A/N: Well, here we all are... thanks for sticking with it, and for all your lovely reviews. :-) I had to be a bit ruthless with this chapter, as all the other characters seemed to want to push their way in before the end. I had rather a job keeping the focus on M/M! Hope you all enjoy. Cheers.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
– Laurence Binyon, 'For the Fallen'.
Matthew was quietly furious. He was in pain, as weak as a kitten, and just as incapable. The last thing on earth he felt like doing was attending a village party. But the women had brooked no arguments. Sybil and Lavinia had cajoled, and when that failed, his mother had bullied. He knew that they were trying to help him, and only that thought had kept him from being unspeakably rude to all of them, but they failed to understand that all he wanted was to be left alone.
The armistice officially took effect at eleven o'clock; they had stood together in the great hall to honour it. Or at least, everyone else had stood. Matthew's thoughts fell back into the familiar loop. Bitterness, impotence, self-disgust. He shut his eyes against a particularly savage surge of pain in his lower back as his wheelchair jolted over a rock. The chair was being pushed by Thomas, who had been surprisingly tender about the whole thing. Then again, Thomas was probably guilty about having survived more or less intact. Matthew clenched his jaw, his expression stony. Everyone was familiar by now with his moods and brittle silences; they no longer attempted to draw him from his irritable, carefully-constructed shell. It was almost a relief. Only, a few of them still looked at him as though he were a child throwing a tantrum: his mother, cousin Violet, and of course, Mary.
The village, when they arrived, was swathed with bunting in red and blue and white, and paper lanterns hung in strings between the trees. A small stage had been erected in a corner of the village square, and was occupied by a band, sweating slightly in shabby dinner jackets. Quite a few of their number appeared to be missing, Matthew noted, and the trumpet player was in a wheelchair, struggling to adjust a music stand to this new, lowered height. Right in the centre of the square, an enormous bonfire stood waiting to be lit, and in a series of tents off to one side tradesmen were setting up beer barrels on long trestles while village women laid out trays of teacups and plates of scones and cakes.
For awhile, the group of soldiers, nurses, servants and family that had come down from the big house hung together awkwardly, all slightly ill at ease at this intermingling of sexes, statuses and ranks. With a rasp of strings, the band had started up, and eventually a dance broke out. A few of the servants went to join in, Thomas among them, though his place behind Matthew's wheelchair was filled almost instantly by Lavinia. Matthew scowled, watching as Sybil was drawn into the dance by a soldier with his face bandaged. The band was favouring songs that could be danced by a group rather than by partners, he noticed, perhaps in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to the scarcity of men.
Lavinia made a show of tucking a blanket fussily around his knees, but he pushed her away.
"Go and dance," he told her, knowing as he did so that it was pointless.
His gaze flickered to Mary, who stood a little to one side, uncertain now as to her role in the proceedings. Their relationship had been strained since Lavinia had returned. The desperate intimacy in which they had so briefly existed was gone, dispersed by a cold, jarring reality. He supposed that he had been lucky to be allowed even those few months' grace. She was more than he deserved.
"Please dance," he said again, more for Mary's benefit this time than Lavinia's. "I shall be quite content to sit on the sidelines and watch the show." A lie, but by no means the worst of them.
Pushing his chair away from the women, he found himself on the outskirts of a small cluster of men. They were grouped on benches around a trestle table, mugs and tankards at their elbows. Most were in uniform, and they watched the dancers with expressions ranging from wistfulness to loathing. Three of the men had canes propped within arm's reach; another had only half the normal complement of limbs. A thin, pale man in middle age turned sightless eyes towards Matthew as he approached. Two others, a corporal and a private, were in wheelchairs. As he drew closer, Matthew was surprised to see Mr Bates sitting quietly amongst them; he motioned for Matthew to join them, and he went gratefully, glad that in this company, at least, no one would look twice at him. Men from the village, tradesmen, farmers... None that he recognised. No one who could possibly connect the man that he had been to the cripple he had become.
Lavinia had trailed behind him. She paused now, awkwardly, unsure of how to behave in this company of maimed and silently staring men. Matthew felt a sudden rush of anger – at her youth, her obliviousness, her unconscionable desire for martyrdom.
The corporal in the wheelchair offered a grim handshake. "Where were you?"
"The Somme. Amiens."
The man nodded. "Likewise."
Handshakes were proffered around the table, and names, like bullets.
Matthew nodded. There was not much more to say.
The conversation was slow, the drink plentiful. Unconsciously, Matthew found himself watching the dancers. He spotted Sybil quickly, her fine red dress and vibrant movement drawing the eye immediately. She was dancing with Branson, Matthew noted with amusement, and paying no heed at all to the disparaging glances cast their way by the Dowager Countess. Her skirts spun, her eyes sparkled, radiant with some secret joy. She was so like Mary. As his eyes roamed over the dancers, he picked out Anna, dancing with a rakish, gypsy-like youth in a scarlet waistcoat, and Edith, looking shy and pretty in the arms of a scarcely-limping Evelyn Napier. The enterprising Thomas, meanwhile, had taken advantage of the gender imbalance and was dancing with two girls at once. Matthew felt the shutters close down in his mind once more, tasting bile in the back of his throat. One of the girls was William's Daisy.
He scrutinised the crowd without seeing, heard without comprehending the low voices on either side of him. He had not been permitted to attend William's funeral.
And then, almost beside them, was Mary. She was dancing with a soldier Matthew didn't recognise – a tall, handsome man in a captain's uniform. Watching them, the world about him fell away. She was as breath-takingly lovely as he had ever seen her. Her dark hair was knotted loosely, and she had discarded her coat. Since the war, she had worn mostly grey and sober blue, yet all this suited her; unadorned, she only looked more exquisite by comparison. The man she danced with matched her well: tall and strong, his hair bright and fair beneath his cap. She moved gracefully against him, seeming scarcely to need his guidance. Was that how they had looked together? Matthew wondered. The thought filled his mind, refusing to be banished. Mary dancing, unchanged and lovely, in the arms of a man with golden hair... Matthew turned away. His hands tightened on the arms of his wheelchair, and he watched the knuckles bunching, the muscles working, tendons tensing and un-tensing beneath the skin. He listened cynically as the band endeavoured to improvise a substitute for an obviously missing flute solo.
God, what a farce...
At long last, a breathless silence fell, and Reverend Travers, dapper and elderly in his cleric's collar, invited them to join hands in a prayer of thanksgiving. Immediately, Lavinia was kneeling beside Matthew's wheelchair, and she clasped his hands between her own. Letting the words of the prayer wash over him, he tried to think of France: the broken land, and the tortured sky, and the men that he had known. Murphy, Mountfort, Harvey, Collins... he could remember the names, but not the faces. Even William was blurred in his mind's eye: a vague image of mud and cigarette smoke, fatigues and wheat-blond hair.
Unbidden, unfamiliar, the emotion rose up in his chest; a great wave of longing, and grief, and regret. It was not the words of the priest that moved him, but the people; as his eyes moved over the crowd, each familiar face, each name he knew brought a sting of love to his heart. His mother, standing side by side with Cousin Violet. Sybil, with her arms about her old friend Gwen. Directly behind them, he was surprised and moved to see Branson hand in hand with Thomas, both of them with their heads bowed, uncharacteristically sober and reflective. As his eyes travelled the crowd, he noticed Cora with Miss O'Brien, and – to his surprise – both the elder and the younger Mr Molesley. Mrs Patmore with Mrs Bird; Mrs Hughes with Mr Carson; Edith and Robert in amongst a jumble of convalescent officers. Over by the hitching post was Daisy, her small hand now engulfed in Mr Bates' enormous one. Beside Bates stood Anna, the sleeve of her dress brushing against his jacket.
And there, on Anna's other side was Mary; their hands were clasped, their heads bent close together. Not for the first time, Matthew found himself wondering at the closeness of the relationship between the two women. High born and low, dark featured and fair, standing demurely side by side. Mary was the taller of the two, and with her head so inclined towards Anna, Matthew found that he could not see her face.
The prayer ended, and a collective sigh went up. Many of those assembled were crying quietly. Matthew found himself wondering whether there were people were gathered together in German villages at this moment, holding hands and giving thanks for this day which so few of them had ever thought to see. Although for the Germans, of course, there was not even the hollow comfort of a victory to claim in restitution for their sons...
With a rasp of strings, the band started to play, and a murmur of low voices rose to join in the words:
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide . . .
Matthew's head fell forward. His eyes were blurring. Lavinia was smiling at him, squeezing his hands, but he could not look at her. People were stirring now, beginning to move about, exchanging words and embraces with neighbours, wiping away tears. As the song drew to a close, the band slipped smoothly into Land of Hope and Glory. The mingling of voices was low and sweet, their victory tempered, muted now by grief. For some time, the members of the little community sang together, taking comfort in old words and familiar faces. Eventually, Sybil and some of the younger folk broke away, and another dance began. Beer was poured, and cups of tea were passed from hand to hand, and gradually a wave of chatter broke out again.
"Go and dance," Matthew told Lavinia, and when she made to protest he pressed her hand and smiled, feeling suddenly ashamed at the way he had treated her.
"Go on," he said. "Or go back to the house with Mother, if you'd prefer. There's someone I want to talk to." He turned his wheelchair and pushed away from her, his heart lighter, somehow, as if a weight had lifted from his chest that he had scarcely known was there.
He found her on the gentle slope above the green, sitting quietly beneath a bare and weathered chestnut tree. She had been on the periphery of his thoughts all evening, and there she sat: quiet, solitary, almost as if she were waiting for him. He struggled slightly to get his wheelchair to the top of the rise, but he noted with satisfaction that his arms were already stronger, the muscles in his back moving more freely than they had a week ago. Mary made no move to help him, and for that he was grateful, but she smiled at him as he drew close.
Grey dusk fell, the pale winter sun sinking in a shroud of flame, but the revelry and the whirl of the dancers never paused. With much ceremony, the Dowager Countess was prevailed upon to light the bonfire; it caught with a rush and a spout of flame, much to the delight of the shrilly squealing and exceedingly muddy boy scouts who had materialised at her elbow. Smoke swirled upwards, and the flames caught and rose: pyre, pagan rite, and sacrament all in one. Then the lanterns were lit, and the trees blossomed with light, pink and green and gold. The evening drew on, and the dance continued: ancient, primeval, driving away all darkness and all sin.
Mary sat on a chequered blanket on the grass beside him, her legs curled up beneath her, one hand lightly encircling her ankle in its elegant, burnished-leather boot. Her shining dark head rested on the arm of his wheelchair, and he had to exercise a great deal of self control to prevent himself from reaching out and stroking the fine, dark locks: to tuck the stray curls behind her ear, to trail his fingers gently down the curve of her neck, making her shiver with desire . . . He could do it, he knew he could. It was the one thing he could say for either of them; they had always known exactly what it took to drive each other wild. Lord knows, he had done it before. Matthew shared a grim smile with himself. They had always thought him so noble, he remembered –Robert, his mother, Lavinia, even cousin Violet. And all the time, he had been needling her mercilessly, in the way that only he knew how – running his thumb casually across the inside of her wrist as he took her hand, sliding his fingertips beneath the straps of her evening gowns as they danced, holding her gaze from behind doors and potted ferns and wine glasses . . . She lifted her head slightly, watching the sparks swirl upwards, and his eyes followed a wispy, rebellious curl as it swept the back of her neck, brushing against the two tiny freckles that he wondered if even she knew she possessed. His fingers ached to reach out and touch her, to translate all of his pent up tenderness and rage to her in that language which only they could understand. He could do it. He knew he could. But if he did, then there could be no more hiding; she would understand him, and she would respond, and then where would they be?
A sharp tendril of desire uncoiled within him, and it took all of his self control to remind himself that it was not real. A phantom sensation thrown up by his subconscious, as Clarkson would have told him. Sometimes, it may seem as if you feel something – a tingling in your legs, or a sexual impulse. But it is not true feeling, only the memory of the feeling re-asserting itself. Matthew clenched his fist, trying to stifle the heightened awareness, the impossible potency that he always felt in Mary's company. It did not feel much like a memory to him.
As if feeling his gaze upon her, Mary's face tilted upwards, and she smiled as she met his eyes. Before he knew what he was doing, Matthew had smiled back, and his hand had reached out to smooth the sleek dark hair back from her forehead. Sure enough, he felt her shiver at the contact, the slight frisson between them that always sent a jolt of longing through his abdomen. He was acutely aware that he had avoided touching her since before he had sent Lavinia away.
She was still looking at him, her smile somehow contriving to be both impish and demure. To excuse his movement, he stroked her hair again and smiled teasingly, trying to ignore the way the reflected firelight danced and trembled in her eyes. Mercifully, she broke his gaze, turning back to watch the column of sparks that sprang up as a couple of village boys threw yet more boughs onto the fire, to yells and cheers from all assembled. She did not say anything, and he let his hand lie against her hair, watching the light play over the glossy strands.
They remained like that for a long time, watching the bonfire and revelry in companionable silence. Below them, down beside the band, Sybil and her cohorts were still dancing, singing somewhat breathlessly in their own accompaniment. Matthew grinned, imagining what cousin Violet would say, and glad for Sybil's sake that the older Crawleys had retired for the night. On the grassy knoll beside the tavern Anna and Mr Bates were talking quietly together; Daisy, half asleep, lay with her head on Anna's knee. And Matthew was fairly certain that Thomas had disappeared somewhere off into the darkness, accompanied by the elegant gypsy in the red waistcoat. He was not sure where Lavinia had got to; he should probably feel guilty about that. But Matthew was tired of guilt. He was tired of attempting to convince himself that things were ever going to be any other than they were. And still, he could not shake from his mind the sudden tingling in his feet, the almost-awareness of feeling as they had left the great hall that morning. He exhaled slowly, swallowing the fear and the hope together. Not yet. Not yet.
The night wound on, with no sign of the party abating. The stars were all out, brighter and colder than he could remember having seen them since France. Mary disappeared for a brief while, and returned with mugs of warm cider, which they sipped companionably. Mary, he could tell, was quite taken with the novelty of all of this – of purchasing cider drawn from huge oak barrels by a man with a black beard and his shirt open at the collar; of drinking out of doors from crude pewter tankards and watching children roast apples and chestnuts in the outskirts of the fire; of sitting on the ground, outside, at night, safe in the anonymity of shadows and half-light. He watched the firelight flicker in her eyes as she sat, almost entranced. Of its own accord, his hand found its way back to her hair, as she leant against the arm of his wheelchair.
A village boy wandered past them, hawking roast apples for sixpence each. Mary declined, blushing, but when he walked past again, she bought one, her cheeks pink, her eyes bright with such excitement that Matthew had to laugh. Somehow, his bad mood of the last few months was fallen away, and Mary looked so joyful to see him unexpectedly laughing that he felt ashamed. Mary pouted prettily at him for laughing at her, and refused to let him share her apple, which she split open in a twist of paper to reveal the centre stuffed with a sugary mess of currants. She tore off a tiny piece and ate it with every evidence of delight, laughing as she licked caramelised sugar from her fingertips. Scooping up another dainty portion, she waved it teasingly in front of Matthew's nose. Surprised at his own audacity, Matthew caught her wrist deftly between his two hands, and before she knew what was happening, had captured the morsel in his mouth. He tasted sugar and nutmeg, flicking his tongue between her fingers, lapping teasingly at the juice that trickled down her palm. Her lips were parted, half in surprise, half in laughter, but he refused to release her hand: taking her little finger gently between his teeth, encircling it with his tongue, sucking the remnants of the apple from each finger in turn. Apple juice and sugar dripped onto his uniform, and he found that he didn't care a bit. Bending his head, he caught a stray droplet slipping down the edge of her hand, and closed his mouth over her wrist, nibbling gently at the base of her thumb, tasting sugar and cinnamon, charcoal and wood smoke, his tongue sweeping and nuzzling at the pulse that beat beneath her skin.
Mary's eyes met his own, and he knew in that single glance that his apology was accepted, her forgiveness granted, their kinship and love re-affirmed. He released her wrist, smiling, and was gratified to feel her immediately take his hand and press it. With a great shout of triumph, the last load of wood was tossed onto the fire. Sparks fountained up, wheeling and spiralling overhead, and ebullient cheers echoed all around them. The younger ones began a dance, more frenzied than any yet, and still Matthew and Mary sat together, hand in hand, sharing the remains of the apple between them, as close as they could get with a wheelchair separating them. Matthew let out a breath he had not known he had been holding – a long, painful sigh. He was alive, and had returned; Mary was with him. It was Armistice Day, and they had made their peace. For the moment, it was enough.