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Under One Small Star

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Alistair woke up with a pounding headache and a parched throat. His hair was in his eyes and stuck to the side of his face and he had the sinking feeling that there was dried semen on his abdomen. He should really do something about all of that, but he didn't feel strong enough to move and was afraid he would feel sick if he did. That last bottle of champagne had been a mistake. Maybe even the one before that. He couldn't even remember how they got home from the club, not to mention the sex they obviously had afterwards.

He really needed to drink some water. He coughed, trying to alleviate the unpleasant feeling in his throat. Thomas let out a groan that made it obvious he wasn't feeling much better than Alistair was at the moment.

Aspirin, a glass of water and a shower, then back to bed. That was the plan.

“Shit,” rasped Thomas. “I feel like a tank ran me over and reversed a few times for good measure.”

That was an apt description, Alistair thought.

Thomas was the first one to gather the strength to move. He braced himself first on his elbows then on his palms and looked down at Alistair.  Alistair shivered as the cold air got underneath the lifted duvet.

It was only then that Alistair, in his muddled state of mind, realized he was completely naked. He was naked and Thomas was looking at him, his eyes moving from Alistair's face to his bare chest. No, no, no. This was not supposed to happen. Not now, not like this. He looked away from Thomas, afraid to see disgust written on his face. Alistair then gathered what strength he had and rolled himself onto his side, hugging his own shoulders. He closed his eyes tightly.

Two seconds later he felt the press of Thomas's body against his back and an arm going around his middle.

“Are you alright?”

“No,” Alistair got out. It was pointless to pretend otherwise. He tried to blink away the wetness from his eyes, concentrating on drawing deep breaths.

“I wish I wasn't so hungover so I could say something profound now,” Thomas said. Even while fighting back tears, Alistair couldn't help but smile at that. “Everything I come up with sounds so blithe.”

“I'm sorry for being so difficult.”

“Don't be,” Thomas said and planted a kiss on the side of Alistair's neck. “I'm going to get up now. I'll bring aspirin and something to drink, you can have a shower, put on that ratty old sweater you like, and then we'll deal with everything else.”

That sounded good. Thomas extricated himself from Alistair and slowly got up and left the room. Alistair hoisted himself up as well and reached for the dressing gown that was thrown over the armchair next to their bed. He put it on and leaned back against the headboard. His head really was killing him. He swore to himself never to drink so much ever again.

Thomas returned a short while later, carrying a glass of water and aspirin as promised. He perched on the bed and offered both to Alistair. Alistair took it gratefully; popping the tablet into his mouth he drank half the glass in one go.

“Thank you,” he said. He touched his hand to Thomas’.

“It was fun though, wasn't it? Last night,” Thomas said, the corners of his mouth tipping up.

“Yes, it was amazing,” Alistair smiled and gave Thomas’ hand a squeeze. Thomas looked tired, with shadows under his red rimmed eyes. Alistair didn’t know what time it was by the time they fell asleep, but he knew that it must have been close to daybreak.

“What time is it?”

Thomas looked at his watch on the bedside table. “Almost one in the afternoon,” he said.

“You can shower first, if you'd like. I still don't trust my legs at the moment.”

Thomas leaned in and planted a quick kiss on Alistair's cheek, before disappearing into the bathroom. Alistair finished the water and put the glass on the bedside table. He didn't want to think; thinking was difficult while his mind was hazy with leftover alcohol and nauseating pain. He closed his eyes and desperately tried to concentrate just on his breathing. In and out. In and out.

Thomas came out of the bathroom with wet hair and dressed in his blue silk pyjamas.

“Well now I feel mostly human again,” he said and his voice sounded much clearer than before.  “You think you can make it, or should I carry you in?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

Alistair shook his head and slid out of the bed, making his way to the bathroom, the floor swaying slightly under his unsteady feet. Clothes were strewn across the carpet haphazardly as they were discarded in urgency several hours ago and he almost tripped when his foot caught on a shirtsleeve. When he closed the door behind himself, he went to cover the mirror with a spare towel, as usual. Before the cloth could obscure the reflective surface his hand froze and he let the towel slip to the floor. His dressing gown joined it soon after. He took a deep breath and looked at his reflection.

The swirling pattern of scars from his neck down the left side of his chest and arm was no better than the last time he took a good look. His upper arm was thin and the skin mottled and ugly. The surgeons did what they could with what was left of it after the blast and they told him time will smooth out the angry lines. How much time would be needed, he did not know.

He tore his gaze away and stepped into the shower. The warm water was a blessed relief. He stood under the spray for a long while, just enjoying the feel of the water on his skin. Shaking it from his eyes he took the shampoo from its place on the shelf and poured a generous amount into his hand.

After his shower he walked up to the mirror again. He took out the salve he used for softening scar tissue from the cabinet below the sink and with his eyes fixed on his reflection he started to smear it on his battered skin.

Thomas had not seemed to be put off from his admittedly limited look at Alistair's chest. As a former medical officer he was used to seeing all kinds of war wounds. While he was in hospital Alistair once overheard two nurses talking about their admittance procedure. Apparently only the women who would not flinch upon being shown photographs of the most horrifically disfigured men were taken on, so as to not add to the soldiers' distress with their reactions.  But one thing was to see something ugly on a stretcher at a hospital and another was wanting to see it in one's own bed.

Alistair went through the rest of his ablutions quickly and for a lack of other options put the dressing gown back on. He looked at his reflection one last time, ran a hand through his damp hair, and walked out.

 

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Thomas' mind was much less muddled by the time Alistair slid back under the covers. His lover lay on his side facing him, his eyes wide and a little apprehensive. Thomas adjusted his position so that he was lying opposite Alistair and put his arm around his waist.

“Feeling better?” Thomas asked. He himself was still experiencing the unpleasant effects of too much alcohol and too little sleep, but the shower had been a tremendous help. Even the most head-splitting hangover would be worth the night they had had though.

Thomas was told about the club's existence by his new friend Philip, the tennis coach. Thomas felt Alistair wasn't too happy about him seeing Philip again, but he did not say so outright even when Thomas had asked him and so he went. They had a few drinks after their match two days ago where Thomas' suspicion regarding the man's nature was confirmed, and after making it known to Philip that he was flattered, but not interested, they fell into a companionable conversation.

***

The place he and Alistair went to last night was hidden behind the front of a shabby coffee house and one needed a password to be shown in. Stepping from the rundown shop right into the middle of a  boisterous party felt slightly surreal. There was a band playing and around thirty or fourty people dancing and sitting around the club and at the bar. Thomas had heard about these sort of secret places existing, spots where men like him could dance and flirt amongst their own kind, but he never had the opportunity or access before.

Alistair was looking around in wide-eyed wonder. He reached for Thomas' hand and gave it a tight squeeze.

“Come on, let's get a drink,” Thomas told him, smiling, and together they descended into the crowd.

Thomas soon found out that if he did not have a hand around Alistair while they were at the bar, other men would try to chat him up. Alistair reddened and very politely turned each of them down. After the third Thomas made it clear that Alistair was spoken for.

They danced together and Alistair let him lead. Thomas had always enjoyed dancing, but dancing with the man he loved was much more enjoyable than twirling the village girls around, even though Alistair stepped on his feet more than once.

The champagne flowed freely and they both soon started to feel its effects and by the time they left the club they were barely able to walk.

***

It was there in the club where Thomas heard Alistair laugh heartily for the first time. He very much wanted to hear that sound again.

He also wanted to see Alistair naked again.

Thomas wanted them to be pressed against one another without anything in between. He wanted to lick a stripe down Alistair's chest and take his nipples into his mouth. He wanted Alistair to be at ease with his own body. During the brief look he got, he saw the scarring down his chest, the raised ridges where on his right side was just an expanse of smooth skin. It was the arm that undoubtedly took the brunt of the shrapnel. Thomas thought on the pain that swept him when the German sniper's bullet shot through his palm, he could not imagine the amount of pain Alistair had to be in after he was wounded. But all things considered, he thought Alistair made more of a fuss about it than was necessary.

“I am feeling better, thank you,” Alistair spoke softly.

“Oh, good,” said Thomas. He touched his hand to Alistair's cheek, stroking his thumb down the line of his jaw.

“I don't mean just the hangover.”

“I know.”

“I get that it's very difficult for you,” Thomas said, his hand moving into Alistair's wavy hair, “But I hope you that one day soon you won't feel the need to cover up. You don't need to for my sake, but I know your mind has its own way.”

“What do you mean?” Alistair exclaimed, an alarmed look crossing his eyes.

“I think you're being too harsh on yourself,” answered Thomas. Alistair opened his mouth to speak, but Thomas drew him closer and sealed their lips together. When they separated Alistair hid his head in Thomas' chest. Thomas pulled him close, enclosing him in his arms and let out a sigh. A few more winks of sleep would do him good.

***

They woke up some two hours later. Thomas' stomach made it known that some light refreshment wouldn't go amiss. They put together a couple of cold sandwiches and made tea. Alistair took his blanket into the kitchen as well, unwilling to part from its warmth and wrapped it around his shoulders over the dressing gown as they sat down to eat.

“My parents are coming tomorrow,” Alistair said, playing with the rim of his teacup.

“I remember.” Thomas was not looking forward to that, but he would do his best for it to pass without a hitch. At least they were coming over just for afternoon tea and will be gone before dinner.

“I told Mary to come in the afternoon instead of the morning, so that she can prepare everything and serve it too.”

“Good,” said Thomas and took another bite of the sandwich. He didn't want to imagine how that visit would go had they not gotten the maid to work for them. It would be very awkward for him and Alistair to entertain guests otherwise.

After they finished their late lunch –or perhaps early dinner– they returned to the bed again, not really feeling up for dressing or doing much of anything.

“I think I'm getting old, that one night can knock me out for a whole day,” Thomas muttered as they slid under the duvet again.

Alistair chuckled. “In that case so am I!”

They lay under the covers tangled together, exchanging kisses and soft touches until sleep claimed them once again.

 

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The doorbell rang. Mary went to open the door. Alistair got up so that he would be able to properly greet his parents when Thomas slid next to him, caught his chin between his thumb and forefinger and pulled him into a quick kiss. It lasted barely a moment, but it left Alistair feeling flustered. He gave Thomas a searching look –now really wasn't the time. Thomas was innocence personified in his expression and Alistair just shook his head.

A moment later Alistair heard the voices of his parents from the hallway and soon afterward they walked into the drawing room.

“Hello, darling,” his mother said in way of a greeting as he embraced her tightly. Alistair then welcomed his father in the same fashion. He was happy to see them, though having them in the space that he normally occupied with Thomas, carefree and unabashed, felt slightly strange.

“Mr. Barrow, how lovely to see you again,” mother said.

“You as well, your ladyship.” Thomas kissed her hand and she gave him a smile in return. Her husband's greeting was noticeably colder, but that was only to be expected. Alistair's father often gave the impression of a cantankerous old man to people. Once he got to know someone well though, his demeanour usually thawed.

They settled down and Mary brought out the tea service and an assortment of cakes and sandwiches. The conversation that followed was for the most part light and innocuous.

“The apartment looks much nicer than the last time we were here, Ali. It's nice to see you decided to give the place some life after all,” his mother said, looking around the room.

“Yes, well, it does finally feel like a home,” Alistair replied and his eyes briefly turned to Thomas. Before he was reunited with Thomas the flat was just a space where he whiled away time. He had no care about the way things were, as long as he had somewhere to sleep and somewhere to put his books. Now it was a home, their home. And it was filled with items they selected together –an embroidered pillow, an antique candelabra, a novelty ashtray– little knick knacks that brought the place to life, as his mother said.

“You should give me a tour of the place later, darling. I would like to see what you did with the rest.”

Alistair smiled and nodded, “Of course, mother. I'll be happy to.” At that moment he was glad they made sure they arranged both the bedrooms to looked lived in and left no trace of Thomas in the one they actually used, just in case.

He nibbled on the corner of a cucumber sandwich when his mother picked up a scone with jam and cream from the plate.

“Good to see you finally got yourself a servant too, it's only fitting for a man in your position.” Alistair did not like the way his father's gaze settled on Thomas when he said the word servant, but it was only brief and maybe he only imagined it.

“Oh this this divine!” Alistair's mother exclaimed when she finished the pastry. “Did the housemaid make it? You had a good hand choosing her!”

Alistair reddened slightly. “Um, it wasn't Mary. It was– me, I baked the scones. I –I like baking,” he said, looking slightly sheepish.

“You?” his father raised his eyebrows and frowned. “Baking is not a hobby fitting an earl's son, Alistair. Nor any man, for that matter.”

“What does it matter if he enjoys doing it?” It was the first thing Thomas contributed to the discussion and Alistair winced at his icy tone.

“How a man conducts himself in private reflects on how he’s perceived in public as well,” Alistair’s father intoned. “But of course someone like you would not understand.”

“Father!”

“Your future wife will be jealous of your skill, Ali,” spoke his mother, then turning to her husband she said, “Surely it’s a harmless thing. It is important to find solace wherever we can and he's been so ill for a long time.”

“Yes, well–” Alistair's father muttered under his breath, but did not oppose his wife.

Alistair worried his bottom lip between his teeth as he caught Thomas' eyes in a silent entreaty for patience. He was sure his father would come around soon.

He changed the topic to his parents' plans for their stay in London. Asked in detail about the dinner guests they would meet that evening, about the play they intended to see tomorrow and any other little thing he could think of to keep the conversation light. Thomas kept out of most of it, and so did Alistair’s father.

After the tea was drank and the sandwiches and cakes were consumed it was time for the tour of the apartment his mother had requested.

“Don't you want to come along with, father?” Alistair asked, wary of leaving Thomas and his father on their own. He truly hoped the two men he loved would come to get along, but he did not think the moment was right.

To his disappointment his father turned his offer down, “No no, I'm glad to be sitting down. My knee is giving me trouble, I think it might rain later.”

Alistair shot a nervous look at Thomas, but his lover seemed unperturbed.

He showed mother the dining room and the study, both rooms that got the least use in the apartment, since Alistair didn't know what he would do in the study that could not be done in the comfort of the chesterfield, and since the first day they had been eating their meals at the small table in the kitchen. As they crossed the drawing room again to see the bedrooms,  he saw that Thomas was busying himself with smoking and his father was very studiously examining the wallpaper. He breathed a small sigh of relief.

When they entered the master bedroom, his mother sat down on the armchair –for once free of clothes– and said, “Don't mind your father, Ali. He's trying to fit into his new role as best he can. We all are.”

“I know. He's always been very proper,” Alistair replied as he sat on the edge of the bed. He gave his mother a small smile.

“You've truly turned this place around. It used to be so bare, I was worried how you would fare in such an austere flat.” Alistair's mother looked around the room and then settled her gaze on her son. “How are you doing? Are you still having those awful episodes?”

“I've only had one since Thomas came here. And it helped me, him being here with me,” said Alistair. He wished he could tell her more. He wished there was someone he could tell about the way he felt about Thomas, about how much better his life was now that he had him by his side.

“Good. That's very good.”

Maybe one day.

 

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Lord Clarendon's expression was unpleasant as he measured Thomas with his dark eyes narrowed and his thin lips in a tight line. As soon as Alistair and Lady Clarendon crossed the drawing room to see the bedrooms, his lordship stopped pretending to find the wallpaper to be a subject of interest and settled his gaze on Thomas.

“Ten thousand pounds,” Lord Clarendon said, taking a cheque out of his breast pocket, “Take it and get out of my son's life.”

So there it was. Thomas had felt the man's dislike from the minute they were introduced several weeks ago, and he was rarely wrong about things like that.

“Are you serious?” Thomas asked. He didn't expect Lord Clarendon to be this open about his enmity, toffs like him usually weren't. He looked at the folded piece of paper the man was holding out to him. If someone had waved that kind of money in front of him a few months ago he would have gone to great lengths to get his hands on it; it was more than he could ever earn during his life in service. More than enough for a comfortable life.

Motioning with the cheque towards Thomas Lord Clarendon said,  “Start a new life, somewhere far away from London.

“I don’t want your money.” Thomas got through clenched teeth.

“Alistair is better off without the likes of you hanging about, poisoning his mind with perversion,” Clarendon said, looking down his long nose at Thomas as if his very existence was revolting to him.

He knew then, about the nature of their relationship. Thomas wondered what was it they did that the man had noticed.

“I have done no such thing, your lordship.” Thomas said, his voice tight and his eyes narrowed. He clenched and unclenched his fists, trying to keep his composure. Punching Clarendon would not help matters. “I believe that it's on Alistair to decide whose company he wants to keep, not you.”

“Alistair is ill and vulnerable, and you’ve taken advantage of him long enough,” Clarendon said, frowning, “I knew from the beginning, when he was calling out after you in his sleep. He's been feverish for days, the stuff he said–”  he shook his head in disgust and then added, “I thought I had gotten rid of you then and there.”

Oh now it all made sense. At least he knew it was nothing in their behaviour that had given them away. What a fucking bastard.

“Is that why you told Alistair I was dead?”

“I did what I thought was right to rid him of that disgusting fixation on you. Men like you are reprehensible, preying on innocent boys, corrupting them to your ways. I won’t let that happen to my son.”

“You’re delusional.”

Thomas was stunned. The man's words kept repeating in his mind, feuling a boiling rage. He would have given way to it had they not been interrupted that very moment.

“Albert, we should be going, otherwise I won't have enough time to get ready for the soiree,” Lady Clarendon's voice rang from the hall, halting any further conversation between the two men.

Thomas said his goodbyes mechanically and stood back as Alistair hugged his mother and then his father and wished them a lovely evening. As they stepped out of the flat Thomas walked into the bedroom and took of his jacket. He sat on the bed put his head in his hands.

“Is everything alright?” Alistair asked from the doorway a moment later.

Thomas faltered. Alistair should know what his father had done, he should be made aware of the fact that the man had lied to him, but Thomas knew it would hurt him deeply. He didn't want to add on to the already long list of things that Alistair had to contend with. Thomas would deal with Clarendon. What Alistair didn't know couldn't hurt him.

“Of course,” lied Thomas and turned towards his lover with a carefully schooled expression. “I'm just a bit tired.”