Hello - I've been battling myself with this piece since before "Drops in the River" ended. It was supposed to be a short & sweet oneshot but will be a two-parter, as I just couldn't tie it up in one chunk. It became too mammoth to find a finish. I've been obsessing over series two again and this is Matthew-centric (I get so caught up on him!), and this is the summer between Lavinia's death and the Christmas Special. It is very heavily centred on Matthew's crippling self-loathing after Lavinia's death and deals with the issues that arose in the episode before the CS. Explores a sweet moment with Mary that acts as the anchor that brings them back in together before the Christmas Special. I couldn't help but think - How did they start speaking again at all after the incidents surrounding Lavinia's death? Anyway, here it is, I appreciate thoughts and criticisms and even if you just take time to read at all!
July was bearing down on them, the sun was hot and the days were long. Grass green, leaves thick, air sweet, heavy, and warm.
For one thing Matthew was glad was that it had happened in the throes of springtime – Had she died during the cold, dark, winter days he was not sure he would have pulled himself out of it. He may have just buried himself alongside her if it happened in November or another dark month. But no, it was the springtime and the only thing about it that meant he could carry on was – was the sunshine and chirping birds and the summer to follow. His first summer free from war in four years, and he was healing, walking again, miraculously. If he had to live for anything, it was for that, to see a summer sun again and feel warm air, walk through fields and not have to worry about being blasted to pieces. It was all he had.
But he thought of...her and that day, her death, in a detached way. He couldn't acknowledge that it was...Lavinia...and it happened days before their wedding...after he had...he had kissed...No. He couldn't reflect on it as Matthew reflecting on Lavinia's death, he did so as some stranger viewing their lives from an outside point of view. Even doing so as that – even behaving as someone looking in, not someone involved in the very centre of all that had happened – was so very painful. He thought it must look as tragic to an actual outsider as it did to him – He felt the sympathetic stares, read the letters, ignored the whispers, sent back the wedding gifts. The gramophone that had started it all, that had played while he held Mary...
If there was a man alive who despised himself more than Matthew did, it would be a man with blood on his hands, he supposed. He could hardly believe what they'd done (and so was his thought process for many weeks – they'd), that he had touched and kissed her while Lavinia was sick in bed, had used their wedding gift as a way to connect with Mary in a sweet dance...
The damned do fall and oh how he fell. He was angry, in denial, when Lavinia laid in bed, in Mary's delicate nightdress, confessing she saw and heard what had happened as the two danced...Of course she did, of course he managed to hurt two women in one instance, of course this lapse of his meant great heartache for all involved (except for Carlisle). She was so sick, so small, flushed and glistening in a sheen of sweat. If he'd only known...that it – if he'd only known it would be the last they would speak before that bed became her deathbed...He didn't know what he would have done differently, perhaps begged forgiveness, banished himself to the pits of Hell, plead it should be he not she...
But no, the next they spoke she was gasping for breath, nearly a corpse save for her faint heartbeat, and she was asking him to be happy, telling him it was easier, it was better...it meant no one had to get hurt, it meant he wouldn't have to make a choice...
He was sickened with himself and astounded that Lavinia could speak so easily about something so private, that as she lay dying, she was as selfless and good, hopeful and forgiving, as she had been in life. It was not fair, he thought, grasping her hand and unable to say a single comforting thing, only that he wouldn't be happy without her. He wouldn't, would he? Even aside from the fact he did still hold love for her, even if he hadn't – he couldn't be happy knowing she died with only his welfare on her mind, not her own. She deserved to watch him suffer from far away where her spirit must wander and she would.
Matthew knew not what else to do but close up, deny himself all happiness, hang his hat alongside misery and never forgive or justify what he had done. It was nothing, it was small efforts and changed nothing. They'd all just be miserable and she was dead and gone so what did it matter – it didn't. It insulted her memory, if anything.
And he knew, too, when Mary approached him at the end of the wake, and he could barely keep down the bile burning his throat, that he would lash out at her. Because if Mary was nothing else, she was strong and steady. While she wore black, looked mournful and pale, she was so able to move fluidly from emotional situation to the next that it was infuriating to him, just then.
He had seen highs and lows from her but mostly she was even and she had so easily welcomed him back after their failure, and after his first return from war – he couldn't have known what she was thinking. He hardly dared to dream she could love him again until Cousin Violet told him – of course he felt affection from her, and concern when he was injured, but she was so damned good at being alright, at being shaken to the core but visibly fine that he resented her for it.
It was with a sneer of sorts that he told her, that Lavinia had heard and seen everything between them the night she died and they were partners in her destruction. They'd killed her, that kiss, that heartbreak was the final blow to her good health and she was gone, no longer walked among them. Mary must share in that responsibility, for he could not bear it alone. She was so very good at being strong and reasonable in the face of tragedy, so he laid it on her and instantly regretted it. Was he just a cruel man, betraying everyone he loved? He felt he must be, as he watched Mary's face fall, as he watched her struggle to maintain composure, Carlisle watching so closely on. She agreed, entirely defeated, that of course it was their end, how could it not be? He watched with a clenched gut as she walked back to the house with Carlisle, arm-in-arm. Matthew was horrified for the day, for the fact he was burying the sweetest girl in existence, who he had loved so but just could not love as much as he had Mary. Knowing he had driven Mary further to Sir Richard was just the cap on it all.
They could never be happy as a couple after what they had done to the unassuming young Lavinia but how could he watch her try to be happy with Carlisle? Matthew had no idea what he wanted anymore, or, rather, he did know but felt so disgusted with himself he knew he would never act. It was why he had said it, they were cursed, was it not? To share the burden with her but to also finally, mercifully, put to rest their unending, exhausting, harmful relationship. They were to be cousins again – engagements, dances, kisses of the past buried with Lavinia, beneath their mounting regret over the situation.
He blamed Mary as well as himself because it must have been easier for her. Cousin Violet had told him Mary was still in love with him and that he should marry her and it just assured what he thought – That Mary scarcely loved Carlisle. And with that lack of love, Matthew believed it was easier for her to accept his kiss, to dance with him and muse over them as a show that flopped. It was Mary's fault too because they never moved far enough from each other, she didn't have a proper engagement, a proper love and he couldn't keep his distance knowing that. Had she been happy maybe he would have tried harder to be, as well. It was the perfect storm, he thought, the perfect dance they did around each other – Mary wasn't happy so he wasn't happy and vice versa. They were doomed to want each other and it was only tragic because they involved other people in it. Had they spent the years pining and loving from afar, fine, but to bring someone as innocent as Lavinia into their mess...
It was wrong, he knew to share his guilt with Mary. He thought it may help, he thought he may feel some relief but instead it was worse than before. Lavinia may have seemed the more innocent in it all but the look on Mary's face told him she was just as worthy, just as caring and undeserving of all he had done...
The regret was why he could not speak or look at Mary in the weeks afterwards.
Matthew bumbled along for a few months, taking therapy in London for his back and he was recovering at a rapid rate, hardly any discomfort or struggles with walking. How was that fair at all, he wondered, and once, describing his progress to Robert and Cora, he had said he was recovering at an "alarming" rate. His mother had turned to him and looked gently surprised.
"Matthew," Isobel had said. "It's not alarming to be recovering quickly, I think you mean rapidly. We're not alarmed by your progress, just pleased with how fast it's happening! Isn't that right?"
He had looked across to where his mother sat and couldn't find it in himself to argue or look interested or even care very much. It was alarming to him, if no one else, that after all he had done to hurt those around him, that he was walking without a cane by Spring's end. What of karmic retribution? What of getting what was coming to him, what he deserved, for hurting everyone so? No, he had fully-functioning legs, a restored libido and specific body part, and, except for the nasty scar at the base of his back, his life could be normal again, as if the war, the injury, the loss, the pain, had never happened...
But of course it had.
He wanted to retreat to Manchester, he wanted to make good on the promise he had told Mary all those years ago after their failed engagement. He thought he would, he thought he must. How could he stay in Downton all his lifelong, waiting to take the last thing from Mary that he possibly could? How could he live there, a constant reminder of the man she had loved and lost and damned and who would inherit her estate, with or without Lavinia? She would go off and marry Carlisle eventually but it was still her home, she would still watch uneasy as the years passed and it slipped more and more from her grasp...until Matthew was Earl and what had it all meant, anyway?
He would leave, he would, as soon as he was healed up and found a job back home in Manchester (he hated how it felt foreign to think of Manchester as home, though it had been for most of his life, and was unsettled by how much Downton was apart of him now). It was a bizarre but also appealing option...disappearing from his role as heir presumptive until the day came he would be Earl, decades down the road. Ah, that he could do, that he deserved – Turn his back on Downton just as he had left Manchester behind.
It was his resolve, to go, but the more able-bodied he became the less prepared he was to follow through. Matthew didn't want to leave his Mother behind, for he had been the reason this change in their lives had even happened. He didn't want to leave Mary behind, either. For though they didn't speak anymore, since they stood at an open grave and Matthew slung all the bad feelings onto her that he could manage, he still heard stories of and saw interactions with Sir Richard from afar. How could he possibly leave her behind to all of that? To him? If only someone would stop her from it all, he wouldn't have to, and he could leave and they could both start over again (again, again) but she was sinking fast in the relationship with Carlisle and Matthew just couldn't possibly understand..
So, he had not left, he was healed and spry and in Downton he stayed, though he relayed his plans to no one, keeping them all on edge and wondering what was next for any of them.
Now he thundered along the soft, fragrant summer earth on a great white steed. He bobbed up and down on the horse's back too much and with less control than an experienced rider would have but – This was the moment he felt most alive. It was comparable only to when he had been at war, staring down the barrel of a gun and the surge of liveliness that came after surviving that. It was taking his life back, this was, his breath caught up in the wind that blew through him as their speed increased. He took great gulps of air when he could and his heart pumped wildly as his senses blurred with the passing scenery around him.
There was sweat on his brow from the exertion of staying on the horse, of grasping the reigns and holding his muscles tight, but it dried as he flew through the air, with the ease of a much lighter, airborne animal. He was frightened of falling and undoing all of the therapy he had taken in the last months but he was more afraid of ever stopping, of ever feeling less than he did in that moment. If this was life, every other moment he lived paled in comparison and it was the only thing that made sense – it was the only way he could escape his suffocating guilt and grief and all he had done wrong.
This was freedom outside of any he had ever known.
The larger black horse was more adventurous, taking jumps here and there and leaping over the ground as if large abysses lay beneath them, strides as long as the earth itself, he swore. In his admiration he noticed they slowed and he squeezed the sides of his horse, slowing not nearly as smooth or efficiently as the sleeker pair ahead had.
She was off the horse and on her feet before he had even fully stopped and he had to circle around where she stood, feeling awfully inept and juvenile, until finally the smaller white horse was still.
"Can you manage?" Mary looked up at him and he was aware of how high from the ground he was and how stupid it would be to stumble but he nodded, steadying himself as he prepared to disembark. "Be careful, they'll all have strokes if they even know you were out."
He awkwardly swung his legs to one side of the horse and braced himself, sliding down the warm body some until he was closer to the ground and then he let go. He landed firm on his feet and winced a little, stretching his arms above his head and rubbing his back briefly.
Although she tried desperately not to express very much toward him on this day, he saw faint concern etched in the small lines drawn around her eyes and she quirked her mouth for a minute, wondering to speak.
"Are you alright, then?"
"Yes – not as bad as I thought, actually. I feel limber even." His muscles were a bit stiff from the position he had been in, tense and trying terribly to hold on for dear life even as he enjoyed every second of it. He stretched again and felt relief rush into his bones, they had enjoyed the pleasure of a challenge.
She smiled and he was not entirely used to seeing it again. She had been a dark presence in the months since and he was sure she would never feel glad toward him again.
"I brought apples for the horses and they need a drink – It's so hot for them." Matthew nodded as she dug through her saddle pack and handed him an apple. His heart filled and warmed and all but burst as she stroked Diamond's nose and held out a flat, gloved palm for him to sneak the apple from – she looked like a schoolgirl, impressed by the horse, revelling in the companionship, and he was a bit in awe at the love she showed the animal.
He fed his own horse an apple and then tethered them both to a tree by the lake, as they dug their snouts into the water, drinking noisily and plentifully.
"Did you bring anything for us? I'm parched, too." And a bit breathless, feeling restricted by the unforgiving, tight riding jacket.
"No," Her eyebrows were raised and nearly disappeared under her tall hat's brim. "You could try drinking from the lake, too, if you're brave."
"Ah," Matthew murmured, not wanting to provoke her. She was still quarrelsome but less cold than she had been in the months since. "I suppose this will do." He dug into his breast pocket and pulled out a flask, grinning as she looked utterly affronted at the notion.
"Oh yes, ride drunk that will ensure your safety." She rolled her eyes in a delightfully Lady Mary fashion and he only grinned wider.
He took a swig of the cool, smooth liquor and sighed with satisfaction. He offered her the silver flask with a quirked brow and who was she to deny a challenge?
Matthew felt like someone far removed from the world of Downton as he watched Lady Mary Crawley clutch his battle-worn flask and gracefully tilt her head to take her own swill of the stuff. She neither hissed with disgust or sighed in pleasure, was as even-mannered as she had been most of the day.
"Are you alright, then?" Matthew returned the question and she narrowed her eyes, not a glare, closer to a playful smile.
"Quite. Enough of that, though, your mother will already have my head if she knows you've been riding, let alone doing so drunk."
"Oh, if I were a drunkard you'd know by now. A little nip takes the edge off, though."
It was true, though, that in all of his time spent alone, riding trains to and from London for therapy and the odd visit with Reggie (Swire, Lavinia's father), he had drank more often than he had before. Secluding himself from the family at the big house, not yet able to return to work, he found being inside his own head torturous. Not only did Matthew live with the ghosts of war – every enemy he had killed, every brother in arms he had watched fall – he too lived with the ghost of William, the ghost of Lavinia...even his long-departed father was there again, accompanying the visions of his past, clouding his thoughts daily. His head was filled of phantom voices and distant shadows of blood and blasts and gasping, rattling, last breaths. He never drank to addiction or drank to illness but it was true, what he said, that a nip did take the edge off – He could take the days a bit easier if a swill of dark liquor put to rest his thoughts of the lingering dead.
He had joined Mary that day at all because he had dined for luncheon at the house, wandering up a bit lonely and aimless, looking to speak with Robert. Mary was away in London, visiting Sir Richard, for the family had taken a shorter season in June, and would be travelling to Ireland at the end of July for Sybil's wedding. It was the only time Mary could fit in to see him and she was back by lunch a day later, so Matthew mused on how well it must have gone.
She had come into the dining room, dressed in light, pale summer colours – A tan coat, a cream blouse with a ribbon around the waist, a soft peach coloured skirt grazing her ankles. She looked beautiful and vibrant, ripe for the picking, cheeks pink from the warm day, netted gloves on her lovely hands. She removed her coat, handing it to Carson and taking her place, but then stumbled over her words when she realized the table was fuller than it had been since Sybil had left...Matthew sitting next to Edith, instead.
It was the first meal they took together since before Lavinia had died.
When it was over, Mary announced she was going riding. She left the table and after a quick sip of tea Matthew said he was going home and thanked them all for the luncheon – it was rare he had one in the big house and enjoyed it, settling back into a routine of sorts since tragedy befell them.
He didn't go home, though, he found her in the stables, already dressed, securing the saddle pack and preparing to swing onto Diamond's back. They had only said a few polite words over the meal and right then she invited him to come along. He looked perplexed for a moment, a cane still in hand, and he left it leaning in the barn as the white horse was saddled for him.
And now Mary was tugging her hat from her head, gently untangling it from her hair and she was unfastening the long, heavy skirt around her waist and sliding it down her legs. Matthew's mouth slackened some, not so over Mary that he wasn't caught up in the sight before him. He wasn't over her at all and how many times had he imagined her skirt dropping around her legs? How many times had that image alone gotten him through a long night at the front? His cheeks flushed both then and now, although the sight in front of him was a good deal more innocuous than he would have imagined.
She, of course, wore jodhpurs beneath the skirt and bemoaned how she wished she could have worn them alone today for it was much too hot for so many layers. Mary unbuttoned her coat and took it off and hung all three garments from a tree branch that was low to the ground, to preserve the clothes from wrinkles.
Matthew felt damp from the perspiration catching up with him now that he was off the horse. The air was humid and hot and clung to him, so he too tugged off his borrowed riding coat, loosened his tie, rolled up his shirt sleeves, matched her state of undress. He tossed his cap onto the ground but hung everything else alongside Mary's clothes and what a bizarre sight it must have been.
Her hair brushed across her forehead in a fringe of sorts, the way it was parted and knotted at the back of her head was endearing, it was different. The styles were changing, Matthew thought, and Mary was at the forefront of it. When he had met her, seven or eight or a hundred years ago (he lost track), he hadn't thought she could look more beautiful or feminine but now she was a woman, truly, holding herself much different than that first day. She was less on guard, more easy grace, though strong as ever. Her face was more angular than back then, her baby cheeks smoothing and sharpening as cheekbones now defined her features. He had never thought of her as younger than she was now but she had been, hadn't she? He had known her for many long years, though they both came and went, but they were finally both in Downton at the same time...moving slowly, no real plans threatening to ruin them just then...(Matthew only faintly considered her engagement to Carlisle a plan at all and certainly not a big one)...
For a moment, and for some reason, he wondered if there was potential again. For what, he did not know, but perhaps just healing, just recovery of some sort. Oh how they both needed it, oh how he longed to feel whole and well and able to look at her again.
"You look nice." He said stupidly, not quite recovered from the vision of her removing her skirt, and his mouth still a bit slack.
"I'm sticky and dishevelled, Matthew." Had she said his name in all of the days between then and the last time he'd held her? He didn't think so. It wasn't dripping with affection but it still came from her lips.
"We look rather the same right now," He laughed as they each tugged at the sleeves of their white buttoned shirts, both in pants. "Matching fools or something."
"I like the androgynous look, actually." This he knew, from that conversation so long ago when she considered the boy-style haircuts they were wearing in Paris.
"Why's that?" Were they really talking about her clothes? Was that their topic of choice, the first time they were speaking again?
"Well I suppose it makes me feel determined, or strong – I was raised to know men were the important gender and this is how they dress, so I feel more important like it. Some day women will just dress how they please and feel good about it no matter what."
"Taking cues from Sybil?"
"Perhaps. She's the strength and will in the family. I believe in the old ways, so badly Matthew, I believe in my name and the estate and the titles of my parents but a shift in perspective couldn't hurt – for none of it will be mine just because I'm female.Of course I'll reconsider it all."
Matthew nodded – She was right, he knew, and it was on his hands that she lost it all twice. He wasn't sure how he could hear her thoughts while knowing he caused her so much pain and loss. How could she stand him? He couldn't stand himself.
"We've really not spoken in so long, Matthew." Her tone had changed from one of discussion to a wearier one, and she stood apart from him, down toward the lake while he was on more of an incline. There he stood much taller than he normally did and she looked small below him. He could see the intricate tucks and bends in her hairdo, from Anna's graceful fingers, and the long slope of her neck. All of his feelings for her lumped in his throat and he worked on not bursting it all forth.
Matthew found nothing to say and stared at her with slanted, soft eyes, silently pleading for something, he didn't know what, and she took pity on him with a sigh.
"Shall we sit?" She offered instead and Matthew took his jacket from the branch and laid it out on a flat bit of ground. The grass was lush around them, dandelions grew amongst the blades, and the secluded place by the lake was a warm summer's retreat at Downton. Mary smiled over at the horses as she folded herself down onto the jacket and Matthew seated himself onto the edge, his back aching a bit.
He never swore about his injury, never cursed it or anything – it was a reminder of his time at war, his time with Lavinia...the things he had done and seen. He deserved to be aware of it every day of his life, as long he lived, for to escape all he had caused truly unscathed was hard for him to swallow. He almost enjoyed the pain his back sometimes gave him, a masochistic reminder he was still alive.
Mary's attention was drawn from the horses and over to him as he situated himself, a bit on the coat, a bit off of it, trying to maintain distance from her but also be friendly and comfortable. He massaged his back some and groaned at the pleasant relief, stretching his legs out long in front of him. His hand absently stroked over his back as he stared out over the shimmering lake and had he been paying better mind he would notice her staring at him as she hadn't in a long time.
"Matthew..." His name on her lips again and he was surprised at the cautious, tentative way she said it.
"Hmm?" With eyebrows raised politely he met her eyes, dark, and nearly the colour of honey when the sun glinted just so...
She spoke and he missed it because he was caught up in the deep, dark depths of her eyes. He was a fool for her and it was embarrassing how plain he made it.
She tilted her head and sighed again.
"May I see it?" Mary tipped her head to his back, where his hand lay, as she spoke and he understood.
And it was in this moment he learned that, while Lavinia bore down on him like a weight that would break his spirit, his confidence, his life, the war bore down on Mary – perhaps as much as it had he. While she was broken over Lavinia's death, horrified at the shared guilt they trudged along with for many weeks, she never got over the war. She dwelt on it like he dwelt on Lavinia and it was plain across her face, tentative in her eyes. He had lost Lavinia but Mary had...had lost him to the war, he had left her behind the day of the garden party and was gone for training so soon after. She lost him that way, their relationship very final, and had nearly lost him so very many times during the battles. The war would follow her, the thief that stole him away too soon.
He felt as if he moved and blinked and breathed in slow motion while he looked at her. She looked beautiful – this would be the Mary he would carry with him the rest of his life. Oh he carried scars, ghosts, and guilt but she he would carry, too. No matter what came of them – no matter if she married Carlisle and had a dozen children, no matter if he died alone or married some woman he could never love as the two he lost...she would be with him. She was as haunting as anyone, as anything. Her amber coloured eyes, dark and warm at once, were careful but curious as she watched him. Her skin was white as bone and delicate as too, small lines pulling at the corners of her eyes when she laughed. She had lips the colour of petals and her hair shone in the sunlight, a golden halo blooming off the stray hairs around her head. She was this unfathomable beauty and grace in some perfect human form. Matthew swallowed hard and took deep breaths, wiping a cold sweat from the back of his neck.
"See it? See...it what?" For a moment he wondered if she was being crass and he knew it was unlikely but he also tingled a bit at the thought. She looked scandalised, though, and he realized he was wrong and smiled bashfully.
"Matthew, I'm a Lady! Your – your back."
"Why would you ever want to?"
"I haven't seen it since the armistice, before even, when it still needed bandaged."
"You talk like you're old pals." He said quietly and insects buzzed in the air, breeze rustled the trees and the sun beat down hot, his face reddening both from that and from her.
"Well, we had a bit of a bond for a few months."
"I suppose so, you took good care of it. Do you remember what it looked like then? I don't remember first coming back, I know you were there when I woke up though. You were there when Clarkson poked at my back and I didn't know whether I felt a thing or not..."
"I was there the moment they brought you in. I remember, it was angry and dark and huge. I've fallen from a horse before and never saw a bruise so big. It crossed most of your back, down low and it was bloody, a bit, deep cuts. This pulsing purple bruise right over your spine. Like something eating away at you."
"You bathed me."
"Sybil taught me the once and then I would wrap it, they would look at it each day and I'd wash you. The water was so dark with blood the first time."
"Mary." His voice was rough to see her so pained, so sure but tormented by it all.
"Please may I see."
He began, uncertainly, plucking open the buttons of his shirt, untucking it from the waistband of his trousers and the whole situation had impropriety stamped onto it but no one was around, just him and her. Again, of course.
Mary leaned over and gathered the hem of his shirt in her hands and lifted up, up above his belted trousers, to the middle of his back, where he reached round and held the bunched shirt up. He leaned forward some to give her a better look and the wind felt nice on his old wound, as it had been irritated some by riding for so long in the heat.
She breathed out as the deep, dark scar became visible, most above his pants but still so large a quarter of it was hidden below. She scooted behind him some, sitting cross-legged and from the corner of his eye he saw Mary bite her lip and press her hands against her knees. The jodhpurs pulled tight across her slim legs for the way she sat and he had never dreamed of the shape of her thighs before but now he could very plainly see them, aware she possessed such beautiful parts to her.
"I regret it. That we haven't spoken in...so long..." Matthew said quietly, the angle he sat at awkward but he was still and kept his shirt up, sure to allow her as much time as she wanted with the bit of him she bathed and healed that summer he returned from war.
"Do you? Even though we're cursed, even though it was our end?" She quipped, still leaning close behind him. He looked over his shoulder and her eyebrows were tugged together but not in a frown, nor a sad expression, just one so desperate to understand. Desperately curious, desperately hurt and trying not to show it – it was all obvious in the one small wrinkle between her brows.
"Oh god, Mary. What can I say."
"Do you think Lavinia is the last tragedy we'll ever see?"
"Precisely. She's not the last we'll suffer and you can't stay down like this or you'll never get back up. You can't lose your life too."
"I shouldn't have said what I did." He was still watching her. Normally they spoke so much through watching and movements, careful eye contact and veiled conversations but it wasn't the time to be polite or mysterious. They couldn't put to rest the mistakes of the very recent past by not saying things – by trying to interpret the other, by dancing around the issue. They were going to communicate if it took them years to get it all out, he decided, however unusual for them.
"No, you shouldn't have," She shook her head wildly, eyes huge and dark. "I'd feel anything you told me to and I feel insane with guilt."
"So do I."
"I know you're not the type, Matthew, to throw hurt,-"
"I was a bastard and I don't know how to move on from any of it. I'm deeply sorry, Mary. I should have said so months ago, I don't know why I didn't."
"Oh Matthew, it's not what you said it's whether or not you meant it. What bothers me is I really think you did. You really thought you helped to kill her."
"Of course I did."
"We'll never be on the same page if that's how you think, then."
He was sorry, he was pathetically sorry for hurting Mary so but he couldn't get over it – he didn't think he could ever get over it, that he betrayed Lavinia so obviously, that he contributed to heartache in her final hours. No, it wasn't fair to bring Mary down with him but he deserved it – he deserved everything he got.
"Then we'll simply never be on the same page." He conceded and the tension of the months since April was falling away – it helped that she was so close to his bare skin, admiring it while they talked – and while things weren't resolved, while he still stung and ached with Lavinia's cruel, sudden death, at least they were speaking. She thought he was a fool and couldn't believe his way of dealing with it but at least he knew, now. At least she was with him, more beautiful than his memory had let him believe and she was hurt but she was functioning, which was more than he could say for himself.
She looked at him and he saw her eyes shine in the high sunlight, wet with unspoken emotion. His heart pumped hard, painful in his throat.
Matthew flooded with relief and was astonished at how simple it seemed, that only talking to her – not even agreeing with her! - had made him feel better. He hated himself less for a minute, he felt the guilt, the familiar clench of unease but it wasn't so deep within him – it was sliding on a surface of relief and would re-bury later but just for the moment he was so, so glad to be speaking with Mary again. Perhaps she was the cure to all.
He faced forward again, stretching his neck, letting it loll to the side, bunching his shirt in one fist as she was not finished her study.
Then he felt warm fingertips ghosting across his spine, high at first but low and lower, skipping the ugly mark, pressing against his waistband before skimming back up. When she did lay hand on the scar Matthew jolted at her touch and jarred himself some, particularly from the position he sat.
"Oh!" He grunted with discomfort and Mary snatched her hand back, looking panicked as she scooted back to her corner of the coat.
"Surprised me, is all." He stretched, his back cracking and creaking, so he turned onto his stomach and laid down, spreading out and sighing as the warm sun beat down on his naked skin. How he wished they were different sort of people, just then, just for that moment, the kind who would strip down and run into the lake to splash and swim and act their age. Lady Mary was the type to hide beneath a parasol rather than get her feet wet. He loved it about her but also yearned to see a side of her so completely unbridled...
This was close to that, though.
"I'm sure this is no pretty sight but it feels much better."
"You're fine. Is it sensitive? It's a bit red."
"Mmm," He shifted, his boots feeling odd and heavy and a bit too big (just a spare pair in the stables) and tried to get comfortable in the sun's soothing heat. "I think it is more sensitive but I can't be sure if I imagine it or truly feel it."
"Likely a bit of both." Mary said and he sensed they were both more relaxed with no probing eye contact or difficult conversation. He let his eyelids close and could feel her close to him again.
"Do you mind..." She ventured.
"Help yourself." He mumbled with a chuckle and this time her warm, small hand lay over the puckered skin of the scar, the bane of his existence for many long months. She simply pressed it there for a moment, perhaps considering the size of it compared to her hand and she bent over, stretching her shadow across him.
Wasn't this exactly what they were to avoid? Wasn't this what caused so much trouble in the springtime when he learned she loved him again...and couldn't keep away from her no matter their commitments to other people...Had he learned nothing? Lavinia died and still he found himself with Mary, after denying himself her company for months and letting their bad feelings stew, they were back here again. He was close to resigning that it was just inevitable. Lavinia may have died but before, when he danced with Mary and told her what he knew, he had an inkling of where it might go...he knew where he wished it might go – He supposed the desire to be with Mary hadn't faded when Lavinia died. It was poisoned with guilt and murky behind all of their problems but it flared again when she touched him like that.
"I hope your head is back on a bit straighter, though."
"I don't blame you in her death, if that's what you mean – Only myself. I regret everything I did but can't blame you for anything, Mary – I never did. I only wished I could, wished I was less burdened in it all."
"Do you regret it? Dancing..."How could he regret anything when her hands were soft and tracing lightly over the rough skin of his scar? He regretted not doing this sooner, if anything. His conscience was suffering but so too had he suffered without her, without this.
"I regret...she saw us...I regret...she's gone.."
"But we danced together and you told me what you did for a reason, didn't you? I think about that night and, Matthew, I wonder what it was about. Of course I mourn her awfully but I can't help...wondering..."
Matthew drew a sharp breath when he felt her nails dip into his sensitive skin, scratching lightly, pleasantly, oh.
"It was playing with fire – Being so close...of course we mused about being together. I don't think I did so with any expectations...I – I thought about leaving her, I told you...though I never dreamed you would leave Carlisle,-"
"I couldn't have left Richard. Still can not."
"There you have it – Just careless actions in a heated moment. I owed Lavinia loyalty for her sacrifice, loved her for it, even. Wasteful, though, wasn't it, to let ourselves go back there."
"Oh, wasn't it." Mary agreed, although absently, and her hands were becoming familiar to him, she was much more focused on her movements than the unpleasant conversation.
He was pale beneath the low afternoon sun, though not as much as she, and was covered sparsely in fair hairs on his arms, chest, stomach and when she touched him they rose in small gooseflesh and he quaked gently.
"What do you think?" And he meant the wound.
"I'm surprised to see it so healed, actually. I thought it would just gape open forever. It's still quite ugly, but not nearly so...The gashes, they feel like braille."
Matthew's laugh rumbled through him, his mouth muffled by his head propped up on his folded arms beneath him and he felt her loom closer. Her chest and torso brushed against him as she leaned down and his breath stuck in his throat. She pressed her lips to the lined, scarred skin, and he felt so much warmth from her toward the old battle wound that he was taken aback, stricken, sure she could heal with her very touch. She was melting him and breaking him and she could have anything she wanted in the world, he would bet, if only she would ask.
Her lips were warm and wet and placed a trio of kisses along the gnarled, mangled area before she sat up, stretched her legs out and folded her hands demurely in her lap, almost as if she had not been there at all. He was nearly gasping and his heart skipped against his ribcage and he staggered internally with everything. She was a constant surprise, bold and wonderful.
Matthew pushed himself up to his knees and shrugged into his shirt, letting it hang open as he looked at her again and she was almost too much – too much to see, to feel, to take in. She was real and alive and breathing, were they to deny themselves this, all over again? He could let Lavinia follow him to his own grave, and she would, but was he supposed to forget about Mary? Better yet, how was he supposed to...
"I don't know how I've been away from you." He admitted quietly.
"Oh, Matthew..." She looked out over the water and it was so easy with her, she could keep herself together. "You hurt me so, it wasn't all that difficult to be away from you."
His pride recoiled slightly but he knew it was true, he was ashamed.
He felt heat burn his cheeks as she looked over and took in his bare frame, lean and blonde, firm muscle cording across his chest, shoulders, arms...She had only seen one another man so undressed, little did he know, and she much preferred this sight. He was harmless and attractive and she watched him openly. He was the light in the dark of the Pamuk scandal, to her, and very much looked the part. Light eyes, light hair – Pamuk loomed darkly over her, physically and otherwise.
"I'm so ashamed, Mary. Though, why is it that you couldn't and can't leave Carlisle?"
"Well perhaps it's just for I want to be with him."
"Perhaps that's it or that is the reason?" He buttoned his shirt and sat beside her, a whinny from the horses told they were getting restless but this was where they must be – For back at the big house there was reality surrounding and he was disinterested in returning, not when they were finally, finally resolute on mending.
"It's not the reason." Mary frowned and her lips pursed and Matthew imagined them kissing his own, or tinged with champagne on her wedding day, stained red and tasting of strawberries in France, parted in a gasp as his hands moved over her...
"Mary, it would be so refreshing if we could share these things." His tone was exasperated and clipped and the soft, quiet voices of the afternoon were gone.
"You would think so, Matthew, you want to share at all of the worst times! Must you ruin this just as I'm starting to like you again?" She was haughty and fidgeted, looking as if she might stand or flee, cry or shout.
"Carlisle simply seems to be under the impression he can have control over you and your life. I just didn't see you the type to be bossed around. He's impatient."
"He's not a bad man. He's not. I don't say it unawares to how he behaves – He just behaves so for reasons and I've given him those reasons."
"What do you mean?"
"I committed myself to him yet surround myself with you. You must see the disparity."
"Of course I do, I was the same to Lavinia."
"You loved her, Matthew." Mary reminded gently and he had, yes, but not the way he loved her. They were so close to some edge, an epiphany, a revelation but she was holding back and he wasn't sure it would even matter, if anything would change or they could be together, if anything she said would make this different somehow.
"What of him, what of Richard? You love him, he loves you?"
"He loves the arrangement, he loves the prospect."
"You love the fortune, you love the position? I know you're not so shallow, Mary."
"He has me where he wants me, I can love or hate it all I want."
Somewhere beneath his buzzing attraction, his affection for her, he was curious. There was something else to it and he couldn't understand completely, his brain fuzzy and out of practice with their vague banter.
"Mary, what...I can't understand it."
She stood suddenly and what a vision that was as he watched from the grass, she a silhouette against the summer day's backdrop, regal in her slim-fitting jodhpurs, crisp and lovely, all that he knew.
"I hate sitting still." She told him.
"We've been sitting still for years."
She laughed and it rang out among the bird songs. "Oh Matthew, isn't that right. I'm glad you came out for the ride today. You could be good at it if you weren't so cautious. For Heavens' sake, you were in the army, you know!"
He was on his feet too and looked much less graceful than she – shirt messily done up, still untucked from his trousers, bits of lawn in his hair, cheeks ruddy. Though if he saw himself from her eyes he would know she saw it as desirable, this reckless abandon Matthew.
"I rode well, I have been crippled since!"
"Did you shoot just as well there?" She teased, and it was in jest but he bristled some at the dark thoughts it brought back. Remembering horseback riding during the war was one thing, but the gunfire that became second nature to him was another.
"Yes," he paused and hoped to brush it off but it was heavy on him, something the few moments with her had lightened some. "I shot a gun well. Quite often. That doesn't mean I'd be any better with fowl, though. Human men are more to target."
Her eyebrows rose while her forehead creased and he startled her, he realized. The last time she asked of the war, he had not been able to talk about it. In all of the months he was injured he only complained about his own situation, never telling her the horrors that still haunted him – The blood in his dreams, the thunderous explosions almost constant in his head, the dead men he left behind, the ones he carried over his now-bruised back.
"That was insensitive of me." She said, a bit breathless, taken aback by her own remark.
"Not at all. We must not forget it's a place I've been and something I've seen. It was a reminder."
Matthew gathered his coat from the grass and righted himself, approaching Mary as she pulled her hat back on, slipping into her riding coat and becoming Lady Mary again. He offered his arm with a small smile, as balance while she slid her skirts back over the jodhpurs. Once secured back around her waist she squeezed his arm in thanks and then climbed into the saddle, arranging herself on the side.
The afternoon had become late and the sun was lower, the golden light sleepy, the breeze had died down and the day was now very still. The sunset would be beautiful that evening it was already plain to see and fish leaped at the surface of the lake looking for insects to eat. Quiet plops and splashes of water were the soundtrack to the moment and the clear blue sky was reflected in the water, ripples disturbing the image.
Matthew felt very, very calm. And it was for the first time since...since the war, maybe? Since he had left on the train for war, this was the first time he felt truly calm...when he had no obligations but Mary and healing what had been harmed there. It felt good to have a task, to focus on someone besides himself and the dearly departed Lavinia. So constant and present was she in his mind that her memory had been a companion these long months, one that tortured him, and he did not want to escape it but perhaps it was time to get back to real people – perhaps it wasn't the biggest sin to spend time with flesh and blood, Mary, and mend whatever fences he could.
It wasn't as simple as that, of course, but it took a certain measure to allow himself near her again.
They rode back to the stables at a much slower pace, both they and the horses tired and minding the heat. Mary pointed out some places on the property that she loved most, Matthew remembered the tree they stood beneath when they broke off their near-engagement, Mary the very place she was at on the lawn when war was announced...where in the driveway she stood when he drove away to training...Matthew the path he had walked with Robert when he first arrived, coming to know the place.
Matthew bade farewell to Mary once they returned and left, cane in hand. He was disappointed they hadn't quite reached the solution they seemed to be speeding toward that afternoon but they had made some progress, he hoped. He had missed the sound of her voice and left some of his burden in the saddle that afternoon.