One year later…
Cora sighed as Robert's fingers combed gently through her hair. "I love you," he whispered, and she rejoiced at the thought of how often she heard that phrase now. "I love you very much."
"And I love you," she said, kissing his neck.
She was lying in bed next to him, their bodies pressed together, resting in each other's arms at the end of an afternoon of love making. It was a hot summer's day, and thus there was not even a sheet over them, leaving them both completely exposed. He had slowly worshipped her body before slipping inside her, leaving kisses and caresses up and down her arms and legs and hips and sides, as was often his custom now, and he moved slowly and gently, so she could anticipate everything. Even after several months of this, his tender consideration of her each time still brought tears to her eyes. There was so little comparison between him and Bricker that they did not even seem to be members of the same species.
The first time she and Robert had managed to complete the act had been early in the spring, and when he had pulled out of her, she had not been able to keep from bursting into tears.
"Have I hurt you?" he had immediately asked, panic and guilt warring with each other in his voice. "Did I frighten you? Oh, my darling, I—"
"No," she had gasped. "No. It's only that it was so beautiful. Beautiful, and nothing like him. Please—" And she had reached for him, suddenly frantic for more, in spite of her tears.
Cora slowly brushed her hand across Robert's chest, tracing light patterns across the muscles, until he lifted her hand and raised it to his mouth, pressing soft kisses against it.
"The dressing gong will ring soon," she remarked, warning him that time was drawing short.
"We have a few moments, if we're quick…"
"I have a better idea," she said, feeling the rightness of her decision as she spoke. "We would have more time if we continue this evening."
He did not answer for a moment. "Are you sure?"
They had been slow to resume their intimacy over the last year, with many false starts ending in tears and terror from her, reactions that made him understandably hesitant to try again. And yet she had ached for his body, and he for hers, and they had slowly fumbled their way back to the pleasure they had always taken in each other. It required her to be on top or at his side, as having him enter her from above was far too reminiscent of the attack, and she had found it was much easier during the day while the sun was still shining brightly through the windows, rather than at bedtime, when the darkness reminded her of that night, and thus they had begun to sneak away after teatime. Yet she had missed falling asleep in his arms afterwards—a far better way to end a session than rising to dress for dinner—and she was quite sure that, after all this time, she was ready.
"I'm sure," she said quietly. "I'm not afraid. I feel safe in your arms."
He kissed her softly, warmly, a promise of protection in his lips. The gong rung as he pulled away, and he sighed.
Cora smiled. "Until tonight." She kissed him again and then wrapped herself in her dressing gown as he left, ready for Baxter's arrival. The newly-engaged Baxter, she reminded herself happily. Her maid had brought her the news one morning last week, and Cora had helped Robert select a cottage for Baxter and Mr. Molesley to share. Baxter had turned her down on her offer of a full celebration at Downton, but Cora had asked Robert to give Molesley the funds for a luxurious honeymoon in Paris, and the thought of her maid's coming surprise delighted her. What delighted her even more was the thought of the complete happiness that she suspected Baxter would find in her marriage.
"It almost seems strange that I've never met your father before," Baxter said as she and Molesley approached the cottage.
Molesley smiled. "I think you'll both like each other very much. He's been very eager to meet you, after all he's heard."
"Good things, I hope."
"All the very best things." He pressed her hand, which was resting in the crook of his arm, and they shared another smile.
There was a quiet shyness to their romance still, but she found it endearing. It made his manner so different from Peter's that she could not quite believe they were members of the same species. Mr. Molesley—or Joseph, as she had only just begun to call him—had asked for nothing more than a kiss at the engagement, and even that was with hesitation, as though he were afraid to push her into something she did not want. They were to be married in Ripon in three weeks' time in a simple ceremony followed by a quiet dinner for the two of them, in spite of Lady Grantham's offers of a grander celebration at the house. Afterwards, they, like the Bates, would move into a small cottage on the estate together, and she was using her afternoons off to arrange the household as Joseph began to cultivate a garden.
Nothing in the world could make her happier.
"Here's his garden," Joseph said, pushing open the gate. "Best blooms in the village!"
It was a paradise on a summer afternoon, filled with the colors and scents of roses and daisies and delphiniums and bellflowers and…
Baxter slowed as they passed a small, flowering bush on the left. "The Best Bloom prize used to go to the Dowager Countess every year," Joseph was saying, "but years ago, when Mrs. Crawley arrived—"
"Joseph," she interrupted, pulling away from him to approach the bush, "what is this?"
"Hmm?" And then his eyes fell on the same plant. The long silence that followed told her all she needed to know.
"I've wondered for months," she said softly. "I knew I couldn't remember seeing you downstairs before dinner that evening, and I wondered…I wondered if you left after we got home from the trial…but I told myself you couldn't have gone to his house and come back in time to serve his lordship…"
"I took a cab," he interrupted. "I knew I didn't have much time—and I knew no one would think I'd taken a cab." He paused. "Oh Phyllis," he burst out, "do you hate me?"
"My goodness, no!" she exclaimed. That was the last thing she felt, the last thing she expected him to say. "No, Joseph, no!" How could she hate him for only doing what she had wanted to do, what his lordship and her ladyship had wanted to do, what surely many others had wanted to do? She wished he had not risked it, but surely nothing would come of it now, after so many months, when there was no reason for him to be suspected.
"But why…why did you do it?" she asked, finding the timing odd.
He looked at her as if she'd asked him what color grass was. "Why? What on earth do you mean, why?"
"I mean, why then? You'd known for months. Why didn't you go to London on an off day? Or if you were waiting for the household to go to London, why didn't you do it when we first got there? We'd been there for three days before you…did it; why wait to do it on a day when time was so limited? You'd have been missed if you hadn't been back for dinner." She was almost breathless with how risky it had all been.
He shook his head. "You don't understand. I didn't do it to punish him—or not just to punish him. I thought–I thought he deserved it, and that's why I took the oleander with me, but I didn't think I'd have the courage for it, and in the beginning I didn't. I'd resolved that I'd be bringing the vial back home with me, and Simon Bricker would end up in gaol, and that would have to be justice enough. But then…but then I went with you and the others to the trial, and we heard her ladyship's testimony, and it was…it was horrid for her. And I kept imagining you standing there the next day, as they ripped into you as well…to say nothing of what would be in the papers about you; you saw the way Lady Grantham was written up. And…Phyllis, I couldn't bear it for you, and I couldn't think how else to stop it, and I just wanted it stopped."
"You wanted to protect me," she said quietly, almost in a whisper.
"Of course I did."
But that was the crux of it, she thought, as she wordlessly accepted his handkerchief to dab at the tears that were springing to her eyes. He had not risked his future, their future, merely to avenge her honor or to satisfy his own desire for revenge. He had done it instead to protect her in the only way he could, to keep her from this second harm when he could not have kept her from the first. He'd acted not on the spur of the moment, but from clear-headed consideration, fully aware of what the consequences could be, and decided that the risk to himself was worth the benefit to her.
"You didn't have to do that," she said, still sick at the danger to him. "I was prepared to testify."
"I know, and that was brave and it was selfless, but I couldn't let you suffer any more. I loved you too much, even then."
She wiped her eyes again, fighting to regain her voice. She had seen much of vengeance in her life and had been prepared to find it here, where it would have been nothing less than justified. But what she had seen very little of was protection. There had certainly never been any directed at her.
"You dear man," she said at last, kissing his cheek. She slipped her arm back through his and led him into the cottage.
AN: Thank you so much to all my readers for joining me on this journey! All the reviews and support have meant so much! I hope you're satisfied with the story and its ending. It's been my plan all along for Molesley to do it, as I thought that would be more interesting and less expected than Robert. (And that's one thing that disappointed me about the Green storyline: when Anna was first raped, I was hoping Fellows would have her kill Green, or Mary or Mrs. Hughes or even Thomas, because that would have been so much more interesting than having to suspect Bates AGAIN.) I also liked the idea of Molesley slowly being pushed into it out of his love for Baxter, because I don't think this sort of thing is at all in his nature generally. (Recall in season 2 he's shown as something of a coward trying to avoid the draft.) However, I think his relationship with Baxter has steadily given him more and more courage throughout seasons 4 and 5 (and he's done the same for her).
As I close, I want to make it clear that no, Molesley is never going to be charged with this. There's no evidence pointing to him, and he wasn't seen by anyone who could identify him. So Bricker's dead, Molesley gets away with it, Baxley are off to their luxurious French honeymoon, Cobert are having terrific fun again, and we can all live happily ever after.