A/N: So it is finished. Thank you all for your lovely reviews, your gentle nudging, and if you nominated it for Highclere Awards, or if you voted for it... an even bigger thank you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
Never Such Innocence Again 13/13
The cream-colored envelope lay untouched through her meeting with Cooke, during which time the provisions for all possibilities were laid out in cold detail, the money each sister would receive upon her death, Lily's rather vast portion, the sums set aside for the servants, including what Cooke considered a far too generous allotment for Anna, and finally Matthew's share, which was to be dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of Downton and any children they might produce. She did not go into further detail with Cooke on that score, doubting his discretion. He estimated her future income, both with and without the newspapers, and remarked in that coolly irritating way he had (had he picked it up from Richard or the other way round?) that no matter what she chose to do, the Crawleys were not to be one of the families that fell in the wake of the Great War.
She slipped the letter into her pocket when Cooke left. He had declined dinner, as had the estate's' solicitors, and Carson informed her that her sisters were dining with the Dowager Countess and staying the night, therefore it would only be the Earl and herself. She smiled sadly at that thoughtfulness, thinking it wasn't much of a honeymoon, but it touched her nonetheless. "Trays tonight, Carson. Thank you."
She realized as she opened the door to her room that "tray" was perhaps more likely, because it was no longer her room, the armoire open and empty, the dressing table gone, the bed stripped bare. She vaguely remembered Anna saying something about moving her things into the Grey Room, her grandfather's room, where Matthew now slept, and a now-familiar heat rose in her, reminding her of what this day represented. "Quite a wedding day," she murmured as the door opened behind her.
Matthew's head ached.
Wills, deeds, letters of patent, death duties, papers, papers, and more papers had crossed under his pen that day and his eyes smarted from reading so much. He noted sadly that while the finances were now in good order, thanks to Mary paying the taxes last year, now the death duties would be a burden. He did not want to trouble Mary with talk of money, but if they were not to sell off any of the estate, he very well might have to. He rubbed his eyes and when they opened, he was surprised by who stood before him.
"But that's wonderful!"
Anna could not stop the smile from splitting her face, even as the tears rushed down her cheeks. "I know it's sudden, m'lady, but.. I won't leave until I've trained someone up proper."
"Anna, don't worry about that. Of course I wouldn't want anyone you hadn't approved of and trained, but..." Mary's smile matched Anna's, and her hand grasped hers. "When?"
"Soon," Anna replied. "He'll know tomorrow if the offer's been accepted."
"But that's wonderful!"
Bates dipped his head briefly. "Thank you, m'lord. It had come up as a possibility before his lordship died, but now it seems the right time. And Miss Smith has agreed, so..."
"You'll let me know if you need any help with the conveyancing?" Matthew sat back and smiled at Bates. "The Grantham Arms. You'll do well with it. And with Smith at your side..."
"And you won't be far away."
Anna shook her head, still overcome with emotion. She looked around. "I'll miss this room, m'lady. I won't remember you've moved."
"I hope I will," Mary murmured. "You were here when I moved from the nursery." Good God, Mary thought, and she remembered the tiny, awkward, blonde underhousemaid who had turned her head so as not to be noticed when Mary swanned into her new bedroom, the one who did everything so efficiently, the girl who watched silently as Lady Grantham's maid would style Mary's hair, the young woman who simply took over the care of Mary when O'Brien arrived, and then the other girls as they grew up, the friend she had become, the only one who knew her secrets, the only one who always knew everything. To lose that... and yet if it meant Anna's happiness, if it meant she would feel even one half of the love Mary now knew... She squeezed Anna's hand again. "I'm losing the best ladies' maid in all of England and it's the loveliest news I've had all day."
Anna squeezed back and grinned. "I would think second loveliest, m'lady."
The fire was blazing by the time Mary walked into the Grey Room, Lily half-asleep in her arms. She had fully intended to leave her upstairs, but the baby had clung to her, and while she was still sick, Mary did not want to deny her anything. She noted her dressing table was now in place, that her things were in the armoires, and she smiled at the view of Matthew's dressing room and the narrow bed inside. If she had anything to say about it..
I hope you know really smart people sleep in separate rooms.
The memory jolted her, and she sank into the chair next to the fire, just as Lily made one last attempt to keep her eyes open before falling completely asleep. Mary's heart beat erratically as she pulled out the cream-colored envelope, and carefully opened it. She could face it here, she thought, with Lily.
You're asleep as I write this, and I feel quite foolish for leaving such a letter with Cooke. After all, I'm only going to France for a few days, and not even to a dangerous area. Nevertheless, as Cooke is constantly reminding me, I should always prepare for the worst. If you're reading this, the worst has happened, and you're now thinking of selling the newspapers. I do hope, for your sake, that you did keep them for a little while. I often imagine... imagined.. you in those board meetings, your beautiful eyebrows rising just so..
Oh, my darling. There. I have never called you that, and you will think me silly and foolish for doing so now. You'll have to forgive an old man in love, for I am in love, far more than you know, and far more than I believe you love me. And yet, as I stare at you now, tonight, your lovely face relaxed in sleep, I fancy you might have begun to love me a little. These past few months in our new home... I think we've begun.. had begun, I suppose if you're reading this..
The paper was marked, as if it had been wet.
..to build something, hadn't we? I do wish we'd had a child, though. You deny your maternal instincts with a snort and a wave of your hand, but I have watched you when a pram goes by, and the hunger in your eyes... I had hoped that even if you never really loved me the way I loved you, you would love our child.
Never mind. This wasn't meant to be maudlin. This is about what to do with the newspapers, and I'm only here to help.
And Mary's own tears marked the page as she read Richard's advice, his careful outline of the possible bidders, the ideal sum for which to settle, and what she should tell the editors.
I do hope you're selling for a good reason, and not just because you find dealing with Cooke as irritating as I do. That will serve him right if he's reading this. Perhaps you've found someone else to marry, although he would have to be quite extraordinary, I think, to make you want to relinquish any of the power your inheritance will give you. You did joke to me once that all you'd ever wanted was to be left alone in a lovely house. I don't believe you meant it, but if you're reading this, I've given you the means to grant your wish. May you be happy, with my love.
As Lily stirred against her, she dropped a kiss on the blonde head, noting for the first time a faint strawberry tint on the gold. Richard wasn't the only one who had seen inside her long before she saw inside herself, and she cried for Isobel and for Lavinia, who had given her such gifts, and one last time for Richard, who had made and who would continue to make all things possible.
He was grateful Mary had decided on not dressing for dinner. He could not imagine formality this evening, even if it was just the two of them. He knew at some point they would have to bend to formality and tradition, all the things the Earl and Countess of Grantham should do to be a force for good in the county.. Good God, he thought. One month ago, he was coming out of the mouth of hell. One month ago, he was being questioned by intelligence officers whose names he would never learn, with accents that spoke of Eton first, and then the darkest streets of the East End, faces that he could not remember, would never remember, and did not want to remember. Two months ago, it was Germany, never to rest, never to be anything but that stuttering, stupid, shellshocked man, forever waiting for someone to realize he was a fraud.
He had expected years of practice to become the Earl, but he was not to have such practice, and oddly, it felt rather like it had in Germany, when he had no choice but to play the part until it became as real to him as the truth. He supposed it would be the same here, as he felt his way through his new role. In Germany, he had nothing to lean on, save the code name of Halo and a small cloth dog. Here, he had Armstrong, Carson, Mrs. Hughes, an army of servants, Cousin Violet... He smiled at that thought, at the idea that the one he had once thought would never be on his side was now a champion, a guide.. a grandmother, where he had never known one. Most of all, he thought as he opened the door to his room and came upon a sight that took every bit of pain and stress and exhaustion away from him, he had his child.. children, God willing.
And he had Mary.
She was asleep by the fire, Lily curled against her, and he wondered again at how it had all been wrong, how she had married Richard, how he had married Lavinia, how they had been so stubborn, and yet, after all the tragedy and loss, it was somehow right. He should feel guilty, but looking at Mary holding Lily, he could feel nothing other than love and a deep-seated peace.
She awoke to a second golden head resting upon her, this one Matthew's against her knee. He said nothing as she tangled her fingers in his hair, merely turning and placing his lips upon her knee. "How is the estate?" she asked softly. "Is it a good thing I'm selling the newspapers?"
"Oh, Mary," he whispered. "Am I ready? Are you?"
"My darling," she replied. "Are we ever?"
And as the fire leapt and danced, he rang for Armstrong, who brought Emily so that Lily might be put to bed, and after a quiet dinner in their room, they were dressed for bed, as if they had been in this room for a year, five years, a dozen, and then they were alone, in their room.
And whatever else might be difficult, whatever else they might be unsure of, this would never be anything but sure, his hands at her side, her back, lifting her up so that her legs wrapped around him, her lips locking against his throat as he walked across the room, as he put her down on their bed, his mouth finding hers as his fingers tore apart her gown, and she ripped at his pyjamas until it was just her skin against his, her hips curving into his as he thrust into her and their eyes, open and glittering, met, and without saying it, without ever saying it, they knew that nothing that they had known before had been like this, and nothing would ever matter as this had, as this did, the rhythm perfect as their bodies met again and again. They could be no closer and yet they tried as they moved against each other until she shuddered first, her body stilling just as he broke and it was her name he called, his name she breathed as they held on, slick with sweat as they slowed, let go, relaxed until they were limp, twined together, bound as they always should have been.
It was done.
She was now the former owner of a stable of newspapers, the new owner a longtime friend of Richard's who had offered exactly the sum he'd advised in the letter as the right price, and she wondered absently if they'd planned this. The papers were signed, the deed done, and she felt, even in her current condition, a definite lightness at the loss of such a burden, never mind that the influx of cash meant they did not have to sell either Grantham House or her home in Belgrave Square. Sybil and Edith had moved into Grantham, along with two of Sybil's university friends who had readily agreed to pay for living expenses in exchange for accommodation. Mary wondered what they thought of their new home, especially since she'd seen what they called home their first term. The widow of a longtime associate of Matthew's was staying with them as chaperone, at which Sybil chafed, but Edith did not mind in the slightest. She was thrilled at the prospect of a home with a car and a garage, and Rosamund had already hinted at Edith's newfound popularity with a rather prominent driving club, so in the end, seeing Edith drive off to a hill climb with Lord Something or Other was another weight off her back.
The Belgravia house would be hers and Matthew's, and eventually Lily's, she thought as she wandered the upstairs hall after the doctor had left. She imagined London seasons to come, the rooms so perfectly suited to parties, Campbell already planning this year's events. It would be a quieter one for them, she thought as she let her hand rest briefly on the slight, newly-emerged curve, confirmation beyond what her London doctor had told her and what she had suspected... known... so quickly. She stopped in front of a door and steeled herself as she opened it, to a room preserved since that terrible day nearly four months ago.
Like Matthew's rooms had been before, Isobel's were suspended in time, as if she would return, and Mary's eyes stung at the sight, at the basket of embroidery, the unsent letters on the desk, the photographs on the mantel, of Matthew as a child, of Lily, of...
She had not seen that photograph of herself with Lily in the morning room playing on the floor when Lily was first sitting up on her own. "Very early," Isobel had said proudly. Mary held the photograph in her hands, the ache of missing Isobel swelling in her throat, remembering how much pride they had both taken in Lily's every accomplishment, remembering how the older woman had guided her in every step, how she now simply knew what to do.
"Thank you," Mary whispered to the empty room.
The light was waning, the spring afternoon sunlight breaking through the steam of the train engine as she stepped off the train. She looked for Pratt, but could see no uniformed man, only a dark, oddly shaped figure at the other end of the platform, which turned and walked through the steam, revealing a pair of fair heads. Lily bounced in Matthew's arms, her little hands reaching toward Mary as he strode toward her. "There's Mama," he called.
"Hello, my darlings," she whispered as she gathered Lily to her. "Did you miss me?"
"We missed Mama, didn't we?" Matthew replied. "Everything all right?"
"Yes," Mary said. "All sold." She looked up at Matthew and suddenly her eyes filled with tears.
"Darling, what's wrong?" He brushed at her cheek with his fingertips.
"Nothing's wrong, that's what's so lovely," she said. "The last time we met on this platform... when..."
"Mary.." His arms went round her, his cheek pressing against hers. There was nothing he could say, the memory of that day in 1916 too much for both of them. Promises made, promises kept, and at the end of all of it was this. "And the other thing?" he whispered.
"September," she replied. "Officially, at least."
He grinned. "Lily," he said. "You're going to have a brother or sister. Mama's going to have a baby."
Lily babbled back, and at first Mary thought she was imagining things. "Lily?"
Her little voice was still rough from the 'flu, but it was perfectly clear what she was saying as she nestled against Mary.
She wonders at how it was all so different just seconds ago, the breathtaking pain, the sensation of being split in two, her body an alien creature, enormous and swollen, great screams raking her throat as it happens and it happens again and then... nothing. Her eyes close and she is welcomed into a velvet cloud as the last of it all leaves her. Words are spoken, happy words, but there is only one sound she can comprehend, and that beautiful noise washes through her like a balm as warm, damp, sweet-smelling cloths makes her forget the sweat and blood of moments before. Arms, familiar and warm, lift her from the bed, and she hears his voice over that new sound in her ear "brave, beautiful Mary, my love" and she manages to open her eyes and touch Matthew's cheek before he lowers her back onto snow-white pillows and covers her with a light blanket as that sound of fierce, angry cries fully pierces her,
And the arms that held her now hold a screaming child, and a new strength finds its way into her and she greedily reaches for the tiny bundle in Matthew's hands. "She's beautiful," he says.
She is beautiful, Mary thinks to herself, so like Lily. She is surprised by the faint swirl of dark hair like hers upon the small head. She strokes her daughter's cheek, and the baby quiets, and just like her sister did before, she presses against her. "Hello, Annabel," she whispers.
She can hear nothing other than the sound of this baby's breathing and her own heart thumping, and it takes several tries by Matthew before she raises her head.
"Goldilocks and the three bears would like to see the baby," he says again and she nods and kisses him.
She does not know how long she stares at the baby, memorizing every feature, every twitch as she sleeps, before a soft, raspy-sweet voice interrupts her.
"It's about time," Lily remarks, and Mary regards her first child with no little amusement. "I've been asking for a sister."
She looks as smug as her great-grandmother does, the expression on her nine-year-old face the very image of Violet's as the two look down at the baby. It shocks Mary as it does every time they're together, and she has to remind herself that the two are not related in any way. Lily reaches out and her long fingers ghost across the top of her sister's head. "Is it Annabel?" she asks. "Annabel Violet?"
"Yes," Matthew says.
"Boys," she says softly. "This is Annabel. Annabel, these are your brothers. Joseph, Robbie, and Archie."
And Goldilocks' three bears come forward to see what all the fuss is about, and Mary remembers each of them as babies in this room, how she had reached for Joseph and held him even before the doctor had cut the cord, how Robbie had been so late she'd begun to wonder if he was a baby at all, and how Archie had come so fast she'd barely had time to get upstairs.
"I'm glad you're all right, Mamma," Joseph whispers, his dark head next to hers. Her boy, her first, the one who came out of all that agony as a fiercely angry baby, the very opposite of Lily. Yet he is now her sweetest, both clever and kind, and he kisses his baby sister's head gently.
Robbie, two years behind his brother, plays with Annabel's fist and grins up at Mary. "She better play cricket," is all he says. He is so like her father, all greenish eyes and brown curls, and she finds herself tearing up sometimes at the sight of him.
Archie is like no one except himself, too young to really understand what is going on other than there is another creature around to draw attention, and Mary has to kiss and hold him before he is content to pat his little sister.
"Enough," Lily murmurs. "Back to bed."
She rules the nursery just as Mary did, but Mary wonders if it isn't something in her voice that gives her so much authority over three little boys. That voice never changed, the terrible illness that took her grandparents having left its mark, the violent cough and bleeding scarring her throat for life, leaving her voice in tatters, the sweet, husky tones making the already preternaturally wise child seem even older than her nine years.
The boys trundle out, Joseph remembering his manners and offering his arm to his great-grandmother, who takes it with a smile so adoring, it makes Matthew choke up. Lily does not follow them, but hangs back and looks to Mary. "May I stay?" she asks.
"Mamma needs her rest," Matthew begins, but Mary stops him.
"Stay until I fall asleep," she whispers to Lily, and pats the bed, the smile on Lily's face bringing the same pure joy that it had from the first time she had smiled at Mary. She crawls up close and places a soft kiss on her sister's forehead before lying down next to Mary. My daughters, Mary thinks as she strokes Lily's hair and looks down at the bluest eyes she has ever known.
Lily has known since Robbie's birth that Mary did not give birth to her, a heartbreaking moment from which Mary has never quite recovered. That her precious Lily might ever doubt her love... And yet somehow Lily came to her own understanding of it, after hearing the story of the day she was born, and it is a story she asks for time and time again, and she asks for it tonight, as the clock strikes one, and she curls up next to the only mother she has ever known.
"Tell me again about when you saw me for the first time."
The golden head is close enough to kiss, and Mary lets her lips brush the top of her head. "You were crying, and I picked you up and told you 'shh.'"
"And I did."
"You did." Her fingers tangle in Lily's and the little girl smiles as her eyes close.
"And what did you think when you saw me?"
"You were beautiful. Two people I loved had given you to me, and I wanted to give you the world."
"And you did." It is barely a mumble, and Mary smiles as she sees her two girls asleep next to each other, the likeness almost uncanny.
"Darling," Matthew whispers. "Do you need anything?"
"No," she says softly.
Because as she looks up at Matthew, and then back at Annabel in her arms, Lily next to her, and thinks of her three boys in the nursery, Mary, the Countess of Grantham knows this is all she needs.
She can't imagine anything better.