"These children are all about Charlotte's age," said the young woman who was leading them through the halls of the Foundling Hospital and back to an office.
There was a perfectly straight line of little girls standing perfectly still and quiet against the wall.
"Lined up to be taken in for their luncheon," she said. "You see, Charlotte, these are some of the girls you might have grown up with."
The woman's voice was not unkind, but her words only caused Charlotte to press herself more tightly against her mother, on whose lap she was sitting as Robert pushed the two of them down the hall. Cora could see why. Now that she had spent three years raising Charlotte, the hospital seemed a far more forbidding place than she had remembered, and the realization that her little girl might have been standing in the line of empty-eyed children made her want to hug Charlotte close and never let her go.
How frightened some of them looked, and how unnatural their silent stillness was. Most of them stared at Cora and her chair, but it was not with the judgment or fear or pity or even curiosity that she was used to seeing in strangers and acquaintances. Their faces held none of that; rather, their expressions seemed to plead to be taken home, too.
This was, she realized as she softly stroked Charlotte's hair, far too frightening of a place to have taken her. Robert and Cora had discussed whether their older daughter ought to come along when they picked up their new baby and decided she should—it would be helpful, they'd thought, for her to have a clear picture of how they'd gone to get her. It would also be Charlotte's first opportunity to see London, and the trip had grown to include several extra days for Robert to take her to the zoo and to the Tower and to visit some of the city's churches and parks. Yet the Foundling Hospital was much more somber than it had seemed in their memories, and it was clear to Cora now that bringing Charlotte had been a mistake.
At the end of the hallway, the woman ushered them into a small sitting room, where Robert pushed Cora (and Charlotte) near the couch and then took a seat next to the wheelchair. It was just as nervewracking as it had been the first time, this sitting and waiting for their baby to appear.
"Is she coming?" Charlotte said after a few moments, interrupting their anxious silence. "Is my sister coming?"
"Yes, darling," Cora said quietly. "She's coming." They had not told Charlotte she would soon have a sibling until they'd gotten word that a baby was available, thinking the vague, "We will go to London at some point and pick up a new baby when one is born," would be too complex for her to grasp, and thus this new idea of a sister had been much discussed over the last few days.
"But she will not be able to play with you just yet," Robert reminded her. "She'll be very little at first."
"Like Evelyn," said Charlotte, referring to the baby Caroline Napier had just had.
"Yes, sweetie," Cora said, smiling. "Like Evelyn."
At last a nurse arrived with a baby in her arms. Robert stood to take her, but Charlotte moved faster.
"I want to see her!" she cried, leaping off her mother's lap and darting over to the nurse, effectively removing any worries about how she would take to the new baby.
"Charlotte seems pleased to be a big sister," Robert said later.
"Pleased? I didn't think I'd be able to get her to go to bed, she's so excited!" Cora was sitting up in bed, resting in Robert's arms while the baby rested in hers. Eleanor was a quiet baby thus far; she was awake at the moment but was staring calmly around the room with no hint of fussiness.
As soon as they had agreed to adopt a second child, Robert had asked if they could name her after his grandmother. Cora had readily agreed, thrilled to see him interested from the very beginning this time.
"How do we always get such perfect ones?" he asked, touching a gentle finger to Eleanor's nose.
"I think perhaps they're all perfect," Cora said softly. "I felt so sorry for all the ones we had to leave behind. I wish we could have taken every child there."
Robert kissed her temple. "You can't right everything that's wrong in the world, darling. But you have changed the world radically for two little girls."
Yes. What she did for her daughters would have to be enough, yet it was maddening to think that someone else might have been her daughter had they contacted the Foundling Hospital a month earlier or a month later, and the children she thought of as hers would have grown up alone. She was haunted by the thought of all the other little Charlottes standing in the line and all the other little Eleanors who would be arriving at the hospital this month.
"I don't think it was very good to take Charlotte there," she mused. "I think it upset her." She was hoping it was past now—Charlotte had seemed so excited once they'd gotten Eleanor and left with her.
"No, that wasn't a very bright idea on our part," he agreed. "But I didn't remember the place as being so…dark."
"Do you think it's changed so very much in three years?" Cora asked.
"No, I think we've changed. I think it looks different to me now that I'm a father."
She had changed too, she knew. "Would you like to hold her?"
"Of course." Robert settled Cora back against the pillows and then reached out for the child, but they were interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Yes?" Robert called out.
The door opened to reveal the new nurse hired for Eleanor. "Nanny Andrews told me you'd be in here, my lord," she said, blushing and lowering her eyes. She was referring to the woman hired to look after Charlotte, a woman who was left with nothing to do more days than not thanks to Cora's regular involvement. "You've got the most underworked nanny in the country," Violet had muttered early on.
"Yes, I often am in here," Robert agreed as Cora felt her own cheeks redden.
"Yes, milord. Nanny says Miss Charlotte's had a nightmare and won't calm down. Could you come, sir?"
"Come and get me if she needs me," Cora called after him as he left with the nurse. It was moments like these when she most hated her spine. But then Eleanor gurgled happily, and she turned her attentions back to the sweet baby in her arms.
A few minutes later, Robert returned, carrying a weeping Charlotte. "I thought she needed to see you, too, and hear from both of us," he said quietly. It did not surprise her that he had brought Charlotte to her—Charlotte certainly loved him, but she had spent far more time with Cora and usually came to her for comfort—but she was not sure what he meant by "hear from both of us."
Robert set Charlotte down on the bed and took Eleanor from Cora. The baby had begun to fuss in response to the noise of the other child's tears, and he shushed her and bounced her in his arms as climbed back into bed himself. Charlotte, meanwhile, crawled quickly over the sheets to Cora's now-outstretched arms.
"Come here, sweetheart," Cora said, pulling her close. "Did you have a bad dream?" Charlotte nodded. "It's okay," Cora went on, giving her a kiss. "It was only a dream. You're safe. Mama's right here."
Charlotte shook her head. "I was afraid you wouldn't be here!" she sobbed.
"What?" Cora glanced at Robert and noticed for the first time that there were tears shining in his own eyes.
"She's afraid we won't keep her," he whispered.
"Oh!" Cora cried, feeling her heart break. She pulled back slightly so she could look into Charlotte's eyes. "What do you mean, you're afraid we won't keep you?"
"Are you going to send me back, Mama? Now that you have another baby?"
"No, darling!" Cora embraced her tightly again. "No, we would never send you back! We love you just as much as we always have, and we love you very much. You're our daughter."
"But what if I'm bad, Mama? Will you make me go back to London? Please don't make me go back to London!"
"Charlotte," she breathed. She squeezed her even harder and rested her cheek against Charlotte's head. "No. It does not work that way. There is nothing you could ever do that would make us send you back. You will never, ever, ever have to go back to London. You are our little girl, and we are your mama and papa. That will never, ever change, and you will always be here with us."
"Adoption is forever, Charlotte," Robert said suddenly, and Charlotte turned her tear-stained face toward him. "We are always going to be your parents, we are always going to love you, and there will always be a place for you at Downton. This is forever."
"Papa is right," said Cora, cradling Charlotte's head against her chest—if only Charlotte could feel the love exploding there—and pressing a kiss to her hair. "We love you and Eleanor both very much, and no one is going to be sent anywhere, ever. Do you understand that?"
Charlotte nodded slowly.
"This morning scared you, didn't it?" Cora said.
"Papa and I didn't realize how scary that would be for you. We shouldn't have brought you there, and we are very sorry about that. But you will never have to go there again, so you shouldn't worry about it or think about it anymore."
After a moment, Charlotte said, "I liked getting Eleanor, though."
Cora chuckled softly. "Yes, it was nice to have you there to see Eleanor. I think she was glad. Would you like to give her a kiss?"
Charlotte sat up and looked around, as though she had not noticed her sister was in the room.
"She's right here, darling," Robert said, holding the baby up. "Be gentle—she's just gone to sleep."
Charlotte leaned over and gave her sister a soft, careful kiss on the cheek, then scooted back into Cora's arms.
"Would you like to sleep here tonight, sweetheart?" Cora offered. It was not something they generally allowed, but… "Would it make you feel safer to sleep in between Mama and Papa, just for tonight?" Charlotte nodded happily. "Let's lie down, then."
"Do you need me to help you?" Robert asked, and she watched him wonder where he would set the baby.
"I can mostly manage," she said. In the time she had spent managing a toddler, she had learned how to move her body with her arms, which had grown progressively stronger. She laid the pillows flat and then pushed her body further down the bed. "You can just use one hand—help me turn my hips over so I'm on my side." He managed to flip her one-handed, and she turned to Charlotte. "Darling, could you straighten Mama's legs?"
Eager to help as always, Charlotte helped move the deadened legs into a comfortable position and then curled up next to her mother, who kissed her. Cora took a deep breath of her daughter's sweet scent as she began to stroke her hair. How cozy, to lie here with her eldest while Robert sat a few feet away, cuddled up with their youngest…
"London was scary, Mama," Charlotte said suddenly.
"I know, darling, but let's not think about that now or you'll have more dreams. There were some things in London I think you liked, weren't there? Didn't you have fun going places with Papa?"
"Let's think about some of those happy things, then, before you go to sleep. What was your favorite thing?"
Charlotte was silent for a moment, thinking. "The animals," she said.
"Ah, the zoo animals. Of course. Did you have a favorite animal?"
"Oh, I always like the elephants, too. What else did you like at the zoo?"
Charlotte chattered on, her voice slowly becoming sleepier until it began to falter, and Cora kissed her softly as she drifted off.
"I think I'll take Eleanor back to the nursery and lie down with you two, if Charlotte's asleep," Robert whispered a few minutes later. His wife did not answer, and he glanced down at her. "Cora? Cora?" She was, he realized, as sound asleep as Charlotte, her arms wrapped around the little girl.
He observed the two of them for a moment and then could not help but reach one hand out to brush it lightly over Cora's curls. She murmured softly at the touch but did not wake.
He longed to curl up next to the both of them, but he suddenly did not want to turn the light out or close his eyes and let go of this moment, nor did he quite want to give up the baby. For there was something unaccountably sweet in watching his wife sleep in an embrace with their older child while he sat nearby, the warm weight of their new baby in his arms.
His words to Dr. Jones several years earlier, the day after Cora's accident, came back to him. "I'll give her a good life," he'd promised earnestly. Yet that wasn't quite what had happened. While he liked to think he'd done his best by Cora, and he believed that she was happy, he would not, if asked to describe their marriage, have said, "I've given her a good life." Rather, she had given him one.
AN: Thank you so much for reading and reviewing, or just for reading! I hope you've all enjoyed the story. I know I've enjoyed hearing from so many of you! I do have tentative plans to write a sequel set during the season 1 era (starring Cobert and their grown-up daughters), but it won't be published until after season 6 airs in America. (I watch for the first time in January and February, and I'll be staying off this site after the season starts in the U.K. to avoid spoilers.)
I do, however, plan to update my drabble/ficlet collection "The Ways They Said It" at least a couple times before the U.K. premiere. So I'll see you all over there! :-)