Author's Note: Well readers, it seems that we have finally come to the conclusion. I can't thank you all enough for reading/reviewing/enjoying this story. I was absolutely terrified to start something like this, and I would not have been able to keep it up without your support. And even though it is the last chapter, I would still love to know your thoughts!
Without further ado...
Transformation occurs without invitation. Sweeping in like the tide, it can catch even the most fastidious people off guard.
Alteration is the design. Whether it is sudden, like the fury of a flame, or languorous like the changing of seasons, there is often very little we can do to stop it. Grief, fear, longing, hope, relief… all of them leave their mark. They press upon us, and like pieces of clay we mold to the pressure. Sharp edges soften, lines blur and fade, and things that once seemed indelible are wiped clean. Sharp pains become dull aches, aches become memories, and life begins again.
But things are never quite the same.
What was once easy can become challenging, and what once seemed impossible can become second nature. Those that adapt flourish, while those that do not flounder.
Resistance is futile. Like trying to hold a spring coiled tightly, or holding your breath until it feels like your lungs may actually burst, it eventually becomes too much to bear.
And so, we relent. We let in the grief, and the fear, and the hope, and learn from it as much as we can. And then we move on.
In a world where change is the only constant, one rarely faces down the truths of existence and walks away unaffected.
With Mary awake, the slow agony of days that felt like years came to an end. Time, as it is apt to do, began to move rather swiftly. Every day brought them a little bit farther away from the chaos and uncertainty of the accident, but its effects were still felt—still wrapped around them like an invisible thread—catching and pulling when least expected. It had changed them—all of them—and they were still walking with shaky legs.
Even though everything had turned out to be alright, the knowledge that it just as easily might not have was inescapable. It informed all decisions, and pervaded all actions.
Conversations were careful, each word measured as if it might tip the scales. Embraces were held a bit longer than strictly proper, with arms tighter than ever before. Glances lingered and were held like lifelines, expressing what words alone never could.
Mary greatly appreciated the concern everyone showed for her, but she also found the attention to be exhausting. She felt as if she was living the life of a porcelain doll—looked at and admired, but never taken off the shelf—too delicate for any real purpose.
Deep down, she understood their unease, but she was growing increasingly tired of her entire family meddling in her everyday affairs. It was becoming increasingly difficult to accept their interference with grace, rather than lashing out like she might have done before the accident.
She had been awake and alert for nearly three weeks, but had yet to remember the accident or the days after; the doctor said that there was a very good chance she never would. In all other regards, her memory and cognition seemed to be unimpaired. Her stitches were long removed; the only trace of the gash on her forehead now a faded pink line. She no longer needed the sling for her arm, and only the faintest remnants of her worst bruises remained visible; dull yellow against pale white. Dr. Phillips had cleared her from bed rest, and yet everyone still seemed to insist on her remaining as stationary as possible.
The only one who seemed to understand even a little of what she was feeling was Matthew. Of course he wasn't perfect—he too hovered a bit much for her liking, and was worried over the simplest things. But he also stood up for her when he knew she was capable, and assisted her without hesitation when she was not. Where the others seemed patronizing or glib, he was stable and steadfast. She appreciated it more than she was able to say, and often found herself expressing her gratitude in ways that did not require any words. It had started with simple gestures—a small caress, a hand held under the table, a lingering kiss on the cheek—but before long kisses moved from cheeks to lips, and hands held turned into passionate embraces in vacant rooms.
Despite these intimacies, Matthew and Mary had yet to put words to their new standing. He seemed hesitant to move forward before she was ready, and she wanted to be absolutely sure he wasn't tending to her as a way of assuaging some unfounded guilt. After so many years of turmoil and near misses, they did not want to take anything for granted. The simmering tension of their relationship before the accident—always threatening to boil over—had been replaced by something very different. There was a certainty between them now—a sound sureness that superseded the hesitance and innuendo that they had used to test each other and their boundaries. It was a connection that existed without defined terms and conditions.
When one of them would say "I love you", the other would say it back.
And they truly meant it. For the time being, that was enough.
Days soon became weeks and everyone continued working to adapt to their new world. Before they knew it, Winter's chill had permeated the air, and the holidays were upon them again.
Much to Mary's delight, the season seemed to be diverting the family's attention away from her. It was a tremendous relief to be able to sleep in again and not be woken by someone in a panic, or to be able to sneeze without someone threatening to call the doctor.
Robert had surprised everyone by inviting Sybil and Tom to Downton for Christmas, and the house was being busily prepped for their arrival.
Although the circumstances were rather terrible, Mary was glad for her father's change of heart. He was far from perfect, and while she sometimes questioned his methods, she knew that he loved his family. Lost in her thoughts on the matter, she nearly walked into him as she made her way down the staircase into the great hall.
She studied his face for a moment, relieved to see him looking so well.
"Where are you off to my dear? You look caught in a dream." he smiled at her cheerfully
"Oh, I think I just need a bit of fresh air. I was going to go to the stables; I…"
"Absolutely not!" he shouted, before she had a chance to finish the thought.
Before, Mary would have been absolutely indignant about such a reaction. But the look of panic on her father's face—mouth slightly open, eyes wide and glistening—spoke louder than his words, and she moved to place her hand gently on his shoulder.
Before, she would have felt no need to justify her decisions to anyone. But she knew that his reaction was less about control and more about unrestrained fear for her safety.
"Not to ride, Papa. Just to spend a bit of time with Diamond. I don't want him to think that I've forgotten about him." She looked up at him earnestly, but, ashamed from his outburst, he wouldn't meet her eyes.
He covered her hand on his shoulder with one of his own, giving it a reassuring squeeze. He leaned in to kiss her cheek before finally returning her gaze.
"Of course, my darling. That sounds like a wonderful idea. I am afraid the poor chap must be feeling a bit neglected." He smiled at her, but it was thin and drawn, and did little to disguise the worry that still darkened his features. She briefly wondered if that look would every truly go away.
"Perhaps you'd like to come with me? I wouldn't mind the company, if you're not too busy."
"I would be delighted." He smiled at her again, only this time she could see the light shining through in his expression. Perhaps time really would heal all wounds.
In spite of all the buildup and preparation, Christmas was a comparatively subdued affair to the previous years. There were no lavish parties or posh guests; just the family gathered together for a small but meaningful celebration.
Dinner was served, and gifts were exchanged, and everyone was glad that they could all be together. It was the happiest they had been in a long time; the holiday season seemed to be a balm on those feeling that had not yet been healed.
The day of the Servant's Ball was much the same. Spirits were high, and there seemed to be a lightness to the air.
For her part, Mary could not recall a time in recent memory when she had felt happier or more at ease. She was not engaged to a loathsome man, and she no longer had an insidious secret hanging over her head, threatening to destroy her family and her reputation. And of course, she had Matthew. While he had not made anything official, his intentions seemed perfectly clear. As Anna dressed her for the evening, she couldn't keep the smile off of her face.
The party was lovely—the joy in the room almost palpable—and Mary was thrilled that her family finally seemed to be at peace. But she also found herself feeling rather overwhelmed by it all. It was such a happy time, but she couldn't help but think of all of the alternatives—the what if's and might have been's. How different the night would have been had the accident not occurred, or even worse, if she had not survived. Suddenly all of the joy in the room felt rather stifling, and she needed to get away. It was odd to feel so happy and simultaneously melancholy, and she thought some fresh evening air might perk up her spirits.
As she stepped out into the night, she was only vaguely aware of the bitter cold that surrounded her. Warmed by the merriment of the evening as much as the glasses of brandy served without moderation after dinner, the delicate flakes of snow falling around her immediately seemed to heighten her mood. She drew in long, cleansing breaths of the frosty air, the silent minutes giving her time to reflect.
As she stared out into the darkness, she sensed that she was no longer alone. Turning, she found Matthew observing her from the open doorway. Saying nothing, she extended her hand to him and he stepped out into the snow to join her. His bare fingers happily laced with her gloved ones, as he took his place by her side.
They stood in comfortable silence for several minutes, observing the snow as it fell around them, as well as the clouds made by the warmth of their breath. It was so beautiful that it almost seemed surreal.
Mary had always loved winter. The way the snow fell and covered over everything, blanketing the world with its glistening purity, made her feel more hopeful than anything else. It was like everything got a fresh start—what was once ugly or marred could become utterly beautiful when dusted with flakes of snow. She often wondered if it could have the same effect on people, which was one of the thoughts that had led her from the warmth of the party out into the night. She knew what he had said—that none of it mattered—but he still hadn't asked for her hand, and in her more frantic moments, she was beginning to worry that he never would. Perhaps the snow could cover it all up; take away her shame and paint her in a new light. But then he joined her, and he took her hand, and she knew that it was ridiculous. He loved her, despite it all. She drew in a deep breath, and leaned a bit closer to him, so that her shoulder lightly bumped into his.
"I never did thank you properly…for saving me" she felt inexplicably nervous, and her gaze moved to the ground.
Matthew sensed the shift in her mood, and moved to take both of her hands in his. "Mary, my darling, it was you who saved me. In every way that matters." He felt her hands squeeze his a bit tighter.
"Perhaps we're not cursed after all" her tone was tentative, almost questioning, and as she brought her eyes to meet his that same thin, tight smile crossed her lips.
"God, Mary. I don't think you'll ever know just how sorry I am…"
She cut him off quickly with a kiss, gently placing her palm to his cheek. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. If he couldn't tell her how sorry he was, he would show her. He deepened the kiss, and held her tightly to him. When they finally pulled away, both were panting for breath, their exhalations creating a fog around them.
Her hand moved from his cheek to the lapel of his coat, and she could feel his heart beating wildly.
"We both have plenty to be sorry about, my dear. But perhaps we can agree to forgive and forget?"
She pulled back slightly from their embrace to look more fully into his eyes.
"Mary, surely you must see…I don't believe you need my forgiveness." He drew in a deep breath; a small smile lighting up his face. "You've lived your life and I've lived mine, and now it's time we live them together."
"Do you really mean that? Truly, because if you don't I would understand. I…Matthew I don't think I could bear it if you're not really sure."
In all of the years he had known her, he had never seen her look so vulnerable
"Of course I'm sure, darling! I've never been surer of anything in my life."
His smile, so bright and earnest, was contagious, and she couldn't stop the happy sob that rose from her chest.
"I won't answer unless you ask me properly. Down on one knee and everything." Her eyebrows quirked up as she waited for his response.
His eyes met hers as he lowered down to the ground, reaching out for one of her hands.
"Lady Mary Crawley, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
There was nothing she could say but "Yes."
Before she knew what was happening, she was in his arms and her feet were off the ground, and then his lips found hers and everything was as it should be—as it should have been for years, really.
Neither of them were keeping track of how long they had been outside, but the cold air had thoroughly chilled them through by the time the decided to return to the house. The fire was still lit, but the room was empty, and the house seemed to be completely quiet.
Matthew glanced to the clock on the mantel piece, noting that it was well after midnight.
He watched Mary as she stood in front of the fire, holding her hands closer to the flames. Her cheeks were flushed a rosy pink from the cold, and he thought that she had never looked more lovely. He moved to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
"My darling, how am I to leave you now? Being away from you seems preposterous." She turned in his arms, her forehead pressing against his, the closeness heating them just as much as any fire could.
"Oh, I'm sure you'll find a way." He knew from the tone of her voice that she was smiling, and lifted his head to look into her eyes.
"You would tease me at a time like this? When I've literally swept you off your feet like some sentimental hero in a damned Austen novel? You have quite the nerve!"
He began to walk away from her in mock indignation, but she quickly grabbed his sleeve to pull him back.
He started to chuckle as she drew him back towards her, but when he looked to her face again, he saw that her expression was serious. She pulled him until there was no space between them, bringing their lips together for a passionate kiss. There was something almost frantic about it, and they broke apart panting for air, arms still holding each other tightly.
"It seems I don't want you to leave any more than you want to go."
"But go I must." He held her tighter to his chest, delaying their inevitable separation for as long as he could.
"Yes, I suppose you must." But she nestled even further into his arms, smiling as she felt him kiss the top of her head.
They stayed like that for several moments, content simply to be in each other's arms, before he broke their embrace. Stepping back, he took hold of both of her hands.
"Well my love, I suppose this is goodnight."
The words seemed to trigger something within her memory, and she smiled as she leaned in towards him. She pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek, before her lips drifted towards his ear.
"Goodnight my darling. I have to leave you now, but it won't be for long. I hope that you sleep peacefully, and that you dream of getting stronger. I'll be thinking of you every moment we're apart. I love you so terribly much."
Hearing his words repeated back to him, the words that he had whispered to her every night during the ordeal, brought tears to his eyes. He fought to contain them, blinking hard to suppress their stream, to no avail.
"You…you remember that, then?" his voice was shaking, and he looked at her so earnestly that it almost broke her heart.
"Only just now, darling. When you said goodnight, it came back to me" She stroked his cheek with her palm and he leaned into the caress.
"God, Mary. Leaving you every night was the hardest thing I've ever done. Not knowing if you were alright, not knowing if you were going to wake up or not…it was torture." He was breathing heavily, practically gasping out each word. "I thought that if I wasn't there, and you did wake up, that you would be frightened and confused. Even though I was just down the hall, it felt too far from you."
"Oh my darling" tears were now building in her eyes as well "you did everything right. I know that I can't remember it all, but the moment I woke up I knew. I knew because…I had been in your position. Matthew, I know the agony that you felt because I felt it for you. I couldn't tell you then, but surely you must know now that I felt the same way. Leaving you in the hospital felt like ripping myself in half and leaving a part behind. Even then, even when we could not be together I still felt it."
With tear stained faces and ragged breaths they held on to each other until the fire withered to embers and their breathing returned to a steady pace. And even then, they did not let go.
They found salvation in each other's embrace, and leaving was no longer a thought that crossed their minds.
Thank you again for reading my story. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate it. And a special thank you to La Donna Ingenua, without you I would have never had the courage to actually publish my work!