A/N the First: Thanks to everybody who's ever left me a message on any of the social media sites, anybody who's reviewed or kudosed or favorited/followed. Thank you to the people who have made awesome gifs and graphics that regularly make my jaw drop with their sheer amount of ingenious creativity. Thank you to the friends that read over this story or listened to me blather on about it and offered their suggestions and support. Thank you, namelesspanda, for the exchange that inspired the idea of Mary Crawley jumping out of airplanes like Sarah Walker or Sydney Bristow and kicking ass.
And as always, thank you, mxpw, for proving why you deserved those three consecutive best beta award wins. You'll always be the best beta.
Matthew stared at the severed wire beneath the cutters in Edith's hand. "Was that it? Did it work?"
Next to him, Edith stared at her work. "Yes. Yes, I think it did," she said.
Matthew wasted no time dropping to his knees in a boneless pile of relief. "Thank God," he said.
"Thank God later. You need to see if you can get on the computer and raise the comms again now. I need to make sure there isn't a failsafe buried in here that I can't see."
"Just don't blow us up," Matthew said as he headed for the nearest computer. He didn't need to look to see Edith flip him off.
The group finally reached the door the others had used to access the Abbey from the sewers. Mary followed blindly, trying not to think or to hope or to feel anything about Edith—she'd always loved blowing things up, so if there was anybody in the Abbey that could fix this, it was surely her, there was no need to worry. Her body felt like a raw, exposed nerve. Lack of sleep, proximity to an explosion, a gunshot, the fight with Pamuk, it was all catching up to her, and not even adrenaline could shield her from the pain much longer.
Bates and Branson scurried ahead to pry the door open, the same way she and Matthew had let the others in. The minute they did, however, the entire party drew up short.
Violet Crawley stepped through the door. "About time you showed up," she said, her voice as cool and aristocratic as ever.
"Granny!" Sybil's eyes went round. "What are you doing here?"
"What else? The Abbey's in trouble, and it's time we cleaned up the mess."
"But there's a bomb—"
"Is there?" Violet asked as Sybil's mobile began to ring. Mary recognized the song as the one Sybil had picked for Edith. Apparently, she wasn't the only one, for Violet gave a satisfied nod. "I presume that your sister has dealt with that?"
Sybil held up a finger and answered the mobile. "Yes?" she asked, and listened for a moment. After a thank you and a "See you in a minute," she hung up and gave them a bewildered look. "Edith's dealt with the bomb. She says it's safe and that we don't have to leave."
"I would expect nothing less. Now let's find your sister and that goofy-looking young man I hired last week, and let's put a stop to this. I'm afraid there's not much time to lose."
Matthew's fingers stilled when the panel beside the door turned from red to green and the door slid open. Instead of the enemy, the others poured into the control room. They had Violet Crawley with them.
"Is it truly disarmed?" Branson asked Edith right away.
The blond waved an absent hand at the components she'd already pulled off of the bomb while Matthew had been at work on the computer. "Shouldn't harm anyone now," she said.
"Are all of you okay?" Matthew asked, his eyes drawn to Mary. She was paler than she had any right to be, her eyes glassy, but she was upright on her own, though Anna was hovering worryingly close to her friend.
Before he could go to her, however, Sybil crowded into his personal space, shooing him toward a chair. "I want to see if you've pulled your stitches," she said.
"I haven't pulled my stitches," he said.
"I'll determine that, thank you." Sybil's expression was completely unyielding.
Edith finally looked up at the group and spotted Violet. "Granny! Where did you get to?"
"That's not important, my dear." Violet strode across the room and hit the security camera in the corner with her cane. Everybody jumped; there was a crackle of damaged electrical components, and the matriarch gave a satisfied nod. "There. That should keep him from spying on us for the time being."
"Somebody needs to check on Gwen, make sure Carlisle hasn't found her," Anna said.
"I'll call her mobile," Branson said, stepping away.
Matthew, meanwhile, peeled out of his tac vest and tugged his shirt up. His stitches hadn't pulled much, but the skin looked angry and red. It was fascinating not to feel any pain.
"So what the hell is going on? Does anybody know?" Sybil asked as she prodded at Matthew's side.
"Language," Violet said, though she seemed amused. "And I'm not sure, but I do have my suspicions."
Sybil, mollified that Matthew hadn't done any more damage to himself, began redoing the bandages.
"How did you happen to arrive so quickly?" Violet asked.
"Mary figured it out, ma'am," Bates said. "We were already en route when we received the call."
"I see," Violet said. "I've attempted to contact my son and his wife, but they aren't answering their mobiles. Mr. Barrow is looking into the matter. Even so, we must act quickly. Richard Carlisle appears to be a much more dangerous man than I thought."
"Do you know something about Carlisle we don't?" Mary's voice made Matthew look away from Sybil's work; the spy had raised her head and he could see, fully for the first time, red marks stretching across her neck. Somebody had tried to strangle her.
It took Matthew a few seconds to look down once more.
"I knew he helped you out after you threw your fit and left the Abbey," Violet said. "I had Barrow look into him, of course. He found a few discrepancies, but nothing of this nature, but one could say he has been on my radar, yes."
"So, this may be something I should have asked before," Sybil said, "but I don't even know who Carlisle is. What does he want with us and why is he doing this?"
"It's Richard Carlisle. He owns half the news sites in England," Anna said, since Mary had grimaced. Whether that had anything to do with the angry red marks on her throat or the fact that she had just been publicly chastised by her grandmother, Matthew didn't know.
"Do we know anything about him?"
"We know he's upstairs," Edith said.
"Well, let's go get him, then!"
"Given that he has several of our nearest and dearest held hostage, perhaps we ought to find out which conference room he's occupying before we rush in with our trousers about our ankles?" Violet said, and Sybil scowled.
"I was trying to work on that," Matthew said, gesturing at the keyboard.
"Are you a hacker?" Sybil asked, surprised, as she taped up the final bandage.
"I hold my own," he said, though he hadn't even gotten past the first wall of security. He pulled his shirt down and turned back to the computer. "Though admittedly, Gwen has nothing to worry about from me trying to steal her job."
The monitors on the wall sprang to life, making every single person in the room reach for some sort of weapon. It was once again Richard Carlisle. Instead of looking annoyed, he seemed pleased.
"Can't be sure you're there," he said, and a couple of them glanced at the still-smoking camera in the corner, "but if I had to place a wager, I'd bet on that. How is everybody? I dearly hope Mr. Pamuk didn't do too bad of a number to Miss Crawley. I'm quite fond of her."
Mary rolled her eyes.
"Here's the deal," Richard said. "I have your people. I'm sure you want them back. I'm also sure there's already some half-mad plan to retrieve your wounded comrades from me, but let me assure you now, it will not work." Abruptly, Carlisle turned serious, and Matthew understood why people never crossed him. "I am prepared to offer you a deal. If you wish to see them alive and in one piece, you will send up Violet Crawley."
"We will do no such thing," Sybil said, half-rising to her feet in anger.
Anna, though, frowned. "Send up? To where?"
As if he could hear her question, Carlisle smirked. "And because it would be rude to invite a guest and omit the address, I'll show you where I am. You'll recognize it, I think." Richard reached forward and turned the camera around to show a lush suite of offices, all ornately decorated. From the way everybody immediately turned to look at Violet, Matthew realized that these must be the offices she kept upstairs in Crawley's.
"You can't fault his taste, I suppose," Violet said, confirming Matthew's theory.
"You have eight minutes. If anybody comes in, I will personally—"
The screen cut to black. This time, people didn't bother to reach for weapons. The redhead that popped up was not Richard Carlisle, after all.
"Oh, there you are," Gwen Dawson said, squinting at the lot of them.
"You can see us?" Sybil asked.
"Well, yeah, I piggy-backed onto the monitor behind—Matthew, I think." Matthew turned slightly to look at the computer monitor; there was a blinking red light near the top. "It took some doing. I didn't catch the Trojan until it was almost too late, but I've pushed them completely out of the system. A man named Richard Carlisle is the one behind this. He—"
"Is up in my office on the twelfth floor, yes," Violet said.
Gwen blinked. "Okay, apparently I've missed some things."
"Gwen, do you have a way of seeing into the Dowager's office?" Anna asked, stepping forward so that she was hovering near—but not beside—the head of the Crawley family. "Is there any way to tell what they're up to?"
"Well, it's not good." Video footage of Violet's office filled the screen. Richard Carlisle sat at the massive island of a desk as though he owned the building. He had a man in a suit by the door; Matthew could tell by the way that the man stood that he was packing heat.
The screen switched to a waiting room. A man Matthew recognized as the Abbey's medic was kneeling over Carson, who seemed distressed about bleeding all over the carpet. A couple of the staff were seated nearby, hugging their knees to their chests. Men holding semiautomatics paced around them, looking blank and foreboding.
Branson stepped back into the control room. "We can take them."
"Without causing injury to our own people?" Mary asked the Irishman.
"I'm just saying that we—"
"Whatever you were about to say, Mr. Branson, I would hold off." Violet tapped her cane against the floor absently. "I shall give myself up."
Immediately, there was a chorus of "No!"
Violet raised an imperious eyebrow at all of them. "I don't recall this being a democracy," she said in a voice so mild, vanilla ice cream manufacturers sat up and took notice. "I will be turning myself in. This man is a threat to my employees."
"Underwood," Violet said, cutting Edith off.
Gwen sat up quickly. "Yes, Dowager?"
"You say that Carlisle has no way of knowing what is going on outside of my office?"
"Very well." Violet turned to the rest of the room. "Give me five minutes and go up to the fourteenth floor, in the east wing. You will find a janitor's closet there. Turning the Grantham Tile and Grout Stain Remover three times clockwise will be quite revealing."
For a long moment, there was silence.
Sybil began to laugh. "Always another secret, Granny," she said.
"Always," Violet said.
Mary's body felt like it had that time in University where she had simultaneously discovered Jack Daniels and the suitability of the hill behind her flat for sledding, but she pushed herself onward. There had only been time for a trip to the armory to restock before Violet insisted on handing herself over. There hadn't been enough time to really rehash their plan and properly evaluate precisely how mad they all were for thinking they could get away with this.
She pushed the pain down with an old breathing trick. She had to keep moving, otherwise thoughts were going to come crashing through her skull and overwhelm her, and she would be no good to anybody. It didn't stop thoughts from getting through the cracks, but she could hardly help that.
Richard Carlisle hadn't been fazed that Edith had disarmed the bomb, which meant either he had meant for it to happen, or that part of the plan hadn't been absolutely vital to him. Whatever he was up to—sabotage, a coup, a hostile takeover—he wanted the Abbey's reputation, Mary figured. They were one of the most respected spy houses in England. Taking them over would go far internationally.
Due to their various injuries, Matthew and Mary headed for the lift while the others took the stairs. Mary pressed the button for the eleventh floor.
"It's the fourteenth," Matthew said.
Mary shook her head. "Granny's got another passage."
Matthew goggled at her. "Your grandmother has two secret tunnels into her office?"
"We're Crawleys." Mary hugged her arms close to her chest, though every movement sang up through her injury. There was something discordant about walking through a bank in body armor, no matter that it was hidden beneath a denim jacket. "We sleep with a knife under the pillow and a gun in the nightstand. Paranoid doesn't even begin to cover it."
"Noted," Matthew said, eyes wide. "Why not inform the others?"
"They'll all be needed to get the hostages out, and you and I are too injured to be much help there." Mary watched the numbers rise as the lift car climbed. Thankfully, nobody stopped them. "Granny thinks she's invincible, but there's no way I'm letting her go in without backup." When Matthew looked uncomfortable, she conceded with a sigh. "Anna knows. I told her while you were all looking for the spare clips."
"And she's okay with it?"
"She knows we can take care of ourselves."
Anna had argued, actually, and vehemently. If Richard Carlisle was powerful enough to stage Vera's death, frame Bates, and storm the Abbey, it was foolish to go in at all, much less battered, bruised, and bloody like they were. But all of the able-bodied fighters were needed to get the wounded out, and it was cramped besides. Mary and Matthew had already had their trial by fire in a tight, uncomfortable place.
"So what's our signal to go in?" Matthew asked.
"The opportune moment." The lift stopped on the eleventh floor. "I'm just not sure what that is. I have no idea what Carlisle's plan is. For all I know, we could be walking into a trap."
"That's comforting," Matthew said.
"Isn't it just." Mary made a left at the corner. At the office numbered 1112, she stopped, looking about, and jiggled the handle three times. The number plate by the door slid up to reveal a small lever.
Oh, good, she thought. Still there. "Just how many secret tunnels do you suppose this place has?" Matthew asked, blinking at the lever.
"Dozens. I don't know all of them, but I figure by this point, I know most."
"I grew up here. It's boring when your father pretends to run a bank all day. I made my own fun." Mary pulled the lever. Just like she hoped, one of the ceiling panels moved noiselessly to the side. She reached up and tugged on the cord that dropped down, pulling a ladder to their level. "After you."
"No, I insist, ladies first."
"Matthew, I have more reason to be in the bank than you do. Up you go." If anybody saw her in the bank, they would just assume one of the eccentric Crawleys had dropped by, and that the ladder was there for maintenance. Matthew raised his eyebrows at her as he gingerly climbed up, looking like he was taking pains to avoid overexerting his side. Good, Mary thought. It would hurt like nothing else once he took the antidote for the LMX.
She followed as quickly as her injuries would allow. Her throat felt raw and slivered with cuts, but she'd managed to make her voice sound normal. She wore a scarf over the bruising, which stung like nothing else, but the pain was still at tolerable levels. The scarf would need to go the minute the action started, of course.
"Which way?" Matthew asked after he'd pulled the ladder up and she'd closed the panel. They were stooped over as there wasn't too much space between the floors—more than most people knew, obviously, but quite a bit less than it took to walk along comfortably.
She pointed off to the right and handed him the night-vision goggles she'd pinched from supplies. "Step carefully now. One step wrong and we're going to have to explain to a room full of bankers why there are people lurking in the ceiling."
"Heavens," Matthew said dryly as he fit the goggles over his eyes. "Lay on, Macduff."
They made it only a few steps before Matthew let out a startled curse. "Sorry—my mobile," he said when Mary whirled, ready to fend off an attacker. "That's Anna. They're reaching the fourteenth floor now."
"Wish we had a proper set of comms," Mary said, but whatever Carlisle's people had done to hack the system had pretty much fried the software. It would be up to Molesley and Carson to create a new set for the Abbey.
Provided Carson survived this.
Please, Mary prayed to a deity that she wasn't sure existed, please let Carson survive this.
How long had he been without proper medical help? How old was he? How strong? The man had a heart like an ox, but it tore hers in two to know that he was scared and in pain.
Had Richard Carlisle's overthrow of the Abbey been her fault? She was too tired to rack her brain, try to figure out if there was something she'd said, something she'd done, that had given the business mogul the fuel he needed to launch this attack. With a man as shrewd as Rick Carlisle, there likely was, but for the life of her, she didn't know what it was.
"Hey," Matthew said, breaking into her thoughts and making her jump the slightest bit. "Are you okay?"
Mary took a second to compose herself. "Why wouldn't I be?" she asked, her voice haughty.
There was a pause behind her. "Your neck," Matthew finally said. "It looks like Pamuk tried to choke you."
"Never fear, I clocked him with a bedpan for his trouble. He's dead."
Again, there was another pause as Matthew considered this. "Perhaps," he said at length, "it might be kinder to his family to change that story from 'he died by bedpan' to 'he died in bed.'"
"It matters little to me, I assure you. Now, shh." Nerves wound tight in her midsection. The others would be descending through the ceiling, but this tunnel brought them up through the floor off to one side of the large suite, over by the bookshelves. It put them at a distinct disadvantage, as there wasn't much cover anywhere around the trap door. But, provided Carlisle's men weren't hurting Granny, Matthew and Mary could stay and eavesdrop for as long as they liked and try to get some inkling of Carlisle's plan—until things invariably went to hell in a hand-basket, but that would be a problem to concern herself with when it happened and not before. Despite being the daughter of a banker, she was rather too poor at the moment to buy trouble.
Absolutely silent, she found the trap door and pulled Matthew next to her, gesturing. He nodded and pressed his ear to it, while she unwrapped the scarf and tossed it to the side. After a minute, he shook his head. He pantomimed pushing up on the trap door. Mary thought about it; considering the trap door's position in the corner of the room, it didn't fall in the line of sight of the one guard she'd seen on the surveillance. Granny always made sure to keep this trap door well-oiled.
So she shrugged and agreed, but pulled out her gun in case. Cautiously, Matthew pushed up on the trap door.
It swung open fully to reveal both a guard and Rick Carlisle. "Mary!" he said, as Mary froze, her gun trained on him. "Nice of you to join us. And you brought company. Matthew, isn't it? It's so nice that we have the opportunity to meet face to face."
Because she was pressed up against him, shoulder to shoulder, Mary could feel exactly how tense Matthew was as he glared up at the ginger-haired man above them. "Carlisle," he said at length.
"Might as well put that down," Carlisle said to Mary.
"Over your dead body," Mary said.
"Makes no difference to me." Carlisle turned to his associate, the one with the Uzi. He gestured at Matthew. "You can shoot that one to make a point, if you like."
The barrel swung toward Matthew. "No," Mary said, far more sharply than she meant to. She lowered the gun. "There's no need for that."
"Good girl," Carlisle said, beaming. He held a hand down to help her up. Instead, Mary handed him her gun and pulled herself out of the trap door, rising to her feet. She would have helped Matthew, but if Carlisle didn't know about the wound in his side, she wasn't going to telegraph it for him.
She was surprised to see Violet seated at the desk, looking very much not like a hostage. "Granny?" she asked. "What's going on? Wait..." She swung about to give Carlisle a narrow look. "Just how is it that you knew we were in there?"
"Oh, your grandmother told us about the trap door nearly five minutes ago. We were waiting for you to join us."
Mary turned back as the guard stepped over to pat her down. She wanted to look at Matthew, but he wouldn't have any more idea what was really going on here than she did. All she knew was that Violet Crawley was seated quite at her ease and that there were no guns of any sort trained on her.
Was it possible that Rick Carlisle had had inside help? From her grandmother?
No, that wasn't possible. Violet Crawley was a master manipulator. Mary had seen a lifetime of her Aunt Rosamund railing against Violet's machinations, after all, which meant Violet had something in play. So she'd go along with it for now. It wasn't hard; she was severely out of sorts to have been discovered so quickly. "You gave us up?" she asked, wheeling about to face her grandmother so quickly her elbow nearly clipped the guard (which may have been intentional).
"Certainly," Violet said, looking like butter had no business melting anywhere near her mouth.
"But—why?" Matthew asked. He looked genuinely betrayed. Good, Mary thought, that would help them sell it.
"Mr. Carlisle has offered me a partnership. It seemed prurient to inform him that an office comes equipped with a trap door if I'm to gain his trust," Violet said.
Mary caught the singular use of trap door and understood: they'd been used as bait. It was a little more comforting than her grandmother turning traitor, but not much. It rankled.
"Yes, a partnership," Carlisle said, and it was obvious to Mary at least that he had no intention of following through on that promise. He likely viewed Violet Crawley as the frail old lady she was presenting herself to be. Robert Crawley purportedly ran Crawley's and was head of the Abbey, not Violet (which was patently untrue; everybody in the Abbey knew who really ran things). Carlisle's quarrel would no doubt be with him, or with Mary if Robert Crawley still wasn't answering his mobile.
A line of ice crawled up Mary's back; she had to hope that if her parents weren't answering their mobiles, they were simply on a plane and not seriously in trouble. If they were, though, Thomas would find out. Thomas was good at finding trouble.
"What are you after here, Carlisle? Whatever your plan is, it'll never work," Mary said, wrenching her glare away from her grandmother.
"Your overconfidence always was your greatest failing, Mary," Carlisle said. "I expected it to be more difficult, you know. Cultivating Patrick, sure, that wasn't easy, but Pamuk came right along like a dog when I called him. What did you do with him, Mary?"
"Does it matter? He's dead."
"Good riddance. He was a fool. One less problem I have to worry about, though I'd rather he have killed you like he was supposed to. I really don't like to get my hands dirty, you see." Carlisle made a show of sighing as he looked Mary up and down. "Thankfully, being the leading media mogul in all of London means I know the good spots to hide the bodies. I'll make sure your final resting place is one befitting of that blue blood of yours, Mary."
"Now, Richard," Violet said, rising to her feet (and leaning far more heavily on her cane than she needed to), "you do remember that we had a deal. My family is not to be harmed."
Carlisle seemed amused; a couple of his guards standing by the door, not too far from Mary and Matthew, grinned along with him. "And this one?" Carlisle asked, turning to give Matthew a once-over. "This one part of the family, too?"
"Don't let the name deceive you. He's no relation." Violet's shrug was astounding in how much it conveyed how little she cared. Mary nearly raised her eyebrows, impressed. She'd grown up hearing stories about her grandmother's glory days, but she never thought she'd see it for herself.
Carlisle's smile broadened as he crossed to the desk, staying on the opposite side of it from Violet. He opened a box on the desktop and pulled out a gun. And then, still smiling, he pulled out a silencer and began calmly screwing it onto the barrel of the gun. "If you'll forgive me the impertinence, Mrs. Crawley, not a single soul in this room actually believes you have any plans to defect and betray your agency. You may drop the charade at any time you wish."
Violet looked affronted. "Charade?"
Matthew edged closer to the guards by the door, though what he hoped to do, Mary had no idea. Even with the LMX, he wasn't nearly strong enough to take both of them out at once.
"You know, I've always believed in cleaning house whenever I've absorbed a new company. It's just one of the business practices I follow." Carlisle checked the clip on his gun and shoved it back in with a satisfied nod. "It makes an example to my new employees that I'm not playing around. Get rid of the old bosses, bring in new ones that show I mean business. Make, if you will, an example of the old managers, if I'm forced to."
He thumbed the safety of the gun off and turned, considering Violet and Matthew before he faced Mary. When he raised the gun, she flinched. How many times would this day see her at gunpoint?
"I've never acquired a spy agency before," Carlisle said. Mary tensed, sweat pricking at her hairline and temples. It was a weakness and frustrating, but there was little she could do to stop it, not when faced with the ice cold look in Carlisle's eyes. "But business, you'll find, never really changes, no matter what it is."
"There's no way you'll get away with this," Matthew said.
Carlisle laughed. "But I already have. Any moment now, the news will be alive with the story of how millionaires Robert Crawley and his wife Cora died in a 'tragic' plane accident. Their bodies will be recovered, of course—I paid the pilot good money to see to it."
"You bastard," Mary said, fear dropping the temperature in the room by ten degrees.
"And John Bates, well, he'll go back to prison—that's if the Russians don't get him first. And who knows what he told that lovely young girlfriend of his in his time on the run? Something shocking, no doubt. Don't worry, I know how fond you are of her, so I'll make sure they make it quick when they do decide to take care of her. It's the least I could do, after all. We did have such great times together."
Mary discovered she was suddenly, coldly, angrily incapable of speech. Her hands tightened into fists; she longed to jump at Carlisle and just start hitting and kicking and causing pain. Her entire body felt like a giant exposed nerve, her throat ached, her arm burned, and her skull felt too tight.
She had never, she discovered, hated somebody more than she did Carlisle at that moment in time.
"And when the others mount their pathetic rescue attempt, I'll make examples of them, too. But yes, I've accounted for everything," Carlisle said, with a tiny, indifferent bounce of his shoulders.
"Have you?" Violet Crawley asked, and just like that, she was holding a small, snub-nosed Beretta Jetfire in her hand, aimed squarely at Carlisle.
The ginger blinked. "How on earth did you—" he started to say.
He was interrupted, of course, by the unmistakable sound of shooting.
Matthew didn't know if it came down to luck or the thousands of situations Dauphine had put him through, but somehow, somehow he got the drop on the guard nearest him. When the shooting broke out, Matthew lashed out with a closed fist, catching the guard with a haymaker that would have the other man seeing stars for hours. Instead of letting him fall, though, he leapt behind the man and caught him, swinging him about like a shield, just in time.
The second guard by the door turned and plugged his comrade full of bullets. Matthew let him get off two shots in surprise before he threw his shield to the side and went in under the man's gun with a proper rugby tackle. It drove the man back against the door. Matthew grabbed his wrist, forcing the gun away from him and to the ceiling.
The guard tried to get in a punch, but Matthew had his arm pinned between their bodies, so it really just became an ineffectual struggle. More muffled gunfire echoed through the room, but Matthew couldn't pay attention to that. He strained, grunting, against the other man, who unfortunately freed his arm.
Matthew did the only thing he saw available to him: he head-butted the guard.
The other man dropped like a stone. Matthew swooped to steal his gun and whirled even as more gunfire from far away sounded.
He wasn't quick enough. He turned, and Carlisle had an arm around Mary's throat and a gun pressed to her temple.
"I know," Mary said as Matthew, mouth agape, took in the scene. She rolled her eyes. "This is far too commonplace for my liking."
"You okay?" Matthew asked.
"That's touching, that is," Carlisle said, sneering at Matthew over Mary's shoulder.
Matthew kept his gun trained on Carlisle. Though gunfire still sounded—it was definitely coming from the other room, which meant their reinforcements had arrived—nobody in the office flinched. Violet and Matthew kept their guns trained on Carlisle, who had his silenced Walther PPK a bare centimeter from Mary's hairline.
"Honestly, I'm fine," Mary said, rolling her eyes.
If the situation hadn't been so dire, Matthew might have smiled. He'd learned so much about Mary Crawley in the past week, and he had to admire her ability to function under stress. She looked like a bored debutante.
"You should give up," Matthew told Carlisle. "Your people are beaten."
"Hardly. And you don't get to call the shots. I'm the one holding the leverage."
"You've two master marksmen aimed at you," Matthew said.
"Ah, yes. But can you pull the trigger before I can? You can kill me, but I guarantee I can kill her first."
Perhaps it wasn't prudent, Matthew realized, to challenge that. He swallowed, keeping his gaze on Carlisle's face. He wished he were a better poker player. He didn't know anything about the man, didn't know if there was a tell he could look for, a sign that the man was bluffing.
Outside the door, the sound of gunfire stopped. Matthew had to hope that was a good thing.
"You know, you're a real git," he said before he could stop himself.
"As ever, Perseus," Violet said, her voice dust-bowl dry, "you articulate so nicely where so many men cannot."
Matthew wanted to ask what side the Dowager really was on, but he held his tongue.
"Not to hurry things along," Mary said, "but if we keep going at this rate, I'm going to miss Graham Norton, so could somebody please—"
The door behind Matthew opened. Though Matthew jumped, he kept his gun trained on Carlisle. Violet, on the other hand, swung about. The way she lowered her gun told Matthew it was somebody on their side.
He was not, however, expecting Robert Crawley.
"What?" he asked.
Richard Carlisle seemed to be thinking along the same lines. "What?" he echoed Matthew, his arm tightening around Mary's neck. Mary gaped at her father in shock. "That's not possible. You're supposed to be dead."
"And yet." Robert's face hardened into stone. "Unhand my daughter, put down that weapon, and cease this nonsense immediately."
Carlisle, to his credit, recovered admirably. Though his mouth bobbed open soundlessly once or twice, he drew himself back to his full height. "Perhaps," he said, and Matthew wanted to shoot him for the supercilious tone in his voice alone, "you do not understand the true meaning of the word leverage. I am holding your eldest daughter at gunpoint."
"Yes, I've got eyes, I can see that," Robert said. He looked not at Carlisle but at Mary. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Mary said. Her face was strained—Carlisle was exerting pressure against the bruising on her neck. Matthew's hands tightened around the hilt of his gun, his jaw clenching.
"And you, Mother?" Robert asked.
"Oh, you know me," Violet said. "I never complain."
"Of course." Robert turned slightly to look at Matthew. "Matthew. Do me a favor?"
Time lost all meaning and measure; in a split second, Matthew lived an eternity where it was nothing but him and Carlisle staring at each other. He was reminded quite forcefully of the question he had asked Mary in the elevator, about how it felt to look a man in the eye and kill him.
The moment broke and Carlisle smirked. "You won't shoot me," he said, confidence dripping from his words. "That's not in your nature."
"I suppose you're right," Matthew said and, without letting himself think about it, he raised his arms a few centimeters and fired off a single shot.
She had no idea what Matthew intended to do, but apparently the past twenty-four hours together had done them a world of good. The minute Matthew shifted his aim, Mary tensed, her coiled muscles ready to move. And a good thing, too: Matthew shot, Carlisle let out a shout and dropped his gun as though it had burned him, and Mary reacted.
There was the crunch of something in the room breaking as she threw all of her weight forward, leaning at the waist and hauling on the arm around her neck. It hurt like nothing else in the world, so badly that she saw sparks, but it did the trick: Carlisle went flying.
Unfortunately, she didn't plan it well. Carlisle went flying into Matthew, who had time enough for only one last gape before he was bowled over by a ginger media magnate. "Oh, shit," she said, eyes wide. She leapt forward to try and help, but suddenly her father was there between them, holding her back.
"It's okay," he said. "It's okay."
"No, Papa, he's—"
Matthew somehow managed to extricate himself and deliver a blow to the side of Rick Carlisle's jaw in the same motion. "Quite able to take care of himself," he finished her sentence, and climbed to his feet while Carlisle lay drooling on the carpet. He looked over at a pile of shattered alabaster in the corner. The ricochet from Matthew shooting Carlisle's gun must have hit the ugly vase Violet used to store umbrellas in the corner. "Sorry about the vase."
"Oh, don't be. It was a wedding present from a dreadful, dreadful aunt." Violet waved a hand. "I've hated it for half a century."
Matthew blinked at that, but seemed to shrug it off. He turned to face Mary and Robert. "Are you okay?"
Her throat hurt and she was sure that if her father weren't holding her up by the arms, she might actually crumple to the ground, but she nodded. And speaking of her father: she wanted to hug him and never let go, possibly, as it had been far too long and he wasn't dead in a mangled heap of fuselage somewhere over the Alps. But it had been three months since she had been cut off, three very painful months, and Robert's revoking her access told her exactly how he felt about her decision to take on the assignment she had.
So she asked, "How are you alive? They said you'd died in a plane accident!"
"You think this is the first hostile takeover we've dealt with at the Abbey, my dear?" Robert studied her for a long moment. He looked tired, but he also looked solid and like her father. She almost wanted to cry. In fact, she could feel tears welling up, and whether they had been three months in the making or merely three hours, she didn't care.
"What's happened?" Violet asked, stepping forward. "Is everyone all right?"
"Cora's calling an ambulance for Carson, and nobody else was wounded." Robert frowned and looked Mary up and down again. "Too severely, that is. What have you done with your neck? And...last I heard, you were in France?"
"Anna called me. They framed Bates—"
"And set the Russians on him. Yes, I know all about that."
Mary blinked. "You do?" Matthew asked from behind Robert. "How?"
"Katya Derevko and I are old friends. A simple phone call cleared the confusion right up." Robert shrugged. "In addition, I've spoken with a few of my contacts at Scotland Yard, and they're in the process of dropping the charges against Bates even as we speak."
Mary quite suddenly needed to sit down. She did so, in one of Violet's guest chairs. It hurt to laugh, so she didn't, though it was close. In her state of exhaustion, if she began to laugh, she might never stop. "Of course," she said. "A few phone calls and it's all fine. Of course it is."
For a second, a frustrated look flickered over Robert's face, but he just pressed his lips into a line. "We'll discuss it later. For now, I do believe we should deal with the would-be usurper unconscious on the floor. Matthew, if you would help me—"
"No, Papa, he's been shot, he can't lift anything."
"LMX," Matthew said, raising a sheepish hand.
"Ah. Then clearly, the two of you need medical attention. I'll see to the details—oh, Branson, there you are. Mr. Carlisle here needs to be put in cuffs and dealt with."
Branson, who'd just stepped into the office, gave the unconscious body on the floor a hard look. "With pleasure, sir."
"Papa," Mary said, though she had no idea exactly what she was going to say.
Robert placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "We'll talk about it later," he said, and bent to help Branson with the body.
Mary recognized the action for what it was: she'd been dismissed.
"Fine," she said, and gave Matthew a look. He was pale and sweating, but he hadn't started shaking and he had hours to go before the LMX became necessary.
He looked her in the eye and gave her, of all things, a wryly amused look. "Best follow orders, no?"
"Just this once," Mary said.
"I'll escort you out," Violet said, appearing at Mary's elbow. "As I suspect it's only going to become more chaotic from here."
As was always the case, she was right. They headed into the waiting room to find chaos and confusion awaiting them. What remained of Carlisle's men were either unconscious or bound and gagged, lined up against the wall. Inside, the Abbey personnel milled about, taking care of business. Sybil, of course, had immediately moved to assist Clarkson by Carson, but Cora was there, too, worry written in every line of her face. When she spotted Mary, though, her eyes went as wide as saucers. She crossed the room in two strides and wrapped Mary in a firm hug.
"Oh, my darling! What have they done to you?"
"I'm fine, Mama," Mary said, though her throat was back to burning uncontrollably. She coughed.
"Your poor neck—what happened?"
"She got into a fight with Kemal Pamuk," Matthew said from Mary's side. "He tried to choke her out."
"It's fine. I'm fine," Mary said before her mother could launch into another worried tirade.
"And there will be plenty of time later to catch up, once the doctors have seen to them." Violet's hand wrapped around Mary's elbow once more. "First things first, Cora."
Immediately, Cora drew herself up to her full height. "Of course. Anna, you're not injured, are you?"
"Please help Mary downstairs. And Matthew—are you injured?"
"Yes, but I've the LMX."
"Go with them."
Quiet and discreet as ever, Anna slipped to Mary's good side and maneuvered the brunette's arm around her shoulders. Though she could walk on her own, Mary was grateful for the support. She didn't give a fig about seeming weak in front of the others. If they were going to challenge her, they could very well go take a bloody look at Pamuk's body rotting in the infirmary, for all she cared.
"Doing okay?" Anna asked under her breath as they left the waiting room behind.
"I do wish people would stop asking me that."
Anna smiled. "You'll be fine."
Violet stayed with them as they headed for the executive lift, Anna supporting Mary. She tightened her grip on Mary's waist as they waited for the lift. Next to her, Matthew opened and closed his mouth a few times, as though he were dying to say something.
Everybody save Violet jumped when the lift dinged. Mary didn't bother to give the others a sheepish look, as Matthew was doing. She wanted morphine and a lot of it. Also, she could really use a shower and a nap. She was so exhausted that she did not care which order these things came in, as long as they came at all.
It was Matthew's sharp intake of breath that made her look up when the doors whispered open.
Patrick Crawley stood in the lift, clothing burnt and tattered. He held a very large Desert Eagle in one clenched fist. It shook as he raised it. "Not again," he said, his skin gruesome and red beneath what was left of the bandages. "I swore, never again, and yet—and yet—you—"
Mary looked down the barrel of yet another gun and thought "Never again" fit every feeling she had about the situation.
"You're alive?" she asked. "How?"
"Does that matter?" Patrick's eyes were flinty. "All that matters is—"
He broke off mid-sentence, possibly because Violet Crawley's cane came down with a crash on top of his head. Matthew, Mary, and Anna gaped in shock as Patrick's eyes rolled back into his head and the burnt man collapsed in a heap in the middle of the lift. As one, they turned to look at the matriarch of the Abbey.
"Well, it wasn't like I was just going to let him shoot you," Violet said. "Bit of a nuisance, though, isn't he? I thought he died in an explosion."
"Seems not," Mary said, eyeing the body on the ground.
"Twice," Matthew felt the need to add.
Violet gave a small shrug and stepped delicately over the body. "The guards in the lobby can deal with him," she said. "But we need to get you two some medical help before we worry about relatives doing their best Lazarus impression."
Matthew turned to Mary, a very worried look on his face. "Does this happen often?"
"Welcome to the Abbey," Mary told him, and proceeded to tune everything out until she was being loaded into an ambulance with Anna and whisked away.
There was chaos when they arrived at the hospital thanks to a multi-car accident that arrived around the same time, which meant that somehow, Mary and Matthew ended up shunted off to the side of one hallway on stretchers with Anna keeping an eye on them. Matthew, who had downed the antidote to the LMX on the way to the hospital, lay there quietly, looking pale and stoic in spite of it all. Mary no longer wanted to bother with talking because talking felt like murder on her throat.
So they lay there, absorbing, while Anna sagged against a wall and perfected the thousand meter stare.
They took Matthew away first since his injuries were judged more severe. Mary waited with Anna, wondering if anybody else was going to show up from the Abbey, wondering if Carson was in surgery yet and how he was doing. Though Anna made a few calls, the general chaos of the emergency room made it difficult to get answers. Mary was rolled away to be examined before Anna was able to find out anything solid.
It was only because she knew Anna was somewhere in the hospital, looking out for her, that she let the doctors administer an IV drip. Whatever they put into it, along with the stress and trauma, finally overwhelmed the nerves and fear; she fell asleep in the examination room, the sleep of the truly worn out.
She woke, a little, to the feeling of movement. There was a whirring blur of fluorescent lights breezing by overhead, the prattle of doctors' voices as they talked to each other over her, and then Mary closed her eyes once more.
When she woke fully, it was dark. Thankfully, she recognized that she was in a hospital room seconds before she attacked the woman in scrubs who was standing at her bedside. "Where am I?" she asked, or started to. She broke off; her throat burned.
Thankfully, the nurse seemed to understand her. "You're in the hospital, dearie. Don't try to talk—you really did a number on your trachea."
Mary managed a nod, though her head had begun to pound. She glanced about and gestured toward a table by the window—or more specifically the notepad sitting on top of it. The nurse gave her a wry look as she retrieved the notebook and handed Mary a pen. When Mary scribbled a short message, her eyebrows rose. "There was a woman here, but she left when visiting hours were over."
Mary frowned. Anna had gone?
"But I'll see what I can find out about your friends." The nurse patted the bedspread comfortingly. "I just need to do a few things first."
Mary submitted to the blood pressure test, the pupil dilation exam, and the various other questions that she could answer nonverbally only because the nurse did leave quickly, and had promised to check on Matthew and Carson. The minute the door closed behind her, the bathroom door to the suite opened. Anna poked her head out before Mary could search for a weapon.
Mary put her hand on her chest and pantomimed having a heart attack.
"Sorry," Anna said, smiling. "How are you feeling? Throat sore?"
"Carson's fine, he pulled through the surgery."
Mary leaned back in relief. She raised her good arm to rub her face. "Worried," she managed, though her voice came out as more of a croak. She took the cup of water that Anna held out. By the time she finished it, she was white-knuckled from trying not to scream from the pain of the water against her throat.
Anna gave her a sympathetic look. "Want more?"
Mary grabbed the paper and pen and scribbled, "Yes, but can't handle it. Matthew?"
"Miraculously, he didn't do too much damage to himself, but he was a little shocky and they were worried about infection, so they're keeping him. Why don't you get some sleep? The doctor is coming in to talk to you in the morning. I'll keep watch."
"You don't have to," Mary wrote. Her eyelids began to droop. Now that she'd had water and she knew Carson was going to fine, she could feel sleep approaching once more.
"Are you kidding? It's the most peace I'll get in the next few weeks. The Abbey's a mess. If I'm not here, I'm expected to be there." Anna's eyes twinkled. "Besides, John's here, too, keeping an eye on Matthew. It gives me an opportunity to sneak away and meet him for coffee."
"You're a good friend," Mary wrote, and fell asleep.
The nurse woke her later to tell her the exact same news Anna had delivered, and there were routine checkups throughout the night—they must have been worried that she had a concussion—but she woke the next morning feeling, if not better, at least a little refreshed. She managed a shower and made sure not to look at the bruising on her throat as she dressed in the sweatpants and T-shirt Sybil had brought over from her flat.
Because her mother arrived and insisted, she choked down the liquefied breakfast the hospital kitchen sent up, but only a few bites. She was already regretting those by the time the doctor came in to consult with her and wheel her off for another set of x-rays (she'd apparently slept through a set the day before). Cora walked along beside her to keep her company, which was handy because it meant that Mary got caught up on Abbey gossip while her mother fussed over her. The pain medication they put her on for her throat and arm made her groggy, so she dozed in and out, usually waking to a new a visitor beside her bed.
Toward the end of the day, she was able to swallow—and eat—a little more, but her throat hurt too badly to talk, so she let her visitors (Gwen, Violet, Sybil, Anna, and even Edith) do the talking for her. They'd all been to visit Matthew next door, too, but he was on orders to stay in bed, so he didn't drop by, and Mary was too dizzy to try and navigate to his room.
Sybil took watch that night, napping in the chair while Mary dozed in and out of twilight sleep.
Robert did not visit his daughter at all. If ever there was a message to be got across, Mary thought, that did the trick.
Branson dropped by to pick Sybil up the next morning and begrudgingly updated Mary on how Carlisle had gained his access to the Abbey: he'd had an inside source in one of the low-level Crawley's analysts, a young man named Jimmy. Robert had spent the entire previous day running about London, smoothing over the tendrils of Carlisle's manipulations, which were far-reaching indeed. It looked like it would take the Abbey several months to recover, especially since, and Branson gave Mary a pointed look as he said this, the top two operatives were currently on medical leave.
"Next time," Mary managed to say in a hoarse voice, "I'll let you be the injured one."
"I'll pass," Branson said, though he smiled a bit at her before he escorted Sybil out.
Anna arrived about twenty minutes later to take her place. She had her fletching gear bag on her, which made Mary raise her eyebrows in surprise. "What?" Anna asked, smiling as she wheeled the breakfast table Mary wasn't using over to lay her equipment out. "It's the best time I'll have to do this."
"The nurses are going to get suspicious."
"They're dealing with three GSWs in three rooms in a row. Your father's paid them well, I assure you."
"Oh, so he's been here?" Mary asked, letting some of her annoyance leak into her voice. "Nice to know."
"I'm sure you were just asleep." Anna set her fletching knife on the table next to a bag of feathers. "Want to help?"
She was so bored, she was going to start drawing rude pictures on the wall to entertain herself, but Mary's shrug was listless. "Sure," she said, scooting close to that edge of the bed.
In the afternoon, Anna was called away to deal with something at the Abbey, leaving Mary without a guard or a visitor for the first time since she'd landed in the hospital. She normally might have passed the time with a book or a nap, but she'd already finished the mystery novel Edith had brought her and she was too paranoid to nap. After twenty minutes, she was bored of her own company. She swung her legs out of her bed, untangled her IV stand, and rose to her feet. In truth, if she hadn't had a guard every moment of her time in the hospital, she would have already signed herself out AMA and dealt with the consequences.
But disappointing Anna was like kicking a puppy, so she shuffled into slippers and headed out into the hallway. Carson was napping when she looked in on him, so she headed in the other direction. Matthew looked up from his e-reader when she knocked on the doorjamb. He looked pale and fatigued, but it was nothing like the weariness from the fight against Carlisle, so Mary considered it a positive. "Mary," he said, a smile clearing out his features. "I was wondering if you were going to show up."
"They've got guards on me in case I run," Mary said, only half-joking as she shuffled inside. "Want some company?"
"I'd be delighted, as I'm trying to put off another hit of morphine as long as I can, and I could use the distraction."
"The drugs make me groggy, too," Mary said.
"How's your throat?"
"Branson's happy that they've found the one thing that can shut me up, I imagine."
"Not for long," Matthew said. He set the e-reader off to the side and sat up, wincing as he did so.
"How's your side? No infection?"
"Apart from having a giant hole in my side, I appear to have a clean bill of health." Matthew started to shrug, and winced yet again. This time, his breath hissed in between his teeth. Mary wanted to tell him to just take another dose of morphine, but since she struggled against the use of the drugs herself, she held her tongue. "The surgical consultant dropped by to ask who had done my original surgery. She said she hadn't seen such clean, neat sutures in a long time, if ever."
"You'll have to let William know he does good work, then."
"Yes, I owe him rather a bit of gratitude."
Mary glanced at the e-reader curiously. It struck her that she'd spent twenty-four hours in the company of this man, had researched him in the name of espionage, but she didn't really know much about him and his hobbies. "What're you reading?" she asked as she settled into the visitor's chair.
She was surprised to see red tinge Matthew's cheeks. "Ah, nothing."
"What, is it smut?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. It's...Fleming."
It took her a minute to put it together. "You're reading a James Bond novel? Isn't that a bit cliché?"
"You should take pity on me. I've been shot, you know."
"So've I, but you don't see me taking a busman's holiday."
"I bet you only read dead Russians," Matthew said, shaking his head at her.
Mary opened her mouth to point out that she had read Fleming like any spy with self-respect, and realized that a trap lay in that direction. She closed her mouth with a snap. "I read more than that," she said.
The sound of footsteps down the hallway made both of them look over, Mary imagined, as those shoes weren't the rubber-soled trainers the nurses preferred. Her stomach dropped when Robert poked his head into the room. "Matthew, have you seen—oh, there you are, Mary."
"Papa," Mary said.
Robert looked distinctly uncomfortable, as though his collar were too tight. "I thought...I thought I might drop by, see how you were doing?"
"I'm fine, Papa," Mary said, hoping she didn't sound like a frog. "The doctors are hopeful that Pamuk didn't inflict any lasting damage."
"Good. That's good." If Robert had had a cap to worry between his hands, Mary imagined, he would have been doing so right then. The aura of general awkwardness hung around until the banker-turned-spy cleared his throat. "Perhaps you might fancy a walk, if you're up to it? It's been awhile since we talked."
"If you don't mind going slowly. I'm afraid the drugs make me a bit addled."
"Certainly." Robert extended an arm to help her to her feet. She accepted the help only because she didn't want to cause a scene in front of Matthew, but she couldn't deny that she was hurt and angry that Robert hadn't visited her before.
She'd walked out on the family and on the Abbey three months before, and if she were going to be completely honest with herself, she could admit that quarreling with them over the Pamuk assignment had been rash. There was a reason the Abbey didn't believe in performing assassinations. She had a bruised trachea to support why it wasn't a good idea, after all. But she was his daughter. Surely he could have taken five minutes from his schedule to come visit?
He'd revoked her pass-codes to the Abbey, and Mary supposed that summed it all up.
Robert, however, looked miserable as they walked silently and slowly down the hallway, side by side.
"How are things at headquarters?" she asked when she tired of the silence.
"They're progressing. It's a pain to have Carson out of commission, I will confess. He'd have the place spic and span by this point."
"Mm," Mary said.
"But we'll soldier on. We always do." Robert eyed her without looking directly at her. "How are you feeling? Truly?"
"Do you care?" Mary asked, the words slipping out before she could quite hope to stop them.
Her father looked pained. "Of course I care. Whatever our falling out, you're still my daughter, and I still care for you very much. It hurts me to see you in pain."
The rebuke—and the earnestness behind it—was enough to make her want to cringe, but Mary relented with a small sigh. "Like I said, he didn't do any lasting damage. I'll have a scar on my arm from the bullet wound, but all in all, it could have been much worse. They're releasing me tomorrow."
"Are you coming home?" Robert asked.
"Am I welcome home? You revoked my access."
"What was I supposed to do, Mary? You were acting so wild, and taking assignments like the one Branksome gave you—"
"It was one assignment," Mary said, and words came spilling out, words that had been bottled up for three months of running and hiding and separation from her family and friends. "A friend called in a favor and I had time, so I took it. Am I to pay for that for the rest of my life, Papa?"
"Of course not," Robert said. "There is hardly any need to be so dramatic about this. If you had just come back and talked to your mother and I about this—"
"You revoked my access and you left me in the cold. I didn't want to talk about it."
"And sulking by working freelance for three months like a petulant child was the solution you chose instead?"
"It kept me busy," Mary said, glaring at her father. "And what's it matter to you? You've your replacement now that you've traded in your Andromeda for a Perseus, your golden boy hero."
Robert held up a hand. "Now wait just a minute—"
"I'm flattered that you waited so long as you did, I suppose," Mary said, "but you made it very clear that I wasn't wanted, Papa, and I got your message."
"Hold it," Robert said, grasping her arm before she could storm away with her IV pole in tow. "Matthew is not a replacement. He was never intended to be. We hired him to find you because this has gone on long enough. It's time for you to return to your home and for us to put all of this nonsense behind us. And a good thing we did, too. When I think of you facing those madmen by yourself..."
"I held my own."
"I've no doubt of that," Robert said with such frankness that Mary blinked. "But I feel better knowing you had a partner there with you, which was always what Matthew was intended for. You've gone it alone since Patrick—well, I can't say he died anymore, can I? Since the explosion, then, you've worked solo, and you've done amazing work, but Mary, even your grandmother needed a partner every once in a while."
Mary, about to rebut that, closed her mouth once more. What she had been about to say, she realized, sounded a lot more petulant than she was comfortable admitting. But she wasn't some juvenile, wet-behind-the-ears new agent. She'd had so many successful missions. She'd proved herself in the field time and again, had shown her parents and her superior officers that her judgment was sound. She knew her own mind. She excelled at what she did because of it. And she did enjoy the glory of solo missions.
But she and Matthew had worked really well together, hadn't they? Almost seamlessly, if she were going to be honest. They'd picked up an instant camaraderie that still disgruntled her. He'd saved her ass, she'd saved his.
And maybe her father had a point. She had, after all, disobeyed direct orders when she had taken the Pamuk assignment without consulting anybody.
Still, being frozen out without trust had been disheartening. She didn't like being made to feel incompetent.
"My record speaks for itself, Papa. I work well alone."
"But for how long? It scared me, to see the risks you were willing to take. I may be your superior at the Abbey, but I'm also your father, and I worry like a father does when I see you putting yourself in danger. But your mother has been getting on my case about this, and she's right. We should have trusted you more. So I'm sorry for that."
"I'm sorry, too," Mary said, and was startled to find that she meant it.
Robert nodded, accepting her apology. "If you ever pull something like that again—"
"I won't," Mary said. "I've learnt my lesson."
Robert met her gaze and studied her until he nodded, apparently satisfied with what he saw. "Good. So you're coming back to the Abbey?"
"If you'll have me," Mary said, her voice shaking a little. She felt a heavy weight lift off of her chest. That was relief she was feeling, she realized. She hadn't understood until this moment just how much being part of the Abbey and having her father's approval meant to her.
"Of course we will." Robert finally reached out and hugged her, which was such a rare gesture on his part that Mary tensed. Eventually, she forced herself to relax, and Robert drew her away to arm's length. "I'm glad that's settled. You're to report in at headquarters in six weeks' time, you and Matthew both."
"Six weeks? I don't need that much medical leave."
"The medical leave is for Matthew. You, on the other hand, are suspended until he's ready to come back to work."
"You don't really think I can let you just come back to work without making an example of you," Robert said, though he was smiling. "People will accuse me of nepotism. Besides, you could do with a rest."
"I suppose that's your way of telling me I look tired," Mary said, rolling her eyes at him.
"Get some sun, have a holiday. Let your mother drag you shopping, something, anything. Just, be ready to go in six weeks' time."
"Yes, sir," Mary said, mostly managing a straight face. This time instead of a hug, Robert gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder. The rest of their walk was spent catching up on what little Abbey gossip the others hadn't managed to give her, including a few of the plans for Patrick's rehabilitation, as the "Poor chap's gone quite mad, you see."
She headed back to Matthew's room in much, much lighter spirits than she'd left it. He was still awake, though he wasn't reading. Instead, he looked at her glassily. "Sorry," he said, his words slurred. "Tried to hold off on the morphine since I think so much better without it, but the nurse came, and there was a guilt trip and..."
"No need to stand on ceremony on my behalf." It took Mary a little maneuvering to get back into the visitor's chair with the IV pole still attached to her wrist. "Papa says we're to be partners, after all. I imagine we'll see the worst of each other before long."
Matthew brightened. "So you're coming back?"
"In six weeks, yes. I've been given some leave."
"Guess my mission was a success, after all," Matthew said. When she gave him a confused look, he smiled. "I was hired on to bring you back in, remember? You're in. That means I win."
"Oh, don't gloat, it's unprofessional."
"Feel floaty," Matthew said. "Don't like hospitals."
"And that's even more unprofessional."
"Don't care. What are you going to do with your leave?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," Mary said. "Possibly get some sun, read a book by a dead Russian. It will be so nice to have a holiday."
"Well, I've an idea, if you want to hear it."
"I'm all ears," Mary said.
Matthew suddenly felt the need to sit up straighter, which took a minute and quite a bit of swearing as he jarred his side. But eventually he sat upright, looking at her with such an open, earnest, respectful look that Mary wanted to shift uncomfortably in her seat.
"Yes?" Mary said.
"Well, you've got your leave and I've got mine, and I think it's time we spent them together, don't you?"
Mary stared at him. When it failed to process exactly what he was saying, she kept staring, and staring some more. Her heart, which was actually quite traitorous if she was going to be completely honest with herself, was thumping in her chest, betraying the cool spy façade she'd worked hard to cultivate as Mary Crawley for years. Matthew just looked at her with such sweet, open hope on his admittedly very stoned face.
So she said the only thing she possibly could: "Maybe in the future, we should cut back on the morphine."
Matthew's face fell. "So that's a no?"
"Well..." It was time to extricate herself from this conversation, Mary thought. She rose to her feet once more and edged toward the door. Some devil inside her, however, made her stop and turn before she reached it. "All right."
Matthew perked up. "All right?"
"If you remember this conversation, meet me in Majorca in two weeks."
"I will definitely remember this conversation, Mary Crawley," Matthew said, and fell backward with a goofy grin that made Mary wish she had her mobile. That would be quite handy blackmail someday. But it didn't matter, for his snores followed her out of the hospital room.
In the end, Matthew didn't remember having any conversation with Mary after she'd left to talk to her father, so when he received an email a week after being released from the hospital with the subject line, "In Majorca, why the hell aren't you here yet?" he was a little confused. It didn't take long to put things together, however. It took even less time for him to grab a pair of swim trunks and his go-bag.
He was on the next flight to Spain. Mary wasn't the only one that could use a little sun.