This is the sequel to the one-shot I wrote a couple of weeks ago, In Flanders Fields. Originally, I wasn't going to write one, but a couple of days after posting IFF, I woke up and this was already planned, and I just had to write it, so here we are! I do have to say a big thank you to Orangeshipper, who has been incredibly encouraging and supportive with this and assured me that I'm not crazy for wanting to write it.
I will say that if you haven't read IFF, you might want to; otherwise some of this might not make much sense…
I Will Love Thee Still, My Dear.
14th December 1914
"A letter for you Mary," Robert handed her the small envelope, looking at the handwriting curiously as she took it from him. She glanced at it, frowning in confusion, before reaching for the letter opener and slicing through the thin paper in one swift motion. Her dark eyes skimmed over the page, her brows knitting together as she reached the end.
"Excuse me," she muttered, pushing herself away from the table and hurrying up to her bedroom, sinking onto the bed as she read it over and over, hardly daring to believe that it was real. It couldn't be, not after… But it was. In black and white in her hands. But…why? He must have sent it by mistake…he must have written it by mistake. Why on earth would he write to her? Did he want her to write back? A bad day…what did that mean? The questions went round and round and round in her head, and unable to make sense of them she tucked the letter inside the book on her bed, smoothed her skirt and decided to go for a walk.
It was late afternoon when she returned to her bedroom, hoping that some distance between her and the letter would give her some clarity. She read it again, though not really needing to…the neat script was already burnt into her mind, and she could see him…see that small, almost apologetic half-smile, his bright blue eyes watching her, taking in everything, his low, smooth voice… She shivered. Since the summer, she had pushed away those feelings, and buried them as deeply as she could, but it still hurt. She still loved him, and try as she might she could not ignore that. Oh she knew she was the architect of her pain, but that didn't lessen it; if anything, it made it worse because she knew that she could have prevented it, prevented all of this. She tried not to think about him, tried not to wonder where he was and what he was doing, and if he thought about her. Of course not. He hated her. But this letter… He had written to her… Would he welcome a reply or ignore it? She sighed loudly, frustrated and angry with herself and the cyclical nature of her thoughts.
A bad day…If something should happen to me...Friends… The words screamed at her from the page, their meaning suddenly becoming crystal clear. He thought he was going to die. He thought he was going to die and the letter was borne from that fear. The realisation chilled her to her very core. And what a terrible realisation it was, but, perfectly logical. He could. Many others already had. Oh god, what if he did? What if… What if… She blinked back the tears that were suddenly brimming in her eyes, her decision made, and moved to her dresser, rummaging in the drawer for some paper, quickly writing the date while her thoughts were still fresh in her mind, trying to ignore the niggling doubt as to whether she should write back.
Thank you for your letter, surprised as I was to receive it after – after what? After I broke your heart, and mine because I couldn't tell you about the one thing that would make you hate me forever? After I drove you away, drove you to where you are now? No, she couldn't say any of that. She frowned and scrunched up the paper, pulling a fresh sheet out.
Thank you for your letter, though I must admit that I was surprised to receive it.
I'm sorry to hear about the mud. It makes my complaining about getting a bit dirty when I'm out riding seem like nothing at all in comparison.
I'll be sure to pass on your comments to Granny; I've no doubt she'd take great delight in that! I'm certain that you don't look at all silly with a moustache though. I'll remember to ask Isobel next time I see her. She spends a lot of time at the hospital now, although I'm sure you already know that. Papa still insists that she dines with us, which she does at least once a week, but relations between her and Granny are much the same as they ever were!
She sat back and sighed; while it was nice to have more company for dinner, if only for the evermore entertaining arguments between Isobel and her grandmother, Isobel's presence only seemed to reinforce the lack of Matthew's; but again, she couldn't tell him that. She leaned forwards, reading his letter once more, taking a deep breath as she reached the last paragraph.
Of course we'd look after her, but please don't speak of things like that. It will be over soon, and you'll be back in England, and able to look after her yourself. Christmas is only two weeks away, so you'll see us much sooner than you think because I'm sure it will pass quickly.
I also want to thank you for your offer of friendship. I would like that as well, very much.
So you see, you're not allowed to let anything bad happen, or even believe that it might, because we cannot be friends again until we have shaken hands on it.
Take care of yourself,
Your friend, Mary.
She read it over, satisfied, even though her heart and her mind raced, not entirely certain as to what this was...a start, an end…she didn't know, couldn't possibly know, not yet anyway. She carefully copied the address and sealed it before she could change her mind, leaving it on her dresser for Anna to take away later as she headed out once more, removing herself from the temptation to rewrite it, or burn it.
29th December 1914
Matthew rubbed his face with his hands and checked the time, not that it mattered. It all seemed to run together here. It was either day or night, the time of which was unimportant. He flopped back onto the cot and pulled the letter, received that morning, out of his shirt pocket, smiling faintly to himself as her words jumped off the page at him, filling his heart with a tenderness he hadn't felt in a while. He could hear her voice in his head; the light and teasing tone; could see the shrug of her shoulders and roll of her eyes. It was comforting.
Thank you for your reply; it was a pleasant surprise in the midst of such chaos. Although, I feel that I have to tell you the truth... I never intended to send that letter. I was in a dark place when I wrote it, and it helped to write out my thoughts, but my man found it and had sent down for posting before I realised. However, on receiving your reply, I am glad of it. He smiled properly; he was glad of it. Yes he had been annoyed when he discovered that the letter had gone, but he had accepted it, there being nothing he could do to change what had happened, but then she had replied. She had sat and written her thoughts and sent them to him, and it made his heart soar, made him forget why he had left in the first place.
As you know, I didn't make it back for Christmas, nor is the war showing signs of being over yet, but I have faith that it won't be long. It can't be long now. I hope though, that your Christmas was pleasant. Mine was…unusual. It was strange not to spend it with Mother. The first one I've ever spent without her. I hope she was not alone. It wasn't just strange because of that though. On Christmas morning the fighting stopped. We all just seemed to come to an understanding and made our way across the barren wasteland, and met in the middle. We sang carols; though my rudimentary German proved to be very poor indeed! Some of the men exchanged trinkets and food. There was also a game of football, and I'm sorry to say that any future hopes I may have had of being a sportsman were firmly knocked out of me! I think I spent more time with my face in the snow than actually kicking the ball! But it was fun, and it helped us to forget, even if it was just for a short while.
Please complain away about getting muddy while riding, it will be a nice distraction from what's going on here! I will hold you to your word though; we are not friends again until we have shaken on it.
I hope that you and the family are well, and that I will get to see English soil soon.
He quickly stuffed it into an envelope, leaving it on the side to be posted this time, relaxing for a moment until he realised that he hadn't yet replied to his mother's letter, smiling again as he pulled out a fresh sheet of paper, not yet daring to think about what this was, what it meant.
9th January 1915
Mary smiled as her father handed her the letter, now recognising the neat, curved handwriting. This time she did not open it, resisting while she finished her breakfast, before excusing herself, ignoring the perplexed looks from her sisters and father as they watched her.
I am sorry to hear that your letter was sent by mistake, but I can't say that I was sorry to receive it. If anything, it made me think that perhaps there is a chance for me to make things right with you, and so I propose this: when you are home, we shall shake hands and it will be as if we are meeting for the first time; a fresh start for us both, and I think that is all there is to say on the matter until we meet again.
Of course Isobel was not alone for Christmas; Papa insisted that she spend the day with us. It was a subdued affair though. I think that we all felt your absence, as well as the presence of the war. It was so very different from last year. Do you remember Granny hitting you with her cane? Although, it gave you such a bump on the head, how could you forget? Well, I suppose that's how! I'm pleased that you seemed to have made the best of it for the day, even if it was terribly cold and your skills with a football were called into question!
I've been out on Diamond twice this week. He's not too happy in the cold, but a good run soon warms us both, and the frost and ice make it far less muddy. I'm also learning how to drive. Branson is teaching both myself and Edith, but not at the same time. I don't think his nerves could take it! By all accounts, they are already on edge with Edith at the wheel anyway. Perhaps by the time you're back, I'll be ready to drive by myself!
She read his letter again before opening the drawer of her dresser, moving her handkerchiefs and placing it on top of the first letter. She smiled to herself as she pushed the drawer shut, finally allowing herself to feel what she had pushed away for so long, allowing that small glimmer of hope through the wall that she'd built. He had written back. He hadn't ignored her.
A fresh start.
17th February 1915
Leave. In three weeks. All being well. It had been the best news he'd received in weeks. After a certain point, you just couldn't keep counting. If you gave it a number it only made it worse. You couldn't name them either. You just had to cross them off your roster and move on. No time to dwell. No time to feel. Except for now. The Cheshires had started their shift, so he had a few hours respite at least. A few hours to think, to feel, to be himself.
There she was, without even consciously thinking about it…Mary. Her letter had arrived days ago, misdirected because they'd moved on since Christmas, but he hadn't had time to reply. Hadn't wanted to. Somehow, thinking of her and all that she was didn't seem right in this hellhole, as if she would be tainted by the very association. But he couldn't stop himself from thinking about her, try as he might. Not in the midst of battle though. Never there. Never with the blood and mud and gunshots and explosions and bodies, and the smell of rotting flesh, and the endless brown of the mud. No. She came to him in his dreams, in his meagre hours of respite in the safety of his dug-out, dappled in sunlight with wide trusting eyes and a warm smile, her hands reaching out towards him.
Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying to your last letter. Things have been a little busier than they were previously, but we keep going. We have to keep going.
I'm so glad that Mother was not alone. I did worry about her, so thank you, sincerely. Of course I remember being at the wrong end of your grandmother's cane. I think I still have a lump to prove it! I hope that she held back with the sherry this year, if only to save anyone else from injury! Don't worry about my sporting ability; I still have all of that legal training behind me for when I return.
I'm glad to hear the weather isn't hindering your activities. As for the driving…well, I'm sure you're in capable hands with Branson, as he must be in yours. Hopefully, Edith has improved by now though!
I've been granted some leave in a few weeks, though the way things are, I may be back before you even receive this. I look forward to seeing you, all of you, and shaking your hand, for the first time.
His heart thudded. There was so much more that he wanted to say, but he couldn't. So much in her letter that he wanted to address, but…not here, not now. What did she mean by 'making things right'? Could she possibly mean… No. He shook his head. No. He could not hope. Could not wish. He just had to take it as it came, each precious morning that meant he had survived again. No. They were writing, and they were almost friends again, and for now that was enough. More than enough.
11th March 1915
"Are you alright Mary?" Mary turned her head to face her youngest sister, fixing her brightest smile on her face as Sybil looked at her, her eyes filled with concern.
"Of course, darling. Why wouldn't I be?" She was grateful, then, that Anna indicated for her to lift her arms so that the maid could put the dress over her head, using the distraction to take a deep breath and attempt to steel her nerves once more. He hadn't replied. She tried not to think too much about that. Perhaps her letter hadn't got through. Perhaps his hadn't. Perhaps he'd realised that it was a foolish endeavour. Perhaps…perhaps…perhaps… Well, it had been nice while it lasted, she mused, but now she had to see him. Tonight. Isobel had visited the day before and told them that he was on his way back. He. Him. Matthew. Here, at Downton. It was everything she wanted, yet dreaded at the same time. It was all very well writing it down that they could be friends, but what about when he saw her again? Would he hate the sight of her? Could he even be her friend?
"Oh, I was just wondering," Sybil's voice cut through the fog of Mary's thoughts, and she shrugged, sensing her elder sister had something on her mind that she didn't want to talk about.
"There, all done milady," Anna smiled as she handed Mary her gloves. She knew that Lady Mary had been writing to Mr Matthew, and she also knew that her lady's nerves were on edge because of his return to the village.
"Thank you Anna. Will you be watching the concert?" Mary asked distractedly as she tugged the white material up her arms, forcing herself out of her thoughts again.
"Some of it milady. Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson don't mind. It is for the soldiers after all," she smiled again and bobbed her head, leaving the two sisters for a moment.
"Mary, aren't you nervous-"
"Nervous about what?" Edith appeared in the doorway, watching them both curiously.
"Is Mama ready to go down?" Mary deflected, smiling at her sisters with a look that told them not to ask any more questions or make any further comment; a smile that only faltered once the younger women had left the room and she took another deep breath, and another, before following them.
The hall was already full of guests, some were seated, some talking in small groups. Mary greeted her grandmother, but then moved to her father's side. Her heart was thudding. She barely heard what was being said around her. He wasn't here yet. Soon. Any minute now.
She sensed him before he was in the room, before he was even announced, her head turning slightly as Carson stepped forwards, holding her breath as the butler spoke, her eyes moving of their own accord to…
"Lieutenant Crawley and Mrs Crawley."
Thank you for reading. I'm incredibly curious to hear your thoughts on this!