First and foremost, I want to thank OrangeShipper for her priceless help: she's an absolute star, and I wouldn't have written this story hadn't it been for her. She's been an amazing beta, and has borne my various mistakes, misspells and sloppy writing with kindness and thoughtfulness.
I hope you'll enjoy it.
THE UNFINISHED AND UNBEGUN POSSIBLE
April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
"Where is everyone?"
She crosses the hall, the flower decorations surrounding her, a constant remainder of things lost. Mary ignores the smell of roses and lilies, she lets the music be her mistress, and smiles when Matthew finally turns to her and is not surprised.
"Not sure. Cousin Violet's gone home."
He's fiddling with records, but his eyes are inevitably drawn to hers. Mary steps closer, the thrill of solitude in a house full of people makes her heart beat faster; it's an illusion, and she knows it.
"What about you?"
For a moment he's taken aback by the question and he feels suddenly misplaced in the middle of the great hall. Heir of Grantham, and yet it's Mary, it's always been Mary, who has the power to make him feel at home or unwanted. He takes her in, the blue dress standing out in the warm golden lights of the room, and not for the first time he feels she belongs to Downton just as much Downton is impressed under her skin.
"Waiting for Lavinia, and Mother."
His eyes move to the staircase, then fly up to the balcony, unsure. Is he justifying himself? She wishes to be elsewhere, a silent and hidden spectator; she wishes he wouldn't look at her with those eyes, eyelashes batting in confusion, but penetrating, always. She feels bare before him, her chest is heavy, and she prays he won't notice it.
"Your mother offered to help Doctor Clarkson. Apparently two more maids and Moseley came down with the 'flu. Lavinia is assisting her."
She bites back a joke, and looks at the gramophone instead. A wedding present. But the record playing didn't came along with it, and Mary wonders if it's Matthew's; for a fleeting moment, she has a painful reminder that she hasn't been a part of the last five years of his life - it's not just the war, but the little things that soothed his soul. The books he's read, the musicals he's gone to, the concerts...she missed all that, and she always will.
"I don't know this one."
"Actually I rather like it. I think it was in a show that flopped. 'Zip! Goes a million' or something."
They smile to each other, bashfully, suddenly vulnerable. Everything seems so easy, in the here and now, when nothing exists but the music and the night. Matthew looks down, and back up - resolutely. He's not thinking, or maybe he's thought too much, but as he raises his right hand to her (an invitation, a plea, an apology) electricity courses through him and he knows, he knows there isn't anywhere else he'd want to be.
She hesitates, but then her hand runs on his arm to its rightful place on his shoulder; their dance is slow, without rules nor method, but his hold is firm and she can't help but tease him.
"Can you manage without your stick?"
His eyes never leave hers, a soft gaze that has the warmth of an embrace, and the anger (towards the injury, his still-too-weak legs, the war, sometimes the whole world) is washed away, her presence working like a balm.
"You are my stick."
She snorts at his cheeky reply, and he grins proudly. He can't help but flirt with her, whether it is to see her reaction or his own he couldn't say.
They dance in silence, and for a moment he's left to wonder who's leading whom, because he knows he'd follow wherever she'll go. She's his pole-star, and he steers by her.
"We were a show that flopped."
Mary curses herself for breaking the spell, and letting the truth invade in. It was meant as a joke, a harmless tease, but they both perceive its raw honesty and it breaks his heart.
Suddenly his mouth is whispering in her ear, his cheek mere millimeters from her own, and his eyes close as his voice shifts to a lower tone.
"Oh God, Mary" he breaths out unevenly, "I'm so, so sorry. You know how sorry I am"
"Don't be. It wasn't anyone's fault. And if it was, it was mine."
He's standing so close to her that she can feel heat radiating from his skin, his breath warm on her cheek. It's inappropriate, the way their pelvises sway toward one another, hands restless, chests brushing. His lips twitch, and he has to swallow to overcome the emotions.
Inappropriate, and never more thoroughly right.
"You know, Cousin Violet came to me. Told me to marry you."
"When was this?"
"A while ago. When they knew I could walk again."
She tries to distance herself, ever so imperceptibly. Her feet move of their own accord, and she's grateful for the music. Her corset is suddenly constricting, and her breathing increases, her lungs in need of air.
"Classic Granny." A pause. She doesn't want to know. She doesn't- "What did you say?"
"That I couldn't accept Lavinia's sacrificing her life, her children, her future...and then give her the brush off when I was well again, well - I couldn't, could I?"
They're too close again, like stubborn magnets, and however much she tried she can't avert her eyes from his. Her heart aches, and she'd roll her eyes at the cliché. Her next words are breathed out mindlessly, she grasps at them, because he's right, she's right - "Of course not."
He's lost in her, and he knows. He knows and nothing matters but her eyes, and her mouth, and her skin pale as marble (ethereal and eternal), and her heart beating fast against his own. He needs to, he wants to-
"However much I might want to."
And she knows what is going to happen, her head feels light and heavy, screaming at her with perfect clarity and silent emptiness. She's not in herself, she's never been more herself.
He looks at her, asking for permission, and he sees a reflection of his own longing. He lets his eyelids drop, and presses his lips to hers, urgently, desperately. It's not sweet, sensual with the novelty of their first kiss. It's tragic, guilty, imperfect; it tastes like goodbye. And suddenly lips are not enough - he needs her to know what he can't say. He takes her hand, rubbing her fingers between his own and placing it on his heart. Yours.
They spring apart, as if they had been burnt, and turn to Lavinia and Isobel with shaky smiles on their faces, hoping they won't notice their trembling hands.
"Shouldn't we be getting back, Matthew?"
"Of course Mother, I-"
"I'll ask Thomas to fetch the chauffeur and arrange your ride, Cousin Isobel. Excuse me."
She flees out of the room, and Matthew follows her steps nervously before turning his full attention to his worryingly silent fiancée.
"Are we ready to go?"
"I don't know. Are we?"
There's an edge to her tone, and the coldness of her eyes, veiled with disappointment, makes him look away for a fleeting second, searching for his mother. Her face alone, never one to conceal the truth, tells him what they've witnessed, and his heart sinks when it's relief, and not guilt, the first feeling that spreads through him.
He wonders how many women he's hurt tonight,( why won't Mary come back to see them out? Oh God, what did he do) and he feels once again lost in his role. He prays Lavinia will let him play it.
She eyes him questioningly, but doesn't press him further. Matthew offers her his arm and they head to the exit door, followed by a thoughtful Isobel.
Mary stares at the car driving away into the night, and suddenly even the soft lights of the lobby are unbearable. Anna approaches her cautiously, resting a hand lightly on her shoulder.
"Are you alright, Milady?"
There's fear in Mary's eyes and a lump in her throat as she replies "No."
Matthew can't sleep that night. Scenes of what could've happened, what he would've wanted to happen, if Lavinia and his mother hadn't stopped them, haunt his restless dreams. He longed for her touch, he could admit as much protected by the darkness of his bedroom, but moreover he longed for her, all of her, the physical aspect of their relationship having been relegated to a far off corner of their lives for years.
But could he learn to live without her? He already had. In fact, when he was at his lowest, he had met Lavinia, sweet, loving Lavinia, who had helped him to forget (had he ever, though?). Who had mended his heart. Who had been there for him through hell and back (but so had Mary, whispered a small voice in the back of his brain).
These were the thoughts that still plagued him throughout the morning, as he read the paper and Lavinia embroidered yet another cushion. This was the life he was supposed to be enjoying, and Mary, he determined, belonged to a past and a dream that he had been forced to grow out of.
He was sure. And then the phone rang.
Lavinia is next to him in a moment, worry spread on her features, but he can barely hear her. Confused voices fill his head, and he needs to sit down, he needs to breathe, he needs to process what an agitated Edith had told him.
Mary. Came down with the flu. It was sudden. Mama is getting worse and worse. Doctor Clarkson is with Mary now. Papa is beyond himself.
Mary. And Cora...and oh God, Mary.
No need to worry, Mary has been lucky. Clarkson thinks it's barely more than a cold but….Mama...I just thought you should be informed. I know I would've wanted to know. I have to go.
Eventually, he turns to Lavinia. "Darling, I need to go to Downton at once."
"Is everything alright?"
"Cousin Cora and...Mary have been taken down with the flu. And you know how the House is lost without Carson. With two maids ill as well, you can imagine the havoc that has broken."
He hoped he sounded reasonable enough.
"Do you think it's a good idea? They can manage without you, I'm sure?"
"Maybe. But I don't want to abandon them, not now that they need me. God knows how everybody has been bearing with me when...during my stay in Downton."
"Then I'm coming with you."
"No!" His voice has been too sudden, almost panicked, and Lavinia is taken aback. Guiltily, Matthew adds "There's no need. I'll be back soon. I...I need to do it alone." Half honest, she didn't deserve a full lie and he couldn't master a full truth. Compromise. Mary would be proud.
Lavinia notices his hand reaching for his pocket, or rather for its content. She knows he has been carrying it every day, and she fleetingly wonders if it'll be in his pocket on their wedding.
"Matthew, I think we should postpone the wedding."
"What?" he was already at the door, and he freezes on the spot. "There's no need to, I'm sure-"
"We're supposed to be married in Downton in two days, and it can hardly happen when the hosts are ill in bed. It won't be a problem. We'll reschedule."
He nods, somewhat grateful for the time he's been gifted with. She adds "And who knows, it might be a blessing in disguise."
He knows he should stay, he should fight her last sentence, he should reassure her that there can be no doubts about his affections. Instead, he says "We'll be married soon enough," and leaves the house in a hurry, his thoughts elsewhere.
Woefully, Lavinia stares at him walking away, the embroidery forgotten.
Mary is lying in a large bed, the white sheets a strong contrast to the bright red of the room. Her hair is styled in a loose braid, and her usually pale skin is flushed, sweat glistening on her forehead. He recognizes the traces left by the fever, but relief floods through him when he notices her eyes are bright and vigilant, and her features show no sign of distress.
She inhales sharply at the sight of him, memories of last night invading her thoughts; she shifts uncomfortably against the propped up pillows, but doesn't avert her eyes.
"Who'd have thought, Beatrice and Benedick are silent at last."
Only then Matthew notices Violet, who's observing him with a pleased smile. He clears his throat.
"Cousin Violet. I just wanted to make sure-"
"I was just leaving, you don't need to fish for excuses."
She nods her goodbyes to Mary, then brushes past him and out of the room mumbling "All it took was a lethal illness to get them to talk."
Mary shook her head, and motioned for him to sit on the chair by her bed. He's the first to break the silence.
"She's not very subtle, is she?"
"I don't think her aim has ever been to be subtle."
He chuckles, and takes his place on the chair, nervously clutching the book he had been carrying. It all seemed perfectly reasonable in his head - sitting by her side, watching over her, keeping her spirits up, making sure her fever wouldn't get worse. He realizes how ridiculous he must've sounded to Robert's ears, and he doesn't know how to explain his presence now that he's under Mary's scrutinizing gaze.
"Why are you here, Matthew?"
"Returning a favor."
She raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow at him, a silent question on her lips.
"Mother told me what you did. When I was...when I was back from the war."
"Oh." Of course Isobel would tell him, she muses, and she feels suddenly grateful he had never thanked her for it. "This is hardly the same, Matthew. As you can see, I'm perfectly fine. It's just a mild cold."
"Then you're a better nurse than I am."
Mary considers his small, expectant smile, and cannot bear the charade any longer. What they did, what...happened was still printed in her mind, and she refuses to ignore the big elephant in the room.
"Why are you here?"
"I told you, I-"
"If you're worried I'm stuck in bed because of a broken heart then let me put your mind at rest. I'm not. I know where we stand, I knew it when you asked me to dance and I knew it when we kissed. Nothing's changed, you don't...need to make amends. We don't need to talk about it."
"Lavinia has postponed the wedding."
He doesn't know why he blurted it out, he doesn't know what he wanted to accomplish, he doesn't even know why he's here. Except he does.
"Please. Just...I'm sorry. Let's forget about this." her voice becomes unusually cheerful, and she finally meets his eyes with a flippant smile, "What do you have there?"
Matthew looks down remembering his book, and lets her change the subject for the time being. "I thought I'd read something to you. Being the only thing my boring self can do to entertain a Lady. You must admit that it'd be a bit unpractical to take you riding, given the circumstances."
"I wouldn't be so sure. I'm quite confident I could outride you, fever or not. Supposing that you can actually mount a horse, of course."
"Or so you keep telling me."
They were back on known footing, meaningless bickering and amused looks. Mary finds it's easier to breath. "And pray, what book did you choose for me?"
It's his turn to smile as he reveals the cover of Mary Shelley's 'Last Man' to her prying eyes, "A tale of complicated, tragic love, and of the gradual extermination of the human race by plague."
"You must've picked up Granny's humor." Mary rolls her eyes theatrically, and looks at him with what she hopes to be a cross, annoyed glare; given his subsequent chuckle, she accepts the failure and blames it on the flu. She lets her eyelids close as Matthew begins to read in his warm, sweet voice: "I am the native of a seas-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land..."
Dinner is subdued. Sybil and Edith are tired, and unusually silent after a night spent caring for their mother; Cora's condition is getting worse by the hour, and she's been unconscious since that very morning. Hope is slowly abandoning them, and Violet seems the only one who's more worried about Mary, whose general condition hasn't changed throughout the day except for a mild, consistent cough.
Matthew himself is more relieved, and he would've gone back to Crawley House if not for Robert. The older man has been in a state of shock for the past hours, barely speaking, his eyes haunted, and Matthew wants to make sure he'll be able to face the long night ahead before retiring to his own residence.
The meal is over without anyone having really tasted any of the courses, and Sybil (her nursing uniform back in place) immediately excuses herself. "Doctor Clarkson is upstairs with Mama, he'll probably need my assistance."
Violet stands up afterwards. "I don't think it's the case for us to go through, Edith. You'd better check on your sister, I'll see myself out. A house without a Butler, and in such stressful times! It was very unprofessional of Carson." she looks around for consent and, undaunted by the lack of thereof, addresses her son's heir: "Matthew, can I prevail on you to escort me? Illnesses are not a good enough excuse to forget about manners."
Matthew walks by her side in companionable silence, and is nothing but surprised when she clasps his forearm, and, instead of the formal farewell, tells him "This world is a theatrical stage, Matthew, and we all must play our parts."
"Wouldn't we be failing the purpose of life, if that were the case?"
She smiles conspiratorially, pleased by his imperturbability.
"Only if you pick the wrong role, my dear boy."
With this, she steps out of the door, leaving a dumbfounded Matthew behind to wonder what it was exactly that she knew, and that he was ignoring.
By the time Matthew had reached Robert in the library Clarkson had made his appearance through the door, followed by Sybil and Edith. His face is grave, and Edith can barely hold her tears as Clarkson addresses the Earl, who had sprung up from his chair, a panicked look in his open wide eyes.
"Lord Grantham, I'm afraid - you'll need to expect the worst."
"Is it Cora?"
A cold grip took a hold of Matthew's heart, the world slipping from under his feet as he heard Clarkson's distant voice saying "It's Lady Mary."
"He's been in there for hours, he shouldn't...shouldn't spend the night. Can't you see?"
"What's there to see, Edith? Mary is...God...she should be with someone she loves, and who loves her back."
"He's engaged to be married."
"Do you have the heart to drag him away from her bedside?"
Edith collapses on the nearby settee, covering her face with her hands. "What are we going to do, Papa?"
Her condition is serious, he'd said. High fever, pneumonia, slim chances, she needs to survive the night, he'd said. Degenerative, inflammatory response of her immune system, in short...her body is sending massive amounts of fluids to flush the infection out, but the violence of this reaction is closing off the airways causing the breathing problems. Stubborn Mary, who always fights too hard, who bites back when attacked, too strong she breaks but doesn't bend. No, there's nothing I can do.
His jacket and tie lie discarded on an armchair, thrown and forgotten hours ago. Mary's laboured breaths and irregular coughing fits resonate in the deafening quiet room. There's blood on his shirt, hers, and bile rises once again to his throat. He wants to believe the worst is behind them, the bleeding stopped, her chest shakes but her lungs are holding on, her limbs are thrashing but she's sleeping, she's safe, he needs to believe she's safe.
With firm fingers, he tucks a strand of damp hair away from her forehead, and there applies a fresh, wet cloth to keep her temperature under control and to dry away the sweat. Anna had been doing it for the past hours, but she had been called elsewhere and he hadn't seen her since. He likes it, the little gesture immensely better than the feeling of powerlessness given by his previous inaction.
Sitting back, as close as the barrier of the mattress allows, Matthew reaches into his pocket to retrieve an old toy dog, without a scratch, and places it in her open palm. "As promised."
Her hand is burning hot, and the sensation of its touch shocks him. He remembers cold fingertips, soothing the scratches on his cheeks, fresh hands on his neck as he threw up his soul, chills running up his arm when she touched him on warm, distant Summer days.
Lost in thought, he doesn't notice Sybil's presence until she speaks, voice shaking - if by tiredness or hopelessness he doesn't know.
"When we were children - she couldn't have been older than seven, eight years old" she pauses for a moment, fists opening and closing by her sides, eyes never leaving her sister. "Mary carried that damned toy everywhere, you know? She'd never let us near to it, it was ridiculous." Sybil's laugh is mirthless, and Matthew feels a cold chill running through his spine. "One day she forgot it on a bench, out in the park. Nanny had rushed us inside because a storm was coming, pushing us through the entrance door before we could even collect our toys. When Mary realized her friend had been left behind she shouted that she had to get it back, that it would get wet, and could get lost, but Nanny wouldn't have any of it."
She shakes her head, disapproving of her sister's stubbornness or perhaps of the Nanny's naïveté.
"Mary did, of course, break free. She ran under the pouring rain, retrieving the abandoned toy. I remember how Edith and I stood glued to the window, mindless of the thunders, staring at Mary who by then was fighting against the wind and the violent raindrops, the blasted toy clutched against her heart. Mama was screaming. Nanny was screaming. Eventually Carson rushed out and carried her back in. She got the rug all wet, we had to throw it away. Granny was very vexed."
Matthew smiled, despite everything. He imagined a little girl, all braids and ribbons, a defiant chin up in the air. "She's not very good at doing what's expected of her."
"No." she agrees, "Clarkson thought she would come down with a severe fever. Everybody was very scared, Mama watched over her the whole night long. But the morning after she woke up smiling, strong, and perfectly healthy. Granny dismissed it as Clarkson being an idiot, but I thought...I was convinced Mary was a like the heroine of a fairy tale. She faced the tempest, saved the friend in distress and made it out of it unscathed. I've been in a awe of her for months afterwards." her voice finally breaks, her whole form trembling. "I thought she'd always prevail, that nothing would ever bring her down...she was my storm braver-"
His voice is stern, and sharp as a knife. Its firmness hits Sybil almost physically, and she finally turns to Matthew - her eyes wet, but no sign of tears on her cheeks. He speaks again, trying to keep the anger under control "Don't you...don't talk of her as if she belonged to the past. Don't give up on her, because she'd never give up. Have I made myself clear?"
He knows it's not his place to talk like this. Hell, he knows it's not his place to be in Mary's room in the middle of the night, and he's still slightly shocked that they would let him. But Sybil seems to accept his reprimand; she straightens her shoulders and looks at him with renewed respect. "I need to go to check on Mama. Call me if anything changes." she reaches the doorframe, throws a last glance in his direction, "I'm so glad you're here…" and leaves them alone once again.
Time flies by and he's lost counts of minutes and seconds, his eyes trained on Mary's breaths, in, out, in, out.
Robert told him to confess his regrets, if he has any, but Matthew refuses to. There are too many things to say, truths both known and stubbornly denied, and they'll deal with it together. He won't tell her how much he loves her, how much he's never stopped, really; he won't tell her he wishes he could change the past, because he can't; he doesn't make plans, he doesn't pray; he doesn't mention Lavinia, because it hurts, the guilt of their kiss (a kiss he can't regret, despite all) still fresh in his veins.
But as the hours pass, his resolution dissolves. He lowers his head on the bed, beside her arm, and whispers in a daze, "Speak to me. Drive me mad. Stay with me, always." His eyelids drop "-so happy. So, so happy." he mumbles drowsily, his consciousness lost to Morpheus as his hand closes on hers, a token between them, like a promise he knows he cannot keep.
Mary is sitting on the grass, building a mud castle with her bare hands. She's laughing, as if sharing the glee with invisible friends, and he aches to reach for her, to be part of her happiness, cause of her happiness. His legs are heavy, then his legs are wheels and he loses control of his body as it races closer and closer to Mary's giddy form. She's almost within reach when wind starts blowing. He screams over it, but no sound comes out of his mouth - he can only witness as Mary is taken away, grain after grain, a goddess made of sand. The last thing he can see his her smile. The mud castle stays in place.
The wheels are gone, and he's kneeling down where Mary sat, numbly, unable to believe how easily she faded from within his grasp. Then a singsong voice, high-pitched and malevolent, starts whispering in his ear and crawling under his skin. It's not human, that much he can tell, except that he cannot see it, only sit there powerlessly as it says:
"The boy doesn't know, doesn't know if the girl is dead and he's alive.
He doesn't know, doesn't know if the girl is alive, and he's dead.
The boy doesn't know if they're both alive, or both dead.
Tick tock, your time is up my precious.
Tick tock, it's time to wake up."
He wakes up covered in sweat, and it's damp, and it's dawn, and it's no longer dark. A wave of fear takes over him, and he searches for her face. What he doesn't expect, is to meet her chestnut eyes – they're foggy, and he can tell she's still drowsy, but they stare back at him resolutely, beautifully, beautifully alive. On an impulse, he reaches for her cheek and notices that she's no longer warm, and he's tempted to kiss her, right then and there, and scream You brave, strong, strong girl.
He stares down at her instead, with a smile that refuses to leave his face, and she opens her mouth several times, struggling to say something. Eventually, her voice still hoarse, she manages to say:
"Matthew. You're in my bedroom."
He doesn't know if it's a sob or a laugh that escapes his lips as he replies "I am!"
"Good." Her eyelids succumb once again to exhaustion, but it's a deep, peaceful slumber that claims her.
And it's hysterical, the joy he's feeling, the whole situation absurd (he takes in his ruffled, unruly hair; his crumpled shirt; his bloodshot eyes.) What a pair they must make, in the wee small hours of the day, in her red, luminous room.
Robert had offered to lend him a car, but he had chosen to walk home after the longest night of his life. The fresh air hits his face like a blessing, and he breaths it in with new hope.
Clarkson had confirmed what he had already read in Mary's eyes - the fever had broken, the airways were clear and she was out of danger. All the illness had left behind was a sore throat and a headache, nothing that couldn't be cured with some rest and a warm cup of milk.
He hadn't been let in the room again, Anna and Sybil taking charge of their now alert and peevish patient. He was in need of a bath, and suddenly (selfishly) happy that Moseley had been merely hungover.
There were things to fix, plans to make, promises to keep and promises to break. But they could wait, he thought, as he made his way through his front door.
He immediately felt something wasn't right. It was still too early in the day for the bustling that animated the small house, and when his mother ran to him his senses alerted with a fear he had come to know all too well.
"Where were you?"
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Robert...they needed me there."
Isobel takes his hand; it's cold against his skin. He wishes she wouldn't tell him, he wishes he could take a bath, sleep, pretend yesterday and today never happened for a few more hours of unconsciousness.
"We've been waiting for you to call, at least." Isobel is quiet for a moment, her eyes travelling to the staircase that leads to the bedrooms. "Lavinia is waiting for you upstairs. I think you two need to talk."
"Is she alright? I'm fetching Clarkson, he's still at Downton but Lord Grantham can send him here with a car."
"She's fine. Matthew.." she looks at him in the eyes, for the first time. She sees her boy, exhausted, broken, vulnerable. "We can't decide who to love."
He doesn't pull away when her arms claim him.
Lavinia is busy putting away the white gown in her trousseau when she notices him lingering in the doorframe.
"I know the groom shouldn't see the wedding dress beforehand, but I suppose we're beyond bad luck by now."
He winces at her tone – it's neither broken nor cold, but devoid of any inflection and its calm neutrality unbalances him. He doesn't quite know how to react, or what to expect – it seems to him that he's been blinder than he thought, and the choice of how this would happen has been taken away from him.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I have some self-worth, and I know you do too. Please stop lying to me. I know you mean well, and I think it's noble of you but…this isn't a sudden thing."
He tries to intervene, to explain, to justify himself. He wants her to know that despite it all, she's been dear to him and he wouldn't want to hurt her – but she doesn't give him the chance, her hand outstretched to silence him.
"When I came downstairs and you and Mary were dancing…I heard what you said and I saw what you did."
He cringes, looks away, hopes things had gone differently.
"I'm not…angry with you.. I thought – I tried to reason that what I had seen was a goodbye, more than a beginning. But yesterday, when I saw your face at the mere thought you could lose her…I knew. I've had time to think about it. It's been a long night." She looks at him pointedly, and carries on, "I've wanted to marry you from the first time I met you, but I didn't know what I was taking on. You were never mine to lose."
None of them speaks for some time, the weight of Lavinia's words still hanging between them. Eventually, he steps fully in the room and breaks the silence, his voice croaky with emotions. "I've never meant for it to be this way. Please believe me. I don't…It wasn't fair, to you or to Mary. I tried to, I…"
"You don't have to leave right away."
"I'll have to, and you know it. We'll part as friends. Wish my happiness, I know I wish yours. And then we'll say goodbye."
He feels a surge of affection for Lavinia and takes her hand, "For what is worth…I really have loved you."
"I know. Sometimes is not enough."
"I wish it could have been."
She smiles ruefully at him, and he leaves her alone. His chest is lighter, and while he hopes he'll be able to forgive himself he also knows this is the right choice.
He sees Mary again two days later, at a funeral. The influenza has claimed one of the maids, and the family chose to pay their respect, a young life taken away by the same disease that had spared them.
He's standing beside William's tombstone when she approaches him, Richard Carlisle dutifully by her side. She doesn't waste time in platitudes.
"Thank you for coming." Then, after a beat, "Is Lavinia alright? I haven't seen her in days."
Mary's concern is sincere, and he can see the creases between her eyes, little wrinkles adorning her features. He wishes he could tell her, right then and there, if only to wipe off Richard's smug smile as he places a hand on Mary's arm, eliciting a cringe. But he needs to do things properly. He'll have to talk to Lavinia's father first, and he'll let her announce it on her own terms – he owed her that much. Guilt grips his heart once again, and he wonders if there'll come a day in which it won't.
"She's at home. We're leaving for London in the morning."
"Will you be gone long?"
"No, not long." he notices Richard questioning look, and explains further "I have some urgent business to attend to here. I'm afraid I can't delay it much longer."
Mary's eyes, treacherous (will they ever not be so?) dart to Matthew; she casts them down to the damp grass under her feet (new flowers, the irony of Spring). They nod, and make their polite goodbyes. There are many things left unsaid, many questions unanswered. But she still knows where they stand, nothing has changed has it?, she muses and accepts Richard's arm willingly. He takes her away, and she doesn't look back.
Matthew stares silently at the two retreating figures, swallowed up by the April fog. The thought of finally being able to court her is exhilarating and ridiculous at the same time (they have never been that ordinary, have they?), but he knows it'll take time and for once, he's willing to play by the book.
Spring can be unforgiving, and cruel; it's changeable, unexpected, but now he knows it brings new life too. And with that, hope.
It rains, as he walks on the familiar path to Crawley House; he remembers a distant, candlelit conversation and smiles at the quirk of Fate.
Are you a creature of duty?
Thank you all for reading and, as usual, reviews make me very happy. So…please?