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Under One Small Star

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“I might not look happy, but at least I don’t look like a broken gargoyle,”

Alistair was struck speechless. He couldn’t believe what Thomas had said to that poor man.

When Thomas turned around he was visibly surprised to see Alistair there. He froze for a moment, then started walking towards Alistair, his face once more a blank mask.

“Let’s go,” Thomas said, looking away from him.

Alistair went, and steered them onto the platform the train to London was departing from. They did not speak as they boarded their train and stayed quiet when they sat down opposite each other in the compartment.

Alistair’s mind kept relentlessly replaying to him the scene he had just witnessed. It was obvious Thomas’ foul mood from before exacerbated the whole exchange, but calling the poor man that was just—  And what if Thomas thought about him that way too? What did Thomas think when he looked at Alistair anyways? Did he put up with his scarred face because he loved him? Did he love him? He had not said so since the time at Downton Abbey several weeks ago. And now that Alistair thought about it, he sort of maneuvered Thomas into having to say it back. He was so overcome with emotion at their reunion it just poured out of him mere minutes after seeing Thomas for the first time in over two years. Maybe Thomas had just felt sorry for him then. And he was not happy, he said so to that man. Up until that morning Alistair thought everything was working wonderfully between the two of them. The way Thomas had carried on today was so alien to him. Had Thomas pretended the whole time they spent together?

All those questions burned on his tongue, but he felt unable to give voice to a single one of them. What stopped him was fear that the worst of his thoughts would prove true.

He turned his gaze from the window to Thomas, then looked away again. He noticed Thomas clenching his hand nervously. Alistair felt a knot in his stomach, as if some invisible force had grabbed his insides and squeezed. He touched his hand to his scared cheek and closed his eyes. He craved a glass of whiskey. He could get one at the restaurant car, but he didn't want to get up; didn't want to speak to the people there. He chanced another look at Thomas and their eyes met. Alistair held his gaze for several seconds and felt his scar burn under the palm of his hand as if it might sear through the skin.

He knew he should say something, demand an explanation of the cold shoulder he was given, tell Thomas off for his cruel words at the station, but he couldn’t find the words with which to start. He closed his eyes again and leaned his head against the padded wall of the carriage, set on pretending to be asleep for the rest of the journey.

***

“Alistair,” Alistair heard Thomas say, accompanied by a touch to his knee. He opened his eyes and realized the train had stopped, the view from the window showing the familiar walls of King’s Cross station.

“Ah, that was quick,” Alistair said as he sat up. He must have actually drifted off after all. He took out his watch and looked at the time. It was shortly after four in the afternoon.

“Shall we?” Thomas said and stood up, waiting for Alistair to follow suit. They got off the train, collected their luggage and caught a taxi to take them to Whitehaven Mansions. This day could not be over soon enough, Alistair thought.

***

Alistair poured himself a tumbler of whiskey from the decanter in the living room and quickly knocked it back. The alcohol burned in his throat but soon a feeling of warmth spread down his chest, leaving him pleasantly buzzed. He poured another glass and took it with him to the sofa to sip while he idly flipped through a book without really looking at the words. It was the latest Sherlock Holmes novel and Alistair had already read it during the war.

Thomas was in the kitchen at the moment, getting something to eat. Alistair wasn’t hungry. Or rather, he didn’t think he would be able to stomach anything other than the liquor. He didn’t want to leave things strained between the two of them, but he wasn’t ready to discuss what transpired today either —though he didn’t think he would be any more ready tomorrow or any day thereafter. He could never find the right words in an argument and trying to do so usually left him feeling frustrated more than anything. And hours later the things he could have said to make his point would pop into his head one after another, leaving him to futilely bemoan a missed opportunity. He learned to try and avoid confrontations altogether, even though he knew seething in silence wasn’t doing him any good.

“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Thomas asked him when he walked into the drawing room. Alistair lifted his head from staring unseeingly at the novel in his lap to look at him. Thomas had no business looking so handsome when Alistair was angry with him. His hair fell over his forehead free of the brilliantine in just the way that made him look boyish and charming and his undershirt was clinging to his frame in just the right way.

“No, thank you,” Alistair said, “I’m fine.” He quickly took another sip of the whiskey.

“Right,” said Thomas, running his hand through his hair. His eyes searched Alistair’s face, but for what Alistair was not sure. “I think I’ll have an early night,” he added. Alistair nodded and Thomas turned away and left the room.

Alistair set the book on the low table by the sofa, it was doing little to help him take his mind off of things and he no longer needed the pretense of being occupied. He stretched his legs, placing them on the table as well, and slid down on the sofa. It was comfortable, but he would get a crick in his neck if he stayed like that for long. It also wasn’t easy to drink in this position and that wouldn’t do. He braced himself on his elbows and drew himself up slightly.

He heard the shower running. Thomas once said that their tub was big enough for the two of them, that it was a fantasy of his to enjoy a glass of champagne in it together before making love in the warm water.  It had sounded nice, but it would require Alistair to take his top off in front of Thomas and that he couldn't bring himself to do. He wondered if he ever would. He wouldn't be able to bear if Thomas was repulsed, if he said––

Alistair balanced his tumbler on the arm of the sofa and took out his cigarettes and lighter. There was an ashtray in its usual spot on the coffee table and he drew it nearer. Taking one cigarette out of the red and yellow box he lit it and settled back. Soon he heard the water stop in the bathroom and then the doors to their bedroom opening and closing. Was it a good sign that Thomas went to bed to the bed they shared rather than the one in the spare room? Maybe it was just habit. In any way, he would have to go and join Thomas sooner or later. He stubbed out the cigarette and pushed away the ashtray.

A deafening noise sounded somewhere in the street below. Alistair started. His heart skipped a beat when he heard it and was making up for it furiously now, hammering against his ribs like a trapped hummingbird. It was probably just a car backfiring, he reasoned, there was no need to get himself worked up over that. His body, however, refused to listen to reason. All sound around him faded and he felt his hands start to shake. Oh no. He needed to calm down. He got up gingerly, and made his way to the bathroom. His usual spot.

 

———

 

Thomas was tired. The day left him feeling raw and unsettled. He didn’t like the way things were left unspoken between him and Alistair, but at the same time he wished the confrontation could be avoided indefinitely. He would have to be careful about what he said, watch his tongue. If only it was possible to forget all that had happened today so he could cuddle up with Alistair and let the sound of his heartbeat and the softness of the mattress lull him to sleep. He got used to sleeping like that so quickly. But tonight be didn’t think Alistair would let him do that. Maybe he should have gone to bed in the spare room?

Alistair was taking a long time in the bathroom though, it had to be a good half hour since Thomas heard the door from the corridor to the bathroom open and close. Thomas wanted to take a look at his pocket watch on the bedside table, but it wasn’t there. He must have left it in the bathroom when he undressed.

He climbed out the bed and made his way to the bathroom door. Not wanting to barge in on Alistair Thomas knocked and waited. There was no reply. Thomas knocked again with the same result. That was strange, he definitely heard him walk in before. He opened the door and entered.

Alistair was sitting on the marble tiles in a corner of the room with his legs bent, arms wrapped around himself and his head resting on his knees. He was shaking like a leaf. Startled, Thomas was there in three long strides and then knelt in front of the huddled figure of his lover.

“Alistair, what happened, what’s wrong?”

Thomas repeated his name several times but there was no reaction from Alistair; he seemed not to have noticed his presence at all. Thomas had seen similar behaviour before, while Downton was still a convalescent home.

He reached to touch Alistair’s hair. “Alistair,” Thomas spoke softly. The touch seemed to have alerted Alistair to his being there. He lifted his head from where it rested on his knees and looked at Thomas with watery red-rimmed eyes. A sob escaped him, then another. His head fell back onto his knees and his hands tightened where they were wrapped around his legs.

“Come here,” Thomas murmured as he lifted Alistair up from the floor. Alistair was still shaking as Thomas carried him from the bathroom to their bed. Thomas carefully sat down, his back to the headboard, and cradled Alistair in his arms. Alistair folded into his embrace, but otherwise stayed unmoving, except for the continuous shivering. He tried to soothe Alistair with his touch and his words, even though he didn’t really know if what he said made any sense. Alistair seemed to react more to the touch anyways, so it probably didn’t matter. Slowly, but gradually, the tremors subsided.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Alistair in a weak voice. “I– I thought maybe it had gone away. I should have said, but I—“ he tried to wipe at his eyes, but more tears were still falling down his pale cheeks. Thomas leaned his head down to kiss Alistair’s ruffled hair.

“It’s alright. It’s alright, just—“  Thomas was at a loss for words. He knew Alistair wasn’t completely fine before tonight, though he had not realized the extent of it. He had encountered many shell shock patients during the war, most of them acute cases, showing their symptoms constantly; no two exactly the same. Being away from the battlefield for a period of time helped some men, though Thomas knew that many other cures were tried and encouraged during the war. Disciplinary treatment, physical re-education and the infliction of pain were the main methods used. Electric shock treatment was very popular too, later on. It involved an electric current being applied to various body parts to cure the symptoms. For example, the current would be applied to the pharynx of a soldier suffering from mutism or to the spine of a man who had problems walking. Thomas wondered if Alistair had gone through any of that. With that thought he tightened his hold on him, as if he could protect him from any of the horrors now.

In that moment the events of the past day didn’t seem to matter. Seeing Alistair in such a sorry state disturbed Thomas and all his previous anger and disappointment had evaporated the moment he saw him huddled in the corner of the bathroom. Now Alistair clung to him like his life depended on it, soaking Thomas’ pyjama top with salty tears. Thomas liked feeling needed, depended upon, and whatever Alistair thought of him, he clearly needed him.

Unbidden, his thoughts wandered to his time in the Downton hospital and on another man marked by the war in a different way. He felt mildly guilty about his feelings for lieutenant Courtney that sprung up so suddenly while, unbeknownst to him, Alistair was at a different hospital still holding onto Thomas’ memory. While he was with Alistair in France he did not know if they would get out of there alive and he didn’t dare to imagine any sort of future, subconsciously afraid of jinxing it. When he tended to Courtney at the hospital he did imagine being by his side once the war ended, helping him navigate the world in the dark. But in the end he was not able to help Courtney; the man was dead and gone —just another casualty of the war.

Thomas didn’t like dwelling on his past regrets, there was no point to think of could-have-beens. He rested his chin in Alistair’s hair, his hands continued to idly stroke his back in lazy circles. Unlike Courtney Alistair survived the war, even if he had not yet escaped its shadow. And Thomas could help him fight his ghosts, now that he had an idea what he was up against. If he dealt with this situation well, it might even earn him some points in Alistair’s eyes, make him realize he had Thomas wrong.

Alistair was no longer shaking or crying in his arms; he was asleep, probably exhausted by the whole thing. Thomas was ready to drop too, tired beyond belief. He slid forwards on the bed to get out of his rather uncomfortable position and managed to wrangle out a blanket to throw over the both of them. Alistair did not stir.

 

—————————

 

When Alistair awoke it took him several moments to remember what led to him falling asleep still in his day clothes. His face felt disgusting with dried tears and his hair was sticking to it unpleasantly. His temples pulsed with headache. Good God. He had hoped Thomas would never have to see him in that state. It happened so rarely now compared to even a year ago, but it would not leave him completely.

Thomas laid underneath him now, his hands wrapped loosely around Alistair’s back. He lifted his head off Thomas’ chest; Thomas was still soundly asleep, his handsome face relaxed. It was a great comfort for him last night to be held by Thomas during his episode; though he was not able to hear him, his touch anchored him, made him feel safe. He didn’t seem to be put off by how pathetic Alistair was, bawling all over him, clinging like a child. Whatever Thomas felt and whatever yesterday’s exchange with the unfortunate soldier signified, his actions meant that he did care about Alistair.

He felt clear headed and surprisingly well rested. He needed to make a sense of things the sooner the better. Scrutinising everything that transpired yesterday, from breakfast to their arrival here, led Alistair to the conclusion that his father’s comments about their finances might have affected Thomas more than he first let on. He didn’t think about it before ––and how stupid of him–– but now he thought Thomas might find it demeaning to have Alistair pay for everything out of his own wallet or with cheques in his name. That was nothing that couldn’t be easily solved, however. Thomas’ feelings towards him were a different matter. He now realized it was not sensible to believe nothing had changed in the two and half years they were apart. Alistair himself was changed by the war and the wounds he suffered, inside and out. Thomas remained a constant in his mind throughout it all, but of course he, too, had to be altered in some manner. It had been a long time and Alistair would not be able to blame Thomas had he moved on completely, found someone else. He didn't though, he came to London with Alistair, he was currently sleeping in Alistair's bed.

Alistair got up, careful not to wake Thomas and made his way to the bathroom. He desperately needed the shower he never managed to have yesterday. He felt better after he washed and dressed himself, even his headache had stopped. Thomas was still asleep when Alistair emerged from the bathroom. He tiptoed around the bed and made his way into the kitchen. He would make brownies, he decided. Baking had a soothing effect on him as he found out some time ago. He took out all the ingredients he would need and started with melting the butter. They were running out of cocoa and he wrote it down on the shopping list that was kept on the table, weighed down by the sugarbowl. Half the list were his messy scribbles, half was in Thomas’ neat handwriting.

His mind was fully occupied by the preparation of the batter. It wasn't until he put the pan into the oven that his niggling doubts came back. He washed up and whiled away the remaining time by rearranging cooking utensils in the drawers. The brownies would not take more than thirty minutes to bake. It was nearing nine, Thomas would probably wake up soon. He used to wake up very early, before the sun was even up, but lately he managed to sleep in more often than not.

Alistair checked on the brownies and finding them sufficiently baked he turned off the oven. He put on oven mitts and proceeded to take the steaming pan out. He loved the smell of freshly baked pastries, it reminded him of his childhood when he often nosed around the kitchen while the cook was preparing the family’s meals. As Alistair turned to place the pan on the kitchen table the door opened and Thomas walked in. He was still in his pyjamas, having tied a dressing gown over it.  

Alistair set the pan down and took off the mittens. Thomas paused two steps into the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, for yesterday,” Thomas said quietly, an imploring look in his stormy grey eyes. He didn’t offer an explanation to what had transpired.

Alistair swallowed thickly and nodded.

“How are you feeling?” Thomas asked.

“I’m fine,” replied Alistair and then added, “Thank you.”

Thomas looked rather sweet, standing in the kitchen in his dressing gown, with his hair falling over his forehead, looking apprehensive and hopeful at the same time. Alistair smiled; he would always be weak where Thomas was concerned.

Possibly encouraged by Alistair’s smile Thomas crossed over to him and gingerly put his right arm around his waist. He was looking at Alistair intently as he cupped his face with his left. Alistair closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, feeling anchored.

“I love you,” Thomas spoke when Alistair looked at him again. Please don’t say it if you’re only feeling sorry for me, Alistair thought, but aloud he repeated Thomas’ words to him, “I love you, too.” It was the truth, after all.

Thomas drew him closer still. Alistair touched his head to Thomas’ shoulder and wrapped his hands around his neck, grabbing fistfuls of the dressing gown. Alistair wouldn’t be able to tell how long they stayed in the embrace; Thomas’ closeness made him lose track of time. He wanted to protest when Thomas drew back but before he could form a single word his lips were claimed by Thomas’. Thomas kissed him slowly, but with purpose; threading his fingers through Alistair’s hair the way he knew Alistair liked.

“Breakfast?” Alistair asked when they finally separated.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Thomas. He kept his hand on the small of Alistair’s back as he walked around him to the stove, releasing him only when he needed both hands to fill it with water. They went around their task in a companionable silence. Alistair’s mood brightened considerably.

 

________________

 

Thomas was slightly alarmed when he woke up alone; last night still perfectly vivid in his mind. Worry still gnawed at him as he washed his face, but as he walked out the bedroom, he noticed a sweet smell coming from the kitchen. When he entered the room, Alistair was standing across the room holding a pan full of steaming brownies in the ugly floral print oven mitts they bought for a laugh. Thomas was reminded of the morning several weeks ago after he came to London when Alistair first made breakfast for him. This Alistair’s eyes were red-rimmed though and his expression subdued.

“I’m sorry, for yesterday,” Thomas said. And he was. Alistair was not meant to hear his exchange with the wounded sergeant. Alistair didn’t speak, but he gave Thomas a nod. Well, that wasn’t a terribly good start.

He tried for a different opening, “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thank you.” said Alistair after a small pause. He neither sounded nor looked fine, though Thomas was hardly expecting a different answer. Had Thomas had a breakdown like that in front of someone he would also want to seem put together after.

Then Alistair smiled at him and his smile was no less beautiful than the first time Thomas saw it. His cherry pink lips dipping up and his expression softening made Thomas’ heart skip a beat. He loved Alistair, he was sure of it now, and he needed Alistair to know it, to understand that it was him and not his position or his wealth that Thomas wanted. He enjoyed the comforts of his new lifestyle and he would be loath to part from it, but sod it all, if he had to choose.

He took two steps forward and Alistair was still looking at him with the same soft expression. Thomas touched him softly and said, “I love you.” He waited with bated breath and when Alistair replied in kind he surged forward and kissed him. Alistair parted his lips for him without prompting. He was always so receptive and eager, it never ceased to amaze Thomas. He thought on the first time they kissed, less than three weeks after they met. He remembered being sure Alistair was like him; and almost sure Alistair wanted him too. The way Alistair looked at him, the way he smiled, the way he would lean in close when they spoke and how he occasionally touched Thomas’ arm as if by accident. He had to be right.

“Thomas! I’m so sorry I’m late, Captain Hanley wanted me to supervise the repair to the wall of the communication trench and it took longer than I thought it would,” Alistair got that out so quickly that Thomas only caught every third word and had to fill in the rest.

“It’s fine,” said Thomas and crushed his smoked cigarette under his boot. “Come with me,” he added and motioned for Alistair to follow him. Alistair did so without question.

Thomas led him behind some crates full of ammunition stacked up high in several rows. He was about to do what he dreamed off doing since Alistair searched him out after their night in the dugout. Taking him by his shoulders Thomas spun Alistair around and pushed him against the wooden box, kissing him deeply. Alistair wrapped his arms around him and moaned into the kiss. After they had to break away for air Alistair whispered, “I’m so glad you did that. I was gathering the courage to say something, but—” He laughed and leaned in to kiss Thomas again.

They kissed with urgency, lips and tongues hot and demanding. They broke apart when they heard voices drawing closer to the wall of wooden crates that served as their hiding place. Casually leaning on them to give impression of a confidential discussion should anyone venture past the barrier and see the two of them there, they exchanged private smiles full of promise. The men outside walked past without paying them any attention and soon were out of earshot. Thomas and Alistair shared a look and a second later they were entwined again.

The war had just gotten a tad less grim.

***

They sat down to breakfast, Thomas poured the tea for them both and Alistair took care of the food. For a while they just ate, occasionally sneaking glances at one another. Thomas was expecting Alistair to ask him to explain himself regarding the cold shoulder he was given yesterday. Or bring up sergeant Jenkins. Thomas was mentally preparing how he would answer, to make himself look better than his actions suggested he was. In turn he wanted to ask Alistair about his condition. Alistair never mentioned shell shock before when he spoke about his time in the hospital. Though Thomas mused he should not be surprised at that, after all, war neurosis was something a soldier was supposed to be ashamed of, a weakness of character.

“You’ve outdone yourself this time,” Thomas said instead, taking another bite of the brownie. “These are delicious.”

Alistair’s cheeks pinked slightly. “Thank you,” he said. He took a sip of tea, then put the cup down and folded his hands. “Would you come with me to town today? There is something I need to take care of at the bank,” he said, his tone completely neutral.

“Alright,” acquiesced Thomas, frowning slightly. Why the bank? Alistair did not offer any further information. He gave Thomas a small smile and went back to his tea.

They finished breakfast and dressed for town. Thomas chose a grey suit with thin stripes and a dark blue tie. He knew Alistair liked when he wore this combination, he had complimented him on it before. Alistair himself chose a bottle green tie with his suit; it was his favourite colour.

They took a cab to Lombard Street where the Lloyds Bank was located since its move to London some years prior. They walked into the lobby where Alistair spoke to an attendant. The place wasn’t too busy at this time of day and soon the attendant came back and beckoned Alistair to follow, “Mr. Goldsmith will see you now, Lord Rainsby.”

“Come with me,” Alistair said, turning to Thomas.

Thomas didn’t know why his presence would be required for whatever Alistair came here to do, but he followed after him as requested. They were led into an office where they were greeted by an elderly man with slick grey hair and a thin moustache. He gestured for them to sit in the chairs opposite him.

“What can we do for your lordship today?” the man asked; his voice had a rather unpleasant pitch.

“I would like to give full access to my bank account to my friend, Mr. Thomas Barrow,” Alistair spoke, motioning towards Thomas, before continuing, “And he’s to have cheques issued in his name too.”

Thomas’ eyes widened with surprise. What was going on? He furrowed his brow, trying to figure out what had prompted Alistair to do this.

Sometimes I think he’s only interested in the money. I just don’t want it to come in between us.

Was Alistair giving him free reign over his fortune because he thought that was what Thomas wanted or was it a test? He didn’t think Alistair was the kind to play these sorts of tricks, but as recent events showed he knew him less than he had thought he did. His thoughts were interrupted by hearing his name spoken in a shrill voice.

“Excuse me?” Thomas asked, wishing he had not become distracted. He didn’t want to look a fool.

“We just need your signature, Mr. Barrow,” said Mr. Goldsmith, knocking the pen in his hand on the table repeatedly in a show of impatience. “Here and here.”

Thomas reached over to the table and scribbled down his name at the designated lines.

“The cheques should be ready by Wednesday,” the bank manager told them. “Will that be all, gentlemen?”

“Yes, that will be all,” said Alistair and got up. Thomas followed suit. They shook the man's hand and said their goodbyes.

It was time to figure out the best course of action.