Contains themes and ideas that some may find upsetting.
Dark Despair Around Benights Me
Sybil was twenty-four. Sybil was dead.
That wasn't how it was supposed to be.
That was how the nightmare started.
A young woman writhing in agony as he watched, as they all did, powerless to help, powerless to do anything, as Death took hold, reaching into her and pulling the life from her in tears and shouts and screams…and silence… Another young woman, with big eyes and red hair, gasping for her last breath… A young man who threw himself forwards when the blast went off… Noise followed by an eerie silence… Gun shots. Shells. Explosions. Silence. The burning heat of fire, casting its orange glow over everything, consuming all in its path… Thick acrid smoke burning throats and lungs and stinging eyes that were wide in terror... Blood and pain and pale skin and broken limbs... Endless quagmires, the treacle-like mud pervading everything, seeping into their very souls… Cold hard rain, relentless... Blood, so much blood, sticky and thick, the metallic smell lingering long after the body had gone. Rotting flesh, shattered bones, bodies battered and broken… Screams of men, of boys, as they fell, as they cowered in fear… Another wail pierced the air…getting louder and louder…until it broke through the fog and became the high shriek of a distressed baby…
Matthew woke with a start, drenched in ice cold sweat, his heart and mind racing, clamping his hand over his mouth as he stifled a sob and swallowed as bile rose in his throat. He was shaking, his whole body rigid and tensed, his cheeks damp with tears he hadn't noticed falling. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath in through his nose, and slowly exhaled, forcing himself to unlock his muscles, repeating until he felt himself relax, though it was only a relaxation of the body. The nightmare, the memories, still lingered in his mind. He turned to look at Mary, still asleep beside him, her body curled towards his, her hand still clutching a handkerchief, looking younger than he'd ever seen her.
They hadn't spoken. They hadn't needed to, and there was nothing that could have been said that would have been sufficient anyway. They had crawled into bed and extinguished the lamp, and then in the darkness they had found each other, reaching out instinctively, hands and arms clinging as they wept, the warm solid presence of each other offering what little comfort it could. He kept his arms protectively around her, afraid that she might break if he let her go. He had pressed his lips to her hair as she sobbed, her body shaking against his as she let out her pain, hot tears rolling down his face as he wished, hoped, prayed that he could take it from her.
They had cried until they couldn't cry anymore, eventually letting sleep claim their weary bodies.
The blankets had slipped down and he pulled them back up over her shoulders, letting his finger gently touch her cheek, overwhelmed with the love and gratitude he felt for her, before pulling it away, afraid of waking her. He sat up slowly, his stomach still churning, and slipped out of the bed, padding softly to the dressing room, closing the door behind him and switching on the lamp.
He paused as the wave of nausea passed through him again, hands clutching the frame of the unused bed, knuckles white as he breathed through it.
"It's alright, it's perfectly alright."
Then, it had been. But not now.
He crossed to the wardrobe and pulled out the trunk that sat at the bottom, vaguely grateful that at least he didn't have to face Alfred's questions about it anymore. Molesley knew, and he understood and accepted it. He didn't ask, didn't pry. Matthew sat on the floor and opened the heavy lid. Just old things from university, he'd told the young footman. No he didn't want it to be moved to be stored in the attics, thank you. Yes he was quite sure.
He hadn't looked inside, not properly, for quite a long time. Not since he'd moved into the big house, and a brief glance to put something away after they had returned from their honeymoon didn't count. He knew the contents without having to look. Knew the order in which they were placed. He slowly pulled them out, one by one, memories flooding back to him thick and fast. Though perhaps he had not let them go in the first place, he thought to himself.
The khaki wool felt heavy and itchy. The red was too red. Red like the poppies. Not like the blood. Red would get you killed, standing out like a beacon in the grey and brown and green. Red was for ceremony, for decoration. Red was the lie. He reached for one of the caps and his fingers brushed against cold metal. His gun. He pulled it out and turned it over in his hands, trying to ignore or to fight (he wasn't sure) the urge to curl his fingers round it and press lightly against the trigger even though it had been over two years; ready for action, ready to defend. Ready to fight.
He thought back to a time when he had considered holding the barrel to his head and pulling his finger in one swift motion. He hadn't been in the chair for long, had only just started his…convalescence, and everything looked black, felt black. Suffocating with no way out. Bar one. One bleak exit from a now bleak existence that was barely that.
The gun had been on the bed in front of him, in arm's reach. He had slowly picked it up and looked at it closely. Not a mark on it. If only everything could have escaped unscathed. William was dead. William had saved his life. But what life? Legs that didn't work. A broken-hearted fiancée sent away for her own good. He had loaded the gun with a practiced ease, and took a deep breath, preparing himself as he patted his pocket one last time… A sharp knock and Mary's cheerful greeting had startled him, and he hastily stuffed the gun under the blanket as the door opened and she appeared in front of him, smiling…trying.
That day he had laughed for the first time in a very long time. Mary had made him smile, had made him laugh, had made him feel almost like a whole person again.
Bates had already been waiting for him to help him change for dinner when Mary wheeled him back to his room later that day, and as the valet moved him to sit on the bed, the blankets slipped and…the gun was not where he had left it. He looked at Bates who nodded once, who understood and said nothing. The following day, the gun was stowed away in the trunk and those desperately dark thoughts didn't occur to Matthew again for several weeks.
Dragging himself out the past, he blinked and swallowed, realised he was shaking and holding onto the pistol as if it was a lifeline. He set it back in the trunk and slowly placed his uniform on top of it, piece by piece. Once a second skin, now just…obsolete. Then there was one last thing to go in. One thing that he had carried every day, that he had been so relieved to know was still with him when he returned to England. That had been in his pocket the night he had proposed, the day they got married, that he had quickly hidden in his jacket the morning after the wedding when he had spotted it amongst the piles of clothes on the floor. The one thing that had been to France and back as often as he had. That was still very much without a scratch. One thing to be hidden away because he didn't need it anymore.
No. Not hidden. To be returned to its rightful owner; the one person that would need it now more than she ever had before, more than he ever had to begin with, because Sybil was dead and it was not how it should be, and Mary – his darling, wonderful Mary – would not be able to brave this storm alone.
Sybil was dead. And soon she would join William and Lavinia, both already buried in the small cemetery. Three pointless deaths. Three people taken far too soon. Three people that he knew and that he couldn't help, that he hadn't been able to help. How many had died that he didn't know? How many had died by his hand? He looked at them; certain he could see the blood that stained his long fingers and wide palms. Hands that had caused death. Hands that had caressed and held and treasured his wife. How could they be the same?
Matthew couldn't stop the sick feeling in his gut this time and scrambled towards the basin on the dresser, shoulders heaving as he vomited into it, a sharp pain throbbing in his lower back – was it real? He couldn't tell – then…a hand rubbing between his shoulder blades.
"It's alright, it's perfectly alright." A soft voice murmured in his ear and he was back in that hospital bed…and it felt so real. Was this another nightmare? Was it real? He stopped and wiped his mouth, his breathing ragged, not daring to turn around. But the warmth against him was real. The whisper in his ear was real.
"Are you alright?" He nodded as he turned, heart breaking as he took in the tear-stained cheeks and still red eyes and the almost child-like expression. He gently kissed her forehead and took her hand, switching off the light as he led them back to their bed, the trunk still lying open on the floor, forgotten as they curled together again; holding, comforting, loving.
He wasn't alright, but he had to be, for them. For her.
A/n: I know that was bleak, but I just had a lot of thoughts and feelings after the episode, and this was cathartic, almost, and I just really had to get it out of my head.
Thank you so much for reading. As ever, I'm always incredibly touched to hear your thoughts.