A/N: Last one in under the wire.. I always wondered why Matthew seemed so certain of Mary's answer, so I made it up myself. A bit of this was to be in "Any Other World" as a flashback for Matthew, but instead it lives on its own. This is S1, a fraction of a S2 spoiler, and completely self-indulgent. Thank you all for your wonderful comments and reviews.
See you on the other side of Season 2.
To Let It Go and So Fade Away...
Crawley House, September 1914
He was told to do this before he was shipped to France, and during training it sounded sensible and kind. Now, faced with his room and his personal effects, it seemed not so much sensible as depressingly fatalistic.
"Make sure everything's settled," they told him. "Messages you want to leave behind, gifts you want to give, stories you want to share. Don't leave anything unfinished. You will feel better, and if you don't come back, those you leave behind will appreciate it."
All sensible words, and all completely wrong. He could not believe it would make his mother feel better if she knew what he wanted her to do with his law book collection. It wasn't as if there was much to settle. It really was a law book collection, his histories and novels, clothes, and his father's watch. The Manchester house would automatically go to his mother, his law partnership in Ripon would be dissolved without any need for paperwork, and any tie he had to the Grantham estate would disappear.
He wondered who it would fall to next. Some poor slob of a fifth cousin somewhere, a shopkeeper perhaps. He entertained himself with the idea of just how far across the tree the family would have to go to find someone to take the title, primarily as a distraction, because there was one more thing he would have to decide what to do with and he could not bring himself to touch or open the small leather box from the Grantham family jeweler, delivered only a month earlier.
Sybil's ball had been an immense success, not only because its subject was utterly beautiful, delightful, and talked about in nothing but glowing terms, but also because it seemed Mary had finally decided to accept Matthew and the family couldn't be happier. The two had spent a great deal of time together in London after his late arrival, from organized outings to simple walks, from balls to dinner parties, and no one who had seen them had any doubt in their mind that young Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary Crawley would be married by this time next year.
Yet the two people about which the London society world had no doubt were, in fact, if you looked closely, filled with doubt, especially the male half. They had hardly been together since he'd proposed in April, the family having left for the season shortly thereafter. Letters, funny and flirtatious alike, had sped the weeks along until he could join them in London at the conclusion of his case. He had hoped that upon his arrival, Mary could be coaxed into giving him her answer. "Not yet," she had told him, after he stole a kiss in the upstairs hallway. "This is Sybil's time," she whispered, and, much to his chagrin, did not allow a second kiss.
He'd feared the same crashing bore of teas, balls, and outings, and they were dull, but unlike the prior year, when Mary had seemed to make a particular point of ignoring him, she instead focused nearly all her attention on him. No more was he someone merely to be tolerated. They took long walks, sometimes arguing wildly about the goings-on in Europe, sometimes saying nothing at all. They read the papers together in the morning, and talked so much at the few luncheons and dinners at home that Cora was forced to separate them on multiple occasions. Each moment he spent with her, he was surer and surer of his love for her, and convinced she felt the same.
Yet every time he asked if she had an answer, she would dodge, tease him, find any way she could to avoid the question, and by the night of Sybil's ball he was beginning to second-guess himself.
They danced and they flirted as they had for months, but he could not snatch a longer moment with her, not with the flurry of activity surrounding her sister's debut. His frustration must have begun to show, because in the smallest of ways in that ballroom that night, she made a pointed effort to soothe him. Her hand lingered in his a fraction longer than necessary, her fingers stroked his shoulder in a new way when they parted on the dance floor, her head tilted to whisper to him in a way that indicated a kind of intimacy they had not shared. She was signaling to the room that she was his and he was hers and it gave him the confidence to try once more.
"An answer?" he whispered as they watched Sybil dance.
She did not take her eyes off her sister, a small smile playing around her mouth. "When I return home, I will give you my answer."
"Tonight at home?"
She arched an eyebrow. "At Downton."
"Grantham House is home."
"It's not our home," she said.
He could not quite grasp that she'd said that. "Our home," he whispered slowly in her ear. He could see her cheeks grow pink.
"Our home," she repeated softly, but firmly.
"Ours," he whispered again.
She turned to look at him. "Ours."
And at that moment he had absolutely no doubt in his mind she would agree to be his wife.
So for the rest of the night, as they danced together, sipped an inordinate amount of champagne together, and wryly observed the world around them together, he finally, after two years of uncertainty and worry, fully embraced the fact he would be the Earl of Grantham, he would be married to Mary, he would someday watch his own daughter or daughters at balls much like this one, and for the first time it all felt right because of the hand that brushed his as they stood together.
It was a quarter past three when the family dragged through the door of Grantham House. Matthew, who was anything but sleepy at this point, welcomed Molesley's news that a brief he'd been waiting for on his case had been delivered. "I'll be up for a bit reading this," he said aloud in the hall, to no one in particular, only he knew precisely upon whose ears he wanted that to fall.
So he was pleased when, barely fifteen minutes after he'd settled at the desk in the library, in nightclothes and a light dressing gown, the door opened and she slipped in, in similar states of insomnia and undress.
"You were serious," she said softly as she peered over his shoulder. "All work..."
"Did you come to play?" he murmured, and as his voice reverberated through her, she took a step back.
"I came to tell you something," she started, and backed away further as he rose from his seat.
"About?" He was expecting a flirtation, but her face, slightly troubled, worried him. "Mary, are you all right?" He reached for her, but she glided away from him, settling on the window seat, the moonlight illuminating her face. Matthew turned down the lamp and followed, his knee a mere inch from hers as he leaned back on the opposite side.
They said nothing for minutes, Mary clearly in a struggle with herself, and Matthew watching the planes of her face shift. She finally broke the silence with a sigh.
"What would you have done if this hadn't happened?" she asked softly.
"This?" He took her hand, and she smiled.
"No," she said. "Although I am interested in that answer as well. I mean this." She waved vaguely and he knew what she meant.
"Ah." He thought for a moment. "Politics, I think. Eventually."
She nodded. "You would have been good in politics, I think."
"Maybe." He had absolutely no idea what she was getting at.
"Will you miss that? Do you miss that?" She shifted and her face drew back, and the moonlight lit her eyes from within, a steady, unblinking white light.
He shrugged. "I might have hated it, or been terrible at it."
"You wouldn't have been terrible." Her voice was warm and firm. "You will never be terrible at anything you do." Her fingers, wrapped loosely in his, stroked his palm as she returned to staring quietly out the window, the light beginning to shift from night to dawn, the black of the sky now a brilliant deep blue. Something was bothering her and he had no idea how to draw it out. So he watched her think, realizing with a frisson of pure desire that he could watch her do that for the rest of his life.
She finally looked at him again. "What did you want to do? When you were little? Did you want to be a doctor like your father?"
He shook his head. "No, but it's ridiculous. You'll laugh."
"Only if it's something like a pirate. Or a vicar. Then I will feel free to mock you until the end of your days."
"I used to... oh, never mind." he said with a smile.
"Lord Chancellor," he finally admitted, and she smiled.
"Impressive," she murmured. "Of course, you can still be in politics. There's Lords."
She looked troubled again. "I'm sorry."
"For what?" His hands took hold of hers and he was struck by how cool they were.
She looked down at their hands. "That you'll be limited, all because I wasn't a boy."
The thing that erupted from his mouth was somewhere between a laugh and a snort. "Mary," he began, and the look on his face made the corners of her mouth twitch. "You have no idea how happy I am that you're not a boy."
And it made his heart soar to see her laugh at that, followed by an enormous yawn. "Sorry," she said. "It's late. Early," she corrected herself and laughed again. "You're not going to keep reading that thing, are you?"
He couldn't help himself. He couldn't keep from reaching forward to take her face in his hands, couldn't stop himself from stroking her lips with his thumbs before kissing her. It was not like any other time he had kissed her. He had never been so sure of her before, never trusted that as he slanted his mouth over hers that she would respond with the same intensity he felt. Yet tonight she did, her mouth yielding to him, drinking him in, her own hands reaching for his shoulders to steady herself as she pressed forward. His hands came down to her waist, and as he pulled her to him, he realized far too late that they were not in beads and corsets, in stiff shirtfronts and ties, and almost nothing came between them as their bodies crashed into each other.
They froze, foreheads together, their breaths in short, matching gasps as they tensed, hips meeting, the intimacy too much to handle, the flare of need so strong that any movement would send them both over the edge. It was minutes before he could shift, his hand finally dropping from her waist to her leg, and they gasped again as his palm met the bare skin of her thigh, exposed where her blood-red dressing gown fell open. She pulled her head back slightly, her eyes meeting his and he shook at the desire he saw there, and groaned as she tucked her face into his neck and melted against him.
What crossed his mind was utter madness. Not here, not now, he told himself, but as he felt her curve toward him, he jerked helplessly underneath her. To know this, to know the feel of her against him, the swell of her hip under his hand, the softness of her against the hardness of him, her breath on his neck, and her mouth open on his throat, kissing him, a low moan thrumming against him, to know what she did to him physically and what he seemed to be doing to her was too much to stop, it was bigger than either of them, and his eyes opened, wildly searching the room lit only by the barest of predawn light, searching for a place where he had room and comfort enough to..
And a thud outside shocked them out of their reverie, tore them apart so that in less than a second she was standing, her hand over her mouth, staring at the door, waiting.
It was the coal scuttle. The kitchen maid had come up to do the fires.
Her eyes frantically sought his, and he reached for her, pulling her back into the window seat, yanking the curtains shut so they could not be seen just as the door opened. The proximity that had sent them into a frenzy of desire was now a necessity, fraught with fear as they listened to the girl build a fire in the grate. Her mouth was buried against his shoulder, muffling her breaths and the pounding in his own chest matched hers as he pressed his lips into her hair, willing himself not to move. It seemed to take forever, as if each lump of coal had to be placed just so, building and building, until at last there was another thump and rattle and the door closed.
They were alone.
He let out a great breath, and she did too, turning her head to rest her cheek on his shoulder. "When do you leave?" she whispered.
"My train is at one," he replied. "When will I see you again?"
"Breakfast," she said, and he stifled a laugh. "Three weeks. I will see you in three weeks."
"And you will give me my answer."
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes."
The madness had passed, but he still did not want to let her go. It was only the exponentially increasing promise that someone would catch them eventually that allowed him to release her. Another mad thought crossed his mind, but he dismissed it as paranoia. He watched the hall as she stole back to her room, and imagined that she'd already given him the answer, and that those last breathless words were true, and he did not let that worrisome voice tell him that was the last time he'd hold her.
Breakfast was exceptionally late the next morning and he nearly missed it, passing Robert on the way in, who gave him an indulgent look. "What time is your train?"
"One," Matthew said. "I was going to stop by Abraham's before I left."
And Robert clapped him on the shoulder and smiled.
They could exchange nothing but pleasantries and meaningful looks at breakfast, Sybil's chatter about the ball taking up much of the conversation. Yet he had never been so sure of her love as he was that morning. "I'll see you at home," Mary had said to him as he left the dining room, and it was with a spring in his step that he walked into the hundred-year-old office in Hatton Garden.
The old jeweler's family had either crafted or acquired nearly every piece in the Grantham collection, and the old man was intrigued by the newest member of the family. He brought out two boxes, showing off hundred year old necklaces worn by the great-great-great grandmother Matthew and Mary shared, and asked Matthew if he was going with an heirloom or a new ring. "There hasn't been a new ring in fifty-five years, not since the old Earl married."
For some reason, it amused Matthew to think he would be competing with Violet's husband. "What would you recommend?"
"For Lady Mary?" Abraham left the room and returned with a tray. "One of these. They're from the Asscher Diamond Company in Holland. They're the ones who cut the Cullinan diamond. This one is meant for a ring."
It glowed at him with a steady light, much as Mary's eyes had last night, and he was in no doubt as to what to do.
He had tempted fate by buying it, and he did not want to tempt fate again.
He opened it, stared down at it, remembered the thrill he'd felt at the moment he chose it, the certainty he'd felt in ordering it, and knew at that moment he couldn't leave this hanging. He did not have time to send it back, and he realized he did not want to. As angry as he was, it did not change some things.
If he did not come home, how did he want Mary to feel? What did he want her to think, to know, to understand about what he thought on this sunny day in September, as war was beginning to rage in France, before he went off to trenches where he already knew junior officers were not likely to survive?
So before he had time to second-guess himself, he wrote it down, told her all he wanted her to know, dated it so she should know when he wrote it, and sealed it up inside the small delivery case that held the ring box.
Two years later, when he proposed to Lavinia, he thought about the box for the first time in over a year. He dismissed the idea of asking his mother to send it along, telling himself it would be far easier to buy Lavinia her own ring. He told himself this over and over. The box remained inside his trunk, inside Crawley House, and Lavinia wore a modest sapphire in keeping with the times.
Two more years passed, and now, sitting in a chair inside his new room at Downton, awaiting an answer to the note he sent to the room across the house, he finally broke the seal on that box, left by Molesley on his dressing table. For the first time in four years, he opened the letter, and read what he had written on that sunny September day a lifetime ago.
Someday he would want her to see it. Now was not the time.
So he put the note in his dressing table, where it stayed until a night a little more than a year later when, after the doctor and nurses had left and the family slipped off to celebrate, Matthew and Mary were left alone on New Year's Eve with the newest Crawley, a boy with a shadow of his mother's dark hair on his head and eyes that matched his own. The note seemed a shabby gift compared to all the gifts she'd given him, including this glorious child, but at that moment, as he held the two of them in his arms, he suddenly wanted her to know again that no matter the detours along the way, one thing had always remained.
The paper had aged, as had they, but the words still stood out boldly, the meaning not forgotten.
You must pay no attention to the things I said.
I love you.