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"I'm sorry, James, but there really is no other option. We shall provide you with two week's worth of wages and excellent references, but I am afraid that your time here with us here at Downton is at an end."

He watched the young man's shoulder's slouch under the weight of her words, knowing what this was costing her even as she held her emotions in check.

"Understood, my lady," Jimmy returned shortly, unable to look her in the eye, staring straight ahead lest he be unable to keep his composure. "How long do I have before I'll need to be packed up and ready to leave?"

"You will have a week," Carson answered, the slight sag in Mary's always impeccable posture alerting him to how personal this had become. "That should hopefully give you enough time to make some other arrangements."

Was it anger or a trace of malice that he viewed in the footman's eyes as they darted from the butler to Lady Mary herself? He nearly jumped from his seat to a stance of defense, but held himself back, knowing he was a mere outsider in this highly personal setting. Mary had included him in these proceedings as a friend and consultant, but nothing more. Yet somehow, it had become personal—much too personal for his own comfort. How had he allowed himself to become so entrenched in the difficulties of this family and their estate, to become so invested in their success?

He knew the reason well. She was now standing at the window, regaining her composure as Carson dismissed Jimmy from the room.

"Who's next?" Lord Grantham asked, the rough edge to his voice signaling his own emotional state.

"One of the gardeners," Mary returned flatly, moving away from the window as she paced the floor.

"A lad named Horace," Carson added, moving towards the earl as he spoke. "He has been with us but two years, my lord. But I think he will still take the news with some difficulty."

"That's perfectly understandable," Mary put in, her gaze dropping momentarily. "A lifetime can be lived in two years."

He realized her mind had strayed elsewhere, into that private realm he dared not yet disturb. She had offered him glimpses, a story here, a comment there, a remark of how George was so like his father in one way or another. Yet he understood this was still tender ground upon which he trod, sensitive territory into which he would allow her to forge a path for him as she felt comfortable.

"Are you certain this is our only option?" Robert questioned. "That there are not cuts still to be made elsewhere?" Mary looked at him in exasperation as she answered this inquiry for the third time.

"Do you honestly think we would be doing this had we any other viable options to keep Downton afloat?"

The creased pain in her expression struck him as sharply as needles piercing skin, and he suddenly despised his position, feeling like a turncoat as he recalled assumptions made in haste the first time he had laid eyes on her.

His first impression of Lady Mary Crawley could not have been more wrong.

"But the pigs have brought in extra revenue," the earl continued, forging a trail across the carpet in a new direction. "And the new shipment should arrive any day. You were so convinced this venture would help to save Downton, Mary, yet here we stand, depriving people who depend upon us for their livelihoods."

She shook her head, dropping her hands in defeat before her body slouched into a nearby chair.

"If I may, Lord Grantham," he interrupted, unable to watch her bear the brunt of a responsibility that was shared any longer. "Lady Mary's idea to raise pigs was both inspired and practical, and it will eventually pay off in spades thanks to her hard work and dedication. But the blight that killed so many of them could not have been anticipated. When you take into account the large number of salaries for which your family is responsible and place them on top of the basic operating expenses of an estate such as yours, additional cuts are necessary lest the entire venture go under."

She shot him a look of gratitude from under her lashes as her father took measured steps in his direction.

"And what of those tossed overboard to keep the ship afloat, Mr. Blake?" Robert questioned, his eyes narrowing. "Do they not matter at all in your estimation? Should we just watch them drown from our safe vantage point on deck without at least offering to toss them a life raft?"

"Oh, please, Papa," Mary cried in exasperation, standing on tired legs. "Mr. Blake bears no fault in our difficulties, and he is here at my invitation. If anything, he deserves our gratitude for helping to save our pigs when they first arrived."

He met Lord Grantham's eyes squarely, considering each word that passed over his lips.

"No one is going to drown, Lord Grantham, not if they are willing to embrace the changes taking place in our society and adjust their way of life. The servants dismissed today can find work elsewhere if they will but search for it and make the necessary changes. And you are being more than fair with their severance pay and references. Many employers aren't doing nearly as much for those they must let go, unfortunately."

Carson made a small noise behind him, and whether it was one of approval or disgust, he could not discern.

"Necessary changes!" Robert spat bitterly. "Is there nothing left of decency and tradition in our world anymore? Of responsibility and guardianship? Of honor and dignity? Are such virtues simply incompatible with survival in this new era of which you speak?"

She moved to her father with an elegance he could not help but admire, the touch of her hand on the earl's arm soft and deliberate.

"Of course there is, Papa," she reasoned, her tone measured. "We simply must understand that the manner by which those qualities are demonstrated may be far different now than they were five years ago."

His breath caught in his chest as her eyes captured his, something unspoken in their depths grabbing him in a manner he felt physically. He suddenly wished he could take this trial from her, that he could lighten this burden resting squarely on her shoulders and hear her laugh again as she had that muddy night in the barn.

That night had changed everything for him.

"But we must move on," she continued, her unwavering glance speeding his pulse. "We must understand that the past is behind us and can never be recaptured. Stepping forward is our only option, opening ourselves to new possibilities the only means by which we will survive and live."

Was he understanding her correctly? Surely he had not just imagined the intensity of her stare nor the intimacy of her statement. He opened his mouth to speak, to assure her, to somehow let her know that he would not abandon her in this new era into which she had been so cruelly thrust.

"Horace is here, my lord," Carson interrupted, breaking their connection as uncomfortable reality descended yet again.

"Show him in, Carson," Robert returned, moving towards the door as he straightened his spine.

She looked into him but a moment more before her mask of impenetrable steel was put back in place, the transformation rather startling. He had not imagined it, then, that silent transaction between them that had ended nearly the moment it had begun. He watched her with renewed fascination as she squared her shoulders and drew a steadying breath, preparing herself for the unpleasantness to come. Then she left him standing in the corner, hoping for a future with her that neither of them dared yet define.