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Under One Small Star

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During the first few weeks, Thomas’ and Alistair’s days were mostly spent on shopping and sightseeing, both for Thomas’ benefit. They visited all the main tourist attractions, even the Zoo. Alistair took Thomas to his tailor –or rather a tailor his mother made him frequent– and Thomas got several town suits made, as well as a dinner jacket, a full white tie and all the accessories he would need to go with his new outfits.

They went to see a musical at the Hippodrome and another at His Majesty’s Theatre, after which Thomas concluded that he was definitely not a fan of the genre. To his surprise he enjoyed their visit to the British Museum quite a lot. Alistair, a former student of art history, told him interesting titbits about the various artefacts they saw there, leaving Thomas both entertained and impressed. He enjoyed listening to Alistair talk of something he was genuinely passionate about. His face lit up when he told Thomas about the incredible weight of the small slab of granite with hieroglyphs on it that they saw, or when he spoke about how the brown paint in many of the pre-Raphaelite paintings was actually made out of ground up mummies. Alistair also recounted how one of his university teachers told him about the Secretum, a secret room of the Museum that housed ‘abominable monuments to human licentiousness’. Apparently anyone who wanted to get in and see the salacious objects displayed there required a special permit; one needed to demonstrate ‘mature years and sound morals’ in order to qualify. Thomas guessed neither of them would be seeing it anytime soon –on both grounds.

They dined out often. Alistair himself preferred places that were quiet and not too posh, but he did take Thomas to the banquet at the Criterion one time, and they also dined at the Savoy several times. When they didn’t go out Alistair cooked. His breakfasts were good, but cooking anything more complex was definitely a challenge. He baked too on occasion, and that, Thomas had to say, had much better results. Alistair seemed to enjoy all that and there was much to say about being served breakfast in bed. Cooking at home though meant that there were dishes to be done afterwards. Thomas felt he ought to help with that when Alistair did the cooking part, but at the same time he wholeheartedly resented it since something like that would have been beneath him even while he was a footman. He was no bloody scullery maid. He needed to persuade Alistair to either hire a maid to come in every now and then, which would be a cheap, if intrusive solution, or buy that new dishwasher contraption. Alistair loved modern gadgets, after all. A maid should come in anyways for the other menial tasks, Thomas thought. After all, a man in Alistair’s position should not be doing them; and Thomas, well, let’s just say Thomas would rather not do them either.

Other than that, his life with Alistair was everything he thought it would be and more. They enjoyed lazy mornings in bed that more often than not turned into a bout of sex; and speaking of sex, they already tried the sofa and the kitchen table for that purpose as well, both with satisfactory results. After breakfast Thomas usually read the morning paper, delivered diligently by the porter each day. Alistair would most often cuddle up with him and read one of his books, but sometimes he would ask Thomas to read out loud to him from the paper and they made fun of the society pages. They played cards and Thomas taught Alistair how to cheat, and a few times Alistair played a bit of music on the grand piano. Apparently it was already in the flat when he bought the place. The previous owner did not want to go through the bother of moving it.
Their lazy idyll would be interrupted the upcoming Saturday with a scheduled visit to see Alistair’s parents in the country. Alistair told his mother about their near miraculous reunion when she called soon after they came to London together. Alistair’s parents –Lord and Lady Clarendon to Thomas– were supposedly greatly looking forward to meeting their son’s new-found friend.

“It’ll be fine,” Alistair said to him as they were getting ready to leave. “We’ll stay the night and then leave after luncheon.”

Thomas smoothed down his tie and looked at his reflection in the wardrobe’s inner mirror. A good tailor’s work really was something else. The suit fit him like he was born in it. But although he now looked like a gentleman, Alistair’s parents knew his working class origins and –no matter what Alistair thought– would undoubtedly not be pleased to see him.

The Rainsby family resided in Bedfordshire. It would take them an hour and a half on the train and then there should be a car waiting for them at the station to take them to Cranfield Court. Their journey to Cranfield was far more subdued than the last time they took a train, but Thomas supposed Alistair wasn’t in the mood for sex right before seeing his parents. It would be a nice distraction though. Instead Alistair recounted some stories from his boyhood, that would probably be funny had one been there to see it. Unlike Thomas, Alistair seemed to have a good relationship with his family. However, if Alistair’s parents knew the true nature of their son’s bond with Thomas, it would very likely turn much the same as it had for Thomas. They would have to be very careful during their visit.

***

Cranfield Court was much smaller than he expected, it was only about a fifth of the size of Downton Abbey. The red brick manor had two different spires on one side and most of the walls were covered in ivy. It had a bit of a Gothic feel to it, Thomas thought. Lord and Lady Clarendon were waiting for them in front of the house, with several of their staff lined up.

Alistair gave him an encouraging smile before they exited the car, touching Thomas’ arm briefly.

Thomas stood still as Alistair hugged his mother and then his father in a warm greeting. Then Alistair turned to him and smiling brightly he said, “I would like to introduce my friend, Thomas Barrow.”

That was Thomas’ cue to come closer and try to make a good impression.

Lady Clarendon proclaimed how delighted she was to finally meet him and offered Thomas her outstretched hand for a kiss. He’s never had to greet a woman like this before and he briefly wondered whether his lips should actually touch her hand or not. He had observed the Downton folk go through this ritual many times, but he never really paid close attention. He opted for no contact.

Lord Clarendon’s reception was noticeably colder, but he offered Thomas a handshake and a ‘how-do-you-do’ as was expected.

“How do you do?” asked Thomas in reply. So far so good.

Introductions over, they moved inside. Thomas looked around the entrance hall, and he couldn’t help but compare everything he saw to Downton. Here too was an imposing wooden staircase, but the gallery only ran to one side and the ceiling was much lower. The room had paintings of long dead and possibly quite distant relatives hanging on the walls above the decorative wooden panelling, as well as several trophies of unfortunate animals of the antler-y sort. They went through the hall to the drawing room and sat down. Alistair sat on the same sofa as Thomas, but a proper distance apart. Tea was served.

“What an incredible thing to happen,” opened Lady Clarendon. “I’m so glad we can welcome you in our home, Mr Barrow,” she smiled at Thomas who gave her a nod and an answering smile. “Ali told me you were also led to believe that he— well, you know.” That he was killed, Thomas filled in what the woman didn’t want to say out loud.

“That’s right, Ma’am,” he said, “I’m afraid I misunderstood what I was told by our comrades. I didn’t think of checking with the War Office later. Though I guess they too can make a mistake.” As he said that Thomas caught Lord Clarendon’s eyes. What he saw in the older man’s gaze unsettled him, though he could not name why.

“You were wounded too, were you not?” asked Lord Clarendon.

“Yes,” Thomas replied, flexing his hand unconsciously.

“Fascinating that such a little thing could get a man sent home,” his lordship followed, his voice cold. Thomas didn't like his tone at all.

“I was sent for home service, not home. I served at a military hospital in Downton till the end of the war,” Thomas replied. He was not going to take being talked down to like that. He had done his bit.

“And how did you come to work for the Granthams?” Lady Clarendon interjected, undoubtedly trying to diffuse the sudden tension.

“I worked at the Abbey before the war. I didn’t plan to return to service, but they were in a pinch after the Flu epidemic and I agreed to stay there for a while longer,” Thomas told them. While not precisely how it happened, it wasn’t exactly a lie. Alistair smiled at him behind the rim of his cup.

“How kind of you,” Lady Clarendon said. She too gave him a smile and Thomas thought it seemed genuine enough.

“And what are your plans for the future, now that you’re no longer employed?” asked Lord Clarendon. The implication that he better not plan on mooching off of Alistair was not lost on Thomas.

“I’m afraid I haven’t given Thomas any time to think about that yet, we had so much to do the past few weeks!” Alistair exclaimed with just a hint of forced cheer, before Thomas could try and form any sort of satisfactory reply.

“I’m so glad to hear you’ve been getting around again, Ali. You’ve been holed up in that flat of yours for far too long,” her ladyship said, her voice slightly admonishing. “I’m glad to hear that Mr Barrow’s presence is having a positive influence on you.”

Alistair told them what they did and saw around London since Thomas came to live with him, leaving out the sordid details. To Thomas’ relief Lord Clarendon didn’t join the discussion further, instead letting his wife do the questioning. When they finished their tea Alistair announced that he would like to show Thomas the grounds and they went off to take a walk before dinner.

————————

Alistair thought the visit was going quite well so far. Father was being his usual self –all those years as a headmaster making him sound like he’s questioning a misbehaving pupil every time he meets someone new– while mother was happy he was up and about being sociable and would thank the devil if he were the cause.

Thomas was a bit subdued while Alistair showed him around the adjoining park. Alistair chose the way, leading them to a little wooden arbour south of the house —not only was it a rather romantic spot; it was also hidden from any prying eyes. When they reached the white structure overlooking a small pond, Alistair put his arms around Thomas’ waist and drew him into a kiss. They kissed for long minutes, standing there, holding each other close in an intimate embrace. Alistair loved how solid Thomas felt under his hands and the way Thomas kissed. Thomas liked to put the palm of his hand on the side of Alistair’s face or bury it in his hair while their lips and tongues met in a sensual dance. They stayed there for a long time, eventually sitting down on one of the benches there.

Alistair was happy to note that Thomas seemed more at ease on their way back to the house. They dressed for dinner in their respective rooms, entering the house only a short while before the dressing gong sounded. Whenever Alistair dined at Cranfield he had to think about the first time he visited the manor shortly before the war, while the Earldom and the house still belonged to the main branch of the Rainsby family. His father and mother used to be invited once a year to join the family during the Easter holidays and that year they decided to bring Alistair with them. Alistair was of course taken in with the beauty and splendour of the place, but he had spent most of his time there watching the two handsome footmen that served them during dinner. Later he found out that neither of them returned from war.

He enjoyed the sight of Thomas in his footman’s uniform at Downton as well, but Thomas in white tie was something else. He looked divine. Alistair had to exercise all his willpower not to trace the lapels of Thomas’ jacket down to his waist when he saw him leave his room. He settled on an appraising look and a coy smile. They came down to dinner together.

“Now that you’re better, I could invite some neighbours next time you’re here. Mrs. Hutchinson and her daughters perhaps,” Alistair’s mother said after the starter was served, making him choke on the salmon.

“Mother, I—” Alistair started, thinking on how to diplomatically express his lack of interest in meeting the Hutchinson daughters, or any daughters for that matter.

“It would do you a whole lot of good to get married. A wife would look after you properly,” his father chipped in. Alistair sighed.

“I’m perfectly capable in looking after myself,” Alistair said, hoping his tone wasn’t too snappish. He understood his parents’ wishes to see him settled, since they didn’t know he already was. Though he was not keen on meeting the women, if it pleased his parents he would bear an hour or two of being nice to them, “But I’m not opposed to having tea with the Hutchinsons next time.”

“Wonderful!” Alistair’s mother exclaimed. “You're young; you should be meeting new people, making friends!”

Alistair looked across the table to Thomas and tried to convey his feelings on the matter with his expression. He didn't need anyone else. He was so in love with Thomas, he wished he could shout it from the rooftops. It made his heart ache that no one else could ever know.

The rest of the dinner was fortunately spent on more innocuous subjects, though Thomas was asked some questions about his family he didn’t seem too happy to answer. Come to think of it Alistair himself knew very little about Thomas’ relations. Thomas rarely spoke about his life before he came to Downton.

Alistair’s father was not a proponent of either alcohol or cigarettes and therefore didn’t adopt the upper class tradition of after-dinner port and cigars. He announced that he still had some work to do in his office and left his wife to take coffee with Alistair and Thomas on her own. It was about ten o’clock when they retired.

“Will you come in for a bit?” Thomas asked when they reached the corridor where their bedrooms were located.

“I would like to, but we both know where that would lead and I can’t do that here with my parents around,” whispered Alistair. He smiled at Thomas and added, “Goodnight.”

Thomas’ eyes said that he would like a kiss to go with the goodnight wish, but he just nodded and disappeared in his room.

Alistair didn’t sleep as well as he had done in the past few weeks sharing his bed with Thomas, his dreams were decidedly darker and his sleep fitful. He loved his parents dearly and was happy to see them, but he would be glad to be home again soon. He got used to Thomas' constant presence so quickly. It made him feel alive after the months he spent just existing, waiting for each day to be over. Everything seemed more vivid, more real now, where the war made the world around him turn grey and dull before.

Alistair gave Thomas a smile when he came down to breakfast and got one back in return. He wondered if Thomas also slept better when they were wrapped around one another.
While they nibbled on their toasts and spooned their eggs mother spoke of her plans for the following week. There was to be some charity event for war orphans at the local parish and she took it upon herself to help with the organisation. She also told them about taking part in selection of the war memorial that would be uncovered at the anniversary of the Armistice. Names of all the men from the parish who lost their lives in the war would be there, including the previous Earl’s sons’. Alistair would have preferred a lighter conversation over breakfast, but he was glad mother was taking part in the local community here. She was involved in all sorts of things while they still resided in Surrey.

Alistair tried to listen as mother spoke further about the various neighbours and their contributions to the local organizations, but he couldn’t really concentrate and his mind wandered. He was brought from his reverie when he heard Thomas say, “I have only heard it as a record. We bought a gramophone recently.” When did the conversation move away from neighbours to music? It’s been a long time since he’s spaced out like this.

“Did you buy it, or did Alistair?” Alistair heard his father ask, and he cringed.

Thomas put down the cutlery with an audible clink. “Alistair paid for it, if that’s what you mean,” he answered, his voice level, his expression carefully schooled.

“Father,” Alistair interjected in admonishment. His father had always been much more money-conscious than Alistair and he abhorred what he thought of as frivolous spending. Sharing his money with Thomas was undoubtedly throwing it out the window in his eyes. He hoped Thomas wouldn't take it to heart too much.

“Alistair, I would like to talk to you after breakfast,” his father said. Alistair swallowed a piece of toast and nodded.

He caught Thomas' eyes and gave him a small half smile. He hoped Thomas wasn’t too bothered by his father’s questions.

When they finished breakfast Alistair got up to follow his father into his office. As he was leaving he heard mother say, “Here, have another cuppa. And tell me, how did you and Alistair meet in the war?” Alistair shot an apologetic look at Thomas and closed the door.
_________________

Lady Clarendon asked Thomas all sorts of questions about his and Alistair’s time during the war. Thomas managed to come up with several anecdotes about what they got up to together that didn’t involve hiding behind ammunition casings or boxes of medical supplies to kiss and cop a feel. The woman seemed the very opposite of her husband to Thomas. Lord Clarendon didn’t speak much, but when he did it was clear he found Thomas thoroughly disagreeable and he didn’t even have to know the true nature of Thomas’ relationship with his son. The countess however was a chatterbox and looked genuinely happy about meeting him. Several times during their conversation she mentioned how finding out he was alive brought a great change to Alistair’s countenance. She told him how worried she was about Alistair since he returned from the war; first that he might not recover from his injuries and then that he had lost all his cheer forever. It made him wonder what Alistair’s state was like for her to be so relieved now.

When Alistair returned Lady Clarendon asked him to play the piano for her. She and Thomas sat on armchairs in the music room while Alistair sat behind the grand piano. He played something that Thomas didn’t know, but it was undoubtedly some old classic. At home Alistair mostly played popular songs.

***

Thomas was counting down the time till they were to leave for their train back to London. He smoked several cigarettes on the upper terrace while Alistair talked to his mother. The visit wasn’t as horrible as he imagined it was going to be, but if it went on for much longer he wouldn’t be able to hold himself from saying something unpleasant to Lord Clarendon. Still, it was kind of funny that he was a working class man playing at being better while they were a middle class family trying to fit into the untimely vacated aristocratic shoes of their relatives. What a farce. He checked his pocket watch, it was time to go. Flicking the third cigarette butt off the balcony he turned to head back inside.

Walking down the stairs he heard Alistair’s voice, “I know, sometimes I think he’s only interested in the money.”

Thomas came to a halt. Alistair couldn’t mean him— could he? Thomas couldn’t see him or who he was talking to. He stood still and listened.

“I just don’t want it to come in between us,” Alistair continued, his voice coming closer now. There was an audible sigh.

“I know, darling, but you have to think of yourself first, and about your future,” said Lady Clarendon as they walked through the corridor, not noticing Thomas on the landing above.

Thomas leaned on the wall. Did Alistair really think that about him? Thomas did like the money, of course he did, but it wasn’t what drew him to Alistair, not in France and not after. Everyone always assumed the worst about him. He had thought Alistair was different.

How much did Alistair tell to his mother about them anyways? Thomas was under the impression neither of the parents were meant to know about them. Undoubtedly old Clarendon put that into Alistair’s head during their morning talk, with the way he carried on at breakfast. That Alistair took that to heart wounded Thomas more than he wanted to admit. He needed to think carefully about what to do next. His mood was foul as he reached the hall.

————————

“Are you alright, Thomas?” Alistair asked, concerned, when he met Thomas in the hall.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” retorted Thomasin a sharp voice, his face was not unlike the blank mask Alistair saw at Downton. It made Alistair draw back in surprise.

“I— I don’t know,” he said carefully. “I thought it went rather well, didn’t it?” He wondered if something happened he didn't know about. He didn’t notice anything amiss earlier.

“Right.” Thomas' cold tone made it clear that he disagreed.

“It’ll be good to be home though,” Alistair said. At least he hoped so. Thomas looked at him as if he wanted to say something more and then thought better of it. It made Alistair's stomach lurch.

Alistair felt a slight tremor in his hand, he shook it off and it stopped. He breathed a sigh of relief. He would really like to have a cigarette before they went into the car. He knew his father would disapprove though. Speaking of father, after breakfast Alistair had to listen to a long and arduous speech about how he should manage his finances. He was once again told how imprudent it was of him not to invest separate portions of his fortune into the various schemes father suggested to him before, and he was also informed what repairs Cranfield Court needed that he should help out with. After all, he would inherit the house one day. Sometimes he thought father was sore about Alistair landing such a great amount of money while he didn't get much else but the title with the manor and the London house; both mostly just swallowing upkeep money every month. Thankfully when Alistair mentioned it to mother she was having none of it and told him to do with his money as he thought best.

He and Thomas walked together to the front of the house in silence. Alistair hugged both his parents and they said their goodbyes to Thomas. Mother told him she would be glad to see him again at which Thomas thanked her for her kind welcome. Then they both climbed into the waiting car and they were off. In the car Thomas seemed preoccupied with his thoughts. Alistair noticed Thomas clenching his hand and laid his own on top of Thomas' to try and comfort him. Whatever was on his mind, Alistair hoped Thomas would tell him. Thomas' hand stilled, but Alistair left his in place.

It was a short drive to the train station and soon they were out of the car and on the platform.

————————

Thomas fought the urge to shrug Alistair's hand off of his. He steadfastly looked out the window of the car the whole ride to the station. He still wasn't sure what his course of action now should be. He was angry with Alistair for what he said, and at the same time he wanted to kiss him and make him understand what Thomas felt for him was real. Okay, so maybe right after Alistair showed up at Downton Thomas thought of the money more than about his future with Alistair, but he was only looking after himself, as he had to do his whole life. Living with Alistair though, he was reminded why he fell in love with him during the war. It was just possible that Thomas’ indignity at the accusation was fuelled by guilty conscience.

They had to change trains in Bedford on the journey back. Alistair offered to go and see what platform their train would be leaving from. Thomas was glad to be alone with his thoughts for a few moments, when suddenly he heard a rumbling voice next to him, “Barrow, by Jove, it's you, you lucky devil!”

Thomas turned to come face to face with a ruddy skinned man, not much older than him. It took him a second to realize where he knew the man from since his features were distorted by a healed over facial wound. A wide scar bisected the man's face from forehead to mouth, making the mouth slant down unnaturally.

“Sargent Jenkins,” Thomas said as his memory connected face to a name. Jenkins was one of the soldiers he used to play cards with back in the trenches.

“Seems like someone’s got a windfall, eh? You look like a proper gentleman now, working class lad that you are! I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Thomas wished he hadn’t and hoped Jenkins would leave. He was not in the mood for chitchat. Jenkins however, pressed on, unbothered by Thomas' lack of response.

“Did you marry rich or what?” his jovial tone grated on Thomas' nerves even before he registered the words.

“Maybe I did,” Thomas replied icily. Alistair certainly thought that was his intention, figuratively speaking.

“You don’t look too happy about it,” said Jenkins looking at Thomas inquisitively and scratched his chin. Thomas had had enough. He didn’t have to stand here and listen to someone he didn’t care about one notch scrutinise his current feelings.

“I might not look happy, but at least I don’t look like a broken gargoyle,” Thomas said and turned away before he had a chance to see Jenkins’ reaction. What he saw instead was Alistair, standing two paces away.