Title: After the storm
Summary: One wedding. Ten perspectives. One fic that became quite significantly longer than originally intended since the characters each wanted their moment of glory. And, despite my original intentions, some of them (okay, most of them) got a bit sentimental. They're not even remotely apologetic for either of these facts.
Disclaimer: Characters clearly aren't mine (this was apparent even as I tried to force them into submitting to my ideas about how this fic should be).
The preparations for her sister's wedding are so dissimilar to that of her own, she notes. She doesn't entirely know how she feels about this. She watches her mother from across the lawn, corralling the servants, making sure every last detail is perfect. Mrs Hughes, overseeing the decorations and arrangements in the garden, directing the maids, footmen, kitchen staff – anyone – with apparent effortless efficiency. Carson, glaring at anyone attempting even for a second to neglect their duty, wordlessly keeping them all under control despite the high spirits of the day. And then he sees her and his face relaxes almost into a smile.
The rain and the storms that have been an almost constant presence over the last few weeks have disappeared almost as suddenly as they started to reveal a bright blue sky she'd almost forgotten existed. She's glad that they'll be able to have the wedding party in the gardens; she recalls the last wedding that nearly took place in the house, and she doesn't really think that anyone wants to draw parallels with that.
Sybil wanders the gardens and then into the house, observing the busyness, the decorations, and is unable not to be touched by the overwhelming feeling of happiness that pervades the place. It is almost as if the last few months have not happened; as if the house were never in disgrace and in the papers. Perhaps she would be able to convince herself of this more so if, several months later, she could not still see the despair on Mary's face whenever she closes her eyes. It had only been a fleeting glimpse; a momentary lapse in her sister's mask that mirrored the whole feeling of the house. And yet, yet it remains the most prominent image.
Fortunately, on her return to Downton this time the house and its occupants appear to be themselves again; better still, they are a far happier version of themselves, the past events now seemingly forgotten. And she is glad of this, that these feelings and this event will displace her recollections from her last visit.
For once, her baby seems to have stopped restlessly moving inside her. And she feels all at once at peace and out of place back here in what was once her home. It's a strange feeling.
She slowly ascends the stairs, feeling out of breath as she nears the top. She walks slowly to Mary's room, passing what was once – and briefly now is again – her own room. She opens the door to Mary's room.
"Sybil!" her oldest sister greets her in delight. There is no false smile plastered on her features this time. "How well you look!" Mary takes her into an embrace, despite the awkwardness of her progressed pregnancy getting in the way.
"How well you look," Sybil repeats back to her with meaning. And she certainly does mean it. She is unable to reconcile this Mary with the one she saw only several months ago, or even the Mary who attended her wedding, uncomfortable even as she attempted to pretend that she was not, the facade only falling briefly as she was asked about the progress of her own wedding plans to Sir Richard. This Mary moves back to her chair allowing Anna to continue to finish her hair, and is unable to contain her innate joy even as she asks questions of her sister, and the baby, and, remarkably without condescension, even her husband.
And then, her mother comes into the room, smiles widely at Mary and Anna, and then even more so at Sybil before asking her if she needs help in getting ready, her uncontainable happiness spilling out as she talks on about preparations and that Mary needs to get ready quicker as her father will be waiting for her at precisely half past – to which Mary rolls her eyes – and how glad they are that the weather is so, unexpectedly, lovely for the occasion, and where is Edith?
Yes, Sybil thinks, life at Downton certainly has returned to normal. She looks at Mary, and cannot help being pleased for her.
Particularly given that this time, she finally agrees with her sister's choice of prospective husband.
She stands in front of the mirror, looking at herself as she wears a dress of her sister's choosing. It becomes her well, she almost begrudgingly admits given her previous reluctance to wear something she would never usually consider.
She hopes that Sir Anthony Strallen will like it. She turns slowly, watching herself in this different outfit. She is unused to this feeling of caring so deeply what anyone – outside of her family, and her family is different – actually thinks of her. Their paths have not crossed for months until, again, recently she saw him. She'd assumed (with more than a little pain) that, like most of their other acquaintance, he'd been cautiously avoiding the house and its myriad scandals, for fear of being tainted by association. But then, he saw her, and he greeted her, and she found once again a renewed… feeling… towards him. He'd been travelling, having left on quite unexpected business, he explained, but was sorry to hear about their recent troubles. And then, they started just talking.
To know that he is attending the wedding, she is all at once anxious and excited.
Ready, she goes to Mary's room to watch the final preparations. It's almost a ritual of theirs from years ago, the sisters sitting or standing in Mary's room, watching her get ready. She almost feels nostalgic as she leans against the bedpost, Sybil sat on the bed, the easy discourse of the oldest and youngest sisters, Anna perfecting Mary's hair, and for a minute she is taken back to years before everything, when all three of them were so different. Then Sybil reaches out to her, takes her hand as the other rests against her pregnant stomach and she is back in the present; Edith watches her. And then, Sybil smiles at her glance. "The baby is moving. It almost never stops. Here, feel." Sybil pulls Edith's hand to her stomach, and almost immediately she feels the pressure and ease of her niece or nephew moving against her hand. She is in awe.
She catches Mary watching them in the reflection of the mirror. Their eyes meet, and no more the days of old when everything would be a bickering match; instead her sister smiles at her and she returns it. Of few good things from the years of the war and recent events, they grew up and grew closer.
And then Sybil stands up, as quickly as she can. "I suppose I ought to get ready. Anna, I don't suppose you'd be able to help me? I feel so useless these days." With Mary's consenting nod, Anna leaves the room, indicating that she'll be back shortly.
"That dress looks well on you," Mary tells her.
"Thank you," Edith replies.
"I'm sure Sir Anthony will approve." It is said without irony.
Edith says nothing, but tries to hide a blush. Mary smiles as she tries unsuccessfully to fix flowers into her hair.
"Here, let me help you," Edith says, moving towards her sister. "I'm glad that you'll not be moving far away," she says, almost without intending to she gently entwines the flower stems into Mary's hair. "I've become used to it being just the two of us." She'll be lonely without her sister, something she's never before really considered a likelihood.
"Oh, don't worry, I'll be back frequently for dinners, and luncheon, and well, probably even the occasional breakfast. You'll be glad when I'm not here!" Mary replies lightly.
"Do you not..." Edith starts, and then stops. Her hands finish placing the flowers and she steps back and admires her handiwork. She starts again. "Will you not find it strange, no longer living here?"
Mary is quiet for a minute, and Edith is almost sorry that she voiced her question, and expects a brush-off answer. "I'm happy to be marrying Matthew, and in many ways, I'm looking forward to living with him. But I can't imagine how strange it will be actually living with him, with Downton not being my home." It's about as close as her sister will ever admit to her to being anxious about the future, and she sees it as such a big admission. "But still, Downton won't always be your home either. You'll marry soon, I'm sure of it." Again, she feels the weight of what is not being said in their conversation, and the advances they've made over the years; the admission that Mary thinks that someone would actually want to marry her, the plain sister.
"I do rather hope so. I couldn't imagine living with mama and papa forever," she replies with a smile, lightening the moment. In the mirror, Mary smiles back. "There, I think you are finished."
"Apart from the dress," Mary points out drily.
"I'll go and tell Anna that you're ready for the dress. I'm sure I'll be of much more help to Sybil than trying to help you into that dress!"
"Thank you, Edith," Mary replies. And somehow, Edith understands that it is thanks for far more than just sorting her hair and fetching Anna.
It is with bittersweet happiness that she helps Lady Mary into her wedding dress, laces up the back with an ease telling of years of practice. As she does so, she remembers her own wedding day, her happiness at becoming Mrs Bates, of her forever being connected to Mr John Bates. She remembers the furtive look of barely concealed amusement on Lady Mary's face as she took her to the room prepared for her wedding night. She remembers her wedding night... And after, when her life finally felt complete.
Now, Lady Mary smiles sadly at her in understanding. She takes her hand, firmly, briefly, a gesture of support, borne of years of friendship and helping each other through the most challenging of times. And soon Anna realises that today is her turn to be supportive. But she doesn't get the opportunity.
"I'm glad you're coming with me to Crawley House, Anna," Lady Mary says. "I'm not sure how I'd cope without you."
It's not entirely a lie, but Anna is reasonably sure that Lady Mary can cope with anything; she has even more proof of that now. And as she observes yet another not-so-fleeting look of pure joy on her lady's face, Anna knows that with Mr Crawley, Lady Mary doesn't really need her support.
But she wonders if Lady Mary depends on their friendship as equally as she does; their years of shared secrets and scandal and the best and worst of events and mutual respect run so much deeper than just a working relationship.
"I'm glad to be coming with you; I'm not sure what it would be like to stay at Downton without you. And I'm very glad to know that you'll be happy."
Lady Mary is taken aback for a minute, before a slight wistful smile appears on her face, and she practically whispers to herself, "Yes, so am I."
"And one day, soon, you will be happy again too." It is said with such conviction as though Mary really believes that there will be a happy ever after for her, too.
"I hope so, milady," Anna replies. She just wishes she knew when.
She watches her son bemusedly as he dashes round the house fretfully, distractedly looking through his belongings and getting slightly short with Molesley. She understands that he is anxious (still, she can recall her anxiety on the morning of her own wedding day), but he is nearly ready with exception of his jacket, she has the rings, and so she cannot help but wonder as to the reason for his fretfulness.
He walks into his study, casting glances about the room before starting to lift up books, paper, any stray items.
She follows him. "Matthew, what on earth are you doing?" she queries.
"I cannot find it, Mother," he states without any introduction as to what he has misplaced.
"What is it that you're looking for?" she asks.
"The toy… stuffed… animal," he replies, struggling even to recall words in his distracted state. "Dog!" he eventually states triumphantly as the word comes to him.
"Do you need it right now? Surely you can get through the wedding without needing a child's toy?" Still it does not make sense to her. She has seen his reactions previously where the toy is concerned, but as to why he might need it at the wedding; no, this she cannot understand.
Agitated, he continues searching through the contents of the study. And then he stops. He turns to her. "You'll think it silly," he says, a slight embarrassed look on his face.
"I assure you that I won't," she replies. Or at least if she does, silly will be a great improvement over concerned.
"Someone gave me the dog years ago, during the war, for luck. I took it with me whenever I went into battle, just in case there was anything in it. But eventually, it started to have a different meaning – I'd pick up the dog ready to place it in my pocket, and it…calmed me. It took away some of my anxiety and helped me focus on what I had to do." He looks at his mother. "It's silly, I know."
And suddenly it dawns on her. "Mary gave you the dog, didn't she?"
Slightly self-conscious, he replies. "Yes, Mary. Mary gave me the dog."
She smiles. "Well, we'd better find it then."
With them both working together, it's only a short while before they locate it. "Molesley, could you fetch my jacket?" he asks. And then, he is ready.
Isobel makes a start to exit the room, and then she turns, about to tell him that she is just about to gather the final items she needs and then she will be ready when she stops.
He puts the dog in his jacket pocket, his hand lingering there for a moment as closes his eyes for a second, thinking she is not looking, and then she can see some of the anxiety drain away, a slight smile on his face.
She leaves the room to gather her hat, bag and gloves without informing him, unwilling to disturb him.
"Are you ready Mother?" he asks a minute later, approaching her.
She nods, stops, and takes a step back to fully see him. He stands tall, happy, elegant. "My, you do look handsome. Just like your father. I only wish he were here today to see how well you've grown up, and to tell you how proud he is of you." She can see that he shares her wish, nodding briefly. "But in his stead, I just wanted to say how proud I am of you Matthew. My darling boy. I'm so glad that you're finally happy, and finally doing the right thing."
"Finally doing as you wish, you mean," he replies, but it is with a smile and he is happy, and it's his wedding day, so this time she lets him have it. He leans over and kisses her on the cheek. "You look lovely as ever, Mother," he tells her. She smiles.
He holds his arm out and she takes it gladly. Together, they walk to the church.
At his wife's expression, he turns towards the staircase to see his eldest daughter descend the stairs. There are no words to express how he feels. She is beautiful – she always has been beautiful – but in her ivory gown, every bit the blushing bride now, he notices, she is exquisite. And he cannot be more proud of her.
Even more so given recent events. Her past splashed across the papers, gossip spreading out past London into their own county, and through all this she has remained strong. At least in part he has Matthew to thank for this, he knows, as well as Anna and Edith and all their family, and the staff. He cannot begin to fully understand what she has been through the past few months, but despite this she holds her head high now, her smile sincere as she elegantly processes down the stairs.
As she reaches him, he cannot complete the phrase he starts. "My dear..." He kisses her on her cheek, and she beams, and there is nothing more to say.
Her sisters follow behind her, both equally as beautiful in their own way, and he is overwhelmed by a pang of guilt at the present rift in his relationship with his youngest daughter, and the way that he has on more than one occasion overlooked his middle daughter.
But this is not to be contemplated now. Later, later there will be time for reconciliation and to make up for some of his past failings.
They make small talk in the car on the way to the church; notably complying with the English fascination of discussing the weather. Although, he cannot help but agree how glorious the day is, particularly when the recent constant rain and storms almost made him wonder if they would ever see the sun again. In this instance, however, he knows that the topic of discussion is insignificant; it is simply to cover nervousness. Strangely, he's more than a little nervous himself.
His feelings are only exacerbated as they stand waiting outside the church for a few minutes, until he turns towards his eldest daughter and sees her open expression of anticipation and nervousness in equal measure. He takes a breath, and finds strength.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
"Yes." She nods.
And as he escorts Mary towards her future husband, a man that he has considered every bit his own son for a substantial amount of time, he cannot help but feel her whole body relax, and see the shared look of desire and joy as they are somehow both oblivious to anything else in the church. They are both more than ready – far more so than he was at his own wedding.
And as he hands his daughter over to Matthew – entirely a formality, she has too long been her own person for it to have the original intended meaning – he cannot help but feel a sense of satisfaction that everything will finally be as it ought. And he has no fear for the future of Downton in their hands.
She wonders if, like her, most of the guests are there in their hundreds at least partly for the curiosity of seeing the disgraced Lady Mary Crawley forcibly be married to her cousin for the sake of propriety. Admittedly, he is a cousin who is heir to the Earl of Grantham, but even so, an arrangement such as this? Clearly it cannot be satisfactory to either party involved. But he needs a wife and she...? Yes, she needs him even more so.
She knew the rumours, the gossip. Oh, even back when her Aunt Violet denied it, she knew. And now, she knows the reality of the papers. Back in London, it's quite the discussion point, particularly with her family connection. She reluctantly (no, there is more than a slight amount of ill-concealed delight; most of which is as a result of being the centre of the discussions) tells stories of her cousin Mary who, as a child, was wild and impertinent.
She tells little of the reality; that Mary was someone who frustrated her, mostly as a result of the fact that she stood up to her, questioned her on all the fallacies she told, and who did as she wanted. Yes, Mary was intelligent and sharp-witted and stubborn and always right, and was clearly favoured because of this.
Yet Susan doesn't take this into account as she watches with great intrigue as her cousin is paraded down the aisle in front of over a hundred eager voyeurs, as she is married off (in the style of the aristocracy, Susan fancies) to secure her future and overwrite a questionable, damaged past – having taken a lover – lover! – who died in her bed.
She alternates her view of the reactions of the guests, the reactions of her cousin, and the reaction of the groom, eager to report back to her friends in London who unfortunately had not been invited.
She is disappointed, then, by reality. By the look of enchantment on the groom's face. By the consequent delight of the guests as they look from groom to bride.
She knows, so well, the false mask of polite pleasure her cousin Mary so easily puts on. This look – this contentment, happiness, even meekness – Susan knows well enough that there's nothing fabricated about it.
And her enjoyment of the event unconsciously diminishes.
There are moments in her life that she particularly vividly remembers. She knows that this will be one of them. The sight of her eldest daughter finally united with someone who not only deserves her, who is suitable for her, but who clearly loves her. Fortunately, her daughter's feelings appear to be no less intense. Regardless of everything that has occurred in the past (and thankfully, she has a fairly short-term memory when it comes to her considerations of potential suitable husbands for her daughter at any one point), this moment, now, when she sees her daughter's openly joyful countenance as her husband places a ring on her finger, the final words said by the vicar, she cannot imagine a more perfect outcome. Mary finally settled. Mary, the future Countess of Grantham. And, although previously not such an important consideration for her, happy.
She cannot help but also recall the moment when she was in this place – this very same church – Robert beside her. Oh, but she had been so young. Young and in love and yet so consciously aware that her new husband, while regarding her with warmth and courtesy, did not return her feelings.
Her own mother had had little sympathy for her predicament. The terms of the marriage had been brokered in closed conversations between his parents and hers on the understanding that she was partial to him and his designs upon her; it wasn't until later that she was fully aware of what they had decided on her behalf.
Surprisingly, unlike her eldest daughter, she hadn't even entertained the notion that she might have some element of choice. Although, retrospectively, she doubts that given the choice, anything would have been different.
She recalls, vividly, the moment after they were pronounced husband and wife, and her myriad emotions. Her happiness and, yes, doubt. The look her new mother-in-law gave her that was in part satisfaction and part disapproval. The overwhelming feeling of wondering just how she was going to adapt to the ways of this country, now so seemingly far from her beloved home nation. The hope that one day her husband might actually come to regard her as something more than a saviour of Downton, someone whom he liked on some level but towards whom he was fairly indifferent.
Yes, even now she can recall all these feelings. Looking at Mary, and Matthew, now, she knows that they share none of these feelings except an overwhelming happiness. It makes her cry with both elation that Mary is finally settled and happy, and envy that they will have no doubt of the other's feelings. She dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief, and looks over at her mother-in-law. All she can see is satisfaction. And pride. And maybe, maybe, even a small amount of emotion.
He reads of their engagement two months after the stories were published in his newspaper. Well, newspapers, really. He doesn't imagine that in reality it took so long for the happy event to occur.
He had the stories of the trial of the valet and the related story of the indiscretions of Lady Mary Crawley published concurrently the day after he returned to London from Downton. He reassures himself that it was a business decision and not one connected to any emotional consideration. He doesn't regret it. He's a man who sells newspapers. And they were stories that sold well. They were stories that got him ahead of his competitors, stories that had so much readership interest that they allowed his papers to print numerous further related stories in subsequent editions. Yes, they were stories that sold very well.
He heard later that she had not moved to America, that she had stayed at Downton, but shielded herself from all social engagements – not that these were forthcoming. He was surprised at this; he didn't think that she would stay in the country long enough to feel the fallout. But then, he realised, he couldn't always predict her reactions.
Later, he read of their engagement. And the pieces fell into place.
Sometimes, he still thinks of her. He thinks of what they could have been together, and he's occasionally still disappointed that she couldn't appreciate that. But then, he pushes her out of his mind. It is not in his nature to dwell in the past. It is not in his nature to give in to emotion.
Today, however, he thinks of her. He sits in his office and thinks of her wedding to her solicitor cousin. Thinks of how things might have been different. And then, he tries to direct his thoughts solely to the story. He thinks of the people he has in place to cover the wedding; the angle the story will have in tomorrow's paper, and sees it now. How the once-fallen daughter of an Earl redeemed herself and secured her future: scandal, the aristocracy, love (if it's helpful to include such details; on a personal level given the subjects, he'd prefer not), and a happy ending all in one neat package.
It's a story that will sell well. And, after all, it is his job to sell newspapers.
He has her toy dog in his pocket, but it's no longer for luck. He doesn't need luck today; he doesn't care if it rains, it snows, if the guests don't turn up (well, he'd perhaps like a couple of guests. And it would be useful to have the vicar there as well, he thinks). As long as there is him, and there is her, and preferably a few of their favoured relations and the vicar, this day will be the happiest day in his recollection.
He has been waiting for this day for what seems like a lifetime, and the reality is, that beyond him and her and their favoured relations, he recalls little of the day.
He remembers her walking towards him down the aisle, unable to take his eyes off her, and then, somehow the ceremony itself was over, and she was his and he was hers. He recollects their first kiss as husband and wife – fleeting and almost chaste, and not nearly as charged as some (most) of their previous kisses. He recollects their second kiss as husband and wife, in the car back to Downton. Not nearly so chaste and audience-friendly, and full of promise of what the night was to hold.
After this, there was food, and there was small talk with so many people he didn't or barely knew, and bigger talk with people he did know, and then, finally, they managed to escape for a moment alone. They sat on their bench by the large, old tree, hidden from their guests, exhausted and in silence, her with her head on his shoulder, his arm around her, fingers tracing small patterns on her arm as finally this was all permitted, and socially acceptable.
"I wish all the guests would just go home so that we could finally have some time alone together," she says.
"Oh, really?" he asks with a sly grin, and there is more than a little insinuation in his tone about her expectations for the evening.
She shakes her head and rolls her eyes at his wilful misinterpretation of her statement, but it is in jest. He can see the desire in her eyes. And, God, if he could only legitimately get rid of all the guests this very minute...
Their moment together is fleeting, and their hiding place is discovered, as Sybil informs them that it is expected that they dance together at least once.
He remembers their dance. He has no idea what music was playing, but he remembers the feel of her in his arms, her warmth, his hand on her back, the almost improper lack of distance between them, and that continued look in her eyes of want. And, overwhelmingly, he recalls the feeling that this day could all be over so that they could start living their lives together. Now.
It is later, much later, as she lies undressed in his arms, warm, happy, exhausted. The sheets cover them as she drifts on the edge of sleep.
The world may know that he was not her first, but at this moment, finally, it seems inconsequential. Her night of whatever it was she shared with Kemal Pamuk so many years ago cannot be compared with the experience of loving someone with whom she has shared so much more than just flirtation and lust.
She has been quiet for a while and he asks what she is thinking.
"I'm almost not sure that I deserve to be this happy," she admits. "With everything that has happened, Lavinia, Carlisle, Pamuk..." She doesn't continue. His response is to kiss her bare shoulder and move his arms closer around her.
"You deserve to be this happy if I do," he replies.
She says nothing for a while, just enjoying his attention.
She moves her head to give him better access and in doing so, spies her own toy dog lying abandoned on the floor by his jacket. Not so much for them the formality of being dressed in their nightclothes this evening. She smiles in recollection.
"You didn't need luck today, I hope?" she asks.
He sees where her gaze lies and laughs against her neck. "The dog? I wanted to finally return him to his rightful owner."
"And yet, there he is on the floor, and not actually returned to me," she dryly notes.
"Perhaps," he says, his lips slowly, arduously, making their way up the top of her neck and towards hers, "he reminded me of you and helped calm me down this morning as I waited for you to finally become my wife."
She smiles against his cheek, a little touched by his admission. It makes her brave enough to tell him her own truth.
"The people there today…" she stops for a moment and closes her eyes as he kisses behind her ear before moving onwards across her cheek. "I know that so many of them were there to see the disgraced Lady Mary Crawley marry her middle class cousin against her will. And strangely, for once, I really didn't care what anyone thought. You know, I never once before thought that marriage might actually involve loving my husband. Today, it was all I could think of. I just wanted them all to go home so I could tell you."
"Tell me what?" he asks, goading her on; she knows he wants to hear the words again. His lips gently touch the side of her mouth.
"That I no longer care what people think of me," she says with a wry smile, teasing him.
"Well, I'm certainly glad of that." His kisses continue, moving north of her mouth, reaching her eyelids, much to her frustration.
"And perhaps I also wanted to tell you that I love you."
"Oh, really?" he teases. He kisses her forehead, then the bridge of her nose.
"I'm not quite sure. Perhaps I need convincing."
"I'm sure I can do that."
His lips finally make their way to hers, barely grazing hers at first before she moans in frustration and he laughs. He kisses her softly, gently, and then not so gently as she deepens the kiss, mouths hungrily meeting, expressing everything they feel, tongues entwining. Several minutes later she pulls away slightly.
"I love you," she says softly against his lips.
He kisses her again.
Finally she pulls away, needing air. And sleep.
"You know, I hope you don't rely on my being this sentimental every day," she comments dryly. She is teasing, and she knows that he sees it as such.
"I seem to recall a wise woman once telling me that I shouldn't pay attention to the things you say," he replies, trying to withhold a yawn.
She laughs as she settles herself more comfortably against him. They are exhausted after the long day and she cannot help but try unsuccessfully to resist it, not wanting the day to end. Her eyes close for a moment longer than blinking, and then longer still. She lays her head against his shoulder, feeling him relax beside her. And she is so overwhelmingly happy.
Slowly, sleep arrives.
Feedback is gratefully received.