and Mr. Moseley were glaring dully. Mrs. Patmore looked very sour indeed, as if she likened him to a disobedient child in need of a smack. Daisy just looked confused as always, though hardly concerned as she resumed talking to Andy. Even Ms. Baxter looked wary, returning to her talk with Mr. Moseley to drag his glare away.

“Why did you stand up?” Mrs. Hughes asked, her tone terse but gentle.

“…I saw someone in the courtyard.” Thomas admitted. “I-“

“Thomas,” She chided him in his ear so that no one else could hear, “There was no one in that courtyard. Remember yourself or you’ll worry the others.”

Frightened, Thomas clutched at the loosened knot of his maroon tie. He wished he could rip it off. Wished he could leap from the wagonette and run flat out back for the hospital courtyard.

“Steady on.” She urged, patting his arm in a mothering fashion as he looked down at his lap. “Steady on.”

Thomas did not speak for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

The problem with getting up and going to Lady Mary’s wedding was that when he arrived back at the house, it seemed impossible to return to the state of near-coma that he’d been drifting through for three days. Sunday was spent fidgeting, unable to gain solace from Loda the Rabbit as Thomas relived Edward’s waltz through the hospital courtyard on speed reel. Every time he closed his eyes, he could see Edward leaping over a tombstone, dashing through a gap between two more, curled hair blowing in his man-made wind and shouting Thomas’ name. It made it almost impossible to sleep, gathering him about three hours of good rest on Sunday night as Andy lay snoring in the bed next to him. Spread eagled, staring at the ceiling, Thomas could only lay and breath. Could only listen to the marbles skittering around in his brain. They pinged and dropped, rattled and rolled. Like dice jiggling in a cup, they wouldn’t let him be.

My darling… Edward whispered. My darling, my darling, my darling.

The world made his nauseas, and all the people in it tense. Venturing downstairs was like walking through a snake pit, with vipers licking at his heels if he strayed for too long under a doorway or dared to sit in a room already containing more than two people. Ever since Gwen’s fucking luncheon, a shared atmosphere of ignorance had swept over those that he worked with so though Thomas lived and worked amongst him, they did not notice him. The only exception was Ms. Baxter, but after nearly vomiting in her lap and being forced to endure her soup spoon, Thomas was almost physically repulsed by her. By all of them. Even Mrs. Hughes’ kindly smile made him want to scream for how fake it was. Nothing was genuine in Downton Abbey. The good were not good. The kind were not kind. At best they were aware of the suffering of others around them… but that didn’t mean they did anything to stop it. Most of the times they just stared and watched.

And listened to the marbles rolling.

On Monday morning, desperate to sooth his itching anxiety, Thomas found himself on a personal mission. He’d searched each room of the downstairs for his pillaged items. Left uninterrupted by those who didn’t want to talk to him, Thomas had gone through both his and Andy’s room looking desperately for both his personal clock repair kit, his old valet box (which contained several pairs of scissors and needles)… and his razor.

Above all his razor. Thomas wanted it back like mad. It practically made his skin itch.
He also wanted out of Andy’s room. He refused to sleep in there one more night.

Thomas had been in the middle of checking the boot room when he’d been interrupted by the Bates. He’d left at once, unwilling to look Anna in the eye or deal with Bates’ violent glare. He knew checking the pantry was out of the question without Mrs. Hughes’ key (and doubted she’d give it to him). Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ offices were probably the smartest targets, given how many cupboards in there could be locked. This left very few places to check save for the boiler room, the linen cupboard, and the livery room. Thomas had been in the process of opening the door to the boiler room when he’d been stopped by the sudden arrival of Mrs. Hughes. She seemed to be looking for him, her keys bouncing upon her large hip as she stalked up the long corridor to the back door and pinned him by the boiler room door. She wore her kindliest smile, which made Thomas want to scream, but when she spoke to him her voice was incredibly soft. For some reason loud noises were oddly jarring to him, to the point where he could not bear to be in a room enduring loud conversation. Mercifully for him, people hated him so much in the house that the minute he entered a room most conversation stopped.

“Mr. Barrow, it’s good to see you downstairs.” Mrs. Hughes started. Thomas didn’t know how to reply, so instead he kept silent and made to open the boiler room door. In a startling move, however, Mrs. Hughes’ withered hand shot out to snag the handle so that despite the door being unlocked he could not open it.

“I hate to bother you when you’re so obviously on a quest, but what are you doing exactly?” Mrs. Hughes asked, not unkindly. Thomas let his hand slip from the doorknob so that their fingers were no longer brushing, and instead of answering Mrs. Hughes turned for the linen closet. Now that he thought about it, he supposed no one in their room mind would hide burnable objects in a room with a massive furnace. As he entered in the linen pantry, he began to open each cupboard and shift neatly folded linens to the left and right in order to see what lay behind them. Mrs. Hughes entered after him, closing the door behind him so that they were now alone together.

“Mr. Barrow.” She began again, this time her voice slightly more stern, “I hate to be a bother, but I really must insist. What are you doing?”

Eager to be left alone, Thomas finally spoke. His voice was clipped with cold contempt, “I’m looking for my things.”

“What things?” Mrs. Hughes asked gently.

“The things you took.” Was Thomas’ only reply. It was explanation enough.

“Well they’re not in here.” Mrs. Hughes admitted. “They’re in Mr. Carson’s office, locked up in his safe.”

Thomas, caught mid-process of moving several folded tablecloths, let out a terse sigh and shifted them back to their original position in the cupboard. He closed the shelf door with a soft ‘snap’, and turned to go, but was stopped once again by Mrs. Hughes who stepped in front of the exit and gave him another terse smile.

“I’m afraid you can’t have them back.” Mrs. Hughes said gently, “Not yet.”

“… I’m tired of this conversation.” Thomas warned. “Now please let me get on.”

But Mrs. Hughes wouldn’t budge from the door, her eyes almost beginning to forge a glare as she took in Thomas’ appearance. Though he’d been able to shave under Andy’s watchful eye and had combed his hair, Thomas knew he still did not look the same. He wondered if there was something about his face now which insisted to others that he was a survivor of attempted suicide. Maybe in the way his eye twitched at the corner, or how a permanent line lay at the corners of his mouth.

“Why do you want them back?” Mrs. Hughes asked. “Will you answer me that at least?”

“I want it normal.” Thomas said, which was the best sentence he could get out under the building pressure in his brain. Speaking to Mrs. Hughes was grating his nerves, which were as soft as dampened cheese, and making him feel on the verge of vomiting. He suddenly longed to be alone, to be upstairs once more in Andy’s room secluded from the world with only Loda the Rabbit for company. So long as Mrs. Hughes barred the door, he could not escape, and it only made him more paranoid. Mrs. Hughes seemed to register that he was on edge, and spoke in the softest of tones as she replied.

“You want to be in your old room, able to go about your business by yourself, yes-?” She offered. Thomas jerked his head into a quick nod.

“I’ll concede to you being in your room. I know you value your privacy. But I cannot give you back your things until I feel for certain that you won’t be tempted.” Mrs. Hughes said. “You’re still in a fragile state-“

“I’m fine-“ Thomas ground out, but Mrs. Hughes shook her head. She would not be swayed.

“Thomas, do not lie to me.” Mrs. Hughes murmured, “Not when I pulled you out of that bathtub.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, the pair of them sizing each other up. Mrs. Hughes offered Thomas a weary smile, one which was a far throw away from the usual sweet smile she wore with the others. Despite the sadness at its corners, it seemed more genuine to Thomas and oddly soothed him. He swallowed, looking away and out the window towards the back courtyard. The window as grimy, and in need of a clean.

Mrs. Hughes reached out and touched his elbow. The fingers upon his shirtsleeves were so unfamiliar that it scared him senseless, making him jump as he jerked his arm out of her grip. She pursed her lips, letting her hand drop back to her side.

“… I’m sorry.” She said after a long moment of reflective silence. “I should have warned you I wanted to touch you.”

“Why?” Thomas asked.

“It was disrespectful of your boundaries-“

“Why do you want to touch me?” Thomas corrected her. She caught his eye again, this time unsure as she searched his face for something she could not find.

“… Because I care about you.” She finally replied. Thomas did not believe her.

She looked down at her shoes, worn at the edges and in need of fresh soles. When she looked back up, her tone had resumed some level of normalcy though it was still incredibly soft.

“Mr. Carson wants you.” She explained. “He’s waiting in his office.”

She stepped aside from the door at last, and Thomas exited at once. The linen cupboard was only a slight walk away from Mr. Carson’s office, which lay around a corner nestled next door to Mrs. Hughe’s office and across from a downstairs lavatory. The door was already open, so Thomas simply walked inside instead of knocking to find Mr. Carson behind his desk going through a mountain of paperwork. He glanced up at the sound of Thomas’ footsteps, and sat his pen back down in the ink holder at once to wipe his hands upon an old handkerchief. He stowed it back in his breast pocket, lacing his fingers over his rotund belly to fix Thomas with an expectant eye.

“Mr. Barrow.” Carson addressed him, “I trust you’re recovering?”

Thomas had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. Both options were damning in their own way, and so Thomas was left slack jawed as he opened his mouth and fumbled slightly for words. Mr. Carson seemed to realize some things couldn’t yet be verbalized, and so instead of embarrassing Thomas (which would have been more in character) he decided to once again press on.

“His lordship and I have spoken on your present…misfortune.” Carson flustered for the appropriate word, his thin lips pursed, “We’ve both agreed you should be kept on, but the role of the under butler is a thing fragrant from the past and frankly we have no use for one in the abbey.” Mr. Carson raised his bushy eyebrows expectantly.

Thomas blinked.

“Mr. Moseley is taking on the role of teacher at the school, and will be leaving us quite soon. As such we will soon be short a first footman. If you would be so obliging to take on the role-?” Mr. Carson’s voice drifted on, his gaze turning just the slightest bit nervous as he waited for Thomas’ reaction.

In the past, the idea of demoting himself to footman again had made him want to jump from the nearest bridge if only to escape the disgusting work of being everyone’s bitch-boy. But it seemed that life was determined to make Thomas the eternal bitch-boy, with his wrists taped and his valet box locked up in Mr. Carson’s desk. There was no work to be found outside the abbey. He highly doubted that the family would even want two footmen for long, but Andy would probably end up marrying Daisy and leaving to work on Mr. Mason’s new farm full time. If he stayed on as footman, he could at least have a few years more of relative safety. It would be toiling labor and degradation at the hands of the Bates, Mrs. Patmore, Carson, and of course the maids… but at least Thomas wouldn’t have to think about searching for a job anymore. At least he wouldn’t be counting each brass farthing that passed through his fingers and wondering how long it would last. At least he wouldn’t have to hear Carson remind him under every breath just how useless he was. How ornamental. How ridiculous.

The marbles started to roll in his head.

“Yes, Mr. Carson.” Thomas said to keep from listening to the marbles.

“What’s this I hear?”

Drawn to the sound of her husband’s voice, Mrs. Hughes poked her head in Mr. Carson’s door. She stepped inside, closing the door after her so that they were once again sequestered in the silence. Thomas did not even bother to turn around and look at her, instead glancing at Mr. Carson’s window. It was clean, he noted. He could even see outside to where a manicured tree sat at the edge of the side lawn. It was bare of leaves in the mid-winter cold, and Thomas could clearly see a robin’s nest that had been woven in the branches. When the leaves came back, one wouldn’t be able to see it at all.

“Mr. Barrow- Thomas, that is-“ Carson had to change his terminology, “Has just agreed to take on the role of first footman again in Mr. Moseley’s absence. I will inform his lordship and have your livery changed out.” Carson said. Thomas did not reply, still looking at the robin’s nest. It was relatively small, but probably cozy.

“It’ll be nice to have you as first footman again.” Mrs. Hughes tried for optimism despite the obvious step down from under butler, “You always carried yourself with such precision-“ Her voice drifted off. He still was entranced by the robin’s nest, and could not find it in him to make reply. She watched him, noting his profile and how the gray light of the overcast skies made him look as white as parchment.

“Mr. Moseley will finish out the job tonight, you can start first thing in the morning.” Mr. Carson decided, “That’ll give him the time he needs to get his cottage set up in the village. Why not take the time to reacquaint yourself with the job. Mrs. Patmore could use some help in the kitchen, I’m sure.”

As footman, there would be very few jobs for him in the kitchen besides fetching and carrying. He doubted there was anything for him to do there; it was clear Mr. Carson was trying to ferry him off to someone else.

“Mr. Carson.” Thomas said, the simplest and shortest of acceptances. He turned and left Mr. Carson’s office with Mrs. Hughes still inside, and made his way around the corner into the kitchen corridor. Here the temperature picked up, slightly soothing on Thomas’ cold clammy skin; the smell of apples was thick upon the air. Inside, Thomas found Mrs. Patmore and Daisy hard at work, the only two occupants to the kitchen anymore. Long gone were the days of scullery maids though Gertie, the lowliest and youngest maid, often lit the fires in the morning and did most of Daisy’s old grunge work. Mrs. Patmore was tallying up a list, of what Thomas did not know. Daisy was at the stove, making apple scones (the source of the smell). Several pies were likewise going in the oven and on the kitchen island a large rack of lamb sat marinating with a dark brown sauce upon a heavy iron pan. Mrs. Patmore glanced up, eyes narrowing suspiciously at the site of Thomas in her doorway. Thin columns of steam drifted up all around her from the mouths half full kettles and bowls of hot beans. Thomas looked at them instead of her as he spoke, noting the way they drifted all the way to the ceiling so long as Mrs. Patmore did not move and create a wind.

“Mrs. Patmore.” Thomas looked at the steam swirling upon the ceiling, “Mr. Carson said you could use some help.”

“Help with what, I wonder.” She sneered, unimpressed, “I could hardly put an apron on you and have you scour the pots.”

Thomas noted a stack of copper pots in the corner in need of scrubbing. They were tarnished, nearly brown with misuse. He walked over to them, pulling a hall boy’s apron off of a rack on the wall. He tied it around his waist, stooping down on bended knee to open up the bottom cupboard of Mrs. Patmore’s open supply cabinet where several boxes of soda crystals and cleaning pads sat. Fetching a few that seemed the most durable for intensive scrubbing, Thomas plucked up a misused bowl full of dirt and cobwebs to wipe at it with his fingers and fill it full of vinegar and salt. Mrs. Patmore watched, mouth agape as he’d proceeded to walk in wearing a corset and dance the black bottom. Even this, however, did not stop her from giving her two cents as she pulled forth a lemon juice and half a cut lemon that was drying upon the counter. She gave it a final squeeze with her meaty fist, gathering just enough juice out of its stale core to pour into Thomas’ bowl. As Thomas returned to the stack of pots in the corner, Mrs. Patmore noted, “Well that’s a sight to see.” in dry derision.

Thomas sat down in the corner upon the hall boy’s stole, out of sight and out of mind as he began to polish the copper pots.

It was mindless work, one that he could lose himself in. But as he did it he had to consider if this was all there was to his horrible half-life. Polishing pots and listening to the scathing reply of those around him. Overcome in a sudden rush of misery, Thomas paused mid-scrubbing of his fourth pot as he realized that he was bound for a disgusting life full of pain and isolation lest he find a way out again.

He resumed scrubbing, his mind made up.

There was no way to use a razor like before, not without stealing though he doubted he’d get very far. He needed to find a way to take his own life without others seeing or knowing. Without them being able to interject. As soon as he’d gotten resettled back into his own room he knew he’d be able to do it at night after everyone had gone to sleep. He could lay there till around midnight, perhaps a little bit after. He could put his desk chair underneath his door knob to create a poor man’s lock. The real question lay in how he was going to do it this time.

It would have to be fast, something that would ensure despite someone breaking through his door and finding him there wouldn’t be enough time to pull him from Edward’s arms again.

Thomas paused in his scrubbing of the seventh pot, watching as Daisy set her apple fritters upon a rack to cool only to turn and make to chop the marinated lamb right off its bone. She used a long meat cleaver; it glided through the cold flesh like butter.

Yes, he thought, I’ll steal a knife and slit my throat.

But which knife would he choose? There were plenty of knives to pick in the kitchen, but not one that he could feasibly steal. Mrs. Patmore watched every supply with a beaded eye, in particular her knives, and would know in a heartbeat if one of her special carvers was gone. The only knives Thomas stood a real chance at stealing were the cutlery knives given to the servants during mealtimes, and they weren’t exactly meat cleavers. He could, of course, take one and strop it to perfection in his room.

Yes, he thought, That’s exactly what I’ll do.

And so Thomas sat polishing his pots feeling much calmer. All would be over by midnight, he reasoned, and soon he’d be safe in Edward’s arms once again. He closed his eyes once or twice as he polished, imagining how pleased Edward would be to see him again. How loving and kind. How he would embrace Thomas and kiss his brow once more, even kiss his lips. So starved for genuine affection and love was he that the mere thought made him weepy even as he sat and polished pots in Mrs. Patmore’s hot kitchen. He kept quiet, refusing to allow a tear to fall in front of the two women, but emotionally overcome on the inside.

Give me courage, Edward, Thomas prayed in that moment, Give me courage to last through this final day.

The luncheon for the upstairs came and went, ferried out by Andy and Moseley who paid absolutely no mind to Thomas in the corner. It was as if he was invisible. As the last plate of lamb and vegetable went up, Mrs. Patmore turned to the many kettles and waved a hand for Daisy to begin filling them all. As if called by the sound of filling kettles, Mrs. Hughes entered the kitchen to observe them all at work.

“Has they luncheon gone up?” Mrs. Hughes asked.

“Just now.” Mrs. Patmore assured her with a small smile, “I’m going to make the servant’s tea.”

“Very good.” Mrs. Hughes looked quite pleased at the prospect of a cup, “I could use a brew myself.” She paused, noting Thomas in the corner and the large collection of pots he’d polished in the few hours of his work, “My goodness!” She said with a smile, “You’ve been very busy.”

Mrs. Patmore glared at Thomas dully from the sink, wary of his presence in her kitchen.

“And just why exactly is he in my kitchen at all?” Mrs. Patmore demanded, “Scrubbing pots like a scullery maid?”

“Thomas is taking over the role of first footman when Mr. Moseley leaves for the school house tomorrow.” Mrs. Hughes explained. Mrs. Patmore rolled her beady eyes, handing another full kettle for Daisy to shove onto a hot stove eye.

“Oh I see.” She grumbled, “Getting back into the routine are we? Must be quite a step down from under butler.”

Thomas made no reply to this, instead allowing his thoughts to drift to that icy cold bathtub and how Edward had held him so tenderly.

My darling, he whispered, My darling, my darling, my darling.

“Oh be kind.” Mrs. Hughes chided her gently, “Do you have another task for him to do?”

“I didn’t even have the first one for him.” Mrs. Patmore snorted.

“But it was nice of him to do it.” Mrs. Hughes added.

My darling, The words rolled like marbles around his brain, My darling, my darling, my darling.

“Why are you so somber?”

It took Thomas a moment to pull back from the memory of Edward’s loving voice to realize that Daisy was speaking to him. So use to being ignored was he that when people did talk to him he genuinely did not know how to respond, and Thomas stared at her dumbly for a moment without reply. He noted the edge of flower upon her finger tips, how her eyes were incredibly round and wide upon her face. Like a child’s.

“You look like you’ve still taken the flue.” Daisy sounded genuinely worried now, perhaps nervous about catching his supposed disease herself, “Should you really be up walking around?”

Thomas needed to get his strop razor ready. He rose, sat down the final copper pot. finished, upon his stool. It gleamed in the hot kitchen lights, and upon its brilliant surface Thomas noted a black smudge directly behind his own smudge. He picked it up, irritable, and wiped the surface again in an attempt to remove the tarnish. The more he rubbed, however, the more the blackness persisted, till he stopped polishing and simply stared at the pot’s surface.

It wasn’t a smudge at all. It was a shadow.

Thomas regarded its shape, how tall and sharp it was like a human being. How it seemed to have angular shoulders and a narrow waist.

“…My darling…” the words drifted upon the air.

Thomas turned, looking right over his shoulder to the corner of the kitchen where (if it had been a true person) the shadow would have stood. Nothing was there, merely a broom and a stack of iron pots. He looked back around, but found the copper pot gleaming without a spot of darkness on it.

The shadow was gone.

Soon, Edward, Thomas thought, setting the pot down. Soon.

He left the kitchen, mindless to the way the three women watched him go. Mrs. Patmore glared, Daisy just stared… Mrs. Hughes frowned, sighing as Thomas left the room.

 

That night as the servant’s sat eating their dinner, Thomas kept absolutely silent and ate with slow calm. Determined not to draw attention to himself, he allowed the mull of conversation around him to reach a peak as he looked down at his plate and instead focused upon his left over lamb and Brussels sprouts. He’d eaten none of it, instead pushing it around his plate and drinking tea to keep others from mentioning the oddity… but he needn’t have bothered. No one was paying attention to him. Mrs. Hughes, to his left, was talking to Mr. Moseley who was the center of everyone’s attention what with his final night in the house.

Thomas took up his knife and began to cut it his lamb with care. He sliced slowly, not saying a word, noting that the knife was actually quite sharp despite just being used for common cutlery. It would do quite well.

Now comes the hard part, he thought, keep his face absolutely calm as he took his fork up in his other hand. Taking a bite of lamb with his fork, Thomas simultaneously drew the knife off the table to hold it in his lap. Careful not to be seen, he took another bite of lamb (dry and tasteless in his mouth) and began to push the knife, blade first, up inside his shirt sleeve. He continued to chew, eyes locked upon his plate-

There was a hand in his lap.

Thomas froze, unwilling to make eye contact as Mrs. Hughes’ hand drifted over his thigh and to the tips of his fingers which were still hiding the handle of his sequestered knife. He’d yet to stick it fully into his shirt sleeve, and grimaced with his mouth still fill of chewed lamb. He closed his eyes, swallowing painfully as Mrs. Hughes fingers gently pried at his own to find the cold knife handle beneath.

She pulled, and took the knife away from him, putting it upon her own lap and never missing a beat with the conversation above as she once again congratulated Mr. Moseley.

“It’s very kind of you to offer to help with large parties.” Mrs. Hughes said warmly, “I know Mr. Carson appreciates it and so will his Lordship.”

Moseley just flustered and bumbled on, none of the others aware that Thomas’ plan had been utterly squashed.

But he was not beat yet.

Later on that night, as Thomas paced the floor of his own room and wondered what to do, he considered the growing hour and how, soon, everyone would no doubt be in bed. He could hear the sound of Andy washing up in the men’s lavatory along with the sounds of Moseley packing his finale valise. With Carson no longer on the hall it wasn’t too long before the final sounds of Andy closing his bedroom door and Moseley falling asleep drifted into absolute silence.

And still Thomas sat, with the marbles rolling in his head.

If he didn’t kill himself to night, he was certain that ‘life’ would only get worse. He’d now been demoted to footman again, and even that wasn’t going to last. He had to find a way to escape the purgatory he’d been enslaved into before it drug him under and destroyed him. The numbness which had acted as a protective cushion towards another suicidal urge was gone. On the verge of panicking again, Thomas tried to reason where he might find something sharp. Upstairs, in Andy and Moseley’s rooms, there would be shaving razors and scissors in sewing boxes. But if Thomas burst into their rooms, he would be stopped. They would rouse the others, call them from their sleep- Thomas needed to be far away from prying eyes or ears.

But then again-

Thomas seized, furious with himself. In a moment of blind rage he reached out and grabbed the bureau so that several personal items atop it rattled. Among them was a hand mirror, made for shaving, which was absolutely useless to Thomas now without his razor. Clutching at his hair, his heart pounding, he briefly considered swallowing some of the many hand and hair tonics he had in his bureau drawer until he glanced up at the mirror and saw Edward upon the bed behind him. He started, jumping a little with hands clapped over his mouth to keep from emitting a tiny shriek at the sight of Edward watching him from the bed. He lay in his bed clothes, just as he’d once down at Downton Hospital. His eyes were clear just like before in the hospital court yard, blue and shining as he watched Thomas shake by the bureau.

“It’s in the kitchen.” Edward said, not even making to sit up in bed. “Go to the kitchens.”

Thomas stared, wondering what on earth Edward was talking about until he reasoned that Edward must be referring to the meat clever Mrs. Patmore was using earlier. With Mrs. Patmore in bed, he would easily be able to steal the knife from the kitchens.

“Yes, of course.” He blurted out, “Of course everyone is asleep now. Why didn’t I think of it before?” He wondered.

“It’s difficult to think when you’re stressed.” Edward offered, ever the understanding one even in death. His kindness melted Thomas’ heart, already so skittish with anxiety, and gave him pause. His fingers relaxed upon the bureau edge, clammy tips slipping so that his hands fell back to his sides where they hung heavy and loose.

“Thank you, my darling.” Thomas whispered. Edward smiled, pleased, “Thank you.”

When he turned around to praise Edward some more, he found the bed empty. Unnerved, he moved to its side to touch the mattress but found it without flaw or dampness. His heart began to pick up pace again as he realized that the only way he would ever be able to truly be with Edward was if he was dead, and that wasn’t going to happen unless he made his way down to the kitchens pronto.

He poked his head out into the hallway to find it quiet and dark. In only his trousers and an undershirt, suspenders swinging at his sides, Thomas slowly stepped out into the dark and closed his door after him. The last thing he wanted was to cause Andy or Moseley to wake. He trod to the stairs, footsteps light, but as he began to descend he found himself picking up speed. With each step he took, he drew closer to seeing Edward again. By the time that he was at the bottom, in near gloom, he was flat out running. He spun on the landing, completely deaf to the world around him as he bolted for the kitchen and burst over its threshold.

There, sitting at her side table, was Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes. Both were shocked to see him, sharing a cup of cooling tea and a plate of biscuits. Mrs. Hughes had her coat and hat with her, as if on the verge of leaving for the night. There on the kitchen island was an enormous array of pots, pans, knives, and racks, each drying after being washed by Gertie the lowliest maid. On the edge, laid out with precision upon a dampened tea towel, were the knives including the meat clever.

Thomas’ heart pounded in his breast, his pulse jumping in his throat as he stared at that knife.

“Thomas?” Mrs. Hughes set down her tea cup, rising half way out of her chair in alarm, “Are you alright?”

My darling, the marbles rolled in his head, My darling, my darling, my darling.
The numbness was gone.

Thomas leapt for the meat cleaver, grabbing it from the kitchen island and sprinting from the room with the sounds of Mrs. Hughes shrieking “NO!” in his ears. He ran for the far hallway, knowing for a fact that the pantry would be unlocked at this time of night with Mrs. Hughes’ keys still in the door. He made a beeline for it, knowing full well he could lock himself in with the only set of keys to guard the way. There, in the pantry, he could cut his throat and be safe in Edward’s arms once more.

He reached the end of the hallway, where the pantry and the boiler room sat across from one another at a dead end. But as he came to the pantry door, he found it closed without its keys. He grabbed at it desperately, hands slick with sweat as he jiggled the handle. It was locked.

Mrs. Patmore had already gotten her supplies for the next day. Mrs. Hughes had taken back the keys.

Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore both were running up the hall as fast as they could, flush faced and hair flopping in its usually tight hold. Knowing he had absolutely no where left to run, numbness gone and marbles scattering wildly in his head, Thomas brought the meat cleaver to his throat and held it there till the steel began to sting. He made to pull-!

“Wait, STOP!” Mrs. Hughes shrieked, her voice louder than Thomas had ever known it to be before. The noise jarred him, making him jump as he flattened himself against the dead end. “Stop, stop-!” She pleaded, her ancient face drained of blood and twisted sickly in terror. Next to her, Mrs. Patmore clutched at her heart, absolutely stunned. “Just listen to what I’m saying-“

Thomas shook his head, the drag with the blade causing a thin trickle of blood to begin to seep down his throat. Mrs. Patmore just kept clutching at her heart.

“God in heaven-“ She panted, her words almost toneless with fear.

“Mrs. Patmore-“ Mrs. Hughes reached blindly for her, grabbing her at the arm and clutching to her tight. “Hurry, go get Ms. Baxter. She’s in the boot room. Hurry!” She begged, pushing off. Mrs. Patmore turned and ran, jogging up the hall as fast as she could under her enormous girth. More frightened than ever, images of padded cells and asylums dancing through his feverish brain, Thomas pressed the knife again and closed his eyes to make for the final pull.

“NO!” Mrs. Hughes cried out again. He jerked, frightened, unable to kill himself when she was staring straight at him. After her supposed kindness (even if it was only pity in disguise).

“Just… Just one moment more, I beg of you.” She protested. Far off Thomas could hear shouting, the sounds dulled in his ears amid the marbles rolling in his brain. “Did something happen today? When did you begin feeling like this?”

But Thomas couldn’t answer. He felt as if his tongue had been ripped out of his mouth, and he gagged, instead pressing the meat cleaver tight to his throat. Now that he was right on the brink of the moment he couldn’t figure out how to draw the knife across. Should he try and divert their attention and then do it? Should he just give it up for lost and do it flat out?

The sounds of shoes upon stone came tearing up the hall, and Baxter whipped around the corner with Mrs. Patmore panting haggardly behind her. She looked fit to have a second heart attack, staggering to a halt as she clutched at a stitch in her massive side. Baxter skittered to a halt at Mrs. Hughes side, looking from Thomas’ pilfered meat cleaver to the way that he clutched at his head with his free hand. He almost wanted to weep with fear, pressed flat against the wall. His breathes were hitching in his throat, making it impossible to take deep, solid pulls. He felt he might have a panic attack at any moment, and briefly wondered if he was already in the throws of one.

Baxter made to take a step forward, hand up. Thomas jumped.

“Don’t!” He shouted, more terrified of her approaching than any other thing.

“I won’t!” Baxter assured him at once, stepping back with her hands up above her head so that Thomas could see she wasn’t planning anything. He suddenly felt incredible cold and shivered. The meat cleaver trembled at his neck.

My darling, the marbles whispered, My darling, my darling, my darling.

“I won’t do anything,” Baxter murmured, her soothing voice cutting off the sound of the marbles in his mind. “And neither will they.” Baxter nodded to Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, both of whom were ashen faced in their terror. For a moment Baxter just breathed, making Thomas feel more and more awkward and foolish with the knife to his neck.

Like his pain meant nothing.

His face began to screw up. He shook his head slowly, hating them all. Hating the house that encaged him and the weak hand that wouldn’t draw the knife across his neck.

“You are not alone in this.” Baxter murmured, her voice as soothing as ever. How he loathed it, “I’m here, right now.”

“I’m always alone.” Thomas ground out, teeth clenched and voice quavering. He kept his eyes pinched tight. “I’ve been alone all my life.”

In an attempt to sooth himself, to steady himself in his panic, he whispered, “You’re not real. None of this is real. None of this is real.”

It was all a dream, all a facade. All he had to do was draw his knife and it would end. He still had the control.

“It is real.” Baxter cut across him, and Thomas grimaced, clutching wildly at his hair with his free hand. “But it will change.”

He shook his head, unwilling to listen. Still she pressed on.

“You may not believe it at this very moment, but the way you are feeling, the way you are living will change.”

But this was folly, and Thomas could not believe it. How could his situation, so marred and disgusting, ever change? He couldn’t be normal, he couldn’t live normally- he would never know the comfort and quiet of Downton that the Bates frolicked in… that Carson lorded over like a king. Downton was a prison.

“How?” He choked out, eyes pinched shut. He refused to open them, couldn’t bear to see the three women blocking the hallway before him. He wanted to crouch into the corner, to sink down till he was as small and unseen as the dirt. He wanted to hide within the very floor and never be found again. Suddenly the urge to die was overwhelming, but the energy of the act fled from Thomas so that he was left gaping like a fish, face wet and fingers numb. “How when- when every- how?” He couldn’t even finish a sentence he was so bone tired.

He sagged against the wall and slid down, crouching against the ground with his knife still to his neck. He palmed it, letting it slip into his lap, and sniveled as he observed the meat cleaver in his hands. How large and cold it was, rimmed with blood. The neck of his undershirt was stained crimson from the thin cut he’d made in his neck. It stung in the cool night air.

“…What can you manage?” Baxter asked, and at first Thomas didn’t understand what she meant. He looked up, his gaze bleary. He almost couldn’t discern facial features, and he had to rub at his eyes with his free hand to see that it was unshed tears. Bitterly ashamed of how low he’d sunk, he stared at the moisture upon the back of his hand instead of Baxter’s face. In the low brass light of the far off kitchen, it glistened like gold. “One more minute? Maybe ten more? How much longer can you hold off?”

Now that was a fair question and one that he ought to be able to answer. Thomas thought about it, considering the wild emotions warring inside of him. Exhaustion fought with rage, each tinged at the edge by an onset of numbness that continued to try and grow back. He supposed…?

“I…” Thomas fumbled for the appropriate words, “I don’t know… maybe… maybe five? Five… minutes.” He managed to get out last, feeling oddly concrete in his words.

All he had to do was live five more minutes. That seemed feasible.

“He tried to take a knife at dinner.” Mrs. Hughes said, to Mrs. Patmore or Ms. Baxter Thomas could not tell, “I managed to take it away from him.”

“Did you have a plan?” Baxter asked. Once again, this seemed feasible to answer, because he already knew the answer and did not have to think.

“…I was…” Thomas fumbled once more for words, speech oddly sluggish in his mouth, “I was going to slit my throat.”

“And when she took the knife that botched the plan.” Baxter mused; she crossed her arms over her chest, deep in thought.

“Yes.”

Thomas blinked up at her from the floor, the knife still firm in his hand.
Five minutes. All he had to endure was five more minutes. He could do that.

Baxter looked down at her wristwatch, glancing back up at Thomas. Her lips were set into a firm white line.

“Five minutes have passed.” Baxter told him. Thomas’ heart jumped a little in his chest, “Do you think you can hold off five more?”

“…M…Maybe?” now they were heading into unsafe territory. If he kept agreeing, he’d end up living fifteen minutes or god forbid half an hour. He couldn’t possibly manage that.

“Ok.” Baxter did not seem at all fazed, unlike Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, both of whom looked ready to faint, “Let’s just stand and wait.”

“What?!” Mrs. Patmore whispered, her tone hot and angry. She glanced from Thomas holding her pilfered meat cleaver to Baxter who kept her respective distance.

“Shh.” Baxter never took her eyes off of Thomas. He suddenly became lost in their calm brown hold, “Let’s just wait however long it takes.”

Thomas almost wanted to lay down and go to sleep on the floor. He looked down at the meat cleaver in his lap, at the drying brown edge of its line.

He raised it up again, knife hanging like a thread in the air. He stared at the blade as if he were looking into the eyes of a porcelain doll.

“I’m right here.” Baxter spoke up, her voice an unfortunate reminder that Thomas was not alone with his marbles and whispers, “I’m not leaving. None of us are leaving. We’re going to get through this. Together.”

Thomas shook his head again, holding the meat cleaver to his chest. He found himself wishing that they all would leave. If only they’d abandon this cause, he’d be able to complete his own. As much as he wanted to die, he couldn’t do it in front of them.

Coward, the marbles whispered. You’re undeserving of Edward.

It made him want to weep.

“We may not be able to understand how you’re feeling, but we do care about you and we do want to help. More than you know.” Mrs. Hughes kept that weird angelic stance, the same one she’d taken the night of Sybil Crawley’s death as she’d comforted Daisy and Mr. Carson in turn. She’d been so saintly then, it had made Thomas want to puke. The problem with Mrs. Hughes was that he couldn’t figure out whether she was being sincere or not. Whether she was actually kind or merely playing him for her own advantage. But what advantage could that possibly be?

The marbles were making it hard to think.

“Are you ready to go, Elsie?”

The sound of Charles Carson’s voice descending the stairs sent absolute panic into Thomas’ already jittery psyche. Frightened, he jerked off the ground with the knife back in hand. He pressed it to his neck, ready to pull- Mrs. Hughes panicked her voice rising up as high as her hand with her eyes wide like saucers. Baxter was ready to jump, her hands outstretched and clawed. Mrs. Patmore would faint in the next minute or so, Thomas was sure.

“Charles!” Mrs. Hughes cried out. Thomas’ hand twitched upon the meat cleaver, “Whatever you do, do not panic when you come around the corner!”

Why say that of all things? Thomas couldn’t understand. Should he slit his throat now, in front of Mr. Carson whose shadow was already coming around the corner? Should he wait? The marbles were pounding in his brain, giving him a migraine and making him want to scream as he clutched at his hair again.

“What on earth around you talking ab-“ Mr. Carson came around the corner, coat on and bowler hat in hand.

He saw Thomas at the end of the hallway, framed by the three women who barred the way. At the sight of his bagged eyes widening, shame overtook Thomas. He seized the knife tighter to his neck, ready to pull-!

“No!” Baxter begged, her voice far from loud but incredibly intense. Thomas stopped, another thin trill of blood beginning to pour from his neck in a second cut. He grimaced, cursing himself for his inability to commit suicide in front of Baxter of all people. Now Carson was watching, eyes wide and intense as Baxter tried to reach out for Thomas with her hands. He pressed himself even further against the wall, heart pounding. He was suddenly overtaken by an intense desire to run, but couldn’t with Baxter, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore blocking the way.

“Just one more minute.” Baxter protested, “Just hold off for one more minute. Sixty seconds, that’s all you need-“

“I don’t think I can-“ Thomas blurted out, shaking his head rapidly. Sixty seconds seemed like an eternity with Carson breathing down his neck. Any second now he predicted someone else would walk around the corner. Bates? Moseley? Lord Grantham? Who else would be witness to his suicide?

“You can.” Baxter praised, “You’re doing it right now.”

“And you’re doing wonderfully.” Mrs. Patmore spoke up. Her voice quavered thick and hesitant, reminding Thomas of the time when she’d be told her nephew had been shot for cowardice.

He wished someone would shoot him now.

Mr. Carson came up the hall, his steps heavy but slow as he drug one foot in front of the other. Coming around Mrs. Patmore’s side, he watched Thomas’ expressions as carefully as a man observing a ticking pipe bomb.

“What is occurring here?” He asked, as if they were observing a polo match mid- throw instead of a man about to take his life for the second time in a week.

This was what Thomas couldn’t stand, the constant ignorance and apathy that followed him around like a dark cloud. The fact that he was standing at the brink of a cliff with a meat cleaver to his neck and Carson couldn’t so much as bother to raise a bushy eyebrow. Wouldn’t even spend the energy to ask Thomas himself what was going on, or how he might be able to help.

My darling, Edward called, luring him into the deepest sleep, My darling, my darling, my darling.

“God-“ Thomas spluttered eyes, pinching his eyes shut tight so as not to see Carson anymore. He could feel his face growing wet again, “My head hurts so bad.” He said, as the marbles bounced around inside his skull, “I can- hear it rolling-“ he admitted, “In my head-“

“What’s rolling?” Baxter asked. “Tell me?” she added when Thomas did not speak for a moment.

“My-“ Thomas whimpered, clutching his hair tighter. How could he feasibly explain the marbles, “My thoughts- all the bad things people say-“

“Can good things roll around there too?” Baxter asked. What an odd question, but Thomas supposed it had merit. Marbles came in all sizes and shapes. Why not good ones?

“Yes.” He stuttered, knife still tight to his neck.

“Can I put some good marbles in there?” Baxter asked. “In your head.”

She couldn’t have given him a more beautiful gift if she tried, and Thomas opened his eyes amazed to see her gazing upon him with such undeserved adoration that he was momentarily stuck between the idea of dropping the knife and the idea of begging her for more. Good marbles? She could offer him these? Would he even be able to accept them? Would he not just… combust if he heard good things?

“Do you remember when you were…” Baxter scrunched up her brow, deep in thought. “Five, I reckon.” She carried on. Thomas shook his head but she continued on anyways, “And it was autumn, and all the trees in Stockport had shed their leaves and there were huge piles in our backyards.”

Her words painted a picture in Thomas’ mind, of a city he’d not seen in nearly twenty years. Of a house he’d forgotten about and the people within it. Several siblings, all younger and clamoring for attention. A pair of parents, reckless and exhausted from overwork and underpay. But the leaves- oh the leaves! How beautiful they’d been, changing colors and swirling about.It had been years, decades since Thomas had thought about those beautiful leaves. In truth he’d missed them.

“Do you remember how your father and mine set a large one on fire to clear up the space and… and we found out a massive group of rabbits had nested in there?” Baxter asked. Thomas nodded, for indeed he could remember this! Little brown blobs flying in terror from a smoking leaf pile only to be scooped up by- “And remember they all ran out, and our mothers panicked and grabbed the babies, and we had a box of baby rabbits to play with? Do you remember?”

But of course Thomas remembered. How could he forget such an endearing sight? That milk crate turned cradle had been Thomas’ center as soon as he’d realized he could pick up a baby bunny and hold it to his chest. He could kiss it, pet it, listen to it make noises as it chuffed and slept- such adventures had never been topped by a four year old.

“We nursed them, and wrapped them in little towels, they weren’t any bigger than lemons. Do you remember that?” Baxter asked again. Thomas nodded dumbly, eyes slowly relaxing closed as the memory of a small rabbit between his chubby fingers swam to the surface. The way its nose had wiggled, testing the air between them for friendship.

“Do you remember how you took them all out of the box, and put them in your lap?” Baxter asked. Thomas shook his head, unable to recall it. “You had about twenty baby rabbits piled atop you, and you didn’t want to move.” Baxter paused, coughing as if to hold back in a chuckle. Thomas blearily opened his eyes again to see that she was, indeed, smiling. She kept biting at her lips, trying to control her expression.

“Your mother kept telling you to leave it alone.” Baxter said, “To sit at the table, and eat dinner… but you wouldn’t do it. You were too captivated by the rabbits.”

Thomas swallowed at the mention of his mother. It brought to mind too many images of a severe woman with a hooked nose and hair as black as coal dust- the way she’d wrung her hands and paced the floor in fear every time fever was mentioned in the village square. She’d count her children, all seven of them, whispering their names in the dark during her prayers.

“Margret, Thomas, Daniel, Ruth, Mildred, Florence, Alice.”

But then, as he’d grown older and become the family scapegoat, her prayers would change.

“God protect my girls and keep Danny strong.”

And so Thomas had been forgotten by his own mother… till another fever had rolled around.

“I can give you more marbles.” Baxter offered gently, “But first I need you to give me that knife.” and as she said it she extended her hand.

Thomas shook his head, keeping the meat cleaver to his neck. He wasn’t stupid, he knew what was coming. The minute he dropped the knife all four of them would pounce and cart him off to an asylum. He’d never see the sun again.

Baxter paused, seeming to sense she was asking too much too fast. She dropped her hand, rethinking her position with pursed lips.

“Do you remember once there was a massive lightning storm, but it hadn’t reached us yet?” Baxter asked. Once again, Thomas had to shake his head, “They’d even warned for twisters… and our parents were at a community meeting. We had all climbed up onto the roof of your parents shop and watched the storm approach. We watched the lightening go up into the clouds, until it illuminated the entire thing like a lamp- and it turned the clouds a soft lilac. Remember how beautiful that color was?”

At first he couldn’t and such despair filled him up that Thomas could not bear to look at Baxter anymore. He closed his eyes, head bowed again with knife still pressed to his neck. But as she carried on, Thomas was bitterly captivated by his words and allowed himself to picture the scene despite not being able to remember it. Was it his imagination or did he hear the far off rumble of thunder?

“You told me it was the prettiest color in the world. We got to watch the rain roll across the land from afar. The smell… it was such a sweet smell. Soft grass, wet like that. And the wind was blowing wildly, so all our skirts were up in the air and we had to sit with them beneath our legs or we’d be indecent. Do you remember that?” Baxter asked gently.

Thomas shook his head.

Baxter seemed disappointed, her smile dropping as she pursed her lips again deep in thought. For a moment silence took over the hall as Baxter tried for another story and Mr. Carson for a reason as to why Thomas had the indecency to put a pilfered meat cleaver to his neck.

“You won’t remember this, but I do.” Baxter continued on, “It was the very first time we met.”

Though Thomas had yet to realize it, Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore were both watching Ms. Baxter captivated by their stories. No doubt this image of a cherub little Thomas so full of youth was a shocking revelation in comparison to the disturbed man before them. Baxter did not seem to realize she had a captivated audience. Instead she pressed on with her story, eyes locked to Thomas’ knife.

“You were about a year old, maybe a little less… I was helping my mother set up the family shop. We’d just moved into the area. Your father and mine were arguing and your mother went to stop them. This was before they became such good friends… and she said ‘Here take him, I need both hands’, and she handed you to me. And- “ Baxter broke of with a snort. Mrs. Patmore gave her an affronted look, no doubt under the impression this wasn’t the time to laugh, but Baxter couldn’t stop. Her tone turned gay, “I remember you were so disgruntled at being handled by a stranger. You stared at me like I was a lunatic and only relaxed when I bounced you around a bit. But then you didn’t want me to stop, so I had to dance around singing to you. And by the end of it you didn’t want to go back to your mother because I was apparently more fun.”

Mrs. Hughes was beginning to smile in spite of herself though Mrs. Patmore still looked heavily displeased.

Baxter shrugged, dropping her hands in a frank pleading gesture, “After then, every time you saw me you always stuck your hands out and wanted me to hold you… so your mother paid me a brass to babysit.” Baxter shook her head with a calm smile, her laughs finally worn off, “I’d never head a baby before that, I was so nervous. I thought I’d hurt you or something catastrophic would happen. But every time we’d just end up dancing and laughing. Do you remember that or… were you too little?”

But oddly enough Thomas could remember it, though the image was foggy and as distant as a summer rain. He could manage to conjure up the image of a young Baxter stooping down to grab him from the floor, making some obscenely happy face and toying with him as she blathered nonsense words.

“Look whose here!” she’d cry out in delight every time she’d seen Thomas.

“Me!” He’d wanted to say in his infancy. “Me! I’m here!”

“I… think.” Thomas whispered, “I do. A bit.”

“I’m glad.” Baxter said, and the sincerity in her voice made Thomas’ bruised heart bleat in pain, “You were such a happy baby. You were the only one I wanted to babysit.”

“Really?” Mrs. Patmore broke across, sounding rather shocked. Baxter didn’t mind though, merely shaking her head with that same calm smile upon her face as if Thomas wasn’t before her with a knife to his neck.

“Really.” Baxter replied softly, her voice almost a whisper, “I only ever babysat you. When you were old enough you babysat your younger siblings of course… but when it was just you and Margret, I’d babysit you. Margret and I would pretend to play house, like you were our baby instead. We were just teenagers. It was great fun. You were always laughing or making a mess. Actually one time you caused quite a bit of trouble. You-“ But Baxter had to stop again, pressing a hand to her mouth as she pinched her eyes closed and tried to keep her laughter in.

Are you laughing at my suicide? Thomas wanted to demand, almost affronted. Do you think I’m funny in my despair?

“You were still only about one,” Baxter began, eyes watering with mirth as she forced herself not to laugh, “I’d just really started getting into the habit of babysitting you, and Margret and I were giving you a bath, and it started raining. And we had you wrapped up in a linen and you were sitting still while we poured the bath water outside… but then you just… took off!”

She tittered softly, almost about to wheeze for how desperately she was holding her laughter on. Thomas stared, disgruntled.

“You took right off and ran into the back yard and got absolutely filthy!” Baxter used her hand, thrusting it out as if to display a little naked Thomas running away into the mud. “And Margret and I got soaked chasing you, because you wouldn’t hold still, and you nearly ran into the street, until -thank god, your father came home early and grabbed you. I remember- oh-!” She sighed, her laughter fading as her smile returned, “I thought he was going to yell at us but instead he just let you play outside in the mud and get as filthy as you pleased- because we had to fill up the bath tub again to get you clean. Your father stood with you in the rain and let you play- he got soaked to the skin.” Baxter sighed again, putting a hand to her temple as if to quell a headache, “It was a miracle none of us got the cold. I think I ruined my frock… I know your sister ruined hers. And you were just as happy as a jay bird, frolicking naked in the mud… hardly a year old.”

Mrs. Patmore made an odd shuffling noise that could have been the tiniest suppressed laugh. Mr. Carson shot her a filthy look, forcing her to regain her stoic composure lest he chastise her before the others.

“You were a handful.” Mrs. Patmore said with slightest praise.

“But we loved it.” Baxter said gently. “He wasn’t any trouble, really-“

“Except for that one time.” Mrs. Patmore added softly.

These people weren’t taking him seriously. Here they were joking and frolicking, talking about him in his infancy and having the audacity to laugh. With a meat cleaver to his neck and blood trailing down to his shirt, Thomas was still nothing more than a puppet on stage for them- not a person capable of pain.

Dismayed, despairing, Thomas slid down the wall again and let the knife drop into his lap. Though he still held it he did not put it to his neck, and this seemed to relieve the others. There was an odd slip in the tension, as if (even while laughing) they’d still been afraid. As if they thought they were making progress.

“If you give me the knife I’ll tell you another-“ Baxter offered but Thomas cut her out.

“I don’t want to hear another.” Thomas muttered softly, “I didn’t want to hear the first three.”

Baxter paused, smile slipping.

“Even when I’m right here. Even when I’m dying before your very eyes.” Thomas whispered, “You still think I’m just a joke.” He looked up at her, eyes no doubt haunted, “Silly me, right? Don’t be silly, isn’t that what you said?”

The quiet in the hallway was haunting. Mrs. Patmore looked oddly ashamed though Thomas could not say why. Mrs. Hughes had bowed her head, lips pursed. Baxter, on the other hand just looked disappointed… as if Thomas had missed some great message she was trying to relay.

Fuck you, he wanted to say. I’m not your telegram machine.

“I’m dying.” He whispered again, “I’m dying.” He looked down at the floor for a moment, ashamed to feel his eyes well up with tears.

He looked back up at Baxter, and though tears spilled down his gaunt cheeks he still did not blink. “I’m dying and I never even lived.” He said, afraid.

The numbness had returned, and as Thomas looked down at the knife in his lap he realized how silly he was. He steal a meat cleaver and hold himself hostage at the end of this hallway. It was late. These people wanted to get to bed. None of them cared about him. He would have to commit suicide some other time when they were all asleep.

“I’m a ghost in this house.” Thomas whispered to his lap. “I’m… I’m already dead.”

“That’s not true-“ Mrs. Hughes tried to protest, her voice breaking in the fragile silence. Thomas shook his head, cutting her off.

“Do the marbles tell you that you’re dead?” Baxter asked softly. “Or do you just think that because you don’t feel anything?”

But Thomas couldn’t talk anymore. He rose, weary, and leaned against the wall with the knife dangling from his fingertips. It felt horribly heavy, like it was made of cement. He shook his head, exhausted, and in his timid fall from grace the knife finally slipped from his fingers.

It dropped to the ground, and in an unnerving show of what it was capable of it stuck straight up in the wood… the tip sinking straight down.

Baxter stepped forward, and before he could tell her to stop she put her hands on his face-

“No!” He cried out, thrashing backward to pin himself in the corner. Terrified, he threw his hands up in front of his face to block himself from Baxter’s attacks.

“Shh-“ She kept her hands on his cheeks, rubbing at the clammy skin with her thumbs, “Shh- don’t fret-“

“You’re going to kill me-“ Thomas blurted out, “You’re going to- to lock me up-“

“Hush now-“ Baxter protested, taking up his entire vision as she pressed their foreheads together. He could feel her breath upon his face, sweetened by tea laced with sugar, “Hush now I’d never do such a thing.”

Trembling, he quivered beneath her hands, frightened of every second that was surely to come.

“I’m so proud of you.” Baxter whispered. “For dropping that knife.”

“It was heavy.” Thomas whimpered.

“Yes. It was.” Baxter agreed, and without warning she took him into her arms fully to hug him.

Why now did he want to weep?

Bitter, exhausted, and afraid, Thomas clung onto her as tightly as he could, wrists weakened and bandaged, head buried in her shoulder. He sobbed, a broken man, and allowed her to hold him up in that corner as she rubbed his back. He could not remember a storm with lilac colored clouds, nor his infancy when his parents had still loved him and he’d not been the family scapegoat. He could not recall why it was that he was alive, nor how he’d fully-

How he’d-

Thomas couldn’t think anymore. He was too fucking tired.

As if spurned on by his exhaustion, his tears flowed with renewed force. He almost collapsed onto poor Baxter would could barely hold him up. Despite his overwhelming size and weight, she didn’t let it show. Instead she held him tighter, gripping onto his hair and back with intense fingers that seemed to sink him back to the earth.

“Cry.” She ordered, “If that’s what you need to do.”

And it was.

It was difficult to say what happened next. Thomas was so exhausted and disorientated that he could not fully grasp the conversation occurring around him. He knew a few things for certain- Mrs. Patmore took the knife from the floor, both Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes wanted to look at Thomas’ neck but Thomas kept shrugging them off till Baxter made them let him be. Despite having hated her only moments before, having abhorred her stories, Thomas clung to her desperately. To her credit she protected him, and though there was some argument about what to do she seemed to find it best that they simply all go to bed. That no harm had come of the attempt and Thomas was too tired to have a conversation.

“Let it be till tomorrow.” he heard Baxter saying. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow when he’s more aware of himself. I’ll stay with him tonight.”

And so they went upstairs together, accompanied by Mrs. Patmore as Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes went home with tentative expressions. The whole walk up the stairs, Mrs. Patmore kept absolutely silent. She seemed shaken, frightened even, but Thomas could spare no pity for her in that moment. He had energy only for himself and even that was not enough.

They went to the women’s side, an area foreign to Thomas though it was identical to the men’s. Ms. Baxter’s room was close to the glass door; it seemed she’d taken over O’Brien’s old room.

She allowed him to collapse onto her bed, and he lay there weeping into her duvet as she changed for bed.

Maybe she knew in his exhausted state, delirious and deprived, he was no threat to her modesty. He lay there with eyes closed, unaware of anything save for that he was on the verge of insanity. Rational thought eluded him. The desperate need for comfort finally won out over the horror of being comforted.

The lights turned off, plunging Thomas into gloom. A dip in the mattress alerted him to the presence of Baxter, and when she scooted up next to him she was still wearing her housecoat. Her hair, unbound, hung nearly down to the middle of her back in curly brown rivulets.

She held him about the waist, pulling him tight to her body till they were one conformed shape on her two meagre pillows.

She whispered things into his ear, things he couldn’t fully process or understand. Such concepts as ‘You are brave and loved’, and ‘I’ll never let you go’.

“You are alive.” she whispered in his ear right before he passed out, “And every time you forget I’ll remind you.”

When Thomas slipped into sleep, it was dreamless and dark.

When he woke the next morning it was much the same.

Mrs. Patmore was their personal alarm clock, rousing Baxter half an hour early before Gertie in order to get Thomas out of the woman’s side without being seen by Daisy or Gertie herself. The cuts on Thomas’ neck were inflamed and dark red, probably infected from not being applied with antiseptic. Numb and half-wake, Thomas allowed Baxter to put an ointment on his neck as he sat at the edge of her bed. She dressed for the day while keeping a constant eye on him, brushing and braiding her hair with nimble fingers as she wrapped her braid back into a bun and pinned it expertly. When she took him by the elbow and lifted him from her bed, Thomas went willingly. She might be leading him to his doom but he could not find it within him to care. Mrs. Patmore let them out of the women’s side, going against Mrs. Hughes’ number one rule of no one turning the lock… it seemed they were past the point of upholding propriety.

In his own room, Baxter sat him down at his desk and fussed through his wardrobe, finding his livery swapped out for a first footman’s striped vest and white gloves. He let her lay out his clothes, let him comb his hair, and when the time came to shave it was her hand that held the razor not his own.

He did not look her in the eye as she spread soap upon his scratchy skin. Did not look at all as she shaved him. With each drag of the razor he wondered if she would take mercy on him and cut his throat. But by the end of it he was clean shaven and still alive… damn her for it.

She watched him as he brushed teeth, kept a close eye on him as he tied his shoelaces, and when he finally was ready to go downstairs Gertie was beginning to knock on the women’s side doors.

They went downstairs together while the rest of the house woke up around them. Mrs. Patmore was already in the kitchen, and made them both a cup of tea as they sat together in the servant’s hall.

But even then, Baxter was not done with him, and as the house stirred about them she whispered in his ear.

“We’re going to make a plan, you and I.” She murmured softly so that no one else could hear. “A plan for next time if you want to kill yourself again.”

I already want to, Thomas wanted to say. Instead he stared at his cooling cup of tea and wondered when he’d be able to slip away. Perhaps tonight when they were all asleep-

“The next time you want to kill yourself, let’s have a list of people for you to go to.” Baxter murmured. “I’ll be you’re first choice.” She held up her thumb on her left hand. “Now let’s think of four more people.”

Thomas shook his head, willing to give it up for lost until she nudged him in the side.

“We need a plan.” She urged, impatient. “Give me four more people. If I wasn’t here, who would you talk to?”

“No one.” Thomas admitted, because it was the damn truth. But this did not sit right by Baxter, and she kept wiggling her free four fingers.

For a solid minute neither of them spoke. Outside of the servant’s hall Thomas heard the sound of Daisy call out to Mrs. Patmore. “Beans are done!”

“…Mrs. Hughes.” Thomas finally said. Baxter nodded, satisfied and put down her pointer finger. Now three were wiggling.

“A good choice.” Baxter praised him. “Who will be your third.”

Can I feasibly smash this teacup and slit my throat with the shards? Thomas wondered looking down at the teacup in his hands. Baxter nudged him again.

“Mrs. Patmore.” He grumbled. After last night what harm could it do. Now only two fingers were wiggling.

“Anna.” One finger.

“Daisy.” She brought her hand to his own, and squeezed it endearingly.

“Good,” She agreed, “Now we have five people to go to in the event of another moment. If you can’t find me, you’ll go to Mrs. Hughes. If she’s gone, go to Mrs. Patmore. If you can’t find her, you’ll go to Anna. If Anna is likewise gone you’ll go to Daisy.”

“And if everyone’s gone I have your permission to die?” Thomas grumbled under his breath. She merely squeezed his hand again.

“I have terrible news for you, Thomas Barrow.” She murmured softly. Out of the corner of his eye, Thomas saw the Bates walk into the servant’s hall, smiling and speaking softly of baby names as they took their usual seats. “I’m terribly fond of you, and you will therefor never have my permission to die.”

She tried to catch his eye, smiling tenderly. He refused to meet her gaze.

“… Are you having a thought?” Baxter asked softly.

“Yes.” There was no point in hiding it anymore.

“Do you have a plan?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your plan?” Baxter asked, not nervous or angry- merely curious. She took a small sip of tea as she waited for Thomas to speak.

“I’m going to wait till I’m alone and slit my throat.” Thomas said. It sounded like a feasible enough plan.

“Well then.” Baxter set down her tea cup with a soft clink. “I’ll just make sure you’re never left alone. Thank you for telling me your plan.”

Bitch, Thomas thought bitterly. His tea remained untouched.

The change up in Thomas’ attire also brought a change up in seating at the table. Where before Thomas had sat to Mrs. Hughes’ right, he now sat across from her on Baxter’s right. Now Anna sat to Mrs. Hughes right, with everyone else moving up a seat on his old side forcing poor Gertie to switch tables from left to right in order to to keep the seats open for the original occupants. As the table filled up for the morning, the Carson's entered and everyone had to rise to their feet lest they be insubordinate. As Thomas sank back down in his new chair, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes took their seats; Mrs. Hughes gave him a kind smile which Thomas did not reply to. Carson was wary, watching Thomas’ expression carefully for possible cracks in the facade. So exhausted was Thomas (despite his solid sleep at Baxter’s side) that he could not make a thick mask and instead simply stared glumly at his bare plate. When Daisy came around with a teapot to offer everyone a cup, she gave him a disappointed expression at his wasted cup and took it away to replace it with a fresh one. With Mr. Moseley now gone the table was far more quiet; he’d always been the chatty ones in the mornings. There was a saddened air from the Bates, who seemed to genuinely miss his company.

It made Thomas want to vomit.

Breakfast was brought around with the same flare as always. Bacon, sausage and eggs made the rounds along with mushrooms and baked beans. Toast and tomatoes came out last, capped off with black pudding, and everyone tucked in before the upstairs bells could start ringing. Thomas could not find it in him to eat, and even felt nauseas as he observed his food. He had not wanted to be alive to see this meal. He’d wanted to be dead by now, safe in Edward’s arms. When he did not make to put food onto his plate, Mr. Carson started passing around sausage and eggs for everyone to take (as was his usual duty at the table’s head). When Thomas received his own he stared down on it praying he wouldn’t vomit, and instead plucked up a slice of toast. He nibbled on it timidly, comparing it to sawdust in his mouth. It made him take a hasty sip of tea, which reminded him of bath water. He grimaced, setting both down to take a deep breath and pray for the end.

But Carson was talking.

“Mrs. Hughes is going to be receiving new linens today.” Carson spoke up, causing several heads to turn at his mighty voice. Head bowed, Thomas continued to stare at his toast, willing himself for another bite. Maybe what it needed was beans, or jam, “Andrew, you can help her take in the new linens and package the old ones for the homeless.” Carson ordered, “Thomas-“ He turned to Thomas, giving him a disapproving stare, “Since you were so willing to scour Mrs. Patmore’s pots yesterday, I’m putting you on clock duty today. After you’re finished, you and Andrew can clean the silver together- it’ll be good for him to get your take on it.”

Thomas blinked, wondering if fixing the clocks was Carson’s way of rewarding him during this trying time. He’d always liked fixing clocks once upon a time, but now with bandaged hands and sawdust for toast, Thomas couldn’t find much pleasure in anything. What was the point of toast anyways, or clocks? What did it matter what time it was when Thomas didn’t even want to be alive to see it?

“It’ll be odd with Mr. Moseley gone.” Anna spoke up, munching her way through beans and black pudding, “But I’m glad he’s pursuing his dream. Those children are really lucky to have him as a teacher. I suspect you’ll miss him, Ms. Baxter?”

“Yes, I will.” Baxter replied, cutting into her own sausage. Thomas noticed his silverware set had not included a knife this time. Had he been in a hungrier mood he would have had to use the side of his fork to cut his sausage.

“I think we all will.” Mrs. Hughes added around a mouth full of porridge, “But he can always visit, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.”

Gallant Mr. Moseley, off to save the day and live his dream- finally able to recognize his purpose and beloved by all. It made Thomas’ toast that much harder to eat, and he set down his tea cup upon its saucer to rise up from his chair. Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson, and Baxter all watched him go, each more wary than the last.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Mrs. Hughes asked, “You haven’t eaten any breakfast.”

“I’m not hungry.” Thomas said, making to leave the hall.

“Sit back down.” Carson ordered, “Until everyone is finished with their meal.”

“I need to get started on th-“

“Sit. Down.” Carson’s voice had an incredible finality to it. Thomas heard suppressed snickering down the table and knew that Bates found this all very amusing in some sick way. Cowed, he slowly sat back down in his new seat and stared unappeased at his meagre toast.

“You ought to eat more,” Mrs. Hughes urged from across the table, chewing on her eggs, “You have a full day of work ahead of you. It won’t do to get tired on your first day back.”

Unsure of what else to do and unwilling to touch more food, Thomas took another meagre bite of toast. Once again, it tasted like shit.

An awkward pause fell over the table as Thomas fumbled around his mouthful of toast. He made to swallow it down with tea, but stopped even as he reached for the teacup. He’d rather chug it down blind than take another sip of that brew again.

“I’m glad to have you back.” Baxter said in the silence, “It’s good to get things back to normal.”

She seemed to realize when she said it just all that it implied, and Thomas stared across the table at Mrs. Hughes who watched him carefully as she took another bite full of eggs.

He looked down at his plate, at the sausages and eggs, at the beans and the toast that now had two bites out of it.

Across the table from him, Bates glared at him dully over his half-finished cup of coffee and clean plate.

“Why are you behaving so strangely?” Bates demanded, still grouchy without his second cup of coffee.

At his side, Anna munched on her bacon and patted his hand atop the table, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” she soothed her husband, “the flue’s not a picnic.”

Bates continued to stare at him quite aggressive. Without the energy to fight it, Thomas merely looked limpidly at his lap till breakfast was finally deemed over.

He rose to begin the day, the toast already beginning to make his stomach churn.

Carson deemed himself the one and only man needed to usher in breakfast, leaving Andy and Thomas free to get to work. Andy headed out back with Mrs. Hughes to help her bring in the new boxes of linens, and Thomas found his hands full of dusty (if not angry) clocks that were all clamoring for attention at the same time. Though Andy had known how to wind them, he’d not done it properly and he’d forgotten to dust. Worst of all, he hadn’t oiled, so now there were five clocks yowling for care and Thomas couldn’t move fast enough to appease them. Now Thomas sat out back at his old table, cleaning clocks while Andy bustled back and forth around him carting in new linens and boxing up old ones.

The first was a Boulle Fusee mantel clock from the upstairs drawing room, which was angry and ornery at being abandoned for so long. It was an ornamental piece, in need of tender loving care, and Thomas soothed it as best he could while he wiped off a years worth of grime. By the time he was done a whole rag was sooty black and clock looked ready for a debute ball.

The second clock was a Regency Bracket from Mrs. Hughes’ office, positively baffled as to why no one had dusted it for over a year. Thomas made sure to push the hands gently into position, oiled the gears and testing the time weights till they were balanced perfectly. It certainly was appreciative, ticking merrily after he was done.

The third clock was a George the 3rd with a Repeating Bracket, one of the more rare clocks and belonging to Lord Grantham’s personal study. The fourth was a mahogany cased fusee timepiece, a relatively new clock from the servant’s hall that was still working out its gears and refusing to tell time properly. The fifth and final clock was a French Open Escapement Drum Head, by the far the most difficult to tackle given its swinging pendulum set on a balancing scale more than a hundred years old. Thomas moved slowly, not even daring to breath in the same direction as the clock lest he off set the balancing weight. It took him over an hour to finish, and when he was finally done he felt like he’d run a marathon. He closed the backing, wiping his hands on his soiled green apron and and pushing the clock across the table so that it could join its fellows on the other edge. Exhausted with the hour nearing noon, he laid his head down in his arms and prayed to god for an end.

But an end didn’t come.

He sat back up, taking a deep sniff and pulled the French Open back over. He began to polish it with care, even going so far as to stop the pendulum in order to polish it too. His soliloquy was broken by Baxter who came out the back stoop clearly looking for him. She smiled in her approach, sitting on the bench next to him to observe all his clocks.

“You look like your father.” She murmured. Thomas gave her no answer, he knew it well enough. After being beaten by his father for such crimes as sneezing in his presence or forgetting it was a Thursday, Thomas took no pleasure in being reminded he looked like his father. His mother had once openly proclaimed that had he not looked like his father, she wouldn’t have known him for one of her own brood. His siblings had laughed.

He’d cried that night.

“How are you getting on?” She asked.

For a moment it was fine as Thomas polished the pendulum. Quite fine. honestly fine.

And then it wasn’t and Thomas wanted to cry.

He pushed the clock away, putting his head in his arms again to keep Baxter from seeing his morbid expression. But instead of sitting stoic, Baxter came to his side and put her arms around him. She seemed to be covering him, trying to protect him just like before; it would do her no good.

“It’s too much.” Baxter protested, “You need a lighter work load. I’m going to talk to Mr. Carson about it-“ She rose up, making a bee line for the back door. Thomas reached up, seizing her hand, but the action put horrible strain on his sutures and he cried out in pain. Baxter whipped around, effectively stopped as she cupped his wrists in her hands.

She sat back down on the bench, his hands still in her own.

“I have to work.” He mumbled, clenching and unclenching his fingers to cope with the stinging, “If I don’t I won’t have worth.”

“That’s not true.” Baxter beseeched, “You have plenty of worth-“ she squeezed his fingers gently, but Thomas pulled his hands away. Instead he took up the clock again, continuing to polish it. Baxter watched, maintaining that slight nervous disposition she always seemed to carry no matter what.

“…They’re tired.” Thomas said, gesturing to the clocks in dismay. “Dusty. No one’s been taking care of them- is this what Andy calls good clock care? It’s a miracle they still tell time.”

“You sound like your father just now.” Baxter mused, a smile beginning to stretch her thin lips. Thomas decided not to acknowledge the supposed compliment, “Thank goodness you’re working on the clocks. Andy wasn’t up to scratch. Now they have you… how lucky they are.”

Thomas brushed a speck of dust off the top of the French Open, pushing it aside to pull back the Boulle Fusee. He observed its artwork: maidens dancing in loose greek robes about a field. They clutched each other’s hands, their hair bound in ribbons and butterflies. He began to polish with precious care, each edge and curve passing underneath the touch of his cloth till the clock shone like silver. Baxter watched the entire time in silence, unwilling to interrupt him in his work. From the back door, Andy suddenly came out followed by Mrs. Hughes, carrying an enormous load of boxed linens that seemed bound for the outer stoop of the back area. Sure enough, even as Andy trod toward the gate, a milk truck made over into a delivery wagon came around the bend puttering and clacking with a bad engine. A delivery man slumped out of the driver’s seat, coming around the back to open up the tailgate so that Andy to hand over the crates one at a time to another young man who was apparently waiting in the cab. As they worked, Mrs. Hughes oversaw the whole production. She waited by the doorstep for Andy to return once the last crate was loaded. One turn of the key later, the delivery wagon was on its way to its next stop. Andy wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, stuffing it back into his pocket as he approached the stoop.

“Anything else, Mrs. Hughes?” Andy asked.

“See if you can give Mrs. Patmore a hand.” She offered, “The luncheon is almost ready.”

Andy was off like a shot, ready to be assistance, and entered into the house once more without even acknowledging Thomas sitting nearby. Mrs. Hughes stepped ever closer, addressing Baxter first.

“Ms. Baxter,” Mrs. Hughes said, “Her ladyship is looking for you.”

“Right.” Baxter rose up, just like Andy in her work ethic. She patted Thomas gently on the back, stepping away to collect her skirts so that they didn’t snag on the edge of the bench. “Don’t overwork yourself, Thomas. Take it slow, it’s only your first day back.”

She moved away, but before she left she leaned in to whisper something in Mrs. Hughes’ ear. Mrs. Hughes listened with rapt attention, nodding as Baxter leaned away and headed for the door. Mrs. Hughes plastered her friendly smile back on, stepping around to take Ms. Baxter’s seat upon the work bench as Thomas continued to polish his clock.

“How are you feeling?” She asked. Thomas had no answer and merely shook his head as he continued to polish.

“I told Mr. Carson not to push you too hard but he believe in your abilities.” Mrs. Hughes said, in a way that he supposed ought to be endearing, “I think he missed you as first footman. Poor Mr. Moseley was never up to your snuff.” She chuckled.

Thomas stared at the clock in his hands and contemplated using it to bash his own skull in.

Mrs. Hughes turned and observed him, truly taking him in with wary discontent eyes. She seemed displeased, almost disappointed as she murmured in a soft bitter voice, “Is there any way that I can help you? Any way at all?”

But this question was redundant. No one could help him because Thomas was no longer connected to the human race. He was not even human himself. He was a ghost, a figure upon the wall that moved like a shadow and was equally just as forgotten when he left. Even those he lived with on a daily basis did not notice him anymore.

 

“No one can help me, Mrs. Hughes.” Thomas whispered. “I’m already dead.”

Mrs. Hughes leaned in, caressing his hand just as Baxter had done only moments before. Was this the universal way of administering care? Patting someone’s hand for five seconds and then leaving them to kill themselves a third time? Christ, people were thick.

“You’re not dead, Thomas.” She murmured sweetly, trying to meet his eyes. He did not give her the satisfaction, continuing to stare at the clock before him, “You may not have many friends here, but I am one of them.”

He doubted it.

Before this ridiculous display of false kindness could go on any further, the back door opened one more time to reveal Mr. Carson, large and imposing in the doorway. He observed Mrs. Hughes’ hold on Thomas’ limp hand with a wary eye, causing her to set his hand down immediately as she rose up from the bench and greeted her husband with a smile.

“You’re finished?” Mr. Carson noted Thomas’ work, “Very good, if you’ll leave those for the hall boy, I need you to serve the luncheon-“

“I can take them Mr. Carson-“ Thomas rose up, feeling almost defensive of his precious clocks. Mr. Carson was far from amused, quirking a heavy eyebrow as he jerked his thumb dismissively over his massive shoulder.

“You won’t have enough time, into the kitchen as I say.” He demanded.

Cowed again, Thomas rose from the bench and stepped around, heading for the back door before Carson could add any more insult to injury. Mrs. Hughes tried for a reprieve calling out, “It’s very helpful of you, Thomas!”

But it was a lie. Everything they said and did were lies. They bathed in lies. They ate lies. They wore lies, even in their sleep.

Before the shift in stature, it had been Thomas’ job to lay out the dinner placements with Andy in tow. He’d shown Andy how to lay out the settings and food accordingly while Carson supervised over them all. Now, with Carson officially the top dog and none to question his judgement, Thomas was officially down to serving station only so that he remained downstairs while Carson took care of the placements himself. Even when Thomas had offered, considering it his job as first footman, Carson had merely suggested that it was unnecessary with both Lady Edith, Lady Mary, and Sir Henry Talbot now out of the house. There was on his lordship and her ladyship to care for… as well as Branson, who rarely caused a fuss. The only real trouble tonight was that both the Dowager Countess and Mrs. Crawley were coming to dinner and might present a problem in their usual flare. Mr. Carson still didn’t consider it worthy of a first footman, so Thomas stayed below in the kitchen, waiting for the cue to go up with the meat platter.

Tonight it was cold ham, a thick thigh bone sliced thin by the same meat cleaver Thomas had tried to use in a suicide attempt not twenty four hours ago. He stared longingly at the knife as Mrs. Patmore continued to slice, absence to the way that Mrs. Patmore watched him carefully and made sure to stow her knife in her apron pocket instead of putting it directly into the sink.

Carson re appeared, a signal that it was time to move, and Thomas instinctively reached out with gloved hands to take up the meat tray. The weight of the tray, however, proved to be too much for Thomas’ sutures. A sharp burst of pain caused Thomas to nearly drop the tray to the floor, and at last minute he saved the dish by instead placing it hastily back on the kitchen counter. He grimaced, eyes closed, wishing he could take his wrists in hand and rub them.

“Don’t tell us you’ve gone and hurt yourself the first day back!” Daisy’s voice cut over the air. Thomas glanced up and saw her scowling at him from the stove, clearly displeased and thinking him slacking.

“What’s this?” Carson demanded irritably, coming around the kitchen counter to see that Thomas had let go of his tray handles.

“Something’s wrong with Thomas’ wrists.” Daisy declared.

Mrs. Patmore, Mr. Carson, and Andy all looked around unnerved. Panicking, Thomas quickly picked back up his tray despite the sharp pain in his wrists.

“It’s nothing, Mr. Carson.” Thomas said, stepping around both Andy and Mr. Carson in order to exit the kitchen, “I’m fine.”

Upstairs, dinner was in full swing.

The lighting was low, the company was few, and a family atmosphere had settled over the entire situation. With Lady Mary and Lady Edith now gone (one on honeymoon, one in London), much of the hostility they’d always carried had been taken away with them. Now, the only real weapon in the dining room was the Dowager’s tongue; dressed in pale blue, she looked like a very irritable bird with a feather poking out of her iron curls and a scowl upon her withered face. Mrs. Crawley was as benevolent as ever, swathed in gentlest mauve and deep in conversation with Branson about new changes in the village. Lord and Lady Grantham made eyes at each other from across the table, which was slightly disgusting given that they were older than Thomas’ parents and frankly shouldn’t be allowed to still procreate.

Thomas walked counter clockwise about the table, serving meat silently and desperately trying not to meet anyone’s eyes. He’d be a fool not to notice that both Lord and Lady Grantham were watching him like hawks. Unnervingly enough, so was Mrs. Crawley, though she was careful not to be too obvious about it as she kept Branson occupied. Each time he dipped down low, meat in hand, his sutures screamed for mercy. First came Lord Grantham, then Branson, both of whom took meat but said nothing to him. After that it was the Dowager, Lady Grantham and finally Mrs. Crawley. As Thomas saved her, he noticed her watching him with a gentle eye in the corner, dainty as she plucked meat from his plate.

Thomas winced as she set the fork back down, the shift in weight causing his sutures to sting.

“Barrow, are you well?” The Dowager spoke up. Thomas glanced up, sweating to see the old woman staring him down like a vulture might an appetizing display. Why was she always calling out to him in the dining room? When had he so captivated her attention to demand her constant audience? This wasn’t the first time she’d publicly spoken to him before the others.

I should have never danced with you, Thomas thought bitterly as he straightened up and took the meat platter with him.

“Carson, have you been overworking him again?” The Dowager demanded. Carson looked positively affronted, feathers rumpled and concentration compromised. “He looks positively haggard. And he’s wearing a footman’s livery-!” The Dowager added with a cocky little titter, “Either we’re in a very bad dream of his or reality has changed as we know it.”

“Thomas has been unwell as of late, My lady.” Was Carson’s smooth reply, “He’s recovering now, and has consented to help serve dinner for which we are most grateful.” Though from the way Carson said it you’d be amazed if they were even half-amused as a whole, “He has likewise accepted to take over the role of first footman now that Mr. Moseley has become a school teacher.”

Branson glanced up from his plate, perhaps mystified that Thomas would accept such a down step in his otherwise notorious career. Lord Grantham looked slightly disturbed but Lady Grantham took it in her stride even as the Dowager muttered, “Goodness. Things do change fast.” Into her peas and mash.

“You must let us know if the strain is too much, Thomas.” Lady Grantham urged, in that simpering American accent of hers.

“We wouldn’t want you to be overworked.” Lord Grantham added as he took a bite out of his ham.

There wasn’t anything Thomas could say beyond this point besides “Thank you, M’lord.” Which resulted in him hiding along the back wall for the rest of the meal while Carson directed traffic and Andy brought around the vegetable platters. As the meal wrapped up and the family left for a private drink in the salon, Thomas and Andy took it upon themselves to clear up the dining hall and prepare it for night. Andy ferried dirty plates back and forth to the kitchens below while Carson served drinks in the salon and Thomas took care of the entree dishes. All the silver platters, all the silver period had to be carefully wrapped even when only being transported for the wash. As he slowly wrapped the last of the many silver trays in a felt cloth, Thomas found himself thinking about Edward and just how many times Thomas had spotted his ghost in the past week alone. Could it be that Edward was trying to contact him from beyond the grave, after failing to deliver his full message during Thomas’ initial suicide attempt? What if Edward had some dire message to reveal but couldn’t because of the veil that separated the land of the living? What if he was gashing his teeth and moaning, drifting from place to place and chasing Thomas through halls and courtyards alike in his desperate attempt to make his words known? For all Thomas knew Edward could be in this very room with him, standing right behind him-

A hand upon his shoulder.
“Thomas-“

Thomas jumped about a foot in the air, nearly dropping the silver platter as he whipped around to see Carson glowering at him. It seemed that drinks were over, and the family was finally left to their own devices. Andy was no doubt downstairs eager to plow his way through Mrs. Patmore’s cooking while Thomas took forever and a day to wrap a silver platter in a cloth. No wonder Carson had come to find him.

“Steady on.” Carson groused, irritated at Thomas’ jumpy composure.

“Mr. Carson.” Thomas’ heart was still pounding. He put a hand over his heart, feeling its erratic beat.

“Earlier today, did my eyes deceived me or did your wrists seem to be troubling you?”

While this might have sounded like an opportunity for explanation or comfort to some, Thomas knew it for what it really was… a threat. Should he be found unfit to work, he would lose his position in Downton and be cast into the streets despite what Baxter, Mrs. Hughes, or anybody else with a voice box and set of jaws seemed to say to him. Instead of answering Mr. Carson, Thomas therefor sat completely quiet as he continued to wrap his silver in cloth.

Mr. Carson found this to be in poor taste.

“I would appreciate the truth from you, even in your sorry state.” Carson might not have meant to, but the bite in his voice was aggressive and made Thomas even more jumpy than usual. He suddenly wanted to run from Carson, to hide up in his room- to stay there in the dark where no one could harm him or stop him from harming himself.

“… Sutures.” Thomas mumbled, finding it impossible to say much else. Carson straightened up, seemingly soothed by simple answers.

“You will let Andrew carry the meat until you can handle the weight of it.” Carson decided.

Thomas blinked. He’d now been demoted from Under Butler to Second Footman in less than forty eight hours. What a week.

On the other hand, he’d still refrained from urinating in his own bed. Credit should be given where credit was due.

Yet as Thomas bowed his head and rubbed gently at his sore wrists, he forgot that Carson was still there watching him. Indeed he was quite lost in his own sad little world till Carson murmured, “Is it all too much for you?”

And though he might have meant to say it with venom, Thomas couldn’t hear the threat in his voice.

“I don’t know.” Thomas mumbled, a truth for a truth, “I can’t decide if I’m dead or alive.”

Carson said nothing for a moment, watching placidly as Thomas finished wrapping silver.

“You are alive.” Was all he said.

Now with all tasks complete, Thomas stacked his silver plates one atop the other so that they were neatly piled in a straight shot of five. As he made to pick it up, Carson cut him off with a sharp jerk of the wrist. Thomas stood silent with his hands at his sides as Carson picked up the stack of trays and made his way to the Dining Hall doors. Unbidden, Thomas opened the doors for Carson so that the pair of them could make their way out into the darkened Entrance Hall.

The pair of them made their way down to the servant’s hall without another word, and when they reached their destination neither spoke of the conversation above.

 

Dinner that night was a lively affair for everyone else, full of happy chatter as old friends listened to good news. Amid them all, Thomas remained silent staring at his plate of cold lamb and mash. Every time he tried to eat, he felt a wave of bile in his stomach. Yet as he remained still with his fork untouched, Baxter kept nudging him in the thigh. He couldn’t even get up out of his chair without Carson snarling at him. Thomas therefore sat through the entire meal silent only eating one spoon full of mash, while Baxter nudged him repeatedly in the thigh. He was certain come tomorrow morning he would have a bruise.

When the meal was over and the plates were collected, Thomas noted Patmore’s bitter expression at his lack of appetite. When he tried to go upstairs, intent on sleep (or hiding, or whatever else one did when they didn’t want to live anymore) Mrs. Hughes demanded he do menial tasks (such as collect errant magazines no one wanted to read anymore, or fetch another log on the dwindling fire. Unable to go upstairs, and unable to join in any conversation (in truth even lacking desire to), Thomas merely sat in his old armchair by the fire and watched it burn the log he’d fetched. Around him, conversation kept fritzing in and out… something about the Bates’ expectant baby and Daisy finishing her tests… he couldn’t really make sense of it.

No one cared about him anyway. Why did it matter if he knew their business or not?

A hand fell upon his shoulder, stroking his flesh with a slim but steady thumb. He did not look around, uncaring for whom the hand belonged to. To him, a hand was just another hand… a touch was just another touch, and it didn’t really matter in the end if someone touched him or not. They never stayed and they never cared.

My darling… the marbles whispered and rolled, My darling, my darling, my darling.

“Is everything alright?”

It seemed that his little reverie by the fire had caught the attention of Anna, who was passing by with her coat on her arm. It seemed she was about to leave for her cozy little love nest with Bates who was waiting by the door with his bowler hat in hand. The thumb and hand apparently belonged to Baxter; there was a feminine watch on the wrist. She waved her hand, as if urging Anna to simply let it be and walk away.

But this action seemed to disturb Anna. She paused, trying to catch Thomas’ eye unsuccessfully, “Are you feeling any better today, Mr. Barrow?”

Thomas didn’t move, didn’t speak, merely continued to stare at the fire.
My darling… the hiss of the logs under the heat seemed to whisper.

“If you’re still ill with the flue you shouldn’t be down here.” Bates grumbled, annoyed.

“He’s fine, Mr. Bates.” Baxter put her hand back on Thomas’ shoulder as if to be silently supportive, “It’s just a little tiring the first day back.”

“Never one for hard labor.” Mr. Bates sneered, un-supportively. Anna gave her husband a small sweet smile, maybe thinking it all a joke. But it had never been a joke between them.

Baxter stayed resolutely silent, uncaring for confrontation.

But as Bates watched from the doorway, he seemed to sense that Thomas’ silence had less to do with attitude and more to do with exhaustion. He stepped forward, dark brown eyes narrowed suspiciously. Thomas refused to meet his gaze either, staring instead at the fire.

My darling…

“Why are you behaving so weirdly?” Bates demanded softly, un eager for anyone else to overhear them as maids left for the night and Andy sat at the piano clonking out a pathetic tune for Daisy. “Even for you this is odd behavior. Don’t tell me you’ve kissed Andrew in his sleep.” He said with a small sneer.

My darling… the fire whispered. My darling… the marbles replied.

“… I tried to kill myself.” Thomas whispered.
Bates froze.

For a moment there was absolute silence between the four of them, made somehow even uglier by Andy’s ridiculous tune. Bates looked from Thomas’ gaunt face to his hands which lay still upon his lap. At the very edge of his shirt sleeves, his gauze cuffs were visible. Bates glanced to Anna who said nothing, to Baxter who remained silent, and sighed.

“We’d best get on.” Anna said.
Without another word the pair of them left.

He didn’t know what he’d been expecting. Some kind of taunt, some sort or grumble or the other. He’d certainly not been expecting silence and it stung him. Bates was tribal by his own wife’s admission. He didn’t care for many people, and even if he had cared for many Thomas still wouldn’t have made the cut. He didn’t know why he’d hoped that if Bates found out he was suicidal- that he’d attempted to die- mercy would be shown.

Maybe in a way silence was better than what Bates could have given.
Maybe silence was better than cruelty.
But silence was cruelty in and of itself.

“Silence.” Thomas whispered, gaze upon the nearly finished logs.

“He’s not the talkative sort.” Baxter consoled, coming around the armchair to stoop over so that Thomas had to meet her eyes. She gave him a tired smile, “Don’t worry about Mr. Bates. Just focus on getting better. Those clocks looked beautiful after you finished with them.”

The piano faded into silence. Andy was done with his song. Daisy trotted back into the kitchen, a tray upon her hip as she collected the final round of cups from the empty servant’s table. Yawning, Andy rose from the piano bench and stretched his arms out wide.

“I’m going up.” He said, rubbing slightly at the corner of his almond eyes, “Mr. Barrow?” He called out, “Care to join me?”

“Yes, your’e tired-“ Baxter answered for him, “It’s time to get some sleep.”

He rose from his chair, feeling incredibly cold without the warmth of the fire. Andy and Baxter both made their way out of the servant’s hall, Baxter turning off the lights as they left.

In the dark of the hall, broken only in flickering shadows by an aching fire nearly dead, Thomas could not help but remember how he’d cowered in his armchair the night Downton had opened as a public house. How even as other has slept and dreamed of bright futures, Thomas had cried himself to sleep in the servant’s hall, terrified of tomorrow.

“So my word still is still not good enough, Mr. Carson. After so many years.”

“I only wish it were.”

Thomas stopped, suddenly unable to take another step.

“Thomas?” Baxter was pulling at his elbow. He jerked hard out of her grip, a wild hatred for the house and everyone under its roof filling him up.

Flee! his mind screamed at him, Run! Get out of there! Leave!

But where could he leave to, and with what money?

Baxter was saying something but her voice was muted in his ears. He reached up, putting his hands over his ears, trying to block out even the dulled echo of her voice. Trying to block out anything-

“What’s wrong?” Baxter was begging. “What’s happening? Are you having a bad moment?”

But his lack of response seemed to scare her even more.

“Thomas, talk to me!” She snapped. “Tell me what’s going on inside your head or how can I possible help?”

“What’s all this?” Mrs. Patmore demanded, stepping out of her kitchen to find Andy on the stairs and Thomas holding his ground at the bottom. Half concealed in the gloom of the servant’s hall, Thomas tried to slink back into the shadows. Baxter stopped him, which only served to make him angrier. Couldn’t she leave well enough alone?

“Stop it!” Thomas hissed, jerking his hand away from Baxter for the second time, “Leave me alone!” Baxter gave him a reproachful look but he felt no remorse.

“What’s wrong with you?” Baxter demanded, “Why are you acting this way? What’s happened?”

Thomas tried to slink off into the darkness again, to sit in his armchair once more and sink into the gloom as he’d done on the night of the opening. When Baxter made to reach for his hand a third time, Thomas’ last strain of patience popped like an overly taut wire.

“God damnit leave me alone!” Thomas’s voice was squeaked with tension and hysteria, causing Baxter to blanch. Andy looked decidedly uncomfortable, halfway up the stairs. He no doubt just wanted to get to bed but felt trapped there until someone said he could leave.

“Leave me alone! Stop touching me, stop following me around! Are you daft?! Why can’t you just let me die?! What, are you bored or something?! Am I entertaining to you-“

A large hammish hand had taken him by the elbow and was pulling him hard.

Thomas stumbled, trying to jerk away again, but this time he wasn’t so lucky. His captor proved not to be Baxter but Mrs. Patmore, who was much harder to wrestle free of as she drug him into the warmth and comfort of a gloomy kitchen where only Daisy squirreled away by a cooling stove. Out in the hallway, Andy was heading upstairs. Somehow it seemed that Mrs. Patmore had taken charge of the situation, much to Baxter’s relief who was practically sweating by this point.

“Let me go!” Thomas demanded. Mrs. Patmore did so, but then blocked the entire door to the kitchen with her enormous girth so that Baxter and Andy could slip up the stairs.

“Go to bed, I’ll take it from here.” Mrs. Patmore said.

“Thank you, Mrs. Patmore.” Baxter said, finally showing her true colors with just how tired of Thomas she was. Friend, indeed. He’d known it was a play from the start.

Thomas scoffed, appalled as Daisy blinked at him confusedly from the stove. But even she got the chop as Mrs. Patmore turned her back on Baxter and Andy to bid her one final command.

“Daisy, set that plate on the side counter.” Mrs. patmore ordered, pointing from a large pewter food cover to her side table where only last night she’d sat with Mrs. Hughes. Daisy did as she was bid, lifting the food cover to reveal Thomas’ untouched dinner plate just as before. She brought it round the kitchen island, perching it upon the side table. “Now go to bed.” Mrs. Patmore said. “I can manage the rest.”

Eager to get some much needed sleep, Daisy didn’t care about questions. She took off her apron, hung it upon a hook on the wall, and scooted past Mrs. Patmore to head up the stairs. As soon as her footsteps had faded, Mrs. Patmore pointed to the side table with clear authority.

“Sit” She demanded. Thomas scoffed again.

“Get out of my way.” He spat, making for the door. As he reached her she threw out a large arm and stopped him from taking a single step. So weak was he from a day without food and intense labor that she steered him around with one hand, all but shoving him to the side table and forcing him down onto the seat. Thomas sat there, thoroughly cowed just like with Carson, blinking stupidly at his plate.

Mrs. Patmore bustled around the kitchen, fetching a fork, napkin, and cup of tea. She brought all three back, sitting them before him and taking the seat opposite him so that they now stared one another down from across the table.

“Eat.” She demanded.

“I can’t.” Thomas replied.

“Until your plate is cleared, you don’t go to bed and neither do I.” Mrs. Patmore crossed her arms over her massive busom, scowling at him as he blinked once again at his plate.

For some reason, hysteria was starting to rise within him. He was so tired, he just wanted to sleep. Why wouldn’t she let him sleep? Why wouldn’t everyone just leave him alone?

“I’m tired.” Thomas beseeched her.

“Well then, start eating.” Mrs. Patmore urged with a gesture of the hand. Thomas tried to speak but felt like he was choking on his tongue.

“I can’t.” Thomas said again.

“Try.” Was Mrs. Patmore’s answer.

Thomas looked down at his plate, at the mash, kedgeree, and cold lamb. He felt the urge to vomit rise within him.

“Pick up your fork.” She she ordered, “And take a bite. I know you’re hungry.”

For a solid mute minute, he just stared at his plate, taking in the tiny details around the rim. He’d never noticed it before but the plates were decorated in miniature French flowers. He wondered how old these plates were, where they’d come from… were they cast offs? Or had the family bought them specifically for the servants?

Mrs. Patmore scooted his fork towards him, pushing it by the prongs. The tip of its handle touched his nail bed. Knowing she’d only continue to pester him if he denied her, he picked up his fork and held it dumbly in his hand.

He sat still for another minute, unsure of what to do next. What was his original task…? He’d forgotten.

“Start with the mash.” Mrs. Patmore said.

Thomas slowly brought his fork to the mash, loading it with the most meagre of bites. Frightened of what would come next, of vomiting in front of Mrs. Patmore or onto her sitting table, Thomas put the fork into his mouth and swallowed painfully.

Mrs. Patmore watched him the entire time, her brown eyes calm and gentle.

When he did not vomit, Thomas took another tentative bite.
Then a third.

As he ate, Mrs. Patmore took off her bonnet and her glasses, sighing as she pocket both. Her frizzy orange hair was dripping with sweat at the root, She rubbed at her eyes, massaging the bags underneath. Desperate to get this sordid punishment over, Thomas began shoveling food into his mouth as fast as he could till nearly all of his food was gone. He swallowed painfully around an enormous mouthful, jerking up out of his chair and heading for the door. Mrs. Patmore caught him by the elbow as he passed, dragging him back to his chair and forcing him to sit again.

“What?” He demanded weakly. “I ate. Let me go to bed.”

“You’re not finished.” Mrs. Patmore warned, rising from her chair and heading around the kitchen island. For a moment Thomas just watched her paranoid till she returned from the far refrigerator with a small covered bowl in hand. As she sat it before him and took off it’s ceramic top, Thomas was amazed to see that it was a lone remaining serving of Eton-mess, the desert from the upstair’s dinner.

He’d never had anything this fine before.

A mixture of cut strawberries, meringue, and cream, it was incredibly tempting for Thomas who’d had (in all honesty) a week from hell and needed a break.

“Go on.” Mrs. Patmore urged softly. “Finish up.”

He took the spoon she offered, dipping it into the Eton-mess and bringing it forth to taste it for himself. It was incredibly sweet and creamy with just a bit of tart at the end. It was heavenly, and Thomas closed his eyes to savor it.

“Good?” Mrs. Patmore asked.

“I shouldn’t be eating this.” Thomas murmured. He shook his head, setting his spoon down on his nearly cleared plate and sliding the bowl back towards Mrs. Patmore. “This isn’t for the likes of us.”

“What the eyes don’t see the heart won’t hurt about.” Mrs. Patmore replied, sliding the bowl back to him, “And I don’t think they’ll miss one share, do you? Not when they’re all safe and tucked into bed with full tummies. You were the one about to go to bed hungry.”

Thomas pursed his lips, looking from his bowl of offered Eton-mess to Mrs. Patmore who was perching her round chin in a hammish hand.

Thomas sniffed, still feeling that he might be blamed somehow for all of this.

“You should have some too.” Thomas mumbled, in an attempt to avoid being blamed for all of it, “If that’s how you really feel.”

“Well, if you’re offering.” Mrs. Patmore grumbled, rising up and fetching her own spoon. She sat back down with a grunt, scooting her chair closer and dipping it into his bowl. She tasted her own desert, smacking her lips. Thomas watched as she grimaced and tilted her head from left to right.

“Too much sugar.” Mrs. Patmore grumbled. “Daisy always goes heavy on the meringue.”

Soothed, Thomas took back up his spoon and had another bite.

The sat there, the pair of them eating in total silence. each mouth full was incredible and when the bowl was scraped clean the pair of them relaxed in their chairs licking their spoons free of every last drop.

“Maybe the sugar wasn’t so bad.” Mrs. Patmore conceded, staking the cleaned bowl on top of Thomas’ dinner plate and pushing both aside. Now she drug his teacup forward so that it rattled on his saucer. She slid it to him urging him to drink with a wave of the hand. “But the sugar isn’t why we’re here, is it.”

Thomas looked down at his lap, unsure of what was going to come next.

“…By heck, Thomas.” She whispered, almost glaring at him now, “Why did you do it?”

She crossed her arms over her chest again. “You’re better than that.”

“I’m not.” Thomas mumbled into his lap. But this infuriated Mrs. Patmore. She scoffed and sneered loudly, rolling her eyes.

“You are. Quit making excuses!” She snapped, “That’s all you ever do is complain, make trouble, and make excuses for your behavior and their results. You’re smarter than…” She leaned forward, looking over her shoulder for a moment to make sure no one was in the doorway, “Suicide.” She leaned back in her chair. “And you know it.” She paused, reaching back into her lap and putting on her glasses once more.

“Let me see your wrists.” She demanded, hand out.

This frightened Thomas more than anything else. To show her his wrists was oddly… damning. He couldn’t say why. Maybe it was just the horrible proof of what lay underneath his shirt sleeves. Maybe it was the fact that in a stranger’s eyes Thomas’ wrists were as good as handcuffs. Should the wrong person ever see them… he’d never make it out alive.

But Mrs. Patmore was not the wrong person. He offered her one wrist, then another, and allowed her to unbutton his wrists so that she could push his shirt sleeves up and survey his gauze wraps.

She turned his wrists this way and that, observing them in the light of her small lamp. She pulled back after a moment, pursing her lips.

“I can make a poultice to help this heal faster.” Mrs. Patmore said, rising up from the table to head back to her kitchen island. She took Thomas’ plate and bowl with her to deposit them in the sink.

“I don’t need your pity.” Thomas grumbled, toying gently with the cuffs of his shirt sleeves. Mrs. Patmore scoffed again, irritated as she laid out a cloth and began chopping up herbs with a large knife.

“When someone offers you a favor, the appropriate answer is ‘thank you’.” Mrs. Patmore snapped as she chopped, “Not ‘I don’t need your pity’.” she waved the knife about as she talked, “Try saying that more often. It’ll do your shoddy reputation good.”

Thomas rolled his eyes, wishing it were all that simple. That he could just say ‘thank you’ and make friends in the house again. But he was far past such simple…

Such simple…

Thomas stared, his eyes landing upon the bottom of a kitchen rack full of old egg crates yet to be thrown out and boxes of wrapped knives. There, stacked amid them all was an ancient ouija board long forgotten amid the clutter of the rest.

“You know what to do! Bring out the board! I believe in you!” Edward had shouted, running pell mell through the hospital courtyard the morning of Lady Mary’s wedding.

“It’s in the kitchens.” Edward had said only the other night, “Go to the kitchens.”

… What if Edward hadn’t been talking about the meat cleaver?

“Board-“ Thomas whispered to himself, barely an audible sound as Mrs. Patmore snarled, “Are you even listening to me?”

“Board-“ Thomas said again, wondering if he’d gotten the message wrong-

“What?” Mrs. Patmore harrumphed, setting down the knife irritably, “The devil board?”

“Nothing.” Thomas suddenly realized just how foolish he sounded, particularly to Mrs. Patmore who’d already offered him more pity than strictly necessary “Sorry. I got distracted.”

Mrs. Patmore paused, setting her freshly made poultice down. “.. Did you just say ‘sorry’?” She asked, staring in disbelief.

Thomas rubbed his mouth, looking away lest he keep staring at the ouija board. Now that the thought had entered his mind he simply couldn’t put it away. What if he’d read the signals wrong? What if Edward hadn’t been telling him to kill himself the other night?

In the bathtub, between worlds, Edward had tried to deliver a message only to fail as Thomas was jerked away back to the land of the living. Running through the hospital courtyard Edward had demanded Thomas ‘bring out the board’. Only the other night Edward had urged ‘It’s in the kitchen’.

What if…

Mrs. Patmore was back, bringing the poultice with her. She sat back down in her chair, staring at Thomas warily as she brought forth his wrists again and hesitantly made to unpin the bandages. Now came the hard part of unwrapping them- of admitting to what lay underneath.

“…Maybe you were listening to me.” Mrs. Patmore mused as she unwound Thomas’ bandages. “My older sister Kate, her oldest was born under a shadow. Never smiled. Never laughed. That poor girl lived a hard life. She threw herself in front of a train… we never saw it coming.” Mrs. Patmore shook her head sadly, “My sister cried for months. No one could console her. My nephew Archie was her only saving grace.”

She’d reached the final wrap of the bandage, and paused with pursed lips.

“This might sting.” She admitted softly, then slowly drew back the final wrap of the gauze.

“… God in heaven.” She whispered, absolutely horrified. The wounds were raw and deep, held together by thin black thread. They looked more ugly now than they had even when open and gushing blood. Mrs. Patmore just stared, mouth open in shock as she momentarily forgot all about her poultice. Thomas looked away, slightly ashamed, and Mrs. Patmore came abruptly to her senses as she picked up the poultice to lay it gingerly upon the swollen and abused flesh of his inner wrist. He hissed at the sudden prickling sting.

“Bit of kindness might do you good, I wonder.” Mrs. Patmore muttered softly.

And whether he said it for the undeserved bowl of Eton-mess he’d never been meant to have or the poultice he didn’t need, Thomas looked back around to catch her eye if only to say, “Thank you.”

Mrs. Patmore nodded, solemn, “That’s more like it.”

Chapter Text

What started as one bowl of Eton-mess quickly turned into something much more complicated.

It was natural to react to pain and suffering differently. Some desired to aid physically (like Baxter or Dr. Clarkson) where others wanted to sit and talk (Mrs. Hughes was a prime example). It really shouldn’t have surprised Thomas at all that Mrs. Patmore’s way of dealing with stress and sadness was food, whether she was cooking it for someone or eating it herself. In this way, if Mrs. Patmore didn’t like Thomas’ consumed portions, she’d drag him into the kitchen when all others were off to bed to force him to eat more. As a reward she’d let him sample the upstairs deserts if only to taste a spoonful herself.

So it was that, as a week past by and then two, Thomas and Mrs. Patmore went through (in succession) Bombe Glaceé, Cherries Jubilee, a whole assortment of Flummeries, Raspberry Ripple, Spoom, Syllabub, Trifle, Treacle Tart, and of course Queen of Puddings. Their little routine was a simple one: Desert, Poultice, and Tea (in that order). They rarely got to bed before eleven, but it didn’t matter. Time for munching on an upstairs desert was time well spent. The only problem was that Mrs. Patmore insisted on talking the whole way through it, and often demanded Thomas cue in a comment or two lest she pull away the desert dish and chastise him without pudding for a reward. Thomas had never been one to insist he had a sweet tooth before, but now his eyes had been opened: he was a confirmed sugar addict.

Second Footman, yes, but a confirmed sugar addict.

Thomas sucked thoughtfully on a spoon full of Syllabub as Mrs. Patmore huffed and puffed over Daisy’s latest antics. Daisy herself had gone to bed over an hour ago, whining and moaning about Andy’s attentions which she apparently didn’t want.

“I don’t understand it.” Mrs. Patmore sighed sadly, taking off her glasses to rub them free of sweat on her dirty apron, “I really don’t.” Thomas watched her, still sucking the sugar and milk from his spoon.

“Daisy is being very difficult indeed. Poor Andrew is constantly fretting over her but she won’t turn her head. She pined for Alfred but then when he liked her she’d have nothing to do with him.” Irritated, Mrs. Patmore smacked her meaty fist down on the side table, causing Thomas’ Syllabub cup to rattle. He snatched it up at once, unwilling for it to fall over lest he lose his desert. “You know what her problem is?” Mrs. Patmore said “She can’t like a man if he likes her back.”

Thomas couldn’t give half a nit. He just wanted to eat his Syllabub.

“And do you know what your problem is?” Mrs. Patmore demanded, reaching out to snatch up his Syllabub cup before he could take another bite. Thomas grimaced, his spoon lodged tight in his mouth. Mrs. Patmore snatched that back too, nearly chipping his tooth. He winced, rubbing his sore lip as she brandished the spoon and cup at him like they were damning evidence to a heinous crime. “You don’t listen to a word I say unless you’re gobbling up my pudding!”

Thomas blinked. Mrs. Patmore rolled her eyes and rose from her chair, taking Thomas’ bowl and spoon to the sink before tossing them in.

Thomas sighed, slumping in his chair thoroughly put out.

The only reason why Thomas hadn’t killed himself in the past two weeks (as stupid as it sounded) was because of Mrs. Patmore’s deserts. Thomas seldom ate anything during meals, thought he often had a cup of tea… but at night he delighted in watching the family eating dessert. Whatever they ate, he knew he would eat too. This night, as they’d eaten spoonfuls of Syllabub and talked about changes to the hospital, Thomas had had to stop himself from licking his lips. Life was hellish and miserable, with no one to talk to and nothing to say- but by god were the deserts grand. Alfred Nugent might have had a point, going about becoming a chef. He sighed, relaxing into his rickety chair as Mrs. Patmore began chopping up another poultice. As much as he feigned to admit it, they really were working. Only two weeks ago his cuts had been horribly raw and red, prone to bleeding if pressed. Now, thanks to Mrs. Patmore’s poultices, they were only slightly red and no longer bled if pushed. She returned to the table, fresh poultice in hand, and gently unbuttoned Thomas’ shirtsleeves to unwind his gauze bandages.

He winced out of habit as she applied the poultice, eyes drifting across the room till they finally settled (as they always settled) upon the ouija board resting beneath the used egg crates.

He’d not had a chance to use it yet. The marbles were angry at him for it. They rattled and bounced in his skull at night, hissing their frustration at his cowardice- at his lack of will. Did he want to die or not? They demanded his attention, and when he didn’t give it they only got angrier.

Hide in your Syllabub cup all you like, they hissed, We’ll have you in the end.

“… Do you believe in ghosts?” Thomas asked, eyes still fixated on the ouija board. Mrs. Patmore didn’t even bother to glance up, too focused on his wrappings.

“What…” Mrs. Patmore grumbled, dabbing at Thomas’ inflamed wrists with care, “Like dead people haunting the living?"

Thomas looked over his shoulder, noting every shadow that hid in the corners. Which ones were alive and not? He couldn’t rightly say anymore.

He turned back around, wondering if Mrs. Patmore would think him mad if he confessed his mind. But then again, did it truly matter anymore? Thomas caught her gaze, “I think I’m being haunted.”

“Oh don’t start that rubbish.” She grumbled. But when Thomas did not make to rebuke her, she looked back up and slowly set down her poultice. She began to rewrap his bandages. “Who do you think you’re being haunted by?”

It didn't matter if he lied anymore. Thomas watched her hands tuck his gauze, meaty fingers sliding through soft cloth, “Someone I loved who committed suicide during the war.”

Mrs. Patmore was captivated by his answer. She finished tucking his gauze and pushed him over his cup of tea. Thomas took it, watching the steam twist and turn at its top while Mrs. Patmore added milk to her own. Thomas had never liked milk in his tea. He preferred lemon and honey while it was still piping hot. He slowly took a sip, allowing the burn on his lips and tongue to consume him. Nothing pleased him more than having blistered skin- to feel like the sun had cleansed him.

“Have you seen him?” Mrs. Patmore asked, clearly curious.

“…He tried to rescue me.” Thomas admitted, taking another sip of scalding tea.

“In the war?”

“in the bathtub.”

This brought a change over Mrs. Patmore. She knew, no doubt from Mrs. Hughes, the details of his preliminary attempted suicide. After watching him hold a meat cleaver to his neck, she been incredibly pensive to ask him for any details about the day Thomas slit his wrist. To her, it seemed better to leave well enough alone. To simply allow him to take her poultices and leave well enough alone. Thomas knew deep down that she wanted to ask, that she wanted to understand. After her niece jumping in front of a train, Mrs. Patmore seemed more understanding than most that suicide could occur in a depressed individual. She’d taken the same point of view on his homosexuality, though of course she'd not been so much sympathetic as she had been aware.

“I see him everywhere, now.” Thomas admitted, looking over his shoulder into the shadows again. He half expected to see Edward standing there, watching him with burning blue eyes. “He told me, he said, ‘use the board’.” Thomas glanced at the ouija board hiding beneath egg crates, “He must mean the ouija board."

“Thomas listen to me-“ Mrs. Patmore cut him off, jostling his wrist a little so that his teacup rattled on its saucer. He looked back around to find her beseeching him with common sense he'd never been able to use, “You’ve been through a difficult time and you’re confused. You need to focus on healing yourself, not chasing after specters. D’you understand?” She paused, staring earnestly into his eyes. Thomas wondered what she saw there. “Focus on healing yourself.”

Thomas looked down at his teacup. It was going cold. “Ghosts aren’t real.” She continued on, “But consequences for our actions are. Focus on that.”

 

 

Being a footman again meant that Thomas was constantly fetching and carrying. The work he’d once designated to Andy and Mr. Moseley now belonged predominantly to himself which was fine. Thomas knew how to do it- and probably did it better than either of them. He followed Lady Grantham into the village when she needed someone to carry her packages. He polished silver and stacked linens till his arms were numb. He set meal after meal and served it alongside Andy and Carson. Sometimes Andy needed to help Mr. Mason with the pigs so Thomas did everything by himself. This might have bothered a newcomer but after being a footman for eight years, Thomas knew how to the job relatively well.

He just hated it, was all.

One afternoon, shortly following tea, Thomas was upstairs on the gallery floor taking packages for Lady Grantham to her chambers. It seemed she’d purchased a new hat or something in a gaudy box, and so Thomas had been sent to deliver it while Baxter was out in the village having lunch with Mr. Moseley. As he walked along at a truly dawdling pace, he heard the sound of pattering footsteps followed by a high pitched squeal of “Mr. Bawwow!”

His legs were suddenly attacked from behind by little hands and arms. He looked down, smiling somberly to see George hugging him about the knees. He set down his hat box, reaching around to tousle George's blonde locks with a loving hand.

“You’re bettah-“ George beamed up at him, his little teeth gapped and square.

“Master George.” Thomas squatted down, pulling George close so that George could climb up against his thighs and stomach. It was a game they often played together, where George could do as he wished against Thomas' body like Thomas was his personal gym. By far George's favorite game was Pony, but there were others (such as swing and jump).

“Can I have a piggy back?” George asked. Thomas glanced at the hat box, before promptly pushing it to the side. Responsibilities be damned; George came fist. Thomas grabbed him beneath the arm pits, “Of course you can-“ he said, heaving upward to rise to his feet.

But at he did so, his sutures panged wildly and Thomas had to drop George immediately.

At the age of five, George weighed probably close to forty pounds. Still having difficulty picking up a five pound meat platter, George’s weight was entirely out of the question. It seemed piggy back rides would have to wait, making Thomas feel like a bastard as he observed George’s hurt expression.

“Your hands-!” George's eyes grew wide with horror, and Thomas glanced down to see that the cuffs of his wrists were tinged in red. Eager to keep George from panicking, Thomas quickly let go of George entirely to hide his wrists better beneath the cuffs of his black jacket. “Are you hurt, Mr. Bawwow?” Like all children confronted with a wounded adult no longer in control, George was on the verge of panicking. Eager to sooth his fears, Thomas took George's face in his hands, rubbing the soft skin of his chubby cheeks with roughly padded fingers from a life of hard labor.

“Don’t you fret, Master George.” Thomas assured him softly. At once, George seemed to relax, “I’m just fine.”

“Are you sure?"

“I’m quite sure. But…" Thomas paused for a small smile, “I sure could use some cheering up?”

And he truly could.

George beamed, his grin toothy and perfect as he reached up with both chubby hands to wrap his arms around Thomas’ neck. Thomas engulfed him in a tight hug, smelling the scent of soap and childhood at George’s neck. He pulled back, smiling and at peace as George reached up to touch his his slicked hair.

“Don’t worry.” George assured him, “I’ll always cheer you up. You my best fweind.”

As selfish as it was to gain his comfort from a child who could not understand the weight of caring for a mentally unwell person, Thomas hugged George tightly and sought solace from his words. Downstairs he was ignored and avoided, but with the children he was treated as a dear companion. What more could be asked for? False friendship from adults, or true ones from children? He pulled back again, contenting himself to gaze into George’s eyes. George reached out, tugging at Thomas’ bowtie so that it nearly came undone. He didn’t mind, he could easily put it right. George pulled it off entirely, staring at the loosened tie in his hands as he tried to do the knot again. He ended up more or less making a noose… he’d learn in time.

“George-“

The reproachful voice of Lady Mary ascending the gallery stairs gave Thomas cause to let go of her son at once. He rose to his feet, well aware that his bowtie was still not on his neck and that he would be seen as underdressed. If Carson found out he’d no doubt beat him half to death with his walking cane. Lady Mary reached the top, noting that George was still holding tight to Thomas' knees and was fiddling with his loosened bowtie.

“Are you bothering Mr. Barrow again?” Lady Mary kept that usually look of snide indifference even when speaking to her son, but it softened around the edges and Thomas knew that she adored him more than any other creature on earth (including Henry Talbot). George to her was no doubt the sole reminder of Matthew Crawley in a world that seemed determined to forget him. If Edward had had a son, Thomas would have loved him just as much.

“I was cheering him up, Mama!” George protested with another toothy grin, looking down at his hands to wrap Thomas' bow tie about his fingers.

“And having quite a todo with his tie.” Lady Mary took a few steps forward, reaching down to offer a slim fingered hand to George. At first Thomas thought she meant to pull him away, but instead she took Thomas’ tie from George’s hands and smoothed it out flat in her own.

“We can't have you underdressed.” Lady Mary murmured, “Shall I retie your tie for you, seeing as George was so quick to take it off?”

“I don’t mind, M’lady.” Thomas assured her, “I’ll put it right.”

Lady Mary handed him back his tie; was it Thomas’ imagination or did she look the tiniest bit disappointed as he redid his tie.

“Are you a little cheered, Barrow?” Lady Mary asked, trying to catch his eyes. Years of wearing the servant's blank in her presence made the act almost impossible and Thomas instead stared out across the gallery hall to the high arched window above the stairs filtering in daylight. Slight edges of dust made the rays visible so that as they drifted down they looked like physical beings in the air. As if he could reach out and touch them with his fingertips… though it would involve leaping over the edge.

Now that he thought about it…

“Barrow-?”

Thomas started, looking back around at Lady Mary who instead of being miffed at being ignored instead looked quite worried. At his knees, George watched curious.

“I… I best get on M’lady.” Thomas murmured his apology, “Lady Grantham’s hat has come in.” He bent over to pick the hatbox back up, dusting it a little at the edges. With one hand, Thomas reached down and gently stroked George’s blonde locks. George leaned into the touch affectionately, nuzzling Thomas’ hand. “As soon as my hands are better, I’ll give you pony rides all over the house. I promise.”

“I’ll wait.” George promised him, still holding onto his legs, “You're my favowite.”

Thomas pulled away from George with greatest disappointment, wishing he could stay forever playing in the hallways. But he was a footman, not a nanny, and he couldn't see how he would ever be one in a thousand years of progressive movement. It was a miracle Lady Mary even allowed him to touch her child at all, knowing what he was.

Child Molester.

Pervert.

Degenerate.

Filth.

The marbles bounced and rolled in his head, occupying all conscious thought.
Unknown to Thomas with his back turned, Lady Mary watched him go. In lieu of Barrow, her son took to her legs instead, holding her by the knees so that her plaid pencil skirt was tight to his fingers. Lady Mary gently stroked his hair just as Barrow had done, wondering.

 

The next day, Thomas sat outside at the back area table repairing an antique of Lord Grantham’s: A marine chronometer in a Coromandle wood case. She wasn’t particularly old, being only from 1862, but she was a souvenir of the late Lord Grantham who apparently had had quite a fetish for mariner life. Andy had attempted to care for the chronometer months ago only to be stopped dead by Mr. Carson who wanted to instead send it to London. If Carson at the time had thought him in possession of a heart, he might have let Thomas have a crack at it. Of course, he hadn’t wanted Thomas to feel needed, so Thomas had never known the chronometer was in need of work.

Now of course, things were different. Because apparently Carson was suddenly aware he had a heart.

Bitter, Thomas plucked at the ruined spring which harnessed the balance wheel. Time and changing temperature had ruined her, and it seemed this particular clock had not been infused with bi-metallic strips that ought to have weighed against the center oscillation. Thomas would have to send out an order for an Elinvar strip weight… something to help the spring not go to waste every time the season changed.

Ow! the clock seemed to whimper as Thomas plucked angrily at the ruined spring again, Please don’t hurt me.

“Sorry.” Thomas murmured softly, stroking the spring gently. Rust came off on his fingers. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”

The clock seemed to accept his apology and Thomas continued on.

A crunch of gravel underfoot caused Thomas to pause mid pluck of the spring, looking about to see who it was that wanted to bother him. He half expected Baxter, no doubt coming around to urge him forward with well meant (if not slightly annoying) positivity. Instead it was- shock of all shocks- Lady Mary who looked as snooty as ever as she stepped out the back stoop. Shocked, Thomas rose to his feet at once, abandoning the clock on the table.

“Anna said I might find you out here." Lady Mary explained, gesturing with a hand for Thomas to sit back down at the table. He remained on his feet, knowing full well that Carson would (one again) whack him with his walking cane if he got the chance.

“M’lady.” Thomas wondered what on earth she wanted.

“Please.” Lady Mary kept urging, and in a completely unfamiliar act she took it upon herself to perch on the end of Thomas’ workbench. It was probably so dirty it would leave a stain on her maroon dress. Wary, Thomas slowly sat down.

Jesus Christ I’m siting on the same bench with a lady of the nobility. Thomas dared to glance at Lady Mary out of the corner of his eye.

Should he work on his clock? Should he sit stock still? What did one do with a Lady besides serve her?

Lady Mary seemed to realize Thomas was tense, and gave him her most pleasant of smiles. She reached out, fiddling gently with the broken spring of the chronometer.

“I hope you don’t find it presumptuous of me, to barge in on you when you’re working.”

“I’m hardly troubled, M’lady.” Thomas replied, though this was a bare faced lie and he had a feeling Lady Mary would know it. “Is there something I can help you with?”

Lady Mary said nothing for a moment, and in the long silence that followed Thomas dared to slowly reach out and resume working on the chronometer. Lady Mary watched entranced as Thomas unloaded the balancing wheel from beneath the clock and began to polish it with a damp cloth full of cleaner. He wonder if the smell irritated her nose; he could hardly sense it anymore after years of working on it.

“…I feel we’re in a similar position.” Lady Mary spoke up, causing Thomas to pause mid-pull of a spring, “Is that odd?”

What’s odd is you asking my opinion on anything, Thomas thought bitterly. He dared to glance at her again out of the corner of his eye.

“Given all our differences.” Lady Mary said snootily, gesturing between them, “I still understand the struggle of not being well received.”

“If I’m not liked, it’s my own fault, M’lady.” Thomas shook his head, The balancing wheel was beginning to gleam like fresh brass again.

“Are you feeling any better?” Lady Mary asked, sounding slightly hopeful. If she was aiming for a positive answer she was in for a nasty surprise.

“I’m not allowed to die, but I’m not allowed to live, M’lady.” Thomas muttered, eyes low. His bitterness showed in his voice, hardly tactful in front of a member of the family but he couldn't bloody help it, “What do I do? But simply breath and move my limbs till one day they stop-“ Thomas paused shaking his head again. “One day the numbness that keeps me alive will wear off, and I will die. That’s how I feel, M’lady.” he whispered.

They were officially way outside the lines of acceptable conversation. Should Carson turn up at any point now, Thomas would be given his marching papers and a shoddy reference to match. Lady Mary did not look unnerved, instead she seemed greatly saddened though Thomas couldn't say why. He was a servant to her, nothing more. His pain wasn’t her priority. It wasn’t her anything.

“George was worried about your hands.” Lady Mary said, completely bypassing the original conversation. “Are they healing?”

“…Slowly, M’lady.” Thomas returned to the chronometer, polishing its balancer with care.

“He’ll be happy when you’re well.” Lady Mary’s snooty charm was returning, “He’s utterly enchanted by your games. He even claimed you as his personal pony to papa then other day. It gave us all a laugh.”

At my expense no doubt, Thomas thought irritably as he wiped his hands free of cleaner.

“He’s a charming boy.” Thomas mused, unable to keep from seeing George’s toothy grin in his mind, “An angel-“ but this was overstepping, even for his rare circumstances, and he started at once, dropping his eyes low in an act of submission, “Forgive me that was impertinent.”

“Please.” Lady Mary didn’t seem troubled at all, “I enjoy your friendship with him.”

Given that Lady Mary knew he was a homosexual, it meant more than he could say to have her approval. Lady Mary ran a few strands through her chestnut hair, and though Thomas would never tell her as much he noted a few gray strands near her bobbed bangs. Calling her son an angel was one thing, telling her she was going gray was another. Thomas was certain if he did he’d be out of the house in a heartbeat with a bruise in the shape of a heeled foot on his arse.

“I’m going to York tomorrow for a hair appointment.” Lady Mary said, “I want you to come with me. There’s a pond across from my hair dresser, in a park. Ducks and swans are fed bread crumbs there, it’s quite enchanting. I think George would like it…” Lady Mary twiddled her elegant fingers in her lap, choosing her words carefully, “In lieu of your situation, a day out might do you some good. What do you say?” she proposed, trying to catch his eye again, “Shall you join me on a stroll?”

Thomas set down his cleaning rag, knowing full well he had absolutely no choice, “If that is what your ladyship wishes.”

“It is.” Lady Mary seemed quite pleased by this response, smiling smugly, “I’ll tell Carson.” At this she rose up, dusting off her backside. Yet as she made to head for the back door, their conversation concluded, she paused and turned her heel to look back at him.

Thomas glanced up, in spite of himself. He noticed for the first time just hard Lady Mary’s eyes were. Her smile was smug and her tone often was snooty- but it was her eyes that held the true power. They could cut a man to the bone, he was certain.

“Perhaps we might speak more openly while we’re there.” Lady Mary offered gently, “Less formality and more friendship.”

Thomas sighed, fingers twiddling upon the brilliantly cleaned balancer. He sent her an apologetic look, “If that’s what you seek form me, you may be disappointed M’lady. I don’t know how to be a friend.”

“I think you’ll be surprised, Barrow.” Was Lady Mary’s response. Her smug smile was back.

“M’lady.” Was the only answer he could give. Lady Mary turned to go, exiting through the back door to leave Thomas alone on the area.

Pay attention to me! The clock begged on the table. Thomas glanced down, at once starting on the ruined springs again.

“Yes, alright, alright-“ He grumbled softly.

 

 

 

That night, as Thomas sat in the servants hall with a cold cup of tea before him, he pondered why it was that Lady Mary had deemed him worthy of company. His initial reaction to any kind of kindness was that is was rooted in pity or a need for appreciation. With Lady Mary it wasn’t so easy. She didn’t dwell in pity even for her friends, and she didn’t need anyone’s appreciation. When Lady Mary cut, she cut hard and without mercy. In that, she and Thomas were quite the same. Indeed…. he'd often admired her from afar, or at least her style.

So why was she wasting her time on him?

Anna came into the servant’s hall, looking tuckered out. She took her seat on the side side as Thomas but a chair apart, sighing as she rotated her ankles in her shoes. Thomas did not even look a her, his eyes trained on his cold teacup.

She could be playing an angle, he mused, Maybe she needs my help plotting against someone like last time.

But who?

“Lady Mary said you’re taking her into York tomorrow for her hair appointment.” Anna spoke up, “It’ll be nice to get out.”

There was no reason for Lady Mary to be plotting anymore. Even Lady Edith was beyond her reach, safe in London and mourning the loss of her almost marriage. If Lady Mary was scheming against someone it was an outside party-

“Why don’t you speak to me?" Anna asked, sounding quite disappointed in his clearly rude behavior. When Thomas did not immediately answer her, she leaned in disturbed, “Thomas?”

He looked sharply to his left, glaring at Anna who leaned back in her seat at once. But even as Thomas thought to be rude and vicious, he felt all the energy leave him and he sighed exhausted. Anna seemed to register the fight had left him and she relaxed a little in his seat.

“I don't know." was the only reply he could muster. “I'm tired.”

Anna noted that his tea was completely undrunk and quite cold. She frowned. “Try to speak with others speak to you.” Anna offered, “Even if you're tired, it's only polite.”

“You could do with some manners-“

Bates seemed to have been lurking in the doorway this whole time. With his back to the entrance, Thomas had been unawares. He did not deign to turn around, did not make to answer Bates even as he dared to slowly take the seat one limp at a time. As the legs of the chair drew out from the table, Thomas watched the tea in his cup ripple. Bates sank into his chair with a heavy ‘oomph’, glaring at Thomas all the while.

Absolute silence engulfed the room. They were tense now, Thomas bluffing and Bates biding his time.

 

“Mrs. Patmore said you were going on about ghosts.” Bates sounded more amused that curious. Thomas offered him no reply staring at his cold teacup.

There was no point in attempting to drink it. He wanted a scalding hot one and would have to fetch it from the kitchen.

“How are you carrying things with hurt wrists?” Thomas knew Bates didn’t care. He was just amused and probably bored. Thomas refused to answer at first, rising up and taking his cup of tea with him. As he turned to move towards the kitchen, Anna called out after him.

“If you’re going to be with Lady Mary in York, would you get me a new headband for her hat? It would save me time ordering it.”

Thomas nodded, a small jerk of the head. One errand or twelve it wouldn’t matter. He’d just be mindlessly wandering about York until he found a bridge to jump off of.

“I don't know what I like less.” Bates sneered, just as Thomas crossed the threshold of the servant’s hall. “Him suicidal or him eager to survive.”

“Mr. Bates.” Anna said, soft and only slightly reprimanding. “Nothing ungenerous.”

“It’s only what he deserves.” Bates mused.

Thomas wondered if Bates knew he’d heard. He wondered if Bates even cared.

He headed into kitchen, mindless of where he was going, and nearly bumped into Gertie as she skirted out holding a tray for bearing away vacant drinks. She spotted his teacup, and took it, which was just as well because he was going to drop the cup at this rate. Inside the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore was working at her side table, drinking from a half finished cup of tea and pondering of Lady Grantham's requested dinners for the upcoming week. Daisy was no where about, perhaps already in bed or maybe squirreling about with Andy. In her solitude Mrs. Patmore didn’t look up to the doorway until Thomas’ shadow loomed over her meal plans. She glanced up, and started- she jumped a bit, clutching at her heart.

“Oh, you gave me a fright." She spluttered.

Thomas looked about the room, wondering if he might be able to get a fresh cup of tea from a kettle that was still hot. As he did so, he spotted the ouija board and stared at it longingly wondering if it might be feasible to-

“Oh don’t start.” Mrs. Patmore grumbled, pushing out the chair opposite her, “Sit down.”

Thomas did so, unwilling to put up a fight. Mrs. Patmore rose with a grunt from her own chair, trudging over to the stove and fetched a fresh cup of tea for them both. She retook her seat, passing him his cup, and Thomas drank at once. The sting of the heat soothed him, but could not block out Bates’ voice in his head.

“It's only what he deserves.”

“Not another word about that ruddy board or I’ll have Mrs. Hughes put it up.” Mrs. Patmore warned. Thomas merely took another stinging sip of tea, “Now what are you on about, hmm?” she asked, taking off her glasses to put them in her apron pocket.

Thomas looked down into his tea cup, staring at the rippling image of his own reflection. He wondered what Bates saw when he looked at Thomas. If he saw anything at all, or if Thomas was merely a ghost to him slipping from memory as soon as he was gone from the room.

He wondered if Bates even knew that he had a heart. Even cared.

“Well say something, or I’ll have it out of you-!” Mrs. Patmore warned, her patience running slightly short.

“Bates… thinks I’m heartless.” Thomas spoke up to keep her from ranting at him. Mrs. Patmore paused, momentarily forgoing her teacup to stare at him instead. She looked slightly reproachful, perhaps wishing she hadn’t been so short with him. She glanced down, fiddling with her saucer and cup handle.

“Well, you can hardly blame the poor man can you. You didn’t make it easy for him.” Mrs. Patmore said tersely. Thomas blinked into the reflection of his tea. Was it just his imagination or did he see a shadow behind him?

“It’s only what he deserves.”

Mrs. Patmore sighed heavily before she spoke again; Thomas never lifted his eyes from his teacup. “You’ve made yourself a hole good and proper, but you can always climb out. It just takes one step at a time, and it won’t do you any good to sit like a stump at the bottom. Quit focusing on the problem and start focusing on the solution or you’ll drive yourself batty. You hear?”

Thomas did not answer.

“Do you hear what I’m saying?” Mrs. Patmore did not seem surprised when he remained silent. In an effort to make peace with her desert partner, she pushed a plate of biscuits across to him. “Have a biscuit.” She offered gently.

Thomas took one, bit it in half, and said nothing more.

 

The following day found Thomas leaving Downton shortly after breakfast (in which he ate nothing and instead merely sipped on a cup of tea). Lady Mary called for the chauffeur and waited with George by the front steps. In his tweed had and miniature morning jacket, George was absolutely delighted to be going on an adventure with his two favorite people. Thomas himself wore his dark brown day suit, hair slicked and cuffs hidden beneath the sleeves of his shirt. George held onto both Thomas and his mother’s hand, swinging between them both as he chattered on aimlessly about birds and flowers and how grand life was. Had it been anyone else in the world, Thomas would have wanted to punch them in the throat for their lies. Coming from George, though, Thomas knew it was naivety and innocence at its finest and treasured him.

The car ride to York was incredibly awkward. The chauffeur, like everyone else downstairs, despised Thomas and sat in rigid silence as Thomas occupied the passenger seat. It was difficult to say whether or not he knew that Thomas had attempted suicide; either way he wouldn’t care. He just wanted Thomas out of his car and away from his sites. As they reached York and pulled alongside a stately curbed lined with upper class buildings wreathed in ancient marble, Thomas hopped out of the car just a second before it had officially stopped. He slammed the door in the driver's face with unnecessary force, glaring at him through the foggy glass as he went around back and opened the door for Lady Mary. She gave him a smug grin, stepping out of the car and fixing her scarlet cloche carefully atop her head. George hopped out after her, and Thomas shut the door after them. The chauffeur had stepped out of the car, examining the passenger side door for fingerprints which he quickly polished away by a rag. Clearly Thomas was too filthy to touch his precious car.

“I'll be about an hour.” Lady Mary told the chauffeur, who tipped his hat and at once and made to clamber back into the car. He’d wait there the whole time, Thomas was certain, smoking a cigarette and reading a motor magazine. Thomas had bigger fish to fry, taking George’s hand as he and Lady Mary made their way into a fine fronted shop with wide glass doors and enormous potted ferns. They were well tended to, sporting exotic blooms even though they were clearly not native to England. They were greeted by a young woman at a fine front desk, a receptionist who took Lady Mary’s name and hurried up a set of polished marble stairs to no doubt alert her hairdresser. Lady Mary took off her cloche and hat, handing it to a man servant hung it over his arm. Lady Mary primped her hair, slipping her gloves off of her elegant hands to hand them over as well.

“I’ll be about an hour, Thomas.” She repeated the same message she’d given to the chauffeur. “The lake is across the street if you'd like to take Master George.”

"Anna wanted me to get a hat band, M’lady.” Thomas said. At his knees, George hugged tight to his leg and buried his face in the stiff tweed of Thomas’ trousers. He stroked his fingers absently through George’s hair.

“There’s a shop on the corner she often uses.” Lady Mary replied, reaching into the pocket of her dark red dress to pull forth a small pouch full of rattling money. In that pouch alone was more than Thomas would make in three years, and it irked him. “Here.” She gave him three shillings, which he took. It would be more than enough to cover the hat band. He pocketed the money, bowing his head in submission.

“M’lady.” Thomas said, “Shall I go there first?”

“And then to the park.” Lady Mary agreed, “Pick me up at…” She paused, pulling forth an elegant lady's pocket watch from the same pocket she’d pulled her coin purse. She flicked it open, examining the time, “One.”

“M’lady.” Thomas said in way of parting.

Thomas could not carry George easily. In an effort to keep himself from having to lift George up (adding undue strain on his abused wrists) he had George hope up on a footstool and lifted him from there. George didn’t mind in the slightest, finding it quite an adventure as they left the hair salon and headed up the street towards the glistening hat shop. Now that Thomas looked, all these buildings seemed to be owned by the same fashion company- a mark of Saville Row. Perhaps Lady Mary was a brand enthusiast.

“Did you know butterfwies are called “pappypons” in Fwench?” George babbled, arms linked around Thomas’ neck.

“Is that so?” Thomas mused.

“Fwench is magical.” George declared, giving Thomas a toothy grin, “If you speak Fwench right magical things will happen.”

“Ahh…” Thomas grinned, cocking his eyebrow, “Tu êtes mon papillon.”

“Ah!” George cried out in delight, kicking his little boots into Thomas’ side, “You speak Fwench!”

“I do.” Thomas said, “I’ve even been to France.”

Admittedly it was hell on earth at the time but still- one couldn’t pick and choose their vacations.

“Was it magical?” George asked, eyes wide as saucers at the prospect.

“It was something.” Thomas grimaced, coming upon the hat shop at long last. A few upper class women were musing at hats worth a fortune while their maids tottered behind hold massive amounts of parcels. One poor girl had to push a little cart because her mistress had bought too much for her to feasibly carry. Out front, several footmen were lurking about, smoking cigarettes and reading a scrap of the daily news. Thomas pushed through them, opening the door to step inside.

He passed by a hat glistening in small feathers and sequins, noting its price of fifteen pounds.

“Ce chapeau est trop coûteux.” Thomas mused irritably. George looked on in wonder.

Hat bands were boxed, often coming in sets of five or ten. Thomas wondered if Anna would want more or less, but resigned in the end that it didn’t matter because it was Lady Mary’s money and he had plenty for both. So it was that Thomas picked up a box of ten hat bands and headed to the counter to pay for them. It shocked him that they were a pound.

“What are you getting?” George asked as they waited in line behind a woman buying two identical cloches of deepest purple.

“A hatband for Anna.” Thomas said. They took another step in line.

“Why?”

“Anna needs them for your mother’s hats.”

They purchased the hat bands, and took them in a small paper sack that Thomas could put into his coat pocket. They left the hat shop, and after a moment of waiting for traffic to pause crossed the street to enter a small park centered around a pond. Benches and trails wrapped around its outer edge, giving people a chance to perch for a spell while they waited. Thomas spotted another footman lounging on a bench not too far away, smoking a cigarette and reading a paper. He payed them absolutely no mind; Thomas walked right to the edge of the pond till the toes of his shoes were in danger of becoming muddy. Ducks were swimming in large groups close by, each babbling for a piece of bread. A downtrodden woman selling crumbs for tuppence a bag was offering little paper sacks to upper class women that walked by. Most ignored her, too focused on conversation or eager to get away from her ‘grimy’ hands. Thomas walked over, George on his hip, and offered the woman two tuppence so that they might both have a bag of crumbs. Taking George over to an unused bench, Thomas set him down and helped him to hop off onto the grass. He immediately took off for the edge of the pond, bag of crumbs in hand, and Thomas had to hurry after him.

 

As eager as George was to feed the ducks (and as eager as the ducks were to be fed) George was also nervous about approaching the birds. They were slightly vicious in how they pecked at each other, and were almost as big as him. To make him feel secure Thomas squatted upon his heels and allowed George to stand between his legs. Secure, knowing no ducks could attack him so long as Thomas was near, George threw crumbs at the ducks.

He literally threw them, chucking fistfuls so that the poor ducks got bombarded with food like a war zone might bombs. They squawked and shifted, irritated at being assailed.

Thomas fetched crumbs from his own bag, cupping them into his palm and offering it out to the ducks. They were wary of approaching, but hunger won out over annoyance. Inch by inch they shifted forward, stretching their long necks out to gently nibble and peck at Thomas’ palm. George watched in wonder, growing still as the ducks grew closer and closer.

George reached out with chubby fingers, and at first Thomas thought he might try and touch the ducks but instead George touched the edges of Thomas’ leather cuffs, toying with them.

“What’s wong with your wists?” George asked, curious.

Thomas scattered the rest of the crumbs on the ground crumbling up his paper sack and putting in his pocket next to Anna’s hatbands. Linking his arms around George’s pudgy tummy, Thomas regarded the ducks bickering at their feet for crumbs.

If only it were all this simple: eat crumbs, swim, roost for the night.

 

“I fell down.” Thomas said, wishing it wasn’t a half-lie. If he thought about it metaphorically, it wasn’t a lie at all. He did not want to lie to George… not when he loved him so.

“I fell down once.” George said, “But I didn’t cwy.”

“You’re much braver than I am.” Thomas praised, thinking of how often he’d wept the first two weeks, “I cried.”

Eventually the hour past, and it was time to pick Lady Mary up from her hair appointment. Thomas had to have George step up on the bench again to pick him up, and carried him back across the road to enter the hair salon once more. The receptionist seemed to be waiting for him, and gave him a friendly if business smile to notify him that Lady Mary was done. Thomas could hear her voice at the top of the stairs, chatting amiably with someone that had an obnoxiously French accent. As she came down the stairs, however, Thomas was shocked to see that Lady Mary wasn’t chatting with a stranger at all but someone Thomas knew: a Paul Brickam of Southport who happened to also be-

“M’lady is superb.” Paul said in a fake French accent. Why in the hell was he acting like he was French? Thomas had to control himself lest his jaw drop from the stupidity of it all. Lady Mary’s hair didn’t look much different than before, save that the gray was gone and her ends were neatly trimmed. Thomas kept his eyes locked on Brickham, wondering what the hell was going on.

“Ah, Barrow-“ Lady Mary said, addressing him as she reached the bottom step. Brickham glanced up shocked at the last name, and when he saw Thomas his dark brown eyes widened in reproach. Thomas said nothing to Brickham’s fake French accent, wondering if he had been putting it on for heirs since he had to be a barber to the rich. “Did you enjoy the ducks, Georgie?”

“Mista Bawwow bought a hatband for your hat, mama.” George declared.

“Very good.” Lady Mary said, most satisfied, “Anna will be pleased.”

“He can speak Fwench!” George beamed, arms still locked around Thomas’ neck.

“Can you?” Lady Mary mused, “I wasn’t aware.”

Thomas glanced over Lady Mary’s shoulder at Brickham, “Profiter de votre faux accent.”

“Pensez-vous que vous êtes drôle?” Brickham replied in the most obnoxious French accent one could muster.

Thomas did not so much as bat an eyelash, aligning Brickham to the insufferable Gwen who’d lied to everyone and still gotten away with it for being one of the ‘good’ breed.

“Je pense que je suis honnête.” Thomas warned. He turned, shifting George a little higher onto his aching hip. He heard Brickham make a soft irritable noise upon the stairs but did not so much as give him the time of day. If he wanted to lie and say he was French to make more money, fine. Meanwhile Thomas would have to bandage his wrists and beg for scraps for the rest of his miserable life.

George seemed to sense he was upset and hugged him tighter around the neck. Lady Mary, to her credit, said absolutely nothing though Thomas had a feeling she could at least understand rudimentary French enough to recognize that not all was at it seemed.

“I hope My lady has a most pleasant day.” Brickham said in his ridiculous accent. Lady Mary tipped her red cloche to him.

“Monsieur.”

They left the hair saloon together, stepping out on the pavement only for Lady Mary to turn and eye Thomas with great intruige.

“Heavens, that was scandelous.” She joked.

“His name is Paul Brickham, M’lady.” Thomas warned, causing Mary’s fine eyebrows to arch into her hairline.

“So I presume he’s not French either.” Lady Mary added teasingly.

“He’s from Southport, M’lady. I don’t like you being made a fool of.”

“I see. Well.” Lady Mary huffed, mildly put off, “Every day a new surprise.”

They walked across the street, careful for cars, and made their way back into the park. Lady Mary seemed to want to see the ducks instead of returning to their chauffeur. She perched herself upon a park bench, watching as ducks squabbled over bread and the bird-lady sold her wears. By her side, Thomas continued to hold George and dared not sit.

“Georgie… Why don’t you run and play with the ducks?” Lady Mary offered, “Mr. Barrow and I will watch you.”

George kicked to be let down. Wincing, Thomas had to drop him relatively fast to avoid the pain in his wrists but George didn’t mind. He bounded down the grassy slope, bursting into the ducks and causing a mild panic as they quickly ran away.

“Sit.” Lady Mary offered.

“I dare not, M’lady.” Thomas warned.

“Are you afraid Carson will catch you?” Lady Mary joked.

 

Thomas said nothing, watching George play with the ducks. He knew that Lady Mary wanted to feel they were on equal footing, though for what end-reason he could not gather. Maybe it was in her outlandish nature to want to be on better terms with her staff. Maybe after all her aid to the Bates she was now turning her cold eye upon him.

Maybe she was bored.

Thomas slowly walked around the back end of the bench and sat on the far end so that while they were occupying the same area they could almost have been mistaken for strangers. Lady Mary’s answer to this was to scoot over two paces, now sitting in the smack middle of the bench and nearly letting her knee touch Thomas’ own.

“Lady Edith’s apartment is nearby here or so I’ve been told.” Lady Mary said after a long moment of silence. The wind stirred, causing long willow fronds to blow elegantly in the breeze, “I’ve never seen it.”

Thomas presumed this was why he was here. To talk to Lady Mary outside of Downton’s restrictions in an area of mutual respect. Thomas carefully watched George pull up bits of grass; he chucked them at the ducks, determined to ‘feed’ them even without bread crumbs.

“Would you like to see it, M’lady?” Thomas asked.

“I would.” Lady Mary seemed surprised by her own answer, arching another eyebrow. “Michael Gregson was well known to the artist community. Apparently she met Virginia Wolfe.”

Thomas wondered what that might have been like. If Wolfe was as eccentric as the papers said or merely misunderstood.

They were quiet again for a long time, with Thomas taking no liberties and Lady Mary making no sudden moves. George had now found a collection of pebbles and was beginning to toss them (though thankfully not at the ducks). With each ‘plonk’ into the water, a tiny ripple and splash occurred.

“So.” Lady Mary paused, “Who is your Lady Edith?”

Thomas gave her a wary side glance, unwilling to take his eye off of George for long. He had a feeling he knew what she meant.

“You mean to say, who do I argue with, M’lady?” Thomas asked softly.

“Who do you plot against?” Lady Mary corrected him with a terse smile, “Don’t think me above it-“ she warned at his wary stare, “As Lady Edith once said to me, I’m a ‘jealous scheming, conniving bitch’.”

It was a shock to hear Lady Mary curse, and even more so to hear Lady Mary down talk herself. She was notoriously vain, able to back her own corner when even Thomas might conceded defeat. He would have been remiss to not notice the bitter tone in her voice- the way she did not seem to deny Lady Edith’s plight.

But Thomas knew what it felt like to be the unpopular one; to be considered foul when you weren’t… he suddenly began to understand why Lady Mary wanted him to come today- to talk to him.

She hadn’t been kidding when she’d thought them alike.

“You’re none of those things… M’lady.” Thomas added the term quickly to register the distance between them. Lady Mary glanced at him, her expression softening into something akin to gentle liking. He’d rarely seen it grace her face.

“I’ve often wondered if I am.” She admitted, picking at a spot on the cuff of her coat where a spare thread hung, “Matthew believed me about it all… but now a days I’m unsure.”

“You ought to remember Mr. Matthew’s words.” Thomas offered, turning back to watch George ferret around at the edge of the bond near a thick clump of waist high weeds. “He knew you best.”

“So who is your Lady Edith?” Lady Mary tried to turn the conversation back around, perhaps un eager to discuss her life with Matthew when she was newly married and trying to move on, “Or will you not tell me.”

“… I suppose everyone.” Thomas admittedly bitterly, “Most of all Mr. Bates.” Thomas tried his hardest not to spit the name.

“Would it surprise you if I said that it didn’t surprise me?” Lady Mary mused. Thomas shrugged.

“You’re hardly the type to be deceived, M’lady.” Thomas was still having a hard time getting the bitterness out of his voice. George was now squatting amid the reeds. If he didn’t watch out he’d get mud on his trousers.

“Neither are you.” Lady Mary added. Thomas wished he could right her incorrect assumption. The bitter fact of the matter was that he’d been tricked many a time in his life- worst of all by people he loved.

The wind blew again, this time lifting the willow fronds up more. Lady Mary touched her cloche to keep it securely upon her head. Thomas’ coat collar ruffled around his neck. He allowed his eyes to carry all around the pond, watching rich women walk with their beaus or footman smoke on benches. It was by mere happenstance that he saw a familiar face across the pond, pondering underneath a shifting willow tree. Thomas did not even gasp at the shocking sight of Edward, eyes resting and curly hair blowing in the wind. He wore his army uniform, somehow enjoying his moment of peace even when at attention.

“… I think I died.”

The words fell from his mouth without warning, and hung in the air dangerous to acknowledge. Lady Mary paused, slowly dropping her hand from her cloche when it was safe. She stared at Thomas, unsure of what to say.

“In the bathtub.” Thomas carried on, for explanation, “I was touched by someone I knew in life. Someone I loved who committed suicide too. He touched me, called me ‘My darling’… I think he’s haunting me now.” Thomas admitted, “I see him everywhere.”

“He’s right across the pond” Thomas so badly wanted to say. Instead he sat quiet.

“… You astound me.” Lady Mary said, not unkindly, “Have you told anyone else about this?”

“Mrs. Patmore.” Thomas admitted, “She thinks I’m barmy.” But then he realized that he hadn’t said ‘M’lady” and he was growing close to impertinence. “I’m sorry m’lady.” He blustered, “Forgive my impertinence.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Lady Mary snorted at the mere idea, “If anyone has known pain, it’s you.”

They did not talk more on the subject of Thomas possibly being haunted. Perhaps Lady Mary, as a member of the upper class, could not openly discuss grief or death with anyone. Even below stairs it was difficult to talk as Thomas did; maybe that was why he put so many people off. After a moment of due pause in which George fished around in the reeds for something neither Lady Mary nor Thomas could see, Lady Mary spoke up again on a decidedly different subject.

“When I wed Mr. Talbot, Lady Edith surprised us all by coming back from London.” Lady Mary said. She tilted her head to the side, dark brown fringe falling about, “She told me that our shared memories would outstrip our shared bitterness. That for better or worse, we were sisters. I suppose you and Mr. Bates cannot claim the same to your own bond.”

No, they could not. Thomas didn’t even think they had a bond.

George had found something. He came scampering back from the reeds, clutching something between his hands with a delighted grin upon his face. He flew up the hill, cupped hands outstretched.

“Mama!” He cried, “Mista Bawwow!”

Both Lady Mary and Thomas were pulled from their bitter reverie, each smiling to George so that he could not discern their sadness. George thrust his hands out to Thomas, opening them to reveal a duck egg clumped slightly with feathers. He’d no doubt pulled it from a nest and a likened it to buried treasure.

“Oh my goodness!” Thomas blurted out, “Where did you find this?”

“In the nest-“ George pointed back to the reeds in which he’d been searching.

How to instill in a child the virtue of caring for unborn life? Thomas brought up the egg so that George could see it at eye level- such a strange little object. How could he best explain?

“This is very precious, Master George.” Thomas urged, “This is a baby duck that’s not yet born.” He decided to let the facts speak for themselves and held up the egg to George’s ear. George waited in bracing anticipation, mouth opened to a small ‘o’.

“Can you hear it?” Thomas whispered. Lady Mary leaned in, intruiged.

George gasped, jerking back from the egg to gaze up in Thomas and Lady Mary in astounding wonder.

“Mama it peeped!” George cried out.

“Really?” Lady Mary relaxed upon the bench, that smug grin forming upon her face. Thomas realized now it was a lazy grin of satisfaction, not of cruelty, and decided he would never judge it for her again. Indeed, he rather liked it. It reminded him of a smile he used to wear himself when all was right in the world.

Thomas smiled at Lady Mary, or at least, he tried to. She caught him and returned his affection. For a moment they simply locked eyes, worlds away and yet side by side on a park bench.

In bizarre offering, Thomas lifted up the egg for her to hear. She slowly leaned in, eyes locked upon his and never shifting. He felt the shell of her ear beneath his fingers, the soft strands of her recently shampooed hair. Her smirk only widened after a moment and she pulled back.

“You’d best put it back so it can hatch, Georgie.” Lady Mary urged.

“I’ll put it back.” Thomas decided, rising up from the bench and crossing the short distance to the reeds to squat down and fish through their tall fronds. There, amid the mud, he saw a small nest full of eggs shaped rather like a donut. It seemed George had pulled it out from the center. Thomas gently sat the egg back inside, and rose up to dust his hands on his trousers. He returned to George, who’d clambered up on the bench to sit in Thomas’ old spot. Dropping to his knees again, Thomas fished out his handkerchief and carefully cleaned George’s fingers of mud and pond scum.

“Will the duck think I’m its mama?” George asked, sounding decidedly worried at the prospect of being a parent while still five.

“Not if we leave quickly.” Lady Mary assured him, “Come along, Barrow.” Lady Mary said, and Thomas straightened up to put back his handkerchief and take George’s hand. To his surprise, Lady Mary took his other so that George was happy as a picked peach between them. “We have a ride to catch.”

 

The ride back home to Downton was just as quiet as the ride up, but Thomas found himself thinking more and more of using a ouija board to contact Edward and therefor did not pay attention to the scathing chauffeur. He supposed it would be easy enough to use it, after all he’d done it before. What would require diligence was not becoming obsessed with hope… with maintaining a sense of realism that just because Edward had talked to him in the realm between life and death did not mean that Edward would be able to communicate with him. Still… Thomas knew he had to try.

He returned home to find Downton unchanged, though Anna was mildly pleased to receive ten hat bands. She accepted them, put them in her purse, and said no more. Favors did not garner respect in the house. That night, at dinner, Thomas did not eat. He sat and stared at his plate of bubble and squeak, wondering at the feasibility of using a ouija board for a method of contact. Part of him still wanted to simply fling himself into oblivion…. but he doubted he’d be able to while under the roof of Downton Abbey. Someone would always whip around and yank him back.

When Mrs. Patmore tried to get him to come into the kitchen, Thomas declined and instead went upstairs to bed. He lay there, awake in the dark and wondered…

My darling… Edward whispered, a shadow shifting from corner to corner in his room, My darling, my darling, my darling.

The next day, Thomas spent most of his time downstairs doing errands for Mrs. Hughes. She’d gotten in another shipment of linens and Andy was at the farm helping Mr. Mason pulled a boar off a sow. Thomas ferried in box after box of new linens, ripping off the top of the crates so that maids could take out the new sheets between thick pieces of brown wrapping paper. When they were ready to filled again, in went the old sheets to good will and Thomas had to hammer back on the lids before ferrying the crates out to the car. He did it all in silence, finding the work numbing. Each time he passed a dark spot in the hallway, he waited just a second for Edward to appear.

But no one was there.

In a moment of downtime, Thomas sat at the table with a cup of tea before him. He sipped slowly from it, noting Mrs. Patmore had tried to slip him several biscuits with his tea. He sat them upon his saucer and slid it out to the middle of the table knowing someone would be bound to eat it eventually- probably Peter the lone hall boy.

His silence was only broken by Bates, who came into the room to sit down in the arm chair by the fire. He said nothing to Thomas, not even acknowledging him as he picked up a newspaper and opened it wide to read the latest column. Thomas watched him, wondering.

When he thought about it, Bates (like William) had grown on him in the end. There were times when he could be absolutely infuriating (mostly all the time) but Thomas no longer had the scathing desire to be his enemy. He didn’t want to be his friend- at least… Thomas didn’t think so.

Maybe he did.

Bates glanced up, noticing Thomas staring at him. He rolled his eyes, returning his gaze to his paper.

“What.” Bates sneered without looking up from the paper, “More complaining? I’d have thought you were tired of it by now.”

Thomas didn’t say anything, finding his tongue relatively mute when Bates was rude to him. He supposed in a detrimental sort of way, it was just deserts. he’d been cruel to Bates, now Bates was going to be cruel to him.

But Bates glanced up from his paper again, and this time he seemed reproachful in an ugly sort of way.

“What is it.” Bates muttered, still not truly caring.

“… Lady Mary and Lady Edith….” Thomas didn’t quite know what to say now. “Made peace.”

“Good.” Bates muttered behind his paper.

“I don’t….” But Thomas broke off again. How could he voice the need inside him without being shot down? He didn’t even know what the need was himself.

Bates slowly looked up from his paper, glaring warily at Thomas. Cowed, Thomas sat silent and pushed way his tea cup.

 

A pattering of feet upon the floor.

Without warning, George came running into the servant’s hall panting with blonde hair all askew.

“Mista Bawwow!” He cried out, skittering around the side of the table to pull frantically upon Thomas’ sleeve. Thomas jumped, jerking up from his chair immediatly to take George in his arms. He seemed to be sweating profusely as if he’d run for quite a while.

“Come quick!” George begged, “Come quick! She’s done a bunk!”

“What’s going on?” Thomas demanded, running his hands quickly through George’s sweat slicked hair. “What happened?”

Bates rose out of his chair, hobbling around the side of the table disturbed. George was still panting, looking up at Thomas with wide fearful eyes. Thomas’ brain was going through a reel of panic at this point, one probable disaster after another dancing in his brain.

“Nanny took the jewels!” George wailed, seemingly quite frightened at being betrayed by an adult in whom he’d put trust. “She said if I told she’d beat me!”

“What?!” Mr. Bates demanded, thunderstruck.

“She took the jewels and told me not to tell!” George repeated.

“When?” Mr. Bates demanded, unable to stoop over with his bad leg. He put a heavy hand upon George’s petite shoulder, trying to turn him away from Thomas’ stomach though George refused to budge, “Master George it’s very important that you tell us quickly.”

“Just now!” George’s voice was weak and small. “I ran.”

Thomas thought fast, his brain boiling over with anger at the thought of George being threatened by the Nanny. He knew her only in passing, a squat pudgy woman with curly iron gray hair. Thomas knew she wouldn’t be able to get far unless she had the head start. He was faster than her, in better shape- he could beat her to the punch and take back the jewels!

“Stay here!” Thomas commanded of George, detracting George’s arms from around his waist to step around the servant’s table and make a bee line for the door.

“Tell Mr. Carson!” Thomas shouted over his shoulder to Mr. Bates.

 

He took off

After four weeks of living in state of rigor mortis, Thomas’ body was full of pent up energy desperate to get out. He couldn’t run from Downton, couldn’t run from suicidal impulses or death itself- but he could run after someone it seemed. If that person had to be the nanny then so bloody be it. He was almost compelled at this point to do something or die trying.

Thomas charged up the servant’s stairs, hitting the main floor and bursting through the green door into the entry hall with such a fever that one might think there was another house fire occurring. He nearly knocked over a maid in his haze, passing right by Baxter coming down the stairs who cried out his name to his retreating back. Thomas could spare her no mind in the moment, could think only of his goal: the Earl’s bedroom. Yet as he reached the landing of the gallery floor, legs and lungs burning, he was greeted by the sight of Sybbie clutching her doll pointing down the hallway towards Lord Grantham’s bedroom.

“Mister Barrow!” She cried out, “She took the jewels!”
So it seemed Sybbie had been threatened too.

“Show me!” Thomas commanded. Sybbie needed no further prompting, trusting him implicitly as she ran to the ajar door and pulled it open wide. Infuriated, Thomas burst through, eyes peeled for signs of theft, but he needn’t look far. A fine Anglo-indian carved sandalwood jewelry box sat askew upon Lady Grantham’s vanity dresser. Sybbie clutched her doll at the door, frightened to say any more lest she be punished by her errant nanny. Thomas flipped open the top of the jewelry box, jaw clenching instinctively when he saw that the sapphire necklace and earring set made for Lady Grantham’s countess position was gone from its blue velvet holster. In its place lay only a small hand written note with three words: Up the Workers.

Furious, Thomas spun on the spot and ran back through the door leaving Sybbie behind. Baxter was coming up the hall, Branson right behind her- for whatever reason both of them looked panicked when they saw him and tried to grab him as he passed. Thomas jerked clean out of both their arms, determined to head the Nanny off before she could get out of Downton.

“Thomas!” Branson shouted after him, angry. Thomas paid him no mind, taking the stairs two at a time and bursting past Mr. Carson who was coming up the stairs in a rush.

Thomas hit the entrance hall, skidding slightly upon the carpeted floor as he took off for the front doors. They were mercifully ajar, saving Thomas the time of pushing them open as he sprang out into the soft late summer air. At the far edge of the property, where grass was overtaken by manicured wood, Thomas saw the figure of a woman cloaked and carrying a valise slipping into the brambles.

Clearly someone had a death wish.

Thomas had forgotten just how fast he could run (perhaps spurned on by the fact that he could not outrun his own situation and hadn’t smoked a single cigarette in three weeks); gravel flew up around his feet as he charged from stone, to grass, to woods. The Nanny would be mowed over if she didn’t pick up the pace, but as Thomas entered the woods the gloom caused him to fall up- which way had she gone? Thomas just kept going straight forward, praying he would either see her or catch sight of a trail. Fallen limbs underfoot and hidden potholes made his going stiff- but his speed was still surely much faster than anything the Nanny could put up.

He hit a stream, the water freezing and going up to his knees as he jumped in. On the other side, climbing up the bank, Thomas saw slippery imprints of shoddy feet- it seemed the Nanny had come this way too.

Spurned on and newly determined, Thomas forced himself through the river and up to the other side. His trouser legs were soaked nearly to the calve; his shoes full of water as he clambered up onto the bank. Hands now covered in mud, Thomas just kept charging on through the woods. He had no idea what would await him on the other side- where he even was as he came to an odd clearing devoid of trees or limbs. It seemed that at some point a hunter or gamekeeper had put up a very small cabin- barely even big enough to house a bed and resting on a foundation of stacked river stones. The door was ajar, revealing gloom within, and Thomas immediately flew inside-

To promptly trip over a crate and fall with a crash to the floor.

For a moment Thomas was completely knocked out of his senses, stars bursting before his eyes and breath jarred from his lungs. He lay there, gasping for breath as his head spun- he scrambled against the ground, coughing desperately for air in the dark. He gazed about, eyes adjusting to the gloom within, and saw that the shack was merely a storage unit for rusted gaming equipment that was surely useless now. A few crates, rotten and empty, were scattered about the floor- it seemed Thomas had tripped on one as he came in.

Something on the floor caught his eye, distinctly different in shape and texture than the sooty wood on which it lay. It was so grimy Thomas couldn’t tell what it honestly was- he picked it up and felt it to discover it was a turquoise ring. Wiping it free, he gazed amazed at its light blue stones, all perched in a neat little row across the top of the golden band.

He knew this ring. He’d seen Lady Grantham wear it countless times. It seemed the nanny had stolen more than just her countess set. Coughing, Thomas rose to his feet and slipped Lady Grantham’s ring into his pocket. He was absolutely filthy, his footman’s uniform torn at the cuff of his trousers. Mr. Carson would be furious when he saw. Bitter at the fate he knew awaited him, Thomas trudged from the tiny shed and stumbled back across the stream. The freezing water made his toes turn numb and halfway across he slipped to fall in on his side. Now his whole trousers were soaked to the skin; he was pretty certain his dick had shrunk an inch from the freezing water. Cursing, Thomas shivered in the water, hands bracing his sides and water rushing past his waist and elbows.

He found himself looking up, looking out, following the stream in its course as it wound and turned around the bend about a thousand yards downwind. The sun was beginning to set, turning the sky a burning orange. Thomas squeezed his fingers in the mud, realizing that there were tiny pebbles in his hands. He felt them, washing silt away in the churning current as he fingered the pebbles.

“Thomas.”

Thomas jerked his head to the left, shocked that someone had found him so far into the woods; his heart skipped a beat when he realized it was only the ghost of Edward. He stood on the far bank, hand outstretched, urging him to get out of the river.

“C’mon.” Edward urged, “You’re not a fish.”

Touché.

Thomas rose from the river, water dripping down his thighs and forearms. He trudged across the stream, shivering, and made his way onto the bank, fishing for Edward’s hand to grab. He met only air, and glanced up-

He was alone.

Thomas suddenly felt incredibly tired, exhausted even, and as he stumbled back onto the bank he wondered would it be such a crime to sit down and nap-

But he really needed to get that ring back to Lady Grantham.

Trudging out of the woods surely took an hour, or so it felt to Thomas. By the time he’d made his way out of the woods and back onto the lawn of Downton, the sun was well and truly setting with the sky a deep crimson. Crickets were serenading, making music for his walking as he finished his long trek back to the house. There were police cars out front, four in all as Thomas counted. He wondered if one was for him, to whisk him away to a mental asylum for chasing after a nanny through the woods.

Without thinking, Thomas entered through the front door fingering Lady Grantham’s ring in his pocket. He found entrance hall full with servants, each of whom seemed determined to listen in at the library door. Bates was there with Anna, accompanied by Baxter who looked a nervous wreck with cold sweat dripping down her temple no doubt from fear. Mrs. Hughes was with them all, attempting to gain some order though she kept slipping. When she turned and saw Thomas she was flabbergasted, gaping in astonishment at the state of Thomas- dripping and covered in mud and leaves, close to ruining the carpet under foot. Baxter looked around, saw him, and promptly dashed across the entrance hall to take him in her arms.

He was going to ruin her dress if she didn’t watch out.

“Thomas!” Baxter ran her hands over his face; when she pulled them back Thomas saw her fingertips were covered in black soot, “Did you get her?”

Thomas shook his head, bitter. Baxter fretted even more, rubbing her fingertips together in worry. Over her shoulder Thomas saw Bates do a double take at the site of him- he looked downright disturbed.

“You look horrible!” Baxter worried, running her hands over his ruined livery dripping with scum and river water, “Did you fall?”

But this was irrelevant. He had a ring in his pocket he needed to give back.

He stepped past Baxter, running a hand down her arm as he went so that as their fingers interlocked. He pulled away, walking across the entrance hall towards the library door which was slightly ajar. As he passed Anna, Mrs. Hughes attempted to stop him.

“Thomas- best not go in just now-“ Mrs. Hughes urged.

Thomas pulled out of her grip, grabbing the library door handle. Bates took him by the elbow-

“Don’t touch me!” Thomas barked, far too loudly for indoor tastes. Bates did not jump, but his eyes widened slightly as he slowly let his hand slip from Thomas’ dripping elbow.

Thomas didn’t know why, but the fact that Bates had thought to hold him back physically disturbed him- disgusted him.

“Do not ever touch me.” Thomas repeated, though Bates was hardly touching him now. Thomas could not begin to verbalize how disturbed it made him feel. To be touched by Bates physically for the first time in what was surely ten years- the last time Bates had touched him he’d slammed him into a wall.

Thomas took the library doorknob in hand for a second time, and pushed without further interruption.

“Thomas-“ Mrs. Hughes prostrated weakly, “You look a wreck, you mustn’t let the family see-“

Thomas did not care.

He entered the library to find it crammed with people. There, clustered around their fine couches, were the Grantham family being tended to by Mr. Carson who looked absolutely scandalized when he saw Thomas dripping in the doorway. The police were there as well, all eight of them, and were questioning both Lady Grantham and (for whatever reason) Tom Branson. Both of them looked mildly alarmed at Thomas’ state, so much so that all conversation dwindled to a dead halt as every present member of the family turned to look. The Dowager was even among them, rattled in a dress of light purple. She glared at him, her eye twitching feverishly at the sight of his state.

“Barrow!” Lord Grantham was the one to acknowledge him, “Did you find her?”

Thomas bowed his head, fishing in his pocket for the Lady Grantham’s ring. As he pulled it out, he walked over with a soft , “M’lord”. Carson made to intercept him, ready to wring his neck, but Lady Grantham got to him first with brown eyes lighting up- it was incredible how truly distressed she looked.

“Oh my goodness-!” Lady Grantham gasped at the sight of the ring in Thomas’ outstretched palm, “Where did you find this?”

She rose from the couch where she’d sat being comforted by Lady Mary and Branson. Crossing the way, she took the ring from Thomas, holding it up to the light so that its turquoise stones glittered in the growing firelight.

“There is a shed in the woods.” Thomas mumbled, unsure of how to best explain all he’d seen and down, “Past the river… I found it on the floor, M’lady.”

“Thank you, Thomas.” Lady Grantham gushed, and though the ring was still filthy from misuse Lady Grantham slipped it upon her wrinkled finger with a watery smile. Thomas was shocked to see actual tears in the corners of her eyes. “This ring belonged to my great grandmother. It’s more precious to me than any sapphire.”

“Good man!” Lord Grantham was chuffed, no longer displeased with Thomas’ state. He gazed at Thomas with the same weird displace pride that he’d once used when Thomas scored high at cricket or supposedly made to find Isis in the woods. Isis was long gone now, her replacement Tiaa chewing on a rubber toy in her basket before the fireplace.

There is no way in hell I’m locking you up in a shed, Thomas thought as he stared at the animated puppy, You’d get out in five seconds.

“Could you show us this shed, Mr….?” A policeman spoke up, notepad in hand. It took Thomas a second to realize he was actually speaking to Sergeant Willas, the same man who had so hounded the Bates.

“Barrow.” Said Carson, Lord Grantham, and Thomas at the same time. Thomas blinked, taken aback.

“Mr. Barrow.” Sergeant Willas offered apologetically.

“Yes.” Thomas agreed; it shouldn’t be too hard to find the shed again after all. His livery was already ruined, what harm would it do?

“Very good.” Sergeant Willas agreed, scribbling the detail down in his notepad.

“This is quite a haul to make off with.” A policeman to Sergeant Willas’ right said. Sergeant Willas did not make reply too busy writing. Lord Grantham gently jerked his head, eyes drifting to the library door. Thomas knew he’d overstayed his welcome, looking akin to a swamp monster and no doubt dripping all over the carpet.

“M’lord.” Thomas bowed his head. He turned to go, but unfortunately for him was followed out by an irate Mr. Carson who looked ready to make good on his earlier threat of horse whipping Thomas for merely existing. They both exited the library together, entering back into the waiting throng of Mrs. Hughes, Baxter, Bates, and Anna. Mr. Carson shut the door, steaming, and before Thomas knew what was happening he’d been snagged by the elbow again to be drug back out into the entrance hall. Thomas fought the entire time, Carson’s grip bruising his soaking skin-

He jerked hard, surprising both Carson and himself in his strength.

“Stop-“ Thomas struggled, “Stop it!” He shouted it practically at the top of his lungs, finally jerking free of Carson’s grip to stumble several steps back. He nearly mowed over Baxter who’d been following them towards the green baize door of the servant’s stairwell. Carson looked scandalized, speaking at the same time as Thomas.

“Lower your voice-!”

“Don’t ever touch me!” Thomas yelped, talking right over Carson, “You never touched me before, you will not touch me now! You are not allowed to touch me!” He spat in a rush, surprising even himself in his venom.

Carson stared, taken aback.

“I beg your pardon?” Carson sneered, “I’ll do with you as I please to uphold the honor of the family and keep the carpet clean!” he added with a haughty snap.

Once again, Thomas talked over the end of Carson’s sentence, “No!”

It empowered him, gave him a moment of peace amid the rolling marbles. If he said ‘no’ he was still in control. So he said it several times, “No, no, no!” he spat at Mr. Carson’s face which was slowly turning the color of a beet.

“You are wandering dangerously close to the window!” Carson warned him in a growling voice, “I suggest you remember yourself even in your filthy state-“

Thomas did not know if Carson was talking about his physical filth, or the filth he perceived on his soul. It did not matter.

“Mr. Carson-“ Mrs. Hughes interjected, coming up behind Thomas to take his other side. Thomas had not realized it, desperate and on the verge of having a mental collapse, but Baxter was at his elbow… touching him.

He could not find it in him to tell her no. To tell her to stop. He noticed Bates watching her fingers warily, as if wondering how long it would take for Thomas to yell at her too. But Thomas could never yell at Baxter, not when she’d held and sung him to sleep- not when she’d fed him with a spoon and held him as he vomited. In a way, though he knew it was wrong, he was beginning to look at Baxter as a cross between an older sister and a mother.

But Thomas’ older sister Margret had never liked him much… and his mother had forgotten him in her prayers before he’d even grow into his trousers. So she was unlike either of them in the end.

Carson was coming back to himself, running a hand through his thinning gray hair. The color of his complexion was returning to normal, though he was still scowling heavily.

“What happened to you?” Carson demanded, gesturing to his ruined livery with a jerk of the hand. “You frightened the children.”

Thomas could not find it in him to make reply. Instead he looked down at his hands which were covered in mud. He rubbed his fingers together, noting that his leather glove was surely ruined. His wrist cuffs were beginning to chafe.

“Answer me!” Carson snapped, “Answer me or by god I will horsewhip you!”

“Mr. Carson.” Mrs. Hughes beseeched him again. “He’s had a trying day-“

“We’ve all had a trying day.” Carson interjected, steam rolling over his wife’s plea for peace, “I will not allow him to continue making excuses for insubordination. The family deserves better… both families.”

And Thomas knew the other family referred to the downstair’s family. The family he’d never be a part of. The family that hated him the most. That loathed him.

Exhausted, feeling like he might break down and start screaming upon the carpet at any moment should he stay, Thomas stumbled from the green baize door. He passed right by Mr. Carson who was beginning to fume again, slipping from Baxter’s itching fingertips.

He made it to the door without interjection, though when he pulled it open-

“I warn you!” Carson snapped, “I’d throw you out on your backside if I didn’t think I’d be responsible for your sorry death- you’d be in a ditch already if it weren’t for my kindness-!”

And Thomas knew it to be true. He allowed the green baize door to shut behind his retreating back. When it closed, his expression crumpled.

He returned upstairs, shedding his livery to take a sponge bath. He still could not stand to look at the bath tub and so (as he’d done for four weeks now) bathed instead with a sponge by the sink in the men’s lavatory. Inch by inch, his skin was wiped clean of mud. His hair was the hardest part, forcing him to bend halfway over in order to get all the filth out. As he rose again, he stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His expression was grim, haunted, barren of hope. He looked a million miles away from the smug sly young man that had once prowled the downstair’s corridors like a hungry panther.

He reached, touching his reflection. Somehow he thought his hand would be able to sink right through the looking glass so that he’d be able to touch his corpse image… and sooth himself. Stroke his cheek as he so longed for someone to do.

But all he felt was cold hard glass beneath his fingers, and his hand slid from the mirror to plop back down in the sink.

Thomas sat in his room for a solid two hours, taking his time as he stitched up the tears in his dirtied livery pants and vest. As he went, he washed, doing a maid’s job in the men’s lavatory sink to wring out his clothes and place them over a clothe’s horse. They desperately needed scrubbing soaps- water was too soft on the stains. Knowing that he would have to go downstairs, in order to fetch it, Thomas resigned himself to more verbal abuse as he redressed in another set of black trousers and shirt sleeves. He had a spare footman’s vest and put it on, knowing he’d have to be careful not to get any stains on it until his other one dried. Re-combing his hair, Thomas tied up his shoe laces and rose from his desk chair to head back downstairs. Even from the second landing he could hear wild animated chatter from the servant’s hall, and as he reached the bottom the arguing was almost numbing to listen to. He headed for the linen pantry and rustled through it as he listened to the hubbub drifting in from the servant’s hall.

“I can’t believe she did such a disgraceful thing!” Anna was saying in a scathing tone.

“His Lordship is furious.” Bates added, “Those sapphires were part of the Countess set. They’re worth a small fortune.”

Thomas found some spare soap chips hiding in a dusty box near the back of the ointment’s cupboard and pulled it free to dust it off. He took a few, sticking them in his pocket.. It shouldn’t take much to care for his trousers and vest. He’d need bleach for his shirt sleeves unfortunately. Maybe it would be better just to let the maids have at it. He sighed, exhausted, and rubbed his eyebrows. He noticed a faint rose scent clinging to his fingertips, and curiously withdrew the soap chips from his pocket to bring them to his nose. He sniffed, admiring their floral scent-

“Thomas-!”

Thomas nearly jumped out of his skin as pale hands suddenly shot out of the corner of his vision to grab at his hands and pull them away from his nose. He looked around, disturbed, to see Baxter absolutely frightened.

He huffed, dropping his arms in her grip. Baxter seemed to realize he hadn’t been about to eat the soap; her expression grew reproachful.

“I’m sorry.” She murmured, letting go of Thomas’ hands. “I only thought-“

“I know what you thought.” Thomas grumbled, putting the soap box back in the ointment cabinet. He shut the door, resolved to let the maids have at his ruined uniform. He was too tired to handle it tonight. Baxter tried for a tiny smile but failed, looking miserable as she bowed her head.

“We’re having tea.” Baxter said, “Why not join us?”

“Because they hate me.” Thomas supplied, the honest to god truth. Baxter did not deign his acerbic comment worthy of reply, instead taking his hand to pull him from the linen pantry back into the hallway. The pair of them made their way into the servant’s hall, though as they reached the threshold they let go of each other’s hands. Thomas wasn’t surprised to find the room packed save for Andy who was of course upstairs serving dinner with Mr. Carson. Thomas himself had missed the adventure, hiding in his room. As everyone turned to regard him, Thomas could not help but notice the disgust on some of the maid’s faces. How Daisy looked very irritable and did not pour him a cup of tea. Bates said nothing, sipping calmly on his own.

Baxter retook her seat, looking around to see if Thomas would do the same. He remained standing in the doorway as Daisy continue to pour cups of tea from a steaming kettle. He searched each shadow of the servant’s hall for a sight of Edward… but he was alone yet again.

“Taking the night off, Thomas?” Bates sneered from his seat, “Or did you forget you’re first footman now?”

“He had a trying afternoon.” Baxter offered, “Mr. Carson didn’t want him serving if he looked a wreck-“

“He looks cleaned up well enough to me.” Bates said, giving Thomas a scathing look from his seat, “He probably didn’t want to do the extra w-“

“Her ladyship was so relieved you found that ring, Mr. Barrow.” Baxter spoke over Mr. Bates so that he glared at her dully though he did not make to finish his bitter remark, “Thank you for acting so bravely and going after her.”

Before anyone could reject this notion that Thomas was ‘brave’, the sound of footsteps upon the stone floor flagged the arrival of Joseph Moseley. Dressed in a day suit and looking quite happy, he raised his hand merrily at the warm welcome he received as all looked around with wide smiles. All except Thomas.

“Mr. Moseley!” Daisy beamed, delighted, “I’ll fetch you a cup of tea!”

“Is it true?” Moseley asked as Bates drew out a chair for him at the table. He sat down with silent thanks, “I just came up from the pub in the village; it’s the talk of the town.”

“I’m afraid it is.” Bates said wearily, taking the cup of tea Daisy poured for Moseley and offering it to him. Once again he bobbed his head in silent thanks. He offered Baxter a chummy smile that Baxter replied to in kind.

“How much did she make off with?” Moseley asked, slightly nervous as he addressed Baxter for the first time.

Baxter opened and closed her mouth several times; nothing came out.

“A sapphire necklace.” Anna spoke up where Baxter failed so that Moseley swiveled around in his seat to address Anna instead. “And matching earrings… the witch.” Anna added nastily.

“You worked so fast, Thomas.” Baxter spoke up, her voice trembling. Thomas knew why she was so rattled; the situation with the nanny mirrored her own with Coyle though no one in the servant’s hall knew of it besides Mr. Moseley who remained resolutely silent. He kept his eyes on Baxter, every twitch of her pale face mirrored in his own. Thomas wasn’t one to think often about Mr. Moseley’s love life but he imagined that, should Moseley be in love, it would be with Ms. Baxter. “How did you know what to do?”

Thomas shrugged, but from across the table an answer came from Daisy’s mouth instead.

“Because he helped her steal it.” Daisy snapped.

The servant’s hall fell into a tense silence as everyone looked around to glance first at Daisy and then at Thomas.

Thomas kept his eyes trained on the shadows in the corners of the room, waiting for Edward to appear and save him.

“Daisy…” Baxter didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t buy it.” Daisy warned, glaring at Thomas from across the kitchen table. Baxter was stunned into momentary silence, but Daisy just carried right on, “In the past you’ve stolen before, why not now?”

No one made to challenge her.

“How did you know where to find the ring in the first place, in a shed past a river where no one’s even been before? Who’s to say you didn’t steal it yourself, then make up a story about a shed to-“

Thomas turned and left the servant’s hall. He walked down the long hallway to the back door, mindless to voices that were growing re animated in their discussion from the servant’s hall. Thomas was almost certain he heard Bates congratulating Daisy on being ‘brave’.

He opened the door to the back step, closing it quickly so that he was suddenly plunged into the darkness of the outside.

It was cold despite it being a summer’s night. Above him, the stars seemed pale and listless; a wind blew at his ankles, scattering old newspapers that had fallen from dustbins.

Thomas took one breath, then another, finding it increasingly hard to keep control of his facial expressions; why now was he thinking of all those years ago when he’d danced with Daisy in the servant’s hall?

He sunk against a stone pillar where he’d often smoked, and slid gently down till his bottom rested against the ground. He looked up at the stars again, now able to rest his head against the marble so that his neck didn’t strain.

He wondered where Edward was; if Edward could see him-
He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He imagined in that moment that he’d never left the darkness and the bathtub. That he was sitting once more in the gloom between worlds.

It was difficult to know how long he’d sat there, but when the back door opened again he had a feeling he knew who it was.

“It’s funny to see it from this side.” Baxter’s voice quavered.

Thomas cracked open an eye, twisting his head painfully to the right to see Baxter sitting slumped at the work table. The moonlight filtering down illuminated her but just barely, touching on the corners of her black dress and the swell of her breasts beneath the stiff fabric.

“Don’t compare.” Thomas murmured, twisting his head back to keep from getting a crick in his neck, “You did it for love. She did it for…” Up the workers, “Money, I suppose. The notoriety. We don’t know her story yet.”

“that’s the longest sentence you’ve spoken in three weeks.” Baxter said. It seemed she was trying to joke, but it was a weak attempt and it failed in her mouth making her sound more miserable than before. Thomas twisted his neck back around again, seeing her wring her trembling hands in her lap. It was like she was trying to twist off her own fingers.

“I was inspired.” Thomas said softly.

“I imagine…” Baxter swallowed, shaking her head. Thomas could not see her face, “I imagine if they knew what I was they’d hate me just as much-“

Her voice broke.

“But you don’t hate me, do you Thomas.” Baxter blubbered, tears evident; they gleamed on her cheeks, illuminated in the starlight.

Baxter had known to find him in the bathtub when all others hadn’t given him a second thought. Baxter had held him in his waking grief, fed him with a soup spoon, and cleaned up his sick upon the floor. Baxter had talked him down out of a second attempt and whispered in his ear all through the night that she loved him. That she would not let him be alone.

Who else had done such wonderful things for Thomas?

Thomas rose up from the pillar, tiny pebbles scraping beneath his boots as he walked across the flagstone to reach out and take Baxter’s trembling shoulder in hand.

“No.” Thomas assured her, stroking the quivering muscles as best he could. “No I don’t hate you… Phyllis.”

He didn’t know why it was so necessary to say her first name. Only that he needed to. Only that is somehow conveyed something he couldn’t otherwise say for lack of knowing how.

Overwhelmed, Baxter twisted in her seat and took him in her arms. Due to their difference in heights, she ended up hugging him around the waist, burying her face in his vest. Though she made no sound, Thomas knew that she was weeping. It somehow made him angrier than he could express, and he placed his hands gently upon her shoulders and back. He even cupped her neck, the feathers of her hair like small wisps between his fingers.

“I’m sorry-“ Baxter whispered harshly into his vest. “I’m so afraid of public ridicule- I can’t- I can’t stand up for you.”

“If that’s what you’re crying over you needn’t bother.” Thomas warned her gently. “Spare me your grief.”

Baxter’s shoulders slowly stopped trembling. She breathed harshly into his vest, somehow trying to gain a scent from the fabric as if Thomas had a unique aroma all his own. He doubted it was pleasant if he did.

The backdoor opened again, and Thomas glanced up to see Moseley stumble over the threshold with a look of great concern upon his face. When he saw Baxter crying into Thomas’ stomach, his pale face drained of what little blood it possessed.

“Ms. Baxter!” Moseley’s voice was weak with surprise. Baxter jerked away from Thomas’ stomach, wiping her eyes desperately with her hands.Thomas kept his hands upon her shoulders, lending her what little strength he possessed in her time of need. Ever the gallant gentleman, Moseley fished a handkerchief from his back pocket and offered it to Baxter who took it and wiped at her face miserably.

“Pardon me, Mr. Moseley.” Baxter said, her voice thick as if she was suffering from a head cold. “I’m being silly.”

“I should hardly think you silly.” Moseley said softly.

“Thomas did not steal those jewels.” Baxter said, with such strength of conviction in her voice that even Moseley seemed surprised. He blinked, bashful, and offered her a somber smile.

“I think Daisy’s just speaking out of anger.” He murmured.

“I don’t care.” Baxter whispered, sounding (for the first time) well and truly angry. She glared up at Moseley for a brief second, only to look away embarrassed. She wiped at her face again with his handkerchief to slowly hand it back to him. He shook his head, allowing her to keep it.

“Keep it.” Moseley offered, sounding quite nervous, “Let it bring you luck.”

“How would a handkerchief bring her luck?” Thomas muttered, quite confused by the notion. Moseley glared at him dully. Thomas glared back.

Baxter reached up, touching Thomas’ hands upon her shoulders. She squeezed them in sympathetic support.

“Thomas is a bit too practical for our notions,” Baxter whispered.

“Maybe I’m jealous.” Thomas offered, praying that Moseley would think he was joking.

Moseley said nothing, leaning a little against the work bench to fold his arms over his thin chest. Thomas wondered how much he weighed… he was like a thin ratty weed.

“Would you like to come back inside?” Mr. Moseley offered to Baxter.

“Only if Thomas comes too.” Baxter said. Moseley blanched, not have expected this answer. Glancing at Thomas, he tried to keep his voice neutral of all hostility as he asked, “Well Mr. Barrow?”

Thomas rubbed Baxter’s shoulders, letting his hands finally slip from her frame. He imagined her quite protected now that her gallant Moseley was here. She had no need for him anymore.

“..Think I’ll turn in early.” Thomas murmured, thinking of the upstairs full of scissors and-

“You will not.” Baxter warned. “You’ll sit through dinner and you’ll eat this time.”

“Who says Daisy won’t put soap shavings in my soup like last time?” Thomas offered.

“She only did that because Mrs. Patmore bade her too.” Moseley warned, “There are worse crimes than loyalty.”

“Are there?” Thomas asked, thinking of all the pain he’d endured in his life just because people were loyal to Bates or Carson. Moseley seemed to realize that while his words were good his implication in Thomas’ case was less than well received. He pursed his lips looking away.

“Well.” Moseley huffed, “You know what I mean.”

“I’m sure I don’t.” Thomas said, negating all further discussion.

Baxter rose up from the bench, and Thomas stepped back to allow her room. She regarded him in the moonlight, seeing something that Moseley did not (could not), and in a move of shocking forwardness she reached out to gently touch his cheek with her hand. Thomas did not move beneath her fingertips, appearing to her in that moment like a marble statue. Still she stroked his pale skin.

“How lucky I am.” Baxter mused. “To have two men to protect me.”

“You hardly need me.” Thomas said, “You have your gallant Mr. Moseley.”

Moseley made an angry noise, but kept his jaw clenched tight. Baxter did not take offense, smiling sweetly as she continued to touch his cheek.

“But I also have my brave Thomas.” Baxter added. “And I love him just as much.” she added thickly. Thomas saw a sparkle of emotion in her eye, and shook his head.

“Then you’re a fool.” He said softly. Baxter let her hand slip form his face, touching upon his angular shoulders instead.

“You’re the bravest one of us all.” Baxter said, with just a touch of pride in his voice, “And it shows even if you don’t think it.”

“Really.” Thomas mused, darkly. “Why don’t you ask Mr. Moseley if he shares your view.”

Moseley rolled his eyes looking away. Baxter just gave him a small smile.

“He doesn’t have to.” She said simply, “I love you enough to compensate for all the rest.”

Moseley looked back around, amazed. He blinked, bashful, then looked back at the door to the servant’s hall wondering silently if they should all go inside again. Baxter finally let her hand slip from his shoulder and made to join Mr. Moseley on the other side of the table.

“Coming, Mr. Barrow?” Moseley said, in a voice that seemed to pray Thomas said ‘no’.

“No.” Thomas mused, sitting down on the bench to take Baxter’s place.

Moseley said nothing more, heading to the stoop and opening the door for Baxter. Thomas kept his back resolutely to Baxter, refusing to look at her even as she watched him somberly from the stoop and waited for a full silent minute for Thomas to join her. Thomas stared up at the stars and sky instead, refusing to move.

He heard the backdoor close, and looked around to see that both Baxter and Moseley were gone. Sighing, he leaned back against the table only to wince at the wood. In an effort to relieve the tension, Thomas stood up and sat instead upon the table itself, swinging his legs over and leaning against the wood so that he was soon flat on his back as if asleep and staring straight up at the night sky unimpeded in view. The stars gleamed down at him, as beautiful as any painting in a museum.

He reached out to touch them, for some reason or another hearing Baxter’s voice in his head. How she’d sang to him in his sleep not even a day after he’d attempted suicide the first time.

“..come Josephine in my flying machine…” Thomas whispered, “And it’s up she goes… up she goes.” His fingers swam in stars, he made to part them, scraping them with his nails, “Balance yourself like a bird on a beam, in the air she goes… there she goes…

“Up, up, a little bit higher.” He spread his fingers wide, “Oh my the moon is on fire…”

It was exhausting to hold his hand up. He dropped it back to the table with a thunk. The moon was not on fire, and the song was foolish for insisting it could even achieve such a feat. Still, Thomas stared up at the stars and wondered if Edward was watching him. If Edward was somewhere up there swimming through a soup full of dark and light, dancing in the heavily beams of a thousand burning plants. Thomas imagined himself drifting with Edward, imagined them watching galaxies spin like pinwheels

He lay there complacent and quiet, eyes closing once more so that despite having a heavenly view above him he instead found peace from the image within. The image of loving Edward in the sky, like they even stood a chance, swimming through the stars, twisting and turning and kissing Edward’s lips-

“Thomas-“

Thomas jerked, nearly falling off the table entirely. He spluttered, eyes popping open to see Mrs. Hughes above him. She stared down at him with a tender if understanding smile.

“It’s time for supper.” Mrs. Hughes said. “Your presence is required at the table.”

“Is it?” Thomas wondered. “I should have imagine food consumable without my presence-“

“Thomas, get off the table.” Mrs. Hughes ordered, “You are hardly the Lady of Shalott upon her deathbed.”

“As far as you know. Under tower and balcony, by garden wall and gallery, a pale, pale corpse she floated by, Deadcold, between the houses high-” Thomas grumbled. He closed his eyes again.

“Get off the table.”

“No.”

A firm hand upon his chin made his eyes pop open again. Mrs. Hughes raised an eyebrow in warning. Thomas’ narrowed his own eyes, following the tug upon his chin to swing his legs over the edge of the table.

“Fine.” He muttered bitterly, sitting up and dusting his trousers off. Mrs. Hughes was satisfied opening the door to the back stoop to let Thomas into the dark warmth of the inner servant’s hall. She closed the door after them both, locking it for good measure and giving him another terse smile.

“I’m amazed you could pull that poem out of your memory.” Mrs. Hughes said as they walked. “I should wonder what else is in your head.”

“Evil things.” Thomas warned her, wishing he was joking in that moment. She sensed the bitterness in his voice and paused as they reached the mouth to the stairwell, kitchen hallway, and servant’s hall in junction. She gave him a small smile.

“Only if you want them there.” Mrs. Hughes reminded him.

“Don’t insult me, Mrs. Hughes.” Thomas asked, “If I had the power to banish them they’d already be gone.”

Mrs. Hughes nodded, somehow agreeing even in her eternal optimism. She put a hand upon the small of his back, urging him into the servant’s hall. Chattering voices and gay laughter dwindled into ugly painful silence at his re appearance. Moseley was sitting in Thomas’ seat next to Baxter, glancing around at him with a bashful expression. Baxter herself was still quite somber though at least back at her seat. Bates and Anna kept their eyes forward, saying nothing. Across the table sat Andy, dinner done and dusted; he did not meet Thomas’ eyes and instead looked down at his bare plate. Mrs. Hughes took her place next to Mr. Carson, leaving Thomas to stare at the chairs wondering which one he should take.

There were none vacant. No one made to pull up a seat.

He turned, making to leave for the stairwell, but was stopped in his tracks by the voice of Mrs. Hughes.

“Thomas, tonight Mrs. Patmore wants you to eat in the kitchen.” Mrs. Hughes explained. “Your chair is in there.”

Thomas blinked, thrown, and looked warily back around at Mrs. Hughes. She gave him a stern if kind smile to silently assure him he had heard right. Thomas definitely heard snickering in the servant’s hall, no doubt from the others who thought this his just deserts. To be knocked from sitting next to Carson to sitting in the kitchen with the scullery maid and Mrs. Patmore.

He headed for the stairwell, thinking he could simply-

“The Kitchen, Thomas.” Mrs. Hughes warned, loudly. Thomas winced, foot stopping on the first step. He gripped the railing irritably, stepping back down and turning instead for the kitchen hallway. When he poked his head into the kitchen he saw Mrs. Patmore sitting expectantly at a fold out table with Daisy and the lone scullery maid Gertie who looked quite petrified at having to share a table with the notorious Thomas Barrow. Daisy had her lips into a thin white line and was resolutely silent while Mrs. Patmore doled out lamb, bubble and squeak, and kedgeree. She spotted him in the doorway and urged him over with a large wave of her hammish hand.

“Come on then.” Mrs. Patmore urged, “Sit down before the lamb goes cold.”

“I’m just going to go to b-“ Thoms pointed at the cieling. Mrs. Patmore glared at him with such ferocity that it stopped him cold.

He blinked, chewing upon his inner cheek as Mrs. Patmore pointed at a vacant chair between her and Daisy. It seemed he had absolutely no choice.

Thomas trudged across the kitchen, scooting around Daisy who bristled as he past, and sat down slowly upon his chair. Mrs. Patmore had already loaded his plate and was just finishing up with Gertie who looked quite famished. She tucked in at once, shoveling bubble and squeak as fast as she could into her mouth. Daisy picked at her kedgeree silently while Mrs. Patmore began to cut into her lamb. Thomas slowly reached from his teacup and took a timid sip.

Mrs. Patmore watched him as she took a bite of lamb, waiting for him to eat as well. Thomas took another sip of tea, staring resolutely at the stairwell just visible through the far kitchen door. The tension at the table was incredible.

“Oh for god’s sake.” Mrs. Patmore spat, “He didn’t steal the sapphires, Daisy. It would be impossible.”

“I only-“ Daisy started to speak, but Mrs. Patmore steam rolled right over her, flattening any further argument.

“Ms. Baxter cleaned those sapphires herself this morning and locked them up in Lady Grantham’s room. You heard what Mrs. Hughes said-!” Mrs. Patmore warned, waving her knife dangerously close to Thomas’ nose. He had to lean back lest she hack at his skin. “Thomas was downstairs all day ferrying around boxes of linens. Unless he’s somehow developed the ability to be in two places at once, it would be impossible for him to have stolen those sapphires. Which you ought to know!” Mrs. Patmore huffed, stabbing at her lamb with renewed vigor. Across the table Gertie sat petrified, unable to eat lest the table get flipped between the two arguing women. Thomas gave her a bitter smile from across the way and took another sip of tea.

Daisy stabbed moodily at her own lamb, taking another bite.

“I just don’t think the nanny could have done it.” Daisy said. “And how did he knew where that shack in the woods was-“

“Because I bloody well ran after her!” Thomas snapped, slamming his teacup down onto the table. Tea sloshed over the sides, burning his fingers and soaking a bit of the table, but he didn’t care. He glared ferociously at Daisy, making her quake under his stare. “I bloody well took chase after her and found the shack. I lost her at the river, and nearly broke me neck when I fell in the shack-“

“Then how did you find the-“

“Because I bloody nearly swallowed it when I hit the bloody floor!” Thomas snarled. “Which if you’d stopped thinking me the devil for five seconds you might have realized yourself-“

“Stop cursing!” Daisy cut him off, clearly insulted by his foul language, “I had every right to imagine you a thief after you went and stole all that wine-“

Thomas jerked up from the table, nearly knocking his teacup over entirely. Mrs. Patmore grabbed him hard by the forearm and jerked him right back down into his seat before he could storm upstairs. He tried to stand up again but it was like fighting with Attila the Hun.

“If you two don’t stop and eat, I’ll string both your guts up for garters-!” But Thomas finally managed to break free of Mrs. Patmore’s hold. Furious, unable to think clearly, he stormed from the kitchen and headed for the stairwell. He ignored Mrs. Patmore’s shouts behind him, demanding he return to the table:

“Thomas!” She cried out angrily, “Thomas Barrow you get back here this instant or see if I don’t come after you-!”

He didn’t care.

He scaled the stairs faster than Mrs. Patmore ever could, legs pumping like the iron weights of a train till he was on the attic floor and left to his own devices. Bitter and hateful with no one to vent to, Thomas turned into his room and practically kicked the door closed. Hateful at himself, burned by his circumstances, in dire pain without anyone to help him… Thomas lashed out.

The first thing he lashed out at was the tidiness of his room. He grabbed the chair, flipping it- he threw his lampshade breaking it against the wall and knocked over his bed stand so that everything atop it when crashing across the floor. But even this was not enough, because all it did was ruin his environment and create more problems. It fixed nothing. It soothed nothing.

Clutching at his hair, Thomas stormed back and forth.

And then suddenly… a thought came to him.

He reached out to his bureau, yanking open the top drawer to reveal the grooming kit he’d only just recently gotten back. His razor, his scissors, several combs each layered in age- he yanked out the scissors and opened them to hear their sharp snipping noise. He looked up at himself in the bureau mirror, regarded his haggard appearance, his oiled hair now in a mess against his forehead.

Thomas strode determinedly across the room and grabbed his desk chair to jam it beneath the doorknob to make a poor man’s lock. He returned to the bureau and its mirror, glaring somberly at his reflection. He reached up, grabbing a chunk of his hair and separating it from the rest of his head by seizing it in a fist.

Isn’t this what they did to mental patients? Shave off their hair? Wasn’t this what he ought to do for the sake of them all?

Thomas brought the scissors up, making to cut the entire chunk right at the root of his-

A soft knock upon the door jerked him out of his reverie. The sound of the chair creaking gave Thomas pause. He looked over his shoulder, noting the handle of his door was twitching.

“Thomas?” the sound of Andy’s voice on the other side of the door annoyed him greatly. “Thomas are you in there-“

“Go away.” Thomas snapped, dropping both his clump of uncut hair and his scissors. Realizing the stupidity of his near actions, he chucked his scissors upon his bureau and set to making things right in the room. The lamp was fucked, but it wasn’t like Thomas needed the light. In fact he rather liked it dark… let it be dark in his room all the time. Let him live in the dark; he’d be better suited for it.

The door knob rattled against as Thomas righted his old armchair and re-fixed the red quilt atop it.

“Thomas, open the door-“ Andy urged, “Open the door or I’m getting Mr. C-“

“Get back to your meal, Andy!” Thomas snapped, still furious at the whole lot of them downstairs, “Go on and eat your food and be happy- just go on! All I want is one second where I am alone and allowed to breath- can I garner that from you Andy? Or do I have to toddle around like a child with an adult everywhere I go?!”

“Thomas I’m worried-“

But Thomas had nothing more to say. He set his bedside table back up, fixing its drawers and shoving things back inside: a few books, a writing pen, a stone he’d found and admired for its deep green color and a leather journal he’d yet to write in at all. He kicked the lamp into the corner of his room, giving it up for lost, and sank down on the floor by his bed so that even if Andy managed to get the door he wouldn’t be able to see Thomas.

“Thomas-“ the door knob continued to rattle. Thomas sat in silence waiting for Andy to go away. The door rattled a few more times and then… nothing.

In the dark, Thomas drew his knees up to his chest and waited for whatever would come next.

 

Despite Andy’s proclamations that Mr. Carson would be on his way, Thomas was left uninterrupted. For some odd reason, Moseley was staying the night in the abbey- Thomas didn’t much care save for the fact that he did hear Moseley’s voice drift down the hallway near eleven o’clock. Andy said his adieus, pausing at Thomas’ door to try the handle again. It was still locked.

“Goodnight Thomas.” He heard Andy mumble from the other side of the wood.

Still sitting in the dark, Thomas said absolutely nothing back.
The marbles slowly rolled across his bedroom floor, bumping into shards from his broken lamp.

When he heard the last door close, Thomas sat and pondered.

And pondered.
And pondered.

He waited for Edward, for a sign, for anything, but found none forthcoming and wondered why. Then he deduced it was because he was in his bedroom, not the bathroom, and decided it was time to face the proverbial beast.

To bite the bullet and swallow the pill.

Thomas rose from the floor, back aching and buttocks twanging from sitting on the wood for such a long time. He shed his shoes and his vest, undoing his bowtie and casting it atop his barren desk. He shucked his suspenders to clip them from his trousers, shirking his shirtsleeves till he was in his undershirt and trousers just like before.

Just like before.

With unnerving similarity Thomas left his room and walked through silent halls to the men’s bathroom, slowly opening the door to reveal its porcelain tomb inside.

His tomb.

Entranced, drawn as if by a spell, Thomas shut the bathroom door behind him and walked once more to the tub. He ran his hands around its rim, feeling the smooth cold ceramic beneath his fingers like one might a piece of fine fur. It lured him almost like a nest, urging him to sleep inside, and so exhausted was Thomas that he clambered into the tub like one might into bed. It was long enough for him to rest his legs fully against the basin, his back and neck propped against the rim. Thomas took several slow, deep breathes, waiting for Edward to re appear… to lean in and kiss him just like before.

But Edward did not show.

It was late, and Thomas was exhausted. He was beginning to ache from sitting on his bedroom floor and now laying in the tub. He thought it only fitting that he should sleep here tonight, somehow finding the notion of laying in his own bed revolting. But the tub was cold, despite it being late summer, and Thomas found himself shivering as he drew his legs up to his chest.

In that moment a spark of cleverness came to him; that he might use a bit of warm water from the tap to act like a blanket to him. Inspired Thomas slowly turned on the hot water tap, first avoiding a stream of icy cold water by hiding at the far end of the tub and then waiting for it to get hot. As soon as it was steaming it put the stopper in the drain, allowing the tub to fill part of the way. It was only a few inches, just enough to cover the top of his knees, and Thomas shut off the tap at once lest he alert the others with the sound of shifting pipes in the walls. Sighing in the steam, completely relaxed, Thomas closed his eyes again and this time waited for the water to grow cold.

He felt almost certain that when it grew cold, Edward would appear again. Would hold him and love him and kiss his brow.

After a while, Thomas fell asleep, resting against the tub with his legs fully outstretched. When he woke again the water was tepid and still, not ice cold but certainly on its way to being there. It was difficult to say what hour it was…. merely that it was early morning.

Thomas lay there wondering up at the ceiling, somber…

And then he heard the latch click on the door.
Like someone was coming in.

At once, Thomas attempted to sit up and rise from the tub, knowing whoever was on the other side was either in the mood for a midnight bath or god knows what else. But it was pitch black in the bathroom, impossible to see without light of some sort, and for some god awful reason Thomas suddenly realized that he could not move. It was as if the water had frozen his limbs, stiffening his joints and rendering them useless to him. He could not recall a medical condition where water made one’s joints latch, but what if one existed and he simply hadn’t known? What if he’d paralyzed himself out of a desire to be kissed by a ghost and would now have to survive unable to move or speak for the rest of his life?

A terrifying fear arose inside of Thomas, and he attempted to scream, to move, to do anything! But nothing would come out- nothing at all, and Thomas felt tears sting at the corners of his eyes in horror.

There was something dark in the doorway.
A figure.

Tall, broad shouldered, hulking, it could only be one person even if Thomas could not clearly make out the face. Charles Carson had found him in this bathroom and was clearly furious, a murderous malicious intent oozing like a foul stench from his dark shadow as he slowly came across the room towards Thomas in the tub. Thomas could not see Carson’s face, could not make him out- but he knew for a damn fact who it was and desperately tried to scream again-!

Thomas felt a stiff pressure upon his chest- with a sudden stab of new horror he realized that Mr. Carson was attempting to push him into the water. To ‘fix the problem’ once and for all if only by drowning Thomas in the tub. Thomas felt the water begin to rise up over his face, icy cold (when had it dropped in temperature so suddenly?) and heavy like cement.

“No! No!!” Thomas desperately wanted to scream even as Carson’s shadow pushed him deeper beneath the water. His nostrils were submerged- “No Mr. Carson, don’t!!”

But it was impossible.

Thomas couldn’t breath, couldn’t move, couldn’t scream, and now struggled to grapple with the sickening realization that he was actually about to be murdered by the one man he’d hoped (with the naivety of a child) might look to his welfare in the end just as he’d looked to William’s, Alfred’s, and Andy’s. But William, Alfred, and Andy were innocent young men; Thomas was their predator. Thomas, in Carson’s eyes, had always been a nuisance to be shod of. Now it seemed he’d found the perfect solution- to simply kill Thomas himself-

 

“NOOOO!!!!”

Jarred, springing forth like a toy from a loaded box, Thomas suddenly realized he could move again and thrashed wildly in the tub. Water was on his face, icy cold- submerging him- he couldn’t breath! Gasping, screaming at the top of his lungs, Thomas attempted to shove up with his hands only to slip and bang his elbow hard upon the side of the tub. He lost his balance, slipped, and his head cracked against the porcelain with a horrible sickening crunch. White hot stars exploded before his eyes, flooded his ears with a loud buzzing sound as if several bees were attempting to nest in his hair. But Thomas just kept screaming, thrashing wildly, desperate to get away from Carson and his murderous hands as fast as he could-!

“PLEASE CARSON NO!!!”

The light clicked on.
There above him was Carson, murderous and vile.
He had no eyes; only black holes where they had once been.

“NO! DON’T! NO!”

Thomas pinched his eyes shut to block out the sight of Carson. Suddenly there were hands on him, hands holding him, but Thomas was still blinded by stars in his eyes and bees in his ears- terrified he wrenched himself free of the hands and just kept screaming for help-!

“NO!” Thomas screamed wildly, heart pounding in his ears- his whole skull suddenly felt like it was thick and heavy- as if his brain were made of lead- but he just kept screaming.

Scream! his mind urged, Scream it’s the only way you’ll live!

“Thomas-!” Someone was holding him from behind, clutching at the back of his head which was stinging fiercely, “Thomas it’s alright, snap out of it-!”

Another pair of hands were trying to grab his legs, trying to still them— Carson-!

“NO PLEASE GOD NO!” Thomas howled, terrified, jerking his legs up to his chest to try and escape Carson’s clutches, “PLEASE CARSON DON’T!”

“Thomas!” A woman bellowed in his ear, “Thomas snap out of it!”

“NO!” Thomas kept his eyes pinched shut, terrified to open them. With each rattling, gasping breath he drew, he screamed on the exhale.

Someone slapped him. Hard.

Thomas was jarred, another wave of sparks flying in front of his eyes altogether different than before. For some reason it seemed to ground, him, pause him, and made him want to open his eyes despite the petrifying sight of Carson without eyes that surely awaited him.

Slowly, drawing in great rattling gasping breathes, Thomas opened his eyes.

He was absolutely surrounded. Mrs. Patmore, Baxter, Moseley, and Andy were all about him, tousle haired and in housecoats each with their hands on him in a different place. Baxter was holding the back of his head, a hand towel in her hands- the water beneath his was stained crimson and Thomas immediately jerked his wrists out of the water to observe his leather cuffs were soaked up untinged… he’d not slit his wrists. Moseley was at the foot of the tub, holding onto his knees to keep him from hitting himself in the nose. Mrs. Patmore was before him, grasping tightly as his cheeks with her hammish fingers, her grip strong and commanding. Andy hovered over her shoulder, a bloody towel in his hands, soaking wet and dripping blood back into the tub. Behind all of them stood Daisy in the doorway, pale and terrified in her dressing gown and night cap. She hid in the door, unsure of what to do, but no one around the tub seemed to have any answers either.

Everyone was waiting with baited breath, unnerved. Moseley looked ready to jump into the tub with Thomas if it meant saving them all from scandal. Baxter just kept his head steady, her tea towel rapidly turning crimson- what was bleeding? Thomas couldn’t understand where he’d hurt himself- he only knew that he ached all over and… and…

“C-C-C-“ He couldn’t speak, stuttering petrified, “C-C-Carson!”

Mrs. Patmore kept his chin in her hands, gripping his tight. Her brown eyes were wide, her pudgy face bloodless in her horror. Her curly crimson hair fell in a braid over her shoulder, sagging between her enormous breasts which, unbound, were like a massive mound beneath her faded housecoat.

“C-Carson!” Thomas repeated, his fear returning. He looked left and right, searching each corner of the bathroom for the butler. The light hid nothing from view; Carson, it seemed, had fled the room.

“Carson tried to kill me!” Thomas hiccuped, sinking even further back into the top of the tub- or at least he tried to until Moseley kept his grip on Thomas’ legs. Mrs. Patmore said nothing, still trying to register what the hell was happening.

“Carson- I saw him!” Thomas’ voice was rising. He tried to clamber out of the tub only to be stopped by both Moseley and Baxter. Even Andy seemed determined to keep him sitting, his hands outstretched though they still clutched that bloodied tea towel. “I saw him! I saw him!” Thomas screamed the words, “He was here! He was here, I saw him- he tried to kill me! He was going to drown me! He pushed me into the water-“

“No, no- Thomas-!” Mrs. Patmore’s loud voice overrode his hysterical own. Even as he babbled she tried for sense, “Thomas you were dreaming! You were dreaming, nothing more. Mr. Carson is miles away in his cottage, asleep with Mrs. Hughes. He didn't try to kill you-“

“No I saw him!” Thomas beseeched her, “I saw him, you have to believe me-“ but it was the fact that she wouldn’t believe him- that none of them would believe him about anything ever again that upset him more than Carson or his lack of eyes.

Heartbroken, Thomas burst into tears.

Baxter held him from behind, one hand slipping about his chest while the other kept pressure on the back of his head. Mrs. Patmore let go of his cheek with one hand to press her palm against his forehead as if checking for fever. For some odd reason Thomas could not understand, Moseley acted completely out of character by gently rubbing the skin of Thomas’ ankle with his thumb… and the small action however meagre prompted Thomas to just keep howling.

“Please believe me-“ Thomas sobbed, “I saw him! He was here! He tried to kill me! I know it was him! He pushed me under and held me down- he wants me to die-“

“No,” Mrs. Patmore urged, her tone firm and gentle, “Mr. Carson does not want you to die-“

“You all want me to die!” Thomas howled, aggrieved. He screamed out loud when no one made to correct him, his voice muffled as Mrs. Patmore put her fingers gently over his lips and Baxter tightened her arm around his chest.

“It’s alright.” Baxter whispered rapidly in his ear, “It’s alright Thomas, I know you’re frightened but it’s alright. I’m here now. I’m here.”

Thomas turned hard, frightened like a child. He jerked free of Mrs. Patmore’s hands, squirming in Baxter’s embrace to hide himself in her house coat just as he’d done to his vest earlier that night. Baxter held him as a mother might, cradling the back of his head with her tea towel while she rubbed his shoulders and his back.

“Is it any wonder?” She demanded of the others who remained resolutely silent, “After what he’s been through? Is it any wonder that he can’t sleep? I don’t suppose anyone would think to call for a doctor or help him? And you wonder why he keeps his distance?”

“We need to call a doctor for that head wound.” Moseley spoke up in agreement, sounding quite stern for some reason. Thomas tried to block them all out, merely hiding in Baxter’s lilac housecoat. The embroidery was scratchy upon his face. “It could have been accidental but it could have been self inflicted-“

“Daisy, get away from the door!” Mrs. Patmore barked, making Thomas jump, “Get back to bed!”

“Should I call for a doctor?” Daisy spoke up, timid and frightened.

“You should do as I say and get back to bed!” Mrs. Patmore sounded more angrier than before. Daisy made no reply, a shuffling of feet bidding her adieu.

“I’ll ring for Dr. Clarkson.” Andy insisted, abandoning the bathtub with heavy footfalls till silence took over the room once again.

Before, thoughts of a mental ward and padded cells had terrified Thomas. Now they seemed to be some type of sanctuary- anything, he prayed, to keep a murderous Carson at bay.

“Believe me.” He whimpered pathetically into Baxter’s housecoat.

“I believe you…” She murmured softly, “I know you saw him, but I don’t think he was here. I think you dreamed him, but I believe you saw him.” She kept rubbing his back, stroking him lovingly.

“He was so real-!” Thomas choked out, howling his grief, “But- but- but he didn’t have eyes! It was just black holes-!” And the admission made him burst into a new wave of tears. The memory seemed to have burned into his skull, branding him for life in his terror.

“It was just a dream, Thomas. Nothing more.” Moseley still had that stern tone in his voice. Like Thomas was one of his naughty school children, and not a grown man wrapped up in a terror.

“He- he tried-“ But Thomas could say no more. He was exhausted, his head ached like mad, and his heart was pounding in his ears. So scared was he that as he lapsed into silence he began to shake like a little lamb without fleece.

“He’ll freeze to death like this.” Mrs. Patmore urged, reaching forward to unplug the stopper of the tub so that all the frigid water could rush out, “Lord it’s like bathing in ice. How could you stand it? You’ll be sick as a dog come morning, I can tell you-!”

“I’ll fetch a house coat.” Moseley decided, rising up.

“Should we tell his lordship? Or Mr. Carson?” Baxter wondered softly.

“Let’s wait to see what the doctor says.” Mrs. Patmore urged, “It’s two in the morning… Mr. Carson will be here in three hours anyways. Best not wake the family unless… well…” Mrs. Patmore’s voice trailed off sadly. “Unless we have to.”

Baxter said nothing, rubbing Thomas’ back all the while.

Moseley returned with a house coat, and Thomas was wrapped up in it despite still being soaking wet. There was a tug of wills, half their party (Mrs. Patmore) desperate to keep Thomas still and the other half (Moseley and Baxter) wanting to move him to a warm safe bed. Thomas’ shaking decided the winning party, and so both Baxter and Moseley pulled him up from the bathtub to help him back to his own room. In the dark, without any light save for what would flood in through the hallway, Mr. Moseley and Ms. Baxter laid him down in his bed wrapped up in a housecoat though soaking wet with a towel pressed to the back of his head. Baxter just kept pressure on his skull while Moseley stood guard. Mrs. Patmore sat on the side of Thomas’ bed so that it sank aggressively beneath her weight, and held his hand like one might upon a death bed. Thomas’ fingers were limp and cold between her own.

“Why is there a broken lamp in the corner-?”

“Best not ask.”

Shifting movement around him blurred and faded. Thomas’ dwindling hysteria left him numb and bleak, unable to return to sleep lest he wake again and be unable to scream or move. In what felt like mere minutes, however, firm hands were rolling him onto his side even while his eyes closed, and the stern voice of Dr. Clarkson was urging his name.

“Thomas?” the sharp sound of snapping fingers before his eyes. Groggy, nauseas and confused, Thomas slowly opened his eyes. The room was spinning wildly, like a child’s top wobbling upon the floor.

“Oh my god!” Thomas heard Baxter whimper, “What’s going on with his eyes? Why are they blackening?!”

“He’s bleeding from his ears-“ Dr. Clarkson did not sound impressed, “He’s suffered an open skull fracture-“ There was compression at the back of his skull, a heavy thick feeling like he was being swathed in gauze. “I’ll have to take him to the hospital-“

“No!” Baxter begged, “If you do they’ll-“

“Ms. Baxter, we are past the point of soft footing.” Dr. Clarkson snapped, “If I do not operate on him, he could die!”

The voices were growing muddled, some stern and some frightened. Thomas could make no sense of them anymore, could only reason that someone was rolling him onto his back, was shifting him onto a stretcher-

“I will alert his lordship,” Dr. Clarkson was saying. “And Mr. Carson. May I use your telephone-?”

Thomas felt someone brush at the bangs on his face, gently stroking his forehead. Unsure of what was going on, Thomas slowly opened his eyes to find that his vision was incredibly blurred. Above him, two people were framing his vision. Someone had turned the ceiling lights in his bedroom on- or so he imagined until he realized that the ceiling above him was domed…

He was in the entrance hall, supported on a stretcher between two paramedics. Thomas blinked, blearily, and realized that one of the people above him was Baxter. She was still in her lilac bathrobe and was speaking in hushed tones with… Moseley he supposed. Someone else-

“Sounds like a nightmare- but why-”
No, never mind, Tom Branson… though Thomas could hardly make out what he was saying.

“I’m unsure.” Baxter whispered, “but he said he saw Mr. Carson drowning him-“

“I once dreamed Mr. Carson was beating me with a rake.” Tom tried for cheer.

Well good for you but I don’t see you on a stretcher, Thomas wanted to snap.

Baxter seemed comforted by it though. She continued stroking Thomas’ bangs.

Clarkson, it seemed, had returned. He was speaking with Branson and Baxter now; Thomas could discern none of it.

They were moving towards the door; Thomas could feel shifting air upon his face.

 

There was a bumpy car ride.

A cold table, a bright light.

A feeling of warmth spreading through his veins…
And absolute quiet.

 

 

 

My darling.
My darling, my darling, my darling…

Chapter Text

It was morning.

Birds were calling, chittering back and forth to one another. Thomas listened to them for a moment, simply keeping his eyes closed as he soaked up the peace of the moment. It was shattered softly by the nonplus chatter around him. He could hear things shifting, like pieces of paper and fabric from trousers or skirts. The smell of iodine was heavy in his nose. Far off he could hear an odd clacking sound, like something hard smacking against tile.

“-He’ll come ‘round. He’s just not used to change.”

“I think he imagined I’d stay in service all my life; but I was never happy, you know?”

“I’m sure he wants you to be happy above all else.”

“Still, I worry I don’t have his support.”

“Well you certainly have mine.”

Thomas opened his eyes, slowly and the world came into focus. He was laying on a hospital bed, at the end of a long silent ward. To his left was a high window beyond which a blue sky could be seen and nothing more. Around him, hanging curtains divided a private area for him to recline in. Before him, two guest chairs had been pulled up so that he could be kept company by Phyllis Baxter and Joseph Moseley. Ms. Baxter was peeling a small orange in her lap, keeping the husk close. Moseley had a book, but was not reading from it and was instead smiling and talking to Baxter. Like always, she had his undivided attention.

Thomas attempted to remember how he’d come to be in this bed… but his mind was a blank. He supposed he must have done something or had something done to him, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember. Had he tried to commit suicide again? It seemed plausible. Why did he feel so calm then? Shouldn’t he be hysterical? Thomas sighed, turning his head a little upon the pillow to look down at his hands. They were under the covers but they didn’t seem heavily bandaged-

Baxter had realized he was awake. She leaned forward in her chair, reaching out to touch his cheek and forehead which were mildly damp with sweat. Moseley didn’t seem too concerned, but he did watch with mild curiosity as Baxter asked, “How do you feel?”

Thomas tried to sum up his body. His exhaustion, nausea, aches, and sluggish fever.

“Bad.” He said. He was disturbed to hear how incredibly throaty his voice sounded. Moseley, on the other hand, did not look surprised and went back to reading his book. Thomas wondered why he was even there; he certainly wasn’t concerned for Thomas’ state.

“You suffered an open skull fracture when you hit the back of your head.” Baxter explained, her tone soft as if she worried Thomas might panic for loud noise. At this point he was so far past sanity that he doubted anything could truly rattle him. A bomb could go off and he’d presume it normal. When had he hit the back of his head? Thomas couldn’t figure it out- had he fallen? Had he jumped? Surely if he’d jumped high enough to crack his skull he’d have broken another bone… but nothing else seemed out of place. He flexed both his feet and his wrists just to be sure.

“Dr. Clarkson had to remove a bone fragment from your brain.” Baxter admitted; Thomas blinked. He wondered what else Dr. Clarkson had gotten up to; had he removed those pesky marbles yet? “You’ve been sleeping for four days.”

“I ought to get Dr. Clarkson.” Moseley said, rising from his chair and laying his book atop his seat with the spine cracked to his page. Thomas watched him, throat constricting at the sight of how calm Moseley was. As if-

“Why are you here?” Thomas demanded, his tone insulted; in a way he was. Moseley wasn’t his friend. Why was he sitting here at Thomas’ bedside like he belonged here? Moseley stared, calm as ever, but refused to comment as he headed for the divide in Thomas’ privacy curtains. His heart throbbed, bitter, “Talk to me.” Thomas demanded. “Talk to me. Stop ignoring me. I’m a human being, damnit.”

Moseley paused in his tracks, rigid as if struck by a sudden illness that froze up muscles. He twitched, looking back over his shoulder at Baxter who was frowning sadly…. as if she’d been hoping for something else. Moseley fixed his vest a bit better upon his shoulders, unwilling to look at Thomas for more than a few seconds at a time.

“I came to sit with Ms. Baxter.” Moseley said, and with that he left. Thomas looked away, eyes pinched closed. His heart was burning in his breast, bitter as it bleated. The marbles were beginning to stir in his brain, making his head throb beneath its many bandages. Baxter placed her hand upon Thomas’ own, stroking his clammy skin lovingly.

“He’s not the talkative type.” Baxter murmured. Thomas wouldn’t stand to be lied to.
Not by his only friend.

“Don’t make me laugh,” He whispered, broken, “He never shut up at breakfast.”

Thoughts of the servant’s hall made Thomas think of Downton Abbey and how he must surely be fired now. No doubt Carson was ready to chuck him out on his arse the minute he returned- what meagre savings he had would not last him long. He would be dead before long, he reasoned, no doubt on the side of the road frozen stiff like common roadkill.

His face was wet. Baxter’s fingers were upon his cheeks, wiping away what moisture she found.

“I suppose I’m fired?” Thomas asked, throatily.

“No.” Baxter soothed him, and Thomas’ heart unclenched just a bit in relief, “But everyone is very worried about you-“

What was this? ‘Lie to Thomas’ day? “Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not.” Baxter urged, scooting her chair a little closer so that they could talk more intimately. Thomas opened his eyes to see her very close to him, her arms about his face and pillow to shelter him just as she’d done the night he’d attempted suicide the first time. “Everyone is very worried about you!”

“Name who’s worried.” Thomas challenged, for he was certain she wouldn’t be able to come up with two people if pressed.

“Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, Andy-“ Baxter ticked off, but Thomas cut her off, shaking his head. She pressed forward determined, “Lady Mary is very worried.” Her tone grew stern, “Master George and Miss Sybbie are beside themselves. Lord Grantham is certainly worried about you, her ladyship asks after you every night when I go to dress her-“

“Bates doesn’t care.” Thomas whispered, imagining the king upon his throne smirking into a teacup and relaxing in Thomas’ armchair by the fire. He wondered if Bates had tripped him and that was how he’d gotten his skull fracture-

She’d not mentioned Mr. Carson either.

Baxter rubbed his brow, toying with his bangs. When unslicked by Brilliantine they were prone to hang as low as his ears, curled slightly at the ends. He’d always had unruly hair.

Shadows and sounds prologued the appearance of Dr. Clarkson followed by Moseley. Clarkson looked to be in good spirits, a stethoscope round his neck and a clipboard at his side. He smiled down at Thomas in that benign doctorly way- it never quite reached his eyes but it still didn’t seem insincere and it pissed Thomas off deeply. If only he had the energy to be pissed off at all. Behind Clarkson, Mosley side stepped to stand behind Baxter’s chair so that Clarkson could take Moseley’s vacated own. Clarkson did not make to sit, however. He stepped around the bed, coming to Thomas’ other side so that he might take Thomas’ pulse at his jugular vein.

“Thomas.” Clarkson greeted him, “How are we feeling?”

Thomas didn’t quite know how to answer that so instead he tried to shrug. The action was difficult though, and he ended up groaning a little instead… not a prospective sign. Clarkson didn’t seem too surprised however, drawing up Moseley’s chair and sitting down to rest his clipboard atop his knees.

“I want to ask you a few questions, I was wondering if you might consent to answer them?” Dr. Clarkson asked calmly.

“Yes.” Thomas whispered, knowing full well he had absolutely no choice in the matter. At this point any rejection might be taken for a red flag to send him to a mental ward.

“What’s two plus two?”

“Four.”

“What’s your middle name?”

“Nathaniel.”

“When is your birthday?”

“October thirtieth.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m thirty five.”

“If I told you today was Saturday, what would that make the day before yesterday?”

He was tempted to say ‘green’ just for the hell of it, “Thursday.”

“Very good.” Dr. Clarkson was scribbling upon his clipboard, momentarily silent as he wrote what was surely a paragraph, “You don’t have brain damage.”

“Can I leave?” Thomas asked, wondering what his chances were of slipping out the backdoor while Clarkson wasn’t looking. Maybe he could get Baxter to lend him some clothes, but he doubted he’d fit into her dresses.

“In a day or two.” Clarkson assured him. “But first I want to know why you were sleeping in a bathtub.”

What.

“What?” Thomas asked, agog. Dr. Clarkson did not look put off.

“Do you remember how you came to be here?” Dr. Clarkson asked. Thomas shook his head (or attempted to) slightly distressed at the scenarios that were now beginning to dance through his head. What the hell had he done to land himself in the hospital?

“You were found in the men’s lavatory four nights ago.” Dr. Clarkson explained, “Around two in the morning, in three inches of freezing water screaming that Mr. Carson was trying to kill you. That he didn’t have eyes.”

Thomas stared, eyes as wide as saucers.

Well old chum, he thought, You’ve shoved your foot in it now.

He was starting to recall snatches now, bits and pieces- an image of Mr. Carson looming above him, features twisted malignantly with dark holes where the eyes should have gone- he shuddered, unnerved.

“I… I wasn’t sleeping in the bathtub.” Thomas whispered. Dr. Clarkson stared at him, then began to write on his clipboard. Thomas wondered if he swallowed the lie, “I fell asleep in my room… when I woke I was in the bathtub.”

“So you sleep walked.” Dr. Clarkson surmised.

“Yes.”

“And filled a tub with water?” Dr. Clarkson added, tone turning just the slightest bit sarcastic. Thomas wondered if he was visibly sweating now.

“I… I guess. Yes.” He said. Dr. Clarkson flipped a page on his clipboard, tucking it underneath the slat to continue writing. He glanced up at Thomas, gaze growing stern again.

“Mrs. Patmore told me that you’ve been refusing meals.” Dr. Clarkson said. Thomas felt ice slide into his stomach. Fear was beginning to make his skin itch, “That you haven’t been eating regularly.”

“….I’m not hungry.” It was the only excuse he could give. Dr. Clarkson did not look amused.

“I weighed you after you got out of surgery.” Dr. Clarkson said. “I could count your ribs when I undressed you. You do realize that you’re one hundred and seven pounds? That’s you’ve lost over sixty pounds in the past month?”

Thomas didn’t know what to say anymore. What excuse could he possibly give. He looked away, eyes somehow falling upon Baxter who was still sitting very close to him. She squeezed his hand supportively but did not look pleased. Unsurprised, and displeased.

“I think you would be more comfortable resting in the abbey.” Dr. Clarkson continued on, capping his pen and pocketing it to rise up from the chair, “I’m going to have you moved there tomorrow, but it’s also my professional opinion that you need to speak with someone about how you’re feeling.” He stared at Thomas, his eyes making him wilt like a hot lamp, “Do you understand?”

Thomas closed his eyes, swallowing painfully around his constricting throat. “If you’re going to put me in a mad house, just do it-“

“I have no intention of putting you in an asylum. You’re not insane.” Dr. Clarkson assured him. Thomas wondered if he’d say the same thing should he be informed about the marbles in his brain. “But I do think that you need to speak with someone. I think many people at the abbey would find it comforting to know a professional was involved-“

“They’d find it comforting if I was dead-“ Thomas whispered bitterly, mouth almost hidden by his pillow. The silence that followed assured him Clarkson had heard his words, no matter how quietly he’d spoken. Clarkson clapped him gently upon the shoulder, squeezing his flesh endearingly before making to leave.

“I’m putting you on bedrest for at least two weeks until your skull fracture heals.” Dr. Clarkson said, heading for the divide in Thomas’ privacy curtains, “I’ve informed both Mr. Carson and his lordship. If you need anything, you’ll let me know?”

But Thomas did not reply, and Clarkson did not press him.

He lay there through the night, slipping in and out of consciousness. He knew now what must have happened- that he must have gone into the bathroom in an attempt to garner some piece only to suffer a hellish nightmare and crack his head against the back of the tub. But why had he turned on the water? Had he just wanted to recreate the effect of the vision between worlds he’d suffered, or was it something else? Maybe he’d turned on the hot water and laid there as if under a blanket- that seemed coy and like him. It was difficult to say though, whether it had been a stroke of genius or insanity which had lead him to get an open skull fracture. Either way he was certain everyone was going to treat him like a lunatic when he returned to the abbey and the thought made him an emotional wreck. He wanted to hide in shame.

The next day, Thomas lay sleeping without disturbance. Baxter had not come, pinned down by work, and no one else gave a damn whether he lived or died. He was shook awake sometime around noon by Clarkson, who offered him a polite smile when Thomas came to with a start.

“Thomas…” Dr. Clarkson greeted him, reaching up to gently fix the tail end of Thomas’ bandages. “How are you feeling?”

“Ill.” Thomas whispered throatily. There was no point in pretending anymore.

Dr. Clarkson nodded, unsurprised as always, and patted Thomas again on the shoulder with an another calm smile. It still didn’t reach his eyes, “I’m going to sedate you.” He explained, “When you wake you’ll be at the abbey. It’ll help with the transportation if you’re not able to feel the effects.”

Dr. Clarkson revealed a syringe he’d been holding in his left hand, a slim tube full of pale yellow liquid. He drew down Thomas’ covers so that Thomas’ left arm was revealed- and Thomas was shocked to see a smattering of bruises dotting his skin around his elbow as if he’d thrashed into something blunt and painful. Had he gotten these from the bathtub? He also noted that his wrists were cuffed in thick leather- a darker color than his glove which covered his bullet wound. It seemed Dr. Clarkson had ordered him another covering just like before, though these were held with leather strings instead of buttons. A slight sting was the only effect of the needle as Dr. Clarkson bared the veins in the crook of his elbow and injected the sedative. For a moment they simply stared at each other and Thomas wondered if Dr. Clarkson had accidentally given him the wrong drug. Then—

It was dark.
He was beneath heavy covers.

Thomas shifted, groaning softly. He felt incredibly warm, secure and cocooned though he couldn’t say how or why. He blearily opened his aching eyes to see that his scenery had shifted entirely. Now he was back in his room at the abbey, the door to his room wide open and propped back with his desk chair so that he could see the dim hallway outside where no one stirred. He slowly rolled his head to the right to see his beside table where his alarm clock showed the time was a little after midnight. He blinked, eyes glazing over and making it difficult to discern shapes. He blinked again, a dark shadow at the edge of bed catching his eye as it grew and morphed.

He hoped.
He prayed.
And smiled.

“…Ed….ward…” Thomas managed to mumble, mouth thick as if full of cotton.

Edward smiled, perched on the edge of Thomas bed in his army uniform. He reached out, ghostly fingers nuzzling Thomas’ sweaty cheek. Thomas leaned into the touch, drawing as much comfort from it as he possibly could. Edward’s shape kept going in and out of focus, but his fingers never strayed.

“Sleep, my dove.” Edward whispered, voice as soft as the wind. Thomas fell asleep to it, soothed into a dark blissful slumber by the words, “My darling, my darling, my darling….”

 

When he woke, nothing had really changed.

His door was constantly kept open now, despite his urged protests to the contrary. It was the silent sign that Thomas was now no longer trusted on his own, and it burned him with deepest shame. His only visitor was Baxter during the day, and she stayed only as long as she could. Mostly, she brought him meals made by Mrs. Patmore who seemed determined to swell him up like a balloon. Spoon after spoon, Baxter refused to let him be until he’d eaten at least three bites of each dish he’d been given. It often left him feeling sick, and more than once he had to throw up for the sheer nausea that rolled over him. Walking was difficult; often the room spun. To keep from falling about, he had to cling to someone or something (usually Baxter) and bathing was almost impossible.

There was no dignity anymore. Baxter had to sit with him (which made Carson squawk though it kept Clarkson happy). She averted her eyes, keeping up small conversation while he slowly sponge bathed himself in the bathtub. The back of his head, once unwound from gauze, was revealed to be clipped slightly shorter than the rest of his hair. There were also stitches, which itched and burned, but Baxter put medicine on his wound and made sure it was kept clean. He kept his knees tucked to his chest, but reasoned in the end that Baxter had already seen him naked as a child, and she was more like a sister now than a friend. In the end he just sat quietly in the tub, letting her dab medicine on his head wound. Sometimes, he’d even close his eyes, relaxing silently into her touch.

That was it. That was the extent of his existence. Meals he vomited and baths he took with company.

 

 

Three days after his return to the abbey, a solid week after his incident in the bathtub, a visitor came to call.

It was a foggy morning when he arrived, and the veil of moisture had not yet lifted from the ground. From his room in the attic, Thomas lay oblivious to the world shifting outside his open bedroom door; below in the entrance hall, Mr. Carson walked across soft Persian carpet to answer the door bell. Upon the step, he revealed a man in his late thirties clad in a brown overcoat and trilby hat. Many things about this man were brown: he had curly brown hair and soft brown eyes. His shoes were brown as were his day suit and briefcase. He seemed to seep a persona of calm that washed over even Mr. Carson who felt oddly pleased to see the man though he couldn’t say why. The man bobbed his head, taking off his hat politely to say, “ How do you do, I’m Dr. Robert Kinsey. I’m here to see Mr. Thomas Barrow?”

Mr. Carson stepped aside, allowing Dr. Kinsey entrance and offered out his hand, “Dr. Kinsey, I am Mr. Carson the butler of Downton Abbey, how do you do.”

“How do you do.” Dr. Kinsey’s handshake was gentle but firm, the mark of a man who’d been schooled well.

“Please come with me.” Mr. Carson beckoned with a hand, leading Dr. Kinsey across the hall, “May I take your coat and hat?”

“Yes, thank you.” Dr. Kinsey offered Mr. Carson both, walking with purpose a step or two behind him so that as they approached the green baize door they did so in unison. “Forgive me for coming through the front door, I was unsure where to enter.”

“No, it’s quite alright.” It pleased Carson that Dr. Kinsey should acknowledge the divide between servant and master, even if he did not walk it himself, “Allow me to take you to Thomas’ room.”

“Please.”

They walked up three flights of stairs. Around them, the house moved and breathed.

“I am in charge of all male staff at the abbey, as such I can tell you that Thomas has been suffering mentally and shutting out all attempts for help.” Mr. Carson explained. Dr. Kinsey listened intensely, though not to what Mr. Carson assumed, “No one knows how to reach him, no one really wants to.” Carson admitted as they hit the top floor and began to navigate their way through the attic stronghold. Only one door was open.

It was at this time that Thomas heard Dr. Kinsey’s voice for the first time, a soft melodious tone. He’d been laying in bed all morning after vomiting up a bowl of porridge, feeling clammy and cold despite the warm duvet thrown over him.

“-We have work to do and we would rather put this into the hands of a professional who has the time and knows what they’re doing-“ the sound of heavy footfalls and an acerbic tone alerted Thomas to the presence of danger. He tensed in bed, legs drawing up to his chest as he shifted higher upon his pillows.

“Is this his room?”

“It is.”

Mr. Carson came around the corner, walking straight into Thomas’ room without a door to stop him. He was followed by a man with curly brown hair and a soft somber smile. He seemed around Bates’ age, perhaps a little bit younger, and carried a briefcase at his side. Upon seeing Thomas, his smile grew in earnest as if they were good friends. As he made to step around the bed, perhaps to shake Thomas’ hand, however, Mr. Carson stopped him with a look of warning.

“This is Thomas Barrow.” Mr. Carson introduced, gesturing to Thomas like he might a particular painting hanging on the gallery floor, “This is Dr. Robert Kinsey.” Carson gestured to the man at his side, who was still smiling. “He is an associate of Dr. Clarkson’s and a psychiatrist who’s come to iron you out.”

Dr. Kinsey looked taken aback at that.

“I’ll leave you to it.” Mr. Carson grumbled, heading back to the hall, “If you need anything- a cup of tea, a fire extinguisher, do not hesitate to ask.”

Dr. Kinsey blinked.

As Mr. Carson’s footsteps faded down the hallway, Dr. Kinsey looked at the door propped by Thomas’ desk chair, and pulled it away so that the door might finally close.

Allowed his privacy once again, Thomas didn’t know what to make of the straight backed man before him clutching a briefcase in one hand and the back of a chair in another.

“Do you mind if I take your desk chair?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

Thomas shook his head.

Dr. Kinsey pulled Thomas’ chair all the way around to the side of the bed, sitting down as Baxter often did. It was only then that he offered Thomas his hand to shake.

Thomas stared at it, petrified.

Men like Dr. Kinsey were notorious for sending men like Thomas to mental asylums, and a very large part of him wanted to scream and run from this bespectacled stranger before him. He might look kind and offer a wide smile but… he was still a therapist and the moment he found out Thomas was a homosexual Thomas was certain he’d throw him in prison. Or worse.

Dr. Kinsey seemed to realize that Thomas was not going to shake his hand and withdrew it, still smiling in earnest. He set his briefcase upon his lap, opening it with a soft click to pull out a pad of paper and a fine ball point pen. He jaunted his leg upon his knee to create a lap desk for himself of sorts, offering Thomas another kind smile.

“How are you feeling today?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

Thomas wondered if it would be acceptable to scream. He stared, petrified at Dr. Kinsey.

“Your colleagues appear to think you are feeling unwell.” Dr. Kinsey said, as calm as could be as if Thomas had not just denied shaking his hand or answering his initial question. “Do you have any idea of why they might have gotten such an idea?”

This was hell. Pure torture.

Thomas looked away, taking deep shuddering breathes. He was on the verge of a nervous break down, and had to battle with himself internally to remember that should he snap and scream Dr. Kinsey would probably- would probably-

But he was talking again.

“Being a doctor takes a lot of training.” Dr. Kinsey admitted, as if they were very good friends sharing a story over a beer instead of a doctor at a patient’s bedside, “I had a fiancé once. An April Olgate.” he paused with clear affection at the name, “She was beautiful you know, a perfect English wife in the making. I loved her, I did, but I was so busy with my studies and my work that I often had to put her second. She didn’t like that; who would?” Dr. Kinsey mused aloud.

What is this man doing? Thomas wondered, fearfully, still refusing to look at Dr. Kinsey.

“She told me in the end that she couldn’t be with me. That she couldn’t play second fiddle to a stethoscope. My best friend at the time… Drew… he said the same thing about a year later. So I was out two people that I cared for.”

“But we have been friends-“ a voice haunted Thomas’ memory, “And I hope you find some happiness. Truly I do.”

A handshake that hung on just one second too long to be natural.

“Then my mother died, and I… didn’t quite know what to make of life anymore. I remember one night I was sitting in my study working on case papers… and I stood up. And I left. I walked right out of my house, I walked all the way to the train station… and I made to purchase a ticket to leave the country.”

How many times had Thomas wanted to do the same. To simply run away and never look back. He wondered where Dr. Kinsey had been able to go, with the money of a middle class man’s salary lining his pocket. He could have made it to Paris, or even Italy.

“Where did you go?” Thomas whispered, suddenly finding that he simply had to know. The anticipation was killing him, filling him up with images of sandy beaches that he’d never be able to go to.

“No where.” Dr. Kinsey didn’t sound concerned about the lack of hope it offered, “I didn’t have enough money. I stood there in the dark, and watched my train leave without me on it. All because I didn’t have an extra throppin’ in my pocket.” Dr. Kinsey shrugged his shoulders with a small sad smile, “I confess I stood there and cried, because I wanted so badly to leave and be free… but I just didn’t have enough money.”

And there it was.

Thomas put a hand over his mouth, thinking of bunnies and blank walls, and marbles- skittering and rolling across his-

“Why hide your feelings?” Dr. Kinsey asked as Thomas wiped furiously at his silent tears.

“I have no feelings.” Thomas bit out, bitter.

“Why?”

“Because I’m evil.”

For so long he’d wanted to say that, to get out the pain inside of him that Carson, Bates, Lord Grantham- anybody with a mouth really- had placed there. Being told he was evil had slammed down an invisible divider, cutting him off from the rest of humanity even in his direst hour of need. At the same time, the propriety of English society demanded that he never mention it to another living soul, so that he was forced to carry around the burden of shame without relief for the sake of other’s comfort. Now, on the verge of ranting and raving upon his bed, he was finally able to point at it. To throw a flaming torch at it. To scream ‘here it is!’ and let the good doctor know.

Dr. Kinsey did not look perturbed. When he spoke it was with absolute calmness, not even bothering to write upon his clipboard. “Who told you that?” He asked, rubbing his fingers together, one arm upon his stomach to perch up his other; his ball pen twirled amid his fingers.

“Everyone!” Thomas blurted, “My father, my mother, my siblings… Mr. Carson…” Funny what his term of ‘everyone’ consisted of, “Everyone.” He mumbled again.

“And do you agree with their assessment?” Dr. Kinsey asked in a way that suggested he himself did not.

“No.” How could he agree when he knew he wasn’t- or-

Did he? Thomas’ head was beginning to ache from the barrage of questions Dr. Kinsey was throwing at him. Couldn’t he just offer up advice like normal doctors? Why did he have to keep asking-

“Why?”

Thomas didn’t even know what to say to that.

“Because…” He flustered, “I… love things? And I’m good? And evil things don’t want to be good?” That was the best he could come up with on short notice, though it sounded like it could have come from a three year old. But Dr. Kinsey was pleased, nodding his head and scratching something down onto his legal pad.

“I agree.” He mused, “That is a very smart observation.” It angered Thomas endlessly to know that he had utterly no idea whether Dr. Kinsey was being serious or was mocking him. He wiped his eyes bitterly, “I find that the world often judges based on many things, but sometimes neglects to truly se the soul of a man. Seeing the true soul of a person takes patience and understanding. It is fortunate that you know your own soul, don’t you think?”

“But what does it matter?” Thomas demanded, “No one else sees it. All they see is evil so that’s all I’ll ever be.”

“Well.” Dr. Kinsey offered, “If you didn’t know your own soul, how could you possible ever share it- the true you- with anyone else?” He twirled his ball point pen repeatedly in his fingers.

So maybe the doctor had a point, but it was inconsequential at this point, “No one wants to see it.” he muttered. Maybe if he’d had this information fifteen years ago, he could have done something with it. But now…?

“I-“ Dr. Kinsey began but before he could continue the door to Thomas’ bedroom opened again to reveal Mrs. Hughes. Dr. Kinsey was startled, glancing at Mrs. Hughes only to slide back the cuff of his jacket to view his wrist watch. He looked quite disappointed.

“I’m afraid the hour is up, Doctor.” Mrs. Hughes explained witha gentle smile.

Dr. Kinsey gave Thomas a small smile, capping his pen to stow it back in his breast pocket. He flipped his notepad closed, sliding it back into his briefcase to shut it with a snap.

“I’ll be back tomorrow at the same time.” Dr. Kinsey assured him, “We’ll finish our conversation then. I look forward to it, Thomas. Truly.” At this, Dr. Kinsey offered his hand again for Thomas to shake.

But there was no point in shaking this man’s hand… not when he’d surely put Thomas in a mental institution by the end of his stay. Dr. Kinsey didn’t take it to heart, instead reaching out to pat Thomas upon the knee.

“Try and get some sleep.” Dr. Kinsey murmured, rising up and scooting Thomas’ desk chair back to it’s original place at the desk. He didn’t seem pleased when Mrs. Hughes instead took the chair by its backing and drug it to prop open Thomas’ door. They shared a quick glance, one confused and one assuring.

Dr. Kinsey left, Mrs. Hughes following after him, and though Thomas would never be aware of it they shared a conversation just down the hall.

“How is he?” Mrs. Hughes whispered as they reached the door divide between the men and women’s side. She locked it behind them, a detail Dr. Kinsey noted with greatest care. This house was structured on rules, not all of them comforting.

“He is persisting.” Was the answer Dr. Kinsey offered. Mrs. Hughes did not take it with optimism.

“I’m not sure how I should take that.” She admitted frankly. He appreciated her honesty, the lack of barb in her bite.

“Right now,” Dr. Kinsey explained, “I can only say this much: that kindness and understanding are key. That patience is essential. I cannot crack the code of a safe in one visit. I need time to understand the situation, which is why I am here.”

“Well I’m glad you are.” Mrs. Hughes said. They walked down the corridor at a leisurely pace, the keys to the house bouncing upon her hip, “And if there’s anything you need, please tell me.” She paused to offer her hand in a polite shake. He took it, noting her grip was firm was gentle, “I’m Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper… Mr. Carson’s wife.”

“Mrs. Hughes.” Dr. Kinsey gave her a small smile, “Dr. Robert Kinsey.”

“You’re the talk of the downstairs, I can tell you.” Mrs. Hughes said as they began to walk again. There was the gentlest humor in her voice; once again Dr. Kinsey appreciated it, “Why not get yourself a cup of tea if you’re tired?”

“Thank you, that’s very kind.” Dr. Kinsey said as they hit the stairwell. They descended together, with Mrs. Hughes stopping at the main level to instead pass through the green baize door into the entrance hall. Dr. Kinsey was unaware that her eyes watched his retreating back with slightest sorrow.

As Dr. Kinsey hit the ground level, he found it packed with maids, most of whom seemed to be on one errand or another. In a large and boisterous kitchen an equally large and boisterous red haired woman ordered another young woman around. She waved a spatula like a marching baton, clearly the cook. He wondered how safe it was to ask for a cup of tea mid-meal preparation, but before he could make to ask he was suddenly encroached upon by an older woman with dark hair twisted into a tight bun and an exhausted expression that spoke miles for anxiety.

“Dr. Kinsey?” The woman asked, nervously. Dr. Kinsey noted that the corner of her eye twitched a little- that her fingers jittered. This woman had much on her mind.

“Yes?”

“May I speak with you in private?” She begged.

“Naturally.” He agreed, and she took him to a room down the hall lined with shelves full of shoe polish centered around a large work table. Clearly this was a room for shoe shining and mending. She shut the door behind them, wringing her hands as she turned around.

“How is he?” The woman asked.

“Persisting.” Dr. Kinsey repeated.

“Please,” The woman did not like this answer, growing even more fretful as she wrung her hands harder, “Please tell me the truth, I beg you. I care deeply for Thomas and I’m frightened to think of him waisting away if there was something I could only do-!”

Dr. Kinsey calmed her with his hands, noting that as she spoke in a rush her voice only grew higher and higher. Upstairs Thomas had spoken of being outcasted, yet here was a woman contrary to the concept. Someone who was clearly a friend and deeply afraid for Thomas’ mental state. Who was she?

“Don’t be frighted.” Dr. Kinsey murmured, noting the woman’s eye was still twitching, “Who are you?”

“I’m sorry-“ the woman pressed a trembling hand to her brow to dab away sweat, using her other to offer Dr. Kinsey a handshake, “My name is Phyllis Baxter. I’m her ladyship’s maid, and Thomas’ childhood friend.”

“You knew him in childhood?” Dr. Kinsey asked, amazed. What a find indeed!

“Yes.” Ms. Baxter said sadly.

The tone in her voice did not allude to hope.

“Ms. Baxter…” Dr. Kinsey murmured, keeping his voice as calm as possible. He wondered if she too might profit from a conversation, a helping ear, “Tell me what you know of Thomas’ family.”

She bent her head forward and began to whisper.

 

The story was far from abnormal though not entirely pleasant and Dr. Kinsey thought on it often for the rest of the night and into the next morning as he settled into the abbey. His room was clean and opulent, his meals were sumptuous and full of splendor… but none of it could distract him from that tiny room in the attic so full of pain.

Thomas, as it turned out, was the second oldest child of a prominent clockmaker from Stockport, a tiny village in the west close to the coast. His parents were respected in the community, his siblings numbered in six, and his home had been relatively stable. To Ms. Baxter’s eyes, the Barrows had appeared quite kind, and had often offered her a place at their table given her friendship with their oldest child and daughter Margret. Yet Margret had whispered to Ms. Baxter all sorts of things when they’d been alone, tales of her father’s short temper and her mother’s lack of affection save for when sickness called. The little ones had all run to Margret for love, save for one: Thomas. Thomas had run to his father, begged for acceptance… and found himself wanting.

Then one day, Margret had come home from school to find that Thomas was gone. Neither of their parents had commented on it, had even refused mention of his name at the table during meals. Yet Ms. Baxter’s mother had been home earlier that day and had watched from her sitting room window as Thomas was drug from the back door of the Barrow residence only to be flung into the yard where he’d been beaten heavily by his father who’d called everything from a ‘devil worshiper’ to ‘diseased’. Thomas had cried upon the stoop, begged for forgiveness and a second chance, but the door had been slammed in his face. Thomas had limped from the yard, vanishing into the woods never to be seen again until Ms. Baxter had received a letter from him during a dark time in her life nearly twenty years later. He’d heard of her woes, and wanted to offer her a position in a grand and illustrious house: Downton Abbey. His position had come at the price of being his spy, and though Baxter had initially agreed out of lack of prospect she’d had to turn on him when she realized that those he wanted her to spy on her were good people. He’d been less than thrilled, but had come around in the end.

After all, as Ms. Baxter had been so eager to make clear, she was Thomas’ dearest friend.

So it was that the next day true to his word Dr. Kinsey climbed the stairs of the servant’s hall to the attic floor. Yet upon rounding the corner to Thomas’ room he found the bed empty. Taken aback, unsure of where Thomas was, Dr. Kinsey checked the bathrooms and all other rooms, knocking hesitantly upon each door. The entire attic was empty, and he headed downstairs to the ground floor unsure of where Thomas had snuck off to.

It seemed his patient was incredibly clever at avoiding his pain.

On the ground floor he ran into Ms. Baxter again, an oriental coat over her arm and a sewing box in her other hand. She smiled when she saw him, walking straight up to him though her eye was still twitching slightly at the corner.

“Ms. Baxter.” He greeted her warmly.

“Are you looking for Thomas?” She asked, sounding rather humored. So it seemed she knew where he’d run off to.

“I am.” Dr. Kinsey admitted, “He wasn’t in his room.”

“He’s hiding from you in the garden.” Ms. Baxter explained, cracking into a small but genuine smile.

“Then that explains it. Thank you.” Dr. Kinsey wasted absolutely no time, side stepping so that Ms. Baxter could pass. He made for the back door, determined to find his patient.

 

Thomas had thought himself incredibly clever to sneak out of his room, even going so far as to put on day trousers and a jacket. He’d not been able to pull of his undershirt, feeling too woozy when he’d lifted his arms over his head. Mrs. Hughes had attempted to make him get back in bed (“Thomas, what are you doing now?!”) but when Thomas had begged her for a bit of fresh air she’d conceded momentary defeat if only to make him stop “fretting”. He’d then sequestered himself deep in the garden, hiding behind a wall Lady Grantham’s lilac roses. The weather had been slightly chilly but his jacket kept him warm. The smell of the fragrant blooms lulled him into a false sense of security as the hour began to pass. He smirked as he thought of Dr. Kinsey trodding around the abbey at a loss-

But Thomas stopped smirking when he heard the sound of heavy feet encroaching his private venue. He opened one eye, frowning in dismay as Dr. Kinsey rounded the wall of roses to smile at Thomas crouched in the corner curled up in the manicured grass. Dr. Kinsey approached with ambivalent ease, as if they were good friends instead of Doctor and patient; he plopped down next to Thomas, setting his briefcase aside to grumble a little and relax against the wall of roses. He even plucked one, smelling the little purple bloom with a small smile.

“I thought if I hid out here you wouldn’t find me.” Thomas muttered, bitter.

“We don’t have to talk.” Dr. Kinsey assured him, which made Thomas feel slightly more at ease. “But I have to sit here with you until the next hour’s up or Carson will probably have something to say about it.”

But this did not bother Thomas nearly as much as it should. Carson’s abuse was as common as a rain shower to him, and arguing with it did nearly as much good, “Carson always has something to say. You know he once told me I should be horsewhipped? Maybe he’s the one who needs therapy.”

“That’s not a very kind thing to say.” Dr. Kinsey said, and at first Thomas thought he was being chastised until Dr. Kinsey said, “I bet that made you feel terrible. Sometimes I wonder if the people who hurst others in such a way are hurting inside themselves.”

If only everyone had the ability to understand this, “Explains me.” Thomas mumbled, “You know they all hate me.” He warned, “They wonder why you’re even here.”

“Do they?” Dr. Kinsey mused, turning to glanced at Thomas. He still had the rose to his nose, practically speaking into the blossom, “Am I not here because they expressed concern about you?”

Thomas shook his head, unwilling to be duped, “You’re here because Dr. Clarkson made you come.”

“It’s true that Dr. Clarkson was the one to make contact with me, but according to his words he was doing so because of other’s concern for your wellbeing.” Dr. Kinsey paused, opening his briefcase to put his clipped bloom inside. He drew out his notepad as well, tugging free his ballpoint pen from his inner vest pocket, “And just to be clear, I wasn’t made to do anything. I’ve enjoyed my time at the abbey thus far.”

“Of course you have.” Thomas muttered bitterly, pulling his legs up to his chest so that he could prop his chin atop his knees. He looked away from Dr. Kinsey to stop himself from glancing at the notepad upon his lap. He couldn’t say why but for some reason it just felt rude to look, “you’re normal. And what others expressed concern for my wellbeing? No one cares about me.”

Dr. Kinsey smiled, twirling his pen through his fingers again, “I had an older brother that was the social butterfly of the family.” Dr. Kinsey offered, “Always knew what to say, the whole family adored him… Me I couldn’t string three words together without starting a riot at the dinner table. But you know what?” He turned with a smirk, “I was still a member at the family, and I always had a place at that dinner table. Even if I didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

But Thomas’ seat at the dinner table had been easily taken by Moseley without another to be offered to him… and his own family had practically ignored him at the dinner table during meals. He could remember not being passed dishes, having to actually fight for food just so that he wouldn’t go to bed hungry. Some might say it was the mark of having six siblings to contend with but Thomas knew better. When had Margret ever had to beg for food? Or Daniel?

“I’m the ugly black sheep.” Thomas muttered. “No one wants me at their table.” He leaned into the rose wall, head lolling upon his shoulders as he closed his eyes again.

“Is that so.” Dr. Kinsey didn’t sound convinced, “You know, fleece is just as warm, black or white.”

“I’d give anything to be a white sheep.” Thomas admitted softly.

“Why?”

Thomas didn’t answer, unwilling to admit to Dr. Kinsey that he was a homosexual. The minute he did it would be off to a psyche ward with him, he was certain. He instead tugged at tufts of grass by his legs, fingers soon stained green at the tips.

“Do you care about what they think?” Dr. Kinsey asked gently; Thomas could hear the pen scratching against the pad of paper and knew that he was writing, “About you?”

“Yes.” Thomas said. He was glad Dr. Kinsey had asked. It had been a fact long hidden inside of him. Someone needed to know it.

More writing. More scratching.

“It must hurt terribly.” Dr. Kinsey mused, “To be outcasted by the people you love.” Once again Thomas did not answer, “Maybe we could help open the avenues for communication?”

“It wouldn’t come to anything.” Thomas whispered, shaking his head. If only live were that easy.

“Do you know that for a fact?”

Thomas nodded, glum. More writing and scratching.

“So it won’t hurt if I eat downstairs with you tonight?”

The marbles rolled in Thomas’ head, warning him.

What is this man doing? they skittered, nervous. Why does he ask so many questions?

Thomas finally shook his head, unsure of what else to say. What honest excuse could he give to keep the man away. If he wanted to eat downstairs, he had every right to. Unlike Thomas.

“Good.” Dr. Kinsey said. He heard an odd clipping noise and looked around to see that Dr. Kinsey had capped his ball point pen to slide it into his vest pocket again, “Let’s see if the downstairs eat better than the upstairs.”

 

Thomas blinked, nervous.

 

The next day Thomas found himself incredibly nervous and unable to focus. He tried to read but couldn’t make out the words. He tried to sleep but couldn’t. He walked about in his room, but found that he grew dizzy if he paced too much. In a warped plan for sleep, he walked till he was incredibly dizzy then collapsed onto his bed.

But once the dizziness passed he still wasn’t asleep and lay in a bitter mood till daylight faded into darkness and sounds of footsteps coming up the stairs alerted him to unwanted company. He sat up in bed, wary. Andy came around the corner, dressed impeccably in his livery.

“It’s time for dinner.” Andy said, “I thought I’d let you know.”

Thomas rose from bed, moving slowly lest he grow dizzy, and dressed in the same trousers and jacket from yesterday in the garden. He couldn’t find it in him to put on his livery. He couldn’t even pull his braces up over his shoulders, so exhausted was he. Instead he put on shirtsleeves and tugged on his jacket so that it hid his lack of a vest. He was horribly undressed by Mr. Carson’s standards, and knew that he was in for a scolding… but perhaps this was what needed to happen. If Dr. Kinsey saw the lack of sympathy he would stop imagining Thomas to be dramatic.

He trod carefully downstairs, taking each step with caution and clinging carefully to the rail. If he looked down for too long, he grew dizzy and had to stare straight ahead lest he fall. By the time that he reached the bottom step on the ground floor he felt incredibly unwell and walked slowly to the servant’s hall. Most of the maids were gone for the day, with only one or two staying for dinner. He wrapped his jacket tightly about himself for warmth, entering the servant’s hall to find it mercifully empty. Wanting to get warm, he took his armchair by the fire and sat down slowly. The blaze warmed the ache in his bones, making him feel as if he was in bed instead of downstairs, and he even curled his legs up beneath him. His feet stuck out awkwardly beneath the arm rest.

He closed his eyes, listening to the meticulous roll and pop of the fire.

A terse cough interrupted him. He opened his eyes to see Mr. Carson glaring dully at him, gripping the back of the rocking chair opposite to him. Thomas tensed, his jacket feeling oddly thin even as he gripped it to his chest.

“Is this the new fashion?” Carson gestured irritably at Thomas’ lack of dress, “To mix day wear with work wear? Or did the bump on the head addle your brain?”

“I’m cold” Was the only answer Thomas could come up with. Mr. Carson looked distinctly uncomfortable when he heard it, shifting upon his heavy feet and pursing his thin lips into a scowling line.

“Don’t make a habit of it.” He muttered, turning away and leaving for the hall. Thomas slumped back into his rocking chair, realizing in hindsight that he hadn’t even risen for Carson as was expected of servants. It seemed his manors were slipping. He closed his eyes again, turning his face to the fire, and for a moment he was left alone to bath in the heat. He tried to imagine that he was outside in a lovely open field, that the warmth he felt was actually the sun on his face and not a fireside.

“…Thomas…?”

Thomas opened his eyes again to see Daisy before him, bearing a solitary cup of tea upon a chipped saucer and looking, in a word, guilty. She didn’t seem to know what to do now that she was before him with tea, remaining stock still as Thomas blinked blearily at her.

“…What.” He asked when she did not make to speak further. Daisy offered him the cup of tea, meek and mild in stark contrast to how she’d acted when she’d called him out in the servant’s hall. From openly proclaiming him a thief to offering him a cup of tea… this was new.

“I made you a cup o’ tea.” Daisy murmured.

Thomas reached out, exhausted, and took the cup of tea. It rattled upon the saucer in his grip, and he had to clutch it with both hands before it toppled over and scalded his skin. He took a hesitant sip, finding it flavored with honey and lemon, and glanced back up at Daisy.

She’d made it just the way he liked it. Daisy was twiddling with her fingers, unsure of what to say. In the end she seemed to think her errand completed in silence and turned to leave without another word. Thomas was left to sip tea on his own, which was just fine by him. He closed his eyes, drinking deeply, and allowed himself to be consumed by the burn of the-

“Thomas!”

Thomas choked on the tea, shocked by the loud warm voice near his ear. He nearly dropped the teacup, but was saved by a hand which shot out to help him steady the violently rattling cup upon its saucer. He looked around, amazed, to see Dr. Kinsey who seemed to have realized in hindsight that it wasn’t a good idea to startle Thomas. He was cursing himself internally with a bitter smile, offering him an apologetic glance as he helped him to set his teacup down. His coat and hat were missing- someone must have let him in. He clapped Thomas upon the shoulder as Thomas set his teacup down on a side table, coughing and pulling his jacket tighter to his chest to keep warm.

“Sorry to bother you old chum-“ Dr. Kinsey apologized, taking the chair opposite Thomas to sit down easily. Thomas blinked; no one had ever referred to him as an ‘old chum’. Dr. Kinsey took notice of his discomfort, shifting easily upon his seat to gesture at the daily paper which was folded on Thomas’ side table next to his teacup. Thomas hadn’t even seen it sitting there-

“Anything good in the paper?” He asked.

“I wasn’t looking.” Thomas admitted.

“Just relaxing by the fire?” Thomas nodded, “Then I will too.”

Thomas watched, unsure of what to say or do in his newfound company, but Dr. Kinsey was quite content to relax with his hands folded over his belly and his face turned to the fair. He rocked with an easy smile upon his face, and Thomas found himself taking Dr. Kinsey in for the first time. Truly staring at him and getting a look at the man.

He was handsome, slightly older than Thomas with a fine jaw line and soft curly brown hair that hung rather loosely at the nape of his neck. Thomas found himself wondering what Dr. Kinsey saw in him; why he kept coming back and pestering him. Surely he was learning by now that Thomas was a lost cause. Was he just bored or in it for the paycheck perhaps? Thomas wondered how much of this was coming out of his monthly wages-

Thomas bitter interlude was interrupted by the arrival of Ms. Baxter. She walked around the back of Dr. Kinsey’s chair, smiling when she saw the man and gripping the back of Thomas’ chair so that they were both staring at him. Dr. Kinsey was happy to see Ms. Baxter, reaching out and offering her his hand to shake which she gladly accepted over Thomas’ shoulder, “Ms. Baxter! How are you?”

“Well, thank you Dr. Kinsey.” Baxter said at ease. Her weight on the back of Thomas’ chair shifted his center of balance, causing him to lean back a little more than strictly necessary but he didn’t mind. “Are you joining us for dinner?”

“I am.” Dr. Kinsey said with an easy smile, relaxing back into his rocking chair, “I hope it won’t jostle the seating arrangements too much.”

“We’ll just pull up another chair.” Ms. Baxter assured him, but this made Thomas incredibly bitter and he turned to stare at the fire with an audible huff.

“It’s nice to know there’s always another chair.” Dr. Kinsey offered. Thomas scowled even more, remembering how when Mr. Moseley had rejoined the table he’d been forced to eat in the kitchen.

“When it can be found.” Thomas added bitterly under his breath.

“How do you mean?” Dr. Kinsey asked, curious.

“When I lost my seat, there wasn’t another chair to be found. Funny how that works.” Thomas snapped, suddenly wishing Baxter would get off his chair. He shifted, uncomfortable for how she made him lean back.

“What are you talking about?” Baxter asked, politely confused.

“When Moseley stayed for dinner and took my seat!” Thomas snapped, certain she knew exactly what he was talking about but playing dumb for the presence of the doctor, “I had to sit in the kitchen-“

“Thomas.” Ms. Baxter sounded quite exasperated now, coming around the side of his chair so that they could look one another in the eye. She gave him a pitiful smile, shaking her head. His nostrils flared, “Mrs. Patmore wanted you to sit in the kitchen. We moved your chair into the kitchen because she and Mrs. Hughes wanted you and Daisy to work out your argument. When we went outside, Mrs. Hughes told Daisy off for speaking brashly. You certainly had a chair.”

Thomas looked back to the fire, turning his back on Baxter. She didn’t mind, merely touching his shoulder to massage the tense muscle she found.

“Daisy, that’s a new name.” Dr. Kinsey mused. “And Mrs. Patmore?”

“Mrs. Patmore is the cook.” Ms. Baxter explained, “Daisy is her assistant.”

“Ah!” Dr. Kinsey exclaimed, “I see. So that’s why you sat and ate in the kitchen-“

“He didn’t particularly eat.” Baxter corrected, “He went upstairs.”

“Were you not hungry?” Dr. Kinsey asked. Thomas shook his head refusing to engage in the conversation. “Are you hungry now?” Thomas shook his head again. “So what are you going to do during dinner?”

Thomas said nothing, a long moment of silence following Dr. Kinsey’s question. It was at last broken by Baxter who said, “He’ll probably sit and not eat. Which is what he usually does.” She did not sound happy about that.

Dr. Kinsey leaned back in his rocking chair, drumming his fingers upon his lips and looking at Thomas through narrowed eyes. Thomas refused to catch his glance, instead allowing himself to become entranced by the way the fire overtook a log slowly reducing it to glowing ember and ash.

Others were entering the servant’s hall: Carson, Mrs. Hughes, the Bates and Andrew… they each took their place at the table, Mr. Carson sitting first so that everyone else could clamber into their seats. The sound of wood dragging across stone introduced a new chair to the table, and Baxter squeezed Thomas’ shoulder endearingly.

“Come on,” She urged, “Let’s sit down.”

But Thomas didn’t want to sit at the table. Thomas wanted to sit at the fire and be left alone. Dr. Kinsey was watching everything now, his eyes wide and blazing as he watched how each person interacted with another at the table. Everyone was chatting, smiling, enjoying themselves- but no one was coming over to talk to Thomas. Dr. Kinsey noticed this but did not let his emotional reaction show upon his face.

“Shall we?” Dr. Kinsey offered to Thomas instead, gesturing to the table at large. Thomas merely continued to stare at the fire.

Dr. Kinsey got off of his chair, and at first Thomas thought that he would be left alone at the fire until- to his shock- Dr. Kinsey took a knee before Thomas so that they could speak privately despite the growing audience.

“I promise you it won’t be painful.” Dr. Kinsey murmured, looking up into Thomas’ face. Thomas continued to stare at the fire, refusing to meet his eye. Dr. Kinsey didn’t seem to mind, “I won’t be docking points from some tally.”

Wouldn’t he? Thomas was unsure.

“If you’ll join us, Mr. Barrow-“ Carson sneered from the table, “Some of us wish to consume our food.”

A scatter of snickering broke out. Thomas refused to answer.

“We’re coming, Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey assured the table, “If you’ll just give us one moment.”

The snickering stopped.

Dr. Kinsey looked back around to Thomas, leaning in even closer so that he was practically whispering in Thomas’ ear.

“I’ll sit beside you, yes?” Dr. Kinsey urged, “You can introduce me.”

Thomas shook his head. He didn’t want to talk.

“Then you needn’t speak at all.” Dr. Kinsey assured him, and there was a true gentleness in his voice. “I promise you, Thomas. I won’t let anything bad happen to you tonight.”

He glanced at Dr. Kinsey, and found the man smiling.
He didn’t know whether to believe him or not… but Carson’s patience wouldn’t last forever either way.

Exhausted, irritable, Thomas rose from his rocking chair. Dr. Kinsey got off his knees, following him to the table so that as Thomas sat to the right of Ms. Baxter, Dr. Kinsey sat to the right of him next to Mr. Carson. Mr. Carson gave Thomas an irritable huff at his lack of dress once more, and as Mrs. Patmore brought in the first round of meat and vegetable to place it upon the table Mr. Carson spoke with looming authority so that the whole table grew silent.

“This is Dr. Robert Kinsey,” Mr. Carson explained, beginning to cut into the roast beef Mrs. Patmore sat before him so that everyone could have their slice, “He will be our guest tonight, so please try to be on your best behavior…” He paused, grumbling to himself, “As abysmal as even that is.”

Mr. Carson began to pass the plates around. Dr. Kinsey received a helping of roast beef first.

“Thank you, Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey said. Food was passed out and though Thomas received a plate of roast beef he did not feel compelled to eat it. He instead began to sip on a fresh cup of tea, keeping absolutely still as conversation broke out around him. Dr. Kinsey didn’t speak either, which Thomas thought was incredibly odd. He’d been under the impression Dr. Kinsey had wanted to speak to everyone but realized now that Dr. Kinsey only wanted to observe. He merely wanted to watch, as if this was some kind of spectator sport-

“What kind of doctor are you, Dr. Kinsey?” Anna spoke up from down the table. Dr. Kinsey had to glance around both Thomas and Ms. Baxter to see her, and offered her a polite smile as he smiled a mouthful of roasted brussels sprouts.

“I’m a behavioral psychologist, with a specialization in social psychology.” Dr. Kinsey explained.

“Are you Thomas’ therapist?” Anna asked, and Thomas could not help but notice everyone at the table grew a tad bit quieter as if to all eavesdrop on the same conversation. Mr. Carson bristled mid bite of roast beef, eyes narrowed at Anna.

“I am.” Dr. Kinsey said. Was it Thomas’ imagination or did he sound less than enthused?

“There’s a job no one wants.” Bates muttered around his mashed potatoes.

Right.

Thomas rose up, ready to leave the table, but was suddenly grabbed on both sides by Dr. Kinsey and Ms. Baxter. They forced him back into his seat, Dr. Kinsey speaking up.

“Easy, Thomas.” Dr. Kinsey offered gently. “Give me my chance.”

Thomas gripped his teacup with unnecessary force, glaring into the cup as he took a long sip.

“I quite disagree,” Dr. Kinsey offered, and though he negated Bates there was a tone of joviality in his voice that disgusted Thomas. How dare he be chummy with these people? “I find Mr. Barrow to be a great conversational partner.”

Thomas stared, forgetting about his tea and his irritation as he blinked owlishly at Dr. Kinsey. He offered Thomas a bemused smile, even winking god help him. Had it been under different circumstances Thomas would have thought Dr. Kinsey was flirting with him.

“I’m sure he’s charming.” Bates sneered in a voice that insisted anything but. He wasn’t even looking at Dr. Kinsey, instead merely staring at his roast beef as he took a bite.

“Do you disagree?” Dr. Kinsey asked, and once again he spoke in the calmest voice. Bates was starting to get annoyed, Thomas could tell in the stiffness of his shoulders and how he looked around to stare at Dr. Kinsey. Thomas bowed his head, staring resolutely at his tea lest he burst into flames from the heat of Bates’ gaze.

“I don’t agree.” Bates corrected him. Dr. Kinsey did not back down, still smiling as he took another bite of roast beef.

“Why?”

“Experience.”

“Well.” Dr. Kinsey offered the entire table a smile now, “We’ve all been surprised at one time or another, haven’t we?”

“Thomas has never surprised me.” Baxter spoke up, surprising even Thomas in her vocal support. Normally Baxter kept quiet, “I know him to be wonderful.”

“Then you are the only one.” Bates grumbled around a mouthful of vegetable.

“I’m sure she’s not.” Mrs. Hughes said across the table. She cut her roast beef carefully, eyes flickering back and forth from Bates, to Baxter, to Thomas, to Dr. Kinsey. “I happen to enjoy Thomas as well.”

Bates huffed. Dr. Kinsey spoke up again, distracting the entire table, seeming to sense that Bates’ patience was close to its end. “Now, I’m not familiar with everyone here. Would it be too heinous of me to ask names?”

“Certainly not.” Mrs. Hughes assured him.

“I’m Anna Bates.” Anna spoke up first, ever the diplomat for goodness. She offered Dr. Kinsey a small but honest smile, “I’m Lady Mary’s maid.”

“Ah I see.” Dr. Kinsey nodded, and he tipped his head to her. “How do you do?”

“How do you do.” She chuckled back, returning to her plate.

“I’m Andy Parker-“ Andy spoke up, but when Carson coughed, he had to amend his answer, “Andrew, I mean-“

“Andy to me then.” Dr. Kinsey offered with a smile.

“John Bates.” Bates spoke up from Anna’s other side. “His lordship’s valet.” He did not even bother looking at Dr. Kinsey, which Thomas found incredibly rude. He suddenly wanted to call Bates out at the table but didn’t, sensing disaster on the other end of that sentence.

“His lordship has been most gracious allowing me to stay at the abbey while I conduct my work.” Dr. Kinsey said. Bates slowed in his eating, eyes narrowed as he glanced up to glare at Dr. Kinsey. Dr. Kinsey did not bluff in his stride, “He’s very well spoken, which isn’t always a guarantee at Eton.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean-“ Mr. Carson snapped, ever the one to hold up the honor of the noble gentry.

“Only that his lordship’s manors are superb even for a gentleman.” Dr. Kinsey explained. At this Carson looked quite smug, slicing his roast beef neatly with renewed enthusiasm for their dinner guest. Bates looked impressed to, even grinning though it was a small bitter thing. Thomas stared at Dr. Kinsey, wondering what game he was playing. Had he deduced that complimenting Lord Grantham was the way to Bates’ and Carson’s hearts? Or was he being genuine. “Don’t you think so, Thomas?”

Thomas was taken aback, having not expected for Dr. Kinsey to ask his opinion on anything, never the less Lord Grantham. In truth, Thomas had no problem with the man though he’d never been in the occupation of praising him like Bates or Carson. He was fair, but he’d also chastised Thomas several times in a way that he could only describe as ‘fatherly’. It had made his skin crawl, reminding him of how his own father had forced him to sit in a corner for hours when he’d misbehaved in his youth. Many times, Thomas had had to eat in that corner, not being allowed back to the dinner table-

“You’ll have to forgive him.” Bates muttered nastily when Thomas refused to speak, “His own manors are lacking.”

“Ah, once again we are ships that pass in the night.” Dr. Kinsey said, though humor tickled his voice. “We must find something to agree on. Quick, what’s your favorite meal?”

“I’m fond of fish and chips.” Bates said after a moment. He sounded slightly suspicious.

“Ah, there we go.” Dr. Kinsey grinned as he finished his roast beef, “Excellent now we have something in common.”

The others tittered, amused.

“But do you use lots of vinegar or a little?” Dr. Kinsey asked, finger pointed in warning. Bates grinned, sneering as he finished his mashed potatoes.

“Depends upon my mood.” Was his sly answer.

“Oh that’s an easy answer.” Dr. Kinsey chortled, “I’ll have to keep an eye on you.” Bates just kept grinning.

The others continued to eat, but now seemed at ease. Dr. Kinsey had passed their unspoken test of trust by gaining Bates’ enjoyment. Thomas rubbed at his brow, a headache suddenly blossoming in his skull. He looked down at his plate, still full of food and growing cold. He pushed it away a little, unable to look at it. The smell was making him nauseas. He took another sip of tea, finishing off his cup, and made to pour himself another. To his shock his grip was so weak he could not pick up the pot. Baxter had to do it for him, though she did it with a smile and even offered him the honey pot as well as a slice of lemon for him to garnish his drink. He did so, his gaze low as he stirred in both.

“I wonder if you could find it in you to get him to eat.” Mr. Carson muttered to Dr. Kinsey under his breath so that no one else could hear. Thomas bristled, nauseas at being called out. Dr. Kinsey paused, a fork of brussels sprouts hanging mid air. For the first time, he looked uneasy, but he did not glare at Carson. Instead, he listened intently. “He looks like a skeleton, and it’s unseemly upstairs. The family have been complaining.”

Thomas’ cheeks flushed in embarrassment. Dr. Kinsey ate his forkful of food slowly, pondering his answer. Thomas noted that he did not speak without first thinking through every word very carefully… a mark of a truly intelligent man.

“That is a dangerous occupation.” Dr. Kinsey warned softly.

“I beg you pardon?” Mr. Carson grumbled.

“You cannot demand that kind of change.” Dr. Kinsey warned, “Nor can you criticize. If you try to trick or force someone to eat it can make the situation much worse. Accusatory attitudes likewise have no place. There are no simple solutions… and I’ve learned that this is a sign of serious bullying.”

Mr. Carson seemed to find this laughable as he took a long sip of tea, “No one is bullying him.” He chortled.

“Ah. I see.” Dr. Kinsey did not sound impressed. He turned in his seat, looking across from Thomas to Ms. Baxter who had finished her meal and was now helping herself to a bit of apple crumble. She offered him a slice, which he accepted, and a sumptuous wave of apple passed Thomas nose as the dish went by.

“Tell me, you said you knew Thomas from childhood?”

The conversation was growing dim again. Both Anna and Bates looked around amazed, as did Mrs. Hughes. Baxter fell silent, slightly taken aback, and Dr. Kinsey seemed to realize that absolutely no one else had known their connection.

“You what?” Anna asked, amazed.

“… We were next door neighbors, yes.” Ms. Baxter explained. Anna looked at her husband in amazement. “I even used to babysit him.”

“Oh goody.” Bates muttered irritably. Thomas bristled again, unsure of why it was that that particular comment spurned him so.

“No.” Baxter warned, so that Bates paused mid bite of crumble with a wary look upon his face, “He was wonderful. He never fused, except for one time he did run around naked in the backyard and got his father’s trousers filthy.”

This prompted another wave of snickering across the table, though a sharp look from Mr. Carson shut it down. Thomas closed his eyes, setting his tea cup down. He wanted to go to bed- he felt so ungodly tired.

“oh I did much worse than that.” Dr. Kinsey offered, dabbing at his lips with a napkin to grin at the rest of the table.

“Telling tales on yourself?” Mrs. Hughes asked with a small smile. Dr. Kinsey just shrugged.

“Well I can’t let Thomas have all the fun now can I.” Dr. Kinsey mused, “I once went to a very luxurious dinner party at a grand estate with my parents when I was but four years old. I was dressed smart, I got to eat from a fine plate- I was delighted. And in the back yard there were a massive pond centered around a shooting fountain. On the fountain there were nests of butterflies that gathered nectar from large flowers. I remember thinking what an incredible sight it was.”

“That sounds beautiful.” Anna praised. Dr. Kinsey beamed at her.

“It was! Thank you!” He continued on, “You see I wanted to partake in such beauty.”

“I know where this is going.” Bates mused. Others were beginning to snicker. Even Mrs. Hughes was smiling enraptured.

“So I reached out-“ Dr. Kinsey opened his hand to the air, “And fell into the pool. And couldn’t swim.”

“Goodness.” Mrs. Hughes chuckled, “However did you get out?”

“The butler of the estate fished me out and ruined his livery. Worst of all, he carried me inside to have my father towel me off and the poor man tripped! And broke his ankle. I successfully maimed the butler.” Dr. Kinsey shrugged bemusedly. Carson snorted into his apple crumble, causing the others to snicker loudly. “What I’m trying to say Mr. Carson, is do be careful around me. I’m notorious among upper staff.”

The others were incredibly relaxed now, and though before today Dr. Kinsey had been a stranger to them he seemed to have garnered their respect. Even Bates was at ease, which was a mark… Bates rarely relaxed around strangers.

“I’m afraid Thomas never did anything that notorious.” Baxter spoke up, “He was the perfect child. He even picked me flowers.”

“How nice.” Mrs. Hughes smiled sweetly from across the table. Thomas flushed, looking down at his tea cup.

“I believe I was your childhood sweetheart.” Ms. Baxter said, which made Anna laugh, “You certainly were quick to dote on me. You’d find me treasures and tell everyone I was the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“But that’s precious!” Anna said aloud.

“If only you’d stayed that nice.” Bates grumbled, relaxing in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest.

“Ah, but he did.” Baxter warned with a small smile, “You were out in the garden today, picking flowers.” She looked to Thomas, her expression turning quirky, “Who were you picking them for?”

Everyone around the table looked at him now, waiting for an answer. Even Bates.

Thomas took a slow sip of tea. “Mrs. Hughes.” He finally said. The table jerked into a round of loud snickering.

“Oh dear.” Mrs. Hughes spoke up above it all, smiling at Baxter in dismay as she shrugged, “What a shame.”

Eager to put off his headache, Thomas slid his plate back and took a small bite of roast beef. It was barely a helping, more like the pecking of a bird, but it sated his stomach and kept him from feeling nauseas. He pushed his plate back.

Dr. Kinsey smiled.

 

~*~

After dinner, Dr. Kinsey sat with Thomas by the fire again. He watched as Thomas consumed three bites of roast beef and a roll, pleased that he’d at least eaten something amid all the toil. Even if it was small, it was a success, and Dr. Kinsey did not take it for granted. He watched as Thomas relaxed by the fire, noting how incredibly thin he was. His jaw line and cheek bones were incredibly pronounced, the bruising beneath his eyes from his open skull fracture making him look as if he’d been smacked by a boxer across the face. His collar bone could be seen even beneath his shirt, and his neck was quite thin. In recompense, Thomas’ hands seemed abnormally large, all the bones in his wrists and fingers incredibly obvious. His arms were thin, like the branches of a small tree. Though Thomas would not be able to realize it without suffering a sense of anxiety, the reason he felt comforted by the fire was because his body was unable to retain heat without its layer of fat. He needed to eat and soon, or his body would suffer even more complications. Dr. Kinsey considered all the concepts and ideas he’d heard at university, watching as Thomas dozed and pretended not to hear the conversation around him so as to be left alone.

Dr. Kinsey noted that the Bates were leaving for the night, fetching their coats and hats from the hallway. Eager to catch them before they were gone, Dr. Kinsey rose and followed them till he could catch them by the back door.

“Mr. Bates.” Dr. Kinsey called out, “May I speak with you both in private before you go?”

“Certainly.” Bates said. Dr. Kinsey noted that Bates used a cane as he walked and favored his right leg only slightly. His stiff posture and glaring tendency leaned towards time in service, given his age probably the Baur war. Dr. Kinsey also noted that despite being gay and light, Anna Bates remained oddly subservient at her husband’s side and did not speak up often in his presence. He wondered at the state of their relationship. He also wondered if Bates noticed that Thomas often behaved in the same way Anna did around him- if he ever thought as to why that was. Dr. Kinsey was almost certain he knew: Thomas liked Bates (whether in an inverted way or not) and desperately sought his approval.

Dr. Kinsey took them to the same room full of boots and polish that Ms. Baxter had introduced him to yesterday, and shut the door behind the three of them to garner privacy.

“I’ve learned this is the room for secrets.” Dr. Kinsey offered to ease the tension.

“You’re catching on quick.” Anna Bates smiled tenderly.

“Mr. Carson better watch his ankles.” Bates sneered. Dr. Kinsey noted that Bates was not particularly malicious, not up front, but he probably he could be if pressed. He was a tight knit man who kept his cards close to his chest and refused the help of strangers… Dr. Kinsey wondered if Bates considered Thomas a threat, and if so, how much? He doubted it. With arms like the limbs of a thin tree, Thomas was as much threat as a butterfly.

“What is your relationship with Thomas, if I may?” Dr. Kinsey asked Bates. He stiffened, narrowing his eyes suspiciously again, “The reason I ask is because he is most preoccupied with your feelings towards him. Indeed…” Kinsey mused, “He cares greatly about you.”

“I find that very hard to believe.” Bates growled; at his side Anna refused to speak now, “Thomas spent a good ten years making every day here a living hell for me. He tried to get me fired several times; he’s a notorious liar.” He added warningly, “I’d be careful not to believe what he says on the first try.”

Dr. Kinsey just stared, refusing to be blocked by a mere wall of ‘He’s a liar’.

People like Thomas did lie for fun. They lied for protection.

Bates seemed to realize that Dr. Kinsey would not be put off, and snorted softly, shaking his head as he tried again.

“Our relationship is… complicated.” Bates finally conceded.

“I agree.” Dr. Kinsey offered in support. Bates carried on, speaking much softer now with great introspection. Bates was clearly a man to throw up a wall at first; a trait he and Thomas shared whether or not he knew it.

“Once, Thomas made a very… bad mistake… and I had to help him out.” Bates explained, “After that… we weren’t particularly enemies but we certainly weren’t friends. It’s difficult to explain. Thomas and I are locked in an eternal struggle. It’s hard to make an outsider understand. It’s hard for me to understand.” Bates added, bitterly.

Dr. Kinsey nodded, wondering what on earth Thomas had done to so need Bates’ help. He did not comment on it however, finding that it was irrelevant to the situation before them. What mattered now wasn’t Thomas’ mistakes; it was Thomas’ relationships with others in the house.

“What if I told you that Thomas was you friend?” Dr. Kinsey offered gently. Bates said nothing, though he did not scowl, “What if I told you the reason Thomas wasn’t eating was because Thomas was punishing himself. Because he felt hated by you and Mr. Carson… like was evil and unfit to eat at the table with the everyone else.”

Bates continued to stare, absolutely silent.

“What would you say?” Dr. Kinsey offered again, just as gently as before. Best not to push too hard. Bates looked down, then at Anna, raising one eyebrow. She looked at her husband just as silent as he. It seemed they were having a private conversation before Dr. Kinsey which wasn’t too uncommon in his experience with married couples.

“I’m trying to open lines of communication between you and Thomas, Mr. Bates.” Dr. Kinsey explained, “But I need your help.”

Bates sighed, wearied by the suggestion, “Do you think you can help me or does that make you uncomfortable?”

“I don’t know what you expect.” Bates muttered.

“I expect absolutely nothing.” Dr. Kinsey assured him with a gentle smile, “Save for new communication no matter how small or meagre. I need the same thing from Mr. Carson but somehow I think you’ll be more receptive.”

Bates shifted a bit on his cane, raising a dark eyebrow, “What makes you think that.”

“Because I think you are Thomas’ friend, Mr. Bates. Even if you won’t admit it.”

Bates closed his eyes for a moment, sighing again. At his arm, Anna petted his jacket sleeve. He looked down at her again, and smiled hesitantly with him.

“… He fights with the whole word, Mr. Bates.” Anna murmured softly. Odd that she shouldn’t call her own husband by his first name, “Not just you.”

“And he keeps on losing.” Bates mused.

“It’s as simple as this, Mr. Bates.” Dr. Kinsey said, attracting both their attentions, “Are you his friend or not. The rest is detail. The rest falls to the side. Yes or no.”

Bates fixed his bowler hat a little better upon his head, straightening the cuff of his collar. Anna did the same, recognizing that they were leaving.

“… I’ll see what I can do.” Was the only offer Bates gave him, but Dr. Kinsey knew how to read a ‘yes’ when he was given one.

The Bates’ tipped their hats to him as they left, and Dr. Kinsey opened the door for them so that they could leave. He watched as they walked out the door, noting that Anna automatically intertwined her husband’s hand with her own. As they left out the back door, Dr. Kinsey rubbed his brow a little, then headed for Mr. Carson’s office which he only knew for its prime location amid the servant’s hall. He found the door closed, and knocked carefully to hear Carson grumble from the other side “Enter”. Dr. Kinsey did so, opening the door a little to see Mr. Carson behind a large desk drinking a small glass of sherry. Mrs. Hughes was with him, sipping from her own glass, and smiled kindly at Dr. Kinsey as he shut the door again.

“Dr. Kinsey.” Mr. Carson said, “How may I help you?”

“I hope I haven’t bothered you both at an important time?” He asked, but Mrs. Hughes shook her head.

“Not at all. “She declared, “Please, sit down.” He did so across from them, feeling a bit like he had while still at school and before the principle.

“How is our patient?” Mr. Carson said, in a voice that wasn’t particularly sarcastic but still clipped.

“Oh, he’s persisting.” Dr. Kinsey said, for if ever there was one to take up that verb and definition it was Thomas Barrow.

“I suppose you’ve had your fill by now?” Mr. Carson asked, and Dr. Kinsey realized Mr. Carson might have mistook his visit for a departure.

“Oh no.” Dr. Kinsey shook his head, “No, I came to talk to you about your relationship with Thomas.”

“I have no relationship with him.” Mr. Carson corrected him. Next to him, Mrs. Hughes set down her sherry, giving her husband a sharp look. So it seemed she disagreed.

“How so?” Dr. Kinsey asked, never one to be confrontational when it came to such matters. Patience was key. Patience and communication. “You are his boss, technically.”

“Thomas has never sought help from me.” Mr. Carson explained, “I might order him about but that’s the extent of it.” he nodded his head, content with the idea that Thomas was detached from him. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. It seemed Mrs. Hughes knew this too, for she sighed again, staring plaintively at Dr. Kinsey.

“Is it?” Dr. Kinsey offered, causing Carson to stare warily as if Dr. Kinsey were urging him to do something particularly unlawful or dangerous, “Mr. Carson, allow me to be frank with you.”

“I would appreciate it.” Mr. Carson said in clipped tones that suggested his patience was reaching its end.

“You’re a man of facts, of diligence and hard work. I think you keep good relationships with all your staff save for Thomas, and I want to know why.”

Carson sighed, irritated, “Thomas is not what I look for in an employee. He is lazy, undisciplined, and a liar.”

“That must be very disappointing.” Dr. Kinsey mused sympathetically.

“Indeed!” Carson snorted.

“Where did you learn your work ethic from, if I may ask?” Dr. Kinsey wondered.

“My father.”

“So it was in your blood, you might say?”

“Well.” Carson reasoned, “I wasn’t always this hard working.”

“Oh I see.” Dr. Kinsey noted that Mrs. Hughes was just as silent as Anna when her husband was speaking. He wondered why, again, “So you’ve been in Thomas’ shoes?”

“Well I have never been a liar.” Carson warned, irritably.

“I never insisted that.” Dr. Kinsey urged at once, knowing that should he attempt to disaster would be waiting for him. Carson had very little patience for nonsense. “Only that you know how it feels to be… lost… per-say.” Carson stared at him, warily, “Because that’s what he is. Lost.”

Carson took a slow sip of port. “I am aware.”

“And maybe what he needs is… a guiding hand?” Dr. Kinsey offered extending his own in gesture.

“I could guide him for ten thousand years and it still wouldn’t be enough-“ Mr. Carson muttered nastily under his breath.

 

“Watch out for Mr. Carson, the butler.” Richard Clarkson had warned him over the phone, “It’s no secret he does not care for Thomas. I am of the firm opinion it was Mr. Carson’s bullying agenda that pushed Thomas to suicide.”

Dr. Kinsey drummed his fingers over his lips, carefully weighing his options. Mrs. Hughes was a good woman, kind and understanding. She did not seem pressured by her husband, or frightened in his presence. She was not meek nor meagre. She could easily speak his mind, or so Dr. Kinsey could see. This, to him, denoted that Carson was not particularly violent or cruel by nature. If Mr. Carson was so to Thomas, it was rooted in spitefulness and irritation, not in base concept… so that meant there was hope for an answer.

But first, they had to address the elephant in the room.

“Mr. Carson, I am aware that you do not care for Thomas.” Dr. Kinsey assured him. Carson raised an eyebrow, though this time he was not wary. “That you do not approve of him being a homosexual and you probably find him a nuisance on this staff, but the fact of the matter is that Thomas looks to you, looks up to you, and needs your guidance in this trying time.”

Mr. Carson was amazed at this, setting down his glass of port to stare Dr. Kinsey directly in the eye. “So you know he is-“

“A homosexual, yes.” Dr. Kinsey said, “I’m a student of Freud.”

“I imagined as such.” Mr. Carson did not sound impressed nor annoyed at this.

Unwilling to lecture the man but understanding that facts had to be presented, Dr. Kinsey went for the clipped version of details, “The fact of the matter is that Thomas, in his early life, must have experienced something incredibly pushing towards his father, no doubt desperately looking for love and support- or likewise experienced something distressing in regards to a female, such as cruelty from his mother. It's an inversion. He’s seeking love from other men because he never had a man love him. In every homosexual there are the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies. In Thomas’ case they were never able to develop because his father never loved him or showed him support. Indeed it is my belief that he emotionally, mentally, and even physically abused Thomas… and Ms. Baxter has confirmed this for me.”

“I never saw it myself.” Ms. Baxter had whispered in the room full of boots, “But Margret told me horrible things. How Thomas wasn’t allowed to eat at the table with the rest of the family. How he was like the scapegoat, and could be blamed for anything that went wrong. Eventually, it came to be that only Thomas was blamed because it was convenient for the others. I hated it… and so did she.”

“I see.” Mr. Carson sighed, taking another sip of port to finish off his glass. Mrs. Hughes poured him another in silence, seeming to find that it was better to remain silent at this critical moment. Mr. Carson did not look pleased by the facts Dr. Kinsey presented, but he did seem appreciative. As if he’d needed to hear someone say it for years. “I confess I’m not surprised.”

“He’s not eating because he’s punishing himself, Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey explained. Carson pursed his lips, “He’s punishing himself for not being good enough for you or Mr. Bates. Do you see?”

“He has never expressed interest in being a member of our family-“

“Openely.” Dr. Kinsey added quickly. Carson fell silent again, listening intently, “But there is such a thing as shyness. As timidness… and forgive me if I insist that Thomas is incredibly timid towards you.” He paused knowing that he was about to tread onto very thin ice. “That comes with being declared you ought to be horsewhipped.”

Both Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson bristled. Mrs. Hughes stared at her husband, silent but glaring. Mr. Carson seemed to realize her eyes were upon him, and was almost cowed as he instead coughed a little and shifted in his seat. Dr. Kinsey regretted nothing, knowing now that Carson would have to confront that particularly rude sentence and its effects.

“I see.” Mr. Carson coughed again, “He told you that, did he?”

“… You scared him, Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey said softly. Mr. Carson did not look pleased, his expression slackening into something very close to guilt. “His heart never forgot that pain.”

Carson fingered the rim of his glass of port, silent for a moment. Mrs. Hughes did not touch her own glass, watching the conversation unfold intently.

“What would you have me do?” Mr. Carson asked after a moment.

“Lend him a hand, emotionally.” Dr. Kinsey offered “Be patient with him, and offer him your understanding. Above all, look to him as a member of the family, as much as you would Anna or Mr. Bates. He wants your approval desperately. Give it and see what happens.”

Mr. Carson spoke carefully, not wanting to sound suggestive but every word laced with cautionary hope, “If I approve… will he become… normal?”

“Heterosexual?” Dr. Kinsey defined. Carson nodded, but it was a tiny jerk of the head and nothing to write home about. Next to him Mrs. Hughes gave him a look of dry irritation. “It’s possible after a prolonged exposure to male sympathy and understanding that Thomas might stop seeking love from men… but it's difficult to know. These cases are often individualistic. I cannot look at results across the board but I can try and help him reason with his sexual inversion if that makes you feel better. But he’ll need your approval either way for any change to happen.”

Carson seemed satisfied by this answer. Just for good measure he added, “And what if I don’t approve.”

Dr. Kinsey stared, and though he did not speak with malicious tone, his words reeked with ominous warning: “Buy a pine box.”

~*~

In his demotion to second footman, Thomas lost a great deal of tasks to Andy. Admittedly he was still primarily in charge of polishing silver and such, but Andy was the one now who laid the table with Mr. Carson and served tea. This left Thomas an odd amount of free time that he hadn’t been able to have before.

He did with it the only thing he thought appropriate: cared for the children.

Without a nanny, the maids were the ones who dressed, bathed, fed, and cared for the children until a new one could be found. At least, they were the ones until Thomas cut in and offered to take the job for them. They were more than happy to hand the responsibility over, already being laden down by their own work and not needing more. There was no one in the world that Thomas liked being with more than the children, and it absolutely delighted him that he could do so now (and even call it work related). Marigold needed the most care, still being no bigger than one. She mostly clung to him, hoisted upon his hip as he juggled Sybbie and George as good as any professional governess. In the morning as early as six, Thomas went up to the nursery and woke the children for their breakfast. He fed them porridge and toast, dressed them in their day clothes, and set them up with tasks to do before begrudgingly handing them over to a maid and heading downstairs for his routine chores. When it was time for afternoon tea, Thomas took his upstairs again, and played with the children as long as he could until once again he had to hand them off to a maid in order to have his daily session with Dr. Kinsey and polish more silver downstairs. Thomas likewise ate dinner with the children (lying and claiming to take a tray to his room) and made sure they ate enough supper before giving each of them a bath, putting them in their pajamas, and reading them a story in bed. They got tired of their old books and in the end simply asked Thomas to tell them a story all his own. Thus Thomas told them amazing such as “The Witch of O’Brien” and “The Valet and the Cursed Snuffbox”.

Though their favorite story by far was “Princess Jimmy and the Bad Kiss”.

He told no one about his adventures with the children, preferring to keep it to himself. Even Dr. Kinsey was completely unaware, though for some reason he didn’t seem to mind that Thomas didn’t talk continuously during their sessions. He didn’t seem to mind anything, actually… What a strange man. They talked about anything Thomas desired, from the weather to art, and when Thomas felt the darkness inside him surge Dr. Kinsey instead asked questions that no one before had ever dared such as, “Why” and even more dangerous “why not”. Thomas didn’t know how to answer most of these questions, at least not initially, so Dr. Kinsey urged that he ought to start writing down things in his journal. Thomas didn’t do this, and instead focused on spending more of his time with the children. Dr. Kinsey urged that he ought to do things that made him happy, truly happy. Being with the children made him truly happy. This, therefore, was an excellent use of his time and ought to make Dr. Kinsey happy even if he technically didn’t know it was occurring.

Thomas couldn’t please everyone, after all.

The next Sunday, Andy had requested the afternoon off in order to go into the village. Thomas, being the second footman, therefore took over his tasks for the day and would not be able to be with the children. With this in mind, Thomas paid extra special attention to them as he lovingly brushed Sybbie’s chestnut hair. She, like her father and mother, possessed unnaturally good looks, and she used them every chance she got as she gave him a thoughtful stare from her vanity mirror. Sitting on his lap, she played with a pink silk ribbon between her fingers. Marigold was upon the floor, hurriedly stacking and knocking ABC blocks to her pleasure. George sat upon his bed, watching and waiting his turn impatiently. His little legs kicked back and forth, his blue eyes narrowing as Thomas continued combing Sybbie’s hair.

“Mister Barrow?” Sybbie spoke up.

“Mmm.” Thomas caught her eye in the vanity mirror and gave her a small smile.

“Will the bobbies catch the bad nanny?” Sybbie asked.

“Perhaps.” Thomas mused; such a smart child to consider all the outcomes, “What matters is that she didn’t hurt any of you. Neh?” He bent to the left, so that he could smile upon her shoulder and gently pecked her cheek. She grinned cheekily and kissed him back, no doubt smelling his aftershave and pomade.

George gave a tiny jealous noise of discontent. Thomas scooped Sybbie about the waist, hoisting her off so that she could be set upon the floor and go off to play. Thomas gestured for George, who immediately clambered off the bed and hopped upon Thomas’ lap. Thomas winced as George bounced rather exuberantly upon more tender areas. It hadn’t been his intention, obviously; Thomas shifted his legs to alleviate the pain between them and set about brushing George’s hair. He grinned in the mirror and Thomas grinned back, tucking a golden lock behind his ear.

 

 

With Andy gone to the village it was Thomas’ duty to serve afternoon tea in the library. The family was gathered there for the most part, with Lady Mary and Branson playing with George and Sybbie while Lady Grantham held Marigold on her lap and Lord Grantham paced the floor. In her basket by the hearth, Tiaa chewed on a toy, practically gnawing the thing to death in her enthusiasm.

Dr. Kinsey was out at the moment, apparently down in the village taking a late lunch with Dr. Clarkson. Apparently they were old friends; it made sense that they might see one another while Dr. Kinsey was in the area. This was good for Thomas, who didn’t enjoy serving the family while Dr. Kinsey was near. For the most part, he kept his interactions with the family to a minimum and for that Thomas was grateful. But he was still, technically, rooming in their manor and would from time to time greet Lord Grantham when they met on the stairs or join the family for breakfast.

Thomas watched as George and Sybbie prattled with each other while playing with their parents. Branson was more keen for a hands on approach, allowing Sybbie to grab books and bring them to him for her amusement. She mostly wanted him to point out pictures of places in geography books, eager to know which historic sight was closer to Yorkshire or in England at all. George on the other hand sat patiently in his mother’s lap, mostly watching Thomas pour and serve tea. Lady Mary drank her tea with one hand and held George with the other while Henry sat beside her and mused over a motor magazine. In lack of fresh sport, he often contented himself looking over pictures of new cars. Thomas could hardly blame him, the poor man must be going stir crazy by this point. Downton was far from a race course. Most of the time.

“I still can’t believe this happened.” Lady Grantham tisked, stroking Marigold’s auburn curls. She’d clearly inherited Lady Edith’s hair, “She was so nice.”

“Thieves always are.” Lord Grantham said as he paced the floor and accepted a fresh cup of tea from Thomas, “That’s how they make their way in.”

“Are the police any closer to catching her?” Lady Mary asked.

“They’ve had a few leads, but nothing successful as of yet.” Lord Grantham said, blowing gently upon his tea.

“Well at least the maids have been taking good care of you.” Lady Mary said smugly, stroking George’s neck so that she could play with the blonde curls at its nape.

“No.” Sybbie corrected her aunt, and before Thomas could stop her she said, “Mr. Barrow has.”

“Goodness!” Lady Grantham looked around with a puzzled if genuinely polite smile. Lady Mary raised an eyebrow. “You have been very helpful. Thank you, Thomas.”

“M’lady.” Was the only reply Thomas could summon up, bobbing his head in an expected manner. He prayed to god Sybbie would hold back from telling the family just how extensively he’d taken care of them. He had a feeling their good graces and appreciation would only extend so far.

“But surely the maids have been doing some of the work,” Branson said, though Sybbie continued to shake her head till her chestnut hair swung about her like a cloud, “Who else could have been dressing and bathing you? Barrow would have been run ragged otherwise.”

“No. He’s been doing all of it.” Sybbie corrected. Across the couch, Lady Grantham gaped in astonishment, “He’s been taking care of all of us.”

Lord Grantham looked about, bemused, “Is this true?”

Thomas blanched, certain that they would be able to see the blood draining out of his face as he meekly answered, “M’lord.”

“But, how have you been able to be a footman and a nanny to the children all a the same time?” Lord Grantham asked, setting down his tea cup to address Thomas without distraction.

“I can’t imagine it possible.” Lady Grantham scoffed softly from the couch, still smiling bemusedly. Thomas flushed, looking down at the Persian carpet beneath his feet.

“…I… I manage my time as best I can, M’lord. And I don’t require much sleep.” Thomas mumbled.

“Goodness.” Lady Mary set her teacup down as well. He even had Branson’s full attention as he set Sybbie’s books aside. “But that’s far too much work for one man to take on.”

Thomas’ heart sank from sad to anxious as Lord Grantham added, “I’ll have to speak to Carson about this, Thomas. It’s far too much work for you-“

“But I don’t mind, M’lord. Truly!” Thomas urged, hating to sound like a whimpering child though that was exactly what he was in the eyes of Lord Grantham, “I like looking after them! It’s the best part of my day-“

“And we’re very grateful to you,” Lady Grantham urged in that oddly firm American way of hers. She was still smiling though Thomas couldn’t see what there was to smile about “But you’ve had a difficult summer. It would be unfair to put so much strain on you when you’re trying to recover.”

It was one of the rare times that someone openly referred to Thomas’ July-from-hell, and he winced physically as he looked away to stare at the bookcase against the far wall. It seemed like Lady Grantham realized why Thomas was suddenly silent, and coughed gently to cover up the tension in the air. Lady Mary, however, had chosen the opposite corner of her mother and defended it staunchly.

“Well I for one am glad to know it’s you looking after George and the girls.” Lady Mary said, taking back up her teacup. Henry flipped a page in his motor magazine. Branson just continued to stare. “At least we know you have a good heart.”

Branson raised an eyebrow at this, grinning as he picked back up Sybbie’s book and flipped to a new page. Sybbie became engrossed with a picture of Stonehenge.

“Mister Barrow always checks for the boogey man.” Sybbie said, flipping a page to another map. Thomas could not help but smile a little, recalling how only last night he’d checked underneath both George and Sybbie’s beds before likewise searching the closet and declaring their room ‘safe’.

“Trust me Sybbie,” Branson joked, ruffling his daughter’s hair, “There’s nothing scarier in the house than him.”

Thomas stiffened, unwilling to admit how badly that stung.

“Tom.” Lady Mary grumbled, sounding slightly disgruntled as she raised an eyebrow. Branson raised his hands with a cheeky grin.

“I mean it in jest!” He assured. Lady Mary was satisfied, smirking into her teacup.

“Still.” she muttered around the rim.

 

Thomas spent of the rest of the day in utter fear of what Lord Grantham would say to Mr. Carson and how the events would unfold forthwith. He feared chastisement and prayed he could get out of it though he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was coming. That Carson would call him all sorts of names and sent him back emotionally about twenty years. In his state of unending nerves, Thomas fell asleep by the fireplace in the servant’s hall with his teacup barely touched and his temples pounding. He was awoken by a firm but gentle hand upon his shoulder, and jerked out a black dreamless sleep to see Anna before him with one of Lady Mary’s favorite frocks over her arm.

“Thomas-“ Anna straightened back up, giving him a disapproving frown, “Mr. Carson wants you in the library with his lordship.”

Thomas straightened up in his chair, cracking his back to relieve his stiff joints. Anna blanched at the noise he made, like one of Mrs. Patmore’s empty egg crates when she broke it down for scratch wood.

“Were you asleep?” she asked. Thomas nodded in way of an answer, rubbing his eyes blearily as he stepped around Anna and made for the door. Andy wasn’t back yet, so it clearly wasn’t time for dinner. He couldn’t have been out for more than half an hour at most; as he climbed the stairs to the main floor he desperately tried to quell his nerves within him. It wasn’t like he’d been caught doing something ‘bad’ per say, just something ‘unusual’. Unfortunately for Thomas, ‘bad’ and ‘unusual’ were one in the same book for Mr. Carson who probably still wore a victorian one-piece jumper for bed clothes.

Outside of the library, Thomas nervously straightened his bowtie and fixed his hair. He took a steadying breath and opened the door to the library to find the family once again clustered around the couches. Mr. Carson was between them, speaking in hushed tones with Lord Grantham and looking quite stern as Thomas shut the door behind him. The children were no longer in the room; perhaps they’d been sent upstairs for their afternoon nap. Thomas was trying to regiment them on a nap schedule finding that if they went down before dinner they were prone to be in a better mood and easier to put down for the night.

“Ah. Barrow.” Lord Grantham addressed him; he bobbed his head in dutiful response, “Carson and I were just talking about the new arrangements in the household. We both agree the strain of being nanny and a footman is far too much for you to take on by yourself.”

Thomas sighed, deflating internally and unable to keep from frowning. He’d been preparing for this since Lord Grantham had declared he wanted a word with Carson, but it still hurt to hear. Between being with the children and being with the other servants, Thomas knew which one he preferred. The children didn’t consider him a monster, unfeeling and obtuse- they wanted to play and to kiss him on the cheek. They let him brush their hair and tuck them into bed.

The other servants wouldn’t even look him in the face when they spoke to him.. and the words they shared were at a bare minimum most days.

“Papa…” Lady Mary mused, straightening up a little on the couch so that Henry had to shift as well from where she’d been leaning on his arm. “Why not have Barrow be the nanny until we find another?”

Thomas looked up, renewed hope sparking inside of him at Lady Mary’s allegiance to his plight. Lord Grantham looked taken aback and he wasn’t the only one. Carson wore a facial expression as if someone had just handed him a dead fish.

“Are you certain?” Lord Grantham asked, curious. Lady Grantham looked between them both, curious to see how this conversation would unfold.

On the couch across from the all, Branson stiffened. He said nothing but looked slightly wary as if he didn’t enjoy the idea of Thomas having such un monitored access to his daughter.

“Wouldn’t it be a little out of his territory?” Lady Grantham spoke up, not unkindly, “Thomas has no special training in child care.”

“He’s been looking after George, Sybbie, and Marigold all this time and doing a fine job of it, I must say.” Lady Mary deflected. Lady Grantham couldn’t deny it, and shrugged a little as she looked at her husband, “Why not let him and until then have Andrew be the only footman.”

“That’s hardly fair on Carson.” Lord Grantham gestured to his butler in defense, “He needs the extra set of hands-!”

“It wouldn’t be for long.” Lady Mary deflected once again, proving herself an immeasurable ally, “Only until we found a proper nanny… and anyway after the summer Thomas has had, maybe he needs a change.”

“It would be an interesting change at that.” Henry added from the couch.

Carson did not look happy. He grumbled and huffed, shifting irritably from foot to foot as he weighed the odds. Lord Grantham seemed to think this in Carson’s hands alone, and stayed silent as Carson finally pursed his lips to murmur, “If that is what my lady wishes.”

Thomas heart raced, the idea of being the nanny full time making him swell up with delight. To think, he could be with the children all the time! He couldn’t keep the smile from spreading on his face, and didn’t even mind when it made Lady Mary smirk.

“I only wish for the house to run smoothly, and Thomas passing out on the lawn will not help.” Lady Mary continued on, which made Carson raise an eyebrow, “It won’t be forever, Carson.” she smiled gently, hands shifting upon her lap, “And I should think every little girl would love to be cared for by her butler.”

Carson broke into the smallest of smiles, a tender tiny thing that did not last. It was no secret downstairs that Lady Mary was Carson’s favorite. Now that he saw it in action, Thomas was mystified. Somehow the man that ranted and raved he should be horsewhipped was the same man who doted and fawned over Lady Mary with the tenderest of affections.

“Don’t pretend you can argue with Lady Mary, Mr. Carson.” Henry joked from the couch. Carson tutted, though hardly in irritation.

“Then with your lordship’s permission?” Carson asked dryly. Lord Grantham shrugged, taken aback but still willing.

“It’s unorthodox.” Lord Grantham admitted, “but at least he won’t steal the sapphires.”

“How can he when they’re already gone?” Branson joked from the couch. Thomas pursed his lips, deflating slightly. Of course, Branson wouldn’t have forgotten Thomas’ thieving ways from 1912. But Thomas didn’t want to think of ugly things now- he wanted to be with the children… and if Lord Grantham approved?

“Tom!” Lady Mary chastised again.

“Jest!” Branson assured her with a generous smile, “I mean it in jest.”

“Still.” Lady Mary muttered, raising an eyebrow in disapproval.

“Thomas doesn’t seem the thieving type to me.” Henry said, which accounted for nothing since Henry hadn’t been in the damn house a month. What on earth could he possibly know?

“Thank you.” Lady Mary turned to her husband with a smirk, glad someone was taking her stance.

Carson gestured to Thomas with the flick of a hand, sending him away as if he were a pesky fly and not a human being, “Then up and away with you.” Carson grumbled, “the children need you.”

Thomas looked from Carson to Lord Grantham to Lady Mary, trying to determine whether this was a joke or truly news to celebrate for. Lady Mary just kept smirking, even daring to waggle her eyebrows at him as he suddenly began to beam.

“Can I-?” Thomas asked, still slightly unsure. So unused was he to hearing good news that when it actually came his way he didn’t know what to do. Lord Grantham seemed to find this all very funny, “Can I truly?”

“You can.” Lord Grantham replied with a chuckle, “Truly.”

“OH thank you, M’lord.” Thomas gushed, unsure of how else he could best phrase his praise. “Thank you! Thank you, so much!”

And with that, he ran from the library. He could have sworn he heard Lord Grantham laughing outright.

 

Upstairs Thomas found the children squabbling over toys and books, not going down for their scheduled afternoon nap at all, and he at once dismissed the overwhelmed maid who’d been ordered to care for them. She all but fled from the nursery, clearly in over her head and unwilling to stay a moment longer when she could be making a bed or ironing linens instead. Back in charge and utterly delighted by the prospect, Thomas broke up the squabbling, put the children in their prospective beds (and crib), and set them down for their nap. At first their were irritated, babbling how they wanted to ‘play’, but within ten minutes all of them were zonked out, mouths open and snoring softly as they sweated into their pillows. Thomas took the moment to clean up the nursery, putting toys away and throwing dirty clothes in the hamper. He rang for a maid to take it down for washing, and settled into the nursery rocking chair to watch the children sleep. He’d wake them in time for their supper, then set them to a task and eat his own. They’d bathe, go down, and Thomas would sneak out without any the three of them being the wiser.

Yes, the life of the nanny was a good one.

Near the end of nap time, Marigold began to whimper, and Thomas checked in on her to find that her nappy needed changing. Having had six siblings (five of whom had been younger than him) Thomas was more than aware of the bits and bods to changing a soiled nappy and fetched Marigold a doll to chatter to while he set her right. Halfway through it, there was a knock on the nursery door, which opened to reveal Dr. Kinsey who Thomas had forgotten all about. He’d no doubt been searching for Thomas for their afternoon session.

“My goodness, you’ve been busy.” Dr. Kinsey said softly as Thomas finished wrapped Marigold in a fresh nappy. She chewed on the arm of her doll, looking up at him with wide blue eyes.

“Work never stops.” Thomas mused.

“And who is this little one?” Dr. Kinsey asked, stepping around the side of the changing table so that he could smile down at Marigold. She watched him cautiously, but didn’t seem to mind him as Dr. Kinsey plucked at one of her auburn curls. It sprung instantly back into place.

“Marigold.” Thomas introduced them. “Lady Edith’s daughter-“ but he suddenly realized the blunder in this and flinched on reflex as Dr. Kinsey looked at him curious, “… We can’t say it out loud, but that’s who she is.”

“Ah, I see.” Dr. Kinsey didn’t judge, continuing to stroke Marigold’s many curls, “Poor little orphan.” He murmured.

Nappy changed, Thomas threw the old one in a special hamper and buttoned up Marigold’s slip. He always let them change before a nap, finding they slept better when they weren’t fully dressed.

“I spoke with Mr. Bates and Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey said. Thomas stiffened, nerves picking up again.

“What about?” He asked, plucking Marigold up from the changing table. She immediately entangled her hand in Thomas’ hair, pressing her face into his neck. He allowed it, soothing her as he pressed kisses into her forehead.

”About your need to be loved by them-“

Thomas’ heart jumped in his chest; he whirled about, eyes blazing at Dr. Kinsey as he hissed, “You did what?!”

If he hadn’t been in a nursery around sleeping children with one hiding in his neck, he would have screamed at Dr. Kinsey. The idea of such a conversation even taking place made him nauseas, made him want to grab Dr. Kinsey by his ridiculous gorgeous curls and slam his head against the nearest wall he could find. He imagined the look of revulsion upon Bates’ face, the sneering indifference upon Carson’s.

“Why would you do that?” Thomas spit out between clenched teeth.

Dr. Kinsey just gave him a small smile. “Because it needed to be done.”

Thomas looked away, horrified. How would he ever be able to look Carson or Bates in the eye again? How would he be able to explain Dr. Kinsey’s intentions without looking like a fool for the rest of his life? Bitter, he cupped Marigold’s head to his chest and buried his long nose in her hair. She smelt of baby powder and it soothed him.

“Would you be shocked if I told you that they were receptive? Concerned? That they wanted to help?”

Thomas wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest. Dr. Kinsey wasn’t the first person to lie to him in such a way.

“You’re lying.” Thomas said bitterly.

“I’m not.” Dr. Kinsey reached out and touched Thomas’ shoulder. He jumped a little, unnerved, but Dr. Kinsey did not drop his hand from Thomas’ shoulder. “I was even able to broach the subject of your sexual inversion with Mr. Carson.”

“My what?” Thomas had never heard of such a term before, but he didn’t like the sound of it. He turned, Dr. Kinsey’s hand still upon his shoulder as he stared unsure at the man.

“Your sexual inversion.” Dr. Kinsey repeated. He offered Thomas a small but sincere smile. “Your homosexual inclination.”

It felt like ice was dripping down his spine. Thomas took a step back, clutching Marigold to his breast like a shield.

“…You…” Thomas swallowed, “You think I’m a-“ But he couldn’t finish his sentence for fear. Perhaps if he played it off with naivety he could escape an asylum yet.

“I know.” Dr. Kinsey corrected, “I’ve always known. Dr. Clarkson told me.”

Thomas shuddered, petrified for what might come next. But instead of calling for a bobby or declaring him mentally unsound, Dr. Kinsey changed the subject with a small smile.

“Tell me Thomas, did your father treat you well?”

Thomas grimaced, continuing to stroke Marigold’s many auburn curls. The fact the of the matter was that Thomas’ father had not treated him well. Indeed, he’d treated Thomas like shit.

He shook his head, unwilling to say much more. He was still too afraid.

“Was he cruel to you?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“You stand on that chair and you stay there. All day.” his father snapped, forcing Thomas to stay stock still upon a kitchen chair that he’d drug into the middle of the living room floor. “You make a noise and I’ll take my belt to you. The rest of you, don’t talk to him!” He pointed to each of his children in warning, all of whom watched with wary eyes, “I’ll show you to make a mockery of this family.”

Thomas nodded.

“Did he yell at you? Even when it was unnecessary to do so?”

“You’re not even a Barrow are you-“ Thomas desperately polished the brass watch, trying to get out the smudge, “You’re a bloody waste of space!”

Thomas nodded.

“Did he belittle you? Make you feel small? For his own pleasure?”

Thomas didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He turned away, causing Dr. Kinsey’s hand to slip from his shoulder as he rocked Marigold to sleep. She was already passed out, the doll close to slipping from her grip.Thomas took it from her and placed the doll in her crib, making to bend over and put Marigold down there with her. She fussed a bit, disgruntled at being jostled. Thomas pulled her blanket over her legs, doing his best to ignore Dr. Kinsey who stood at his shoulder.

“Did he strike you?” Thomas refused to answer, fifteen years under the tyrannical reign of his father’s leather belt keeping him silent, “Did he hit you with the intent to cause pain for pain’s sake alone?”

Thomas turned away, checking first on George (who was still fast asleep) then Sybbie (who was dripping in sweat). He turned down Sybbie’s covers, fanning her to give her some air. For some reason she seemed to sweat more in her sleep than George or Marigold. He wondered why that was.

“It is my belief that you seek love from other men because you never found it from your father.”

That got a reaction out of him. Thomas turned about, irritated, and came face to face with Dr. Kinsey who was just over his shoulder.

“What?” Thomas demanded, disgruntled. Boy what a test this was. Thomas wanted to shout every word, but couldn’t do so in front of sleeping children.

“I believe that, had your father loved you, you would have been quite normal and not inclined to have sexually inverse thoughts.” Dr. Kinsey explained, with the most pleasant of expressions as if he wasn’t actually referring to Thomas’ lewd desire to have sex with other men, “You seek love from men like Mr. Bates and Mr. Carson, but when you don’t fine it, it only makes the inversion worse… Does that make any sense?”

No. It didn’t make any sense at all.

Thomas could remember being very young, before his father had started pinning him as the family scape goat. He’d been no more than four or five at most, and had found himself quite attracted to a farmer that lived down the road. Thomas had often sat on the fence bordering their properties and watched as the farmer baled hay, dripping with sweat… muscles rolling beneath the hot Stockport sun. Thomas could remember thinking just how beautiful the man was. How utterly perfect, the model specimen. Surely if what Dr. Kinsey was saying were accurate, he’d have only started to take to men after being shunned by his father, which hadn’t started until Thomas was about six or seven.

“I don’t see how my… tendencies…” Thomas muttered, “Have anything to do with that.”

“Do you not feel like, if Mr. Carson or Mr. Bates were to be kind to you and support you, that you might be inclined to look for affection elsewhere?”

“You mean…” Thomas didn’t want any gray area between them on this subject, not when he’d already shoved a needle full of unsterilized saline into his ass, “S-s-step out with a g-girl.” He didn’t know why the more words made him trip up. Dr. Kinsey smiled sympathetically.

“Correct.”

“I…” Thomas didn’t know what to say to this. A doctor had never asked him such questions before, “I like… men.” Thomas mumbled softly, “I always have. Even before my family abandoned me… I liked men. So I don’t see how the two can be connected.”

“I see.” Dr. Kinsey looked slightly disappointed. His frown didn’t last for long as he clapped Thomas on the shoulder again, “That’s alright, Thomas. It’s not your fault. It’s an inversion not a damnation. It shouldn’t be met with cruelty. Many great men have been sexually inverted. The fact of the matter is that homosexuality, while abnormal, is not damning. I know there’s a large misconception floating around stating that homosexuality leads to the fires of hell, but I’ll proclaim your innocence before God if I must.”

“You might have to.” Thomas whispered, unsure of what awaited him in the other life besides an icy bathtub and the ghost of a lover.

“Then I’ll see you at the pearly gates. It’s an appointment” Dr. Kinsey joked. Thomas didn’t quite know how to reply to that. “Thomas… you know I cannot stay.” Dr. Kinsey frowned a little, looking as if he’d much rather keep up with a few more sessions. Thomas honestly didn’t know how to feel about the man leaving. On one hand he asked horrifically difficult questions and pestered him endlessly. On the other he was one of the very few who greeted Thomas’ depressed miasma with optimism and understanding. Never before had someone paid such attention to him. “But I’m going to give you my address, and my telephone number. I want you to call me every day if you must, at any time, and we can discuss anything you like.”

He reached into his breast pocket and offered Thomas his calling card. Thomas accepted it, reading:

Dr. Robert Kinsey
69 Lancaster St.
London, SE1

44 20 7998 1707

Thomas pocketed the card, wondering if he might ever have reason to call on Dr. Kinsey.

“Tonight will be my last night with you.” Dr. Kinsey said, “I want to share it downstairs with you…. I’ve brought up a maid to take over with the children. Shall we?”

 

The maid didn’t look to pleased to be saddled once again with the children particularly when they each needed to be fed, bathed, changed, and put back to bed. Thomas likewise wasn’t pleased to leave the children, so they both wore sullen expressions as they passed in the doorway and traded places. Thomas went downstairs with Dr. Kinsey, who once again seemed quite happy not to say a word in amicable silence. As they hit the ground level the smell of pot pie and gravy made Thomas salivate. The sound of raucous laughter echoed from the servant’s hall which was packed with people. It seemed Moseley was joining them for dinner again tonight. Yet when Thomas appeared in the doorway, the laughter suddenly stopped, with several maids jamming fingers in their mouths to keep from making noise as Andy looked the other way entirely and coughed hurriedly into his shoulder. Dr. Kinsey waved to the Bates and Baxter, each of whom nodded their head back. Thomas pulled up a chair for Dr. Kinsey so that once again Thomas was squished between him and Ms. Baxter. Each of them stood behind their chairs, waiting for Mr. Carson, yet in the ticking silence that followed the butler’s arrival people started to laugh again. One maid in particular looked ready to cry with mirth.

Thomas had a feeling he knew what they were laughing about. Dr. Kinsey just wore a gentle smile, completely at ease.

Mr. Carson entered with Mrs. Hughes, both their eyes narrowing distastefully at the sound of snickering in the servant’s hall. Mr Carson pulled out his chair, chest puffed up with pride.

“That’s quite enough of that.” Mr. Carson warned, “Remember yourselves.”

He sat, and everyone else sat with him. Daisy entered, bringing with her a massive pot pie that steamed in its ceramic pot. She sat it before Mr. Carson, followed in by Gertie who brought out turnips, ham, and an oven braised savoy cabbage. As everyone began to load up their plates, Mr. Moseley (who sat on Ms. Baxter’s other side), leaned over and said, “See you’ve got a change in uniform, Mr. Barrow. Or rather, Thomas now I suppose.”

Thomas blinked.

Did Moseley just speak to him?

He looked about, unsure of what favor he’d fallen into for other people to start acknowledging him at the table. But even as he opened his mouth to comment on the fact that he was wearing Moseley’s old footman uniform, Andy blurted out from down at the other end of the table, “Gonna have another change soon.”

More snickering broke out, mostly from the maids. Daisy, snorted too even as she poured tea, pausing for a moment to regain her composure as Mrs. Hughes snapped, “That’s quite enough.” to make them all fall silent.

Thomas bristled, saying nothing as he clenched his fingers into tight fists. So it seemed the others found his new role amusing. Beside him, Dr. Kinsey watched; he still wasn’t pessimistic, but he seemed aware that a fight could break out and kept his eyes locked on Thomas’ face for any twitch of movement. Was this some sort of test to see how much Thomas could take without breaking?

For a moment there was absolute silence at the table as everyone ate. The only sound came from the clinking of cutlery upon ceramic until one of the younger maids sniggered, “You can borrow my apron.”

Everyone spluttered into laughter again, even Mr. Moseley and Anna. Thomas felt his cheeks begin to heat up, flushing wide blood as he heart pounded. Beside him Dr. Kinsey kept absolutely silent.

“Enough, Amelia!” Mrs. Hughes snapped, now on the verge of being angry. She glared at the maid till all the sniggering died into silence and they returned to their meal. She bit into her pot pie with more venom than was strictly required, taking her time to chew as she watched Thomas carefully from across the table.

“… Still no word from the police?” Baxter asked softly, turning in her seat to offer Thomas a plate full of sliced ham. He took a bit, knowing she was attempting to get him to eat despite the bullying from down at the other end of the table.

“Give it time.” Thomas consoled her. Baxter frowned, setting the plate back down. “Somethings bound to turn up.”

“Police?” Dr. Kinsey asked, curious.

“The prior nanny stole-“ Thomas began, but Mr. Carson coughed tersely causing Thomas to freeze up. The knowledge that this man had been encroached upon by Dr. Kinsey made his stomach do flip flops. God only knows what Carson thought of him now.

“We’ll have no more talk about that.” Carson warned Thomas, though his voice certainly lacked the bite it used to possess, “Dr. Kinsey is not a member of staff, Thomas. Remember the rules we live by.”

Thomas nodded, made meek by Carson’s words. In an attempt to keep peace at the table, he used the side of his fork to cut into his ham and took a small bite. It was incredibly salty in his mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Kinsey apologized to Carson, “I didn’t mean to get anyone in trouble.”

“It’s not a problem, Doctor.” Mr. Carson waved it off with a small flick of the wrist, “but I still don’t want it discussed. It’s a matter for our family alone.”

“I completely understand, Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey said, which kept the peace right up until Moseley spluttered into laughter again so that Mrs. Hughes set down her fork and knife with a loud ‘harrumph’.

“i can’t imagine you changing nappies.” Moseley said.
And just like that, the whole table burst into laughter.

“Or feeding them bottles!” Amelia the maid cackled.

“Or singing them to sleep, can you imagine?” Andy demanded of the others. By this point they were close to howling, with even Anna near tears. Daisy had to set her teapot down entirely in order to laugh into her hands.

Mrs. Hughes had had enough. “That’s quite enough!” She shouted.

At once, everyone shut up to the point where you might be able to hear a button hit the floor should one pop free. Mrs. Hughes’ cheeks were scarlet with anger, her eyes wide and livid, “Mr. Barrow has taken on a very difficult task to aid the family in their time of need. We ought to look at it as the proper example of good servitude and say no more of it, particularly when he cares so very much for the children- who I’ll remind you are your future employers!” She added with a warning finger pointed at each ruddy face.

The amusement died away, though Thomas’ cheeks and neck were still quite hot. He suddenly felt nauseas and did not make to eat, setting his fork aside to stare at his barely touched plate with disgust. Despite Mrs. Hughes and Ms. Baxter backing his corner, Thomas still felt utterly mocked. He wanted to run upstairs and hide there- to never speak to any of the servant’s again and instead fill his days with the children as best he could.

Beside him, Dr. Kinsey remained absolutely silent, listening intently.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hughes.” Anna spoke up at once, the humor still evident in he voice, “We mean no offense. I know Thomas will be a very good nanny- I just-“ She had to cough down a laugh, “It just makes a funny picture!”

“None of us are insulting you, Thomas!” Andy added. Thomas refused to meet his eyes, glaring at the wall over Mrs. Hughes shoulder instead, “It’s just funny to imagine. A cigarette in one hand and a baby bottle in the other.”

“Do you know what I find funny?” Carson demanded from the head of the table, causing everyone to shut up fast lest they receive their packing notice, “Everyone with a doubled work load.”

“… In all seriousness.” Anna said, her voice quite soft now. She leaned over to stare at Thomas; he did not meet her eyes, “If you need anything, just ask.”

What he needed was to leave this ruddy table. Thomas made to rise, ready to take his meal upstairs and dismiss the maid watching the children, but Dr. Kinsey’s hand was suddenly upon his arm urging him back into his seat. He leaned close so that his mouth was almost pressed to Thomas’ ear, murmuring, “Tell them they’re hurting your feelings if they are. Tell them right now. Make it clear that they’re upsetting you.”

Thomas turned so that Dr. Kinsey had to lean back before their noses brushed. “What do I say?” Thomas muttered under his breath.

“The truth.” Dr. Kinsey whispered, “See what happens.”

But that was impossible. Saying the truth would lead to him getting laughed or yelled at. His childhood had taught him that. He stuttered, tongue suddenly swollen in his mouth as he looked from Dr. Kinsey to Mr. Carson, to Mrs. Hughes, to Baxter- how could he convey-?

“Are you afraid of rejection?” Dr. Kinsey whispered in his ear. Unable to avoid the truth, Thomas nodded, “Give them the benefit of the doubt.” Dr. Kinsey soothed, “Ms. Baxter and I are both here if they do. As is Mrs. Hughes. You have our support. Be firm, but not unkind. You do not have to hold a sword to hold attention.”

Frightened out of his wits, Thomas sat completely silent with his plate untouched. He didn’t know what to say.

He suddenly found himself wanting to taste the pork again, but knew that as long as he was silent he wouldn’t able to eat. He’d be too nauseas. Too afraid.

Thomas took a shuddering breath, eyes locked on his plate. When he spoke, it was with a hushed tone so that ears had to strain to make out his words, “I don’t consider it an insult to care for children.”

Everyone was looking at him.

“I’d happily wear an apron if it meant giving them the attention and love they deserve… So… if you find it funny that I’m caring for the children, you can laugh at me but it won’t hurt my feelings. Because… I don’t consider it a demotion. I consider it an honor.”

He brought up his fork again and took another bit of the salted ham. Across the table from him, Mrs. Hughes looked deeply pleased, “Well said,” she praised.

Dr. Kinsey leaned into Thomas’ ear again: “Remember if they hurt your feelings you need to voice it.”

“And…” Thomas bit his inner cheek, cursing himself even as he spoke, “And I’d never smoke around the children, and it… hurts that you’d insist I would.”

Christ you sound like a big girl’s blouse. Thomas’ brain hissed at him. He stuffed his mouth full of food, wishing he’d never spoken at all.

“I’m sorry.” Andy spoke up, frank and yet still amused, “I don’t think you’d actually smoke around the children; I just never pictured you as a nanny is all.”

“You haven’t actually smoked in weeks,” Anna sounded quite surprised, “Why is that?”

That was a very good question. The fact of the matter was, since his suicide attempts Thomas hadn’t touched a cigarette. He still had a half-smoked pack in his night dresser upstairs. Before, he’d needed to smoke at least five times a day. Now…?

“I don’t know.” He admitted, unsure.

“Well thank god for it.” Snorted a maid down at the far end of the table. Thomas glared at her, wishing he could tell her to can it, “It’s going to kill you, you know.” She added warningly, “Cigarettes are bad for your lungs.”

Thomas opened his mouth, ready to fire off a warning shot, but there was Dr. Kinsey in his ear whispering rapidly, “I want you to think through every word you say before you say it Thomas. Be aware. Like your building a house. How would you go about it… quickly or with care?”

He suddenly realized to say something rude at the table would garner him irritation from the others, just as Mrs. Hughes had been angered by people laughing at Thomas. Grateful Dr. Kinsey had stopped him, Thomas chewed thoughtfully on a piece of ham before admitting the bitter truth, “I never thought about it.”

“You won’t be the only man in trouble.” Bates spoke up, commanding automatic respect as everyone else fell silent to listen to him speak. Thomas’ heart jumped again when he considered that Dr. Kinsey had urged Bates to ‘love’ him, or whatever else, “His lordship smokes cigars, and I’ve certainly smoked my fair share of cigarettes.”

“I think we should all stop smoking.” Anna spoke up, and others around the table murmured in agreement and nodded their heads.

But something else was still gnawing at Thomas’ insides, threatening to eat him alive. Dr. Kinsey had urged for him to be honest, to tell them if they’d hurt his feelings.

So why not?

“… And…” Thomas spoke up a little louder this time, his heart bleating irritably, “Is it such a bad thing that… I might sing them to sleep. If it helped them sleep?”

Everyone fell silent again, an odd stiff tension laden with guilt causing the others to grow remiss.

“I’d rather be helpful even if it meant I got laughed at.” Thomas mumbled, then returned to his food.

“Of course it’s not a bad thing.” Mrs. Hughes consoled him at once, catching his eyes across the table and giving him a watery smile, “And we’ll have no more laughing about it.”

Thomas took a bite, then another bite, and suddenly he was eating at regular speed with everyone else at the table. He wasn’t blind to those around him, noting that Dr. Kinsey shared a look of appreciation with Mrs. Hughes who smiled across her teacup. Mr. Carson was as smug as ever, watching Thomas eat.

 

As soon as dinner was over, Thomas went right back upstairs to relieve the maid. To his dismay he found that despite the late hour the children were still up, and barely dressed for bed. He set everything to rights immediately, dressing each of them properly and brushing their hair before tucking them into bed and turning off the lights. In minutes they were all asleep, each of them exhausted from a heady day. Thomas used the time given to him to check over the nursery once again, cleaning up the bathroom and making sure the hamper was empty for the following day. Content, he sat alone in the gloom, rocking slowly in his chair while he watched George and Sybbie sleep. The real trouble was Marigold, who being a toddler never did anything the easy way. She grumbled and tossed in her sleep, threatening to wake the others till Thomas rose and stood over her crib, rubbing her tummy. She shut her eyes, sucking thoughtfully on a pacifier until she moved no more and was completely conked out. He only wish he could sleep half as good.

A soft timid knock at the door of the nursery caught his attention, and he moved silently across the room to carefully open the door. To his surprise, Anna was on the other side, giving him a small but meaningful smile as she poked her head into the nursery to look around.

“… I wanted to apologize for earlier tonight.” she whispered, “It was unkind to laugh, even if the image of you in an apron is a bit silly.”

Thomas did not reply, looking down at the carpet beneath his feet.

“Won’t you come downstairs and have a cup of tea before bed?” Anna asked. “Dr. Kinsey wants to say goodnight to you.”

This was the real risk: leaving the children. As much as Thomas could use a cup of tea, he didn’t want to be out of ear shot. His only solution was to step across the nursery and gently rouse Sybbie who groaned a little upon her pillow and blearily open her eyes.

“Sybbie… Sybbie, M’darling.” Thomas whispered. Sybbie opened her eyes more clearly, rubbing at them with her pudgy fists.

“Mm?” She mumbled softly. Anna watched entranced from the doorway.

“Sybbie, I’m going to fetch a cup ‘a tea.” Thomas whispered, “If you need me, you pull this bell on the wall.” Thomas pointed to the carpeted bell rung between Sybbie and George’s bed, a staple to every room here at the abbey. “Alright? I’ll be back in a pinch.”

“Mmm” Sybbie closed her eyes, already falling asleep again. Affection blossomed in Thomas’ chest, and he leaned over to gently kiss her forehead. Sybbie was already beginning to snore as he rose up, heading out of the nursery room and taking Anna with him. He closed the door careful not to make a sound, and headed for the green baize door on the main floor with Anna following swiftly behind him.

“It’s nice to see you so affectionate.” She praised, but Thomas had no idea what to say back to her. They headed down the servant’s stairs, side by side, and entered the ground floor to find the servant’s hall, once again, mildly packed. Dinner was done and dusted, with everyone now clustered about their respective chairs reading books or working on a card game. Andy sat by the piano attempting to spell out a tune and Mr. Bates read a paper by the fire. The bastard had stolen Thomas’ favorite chair, forcing him to sit down once again between Dr. Kinsey and Ms. Baxter both of whom were having a cup of tea. Mr. Moseley sat on Baxter’s other side, clearly trying to woo her though she either wasn’t noticing or wasn’t interested. It was difficult to tell with English women.

“Are the children down?” Baxter asked Thomas, offering him a cup of tea.

“Like little angels.” Anna said, taking the rocking chair across from Bates. He smiled pleasantly at his wife.

“Mrs. Hughes gave us a right scolding when you left.” Andy admitted, sounding just slightly guilty from the piano, “I thought our ears were going to catch on fire.”

“It was no less than you deserved.” Baxter warned with a small smile.

“I didn’t mean offense by it!” Andy drew his hands up defensively.

“Still.” Anna agreed, “We shouldn’t have laughed.”

They all took a moment to sip on their tea, with Thomas added honey and lemon to his own. From behind, the booming voice of Mrs. Patmore caught them off guard as she entered the hall and set down a tray of chopped apples upon the table for others to snack on.

“Look who it is.” She joked darkly, “the wet nurse.”

Thomas sighed haggardly, wishing he could go five minutes downstairs without someone poking at him, “Please don’t call me that.” He muttered bitterly.

“Oh stop looking at me like a soggy biscuit.” She chastised, waving a hand at him, “I were only poking fun.”

Thomas took a chopped apple and bit into it, irritably.

“Well?” Mrs. Patmore demanded at the sudden silence, “Are you enjoying your new role?”

With a mouth full of apple, Thomas could only nod, so he did so and took another sip of tea. Mrs. Patmore rolled here eyes, heading back into the kitchen. “If I get a word out of you, it’ll be from your lips to god’s ears, not mine.”

“If you’re not talking about ghosts you’re not talking at all.” Bates mused darkly from the fire, pausing with his paper to watch Thomas warily. Thomas did not meet his eyes, still hotly aware that Dr. Kinsey and Bates had had a discussion behind his back. “Does Dr. Kinsey know you’re obsessed with the dead?”

“What’s this?” Dr. Kinsey asked, setting down his teacup to better pay attention to the conversation around him. Thomas suddenly wanted to flee the hall from embarrassment.

“Thomas has an obsession with the dead.” Bates sneered, his voice only slightly snide, “He keeps going on about the ouija board in the kitchen, or he did before he hit his head.”

Thomas half expected to be chastised by Dr. Kinsey, but instead Dr. Kinsey broke out into a smile and exclaimed, “Ouija boards! What fun, I haven’t played with one in years.”

“Do you not think it strange?” Bates asked, slightly taken aback by Dr. Kinsey’s pleasant attitude.

“I think the word is full of ‘strange’ things, don’t you?” Dr. Kinsey offered to the room at large. Most everyone was smiling now, “Best just roll with the punches or you’ll get smacked in the nose.”

The others laughed, amused.

“Why do you want to use the ouija board?” Dr. Kinsey asked, but Thomas looked away horribly embarrassed. There was no way in hell that he was admitting to the actual reason in a room full of people who’d already laughed at him.

“I’d like to use it to talk to my mother.” Dr. Kinsey offered, no doubt attempting to get Thomas to open up by using himself as an example, “She’s been dead for many years, I think it’d be nice to hear her say ‘I love you’ once more.”

This started off a whole group discussion on the subject of Ouija boards and whether they were a good idea:

“I won’t touch them.” Bates warned, shaking his head as he looked back at his paper and turned a page, “I might invoke the fury of my ex wife.”

Anna made an irritable noise beneath her breath, clearly not a fan of the late Vera Bates.

Dr. Kinsey rapt his knuckles against the wood of the servant’s hall table, causing everyone to look around as he said, “For her spirit to keep it away.”

At this, both Bates and Anna leaned in their chairs to knock on the wood of the servant’s table, chuckling to themselves as they relaxed again.

“Do you have anyone you’d like to contact, Ms. Baxter?” Dr. Kinsey asked curious. Baxter shook her head with a small smile.

“I confess I don’t.”

“Mr. Moseley?”

“Oh no.” Moseley shook his head in his humble little way, taking another sip of tea as he said, “I don’t approve, I think it puts out bad energy.”

“Quite possible.” Dr. Kinsey appeased, before finally turning back to Thomas.

“Thomas?”

Thomas sighed, drumming his fingers upon the table as he considered his words. Wasn’t that what Dr. Kinsey had told him to do? To be outright rude would be met with rejection but the truth was also out. So what could be done?

“I can’t say.” Thomas finally admitted.

“Why not?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“S’not appropriate.” Thomas said, for this was the bitter truth of the world in which they lived. Dr. Kinsey seemed to realize they were once again alluding to Thomas’ sexual inversion (whatever the hell that meant), and nodded gravely as he offered. “So, someone you loved?”

Thomas tensed. An odd silence filled the air of the servant’s hall, unbroken as Thomas chewed on his tongue and tried to find the words.

“I’m sorry someone you loved died.” Dr. Kinsey apologized, “Why not get the board out, and see if we can have a seance? It’ll be a good send off.”

Thomas looked at him, amazed at how open and receptive Dr. Kinsey could be. It seemed the idea of ‘social norms’ had absolutely no effect on him but still didn’t keep him from being a gentleman in the eyes of Carson, Bates, and Lord Grantham. Here was the kind of man Thomas wanted to be.

“Go on,” Dr. Kinsey urged bravely, “What’s the harm?”

“Carson won’t approve,” Thomas warned.

“Carson is far too busy to take time to fuss over a board game.”

“You don’t know Mr. Carson then.” Anna joked from her arm chair.

“Go on Thomas.” Dr. Kinsey nudged him playfully in the arm, “Go get the board. Let’s have some fun.”

Spurned on, suddenly feeling hopeful again, Thomas rose from his seat and at once went into the kitchen to find Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, and Gertie washing up. The ouija board was still tucked beneath the empty egg crates. He fetched it, pulling it free so that Mrs. Patmore barked, “Oh don’t start with that.”

He made to take it away, and she shouted after him, “Fine! See what good it does you!”

“Are you going to use the ouija board?” Daisy asked, poking her head out of the kitchen. Thomas nodded, “Can I go with you? I’ve always been curious about it.”

The pair of them went into the servant’s hall, leaving Mrs. Patmore and her shouting behind. Thomas set down the box upon the table, lifting the lid and putting the board in the center of the table so that everyone could see it along with the planchette. The eerie text, swirled and burned into the wood along with the sun, moon, alphabet and numbers, “hello” and “goodbye”… it was all very ominous. Any moment now Thomas was certain Mrs. Hughes or Mr. Carson was going to come strolling around the corner and start screaming. It gave the atmosphere a nervous edge as Daisy grabbed candles from the cupboards and set them on odd counters for spooky lighting.

“We can set a mood.” Daisy eagerly told her curious spectators.

“What are you doing?” Anna asked, getting out of her chair to have a better look.

“It helps with the spirits.” Daisy said, taking out a matchbox and beginning to light each candle at a time.

“How?”

Daisy lit two more candles and flicked off the lights. They were suddenly plunged into a gloom, a scene right out of their youths when electricity had been a thing of science fiction and each night gave birth to candles.

“I dunno,” Daisy admitted, pocketing the matchbox, “It just does.”

“I’v always wanted to try one.” Andy admitted, coming around the table to take a chair before the ouija board. Daisy sat next to him, pulling out her seat.

“Then why didn’t you?” She asked. Andy flushed, slightly embarrassed.

“Couldn’t make sense of the letters.” He admitted.

“But you can make sense of them now.” Daisy said. Her confidence made Andy beam.

“Put us all in the dark, why don’t you.” Bates grumbled by the fire, now no longer able to read the paper adequately. He put it aside, crossing his arms over his chest. Anna sat down across from Daisy, staring at the ouija board curious.

“We have candles.” Daisy said in defense.

Dr. Kinsey, Ms. Baxter, and Mr. Moseley all sat around the far end of the table, watching as Thomas sat next to Anna and sat the planchette atop the board. In an unexpected move, Bates rose from his armchair to take the chair next to Thomas, leaning heavily upon his elbow so as to get a good look at the board. Thomas refused to look at him for fear of what he might find.
“If you invoke my ex wife, I’m tossing the board in the fire.” Bates warned. Anna and Dr. Kinsey automatically rapped their knuckles upon the wood of the table, causing Bates to snort. Dr. Kinsey and Ms. Baxter shifted, moving down the table so that they could take the far edge rounding their party to a group of seven. Only Mr. Moseley did not join, keeping his original chair at the far end of the table and looking at the board as if it were a snake that might bite.

“How do we use it?” Daisy, as if thinking there was an ‘on’ switch they ought to press.

She would learn.

“First we have to decide who wants to ask the questions.” Thomas said. Everyone looked about the table, each pair of eyes landing on the face next to them till Daisy said, “You’re the one who’s been wanting to. You ask.”

“You’d probably ask better questions anyway.” Andy added. The others nodded, agreeing with this sentiment. Thomas felt a small flutter of pride in his chest.

“Fine then.” Thomas said, trying as hard as he could to suppress the smile daring to twitch upon his lips.

Any moment now, Edward! Thomas thought, his heart fluttering in his breast.

“We all touch the planchette with one finger.” Thomas said. Seven arms reached out, from Doctor to kitchen maid and seven fingers touched the planchette. “Very lightly.” Thomas instructed, “We have to warm it up.”

“How?” Daisy asked, breathless.

“We move it gently in a circle around the board seven times.” Thomas said, “Counter clockwise. One rotation for each of us.”

The planchette scraped softly around the board as they shifted seven times. When they finished the planchette was dead center in the middle of the board. A dead silence fell over the table, different than anything the servant’s hall had ever felt since the death of Sybil Crawley. There wasn’t a giggle to be heard, not even a shift upon a chair.

Thomas had known this kind of silence before. He’d known it when the bath water had turned cold.

“Now what?” Daisy whispered. Had the table not been dead silent, she would have gone unheard for how softly she spoke.

“…Now we start.” Thomas whispered back.

He drew a breath, centering himself, and spoke aloud to the air, “Is anyone there?” His normal volume was unnerving, almost a shout in the stillness.

For a long time, the seven of them sat there, each more tense than the next. Down at the end of the table, Thomas could practically hear Moseley sweating. Bates was the most skeptical, the first to speak after what felt like an hour of silence.

“Apparently not.” He muttered.

“I swore I had it move with me once.” Anna whispered. Bates looked round at his wife, “On the night Mr. Matthew proposed to Lady Mary. Do you remember, Daisy?”

“I do,” She said, eyes wide as saucers, “It was terrifying.”

Thomas never took his eyes off the planchette, never wavered in his concentration, and it was with greatest elation of the spirit that he felt the planchette begin to twitch beneath his finger.

Yes, Edward, Thomas praised internally, Yes speak to me. I’m here.

Each member of their table watched amazed as the planchette began to move towards the alphabet. Thomas let out a shaky breath, audible as a normal voice around the table.

Oh Edward, Thomas thought in somber dismay.

“That is terrifying.” Andy whispered, amazed, “I can feel it moving underneath my finger!”

“So can I.” Daisy said in a rush.

“Don’t…” Thomas pleaded, “Don’t distract it please. I’ve waited so long.”

The others fell silent, the planchette continuing to move at a snail’s pace.

“I’ll say it again,” Bates warned in the softest voice Thomas had ever heard him utter, “If this is my ex wife the board is going in the fire.”

Dr. Kinsey and Anna both tapped the table softly with the fingers of their spare hands.

“This is probably not a good idea.” Moseley spoke up from the far end of the table, his nerves evident in his voice, “This is bad energy in the universe.”

“Only if you make it that way-“ Daisy murmured.

“If it gets scary, we’ll stop.” Baxter added, entranced by the moving planchette.

“Edward-“ Thomas spoke up over all their voices fearful they’d distract the planchette; his voice silenced them all, “Edward is that you?”

The planchette reached it’s first letter ‘D’.
Then it moved to the next one. ‘A’.

Thomas breathed slowly, softly, ‘R’.

Daisy spoke the letters aloud, entranced, “L-I-N-G”

“…Darling.” Baxter said the word aloud. Thomas touched his mouth with his free hand, amazed at the connection he now had. The line to Edward that could not be broken. Edward wanted the board brought out, wanted to speak with Thomas again. Now here they were, practically pressed cheek to cheek between the fabric of time and still Edward spoke the fabled word: “Darling”.

How precious that word was to Thomas.

“Clearly not your ex wife.” Dr. Kinsey murmured from the end of the table.

“Clearly.” Bates agreed, sounding oddly content with that knowledge. In accordance with the laws of fate, each man and woman at the table gently rapt their knuckles upon the wood lest they summon the vile spirit of Vera Bates from hell.

“Edward-“ Thomas said, ready to profess his undying love to the ouija board and damn all to hell who else heard. But even as he started the lights overhead suddenly flicked on, jarring everyone in the vicinity as Mrs. Hughes’ sharp Scottish brogue cut across the silence.

“What is going on in here?”

Everyone looked around to see Mrs. Hughes in the doorway to the hall, absolutely shocked to find everyone from Daisy to Dr. Kinsey bent over a ouija board. She stepped into the fray, agog.

“Turn off the lights, Mrs. Hughes.” Daisy urged, “We’re talking to spirits-“

“Not anymore you’re not.” Mrs. Hughes snapped, pointing to all of them with a sharp finger, “Go to bed at once, all of you! Andrew put out those lights-“

Everyone rose, fingers leaving the planchette fast- Thomas panicked, knowing the clear danger of leaving a ouija board open to interpretation in the folds of darkness that encompassed the earth. How could he deny when he’d bloody well bathed in it for christ’s sake?

“Don’t!” Thomas barked, causing everyone at the table to jump shock. Even Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Moseley were taken aback, the pair of them touching their throats in fright.

“Don’t ever…” He swallowed, his own heart hammering as he addressed the room, “Don’t remove your fingers. Keep them there. We have to shut down the session first.”

“Blimey.” Mr. Moseley griped from the end of the table, “I think I had a heart attack.”

“Don’t touch anything till it’s over. Not even the candles.” Thomas warned, raking a hand across his hair as he exhaled a shaky breath, “If you leave the board with the door open… you can let awful things through.” He thought of those demonic icy hands that had pulled him away from Edward’s loving arms, “Awful, awful things. I know about this, trust me.”

“How do you know?” Anna asked, curious and slightly wary.

“… I’ve seen the place they come from.” Thomas admitted, knowing full well no one at the table would believe him. And yet, as he spoke, no one made to dispute him. Indeed, Anna looked frightened.

Thomas looked at the board, unsure of how to best address Edward and the room at the same time. Mrs. Hughes was still watching from the doorway after all, “Edward, we’re leaving now. We have to go. I’ll be back.”

He was ready to bet his life on it. He’d be back if it was the last thing he did. He’d bloody well sleep with the ouija board if that helped.

The planchette moved one final time, shirking across the wood till it finally rested upon the ‘goodbye’. Everyone stared at it like it was an amputated hand bleeding upon the board.

“And that, I think, is enough.” Mrs. Hughes said in clipped tones. She snuffed out each candle she passed, grabbing the ouija board and stuffing it unceremoniously back into its box.

“That was incredible!” Daisy breathed as she rose form her chair, “Can we do it again?”

“No, Daisy, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” Mrs. Hughes said in a rush. She clutched the boxed board to her side. “It’s better not to mess with these things, and by the by, spirits do not play board games.” In a shocking move Mrs. Hughes reached out and cupped Thomas chin in her hand to lift his face up so that they might stare eye to eye.

“Thomas…” She warned, him gravely, “I don’t want to see this game out again in the servant’s hall.” Her fingers were warm beneath his chin, her grip strong but not bruising. He pleaded with her through his eyes, but she would not be swayed, “It’s not good for you, do you hear? What you need is sleep and steady living, not this nonsense. So put it away and not another thought about it. Am I clear?” She asked, gripping his chin a little tighter.

He nodded, unsure of what else he could do. Mrs. Hughes let go of his chin, satisfied, and left the room taking the board with her. Thomas watched her go, swiveling around in his chair to see her disappear around the corner. He deflated, sinking into his chair sorrowfully as the others began to slink away. The Bates tugged on their coats and hats. Andy and Daisy withdrew to talk in a corner amongst themselves.

Baxter rose from her chair, coming around the table to touch Thomas’ shoulder. “What did you mean?” She asked, “When you said you’d seen the place where ‘they’ come from?”

“…The bathtub.” was all Thomas could think to say. Baxter squeezed Thomas’ shoulder endearingly. He sighed, rubbing his temple in his hands. He could feel a headache coming, like the marbles in his brain were rolling angrily for being deprived of Edward.

Dr. Kinsey sat down next to Thomas, slightly overwhelmed by the nights events. He turned so that they might have a private conversation, even with the others murmuring just over their shoulders. Baxter was still behind him, holding his corner.

“…When you attempted suicide the first time?” Dr. Kinsey asked gently. His voice was barely a murmur. Thomas nodded, swallowing around a lump in his throat.

“I saw… horrible things.” Thomas whispered, amazed that he was even admitting this to a man who would have been a stranger not even a week ago. Amazed that he was talking aloud about this in a room full of people who didn’t need to hear-

But maybe… they did.

“It was black.” Thomas admitted, bleating, “And the water was freezing… and… hands… dragged me under. Away from Edward.” Thomas rubbed at his eyes, exhausted. He suddenly realized just how tired he was. It had to be past midnight by now.

“I see.” Dr. Kinsey mused, rubbing his jaw in thought, “So you’ve been trying to get into contact with Edward to have the proper conversation you were denied.” Thomas nodded in agreement, “A very honorable intention. But maybe you could have the same conversation at his graveside, and spare Mrs. Hughes the heart attack.”

But this was folly. Edward’s grave was in a hospital courtyard, clearly viewable to any nurse, doctor, or patient that might walk by. Thomas could hardly admit to be seen there, talking animatedly to a headstone.

“I can’t do that in public.” Thomas whispered. Dr. Kinsey clapped him gently upon the arm.
“One day, the world will change.” Dr. Kinsey offered him sympathetically. How many times had Thomas heard that line? What he wanted- need- was change now. “One communication at a time.” He reminded him, “I can honestly say you are the gentlest and kindest of all the patients I’ve ever spoken with.”

He said this allowed, at normal voice volume, and it brought pause to several others in the room. The Bates halted by the door, Mr. Moseley stopped talking to Daisy and Andy. They each watched while attempting to appear like they weren’t- a signature standard of the staff of Downton Abbey.

Thomas bowed his head, thrown to a pause.

“I’d best be off to bed.” Dr. Kinsey mused, rising up from his chair and pushing it back into the table, “I have a train to catch in the morning.”

Dr. Kinsey squeezed Thomas’ shoulder as he passed, making for the door. He was stopped by the Bates, both of whom were putting on their coats.

“Thank you for coming.” Bates offered his hand for Dr. Kinsey to shake.

“It was a pleasure.” Dr. Kinsey said with a smile, “Ms. Baxter-“ Dr. Kinsey shook her head as well as she passed. Thomas watched them all from his chair alone, “Thank you…” Dr. Kinsey said with clear gratitude, “Above all others, thank you.”

“Please, don’t be a stranger.” Baxter urged.

“Oh I won’t.” Dr. Kinsey chuckled, “Thomas has my number. And I expect phone calls!” He warned, a finger in the air as he turned on Thomas.

“Will we see you again?” Anna asked; was it Thomas’ imagination or did she sound slightly hopeful.

“Hopefully, no.” Dr. Kinsey said. Anna frowned, “But if you do, it’s not the end of the world. Remember, communication is key. Patience, understanding… communication.”

And with that he was off, heading out of the servant’s hall and up the stairs. Bates buttoned up his coat, cane tapping upon the floor.

“Shame a doctor had to be the one to say that out loud.” Bates muttered as he turned for the hall.

“I think we all knew it.” Anna said.

They were leaving, each departing for bed, and with them went an opportunity to say something Thomas had always wanted to say.

“Goodnight.” Thomas called out. “Sleep well.”

They paused, each turning around (even Mr. Moseley) to regard Thomas still in his chair.

“Goodnight.” Baxter smiled sweetly, leaving for the stairs.

“Goodnight, Thomas.” Anna said, heading down the hall for the back door.

Mr. Moseley nodded his head, not saying goodnight but not being rude. He too left for the back door.

Mr. Bates, however, had something to say: “He’s right, you know.”

Thomas looked down at the table, twiddling his thumbs.

“I know.” Thomas mumbled to the wood.

Bates said nothing for a moment, merely allowing the silence to settle in. It was neither uncomfortable nor homey- a simple stale thing that warned them they still had great ground to cover together.

“Goodnight, Thomas.” Bates said. He left, cane tapping down the hall.

Thomas sighed, slumping in his chair.

 

 

The next morning, Thomas rose and got the children ready for the day. They ate breakfast together, before he dressed them and sent them to prepare for a walk around the estate. For fun, they’d take Tiaa and make a day of it as they traveled around Downton’s corner edges. Yet before Thomas made to fetch the puppy and her leash, he took Marigold and descended the main stairs to see Dr. Kinsey off who’d had a car brought round to take him to the station. Marigold surveyed everything with wide eyes, from the maids that bustled about carrying linens and flowers to Andy, Mrs. Hughes, and Mr. Carson, all of whom were skirting about the dining hall clearing it from breakfast. Thomas waited out front, deliberately saying nothing to the chauffeur as he waited for Dr. Kinsey to come down. Dr. Kinsey eventually appeared, briefcase in hand and hat on head. He greeted the day with a smile, descending the steps of the abbey to extend a hand for Thomas to shake.

“Well, Thomas.” They shook warmly, “This is goodbye for now.”

“Yes,” Thomas said, unsure of why he felt so bleak all of a sudden, “Yes it is.”

“I want you to know.” Dr. Kinsey said, shifting his briefcase in hand, “I have truly enjoyed every conversation we have shared. And that everyone beneath the stairs is your friend. Even if you don’t know it.” He reached up to pluck at one of Marigold’s auburn curls again.

“Mr. Carson and Mr. Bates both understand what needs to be done. Just give it time.” Dr. Kinsey urged him soothingly, “Time is your friend, Thomas. Let it foster healthy relationships. And as it does, grow with it.”

Thomas nodded. Dr. Kinsey opened the door to the car, setting his briefcase on the floorboard inside as he clambered in only to lean out and say, “Call me anytime, Thomas. For anything, ever. Yes?” He urged. Thomas nodded again, “Or I might just call you!” He warned in good humor.

Thomas waved goodbye, offering Marigold’s hand which he tugged gently by the wrist so that she also waved goodbye to Dr. Kinsey like a puppet on a string. Dr. Kinsey shut the door, and was off. Thomas watched him go, chalk white gravel flying in his wake as he slowly slipped out of sight. Marigold blinked peacefully, completely at ease with the situation as she laid her head on Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas turned to kiss her brow as he was wont to do, and slipped back inside the house.

The day would wait for no man.

Chapter Text

The nanny was a substitute parent, and so, in effect, Thomas became a parent of three overnight.

He could remember his mother constantly being afraid of sickness in the village or money not coming in on time. He’d thought her paranoid not to mention apathetic. He could count the number of times she’d hugged him (seven), and wished she’d just relaxed more… if only for a moment. Now that he was juggling children, Thomas could completely understand why she’d panicked.

And to think. She’d had seven!

From the minute Thomas woke, he was worried. Were the children up? Were they well? Were they bathed? Were they dressed? Were they behaving? Were they hungry? Were they developing well? Did they need air? Did they need medicine? Did they need a new toy? Did they need a tranquilizer? Thomas was so used to juggling fears with Carson that juggling fears with children just felt normal. The only difference now was that he actually cared… and it was fun!

He woke the children up one at a time, taking the pause to make it personal. Sybbie always got woken with Thomas stroking sweaty hair from her brow. George got kisses. Marigold got toe tugs. Thomas would tickle the bottom of her feet and nip at her toes till she squealed with delight, then pick her up and change her before ringing for breakfast.

As a valet, Thomas had extensive training with mending clothes. He successfully repaired several pieces in all three wardrobes, then started with the shoes, so that quite suddenly there were more clothes to wear than ever before simply because Thomas had taken five seconds to mend a tear. During afternoon tea for the family, Thomas would bring the children downstairs and let them have an hour with their parents. Edith was often in London working, and so Thomas would sit on the fringes with Marigold giving her ample love and affection while Sybbie and George frolicked on the rug by the fire. When Edith was in town, Marigold always got extra love. It was in these moments that Thomas got to see how the Crawleys worked as parents… and where they took their different stands.

Mary was hands off, though she hardly lacked in affection. She kept an oddly friendly stance with George, acting more like a playmate than a mother. Thomas started to realize that the reason why George was so desperate for Thomas’ attention was because he wasn’t getting it from Mary. She enjoyed talking to George but didn’t seem to want to discipline him. Indeed she didn’t seem to know how. She often looked at Thomas desperately as if to say ‘What do I do’?

Edith was the exact opposite, or so Thomas imagined. Before, when Thomas wasn’t a Nanny, he’d noticed that Edith constantly asked questions towards Marigold’s habits and health. She bought her frocks often, not to mention toys, and was eager for long conversations that often left the Nanny desperate to get away. How many times had he heard her say “Please, Lady Edith, I must get on!”

Thomas hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with Lady Edith as of yet… but he had a feeling that when the occasion arose, he wouldn’t be trying to get away. He understood her love for Marigold.

He shared it.

 

Branson was different than the girls. He was curious, and adventurer. He wanted to ask questions, to get answers with Sybbie, and he often took her out into the village to do god knows what. They climbed trees, they skipped rocks, they chased animals and they ate pennylicks. This was all well and good, save for the fact that Branson was often a little too rough, a little too hands on- he could bruise and not mean it. Sybbie needed a cradle, somewhere to rest when she was tired. Branson was a mover and a shaker, he didn’t have time to slow down. It made him skin itch, or so it seemed. So when Sybbie wanted to nap, she couldn’t crawl in Branson’s lap like Marigold could in Edith’s. Instead she napped on a sofa, or in Lord Grantham’s arms… but more often than not Sybbie would come find him, yawn, and put her head on his shoulder. There, in his lap, she’d rest while he mended a frock or a coat.

He got to where he ate his meals with them too, often going days before he saw any of the other servants besides maids that brought meals and took away washing. At first, he’d only slept in the attics and so he’d often said goodnight to Andy and nothing more. But then, Thomas realized he could just as easily take over the Nanny’s old room off the side of the nursery. It was small but clean, had a nice window and the bed (god help him) was softer. So it was that, one afternoon as the children napped, Thomas moved some of his belongings downstairs to sleep in the nursery with the children… and in a weird way cut out contact with the other servants all together.

At first, Thomas had felt like leaving Downton would result in a catastrophe. He’d imagined that, having built his life around Downton’s staff, to live without the staff would mean not living at all. Somehow Thomas had construed them as to being integral to life… and honestly at a second glance it was unhealthy. What did they do for him?

Thomas thought about it often.

If he had to pick people from the staff that supported him, that he actually thought to be genuine, he’d only get one hand’s worth: Phyllis Baxter, Elsie Hughes, Beryl Patmore, and (oddly enough) Daisy Mason. Why Daisy? He couldn’t rightly say- not after she’d openly declared him a thief and been praised for it as brave. But there was something in the way that Daisy registered the world around her which just screamed ‘genuine’. Naive, yes, but genuine… and it was a breath of fresh air compared to John Bates or Charles Carson… neither of whom Thomas found to be genuine.

Bates was incredibly jaded; so was he, but he was still a dreamer. It seemed Bates had given up on dreams long ago, and it amazed him how easily society would forgive a criminal but damned him for wanting to better his own life. Carson had, in a phrase, ‘drank the tea’. He believed firmly in the value and good of the class divisions and had never sought to better himself save for the time when he’d dallied in theatre. He delighted in the Crawley’s, praised them endlessly, and was in every way the perfect butler because he wanted to be the perfect butler. As much as Thomas loved their children, he was under no illusions about the Crawley’s or their supposed perfection. Lord Grantham had had an affair with a maid, Lady Grantham had dipped her toe with an art historian, Lady Mary was as mean as a snake when you pressed her, Lady Edith could be incredibly selfish, and Tom Branson was just a pain in the ass.

More or less. He still wasn’t sold on Branson’s arrogance. Sometimes Thomas had a feeling that Branson was just being Irish, as shitty as that sounded… and Thomas had still not forgiven him for Sybil Crawley’s death.

One fall afternoon, right before the weather truly began to turn cold, Thomas sat outside the abbey with Marigold, watching her as she toddled about and examined the world around her. Some nanny’s starched and ironed their children like stubbornly stained tablecloths, but the thought made Thomas nauseas. There was a true beauty in watching a child at play, particularly outside when there was so much to explore, and Marigold chatted constantly to herself as she plucked up a fist full of wildflowers. She’d made herself an impressive bouquet by this point, with lady bugs and wood whites fluttering about desperately trying to get that last bit of nectar before she took it all away. George and Sybbie were out with Branson and Talbot, enjoying a day in the village. This left Thomas to be solely occupied on Marigold, which suited Marigold just fine as it gave her the run of the house on Thomas’ back. Shoes off and socks long gone, Marigold frolicked in the grass staining her clothes something dreadful and getting grass in her hair.

“Da!” She squealed at him when Thomas attacked her belly with tickles. He’d noticed she’d started calling him Da, and though he knew he ought to correct her he found he couldn’t do it.

Not when it made his marbles stop whispering.

“What? What?” Thomas teased, blowing raspberries into her throat. She gurgled, thrashing.

The sound of gravel churning gave Thomas cause for pause, and he pulled up from Marigold to see a stately car coming up the drive. A squint at the backseat confirmed that it was Lady Edith, no doubt home from London and yearning to see her daughter.

“Your mummy’s home.” Thomas said, though he had a feeling Marigold couldn’t honestly understand. Thomas plucked her up from the grass, sitting her in his lap to point at the gleaming black car. Marigold watched, clutching her bouquet to her chest, “See? We’d better get you cleaned up.”

Thomas took Marigold back inside through the side, sequestering her upstairs in the nursery and changing her jumper so that she looked presentable again. She found this all to be incredibly boring, and talked to Thomas constantly about her flowers- at least Thomas thought that’s what she was talking about. Had he been prompted to type out a dialogue strain, it would be difficult to do. Something along the lines of “A blah blah shmoo neh ma ma gya-“ that would have made zero sense on paper.

Washed and proper, Thomas took Marigold downstairs, allowing her to clutch her bouquet to her chest so that as he slowly entered the library and saw Lady Edith speaking warmly with her parents he sat Marigold down and allowed her to run to her mother at her own pace. Lady Edith turned, her pained expression melting to one of delight as she opened her arms to her daughter and scooped her up.

“Darling!” She cried out, as warm and loving as any mother could hope to be. Marigold offered Lady Edith her bouquet and the gasp it brought forth was one of genuine surprise. “Did you pick these for me?”

Marigold nodded, grinning impishly. Lady Edith took the bouquet, bringing it to her pug like nose to sniff sweetly. She smiled lovingly at her daughter, “How perfectly marvelous. Thank you, I’ll treasure them forever.” she kissed Marigold sweetly upon the brow, causing Marigold to churn out a gurglish giggle.

Thomas slunk back out of the library, not wanting to be in the way.

He returned upstairs to the nursery, taking the free time he’d now been allotted to clean up small messes and sort clean linens that maids had brought up that morning. He changed the sheets on the children’s bed and Marigold’s crib, hanging up jumpers, frocks, coats, trousers, and shirts till their wardrobes were back to being full. Sybbie was getting bigger, growing into clothes that required a more ladylike touch, and so Thomas had taken out two of her newly cleaned dresses to sit down in his rocking chair and mend her buttons. They needed to be moved over about an inch for her to wear her clothes comfortably now. He considered ordering her new clothes; perhaps he could sit her in his lap and let her pick them out herself. It would be a good lesson in cause and effect, not to mention freedom and responsibility. Consumed by his work in the calm silence, Thomas almost did not hear the faint footsteps approaching his hold but paused when the door to the nursery opened to reveal (of all people) Lady Edith holding Marigold upon her hip.

Thomas rose at once, setting Sybbie’s dress down upon the seat of his rocking chair. It was odd being Nanny. He was not technically one of the staff anymore, or so he’d been told- but he still wasn’t part of the family. He liked in an odd gray divide, but it suited him. Lady Edith smiled hesitantly, allowing the nursery door to close behind her.

“Is it true what they’re saying?” Lady Edith asked, curious, “That you’re the new nanny?”

“It is, My Lady.” Thomas said.

“Goodness, that’s a change.” Lady Edith didn’t sound too entirely put off, confused but pleasant, “Whatever inspired it?”

“I’ve always enjoyed the children, M’lady.” Thomas explained, “It only seemed fitting that someone who cared for them should be their temporary nanny.”

“I agree.” Lady Edith said, and she sounded quite genuine, “But… do you have any experience with children?” She took a seat upon Sybbie’s bed, still holding Marigold tight to her bosom.

“I was one of seven, M’lady.” Thomas explained, “The second oldest child, and the oldest boy… My siblings were my responsibility in youth.”

“But it’s not too much to handle?” Lady Edith was not one to accept the shallow answer; not where Marigold was concerned, “Three children at once?”

“The maids and Mrs. Hughes help, M’lady… and the children are very well behaved.” Thomas assured her, “Miss Marigold is an angel.”

Lady Edith smiled sweetly though it was hardly for Thomas’ benefit. She nuzzled her daughter’s brow, “I’m glad to hear you say that. She means the world to me.”

“I know, M’lady.” Thomas said before he could stop himself. Lady Edith froze slightly, eyes widening just a hair as she took him in to judge whether or not he was a threat. Thomas smiled, raising his eyebrows in reflex to Lady Edith’s wariness.

“…Marigolds happen often in my class.” Thomas said, softly. As much as the upper class loathed the idea of sex before marriage or children out of wedlock, it was a natural part of life to the poor. How many women had been forced to watch their own illegitimate children grow up as supposed siblings?

“Tom said the same.” Lady Edith said, and there was a helpless bleakness in her voice that Thomas did not care for. She stroked Marigold’s hair, glancing up at Thomas with an expression of renewed carefree ambiguity (though Thomas could still see her nerves) to ask, “Has she been sleeping through the night well?”

Here was the moment where the nanny before him would have urged that she had things to do. That she could not spare a moment to talk.

Thomas just smiled, “Most of the time, M’lady.”

They talked for what was surely a solid hour, with Thomas finally giving in and sitting back down in his rocking chair to continue working on Sybbie’s dresses before she returned home with George. Lady Edith wanted to know every detail of Marigold’s day: what she ate for breakfast and refused to touch, what she enjoyed playing with and what she did not, how she liked bath time and how she went down at night- how she slept through the night and if she ever fussed for sickness. Thomas realized that while Lady Mary trusted him on most matters, Lady Edith wanted a hand in everything. It wasn’t from a lack of trust in Thomas either- it was simply her nature as a parent to be involved and to care for her daughter as best she could. Who was he to deny her?

Later on that afternoon before the children returned home from the village, Thomas took half an hour to call Dr. Kinsey on Mr. Carson’s telephone in his office. This was something of a on-and-off-again habit of his, to call Dr. Kinsey in times of worry or question. Dr. Kinsey wanted to make it a weekly thing, and urged Thomas each time they spoke to consider the idea.

But Thomas didn’t have time… at least that was what he told Dr. Kinsey. Something nagged at him in the back of his head that he wasn’t telling the full truth; he tried not to think about it.

“What an interesting idea.” Dr. Kinsey mused at Thomas’ insistence that he simply ignore the staff and not interact with them at all.

“Do you think it’s a poor one?” Thomas asked.

“I think it’s natural to want to cut out negativity in your life. After all, you are exhausted emotionally. You need to be built with love, not bitter intolerance. But I want you to consider our hopes for open communication. It’s hard to communicate when someone isn’t around.”

Thomas pursed his lips, studying the beds of his fingernails with care.

“Have you had any verbal altercations lately?”

“No.”

“Have you had any thoughts… about death?”

“Oh no.” Thomas huffed, “I’ve been so busy with the children-“

“Really?” Dr. Kinsey asked, pleasantly surprised, “But… weren’t you busy before with other work?”

This was, once again, a very good point. Thomas pursed his lips, shifting upon his chair.

“Sort of.” Thomas said softly, wondering what on earth had truly changed. The answer, pure and simple was: the children. As the Nanny he was now surrounded by the children, not but Carson and Bates.

“So what changed?”

Thomas coughed to hide the lump in his throat, rubbing irritably at the corners of his eyes, as he spoke in a raspy voice, “I love the children. And they love me.”

“Surround yourself with that love.” Dr. Kinsey advised in a soothing voice, “Build yourself up with it. That’s who you are. You’re not a fiend or an evil demon. You’re not an outcast, or an enemy. You’re the man those children love.”

And the thought filled him up with warmth.

 

~*~

That afternoon, Tom returned home with Sybbie around two. They’d had a good day out in the village, with the children learning a bit more about Tom’s workspace and enjoying a game with the other village children while Henry and Tom discussed a possible business venture in York. It was hard for Henry, being far away from race tracks and cars. He needed something to occupy his time; Tom could understand the desire. If they were lucky they could start their own business in York and be able to divide their time neatly between the family and work. Sometimes a bit of space from Downton was a good thing. It was easy to get lost in that world- wrapped up tight in the class system till you could barely breath for the suffocation of its rules. There had been a time when Tom hadn’t wanted it for Sybbie. Had been worried she’d grow up without a zest for life or knowledge of the outside world… but living in America hadn’t been the solution either. Indeed, he’d been miserable to be so far away from everything he knew and loved. As much as it shocked him, Downton Abbey was his home and the Crawley’s were his family. He needed that cradle to live life well.

Sybbie looked exhausted as they pulled up into the drive, and as she toddled behind him into the house Tom wondered if she’d played a bit too roughly in the village. Her cheeks were flushed from the exertion. A late tea in the library surprised them all with the unexpected re appearance of Edith, who’d come home from her latest magazine adventure in London to be with Marigold and the family. She bounced her daughter upon her knee, holding a fresh bouquet of flowers that Marigold had plucked for her. After the hellish summer she’d had, it was good to see Edith smile. To know that she could still be happy… even if it wasn’t the full happiness that she so deserved.

“I still cannot stop laughing at Spratt being your agony aunt.” Henry chortled, his free arm around Mary’s shoulders as he relaxed upon the couch and sipped a cooling cup of tea. George sat at their feet, rolling a toy car back and forth across the carpet.

Sybbie relaxed into Tom’s side, her eyes closed as she feigned a little nap. Tom comforted her, stroking her feathery bangs from her eyes as he marveled at how truly beautiful- how perfect- his daughter was. Did she have any idea of her image? Was she even aware that she was an angel?

“Yes, it is odd isn’t it.” Edith mused with a faint smile, sounding amused. “But talents are found everywhere.”

“Like Barrow being a nanny.” Mary smirked into her teacup.

“I still don’t approve of that.” Tom warned. For the idea of Sybbie being in Thomas Barrow’s charge of all people was slightly disturbing. It wasn’t that he thought Thomas some kind of hellish demon (he left ignorant ideas like that for people such as Carson)… it was that Thomas could be quite acerbic and dry, sharp tongued and just plain mean. What was to stop him from snapping at Sybbie one day? Or George? Or Marigold? The last thing Sybbie needed was another abusive nanny.

“Oh don’t be sour.” Mary grumbled, setting her tea aside.

“Do you not like Barrow, Tom?” Henry asked, curious.

He was new to the house, he would learn.

“I’ve known him for a long time, Henry.” Tom explained, “He’s not easy to like. He’s not like you.” He added with a chortle. Henry grinned toasting Tom with his half-finished tea.

“Bawwow is my favowite!” George defended from the carpet, looking up from his game to stare disgruntled at Tom.

“And you are undoubtably his.” Tom assured him, for it was no real secret that George ruled Barrow with a rod of iron. Probably because he was the heir of the estate.

“Barrow says we’re all his favorites, Georgie.” Sybbie reminded, her voice raspy and sluggish with sleep as she blearily opened her eyes, “Stop claiming him for yours.” She coughed a bit, closing her eyes again.

George stuck out his tongue spitefully. “Bawwow likes me more than you!” He sneered.

“Ahah-“ Mary warned, and George immediately sucked his tongue back into his pert pink mouth, “No squabbling or you’ll spoil tea.”

George made a noise of irritation, returning to his car. Sybbie just coughed again, grumbling in her half-sleep.

“Goodness, darling.” Mary wondered, “Do you have a cough?”

“She was tired all day.” Tom wondered, running his hand through Sybbie’s hair again. Was it his imagination or did she feel hotter than normal?

“We’ll tell Barrow and see what he has to say about it.” Was Edith’s answer. Tom glanced across the divide at her, noting the genuine trust in her voice. She just gave him a warm smile, “I think Barrow is a good nanny Tom. He cares deeply about the children and is good to them. What more could you want in a nanny? I could have sworn ours wanted to strangle us in our sleep.”

“Too true.” Mary muttered irritably, rolling her eyes at the memory. “I remember she used to pinch us to make us behave. We had bruises with her fingerprints.”

Tom shrugged, noting that there wasn’t a bruise to be found on Sybbie, George, or Marigold- though Sybbie did looked flushed.

“Maybe you’re right.” Tom murmured to himself, distracting himself from all conversation as he continued to brush Sybbie’s hair with his fingers.

Barrow re appeared shortly thereafter, taking back the children at the end of tea. Tom noted that as he plucked Marigold up and took George and Sybbie upstairs, Barrow paused to press his hand to Sybbie’s brow.

“You played too hard.” Barrow worried, allowing Sybbie to take his free hand as they all went upstairs together. George lead the charge, eager to regale his exploits to Barrow in full detail while Marigold lay her head upon Barrow’s shoulder and promptly went to sleep. It was easy to imagine that Barrow was nice to the children, and maybe he was… but Tom was nervous and he couldn’t deny it.

He could remember just how sharp and ugly Barrow had been to William. Sneering and cutting at him in his grief over his departed mother and his love for Daisy. How many times had Branson gaped at Barrow from across the servant’s table, wondering where the line was and when Barrow would eventually cross it.

Then Barrow had made that comment about Lady Grantham’s miscarried baby in front of William and William and finally cracked him across the face. God had that been satisfying, and not just for William!

He thought about it all though dinner, wondering if he should speak to Lord Grantham about his concerns over Barrow being a ‘nanny’. It was difficult to enjoy his food as he thought of Sybbie in the nursery, possibly being belittled even as she tried to eat as well. As dinner turned to coffee and cigars in the library, Tom mused silently by the fire not touching his whiskey. At the far edge, Lord Grantham and Carson discussed upcoming plans for the family but Tom was thoroughly distracted. He wondered if he asked Sybbie whether she would tell him the honest truth or not. What if Barrow had scared her into silence, had warned her to claim him loving or suffer the consequences? The idea made him want to break the man’s neck-

Henry suddenly rejoined Tom by the fire and sat across from him so that they could both share in the glow. Tom smiled at him, taking a small sip of whiskey.

“Earlier tonight you were odd at dinner.” Henry said.

“I have a lot on my mind.” Tom admitted.

“Does Barrow really offend you that much?” Henry asked, curious. “I’ve found him to be a relatively decent chap.”

“He can be very offensive, yes.” Tom warned, “His a bird of a different sort.”

“Different how?” Henry wondered.

He was the real test of a man’s character. Tom braced himself for the worst as he mused, “Think Oscar Wilde” in a soft voice.

Henry’s eyes widened on reflex, the most benign of reactions when being told the ‘big secret’ of the staff. Tom hadn’t needed to be told. All it had taken was watching Barrow ‘talk’ with visiting grocer boys to realize what he was really doing. Flirting. Unsuccessfully.

He was a fish in a small pond. Give him a day in London and he’d probably find more of his type, or so Tom assumed. You couldn’t blame the man for trying though.

“Crikey.” Henry said after a moment, forcing a smile onto his face, “But I can’t claim to be surprised. He has a… look… about him. More of a painter than a sportsman, isn’t that what they say?”

“He uses it as an excuse to be rude.” Tom explained. Henry looked off put by that, “He thinks that people judge him on that alone, but it’s not he reason he’s disliked downstairs. He’ll bite your nose off and not think twice.”

“I see.” Henry leaned back on the sofa, stroking his lips contemplatively, “Sounds like a sharp fellow.”

“Oh he’s like a razor.” Tom snorted, “Sybil adored him but I never took to him.”

“Did she?” Henry was curious.

“They worked together during the war.” Tom explained, throat tightening as it always did when Sybil was brought up. Even the name alone was too much at times. It brought back the memory of her perfume. The way she’d wrapped her hair in an elegant bun or held her fork during dinner. All the things that had made her stunningly perfect. “She claimed he was the ‘salt of the earth’— never understood it.” Tom forced out a laugh.

“Maybe she saw something others didn’t.” Henry offered.

“He’s the salt of the earth.” Sybil sighed, tugging off her nurse’s cap to dag at the faint sweat upon her brow as Tom drove her home for supper with the family. “If only he knew it.”

“You do realize he’s about as friendly as a cactus?” Tom warned, worried Sybil would end up on the bitter end of Barrow if she didn’t watch out. Instead she shot him a disgruntled look as she folded her cap in her lap.

“Even cactuses have worth, Tom.” She reminded him. How could he help but smile.

“I wouldn’t doubt it.” Tom forced himself back to the present, focusing upon the taste of his whiskey and the warmth of the fire. Both made his blood run faster. “She did the same for me, after all.”

Henry just smiled, in that benign understanding way Tom enjoyed so.

~*~

Upstairs, Thomas tucked the children into bed, bathes completed and dinner dusted. Sybbie had been oddly lethargic, even for a day out in the village, eager to crawl into bed as soon as she was able and not even complaining for more play time. She’d certainly drank a lot of tea, perhaps dehydrated, and Thomas wondered if she’d played too roughly with the other children. George didn’t seem to be any worse the wear, begging for another story even as Thomas tucked him into bed and primped his pillow. Marigold was already snoring in her crib, her mouth falling open every time Thomas tried to close it with a gentle finger to the chin.

Even for all his desires, George could not deny the call of the moon. He sighed, blue eyes fluttering closed in the semi-dark of the dimmed nursery.

Thomas slowly sat back down in his chair, working on Sybbie’s frocks. He’d already finished one, he only had a little bit left on the second dress to go. He finished it easily the dark, listening to the family fall asleep around him as the moon drew higher in the sky. He checked his pocket watch to note it was eleven at night… he ought to get some sleep in order to be up and ready in the morning-

Sybbie coughed.

Thomas sat her dress down in his lap, brow furrowed as he looked across the room to where Sybbie lay fretting in her bed.
She was sweating.
Profusely.

Slowly, Thomas rose from his seat, setting her dress back down upon his rocking chair. He crept across the room, careful not to wake the children as he took to a knee before Sybbie and felt her skin. She was practically on fire, her whole skin covered his a hot pink rash as if she was sun burned.

Thomas’ heart skipped a beat in his chest.

“Darling, you have a fever-“ Thomas whispered in shock, more to himself than to Sybbie. Fearful, he pulled back her covers, noting that they were dripping in sweat too so that there was a faint outline of her upon the sheets. Her nightgown was practically drenched. Lifting it up, hoping to cool her skin, Thomas’ eyes widened in horror at the hot pink rash that he could now see upon her stomach, thighs, and chest. She coughed again, a throaty weak emission.

Thomas reached up and turned on the lamp between Sybbie and George’s beds, flooding the nursery room with sudden light. George stirred a little in his sleep, eyes scrunching even while closed.

“Sybbie.” Thomas whispered into her reddened ear. “Open your mouth. Open your mouth for me darling.”

She did so, barely able to open her jaw in her feverish daze. Thomas pinched her chin between two fingers, desperate to get a good look at her tongue.

It was chalk white, covered in large red spots just like strawberry.

She had scarlet fever.

Thomas’ heart pounded in his chest, panic flooding through his veins just as it had done the night of the fire. He had the same urge to run out of the room and scream for help, only this time the welfare of two other children rested on his shoulders and he could no more scream than he could fire a gun in the house. No, this required fast thinking and even faster action if Sybbie were to survive. A child would not die on his watch- it would not happen. Not when he loved her so.

Thomas jerked Sybbie’s sheets off of her, letting her cool in the nursery air. The other children were susceptible to scarlet fever- could easily catch it from any cough Sybbie emitted. To children as young as Marigold, the disease was practically a death sentence. They would not be able to sleep in the nursery with her tonight. Thomas reached into George’s bed, pulling him so that he cradled himself in Thomas’ arms as limp as a rag doll. Taking him into the playroom, Thomas lay him upon the couch to cover him with a soft throw for warmth. George shifted in his sleep as Thomas returned to the nursery and pulled Marigold from her crib. She too was just as limp, a little cherub in his arms with her head upon his shoulder. As he returned to the playroom, ready to make a bee line for the telephone downstairs in the entrance hall he was stopped by the sound of George whimpering upon the couch.

“Bawwow…” Thomas looked around to see George sitting up, rubbing his eyes. “Is something wong?”

“No.” Thomas soothed in a rush, returning to George’s side to urge him to lay back down, “No, everything is going to be just fine. I want you to sleep here on the couch until I come back, okay?”

“Bawwow I’m scared-“ George admitted, sensing the anxiety in Thomas’ voice.

“Don’t be-“ Thomas pressed a chaste kiss to his brow, whispering, “I’m going to be right back. I’m going to get help, but until I do I need you to stay right here on this couch.” Trying to lighten the mood he tapped George’s nose. He was running out of time.

“Can I go to bed soon?” George asked, unsure.

“Very soon.” Thomas assured him. “Just lay back and close your eyes… and I’ll be right back.”

George did as he was told, relaxing upon the couch and closing his eyes again. Thomas covered him a little better with his throw and bolted from the nursery with Marigold in his arms.

He hurried downstairs in the dark, moving as fast as he could with a sleeping toddler in his arms. As he reached the bottom floor, Thomas headed for locked front doors to the telephone that was waiting upon its gleaming pedestal. Thomas pulled it up at once, having to juggle Marigold around the waist and clutch the receiver in the same hand- not an easy task. The number was easy enough to dial but talking was another thing all together.

“Downton Hospital” came the grainy voice of a nurse on the other hand after a few short rings.

“This is Thomas Barrow, I work at the abbey-“ Thomas said, “I need Dr. Clarkson right away. I have a child sick with scarlet fever in a house with an infant and a toddler.”

“I’ll notify the doctor now.” The nurse said in a rush, the urgency in her voice a true testament to the nature of this emergency.

“Tell him to hurry.” Thomas begged, before setting the phone back down and hanging it up. With that he hustled off for the green baize door, opening it with one hand so that he was suddenly flooded with sharp light. Marigold mumbled onto his shoulder, hiding her face in his shoulder. He hurried down the stairs, one again juggling between moving fast and keeping Marigold soothed. As he reached the bottom the sound of laughter and chattering irritated Marigold even more. She started to whimper; Thomas wrapped his free arm around her, covering her ears as best he could.

He rushed for the kitchen, looking in to see Mrs. Patmore arguing with Daisy over god knows what while they finished up the washing for the night. Both looked shocked to see him.

“Thomas!” Mrs. Patmore spluttered, suds dripping from her enormous arms, “What are you doing down here with Miss Marigold-?”

“Where’s Mrs. Hughes?” Thomas demanded. Mrs. Patmore spluttered at the anxiety in his voice.

“In Mr. Carson’s office-“ she finally managed to get out.

“I need you to chop up a few cloves of garlic for me.” Thomas begged, knowing that it would be the best shot of fighting off an infection in an infant, “Mix it with honey for me. Can you do that? It’s an emergency-“ he begged.

“What’s going on?” Mrs. Patmore demanded, sounding more alarmed by the minute. Daisy looked between them both, eyes as wide as saucers.

“Sybbie’s contracted scarlet fever.” Thomas explained. Mrs. Patmore clutched at her heart, eyes widening, “I have to protect the other children as well as her. Please help me.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Patmore dried her arms off at once, “I know just the thing, I’ll get started right now-“

“Thank you.” Thomas said in a rush.

“Did you ring for the doctor?” Mrs. Patmore demanded, now talking fast as she snatched up a whole garlic and began to peel its cloves apart with speed.

“Yes! Yes.” Thomas snapped, no longer willing to waste more time. He left her in the kitchen, now assisted by Daisy. As he rounded the corner to Mr. Carson’s office, he heard Mrs. Patmore snap, “Daisy! Fetch me that ginger and shave it as thin as you can. Go fast, girl!”

Thomas rapt his knuckles fast upon Mr. Carson’s door, jerking it open before he was even given a voice to answer. His reward was a shocking view of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes bent in for what was surely about to be a kiss- the pair of them leapt apart like they’d been shocked by electricity, furious to see him in the doorway.

They’d get over it.

“Mr-!” Carson spluttered, red in the face (and not all of it from anger), “What are you doing?” He hissed as he spotted Marigold asleep in his arms.

“Sybbie has contracted scarlet fever.” Thomas said. Carson gaped, horrified. Mrs. Hughes looked taken aback, “I need help moving the children to another sleeping arrangement. The doctor has been called, he’s on his way, but I wanted you to be aware-“

“Good lord.” Carson whispered, grave, hands balling into fists.

“I’ll help.” Mrs. Hughes said at once, shedding her coat and hat to place them upon Mr. Carson’s desk.

“Thank you.” Thomas said, now feeling slightly more relieved.

The three of them left the office, Thomas covering Marigold’s ears again as they stepped back out into the garish light of the servant’s hall. As they walked briskly to the stairs they were passed by the Bates who were leaving for the night with their hats and coats. Mrs. Hughes reached out, grabbing Anna’s arm so that she stopped, shocked.

“Anna, we need your help.” Mrs. Hughes ordered, “Get Ms. Baxter and Andy and meet me in the Nursery as fast as you can.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hughes.” Anna said at once, never one to question an order. She left her husband in the hallway, heading back for the servant’s hall.

“What’s going on?” Bates demanded, wary. Thomas left Carson to explain the details, heading back upstairs.

With Mrs. Hughes at his side (Carson held up slightly by Bates), Thomas returned to the dim and quiet of the nursery to find George still asleep on the couch. His heart pounded in his chest, his brain racing as he attempted to think.

“Alright…” Thomas muttered aloud, pacing the floor.

“Let’s-“ Mrs. Hughes tried to interject, but Thomas stopped her with a hand.

He loved the children best. He would solve this situation.

“No.” He warned her, “Let me think.”

She fell silent, pursing her lips as he paced. He paused, turning back to look at her, an idea rapidly forming to him.

“Wake Mr. Talbot, Mr. Branson, and Lady Edith.” Thomas commanded, “Bring them here.”

“I will.” Mrs. Hughes said. She left at once, and as she did so she passed Mr. Carson in the doorway who’d finally caught up. Thomas noted his hands were shaking.

“Mr. Carson, will you tell his lordship, and open the door for Dr. Clarkson?” Thomas asked.

“I think that would be best.” Mr. Carson agreed, stepping back out into the hallway and heading in the opposite direction of Mrs. Hughes. In the sudden silence, Thomas poked his head back into the nursery, noting that Sybbie was still laying quietly in her bed, coughing every so often but otherwise utterly still. He didn’t have long to himself- suddenly Lady Edith appeared in the nursery doorway looking petrified.

“What’s going on?” She whispered in a rush, taking Marigold from Thomas’ arms. Thomas allowed her, knowing that it soothed her to hold her daughter, to feel like she had some kind of control. Even as she spoke, Henry Talbot appeared in the doorway, disorientated and in a house coat.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Talbot wondered, noticing George asleep on the couch.

“Sybbie has contracted Scarlet Fever.” Thomas whispered. Lady Edith gasped, horrified. Mr. Talbot went white.

“Good lord-“ he muttered softly.

“Here’s what I need you to do.” Thomas instructed, knowing that it would be crucial for him to keep a calm head in the following hours lest the parents panic. “Lady Edith, will you take Marigold and let her sleep in your room tonight-?”

“Of course.” Lady Edith whispered, clutching Marigold tightly to her chest. She kissed her daughter sweetly upon the forehead.

“I’ll have Andy move her crib, I’ll help him-“ Thomas assured her before turning his attentions to Henry Talbot, “Mr. Talbot, George is a little difficult but-“

“It’s not a problem.” Mr. Talbot assured him, heading over to the couch and hoisting George up to hold him in his arms.

“We have to keep them away or they’ll contract it.” Thomas warned softly. Both Lady Edith and Mr. Talbot listened with grave expressions, “It’s contagious within the first 24 hours. If we can stave it off and keep Sybbie isolated the other children will be safe. “

“I’d like to keep her with me for a while.” Lady Edith whispered fearfully, “I may take her back to London with me-“

“That might be best.” Thomas admitted. The more distance between an infant and scarlet fever, the better. Lady Edith looked petrified now, practically shaking.

Thomas didn’t know why he did it- perhaps a shared love for a child spurning on, but he reached out to take Lady Edith gently by the arm to drag her away from her fears and back into the demands of the present.

“Lady Edith-“ Thomas urged softly, “It’ll be alright. I have a few treatments to give Marigold, and I’ll make sure Dr. Clarkson gives her something too. She’ll be fine. She’s safe.”

“…Thank you, Barrow.” Lady Edith whispered, slightly soothed. She left, taking Marigold with her. Mr. Talbot followed out after, taking George with him. At least they were out of the nursery now, and in someone else’s charge. Now he could focus solely on Sybbie. Thomas returned to the nursery, opening the door wide to let in some fresh air. He fetched a washcloth from the water closet, wetting it under the tap to wring it out in a shaking iron grip. He squatted by Sybbie’s bedside, and slowly wiped away every bead of sweat from her flushed skin.

Mrs. Hughes appeared in the doorway, Thomas looked around worriedly. An odd expression crossed her face, something akin to true sadness that made Thomas’ heart clench as he remembered a night not unlike this when another Sybil had been in dire danger.

He continued to wipe at Sybbie’s skin, unafraid even as she coughed near his face. He’d gladly contract Scarlet Fever to keep her safe.

Suddenly the sound of voices and feet gave Thomas pause. The doorway was suddenly crammed as both Dr. Clarkson and Mr. Carson appeared with Lord Grantham just over their shoulders.

“I’ll go get Mr. Branson.” Mrs. Hughes declared, stepping out of the room. It seemed she’d waited for the doctor- perhaps not wanting Branson to panic in lieu of knowing an answer.

“Barrow.” Dr. Clarkson greeted him. Thomas immediately scooted over to give him room, not moving from Sybbie’s side lest she needed him. In her feverish daze, she began to whimper.

“Shh..” Thomas soothed, wiping up her tears as they fell to gently stroke her hair. “Don’t you cry now.”

“Not a fret, Miss Sybbie.” Dr. Clarkson assured her, opening his traveling bag to withdraw an enormous syringe. The sight of it made Thomas wince in sympathy. “It will all be better soon.”

“Barrow…” She whimpered weakly, brown eyes misty as she gazed up at him in fear. Thomas cradled her face just as Baxter had done for him so that she could not see the syringe Dr. Clarkson prepared.

“Hello beautiful.” Thomas murmured softly. Sybbie blinked up at him.

She shook her head, her whimpering picking up in pitch. Thomas realized Dr. Clarkson was injecting her, and she shrieked, crying flat out. Thomas covered her protectively, kissing her burning brow.

“Just a pinch, my dove.” Thomas whispered into her ear, “Just a pinch and nothing more.”

“It burns-!” She wailed pitifully.

“Just a pinch and it’s over.” Thomas would not turn his head, refused to break in his protective hold even as she cried pitifully into his hands. He would protect her to the end if need be.

“You’re very brave, Miss Sybil.” Dr. Clarkson praised, in a gentle voice. “It’s almost over now,”

“B-barrow-“ She hiccuped in distress. Thomas nuzzled her soaked brow, kissing her inflamed skin.

“Just a pinch and it’s over.” He repeated, wondering if the others would ever be able to fathom just how much pain he garnered from listening to Sybbie cry. It was worse than a thousand injections, a hundred scarlet fevers.

Far worse.

 

~*~

Dreams of Ireland lush and green were suddenly cut off by the voice of Mrs. Hughes in his ear and a sudden shaking of his bed. Tom started in his sleep, wondering if it was just another dream interjecting the first one until Mrs. Hughe’s Scottish brogue persisted.

“Mr. Branson- Mr. Branson!”

Tom gave a start, clutching his covers to his chest blinking owlishly at Mrs. Hughes in the dark. What on Earth was she doing in his room? His mind started spinning in dizzying circles, each scenario more painful and wild than the last.

“Mrs. Hughes!” He bleated in surprise.

“Mr. Branson-“ She clutched at her throat, taking a step back to give him some space to pull up his covers. Tom suddenly realized she had a flashing view of his naked stomach from where his shirt had ridden up in his sleep. He jerked the sheets up at once. “I’m sorry to wake you this way but I think you’d better come with me.”

She fetched him his housecoat and his rose at once, following her at a brisk pace as she lead him down the hall (which was lit up much to his surprise). He was alarmed to see Henry walking past with a sleeping George in his arms.

“What’s going on?” Tom demanded, his mind suddenly filling with fear. Had Barrow cocked something up and harmed the children? It seemed plausible.

“Go see Barrow.” Henry directed, pointing over his shoulder back the way he’d come, “He’ll sort it out.”

Sybbie- he thought in alarm, I have to protect Sybbie.

 

He no longer allowed Mrs. Hughes to set the pace, sprinting down the hall to the playroom door which he threw open to see Edith inside rocking Marigold to her chest, whispering feverishly to Mr. Carson and Lord Grantham who both looked stern but soothing. As soon as they saw Tom, their faces filled with dread.

Sybbie-! He burst into the nursery, frightened half to death for what he might find-.

Sybbie lay sweating feverishly upon her bed, covered in a hot pink rash that made her look as if she had a particularly bad case of sunburn. She whimpered and whined, her face entombed in Barrow’s arms and he whispered sweet nothings to her and blocked her from seeing Dr. Clarkson injecting her with god knows what at the crook of her elbow.

He’d seen rashes like that before.

“Oh god-“ He whimpered aloud, horrified. He reeled backward, clutching at the door behind him so that he might not fall to the ground. He thought he might faint from shock. First Sybil and now Sybbie too-? Would he lose his own daughter in a mirage of heat and screaming pain-?!

“Don’t panic, Mr. Branson-“ Dr. Clarkson spoke up from Sybbie’s bedside, his tone soothing but his eyes locked upon his work, “It’s not nearly as bad as it looks.”

“But-“ Tom whimpered, “But it’s scarlet fever, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Dr. Clarkson agreed, and Tom thought briefly of flinging himself from the roof of the abbey in his despair until the good doctor continued on, “But it’s from a throat infection. Her fever will subside in three to five days. Thomas did right by noting her symptoms, you can have him to thank for her survival. Quick work is vital.”

Stunned, Tom felt fear fall away into something that could only be characterized as bleak amusement. Sybbie was going to live and he had Barrow to thank for it? Barrow hadn’t botched anything or threatened anybody- he’d done well and acted appropriately… the reward being his sacred child’s continued existence? It seemed almost laughable to imagine but… here was the proof.

Tom had been so wrapped around the idea that Barrow would abuse the children that not once had he considered… that he might…

“Take it outside, please.” Barrow murmured, that acerbic voice usually so cold now darkened by lack of sleep. “She needs her sleep-“

“I won’t leave her.” Tom choked out, determined to take a stand. Barrow paid him absolutely no mind, still enshrining his daughter’s face to continue whispering to her. In his hold she seemed to grow still, no longer whimpering even as Dr. Clarkson withdrew the vaccine to cork the needle and place it back in his traveling bag. He pulled out several topical ointments and vials of liquids, setting them upon the beside table between Sybbie and George’s beds so that he might use the light to his advantage.

“Let’s take a moment so we can talk outside.” Dr. Clarkson urged, plucking up a small vial no bigger than a teaspoon, “I promise nothing disastrous will occur. She’s stable, and will probably return to sleep.”

Tom couldn’t take his eyes off Sybbie, even as Dr. Clarkson gently pulled him away. As they rounded the door back to the playroom, Tom’s last view was of Barrow pulling her bottom sheet up so that it covered her trembling limbs. He’d turned his face to touch her own and was kissing her brow.

~*~

Despite Thomas’ initial idea to help Andy move Marigold’s crib into Lady Edith’s room, Andy turned out to be able to do it all by himself leaving Thomas free to comfort Sybbie alone. Mrs. Hughes, Baxter, and Anna all took it in their stride to strip the beds and put on clean sheets. Even the towels used for bathing had to be taken- everything was conterminous. They put the whole lot in a cloth sack which Andy drug back downstairs to leave in the soak overnight.

It turned out that Sybbie’s new bedsheets scratched her mercilessly; her hot skin felt like sandpaper in areas where the rash was thick, and it made her whimper as she tossed and turned. To give her sleep, Thomas turned off the light and cradled her in his arms, plucking her up to rock with her in his rocking chair so that he could be her warmth and blanket. This was incredibly dangerous, to tend to a child so carefully even as she fell through the woes of a contagious fever, but Thomas didn’t care. So deep and undying was his love for Sybbie that he’d gladly suffer for her sake. Anything to give her comfort.

She slept fitfully, every so often waking to a hacking cough. Mrs. Patmore had sent up several teas and tonics, some with honey and garlic, some with ginger and apple cider vinegar. Thomas used a ginger tea laced with honey and garlic to soothe Sybbie’s throat, ladling it down her throat with a spoon. She’d toss, wake, cough, take a sip of tea, then go back to bed. It felt like they struggled for two hours before she finally went to bed, and by that time everyone else had drifted off. The Carson’s had left for their cottage, content in Dr. Clarkson’s diagnosis and care. Lord Grantham, Lady Edith, Henry Talbot, and all the others had drifted off to their own chambers with strict instructions that they were to be waken should anything dire occur. This left only Tom Branson awake, who clung to the doorframe of the nursery and winced each time Sybbie coughed. He’d taken more soothing than Lady Edith, and that was saying something. Thomas refused to look at him, focusing solely on Sybbie as he rocked her and kept her tea close by.

“…Barrow…” Sybbie whimpered, sluggishly awakening to another tremendous cough.

“Shh-“ Thomas filled a spoon full of tea, helping her to swallow several times before she leaned her head back on his chest and closed her eyes again.

After a tense moment in which Thomas tried to remain as still as possible, Sybbie finally went back to sleep. Each breath rattled in her little splotchy pink chest. She slept only in her britches, naked of even a night dress. Her limbs, pale and small, were burning hot with fever. As much as he wanted to cover her with a blanket he knew it was unwise, and instead warmed her with his own body. Soon she was deep asleep, her rattling breath softening till it was barely discernible.

“…Is she… Is she alright?” Branson whispered. Thomas turned his head just slightly to the left, barely a twitch to let Branson know he was in fact listening.

“It’s just like strep throat.” Thomas whispered back. “Only a higher fever.”

“But she…” Branson’s throat constricted; he swallowed, “but she doesn’t have sepsis.”

“No.” Thomas shook his head. Sybbie coughed again, waking herself with a whimper, and Thomas at once spooned more tea into her mouth. She swallowed it, barely awake, and immediately fell back asleep. Thomas sighed, wondering if she’d be able to get a solid half hour of continuous sleep what with her horrid cough. Perhaps come morning her cough would be slightly better and she could finally get some sleep.

“…How did you know?” Branson asked. Thomas looked over his shoulder to see the man gaping in the doorway, mystified as if Thomas was a stranger. How many times had he been met with this same reaction, this queer dulled amazement tinged with disbelief whenever he was even slightly ‘kind’.

It made him bitter.
Thomas looked away, taking the ball of his foot to start rocking his chair.

“The rash.” He explained. Against him, Sybbie began to snore again. “She went to bed fine but after a while I noticed her sweating profusely. I pulled back the covers and saw the rest. I had her stick out her tongue for me, and it confirmed what I already knew.”

“What do you mean?”

Branson came around Thomas’ chair, stooping over to cup his daughter’s pale sweating face in one hand.

“Look at her tongue.” Thomas offered. Branson gently squeezed Sybbie’s jaw, letting her lips pop open so that he could see her white tongue dotted with pink spots. Amazed, Branson let go of her jaw to gently brush her sweaty bangs of her face and stroke her cheek. Thomas didn’t speak, feeling oddly stony even in the face of such paternal love.

His father had never touched him in such a way. Even in his times of sickness, his father had only ever berated him. His mother hadn’t been much better. It made him wonder if, even in infancy, his parents had ever cared for him at all. Unnerved at the idea that they might not have cared for him, even when they were nursing him, even when they were giving birth to him, even when they were conceiving him… Thomas pressed a soft kiss to Sybbie’s scalding forehead.

I love you, he wanted to say to her. Did she know how much she meant to him?

“… You’ll get sick.” Branson spoke up. “You shouldn’t hold her-“

Thomas glared at him, holding Sybbie closer in clear defiance. Branson watched her wearily.

“She’s a child.” Thomas whispered. “She’s afraid. I love her. You think I’d let her be alone?”

“I love her too, I am her father, you know.” Branson warned, his ton becoming clipped and irritated. Thomas didn’t care; Branson could be as snide as he pleased, Thomas would still love his daughter.

“… You should go to bed.” Thomas muttered, knowing his tone was starting to become snide as well. He stopped himself, knowing Dr. Kinsey would be angry should he hear. He sighed, forcing his ton to be calm. Branson’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “… Nothing will come of you worrying yourself sick tonight. I’ll stay with her… you get some sleep. In the morning we can swap. That way someone is always with her.”

Branson’s face went through several shifts. First he looked irritable, then surprised, then slightly suspicious and finally morose.

“… I suppose you’re right.” Branson finally mumbled in the end. “Can I… Can I get you anything before I go?”

Thomas shook his head.
Branson seemed ready to argue, ready to insist otherwise, but then he seemed to exhaust himself with the mere possibility and instead left the nursery. His gate was slow, stumbling, and as he headed out the play room door, he looked over his shoulder one more time and opened his mouth to say something. But then for reasons unknown he decided otherwise, and continued on out the door.

Thomas would not know it, but Branson would get no sleep that night.

 

~*~

 

“She’s a child. She’s afraid. I love her. You think I’d let her be alone?”

The entire night, Tom had lain in a state of disbelief, staring up at his ceiling and wondering at Barrow’s unexpected words. Despite how much Tom echoed Barrow’s sentiment, he could not help but rationalize that a child with scarlet fever was dangerous to everyone not just infants and toddlers. Barrow was in real danger of contracting the sickness if he didn’t watch himself.

Before being awoken by Mrs. Hughes, Tom had thought with intense certainty that Thomas Barrow was not right for the position of Nanny. After watching Barrow comfort his daughter, nurse her as tenderly as any professional nanny, and essentially save her life by calling the doctor before it was too late…. Tom wasn’t so sure.

To hear Barrow openly admit to loving his daughter had been shocking to say the least, and in all honesty it changed the way Tom looked at him. Was it true scheming, to be the nanny? Or was it Barrow’s way of being closer to the children he loved?

Tom spent the entire night fumbling through memories both fresh and old of Barrow interacting with the children, in particular Sybbie. Even in her infancy when grief had still shadowed Tom’s every footstep, he’d noticed that when he’d spotted Barrow around he’d always been prone to make odd noises at her or flash silly faces. Once, a maid had told him she’d walked in Barrow lifting her out of her cradle and kissing her brow, telling her that she was a ‘beauty’ and a ‘sweet pea’. Later, Lady Grantham had made no secret of Barrow’s shocking discovery that Nanny West was abusing Sybbie. Had it not been for him, she would have suffered ungodly amounts of trauma. Then Barrow had become strange, almost a ghost upstairs. Sometimes you’d see him, sometimes you wouldn’t, but an air of sickness had floated around after him like a spectral trail. Barrow had made it a point to keep well away from Tom which suited Tom well. On the off chance he’d hear odd things- that Barrow had defended him to Stole the butler and been attempting to do ‘better’ downstairs.

Something about that didn’t ring true to Tom, but he supposed he’d have to wait to see.

He recalled how, on the day of the Nanny’s heist, Tom had walked into Baxter running frantically up the main staircase, panicking and begging for him to help her ‘catch’ Barrow.

“He’s losing his mind!” Baxter beseeched “He’s running after specters-!”

Tom had tried to grab Barrow when he passed but it had been like trying to hold onto a very angry and wriggly stick of butter. Barrow had slipped right through his fingers, dashing out the front door and after the thieving Nanny. When the truth had come to light, Baxter had been incredibly guilty for thinking Barrow was going insane until Tom had consoled her.

“Don’t fret over it.” he’d urged her, “I don’t think there’s a man in this house who hasn’t thought it before.”

For some reason, that hadn’t made Baxter feel better. Indeed, she’d looked close to tears as she’d paced by the library door.

 

That very night, Tom had been awoken by Baxter, again, and once more the topic of conversation had been Barrow, or rather- “Mr. Branson, please come with me I don’t want to wake his Lordship.”

Downstairs Tom had went,wrapped in his housecoat, only to find the entrance hall full of light and (of all things) servants. Mrs. Patmore, Moseley, and Andy were all clustered around a frazzled Dr. Clarkson asking for answers. Bore on a stretcher between two paramedics was Barrow, bleeding profusely from the back of the head, ears, and nostrils with two blossoming black eyes that looked truly horrendous. Baxter had stood over Barrow, gently stroking his bangs from his bruised forehead. Indeed, he’d been bruised all over. It looked like he’d been in a fight with Attila the Hun. Apparently he’d suffered an open skull fracture against the bathtub rim.

“We found him in a bathtub full of blood- He was thrashing like mad and screaming that Carson was trying to kill him. That he didn’t have eyes.” Baxter had whispered fretfully. Beneath her touch, Barrow had twitched fretfully.

“Sounds like a nightmare.” Tom had mused, “But why was he in a bathtub in the middle of the night?”

“I’m unsure.” Baxter had admitted, “But he said he saw Mr. Carson drowning him.”

“I once dreamed Mr. Carson was beating me with a rake.” Tom tried for a bit of gentle humor to help lift the mood. “He just might still.”

This time, Baxter had laughed though only a little.

“We have to move him to the hospital now. I have an operating table being prepped.” Dr. Clarkson had ordered, “Mr. Branson, I’ll leave it up to you to tell his Lordship tomorrow morning. I’ve already informed Mr. Carson over the telephone.”

“Please, call us and let us know when he gets out of surgery.” Baxter had begged, “And when we’ll be able to visit.”

“I’ll keep you informed. Goodnight.” Dr. Clarkson had shaken both their hands, and without another word Barrow had been whisked off in the back of an ambulance.

The next thing Tom had known, a therapist by the name of Dr. Robert Kinsey had been staying over at the abbey to administer more aid to Barrow under Dr. Clarkson’s orders… perhaps because of Thomas’ vivid nightmares about Mr. Carson. He’d left after only a few days and by the time he was gone Barrow had become Nanny.

What a strange world they lived in.

As the sun finally crept over the horizon and painted the Abbey in a pale crisp blue, Tom slunk from bed and crept back down the hall to the playroom. As he opened the nursery door he paused, a jolt running through his heart like sharp electricity.

Barrow slept in the rocking chair right where Tom had left him the night before. Both he and Sybbie were fast asleep, cradled around one another. Sybbie’s rash was still atrocious looking, painful to even glance at, but she appeared to be resting well. Barrow on the other hand was sweating, his vest shed on the ground and his shirt sleeves open to reveal a night tank beneath. He looked flushed.

He looked… odd.

Tom approached as slow as possible, eager not to wake Sybbie nor Barrow. When unaffected by anger or misery, Barrow looked as normal as any man. Even gentler, though it hardly made sense. The pink tinge in Barrow’s cheeks worried Tom. Nervous that he might be catching fever, Tom reached out and gently touched the back of his fingers to Barrow’s cheek.

Barrow shifted, but just slightly, still too deep in sleep to wake. He didn’t appear to have a fever, for which Tom was grateful. The less sick men in the house, the better.

Tom drew his hand back, not wanting to intrude on Barrow’s personal space. Was it his imagination or did he look…. thin? Like he’d lost too much weight?

Tom shook his head, turned, and left the room. It was time to fetch the maids and Mrs. Hughes.

 

Four days passed, though Sybbie was pitiful for all of them. Her fever slowly dissipated, with Barrow constantly presiding over her wellbeing. The maids and Mrs. Hughes had to step up and assist with both the other children, though Marigold left for London with Edith the day after Sybbie’s diagnosis. Poor George was deprived of his Barrow time and had to instead make do with Henry and Mary. It was nice, but it wasn’t what he preferred, and he stayed in a slightly grumpy mood that nothing could cure while Barrow nursed Sybbie back to health. Every day Tom took it upon himself to help the maids as best he could, whether it was bringing up a tray of broth or taking down dirty sheets. On the fourth day of Sybbie’s recovery, Tom went downstairs to look for chores only to find that Mrs. Patmore was scourging out a massive cauldron which had apparently been filled with oatmeal. The answer to the odd question was even odder still: “Thomas needed it for Sybbie. He’s giving her a bath.”.

Barrow needed a cauldron full of porridge… for a bath?

Back upstairs Tom went, entering the playroom and nursery to find both empty. Instead, he found Barrow and Sybbie in the children’s lavatory,a fine bathroom and washroom combined with clean white tile and draping curtains that filtered in golden sunlight. Sybbie was in, of all things, a rather large wooden barrel that seemed to have been drug up from outside in the area yard. Scowling and whimpering, Sybbie sat with her arms folded over her naked chest, bitter as Barrow lathered in coat after coat of pale (but warm) goopy oatmeal. Shirts sleeves rolled up to the elbow and arms dripping in porridge, Barrow worked with intense concentration to cover each inch of Sybbie’s remaining pink rash.

Tom watched from the doorway, utterly amused.

“So you really are bathing her in oatmeal.” Tom scoffed, amazed. Barrow glanced up, pale eyes judging him warily as if he were a threat of all things. Sybbie looked over her shoulder, whimpering loudly at Tom for support in her battle against Barrow’s odd bath. Unfortunately, she would go without backup. Tom knew a good idea when he saw one.

“Barrow’s bathing me in porridge.” Sybbie grumbled. “It’s sticky, and I can’t even eat it!”

“I should hope not! You’re sitting in it!” Tom warned her in good humor, crossing the bathroom floor to squat down next to Sybbie’s make-shift tub. He saw now that she wasn’t sitting in a pool of porridge so much as a shallow puddle. This was clearly not a one-stop shop; the actual porcelain washtub stood only just a few paces away- Tom wondered if it was Barrow’s end plan to bath Sybbie with water. To simply let her sit and stew for a while. He reached out, cupping his daughter’s as-of-yet clean forehead. She was warm but not worryingly so.

“How do you feel?” He asked.

“Sticky.” She grumbled.

“It’ll help you peel faster-“ Barrow consoled her, his tone firm yet gentle. Clearly they’d been having this debate for a while now. Sybbie sulked at him, “Don’t give me that face!” He warned softly, and just for cheek he smoothed porridge upon her cheeks and forehead. She let out an audible whine. “When it’s dried we’ll wash you off nice and proper and put you in fresh clothes.”

Tom watched, amused. Barrow coated Sybbie in oatmeal like he would a clock parts in oil. For some odd reason, Barrow had kept on his fingerless glove, but also seemed to be wearing wrist sleeves. Perhaps it helped him support heavier weight with less strain on his tendons- Tom had known car mechanics to do the same thing before. Maybe it really was a strain to carry George and Sybbie on his back all the time.

“I hate this!” Sybbie burst out, frustrated.

“I hate it too!” Barrow grumbled. Sybbie blinked, confused, “I have to clean it up!” he reminded her, “Hold still.” he commanded as Sybbie tried to squirm away. He was careful to coat her thighs and stomach the most- Tom knew why. Those two places had been the worst for her rash and were still slightly pink.

“Barrow, this is silly.” Sybbie tried for reason. Once again, Barrow shot her down.

“No, what’s silly is you getting scarlet fever from one day in the village.” Thomas said. Sybbie sighed, leaning her head against the rim of the wooden tub. “What were you playing in, neh?”

Tom thought back, recalling the entire day. They’d gone out after breakfast, played for a bit at the office with Tom’s new printing machines, then gone for a quick lunch at a local shop and taken a walk through the park. After that, they’d visited two farms which needed repairs and finally returned home.

“I was playing with daddy’s machines!” Sybbie protested. Barrow shook his head, unconvinced.

“Machines don’t give fevers.” Barrow reminded her.

He had a valid point there. Tom spoke up, brushing at Sybbie’s silky brown hair. How often it reminded him of Sybil’s own.

“She played with the local children after our lunch.” Tom offered. Barrow listened but did not look at him. “George didn’t, he rode Henry’s shoulders.”

“There you have it.” Barrow drawled, his tone turning just slightly snide. “The culprit.” He gently brushed porridge onto Sybbie’s jawline and neck. She whined loudly again.

“I’ll have porridge in my ears!” She begged.

“A little snack for later.” Barrow joked softly. Sybbie scoffed, disgusted.

“Eww!” She bleated. Tom snorted, watching Barrow’s meticulous peddling of porridge. He’d certainly proved his worth in the past five days.

“Thank you for helping us through this.” Tom said, knowing when to give credit where credit was due… even to someone as rude as Barrow. “You’ve been oddly indispensable.”

Something strange happened.

Barrow slowed, his hands coming to an almost stand still. His face paled and expression slackened, eyes drifting off. Sybbie watched, concerned, as Barrow suddenly began to look morose and morbid. She smiled up at him endearingly, even while dripping in porridge.

“You’re always good!” She urged him. “Not just now.”

Barrow’s eyes snapped back to the present. He looked down at Sybbie, smiling gently. Tom had never seen him so loving and sweet- it took him aback. Barrow reached up and gently tapped Sybbie’s pug nose with a porridge coated finger.

“Your’e a sweet girl.” Barrow said softly. He coughed, once again ignoring Tom and focusing solely on his daughter. He coated her thighs with renewed vigor. “Let’s hope this porridge works. Otherwise I’ll have to clean up a tub for nothing.”

Barrow rose up, heading over to the actual washtub and turning on the tab so as to wash off his hands. As soon as they were clear of porridge, Barrow headed back to Sybbie and her barrel tub to help her stand up on her feet. She now sat on the rim, the porridge cooling and drying onto a film against her skin.

“Can I help in any way?” Tom asked. Barrow did not answer him at first, returning to the tub to drip water against the tap and wash away remnants of porridge.

“No.” Barrow finally said, not looking at Tom. Then, quick as lightening, Barrow changed just like nights before and stopped being a prig to turn and say, “But thank you for asking” in a soft tone that hardly suited his image.

What the hell was with this man? Tom couldn’t figure him out.

“Try not to get porridge on your trousers.” Barrow joked, “But… if you could help me clean up her barrel tub, I’d appreciate it.”

“I can do that.” Tom agreed, unbuttoning his cuffs to begin rolling up his shirt sleeves. Barrow headed to the wall where a row of pegs offered everything from house coats to freshly laundered towels. Tom watched, amused, as Barrow plucked up a maids apron from the rungs and threw it over his neck.

Barrow caught him looking and narrowed his eyes again.

“Don’t you dare laugh.” He warned coldly as he tied the maid’s apron about his waist.

“I wouldn’t dare laugh at my child’s favorite nanny.” Tom assured him, eager to get a jab in if he could. Barrow raised a finely arched eyebrow, slightly unamused as he returned to Sybbie and lifted her up into his arms. Naked and dripping with dried clumps of porridge, Sybbie sat perfectly still in Barrow’s arms like a princess from a tale as he carried her over to the tub. She stood in the porcelain basin, still waiting to be washed clean.

“Now.” Barrow said,taking off his soiled apron and folding it over his naked arm, “We’ll sit here just one moment longer and let it really harden. Then we’ll wash it all off.”

Sybbie sighed dramatically, slightly impatient.

Barrow had never been one to lack in ingenuity. Withdrawing a iron scrubbing brush from his apron pocket, he wetted it with the tab from the tub and returned to the wooden barrel to begin scrubbing meticulously at the remaining porridge. With each dab of the water, he took away more porridge. Tom offered a hand, taking over with scrubbing so that Barrow could take his soiled maid’s apron and wash it beneath the tap, wringing out the cloth while Sybbie sat drying at the far end.

“Do you think it’ll work?” Tom asked to fill up the silence.

“It did for my mother.” Barrow mused, wringing out the apron one more time. he unfolded it snapping it in the air to hang it back over his neck. He turned, noting Tom scrubbing at the remaining porridge where it still clung to the grooves of the wooden barrel.

“…Thank you.” Barrow said. “That’s very kind of you.”

Tom had never heard Barrow thank someone before. He didn’t imagine the man capable of it. To hear it shocked it and Tom glanced up amazed to see Barrow watching him with an oddly soft gaze. Impressed, Tom straightened up and kept his gaze.

“You’re welcome.” Tom said, tossing the brush into the wooden barrel. “Shall I help you bathe her too?”

“Please.” Barrow offered. Tom rose up, heading over to the porcelain tub.

“I’m crusty!” Sybbie said with delight, clearly ready to get clean.

“Good.” Barrow said with a smile, turning on the tap for real now as he waited for the water to get warm. As soon as it was suitable, he plugged the tub and let it begin to fill. Sybbie sank down, smiling sweetly as Barrow and Tom both began to wash her by hand. The porridge softened and slipped off, falling away to rest at the bottom of the tub in an odd pale slush. With it went some of Sybbie’s dried skin, falling away to reveal healthy peach underneath without a trace of garish pink.

“Look at that!” Tom beamed at his daughter, “It’s peeling right off!”

He picked up the bar of lavender soap from its holder but Barrow stopped him with an outstretched hand, meeting his eye across the tub. Up close Tom noted that Barrow’s eyes weren’t actually gray but the palest blue like a dawning sky. He suppose he’d just never been close enough to see it before.

“No soap.” Barrow directed, “There’s a pitcher of milk by the sink, “Fetch it and we’ll use that instead. Soap is too harsh on her skin right now.”

Impressed that Barrow had been so meticulous, Tom rose and headed around the tub to see that (sure enough) a ceramic pitcher was waiting by the sink full to the top with fresh cool milk. Tom headed back, pouring the milk in Sybbie’s bath water so that it suddenly became cloudy and white. Barrow repeatedly washed water and milk over her, till she became soothed and closed her eyes.

“Barrow?” Sybbie spoke up softly.

“Yes, love.” Barrow just kept washing. Tom watched, amused.

“Can I drink wine?” Sybbie asked.

Barrow stopped washing her, perching his elbows on the rim of the tub and cocking his head curious.

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” Barrow asked, a very good question indeed.

“The princesses in stories bath in milk and drink wine.” Sybbie said, splashing her toes a bit in the milky water. Tom snorted, in spite of himself. Such a gaelic spirit, she had.

“And do they get dipped in porridge, I wonder.” Barrow joked softly, taking Sybbie’s chin in his hand. “Stick out your tongue for me?”

She did so at once, quite complacent. Her tongue looked completely normal.

“Open your mouth?” Barrow asked. Once again, she did so without complaint, “Wider?” She gaped at him, slack jawed. Barrow narrowed his eyes searching the back of her throat. “Mmm.” He nodded, and Sybbie closed her mouth. “Much better.”

“Can I drink wine?” She asked again, hopeful. This time she turned to Tom for an answer.

“That’ll be a no.” Tom chuckled. Sybbie sighed at the injustice of it all.

“Daddy…” She said after a moment of silent bathing, “Can I come with you to work again?”

“Of course-!” Tom started to say until he noticed Barrow watching him with narrowed eyes. Clearly he did not approve. “Unless… Nanny disapproves?”

“Fever spreads fast in a village full of children.” Barrow said after a moment of contemplative silence. “Let it run its course.”

Barrow had a point; god only knows how many children were sick in the village. If Sybbie returned, fresh from her own illness, she might fall even more ill and he would have only himself to blame. The best thing to do was wait, maybe a week or two, just until the air cleared.

He had to admit, Barrow was rather smart.

“You’re no fun.” Sybbie mumbled, disappointed in her father’s change of tune. She rested against Barrow’s arms, sighing as she began to drift to sleep.

 

Tom had a feeling Sybbie would change her tune if she knew how much havoc Barrow had caused downstairs.

 

 

The rest of the day had Sybbie in bed, resting up after her porridge bath. Barrow spent the time cleaning up the nursery, playroom, and washroom which were all slightly a mess. In an attempt to keep George happy as well, Barrow also took him on a walk around the estate. Tom could hear them as they passed by the library windows where he sat working on estate paperwork.

“You can’t catch me!” George squealed, “You can’t catch me!”

Tom heard Barrow laughing heartily, and a flitting shadow past the window showed him sprinting after George only to scoop him up in his arms and take him down to the grass. He was relatively fast for a man who could chain smoke a whole pack of cigarettes.

 

Dinner brought both Edith, Isobel, and the Dowager over, who’d heard the news of Sybbie’s illness and subsequent recovery and had come to bring a broth recipe that apparently had been passed down by her own nanny in 1830. The idea made Tom’s head spin, and he eyed her favorably as she neatly sliced her beef wellington and dabbled a bit of mayonnaise sauce with her spoon. Incredible how everything she did was somehow elite and fluid even when it involved clumpy mayonnaise and a tiny spoon.

“How is Sybbie doing?” Lady Grantham asked, tenderly.

“Much better.” Tom assured them all, and a chorus of relieved sounds filled the air as everyone from the Dowager to Henry smiled. “She had a bath of porridge and milk today. She thought that garnered her a drink of wine.” Everyone chuckled, amused.

“Her mother had very good taste.” Lord Grantham said proudly from across the table, eyeing Carson’s decanted wine longingly. It was no secret that his palate had had to change after his operation. He could no more drink heavy wine now than Sybbie (though occasionally he had a glass). “She might fair well with a glass.”

“When I was young children waited until they sat at the table to ask for wine.” The Dowager grumbled, “But I’m old, perhaps things have changed.”

“I’m hardly pouring her a cup.” Tom beseeched.

“Yes, well.” The Dowager tutted, goose neck warbling as she spoke, “With Barrow as a nanny who knows what will come next. Perhaps Edith would like to try being a footman, or maybe you’d take a garner at being a doctor-“

“I wouldn’t mind being a doctor if I could just remember the terminology.” Tom joked, eager to clear the tension settling upon the table. Why was the woman always gearing up for a fight? Couldn’t she go ten minutes without ripping into someone? The Dowager rolled her eyes.

“I think I’ll leave the role of footman to those who know it best.” Edith added from next to Tom. Against the serving station, Carson raised an eyebrow with clear approval. Andy, on the other hand, kept a straight face never once shifting his eyes to the table. “And for what it’s worth I find Barrow to be an excellent Nanny. He cares deeply for the children and looks to their welfare more than our own Nanny ever did.”

“He was the one who caught Sybbie’s fever.” Tom added helpfully, thinking of how Barrow had so lovingly cradled Sybbie to his chest even when his own health had been in jeopardy. “If it hadn’t been for him… god knows what would have happened.”

The Dowager grumbled under her breath, eyebrow shifting.

“It’s not for long, Mama.” Lord Grantham tried to appease her.

“Only until Robin Hood is caught!” The Dowager sneered.

“The police say they’re close.” Lady Grantham agreed. The Dowager just seemed to grow more irritable.

“Cousin Violet forgets King John was a usurper.” Mrs. Crawley warned from Tom’s other side, smiling warmly at her long time friend. The Dowager watched her through hooded eyes, always on the look out for a stab if she could get one. “A thieving nanny to a good and upstanding house is hardly Robin Hood.”

“Yes, well, there will be a jail cell for her anyways.”

“If they catch her.” Lord Grantham warned. “We’re out of a sapphire necklace until they do, and who’s to say she hasn’t sold it off by now. It makes me want to put all our servants through the questionnaire— who else have we let into our house? For all we know Baxter could be a thief and Daisy a revolutionary.”

Tom almost choked on his beef wellington, shocked that Lord Grantham had strayed so close to the gun. If only he knew how right he was- for Tom was under no illusions about Baxter’s past or Daisy’s own wild streak. He wouldn’t have known Baxter was a thief if it hadn’t been for overhearing a conversation between Baxter and Lady Grantham as he passed by the door to the master suite. He noted that at Lord Grantham’s words Lady Grantham shifted uncomfortably in her seat catching Tom’s eye.

Tom chewed slowly upon his beef wellington, wondering what to say. But of course, the Dowager knew best.

“Be thankful for your staff.” The Dowager warned. “When you talk like that I’m tempted to ring for Barrow and have him send you to bed with no supper.”

Tom snorted under his breath, hiding his laugh with a mouth full of white wine. Across the table, Lord Grantham gave him a sour, dry look.

 

The rest of dinner went without incident, most of the conversation going around the hospital and its new changes in policy and prediction. After brandy and cigars, Tom had headed upstairs with the intent of checking in on Sybbie before he went to bed. It was this time of the night that shed a new view upon the abbey, making her seem bigger than she really was. Without servants walking her passages or family members calling out from rooms, she was as empty and hollow as a warship docked at shore. Upon opening the door the the playroom he found it dark and empty with dollies and blocks tucked away and moonlight shining through the lace curtains. The door to the nursery was wide open and within Tom found Sybbie alone fast asleep; she was still the only child in the nursery. She looked a million yards better from only yesterday and Tom knew that come morning she’d be bouncing around and ready to play again. Barrow’s rocking chair was empty, which was odd. Usually during this hour of the night he was sitting mending clothes or. Tom wondered if Barrow was out back having a quick smoke but reasoned against it. It didn’t seem in Barrow’s nature to leave Sybbie alone. The door to the washroom was slightly ajar, an odd flickering light coming from within, and though Tom had no reason to be tense he’d all but tip toed over wondering what was going on in inside. He’d peeked through the crack in the door to see, sure enough, Barrow crouched upon the floor. For reasons that only Barrow could explain, he sat with a ouija board and a lit candle.

“…Please…” Barrow whispered into the darkened washroom, “Please, darling. Say something to me. Anything.”

After a long minute of waiting, Barrow said again, “Anything at all.”

But the planchette beneath his fingertips remained stationary and Barrow bowed his head in miserable defeat.

Chapter Text

Sybbie’s rash became a memory of the distant past, but Thomas’ role as the strange new nanny stayed on.

It was mid-December now, and the fall and brought Thomas very little change save for the fact that he was now a ghost downstairs, not upstairs. While he’d grown to become a familiar face to Lady Mary and Lady Edith, he’d barely spoken two words to Bates or Carson in the past month. As a result, Dr. Kinsey’s hopes for open communication had dwindled and Thomas’ attitude towards the others had become stony. He didn’t want to talk to the servants, he didn’t want to exist with the servants. They weren’t his family, they weren’t his friends, they didn’t care about him. The only people that did care about him were Sybbie, George, and Marigold… so that’s where Thomas wanted to be.

Now, trailing behind the family as Lady Edith lead a long walk across the grounds telling tales of a new life in London, Thomas realized Marigold would soon be taken from his fingers. He held Marigold in his arms as Sybbie and George swarmed about his feet with Tiaa the puppy. She looked fretful, as if knowing her mother was about to take her from the only home she’d ever known, so Thomas pecked and kissed her brow, whispering loving things in her ear.

“Don’t worry.” Thomas soothed softly, “There will be flowers to pick in London. There’s flowers to pick everywhere, you know.”

Carson lead a small picnic with Andy, and while Lady Mary consoled a rather glum looking Mr. Talbot by the wishing wall Thomas instead focused his time by the pond’s edge where Sybbie and George brought him frogs to inspect. They seemed to be intent on making a collection, surrounding Thomas and Marigold with frogs that desperately attempted to hop off the minute they were set down. Depending upon the moment, Thomas was therefore either completely surrounded by frogs or merely holding host to one or two. In a thin second, Branson walked over and took advantage of the clear grass to sit at Thomas’ side.

This was another odd happening.

Despite not exactly having a friendship with Branson before, After Sybbie’s fever Branson had seemed changed. No longer assuming the worst about Thomas, he instead seemed to be trying for a new leaf. Thomas was more than happy to let it unfold, eager to leave his ugly past behind him, but what lay ahead? He didn’t see himself being Branson’s bezzie, the pair of them twiddling their thumbs while waiting to please the family hand and foot… but it wouldn’t do to make enemies- no… No. Thomas was unsure of what Branson wanted and it made him nervous like a horse easily frightened by a gun. He just wanted to know flat up front what Branson wanted. That and nothing more.

And lucky for him, Branson was walking over.

Intrigued by Thomas’ sudden collection of frogs, Branson took a seat next to Thomas and watched as Sybbie and George continued to bring him frogs. A particularly bulbous toad croaked pitifully on Thomas’ lap, eager to be let go and freed back to his home. It warbled, slipped off of Thomas’ thigh, and made a bee line for the edge of the pond. Before the toad could make it back into the depths, George scooped it up and put it right into Thomas’ breast pocket. Legs folded, bleary eyes blinking back up at Thomas’ chin, the toad gave another meagre croak before at last falling silent.

Branson reached over, perhaps intent on taking the toad physically from Thomas’ pocket. Thomas stopped him, jerking back slightly with Marigold still on his knee. Branson watched, curious, as Thomas reached up and took the toad out. It was slimy, cold, and incredibly ugly. Marigold grimaced, squirming away from it. He set it back down on the grass, watching as it once again made a bee line for the pond’s edge.

It got away clean this time; George was distracted by a dragonfly.

“Are you alright?” Branson asked.

Alright. What did it mean to be alright. To be normal? To be accepted? To be heterosexual and married with a child?

“I mean to say.” Branson carried on in the silence. “You seem a bit blue.”

“I’m not.” Thomas lied.

“You’re lying.” Branson called him out. Irritated, Thomas slowly turned to his left to glare at Branson. He did not glare back. By the pond’s edge, the toad slipped back into the water. “You lie all the time. Why do you do that?”

Thomas turned back to the pond, watching George and Sybbie at play. They would need a new change of shoes and socks after this to remain without a cold.

“Children lie when they’re punished for telling the truth.” Thomas said. How many times had he lied to his father for the very same reason… praying not to be hit.

“You can’t let that effect you as an adult.”

Oh well how very easy of Branson to say, now it simply must be true. How very good of him to point out the facts, “Rise above your circumstances. You never say thank you either, you can start with that.”

“I see,” Thomas spat in a rush, voice never rising above a whisper lest he offend the children, “Is today ‘Bite Thomas Barrow’s Nose Off Day’ and no one’s bothered to remind me?”

“I only think you could do with some hard earned truths.” Branson whispered back, desperate to keep his own voice down. The pair of them were having an argument in silence, quite a feat, “You’ve suffered enough for them already.”

Oh pish posh.

 

Later that day, Thomas sat gritting his teeth and twisting his fingers, jiggling his foot wildly while he talked to Dr. Kinsey on the telephone in Mr. Carson’s office. Outside he could hear the one and only making small talk with Mrs. Hughes.

“That must have been slightly hurtful,” Dr. Kinsey mused on the other end. Was it his imagination or did Dr. Kinsey sound disappointed in Branson, “To feel like Tom thinks you ungrateful.”

“Why must I say thank you for normalcies that everyone else takes for granted?” He seethed, “Why can’t I just live like the rest of them do? With good coming and going-“

“You know, toast is delicious even without butter and jam-“

“No it’s not.” Thomas grumbled, “It’s dry and disgusting.”

“Well butter and jam do make it taste better.”

“What are you getting at.”

“I don’t know about you but I am a horrible hoarder of the butter.”

Butter, butter, butter… what did it mean. Dr. Kinsey was always playing these- oh but of course.

“You want me to butter them up.” Thomas said, and he wondered if the disgust showed in his voice.

“I want you to stop forcing a diet of stale toast. You deserve all the jam in the world, all the butter you can stomach, but first you must fill the pot. Consider it like a piggy bank. For each thropping you put in, a thropping stays there. There may come a time when you need to withdraw some money from the bank. Best to have savings at the ready, don’t you think?”

He wasn’t the one to talk. He’d given all his money to smuggler for flour mixed with cement paste.

He fumed as he marched down the halls of the ground floor, wondering at all the butter and jam he saw- all the fucking fake butter and jam. Made in fake little churners with fake little pressers and fake little bits of sugar and milk- fake fake fake! What would it take to get some real affection around here? Some real love and real acceptance? Did such a thing even exist in 1926 England? He wasn’t sure. The thought made his nauseas.

As he walked by he passed the boot room and found it occupied by Baxter, Anna and Andy. He paused, glancing in on the three of them and wondered at Baxter. She polished one of Lady Grantham’s walking shoes with vigor, not even looking up from her work as sunlight filtered through her nutmeg hair and warmed her dress.

The one bit of real butter in the house.

She glanced up and saw him standing there. She smiled, but Thomas noticed just how fucking exhausted she was; how even when she smiled she was grimacing all because of him.

The butter was turning fake.

Thomas shook his head and turned away, walking down the hall towards the staircase.

The pressure was mounting.
The marbles were staring to roll.
Like a bomb getting ready to go off, his brain started sending him warning signals.

Move, the marbles hissed, Move and run. The time is nigh.

 

Upstairs, the children needed tending to. Sybbie and George needed their shoes and socks changed, Marigold had a wet nappy, and apparently there was a foreign diplomat visiting from Iceland.

He was the diplomat.

It took very little convincing from Sybbie for Thomas to make up a tray composed of one of their nicer tea sets (the Blushing Floret, 1812) with a rather neutered tea loaded in milk and sugar. It was almost like drinking syrup to Thomas but he didn’t mind. Biscuits and little cakes on a tray, Thomas served the children just as he would a group of adults, and found it very soothing until damn Tom Branson stormed through the door with a big oafish Irish grin on his face.

“Ah! Tea party!” Branson said delighted, waving a hand at the three children by his feet who stuffed cake and biscuits into their milk stained mouths. In the corner Thomas took a slow bitter sip of his highly sweetened tea- god how he hated when it had milk and sugar in it. “May I join?”

“Yes Pwease!” George urged, and so Branson sat down next to Sybbie to take her into his lap. He shared a sip of her tea and gave Thomas a disgusted look as if to say “Bloody Awful Stuff This”. Mildly amused at Branson’s discomfort, Thomas raised a finely arched eyebrow.

“Everyone is proper.” Sybbie proclaimed, “Barrow is a visiting foreign diplomat from Iceland.” She waved a hand to Thomas who lifted his over sugary cup to Branson in silent salute. “You are now the King of Ireland.”

“Officially.” Thomas sneered softly into his teacup.

“An’ I wear me crown with pride I do!” Branson proclaimed in an accent so thick one might have to hack at it with an axe to get through. “So ring yer butler for tea, lass.” But quick as a flee he dropped the accent to speak normally to Thomas, “Speaking of butlers, something rather odd happened the other night. Carson spilt wine.”

To some, this might not seem rather odd, but Carson was meticulous and neat, groomed within an inch of his life, and hadn’t so much as dropped a dab of steak sauce in the decades of servitude under the Crawleys. If he was dropping wine- sacred decanted wine- something was up.

“Odd.” Thomas muttered, setting his tea cup down. Sybbie put another sugar cube in his cup, and he rolled his eyes towards the heavens. The things he did for these precious children.

“Only I wondered if you’d seen anything.”

“Nothing.” Thomas admitted, “I’ve been hiding up here, and anyway Carson keeps his cards close to his chest.”

“As do you.” Branson teased, “You’ve hardly said a word since our little talk by the pond.” Thomas looked away, making the brief mistake of attempting to take a sip of tea. He nearly choked on it for how sweat it was and immediately sat the cup back down, “Did you take my advice.”

“Perhaps I did.” Thomas refused to give sway.

“Perhaps you learned something?” Branson offered with a smile. Who did he think he was, Plato?

“Perhaps I didn’t.” Thomas sneered. Branson looked away, put off.

“Well,” Branson muttered, “Try, try again I suppose.”

Oh yes, just try until your eyes bled and your arms fell off. This whole situation was all Thomas’ fault. “I doubt you’d say that if you knew.”

“Then tell me.” Branson approached everything with a ‘head on’ attitude. It often left Thomas feeling startled and confused.

“I can’t.” Thomas flustered, imagining the sneer upon Branson’s handsome face when he heard Thomas had tried to off himself. The idea made his stomach squirm with shame.

“Why not?”

“Wouldn’t be proper.” Was the only excuse Thomas could offer. There was no way in hell he was telling Branson his darkest secrets in front of the children- innocent children who’d never heard the word ‘suicide’ spoken by an adult. Their childhood deserved to remain untainted for as long as possible, and Thomas would not consent to a part of the inevitable sledgehammer that knocked the wall of innocence down.

Sybbie untucked her lace handkerchief from her lap and passed it over so that it now decorated Thomas’ lap instead. He blinked down at it confused.

“There.” She declared, “Now you’re proper.”

 

The mysteries just kept growing, from Carson spilling wine, to Lady Edith ringing close to midnight and asking for his lordship. Thomas couldn’t make heads of tails of it, but sure enough the next day when he went down to collect tea for the children and himself he found Mr. Carson practically buzzing with energy and eager to get everyone at the same table. Unsure of why he was being summoned when, as far as he knew, the earth wasn’t cracking and the sun was still in the sky, Thomas sat down in his old seat across from Baxter with wary regard. He no longer wore his uniform, able to come and go in a day suit as a nanny to the children, and so though he was swarmed in black and white he himself sported the same blue pinstripe suit he’d once worn to the fated Thirsk fair of 1920. Shirtsleeves rolled up the elbows and his top button unbuttoned, Thomas was much more relaxed than his co-workers. For how he gritted his teeth and glared though, he was ready to chew on a nail. Amazing how that worked out.

“Attention everybody!” Carson called out, catching the gaze of everyone from Andy, to the maids, to Mrs. Hughes herself as she took her seat next to Thomas. “I wanted to announce this when we were all taking our tea together.” He clapped his hands together, rubbing and squeezing his meaty fingers with dark eyes sparkling like fireworks. “Lady Edith has been asked to wed by His Grace the Marquess of Hexam and will be going up to Brancaster Castle to announce the engagement this Friday-!” Of course, the rest of the sentence was broken off as rounds of delighted sighs and calls engulfed the table. Anna and Baxter beamed, swapping glances with one another. Even Andy looked chuffed, which was odd because he really hadn’t been in the family for about a year now so what did he care. Of course, Mrs. Hughes was close to tears, a hand to her breast as she sighed and twittered away.

“I’ll get some sandwiches and fruit!” Mrs. Patmore declared in a celebratory mood, turning from the hall to trot back into the kitchen in order to whip up something worthy of Lady Edith’s good news.

“His lordship and her ladyship will both be going up with them.” Mr. Carson explained, to which Baxter and Bates shared another glance. So that would explain why Lady Edith had called the other night.

Thomas shifted a little in his seat, noting that a very odd sensation was starting to spread from his stomach into his chest and neck. He shifted again, trying to get it to go away. It felt like he was suddenly over sensitized, aware of every tremble, every breath in his body. It was not a pleasant feeling.

“That’s such wonderful news. She’s had such a hard time in life, I really hope this improves things for her.” Anna said to the table at large, though it was Bates who replied first.

“She deserves happiness.” He agreed, “Lord Hexam will certainly give it to her.”
Did Thomas read a second comment into that, or was he just being paranoid.

“It seems like everyone now is spreading their wings.” Mrs. Hughes said, her eyes practically twinkling with tears.
Was everyone spreading their wings?

“How true.” Mr. Carson agreed.

“It seems like dreams are coming true everywhere.” Baxter said, “Mr. Moseley is a teacher, the Bates are expecting, Lady Edith’s getting married-“

“I passed my tests!” Daisy added, to a round of gay laughter. She brought with her a tray of fruit and sandwiches, which she lay in the middle of the table so that all could take from it. At once, Andy stuffed several pasties into his mouth, delighted. Thomas alone refrained from laughter, that odd hypersensitive feeling making him wonder if he might vomit any second now. Why was his heart pounding so hard in his chest?

“Justice is sweet.” Bates said, taking a sandwich with his tea. “Those that do good ought to receive good.”

There is was again.
Thomas brought a hand up to his mouth, coughing slightly into his fingers. Just a small, soft thing. Something to steady his nerves. He probably shouldn’t be drinking tea. It was too caffeinated. Thomas realized that he was chewing on his thumbnail and stopped, knowing Carson would yell at him if he was caught.

Why were his finger’s trembling?

“Is something the matter, Thomas?” Anna asked. Startled, Thomas looked around, shocked to see that he’d caught the attention of quite a few people. Bates was glaring at him, as was Carson- Baxter was simply watching to see what he would do.

“Perhaps he’s feeling some guilt.” Bates mused, taking a sip of tea.

“Nothing ungenerous.” Anna urged her husband. To this, she added, “Don’t worry, something will turn up.” To Thomas.

“What?” Thomas asked, genuinely confused. What was she talking about.

“Well-“ Anna offered, “Your job search of course.”

Job…search? Was…
Was he still searching for a job? He could have sworn he had one as a Nanny- but-

“And now you can add nanny to your skill list!” Andy added in good humor, causing several of the day maids and the lone hall boy to laugh.

Mrs. Patmore came back in from the kitchen, offering a fresh pot of tea. She made a round, refilling cups, and paused when she saw that Thomas hadn’t even touched his own despite it being garnished with honey and lemon while piping hot— his favorite.

“Oh, don’t get soggy again-“ Mrs. Patmore huffed at him, passing over his still-full tea cup, “This is a time of good news. Try to be happy for Lady Edith, your time in the sun will come.”

“That’s right!” Anna piped up from across the table, offering him a pleasant smile, “You’ll find a position in a good house and can have a good clean proper start- you’ll be able to get your new coworkers on your side.”

But it had never been about a side- it had never been Thomas’ intention to try and get people on his side for the sake of a tally count— he’d just wanted a friend. He’d just wanted someone to hear him in his pain and to honestly care about him, was that so much to ask?

Flustered, Thomas remained silent unsure what to say.

“It might do you good to get away from here.” Baxter mused. Thomas stared at her affronted, feeling betrayed. How could she say that when she knew how much he loved the children? “To make friends-“

Because apparently he couldn’t make friends here-

“You certainly can’t stay nanny here forever.” Bates said with a soft dry sneer, “It’s ridiculous-

“Okay.” Thomas spluttered out, a soft verbal warning that the pressure in his head was growing. If he could get out now, slip out into the back and blow off some steam, all would be well. If the pressure just kept mounting-?

“It might do you good to look into the papers.” Mr. Carson said, taking an enormous sip of tea before sighing and setting his cup back down. “Just to see what’s available elsewhere again.”

“Okay.” Thomas said, a little more rushed this time.

“Maybe if you start doing good, good will come to you.” Bates chimed in, to which everyone nodded in agreement (even Baxter). “You might even garner a life. You can hardly call what you’re doing now living-“

“Okay!” Thomas snapped, exploding with all the pressure of a pipe bomb. At once, the humored happy atmosphere of Lady Edith’s wedding engagement was shot straight to hell as the whole room fell silent and tense. Thomas realized that he’d just screamed out loud in a group full of people, and bristled.

“Amazing how you’re always the victim.” Bates muttered, rolling his eyes. He was the only one who did not look nervous. “We’re trying to have a good time, and you spoil it because it’s-“

“That’s not-!” Thomas nearly exploded again, but clamped down on his tongue at the last minute to keep from bursting into a tirade. He needed to walk, he needed air, he needed to run as far away from this damn house as possible before it put him in an early grave.

“…Perhaps you should take a walk.” Mrs. Hughes offered softly, her voice like a breath of wind in his air.

“Yeah.” Thomas spat with more too much venom. He rose up, not even bothering to push his chair in as he left the table. He stormed down the hall to the back area, far too aware of the world around him. He pushed open the door and strode out into the faint afternoon light. For every breath that he took, his heart only seemed to pound more till it was practically a drum beat in his ear. He walked at a brisk pace, once hand on his hip, another pressed to his neck. The side lawn of Downton offered rolling hills and large willow trees that swayed in the December wind. Thomas took shelter underneath one, the back of his vest scraping against the bark as he slid down and hit the grass.

He took in one shaky breath, then another, trying to get a hold of himself.

For a moment he was completely alone, and pressed the heel of his palms to his burning eyes as he tried to swallow his shame with self defense. If they’d just left him alone- if they’d just stopped nagging-!

But the jingling of a dog collar broke across his train of thought, only to be followed by a cold wet nose and an eager snout working its way under the crook of his arm. Tiaa seemed to be taking her afternoon walk, eager to play with him as she stood up on her hind legs to lick at his chin and cheek. Usually he was quite at ease with the dog- just now though he wished she’d leave him alone.

“Thomas?”

“Oh god-“ Thomas groaned bitterly; Branson was approaching, trilby hat and dog leash in hand. He wiped his face hastily but his cheeks were still flushed and his face distressed. “Thomas what on earth’s happened?” Branson asked, stopping before him so that Tiaa now bounded back and forth between his ankles and Thomas’ lap.

“What’s happened?” Thomas scoffed, voice quavering. He looked away out over the far reaches of estate where the woods of York turned everything a dark mossy green. “What’s happened is that Lady Edith is getting married because she’s good and deserves good- and I- I am going to die in a ditch somewhere. I can’t stay here, apparently, with the children I love-“ Thomas gestured a hand out behind him, scraping the tree, “Because I am evil, and selfish, and I deserve to be deprived of them.” He clenched his jaw tight as he spoke, “I don’t have anything. Anna’s having a baby, and Moseley has his classroom, and I have nothing… Because I deserve it.” He licked his lips them closed his mouth, still refusing to look at Branson who’d gone very quiet.

He squatted down next to Thomas. Tiaa whined and stood up on her hind legs again, nuzzling Thomas’ flushed neck and cheek.

“As… Bates… saintly Bates… so fucking knows.” Thomas mumbled at last. He sniffed, closing his eyes.

“What brought this on?” Branson asked at long last. He was far from accusatory, indeed he sounded quite concerned.

“I don’t know!” Thomas implored, looking back around to find Branson staring at him unsure. He supposed he must paint a funny picture, Thomas Barrow the broken and beleaguered instead of Thomas Barrow the proud and pompous. “They were all talking! About how lovely it was, how nice life was- meanwhile I…” Thomas flustered, breaking off, “I can’t find my way forward. And they know that!” Thomas raked a hand through his hand, his fingers pulling away stinking of pomade, “And they were just ignoring it. Ignoring me. Like they always do.” He looked away again, back out over the forest. Funny how he couldn’t look a man in the eye when he admitted such things.

“Thomas…” Branson said, sounding quite disappointed. Thomas’ cheeks began to flush again, “You have to find a way to voice your needs without knocking people out of their socks. If they’d known they were upsetting you, they would have stopped-“

“Yes but see, it’s not my place to say if I’m upset.” Thomas snapped, incredibly frustrated, “I have to sit there and take it-“ he pointed a finger to the ground, “Otherwise I’ll spoil everyone’s good time.”

“I think you’re over estimating your input.” Branson offered, “I doubt you’d spoil all that.”

Tiaa liked him on the cheek again.

“Tiaa doubts it too.” Branson said for good measure.

“Don’t bring the dog into this.” Thomas mumbled softly, burying his face into his knees to block out the world.

“Look, you’re having a hard time.” Branson didn’t sound unsympathetic, “Everyone has hard times. You have to pick yourself up by your bootstraps-!”

“I can’t!” Oh what an easy thing to say ‘pick yourself up’, ‘carry on’, ‘stop complaining’, ‘be normal’, “I can’t. I’m tired, I don’t have the energy- I always pick myself up but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t.” Thomas buried his face back into his knees again, “I can’t lie, and I can’t do it.”

Suddenly the urge to take a knife to his neck was starting to blossom once again in the back of his mind. The idea of finding some trunk in the attic, pulling it out and climbing inside so that he could be locked away and never found suddenly making him feel ice cold all over.

“I am the victim.” Thomas whispered to his thighs, “Bates may not want to see it but I am the victim. How can I not be when I hurt so bad? When I hurt all the time?”

Branson had nothing to say to this. Maybe he was stumped, or maybe he didn’t care either. The thought made Thomas feel stupid, for sitting out here beneath this tree and whining to a man who wasn’t really even his friend. He looked back up out at the fields of green and wiped his eyes one last time heaving a bitter sigh.

“What am I doing?” Thomas mumbled to himself, “Sitting here, whining to you like you even care.”

“Maybe I do care?” Branson murmured.

“Oh go fly a kite.” Thomas wouldn’t stand to be lied to. He rose up from the grass, dusting himself off before he ruined his suit, and left both Branson and Tiaa beneath the willow tree. That night he did not return downstairs and instead stayed resolutely locked in the nursery with the children.

The next morning, Thomas could tell something had shifted in the atmosphere once again. Everyone seemed back to avoiding him, even the maid that brought the children’s meals and a change in laundry. She wouldn’t meet his eye, barely even offered a curtsey before she left scampering back down the hall to the green baize door. It prompted yet another call to Dr. Kinsey, simply because Thomas felt like he was going out of his mind with the urge to lock himself in a trunk in the attic. He told Dr. Kinsey none of this though, instead regaling the argument from yesterday and how Thomas had promptly shut down a celebration over his own personal baggage with the world.

“I just…” Thomas mumbled, rubbing his brow where an ache was beginning to form. On the other end of the line, Dr. Kinsey waited patiently. “It just went wrong. I couldn’t stop myself.”

“It must have hurt deeply to hear them mention a job search- to realize you still couldn’t stay.”

“I don’t want to leave.” Thomas admitted, knowing full well that hardly mattered in the grand scheme of things.

“Of course you don’t.” Dr. Kinsey sympathized, “You love the children, and the staff. You want to be around the people you love. But it’s difficult for them to know you love them when you’re yelling at them.”

“They bully me!” Thomas protested.

“How?”

“They just- push me out the door!” It was all incredibly unfair, “Thomas do this, Thomas do that- Thomas find another job and stop being the nanny-!”

“I see.” Dr. Kinsey said after a pause, “What a horrid situation.”

“What do I do?” Thomas asked, feeling trapped and defenseless once again. He hid behind Dr. Kinsey like a trusted shield.

“Well I think the first thing you need to do is let the others know that you had your feelings hurt so that way they can be aware.”

“I can’t do that.” It was a lurid concept, to imagine himself sitting down at the servant’s table and proclaiming to the others, ‘Attention all, my feelings were hurt yesterday. Please apologize so that I might feel loved and accepted once more.’ “It’s too… it’s too…”

“Forward?” Dr. Kinsey supplied.

“Rude.” Thomas added.

“How is alerting them to your feelings rude?”

Once again, Thomas found himself confronted by a man who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It was infuriating.

“Because-“ He stuttered, “They’re mine?”

“I see.” There was a pause, no doubt where Dr. Kinsey was scribbling away feverishly on his clipboard at home, “Do you feel like your feelings have less worth because they’re yours?”

This conversation was bordering dangerously close to a subject Thomas did not want to broach. Desperate to end it now before everything went to hell, Thomas let out a stuttering cough to say, “I have to go-“

“Thomas, wait-!” Dr. Kinsey tried to say. Before he could get out another word Thomas hung up the phone.

Talk about a “close call”.

 

In an attempt to steady himself, Thomas spent the rest of the next and the next morning upstairs with the children. George had developed a small fever, the colder weather never agreeing with him; Thomas fed him a chicken broth soup and lit a fire in the nursery so that by the end of it Marigold took a nap on the hearth with no need for a blanket and Sybbie made shadow puppets on the wall with her fingers. George, of course, was passed out. Thomas spent his time with Sybbie, showing her how to wiggle her fingers so that her shadow puppet dog looked like it was barking. The pair of them had quite a bit of fun, making everything from rabbits to cats that chased one another and made ridiculous noises. All this might have gone on for hours had it not been for the gentle rapping upon the playroom door that opened wide to reveal-

“Dr. Kinsey-!” Thomas spluttered, staggering to his feet to leave Sybbie and Marigold upon the floor.

His first thought was that he was now in some sort of trouble after hanging up on Dr. Kinsey yesterday. Perhaps Dr. Kinsey had traveled to Downton to give him a scolding. But that didn’t seem right, because Dr. Kinsey was smiling- beaming actually- and didn’t seem the least bit angry with him as he took off his trilby hat and ran a few fingers through his dark brown hair. Thomas didn’t know what to say, and spluttered as Dr. Kinsey placed his hat over his heart.

“I tried to tell you last night-“ Dr. Kinsey chuckled in that good natured way, “I had a meeting with Dr. Clarkson this morning and wanted to pop in on you afterward.” He tisked, wagging a finger at Thomas in mirth, “That’s what you get when you hang up the phone. You miss vital information.”

Thomas would be lying if he’d claimed to not feel slightly guilty.

“Um…” Thomas scratched at the back of his neck, shuffling his feet. Sybbie watched, highly intrigued.

“And who are these charming children?” Dr. Kinsey asked kindly, looking from Sybbie to George. He already knew Marigold, of course.

“This is Sybil Branson. Sybbie.” Thomas gestured, allowing Sybbie to toddle at his knees as he held her from behind and gently petted her nutmeg hair. “Tom Branson’s daughter.”

“How do you do,” Dr. Kinsey offered her his hand, and she shook it after a moment looking quite shy.

“Hello.” She said meekly.

“This is Dr. Kinsey, a very smart man.” Thomas introduced her, smiling down at her.

“Oh I wouldn’t go that far.” Dr. Kinsey assured her, “I’m merely perceptive and don’t like to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Thomas rolled his eyes; if only Sybbie could know how accurate that statement was.

“And who is this?” Dr. Kinsey asked, stepping around George’s bed to find him sleeping peacefully upon his pillow.

“That is Master George Crawley.” Thomas said, “The heir to this estate and the son of the late heir Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary.”

“My goodness, he’s a looker.” Dr. Kinsey chortled. “He’ll break hearts when he’s older.”

“He’s already broken mine.” Thomas joked. “He rules me with a rod of iron.”

Dr. Kinsey seemed to find this all very amusing, and winked at Thomas as he passed. Back in the playroom, Dr. Kinsey gestured to the open door of the hallway.

“Shall we take a walk?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“The children-“ Thomas gestured to the three of them, but Dr. Kinsey it seemed had been expecting this. Out of the hallway came a maid, who pursed her lips tightly at the sight of Thomas to step around them both and shepherd Sybbie away from the nursery door.

“…Right.” Thomas muttered. The maid closed the door to the nursery, and suddenly it was just Thomas and Dr. Kinsey in the playroom.

They headed out and walked downstairs through the green baize door, taking their time and going at a leisurely pace. As they walked, they talked, and suddenly the phone conversations were replaced by a physical one Thomas could not escape from.

“So the new communication is not working out.” Dr. Kinsey said, though he didn’t sound disappointed.

“I don’t want to communicate with them anymore.” Thomas muttered. “I just want to be left alone.”

“I understand, but remember.” Dr. Kinsey warned, “You’re working in this house, you can’t avoid the people it houses. It’s best that you have something healthy in place instead of something negative.”

Thomas tried walking faster but Dr. Kinsey was surprisingly agile and could easily keep up.

“What would you like it to be?” Dr. Kinsey asked. “If you could have anything-“

“But that’s just the point. I don’t want anything, I don’t like these people-“

“Now I hardly think that’s true.”

Their trek took them right past the servant’s hall, but instead of walking out the back area door, Dr. Kinsey paused and tipped his head to those that were sitting having tea. It wasn’t really a large crew, just Andy, Baxter, Anna, Bates, Daisy, and for some odd reason Mr. Moseley who seemed to have come up again to keep Baxter company. They didn’t look pleased to see Thomas or Dr. Kinsey. They didn’t even smile at him. Dr. Kinsey paused, noting the frigid atmosphere, and kept his hat over his heart as Baxter alone turned around in her chair to smile at Thomas.

Her attitude was forced. Even Thomas could tell she wasn’t happy with him.

“Thomas…” She greeted him, “How is Dr. Kinsey.”

Thomas glanced at Dr. Kinsey, taking the man in. His complexion seemed healthy enough.

“Fine, I presume.” Thomas mumbled, ready to head for the back door. Even staying around the group for more than a minute made him feel incredibly sick- like that tension inside of him was-

“Typical of you not to ask about others.” Bates sneered, setting his teacup down. “Don’t you ever get tired of being a thorn in our sides?”

Yes, yes, that was just perfect. Get him downstairs for less than a second and look what happened-!

“Oh my god-“ Thomas spat, wheeling around. Baxter’s eyes widened reflexively. “Five minutes!” Thomas spat at Bates, wondering if the man could even tell time, “I need you to leave me alone, for five minutes! Can you do that? Can you be an adult; hmm?!” Thomas gestured wildly, lips pursed into a thin white line. At his side, Dr. Kinsey watched, tense and aware. “Can you remember that I haven’t had the best year and that I really don’t need you pushing me? Is it possible or does my lowly existence not grace the list of Saint Bates’ many priorities?”

It felt good to vent, but he knew it was about to bite him in the ass. Bates was glaring at him viciously, so he glared right back. Caught between them, Anna looked quite tense.

“Don’t be harsh-“ Anna urged. But this just made Thomas laugh, though it was hardly from amusement. Typical Anna- typical everyone-! Bates was the victim and Thomas was the perpetrator of violence and cruelty even though Bates was the one who had started this particular argument! Amazing. Splendid.

“Oh, I’m the harsh one? Meanwhile your husband the pope gets to call the shots about who’s allowed through the gates of heaven?” Thomas spluttered, somehow smiling though he couldn’t say why, “You know, I have children that love me.” Thomas sneered at Bates, whose expression of icy indifference never shifted, “That I’d gladly die for, but you don’t see that. You’ll never see that because the minute you admit that I have worth in the eyes of others is the minute you have to admit the way you’re treating me is wrong! And you can never be wrong! Because your ‘Mr. Bates’!” Thomas sauntered his hips at this. Mr. Bates, Mr. Bates, Mr. Bates- why didn’t they just give him the title of Earl and be done with it?

“Thomas-“ Baxter whispered, using her hands as if hoping to make him physically simmer down.

Thomas jumped as Dr. Kinsey placed a hand upon his shoulder. He looked around to find the good doctor watching him with wary regard.

“Count to five.” Dr. Kinsey murmured.

Bitter, shaking, Thomas slowly counted to five in his head. He pinched the bridge of his nose tight, realizing just how vicious and vapid he’d sounded to the others. Dear god no wonder they all wanted him dead. But the thought just made him angrier, and he had to wrestle with anger and guilt as he took a long breath through his nose and out through his mouth.

“It’s fine.” He muttered bitterly. “I’m fine. I’m fine-“ He raised his hands up as if to gesture in defeat. “See? Completely fine.” but Dr. Kinsey was still looking at him like he might go for the knife drawer at any moment. “Don’t look at me like that. I can hardly go off the deep end when I have children to look after.”

But this made Bates laugh, a dry humorless chuckle as he sneered, “What’ll your excuse be when you’re no longer nanny, I wonder? Razor too dull?”

A hot icy rage flooded Thomas’ senses unlike nothing he’d felt since that infuriating Gwen’s stupid luncheon. The blood drained from his face, and before he could stop himself, he exploded upon Bates with all the force of a charge of dynamite.

“Who the hell do you think you are?!” Thomas demanded, voice rising loudly in self-indulgent rage. How dare he make fun of what happened in July- how dare he? When he knew absolutely nothing about Thomas’ suffering? When he didn’t even care? Bates rose from his chair, cane scraping against the floor as he leaned against the table instead. He looked murderous.

“I ran this house as first footman and cared for his lordship as Valet at the same time long before you hobbled in, and ‘ll have you know I did it all without rubbing his elbows! Without rubbing anyone’s elbows!” Thomas spat, wiping a savage hand aside, “You didn’t have a reference, you didn’t have experience, you didn’t even have a bloody interview! You didn’t do anything! You just walked off the bloody train and took a job that wasn’t even yours because Lord Grantham was your front runner!” With this, Thomas pointed to himself, “I had a reference! I had experience! I went through the interview- four of them in fact! I worked my ass off to get my initial job here- and I kept it all through your bullshit!” He swiped a savage hand over his hair- it was starting to lose its hold and become frayed. “Now I juggle the roles of footman, and valet, and under butler in a house that hates my very existence all while dealing with Carson’s incessant prejudice, and I take care of three kids-!!” Thomas counted off the facts like flies upon his fingers. “OH!” He cried out, throwing his hands up into the air to let them slap against his sides as they fell, “But it’s so lucky for me that I have you around to tie my shoes! Thank you Mr. Bates! Thank you for tying my undeserving shoes!”

“What is going on in here?” Mrs. Hughes demanded, stepping in from the hallway and looking quite alarmed. “All this shouting and carrying about-“

“Oh nothing out of the usual-!” Thomas gestured at Bates angrily, “Just Saint Bates casting me into the wicked fires of sinners for not being good enough!”

“Meanwhile you’re getting in jabs everywhere you can-“ Bates snapped, his own voice having grown quite loud to keep up with Thomas’ “Does it ever get lonely on your little island?”

“Like I can drop my hands with you around?!” Thomas demanded, “Every time I walk in the room you have something shitty to say- you’re the reason I sunk so low!” Thomas pointed a vindictive finger at the man, “You’re the reason-!”

“Thomas- that is enough-“ Mrs. Hughes interjected, stepping between Thomas and Bates to force his arm down. Thomas suddenly realized that he was shaking like mad, practically vibrating in his anger. “You’re going to give yourself an anxiety attack if you keep this up, you’re not even making any sense-“

“He’s the reason-!” Thomas beseeched, “He was making jokes about what happened this summer-!”

“I’m sure he didn’t-“ Mrs. Hughes beseeched, but it just served to make Thomas madder. Everyone in the room had heard it, but of course no one was going to back him up because that would mean taking Bates side over Thomas’ and when had anyone ever done that?

“He just did two seconds before you walked into the room!” Thomas cried out, quite upset. “He just did it! He said ‘What’ll your excuse be when you’re no longer nanny’, talking about me holding off from the deep end!”

“I’m sure he was just-“ Mrs. Hughes protested, but Thomas cut her off with an audible roar of disbelief. Here was the proof right before their eyes, and none of them wanted to look at it! It was damn unbelievable!

“Always an excuse for him, he’s never held accountable, meanwhile I get run over by the wagonette just for breathing-!” Had Thomas been turned around, he might of seen Mr. Carson walked in the room. As it stood he was too busy yelling at Bates to notice, and it wasn’t like anyone was about to give him a warning. “Every time he makes a quip at me it gets shrugged off, and every time I defend myself Mr. Carson goes after me with a torch and a pitchfork and I have to sit here and take it or I’m cast out penniless and onto the streets and die in a ditch- god I don’t know which option is better at this point, at least if I died in a ditch I’d have some kind of decency-“

“I could have swornI heard shouting from my office of a most… animated type-“ Mr. Carson’s loud voice cut across Thomas’ snarl, and it stopped him so efficiently that several words died in his mouth as fear took him over. Everyone watched, relatively amused as Mr. Carson loomed ever closer, his rotund belly pressing up to Thomas so that he suddenly realized just how big Mr. Carson was. How very easy it would be for the man to crack him around the face and render him unconscious. Bates smirked, certain he’d won.

“Given your anger yesterday, I’m wondering if perhaps we need to have a talk in my office.” Mr. Carson regarded Thomas with calm benevolence as if they were having a conversation instead of catching each other out at an argument.

 

“No, Mr. Carson.” Thomas said, all but swallowing his tongue at the idea of Carson cursing his very existence in close quarters. No thank you, he’d rather take a flying leap from the top of the abbey. “I was… just… having an animated discussion with Mr. Bates.”

Bates snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. Instead of letting it slide, however, Mr. Carson snapped, “I hardly find any of this funny, and I’ll remind you not to laugh.”

Bates’ scowl slipped from his face as he dropped his arms and braced the back of the chair again waiting for Mr. Carson’s ‘guilty’ verdict. Thomas could swear he was visibly sweating by this point, incredibly nervous of what would surely come next.

“What was your discussion with Mr. Bates about, if I may ask?” Mr. Carson asked.

Thomas pursed his lips, wondering if he just stayed still long enough whether the others would forget he even existed.

“You will answer me when I speak to you.” Mr. Carson warned, “I remind you that I am the butler.”

Thomas opened his mouth, stuttering. Dr. Kinsey watched the entire display with incredible interest. “I- nothing Mr. Carson. Nothing important-“

“I could have sworn I heard you thanking him for tying your shoes.” Mr. Carson cut across, “That is an odd thing to thank a man for, particularly when he’s never done it.”

Well it didn’t really matter if Thomas told the truth or not- it wasn’t like Bates would suffer the consequences.

“… He brought up the summer, Mr. Carson.” Thomas said.

For a moment Mr. Carson merely regarded him up and down, taking in the visible shake at his shoulders and the way the blood was drained from his face. Then he turned and addressed the room at large with such an authoritative voice that none could put it asunder, “As of this moment, that subject is no longer up for discussion in the servant’s hall or anywhere else. Anyone, and I do mean anyone who speaks about it will have to answer to me and Mrs. Hughes. Am I clear?”

“Yes Mr. Carson.” Everyone said, even Mr. Bates who did not look pleased at being caught out. Indeed, he scowled at Mr. Carson and Thomas both, retaking his seat at the table next to Anna.

Carson leaned in, dropping his voice as he spoke to Thomas: “Calm yourself. You’re a member of the upper staff. Set an example for your inferiors.” And with that he left, returning down the hall surely back to his office.

“There,” Mrs. Hughes assured, “Things can be fixed without shouting.” But if she thought this fight was done she was in for a horrible wake up call.

“Nothing is fixed.” Thomas said, sounding and feeling like an impetulant child, “The minute I leave the room, they’ll be back to spitting on my name, even if Mr. Carson tells them not to-“

“You’re the one being cruel!” Anna piped up, downright affronted to be called out in any way shape or form.

“I am defending myself!” Thomas snarled, making Anna flush with renewed anger. “What do you want me to do?! Get on the ground and let you walk all over me?!”

“Well, if you’re offering.” Bates sneered.

“And here comes the excuse.” Thomas snapped, knowing full well Mrs. Hughes was about to offer Bates a way out as she always did. Maybe just to prove Thomas wrong, Mrs. Hughes instead turned into the role of negotiator though it would do her very little good.

“Mr. Bates-“ Mrs. Hughes urged in soft, gentle tones, “There is no need to be rude. And that message goes to both of you-“ she said, looking to Thomas. “You’re better than that. You’re gentlemen, you should be able to reason yourselves without dissolving into shouting.”

“You have a very funny definition of a gentleman.” Bates snapped, so irritated that he could no longer partake in his tea. The entire table watched captivated, from Daisy clutching her teapot to Moseley whose eyes couldn’t get any wider.

“Yes.She does.” Thomas snapped, turning the insult right back on its bearer, “Though I don’t know whose less suited for the title between the two of us.”

“You did not start the argument.” Baxter spoke up, her tone non negotiable. A sudden silence fell as everyone at the table registered whose side she was on. Bates looked murderous, as if he’d just been betrayed by a brother.

“Thank you for saying that.” Thomas murmured, knowing Baxter’s fear of public disapproval had always been a deterrent from taking his side against Bates, “I know that took a lot.”

Mrs. Hughes was at her wits end, “Dr. Kinsey-“ she turned to beseech the man, “Surely you can help us resolve this? Surely?” but the good doctor never got a chance before Bates snapped back into action.

“yes, isn’t that why you’re here?” Bates sneered, swiveling around in his chair to glare at the man, “To give him a tranquilizer?”

Dr. Kinsey, cool as a cucumber, replied with a smile, “Do you think he needs one?”

“I think he needs a few.” Bates said. But instead of rising to the bait, Dr. Kinsey just asked question.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Bates waved a hand through the air, “for exploding like a bomb over a simple bit of criticism.”

“Was it simple?” Dr. Kinsey wondered, causing Bates to fall short with another murderous expression, “Or was it layered. Meant to look small on the outside but really a reflection of something truly enormous in the deep.”

“Can you blame him?” Anna demanded, “After what Thomas has put him through?”

Of yes, Thomas was just the devil incarnate. They ought to have an exorcism in this house to get him out. Anna could be the registered saint.

“I find blame to be pointless in these matters.” Dr. Kinsey said. Anna watched with narrowed eyes, “But I will remind you all that there is no reason, no quip, no battle broiling so sinister that it warrants to bring up what was brought up today.”

Bates clenched and unclenched his fist, knowing full well what Dr. Kinsey was talking about. Even Anna looked momentarily quailed.

“The human experience is a fragile thing.” Dr. Kinsey spoke to the room at large in a calm voice, “The call of what comes after is incredibly alluring to those that feel they have no reason to stay here. This world is beautiful, it was built with beautiful things. Take for example this pot.” Dr. Kinsey reached out, taking up an empty kettle from the center of the servant’s table. None of them had really ever looked at it, save for maybe Daisy or one of the scullery maids. It was hammered copper and gleamed dully in the light.

“Have you ever truly stared at it?” Dr. Kinsey wondered, turning it left and right. “Boiled and hammered copper, polished every morning till it gleams like a king’s crown?” He sat the pot back doing and pointed to a vase full of wild flowers in the far window. “Or those flowers.” Everyone swiveled around in their seats to look, even Bates, “Daisies, purple emperors, and sahins… the first of the winter batch, the promise of Christmas soon to come. Beautiful things worth far more than just a second look… but if you’re miserable, how can you see it. How can you care.”

Bates looked back around at Dr. Kinsey like he thought the man as mad as Thomas. This just pissed Thomas off even more, because Dr. Kinsey was the smartest and kindest man he knew.

Dr. Kinsey regarded Bates’ ugly stare and was unperturbed. Instead, he offered the man a smile and said “I have an idea.”

He pulled out the empty chair at the head of the table where Carson would normally sit, and offered it to Thomas.

“Thomas, climb up.” Dr. Kinsey instructed. But what did it mean? Did… Did he want Thomas to climb up on the chair? In front of everyone?

“I don’t understand.” Thomas admitted.

“Stand on the seat.” Dr. Kinsey instructed, smiling and patting the wood.

“Mr. Carson-“ Thomas gestured to the hallway, for he was certain if the man caught Thomas standing in his chair he’d have another heart attack.

“I’ll take care of it.” Mrs. Hughes assured him gently, looking slightly confused herself, “Though I confess I’m unsure of what you’re doing.”

“I’ll explain.” Dr. Kinsey said, but before he spoke he once again offered Mr. Carson’s seat to Thomas. Nervous, fearing Carson would stride in at any moment and unleash the dogs on him, Thomas took hold of the top of the chair to hoist himself up. Mrs. Hughes and Baxter helped him up, each offering their hands in case he fell. It was incredibly bizarre to stare at everyone from such an angle, high above their heads and on the spotlight with several pairs of eyes looking at them. Thomas could not help but sweat, incredibly nervous as his stomach clenched with anxiety. In curling reflex he just got madder, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Now.” Dr. Kinsey said to the entire room as if they were all in session, “I want everyone to look at Thomas, even you Mrs. Hughes. Take a real good long look at him. Not just a two second glance like you offer to the kettle or the flowers. Look at him.”

Thomas bristled. Oh jolly good.

“Chicken?” Bates sneered softly at Thomas’ obvious discomfort. Up on top of Mr. Carson’s chair, furious at the world and everyone in it, Thomas turned his most mutinous glare on Mr. Bates so that suddenly everyone from Anna to Daisy was shrinking back in alarm.

“Do you worst.” Thomas growled murderously, “Go on. I can take it-“

“Ah, ah.” Dr. Kinsey tutted, touching Thomas’ tense arm. “Relax, Thomas. This isn’t a competition or a punishment.” He kept his hand on Thomas’ arm until Thomas began to relax, looking away from Bates to instead scowl dully at the window across from him. “Just look at those lovely flowers, not at the others.”

Knowing full well that whatever was about to follow would be truly awful and excellent ammunition for his marbles, Thomas sagged his shoulders in defeat and stared at the flowers instead. The purple emperors were quite lovely in the steam of the kettle that Daisy held. They looked like little trees poking out of the pot. This made Thomas imagine a world where purple trees existed. He imagine himself and Edward beneath one, making tender love and completely at ease with the world. Purple flowers would consume Thomas’ sight as Edward kissed him lovingly at the neck entered him slowly-

“What do we see?” Dr. Kinsey offered softly to the completely silent room, “Anyone want to volunteer-“ but before Bates could speak Dr. Kinsey said, “Mr. Bates if you’ll wait till last for the sake of the others.”

“Oh don’t worry.” Bates growled, bitter, “I can wait.”

But only silence followed Bates’ words.

“…Anyone?” Dr. Kinsey asked again, gentle as ever.

“I think he looks tired.” Baxter spoke up.

“Tired?” Dr. Kinsey repeated, “I can see that.”

“I like his hair cut.” Andy spoke up from the end of the table. Thomas flushed, feeling horribly on display.

“I like it too.” Dr. Kinsey agreed, tone turning up in amusement, “Very dapper.”

“He seems sad.” Moseley admitted. “In his eyes.”

“Maybe a tad.” Dr. Kinsey said.

“I can never get my hair to lay like that.” Andy said, sounding slightly bitter about the whole deal, “I’m too curly-“

But Dr. Kinsey’s eyes were upon Daisy, who’d already opened her mouth several times only to close it incredibly nervous.

“Daisy?” He offered kindly.

“Well…” Daisy mumbled, setting down her tea kettle and twisting her fingers, “He … He reminds me of a storm.”

“What?” Anna snorted, amused.

“How so?” Dr. Kinsey asked. Daisy chewed on her lip, brown eyes lighting up as she fully took Thomas in. He caught her gaze and blushed, unsure of what she was about to say.

“Well, when you see him at a distance, he’s dark and ominous and you think he’s going to be really bad. Like, you need to batten down the hatches and put up the horses.” Daisy just took off, rambling properly, “But then as he draws closer and opens up, it’s this really nice rain. And it’s not so bad. It’s kind of refreshing in a way. Everything needs water-“

“That’s an excellent analogy.” Dr. Kinsey praised, You’re very intelligent, Daisy-!” but before Dr. Kinsey could carry on singing Daisy’s songs, Bates cut across bitterly.

“And when he’s gone the sun shines ever brighter.”

Daisy’s smile fell at once. She clutched up her kettle again, holding it defensively against her chest.

Dr. Kinsey coughed, looking to Bates. “Mr. Bates, what do you see?”

Thomas steeled himself for the worst. It would not be enough to protect him.

Bates rose up from his chair, leaning heavily upon it to support himself in lieu of his cane.

“He looks paranoid, probably because he’s lied about something or stole something and is afraid of being found out- because he’s a massive coward even though he’ll never admit it. He looks weak- which explains his sorry attitude because as I’ve learned with this one the lower down he is the higher up he’ll try to appear to keep everyone off the scent.”

Thomas’ heart started pounding in his chest, adrenaline rising higher and higher in vicious response to Bates’ cruel jabs.

“He’s all about appearances- he looks fine enough from a distance, all scary and opposing with nice hair and pearly teeth but crack the veneer, lift the arm cuffs and what do you find? Something rotten that never got ironed out before it was too late.” Bates spat, gesturing a hand, “That’s what I see. A nice shell, a hard shell… and rubbish beneath.”

He grinned content.

Right.

Thomas launched himself with a wild scream, stepping right up onto the servants table and launching himself at Bates with hands outstretched to grab Bates about the neck and bring him swiftly to the ground. They crashed against the stone, Bates first, and immediately started clawing and tearing at each other with such gusto that fabric was soon shredded and blood drawn. This wasn’t a fight to impress, this was a fight to kill!

“Oh my god!” Anna screamed, nearly knocked down by the ruckus at her feet.
“Thomas!” Baxter tried to lunge for him, to scoop him up, but Mr. Moseley held her back afraid she’d be harmed.

“No!” Dr. Kinsey thundered, “Do not touch them, you let them work it out-!”

“But-!” Mrs. Hughes wailed as Bates flipped them over and successfully pinned him down to try throttling him by the neck, “But they’re fighting-!”

Thomas reached up and scratched Bates hard across the face, drawing blood. He yipped, letting go of Thomas’ neck to clutch at his eye and Thomas punched him hard in the jaw. Blood flew from Bates’ mouth but he returned the favor in kind, crashing his hammish fist into Thomas jaw so that his head twanged upon his shoulders and smacked hard into the stone beneath. Stars burst in front of his eyes!

Thomas swung over again, this time hiking a leg so that Bates’ damaged knee gave out and he had to relinquish his hold on top. Thomas brought Bates around, punching him hard again in the neck only to be blocked. Bates and Thomas locked hands, each pushing with all their might to overpower the other. From beneath him, Bates bared his teeth, fangs gleaming as his dark brown eyes burned with a fury of a thousand suns. It might have gone on forever had it not been for Mr. Moseley who, in a shocking move of courage grabbed Thomas hard about the waist and hoisted him up into Baxter’s waiting arms. Together, Moseley and Baxter held him off as he desperately tried to lunge at Bates again and again. Able to finally get to his feet unimpeded, Bates jerked up, bitter and fuming. Anna pressed her handkerchief to Bates’ mouth to stem the bleeding where his lip had begun to swell.

“Wow, that lip leg of yours ain't too bad is it!?” Thomas bit out, “Cane for show?!”

“Why don’t you go jump off a cliff!” Bates snarled. Anna pressed herself to his side to keep him from fighting again. Around the table, Andy clambered through a maze of chairs to take Bates’ other side.

“What, and miss getting murdered by you, you faker!” Thomas snarled. Limp leg is arse, that cane was just for show! Thomas had felt the strength of the muscle beneath him when they’d fought!

“Oh I’m the faker!?” Bates shouted, voice towering over Thomas’ own, “Meanwhile you’re pulling the one dallying with razors, you nance!”

“What is going on in-“ Carson was back, none too happy at being drug from his office again. When he saw Bates and Thomas held back from one another, both bleeding with vests torn, he looked positively furious, “Oh for gods sake-!”

“This has to stop-!” Mrs. Hughes begged Dr. Kinsey but he refused to intervene, brown eyes blazing.

“Let it reach a boil or it’ll only get worse-“ Dr. Kinsey snapped.

“How can it get worse?!” Mrs. Hughes beseeched.
“I will not have fighting in this house, Doctor!” Mr. Carson warned.

“They have to get this over with!” Dr. Kinsey argued, a hand flung out to keep Mr. Carson from intervening.

“I don’t see why you can’t just lock him up!” Bates spat.

“You’re just as insane as I am!” Thomas roared, thrashing hard against Moseley and Baxter’s hold, “We’re both ready to bust and you know it, so stop acting like I’m the only one capable of the worst! You’re just as bad as I am!”

“Oh put a sock in it, you Gunsel!” Bates spat.

“Mr. Bates!” Mrs. Hughes gasped, horrified at his language.

Gunsel? Gunsel?!

“GYA!” Thomas screamed, finally tearing free from Baxter and Moseley to reach back and sucker punch Bates in the jaw with all the strength he could muster. The force of the blow knocked Bates backwards so that he fell into a chair and tripped over his own two feet. Anna screamed, nearly going down with him as he fell to the floor.

“I’LL SHOW YOU!” Thomas screamed, ready to leap upon him and tear him limb from limb. But before he could get even another step in a strong pair of arms scooped him up from behind, grabbing him about the waste and all but dragging him out of the room. It seemed Mr. Carson had finally had enough, and Thomas could not get away from his barrel hold. Instead he scratched and clawed on every surface, nails catching at the door as Mr. Carson drug him from the room.

“YOU THINK YOU CAN CALL ME A CATAMITE AND GET AWAY WITH IT YOU DRUNK BASTARD!?” Thomas screamed, kicking and lashing- he successfully knocked over a lamp on the way down the hall, nearly dislodging Carson’s doorknob as Carson forced his office door open and shut it closed with his own body weight. There, in the oppressive silence of his office, Mr. Carson held tight to Thomas and allowed him to kick it out.

“LET ME GO! LET ME GO!” Thomas screamed, thrashing back and forth.

“Calm yourself!” Mr. Carson commanded. Calm himself?! Never! Never, he’d never be silent again!

“LET ME GO!” images were flashing across his mind, of men he’d slept with and bullies that had provoked him. Of times he’d outright whored himself for the hope of being called back by a lover only to feel shame when a call never came.

Gunsel, the marbles jeered delighted by the chaos, Gunsel, Gunsel, Gunsel!

“Stop struggling!” Mr. Carson commanded, his grip never slackening. For a man with shaking hands he sure was doing a damn good job of holding his own. Thomas tried in vain to break free, all but throwing himself head over heels to break Mr. Carson’s grip. The exertion on his weakened body left him slack and panting in Mr. Carson’s arms. It was only then that Thomas realized there was blood trickling down his temple. That he felt slightly woozy, as if of the verge of nausea.

Mr. Carson held him tight even as he stopped struggling.

“Let me go.” Thomas begged, for surely now Carson would have to acquiesce.

“Not until you’ve calmed.” Mr. Carson warned.

“I am calm.” Thomas bleated.

“You’re shaking.” He corrected. Thomas cursed his own emotions for making him shake like a leaf on a wind beaten tree. Thomas tried to stop himself several times, but it was simply impossible. His body would shake until it was finished and there was nothing he could do. He felt powerless, and it distressed him.

“Let me go.” He repeated for the fifth time. Now, there was emotional tonnage to his voice, a warning to Mr. Carson that he was growing distressed again in a different way. Finally Mr. Carson agreed, and Thomas stumbled away from his bruising hold to collapse against the far wall of Mr. Carson’s office. He slumped into a visitor’s chair, head bowed as he brought his fingers to his pulsing temple where blood trickled down. It seemed Bates had cut him in the scuffle, leaving quite a mark. For a moment Mr. Carson merely watching him shake in the visitor’s chair. Thomas wondered if he was about to be given his packing notice there and then… but Mr. Carson just kept watching in calm silence.

After five minutes of tense waiting, the door to Mr. Carson’s office opened again to reveal Mrs. Hughes. She looked damn traumatized, fretful as she closed the door again and strode across the room to whip out her handkerchief and press it against his temple. The cloth mopped up the blood, flecking lace white with brightest crimson. Thomas tried to shy away from her touch, but she just chased him with her hand.

“Elsie,” Mr. Carson surprised Thomas by using Mrs. Hughes’ first name. “Fetch me the others.”

“Charles.” She agreed, and she left Thomas to tend to his own wound with her handkerchief. She closed the door and silence swallowed them once more.

 

‘The Others’ seemed to consisted of an odd group. Thomas had only imagined it would be Bates and Dr. Kinsey, but apparently Anna and Baxter had both demanded to be in the room as well. Now the five of them were clustered around Mr. Carson’s desk with Mrs. Hughes at his shoulder to show moral support for his deciding voice. Bates looked a damn wreck with a black eye blooming and a split lip. Anna was glaring at Thomas with murderous intent while Baxter stared resolutely forward at Mr. Carson. For all her lack of bite, she was still clearly on Thomas’ side, holding his elbow as he used his other hand to tend to his temple. Dr. Kinsey stood between the opposing parties, clearly a physical divide to keep another outburst from happening.

Mr. Carson looked ready to throw in the towel, massing his own temple and silently cursing his bad luck with staff.

“Why must I be tormented with such reckless, destructive, and foolish staff.” Mr. Carson muttered, “I wonder do other Butlers allow such nonsense?”

“Mr. Carson, I-“ Mr. Bates tried to start, but Carson threw up a hand to cut him off.

“Mr. Bates, not another word.” Mr. Carson snapped, all but glaring at the man, “I have heard enough from both of you for one day.”

Bates snapped his mouth shut, lips pursed together in a thin white line. Anna held to his side resolutely.

“This house runs on efficiency, professionalism, and sober commitment.” Mr. Carson instructed, “Your examples today were ones of caterwauling and wild hedonism, speaking blasphemous words before women-“ He shot at Mr. Bates, “And throwing fists like this is a local brewery,” He shot at Thomas. Mr. Carson shook his head, “I blame myself for allowing this to continue-“

“Mr. Carson.” Mrs. Hughes murmured, touching his shoulders from where she stood behind his chair, “This is hardly your fault.”

“Mr. Carson,” Bates started again, this time his tone too firm to be ignored, “I am responsible for what occurred today, and I take full blame.”

Oh of course he did. That would only serve to make him look like a martyr to the others. It didn’t matter if Bates got in trouble or not. Thomas would be the one paying for this scuffle today. Thomas shook his head, continuing to press Mrs. Hughes’ handkerchief to his temple. Baxter rubbed his back supportively.

Mr. Carson rose up from his desk, and as he paced around he came to stand before Thomas.

Of course. Of course.

“And do you understand your responsibility in this house, Thomas?” Mr. Carson demanded.

“I do, Mr. Carson-“ Thomas tried to diffuse the tension but Mr. Carson steam rolled right over him like a road paver.

“You are an image to which future generations look up to.” Mr. Carson reminded him, and it was with such sting that he spoke that Thomas winced. He could have brought up anything in this argument but of course he chose to bring up Thomas’ one obvious weakness: his children. “You are rearing the future Earl of Grantham. Master George regards you as a father figure, as a prime example of what a man should do and say- today, as you lay rolling and screeching about on the floor- is that an example of what a man should do and say?”

“No, Mr. Carson,” Thomas started again, “But Master George was not around and-!”

“That is a pale excuse!” Mr. Carson warned.

“Mr. Carson, one fight does not upset a house like Downton Abbey-“

“But one upset Earl can!” Mr. Carson shouted.

Thomas closed his eyes, mouth resolutely snapped shut.
Even the marbles were silent in the wake of horror that his words left.

Thomas looked away, looking out the window where a tree lay. Once more, it was thin and bare, its leaves shed to reveal a robin’s nest hiding in the top of the tree.

Mr. Carson retook his seat behind his desk, leaning a little back in his chair to once again regard the five of them before his desk.

“I am choosing to show you benevolent mercy beyond all comparison,” Mr. Carson murmured, “And will not be punishing you by taking you away from the children for your tawdry display today.”

Thomas let out an audible breath of relief, slight tension slipping away from him as he chewed on his bottom lip. At least he had that blessing. At least.

“Try not to overlook this blessing, Thomas.” Carson warned.

“Never.” Thomas whispered, “Thank you Mr. Carson. Thank you.”

Mr. Carson nodded, seemingly content at Thomas’ show of humility and gratitude.

“Mr. Carson, it is my fault.” Bates repeated, and Thomas was shocked at his stern tone as if Mr. Carson was the one being foolish, “I goaded him on. I wasn’t thinking.”

“I will remind you, Mr. Bates.” Carson snapped, decisive finger pointing to him now, “That you are soon to be a father too. I suggest both of you take a step back and re examine your behavior for both your children’s sake.”

Anna pursed her lips tight. Thomas heard her take a long thin breath through her nose; clearly her anger was rising.

“Doctor.” Mr. Carson regarded Dr. Kinsey with a bushy brow raised.

“Mr. Carson.” Dr. Kinsey was so damn calm and Thomas wanted to laugh.

“I hope you have a long and illustrious explanation for why you allowed the fight to occur today.”

“I do.” Dr. Kinsey assured him, “Mr. Bates and Thomas have been regarded as completely different people so far. It was my goal to show today that they are not. That they are both capable of causing intense pain and guilt. That they are both capable of acting without thinking and speaking without listening. That they are both human and prone to mistake. When Thomas stood on a chair at the judgement of a crowd, it was my goal for the others to find out exactly what Mr. Bates really thought of Thomas. It worked.” Dr. Kinsey paused, humor invading his voice, “A little better than I’d hoped but it worked.”

Bates looked around, thunderstruck. Anna’s face was draining rapidly of blood.

“Oh yes.” Dr. Kinsey chuckled at their shocked expressions, “You’ll remember, I have a specialization in social psychology.”

“You played me.” Bates said in disbelief.

“I did not put those words in your mouth, Mr. Bates.” Dr. Kinsey reminded him with a polite smile, “I merely alerted you that they were there. And now that you know they are there, you can examine them in your own good time and pace.”

“You made my husband look like a fool!” Anna said, even madder than Bates.

“Did I?” Dr. Kinsey asked. She looked taken aback, “Did I urge him to react cruelly? Or was that simply his own temper getting the better of him?”

“Thomas was cruel to him!” She pointed a vindictive finger at Thomas. Thomas did not even bother looking at her.

“Mr. Bates started the argument!” Baxter reminded, just as angry as Anna if not more so. Her voice had taken on a hard, shaving quality that Thomas hadn’t heard before and it shocked him to know she was capable of it.

“I-!” Anna started, ready to have her own argument with Baxter. Mr. Carson cut them both off.

“No more!” He warned. Both Anna and Baxter fell silent, eyes forward once again. Mr. Carson seemed shocked that the two women could have argued and shook his head disturbed, “I am seriously considering that… this situation can no longer work.” He warned.

Thomas knew a chopping block when he saw one. As much as he’d joked earlier about dying in a ditch, he had to admit that it was a very real possibility. Employment was low and workers were high- he knew for a fact that if he lost his job at Downton he wouldn’t be able to find one again. He would either starve to death or end up working in London as- what would you know it- a catamite.

“Mr. Carson,” Thomas mumbled, “I have no where to go. There are no houses hiring- you saw how hard I tried to find a job before-“ Thomas begged, “If you cast me out, I’ll… I’ll have to do unspeakable things just to get by. I’ll become an actual catamite-“ Thomas scoffed at the thought. “Which I suppose you’d think might serve me well, but-“

Mr. Carson rose up a hand, cutting Thomas off. Dr. Kinsey looked sadly at Thomas, eyes darkening for some unknown reason as he thought rapidly to himself. Thomas wondered what that powerful brain was concocting.

“I do not want Thomas to go.” Bates picked up. Mr. Carson dropped his hand, looking dully irritated, “If you’re going to punish anyone, punish me. Dr. Kinsey is right. I…” Bates seemed surprised at the words leaving his mouth, “spoke cruelly. Very cruelly.”

But Bates was just saying this to be the rug, to be the martyr. It was far from an apology.

“You’re just saying that because you love playing the martyr.” Thomas muttered bitterly, “You mean none of it. You aren’t actually sorry-“

“I am.” Bates warned him. Thomas just shook his head, “I am sorry. I shouldn’t have called you a gunsel. I don’t know why I did.”

“Because that’s what I am to you.” Thomas snapped, refusing to look at Bates.

“No. No you’re not.”

“I am.” Thomas sneered softly, “That’s what I am to this whole house. A catamite. So I suppose it wouldn’t matter if I lost my job because either way I’d end up being called a whore-“

“Thomas.” Mr. Carson warned. “If you say that word one more time I’ll put a bar of soap in your mouth.”

Thomas rolled his eyes, wondering if Mr. Carson should just try for lye instead. Now that he thought about it, lye wasn’t that half bad of an idea. He could probably end his life if he swallowed it-

“Mr. Carson…” Dr. Kinsey spoke up, “May I suggest something.”

“If you must.” Mr. Carson crossed his arms over his chest, waiting with dried up patience.

“A session with Mr. Bates and Thomas… at the same time.” Dr. Kinsey said. Shocked, Thomas’ head whipped around so fast he ended up throwing a kink in his neck and winced, cupping his neck with a hand still holding the bloodied handkerchief. Dr. Kinsey just kept right on with that same benign tone. “We’ll sit down, speak calmly, and get to the root of the matter. Thus eliminating the ‘situation’ that cannot work.”

Mr. Bates looked gravely pale as if he’d taken up a case of sepsis. Mr. Carson the other hand seemed to be weighing the matter and looked from Bates, to Kinsey, to Thomas. He let out a short sigh, nodding.

“I find that to be to my liking.” Mr. Carson admitted.

“Then with your permission?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“Now?” Mr. Carson tapped a finger upon his desk as if to indicate his office for use. Dr. Kinsey just shook his head.

“No.” Dr. Kinsey looked at his pocket watch. Thomas noted that it was a Russell & Son’s… Liverpool… a Hunter Pocket Watch. Star gold plated case, 1910 at the latest. A damn expensive watch- it would have easily close to fifty pounds. “Let’s give them an hour to calm.”

Mr. Carson looked at his own watch. Thomas’ eyes narrowed, noting it was a gift from Lord Grantham for forty years service… a gold Fusee pocket watch. A Frodsham stamp, from Gracechurch Street in London. The year would have been 1850 at the latest- this pocket watch was an heirloom piece probably kept by the Grantham family and bestowed to Carson as a sentimental gift. Thomas wondered if Mr. Carson knew just how valuable it was of if he only loved it because it came from Lord Grantham.

“I will speak with his Lordship.” Mr. Carson rose with a heavy sigh from his desk, re pocketing his watch. “I can only allot you so much time-“

“Give me two hours.” Dr. Kinsey requested. “I’m sure Lord Grantham will understand.”

Two hours locked in a room with Bates and Dr. Kinsey talking about his feelings in lieu of an ugly fight and a nasty head wound?

Thomas would rather be shot.

 

The hour given for cooling past far too fast for Thomas’ liking. Lord Grantham apparently found the whole thing hysterical and was more than happy to give Dr. Kinsey two hours to ‘do battle’ with Bates and Thomas. He’d apparently even toasted the whole affair with a glass of scotch, laughing with Branson in the library over the idea of Bates calling Thomas a Gunsel and Thomas smacking Bates in the eye for it. Thomas found none of it funny; Baxter gently taped up his temple in the kitchen while Daisy made him a cup of tea and kept resolutely silent at Mrs. Patmore’s command. The whole lot of them were scandalized by the argument and consequent fight, leaving Thomas to stew in the corner while Daisy helped Mrs. Patmore prepare a rack of lamb for dinner. She bathed the meat in a sumptuous sauce, sprinkling it with freshly plucked basil and squeezing it with lemon.

Baxter checked her watch. Thomas’ eye slid to it and noted with a bitter sting that it was a Barrow & Son’s, silver dialed and baton hour markers… black leather band, stainless steel. Thomas closed his eyes, eyes flashing with numbers. He could all but see the stamp on its backing, and knew its first five digits would be 23102… all their lady’s wrist watches had been. Thomas rubbed the back of his neck, relaxing in his chair.

“Does your neck hurt?” Baxter murmured from across the table.

“No.” Thomas mumbled, “Just thinking about your watch.”

“My- my watch?” Baxter asked, confused. “Oh-! You mean to say your father made it-“

“Naturally.” Thomas mumbled. He kept his eyes closed, “Silver dialed, baton hour markers, black leather band, stainless steel. Take it off and I’ll tell you its first five digits on the stamp.”

He heard the sound of snapping leather and opened an eye to see Baxter had taken it off to look at the watch’s underside. Even Patmore and Daisy were intruiged.

“23102.” Thomas said. Baxter nodded, impressed. “Don’t tell me…” He thought hard… black leather band, steel plating- he was almost certain- “342?”

“Amazing.” Baxter said in congratulations, putting her wristwatch back on. “Your father would be proud.”

“Don’t be silly.” Thomas mumbled, closing his eyes again, “My father was never proud of me.” Baxter frowned, sad.

“What are you going on about now?”

“Thomas’ father was a clockmaker.” Baxter explained. “Thomas can tell you everything about a watch. All he has to do is look at it. He’s like a little Sherlock Holmes.”

“Don’t be silly.” Thomas muttered again.

“I’m not.” Baxter joked. “Mrs. Patmore do you have a watch?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Patmore pulled out a watch from her apron. “But she’s old, I doubt you could get a thing out of her-“

Thomas extended his hand. Mrs. Patmore passed it over without another word.

It was a silver half hunter, 1909 no doubt, with pin set hands and a very unusual gold tone chapter ring fitted to the front cover. the color of its roman numerals were worn away, no doubt from oils and stains a kitchen boasted. Thomas opened it’s back cover to see that inside it declared ‘Bexley Heath’… bulls eye glass. No this was hardly an old watch.

“No it’s not.” Thomas warned her. “It’s a 1909. It’s not old it’s just been heavily used. A silver half hunter, pin set hands, unusual gold tone chapter ring fitted into the front cover. A Bexley Heath in London, with bulls eye glass?” Thomas closed the back cover of the watch, handing it back to Mrs. Patmore who looked incredibly impressed. “No it’s not old at all.”

“You can tell all that just by looking at it?” Mrs. Patmore wondered as she gazed at her pocket watch.

“I just know what to look for.” Thomas mumbled, shrugging.

“What kind of watch do you have?” Daisy asked, curious. Thomas pursed his lips, fingers finding his own vest pocket where he kept a watch of his own making.

“Well, it’s not much” Thomas admitted, taking it out so that the room could see it. Daisy washed her hands in the sink, wiping them on her apron to take up Thomas’ pocket watch and examine it closely.

“This isn’t so hard.” Daisy said, “It’s…” but then she broke off, lost.

Thomas smiled, offering his hand out again. She gave him back his watch.

“A George IV; dating 1822.” Thomas said, examining his watch fondly. “Decorative rim and bezel, a gold dial and roman numerals. Original hands, and an engraved center, 18501046 numeral engraving on the back… This watch was not meant to be mine.” Thomas admitted, pocketing it again.

“What do you mean?” Daisy asked, returning to her rack of lamb.

“…M’father wouldn’t have given it to me.” Thomas admitted softly. “Didn’t want much t’do with me, he did. So I had to take it before everything fell apart.”

“I don’t understand? You stole from your father?” Daisy said in dismay, “That’s a horrible thing to do!”

“No.” Thomas shook his head. “I knew my time was ticking. When I left I didn’t have anything but the clothes on my back and this watch. Didn’t even have a brass farthing in my pocket. I knew that if I wanted to have anything to remember my family by, anything at all, then I’d have to take it by force. I had a last name but nothing to identify with. Nothing to say I’d once been the son of a clockmaker. So I took my father’s watch.” Thomas said, hand in his pocket as he stroked the gold case. “He had a hundred watches, one for every day of the month if he wanted, it didn’t mean tuppence to him. It’d be like a salt shaker to Mrs. Patmore or a teacup. Maybe she’d never think twice about it but every time you looked at it you’d see all the time you’d had together. D’you see?” Thomas asked Daisy.

After a moment, she nodded, looking off put and (dare he say it) quite sad.

“Why wouldn’t he let you stay?” she asked softly.

“…S’like Mr. Bates so kindly put it.” Thomas muttered bitterly. “I’m a gunsel.”

“Ah, I’ll have no swearing in my kitchen.” Mrs. Patmore warned. “Particularly swearing of that kind.”

Thomas shrugged, looking away to lean his head in his hand. Baxter checked her wrist watch again.

“It’s time.” She said, “You better head to Mr. Carson’s office.

“God help us all.” Mrs. Patmore mumbled as Thomas rose up from his chair. “At least we know where the sand buckets are kept.” Thomas chose to not reply to that particular comment and instead headed out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards Mr. Carson’s office where he’d been instructed to meet Dr. Kinsey at the end of his allotted cooling hour. As he knocked and opened the door he found Dr. Kinsey inside with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, both of whom were pouring over two very thick files. Upon seeing Thomas, Mrs. Hughes immediately shut the file in her own lap, putting it in a cabinet along the wall and locking it with her set of keys. Thomas wondered what had been inside of it.

“Thomas…” Dr. Kinsey smiled, clasping his hands behind his back. “How do you feel?”

“Tired.” Thomas shrugged. It was as best an explanation as he could give, but Dr. Kinsey seemed satisfied by it.

“Not ready to punch someone in the throat?” Dr. Kinsey teased. Thomas shook his head. “Good. That’s what we need. I wanted to talk to you before we go in with Mr. Bates… and remind you of all that we discussed the last time I was here. Remember, not to be afraid of rejection. Be firm, not unkind. Emotional honesty is key.” Dr. Kinsey offered, ticking off his fingers one by one. Thomas narrowed his eyes, “When you do such and such, it makes me feel such and such. Yes?” Thomas raised an eyebrow, “Good. Think through every word before you say it. Correct?”

“Did you have this conversation with Mr. Bates?” Thomas scowled, “I’m curious.”

“Mr. Bates is not my main concern.” Dr. Kinsey reminded him gently, “You are. And you’ve had a hard day so far, and it’s about to get a lot harder.” Dr. Kinsey sounded slightly dismayed as he said it. “I want to make sure that you are okay before we begin.”

Thomas sighed, hanging his head. There was no point in arguing with the man. “Fine.” He mumbled. He doubted any of this would do him any good, but he’d play along if it kept him out of the line of fire and safe with the children.

“Are we ready?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s go.”

Dr. Kinsey lead the way, with Thomas following and (for some reason) Mrs. Hughes. They left Mr. Carson’s office together, walking down the hall past Mrs. Hughes’ own office and to her sitting room. She opened the door wide for them and Thomas blanched to see that three chairs had been pulled up amid the carpet and the tables. Two sat on one side, a third across from them in a neat little triangle. Dr. Kinsey gestured in, and Thomas entered to sit down on the chair farthest from the door. Dr. Kinsey smiled and closed the door so that for a moment Thomas was completely by himself. This solitude did not last long however, for soon Dr. Kinsey and Mrs. Hughes were back with a third member in tow: Bates. As the door opened again to reveal them all, Thomas looked away jaded. For some reason his heart was twanging wildly just like before in the servants hall when he’d been shouting and fighting. He wondered why.

Dr. Kinsey and Mr. Bates entered with Mrs. Hughes shutting the door on them all. Dr. Kinsey took it upon himself to lock the door from the inside, gesturing for Bates to sit down on the chair next to Thomas while he himself finished the triangle at the top. Bates’ cane tapped softly upon the floor as he walked slowly across the room, sitting down upon his chair with a grunt and hanging his cane between his knees. His black eye was now a steady purple, his split lip doctored with vaseline no doubt by Anna’s loving hands. Thomas wondered what it was like… to be doctored by a lover. To be cared for like you had worth.

For a moment, as Dr. Kinsey adjusted himself in his chair and Mr. Bates settled his bad leg, Thomas allowed himself to take comfort in the silence. It grew long under the paintbrush of his imagination, offering him comfort as Dr. Kinsey took out his trusty ball point pen and notepad. He smiled at the pair of them, completely comfortable.

 

“So.” Dr. Kinsey began, crossing one leg over the other to make a sordid desk for himself. “Today we had an incident… and we need to find out why. As of this moment you’re not seeing each other as people. You’re seeing each other as representations of things you hate; not the whole person.” Dr. Kinsey turned to Mr. Bates, who was watching through narrowed eyes, “Mr. Bates,” Dr. Kinsey addressed, “Thomas wants to speak honestly with you. We’re going to let him take the floor, and listen to what he has to say. And then I’d like you to speak honestly with him, not as a reply, as your own words, your own concerns. And then… we’ll come together and speak together. Okay?”

Bates picked a bit of lint off the leg of his trouser. “Fine.” He grumbled.

“Thomas.” Dr. Kinsey offered him a hand, “Whenever you’re ready.”

Well this was all good and done, but what the hell was he supposed to say? Suddenly he felt his heart pounding in his throat. He coughed, that soft silent thing, and touched his lips with trembling hands.

“Remember.” Dr. Kinsey offered gently, “When you do ‘x’, it makes me feel ‘y’.Try that.”

Thomas looked away, focusing on a glass cabinet full of old china. He wondered why they were never used.

“When you…” He coughed again, already feeling a fool, “When you insult me, belittle me” he swallowed, “Call me names,” what was the point in this, “Single me out…” He closed his eyes, refusing to look anywhere near Bates’ direction. “It makes me feel-“ god damn emotional honesty, “small, stupid, useless…ugly… and worthless.” Thomas shook his head. “I feel like you don’t see me. Like you just…”

He drifted off for a moment, considering how much a fool he sounded. But then again, could he already sink any lower in Bates’ eyes, “I’m rubbish to you.” Thomas mumbled, “So you treat me like rubbish.”

“How does that make you feel?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

Thomas did not answer. He did not want to voice the words.

“Remember how we talked about emotional honesty?” Dr. Kinsey urged, keeping his tone gentle so as not to be harsh in such a fragile moment.

“… It makes me feel awful.” Thomas bit out.

“Go on.” Dr. Kinsey urged. But what more was there to say?

“What more can I say?” He felt helpless, hopeless, “I’m tired of fighting. I’m so tired of being alone and having enemies. That’s why I hid upstairs to be with the children, because they love me and they need me so.”

But he couldn’t say anymore. Never in the history of all his years at Downton had he ever been so open, so forward with Bates, and it stung him to know that this would surely be flung back in his face. He wiped his eyes, looking away. He cursed the moisture he found on his fingertips and vainly ignored what it meant.

“Can you say anymore?” Dr. Kinsey asked. Thomas shook his head, looking at his knees. “Thank you, that was very eloquent Thomas. Mr. Bates, would you like to start?”

Frightened of what would come next, Thomas laced his fingers together and clenched them like iron. Bates said nothing, the silence swelling like a bloated day old corpse between them. “Mr. Bates?” Dr. Kinsey urged again, this time much more gently than before.

“When you…” Bates started, Thomas looked away, wiping his eyes again so that Bates could not see the emotion that lay there. “When you cry, I don’t know what to do.”

Thomas shook his head. He wasn’t crying. Not by a long shot. What rubbish.

“It’s not your fault.” Bates whispered. “I just don’t know what to do. Do you understand?”

No. He did not understand.

“We’ve fought for so long, I don’t know if we can stop.” Bates said just as bleak and helpless as Thomas felt, “I don’t know what’s left for us if we stop.”

Well put. Well put, indeed.

“If there was something there after you stopped, what would you want it to be?” Dr. Kinsey asked. Thomas didn’t know who this question was directed to until Dr. Kinsey added, “Thomas?” in a helpful tone.

“Love.” Thomas mumbled, without thinking. He spluttered, knowing how absolutely absurd that would sound to Bates. “I mean to say- I- that didn’t come out right.” He coughed to hide his nerves. “I merely mean that… I… I just…” But there was nothing he could say in that moment which rectified his initial response, and he suddenly felt a hateful and bitter wave of resentment towards his emotional vulnerability. He blushed, cheeks hot as coals as he stared resolutely at Mrs. Hughes’ china cabinet to memorize their pattern: Rabbits, draped in gold.

“How does that make you feel, Mr. Bates?” Dr. Kinsey asked, curious.

Oh god here it comes, Thomas thought in vain.

“If this is the way you feel then why do you act like you do-“ Bates demanded, hardly cross but certainly confused.

“I don’t know!” Thomas spat, his temper getting the better of him for a moment. He dare not look at Bates in that moment, knowing his expression would be mutinous.

“Thomas.” Dr. Kinsey said with slightest warning, “Let’s not resort to anger and impatience.”

“I don’t know.” Thomas repeated, rubbing his hands savagely over his face again and again to hide the blush upon his cheeks. What a fool he’d been to admit his heart to these men. He’d never get his heart back. “I think I’m crazy.” Thomas admitted, starting to grow slightly frightened again. He was growing overly aware of himself, of the sweat on his palms and the shaking of his fingers, “I think there’s something wrong with my brain-“

“There is nothing wrong with you.” Bates snapped, sounding rather affronted at the very idea. Thomas still wouldn’t look at him, “Look at me.”

He’d have better luck breaking his femur at this point, but he tried for Bates’ sake alone. Slowly turning his head, Thomas chose to stare at Bates’ knee instead of his face. He found Bates clutching tightly to the pleated wool of his trousers. “There is nothing wrong with you.” Bates repeated, though Thomas would not look at his face.

He clenched his fist tight, his hammish fingers popping slightly at the knuckle. Not even two hours ago those hands were closed around his neck, trying to choke the life out of him.

Thomas looked away.

“Mr. Bates,” Dr. Kinsey offered, “What would you want it to be? If there was something there after the fighting stopped?”

Mr. Bates pondered on this for a good long while, while Dr. Kinsey carried on, “If you could shape your relationship with Thomas, exactly to your liking, what would it be?”

“Family.” Bates finally said. Thomas’ heart twanged in his breast. “We’d… We’d be good friends. Say hello, have tea. No fighting. We would joke and rely upon one another. Family.” Bates repeated.

“Like you are with the others.” Dr. Kinsey supplied.

“Yes. No lying. No hiding.” Bates added, his voice growing a tad bit irritated again.

“When Thomas lies to you how does that make you feel?”

Bates scoffed. “Like he doesn’t give a damn about me. About anyone but himself.”

“Do you give a damn about Mr. Bates, Thomas?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“Yes.” Thomas snapped. Of course he gave a damn; if he didn’t give a damn it would make this conversation a hell of a lot easier.

“Then why do you lie?” Bates asked.

“Because I’m af-“ Thomas all but bit down on his tongue.
What had been about to come out of his mouth?

He swallowed, trying to regain his stream of consciousness. But Dr. Kinsey had demanded emotional honesty and so far Bates hadn’t told him to go leap off a building so what if-…? What if…

Thomas slowly unclenched from his tongue and swallowed again, trying desperately for courage. For anything that would allow him to finish his sentence.

“I don’t…” Thomas mumbled, but his voice was barely discernible even in the silence as he looked down at his knees again, “I’m…”

What?

“Ashamed.” he finally bit out, and damn him for it.

You fool, he thought bitterly, You’ve gone and done it now.

“Of what?” Bates asked, clearly confused, “What do you have to be ashamed of?”

Thomas scoffed, “You ask me that and yet not even an hour ago you could have given me fifty reasons to be ashamed.” He turned, glaring at Bates, but his eyes softened at once when he realized that Bates was not angry at him. That Bates was looking at him for the first time in thirteen years like he was a human being.

Like Bates could actually see him.

“And when Mr. Bates talk to you that way,” Dr. Kinsey continued on. Now Bates and Thomas were staring at one another unable to let go of eye contact, “It hurts your feeling terribly as you said at the start of this session. So it really is a vicious cycle. Bates hurts your feelings, you lie to gain distance and protection, Bates gets angry about the lie and hurts your feelings- do you see?”

“Well if you wouldn’t lie to-“

“Well if you wouldn’t be so-“ Thomas and Bates started together, cross-haring one another. Their nostrils flared simultaneously, each man pursing his lips.

“Gentlemen…” Dr. Kinsey murmured in a soothing voice, “This is really not a case of who did what first. What matters is that we recognize why the pattern is destructive and we stop it. We both, in our own ways, take action. This is not a solitary mission… what is requires is a promise, a change in thought pattern, and a technique. If Bates promises not to make any more derogatory comments, and Thomas promises not to lie, then the pattern is broken. You see? Instead of making derogatory comments, Bates will instead…?”

Bates raised an eyebrow sneering even as he held Thomas’ gaze.

“I will instead what? Hold his hand?”

“If you like.” Dr. Kinsey did not rise to the challenge, keeping his tone calm and conversational, “What would you do if Thomas was your friend and he lied to you?”

“He wouldn’t lie if he was a friend.” Bates argued.

“Say something bad happened and he was frightened. Say there were particular circumstances that made Thomas feel like rubbish again and he lied. What would you do?”

Bates looked him up and down, from the way his hands shook to the way his face was drained of blood.

“…I’d…” Bates scrambled for an answer, “Want to know what happened.”

“You’d be concerned, and you’d ask him what happened, and you wouldn’t take that lie personally because it isn’t meant as an offense against you in particular is it.”

“It’s an offense against civilized society.” Bates grumbled. “To lie all the time.”

“Well.” Dr. Kinsey chortled, recrossing his legs, “We’ve all offended civilized society every now and then, haven’t we.”

Bates relaxed a little in his chair, eyes sliding to the top of his cane which he repositioned at his side. “Maybe” he grumbled.

“Thomas, if Bates made a comment that hurt your feelings, what would you do? Instead of lying.” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“I’d go upstairs and cry in my room.” Thomas sneered, for he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do if put in such a situation and he highly doubted it would ever come about anyways- what was the point of this?

Dr. Kinsey nodded, mulling the idea over.

“That’d probably be a good way to exert your feelings but would it entirely help?” Dr. Kinsey wondered aloud.

“I was joking.” Thomas snapped.

“I was being completely serious.” Dr. Kinsey warned. Thomas looked away, scoffing. “…Thomas?”

“I’d tell him that it hurt my f-“ Thomas shook his head, rising from his chair. He had to pace, to walk, and went over to the cabinet to lean against it. “This is ridiculous!”

“Why?” Dr. Kinsey asked, calm as ever.

“Because none of this is every going to happen!” Thomas declared. “Bates hates me! He’s never going to- to do any of this-!” Thomas gestured about the room, refusing to look at Bates as he spoke.

“Are you in his head?” Dr. Kinsey asked.

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

“I just know.”

“How.”

“I don’t know how I know, I just know!” Thomas snapped, getting close to shouting.

“Do you know or are you just scared?”

“What is there to be scared of?” Thomas snapped. “A man with a cane and a bum leg?”

A sudden scraping noise filled the room as Bates rose from his chair to lean heavily upon his cane. Thomas bristled, his back still turned to Bates though he could clearly see the man’s reflection in the glass just over his shoulder. Bates could touch him if he reached out his arm. Both Dr. Kinsey and Bates were completely silent as Thomas cursed his quick words.

He knew what needed to be said, but that didn’t make it any easier to say them.

“… I’m sorry.” Thomas finally managed to grit out. “I… I’m sorry I said that. Truly.”

“… It’s alright.” Bates finally replied, “I know you’re upset. But you don’t need to be scared of me, or to hide your feelings from me. I’m a grown man, I can handle a bit of criticism.”

“Can I?” Thomas mumbled, unsure. “Every time someone criticizes me I die a little on the inside. Maybe I’m not a real man. Maybe I am just a gunsel.”

“You’re not.” Bates ground out. “You’re not a gunsel, and I never should have said that.”

“Yeah well you’re not a cripple either so we’re both wrong, aren’t we.” Thomas lashed out. Bates fell silent again for a moment, weighing his words before he spoke.

“If I say something that upsets you, tell me.” Bates offered, “Take me aside, and tell me.”

“What if it’s something stupid.” Thomas retorted, “What if it’s something silly and… and you don’t see the point.”

“We do what we can.” Bates offered. “If I can make this sodden year any calmer for you then I will.”

Thomas thought back on July. On how hard it had been to fathom even living fifteen minutes ahead at times. Now here he was, five months from then, and what had he learned? Sometimes it felt like absolutely nothing- what a truly hopeless situation.

“What if-“ Thomas spluttered. “What if I just need to be… put somewhere.”

“What do you mean?” Bates asked.

“Like in a- an asylum or a-“

“That’s ridiculous-“

“But what if it’s me-?” Thomas demanded, rounding on Bates so that they were now facing one another. Deciding to test the man Thomas truly let Bates taste his fear, let him see it on his face and in his eyes. Let him finally get a glimpse of a man beneath the sneering mask… of the rubbish he’d so alluded to earlier in the servant’s hall.

“Everyone else can make friends, and get along, and be normal. But not me.” Thomas shook his head, “M’not built for it. M’not right in the head. If we stop fighting, what’s left?”

“Well, that is up to the both of you.” Dr. Kinsey urged for optimism. “It boils down to how much effort you are willing to exert, whether you even want this bridge built at all-“

“I want it-!”

It was a shocking thing, to realize that both he and Bates had said the words aloud. They’d practically come in the same millisecond, resulting in a firm chorus that gave Dr. Kinsey pause as his lips curled into a grin. He capped his ballpoint pen, sliding it back into his vest pocket and uncrossed his legs.

He raised his hands in offering welcome to the ceiling, as if to say ‘what did I tell you?’ and said “There you have it” with such finality that neither man could put it asunder.

And that, as they say, was that.

 

Dr. Kinsey left after their session, having to hassle to catch the train back to London. In his wake he left two men, completely upheaved and unsure of what to do next. Thomas went back upstairs to reclaim sanctuary over the children, but as he went he noticed a change in the atmosphere downstairs. Several people (Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, Anna, and Baxter included) seemed to watch him with oddly sympathetic eyes that he did not like. It gave him a feeling that they’d been listening at the door, trying to eavesdrop on his ‘session’ with Mr. Bates. Bates himself didn’t want to talk to Thomas afterward, he seemed to need a minute by himself, and busied away in the boot room before going up to change Lord Grantham for dinner. In the nursery, Thomas oversaw dinner for the children, bathed them, changed them, tucked them into bed, and then told them the story of ‘Princess Jimmy’ for what was surely the hundredth time just to keep them happy. By the end of it Sybbie was curled up like a kitten in bed while George held onto his teddy bear for dear life and Marigold snored like a freight train from her crib.

Thomas wondered at that session with Bates and Dr. Kinsey. At some of the things Bates had said:

“It’s not your fault I- I just don’t know what to do. Do you understand? We’ve fought for so long, I don’t know if we can stop. I don’t know what’s left for us if we stop.”

Never before in thirteen years of knowing Bates had he heard such honesty from the man, such intense introspection to their relationship. He tried to think of Bates without thinking of anger or fighting. What was left was a relatively blank canvas and one that unsettled him. It struck him that he knew practically nothing about the man. That he could claim no prior knowledge to help him along. He supposed he was much the same in Bates’ eyes.

He tried to imagine Bates as a stranger. The result was startling.

Bates was damn resourceful, to be permanently injured and yet still find a job in Downton. Of course he’d used Lord Grantham to find employment. Where the hell else could a man with a bum leg work? No where decent, that was for sure. God only knows, he could get injured even worse attempting to work a poor job on a bad leg. He could even lose a foot or hand, particularly if he’d worked on a dock or in a factory.

A knock on the door jerked Thomas from his reverie, and he left his rocking chair to open it just a crack. It was Tom Branson, smiling amiably and cocking an eyebrow.

“Thought I’d pop in.” He murmured softly. Thomas let him in willingly. Branson first checked on Sybbie, pulling her covers up a little bit so that it covered her shoulder before sitting down at the foot of her bed. Thomas retook his seat in his rocking chair, rocking a little and watching as Branson drummed his thick fingers upon his knees.

“Long day?” Branson whispered.

“More than you know.” Thomas whispered back. He paused, thinking once again on Bates and the session, “Do you ever have a moment where you realize maybe the man you hated was the man you understood the most?”

“I can’t see me and the King of England seeing eye to eye, can you?” Branson joked softly with an impish grin, “Why do you ask.”

Thomas shook his head.

“I heard you had bit of a fight.” Branson admitted, tapping the side of his head to mark where Thomas had gotten hit earlier at tea time.

“Bit.” He agreed.

“Heard Bates called you a Gunsel.”

“He wants to be my friend.” Thomas said, mildly amusing at shock in his own voice.

“Is that so alarming?” Branson asked, cocking his head to the side.

“… I don’t really have friends.” Thomas admitted.

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.” Thomas admitted, for who wouldn’t want to have friends? Branson smiled, amused, but for the first time Thomas couldn’t find himself taking offense. It wasn’t a mean amusement, Branson wasn’t laughing at him. Branson was just… happy. Enjoying life. It was pleasant.

“I want to… be your friend.” Thomas admitted softly. Branson just smiled wider, “And you don’t know how much it takes for me to admit it. How afraid I am.”

“I do.” Branson assured him gently, lacing his hands together, “You’re a proud man, you don’t like to be made a fool of. Neither do I, but I am your friend… whether you believe it or not.”

He supposed this was the moment to aim for. The moment where he could prove his worth. Thomas nodded, “I… Choose to believe it.”

“Well.” Branson said, “I take that as a compliment.”

Which was good… because Thomas meant it as one.

Chapter Text

After the conversation with Dr. Kinsey and Mr. Bates, things seemed to change overnight.

Thomas was almost certain that people had been eavesdropping at the door, for though Anna had been livid with him before the conversation, afterwards she seemed incredibly thoughtful and pensive. When Thomas came down to collect the children’s tea or fetch linens, Anna was often there watching with soft eyes, trying to catch his gaze as he passed in the hall. Mr. Bates did not talk to him more, nor did they laugh or merry about as Thomas supposed family often did, but Bates did not provoke arguments from him and on the rare occasions when Thomas came downstairs for servant’s tea Bates merely kept space across the table reading his paper and drinking his tea. When he did speak to Thomas, it was in a normal, calm voice- the voice he used for everyone else- and he never glared at Thomas anymore. Slowly the blank canvas was being filled with colors, painting Bates as a relatively grumpy if not honorable individual that was a curmudgeon but easy enough to get along with if you were a part of his ‘pack’.

Somehow, Thomas had joined that motley crew. He wasn’t too sure how he felt about it. Most of the time he didn’t want to acknowledge his relationships with the downstairs staff. He simply wanted to be left alone with the children. But the others often asked after the children, particularly Anna (who was growing more maternal by the hour) and Mrs. Hughes (who always tried to make conversation when she saw him)… so Thomas ended up speaking to people more often than not simply to sate curiosity. Every time he was asked to stay downstairs for dinner, however, he rejected and dined with the children instead. He felt no shame for it, no sense of guilt. Love had been so rare in his life that he was now like a glutton, chasing it where ever he could. As snow began to fall, Thomas took the children outside bundled up like eskimos so that they could build snowmen and make angels in the frothy white down. This resulted in snow ball fights, with Tiaa becoming a casualty by accident. Thomas played down, allowing the children to take him down even as they pelted him with tiny balls of snow and leapt atop him in his surrender. He laughed more in those hours than he could remember laughing in the past ten years, and it gave him a warm ache in his belly. Lady Mary and Mr. Talbot even got George a sled, which resulted in far too much chaos as everyone took their turn sliding down a snowy hill. Thomas had to hold onto Marigold when it was her turn, the pair of them sliding fast down the steep hill and shrieking together so that birds went scattering from their trees. Tiaa chased them every time, tongue lolling and eyes glazed.

Afterwards, the whole lot of them were frigidly cold and soaked to the skin from melted snow, shivering as Thomas herded them all inside and had the children change to take tea downstairs with their parents. They hid by the fire, shoes off as they allowed their feet to warm even while wearing thick wool socks. Tiaa passed out in her basket, exhausted from the whole affair. Marigold slept on Edith’s lap, pampered with kisses and caresses. Thomas held onto Sybbie, allowing her to sleep against his chest while Branson and Mr. Talbot entertained George who was still yearning to race again on his sled. Somehow he felt if they brought snow in from the outside and put it on the stairs, then they could race inside and not be burdened by the frigid chill.

As was common with five year olds, logic went out the window.

Thomas took a day off in order to go into York, eager to buy Christmas presents for the children and members of the family, not to mention Baxter and Mrs. Hughes. He’d thought about the whole adventure for an entire week, and had begun writing a list until he’d realized that Sybbie had caught onto what he was doing and started riffling through his clothing to find the list and examine it for herself. In an attempt to keep the children at bay, Thomas then started keeping the list on him at all times, for while George still believed in Father Christmas, Sybbie had seen Branson put presents underneath the tree last year and was under no illusions as to who delivered the ‘goods’. Thomas could remember being Sybbie’s age, and knowing full well that his parents were the delivers of Christmas presents. His dying wish had been to receive a sketch pad for Christmas with a stick of charcoal to draw with. He’d wanted to sketch the flowers in his mother’s garden or birds that passed by their shop window. He’d begged, he’d pleaded, and when his father had had enough he’d popped Thomas in the face and told him to quite.

Thomas had never gotten that sketchpad. He’d never gotten anything period, save for a new pair of mitts or socks when they grew too holed to stand up to the Stockport snow. One time Margret had gotten a sketchpad, and he’d been so jealous and upset at the whole affair that he’d gone into his room and cried until his mother had berated him for ‘spoiling’ the good time and demanded he return to the living room to partake in the ‘festivities’. Sniveling, Thomas had watched broken hearted as Margret had drawn anything she pleased while he’d worn his new socks over his old ones to receive double the warmth.

 

He was determined that Sybbie, George, and Marigold would have no such Christmas.

Sybbie was getting older, and as such she could often be found flipping through dress magazines belonging to Lady Mary in an attempt to get inspiration for what she might one day wear. The fashions were changing, the hem lines were rising, and Sybbie longed to take part in it even as Thomas mended the lace collar on her old frock. He’d decided long ago that he was going to get Sybbie a dress… something beautiful and unique that dude justice to her lovely looks.

George was incredibly hard to buy for, because dear lord the child already had everything and what else could he need. What George really wanted was a pony, but there was no way in hell Thomas would ever be able to afford a horse. He’d therefor decided the next best thing was to get George a play pony- perhaps something made of wood or ceramic. He’d have to look at a toy shop to see. George certainly had a strew of soldiers and captains. He could stand to have a horse or two in his little army.

Marigold was the hardest of them all, because she didn’t seem to give half a damn about anything in particular. She just liked to talk. She babbled when she was awake, she snored when she slept, and in the hours between she mumbled into Thomas’ shoulder about nothing in particular. When the child finally learned to talk none of them were going to catch a break; Thomas was certain a mental breakdown was looming in his not so distant future the minute Marigold finally learned to say ‘Barrow’. In an attempt to help her communicate better with the world around her, Thomas had therefore decided to buy her what he’d never had… a sketchpad.

Get one for yourself! a selfish voice pestered inside his head.

No. another bitter voice cut in, You don’t have enough money. Don’t be ridiculous.

He certainly had quite a few people to buy for. Thomas wanted to get something for Lady Mary, Lady Edith, and Lord Grantham as well as Mrs. Hughes and Ms. Baxter. He’d not bought so many Christmas presents in- well… Never.

He’d never bought more than two Christmas presents in the past. One for O’Brien and one for himself just so that he’d have something to open along with the others. This year, he decided he would purchase nothing for himself. With the money he’d saved, he would buy something for Mrs. Hughes… who in truth he always had wanted to buy something for but had been too afraid.

Not this year.
…Not this year.

The good news was that he wasn’t the only man in the house with a need to shop, and so it was that Branson had offered Thomas a ride to York with Mr. Talbot; the three of them were all on the same mission or so Branson had said. Thomas had asked for the day off from Lady Grantham, who’d been more than happy to get a maid to take over the children for a day. Clad in coat, scarf, hat, and hits, Thomas headed through the front hall towards the doors beyond which lay a field of glistening white. Snow had fallen nonstop for the past week, so that every road in and out of Downton was now obscured beneath the mounds. Poor Andy, stuck by the front door, had a red nose and was clearly sniffling as he blinked blearily at Thomas.

Poor man.

Branson came bounding down the stairs, scarf around his neck flapping in the wind and tribly hat in his hand as he caught up to Thomas in the entrance hall.

“Shall we go?” Branson asked as Andy fetched him his coat. He shrugged it on, buttoning it up fast before the cold could get in.

“Yes.” Thomas patted the list which lay in his vest pocket, “Though I fear I’m going to be broke by the end of the day.”

“Tis the season.” Branson joked as they left the house and stepped out onto the freshly fallen snow. It crunched merrily underfoot as they walked, waiting for Mr. Talbot to drive up. He’d expressed an eagerness to be the man behind the wheel, giving the chauffeur a break for the day. “What are you thinking of getting?”

“I’m not saying a word till we’re off the property!” Thomas warned, looking over his shoulder to the front door. Who knew what lay beyond it- naughty children listening at the cracks perhaps, “They’re like little spies, I tell you. I swear I saw Sybbie going through my shoe soles for my list.”

“She didn’t think to look in your vest pocket?” Branson asked, curious. Thomas pulled the offending list out, waving it tantalizingly in the air.

“Oh, far too easy.” Thomas said. Branson snorted, amused at his daughter’s nonsense, and Mr. Talbot pulled around the house in a shining black motorcar with a humming engine. He pulled up, waving a hand to them all in cheery hello. Thomas was amazed to see that not only was the car open topped, it did not boast much of a backseat. They would all be crammed in the front seat together, clearly.

“Pip, pip Cheerio!” Mr. Talbot looked damn gleeful, eye goggles on and a ridiculous glin plastered over his face. Thomas somehow ended up getting in the middle with Branson taking the side and slamming the door closed so that they could take off together. Despite Thomas’ fear that they would freeze, it wasn’t really all that cold as Henry took off. Indeed, it was slightly hot with the engine roaring beneath the hood and the cool air was refreshing.

“Gun it!” Branson jeered, stamping the floor of the car underfoot. Thomas watched, amazed. They were like children.

“How fast can she go?” Thomas asked, raising an eyebrow at Mr. Talbot’s little evil smirk.

“Is that a challenge?” Mr. Talbot asked.

Branson was all but jiggling in his seat, eyes wide with delight. He caught Thomas’ eyes, somehow seeming to plead with him.

Thomas looked back at Mr. Talbot.

“Yes.” Thomas snapped. Without further ado, Mr. Talbot stamped his foot on the gas.

The car screeched, tires squealing and engine roaring. They flooded forward, both Thomas and Branson having to yank their hats off their heads before they flew off in the sudden wind. Thomas had never gone this fast in his life, akinned it to flying, and threw his hands up into the air joyfully as both he and Branson cheered for more. They went flying around a turn, snow shooting up like a white wall as tires skirted the earth.

“If we get into a wreck Mary will kill us!” Branson shouted over the din.

“She’ll forgive me!” Mr. Talbot shouted back, eyes blazing beneath his goggles. At this point Thomas didn’t give a fuck if they got into a wreck. Let them get into a wreck. Let them all die. It would be worth it to continue living like this- flying like a bird! “This is hardly my best car!”

“What’s your best car?” Thomas asked, curious.

“It’s a secret!” Talbot grinned.

“Tell me!” Thomas begged, now thoroughly enchanted. No wonder Mary had wanted marry this man.

“A silver arrow I had shipped in from Germany!” Mr. Talbot explained, laughing when Branson feigned a horrified gasp, “Illegal in England! Six hundred horse power, her engine can suck the arse off a cat!” And the three of them howled at his rowdy joke.

 

York boasted many places to shop, the most affluent of which was Coppergate. It was an enormous building with multiple stories, boasting shopping for the wealthy and window gazing for the poor particularly during this part of the year. Thomas had never been one to window gaze, feeling far too lonely when it was all said and done; as he entered Coppergate with Branson and Mr. Talbot he had a feeling he was in over his heard. His meagre money, collected over years of saving on Christmas and birthday presents, was about to fly out the window like a theoretical hat in Mr. Talbot’s car.

Branson and Talbot immediately started talking with the fine jewelers counter, wanting to examine their diamonds. Left to his own devices with word that they were to meet back at the front doors by one, Thomas examined his own list and started going through the fields. He best bet would be to try and get the children out of the way first-

“What are you doing-“ Branson was right over his shoulder, Thomas yipped and clutched his list to his chest so that Branson couldn’t see.

“Gya-!” Thomas snapped angrily, “Don’t do that! Go away!” He flicked a hand at Branson, trying to get him to scoot. It wasn’t working.

“You can’t shake me.” Branson urged, “What’re you getting?” He tried to get at Thomas’ list with an impish grin. Thomas held the list all the way away from Branson to keep it away from his itching fingers.

“Nothing!” He snapped.

“Oh come off it-“ Suddenly Thomas was double teamed, squished between Mr. Talbot who snatched the offending list out of his hand and Branson who wouldn’t let him get away. Talbot peered over his list, an eyebrow arched at the weird system of numbers and letters he found.

“Hey!” Thomas tried to get his list back to no avail. Talbot was taller than he and easily kept him at arms length.

“Let’s see.” Mr. Talbot mused, “Well this is in code-!”

“That’s what your spying gets you!” Thomas snapped, yanking his list back to hold it defensively against his chest.

“Oh give over.” Branson urged.

“Tom and I are shopping together to keep from cracking like eggs. You might as well join us.”

Thomas flushed, thinking of Talbot and Branson’s pocket books, bulging at the seams.

Damnit.

“Alright…” Thomas mumbled, conceding defeat, “Well-“ He glanced at his list, “I’m getting Lady Mary a hat pin, and Lady Edith a scarf-“

“Yes-“ Branson urged, “But the real question is what you’re getting me.”

“Coal.” Thomas grumbled, “A whole bag of it.”

Talbot snorted, heading for the stairs. The other two headed off after him, eager to keep up. He was, after all, the richest of the three of them. “Nice try, Tom.”

“I’m getting Mrs. Hughes a broach.” Thomas said as they headed up the stairs, cutting a path through rich women and their depressed husbands. “But I don’t know what to get Baxter.” He pursed his lips, “It has to be perfect, and I’m unsure of what that could be.”

“Your sweetheart?” Talbot asked over his shoulder as they reached the top of the stairs. They were suddenly assaulted by a sudden surge of color and sound, children’s toys surrounding them. Thomas flushed, horrified at the mental image of him as Baxter’s sweetheart.

It was disturbing.

“Gye-!” Thomas flushed hot pink, “I mean- certainly not!”

“No, no-“ Talbot corrected him with a quirky grin; they began to cut their way through mountains of teddy bears and porcelain dolls. “I mean to say are you getting anything for your sweetheart for Christmas. Not to imply that you’re Baxter’s sweetheart.”

“Oh-“ Thomas was still flushing hot pink. He put his hands over his cheeks; they were incredibly warm, “I… I don’t have one.”

“Face like yours?” Talbot joked. Thomas flushed again, looking away to start milling through little girl’s dresses. He’d already decided he was getting Sybbie something green for her Irish heritage, “A day in London will change that.”

“If only it were that simple.” Thomas mumbled, going through one dress and then another. Either they were too flashy and forward or too demure and soft- he needed something right in the middle. “A face only counts for so much. Crack the veneer and what do you find?” but the conversation was turning much to morbid for a Christmas shopping spree so he stopped himself at once and said, “I’m unsure of what to get for Lady Grantham.”

“Tom and I are pitching in for a hat.” Talbot offered, “If you join us it’ll cheapen the score.”

“I think it might break me.” Thomas admitted. He noted that Branson was going through dolls, clearly looking for one that was similar to Sybbie. He’d be at it for a long time… Sybbie was far more beautiful than the dolls the store offered.

“Alright,” Talbot reasoned, “Then how about you get the hat pin.”

“That I can do.” Thomas agreed. Hat pins were in the budget. Hats were not.

He finally found a dress just right, dripping in plastic emerald beads and even coming with a matching head band. Lady Grantham would probably kill him, but it would at least be an excellent dress for Sybbie to play in, perhaps styling her face and hair in the mirror of the playroom and pretending she was a lady at a nightclub. What was even better, it was on clearance, and Thomas bought it at once along with large sketchbook for Marigold and several crayons in different colors so that she might have an adequate pallat to work from. George was the hard one; Thomas looked through plastic horses and noted that even the relatively small ones were incredibly expensive.

It seemed his original plan was shot.

“What to get for George.” Thomas murmured softly. Luckily Talbot was nearby, getting Sybbie a pair of new shoes with Branson’s supervision. They’d already laughed themselves silly at the emerald dress.

 

“Mary and I are getting him a horse.” Talbot said. “Perhaps you can chip in-“

“Mr. Talbot,” Thomas cut across him, dulled by the damn suggestion. Chip in for a horse? Jesus hell- “If I chipped in for a horse, I would literally be sleeping in the barn with the animal for a year.”

“No, no.” Talbot chuckled, waving the suggestion away with an errant hand, “Get him a riding helmet or something of that sort-“

“But even that would be far too much.” Thomas said, shaking his head.

“Let’s go in together!” Branson offered, finally having found a doll he liked best. Despite being much uglier than Sybbie, it certainly boasted the same haircut and even (what would know) had a green dress. The pair of them could be twins when Sybbie dressed in Thomas’ gift. Thomas reasoned that with Branson by his side, he stood a chance at really getting George a good gift; it was charitable of the man.

“Would you?” Thomas asked, hopefully.

“Of course!” Branson agreed, paying for the doll and allowing the cashier to box it for him. He carried the whole package under his arm so that it stuck out awkwardly on each end, “We’ll get him a riding helmet and boots.”

So they did. Thomas was relieved to find that, as far as children were concerned, riding gear wasn’t too expensive. He likewise managed to find relatively cheap hat pins that were actually quite pretty, and got two along with a lovely oriental scarf that he figured would please Lady Edith. Mrs. Hughes’ broach came from another clearance aisle, perhaps seasons old and considered too dull for some of the bright new things that came wandering through Coppergate. It was perfect for Mrs. Hughes however, given that it featured a cherub resting peacefully on a cloud. If anyone was an angel it was Mrs. Hughes. What was more, Thomas even found a dull little snuffbox that bore the image of a white dog on its front, nose pointed on the hunt. Delighted in his cleverness, Thomas got it for Lord Grantham at once and reasoned that the man would never know Thomas had gotten him something so cheap. Honestly, it was the thought that counted, surely. He liked snuffboxes, he liked dogs- he’d love this.

Baxter… Baxter… What to get for Baxter.

Mr. Talbot and Branson could of course afford more expensive gifts, so as Thomas toddled after them with bags in hand (ever the footman) he gazed at beautiful necklaces, earrings, bangles, and headbands. Some were over two hundred pounds, massively expensive and dripping in diamonds. Some were lower, but still way out of Thomas’ poor price range. It was in one such gaze that Thomas’ eyes fell upon a heart shaped locket, decorated with little designs of blooming wheat with a large labradorite stone in the center. It was ten pounds, incredibly expensive for Thomas… but utterly beautiful.

And perfect for Baxter.

The stone, so dark and gleaming, reminded him of her hair and eyes. How they both sparkled in the sun that streamed through the windows of the boot room. The gold was her heart, through and through- the budding wheat the promise of the future. He found himself staring longingly at it while Branson and Talbot finished up their shopping next to him.

“Something caught your eye?” Branson asked, finishing up with his list and watching Thomas stare at a glass window full of necklaces and earrings far above his station.

“That necklace.” Thomas nodded to the heart locket, which sat almost in the dead center along with several other lockets of varying design and shade, “It’d be perfect for Baxter… but of course if I bought that I’d kill myself.” Thomas muttered, wondering if Branson could ever guess the dark humor behind his own private joke.

“Let me help.” Branson urged, in a sudden fit of generosity.

“Mr. Branson!” Thomas warned him, turning to catch his eyes. He always seemed to be wearing an impish grin, “It’s far too expensive.”

“What’s far too expensive.” Mr. Talbot was finally finished, diamonds boxed and wrapped under his arm as he watched Thomas and Branson have it out. Branson pointed to the heart shaped locket and Mr. Talbot eyed it appraisingly. “Whose that for? Potentially?” he added when Thomas glared.

“Ms. Baxter.” Thomas admitted softly. “But it’s far too expensive and I shant be able to afford either even if Father Christmas himself chips in.”

In an attempt to quit from sulking, Thomas left the window and headed for the front doors. They each had several bags to load, and so Thomas had the valet bring Mr. Talbot’s car around so that he could stuff everything in the trunk. With the way Mr. Talbot drove, there was no way in hell he was putting his goods in the back seat. When he finished shoving the last item in the trunk, Branson and Talbot exited Coppergate and clambered back in the car. Once again, Thomas was in the middle, poor as a church mouse but feeling slightly better about Christmas in general. At least the children would have a good one. Thomas reasoned that he would write Baxter a letter detailing his gratitude- that it would mean more to her than any necklace surely and that it would be free (best of all).

The paved roads of York slid out from underfoot, turning into country dirt as fields of white swooshed dotted with barren trees and lines of hedges. Branson relaxed, stretching a hand out behind Thomas so that he could lean a little into the line of the door.

“So what did you end up getting me?” Branson asked, chipper as ever.

“Well, Barrow and me when half and half and got you a massive bucket of coal.” Mr. Talbot joked. Thomas smirked, cocking an eyebrow as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Well played, Mr. Talbot, Thomas thought.

“Ugh!” Branson groaned, rolling his honey brown eyes, “You’re such an old man, Henry. No fun at all.”

Mr. Talbot slowly looked around, taking his eyes off the road. He stared, dumbstruck at Branson for daring to insist that he- race car driver extraordinaire- was old.

Determined to get the last laugh, Mr. Talbot threw all common sense out the window and jerked the car to the left hard.

So sudden was the movement, so shocking against the snow, that they went spinning out wildly. Thomas screamed, falling into Branson’s lap from the force of the movement- Branson nearly lost his hat to the commotion, just barely managing to hold onto it as he grabbed onto the door and Thomas for dear life. Their spin fish tailed, pealing out to return them to the road so that suddenly the only evidence of their near fatal disaster was a massive donut shaped indention in a once pristine field. Thomas was shaking in Branson’s lap, slowly sitting up to register their surroundings.

Branson got one look at the sight of his face, and burst into howling peels of laughter.

“Lord!” Talbot howled, smacking the steering wheel as Thomas righted himself in his seat, shaking and pressed hands over his hammering heart. “If I didn’t know you were a lavender that would have confirmed it!”

Branson and Talbot were all but crying with laughter; Thomas face flushed bright red, embarrassed and bitter at being called out just for a shout- Talbot was the one who was a damn psychopath behind the wheel of his car-!

“Your face!” Branson was actually crying now and had to wipe the moisture from his eyes, “You screamed higher than a girl!”

Thomas sulked, crossing his arms angrily over his chest as he sank down in his seat. Branson caught sight of him and hooked an around his shoulders, hugging him tight in a platonic way. “Oh come on!” Branson urged. “It’s friendly banter, nothing more. We’re not making fun of you-“

“I am.” Talbot sneered. Branson looked over him, smug and content driving his lovely racing car. He leaned in, lips skirting the shell of Thomas’ ear as he whispered.

“Get back at him. Grab the gear shift and put it in second.”

Thomas turned, catching Branson’s eye. He waggled his eyebrows delightedly.
Fine enough.

Thomas reached forward, hand shooting out before Talbot could stop him to grab the protruding gear stick. He jerked it down, throwing the car into second without warning. They spurted off much faster than before, engine screaming in defiance as Talbot swerved to keep control of the floor and immediately put the car back in first.

“Barrow-!” Talbot shouted, angrily. Thomas grinned, smirking at him, somehow finding that he was leaning into Branson’s side merely because he was slunk down in his seat and Branson was leaning an arm against the back of the seats. Talbot looked at them once, twice, noticed their grinning and his anger fled. He snorted, shaking his head.

“Alright, you want to play?” Talbot offered. “Let’s play.”

Without warning, Talbot jerked right again, this time taking them into a flat field and throwing the car into second gear. They churned out in the formation of the number eight, each of them screaming and howling in delight as they clutched at the car and each other in order not to get flung from the front seat. Branson all but held onto Thomas around the waist, in most danger nearest the door. One time, Branson’s hat flew out of his hand and Thomas reached up to grab it- Talbot took advantage and gunned the car so that Thomas almost fell out entirely before Branson grabbed him hard about the waist and jerked him back into safety. He was almost on Branson’s lap and had to clamber off, cheeks hot pink with laughter.

It had been far too long since Thomas had played with boys his own age.

They took lunch in a pub before heading back to Downton, the three of them giggling like children even as they took a booth in the back and ordered sandwiches and beer. Thomas didn’t have much, but was struck with generosity as he offered to pay for their meal. The other two were delighted, and so the three of them dined on corn-beef sandwiches hot with melted swiss as snow began to fall outside. Thomas slurped down his beer, surprising both Branson and Talbot who watched him amused.

“What?” Thomas challenged, hiding a burp as he finished off his beer, “You think a man like me can’t drink?”

“That’s what you get for assuming.” Branson chuckled, licking his lips as he divulged in his own beer.

“We’re not all flowery, you know.” Thomas warned, “Some of us do have hair on our chests.”

“Don’t give away all your secrets!” Branson joked; Talbot took an enormous bite out of his sandwich, famished after his excursion in the fields.

“Oscar Wilde gives it a bad name.” Talbot said, voice dropping as he looked carefully over his shoulder. “I had a feeling there was diversity in the crowd.”

“More than you know.” Thomas assured them, beer strengthening his courage. Who could imagine he’d ever be in a pub talking to these two men about the things he hid from the rest of the world over corn-beef?

“So what are you?” Talbot asked, curious. “If you had to put out an ad?”

“Well first of all I’m not the kind to put out an ad because I’m not stupid.” Thomas sneered at the mere thought. “That’s how you get in trouble.”

“Then what are you?” Branson asked, now thoroughly curious. Thomas flushed. How to put it in words?

“Well.” Thomas mumbled into his beer, finishing it off, “Can’t really say. I’m… me.”

“Yeah but you don’t go in for those… flowery things-“ Talbot mused. “You don’t look the type.”

“No. God no.” Thomas shook his head, remembering all the young things he’d seen in London during an age ago when he’d frequented clubs. Far too promiscuous. Far too outspoken. Far too dangerous. Policemen were always on the lookout for those red flags. “Like a bit more down t’earth me.”

“Don’t we all.” Branson agreed, toasting Thomas with his beer. “So what did you end up getting for Baxter?” He asked, curious. Thomas was grateful for the subject change. It was dangerous to talk about such things openly even if no one said the exact words. You never knew who could be listening.

“Nothing.” Thomas admitted, starting on his chips, “I’m going to write her a letter.”

“Mm-“ Branson couldn’t talk through a mouth full of corn-beef, “That’s a thoughtful idea.” He agreed, dabbing at his lips with a napkin, “but who will this be for, then?” and with that he fished into his trouser pocket to pull out a plain black box about the size of a letter. he pushed it across the table to Thomas, who accepted it unsure of what it was.

He opened it, and gagged- grabbing at his mouth to keep from saying something stupid aloud.

It was the necklace from the shop.

The labradorite gleamed even in the dull glow of the pub, and Thomas’ fingers-oily from chips- danced fretfully over the shining gold etchings of blooming wheat. He couldn’t believe the nerve of these two men, to go in for a gift that wasn’t even theirs while Thomas packed their car. He closed the lid of the necklace at once, looking over his shoulder to make sure no one else had seen. God forbid if Moseley had been walking through with some teacher chums-

“I can’t accept this.” Thomas said in a rush, pushing the necklace back.

“Take it.” Branson urged, putting his hand over Thomas’ and pushing the box right back. His fingers were hot upon Thomas’ own, “For heaven’s sake.”
“But I can’t repay you, though!” Thomas protested. He tried to push again, but Branson met him head on so that they struggled atop the box for dominance.

“Take back that bucket of coal and get me something good.” Branson urged with an impish grin, and in that sudden flash of insight Thomas remembered that, among a few things he’d squirreled away after Sybil’s death, he had a poem she’d written while working as a nurse at the hospital. She’d thrown it away but he’d fetched it out of the bin and kept it- it had spoke on the beauty of flowers in spring, mixed with the joy of new birth of birds. How one brought the other, or so it seemed. He could give the poem to Branson, put it in a frame perhaps so that age could never touch the already yellowing paper. Oh yes, he’d like that indeed. Grinning, Thomas finally relented and allowed Branson to push the box to him.

He pursed his lips, opening the lid of the box again to stare at the beautiful locket. He could not help but smile as he closed the lid of the box.

It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. He suddenly couldn’t wait for Christmas if only to see the look on Baxter’s face when she realized her gift.

“Aha!” Branson grinned at Thomas’ smirk, “That’s the grin I like.”

“I got Mary diamonds.” Talbot offered up. “Do you think it’s too gaudy?”

“Knowing Mary she’ll be delighted.” Branson joked, finishing his beer. “But I wonder what Bertie got Edith.”

“I should imagine something for the honeymoon, surely.” Thomas mused with a mouth full of chips. It was no secret they were getting married on the 31st.

“True!” Branson agreed with Thomas’ cleverness, “He’s taking her to Greece. She doesn’t know it yet.”

“Of course, you are to be kept in the strictest confidence.” Talbot added in fair warning. Thomas raised his hands in mock surrender over his head.

“I won’t breath a word.” Thomas said, and he meant it, “Greece would be beautiful this time of year.” He wondered what it was like to travel abroad. To be rich enough to see foreign lands. To be fair he had seen France but… that hadn’t exactly been the best of holidays. No one sent postcards from the frontline.

“She’s going to love it.” Talbot agreed, “They’ll visit the old sites and sail the Mediterranean.”

“And Marigold?” Thomas asked, unable to stop himself. His priorities were showing, and it made Talbot smile.

“She’ll be settled in at Brancaster.” Talbot said. Thomas frowned, looking away. So Marigold was to spend the new year alone in a drafty old castle? He drummed his fingers over his lips nervous. Perhaps he could persuade his lordship to let him go with Marigold- “Oh buck up, old man. Marigold will be well looked after.”

“Oh I know.” Thomas sighed, for surely she’d have twenty nannies waiting on her every need. But would any of them love her like he did, “I’ll just… miss her is all.” He said softly.

“We all will.” Branson comforted him. In an attempt to change the dampening tone of conversation, he perked up at once, “So what are you going to get for me.”

“I’m not telling you!” Thomas warned, unable to keep from grinning. Dear god, Branson was like a child. “Stop asking.”

Branson reached out, grabbing the box holding the necklace. Suddenly it was a new tug of war, with Thomas pulling the necklace back and Branson trying to take it away. There was no way in hell Thomas was letting go of this necklace now. Not when it was so close to home-

“It better be good.” Branson grinned. Thomas gave an almighty yank and finally took the necklace back. He slipped the box into his coat pocket at once.

“It will be.” Thomas promised him, tone ominous and good natured all at once.

 

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, the sky as white as the ground, overcast and heavy with snow. It fell at a constant pace, decorating window ledges and tree branches till everything looked like it had been coated in a tub of frosting.

Thomas dreamed of Mr. Talbot’s car, but instead of being the passenger he was now the driver. He swerved it left, he swerved it right, the road incredibly bumpy but delightful-

Except it wasn’t a bumpy road at all. It was three children desperately trying to rouse him from bed.

“Bawwow!” George was in his ear, shaking him wildly by the shoulders. Sybbie was atop his chest, all but bouncing on the bed as she tried to wake him up. Poor Marigold could do nothing but tug at his arm which hung over the side of the bed. “Bawwow it’s Christmas!”

“It’s Christmas, Barrow!” Sybbie begged in his ear, bouncing wildly on the bed.

“Wake!” Marigold blurted loud as a silver bell.

That got him up.

Thomas jerked awake, eyes flying open. Sybbie cheered, cheeks flushed with delight. Thomas sat up, looking about, slightly confused. He stared down at Marigold who had a full nappy and keen eyes. How the hell had she climbed out of her crib.

“Did you just speak?” Thomas asked, breathless. Marigold blinked puzzled at him. “How did she get out of her crib?” Thomas asked other two.

“Barrow!” Sybbie protested, “It’s Christmas!”

“What?” Thomas was jerked from that reverie, “Oh- oh!” As he suddenly realized all the implications. The presents around the enormous Christmas tree downstairs and the buffet table waiting for the family while the servant’s enjoyed their day off. “YES!” Thomas clapped his hands, resting his chin atop his clasped fingers as he grinned cheekily at the children. “Well?” he demanded as the children beamed at him, “What are you waiting for? Go downstairs!”

The screaming and chaos that ensued could have been compared to a new world war. Sybbie and George bolted for the door, each trying to get through it first as they fled from the nursery room and ran down the hallway shouting for the others to get up. Poor Marigold had to be changed first, but didn’t mind as Thomas picked her up and tugged playfully on her toes. It seemed Sybbie had let her out of her crib, for sure enough the gate was dropped as he entered the nursery. Marigold must have used it like a slide to get down. Such a smart little girl.

With a changed nappy, Marigold was ready to run. Thomas let her scamper down the hallway at her own pace, following up behind them still in his own pajamas and tousled hair. Marigold could not get up and down the stairs yet without assistance, but he let her try her hand while George and Sybbie screamed themselves silly from the library. Marigold took the stairs one at a time, sliding down on her stomach just like she must have done with her crib. She took delight in being independent, gaining speed as she turned around on her stomach and slid down several steps at a time to reach the second landing. Very clever, very clever indeed.

Thomas joined her and she reached up with grabbing fingers. Clearly this was too slow for her. Thomas picked her up and hoisted her upon his hip as she took her down the last landing. As he reached the bottom Carson appeared from beyond the green baize door bearing yet another steaming tray full of apple smoked ham gleaming with springs of holly. The screaming from the library could have rivaled a murder. Carson raised a bushy eyebrow as he headed the opposite way towards the dining hall which was still being laid out.

“If you’re curious it’s Christmas.” Thomas joked, Carson snorted to himself, pausing in his trek.

“Shall we see you downstairs?” Carson asked. Thomas thought about it, weighing his options. He had presents to give but he could easily give them later. No he’d rather not go downstairs if he could avoid it.

“…Maybe.” Thomas said, causing Carson to frown, “Let me tend to the children first.”
Carson looked slightly sad, though Thomas could not gather why.

As he entered the library he found Sybbie and George digging through the mountain of decorated presents, putting them carefully into piles by particular chairs. Thomas set Marigold down, and she at once went over to investigate the tree. She pointed to particular gifts, babbling loudly. As if by her orders, Sybbie carried each gift to a different pile. Grinning, delighted by the mirth, Thomas relaxed against the back wall and supervised as the children scrambling about in their pajamas.

This was what Christmas should look like. No sniveling over socks here.

The first to enter the library were Mr. Pelham and Lady Edith, who’d clearly been woken by the children and were both wearing their house coats. Mr. Pelham was residing at Downton until the wedding in a week, unwilling to part from Lady Edith for even that long. Marigold, upon spotting her mother, toddled over to her at once and flung out her hands squibbling in glee.

“Happy Christmas!” Lady Edith said in delight, lifting her daughter up to kiss her lovingly upon both cheeks and forehead.

“We’ll have a good one this year, won’t we cherub?” Mr. Pelham asked, placing his own kiss upon Marigold’s temple.

Thomas smiled, glad to see Mr. Pelham looking on Marigold as his own daughter. She would live life well, the daughter of a Marquess.

Of course, this sweet scene was promptly overtaken by wild chaos as Branson entered the library in an open house coat and tousled hair. He looked like he’d rolled right out of bed and run downstairs in an effort to Sybbie all the sooner. Branson threw out his arms wide, grinning delightedly at Sybbie who squealed and ran to him.

“Daddy!” She shrieked, jumping into his arms, “Daddy, Father Christmas came!”

“Of course he did!” Branson peppered Sybbie with kisses, spinning her around so that his housecoat swirled about his feet. Thomas was grinning, though he could not say why. He found it oddly endearing that though Mr. Pelham and Lady Edith had on shoes, Branson did not- peach toes poking out beneath the bottom of his pajama trousers, “You’re the best girl of them all!”

Yes, she was.

Lady Mary and Mr. Talbot entered next, each much more groomed than Branson though still in their housecoats. George held tight to Lady Mary’s knees, delighted to see his mother. Before they could share much of a moment though Lord Grantham and Lady Grantham entered, with Tiaa bounding after them. The dog took over the chaos, running from one pile of presents to the next to sniff them all. George had to go after her to stop her from taking off bows and ribbons.

“Happy Christmas, all!” Lord Grantham boasted, as if he were Father Christmas proper and all festivities could begin with his presence announced. There was a round of kissing as Lady Grantham greeted both her daughters and their husbands (or soon to be husbands).

Thomas hid by the wall, all but mute from the room amid the family delight. He did not belong here.

He did not belong anywhere.

Slipping quietly out of the library, Thomas headed across the entrance hall and back upstairs to pick up the nursery which had been left in a tizzy when the children took off. He picks up the beds, the crib, and the laundry. Only then did he dress himself, combing back his hair and putting on a brown suit. As he dressed he thought of the downstairs staff, no doubt sitting down to massive meal and greeting each other with rounds of gift giving and hugs. He thought of Daisy, who had once spoken about the nanny and how she did not envy anyone caught between two worlds never to fit in anywhere. Now Thomas knew exactly what she’d been talking about-

A soft knock at his bedroom door shocked him. He opened it at once, unsure of who he’d find on the other side, only to pause emotionally as he saw it was Baxter with a sprig of holly in her dark brown hair. She smiled sweetly at him.

“Happy Christmas.” She said, the first and only to wish him so.

“Happy Christmas.” Thomas murmured, meaning every word.

“Come down.” Baxter urged. “We’ve a place set for you and everyone wants you there.”

“I shouldn’t.” Thomas murmured, turning away to return to his dresser. He put on simple cufflinks, making sure they covered his leather cuffs. Baxter stepped in behind him, surveying his room.

“Please?” She murmured, “For me?”

Charmed, Thomas opened his top dresser drawer and pulled out both her and Mrs. Hughes’ gift. He turned, offering her her gift tied in simple red ribbon. She accepted it with a sweet smile, but did not make to open it.

“Open it.” Thomas murmured, damn eager to see the look upon her face when she saw the locket laying inside.

“I want to open it with the others.” Baxter said, “With my family.”

Thomas sighed, shaking his head. Women.

“Fine.” He said softly, finally won over, “As you wish.” He scooped up Mrs. Hughes gift as he went, heading after Baxter as she left the nursery and made from the green baize door. He could still hear the children shrieking with delight from the library, but as they entered into the servant’s stairwell a new chorus of cries took over. Laughter, gay and deep, filled in with smells of succulent feasts. As they descended together and hit the bottom step, Thomas saw that everything was decked out in holly and thistle. There was even a bit of mistletoe above the servant’s hall door, which were flung wide to show decked with massive trays of food, crackers to be pulled, and a fully roasted turkey which was being sliced by Mr. Carson. Everyone was there with presents around their plate, from Daisy (who hung on Andy’s elbow) to Anna and Bates (who were making sweet faces at each other). Even Mr. Moseley and Mr. Mason had come,cramming the table to the bursting point. There was a place across from Baxter’s seat left blank with a few presents arounds its rim- someone else was obviously coming. Thomas drug a chair from the wall, pulling it to Baxter’s bare right side so that he could sit down between her and Mr. Carson. But even as he attempted to, Daisy called out of him with a hand flung out.

“No, no!” Daisy chastised him, pointing to the blank chair across from Baxter, “That’s your plate!”

But it couldn’t be. There were presents around its rim.

Unsure of what to think, Thomas rose from his borrowed stool to push it back against the wall. Awkward, he walked around the head of the table and sat down at Mrs. Hughe’s right side so that he was now between Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore. The fire was roaring in the grate- crackers were being pulled by young day maids so that the air was suddenly full of streamers and sparkles.

He took out Mrs. Hughes’ gift and gently placed it among her enormous pile. Everyone was feasting, and before he could stop the train, Mrs. Patmore loaded up his plate with steaming piles of food. If she thought he was going to be able to consume this entire mountain she was nuts.

“Happy Christmas.” Thomas offered Mrs. Hughes softly. She smiled lovingly, fingering his gift and stroking the soft red ribbon he’d wrapped it in.

“Happy Christmas, Thomas.” She replied.

Baxter placed his gift among her own pile, looking quite pleased with her hoard as she began to feast. Knowing he had absolutely no choice in the matter Thomas tucked in to Christmas turkey and stuffing, watching as Andy pulled a cracker with Daisy and sent paper flowers into the air. Anna was so big now that she could not even pull up to the table properly, and had to have a napkin over her bulging stomach in case she dropped food atop her ‘baby bump’ which was now akin to a ‘baby mountain’.

If she didn’t give birth soon she was going to need an exorcism.

Even as Thomas tucked into to roasted vegetables and sweet potato mash, the sound of wild screaming echoing down the stairs gave everyone pause. The wild animated chatter of young voices suddenly broke across the hall-

“What on earth?” Thomas wondered.

Sybbie suddenly came around the corner with Branson close behind her. They were both dressed, though Sybbie’s hair was a wreck; best of all she was now wearing her emerald flapper dress so that beads clinked all over the place as she darted around the table and climbed up onto Thomas’ lap. Everyone cooed and laughed, amazed at her sparkling frock; Thomas at once combed his fingers through her tangled hair. His own comb tucked into his vest pocket was dotted with pomade. He couldn’t possibly use it on her hair.

“Thank you for my dress!” She cried, kissing him upon the cheek. Thomas grinned, stroking her hair as Branson leaned against the door frame and wished everyone a happy Christmas.

“Thomas!” Mrs. Hughes laughed gayly at Sybbie’s emerald frock. “I don’t know if that’s in any way appropriate for a six year old!”

“None of the good presents are.” Thomas joked, nuzzling Sybbie’s brow.

“You forgot your presents!” Sybbie said, Branson raised a hand up, in which small presents were clutched. Thomas scoffed, amazed as Branson walked around the table to place them next to Thomas’ plate. He had a proper hoard now though it was no where near as big as Mrs. Hughes’ or Anna’s. He’d never received so many presents in his life, however, and had absolutely no idea what to say.

“Are-“ he stuttered, “Surely all of these aren’t for me-“

“Mhmm!” Sybbie picked up one rather flat present in particular and pushed it into Thomas’ hands. “This is from me and Georgie and Marigold so you must like it the best-“

“I’m sure I will.” Thomas assured her, utterly touched that the children would have even though to get him a gift.

“Sybbie-“ Branson plucked her off of Thomas’ lap. “We don’t need to be intruding on breakfast. Let’s give Barrow some breathing room!” But before he left he clapped Thomas suddenly upon the shoulder- Thomas almost jumped in shock as he looked up at Branson who was giving him a warm smile.

“Thank you Thomas.” Branson said, in a voice much to warm and soft for Mr. Carson’s liking who at once narrowed his eyes, “Your gift was truly lovely.”

“She had a flair for poetry.” Thomas said after a moment, smiling as Branson squeezed him endearingly upon the shoulder.

“She did.” Branson agreed. “And now I have a new poem to add to my collection.” He headed back around the table with Sybbie on his hip; her green dress clinked and flashed in the light. “Enjoy my gift!” Branson added with a laugh as he headed back up the stairs, “You earned it!”

“I’m not too sure that’s a compliment!” Thomas called after the man but he was already gone. Holding tight to the children’s present, he set it aside from the others so that he could open it last. It would be his own little reward to himself. The others were laughing resuming their meal even while Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore continued to chastise him about Sybbie’s dress.

“I can’t believe you bought that for her!” Mrs. Patmore said.

“She wanted one!”

“His lordship will have you for dinner for that-“ Mrs. Hughes warned.

“Well so long as Mrs. Patmore puts me in the right sauce I’ll taste good.” Thomas quipped, Mrs. Hughes winked cheekily at him.

“I’ll give you a lemon and butter squeeze.” Mrs. Patmore said, but this was truly ominous for any squeezing done by her hammish grip was bound to leave a bruise.

“That sounds lightly ominous.” Thomas muttered into his mash, taking another bite. Mrs. Patmore squeezed her large fingers into a fist so that several of her knuckles popped. Thomas’ eyes widened on reflex. Across the table, Baxter choked back a laugh around a mouth full of mulled wine.

As everyone began opening presents, Thomas held back on his own. He’d never truly opened a present from another person before and didn’t know how to go about it. Mrs. Hughes had a pile to go through, and thanked each person as she wen through their gifts. She got a book of poetry, a new spool of golden thread that she’d apparently wanted to embroider with- and when she got to his gift she smiled as she revealed the cherub pin.

“Thank you Thomas.” Mrs. Hughes murmured, pinning the brooch to her breast so that it could gleam in the light. Thomas blushed, looking away as Mrs. Patmore leaned in for a closer look.
“I’m glad you like it.” Thomas mumbled softly.
“It’s perfect.” Mrs. Hughes assured him.

Across the table from him, Baxter began to open her gifts. She started with Thomas’ first.

Without warning, Thomas’ heart jumped in his breast, wild anxiety leaping up inside of him and he suddenly realized that Baxter was about to open an incredibly expensive gift at the table around others- he panicked, pushing his chair back to rise up without warning.

“I’m uh-“ Thomas stuttered for an excuse, looking at all the torn paper strewn across the room, “I’m going to go fetch a bin for the wrappers.” He left at once just as Baxter opened the black box.

She gasped, utterly taken aback. Thomas whipped around the corner before she could see him.

“What did he get you?” He heard Anna ask as he walked hurriedly down the hall towards the laundry room. He knew there were old sacks in here- he could use one to stuff the paper in, and began to rustle through the bottom drawer to find one that was shabby enough not to be missed by firm enough to hold up against the many papers.

His heart bleated wildly in his breast. He could not sooth it. He kept his head down, frightened of looking up as he heard the door to the pantry open. He just kept rustling through the bags, hands sweating and heart pounding wildly as he felt a soft hand touch him gently by the temple to stroke back a lock of his hair.

Frightened, Thomas slowly looked around to see Baxter standing with the black box in her hand. There as such love, such devotion in her eyes that Thomas did not know what to do or say anymore. He was afraid now, truly afraid of what she might say or do. Why had he thought it smart to lay his heart out to her? Why, when he’d been hurt so many times b-

Baxter reached forward, and though on his knees he only came up to her stomach she pulled him forward to cradle his face against the soft fabric of her black dress. Face suddenly full of the flowery smell of her perfume, he hid his burning cheeks in the folds of her frock as she stroked his hair till her fingers were dampened with pomade.

For a moment they were absolutely silent, Baxter running her fingers through his hair and Thomas holding tightly to the small of her back through her dress. He didn’t know why he needed this- to be held silently after doing a good deed.

But he could not deny that it soothed some ugly wound inside of him.

“Thomas…” Baxter whispered, reaching beneath his chin to lift his face up. He went with her touch, rising on his feet till once again he was taller than her and looking down on her with a somber expression. She was dumbstruck, her dark eyes sparkling with unshed tears, “This is…” She dropped her hand from his face to hold the black box with both hands. “This is too fine for me. I can’t- I’m not a lady-“ she stuttered.

“You are a lady.” Thomas corrected her softly. She fell silent, breast quivering with emotion, “And I never knew a finer one.”

Now it was her turn to bury her face in his vest. She held him tight, hands locking around his back and Thomas could feel her trembling slightly beneath his touch as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Oh Thomas.” She sighed softly into his shoulder. “It’s so beautiful. Thank you.”

But he could not stand to be thanked by her, not after all she’d done for him in the past year. From holding him in his initial waking to spoon feeding him broth and bathing him when he could not be left alone- no one had ever loved him as tenderly as Baxter. No one had ever been so kind to him, had loved him in such a way-

as if by a mother.

Thomas buried his face into her neck, squeezing her tightly. She stiffened, seemingly to realize that she’d broken through with him emotionally, and reached up once again to pet his hair.

“You are an angel.” Thomas mumbled into her collar. “You found me in the dark. You pulled me out of the dark.”

Baxter leaned back to regard his face, to cup his cheeks and sooth the flushed skin she found there. Without warning she leaned in and kissed him lightly upon the cheek.

“Gye-“ Thomas pulled back, rubbing viciously at the spot. His heart hammered in his breast. “If you’re curious I don’t like it when women kiss me-“

“You’ll get over it.” She laughed tearily, looking down at the black box in her hands again. She opened the lid, staring at the beautiful golden necklace within. She took it out, allowing it to hang glittering in the air, and finally put it around her neck. There, upon her neck, it shone with all the joy and triumph of a queen’s inheritance. The greatest gift of all: Thomas’ love and gratitude.

Baxter reached up again to cup his face. For a moment she seemed to contemplate saying something, but then she shook her head to declare “You are loved.” Softly.

“More than you know.”

Thomas coughed to hide his nerves, running his hand through his hair.

“Maybe.” He finally conceded. “But so are you.”

“Then how lucky we are.” Baxter finally agreed. She leaned up one more time, and this time Thomas closed her eyes as she kissed him sweetly upon the cheek. Her lips lingered against his flesh, the first and only woman to know the touch of his skin beneath her mouth. Perhaps she knew that, perhaps she understand hat he’d never had a woman touch him so. Even as she leaned away again, she touched the spot she’d kissed. Thomas looked down on her in wonder, in awe.

“For all the women who won’t get to kiss you.” Baxter whispered softly, “You’ve deprived the female race of a truly wondrous experience.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Thomas whispered.

Baxter bent over, taking up the faded sack from the floor. The moment between them was over, but Thomas would never forget the touch of her lips upon his cheek. Not until his dying day.

The kiss of a woman who loved him.

“Let’s go back.” Baxter murmured, heading for the door. Thomas followed her at once. She returned to the servant’s hall, the necklace sparkling upon her breast, and as the others viewed it they did so with wide, envious eyes. Anna, Mrs. Hughes, and Mrs. Patmore were regarding Thomas with such smirks that Thomas almost wanted to blush.

“Mr. Moseley better watch out.” Mrs. Patmore joked. From next to Ms. Baxter, Moseley looked up, glaring slightly at Thomas across the table.

“I should hope you don’t have feelings for Ms. Baxter.” Mr. Moseley spoke up. Bates all but choked on his turkey, trying his hardest not to laugh.

Jesus did…
Did the man not know?

Thomas looked at Baxter who put her face- bright crimson- into a hand.
Dear god the man didn’t know.

Thomas tilted his head to the side, slowly cutting his turkey.

“Maybe I do.” Thomas said; from across the table Moseley’s eyes flashed.

“Oh hush and eat your turkey.” Mrs. Hughes stopped him before he could say another word. “Honestly.”

“You have about as much to fear when it comes to Thomas as you do that cooked turkey-“ Mrs. Patmore consoled Mr. Moseley who relaxed just slightly at the table. Bates was still red in the face, taking a long sip of cider to get through his turkey without choking.

“Don’t be silly.” Baxter whispered to Moseley softly. His expression relaxed completely, as he continued to cut into his own turkey.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Barrow- I didn’t mean offense.” Mr. Moseley murmured, “I’m sure you’ll find a nice girl soon. My niece certainly thought you were handsome when she saw a picture of the staff-”

Bates choked on his cider, nearly spraying it. Anna patted him gingerly upon the back.

“I…” Thomas fumbled, looking to Baxter for help. She was turning crimson again. “That’s very kind of her.”

Jesus someone needed to inform Mr. Moseley before he really jammed his foot in his mouth.

“Ethel always thought you were a looker.” Mr. Moseley added, with a boyish giggle, “I remember one time she begged Anna to slip you a love note but Anna wouldn’t let her because it was improper, of course- still it’s the thought that counts. Lord to think you could been her little boy’s father-”

Bates was going to make himself sick at this rate, head bowed. He leaned in, and before anyone could stop him Bates whispered something into Moseley’s ear.

Moseley went white, mouth hung open with a fork full of turkey halfway to the score. He stared at Thomas wide eyed across the table. Thomas just stared at Baxter lips pursed.

“Why don’t you open your presents-“Mrs. Patmore cut in loudly as Moseley sat his fork full of turkey back down. He turned to look, gaping at Bates who merely shrugged and continued on eating his turkey. Moseley then turned to Baxter, whispering in her ear. She shook her head, giving him a firm look as if to say ‘you need to let it go’. Moseley sat between the pair of them utterly stumped, staring at Thomas like he was a stranger.

Thomas blinked, raising his eyebrows in a clear challenge. Blushing at being caught, Moseley quickly consumed himself with his vegetables and turkey.

“Go on, open them.” Mrs. Hughes urged, pushing one towards him and pulling his plate away. Thomas was forced to accept or have his present pushed all the way off the table, and sat nervous as he toyed with the string on his first gift. He finally opened it, feel like he might faint as he opened the lid to see a dark purple tie. He blushed, amazed and looked up to find Mrs. Hughes quite smug as she fingered her new broach. Mr. Carson’s eyes slid from the tie to Thomas’ face, waiting for a reaction.

“I-“ Thomas could not keep from going scarlet, “Thank you, it’s… it’s wonderful.” He fingered the tie, amazed at its beautiful soft purple.

“Mr. Carson and I thought it might suit your looks.” Mrs. Hughes said. So this was a joint gift? Thomas gaped, open mouthed, unsure of how to best thank a man he hadn’t even gotten a present for Mr. Carson just took a small sip of wine, unfazed.

“Now we’ll both be fashionable together.” Mrs. Hughes said. “Go on, open another one.”

He did so, completely new to this whole process. The next gift was a soft dark blue handkerchief. Once again he was flabbergasted, looking across the table at Baxter who shook her head. If she hadn’t given it to him then who? He looked right to Mrs. Patmore. She took shook her head.

Then who on earth? Thomas looked about the table. No one was looking at him; no one was coming clean.

“Well…” Thomas mumbled, “I’ll certainly put it to good use- or try not to-“ He wasn’t sure what to say to such a gift, and folded the new handkerchief several times. He’d never been given such a gift before. It was almost personal.

“Every gentleman needs one.” Mrs. Patmore agreed.

Amazed that he still had four more presents to go through, Thomas picked up the next one to open it and find a pair of cufflinks that were carved with clock faces. Chuffed, Thomas smiled to look up and see Baxter beaming from across the table.

Guilty and caught.

“It feels a bit silly now.” Baxter murmured, Thomas shook his head, taking off his current cufflinks to put on his new ones. They were wonderful, and he appreciated every inch of them.

“It’s fantastic.” Thomas said, catching Baxter’s eyes as he flashed his wrists up, “I love them, thank you.”

“I feel like I did you a wrong turn.” She fingered her own necklace. He scoffed this down.

“You have never done a wrong turn a day in your life.” Thomas cut her off. What utter nonsense. The final three gifts were from the upstairs, and Thomas was deeply intrigued to see what they were. The first gift he opened had a tag that indicated it was a joint gift from Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Mr. Talbot, and Mr. Pelham. It was, what would you know, another handkerchief though this one was white and made of silk. What was more, it had the initials T.B embroidered into its corner edge. Thomas fingered the fine material amazed. He’d never owned something so nice in all his life, and the heat was creeping back into his cheeks.

“I don’t know what I did to deserve this.” Thomas murmured softly.

“I’m sure it has something to do with caring for the children.” Mrs. Hughes mused.

“It’s hardly a chore.” Thomas mumbled, stowing both his new handkerchiefs in his breast pocket. He patted his cheeks, trying to get the heat out of his face, and then made to open the next gift which, silly enough, was from Branson.

He opened it to realize with a snort that it was a book entitled “Etiquette for Men” by G.R.M. Devereux. Along with it came a note in Branson’s scrawled handwriting:

“The Dowager gave this to me when I married Sybil. Thought you’d get as much use out of it as I did- or a laugh! —T.B”

It included topics of all sorts, from the art of conversation to table etiquette and letter writing. He shook his head, showing the title to Baxter who tittered behind her hand.

“He thinks he’s very funny.” Thomas said, re opening the book to a particularly charming notion about how to ask a lady to a dance. It seemed there were 500 steps one had to go through before offering out your actual hand. Thomas glanced back up to find Mr. Carson was narrowing his eyes. “I doubt I’ll ever be able to use this but I’m sure it’ll be most illuminating.”

Mr. Carson nodded, saying no more as he looked back down a new Christmas present from Mrs. Hughes that seemed to be a book of essays on cultural change. He read them avidly.

Now it was time for his final gift from the children. He rubbed his hands together gleeful.

“I’m going to enjoy this.” He murmured, and gently pulled back the gold ribbon to reveal a fine picture frame encased in small ornate flowers.

The picture was of the children. Sybbie sat in the center with Marigold on her lap, looking dutifully ahead as she held Marigold still. By her side, holding to her shoulder was George, looking slightly put out for being scrubbed and starched into his Sunday best. Thomas gaped, amazed; when could this picture have possibly taken place? The only time that the children had been away from his care for long enough to get a picture done was the day he’d gone…

Of course. The day he’d gone to get presents. No wonder Lady Grantham had given him the day off.

“Oh how lovely.” Mrs. Hughes crooned at the photo. Thomas could not help but beam, tenderly stroking the glass.

“They look furious.” Thomas laughed softly, growing rather emotional, “They had to get me out of the house to take this photograph… I’ll cherish this picture forever.”

“You’ve done well.” Mrs. Hughes said with glowing pride, her voice slightly cheeky, “I say we both had a good haul.”

“Happy Christmas to me.” Thomas said, rather choked up.

 

It would be five years before Thomas found out that Bates was the one who gave him the blue handkerchief.

 

As soon as gift giving was over and the wrappers were thrown away into the offered sack, Thomas went upstairs to deposit his new gifts in his room. He put his book and his new photograph upon his beside table. He returned downstairs to take back the children, but found his position as Nanny was once again being put on hold for the annual gift giving between master and servants. Lord Grantham had the entire staff lined up in the entrance hall, with Lady Grantham bearing a basket of gifts that he passed out one at a time as he went down the line. Bates got a box of Cuban cigars, a gift for his soon-to-be-state of fatherhood. Anna got a silver rattle, quite a gift which she gloated and gleamed over as she toyed with its beaded handle. Baxter received a set of gold earrings from Lady Grantham which, funnily enough, matched her new necklace. Then it was Thomas’ turn, and as Lord Grantham came to stand before him Thomas stiffened his back at once. The children were toying around with their new presents, delighted, but they were also causing a ruckus as George tried to skewer Marigold with a toy sword. Thomas made a sharp noise between his teeth, catching George’s attention, and he at once dropped the wooden sword to play nice. Lord Grantham chuckled, shaking his head.

“Thomas, Quite a year you’ve had.” Lord Grantham praised. “I hope this gift makes up for it.” Lady Grantham offered him a square box from her basket of goods, and Thomas accepted it at once with a demure bow of his head.

“I have to admit.” Lord Grantham joked as Thomas gently undid the ribbon upon his box, “I got quite a laugh out of my own gift this morning.”

“I hope it pleased your lordship.” Thomas said.

“Oh enormously!” Lord Grantham beamed, “An 1850’s Neillo from Russia! How you came across it I’ll never know-“

“Well I had no idea it was all that.” Thomas blustered, “I just thought of you when I saw the labrador.”

“It was probably from some poor devil who had to flee St. Petersburg.” Lord Grantham mused, “I’ll take very good care of it, as I hope you will yours.”

Thomas opened the box, and his eyes lit up and the incredible pocket watch that lay inside. It was made of rose gold, with three separate faces. One wasn’t even ticking at all, which caught Thomas’ interest at once. He took the watch out, and stroked the fine glass front.

“I wonder what you can tell me?” Lord Grantham joked.

“This is a Thomas Hardy.” Thomas murmured, checking the the symbols on the front for signature and date stamp, “originated in Nottingham, probably around.. 1815? Gilded verge movement-“ he said, clicking the top to set the time right. Instead, one of the dials took off, and Thomas realized with glee that it was a stopwatch! “It’s a stopwatch too!” he declared with delight.

“I thought you might get quite a bit of enjoyment out of that.” Lord Grantham said with a calm smile.

“Thank you my lord.” Thomas murmured. “Thank you it’s truly incredible.” Yet as he stroked the watch and Lord Grantham walked to the next servant, Thomas felt an engraving on the underside of the watch and looked to see what it was.

T.B.
1925 Conquered

 

Christmas done and dusted brought warm cheer to the house. George was infatuated with his horse, a fine golden stallion which he called ‘Champion’. With snow on the ground, George could hardly ride far or fast, but instead he allowed Champion to be lead about a constructed ring under strict supervision from Thomas and the groomsman, Mr. Meikle. George looked like a right little prince, clad in hat, boots, red riding jacket and white pants… he constantly begged to be allowed to race or jump only to be shot down by Mr. Meikle who warned him that one should never push a horse past the point of their own limitations.

“Champion can jump just fine!” Mr. Meikle warned in a thick Scottish brogue, “But you’ll be thrown from the reigns, little master.”

The thought made Thomas go cold.

The day before Lady Edith’s wedding saw Thomas packing Marigold’s many valises while she slept through a nap in her crib. Desperate to keep from thinking about her impending departure, Thomas instead busies himself with mending her wardrobe one last time. She’d need plenty of coats, and hats where she was going, and so he’d had to drag up an extra valise just to pack them all as Lady Grantham supervised the entire adventure.

“It’s so cold up North,” she mused worriedly, bending over to observe Thomas packing Marigold’s valise with practiced hands, “I hope we’ve packed enough coats.”

“I think we’re well on our way, M’lady.” Thomas assured, “Coats, mittens, scarves- she’ll hardly be able to move her arms.”

“And of course all her favorite toys.” Lady Grantham added, “Nothing was left out?” she asked.

“Nothing, M’lady, save for her bear.” Thomas added, for sure enough Marigold held onto it even as she slept.

“Do one more check just to be sure.” Lady Grantham begged. Thomas bobbed his head demurely at once.

“Of course, M’lady.”

 

Lady Rose returned from America with Atticus Aldridge, delighted to see the family again and be present for Lady Edith’s wedding. If all the chaos in the house wasn’t enough to contend with, Mr. Carson was acting bizarrely out of character. Dodging questions and hiding himself in his office for hours on end, he seemed determined to slip by unnoticed in the house. But for someone as big as Mr. Carson, both in stature and in size, he’d have better luck hiding an elephant behind a tree.

As Thomas headed down the gallery hall with Marigold’s valises in hand, he bumped into Branson who- without asking- took a valise from him and helped him to carry the enormous load down the main stairs to the entrance hall where the bitter chauffeur sat waiting.

“Have you seen Mr. Carson?” Branson asked, “He’s a nervous wreck.”

“I have.” Thomas admitted as they hit the bottom and made a bee line for the door. All around them maids were ushering in flowers— white roses. “Though I don’t know what it’s about.”

“Well try to find out. Mary’s horribly worried.” Branson added, “The other night he wouldn’t fetch wine for his Lordship.”

“What?” Thomas demanded. They stepped outside and at once began to pile Marigold’s valises on the back of a motorcar which would take her luggage to the station for her journey to Brancaster after the wedding tomorrow. Thomas strapped down the luggage tightly, wrists stinging slightly at the strain, “that’s ridiculous. Carson would fetch a feather for his lordship if given half the chance.”

“As I say.” Branson agreed, “Maybe you should look into it.”

They headed back inside, both of them bound for the stairs. “Have you been reading my book?”

“Absolutely not.” Thomas sneered, though to be fair he had glanced through the pages just for a laugh once or twice.

“It’s rather pretentious isn’t it?” Branson mused as they reached the top of the stairs and headed back for the nursery, “Their lot think they hold the monopoly on honor but they’re wrong.”

“I suppose you never looked through it either?” Thomas wondered, trying to imagine Branson desperately scouring the pages to court Lady Sybil.

“I tried to give it a go.” Branson admitted, unashamed, “but it all seemed so horribly snooty. It doesn’t take a car manual to know how to be a gentleman.” And just to prove his point he opened the door to the playroom for Thomas and held it wide.

“Why thank you, Mr. Branson.” Thomas bobbed his knees, making for an awkward curtsey.

“My pleasure, Mr. Barrow.” Branson said in a voice that would be better suited on Spratt than himself.

 

Determine to figure out what on earth was wrong with Carson, Thomas took a minute while Marigold was still napping to head downstairs and fetch tea for Sybbie and George. As Mrs. Patmore prepared a tray, Thomas knocked upon Mrs. Hughes’ sitting room door, and opened it wide to find her at her desk with paperwork for the wedding up to the elbows.

“Mrs. Hughes.” Thomas greeted her. She beamed, and Thomas realized he was wearing her purple tie. He shut the door behind him to give them some privacy, knowing if Mr. Carson found out what he was up to he’d be furious.

“Mr. Barrow.” Mrs. Hughes took off her glasses, rubbing at her straining eyes which were starting to go slightly red around the edges, “What can I do for you?”

Thomas rubbed his fingers together, wondering how best to word this, “Well, I was actually wondering if there was anything I could do for Mr. Carson.” Thomas admitted.

Mrs. Hughes looked taken aback.

“It’s just… for his condition?” Thomas murmured softly.

Mrs. Hughes relaxed back in her chair with a soft sigh, looking oddly dismayed as she shook her head.

“I won’t ask how you know.” She muttered, her tone rather dry as if she thought he’d been snooping, “But there’s nothing to be done, I’m afraid. It’s hereditary.”

“And… there’s no medication to take?” Thomas asked, fishing in the dark for more details.

“None so far as I’m aware of.” Mrs. Hughes admitted bitterly, pursing her lips together for a moment before carrying on, “But it’s kind of you to offer.” She smiled warmly at him, “Are you feeling any better? Only that the other night with Mr. Bates… I suppose you won’t be surprised if I tell you that a few of us overheard-“

“Mrs. Hughes-“ Thomas cut her off, for what more could honestly be said on this subject anymore? “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Ever again. If that’s alright… I just…” He suddenly felt as if he was being rude, and Mrs. Hughes was the last woman alive who deserved his rudeness, “I just don’t want to discuss it.”

“As you wish.” Mrs. Hughes said, her tone soft and calm, “I respect that.”

 

As the day of Lady Edith’s wedding finally arrived, the abbey turned from stately home into flower factory so that every banister, door knob, and table was suddenly covered in white roses fresh from the village and the elder Mr. Moseley. Though Thomas was still technically nanny, he likewise spent a fair bet of time helping Mr. Carson and Andy set up flowers. The front rug of the main hall was rolled up, chairs and sofas were stowed, and the maids did a thorough round of cleaning directed by Mrs. Hughes. It was all hands to the pump once again, making the abbey look like she was twenty years with every servant in their Sunday best and Lady Edith glowing in a white gown upstairs. Mr. Pelham was already in the village under strict instructions that he couldn’t return to the abbey even if his life depended upon it.

In a way, it did.

Upstairs with the children, Thomas prepared each of them for the wedding- in particular Marigold who would be an honorary flower girl though she would not be walking down the aisle. She kept looking around the playroom, perhaps wondering where all her toys and clothes were, and seemed fitful as Thomas gently brushed her hair and dressed it up in flowers. Primped and pampered, Marigold sat on Sybbie’s bed sucking her thumb fretfully as Sybbie sat in Thomas’ lap next with her hands in her lap and allowed him to brush her hair. Despite her begging she would not be wearing her emerald green flapper dress to the wedding and instead would wear a peach dress with silk and thin strips of pearl at the neck. Humming in her ear, Thomas brushed her hair till she slowly closed her eyes, soothed.

A knock at the door gave Thomas pause, but it was only Branson dressed in his Sunday best with a red silk tie. Thomas felt slightly shabby in his own brown suit compared to Branson who looked incredibly dapper with slicked back hair and a boutonnière. Though he’d never say it aloud, Branson looked incredibly handsome just now with the sun catching in his hair and charming brown eyes. He seemed mirthful, like he brought the sun with him no matter what room he drifted into. Smiling at him, Thomas continued to brush his daughter’s hair as Branson sat down on George’s bed next to George who was kicking his legs impatiently and waiting his turn.

“Ready for the wedding?” Branson asked.

“Nearly.” Thomas said. “I wanted to fix her hair just so.” He paused, catching Branson’s eyes as he continued to brush Sybbie’s hair, “I have news on the Carson front.”

“Report, soldier.” Branson joked.

“It’s an illness, and whatever it is it’s hereditary and without a medication.”

“He couldn’t hold things without dropping them.” Branson mused, “His hands were shaking fiercely.”

Shaking hands? Lack of grip? It could only be one thing.

“Well then, that’s it.” Thomas said softly. “It’s palsy.”

Branson sighed, eyes flying wide as he relaxed against the wall and lolled his head upon the paper. “That’s him done for. How will he take it?”

“It’s difficult to say.” Thomas said, straightening the neck of Sybbie’s dress and helping her to put on her mother’s pearls and lace gloves.

“It’s hard to imagine Downton without Carson.” Branson admitted.

“I quite agree.” Thomas said, for even as he reasoned with the idea of Carson having palsy he could not imagine the man ever stepping down. How would the next butler ever cope with Carson’s enormous shadow? Even in his eventual death, Carson would run the house with an iron fist. Thomas snapped a pearl beret into Sybbie’s hair, locking it into place by her ear. “Alright darling, you’re done.” she hopped off his lap at once to hop up into her father’s. “Please don’t soil your dress.” He begged, for the entire thing was like a Russian circus tent to get on and off. “George?” At once, George jumped from the bed and bounded into Thomas’ arms.

“Sit still and let me brush your hair before we go.” Thomas murmured, and at once George was as still as a statue in Thomas’ lap as Thomas sat down Sybbie’s fine hair brush to pick up a comb he often used for himself. George seemed delighted to be finally getting a chance at pomade, and his blonde hair gleamed like gold in the sunlight as Thomas carved it into the perfect shape.

Palsy…” Thomas sighed softly as he helped George to put on a small boutonniere. In an effort to make him even more like a gentleman, Thomas lent him his own silk handkerchief that he’d gotten for Christmas, folding it several times and tucking it into George’s pocket so that he suddenly appeared like a miniature dapper dan.

“Edith wants you to sit next to me at the wedding.” Branson requested. Thomas looked about surprised as Branson grinned from the bed with Sybbie at his side. “Do you think you can manage it? You were never a church going man.”

“I never saw the point.” Thomas admitted, “Don’t imagine the preacher will be too happy to find me in the front row, do you?”

“Sod him.”

George was finished and with no time to spare. They really needed to head to the church, and so Thomas took Marigold into his arms with George and Sybbie bounding out after him through the play room door.

“Alright-!” Thomas called after the children, forcing them to slow up, “Stay decent until we arrive to the church! No running about. We have to look presentable for your aunt!” This was good timing for Thomas, for even as he finished Lady Mary and Mr. Talbot emerged from their own rooms with Anna following up behind holding one of Lady Mary’s best coats. She was practically waddling from the weight of her pregnant stomach. Lord and Lady Grantham were already downstairs with Baxter and Bates, both of whom were helping them into coats. As they headed down the stairs (poor Anna in last place and having to clutch at the rail), Thomas promptly handed Marigold off to Lady Grantham who accepted her at once with a beaming smile. Lord Grantham looked an image from 1850 with his black top hat and glistening ivory cane. Here was when the class divide took its true hold, for when would Thomas ever wear such finery in all his life? He held no ill will at that moment, though he did feel exceptionally underdressed in his brown suit and purple tie. He didn’t even match with his dark blue handkerchief sticking out of his pocket.

With his arms now free, Sybbie took up one of his hands, grabbing Branson by the other. The pair of them were thus forced to walk out together in the same pace, Sybbie dragging them along from the middle. Outside several cars lay waiting along with a wagonette in which Thomas could already see Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, Daisy, and Andy waiting. As they finally reached the car, Thomas and Branson helped Sybbie to hop inside.

“Alright darling.” Thomas said as he helped George to climb up after her. The pair of them shifted in their seats as Lady Mary and Mr. Talbot got in the car next along with Branson who took Sybbie onto his lap to make for more room. “Stay safe.” He closed the car door.

“No, sit with me!” Sybbie protested; Thomas could never see him clambering into Branson’s lap though, the thought making him blush.

“I’m afraid that’s just not how it’s done.” Thomas murmured apologetically. Sybbie and George looked quite downcast. “We’ll see each other at the church.” Thomas assured her; one car ahead, Lady Grantham was climbing inside with Marigold between them. Her valises were strapped to the back. “Be good.” Were Thomas’ parting words as he finally walked away towards the wagonette with Bates, Anna, and Baxter. Poor Anna took quite a bit of lifting, having to be helped up by Andy from the front and Thomas and Bates from the bottom. As she finally tottered into her seat, she all but collapsed exhausted. Thomas got in last, helped up by Baxter, Andy, and Bates so that he closed the back of the wagonette and locked it from the inside. Bates used his cane to whap the side of the wagonette, alerting their driver that they were ready to go, and at once the horses took off at a sharp trot behind the many oiled cars.

Anna, for whatever reason, looked oddly flushed even in the cool winter air.

Thomas kept an eye on Carson from the back of the wagonette, and noted that his hands were shaking so wildly that he had to put them in his pockets to keep from raising alarm.

Damn, Thomas thought bitterly.

They arrived at the church, and as Thomas let down the back gate he helped Anna out carefully before rejoining the children and walking Sybbie and George into the church. Marigold looked incredibly nervous now, hiding her face in Lady Grantham’s swan like neck and sucking hastily upon her thumb. There was far too much excitement for her taste, far too much fanfare and people who wanted to get a good look at the ‘ward’. Thomas watched from afar, worried a tantrum wasn’t far off. Branson joined him in the crowd, picking Sybbie up so that she wouldn’t get lost in the crowd. Thomas picked up George, worried for the same thing.

“It’s definitely palsy.” Thomas told Branson as they entered the church- dear god if every angle was covered in white roses. Had they imported the blasted things in from every inch of England?

“Should we tell Mary?” Branson asked as they watched Lady Mary and Mr. Talbot take their places up front.

“It’s not Mary to worry about it’s his Lordship.” Thomas warned, for Lady Mary wasn’t the one holding the pocket book to the abbey, “And we can’t say anything now or we’ll spoil the wedding.”

“Then let’s wait till afterwards.” Branson agreed. Thomas sat the children down with their parents before making his way back to where the servants sat. Despite Edith’s longing for him to pose with the family he didn’t feel comfortable with and happily took a seat next to Anna who looked like she might vomit in her brown hat and coat. They were an odd brown couple, with Bates on the other side busying himself as he read a pamphlet for the days service.

“You managed to get away then?” Anna asked, smiling at him.

“Don’t worry.” Thomas grinned, speaking softly lest others around him overhear. “I have a feeling the rod of iron awaits my return.”

“How’s it going?” Anna asked, “Are you getting on with Branson?”

“Well there isn’t much to get on with.” Thomas admitted for despite liking Branson very much (very much? he wondered) he was still Sybbie’s father and a member of the family. Even if they were happy together, they were still master and servant. Oddly.

“But don’t you enjoy it more?” Anna asked softly. Thomas raised an eyebrow, “Than being at war with all the world.”

She had a point there; Thomas tilted his head back and forth, relaxing a little in the pew as Anna continued to fan herself with her own pamphlet.

“I supposed.” He mused, unsure of what else to say. The marbles certainly had been quiet lately… but he knew they were still in there. He noticed Anna was still looking incredibly flushed, “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“It’s just a bit hot in here.” Anna muttered, looking oddly faint. He wondered if he should fetch her a glass of water.

But even as Thomas began to settle, the tell tale sound of a high pitched whimper caught his attention. Marigold was about to cry, face screwed up and bright pink from terror as she sniveled and sighed. Rising up at once, Thomas scooted out of the pew and headed down the side aisle to take Marigold from Lady Grantham who fretted nervously for her state. Lady Edith would soon arrive with Lord Grantham- now was not the time for a tantrum.

“Oh, Barrow-!” Lady Grantham looked utterly relieved as he took Marigold back, “Thank goodness. Could you care for Miss Marigold. She’s nervous.” Branson watched, sadly intrigued as Thomas carried Marigold away at once and took her out the side of the church into a quiet courtyard full of holly and wood whites that were just about to leave for their yearly migration to god knows where. They danced around Marigold’s hair as she sniveled into Thomas’ neck, touching upon her fresh flowers in the hope of getting new nectar.

She’d gotten overstimulated. Her favorite toys were gone from the nursery and her clothes were missing from the wardrobe. She didn’t understand why everything was changing and wanted the calm normalcy of Downton. Thomas kissed her brow, rocking her back forth till she no longer cried and instead sat calm in his arms.

“Hush now, what are you worried for?” Thomas whispered softly, plucking a bit of holly from a bush so that Marigold could observe it up close. A wood white perched precariously upon it, spreading its small white wings to the weak December sun.

“Look, look at this.” Thomas urged. Marigold blinked bleary eyes, sucking her thumb as she observed the wood white up close. “Look, it’s a butterfly. How pretty.”

Marigold watched entranced as the wood white continued to sun bathe. After a moment, it fluttered up into the air then landed upon the knuckle of Thomas’ ungloved hand, perhaps finding him warmer than the holly. The touch was so incredibly light that he couldn’t have noticed it unless he was looking at the wood white directly.

“Amazing.” Thomas said with slightly more awe than strictly necessary. Marigold reached out, trying to touch the butterfly with her chubby fist. It fluttered away at once, far too swift to be caught by a toddler, and she watched it go unfazed. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, Thomas tapped her swiftly upon the nose. “Shall we go back in?” He asked, “Shall we be good?”

Marigold sucked on her thumb, burying her face in his neck. He turned, and headed back inside.

The church was growing tense with the impending arrival of Lady Edith and Lord Grantham. Clearly the car was out front; Thomas could hear the cheering of the crowd begin to issue from the doors as the villagers came to bid Lady Edith all the best. Knowing he had very little choice in the matter lest he wanted Marigold to suffer another tantrum, Thomas moved into the pew with the rest of the family and was at once warmly welcomed in by both Branson and Lady Mary who scooted apart to make room. The Dowager looked wary, eyes narrowing and goose neck wobbling; Lord and Lady Merton were quite wrapped up in one another, looking as blissful as if it was their own wedding they were attending not Lady Edith’s.

“Is she alright?” Branson asked. Between them, Sybbie reached out and tugged at Marigold’s dress to capture attention. The pair of them began to play with Branson’s boutonniere, which he’d clearly handed over to stave off the oncoming boredom. On Lady Mary’s lap, George was perched absolutely silent, the perfect gentleman.

“Fine.” Thomas murmured, to the contentment of both Lady Mary and Branson who smiled and relaxed in the pew. “Just nervous.”

 

The wedding was splendid, which was a surprise to no one, and the wedding reception that followed was likewise just as glorious. The servants left the wedding just as soon as they were able, each of them clambering into the wagonette before heading back to the Abby to change and prepare to serve. Thomas missed the ride, having to hand off Marigold to Lady Pelham who gave him the most bizarre expression as she took Marigold from him and put her in the car.

“I have the oddest sensation I’ve seen your face before.” She’d murmured, only to suddenly go gray and cold, her expression icy as she got in the car and promptly slammed the door in his face. Thomas had watched the car drive away, unable to say goodbye to Marigold, and wondered what on earth he’d done wrong.

Though he had a feeling he knew.

Slightly depressed, Thomas rode back to the abbey with Lady Mary, Mr. Talbot, and Branson, holding tightly to George as he considered that despite living in a cradle of comfort at the abbey there were those who would gladly filet him alive for being a homosexual that dared to comfort children. It only made him want to comfort the children more.

When they finally returned to the abbey, Thomas suddenly found himself besieged by not only his own children but six others who were members of the extended wedding party and eager to play with George’s ‘favorite horse’. Thomas considered it quite an honor to be a better horse than a pure bred stallion that cost 50 quid, and sat willingly with the whole brood as they ate cake and climbed all over him. The youngest was an infant no older than six months who sat sleeping in her older sister’s arms till Thomas took over so that she could eat some cake. Cooing to an infant he did not even know, Thomas won over the mother who laughed gayly as he stuck out his tongue and made silly faces to keep the baby calm.

Lady Edith was glowing on the arm of Bertie Pelham, whisking about the room to greet her admirers dripping in pearls. For the first time in her life, Lady Mary had to take the backseat to her younger sister but she didn’t seem to mind. Instead she relaxed at Mr. Talbot’s side, looking up into his face adoringly.

Thomas tried not to feel jealous… but it was very hard.

As the evening turned into night and party just kept rolling, the children went home and George had to go to bed. Sybbie stayed up, determined to mingle with the adults, while Thomas got George ready for bed. It amused him to no end that George had hidden a small chocolate heart in Thomas’ silk handkerchief- a snack for later. It would mean a laundering but Thomas didn’t care. He was utterly charmed by George: he ruled Thomas with a rod of iron.

Heading back downstairs as the sun set and Lady Edith prepared to leave with Mr. Pelham, Thomas accepted a glass of wine from Andy and hid in the back corner to watch the festivities. Branson drifted through the crowd with Sybbie at his side, showing her off to doting women and long distance family members. Sybbie was starting to yawn though she tried to hide it; when she saw Thomas in the corner she went to join him at once and buried her face in the back of his thigh. Thomas lifted her up, hoisting her so that she could rest her head upon his shoulder as he continued to drink wine. Branson followed after him, grinning easily as he side stepped into Thomas corner and drank his own wine.

“Darling, it’s getting very late.” Thomas murmured, for it was almost nine at night, “Let’s go upstairs and go to bed-“

“No…” Sybbie grumbled into Thomas’ neck, “I want to see Aunt Edith leave.”

“Alright.” Thomas would not fight with her. Branson just tutted, gentle and amused. Sybbie sat up in his arms, sniffed, and leaned over to examine his crystal wine glass.

“Can I try?” she asked.

“Why are you so curious to taste wine?” Branson asked, “What good could it possibly do you?”

“I’m a princess!” Sybbie said defiantly. Branson laughed aloud, but immediately had to stop as she glared at him thunderstruck. Clearly this was not a laughing matter to her.

“Alright princess.” Thomas chuckled, offering her his wine glass. She grabbed it with both hands to lift it clumsily to her lips, “Have some of mine.”

She took a hearty sip, but nearly choked as she grimaced and swallowed with haste, coughing bitterly.

“Eww!” She cried aloud, now more distraught than ever.

“Good girl.” Thomas laughed, downing his wine and finishing it off with one swig. Branson took his glass from him so that he could hold Sybbie with both hands.

“And we’ll have no more of that.” Branson chuckled, content.

“It taste awful!” Sybbie cried out in dismay, looking from her father to Thomas as if they were mad, “Why do you drink it?”

“I don’t drink it for the taste.” Thomas said, “I drink it to overpower the taste of other bad people in my life.”

“Cheers to that!” Branson said gleefully, nudging Thomas in the shoulder. He toasted them both and finished off his own wine glass.

They headed back through the crowd to deposit their glasses and pick up some more, but were stopped by the sight of Carson flustered, hands shaking violently as he tried to pour more wine for Andy.

“Can’t pour the bloody stuff-!” Carson blurted out. Thomas was taken aback- he’d never heard Carson curse in his life. At once, he handed Sybbie to Branson who accepted her so that he could intervene.

“Excuse me-“ Thomas cut through the crowd like a knife, eager to diffuse the tension around the wine table.

“Mr. Carson, let me pour for you-“ Thomas broke in. Carson huffed and puffed, setting down the crystal decanter to mop at his sweaty brow.

“Mr. Barrow, you are here as a guest.” Mr. Carson said, slightly affronted.

“I’m happy to help, Mr. Carson,” Thomas urged. This was slightly ridiculous- the wine needed to be poured and he had two hands. Did it matter if he was nanny, underbutler, valet, or footman?

The scene had caught the attention of both Lord Grantham and Lady Mary. They watched unsure as Andy stood between the opposing pair with a tray full of unfilled glasses, biting his lip. Carson would not give, but Thomas would not sway- the pair of them had effectively become brick walls. Up came Mrs. Hughes, taking to Mr. Carson’s side to

“…Carson…” Lord Grantham spoke up, eyes flashing with a dawn of inspiration, “I know the answer.”

Carson looked nervous as if he imagined Lord Grantham was going to urge that they all be put on the chopping block for pouring wine incorrectly.

“You and Mrs. Hughes will stay in your cottage, but what if we were to ask Barrow to be the new butler-“

What.

Thomas whipped around, eyes wide as he looked from Lord Grantham, to Lady Mary, to Carson. Why was Thomas the only one that looked nervous?

“Carson, the elder statesman would steer things as he’s always done…” Lord Grantham assured Carson softly. Carson looked incredibly touched, “What do you think, Carson? You’ll have a pension from the estate.”

“You can’t pretend Barrow isn’t sufficiently experienced?” Lady Mary offered softly.

“No, I wouldn’t say that M’lady.” Carson mused. Thomas flushed as Carson eyed him with queer if genuine pride. “I trained him.”

Thomas relaxed, each muscle dropping till Thomas and Carson were staring at one another with single focus. Between William, Alfred, and Andy, Thomas had never been the apple of Carson’s eye. Yes, Thomas had been trained by Carson, but so had everyone else in the house. Even Daisy had been given a tip or two. To have Carson look on him with pride and to insist that he had trained Thomas for the position of butler it felt…

It felt…
Good.

“Well, Barrow?” Lady Mary spoke up; Thomas jolted, realizing he’d just been gazing at Carson like he was a father figure, “Would you like to be butler here?”

The idea was tantalizing. It was the top of the career ladder and would guarantee Thomas a place at Downton for the rest of his life. Even in changing times, Butlers could become house managers- Thomas had seen it before. He could make a comfortable living, save up, god only knows what could happen next… maybe one day he could have a cottage too. Maybe. On the other hand he wouldn’t be nanny anymore… but at least he wouldn’t have to part from the children entirely. the thought made him sick to his stomach.

“Certainly, M’lady.” Thomas replied softly. He felt like he was hallucinating; like any minute someone would walk up and say “Surprise! You dumb Dora!”

“That’s settled then.” Lord Grantham paused, offering both men a smile, “Barrow will stay on as Nanny until we find a new one, at which time he’ll take over as Butler on a date that suits you both.”

Jesus christ. This was actually happening. This was actually honestly happening.

Lord Grantham clapped Carson gently upon the shoulder, squeezing the tense flesh he found there. They shared a longing look with one another before Lord Grantham and Lady Mary headed back off into the crowd.

Now Carson and Thomas were left staring at one another amazed. What could he say? should he apologize for something- for taking Carson’s job even if the man did have shaky hands-

“I don’t want to force your hand, Mr. Barrow.” Carson said.

“And I don’t want to twist your arm, Mr. Carson.” Thomas replied.

He didn’t know what Mr. Carson had been expecting him to say, but he doubted it was that. The look upon Carson’s was one Thomas had never seen directed at him before; misty eyed pride that even hinted at bizarre patriarchal love. Thomas had never been looked at in such a way- as if by a father.

And suddenly his eyes were burning. He looked way at once, determined to keep control of his facial muscles in the middle of a crowded party.

“…I think his lordship has found a solution.” Mrs. Hughes said softly, rubbing Mr. Carson’s arm softly, “And we should be glad of that.”

She walked Mr. Carson to the green baize door, letting him slip through and out of sight of the party so that suddenly Thomas was the one left standing by the wine tray with Andy before him and a thirsty crowd to appease. At once, Thomas took back up the decanter and poured wine for Andy’s tray.
“Wow.” Andy said, quite bleak.

“Wow indeed.” Thomas muttered, nothing more could be said, “Make sure his lordships’ glass is full.” With a fresh round of glasses, Andy took off, disappearing into the crowd. To keep ahead of the flow, Thomas poured another round till every glass on the table was full. Careful not to be in the way, Branson walked around the back side of the table and stood next to Thomas as he surveyed Andy scooting through the crowd.

“What was that?” Branson asked, curious.

“…I’m going to be the new butler.” Thomas admitted, continuing to pour glasses. Branson set both their empty ones down and Thomas filled them up at once.

“Really?!” Sybbie squeaked, delighted.

“Really.” Thomas said, giving her a gentle smile. Branson let out a weird sound of choked air, utterly amazed.

“Well that’s sudden.” Branson blustered, looking slightly dumbstruck.

“Not really.” Thomas admitted, for if anyone in the house was going to take over the position he was the obvious candidate. Andy was too young, Bates was the valet- who else could take over? No, Carson hadn’t done it out of pride. He’d done it out of necessity. Thomas had been silly to think Carson had looked on him with anything other than reluctant contempt. “Carson will stay on as the elder statesman, he’ll still technically be the showman of the house.”

“But do you honestly want to be fully in charge?” Branson asked. Thomas shook his head, the idea slightly overwhelming to swallow.

“No.” Thomas admitted, “I don’t think I could handle the strain.”

Branson smiled, leaning against a pillar. He sat Sybbie down so that he could relax his arms.

“I think that’s the most honest thing you’ve said to me in all the years we’ve known one another.” Branson said; it was clearly a compliment.

Thomas straightened up. He regarded Branson, handsome and at ease even amid a flustering party. There was something about him in that moment that Thomas could not deny- something about in the way that he spoke honesty with every word… faced the world head on unafraid even in the face of changing times.

He opened his mouth, longing slipping from his mouth.

“There’s something I need to tell you.” Thomas said softly. Branson needed to know he’d tried to kill himself; needed to know how miserable Thomas was. Thomas could not say why he needed to tell Branson… only that it was imperative in this moment. That somehow Branson might be able to understand and treat him normally.

Branson didn’t falter in his smile, tilting his head as if to say ‘go on’. Thomas opened his mouth-

“Barrow-!”

Mr. Talbot cut across Thomas before he could confide in Branson. Hustling down the main stairs, Talbot cut across the pair of them with wide eyes and a sweating brow. Thomas’ heart jumped with anxiety. “You’re needed upstairs!”

“Has something happened to George?” Thomas asked at once. Talbot shook his head rapidly.

“Should I come too?” Branson asked at once, sensing an imminent crisis.

“No, you stay here and hold to the children.” Talbot begged, Branson raised his hands up in mock surrender at once, taking up the crystal decanter in clear symbol that he would now be the one pouring wine. Together, Thomas and Talbot charged back up the stairs.

“What’s going on?” Thomas demanded as they hit the gallery floor and took a sharp right. They were heading for Lord and Lady Grantham’s room, along with Lady Mary’s-

Talbot paused, pushing shaking hands through his slicked hair so that he could eye Thomas with an ‘oh boy’ sort of look.

“Anna is about to deliver.” Talbot declared, “And Clarkson needs a nurse.”

“… Oh dear god.” Thomas whimpered, courage fleeing him like a flock of birds to the wind.

Talbot yanked open Lady Mary’s door; there could be no going back now.

~*~

What an odd look it had been.

He’d seen many expressions flit over Thomas Barrow’s face in the past weeks, most of forlorn exhaustion that came from caring for three children day and night. Yet never before had he seen anything quite so ominous as the expression Thomas had worn just then, filling up goblets with his decanter and allowing Sybbie to play at his knees.

“There’s something I need to tell you.” Thomas had said, gray eyes softening with… well, it was hard to say.

Longing? Pain? Need? Tom couldn’t be sure.
A pity Henry had jumped in, though god know’s what was going on upstairs. Whatever it was, he was content that it wasn’t a true emergency. If the children were safe, all was well, and Henry hadn’t made a bee line for Robert so…

Whatever it was, Tom would find out in time. He wasn’t worried.
At least, not about that.

If anyone had told him that he’d end up caring about Thomas Barrow he’d have thought they were joking, but safe to say he certainly cared about him now. The pair of them had grown close, though obviously they weren’t bezzies. No, anyone with a brain knew Thomas’ bezzie was Baxter… and honestly every time Henry took Tom for a ride he was ready to marry the man.

But they weren’t strangers anymore. Not by a long shot. They were…close. That was the best word to describe it.

“I thought I saw you over here?”

Edith’s editor, Ms. Edmunds, had found him pouring the wine and tending to Sybbie. She had an empty glass, and he filled it for her at once with a broad smile. “Are we pouring the wine now?”

“I am!” Tom joked, “Thomas just ran upstairs- it’s getting close to New Years!”

“You seem pensive.” Ms. Edmunds noted, taking back her glass and having a hearty sip. The girl certainly knew how to hold her alcohol.

“I am.” Tom admitted, for Thomas often filled his thoughts when he wasn’t thinking, “I have a lot to think about.”

“Am I in those thoughts of yours?” Ms. Edmund asked.

“Sh…Should you be?” Tom wondered. What an odd thing to say.

“Only, that I’d hoped we were getting along well-“ Ms. Edmunds explained with haste, her cheeks flushing light pink.

“I’d imagine we are!” Tom assured her at once. Ms. Edmunds certainly was familiar, but maybe that was the new way-

“Then it’s settled.” She declared with a smirk, “Let’s get a drink and we can talk more personally.”

… Or maybe not.

“As… Friends?” Tom clarified.

“To start-“ Ms. Edmunds said, her tone starting to waver as if she herself was unsure now.

“Ah-“ oh boy, “I- I feel- ah- I think may have lead you on.” Tom stuttered, cheeks flushing and not all of it from wine. At his knees, Sybbie looked up with a delighted grin. Oh the cheeky little devil liked to see her daddy squirm. “I’m so sorry I never meant to-“

“Oh golly-“ Ms. Edmunds didn’t take it personally. She instead swallowed the rest of her wine to cover her embarrassment, “What a mess I’ve made-“

“No!” Tom snorted, for this was hardly her fault. “I… Sorry. Eheh…” Tom flushed, throwing his hands up in the air for mock celebration, “Happy New Year!” He declared before dropping a hand to pick up another wine glass. He downed it at once. “God…”

~*~

 

Once when he’d been in the medical corp during the war, Thomas had had to hold down a man who was having a leg amputated. He’d thrashed and screamed, bucking like mad. He’d wailed and cried for everyone from God to his mother to spare him of the pain. In the end he’d blacked out from the exertion and Thomas had had to take over sawing to give the doctor some relief. The blood that had come gushing forth had been comparable to a tidal wave, and when the man had awoken again his screaming had resumed with such a fever that he’d woken up patients in the next squad and had had a leather belt forced into his mouth to keep him from biting off his tongue.

That whole ordeal, as traumatizing as it had been, was a fucking cake walk compared to delivering a baby.

Anna lay writhing and screaming in Lady Mary’s bed, her golden hair undone and her body dripping with sweat. It was terrifying to witness, and Thomas held her tightly about the chest as she grabbed at him tight with both her hands. He was the only thing keeping her to earth, delirium overtaking her from the level of pain she lay in as Dr. Clarkson squatted between her open legs and kept her from bleeding out.

Blood was everywhere. On the sheets, on the bed, on Anna, on Dr. Clarkson- even Thomas had blood on him which made no sense because damnit he was at the head of the bed-!

“I bloody hate you I do!” Anna screamed at the top of her lungs, her voice shrill and high in Thomas’ ears.

“Good!” Thomas shouted back, thinking by the end of this he was going to need to drink wine straight from the decanter. Anna’s bloodied slip had risen up just an inch two high a few seconds ago, and Thomas was pretty certain he’d seen things no homosexual man ever wanted to see. “Hate me! Hate me and squeeze the hell out of my arm- it’ll get the baby out faster!”

“Just bear down on the next contraction, Mrs. Bates.” Dr. Clarkson urged, “You’re almost there-“

“Oh you little bastard!” Anna howled in agony. It was difficult to say who she was talking to in this moment though odds were it was her unborn child.

“Thomas, get the scissors ready, I can almost see its head.” Dr. Clarkson instructed, talking in a heated rush. This was where things got complicated; Thomas had to reach as hard as possible to aid both Dr. Clarkson and Anna at the same time. He allowed her to hold onto his right hand while he fetched the scissors with his left, passing one tool after another so that Dr. Clarkson could do his work. By the end of it both of their hands were coated in Anna’s blood.

Jesus christ was it normal for there to be so much blood? Thomas’ heart started beating faster.

“Ahh-!” Anna sobbed, slumping- her grip on his arm was weak now, shaking wildly. “God! Why- why-!” but what use was there begging for God in a time like this? If Anna wanted to beg to someone, beg to Dr. Clarkson- he was in the best position to ease her pain.

“Nearly there!” Dr. Clarkson urged, sweat and foreign blood trickling down his brow. “Keep pushing!”

“God, please-“ Anna was all but hysterical.

With a cold rag in hand, Thomas cupped Anna’s brow in one hand to keep her cool while allowing her to grab at his arm with the other. She shuddered, at times squeezing, at times going lax. It was like her strength was fleeing and it frightened Thomas. The idea of Anna dying- it horrified him.

“Fuck god!” Thomas cursed in her ear, praying he could give her some of his own strength in that dire moment, “He won’t help you now! You’re the master of your own fate, Anna Bates! Push!” Thomas wiped her face free of sweat, waving his rag so that she could receive some type of air flow. Her eyes were hooded, glazed, she was hardly conscious anymore.

“Come on!” Thomas spat, frightened, “Quit whining and push!”

She took one breath, then another, and without warning let go of his arm to reach up and crack him across the face. The blow stunned him, for Anna had looked to be on death’s door just a second ago. Now her eyes were wide and blazing, gleaming with fury as she panted and heaved. Between her legs, Dr. Clarkson continued to work, brow furrowed as he tried to navigate the baby’s emerging head.

“Is that the best you’ve got?” Thomas taunted. Incensed, Anna let out another growling shriek through clenched teeth and slapped him hard again. She was breathing wildly now, cheeks flushed bright red as she continued to push-

“Next time try and hit me like you mean it!” Thomas sneered, leaning in close, “Sissy.”

Anna screamed, and with one wild smack cracked him hard across the face. The blow busted his lip so that blood suddenly streamed down his chin, but it didn’t matter because even as the sound of the crack dimmed another shriek hit the air. A new shriek, never heard before.

“You’ve done it!” Dr. Clarkson declared, and Thomas would have been a fool to deny the gasp coming from his mouth. Terror fled to be replaced by the strangest sensation of joy as Dr. Clarkson lifted up a squirming bloody bundle of flesh that shrieked and wailed like it was being gutted by a damn knife-

Thomas let out a breath, momentarily forgetting his own name.

The last time he’d seen a newborn baby had been when his mother had given birth to his siblings, and he hadn’t been allowed in the room for days. The experience was completely different now, shocking him to the core, though not in a bad way. He was amazed to find that the baby was beautiful- even though it was bloody and squirming and frankly making noises more close to a barn animal than a human. It was completely innocent.

It didn’t even have a name.

Thomas suddenly remembered himself at the lack of Anna’s joy, and looked down to find that she was passed out upon the bed, her face rapidly draining of blood. Dr. Clarkson was tending to the baby, wrapping it in towels and cutting the umbilical chord- Anna however was responding.

“It’s a boy, Mrs. Bates.” Dr. Clarkson declared, too wrapped up in his word to look to the mother, “A healthy baby boy-“

“Anna-“ Thomas snapped, leaning over the bed to shake Anna brusquely by the shoulders, “Anna, say something-“ she wasn’t waking up. Panicked, Thomas returned the favor in kind and smacked her hard upon the cheek. “Anna!” He shouted in her ear.

She woke with a start, eyes watering fiercely as she looked up to Thomas in fear of the unknown. Over the din of her huffing sobs, her baby wailed.

“Is it over…?” She asked, voice barely a whisper in her exhaustion. Dr. Clarkson was bathing the baby now, wiping it free of blood so that its flushed pink flesh could finally be revealed. It was quite small, kicking and squirming like a perp trying to get free of a bobby as Dr. Clarkson wrapped him up tightly in a firm white linen.

“It’s over.” Thomas declared, amazed at his own statement.
It was over. This fucking pregnancy was finally over.

Dr. Clarkson was cleaning up the room, tugging at bloodied linens ands wrapping Anna in clean sheets even as she choked and sobbed groggily. Thomas wiped blood and sweat from her face, trying to give her comfort as he blocked the sight of Clarkson disposing of bloodied sheets from her line of sight. It seemed to frighten her, remind her that she’d come incredibly close to death tonight.

“Oh stop crying.” Thomas murmured softly, feeling quite sorry for her. He knew what it felt like to be half naked and helpless upon a bloodied bed, “This is the happiest day of your dreary little life.” He murmured.

Anna whimpered, closing her eyes. A tear trickled down her pale cheek and Thomas chased it up with the hand towel at once. Dr. Clarkson tapped him on the shoulder, and Thomas looked around to see that Dr. Clarkson was attempting to hand him the baby.

“I’m going to inform the father and his lordship.” Dr. Clarkson ordered, all but shoving the bundled newborn into his hands. Thomas took him agog, “Stay with them?”

Thomas nodded dumbly. What choice did he have.

“Well done, Anna.” Dr. Clarkson declared, patting her hand delicately. “Very well done.”

He left, stifled chaos in his wake as a hot silence filled in the air. The baby gurgled, still not satisfied but no longer afraid as he squirmed in his wrappings. His chin wibbled, thick lips pursed tight- his little eyes were still closed, dewy at the edges beneath a soft tuft of brown hair.

“… Oh my… god-“ Thomas muttered, looking the baby up and down. “You’re… beautiful.” And he’d never meant it more.

“Let me see?”

Anna was awake again, begging over his shoulder, “P-please- Please Thomas-“

He looked around to find her trying to rise off the bed, shaking from the exertion with her pale arms outstretched to where he stood just beyond reach. Tears were dripping down her cheeks again, an expression of longing filling her up-

“Oh for god’s sake-“ Thomas protested, urging her back down into bed as he sat upon mattress and hastily pushed the baby into her arms, “Don’t kill yourself-“

Anna clutched her son to her heaving breast, weeping openly now. He did not make to stop her, recognizing them for happy tears as she pressed kiss after kiss to the baby’s moist forehead. The baby yawned, a tiny pink mouth stretching in a soft ‘o’ momentarily before falling closed again.

“He’s so beautiful-“ Anna groaned through a sob. She sniveled, and Thomas fetched his wet hand cloth again to hastily wipe her face. She did not seem to care that he touched her anymore, “He’s so beautiful, Thomas.”

“He is.” Thomas agreed, emotional though it was hardly his own baby. He used the hand towel to wipe the blood from his own hands, gently stroking the baby’s tuft of brown hair. It was so soft beneath his fingers- it didn’t seem real. “He truly is.”

Anna sagged, laying her head against the juncture of his arm and chest. She wept softly and he wrapped an arm around her back, holding her as best as he could. Anna clutched at him in that moment, holding to him like he were as dear to her as a brother. She buried her nose in his collar, trying to regain her breath as her son slept in her arms.

The door opened, and John Bates appeared.

He was in shock, face bloodless and sweating from nerves. His eyes were wide, blown, pupils swallowing up brown so that his eyes were practically black.

Thomas sat up, arm slipping from behind Anna’s back so that he could clamber off the bed at once. He slunk backwards, stepping till he hit the decorated wall of Lady Mary’s inner chambers. Bates did not seem to notice him, eyes locked on Anna. She looked up, new tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.

“John…” She whispered his name. It was the first time Thomas had ever heard her call him as such, “We have a son.”

Bates surged forward, crumpling upon the corner of the bed as he took Thomas’ spot and pulled his wife into his arms. He cradled her and the baby both, kissing them profusely in a display of affection that left even Thomas mildly embarrassed. Unsure of what else to do, Thomas slowly inched about the room cleaning up from the birth. He put away Dr. Clarkson’s tools and took up every dirtied cloth he could find to pile it atop a bloodied bed sheet. Like Father Christmas, he bundled the whole sack up and tied it so that he could later take it downstairs when the party guests were gone. It wouldn’t do for others to see him carrying around loads of blood like a murder had just taken place in a bedroom.

As he headed back for the door, he was stopped by the sound of Bates calling his name.

“You’re bleeding.” Bates said.
Thomas touched his mouth, skin stinging- he realized he’d forgotten.

“Oh- “ Thomas mumbled, knowing he couldn’t go back downstairs to the party now without worrying the other guests. He’d have to hide. “…Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Thomas.” Anna sniffed, swallowing. The love in her voice was overwhelming, though he knew it wasn’t for him, “You were such a help. I’m so sorry I hit you…” She looked to her husband, “What shall we call him?”

“William.” Bates said after a moment, reaching down and cradling his son’s head, “After William Mason. William John Bates.”

Typical.

An odd, ugly jealousy filled up Thomas from his toes to his nose as he surveyed Bates upon the bed with Anna and William in his arms. He suddenly wished, not for the first time, that they could trade places. That Thomas could be the one with a wife and child and Bates could be the one on the fringes of society. What would Thomas give for a moment like this? To look into the eyes of an infant and know he had a legacy? An heir? A son all his own-

Thomas sighed, bitter, and looked away. He reached out for the door, taking the knob in hand-

“Thomas…” Bates called out. Thomas paused, looking back again. “About the other day, with Dr. Kinsey-“

“Let’s-“ Thomas cut Bates off, heart twanging in his chest, “Let’s not worry about that.” He pursed his lips, bitter, “Tonight is for you. Congratulations, and Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year, Thomas.” Anna and Bates said almost simultaneously. Both were looking at him with oddly somber affection. It unsettled him.

He left the room, passing Lord and Lady Grantham along with Lady Mary on the way up. Dr. Clarkson was just outside, talking in hushed tones with his Lordship who nodded calmly and smiled benignly at Thomas.

“Get some ice on that lip, Thomas.” Dr. Clarkson added as he passed.

“Good show, Barrow.” Lord Grantham reached out, and he was amazed when the man shook his hand.

“He thought fast, antagonizing Anna into action.”Dr. Clarkson mused. “She was giving out until she cracked him in the face. He helped her give birth faster.”

“Everything at a price,” Lord Grantham joked, tapping to his own unmarked lip in solidarity.

“M’lord. Doctor.” Thomas nodded to them both, heading for the stairwell to the main hall until he stopped himself and realized he couldn’t descend with blood on his shirt and his lip busted. He hung back by the railing, watching the party below only to catch Branson’s eyes from the wine table.

Branson smiled, and ascended the stairs.

“So?” Branson asked as he rounded the top. Sybbie was no where to be found- he must have put her to bed. Thomas wondered how long the birth had taken, and checked his pocket watch from Lord Grantham to see that it was about fifteen minutes to midnight. “Is it all over?”

“Oh yes…” Thomas said; it seemed Branson had learned of Thomas’ quest. “Yes, he’s healthy and in his mother’s arms, and couldn’t be more perfect.” Branson grinned, delighted, “William John Bates.”

“Meanwhile you have a busted lip and bruised cheek.” Branson chuckled, unable to stop laughing as he reached up and touched Thomas’ lip. Branson’s thumb was warm upon his face, “What did she do to you? Punch you?”

“I might have asked for it.” Thomas joked. Branson’s fingers stemmed up to Thomas’ bruised cheek only to paused and stop. He suddenly seemed to realize that he was touching Thomas’ face in an incredibly intimate way and immediately dropped his hand to give Thomas some breathing space.

Thomas had not been touched by a man in a very long time. It did not help that Branson was handsome to boot.

“The wine’s gotten to me.” Branson muttered in soft apology.

“I could stand with another glass.” Thomas admitted, “But I can’t downstairs looking like this-“

“No, no,” Branson agreed, waving a hand, “I’ll fill it for you.”

He went downstairs; Thomas touched his lips in Branson’s absence, feeling where his fingers had only just been.

Why was his heart pounding?

Branson ascended the stairs again, two glasses of wine in hand, and offered one to Thomas who accepted it at once. For some reason the party was thinned out, till only close family remained- and where was Lady Edith?

“Where’s Lady Edith?” Thomas wondered, looking over the balcony.

“She’s gone.” Branson admitted, “Left while you were helping Anna. She wanted me to thank you for all your help with Marigold.”

“It was hardly a chore.” Thomas murmured. The pair of them walked at a slow calm gait towards the green baize door at the corner of the hall by the bachelor corridor. Thomas opened it, leaning in the sill as it took a slow sip of wine and checked his pocket watch. Ten minutes.

“I’m going to go downstairs.” Thomas murmured, “To be with the others.”

It only seemed right. He could hardly stay upstairs.

“I’ll join you.” Branson said, relaxing on the other side of the sill. They were almost touching now.

“No, you stay here.” Thomas urged him, “Be with them. I’ll come back up and check on the children in a moment.”

“You don’t mind?” Branson asked. Thomas just smiled, blissful and buzzed.

“Not at all.” He murmured softly. Branson grinned, tilting his head from side to side.

“Earlier you said there was something you wanted to tell me.” Branson said. Thomas shook his head though, knowing that now was not the time for such conversations. Before, speaking about his suicide had seemed like a good confession. Now, it just felt selfish. Tonight was for William Bates and Lady Edith… no one else.

“Now’s not the time.” Thomas said.

“Why not?”

“Because everyone is smiling.” Thomas whispered. Branson frowned, saddened by his words.

“Happy New Year, Mr. Branson.” Thomas said, and he’d never wished it more.

“Will you at least call me Tom?” Branson beseeched. The idea made Thomas stomach clench in an odd fit of nerves that he couldn’t understand. It was probably just the wine.

“…Happy New Year Tom.” Thomas whispered.

“Happy New Year.” Tom said, clinking his glass with Thomas’ own, “Thomas.”

Chapter Text

He stood before Carson’s floor length mirror, tailor at his knees and Carson at his back.

“You are the line in the sand.” Carson murmured, watching over every detail as the tailor ensured Thomas’ new livery fit him perfectly.

“You are the final barrier between the family and disaster.” Carson said. As he came around, he met Thomas’ eyes and did not look away. It was a powerful moment between the two of them: a butler crafted for eternal fame, and a butler who had no other choice to avoid starvation. “You are the backbone of the integrity of this house.” Carson said.

Well. The house was fucked, then.
Light streamed in through Carson’s office windows. It had been three days since New Years. Three days since William’s birth. Three days since Thomas’ shocking career turn.

“From now on, your example must be the example to follow.” Carson said, “You must be constantly vigilant to ascertain and attend to the needs of the family. You are now officially in charge of hiring, disciplining, and if necessary… dismissing the staff.”

At Thomas’ knees, the tailor tugged gently upon his trousers to ensure they fitted well. Thinly striped, the trousers of a butler, Thomas and Carson now looked like twins for their identical livery.

“You must now oversee the work of the Footmen, and ensure that they are trained to be valets if necessary. You must rise early, as you have always done to maintain proper order.” Carson reached forward and touched Thomas’ bowtie, ensuring that its starched fabric was straight, “You must be an image of cleanliness, in particular ensure that your face is always clean shaven-“ He paused, “But you have always been a clean man, and I have no complaint in that.”

Carson straightened Thomas’ jacket now. The tailor rose, measurements taken, and left the room momentarily to fetch more pins. In their newfound privacy, Carson made his true displeasure clear.

“No, Thomas- my concern is this: your attitude.” Carson locked his eyes upon Thomas’ eyes again. There could be no hiding, no looking away. “You must never discuss the business of the family with strangers. Ever again. You must never speak ill of the family again. You must never give pert answers again. No more muttering when you walk out of the room, no more slamming doors or heavy stomping.” Carson raised a finger, in ominous warning, “I won’t hear of it. Not when you are now the butler.”

He clasped his hands behind his back, “You must cultivate modesty. You must listen and learn. Frugality, sobriety, and a good temper are items you must possess in order to maintain the house hold…”

Thomas thought it was over. He was wrong.

Carson came back around so that he and Thomas now stared at one another in the mirror instead of eye to eye. Carson reached up and, without warning, put his hands upon Thomas’ shoulders to squeeze tightly. He could suddenly feel the strength in Carson’s hands. IT did not frighten him but it didn’t make him happy; not one bit.

“Thomas Barrow… Honesty.” Carson said the word with clear authority. “What does it mean?”

“To tell the truth.” Thomas replied.

“And do you find it a virtue to keep?”

Well wasn’t that the question of the hour. The fact of the matter was that while Thomas knew exactly what honesty was and why it was important, it was also incredibly dangerous. Honesty was the lead way to vulnerability… and vulnerability to men like Thomas meant death.

And even that was on a good day.

“I find it difficult to do sometimes.” Thomas admitted, catching Carson’s eyes in the mirror, “When I’m angry or tired… or embarrassed. And that’s the truth of it.”

Carson sized up Thomas’ words, and squeezed his shoulder’s again… but there was much less force behind his fingers this time.

“Did you father speak to you of honesty?”

That was fair; Thomas respected it. The fact of the matter was Thomas did not like thinking about his father.

“No sir.” Thomas admitted, “My father never spoke to me. He yelled.” Carson did not seem surprised. Indeed, he seemed sad, “Children learn to lie when they are punished for telling the truth.”

Carson gently brushed dust off Thomas’ shoulders, though there was hardly any there. The tailor re entered the room, dropped to his knees, and resumed pinning Thomas’ trouser hem.

“You must be your own father, Thomas Barrow.” Carson declared, looking him in the eye through the mirror. “And never lie again.”

 

 

 

Anna was in a bad way.

He wouldn’t have known that night, he was Bates and he wasn’t his Lordship, but when Anna gave birth her “stitch broke” whatever that meant, and the neck of her womb had begun to bleed from within. It had left her weak, tired, and so she was ordered to bed rest in a guest room off the gallery wing. This made things slightly easier for Bates; he didn’t have to walk home at night and could instead just go upstairs and couple up with Anna. Likewise, William did not travel from the nursery. Instead, William took over Marigold’s crib and…

Screamed his little lungs out.
Sometimes.

Thomas was still nanny until they could find a new one (thus making Carson still the Butler), so William was his responsibility. Thomas had never taken care of an infant before. He’d taken to his brother and sisters, naturally but… his mother had done most of the handling. Now it was Thomas’ turn, and frankly? He was losing his mind.

Slowly. Lovingly. He wouldn’t have done it for anyone else but William.

The fact of the matter was that William didn’t have a set sleeping schedule yet and couldn’t keep from screaming when he woke. It seemed the dark petrified him, and so to sooth him Thomas moved William’s new crib into his own room (so that Sybbie and George might get some decent rest) and kept on a small shaded lamp. Often, William would not be soothed until he was upon Thomas’ chest, rising and falling with each breath Thomas took and listening to the beat of his heart. It was an incredibly tender moment, one that Thomas shared and revealed to no one for the sake of prolonging it. Bates and Anna were the rightful owners of such affections; he felt like a thief in the night… but Anna needed to recover and Bates wanted to tend to her. It took a village to raise a child. Why couldn’t the village include him?

During the night, Thomas fed William with a bottle; during the day however Thomas was happy to let Anna cradle and nurse him so that he could tend to the other children. So it was that early one morning about a week and a half after her hellish New Years, Thomas brought in William for his morning feeding and opened the door to find Anna already cared to by a maid. She had a tray over her lap, a light housecoat wrapped about her with her golden hair braided over her shoulder. She looked like she’d been dozing in the calm sunlight bathing in through the curtained windows, eyes lightly closed and face relaxed. As she saw William, she beamed, sitting up better in bed and moving her tray of finished breakfast aside.

“I hope I didn’t wake you.” Thomas murmured, closing the door with his free hand.

“No.” Anna assured him, and reached out both hands to take William from his arms. Thomas happily handed him over, and after a bit of fuss and gurgling William was safely in his mothers arms. “Hello my darling-“ She kissed him softly upon the brow. He let out the softest gurgle, appeased. “Has he been alright?” Anna asked, “Has he been sleeping?”

Thomas picked up her emptied breakfast tray and placed it upon the floor, taking its station upon the bed so that he and Anna could relax side by side. It was nice to get off his feet for a moment, and Anna certainly didn’t mind. He seemed to amuse her; she was always smirking or laughing when he was near.

“Oh yes.” Thomas said, for if William wasn’t screaming he was sleeping. There was never a moment between the two (save for eating), “Quite a lot. He was born tired.”

Anna laughed softly, stroking Williams cheek. “Does he cry a lot?”

“Of course.” Thomas shrugged, “He’s a week old.” Anna laughed again, “I don’t mind though, he’s just trying to talk. I found a new trick though.”

“You did?” Anna asked, curious.

“Watch this.” Thomas declared.

He’d discovered this trick accidentally, stroking Williams cheek with the knuckle of his finger only to be surprised when William turned his head and tried to suck at the nub. He’d done it several times, wondering if it was just a once off, but it turned out that if William felt something was touching his cheek he assumed straight away it was a nipple and tried to suck. He was a man with his stomach on his mind. Thomas could respect that.

He reached out, stroking Williams’ cheek, and at once he turned with tiny lips searching desperately for his finger. He tried to suck, Thomas pulling back before he could start, “Ah! Not my finger. Silly boy.” Thomas tapped William’s petite noise. He made a gurgle of irritation at being jipped for food.

“How sweet.” Anna pushed William’s bangs back and forth, “How are you liking your new position, Mr. Butler?”

“Not yet.” Thomas warned her. Anna shrugged.

“But soon.”

“…Maybe.” Thomas didn’t know what to think, didn’t want to think. Anna frowned, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She consoled him, continuing to stroke William’s bangs. Though they’d been dark at birth they’d turned a bright blonde, practically white, “It’s a lot to take on, but we’re all behind you.”

“I appreciate that.” Thomas said.

Between them, William made an angry grunting sound.

 

 

 

Thomas’ conversations with Dr. Kinsey had become oddly spaced. Sometimes he didn’t call the man at all, sometimes he called him twice a day. With the newfound realization that he was about to be butler, Thomas felt anxiety was always around the corner. He’d never wanted to take this direction with his career, but then again he’d never known what direction he’d wanted to take period.

“How interesting,” Dr. Kinsey mused at Carson’s demands, “Be your own father- what do you think that means?”

“Well, exactly what he says.” Thomas said, for he’d never known Carson to be anything but literal.

“Well.” Dr. Kinsey coughed a bit before continuing on, “Pretend you’re your own father. How do you feel about your behavior?”

That was difficult.

He tried to imagine if he was George, and then was seeing his actions while watching them through George. He was nervous, he was unsure of his future and if he could succeed. He was alienating himself from the staff, from the world around him, and was often lonesome for things he could never attain.

“Worried.” Thomas admitted.

“I fear parents often worry too much,” Dr. Kinsey said, and Thomas had to agree. Lady Edith was a prime example of that, “One cannot control the circumstances of time-“

“But can’t I?” Thomas wondered, “If I’m worried about… me?” He groaned, sensing a headache coming on, “This is confusing, everything’s confusing-“

“Why’s that?”

Oh goody now they were really going to have an interesting conversation.

How was Thomas supposed to explain to a heterosexual man what it meant to be stroked on the cheek by another man and like it? He could still feel the smooth touch of the backs of Tom’s fingers, the warmth they inspired in his cool skin. How his thumb had come dangerously close to Thomas’ busted lip. How he’d smiled, how he’d yearned for more-

Of course, Tom was heterosexual too, so it was wrong of him to have these thoughts about Tom. Hadn’t he done enough for pining for men who would never love him back? Not that he was really pining for Tom- he certainly wasn’t in love with him- that was to say, he wasn’t utterly in love with him. He was very charming and adorable and his Irish accent put small butterflies in Thomas’ stomach-

Jesus christ he needed help.

“Tom Branson touched my face.” Thomas admitted, flushing at the memory. He was going to look fevered when he walked out of the office.

“Really.” Dr. Kinsey didn’t seem to know what else to say. Thomas couldn’t blame him.

“It was New Years Eve…” Thomas admitted, “He uh- he didn’t much seem to care- I mean to say he was relaxed. I was relaxed. We were relaxed.”

You need help, a marble said irritably in his head, You so repressed every man you see is a walking piece of meat.

“And yet you didn’t like it when I touched you.” Dr. Kinsey reminded him. “Why is that?”

Now Thomas was thinking about Dr. Kinsey stroking his face, about it being a sexual indication, and suddenly he was flushing even hotter so that he yanked at his tie to loosen it around his neck. His depraved brain jumped to the idea of Dr. Kinsey and Tom having a threesome with him- both their hands skirting his skin as they took him rough and hard-

Sodomy! the marbles cheered, overjoyed, Sodomy! Gunsel! Sodomy! Gunsel!

“Oh my god-“Thomas groaned aloud into the phone.

“Thomas?”

“I mean-“ Thomas coughed, straightening back up, “I don’t uh… know…why. I need to go feed the dog I have to hang up now-“ He said in a rush. His depraved brain was already making him think of Dr. Kinsey naked, of how his cock might taste in Thomas’ mouth.

Wee! the marbles continued to jeer.

“Thomas tell me what’s wrong.”

“I just…” Thomas coughed, tugging at his neck some more, “I just uh… have thoughts-“

“Tell me?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“It’s improper.”

“Don’t be afraid. Tell me; I’m writing a research study on our findings together. It could benefit men like you in the future.”

Thomas sighed, desperately trying to calm his hammering heart.

“Just….” Thomas coughed, dropping his voice till he was almost whispering into the phone, “Just… uh… I started thinking about. You and Tom Branson… and me.”

“What were you thinking about in regards to the three of us.”

“Threesome.” Thomas mumbled softly.

“What?”

“You know what I have to go.” Thomas snapped loudly, his courage fleeing him in a rush.

“Thomas, wait-!”

“Goodbye!” Thomas hung up the phone, practically slamming it upon his cradle. His heart was hammering in his chest and he had to take several deep calming breathes. Raking a hand through his hair, Thomas looked up at the ceiling and pinched his eyes shut as he relaxed into Carson’s swivel chair.

Lord he really was a gunsel.

~*~

After celebrating New Years, Tom had woken up with a splitting headache and a distinct impression that he’d stroked Thomas Barrow’s cheek. He’d spent the whole day wandering around in a stupor, swallowing a Beechams to ease his temple and hiding in the darkened small library as outside Thomas had waged war on an infant barely 48 hours old and two children who desperately wanted to play. To ease his load, Tom had taken over Sybbie and allowed her to play in the library with him; she’d sat in her emerald beaded dress, drawing pictures by the fire from magazines she’d borrowed of fancy frocks. George and Henry had gone out, taking Mary with them so that they could enjoy a day as a small unit.

Two weeks had nearly passed, and Thomas had still not mentioned Tom’s slip up. Maybe he didn’t remember or maybe he was embarrassed too. Tom still couldn’t reckon why he’d felt it so necessary to touch Thomas- only that… it had felt good. Right. Lovely.

Once again, Henry had taken Mary and George out for the day followed by Robert and Cora. All of them had gone to York eager to see Henry’s new car shop. This left Tom to have the run of the house, and he enjoyed it as he took Tiaa for a walk with Sybbie. When they returned it was after noon, and Sybbie ran back to the small library to get warm while Tom took off his hat and coat to hang it in the entrance hall. The phone rang from its pedestal in the main hall, and Andy (who’d been by the door) made a bee line to answer it. Tom was closer, and waved him off so that he could pick up the phone instead.

“Downton Abbey-“ Tom said, yanking a bit at his tie. He was slightly hot from his walk despite it being freezing outside with fresh snow on the ground.

“Yes, this is Lady Margret Pelham, may I speak with his lordship-“

“Lady Pelham!” Tom was quite surprised, but suddenly his heart jumped in anxiety, “This is Tom Branson- you’re not calling about Marigold are you?”

“Mr. Branson, how good to hear from you,” Lady Pelham sounded quite calm, “No, no, not at all. Marigold is settling in quite well.”

“Oh thank goodness.” Tom took a breath of relief, “Mr. Barrow will be pleased.”

“Well, that’s just it.” Lady Pelham’s tone was shifting, turning darker. Tom glanced up, noticing Andy beating snow from his boots so that he could close the front door. “It’s about… Barrow.”

The way she said his name made Tom nervous. Like Thomas was a bug- a dangerous bug that ought to be squashed. Tom licked his lips, listening intently.

“I have some most unsettling information I’d like to convey to his lordship at once.”

“Well,” Tom looked over his shoulder again, keeping his tone calm as possible even as his mind kicked into overdrive in an attempt to keep Thomas out of trouble. “his lordship isn’t in at the moment, but I’d be more than happy to help. He’ll be fine with me handling the situation. I know Barrow better.”

“I’d like to come for tea if possible. There is something I need to show you.” Lady Pelham explained.

“We’d be glad to have you.” Tom said, unsure if it was a lie or not at this point.

“I’ll be there tomorrow around two.” Lady Pelham said.

“I look forward to seeing you,” Once again, was it a lie? “Travel safely.” As he hung up the phone, Tom thought of the pressing time issue and Robert’s imminent return. If he could just isolate Lady Pelham- perhaps in the small library- and keep everyone else away…

But what on earth was he doing? If Thomas was in trouble, if he’d done something wrong, then he needed to face the consequences. That was only right.

But there was something in the way Lady Pelham had said his name that made Tom feel like this wasn't a skin-deep issue. Like whatever Thomas had done wrong, it hadn’t been on purpose or even anything he could have changed.

Tom made his way back to the small library, Tiaa trotting at his heels. He’d stay there for the rest of the afternoon, plotting for tomorrow’s sudden tea.

~*~

Downstairs, Thomas was having just as much fun interviewing possible Nanny’s.

He’d have several call in’s after placing adds, and a few had seemed prospective. Some had vitality, some had experience, some were just well connected- either way he was happy to sit down and listen to what they had to say as he tried his hand for the first time at hiring a staff member while

The first Nanny to come in was shockingly ancient. She hadn’t sounded old over the phone but when she came in it was clear she was the Dowager’s age as she took a chair across from Thomas and smiled. Her face stretched around her thin lips like a leathery prune.

“Oh I love children-“ The elderly woman assured him at once, “I absolutely love them. I have eighteen grandchildren and twenty-three great grandchildren!”

So that would be a ‘no’.

“We’ll be in touch.” Thomas assured her with a smile while simultaneously putting her resumé in the bin behind the barrier of his desk.

The second prospective nanny was just as bad, but on the complete opposite end. She was young, with clear strength but lacking in experience and didn’t seem to even know how to sit in a chair properly as she spread her knees wide and chewed on her pouty lips. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen.

“Well I figure it can’t be too hard looking after a baby,” The young woman offered when Thomas asked her about potential stress, “I mean what do they really need?”

Thomas hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in over a week and at once dismissed the young woman to chuck out her resumé as well. No no, there would be none of that.

The next prospective candidate was a friend of Denker’s. She’d been on the phone with Carson all morning begging for him to give her mate a chance, and Carson had finally relented. Thomas was not happy about it as the nanny entered, and the smell of sherry could have burned his nose hairs as she took a seat across from him and gave him a broad smile.

“I prefer a hands off approach.” She declared. Thomas had a feeling the only ‘hands on’ approach she wanted was when her hands were on a bottle of gin and dismissed her without care.

And what would you know it, the nanny that Carson had approved of to come in was about as terrifying at Attila the Hun with a glare to rival Thomas’ and a thin lipped scowl.

“The more a child is spanked, the better example they’ll turn out to be.” The nanny declared. Thomas gaped, open mouthed, and it made her snap, “I believe you’d have turned out better if you’d been spanked more.”

Right, that would be a ‘no’, then.

 

Thomas sat groaning at Mr. Carson’s desk, stroking his throbbing brow and waiting for a Beecham’s from Mrs. Hughes. How hard was it to find a decent Nanny? The first one had been perfect, if only she’d been able to walk up stairs without crumbling like a sand castle. Thomas put his head on the desk just as Mrs. Hughes came in with a cup of tea and a Beecham’s. She smiled, shutting the door and offering both. He did not raise his head up, closing his eyes as she murmured.

“There’s a final interview for the day.”

“If it’s another nanny tell her to chuck it.” Thomas grumbled softly, still refusing to lift his head from the desk.

In a move that took Thomas by slight surprise, Mrs. Hughes reached out and gently stroked her fingers through his hair. He looked up to find her smiling down at him, still offering the Beecham’s and he accepted it at once. He swallowed the foul drink, chasing it with tea that was prepared exactly as he liked. God bless that woman-

“I think you’ll want to make an exception for this one.” Mrs. Hughes said.

So that was interesting.

Thomas prepared himself for the final round, cracking his neck and rubbing his temple for a moment as the final interview of the day waltzed into the room. She was slightly petite and around Baxter’s age with dark hair wrapped up in a soft bun at the back of her head and a deep beige dress hidden beneath a brown coat. She shook Thomas’ hand, and he noted her grip was firm but not unbending. Sitting down, she handed Thomas her resume and he took it to see she had quite a lot of experience as a nanny in London. Her name was Sarah Armstrong, and she was forty four years old.

“Ms. Armstrong.” Thomas said, glancing back up at her, “You have glowing references, and your resume seems well put together. Tell me more about your history.”

“I worked in London for fifteen years as a governess to Lord and Lady Donely’s four children.” Ms. Armstrong said. Thomas rubbed his fingertips together, combing his memory for recognition of the gentry, “I was then hired on by Lady Beckonsfield, Lord Donely’s sister who likewise wanted me to governess over her three girls. I have a background in child rearing and have studied extensively on childcare. I have looked after newly born infants and teenagers. I have had a successful rate, all the same.”

Thomas glanced up at ‘newly born infant’, ideas sparking in his head. That was potential sure enough.

“What would you say is your approach to children?” Thomas asked.

Ms. Armstrong crossed her arms over her chest, drumming her fingers upon her arm. It wasn’t a threatening move, it was just stern.

“Children will one day be grown.” Ms. Armstrong said, “And must therefor be treated as an adult in order to come to terms with the full hardships of reality- avoiding the complications and fears of the growing years. If you introduce a child to honesty, integrity, patience, and hard work, you will breed an adult of exceptional standards.”

Thomas tapped his pen upon Mr. Carson’s desk, thinking rapidly. Ms. Armstrong was clearly a woman of stiff standards but she wasn’t unreachable. She was a nanny; she knew what she was about.

But Thomas now thought of his own dealings with nannies… Nanny West in particular who had beaten Sybbie for her heritage.

No. He would have none of that.

“What is your take on the difference in classes in regards to children.” Ms. Armstrong raised an eyebrow, slightly confused, “I mean to say, children of the gentry and children of the workers.”

Ms. Armstrong tilted her head with a small smile, “Children are children, Mr. Barrow.” she said, “They cry and cling all the same, no matter if their blood is blue or their fingers are sooty.”

It wasn’t her words, but her body language that got to Thomas. She wasn’t stiff, she wasn’t irritable. She was soothing and calm. She might not have the best bedside manner but she was a nanny and she knew how to care for the helpless.

“We will be in touch.” Thomas said.
He did not throw her resumé in the bin.

 

~*~

The very next day, practically on the dot as the clock struck two, Lady Pelham arrived.

Tom had been preparing for this all day, and by the time the hour was one, he’d gone over each step like a rehearsed scene. Robert was taking Henry and Mary around the estate, eager to show Henry the territory he would one day control. Cora was at the Dowager’s taking tea. It left Tom, once again, alone in the house as Lady Pelham’s motorcar pulled up in the drive and she got out. She wore a frock and coat of peach, her cloche decked in long quilled feathers as she took Tom’s hand in gentry greeting and stepped into the house. Andy took her coat and cloche, hanging both up as Tom lead the way into the small library. Andy then offered to serve them tea, but even as he made to pour them both a cup Tom stopped him with a friendly hand.

“I’ll take it here.” Tom assured him, stepping up as Lady Pelham relaxed on the small couch and laid her handbag at her side.

“Did you travel well?” Tom asked as poured them both a cup of tea.

“I did, and I’ve come rather hot foot so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m sharp.” Lady Pelham did not sound to be in a good mood though she offered him a bitter smile. “Milk, no sugar-“ she added to Tom, and he at once obeyed her command pouring cream into her cup, “I suppose you want to know why I’m here.”

“-Well,” Tom added honey to his own cup, “I’m happy to see you either way, but I confess I am worried. I know Barrow well, and you sounded angry over the phone.”

“I am angry.” Lady Pelham snapped, eyes blazing. Tom watched her unsure, “I am very very angry.”

Tom returned slowly to the couch opposite Lady Pelham and offered her her tea, watching as she pulled a stiff yellowed envelope from her handbag. It was adorned with a heart, clearly drawn by an ink pen, and Lady Pelham regarded it with disgust as she fanned it back and forth in the air.

“I suppose you know about my late nephew, Peter-“ Lady Pelham asked.

“Only that he passed from malaria.” Tom admitted.

“It wasn’t Malaria.” Lady Pelham corrected him, her voice bitter, “Peter was depraved, an Oscar Wilde sort. he slit his wrists because he knew he’d displeased God and his late father.”

Tom noticed Andy grow stiff, his eyes widening. Careful with every word he spoke, Tom took a small sip of his scalding tea and set it down to cool.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Tom said, and he meant it. What a tragic situation-

“Well I’m not.” Lady Pelham warned.

By the table, Andy bristled again. He was white in the face at this point, horrified at Lady Pelham’s lack of empathy for the miserable. She set down her tea cup, glaring dully at Tom, “He got what he deserved. I never cared for him.”

Tom clenched and unclenched his fingers, unsure of what to say. Maybe the best reaction was silence. At the tea table, Andy stood absolutely silent, like a statue. The only sound in the room was a clock ticking.

“The other day at the wedding, I noticed Barrow holding little Marigold and he looked rather familiar though I couldn’t place where. But I have a keen memory-“ She tapped her temple with a manicured nail, “And I recalled when Peter died we excavated his room to clean it out and found… these…” Lady Pelham waved the envelop through the air again. She opened it, and pulled out several starched photographs. Selecting one in particular, she put the others aside as she said, “Photographs of men, if you can call them that-“ she added scathingly, “In disgusting positions, doing devilish things.” She passed the photograph, face down, over to Tom who slowly reached out to take it. Heart pounding in his chest, Tom brought the photograph back and flipped it over to finally see what image was captured.

It was of Thomas. Naked.

He was young in the picture, probably no more than twenty, and upon a soft bed in a set up room. He held a top sheet to his chest, covering his front even as he gazed frightened at the photographer. He sat upon his legs, the balls of his feet perched against the soft swell of his arse. He was gorgeous, the naked skin of his back gleaming in the picture from clear candlelight which must have been out of frame. He looked demure, sweet, innocent, chewing softly upon his bottom lip as his wide eyes gazed longingly to whoever dared to look at his shot.

Toms’ heart skipped a beat in his chest. He let out a small breath, laying the photograph down upon his leg so that Andy couldn’t see it accidentally.

Fuck me, Tom thought.

“Forgive me if I’ve scandalized you.” Lady Pelham said. She’d scandalized him sure enough, “but I’ve learned it’s best to face these depravities head on.”

“I see.” Tom was rather speechless at the moment.

“I want him out of the house.” Lady Pelham demanded, “Without a reference. Away from children. Someone like that does not need to be caring for infants, for anyone- if he wants to displease God let him do so as a catamite in London. That would be just deserts for a man of such filth-“

“I will bring this to the attention of his lordship.” Tom cut her off, unwilling to hear another cruel word, “And I’ll be keeping the photograph as proof if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at all.” Lady Pelham put her photographs back in her handbag, snapping it closed to take up her teacup again. “Just get him out.” She paused, eyes narrowed as she looked over her shoulder at the door, “Is he here?”

“No.” Tom lied at once, “He’s out for the day. I’ll speak with him when he gets back.”

“Good.” Lady Pelham said, pleased. Then, quick as a flee, she changed the subject and her nature switched until she was as soft and loving as any grandmother could be, “Marigold is doing so well-“

“Is she?” Tom asked weakly, a thin smile upon his face as he rose up to approach Andy and the tea table. He busied his hands, pretending to put a bit of lemon in his tea as he leaned in and muttered softly, “Tell Thomas to stay away from the library until she leaves. Don’t let him be seen.”

“Very good Mr. Branson.” Andy whispered back, his expression grave. He turned and left at once, heading for the door, and slipped out quietly as Tom retook his seat on the couch.

Across from him, Lady Pelham prattled on, as chipper as you please. In Tom’s jacket pocket, the picture burned at his skin.

~*~

It was almost time to William’s afternoon feeding, and Thomas sat gathering his supplies while Anna slept down the hall. Sybbie sat upon her bed, brushing her doll’s hair and humming to herself as Thomas swaddled William tight and picked up a feeding bottle. Just as he sat down in his rocking chair and made to begin, however, a soft knock upon the nursery door gave him pause as Andy entered looking grave and pale.

“Andy-!” Thomas was stopped as Andy spoke over him in a rush.

“Mr. Barrow, there’s a woman in the library who’s ill with you. Mr. Branson wants you to stay out of sight until she’s gone, she’s vicious-!”

“Who is it?” Thomas demanded, for he’d never seen Andy looking so afraid.

“Lady Pelham.” Andy admitted.

Thomas thought of Edith’s wedding. Of how Lady Pelham had all but snatched Marigold from his arms and slammed the door of the motorcar upon his face.

He had a feeling he knew what she had taken ill over him for and rose up at once, pulling William to his chest.

“Thank you.” Thomas nodded his head, dismissing Andy at once. He all but fled from the room. Thomas turned to Sybbie who was still brushing her doll’s hair. “My darling, I’m going to go downstairs. Shall we go together?”

“Yes!” Sybbie agreed, hopping off her bed at once and taking her doll with her as Thomas picked up the feeding bottle and left the nursery. He headed for the green baize door, one ear cocked for any sign of an irate female voice. He felt like a rat fleeing in the night, like a roach hiding in a filthy bin, and grimaced as he held the door open for Sybbie and let her slip inside. The pair of them headed down the tight circular staircase, William beginning to grunt and whimper at lack of food as they finally reached the bottom. He could hear voices from the servants hall but didn’t make it that far as Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes spotted him from the hallway next to the kitchen and came to greet him at the foot of the stairs.

“Ah, Look who it is!” Mrs. Hughes beamed, gazing adoringly at William who blinked blearily in Thomas’ arms, “The little cherub.”

“I bet I know what he wants.” Mrs. PAtmore chuckled with pride, for it had been she to make the concoction that William drank when Anna slept.

“I thought I might feed him downstairs today.” Thomas made up a story on the spot, “Let everyone really get a chance to hold him.”

“Oh that’s very kind of you!” Mrs. Hughes shepherded him into the servant’s hall. Daisy was serving Baxter and Moseley tea, both of whom looked around intrigued as Thomas entered with William and Sybbie, “Here let’s get you a chair.”

As soon as Daisy realized that she had a shot at feeding a baby, she wanted in. Thomas didn’t get much time to himself as Mrs. Hughes set up the rocking chair by the fire with an extra pillow for his arm- Daisy was at once by his side, as keen as ever with gleaming eyes as she itched to take William from his hands.

“Can I feed him?” Daisy begged.

“Course you can.” Thomas said, and at once Daisy sat down in the chair looking damn delighted. “Get comfortable, put that pillow beneath your arm-“ Daisy did so, and as William was handed over at a snail’s pace he began to get fussy making high pitched noises. Daisy cradled him against her breast, smiling sweetly down at him as Thomas handed her the bottle and let her do the rest. She was now getting tips from Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore both who watched over her as Sybbie hopped up on the opposite rocking chair and hummed to her doll. She, unlike George, was content not to be the center of attention.

“Oh hush now.” Thomas murmured, stroking William’s blond bangs as he fretted over the bottle.

“Here, take your time, Daisy.” Mrs. Patmore advised, adjusting Daisy’s grip upon the bottle so that William could better suckle, “He’ll do most of the work.” And sure enough William took to it at once, sucking feverishly like his belly button was touching his backbone.

“Cor, he’s a fast eater!” Daisy said with a nervous laugh. Baxter and Moseley had both turned their chairs around and were watching with amused smiles. Thomas squatted down by Daisy’s arm, watching over her as she fed William.

“He’s hungry.” Mrs. Hughes chuckled.

“Do they have to eat all the time?” Daisy asked Thomas.

“At first it feels like it.” Thomas admitted, “But then they slow out. His stomach is too small to hold much- so he gets hungry often.”

“My sister’s girls ate around the clock.” Mrs. Patmore agreed from behind Daisy’s rocking chair, “Lord one of them was as big as a basket by the end of it.. but then she stopped eating all together and leveled out.”

William’s hands had come undone from his wrappings and he grabbed at the world around him. First he tried for Daisy’s gray frock, then for the bottle that fed him, and finally he latched onto Thomas so that he squeezed tight upon Thomas’ offered fingers. The others made cooing noises of loving delight at the image.

“Aww, he likes you.” Daisy giggled in glee.

“He just likes me because he knows I’ve got a soft spot for him.” Thomas chuckled, stroking Williams’ soft bangs. William closed his eyes, content to suckle and feast.

“And who can blame you?” Came a soft voice from the doorway. All looked up to see Mr. Bates leaning against the sill, gazing at his son with an expression that came close to adoration without dropping that hard guise Bates always wore.

“Mr. Bates!” Mrs. Hughes said, as if surprised to see him downstairs. He must have been on an errand and not expected back.

“Why is William down here?” Bates asked, catching Thomas’ eye, “Isn’t it too drafty?”

“He’s by the fire.” Daisy protested.

“Still.” Bates muttered, coming around the back of Sybbie’s chair to watch Daisy feed his son.

“I thought the others would like to see him.” Thomas explained. As if in agreement, William squeezed his hand tight, continuing to suck at the rubber nipple

“Is he fussy?” Daisy asked as William continued to eat.

“Fussy?” Thomas shook his head, for as much as William cried and made a scene he was just an infant. He didn’t know any better, “No, he’s a sweet little thing, he just sleeps and squirms. He’s a tired soul.” He reached forward gently touching Williams’ nose. William reached up and grabbed wildly at Thomas’ hands. The pair of them played a small game of tug-of-war, Thomas moving his hands back and forth while William grabbed at him. Thomas burst out laughing, amused at his own game. Daisy watched, amazed.

“You’re like a different person with babies.” Daisy took him for a stranger in that moment.

But was he all that different? Or was he just open with his feelings. Thomas couldn’t say, shrugging as he rose up. William grabbed at his bottle, Thomas’ fingers taken away from him.

“Not really.” Thomas denied, “I’m the same as I always was.”

William was in good hands. He could stand for a break.

Thomas parted his way through the crowd, leaving Sybbie sitting upon her chair as he headed to the boot room and gently pulled the door to. He took a moment to yawn, rubbing at his temples and relaxing upon a work bench as he slowly laid his head upon the wooden table. God he was so exhausted he could go to sleep right here right now-

But the door opened and Thomas jerked up at once, rubbing feverishly at his swollen eyes to see Bates shutting the door behind him.

The pair of them stared at one another, suddenly alone for the first time since Dr. Kinsey’s intervention.
Neither of them were particularly happy about it.

“Are you the same?” Bates asked. “When you act like a mirror opposite of the apathetic hound we knew you to be? Cooing and coddling, you’re practically his mother.”

“It takes a village.” Was Thomas’ dry response. Bates walked slowly across the boot room floor, coming to stand directly before Thomas though the table parted them. “Is there something you need?”

“Now that you’re to be butler, I suppose you’re going to put me out of the job.”

Thomas bristled at the ice in Bates’ voice. He didn’t need this. “What kind of wretch would I be if I put a new father out of his job?”

“The same wretch you were in 1912 I gather-“

“Ah but were you a new father then?” Thomas sneered, sliding off his bar stool to head for the door. Bates cut him off, his voice growing hard.

“Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you.” Bates snapped, sharp. Thomas bristled again, refusing to turn around for the angry man he knew he’d find waiting for him. It seemed the conversation with Dr. Kinsey had changed nothing- “When I’m talking to you, listen to me. That’s the respectful thing to do.”

What was he, a toddler. He looked around, glaring dully.

“I need to know what you plan to do as Butler.” Bates snapped. “I have a family to protect, and for as much as you dote on William I have to know where my job stands. You could easily dismiss me-“

Thomas let out a cold laugh. He could sooner break his femur in this house.

“Oh yes,” Thomas sneered at the idea, “I’ll just dismiss you and no one will put up a fight, eh?”

“They wouldn’t if it was Carson-“

“They would too, and you know it!” Thomas snapped, “Stop denying your popularity in this house-!”

“So long as you stop pretending that’s all that matters!” Bates snapped right back, “What are you, twelve?! You’re a grown man! There are more important things in the world than being liked-!”

“I know that!” Thomas was about to start shouting. Jesus, Bates really thought he was daft. “Why are you dragging this out with me, I thought we were trying to turn over a new leaf-?!”

“Because I have a son now, and I have to protect him!” Bates said in a hot rush, eyes blazing as he leaned aggressively upon his cane, “I don’t care if you’re nanny! You’ll never be a father, you can’t possibly understand what it’s like to have a child all your own.”

Thomas froze.
Bates fell silent.

No. He’d never be a father. No matter how much he longed to be.
Thomas crossed his arms over his chest, turning away so that he was once more staring at the door. He rubbed a bit at his mouth, thinking over his words carefully. Dr. Kinsey had warned him not to speak quickly.

“… Have you spoken to his Lordship about your concerns?” Thomas asked the door.

“I have.”

“And what did he say?”

Bates huffed, dismayed, “To give you a chance.”

“Then you have your answer.” Thomas reached for the doorknob.

“Do not leave the room when I’m talking to you-!” Bates snapped, his temper suddenly flaring again, “Do you not realize how rude that is?”

Thomas turned on his heel, heat flooding his face as his eyes blazed and his lips pursed.

“What more do you want to say?” Thomas demanded, “Jesus you’re beating a dead horse-?”

“It’s not good enough.” Bates snapped. “I want an apology.”

“…You…” Thomas let go of the door, hands upon his hips as he tilted and glared dully at Bates. Bates raised an eyebrow looking him up and down, “You want an apology for me touching a doorknob-?”

“Blaming me for theft, and trying to get me fired. Twice.” Bates growled.

Ah.

Thomas’ hands slipped from his hips. He shift once, twice, drawing his hands up to cross his arms over his chest as he thought carefully. His heart was beginning to beat again with wild anxiety. He pursed his lips tongue rolling between his teeth as he licked his teeth and thought about what to say.

“Why.” Thomas asked. “When it changes nothing.”

“Your parents clearly never conveyed manners to you.” Bates said with dull derision. He did not look surprised in the slightest.

“They never conveyed anything to me.” Thomas corrected. Sneering as he added, “Do you want to play at chance at being me da? Take off your belt and give me a good licking with it?”

“I’d rather just teach you a thing or two about manners: such as that when you do wrong, you apologize. Make it a habit and see how it helps. Your malicious behavior needs to stop if you want to stand a chance in the world without turning to a razor-“

“Do not joke about that.” Thomas spat, temper popping. “Ever.”

Bates raised his hands in surrender.

“Fine.” He growled, “But my point still stands. I want an apology, right here right now. I want to know this business is behind us.”

Thomas couldn’t follow the logic in that. Words had never healed any pain in his own heart, or changed any situation for the better… but Dr. Kinsey had instructed him to act with care, to speak with caution, and to above all have emotional honesty.

That did not make this any less hard though.

“… I’m…” Thomas pursed his lips again, every word like wet cement slipping from his mouth, “Sorry. That I lied. That I tried to get you fired.”

“Why did you do it?” Bates asked, sounding thoroughly disappointed and dismayed. All the anger had fled him, leaving him a weary man with the weight of the world upon his shoulders. “Why, when I didn’t even know you-?”

“I wanted your job.” It was the ugly truth.

“And you didn’t find that selfish?” Bates demanded. “To rob me of my job just because you wanted it for yourself?”

“It’s not selfish to want better for your life.”

“That job was never entitled to you.” Bates warned.

“Well it was never entitled to you either!” Thomas added angrily, “And you couldn’t even do it right! You were hurt, you could barely lift a valise-!”

“I told you several times, I could manage!”

“But you couldn’t manage!” Thomas snapped, “And I could! And I got passed up for you because I was-“ But at this Thomas broke off, shaking his head.

He couldn’t say the word, somehow it was stuck in his throat: Queer, different, gay, a lavender, a gunsel and catamite-

But Bates just shook his head in dismay.

“You got passed up because you were an arse.” Bates growled out the word with venom. It stung, and Thomas bristled, looking away. “Not because you were-“ But even Bates cut off, gesturing fruitlessly in the air.

“A gunsel.” Thomas supplied softly.

“-No.” Bates overrode him at once. “A… homosexual.” And when he said it he said it with absolute care. “None of us care that you are a homosexual.”

Thomas cut him off with a scoff. Little did Bates know Lady Pelham was in the library ready to throw him to the dogs for being like the late Marquess of Hexam. No doubt she wished he’d die of malaria too.

“I’m leaving now.” Thomas said before Bates could get mad at him, “You’ve gotten your apology, goodbye.”

“I’m not finished-“ Bates warned.

“Well I am!” Thomas cried out in dismay! Bates scoffed, rubbing his temple like he was forming a migraine.

“Just- just stay here and have it out with me-“

“Goodbye!” Thomas said loudly again, wrenching the door to the boot room open.

“Thomas, come back here-!”
“I’m leaving, now!”

“Thomas-!”
“This conversation has officially ended.”

“Thomas-!” Bates stepped out into the hall.
Thomas turned around, walking backwards momentarily so that they were facing one another.

“I am leaving!” he said the word with exaggerated care like Bates were daft. “Goodbye! This is the word we use when we are exiting a scenario! Say it with me! Goodbye!”

Bates looked ready to crack his head against the wall again.

~*~

Lady Pelham left after tea, and thank god for it.

Tom had sat in the library, daring himself not to look at the picture burning a hole in his coat pocket. When he changed into white tie for dinner, he slipped the photograph into his inner pocket, too afraid to leave it alone even in his own room.

He thought about it over dinner, cutting carefully into his Beef Wellington as Carson held court without ever touching a single plate. Andy and Moseley catered to the room, and would continue to do so until Thomas managed to find a replacement nanny (he’d apparently been doing interviews quite recently). Of course, he wasn’t stupid. He knew there were people in the world he hated homosexual men but he’d never been one of them. He could remember growing up in Ireland he’d had moments where he’d seen men and thought them lookers. What was the point in denying pleasure or beauty in the world? His older brother Kieran had never been the type, had only looked to the ladies, but when Tom had confided in him one night nervous about the implications Kieran had just laughed and taken him out for a beer.

“Pleasure’s to be had, Tommy boy.” Kieran had assured him, toasting Tom with his foaming tankard. “If you deny it you deny God’s blessings. That’s what I believe.”

And so they’d gotten blindingly drunk that night, Tom utterly relaxed and Kieran as at peace as ever.

Of course, he’d liked women too. Sybil had captivated him heart and soul- the problem being now that whenever he thought about her there was an ugly ache in his chest. He supposed he was just a rare breed, a man who could see the good on both sides of the pitch, who didn’t mind what pasture he was on. It just so happened he’d fallen in love with a woman. He supposed he could have fallen in love with a man if Sybil had turned out to be a man- but the thought of Sybil as a man was an incredibly confusing one so he didn’t follow that train of thought long. He instead focused on his Syllabub, watching carefully as Robert and Cora talked about their day out and Henry enchanted them all with tales of the village.

Tom knew he’d have to tell Robert about Lady Pelham’s visit to ensure Thomas’ safety.
He just didn’t know what Robert would think and that made him nervous.

Syllabub turned into mindless post-dinner chatter as the footmen took away the platters at Tom caught Robert’s eye. Robert noted his stiff expression, and Tom jerked his head silently towards the door so that Robert raised an eyebrow but said nothing more.

Message sent.

Tom rose from his chair, and when Henry offered him a late night whiskey Tom could not deny him. The pair of them went to the small library, promised to be followed shortly by Robert who wanted to have a word with Carson first.

“Did it go alright?” Henry muttered, for he’d been the only one to know of Lady Pelham’s secret visit. A key member in his plan to keep the house planned.

“I’ve got something to show you.” Tom muttered back, careful to keep his voice low. “You’re going to scream.”

“Oh goody. Show and tell.” Henry sneered, causing Tom to snort.

They entered the small library and shut the door, the pair of them pouring a whiskey for each other as they sat upon the small couch and relaxed peacefully by the quiet fire.

Alright, Tom would be lying if he said he wasn’t just slightly attracted to Henry Talbot. He toasted the man silently, internally praising his charisma and good looks as Henry toasted him back.

“So?” Henry asked. “Show me your prize.”

Tom whipped the photograph off. Henry took it, saw what it was, and immediately spat out his whiskey so that he sprayed it onto his trousers and the fine rug between the two cramped coughs. He coughed hard, out of breath. Tom smacked him hard upon the back to help him out, and Henry wiped his mouth, whipping out his handkerchief to sop up his face and dab at his trousers.

“Jesus christ, Tom!” Henry cursed, “You could have warned me.

“Absolutely not.” Tom sneered, taking the photograph back and putting it back in his pocket.

“He give that to you, did he?” Henry joked darkly.

“I wish!” Tom scoffed; he doubted he could ever catch the eye of such a shining fish. “No, this is what Lady Pelham wanted to show me. She was as angry as a wet hen, I can tell you.”

“Did you sooth the beast?”

“I did, but I’d best tell Robert before she does.”

“Good thinking.” Henry re poured his whiskey, and they clinked their glasses again as the pair of them admired Thomas’ picture in an outstretched hand. “Here’s to good tasting whiskey-“

“And good looking men.” Tom added. The pair of them drank till both their whiskeys were gone, and Tom stowed the picture back in his breast pocket. Not a minute later the door opened to reveal Robert, looking tuckered out as he closed the door and smiled at the pair of them on the couch.

“Here I am.” Robert gestured with a smile, taking a seat on the same couch as Tom. Now the three of them were all banging knees, making for a comfy picture.

“Thank you for obliging me.” Tom said as Robert leaned over and made to pour himself a whiskey. Instead of drinking it himself he handed the glass to Tom who accepted it at once and took a hearty sip. It burned like hot honey in his throat and soothed his celtic soul. “I wanted to talk to you about something away from the others.”

“Golly that sounds ominous.” Robert chortled.

“Slightly.” Tom admitted, “Do you want a whiskey too?”

“No,” Robert relaxed a little into the couch, slightly stiff. He sighed glancing at Tom and Henry, “I can’t stomach whiskey much anymore. What’s wrong?”

“Lady Pelham came today.” Tom admitted. Robert looked taken aback, “She knows about Thomas and… she’s not happy. That’s why I got everyone out of the house. I didn’t know what she’d try to do. You’ll forgive me for not keeping you in the plan but I figured it was a security measure.”

Robert rolled his eyes, heaving a haggard sigh. He made himself a whiskey despite his earlier words, though Tom noted that his drink was much more ice that alcohol and he took very small sips.

“I was worried this would happen.” Robert admitted. “You should have heard the way she talked about her late nephew. Bertie said he’d never known a nicer man but the way she talked about him you’d think he was Lucifer.”

“She wants him out of the house.” Tom admitted. Robert snorted, bitter at the insinuation. Henry made a sad sound in his mouth, relaxing his chin in his hand as he surveyed the other two.

“I’ll do no such thing.” Robert growled. “I might not be a young man but I am still in charge of my staff.”

“So long as you’re aware that she found… proof… that he and Peter had known one another, if only distantly.”

“What kind of proof?”

“The kind that you can see.”

“Now you’re worrying me.”

Here came the moment where whiskey was needed. Tom pulled out the picture of Thomas and slowly handed it over to Robert who took it up, curious. Henry buried his face in his hand, starting to blush. Robert snorted loudly when he saw the picture, starting to laugh gayly as he sat his whiskey down to better look at the picture.

“Golly moses.” Robert snickered, “That’s a picture-!“ He looked again, baffled by what he saw. “This can’t be recent. He looks much younger-“

“I don’t think he knows Peter had it in his possession. If Thomas knew you’d seen that photograph he’d be horrified.” Tom wondered.

“Oh I’ll keep it to myself.” Robert chortled. “Don’t tell Cora I ever said this, but you have to admit… he is oddly beautiful, isn’t he.”

“Yes.” Tom agreed, “He is.”

“Mmm.” Henry did not comment either way. “Doesn’t hold a candle to my Mary, though.”

“Of course not.” Robert agreed.

Robert handed the photograph back over. Tom pocketed it at once.

“Keep that out of sight.” Robert warned him, “Burn it in your room. I don’t want Thomas being harassed for such things… he’s already had a rough year.” Robert’s gaze turned dark, somber, and it worried Tom immensely. “I’ll handle Lady Pelham.”

“And you’re not perturbed by it?” Tom asked, waving the picture about, “The fact that he had this taken?”

“My own eldest daughter spent a week in sin at an affluent hotel without it ever reaching my ears till a former chamber maid tried to use it as blackmail.” Robert muttered, toasting Tom with his whiskey. Henry looked smug, clearly already in the know. Tom pursed his lips to keep from laughing… Henry liked his women wild, “Nothing surprises me anymore.”

“Lady Pelham was rather sharp about Peter.” Tom admitted. “She may be difficult to abate-“

“Well I am tougher than I look.” Robert warned, and in that moment his gentle eyes blazed with an inner fire; the fire of a young man contained in an older man’s body. “And Thomas Barrow is not leaving this house.”

~*~
Upstairs and completely oblivious to the fact that Lord Grantham had just seen him partially naked, Thomas Barrow sat in his rocking chair with a sleeping William upon his chest, watching over Sybbie and George as they sat up in bed and refused to go to sleep. The hour was waning, they ought to go down but neither wanted to. Mercifully, Thomas had a hidden arsenal for this and was about to whip out Princess Jimmy when Sybbie leaned forward and urged, “Story please?”

“Mm, which one?” Thomas asked, patting William’s back with a slow and gentle thump.

“A new one.” George declared. Thomas paused in his thumping, eyes narrowing as he thought of new stories he might be able to tell. Maybe he could pull something out of his ass about stealing 24 bottles of wine or perhaps retell them something that he had heard as a child. That seemed like a better idea because he had no idea how to weave a fable out of the wine without feeling like the world’s biggest idiot.

“Did I ever tell you why the sea is salty?” Thomas asked.

“No.” Sybbie shook her head, brown hair bouncing about her ears.

“Ah… Well, shall I?” Thomas offered. At once George snuggled underneath his covers till only the tip of his nose and his eyes were peaking out. Sybbie relaxed into her pillow, pulling up her Christmas doll (which she’d named ‘Lucy’).

“Please!” George urged when Thomas did not immediately start talking.

“Please Mista Bawwow.” Sybbie added, thoroughly exaggerating his name in an attempt to charm him. He raised an eyebrow, amused, and settled into his rocking chair to tell the tale:

“Well, a very long time ago there lived two brothers by the sea. One was very rich, and one was very poor. The poor brother was often in want, and desperately needed meal to eat lest he starve in the bitter frost of winter. So he went to the rich brother’s door and bade him a place at his table. But the rich brother had grown his wealth through hard work and didn’t believe in hand outs. So instead of giving his brother a meal, he gave him a meal grinder and told him ‘Go out into the fields, get your own wheat, and make your own meal’ and shut the door. Now, the poor brother was very weak from lack of food, and couldn’t possibly do all these tasks in one night let alone three, and fell to his knees in the fields weeping to the heavens with his new meal grinder. He told the gods that if only they would give him the strength, he would make his own meal. But the gods saw his suffering and were displeased at the rich brother’s lack of charity. So instead of giving the poor brother mere strength to make a meal… they blessed his meal grinder so that it suddenly shown with a heavenly light. And not only would it now be able to make any meal by itself, it could also craft any item it was bade to. Even items that a meal grinder ought not to be able to make.”

Sybbie and George were enraptured by this point, absolutely silent.

“Amazed, the poor brother begged for a pot of kedgeree and stew… and just like that the blessed meal grinder made his supper.” Thomas snapped his fingers for emphasis.

“So the poor man feasted heartily, and grew strong, and at once told his friends who were likewise poor of his newfound fortune. They all feasted, and were quite merry much to the displeasure of the rich brother who couldn’t understand why it was that despite not working the poor brother was now eating like a king. The poor brother lived in a homely shack by the sea, often whipped by the fierce gale of storms, so with his meal grinder he now made a home that shone like gold, and was never in want again. Each night there was a feast at his table, and any man was welcome to sit at his table. So it was that ships passing in the night would see his golden house and often come for supper to hear tales of his magical meal grinder. Yet in all this joy, the poor man still felt for want, though he could not understand why at first in a house made of gold with a feast to sup at. But then he realized, as he lay in his huge bed alone, that he was lonely, and so he bade the magical meal grinder to make him a bride. The most beautiful, loving, and true bride in all the world… but the meal grinder would not make.”

Thomas shrugged at this, a look of forced forlorn upon his head. The children were so silent now they could have passed for asleep.

“The man couldn’t understand, so he went out into the fields as he’d done before and asked the gods, ‘why won’t you make me a bride’? and the gods answered that no man could ‘make’ a bride. Not even a magical meal grinder. Such things were found only through honest intentions and courage. So the man put out a post on ships passing by that came to sup, and said that he was looking for a bride. That he made to woo her with his honest intentions and courage- that she would never be for want- that his only requirement would be that she love him fully and adoringly as if he had no meal grinder at all. Now, many women came to beg the man to wed, but the meal grinder rejected them all. It refused to grind when they were near, simply shutting down and growing cold by the lack of their affection. Displeased, the man sent the false brides away and began to grow wane in despair. Despite how the meal grinder could make feast and gold… it could not make happiness. But it could make one thing.”

He paused for emphasis, waiting with a smirk.

“What?” George whispered.

“Tell us.” Sybbie urged sleepily, her head nestled atop her doll.

“…Salt.” Thomas told them both.

“Salt?” The children asked, practically in unison. Thomas was almost certain he heard a snort outside the nursery door and wondered who else was listening to his story.

“Ah but in those days there was great wealth in salt. Rich men would grow richer still by owning salt mines, and would often send very poor men down into the dark to dig it up for them. But the poor man had never thought of this. He’d never needed salt… but there was a trader at sea who’d thought of this, who’d heard of a powerful man with a magical meal grinder… and who had a sister as beautiful and commanding as the sea itself. So the trader went to call on the poor man and his magical meal grinder… and brought his sister with him. And he supped with the man and explained that he would offer his sister for a bride, but for a price. The man could have her, and be happy with her always… but in exchange would have to give the trader the magical meal grinder.”

George gasped softly, eyes slowly falling shut.

“Well the poor man thought it through, and wondered about his new bride. If she might be displeased with his lack of wealth once the meal grinder went away. She replied that she’d never sought the meal grinder to begin with. Only a man to love her wholly… and so they were wed and the trader went off with his new meal grinder- but not before giving his new brother in law ten thousand pounds which he’d made from the meal grinder, so that his sister and her husband might never be in want. Off the trader went, taking the meal grinder with him into the sea, and upon the deck of the ship the man thus commanded his new tool “Make me salt, and make it swift and sure so that I might grow rich.” So the meal grinder began to make salt. But so swift was it and so sure was it that suddenly the deck was overflowing with salt, spilling into the churning water… and the gods were deeply displeased by the trader. The poor man had only wanted food and a warm house to sup with friends. This man wanted wealth! The gods cursed the meal grinder in that moment, furious the man would attempt to shy from hard work, and told it to never stop grinding salt. To give him all the salt in the world, and sink him to the bottom of the ocean with it… and so it did, taking the ship under in a horrific wave of salt that spilled into the depths. Thus the trader, his ship, and that magical meal grinder sank right to the bottom of the ocean… where to this day it still sits churning out salt, helpless to be stopped. And that is why the ocean is salty.”

Thomas fell silent. George squirmed slightly underneath his many quilts, desperately fighting off sleep.

“Another…” He mumbled softly. “Please…”

“Please…” Sybbie whispered, barely speaking as much as she was just mumbling into her pillows and Lucy the doll.

“Mmm, I think it’s time for both of you to be in bed.” Thomas whispered, rising up slowly from his rocking chair to cross the room and turn off the light. The nursery was plunged in sudden darkness.

“No…” George whimpered softly.

“Yes.” Thomas tutted back. He paused, bending with William scooped to his chest to give George the softest kiss upon the temple. He turned, giving Sybbie the same. By this point only soft breathing filled the nursery room. Yet as he made to turn, Sybbie opened her dark brown eyes to stop him dead.

“Who is the person you talk to on your board?”

Thomas froze eyes wide. Shit.
She’d seen him with the ouija board? But how? He’d always done it when they were dead asleep-

You fool! a marble hissed in his brain, As if children do what they’re told when the lights are out. You’re the nanny for a reason!

“My darling…” Thomas leaned in close so that he could cover her face, rubbing her brow and temple till she closed her eyes agian, “We must never talk about that. It wasn’t for you to see or hear.”

“Why?” She asked, eyes closed.

“Because it was private.” Thomas murmured, “Your grandfather would be furious should he ever know, and I love you so…” He kissed her temple again, “and I don’t want to be parted from you. So let’s never tell, mmm?” Sybbie nodded, half-asleep “Good girl.”

He rose up, heading for the nursery door intent on putting William in his crib (which was now in the play room in an attempt to keep William nearer a warm hearth in his sleep). A tiny voice stopped him:

“Mista Bawwow?” George whispered.

“Mm?” Thomas turned, looking back on George. His eyes were closed but his brow was furrowed as if in pain.

“Do you love William more than me?”

What utter nonsense.
Thomas crossed the room again, taking to a knee before George to pepper his brow and temple with kisses so that he could whisper directly into his ear.

“Such silliness.” He assured George in the softest voice. Sweet George, perfect George, “I love you all the same, with every inch of my cold minuscule heart.”

George was already asleep.

Thomas left the nursery room with care, opening the door to the playroom and shutting it softly behind him till the latch finally clicked. He was not surprised nor stalled by the sight of John Bates leaning against the hearth of the playroom, waiting for Thomas to put William to bed before he went to bed himself. Clearly he’d come for round two. Thomas gave the man a small bitter smile as he walked over to William’s crib and gently laid him down. No fuss, no bite; William was out like a light and Thomas easily covered him with a tiny knitted quilt that Anna had made during her pregnancy. It was red and blue, covered in geometric patterns… the colors of the house.

“Rather good at telling stories.” Bates mused in the semi-dark. The shadows of the hearth, low with burning coals, made his face plunge into black so that only the sharpest parts of his features stood out: his square jaw and hard nose.

“Were you listening?” Thomas asked, looking up to lean a bit against the railing of William’s crib.

“I was.” Bates said, “Where did you learn that tale?”

“I lived it.” Thomas shrugged, for if he had to paint his life as a tale of misery, it would be a man without a prayer or a meal grinder. Or a bride.

“Where’s your magical meal grinder?” Bates sneered softly.

“At the bottom of the ocean churning out salt.” Thomas reminded him “Didn’t you listen?”

“And your bride?”

My darling, Edward called to him beyond the veil. “Went down with the ship.”

Before Bates could comment on that particularly morbid thought, William huffed and chuffed, grumbling. Thomas reached down to touched William’s stomach before he could start crying.

“No.” Thomas warned him gently, “No more of that hear? I won’t stand for it.”

William was already asleep again.

“…About what I said-“ Bates murmured, “Did it hurt your feelings?”

Thomas bristled, a hand still upon William’s stomach. He glanced up and caught Bates’ eye. “Not as much as I hurt yours, I gather.”

“You never hurt my feelings.” Bates shrugged, “You just disappointed me. And annoyed me.”

Thomas didn’t want to have this conversation. He straightened up, lips pursed. “I don’t want to have this conversation.” Thomas whispered.

“It needs to be had.” Bates warned.

“Does it?” Thomas challenged, raising an eyebrow. “Will it change the past? Will it erase the pain I put you through-“

“No but it will improve the future.” Bates warned, “And your reputation in the house.”

Thomas sighed, somehow exhausted even by just the simple act of talking. He rubbed his brow, but before he could say as much the door to the play room opened to reveal Tom who looked surprised to find both Bates and Thomas waiting inside.

“Tom-“ Thomas was grateful for his arrival, thinking now he could easily avoid the conversation with Bates. Bates pursed his lips, irritated as he realized Thomas’ angle, and crossed his arms over his chest.

“I hope I’m not intruding.”

“No, not at all.” Bates grumbled, “Thomas was just avoiding a conversation.” And with that he turned, heading for the door to the hall. He cast one look back at his son, not saying a word to Tom or Thomas as he left. Tom watched him go, confused.

“What conversation were you avoiding?” Tom asked, closing the door after Bates’ back.

“One I didn’t want to have.” Thomas admitted, coming around Williams crib so that they were now standing before one another. Was it just his warped imagination or did Tom look even more handsome in the firelight. “Don’t halt my fun, how can I help you?”

“Oh I wouldn’t dream of it.” Tom chuckled softly, “He’ll get you in the end, you can’t avoid him forever.”

“I can try.”

“I need to talk to you.” Tom admitted, casting a glance back over his shoulder at the door to the hall. “Rather… in private.”

How much more private could they get?

But Tom was opening the door to the nursery, and Thomas followed through at once as they crossed the room again to open the door to Thomas’ private quarters. It seemed that whatever Tom wanted to say he didn’t want an eavesdropper in the hallway to hear. Concerned, Thomas watched as Tom gently closed the door to Thomas’ bedroom, turning with a small smile.

“… Is it Lady Pelham?” Thomas asked, unsure of what else it could be.

Tom just kept smiling, looking slightly sympathetic as he reached into his vest pocket and withdrew an aged photograph. He handed it over to Thomas, face down, so that he had to flip it over as he accepted-

“Oh god-!” Thomas blurted out, clapping a hand to his mouth to keep from issuing any more noise as he clutched the picture to his chest. His heart was positively hammering in his chest-!

How-?!
How?!

“Shh-“ Tom raised up a hand in soft surrender, his expression still sympathetic as he regarded Thomas’ fear. “It’s alright. I took care of it. She won’t bother you… .apparently your picture caught the eye of the Marquess, Peter.”

Dumbfounded, Thomas dropped his hands from his face so that his picture was clutched limply by his stomach instead. He stared at Tom, slightly hurt.

“..He… He had this?” Thomas whispered, confused.
How could Peter have had this when Thomas had given this picture personally to Philip?

~*~

“That’s good now, love-“ the camera man had coaxed him, angling his tripod for a better shot, “Just keep your face turned to the camera, that’s a doll now, lick your lips? Chew on them a bit, get them plump- that’s a doll-“

Just off to the left, out of sight to the shot, Philip had watched him amazed.
The last day of their summer dalliance, a picture to last them a lifetime.

“Now drop your sheet-“ The camera man urged.

“No-“ Thomas had blurted out. “No. I don’t want to do that-“

“Of course-“ Philip had assured him before the camera man could argue, “That’s perfectly fine sweetheart. I already know what you look like from that angle.”

Thomas had blushed deep scarlet, shocked at Philip’s proud proclamation, and the camera man had taken advantage of his demure expression to snap the photograph.

~*~

“He did.” Tom told him, “And others. That’s how she recognized you at the wedding. She’d found these pictures when she was clearing out his bedroom after his death.”

So that explained why she’d slammed the door in his face.

Gunsel! the marbles cheered delightedly in his head, Gunsel, gunsel, gunsel!

“What’s the matter?” Tom asked, sensing Thomas’ shame and reluctance. Thomas turned away, so that Tom could now only see his profile in the dark. The moonlight illuminated him, and nothing else.

“…This belonged to someone else.” Thomas admitted in a whisper, “I guess he gave it away.”

“Who did it belong to?” Tom asked.

Thomas turned, catching Tom’s eye. Another secret to tell, another brick in their bridge to one another. Amazing how much Thomas trusted him, how he knew that even as he told Tom his soul, Tom would keep it safe…

Just like he’d done for this picture.

“The Duke of Crowborough.” Thomas said. Tom snorted, grinning at the idea of Thomas being courted by a duke. Thomas looked away smiling. “Yes, I know. Funny isn’t it… to imagine me with a duke?”

“I just didn’t think you went in for that type.” Tom admitted, “You said you enjoyed the more ‘down to earth’ sort.

“Well he didn’t go in for my type other.” Thomas said bitterly, memories flashing back to a fireplace burning with love letters and a wild grapple for physical control. “So… all’s fair.”

He looked back at the photograph again, suddenly amazed by it. How young he’d been then, how whole and fair. If only he’d known then how awful his life would become- he might have slit his wrists fifteen years earlier.

“I made this for him.” Thomas whispered, “He wanted it… Said… Said when we were apart he’d-“

~*~

“When we’re apart, let me look at it and kiss your lips.” Philip had whispered softly in Thomas’ ear as he redressed from taking his erotic photo. The camera man bustled over his files, busy. In their moment of seclusion, Philip pulled him close and kissed him passionately upon the lips till Thomas clung to him and finally let go of his top sheet. Nude but safe in Philip’s arms, he’d listened breathless as Philip had whispered in his ear, “Let your beauty soothe me in the dark of my dreams-“

~*~

“Let your beauty soothe me in the dark of my dreams.” Thomas repeated the aged words. Tom watched, listening intently. “Silly.” He whispered, dropping his photo to his side again.

“No.” Tom shook his head head, “You are very beautiful. Then and now-“

Thomas flushed, glancing at Tom who’d raised a cocky eyebrow.
The cheek.

“Are you flirting with me?” Thomas joked, crossing his arms over his chest. Tom just shrugged.

“I am indeed.” Tom said. He held out his hand, and Thomas let him have the picture back. There was no point in him holding onto it any longer. It wasn’t like he’d have a lover ever again. Despite Tom’s assurance, he knew he was ugly.

Tom pocket the picture, tucking it safely out of sight, “Don’t worry about the picture. I’ll take care of it tonight. Can you make that face, though?” Thomas looked around confused, “You know, the… one you were making in the picture.”

Thomas chuckled, looking away again as he licked his lips and chewed on his bottom lip just as he’d done so long ago. Fixing his expression, he looked back around to Tom with the sweetest expression of sultry longing mixed with innocence. Tom snorted, flushing as he rubbed his brow with a free hand and grumbled.

“God.” Tom was clearly amused, “You’re breakin’ my heart.”

How lucky for Thomas he did not have a heart to break.

 

The next day, Thomas sat downstairs with a maid looking after the children, observing Ms. Armstrong’s resume and wondering at what needed to be done. Moseley couldn’t keep coming up to serve the family dinner- it was exhausting him and he had school to attend to. A decision had to be made and Ms. Armstrong was the obvious candidate. Thomas had already called both the Doneley’s and the Beckonsfield’s to check her references. Both butlers had praised her highly, commending her at once to Thomas who had kept the conversation short and hung up at once. He drummed his fingers upon Carson’s desk, completely ignoring his cooling cup of tea made for him by Daisy.

The door opened to reveal Carson who pursed his lips to see Thomas sitting in his chair. Thomas got up at once, coming around the front of the desk so that Carson could sit down instead. Carson did so at once, sighing as he surveyed Ms. Armstrong’s resume as well.

“Are you attending to the family’s needs?” Mr. Carson asked carefully.

“I am.” Thomas assured him, poking through the silver cabinet. He didn’t know why but it soothed him to see that everything was neat and in order. “I was just about to make a decision on the vacant position of Nanny.”

“I see.” Mr. Carson sounded pleased. “Did you call Ms. Armstrong’s prior employers?”

“I did.” Thomas straightened a milk pitcher that gleamed in the sharp afternoon light, “Their praise was abundant. Apparently they were saddened to part with her but she wanted to live in the country where it was quieter. She’s a traditionalist but not overbearing… and what’s more she doubles as a governess for when the children get older.” Thomas paused, pursing his lips, “But I don’t know.”

“Why are you hesitating?” Carson wondered aloud. Thomas shut the door to the silver pantry, locking it carefully. The sound of metal sliding was uncomfortably loud in his tense silence.

“Do you remember Nanny West?” Thomas asked, looking around. Carson scowled at the name, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I do.” Mr. Carson said, “And I’ll have you know I’m already aware that you were the one who caught her abusing the children. Lady Grantham praised you abundantly to me for your sharp eyes.”

Thomas looked away. It seemed Mr. Carson did not need to hear the reason for his hesitation. He already knew.

“Make your disposition on the matter of abuse clear, and offer her the position.” Carson advised. “Remind her that you are her employer and should she harm the children she will suffer your wrath.” Carson let out a terse short chuckle, “A fate I would not wish on my worst enemy.”

 

“I thought I was your worst enemy.” Thomas joked dully. Carson shook his head, relaxing back in his chair so that it squeaked slightly.

“Hardly.”

 

So it was with Carson’s advise still ringing in his ears that Thomas called Sarah Armstrong back and had her come in for her final interview. Little did she know that Thomas had already drawn up her contract and merely needed a signature to sign her on board. Before all that could be done, however, he had one final parting gift to give. One last thread of advice for her to follow.

Sarah Armstrong entered the office, short smile already in place and her brown coat back on as she shook Thomas’ hand and sat back down in Carson’s guest chair. Thomas drummed his fingers on the wood, wary as he noted that her nails were tightly manicured, that all her outfits seemed to match in one way or another. What did that mean? Was she uptight or… just… smart with her dressings- Thomas needed to pull it together. He sighed, pursing his lips as he surveyed her.

“Ms. Armstrong, I’ve telephoned you today because you are the most prospective of all the nannies that I’ve interviewed.” Thomas said, failing to mention that the applicants had included children and alcoholics. “And I’ll mark you that I’ve interviewed many.”

“Thank you Mr. Barrow.” Armstrong said, her voice smug.

“However.” Thomas said, and he noted Armstrong’s smile dropped at once. “Before I can give you your contract, I must give you warning.”

She shifted a bit upon her chair, expression curious.

“There are three children in this house to attend to.” Thomas said, showing three fingers, “Miss Sybbie, the daughter of Mr. Branson and the late Lady Sybil, Master George, the son of Lady Mary and the late heir Mr. Crawley… and William Bates, a newborn babe of the Bates family who attend as valet and lady’s maid to the family.”

Lady Armstrong nodded, eyes narrowing as if in calculation.

“Mr. Branson, Sybbie’s father, is a good man who has worked hard in the world. He started as a chauffeur to this house, where he met and fell in love with Lady Sybil. Lady Sybil died of pre eclampsia not too soon after giving birth to Sybbie. When Sybbie was but a year old, and Master George was but a newly born infant, I discovered that the former nanny was beating and starving Sybbie…. because her father was a former chauffeur while Master George’s late father was the heir to the estate.”

Armstrong shifted in her chair again, suddenly seeming to grasp the gravity of the situation.

“I took that cow and had her thrown out on her backside.” Thomas growled. “And mark me, if I ever- and I do mean ever-“ he added in a dark tone, “discover that you’re doing the same… you’ll be out too.”

“Now, there’s no need to threaten, Mr. Barrow-“ Armstrong grumbled, put off.

“Oh there’s every need, I assure you.” Thomas snapped, cutting her off. “I have been attending to the children as a substitute Nanny for the past five months. I’ve only just recently took over the position as Butler from Mr. Carson, and even now, even at this very hour… I care for the children. They are as dear to me as if they were my own, and I will not have them harmed.”

Armstrong sighed, pursing her lips. She regarded him in that moment frankly, without irritation or happiness- merely seeing him clearly.

“So I will ask you this once and I expect full honesty.” Thomas warned. “Do you beat children?”

“I do not beat children for their lineage.” Armstrong said, disgruntled, “I do not beat them at all.”

“Do you starve them?”

“I’d rather starve myself.” Armstrong said, and there was such strong defiance in her tone that Thomas’ fears were put at ease.

He decided in that moment that he would extend the hand of trust. If she said she did not beat nor starve children, he would choose to believe her. If she proved him wrong, he would know and he would make her pay. The others might imagine him cowed, calm, demure… but he still knew how to shake the very foundations of the earth with blackmail and treachery. She would rue the day she’d ever stepped foot in the abbey.

Thomas reached into Mr. Carson’s desk drawer, and pulled out the awaiting contract. He slid it across the table, and Armstrong took it to read it at once.

So it was that the paperwork was signed, and Armstrong’s arrival date was set for Friday, giving Thomas a final day to sate and soothe the children. The others were greatly relieved, in particular Moseley who was growing exhausted with running up to the house to serve dinner. There was animated talk in the servant’s hall that night as Thomas returned upstairs to put the children to rights and get them ready for bed. He bathed and dressed Sybbie and George for bed, watching constantly over William who was swaddled to his chest in a soft cloth sack made by Bates’ brother’s wife. Soon it would be for Anna but for now it was for him as he toweled George and Sybbie off and helped them clamber into pajamas. They got into bed, each relaxing and settling in with their favorite toy as Thomas picked up the nursery one final time and set everything to rights.

It was then, and only then, that he turned to face the children and say what he knew he must.

“Are we all tucked in?” Thomas asked. George nodded, Sybbie was almost asleep herself. “Well… Before we go to bed, I want to tell you something important.”

They looked at him, both waiting calmly.

“Mr. Carson is tired, and your grandfather wants me to be the butler.” Thomas said, “I’ve agreed, but I cannot be the butler and the nanny at the same time.”

George sat up in bed, eyes growing wide.

“I’ve interviewed several very nice ladies, and I have found someone very sweet, and very loving-“

“No!” George cut across.

“George.” Thomas protested, “Please let me talk.”

“No, I don’t want you to leave-“

“George.” Thomas repeated his name, firm. George fell silent, eyes watering and lips pursed.

Sybbie was silent, but looked terribly concerned. Thomas knew why.

“Her name is Sarah Armstrong.” Thomas said, “She is an experienced nanny, but I told her- and I got in her face- and I let her know that if she ever- ever-“ Thomas said with dire urgency, “hurt either of you… I’d put my boot right up her butt.”

Sybbie burst into a fit of giggles clapping her hands over her mouth. George still looked sour. Thomas winked at Sybbie.

“Is she old?” Sybbie asked.

“No… She’s about Ms. Baxter’s age.” Thomas said, “Looks a bit like her too. Very clean, very professional. Good references. I called people on the telephone to ask about her! I think you’ll like her. Everyone else does. Just give her a chance.”

George lay down in bed, turning his back on Thomas.
It stung him.

“…George.” Thomas walked over to George’s bedside and gently took to a knee so that he could put a hand on George’s shoulder. George shrugged him off.

“I’m going to sleep now.” George mumbled into his pillow, eyes pinched shut.

“… George, I love you.” Thomas whispered. George did not open his eyes. “I love you and I would stay with you forever… but I cannot do that. Life will not let me. I will never leave you but I must do what I must do, please. Let me do it.”

George said nothing, eyes still shut. Heartbroken, Thomas leaned in and gently kissed him upon his temple. As he drew back, George shifted to hide himself beneath his covers. Sighing, Thomas went over to Sybbie, offering her a kiss. She hugged him about the neck, kissing him back on the cheek as she lay in bed and allowed him to pull up her covers.

Sybbie whispered, “If she hurts me I’ll tell you.”

“Good.” Thomas whispered back. “I’ll hurt her back.”

Sybbie smiled, closing her eyes.

He turned off the light to the nursery and headed into the play room, gently easing William out of his sling. Yet before he could put him down, a knock on the door revealed Bates. They shared a very small smile, one that wasn’t so much pleasant as it was sad while Bates shut the door.

“I thought I’d just stop by.” Bates whispered. William began to fuss and Thomas bounced him a bit, rocking him so that he’d quiet down.

“…Can we please not argue tonight?” Thomas whispered softly, catching Bates’ eyes. Bates cocked an eyebrow. “George is angry at me. I don’t want to fight.”

William just wouldn’t be soothed, he grunted and squirmed, acting a right little bug. Already stressed, Thomas whispered soothing sounds in William’s ear, desperate to get him to stop crying as he rocked him back and forth.

“Here.”

Bates reached out, taking William from Thomas’ arms and bringing him into his own. William groused and hiccuped, twisting, but Bates put a hand upon his swollen stomach and patted him.

William burped, fidgeted, then quieted down. Soon he was silent once more. Thomas watched, letting out a soft sigh as he pulled Anna’s sling over his head and let it drape over the side of Williams’ crib.

“Why is George angry at you?” Bates asked.

“Because I’m abandoning him to be the butler.” Thomas muttered, “How can I explain to him that I have no say in it. I could hardly stay nanny forever.”

“He’ll figure it out.” Bates shrugged. “Children are resilient.”

“The truth is that I’m tired.” Thomas admitted sadly. Bates gave him an understanding smile. “William is… a dream but…” He gestured silently.

“It’s too much for you.” Bates said.

“Yes.” Thomas said, feeling rather a failure in that moment. “I need a break, I need to… I don’t know… think. I love them but I can’t keep doing this. I can’t think when I’m juggling three children, one of whom is a newborn.”

As if to prove a point, William let out a squeak of protest. Bates drummed his fingers softly upon his son’s bulging stomach. He burped again.

“I don’t envy you having to care for three at once.” Bates agreed. “But I’m incredibly jealous of the time you’ve been able to spend with my son. I won’t deny it.”

“I gladly give it to you.” Thomas said with a wave of the hand. “Take it. You’re the rightful owner. I feel like I’ve been robbing you. I was never meant to be nanny anyway-“

A sudden noise caught Thomas’ attention, and he looked around to see that the door to the nursery was ajar. There, at its crack, was George with tears streaming down his cherub face. He looked hurt, as if he’d just been betrayed upon the deepest level, and Thomas gaped at him as he took a step closer.

“George?” Thomas demanded, shocked at the tears he saw.
Without another word, George took off for the hall, slamming the door behind him so that William whimpered and began to cry.

“George-!” Thomas called out, grabbing the handle to the door and yanking it back open. He could not spare a glance back to Bates or to William, content in knowing that Bates would be able to care for his son until Thomas restored order. He felt panicked, frightened, like he was on the verge of losing something utterly precious to him; he looked left and right down darkened hallways but saw nothing.

He walked, listening intently for the sounds of shuffling feet or hiccuped breathes. He walked all the way down the end of the hall to Lord Grantham’s bedroom door but heard nothing, and took back off up the hall in the opposite direction. As he reached the other end, nearest Tom’s bedroom, Thomas heard the tiniest whimpers muffled by a linen closet door.

Steeling himself, he took the door knob in hand and gently opened it.

George was there, tucked into the bottom of the linen cupboard between a dust pan and a box of lightbulbs. He had hands clasped over his mouth, wet from tears as he tried to keep his noise down to a minimum in an attempt to hide from Thomas. Yet as Thomas crouched down upon his knees and extended his hands out to George, George jerked away, hiding even farther back.

“George.” Thomas rubbed at his back, the only part that he could reach, “Georgie, why are you crying?”

George slowly dropped his hands, eyes pinched shut even as fat tears slipped out, “You…” He drew a shaky breath, bitter, “You never loved me. You don’t want to be with me.”

“Oh George.” Thomas’ heart ached in that moment. He stooped down even lower, trying to draw George out. “Come here-“

“No!” He spat, shrinking up into a tight little ball with his head between his knees, “I’m not your favowite. I nevah was.”

“George.” Thomas reprimanded him softly, “You have always been, will always be my favorite. I do not want to leave you, but I cannot be your nanny. I have lived in a fools paradise with you for far too long. Reality is waiting. We cannot hide from it, but we can face it together…. and I don’t want to lose your love over this. Not when it’s what keeps me going.”

George looked, bloodshot and bleary eyes glancing at Thomas. Thomas nodded solemnly, and held his hands out praying that George might come back out to him.

He did.

George crawled on his hands and knees, filthy, and Thomas took him up at once. There, on the floor by a linen cupboard, Thomas cradled George to his chest like he might his own son and wrapped him up tight in his arms so that George could cry into his chest. Muffled by Thomas’ vest, George’s howls turned into muted whimpers till they ceased entirely- through it all Thomas never stopped rocking him.

“I cannot stay a nanny.” Thomas whispered into George’s hair, “I have to be a butler. That’s what your grandfather wants, and he runs the house. We have to respect his wishes, George. He’s the Earl. I am his servant. That’s the way these things go. It is the laws of our land and time… but through it all I have always, will always love you. I loved you from the very moment you were born. You are my favorite. No matter what I tell the others… you are my favorite.”

George stilled, breathing slowly, he sucked a bit at his thumb, a nervous habit in times of stress, and closed his eyes as Thomas held him to his chest.

“Will you still love me?” George asked from around his thumb. Thomas kissed his forehead again.

“I’ll always love you.” He assured him, “And we’ll have no more of these tears.” He paused to let go of George and wipe at his face, using his handkerchief till George’s face was clean of tears and mucus. “You are richer than every man I know put together, you have nothing to cry about.” He tried to joke. George sniffed, unsure. “You’ve a mother that loves you, a house that supports you, and a warm plate to eat from for the rest of your life. What more could you need?”

George looked solemnly up, eyes bleary. “You.” He whispered.

Thomas’ heart bleated in pain.

“…And you have me, George.” Thomas whispered, forcing himself not to be an emotional blubbering mess in front of a child. “So no more tears.”

George nodded, silent, and Thomas kissed him again for good measure.

 

It took hardly any trouble at all to put George back to bed. He returned to the nursery, bid goodnight to Bates who’d put William down in his crib, and shut the playroom door so that the children could go to bed. As Thomas lay George back into bed, he pulled the covers up over his chest and kissed him goodnight, rubbing George’s back until soft little snores uttered from his mouth.

Content, Thomas rose up and returned to his room to take off his tie and vest. He washed up for the night, rubbing his face clean in cool water and observing his reflection in the mirror. It was near midnight and he was exhausted. He would get very little sleep tonight.

Yet before he could go to bed, he felt compelled to pull out the ouija board. It was a full moon after all, and with him being butler his schedule was about to take a major shift. It was likely he wouldn’t get more than four hours of sleep a night, if even that… and maybe after the rough couple of days he’d had he wanted to talk to Edward again.

So Thomas pulled out the ouija board from underneath his bed, creeping into the nursery washroom to light a candle with his sliver lighter and place everything upon the floor. He sat the ouija board in a spot of moonlight, taking advantage of the high windows so that, even without the candle, he could see the letters well and read the messages clearly. He took a deep, steadying breath, and pushed the planchette lightly around the board one time.

It was ill advised to attempt this alone… but at this point he had no choice. It wasn’t like he could drag anyone out of their sleep to join him, and even if he could he didn’t want to. This was a private adventure.

“We are now beginning.” Thomas spoke softly into the dark, for some reason focusing upon the candle before him, “I am calling out to anyone listening. Is someone there?”

He waited in silence, senses tuned intently.
And nearly had a heart attack when a tiny voice spoke up in the dark.

“Me.”

Thomas jumped, hand flying to his heart as he fell over and scrambled at the tile beneath him. So intent had he been upon the board that the noise of someone speaking had been like seeing a spectre in the physical and Thomas had to take several calming breathes as he looked around to see, of all people, Sybbie at him from the door with her doll clutched to her front. She watched him curiously.

“Sybbie!” Thomas hissed her name, staggering up. “What on earth are you doing, come with me-“ He picked her up at once and took her from the room.

He did not see nor hear the planchette twitching upon the board. Was obliviously to the way it rattled violently, angry at being left alone.

Thomas took Sybbie back to her bed at once, yet even as he sat her down upon the mattress she kicked her little legs, intent upon staying up- “What were you doing?” she asked.

“Never you mind.” Thomas mumbled, “I was cleaning. You need to go to bed-“ He tried to pull her covers up over her legs but she kicked them off.

“Don’t lie.” She commanded him. Thomas froze, eyes wide as he caught her gaze. She stared at him intently; it was quite an intimidating moment… to be caught in a lie by such an honest child when he was a grown man.

“Daddy says you lie sometimes when you’re sad. Don’t be sad.” She urged.

Fuck you, Tom, Thomas thought, pursing his lips as he patted Sybbie’s legs.

“… I was talking to someone.” Thomas whispered softly. “Someone who can’t talk back normally.”

“Why can’t they talk normally?” Sybbie asked.

Thomas rubbed his weary eyes, laying his elbows upon her bed and burrying his head in his hands.

“Because he’s dead.” Thomas finally admitted.

 

If asked by someone in the future why on earth he’d agreed to let two children under the age of ten play with an ouija board, he’d have claimed temporary insanity.

As it stood, Sybbie had begged and George had woke up and then started begging too. Thomas didn’t want William to wake up and frankly he wanted to get on with the session.

So it seemed he was going to hell for this.

“Now.” Thomas murmured, Sybbie and George both comfortable upon his lap and his arms around them both. They each had a finger upon the planchette, waiting patiently, “We push it in a circle three time. One…” Around it went, “Two,” around again, “Three” they stopped. “And we say…?”

“Is someone there?” Sybbie called out, taking charge. Silence greeted her timid voice.

“And now we wait.” Thomas whispered in their ears. All that could be heard were their tiny panting breathes. “We do not touch the planchette any more than we must. Very lightly, with just the tips of our fingers. The ghosts will do the rest.”

Jesus Christ what the literal hell was he doing?

After consoling George in the closet, Thomas had come to the firm opinion that he ought to show George as much love as possible. The boy ruled him with a rod of iron, so when he’d said ‘Can I join you’ Thomas had felt no choice but to agree. Sybbie had just egged him on and now all three of them were upon the bathroom floor in their housecoats, a lone candle lighting the Ouija board and a full moon streaming in. If word ever got out about this, Thomas was certain Lord Grantham would drag him out into the back yard and beat him with Champion’s horse whip. His friendship with Tom would likewise be put in jeopardy, a thought that made his stomach clench. God only knows what Lady Mary would think.

The children sat quiet, patient, waiting on tenterhooks to see what the ghosts would say.
Then, after about ten minutes of absolute silence, the planchette began to twitch beneath their fingers and move towards the word ‘hello’. George gasped, amazed, but did not remove his finger.

“Yes…” Thomas whispered softly, “Someone is here.”

“Who?” George asked, amazed.

The planchette at once took off, flitting over the alphabet in a smooth but steady speed.

“W-e-t-w-o” Thomas spelt out, “We two” He looked to both Sybbie and George who were staring up at him agog. In that moment he seemed akin to god, controlling the universe at his touch. It was like someone had declared him Merlin. “So there’s two people here.” He explained, “Let’s see who.” He gazed at the board, speaking softly, “What are your names?”

But instead of spelling long illustrious names, the planchette moved to ’s’ and then to ‘m’. “S. M.” Thomas thought, trying to conjure up deceased men or women who made have such initials. Given that the ouija had declared there were two people here, perhaps the names respectively were ’S’ and ‘M’. But that wasn’t a lot of information to go on. “S…M…” Thomas pondered aloud, pausing to hum as he thought with narrowed eyes. He’d have to slim down the pool a bit to catch their fish. “Are you Crawley’s?”

The planchette moved swiftly to ‘yes’, and Thomas nodded, thinking. Dead Crawley’s could make for quite a long list (save for the Dowager who would never die). It could be everyone from the late Earl to…

Thomas sucked in a breath, a thought dawning on him as he stared Sybbie and then George.

“Have you been dead long?” Sybbie asked, curious. The planchette slid to ‘no’ after a second.

“Oh god…” Thomas whispered.

S. M. Both Crawley’s who hand’t been dead long? Jesus he’d have to be blind deaf and stupid not to get those signals, and now felt horribly guilty for allowing George and Sybbie to play with an ouija board. How could he explain to them who was here before them, speaking to them through the planchette?

“Children will one day be grown… and must therefor be treated as an adult in order to come to terms with the full hardships of reality- avoiding the complications and fears of the growing years.” Nanny Armstrong had said.

 

He breathed out slowly and tightened his hold around Sybbie and George in his lap.

“Is this Sybil and Matthew?” Thomas asked, incredibly nervous. The planchette wasted no time in confirming his fears, sliding at once to ‘yes’. He breathed out again, feeling like the worlds biggest bastard as he bowed his head.

“Who are Sybil and Matthew?” Sybbie asked, curious.

“… Your mother.” Thomas mumbled, “And George’s father.”

The children looked up at him, silent. Their eyes were wide but without fear, glazed as they sunk in the new knowledge and turned their gaze back to the ouija board. Thomas suddenly wanted to apologize, to hide them in their room and shut the ouija out of sight forever to keep from causing them pain.

“…Mummy?” Sybbie called out.
“Da?” George added.

The planchette, still upon yes, made an odd jiggling move both up and down.

“This was a bad idea.” Thomas whispered. He scooped the children up at once, breaking their connection with the planchette and holding them tight to his chest. A sudden cold feeling swept through the room, gutting the candle so that they were plunged into darkness. George hitched a breath, clutching to Thomas’ chest, and Thomas held them tight to keep evil spirits at bay. The ouija board was displeased, a strange scratching sound emitting from the ancient wood as the planchette (with all the force of a cement mixer) slowly slid across the board to the word ‘no’.

He didn’t like this, this feeling of being out of control, and his anxiety was only heightened as he realized that he was no effectively the last line of defense between two innocent children and the horrors of the world beyond. Thomas had been to that land, had seen it briefly as he lay waiting to die in a bathtub full of blood, and knew full well the horrors of being dragged about by demons in icy hands. He saw himself then and there, wrestling with an angry hoard to defend Sybbie and George from being dragged off, and suddenly wanted to chuck the ouija board into a fire if it meant preserving their innocence. When it was him alone, it was a game he could play with courage. But now that he stood to lose something he cherished, Thomas felt terrified and wanted nothing to do with it.

“…They’re just children.” Thomas whispered, “Let them be.”

The planchette was struggling, unable to move swiftly without human touch, but Thomas watched it anyways as it began to slide about the waved wood at a snails pace.

T-H-A-N-K-Y-O-U It finally spelt out.

“For what?” Thomas asked, “For traumatizing your children? For putting myself in incredible danger once their grandfather finds out what I’ve done-?”

But the planchette would not stay still. It was trembling, rattling against the wood as if it could not decide where to go or what to say. After a moment of hesitation it finally shifted again, once more crawling across the board to spell one simple, lonely word: L-O-V-E.

In his arms, Sybbie and George stared at the board transfixed. Neither were as frightened as he. Maybe in their innocence they were protected; maybe as children they knew something he did not.

“What does it say?” Sybbie whispered, for neither of them could read.

“It says ‘love’.” Thomas finally answered.

“What does it mean?” George asked.

“It means they love you very very much.” Thomas did not want to comprehend the full extent of the message, to imagine Sybil and Matthew Crawley bent over an old Ouija board desperately trying to talk to their children from beyond the mortal coil. “And it’s time to go to bed.”

Tentatively, with a mourning atmosphere, the planchette finally slid to ‘yes’. Encouraged, Thomas let out another steadying breath and said, “Say thank you and goodbye to the ghosts.”

It was only proper. It was only right.

“Thank you.” Sybbie whispered to the night air, still crawled tight in Thomas’ lap, “Goodbye Mummy.”

“Goodbye daddy.” George said.

 

For a moment, the three of them stared at the planchette as if waiting for it to make another move.

But it remained as still and cold as the candle that had been gutted. The only thing that remained of their walk with the dead was a thin trickle of acrid smoke drifting up in the air as the wax cooled.

It was with great relief that Thomas shepherded the children back to bed.

 

~*~

Just down the hall, oblivious to the comings and goings of the nursery bathroom, Tom Branson lay in bed with his fire died down, wondering at his new erotic picture.

Really it wasn’t all that scandalous. He’d seen some wild women back in Ireland and this was much more demure. Much more English. Thomas looked nervous, probably had not wanted to get undressed for a stranger, and clung to his frontal sheet for dear life even as he offered the viewer a shocking view of his naked back and the swell of his rump. Tom could not deny the beauty in him, in the alluring posture or how he so desperately wanted to see what lay beyond that sheet.

Thomas had a way of being incredibly enticing without being whorish. Tom had noticed it when shopping with him for Christmas gifts- had seen it in the way his eyes had lit up with longing over Baxter’s potential necklace and how he’d reached out to grab Tom’s hat even when it flew from his head. He’d be lying if he claimed he hadn’t felt Thomas’ body beneath his hands when he’d yanked Thomas back into the car. Thomas was supple and smooth, far from muscled but still firm from a life in servitude. As he’d sat in Tom’s lap, trying to keep from flying out of the car and into a snowy pasture, Tom had registered the swell of Thomas’ backside.

He was lithe, light, incredibly attractive. Given six hours in London’s clubs he’d have men hanging off of every appendage begging for a roll in the hay.

Tom could not deny he was growing inspired as he lay looking at Thomas’ erotic picture. The fire burned low in his hearth, filling his room with a soft heat and a dulled light. The curtains on his four chamber bed offered him privacy, solitude as he pondered his little prize and what to do with it. Robert had advised to burn it, but that would be a tragedy. His loins stirred as his imagination conjured up wild fantasies. Of Thomas sitting on this very bed, naked but for the sheet that would be clutched to his front as Tom surveyed him and urged him to let his guard down. Maybe he’d ply Thomas with a bite of whiskey to loosen him up, never taking him father than he wanted to go (of course) but also not wanting him to be nervous. Thomas would sip his whiskey like he sipped his beer, enjoying every drop. A heady aroma would envelop them both as Thomas would shed his clothes but keep his back to Tom. Tom could see it now, his hips and arse finally revealed as he dropped his trousers and pants. He’d want Thomas to turn around, to show him his beautiful body, but Thomas would do no such thing. He’d instead snatch up Tom’s sheets and clutch them to his front, slipping into Tom’s bed and bowing his head in fear.

Even with whiskey he’d be nervous. Meek. Virtuous.

 

Tom let out a huff. His cock was hard now, raging with blood beneath his pants. He licked his lips, taking steadying breaths trying to calm himself.

But it was no use. The fantasy in his head was cemented like an ancient tree refusing to give sway to the winds of reason.

 

This picture had been meant for pleasure.
So let pleasure be had.

Tom reached a hand beneath his sheets and slipped into his pants. He squeezed his cock, breathing slowly to prolong his sensitivity as he gazed deeply into the picture propped against his duvet.

Those hooded eyes, those swollen lips, his demure expression… Thomas was the vision of lust wrapped in a sheet of innocent intentions. Tom could picture him now, sitting upon a king sized bed in soft cotton sheets, hiding his front and sitting upon his legs so that the balls of his small feet delicately balanced against his plump arse.

“Drop your sheet.” Tom might whisper, urging for confidence. But Thomas would be fretful, unsure of himself. He’d think Tom would judge him even in that fragile moment, so Tom would try and get him to relax.

“Fuck yourself.” Tom would offer, “On you fingers. Let me watch.”

Thomas would take his fingers one after another into his pert mouth, sucking tenderly upon the slim digits till they were nice and coated with his saliva. Then he’d spread his legs a bit, still perched upon the balls of his feet and refusing to drop his sheet. Now Tom would be able to see his center, a tight pink ring- Thomas would drop his soaking hand, bring it around back, and slowly push the first finger in with a small sweet moan of pleasure.

Tom hitched a breath, hand pumping faster. His cock was swelling now; his eyes were closed, no longer looking at the picture upon his duvet. Instead he was captured by a fantasy.

Thomas would pant and whine, tongue darting out to wet his lips as one finger became two, then three. He would fuck himself to the knuckle for Tom to see, but still not dropping that sheet.

“Come on baby-“ Tom whispered aloud, squeezing his hand tighter. “Come on, show me what you’ve got-“

“Tom…” Thomas would whimper, unsatisfied by his fingers alone, “Please… Oh please.. Give it to me-“

“Give you what?” Tom dared, cock throbbing-

“Give me your cock-“ Thomas moaned, desperate to be filled-

Tom came, hissing and clenching his teeth tight to keep from making a sound as his hand was suddenly covered with his release. He exhaled slowly, amazed at his sensation as he re opened his eyes and looked left to see his picture. In the afterglow it seemed almost sweet instead of sinful, no longer a picture meant for pleasure so much as adoration. There could be no denying that Thomas Barrow was beautiful. That he was meant to be worshiped as such. Tom reached out and gently stroked the paper edges of his photograph.

“Tom…” Thomas whispered in his head. “Please…”

Careful not to soil the photograph with his dirtied hand, Tom cleaned himself with a handkerchief and pulled Thomas’ picture close, hiding it beneath his pillow so that it could be kept secret and safe from the world.

Whatever implications could be made about pleasuring himself to a picture of a man, Tom would leave them till morning.

Chapter Text

Nanny Armstrong ruled the children with an iron fist, but as far as Thomas was aware, that fist never connected with either of the children’s faces.

He kept tabs on Armstrong though he wondered if she knew. Sybbie would find him during the middle of the day and whisper things in his ear, telling him that Armstrong had changed the soap they bathed with or had put Marigold’s crib in the attic. That she had instead brought down a rocking cradle that had apparently belonged to Lady Mary in her infancy and put William in that instead. She focused on manners and responsibilities, forcing the children to pick up the room and showing them how to bathe and dress themselves. She did not, however, let them pick out their clothes and refused to let Sybbie wear her green dress about the house even during play time. Sybbie could wear it in the nursery but no where else, much to Sybbie’s disappointment.

This was far from the only change in regiment. The children had been spoiled underneath his care, or so Nanny Armstrong proclaimed. He’d protected them from every pain and so had made them strangers to pain which did not suit her iron tastes as she forced them to swallow spoonfuls of bitter medicine. Worst of all, she started Sybbie in a corset- a soft fleshy thing though it still constricted her breathing- and made playing with George almost impossible so that she began to sit often and instead worked on drawing or needlepoint. As Thomas served her tea in the library or brought her books from the study, he watched her look out the window and sigh in dismay.

The heart dies a slow death, he thought somberly. He had never wanted this for his little cherub.

Downstairs, Thomas received as little reprieve as Sybbie. Suddenly he was occupied at all hours by Carson at his elbow, who demanded to watch every move Thomas made if only to inform him of small errors or helpful tips. The role of the butler was one of paperwork, pomp and pressure. Thomas was back to hawking the hallways, watching Andy and the lone hall boy like he was their errant father while they ran about doing tasks and kept the house up to speed. The real trouble could be found in the maids and in the garden staff, both of whom had less respect for Thomas and didn’t care for decorum. He trusted Mrs. Hughes with the maids, for she ruled them with an iron fist, and when it came to the gardeners he simply allowed Carson to rule rip-shod. The rest came with patience.

Thomas was acquainted with both the finer jewelry cases, the wine cellar, the most eloquent of silver states, the gun cabinet, and most importantly of all the treasury. These were held with three sets of keys, not to mention a rolling pin lock, and Thomas kept both in memory at all times as he observed the state of the abbey. It was no where near the wealth of its youth, but it was still an enormous sum and surprised Thomas as Carson showed him how to keep everything in detailed inventory- how to ensure there was no theft among the numbers and how to spot possible upcoming depressions in the sums. But Thomas knew best- this wasn’t a game of checks and balances… this was a game of loyalty and watching for weak links in the staff. In particular, Peter the lone hall boy who would be the most obvious candidate to steal wine or make off with money when he was paid the least and worked the hardest.

He told none of this to Mr. Carson, who would surely be scandalized if he knew, and instead focused on learning the precious sacred perfect art of decanting wine.

 

“Go as slow as you please, you’re in no rush.” Carson murmured softly in his ear, watching Thomas carefully as he decanted a pinot grigio. For whatever reason, they were not using the wine cradle; everything had to be done by hand, with utmost care. Carson’s palsy became incredibly obvious in moments like these, where the mere tremble of a hand could bring ruin to a meal.

“Why don’t we use the cradle?” Thomas murmured. It was after noon, and the servants were taking their tea while the family relaxed in the library. He thought longingly of the children, of holding them and feeling their love soak through his skin to warm his heart. In the cold of Carson’s office, he felt like an ice had settled onto his bones.

“The cradle is only for red wines, which have more sediment and need a steadier hand.” Carson supplied. “You can go as you please with a white.”

Thomas wondered how long he'd been using the cradle to get by with decanting- if his hands had been shaking for years and no one had been watching close enough to tell. It felt rather like cheating, particularly when Thomas himself had come so close to losing everything in the house only months ago. Yet instead of feeling jealousy or irritation, he only felt pity. Carson had served the Crawley’s for so long, he did not know how to stop serving.

And that was a sorry place to be.

There came a knock upon Carson’s office door, and both men looked up to see Nanny Armstrong upon the threshold.

“Nanny Armstrong.” Thomas greeted her, straightening up and setting the half-decanted bottle down.

“I hope I haven’t interrupted?” She asked, glancing from the wine bottle to Thomas.

“Not at all.” Thomas said, but before he could offer her a seat or sit down himself, Carson sat down in his chair and swept a hand to Nanny Armstrong. Thomas was left high and dry, standing alone at the desk as Nanny Armstrong took her seat across from them.

“A house with two butlers.” She tutted, straightening her sleeve as she spoke, “It’s most unusual but then I suppose it’s all hands to the pump.”

“Indeed.” Carson grumbled with a twitch of his bushy eyebrows.

“Lady Sybil has requested to dine with her family tonight.” Nanny Armstrong said. Both Thomas and Carson grimaced, the name an unpleasant reminder to a painful death.

“You are confused, Nanny Armstrong.” Carson grumbled from his swivel chair, “Lady Sybil is dead.”

Without missing a beat, she challenged, “I am referring to Sybil Branson. She is a Lady, is she not?”

Carson shifted in his chair, looking horribly pleased thought Thomas couldn’t say why. He looked from Thomas to Nanny Armstrong, eyebrows raised in mused delight. Thomas gently ran his thumb around the wet lip of the wine bottle, thinking carefully. Sybbie was only six. Precautions had to be taken.

“She wants to dine downstairs?” Thomas asked, thinking of the stiff chairs and the high table. Would Sybbie be able to endure it all?

“Indeed.” Nanny Armstrong agreed, “Naturally I will leave it to you to inform his lordship.”

“Very good, Nanny Armstrong.” Carson said, dismissing her with the wave of a hand, “You may go.”

“Mr. Carson, Mr. Barrow.” She said, rising up from her chair and exiting without another word. It was a mark of how well she knew her stride that she could close the door without making a sound.

“I admire your tastes, Thomas!” Carson grumbled. Thomas shot him a disgruntled look, taking up the wine bottle again and resuming his decanting, “Here is a nanny that will raise children of kings.”

“Mmm.” Thomas did not comment to the negative or positive. He knew nothing of Armstrong and as of yet had not formed an opinion on her.

He’d sworn to himself that the moment Sybbie said the word, he’d take her out at the knees.

 

He headed upstairs, ears pricked for the sounds of Lord Grantham as he entered the main hall through the green baize door and made a bee line for the library. Halfway there he was greeted by Tom coming down the stairs, hat in hand and clearly on his way for a walk into the village. Thomas did not even bother to greet him, merely skipping straight into conversation as he said, “Sybbie wants to eat downstairs with the family tonight.”

“What a step!” Tom looked delighted at the thought, beaming as he twirled his hat in his hands.

“I’m about to tell his lordship.” Thomas said.

“He’s in the small library.” Tom said, “I can’t wait!” and with that he was off, tugging a bit at Thomas’ elbow as he past with friendly fingers. He bounced on the balls of his feet, humming; someone was in a good mood.

Amused, Thomas resumed chase to the small library, opening the door to find both Lord and Lady Grantham taking tea with Andy watching over. At Thomas’ arrival, Andy stiffened imperceptibly and Lord Grantham sat down his tea cup.

“Barrow!” He greeted him, “All going well I trust?”

“Very well, your lordship.” Thomas replied smoothly with the smallest bow of his head. Was it just his imagination or did Lord Grantham have a twinkle of amusement in his eye, “I was just approached by the new nanny Mrs. Armstrong. She told me that Miss Sybbie wants to dine downstairs with the family tonight.”

Lady Grantham clapped her hands together, eyes sparkling with delight, “How marvelous!” She said “Well we must set a plate for her.”

“I can hardly wait!” Lord Grantham echoed Tom’s sentiments, chuffed as he picked pack up his tea cup.

“Very good, your ladyship. M’lord.” Thomas said, and at once he bowed himself out.

 

He spent the rest of the afternoon changing dinner plans with both Mrs. Patmore and Lady Grantham, sneaking in a spot for Sybbie at the table and making sure the dinner would not be beyond her taste palate. Mrs. Patmore went out of her way to ensure Sybbie would eat well- making her a small cup of strawberries and fresh cream instead of Eton Mess for desert and cutting her chicken so that it would be small enough to not overwhelm her.

After the servant’s tea, Thomas returned back upstairs with his clipboard in hand, determined to set Sybbie somewhere in the table that would most benefit her. The family would be dining tonight with both the Dowager and Lord and Lady Merton. Typically a party would be sat man to women, but Sybbie now made that impossible. Thomas decided that the best point of action would be to put her in between Lady Grantham and Tom, across the table from the Dowager. If that didn’t keep her in line, nothing else would. Andy was pulled away from helping Thomas set the table by Nanny Armstrong who wanted to modify Sybbie’s chair. This was good sense, because frankly the girl wouldn’t be able to reach the table with her short stature. Left to his own devices, Thomas worked twice as fast to set the places and add the finishing touches to the tables. He was just finished with the candelabras when Tom entered, jacket and hat gone- slightly flushed from the bitter cold of the January wind.

“Where are you putting her?” Tom asked, coming around the table so that he and Thomas were side by side. He leaned in, looking over Thomas’ shoulder to observe his clipboard of seatings.

“Between you and her grandmother.” Thomas said. Tom nodded as he spoke, “I figure that will be the best way to keep her in line. The Dowager and Mrs. Crawley are coming… rather, Lady Merton. Also Lord Merton. We’re quite a party tonight.”

“Where’s Sybbie’s chair?” Tom asked, for sure enough there as an empty space between his own chair and Lady Grantham’s. He drummed his fingers on the back of his own chair, a soft rhythmic beat in the gentle silence.

“The nanny wanted to modify it.” Thomas mused, not really looking at Tom as he spoke. Tom wouldn’t mind, he was sure. Tom knew how busy he was. “Probably so that she could reach the table.”

Yet even as Thomas straightened Tom’s placemat, he caught Tom’s eye; Tom was watching him intensely, a smirk curling at his smooth lips as he tilted his head and watched Thomas work.

“…What?” Thomas asked, curious.

“You.” Was Tom’s only answer.

Thomas snorted, and resumed work. Yet even as he straightened a card setting, Tom reached out and ever so gently touched a lock of hair normally tucked neatly behind his ear. It had fallen loose, hanging down slightly so that one could see just how long his hair was.

“Your hair is getting long.” Tom mused. He gently put it back into place, behind Thomas’ ear.

Thomas stared at him, shocked by the intimacy of the gestures. He’d never been close mates with another man before. God forbid he’d ever touched a lock of Jimmy’s hair. Jimmy probably would have panicked or pulled away. It was nice to not be afraid… to just relax and allow another man to touch him without worrying for what would inevitably come next.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Thomas mused, his Stockport accent slipping a bit. “Y’don’t think it’s odd?”

“No.” Tom assured him, “You look good with long hair. I’d like to see it without all of that… stuff… in it.” Tom gestured at his own hair as he spoke. Thomas grinned.

“S’kind of unruly t’be honest.” Thomas admitted.

“Well I think you look fine!” Tom declared. Thomas caught his eye again, unsure of what that meant. Did he mean ‘fine’ as if, ‘you look okay’ or ‘fine’ as in ‘handsome’. Damn the English language. Before Thomas could ask Tom to clarify, however, the door to the dining hall was pushed open by Andy, walking backward and carrying a chair that was- for whatever reason- boasting a frightening addition of knives that were held to the spine by a leather belt. It looked like a method of torture from the inquisition, and Andy seemed to be visibly sweating from nerves as he set the chair down between Tom and Thomas and pushed it up to the table. Thomas stopped him with a hard hand, scooting the chair back to observe it better- were these knives from the kitchen? With sleek black handles and screws to keep them to the belt, Thomas had never seen them before in his life.

“What on earth is this?” Thomas demanded, agog.

“An instrument of torture?” Tom wisely supplied, looking to Andy for an answer. Underneath both men’s stairs, Andy seemed to wilt even more, backing up a bit till he hit the buffet table behind him.

“It’s.. Miss Sybbie’s chair, Mr. Barrow.” Andy finally stuttered out.

“What?” Thomas laughed; surely this was all a clever joke.

Andy swallowed, sweating profusely. He ran a hand through his hair, palm glistening with perspiration: “Nanny Armstrong told me to put her knife belt on the spine of the chair so that Miss Sybbie would be made to sit up… straight…?” He whimpered, his voice trailing away till absolutely nothing was left.

Thomas and Tom stared at him, both silent.
Then, as one, they made for the hall.

Thomas reached the door first and knocked it open as both he and Tom stormed across the main hall and took to the gallery stairs. They passed Lady Grantham who was no doubt coming to check up on progress in the dining hall.

“Tom!” Lady Grantham was shocked at the obvious outrage upon their faces.

“In a minute!” Tom snapped angrily, rounding the landing and hitting the gallery floor. Elbow to elbow, neck to neck, Tom and Thomas crossed the hall to the play room and pushed the door open hard to Sybbie upon a step stool being hemmed into a lovely violent gown by Anna with Lady Mary watching over the whole affair and George upon lap, slightly sulky. Nanny Armstrong observed Sybbie in a floor length mirror, bouncing little William upon her hip.

No, there would none of that.

Without warning, without explanation, Thomas reached out and grabbed William right out of Nanny Armstrong’s hands, eyes blazing with rage as he clutched the infant to his chest. God only knows what horrors she had inflicted upon him too-!

“Mr. Barrow-!” Nanny Armstrong was taken aback; Anna paused in her hemming, ever aware of the danger signs with Thomas. Lady Mary watched the display, her eyes upon Tom who was all but trembling with anger.

“I told you!” He spat, a vindictive finger in Nanny Armstrong’s shocked face, “I told you if I ever got wind you were hurting the children I’d have you out of this house!”

“Knives on her chair!?” Tom could hardly believe his words, “Are you crazy?!”

Nanny Armstrong went from shocked to irritated at once, scowling as she crossed her arms over her chest. Upon his mother’s lap, George watched the entire display in awe. He’d never seen Thomas so mad before!

“Mr. Branson.” Nanny Armstrong drawled, “The tactics that I use have been in method for centuries-“

“So was the Spanish Inquisition!” Tom cut her off, “But no one wants that back!”

“I don’t understand.” Lady Mary spoke up, “What’s going on?”

“The nanny has taken it upon herself to put knives on the spine of Miss Sybbie’s chair to force her to sit up straight or bleed!” Thomas hissed. Upon her foot stool, Sybbie went pale with fright, “And if you think I’m going to allow it, you’re mad!”

Lady Mary’s mouth opened in the smallest of ‘o’s, eyes wide as her brown eyes trailed from Tom, to Thomas, to the nanny.

Anna said absolutely nothing, completely still with several pins sticking out of her mouth.

“You put the children in my care-“ Nanny Armstrong reminded him defiantly.

“With a very firm warning-!” Thomas snapped.

“A threat more like-“

“And not an empty one at that!” Thomas cut across. It seemed he would have to pull rank and so be it, “I am the butler, I have the final say over the staff. The knives come off the chair-!”

“She’ll slouch in her seat, that’s hardly becoming of a lady-!” The nanny protested. Thomas would hear no more of it, clutching William tightly to his chest.

“She will not!” He spat. Had she ever slouched when Thomas had dined with her in the playroom? He thought not!

“You are deluded by your love for her-“ The nanny warned, but she was sailing dangerously close to the window as far as he was concerned.

“He’s strengthened by it!” Tom argued, just as mad as he, “Sybbie-“ He turned to his daughter, “Will you sit up straight in your chair?” She nodded vigorously at her father’s command, Very good. You slouch, you leave the table. You sit up straight, you can stay. Yes?”

“Yes, papa.” She replied meekly.

“Then we’re done here!” Tom declared, taking the playroom door in hand and opening it back up to step out into the hall. Thomas followed after him, or tried to until Nanny Armstrong reached out to try and take little William from him. Thomas pulled back forcibly.

“Give me back the baby-“ Nanny Armstrong demanded.

“No.” Thomas snapped, “I don’t want you touching him. He’s far too precious to me. You can have him back when you’ve earned back my trust.”

Anna dropped some of the p