A/N: What is this? ANOTHER current WIP? Apparently so. This idea has been burning at me for a while, and I may credit it all to an innocent comment by EOlivet that made me go Oooh.. Hang on...
Now, I know that there is a wealth of M/C fics around at the moment. But though obviously some themes might cross over, I do hope this is a fresh and original perspective on it, and that it won't necessarily be what you'd expect. I hope so, anyway!
Also saying that, I have no intention of neglecting All That is Left, or A New Dawn - I'll just have to somehow manage to juggle them!
This is rushed out and un-beta-ed in an effort to get it posted while I could this evening, so I hope you'll forgive me any glaring errors. And... enjoy!
Of Course It's the End. How Could it Not Be?
Matthew was coming home for the Christmas season.
Well, Mary thought, that wasn't strictly true. He would be visiting Downton, as would she be, because it was no longer her home. For her home was Haxby Park, and Matthew's home was Manchester, and they had not been at Downton (or indeed anywhere) together since her wedding in July.
Not that that could be termed 'having been together', though, really. For she'd barely dared to look at him, and he'd hardly spoken to her; only the briefest, politest pleasantries in the receiving line, and she now well believed herself to have imagined any trace of warmth she might have detected in his voice.
She'd done her best to forget about him. It was the end! He'd said so, and she had agreed! She was married now. It was far easier now that she was secluded away, and he'd torn himself away… But he was coming back.
"Will there be anything else, Milady?"
Mary flinched as her maid broke into her thoughts, meeting the young girl's eyes in the mirror.
"No," she gave a distracted smile. "Thank you, Harris."
The girl was a bore. Perfectly fine as a ladies maid, but perfectly plain, with no spark about her. Richard had made sure of that. Not that Mary could mind, particularly – if she'd felt some inclination to talk to her, as she always had with Anna, it would've been all the more difficult not to. Oh, Richard would just love to hear of her pining over Matthew, regretting all the choices in her life that had brought her to this point…
Which was why she'd been doing her level best not to think about him.
"Very good, Milady. Goodnight."
"Mm," Mary acknowledged Harris' departure, releasing a gentle sigh as her bedroom door clicked shut, and she was left alone.
In many ways, she was thankful that Matthew had disappeared following Lavinia's death. It made life far easier, and Richard far kinder. She discovered that, without Matthew's presence as what her husband perceived to be an immediate threat, his jealousy seemed to have cooled. It all passed unspoken between them, forgotten on the surface but ever present, and Richard had tried to distract her with trinkets and servants and mindless, numbing duties that she should fulfil as his wife…
She was glad of his restraint, though sometimes she wished he would just be terrible to her, give her a reason to fight back, because she could find none. She was perfectly comfortable, perfectly well looked after. But she felt confined, trapped, cornered into a life of silence and pretence and facades.
Oh, Matthew. For a while, she'd succeeded in not thinking about him, in moving on. Accepting that this was her life now, and he was no part of it, would never be.
But he was coming back to Downton, and…
As she opened her jewellery case and slipped out the tiny key from under a velvet panel, she told herself that it would make it easier. Lessen the shock. Prepare her for seeing him again.
For so long, she'd managed to restrain herself, managed to keep him locked in a drawer… But now, with the pressing reality of meeting him again – seeing his face, hearing his voice – she was powerless to resist.
With sudden determination, as if she thought she'd lose it forever if she faltered even a moment, she unlocked the drawer under the lip of her dresser, and pulled out his photograph, and held it in her hands, allowing her eyes the precious license to gaze upon his handsome, such a beautifully handsome, face.
So many times, she'd thought she might throw it away. She knew that she should – it was dangerous, in so many ways, to keep it. She had to let go – of him, of that life, that past – to cling to it could only bring pain. But every time she thought of it, she just could not bring herself to. On every level, she knew the only sensible thing to do was to consign him firmly to her past, but… Oh, it was Matthew! She was depressingly aware that he would always, always be there in her consideration somewhere – it was useless to pretend otherwise. Still, she did a good job of pretending, most days… Just not tonight, when the prospect of him being in her life again, even just for a day or two, was so very real.
Lightly, she traced her finger over the photograph, outlining the curve of his jaw, his hairline, brushing softly over his lips… Her throat constricted as she stared at him, remembered even as she tried not to remember, tried not to dream… The edges were faded now, a little tattered, bent and worn with years of attention. Just like the tattered, worn remnants of their love affair that they allowed to fade and bend into ruin. A breath shuddered from her chest in regret, her eyes stung and she brought the photograph to her lips, pressing them tenderly to the sepia image of his forehead, then of his lips, caught forever in a warm smile. An expression she never expected to see directed at her again.
Without warning, her bedroom door opened.
Panic swept through her. Fingers trembling, she shoved the photograph back into the drawer and closed it in haste, before turning, clutching her knees in distress.
"Richard!" Her chest heaved, and her high, breathless voice trembled with uncoverable guilt. He was frowning, thinking, connecting… "Darling, you –"
"What?" He cut her off, pushing away from the doorframe where he'd leaned and moving slowly towards her. His voice was deceptively smooth, deceptively calm. "I shouldn't come into your bedchamber without warning? Is it not my right to do so?" His lips curved into a smile, a smile that made Mary's blood run cold. Oh, he'd never laid a hand on her in anger, but she'd never given him reason to…
She stood, agitatedly twisting her hands, trying to at least feel on an equal level to him.
"Of course it is, I didn't mean –"
"Of course you didn't, dear. Come, look at you… One might almost think you had something to hide!"
Mary laughed humourlessly. "Do you think I'd try it? I'd lock my door if that were the case!"
"And give me even greater reason to suspect you?" Richard cocked his head lightly. "I give you more credit than that, darling."
"I'm glad of it!" Mary swallowed, trying to keep herself between him and her dresser. "Anyway, I can't image what you possibly think I might be 'hiding'." She warmed to her act, now. "You allow me little opportunity to find anything to hide!"
"Oh, nonsense. I credit you with intelligence, it's one of the reasons I wanted to marry you. And I trust you with it."
Mary did her best not to snort with derision, restraining with difficulty the natural roll of her eyes.
Richard carried on, carried on walking towards her, seeming to take an age to cross her room which suddenly felt terrifically small and cramped. "I'd hate to believe that you should abuse that trust in any way, Mary, by thinking that you can keep things from me."
He'd reached her now, he was close enough that she could feel his breath against her skin, and she stiffened, meeting his eyes without fear. He stood beside her, locked her gaze in a desperate challenge for a moment, granting her the opportunity to give in and beg for his forgiveness. But she would not.
"Very well," he sighed dramatically. "Might I also trust you, then, to open your drawer, that you take such great pains to keep locked from me?"
Trembling, allowing her eyes to close for a brief second in resignation, Mary turned and did so. There was no point denying him.
For a long while, there was silence, as they both stared down at the open drawer in which Matthew's photograph lay on clear display, smiling innocently and mockingly up at them.
"I don't know what to say," Mary whispered.
"No." More silence, seconds stretching into minutes. When Richard did eventually find his voice, his words disturbed Mary more than she could imagined. "My poor, dear Mary," he said quietly. His voice was low, still smooth as silk, still dangerous. "How sorry I feel for you."
"Sorry!" Mary exclaimed in disbelief, turning to him. "Richard, I –"
"Yes. Only terribly sorry."
Slowly, Richard stretched out a hand and lifted the photograph from the drawer. He took a few steps away, then turned to face her, holding it out almost between them, his face passionless and unreadable.
"I'm sorry, my dear, for your utterly pathetic desperation to cling to a man who threw you down. It's really – quite sad!"
Mary swallowed, pressed her lips into a thin line to stop them trembling. Her fingers twitched and clenched into agitated fists by her side as she remained otherwise motionless, unable to speak as he carried on.
"I suppose it's admirable, your devotion," her husband continued. "If foolish. I was there, my dear – I heard him tell you it was the end. I heard him ruin your dreams, I heard him destroy you. How tragically sad, that even in the face of his rejection over the open grave of his fiancée, you remain trapped by him." He shook his head, with a sorry frown.
Oh, his pity was unbearable! He wasn't even angry at her, not even angry at Matthew, only sorry – how utterly insufferable! Mary hated it, hated him in that moment, she wished he would raise his voice or his hand to her. Shout at her, strike her, give her a reason to hate him and believe that he was a terrible husband, because by the letter of things he wasn't, and that infuriated Mary more than she could express.
Her eyes glittering cold, Mary shrugged.
"You say it as it is," she consigned, playing along. "Though you've no reason to fear, for as you say, he would not have it." How that might curry in her favour, she couldn't tell.
"Oh, no, dear. I do not fear," Richard said. He turned his body away from her, looking towards the fire. "You see, I want you to be happy, dear. I want to be a good husband to you. And to do that, I need to protect you, from yourself and your fantasies. I want you to be happy, and you can't be while you're still haunted by cousin Matthew."
"No," Mary whispered, her eyes locked onto his back.
Richard took two steps towards the fire, his hand stretched out. Mary resisted, waited, could not do so and stepped forward. Hearing her, Richard turned, a smile of satisfaction, of having won on his face.
"You think I am going to destroy it?" He raised his eyebrows, meeting her eyes fiercely, with a false warmth. "No, my darling."
He withdrew his hand, and turned, holding the photograph instead out to her. "You are."
She could not speak, could not move, and he waited. Mary's heart hammered in her chest, she could feel cold sweat pooling on her back and on her palms in quiet fear. She couldn't, she couldn't, oh he was cruel! But of course… she had to.
Richard watched her, feeling a weight on his chest as she wilted in front of him. Did she think he enjoyed it? Did she think it gave him any pleasure? It was for her own good, surely she had to see that.
With her breath held against her tears, Mary stepped forward and took the photograph from his hand. She went to stand before the fireplace.
It seemed to roar, and flame, the heat of it making her burn. She took a deep breath, refusing to allow him (neither Richard nor the phantom of Matthew in the photograph) the satisfaction of seeing her shed a tear.
And she threw him into the fire. As the flames licked and curled around the edges, turning his beautiful face black and then to ash, she felt Richard's hand fall on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, my darling. You had to let him go."
Yes, she did, she thought with a sick feeling in her gut. For the sake of her future – of course, he was right. She'd known it herself for months. Matthew had let her go. And now she had to let him go.
Only... He was coming home for the Christmas season.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I apologise if this chapter was a little miserable. I think I'd like to make the disclaimer here that this fic isn't wish fulfilment, nor is it a direction I think the show will take, more something I was keen to explore. At some point I'd like to write a prelude of Matthew attending the wedding, from his POV. Obviously, Matthew will be appearing next chapter! (Woo!)
Any feedback will be very much appreciated - thank you!