Disclaimer: Downton is not mine. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No profit was made; no copyright infringement is intended.

A/N: Thank you so much for reading! So sorry for the wait. Hope you enjoy this longer chapter. Please take a second to leave a review.

The Opportunity

John smiled and winked at Gwen from where he stood against the wall in the corridor as dinner dishes flew past, steaming.

Mrs. Hughes caught it. "John, just because you have confessed your love to Gwen does not mean you subject us all to watching it." She told him.

"Sorry ma'am." John smiled, and it was impossible even for Mrs. Hughes to be cross.

His face, however, quickly fell. It became dark, like a stone carving, like a native for the first time. It was unnerving to Daisy, who dropped a plate at the mere sight of it.

"Daisy!" Mrs. Patmore admonished.

"John?" William asked his new friend, concerned.

"Rabbit stew?" John asked.

"Yes! what—oh dear…"I—I forgot." Mrs. Patmore realized slowly.

"Is it dangerous?" Daisy asked, recalling John's careful instructions on their first day there that Miss Abigail could not have rabbit. John somehow had the bearing of mind to grab a dinner jacket and tug it on even as he leapt the stairs, his long legs bringing him up two at a time.

"You can't go through." Thomas stopped his path. The two glared at one another.

"Move!" John growled. Thomas's cold face was unwavering, his characteristic smirk stretching across his lips as the others looked on in horror, feet below the oblivious family and the stern presence of Mr. Carson.

"I hope you have fully recovered, Miss Abigail." Matthew offered, though he had to speak practically across the room to do so at dinner. His look implied he was well aware he had to speak louder to maintain conversation.

"I am, thank you." She smiled slightly. It was an earnest smile that Matthew felt the need to return, and though very mild, he also felt the need to look down at his plate.

"Well," The Dowager Countess all but huffed. "I'm certainly hope you both got that out of your system." Edith gave a little start, assuming her grandmother was addressing their cousins. Her comment, it seemed, however had been directed at the girls. "Oh to be so young, fiery, and political that you throw caution to the winds and endanger yourselves and others."

"Mama." Lord Grantham stopped her scolding. The girls had certainly had enough of it.

"Actually, I have, Granny." Sybil surprised them. "I think I have matured."

"Glad to hear it, dear." Everyone was still cautious.

"And following my coming out this season, I think I'd like to go to school in America."

"What?" Lord Grantham demanded.

Matthew contained a cringe. He had half suspected Sybil's already curious, feminist mindset had been only inflamed by the presence of her dear cousin, whom it seemed was quite intelligent, but he had hoped her inevitable, eventual interest in traveling across the Atlantic might be voiced when he was not present at dinner.

"Did you put this idea in her head?" The lord demanded of Abigail whom Matthew felt the need to defend. But Cora spoke up first.


"No, Lord Grantham." She responded calmly. "I've not."

"It's my idea, Papa. Just as the vote was, only this one is a great deal more responsible." Sybil explained. "I've already begun researching schools in New York. There is so much to study, Papa! I could travel with Cousin Abigail when she returns and John, so it would be safe. And I could stay with Mama's family."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea." Isobel Crawley said happily.

"Please, let's stay out of it, Mother." Matthew tried not to groan. He attempted to make eye contact with Abigail, but she seemed rather distant. Perhaps he had over stepped in his concern for her.

"It's a terrible idea!" Grantham objected. "An ocean away?"

"I won't stay there forever." His youngest daughter said fondly.

"What would you study?" Edith asked in earnest, so pleased, Matthew assumed, with her recent outings with a certain neighboring gentleman that she had only friendly interest in her sister's affairs. Whatever would make her happy seemed sufficient to Edith, as if what would make people happiest was always best, or safe. Sit Strallan was a smart man with means, but Matthew was very surprised to hear of his age. But poor Edith did not have many choices, he thought sadly. He supposed he was somewhat to blame for that as well.

"I'm not sure. There are so many possibilities." Sybil gushed.

"We can discuss this later." Cora offered sweetly, hoping to hold off the argument that was bound to follow until it could be more private.

"Indeed. No need to have a shocking revelation at every dinner. One begins to think you are trying to purposely stop my old heart." Their grandmother quipped, relieved.

"But times are changing. Women work." Sybil lectured. "And the upper classes will have to work as well. Matthew does already. If I do not have a proper education, it will only limit the type of work I do or decide whom I must marry!"

"And what is so bad about marriage?" Asked Edith.

"Well, it seems you'll have an empty house before long, Robert." Violet chortled.

"Oh?" Asked Mary, in her usual sharpness. "Am I leaving Downton?"

"Hmm? Oh, I just meant we'd all take a long stay in London perhaps." Violet feigned innocence. Matthew was eyeing her with curiosity, wondering if it were true Mary was being sent somewhere, but he was quickly distracted.

Thomas had entered and was whispering to Abigail. Matthew thought it strange. He put his spoon down as the footman pulled out her chair and led her by the hand. Before it could be commented upon, Mr. Carson explained, "It seems Mrs. Patmore has mistakenly included an ingredient which disagrees with her. My apologies, my lord."

"Are you alright, Abigail?" Lord Grantham, half stood, his voice kinder and softer. Matthew stood as well, his hand out feeling useless.

"She's be fine, my lord, just fine." Thomas answered for her. Thomas had never struck Downton's heir as being a particularly gentle man. In fact, the man made him a little distrustful, and Matthew had heard something of him causing trouble with the other servants, so his nature with Miss Abigail stood out as extremely odd and somewhat troubling to the young lawyer.

When she had passed from the room and the next course was served immediately, the table was a great deal quieter.

"Well," His mother laughed lightly, breaking the silence. "If one did not know better, one might think you were trying to kill her off."

"Never." Violet Crawley addressed the joking accusation. "If an earthquake and Africa cannot kill her, we would be fools to try."

Amusing though it should have been, it brought Matthew to wonder not for the first time how far his dear relatives would go to protect their home and legacy as they saw it. And the answer was clear to him: as far as they might dare. Showing any emerging feelings for Abigail might be viewed a threat, and a threat to Mary Crawley would be dealt with severely.

Mary Crawley was simply not going to give up so easily. She had seen Matthew inquire about how her sister and cousin had recovered over dinner, though he had to all but shout to Abigail from where he had been strategically placed at the table. He had more than made up for the lack of contact afterwards, by matching her own father's concern for her health. Later that week, he had escorted her back to Downtown from the hospital after her volunteer shift with his mother. The family did their best to keep the two distracted until they were soon off to London.

Once in town, polite letters were exchanged between Matthew and it seemed every member of their household. Distractions abounded. Papa hoped the city would impress Sybil enough to quell her desire to see New York. There were balls to attend, and Abigail liked to make strange visits to places such as the Exchange. Even Edith tired of going to the same museums. They had company often, not least among which was Evelyn Napier who returned again and again to lavish his attention on Cousin Abigail.

Mary, of course, took it upon herself to speak highly of the man to her cousin. If he had mentioned Mary's indiscretion or if she had heard of it at any of the social occasions where gossip abounded as plentiful as fresh drops of dew in early morning, she gave no indication of it whatsoever. Abigail did not seem to have anything more than a polite interest in Napier, and admitted to Mary that Matthew had been good enough to try to dissuade Napier's interest by inventing his own, but Napier had seen it as a challenge. Matthew, she explained, was good enough to try to help again by sending a gift of a violin, which she persisted in playing daily, oblivious to how it grated Mary's nerves painfully. It sent her from the house to take numerous walks, ringing in her hands a plain, white handkerchief she was always surprised to find in herself holding, having no memory of packing it.

She well knew writing to Matthew about the frequency of Napier's visits would only encourage him to make his feelings bolder. She needed to alter the circumstances.

One evening, she spotted an opportunity. Mary Crawley had attempted to make conversation with Napier in the hall, but he had snubbed her. She quickly salvaged the situation by informing Evelyn that Miss Abigail had a private concern she very much wished to speak with him about, but was too embarrassed to ask. He was all too happy to offer his ear and any assistance he might give.

She then made her way quickly to Abigail's room, but ran across her lady's maid, Gwen, who gave Abigail the message that it was Matthew who needed to speak to her urgently downstairs. As she hoped, Abigail left the room hurriedly not properly dressed. Mary smirked, but she did not enjoy it as she thought she might.

She then told Aunt Rosamund to please check on Cousin Abigail, who did not look well, ensuring that Abigail greeted Evelyn as Matthew and was promptly discovered in private, after dark, unannounced, and improperly clad by none other than the largest gossip in London. The situation was compromising to say the least and while Evelyn suspected the cause and Abigail didn't blink at rumors of scandal nor give two figs about her reputation, word did reach back to Matthew and even her innocent sisters were forced to recant what they had witnessed with their own eyes.

Apart from Matthew, interest in Abigail did not wane much—money it seemed did wonders—and her younger sister was also quite popular. Mary's own circumstances looked bleak when it became apparent that many friends in London had heard the rumors of her scandalous ruin. Granny was actually talking of marrying Mary off to 'an Italian that isn't too picky'. She simply was not having it. Even Edith's prospects looked better than hers, and she struggled not to dislike her sister.

Mary stayed in London after the others left, with Aunt Rosamund, though Granny was insistent that she return before Abigail and Matthew could grow any closer. Matthew was not visiting Downton as much it seemed and Mary was reviving their friendship through their written correspondence. Absence might make the heart grow fonder after all.

She did not expect to be called up by Evelyn Napier or to find that Edith was the one who betrayed her. Revenge upon Edith would be easy but not satisfying, and it would do nothing for Mary's prospects. She thought of even going to her cousin for help, but could not bear it. Perhaps, Italy would be sunny and not so awful.

But then, she ran across a new acquaintance whom Mary was keen to invite to stay at Downton, as he knew Abigail Vandavere but did not seem to think she would enjoy his presence. Mary assured him this was nonsense and flirted mercilessly, encouraging any conversation about the American she could elicit. And the conversation followed was most interesting...even more fascinating, perhaps, than her own secret.

Soon after, she returned to Downton with such haste that no one met her at the station. Walking up to the house from the car, she crossed paths with John in the front lawn. She stopped, pulling her traveling gloves off at the finger tips and giving him wry smile as he approached.

She did not expect to be so pleased to see him. It unnerved her. why should his presence matter to her at all? It was surely not to be a permanent one in her home. They did not know each other particularly well—or perhaps they did, just had not known each other for very long. The two appeared to not be mutually exclusive.

"Happy to be home?" He asked unabashedly. No one being around, she did not bother to hide her joy and stop to converse with the servant.

"I am. How are you?"

"Glad to see you around here again. Too many soft petals around here." He shook his head slowly.

"Oh? And what am I then? Not a petal?"

"A cactus." He jibbed.

"Prickly? Watch yourself there, John." She warned, heading up the steps. She was fiercely disappointed for a reason she could not explain, but his hand stopped her.

"Yes prickly, to defend itself. But you are a survivor in harsh conditions, you bloom, and you have something important inside you."

"What's that?"

"Water." He brushed her tear aside, his hand softer than she anticipated, and so large it could have held her face.

"I would offer to take you away from all this, but you'd never leave Downton." He laughed. She laughed too, though a little cruelly at the idea he could afford to rescue her and take her anywhere. "You will haunt this place one day."

"I hope so," Mary admitted and was not afraid it sounded strange.

"It's a shame. I'd like to show you a real cactus flower."

"What, like in the dessert?"

"Yes and on the plains. There is something there that as much as it frightens you would suit you as well as that dress." He told her, hands on her arms.

She allowed the unfamiliar feeling of a faint blush, harmless. But she removed herself not unkindly from his grip.

"Freedom. Open as far as you can see."

"I'm not as brave as you imagine me." At this, Mary had to dismiss herself.

How bleak things must be looking if she was actually thinking of the Wild West. Her last hopes might lie with Mr. Fender, who had promised to join them for dinner the following week, Mary happily announced to her family that evening.

Lady Mary tried not to squirm with glee at the appearance of the man whose visit she anticipated. Very well dressed, he had solid, broad facial features and was exceptionally tall, with short blonde hair. His eyes, however, were small, shrewd, and somewhat close together. They were dangerous.

"Good evening, Mr. Fender." Matthew greeted the man as he too arrived at Downton, just as planned.

"Good evening."

"And what is exactly is it you do, Mr. Fender?"

"Granny, certainly it can wait until dinner. We are about to go through." Mary laughed standing next to her guest.

Matthew raised his eyebrows, looking as if he'd rather be anywhere but Downton until Abigail came down. His mouth actually opened a bit. Quite unseemly, Mary thought. But she had to admit some jealousy, if only to herself.

Abigail was wearing plum and the color looked marvelous on her, tight at the top like a corset crossed with lace, wider and more layered at the bottom, fabric shinning. Her effect on Matthew might have been less than ideal as her hair caught in the low evening light, but Vandavere's own reaction to Fender did not disappoint.

He acted the utmost gentleman, bowing even as he proclaimed it was nice to see her again. She pointedly refused to reply. Everyone took notice of the silence, and then Mama awkwardly led them to dinner. Mary seated herself triumphantly while Granny held back feigning concern. She took Abigail's arm.

"Are you alright, my dear? Forgive, but the signs are unmistakable."

"I'm sorry." Cousin Abigail shook her head a little, confused, but not objecting to the unusually affectionate contact of the girl's grandmother.

"You act as though he's broken your heart."

"Well, he did break two of my ribs, so I guess you could say he came close." Her reply took the two people around aback.

"What?" Matthew demanded angrily, stopping in his tracks. His face horrorstruck, waiting in vain for a poor joke to follow. None came. He burned with outrage. How Mary could openly bring someone in to harm her was beyond him, and he felt certain the fiasco with Napier was somehow the eldest daughter's doing as well. Little did she know, it had resulted in Abigail having to rather pointedly tell him she was not interested in furthering a relationship with him at that time.

"It's alright. I can handle him." Abigail assured him much too calmly. He did not care.

"He's not eating here! How dare he put his hands on you?"

"Please, keep quiet." She stepped very close to him, still attached to the dowager countess. "Mary is using him for some purpose I have not yet devised. I don't want to ruin her plans." She voiced this freely before Violet, who did not seem bothered; Mary too, after all, may also be unwittingly in danger, her expression conveyed.

"You shall sit next to Cousin Abigail, Matthew." Violet insisted, her face furrowed with concern that Mary's plotting might blow up in her face yet again and, clearly, she had no ill wishes towards Abigail herself, only marking her an enemy inasmuch as she was a rival to her grand daughter. It was easily one of the strangest evenings of his life.

"Mary? You're assisting with her web-spinning now?" Matthew whispered when he at last had the chance during dinner.

"Mary is in a difficult position." Abigail murmured back, her expression unreadable.

"Yes, of course, I appreciate that more than anyone, but her manner…" He began.

"Men are dangerous. You need not pity him, I assure you." She informed him.

"Of course I don't pity him. I'd like to hit him. But the way she… not all men seem dangerous to you, surely? I would never harm you." He struggled to maintain eye contact through his intimate admittance so that she might know he was sincere. She responded with a smile he thought was sad. At this, Matthew Crawley found himself overwhelmed by the sudden urge to pick her up and carry her forcibly from the room and dreadful stranger, clutching her close. Her words interrupted his inner turmoil. "Don't judge Mary so harshly. She's been betrayed by someone close to her."

"I wouldn't call the entail a betrayal—"

"Nor would I."

"Oh. Has she?" This new revelation gave him pause.

"Yes. I found out in London."

The stranger's deep voice and odd accent rolled across the table like waves, interrupting their quiet conversation.

"Do be careful, Mr. Crawley."

"How's that, sir?" He replied stiffly.

"Beware the curse." He winked at Abigail, making Matthew's stomach turn.

Mary's hollow laughed danced out beside him. "Oh no, not that nonsense again."

"What curse?"

"Men who fall in love with Miss Vandavere tend to end up dead."

"Abigail has seen much loss as of late we know." Matthew smiled at his mother this time for her jumping in, "And it has made her quite sensitive to the pains of others. For instance,"

"Oh yes, quite a lot of loss. Her siblings, the man her family intended for her, her uncle, and her parents. Oh and then there was that man who was courting you who was mugged, and that advisor of you father's drowned, did he not?"

"What exactly are you insinuating, sir?" Matthew snapped. "That any of these events were somehow her fault?"

"No, of course not. I thought you knew; I only meant to jest with an old friend about an old joke."

"Absurd." Lord Grantham scoffed.

"And you thought such a joke would be tasteful to someone in mourning?" Matthew demanded.

"It's alright, Mr. Crawley, just silly superstition. Abby and I go way back." He winked. Conversation was thankfully changed, but went quickly, everyone ready to move into the drawing room.

There, Matthew sat beside 'Abby' without asking, as if guarding her. Meanwhile, Mary and the man were deep in conversation, her expression steadily growing darker than it had been. It was subtle, but Matthew was certain they were disagreeing. Fender smiled as if flirting as he grabbed Mary's elbow too tightly. At this, Matthew felt another wave of anger. He thought all concern for Mary had vanished and was thus confused; perhaps, it was his anger at this man's gall rather than protectiveness that surged within him. Perhaps he pitied her. Could this be Lady Mary's betrayer?

Abigail must have seen the exchange as well, for she excused herself into the hall. Mary claimed to be heading to bed alongside her cousin. The guest excused himself shortly afterwards for the loo presumably. Matthew tried to wait to excuse himself for the evening, but made it his exit swift as possible.

A he stepped into the hall, he heard Abigail's voice from the library, business-like and low.

"What do you want Gordon Fender? I know it must be something."

"Well there are certain things that your family wouldn't want revealed…" The rest was difficult to discern.

Matthew had just reached the door and pushed it open a bit in time to watch Abigail say from by the fire, "If you even dream I'm half as dangerous as you accuse me of being, you couldn't imagine I'd be blackmailed. You will not threaten Mary. You will leave now. And if I even suspect you are going to papers with your ridiculous rumors just to make a dime, you won't make it your train." He threat was level. She paused a moment for it to set in as Matthew felt his eyebrows raise in surprise at this side of Miss Vandavere.

"You aren't going to make a penny off me or Mary, but I am going to help you. There's a gambling man looking to collect from a Mrs. Bates in London. Mention her address in the right company and you might weasel your way out of the grip of whatever low life you owe now. Get out. We'll make your excuses, or perhaps you'd like to stay behind and see another old friend of yours?" Her tone was suggestive.

"John's here?" The man all but sputtered. There was a moment of silence in which Matthew waited.

"You brought me here, you bitch!" The man growled.

Then came the unmistakable smack of flesh on flesh. A slap. Mary was flustered as Matthew burst into the hall, holding her face with one hand, her eyes fierce but tearing.

"Are you alright?" He felt pained at the eldest Crawley daughter's uncharacteristically disheveled look as he held her gently by the arms.

The dinner guest, putting on his hat, made to leave at once, but Matthew grabbed his coat collar, drew back his own arm, and punched him hard across the mouth. The pain in his knuckles was as satisfying as the cracking sound it made against the stranger's teeth. Although spun off balance, the man did not pause, openly fleeing through the hall.

It was Mr. Carson who entered fast on Matthew's heels looking as if his face might explode and seeming to know at once what had happened. Mary averted her gaze, embarrassed and Matthew looked to Abigail. He wanted to comfort her, but she appeared so calm. He stood a few feet from her, useless once more.

"Where is Mr. Fender?" Mr. Carson asked stepping into the hall to look for his retreating coat tails.

"He's gone." Mary managed. "Excuse me." She rushed by him, leaving Abigail and Matthew alone.

A/N: Again, sorry for the wait and any mistakes. Reviews are greatly appreciated! I'd love to know your likes, dislikes, and what you want/expect to happen next. Thanks for reading. Someone said they were confused, so I hurriedly tried to clear some things up with changes before more of you read it and felt that way!