This fanfic is dedicated to my wonderful friend and beta, 'granthamfan'.
The inspiration came to me while reading Julian Fellowes' notes that I found on the script of season 2, cut scenes and actors' interviews.
This is my humble contribution to celebrate granthamfan's birthday and our 'friendship anniversary'!
Last but not least, a huge thank you to 'CountessCora' for catching my mistakes and for helping me with this surprise and to my lovely 'syriana94' for the perfect cover image
"It's a regimental dinner, Robert. You should go, really. I'll be fine," she said with one of her disarming smiles that he hadn't seen in a very long time.
"Are you sure, Cora? I'll be back as soon as I can." He replied, caressing her cheek. He was so worried about her health lately, since the Spanish Flu had almost claimed her a little more than a month ago. After that awful night, he had vowed to himself that he would never again leave her side without her permission.
"I'll stay up and wait for you, if I can."
"You need to rest, my dearest one. You remember what Dr. Clarkson said, don't you?"
"Yes, but I'm feeling good now."
She let out a defeated sigh. "Alright. But wake me up if it's not too late, I'd like to hear about your evening."
He took her hand in his and kissed it as he headed towards his dressing room to get changed. Before closing the connecting door, he looked back at his wife, who was still smiling at him, reclining on the chaise lounge at the foot of their bed.
Cora knew he was fussing over her unnecessarily. She was fully recovered. Her body had regained its usual strength and colour. She was eating with more appetite. Her cheeks were pink and fuller as the unhealthy pallor and the hollowness of her eyes were gone.
She suspected that all this concern about her health was only a reflection of the terrible state he was in after the heartbreaking confession he had made a week before.
To be honest, it had been quite the task. She hadn't only needed to use all the strength in her heart to listen to the entire story, but she had also witnessed him giving in right there in front of her eyes after having caught him off guard.
It wasn't that Cora was completely unaware of her husband's dalliance with the maid. She and Robert had been so far away from one another in the past months, always fighting in total disagreement on practically everything. It was as if their typically unified path had split, taking two different directions. She wasn't able to understand the reason why all this had happened to them.
She was managing the house as convalescence home, finally feeling useful in something outside her family, having a precise purpose that helped so many people. It was a powerful sensation to realise she could be so much more than only the Countess of Grantham. Cora could finally engage herself in something grand, so much that at a certain moment, she had forgotten who she really was... that is, Robert's wife.
Cora had not noticed that Robert was feeling useless and passed over. She did not even perceive that while her 'power' as a woman emerged, his 'masculinity' had started to sink into the abyss.
She was sure that he was hiding it from her. Then she had heard what had transpired between Robert and the other woman in his dressing room while Cora was fighting for her own life against that horrible illness. At first, she had assumed it was just the effect of the fever, but there are things a wife perceives. After so many years of marriage, she decided to be honest with herself.
He had wanted another woman. There was no point in denying it. If their brief exchange after Lavinia's death left her with very few doubts about the 'affair', the look on his face when she thanked O'Brien for her devotion spoke for him all the truths that were left unsaid.
When she started the conversation, she didn't want to challenge him on this subject. Her aristocratic mama had very well taught her many years before that a man of Robert's station could have dalliances, but it was surely not her place to question them.
The truth was she couldn't care less about what her mother-in-law or society would do in such cases. Cora would have forgiven Robert anyway, truly and with all her heart -despite the sorrow, despite anything- because she loved him.
But then in response to one of his never ending concerns about her and her health, it slipped out of her mouth.
Cora didn't want to make him relive his mistake, nor did she want to talk about it. She would have accepted it and moved forward for him and for both their sakes.
But after the words had left her lips, she hadn't taken into account that the moment she had seen him destroyed by his own guilt and sorrow, her heart would have shattered together with his into a million pieces.
It was not only for the pain he had caused her, but above all because she knew he couldn't bear all this. He had betrayed her. And while doing it, he had betrayed himself.
Then suddenly the realisation of what he had done washed over her, too, as listening to his words made everything feel so very real. There, in that precise moment, she felt a vivid spark possessing her that was leading her to shout at him, be mad at him and to ban him from their bedroom forever. The mere thought of him sharing their bed while moments before he could have kissed another woman made her stomach turn- but she simply couldn't blame him... or not put the blame entirely on him.
The sense of her own guilt for having ignored and neglected him during those months was eating her alive.
He chose a temporary replacement - a blue eyed maid, what a coincidence? - and kissed her not once, not twice but three times. Then he confessed to the maid that in that moment he had felt free from his life, free from his duty. Maybe he would have even taken her to bed, he couldn't tell for sure... but he confessed all this to his wife nonetheless.
Robert said that he was walking in a dark place, but when the moment Bates had opened the door, he had awakened and understood that the woman he wanted and loved was his wife.
She could see the truth in his eyes. Robert's eyes could not lie to her. Therefore, after having taken some time to think, despite being terribly hurt, she did the most unexpected thing she thought she could ever do.
So unexpected that even Robert couldn't believe his ears.
She had forgiven him and wrapped her arms so tightly around him that she hoped her body would melt into his. Because that was what they both needed: forgiveness and nearness.
They had cried, clinging to one another. When there was no more room for tears, they asked for each other's forgiveness.
He had maybe made the most cruel mistake, but she knew very well it had been the result of a long period of neglect and disagreement.
They talked the whole night, Robert being a bit worried about her health, unsure of Cora staying up till the wee hours of the morning. But to restore their usual communication was something else they needed. There had been a time in which they could talk across the table without even muttering a single word. A knowing glance, a nod or even a sigh, their bodies and minds were in such a deep connection that nothing else was needed to understand each other.
They needed and wanted to have all this back again.
Restoring the faith that had been broken was not an easy goal to achieve. This was the reason that they began to confide in the other again, strolling the gardens of Downton together and paying more attention to each other. But nothing else, apart that tight embrace from Cora, had occurred between the two of them.
Robert was treating her like a porcelain doll, always walking on eggshells around her. She knew he was worried but she could bet that there was more to it than concern over her health.
Had her illness deteriorated her so badly that he didn't find her desirable? Was he still unsure of their marriage? Was he still thinking about... that woman?
These thoughts were the real reason she was so determined to stay awake and wait for him that night. She had to talk to him, to ask him why he had refused her the previous nights.
But when she tried, he had only taken her into his arms, cuddled her and kissed her hair and forehead. As she tried to push things further, he had simply not given in.
All this uncertainty between the two of them was starting to unnerve her.
Were they really alright or not?
Robert's regimental dinner had been pleasant but he was glad it was already over and that he was finally stepping inside his home.
He walked past Carson and then stopped, taking in the breathtaking view of the hall while his faithful butler had already disappeared behind the adjoining door.
Robert let out a sigh, thinking of how stupid he had been during the war, when all he had wanted to do was go to the front to help. How useless he had felt when the army rejected him.
He didn't know then, but if only he had shared these thoughts with some of his peers, he would have known the others had experienced exactly the same thing. And the dinner tonight had confirmed it, since more than one man had told him how unworthy they had felt during those years.
Robert let his hand run along the wooden banister of the stairs for the umpteenth time in his life, but the warmth of the wood under his palm and the dim light wasn't of any help to ease his mind.
His wife had asked him to come to her because she wanted to spend time with him. This was exactly what he was going to do, despite the strange feeling dominating him since the night she had forgiven him.
When no answer came after his soft knock on Cora's door, he knew she had probably fallen asleep but he decided to step inside their bedroom as she had requested.
The sight that met his eyes made him smile with such tenderness, he almost cried.
His wife was reclining on their bed, her back still half propped against the pillows and her eyes closed. She had tried to wait for him, he was sure, but Morpheus got the better of her. She was sound asleep with her book still laying half open on her lap.
He took off his shoes and jacket, walking to her side of the bed. Bending to take her book and put it on her bedside table, Robert tugged the covers and the duvet safely around Cora. He couldn't bear the thought of her becoming ill because of him. As Robert did this, he found himself only inches apart from her face, shining in the dark thanks to the pink and orange shade coming from the light on her table.
Robert stayed there, hanging above her for untold minutes, examining her features. She was as beautiful as ever, her soft lips, her small nose, her rosy cheeks... and he had almost lost all this.
But then he noticed there was a crease on her brow, she was wearing the same expression like when she was reflecting upon something she couldn't quite get. And he hoped with all his heart he was not the cause of this distress. He had already brought her enough pain, from the first months of their marriage to his recent mistake with the maid. Cora was the greatest blessing in his life, and not long ago he was about to throw the love that they had so meticulously cultivated together, out the window.
Not being able to fight the guilt that had begun to grow inside of him, prompting him in the previous weeks to fuss so endlessly after her, Robert stood and started to walk back in the direction of his side of the bed.
As soon as he had carefully sat down on the mattress, removing his socks, he heard her let out a cough, then another one. With his heart thumping heavily in his chest and hands sweating in fear, it took Robert no time to jump on the bed, kneeling by her side and caressing her face.
"Oh my God...no, please... not again... Cora, are you alright?" He could hear the fear in his own voice, his breaths coming out in quick, short succession.
She blinked once, then twice and her face was totally flabbergasted. "Whatever is the matter, Robert?"
He let out a sigh of relief but couldn't stop caressing her cheek. Cora's forehead was warm, but she was not feverish. "Thank God you're fine"
Robert took her hand in his and kissed her palm.
"Darling, of course I'm fine! Why are you so preoccupied?"
She was beginning to prop herself up, using her right hand, the one her husband was not holding at the moment.
"It's just that I...you...you were coughing and I thought that the flu was back and...I can't..."
He couldn't look at her, so he kept his eyes fixed on their hands and felt her grasp tighten.
"I am fine, Robert." She kept staring at him, the feeling of her eyes almost burning his skin. Then as she spoke, he finally looked at her to see a sad smile appearing on her face.
After moments of uncomfortable silence, he let go of her hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to wake you up. Please go back to sleep."
He began to part from her, but as soon as he had turned his back to climb off the bed, he felt her hand grabbing his arm.
"No," the determination in her voice made him immediately turn to her, "We need to talk."
"Mmm," was all he had been able to mutter.
She removed her hand from his arm, now that she had gained his full attention. Robert was sitting next to her, still wearing his trousers and shirt on.
It was now or never. She had to ask him. She simply had to understand.
"Robert, I'm really trying to understand but I can't. You heard Dr. Clarkson, I've recovered from Spanish flu. Then why are you so preoccupied with my health? You are fussing over me endlessly and I appreciate it, truly...but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all this."
"Please tell me what's happening to you. I made the mistake of not asking you once and I don't want to make it twice."
"You made no mistakes. I am the only one to blame." Once again, Robert couldn't look at Cora, so he decided to concentrate his attention on his cufflinks.
"But I did. I did it when I was so caught up in managing the house that I took you...us...for granted."
At her words, as honest and frank as she had always been, even at the beginning of their marriage, he couldn't help but look at her. "I was already lost, Cora. You were running everything, while I was feeling like a mere 'knick knack'. I was no more master of my own house. You and the girls were so busy and full of purpose that I saw my life...what I thought was my life, deprived of its value. I couldn't even go to the front...rejected by my own army."
"But your life has always had value and your purpose here was to keep spirits high, to remind people of what really mattered."
Robert saw Cora nodding while she spoke, as if she was asking him to truly believe what she was saying. But he couldn't. And so he let some time pass before responding, swallowing the lump that had already formed in his throat.
"And what did really matter, Cora? The only thing that was left of me was my morality. But then I lost it, too. Every day it feels like a silent stone that cracks my heart."
She could see now that he was not over it. Her husband hadn't forgiven himself.
"Robert, why do you want to go through all this again, when I have already forgiven you?"
Several seconds passed in heavy silence before he could name the feeling that had been dominating him since everything happened.
"Because I'm not worthy..."
"Not worthy?" Her eyes widened in disbelief. Then she took his chin between her thumb and index finger and kept staring at the most beautiful eyes she had seen in all her life. Those eyes were the ones with which she had fallen in love during their first dance in a crowded ballroom. Cora would love those eyes forever.
"I don't deserve your forgiveness." His admission broke her heart. She didn't know what to do to make him understand that he was loved and had always been loved.
"Oh my darling!" She flung herself into his arms, embracing him as strongly as she could. "Don't you think both of us have already paid enough?"
He nodded, not ashamed any longer of the tears that were running freely down his face.
She let him calm down, then started kissing away his tears from his cheeks. Next, Cora moved to kiss his forehead and nose. Once she was inches away from his mouth, she heard him whisper. "I wish I could turn back time to tell you 'I love you' more often."
"I'm afraid none of us can, but we can learn from it. Then we let the past stay in the past."
"It's silly, isn't it? How you start valuing something when you're about to lose it."
"But you haven't lost me."
"Shh, Robert." She pressed her index finger to his lips. "You haven't!"
The resolution in her voice made him finally lift his gaze, her piercing blue eyes telling him this was going to be the last time she wanted to face this topic.
"You haven't." Cora repeated again, this time more softly, a half smile beginning to form on her lips.
She replaced her index finger with her thumb and gently traced the shape of his lips. Then she let her hand caress his cheek and laced her fingers through his hair, pulling him slowly towards her.
Cora kissed him softly, a thing he hadn't allowed her to do since her illness. His lips parted with more fervour.
His hands made their way to the upper part of her body tracing the length of her arms, then reaching her shoulders, caressing her neck only to stop when he cupped her face.
Cora's hands were, by reflection, tracing the contour of his torso as her fingers moved quickly to unbutton his shirt.
When she had already reached the middle of his shirt, he suddenly stopped her hand, stilling her movements by grabbing her wrist.
"Cora..." His voice was raspy with need. His hot breath lingered on her swollen lips, but his intention to stop what was about to happen was very clear in his eyes. Cora could see it... there was no need to tell her.
Her eyes began to fill with tears as her biggest fear was suddenly becoming reality.
Why was he behaving like this?
What if he didn't want her anymore?
The disappointment she felt was weighing heavily on her chest. She knew she was not young anymore... she had seen the marks of time passing in its traces on her body. But when she had told Robert about this, he had replied that he would always find her beautiful.
Then the war came and their world had been turned upside down. Maybe Robert had changed his mind.
"I see. I can't compete with a woman in her thirties. I don't even know what came into my mind."
She sniffed and then let out a small laugh to cover the tears running down her face.
"What are you talking about?"
"Am I so undesirable to you, Robert?" It felt like a dagger had landed in his heart, leaving him unable to reply. He simply looked at her in total disbelief. "Have illness and age distorted my body so much that you can't even bear to share the bed with me?"
"Cora...I don't understand."
How couldn't he understand? Her intentions had always been so clear.
"Robert, you haven't touched me in months. And if now I fully understand why you weren't doing that before I got the Spanish Flu, I can't give myself an explanation of why you are still neglecting me. Are you still thinking about her, Robert?"
"No!" His answer was immediate, his tone was firm but sad at the same time.
"Then why?" She asked softly.
"Cora...how could I ask something like that of you? It would mean behaving like nothing has ever happened. You should hate me."
Oh that was the point. Robert did want her but he just felt undeserving.
"I'm not saying I'm leaving everything behind, like turning the page of a book. It wouldn't make any sense. But I believe we can heal this wound, our love is stronger than you think. I wish you could see it. Please, Robert let go of this pain. We don't need it."
He cleared his throat and nodded, afraid of the tears threatening to fall again from his eyes.
"So, what do we need?"
The answer had always been there but he just couldn't see it. As had often happened in the course of their marriage, it was up to her this time as it had been in their past. She was the one who could make him see the path they needed to take towards one another... a path that had been lost but that now was making itself evident again.
"Us...we need us. Please, let me..."
Her gaze was so full of love, he felt his chest would explode. Since he trusted her more than himself, he let her guide him.
Cora's warm lips started retracing those long forgotten paths along his neck while her fingers were already resuming the previous activity of getting rid of his shirt and trousers. He let her take her time in rediscovering his body, kissing every inch of him, digging her fingertips into his muscles, awakening sensations he had buried a long time ago. The strongest of them all was now telling him to love her, all of her, as she deserved to be loved, body and soul.
So he gently pulled her closer to him, his lips never leaving hers. He made his way down her neck and kissed her collarbone, eliciting a soft moan from her. His name came out like a barely audible whisper.
He placed his hand under the back of her neck, his eyes fixed on hers. "Let me love you, Cora." When she began to smile, he felt himself doing the same.
They were back, she was right. They needed this.
He started pushing her nightgown down her shoulders, replacing every inch of silk with open mouthed kisses. Next came her breasts, her navel and down her legs until all of her skin was completely exposed.
Robert took a moment to admire her. While his eyes were looking intensely at the wonderful creature that was lying on their bed, he couldn't understand why he had ever looked at another woman.
Cora felt herself blush under the intensity of his gaze. Suddenly, she crossed her arms on her chest as to trying to cover herself.
"No, please don't," he took her hands and lifted them until they reached his lips. "You are beautiful."
"Oh, Robert," she felt silly at the thought of blushing in front of him after so many years, but it was like they were starting from the beginning.
"My Cora, my wife," she heard him saying while he was slowly covering her with his body.
Her heart was thumping in her chest. They hadn't made love this in months and she was more than bit anxious. But then - just when she thought Robert was about to join their bodies together -his hands already encircling her waist, she felt him rolling their bodies and before long, she found herself on top of him.
He wanted her to enjoy this as much as she could.
They both giggled as Robert pulled at the pink band that tied her hair back in its braid.
"I love to think you are the only one who can see me like that."
"It's because I'm a lucky man, very lucky indeed." He found himself smiling again, a genuine happy smile that he hadn't shared with her for so long.
Robert pulled her gently toward him, kissing her softly on her lips. Cora deserved to be loved. She deserved to be spoiled, and that was exactly what he was going to do for the rest of his life.
As her hands began to rub his skin, he marvelled at the softness and the warmth she could give him. It went beyond physical warmth. While their bodies were reacting so strongly to one another, their hearts were healing, too. He had to admit she had always been more perceptive, open and forward than he was in intimate things. After the first awkward months of their marriage this had become evident and was still true.
Too many words had already been spoken between the two of them. There was nothing left to say but still so much more to do.
She let him play with her hair and let him kiss every inch of her because she knew they needed this. A bare soul in front of another, two bodies created to fit perfectly into one another were about to become one. And now it was up to her when she felt Robert's hips pushing upwards as to invite her to start playing their familiar dance. In a swift motion, she put her hands on his shoulders, pulling him to her once again and then rolled over and dragged him down to her side of the bed. He found himself on top again and couldn't help but look at her with questioning eyes. She smiled at him with all the love she could find in her heart and he understood. She wanted him to regain his position as 'man'. She wanted to feel his love, see desire and lust in his eyes...for her, only for her.
"I love you Cora, you and only you," His words were her undoing, the words she had longed for so long.
She cupped his face with both her hands and pulled him to her, but stopped when she felt his lips brushing hers only to whisper a soft "I love you, too". A single tear, soon brushed off by Robert's thumb, escaped the corner of her eye. They both couldn't stop smiling at each other.
She let her hands slide down his shoulders to his arms, going up again and tracing the shape of his muscles on his back, his sides and rib cage. Robert couldn't silence the moans escaping his mouth. She was there beneath him and she wanted him with all her heart. She was giving him everything she had, everything she was. He took her left hand, the one that wore her wedding band and engagement ring, and put it above her head, then entwined their fingers together and she squeezed them in return. She was ready, he knew it, her eyes were of that particular shade of blue she always had when they made love, when her heart was exploding with love for him and her body couldn't control her desire.
He slipped into her slowly, whispering all his love into her ear, how much he wanted her. As soon as Robert started moving above her, she felt complete.
His skin brushing against hers created a sort of comforting heat. His lips were everywhere. Their moans filled the room.
In a matter of minutes, she couldn't even remember where she was. The only thing she knew was that Robert was making her feel whole again and that every time he bit her flesh, nibbled at her earlobe and pushed harder, she was clenching around him.
Robert could see her excitement, her usually pale skin growing hotter and redder after every moan. He couldn't be more satisfied by the vision of his beautiful wife reciting his name like a mantra while she came undone under his body. He was so close, the love he felt for her, the sensation of her feet tightening his waist, the smell of her perfume, her hot kisses, the sound of their bodies slapping against one another, everything was pushing him to the edge, but he had to resist for her.
And so he did, trying to make her happy and to enjoy this moment together as much as they could because she was the one who had given him everything and had taught him to love.
He was nothing without her. The recent events happening between the two of them had made everything abundantly clear.
Then as he pushed her to the edge one more time, he felt his head simultaneously began to spin while she looked into his eyes as to reach his soul.
As he tried to disentangle their bodies, she reached for his chest and put her hand upon his heart, which was still beating fast.
"Stay, please," she pleaded with a half smile.
Without saying a single word, he did as she bade and put his head on her chest, peppering her exposed neck with adoring kisses.
Her hands flew immediately to his head, twisting his damp curls with her long fingers, both sighing contentedly.
"Cora..." he asked, caressing the skin of her collarbone with his index.
"Are we alright?"
"Yes, Robert, we are." She answered, kissing the top of his head.
"I'm glad, because it's only when I'm with you that I feel loved, it's only when I'm with you that I know who I really am".