Alistair was looking out of the car window as he slowly approached the towering walls of Downton Abbey. He had only agreed to come here because he knew this was Thomas' Downton −the place where Thomas worked before the war. Alistair sighed. When he closed his eyes he could still see Thomas's face in his mind. It had been over two years since he last saw him. Two years, four months and twenty-five days to be precise. There had not been a single day that he would not think about him since regaining consciousness after his injury.
Alistair was afraid that with time the details of Thomas' face would fade from his memory. Maybe they would have an old photograph of him at the Abbey. Though Alistair supposed there was no discreet way of asking for another man's photograph, even if he claimed the old war bond of fellow soldiers. It would be easier if he could manage to get hold of O'Brien, Thomas' friend who hopefully still worked there. He said she knew this about him.
When he looked out again, they were already in front of the imposing house. The driver opened the door for him and Alistair stepped out onto the gravel path where he was greeted by a large grey-haired man with very strong eyebrows. He was, presumably, the butler. Thomas told Alistair the man had wanted to sack him before he volunteered for the RAMC, but Alistair couldn't remember the man’s name.
"Welcome to Downton Abbey, Lord Rainsby," the butler said and ushered him inside where a maid took his coat and hat.
"The family is expecting you in the drawing room."
Alistair took a deep breath and followed after the older man.
He was greeted by Lord and Lady Grantham and two of their daughters, the dark-haired Mary and the fair-haired Edith. Alistair's mother met Lady Grantham in London the prior month at a milliner's, and apparently the two women got on. He knew his mother was troubled by what she called his melancholia and didn't waste any opportunity to get him into social engagements in order to take his mind off what happened in the war. Procuring an invitation for him to visit with the Granthams in faraway Yorkshire was another such attempt.
After the customary pleasantries, the group settled.
Lady Grantham asked after his mother, and Lady Edith inquired about his journey. Everyone was studiously avoiding looking at his scar. Alistair appreciated their restraint. Even though he combed his hair in a way that hid most of it, the scarring was still visible, running from his left temple down the side of his face and neck. His shoulder and upper arm were affected the worst, but thankfully those parts were safely hidden by his clothes. He knew that he had made it out in a far better shape than most of the other men he had spent time with in the hospital, but he was still not able to look at himself in the mirror without flinching. The men he saw in the hospital had missing eyes, noses...holes where their mouths were supposed to be. Plastic surgery helped them in varying degrees, but a lot of them would forever be horrifically disfigured.
Alistair hated small talk, yet there was no way around it when spending the weekend with people who were complete strangers to him. His mother was well; the journey was fine; the weather in London was bleak. He wondered what other subjects would be raised after these were exhausted. He both dreaded and hoped for them to broach the subject of the war. It would give him an opportunity to talk about Thomas with people who actually knew him.
A footman came in with tea. Alistair looked up from his seat and froze.
Thomas. Oh God. He thought he must have finally snapped, because he could see Thomas right here in front of him. Thomas −oh dear god it was Thomas− put down the tea tray and looked at him. His lips parted in surprise, shock clearly visible on his handsome face. Thomas straightened slowly, his eyes locked on Alistair.
Alistair forgot about anyone else in the room, he got up from the settee with lightning speed and then he was embracing Thomas tightly, arms wrapped around Thomas' broad shoulders; he was solid and warm and perfect.
"Thomas, you're alive. You're alive," Alistair kept repeating in a daze.
For the longest time Thomas stood still, hands by his sides, seemingly frozen. Then, slowly, he lifted his arms and wrapped them around Alistair's middle.
"I thought you were dead," Thomas whispered, and Alistair could feel Thomas' hot breath on his cheek. He shuddered.
Alistair would not be able to say how long they stayed like that, arms wrapped around each other, ignoring the world around them. It was someone's pointed cough that brought him out of his daze. He realised what it must look like and drew back, reluctantly letting go of Thomas. He wiped at his eyes. He looked at Thomas again and couldn't help but smile. Thomas was alive, he was here, he...he was looking around nervously, his face devoid of emotion.
Alistair stepped away and laughed unconvincingly. "I am so sorry for causing a scene," he said.
He blinked several times, looking around the room, finally settling his gaze on Lady Grantham.
"It's not every day one sees a friend long thought dead," he swallowed thickly before continuing, "You see, Thomas and I−we−we were both at the Somme."
Everyone looked from Alistair to Thomas and back.
Alistair went on, "After I was sent home I tried to find out what happened to−to my friends," Alistair only ever inquired about Thomas, but saying that would confirm what everyone now undoubtedly suspected. "The War Office must have made a mistake in Thomas' case! I−I still can scarcely believe it," Alistair said with a smile.
Alistair wrote a letter to Thomas from the hospital in Netley, but it returned as undelivered. Afterwards, he asked his father to ask at the War Office, hoping that Thomas had been transferred or hospitalised himself. Instead, his father brought him news of Thomas' death. He was inconsolable for days.
"You became friends at the Front you say?" Lord Grantham asked, raising his eyebrows. Alistair dared a look at Thomas.
"Indeed we did. We were under heavy shelling that day and Thomas and I both sought shelter in the same dugout. We had to stay there for many hours, the German artillery was relentless." He paused, as if intentionally creating dramatic tension in his storytelling, before he continued, "I never experienced that level of bombardment before and I admit I was scared. The ground was shaking; shells were exploding all around us. We could only sit tight and hope our part of the trench would not collapse."
They all seemed to be listening intently. Alistair did not like being the centre of attention, but he had no choice now but to continue.
"It brought us together, you see. We talked a lot afterwards and we became fast friends."
Thomas seemed less tense now that the family was nodding in sympathy.
"I was wounded at the end of October 1916. I spent several months at the Royal Victoria Hospital before being sent home to the care of my parents. I had no contact with anyone of my battalion since I left France."
Alistair sat back onto the settee. His eyes were wet again. "I apologise for the disturbance. I hope you understand," he added.
Lady Grantham smiled at him in sympathy.
"Of course, of course, do not worry yourself over it," she said with a forced cheer. In a quiet voice she added, "What a terrible ordeal, this war."
A mutter of agreement went around the room.
"Perhaps Lord Rainsby would like to speak with Thomas in private," said Lady Mary, her expression unreadable.
"I would like that, yes," Alistair said, smiling softly. He couldn't wait to be alone with Thomas. "It would be nice to catch up."
"Carson, can you spare Thomas until dinner?" Mary asked the disapproving-looking butler.
"Of course, milady." The disapproval was palpable in Carson’s voice, but he could hardly refuse.
Alistair rose again.
"Thomas will show you to your room, Lord Rainsby,” Carson said with a slight bow.
The walk from the drawing room was full of tension and anticipation. Thomas walked two steps in front of Alistair. They did not speak. Alistair followed him up the stairs and into the bachelor corridor. Alistair thought that Thomas cut a great figure in the well-fitted livery, though he knew Thomas hated wearing it. Finally, Thomas stopped in front of a door that he proceeded to open. He walked into the room first and held the door open for Alistair.
Alistair stepped in. Thomas closed the door behind him and oh, locked the door. Alistair turned to face him.
Finally, they were alone. Thomas could still hardly believe what was happening. Alistair –his sweet, beautiful Alistair– was alive and he was here at Downton.
Thomas remembered the day in late October, over two years ago, before Alistair's platoon was to take part in the offensive again after their rest period. They were to try and take the German machine gun nests in the woods.
"Come back to me," Thomas whispered into Alistair's sandy hair. "In one piece if possible," he added as he drew back. His tone was light, but they both knew what could happen to men out there. They had seen it.
Alistair huffed and kissed him. Thomas cradled his face in his calloused hands and deepened the kiss. Alistair's lips were always soft. How he managed that after months at the Front was a mystery to Thomas.
"I wish I could promise that," said Alistair quietly when they parted. His hands slid from Thomas' shoulders to his chest, finding purchase on his breast pockets. Thomas enveloped his lover in his arms and they stayed like that till a loud bang outside of the ruined house they were in made them jump apart.
He did come back in one piece, if a little worse for wear. Thomas noticed that Alistair kept his head inclined to one side now as if trying to hide his left cheek; Thomas had already noticed that in the drawing room.
"Thomas−" breathed Alistair. He seemed nervous now.
Thomas stepped closer to him and touched his face, tenderly stroking along his jaw with his thumb. Alistair let his hair grow out a lot since the war, rather unfashionably. His hair now fell down in waves past his jaw. Thomas swiped the hair away with his thumb and saw that what first seemed as a shadow was actually scarring on the side of Alistair's face that disappeared in the collar of his shirt. For a moment he could visualise Alistair, battered and bloody and helpless, lying in the mud, not knowing if he would be picked up by a stretcher bearer in time. Wanting to distract himself from this train of thought, he leaned in and claimed Alistair's lips in a searing kiss.
His lips were still soft.
Alistair was smiling when they separated.
"I looked for you. I asked everyone I could," began Thomas, when Alistair took his hand in his and lead him to the bed.
"Let's sit down," prompted Alistair. Thomas complied.
They both perched on the edge of the bed awkwardly. Alistair did not let go of his hand as they sat.
"I asked the stretcher bearers as well as the men at the closest Regimental Aid post,” Thomas said “They said some subalterns came through, but couldn't recall anyone fitting your description. When I asked Captain Hanley he said your platoon took the brunt of the artillery barrage, that there were barely any men left.," Thomas continued in a weak voice, "It was your batman who told me you wouldn't be coming back...I took that to mean−" he stopped, swallowing thickly.
He felt Alistair's hand tighten around his.
"What happened to you, after−" Alistair trailed off. After I was gone, Thomas filled in before Alistair continued. "I wrote to you when I was well enough to do so, but the letter came back. That was a few weeks later. I was out of it for a long time."
Thomas looked at their joined hands. He never really told anyone how he got injured. He suspected O’Brien had a pretty good idea, although they never spoke of it outright.
“I thought you were dead,” Thomas replied“And wherever I went something reminded me of you. At the time I thought it was all getting worse, but with hindsight I think it was the same miserable war, though without you there...there was nothing good left of it, just the awful drudgery and fear day after day,” Thomas gulped and stroked Alistair’s hand with his thumb.
Alistair was silent, keeping his soft brown eyes on Thomas as he recounted the painful past.
“We were to take a casualty to a dressing station when suddenly the man on the other end stood up where the sandbags were too low. He was shot in between his eyes right in front of me. It was at that moment I knew I had get out. By any means,” Thomas said, and dared a look at Alistair before he continued, “I took the lighter you gave me and I held it over the top of the trench, waiting for the Jerries to see it. When they shot me it hurt like hell, but you wouldn’t believe how elated I felt in that moment.”
“You could have lost the hand.” Alistair’s eyes flickered between Thomas’ face and his gloved hand.
“I know. I was lucky. They sent me back for home service since I couldn’t carry a stretcher anymore with my hand like that.” His hand still looked quite gruesome under the fingerless glove he wore, even after all this time.
“No one suspected?” Alistair asked wide eyed, “Christ, Thomas, they would have shot you for that.”
Thomas stayed silent.
“I’m so glad you got out,” Alistair spoke softly. He touched his free hand to Thomas’ cheek.
Thomas closed his eyes. He kissed Alistair again, quenching the unpleasant memories that started to surface. He delighted in the feel of lips sliding against lips and tongues playing together with increasing intensity. Thomas had always loved kissing. As much as he enjoyed what usually followed he had always wanted to have the leisure to spend hours just lying in bed trading kisses with his lover. His encounters with men had always been short and hurried by necessity.
He pushed Alistair into the mattress, continuing his onslaught on Alistair’s sweet mouth.
Alistair spread his legs to accommodate Thomas, his arms went around Thomas’s shoulders, holding him close.
"I love you," whispered Alistair, once they broke for breath, eyes alight with emotion. Thomas felt his throat constrict.
Love? But they had not seen each other for over two years! He was in love with Alistair in 1916, sure, but that was a long time ago. When he thought Alistair had died Thomas cried, and for a time afterward, he grieved. And then he moved on. They had barely known each other for three months! Alistair couldn't really expect him to− but he did. And he was looking up at Thomas in anticipation.
"I love you," Thomas said back and brought their lips together again. He kept the kiss chaste, teasing Alistair with gentle brushes of his lips and shallow licks to which Alistair opened his mouth eagerly. This was far better than analysing his feelings. It felt good, so good. He had missed the touch of another man so badly and Alistair was so responsive. He leaned into every touch, he moaned into the kiss and his hands sought to reach as much of Thomas as possible.
Thomas felt himself grow hard, his erection was pressing uncomfortably against the front of his dress trousers. He could feel an answering hardness against his thigh where Alistair was pressing up into him. He wanted to feel skin against skin. He broke the kiss and moved his lips to the unmarred side of Alistair’s neck, kissing and nipping on the soft flesh. They both shrugged off their jackets and then Thomas pulled Alistair’s shirt from his trousers.
“Thomas−” Alistair clutched the hem of his shirt, stopping Thomas’ exploration. He looked anxious, “I would like to keep it on.”
Thomas was taken aback, but realising Alistair’s reaction was probably the result of his injury, he wanted to argue that he needn’t hide them from him. Perhaps that was better to leave for another time though. Alistair was clearly uncomfortable with the lasting effects of his injuries and Thomas would be loath to ruin this moment.
“Alright. The shirt stays on.” Thomas smoothed the fabric down Alistair’s sides.
Alistair gave him a quick nervous smile.
“Can I touch underneath? Just around your middle.” murmured Thomas against Alistair’s lips and squeezed his waist.
Alistair nodded and released his hold on the shirt.
Later, Thomas lay on his back with Alistair half draped over him. Alistair’s head rested on Thomas’ shoulder. The shirt was undoubtedly ruined, Thomas thought.
It was so good. He had not had sex with anyone since his previous encounter with Alistair and it had been so long ago! His body sang, invigorated, his spirit felt light. Gently caressing Alistair’s back he thought of the first time they laid like this. The first and only time before this surprise reunion. They had both managed to be in reserve for a few days at the same time, just after the British had captured the village of Flers and they were able to use one of the abandoned houses for their rendezvous. They had known each other for nearly two months at the time, two months of Thomas falling asleep with the image of Alistair looking up at him through his long pale eyelashes that any woman would be jealous of, smiling with a mixture of coyness and mischief. They kissed and fumbled together every moment they could steal away from their duties and their fellow soldiers, but there had not been an opportunity for them to be alone and out of sight long enough for anything more than a quick hand job. That time, however, they had the whole night in an actual bed. What a luxury! Thomas procured a tube of petroleum jelly from medical supplies at a CCS he had been to recently, Alistair brought a bottle of wine that he had stolen from Captain Hanley’s not-so-secret stash. Thomas remembered thinking at the time that they truly were made for each other.
The lovemaking itself was as lovely as could be. Alistair’s body felt like a haven for him to finally arrive to after years on a stormy sea.
Feeling Alistair’s body now, pressed against him so intimately, it was as if they had never been apart at all.
"Since when are you a Lord?" asked Thomas, sounding curious. Alistair was not surprised at his question since Alistair was solidly middle class at the time Thomas had met him. Alistair's father used to be a headmaster at a prestigious school for boys from good families, and Alistair himself was a university student studying art history before the war .
Alistair lifted his head from his comfortable position on Thomas’ shoulder. “Ah, well, the war and the Spanish Flu decimated most of my extended family. My father inherited an earldom half a year ago," he replied with a shrug.
"Something similar happened at Downton before the war...the heir died on the Titanic, so Mr. Crawley became the heir.” Thomas said.
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Alistair nodded. “I believe that’s why Lady Grantham didn’t sneer at my mother, and even invited me here.”
Thomas hummed in agreement.
Alistair drew the backs of his fingers over his lover’s collarbone and continued, “I told you before about the one time I met my exalted relatives at their country house before the war. I must have made an impression on my great uncle,” Alistair mused. The man had made use of his family’s assets and invested in several successful ventures. Though his great uncle had never married and had no children of his own, there were still several closer relatives alive at the time, and yet the man chose to bequeath his fortune to him.
“He invited me to his London house last year, shortly before he died,” said Alistair, “I told him about you, you know. I think he understood what I meant when I called you a dear friend.” This shared proclivity was the reason behind his inheritance, Alistair suspected.
Thomas was silent, so Alistair continued. “I inherited all of his money. Two hundred thousand pounds.”
Thomas stared at him in open-mouthed surprise. The amount was truly staggering, though it brought no pleasure to Alistair before this day. The only thing he used it for so far was buying a flat of his own to get away from his parents’ constant pestering.
“I bought a flat in London. I live there now.” A plan formed in his head, but just as suddenly as the idea materialised, he was gripped with uncertainty at Thomas’ reaction. Thomas did love him though, so he took a deep breath and since Thomas remained quiet, he decided to broach the subject.“Would you come with me to London? That money could last both of us a lifetime without ever needing to work.”
Thomas furrowed his brow.
“You want me to come live with you? As your...what?” he asked. Alistair could not read the tone of his voice.
“Publicly, as my friend. My parents keep insisting I need looking after, so who better to fill this role than a friend with medical knowledge?”
Alistair brushed his lips over Thomas’ cheek.
“You told me you hated your job here, and though I’m grateful that they took you on again after the war, since we would hardly have met again otherwise, I know you wanted to get away from service.”
“This sounds too good to be true, but...you’re actually serious?” stated Thomas with a questioning lilt to his voice.
“Of course I am. I want to be with you, Thomas.” Alistair wanted nothing else ever since he met Thomas. Yet he realised that, springing it on him so suddenly, Thomas must have been taken aback. For Thomas to leave his job, and the only place he knew as home during his adult life, for the lofty promise of a dream future must feel risky.
“You can tell me tomorrow, if you want to think about it,” he said. That seemed fair, didn’t it?