A/N the final chapter. I should have stopped this two chapters ago. Because this last chapter really gave me a headache (that's why it took AGES to write). It doesn't feel right. It's repeating everything that was already established two chapters ago. Well. Here you go, decide for yourself.
"Is it over? Are they all in bed now?" Elsie rubbed her forehead, tried to wipe away the light headache that threatened to develop. She had talked to Mr Branson after Beryl Patmore had left her sitting room, helped him to understand his pain, the new situation he was in now. She had held his hands, allowed him to cry, rest his head on her shoulder. She had tried to soothe him, tell him that everything would be fine after a while. Heartache, loss, loneliness took a while to get used to and it would never fade completely, would always haunt one when least expected. Elsie knew that from experience. Why had this young man been chosen to suffer so much? Had lost what he had fought for so long? It was too early for him to be deprived of the love of his life. And there was nothing she could do about it except taking care of Tom Branson from now on, showing him a way out of his misery by reminding him that he had a small daughter, that the family had accepted him now. There was a future for this young man on this estate.
Elsie looked at the man who was sitting in front of her, so unusually close tonight, their knees and legs touching. She could not talk to him about Tom Branson, not now. Someday maybe. Tonight, he would probably call her sentimental and romantic and she would undoubtedly agree, but not without a small fight. And the last thing she wanted to do after this busy and eventful day was to argue about one of her children. She sighed, and closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the quietness and his closeness. Letting herself get distracted.
"The house is asleep. They all went up an hour ago." His hand tentatively caressed her left knee now. He was extremely bold after their earlier talk, that moment of honesty, emotional revelation. Elsie had not expected him, the person who never dealt well with change, never adapted to unfamiliar situations easily, to be the one who took charge. Yet here they sat exchanging small, but meaningful touches, smiles, thoughts. And it felt good. She enjoyed his hand there, the weight and warmth of his fingers.
"That feels nice", was all she was able to say for now. Other words ran through her mind but this was all still so new for them and she decided not to rush things. Accept them, get used to them, appreciate them. Her hand joined his and she let her fingers curl around his before he lifted it to his mouth, away from her knee and kissed her knuckles one by one.
"And this?" he asked, with a tone in his voice she had never heard before, low, deep, full of desire. It was so different from the voice he used when talking to the footmen, to Thomas, Jimmy or Alfred. This was not the butler sitting there in her room so close to her, kissing her hand, this was the person she had only caught glimpses of over the years whenever he had allowed her to witness his true self.
A smile curved his lips when he turned her hand around and placed a soft kiss on her palm. "Can I kiss you again?" His breath tickled her hand. Elsie closed her eyes, nodded. Exhaled slowly, waited for him to make the next move. When she felt his lips on hers it was as if she had finally found the missing piece, the one thing that awoke her from decades of only being a professional person and that now turned her into a woman. Gone were all the thoughts about today's troubles, Tom Branson, Thomas Barrow, Edna or Beryl Patmore. She concentrated on the moment, opened her lips to his touch, relished the warmth of his mouth, the excitement that spread through her body.
Like before she got lost in the moment until they both had to take a breath. His hands remained on her face, softly stroking her cheeks with his thumbs, her hands had found a place on his shoulders as if they had never done anything else. In her dreams she had imagined this moment. Mostly when he was away for the season and she needed something to hold on to, a faint hope that some day everything would change between them. Still, she had tried to ignore these dreams. Where was the point in imagining things that were impossible? Until today. And suddenly there was this one question emerging while she looked at him, was fascinated by his eyes and the little wrinkles around them. The one thing she had tried to ban from her thoughts all day.
"Is this possible? I mean, us?"
He stopped with his tender touches, only traced the outline of her lips with his index finger. "I don't know, truly."
Elsie closed her eyes again, concentrated on his gentle touch, let her thoughts drift away, forced herself to remember events from her life at Downton that had changed her life, had made things possible. She had taken on the position as housekeeper after working here for only three years. People had trusted her from the very beginning, were convinced that her perfectionism and unemotional way of handling things was the ideal combination the household needed. She had trained new housemaids, taken care of things, was often entrusted with important decisions normally only Lady Grantham had the authority to decide upon. There was hardly any interference from the lady of the house whereas on other estates housekeepers downright expected their employers to take charge at some point and make the decisions. Elsie had made the right choice when she came here twenty years ago.
Another memory flooded back. Joe Burns, a second proposal and her rejection, the strong wish to never give up what she had built up here at Downton Abbey, to not lose the career she never expected to have. Joe had been a reminder of her past, of the things she had left behind in order to better herself, to make the most of her life. Back in 1913 those were the reasons that had made her say no a second time. At least she had thought so until now. When in reality the man sitting opposite her, who was so much a part of her life had been in her thoughts, invaded her dreams at night ever since Joe's first letter had arrived. But she had not listen to her heart then, not exclusively. William, Anna, even Miss O'Brien had made her stay too. All these people she had to take care of, that were dependent on her, she could never have left them behind. And it took today and Joe Burns for her to realize this.
Her subconsciousness remembered another incident: his infection with Spanish flu. Elsie had naturally taken care of him, without fuss. She had delegated his tasks, run the house on her own during his absence. No one had doubted her competencies. Instead, everyone was grateful that she had been there to ensure that nothing would go wrong. Lord and Lady Grantham had regarded their housekeeper as Carson's equal partner, had not even questioned her stay in the men's corridor at night when she was at his side to ease the pain and fever. Like an old married couple, Elsie thought.
"It is possible", she whispered against his fingers. "It's long been possible." A smile spread across her face because despite their professional demeanour they had for a long time been more than simply colleagues, but had stubbornly ignored what was probably obvious to the people around them. Mrs Patmore had pointed it out earlier "You deserve it". Anna had so often smiled at her when Elsie had complained about him for the tenth time in one day.
"We really are like their parents, you and me." She got up from her chair and took his hand that had lingered n her face. Charles was forced to also stand and she made sure he looked her in the eye before she continued with her explanation.
"It's never been more obvious to me than today." She reached out to touch his cheek, returning his gentle caresses he had given her minutes ago. "We've been through so much together and no one has ever questioned our actions."
His hand covered hers and he leaned into her touch. "And you think they wouldn't start doing so now?"
Elsie shook her head. "No. They'd probably not even notice any changes." She leaned in closer towards him, pushed away the unruly lock of hair on his forehead with her other hand before she kissed him again.
"Let us risk it, please. Times are changing and so are we."
The smile on his face was the best answer she could get, the most perfect one he had ever given her. "I'll accept this change gladly, Elsie."
thank you for reading, thank you for all your messages, reviews, follows, etc. It's been a difficult thing to write and I am happy that you liked it nevertheless.