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A Web of Fragile Brilliance

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‘I told Barrow he could use the East Bedroom while we’re here,’ says Mary, sitting at her dressing table as she brushes her hair.

Henry, with one knee already beneath the covers of their bed, looks between his wife and Anna, but the latter is folding clothes diligently in the corner and Mary has a look on her face that says she’s not to be trifled with.

‘Was that wise?’

‘What would you have me do? At least if he’s here he won’t be getting into trouble out there,’ her eyes flick to the windows and the bright London night obscured by the thick curtains, ‘at least until Mama and Papa arrive.’

Henry settles more comfortably into the bed, ‘I shouldn’t like to explain to Robert what you’ve let his butler get up to under his own roof, that’s for sure.’

‘You forget Papa took Barrow with him to America. He’s not so ignorant as all that.’

‘Yes, but still. Surely, this Ellis chap will know of…’

‘Will that be all milady?’ Anna interrupts, without looking at either of them. The tips of her ears have gone pink as they get uncomfortably close to saying out loud what they all know they’re talking about.

Yes, thank you, Anna,’ says Mary, with a roll of her eyes at Henry. She gets up from the dressing table to get in bed beside her husband as the door clicks shut and Anna goes out rather faster than would be considered respectful.

There’s a quiet moment as they get settled, automatically coming to rest close together, feet entwined before Henry speaks again, ‘what do they do, do you suppose? Together.’

‘Would you like a diagram?’ says Mary with a quirk of her eyebrow.

‘No, not that. The romance, the - The Royal visit to Downton was nearly three years ago now. Anyone else and I'd say they’d been courting.’

‘Well, there you are. That’s what they’ve been doing.’

’But between two men? Is that quite possible?’

‘You’re a man and you love me. Why should Barrow not be capable of that?’

‘Maybe you’re right.’

‘I’m always right.’

‘So, should we expect an engagement announcement sometime soon?’

Mary gives him a sharp look, ‘don’t be cruel,' and Henry holds up his hands, placating, ‘sorry, sorry. Still, the East Bedroom. Imagine if Carson found out.’

‘It’s a good thing there’s absolutely no way he will then, isn’t it.’

*

Belowstairs is quiet when Anna makes it down. The dwindling number of servants is something they’ve all got used to over the years but with only Lady Mary and Mr Talbot staying until Lord and Lady Grantham arrive it’s just her and Thomas fending for themselves and it does make the place feel quite lonely. The cook and the maids don’t even live-in at Grantham House when the family’s in residence anymore. How they’ve been coping at Downton without a butler the last few days is anyone’s guess but it’s nearly the start of a new decade and the future has never felt more uncertain.

‘I thought you’d be off to bed already,’ says Thomas, startling her as she steps into the Servants Hall. He has never quite managed to get the sharpness out of his voice, the accusation, even though she knows he means no harm by it, nowadays.

‘Not just yet, Mr Barrow. I’ve got Lady Mary to bed but there’s a bit of sewing I'd like to do before I turn in.’

The look of alarm that crosses his face is unmistakable although he covers it quickly. There are no secrets at Downton, in the end, even if everyone likes to pretend to keep them, Thomas more so than anyone. This secret, though, is one that has kept a smile on his face these last three years, had him holding letters to his chest over breakfast so no one can catch a glimpse, a blush threatening on the bridge of his nose. And now they’re discussing it upstairs, privately, but still not in appropriately hushed tones, and it seems he and Lady Mary have reached an agreement. There’s no point pretending now.

‘I shall long be gone up before your visitor arrives, Mr Barrow, don’t worry.’

Thomas gapes like a fish at her, his face, normally so controlled, suddenly mobile with shock.

‘There really are no secrets in this place are there?’ he says when he recovers himself, smiling one of his rare smiles, an honest one, that reaches his eyes.

‘No. Often times that’s a bad thing but this one makes you happy and we’re all glad for you, Thomas. I promise.’

It’s been such a long time since she’s addressed him by his christian name, since they were young, since before the war. They’ve been through so much in parallel, the pair of them, more than their fair share. It only seems right that they should have found some respite after all these years.

*

Thomas smokes with the great facade of Grantham House looming behind him, in the well of darkness by the servants' steps, looking up into the street, waiting. He doesn’t spot Richard right away, until he’s right at the top of the stairs, one hand on the railing. There’s a moments pause where they just stand staring at each other, Thomas looking up and Richard down, before Richard raises his hand in greeting, breaking the spell. He walks down the steps, slowly at first and then faster until he’s in Thomas’s arms and they are kissing fiercely in the shadowed gloom of the doorway.

‘Inside. We have to - have to go inside,’ Thomas gasps when they break for air.

‘Hello to you too,’ says Richard, a smile already in his voice and his hands finding their way under Thomas’s jacket.

Thomas steps back and to the side to let Richard pass him into the hall. He’s always so sure of himself, even in this house that’s not his, isn’t even Thomas’s really; leading them inside, only stopping when they reach the first floor, turning to Thomas for confirmation that he’s headed in the right direction.

Thomas’ spares a glance the other way, to the bedroom where the Talbots must surely be sleeping by now, and a thought to the absurdity of what he’s about to do; make love to a man under Lord Grantham’s roof, in one of Lord Grantham’s beds. All of the beds belong to him, really, even the little cot in Thomas’s room proper but this is different, this is a Bedroom, capitalised and named. Even with permission from Lady Mary it still feels like a transgression too far and Thomas’s heart is racing with more than the anticipation of being with Richard for the first time in nearly a year.

The East Bedroom is out of the way, and cold. There’s no fire laid, but the bed’s been made and it’s still the most opulent bedroom Thomas has been in for several years. He doesn’t make a habit of being in the bedrooms of the aristocracy these days let alone in their beds.

They stand on the threshold, in the quickly fading light, close but not touching. It’s been a long time since he’s been alone with Richard, longer still since they’ve been alone in a room with a bed in it, and the old panic wells up in his chest. Richard could have his pick of men, in London, in the Royal Household, surely he must think he’s wasting his time on a provincial butler from an undistinguished house. Thomas is a risk, Thomas is effort, and for little reward, lonely and small as his life is when held against the glamorous life of the King’s Royal Dresser. He finds himself gripping the bedstead, knuckles white with tension, unable to move, unable to look Richard in the eye. He knows the reality is far from what it looks like from the outside, for both of them, but he can’t help but find himself wanting whenever he tries to measure up. It must only be a moment but it feels like eternity as he tries to build himself back up into the figure of a man who can be here, in this room, who’s worthy of it and in the end it’s the prosaic but oh so tender way Richard takes his hand, draws them together into a loose embrace, the beginning of a waltz, that brings Thomas back to himself.

‘Thomas, love. I missed you too.’

‘Are you sure?’ Thomas chuckles, trying to make light, but he’s not sure how convincing it is and anyway, Richard doesn’t need to be convinced, sees right through the dissimulation, every time.

‘Yes, I’m sure. All I want is to be here, with you, whatever happens.’

‘Me too,’ Thomas huffs a laugh with more sincerity this time.

With that admission they step into the room proper. The curtains are open but they haven’t dared turn on the lights so the room is a cool blue, the bed an indistinct white shape in the dark, drawing them in. Even with this slice of freedom afforded to them, they’re on the clock, and suddenly it feels ridiculous that they should still be standing, should still be dressed.

Richard gets there first as he is wont to do, deft on the buttons of Thomas’s shirt and pulling at his tie in what is undoubtedly a ruse to bring their lips together again, soft and chaste. Thomas lets it happen, content to be kissed and undressed for a moment, to reacquaint himself with the feel of Richard’s hands.

He waits until he is down to his shirtsleeves to move into action, his gloved palm catching against the rough wool of Richard’s suit to slip the jacket onto the floor and take up his own vendetta against Richard’s tie. They undo each other's buttons, hands moving over and under each other until they are divested of everything but trousers and undershirts. The rest they do themselves with quick efficiency, standing too close, breathing each other in until they are naked, finally, and pressed together from calves to chest. It seems impossible that they should move with such certainty, without speaking, after so long apart but in the small hours they have before dawn there isn’t a need for words.

Richard bears Thomas down on the bed, the sheets cool against his back, trailing kisses along collarbone and shoulder, down his left arm, to his hand. The room is dark but there’s no hiding the sudden tension that grips Thomas’s body as Richard runs a thumb across his palm, encircling his wrist with gentle pressure before releasing. It’s always the same, Richard asks to see all of him and Thomas feels unable to give up this last barrier, the final layer before the raw truth of him. Richard backs away as usual, the touch of his hands to Thomas’s waist a silent apology, and the grief of it is almost too much to bear. He isn’t given a moment for regret, though, before Richard is kissing him again, with as much fervour as earlier, a counterpoint to the urgency of their hips, slotted together now and moving with purpose, almost unconsciously.

‘Do you…?’ Richard breathes into the side of Thomas’s neck, following his words with teeth, so soft it’s almost a caress.

‘Yes, in my - trousers. Pocket…’ Thomas finds his voice, rolls his hips to hear the hitch in Richard’s breathing, and uses the pause to move to the edge of the bed and fuss about in their abandoned pile of clothing.

Richard commandeers the jar; the ease with which he takes charge even in this would rankle if it didn’t leave Thomas breathless. Richard putting him where he needs to be and it feeling right, the calm that comes with someone taking care of him. For tonight that’s on his back, knees to chest in a way that aches in his old bones, but serves to get them closer together, Richard settled between Thomas’s thighs like he belongs there.

‘I wish I could see you,’ says Thomas suddenly, shocked by the admission even as he’s saying it.

There’s movement above him, and then he can feel the warmth of Richard's hand on his brow, shielding his eyes as the bedside lamp clicks on. The light is not as bright as all that but Thomas stays in the safety of the deep red glow, letting his eyelashes brush against Richard’s palm, until he’s smiling like a fool and Richard moves his hand to pull them into a kiss that’s mostly laughter.

‘You ridiculous, beautiful man.’

‘I think you might need your eyes testing, Mr. Ellis.’

‘My eyes have been checked by the finest optometrists available to King and Country, Mr Barrow. They don’t deceive me.’

Thomas can feel his cheeks heating but lets it happen, just this once; he knows how much Richard likes it when he blushes.

‘And the rest of you? Do you find that to be in working order too?’

Richard frowns, ‘yes…?’

‘Well, best put it to good use then, hadn’t you?’

It takes them a while sometimes, to get here, to where they can laugh freely and tease, especially after so long apart. They understand that taking off the masks they wear day in day out can be difficult and how much effort they have to make to reach each other but it’s so worth it when they get there, as easy as breathing. And that effort makes room for other, more pleasurable things like Richard's hands on the inside of Thomas's thighs, his eyes bright with mirth as he makes him ready.

Richard is diligent in this as in all other things, opening Thomas up with slick fingers, one, then two, gentle and maddening. It’s all Thomas can do not to cry out, to beg for more.

‘Please, Richard, I -’ he works his hips down, a silent plea.

‘I know, love. I know,’ Richard sounds like he can feel it too, the desperation to be closer, to be joined after all this time apart, passed between them until it’s carried in the very air of the room.

The feeling of yielding is like no other, sweet with fullness, completion, Richard inside him and arms around him as if there is no distinction between their bodies, warm now, despite the earlier cold, and shining with sweat. They move together, a slow rocking, as the pendulum of a clock, marking time until they have to be away from here and it’s bittersweet as always, knowing that the moment of joining is only the prelude to parting.

But it’s easy not to care about that just now, with pleasure racing through his limbs and Richard looking down at him like he’s precious. Thomas moves his hands from where he’s been gripping creases in the sheets to stroke down Richard’s flanks, digging his fingers into the meat of his backside to spur him on.

The last time they did this, the last time they saw each other, it was frantic and hurried with no time for tenderness. It feels like a luxury to sink into the syrupy feeling, to enjoy each other and the time they do have. Thomas feels like a young man again, rather than the wrong side of forty, giddy with it and consumed by sensation as he looks into Richard’s eyes and sees his own pleasure reflected back at him. For the first time in his life he feels like he’s in bed with an equal, that he is equal to this, that he deserves it and Richard deserves it too.

‘I’m close, darling - ’ Thomas gasps and Richard gets a hand between them, a counterpoint to the movement of their hips.

Thomas traces the muscles in Richard’s shoulders with the tips of his fingers, the tension as he holds himself steady on one arm, the movement of the other; it can’t last, he’s shaking with the effort, and Thomas kisses him still, ‘can you - ? Move, onto your back for me?’

Richard goes, sweet and docile, spread out on the bed beneath him and gazing up at him with such affection it’s overwhelming, to be the object of all that focus, that desire. Thomas rises up and sinks down, the feeling so much more intense at this angle, a much better position for Richard to get his hand round him and neither of them have much patience for slow and gentle, now. They move quickly, the slip of Richard’s hand and the rise and fall of Thomas’s hips, breath harsh and gasping in the quiet of the room.

‘Thomas,’ Richard’s eyes are closed, his face beatific, and he may not have seen it as often as he’d like to but Thomas knows that look, what it means.

‘Yes, go on,’ Thomas smiles, even though Richard can’t see, thinking not of himself as he continues to move but this man who brought him out of the dark, ‘come for me.’

Richard does, almost silent, hands gripping at Thomas’s thighs so hard there’ll be bruises in the morning and the pleasure of the feeling brings Thomas ever closer to his own release.

They pause in this suspended moment, catching up to each other and his hands fumble when Richard draws them clumsily together for a kiss so deep it sends tingles across Thomas’s scalp. He feels heated all over, like a fever, his body too big for his skin and the first touch of Richard’s hand has pleasure crashing, bubbling over, as his toes curl and he buries his face into Richard’s neck, to shake through his climax.

When it seems right to begin to stir, Thomas realises their feet are pressed into the pillows, heads at the foot of the bed, sheets in total disarray and the sticky, sweaty mess of them has him sniggering into Richard’s shoulder at the sheer audacity of it.

‘Welcome to London, Mr Barrow, I do hope you manage to make the most of your trip,’ says Richard, piously, and it’s all Thomas can do not to hit him with a pillow.

‘I think I shall discharge myself admirably, thank you.’

Richard smirks, ‘I’ll say,’ and Thomas kisses the words right out of his mouth.

*

He wakes up to grey light through the open curtains that tells him it's a little before six; Thomas’s body regains consciousness without his say so after all these years in service. He stretches his arms wide and the shock of the empty space beside him is like a blow.

Richard had whispered, after, as they were drifting into sleep, ‘I can’t stay all night,’ but it had been abstract then, nothing like the warmth of his embrace, the ache that proved they had loved each other well.

Now it's time to be getting up, stripping the bed before the maids arrive, erasing the evidence of the previous evening. He must be ready for when the cook arrives, serve the Talbots breakfast and pretend not to understand what the knowing look in Lady Mary’s eyes is for. He’s grateful to her, he is, but he can’t help but think she’s extended this act of charity less for his benefit and more for her own amusement.

He will see Richard once more like this before everyone else arrives from Downton and perhaps again with slightly more clothes on if they can manage it. It’s never enough, but it’s something, and it’s more than he’s ever had so he’s going to hang on to this feeling for as long as he can.

*

‘Good morning, Mrs Bates.’

‘Oh, Mr Ellis. Good morning,’ it’s a credit to her skill as a Lady’s Maid that Anna does not express her shock at seeing the King’s Royal Dresser stepping into the kitchen at five in the morning.

‘I’m afraid I don’t have time to stop. Will you pass on my best wishes to everyone at Downton?’

‘Of course,’ Anna nods as if they are merely passing the time of day but her face is shrewd, as if she’s making a decision, ‘I trust you and Mr Barrow had a good evening?’

Richard is a credit to his position too so he doesn’t pause but it still comes as a shock, even to himself, when he answers her, in truth, ‘yes, we had a wonderful evening.’

‘I’m glad, Mr Ellis, that he has a friend like you.’

‘He’s very important to me.’

‘Good, he should be important to somebody,’ it sounds harsher that she means it, as though no one at Downton spares Thomas a thought if they can help it. Maybe that used to be true but it isn’t so now; the younger staff respect him and Miss Baxter and Mrs Hughes look out for him where they can. Even Mr Bates can be called upon to say a kind word about Mr Barrow if pressed. It’s not as it once was but there is still a place Thomas goes that’s beyond everyone else, maybe Mr Ellis can reach him there.

It seems her meaning shines through, though, because Mr Ellis beams at her, ‘you needn’t worry about him, Mrs Bates, not anymore.’