And then they lived happily ever after.
Disaster had a way of binding family, even more completely than simple celebration. Therefore the entire family of Downton, those upstairs and those downstairs, was particularly close-knit throughout the Christmas of 1919.
Cora believed it their job, their very purpose, for her and Robert to maintain ballast in the face of nearly debilitating disaster and an endless series of gut-punches that kept the entire house reeling. They would set the tone for the rest of the house, and it was imperative that they maintain a facade of quiet confidence.
And then, as the new year celebrations faded and the vast estate found itself buried beneath a blanket of snow, it felt like they were able to take a collective sigh of relief.
Bates was safe from execution which, although not a complete victory, meant that hope still burned. Cora was finally able to unburden herself of a secret that had seared her heart for years. Robert's unexpected reaction was to give Mary his support, unequivocally, so that she was free to break off her difficult engagement. The relief of that turn alone was enough to un-tether Cora's heavy heart and set it to soar.
Sybil, their baby, was to have a child of her own. If Cora knew her husband (and there was very little in the world she would admit to knowing as well as Robert), the knowledge of a grandchild was quite enough to complete the thaw between him and the Branson family.
All in all, the first months of 1920 set a tone of hopeful anticipation for the many good things to come. It was, in her estimation, a good note indeed.
So it was with some measure of concern that she caught Robert's far away expression as he sat in the chair of their bedroom before retiring for the night. In the previous months hey had begun to talk again, long rambling conversations conducted side by side in the bed they shared for three decades. It was an unburdening of hearts and souls, and the fractured bond between them slowly began to repair. After such a day, Cora had hoped there would be less conversation and a good deal more...entertainment, but she could tell that Robert's mind was elsewhere.
Curving her hand around the nape of his neck he started only lightly as she slid into his lap. He smelled of soap and brandy and she buried her nose against his neck.
"You look troubled." She whispered against the sensitive skin below his ear before pressing a kiss there. His entire body trembled lightly as she knew it would, and she smiled against his throat.
"No, not troubled." His palm made a soothing pass up her back and back down, fingertips trailing over her spine. It settled him to touch her these days, to know that she was nearby even if their opinions were acres apart. "Just thoughtful."
She curled tighter into him, wiggling just slightly, hoping to tempt him out of his pensive state. His free hand cupped her knee and began a slow trip up and across her thigh. It was true that this part of their marriage was not a fire that raged out of control as it had years earlier. But it was also true that their nights together were sweeter, no longer filled with desperate longing but a sweet kind of connection. Cora sighed with Robert's fingers slid beneath the edge of her nightgown, reveling in the feather-soft trail of his fingertips over the outside of her thigh.
"A very good note." She giggled into his ear and bit gently, terribly self-satisfied to hear the gravelly groan escape his throat.
The rapid double knock on their bedroom door was followed by a two second pause and Mary's questioning "Mamaw?" before she cautiously opened the door.
Robert extricated his hand from any place inappropriate and both parents turned to their daughter, standing abashed in their doorway.
Her face, so dear and familiar to them, was twisted in an expression of excitement and horror and, Cora thought, just a hint of relief. The issues between her parents were never lost on Mary, even when Sybil and Edith were too distracted or too young to understand. Mary watched them carefully and seemed to sense the temperature of their relationship preternaturally. It settled her, therefore, to see her parents back on the same page, even if it meant that they were back on the same page.
"I just thought you should know," Mary blurted from the doorway, excitement eclipsing discomfort as she stepped inside. "Matthew proposed."
Cora inhaled sharply and Robert's grip tightened on her, his fingers pressing into her lower back. This was a familiar road, and they were understandably cautious.
"And I accepted." Mary finished, and her smile was the sunrise. Cora didn't bother to temper her exclamation of joy before she launched herself in her daughter's direction, wrapping arms around Mary tightly.
"Oh, my sweet girl." Cora cooed, and tears burned at the corners of her eyes. "I am so very happy for you."
That Cora would be pleased was no question. A love match for her daughters had never seemed an attainable goal. And while Sybil chose to eschew her place in Society, her letters were filled with a simple fulfilled joy that Cora envied. For Mary to find such a match, while also securing her father's entire estate, seemed an event too wonderful to be true.
When Cora finally released her daughter, Mary turned to Robert. The tentative hope in her face stabbed at him even before she spoke.
"It seems you'll have the son you always wanted." She hadn't meant it to be an admonition but a gift. She was so often a disappointment to the one man in the world she adored above all others; she just knew this would please him beyond all measure.
Her father's embrace was warm and gentle, as she so often remembered from her childhood. Many girls' fathers were distant and, to some extent, Robert was. But he never withheld affection and would gladly embrace his girls as often as they wanted to be held. She cried herself to sleep many times in the protective arms of her Papaw, needing and loving the simple strength of him to bolster her through difficult times.
Mary backed away and her eyes sparkled with unshed tears, which spilled over with Robert's next words.
"That may be, but I want you to know, Mary." He tilted his head forward just a touch, to assure their eyes met. "I've always had the daughters I always wanted."
Her eyes fluttered shut and a tear tracked over her cheek, and when she opened them again her smile was the one she inherited from her mother. Bright and dangerous, and full of humor
"We can start planning tomorrow. Please, go back to your...evening rituals." She let the door snick shut behind her.
Silence reigned in the bedroom for half a second before Cora turned. Her smile was brighter than the artificial lights in the house, brighter than the sun on a spring day, and she threw herself into Robert's arms with such force that they tumbled backwards onto the bed.
Their laughter was unfettered, and Cora looked as though the last several years had simply melted away. She was overcome and she laid her ear against Robert's chest, listening to his warm, slow heartbeat.
"Mary is getting married, Robert. To Matthew!" Years earlier Cora had called such an announcement an answer to their prayers and the fix to all their problems. Now, in the wake of a war and a seismic shift that changed the very complexion of their daily lives, it was far more than a mere "solution". Yes, the Estate would stay intact and Mary's children, Cora's grandchildren, would one day inherit the entire fortune they had tried so hard to protect. But more importantly, the most important in Cora's estimation, was that Mary would be bound to man that she loved. She had a chance at happiness. A very real chance.
She could almost physically feel Robert's drift from celebration to his distant brooding from earlier, and when she rested her chin on her palm to look up to him, she found his expression once more hazy.
"Robert, please be happy. Just for tonight, let's have our happy ending."
He smiled down at her, but his grin was somewhat wistful. "Cora, we're getting old."
Her shocked expression drew laughter from him, and his hands wrapped around her back in a quick hug. "Our girls are growing up. Sybil is pregnant, Mary is engaged..."
"Edith. Yes. It's just...we are on our way out, now. It's time to make room for the children, the grand-children. Where have the years gone?"
Cora let loose a sigh and settled harder onto Robert's chest. She wondered vaguely if all men became quite so conscious of the passage of years They often joked that women were the ones worried of becoming old maids, but it occurred to Cora that men were equally terrified of becoming old men. Perhaps even moreso.
"Before you know it," He continued on. "You'll be living in the Dower House, terrorizing your son-in-laws."
Cora sat up abruptly, although there was only mock anger in her face. "First, I don't intend to terrorize anybody, that is an in-born Crawley trait that I look to you to fulfill. I am fairly certain you have already begun with our son-in-law, young Branson. I, on the other hand, plan to age gracefully surrounded by my grandchildren, spoiling them terribly as my American heritage dictates. Second, you aren't dead yet. We are quite alive, and we are quite blessed. Why don't you help me celebrate for tonight. We can worry about the rest of it tomorrow. Next week. Next year."
She was right. Of course she was right. There was no point in living in the future, if you chose not to exist in the present. Cora was determined to celebrate the present.
He rolled her until he was pressing her into the mattress and he allowed his hands free reign over her body. She came alive beneath his touch, and sought to stoke the same fire in him.
No, they weren't dead yet. And he was fully prepared to show his wife just how not-dead he was.
Life at Downton would forge ahead, and those inside her walls would persevere, regardless of what the future held. They were strong, stronger than any of them even realized. The coming years would continue to test them in ways they could not yet even begin to imagine. And while at times they would drift away from one another, the house, the family, their love all worked to create a strong gravitational force that kept them in the proper orbit.
Closer, farther, dimmer, brighter.
A/N - I know. I teased you all with smut and didn't even deliver. TEASE! Whatever. Anyhoodle, that's that. I finished something! WITH MANY WORDS! Without even a plan! Hot damn. I hope everyone enjoyed it and I'd like to thank all of you for the encouragement. It's super scary-cakes to write a story with no planned ending, even if all it is, is glorified character study.
Now, if someone can just give me a believable situation in which Cora would become hilariously and adorably full-on drunk, I would love to write that story. It might even have real sexxings!