A/N: They're back. Thanks to Eolivet as always.
Never Such Innocence Again: Dunkirk
The end of May, 1940
Mary knew something was up. Matthew had been particularly reluctant to speak of anything on the telephone that morning, other than to inform her that Lily was well and to ask after the children. She could sense fear even through the line, knew without seeing that he was twisting the cord in his fingers, and she desperately wanted to know what was wrong. Don't keep it from me, she thought, if you know my boys.. our boys.. are dead. She knew Hitler had swarmed across France, knew that the troops were trapped, but something else was happening, the papers full of stories she knew from her tenure to be heavily edited and censored. She would not ask Matthew, knowing Lord Grantham, whose work at the War Office was far more than ceremonial, could tell her nothing. Lily was working as a driver for the War Office. She had laughed off her Aunt Sybil's suggestion she ought to become a nurse, left Oxford, and became one of the Office's regular drivers, complete with a security clearance. She was on from dawn until dusk, and said little to Mary past lamenting traffic patterns or recalcitrant engines, and there was a tightness in her voice that spoke of fear that she did not dare share. She missed them. They hadn't been home in weeks, not even for a day or a night, and she ached to see or hold them.
A thud against her lower leg, followed by a giggle, made her look down to see her youngest lolling against her. "Hello, darling," she murmured.
"Mamma, please we speak?" Percy's eyes, Matthew's eyes, Joseph's, Lily's stared up at her, his hand tugging at hers.
"Of course, darling." She let her three-year-old son lead her to the settee. "What is it?"
He looked very serious. "Papa and Lily," he said. "London."
Her heart began to break. "Yes."
"Joe and Rob. France."
She nodded, her throat closing.
"I hope so, darling."
"Soon?" He wanted an answer, and she could not give it to him.
"Percy, nobody knows." The sweet voice came from the other side of the sofa, and Issie's pale blonde head poked up. "We just have to wait and pray."
"Pray and they come home?"
I'm not even sure that you're there. The great, lurching fear came back into her. "If we pray, darling," she said with a shaking voice, "they'll know we love them."
He folded his chubby hands and closed his eyes, whispering something Mary could not quite hear, and she left her own eyes open as she brought back the words in her own mind I beg you to keep them safe.
"I miss them." Issie dropped her book on the settee and leaned into Mary. "And..." She didn't finish, but her eyes were filled with fear.
"So do I," Mary whispered.
"Mamma?" Percy tugged at her skirt. "Anbel?"
"Annabel is upstairs studying. It's nearly lunchtime. Why don't you go and tell everyone in the schoolroom that it's time to eat?"
Percy nodded happily and sprinted off as Mary sighed. "Will you go with him, please? He's a bit breakneck at the moment."
Issie kissed her mother's cheek and ran after her little brother. Mary glanced down at the book Issie had left behind and sighed before replacing "The Sword in the Stone" on the shelf next to all the other books Issie was devouring. Too young to study with her sister, brother, cousins, and the two London children, she was nevertheless educating herself, and Mary wondered if it didn't make more sense to just have the young tutor take on Issie as well. Perhaps a private lesson, she thought absently as she wandered toward the staircase. The telephone rang, and she sensed rather than saw Armstrong pick up the main hall extension as she ascended the stairs. "M'lady," he said, quietly and urgently. "It's his lordship."
"You are in charge," she said under her breath to Archie, too much to put on a fifteen-year-old boy, but she knew he would know what she meant. Armstrong's hard face betrayed nothing, but as her eyes met his, she knew he had heard her, and knew how to both allow Archie to be master, and yet still Armstrong would steer the ship. Annabel's face was drawn and grey, the terror wafting out of her, and she kissed her girl's forehead. "Be brave. Your sister and brothers need you. So do your cousins," she added, as she glanced over at her nieces and nephews, Edith and Sybil's children, who had come to stay when the war broke out and not left, even as their mothers had gone to London to help with the war effort. "Don't let them brood. And don't you brood."
Annabel nodded, and Rosie, the younger of the two evacuees squeezed Annabel's hand. Mary smiled at her, as no one could help but smile at Rosie, and as she turned to enter the car, Jack, Rosie's elder brother, took her hand to help her in. "Lady Grantham, whatever I can do to help, please tell me," he said softly.
"Thank you," she said. "Help Archie. Listen to Armstrong. And..." She looked down at Issie, who looked so miserable she nearly reconsidered leaving her behind. "Read with Issie? And take her into school with you."
"Of course." He swung the small blonde girl up in his arms. "Lady Annabel and I will keep the young ones occupied." He shot a happy glance at Annabel, whose sad face broke open in a smile and Mary's heart constricted, knowing that this boy, no matter how smart, no matter how kind or good, could not yet be a match for her daughter. Perhaps with university, with a proper start in life, but now.. They were only children, she told herself, as Matthew had said, and perhaps she would inspire him to greatness.
But a part of her, holding Percy as he waved madly back at his siblings as the car pulled away, knew that if it was love, nothing she or Matthew could say or do would break apart the most beautiful of her children and the tall, handsome thirteen-year-old boy, whose face gave away his feelings the second he laid eyes on Lady Annabel Violet Crawley at that train station months ago when he stood proudly with his younger sister and took Matthew's hand with ease and grace, even though he was terrified, knowing his father might never come home from Europe. Just as her boys might not, she thought grimly as she folded Percy into her arms, and it might not matter. She craned her neck to see Downton shrinking behind her and she wondered if it might be the end of all they had ever known.
She did not expect Matthew to be at the Belgrave Square house, and so she was not surprised when it was only Campbell who greeted her. Percy happily went with him to find Mrs. Campbell and something to eat, and she dropped into a chair in the morning room to wait. The wireless was no comfort, and the papers only frustrated her. She was glad that she'd brought Percy, the distraction through a light supper enough to keep her occupied until, his eyes drooping, she was about to take him upstairs when the front door slammed.
"Papa and Lily," the boy whispered and wriggled from her arms to run into the hall, and Mary did not move, her limbs as heavy as the day Matthew had come home from Germany in 1918. She could hear Percy's whoop as his father lifted him, Lily's laugh, and put a smile on her face as they came into the drawing room. "Lily, tell me a story," Percy demanded and so she carried her small brother up the stairs, and for the first time in what felt like years, Mary and Matthew were alone.
"Anything?" she asked as he slumped into the settee next to her.
"No," he said softly. "Mary, they're putting out a call to any seaworthy British vessel to sail to Dunkirk to rescue the troops trapped on the shore. If they don't... that's three hundred thousand men lost." He did not need to add what else would be lost, and the fear became something almost intolerable. "I have to go back tonight, Mary. I can't stay, I just needed to change quickly. Food and a bath." He kissed her, suddenly. "I don't know what's going to happen."
"No," he said against her throat. She could feel the exhaustion coming from him, and knew he was holding something back. "Why did you bring Percy?"
"He's rather like Robbie was, rushing into things, and with all the bedlam at the house, I didn't know if anyone could keep a close enough eye on him. He climbed the staircase from the outside two days ago, and if Jack hadn't been there..." She shuddered, and Matthew held her a little closer. "I don't think I could take another broken arm." As soon as she said it, another shudder broke through her. It would be far worse than a broken arm, she thought. "Matthew, if you know," she began, and he gripped her hand.
"If I did, darling, I couldn't tell you," he whispered. "But no, I don't. Only that they're bringing our soldiers back to these shores." His head pressed closer into her neck. "Mary, if they don't come back, I know I'm selfish, but I need you here if that happens. If... And if they do, well, they'll need you."
"When," she said fiercely, just as Lily walked in.
Mary's eyebrows raised at the almost jodphur-like slimness of the trousers, at which Lily merely shrugged. "In case of a blowout or an engine failure. Can't fix things in a skirt." She kissed Mary on the cheek as she flopped down next to her and proceeded to unlace her tall boots. "Ahh," she said as she flexed her ankles. "Blasted things."
Mary put her arm around Lily and smiled as her daughter nestled closer. "You two met in this very room," she whispered.
He did not stay past a quick bath and dinner, and neither did Lily, the two of them wolfing the food at an alarming rate before putting back on boots and uniforms. Mary did not sleep that night, prowling the house as she had in those terrible numb months before Matthew returned. Percy slept in the dressing room, the narrow, low bed safe enough for him, and she watched him sleep until the dawn, and much to his delight, was there when he awoke. They ate breakfast together in her room, and she let herself forget all her fears as her boy told her all about how he would be like Papa someday, or Joe, or Rob.
Day and night blurred together, and nothing was clear, only that it was very bad. Matthew and Lily were home at odd hours, saying little, and reverting to the worst versions of themselves, which Mary would only tolerate for so long before her calm stare would remind them that outbursts were not wise. The first real news came from Sybil, as a junior nurse informed her there was a badly wounded Lieutenant Crawley in need of surgery in the first wave of soldiers being rushed to her hospital. She waited until she saw his face, his sun-browned skin drawn with pain even in his unconscious state, before she collected herself and called Mary to tell her Joseph was safe.
Sybil had always known her sister was strong, but years of understanding that strength made her see things that others did not as the Countess of Grantham walked down that long hallway toward her. The ramrod posture hid the shaking, the chin tilted high kept tears from spilling out, and gloves hid the colour of her knuckles, white as they gripped the handle of her handbag and as they pressed against Sybil's back in a quick embrace. "He'll survive, Mary. He was in bad shape... is in bad shape, but he'll survive."
"May I see him?"
Sybil allowed her, but two minutes to look at his face, to smooth his hair back from his forehead, to plant a soft kiss upon his cheek and whisper that Mamma was here, and he was safe. She called Matthew from Sybil's office, reassured him that his eldest son was alive and promised to wait for him at the hospital, and to telephone if she heard anything about Robbie.
Why wouldn't anyone stop the pain? Joseph's eyes flickered open. It's cruel, nobody should be in that much pain. Give that person something, he thought, and realized as his eyes opened that he was the one in pain. He groaned, and a soft hand touched his cheek. "Mamma," he whispered.
"I'm right here, Joseph."
He turned his head, the effort taking his breath away, and saw her smiling down at him. "I wondered when you'd wake up. You always did like to laze about."
"Not as much as Robbie," he whispered, and he suddenly felt hollow, as if something was gone and he couldn't quite place it. "Where's Papa?"
"On his way," she said. "Lily's here."
"You look appalling," Lily murmured. "Don't you bathe?" Her cheek pressed against his, and she whispered "Little Lord Downton" in his ear and his hand came up and weakly struck her arm. "There you are," she said as she perched on the edge of the bed. "You'll be perfectly fine. I'm sure Lady Alice won't mind all the holes."
"Stop it." But he was smiling, and Mary's heart lightened a little to see it. Matthew came in just as they were all laughing, and he gripped his son's hand so hard Mary feared he might break it. They could not stay long, of course, the hospital terribly strict on such things, thanks to Sybil who had come down herself to make sure they adhered to the rules.
Joseph took Lily's hand just as they were leaving. "Wait," he whispered. "I need to tell you something."
She nodded, and let her parents walk out with her aunt, who noticed the brief exchange and three pairs of blue eyes exchanged looks that spoke volumes. "Lily," Joseph whispered. "I don't think Robbie made it out, and I can't tell them. I can't."
She sat down heavily on the bed. "What happened?"
"He stayed with me until I was on the ship, and... Lily, he always swam better, ran better, he.. there were chaps who couldn't swim, there were guns strafing the water and he dove back in to help, Lily. I didn't see him again. He.. Christ, he was always such a bloody hero, and.."
Lily could not remember the last time she'd seen any of her brothers cry, but Joseph was sobbing as if he were Percy's age, his fists scrubbing at his eyes, and she put her head down next to his. "You don't know."
"I can't tell them. I can't, Lily."
She let him cry as she scowled at the duty nurse, and not until he'd calmed and nodded off from the morphine did she leave him, her heart heavy. Robbie. Her grubby little brother, the athlete who danced divinely, the best of them at hunting and shooting, the favored dinner partner at any house party, the tallest of them all, the boy who'd cheerfully gone off to Cambridge to read history until the war began. Robbie, darling... And she remembered, as she ran down the hallway, what he'd said three years ago the day they all saw Percy for the first time, and that look on his face, and it was as if he'd known even then.
"I'm glad it's a boy."
She could not tell them either, and so she sat quietly, too quietly at dinner and listened to her mother plan how they could bring Percy to see Joseph once Joseph could wave from a window. "Sybil won't break rules even for me," Mary muttered.
"You can't expect her to," Lily said, her voice shaking.
"Of course not," Mary replied, and stared at her eldest. "Lily, darling."
"I'm sorry." Lily stood up. "Please excuse me. I'm going to bed. I'm just... worried about Robbie now." There, she thought. That's the beginning of it. No surprises...
"We're all worried," Matthew said. "But they're still coming in. No reason to worry."
Yet hung in the air.
Another day and night passed, and Percy got to wave at Joseph from the street, which made Percy inordinately happy. The troops kept swarming in without Robbie amongst them, and Lily watched every face that came down the hallway in the hospital, every face that walked into her brother's room, and her heart jumped when she saw Joseph grin at the door. "Stockbridge," Joseph called out, and Lily's heart sank.
"Hello, Downton. I heard you were here." The tall blond man, his arm bound in thick bandages and strapped to his chest, ducked under the curtain rail. "How are you?"
"Getting better. Lily, this is Rafe Stockbridge. Rafe, this is my sister, Lady Lily Crawley."
"Delighted," Rafe said. "You're the classics scholar, aren't you?"
"Not right now," she said slowly. "I'll have to go back and finish after this is over. I'm driving for the War Office now."
"Lily's doing her bit," Joseph said.
"It's not a bit," Rafe replied quickly. "It's hard work. Any word on your brother?"
"No," Lily said. "And they've br.." She stopped, the secret she knew on her lips and she could not speak of it. "Nothing yet." She smiled at Joseph, who had heard the break in her voice and looked as sick as she felt.
Rafe had not missed it either. "I'll leave you two. Downton, I'll be back later if you're allowed a drink. Father's sneaked in some of his best."
"Of course." Joseph waved, and Lily extended her hand and he took it briefly, but Joseph did not miss the look between the two of them, or the blush that extended across his sister's face after Rafe left. "I'm glad you've met Rafe. Second son of the Earl of Leicester. Studying to be an engineer, and he's terribly clever like you." He waited for the smack, or the ubiquitous scowl, but instead he watched his sister pick thoughtfully at her sleeve, a small smile on her face. "What did you mean? And they've.. They've what, Lily? Brought everyone one home?"
She nodded. "The last of the boats came in this morning. And still nothing. Papa told me. He hasn't told Mamma. I shouldn't be telling you, only..."
And it was his turn to hold her, to let her sob before steps in the hallway warned them both that they were not alone. Mary came first, telling a story of Percy discovering that a tea tray was an effective way to turn the nursery stairs into a helter-skelter, but the ending was enough to make him never try it again, and then Matthew, who left his lips on Lily's forehead a little longer than normal. "No," he said softly without her asking. "And I haven't. Not yet. I can't."
"Don't," Mary said suddenly. "I don't need protecting. I know all the boats are back."
They were shocked into silence.
"I used to run those newspapers. I know what every line means. I know what they're trying not to say, and I know when they're saying it. Everyone who could be saved has been saved." She sat on the edge of Joseph's bed and took his hand. "And I'm sure someone will be able to tell us what happened to him."
"There's still a chance," Matthew said.
"I don't think so," Joseph said softly. "He was with me in that first wave. Robbie got me on the ship and went back to help. I couldn't stop him. I'm sorry, Mamma."
She kissed her son's hand, and his cheek, and told him nothing was his fault, and his father did the same, but the haunted look in his eye made all of them realize he would never not blame himself for the loss of his younger brother, and the silence in that room was never to be forgotten.
They remained silent on the drive home, and Lily could not cry. The hole was too large inside, the numbness too much, and she could tell it was the same for her parents, who merely held hands and watched out the window as they wound through the rain-slick streets. Gone, they each thought. Matthew wondered at how, and Mary could only think of where, of him being drowned or shot and left behind, her cheerful, funny boy, Granny's favourite. All Lily could remember was that first holiday home from school when Robbie had flung himself at her at full speed, telling her she could never leave again, Lily, the baby's no fun at all, meaning Annabel, of course. Lily and Robbie had always understood each other, even more so than Robbie and Joseph, and she could not imagine her world without him.
The street was perfectly dark by the time they reached home, and Lily carefully maneuvered the car into place before shutting down the engine. No one spoke as they approached the door, which flew open before they reached it, light spilling out. "Blackout, Campbell," Matthew said sharply, and the light suddenly dimmed.
"I'm sorry, m'lord, it's just..."
They looked past Campbell, stunned, at small Percy, clad in pyjamas, his feet bare and hair standing on end, standing outside the drawing room door. "He's sleeping. Mustn't wake him."
"Who, Percy?" It was Mary, her voice uncharacteristically high.
"Shh," he said again, and ran into the drawing room.
"Robbie?" Lily darted past her parents and into the low-lit room.
"He's tired," Percy's small hand patted Robbie's dirty hair. "He's home. Robbie's home."
Lily let out a cry and fell to her knees in front of him. "Darling Robbie," she whispered. He was breathing, snoring at this point, muddy and damp. "Robbie." She reached for him, her hands on his face. "Wake up, Robbie."
"Bwah." He sat up and stood up in one fluid movement, nearly knocking her down, and she pulled herself up to steady him. "Sorry old girl. Fell asleep there."
And Lily found she could cry, as she hugged her brother with every ounce of strength in her, as her father held his son tightly, his own tears flowing, and as her mother kissed every muddy inch of his face. Lily was the first to think of Joseph, who wheeled himself down the hall to get on the nurse's telephone so he could hear his brother's voice. Percy kept throwing his arms around Robbie's knees, and by the time he fell asleep on the rug from all the excitement, he was nearly as filthy as his brother.
And Lily kept touching him, and Matthew and Mary did the same, not believing that he was real. He told them he'd just kept going back to make sure people got on boats, and finally one of the admirals had ordered him to stay put on the ship, which turned out to be one of the last to leave. "When we got ashore, they got us some rations, and put some on trains. I wasn't wounded, so I let the boys who were go on the train and I hopped on the back of a truck. It broke down. We walked. I tried to get to a telephone, but we were so determined to get back to London, I didn't dare stop once we'd found another ride. And then Percy here kept me company and fed me dinner." He grinned. "I suppose I'll have to share my bath with him."
"No," Mary said. "You have a nice bath on your own. The mud won't kill him tonight." She smiled and wrapped her arms around him again. "My darling, darling boy."
"The dirt suits you, Mamma," he said and kissed her on the cheek. "Papa, if it's all right, I'll borrow some things?"
"You can have anything you like." Matthew's voice was rough. "I'll come up with you."
Lily picked up Percy. "I'll put this one to bed," she said. "And I'll come read you a story, Robbie. Like old times."
"You didn't read me stories," he said laconically. "You came in to tell me I was adopted and that my badger family was at the door for me."
"Details," she murmured with a smile.
Percy started to wake up as she put him into the dressing room bed, and she had to stroke his hair and hum to him before he dropped off again. She did not want to miss Robbie before he fell asleep in much the same way, and she was halfway down the hallway before she heard it. The muffled sob came from the staircase, and she ducked into the shadows as she saw her mother, seated on the top step, her back against the balustrade, and her father, the stern Lord Grantham of the War Office, crying in her arms. He held Robbie's filthy jacket against him as he wept, and Lily wanted to weep with them, only she knew, even before her mother's eyes lifted to hers, that these tears could only be seen and understood by Lady Grantham. So she nodded at her mother, and ducked into Robbie's room, where she could hear splashing in the bathroom.
"Lily?" he asked quietly.
"It's me," she said. "Better?"
"Cleaner," he said. "Papa said he was fetching pyjamas but he hasn't come back."
"I'll get them," she said quickly. "Are there towels?"
"Yes," he said, and she raced across the hall to her father's room, where she found pyjamas and an old dressing gown.
"I do hope," she said as she walked back in, "that you don't need shaving gear. I can't.. Christ, Robbie!" She had never cursed before, but the sight of a dozen random red stripes across her brother's back above the white towel was a shock. "Robbie, what..."
He held out his hand. "Inside my jacket and shirt. They didn't quite miss." A bullet was cradled in his palm, and she looked on the floor to see the holes in his shirt and another bullet on top. "Papa found this under my belt. I could hear them shooting when I swam out, but I thought they missed." He lifted a cigarette from the box on the table and lit it calmly. "Want one?"
"Yes," she said quietly and took the one he'd already lit. "Don't you want something on those? Ointment, or..."
"It's in the kit," he said, and she retrieved a small jar and traced each mark with her finger.
"Do they hurt?"
"Itch a bit," he said. "No wonder our fathers didn't want us to go to war." He took a long drag and executed a perfect smoke ring. "Lily, we lost out there. And yet... Is it true they rescued three hundred thousand men?"
"That's what they think," she whispered.
"And we left France to the Germans," he said thoughtfully. "Christ, we need the Americans. We can't hold them off on our own if the French surrender."
He shrugged. "They don't want to. They may not have a choice."
"Why did you keep going back?"
Robbie handed her his cigarette, took the pyjamas and dressing gown and went back into the bathroom. He didn't speak when he reemerged, and stayed silent as he sat down on his bed. "I don't know," he finally muttered as he crushed out the last of it. "I just knew I could help. And every time I'd get a group out to a boat, I would see another that needed help and... I don't know. I suppose when you know you can do something, you believe you should." He yawned and leaned back. "You were going to tell me a story."
"Once upon a time," she said, as she pulled back the covers and let him crawl inside. "There was a little boy named Robbie who could swim, and jump, and run better than anyone in the world." He grinned as he closed his eyes, and suddenly his sister's arms were around his neck and her lips against his ear. "Never go away again, Robbie," she whispered fiercely. "The baby's no fun at all."
Mary held Matthew that night, in the room she had made for him so many years ago, as she had held him in those dark days, memories and fear battering him. He dreamed again of children in mud, of his own children trapped in that stinking mess, of wraiths and German men who suspected his every move, and he would awaken in tears, and she was glad Percy was across the hall and couldn't hear his father crying, couldn't hear him whisper her name uncertainly whenever he awoke, and it wasn't until the grey light of morning when he made love to her slowly and sweetly that she knew he would be all right, and she could finally let herself cry in his arms in utter relief.
Robbie was not the one to tell them what happened. It came through dozens of stories brought to the War Office of a young Lieutenant Robert Crawley, who had gone back to shore countless times over the course of the rescue, in some cases swimming more than two hundred yards, often under fire and many times, as one ship's captain put it, "like a bloody seal under that water." There was a great deal of debate over which medal to pin on his chest, and there was some grumbling over the fact it was a Military Cross and not a Victoria Cross, but it did not come from young Captain Crawley, who wore it with pride as he returned to service.
They had been lucky, Mary thought as she watched her boy salute, her arm tucked in Matthew's, and yet she believed it was only to be a short reprieve. Joseph was already preparing to return, and in only three short years, unless a miracle occurred, she would likely watch her Archie go off to fight. She wanted to keep them safe, but Churchill's speech had roused the tiny island, and as France had fallen to Germany, it had only steeled the resolve that they should never surrender, and she, like every Englishman and Englishwoman, would defend her island whatever the cost might be.