Wow, wow, wow, it's definitely been forever. My sincerest apologies, I've been keeping busy with school and work despite the fact that it's summer break. I wish I had more time! (Someone invent a time machine for me, please?) Thank you so much for continuing to read and review, even though I've gotten so terribly slow with the updates. I love you for your patience and support!

Any Downton quotes are italicized. Characters belong to Julian Fellowes, but Rory, Clara, and Sophia are mine.

Enjoy!


Chapter Twenty-Four

Mary was avoiding him.

At first, Matthew didn't notice, as they both were busy mingling with the other party guests. Matthew spent the majority of his time with Tom or John Bates, but it was mainly an attempt to stay away from Evelyn Napier.

As much as he didn't mind seeing Lavinia again, he still hadn't shaken his feeling of annoyance toward Evelyn. Matthew had never liked him, ever since he'd found out at uni that Evelyn had a crush on Mary. And finding out while in Manchester that Mary was seeing Evelyn, well, in hindsight perhaps it was one reason Matthew had been so open to dating Lavinia in the first place. True, he hadn't met Lavinia until almost a month later, but he knew that was why he asked her out. If Mary had moved on, why shouldn't he? But he hadn't expected to fall in love with Lavinia, as much as that love couldn't erase his feelings for Mary, only dim them slightly.

Still, in spite of everything that had happened, Matthew couldn't get rid of his feelings toward Evelyn.

"Matthew, how are you?"

He'd found himself cornered at the drink table, grabbing a beer but unable to remove the cap from the glass bottle when Evelyn approached.

"Fine," Matthew said, struggling to remove the cap. "Good. Great," he corrected. "And you?"

"Very, very well," Evelyn said, his face displaying that look of complete infatuation of a man in love. His glance shifted away to where Lavinia stood talking with Anna and Mary, who held Sophia in her arms. Matthew followed the other man's gaze, his eyes meeting Mary's for a moment, but she quickly glanced away from her husband.

That was Matthew's first indication that something was wrong.

"Yeah, congratulations," Matthew said, his attention diverted as he tried to catch Mary's eye again. But she turned away, only Sophia left glancing over her shoulder, although he knew their daughter couldn't see so far yet. "That's great for you both."

Matthew offered Evelyn his hand and the other man shook it, a relieved smile breaking over his face.

"You don't know how good that is to hear, honestly," Evelyn said. "I know you've never liked me much."

"Oh, I-" Matthew began.

"It's alright," Evelyn interjected. "I'd never been too fond of you either, come to think of it. Not when I'd had a crush on Mary for so long. It was stupid, but I couldn't understand what she saw in you."

Matthew released a laugh. "Sometimes I wonder the same thing," he replied.

Evelyn chuckled. "But I'm quite pleased with the way things have turned out," he admitted. "Dating Mary, I knew she was still in love with you."

"I seemed to be the only person who did not," Matthew told him. "And I really can't think of anyone better suited for Lavinia than you."

"Thanks," he said, his head turning to look at his fiancée again. Matthew did the same, but settled his eyes on Mary. She glanced at him again, gave her husband a brief smile that didn't reach her eyes. She walked toward the house with Sophia, who Matthew saw was fussing now, and Matthew could not dispel the urge to follow them.

"You're welcome," Matthew said distractedly. "Could you excuse me for a moment?"

Evelyn nodded, but Matthew was already heading for the house, feeling anxious as Mary and Sophia disappeared inside it.

Upon reaching the house, the two were nowhere to be seen, but Matthew headed for Mary's old room first.

"Here you are, darling," Matthew said in relief as he spied Sophia on the bed as Mary changed their daughter's diaper.

"Where else would I be? Down in the kitchens?" she questioned, a biting note in her voice as she opened the baby's rather stinky diaper.

"Is something the matter?" he asked as he sat on the bed, distracting Sophia as she started to wail and Mary cleaned off the baby's bum. He gripped the baby's hand and she calmed down.

"Not at all," Mary said, her eyes darting away from his under the guise of cleaning Sophia. But Matthew watched as the blush creep into his wife's cheeks.

"What is it?" he asked, but she avoided his eyes, turning away to dispose of the soiled diaper. "Mary?"

"Matthew, God, please stop pushing me!" Mary snapped, rounding on him suddenly. "If I don't want to talk about, I won't!"

"Don't shout at me!" he yelled back with equal force, still holding on to Sophia's fingers. "You've been avoiding me all afternoon and I'm at a loss to understand why that is! What did I do?"

At their raised voices, Sophia started to cry. Matthew sighed, scooping their daughter into his arms.

"Shh, darling, it's alright," he said more gently, stroking her back. The baby quickly began to calm down. Thankfully. Matthew looked up to give Mary an apologetic smile, but his face faltered as his wife looked away in an attempt to hide the tears in her eyes. "Mary?" he questioned.

She sniffed, walking over to the window.

"I-I'm sorry," Mary said slowly, even carefully. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

"Did something happen?" he asked, wishing that she wasn't so difficult to read.

Mary didn't respond right away, instead looking out the window for a few more moments before she said, "Granny asked how many children we plan on having."

Matthew remained silent, shifting Sophia in his arms as Mary continued to stare outside. Her nose wrinkled and he could tell she was waiting for his reply.

"I guess I shouldn't ask why that's so upsetting," he said finally.

"We haven't even discussed it, Matthew, not really. Only in passing," Mary said, making an effort to keep her voice down, but Matthew could tell she was cross. Or hormonal. Maybe both. "Right now, I'm not even sure how I feel about it."

His stomach sank as Mary looked at him.

"You aren't?" He tried to keep the hurt from his voice, for he knew her reasoning couldn't be because of him, but he couldn't help it. He couldn't remember ever seriously discussing the matter together, especially not since his accident, but he had never doubted they would have more children. As he looked down at Sophia, he knew he wanted more.

"Matthew," Mary began carefully, approaching the bed. "I'm exhausted all the time. I know you must be too," she said, sitting beside him.

"Of course I am," he agreed, his eyes flicking down to Sophia in order to avoid Mary's eyes. God, he loved them both so much. Even when he was tired. "I know you are, darling, surely more than I am. I just-"

"Want more children," she interrupted with a sigh. "I knew you did, ever since I first told you I wanted to try. You just...looked so hopeful."

Matthew looked up into his wife's apologetic face, wishing he could more clearly remember that moment.

"I'm sorry I'm so unsure," she finished sadly.

"Mary-" he protested, but she silenced him with a kiss.

"What was that?" he asked when she pulled away, her fingers trailing down his neck as he gave her a befuddled smile. How he usually felt after a kiss from his wife.

"An apology," she replied.

Matthew sighed, shifting Sophia to one arm in order to take Mary's hand in his. He leaned his forehead against hers, wishing he could dispel the tears that had returned his wife's eyes.

"You don't need to apologize, darling," he said firmly. "We already have a beautiful daughter. What else do we need?"

Mary sniffed, her eyes drifting from his to look at Sophia.

"How many children do you want?" she questioned suddenly.

"It doesn't matter what I-"

"Answer the question, Matthew," Mary entreated, rather sternly, as she gripped his fingers tight and met his gaze.

Matthew hesitated. He had no idea why answering quickly was so difficult, nor why the number popped into his head that did. He himself was an only child, but the word just came out.

"Four."

Somehow, it felt right when he said it, but Mary frowned immediately.

"Four?" she asked.

Matthew saw her eyes grow wide as she repeated the word, fear and a bit of disbelief creeping into her voice.

"Sweetheart, it's just the number that first came to mind. Two would be fine. Or just Sophia," he added in an attempt to pacify her, grabbing her hand and holding it tight. Mary's eyes stared down at their intertwined fingers as he continued. "I know how on the fence you were about this to begin with, but I also know that you are a wonderful mother. I know how much you love Sophia. And you have so much more love in you than you think."

"Four..." Mary's voice trailed off, but Matthew sensed a new note of resolve as she stared down at their daughter before looking at him again. "God, I'm sorry," Mary breathed, bringing Matthew's fingers to her lips.

"Whatever for?" he questioned, brow furrowed.

"For being so...hormonal. Still. And confused and irrational. I wish I knew what I wanted, but I don't. I only know that I love you," she said finally, looking down to Sophia again. "Both of you."

"I know," he said, his fingers brushing against hers. "I love you, my darling."

"I know," Mary told him, a hint of teasing in her eyes for the first time since he'd come into the room.

"Darling, please don't worry about anything else, especially not today. We're here to celebrate Rory and spend time with family. Including our beautiful, healthy daughter. There's no where else I'd rather be than here with the two of you," Matthew told her gently.

"I'll try to remember that," she agreed, leaning her forehead against his cheek, momentarily touching her lips to his neck. "I guess we should head back down. It may be time to cut the cake."

Matthew gave her a smile as Mary stood and he followed suit, tucking Sophia into the crook of his arm in order to take Mary's hand in his as they left the bedroom.

"I'm afraid we've both experienced rather surprising changes in mood today," Mary commented as they descended the stairs.

"Are you talking about my irritation when we had to wake up?" he asked.

This caused Mary to smile slightly and he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

"You are rather adorable when you're a grump," Mary said. "I, on the other hand, am a terror."

"You're nothing of the sort," he protested, making his wife laugh. He smiled at this beautiful sound. God, he couldn't get enough of her, mood swings and all.

"I'm sure you don't say such things when you're around other men," she replied as they walked out into the sun.

"Considering my friends include Tom and John, like hell I would. It would get back to you in a heartbeat through either Sybil or Anna and I'd be in for it, I'm sure," he teased. "I wouldn't dare intentionally offend you, your majesty."

"Cheeky blighter," Mary replied with a wrinkle of her nose as Sybil ran up to them.

"Thank God, you two, I was about to send up a search party. It's time to cut the cake and I didn't want you to miss Rory's first sampling of it," Sybil told them, grabbing Mary's arm to drag them across the lawn.

"Matthew wouldn't want to miss that, either," Mary retorted, giving Matthew a sidelong glance that made his heart race stupidly, as though he was a schoolboy and not a husband and father.

In reply, he stuck his tongue out at her.


Mary couldn't believe that there was cake in her hair.

After Sybil had herded her and Matthew back to the party, they'd laid Sophie in her carrier before taking a seat as the cake was sliced and passed around to the guests. Rory would eat his first, of course, with Tom videoing it on his phone and Robert and Cora hovering about while the professional photographer they hired tried to document the moment without grandparents or other bodies obstructing his view of the baby.

A rather difficult feat, even without Clara bouncing up and down in front of her brother as the baby was given his own cake. The blue frosting was bright, a 'Happy Birthday, Rory' written in quite swirly letters that Mary could easily read from her position near Matthew. She tried not to laugh as her husband received his piece of cake and moaned quite pitifully in anticipation, as they were supposed to wait for Rory's first bite.

"Oh, my God," Mary snorted into her hand as Matthew looked longingly at his cake, although his eyes flicked to his wife, a glum expression settling on his face.

"I'm hungry," he said as they watched the cake be placed in front of Rory, the little boy looking with interest at Clara as she squealed, "Eat the cake, Rory!" at him.

"You've been stuffing those tea sandwiches in your mouth for the past hour," Mary commented.

"Well, they are small," Matthew said flatly, rolling his eyes as he focused on Rory. Mary reached over to lay her hand on Matthew's thigh, giving his leg a gentle squeeze while Tom tried to attract Rory's attention to the cake.

"Come on, my lad, try your cake," Tom said, shifting the blue frosted cake in front of his son.

Rory stared at the cake and then looked up at his father, who nodded encouragingly. The little boy looked back at the cake, his eyes wide for a few moments before he reached out for it, digging his little fingers into the frosting.

"There's a good boy," Tom murmured with encouragement as the photographer snapped pictures frantically and Sybil covered her mouth, eyes watery. Rory lifted up a wad of cake and stared at it for a few moments longer before hurling the wad of cake at his father and hitting him in the chin, splattering frosting all over Tom's shirt.

"Rory!" Tom scolded, but couldn't keep himself from laughing all the same.

"Ooh, no, Rory, no!" Clara reprimanded the baby.

In response, Rory picked up another helping of cake and threw it at his sister, the frosting now all over the front of Clara's party dress. The little girl squealed in anger, but the grown ups began to chuckle amongst themselves while Clara grabbed and handful of cake and flung it at her baby brother who giggled when the icing hit his cheek.

"Clara!" Sybil scolded as the dripping icing covered the shoulder of Rory's white shirt, although Sybil got the brunt of it since she'd been standing behind her son.

"Oh, my God!" Matthew laughed under his breath, shaking as he sat next to Mary.

"Think it's funny, do you?" Mary asked him.

"Tom looks like a smurf," Matthew practically cackled, eyes shut.

"See how you like it, then," she said, picking up Matthew's cake. As her husband opened his eyes to see what was happening, Mary smashed Matthew's piece of cake into his face.

The shock on Matthew's face was instantaneous. His eyes widened in surprise as the frosting covered his face, bits of the dessert going into his mouth.

"Mary!" Anna scolded, laughter tinkling through her admonishment.

Matthew shook his head disapprovingly while he chewed and swallowed the cake. Then he licked some of the icing off his lips.

"I can't believe you did that," he told her.

"Oh, like you aren't pleased to have some cake in you," she retorted with a smirk.

The next thing to happen wasn't entirely unpredictable, although Mary was surprised Matthew would waste so much cake. He threw is own portion in Mary's face, splattering chunks of cake and icing in Mary's hair.

"Aren't we adults?" Anna asked with a laugh, but she wasn't keeping her eye on little Alex who sat beside her and decided to take part in the action. Alex took his own cake and threw it at his mother, hitting her in the mouth.

"Alex!" she reprimanded him, but he darted away, following in Clara's footsteps as she'd made a break for the table holding the desserts and was now hiding under the tablecloth with stolen pieces of cake as a food fight broke out amongst the party guests old and young. The only person who seemed to completely disapprove was Violet, who rolled her eyes so hard Mary wasn't surprised she didn't see the cake projectile heading straight for her.

It hit her smack in the forehead.

Back in the present, as she stood looking into the bathroom mirror, Mary changed her mind. Of course there was cake in her hair. What other scenario could have possibly happened that would not end with that?

"I hope you know I can never wear this shirt again," Matthew stated as he waltzed into the room, unbuttoning his shirt that had been dyed with splatters of blue icing.

"It's not as though mine is presentable any more," she replied, eyeing her husband in the mirror as he took his shirt off and laid it on the side of the bathtub. "Where's Sophia?"

"With your mother," Matthew explained, approaching Mary from behind. "Perfectly at ease and completely clean, as she's probably the only person who didn't get sticky with icing in the pre-emptive food fight. I think your grandmother is still raving about the cake that ended up in her face. Typical Violet."

"Are you that surprised?" Mary asked, wiping a damp towel against her cheek in an attempt to scrape off the sugar. "She could have called the police without batting an eye. Probably try to press charges for emotional distress or property damage."

"I'm more surprised that you started it," he retorted, his hands settling on her waist as his hips pressed into her rear-end.

"Hey! Rory started it when he hit Tom," Mary corrected him. "If I had known icing would be stuck in my hair, I wouldn't have gone so far as to waste cake on you."

"It still tasted rather delicious," Matthew murmured, his lips against her neck. His tongue traced over her skin and Mary laughed.

"Going back for seconds?" she questioned.

"If you'll allow it," he replied before nibbling on her earlobe.

"Matthew, I've actually been thinking-" Mary began, a gasp turning into a cough as Matthew's teeth dug into her skin. "Darling, please," she protested.

He pulled away, resting his chin on her shoulder as he looked at her reflection in the mirror, his eyes devious and cheerful.

"Sorry," he apologized, arms snaking around Mary's waist. "What were you thinking?"

"About our future," Mary told him.

"Cryptic, aren't we?" Matthew retorted and Mary rolled her eyes.

"Don't interrupt," she requested, brushing her fingers against his forearms.

Instead of speaking, Matthew nodded penitently, his eyes expectant as he waited.

"I was thinking...about having more children," she continued tentatively, her eyes fixed on his in the reflection.

His eyes widened minutely, as Mary could tell he was trying to control his response.

"Well, that wouldn't be completely amiss considering our earlier conversation," Matthew said in a rather diplomatic tone.

"What? Me thinking about the future or wanting to have more children?" she questioned, turning to face him.

"Either, I suppose," he told her, half smiling.

Mary wrapped her arms around his neck as she tilted her head up slightly.

"Do you want to hear what I was thinking?" she asked. "Or do you want to be a smartarse?"

Matthew laughed. "Well, as much as I enjoy being a smartarse, why don't you tell me?"

Mary pressed her lips together for a moment, her thoughts drifting to the afternoon. To the food fight, watching Clara play with Rory or talk to Sophia, seeing Alex and Clara play tag in the yard as the parents looked on.

She wanted that.

"I think we should talk about having more kids. At some point," she began.

"At some point?" Matthew repeated.

"In...the future," Mary finished. "I'm not saying next year or even the one after that, but," she paused as her husband grinned wide.

"But you want more kids?" he asked, happiness practically bursting from him. Mary couldn't keep herself from smiling at his joy, her own increasing with each moment that passed.

"I do," she said. "I want more children."

Still smiling, Matthew kissed her, his hand cradling her head. Mary leaned into him, felt herself practically melting at the places where their skin touched.

"How many?" Matthew asked impishly, pulling his lips from hers.

"What, you want like, a number?" she asked, indignantly.

"An educated guess," he teased.

Mary was thoughtful for a few rapid heartbeats, as her pulse continued to pound unevenly.

"Let's start with one more for now," she offered. "There's always room for further negotiations."

"Further negotiations? Why does that sound dirty?"

"Because your mind is a dirty place, Matthew Crawley," Mary replied.

He laughed and this time Mary kissed him.


Two years later...

"Matthew, I'm home," Mary called out, forced to shut the door with her foot as her arms were laden with groceries. It had been difficult to open the front door, as she'd had to balance one bag on her arm in order to free her hand enough to turn the handle.

She listened for a moment, in the hopes that she would hear the sound of her husband coming to her aid, finally letting her feel the tips of her fingers again, but there was nothing.

Except the sound of quiet giggles from the living room.

Cautiously, half-expecting to be tackled to the floor, Mary poked her head around the corner. Her gaze fell on the sofa, where Matthew was sprawled across it, his mouth hanging open as he snored softly.

And, unexpectedly, marker covered his face.

Sophie stood bent over the coffee table, scribbling away on a large piece of paper, the offending blue marker in his tiny fist. Mary, in turn, tried not to laugh as her daughter gave her a chipper, "Hi, Mummy!"

Very carefully, Mary set her grocery bags and purse on the floor before approaching the little girl.

"Um, Sophia, did you draw all over Daddy's face?" Mary asked, barely able to keep a straight face as she posed the question.

"Yes, Mummy!" Sophie said happily, brown eyes sparkling. "Isn't it piddy?"

Mary knelt by the table and motioned for Sophie to come closer, a smile appearing on the little girl's face.

"Darling, did you ask Daddy if it was okay?" Mary asked, although she already knew the answer.

"No, Mummy," Sophie admitted, her brightness dimming a little, but she recovered quickly. "But Daddy said that the colors were wash...wa-shar-able."

"Washable, sweetie?"

"Yes, Mummy," Sophie said.

"Darling, you really shouldn't draw on Daddy without permission," she told the girl, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.

Despite Mary's gentle tone, Sophie's eyes began to well up with tears.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know," she sniffed.

That was probably true enough and Mary found the entire situation hilarious, so she could summon little more than a kiss on the forehead for her daughter.

"Don't cry, Soph, I'm not angry with you," Mary said, giving the girl a smile. "But I do think we should wake up Daddy and see what he says."

Her bottom lip began to quiver, although Mary had never heard Matthew scold their daughter on more than two occasions. Once, for dumping his entire bottle of aftershave on their bathroom floor, and the other when she wouldn't eat her vegetables two nights ago. Mary rubbed her daughter's back for reassurance before attempting to wake her unconscious husband.

After taking a few photos of him on her mobile. For posterity.

"Matthew, wake up," Mary said, her voice clear as Sophia scuttled behind her and Mary tucked her phone away. When he didn't stir, she reached out and gave his shoulder a firm shake. "Matthew!"

He gave a start, looking groggy as he blinked repetitively at her.

"Oi! Sorry, must have dozed off," he said, looking even sillier than he had when he was asleep. At least in Mary's opinion.

She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling too big, but was forced to cover her mouth with her hand when that didn't work.

"Did you need help with the groceries?" Matthew asked, pushing himself into a sitting position as he yawned.

"No, I...I took care of it," she managed, but immediately snorted after finishing her sentence. "You look ridiculous," she told him, unable to keep it in.

Matthew frowned, completely befuddled by her comment. His eyes fell on Sophie, who was hiding behind Mary's back, barely tall enough to peek over her mother's shoulder. "What's the matter, Soph?"

Instead of answering, Sophie buried her face in Mary's shoulder blade, a small moan and a sniff her only response.

"You might want to look in a mirror, handsome," Mary said, unable to keep the laughter from her voice.

Matthew rubbed his hand on his face, as though he'd be able to feel what was there, but his eyes drifted to the coffee table and the markers strewn across it.

"Oh, shi-"

"Matthew," Mary stopped him, knowing their two and a half year old should not be exposed to swear words.

He heaved himself off the sofa, walking with haste to where the mirror in the hall hung by the door. Mary was ready to scold him again, in case he used some choicer words this time, but instead Matthew burst out laughing.

As he returned to the room, Mary saw tears were streaming down his cheeks, his laughs bringing a smile to Mary's face. She reached behind her, drawing out from her hiding place.

"Daddy's not angry, Sophie," she said gently as Matthew took a seat on the coffee table as he brought his laughter under control. The little girl hid her face in her hands, causing Mary to draw them away. "See, sweetie?"

"I'm not mad, Soph," Matthew said, smiling as Sophie peered up at him. After a moment's hesitation, she broke into a wry smile.

"You look funny, Daddy," she said with a smile.

"Oh, do I?" he asked, scooping Sophie up from the ground. She erupted into giggles before Matthew even began to tickle her.

"Daddy, no!" she squealed in delight. "Daddy!"

Matthew stopped after a moment, kissing the little girl's cheek and then blowing a raspberry against her face. Sophie pushed him away, still giggling, wiping off her cheek with chubby fingers.

"Get Mummy," Matthew whispered in Sophie's ear, Mary just able to catch the words as the little girl descended upon her, little fingers wiggling and making Mary laugh mainly through her valiant efforts.

"Sophie, stop," Mary said through her laughter, holding up her hands as she fell on her back.

As Sophie continued to tickle her, Matthew joined in the fun. He pinned Mary's legs down by sitting on them, tickling one of her sides while Sophie worked on the other one.

Mary was out of breath in a matter of minutes, crying from laughing so hard as she grabbed Matthew's hand and bent his thumb back enough to make him stop tickling her.

"God!" he exclaimed, although Mary knew she hadn't hurt him. Sophie stopped too, a little surprised by her father's shouting.

"You wouldn't stop," Mary said, taking hold of her husband's hand again and kissing it, still panting.

"Daddy! Are you okay?" Sophie asked, hanging on his arm.

"Yes, sweetie, I'm alright," he said, kissing Sophie's forehead as he remained seated atop Mary's thighs. "Mummy just surprised me."

"See, Soph, this is why you listen when someone asks you to stop," Mary said, causing Matthew to wrinkle his nose at her. "Could you get off, already?" she asked.

Instead, Matthew leaned down to give her a kiss, Sophie still hanging on to him. As he sat up, Mary burst out laughing again. For a moment she had forgotten about the scribbles all over his face.

"If that won't come off with soap and water, try my make-up remover," she recommended with a smile, rubbing her thumb against Matthew's cheek without any success.

"Yes, your majesty," he replied sarcastically, kissing her one last time before getting to his feet, finally allowing Mary to sit up. He ruffled Sophie's hair before leaving the room.

"Soph, do you want to help me with the groceries?" Mary asked the little girl, who had turned to her when Matthew was gone.

"Okay, Mummy," Sophie agreed, throwing her arms around Mary's neck and giving her an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek.

"That's my good girl," Mary said, encircling her daughter in a hug.

Her thoughts drifted for a brief moment, to an earlier time when her fear of the future, of having children, had almost overwhelmed her. When her husband seemed lost and their life was all but certain. Now, she smiled to herself, knowing that if she could, she would do it all over again.

The End.


Thoughts? (I promise I'll still write something for this verse because I still love it so much! xx)