Male/Male
Thomas Barrow, Jimmy Kent, Downton Abbey
Title: The Gift
Warning: Language

Thomas took the final drag of his cigarette, flicking the butt into the distance. He could feel the tops of his ears tingling from the cold, but he wasn't ready to go indoors. Glancing up at the sky he saw large snowflakes drifting down against the darkness, sparkling a bit like the stars themselves as they tumbled in the hazy moonlight. He leant back against the wall, stuffing his hands into his pockets to warm them, and tilted his head so his face caught a few flakes, feeling them melt and run down his cheeks like tears.

"So there you are." Jimmy had come into the yard quietly. Thomas turned his head to look at him, but all he could make out was a dark shape hidden in the shadows. "I wondered where you disappeared to." He stepped from the darkness into the half-light to join him. "Thought you would wait for me," he added as he pulled a package of cigarettes from his pocket, holding it out to Thomas. "Everyone else has gone up."

"Just wanted to get outside for a while," Thomas explained as he took one and put it to his lips, leaning toward the flame of Jimmy's lighter. "Besides you were busy with that new maid."

"You know me," Jimmy laughed, "just being friendly."

"More like hoping to get your leg over."

"Mr. Barrow," Jimmy answered in mock indignation, "why ever would you say such a thing? Gladys is a nice young lady. I would never consider that. Besides, she's not what I'm looking for."

"Right," Thomas retorted on a mist of smoke, "and speaking of legs, pull the other one."

They stood shoulder to shoulder, smoking in silence until Thomas straightened, stomping his feet in a vain attempt to shake out the cold.

"Since it's Christmas Eve, I acquired some brandy for later." Thomas announced as he dropped his cigarette to the ground,

"Acquired?" Jimmy snorted. "I suppose His Lordship's brandy stock is down a bottle.":

"Well, if it bothers you I don't suppose you need to have any."

Jimmy stubbed his cigarette against the wall beside him. "Never said that. It's just a little extra gift the Granthams have given us this year. Besides I 'acquired' some Christmas baking."

"And here I thought I was the one living dangerously," Thomas chuckled. "Better the wrath of an Earl than of Mrs. Patmore."

"She'll never miss it," Jimmy said as they started for the door. "It's not like she counts things."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that," Thomas muttered, drawing a laugh from Jimmy as they entered the warmth of the hallway. "So you'll come by before midnight?"

"Yes, just like every year. You and I have our Christmas traditions like everyone else." Thomas couldn't help but see the sadness in his eyes as he said it. "Even though this is the last year."

There it was. Out in the open. Neither of them had talked about it since Thomas told him last week that he had found another position and would be leaving Downton in the new year. He was waiting until January to hand in his notice, but he and Jimmy shared pretty well everything. Thomas believed their friendship had become one with no secrets; something unheard of for both of them. There was one unspoken truth, of course. Jimmy knew that Thomas still loved him. It was just something that they both acknowledged without saying. And that had become the problem.

"Can we not talk about that tonight of all nights, Jimmy." He put his hand on his arm to stop him. "I want Christmas to be happy, something I can remember and take with me."

"Yes, of course. Wouldn't want to spoil that for you." Jimmy's tone betrayed his meaning as he wrenched his arm away. You're selfish, Thomas Barrow. So just fuck off and leave. Why did you tell me so soon? Just so you could make me feel like shit longer? You could have waited until after Christmas and left me with a good memory too. "Sorry, not exactly full of the Christmas spirit I guess."

"We'll take care of that with the brandy," Thomas joked as he nudged him with his shoulder, gaining a bleak smile for his efforts. "So, what's my present this year?" Thomas asked as they climbed the stairs. "Monogrammed handkerchiefs again? No, wait, a tie. Or that cologne you got me last year. I liked that and it's almost finished."

"You'll just have to wait and see. Unless you want to tell me what mine is too."

"Ha! Not likely."

"Well, then we'll both have to leave it until midnight."

Jimmy paused at the door to his room with his hand on the knob, turning to watch Thomas continue down the hall.

"Thomas?" His voice was quiet, not much more than a whisper, which Thomas obviously didn't hear. He thought of calling to him again, but by then he had already closed his door behind him. Jimmy shut his eyes and leant his head against the doorframe. I'm a bloody fool. Letting him leave without saying anything. Wishing him all the best when I should be asking him to stay. He finally entered his room, shutting the door silently behind him. A fool and a coward.

He sat down on his bed, bending over to take off his shoes, tucking them underneath it. Getting up, he crossed to the wardrobe where he began to strip out of his livery, hanging it up piece by piece. I can never give you what you want. Instead they had settled on a friendship; one that had gained more meaning for them both as the years passed. But things had changed for Jimmy, leaving him confused and frightened.

He found himself staring at Thomas for no reason, imagining what it would be like, what they would be like. They would be best friends and ... It was the "and" that stopped him. Everything he had been taught told him it was wrong, despicable. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't seem to get past that. It was like a boulder blocking his path to happiness; one that he hadn't found a way to move. All he knew now was that he had to. There would be no more chances after tonight.

When Thomas had given him the news, he realised immediately why he was leaving. Fuck you and your 'It's a good position. A butler. What I've always wanted.' The words had rung with insincerity, made more evident by the way Thomas's eyes shifted away as he said them. That's one thing I've learnt from being his friend. I know when he's lying. Yet he still couldn't bring himself to say anything. He was standing on the edge of the abyss that would be life without Thomas and he couldn't do the one thing that would stop him from falling in.

He threw his pants into the laundry hamper and pulled on his pyjama bottoms, then reached for his robe. I can't blame him I guess. What's here for him? He can't want to spend the rest of his life hanging around me, being reminded day after day of what he can't have. At some point I'm sure he has to hope there is someone who will make him happy. Jimmy settled onto his bed again, reaching into the nightstand and pulling out a neatly wrapped box tied with red string. Or whose mere presence doesn't represent his unhappiness. He hesitated as he looked at the envelope in the drawer, then slipped it into his robe pocket as he pushed his feet into his slippers. All I needed was me more time. He almost laughed out loud at that thought. All these years and I still want more time.

---

Thomas set out the brandy on the small table beside his chair, then the snifters he had borrowed when no one was looking. If we're going to have brandy this good, we're going to drink it properly. He placed two cigars beside them. Pulling up the wooden chair beside his armchair, he angled them toward the fire, and moved the table closer. Too bad I don't have another armchair, then we'd look like right toffs, sipping brandy, smoking His Lordship's cigars, basking in the glow of a Christmas fire. He looked at his fire which was small and burning low. Not exactly cheery or roaring, but it'll do. He sat down to wait for Jimmy.

Tradition for sure. We've been doing this for twelve years. Spending Christmas Eve together, toasting the day when midnight strikes. Each year he's stayed longer until midnight now stretches to almost three. Talking, reminiscing, consoling, laughing. Some people save these things for New Year's, but somehow we chose Christmas. Thomas reached over and opened the brandy, pouring some into the snifter. And now I'm ending it all.

He swirled the brandy, coating the bottom curve of the glass, before taking a sip. Holding the glass up so the light from the fire shone through the liquid he remembered the exact moment six months ago when he decided he had to go.

---

Thomas was sitting in the servants' hall alone late one night reading the newspaper for the third time when Jimmy came in from his half day off, extremely drunk and sloppily affectionate. They had moved past the point where either of them was afraid to touch the other, but this was different. He staggered around the table to drape himself across Thomas, leaning over to see what he was reading. He smelt of beer and cigarettes and pomade as he rested his chin on Thomas's shoulder, their cheeks touching.

"So, Mr. Barrow, what's so interesting?"

"Just the news."

"You weren't waiting up for me were you?"

Thomas shrugged, brushing their cheeks together.

"Perhaps. I know what you're like when you have a bit to drink. Can't help but worry."

Jimmy stood straight resting his hands on Thomas's shoulders, absentmindedly letting his thumbs caress his neck.

"Were you ready to come charging to my rescue again? My knight in shining armour."

"You are really drunk," Thomas laughed, "if you think I'm any sort of knight."

"You were for me, Thomas."

"Water under the bridge, Jimmy. I ..." The words caught in his throat as Jimmy's hands slid down across his chest. "Wha ... what are you doing?" He seized him by the wrists, pulling his hands away, pushing him back so hard he slipped and fell, landing unceremoniously on the stone floor. Thomas leapt from his chair and stood scowling down at him.

"What's the matter with you, Thomas?" He reached his arm for help in getting up. "Weren't nothing."

"If you think that then you're a bloody inconsiderate bastard." He pushed his arm out of the way and stormed from the kitchen. By the time he got to his room he was shaking so badly he had to hold onto the door handle for a moment before opening it. He threw himself into his armchair, burying his face in his hands. He's drunk, really drunk. It didn't mean anything. Except Thomas knew that was wrong; it meant something to him. After all these years of fooling myself into thinking I was happy just to be his friend all it took was a stupid, awkward, drunken touch and I'm right back where I started. He knew his love for Jimmy had never gone away so instead he had rationalised that if Jimmy couldn't love him, then his friendship would be enough.

He sighed as he leant back in the chair. It was as if that touch had torn away the curtain he had hid behind for so long. I can't do this any longer. I can't be around him. Seeing him every day, spending time with him. I'm almost fifty. How long am I supposed to deny myself any chance of happiness? I've got to get away. Maybe there is no one else for me, maybe I'll just never find anyone who can make me happy, but as long as I'm here with him I have no chance of ever knowing.

Jimmy's knock, although quiet, startled him.

"Thomas? Can I come in?"

"Not tonight Jimmy."

"Please. I'm sorry. I never should have done that. I just wasn't thinking."

"No, you weren't."

"So, can I come in?"

"No, not tonight I said. I'm too tired to deal with this."

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "Tell me you can forgive me. That's all I want."

Thomas bent his head, running his hand through his hair. Just go away, Jimmy. For Christ's sake just go away. "All right. Yes, I can forgive you. Now go to bed before you wake everyone."

"Still friends?"

"Of course." It wasn't a lie, but it was no longer the same as before.

"Good night then."

"Good night, Jimmy."

He heard his footsteps fade. It's not that simple, Jimmy. Not now.

---

He refilled his glass. Of course they never talked about it. Jimmy apologised again, Thomas accepted his apology again and things appeared to go back to normal. Except that Jimmy seemed to want to be with him even more than before. He made sure their half days matched, always insisting on going anywhere he went. What used to be a few nights a week in the servants' hall playing cards or in his room talking, became every night. If Jimmy thought he was making it better he was wrong. His almost constant company became an ever-present reminder of what he couldn't have. Thomas became desperate for escape.

Thinking back he never believed he would go through with it. Leave Downton. Leave Jimmy. I didn't think I could. Although positions weren't nearly as plentiful as they had been, he applied for the few he saw and just when he was losing hope, he was offered an ideal one. He spent a week thinking about it. It was more facing the reality of life without Jimmy than anything else and, to his surprise, he found he could. He wasn't sure he would be happy, but there was a unexpected sense of relief. Love shouldn't hurt and that's what happened that night. It hurt almost as bad as the night Jimmy threw him out of his room and it never went away.

Getting up, he retrieved Jimmy's present from his dresser, returning with it to his chair. He stared at it as he turned it over and over. I'll never stop loving him, but maybe distance will make it bearable again. And if I'm lucky enough to find someone else ... Who's to say you can't love more than one person. He realised how hollow that sounded, but didn't have time to dwell on it before Jimmy knocked on his door and came in without waiting to be asked.

"You started without me," he said, nodding at the glass in Thomas's hand.

"Just sampling the wares. Have a seat." Thomas set the present on the table and stood, giving Jimmy the armchair, taking the wooden one for himself. Handing him his glass, he poured some brandy into it, then lifted his own glass in a toast.

"To another Christmas."

Jimmy merely nodded as he took a sip of his drink. He stared at the fire for a moment before speaking.

"I'd like to exchange gifts now."

The suggestion surprised Thomas. They always waited until midnight and it was just quarter to.

"It's early, but if that's what you want."

"I do." He pulled the package from his robe pocket and handed it to Thomas. ”Happy Christmas." There was no enthusiasm in his voice, just sadness and resignation.

"Well, I wonder what this is?" Thomas asked as he undid the string and eased off the wrapping. "Ah, the cologne. Did you know I was running out without my telling you?"

"Yes." Jimmy held out his glass for more brandy.

Thomas sighed as he refilled the glass then reached for his present for Jimmy. Some Christmas. My own fault though.

"I hope you like this."

Jimmy took it without comment and stared at it dully before tearing the paper off. He opened the box and froze.

"This ... This is your watch." He turned in his chair to look directly at Thomas for the first time since sitting down. "The one your father gave you just before he died."

"Yes."

"I can't take this, Thomas. I know how much it means to you."

"And that's precisely why you will take it." Thomas drained his glass, setting it on the table. "I want you to know how much you mean to me. I would never give this watch to anyone but you."

Jimmy removed the watch from the box, cupping it in his hand as his fingers traced the intricate design on its cover. When he looked up his eyes shone with tears.

"I don't want you to go."

Thomas reached over and gently touched his arm.

"I can't stay. I just can't do it anymore. It's like living half a life. But I hope we'll always be friends."

Jimmy wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his robe.

"And what if I wanted more? If I finally found out what's been wrong all along?" He shook his head. "No, not wrong. Not wrong. What's been missing all along."

Thomas's forehead creased into a frown. "I don't understand. Or I do and I don't believe you. What could possibly have changed after all this time?"

"Me, Thomas." Jimmy's brought his hand with the glass to his chest. "I've changed." He looked down at the watch again. "I wasn't all that drunk you know. It just seemed easier to pretend."

"Are you saying you made a pass at me?" Thomas's voice was part shocked, part incredulous. "What would have happened if I hadn't pushed you away?"

"I don't know."

Thomas shook his head. "Didn't think that through, did you. 'Weren't nothing.' That's what you said." He sat back in his chair, fingers pressed against his temples as if forcing himself to concentrate. Finally he got up and started to pace.

"This makes no sense. That was six months ago and you're only bringing it up tonight?"

Jimmy put the watch back in its box and set it carefully on the table.

"I thought I had more time."

"And how much more time did you need? A year? Five years?" He stopped in front of him. "Fuck, Jimmy. If I weren't leaving you never would have said anything, would you?"

"I wanted to. That's why I've hardly let you out of my sight ever since that night. I was hoping against hope I could stop being a coward." He wiped at his eyes again with his sleeve. "I guess deep down I was mad enough to think you would catch on and I wouldn't have to say anything."

"Life isn't like that, Jimmy. If you don't go after something, it can slip though your hands and it's gone before you know it." He sat down again and poured them both more brandy. "I still don't really understand this and you definitely haven't helped."

"I know, but maybe this will." He pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to him as he got up. "I'm going to go get that baking while you read it."

Thomas sat for a few seconds, then opened the envelope.
Thomas,

I once told you I could never give you what you want. The problem with saying something like that is trying to take it back later. I'm a fool, I know that. All these years I've been thinking I could find someone to love, believing it was this girl or that, but never considering that someone already loved me. I finally realised how important that is and once I did that everything else started to fall into place.

I wasn't sure I wanted it to, though. My world was crumbling. It had become a meaningless world, but it was all I wanted to know. I'm not saying that it's been easy or that I've answered all the questions, but it's a start, although I've made more of fool of myself by not knowing how to tell you. Even now, when I know I love you, I have to put it in a letter.

That's because I'm still afraid. Afraid of what's happened to me, afraid of not really understanding why. I think who I am has been there all along, but just something I couldn't face so I buried it as deep as I could, building walls of distaste around it just to be sure. Buried it even deeper after you kissed me that night. I couldn't be like that, be like you. I don't want to be afraid any longer, but I can't do it without you. None of it matters without you, my knight in shining armour.

Will you give me one more chance? I can't promise I'll make your life - our life - a bed of roses, but people seem to forget that roses have thorns. Don't make this our last Christmas, make it the first of our new beginning.

Love,
Jimmy
Thomas stared at the page for a moment, then got up and went to his dresser. Pulling out his letter of resignation, he crossed to the fire and threw it in. He smiled as he watched it burn because he had just been given the best Christmas gift ever.

~~ End ~~