A/N: Just another little something that came into my head, and begged to be written. I imagine it as being set a month or so, maybe, after the Christmas Special.
Thanks to both EOlivet and Pemonynen for support, polish and title suggestions!
The Boy They Loved
As she slowly approached the big house, now, Isobel no longer knew how to feel about it. Well, she no longer knew how to feel about anything, much. Only... as much as it ached, to know that her son would never call it home in the way that they had imagined ( his son would, though, and there seemed some justice in that), she still liked to be here. Because it had been his home, for the last eighteen months of his life, and they had surely been his happiest. Knowing that, she felt a strange comfort to be here... and more so when she saw the familiar figure, dressed in black but cradling a bundle of white, sitting on the bench beneath the cedar.
Though everything around her seemed black, Mary's son was still swathed in white. Because he had brought them joy, even so briefly... and for her, he was now her only joy, and always would be. She held him in her arms, fascinated and enraptured by him, her finger tracing his powder-soft cheek as if she still couldn't believe he was real. Now that her life seemed empty, faded, dreamlike... his tiny, wriggling, burbling presence was the only truth she could cling to.
When Isobel sat beside her, she didn't look up, only tucked her baby's shawl a little under his chin. His little hand came up and grabbed her finger, tugging it to his tiny rosebud mouth to suckle at, and the numbness of her heart softened. He was so perfectly sweet, just like... She sighed.
"Hello, my dear," Isobel said quietly, her eyes fixed upon her grandson. Her only grandson, her only grandchild, and he was all the more precious for it. "He's looking well, isn't he."
"He's perfect," Mary said simply. It was an indisputable fact, to her, and that was it. "Absolutely perfect."
"Of course he is."
The wind blew gently, and the baby squirmed. Mary cradled him closer to her chest, rocking him, soothing him.
"He doesn't cry," she whispered. "Not much, anyway. My perfect little darling..." Her breath shuddered out again. Her little prince had no idea of any reason to cry, he didn't know... He didn't know his father was gone, who would have loved him unimaginably so.
"No, Matthew didn't-" Isobel stopped, and drew in a sharp breath. While memories were a comfort, or could be, they still stabbed her heart to think of. She breathed again, strengthening her voice. "Matthew didn't, either, when he was a baby. He was very peaceful."
Peaceful... He had been peaceful, as a baby, and now he was at peace... Mary swallowed past the painfully dry lump in her throat, and nodded as she could not speak.
Both women watched, in silence for a while, enthralled by the baby, allowing themselves to be distracted from their grief even as he so fiercely brought to mind all that they had lost. Time was nothing.
"Have you settled on a name?" Isobel wondered, at last.
Mary stroked his tiny nose, lips curving as his blue eyes fluttered open and he latched onto her thumb. Yes, she knew his name.
"Oh… yes, how lovely. That's lovely, Mary, it… yes." She bit her lip, unable to express how much it meant to her that her grandson would bear the names of those two dearest to her. Both of them fathers who'd been taken from their sons too quickly.
It was all Mary could do to nod. "I couldn't," she took a deep breath, and swallowed. "I couldn't call him–"
"No, my dear. I know."
She nodded again, more sharply. "He isn't Matthew. Matthew… should only… Oh, Isobel!"
She lifted her free hand to stifle the bitter sob that wracked, unbidden, from her throat. Matthew… was the name of her husband. Matthew was the name she'd breathed upon a prayer, the name she'd cried out in ecstasy… Matthew would always be her Matthew, her love. And now he was gone, and could not be reclaimed through a name.
Feeling Isobel's hand light upon her arm, Mary stiffened at first, then relaxed as it slipped around her shoulders. Isobel understood, she thought. Isobel had lost him, too.
Glancing up, she saw her mother-in-law's eyes, fixed upon little Reggie, red-rimmed and tearful. She looked older than Mary had ever noticed before, more drawn, and yet… there was a brightness in her eyes, just a glimmer, lit by the sight of her precious grandchild.
Mary pressed her lips together, fighting within herself. Her baby was her only comfort, all she had to cling to, all she had left… She needed him, she had been uncommonly possessive of him, she knew, and yet…
"Would you like to take him?" she offered, her whisper barely audible above the breeze.
Isobel didn't look up, but the way the thin press of her lips softened into a trembling smile only made the realisation dawn clearer on Mary.
"Mm." Mary nodded, and – though she felt as if a part of her soul was being ripped away, even for him to simply leave her arms – passed him carefully over to Isobel, who took him with the same sort of tenderness and reverence that… Matthew had, the singular time that he held his son. Mary knew at once that this would not be Isobel's only chance.
Isobel cradled the baby gently against her chest, rocking him slowly, the quietest chuckle of wonder murmuring in her throat.
"Hello, my dearest little chap," she smiled, and Mary did too, though her vision blurred with tears. The baby clutched at her scarf, his little fingers tightening, blue eyes blinking innocently up at this new person.
Mary's heart ached, but she saw at once how Isobel took the same comfort from her baby as she was able to. And it was only then that she realised.
For Mary, her son was all she had left of her husband, and she would cherish him with every fibre of her being, with every breath in her body. The thought of losing him, even for a moment, to another pair of arms, that separation from herself – made her chest clench with fear. And… as Isobel smiled down at him, she realised… that Matthew had been that, that comfort, that solitary joy, to Isobel. Her husband had died, too – though not so soon – and Matthew, her only boy, she had clung to and cherished. And now… she had lost even him.
A fresh wave of piercing sorrow gripped Mary, and she sobbed behind her hands. Isobel understood, so perfectly, because her darling little boy Reggie was all that she had left, too.
"Thank you, Isobel," Mary finally gasped. Isobel looked up, and knew that Mary's tear-stained cheeks mirrored her own.
"What on earth for?" she asked quietly, her fingers busied as she instinctively tucked and fussed with Reggie's blanket.
Mary shrugged, shaking her head, almost wanting to laugh.
"For not asking once how I am."
The older woman chuckled herself, simply nodding. She knew well enough that it was the natural question to ask, and the most dreaded, because there was no answer that could be given.
"That's quite alright, my dear. I understand."
"I know you do," Mary said quietly. She wondered how she could not have known it before, when it seemed now so painfully clear. Her hands twisted restlessly in her lap, longing for an impossible comfort. She wanted to thank Isobel for that, too, for understanding… for more than that, for giving her Matthew, for supporting her now… but it was all too much to say.
They sat for some moments in contemplative silence, watching the baby they loved, remembering the man they had loved, oblivious to the coolness of the breeze and the crispness of falling leaves around them. All that went beyond their world, now.
Mary rubbed her hands over her knees, trying to push down the aching sorrow in her heart. "Does it ever get easier?" she asked hesitantly. She was almost afraid of the answer.
Isobel softly kissed the downy top of little Reggie's head, before pulling the shawl to cover it more warmly.
"Easier, perhaps," she said, quiet in thought. "I don't think the pain ever goes away, but you become accustomed to it. And so it becomes easier to bear."
"I see. Anything… would be more bearable than this," Mary sighed, wiping away her tears as she sniffed plaintively.
"I know," Isobel said in sympathy. "But your life must go on, Mary. It has to. For his sake."
She nodded, slowly. It did, and it would… for the sake of her son, for the sake of Matthew's memory. And though she felt it would break her apart, to carry on… she knew, now, that Isobel's support would always be there to count on. For her, and for her son.
Isobel saw her daughter-in-law's slow and brave acceptance, and felt a powerful surge of affection for the young woman who her son had loved so much – and now she would love her as a daughter, for having loved her son. Matthew had always admired Mary's strength, she knew; and she could see it now in her grace even as she grieved so fiercely.
With a sad smile, Isobel eased the baby so treasured to them both back into his mother's waiting arms, seeing how she instantly her restlessness seemed to calm.
"Thank you," Mary murmured again, lost once more in the comfort of her son. It was cold, she noticed suddenly noticed, as the sun began to sink in the sky. Too cold, she should take him inside.
As if she'd just noticed it, too, Isobel pulled her coat more tightly around herself – though it was as much to occupy her now empty hands as for warmth. Mary looked up, smiling weakly. "Won't you come inside for some tea?" she asked.
"I will, thank you."
Isobel squeezed Mary's hand in gratitude as they rose to their feet. Their eyes met, and in that moment both women understood the bond they now shared, through the love and loss of the man they'd both loved, who'd loved them both with his whole heart, and through the treasured little boy that he'd given them. And that gratitude, they both knew, ran far deeper than the offer of tea, and the tact not to ask how a grieving widow was feeling.
They both had loved, they both had lost, they both understood… and they still would love, always. For his sake.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading :) Thinking of Isobel in all of this just breaks me... Matthew was her darling boy, and I can't bear that she's lost him, as much as I can't bear that Mary's lost the person who loved her more than he thought was possible to love. Oh, MATTHEW. Definitely still not over it.
I do promise I won't only be writing melancholic things from now on! But I need to write them as they come to me. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this, and thank you so much. :)