A/N: After all the angst of my last story, I needed to convince myself that I still have it in me to write cheerful, fluffy ones, without going seriously OOC. This little thing is dedicated to Tartan Robes, in recognition of all the support and inspiration her messages have given me recently.
Inside, Outside, Under My Skin
May 7, 1902
...The annual award for the most accomplished butler of Northern England will be presented in the ... Hall of York, on Saturday, July 5.
...The finalists are required to gather at the premises at noon, to participate in a luncheon held by the organizers. The ceremony shall be followed by a formal dinner, to which each finalist may invite one accompanying person. Formal evening dress required...
He stared at the paper in his hand, then at the jacket hanging on the wardrobe door.
This wasn't going to work. Not by a long shot.
Reluctantly, he slipped his daily, working jacket off, and tried to put the other one on. Not sooner than he had both arms in the sleeves and tried to adjust his shirt cuffs did he hear the unmistakable sound of fabric tearing, and huffed in frustration. Of course it didn't work! The thing was more than five years old—and as much as he hated to admit it, he'd put on a stone and a half since the last time he wore it. Most embarrassing occurrence, as it were. Fortunately, no one was here to witness him in such abominable a state!...
Right on cue. Curses! Why did he leave the door to his pantry ajar on today of all the days? At least he wouldn't mind being seen like this by her... or if he did, it would be for an entirely different reason. "Yes, Miss Hughes?"
The head housemaid stepped cautiously through the door and frowned at his miserable facial expression. Then she took in his attire, and frowned even more. "Forgive me for being so blunt, Mr. Carson, but what in Heaven's name are you wearing?"
"It's an evening jacket, Miss Hughes," he replied stiffly, mildly offended by the hardly concealed sparkles of laughter dancing in the depth of her eyes. "Admittedly, a rather old one, but an evening jacket all the same."
"From a man's perspective it might as well seem like one," she muttered under her breath, eyeing him suspiciously. "You do not wish to leave your pantry dressed in it, do you, Mr. Carson?"
"Certainly not!" The mere thought made him shiver. "I was merely checking if it still fitted me."
"I believe we can agree on how that experiment ended," she remarked under her breath, but without any real bite in her voice. "Do you need any help with getting out of this thing?"
Since the alternative would have been to wriggle out of the damned thing by himself, most probably completed with a series of small, undignified hops, he decided to drop all the pretence and lay himself in her capable hands. "If you don't mind..."
She rolled her eyes and stepped behind him, slowly pulling the jacket down and off his (much too broad) shoulders. "If you're suggesting that I might have minded helping out a friend in a dire need of my assistance, then you don't know me at all, Mr. Carson."
He smiled, glad that she believed them to be friends despite the relatively short course of their acquaintanceship. "It was not my intention, Miss Hughes. I apologize if I offended you."
Her hands (she had very nice hands, neither white nor delicate but feminine and... trust-inspiring, if such a thing could have been said about a pair of hands) came around his chest and gently pushed the lapels out of the way, so he pushed his shoulders backwards, allowing her to divest him of the jacket completely. "You didn't. And although I appreciate your sense of propriety, Mr. Carson, you must know that you don't have to keep all your defences up all the time when we're alone."
He nodded and regarded her thoughtfully, mesmerized by the way her hands examined his torn jacket: the quiet attentiveness she showed to him and his wellbeing. She was a curious woman, Miss Hughes—quiet and calm on the outside, strong, stubborn and confident once you got to know her well enough to see through the act she put up for the world.
She let him in, to that secret, slightly more private part of her life and character, just as he did her—closer than any person in his life, save for his mother, perhaps. In the span of a few short months she'd spent in Downton, they recognized each other as kindred spirits, and slowly drifted towards one another, carefully stepping onto a ground yet unknown to both of them: a true friendship, selfless and undemanding.
Well, perhaps not that selfless on his part: he did take tremendous pleasure from spending time with her whenever their paths crossed during the day (the week, the month) and taking her in—the unassuming beauty, the quiet, patient manner in which she dealt with her tasks, the kindness she bestowed upon the younger maids.
He could easily imagine her becoming a housekeeper one day—and hopefully one at Downton, too, thus enabling him to spend even more time in her company, and perhaps tighten the bonds between them; have her talk to him more often, perhaps even touch him casually ever so often...
...the way she was doing it now. "Mr. Carson?" her hand brushed his forearm, then squeezed it gently. "Where have you gone? You seem to be very far away, and you probably haven't heard a word from what I'd said."
He shook his head, snapping out of his reverie and getting himself ready to apologize again, until he noticed the way her mouth quirked upwards in the tiniest of smiles. "I was simply thinking about my 'defences', as you called it," he explained, touching the bridge of his nose with his fingers to cover up the confusion. "Sorry, you were saying?..."
"I wished to know why you would need a jacket like this one in the first place," she repeated, and raised her eyebrows. "Well?"
Unwillingly, he broke their contact and stepped closer to his desk, picking up the previously discarded letter. "I have been appointed a finalist of the Butler Of The Year Award, and the invitation to the awarding ceremony requires formal attire."
She gave him the brightest smile he'd ever seen her directing onto anyone. "That is truly wonderful, Mr. Carson—congratulations! Although you should have come to me before you even considered wearing this..." she waved the jacket at him. "I would have told you it was no good from the start."
"Oh? And why is that, Miss Hughes?"
She crumpled the jacket in her hands with something akin to disgust. "It's old-fashioned, battered, and had clearly seen too many winters. It doesn't befit someone worthy of the title of Butler Of The Year."
He chuckled at her hardly contained fierceness: despite her best attempts to retain professional consistency, her Scottish temper would occasionally win over her. "I thought it would be quite appropriate, seeing how most of the butlers I know, including my humble self, are rather old-fashioned, battered and way past their prime. Besides, I haven't won the award yet," he pointed out modestly, trying to put her views into the right perspective.
She rolled her eyes and smiled reassuringly. "Oh, but you will, Mr. Carson, I'm sure you will. You have all the qualities one might want to look for in a butler... and even more."
Something in the way she said it made his mouth go dry. He took a cautious step in her direction, fingers sliding over the folded letter in his hands. "And what qualities are those, pray?"
She raised her eyes to meet his, and opened her mouth...
Somewhere down the hall a faint ringing of a bell could be heard.
Miss Hughes blinked rapidly and lowered her eyes to the jacket in her hands. "First and foremost—the ability to know when it is required of one to pause a conversation and get back to work." She walked past him and towards the door, before stopping at the threshold and turning to face him once more, the afternoon light illuminating the side of her face, playing with fiery lights on her hair. She bit her lip, considering something for a moment, and looked back up at him.
"There's some material leftovers from the last jacket his lordship had made. I could come and take your measurements later, see if something could be done about your 'formal attire' problem. A good butler should be as presentable and dignified on the outside as he is on the inside. Only then is his image complete."
She gave him one last smile and was gone, leaving him utterly speechless and completely amazed. Whatever had he done to deserve such a good friend... in such a gorgeous form?
He looked down at his hands, remembering how small hers were in comparison, and read out one key sentence: "The ceremony shall be followed by a formal dinner, to which each finalist may invite one accompanying person."
He smiled to himself, heading over to his desk and pulling out a duty roster to check on the senior staff holiday schedule he'd prepared with Mrs. Reynolds a week before.
Perhaps Miss Hughes had an evening dress of her own, and would be willing to put it on for him.