A/N: Thank you again for your reviews and comments. The teases for the Christmas special gave me the perfect end for this story, so here goes. I don't own them. Carnival and Julian Fellowes own these lovely people. I mean no harm.
Hunting Ghosts 2/2
The invitation was open-ended, but after weeks of an empty chair at dinner, no one at Downton expected Matthew to come to dinner. Yet there he was with his mother, dinner-jacketed and if not entirely cheerful, at least sociable enough to make quiet conversation before dinner about the conference in Paris. There was another empty chair at the table that evening, at which Matthew kept glancing, a tic which everyone noticed. Finally Isobel, who knew full well her son wouldn't, asked where Mary was that evening.
"The stables," Cora muttered. "With that horse."
Robert sighed. "It's her old hunter. It was a stroke of luck to find him. He was sold to the cavalry, and the War Office was able to track down where the horses went after the war. I thought it might..." He broke off. "Anyway, she's done wonders with him. He's almost his old self again."
"Did his old self run away with her and throw her?" Matthew's voice was hard.
Robert's head jerked up. "What?"
"He tossed her off in front of the church today. I don't think he's exactly a safe mount for her." He went back to eating, his eyes on his plate.
Cora put down her fork. "Robert, I told you."
Robert shook his head. "She said nothing when I saw her. She couldn't have been hurt."
Everything hurt, even her hair. Every muscle in her back and legs felt stretched and bruised, her jaw was sore from clenching it in fear, and her arms... if someone came and broke them off at that moment, Mary wouldn't miss them. She wanted a hot bath so badly she could feel the steam and smell the new salts she'd ordered from London, even in the midst of the damp straw of the stable, but every time she tried to leave, Diamond would stamp and kick ferociously, and she was afraid he'd hurt himself. She'd already begged off dinner, and now she wasn't entirely sure she was going to make it to bed tonight. Diamond was genuinely spooked, flattening his ears at anyone who came in, baring his teeth and snapping at Lynch for absolutely no reason. Mary had fed him herself, walked him while the stable boy mucked out the box, and now, cooled and sheeted, she was hoping he'd calm down enough to sleep so she could sneak away. That being said, she wasn't sure she'd be able to move.
It started to rain, and she groaned, because even as a young horse, thunder had spooked him. "It's too early for that kind of storm," she said softly as the first roll began and Diamond whinnied nervously.
They had not spoken since the funeral, and Robert was pleased that Matthew had come to dinner, but now, sitting in the dining room with port and cigars, he was reminded again of what had happened and what Matthew had lost. He seemed to take no pleasure in either the cigar or the port, mechanically partaking of both as he listened to Robert talk about developments on the farms.
"I'm glad we went with the smaller harvesters, considering the reduction in market," he was saying when a clap of thunder seemed to shake Matthew out of his stupor.
"You really think it's a good idea for Mary to be out in this?" Matthew asked.
"The stables do have a roof, Matthew," Robert quipped, but stopped as Matthew actually glared at him. "Matthew, you know as well as I do Mary does what she wants. He came back skittish today and she wanted to calm him down."
"He could have k... !" The port sloshed out of the glass as he slammed it down. "I'm sorry... " He did not finish.
Robert's heart broke a little then, broke for Mary who loved this man and broke for Matthew who was so wracked with guilt over Lavinia's death that he could not see the path to peace and forgiveness in front of him, never mind the fact he loved Mary. It would take time for him to see it, Robert thought, but there was no reason the family couldn't push it along a little bit. "I hope someone remembered to bring her some dinner," Robert muttered as he stood up. "Shall we join the ladies?"
Matthew stood slowly. "Shouldn't someone check about that? For her, I mean? Make sure she has some dinner?"
Robert nodded solemnly. "Someone should ask Carson."
The rain was incessant and the thunder did not let up. Diamond was still antsy, shying away from things that weren't there. "Darling boy, please," she said softly. "It's all right." Her hands stroked his neck gently, in the rhythm that used to calm him after a long hunt. "It's perfectly all right."
A door slammed and he jumped. "Damn it," she swore under her breath as he backed away from her. She turned, prepared to unleash hell, and instead was struck dumb. Matthew stood not ten feet away, a small basket in one hand and a dripping umbrella in the other.
"Carson said you didn't have any dinner," he said.
"I didn't," she replied.
He put the basket down on a trunk, and looked past her, nervously. "How's he doing?"
"The same," she said. She looked at the basket, suddenly ravenous. "What is it?"
"I don't know, actually. I asked Carson for something." He leaned on the umbrella as he stepped back from the trunk, watching her as she went into the tack room and washed her hands. Diamond whuffled at her absence and stuck his head over the door, regarding first Matthew and then his cargo with some interest. "Diamond, no," she said firmly as the horse's neck stretched toward the basket. She heard Matthew chuckle as she dried her hands. "He's notorious for food theft," she said softly as she walked back in and lifted the cloth. "He once pulled a sandwich out of my hand at the hunt. Made Billy Russell laugh.." She broke off and lifted a small plate out of the basket. "Sit, please," she said. "The trunk's not comfortable, but it's better than standing."
Matthew sank down on it, relieved to take the pressure off his still-sensitive back and watched as she ate the sandwiches and tart Carson had packed himself. She was filthy, covered in dust from the stables and mud from the horse, her hair still in the loose braid of this afternoon, and yet he could not think of anyone more lovely than Mary at that moment.
She was touched by the thoughtfulness of the old butler, and was amused that he'd put two glasses in with the small flask of wine. Oh, Carson, she thought to herself. She poured both and held one out to Matthew, and he took it after a slight hesitation. "What shall we drink to?" he asked.
"Hot baths," she said. He laughed, but just then the thunder rumbled and the smile fell off his face as he shuddered, which did not escape Mary's eye. Diamond let out a terrified sound and backed into the wall, his hooves thudding against the wood as he kicked. "Stop it," she said, firmly, and within a few seconds, the large black head was hanging over the stall door again, watching her eat, with a look of hope that made Matthew smile again.
"What made him run like that today?" Matthew's voice startled her and she looked up mid-bite.
"Haxby," she murmured. "I took him around to the stables, but he wouldn't set foot in the yard."
"You said it was ghosts," he replied.
"I can't blame him," she said softly, and broke off a piece of bread for Diamond who whuffled happily at the treat. "That's all I see at Haxby. Ghosts, history, memories... when we first went to look at it, all I could think about was Billy's tenth birthday party on that lawn. His tutor brought out the cricket bats and..." She grinned. "I beat Billy at cricket and my governess was utterly appalled and Mamma scolded me when I came home. When Papa found out about it, I was called to the library and I thought he would punish me too. He gave me a guinea."
"What did he say?"
She gave Diamond the rest of the bread. "He told me it wasn't polite to beat boys at cricket, but he was glad I could."
"Did you ever beat him again?"
"I never played again." The tart was wonderful, one of Mrs. Patmore's apple-y, treacle-y things that she made when it was just family at the house, an inelegant piece of pastry that nevertheless tasted like sheer heaven. "Please tell me you ate some of this."
"Are you sharing?"
"No," she said. "But you should have had some when you had the chance."
"I did, as a matter of fact," he replied. The thunder rolled again, but before Diamond could react, her voice rang out.
"Diamond!" He stopped before he started, his feet shifting nervously, but he did not kick. "Good boy," she murmured, and gave him a carrot.
"I don't think it's really safe for you to ride him," Matthew said. Her eyes flicked to him, and he leaned forward. "Shouldn't someone go with you, in case he does something like that again?"
"Are you offering?"
"No," he said. "I can't ever ride again. Not a horse, not a motorcycle, as badly as I want one, and not even my bicycle."
"Oh." Her eyes met his, and for the first time in weeks, they really looked at each other. "I'm sorry, Matthew."
"Don't be," he said. "I can walk, and I'm far better off than I thought I'd be. Better off than most."
"No, I don't mean that." She put down the plate. "I do mean that, but I mean this afternoon. I'm sorry I said that to you."
"I'm the one who should be sorry. What I said in the.." He could not finish the sentence and she nodded. "Mary, I didn't mean it. It was... I don't blame you. I only blame myself."
"You shouldn't," she said. "But I know nothing I say will change that."
The truth of what she said hung in the air as she went back to eating. He watched her, marveling at the fact she wasn't wrong, that she knew him so well. She cleaned the plate of crumbs and replaced it in the basket. "I'm tired," she said suddenly, and he stood up.
"I'll take you back to the house," he began, but she held up her hand.
"I'm tired of people not meaning what they say and then apologizing for it. I just want people to say what they mean for once." She looked up at him. "Can we do that? You and I?"
"Be honest?" he muttered. "Can we?"
She stood up and turned back to Diamond, who seemed perfectly content now, munching on hay and blinking sleepily. "I think we've known each other long enough to stop with the eggshells and such."
"So did you mean what you said when you called me a cold, unfeeling bastard?"
She smiled at him. "It was unfeeling, self-righteous bastard, Matthew, and yes, I did."
He supposed he should be offended, angry, or try to deny it, but the truth was, he had been unfeeling, saddling her with all his guilt at Lavinia's grave and he'd been nothing but self-righteous about a great many things. One thing, however, he refused to take. "I'll have you know my parents were married when I was born." It made her laugh, and for that he was grateful. "And I meant what I said, Mary. Don't cut your hair."
She laughed harder. "The deal is that you say what you mean, Matthew. It doesn't mean I'm going to do what you say." She gave Diamond a final pat. "Let's go. I think the storm has stopped."
It had, and the fresh, wet smell that greeted them as they crossed the threshold into the yard was invigorating. Mary paused several times to listen, but Diamond was quiet, and they made their way slowly to the house in companionable silence.
"Will you ride tomorrow?" he asked as she stepped in the door.
"If I can move," she replied, and he smiled.
"Stop by the house for tea if you do," he said. "Mother would like to see you, and I'm sure she's got some cure for the pain."
"Only if you come to dinner." She paused. "And thank you for dinner tonight, Matthew."
"You're welcome. Good night, Mary."
"Good night, Matthew." She leaned up and kissed him gently on the cheek, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world to return it, just as it felt like the most natural thing in the world to smile happily at each other before she went inside.
And as a horse dozed in a stable, the ghosts in its memory all but gone, a man and a woman looked to the sky through windows in separate homes and acknowledged the feelings they'd ignored, pushed away, or lamented over the past six years.
They were friends again, Mary thought, and if he could give her no more, she told herself she would be content with that.
They were friends again, Matthew thought, and if he could have no more from her, he told himself he would be content with that, as long as he knew she was happy.
If she wasn't, he told himself as he closed his eyes, he'd have something to say.