This is my first Carson/Hughes/Downton Abbey story, and I have to admit, I'm terrified to post it. I never thought I would write a story for them, but sometimes ideas have a way of taking over! Please let me know what you think about this one...

The Secrets We Keep

She knew these halls like the back of her hand. Even with the satin veil of night pulled low over her weary eyes, she managed to walk quietly but determinedly in the darkness, as if her feet were made for these floors. Although the others had supposedly been asleep for hours, she dared not light a candle, as she did not quite trust the fragile silence of the ordinarily bustling house.

She breathed in deeply as she stopped at his door, then silently released the breath through slightly parted lips. Nervously she wiped the dampness from the palms of her hands onto her nightdress. She always felt so foolish, so wanton as she paused here in the middle of the night, mustering up all the courage within her it took to simply knock on the door.

Her hands trembled as her knuckles softly rapped the door. She had little doubt that anyone as far away as a couple of meters away could have heard her, yet still her heart pounded loudly in her ears as fear rose and twisted within her chest. Almost instantly, however, the door, slowly so as not to make a sound, opened at her request. She stepped inside to an even deeper darkness, if it were possible, until she heard the click of the door being shut behind her, and a spark of light brought a candle's flame to life.

"Elsie."

The sound of her name, spoken in such low, rich tones but barely above a whisper, sent a shiver up her spine that she knew had nothing to do with the slight chill of the night air. As her eyes adjusted to the new light, she allowed herself to be taken by the hand and led farther into the room.

Elsie smiled softly as she gazed at the man before her. He gave her a smile in return, but something about slight dullness in his eyes concerned her.

"You've had a rough day," she observed, tilting her head to the side just a bit.

There was no questioning in her voice.

He sighed and dropped his gaze to the floor, though there was no need; he shouldn't at all have been surprised that she could see right through him. Sometimes he entertained the thought that Elsie Hughes was some sort of secret mind reader, at least where he was concerned, and at times like this, he felt no desire to remind himself how silly of a thought that was.

"I have," he replied simply, keeping his eyes locked to a distant spot on the floor.

The feel of her fingertips ghosting a path down his arm to grasp his hand sent goosebumps rising on the flesh there. She felt his body tense beneath her touch just before he squeezed her hand tightly within his own, almost desperate for the comfort he found at the mere nearness of her.

"I apologize," he said suddenly, shaking his head and loosening the grip of her hand as if from fear that he had been holding her against her will.

"Whatever for?" she asked, responding by only holding his hand tighter and moving closer to him.

"You didn't come here to worry with me as if I'm a child who needs soothing."

"I came here for you," she reminded him. "I'm here for whatever you need."

He needed her, he was certain, yet he did not speak this aloud because he knew the words would sound foolish once they were released.

"You never have to apologize to me, Charles," she assured him, noting his hesitance.

He gave a smile, warmer than before, and lifted her hand to his lips. She marveled at the tenderness of his touch and of his mouth as it lingered upon her cool flesh. Before he could refuse, not that he would ever have wanted to, Elsie had pulled him tightly into her tender yet strong arms. He almost came undone as she buried her head into the crook of his neck, her soft, warm breath teasing the sensitive bare skin just below his ear. Charles had always teased her that she could make him forget his own name by just a simple glance or a brief brush of her hand against his. The truth was that he forever longed for the release he found only in her. In difficult times like these, she knew that he didn't really want to forget; he just wanted to not remember. There was a difference.

Elsie's breathing grew ragged as his lips pressed against her neck. She opened her mouth to speak, but as soon as his name formed upon her tongue, he gently nipped at the hollow of her collarbone, and all coherent thoughts were lost.

Elsie dared not wonder how much time had passed since she had arrived. Time held no meaning when the two of them were together, but as soon as the cold reminder of reality began creeping back into the corner's of her mind, it was as if some wretched clock had begun ticking again as a constant reminder of what little time they truly had.

"You're leaving?" Charles asked with sleep heavy in his voice as he watched the look of peace slip from Elsie's countenance.

"I think I must," she replied regretfully as she forced herself to pull away from him and sit up in bed.

"Goodnight, Mrs. Hughes."

Elsie nodded but turned her back to him as she busied herself with getting ready. She hadn't needed yet another reminder that it was time for them to return to their professional facades.

"You don't have to speak to me," Charles teased, "but, please, at least grant me a goodnight's kiss."

He watched her shoulders slowly rise and fall in a silent sigh before she turned to face him once more. As she leaned down to kiss him, he pulled her even closer to him, not letting her get away with only a soft touch of her mouth to his. As she began to pull away from him as their lips parted, he stopped her by capturing her hands within his own.

"Someday, Elsie," he whispered.

She gave him a half smile, finding more comfort from his simple words than she knew was likely realistic.

"Sleep well," she bid him just before she rose and quietly hurried to the door.

By now, she jokingly thought herself as somewhat of an expert at entering and exiting Charles' room late at night. Perhaps she should have been ashamed, she mused, but unlike many people she encountered, she had never been one to believe that love - real, honest love - should ever be something one is ashamed of. Propriety, she had long decided, sometimes had a way of destroying the best in people, and she, they, would certainly not be destroyed.

As Elsie carefully closed the door behind her, a warm glow of light caught her eye before a sharp "Oh!" caused her heart to skip a beat.

"Mrs. Hughes, I -"

In the moments it took her to process that the glow of light she was seeing was a candle and that the voice she was hearing was Anna's, Elsie's heart began beating so loudly that she could no longer focus completely on what the young girl was saying. She knew where the girl had been; she didn't need to see Anna's somewhat tangled hair and disheveled nightclothes to deduce such a thing.

As Anna stepped closer, she saw the panic glaze over Mrs. Hughes' eyes in the flicker of the candlelight.

"Mrs. Hughes, I'll never say a word!" she assured her, tentatively reaching out and just barely touching the fabric of Elsie's sleeve with her trembling fingertips.

The realization that Anna cared more for Elsie's secret being kept than for providing her own honor-saving excuses eased the older woman significantly.

"You've been so good to me," Anna went on. "No one deserves... no one deserves this more than you."

Elsie was taken aback by her forwardness, but she could not help the renewed surge of compassion she felt toward the girl.

"We should both get back to bed," Elsie said once she had found her voice. "We have a long day ahead of us in the morning."

Anna nodded and gave her superior an understanding nod. They walked together in silence, and Anna could not help but take a frequent glance at Mrs. Hughes' face and the way it appeared to almost shine, even without the direct candlelight. Love, Anna thought, was a very good look for her.

The End