Author's Note: This is my contribution for the M/M AU Fest. Many thanks to my dear patsan for organizing the event and for allowing me to come along for the ride. La tua amicizia è preziosa per me.

Thanks to Willa Dedalus and Lala Kate for inspiration and motivation. To all the wonderful readers and supporters of my work, thank you. You all give me the courage to keep publishing.

Modern AU is a challenge for me as to change out of the period setting risks changing the characters into something entirely different. Here then, is my humble attempt at a present day tale of Matthew and Mary, beginning in Series 1, with a few small, inconsequential changes.

Winter Garden Restaurant, The Landmark London Hotel, Westminster, London, September 2012

"Well they're clearly going to push one of the daughters at me. They'll have fixed on that when they heard I was a bachelor," Matthew grumbled.

Isobel nodded and stayed silent. Her son could get so worked up over the smallest thing sometimes.

"I do hope I'm not interrupting," a voice called.

Matthew looked up and blinked. His mouth dropped open in astonishment, embarrassed that someone else had heard his private thoughts that were meant only for his Mother's ears. When he saw who had appeared at their table, he continued to stare unabashedly.

"Lady Mary," Isobel smiled politely, looking up at the stylishly dressed young woman who stepped to her side.

"Isobel, once again, it's just Mary, please. All these years and only you and my alumni associations use my title. And they only do it when they want money," Mary rolled her eyes, leaning down and kissing Isobel's cheek.

"Well you needn't worry about me on that score," Isobel smiled. "Matthew takes care of me enough that I won't need to rely on your charity anytime soon, I hope."

"Mother," Matthew shook his head.

"Don't worry, Isobel," Mary smirked, patting the woman's shoulder as she walked past her and towards Matthew. "I'll be more than glad to take you in if the big shot lawyer over there casts you aside. Then we can go to the press and fleece him for all he's worth."

"Stop it," Matthew frowned. "You aren't helping." He rose and held out the chair next to his for Mary.

"Mary," Matthew smiled as she came to his side.

"Matthew," Mary smiled back, offering him her cheek, which he gladly kissed, and she returned the greeting with a quick peck of her own. He helped her into her chair, then sat back down.

"And what, may I ask, were you moaning about just now?" Mary inquired, flashing him a playful smile.

"What else?" Isobel laughed. "Matthew has a charity dinner coming up with clients and he's convinced that the firm partners will once again try their hand at matchmaking. There's rumours that they'll auction off dinner with him as part of the festivities, and a number of the senior partners have eligible young daughters they'd like to fling his way."

"Good God!" Mary laughed, looking at Matthew with a slight trace of sympathy, but mostly with mirth at his predicament.

"This entire fiasco could be avoided if you would only accompany me as I begged you to last week," Matthew complained, scrunching his face in annoyance at Mary.

"Oh no," Mary shook her head. "You're far too important a prize to bring a date to a grand dinner at the Savoy. What would all of the young ladies who want to get their hooks into you think if you arrived with me on your arm?" Mary teased. "They all have plans for you, no doubt, and I wouldn't want to push in."

A waiter appeared at her side. Mary looked up and was about to place her drinks order when a glass of red wine was placed in front of her.

"Chianti, Riserva 1997, ordered by the gentleman for you, Lady Mary," the waiter announced, nodding towards Matthew.

Mary smiled and took a sip from the sample in the glass before nodding for the waiter to pour. She looked at Matthew knowingly.

"Mary," Matthew rolled his eyes, continuing their conversation. "I hope you didn't misunderstand me. I need you there so I can actually enjoy my evening, not only to protect me against other women. I was only joking about that part."

"Of course you were," Mary smiled. "And I agree. The whole thing is a complete joke."

"But you can't expect Mary to be your protector to hide behind, dear," Isobel said.

"Exactly," Mary smirked triumphantly.

"Have I ever mentioned how you two get along far too well?" Matthew said dismissively, sipping his sparkling water.

"Ah, perfect!" Mary laughed, looking up from the table. "Now I can tell Mama and Papa all about your predicament."

"You are horrid when you want to be," Matthew smirked as they all rose from the table.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his wife, Cora, approached the table. Their two other daughters, Edith and Sybil followed behind them. Warm greetings were exchanged and the Crawleys sat down for their monthly dinner together.

"Matthew, this choice of restaurant was truly inspired," Cora smiled, sipping her wine.

"Indeed," Robert nodded. "We haven't been here since it was The Regent."

"It was Mary's idea, not mine," Matthew said, raising his hands.

"Oh, no you don't," Mary shook her head. "I only had it on my list of suggestions for this month's dinner. Matthew was the one who looked into it and toured the place before we booked."

Sybil and Edith looked at each other knowingly.

"No, darling, you're wonderful," Edith whispered to her younger sister.

"Stop it, darling. You're wonderful," Sybil whispered back with a smile.

"Well, regardless of who deserves the credit, everything looks excellent," Robert smiled, everyone missing the exchange between Edith and Sybil. He lifted up his glass, prompting the rest of the guests to follow suit.

"I know I say something about our family each month, but this is one of the only times I get to have everyone's undivided attention. Family does not only mean sharing blood or a name. Isobel, Matthew, I know that if we trace our family line back far enough we see that our ancestors were third cousins, once removed or some other nonsense. It doesn't matter that we're not related. What's important is that we are all together now, and that we share a bond, irrespective of blood. You are both a part of our House, and I count you both dear to me, more so than many other full blood relations, I'll have you know. To the Crawleys," Robert smiled.

"To the Crawleys," everyone replied. Mary and Matthew clinked glasses and rolled their eyes at Robert's monthly toast.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to seeing your father be so sentimental," Matthew smiled.

"I told you. Mama's American emotions are rubbing off on him after all these years," Mary retorted.

Downton Abbey, England, March 2013

Matthew gingerly got off of his bicycle and stretched his legs. His muscles burned and at first he had to steady himself by holding on to the handlebars and seat of his bike to stop himself from falling. Finally feeling he could remain upright, he turned and walked with his bike the remaining steps down the driveway and to the large double front doors of the Estate house.

"A good ride, I trust, sir?" William asked as he came outside and took Matthew's bike from him.

"I seem to keep forgetting that the distance here is much longer when you must take winding country roads, as opposed to the motorway," Matthew sighed, taking off his helmet, sunglasses and cycling shoes and handing them to the footman. "It would have been easier to drive. Sadly I came to that realization after I was already halfway here. Thank you, Mason."

"Of course, sir. Everyone is already out at the field. Lord Grantham said once you've arrived and changed, you can join them and play the second half for the House team. I've laid out your kit and boots in your usual bedroom, sir."

"I don't know how much good I'll be to anyone at the moment. I'm absolutely knackered. Still, I suppose I'll have to play," Matthew nodded.

He crossed the Great Hall quickly, his legs beginning to get their feeling back. As he reached the top of the stairs, he unzipped the skintight cycling jersey and peeled it off of his body. He pushed off the shoulder straps of his bicycle tights and walked towards his usual guest room.

"Oh! Matthew!" a startled voice suddenly called.

Matthew looked up and his eyes widened.

"Mary! I'm sorry! Mason said everyone had already left," he apologized, unable to hide the fact he was now standing topless in the middle of the hallway.

"Oh they have, yes. They're all out at the pitch. I thought I'd wait around for you to arrive," Mary smiled.

"That's very kind of you, thank you. Sorry to be so dishevelled. I had the brilliant idea to leave the car in York and ride here and it seems I've worked up a sweat," Matthew said, scratching the back of his head, which had the unintended consequence of displaying his bare chest and arm further to Mary's gaze.

"You don't look dishevelled to me," Mary said, keeping her eyes on his face, and trying to avoid the fact that he was sweaty and topless and wearing compression shorts that seemed to be painted on to his thighs. "Anyway, why don't you go shower and change? They probably won't require your skills until the second half."

"Evelyn has it all under control, does he?" Matthew teased.

"No, he's not very good at football, actually," Mary smirked. "Which is probably for the best. You know how much Papa hates to lose."

"So you put Evelyn on the opposing side? That's rather devious, Mary," Matthew said pointedly.

"I have no interest in putting up with one of Papa's bad moods," Mary smiled. "If we make it through the night without a scandal, I'll be relieved."

"On that we can agree," Matthew laughed. "Well, I'll go get changed and be out in a bit. Why don't you go on ahead and cheer on your boyfriend? Perhaps you can give him some inspiration?"

"He's not my boyfriend," Mary retorted. "I told you, he's just a family friend up for a visit."

"Of course he is," Matthew smiled at her before walking past her and heading towards his bedroom.

Mary rolled her eyes, then could not stop from stealing a glance at his bare legs and back as he disappeared down the hall.

Mary came down the stairs into the Great Hall with a practised step. It was always like going back in time whenever she came home to visit her parents. Even though her house in North London was quite large for one person and she loved it, the truth was there was a certain charm to Downton Abbey, the place filled with childhood memories. Even though the house was immense, it always felt warm and cosy to her. She remembered riding horses with Matthew across the fields whenever his family came to visit, rather competitive board games with him and her sisters in the library, and all the dinners they shared where formal attire was always compulsory.

"You look lovely," Matthew smiled as he met her at the bottom of the stairs. Mary wore a dark red bandage dress that hugged her curves in all the right places. Though it was a proper length and went down to her calves, and the neck was high and revealed nothing, the way it displayed her shape and form was flattering, to say the least. Matthew swallowed slightly. Though he had seen Mary in numerous gowns and dresses, he was never bored of her impeccable style.

She smiled back at him. She knew his suit well. He rarely wore black tie, and more often than not, it was when he was at Downton with her family, so he resorted to keeping a suit here. She had been with him when he went to see the tailor in London to have it made. He had grumbled the entire time about how expensive it was, even though he could easily afford it, how unnecessary it was, even though he knew it was required dress for family dinners at Downton, and how old and tired looking he felt wearing it, even though he looked absolutely gorgeous in it.

"You clean up quite nicely, Matthew," Mary teased. "The way you threw yourself around out there, I expected to see grass stains permanently on your skin and mud in your hair."

"I was able to scrub most of it off in the shower," Matthew smiled. "You were right. A proper soak in the tub upon our return felt heavenly."

"And that is a lovely pocket square you've chosen to accent your suit," Mary smiled.

"Yes, well it was a gift. Seemed appropriate to wear it tonight," Matthew smiled back.

"Whoever gave it to you has fantastic fashion sense and wonderful taste," Mary quirked her eyebrows at him.

"I'm sure the last thing she needs is more compliments," he laughed. "In any event, I think I've gotten so used to dressing up for dinner around here that I'm beginning to strangely enjoy it."

"Granny will be pleased to hear you say that," Mary replied. "Believe it or not, she would rather everyone enjoy the old conventions, rather than feel they have to follow them out of obligation. Granny can be rather modern when she wants to be. Although if you tell her I said so, I'll call you a liar."

"I'm sure my opinion doesn't matter to her," Matthew scoffed. "I can't see why Violet Crawley would waste a thought on me."

"She raves about you," Mary shook her head. "Well, as far as Granny can rave about anyone I suppose."

Evelyn came downstairs and greeted them. Mary smiled politely to him and they all went through to the parlour for pre-dinner drinks with the rest of the family.

"You had a good run today, Evelyn," Robert said kindly. "Your left foot has improved immensely since we last saw you play."

"Thank you, Lord Grantham," Evelyn nodded. "I'm glad that you think so. I seem to have two left feet, so hopefully that means both are getting better. You were imperious, as always."

Mary glanced at Matthew. They smirked at the horrible joke, not to mention Evelyn's habit of trying to endear himself to Robert by always using his official title.

"Matthew was truly the star in the second half, though," Evelyn continued. "You must still play often, don't you, Matthew?"

"Matthew was on the varsity at Cambridge," Mary replied. "Although I don't know how difficult that would have been to achieve. Everyone at Cambridge is busy rowing so there must not be too many athletes left to play football."

Matthew laughed. "Actually, our group was quite competitive. But that was ages ago anyway. I play with some of the lads from work on weekends, but it's usually just to get a run in."

Edith and Sybil shared a knowing smirk.

"I thought Evelyn asked Matthew a question," Edith whispered.

"You know that Mary loves to volunteer information when she can," Sybil smiled back.

"Especially when it involves trumpeting Matthew's qualities," Edith giggled.

"Weekends," Violet huffed. "Playing football. It wasn't always like this. Back in my grandparents' day, this house used to host a proper hunt, a nobleman's pastime, and they did not need to wait for the weekend."

"Yes, Granny, it's no longer 1913," Mary smiled.

"We still ride horses," Edith volunteered.

"We just don't use them to hunt down defenceless animals and call it sport," Matthew joined in.

"Well you could at least keep the tradition of an annual cricket match, rather than this football that you all seem to play," Violet muttered.

"I agree," Evelyn smiled. "Cricket is a true gentleman's game."

"Well, we'll consider that for next year," Robert said diplomatically. "For now, let's enjoy dinner, shall we?"

"Yes, let's," Cora echoed, motioning for their head butler, Carson, to begin service of the first course.

Mary and Matthew shared a conspiratorial smile, their smirking lips conveniently covered by their napkins.

London Eye, South Bank, River Thames, London, England, May 2013

Matthew stared at his phone, the trail of text messages staring back at him. He idly wondered why the smartphone manufacturers chose such bright colours for the default background of each text. Yellow. Blue. Green. Not to mention the emoticons. Was it all designed to make the conversation appear more fun and jovial than it really was? If so, the concept had failed miserably for this particular conversation, he thought. No, bright colours or cute smiley faces could do nothing to mask the depressing nature of this particular exchange.

"Matthew?" he heard a familiar voice behind him.

He turned quickly. Upon seeing her, he raised his head in acknowledgment and smiled nervously.

"Mary," he nodded. "What are you doing here?"

"Just decided to take a stroll on the way home when I thought I saw you. It's a gorgeous night," she remarked.

"Yes, it is," Matthew sighed, looking up. Of course it was a gorgeous night. He had chosen this exact night because the weather was predicted to be so perfect. The sun would be setting soon, casting a wonderful orange hue across the sky. He glanced up at the large wheel, his plans in tatters. He sighed again, more audibly this time.

"What is it?" Mary frowned at his reaction.

Matthew glanced at Mary and opened his mouth to reply, then stopped and looked away.

"I don't quite know how to say this," he muttered.

"Try," Mary said patiently.

"Well, I had a date tonight, and it appears that I've been stood up," he said, shaking his head.

"A date?" Mary exclaimed. "With who?"

Matthew looked at her and smirked.

"Sorry, that sounded far more rude and nosey than I intended," Mary smiled. "How do you know you've been stood up? Perhaps she's just late?"

"No, she quite conclusively told me she'd rather not come out, tonight or ever," Matthew said, waving his phone at Mary.

"She rejected you via text?" Mary asked incredulously.

"Well it is the 21st century," Matthew laughed without any sign of amusement. "People are busy, you know. I guess I did very little to impress her on our first two dates."

"Oh, Matthew," Mary shook her head. "Well, you're welcome to drown your sorrows with me, if you like. I'll call Sybil and Edith and we can find a pub somewhere, buck you up a bit."

"That's very kind, Mary, thank you. But, I think I'll just head back to the office," Matthew mumbled.

"At this hour?" Mary arched her eyebrow. "You know what all work and no play did for Jack."

"You think I'm a dull boy anyway, don't you?" Matthew shrugged his shoulders. "And apparently you're not the only woman who does."

"Mr. Crawley," an older gentleman called out as he approached them. "I see that your guest has arrived. Everything is ready for your private dinner, sir."

Mary stared at the man in confusion, then looked at his uniform before looking back at Matthew.

"Matthew…" Mary said, putting the pieces together in her mind.

"I wanted to do something novel," Matthew shook his head.

Mary turned back to the host and smiled politely. "Please remind me. What exactly is on the menu for Mr. Crawley's private dinner?" she asked.

The man opened a leather folio and scrolled through his tablet.

"Choice of lobster salad or beef carpaccio to start, followed by seared halibut or beef tenderloin with seasonal accompaniments, and Mr. Crawley specifically picked out our crème brulée trio and lemon meringue pie for dessert. We also have bespoke wine selections to go with each course," the man stated.

Mary's face lit up with a wide grin.

"Crème brulée and lemon meringue?" she asked, turning to Matthew.

"Well, I didn't actually know what dessert she would like, so I just picked your favourites and hoped she'd like one of them," Matthew said sheepishly.

"Well then," she said, taking Matthew's arm and smiling at his confused expression. "Shall we begin? I'm famished."

"Right this way, my lady," the host said with a sweep of his arm. "Your private capsule is ready and we'll serve the first course during the climb of the first rotation."

"Mary, you don't have to do this," Matthew whispered as they walked towards the waiting London Eye. A capsule was standing ready for them. Mary could make out a lovely table set for two, complete with fine china, candles, and flowers.

"I can't let you starve," she smiled at him. "Come now, Matthew. Don't think I don't know how expensive it is to rent a private capsule on the London Eye for dinner after hours. We may as well enjoy it."

"Fine," Matthew said, relaxing. "Thank you for rescuing my evening."

"You're welcome," Mary smiled. "Although don't get any ideas. You aren't getting a kiss at the top of the wheel or anything juvenile like that."

"Well, there goes 5,000 quid wasted, then," Matthew huffed.

"Matthew!" Mary hissed at him.

"I'm only joking, Mary," Matthew laughed, holding her arm closer. "I'm looking forward to this."

They laughed and boarded their private capsule and settled down for dinner.

Hakkasan Mayfair, London, England, August 2013

"If it's cheap, greasy Chinese food that you want, you've most certainly chosen the wrong place," Matthew smiled, kissing her cheek as he sat down at the bar.

"I wanted a drink at a place where no one knows me. Since it's past midnight and I have no desire to go to a nightclub, this was as good an option as any," Mary sniffled, taking another sip of her martini.

"Given your present state, and the fact that you texted me so late in the evening, I take it that your date with Gilly did not go so well?" Matthew asked. As he waited for Mary to answer, he discreetly motioned to the bartender, who nodded back to him in understanding.

"He has a proper name, you know," Mary frowned at him. "And what state are you referring to, exactly?"

"The state where you look like you've been crying and screaming, not necessarily in that order," Matthew noted. The bartender nodded to him and pulled a server aside to talk to her.

"I hope you are not making a comment on my appearance," Mary glared at him.

"No," Matthew smiled. "You look lovely, as always."

"A good answer," Mary arched her eyebrow at him and took another sip of her martini. "I hardly think you're in a position to judge someone's appearance wearing that shirt."

"What's wrong with it?" Matthew frowned, looking at his black shirt.

"Nothing. Tony was wearing something similar tonight, is all. It looks better on you, actually," Mary mused.

"I'm glad to hear it," Matthew smiled. "Now, what happened with Tony?"

"The usual," Mary sighed. "We were having an adequate date, then he said he wanted to see me more often. He complained that I was working too much and that he didn't want to have dinner at 10 in the evening anymore. I told him I wasn't looking for anything more right now and he became angry. He called me cold and calculating, said we could be good together, if only I'd let it happen."

"Well, you are cold and calculating," Matthew observed.

Mary glared at him.

Matthew held up his hands in apology. "I just think that you weren't necessarily open to giving him a chance from the off, since you were set up with him by your parents. It was never going to end well."

"How do you expect me to be open to the idea of dating him when they didn't even ask me in the first place?" Mary said dismissively. "They just promise dates with me to whomever they wish and I mean nothing in all this."

"That's not true, Mary. On the contrary, you mean a great deal. A very great deal," Matthew replied quietly.

"The truth is, he was starting to get on my nerves," Mary said. "Anyway, when it was clear we wanted different things from each other, I tried to let him down gently but he made a scene and left the restaurant in a huff. I had to pay the bill even though we hadn't eaten yet, and I got out of there as quickly as I could. And that's when I texted you."

"So it's over with him then?" Matthew asked.

"If it was ever on to begin with," Mary rolled her eyes. "He's not what I want."

"Are you sure that you know what you want?" Matthew asked.

"You're supposed to be here to support me, not psycho-analyze me," Mary frowned.

"I'm sorry. I wish I could think of something to say that would help," Matthew smiled sadly.

"There's nothing," Mary said resignedly. "But you mustn't let it trouble you."

"It does trouble me. It troubles me very much," Matthew said, his expression turning serious.

"Then that will be my consolation prize," Mary smirked, finishing her martini. "I just wish he had waited until after dinner to storm off. I haven't eaten anything since breakfast and I could really go for…"

"Peking Duck with Qiandao caviar, and our house special braised dried whole abalone," the bartender announced as he came over to them. Two servers appeared next to them and set out plates and cutlery on the bar. Two more servers presented the food on large ornate serving platters.

"What's this?" Mary blurted out.

"Well I assumed you hadn't eaten, and I also know that these are your favourite," Matthew said easily, deftly using chopsticks to place duck, scallions and cucumber on a pancake and placing it on Mary's plate.

"I thought the kitchen was closed. I also thought these special dishes required 24 hours' notice to order?" Mary stared incredulously at the succulent entrees.

"You may not be known here, but I am. They keep the kitchen open for me. I've had many late night meals here after preparing for Court," Matthew smirked. "Now, eat. I may not be much of a relationship expert, but I do know a starving soul when I see one."

Mary smiled at him in thanks, then reached her spoon towards the caviar.

Executive Club, Stamford Bridge, Fulham, London, England, April 2014

"Tom, you don't have to be so nervous. We're allowed to be here," Matthew smiled kindly, motioning for his friend to sit down.

The servers presented their meals and Tom calmed down as no one seemed to be looking him over or wondering why he was there. The food did look delicious. He ordered a beer and began to relax.

"I do appreciate you bringing me along," Tom smiled. "How often do you take in a game?"

"Just whenever United is in town," Matthew said. "We usually like to bring clients for networking and entertainment, but I leave that to the other partners. All I ask is for the suite to myself for this match, and thankfully they indulge me each year. Early on, we tried to have more people show up, but after they saw how…animated…I can be when United play Chelsea, they thought it better to just let me have the box alone."

"Then I'm in luck that we're friends," Tom laughed. "Because I could never afford to be a client of yours."

"I wonder where Mary is," Matthew frowned, glancing at his phone. "She was supposed to be here an hour ago, and the match is starting shortly."

"Oh, she didn't tell you?" Tom said. "She went to Bath for the weekend. Sybil mentioned it to me last night."

"No," Matthew spat in exasperation. "I wasn't aware."

"That doesn't sound like Mary to cancel her plans with you without a word," Tom said.

"Well, we didn't have definite plans, I suppose," Matthew admitted. "I told her about the match and that she could stop by if she wanted to. She apparently has gotten a better offer. It seems I need to brush up on my powers of fascination."

"I wonder what's in Bath?" Tom asked.

"It's not what's in Bath…it's who…" Matthew said curtly, taking up his steak knife and slicing into his food with a rather fierce effort.

Matthew finished his beer and placed the empty bottle on the bar in front of him. It was quickly removed by a server. Tom turned away from watching the football match on the field below and looked over at Matthew. As Tom had expected, Matthew's ranting had increased considerably as the match had worn on and he had consumed more drinks.

"The best part of all, is that I've seen these men. I know their names. I've even met some of them. Crowborough. Kemal. Evelyn. Tony. Charlie. I've listened to her rave and complain about them, quietly nodded through all her stories and sagas. Do you know what kills me every time?" he asked rhetorically.

Tom rolled his eyes and waited patiently. This part was always the same.

"Every time that I see her with them, every time that I hear about what they did or did not do, what they said or did not say, all I think about is how I could do better that that. I could do so much better than they ever in their wildest dreams could even contemplate doing! And I'll never get that chance."

"Matthew…come on…" Tom said gently. He was used to these speeches of Matthew's by now. It was one of the few things he dared not confide to Sybil, knowing that she would make it her crusade if she knew of Matthew's true feelings for her sister. On top of that, Tom did not particularly care for matchmaking, even for two people as obviously perfect for each other as Mary and Matthew.

"It's hopeless, Tom" Matthew declared, throwing up his hands. "Mary sees me as her best friend, but not as her soul mate, if those things even exist. She loves me, but she does not see me as a lover. She enjoys having me in her life, but she doesn't think about spending the rest of her life with me. She just…doesn't want me."

Tom suppressed a smirk as Matthew received another beer from the server. It was remarkable how often Matthew repeated the same lines where Mary was concerned.

"So what are you saying? That you'll settle for someone else instead? What about that girl from your office that we ran into the other night? She was cute. What was her name? Lavinia?" Tom asked.

"No," Matthew shook his head. "Lavinia has a crush on me. That's something no one could ever accuse Mary of, for certain. But, no."

"And you still won't tell Mary how you feel? That you've been pining for her for years?" Tom challenged him.

"What's the use?" Matthew huffed. He suddenly groaned and shouted as Manchester United missed a scoring opportunity at the Chelsea goal. "It would only make things awkward and uncomfortable. I'd rather have the relationship I have with Mary now, rather than nothing at all."

"And what relationship is that?" Tom asked.

"Friends. Confidants. Distant cousins. Basically everything but what I really want," Matthew rolled his eyes.

"Seems to me you are already best friends," Tom said. "Perhaps that's enough?"

"I am grateful for it, of course," Matthew nodded. "But it isn't enough. I know it's not enough. I know there's another world, another life, another dream that we could share together. That's why it hurts, you know? I know there's something better for us, and I know we can't have it."

"Let me tell you something, Matthew," Tom said finally. "You don't think she notices you, but she does. Women notice everything, and they remember it all too. But how is she to know you're interested if you don't make that clear? You don't think she could have feelings for you, but she may. You don't think any of your effort is worth it, but it could be. How do you know for certain if you don't try? It seems hopeless, but it's not hopeless."

"I don't know if she'll ever truly see me that way," Matthew said quietly. "And I don't know if she'll ever want me."

"That's bollocks, Matthew. You're meant to be together," Tom said.

Matthew looked away from the field and over at Tom.

"In the early days when I first started dating Sybil, I asked her whether you and Mary were dating. The two of you, you just look right together. Maybe this keeps you apart, and then that keeps you apart. But, I'll tell you this. If you won't be happy with anyone else while Mary walks the Earth, don't you owe to it yourself to try? Don't you want to see if you can have this dream you've thought of?"

"I don't know if I can risk it, Tom," Matthew sighed. "That's not how we are with each other. Plus, you know, we're really from different worlds. Mary has all of her posh friends and events that she goes to. She knows celebrities and all of that. I don't know if I fit, really."

"Matthew, we're sitting in a private suite at Stamford Bridge, being waited on hand and foot," Tom shook his head. "No, you aren't a toff, but you're not exactly just one of the lads either, are you?"

Matthew rolled his eyes.

"And you know, Mary does need me. She needs me to be her friend, and I couldn't ruin that if something were to go wrong trying to be something else," Matthew continued, looking back out on to the field below. "Besides, we're so used to each other the way we are. It would seem strange to call her darling or love."

"Never mind what you call her. I know what I'll call you if you just give up and let any chance slip through your fingers," Tom said.

Matthew smiled wryly, then jumped to his feet as United scored.

Ting Restaurant, Shangri-la Hotel, At the Shard, London, England, August 2014

"Where did Matthew go?" Mary frowned, looking around as she came back to their table.

"He left," Edith said plainly. "He went up to his suite, I believe. He said he had a headache."

"A headache? But he was perfectly fine when he arrived," Mary said.

"I think the pain probably escalated when Carlisle showed up," Edith noted.

"What do you mean by that?" Mary asked, looking at her sister in confusion.

"Oh come on, Mary," Edith rolled her eyes. "Matthew was hardly pleased that the man joined us for dinner. No one was, truth be told."

"I didn't invite him over," Mary shook her head. "You saw what happened. He came over from his table to give his regards and Papa invited him to join us."

"But you didn't dissuade him, did you?" Edith said pointedly. "And now you act surprised that Matthew didn't hang around. Typical."

"Whatever are you on about?" Mary hissed.

"Mary?" Sybil asked, coming over to her sisters. "What's going on? Where's Matthew?"

"I just asked Edith the same thing," Mary replied. "Apparently Matthew has retired with a headache, and Edith is implying with very little subtlety that it's all my fault."

"Oh, right. Because you brought Carlisle to dinner," Sybil stated.

"I didn't bring him to dinner!" Mary said, turning towards her youngest sister. "Besides, what does that have to do with Matthew?"

Sybil and Edith shared an exasperated smile.

"Darling," Sybil sighed. "You can be so blind. Do you truly think that Matthew has a headache?"

"That's what he told Edith, presumably," Mary said. "Why else would he leave dinner without saying anything to me?"

"Of course he claimed he had a headache," Edith shook her head. "It would be rather rude of him to give the real reason."

"Which is?" Mary almost shouted in frustration.

"That he's desperately in love with you and he can't stand to see you with other men, particularly one as arrogant and horrible as Carlisle," Sybil almost laughed.

"What?" Mary exclaimed, her eyes going wide.

"You honestly don't know?" Edith frowned. "Seriously, Mary."

"I know that Matthew is very protective of me, and scrutinizes who I go out with," Mary said. "It's just him being a concerned friend, that's all."

"If he's so concerned, then why has he not scrutinized Michael, or Tom, or whoever Rose happens to be dating at the moment?" Edith asked in amusement. "We're all friends, distantly related even. If Matthew is so protective and gallant, why does he not involve himself in all of our relationships as much as he does yours?"

Mary blinked.

"It's been a while since Matthew's dated anyone," Sybil said. "Don't you find that curious?"

"Of course," Mary agreed. "He's handsome, funny, has excellent taste in food, successful, who wouldn't want to go out with him?"

"Who indeed?" Edith chuckled.

"Oh, don't be stupid," Mary frowned.

"Darling, it's just that we can see how Matthew has wanted you for so long, and how happy you are with him. You're you when you're with him. You laugh, joke, tease, trade barbs back and forth. You're happy when Matthew's around. He brings that out of you more than any other man you've ever brought to meet us. We just don't understand why you can't see that for yourself," Sybil said.

"He's never said anything about any of that," Mary said defensively. "He's never given any indication that he thinks of me that way at all."

"Perhaps he's afraid of what your answer would be," Edith noted.

Mary stared at her sisters.

"On an unrelated note, why is Matthew staying in the hotel?" Sybil asked.

"It's temporary," Mary said. "He sold his house faster than he expected and he hasn't decided on a place to live yet."

"Strange. You would think he would have that arranged before selling his house," Edith said.

"He got an offer well above his asking price and so he had to move quickly. We're supposed to go house hunting this weekend, actually," Mary replied.

"How wonderful," Edith smirked. "Just the sort of thing that a man and a woman who are just friends, and have no connection to each other beyond that, would do."

Mary rolled her eyes.

"Darling, don't you see?" Sybil smiled. "He involves you in every part of his life. He wouldn't do that just for a mere friend."

"Unless of course he hoped to picture what it would be like to go house hunting with you, you know, for a house that you'd actually live in together," Edith added.

Mary looked away, her mind racing, memories of her and Matthew playing out and taking on a far different view than she had previously considered. She recalled words, gestures, moments between them that now appeared changed to her.

Their shared glances, smirks, smiles, jokes and teases. How her phone's Bluetooth settings were saved to his car's computer so that she could play her music whenever he drove her anywhere. How she always texted him during breaks in her day to see how he was doing. How when he called her sometimes in the evenings, she would keep him on the phone until she fell asleep. The way she automatically looked for him and sat next to him at family dinners. How she would think of him when she was out shopping and wonder how a particular item would look on him.

The way he seemed to sigh whenever she told him about a horrible date. How she sometimes caught him frowning when she introduced him to a boyfriend. How he never specifically asked her about how things were going in her love life, and always waited for her to come to him for advice or to vent. How he seemed to awkwardly look away whenever she was holding hands with another man.

The time that he had shown up at Downton Abbey fresh from a long bicycle ride and she had inadvertently seen him topless. The way she seemed to take longer getting ready whenever she was going to a dinner or event where she knew he would be there. How their heads seemed to move closer towards each other whenever they took a photo together. How normal it seemed for her hand to caress his back. How comfortable it felt when his hand went across her waist. The warm touch of his lips whenever he kissed her hello or goodbye. The way her mouth lingered on his skin when she did the same.

Mary turned and left the restaurant without another word.

Westminster Suite, Shangri-la Hotel, At the Shard, London, England, August 2014

Matthew sipped his drink and looked out the large windows at the endless expanse of lights of evening London below. He was standing in the tallest building in Western Europe, the views spectacular, and yet his eyes were unfocused and his mind caught in a storm of emotions. He could have been staring at a brick wall. Nothing was getting through his melancholy tonight.

The night began well enough. He had arranged for a tasting menu for the family at the recently opened hotel restaurant. It was not an easy feat considering the buzz about the place and the long wait for a table. The Asian-inspired menu was challenging enough to be memorable, but comfortable and safe enough that he was confident Robert and Cora would enjoy the food even though they had never tried some of this cuisine before. He had no doubt that Mary and her sisters would love it. With his Mother visiting relatives in Manchester, Matthew was looking forward to spending most of dinner speaking with Mary, then perhaps staying for drinks afterward. It had been months since her last venting session on a horrible date or relationship gone wrong, and their constant talks as of late were wonderfully free of any mention of her love life.

Richard Carlisle was an acquaintance of the Crawley family through Mary's Aunt Rosamund. He was close to Robert's age, and had made his fortune running a media empire. His newspapers tended towards gossip and sensationalism, and Matthew disliked him partly for his business practices, and mostly for his interest in Mary. When Carlisle had approached their table tonight with a pathetically unoriginal 'Fancy seeing you here' greeting, Matthew's stomach had tightened and his appetite deserted him. When Robert graciously invited Carlisle to dine with them, Matthew almost threw up what little food he had eaten. The evening devolved from that point on.

It was a vicious cycle that Matthew recognized easily, but one that he could not stop himself from repeating. He tended to be suspicious of all of Mary's dates and boyfriends, and any man that tried to lay a claim to her. He could usually be civil in their presence, but Carlisle was a different animal altogether. Matthew could feel himself tensing and the bitterness rising in his throat with every sly grin and loaded statement that Carlisle threw in Mary's direction, usually while she was talking to Matthew. As expected, Mary moved easily from one conversation to another, and though she was merely being polite to Carlisle, every word, every smile, every false laugh she gave him only stirred Matthew's ire to full blow fury.

Witnessing all of this unfolding before him, he barely survived the meal without a permanent scowl on his face, and when it was clear that Carlisle was hoping to hang around and take Mary out afterward, Matthew had to get away as quickly as possible, lest he do something he would regret. He told Edith to pass along his excuses during the pause after dessert when the other women had gone to freshen up, and had hastily left for his hotel suite before Mary could come back and he had to explain his abrupt departure.

Matthew breathed deeply, then let go of the frown on his face with great effort. His smartphone beeped on the marble bar across the room. It was the custom tone signalling a message from Mary. Matthew ignored it, as he done with the previous four.

He looked up at the ceiling and groaned aloud in frustration. He would have to learn to control himself better. Realistically, he would have to face the fact that one day Mary would bring someone to dinner that she actually did care for, and Matthew would have no right to be jealous or rude. This was the path he had accepted where she was concerned. The problem, of course, was that where Mary was concerned, Matthew was finding it harder and harder to be rational. Every smile she gave another man ought to have been for him, he thought sadly. He should be the one to laugh with her, and flirt with her, and so much more. In this moment, standing alone high above London, his plans for a lovely evening ruined, he was just angry – with Carlisle, with Mary, with himself, with everything.

"I hope you're not planning on jumping," a voice called. "It's a long way down from the 37th floor, you know."

Matthew closed his eyes briefly. He did not turn around.

"Unfortunately the windows are too thick and there's no terrace, so I'll have to descend the more conventional way, by taking the elevator in the morning," he replied.

"For someone who apparently had a migraine, you're remarkably droll, and able to stand without any problems either," Mary noted as she walked towards him.

"I've had a wonderful remedy provided to me by the butler assigned to my suite," Matthew said, still facing away from her. He raised his hand and showed her his glass of clear liquid.

"Grey Goose?" Mary asked suspiciously.

"San Pellegrino," Matthew answered, downing the glass of sparkling water and placing it on the nearby table.

"Matthew…" she began.

"What are you doing here?" Matthew asked, not looking back at her.

"You didn't answer my texts," Mary said accusingly.

"You know that usually implies that the person you're trying to reach is indisposed," Matthew retorted. "Social rules would dictate that you leave the person alone."

"I don't give a shit about rules," Mary fired back.

"How did you even get in?" Matthew sighed.

"Your butler let me in," Mary answered. "I told him I was your wife and had forgotten my key."

"My wife," Matthew laughed sarcastically. "Afraid that telling him you were just a friend wouldn't do the trick?"

"Why did you leave dinner?" she asked, undeterred by his barb or his disagreeable attitude.

"Didn't Edith make my excuses for me? I had a headache," Matthew said.

"Funny, you were in good spirits when you arrived," Mary noted.

"Headaches can be quite unpredictable, you know," Matthew retorted. "I feel another one coming on right now, in fact."

"Are you sure you have a headache, or is it in fact a tantrum? The symptoms can be similar I've heard," Mary shot back, her arms crossed.

Matthew slowly turned towards her. His eyes were slightly red, and his face pale and tired. He opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head and walked past her.

"Matthew…" she said, reaching out and taking his hand.

He pulled his arm roughly away from her grasp and went to the bar.

"Seeing as my butler is a twat, I suppose it's left to me to prepare my own drinks now," he muttered, taking another bottle of San Pellegrino from the refrigerator and pouring himself a glass. He fumbled with two slices of lime from a nearby bowl and dropped them into fizzing drink.

"Aren't you going to offer your wife a drink?" Mary asked, following him to the bar.

"Shouldn't you go back to the restaurant? I'm sure that Richard would love to put something in your mouth," Matthew said bitterly, his eyes never leaving the glass in front of him. He knew he was rapidly losing control, but he couldn't be bothered to care at this point.

"Richard left," Mary said evenly, struggling to maintain her own composure. She had never seen Matthew so petulant before. She never realized that Carlisle's presence affected him so. She briefly wondered how many other times he had been so irate after spending time with her and one of her dates, or how many evenings had he gone back home and sulked after seeing her with another man?

"Oh?" Matthew replied in a disinterested tone. "A big story about to break? A scandal or two that he's going to blast across the Internet?"

"I don't know," Mary said, reaching over and taking his glass away from him. He looked up at her with a frown as she brought it to her lips and took a long sip. "I told him that I was busy and that he should go," she said.

"Well, don't let me keep you," Matthew said, pouring himself another glass of sparkling water. "As you can see, I'm alive, so you've done your duty and can leave in peace. Maybe if you get a hold of him, you can salvage the rest of your evening."

"Don't be ridiculous. If I wanted to leave with Richard, I would have. I obviously didn't, seeing as I'm here with you," Mary said pointedly.

"Well you can see yourself out then," Matthew snapped, taking his drink and walking past her. "I have no right to monopolise your time. I'm sure you have better things to do, other people to see."

"And what is that supposed to mean, pray?" Mary asked, stalking after him as he crossed into the bedroom.

"I think it rather self-explanatory! What are you still doing here?" Matthew growled. "Can't a man retire from dinner without being persecuted for it? I had a headache and I made my excuses. That's all there is to it."

"That's absolute rubbish," Mary said accusingly.

"Then enlighten me," Matthew spat.

"You escaped up here because of Richard, and the fact that you can't bear to see me with other men!" she shouted.

Matthew's eyes widened and his mouth gaped before he recovered and resumed a neutral expression.

"Don't flatter yourself," he managed. "See whoever you want, why should it matter to me?"

"Is that so? Is that why you were so intent on having a go at Richard tonight then?" Mary demanded.

"I was having a go at him?!" Matthew exclaimed. "Speaking requires oxygen, and the man's ego is so large it sucked all of the air out of the room, I'm afraid, leaving nothing for the rest of us. In case you weren't aware, the dinner conversation was remarkably stiff and forced through most of the evening, and if you don't think that your lovely Mr. Carlisle was not responsible for that, then you're blind."

"He's not mine! I don't want him!" Mary said vehemently.

"Well perhaps you should share that news with him, because he seems to be under some illusion doesn't he? The way he talks to you, and looks at you, it's as though you belong to him," Matthew shook his head.

"And what do you care?" Mary asked. "You just said I could see whoever I want."

"You don't need my permission, surely. We know where we stand. We've no need for gestures," Matthew said, his voice tight.

"Do we?" Mary asked, stepping closer to him. "Where do we stand, Matthew? Why was Richard coming over tonight so offensive to you?"

"He's a rather offensive person, and he begs to be teased," Matthew swallowed, pursing his lips as Mary drew closer.

"I think you were jealous," Mary ventured. "I think the thought of me with him, with any man, is abhorrent to you."

"I'm not jealous," Matthew said defensively. "I merely was a tad annoyed that he came over, and at the idea that he may be joining us again in the future, is all."

Mary laughed lightly.

"A tad annoyed? If you were only slightly bothered and retreated all the way up here, then I'd hate to see what you do when you're truly angry," Mary smiled.

"What do you want, Mary?" Matthew sighed. "I'm sorry if you think that I was rude over dinner, but Carlisle was honestly putting my teeth on edge."

"This isn't about Richard, or anyone else," Mary said firmly. She looked away, down at her hands, at the floor, briefly over to the window at the view of the entire city spread out before them. She couldn't look at Matthew just then, not when she knew what she had to tell him.

"What is this about, then?" Matthew asked. His anger and frustration were slowly giving way to curiosity.

Mary turned back to him. She bit her bottom lip nervously, swallowing to calm herself.

"You know, I have great difficulty talking about this sort of thing, even with you," she admitted.

"About what sort of thing?" Matthew asked quietly. He took a small step forward, afraid to say, think or even hope for what was to come.

"Do you truly want to know what I want, Matthew?" Mary asked, summoning her courage.

"Yes," Matthew said, his eyes focused on her.

She paused and took a breath.

He stood still and waited.

"I want someone who sees me, who knows me, who listens to me. I want someone who knows that I pick on Edith for no reason and that I always treat Sybil as the baby of the family even though she's 21, and doesn't try to change me over that. I want someone who knows the route I jog every morning and who joins me for crossfit on Sundays. I want someone who knows how I take my tea, that I don't like coffee, and that I like Chianti with beef, and Sancerre with fish. I want someone who can speak to me with just his eyes, who knows what I am about to say before I even say it, and who likes an argument and isn't afraid to tell me what I need to hear, even though I may not want to hear it," she declared fiercely, firing the words out before she could talk herself out of saying them.

Matthew's eyes opened wide in shock.

"I want someone who believes that I'm not cold and that I have a heart, someone who sees the good in me that I sometimes doubt is there, and who sees the bad that I don't want to show anyone else, and is still here despite all of that. I want someone who trusts me enough to know that I may not always have time for him, and is patient enough to still make time for me when I need him. I want someone who knows exactly what he is getting himself into by taking me on, who understands everything that I can give, everything that I'll take, and doesn't shy away from any of it."

Mary smiled as she spoke, her heart light and her strength returning. She was almost laughing now, the joy of declaring all of this openly to Matthew overwhelming any thought of fear or apprehension. She wasn't afraid. She couldn't be. It felt too good to say these things to him.

Matthew's mouth dropped open. All he could do was stare, his heart pounding so quickly he thought that Mary must surely be able to hear his pulse.

"I want someone who knows my favourite desserts and orders my favourite food at 1 o'clock in the morning without my having to ask, simply because he knows that I need it. I want someone who gets along with my family so well that he's practically family himself. I want a man who puts me first, who makes me want to do the same for him, even though no one else thinks me capable of that. And I want someone who loves me so much and so selflessly that he would keep his own feelings a secret, and deny himself what he wants, sacrifice his own happiness just for the sake of letting me keep my best friend."

Matthew did not know when he stopped breathing, but he knew precisely when he let out the breath he was unaware that he was holding in.

"I want you, Matthew," Mary declared, her voice firm and her smile wide.

She stepped towards him.

He stepped towards her.

He did not ask her to leave again. Ever.

Grantham House, St. James Square, London, England, October 2016

"This really is a lovely room," Matthew mused, laying back on the sectional.

"Whoever redesigned it has outstanding taste," Mary agreed, relaxing against his chest and stretching her legs out to tangle with his.

"No question," Matthew laughed. "Although for the amount of money I'm paying, I would expect no less. Interior designers are horribly expensive, you know."

"And entirely worth it," Mary said pointedly, jabbing him lightly in his ribs. "I would think money would be no object for the man who bought this house from the Earl of Grantham."

"Well, I may have managed to negotiate him down a bit," Matthew smiled, encircling her in his arms. "I told him that my wife desperately wanted to live here, and he was remarkably understanding."

"You're so smug about that, aren't you?" she smirked.

"About giving my wife what she wants? Yes, I am rather smug about my ability to do that," Matthew said playfully.

Mary chuckled lightly.

"So...if it's a boy?" Mary asked, snuggling against him.

"I've always been partial to the name George," Matthew answered, nuzzling his face against her neck.

"Mmm…George. I like that," she smiled, turning her head to give him further access.

"And if it's a girl?" he asked, kissing her warm skin.

"Victoria," she said. "I like that name, and it saves us having to choose between our Mothers and Granny."

"Perfect, darling," Matthew said, running his hands over her stomach tenderly.

"You do realize it will be a while before I'm showing?" she teased. "No one will know that you've done the impossible and gotten the cold and careful Lady Mary Crawley pregnant just yet, I'm afraid."

"We'll know," Matthew said confidently, kissing her cheek. "That's more than enough for me."

She covered his hands with hers, the sun coming in through the skylight above hitting the diamonds of her engagement ring and wedding ring and painting colourful lights across the wall.

"Darling, Edith and Sybil will be here soon," she smiled as his lips continued to caress her neck.

He made no move to stop.

She closed her eyes and did nothing to deter him.

"How long exactly until they get here?" he asked. His fingers moved up to her face and he gently turned her towards him. She returned his kiss eagerly, his lips soft and yet wonderfully demanding and insistent.

"Long enough," she said confidently, turning fully in his arms and pushing him down against the cushions.

"I do love you so terribly much," Matthew smiled, looking up at her smiling face as Mary ran her hand across his cheek.

"And I love you. Now stop talking and kiss me before I get cross," she smirked at him before he captured her mouth once more.