A/N: Hello all! Those of you on the Downton Forums may well recognize this as it comes directly from the RP there. We are finally getting our act together and posting the RPs we've written. This RP is "special" however, not for what it is (though I hope you enjoy it if you haven't read it before and even if you have) but because of what it is going to lead into. This two chapter fic/RP will have two spin-offs: Firstly "Basket AU" which has already been published on the Matthew/Mary Monday Madness Community (and will be published here soon) and the far more exciting "Castle AU" which is our epic AU WIP (it's currently 50,000 words long and we've hardly got started!) which is COMING SOON. Did you hear that, gentle readers? The main event is still to come and we are just getting warmed up! Hoorah!
Anyway, hope you enjoy this in the mean time!
OrangeShipper & Silvestria
Part One: A Chance Encounter
After an event like the flower show which occupied the entire village, it took some time for things to settle back to normal. Mary had not quite known what to do with herself. She could not stop thinking about Matthew's coldness towards her. She not meant anything by her behaviour at the dinner. She had never thought of the effect of her behaviour on Matthew. When she got in competition with Edith everything else seemed to fade into insignificance. The truth was, she admitted privately, that generally speaking, her feelings for Edith overruled any other. Now though... did she really value Matthew's good opinion over beating her sister? She certainly did value his good opinion - she liked him and - and she really did like him! But even with that concession she could not quite understand his bitterness. It had been a game! Hadn't he understood?
Whatever he had or had not thought Mary did not know and could not find out as there had been no interaction between the two families since the day of the flower show.
For the first time Mary was going into the village. She was tired of being cooped up at the hall with nothing to do except listen to her own unproductive thoughts. Moreover, she had the excuse of taking a basket of food to old Mrs. Barnet who lived in a cottage at the end of the village. One of her father's poorest tenants, she was a widow who relied a great deal on kindness from the Crawleys. Her mother had once taken her on one of her occasional charitable visits - preparation for when she married Patrick and became Countess, she had said. Mary had been bored and resistant at the time, but had later come into contact with Mrs. Barnet on her own and, freed from duty, been horrified at the deprivation she lived in. Since then, she had brought her parcels of food every now and then. She did not purposefully keep it a secret but it was something she had only discussed with Mrs. Hughes. She felt reluctant to discuss it with anyone else though she could not have explained why.
That Monday afternoon, she took a basket of fresh vegetables to Mrs. Barnet's, sat with her for over an hour and eventually left at around five o'clock, in order to have time to dress for dinner when she got back.
As she closed the door of the cottage and turned around, she was faced with a sight that made her heart skip a beat: Matthew, riding his bicycle into the village on his way home from work. Mary felt partly delighted at seeing him after a week of silence and embarrassed at being discovered where she was. For a moment she considered pretending she had not seen him, but she knew it to be futile. She was unmissable. So she waited for him by the side of the road, her hand raised in greeting and a small smile on her face.
Matthew's heart skipped a beat as he saw her at the end of the road. Maybe he could still... No, it was too late. She had definitely noticed him. He sighed inwardly as he waved back, cycling towards her.
Yes, he was feeling bitter. For the first time, at that dinner, he had begun to detect a trace of fondess towards him in Mary's manner. He had been genuinely surprised when she had not outrightly mocked his invitation to see the cottages. Then Sir Anthony had choked. Blasted old fool... It had stolen the moment. But, he reminded himself, the way she had laughed with him after that had been so honest, so warm. It was as though they had shared their own private joke.
He had been impatient to return to her in the drawing room, suffering as Lord Grantham and Sir Anthony droned on about agriculture. She was foremost on his mind. When she had smiled as they entered the room, he had thought... It didn't matter what he thought. He had been wrong.
As he walked home that cold evening, he made up his mind that he would not make himself vulnerable like that again. He could not deny the attraction he felt to her, the way her sparkling wit and intelligence drew him in like a moth to a flame. Yet, like a moth, he had been burnt. The best way was to avoid her. To be nothing more than her polite cousin. That would protect him.
He had had his first small victory in this regard at the flower show. Cooly brushing her off, he was proud of his own willpower against her charms. That was a week ago; he had not seen her since. Reminding himself of his success, he determined again to not be drawn in by her hollow charms.
He drew near to her, smiling politely. Hopping off his bicycle, he observed the empty basket in her hands.
"Good evening, Cousin Mary," he kept his voice cool and polite, his smile wary. "Where have you been?"
"Good evening, Cousin Matthew," replied Mary, pleased at how level her voice sounded. He was so cool to her! She remembered the way he had looked at her and laughed with her only a fortnight ago and felt sorry for it. She had grown to enjoy her conversations with her cousin and to wish to encourage them and now that seemed unlikely to continue. She liked to be admired and disliked its reverse.
His eyes flicked to her empty basket but she was nevertheless surprised by the abrupt question. So much for sustaining a polite conversation on the weather for the remainder of the walk back to Crawley House, assuming he chose to walk with her. She could not help being rather put out by the accusatory nature of the question. What business was it of his where she went on a Monday afternoon? Though perhaps she would not have cared so much if she had not been embarrassed by her answer.
She stared at him rather hardly for a moment and then replied, "You have just seen me leaving this cottage. I should have thought it was obvious!"
Matthew bristled slightly at her sarcastic reply. So, they were back to that, it seemed. He quelled the urge to bite back, refusing to give her the satisfaction.
"Of course. How silly of me. I dare say you would rather I had asked about the weather."
He pursed his lips. Why did she have this effect on him? Why did it matter so much to him what she said, what she thought of him? He reminded himself sternly of his resolve not to be drawn in by her. Frustratingly, against his better judgement, his curiosity got the better of him.
"I am curious, though; I have not seen you in this part of the village before." Berating himself for extending their conversation beyond the necessary, he tried to keep his voice level and distant, as though he would not hang upon every word of her answer. "What brings you here?"
She really had wished he had asked about the weather though perhaps if he had she would have been equally unhappy about that.
She looked at him with a slight frown as he persisted in knowing her business, glanced back at the cottage, stepped forward to close the gate behind her and then looked back him with an expression that could not help being more defensive than she really wanted.
"I was visiting one of Papa's tenants. Mrs. Barnet is a widow and has little comfort in her life." Uncomfortable, she smiled brilliantly at him. "But do let's change the subject to something less depressing than poverty: you have had fine weather for your ride home!" Her eyes twinkled at him of their own accord.
Mary looked away too quickly to see the softening of Matthew's expression. He was intrigued at the notion that she actively took care of her father's tenants, and disappointed that she seemed so uncomfortable in admitting it. He thought back to their conversation about the cottages he was overseeing. Maybe she really would be interested in seeing them?
No, Matthew. He shook himself out of that line of thought. It was too dangerous. He could not allow himself to care; he knew it could only result in getting hurt once more. He would not allow himself to be made out a fool.
In truth, he was annoyed that she should be embarrassed by caring for others. His voice betrayed this as he responded to her flippant change of subject.
"Yes, the weather is fine indeed."
Matthew stood awkwardly for a moment, tapping his bicycle handlebars. He didn't want to push Mary any further, but was equally dissatisfied with discussing the weather. He looked behind him down the road.
"I suppose I should be on my way." Out of force of habit, he added: "Would you care to walk with me?"
Torn between annoyance at her flippancy, and an irritating desire to stay close to her a little while longer, he awaited her reply.
There were few people Mary wanted to walk or talk with more and she could not help the look of hope that briefly crossed her face.
"Yes, thank you," she replied with a smile, falling into step beside him and Matthew couldn't help the little rush of pleasure he felt as she accepted. He wished that her company did not mean so much to him. He allowed himself to enjoy the condition of walking along beside her in the warm afternoon sunshine. Just walking with her could cause no harm, surely? There was no danger to his heart here.
For a few moments there was an awkward silence between them as they walked slowly along. Matthew might have claimed at the flower show that they were on speaking terms, but, Mary considered, there was being on speaking terms and then there was actually speaking.
She glanced across at him a couple of times before asking as casually as possible, "Did you have a good day at work?"
He raised his eyebrows in surprise at her innocent query about his day at work. Was she genuinely interested, or did she ask merely from bored politeness? He looked sideways at her, trying to read her expression, puzzled by her. When was he not puzzled by her!
"I did, thank you. It was a perfectly normal day at the office. Sorting out disputes between business owners and managers, mostly. I'm sure you'd think it all terribly boring." He turned his head towards her, a gentle smile playing around his lips. "May I take your enquiry to indicate that you do not wholly disapprove of my having a job? Of earning my own living?"
Why did everyone always assume she was bored by anything more difficult to understand than what jewellery to match with what dress? Maybe because she was so very bored by so many things. But it still rankled that he would assume she did not care.
Anyway, at least he had something more interesting to reply to a question about his day than that he got dressed, did his hair, read a fashion pamphlet and walked around the garden for a while.
She raised her eyebrows at him, pleased at least to see him smile; it was an improvement. "That's a loaded question, cousin, when I only asked about your day! Why do you ask? I cannot imagine that my disapproval would have any effect on you - if indeed I do disapprove."
Matthew frowned slightly. Why did she take everything he said so seriously? He wished that he had not said anything; he had been pleasantly encouraged by her seeming interest in his life, why must he put his foot in it so?
Trying to appease her, he thought for a moment before telling her the simple truth behind his transparently light-hearted question.
"Because your approval, or lack of it, matters to me. I know you think I am not a gentleman, but... I would hope that I have gone some small way to prove my worth?"
Mary blinked at him, feeling suddenly unsure of the situation and wishing that his bicycle was between them instead of on his other side.
"Why would you assume I think you unworthy?" she replied, only glancing up at him briefly and speaking as neutrally as possible. "I am envious that you have something to do with your time, something that, presumably, has positive consequences for the people employing you."
She could not help the bitter edge creep back into her voice. This whole conversation made her feel so utterly weary and she could not help walking just a little bit faster.
As Mary's pace quickened slightly, Matthew's brows furrowed in confusion. Had he offended her? He thought back over the conversation, puzzling over what he could have said. In fact, her last words had been oddly encouraging; when then did she now seem frustrated?
Matthew shook his head as he caught up to her, remembering why he had promised himself to be cooler towards her. Every time he thought that she was letting him in a little, showing some encouragement, she would suddenly turn cool again. Could she switch her affections on and off so easily? He remembered once more, with a flinch of sadness, how she had brushed him off for Sir Anthony. She had said it was simply a game at the flower show; well, a fine game that was that took so little account of his feelings. And if she could play her fondess so easily, who was to say that she was ever genuine with him?
"Have you heard again from Sir Anthony?" He enquired, his voice cool and level.
Mary could not help being displeased and somewhat embarrassed by the sudden change of subject. She had hoped (though if she had examined her own remarks would have seen it to be a futile hope) that they might have discussed Matthew's job further or she even selfishly wished he might have pursued her own frustrations. But Sir Anthony Strallan! Of all the tedious topics imaginable!
"No, not yet, but he would have to be very keen indeed to visit again so soon when we have barely had time to recover from his last visit."
Her sarcasm was barely hidden, though her words perhaps unfortunately picked. She could not be bothered. Everything he was saying irritated her today. Moreover, after an hour spent with a woman who was made happy by the prospect of a fresh cabbage and whose only social outlet was Sunday morning church, how in the world could anyone think the visits of such a man as Anthony Strallan of the least interest or importance?
"Keen indeed. But then, I imagined you would be similarly keen - you certainly showed an interest in him. Or am I mistaken?"
Matthew thought it was probably a mistake to speak so, but he was frustrated by her flippance when it had hurt him so. He imagined full well that Mary had not been genuine in her intentions to Sir Anthony, and felt that she should explain her actions. She should understand the effect that her games had on other people. After all, he was not the only one she hurt by it.
Mary stopped walking and turned to look at him. The day was fine and birds were twittering in the early evening sunshine but Mary felt the world close in around her. She wanted to shake him. But it was no use. What could she say? There was nothing. Her voice was silenced, because she was a woman, an aristocrat, and ruined.
Briefly she closed her eyes. Then she bit out, "Keen on Sir Anthony Strallan? No, I am not keen on him, or anything else. I told you before, it was a game, and I apologised for upsetting you, too. I'm sorry if you can't believe me but I don't know what else to say!"
She wished it did not matter to her that he did not get the wrong impression of her feelings for Sir Anthony, but it did, dreadfully. They had been becoming such good friends!
She turned away again and resumed walking, her heart being a little faster than usual.
Matthew watched her retreating form for a moment. Though he was unwilling to let the matter drop so easily, he was likewise unwilling to reveal his true purpose in bringing it up. How could he let her know his fears that if she could play with a man's affections so offhandedly, could he ever be sure she was being genuine with him? What if her laughing and flirting with him was such a game to her? The thought made him cold inside.
He hurried to catch up to her, sighing in frustration.
"Mary..." Disappointed to have lost the pleasant, easy conversation they had begun with, he spoke gently to her. "I'm sorry to have pressed you on it; it wasn't fair of me when you had already apologised to me." It occurred to him for the first time that she had, in fact, seemed to recognise that he had been injured by her actions. Matthew thought for a moment, unsure whether this pleased him or not. He touched her elbow gently, looking sincerely at her. "A game it may have been, but for who? I would urge you to consider that, next time."
Mary slowed as he caught her up and she turned towards him reluctantly. She frowned as he spoke. She really did not understand him. One minute he was quizzing her almost aggressively about her behaviour and her feelings and the next he was almost nice, though she resented the instructional tone of his voice.
She did not like being criticized either, especially when she privately knew she was in the wrong. How many times could she apologise? There was nothing else to say. She considered making excuses a sign of weakness; a person acted and must live with the consequences of their actions. She knew that better than anyone.
"On reflection, I don't think any of us enjoyed this particular game very much so it is unlikely it will be repeated, if that is what is worrying you," she replied bitingly.
She glanced down at his hand on her arm and swallowed, afraid that she had been overly harsh. She blinked and looked away, feeling sorry for her caustic response when she supposed he truly had been offended though she was not really sure why he should take it so much to heart.
"I hope," she continued a little more faintly, "that you will find some security from that!"
She looked back up at him and tried an arch smile to demonstrate how very unserious the whole matter really was.
Though her words themselves were perhaps reassuring, the flippant tone in which she said them was not, neither was her dismissive smile.
He frowned as he searched her face, finding nothing there that indicated whether or not she was serious. Did she mean him to find security from it? Did she think that he neededsecurity from being spurned again?
His hand coldly dropped from her arm. Clearly, it did not mean much to her.
"I suppose I must endeavour to."
He looked burningly into her eyes for a moment, wishing that she could sometimes take serious matters more seriously. He looked away resignedly, taking up his bicycle once more to continue walking.
She had misunderstood him again. Flippancy had clearly not been the right approach, though she was hardly able to understand what might be since she did not know herself what she wanted to achieve. But really, how could she know what to say when he was so unclear himself?
She sighed quietly as he stepped away from her though unable to tell whether the loss she felt was physical or more emotional. She rubbed her arms as if cold anyway as she fell into step again beside him, sneaking a glance at his face every now and then when he wasn't looking. Some times he seemed to really and genuinely admire her, at others he was so cold!
They walked in silence for a few awkward moments and eventually his house appeared in view at the end of the village. She did not know whether to be sorry or relieved that they would soon be obliged to part.
Matthew raised his eyes and realised that Crawley House had just come into view. He stole a glance sideways at Mary; she looked troubled and pensive.
He pursed his lips, wondering about her reaction. He supposed it had been a little unkind of him to judge her so; after all, she was her own master, and it was not his place to chide her behaviour. It did not lessen the hurt caused to him; though maybe that was his own fault for allowing himself to care too much. She had apologised to him, and appeared to be sorry, of a sort, for any upset she had caused.
Resignedly, he shook his head. He knew that the only reason he was excusing her was because he did not want to deepen the strain between them; because no matter what she did, he still found himself drawn to her.
Why did she have such a hold over him? He knew he should be angry at her still; but they were drawing near to where they should part and he found himself unwilling to leave things in such hostile silence.
Though he suspected it was foolish of him to do so, he decided to offer a small olive branch. Warning himself sternly to remain indifferent; cautiously friendly, perhaps, nothing more; he attempted to make peace.
"You know, I have been very remiss," he tried to maintain a light tone of voice in small offer of apology for his earlier words. "How have you fared this last week, and your family? Has your grandmother quite recovered from Mr Molesley's success?"
He looked at her and smiled, hoping to settle the atmosphere between them.
Mary turned and smiled at him the desperate half-smile of pure relief when he spoke to her, and with such usual, pleasant words. She was happy to fall back on commonplaces if it meant an improvement in their conversation.
"Oh, we have been very well, quite as usual in fact, Granny especially as it happens. She seems almost more smug about Mr. Molesley's victory than if she had won it herself!"
She glanced over at him, half flirtatiously, and half anxious that her reply should not be found lacking somehow. He seemed friendly enough at this moment, but she really could not tell any more.
"And your mother? I have not seen Cousin Isobel since the flower show; she must have been very pleased at the result!"
She wondered how long they could drag out a polite conversation about roses. Long enough to feel that he forgave her, she hoped.
Matthew chuckled, half in memory of the battle between his mother and Cousin Violet at the flower show, and half in pure relief that the atmosphere between he and Mary had relaxed.
"My mother is very well, thank you," he smiled appreciatively at her asking. "I fear she will be thriving off the result of the flower show for weeks to come!
These moments where they just talked and smiled together, with no word games or hidden meanings, meant so much to him, though he was loath to admit it. He felt suddenly awkward. The ease felt unnatural somehow; delicate, as if it could so easily be broken by a single misplaced word. He treasured it but was so afraid of breaking it.
Mary gave him a small, sideways smile as he spoke of his mother, agreeing and sympathizing with his assessment.
He looked nervously to her. They were approaching the gate of Crawley House now, and he was not sure he dared to risk spoiling the relatively comfortable ease they had just found. He found that he couldn't be angry at her any more over Sir Anthony - well, he could, but he did not want to be. He must just be very careful with how he trod from now on.
She timed her glances at him well: somehow always missing those moments when he looked at her. He seemed grave to her, which was to be expected and, apart from when he said something to make her smile, she was grave and pensive as well.
"I see we have arrived!" Matthew said, drawing to a halt.
"Yes!" she replied pointlessly. She found herself twisting her hands even as she held her basket and had to physically force herself to stop. This was absurd.
He looked towards the house, then back at Mary, cautiously. It irritated him that he so desperately wanted to spend just a little more time with her. It went against his careful resolve. He could very easily politely say goodbye and walk inside... But he found that he didn't want to. He was so relieved just to be getting on with her again, no matter how tentatively, that he wanted to draw it out as long as he could.
"I don't suppose you would care to come in for a cup of tea?" He blurted the question out before he could consider the sense of it. Desperately hoping that he had not pushed his liberties too far, he raised his eyebrows and tried not to look too eager, awaiting her response.
She looked suddenly right up into his eyes and for a second was paralysed and her heart leaped. It was such an inane question to produce such a reaction!
And yet... it was a first. She had had tea at Crawley House several times of course. If she had brought an invitation, Cousin Isobel had pressed her to stay and sometimes she had accepted (not often - she did not quite like to interrupt what seemed such a cosy family ritual between her and her son), and she had once or twice been invited with her mother and sisters, never on her own, and never by Cousin Matthew.
For a moment she considered avoiding the issue and the awkwardness, and then she found herself saying, "I should like that very much, if Cousin Isobel does not object!"
As Mary accepted his invitation - was that almost eagerness he detected in her voice? - Matthew suddenly felt a stir of panic. He had not really expected her to say yes, and suddenly felt very unsure of himself. What would they talk about?
"I'm glad. And I'm sure my mother should be happy to see you!" he said a little too earnestly, as if to play down his own thrill at her coming in. He sighed internally, frustrated at himself. She had only accepted coming in for a cup of tea, it was perfectly ordinary! Why should he be affected so? He was suddenly very aware that she had never taken tea with them before without a purpose. His heart beat a little faster, hoping that she did not get an exaggerated impression of his intentions.
He was fairly certain that his mother would be in, and he was very grateful for it. She was certainly not shy with her words, and so would happily take any pressure off him having to desperately maintain the conversation. Inviting Mary in had seemed such a good idea for some reason; and though he was glad she had said yes, he was suddenly nervous that the brief peace they seemed to have come to would be broken.
"Well," he said, smiling nervously, setting his bike against the wall before reaching for the door. "Shall we go in then?"
"And I shall of course be very happy to see cousin Isobel," replied Mary agreeably.
"Yes, by all means." Then she stood to one side while he opened the door and followed him inside.
There was nothing intrinsically odd about watching him lean his bicycle, and open his front door, but Mary felt a strange feeling of intrusion into his personal life and a great curiosity. It was one thing to visit and be given tea, another to arrive there for tea in the company of the master himself. Mary was not able to understand this distinction at the time but she did feel a difference to what had gone before and interest in the proceedings which made her follow his actions with a bright, darting gaze.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed it and we are always incredibly grateful for any comments. Part two coming soon! :-)