Come Alive

Written for a prompt on the Downton Abbey kink meme: Gothic Literature AU. Thomas had to leave Downton in disgrace during S3 and take a job someplace spooky and out of the way, for a handsome man with a terrible secret.

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1. Come Alive

That first night it didn't feel real. It was just a nightmare. Nothing but an awful, unthinkable nightmare.

It had to be.

Yet dawn broke to reveal not the familiar ceiling of what he had - foolishly - come to think of his own room, but the dank peeling wallpaper of the cheapest lodging house he had been able to find in the respectable part of town. The furniture was battered with use, and the bustle of the street outside made any further chance of sleep impossible.

This was not Downton Abbey.

It was only then that the true magnitude of the situation hit him. He had told Bates that he was a beaten man, and he had meant it. He felt crushed, broken, in a way he hadn't even after Charles had laughed at everything that had existed between them. He hadn't felt so utterly defeated even in the aftermath of the war, with Edward dead and his hopes of making a life for himself on his own terms trampled into the ground beneath him. The difference was that there was no going back this time, no Downton to take him in and overlook the worst of his failures.

Walls had ears, after all, and by now Thomas reckoned that everyone above and below stairs must know all the sordid details. O'Brien would have seen to that. His stomach twisted to think of the maids tittering and giggling, and the chaps he had sometimes drank with at the pub in Ripon using the kind of words that made him feel sick as they agreed that he deserved his misfortune. The only thing worse, worse still than the horror on Jimmy's face that godforsaken night, was the memory of the pity in Mrs Hughes' eyes as he had sobbed about it in her arms, helpless as a babe.

The shame of it was crippling.

Still there was no time for wallowing, and no money for drinking. His savings wouldn't stretch far, not after the efforts of all those careful years of penny pinching had, on Mrs Patmore's verdict, been consigned to the dust cart. To make matters worse, the snooty clerk explained that as his dismissal had been for poor conduct, he was not eligible for the pittance the powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, had determined a man could live on.

Thomas was left with no option but to spend the weeks which followed writing feverishly to enquire after every vacancy he saw in the newspaper, no matter how unseemly it was to have to return to being a footman after serving for so long as a valet. He registered at every agency which lacked a fee requirement, along with a number which did, and finally, in desperation, he queued alongside the other unfortunates outside the labour exchange, willing to take anything, no matter how menial, if it only meant he had enough coin to keep a roof over his head.

To do so he was forced to move from those first semi respectable lodgings, to others less respectable, and from there to a lodging house that couldn't be called respectable by any stretch of the imagination. With each week without work he found himself closer and closer to the slum quarters. It terrified him, to think that he might end up back in the very tenements he had first set out to make his way in the world to escape from. He had been going to make something of himself. He was not going to give into the bottle, like his father, and he wasn't going to struggle and struggle for pittance neither, like his mother. He was going to get on, and he didn't particularly care what he had to do to achieve it.

And he had done things that would make old Mrs Crawley's heart bleed. He had given his innocence in exchange for that first position as hall boy, and he had given his hopes and dreams to the son of an aristocrat for nothing more than a few pretty words and the vague promise of a future promotion. He had almost given his sanity for the war effort, and in return he was turned away from the factory gates by foreman after foreman, on account of his hand being injured.

He took to the public library in an attempt to avoid the call of the bottle, along with the tediously good types who still clung to their Methodist upbringings, and it was there he gave in on another front and scrawled a Christmas card to those back at Downton, though he could ill afford the postage. It wasn't that they would be missing him, and it wasn't that he missed many of them, not particularly. But the last year had changed him, made him more apt to dwell on the memory of Edward, and the kindness of Sybil. And on Jimmy, always on Jimmy. Downton was the closest thing he had to family, even if they had disowned him. Mrs Hughes wrote him an almost motherly letter in response, to say thank you, and to pass on a sovereign with the hope that he was faring well.

He wept, unashamedly, at her kindness, at once glad and grieved that she had not mentioned a word about Jimmy. Thomas could not help but think of the other man constantly, wondering what he was doing, and if he had been able to forgive Thomas for his misguided actions in his absence. He did not think that Jimmy hated him, not truly; there had been the hands of others at work, pushing the whole sorry mess to this conclusion. In spite of it there was no spark of anger now even towards O'Brien - it was pointless. He could feel the fight draining from him as though it were something physical, and alone in his narrow, flea ridden bed, he couldn't help but think of Edward, with his beautiful soul and his ravaged face, and the night he had decided he simply had nothing left to give anymore.

Carson had been right he thought then, alone in his lowest moments. He was foul; foul in nature, and foul in soul. This was his punishment.

The sovereign lasted as long as Thomas could make it, but it was soon the case once again that going without meals was not enough to keep him off the streets, and away from that most desperate of professions. He sold off his possessions, one by one. His tailored overcoat and his best shirt; it seemed increasingly unlikely that he was ever again to enter service. He pawned his cufflinks, and he had just parted with the silver plated pocket watch that remained his only tangible reminder of the man his father had been before the drink had claimed him as one of its own, when the letter arrived. The paper was thick, of obvious quality, and as Thomas scanned the page he wondered, just for a moment, if the lack of food was causing him to hallucinate.

It is my understanding you are seeking a new position ... I am desirous of a man with medical experience ... Aside from the aforementioned immediate start, you may name your own terms ... I shall, of course, cover any expenses incurred through this imposition ... Yours Sincerely, H. Stanforthe.

Thomas had long prided himself on his suspicious nature, on his caution and his ability to see past the misdirection of others. Yet love had still made him its fool, like a million men before him, and it was wont of caution that had made him reliant on charitable handouts and soup kitchens. It would not do to rush into this without a second thought. And yet - Things could scarcely grow any worse he told himself, and though it went against every one of his instincts he only read the letter twice through before sending his reply. He would do it, of course he would, on any conditions Stanforthe felt fit to insist upon. He would work any trial period the man wanted, would work for less pay and longer hours, if it only meant he was to be fed regularly.

Once his response was sent he began to convince himself that it had all been a mistake, that the letter had never been meant for him. Else it was a joke, a cruel prank designed to build his hopes up only to dash them. No employer would offer him what amounted in many ways to a promotion when he had no reference, and nobody in the world to vouch for him. He wished he had broken away from Downton sooner, so that he might have had something more than Carson's word to fall back on. So that he might never have met Jimmy. No, he conceded. He did not wish that at all, he couldn't.

In spite of his misgivings he searched the library for information, coming across nothing but an old Victorian tome, with a very grand sketch of what looked like a very grand house, for all that it wasn't on the same scale as Downton Abbey. The remote house had been in the family for generations, he learned, although he did not recognise the Stanforthe name, despite his avid following of the society pages in the newspapers. One never knew when one might come across some piece of information which could prove useful.

Five days passed without word, and the spark of hope the letter had flamed first flickered, then expired. Stanforthe had written to Downton, of course, though the letter had made no mention of references. Carson had written back to say that he was an undesirable employee. Headstrong, self serving, foul. He would weep, Thomas thought that fifth night, if only he had energy left to do so. Instead he unpicked the inner pocket of his waistcoat and spent his few remaining coins getting drunk as a lord. He drank until he was numb, until he could scarce remember his own name, and it was more through accident than design that he made it back to his meager lodgings, unscathed.

The following morning he woke to wish he was dead, the pounding in his head was so violent. Perhaps he would die, he thought. Perhaps his whole life had been leading to this moment, to the realisation that the world was simply better off without him. And then the row in his head was joined by the banging of a fist against the door. It was a letter - the letter. He could do nothing but stare at the contents for long moments, not quite able to believe that he wasn't, in fact, dreaming. The slanted hand was less neat this time, marred by a few ink blots, but that hardly mattered. Not when there were two crisp five pound notes included.

I trust this will cover your travel and any necessary expenses ... A man shall be waiting at the station ... I look forward to your arrival on Thursday evening.

Thursday evening! It was already Wednesday afternoon. Thomas forced himself out of bed, his heart hammering in time with his head's pounding. There was not a moment to lose. He bought a new shirt, and an overcoat, though it was nowhere near as fine as the one he had been forced to part with. He reclaimed his cufflinks, the very first pair he had bought on being made first footman, and his father's battered old pocket watch. He ate like a king, and bought a book to read on the train journey, decision based solely on the fact he liked the image on the cover. By seven am Thursday morning Thomas found himself on the train, stomach pleasantly full, with nothing to encroach upon his happiness but the tingle of nervous anticipation and the ever present ache in his heart.

His journey into Wales consisted of three changes, and with each Thomas found it harder and harder to concentrate on the book and keep still. One moment he was overcome with his good fortune, mind full of the ways in which he would make himself indispensable to Stanforthe, and the half days and the liberties he had already been promised. The next he was sick with nerves, worried at what kind of household would think it necessary to offer such conditions and privileges to a disgraced servant who lacked a reference. They could not have heard of what had transpired at Downton, he told himself. They would not possibly have employed him had they any inkling of his nature.

It was late afternoon by the time he arrived at his destination, the train having been delayed for no little time on more than one occasion. There was a horse and cart waiting for him, the kind more commonly used for goods than passengers, and the driver greeted him in an accent so thick Thomas could do little but blink at the man in startled confusion. The man, stout and bewhiskered, sighed, and tried again in English,

"I took you for one of our own. Would have been better that you were."

Thomas, unsure if the man wanted an apology, offered a strained smile and clambered onto the cart. He reasoned now that the greeting had been made in the man's own tongue; the idea that he might be expected to have some knowledge of Welsh was not one that had occurred to him. He gave his best attempt at small talk, to glean some information about the house and its inhabitants, but the driver merely grunted, clearly still offended that he hadn't the good grace to have come from local stock. Thomas had little choice but to observe the scenery, taking in the features of the farmhouses they passed, and the well kept little village. The road then grew more rugged, the cart jostling and rattling, a clear sign to Thomas' mind that it was little used. The family must prefer their own company, he mused.

The light was beginning to fail now, and Thomas amused himself with thoughts of the gothic novels he had liked to filch from the library at Downton, back when he had been a starry eyed second footman. He was so busy casting himself as the distressed damsel of the piece that it took him a long moment to realise that the cart had stopped. There was no house to be seen however, grand or otherwise, and before he could open his mouth to protest the driver told him in his broad accent,

"I won't take you no further. I daresay you can make your own way."

Visions of Stoker's fiendish Dracula came to mind, unbidden, at the words, and Thomas wished suddenly - irrationally - that he had a little crucifix on a chain to protect him, just as Jonathan Harker had had. Then he came to the senses and saw what had not at first been apparent in the fog which had settled during the journey. He wasn't looking at grassland but water, water as still and as calm as mirror. The house was situated on a small island, of course it was. He had read it at the library. Thomas stepped down from the cart with his bag, instantly seeing a trio of small row boats moored in the near distance. Across the lake he could make out a flickering light that must be coming from one of the windows.

"I think it may rain," he said, pulling his collar closer even as the first spots of drizzle made themselves known.

The other man simply laughed, loud and humourless. "That'll be the least of your worries."

As the cart disappeared into the distance Thomas steeled his resolve. It was dark, growing late, and any fanciful notions he might be given to were just that. Stanforthe had given him ten pounds just for agreeing to show up, an employer like that was worth a bit of extra hassle. The small boat rocked unsettingly as Thomas stepped into it, and he sat gracelessly, hoping he wasn't in for a real drenching. He was not accustomed to the sensation of being afloat; his few experiences with water transport had involved being sent off to die, and then by some miracle coming home to nurse those who had had a closer brush with death than he. Still, he knew enough of the gist of the thing, and after struggling with the mooring - the rain was falling heavily now - and then the oars, he began making his way across the water.

It likely took a lot longer than it ought to have, but he finally reached land just as a flash of lightening streaked across the night sky, illuminating the looming solidity of the house. The accompanying clap of thunder was loud enough to set his teeth on edge. Thomas tied the boat fast as best he could, his fingers numb and his injured hand aching hotly. He slipped in his attempt to get out of the boat, banging his knee against the unforgiving wood, and it was all he could do to bite his lip and not swear aloud.

He needed to make a good impression, no matter how eccentric the family. He needed this job.

The rain continued to lash against his skin, cold water trickling down the back of his neck to sodden even his undershirt, and Thomas trudged to first one side of the house, and then the other, searching for the servants' entrance. It was late now, and there were no lights to be seen in the house, no guide as to where he ought to go. Eventually, following another deafening clap of thunder, Thomas returned to the main entrance, and pounded his fist against the imposing wooden door. Hopefully they would overlook this transgression, given the circumstances.

He was just about to knock again when the heavy door swung open to reveal a woman who looked like a wraith, tall and thin and pale. Her long white nightgown did little to dispel the impression.

"Thomas Barrow," Thomas said with his most brilliant smile, by way of introduction. "I'm to be the new valet."

The wraith looked him up and down by the light of her candle, missing nothing with beady eyes that reminded him of the Dowager Countess. Whatever she saw in him, she clearly disapproved of it.

"We expected you earlier," she said finally, and began to walk away without further explanation. Thomas scurried to grab his bag, close the door against the stormy night, and follow. She lead him down a darkened staircase and, though he looked longingly towards the kitchen, through a maze of narrow corridors until they reached what was obviously the servants' staircase. She started up them, the candle flame bobbing on the stairs like a Will-o'-the-wisp leading a man to his death.

"This will be your room," she told him dispassionately when she drew to a halt. "We breakfast at six."

That was it, he was left to his own devices. There was no electricity laid on here, and Thomas fumbled in his pocket for his matches. He found them but they were too damp to spark. Instead he held his hands out, moving slowly and carefully into the small room. He hit his already tender knee against the bedstead, and bit back a hiss of pain as he dropped onto the thin mattress, shivering now from the combination of the damp and the cold. Another flash of lightening from outside lit the room long enough for him to make out the shapes of a wardrobe and a dresser. Then the darkness was still more complete than it had been previously.

There was nothing else for it, there was no opportunity to ready himself properly for bed. All he could do was peel off his sodden clothing and slip beneath the covers, curling in on himself in an attempt to warm up. His teeth chattered, mingling with the sound of the rain pounding against the window pane, and he was gripped by the sudden sensation of somebody watching him. A ridiculous idea, obviously, yet he clenched his eyes tight shut and clutched tighter at the blankets. He was being stupid. He ought to get some sleep. What he did was lay stiff and tense for so long he was sure dawn would break without so much as a moment of rest.

But sleep he did, though he had no knowledge of it until he woke with a sudden start, with no clear reason as to why. Weak light filled the room, revealing the dark wooden furniture he had dimly made out the night before. There was a pitcher of water on the dresser, and a small mirror above it. Opposite it, on the far wall, was a ghastly painting of Saint Sebastian - and the irony of that was not lost on him - the man's face twisted in a death grimace.

Thomas looked away, gaze falling finally upon the small alarm clock set out on the box beside the bed. It was already 6:30.

~x~

"It's good of you to join us," a wizened old man with the bearing - and practised glare - of a butler told him when he finally succeeded in finding his way to the kitchen. "The soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing: but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat."

Thomas blinked, the long night and the anxious rush of the morning leaving him at less than his best. Then his gaze flickered to the cross affixed to the wall above the old man's head and back again, an image of the grotesque painting in his room flashing uninvited before his eyes. No, he comforted himself, news of his transgressions at Downton had not made it to this household.

"I had trouble finding my way," Thomas said, as meekly as he could manage. "It will not happen again."

"Make sure it doesn't," the wraith from the night before told him, pursing her lips. Thomas nodded, feeling entirely off centre.

He learned over a piece of bread and a tumbler of water - gluttony, like sloth, was something not to be tolerated - that the wraith was the housekeeper, a Mrs Sanders, and seemingly had been since time immemorial. Likewise, the old man, Beck, had served the family for generations. They both would have preferred not to have hired a replacement for Wilson, who had dropped dead in the very room he was now occupying, but the young master needed the attentions of a person with medical experience. That person had to be male, Mr Beck told him solemnly, to prevent the young master's mind from straying to the depraved temptations of lust.

Thomas bit at the inside of his cheek, determined not to let slip any sign he knew of any other scenario that might lead one astray with lustful thoughts.

The Mistress was particular, he was told, most particular - there would be no fraternising, no profanity. There would most certainly, he was told with a look of outright disgust when he fumbled in his pockets for his smokes, be no smoking, not indoors at any rate. By the time the old clock in the servants' hall struck eight Thomas was left wondering what exactly was permissible, besides 'good honest' work and silent contemplation of the scripture. It was obvious now why he was getting half days and a pay rise, he thought. The Mistress was a tyrant and the young master, in retaliation, was doubtless a finicky invalid, who made no end of trifling demands. Poor old Wilson was probably better off out of it.

At eight-thirty a stout woman arrived from the village. Mrs Jones the Cook, she told him as she shook his hand with a grip as strong as that of any man's. "I'm here three or four days of seven," she said in the same broad accent the driver had used the day before. "Unless the weather happens to be bad, in which case you'll have to do for yourself."

Her arrival, combined with a string of commands which, though unintelligible, put him in mind of Mrs Patmore, precipitated the entrance of the last of the downstairs' staff. It was not sloth that had kept this one away, Thomas thought, taking in the woman's chapped hands, and the smudges of coal dust upon her apron. Jane Brown was something of a maid of all work, and everything about her was as nondescript as her name suggested. Her eyes were a murky brown, and her mousey hair hung in limp strands where it escaped the confines of its bun. Even her age was hard to determine, though Thomas, if pushed, would have put her at closer to thirty than to twenty.

Although the house was not quite the fearful place it had appeared on his arrival, all in all it was so lacking in joy of any kind that Thomas felt it was as though the very air in the house was sucking the happiness from its inhabitants. It was a foolish thought, he knew, exactly the kind of thing the heroine of one of the terrible novels which had led to his spending such a restless, uncomfortable night might say. Still, the idea lingered stubbornly, and when the clock struck nine and he and Beck went upstairs to serve the family's breakfast, Thomas found nothing which encouraged him to reassess the situation.

The Dowager Lady Adeline Stanforthe sat rigidly in her seat, dressed in fashion even Thomas could see was at least ten years out of date.

"This is Barrow, the new valet, my Lady," Beck said, in a tone so subservient it would have put Carson to shame.

Lady Stanforthe swept a dispassionate gaze over him, then dismissed him from her mind as effectively as if she had waved her hand, turning her attention to the plate in front of her. Thomas resisted the urge to fidget, feeling more lost than he ever had done. He knew service, knew how the hollow flattery and the petty rivalries worked. But here, cloistered away from the world, he felt as green - moreso even - as he had the very first time he had been called upon to serve as footman.

Thankfully the door opened then, providing a distraction in the form of a figure who could be none other than the 'young master'. With a jolt Thomas realised that he had not thought to ask the man's Christian name; his time out of work had truly taken its toll upon his faculties.

"You are late," Lady Stanforthe snapped without looking at her son. "I did not bring you into this world so you could lay abed until all hours."

Thomas schooled his face into the blandest expression he could fix upon. The clock read 9:07. The young man only sank into his seat quietly, with a murmured, "Sorry, Mother."

For the next few minutes breakfast was served and eaten in silence. Thomas stood stiffly, hands behind his back, and took the opportunity to observe the man who was to be his master. Stanforthe was fair haired, near the same shade as Jimmy. But where Jimmy glowed with the healthy vitality of youth, the man before him was pale as a corpse, though he could not have been more than a handful of years older than Downton's first footman. His face might once have been handsome, but now his eyes were underscored by dark smudges that spoke of disturbed sleep and lingering illness.

The man laid his cutlery down not long after, though he had eaten scarcely anything. "I don't think I can manage more, I'm afraid," he said, and Beck nodded politely and took the plate away, though Thomas, privy to angles Stanforthe was not, could see that Beck's irritation was apparent. He was reminded of his earlier judgement, and wondered how tiresome Stanforthe would really prove. Well, Thomas thought, he had dealt with contrary mistresses and masters all his working life. It was no difficulty to him.

As soon as her plate was cleared Lady Stanforthe swept from the room, and Beck loaded the last of the breakfast things onto a tray, telling Thomas that he was to see to the young master who was presently clambering to his own feet.

"Have you any set plans for the day, Sir?" Thomas asked in his best valeting voice, hoping to get a head start on what kind of outfit he should lay out. Nothing in black, he thought; Stanforthe might be mistaken for dead if he stayed still too long. The other man shook his head, knuckles white where they gripped the back of his chair.

"I think - I think perhaps I ought to lie down for a while."

Thomas would have thought it the request of an entitled lordling, like any other he had served over the years, but the sheen of perspiration covering the man's brow was too obvious, and he seemed to sway where he stood. Thomas gave support without being asked, the way he had when Downton was a military hospital - the way he had one night before, before he had ruined everything, when Jimmy had indulged too freely - and began guiding Stanforthe towards the main staircase.

"I'm so terribly sorry," Stanforthe told him about half way up, tone painfully earnest as he paused on the stairs, clinging to the banister. "Ordinarily I can manage alone."

Thomas hadn't chance to respond before Stanforthe laughed bitterly, a sharp sound that was over almost as soon as it had begun. "Actually that is a lie. Ordinarily I breakfast in my room, but I -" Whatever he had been about to indulge Stanforthe seemingly thought better of it, and sucked in a fortifying breath before continuing their slow ascent. When they reached Stanforthe's room the man looked about ready to collapse, and Thomas pulled back the bedcovers and settled him under them as efficiently as possible.

Stanforthe smiled at him, shaky and grateful, and managed a faint "thank you, Mr Barrow" before he was completely lost to exhaustion.

Thomas fussed around the room for a time, glad for a moment alone to begin taking in the strange morning. Only a week ago he had been resigned to go back to being Thomas, to being invisible. Somehow he had ended up Mr Barrow, and quite possibly the only barrier between Stanforthe and the utter insanity of the rest of the household. He felt sorry for Stanforthe, it was near impossible not to. The room was too close, and yet too stark, with its cross and its framed biblical quotes adorning the walls. Thomas rifled, gingerly, through the dresser and the armoire. He was familiarising himself with his master's wardrobe, he reasoned. There was nothing wrong with that.

In truth he was looking for some sign of Stanforthe's personality, for the man he must have been before a few flights of stairs were enough to render him incapacitated. In the closet he found a stack of copies of Picture Show, and a collection of lobby cards, all hidden under an old tweed jacket and a straw boater. Imagining Beck's opinion of the film industry, Thomas couldn't say that he blamed him for the cloak and dagger approach. In the bottom drawer of the dresser lay bundles of letters, and postcards, and a few photographs of smiling faces. His fingers hovered over the correspondence, it would be nothing to pocket it and learn all there was to learn about the man in his care.

He glanced at Stanforthe's sleeping face, at the lingering tension in his expression. Thomas pushed the drawer closed. He did not want to be caught thieving and face Beck's wrath. There would be time enough to hear it all from the horse's mouth.

Mrs Sanders told him when he retreated back to the relevant safety of the servants' quarters that the young master's name was Harold, not that it was, in her opinion, any of his business. Beck continued his droning list of household rules, ranging from the type of literature and periodicals he was allowed to bring into the house - Picture Show was not among their number - to the compulsory nature of Sunday morning prayers.

"I expected nothing less," Thomas said, with the smile he had perfected to be beyond reproach. "I wouldn't like to imagine what kind of depravities we might be tempted to otherwise."

Beck fixed him with a sharp look, but unable to find anything obvious to reprimand him for, went back to his droning.

When that was done Cook informed him of the doctor's approved diet for Harold - because from the moment he had learned Stanforthe's name he had become Harold in the privacy of his mind - which consisted almost entirely of the bland and the tasteless. Porridge, mashed potato, milk soup, semolina. Beck doubtless wished he could find an excuse to impose it on the rest of the household. Her Ladyship was not to be his concern, he was told, unless he was specifically asked for. Thomas got the distinct impression that if he followed in Wilson's footsteps, none of the downstairs' staff would be any the sorrier for it.

Harold slept soundly through dinner, and only took supper because Thomas woke him, worried at the man's lack of responsiveness. It would not do for Stanforthe to die on him; he would never get a reference. He toyed, for a moment, with voicing the thought, imagining it might bring a smile to that pale face. Common sense quickly prevailed. Nevertheless he succeeded in getting Harold to eat a few slivers of apple, and a mouthful of porridge, before he once again succumbed to exhaustion. If things continued in the same vein, Harold would be by far the easiest master he had ever worked for.

When they sat down to their own supper, he, Beck, Jane and Mrs Sanders, Thomas ventured to ask what exactly it was that ailed the young master. Beck fixed him with an icy glare that made Carson look positively approachable.

"We do not talk during mealtimes," Beck said. It had probably been #141 on the list of things he was not to do under any circumstances. There was nothing to be done but eat his stew, and drink his water, and give thanks for the fact he had always rather enjoyed his own company.

"He was always sickly," Jane told him as they cleared the table afterwards, confirming his suspicions that she was as much a fixture of the house as her colleagues. "The doctor visits monthly, not that it'll likely do him any good. Not in the long run."

With that cheerful verdict Thomas ascended the stairs to spend his second night in a dead man's room.

~x~

As the days formed a week, it quickly became clear that he had landed on his feet in terms of workload. Harold slept much of the time, and when he was awake he was invariably quiet, and unfailingly polite. He ate the colourless slop Cook prepared for him without protest, and seemed content to spend hours simply staring at the ceiling. Once Thomas had finished Harold's mending, and scrubbed the entire room until Florence Nightingale herself would have been proud of it, there was simply nothing left to fill the empty hours.

Thomas was surprised at how quickly the inactivity went from being a novelty to nothing more than mind numbing boredom.

The servants' hall was too depressing a place to spend more than the bare minimum of time in, and the weather was still so wet and so cold he could do no more than perch on the doorstep for a smoke before the biting wind forced him back indoors again. He tried taking to his bedroom and settling with a cigarette on the window ledge, but Saint Sebastian watched his every move, judging, and the oppressive atmosphere - not helped by the frequency with which his mind brought up the image of Wilson gasping out his last breath on the rag rug - made the solitude up there a far from inviting prospect.

He explored the house, poking his nose into every nook and cranny he came across. There was a stately drawing room covered in dust sheets, and a little used library stocked with Shakespeare's sonnets, and multiple editions of the bible. Upstairs there was a nursery-come-schoolroom, thick with dust for all it looked as though its young charges had simply left for a short walk with Nanny. A stuffed elephant sat propped up against the pillows of one of the beds, eyeing him curiously, and on one wall hung a portrait of a young boy Thomas assumed had to be Harold. Mrs Sanders caught him looking at it and lectured him long and hard on knowing his place, and how she had known letting the young master arrange Wilson's replacement had been a terrible idea from the outset.

That last surprised him, though he said nothing. Harold had not struck him as having been well enough to arrange anything for a long time.

After that the door to the nursery was always locked. In fact, many of the rooms were always locked, and Thomas knew well enough not to ask Beck or Mrs Sanders what lay within them. He tried asking Cook, but she told him frankly that she neither knew nor cared what secrets the house held, so long as she received her wages at the end of each month. That left Jane, and Thomas played a game he had long been good at, smiling at her, and flattering her, in the hope of loosening her tongue enough to satisfy his curiosity.

Either he had lost his touch, or the months of poverty had taken a harsher toll on his appearance than his mirror told him, because Jane remained stubbornly tight lipped and uncooperative.

"It's not my place to question it," Jane said when he asked why so many of the rooms remained under lock and key. And when he fished for information on the family, on the strained mother-son relationship, she simply looked him in the eye and said, "It's none of my business."

If he spoke Welsh Thomas suspected it might be different. He heard Jane and Cook conversing animatedly, though he knew not on what, when he ventured to the servants' entrance to smoke. Beck too spoke unfamiliar words in low tones to Mrs Sanders whenever he was in earshot, and Beck would have preferred him not to be. Thomas thought it rather rude, and amused himself imagining the apoplectic rage on Beck's face if he were to petition to add to the house rules to reflect the fact.

Lady Stanforthe he saw very little of, after that first day, though she never left the house to the best of his knowledge. One night, after checking in on Harold before he retired for the night, he could have sworn he heard the sound of weeping coming from her bedroom. The following morning however Lady Stanforthe chose to personally oversee Jane's scrubbing of the tiled floors, barking orders like a Sergeant Major. He decided that he must have been mistaken.

He could not have been happier when the dawning of his his half day arrived, the prospect of escaping from the house, if only for a few hours, lifting his spirits quite effectively. It gave him a spring in his step, and the strength to listen to Beck's twelve minute long sermon before breakfast without rolling his eyes. He hummed as he prepared Harold's bath, and must have smiled so gormlessly as he readied Harold to get into it that the other man flushed and fidgeted uncomfortably until Thomas took the hint, stepping from the room to allow Harold to finish undressing himself. Once he had Harold back in bed, nails clipped and hair combed, he brought him up his water and his soup, and went to ready himself for his own trip into the village.

It had, unusually, ceased raining, and the journey across the lake was much easier than it had been the night of his arrival. From there he followed the directions Cook had given him as best he could, with only slightly muddied trouser cuffs to show for his frequent wrong turns when he reached the village. It wasn't anything special, wasn't anything different from thousands of villages around the country, but there was life, and colour, and no all oppressive gloom, so in that moment it seemed a veritable paradise.

Children stared at him as he walked past, and women bent their heads together and whispered in every shop he entered. He didn't need to understand what they were saying to know they were talking about him. They knew he worked for the Stanforthes, he supposed, and it was something of a novelty. It wasn't as though Beck ventured outside often enough for anyone to gossip about him. Ignoring the scrutiny as best he could, he bought two full bags of sweets - banned completely under Beck's regime of misery - and a picture newspaper. He ate chips and an iced bun, and put three sugars in his tea because he was afraid he was starting to forget what sweetened tea even tasted like. He went to the post office and wrote a letter to Mrs Hughes, folding a pound note inside it, informing her of his new position, and thanking her for her generosity. He wanted desperately to ask after Jimmy, just to know that he was well. That he was healthy. But he crossed out the beginning of the sentence and determined to ask how everybody was when Mrs Hughes replied, so that the question seemed more natural.

The afternoon flew by, and before he knew it it was time he started back, if he wanted anything to eat when he returned at any rate. The idea came to him just as he was nearing the edge of the village and, after debating it for a long moment, Thomas turned around and made the shop just as the owner was shutting up for the evening.

"Have you this week's Picture Show?" He asked, politely, and the shopkeeper looked at him a few seconds too long before saying,

"You're working up at the Stanforthe place, I take it?"

Thomas nodded, unsure of how likely it was that any complaint he made would get back to Beck or Mrs Sanders.

"I wouldn't," the man said, even as he found the magazine and rang up the cover price, "not for all the tea in China. Not," the man suddenly looked panicked, "that it's my place to say so."

Thomas handed over the necessary coins and did his best to wheedle out some more information, but to no avail. The man was suddenly as close lipped as Jane on the subject. Thomas wondered if the two might be related.

The journey back was uneventful, though the heavens decided they had been idle long enough, and the rain was once again falling steadily by the time he reached the edge of the lake. He hid his spoils carefully before beginning the trip across, the remaining sweets in the inside pocket of his overcoat, and the magazine in its brown paper wrapping pressed between the lining of his waistcoat and his shirt front. Somebody would only ask him what it was otherwise, and then it would doubtless be confiscated. He arrived back in time to wash up, and listen to yet another interminable sermon before eating yet another bowl of stew. The thought of the sweets hidden upstairs in his dresser got him through it.

When supper was over Thomas went to his room to collect the magazine, hidden beneath his mattress as though it were a publication of a far more illicit nature, and then made his way back down the servants' staircase, smiling to himself at the thought of how touched Harold would be at his considerateness. Harold was lonely, isolated - it would be easy, Thomas reckoned, to make himself so close a confidant that he'd have an outstanding reference out of him before the year was out. His pace slowed as he neared his destination; there was no electricity even in the main part of the house, and the old fashioned gas lamps in the corridor had been turned down low, and would be put out completely as soon as Lady Stanforthe retired to bed for the evening. The dim light cast long shadows, made the dark corners seem more menacing than they ever could during the hours of daylight.

At least this was the way in which Thomas justified the sudden chill that shuddered down his spine as he made his way towards Harold's bedroom. Because from where he stood, looking at the shadows gathered outside the man's room, it was as though a shape was forming in the darkness, becoming solid before his very eyes. It was the sugar he thought frantically, it wasn't good to have so much of it when he had been so long without any. But then the thing - and Thomas had no other word to describe the twisted creature just a few feet away from him - wailed, the hideous death cry Thomas remembered so well from his time in the trenches.

His blood ran cold, and though his instinct was to run - to get away - he couldn't move. Couldn't look away even, just stared, terror struck, as the thing shifted, skin stretched too taught over too long limbs. And then - then - Mrs Sanders was rushing up the main staircase and the cries were Harold's, with distinguishable words, and the obvious tenor of fear. The corridor was empty.

"He must be having one of his nightmares," Mrs Sanders said, bustling past him and tapping insistently at his bedroom door, after trying the handle and finding it locked from the inside. Thomas had never known Harold to lock himself in before. "Open this door," Mrs Sanders demanded as though Harold was a boy of six, not a man of six and twenty. "You're disturbing your mother."

"I won't," came the fevered response. "I won't! I won't let him take me, I won't! Oh God, please don't let him take me!"

The last ended on a sob, frantic enough to finally spur Thomas into action. "Let me try," he told Mrs Sanders, taking up her position as she stepped back. "It's me," Thomas began, "Mr Barrow. You'll let me in, won't you?" There was no sound of movement. Mindful of Mrs Sanders' self satisfied expression at his failure, Thomas changed tack, wishing all the while she would go away and make the task easier. "Harold? Harold, he's gone now, I promise you he has. He won't take you, I wouldn't let him. I wouldn't lie to you, would I? You know I wouldn't."

How Harold would know these things Thomas had no idea, but still he held his breath, detecting the small sounds of movement on the other side of the door.

"It does him no good for you to humour him," Mrs Sanders hissed at him. "And if I hear you being so familiar again, you'll be answering to Mr Beck. Mark my words you will."

Thomas would have answered, and none too kindly, but the door was opened a crack, and his attention was focused elsewhere. Harold let him in, frightened eyes darting everywhere before he bolted the door once more. He was shaking, sweating; Thomas hadn't seen anybody look so utterly terrified since those awful nights he had spent surrounded by the dead and the dying on the French battlefields.

"It's alright," he soothed, his own fears swept away by the need to keep the other man from losing his mind completely. "You just need to get some sleep, everything's going to be alright."

Harold nodded, as though the words had registered, but his eyes were blank and glassy, and when Thomas moved to help him to bed he could feel the unnatural heat radiating off him. It was the influenza. The idea was irrational, all the newspapers said it had been truly beaten, at least in its new, deathly virulent form. But Thomas had seen enough of it to know the symptoms. By the time he had settled Harold into bed he was trembling, coughing, breath rattling.

"Don't leave me," Harold repeated over and over, half delirious, and Thomas clutched at his hand, promised that he wouldn't with a sincerity that many back at Downton wouldn't have thought him capable of. Harold seemed to calm somewhat at that, or perhaps it was simply that he wasn't physically capable of maintaining that kind of nervous energy. He had clearly been ill long before succumbing to this latest attack.

Thomas let go of his hand and moved to wrench the door open, yelling for Mrs Sanders, and Beck, and Jane, not caring at all for their insulted sensibilities, or the disturbance it might cause Lady Stanforthe.

Harold wasn't going to die, he pledged. He wouldn't let him.

~x~

"I'm going to die," Harold chanted, over and over, in his lucid moments, and nobody but Thomas seemed at all inclined to contradict him.

Beck refused point blank to send for the doctor, arguing rationally - though heartlessly - that the doctor would not put himself at risk of infection when the outlook was so very hopeless. Mrs Sanders shook her head, expression as close to fond as Thomas imagined it ever could be, and said that perhaps it would be for the best. That it would be better if it took him swiftly rather than prolong his pitiful existence any further.

Lady Stanforthe, upon hearing the news, fell into an hysterical screaming fit, demanding that Harold be thrown out of the house if there was but the slightest chance he should infect her with his sinfulness. Harold heard it all, too clearly, and it strengthened Thomas' resolve until he felt such single minded determination, he was half certain it would kill him if he failed to save the man.

"You're not going to die," he told Harold, tone leaving no room for disagreement. "You're going to get better, and move away, and meet some pretty girl and have half a dozen children."

Harold shivered and trembled in response, and whimpered that he was never going to escape the house. It would follow him, always.

These first hours would be critical, Thomas knew, and he snapped orders meant to be obeyed, as though he were back in military uniform. Beck resented it, that much was obvious, but the man tolerated it with far more grace than Thomas had expected him to. It helped, he supposed, that Harold looked so desperately, desperately ill, and that Lady Stanforthe was even now making plans to have Harold's body cremated, though the idea shocked Mrs Sanders so greatly that she near fainted. There was, all in all, simply no time for Beck to dwell on the impropriety of the situation.

Jane hurried up and down the stairs, grim faced as she did his bidding, fetching water and carrying blankets, and stoking the fire in Harold's bedroom.

"She'll catch it," Lady Stanforthe wailed from the quarters on the far side of the house she had removed herself to. "She'll spread it!"

Thomas told Jane, frankly, that she would be well within her rights to choose not to enter the sick room.

"The good Lord shall decide when it is my time, no other," she stated in response, and in so doing rose several notches in Thomas' estimations.

Mrs Sanders, quite recovered, disappeared to care for Lady Stanforthe, and in the morning Cook stepped foot on the island only to clamber back into the boat and row away again. They would have to do for themselves, she said, until Harold either recovered or succumbed once and for all to his suffering.

Thomas, for his part, thought of nothing other than seeing Harold through it. He swaddled Harold in blankets, to help him sweat the fever out, and laid cold compresses against his forehead at regular intervals, just as he had witnessed the doctors do back in Thirsk and Ripon. He did his best to ensure Harold stayed hydrated, though it was difficult when there were no ice chips to be had, as there were at Downton. When blood streamed freely from Harold's nose, contrasting starkly with the mottled paleness of his skin, Thomas even prayed.

It was not something he had much experience with.

With every hour that passed he promised ever more impossible things to a deity he had never confessed to believe in. He would be good, and kind, and donate a portion of his wages every month to the mission. He'd give up drink, and cards, and would never again take the Lord's name in vain. He'd live the life of monk, never so much as looking, and would leave Jimmy alone to live a happy life without any reminder of the terrible liberty he had taken in that moment of madness.

He'd do anything, he swore finally, if only Harold didn't die in front of him.

For all of it he appeared still to have been forsaken.

"Mrs Sanders is airing her Ladyship's crepe," Jane said when she arrived with an armful of fresh linen. "She says it'll not be long now."

Thomas hated the place then, though hatred was one of the things he had pledged never again to give in to. It was awful, suffocating, and it had made its residents awful also. Harold still had breath in his body and already they were preparing to go into mourning.

"He'll pull through yet," Thomas said, stubbornly. "I think he's looking better today."

Harold was in truth gasping audibly for every breath, and Jane looked at him with pitying eyes before leaving the two of them alone again. Thomas kept up his vigil all the same, in the straight backed chair beside Harold's bed, and when he took Harold's hand in his own, overcome with memories of watching other men die in spite of all his efforts, he was shocked to feel Harold squeeze his hand, albeit weakly. It was the turning point Thomas had been praying for.

"I never thought he would survive it," Beck said when the dreadful death rattle had abated, and Harold's pulse was strong enough to feel with only the slightest press of fingers. Thomas arranged Harold's covers carefully, not wanting to wake the man, and emboldened by exhaustion said,

"I know you didn't. None of you did."

Beck glared but said nothing further on the matter, telling him instead that he ought to go to bed and, that if by morning nobody else had shown any symptoms, they would send word to the village for Cook to resume her duties.

Upstairs in his cold room, Thomas was too tired to worry, or plot, or even to think. Instead he changed into his nightclothes numbly, senses dulled as if he were underwater, and dropped into bed gratefully. Once he had pulled the blankets over him however, sleep refused to claim him. His mind returned to the creature he had seen in the shadows, just before Harold had fallen ill, and he deliberately shifted so his hands and feet were fully covered by the blanket. He feared, childishly, that otherwise some cold hand might get a grip on one of them.

When exhaustion did overcome him, his dreams - nightmares - were vivid and disjointed. He was at his father's funeral, his stiff starched collar digging into the flesh of his neck and his mind swirling in confusion, because the man had once been his hero but he had died both a drunk and a coward. Then he was in the trenches, attempting to balance a tray of crystalware while all around him men screamed and bombs exploded. Finally he was at the edge of the lake outside, telling Harold over and over that he wasn't going to die, even as the other man stepped into the water and disappeared beneath the surface.

Thomas went in after him, and tried to pull him back to land. But he was heavy, far heavier than he could be in reality, and it took so long that when he finally succeeded in dragging him from the water it was to find that the corpse was Jimmy's, and there was nothing he could do to revive him.

He woke with a jolt, heart racing and his face wet. Jimmy wasn't dead, he told himself sternly. Jimmy was strong, and young and healthy. The strange sense of dread persisted, regardless. It was still only ten minutes after five, but Thomas knew trying to sleep again would be fruitless. He washed and shaved with the pitcher of icy water Jane must have left for him, and then dressed before making his way down to the servants' hall. Beck was there already, and fixed his dark eyes upon him with an intensity that left Thomas with the uncomfortable feeling that the old man could see inside his head, and was privy to all his secrets. Aloud, Beck said only,

"Her Ladyship has found this last week most trying. I'll thank you to keep any noise to a minimum."

"I'd wager that Harold has found it more than trying," Thomas said in response, well aware that it could cost him his position, if Beck chose to pursue it.

"I'd keep my opinions to myself," Beck reprimanded, the words holding a slight, though unmistakable, hint of a threat. "I do not know what kind of behaviour was permitted at Downton Abbey but this is a God-fearing household. I'll not stand for your impertinence."

He could have argued, could have throttled the man. But Mrs Sanders chose that moment to enter, and Jane dished up four bowls of porridge, the same way she always did on Cook's off days. Just like that things were returned to normal, or as normal as they could be in that place, and, in between checking on Harold, Thomas polished all the silver in the cabinet, and burned the sweat sodden sheets and nightclothes during a respite from the rain. He wanted the distraction, he supposed; any excuse to not have his mind to wander to the things he saw from the corner of his eye, and to Jimmy and his terrible dreams regarding him.

Because they kept coming, night after night, until Harold was well enough to sit up unaided, and Lady Stanforthe had returned to her customary chambers.

"I owe you my life," Harold said to him, determined and serious, the very day Mrs Hughes' letter came confirming that, indeed, everybody at Downton was in the best of health, including baby Sybbie. The relief of it all made him too free with his emotions, and his expressions, and when Harold asked if he could give him anything in thanks, Thomas said truthfully that he could murder for a cigarette as the weather was too bad for him to go outdoors for one.

Harold laughed, a pleasant sound completely unlike the bitter bark Thomas had heard from him that first day. "By all means, old chap," Harold offered, smiling. Thomas could remember too well the way Harold had rasped and wheezed however, and he settled for sitting in the chair beside the bed, pleased simply to have some company.

It quickly became the way he spent most of his days, so much so that Harold insisted he exchange the uncomfortable chair for one with padding and armrests, from the disused drawing room. He read to Harold from the daily copy of The Times, or one of the less tedious books from the library. He remembered the copy of Picture Show, now somewhat crumpled and outdated, and Harold looked so delighted Thomas found his cheeks colouring, though it had been exactly the kind of reaction he had been counting on.

He went straight to the general store on his next trip into the village, intent on stocking up on reading material. The shop keeper, to his surprise, disappeared into the back room for a moment and returned with a few weeks worth of magazines.

"I've been keeping them for you," the man - Mr Evans, he had since determined - said.

"That's very kind of you." Thomas stared at Evans as openly as he dared, wanting to know why. Wanting to know all the answers and the explanations everybody seemed intent on keeping from him. Evans withstood the scrutiny, and Thomas reached for his wallet, so he could pay and move onto his next errand.

Evans shook his head and handed the papers over to him. "Mr Stanforthe - just tell him we was all thinking of him."

Harold smiled when he delivered the message, an expression that was fast becoming commonplace. Thomas thought it made him look younger, healthier.

Beck chastised him, of course, for taking advantage of the young master's weakened state. For indulging in a disturbing level of familiarity. Mrs Sanders took to making unannounced visits, to check that he wasn't pilfering whenever the young master wasn't looking, and that he was only reading from approved reading material. Harold burst into undignified giggles after one too close encounter, and Thomas found himself laughing alongside him, because the whole situation was so utterly ridiculous.

By spring Harold was looking much better, better even than he had on Thomas' arrival, and when the day dawned bright and mild, Thomas bundled Harold up in jumper and overcoat, and took him outside to sit beside the lake on a picnic blanket. The fresh air would do him good, Thomas had assumed, and though Harold looked paler than ever in the sunlight, the breeze put some colour in his cheeks and his eyes were more alive than Thomas had ever seen them.

They talked of this and that, and other inconsequentials. Thomas had had Cook fix him some squash, and some sandwiches, and after eating they lapsed into silence, though it was perfectly comfortable. Harold was the first to break the companionable quiet,

"I used to sit here as a child. I'd look across that lake and wish I could reach the other side and never, ever look back again."

Thomas searched for an appropriate thing to say. He might think the place grim and singularly unwelcoming, but it was Harold's childhood home. It had been in the family generations, or so Beck never tired of telling him. Harold didn't appear to notice his struggle, and continued staring across the lake into the woodlands in the distance. Eventually he went on,

"In the trenches, I wanted nothing more than to return. Life is strange, isn't it?"

Thomas thought of his own experiences during the war, and how he had in turn been desperate to get away, and then to return to Downton. He thought of how he had returned, had lived, when men who had been good, and brave, had perished and lain for days in their own filth. He thought of how things had been only a few scant months ago, when his position and future prospects had seemed so assured, and then he had lost his heart and his mind over Jimmy, and suddenly he had nothing. At least not until Harold's letter had summoned him to this place he would never have consented to set foot in had he any other option.

The whole conversation felt suddenly ominous, and Thomas thought of the words his father had said to him the night before he died. They were perhaps the only words of wisdom his father had ever passed onto him in those latter years, and he repeated them, despite their morbid context.

"Life is only ever what we make of it."

~x~

As spring gave way to summer Harold's health continued to improve. He managed to spend a few hours out of bed most days and, with the doctor's agreement, he was put back on the same diet as the rest of the household.

"It almost makes me wish I was ill again," Harold said the first day Thomas brought him a dish of watery stew. "But then," he smiled, "I remember Cook's semolina."

Thomas grinned in response, and refused to listen to the voice in the back of his head - horrifically similar to Carson's - which told him that nothing good ever came of familiarity with those upstairs. What had happened with Philip had been atrocious, certainly, but Sybil had seen him as a human being and not simply as a servant. It wasn't unthinkable that Harold saw him as something of a friend in addition to an employee.

All the same he was very careful to maintain some professional barriers. They existed, after all, not only in an employer's best interest. He always addressed Harold formally, and he never proffered any personal information, or at least none which held any particular importance to him. Harold, on the other hand, had no such scruples, and by June was insisting that Thomas call him,

"Harry, all my friends do. Or Harold at least. You saved my life, you know, I don't think it's right you should have to 'Sir' me continually."

Thomas demurred, said that it wouldn't be proper. That Beck might overhear them and then all their lives would be made truly unbearable, what with the praying they would have to do for their souls, and the strict regime of bread and water they would need to endure to cleanse their physical bodies. Harold laughed, and let it drop, but by the end of July Thomas had indeed taken to calling him Harold, whenever Beck was safely out of earshot. He didn't say Harold could call him Thomas, and Harold never so much as suggested it. He was always Mr Barrow to Harold, and Thomas felt it was much safer. It served as a reminder that, no matter how odd his situation, he oughtn't to get above himself. Beck could still have him thrown out on the street, if he was minded to work at it.

Beck gave him a particular dressing down one morning in September, with Jane stuck in the crossfire, staring awkwardly at the floor as Beck yelled his dissatisfaction.

"You have been told, on no few occasions, that the old nursery on the second floor is out of bounds."

"Yes," Thomas interrupted before Beck could really get going, "and since the first occasion I have been nowhere near it."

"Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord," Beck quoted in response, and foreseeing Thomas' objections, rushed onwards. "Lady Stanforthe entered the room this morning to find a portrait of the young master Stanforthe defaced. That portrait is very dear to her Ladyship."

Thomas had to curl his hands into fists to keep the urge to scoff at bay, though it made the fingers of his left hand ache dully. Lady Stanforthe, so far as he could work out, held nothing related to Harold dear. When Harold had recovered sufficiently from his brush with the 'flu to once again try attending breakfast, Lady Stanforthe had only looked at him coolly and said, 'Your father would have been so disappointed with you.'

It was Thomas' private opinion that Lady Stanforthe was quite mad, and that it would be better for everyone concerned if she were sent away and delivered into the care of some asylum. Only the week before she had demanded on a whim that she wished to bathe in the library, and he and Jane had had to drag the heavy metal bathtub she preferred half way across the house. When it was finally done, and the thing had been filled, she had denied ever suggesting it. Harold would not hear a word said against her however, and dutifully ate meals with her thrice weekly, though he was invariably upset and subdued afterwards.

"I have not been to the nursery," Thomas said in the most level voice he could manage. "And if I had, why on earth should I wish to destroy a picture of Harold?"

Beck looked at him sharply at that, sharper than the use of a Christian name ought to merit, and though it was not at all what he had been implying, a cold chill of fear overcame him. He did not think of Harold in that way - Jimmy still held what was left of his heart - and there was nothing indecent in their relations whatever. And yet, he was still afraid that his nature was obvious. That Beck had somehow deduced it, or else had received word from Downton. But Beck, defying all his expectations, did not pursue the issue further.

"It seems I have no option but to accept your word on this occasion. But if I were to find out you had lied to me, I would see to it that you never worked in service again."

The exchange left him angry, frustrated, and he hissed to Jane once they were clear of the servants' hall that he didn't know what Beck's problem was. Jane bit at her lip, as though she was considering telling him something, but then the pensive look was gone - so quick Thomas wasn't entirely sure he hadn't imagined it - and left him to see if she could be of any use to Mrs Sanders.

He carried a tray of soup and a thin slice of bread up to Harold, and his agitation must have been obvious because Harold took it upon himself to talk even more than usual. Since regaining some semblance of health Harold liked to talk at length upon anything, as though he were making up for all the months he had lain silent. In the flow of a general comment on the frequency with which Cook served clear soup as a main course, Harold meandered onto the topic of soup more broadly, and described the soup he had been habitually served cold at school, and how Frank Douglas-Talbot, a bully from the fifth form, had once spilt an entire dish into his lap, right in front of the headmaster.

The story - and the narrowness with which Harold avoided a re-enactment - finally succeeded in bringing a smile to his face and, eager to lift him from his depressed mood entirely, Harold rooted around in his dresser drawer for the photographs Thomas had been so fascinated with all those months ago. There was a stiff, formal photograph taken in his school days, complete with Douglas-Talbot's younger brother stood third from the left in the back row.

"They were almost exactly alike, and not just in looks," Harold assured him.

Then there was much more amateurish group shot, from his time at Cambridge. "This is Charlie," Harold said, pointing to a fair haired lad with eyes so blue they appeared almost entirely white in the photograph. Harold moved on to the next boy, dark haired with a broad grin, "And Edwin, me, of course, and this is George Harrington. He was the third wrangler, you know."

Thomas didn't know, but didn't like to say so, so made do with taking in Harrington's unruly hair, and the sweep of his cheekbones. He was willing to bet that Harrington would have been a real hit with the bluestockings - were he so inclined to be.

"They're all dead now, save me," Harold said, all the humour of the last twenty minutes or so dissipating in an instant. "Why do you think God takes one man, and spares another?"

The sudden turnaround in tone was dizzying. Thomas took the photograph from Harold's unresisting fingers and looked at the young man Harold had been. He looked so happy, care free. Handsome. He had been far less gaunt than he was presently, bordering almost on plump though it had suited him. Put his features in better proportion. The close analysis was only a means of deflecting the question however and Thomas knew he couldn't continue it forever.

"Some men make their own luck," he said slowly, flexing the fingers of his left hand unconsciously, "and some simply have luck on their side. It doesn't mean anything."

It was not the answer Harold had wanted to hear, if indeed there could have been one to such a question, and he brought his knees to his chest, pulling the blankets with him. He fidgeted for a long moment, gazed at his hands miserably, and then he rose his gaze to Thomas and said,

"I did something awful last night. I'm so very ashamed of myself."

The night before Harold had eaten dinner in the dining room with Lady Stanforthe, he and Beck waiting on table. It had been a long, stilted affair, with Harold making every effort to be agreeable, and Lady Stanforthe telling him in turn that she did not like to be drawn into conversation while eating - a trait which endeared Beck to her, no doubt - and that if he persisted she would not see him at all until he learnt how to control his blithering. Harold had done nothing in retaliation though, had simply finished his meal in silence. As soon as it was done he had retired to bed, curling on his side and feigning sleep when Thomas had brought up a fresh pitcher of water in readiness for the morning.

Harold pushed a hand through his hair, looked away as he explained, "I went to the nursery and slashed the picture on the wall with my penknife. Mother's favourite picture."

It made no sense, no more than when Beck had assumed it was he who had done the thing. It could have been purely out of spite, Thomas supposed. He certainly couldn't condemn Harold for that, not with the way Lady Stanforthe treated him. Harold looked close to tears though, over something which was really rather trifling, and Thomas couldn't help but touch a hand to his shoulder, to be comforting, as he said,

"That isn't so bad. It's not as though you killed anybody!"

Harold flinched away from his touch, and Thomas drew his hand back as if scalded, thinking back to the way Beck had looked at him in the servants' hall.

"I'm sorry, Mr Barrow," Harold said in a choked voice, shifting so that he was laying down, facing away from him. "I don't feel very well, I think I ought to sleep now."

Thomas stayed where he was for a long minute, because it was so entirely out of character. Harold never wanted him to leave - they had ended up talking into the early hours of the morning because of the fact on more occasions than Thomas would like to number. But Harold didn't turn around, or utter another word, so Thomas was forced to silently gather up Harold's dinner tray and shut Harold's bedroom door after him.

He felt sick as he trudged down the servants' staircase, sick to the very pit of his stomach. Harold couldn't turn him out for a touch to the shoulder, it was laughable. Yet Beck wanted him gone, he knew, and likely so did Lady Stanforthe, for delivering Harold away from Death's door. All it would take was a word from Downton, and he could be back to living from penny to penny, and queuing with the hopeless and the helpless for handouts from the soup kitchens.

He was so unsettled that when he caught sight of an envelope with a too familiar postmark on the kitchen worktop, he near upset the tray he was carrying, the whole thing rattling threateningly.

"There you are," Cook said, unperturbed. "I meant to give you this earlier but you're always disappearing."

Thomas' mouth went dry, his heart pounding as he took the letter with numbed fingers. He thanked her, distantly, and walked very steadily, and very carefully from the kitchen and up the servants' staircase. He would not rush; he would not be made vulnerable. Mrs Hughes was a kind woman, and she had continued to write to him infrequently. She was warning him, he thought. Letting him know that she and Carson had had no choice, and they had had to tell the full details of what had transpired between him and Jimmy, back at Downton.

His veins were full of ice by the time he reached his room, though it was a swelteringly hot day outside, and his room had been unbearably stuffy the past week, for all that it was freezing in the winter. It took him two attempts to get the envelope opened, and he unfolded the paper inside with a strange kind of breathless dread.

He had been wrong, completely wrong. Except not quite completely because the letter did make for grim reading. He sank to sit on the edge of his bed as he read that Matthew Crawley was dead, scarce hours after the birth of his son, and Lady Mary was beside herself with grief. Understandably. Mrs Hughes, kindly, said that she knew he cared about the family and would want to know how they were faring. Thomas wasn't certain that was true, but he was sorry that Matthew was dead. He did know what it was like to lose somebody who meant the world to you.

Mrs Hughes went on to write that there was another matter she thought he should know of, because she should not like for him to hear it from some other quarter, sensationalised, and worry himself sick over it. Jimmy had won a sizable quantity of money on a wager at a fair in Thirsk - he had then gone on to drink a sizable amount of alcohol. He had been followed by a band of men intent on relieving him of his winnings and they had beaten him, beaten him so badly that he was now consigned to bed, and in her opinion it was only by virtue of his having been too inebriated to fight back that he was still alive to tell the tale.

Five minutes earlier his biggest concern had been for his job. Thirty minutes earlier it had been for his and Harold's, for want of a better word, friendship. Both faded from his mind in the face of this news about Jimmy. He would be fine, Mrs Hughes said, but what if he wasn't? What if he died? It was too awful to contemplate. He should have been there to protect Jimmy, he thought. He would have been there were it not for his own vanity. As if somebody like Jimmy could ever look at him with the light of love. The idea was preposterous.

Thomas didn't know what to do with himself. He stood, then sat, then stood again and paced the cramped confines of his room, mind racing. Finally he came to a decision and took to the staircase, two at a time, determined that he would go to the village whether Beck granted him permission or not.

He had to find a telephone.

~x~

"It is not your half day," Beck said, incredulous. "What business could you possibly have in the village?"

"As I explained," Thomas began, and he couldn't keep still, even under Beck's scrutiny, "there has been a death in the family at Downton. I need to use the telephone."

"I shouldn't think they'd want to hear from you," Cook said, sounding amused by the very idea of it.

Thomas fidgeted, agitation growing. "I want to pay my respects."

Beck was going to say no, he could tell. He would be forced to simply go, and in retaliation Beck would play on his right not to have to give him a reference.

It was Mrs Sanders who settled the issue, looking up from her mending to say slowly, "There is a lot to be commended in that, loyalty to one's employers." Beck turned to glare at her, but whatever he saw in her expression was enough for him to back down, and Thomas wasted no time in setting out for the village.

He was out of breath by the time he arrived, his shirt clinging to him uncomfortably as a result of the heat and the exertion. Evans had the only telephone in the vicinity, and Thomas waited impatiently for him to return from the hallway to the shop counter so he could conduct his call in some modicum of privacy. The operator put him through, and it was Carson who answered, his tones instantly familiar for all that Thomas had been away from Downton for over a year now.

"Thomas!" Mrs Hughes exclaimed when she came to the telephone. "You shouldn't be calling here."

"I have to know -" he began, and to his horror his voice came close to cracking, "I have to know if he's alright."

Mrs Hughes lowered her voice, obviously keen not to be overheard, "James is fine, though it would be his own fault if he wasn't. The doctor says he can resume his duties come Monday."

"I want to speak to him." The words had left his mouth before he could think better of them, and he had to press his free hand to his eyes, determined not to give into the swell of emotion which rose every time he thought of some mishap befalling Jimmy.

Mrs Hughes didn't need to say anything for him to know she was scandalised. "I don't think that's a very good idea," she said eventually. "He's upstairs in his room."

"Of course - I know, I'm - I'm sorry." He couldn't seem to manage a full sentence.

There was a drawn out silence, long enough for Thomas to worry that the connection had been lost. Then Mrs Hughes said, so quietly it was a struggle to hear her, "James is still very... fixed in his opinion of what transpired last summer. You've a good position now, isn't it for the best that you put all this behind you?"

It was not difficult to read between the lines of her words. Jimmy hated him still, and he ought to have moved on by now in any case.

I can't, he thought, for all that the confirmation of Jimmy's feelings felt like a knife to his breast. Aloud he said, "I'm very sorry to have bothered you. Please pass on my condolences to the family, Mr Crawley wasn't a bad man." He replaced the receiver almost as soon as he finished speaking, and stood alone in the hallway for long moments, trying to regain some of his composure.

When he re-entered the front of the shop Evans pounced before he could slip away,

"Has something happened to your brother? Only I couldn't help overhearing..."

Ordinarily Thomas tolerated the man's insufferable nosiness, and had become accustomed enough to the native tongue to know Evans invariably passed any information he was given on to the first person he happened to come into contact with. Unless that person was him, Thomas had discovered. Still, it felt like some kind of petty revenge to be able to spread tales of minor irritations.

Today he was in no mood for idle village gossip.

"I've no brother," he said with a smile so false he could feel the strain of it. "If you'll excuse me, I have to be getting back."

Evans looked as though he would follow, but a trio of old women entered at that moment, demanding immediate assistance.

Thomas didn't rush to return however. He sat near the moorings at the lake and smoked the entire contents of his cigarette packet. It was as though he had been made a fool over Jimmy for a second time, and it hurt. It hurt to have to acknowledge that Jimmy hated him, thought him just as foul as Carson had, if not more so. It hurt more to care for him regardless.

It was dark by the time he finally moved to begin the final leg of the journey back to the island. He had missed supper, he knew, and he went straight to bed without checking on Harold, as was his usual custom. If Harold's wish was not to have him around, he was more than happy to accommodate it.

Come morning, as experience had taught him was so often the case, the problems of the night before seemed considerably less serious. He had had a year to get used to the idea of Jimmy wanting nothing to do with him; for all it hurt, it was not such a terrible shock to be served a reminder of it. And Harold had had fits of temper before, when he was overtired and Lady Stanforthe had been especially trying.

With these considerations in mind Thomas decided he would check in on Harold before breakfast, if only to leave a pitcher of water as he had told Jane months ago that he would now be the one to see it. He was forced to settle the pitcher on a dresser half way down the corridor - Harold had locked himself in again. Thomas tapped on the door politely, mindful that it was still only a quarter to six, and when he received no response he retreated to the servants' hall. He would have to bring the water up with Harold's breakfast.

Harold still hadn't opened the door at nine, and this time Thomas knocked more firmly, calling for Harold to let him enter. When there was no answer Thomas, after checking there was nobody watching, pounded his fist against the door urgently. The night Harold had taken ill was imprinted too freshly on his memory.

Finally - finally - there came sounds of movement from the other side of the door, though they had Thomas frowning in concern. It sounded as though something heavy was being dragged across the floor. When Harold pulled the door open, he couldn't help but gape at the sight before him. The room was in total disarray, the contents of the dresser flung everywhere, and the dresser itself had obviously been pushed in front of the door, to act as an extra barrier.

Harold himself looked no less ordered. His eyes were tired and bloodshot, and his hair was sticking up in all directions, as if he had continually been running a hand through it.

"What happened?" He asked, and didn't say that Harold looked awful.

"He was trying to get in," Harold said, and there was something about the way in which he said it that made Thomas feel decidedly uneasy.

"Who? Beck?"

Harold shook his head and moved to sit on the bed, in amongst two empty drawers and their upturned contents. "He was angry about the painting. I told you I shouldn't have touched that painting!"

It was hereditary. Thomas had long suspected that Lady Stanforthe was mad, and now it seemed that Harold too was not entirely compos mentis. It was the only explanation.

"I thought you had gone," Harold said suddenly, changing the topic completely. "Beck said at supper that you had gone to the village and not returned. That you had received news from your previous employers."

The tone was accusatory, and Thomas felt impelled to defend himself. "There had been a tragedy in the family, I wanted to give my condolences." He didn't mention Jimmy, because there was no way to bring up the topic without it being self-incriminating.

"Of course, you're entitled to leave," Harold said as though he hadn't heard a word of it, more to himself than to Thomas. "Why wouldn't you want to leave this place? It's awful. An awful, awful place and I had no right to ask you to come here."

"You didn't drag me kicking and screaming," Thomas said, trying for humour as he moved a pile of starched cuffs and collars so that he could sit beside him.

"I asked the agency specifically for men who were willing to take absolutely anything," Harold countered, and Thomas did his best to reign in his curiosity - he had often wondered exactly how and where Harold had chanced upon his name - and focus on the problem at hand. "I wanted someone who would be so pathetically grateful they would feel compelled to take my side of the piece."

Thomas was silent for a moment, taking it in. It was a dark truth, but Harold's self-reproach was real enough. In Harold's place he would likely have done the same thing, and probably would not have suffered even a moment's guilt over it.

"I'd have taken your side anyway," Thomas said at last, and he meant it.

And just like that they want from standoffish-ness and recrimination, to Harold sobbing into his shirtfront. Thomas patted the other man's back awkwardly, never having received any specific advice on what to do when your employer chose to weep on your shoulder. Or chest, as the case may be. Harold continued to cling to him, arms wrapped around him so that they were closer than Thomas had been to anyone for a long time. Hesitantly he returned the embrace, and petted at Harold's disheveled hair. It felt good - to be needed, he supposed. It reminded him of the long days and nights he had spent at Harold's side as he battled the influenza, when he pledged that he would do anything if Harold could only live to tell the tale. Of the dizzying happiness when Harold had finally opened his eyes, and said himself that he knew he was going to get better.

"It's alright," he said quietly, soothing. "Everything's alright now."

Harold clung still tighter, breath shuddering against his skin through the thin barrier of his shirt. "Please don't leave," Harold was saying in between gasping for air. "Please don't leave me. I'd sooner die than be left alone in this place."

It genuinely surprised Thomas how convinced Harold was that he had the option. Harold paid him well, there was no denying it, but it wasn't enough for him to simply walk out of a position with nothing lined up to replace it. He wouldn't anyway, he knew with a sudden certainty. They had become friends over these last, strange months, for all that Beck would have a fit at the mere idea of such a relationship. Instead he voiced what, in his opinion, was the obvious solution,

"Why don't you leave? You could go anywhere you chose. I'd - I'd go with you."

Harold pulled back then, and swiped viciously at his tear stained face. He looked lost without the physical contact. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have put you through that scene. Please forgive me."

Thomas said nothing, preferring to wait for some kind of answer. Harold generally did his best to be stoic and perfectly British about everything, he wouldn't have put on a display like that without good reason. Not that Thomas was the type to begrudge a man a few tears. Still, he waited so long that he was about to accept that Harold was going to drop the subject, when Harold sighed deeply.

"If I told you the truth - the full truth - of the matter you would think me a lunatic."

Thomas, wisely, said nothing of the uncharitable conclusions he had already come to. Instead he held Harold's gaze and said, "You can't know that."

"No," Harold said, as though encountering the idea for the first time. "No, I suppose not." At that he seemed to come to a decision. "You must promise me one thing though. You must promise that you won't -" he sucked in another shuddering breath, "- you won't blame Mother. It isn't her fault, not really."

He nodded, eager to know what it was that lay behind the secrets and the mystery.

Harold shook his head, pushed his hand through his hair yet again, so that it stuck up in an entirely new direction. "I can't believe I'm about to say this - I've never told anyone. Ever."

"I'm not going anywhere," Thomas said, and went and locked the door to prove it - and to prevent Beck or Mrs Sanders from interrupting.

In return Harold gave him a wan smile, and looked down at his twisted hands as though they held all the answers to the universe.

"It began," he started, "in the summer of 1883..."

~x~

"It began in the summer of 1883, that was the year Mother met Father. She was the daughter of an Earl, you know, and he was nothing at all, not really."

Harold said it as though the fact made it the romance story of the century. Thomas, having known and been no great fan of Tom Branson, could not see anything so worth celebrating in it. Harold, oblivious, continued,

"Mother had been very ill, with brain fever, and Father was at that time a junior doctor. Anyway," Harold shifted uncomfortably, clearly not unaware of the questionable ethics of the scenario, "they married in 1886, and Mother gave birth to a son a year later."

Thomas frowned at that, he had been born in 1887 and he knew that Harold was a good few years younger than him. Harold smiled mirthlessly at his confusion.

"My brother Jacob. Mother doted on him - she had been told that she might be unable to have children, so he was made all the more precious to her."

"The portrait in the nursery?" Thomas breathed in sudden understanding. "That was Jacob."

Harold nodded. "Mother's health continued to be delicate, and when she discovered she was pregnant with me she was afraid it would be the end of her. It is my understanding -" Harold paused, intent on some point in the middle distance. "Father was away giving a paper in France - he was very clever - and Mother sent the majority of the servants away then, so that she might be left alone in peace and quiet."

Thomas wasn't sure why but his own pulse had quickened as Harold spoke. Whatever the ending of this tale, Thomas knew it was not going to be a happy one.

"There was a woman in the village who replaced the cook and - you must understand I have only learnt many of these things from snippets and overheard conversations - I -"

He hesitated for a moment and then reached for Harold's hand. It had calmed him before, Thomas reasoned. Harold made no visible sign of being aware of the contact, but he did squeeze his hand gratefully, his fingers chilled against his skin, contrasting with the warmth of the leather of his glove. Harold spoke the next in a rush,

"Mother arranged with this woman to induce a miscarriage, through a certain concoction. My Father, though he loved her dearly, would not have agreed to it, you see. He was a great favourite with Beck, of course. - I don't know how it happened, not exactly. But - Jacob was the one who eventually ingested the mixture. He died within hours."

Harold swallowed, clinging to his hand in a death grip. "Mother suffered a relapse of the brain fever, and by the time my Father returned home everybody was certain neither of us would make it."

"But you did," Thomas prompted after a few moments of silence, though he wasn't at all certain he actually wanted to hear the story's conclusion.

"It had taken a great toll on Mother. She - she had always been very influenced by Spiritualism. Mother says that her first bout of brain fever was really nothing of the sort, that it was simply that she had been unable to control her gift to -" Harold broke into nervous laughter suddenly. "I wish Beck wasn't so thorough when it came to the ban on hard liquor in this house."

"Temperance is next to Godliness," Thomas said in his best imitation of Beck's accent. Harold snorted, as thankful as he for the slight decrease of the tension in the room. Realising how tightly he was gripping Thomas' hand Harold relaxed his hold somewhat, but didn't let go. He stroked his thumb across the side of his hand in apology, and Thomas found himself wishing for liquor too. The sensation was singularly distracting. Just when he was on the verge of either shifting or speaking to prevent any unsuitable reaction to the touch, Harold ceased the movement and sighed.

"Mother became convinced that Jacob was coming back to her. That my body had been made to house his soul."

It was too fantastical, even the penny dreadfuls would be hard pushed to come up with a story more outrageous. And yet, he had seen with his own eyes the incomprehensible way in which Lady Stanforthe treated her only surviving son. Thomas forced himself to ask,

"But what about your Father?"

"By all accounts he was heartbroken; he began to spend more and more time away, lecturing and giving papers, and so on. He felt certain no harm could come to me while Beck and Mrs Sanders were here to oversee things. But Mother - well, Mother is a very forceful woman."

Nobody could deny that, Thomas thought.

"She read widely on the subject, and corresponded with a lot of influential people who made their living on the edges of the movement." The way Harold enunciated the word 'edges' made it clear he was referring to the darker pockets of those who professed interest in Spiritualism, not those content to dabble in seances and with the Ouija board. Thomas had made use of the latter himself, at a time when he would have scoffed openly at any suggestion that spirits could haunt the living. "By the time my Father realised the extent of the problem it was too late. Mother had already succeeded."

Of all the things Harold could have said at that junction, this was the least expected. Thomas felt torn between the urge to laugh at the absurdity of the statement, and the urge to shake and quiver like some sheltered parlour maid. Harold moved to stand at the window, leaning his forehead against the pane and looking out at the lake.

"You cannot tell me truthfully that you haven't sensed something - something wrong in this house."

Thomas thought of the thing he had seen in the shadows the night Harold had screamed in hysterics that somebody was trying to get at him.

"It's the location," Thomas said, verbalising the same explanations he repeated to himself when he couldn't sleep at night. "It's out of the way, and Beck and Mrs Sanders are so miserable. Jane too - it is all you can do not to think of ghosts and spectres."

Harold shook his head, expression pained. "I was young, I don't remember the specifics of the process," his eyes were haunted, stark against his pale face, suggesting otherwise - Thomas didn't push him, "but I have seen him. All my life I've seen him. And - and I've been the one on the other side. Oh God," he moaned suddenly, burying his face in his hands, "Why am I telling you this? You of all people."

He did not know how to take the last comment, and finally admitted instead, "I have seen it. The night you fell ill with the 'flu."

It made all the difference and Harold stumbled across the room and slumped down onto the bed, as though his limbs were limp with relief. He lay down, uncaring of the clothes and sundries strewn across the covers, and Thomas could see that he was shaking with a mixture of stress and exhaustion.

"You should get some sleep," he suggested, standing to start setting the room to rights again. Harold simply pushed the bulk of the debris to the floor and said,

"Stay, won't you? Just for a while."

There was nothing implied behind the request, but Thomas still hesitated. The reminder of Downton, and Jimmy had left him shaken - he couldn't take being accused again. On the other hand the thought made him realise how tired he truly was, how much yesterday had taken out of him. Not to mention the frantic racing of his brain as he tried to make sense of the deluge of information Harold had given him.

The door was locked, he reasoned finally. And Harold was the one suggesting it - he was hardly likely to turn around and accuse him of impropriety.

They were weak justifications, Thomas was well aware, but he swept up the rest of the contents of the dresser and laid them on the armchair before laying down beside Harold. He was really just doing his job, keeping nightmares at bay and letting Harold get some uninterrupted sleep after reliving a life time of terrible memories. In truth, he was less selfless, and he didn't want to wander the house knowing what he now did.

He wanted, frankly, to feel the warmth of another human body.

Harold pressed close to him, the remainder of the tension leaching from him. It was certainly not professional, and a good deal more intimate than might be expected from a bond of friendship. It was still far from the intimacy of lovers however, and so Thomas didn't protest when Harold moved still closer.

"You didn't answer my question," Thomas whispered into the still air. "You didn't say why you won't leave this place."

Harold put an arm across his middle, fingers curling slightly in the fabric of his waistcoat.

"I promised my Father I would look after her. On his death bed."

Well, Thomas thought to himself as Harold's breathing evened out in sleep, that solved one mystery, at any rate.

~x~

Knowing what he did simultaneously changed nothing, and everything. Beck treated him exactly the same, but Thomas thought he now understood why the man was so obsessed with saving the souls of those he had power over. He had an uphill battle ahead of him, in Thomas' opinion. Lady Stanforthe was just as insufferable, but it was ever so much more difficult not to accidentally spill her soup, or spoil her tea, or do something far more sinister.

It would be easy, he found himself thinking one night while he waited on she and Harold in the dining room. It would be no more than she deserved, neither.

He was shocked at himself when he realised the direction his thoughts were wandering in. She began to deteriorate soon after anyway, becoming forgetful, and one afternoon wandered through the house in nothing but her slip, calling insistently for her husband.

"Sometimes I think she won't live to see 1922," Jane confessed to him one evening, scrubbing her hands at the outdoor water pump to rid them of the evidence of her ladyship's latest memory lapse.

"No," Thomas agreed, blowing smoke into the cool night air and wondering what it would mean for him. For all of them. "It wouldn't surprise me."

To make up for it he made plans with Harold, all sky and no substance, for the places they would go and the things they would see in the future. They spent more time together than ever, not least because his own room seemed ever more oppressive. Saint Sebastian's dead gaze followed his every movement, and more than once Thomas was convinced he had seen that gruesome creature again, from the corner of his eye, only to lay awake the entire night - under his covers - trying to tell himself that it was only a trick of the light, what little there was of it.

Harold whispered to him one night, when they were still playing cards though his own eyes were tired and gritty, that he never saw anything when Thomas was with him. That he made him feel so much safer. For that reason Harold was more than happy for him to sprawl beside him on any occasion they felt they could get away with it.

Mrs Sanders chastised him just as often, though her beady eye followed him more keenly. At times he was sure she suspected something, and one morning he almost walked straight into her on his way from Harold's room, having fallen asleep during a rambling conversation about the nature of the soul, and the likelihood of the Irish Treaty Conference having any positive impact. It might have been one of the most mature moments of his life, had Harold not ruined it by falling asleep first and snoring loudly.

"Our Lord sees everything," said Mrs Sanders, stressing that last word so there could be little doubt as to her meaning.

Thomas smiled, the false one he had spent long years perfecting, and said, "He'll know I've a soul as pure as the driven snow then, won't he?"

Mrs Sanders pursed her lips until she looked as though she had been sucking on a particularly bitter lemon, but she stalked past him in the direction of the servants' hall and said nothing more about it.

For the first time in his life he could afford to be relaxed about the issue. He was doing nothing wrong, in the first place, which meant that even should suspicions be raised, there could be no case to answer. Moreover those who would cast the stone were hiding far worst secrets, in the eyes of both the law and the Lord. It was liberating. So liberating that one night, ensconced alone in that room which had seen the spilling of so many secrets, he came as close as he ever had to telling Harold of his true nature.

"Why did you leave Downton Abbey?" Harold asked, rolling over so that he could look at the profile of Thomas' face. "You never have told me."

Thomas stared up at the ceiling, and puffed deeply on the cigarette he had been smoking - Harold had long ago insisted that he wasn't about to expire as a result of a little cigarette smoke, providing that Beck didn't find out about it. He thought for a moment of spinning some wild story about a love struck maid, and painting himself as the hero of the piece who took the fall rather than allow a woman to be sent away without a reference. The idea was gone almost as soon as it had formed.

"I was idiot enough to fall in love with somebody," he said instead, careful to keep his words neutral. "Somebody who didn't - couldn't - love me back. I," he paused, swallowed to rid himself of the sudden ache in his throat. Even now thinking of how things had turned out with Jimmy was enough to bring all manner of unwanted emotions to the surface. "I made the mistake of not seeing that until it was too late."

"How awful," Harold said, tone solemn. "They must have been a first class fool, to turn down a man like you."

Thomas turned to look at him then, expecting sarcasm, or even good natured ribbing, but Harold's expression was entirely serious.

"It wasn't their fault," Thomas said, in Jimmy's defence. "I was given very poor counsel by someone I once considered a friend."

Harold sighed and twisted to lie on his other side, pulling the covers up to his chin the way he often did when he was on the verge of falling asleep. "I still think they were a fool."

Thomas smoked the rest of his cigarette and lay awake for a long time afterwards, thinking how odd it was that Harold had refrained from using 'she', and wondering if it could really mean that Harold knew and didn't judge him for it.

October became November, and in turn November became December. It seemed as though their strange existence would continue forever, without change or interruption. Such a thing was impossible, obviously, and it was nearing Christmas when he was woken in the middle of the night by a scream so blood curdling he was convinced it would haunt him until the end of his days. He was sleeping in his own room for once, and he searched blindly in the dark for his matches and a candle.

By the time he reached the source of the sound there was quite a crowd gathered. Beck in his robe and Mrs Sanders in her nightdress and cap, with Harold barefooted in his pyjamas. In the middle of them stood Jane, face chalk white with fright.

"It tried to strangle me. Its hands - its awful hands were around my throat!"

"It's alright," Harold said, taking charge of the situation in a way which would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. "It's alright now. Come with me and we'll have some tea. It'll be alright, you'll see."

Beck opened his mouth to protest, no doubt perturbed by the idea of Harold entering the kitchen. Harold, having none of it, wrapped an arm around Jane's shoulders and began leading her towards the main staircase. "Beck, Mrs Sanders, I need you to check on Mother."

They hesitated, but Harold's tone had brokered no challenge, and Thomas watched as they made their way towards the more inhabitable half of the house.

"That was impressive," Thomas said truthfully as he fell into step beside Harold and Jane. Harold only shrugged,

"I have been feeling much more myself lately. As though -" Some idea clearly occurred to him, and he tightened his hold on Jane, speaking to Thomas in a low tone, "As though whatever had been haunting me had gone elsewhere."

Jane moaned loudly, fearfully, at the words, and Harold's attention was taken with apologising and settling Jane into a chair while he busied himself with the tea kettle. Thomas simply stood, some unspeakable horror washing over him as he watched the dark bloom of bruises slowly spread across Jane's throat. It had not simply been a vivid nightmare.

He jumped, startled, at the sound of Mrs Sanders' voice breaking the silence which had fallen. "Your mother - Lady Stanforthe - come quickly!"

Harold dropped the kettle and swore, none too subtly, as scalding water splashed his hand and arm. Nobody so much as commented on it. Harold rushed from the room, near enough at a run, with Mrs Sanders following. Thomas made to go after them, because if something terrible had happened he did not want Harold to have to face it alone. He was much better, certainly, but his condition was still somewhat precarious.

"Don't leave me!" Jane exclaimed, and clutched at his arm before he had taken more than a few steps. Thomas had never seen her so excited, not over anything.

"Come with me then," he said, and Jane did, though she didn't relinquish her hold on his arm.

"I'd seen it," she said, words coming quick and breathless. "Of course I'd seen it, I've been here since before Harry was sent away to school." She didn't appear to notice her slip in address, and Thomas didn't bother to correct her. "But it never touched me. Oh, God, this place is dreadful."

Thomas didn't contradict her.

Outside, the rain was driving against the window panes, and the wind was howling. The gas lamps lighting the hallway leading to Lady Stanforthe's rooms were flickering ominously. The air felt cold, far colder even than he suspected it would outside in the night air, and all the gooseflesh on his arms rose, along with the hairs on the back of his neck. Their breath misted in front of their faces and Jane's step faltered. Thomas felt fear rise in his own breast. He was afraid to go any closer, and yet he could not leave Harold to face whatever it might be without his assistance.

Jane began reciting under her breath,

"Ein Tad yr hwn wyt yn y nefoedd, sancteiddier dy enw; deled dy deyrnas; gwneler dy ewyllys, megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaer hefyd..."

Thomas recognised the rhythm well enough - the Lord's Prayer - but the foreign sound of the words only served to strain his nerves further. He forced himself to keep walking.

"Mother!" came Harold's voice, and Thomas pushed the door to Lady Stanforthe's chamber open to find Harold kneeling at her bedside, Mrs Sanders staring at something above them. Beck, he would learn later, had gone in an attempt to fetch the doctor. "Mother, can you hear me?"

His chest constricted at the desperate edge to Harold's voice. The woman had made his life hell, his entire life Thomas suspected, and here he was pleading with her not to die, to recognise him. Thomas moved to be close to him, and put his hand on Harold's shoulder, wanting to be of some support.

It was then that he thought to follow Mrs Sanders' line of vision, just as Jane gasped, unable to coordinate her senses to better articulate her fear. Thomas felt his own legs go limp, he had never been more afraid, not even in those moments he had steeled himself to raise his hand over the top of the trench. His grip on Harold's shoulder must have tightened because the other man looked up too, and the force with which Harold staggered to his feet pushed both of them backwards.

"Oh, Christ," Thomas whispered, and his voice shook uncontrollably.

It was the same creature he had seen all those months ago, except now had a name to put to it. To his mind it only made the thing more terrifying. It was - or at least it had once been - human, though there was little left to suggest the fact. It's limbs were grotesquely deformed, too long and splayed at unnatural angles, like a spider. And just like a spider it was clinging to the wall, it's head twisted on its broken neck, dead eyes seeming to bore into his own with an intensity that turned his insides to water.

The face - the face was so hideous he wished he dared to shut his eyes, and block out the vision. The skin was stretched taut over a too big frame, as though it had continued to grow bigger after death, without extra skin to accommodate it. The lips were pulled back in a permanent grimace, displaying blackened teeth, and Thomas realised in new horror that it couldn't blink. Could do nothing but stare that cold dead stare. The thing moved then, scuttling further down the wall, and Thomas clutched Harold closer, arms wrapped around his chest, unsure if it was himself or Harold he was hoping to protect from it.

Mrs Sanders fainted as it reached out to Lady Stanforthe, slumped heavily to the floor as it tangled its skeletal fingers in her hair.

"Mother!" Harold cried again in protest, and the thing wailed, the same awful sound it had made the first time Thomas had seen it. Lady Stanforthe bucked as the pitch rose, her body arching from the bed as though she were in the throes of a fit. Harold would have gone to her but Thomas held him fast, unable to look away from the sight in front of him.

The thing crawled onto the bed, so that it was looming over Lady Stanforthe, its face level with her gaze.

"Jacob?" She rasped, wonderingly, and Thomas stared aghast as she reached a hand out to it.

In his grasp Harold twisted and turned, finally succeeding in fighting his way free. "Get away from her," he yelled, moving as if to strike it but Thomas made a grab for him, pulling at Harold's arm with all the strength in his body.

"Jacob," Lady Stanforthe repeated, delirious. The thing - Jacob, or what remained of him - pressed still closer to her, as though to press a kiss to her bloodless lips. Thomas shuddered as its uneven jaw made contact and then, before their eyes, the life drained from Lady Stanforthe's body, her form falling back, and her very flesh appearing to sink into every available cavity.

Harold sobbed, Jane screamed. The thing gave another unnatural, piercing cry, causing the lamps to flicker once, twice and then extinguish. Thomas fumbled desperately for his matches, a few moments elapsing before he succeeded in lighting a candle. The glow it emitted was weak but it was enough to confirm one thing beyond doubt.

Jacob was gone.

~x~

Christmas Morn did not dawn on a more miserable set of people than they that year. Beck was ill in bed, the cold and the wet he had endured while fetching for the doctor having left him with a serious chest infection. Mrs Sanders sat with him, grim faced and silent as the grave. She had helped Harold make the funeral arrangements, but with nothing more to be done until the funeral itself, she had no distraction to keep her mind from returning to the terrors of that night in Lady Stanforthe's chambers.

Jane had taken to weeping at the slightest provocation, her nerves shattered, and Harold occupied the majority of his time in staring mournfully into space. He was lost, Thomas thought, and didn't know how to make sense of what had happened - and the freedom he would now experience.

Thomas himself wasn't faring much better. At night when he tried to sleep he couldn't keep from replaying the images of Lady Stanforthe's last moments. Even in his waking hours he would find himself suddenly gripped with inexplicable fear. The sooner they left the house, the better, in his opinion.

Cook was at home with her own family, so Thomas used what few provisions there remained in the pantry to make something approaching edible. They ate in the kitchen, none of the usual demarcation of Society being observed whatever. He grimaced when he actually tasted the soup - his ill fated foray into the black market had proven he lacked the most basic of knowledge when it came to food - but neither Jane nor Harold commented on it, eating it dutifully. Silently.

It was nearing seven in the evening when a knock at the door startled him into action. Jane jumped at the sound, the colour blanching from her face as a thousand possibilities of what could be standing on the other side of the door occurred to her. Harold didn't stir at all. Thomas made an attempt to straighten his rumpled shirt and jacket, and pulled the door back to reveal Mr Evans, the shopkeeper from the village.

"I'm sorry to intrude," Evans began, twisting his flat cap in his hands, "at such a time and everything, but -"

He got no further before Jane had emerged from downstairs, and the two moved forward seemingly without conscious thought, meeting in the middle of the tiled hallway. They simply looked at each other for a long moment, Evans with his sodden dark hair dripping into his eyes and Jane still in her nightdress and robe from the night before. Then the spell was broken and Jane flung her arms around his neck, bursting into tears.

It transpired that Jane and Evans - Huw, as Jane called him adoringly - had known each other all their lives. That they had been meeting in secret for years, and that Jane had long pledged that she would finally consent to be married when Lady Stanforthe was no longer amongst them. Thomas couldn't understand such a condition, not even when the man was Evans, but Harold explained in that same awful monotone he had been using all week that Evan's mother had once been Cook for the Stanforthes. The very same woman from the village who had brought about Jacob's death, however unintentionally.

"Mother was committed to doing everything within her power to prevent the union," Harold said, and Thomas wondered at his ability to genuinely mourn a woman who had made so many peoples' lives so unremittingly miserable.

He made up a bed in one of the spare rooms for Evans, nodding awkwardly as the man extolled Jane's charms and virtues, and the freshness of her complexion. Thomas had grown to like Jane, moreso than any other person he had met since arriving, bar Harold, but he was quite certain that she possessed precisely none of the qualities Evans was waxing lyrical about. Love made men fools though, he supposed, and he thought reluctantly of Jimmy, and of all the sumptuous Christmases he had lived through back at Downton.

Harold was still sat in the same position, in the same spot as he had been in when he left to see to Evans, and Thomas put his hands on Harold's shoulders, using the touch to guide Harold upstairs to his bedroom. Harold went without resistance, and blinked at him in confusion when he tried to help him into his pyjamas, as though he had been completely unaware of the trip they had just made to get there.

"Don't go," Harold called when Thomas made to leave, thinking his unresponsiveness meant he wanted to be left to his own company. "I haven't given you your Christmas present."

Thomas smiled in spite of himself, touched, even as he said, "There was no need to trouble yourself."

"Of course there was," Harold countered, and Thomas was glad to see that the blankness he had seen in his eyes of late had been pushed to the very edges. "If it wasn't for you, it would likely be my funeral they were arranging. If I hadn't been committed to the ground already."

The words brought a faint flush to his cheeks, not because of their content precisely, which was rather morbid, but because of the way in which Harold had said them. Like Thomas really was some kind of knight in shining armour. To hide the fact he concentrated on working past the neat wrapping paper, revealing a silver cigarette case. He could tell from the weight of the thing that it was of good quality. It was exactly the kind of impersonal gift an employer might give, but the point was that nobody ever had gifted him such a token. It made his chest ache.

"I didn't know what to get you," Harold said, watching his reaction closely, "but then I hit upon just the ticket. It's very rare I ever see you without a cigarette."

Thomas looked at him sharply, ready to defend the criticism - Beck's regime had seen him cut his daily intake by half at least - but Harold was smiling, a real smile that lit his face up. Thomas opened the case, pleased to see it already filled with cigarettes. He took one out and lit it, telling Harold,

"I could grow to dislike you, you know."

"I think not," Harold retorted, sounding almost like his old self. "Who else would put up with you?"

Thomas mock-glared at him but said nothing, smoking silently as Harold settled himself beneath the covers. He was glad to see Harold in better spirits, even if the respite was only temporary. He worried about Harold. Finally he said,

"I wish I had bought you something." He did, truly.

"It's alright," Harold said, faintly like he was already close to falling asleep. "Having you here is better than any present anyway."

It was terribly sentimental, even for a self-confessed Pickford fan like Harold, but Thomas couldn't help but smile and stay to smoke another cigarette, and fall asleep atop the coverlet.

The weeks which followed witnessed first Lady Stanforthe's funeral, which was well attended by the morbidly curious though it was Harold alone who shed tears at her graveside, then the coming of a new year.

"Let us hope 1922 brings greater joy and prosperity than its predecessor," Beck said, sufficiently recovered to be up and about again.

"It can't be any worse than 1921 was," Thomas said, and downed the glass of champagne Beck had allowed him for the occasion in a single swallow. He swiped at his mouth, just to annoy Beck, and added, "1920 wasn't much to write home about, neither."

January saw Jane's marriage to Evans, and as her father had died some years ago, and being without any other close family, Jane asked Harold to give her away at the ceremony. Harold positively beamed at the request, and Thomas caught him handing Jane a bundle of notes, refusing her protests, so that she might buy a dress, and flowers, and any other sundries. The day itself dawned bright and clear, and Thomas couldn't keep a fond smile from his face as they exchanged their vows, for all that he was no great fan of displays of romantic happiness - displays which did not involve himself, at any rate. Mrs Sanders sniffled loudly from her pew, and even Beck dabbed at the corner of his eye with his handkerchief.

Harold sent the pair of them - Jane and Evans, not Sanders and Beck - off on a short honeymoon to the coast, and then rattled around the house for the rest of week, long faced and maudlin.

"I'll sell it, I suppose," Harold told him. "Though I've no idea who'd want to buy this place!"

The real issue, of course, was Beck and Mrs Sanders. They had nowhere else to go and Harold, Thomas had learned over the last few months of spending almost every second of every day with him, was far too soft to ever make a servant homeless. The solution came in the form of a letter at the end of January, and Harold handed it to him once he had read it, asking,

"What do you think, Mr Barrow?"

Harry, I just heard about the awful business with your mother. Wally Phipps saved the clipping from the papers and your photo was absolutely terrible, old man. They can't be feeding you properly out in that godforsaken wilderness!

Thomas bristled; Harold was still too thin, he knew, but he took issue with the idea that he was not looking after him properly.

The entire gang is staying here at Milton Hall to shoot a picture - Bessie Jenks is the old lord's niece, you know, and he really is a dear old dapper. We've taken the place for four months at an absolute snip. Anyway, you must come and be around people who love you. I simply won't take no for an answer, if you aren't here by the 20th I shall travel to Cymru and spirit you away.

Your Friend,

Lyle Fitzhardy

PS. Elsie Harrington says she hasn't seen you in an absolute age, and if I don't secure your arrival she shall drag you here herself!

"Should we go?" Harold asked again, explaining, "Lyle is an old friend from Cambridge, he's a director now. And Elsie Harrington is George's sister - remember, I showed you his picture."

His tone was pathetically keen and Thomas couldn't voice the opinions he had formed while reading the letter. A real friend would have visited Harold when he was languishing at death's door, or at the very least sent a letter to inquire after his well being. They wouldn't have only resumed contact upon finding out that he was likely to now have a sizable amount of disposable income. Instead he took a long drag of his cigarette and told Harold,

"Of course you should go. Getting away from this place would do you the world of good."

"I knew you'd think so!" Harold grinned, and rushed off to inform Beck and Mrs Sanders, and to start choosing which items of clothing he intended to take on the journey.

Thomas simply sat for a long while staring at the letter. Milton Hall, he knew from memory, was only an hour's bus journey from Downton Abbey.

~x~

Thomas had known that the change of pace would take some getting used to. He had been in service for the better part of his life, and he knew that in spite of the strain the last year had put on his nerves, in terms of the amount of work he was expected to do he had been exceptionally lucky. He might be fed much better, but there would be no opportunity for slacking at a house the size of Milton Hall.

The Hall had been in the Bexley family for as long as anyone could remember, but the current Lord Bexley, like landowners up and down the country, was finding it near impossible to maintain the estate in the changed economic climate. His solution had been to decamp to his London town house, to be closer to his children and grandchildren, and to rent out the Hall to anyone with the means to pay for it.

And so Lyle Fitzhardy had set up his entourage and his film crew, turning the place upside down and sideways. Jenkins, the butler, and Mrs Phipps - no relation to Wally - the housekeeper were as dour and respectable as any other pair of upper servants who had fought their way up from boot boy and kitchen maid respectively. But the sheer number of people, artistes and bohemians and hoofers, and the sheer modernity of their behaviour was stretching their control over life at the Hall to breaking point.

Elsie Harrington, whom Harold had described as a delicate doe eyed type, had changed greatly since Harold had last seen her. She was now wearing her skirts almost above the knee and, in her own words, she had gone into a barber shop - without a chaperone - to have her hair cropped.

"Short hair is so eminently sensible," she told Harold affectionately that very first afternoon, while making liberal use of his hair pomade, "you men have kept it for yourselves far too long, you know."

"This will be woman's decade," Bessie Jenks informed them all over dinner, as if to back up Elsie's statements, and in response Wally Phipps lobbed a bread roll at her head and called,

"I'd take you any decade, dearest!"

Bessie balled her fists, stomped her foot and retaliated with a handful of foie gras which missed Phipps entirely, making contact instead with the unsuspecting second footman. At that the meal descended into open warfare, with food flying everywhere and the ladies - and a few of the gentlemen - screeching most unbecomingly. Harold, he noted approvingly, just looked completely bemused by the entire situation.

When they tired of that, Fitzhardy suggested that they push aside all the furniture in the drawing room, and get a handle on the fabulous new dance Jolly Hammond had brought back with him from his latest trip to Chicago.

Thomas stared at the destruction they left in their wake with something akin to astonishment. The second footman grimaced, scraped the worst of the mess from his livery, and said,

"Welcome to the Madhouse."

Discipline downstairs wasn't much better. Thomas witnessed hall boys pilfering from the wine cellar, and parlour maids sneaking out in the middle of the night to keep company with the stable hands. On his way to check in on Harold before bed the first footman even winked at him as he passed, a girl in a beaded evening dress waving him off, lipstick still smeared across her chin.

Perhaps it was the result of spending so long with Beck, and his endless lectures on the burning fires and eternity. Perhaps he simply wasn't as worldly as he had always assumed himself. But some of the antics truly shocked him, from the time he served tea in the library while two actresses giggled and gossiped over the size of the assets of their latest paramours, to the occasion on which he walked in on a long haired bohemian type who called himself a poet posing the boot boy as Cupid for his camera.

"Have you always been close friends with Mr Fitzhardy?" Thomas asked Harold that night, after an awkward hour spent in the servants' hall being shunned by the rest of the lower domestics for informing Jenkins how the boy had been earning an extra few shillings. It had been in the lad's best interests.

"Not really," Harold said, pulling at his bow tie with movements which spoke of exhaustion. "Lyle was at my college, but he was reading Classics. I didn't see an awful lot of him."

Thomas didn't find the answer surprising. Rather than say so he took over the battle with the bow tie, enjoying the way Harold smiled up at him gratefully. He had found that it wasn't the workload, or the downstairs hierarchy, or even the constant noise and commotion which was the hardest thing to get used to. It was the sudden shift from spending hours upon hours with Harold to only a few minutes here and there. He supposed that he missed Harold.

"Are you sure you're alright?" He asked suddenly, without meaning to. "You've been through such a lot, I - I don't want you to overdo things, Harold."

It was true, all of it, though Thomas felt a prize fool for saying so. The terrible memories of what had transpired continued to haunt him, had him waking up in the night drenched in sweat. Had him leaving his bedside lamp on all night long, even though he was reprimanded for it. If he couldn't shake the horrific image from his mind's eye, he didn't like to think how Harold was coping with it.

Harold took hold of his hand - the gloved one - in response, and the enforced absence of physical contact between them made it feel peculiarly intimate. It was strange to think that until a few weeks previously he had been spending more nights than not in bed with Harold, wrapped around him.

"I'm not going to pretend that everything is hotsy-totsy," Harold said, and Thomas fought to refrain from wrinkling his nose at the use of one of Fitzhardy's favourite expressions, "but I've felt dead for so long, since - Maybe even always. Now," Harold shrugged, trying for nonchalance though he avoided Thomas' gaze, "Now, surrounded by all this life, I feel as though I've finally come alive."

That night Thomas stayed for a long time, dozing beside Harold, before returning to the room he shared with another visiting valet.

"Get lucky, did you?" The man asked with a grin.

Thomas didn't deign to give the question an answer.

Such evenings were few and far between however. Mindful of his recent bereavement, the guests at the Hall felt the best cure for Harold's loss was to keep him busy every minute of the day, with tennis tournaments and card games, drinking and dancing, and theatre excursions and picture shows.

"I'd much rather go and see it with you," Harold said one morning as Thomas tried to convince him not to wear the tie Fitzhardy had insisted looked 'topping' to go and see a showing of Beyond the Rocks. If nothing else, Harold was still officially meant to be in mourning. "Say," Harold exclaimed, and Thomas used his distraction to knot the tie he had chosen, "Wally wouldn't mind. I never get to spend any time with you - how about it?"

Jenkins coughed and harrumphed, and generally looked as though he might suffer a cardiac arrest at the sight of he and Harold leaving the Hall together, near enough as equals. Thomas held his head high, wishing that everyone back at Downton could see him now, and they ended up in Ripon, sat close together in the cramped darkness of the picture house.

"I think you quite resemble him," Harold whispered into his ear as up on screen Valentino gave his usual wooden performance.

"I think you need your eyes tested," Thomas countered, though secretly he was pleased. He didn't particularly rate Valentino as a player, but he didn't think there was a soul alive - possibly excepting Beck - who hadn't heard of the man and his perfectly proportioned features.

By the end of the picture, with Valentino sweeping the heroine away from the man she was actually married to, Harold was trying - and failing - to hide the fact he was weeping. Thomas fished out his handkerchief and handed it over wordlessly, wishing that he had had the foresight to make a bet on the inevitability of the film's outcome with somebody.

"It wasn't much of a happy ending," Thomas griped in the hopes of making Harold feel better about the whole thing. "Not for her husband at any rate."

Harold didn't say anything, but took his arm companionably on the way out, all the same. They went to the cafe he had never used to be able to afford for lunch, and then Thomas gave in and took Harold on a crawl of his old haunts - with one or two significant omissions. People around these parts had long memories, after all.

Nobody approached him however, and he told stupid jokes and got Harold squiffy, so that the other man laughed at everything he said, and leaned heavily against his side, though the wall of the booth was on the other side of him. It would have been a perfect day, all in all, had he not been in the middle of a tale of one of William's more impressive acts of idiocy when he chanced to look up and see three familiar faces staring straight at him.

His heart lurched in his chest, flipped a somersault and settled back in the wrong position. It was Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy.

Harold seemed to sense immediately that something was amiss, and when Alfred lead the group over to say hello, Harold studied all three of them with an unusual intensity.

"You'll have to come and visit us at Downton," Ivy said, apparently oblivious to the finer details of his departure.

Alfred was stood slightly in front of her, protectively, but apparently not wanting to appear rude in front of Harold he nodded his head in agreement.

Jimmy said nothing, just glared and sneered, and Thomas felt entirely undone by the chance encounter.

"Will you visit Downton?" Harold asked when they made it back to the Hall.

It took him a moment to process the question. He tried to smile, though it felt odd on his face. "I might."

"Show the keeper of your heart what they're missing?" Harold asked with a strange tightness to his voice Thomas ascribed to tiredness.

"Maybe," he conceded, already imagining scenarios in his head. Perhaps he and Jimmy could be friends, and at least he would then get to see him.

Harold just nodded, a tight, careful movement, and went to bed. It had been a long day.

His opportunity came just over a fortnight later, and he warned Harold that he would not be back until late, so he should ask Jenkins if he needed any assistance.

"I'm not a child, I won't need any assistance." Harold snapped in response and, though Thomas held his tongue, Harold's tone did very little to prove it.

Jimmy was stood outside in the courtyard, smoking, when Thomas approached the servants' entrance and all his carefully planned speeches and anecdotes deserted him. He had spent the entire bus journey thinking about what he would say to Jimmy, how he would look at him, and how he would prove to the other man that he wasn't some kind of predatory monster.

"I didn't think you'd ever show your face here again," Jimmy said, dropping his cigarette and grinding it into the dirt with his shoe.

"I didn't know you smoked," Thomas said, stupidly, and Jimmy simply scowled at him for a long moment before returning indoors.

His own entrance caused quite a deal of fuss and excitement.

"This is a surprise," Mrs Hughes said, but she smiled at him warmly to make up for it.

"An unexpected surprise," Carson added, eyebrows raising. "To what, pray tell, do we owe the pleasure?"

Thomas explained, briefly, that he was staying at Milton Hall, as valet to Mr Stanforthe, and that he had thought he would just drop in and say hello, and see how everybody was faring.

Ivy smiled broadly at him, much to Jimmy's obvious disgust. "Well, I'm glad to see you, Mr Barrow. The other week, in Ripon, you were the perfect gentleman."

He had helped her down a couple of steps, it had been nothing.

"Your Mr Stanforthe seemed nice," Alfred said, to fill the silence.

"He is," Thomas agreed, a smile settling across his face without conscious effort.

Jimmy sneered, "I couldn't see anything to like about him."

Carson's glare effectively put an end to the matter. Thomas stayed for tea and a side plate of biscuits, and caught up on all the major goings on he had missed out on. Eventually it was time for him to be leaving, but he couldn't help saying,

"I'd like to see Mistress Sybbie before I leave, if that's possible."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Jimmy blurted out before Carson had even had chance to consider the request. "His kind shouldn't be around children."

Ivy frowned. "What do you mean by his kind?"

Thomas swallowed, and lowered his gaze to the tabletop. He had not had to worry about that for months, and it had made him too complacent. Obviously. Of course they would not allow him to see Sybbie. For once, however, luck was on his side and Branson happened to be lurking. Still not a real member of the family, thought Thomas, though it lacked any real bite or bitterness.

"You must come and see Sybbie," Branson told him, with all the excitement of a proud parent, and so he ended up stood in the nursery gazing into the face of the child Sybil - because she had wanted to be Sybil to him, rather than Lady Sybil - had bequeathed to the world. She looked so like her mother it made his eyes sting. "She's so clever," Branson said, reciting a long list of things his daughter was able to do, all of them seeming to add to the impression that she was exceptionally bright for her age.

"You're very lucky," Thomas said eventually, honestly, and in that one moment the two of them bonded more than they had in all the years they had worked together.

Branson lead him downstairs and showed him out - via the main entrance - because it wasn't often, so he said, he had chance to speak to anyone who had known the Sybil he had. The family were gathered as they made their descent, and before he could escape Thomas had to endure a thorough grilling.

"Milton Hall?" Lord Grantham said when he explained, again, his current employment. "Is old Bexley back from London then?"

"No, my Lord," Thomas said, politely. "Mr Stanforthe is staying as the guest of a Mr Fitzhardy. Mr Fitzhardy is in motion pictures."

"Good Lord," Grantham said, surprise evident.

"They're a very flighty set," Lady Edith chipped in, "or so I hear from the Paper."

"How exciting," the young blonde - Lady Rose - breathed.

"You must be kept very busy," Lady Mary said, in the same patronising tone Thomas recollected.

"Yes, well," he agreed, shifting slightly so that Lord Grantham told him that it had been good to see him, and that he must of course get on. It was empowering not to have to stand there, motionless, waiting helplessly for one of them to remember to dismiss him.

He tried for another glimpse of Jimmy before leaving to catch the bus, but there was no sign of the other man. It was probably for the best he told himself, based on the way Jimmy had reacted to the sight of him. It played on his mind all through the long journey back, and when he reached the Hall he wanted nothing more than to talk to Harold. To try and make sense of the confusing mix of emotions.

Harold, however, was not upstairs. He was still in the drawing room, blind drunk, drunker than he had ever been in his life if Thomas were not mistaken. Thomas wanted to say something, to take the rest of the tumbler he was drinking from his hand. But Jenkins was still up, watching carefully, and he decided that he couldn't bear it if Harold turned around and told him it wasn't his place to interfere.

He was a servant, a good one - but, sometimes, he wished he could just be Thomas.

~x~

That, perhaps, might have been the end of his hopes for, one day, meaning something - anything - to Jimmy. Except three days later he agreed to be sent off on an errand, as Harold was still in bed with yet another hangover, and he happened to run into Jimmy for a second time.

It had to be fate, he decided.

"I can never give you what you want," Jimmy told him over his proffered pint in the pub.

Thomas knew. Knew it with every fiber of his being. It still did not stop him wanting to have some contact with the man. Aloud he said, "I know, and I don't ask for it. I would just like for us to be friends."

Jimmy studied him for a long moment, assessing his sincerity Thomas supposed, then finally nodded.

"Alright, I think I can manage that."

From there it was a small matter to arrange for their half days to coincide, and when the day came Thomas felt his heart pound until he was near light headed as Jimmy drank, and complained about his stilted courtship with Ivy.

"I've been so nice to her you wouldn't believe," Jimmy told him, slurring. "I've taken her to the pictures, and the theatre, and anywhere she asked to go. And do you know what she gave me in return? A slap across the face, that's what she gave me."

"Were you really planning to propose?" Thomas asked, because it was likely the only reason why Jimmy would have tried his luck like that. That kind of thing was different for women. The ever present scandal at Milton Hall came to mind and Thomas corrected himself, it was different for women of their class. There wasn't any money to fall back on.

Jimmy scoffed, "No, of course not. I never want to get married, me. I just want to have a good time."

It was the drink talking, Thomas thought, because it wasn't like the Jimmy he had known at Downton to say such a thing.

He only just managed to catch the last bus enabling him to get back to the Hall, and Harold asked him if he had had a good time - though it was Harold whose breath smelt of a distillery.

"Jimmy was the blonde one, wasn't he?" Harold asked when Thomas told him the bare outline of his evening. "The handsome one."

He couldn't have kept it from Harold forever, Thomas reasoned, perceiving there was more to Harold's question than identification, and he nodded, not realising that he was holding his breath for Harold's reaction until the other man said quietly,

"I thought so."

Harold went to bed then, and when Thomas tried to wake him in the morning he only rolled over, and complained that he wasn't feeling well. Fitzhardy demanded to know what was wrong with him, because they all had a round of golf planned, and Harry was simply a whizz with a 5-iron. Fitzhardy had decided to keep the Hall on for another few months and, though the guests were changing regularly, the general buzz of activity had shown no sign of diminishing. Thomas was forced to admit that he didn't know exactly what was ailing Harold, and Wally Phipps told the others in a loud stage whisper,

"He's supposed to be a medical man."

The sound of their laughter rang in his ears, and he tried again to rouse Harold, or at least to get him to talk to him. Harold refused, again, and in the end Thomas had no choice but to leave him to get on with his other assigned duties.

Over the next few weeks his friendship with Jimmy seemed to be improving, step by step, while Harold seemed set on a course for self-destruction. One day he would be himself, smiling and open, and the next he would be a wreck, drinking too much and making himself ill all over again.

Thomas tried to tell Jimmy about it but the younger man told him bluntly,

"I have to be at work all day, I don't care about the upper crusts' problems."

"Harold's a good man," he said, jumping to Harold's defence as quickly as he had once jumped to Jimmy's. "I worry about him."

"He's not paying you enough to worry about him," Jimmy insisted.

Thomas thought of Harold's confession, what seemed a lifetime ago, and of how he had indeed set out to pay somebody enough to care about him. It made his chest ache, uncomfortably, and he was almost glad when Jimmy said he had to be getting back to Downton. Harold was asleep when he made his own way back to the Hall, but his brow was furrowed and he was tossing and turning, fitful.

He sank onto the bed beside him, careful not to wake him, and soothed his fingers over Harold's forehead until he relaxed, slumping back into the mattress.

His intention had been to return to his own room, but when he opened his eyes it was to find the room light, and Harold studying him, closely.

"Sorry," Thomas said, for the imposition, but Harold only looked at him strangely and said,

"You don't need to apologise."

By way of explanation Thomas added, "You were having a nightmare."

Harold only squirmed closer, and settled against him. "I know, but I think its over now."

Except that it wasn't. Harold continued to grow ever more withdrawn and despondent, and just before Thomas was meant to get going to meet Jimmy for a fourth time, Elsie Harrington pulled him aside, ignoring the cat calls of a group made up as chorus girls, and said without preamble,

"Harry's getting worse, not better. I don't think being in the midst of our set is agreeing with him."

Thomas made to protest, to argue that they couldn't just send Harold away - for all that he agreed with her basic assessment. But Elsie cut him off,

"I love him, Mr Barrow. He and George were the best of chums, and I love Harry like a brother. And I can't bear to see him like this - he's so desperately unhappy."

"He just struggles to keep pace sometimes," Thomas said, stubbornly, thinking primarily of the drinking. Elsie simply shook her head sadly,

"You know, George used to say Harry was the only man he knew who didn't need to feel guilt every time he looked at his pledge card."

Thomas thought about the exchange all through the bus journey, and toyed with the idea of turning back and sitting with Harold until he agreed to explain the situation to him. He didn't though, and spent the evening instead drinking and laughing with Jimmy, time flying away until he knew he wouldn't be able to make his bus connection. It was no matter, he reasoned with the oil of alcohol, he would take a room for the night. Like as not he'd be back before Harold even realised he was missing.

They walked - stumbled - in the general direction of Downton, Thomas insisting that he ought to see Jimmy at least most of the way, because he was the far less inebriated of the two of them.

"I want to see the world, Mr Barrow," Jimmy told him, flinging his arms wide in emphasis. "I want to see things, and go places, and experience everything life has to offer."

"I'm glad to hear it," Thomas said, and didn't add that, were that the case, Jimmy had better buckle down. There weren't many things to be seen or done on a footman's salary. Jimmy was usually so frustrated, angry at the world; Thomas didn't want to bring his good mood to an end prematurely.

Jimmy came to a sudden halt, so sudden that Thomas almost walked into him. Jimmy turned, so that there was scarce any space between them, and in an instant it was as though Thomas couldn't breathe, couldn't think. The scenario too exactly matched his midnight fantasies.

"I want to experience things," Jimmy said again, and his voice was low now, seductive. Thomas could only watch him, frozen. Then Jimmy took his hand - the good one - and drew it to him, pressing it against the bulge in his trousers.

Thomas sucked in a sharp breath, arousal washing over him, and Jimmy's lashes fluttered against his cheek.

"Oh, Jimmy," Thomas breathed, overcome, "you've no idea what you do to me." He moved to kiss Jimmy then, just as he had longed to do for such a very long time, but Jimmy twisted his head away.

"I don't want that," he said, but he kept his hand where it was, increasing the pressure in encouragement.

It wasn't a good idea, Thomas' rational mind told him. He was drunk, Jimmy was very drunk, and his dreams had always involved tender kisses and soft pillows, not impersonal fondling in the middle of some overgrown woodland. But his rational mind wasn't as strong as it could have been, and the part which had wanted Jimmy since the moment he had laid eyes on him, the part that had wanted to feel another man beneath his hands again for an eternity, was the victor.

They moved until Jimmy was backed up against a great old oak, and Thomas worked his hand against him through his trousers, soaking up every hitch of breath, and every tiny sound Jimmy made into the otherwise silence.

"Yes," Jimmy hissed eventually, head tipping back with a soft thump, the column of his neck exposed to the moonlight. It was too much, too perfect, and Thomas buried his head in the crook of Jimmy's neck, laying soft kisses against smooth, golden skin. Jimmy's hips were shifting now, at first barely perceptible, and then with increasing purpose. It made his own legs feel weak, his breath coming in laboured pants, just from being able to touch the man in front of him.

Jimmy clutched at his back, fingers clawing, and Thomas was so aroused it left him lightheaded. "Please," Jimmy whined, the sheen of sweat on his brow only making him appear more attractive. "Oh, God, please. I need it."

He made a decision then, fuelled by lust and the wanton noises Jimmy was making. He slid to his knees, unsteadily, and Jimmy cursed and shook, and fumbled with his belt buckle, frantically. Jimmy's hands fluttered for a moment, and then settled against his head, fingers twisting tightly in his hair as Thomas finally put his mouth upon him.

"Oh, God, oh, God," Jimmy was chanting now, hips snapping forward as the hand in his hair kept Thomas' head in place. Thomas could feel the way Jimmy's thighs quivered, the way his entire body pulled taut, and then he was spending, shaking and shivering as Thomas brought him down from the peak, and afterwards carefully rearranged his clothing.

"Jimmy," he whispered as he stood, so elated the ache in his legs scarcely registered, and touched his fingers to Jimmy's flushed cheek. "I can hardly believe this is happening, you've no idea how often I've thought of you since leaving Downton. You're so, so beautiful, my love."

Rather than respond in kind, or even blush at the praise as Thomas knew he would, were their positions reversed, Jimmy paled, every drop of colour draining from his face.

"Mr Barrow, Thomas, I -" Jimmy stuttered, and the pit of Thomas' stomach turned to ice, because he had had more than enough experience with rejection to know what was coming. "I can't give you what you want," Jimmy said at last. "I told you that. I just want to experience. I don't want to be tied to any one person. I don't want love, and all the rest of it."

It wasn't Jimmy's fault. Jimmy had told him these things, had told him over and over again. It was his own fault for refusing to really listen to him.

It didn't make it any easier.

Somehow he found the words to accept Jimmy's frightened confession, to absolve him of responsibility. And, somehow, he managed to take his leave of Jimmy, and make it back into the village without giving in and weeping. But there were no rooms to be had - the landlady's son had recognised him, and the gossip which had inevitably spread about him - and, as it was so late, there was nothing he could do but sit on the bench at the bus stop and try to keep it together.

It was over. His impossible hopes and dreams were over, and he had so very little to show for them. He could still taste Jimmy, and it made him feel sick. Not because Jimmy hadn't been beautiful and lovely and perfect, because he had. But because it had all been so meaningless. He had been ready to give Jimmy his heart on a platter, and Jimmy hadn't wanted it. He wished somebody - anybody - would just hold him, like in one of Harold's favourite sentimental photo-plays.

He wanted Harold to hold him, he realised, and tell him again all the things he so liked about him.

Harold was good at that, making other people feel better.

His back was aching terribly by the time the first bus of the morning arrived, along with his knees, and his neck, and his hand, and - just about everything. He must look a state he thought as he paid his fare; his clothes were crumpled and dirty, and his hair was wild and in need of washing. He caught sight of his reflection in the window pane, and he thought that the dark smudges under his eyes, and the unchecked stubble really only completed the picture.

The Hall was in a riot of activity when he finally arrived. Fitzhardy was shooting an invasion, which seemed to involve hundreds of heavily made up extras wandering about the place, and Thomas had to weave and dodge and, finally, push his way through the crowd in an attempt to get to Harold. It was quickly apparent that Harold wasn't involved with proceedings, however, and Thomas narrowly avoided a telling off from the seriously flustered Jenkins, before making his way upstairs towards the room Harold was occupying.

On opening the door the sick feeling he had struggled with throughout the night returned, tenfold. The room was empty. Not just of Harold, but of all Harold's possessions. The dresser drawers had been cleared, and there was nothing in the closet except for clothes' hangers. His mind went straight to a dozen worst case scenarios, and Thomas didn't think that made him sensationalist. He had witnessed Harold's long dead brother murder his mother, he had every right to worry incessantly about Harold's welfare.

Thomas turned on his heel and went back downstairs, determined to be given an explanation. It was Elsie who spotted him, and called him over, even as she did battle with a makeshift toga, and an elaborate hairpiece.

"Harry received a telegram," Elsie said, "first thing this morning. Old Beck is dead, Harry's gone to make arrangements."

The relief was palpable, for all that it meant another man was dead. Beck was probably happy about it, Thomas reassured himself. He'd now be able to deliver all his favourite lectures to the angels.

"He left this for you," Elsie went on, retrieving her handbag from a pile of centurion armour in order to hand over an envelope. "I hope he's alright, he left in such a hurry."

Thomas assured her that Harold would be fine, noting the way some of the tension drained from her narrow shoulders, for all that he couldn't convince himself enough to believe it. Then he pushed a tired hand through his hair - he still looked a complete fright - and found a quiet corner in which to read Harold's letter.

'To love and to be loved is the greatest happiness of existence'

I would deny no man his chance of happiness, especially not one I hold in such dear regard as yourself. I am sorry, truly sorry, for the things you have had to endure because of me, because of my failings, and because of my jealousy - please know that your friendship has meant more than words can say to me. I hope and pray that you will be happy, that he will make you happy -

There was more but it was blotted out, heavily so that the words were completely indecipherable. The letter then went on to give assurances about pay, and notice, and references, as though any of it mattered in the wake of such an enormous confession.

He ought to think about it, really. He ought to sit and process, and plan what his next move should be. But he was too tired, and too emotional, and the idea of Harold returning to that awful house, with nobody to turn to but Mrs Sanders and Beck's dead body was too miserable. He had acted on impulse before, when it came to Harold, and it had worked out alright. He hadn't been maimed or killed, at any rate. His deliberation didn't take any longer. Thomas hurriedly threw the items he had brought with him into his valise, and walked out, right through the crowds of extras and hangers-on and idling domestics.

Harold couldn't have had too much of a head start, he thought. With luck, and careful study of the train timetables, he might even catch up to him.

~x~

Lady Fortune was against him at every turn; his train was first delayed, then crawled almost the entire journey because of some problem further down the track. He dozed, intermittently, though it only made him feel more exhausted, and his dreams kept returning to one he had had so long ago, under the gaze of Saint Sebastian, when Harold had sunk beneath the surface of the lake, and he had been unable to reach him. When he finally alighted at the correct station, there was no transport to be had.

His only choice was to walk, and he did, his limbs heavy with tiredness and his nerves alert and over sensitive.

It was nearing midnight when he made it to the house, and his stomach twisted to see that the entrance door was blown wide open. There could be no welcome reason for such a thing.

He called for Harold, for Mrs Sanders - for anyone. But the house was dark and silent, and Thomas lit a kerosene lamp before moving to explore any further. There was nobody downstairs, in the servants' domain, and nobody on the ground floor, either. The place was little changed, aside from the extra dust sheets, and all the terrors he had experienced in that house came back to flood his senses.

Some new horror had occurred, he was sure of it.

Harold's room was empty, but his case lay open on the bed. He had, at least, not encountered some mishap on the journey. Thomas searched the rest of the rooms on the first floor, but again there was nothing and nobody to be seen. He went to the servants' quarters in search of Mrs Sanders, to no avail. He assumed she must have removed herself to the village, to better oversee the funeral arrangements.

Eventually there was no room left to check on but the old nursery. Thomas fumbled with Mrs Sanders' second ring of keys, but the lightest touch to the door saw it slowly open. He swallowed, struggling desperately for composure. Whatever was on the other side of that door, he knew with certainty that he wasn't going to like it.

The lamp cast an eerie glow over the room, and Thomas could just make out the outline of a figure in the shadows. As he stepped closer he recognised it as Harold, his back to Thomas as he lay curled up on one of the old beds, apparently unconcerned by the dust and the room's associations. He should feel relief, Thomas knew, but the sense of dread lingered as he moved forward into the room, close enough to see that Harold was clutching tight the old stuffed elephant.

Thomas' breath was coming shallow and quick, and he reached out to touch Harold's shoulder with a hand which trembled. Harold stiffened, turned to face him slowly, opening his eyes - only they were not his eyes. Harold's eyes, he knew from long study, were hazel, sometimes more brown, sometimes more green.

The eyes staring up at him were clouded and blank. Dead eyes - the same eyes he had seen set deep in what had been left of Jacob's face, cold and unblinking.

He must have made some noise, because it filled the air around them, and he stumbled one step, two, backwards, horrified.

"Harold?" He managed. "Harold, please say something."

The figure laughed, a harsh, unnatural sound, and Thomas needed no further proof that whoever - whatever - it was sat in front of him, it wasn't Harold. It moved, in uncoordinated, jerky movements, as though it was unused to the size and structure of its body, to stand before him.

"Harold's gone," it said, in a voice which was at once too old and too childish. "Mother's gone. There is only me now."

"You're dead," Thomas said in turn, though his rational mind screamed at him to run. To get away as fast as he could and never, ever look back again. "It isn't right for you to be here."

The thing - Jacob - twisted its head, the angle all wrong, to stare at something across the room. Thomas reluctantly followed its gaze. There was nothing there. He turned his head back only to find it stood directly in front of him, so close their noses were almost touching. Thomas dropped the lamp in fright, the glass shade smashing and the exposed flame reaching for the ragged rug spread across the bare floorboards.

"Harold says the same thing," it said, voice almost sing-song. "But Harold isn't strong enough. Harold is only a baby."

Thomas shook his head, the cold grip of fear overwhelming, and he took an unsteady step backwards. The flame had taken now, and the rug was alight, the blaze spreading.

"Harold is strong," he said, and remembered the way Harold had shivered and shook as he told him about being on the other side. About watching on, helpless, as though all his will to battle had drained from him. "Harold, you are strong," he said into the emptiness. "I know you can hear me."

Jacob hissed, and wailed, and though it was madness - complete and total madness - Thomas pushed further, even as the fire took hold of the bed covers.

"Harold, fight it!" He called, frantic. "Harold, come back to me!"

The whole room was ablaze now, smoke filling the air, and Thomas knew that if he did not leave within the next few moments they would both perish. Jacob screamed and screamed, turned and twisted as an animal caught in a trap.

"Harold!" He called, one last time, and the figure in front of him fell silent, and slumped to the floor, unconscious.

Thomas reached for him, adrenaline alone providing him with the strength to shoulder Harold's weight and drag him, first from the nursery, then down the main staircase and, finally, out into the starlit night. Above them one of the window panes blew out, the flames licking out into the sky even as the cool air fuelled the blaze, making it rip through the dim hallways and the old fashioned bedrooms.

He coughed, coughed and coughed until his throat was raw, and lay Harold on his back, carefully. He had a pulse, just, and Thomas didn't know exactly what he said in those moments, only that he had likely said some of it before, when Harold had been in bed, limp with the effects of the influenza.

It was too late, he conceded then in near hysteria. He had come too late to save him. He wept at that, wept like a child, his face against Harold's chest, for all that had happened - and for all that could have been. He was so lost that it didn't register for long moments, the weak sensation of fingers in his hair. When it did he pushed back with a jolt, at once elated and disbelieving.

"I owe you my life," Harold whispered, the sound faint though the words were clear. "It's becoming a habit."

Thomas laughed, sobbed, overcome with emotion, and pulled Harold into an embrace, pressing grateful kisses to his face with an enthusiasm any picture director would have paid a small fortune to capture. Harold clung to him in turn, and Thomas pushed him into the boat he had come over in, the two of them watching in silence out on the water as the house was engulfed by fire.

"I never thought I'd truly be free of the place," Harold said finally, when they began to make their way towards the village, slowly as Thomas shouldered the greater part of Harold's weight, supporting him.

"You won't," Thomas said, and pressed a reassuring kiss into his hair, though it was full of smoke and sweat and dust besides, because he felt Harold stiffen. "It's shaped you, just as surely as it's shaped me. Without it I would never have met you."

Harold gazed at him then, as though memorising his features, before finally daring to press a chaste kiss of his own to Thomas' lips. It was timid, fleeting, but for all that it spoke of promise. Of every look and touch and word Harold had ever given him, of all the wanting and longing and wishing he had been too blind to see until Harold had taken the first step, and bared his soul to him.

"I'm thankful to it then."

Thomas nodded, resuming their slow pace, simple happiness threatening to overwhelm him. It might have been a place full of dread and death and suffering, but it had changed his life.

For the first time, in all his long years, he felt truly alive.

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