A/N: This is my first venture into the world of Downton Abbey. It's a little out there, definitely AU, and femslash. Enjoy, I hope.

Disclaimer: The show is not mine, the characters are not mine, and I'm not making any money from this story.

First, adv.: being before all others
First, n.: the beginning

"Matthew," said Mrs. Crawley, sounding concerned, "are you all right?"

"I'm actually feeling a bit off tonight as well," Matthew said, standing. "I wonder if you might let me take my leave."

"Of course," Lord Grantham said, standing as well along with the other men. "But don't go all the way home. Stay and lie down in my dressing room."

It was a mark of how bad Matthew must have been feeling that he did not argue. The two men left, and Mary and Lavinia glanced at each other.

"I'm sure he's just tired," Mary murmured to Lavinia, who was staring at the door Matthew had just walked through. "There isn't anything to worry about."

"If only I could say I thought that were true," Lavinia answered, and Mary reached under the table to squeeze her hand.

Matthew slept that night, but Mary did not. Everyone but the Dowager Countess had elected to stay at Downton Abbey for the night, and Mary was painfully conscious of Lavinia sleeping in the room beside her, for what reason she couldn't say. Mary kept going back to the feeling of Lavinia's cold hand in hers when she had squeezed it during dinner. She wished that she could really help in some way.

It was almost a miracle, Mary thought, that she and Lavinia had come such a long way in their relationship in such a short time. They had gone from rivals to friends, and Mary was glad. The two actually had a lot in common, Matthew just being the start. Lately, though, Mary had started noticing strange things about Lavinia. Like how her laugh lit up her whole face, how her lips could purse together while her eyes danced. How even though Mary had seen her cry more times than either of her sisters, Lavinia was one of the strongest people she knew. How she was beautiful, in a soft, gentle, subtle way. How she could make Mary smile without calculation.

The clock in her room chimed one, and a soft knock came at her door, bringing back a flood of bad associations and scattering her thoughts about Lavinia, for which Mary was grateful. Wrapping herself securely in a blanket, she stood and crept to the door.

"Who is it?"

"It's me," came Lavinia's quiet voice. "Did I wake you?"

Mary pulled the door open a crack. "No," she answered.

There was a pause, then Lavinia said, "I can't sleep," and her voice was so small that Mary opened the door fully more out of pity than anything else.

"As you have probably guessed, neither can I," said Mary, and Lavinia gave a soft laugh as Mary closed the door behind her. "Worrying about Matthew?"

"Yes," Lavinia admitted.

"Don't," said Mary in her usual blunt way. "Nothing will be helped by worrying. Try and sleep, so you can care for him in the morning." She smiled. "I know, I'm worried about him too, but there's nothing we can do for him right now."

"You would make a better wife for him than I ever could," said Lavinia abruptly. "Can't I convince him to call it off?"

Mary sat stunned for a minute. "Gracious," she said finally. "Well… I think it would be very hard to convince Matthew to do anything he didn't want to do."

"You could do it," Lavinia said. "Tell him you still love him, and I'll tell him this is how I want things to be, and perhaps that will be enough."

"Who said I still love him?" asked Mary mildly.

"I'm not even going to respond to that," said Lavinia, which surprised a laugh out of Mary before she noticed the tears in Lavinia's eyes.

Without thinking about it, Mary put her arm around Lavinia's shoulders and steered her to the bed. "Lavinia, please don't cry," Mary said desperately. "Of course you should marry him. We're just being silly."

"No," said Lavinia through her tears. "I'm crying because - do you remember what I said to you that time? That I'd die if I couldn't be with him?"

"How could I forget?" Mary whispered.

Lavinia turned eyes framed by wet eyelashes up to Mary. "This hurts more than you can imagine for me to say - but I don't think it's true anymore."


"I think I loved the person Matthew was much more than I ever loved him," Lavinia said, shoulders beginning to shake. "I loved that he was kind, and that he could make me smile, and that he loved me in return. But I don't think I ever was in love with him as a person."

"You loved his qualities," said Mary, trying to sort things out through the distraction of the pounding in her chest. "You loved the kind of person that he was."

"Yes," Lavinia breathed. "Exactly." The two women stared at each other for a minute. "Oh, Mary, please don't hate me. I couldn't bear it if you hated me."

"Hate you?" Mary exclaimed. "I could never hate you, Lavinia." Their hands found each other and squeezed, hard, in a silent promise.

"Oh thank God," Lavinia breathed, her tears stopping. "Now you see. It would be so much better if you married him instead of me, someone who truly loves him. And I will go back to London to leave all of you alone after so long."

"Lavinia," said Mary, suddenly feeling cold, "I can't. I have to marry Sir Richard."

"You don't want to marry him," said Lavinia flatly. "He will make your life hell, Mary, like he tried to make mine."

"You don't understand," Mary said, fighting the terrible urge to tell Lavinia everything. "There are - other circumstances."

There was a silence, before Lavinia said, almost too quietly for Mary to hear her, "Because of the Turkish gentleman."

As always, Mary felt a flare of panic rise inside her at the mention of her greatest secret and biggest downfall, and pushed it down. This was Lavinia, she was a friend, but - "How do you know?"

"Sir Richard and I had a closer working relationship than you probably know," she answered. "I overheard the end of the conversation he had with Mrs. Bates, and…" she took a deep breath. "It only confirmed the rumors that I had already heard."

Mary sat frozen. She could not have articulated why she felt such fear at that moment, only that she knew that if Lavinia thought badly of her because of it, she would not be able to bear it.

Lavinia saw her face, and squeezed Mary's fingers again. "And if you think for one minute that that alters what I think about you, you don't know me at all."

Mary looked at her in surprise, and a small smile played across Lavinia's lips. "We do know each other now, after all. We've spend enough time together, don't you think?"

"Yes," Mary said, awash in relief. "Thank you."

"You know my history, and never judged me for it," said Lavinia simply. "I know yours and never thought of judging you, either."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, hands still clasped, before Mary shifted. "Are you feeling tired at all?"

"Yes, a bit," Lavinia answered, standing. "I think it's time we both got some sleep."

Mary walked her to the door, giving Lavinia a spontaneous hug as she left. "I'm glad we're friends," Mary said, and meant it.

"So am I," Lavinia answered, and they parted.

Mary, however, didn't sleep. She stayed awake all night, staring at her reflection in the mirror, and watched tears run down her cheeks, for what reason she didn't know.

Mary's entire body felt heavy that morning at breakfast. Lavinia had come down a few minutes after her, saying that she had been to see Matthew and that he seemed about the same. Somehow Mary wasn't able to look at her. Memories of last night's revelations were staining her cheeks with red. Everything seemed different now, in the sunlight.

Mary, Lavinia, Edith, Cora, and Isobel were talking quietly in the small parlor together when Sybil came rushing in. "Lavinia," she gasped, "come quickly. Matthew's much worse."

Lavinia jumped to her feet and hurried after Sybil, Mary right behind her, their hearts pounding. The other women followed.

Doctor Clarkson was with Matthew when they arrived. He simply looked at them and shook his head.

"I don't understand," said Mary, feeling dizzy. She was barely aware of Lavinia's hand on her shoulder, steadying her. "Lavinia said he was fine just a few hours ago."

"This is a strange disease," Doctor Clarkson said, and Mary wanted to shake him. "It has many twists and turns. I would be surprised to see him recover now."

Instinctively, Mary turned to Lavinia. Her face was set, but her mouth trembled. Like last night, their hands found each other, giving each other strength. As if they had discussed it, they both sat down on Matthew's bed, each one taking one of his hands while keeping theirs closely linked.

The hours passed slowly. Doctor Clarkson attended to the other patients in the house, while Sibyl did what she could to make Matthew more comfortable. But it wasn't enough. Late in the afternoon, Matthew's breathing became harsher and harsher, and less and less frequent, before it suddenly stopped all together.

"No," said Mary, or maybe it was Lavinia - but it wasn't important. "No. Matthew. Matthew!"

"Shh, Mary," whispered her mother, as Doctor Clarkson closed Matthew's eyes. Mary looked around her, lost, and saw that Lavinia was not as calm as she had seemed - tears streamed down her cheeks. Mary, meanwhile, felt horribly empty, as though she would never cry again.

Mary let Cora lead her from the room, leaving Lavinia to mourn Matthew alone. But she refused, following them into the hallway, saying that that Mary should be allowed to mourn him as well, or neither of them should.

So Mary and Lavinia found themselves sitting in Matthew's bedroom together, staring down at the man who was going to save Downton.

Mary spoke first. "He looks so still," she said helplessly. "So alive and so still… just like before." And Lavinia remembered that this was not the first man that Mary had seen die.

"We mustn't remember him like this," said Lavinia firmly. "We must think of him as he was at the beginning of the war, full of life."

"I can't stay," Mary admitted, standing and turning away. "I feel like I'm going to faint."

Lavinia looked at him for a last moment, then stood as well. "We should both lie down."

"I don't want to be alone."

A cool hand slipped into Mary's warm one. "Then you won't be."

They both went to Mary's room, saying that they wanted to talk about Matthew and remember him together. Every so often, one or the other of them voiced a memory of Matthew, but mostly they were silent. Finally, it was Lavinia who brought up the inevitable.

"What happens now?" she asked Mary softly. "Your father contacts the next heir."

When Mary spoke, her voice was like ice. "No. Not this time. This time, we break the entail."

"It can't be done," said Lavinia in shock. "Wasn't that the point of Matthew? Because the entail could not be broken?"

Mary was silent a moment, then spoke again. "If it cannot be done, there is only one other option. There is no other heir aside from me. Papa cannot name me as his official heir, but he can name a male who is a close friend of the family."

"Sir Richard," Lavinia breathed. "Because he has your story."

"Sir Richard will still marry me," Mary said, her voice bleak. Alone with Lavinia, she had begun to feel less empty, but the thought of her fiancé brought the feeling right back. "He will get the title and the money, but the estate will stay within the family."

"Is that really what you want?"

"We shouldn't be talking about this," Mary said. "Matthew is dead, the estate is in danger, and what I want is of no consequence."

"You're evading the point," said Lavinia, and Mary had no answer, because it was true.

"What will you do?" Mary asked eventually. "Go back to London and your life before you met Matthew?"

"I don't know," Lavinia admitted. "I've changed too much to imagine myself living like that again."

"What do you want, Lavinia?" Mary asked, honestly curious. Lavinia didn't answer, except to twine her fingers through Mary's on the bed. Mary nearly stopped breathing at the touch, more gentle than any she had ever felt before. A shiver ran up her spine, but before she could even begin to figure out why, the door opened and Lavinia dropped her hand.

It was Cora, her eyes sad. "We aren't changing for dinner," she told them, "but Anna can bring you both trays if you would like."

"Yes," answered Mary. "Thank you."

Lavinia and Mary ate in silence, afterwards going downstairs to see if anyone else was there. Matthew's mother, Mrs. Crawley, was nowhere to be found; Carson told them she had gone home. Mary opened her mouth to say that Lavinia was welcome to go also, but behind him she shook her head at Mary, who closed her mouth without saying anything. Lord Grantham and Cora were upstairs, Sybil and Edith were talking quietly in the library, and the Dowager Countess had yet to return to Downton, although she had surely heard the news by now.

"It's late," Mary said, even though it wasn't, and turned for the door. "I'm going up."

"I am also," said Lavinia quickly, and they walked upstairs together, turning for their respective doors and saying goodnight.

Mary could not sleep. She tossed and turned, drifting off into a doze only to jolt awake again, gasping and sweating from nightmares half-formed. Finally she sat bolt upright in bed after a particularly bad one, hand clapped to her mouth as she fought a scream.

Half-crazed with an emotion she couldn't name, Mary bolted from her room without a second thought. She ran silently through the carpeted halls until she reached Lavinia's room, and she was inside in an instant.

Lavinia sat up in bed, red hair falling in shiny waves around her face, and Mary's stomach seemed to clench as she immediately regretted following the impulse. Oh, God, why was she here, why had she chosen here of all places to come when she felt tired and lost and alone?

"Mary!" Lavinia exclaimed, throwing back the covers and hurrying to her. "Is everything all right? What's happened?"

"No," Mary choked out, "everything is not all right."

"Tell me," Lavinia coaxed. "Tell me what's wrong."

The words fell from her mouth as if a dam was breaking. "I can't sleep, and the rest of my life is over, I have no future, and - and - I'm all alone!" She burst out, and Lavinia knew this was the crux of the matter. "Matthew was all I had, and even though I couldn't have married him he was still my family, and now he's gone, and the only one left for me is Sir Richard, and - oh, Lavinia-" and her name was a plea, "I can't live with Sir Richard, I can't marry him, and I have no one now."

"No," Lavinia said, her voice very soft. "You don't. You have me." And she held out her hand in invitation.

Mary stared at Lavinia's outstretched hand as she slowly, slowly placed her own inside it. And with the touch came the realization of what these strange feelings were that she felt when she thought about Lavinia, and why she had felt so despairing when she thought of her future life. The one thing she had wanted most of all, she couldn't have had, no matter what she did.

But somehow, she wasn't alone in how she felt. Lavinia, it seemed, felt the same way. Mary wondered for a wild second if she were reading too much into Lavinia's actions, if she were taking too much for granted, but then Lavinia's palm was caressing her cheek and the air rushed out of her chest with a shuddering breath.

Her hands reached up to twine in Lavinia's hair, which was every bit as soft as it looked. Lavinia shut her eyes, and Mary took her opportunity to release one hand and place it over Lavinia's on her cheek.

"Darling," Mary breathed, and the word warmed the air between them. "Oh my darling."

That night was a night of firsts. Lavinia's first, and Mary's first that counted. The first time either of them had undressed another person, the first time that their lips touched, the first time they moved with someone and felt at one with someone.

After, sleepy and smiling, they lay twined together in Lavinia's bed, covers pulled snugly over them. Lavinia's head was pillowed on Mary's chest, as Mary stroked her hair. Eventually Lavinia fell asleep, but Mary stayed awake until the sky began to lighten, and she could slip away to her own bedroom.

They continued the pattern for weeks, through Matthew's funeral, and setting the date for Mary and Sir Richard's wedding. True to her word, Mary, Cora, and the Dowager Countess had managed to convince Robert to make Sir Richard the heir, and as Sir Richard had agreed, Robert had not been able to fight it. It did solve a lot of the problems, he admitted, and it kept the estate within the family, and so he did not fight it.

Mary had never been happier. Even the knowledge that she would soon be married to a man who she did not even like could not dampen her spirits. Lavinia had become very important to her very slowly, so that she was only realizing it now. They discussed the estate together, talked about books and philosophy and politics. Mary had come to rely on Lavinia's input and clear logic so that now she did not know what she would do without it. But if Mary were honest with herself, it was more than that. She felt lost when Lavinia wasn't there, as though a part of herself were missing and Lavinia was what made her whole. Lavinia, too, was happy. She had been in love with Mary almost since the moment she had laid eyes on her, but had never expected that Mary might be the least bit interested. But more and more she was beginning to feel like an intruder. She did not know what Mary expected to happen after the wedding, but surely she realized that she and Lavinia could not spend every night together anymore. And Lavinia's heart broke a little more each day, as the wedding day approached.

So, five days before Mary's wedding, Lavinia announced at dinner that she would be returning to London on the train the morning after the wedding.

Mary's fork clattered onto her plate. Lavinia could not bring herself to look at her.

"But my dear," said Cora, "you know that you are welcome to stay."

"Yes," Lavinia assured her, "I do know, and I am very grateful. But as much as I have enjoyed my time here, I have a life to return to in London, and I must do so."

Mary felt like she was drowning. She could see Richard frowning at her out of the corner of her eye, but she did not care. "You can't go," she managed to say.

"I'm sorry," Lavinia said, not knowing what else to do. "But I must. You see," she added, turning to face Mary in an attempt to make her understand, "I'll only get in the way here from now on."

The look on Mary's face changed to one of pure anger. "So you'll sacrifice yourself, in the hope of saving everyone else? How noble of you."

"I do my best," Lavinia answered, trying not to show how much Mary's words had hurt her. "I always try to do my best for you - for everyone. That's all I've ever tried to do."

Neither Mary nor Lavinia spoke for the rest of dinner. Nor did they speak again until the wedding reception, when Lavinia offered half-hearted congratulations and Mary refused to accept them. Instead, she drew Lavinia into a corner, her eyes pleading.

"Please," she whispered, "please, don't go."

"You wouldn't want me here, a reminder of the past as you try to make a new life," Lavinia answered. "Don't ask me to stay, please, Mary."

"I can't lose you," Mary said, her eyes filled with fear. "You're - you're my anchor. You keep me steady. Don't leave me adrift in this world."

Lavinia took her hand, as much as she dared to do in the crowded room. "I wish you had said that earlier. If you're still saying it in years to come, I'll reconsider coming back. But for now, you have your own life to live. Don't hold back. And don't think for an instant that this isn't hurting me as much as it's hurting you. My heart is yours. It's always been yours. And it always will be."

Tears glistened Mary's eyes, but she said nothing. Lavinia began to walk away, then on impulse turned her head and murmured, "I leave you with my love, my darling." She didn't look back.

Twenty years passed before Lavinia heard from Mary Carlisle. There was often news in the newspapers about that family, which did not surprise Lavinia, giving who owned most of the papers, but she had heard nothing directly from Mary since the wedding. She had three children like her mother before her, two boys and a girl, and was apparently living happily at Downton with Sir Richard. Lavinia had never married; instead, she began to help her father with his law firm, and to essentially take over with managing it when he died. But one morning, she received an urgent telegram, which she opened with only passing interest but which caused her to gasp in shock.

Richard fallen from horse.
Passed away a few hours ago.
Please come.
I need you.
I'm sorry, for everything.

Lavinia stared at the words for a very long time. She was hurt that Mary only chose to contact her now, when she had real need of her. However, she also knew that she had hurt Mary when she had left, and that Mary was living her own life now. She couldn't really blame her; Lavinia had not tried to contact Mary since leaving Downton either. But the argument was moot; whatever her feelings, Lavinia knew she would go immediately, because despite all the time which had passed, she was still in love with Mary.

When she arrived at Downton early that evening, Mary's middle child, her second son named Robert after her father, was at the platform to meet her. He smiled despite the sadness on his face, and bowed, seeming to know her already. Lavinia looked at him in confusion, but he was already explaining.

"You must be Ms. Swire. Mama speaks of you often. You are one of her closest friends, and it will do her so much good to see you."

After a moment Lavinia recovered herself enough to say, "I'm so sorry about your father."

Robert nodded his thanks. "We've all moved on to worrying about Mama by this point. She's locked herself in one of the rooms of the house, a spare bedroom, and hasn't come out for hours."

Lavinia nodded, her throat feeling tight. Neither she nor Robert spoke again until he offered to show her to the room where Mary was.

"No, thank you," Lavinia answered him. "I know where she will be."

Even after all these years, Lavinia could still find her way to her old room in Downton without thinking. She gently knocked on the door and called softly, "It's me."

The door opened and Lavinia slipped through, closing it behind her. There was a fire burning, and candles on the table. Mary stood quietly, the tracks of tears on her cheeks but a smile on her lips. Neither spoke, but they held each other in the middle of the room for a long time.

Eventually Mary stirred and pulled away enough to see Lavinia's face. "He guessed about us," she said, shocking Lavinia. "I would have contacted you sooner, but he wouldn't let me."

"Oh, Mary," said Lavinia softly, stroking her hair. "I'm so sorry."

"So am I." Mary gave a small laugh. "You will think I'm a horrible person, Lavinia, but the first thing I thought of when they told me he was dead was that I could invite you back without being afraid."

"I'm so glad you did," Lavinia said. "And I would never think you a horrible person. Just a freed one."

"A freed one," said Mary thoughtfully. "I like the sound of that. Are you free, then, as well?"

"Yes," answered Lavinia. "I run my father's law firm, but I have begun to think about selling it."

"I'm glad," Mary breathed. "My eldest son will inherit; I'm the Dowager Countess now. I have that house to live in, but the last time I was in there, it was lonely."

"Perhaps," Lavinia suggested, "if I were there as well, it would not be quite so lonely."

"I do not think it would be," Mary agreed. "It would not be lonely at all."

The two women began to smile, and Lavinia watched the years fall away from Mary's face as she was sure the same thing was happening to her. And it was just like the first time, with one small difference - Mary's was the hand offered, and Lavinia the one who accepted her, with joy.

A/N: Please leave a review!