Start of Episode 7 but very very AU. Carson/Hughes because last week was a very Carson/Hughes week. Strong T. The part in the middle is rather A Room With a View-esque, because I watched it last week.
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He never came back from the Season early. Never; not once in all the years she'd known him. And, she assumed, he didn't feel that her capabilities as a housekeeper had deteriorated any since last year's move back to Downton. Yet he had distinctly written in his last letter that he would be coming back a day before the family:
"To give us time to sort things out and ensure we are ready for everyday routine to resume."
Not that it was a bad thing. Only- instinctively- she didn't believe for a moment that the only thing he had in mind was checking that the new staff plan was complete.
Things had been different during the Season. It sounded ludicrous, it wasn't as if she herself had been anywhere near London in its duration, but it was a general feeling she got. The was an atmosphere there, or so it seemed, which made her intensely grateful that she hadn't had to witness it. The world was, after all, changing and from what she'd heard London society had reflected it; people were grimmer and surlier, waiting for a storm. And things had certainly been different between them; that she knew for sure. It was altogether normal for a housekeeper and butler to keep each other vaguely up to date with developments both at home and away, but not at the frequency that they had found themselves doing so. And not always did the topic of correspondence restrict itself to the workings of the household either. She didn't know how it had happened exactly, she just found herself replying more punctually and receiving replies more frequently too.
And it had left her rather confused, because they weren't love letters, exactly. It was difficult to put a label on them. At a loss for something to do and confident that no one would disturb her, she laid them out on her table before her. Flicking back through them, she realised they contained little more than information about London and questions about life in the house and wondered if she had purely imagined that there might be anything extraordinary in them. But there was something more intimate between the lines, smoothing over the dried ink with her thumb, though she was hard pressed to pint point what it was. He told her about Lady Sybil's coming out ball and asked if she remembered how she'd dress up in her mother's white dress and plan how it would be when she was a child. She smiled at it, and was pleasantly surprised that he had remembered too. That was the kind of thing that had her sitting at her desk on the afternoon that he was due to arrive back, reading over his letters.
Finally, a little exasperated by the exercise, she put them back in her drawer. If she wasn't being overly imaginative, they could quite easily be love letters, she decided, the love letters of two reticent people. She made no secret of the fact that that was what she wanted them to be. Reticence was a quality that she found extremely attractive in a person, but it tended to make communicating as much rather difficult. Were she more removed from the situation she would probably smile sardonically and call it irony but she found she couldn't, it was all too immediately real to her.
There was a tap on the door. She sat herself up a little straighter.
The door open and Gwen stuck her head round.
"Mr Carson's back, Mrs Hughes. I thought you'd want to know."
"Thank you, Gwen," she replied, trying to ignore the heavy beating of her heart, "I'll be out in a second to see him."
"He's in his pantry," Gwen informed her before taking her leave.
Not very much longer after Gwen had left she found herself tapping on the door of his pantry, hoping that he wouldn't be disappointed or too tired to see her. Rather than calling for her to come in, he opened the door for her himself. She smiled at the sight of him round the door and, seeing who his visitor was, he smiled back at her. And they stood rather stupidly like that, until Elsie laughed, feeling ridiculous.
"Can I come in?" she asked, still slightly afraid that he would say no, "Or should we just stand here all afternoon?"
Much to her surprise he shut the door, but from the same side as she was on.
"Let's go for a walk," he suggested quietly.
They went out the back door, not bothering with their coats as it was too warm. She thought that they would make their way around the gardens but he led her off in the other direction. He led the way straight out of the gate at the back of the grounds, into some of the fields owned by Lord Grantham to rent to his tenants. It occurred to her that they were gloriously untidy against the strict neatness of the house's lawns; poppies smattered amongst the tall grasses in bright clusters of red. The sun shone but the ripple of the breeze over the tops of the grass prevented it becoming too hot. It felt like a real summer's day, probably one of the last they would have and she was suddenly intensely grateful to him for suggesting a walk.
She saw him watching her expression.
"I was getting rather sick of the inside," he explained, quite apologetically, "I've been on a train for most of today."
"It's beautiful," she simply told him, because it was.
They were silent but she knew he was agreeing with her. And they were standing there, silently at the edge of a field of poppies. But it didn't feel odd, like it probably should have.
"I thought we were going for a walk," she reminded him, "As opposed to a stand."
"The path runs out just there," he reminded her, pointing.
"Then we'll just have to go on without it," she told him, leading the way, "Come on."
The ground was easier under foot than she expected it to be and, truth be told, she rather enjoyed the feeling of long grasses swooshing against her dress, walking with an ease in her step, arms out to ensure she stayed steady. Having gone a little further on, she turned back from wading through the poppies to look at him. He was watching her intently. She truly did not know what to make of his expression. Was he sad or was he happy? Which was she?
"Charles..." she began, though at a loss as to how she would continue. There were things that she wanted to but didn't dare ask him. Oh for nature to let her say what she wanted, there among the poppies and grass.
"Thank you, Elsie," he spoke rather abruptly after the quiet of the last few minutes, "For your letters while I was away. They were... they were a great comfort to me in London."
"Didn't you enjoy the Season?" she asked.
"The Season doesn't exist for the servants to enjoy," he reminded her, "It's just more of the same in a different place as far as we're concerned."
"Yes, I suppose it would be."
Those letters, she really wanted to ask him about them, but couldn't quite work up the nerve to. Leaving her sitting room to find him she had almost brought one with her, but had decided against it- so as not to appear to be clinging to it like a lifeline. What the devil did you mean by them?- she wondered. She felt herself frown a little, and knew he probably saw.
"I'm glad I was some help though," she added, "In my absence, that is."
The air was so fresh and smelt sweetly, as if perfumed by something. It was too late in the year for cherry blossom. He seemed to have got the hint; reticence was brought on in abundance. He stood watching the grass swayed by the air.
"Charles. What do I mean to you?"
It had come out wrong, but it was probably what she would have meant whatever she'd actually said.
He looked up at her slowly. Whatever she'd chosen to find in his face she probably could have, such was the array of emotions she saw there. The way the grasses suddenly stopped at her knees felt her leaving very exposed. She had made herself, she realised, ultimately vulnerable by a careless slip of the tongue. Her breath was quick, but she could hardly feel the difference. He was watching her but not watching and she wondered if she just lay down and hid among the flowers he would forget that she was there at all. Maybe, she thought, he will just ignore it all together and pretend I never spoke. He would probably consider it gentlemanly. But then he spoke.
"I wish I could say, Elsie."
She waited a beat, swaying in the wind.
"Why can't you?" she asked.
This wasn't a demure denial like she'd feared. This was, in a way, far worse.
"It wouldn't be fair," he replied simply.
It took her a moment to work out what on earth he meant by that. Then:
"Not if I felt the same way," she told him, and then boldly "And you won't know until you tell me."
They stood for a moment, suspended. The light had become a shade dimmer but neither noticed.
"You'll think me forward," he warned her meekly.
"I'll forgive you for it," she assured him, "Did you really come home early to sort out the house? Or was there something else?"
She was patient waiting for his response, though she did not feel it. Watching him in those moments was like watching the sun setting; it was quietly dismaying but had an underlying wonder to it. She was sure she was praying silently in those moments, as she hadn't done in years.
"Elsie..." he murmured quietly, so she could barely hear him.
She knew then what he meant, but couldn't say. She saw it in his face because she knew her own held the same. And it looked to be killing him. Reticence, she thought, bloody reticence. Finding the use of her feet again, borne through the green and red on trembling legs, she closed the gap between them, knowing exactly what she would do when she got there. Standing before him, she rested her hand gently on his chest, partly to steady herself. Reaching her other hand to his face, she kissed him there in the full fervour of the fading summer. She felt his arms hold her to him.
She wasn't quite able to get any of it out of her mind for the rest of the day. No matter how hard she tried she couldn't block it out; she could still hear the tumbling of grass in her ears over the chatter around the table at suppertime. She bit her lips in distraction but she could still feel his covering them even when they were sitting whole feet apart. Still seeing the illumination of the poppies when she closed her eyes. Closing her bedroom door quietly at half past eight she was sure she was somewhere near madness.
Determined to distract herself, she changed into her nightdress and sat on her hands at the edge of her bed. It was too bright to sleep, she decided. Getting up, she crossed to the window to draw the curtains. The sun had started to go down a little; the light was turning from gold to orange and she squinted against its radiance. The last night of the summer shone in through the window at her. Her view at this height must have stretched for a good twenty miles, she thought. And she could see that field, that little field with the long grass.
And suddenly she wasn't in her room any more, but closing the door quietly behind her. And negotiating her way into the men's quarters. She wasn't so much as thinking, nor did she pause to knock at his door. He wasn't asleep when she got there but standing in his shirt an trousers, hanging his jacket in the wardrobe. The sound of the door opening and of someone entering his room perturbed him remarkably little, perhaps he knew who it was. He just stood still for a moment beside the open wardrobe. Then he looked straight at her and she couldn't find any words for a good few moments.
"I couldn't be alone," she told him finally, "Not after..."
He was still looking at her clearly. The words to articulate how profoundly he had managed to move her with little more than kisses that afternoon did not exist.
"No," he agreed, indicating that he perhaps almost understood how she had found herself there. She was glad that one of them did.
Both of their attentions- without saying it aloud- seemed remarkably focused on the fact that there was a bed in the room. She wondered if clearing her throat would dispel any of her anxiety.
"Would you..." she began, but couldn't quite manage, "Would you mind if I lay beside you? Just for a while."
He made no movement for a second, then crossed from where he was standing to the narrow bed, peeling back the covers and lying down. There was room beside him. She smiled a little, climbing in beside him. They were so close together like this that he found himself having to put his arms around her, softly at first, as if she might object. She rested her head under his chin, able to feel his chest move with his breathing.
"Do you understand why I need this?" she asked, hoping he would but also that he would say if he didn't.
"I think so," he replied quietly.
She closed her eyes, liking how he held her more tightly than he would have needed to. She was aware of the shallow quality of her breathing. While his embrace was acting to relax her, it was also having the opposite effect at the same time. He was so warm against the cool of the linen on her face.
"I love you, Charles," she admitted in little more than a whisper, eyes closed, "And you know I have for quite a long time now. But not like this," she felt a faint flush at her neck at the confession; she was almost apologising by now, "I didn't know I, I w-wanted you," There, she'd said it, "Like this."
He was quiet for a moment. Then she felt his hold on her loosen and heard herself let out the tinniest whimper. But he wasn't letting her go; he moved just a fraction, down to kiss her neck. She could have cried from sheer relief. All she had asked was to lie beside him, she saw now that that had been foolish.
"I love you too, Elsie," he told her, his arms around her waist now.
And they just lay there a while. She wanted to ask for more, it was wrong of her but she badly wanted to. However, she didn't. Lying in his embrace was comforting to the point where she felt drowsy, tension that she hadn't realised was there was relieved and she found she was exhausted.
She woke to find her arms cradling his head. By the sound of his breathing, he had also drifted off. It was properly dark now, they must have slept a good few hours. She rubbed her nose into the linen of the bed sheets, trying to relax again. But she couldn't, the effect of him holding her even when asleep was difficult to deny. She felt herself flush again. They were playing a dangerous game here, and she knew it. Kissing away from the house was one thing but being caught in each other's rooms was something different altogether. It was her fault, in a moment- of what was probably madness- she had come to him, and there was no backing out now: she couldn't. She felt him stir and let go of his head.
"Elsie," he murmured, sounding fully awake.
She found herself kissing his forehead, quite without consciously meaning to. He shifted himself higher again, to kiss her lips. Her fingers wandered to the buttons of his shirt and he made no attempt to stop her. They were actually going to do this, she thought, moving the garment down off his shoulders as she kissed him. She willed him to roll over her, moving her arms around his shoulders as he sank to kiss her chest through the nightdress. There was something missing in him as her took hold of her waist, nuzzling into her skin. She tipped her head back, enjoying the feeling. It was missing in her too; it was reserve. They had finally managed to let themselves go; to let themselves live in the moment. And to her it was wonderful.
He rolled over, hands still on her hips. She could hear herself moaning almost wantonly but couldn't bring herself to stop. She couldn't bring herself to stop at all.
"Please, Charles," she murmured a little hoarsely, "Make love to me. Now."
He looked up at her, cautiously.
"You wouldn't regret it?" he asked, mercifully getting straight to the point.
"No," she assured him, "I couldn't ever regret you."
He planted another single kiss on her chest.
He gently moved his hands to gather up the hem of her nightdress. His fingers brushed her legs as he did so and she gasped.
"I love you, Elsie," he told her.
He touched the inside of her thigh. She found she was entirely comfortable with the intimacy of it, as she'd never known herself to be. And he made love to her, as she'd asked.
Later they lay entangled on the linen holding each other. And thanking God for each other and for the existence of love letters and poppies.
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