Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters or their original story lines. I just really like them all :)
As Robert walked down the damp London street, he was struck by the realization that he had not wandered along the streets alone in several years. In fact, he could not place the last time he went shopping, especially shopping on his own. He tugged at the thick material of his coat and pulled his scarf a bit tighter to try to keep out the cold autumn air as he silently cursed the horrid London weather he was caught out in. Lord Grantham was on a mission though, and it unfortunately required him to leave the warmth of Grantham House, with its crackling fires, dark plush furniture, and stacks of books, to set out into the city that morning. What was his mission? To purchase a birthday gift for his wife; the wife he had been manuvering very carefully around since she had recovered from the flu a few months earlier.
No, Robert was not avoiding or treating Cora differently on purpose, nor did he think she fully realized how hard he had been trying to make amends these past few months. He had recently decided however, that once and for all he was going to put the events of several months ago behind them and they would move on with their lives. The perfect way to do this, he concluded, would be to purchase her the perfect birthday gift and present it to her while on their trip to London-a trip that fell directly on her birthday and a trip they were coincidentally taking alone, as the girls were otherwise occupied back at Downton. Mary had said something about Sir Richard needing her to go to Haxby with him to go over the continuing construction, Edith mentioned something vague about already having plans with one of her charities, and Sybil, much to his chagrin was currently settled quite far from Downton and married to "the chauffeur" as he now passive-agressively thought of Branson.
Unfortunately for Robert though, his original plan did not go quite as expected. Once he decided upon his initial course of action a few weeks before their trip, he had a rather unsettling realization: he had absolutely no idea what to purchase for his wife. Cora was not particularly picky, in fact she was always seemingly pleased with whatever gift he presented her with each year-or at least she pretended to be-and she rarely asked for anything at all. A book, he had thought at first. But no, the houses were full of books, and besides, he did not want some perfectly romantic novel overshadowing his own romantic gesture. Jewelry was his next idea, but it was always jewelry, and he had already given her countless pieces over the years; not to mention the pieces she had inherited from her family and his. No, jewelry was not quite right either.
He had exclaimed rather excitedly to himself one morning while walking Isis; perhaps a new frock would be the right gift. Cora did wear a lot of frocks, after all. As he thought about it more though, he realized he had absolutely no idea how to go about purchasing a frock without his wife, nor did he have any desire to involve himself in the choosing of fabrics-or god forbid, the panic-inducing prospect of having to choose a matching hat to go along with the frock. No, this idea was no good either, he decided as he and Isis had walked back into Downton. Though over the next few days he tried to come up with more ideas, he was absolutely at a loss, and so that is how Robert Crawley found himself walking alone on the dreary London streets the morning before his wife's birthday, still searching for the perfect gift.
He and Cora had arrived in London the previous afternoon and planned on staying for the week. Rosamund was hosting a party they had promised to attend and Robert had some lingering regimental business he wanted to wrap up as well. Cora had also mentioned something about beginning her Christmas shopping; since it was now well into October. On the forefront of his mind though, was still Cora's birthday and his lack of a gift. She had simply smiled when he said he wanted to do something special for her birthday while they were in London, and he was not sure if she smiled because she was excited at the prospect or because she felt she had to. Ever since she had recovered from the flu, and he had done such shameful things in her brief absence, he was having trouble reading her as he was once able to. Though she seemed fine and back to her normal self, he sensed she had been feeling the same disconnect he had, and it only made his determination to fix things stronger. So, when on the train ride to London the day before, he again mentioned wanting to do something special for her birthday he hoped she knew he was serious.
"Darling, that really isn't necessary-though I'm sure I will love whatever you plan,"she had said rather diplomatically.
Their conversation had ended there, but to his slight surprise, she squeezed his hand and moved closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder presumably so she could better see out the train window on his left.
After they had arrived at Grantham House a few hours later, the rest of the night passed uneventfully, with a quiet dinner where Cora chatted about Rosamund's upcoming party and Robert nodded politely ever so often, his thoughts swimming in the awful reality that he still had not found her gift, and her birthday was the day after next. While dressing for bed he decided he would wake early and find something once and for all, and as he and Cora lay awake in bed talking quietly before falling asleep he began to mentally draft the note he would leave for her the next morning before he went out. He was pulled from his thoughts when in the dark of their room; she again sought out his hand and held it tightly beneath the thick blankets covering their bed. Though he could not see her face, he knew she was smiling at him, and comforted by the thought he pulled her close to him and kissed her cheek before they both drifted off to sleep, lulled by the quiet crackling of the fire still emanating heat throughout the room.
The next morning Robert awoke and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Cora was still fast asleep, her hand clutching the edge of his pillow. He very carefully slid out from under the mountains of blankets, picked up his slippers and robe, and carried them into the next room. He did not ring for a footman to help him dress out of fear the noise would wake Cora, and so it took him a rather long time to get himself together; who knew how tricky all those tiny buttons could be?
When he was finally fully dressed he pulled a piece of paper and a small pencil out of one of his drawers and wrote a note for Cora to find when she woke up:
"Cora, I've gone out for a walk. Don't wait for me for luncheon if I've not returned by then. Yours, Robert."
He folded the paper, quietly walked back into their room and placed the note on her bedside table. His heart skipped a beat when she sighed as he placed the note, and he watched motionlessly as she frowned in her sleep, mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over.
He told the footmen in the main hall he was heading out for a walk, and when they looked at him curiously, he peered out the window and saw what a dreary day it was. They said nothing though, and so he adjusted his hat and stepped out into the brisk morning air without further explanation.
The streets were quiet that morning, which was unsurprising due to the weather, but Robert trudged along. He had a fleeting thought of going back for the motor, but knew it was too late to head back without the risk of running into Cora, and how on earth could he explain needing the motor for a walk? He walked for nearly fifteen minutes lost in thought before he felt the light pelt of raindrops, and once again cursed himself for not bringing the motor, or at the very least, an umbrella. Luckily though, he had made it to a busier part of the city where he was sure there would be several shops.
The first shop he walked into was, rather ironically, a small bookstore. He browsed in vain for a few moments before again remembering a book simply would not do, and the stationary and writing instruments also on display were not exactly romantic either. He moved on to the shop a few places down in which he was immediately assaulted by the strong scent of perfume and other feminine looking bottles of mysterious liquids. Did Cora wear perfume? Search him, for he certainly could not remember her wearing anything that smelled remotely like the incredibly strong mixture of vanilla and lavender that was quickly giving him a headache. He backed out of the store, nearly toppling a large display of sparkling glass jars and stumbled back onto the street wondering how on earth women managed to spray themselves with those horridly overbearing perfumes.
He continued along in this fashion for what he horrifyingly realized was nearly three hours when he stopped at a bench, still no gift in hand, and looked at his watch. It was nearly one o'clock; he knew Cora would be put out for his being out "on a walk" for so long and he dreaded the long walk he would still have to make back to Grantham House. With a defeated sigh, he realized he was at the end of the very long street lined with shops. The last, a small jewelry shop was his last and only resort. He hesitated before walking in the door-perhaps he should just go back now and admit defeat. After all, Cora did not know he was planning on getting her a gift, so she would not be disappointed, and he could just as easily have one of the servants go out and pick up a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates to present her with the next morning. No, though, he thought; that was not the point. It was not the gift itself that was important, it was his making a genuine effort to find something she would love, something that would settle once and for all in his mind that they really were alright. So, he pushed open the shop door and entered. He looked around for a few moments before concluding that nothing in any of the cases was more grand that what she already owned. He asked the shopkeeper rather desperately if he had anything not on display, and the man nodded with a smile, disappeared into the back and returned with a small velvet box. He opened the box to display several small diamond encrusted hairpins.
"These are the just in from Paris, all the women wear them now."
Robert glanced for a few moments before picking one up- a small ring of diamonds with a diamond angel-like figure inside the circle. It certainly looked like something Cora would wear, but more importantly to him at this point, it was something she did not already have.
"Alright, I suppose I'll take this one" Robert said, picking up the glittering trinket.
He wasn't convinced by any stretch that this was the ideal gift he had envisioned, but he did not want to return empty handed, and he hoped at the very least that she would like it. The man placed the pin in a small black leather box, tied it with a deep red ribbon and handed the parcel to Robert after he paid the man (what he thought was a rather large amount for such a tiny thing. Did he always pay this much for her gifts? Since he usually sent the girls to choose something, he really had no idea). He headed out of the store and set out for Grantham House.
Nearly an hour later Robert reached the steps of the house. Out of breath and dripping wet from the now steady rain, he was rather glad to be home, but silently prayed Cora was upstairs resting so he could sneak in unnoticed. The house was quiet when he opened the door, though he could hear the fires popping and smelled what he thought was a tart baking downstairs. He padded upstairs, trying to not track too much water up the stairs, and headed for his dressing room. He looked at Cora's door which was closed, and he stood for a moment to see if he could hear her moving within. Relieved that she was apparently resting, he clicked open the door to his dressing room and rang for a footman to help him dress. He began slowly peeling off his wet shoes, socks, jacket, and then tie, when he heard the door clicking open. As he turned to greet the footman, he could not control his slightly shocked expression as Cora glided into the room wearing a rather annoyed expression.
"Darli-" he began, but she cut him off.
"Robert. As charming as I found your rather cryptic note to me this morning, I am a bit confused as to where you have been walking for the past several hours in this weather," she said, gesturing toward the window as she surveyed his disheveled clothes, and the pooling water beneath his feet.
"You are certainly free to wander the streets of London if that is what you would like to spend our trip doing, but in the future, please warn me if you are going to take such a long walk. I was worried about you."
Her face softened as she looked at him, and he knew she had been worrying for the past several hours. Guiltily, he began to explain.
"Cora, I am so sorry, I stopped in at the club and-" he was interrupted by a knock at the door, which this time belonged to the footman he had rung for.
Calling the footman in, Cora gave him a small smile, glanced again at the puddle of water below him and chuckled.
"We can talk over dinner. Please see that you have one of the servants mop up the pond accumulating in your dressing room, Darling." Then she turned, and glided out as quickly as she had come.
Relieved that she did not seem too put out, Robert dressed for the evening, and placed the tiny black box in one of his drawers after the footman had gone. With any luck, when he gave it to her tomorrow, it would go a bit smoother than it had been trying to acquire the blasted thing. At dinner that evening, he hoped Cora would not bring up his "walk" again, but alas, he was not that lucky a man.
"So," she said as she chewed thoughtfully on a piece of the tart he had indeed smelled earlier, "are you going to tell me what rabbit hole you fell down this afternoon?"
"Well,"he began tentatively,
"While I was walking through the park, I ran into Billy Skelton, and he insisted that I join him for luncheon at the club. I rarely see him, since the poor chap refuses to hunt, and so I couldn't see any way of refusing his offer. By the time he finished talking me to death over lunch and I walked back, it was much later than I had planned. I really should have telephoned. I am sorry if you were waiting for me."
He glanced up at her, and could tell she was searching his face trying to decide how to respond, and he was certain she was going to question him further.
"Oh Robert, I wasn't waiting for you, I was simply concerned about you. The weather is just terrible this time of year, and the last thing I want is for you to get sick so close to the holidays. You know, I do worry about you when you go out alone like that for so long. Really, London can be so harsh this time of year, and I would have come with you, you know."
He took a deep breath before answering her, afraid of giving away the truth.
"I would like very much for you to come along next time," he said quietly.
Seemingly surprised by his response, Cora said nothing, but looked up at him with an almost quizzical look. The rest of their dinner passed in a comfortable silence, Cora convinced that Robert had indeed lost track of time, and was not avoiding her, and Robert assured that Cora still had no idea where he really had been. The evening passed in the haze of the warm drawing room, as after dinner drinks were drained and more polite conversation passed between the two before Cora yawned and suggested they retire for the evening.
"Are you looking forward to your birthday tomorrow?" He inquired as they headed toward their bedroom,
"Well, yes" she said, looking rather surprised, since he had not mentioned it all evening.
"I'm not particularly looking forward to being another year older, but it is always nice to celebrate a bit," she answered with a grin.
"Indeed," he said, grinning back at her, before leaving her in the hallway to go and dress for bed.
When he returned to their bedroom he started saying something to Cora, but stopped when he realized her eyes were already closed, and her book was folded over her chest. Though he had been looking forward to talking to her before bed (and perhaps passing the remainder of the night in other ways), he didn't want to wake her now, so he shut the light, picked up her book, being careful to mark the page for her, and pulled the blankets up over her arms. He slipped into bed next to her, figuring he might as well turn in too, but for whatever reason, sleep just would not come. After tossing and turning for a long while, he finally rolled onto his side so he could look at Cora. Her breath hummed quietly next to him, and she looked more peaceful than he had seen in quite some time. He ran his hand soothingly over her silk-pajama clad arm before turning over again so as not to disturb her. As he turned though, he felt her stir more deliberately
"...Robert? Are you alright?" She murmured as she placed her hand on his back, "what time is it?"
He turned to face her again.
"I'm sorry darling, I didn't mean to wake you. I was...well I...Oh, it's a quarter past midnight, darling, Happy Birthday!"
"Well thank you!"
She smiled as she shifted a bit closer to him and kissed his cheek lightly.
"I think you've won the prize for first birthday wishes," she giggled.
Just as she was about to move even closer to him, Robert nearly leapt out of bed, too eager to wait any longer to give her the gift;
"I will be right back," he exclaimed eagerly.
She looked bewildered as he ran into his dressing room, and hearing him fumbling through his drawers, she wondered if perhaps he had gone a bit mad. Mad or not, she decidedly sat up in bed and switched on the dim lamp beside her bed as he came back into the room looking at her sheepishly, clearly holding something behind his back.
"For you," he said, sitting on the bed and holding out the small wrapped box to her.
She gave him an amused look as she slowly untied the red ribbon, and glanced at him once more before opening the box to reveal the small glittering hairpin he had toted all the way home that afternoon.
"Oh, Robert, it's lovely. Thank you."
She leaned over and kissed him before continuing,
"I hope this lovely gift isn't what kept you out all afternoon in that horrid weather."
She knew him too well, and though he had been found out, he only smiled indulgently at her and took her hands before continuing-
"Cora, I do hope you like it, but it isn't just the gift...I, well I had a devil of a time finding something to give you," he chuckled quietly, "I don't expect this to make up for these past few months, and well years,"
"Robert-" she interrupted, but he persisted on.
"I want you to know as hard as it is for me to say it at times, I love you. Very much. And I know it has been hard for you too and I am so sorry. I need you to know that, Cora."
She hesitated before carefully placing her unwrapped gift on the nightstand, clicking off the light again, climbing into bed next to him, and placing her hand on his chest.
"I do know all that; but thank you for saying it" she said, blinking back the emotion welling up in her before taking his face gently in her hands, and leaning in to kiss him while slowly laying back so they both landed atop the plush pillows beneath them...
Hours later they lay in bed, still awake, and now both thoroughly exhausted, but quite content in their seemingly small little world. Robert held tightly to Cora as he reflected on the day, and more broadly on all the days before that had brought them to this place. He knew she was about to fall asleep, but he couldn't help but to confirm what he hoped was true.
He whispered, as he brushed a piece of hair away from her forehead,
"Cora...we're alright, aren't we?"
She fixed her eyes upon his for a long moment before repeating the words he had said rather hollowly to her months earlier:
"Of course we are."
Then, instead of turning over, he saw her eyes flicker and he thought he heard her stifle a giggle before continuing
"As long as you promise not to track any more puddles into the bedrooms, Darling."
With that, they both laughed the most unguarded laughs they had shared in months, and she rested her head on his chest. She reached down for his hand as she had done the night before, and as she stopped laughing, she looked up at him as if seeing him for the first time in a long while.
"We'll always be alright. Always, Robert." Finally satisfied that all was well again, Robert kissed her forhead and they both drifted off to sleep, each knowing that they would indeed be alright, always.
A/N: Thanks for reading!
*Also, the hairpin I use in my story is the one Cora is wearing during the Christmas Special that Mary also wears at the very end during the ball and proposal!