A/N: So this is AU (I think, since I'm one of those Yanks who can't see anything yet), and it's the result of ten days in a hospital room hearing about worst-case scenarios (everything's better). I decided to start at the worst-case scenario for M/M and see what happened. It's not cheerful to start, I warn you. It gets happier, I swear. Please let me know what you think.
It had come too soon, and she half-heartedly wished she had not said what she had said at breakfast so many years ago, as she looked around her house, where she had plenty of money, and she was all alone.
She could now imagine so many things that would be better.
It had been only six months of marriage, six months until he had kissed her goodbye that cold January morning in 1918 and left for France to visit his top correspondents in the field. The telegram said only that Sir Richard Carlisle was shot and killed in an ambush, which she refused to believe was even possible until one of the correspondents he'd gone to see wrote the story of how a rear line believed safe had been attacked by German raiders. Journalists, photographers, doctors and two businessmen visiting the troops had died, Sir Richard the most famous among them. She still could not absorb it until the afternoon they brought his body back from France, and she looked at him, flinching at the unsuccessful attempt to mask the bullet wound in his neck that had taken his life.
Mary had not thought she would cry for him. After all, she did not love him, even after six months of marriage, of being his trophy paraded about at parties and events, her photograph splashed across his newspapers and those of rivals. Yet she found herself sobbing as she looked at him. She had, after all, enjoyed him, and begun to feel a curious affection for him. He had not just valued her for her beauty and charm, but also seemed to value her mind, talking freely about his businesses and listening to her opinions. She would miss the pleasure of shared stories and jokes, and the pleasure of their bed. She would not deny enjoying that, even though it was not love, and it saddened her to lose it. It made her even sadder to realize that there would be no child, something for which he had hoped far more than she, and now that he was dead, she wished she could have at least given him that.
She stroked his cold hand, kissed his cold forehead and smoothed back the graying strands of hair, and she finally felt what she wanted to feel, which was nothing.
Six months passed, and the day she woke up and had officially been a widow longer than she had been a wife, she still felt nothing, and she wanted it that way as she prepared to catch a northern-bound train for Downton. Lavinia had unexpectedly asked for her, and Mary's father had followed up with a request of his own, and Mary could think of no reason why she couldn't visit. The newspapers and businesses could run without her daily input, even though she found her membership on the boards quite satisfying, and it had been months since she'd seen home. The fact that Lavinia would likely give birth to Matthew's child while she was there did not affect her at all. She had thought the trip might bother Smith... Anna... for whom memories of Downton were equally, if not more miserable, but Anna had waved it off with a smile. "They're only memories," she said softly. "And I can see my family."
Only behind the closed door of Mary's room, when Smith became Anna again, did the nothing become something. Only Anna and Mary knew the damage done to each other's hearts, only Anna and Mary understood why some mornings their eyes would be red, and only Anna and Mary knew why any visit to Downton required a steeling of their souls.
She sat in the first class compartment with Mary, the warm prettiness that once set her apart now a cold beauty, a woman who was as impeccably dressed as her mistress. Mary glanced at the stylish suit and new shoes, as well as the rather difficult novel in her maid's hands and noted for what seemed like the thousandth time that although Smith had not been trained in Paris, she was by far the best ladies' maid in London, and she was fiercely proud of her.
Her father met the train, an unusual occurrence, and asked if she minded sending Smith ahead in the car with the luggage so they could talk. Mary agreed with some trepidation. He looked worn out, and more worryingly, actually scared, something Mary had never seen before. They set out through the village, Robert making small talk about the various families and the businesses, until they were well out of the town and on the long, pretty road to Downton. He let out a great heaving sigh and stopped.
"I am..." he began. "I am mortified to ask this, but I have to."
And she stood in shock as her father, the Earl of Grantham, who had not fought to allow her to inherit the estate, asked her for money, actually asked her to help pay the taxes on the estate.
"Mary, I wouldn't ask, but they've increased the rates. I'd have to sell the London house, or the Dower.."
"I know," she said. "You don't have to tell me about the rates. It's all over the papers." My papers, she added silently, as she nodded her head in agreement. "Don't worry, Papa. I'll take care of it."
Like her father, she would rather die than see anything happen to the estate. Deep down, however, she wished he'd known that about her before he chose not to break the entail in her favor.
Mary dressed for dinner in her old room, the memories washing over her. She'd just sent back a short reply to Lavinia's written request to speak after dinner, wondering aloud at why Mrs. Crawley hadn't just come to see her.
"She's not well," Anna told her. "Ella says she only comes down for dinner and not every night."
Anna had been below stairs for a few hours, but seemed no worse the wear, although Mary was keeping a close eye on her. Glimmers of feeling would emerge where Anna was concerned, and she worried about her. "I could pretend I wanted a tray up here for later," she whispered to Anna as the maid's delicate fingers put the last curl in place. "So you wouldn't have to go downstairs."
Anna smiled and left her hand on Mary's shoulder for a moment. "I'm fine. But thank you. O'Brien would see through that in a second."
The telegram came at dinner, and was brought in by Carson, addressed to Lavinia, who opened it and simply slid out of her chair. Mary caught her just before she struck the floor, and as her father carried Lavinia from the room, Mary read the telegram.
Major Matthew Crawley, missing, presumed killed.
A memory of Richard flashed in her mind.
"They should just take the 'presumed' out of it. It would be kinder," he said softly, after she'd rattled off the names on that list from Ripon with a quiver in her voice. When pressed, he explained. "It just means they can't find the pieces."
And when she realized what he meant by pieces, she had cried.
So Matthew was dead. And still she felt nothing.
Lavinia looked terrible, her face paler than the sheet, her eyes swollen with crying. The pregnancy had already taken a great deal out of her, and she looked weak and sick as Mary peered around the door. "May I?" Mary whispered.
Lavinia nodded, her small hand reaching for Mary's as Mary settled on the edge of the bed. "He's dead," Lavinia whispered. "I know it. There's no reason to tell me otherwise. You feel it too, don't you?"
"I feel nothing, Lavinia." The admission, and the fact she'd said it to Lavinia, shocked her. She had never said it to anyone.
"Nothing? You mean you don't think... "
Mary looked at her. "I haven't felt anything for six months. Longer, I think. It's not numbness, or sadness. It's just.. empty."
"I would like that." She leaned back and breathed, trying not to cry. "Can you teach me how?"
Mary shook her head. "I wish I could." Her hand squeezed Lavinia's.
Lavinia closed her eyes. "Everyone else tells me to hope. I love you for not telling me to hope."
"If I had a heart, I would love you for not expecting me to lie."
And in spite of herself, Lavinia began to laugh, which suddenly turned into the worst wracking sobs Mary had ever heard. She found herself gathering Lavinia into her arms, making nonsense shushing sounds, rocking the younger woman back and forth. She decided distraction would help. "Why did you want to see me?"
Lavinia's arms tightened around Mary's neck. "I.. If anything happens to me, will you take care of the baby?"
"Of course." It was automatic, and Lavinia knew it. She pushed back and stared at Mary.
"Mary, I mean it. I know..." She swallowed back a sob and tried again. "Matthew told me he asked you to take care of me and Isobel. I asked him," she said swiftly as she saw Mary's face change. "I said you were being awfully protective of me last year and he finally admitted that he'd asked you. I said that wasn't fair to you, but he said he couldn't and wouldn't trust anyone else with the people he loved."
This of all things should have resulted in some emotion, but all Mary could do was squeeze Lavinia's shoulders. "I promise. What names have you chosen?"
Lavinia smiled. "Matthew Edward."
"What if it's a girl?"
"Matthew likes Elizabeth."
Lavinia's eyes met Mary's. "I wanted Elizabeth Mary. He suggested Elizabeth Andromeda. I said no."
Again, she should have felt something, and again it was only the emptiness. She laughed for Lavinia's sake. Lavinia did not laugh. She stroked her belly protectively.
"It has to be a boy." Her face fell again. "It has to now, doesn't it?"
It began in the middle of that very night, and Mary, who had not slept well in months, was awake when she first heard Lavinia cry out. She sat in her chair, the curtains open, and watched the sky turn from black to deepest blue to pink as the cries grew closer together. Anna came up early to dress her, and she was nearly ready when Isobel came into her room and told her Lavinia was asking for her.
Mary had never seen blood like that, never wanted to see something like that again, and replaying it in her mind it was only a blur, of Lavinia's grey face, of her short whisper, begging Mary to look after the baby, and her own voice, clear and cold, reaffirming the promise she now knew she would have to keep, before being pushed out, knowing that last little cry from Lavinia had burned itself in her brain and she would never forget it, and that she would never see Lavinia alive again.
The house had been quiet, too quiet, for too long when Isobel came in, white-faced and red-eyed and simply sat down. Mary poured her a brandy and handed it to her as her shoulders slumped. "Drink it," she whispered, and left her hand on Isobel's arm, crouching in front of her. "The baby?"
"A girl," Isobel said. "She's fine."
"Did Lavinia see her?"
Isobel shook her head and covered her eyes, the effort of trying not to cry too much for her.
"A girl," her father said, sadly, and Mary's head whipped around to glare at him.
He was not looking at her, but rather at Murray, who was inexplicably there, and who turned on his heel and left the room, followed by her father.
Mary's stomach dropped and she stood up. Murray was there because if this had been a boy, he would have been her father's heir.
"Where is the baby?" she asked.
She needn't have asked. All she had to do was follow the cries, piteous and small, in the nursery at the top of the house. The nurse was rocking the cradle, but doing little else to soothe her and Mary found herself picking up the child and making nonsense shushing sounds as she held her close.
She looked like Matthew, the ghost of his golden hair on her head, his chin and deep-set eyes. Her small face turned toward the sound of Mary's voice, and she pressed her tiny cheek against Mary's breast as she quieted.
For the first time in six months, Mary felt something.
It wasn't love. Mary freely admitted to herself she didn't have a maternal bone in her body, and she certainly wasn't going to be sentimental over Lavinia's baby.
It was fury, a cold, biting, deep-seated fury that this baby, like Mary before her, like countless generations before her and likely to come after, was somehow something less only because she was a girl. She had a right to be raised as what she was, the daughter of the heir to the Grantham estate. She was Matthew's first born, his only child, and now she was the only living evidence that he'd left behind.
She was a Crawley born at Downton Abbey.
He had not come back. It was up to her to look after Isobel, and now because of another promise, it was up to her to look after Matthew's daughter as well, and to ensure she had the life she deserved. Mary could do it easily on her own income. She could bring Isobel to London along with the baby.
But somehow, that wasn't enough. It wasn't right. This child deserved more.
It struck her quite suddenly what would make everything all right, for her, for this baby, and she almost laughed out loud at the simplicity of it. She looked down at the tiny face again. "Yours," she whispered. "I'm going to make it all yours."
She took the baby girl, over the protestations of the nurse, down to the morning room. Isobel was still ashen, the drink in her hand barely touched. Violet was shockingly quiet, seated close to Isobel, watching her carefully. Cora had not moved from the armchair, had not stopped staring at the same place on the carpet. "Tell my father and Murray to come in here," she told the footman, and even Violet looked shocked at her tone.
"Mary, you don't tell your father what to do," Cora murmured.
"Oh, yes, I do," Mary said sharply. "Especially now."
The two men were clearly not pleased at being summoned, but Mary did not care. "Papa," she began. "I want to discuss the taxes."
It was Robert's turn to go ashen. "Not now, Mary."
She realized no one else knew that he'd asked her. "Now, Papa. You've asked me to pay them and I've agreed, but I have a new condition."
Murray looked quickly at her father. "We can discuss this later, Lady Mary."
"No." She felt the baby stir and her arms tightened instinctively around her. "Is your desire to find a man on the family tree more important right now? Are you willing to hand this over to a shopkeeper somewhere?" Violet's intake of breath spurred her on. "You have a perfect solution right in front of you. Matthew was the heir. He has a child. She ought to inherit."
It was Murray who spoke first. "Lady Mary, the child isn't this family's concern."
"I'm making her my concern."
And she could feel the shift in the room, feel Isobel's dazed eyes fall on her, sense her mother standing up behind her, and she knew her grandmother was nodding without seeing it. "I made a promise to Matthew to take care of Cousin Isobel and Lavinia. Lavinia is gone. I promised her I would take care of her baby. That is what I will do."
"Mary." The edge of incredulity in Robert's voice only served to make Mary even angrier. "You're proposing we put a special bill in Parliament to break the entail and give the estate to this baby?"
"Her name is Elizabeth Crawley," Mary said.
"This is what you think I should do? Hand all of this over to Matthew's daughter?"
"No," she said, and the icy edge to her voice caused the room to go quite still. "I don't think you should do it. I know what you will do. You want me to save the estate? I'll save it. I'm telling you to break the entail and leave it all to me. Your daughter."