A/N: HAPPY SUNDAY.
Here we are. The closing chapter of ATiL. To say I'm emotional is kind of an understatement!
This will be woefully inadequate but I must thank you, from the absolute bottom of my heart, for all your support. Whether you've read, alerted, favourited, reviewed, tweeted, tumblred, whatever... Thank you. I've been overwhelmed, and incredibly touched, by the response to this fic. Particularly because it started so small... It was just a little idea, something just for me, and I've been completely humbled by your responses as it's grown and grown far beyond what I ever envisaged it might be. Thank you.
To EOlivet... Thank you. Without her this fic wouldn't be here. I was never going to write it. I thought it was implausible, or silly, or contrived, but I LIKED it and she convinced me to write it anyway, so I did, and she's been an absolute rock. That's an understatement. She's a treasure, and this would never have been written or continued without her enthusiasm!
Without further ado, I shall let you get on. Enjoy.
11th November 1920
Matthew stared thoughtfully out of his dressing room window at the gloomy sky, glancing down as his valet finished adjusting the strap on the belt of his uniform.
"How's that, your Lordship?" Thomas asked, stepping back to check everything over. "It must be a while since this has seen the light of day!"
"Quite right," Matthew smiled wryly, "and glad I am of it. Thank you, Barrow, that'll do nicely. Will you be wearing yours for the ceremony?"
"Oh, yes, I'll be digging it out of the mothballs while your Lordship's breakfasting. I'll have your cap and gloves ready, and your greatcoat, in the hall for when you leave too."
Matthew nodded, and smiled gratefully at Thomas. They were still getting used to each other, really, it being only a couple of months since they'd lost Robert. There'd been a sad irony to it, after the late Earl had made the month-long trip to Egypt with the idea of handing over more responsibility to Matthew for the estate… only to return with a tropical illness far beyond the realm of Clarkson's expertise that had claimed him within a week.
Still, he was feeling pretty well settled with Thomas, after having left Molesley to remain as butler for his mother at Crawley House. It might have seemed silly – they'd only met once in the trenches, but they'd both been there, even Thomas for two years before his wound (which Matthew had always had his doubts about, but it seemed such a small thing now to quibble over) – but, particularly today, Matthew felt they had some sort of bond through it. They were the only two in the big house now, who'd been there, who'd known what it was like. And he appreciated that.
A memory struck him, then, and he grinned. "Do you remember, that one time we bumped into each other in the trenches and had tea?"
Thomas raised his eyebrows, and laughed gently.
"Do I! Yes, I remember reckoning what a joke my mother would have found it; me giving tea to the future Earl of Grantham."
"And now look at us! Quite a way we've come since then, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, certainly. If my dear mother, God rest her soul, would've found that a lark –she always had high hopes for me, my Lord, but I don't think she ever counted on me actually becoming valet to the Earl of Grantham."
"No? Well," Matthew smiled, tugging reflexively at his cuff. "If I'm entirely honest, I don't think I ever quite counted on actually becoming the Earl of Grantham, either. Not in any real sort of way, and not for a great many years yet. Anyway… it turns out you are, and I must say a pretty decent one, too."
Gently brushing stray fluff from the shoulders of Matthew's jacket, Thomas grinned to himself. He certainly felt that they got on better than he ever had with the late Earl; though, he supposed, Matthew had less reason to distrust him. But he didn't intend for that to change.
"Thank you, Lord Grantham, very much. And if you'll pardon me, I might say the same to you!"
Matthew did appreciate that, enormously. As he made his way downstairs, with Isis bounding excitedly behind him, his palm grazed along the smooth, dark wood of the banister and he wondered about how he really didn't feel like an Earl yet at all. It was still too soon, and every day he expected Robert to appear at the breakfast table and tell him what to do about this, or that, or simply to pass him an encouraging nod. He felt like an intruder. Today would be his first real public business since the title had passed to him, and while it was one he felt an enormous honour to uphold, he still felt a bubbling anxiety about it.
On entering the dining room, he smiled to see Mary already there in an elegantly simple black dress.
"You look lovely darling," he smiled, pressing a soft, lingering kiss to her lips as his arm slipped in greeting around her waist.
"Hello!" she chuckled quietly, clutching at his lapel with her free hand to pull him towards her again, just for a moment, mindful of Carson standing stolidly in the corner. Stepping back, she allowed her hand to trail down Matthew's chest as she cast her eyes appreciatively over him. "You look… To be quite honest, dear, I'm not sure if seeing you wear that again makes me feel more… scared, or…" She licked her lips and blinked at him with wide, glittering eyes. To see him in his uniform brought back so many memories. An ache of fear fluttered quickly through her, that brief little panic where she forgot that they were safe, now, and happy. The reminder that so often he had left them, that he had been in danger, that he'd been hurt… Yet it mingled with the warm, inevitable stir of desire because he really – really did look very, very fine in it, and she cast her mind to more pleasant memories of freeing him from it in passion…
Matthew touched her elbow and smiled tenderly, understanding everything in her gentle blush and the nervous glint in her eye. Picking up a plate to serve his breakfast, he said, "I know. Anyway it's only for this morning."
They sat down together, sipping quietly and reflectively at their coffee. They always breakfasted together. They'd needed each other desperately, these last few months, and the idea that Mary should choose to breakfast alone in their room seemed quite unthinkable.
Browsing through the newspaper, Matthew's eyes lingered on the notices for many similar ceremonies that would be taking place around the county that morning. Unconsciously his fingers clutched a little tighter at the pages, and a little tighter at the delicate handle of his coffee cup, until he felt Mary's hand lay softly upon his arm.
"Are you alright, darling?" she asked quietly. This morning, she knew, would be terribly difficult for him.
"I suppose so." His answering smile was a little weak. "Just a little nervous, actually. I wish – God, I wish your father was here."
Didn't they all! Mary clucked softly at her husband's anxious chuckle, and squeezed his arm in assurance.
"I know you do. You will do admirably well, though, you know – and I think it will mean a great deal to everyone, to come from you. After all, they all know that…"
"Of course," Matthew nodded. He didn't want to think about that, and yet it was impossible not to. Especially today. Sometimes, in the dark of night, he worried that this was all the dream. That his nightmares were real, that he'd never escaped it at all, that he'd wake up and find himself back amidst the dirt and the gunfire and the filth. That all he'd have left of his family would be letters, photographs, that they couldn't really be in his arms, that this wasn't real… Taking a deep breath, he turned to Carson and forced himself to brighten.
"Carson," he asked, twisting round in his chair at the head of the long table. "Would you find out from Miss Ludbrook whether the children are nearly ready? And say that she might bring them down as soon as they are?"
The understanding butler nodded, and left the room for a minute or two. It wasn't very long before he came back, clearing his throat upon entrance to alert the Earl and Countess to his presence. This had quickly become habit after one incident too many of unwittingly interrupting a tender embrace.
He smiled fondly. "Miss Ludbrook reports that Lady Mabel and Lady Catherine will be dressed and downstairs in ten minutes or so, your Lordship."
"Thank you," Matthew nodded. "What about Bobby?"
"Lord Downton isn't quite ready, I'm told –"
"Dear, is he fussing again," Mary rubbed her hands together and made as if to stand up.
"–But will be ready perfectly in time, my Lady, so not to worry." The little boy, barely over a year old, was the delight of his family – especially as such exciting developments dawned as beginning to stand, beginning to babble in almost-words and beginning to discover his own teeth. Today, though, they didn't have the time for that.
Matthew rubbed a hand over his face, as he smiled.
"Carson, how many times, 'Lord Downton' seems a perfectly absurd title when he's such a little child; can't he be… Master Robert, or –"
"No, my dear, he can't," Mary laughed at him, not for the first time. While Matthew had taken very well (over the years) to the expectations and titles and etiquette that he must expect as the Earl, it seemed that his son's title was rather a sticking point.
Carson's head dipped respectfully, but he was quite sure.
"You know I like to do things properly, Lord Grantham…"
"I know, I know. I will get used to it, one day, Carson… You'll just have to bear with me in the meantime."
With breakfast over a little while later, Matthew retired to the library. Sitting down at his desk, Isis padded after him and plopped her chin on his knee, as if sensing his mood. Once more, as he'd done several times over the last few days, he pulled out a sheet of paper and poised a pen over it, finding himself unable to commit any words. Following him, Mary rested her hands lightly on his shoulders and kissed the top of his head.
"I know I should have something prepared," he muttered to himself as much as to her, at last letting the pen drop uselessly onto the polished wood. "But I just can't seem to find the words."
"They'll come to you," Mary murmured into his hair, stroking his shoulders to calm him. She could feel the tension radiate from him, and leaned down a little further to softly kiss his neck. "You mustn't worry –"
The door clicked open, then, and they turned to see Mabel and Catherine peering around the door. Both girls rushed excitedly in but, halfway to her parents, Catherine stopped as her eyes widened, her expression crumpling into a loud, distressed cry. Mabel held Mary's hand quietly and watched, patting Isis idly on her other side. A little serious frown crossed her brow as Catherine flung herself at Matthew's legs, who'd stood up as soon as she'd cried.
"My darling girl," he hushed quietly, picking his younger daughter up and holding her against his chest. She whimpered quietly into his shoulder, batting her small hands at the belt across his shoulders and tugging at the gold braid. "What is it, Kit?"
Mabel shrugged at her Mama's querulous expression. "She was fine a minute ago," she muttered around her thumb, which Mary distractedly plucked from her mouth. "Only Bobby was fussy but me and Kit were good –"
Catherine sniffed, scrubbing her hand across her teary face as she blinked up at her father. Her little lip wobbled. Matthew kissed her, and again, tapping his finger affectionately against her pouted bottom lip then brushing her hair back from her face. He hated it when they cried, the sound twisting a primal ache in his gut. And it had been when she'd looked at him, he knew it… Once more, he asked her softly what was wrong, sitting down again and hugging her on his lap.
She patted her hand against his chest, her voice shaking tearfully.
"Papa, you… you go away 'gain?"
Mabel suddenly understood, and tugged at her father's arm. She looked a little sad, too.
"You always were going away when you wears this, Papa." Unlike Catherine, Mabel was about old enough to remember why today was different, and that last year had been different, the one other day when Matthew had worn his uniform since the end of the war. But she could still remember that while Papa had worn it, he'd been so rarely at home. She remembered missing him ever such a lot, and Mama telling her every day about him. All her earliest memories of Papa were of him wearing it, and how scarce his visits had been.
Matthew felt wretched. Absolutely wretched, as he hugged both his daughters closely to him and they clung to his neck, feeling Mary's strengthening hand on his back as he gasped back threatening tears.
"Oh, my darlings, no… No, I'm not going away again. I'm not ever going away again, do you understand?"
A pair of bright blue eyes and a pair of deep, dark eyes blinked seriously back at him, and he gently brushed away Catherine's tears and tapped Mabel's nose. "It's only today, darlings; do you… do you remember why today is special?"
Mabel nodded surely. "To remember the brave soldiers, 'cause… because the war finished."
"Like you Papa!" Catherine tried a watery smile.
"That's right, good girls. And it's very important, you see. So we're going to the village in a moment, and we've something very special to show everybody. Something to help us remember, does that seem a good idea?"
Mary smiled encouragingly beside him. "I think it seems a very good idea, Papa, don't you both think?"
They thought it seemed a very good idea, too.
An hour later, Matthew stood proudly upright at the side of Downton's village green, glancing fondly over at Crawley House where they had been through so much together, and to the churchyard beside it, where the late Earl and Countess now rested together, along with so many of the names that he was about to read out. He remembered William and took a deep, shuddering breath as he tried to squash the pressing feeling of guilt on his chest. Guilt not just for William, but for all of them. Every young idiot who'd paid that price, under the misguided belief that they were doing what was right. None of it had been right. A light drizzle started to fall, spattering on his cap and the umbrellas of the gathered villagers. He blinked the raindrops away, clutching Mary's hand tightly where she stood beside him. In front of her was their large black pram, in which Bobby had pushed himself up to his feet, steadying himself on the edge of it while Mabel held him supportively. Catherine stood just in front of her parents' clasped hands, her face turned up towards Matthew even as the light rain fell into her eyes.
When it was time, just before eleven o'clock judging by the clock on the church's tower, Matthew stepped up onto the little rostrum beside a large, covered object in the centre of the green that towered a little way above him. The covering sheets flapped loudly against it in the cold wind, and he glanced at the expectant, thoughtful faces that looked back at him and smiled. The entire village had turned out, including a great many from outlying farms and estates. It meant a great deal to him. After a moment's thought, he took his uniform cap off and clutched it tightly in his hands, almost welcoming the cool drizzle down the back of his neck. Taking strength from Mary's supportive nod and smile, and the sight of her standing with their darling children, he smiled faintly back and addressed the village as their Earl.
"I know it's rather rotten weather," he began with a deep breath, "but let me assure you of how very much I appreciate your being here this morning. It's… been a year or two of change for all of us, and adjustment – but at least they have been two years of peace. And today we are remembering that, and being thankful for it… particularly the brave – the very brave men who gave their lives that it might be achieved."
A murmur of assent, and appreciation, rippled through the gathering. Matthew nodded, and looked at them, picking out only one or two faces that he recognised passing in the dismal filth of France.
He moistened his lips and carried on, his voice beginning to crack slightly. "I don't believe there's a person standing here who didn't lose somebody. And I…" For a moment he was forced to stop, and gather himself, gripping the edges of the rostrum until his knuckles trembled. "I… can tell you, with absolute sincerity, how – how damned brave they were. And how damned proud of them you should be. And… how damned thankful you should be for those lucky bastards of us who managed to make it back."
As soon as he'd said it he winced at the curse on his lips. They were shocked, he could tell, but… he couldn't bring himself to care. He saw the silent tears on Mary's cheeks, on the cheeks of most of the people standing before him. He meant it. He'd come close, so bloody close, to losing everything. And they had nearly lost him, and the thought of his girls growing up without him (of Bobby not… having ever come into being) made him tremble with sadness. Yes, he was damned thankful. Memories were flooding over him now, of torn faces and broken bodies and unmentionable things that no man should ever have seen. The smell, the cold, the noise… How had he, how had anyone, made it through?
It took him a short moment to recover past the lump welling in his throat. He glanced at the clock. It was very nearly time. Quietly, he gave a nod to the men waiting by the covered structure, one on a stepladder. "In memory of them," he said, through tight, trembling lips as his voice shook now heavily with emotion, "it gives me the greatest honour to unveil this memorial – to them."
There wasn't a gasp, nor a murmur, as the gleaming commemorative stone was uncovered. One by one, slowly, almost reverently, Matthew began to read each name carved deeply into its surface. There seemed so many, so damned many, and now he could hear quiet, muffled sobs in the weighty silence between each name.
In perfect time, he read the last one as the clock hands turned to show eleven o'clock. As it began to chime, the sound ringing across the muggy air, Matthew closed his address. "Let us remember them in silence, with thankful and solemn hearts."
He blinked up at the sky, into the falling rain, feeling the cool drops down his face mingling with silent tears of gratitude and sorrow.
When it was over, he stepped back down and shook the hands of many pressed around him, expressing their appreciation for his heartfelt words. He nodded, smiled, dutifully accepted it all but he longed to escape them now, to retreat to the safety and the solitude of his family and his home. He sighed when Mary finally found him, sinking into the warmth of her tight embrace and her tender, lingering kiss.
"Darling…" she whispered, lifting her hand to brush lovingly over his damp cheek. She wanted to say that he'd been wonderful, but of course she couldn't. It wasn't wonderful, it was hard, and meaningful, and difficult, but he'd done so well and she was so desperately proud of him.
"I didn't mean to – say what I –"
"It's forgotten, my love. Forgotten."
"I love you," he whispered deeply, and held her tightly. As if he might never let her go. Both were sickeningly aware of how close, how devastatingly close they'd come to losing each other throughout the war. They clung to each other now, as if the warm reality of each other could drive away the memories and fear and loneliness that they'd faced in those years without each other.
At last they broke, though not without another fleeting kiss, and turned to see where their children had gone to under the care of Isobel. They were peering at the memorial, Catherine having clambered right up by it as she traced her hand over the carved names. At her beckoning, Mabel leaned closer over her shoulder and peered at it too.
"Thanks, Mother," Matthew smiled gratefully as they approached.
Isobel gave him a fond kiss. "It's always a pleasure, dear. You did very well, you know. Very well." Her expression shone with pride for her son. If only he could know! She'd only ever wished, since he was quite a little boy, that he should grow up to be happy. Many times in the last ten years she'd worried about whether he could ever be. But now, at this moment, she could not imagine being more proud of him. And, of course, his small family.
"What are they doing," Mary wondered quietly, lifting Bobby up into her arms where he latched onto her necklace, squirming at the release from the confinement of his pram.
"We's look for Papa…" Catherine muttered, frowning as her finger traced the stone in front of her.
"I'm here, darling," Matthew laughed, crouching behind them.
"No, Papa. Here," Mabel pointed back at the memorial as if it were perfectly obvious.
"You was brave too!" Catherine insisted, turning round with a determined little frown on her face.
"You're a… Papa, is your name not really Papa, it's… Oh." Mabel was very confused. She knew enough to understand that everyone had a Papa, but… everybody called her Papa such different things. He was 'darling', or 'Mr. Crawley', but now people seemed to call him 'Lord Grantham' or 'Your Lordship' or 'my dear' and… none of those sounded quite like real names, either.
Matthew laughed brightly in the dampness of the rain, and put his arm around her.
"No, darling. I'm a Matthew."
"Ma'ffew…" Catherine experimentally rolled the name past her lips, while Mabel turned and began scouring the memorial for an "M… M… Ma – oh…" It was very difficult!
"Bel, you won't –"
"What's Mama?" Catherine interrupted him, quite intrigued by this new discovery.
"Mama is Mary," Matthew said quietly, his face lit with an adoring smile.
Catherine grinned. "S'pretty!" Looking up at her Mama over Matthew's shoulder, she clapped her hands together appreciatively.
"Papa –" Mabel demanded his attention again, unable still to find his name in the very long, very confusing list.
Mary watched them with tears in her eyes and their son in her arms as Matthew explained to their daughters why his name wouldn't, and shouldn't be on the memorial. Because he was there, see, and they didn't need his name in a list to remember him because he was with them, and would be with them always for a very very long time, he hoped. And wasn't that much better than to just have his name on a stone? Yes, they rather thought it was.
Isobel invited them back to Crawley House for tea and, seeing as it was so close and there was a little while yet until luncheon, they slowly made their way there.
Once over the threshold, Mary allowed Bobby to wriggle out of her arms as she set him gently down onto the carpeted floor, laughing as he half-crawled, half-stumbled down the corridor.
"He hasn't forgotten his home quite yet," she smiled.
It really did feel like home, she thought, as they settled into the sitting room and Molesley appeared with tea. For so many years, and through so much, it had been home. Their home.
And when they arrived back at their new home, after settling the children back into the nursery and the dedicated care of Miss Ludbrook after kisses and smiles to say goodbye for now, Matthew thought it high time that his uniform was banished to the closets to be forgotten for another year.
And he didn't mind at all that Mary wanted to help him out of it.
Back in the unshakeable haven of their bedroom, it fell from him piece by piece under her quick fingers and deft hands. Belts, buckles, braids, buttons, jacket, tie, boots, another belt… All while his own hands worked swiftly at her hooks and clips and catches, as silk fell and cotton fell, slipping into forgotten piles on the floor to the accompaniment of sighs and soft breaths as they finally fell into bed. The only covering they needed was the other's hands, lips, body…
Mary's back arched instinctively as the moist heat of Matthew's tongue travelled all the way from her navel to her throat, before seeking the softness of her breasts, gasping wordlessly as his lips closed over one, his hand upon the other. After that morning, Matthew needed her, so desperately, needed to remind himself that he had her, that they had each other. That they'd made it. That they were alright. His lips, his tongue, his fingers, teased over her as she writhed up against him, clutching at his hair. He moaned around her breast, sweeping his tongue over again, and again, grazing his hand down, and down, until he found her.
She cried his name in a strangled gasp, shuddering desperately at his touch, tugging him up to find his lips with her own. Her arms wrapped fiercely around his neck as his fingers slipped from her, hot moans mingling between the clash of their tongues as with one swift thrust of his hips he filled her completely and they both cried out together.
Matthew cradled her against him, clinging to her hip with one hand as they flung together, and again, and again. He treasured her, and savoured her, and worshipped her, as his memory pricked with the recollection that at one time they'd thought this pleasure had been stripped from them. She was warm and supple and slender in his arms and her long, lithe legs were curled tightly around his waist, as she drew him into her so wonderfully deeply, and then more, and more… her moans shuddered with each thrust, her breath hot against his shoulder, as they found each other so completely.
When it was (too soon, always too soon) over, when they'd each crashed over the glorious precipice of pleasure in turn, brought there and held there and released by the other, watching with fevered, dark eyes as their love shattered before them… they curled shakily together, long limbs tangling in the damp sheets, Matthew's lean and scarred body pressed to Mary's slim and delicate one, his arm wrapped snugly around her waist.
Dressing could wait, luncheon could wait… Everything could wait.
There, in each others' arms… in their bed… in their home… everything else faded out of importance.
"Darling?" Matthew whispered, pressing a hot kiss to the soft skin behind Mary's ear.
"Mm?" She twisted, flopping over to face him. Her fingers curled idly into the light, scattered hair of his chest.
"Thank you," he murmured, his eyes shining with affection.
Sensing the depth of meaning in his words, Mary wriggled closer, tangling her legs between his. Matthew kissed her damp forehead tenderly, and sighed. "For finding me," he added softly.
"For… what?" She blinked up at him, frowning a little. Matthew chuckled deeply.
"For finding me," he whispered. "In Manchester. Before the war."
"Oh." Tears stung behind her eyes at everything those simple words meant. "Thank you for not turning me out," she smiled wryly.
"How could I have," he murmured, closing his eyes as he pulled her more closely against him.
Mary laughed, almost bitterly. "I thought… I thought you'd despise me. I was so afraid."
"Oh my darling…" He kissed her again, his lips warm against the cooling sweat on her brow. "I never would… I never could have despised you." When Mary sobbed into his shoulder, he kissed her again, his forehead knitting into a frown of deep and complete sincerity. "Darling, I loved you…"
"And I – loved you!" she gasped, her fingers clutching desperately at his skin.
"I know. I couldn't… I couldn't have done it, Mary. Not without –"
"Yes, you could. You're strong, darling, you've been so strong."
"Have I?" he laughed. "Not so much as you, I think."
"Well, I…" she eased back and glanced up, meeting his eyes. Tears shone in them, and she smiled. "I had you, you see. So I could be. And then Bel, and… Whatever had happened, I knew I would always have that at least. A little part of you, only – I'm so, so glad that she wasn't all I had left of you!"
Matthew stroked over his wife's cheek, curling a dark strand of her hair between his fingers.
"And I could be because I knew that I had you to come home to." He grinned, and kissed her nose. "Do you suppose that makes us even?"
"I suppose so, darling."
They lay together, with no more words to say, in complete assurance of their love. That morning, the ceremony, the memorial… had been a painful, and sharp reminder of all that they had come so close to losing. They were so very lucky… to have each other, to have their three children (and who knew how many more might follow?)… to have their family about them, whether they were near or far (Edith had married Sir Anthony in the spring, and they remained close, while Sybil continued to write often). Most of their family, at least… for in losing Mary's parents, they had been thrust without much warning into these new roles as the Earl and Countess of Grantham.
But they were alright. They'd been lucky… They'd found each other, and accepted each other. They'd braved the storm, many storms, through the war and after it (it had been a funny sort of peace, Matthew had joked once, as everything was seeming to fall apart around them). But they'd managed it, together, and they would manage it, together, along with whatever hurdles they crossed in the future.
Because they had each other. And no matter what happened, no matter what else was left or taken from them or granted to them… they would always… always, have that.
A/N: I don't know about you but I'M sobbing.
Thank you, so very much, for reading. I've had enormous pleasure writing this story, and if you've enjoyed it even a little bit then I'm enormously, enormously glad, and very touched.
That said - if you have enjoyed it, a review would mean the world to me. To all those faithful people who've had this on story alert, or who have favourited it - or if you've done neither but have just enjoyed it - just a single line of a review really would mean the world. I'd love to know what you thought, of this chapter or the whole fic, now that it's come to an end. I'd appreciate it more than I can say. If you've never left a review before, now would be a wonderful time. I feel incredibly awkward even asked, because I HATE to seem like the type to beg for reviews, but it would mean so much to me because this fic has meant so much to me. (And I promise I'll never ask again!)
Thank you. You're all darlings and I love you, and thank you for taking this journey with me (and them!).