A/N: First published on Christmas Day on AO3 as part of the Yuletide 2011 fic challenge for Aurora. Many thanks to OrangeShipper for her support while writing it and last minute panicked beta-ing. Obviously this was written pre-Christmas Special based on spoilers in the trailers but no spoilers for the actual episode. Considering I knew nobody would be reading it before they saw the Christmas Special, I tried to play quite loosely with the spoilers so that the end result wouldn't be too similar. Of course to a certain extent it's now simply an AU version of the Christmas Special and considering how wonderful that was, quite redundant! Still, if you do decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it. And Happy New Year to you all!


A Girl Worth Fighting For

In Which the Stick is No Longer a Nuisance

When Sir Richard returned to Downton Abbey on the twenty-third of December, it was his first visit in almost two months. Business had taken him to France in early November and kept him there longer than he had anticipated before sending him onwards to Belgium. In these circumstances, he would be forgiven for wanting a warmer reception from his fiancée than the one he received. She allowed him to kiss her cheek, hoped he had had a pleasant journey, and then abandoned him to return to her conversation with Matthew Crawley and his mother. It was not an auspicious start.

Two months ago they would not have been talking in such an easy fashion but time works many wonders. The summer had passed quietly. Matthew had been withdrawn and miserable and Mary had turned to Richard more than ever before with the resignation of the desperate. Then one day Matthew had come to dinner and found himself next to Mary and quite by chance their eyes had met while passing the salt. He had smiled tentatively, she had smiled tentatively back. About two weeks later he found her alone reading in the library when he was looking for her father. On the point of apologising for disturbing her and leaving, she had insinuated that she would not mind if he stayed. He had only hesitated a second before accepting.

This was before Richard had left. With him gone, it had seemed easier somehow and more natural, for Matthew to happen to meet her on a walk round the estate and keep her company on one occasion, to join her on the sofa at tea time on another, or offer her his arm to lead her into dinner on a third. They talked about the weather, books, jazz music, Cousin Isobel's work with the refugees, the recommencement of Sir Anthony's courtship with Edith, everything and nothing. But at least they talked. In some ways (though they never spoke their thoughts aloud) it reminded them both of that period, so glorious and so terrible, following Matthew's injury before Lavinia had returned.

Finally one day in late November, Matthew had walked into the drawing room before dinner. It was Edith who first picked up on what was so special about this apparently unassuming and regular event.

"What's happened to your stick, Matthew?" she asked.

He shrugged. "Oh, I left it behind tonight. It didn't really seem necessary." He was trying not to smile or look as smug as he clearly felt.

Cora's hand went to her mouth. "Oh, Matthew, are you saying-"

He took a few steps more into the room and brushed it off with even more pride. "To be honest, it was just getting in the way of things now."

"And you walked all the way here without it?" asked Robert very gravely.

He swung his arms casually by his sides and his expression blossomed into a full grin. "Yes, I must say I did!"

Mary gave a little gasp and his eyes shot to hers too quickly for her to hide the joy and adoration on her face. Not since he had first stood up had she looked thus and this time he saw it. His eyes widened, his lips parted in recognition and for a split second both their hearts stopped beating and immediately started again in tandem with one another.

He swallowed and looked back at the earl. "It just seemed silly to carry it around with me when I didn't need to any more. So I left it behind."

He glanced across at Mary again, quite unable to help himself, by which point she had recovered her serenity of expression. "Quite right too," she said with a small smile.

So it was that when Richard Carlisle pulled back from kissing Mary's cheek, he found himself meeting the eyes of Matthew Crawley standing just behind her. His hand might even have been on her waist or lower back but it was impossible to tell. He seemed the picture of innocence and friendly concern. Richard was unimpressed.


In Which Isis Delays Christmas Dinner

By Christmas day, several things had become clear. Firstly, that the most positive emotion Mary could be said to feel for her fiancé was indifference; secondly, that this was still more cordial than the feelings existing between him and Matthew; thirdly and of the most immediate consequence, that Lord Hepworth was up to something suspicious and Lady Rosamund's maid was probably involved.

Then Isis disappeared just before Christmas dinner and nothing else really mattered. The earl had the servants turn the house upside down to find her and Mrs. Patmore actually left the kitchen to complain in person about how the delay would ruin the goose and did they want that on their consciences?

"Or rather," said Mary in an aside to Matthew, "on our stomachs."

He smiled at her sideways. They were standing together by the fireplace.

"No, you're not very concerned about your conscience, are you, my dear?" interrupted Richard, who was closer to them than they had realised. "A word, Mary."

He took her arm and forced her to step away from Matthew. He peered down into her face. "Is this how you intend to behave when we are married?"

Mary shrugged and tried to pull her arm away. "I have no idea what you mean, but I don't suppose my character will undergo any remarkable alteration. If it displeases you then you only have yourself to blame for choosing to marry me."

"I have a very great admiration for your character, Mary; I should hate to have to assert my authority over you. But you know that I have the power to destroy you, and don't think I won't use it if necessary."

Her lips parted and she glared at him. To mention such a thing in public was incredible and degrading, even if the only other people in the room were her sister and Matthew hanging back and watching them. With a final effort, she pulled her arm out of his grasp, just as Lily the housemaid came in to tell them that Thomas had found the dog.

"Thank goodness, we can eat now!" cried Edith, jumping down from the window seat and leaving the room as quickly as possible, with one sharp, confused glance at Mary.

Richard was all smiles again. "Shall we, my dear?" He offered his arm and she took it, only looking back once to where Matthew was abandoned by the fireplace.

She was sitting between them at dinner, an unhappy arrangement, and their corner of the table was quiet in comparison with the rest of the party. Drawn and tense, and quite the reverse of a bride on the brink of heaven, Mary picked at the not-too-overdone goose and wondered how much Matthew had overheard. In a pause between courses, with Richard distracted by a question from Lady Rosamund, he leaned over and murmured in her ear, "What was Richard talking about? He said he had the power to destroy you. I heard him loud and clear and can only suppose I was meant to, but I swear, Mary-"

She pulled herself together before he could say anything he might regret. Touching his arm and laughing with enforced merriment she replied, "Really, Matthew, so melodramatic! Don't you know that all husbands have the power to destroy their wives and that we must vow to love, honour and obey?"

"And can you?" he asked very seriously. "Can you make such a vow to such a man?"

She couldn't bear to look at him. "They're only words; of course I can."

"Mary!"

He didn't get much further, for Lord Hepworth caught her attention. "I understand you will be settling at Haxby soon, Lady Mary. I was there in '15- the dining room is exquisite and so much larger than this one. Perhaps we can expect Christmas there next year?"

"Well, you can't!" muttered the dowager countess a little too loudly.

Richard answered smoothly for Mary. "I am sure nothing would give my wife and I more pleasure than to host Christmas at Haxby." He took her hand with pride and possessiveness. Mary had rarely looked more miserable.


In Which All the World is a Stage

Richard was not very happy with Mary taking an active role in the game of charades. Perhaps he would have been less bad tempered had the exchange of presents gone better. His very expensive earrings had been totally eclipsed by a delicate and modest pendant from Matthew.

"You play with your necklace so much," he had explained with a little embarrassment and a great deal of fondness, "that it must be worn to pieces. This is only a simple thing so you can fiddle with it as much as you like."

"I do have more than one necklace, you know, Matthew," she had replied with pretended irritation, but she had instantly unclasped the one she was wearing and replaced it with the new one. Richard's earrings, however, she had put aside with a shrug, saying that they did not match her dress.

If that exchange had not been enough to rile him, he then had had to endure discovering that the rather nice watch Mary had bought him for Christmas had in fact been chosen by Matthew. It had even been his idea in the first place.

"You certainly know how to make a man feel special, my dear," he had commented drily to her.

Her reply was just as bland. "You really can't expect me to know anything about buying gifts for men, Richard."

"Matthew looked pleased with the book of poetry you gave him."

"Oh, that's different."

Richard had wandered away to get a minced pie. He did not like to look as desperate as he felt.

Later on, while Mary reluctantly took to the stage, Matthew could barely contain his laughter. Richard watched him sourly. Mary was adorable waving her arms around but he'd rather her cousin did not make his own appreciation quite so obvious.

"You're a terrible actress," chuckled Matthew when she came to sit down next to him once the clue had been guessed. "Completely unbelievable."

"That's what I keep telling you," she replied, raising her eyebrows. Their eyes met and something passed between them that was more significant than a game of charades could possibly merit.

Richard cleared his throat. "You are aware that such displays will have to stop once we're married. I don't want my wife making a spectacle of herself in public like this."

"Why should she? You manage that quite adequately yourself," retorted Matthew angrily to his own surprise as much as to everyone else's.

"May I ask what business it is of yours?" he replied with a little more heat.

Matthew opened his mouth to reply then closed it again and stood up abruptly. "The welfare of my cousins will never not be my business," he eventually replied coldly, turned on his heel and left the room.

Mary almost gawped at him as he departed, or came as close to gawping as she ever did. For a moment there was a light in her eyes that had been absent for a long time. Richard found it insufferable.

"Mr. Crawley needs to learn to restrain himself. I won't stay another night to be insulted in this way."

"Oh good!" said the dowager with great pleasure. "Please don't let us keep you!"

"Mama!" groaned the earl.

Mary pressed her eyes shut and then pressed her hand against her eyes. The light had gone out again.

"Is your family always this entertaining?" enquired Lord Hepworth of Lady Rosamund, with a grin and another swig of port.


In Which Snow is Forecast for New Year

Why was Mary marrying him? This was the question Matthew asked himself over and over again as he paced around the hallway trying to cool off. When Mary came out not long afterwards, shoulders hunched and tense and expression drawn, this was the question he asked her directly. She didn't have to marry him, he said.

Apparently she did. And he would despise her if he knew the truth. Matthew hated this. He hated secrets and mysteries, and thought everything should be clear and in the open. The only thing he despised was not understanding what hold Richard Carlisle had over Mary and what could possibly be so bad that she would not break from him. His frustration and concern warred with his feeling that it was none of his business and if she had chosen Carlisle then he had no right to interfere, especially after they had made such a mess of things in the spring. So long as she was happy... And yet she was clearly not happy! Matthew did not know what he could do or what he should do, if anything at all.

Boxing Day passed without any interaction between between the families. Matthew brooded and his mother watched him brood. The following day they both walked up to the Abbey only to discover the place in uproar: Lady Rosamund's maid had stolen her jewels, or Lord Hepworth had stolen the maid's virtue or Thomas had been revealed to have stolen Isis. Who knew; they left quickly. On the twenty-eighth it rained heavily all day. Matthew read the book of poetry he had been given by Mary and alternated reading it with thinking about her.

She was unhappy, dear Lord, she had been unhappy for a long time; that was clear. She shouldn't marry Carlisle. Why was she marrying him? Why did she delay? Could it be on his account, even though she knew what he thought about their relationship? What he had thought about their relationship. He tapped his fingers against the fine leather binding of the book. Had these thoughts changed over time?

After this he went to the graveyard for the first time in weeks. He stared down at Lavinia's grave. Lavinia Catherine Swire. It seemed unreal somehow, part of another life. A drop of water fell from the branches of a tree overhead and landed, cold, on the back of his neck. Moss was growing on the stone which was starting to look weathered from the elements. It was just a tombstone in the earth. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Once upon a time he had been going to marry her, only she had not wanted to let him in the end. What would have happened if she had not died? She had wanted him to be happy. Was he happy now? The grave yielded no answers. With a sigh, Matthew dutifully cleared away the dead leaves and placed a sprig of holly in their place, then walked home, his head bowed, his brow furrowed and his hands shoved into his pockets.

The next day, he was summoned by a note to Downton. Snow was forecast for New Year's Day and in consequence the shoot had been brought forward to New Year's Eve. Robert wanted to know if he still intended to take part.

"Why wouldn't I?" he replied defensively, unable to ignore Richard's presence in the corner of his eye.

"Mary said you didn't hunt," replied Mary's fiancé very cordially, "but I suppose it's just another facet of aristocratic privilege that you've adopted since coming here."

Matthew met his gaze with a steady glare. "If that is the case, then I must assume that you will not be going shooting yourself. Your sort have principles about this sort of thing, don't they?"

Your sort? What on earth was he saying? They came from the same class in origin. Moreover Matthew had not picked up a gun since the end of the war, and the thought of doing so made him very uneasy.

"I'm not sure I like your tone, Crawley; I can assure you, however, that I shall be going shooting. I wouldn't want to miss any opportunity for better understanding Mary's family traditions."

Smug bastard. If he continued in this smooth and plausible way, Matthew would be hard pressed to keep his gun trained on the pheasants. He was not sure at what point his suspicion of Sir Richard had blossomed into full dislike, but it had happened and was irretrievable.

"Then I'll see you there, sir," he snapped, and escaped before he could say anything he might regret.


In Which There Are Two Guns and One Dead Pheasant

The last day of 1919 was a miserable, damp day with temperatures just above freezing. After Richard had assumed Mary would not be accompanying the shoot, she had declared her intention of going out for the full time.

"If you must come, I do hope you're not going to carry a gun, my dear," he chided her as they waited to set off in the hall.

She drew on her gloves and flashed him a brittle smile, eyes glinting in warning. "Not today, Richard."

Matthew had just arrived and she walked towards him without a backwards glance. Later, when they were all out in a group and Richard kept trying to find his way back to Mary's side and she seemed to avoid him with unobtrusive ease, she called him out on it.

"You didn't want me to come so you really can't blame me for spending time with those who did," and she trudged off through the undergrowth back to Matthew, who had been only too happy to stay with her.

In fact, as soon as she was out of her fiancé's presence, she was in high spirits. She was so gay, so witty, so impertinent that Matthew was able to ignore the constant popping of the guns around them and could never have imagined himself anywhere except exactly where he was: at Downton Abbey in the intoxicating company of his beloved Mary. He had rarely felt so fond of her or so protective.

Richard found himself caught by Lord Hepworth and was unable to keep an eye on Mary as he wished, though he could hear their laughter seeming to mock him from every direction. Eventually she emerged into a clearing, Matthew having remained with the earl for a moment.

"Why were you laughing with Matthew?" Richard asked her suspiciously.

She did not rise to his bait. "I suppose he said something funny."

Her lack of response was the final straw. He walked over to her and grabbed her arm in a vice-like grip. Her eyes widened in alarm or fear. Good, thought Richard. Let her fear him; she ought to.

"How long will you keep up this pathetic display, Mary? Within a month we will be man and wife and I assure you I won't suffer you to cuckold me in this way when we're married."

She shook herself free and rubbed her arm. "You've nothing to fear from my fidelity."

"Don't be so naïve. You may conceivably think that now but I'm not the fool you think me."

"Believe me, I don't think you're a fool!" she replied lightly and bitterly, walking away from him.

"Mary!" He grabbed her and spun her around to face him. "I won't keep your secret a day longer unless you make it more worthwhile for me."

"You want to marry me for my status and you still are. I'll be the perfect mistress of Haxby for you. You see, I'm upholding my end of the agreement. What more do you want?"

His eyes flickered over her face. "You're a very beautiful woman, my dear."

Another flash of alarm but she concealed it quickly. "Oh, is this your attempt to woo me with the moon and June? I thought-"

"You thought wrong." He lowered his head and would have kissed her if a shot had not suddenly and loudly whizzed over their heads so close that the vibrations in the air ruffled their hair. Mary gasped and jumped back, as disturbed as a pair of partridges nearby who fluttered up into the air with offended squawking and rustling of their wings.

The shot was followed by Matthew stumping into the clearing. Mary paled as she wondered just how much he had heard, but his eyes were fixed grimly on Richard.

"Good grief, Crawley, look where you're pointing that thing. Anyone would think you'd never seen a gun before."

Matthew shouldered his rifle a little more naturally. He looked every inch the perfect English country gentleman, she thought, recognizing admiration amidst her more complicated feelings. A perfect English gentleman on the warpath.

Determined to distract him, she pointed to a lone pheasant that had thumped down from the bushes along with the shot and forced a smile. "Congratulations, Matthew! You've made your first kill."

He barely glanced at it, his eyes remaining rooted to Richard's. "Oh. I rather thought I'd missed."

"Very witty. Is there anything in particular you wished to say to us? I was having a private discussion with Mary."

For a moment Matthew hesitated and then he took a decisive step forwards. "No, sir, I have nothing to say to you." For the first time, he looked straight at Mary. "But I want you to come with me."

She held her hand out as if to ward him off even as she took a compulsive step towards him. "Matthew-"

Richard also took a step forward. "What do you think you are doing, sir?"

"Persuading your fiancée to leave you. That, sir, is what I am doing and I have every intention of succeeding."

He gave a short, mirthless bark of laughter. "I'd like to see you try! She won't go, will you, my dear?"

Mary was white as sheet and she could only shake her head. Matthew's eyes were dark and intense and he reached out and took her hand. "Mary, please," he implored her, "I heard what he said. I – I can't see you do this. Whatever bargain you have with him, it's not worth it."

She shook her head again, but did not withdraw her hand from where it lay limply in his. "Oh, Matthew..."

"Not worth it?" said Richard, his tone deceptively calm. "Excuse me, sir, but if Lady Mary thinks it is worth it then I don't see what affair it is of yours. In fact-"

"But she doesn't, does she? Mary, how could you- marriage is for ever, forty or fifty years stuck with the wrong man-. Oh Mary, you can't-" He ran out of steam and trailed off.

Both men turned to look at her. Richard was confident, his eyebrow raised with a little amusement. Mary closed her eyes and twisted her head away as if to avoid the confrontation. Much as she wished to confound his expectations it was impossible. With a little sigh she turned from them both, letting her hand slip away, and quietly picked up Matthew's dead pheasant by its neck.

Richard shrugged and shifted his gun from one arm to the other. "Well, there you go. Mary's happy, I'm happy, and you need to move on, sir. I shall be generous enough to impute your interference in our affairs to lingering grief over Miss Swire's death."

"Lingering grief!" Matthew spat, almost losing his control. "Sir, you have gone too far; and I assure you, sir, that my interference will not cease, not for one minute, until Mary is free from you."

Mary could not let him continue. "Matthew, please," she cried desperately, "for my sake if not for your own, let it go. Let me go."

Breathing hard, he turned to face her. "If you tell me to go and if you really mean it, Mary, I'll go. I just wish..." He inhaled deeply. "I just wish I understood why."

She closed her eyes again and this time a single tear slipped out. "I can't explain. You have to trust me, Matthew-"

"Not good enough, I'm afraid, Mary, not any more!"

Richard had been watching them coolly, allowing her time to get rid of her cousin once and for all but now he stepped forwards. "Not good enough?" He shrugged. "Perhaps he's right. It does seem a little unfair to keep such a close relative in the dark, doesn't it, my dear? He is very keen to know."

"You wouldn't."

"Why not? He's not going to get off our backs until he knows and this is really becoming very tedious and repetitive. I'm doing us a favour in the long run."

"Matthew, don't listen to him."

"Well, I'd rather listen to you, but you won't tell me anything."

Richard clapped his hand on Matthew's back who looked at him warily. "You enjoy painting me as the villain here, Crawley, but I assure you I only have Mary's welfare at heart. If it weren't for my protection, her reputation would be, well, unworthy of Lady Mary Crawley."

"And why should Mary's reputation need protecting?" asked Matthew mulishly, shaking off the arm.

"Richard, you don't need to do this," protested Mary, making a final effort. She was exhausted, however, and a part of her, a part she did not fully consciously understand, resisted putting up a fight. She had learned over the years to bow to the inevitable when it happened.

He ignored her anyway. "Were it to become public that Mary was not as virtuous as she should be and were the precise details of the affair to be discovered then she would need a strong protector, a role I am more than able to fulfil."

Matthew blinked. "What exactly do you mean, sir, by 'not as virtuous as she should be'?" he replied carefully, his cautious lawyer's reaction suppressing any emotional response.

Richard looked carelessly away. "Why don't you tell him, Mary? I don't know all the details."

The look she gave him in response was chilling. Then she turned with a toss of her head to Matthew. His expression was unreadable.

"Richard means exactly what it sounds like he meant. I am not virtuous, Matthew. The details are rather sordid or would appear so if he chose to publish them in his papers which I am assured he would-"

"-if you refused to marry him," finished Matthew. He felt as if he were being slowly punched in the gut. Intellectually he understood everything she was saying. Blackmail was, after all, very simple. Emotionally he was aware of nothing except a spreading numbness. "By 'not virtuous', you mean-" he needled.

She flung out her arms and sighed in frustration. "Why must you make me spell it out? I took a lover with no thought for marriage! What else would you like me to say?"

He warded her off. "Nothing. I – nothing, Mary."

He could not look at her. He could barely think. Through the blurred fog of his perception, he became properly aware for the first time that day of the popping sound of the guns. The grass felt slippery under his feet, too similar to the squelch of mud. He flinched involuntarily as a wave of nausea washed over him.

Mary couldn't help herself and stepped forward. "Matthew!" she cried in concern, but he waved her blindly away. She retreated back into herself, subdued, the dead bird swinging from one hand, as he stumbled from the clearing.

Despite all the background noise, no space had ever felt a greater pressure of silence. Richard broke it eventually. "Thank goodness for that. Peace at last! Shall we walk on, my dear?"

Mary raised her head slowly to meet his eyes. Somehow, in these last few moments, she had changed or the world had changed around her. There was a determination in her expression that had not been there before.

"No," she said clearly. "We are not going to walk on. I am going back to the house- I don't feel well. You can do whatever you like."

Without waiting for any reply, she flung the pheasant at his feet and walked away from him.


In Which Nobody is in the Mood for Dancing

Matthew looked so ill by the time he reached home that his mother sent him straight to bed.

"You can't go to the ball tonight looking like that!" she said anxiously.

He had forgotten all about the servants' ball. Of all the things in the world he felt like doing at that moment, schmoozing with the Downton servants and dancing to the latest tunes on the gramophone was somewhere near the bottom.

"I'm not going to the ball," he snapped at her.

Not going was not an option however. Not when he was the heir and it was the first Christmas since the war. He might prefer to see in the new decade sitting alone by the fireside trying to make sense of what he had learned but, he considered ironically, people rarely got what they wanted.

There was a chill in the air when he and Isobel went over to the house that evening. Thick clouds hung overhead and there was a sense of stillness and anticipation in the atmosphere. It was almost possible to smell the approaching snow.

They were welcomed with open arms from both upstairs and downstairs, Mary and Richard excepted, but Matthew wanted to avoid them anyway. He could hardly take in how painfully beautiful Mary looked in a wine coloured dress he had never seen before, before he found himself ushered into Mrs. Patmore's arms for a lively one-step.

Mary was sitting it out next to her grandmother. Matthew's eyes followed her as he whirled around the room, catching glimpses of her between the couples. Considering how much he did not want to speak to her, he could not take his eyes off her. She looked no different to how she had always looked. Overruling all other feelings was curiosity to know who it had been and when and where and why. Every possible idea suggested itself to him from one of the servants to Carlisle himself. Had she been forced, had she consented? He did not know what to think. Behind it all, however, was an overwhelming sadness for the secret she had had to keep, for the lives she had ruined, for all the missed opportunities. When had it been? Had it been before- Was this why she had refused him? He glanced away and sighed and missed his steps, accidentally standing on Mrs. Patmore's toes.

"I – I'm so sorry!" he cried, tearing his eyes off Mary and trying to smile at his partner.

After Mrs. Patmore, there was Daisy, a much more demanding partner. Matthew had to make an effort to entertain her though his mind was not on it. Mary still wasn't dancing even though her grandmother had been scooped up by Thomas. He was too distracted to find even this a source of amusement, for she was sitting alone. Carlisle should ask her to dance, he thought with a fresh wave of anger, not abandon her on New Year's Eve.

Then Daisy was whisked away by Thomas and Matthew found himself cornered by Lord Grantham. He had been dancing with Mrs. Hughes and was in a very good mood. Matthew felt himself growing more and more desperate for some kind of break from this strange, claustrophobic hell, but before he could attempt to make some kind of excuse, he found himself thrust towards Mary.

"Just one dance," said the earl, clapping him on the back. "Let's see the new year in with a bit of cheer, shall we?"

Mary looked anxiously up at him, her eyes questioning more than his attitude towards the ball.

"If you want cheer, then I'm not sure dancing with me is the best idea," she said.

Matthew forced a smile. "Won't Richard want to dance with you?"

This goaded her into action. "He doesn't seem to want to and, you know, I'm not sure I care anyway." She stood up and before he had a chance to get out of it, she had put her hand in his and he was leading her to the floor, putting his arms round her in an awkward hold, and starting to dance.

There were too many memories of the last time they had danced. She was too familiar in his arms. How could she be so familiar and yet so different to everything he had thought her? Or was she different? For the first minute of the dance any conversation was impossible. Eventually Mary bravely broke the silence.

"I don't blame you for avoiding me. I would, in your position."

He met her eyes for the first time. "I'm not avoiding you." Then, when he saw the change in her expression, he sighed. "Alright, I suppose I am. I just-" He broke off and started again. "Mary, you don't have to answer anything, but just tell me – whoever he was, was this the reason you wouldn't accept me all those years ago?"

She hesitated only a moment. "Yes."

He let out his breath in a rush. His fingers which were barely touching her back smoothed slightly and pressed against her more firmly. "What fools we were, Mary, what complete fools."

She inclined her head with a slight shrug. "Perhaps."

Matthew moistened his lips and looked away. His heart was pounding. Somehow, somewhere along the line, this had stopped being about Mary and some phantom lover from many years ago and had become about them, just the two of them.

"Mary," he asked, his voice strained and deep, "if it hadn't been for that, or if I'd known the truth, as I do now, would your answer have been any different?"

She opened her mouth to reply, not that she needed to, for the sudden hope in her eyes was more eloquent than any words, when they were interrupted by Richard Carlisle. Matthew had almost managed to forget about him altogether. He wished he'd succeeded.

"Do you mind if I cut in?" he asked with a smooth smile. "It's nearly midnight and I'd rather like to celebrate the new year with my fiancée."

"I do mind actually," Matthew replied before he could help himself and tightened his grip on Mary's waist.

"Matthew!" exclaimed Mary, her cheeks filling with colour.

Richard looked between them. "I'm sorry; am I interrupting something?"

She pulled away. "No, not at all. In fact, I wanted to speak to you about something, Richard." She flashed him a suddenly brilliant smile. "But it can wait till after the dance."

Richard's reply was drowned out by the sudden commencement of the countdown. Now it was Matthew's turn to be left out as the old year departed and the new one was ushered in with a cheer. He never looked away from Mary and Richard and his blood boiled as Richard gathered her possessively to him and kissed her as the clock struck midnight. His hands balled into fists at how passively she received his attentions and what an absolute beast that man was to force her to accept them.

His thoughts crystallised: Mary must not marry him.

It did not matter whether she married him or anyone else. It did not matter if Carlisle spread any amount of muck about her in the papers, for she had the weight of the Crawleys and Downton behind her. No, only one thing mattered; that she should not marry him. It was 1920 and nobody, let alone the beautiful, brave Lady Mary Crawley, should have to marry without love.

He scanned the room for her but in the general confusion of the new year, she had disappeared. Both of them had left the room. This only served to frustrate him further. He wanted – no, needed to talk to her. He would let her go if she liked, but he would not let her marry him.

Brushing past his mother and her "Happy New Year," he pushed open the door into the corridor and went to find Mary.


In Which Matthew's Aim Improves

Matthew tried to ignore the noise from the room he had just left. He hesitated, unsure of where to look, when he heard raised voices from the dining room. The door was ajar and he moved closer.

"- and I won't regret it either!" he heard Mary cry, her voice almost cracking.

Carlisle's response was deeper but still audible as it was also raised. "You will, Mary, I'll see that you will. When you're exposed in all the papers as the opportunistic whore that you are, you'll be singing a different tune, I warrant you."

Matthew couldn't bear it a moment longer. How dare he? He shoved open the door so hard it banged against the wall and completely cut off Mary's reply. She was standing on her own, trembling but uncowed, but for once she was not his focus.

"You again!" snarled Richard. "I really am fed up of you!"

"I dare you to insult this lady one more time. Nothing would persuade me to leave her to you."

"Insult her? And don't I have a right?" Richard advanced on him, his voice rising with passion. "Four years of my life I've given to her and-"

He didn't finish his sentence.

"Four years?" exclaimed Matthew, pushed beyond the limits of his endurance. "That's nothing. You utter bastard!"

And with that he raised his arm and punched him in the face. It was a weighty blow and Carlisle staggered under the impact, crashing into the table, his arms flying out to brace himself. Mary let out an audible gasp; Matthew had rarely felt so satisfied, but before he could do anything other than flex his fist, Carlisle had straightened, one hand clutched to his bleeding nose.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he cried incoherently as he prepared to retaliate.

Matthew glanced back for one brief moment at Mary. Her hands were covering her mouth, her eyes wide in shock and – and something else that he did not have time to identify. Nothing else mattered. Hot blood was coursing through his veins and he felt more alive that he had done in months. Without giving it another thought, he punched Carlisle again on the jaw and this time he fell to the ground and stayed there.

Matthew stepped back, breathless from exertion and turned towards Mary. She was staring, open mouthed at the prone figure on the floor. "Good Lord..." she breathed.

Then, without another word, she turned on her heel and ran out of the room. Matthew was beyond reason and rushed after her. She had gone outside of all places, and he darted down the steps after her, hardly noticing that it was finally snowing, with a light dusting already on the ground.

She was standing looking out over the grounds, arms wrapped around her body, shivering violently. Matthew did not pause but strode purposefully across the grass towards her.

"Mary, you must not marry him," he said firmly as she turned round.

For several moments they simply stared at each other. She was so beautiful, Matthew thought, so unutterably beautiful, and for the first time in his life, he felt he had done something half way worthy of her, something to show her how much she deserved to be loved and protected and how willing he was to do it, on any terms.

What she was thinking he could not say, but her eyes were taking in his whole face with an open appreciation that warmed him all through.

"I'm not going to," she eventually replied with the ghost of a smile.

This seemed too easy and he blinked at her. "You're not?"

She smiled more widely. "No, I'm not. Much as I appreciate the gesture, Matthew, it was quite unnecessary. I broke the engagement." She seemed unable to stop smiling even though she was shivering so hard her voice was shaking. "He can do what he wants to me now, I'm not going to marry him!"

He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. She was free... "What – what are you going to do?"

She raised one ever-elegant eyebrow. "I would have thought you might have some suggestions about that."

"I-" He took a step forward, then another, then he took her cold hands in his. How large her eyes were! How large and trusting and deep! "Mary, my dearest Mary, God knows I love you, and I want to marry you. But I won't make that some kind of condition. Whatever you do, darling, whatever you decide you want to do, I will help you and support you as much as it takes, and you don't need to be my wife for that."

Her lips had parted and her fingers were clutching his in a tight grip. There was something glassy about her eyes – surely not tears? She blinked and smiled more, biting her lip as if she would burst and was desperately trying to contain her feelings. It took her a few moments to be able to speak.

"But it would make it a good deal easier if I was, wouldn't it?" she replied finally.

His heart leaped. Did she mean-? Understanding flashed between them, a spark flared in her eyes and they moved together, their lips crushing against one another in a fierce, bruising kiss. He pulled her to him, his arms going round her waist, hands roaming over her back in an effort to warm her. She wound her arms round his neck, holding his head to hers and tangling her fingers in his hair. Heat and joy blossomed between them as they devoured each other with the hunger of too long a separation. Matthew, his arms wrapped tightly round her, picked her up and span her round and round in elation, their kiss breaking as they both laughed breathlessly in the cold air.

He set her down again and brushed a flake of snow from her hair. It was a whole new decade and finally they were together.

The End


A/N: Hope you enjoyed. I'd love to know what you think!