A/N: So. Here starts my "epic and long-awaited" multi-chaptered and multi-shipped AU fic. I had a massive A/N planned about why I'm writing it and what I'm hoping to achieve but I'm jet-lagged and can't remember any of it. Maybe I'll have remembered by Chapter Two so you'll have to read on if you want to see what I have to say! I'll let the story speak for itself instead. Anyway, you should know by now not to listen to anything I say. ;) I will just say that I'm not sure how popular this will be as it will stray very far from where the tv series has taken and ever would take the characters, but I hope they will nevertheless remain in character and that you will stick with it. Many, many thanks go to OrangeShipper for beta-ing; I've been agonising for weeks over the last scene of this chapter and she's been a great sounding post. Finally, if you haven't gone over and joined the Downton Abbey Forums which I created with the help of some other awesome people in the DA fanfic community, you really should! There's discussion of the show, an RPG (with some main characters still available) and a place to discuss and recommend fanfiction and other fan works. The link is my homepage on my profile page.
"It is fate, but call it Italy if it please you, vicar." ~ The screenplay of Merchant Ivory's film of A Room with a View.
Chapter One: Matthew, Unpacked
"I think I shall take a holiday," announced Matthew one morning several days after the flower show.
His mother looked at him sharply but when he did not raise his head from his newspaper, she merely said eventually, "What a nice idea. Where will you go?"
"Was thinking of a week in Manchester. I'll stay with Uncle Peter and look in on Fotherington and the rest of the firm. Really, it's overdue."
It had indeed been a long time since Matthew had left Downton but Isobel had her own theories about why that might be and forebore to point it out.
"I'll leave tomorrow as it's Saturday," Matthew continued. "Then I'll get as much time there as possible. You can expect me Sunday next."
He folded his newspaper and stood up. "I better go, Mother." He leaned down to kiss her cheek.
He was half out of the room when Isobel said, "But, Matthew, have you forgotten that we are both invited to dine at the great house tomorrow night?"
His head complete with hat appeared back round the door. "Then they'll just have to do without me!" He grinned briefly at her and then disappeared again and she heard the front door slam a few seconds later.
"I am not sure that I understand this concept of a holiday," said the dowager countess the following afternoon. "It's not Christmas."
"He just wants to get away from Downton for a little while," put in her daughter-in-law. "He's been working so hard in his firm not to mention spending every Saturday on the cottages, it's really no wonder he wants a break. I can perfectly understand it."
"In Manchester?" queried Mary, who was standing a little apart from the others at the window, watching cousin Isobel's slow approach down the drive. "I would hardly have thought of Manchester as a particularly restful destination."
"Precisely," continued the dowager. "Scarborough maybe! But Manchester-" She shuddered expressively.
"I can't imagine Matthew wanting a restful holiday," said Sybil. "He's the sort of person who needs to do things, you know. I simply cannot picture him sitting on the beach with all the donkeys, can you?"
There was general laughter at this image until Edith interrupted, "I dare say he is only going to get away from Mary."
Her elder sister, who could in fact easily picture Matthew on a windswept Yorkshire beach, valiantly juggling the reins of a donkey in one hand and an ice-cream cone in the other and found the picture appealing, turned abruptly from the window, the smile falling from her face.
"What do you mean by that, Edith?" asked Lady Grantham.
"Oh, nothing in particular," she replied, relishing the attention. "Only that Mary sent Matthew packing at the flower show, didn't you?"
"Is this true, Mary?" asked her father.
Mary picked up a book left lying on a small table and glanced casually at the spine. "Of course not. We hardly spoke at the flower show."
The damage had been done much earlier when Sir Anthony Strallan had come to dinner.
"Then you should have done!" weighed in the dowager. "Matthew may not be everything we might wish him to be but he is still your father's heir and if you are in any way the cause of him thinking that-"
"You speak as if I were in some way responsible for his behaviour. I'm not: he's his own master."
"Hmm, that is rarely ever true of a man, and never where a woman is concerned."
"Isn't it more likely," said Sybil, looking anxiously round at her family, "that Matthew simply wanted to go on holiday and that there is no ulterior motivation behind his timing of it?"
"You are a darling, Sybil!" murmured Mary gratefully, shooting Edith a resentful glance.
"Whatever the reasons for his leaving us now, girls," interrupted Lady Grantham firmly, "we shall miss him and must make cousin Isobel feel welcome in the meantime."
"I cannot imagine why you're looking at me, Cora!"
She ignored her mother-in-law and continued, "And if Mary did send him packing, to use your vulgar phrase, Edith, then Mary must unpack him. Is that understood? When he returns, you can invite him to dinner as soon as he gets back."
Monday afternoon found Matthew Crawley in an environment very different to anything the ladies at Downton could have imagined. Not far from St. Peter's Field in Manchester was a narrow, redbrick terraced house with a shiny brass plaque next to the front door announcing the offices of Butt, Roper & Fotherington, Solicitors. In a messy office on the top floor, Matthew was partaking of a rather good brandy with a rotund gentleman about ten years his senior who possessed a very fine pair of auburn whiskers.
"Been very busy, Crawley, very busy indeed," said the whiskers. "We're dealing with Westacres Ltd. now, you know."
Matthew raised his eyebrows and grinned. "Going up in the world, aren't you?" The careful listener might have discerned the faintest hint of a long dormant Mancunian accent in his speech that day.
"That we are. Not as much as you for all that though. Proper aristocratic you've become. Knew you'd keep up with the job though. Young Roper, he thought you'd have given it up in a shot but I knew better. Not Matthew Crawley, I said, lawyering's in his blood, it is, and you'd sooner see him swimming the channel than not working."
"I'm not sure I'd go quite that far! I'm glad of my work, but frankly I find I'm growing rather fond of the old place after all." He frowned for a moment into what was left of his brandy and then drained it.
"Suppose it's very big," suggested his friend.
"One of the biggest in Yorkshire."
"And very handsome."
"Hmm. What of those girls then? They handsome too, eh?"
"Come now, don't play coy! When you left, you was all paranoid about those three daughters and how you'd be marched up the aisle with one of them before you'd been there a week. I suppose that was all hokum was it?"
Matthew laughed. "Not quite hokum, but nothing so barbaric as a forced marriage, I can assure you. This is England! I expect everyone would be delighted if I married the oldest though, except perhaps Lady Mary herself."
"Ah, these rich fillies never are worth the trouble to actually secure them. What's she like anyway?"
"She's very beautiful," replied Matthew after a short pause, "but flighty, I'm afraid. May I?"
"Be my guest – and another one for me, if you're pouring. Eh, she's a woman. What do you expect?"
At this point Matthew managed to turn the conversation easily to the more engrossing topic of Mrs. Fotherington, her health and her children.
Matthew returned to Downton as planned on Sunday and that afternoon found Mary riding to the village to discharge her promised duty. She left Diamond outside and found her cousin alone as Mrs. Crawley had gone to a friend's for tea.
When she came into the room Matthew found himself strangely taken aback. He had spent a week in the near constant company of two imaginary Marys, one a beautiful, pure, marble fairy and the other an equally beautiful but cruel, wicked sprite, his imagination presenting one or the other to him depending on his overall mood that day. Seeing the real Mary, neither angel nor monster but somewhere in between and very definitely mortal, came as a surprise. A pleasant surprise overall: he had lost sleep over the phantom Marys.
She approached him with a friendly smile, as if the awkwardness of their last couple of meetings had not taken place. "How was your holiday? Sybil is convinced you spent it all in a lawyer's office. Please tell me you did not!"
"Not quite all of it, but I confess that my main motivation for choosing Manchester was to see old acquaintances and they tend to spend a lot of their time in offices, I'm afraid."
"Well, nobody's perfect!" She smiled engagingly but Matthew felt irritated by her casual dismissal of such an important part of his life. He tried to hide it: as she said, nobody was perfect.
"And you, cousin Mary? Have you been well? Any news at the great house?"
She sat down and arranged her skirts around her with practised ease. "We are all just as you left us, I believe. Christmas came early for Edith on Wednesday when Sir Anthony happened to be passing by." She rolled her eyes as she accepted a cup of tea from Moseley. "Really, I have no idea what she sees in him, always talking about his agricultural equipment. I start to think that it must be innuendo."
And how much more interesting he would be if it were, thought Mary.
The treacherous leap of Matthew's heart that this throw-away comment provoked only made his retort come back even sharper than he had intended it. "Exactly what you see in him, I expect."
For a moment she was startled and then she brushed it off with a usual laugh. "Really, Matthew, you shouldn't take me so seriously! What happened that night was only a game between me and Edith."
"A shame then that Sir Anthony and I were excluded from knowing the rules; we might have found it more amusing."
Matthew was shocked at what he found himself saying. He had gone away to separate himself from her before he found himself betraying feelings he was only just realising he might possess. His journey had failed, however, for he was far from indifferent. He stood and took his tea to the window, trying to master the confused emotions she constantly inspired.
Behind his back, Mary swallowed, frowned and shifted in her seat, aware of his awkwardness but unable to understand it.
"Your Manchester friends have spoiled you, Matthew," she said eventually. "I'm afraid they would disapprove of me."
"They are not very likely to ever meet you." It was a scenario he had imagined repeatedly over the past week.
"No? You met all my friends in London. You liked them, I recall. Why, even I like some of them!"
She smiled ruefully and he almost smiled back, unable to help himself. He was powerless before her.
"The circumstances of our meeting would be very different," he tried to explain. "I met your friends during the season but I cannot think of a suitable occasion when you might be introduced to mine."
He could. "I don't suppose you would be interested if the opportunity arose."
"Are you offering?"
She was goading him with that steady gaze and teasing half-smile of hers, just like the other night, and yet not so.
"Is that what you want?"
"Matthew, I -"
She half rose and as she did so he took a large gulp of tea in an attempt to diffuse the heaviness that had suddenly infected the atmosphere; thus he missed the real longing briefly visible in her expression.
"If you're really interested then I'll invite Mr. and Mrs. Fotherington to stay one weekend and you can come to dinner."
She sank back into her seat with a small sigh. "Oh, Matthew, for a moment I thought you were suggesting something quite different then."
The room had become overly small and warm. Matthew paced back to the window, as far away as possible from her and her fine, dark eyes and did not look at her.
"Believe me, Mary, when I propose marriage to you, you will be aware of it!"
She must have missed his unintentional replacement of the conditional with the temporal, for she cried very quickly, "Oh! I suppose you would be the kind of lover who goes down on one knee, addresses me as Mary Georgiana Victoria Crawley and then lists all my virtues one by one, dwelling especially on the ones I know I don't have and -"
"Stop!" he interrupted, torn between indignation and laughter at her rather desperate flippancy. "You shouldn't make fun of love in that way."
"What has love to do with a proposal? Come, Matthew, you should know by now; I am not a romantic person."
He stared at her. "I assume you're jesting."
"Not at all. What is more suitable a subject for satire than love and its impossible foolishness?"
Matthew fell silent. He felt a great weight descend on his heart. Then she spoke more quietly, as if she had only just processed what he had inadvertently said. "Do you love me?"
His eyes were drawn to hers and his mouth opened as he tried to decide how to answer. Acknowledgement and denial were equally unthinkable. For a moment an invisible bond connected them to each other, their expressions mirroring each other's in wonder and curiosity and revealing nothing. Then Mary bit her lip and looked away and it was broken.
"Well, it doesn't signify really," she said with polished brightness after he failed to reply. "Some people are simply incapable of real love, either the giving of it or the receiving. It's better this way."
The weight on his heart twisted and burned.
"What do you mean?"
"Only that -" She faltered, perhaps becoming aware of the hole she had dug for herself. "That for some people there is something so intrinsically wrong about them or that their situation -"
"Mary, I beg you, stop!" Matthew could hardly hear his own voice over the tremendous buzzing in his ears.
"But I -"
"I think you'd better leave now."
She rose, pale and scared at the unnatural tone of his voice. At the door she turned and faced him and said stiffly, "I was sent to invite you and your mother to dinner tonight. I hope you will come."
"I would by no means inconvenience cousin Cora by rejecting her kind invitation," he replied with equal formality. He held the door open, not trusting him with any further speech.
She passed out of the room with only a brief pained glance at him which he did not see, and showed herself out of the house. Within minutes she was mounted again and as soon as possible left the road and cut across the fields. It was fortunate that Diamond knew his way home for after urging him into a frenzied canter, it was all that Mary could do to cling to the reins as tears blinded her to everything else.
I'm far too proud to beg for reviews, but the more people prod me to update, the more likely it is that I will... ;)