Rated: K+
Pairings: Carson/Hughes
Disclaimer: It could not be less mine. Julian Fellowes wrote Downton Abbey, which is produced by Carnival Films for ITV Network.
Spoiler: Contains spoilers for season 2 and the Christmas special. Read at own risk!
Summary: She tried to enjoy these last weeks she had with him as much as she could, knowing that once he had left, it would never come back. Mr Carson is forced to consider retirement.
Genre: Romance

A/N: For a long time I've felt/hoped that this could be a possible outcome for the final season of Downton Abbey.
One of my shorter, a-chapter-a-day stories.

Chapter 1

A great many things changed after that memorable first Christmas after the war. Lady Sybil had married Tom Branson and moved to Ireland. Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley got married in a lovely spring wedding, went to Italy and Greece for their honeymoon and settled at the Crawley House upon their return.
To the great astonishment of the family and the entire community of Downton, Isobel Crawley married Dr Richard Clarkson and moved into his cottage near the hospital.
Lady Edith remained behind with her parents and a hint of melancholy. She tried to keep her spirits up and spend a lot of time with her grandmother. And as the months wore on it became notably obvious that Sir Anthony Strallan visited the Grantham Estate remarkably often. And after a lot of shared teas, walks over the grounds and car rides, with many shy glances and lingering looks and much discrete insisting on Edith´s side that she still thought the world of him, Sir Anthony finally overcame his feelings of inferiority and proposed, thus making Lady Edith Lady Strallan in the summer that followed.

After that the house grew quiet. Anna went with Lady Mary, who reassured her that she and her husband would do everything to see that John Bates would be released from prison. Thomas left to become an entrepreneur in London. Mrs Patmore retired and moved to Leicester to live with her sister and Daisy took over the kitchen.
There was less to do and less hurry to do it and after all the strain and hardship of the past years, Elsie found it a blessing. Things were finally getting back to normal.

Only, they didn´t. Not really at least. After the hustle and bustle of first Lady Mary´s and then Lady Edith´s wedding she found herself to be extraordinary tired. At first she thought a week of early tuck-in´s would cure her, but it was not so. As the summer morphed into autumn she began to find that where she'd once had almost unlimited energy and could be on her feet all day after only six hours of sleep, she now barely could keep her eyes open after nine and often woke with a startle after she´d dozed off above her knitting.
And in the mornings, when young Molly, the new scullery maid banged on the door of her bedroom, it became more and more difficult to wake up and drag herself out of bed.
Her eyes became weary after she had spent a morning pouring over the rota´s, stinging with tiredness until her vision became so bleary she could barely read her own handwriting.

On a cold and dreary morning early October, Elsie sat herself down at the breakfast table, still not fully awake and overlooked her staff. They still employed an ample number of maids, because a house the size of Downton required a lot of hands to be kept, but with its inhabiting family so diminished, the staff was still considerably less than what it had been before the war.

The heavy and slow sound of nearing footsteps alerted her to the fact that Mr Carson was entering the Servant´s Hall. He heavily sat himself down at the head of the table and gave a small nod with his head, indicating that they could start on their breakfast. Wordlessly she poured him a cup of coffee and then one for herself and he showed his thanks with a small smile.

Whatever discomforts she was experiencing, she knew he was suffering them tenfold. He had recovered from the Spanish flu that had raged the house a year prior, but he had never fully regained his strength and although she loathed it to admit, she began to worry about him more and more. She knew his movements had become more difficult and that he found it challenging, if not impossible, to stand to attention in the dining rooms for hours of late. After a lot of gentle probing he had finally agreed to see Dr Clarkson about his sore feet and was diagnosed with gout. She was the only one who knew – who he had chosen to tell so far and she watched him with a heavy heart as he tried to carry on as normal, while suffering in silence.

The first bell of the morning rang and she watched him rise to his feet with some difficulty and walk away. His gout was playing up again, she could tell from his strained posture and his slow walk. The weather was far too cold for his health and the chilly, draughty bedrooms where the servants slept weren´t helping one bit either. He paused a moment before ascending the stairs and for a split second she saw his face consorting in pain, causing her own heart to sink.

The day past relatively uneventful and the evening found them both in his pantry, her with her knitting on the sofa and him with the paper in his armchair. The fire blazed and Elsie reflected that this hour of quiet, domestic routine was turning into the highlight of her day.

Taking another sip off her tea, she stifled a great yawn. She wasn´t ready to go to bed already. Not yet anyway. She needed another fifteen minutes of this blissful peace. And she wanted to finish her project.

Another ten minutes later she happily cut off the last thread and started to wind up the remains of the wool. When she looked up she found him looking at her with tired eyes and a soft smile.

"You look ready to drop off any minute,' he commented quietly.

"I suppose I am," she replied, mirroring his smile. "It's been another long day. I think I'm about to turn in."

"That would be for the best," he nodded, bending down do retrieve a wayward ball of yarn.

"I'm beginning to feel like a terrible bore," Elsie spoke up with a sigh, unable to keep the annoyance out of her voice. "A cup of tea and bed at eight… I'm turning into a right gammer."

He chuckled lightly at her words. "I beg to differ on that, although… "

"Although what?" she insisted, fixing him a look.

"Perhaps you should think about letting Molly wake you up an hour later from now on…" he suggested carefully.

"I beg your pardon, Mr Carson, but I am still quite capable of carrying out my duties," she answered defiantly.

"I never said that you weren't," he replied calmly, raising his hand to placate her. "But it might make things a bit easier for you. You are exhausted in the evenings and you really don't need to be up at the crack of dawn anymore. Your maids know what to do… you've trained them well. At least consider it, will you?"

"I'll think about it," she relented, though still looking doubtful.

"That's all I'm asking for at the moment," he smiled.

"I will go to bed now," she said, though without moving. Instead she held out her little project to him. "Here, I made you these."

He took both items from her and turned them around in his hands.
"They're bed socks," she explained with a slight smile as she noticed his confusion. "They'll keep your feet warm at night."

"This is what you've been working on these last few evenings?" he asked her, his face a mixture of incredulously and gratitude. "You've made these for me?"

"Yes, well…"After all these years he could still make her feel flustered when he looked at her like that. "Those attics are cold enough as it is."

'Thank you," he said sincerely. "This means a lot to me."

"You're more than welcome," she told him, brushing past him as she made her way to the door.

"Goodnight, Mr Carson."

"Good night, Mrs Hughes."

New start to another story... please let me know what you think!