We were talking about the progression of Mary and Matthew's relationship between the end of the Season 2 Christmas Special and the beginning of Season 3. Thinking about Matthew's noble streak, I had this feeling that he might have woken up the morning after the Servants' Ball feeling guilty all over again...and this is what came out. Thanks to R. Grace for her help and encouragement. Any leftover mistakes are mine.

"Do you know how much I want to marry you?" Matthew asked Mary, his voice breaking through the calm afternoon air.

They were sitting on the bench outside the big house. Mary leaned against Matthew, her back against his chest, his arm resting on the metal behind them. It was chilly out, but sunny. They had gone for a walk around the grounds after luncheon, and Matthew had steered them towards this spot.

"Do you?" she replied. "I wasn't sure after you knelt down and proposed."

Matthew smiled.

"Darling, not even in my wildest dreams..." He trailed off, and instead of finishing his sentence, he brought his arms down around her and kissed her cheek. His lips lingered a moment, savoring the freedom to touch her, to hold her.

Mary pushed him away playfully. "Careful," she said. "We're not so far away from the house as that."

Matthew did as he was told, but he wondered if they were to walk farther away, into the woods perhaps, if she would still rebuke him. He was determined to find out, but not right at this moment. He'd opened his eyes this morning and known that today was the day he would have to talk to her, to confess. His heart was still heavy with guilt, and he hoped that she would understand - and maybe help him to move past it.

If anyone would understand, it would be Mary. She had been there, she was part of the story. He remembered at the beginning, right after Lavinia died, he'd been determined to push her out, to punish her as much as he punished himself, but he couldn't manage it for long. He knew she wasn't to blame, not really. It was his fault and his alone.

Mary leaned back against him, and Matthew sighed.

"Look, Mary, I want to - Can I tell you something? Only you must promise not to get angry."

"I can't promise that," Mary said, "but for you, I'll try."

So Matthew told her about the night of the Servants' Ball, how he'd seen her standing off to the side and had suddenly known that it was alright for him to love her, that his feelings for Mary were bigger than what had happened to Lavinia, and that if she could, Lavinia almost definitely would have given them her blessing.

"It's funny," he said to Mary when he was finished. "My mother tried to tell me the same thing over and over, but it didn't feel true until that night."

He did not tell her that the night she told him about...the Turkish diplomat, the night she said she was going to go to America, he had hardly slept at all, and when he did sleep, he had been tormented by dreams about Mary, Lavinia, and a phonograph in an empty hall.

Instead, he told her that the thought of Downton Abbey without Lady Mary Crawley had made him realize that, for some time now, he had pictured growing old with her there. He told her that when he thought of his future he always saw her in it somehow. How could he let her go?

"So I didn't," he finished.

Mary sat up and reached for his hand. "Is that it?" she asked. "You were afraid I'd be angry because of that? Matthew, I was there too, you know, that night in the snow. I remember what happened. As I recall, it was actually a very nice evening."

"No, that's not it." Matthew sighed again. It was more than that. The night had been lovely, but how could he tell Mary that the next morning, he had woken up in a cold sweat and almost taken it all back?

He'd gone to sleep ecstatically happy, almost giddy. He had proposed and she had accepted. He was happy. Really. Mary wouldn't go to America and they would finally be together. He had half expected to dream of church weddings and children with her dark hair and his light eyes. Instead, he had dreamt of Lavinia again.

He couldn't remember the details of the dream, but even weeks later he could recall feeling trapped. Lavinia had been there, and she wouldn't let go of him. Or maybe he wouldn't let go of her? Either way, Matthew had woken up convinced that he had been right all along - that he and Mary could never be more than cousins and close friends. How could he allow himself happiness when he had caused so much pain?

So he had walked up to the big house with an entire speech prepared - something about how he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he did the very thing that Lavinia had accused him of wanting to do before she died.

Instead, Carson let him in the front door and told him that Lady Mary was in the drawing room and had asked for him to come in as soon as he arrived. When Matthew opened the door and saw her stand up, the smile on her face was the most genuine smile he had ever seen. He found himself smiling in return, and almost before he noticed, he had walked across the room to kiss her.

That had been weeks ago, and they'd had a lovely time together since. They were getting to know each other as lovers instead of friends. He was actually surprised at the distinction. He hadn't expected to feel so differently. After all, he had known (and loved) Mary Crawley for more than six years, but he was still bowled over by these new feelings for her. He found himself smiling almost constantly. He had even been so bold as to make somewhat suggestive comments to Mary, things he had never said to Lavinia even after two years, and Mary had simply smiled back and raised her eyebrows. In the beginning, she had blushed too, her pale cheeks turning slightly pink as she feigned offense. Now, she was used to his teasing and would simply humor him. He was having to try harder to make her blush these days, and he enjoyed it.

His joy was marred by the fact that he still felt guilty when he thought of Lavinia, and even though he tried not to do so often, there were times he couldn't stop it. He knew that before they went any further, he had to tell Mary.

"I love you and I want to marry you," he began again, "but I have to tell you something about Lavinia first. You probably thought I was being ridiculous, blaming myself for her death. I know she died of the flu, but I still think - and I am afraid I might always think - that if it hadn't been for me, she might have recovered." He knew what she would most likely say - that he wasn't being rational about this - but he couldn't help it. He believed it all the same..

As expected, Mary claimed that he was wrong, that he was being ridiculous. "You heard what Dr Clarkson said," she reasoned. "It was a disease of sudden, savage changes. The way he phrased it," her eyes grew distant for a moment, "I kept thinking about that after she died."

"You don't understand, not really. When she was dying, she said..." Matthew trailed off.

Mary lightly squeezed the hand she was holding. "I was there then, too," she said softly, trying to reassure him.

"Yes, well..." He took a deep breath and raised his free hand to his temples, covering his eyes. He tried again. "Before she died, before we even thought there was any chance of her dying, she said something to me." Matthew looked at Mary, determined to get this out. "I told you she saw us dancing, that she heard everything I said to you. And, do you know," Matthew smiled ruefully, "she told me she wasn't angry. That she thought we shouldn't get married. That maybe I would be better off with you. And I didn't try hard enough to convince her that she was wrong. Because - because she wasn't wrong. And then she died. I didn't tell her how much she meant to me, and she died and now I never can."

"Oh, Matthew," Mary said kindly.

Matthew stood up and offered her his hand. "Can we walk a bit further?" he asked. "I want to keep going now, I think." Mary stood up to join him, and they started back toward the path.

"You see, I loved you then," he continued after a few moments. "I have loved you almost since I first saw you." Mary smiled. "But when things between us ended, and the war... I want you to know that I loved Lavinia, and for most of the time we were together, I really did plan to marry her. I never intended to break her heart."

Matthew looked at Mary, Mary who was his fiancee, who loved him, who had loved him all that time he'd been with Lavinia and even when she'd been with Carlisle. Fate had given them both an extraordinary gift. They had the chance to be together again, despite what they'd been through. He looked at her face, into her eyes, and saw her looking back at him with nothing but compassion.

"I am not angry," she said as they changed direction toward the woods. "I was at first, but not anymore." Matthew's confusion must have been evident because Mary went on, "Do you remember, at Lavinia's funeral? You told me all of this then, and I have to tell you that it took me a while to recover." Mary took a deep breath. "That day, you said we'd killed her. We. But I knew you were in pain and I didn't challenge you."

"I'd forgotten," Matthew admitted.

"Apparently." She said this in the tone she usually reserved for Edith, but Matthew knew there was no real rancor in her voice.

Mary stopped walking and stood in front of him.

"I can tell you again and again that you're not responsible for Lavinia's death," she went on, "but until you believe it, it won't make any difference. We made a mistake, Matthew, and then Lavinia died, and you can't conclude that one action caused the other just because they happened to occur together."

Post hoc propter hoc, Matthew thought. He'd studied logic at university as part of his law training, and this was one of the most common logical fallacies. Contemporaneity does not imply causality.

It was a good point. A very good point. It didn't absolve him completely, but for now, today, he felt better. Lighter. He smiled at Mary and reached for her hand. Tucking it in the crook of his elbow, he turned them back toward the trees, and they walked comfortably for a few minutes.

It was Mary who broke the silence. "Where are we going?" she asked, though she didn't seem concerned.

"You're right, you know," Matthew said, not answering her question. "I will never know for sure if things could have been different. But how can I be as happy as I am with you today knowing that, had Lavinia lived, you and I would have never had this chance?"

"It's a gift," Mary replied, echoing his earlier thoughts about fate, "and we should just try to live well and deserve it. You said it yourself, Matthew. You've lived your life and I've lived mine, and now we've been given this wonderful chance to start again."

They had reached the first copse of trees, and Matthew said nothing as he gently led her until she was leaning against one of them. They were shielded here, no one could see them, and Mary knew what he was thinking, what he was planning. He could tell by the smile on her face and the ever-so-slight lift to her right eyebrow.

"'I believe I said, 'It was time we lived them together.'" He leaned closer.

"Together," she repeated, softly, breathlessly.

"Always," he replied, and kissed her.