It’s now or never, Thomas tells himself, reaching for Jimmy’s doorknob. You’re not just handed opportunities when nearly everybody else is away.
Jimmy is in bed, and makes no protest when Thomas enters. He’s careful to close the door behind him; this is not a situation in which to risk eavesdroppers. Especially if things go well.
…Or indeed, if they go very badly. But he’s trying not to think about that.
The door now closed, he devotes his attention entirely to Jimmy’s just-illuminated figure: serene on his back, with his face turned toward the wall, asleep. Well, he looks asleep, although occasionally people pretend, in some circumstances, either if they —
What? No, Thomas interrupts himself. That’s mad; he’s not pretending; he’s asleep good and proper. He shakes his head to rid it of the irrelevant tangent his thoughts briefly went on. This is not the time to be carried off by fantasy.
He tiptoes closer to the bed and whispers, “Jimmy,” ignoring the nervous part of him that wants to use Jimmy’s unconsciousness as an excuse to run for it and do this later. His hands are shaking a bit, but there’s nothing to be gained from waiting; this is the perfect time, even if he does have to wake Jimmy up.
Jimmy does not wake up, though.
“Jimmy?” Thomas whispers again, and, when Jimmy still doesn’t stir, he hesitates a moment before deciding to sit on the edge of the bed.
Maybe he is pretending after all because he doesn’t want to have to talk about it, Thomas thinks, or because he’s hoping I’ll go away, or maybe he’s got liquor stashed somewhere and he’s had a bit, or maybe he’s — alright, that’s enough. Some people are just heavy sleepers. Don’t make so much trouble for yourself and get on with it.
“Jimmy,” he tries again a little louder, putting his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to do it, but it’s hard to be sure, because suddenly Alfred’s bursting through the door, speaking at full volume, and Jimmy’s bolting up startled and confused, and then, after a moment, both Jimmy and Alfred are looking at Thomas, who continues to sit at the edge of Jimmy’s bed with a peculiar feeling as if he has just noisily dropped a piece of silverware in a quiet room.
“Wonderful idea, Alfred; Mr Carson’s gone to bed, why don’t you make a little more noise so we can have a right party in here?” Thomas snaps, hoping to distract from the strangeness of the scene. It works well enough; Alfred’s shoulders slump and he has the decency to look duly reprimanded.
Jimmy, bless him, says nothing.
“I just wanted to…tell Jimmy about…right, sorry, Mr Barrow,” Alfred stammers slowly, giving the situation he’s just walked in on another skeptical once-over and shooting Jimmy a quizzical glance. Jimmy’s bewilderment, luckily, takes the form of a scowl.
“Right…I’ll talk to you tomorrow, then, Jimmy,” Alfred mutters, taking a step backwards. “Goodnight.”
He skulks back into the hallway, pulling the door closed again after him. Thomas and Jimmy watch him go in silence, listening to his footsteps down the hallway followed by his door closing.
“So…what’s happening?” Jimmy asks after a few seconds.
He looks none too happy about having been woken up, with his lip curled and his brow knit. Get out, try again later when he’s in a better mood, the doubtful part of Thomas’s mind demands. He could give some excuse and leave; he’s been thrown off his plans anyway (thanks to good-for-nothing bloody goddamned bad-timing Alfred) and he can’t remember what he was going to say. But then Jimmy rubs the sleep out of his eye, and it’s damn endearing, and the way he looks to Thomas for answers seems so natural, and Thomas just has to know now.
He opens his mouth.
“Um,” he says.
Nice one, he thinks.
Jimmy keeps looking at him the same way, waiting. Alright then, out with it.
“Can I speak with you?” he asks.
Jimmy glances down down, assessing Thomas’s informal attire and position on his bed, perhaps searching for clues. But he doesn’t do anything, which is probably better than if he were to do something. Maybe he should just kiss him and be done with it; that would be clear and to the point, right? Nothing’s ever gone wrong doing that, other than that time he got himself blackmailed into taking a man to deflower Lady Mary….
Jimmy shrugs acquiescently. Thomas reflects that he used to be better at this, and checks the closed door again.
“We’re friends, aren’t we?” he asks, mostly to reassure himself.
Jimmy’s eyebrows raise, perplexed, but replies, “yeah, I s’pose we are.”
Thomas grins down at his knees with a little rush of giddiness, though nothing has really actually been said yet. His voice sounds sort of breathless and almost like a laugh when he continues.
“That’s good. Because I’m fond of you, Jimmy; I really have come to like you as we’ve got to know each other, since you started here.” There is silence, so Thomas looks up to meet Jimmy’s eyes again; he wants his sincerity made plain. “There’s something between us, you and I. I can tell that there is.”
Jimmy does not react. He is still breathing (though Thomas likely isn’t by now), but he remains otherwise immobile, searching Thomas’s face in the dim light. Slowly, his lips part as if he might speak, but then he seems to remember something and shoots a look at the door. When he returns his attention to Thomas, the tension in his shoulders betray his uncertainty. Thomas, half to comfort him and half to clarify, puts his hand gently atop Jimmy’s.
Jimmy drops his gaze to stare at their hands, then, several seconds late, flinches his hand away to cradle it against his chest. He’s still tense when he looks back at Thomas, but the uncertainty in his face has been replaced with alarm.
“Oh, no,” Jimmy yelps, shaking his head hard. “No, no, that’s not…I don’t…I’m not…I don’t know how, but you’ve got me wrong if you think I…no, no. No.”
Thomas’s heart sinks. “But I thought, because of what you said, that you — ”
“No, I said nothing,” Jimmy interrupts a little too loudly. “There’s nothing, Mr Barrow. It’s nothing like that.”
‘Mr Barrow,’ even…that stings…
Thomas bows his head, trying to cover both the injury of the rejection and the anxiety at this having just become a perilous situation. Jimmy pushes himself back on the bed, drawing his knees up toward his chest. Feeling somewhat guilty at having sat down in the first place, Thomas shifts in the opposite direction from Jimmy to help him in his quest to put distance between them.
Jimmy’s forehead creases in agitation, but, after a painful pause, he nods to himself and straightens his back just a bit.
“We have gotten on well enough,” he says, “but I’m not…that way. I’m not. You’ve got the wrong idea about me somehow.”
Jimmy’s clearly not pleased, but the reassurance that they do get on is, well, reassuring. Jimmy could have thrown him out, or threatened him, or, or screamed or something, but he hasn’t done any of that. A kind of jilted anguish tempts Thomas to demand what Jimmy thought he was doing, letting Thomas hold his hand and caress his shoulder and say such sweet things to him only to curl his lip in disgust at him now, but he makes himself hold his tongue. He knew there was some chance of disappointment, even if he didn’t expect it.
“Does anybody know you’re here?” Jimmy breaks the silence abruptly. “Or why? Or that you’re…oh God, do people think I’m…?”
“No,” Thomas jumps in. Right, mustn’t forget there are more egos at stake than just mine… “Nobody knows I’m here — other than Alfred, but I wouldn’t worry too much about him — and what with the way you’ve got all the maids going? No.”
Jimmy visibly lets out a little breath of relief, but it’s not long before his eyes glint with suspicion.
“Why did you come in here when I’m in bed?”
Thank God for easy questions. “I just thought it’d be convenient, with Alfred away for the evening.”
“Bloody Alfred’s got no timing,” Jimmy says flatly. Thomas almost smirks at how the statement matches his own thoughts from a moment ago, but doesn’t. “So you weren’t hoping for…?”
“No,” Thomas lies quickly. It’s got to be more soothing to hear that Thomas’s intentions were wholly chaste than to have to confront any more complicated reality head-on at the moment. “No, it’s only that we none of us get any privacy around here, so I wanted to take the opportunity for a, a chat where I could get one, as it’s a difficult sort of thing to talk about…”
Jimmy looks both troubled by this and like he can maybe understand it. Thomas considers briefly whether Jimmy has ever professed love for anybody and can perhaps relate to the delicacy of it, but he opts to leave that mystery alone until the immediacy of this not-quite-failure has faded.
“I…” Jimmy starts, then pauses, then resumes. “Does Miss O’Brien know? I heard you two used to be close.”
The thought of O’Brien in such a moment as this leaves a bitter taste in Thomas’s mouth, but he ignores it. Jimmy’s got an odd look about him that makes Thomas wonder if this is some sort of test, but he answers, “she does know about me, but I’ve not said anything to her about talking to you tonight, if that’s what you mean.”
Jimmy’s eyes narrow and Thomas worries he’s blown it, but something about the way Jimmy is scouring the dark floor suggests that perhaps his suspicion isn’t meant for Thomas. He returns his attention to Thomas after a moment, as if he understands something unpleasant that nonetheless has relaxed him somewhat. Thomas resolves to get to the bottom of whatever this unspoken journey was eventually, because he suspects he might actually have to murder O’Brien one of these days, but he’ll have to think about that later because Jimmy seems to be waiting for Thomas to make the next move.
“Thank you for saying you won’t speak about this. That’s kind of you, since I’m sure I must’ve startled you.” Jimmy gives a tiny shrug but otherwise doesn’t react. Thomas swallows. “But I hope we can still be friends?”
Jimmy does not appear very confident of his opinion of this suggestion, but he doesn’t take too long to make up his mind.
“Sure. Sure, Mr…er…alright. If this’ll just be between you and me, then I suppose there’s no harm in that.”
See, there is something between us now after all, Thomas’s mind supplies dryly, but Jimmy’s actually come around to seeming alright now, if a little pale, and he allows himself a smile.
“Just between you and me,” he echoes.
“This is strange,” Jimmy says. Thomas can’t blame him; he just thought the same thing a minute ago. “I think I’d like to go to bed now, properly, if it’s just the same to you. If you, er, if you see Alfred, tell him to leave me alone at least until tomorrow, alright?”
Thomas stands, grateful for the clear — but not unfriendly — dismissal. “Sure. Yes. Right. Goodnight then, Jimmy.”
Jimmy smiles at Thomas as he goes, and while he’s still tense, he looks genuine enough. Once the door is closed, Thomas lets out a slow breath that shakes a little toward the end.
He makes a speedy return to his own bedroom, feeling exposed in the too-normal hallway. He leans his head against his own door once he’s safely closed in behind it, resisting the urge to sink down onto the floor. It’s not so dramatic as all that, he tells himself. In fact, this is about the least dramatic way this could possibly have gone.
He doesn’t like people having secrets over him when he’s got nothing on them, but that can’t be helped. Jimmy’s not naturally the scheming type, so he’s a better person to know about private matters than O’Brien ever was. So it’s fine. A little dangerous, but fine.
Embarrassing, but fine.
Funny about the questions Jimmy had, with so much attention to secrecy…a relief, too, though, in a way. Thomas isn’t eager to have everybody knowing about this conversation, so that Jimmy seems concerned with the same is promising. He’s curious as to why that was so much on Jimmy’s mind; it’s not a preoccupation he’d expect; that might bear further investigation eventually. Perhaps there’s a story worth knowing there.
Maybe this will turn out to be good, somehow. There’s intimacy to be had in sharing a secret, after all. Maybe they’ll be better friends for it.
Thomas pushes himself away from the door to get into bed, though he can’t imagine how he’ll get to sleep. Breakfast will doubtless be uncomfortable, but he can handle it, for Jimmy’s sake. He’s got an obligation to both himself and to Jimmy to show that he can be a good, helpful, normal friend. He has a lot of experience putting a smooth surface over whatever mess is going on in his mind. At least he knows where he stands now. He can manage the rest.