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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?

Chapter Text

O’Brien was smoking in the yard in the usual spot when Thomas joined her. The surly lady’s maid had been his stout friend since he came to Downton as a boy. She was the only one who wrote to him during the war, supplying him with gossip as a distraction from his life at the Front.

“What’s this I hear about your fancy man in the drawing room?” She drew on her cigarette and flicked off the ash.

Thomas took out his Woodbines and reached for his lighter. He still had the same one that brought his deliverance from the hell in France. He wondered when he had stopped thinking of Alistair in connection with the thing.

“I don’t know,” grumbled Thomas, “What did you hear?”

O’Brien smirked. “Her ladyship told me about your touching reunion with the visiting gentleman.”

Her mocking tone got on Thomas’ nerves, yet he waited for her to continue.

“Who’s he? You haven’t told me about this one, have you?”

Thomas lit his cigarette and took a long drag. As the nicotine made its way into his body, he felt himself relax. “I thought he was dead, there was no point.”

O’Brien finished her cigarette, crushing the butt under her boot.

Thomas kept thinking over Alistair’s offer. If someone made the offer ten years ago he would have jumped at the chance without hesitation. He hated it at Downton, true, but with the job situation as it was in England, he would be in a pretty bad position if Alistair’s proclaimed affection waned; since he doubted they would want him back at Downton anytime soon. If it wasn’t for the Flu epidemic he would have been out on his ear after his failure with the black market. It wasn’t like he doubted Alistair’s words, he had seemed genuine enough, but it was most likely just the elation of their reunion speaking. If they lived together and Alistair realized that Thomas wasn’t all that his imagination made him out to be during their time apart, he could kick Thomas out of his cosy London flat without a penny.

His cigarette joined O’Brien’s on the ground. He lit up a second one.

“He wants me to go with him when he leaves,” Thomas said after a while.

“Does he want to hire you as his valet or what?” inquired O’Brien. She, too, had lit up again.

Thomas shook his head.

“He wants to live with me as his lover. Share his fortune, even.” It was so tempting. He would just need to make sure Alistair continued to like him long enough. If Thomas was clever about it he could squirrel away a bit of Alistair’s money for a rainy day and not have to worry about his future ever again.

“How adorable,” scoffed O’Brien.

“He is that,” Thomas couldn’t help saying. His lips quirked upwards.

“Will you do it?” she said, releasing a bout of smoke.

“I think I will. An offer like that certainly won’t come my way again.”

Thomas flicked the cigarette away. It was time to serve dinner.

—————————

Dinner was a tense affair, Alistair thought. They were joined by Matthew Crawley and the Dowager Countess, as well as a certain Sir Carlisle, a very unpleasant fellow who, as Alistair found out, was Lady Mary’s fiancé. He felt a bit like an animal in the zoo on display for these unfamiliar people to gawk at.

He enjoyed watching Thomas in his livery again, though being served by him was awkward and must have been very uncomfortable for Thomas. Alistair was struck by the difference between Thomas’ professionally blank face and the way he was when they were alone together. He didn’t think he would be able to school his expression like that.

Lady Edith offered to show him around the village and the surrounding areas the next day and he accepted. The conversation then shifted as the Dowager had apparently known certain members of the genuinely aristocratic part of his family and questioned him about his relation to them. Alistair tried his best to stay engaged in the conversation, but his mind was occupied.

After dinner Lord Grantham asked him about his war service while offering him port and cigars. Alistair hated cigars, the smell was repugnant to him. He took out his cigarettes instead. Later he and Matthew Crawley struck up a conversation about their shared change of circumstances: suddenly being taken from their middle class lives to join the upper classes at the dinner table.

When they joined the ladies for drinks, Alistair spoke with Lady Grantham, who told him of Thomas’ role at Downton when it was temporarily converted to a convalescent home. Alistair perked up. It seemed that the countess had a good opinion of Thomas; praising the way he ran the place. Alistair imagined being sent to Downton to convalesce instead of staying in the sanatorium adjoining the hospital in Netley. It would have saved him a lot of grief.

No matter, he thought as he took the glass from the tray Thomas offered him. They were reunited and that was all that mattered. He smiled at Thomas and thanked him.

***

Alistair was settling down in his room for the evening when he heard a short knock. He got up and met Thomas halfway to the door. He was nervous, but hopeful.

Thomas wrapped his arms around Alistair’s middle, drawing him close and sealing their lips together. Alistair put his hands around Thomas’ neck and closed his eyes, melting into the kiss.

“I’ll come with you.” Thomas said when they separated.

Alistair smiled and drew him into a tight embrace. He was elated. Thomas loved him. Thomas was coming with him to London. They would have a future together.

“I’m glad,” Alistair said with a bright smile and kissed Thomas on the cheek. It was an understatement, but he couldn’t put his true feelings to words.

“I’m going to give notice and I don’t think anyone will insist on me working out the two weeks. They’ll be happy to be rid of me,” Thomas said in a neutral voice. Alistair noticed his eyebrows scrunched just a bit, though.

“I was surprised they took you on again after the war, with what you told me about your circumstances before you joined.” Alistair knew about the stealing and the trouble with the lame valet Thomas had so disliked. “Though Lady Grantham seems to like you,” he said. She had seemed genuine enough.

“I made a bad move by the end of the war that landed me in a tight spot, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go; so I went out of my way to be extremely helpful while half the house was down with the Flu. They couldn’t really kick me out after all that.”

“Ah, clever,” said Alistair with a grin.

Thomas smiled at him and leaned in for another kiss. Alistair opened up for him without prompting. He loved the taste of him; the feel of their lips sliding against each other and tongues twining in a delicious dance; it made Alistair giddy with want.

Thomas pulled away after a long while, his hands gently caressing Alistair’s back, still keeping him close.

“When do you need to get back?” Alistair asked. He was loath to part with Thomas now, but once the weekend was over, they would have all the time in the world together.

“I have about twenty minutes,” said Thomas, and proceeded to walk Alistair backwards to the bed.

Alistair went willingly. Even with his limited experience he knew of several pleasurable things that could be done within that time frame.

____________________


Thomas was woken up by a hall boy’s knock at the usual hour. It took him several seconds to realize that the events of yesterday had really happened. His life was about to change in a drastic fashion. Gone would be the bowing and scraping; he would never have to wear a livery ever again. And he would finally experience what it meant to live a life of leisure. His doubts from yesterday were gone. Alistair seemed completely enamoured with him and eager to please him. As unusual as that was for him he could quickly get used to it. Fortune had finally settled her gaze on Thomas. About time, really, he thought.

Before breakfast, Thomas knocked on Mr. Carson’s door.

“Enter.”

Thomas stepped in and closed the door behind himself.

“Well?” Mr. Carson asked, looking up from his papers through his thick brows.

Thomas took a deep breath.
“I would like to hand in my notice,” he said.

“Were you offered another position?” Mr. Carson asked. Thomas thought he would sound more pleased than he did.

“I have an arrangement in London. If it would be possible I would like to leave tomorrow morning. You can take the two weeks out of my pay,” Thomas thought that should do it. But as an afterthought he added, “I won’t be needing a reference.”

“Is your arrangement with Lord Rainsby?”

Thomas gave him a tight-lipped smile.

“I don’t see how that is any of your business, Mr. Carson.”

“Very well. I will inform his Lordship.” The butler frowned and went back to his papers.

Afterwards, Thomas sought out O’Brien to tell her about his decision. It seemed decent that as his only friend she would know sooner than Mr. Carson’s announced it to the rest of the servants.

“Watch out for yourself and don’t do anything stupid. I won’t be there to get you of trouble if you do,” O’Brien almost sounded fond of Thomas.

Thomas smirked.

After the upstairs breakfast was finished Thomas saw Alistair leave with Lady Edith for their round of sightseeing. Alistair smiled at him when he walked past. It pleased Thomas more than such a simple thing should. He had enough to occupy him until he was to serve luncheon, from which both Lady Edith and Alistair were absent.

It was later during the downstairs meal that Mr. Carson announced Thomas would be leaving Downton the next morning. Everyone looked at Thomas, undoubtedly to gauge his reaction and see if he was leaving against his will or not. His smug expression was answer enough.

It was Anna who asked him first, “Where will you be going, Thomas?”

“London,” Thomas said in reply.

“What will you do in London?” Daisy followed up.

“I’m not going to be in service any longer, that’s for sure.”

After that, Mr. Carson didn’t allow any further discussion on the topic.

The rest of the day went by quickly. It seemed that Mr. Carson wanted to use Thomas as much as possible before he left. Thomas polished more silver during the afternoon than he knew they had at Downton. It was a task he did not really have to think about too much, and so he let his mind wander, imagining how his life at Alistair’s side would be like. The rich people Thomas knew idled their time away with social calls and talking behind one another’s’ backs, but from what Thomas knew of Alistair, the latter might be on, but definitely not the former. Thomas would like to visit some of the famous sights and they could go to the theatre or the cinema, go out for meals to fancy restaurants and play sports. And some days, they could just stay in bed touching each other in pleasurable exploration. Though that train of thought was best not pursued in the servants’ hall.

Alistair and Lady Edith returned an hour or so before dinner. Thomas had a moment to spare and went up to meet Alistair in his bedroom.

Alistair welcomed Thomas with a kiss. His cheeks were flushed from the wind, his hair slightly messy. Thomas enjoyed how Alistair fitted into his arms; he was a few inches shorter and his head rested right in the crook of Thomas’s neck when they embraced.

“Mmm, you’re so warm,” mumbled Alistair into the collar of Thomas’ shirt. “I can barely feel my hands,” he said, accompanied by a shiver.

“You shouldn’t have been traipsing around the countryside all day in the cold,” answered Thomas, but tightened his embrace to warm Alistair as much as possible. “You should take a hot bath, or your teeth will chatter all the way through dinner.”

“Mmm, or you could warm me up in a more exciting way,” said Alistair, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

“I could do that, but we’ll have to be quick about it. The dressing gong will go off soon.”

They had to hurry to get dressed afterwards, but Thomas had nothing to worry from Mr. Carson anymore and, feeling sated from his tryst with Alistair, he didn’t let the butler’s waspish comments bother him.

Alistair managed to get himself in order in time and looked rather lovely in his white tie. He seemed more at ease now than Thomas had seen him previously when interacting with the Crawley family. He recounted what he and Lady Edith had done and seen during the day and praised her knowledge of history and the land itself. Lady Edith preened under his praise.

When the conversation moved on to Mary’s wedding plans Thomas blocked the inane chatter out of his mind.

Afterwards, when he was back in the small room in the attic that he had called home for the greater part of the past ten years, he didn’t feel too nostalgic. This place was never supposed to be a home, not really. He had tried to make the room more cosy with a few personal touches, but the sparse furnishings and the terrible iron frame bed would always show it for what it was; a servant’s room. Sleeping in the trenches was only slightly more uncomfortable than sleeping in that bed. He yearned for it while he was in France though, no reason to deny that.

Thinking back on his time in France, the whole thing always seemed so surreal. So removed from the world he was in now, so removed from anything else he ever knew, really. The cruelty of the place, the mud, the horror, the ever-present stench of death and human waste. The deafening noise of artillery day after day with shells exploding over your head while you just had your flimsy tin helmet to protect you from the shrapnel. Who in their right mind would send thousands after thousands of young men to run through a field full of barbed wire towards machine gun fire just with their rifles and bayonets? The same stuffy old generals who forbade the unofficial truces that allowed the stretcher bearers to pick up the wounded after a fight without having to worry about being shot. After that, men like Thomas had to go after those felled by the machine guns with no protection at all, under fire themselves.

But he survived. Unlike millions of others, he made it out of that hell and he knew the world thought he ought to be ashamed by how he got out, but he wasn’t. He’d always had a strong sense of self-preservation.

Having only a few things to pack, he was done fairly quickly. It was almost sad how little he actually owned, but then, with access to two hundred thousand pounds he would be able to get whatever his heart might desire very soon. Funny how fortunes can turn.

__________________


Alistair woke that morning full of optimism and good cheer. His stay at Downton was coming to an end and after breakfast he and Thomas would get on a train to London. He had hoped to find a photograph of Thomas upon arriving a few days before, and instead found Thomas in person, alive and well. He wouldn’t let anything or anyone part them again.

He dressed in a grey tweed suit and styled his hair as he always did nowadays, leaving the waves to fall over his mangled ear and scarred face. Before putting his suit on he had applied the salve he was given the last time his physician saw him. Spreading the creamy substance over the mottled flesh every morning, he wished he could make it disappear.

Thomas had kept his promise not to try and take Alistair’s shirt off during their lovemaking. Alistair could barely stand seeing himself bare and he didn’t want Thomas to have to see it and pretend that he did not find him repulsive. While he was in the hospital he was told repeatedly that he was lucky not to have lost his arm. He was told he was lucky about a lot of things. Being reunited with Thomas, he actually believed that now.

He went down for breakfast.

He had two slices of crisp toast with jam and a cup of earl grey while conversing with Lord Grantham and his daughters. Lady Grantham was used to having a tray in her room in the mornings as he was told the previous day. Alistair tried to be engaging and pleasant though he couldn’t wait to leave. He was grateful to these people, since their invitation allowed him to find Thomas again, but he had little in common with them besides.

After breakfast, Lord Grantham took him aside and looking very serious said, “It’s come to my attention, Rainsby, that you intend to take Thomas with you.”

Alistair nodded, “I do, yes.” He wasn’t surprised the man put Thomas’ sudden resignation together with Alistair’s appearance. After witnessing their reunion only a blind man wouldn’t.

“You seem like a nice fellow and I wouldn’t want your kindness to be taken advantage of. And Thomas is exactly the sort of person who would do that,” Lord Grantham said, looking rather uncomfortable, “I thought it prudent to tell you.”

Alistair gaped at him. The nerve of the man! “Thomas is my friend and he has my trust,” said Alistair tightly, “I believe I know why you think of him the way you do, but it bears no weight on my decision. So thank you for your worry, but I’ll be alright.”

Alistair gave him a quick smile that was as far from genuine as could be and turned to leave.

Walking out of the breakfast room Alistair felt himself craving a cigarette. He still had not shaken off the habit after the war. He picked it up pretty quickly after his arrival in France. It gave him an illusion of being warm, it occupied his hands and calmed his nerves.

He used to get cigarettes in the post from home along with his favourite Rowntree’s chocolate, as well as warm socks his mother knitted for him.

His father wanted him to join up right when the war was declared, saying he would have done so himself had his age permitted him to do his patriotic duty. Yet he did not insist and Alistair remained at university to complete his studies until early in 1916 when he was conscripted. His family background and education sent him straight into officer training. Those four and a half months at Sandhurst weren’t so bad, it was a bit like school, after all. His first posting was the Somme and he was given his temporary commission with the rank of second lieutenant. Plunging into that hell was an absolute nightmare. Nothing he learned during his training could have prepared him for being on a real battlefield. He tried his best to do his duties, however unimportant most of them seemed amidst the horror and chaos of the war. He checked that the men of his platoon had their rifles in working order, that they had their feet warm and socks mended, and that they were all well fed. That much he could do. Inspiring his men to climb out of their trench and attack was a different matter.

Thomas was the one man in front of whom he did not have to pretend to be brave and ready to risk his life for King and Country.

Before meeting Thomas he never knew it was possible to feel so much. He knew he was attracted to men since he was fairly young and he fumbled with a few at university, but love? Love waited for him in the muddy trenches of northern France.

It was after nightfall and the sky earlier was overcast with clouds. Now it flashed with bursts of light from the illumination rounds fired from howitzers and field guns together with the high explosive shells being hurled in their direction. Alistair stumbled through the trench while one shell after another exploded overhead. As the shells fell down to the ground, huge geysers of mud flew into the air. The ground shook and the noise rattled down to Alistair’s bones. Trying to reach Captain Hanley’s position would be impossible now. He knew there was a dugout just a short way away. If he could get to it he would have cover.

Another explosion sent him to his knees, several of the sandbags from the edge of the trench above him tumbled down, one falling onto Alistair’s legs. It was heavy, but he managed to shrug it off and crawl forwards. He felt his way along the wall of the trench when suddenly there was nothing for him to grasp. He looked up and in the quick flash that passed overhead he saw he had reached his destination. It was a dugout with one person already in it.

He made his way inside it just in time as a shell exploded directly above. Alistair panicked, and plastered himself to the wall of the dugout, his hand grasping the other fellow’s hand on instinct. In the darkness he could not see the soldier’s face, but the man held his hand firmly in his. How silly that such a simple thing made him suddenly feel safer, like things might actually turn out alright in the end.

They stayed like that for at least two hours, pressed against one another and holding each other’s hand. They did not speak since they would have to shout to hear anything over the deafening sound of the German artillery.

Then suddenly there was silence.

Not long after the barrage stopped his batman found him.

“There you are, sir, I was so worried!” the young man shouted.

The soldier let go of his hand.

Alistair got to his feet. He wanted to thank the man in the dugout for the comfort his company gave him during that terrible onslaught but his words failed him. As he turned to follow his batman he caught a glimpse of the red cross on man’s sleeve and his corporal’s stripes.

Later, Alistair found out who his mysterious soldier was and searched him out. The only corporal in the RAMC in their sector was one Thomas Barrow.

He fell in love with him so quickly and so completely that not even the long time apart could diminish the strength of his feelings.

He smoked two cigarettes in his room before he was ready to say his goodbyes to the Crawley family. Lady Edith invited him back, hinting strongly at keeping in touch. He thanked everyone for their hospitality and made a vague promise to Lady Edith.

His luggage was loaded onto the car that would take him to the train station.

The family and several of the staff came to stand in front of the house to wave him off. Alistair thought he recognized several of the servants from Thomas’ description. Alistair was sure they were there just out of curiosity to see who’s the person taking Thomas away for a better life.

“Thomas,” he beckoned and Thomas made his way towards him and the waiting car. Thomas had but one case with his belongings with him. They were added onto the car and the driver held the door open for them.

Soon they were on the road to the village leaving Downton Abbey behind them.
________________

Thomas had never ridden in first class before and it was damn nice. Plush dark blue velvet upholstery covered the seats on each side of the compartment and the walls and both doors were done in leather of the same dark hue. The wooden panelling was of high quality and polished to a shine. A nice soft carpet finished the luxurious and yet cosy look. This was much better than the bare wooden seats on which he had travelled before.

Thomas sat opposite Alistair, who looked positively radiant this morning. Alistair had a charmingly sweet smile that Thomas found contagious, and he utilized it to its full potential right at this moment. His face was inclined in his usual fashion, so that his hair hid the scarring on his face. In the soft morning sun that flitted through the carriage window his fair hair shone beautifully. Thomas couldn’t wait to get his hands on him again.

The train left Downton station in a cloud of steam and chugged on, away from the countryside Thomas knew so well. It would take about an hour to reach York where they had to change trains and they would arrive in London in mid-afternoon.

The ride to York was quite uneventful, Thomas read the morning paper he had purchased at the station and Alistair seemed content with watching him. Thomas occasionally read out a headline or even a paragraph or two when it piqued Alistair’s interest.

Changing trains was a lot easier for a first class passenger than for a footman in charge of luggage for the whole Crawley family going down for the London season. He happily did without Carson shouting orders at him amidst the natural chaos of the station.

They had a delicious lunch on the London train and when they returned to their carriage Alistair closed the latch on the door and drew the curtain to the corridor closed. He sat down next to Thomas, resting his head on his shoulder. Thomas put his arm around Alistair’s rather bony shoulder and made himself comfortable for the journey ahead.

Thomas had almost nodded off when Alistair said, “I can’t wait to be home. I hope you’ll like the flat. I didn’t have much time to decorate yet, but we can do that together.”

Thomas hummed in reply. It would be nice to choose some of the furnishings himself, he thought. He had a pretty good taste after all and now he would actually have the means to afford the things he liked. He couldn’t wait to get some new suits made too. He was sure Alistair wouldn’t begrudge him a visit to the tailor’s; or several.

“Oh God!” Alistair exclaimed suddenly, jolting Thomas as he lifted his head.

“What is it?”

Thomas turned his head to look at him with a raised eyebrow.

“I−I hope you’ll excuse the terrible mess I left there before the weekend. I completely forgot about that,” Alistair said, looking quite flustered.

“Is it that bad?”

“Yes?”

Thomas laughed.

“You don’t even have a maid come in every now and then?” he said, curious. If he became rich he would like to enjoy all the perks that went along with it. And Alistair was from a well-positioned family even before they came into the title, he remembered Alistair said they had a cook and a housemaid at his family’s house before the war. He found it strange that Alistair would deny himself the comfort now.

“No. I just have someone do my laundry. Otherwise I maintained the flat on my own.“ Alistair said and then added, “When I could be bothered.”

“Can’t wait to see it now,” Thomas grinned. Alistair swatted at his knee.

Thomas leaned forwards, held Alistair’s chin between his fingers and drew him to a kiss. Alistair touched his hand to Thomas’ chest, the other one went to rest on his knee, squeezing slightly.

The kiss went on for a long time. Alistair sighed into it, his hand sliding down Thomas’s thigh dangerously close to his crotch. Oh God. Thomas couldn’t contain the moan that Alistair elicited as he finally reached Thomas’ cock and pressed down with his palm.

Alistair unfastened his trousers and pulled down his underwear. In one fluid motion he had extricated himself from Thomas’ arms and slid down to the carpeted floor, positioning himself between Thomas’ legs. Was he seriously going to− oh he was. Thomas watched in awe as Alistair licked a wet stripe up his cock, tonging his slit before going down again. Thomas put his gloved hand into Alistair’s soft hair just as Alistair took his cock into his mouth fully.

Most men Thomas had been with weren’t too keen on the act, though Thomas heard it was very popular in America. A sailor he met in London before the war had told him that...and showed him what he had learnt on the other side of the Atlantic.

The wet heat of Alistair’s mouth felt so good. What he lacked in technique he more than made up for in enthusiasm.

“Easy,” said Thomas when he felt Alistair gag slightly as he tried to take more of him into his mouth. Alistair looked up at him through his pale eyelashes before he renewed his efforts and swallowed his cock down as much as he was able. He wrapped his fingers about it where he couldn’t reach, moving them in unison with his mouth.

Is this what his life is going to be like from now on? Getting his cock sucked in a first class carriage was not something he ever though he would experience. He was not complaining in the least, though. One should always be open to new experiences.

The pleasure built up and before he knew it he was coming down Alistair’s throat. He tried to control himself, but several moans escaped him as he climaxed. When he caught his breath he saw Alistair wipe his mouth on the back of his hand.

Alistair helped tuck him back into his trousers and sat back next to him. Thomas lifted his arm so Alistair could get back underneath. Alistair cuddled up to him, wrapping both arms around his waist and sighing contently.

The orgasm made Thomas sleepy, and since they wouldn’t get to London for another two hours, there was time for a bit of a nap.

And when they arrived to their flat, he wouldn’t let Alistair out of bed till morning.

Chapter Text

Thomas and Alistair took a taxi from King’s Cross train station and arrived in front of Whitehaven mansions shortly before four in the afternoon. The house was fairly modern and stood amidst similar looking houses at the edge of a park on Charterhouse Square and −as Alistair informed him− just north of the Museum of London.

A man in a porter’s uniform opened the door of their taxi and greeted Alistair. After that he took charge of their luggage.

“Perkins, this is my friend, Mr. Thomas Barrow. He will be staying in the apartment with me,” said Alistair to the elderly porter.

“Welcome to Whitehaven, Mr. Barrow,” the man said. He smiled at Thomas and nodded towards the building.

Thomas followed Alistair into the house. There was an elevator right in front of the entrance, but Alistair opted for the stairs instead.

“My apartment is on the second floor,” said Alistair, turning his head towards Thomas.

Thomas took that as explanation as to why the elevator wasn’t necessary. While walking up the winding staircase Thomas wanted to digress. But when they reached Alistair’s door, the porter was already there with their cases, taking the elevator with the luggage himself. Well, at least that was convenient, Thomas thought.

Alistair unlocked the door and Perkins brought the cases in. When Perkins walked back out Alistair thanked him and gave him some coins for his trouble.

Then it was their turn to cross the threshold.

The entrance hall was spacious and sparsely furnished. Thomas looked around and saw that there were six doors into the various rooms of the flat. The one right in front of the entrance was open and showed what seemed to be a drawing room.

“So, here we are,” said Alistair as he touched Thomas’ arm. Thomas delighted in the thought that between the walls of this flat they would be able to touch −and more− any time they liked. “You can put your coat there,” Alistair, said he as pointed at a door right next to the one they came through and started taking off his own. With their coats and hats deposited into the small closet, Alistair stood nervously in front of him. “Shall we?”

Alistair led the way to the open door in front of them. The room they entered was quite large and very bright, with three windows on the opposite side. There was a red velvet chesterfield and two armchairs in the middle of the room, with a dark brown coffee table between them. A bit further away stood a grand piano with what appeared to be a sweater draped over it. On the chesterfield were several pillows and a rather fuzzy blanket, and on the low table there were two empty bottles of wine, one of them overturned, and a half eaten pastry of some sort. This was the mess Alistair had alluded to on the train, Thomas realized, as Alistair very conspicuously tried to stand in front of the coffee table in a belated attempt to hide the items on it.

Thomas reached behind Alistair and picked up the bottle still standing upright. It was a 1915 Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

“Good stuff,” Thomas said with a smirk. Alistair opened his mouth to answer, but before he could get a word out, Thomas covered his lips with his own, drawing him closer by the waist with his free hand. Thomas let his tongue trace the shape of his lover’s lips before tasting him fully. A faint blush appeared on Alistair’s cheeks when they separated.

The drawing room opened to a dining room that seemed unused, unlike the kitchen that was hidden behind a door covered with the same tapestry as the dining room walls.

The kitchen looked very modern. Thomas could see several electric appliances they definitely didn’t have at Downton.

Thomas walked over to the kitchen counter and picked up one of the appliances. He remembered seeing an advertisement about an electric toaster with a built-in timer in the papers recently. For a toast that can’t burn. It wasn’t on the market for longer than a month.

Alistair noticed his interest and stepped closer.

“Isn’t technology fascinating?” he beamed. “I can’t help but want to buy every new invention, even if I don’t have much use for it, like the waffle iron there,” he said, pointing at the metal object further away. “Do you like waffles?”

“I do have a bit of a sweet tooth,” said Thomas, “a waffle won’t go amiss.”

“Wonderful,” smiled Alistair, sweet as a waffle himself, Thomas thought. “Shall we continue?” he asked, gently ushering Thomas back into the dining room.

On the way out Thomas’ eyes fell on the kitchen table. It had several empty plates and glasses on it as well as a few more bottles of wine.

The apartment also housed a small office that was mostly empty, except for an old mahogany table and a matching armchair. Then Alistair showed him the bedroom that would officially be his. The room was nice, but Thomas doubted he would be seeing much of it. It shared a bathroom with the master bedroom, where he and Alistair would spend their nights together. They walked through the bathroom. It housed a bath big enough for two men, Thomas mused. That should definitely be tested at a later date. Before walking out Thomas caught sight of a towel draped over half the mirror.

The master bedroom was spacious and after Alistair opened the drapes it also proved to be pleasantly bright. The room was dominated by a big bed and shelves upon shelves of books on the wall to the left. Books also littered the floor, together with several pieces of clothing strewn in a line from the door to the corridor to the bed. Alistair hastily picked up the clothes and deposited them on a pile of more clothes on the armchair in the corner of the room.

“I forgot about this,” he said in a weak voice, and looking at Thomas through his long pale eyelashes, he added, “I promise I can be tidy.”

Thomas hummed in acknowledgement and sat on the edge of the bed to test how soft it was. Anything had to be better than the narrow iron frame bed he had at Downton, but he was still surprised when the mattress gave way a bit more than he expected.

He felt amused by Alistair’s attempts to hide the clutter. Thomas was naturally tidy, but he could live with a few things lying around here and there.

“Oh I hope so, your lordship,” teased Thomas, pointedly raising his eyebrows at the three empty plates stacked one upon another on the bedside table.

“Yes, yes, terribly funny,” Alistair left the pile of clothes on the armchair and started picking up the books.

“Come here,” said Thomas, dropping the mocking tone, and extended his hand towards Alistair.

Alistair put the book he was holding back on the ground and took Thomas’ hand. He let himself be drawn closer to Thomas, slotting himself between Thomas' legs. His hands went to frame Thomas' face before he leaned down to kiss him. As the kiss grew more heated Alistair climbed into his lap, dipping the soft mattress further. Thomas' arms went around Alistair's slim waist.

Apart from the time he spent in London with the Crawleys during the few pre-war Seasons, Thomas didn't have many opportunities for dalliances with men in his life. It was not so surprising then, that he couldn't get enough of Alistair's pliant body now. He wanted to try all the things he fantasized about during the lonely nights in his little attic room, enjoy all the pleasures two men were able to experience together. Luckily for him Alistair was just as eager; and −as Thomas found out− very flexible.
________________

While Thomas was showering in the bathroom, Alistair did his best to put the bedroom to rights. He was embarrassed, but thankfully Thomas didn’t seem to mind. Alistair wasn’t in the best mood before going to Downton and doing anything as simple as pick up a plate and wash it felt like an impossible feat. He mostly just drank wine straight out of a bottle for at least three days before his trip up north, the memory of Thomas haunting him every waking moment in the anticipation of seeing the place so connected with his past. How was he to know he would not be coming back alone?

Alistair was determined to try and seem more put together from now on. It shouldn’t be too difficult, he pondered. With Thomas here his life would be very different. Even the tremors left him alone since their reunion. Perhaps they would go for good. The doctor said strong positive impressions might help, after all.

He managed to dispose of the pile of clothes on the armchair, take the dirty dishes to the kitchen and put them in the sink, adding in the plates from the kitchen table as well, and pick up the scattered books from the bedroom floor. He didn’t have time to put them in the right alphabetical order, but he could sort that out later. While Thomas unpacked his belongings, Alistair quickly tidied up the rest if the flat.

They went out for dinner that night. The restaurant was nothing high end, but it was very nice and the food was good. During their meal Thomas recounted what he had done since they were separated, adding detail to what Alistair already knew. There was a moment while Thomas spoke of his work at the Downton hospital that Alistair thought he was missing something important, but it passed as quickly as it appeared.

When it was his turn he told Thomas about his long stay at the Royal Victoria hospital in Netley, but left out the time he spent at the adjoining sanatorium afterwards. He stayed 5 months in the hospital itself, consumed by fever, his body fighting off infection while he was barely conscious. He had several skin grafts transferred to his shoulder and upper arm. It was a painful process and he often wished his body would just give up and never wake up again. How fortunate his wishes did not come true.

With that thought he slid forward in his chair slightly and let his knee touch Thomas’ under the table, drawing comfort from that small physical contact. Thomas raised his eyebrow at him but otherwise did not move.

During dessert –they had chocolate cake– Alistair told Thomas about the time he spent with his parents after being released from hospital. He was glad to be home, after all that happened, but his mother’s attempts to cheer him up and his father’s motivational speeches soon grated on him. He was miserable, in pain, and he thought he had lost the man he loved. Nothing his parents did could make that better.

“What did you do every day after you moved out?” asked Thomas.

“Oh I– l read a lot, mostly.” Alistair said. “And my mother still tried to get me to meet people in our new circles. Most scoffed at us anyways, as far as I could tell.” He also watched people from the drawing room windows. He started recognizing frequent visitors of the park in front of his house. He watched nannies and young mothers with prams, men and women having their rendezvous, old people feeding pigeons. It passed the time. Knowing it would make him sound even more pathetic, he decided not to mention the habit.

Being rather tired after the day on the train and subsequent unpacking −and tidying− they fell asleep quickly upon their return to the apartment. Their apartment.

Alistair felt safe and loved ensconced in Thomas’ embrace. There was nowhere he would rather be.
________________

Even though there was no wake up knock to be heard, Thomas –conditioned by years of having to get up early– woke while the sun was still nowhere to be seen. However, feeling warm and comfortable, he managed to fall asleep again easily.

The second time he woke up the sun was already up. The room was filled with light, they had not closed the curtains the previous evening. Still, Alistair did not stir.

Thomas propped up one hand under his head and watched his sleeping lover. Lying on his side like that, the scarring Alistair had suffered in the war was hidden from view. He had such a lovely face; Thomas was thankful that the blast Alistair was caught in didn’t damage it. He had seen men with terrible facial wounds both at the Front and later in the hospital. Maybe some of them had been beautiful too, before the war.

He thought of the day he saw Alistair for the first time. It was the the beginning of August and he was counting supplies to put into soldier’s small first aid kits while they were in the reserve trench.

“Corporal”

Thomas turned to see a young one-star lieutenant hesitantly looking at him from several steps away. His hand went up in a salute automatically.

The lieutenant had his cap under his arm and was smiling genially at Thomas. Thomas was amazed to see a face so handsome and delicate here amongst the squalor, mud and ruins. He seemed so out of place. Without thinking about it he looked the man up and down. He was of average height, and his fair hair was clearly mussed from the cap.

“I’m glad I found you,” the young officer said in a soft voice. He flashed him a rather nervous smile and continued, “I wanted to thank you for the other night.”

Thomas furrowed his brow. What did he do? He would remember that face if they had met before.

Possibly noticing his confusion the man clarified, “In the dugout,” he said. “It was a great comfort.”

This was the man whose hand he held that night while they hid from the onslaught of German artillery? How interesting he sought him out. Thomas would be embarrassed beyond belief to do that himself. It could also sent an entirely the wrong message.

“It’s alright,” said Thomas. What was he supposed to say to that?

“Do you smoke?” the lieutenant asked him.
The man took out a silver cigarette case, opened it and put the case forward to Thomas. “They’re Gold Flakes,” he informed him. Nice, Thomas thought. Then again, he wouldn’t expect a commissioned officer smoking any old rubbish.

“I do, thanks,” said Thomas as he took one; the man did the same.

“Pardon my manners, I haven’t even introduced myself,” said the man after they lit up their cigarettes and took a few drags. “I’m Alistair Rainsby.”

Lieutenant Rainsby moved the cigarette to his left hand and extended his right.

“Thomas Barrow,” said Thomas as he shook the offered hand, his own cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Rainsby smiled at him. Thomas wouldn’t be able to say when was the last time someone genuinely smiled at him. He let himself smile back and took a deep drag from his cigarette.

Thomas stroked his scarred hand along Alistair’s silk covered side and wondered what lay beneath the blue pyjama top. He should talk about it with Alistair sometime soon. He needn’t have him completely naked during sex, but still, it was strange to hide it from him. He briefly thought of unbuttoning the top of Alistair’s pyjamas, but with the way he was lying, he wouldn’t properly see the affected area anyways. Instead he reached up to tread his fingers through Alistair’s hair. Soft blond waves that Alistair meticulously styled every day now fell freely around his head on the pillow like a halo.

A smile made its way on Thomas’s face. In a soft bed with a content lover pressed to his side was definitely his favourite way to wake up.
________________

When Alistair opened his eyes the first thing he saw was Thomas’ face studying his. His dark hair escaped the strict confines of the brilliantine and fell into his eyes. Alistair liked this look on him, it made him look younger.

“Good morning,” drawled Alistair in voice thick with sleep. “Did you sleep well?”

“Oh terrible. Someone kept hogging the blanket all night,” answered Thomas in a mock contrite tone. Alistair grinned.

“How dreadful. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it up to you.” Alistair bit his lip in a manner he hoped was seductive and moved closer to Thomas, his hand going to rest on Thomas’ hip.

“Hmm, it won’t be easy,” murmured Thomas, his breath tickling Alistair’s ear. “Blanket hogging is a serious offense.” Alistair shivered as Thomas swiped his tongue along the edge of his ear. Thomas must have noticed his reaction because he continued the onslaught on his ear most relentlessly, sucking and licking the soft flesh until Alistair was fully hard. Thomas’ hand caressed his buttocks, squeezing and rubbing at him through the pyjamas. Alistair moaned as Thomas’ hand slipped beneath the waistband of his slacks.

Sex with Thomas was always fantastic. Alistair loved the feeling of being connected with him, the intimacy of the act. He tried not to feel jealous of those who had taught Thomas all about making a man lose his head to pleasure. His own experiences before meeting Thomas were rather chaste, the most he did was rub off together with his friend at university. He knew a few young officers that were in training with him decided to go to a prostitute, because they didn’t want to die without knowing the touch of a woman. And from what Alistair heard, brothels flourished behind the trench lines all throughout the war, with venereal diseases being the cause of as many casualties in one year as Trench Foot claimed during the whole war.

“Forgiven?” asked Alistair smiling lazily at Thomas as they lay in a sweaty tangle of limbs afterwards.

“For now.” Thomas punctuated each word with a kiss.

Alistair was the first to disappear to the bathroom afterwards. He draped a towel over half the mirror as he did every morning before looking at himself. He mastered the way of showing his good side to people, he didn’t even have to think about it now. And he always sat or walked with the other person on his right too. He was aware it was probably futile to do this around Thomas now that they lived together, but he could try.

He showered quickly and dressed. He only put on his pants and a big old sweater that reached to the middle of his thighs. It was bottle green and very soft and it was his favourite thing to wear around the flat.

Alistair prepared breakfast while Thomas washed up. He made eggs and sausages for the both of them and for Thomas he also prepared a waffle with jam on the side. He wanted their first morning together to be perfect.

Thomas came into the kitchen just as Alistair took the whistling kettle off the stove. He stood in the doorway for a while, watching Alistair pour the tea, then he sat down at the table, where the plates with food were already set. Alistair suddenly felt a bit silly, puttering around the kitchen dressed as he was used to while he lived on his own. His knees were probably too bony. Then again, Thomas seemed to have liked his knees when they were over his shoulders earlier, as he gave each one a little kiss.

“I used to eat here a lot, but we can use the dining room if you'll like.” said Alistair as he sat down at the small table.

Thomas waited to reply after he swallowed the forkful of eggs he started with. “I don't mind. It's quite cozy in here.” After a few more bites he said, “It's really good. I'm amazed you can cook. I mean, I have never so much as made tea myself.”

Alistair paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. “I'm glad you like it,” he said with a smile. “I sort of had to learn, when I wanted to live on my own. I would feel weird going out to eat by myself, and I didn't really want to go out anyways.”

“I can't imagine someone like Lady Mary or Lord Grantham cooking under any circumstances,” Thomas remarked.

“Will you think badly of me for doing so, then?”

“I couldn’t think badly of you for anything,” said Thomas, putting down his knife. He drew the back of his hand down Alistair’s cheek in a caress.

Alistair opened his mouth the speak, but thought better of it and smiled. He lowered his head back to his food, paying far more attention to the sausages than necessary.

They ate in a companionable silence for a bit. Alistair was touched by Thomas’ words, though he knew Thomas probably only meant them in jest.

Finishing his breakfast Alistair put the cutlery down and pushed his empty plate to the side. He sipped the last of his tea and watched Thomas spread the jam on the waffle. Only then did he notice that Thomas was not wearing the flesh coloured glove he had on before. When did he take it off? Now that Alistair thought about it, Thomas didn’t have it when they were in bed earlier. He had to be too overwhelmed by arousal to think twice about it. An easy thing to happen in bed with Thomas.

Thomas looked up from his plate and noticed where Alistair’s gaze pointed. Without missing a beat he held his hand in front of Alistair’s face and slowly turned it around.

Alistair could see the damage the sniper’s bullet had done. It did not heal well. Alistair tore his eyes away from the ragged wound to Thomas's face. Alistair did not like the look Thomas was giving him.

Springing up from his chair he started collecting his empty plate and cup.

“I’ll wash up,” he said and turned to the sink.

A short while later he heard Thomas get out of his seat. Instead of walking out of the kitchen, as Alistair thought he would do, Thomas walked up to him and embraced Alistair from behind. Alistair sucked in a breath in surprise. He turned off the water and quickly wiped his hands on his sweater before putting them over Thomas'.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

Thomas took a long drag from his cigarette and let his arm fall around the upholstered back of the chesterfield. Alistair sat with his legs folded under him, playing with the hem of that baggy old sweater he liked to wear at home.

“I was quite badly off when I was in Netley. I could be lost to my surroundings for days at a time; and anything could startle me, really. Nowadays it doesn’t happen very often,” Alistair said, looking down on his hands as he spoke. “Usually it's just my hands. They shake sometimes, when I’m stressed or nervous. But most often it passes without much trouble.”

Thomas put his hand over both of Alistair's and gave them a slight squeeze. Alistair looked at him and smiled tightly.

“I didn't tell you before, because I thought I would be able to control it,” he said with a little helpless laugh. “I didn't want you to see me like that.”

Thomas lifted Alistair’s hand and brought it to his lips, slowly kissing his knuckles.

“But you will tell me when you feel it coming on next time. You don’t need to struggle through it alone anymore,” he said as he drew back, still holding Alistair’s hand in his. He didn't particularly want to see Alistair in that state again, but being there for him, holding him through it, was really the least he could do.

“I will,” Alistair said and inclined his head, his smile looking much more confident now. “Thank you.”

Thomas put the cigarette down into the ashtray on the coffee table and brought his hand to rest on Alistair’s cheek.

“Come here,” he said, and closed the space that separated them, drawing Alistair into a kiss. As usual, Alistair opened up to him immediately, meeting Thomas' tongue halfway with his own. They kissed deeply, slowly letting their lips slide together, knowing there was no need to hurry. Here in their abode they could do as they wanted –there was no danger of discovery, no one to interrupt them. Even though a month had already passed since Thomas came to stay here, the novelty of being able to have this any time he wanted had not yet worn off.

He broke the kiss only to lick a stripe up Alistair's ear, then took the soft lobe between his lips and sucked on it. Alistair was wonderfully sensitive and Thomas relished the delicious little moans he elicited from him with his ministrations. Releasing the lobe he peppered kisses along Alistair's jaw before claiming his lips again. In one swift motion Alistair lifted one knee over his lap to straddle him and put his arms around Thomas’ neck. Thomas responded by wrapping his hands tightly around Alistair's middle and gently biting down on his lover's lower lip.

“Aah,” Alistair breathed out and shivered. The noises Alistair made as Thomas grinded against him fuelled his building desire as effectively as if one poured petrol on a fire.

Feeling another man’s body pressed closely to his, entwined so intimately, exchanging heated kisses, it was pure pleasure. His hands slid down Alistair's sides to his pert bottom, pressing up against him at the same time. They could just rub against each other like this –it would be messy, but fun.

In the end they did just that. Alistair's trousers became discarded along the way, together with Thomas's white undershirt that they used to clean themselves up. Afterwards they laid together on the chesterfield, Alistair on top of him, idly stroking up and down Thomas' bare chest. From what Thomas remembered from their encounter during the war, Alistair barely had a spec of hair on his own chest and his nipples were small and pink. Alistair had made the sweetest noises when Thomas had teased them. He would like to get his lips on those sweet little buds again, but he doubted he would get the chance any time soon. Alistair was just as reluctant to fully undress now as he was a month ago at Downton and after the scene Thomas had witnessed the night before he thought it prudent not to push him on the subject.

“Thomas?” Alistair asked him with a curious lilt to his voice. He rested his chin on Thomas' breastbone.

Thomas hummed in response, prompting Alistair to ask whatever was on his mind. He felt contented and lazy at the moment, sleepy even. He drew his hand down Alistair's back, feeling the ridges of his spine.

“What would make you happy?” Alistair asked, momentarily pausing his mapping of Thomas' chest.

“I am happy.” Thomas said after a few beats. He didn't realize Alistair was still bothered about that comment. He was angry when he said that, perhaps unfairly so. In truth he had never felt more content than he did when he was with Alistair. His life now was neither glamorous nor particularly exciting as he might have desired when he was younger, but he was with the man he loved and truth be told, that was what he had sought after most of his adult life. And of course, as a bonus, he was enjoying a life of leisure, he was no longer in service, bowing and scraping to his so called betters. Before the war when he used to daydream about having a rich lover, he thought he would probably be taken on as his valet —and he had thought he would like that.

“I'm glad to hear that,” Alistair said and touched his hand to Thomas' cheek, his fingertips tracing the edge of his jaw. “What if I asked you to name three things that would make you even happier? There must be something.”

Thomas' brows drew together. What sort of thing did Alistair have in mind? Thomas doubted this was the time to ask him to take his top off. It might, however, be a good time to voice a couple of things he had wanted to talk to Alistair about but hadn't found an opportune moment to ask yet

“I would like for us to get a housemaid to come in a few times a week, sweep up, do the dishes and so on,” he said, choosing to open with this as he really was not ecstatic about playing at being a scullery maid for much longer. Cleaning up after oneself was different than doing so for someone else, but still –what was the point of being rich when you didn't take advantage of it.

“Oh,” Alistair looked mildly surprised, but nodded. “I didn't think it was necessary, but alright; if that's what you want.”

“It's not that you're not adorable flitting around the flat with a feather duster, but the broom is a tad much, for a man in your position,” said Thomas, one corner of his mouth tipping up.

Alistair laughed, “Alright then, we're getting a maid, I'll call the employment agency tomorrow.”

The second thing he named was nothing that pressed on his mind, but something that he thought he might like to do, “I've always enjoyed sports, we could go play tennis or something.” He never had much opportunity to engage in sporting activities, but he had always felt a natural affinity to it.

“Tennis?” Alistair repeated, “I've always been rubbish at sport, but I'll gladly accompany you to a tennis club. Seeing you in tennis whites will be a treat I'm sure.” He smiled at Thomas and planted a quick kiss on his clavicle.

Thomas was slightly disappointed by Alistair not even considering trying it out himself, but he would take it. It wasn't important. The third thing on the other hand––

“Anything else?” Alistair asked, once again threading his fingers through the soft hair on Thomas' chest.

“Fuck me, next time we have sex,” said Thomas and raised his head off the sofa to give Alistair a pointed look.

“You mean– Oh.” Alistair's cheeks pinked slightly and his hand stopped its exploration.

Thomas lifted an eyebrow. For being always eager to engage in any kind of sexual activity, Alistair's reactions when sex was mentioned amused him.

“Yes, I want you inside me,” added Thomas, enjoying the expression hiw words evoked on Alistair's fair face. Alistair had always automatically –and very enthusiastically– taken the receiving role and every time Thomas got swept up in the action to some very enjoyable results. But Thomas had not have a man inside of him for far too long and he missed the feeling. The last time had been in 1915 during his leave in Paris. The man hadn't been particularly handsome, but it had felt good.

“I'll do my best, then,” said Alistair and gave him a smile that Thomas could only describe as cheeky, he then he sat up and reached for the side table. “Cigarette?”

______________

 

Mary Bradford was a woman past her prime, but diligent and hard working. The agreement was for her to come three times a week and tidy the kitchen, bathroom and drawing room, to clean the floors and wash the dishes. The bedrooms were off limits which saved them from a need to pretend that both of the rooms were being occupied. She wasn't intrusive and didn’t natter while she worked, so Alistair decided he didn’t mind this addition to their lives.

Thomas' wish to occasionally reverse their positions during lovemaking wasn't unwelcome either. From the beginning of their relationship Alistair had expected Thomas to steer their bedroom adventures, for he was much more experienced than Alistair. When it came to the act itself Alistair felt more nervous than he was the first time they made love during the war, though once they started moving together that feeling dissipated, leaving only excitement and pleasure in its wake. Thomas turned out to be rather vocal while on the receiving end and didn’t last nearly as long as usual before he was spent. Even so Thomas urged him to continue –which Alistair enthusiastically honoured– and, overwhelmed with Thomas’ reaction, soon reached climax as well. All in all it was quite an exhilarating experience.

When they lay together afterwards, Alistair wrapped himself around Thomas’ back, planting gentle kisses to his neck.

“Now you’ve officially claimed both my firsts,” Alistair said, nuzzling into Thomas’ hair he breathed in the pleasant scent of his shampoo.

Thomas turned in his embrace, jostling Alistair from his comfortable position, surprise clearly written on his face. “In France when we —that was your first time?” he asked, “Why didn't you say?”

“I guess I wanted to seem a bit more worldly than I really was,” Alistair mused. He was twenty three at the time and felt the need to put on a bit of bravado; to him Thomas had seemed so self assured and the way he kissed and held Alistair had spoken of experience.

Thomas shook his head and leveled him with a look both fond and exasperated.

“If I had known I would have gone slower, taken more time with—” Alistair stopped him with a finger pressed to his lips.

“It was perfect. I wouldn't change a thing,” he said and replacing his finger with his lips he proceeded to tease Thomas with shallow kisses. When Thomas pressed him into the pillow minutes later Alistair let out a small and very undignified yelp.

 

***

A week later they were on their way to Queen's Club in West Kensington where Thomas would try his hand at tennis. He had attempted to persuade Alistair to give the sport a go too, but Alistair insisted that he would only be there to watch. He spoke the truth when he said that he was no good at activities of this kind. It wasn't that he lacked the agility, it was more a question of coordination. He still remembered the embarrassing experience of playing badminton with his school friends and missing the shuttlecock every single time. They had laughed at him for weeks afterwards.

They had made an appointment with a tennis coach named Mr. Hammond who met them at the club's entrance at eleven o'clock. First he showed them the grounds –there were three outdoor tennis courts and two indoor ones– and then Thomas went to change for his lesson. Mr. Hammond was friendly, he looked to be in his late twenties, he was tall, handsome and chiseled like an antique statue. Alistair took an immediate dislike to him.

Alistair took his seat on the tribune where several other people already sat; they paid him no attention. There were two older men in tennis whites, chatting amicably amongst themselves and not at all interested in what was going on below, and a small group of young women, girls really, who seemed to be watching the figures on the court with a great interest.

The coach started with explaining the rules of the game and the scoring system and then proceeded to show Thomas how to serve. Alistair did not like the way the man stood close to Thomas when showing him the correct grip. As they started playing Thomas seemed to be doing rather well, hitting the ball almost every time and managing to lend it in the designated area. He caught Alistair’s eyes a few times, but mostly concentrated on the game.

After several exchanges they had a short break during which the club's attendant brought them glasses of lemonade. Thomas shot Alistair a quick smile before his attention was back on what the curly haired coach was saying to him. Alistair was too far to overhear their conversation now as they stood on the other side of the court, but they seemed to be getting on very well.

Alistair supposed he should be glad that Thomas was having a good time, doing something he obviously enjoyed and even making friends; after all, he was used to be around a lot of people during his time at Downton. It was probably refreshing for him to speak with someone other than Alistair ––if only it could be someone less attractive though.

As they continued to play, Mr. Hammond gave Thomas tips on his game, commenting on his stance and his strokes. It really was quite lovely to watch Thomas, his movements were controlled and his aim true. But even so, it wasn't too long before Alistair started to get bored. Perhaps he should have brought a book with him, or maybe even stayed at home. There was no point in him being here, was there? He was just glad that he didn't let Thomas talk him into playing as well. He could do without making it even more pointedly obvious how much that muscular Adonis was better than him.

The girls on the tribune oohed and aahed as Mr. Hammond flexed his biceps, though one or two of them became interested in commenting on Thomas’ performance –and physique– as well. To have young girls talk like that seemed highly improper, though secretly he agreed with them that Thomas' pectorals showed very nicely under the white shirt he was wearing.

As the lesson wrapped up, Thomas went up to where Alistair was seated. He was smiling as he used a small towel to wipe the sweat he had worked up off his brows; his hair stuck to his forehead when he pulled the cloth away. Alistair quirked up his lips in return.

“Philip said we can have drinks in the club's bar, you could wait for us there,” said Thomas and gestured towards Mr. Hammond.

“Philip?”

Thomas nodded and continued, “We'll just take a shower and meet you there.”

Alistair replied with a forced close-lipped smile. They got on first name terms quickly —how lovely. And they they were going to shower together —even better. His mind conjured up images the Mr. Hammond's glistening naked body beckoning Thomas to join him under a warm spray of water, his other hand tracing the shape of his undoubtedly well developed abdominals. Maybe they'd wash each other's back.

Well now he was just being ridiculous; a stiff drink might actually do him good. He got up, waved at Thomas and left through the door towards the lobby.

The bar was fairly busy for this hour of the day with people in both sportswear and day dress. Alistair ordered a whiskey and soda and sat down at one of the empty tables. He took out his cigarette case and lighter and quickly lit one up. His drink was delivered promptly and he was halfway through it when he was joined by Thomas and Mr. Hammond.

“I was just telling Thomas that I don't believe it's the first time he's played tennis. He's just too good!” the man said cheerfully, giving Thomas a wide smile.

“I swear I haven't!”

“You must play some other sport though, don't you?” said Mr. Hammond, his eyes fixated on Thomas, “You have a very fine physique.”

Well now!

“I’ve always liked playing cricket, but now I see tennis has a lot to speak for it,” Thomas said, lifting one finely arched eyebrow towards the man.

Alistair took a swig of the whiskey and told himself to breathe.

__________

 

Thomas enjoyed his tennis lesson immensely. It felt good to do something physical again; it had been years since Downton played the village in cricket –before the war broke out. He wondered briefly if the tradition would continue now with so few men left to take part; not that it concerned him anymore.

The coach they engaged to show him the ropes was very handsome and very friendly; they were on first name basis even before they started the game. Thomas soon found out that Philip definitely liked the sound of his own voice, but since he showered Thomas with compliments on his performance he didn’t mind the constant chatter. It was only while they undressed after the game that Thomas noticed the other man giving him looks that could only be described as appraising. How interesting. Thomas couldn’t deny that kind of attention felt good –especially from a man like Philip– and once upon a time he would have definitely taken him up on it. Now though, he wished it was Alistair with him in the shower; carefree about his nakedness.

“The man who’s with you, he’s a friend?” Philip asked as they dressed.

Thomas’s hands stilled on the knot of his tie. “He is.”

“How nice of him to come watch you,” Philip said in a suspiciously light tone and shot him an amused look, “Must be a very good friend.”

Thomas inclined his head, one corner of his mouth turning up. That was one way of putting it, he thought. And truth be told, he was happy that Alistair came along with him even though he had no interest in the sport himself. It gave Thomas an opportunity to show off in front of him.

When they emerged from the changing room, Alistair was sitting in the club bar nursing what looked like whiskey and soda. It seemed a bit early for that, but he wasn’t going to begrudge him.

“I was just telling Thomas that I don't believe it's the first time he's played tennis. He's just too good!” Philip said with a big smile when they sat down.

“I swear I haven't!” Thomas exclaimed, bemused. He couldn’t help but preen under the praise.

“You must play some other sport though, don't you? You have a very fine physique,” Philip said, giving Thomas a pointed look. Thomas didn’t think he was particularly well built –he was getting soft around the middle, for one thing– but he wasn’t going to argue.

“I’ve always liked playing cricket,” he said instead; it was the only sport he had done in recent years too. “But now I see tennis has a lot to speak for it,” he added. He had a great time today and hoped he would be able to repeat it soon.

“Thomas,” Alistair said, his voice strained, “you said to tell you when––” His voice broke off. Thomas looked over at him in alarm. What was he–– “Oh.” It dawned on him what Alistair wanted to say; but what could have brought it on now? “Oh, yes, of course.” Was there anything that could have set him off? Thomas had not noticed anything, but he had concentrated on his conversation with Philip. No matter now.

“Sorry, Philip, urgent business I'm afraid,” Thomas said, getting up from his seat. “Got to go.” Alistair got up as well, unsteady on his feet.

Philip looked from Alistair to Thomas in surprise. “I hope I'll be seeing you here again, Thomas,” he managed to get out, baffled.

“Sure,” Thomas shot him a quick smile and followed Alistair who had already started to walk towards the door. They walked out of the club and, almost miraculously, Thomas managed to hail a taxi within seconds. Alistair sat ramrod straight in the cab, looking down on his hands.

They did not shake as Thomas had expected. How curious.

Thomas wished to reach over and touch him, but did not dare to do so in the back of a taxi. Fortunately the ride wasn’t long and soon they were taking off their shoes in the comfort of their home.

Alistair avoided all eye contact with him. He walked to the chesterfield in the drawing room and sat down. Thomas followed after him, sitting down on the sofa next to him he put his arm around Alistair's tense shoulders. They sat like that for several long minutes, unmoving apart from Thomas' fingers on Alistair's shoulder, when Alistair suddenly spoke, “It was wrong of me to alarm you. I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“It passed quickly, I shouldn't have –you were enjoying yourself and I ruined it.” Alistair said and turned towards him. Alistair's tone didn't sit right with Thomas, just like the fact that Alistair would not meet his eyes.

“It's alright. I can always go back another time,” said Thomas.

Alistair bit his lip, “Right,” he said, “I'm sure Philip will be happy to see you.” That definitely sounded off. Was he ––was he jealous?

Thomas went over the events of the past two hours with this thought in mind. Could Alistair have pretended to be in distress so that they would leave? There was evidence to support that theory. He couldn't decide if he was insulted that Alistair would think him fickle enough to be swayed aside by a few appreciative comments by another man or amused that he had felt the need for the ruse to get Thomas away from perceived competition. In the end he settled for the latter; at least it showed Alistair didn't take his affections for granted. And anyways, it wasn’t like Thomas himself had never stooped to a bit of foul play to get the results he wanted –several incidents sprang to mind from the past year alone. He would let this one slide.

He made a noncommittal noise and drew Alistair closer, placing a kiss into his hair.

“I'm glad you're alright.”

The phone suddenly rang –the noise as piercing as it was unwelcome at this very moment. Alistair extracted himself from Thomas' embrace and went to pick it up.

Thomas was busy with his thoughts and didn't listen in on the conversation. About the only one who called was Lady Clarendon anyway. He was therefore thoroughly unsurprised when Alistair came back saying, “It was mother.”

“What did she want?” Thomas asked. Lady Clarendon usually phoned once a week to check on her son, and she was over the quota with this call. He took out his cigarettes and lit up before offering the pack to Alistair. Alistair took one and Thomas held out the lighter for him. Alistair smiled at him, having no problem to look into his eyes now. Thomas smirked.

“They will come to London next Friday, to have dinner with some friends. They want to come over for tea before that,” said Alistair with an exhale of smoke.

Oh bugger.

Chapter Text

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.

 

--------------------

 

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.

 

--------------------

 

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.

 

--------------------

 

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.”