A/N the First: So I take some liberties with history in this chapter, but I'll tell you about that at the end. Thank you to everybody who's left a review here or on Twitter or Tumblr and sent messages! Thank you also to my beta reader, the splendiferous mxpw! Also, I could not have written this chapter without the aid of the wonderful almighty Crumby, who wrote all of the French for this chapter. If the French sentences are insulting your mother, it's all her fault. I can give you her address down to the country: she lives in France. There. On the serious, though, thank you, Crumbles.
In Which There is a War
Matthew looked down at the slip of paper—hastily written by a clerk that had no doubt had to go on to write fifty or sixty such missives in just as much of a hurry after Matthew had left—and up to the sign over the hotel door. "You're positive that the directions were supposed to lead us here?"
"Yessir," Corporal Barney Lynch said, and nipped the paper out of Matthew's hand. "Says Le Maréchal right here, it does." He jerked his head up at the sign, knocking his hat askew.
Matthew squinted at the paper. "You can read that?"
"Oh." With a shrug, Matthew pocketed the slip and pushed through the hotel's front door. Most crowded in the lobby were fellow soldiers. Some were likely headed to the front, others away from it, and Matthew couldn't discern who was whom, mostly because Paris did not seem like a city at war, and that threw a fog over everything associated with it, even temporarily. He signed in for the room with minimal, garbled French and let out a weary prayer of relief that this had not been a disaster. After the main office had misplaced his orders, leaving him stranded and waiting in one line after the next, the morning had stretched into an eternity, and he wanted nothing more than to kick off his boots and spend at least ten hours horizontal on a real, proper mattress, French or not.
"Will you be needin' me tonight, sir?"
"No, I think not. Take the evening, Lynch, but be mindful: we've an early train."
Once Lynch had scampered off, no doubt to find the rest of the soldiers on their temporary furloughs—Lynch and his ear for gossip were dead useful, and most of that came from a love of being around other, garrulous soldiers like himself—Matthew turned to head up the stairs to his room. The receptionist's voice stopped him.
"Excusez moi, Lieutenant Crawley vous dites? Du courrier est arrivé pour vous aujourd'hui."
It took a second for the words to filter through Matthew's tired brain, and even longer for him to realize that the receptionist was holding a couple of envelopes out to him. He took them, and saw that though they were addressed to a Lt. Crawley, it wasn't Lt. M. Crawley. "Non," he said, "je ne suis pas ce—"
The letters came from Yorkshire, he realized belatedly, and they were addressed to a Lt. S. Crawley. Matthew blinked. "Pardon," he said in English. "But is—est-ce que, ah, Simon Crawley séjourne ici?"
"Oui," the woman said, and before Matthew could murder the French language any more badly, the front door of the hotel opened, spilling another group of British soldiers inside. At their forefront was none other than Simon Crawley, Lord Downton himself.
Simon's face lit up immediately, with genuine pleasure and relief. "Matthew!" he said, crossing the room in three strides and pumping Matthew's hand. "Talk about a sight for sore eyes! What brings you to Paris?"
Matthew laughed and returned his cousin's embrace. "What else? Orders. I'd no idea you were posted here."
"Just temporary, I'm afraid. They're sending us back to the suicide ditch soon enough." Simon gave a surprisingly charming smile for such a macabre statement before he turned to the receptionist and rattled off very quick French. By the time Matthew had translated even half of it, Simon was tucking the letters into his breast pocket and the receptionist was headed back to her desk with a wary eye at the soldiers in the corner. "How long are you in town?"
"Just the night. I'm on the early train to my next post."
"No time to waste, then! Let's stow your things, go paint the town red. C'mon."
A few minutes later, having washed in a hurry, Matthew found himself being propelled out of the doors of Le Maréchal and onto the streets of Paris. This time there was no cheerful chatter of Cpl Lynch to accompany him; instead, Simon filled that void. They hadn't seen each other since September, when they had both bought into the army as officers, Simon from York, Matthew from Manchester. Matthew got most of his news of Simon from Mary's letters, which came with as much regularity as could be expected from the British army, and now Simon was all too happy to fill in the blanks. They compared training experiences—"Frightful bore, that."—and their first posts—"Boring and frightful."—and Matthew made Simon nearly stumble into a passerby out of laughter by recounting exactly what sort of clerical nightmare it had taken to get him a hotel room in Paris after the Army had shipped him all over France.
"Well, if nothing else, you must be hungry," Simon said, wiping away the tears of laughter.
"For real food? Yes." Matthew nearly closed his eyes with bliss at the thought. "You have no idea what I'd give for the full English."
"'Fraid it's a bit late for that. Found a marvelous little café the other day, though, you'll like it. Proper food, for all that it's not English, but you're in Paris, man! Live a little."
Foreign or not, the food in France beat the tar out of rations. Matthew was so hungry that it took everything he had to remember his manners as they ate at Simon's "marvelous little café," which was of course packed to the gills with other soldiers. Simon, who had already eaten, tried and failed to smoke a cigarette.
"Why bother?" Matthew asked when Simon burst into another round of coughing.
"Need to fit in." Simon tapped ashes from the end of his cigarette. "Don't know why. Don't even like cigars, let alone these nasty little things. Papa claims I'm a disgrace."
"And you thought cigarettes would work out better?"
"I will succeed at this." Simon took a drag and coughed again. "Eventually. Eventually, I will succeed at this."
"I wish you luck with that," Matthew said, and tucked into the rest of his meal. The food was helping shake some of the cobwebs from his brain.
With a sigh of disgust, Simon put the cigarette in the ashtray and reached into his pocket, pulling out the letters from home. "There's one from Mary," he said, waving it at Matthew. "Want it?"
"It's addressed to you."
"You're the one engaged to her."
"It's addressed to you," Matthew repeated, laughing. "You'll know she'll be very put out with you if you don't write her back, or if she finds out you're giving your mail away."
"Too right." Simon sighed and opened the letter. "'Dear Simon, you can have no idea how relieved I truly am to find out that you have not wound up in the Army's version of prison'…well, how do you like that?"
"What did you do?" Matthew asked.
"It was all in good fun, no one was hurt." Simon's voice was absent as he scanned the rest of the letter. He burst out laughing.
"What is it?"
"Another story about Edith driving her mad, naturally. How they are getting on together in Manchester without Sybil to distract them, I can't possibly fathom."
"Did she perhaps give you an update on Ralston?"
"Ralston?" Simon asked, brow furrowing. "What's that?"
"Not a what, a who. Chap at the War Office," Matthew said, and filled Simon in on as much of the situation as he knew. It had been strange to think about Manchester while in training and at his various posts, when his mind should have been occupied by war matters, but Matthew's thoughts were constantly back with Mary, who he knew was struggling to maintain control of her factories from Mr. Ralston. Josiah Babbett, of all people, was proving a valuable ally to Mary, but no matter how pleasant her letters seemed, Matthew reckoned she had to be quite vexed. She'd already sacked one of her managers for feeding inside information to the War Office.
By the time he'd finished explaining now, Simon was outright scowling. "I'll have to write to Papa," he said. "Get him to put some pressure on the War Office."
"She won't thank you for it."
"That's too bad. She's a Crawley. We look after our own."
"Not officially a Crawley again yet, unfortunately," Matthew said, and sighed. They'd agreed to put off the wedding until Matthew returned from the war, as there had been promises that he would be home by Christmas. Christmas was two months past, and there was no end in sight.
Simon snorted. "Cavendish, Crawley, what's it matter? Is this Ralston as bad as you say, truly?"
"I don't know. He's likely worse. You know how Mary is."
"She figures we have enough to worry about. And we do—like what we're going to do tonight!" Simon tucked the letter away and smacked his palm on the table, making those at the table next to them jump and reach, no doubt, for guns. Simon laughed as they shot dark looks over at the Crawley men. "We're in Paris, after all. We must do something."
There was a heavy undercurrent to his words that made Matthew look over in alarm, but the subject was dropped in favor of wandering. Since Simon had been in Paris for four days, and once as a younger man, his directions were relied upon. They headed for the métro together.
"If it weren't for the soldiers," Matthew remarked, looking about, "I would think France weren't even at war."
"Gets a bit different at night, but I see your point."
They disembarked at Anvers, where Simon failed at remembering that he was smoking and nearly burned his finger. "You really are remarkably terrible at that," Matthew said, shaking his head as Simon tossed the butt away. "Are you sure you need that as a hobby?"
"I will preserve. For King and Country."
"If you say so."
Rue Chappe proved a beautiful walk, even with the tree limbs stripped bare by winter's caprices. "Have to come back in the summer," Simon said, looking up as they climbed one set of stairs after the next. "Paris really turns itself into a beauty in the summer. The Seine, it's downright gorgeous."
They waved off a couple of ladies of the night, no doubt attracted to the uniforms, and continued walking. "Where are on earth are you taking me?" Matthew asked, laughing as they encountered more stairs.
"Highest point in Paris, of course. Where else? Once you've seen the Sacré Cœur, you'll weep with gratitude and offer to name your firstborn after me."
"If you say so."
"And of course La Place du Tertre! You haven't lived until you've seen that, and they'll be doing a mean business right about now, I think. We'd best hurry, though, as we haven't much time."
Matthew did not offer to name his firstborn after Simon when they reached the Sacré Cœur—"Good thing. What if it had been a girl?"—though he did admit that the sight of the Basilica, and the view, was well worth the number of stairs they had climbed. They found a spot to sit atop la Butte Montmartre, where Paris lay spread out below them like a gleaming jewel in the afternoon light. Matthew, tired despite himself, was glad for the respite.
After a minute, though, Simon snorted. "Home by Christmas," he said, sounding bitter. "Bollocks. Absolute bollocks."
Matthew shifted uncomfortably against the freezing stone. He'd come across this attitude time and again—morale was hard to maintain in the trenches, which were frozen, mired pits of miserable cold—but it made him uncomfortable. The number of idealists in the army dwindled as the body count rose, as the cold stretched out and the fighting raged on. It was one thing to believe the campaign posters that had popped up like daisies overnight, the ones that had inspired Matthew and Simon to enlist. It was something quite different, though, to face that reality when any second, a bullet might carry you to your maker. Matthew knew he had to believe in something, or he might go mad. He chose to put his faith that they really were making a difference, somewhat, but more, in his fellow soldier, in those slogging through the trenches with him. If he started to doubt, he mightn't ever stop, and the war would only stretch on longer, with him so far away from everything he loved.
"Maybe by next Christmas," he said.
Simon snorted his opinion of that. "It likely won't matter." The undercurrent was back, Matthew realized, the same one from the café. "And it doesn't matter now. We should keep moving, I'm losing feeling in my legs from this cold!"
Though yet another change in the subject made him wary, Matthew didn't protest. He did object, however, when Simon insisted that they pose for one of the street artists, and only acquiesced when Simon pointed out how much Mary would laugh at such a drawing. "I think he got my nose wrong," Simon remarked as they strolled away, laughing at their poses—they'd attempted to look as serious as possible, which meant that Simon was smiling, and Matthew looked exasperated. "What do you think?"
"It's a fair likeness."
"Is my nose really that big? I'd no idea."
As evening set in, they walked down the Boulevard de Clichy. The sight of a red windmill on the side of the street made Matthew blink, but Simon clapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Perfect. It's open tonight. I wasn't certain."
"What is it?"
"What else? The Moulin Rouge." Simon strolled off, hands in his pockets, and left Matthew to be exasperated once more as he hurried to catch up. They purchased some of the last tickets left, which meant they were at a table in the corner, but Simon didn't appear to mind. He peered anxiously over the heads of the people in front of them, waiting for the show to start. "I kept meaning to come out and see a show here, you know. I wasn't sure I'd make it."
"Glad to help," Matthew said dryly.
"You've never heard of it?" Simon turned his full attention back to Matthew. "They dance the can-can. It's marvelous."
"I look forward to it."
The show did prove interesting, and interestingly seedy in a way that reminded Matthew, of all things, of Manchester. The stage props and sets had faded from hundreds of shows under the stage lights; the dancers hadn't fared much better. He wondered if the show were as raunchy and raucous when they weren't entertaining a house-full of soldiers, most of whom still looked young enough to be in university. Judging by the looks some of the dancers were sending into the crowd, they didn't see the age difference or simply chose not to acknowledge it. Matthew figured the Moulin Rouge probably didn't view the can-can as its only source of income.
During the second act, with Simon futilely trying to smoke another cigarette, a corporal ran into the back of the theater, looking about hurriedly. Matthew recognized the look; he shot to his feet. "What is it?"
The corporal saluted. "Brawl outside, sir! It's bad—"
Matthew and Simon needed no more encouragement. Simon tossed his cigarette away and they ran from the cabaret hall to find that the brawl had turned into a full-on melee out in front of the theater.
"Damn," Simon breathed, looking around at the carnage. Tables from a nearby café were overturned—the origin of the fight, no doubt—and soldiers sported bloodied noses and torn uniforms alike half a block away from that. Matthew spotted the main two combatants, a sergeant and a corporal, in the center of the fight and winced. They each had at least three stone on him. "Which do you want?" he asked, nodding at the pair of them. "I can take the one on the left."
"Shun!" Simon said, and those nearest Matthew and Simon nearly fell over themselves to jump to attention. It was almost like watching a ripple effect, spreading away from them: once one soldier realized the soldier next to him had sprung to attention, he followed suit, until it was only the two main combatants left.
"That works, too," Matthew said.
- O -
By the time they'd separated the sergeant and the corporal, a Captain Nedermeyer had been located in the audience and was fetched to contain the situation. Simon and Matthew were sent on various errands to fetch the police from both the French and British armies. His very rudimentary French gave Matthew a touch of trouble, which meant he was late in returning to the Moulin Rouge—and when he arrived he found, of all things, that the soldiers had all cleared out because the building was on fire. A large crowd had gathered in the street to watch the building consumed by flames.
"What is going on!" he asked of Simon, who was just as out of breath from his own errand.
"No bloody idea. It was like that when I got back."
"Was anybody hurt? Is anybody inside?"
"No idea!" They battled their way through the crowd, where it looked like Nedermeyer was orchestrating the battle against the fire. They were dispatched to join the brigade carrying buckets of water as the air filled with smoke and shouts in English and French alone. It was a different type of battle than those Matthew had seen during the war, with an opponent infinitely more vicious. For every bucket of water tossed or pumped onto the fire, the blaze fought back twice as hard, until somebody was grabbing the back of Matthew's uniform shirt, shouting that they needed to retreat, there was nothing to be done. Panting, reeking of smoke and soot, he stumbled back to the safety line.
Simon pulled off his hat and mopped at his brow. "What a beast," he said, almost reverently. "Think they'll save her?"
"A lost cause," Matthew said, wheezing a little. The smoke had hurt his throat, but he cleared it anyway. "They'll have to rebuild, if anything."
"Pity. I hope no one was hurt." Simon craned his neck to look about, but nobody around them knew any more than they did, unfortunately. "It's late. We should get back to the hotel, or go get a drink or something."
"Sounds good. I'm parched." They broke off from the crowd, Matthew glancing back once at the flames that climbed into the night, destroying the windmill and no doubt the livelihood of all of the singers that danced within it. "What a strange, strange day."
"What a strange life," Simon said.
"Too right, by half." Matthew shook his head and ash floated around him from the top of his hat. He removed it to brush it off, though he imagined he looked like quite a mess. "I used to be a lawyer, and now I am in Paris fighting fires."
"I used to be a viscount. Damn good one, too. You're a viscount, your father's an earl, you do what you're told. I did what I was told."
Matthew could think of several times Mary had specifically cited where Simon had not done as he was told, but thought it was better not to bring those up at the moment. "And now you're not a viscount?"
"No more than you're a lawyer!"
"That's fair," Matthew said. They turned a corner and a dip in the street provided them an unexpected vista of Paris at night. Without needing to speak of it, they stopped to appreciate the view. "It never feels quite real."
"Fighting fires in Paris?" Simon asked.
"No worries there," Simon said. "I suspect it won't be troubling us much longer."
Aghast that such a morbid statement could be delivered in such a cheerful way, Matthew turned to stare at his cousin.
Simon, however, didn't seem to notice. "I just hope that when it happens," he said, staring at the view below them with eyes that told Matthew he was seeing something far different, "it happens quickly."
Matthew gazed at him, torn as to whether he was more perturbed by the fact that Simon had voiced that thought aloud or if it was that he'd heard his own private thoughts echoed from his cousin's lips. The moment passed before he could remark on it, though. Simon's eyes cleared of the heaviness, and he reached into his uniform shirt to pull out that blasted pack of cigarettes again, a small smile playing across his lips.
"But that's a thought," he said, "for another time. I say we find a watering hole that won't mind the reek of smoke and drink to being alive."
Matthew heard the unspoken "for now" in his cousin's voice, but didn't comment on that either as they walked on, seeking out a respectable-enough pub. Though he'd dreamed of nothing but a civilized mattress and eight hours of sleep undisturbed by shelling and shouting, Matthew found that he had not slept a wink when he and Barney Lynch boarded the train the next morning. Still a little drunk, Lieutenant Matthew Crawley turned in the train doorway to wave at his cousin.
Lieutenant Simon Crawley waved back.
Update: As of June 2014, I have decided not to finish this story, for mental health and real life reasons. Please feel free to assume that Matthew happily survived the war, Simon's last action was indeed an honorable and noble one, and that Mr. Simon Crawley, born in August of 1919, happily ascended to take over as the Earl of Grantham in 1947. One of his favorite memories is, of course, visiting Paris with most of his extended family and standing in front of the Moulin Rouge when his papa realized who, exactly, burned it down that fateful night in 1915.
Lord Simon Crawley never did pick up the habit of smoking properly, after all.