I haven't done pure Carson/Hughesness for an age. This is a oneshot, she says, knowing she's said that before. I have to admit that I'm not sure if they still had a Season in 1915, but the idea was quite a nice one and I was reluctant to let it go. As most of the Carson/Hughes readers know, Onesimus is writing a wonderful fic about these tow and their strained relationship with London Seasons; I'm not going to pretend that didn't give me some ideas.
This is my lapse into series 2 speculation based on that marvellous press pack, so if you're frightened of it, or mild SPOILERS, don't read this.
An Old Socialist/I Shall Be Waiting
The rest of 1914 carried much strain; so much in fact that it had to spill over into 1915. She knew very well that she was fortunate- she slept in a bed every night, not some God forsaken trench- but still, that wasn't always easy to remember when she was harassed out of her mind, rushed off her feet. There was certainly more to be done these days; and for the most part she didn't mind. In principal she approved whole-heartedly. But principal, it seemed had not accounted for certain... factors.
She did not mind the extra work at all: she could see for herself the good it would do, or rather the bad it would undo. It defied common sense to leave such a large house standing empty when it could help the common cause. She only wished- from time to time- that some people had more of that same common sense.
Charles Carson was a dear dear man, she was the first to admit it. It was also true that she could happily box his ears sometimes and not bat so much as an eyelid. But it wasn't really his fault that he was too backward to see that things had to change; he had lived sixty years in a rigid set pattern, she could well see why he might have problems changing with the times. Only, she desperately wished that he would get over them just a little bit, especially when progress was so necessary- vital- for saving human life.
At first she had thought it was just marginal reluctance, that it would ebb away after a while, once he got used to a new way of doing things. But old habits really do die hard. More than once she found herself biting back rather sharp retorts in her more irritable moments, only managing to keep silent by reminding herself how much they might upset him. Because her irritation wasn't so much with him- he had a good heart- but his obstinate mindset.
One day, however, she found she could not help it.
She found him at his desk looking sombre.
"Whatever's the matter?" she asked him, "You haven't had any bad news, have you?" she added hurriedly, her mind springing to young Mr Crawley, and indeed, Thomas.
He sat up a little straighter.
"No, nothing like that," he assured her, "I've just had rather a trying day."
"In what way trying?" she took the seat opposite him at his desk, making it apparent that she was ready to listen.
The time was long since gone when he thought he could dissuade her from trying to help him.
"It's just," he gestured vaguely at the ceiling, "Upstairs."
She waited for him to continue, fairly sure that she might not entirely concur with his views on this particular matter, she thought it would be best not to speak for the moment.
"It's rather unsettling," he told her, "To see the proper order of things upset."
This was the point at which she could have chosen to remain completely silent and just hear him out on the matter, nodding along. She didn't.
"The proper order of things?" she prompted him, feeling a little uneasy.
He regarded her rather placidly.
"Is it right that his Lordship should be ordered around in his own home, forced to make way for complete strangers? There's very little dignity in that."
She paused for a beat before speaking in a very cautious tone.
"I don't know. One could argue, I suppose, that if it helps people- if it helps wounded men- that it might be for the best."
He continued, rather more into his stride than she could care to mention. She got the distinct impression that he had not really taken in her last remark.
"And then there's Mrs Crawley," he told her, looking quite visibly distressed now, "Usurping her Ladyship's authority in her own house!"
"She does seem to have more experience in these matters-..." Elsie began.
This did more to get his attention.
"So you think she's in the right, do you?" he wanted to know, looking rather cross with her now, "To abuse her Ladyship's hospitality-..."
"I'm sure she acts with the best of intentions," she retorted, months of unvoiced opinions seeming to rest ready in her throat now, "I would remind you, Mr Carson, that there are bigger things at stake here than the squabbles of her Ladyship, or even the smooth running of a house!"
Her temper was rattled now; that was probably what made her add, in a low mutinous voice she saved for special occasions:
"I don't know if you're not just sulking because wounded men tend not to care too much about the quality of the silver they're allowed into the presence of."
It was a poor stab, petty in the extreme, unnecessarily harsh, and not really worth the time it took her to say the words; but she was suddenly just so cross! She had completely forgotten that she had begun this discussion with the intention of comforting him; he had made her forget, the ridiculous man! That day she left his pantry rather fuming. She passed Anna in the corridor; seeing the housekeeper's face, the maid got out of the way pretty quickly.
But that was the very funny thing about them. It seemed that the more he irritated her, the more he made her cross, the more friendly they were when they weren't disagreeing over something. This was partly, she surmised, purely because of his nature: he was very bad at living with the feeling that someone was more cross with him than he was with them. In all her time as housekeeper, whenever they had a small disagreement he was always very gracious in accepting his portion of blame, however much he tried not to show it- for this foible of his rather irritated him- and apologising. He considered it good manners. The vase of flowers she found on her desk attested to the fact.
And so it continued, though they were never so blunt with each other after that day, there continued to be something of a discrepancy between their views. They were both stubborn old mules, though they could piece themselves back together after an argument, they were each as unlikely as the other to change their convictions in the wake of them. But in the moments when household business wasn't being discussed they were... they were closer. When the rift between them was being ignored, they were all the more thankful, at least she was, and that carried through to their manners with each other.
When they met of an evening they sat beside each other on the settee instead of separate armchairs. They told themselves that it was because it afforded them a little more warmth in the winter months, but when Spring came they were reluctant to shift back to the old way. One day she was up a ladder sorting some books out on one of the high shelves.
"You shouldn't be up there!" he told her, "Get down at once before you break your neck!"
"I am perfectly capable," she informed him.
"I'd still rather that William-..."
"Broke his neck instead of me?" she asked, "Thank you, Charles, but I'm finished anyway."
He took her hand- he did not offer, he just took hold of it- and helped her down the last few rungs.
Little things; he was somehow far less shy of contact with her than he had been before. She was sure he hadn't found her in some way repulsive before; it was more as if he felt as if he were taking a liberty if he touched her for too long. He leant against her comfortably now, and she could have sworn that once or twice their hands innocuously brushed as they walked down the corridor together.
But then, much to her horror, mild amusement and frustration, the time arrived for the London Season much as it had done every year before that.
"Are they still having one?" she asked, appalled when he told her he would be attending as usual, "There's nothing like a war to unbalance numbers at a party. Or is the Kaiser calling it all off for a few months?"
"It does seem to be something of a token gesture," he conceded, "To keep moral up. I expect there will be more Dowagers than either débutantes or bachelors there."
"Will you be gone as long as usual?" she asked, wondering if there might at least be relief in that respect.
But he shook his head.
"Lady Sybil's very keen to stay in London. There are many people she wants to see; many causes she'd like to help."
Elsie nodded; she could at least understand that. Even if it meant that she would be deprived of certain advantages.
However, as the few weeks that acted as a buffer between them and the season dwindled rather too eagerly away she felt more and more uneasy. A looming dread was pitting her stomach. Sometimes it was hard to concentrate on the here and now for it. She willed herself to get a grip and carry on, but there too she met with reluctance. It wasn't like Charles was going away to fight! Heavens, it was unlikely that during the course of the Season he would meet with any mortal peril. But, then again, Lady Violet was going this year.
Much much too soon for her liking, his last night at Downton arrived. They sat in her sitting room, long after the business of the house had been concluded- side by side with empty coco mugs. She hoped he might be as reluctant to leave as she would be to send him on his way. She chanced a glance at his face. He looked rather lost in thought, melancholy.
She did something that she wasn't sure she knew if she dared to until it was too late. She reached out and touched his hand for no discernible reason than to do just that. He sighed but did not attempt to pull away.
"You look very tired," she told him, "You don't want to go away, do you?" she ventured.
"Not really, no. I had much rather stay here."
She had much rather he stayed.
"Try to look on the bright side," she told him, "No more troublesome housekeeper to disagree with your every move."
He smiled faintly at her attempt to cheer him up but she got the feeling that she hadn't been nearly successful. She tried a different tack.
"Though," she hoped he did not here the falter in her voice, "I must say, I might miss squabbling with you a little."
She was still holding his hand. He looked at her.
"Might you?" he asked.
She might, especially if he looked at her like that. She withdrew her hand quickly, looking back down at her mug. He took that for affirmative.
"I shall miss your company," he told her, "It's nice. Sometimes it feels as if you're on my side even when we're squabbling."
"That's a ridiculous thing to say," she pointed out.
"Yes," he agreed.
They were silent, her looking back down at her mug. It was hard, though, to keep that up; she could feel his eyes on her. When she did return his gaze, she found he wore a look that she'd never seen on him before.
And then he kissed her. He kissed her swiftly but gently, with a more than a hint of remaining inhibition, at least at first. She was quite considerably breathless when they broke apart.
At she could not help but laugh, though something inside her was aching at the loss of his mouth from hers.
"We probably picked the wrong night to do that," she pointed out when he gave her a questioning look, "We won't see each other for two months, at least."
He let out a ragged humourless laugh.
"I suppose so," he conceded. His voice was deeper when he was breathless.
Completely contradicting what she had just said, she all but slung her arm around his neck and kissed him again, more vigorously still. When they broke apart this time she felt the reluctance to let him go even more pressingly.
"Charles, lie down," she told him.
"What?" he eyed her warily, "If you thought kissing was a bad idea, I don't think..."
She rolled her eyes at him.
"Goodness, you're keen," she told him, "Lie down. I'm not going to lie down with you, I promise."
Having confused him, she motioned for him to turn around and lie back. The settee was too small for him to lie flat out without nudging her. She wanted him to nudge her- as it were-; she guided him to lie with his head in her lap. Though she could tell that he thought at first this might be a liberty, she placed her hands softly on his face; soothing the skin there, kissing his forehead.
"I'll be waiting, you know," she assured him, "When you get back. Don't worry, I'm not about to change my mind."
She was aware that so far she hadn't indicated that her mind was made up in any way. But now, she supposed, she had. Her hand lingered on his chin. He took it in his, brought it softly to his mouth and kissed her palm. She closed her eyes as he held it there. The feeling of his head in her lap was a heavy but comforting presence. There was nothing remotely suggestive about it, it was simply a way of telling him that she would allow him intimacy and that he was free to take it. For thoroughly selfish reasons this time she was pleased at this proof that change could be wrought in him.
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