A/N: So here is the conclusion of Hunting Ghosts. I've posted it separately because I didn't expect it to be M and well... M. I borrowed them from Julian Fellowes and Carnival. I hope I'm returning them in proper condition :D.
Thanks to Eolivet for acting as MPAA and goddess/editor-in-chief and ARCurren for allowing the theft of her rather insightful Edith theory.
Hunting Ghosts: The Devil on Your Back
It was a particularly miserable day for the end of March, and Matthew wondered at how, when his heart was so perfectly light, the sky could be so dark and the air so wet. "You have two days," he told the sky, "to clear yourself up."
His mother smiled indulgently at him. "You should have waited for summer to wed, then."
He grinned back. "No." No, he shouldn't have. He couldn't have waited any longer, and he was fairly sure Mary felt the same way.
Of course, it wasn't as if he could ask her. They hadn't had a real moment alone since the night she said yes. It was odd that all of last year, the family practically threw them together, allowed them space so much of the time and now... he was lucky if he got to speak to her at dinner. It was as if they knew what was in his mind, what he had denied himself for so long, and it was so tantalizingly close to being his. They had kissed in the snow, kissed far more daringly in the library, and even as he was glad they had been prudent, he wished now he had taken far more liberties in touching her.
For it was her skin he dreamed of, and it was not the cool marble of his long-held fantasy, but warm velvet that tasted of spice and vanilla and her. He had kissed that perfect skin in the library, her shoulder, the nape of her neck, listened to her breathing hitch, grow louder, felt her body soften against him as they sat entwined on the velvet settee, her back to him, head tipping forward as his lips dragged across her spine. For only a moment, he had allowed himself the luxury of feeling her against him, imagining how far he could go, and he stopped himself.
Now, he was wishing he hadn't.
He breathed in the wild, faint scents of spring as he strode across the field toward the stables, hoping she was right and the likeliest place to catch a moment alone with his soon-to-be wife was in the stable yard after her morning ride. Two more days and.. His head spun with love and joy as he thought of her, of the wedding, of beyond, and he felt himself grinning helplessly as he walked into the stables to see Valencia in his stall contentedly munching on hay and Diamond's stall empty. A prickle of fear struck him, then a coldness that raced through him and made him almost dizzy, and he wondered why she would have taken Diamond on such a day.
Mary had returned home from that first cubbing hunt last fall in an unusually quiet mood, slower-moving than usual, and it wasn't until dinner when she confessed to barely being able to move her arms that the full story came out.
Diamond was up close to the front, just as he always was before the war, and was there for the kill of the small fox. It must have been the smell of the blood, or the wails of the fox that did it, but he went wild on her, and to hear the rest of the hunt guests tell it at dinner, it was unreal to watch him twist and buck and scream, trying to get away, and to see Lady Mary Crawley sit that creature like a professional. "Like a man," one had said to Matthew, which had terrified him to no end. He had no right to tell her to stop riding Diamond, and he could not believe Carlisle seemed not the slightest bit concerned about it, nor anyone else.
She kept riding him on the hunts, but wisely pulled Diamond back before the kills, which was apparently a disappointment to those who wanted to see the half-American ride like a cowboy again, but Matthew was relieved beyond belief. Yet she still came home in pain from wrestling with the temperamental horse, and it tore at him to see her driving herself this way. His love for Mary had never lessened, but he believed he had no right to be happy, or the right to interfere with her happiness, and as 1919 careened toward 1920, he believed he would die a bachelor, and that the rumblings in Parliament about changing the laws to allow inheritance through a female line would let Mary's son become the Earl after him, as would be just and right.
Then it was Christmas, and New Year's, and in the midst of all that, Reggie Swire died, and something shifted in him, a need for peace he was not aware of missing until just then, and just as subtly, he began to be aware of how deeply connected Mary's presence was to that peace. The fog of guilt had been lifting slowly, but it disappeared in a flash when he realized she was not happy and would not be happy with Carlisle. It made him wonder about what both her grandmother and his mother had told him. If she loved him, he had to know what she believed would make him despise her.
And nothing he could have imagined would have been as terrible, to know Carlisle was essentially blackmailing her over...
It was incomprehensible, and yet, looking at her, hearing her attempt to joke about it, it was not impossible to believe a woman he had felt.. did feel.. so passionately about would have felt passion of her own. It took only seconds, but the shock that he would have carried for months in his past life disappeared in the wake of indignation and fury that she should feel she had to sacrifice herself in the name of honor to pay for her sins. As each minute passed, as he returned with her to the house and said goodnight, as he walked home, as he fell asleep alone in his bed at Crawley House, as he awoke from a dream of a dark cloud of hair on the pillow next to his, those confessed sins seemed laughably insignificant in the light of all they had known since the first day he laid eyes on her.
He watched Carlisle retreat from the room and felt a curious physical lightness, as if a weight had permanently lifted from his shoulders. Outside of the battlefield, he hadn't gone hand-to-hand with another man since university, and even that had generally been in jest. This was different, primal somehow, an atavistic reaction to a threat, and he almost smiled at the result.
Carlisle was gone.
Mary had thrown him over, and he had thrown a punch.
She was standing a few feet away, with Violet's arms gently around her, and he realized he'd never seen Violet embrace anyone. That it was Mary she felt the need to physically protect made him somehow feel even lighter than he already did.
"Sorry about the vase," he said.
"Oh, don't be, don't be," Violet replied. "It was a wedding present from a frightful aunt. I have hated it for half a century."
He nodded, and looked again at Mary, whose slight smile reassured him even more. She crossed the room to her father, who was standing by the fireplace and put a hand on his arm. He took it, held her hand tightly and spoke quietly to her.
"Did you hit him first?" Violet's wry whisper made him grin for the first time.
"Of course," he said.
"Well done." She watched as he attempted to fix his tie, and clucked disapprovingly. "No, no," she muttered. "Here."
And not for the first time in his years of knowing the terrifying Dowager Countess was Matthew utterly surprised. Her gloved fingers came up and flicked his aside as she took hold of the thick white cloth and expertly folded it up and slid the ends through. "I haven't done this for years," she murmured. "Lord Grantham never could keep a tie straight." She smiled a kind of secret smile, and for some reason the expression made his heart lurch. Fifty years, he thought, and his gaze went past Violet to Mary, talking softly with her father.
And it suddenly became right. This was his world, this was his family. His grandmother, for all intents and purposes, fixing his tie. The man he considered to be like a father, speaking to his... Mary.
The sensation that washed over him at that moment was extraordinary, a calm, simple acceptance.
No. It was happiness.
There was no more guilt in thinking it, only a rightness about it, the knowledge that in these few minutes, it was settled in his mind, and he would not.. could not.. let her go to New York without first asking her to stay. He had forgiven himself, had realized she did not need forgiveness, and his mother was absolutely right. It was up to Mary, of course, but even that could not raise a doubt in him. It was time. He would fight for her.
She had not wanted a ring, so instead, three days after their engagement was announced, she was summoned to the stable yard to find Matthew holding the reins of an exquisite grey horse. "His name is Valencia," he murmured as she stroked the velvety nose and admired the curve of the horse's neck. "I'm not saying I don't want you riding Diamond with the hunt, but..."
"That's good," she replied. "I wouldn't want to ignore your wishes."
But she didn't ignore them once she discovered Valencia was an utterly fearless hunter, as fiercely competitive as Diamond, but entirely unflappable. She couldn't ignore Diamond, however, and on early mornings, she would take him out over the hunting grounds, allowing him his head, letting him feel like himself again, even though sometimes, inexplicably and without warning, he still saw ghosts.
Matthew heard Diamond before he saw him, the scream and clattering of hooves in the stable yard greeted by a shout from Lynch, as Matthew turned and faced a horror the likes of which he had not seen since the war.
Diamond stood, wild-eyed and blowing, his side coated in mud, his left front leg curled up, the hoof hanging at a grotesque angle. Blood flowed from that leg at unnatural speed onto the cobblestones.
Mary was nowhere to be seen.
Matthew stood frozen to the spot, cold fear sweeping through him. That stupid horse had rolled, thrown Mary, injured her, or.. No. God, no. He reached toward the horse's head, but Diamond danced away from him, back into the stable yard, hopping, his whinnies reeking of fear.
Matthew instinctively felt for the weapon he no longer carried, and something arose in him, something he thought he'd boxed away when his war ended, when he no longer had to go up over the top and...
Kill. Kill it. Kill it. Broken, Mary damaged, lost, dead, Mary punished. Kill it. KILL IT.
"Lynch!" he bellowed. But the groom had already thrown a rope over Diamond's neck and pulled him close, cursing under his breath.
Matthew ran out of the yard as the sky suddenly opened, torrents of rain blinding him. He had to find her, had to get her out of this... He could smell gunpowder, taste blood, feel the rumble again under his feet, around him, through him KILL IT. KILL IT. PLEASE GOD NO, PLEASE, MARY. PLEASE.
KILL IT. Punished. He was being punished, they were being punished, they were cursed, it wasn't right, he should suffer, not Mary. Not Mary. "Mary!" he screamed into the wind and wet.
And then he saw her.
She was only a hundred yards away, running as well, soaked in mud and rain, head bare, calling for her horse, and his heart beat at an ungodly rate as she turned to him and he saw blood on her face. "Where is he?" she called.
"Yard," was all he could manage as he reached her, his instincts telling him to grab her, hold her, never let her go...
She brushed past him. "Is he?" She did not finish the sentence.
"I'm afraid so," he murmured.
She stopped, her thin shoulders flexing, as if steeling herself for the inevitable. "He slipped in the mud, over the ridge."
She knows, he thought.
Diamond was on his side, still blowing, with fearful grunts coming from him. There was white bone above the fetlock, the ragged break blood-tipped and protruding through the skin, and it was all Lynch could do to keep him down. "M'lady," Lynch began, and Mary nodded as she knelt next to Diamond's head.
"It's all right, darling boy. It's all right," she murmured as she stroked his neck.
Matthew looked at Lynch. "Where is it?"
"Tack room cabinet. Key." He handed it to Matthew and threw his full weight across the horse.
It was unloaded, and Matthew's fingers had lost neither speed nor skill, the bullets sliding into place as he strode back across the yard toward the screaming horse. Mary's bare hands were against Diamond's neck, and her voice was sweet and calm. "It's perfectly all right," she kept saying over and over. She did not look up when Matthew stood next to the head and cocked the pistol. "Oh, my beautiful boy," she whispered, and nodded once, her eyes glassy.
And in the flash of the pistol, in the second it took to end the creature's suffering, it was as if Matthew was back on the battlefield, witnessing death as he did day in and day out, the moment at which he would realize he was not the one lying dead on the ground, the moment when he knew he'd survived and the joy, the atavistic pleasure of life filled him again. He was glad the horse was dead, with the kind of coldness he hadn't known since war. He turned to watch Mary stroke Diamond's neck one last time, and as her hand, white and small, rested upon the nose of her beloved horse, he suddenly wanted to cry.
For in that gentle pat, in her taking the knife Lynch proffered to cut a bit of the black mane away, a very different sensation washed through him, one of memory so real he could feel her gentle hands, her soft fingers, feel Mary soothing his own wounds during the blackest days of his life, her eyes without judgment, her jokes sincere, her answer so very brutally honest when he asked for it. He had needed her and she had given without complaint and he had blocked those days from his mind, including the darkest one in which if this pistol had been within his reach, he would have done himself in, believing he would never walk, never love, never hold her as he had once dreamed of. She had never let him down in all that time, and now as she stood, muddy and wet, shaking, clutching the only thing she could keep in memory of her beloved horse, but every inch the Lady Mary as she thanked Lynch, he realized what he thought was love before was nothing compared to what he felt at this very moment.
"Inside," he said softly. "You need to get out of those wet clothes."
She was thirteen again, riding Diamond for the first time, fourteen and at her first hunt, feeling that pride again at being right behind the master at the kill, at being told by old members of the hunt they'd never seen such a rider. She was fifteen, beating the boys to the fences. Seventeen, watching those boys fall in love as the years passed, those boys and then men who were gone now, all of them, save Evelyn...
So many memories of her life tied to the now-still form on the ground, the swell of sadness choking her, the rush of remembering blocking out all other sounds. Get up, her mind repeated over and over again, and as she stood, she realized she was not talking to herself, but to Diamond, who would never get up again.
She did not seem to see him as she stalked across the yard, heading not for the front of the house, but toward a door he had never seen, and he followed her into the stone-floored kitchen hallway, where the bootjack was already in place. She said nothing as she wrenched off the boots, as Anna's gentle hands removed her wet jacket, and wiped the blood from her face. He was relieved to see it wasn't Mary's as Anna toweled off the worst of the mud. Matthew wondered how she knew so quickly, how each of the servants looked so sadly at her, how even O'Brien's face seemed understanding. He was so caught up in watching her that he did not hear Anna at first.
"What?" he snapped, and apologized in the next second.
"Your boots, sir?" Anna said softly. "We can send over to Crawley House for clean things if you wish."
Matthew looked down and realized he was mud-splattered from his run, soaked to the skin, his feet wet. "Please," he said, and one of the footmen stepped forward to help him. Mary stood staring at his feet as he took off his boots and wet tweed jacket, leaving him in shirtsleeves. He shivered as she did, the poisonous damp chilling every part of them, and she raised her eyes to his.
She felt empty, as if the bullet had opened her up and drained her of life, just as it had Diamond. If she twisted the lock of his mane in her hand just so, it was as if she was holding on again in the seconds before..
The fear of that moment roiled her stomach, the sensation of slipping, losing control, crashing to the ground, of the enormous bulk of Diamond twisting away from her, the graze of his hoof against her side, then suddenly that scream...
She knew Matthew was following her up the stairs, knew she'd said something about showing him where he could change, but it was all too far away, as she came out of the lower stairs into a long hallway, walking past room after unused room, thinking only of her bath and bed and tears she could not... would not.. let anyone see. The saloon was almost in view when she heard Matthew gasp and realized he had stopped in front of a door.
He froze. This hallway. That door. Where he had... His legs ached from exertion and cold and he felt physically ill. That room... He could not stop himself from turning the knob, opening the door, and walking into the darkness, his hands feeling for a light switch he had never been able to reach.
She followed him, the blackness broken by the single light, illuminating the dust sheets covering everything, even the narrow bed that had replaced the hospital one, when Matthew was still... This room.
She had only wheeled him to its threshold once, early in his recovery, and for some reason he had never allowed her to do it again, asking Sybil, or Bates, or wheeling himself once he was stronger. She could only imagine what it had been like, left in the dark, unable to move, helpless and alone as he believed he would always be, before Lavinia returned and... She swept it back, her eyes smarting and she felt once again the thick hair in her hand.
"He rolled so he wouldn't crush me."
Her voice broke the silence, the sound cold and small. "He was running, and I tried to make him turn away from that ridge, but he had the bit." The hitch in her voice brought tears to his eyes. "And then he skidded and he... Oh, God, the mud terrified him. I shouldn't have taken him out... he went down and I thought he would kill me, but he didn't. There was a rock, and.. he hit it... his leg... when he rolled away. I heard it go. He screamed.. I couldn't save him." She looked down at the lock of Diamond's mane in her hand, and broke, her shoulders sagging as she hid her face. "I couldn't save him."
He had never seen tears like that from her. She had always hidden them, turning before he could see them when he was in hospital, and choking them back when she told him of Pamuk. Even when he told her goodbye all those years ago.. God, what a fool he'd been.. even then, they had not torn at him like this. He couldn't allow it, couldn't let her cry like that, couldn't let her blame herself, and his arms wrapped lightly around her, pulling her close, cradling her head in his hand, the loose, wet strands of hair tangling in his fingers. "Hush," he whispered. "My darling Mary, I'm so sorry."
She was nearly insensible with grief at the loss, the feel of Matthew's hands somehow tapping into a deeper sorrow she could not quite express. Her mind could only dance around its edges, that she had pulled Matthew back from the abyss much as she had pulled Diamond, that she had been within hours of losing Matthew, that life was just so fragile, that the shadow of her past hung over them both. The thoughts made her shiver, only... Matthew's hands, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, his body flush against hers, a few thin layers of damp cloth separating them were beginning to cause shivers of quite a different sort.
The first time he thought he might have felt something, a twinge of faint desire, it was three minutes after eleven on the eleventh of November, 1918, and he had watched Mary walk away from him. Lavinia had asked Bates to push him, and he remembered thinking she's not Mary. And at the thought of her name, a pulse struck deep inside, a flicker of an ache, a feeling he remembered and regretted never acting upon. Each time after that when he felt it, it was always when he thought of Mary, and after he finally stood, it was only her face he wanted to see. And yet, the guilt in feeling that made him do something quite rash that evening at dinner, and then that night when he realized what he could feel, he thought only of her as he... acted upon the feeling. His face burned even now at the thought, especially as he stood in the very room where it happened, where his dream of loving her was reawakened by her grandmother, even as his honor and guilt pushed him another direction, even as he kept imagining holding her in his arms as he was doing right now, his hands heating her skin, her face against his throat, the light friction caused by the mere act of breathing. He realized with a start that she wore no corset, and that as much as he wanted only to comfort her, his body was feeling far more than sympathy and compassion.
She could feel him, and it only made her want to press closer to him, and so she did, her hands wrapping around his back, her body pushing against his, the contact changing the breath that heated his neck, from sobs to soft, irregular exhalations that she could not control and she did not want to, especially as she felt his lips against her forehead, her cheek, and his arms began to tighten around her, and just as she began to think what if, the pressure of his arm against her made her cry out in pain.
He pulled back as she flinched and cried out, her body bowing forward as she bent away, grabbing at her side. "Mary?"
Her breathing slowed as she gingerly felt along her ribs. "I think he didn't miss me entirely."
"Oh, God. Mary." Matthew's fingers followed hers along her side and his heart wrenched at her soft grunt of pain, as he lifted her damp shirt and chemise to expose the curved, already-ugly bruise marking her. "It looks like his hoof.. Mary, you need a doctor."
"It was..." She reached down and touched it lightly. "I don't think I need.."
"Does it hurt to breathe?"
"A little." She pressed it and winced. "I think it's only a bruise." She looked up as he touched it again and gasped. At first, he thought he must have hurt her, and he glanced at her face, and then looked over his shoulder to what she was staring at.
It was just a mirror.
It was just a mirror, but it was them in the mirror, in shadow, her eyes large and dark, her lips slightly parted, her hair damp and half-freed from the braid, and his hand... his hand.. was on her bare skin, across that dreadful bruise, and he could see his thumb brushing the underside of.. Oh, God. His own hair was wet, his shirt sticking to him, and he watched as her hand crept around his back and her fingers touched the site of his own terrible wound. He wasn't thinking, couldn't have been thinking, but the rush of heat, of love, of sheer need made him shake, and his eyes met hers in that mirror, and as much as he could feel how he wanted to protect her, how she wanted to protect him, something far more primal was in play. "Mary," he whispered.
It was... erotic looking at herself, at Matthew in the mirror like that, and just thinking that word caused a throb deep inside as she saw him tower over her protectively, felt his hand against her bare skin, heard his breath shift, felt his thumb... Oh, God. His back was slightly to the mirror, and she was suddenly drawn to that place on him she knew far better than almost anyone, that place she had helped bathe, soothe, and heal. Without thinking, her hand reached around his back and she pulled at the damp fabric so she could feel the mark with her palm, to remind her of what she had nearly lost. "Please," she whispered.
His mouth took hers. There was no other word for it, no other way for her to think of it as his lips crashed down, opening as hers did, his head tilting as his tongue touched hers, a groan beginning deep in his throat as her hand snaked up to grasp the back of his neck to hold him there. There was nothing of the reticence of earlier kisses, none of the attempts to restrain himself and she wanted to shout with joy at the feeling of him against her, feeding the craving she had nursed for years, that craving he had only begun to satisfy that night he proposed, that night he held her and kissed her as she had dreamed of for so long. Only their mutual sense of propriety and her knowledge of servant movements in the night had stopped them from doing far more than was prudent, and she had regretted it ever since. Now, in this darkened room, his fingers on her bare skin, two days before their wedding, propriety was the last thing on her mind as she pulled him closer, her hips pushing at his, and just as she felt him start to gather her up, a blinding pain in her side made her knees buckle.
He felt her stumble, felt her begin to drop, and he caught her, swinging her light frame up into his arms. "Darling, you need a doctor," he whispered urgently. She was panting slightly, and her skin was a ghastly shade of white as he stepped into the hallway and headed toward the stairs, her head tucked against his neck, and he began to fear something far worse was wrong.
"He kicked her, I think," she heard Matthew say, quite close to her ear as the wave of pain subsided and she found herself not in that small room, but on the staircase, traveling not under her own power, but in Matthew's arms. "No, no," he said softly as she tried to move.
"Your back," she whispered.
"My back is fine. You're not," he replied as she opened her eyes to see Anna leading Matthew toward her room. "Can you put your arm up around my shoulder?"
She tried and failed, the movement causing a new, fresh pain that terrified her. "Matthew..."
"Hush," he whispered, his lips against her forehead. "I've got you."
Somehow, despite the pain, those three words made her feel better.
He had never seen this room, and its significance was not lost on him as he settled onto the velvet chaise, Mary still cradled in his arms. He'd tried to put her down on her bed, but every movement made her cry out, and so he was sitting with her in his lap, trying to keep her comfortable as they waited for the doctor. She was breathing a little easier, the tension from the pain ebbing as she nestled closer to him, the occasional tiny gasp tearing at his heart. It physically hurt to see her so vulnerable, to know she was feeling pain, and he wished he could do more than whisper nonsense to her as Anna laid out fresh clothes, ran a bath, and told a housemaid to tell Mr. Carson he must call to Ripon to track down his lordship and her ladyship.
It hurt to move, not just her side, but everything, her arms, her back, her feet and legs, all aching after.. Dear God, she thought, a year's worth of it. She'd pushed herself like this for the last year, ever since that dark moment when Matthew had said it was the end, even after they had found friendship again, even after Richard had left, even after Matthew had shocked her by proposing on that glorious, snowy night. Her Matthew, who now was holding her so very gently, and while it would once have bothered her greatly to be weak and vulnerable, now, curled against him, breathing in the wild, faint scent of him as he whispered words of comfort, even with all her pain, she had never felt so... comfortable. She was very nearly asleep when a new voice startled her. "Well, that doesn't look good."
He had expected Clarkson, but was pleased to see it was Beaumont, the new surgeon who was already a favourite in the area, owing to the fact that besides being young and unmarried, he was the Honourable James Beaumont, the second son of Viscount Beaumont, and therefore was a welcome addition at parties across the county. Matthew liked him for numerous reasons, not the least of which was no longer being outnumbered at dinner. "Wounded in action," he said softly as Beaumont put down his bag and shrugged off his jacket. "Horse kicked her."
"Grazed," she murmured. "Hello."
"Hello, Lady Mary." He looked carefully at her face, at her eyes, and then pulled out his stethoscope. "May I see the injury?"
"Of course," she said. "I think it's just a bruise, but.. ahh." She grimaced as she tried to pull up the shirt.
"I'll do it. Don't move." Matthew gently lifted her left arm over her head and slid the shirt and chemise up over the mark, carefully keeping the fabric over as much of her as he could, all the while being perfectly aware of where his hand was, what it was cradling as the former field surgeon leaned down to look.
"Just a bruise, eh?" Beaumont whistled softly. "That's battlefield quality." He looked up at Mary. "A bruise can be a very bad thing, you know."
"I know," she whispered. Matthew felt her hand against his back, and a wave of love washed over him.
"What happened to the horse?" Beaumont warmed the stethoscope and placed it gently against her ribs. "Don't speak, Lady Mary. Let Crawley tell it."
"I shot it." Mary shuddered in his arms, tears wetting his neck, and he had to keep from kissing her forehead in front of Beaumont.
"For kicking her?"
"Slipped on a hill and she came off. Broke his leg. Nothing to be done."
Beaumont nodded and they were silent as he listened to Mary breathe. "I'll have to push on this a little bit, Lady Mary, to see if there's a break or crack. It may hurt."
She nodded, and gritted her teeth, and Matthew reached around and took hold of the small hand behind his back.
It was not broken or cracked, but bruised as she had thought, quite deeply and seriously. Beaumont told her she was lucky it wasn't a collapsed lung, gave her aspirin and arnica, and told her she'd be better by her wedding day, which he was quite looking forward to. "Don't ride or exert yourself in any way before that," he told her. "It'll look terrible for a week or so, but you'll feel better in a couple of days. You need to get out of those wet things into a hot bath. You too, Crawley," he added as he helped Matthew get Mary on her feet and into Anna's care. After assurances that they could manage without him, he left, reluctantly, with Beaumont.
"Don't get into that habit," Beaumont said suddenly as they reached the top of the stairs.
"Carrying her. I've seen your medical history. Amiens, right?" Matthew nodded. "That's where I was stationed. Wouldn't be surprised if you came across on my watch. You're lucky, but don't press your luck. That back of yours needs at least another year of rest." He slung his jacket over his shoulder. "I'm supposed to come to dinner tonight, so let Lady Mary know I'll check on her again then."
He did need the bath, relishing the heat that soothed the soreness he did not want to acknowledge, especially after that glorious sensation of having her in his arms, of holding her, protecting her. That their first... intimacy... was for such a reason made him feel strangely glad, in that he was able to comfort her as much as she had comforted him. He had only flashes of memory of those first days in the hospital, remembering her face and her soothing hands, and...
What had she seen of him?
He had been filthy when he regained consciousness in France, in pain and screaming for help for William, and he remembered the morphine, the scalpel scratching on his face, the young doctor saying five doses, he's had five vials, no more. Then it was darkness and no pain, and then that dreamlike moment when he was being stripped, cleaned, clothed, and tucked in, so very gently, so sweetly, hearing soft female voices he could not quite place, feeling hands that were far more pacifying than any drug. Then it was Mary's voice, and Clarkson poking at him and he was holding Mary's hand and wondering why she was there, why he was so...
The bath had worked wonders, the aspirin had eased the aches, and now, as she managed to crawl up into her bed, wrapped only in her scarlet dressing gown, she just wanted to sleep and try to forget that her beautiful boy was dead, gone, lost to an incurable injury just as she had almost lost...
A soft knock at the door brought her back, as did the sight of that blond head peering around the door, that beautiful face so worried...
He loved her, so much that he couldn't quite get words into sentences, never mind thoughts into words. He just stared at her, propped on pillows, red silk and dark hair against the white and he could do no more than ask the most basic of questions.
"How was your bath?"
"Just what I needed," she replied. "And yours?"
"The same." He noticed the small jar of arnica in her hand. "You haven't put that on yet?"
She shook her head. "It smells."
He laughed, and took hold of the bedpost as he looked down at her. "Let me smell it."
She wasn't lying. It smelled fairly awful. "Still," he said. "Whatever it takes to feel better by Wednesday."
Mary smiled softly at that and reached for the jar, but he gripped it tightly. "Mary," he began. "I'm so sorry about Diamond."
"There was nothing to be done," she replied. "It wasn't your fault. I shouldn't have taken him out this morning." Her eyes glittered. "And I'm grateful you knew what to do."
He nodded. "You gave him a life again, you know. A good one. He... I think you made him happy."
"Did I?" Her lip trembled.
"Mary, when I was brought in from France..."
She froze, the memory of seeing him unconscious, helpless, broken still all too real, too possible.
"Mary, I know.. did you bathe me? Was it you who.." He could not finish, could not recount all the things she must have done, must have seen.
"Yes." She blinked rapidly, holding back tears. "Sybil, too, but she... had other patients that night and.."
"Mary, I've never thanked you.."
"Don't," she hissed. "Matthew, don't thank me. Don't," she repeated. "Don't you dare. You don't thank someone for doing something out of.." She broke off and gripped her side again, her eyes closing.
When they opened, Matthew was sitting next to her on the bed, the jar open. "Come on," he said softly. "Let's fix you up."
And she let him shift her dressing gown off her shoulder, let him ease her left arm out of the sleeve and place it gently above her head, let him pull the silk away from that terrible bruise, and begin to massage the ointment into her skin, his fingers absurdly gentle for a man's, his concern so heartbreakingly sweet. She wanted to close her eyes, to revel in the sensation, but she could not stop watching him, could not stop the crash of emotions that brought tears to her eyes at the sight.
"There," he whispered and, having burned that image of her in his mind, of her bared to him, utterly trusting and so indescribably beautiful, he carefully tucked her arm back into the sleeve, and pulled the blanket up. "Get some rest. I'll see you at dinner." He stared down at her for a moment, and suddenly, without warning, he kissed her, gently, but quite decidedly. "Two days," he murmured.
"Two," she replied.
"I love you," he whispered against her lips, and then, daringly, against the middle of her chest.
Dinner brought her far more attention than she wanted, between her parents, her sisters, and both grandmothers, who were all equally appalled at what had happened, pleased that Matthew had been there to take care of her, and worried that she wouldn't be well enough to walk down the aisle. "I'm perfectly fine," she insisted. "Dr. Beaumont, you must back me up on this."
"She'll be fit by Wednesday," he said jauntily. "Truly, Lady Grantham, there is nothing to worry about."
"Are you sure, Mary?" Sybil's plaintive voice made her smile. "I can stay with you tonight if you need a nurse."
"I don't need a nurse, darling. You need your rest."
"I'm so sorry," Edith murmured. "Mary, it must have been awful."
She accepted the hand that reached for hers and squeezed it. Edith had strangely become far more of a friend than she had ever been before, especially since the trip to Dublin for Sybil's wedding, a weekend that had put a poisonous history to rest, and it seemed somehow fitting that she was the only one at the table besides Matthew who understood.
"Do you ride, Lady Edith?" Beaumont's voice broke the silence.
"Good God, no," Edith replied. "I prefer motors."
And Mary watched as Edith forgot to play the coquette, and animatedly debated combustion engines with the young doctor, who, as far as she could tell, was utterly enchanted by the one woman in the county who hadn't thrown herself at him. "Well done, Edith," she whispered to herself.
Mary asked Robert after dinner if it was all right for her to speak privately with Matthew, and Robert acquiesced, against the soft protestations of Cora and the not-so-soft protestations of her grandmothers. "She can barely move," Mary heard Robert say as they disappeared into the library, a comment that made her grin. "And after what she went through today, they deserve a little time together without the rest of us interfering.
Now, safely away from the prying eyes of their families, he eased her down carefully on the settee in the small library, wincing as she did, until Mary was finally settled, feet up, her shoes slipped off and her left arm above her head to relieve the pressure.
"Where will you sit?"
He tossed a thick pillow onto the floor and lowered himself so he was right at her hip, where he could take her hand and kiss it. "Here, darling."
"But that can't be good for your back."
"My back is fine," he said firmly.
"Another year of rest," she said even more firmly. "And yes, James told me that." She wriggled her fingers free of his and touched his cheek. "As much as I liked being carried by you, I'd prefer knowing you can do it in the future. And that you can.." She stopped.
She stared at him, eyes dark, with one eyebrow cocked, and he answered with his own long stare, the meaning not lost on either of them, until finally she smiled. "Pick up our children," she said, the roughness in her voice sending a stab of desire deep inside him, and he had to settle for kissing her hand again.
"Your hair. You cut it." She ran her hand across it. "For the wedding?"
"It needed it," he replied. "And you were asleep for most of the day. I needed something to do."
"Matthew," she whispered.
"I know you've planned our trip. I won't ask where." Her fingers toyed with his hair, reveling in the feel of the freshly shorn edges against her skin. "But I do hope it's... different."
"Different?" he asked.
"Everything here is... I know it, know who's been there. This house, my room, the stables, Crawley House, this room," she choked out. "This room where you stood again, and I couldn't.."
"Darling." He took her hand again and held it, the back of his hand barely brushing her hip. "You couldn't what?"
"Kiss you," she breathed.
"Mary..." He could do nothing but lean up and kiss her in reassurance, thrilling to the hunger he felt in her lips. "Different," he whispered.
"Don't change it if you've..."
"Shhh... I understand." He smiled down at her. "Trust me."
He knew exactly what she meant, and it had been what he had in mind the whole time he was planning it. Their lives had been so entwined, yet so separate for so long, experiences shared, and yet so much unknown... No, it was time for memories all their own, shared with no one else.
Of course it would all be different.
How could it not be, when she woke up that morning to sunshine and warmth where there had been only rain and cold before? How could it not be, when she was wearing gossamer white, with Granny's gift of a beautiful old sapphire bracelet and Grandmama's loan of an exquisite diamond necklace? How could it not be, when she looked up to see him at the end of the aisle, his face so happy and loving? They had never done this before, never spoken those words to another person, never made a vow such as this in front of God. They had never kissed in front of other people, as he did quite happily on the church steps.
He had never driven her anywhere, but drive he did, up to the front steps of Downton in a brand-new blue car, one she had never seen before, but apparently had been around for some time with Edith teaching him how to drive it. She had never departed without knowing the contents of her cases. Anna had packed them, her lips sealed as to what she'd been told to place inside.
She had never left home like this before.
She had never been on these roads in a car, with her husband... husband.
They crossed into Scotland, and yet he still would not tell her where they were going, and it was not until the sun began to disappear and he consulted a small map, that she began to believe he had taken her sole request for this honeymoon quite literally.
"I just want to be alone with you, Matthew. Quite alone, with no distractions."
He had smiled and agreed, and now, winding up a small road, the threat of getting stuck in the mud becoming all too real, she wondered at just how alone they would really be, and an unexpected worry struck her.
"You know I can't cook."
She could see him smile in the waning light. "So not completely alone," he said, as he stopped the car in front of a stone gate, and an old man emerged from the gamekeeper's lodge, just as it began to rain.
It wasn't so much a large house as it was a very tiny castle, ancient and beautiful, warm and inviting, and Matthew would not tell her how he'd found it or arranged to use it, only that he, too, was seeing it for the very first time. And just as she had wished, they could be quite alone, for the gamekeeper and his cook wife lived at the lodge, and as mysteriously as dinner had appeared in the dark paneled room with a fireplace the size of the car, it disappeared just as mysteriously, and there was no one to wonder why Mr. Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary Crawley did not partake of after-dinner drinks in the drawing room.
And just as she had wished, there were no distractions. There were no memories tied to this firelit room, no reasons to think of anything except each other, of his gentle fingers loosening her hair, of her hands shaking as she unbuttoned his shirt, of her lips on his shoulder, his collarbone, his chest.
No one had ever kissed her with such love, no one had ever knelt before her and touched her in such a way, with his hands, his lips, his tongue, and no one had ever looked at her like that.
No one had ever whispered such beautiful things to him, no one had ever touched him in such a way, with her hands, her lips, her tongue, and no one had ever looked at him like that.
No one else would have understood why, as their bodies joined for the first time, he took her leg behind the knee and rolled them over gently, so that he might not hurt her, and he might not hurt himself, and no one else would have reveled in the grins they shared at that moment, no one else would have felt it quite so deeply as she thrust against him, slowly at first, and then with greater speed, their hands clasped, her head flung back, and then no one else would have known instinctively when he would roll again, so that the last few moments of this first, unfamiliar, glorious time would be as he had dreamed of it, as she had hoped, the helpless, uncontrollable crashing against each other until she cried out and bucked against him, and he roared in utter joy and satisfaction as the pleasure spiraled higher and higher until he fell against her, careful even in his half-conscious state, to protect that still-terrible mark on her beautiful skin.
And he smiled against her neck as she kissed his eye, his cheek, smoothed his sweat-dampened hair back from his brow and she laughed. "What?" he murmured as he shifted against her, still inside her, still unwilling to separate.
"Nothing," she said. "Isn't that wonderful?"
Hours later, as the fire died down, and she was still deliciously warm, his lips against the nape of her neck, his arms cradling her as he slept, she wondered how it could be so windy and wet outside, the sky so dark and foreboding, when in here, in this unfamiliar place that was now as dear to her as any home she had ever known, her heart was so perfectly light.