I suppose I should apologize for being a terrible updater, shouldn't I? I'm sorry. Since I've made you wait more than three months, I probably should shut up. Anyway, my dear readers, you are all awesome, please review, it inspires and encourages me, and enjoy!
September became October, the sky a dreary grey. And the sky resembled the mood of everyone residing in Downton. Fear for William induced a bleak cloud that settled over the family.
It was raining outside as Matthew leaned back against the upholstery of the red couch and put his feet on the table in front of him. If Matthew had done that back when he first came to Downton, the family would have torn him apart. But now Matthew was in charge and that meant he could put his feet on the table if he so desired. His back was aching from a long walk around the estate with Tom, and his hair was still wet from the rain shower they had been caught in.
He didn't bother to turn around when the library door opened, as exhaustion was quickly engulfing him. The fire was warm and relaxing, and he had not slept well for a while. Worries constantly played at his mind and kept him awake, and if he managed to shut those off, nightmares would make sure that he could never stay asleep for long.
"You're lucky Barrow isn't in here. What would he think of you putting your feet there?"
Matthew closed his eyes and smiled. Violet reminded him of Mary, so much that he almost mistook her for Mary. But it was Violet, stepping into the room and sitting down on the couch that mirrored his. "I don't think he'd be in a position to judge, but he would anyway."
She nodded, brushing back her dark curls from her shoulders. "Your hair's wet," she commented, looking over her father.
"I was out with Tom, and it rained on us. I'm afraid I wasn't prepared."
"Hmm. Well, you look like you could use a cup of tea. I'm going to ring for some," Violet said, standing up.
He held out a hand. "Don't bother, there's a pot over on the other side of the library," he protested feebly.
"From what, two days ago?" Violet rolled her eyes and pulled the cord. "We pay the servants, they can afford to bring us tea once or twice a week."
Matthew's eyes closed and he leaned his head against the back of the couch. "I suppose I should put my feet down, then."
"I'd be inclined to agree," Violet replied.
He groaned as he took his feet off of the polished table and sat up straighter, rubbing at the creases on his forehead. A pounding headache was coming on and he desired nothing but sleep. Unfortunately, tea would have to do.
The door to the library opened and in came Anna. "We should have started calling her Mrs. Bates years ago," Mary had once remarked, but even as Anna worked her way up to the position of housekeeper, nobody in the house called her Mrs. Bates. Some habits were not easily changed.
"Good afternoon, Lady Violet, your Lordship. What is it you would like?" Anna too looked much older than Matthew remembered, but she still retained her youthful energy.
Violet looked up at Anna directly and smiled. "We'd like some tea, thank you. Black tea, I think, we're both exhausted and we still have dinner to get through."
"Very good, milady," Anna said, and the door closed behind her once again.
On a whim, Violet stood up and crossed the little space that was between her and her father, and sat next to him. "You look tired."
"I won't lie and deny that," he replied, yawning as if to prove his point. "It's been a long couple of months, and it will only get longer, I'm afraid." He leaned back once again, trying to his head of the pounding that was quick enveloping it. "I hate war, Violet. I hate it so much. I can't believe anyone thought that another war was a good idea, after last time..."
Violet raised an eyebrow, a distinctly Mary move that made Matthew almost mistake his daughter for his wife. "Germany's full of idiots, I'd say."
"Not necessarily idiots, but bitter people, very bitter people. And I can understand why. But Violet, never let bitterness make you into something you're not."
"Alright," Violet said blandly. "Papa, there's no need to be so philosophical. I'm not planning to start a war or anything."
Matthew put his arm around her. "I know, my darling, I know. I just want you to be careful. There are just lessons to be learned."
"My question is why does everything turn into a lesson?" Violet asked, with a roll of her eyes. "I actually need to go write a couple letters." She kissed her father's cheek, somewhat reluctantly, and opened the door, almost running into Anna. "Sorry," she muttered.
"Wouldn't you like some tea, milady?" Anna asked after her.
Violet shook her head. "Let my father have it. God knows he needs it."
"Dr. Branson, this one needs morphine!"
Sybil nodded her consent. "Give it to him then. Not too much, mind, we want him waking up again." Blowing out air in frustration, she turned to the arm of another soldier. Already the injured were coming back in, just two months after the whole ordeal began.
"You're Lieutenant Johnson, right?" Sybil asked the soldier. He was clearly in pain as she touched his arm but his eyes remained trained on her face. Sybil couldn't look at him, for she knew she would see fear.
"Yes, ma'am. Though not much longer, it looks like," he replied grimly.
Sybil shook her head. "There's quite in an infection in this one. We sterilized it, but I don't think it helped. We might have to amputate, I'm afraid."
"Is there any other way?" he asked, his voice quavering.
She looked at his face for the first time. Beads of sweat were forming, his dark eyes were wild and feverish, his hair sticking up everywhere. And tears were beginning to come out of the corners of his eyes. "It's going to kill you if we don't."
"It's going to kill me if you do, my pa will be so angry to have a cripple for a son," he muttered.
"If he loves you the way a father should, he won't care."
Lieutenant Johnson sighed and touched Sybil's arm with his uninjured hand. "For a woman such as yourself, Dr. Branson, you're quite naive."
The words stung, but Sybil had no time to think about that. "Look, it's not so grim. There are plenty of good prosthetics out there, and we only have to amputate at the elbow. I've seen plenty of soldiers get on with their lives with disabilities like that."
"I appreciate the attempt at reassurance, Dr. Branson, but I can't help but worry," Lieutenant Johnson admitted.
"Dr. Rolland, could you prepare Lieutenant Johnson for surgery?" Sybil called, and her fellow doctor crossed the ward. She took him aside. "Amputation at the elbow to prevent the spread of infection. It's only in his hand and wrist, if we can stop it now, he'll live most likely. But I've seen that infection before, it's nearly always fatal if we don't get rid of it."
Dr. Rolland nodded and called a nurse over. Sybil took one last glance at the young man and went back into her office, with a sigh. She loved being a doctor, she truly did, but things like this were the hardest.
A knock at the door startled her, and when she said "Come in," she was surprised to see not a nurse asking for authorization of morphine, but two of her nieces.
Lily and Beth stood at the door, wearing simpler clothes than Sybil thought they owned and identically inquisitive looks. "Come in girls, what would you like? I'm afraid now isn't the best time but a couple minutes won't hurt."
"Beth and I want to volunteer," Lily said plainly, refusing the seat in front of Sybil's desk. "I know we're too young to be trained but we can help change sheets and bedpans and talk to soldiers and whatever you'd like us to do."
"I think that's a wonderful idea, girls, but I'm not the best person to go to. I'll have one of the nurses show you things that you can do. Go find Meg, she's the red haired one in the corner, she'll teach you." Sybil smiled at her nieces. She paused as she was about to leave the room. "One more thing, do Mary and Matthew know about this?"
"Of course they do," Beth said confidently. "I asked them right before William and Áine left. They wanted us to wait until things got into a little bit more of a rhythm before invading."
"I'd hardly call us invaders," Lily protested.
Sybil patted the blond heads of her nieces. "Whatever you two are, I'm proud of you."
Tom's fingers hovered above the keys of the typewriter, his mind working fast than his fingers ever could. His article on the position of Ireland in the war was due in a matter of days, and he could not find the words to start it. He had resolved to stay cooped up inside his office until he made some headway, but he was still not getting anywhere.
A knock drew him from one frustration into another, and he blew out a heavy breath, muttering, "Come in."
Catherine opened the door, a shy smile appearing on her face. "Hi."
"What is it?" Tom asked, trying not to get frustrated with his middle daughter. He needed to work on his article, but he seemed to see so little of quiet Catherine that he decided whatever she had to say was important.
"Áine wrote to me. She'll be done with training at the center in a week, and she'll train under supervision at a hospital, and she's invited us up to London to see her," Catherine announced, holding out the letter. "She has a job set up there once she finishes training, apparently, so she won't come back to Downton, but she wants us to come up and help her move into her flat. And bring up the rest of her clothes."
Tom grabbed the letter. "Why didn't she write this to us?
Catherine shrugged, flopping down into the armchair on the wall of Tom's office. "So will we go up?"
"I'll have to talk to your mother, but I would assume we will. Áine won't be pleased with us if we don't," he said, with a small laugh. "We'll never hear the end of it if we don't."
She leaned forward in the chair, her voice lowering. "Could Grace and I come up too? She was only talking about you and Mama, but since she wrote to me I would think she'd want me to come up too, and Grace would never want to miss out on a trip to London."
"Of course, I see no reason against it," he said, taking the paper out of the typewriter, crumpling it, and tossing it into the garbage. His introduction was definitely too weak. "And Daniel?"
"I was assuming he wouldn't want to go. If you dropped him off at the Abbey, he wouldn't notice we were gone."
He laughed lightly. "Fair enough. I'll talk to your mother about it when she gets home."
"She's been working a lot lately," Catherine observed.
"It'll only get to be more and more work, I'm afraid. I'm not sure how I'm going to be able to prevent her from working herself to death," Tom said, with a shake of his head. "She's been getting up before the sun rises and getting home long after dinner is over..."
Catherine nodded. "I miss her sometimes. Even if we're in the same house, I hardly see her. But I suppose she feels a need to be there, a calling."
Tom tilted his head and smiled at his perceptive daughter. "She does love being a doctor."
"I want a passion like that," she said. She was now curled up in the armchair, her head leaning on the armrest, caramel colored curls spilling everywhere. She looked so small, her green eyes staring up at him hopefully, and yet Tom was hit with a hard realization. "I'm a little bit jealous of Áine, if I'm being perfectly truthful."
He stood up and ruffled her hair gently. "You'll find something, darling."
"I'll try," Catherine said, getting up after him. "So should I write back to Áine then? Tell her there's an entourage to come and see her?"
"Let me talk to your mother," Tom said, opening the door and glancing over his shoulder. "And Catherine?"
She followed him through the door. "Yes?"
He kissed the top of her head, in an overwhelming flood of affection. "I love you, and I feel as if I don't say it enough."
"It's rather obvious that you do, but I'm very glad to hear it."
"Isobel!" Mary rounded the stairs and smiled at her mother in law. "Are you here for dinner? Because I can certainly arrange..."
The older woman held up a hand. "No, I just wanted to tell Matthew something, but I suppose you can come in as well. It'll be no great secret, of course, but he might disapprove."
Mary raised an eyebrow. "How mysterious. Well, come into the library I guess, and I'll find Matthew somewhere around here."
"What were you saying about me?" A deep voice came from the doorway, and both women turned around to look at the man standing there. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his bright blond hair was looking more and more gray by the day. "Am I to be worried?"
Isobel grinned at her son. "Not at all. I just had some news to share with you."
He gestured to the couches by the fire, taking his own seat and nodding towards her. "Well, go on."
"Well, naturally, you know Hannah's daughter? Sarah?"
Mary took a seat beside Matthew, giving him a confused glance. "Who is this?"
"Mother's niece," he explained. "Hannah is my cousin, and she's ten years my elder." He turned to his mother. And of course I remember Sarah. It's been a while since I last saw her, but she's very strong, she's hard to forget."
Isobel laughed in agreement. "That's hard to deny. Well, she got married a couple years ago, and since she's had two children. But her husband... he's gone missing. Presumed dead. And she wants to go off to France to look for him, and if he is dead... she wants to work there."
"Oh, I'm so very sorry," Matthew said. "It's already begun, I suppose. People getting wounded, and dying..."
The older woman allowed the silence to hang over the room before opening her mouth to speak again. "It's very sad, and now she must work to support the children, but she's running off to be a volunteer nurse in France. So she's asked me to keep them with me for the time being."
Matthew almost laughed. "You? Mother, you're not exactly young anymore. How are you going to take care of two young children. They'll stay here."
"I'll hire someone to help me of course, but it does give me something to do. And you already have five children running around here..."
"Four," Matthew corrected quietly.
Isobel shook her head. "William will be back here before you know it," she said determinedly, even if the look on Matthew's face made it clear that he did not agree with her. "And you have the Branson children in and out of here constantly..."
Unsure if she should intervene, but determined to play the role of countess, Mary began to speak. "If you're really sure you can manage two young children living at your house, and it's your desire to be their guardian, then you should. But if it's ever too much trouble, bring them here."
"Mary, you can't..." Matthew started, but he was cut off.
"How old are the children?"
Isobel looked up in pleased response to Mary. "Andrew is three, I believe, and Lizzie is a year and a half."
"Another Elizabeth," Mary said with a smile. "Well, neither Beth nor Lizzie are ever called Elizabeth, so it shouldn't be a problem. Speaking of which, I'm sure Beth and Lily will want to play with the children at some point."
Matthew leaned back and put a hand to his forehead. "I suppose I'm unable to argue with you on this."
"You won't accomplish anything."
He smiled slightly. "I expected as much. But Mother, if they're ever any trouble, any at all, please, feel free to send them here."
"Of course, darling. But they won't be."
"One other question, why you? Why isn't Hannah going to take care of them? I'd think Sarah would rather send her children to her mother than to a great aunt..."
Isobel reached over and patted his hand. "She's gone. Off in America, and we haven't heard from her for years... Her husband died in the last war, it really knocked everything out of her. Apparently Sarah had some correspondence but now Sarah's off in France and the children don't really have anybody."
"Ah. No wonder I haven't talked to her in a long time... It's such a shame."
Mary stood up, putting a comforting hand on her husband's shoulder. "Isobel, will you be staying for dinner?"
"I don't think so, thank you," Isobel said, slowly coming over to kiss Matthew's cheek. "I think there is dinner ready for me at home."
Matthew smiled at her in return. "Alright Mother. Goodbye. Do you want me to see you out or..."
"I've upset this house for many years, I might as well do so again," Isobel said jokingly.
Matthew put his arm around Mary as they watched Isobel leave the library. "Is it time for dinner already?" Mary asked.
"Is it time for dinner yet might be the question. I'm exhausted already," Matthew sighed. "But I suppose it is. Are Lily and Beth home yet? I know they went to the hospital today. Hopefully they didn't bother Sybil too much."
"I think they'll be very helpful."
He looked out the window, his eyes only focusing on the bench under the tree. "I wish that they didn't have to see all that, but I can hardly keep them away. War hospitals are never pretty sights."
"Sometimes the men in them are," Mary teased, although her joke only made Matthew's gaze grow darker. "They'll manage. They're much stronger than they look, and Sybil isn't going to make them do anything too ghastly."
"You and Sybil have very different ideas of what is ghastly," Matthew pointed out.
"If there's anyone you need to worry about, it isn't Beth or Lily."
"Of course I'm worried about William, how could I not be, especially since he's going to be shipped off to France soon..."
Mary paused, her eyes growing wide. "What?"
Her husband said nothing.
"You heard something from William and you didn't tell me?"
"I got a letter from him this morning," Matthew admitted. "He's done with training. He isn't sure where he's going, and of course he couldn't tell me exactly, the army is strict on these things, but he said he heard things about going to France. Germany's going strong over there and apparently there's talk of French surrender, which would not good for us..."
Mary stepped towards him heavily, her voice dangerously low. "You got a letter from William and you don't tell me?"
"I didn't want to worry you, I was going to tell you about it later."
"How much later? When he was in France and fighting for his life?"
Matthew hung his head. "Look, I'm sorry."
"Don't keep anything from me, Matthew, out of some misguided sense of protection or whatever. He's my son too. I can handle it," Mary whispered.
"Of course you can. I would never doubt it. I only wish you didn't have to..."
"So we might get to go to London?" Grace asked excitedly. Being in Yorkshire with Aunt Sybil and her family was better than being in America with her parents and her brother, but it still paled in comparison to her beloved London. Grace Strallan was a city girl through and through, something which Catherine could hardly comprehend.
Catherine leaned against the railing on the stairs. "Apparently so. They want to go up and see Áine and help her move into this flat in London. And we can probably come, but Daniel won't want to go."
"I do though. I feel as if I haven't been in London for ages," Grace said, a dramatic flair in her voice. "There's not even a cinema around here, is there? I'm longing to go..." She lifted her head up and looked at Catherine's expression of disdain. "But you think that's rather silly, don't you. Rather shallow of me."
"I'm not a city girl," Catherine said simply. "Perhaps there would be more cities for you to live in when you're in America."
Grace shook her head violently. "America's the most boring place. We spend weeks driving around the prairie looking at all of Papa's farms. And I have no friends there... Which is why I wanted to stay here. And I'm glad Mama let me. Although I wish I was in London."
"Let's go see if they've made a decision," Catherine proposed, stepping down and allowing Grace to pass by her.
The door squeaked when they opened it, and Sybil and Tom's heads looked towards them. "Yes?" Sybil asked, firmly.
"Oh, um, well..."
Grace stepped in front of her stuttering cousin. "Catherine and I were wondering if we might come up to London with you. Surely Áine wants as much help as she can get moving into the flat, and I'd like to see her and Catherine really would, and it would be nice to get out of the country for a day."
"I see no problem in it," Sybil said, and both girls grinned. "However, I'm not sure I'll be able to go. I'll see if Dr. Rolland can handle the day on his own. I'm sure he'll understand, of course."
"Áine will be so disappointed if you can't come," Catherine commented, her voice sad.
"Áine has seen enough of the medical profession by now to understand if I can't. But of course I'll try my best," Sybil assured. "If I don't get time off now who knows when I'll ever get time off again. I'm only going to get more and more busy..."
Catherine tried to smile at her mother, but it looked like more of a grimace, so she nodded and left the room, Grace on her heels.
Tom got up from his chair by the fire and sat down next to his wife, needing to be closer to her. "I wish you weren't so busy, love. It's going to take a toll on you."
"I'm doing what I love to do, Tom. And I'm happy to be working hard, to earn a living. It's not easy but it's worth it. To be able to help someone, to help many people. I'm not happy about this war, but I'm prepared to do my part, even if I don't believe this war is right."
He put his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear, "You may think you're very different from the little girl I used to drive around, but you still have her passion."
"Of course I do!" Sybil giggled. "That's something I'll never lose."
The strains of the piano were heard all over the house, and while some members of the house, namely Violet, didn't find the plunking of keys enchanting, Matthew couldn't help but smile as he descended the stairs and found Lily sitting at the piano. She had a piece of music in front of her, and she squinted to look at it.
"You might want to turn on the light."
His voice was soft, but Lily still jumped at the sound of it. "Papa! I didn't hear you come in." She laughed her surprise off. "I suppose you could see that."
He placed a hand on her shoulder, brushing away strands of short blond hair. "What are you playing?"
"It's from that film we saw in London, The Wizard of Oz. Beth got sheet music at the bookstore today. It's called Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Do you remember it?"
"I might. I'm surprised it's not Beth down here, considering she bought the music," Matthew said, looking it over. "I thought you had given up on piano."
Lily pressed a key for good measure and sighed. "I had. But I can't let Beth be exclusively good at everything. Besides, when it's music I like and not the constant scales Aunt Edith used to teach us, it isn't that bad."
"You're quite candid tonight," Matthew commented.
"Aren't I always full of candor?"
His eyes glinted as his daughter, who he sometimes found difficult to comprehend, but couldn't help but admire all the same. "Sometimes I wish I could be like that. It's something you definitely got from your mother."
"She's not always very candid though, is she? Not when she's talking about something or someone she cares about. She can make an honest offhand remark, but when it comes to things that really matter..."
He put up a hand. "What are you talking about, Lily?"
"William. He's been gone for a month and none of us have heard anything about him from either of you. I expected as much from you, but Mama won't say anything either. We're all worried, especially Violet, although she'd never say anything."
"I'm sorry Lily but..."
Lily shook her head, indicating that she wasn't finished. "I know you think you're protecting us, but William's our brother, and by keeping things from us, you just worry us more."
"What is this that we've done?" a voice came from behind, and Lily looked up to see the dark eyes of her mother. Mary wrapped her arms around Matthew's waist, and leaned her head on his shoulder.
"The lack of news about William is distressing to our children," Matthew said quietly.
"It's quite distressing to me as well, considering we've only gotten two letters from him since he went off," Mary commented.
Lily's nose flared, and her eyes narrowed. "So you got letters from William and you didn't tell us?"
"They were addressed to me..." Matthew's eyes flickered down to the ground.
"Of course they were, did you think he was going to send a letter for the whole family to Robbie?" Lily muttered.
Matthew sighed and patted his daughter's head. "I'm sorry Lily."
"Tell me what's in his letters, and I might forgive you...and Beth and Violet too, and Robbie, he may be young but William is his brother, and according to popular legend, boys are tougher than girls anyway. I don't believe that, but..."
"She's been listening to her Aunt Sybil too much," Mary joked quietly. However, she couldn't help but feel proud of the strength Lily had. For a girl of fourteen, she was remarkably undaunted.
Matthew forced a tight smile at his wife's quip, and met Lily's eyes. "Get your siblings, bring them into the library, and I'll read his letters to you."
It was a relief to have leave from training, from the strict army commands and the rowdy boys who even the most frighting generals could hardly control. If this was what Britain had to fight with, William thought cynically, a victory would be nearly impossible.
Oh, how he needed his idealistic little sisters.
He leaned against the outside of the nursing college, puffing on a cigarette. He wasn't exactly sure where it came from, but they were everywhere, and it relaxed him slightly. It was a Friday night, and he was given the weekend of leave before being shipped off to France on Monday. Going home was a tempting thought, but William wasn't quite sure if he would. He had already said goodbye, and it might hurt his family more than it would be worth to say goodbye again.
So instead, he loitered outside Áine's current place of residence, waiting for his cousin to show up so that they could go to a nightclub together. It was Áine's idea, naturally, and William had been hesitant when she had showed up outside where his training took place.
"Tomorrow night, we're both done with official training. I'm starting clinical training and you're going off soon, and I want to have some fun, but Mama and Papa will murder me if I go out alone, so I want you to come with me," she had begged.
"So you're dragging me into your scheme? What if people think we're lovers?"
Áine had laughed at him. "We'll tell them the truth. That we're cousins and you're chaperoning me because I wanted to experience a club at least once in my life, and knowing you, you'll do nothing but chaperone me anyway."
William had sighed in frustration. "This is absurd, Aine. I'm younger than you, I can't very well chaperone you."
"So? Lighten up, William, or you'll never fit in with the other soldiers, and from what I've heard, you will definitely want to."
"I must be insane," he had muttered. "Fine. But not too late."
And here he was, leaning against the nursing college, as his cousin, short hair curled and dressed for a night on the town. "You've come out finally."
"Sorry," Áine said offhandedly. "I was packing for the move to the new flat tomorrow. Mama and Papa are coming up tomorrow to help me with it, and to come spend time with me, and I think Catherine and Grace are coming along, too."
William's eyebrows shot up. "Really? Well, I'd love to say hello to them."
"Are you going to Downton before you go to France?" Áine asked pleasantly, beginning to walk away from the college quickly.
"I'm...I'm not sure. It would be a quick trip, certainly, and they aren't expecting me..." William contorted his face thoughtfully, quickening his pace to catch up with Áine's large and eager steps.
Áine looked back and him and sighed. "That's not why you're hesitant."
"I don't want to reopen wounds, okay!"
"How would you..."
William rubbed his forehead and groaned, stopping in his tracks. "They've already said goodbye, and I don't want to make them say goodbye again. I don't want to have to say goodbye again."
"They won't forgive you if they find out, you know. If they find out they could have seen you again, they won't be happy that you didn't come."
"I know but..."
Áine tilted her head and frowned at him. "Stop trying to be more noble than the rest of us."
"You're telling me I should go?"
"Of course I am. How could you ever think otherwise. Now come on, we can forget our troubles for a night and experience something new."
William puzzled over Áine's words, but he finally let out a sigh of relief. "Alright. I'll go tomorrow. And Áine?"
"I'm all for new experiences, but please let's not get too crazy."
Áine nodded, giggling. "Yes Captain!"
"I'm a Lieutenant. Which I'm not sure how, I mean of course I know how, as the son of an Earl I'm expected..."
"I don't care if you're a Private or a General," Áine interrupted. "You'll always be cousin William to me."
William smiled at her and picked up his pace. "After weeks of hearing Lieutenant Crawley constantly, I rather like the sound of that."
Sybil glanced around the room, a bag of Áine's clothes in her arms. It was as sterile and neat as it built to be, prepared for the next group of wide-eyed, idealistic girls who wanted to do what they could for the war. And Áine and her three roommates were moving into a flat a mile from the hospital. Áine wasn't a little girl anymore, she was nearly trained to be a nurse, she was living in a city far away from home.
"So are we going to walk all the way to your flat? It has to be at least three miles from here," Grace groaned, putting the box of books Áine had requested they bring on the floor. "That will be quite a procession."
"Marie and Julia hired a car, they said I can put my things in there. We'll walk over, but at least we won't have to carry things," Áine replied, rubbing her head.
Sybil gave her daughter a concerned look. "Áine, are you sure you're feeling alright?"
"I just have a headache," Áine replied, her tone annoyed. "I only had one glass last night, I didn't think it would be this bad."
"You were drinking?" This time, it was Tom chiding his daughter, and his voice was dangerously low. "Áine, where were you?"
Áine sat down on the bed, messing the straight white covers. "I wanted to see what London had to offer. So William and I went out to a club, a perfectly respectable one, and I tried a gin and I had him dance with me, although he didn't really want to. Honestly Papa, I'm nearly twenty, and William was with me. I'm living on my own now."
"I know, darling, I just want you to stay safe and it's not the kind of lifestyle your mother and I would want for you," Tom said.
"Mama doesn't have the kind of lifestyle her parents wanted for her."
Sybil swallowed. Áine had a point. "We're just asking you to be responsible. I get that sometimes children don't go the way you want them to go. But I can't say your father and I would approve if you went out drinking every night."
"It's a good thing I'm not, then. That was the first time," Áine defended. "The first, and probably the last. I'm not going alone, and in any case, alcohol isn't quite to my taste."
An awkward silence ensued, and Catherine finally broke it, saying, "Should we get your things downstairs?"
The rest of the occupants of the room agreed, and made their way down the narrow stairwell. As they walked down, Sybil peacefully asked, "Didn't you say William was going to come say hello to us?"
"He was, but he had other things to do. You might get to see him later though."
Sybil sighed, a little bit disappointed, but curious nonetheless. "How is he doing? Obviously you've seen him and talked to him, is he doing alright?"
"He's fine, he's going to France on Monday though, and while he won't admit it, I think he's terrified."
"He's going to France? Does his family know this?"
Áine nodded. "I think so. He's dealing with them."
"Well then, I hope he'll be safe," Sybil stated, knowing full well the extent of the effects of war.
"As do I."
Anna whipped around as the door to the servants hall opened. As far as she knew, all of the few remaining servants were in the house, so her mind rushed to think who could be at the door. She didn't immediately recognize the tall young man in a soldiers' uniform, a cap jammed over his eyes.
"Sir? May I ask what you're doing here?"
The young man lifted his head. "Only coming home."
Her eyes widened as she glanced over him. "Master William! I didn't know you were coming home! Should I bring you up to your parents?"
"No, I wanted to surprise them," he said quietly.
She grinned and patted his arm. "No wonder I didn't know. Well, it's no problem of course. I'll tell Mrs Branell to cook a little bit extra tonight. I'm sure you're sick of army rations."
He ducked his head, smiling sheepishly. "A little. And I didn't know I was coming home until yesterday, it was a little bit last minute. I'm sorry for any inconvenience I might have caused you."
"It's perfectly alright. Are you home for just the day or will you spend the night?"
"I'll stay tonight, I think. I have to get back tomorrow, but it will be nice to sleep in my own bed," William said. "I'm going to go upstairs and greet my family. Thank you, Anna."
It was such a relief to be at home. William couldn't help but grin as he ascended the back stairs, not wishing to be seen before he could greet his parents. They would probably be getting ready for dinner, and he would have no problem getting to their room unseen.
He took a route that he used to use to sneak out of the nursery and into the servants hall when he was little, the turns familiar and comforting to him. The house seemed so much smaller than it used to, but the world seemed so much bigger, so much scarier, and William wanted to fall into his mother's arms and be reassured that she would be there for him.
Like he guessed, the door to his parents' room was closed, but he could hear their murmured voices. William took a deep breath, trying to hide his excited grin, and knocked.
"Yes?" His mother's voice drifted through the door, and he picked up faint notes of annoyance. What exactly had his siblings been up to when he was gone? "Do you need to talk to us right now, or can it wait."
William couldn't hold back his grin any longer. "It could wait, but I would venture to say you wouldn't want it to."
The door opened nearly immediately, and William found himself engulfed in the hugs of his parents.
He wasn't quite sure of what happened, but he heard his mother whispering in his ear, "You're home."
William hugged her tighter. "Not for long, I'm afraid. But for now, I'm home."