A/N: This is the angsty, humorous and utterly pointless AU that you never knew you wanted to read in which Christmas 1919 went rather differently and Mary ran off to Paris to become a very angry flapper for two years. It also contains MATTHEW WITH A BABY, EVELYN NAPIER and THE CHARLESTON. So I don't really know what's not to like. This started life as a challenge back in November to answer the prompt from ClunkHall and robin_aloha (great minds): "Matthew's reaction to Mary getting her hair cut", inspired by 2x07. I didn't have time to finish the fic then but this week, following the PBS schedule, seemed a good time to finish and post. So, if you've not seen the Christmas Special yet, that's ok. And if you have, well, just pretend you haven't for a bit! :)
Many thanks to both OrangeShipper and EOlivet for the polish and the support, as always. Enjoy!
Thoroughly Modern Mary
Christmas is a time of the year famed for good cheer, over-eating and family upsets. The Crawleys had always tried to emphasize the former points and play down the latter until the events of 1919 had made that impossible to sustain. Lady Mary and her fiancé, Sir Richard Carlisle, had set off together for the traditional Boxing Day shoot, him carrying the gun and her a few paces behind. They had returned several hours later, her carrying the gun and him a few paces behind with a bloody arm. A tragic accident, of course, but that had only been the start of the scandal.
It would be fair to say that the run up to Christmas 1920 had been a nervous one, but it had turned out very quietly. Naturally Mary had not been there and as Sybil could not have travelled in her condition, there ended up only being six sitting down to a subdued dinner.
From the start it was clear that Christmas 1921 was going to be a very different affair. Miss Laura Branson was making her first visit to England accompanied by her doting parents and Mr. Napier would be joining the party in advance of his marriage to Lady Edith at the beginning of February. Moreover, Matthew had been looking quite visibly improved these last few months, having gained some weight. Cousin Isobel had even admitted she had heard him laughing several times over a funny story in the paper so hopefully he would not be so difficult to keep amused this year. If there was one sting in the ointment, it was Mary's continued absence however much it was for the best. Still, Lady Rosamund had been in Paris to see her very recently and would be able to bring them news of her when she came for New Year and that was the best that could be hoped for.
When Matthew and his mother walked up to Downton for dinner on Christmas Eve after not seeing the family for several days, the very house seemed to be glowing with something beyond Christmas cheer. Its windows blazed with light and there was a palpable air of contained delight about Carson as he took their coats and announced them.
The drawing room seemed full of people and chatter and colour, even more than expected. The countess broke away immediately from her granddaughter before the guests had an opportunity to look around and took Matthew's arm. Her countenance was shining though to do her credit, she tried to look worried.
"Cousin Cora, how lovely-"
"We're so glad you could join us for dinner tonight."
Surely they had guests? The room always seemed smaller than usual at Christmas because of the massive fir tree in pride of position but there just seemed to be too many people in it. Or perhaps Matthew had simply not attended a proper social event for so long he was unused to crowds. The thought was depressing.
"As you see," continued Cora with rather desperate but happy anxiety, "there are a few more of us than anticipated this Christmas, but I hope you will agree that it is very... very nice indeed..."
He followed her gaze to the fireplace and drew in a breath. Standing with Mr. Napier were two young ladies, a blonde in a green dress with a jaunty feather in her crimped, bobbed hair whom he had never seen before and – it couldn't be.
She was a tall, handsome young woman in a deep, dusky pink dress that seemed to end at her mid calf; her lips were pink; her shiny, chestnut hair was bobbed below her ears and she wore a glittering, golden diadem on her head. Leaning casually against the mantelpiece, a lit cigarette dangling from an ornate, golden holder, she had been surveying the room, radiant as the sun, as if mistress of all she beheld. But then he looked at her and met her eyes and knew for sure; he had met Mary Crawley's large, vulnerable brown eyes across a crowded room too many times before not to recognize them now.
For a moment that felt longer than it was, he could barely breathe as a flood of recollection washed over him and neither could she. Then he felt his cousin's hand on his elbow and he was forced to attend to her.
"They arrived just yesterday afternoon, quite unexpectedly!" Cora was saying. "I'm afraid Carson will never forgive me for all the extra work at this time of year."
"Oh, I don't think so," cried Mary, who had been listening without appearing to. "Carson is never put out, are you, Carson?"
She spoke with an insouciance which was not quite familiar. If the butler was surprised to be addressed so directly, he hid it well. "Any minor inconvenience is insignificant compared to the pleasure of seeing you again, my Lady."
Mary was triumphant. "There! See, Mother? But you're all being tremendously rude. Isobel, Matthew, may I introduce you to my friend, Cécile Aubin?"
They were obliged to move further into the room and shake hands with Mademoiselle Aubin. It brought them closer to Mary as well and Matthew could hardly take his eyes off her even as he shook hands with her friend.
"Monsieur Crawley," she said, fixing him with a pair of bright, hazel eyes, "I have heard so much about you; it is a pleasure to finally meet you in person."
His gaze slid warily to Mary again and she shrugged slightly, taking a drag on her cigarette. "Only the good bits."
Matthew chuckled nervously. "I'm glad to hear it." The whole situation felt surreal.
He opened his mouth to ask how Mary was and then closed it again. What possible answer could she give that was not a mockery of social intercourse? She looked well, very well in fact. Her face seemed plumper than he remembered it and she had a glow about her that had been entirely lacking when he had last seen her, almost two years ago. Then again, vilification in the national press was never recommended as a beauty treatment so that was hardly surprising.
In the end, he didn't have to say anything for she spoke first, her eyes widening with strong amusement and provocation. "Well, Matthew, I cut my hair!"
His eyes were drawn to where the neat, straight line of the bob brushed her ears and danced as she moved her head. He blinked and then met her gaze squarely, determined not to give her the satisfaction she seemed to require. "So I see!" He blinked again and found himself smiling softly. "It suits you very – very well."
For a moment her expression softened and then she shrugged. "I think so too, but we are in the minority, though it was worth getting it trimmed before coming over to see the expression on my grandmother's face. I really thought she might faint."
"You exaggerate, dear," put in Violet very drily, "if you think a hair cut could make me faint."
"Well, I love it!" added Sybil. "And so does Laura, don't you, sweetheart?"
The lady in question looked confused by the question and then yawned widely.
"I don't think she cares much either way," said her father with a chuckle. "Girl after my own heart."
"So you wouldn't mind if I let Mary take me to London and get my own hair bobbed?"
Tom Branson laughed. "Not if you really want to."
This interaction reminded Matthew that he had been so distracted by Mary that he had forgotten to pay homage to the most important member of the family and he went to remedy that quickly. Not so quickly, however, that he missed hearing Mademoiselle Aubin murmur to her friend, "Il est beaucoup plus beau que dans sa photo!"
He frowned but could not distinguish Mary's response, also in French, as he bent over Miss Branson and gravely kissed her hand. Since when did Mary have a photograph of him? What did it mean?
He dared to ask her directly once he had inevitably gravitated back to her side a few minutes later. She brushed it off however. "Oh, I found one from years ago in a scrapbook that I took to Paris. Really, I have no idea where it came from originally."
Matthew nodded and tried to make out her expression; it was too guarded. He was not sure if he believed her or not. He was not sure he could believe anything about this new, modern Mary. He glanced across at Mademoiselle Aubin who met his eyes and raised her eyebrows in amusement at him.
Before he could question Mary further, indeed he was not sure he wanted to, dinner was announced.
"Ah," she cried, stubbing out her cigarette, "I have missed hearing dinner announced by Carson. It isn't the same when Heloise does it."
"I would worry if it was," replied Mademoiselle Aubin with a smile.
"Héloise is your maid?" asked the countess, as they all rose and prepared to go through to the dining room. She spoke with curiosity and a bit of bewilderment and Matthew realised that she probably would not have had much opportunity to talk to her daughter yet.
"Oh yes," replied Mary. "She's really quite invaluable, you know. We could only afford one servant in our Bohemian Parisian garret so she has to work terribly hard, la pauvre. Sometimes we even have to help her. I've become quite a genius at beating curtains."
"Have you, dear?" replied Cora rather faintly. "I'd no idea your situation was so drastic."
"Naturally not; you never visited."
An awkward silence fell, to be interrupted by Lord Grantham. "Well, we'd better go in. Matthew, my dear fellow, you'll give Mary your arm, won't you, just like old times?"
Matthew was about to say that he would be delighted, when Mary stepped firmly away from him and retorted with a dangerously brittle smile, "Oh no, if Matthew takes me in, Cécile will have to go in alone and we can't have that, not when she's the guest and this is my own home."
"Mary, ce n'est pas-" began Cécile, laying a hand on her arm.
"Don't let them make you feel unwelcome, cherie; you may not be their family but you've been mine this past year at least and that has to count for something."
At the same time, Mr. Napier stepped forward from Edith and said, "I was just going to offer my arm to Miss Aubin, if she would accept it."
"Please, Cécile," added his fiancée, "I really don't mind."
But Mary stalled this offer as well. "Certainly not! Edith should not be deprived of her conquest at this crucial moment in her life."
"Oh for goodness sake!" exclaimed Sybil suddenly. "It's only dinner."
She transferred the baby to her husband's arms and led the way out of the room. The rest of the party, stricken with embarrassment, followed in dribs and drabs and not at all in the neat order that the earl and Carson approved. Matthew found himself at the back of the procession and offered his arm to Mary's friend all the same; it did not seem right not to.
She took it with yet another amused smile and leaned towards him to say in a low tone, "Mary sometimes says things she does not mean, Monsieur Crawley. We do not live quite in a garret, do not fear."
"I wondered," he replied equally quietly. He was wondering about a lot of things.
At dinner, he found himself next to Mary just like old times, as Robert had said. He felt almost afraid of her now though, but she seemed to be pleased to be next to him and her bad mood of earlier seemed to have evaporated. Ignoring the rest of the company as much as she could, she kept up a brilliant stream of remarks and witticisms exclusively to Matthew about Parisian life. A little too brilliant perhaps. Matthew fancied he recognized this Mary and he did not like her very much.
"What do you think of Cécile?" she asked suddenly, after a break in the conversation during which Thomas had removed their first course.
"She seems very nice," he replied cautiously.
"Yes, she is that." Mary's eyes lingered across the table on her friend. "I met her not long after I arrived in Paris and she was very... very welcoming when I knew absolutely nobody." She hesitated a moment and then added, "She is quite impossible to shock." Just for a second, her eyes met his before she looked away again.
"Ah," replied Matthew, not quite sure what else to say. Then he continued, "What does she do?" What he really wanted to know was what Mary did but he felt uncomfortable being so openly curious about her after all this time.
"She's a writer," answered Mary. "In fact, she's working on a really terrific novel at the moment."
She had spoken quite loudly and the conversation became general when Isobel remarked, "How fascinating! May I ask what is your novel about?"
"Certainly," replied Cécile in soft, gratified tones. "It is the usual history of a woman trying to escape the tragic fate of her life. She takes a lover, he treats her badly, so she poisons him and leaves him for dead but he survives and follows her everywhere taking his revenge against her, and never allowing her a moment's happiness for the rest of her life. It is not very original perhaps, but I hope it will be interesting. I wish to experiment with the technique of- how do you call it- the current of consciousness."
There was a brief shocked silence when she finished speaking. Then the dowager countess cleared her throat. "Gracious, what a very modern novel!"
Cécile smiled faintly and met Violet's eyes directly. "Thank you, Madame, I hope it is."
The dowager subjected her to a very hard look which was met with mild friendliness and a lack of fear. "Hem." Then she pursed her lips and returned her attention to her food.
"Have you read Mademoiselle Aubin's novel?" Matthew asked Mary once the atmosphere had settled yet again.
"Oh yes," she replied easily. "I read every chapter as soon as she's written it and criticize it roundly, but it doesn't need much; she's excellent. If I'm very, very good – and my French improves to be sure – she might even let me translate it when she's finished."
"Should you like that?"
Mary tilted her head and then smiled more genuinely than she had all evening. His stomach clenched with unexpected longing; she was so unbelievably lovely even now...
"Do you know, I think I would. One has to do something after all."
He returned her smile gently. "Even Mary Crawley?" he teased her, testing the waters.
She took a sip of wine before replying. "Of course; did you think I was invincible?"
No, he wanted to reply, but I think you did once. Instead he only shook his head.
Matthew's imagination was painting a vivid picture of Mary sitting in a light and airy attic room in Paris at a writer's desk. A gentle breeze from an open window ruffled her short hair and there was the obligatory cup of chocolat at easy reach, and a napkin with a half eaten croissant. In the midst of this spring time paradise, however, was the manuscript on the table and the piece of paper onto which in her neat, curved hand she poured powerful English words of loss and longing, desire and destruction, tragedy and revenge. The image was a little too plausible and he became aware of feeling sad at the implications of such a vision coming true.
The men did not linger in the dining room. Neither Robert nor Tom particularly wanted to spend too much time together alone and Matthew was happy not to be stuck between them. They kept to the safe subject of praising Laura's many and growing charms, the one thing they all agreed on, and were relieved when the sounds of music drifting from the saloon gave them an excuse to abandon their port.
Mary and Cécile had brought some records back with them from Paris and were now playing one on the gramophone. It was a lively, quick kind of music that Matthew had never heard before, but it made him want to tap his feet all the same. When the three men entered the room it was impossible not to smile at such jolly music and the sight before them.
In a cleared space, the two women were dancing together as if their life depended on it. One behind the other, occasionally whirling round in circles with an arm round the other's waist, mostly they were side by side, their feet moving so fast they were almost a blur. And as for their legs – now the short skirts really came into their own! And hands shooting up into the air, knees bent, heels kicking out at the sides, beads jangling, feathers swaying- Matthew quickly closed his mouth, blushing.
A little to one side, Sybil was jigging more moderately on the spot, with a very wide awake Laura in her arms. Her husband immediately went to her, kissed her cheek and scooped the baby up into one arm, holding out the other to let her twirl.
When the track finally came to an end, applause broke out from everyone apart from the dowager countess who had one hand over her ear and wore a pained expression. Mary and Cécile embraced laughing, and took deep bows with mock reverence to the audience. Matthew's heart contracted because here was the Mary he had seen in the past, before – before the war, before Lavinia, before everything. Her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining, her breaths coming in deep gasps, her smile wide and for a moment genuine. She was as alluring as she ever had been.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen-" Her eyes flickered briefly past Matthew, "That was the Charleston, and you saw it here first."
Matthew wondered if that was how everyone danced and if this was the music that everyone listened to nowadays. It had to be. He was struck for almost the first time how little he had been out in the world recently.
"So this is what has replaced tea and conversation. What a world," murmured Robert and then moved to take a seat next to his wife.
Edith joined the group round the gramophone. "Can you teach me to dance like that, Mary?" she asked almost shyly. "It looks awfully fun."
Mary held her hands out. "Of course. Come here; I'll show you the steps." She took Edith's hands and began to demonstrate steps very slowly.
"Would anyone else like to learn?" Cécile asked the room at large and to Matthew's embarrassment, his mother stood up.
"If you think an oldy like me can manage then I'd love to give it a try."
"Mother!" muttered Matthew and sidled away to stand next to Mr. Napier who was observing proceedings from a safe distance.
"But certainly you can manage, Madame Crawley!" replied Cécile with a bright smile. "And don't call yourself old, not quite yet!" She held out her hands.
"Now I really have seen everything," stated Violet.
Mary looked up from Edith's footwork straight at Matthew and he caught her look of deep amusement and had to bite his lip. Perhaps everything would somehow turn out for the... Oh, what was he thinking?
"Do you dance like this in Ireland, Sybil?" Isobel asked, straightening up from trying to somehow cross her hands over her knees while opening and closing her legs alarmingly wide. Perhaps it would look better at speed...
"People do," replied Sybil, "but I haven't. I haven't had a chance to learn. But you know what we do have – the pictures! Has anyone here ever been to the cinema before?"
"I have," said Mary.
"Well, apart from you of course, but there's no cinema in Ripon yet, is there? In Dublin, we go every Friday night. We leave Laura with Eileen (you're a little young for the pictures, aren't you, love?) and we see the latest import from America. It's tremendously exciting."
"Dear me, every week?" responded Mary drily, as she casually spun Edith on the spot. "I'd think the routine would rather diminish the excitement."
Sybil scoffed though without any real malice. "Wait till you've had a baby and then talk to me about spontaneity, Mary! And on that note, I should get this one to bed. It's been a long and exciting day but she's really worn out, aren't you?"
On the contrary, Matthew had rarely seen a more wide awake and interested baby. Still, nobody seemed to deny that it was bedtime for the little one.
The goodnights that followed were a necessarily long process as everyone needed their chance to kiss Laura. Grandpapa was first and he dandled her on his knees for a minute while she carefully inspected his bow tie from all angles and had to be eventually removed before she messed it up too much. Aunt Edith, Grandmama and Great Grandmama followed before she was placed carefully in Matthew's arms. She went straight for the bow tie as well, having clearly been considering her strategy in detail even whilst apparently distracted by the female relatives. She latched her fists round one end and tugged, unravelling the whole thing.
"Sweetheart, no!" exclaimed Sybil uselessly, hovering anxiously.
"It's alright," replied Matthew, unable to help smiling at his youngest cousin's determination. "She can have it if she likes."
Large grey eyes turned to look a silent question up at him and he waggled his eyebrows in response. "Yes, you, Laura! You can have my bow tie but only if you promise to look after it very carefully for me. Do you think you can do that?"
The baby gave this bargain careful consideration before dismissing it. She dropped the bow tie on the floor, grabbed hold of the lapel of his dinner jacket and tugged hard. Immediately slender arms slid round his and he found himself resigning Laura to Aunt Mary who had materialised quietly at his side. The child clung to his collar as long as possible, pulling Matthew forward with her. Mary's cool fingers carefully unlatched Laura's grip, accidentally brushing against his neck in the process. Shivering involuntarily, he still managed to lean forwards enough to kiss Laura's head and caress her before her aunt stepped back. The exchange was over in a moment but the skin her fingers had touched continued to burn and the scent of her perfume lingered about him.
Laura let out a piercing wail at being separated from Matthew, and Mary jigged her up and down in her arms to quieten her. "Come now, my darling, don't be like that; you can't just go about undressing Uncle Matthew whenever you feel like it without his consent."
"Well, I mean-" stammered Matthew, thrown – pleasantly so – by being referred to as 'Uncle Matthew'. Perhaps the concept of a cousin was considered too difficult.
"I think I should take her," suggested Sybil quietly as the wailing continued.
"Please do!" exclaimed Great Grandmama. "There is nothing at all wrong with the policy of children being seen and not heard. I for one don't approve of this modern way of having babies around one at all times. They are much better in small doses. I always thought so when my children were small and sometimes I still think so."
With a final kiss from Aunt Mary and an admonition not to remove any more items of clothing without asking very politely first, the baby was returned to her mother.
"Do you want me to ring for Ethel to help you?" asked the countess anxiously.
Sybil smiled tightly. "It's alright. I can manage."
Tom gestured. "Do you want me to-"
"No, I'll be fine." She kissed him quickly. "I'll come back down later."
"Are you sure you don't want Ethel?" persisted Cora. "She understands she's to help you as long as you're staying with whatever you-"
"Mama, I can manage!" she snapped, glaring for a moment with a familiar stubbornness. The countess sighed helplessly as her daughter swept out of the room taking Laura with her, the cries becoming fainter as they got further away.
"Poor Sybil!" observed Mary into the silence that followed. "I don't think she realised that the natural sequel to marriage was a baby."
"It doesn't have to be," said Cécile and lit a cigarette.
"That's true." Mary sauntered back to her side. "And I'll give her some hints on that subject at the earliest possible opportunity."
"I'd really rather you didn't," said Tom.
Mary shrugged. "She doesn't have to take my advice, but there can be no harm in being well informed on these matters. Or would you forbid your wife from talking to her sister?"
"Really Mary!" exclaimed her grandmother, who had been fidgeting with growing displeasure for some time now. "I shall need my smelling salts if you continue in this way."
"Nonsense, Granny, you're not fooling anybody; not even you use them any more."
As this was in fact true, there was not much to be said. Mary paced the room, aware of everyone's eyes on her, running her fingers along the mantelpiece, the table, the gramophone, completely cool.
Just at the point when someone might have introduced a more palatable topic of conversation and Mr. Napier indeed looked inclined to open his mouth and start one, Robert said with a deep frown, "And how would you have acquired such information, Mary, may I ask?"
She laughed. "Oh, how do you think? Do you imagine all we do to entertain ourselves is dance? This is the 1920s, you know!"
Matthew stared at her. He did not approve of her, he hardly recognized her, he did not even like her very much. And yet... so many 'and yet's! And yet she was Mary and she had never been more so than now. He wondered – and it was depressing to be so sure of the answer already – whether he would ever not be in love with her.
"What about some more music?" suggested Cora desperately. "I think the men would be more likely to dance if you put on something slower."
"I think so too" said Cécile, moving back towards the gramophone.
Mr. Napier spoke up. "This is my cue, I think. Lady Grantham is quite right; I can't pretend to have any skill at the Charleston, but I hope I can manage a waltz or gentle foxtrot." He gave Matthew a knowing, sympathetic smile and moved across to Edith, holding out his hand to her.
Mademoiselle Aubin was finding a suitable record to play. As she put one on, she turned to smile at Mr. Branson. "Now I cannot be sorry that your wife left, Monsieur Branson, for I have been wanting to dance with you all evening."
Mary sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. "How very obvious you're being, cherie."
Matthew thought at first with some surprise that she must have a crush on Tom and that if she did her friend was being rather unfeeling about it. Then he realised that if Edith danced with Mr. Napier and Cécile danced with Mr. Branson the only young people without partners would be him and Mary.
"I don't see anyone complaining," replied Cécile, as the record crackled into life. "So may I borrow you?" She held out her hand to him as if she were the gentleman and he the lady.
Tom shrugged, grinning, and got to his feet. "You can borrow me, Miss Aubin, if you like, but I want to be returned in a good state!"
The two couples began to dance and Matthew knew what was required of him but he could not move, could barely even breathe since the first notes of the song had floated across the room at him. How had this happened? Where had the record come from? Surely Mary hadn't-
He forced himself to raise his eyes and look at her, almost pleased to see his own shock reflected in her pale face and stiff posture. Then she met his eyes and after a second's hesitation she crossed the room directly to him, her expression inscrutable.
"Did you-" He could not finish the question; the words seemed to stick in his throat.
She understood him anyway. "Of course not. It must be Cécile's or maybe it was left-" She was thankfully unable to finish her sentence either and she shook her head quickly, adding as coolly as possible, "It's a popular song, that's all."
"Of course," Matthew managed to reply with a reassurance he did not feel. It would be bad enough to hear it in any circumstances but in this room, with Mary... it was unbearable.
Edith laughed joyfully as Evelyn murmured something in her ear. Mary wrapped her arms round herself, pain briefly crossing her face, and Matthew looked quickly at her, back to the dancing, then back to her. Then he held his hand out to her. "We'd better get it over with," he said quietly.
Her eyes flickered soberly across his face. "Yes." She allowed him to take her in his arms and for a few moments they danced in silence, acutely conscious of each other both as they were then and as they had been before.
Mary was as usual the first to recover. "Have you ever been to Paris?" she asked him, her voice as neutrally polite as it was possible to be. Only someone who knew her as well as Matthew did would have been able to pick up on the tremors underneath it or the fact that it was far too stupid a question for her to ask.
He hesitated for a beat then replied, "Yes, but neither of us were at our best."
Only a momentary tightening of her fingers on his shoulder made up her reaction and acknowledgement of her mistake. "You should visit again and create some better memories," she said after a pause.
"Is that an invitation?"
She shifted in his arms a little. "If you like. You'd be most welcome."
"Would I?" he murmured. "I wonder... in what capacity do you anticipate receiving me, Mary?"
Her thumb was brushing over his shoulder causing little shivers to run through him. He wondered if she was aware she was doing it and then dismissed the query: of course she was.
"Whatever you prefer," she replied, her voice softer and lower somehow, or perhaps that was just his imagination. "Anything goes in Paris."
"So I gather!" He blinked and tried to pull himself out of the fog of warm, misty sensation into which he was rapidly falling. "If you're trying to seduce me, Mary, it won't work."
Over his shoulders she raised her eyebrows. "How disappointing."
"I'm not – I'm not going to be another notch on your bedpost," he said firmly and then closed his eyes as he felt her stiffen in his arms. "I'm sorry," he breathed, "that was uncalled for."
"Yes, it was," she replied coolly.
Matthew sighed in regret. He should not have said anything, only it was too much, it was all too much. He did not know what he was saying.
Then she spoke again, even more quietly than before. "There aren't very many notches, you know."
In that moment, Matthew understood without having to be told that there was only one notch and it was far too faint now to be of any significance whatsoever. He didn't say anything but gave in to his desires, letting his thumb stroke over the hand that rested in his, and pulled her more closely against him so that his cheek almost brushed her straight, short hair as they swayed round the floor until the end of the song.
They lingered together for a moment but only a moment as Branson's laugh broke through the barrier that had briefly shielded them from the outside world. Mary stepped back without meeting his eyes and walked across to a table where her bag lay. She fished out a cigarette with trembling fingers and lit it, walking over to the window. Matthew watched her, clenching and unclenching his fists by his side, and just as she took her first inhalation through that gleaming golden holder, she looked back directly at him. He followed her automatically.
It was dark outside and all Mary could see in the window was her own reflection. When Matthew came up behind her, instead of turning round again she met his eyes in the glass. He longed to rest his hand on her arm or her waist or the small of her back or something, for there was a kind of hard, unselfpitying sorrow about her that it hurt him to see.
"You're angry," he said eventually.
"Yes." She blew a jet of smoke off to the side.
"I don't blame you, you know."
"For being angry – or the other thing?" she wanted to know, turning her body very slightly towards him.
He smiled at her faintly. "Neither, Mary."
"Oh," was all she replied, but it was an 'oh' that conveyed many things. She took another shuddering drag on the cigarette and turned to face him properly. "You do see why I can't come back, don't you? Not as things are, I mean."
He nodded. "Yes, I see."
She nodded too. "Well then." She looked back at their outlines in the dark window.
Matthew moistened his lips. "I don't suppose," he began carefully, "that there would be any circumstance in which you would return, or is it quite impossible?"
"That depends," she replied even more quietly, "in what capacity you imagine me returning."
"Oh, Mary, you would be welcome to me in any."
She turned her head away to conceal a painful smile. At that moment, his mother called him from across the room. "Matthew, I think it's time to leave. We'll see everyone tomorrow at church and then for dinner, but I've ordered the car now."
"And I shall come with you as far as the dower house," put in Violet.
They had to rejoin the party. Each took a step away from the other. Mary made a moment to walk over to Cécile but at the last moment Matthew caught her hand. She stilled and turned, fixing large, anxious eyes on his face. "What is it?"
He swallowed, smiling at her because he couldn't help it and because her hand was so soft and warm in his. "When you do decide you want to come home, Mary, write to me and I'll come to Paris for you."
She nodded once and returned his smile, her eyes flickering with warmth. "I'm depending on it, Matthew; there's a café I think you'd love."
He let her go, his hand slipping slowly from hers, sure in the knowledge that no parting of theirs could ever be anything but temporary.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. I have to confess it's really nice to get back to the unspoken, understated, and oblique sort of fics I started out with in this fandom. This is my idea of romance! :P
I would love to know what you think; as always a review here, even if it's just one word long (provided that word isn't four letters long and the kind of thing you wouldn't want your grandmother to hear) absolutely makes my day more than anything else! :)