If Mr Ellis weren't the most handsome man he'd seen in years (maybe ever) he would not be bothering waiting around for him.
If Mr Ellis weren't the most handsome man he'd seen in years he'd be back in the servants' hall, probably, moping about and pretending like he could care less about the Royal Visit and anything to do with it. So what if it's the King and Queen of the bloody Commonwealth, so what if Lady Mary thinks he's incompetent after eighteen months of the best service he's ever given the Crawleys in his life...
But he's not.
Because Mr Ellis looks as he does.
On the other hand, this isn't exactly Thomas Barrow's finest hour, is it? Standing around like a chump while a man (a very handsome and very charming man) scratches a cat behind the ears.
The worst part is that his heart is beating fast at the scene before him, that he can't stop himself from smiling. The things he does for romance. So long as Mr Ellis isn't looking at him he can stare as much as he likes, and so stare he will.
It is impressive; he'll give him that. All he had to do was click his tongue a few times and hold out his hand, and now he's God's gift to the strays of Downton. If Thomas thinks about it too long he'll start drawing comparisons to himself, and that'd help exactly nobody, so he watches. The man's giving the mangy thing an absolutely immoderate amount of affection with one beautifully unblemished left hand and holding his glove in the right—because he took it off. To pet a cat. It strikes Thomas as counter-intuitive but that smile's got him thinking about other things anyway.
"Don't tell me they don't have those in London."
It is sweet, Thomas can admit, or at least it is as far as cats go. Just sat on the wall with its tail swishing, nuzzling his hand.
"Well, they don't have this one in London," says Mr Ellis. He looks up at Thomas and grins in a fashion that makes his heart flip over, then turns back to the cat. It's purring. Thomas can't blame it; he would be, too. "Thanks," straightening up and slipping his glove back on, flexing his hand, still smiling. "For your patience."
"Yeah, well, it's not endless."
Mr Ellis laughs. "All the more reason for me to be grateful."
If it weren't for all the times Thomas has hinted, for all the things he's said and the questions he's asked and all the absolutely-nothing he's gotten in return, he'd've made a bloody move already. "When is it you're expected, exactly?" he asks.
He wears a wristwatch. Thomas should hate him for it but he doesn't. He suspects people probably find it hard to resent Mr Ellis for anything, actually. Not only is he the only person out of the Royal Household everybody at Downton doesn't hate, he also seems like the only person out of the Royal Household the Royal Household doesn't hate…
How do they get any work done, behaving like that?
"Sooner than I'd thought," Mr Ellis says sheepishly.
"Well," Thomas says, "you'd better get behind the wheel, then, hadn't you."
"Right," says Richard, breaking what has turned out to be too long of a silence for Thomas's liking but not too long of one he felt ready to speak up and stop it himself. "Sorry – "
"Don't be," Thomas says; he may still be feeling stupid about the whole thing but that's no reason for Richard to. "Don't be."
Richard nods, and Thomas finds himself watching his hands—he keeps tugging at his gloves. "My brother and his wife came down from Middlesbrough," he says. "They've got a little girl."
God, and he thinks he has to apologise?
Thomas leans his head back onto the seat, shutting his eyes and breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth, focused. "You shouldn't've asked me out."
"What I should've done is taken a step with you before another bloke had the chance." Thomas can't argue with that one, but then, he could have taken a step himself and he didn't, so there's no use blaming either of them. When he turns to look at him Richard turns, too, looks out the window, and Thomas rubs the brim of his hat in his lap with his fingertips. The hum of the engine starts to subside. Thomas doesn't know where they are, exactly—how far from York, how close to Downton, but they've stopped driving and now maybe his heart can slow down. "And I am sorry," Richard continues. "About what happened."
"It's not your fault."
"I wasn't taking responsibility for it."
"Good, 'cause I'm not asking you to."
Richard makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a scoff. He says, "you like to go it alone, don't you?"
"Whyever would you say that?"
"Well, I've had about four days' time to observe…"
"And, I think a lot of us prefer to think we're on our own in the world."
He's not unkind about it but he is sort of talking down.
Part of Thomas thinks, why shouldn't he be, when you got yourself into this mess and all he knows about you til now is you haven't been away from Yorkshire for five years? Another part thinks, don't you dare pity me.
He's not sure which one will win out in the end. Not just yet.
"Us," Thomas repeats.
"The kind of men we are."
Us. Thomas hasn't met anybody but him (well, properly speaking) in years. Or hadn't, until tonight.
"Whyever would we do that?" he asks, again, sarcastic, because it isn't very difficult to come up with reasons. When has anybody ever given him a hand up? Why shouldn't he think he's alone when he is? Things've gotten better but life isn't a fairytale and he's long grown out of expecting it to be.
Good things come to those who go out and get them, who make their own luck. Only problem is he got too tired to keep up the search.
And some people didn't want him searching at all.
"Hurts less than the alternative."
"Which is?" Thomas murmurs.
"Thinking we're not," Richard says slowly, looking toward him again, meeting his eyes. Thomas realises he's holding his breath. Whenever he started that, it was an accident, but he can't seem to make himself let go of it just yet. "And then turning out to be."
"Been thinking about this since Monday," Richard breathes, and before Thomas can do anything—before he can laugh at him or tease, before he can say me, too—Richard is kissing him again, one hand on his cheek, fingers gentle in his hair. When Thomas catches his lip with his teeth and bites he makes a little sound of surprise. Thomas could swear he shudders, actually, so he does it again. This causes a louder noise (if still circumspect, he'll give credit for that where it's due), which is as good an invitation as any to stick his tongue in his mouth, so he goes for that while he's got the nerve. When was the last time he kissed anybody like this? Too long ago. Richard breaks it soon enough, though, to gasp for air, probably, because that's what he does, over and over til he speaks again. "I've been dreaming about you, Mr Barrow."
"How many times've I told you to call me Thomas," Thomas says, raising his eyebrows. He's had to put effort into coming off like a grown man who can hold his own since what happened, but he thinks it's working now. He's got habits he can fall back on and the wit is one. Not that he's being especially witty, but he's had no trouble making Richard blush since they made it to the bedroom, and the way he's lowering his eyes now like a fucking débutante...
He's not so suave in the bedroom, is he?
It's about time.
"Call me Thomas," he repeats. He gives him a quick peck on the lips; Richard tilts his head back against the wall now, still out of breath, his chest rising and falling. He mouths Thomas but doesn't say it, and Thomas notices the opportunity to kiss him closer to the collar and takes it before he loses his nerve. "But," he adds, lips against his skin, "I am happy to know I've made an impression, Richard."
"Go out sometimes," says Richard, with a lopsided shrug. The sheets are tangled up over their legs and it's much too hot to be very close, but Thomas can't resist thumbing at the crook of his arm even so, delighting when he shivers. Sweat will do that but so will feelings, physical or otherwise. "The West End's right there, isn't it, not too hard to find it if I need it."
"Never had to do that," Thomas says, stupidly.
But Richard doesn't seem offended: he shifts his weight on the mattress, drawing his head back as though to get a better look at him. If it were anybody else Thomas wouldn't like it—or, if it had happened at any other time. But they've already fucked, so what does he have to hide?
"Count yourself lucky."
He won't feel the same in the morning, of course, he never does manage to keep it around after he's slept… but he always starts to feel a certain way, after.
"I took it for granted, when I was a boy."
"Being liked, or being looked at?"
Well, he's quick on the uptake.
"Both," murmurs Thomas. Richard nods. He tilts his head, eyebrows up on his forehead, and the words just fall out of him: "I haven't been looked at for a while, and…" He trails off. Shrugs. It's not so much that he never had to go out looking so much as it is he was afraid to do it that way. He's been picked up before but he hasn't ever been the one on the other side of it.
Too afraid of the other bloke saying no.
"I've been looking at you all week," Richard says, cheeky in a fashion that almost makes Thomas blush.
God he is handsome.
"I've been flirting with you all week, not that you noticed…"
"Well, not every time."
"But sometimes?" Thomas asks, shifting toward him. They've been doing that all week: leaning in during conversations, walking in crooked lines to be closer. Every time he pretended he didn't notice it happening, but the truth is once he did he couldn't stop thinking about it, analysing every move, every time they almost touched.
They didn't do that til this evening, in the street, Richard's gloved finger upon his lips.
They've gone further than that since.
"Yeah," he says, "yeah, there were times I thought…" He reaches over to stroke his shoulder, drawing one finger from the end of his collarbone down his arm, eyes open and looking. Not much to be in awe of, is there? But he looks to be in awe.
He looks like he wants to be where he is.
Like he wants to be here with him, in his bed.
"I don't like being toyed with, Mr Ba – "
"Thomas." This man is so shy when he's naked. Unbelievable. Thomas can't get enough of it. "Thomas." Richard swallows; there's a visible pulse in his throat that Thomas somehow can't move his eyes from. "Yeah."
"Just spit it out," Thomas tells him, but he's kind he thinks, or hopes at least. "I've told you enough about me, haven't I."
His fingers start fluttering at the crook of Thomas's elbow, just the way he'd done before, but then he pulls his hand away as fast as if he'd laid it on a hot iron. Thomas reaches over to take it back, nearly thinking better of it (left hand) but relaxing when Richard takes his palm in his own and squeezes. "Look, if you – "
"Just get tired of normal men playing tricks is all."
"Well," Thomas says. Richard looks like a sad puppy dog and he sort of wants to hold him again. "I don't think a normal man would go so far as I have, do you?
He laughs. It's gauche, nothing like the rest. "You've got a point," he says. It's so obvious when people try too hard to come off like they don't give a damn and apparently he's no exception. Thomas wouldn't have guessed it… which means he must've been genuine, so far. "But, er, some get closer than you'd think… or like, though I'm not about to make a song and dance about it…"
Thomas has to wonder how recent all this was. Whatever it is he's referring to.
Nobody says things like that and means it. Not about to make a song and dance about it, really? Put on tap shoes and grab a fucking microphone, because it's about to take over the rest of the bloody discussion and you may as well get it over with… only he doesn't feel that way with him. Not yet, at least. He wants to linger over every word that comes out of his mouth, to feel the echo of every touch of his skin to his own.
"But I've found you, now, haven't I? And I'm pleased to have done."
Well, well. Maybe he meant it.
He's looking at him too close for comfort, though.
"Yeah," says Richard, bright again now. You'd never've known he was just… whatever it was. "Yeah, I am pleased to have found you," and though Thomas doesn't expect the kiss he is very glad when it comes.
His lips are so soft, Thomas thinks idly. He has stubble now, too, just a shadow of it that Thomas hadn't noticed before. (He probably does himself, for that matter.)
"Have you been looking for a very long time?"
He may as well be ripping his heart from his chest and serving it up on Lord Grantham's finest silver, but he can't resist asking.
Richard hums in assent. "Not in the right places, I reckon," he says. "Nobody like you in London."
"That you've met…"
"Well, I've met plenty of other sorts, I can assure you."
"Rub salt in the wound why don't you – "
"And none of 'em hold a candle to you, Thomas Barrow."
"Is that easier than just Thomas?"
"You should…" Thomas bites his lip, then the inside of his cheek. "You should get some sleep," he decides on saying, "you've got a lot to do tomorrow, haven't you."
A very good question.
They stare at each other.
"If you like," Thomas says slowly.
Richard grins. "You sound unsure."
"Yeah, well, forgive me for not wanting to get caught with a man in my room."
"We won't get caught," says Richard, bluntly; he almost sounds surprised that Thomas would think of it. Offended, even. How, exactly, do you define circumspect, Mr Ellis…
But he's hardly about to complain at the prospect of waking up to that beside him.
When was that last on the table?
"Miller'll cover for me," Richard goes on, casually, no skin off his back, if only Thomas could ever be so sure as anybody he'd ever worked with as that, "only one I've got to worry about is Wilson, the footmen are fine – "
"The footmen?" Thomas asks, coyly.
First a pause, and then Richard laughs. "Right," he says, "that'd slipped my mind – "
"We've had a very long day, haven't we."
Thomas draws freehand shapes into the back of his shoulder with his fingertips, feeling his skin, caressing. Like a lover would.
"All the more reason for me to stay and get some rest…" Another pause. A broader smile. "Thomas."
But before Richard's head can hit the pillow, Thomas kisses him again.