A/N: GREETINGS, MY FRIENDS!
Oh it feels like a dreadfully long time since I've published anything here. I'm sorry.
May I present a new WIP - I'm not sure how long it will turn out to be, but I'm quite excited about it. It's a sequel to my post S2/CS fanfic, Of Course It's The End, How Could It Not Be? - which I do advise you read before embarking on this! I'd intended OCITE to be a standalone, and really, I'd like you to consider it a standalone, still. Of course this fic will continue from it, but it's only one possible way their story might have gone. I'd often continued the story kind of self-indulgently in my imagination, with various melodramatic showdowns etc etc, but eventually I was persuaded to form it into some kind of sense and order and write it! So here we are.
If you haven't read Of Course It's The End, How Could It Not Be? already, then very simply it's based on the premise that after 2x08, Mary married Carlisle as she'd said she would in 2x07, and Matthew left to live and work in Manchester, unable to remain at Downton. When he returned for the Christmas season to see the family, lingering feelings (their own and Carlisle's jealousy of Mary's affection) came to a head and they slept together, knowing that there was no way out for Mary. They accepted that it was the end, and determined not to see each other again, for the sake of them all.
Thanks to Pemonynen and EOlivet for their invaluable creative input and support!
With that, enjoy...!
An End To All Things
Several hours had passed before Isobel ventured to see him. She was too angry with him at first, and after that she simply had no idea of what to say to him. But she could not let it go with nothing said at all, and… when the first waves of bitter disappointment in him began to pass over, she remembered more clearly the anguish in his face. Whatever he had done, however foolish, he was still her son and her priority was still, always, his care.
"Matthew..." She knocked quietly at his locked bedroom door. There was silence, and she sighed. "I've asked Mrs Bird to hold off on dinner, until you feel like it."
At last she heard his quiet, muttered 'thank you'. But that was all.
She tried again, more directly. "Will you open the door? I think we should–"
"No. Not yet."
"Then I'll just talk through the door, so if you don't mind all the staff hearing–"
"For God's sake, Mother!"
The key turned in the lock after a moment, and when Isobel opened the door she saw Matthew slumping into a chair by the window, his elbows resting on his knees and his face shadowed by the darkness in the room. He looked… desolate.
Isobel's heart reflexively ached with sympathy for her son, though she hardened against it.
"Mary was here," she said. It was more a statement than a question; for she had heard their softened voices, after she'd heard… less restrained sounds, that she wished desperately to forget for the shame it caused her.
Matthew leaned despondently back, glaring into darker corners. He didn't deserve any light.
"At the house, yes. Not… in here," he muttered, shaking his head. No, she hadn't come into his bedroom, or his bed. It would hardly have been proper. His body burned with shame and memory, his own thoughts mocking him.
"I see," Isobel nodded. "But… you did..." Unable to voice what she knew to be true, she watched as Matthew turned his face to her at last. They saw the dark understanding in each other's eyes, before he passed a hand over his face as if it might cover his shame, lowering his sullen gaze to the floor.
"You can't possibly understand." His words were heavy, laden with the weight of despair at himself and his actions. And how could he possibly speak of it, with his mother of all people? His voice rose bitterly. "And before you berate my stupidity, please, believe that I am well aware of my own shortcomings."
"I should hope so!" Isobel cried. "How could you be so foolish, Matthew?"
"No don't 'Mother' me, you have gone beyond that." Her earlier fury came flooding back, and she bristled against him. "To disregard so – wantonly! – your own honour, Mary's honour – she is married, Matthew, do you have any comprehension of–"
"Of course I do!" he shouted, rising and pacing away from the sting of her accusations. "For God's sake, I know that! Do you think..." His shoulders dropped, and he turned to her, despair written into his every limb. He shook his head, helpless. "Do you think I haven't been painfully aware of that, in every moment since I came back? As if Carlisle wasn't already taking every chance he could to make sure I'm well aware that she belongs to him, but–"
"He is her husband," Isobel cut his pitying speech short sternly. "You make it sound as though he owns her, when you have no right at all to–"
"I told you, you can't understand!" Matthew snapped, his eyes gleaming in anger. Oh, he knew that well enough… He had no right to complain, he had no right to her. The least of anyone. "She doesn't love him," he finished quietly. It was all he could say, though he knew it was no justification.
Isobel folded her arms, shutting him out. "Perhaps she doesn't, and perhaps she loves you still instead, but none of that matters now. She made her choice."
"It wasn't her choice!" Matthew began, and then faltered. Would it even help, for his mother to know the truth? He doubted it. It didn't make a difference anyway, it was still wrong, Mary's marriage and what they had done. It was all still wrong, and it was all still his fault. "If she'd had the liberty to choose, then… Well, things would have been different."
His argument convinced neither of them.
"Did she have another choice?" Isobel challenged him next. "You hardly gave her another, and you certainly can't excuse yourselves now! You never think, do you, about the consequences of your actions?"
"And if there are consequences, will you face them? Or will you run from them, and hide from them, as you always have?"
Matthew's lips parted to protest, but… how could he? She was right, he always ran, and left others suffering in his wake. A wave of wretched self-pity washed over him so strongly that he sank under its weight, sitting and dropping his head into his hands. Any strength he'd had, he'd borne from Mary, and the last of it had left him with her parting kiss.
"It will be easier… for everyone… if I go," he said at last, brokenly.
"For everyone, or for you?" Isobel frowned. She was in no mood to be sympathetic to him, not yet. As proud as she had been of him, throughout his life… in this moment, knowing what he'd done and how poorly he would deal with it, it was forgotten.
He drew a shuddering, difficult breath. "For Mary. For her marriage, however wretched it is… she may get on with it as best she can, without me here to cause difficulty. Especially now."
Slowly, Isobel considered this, and accepted it with a slight nod. But one thought, one consequence, still burned in her mind… One that she hardly dared to consider, and could only hope that Matthew had.
"And what if there's a child?" she solemnly asked.
Matthew stilled, and a calmness settled somewhere in the depth of his pained expression.
"Then… Mary will have something by which to remember me, always."
"Oh, Matthew…" The thought of it was so sad, and accepted with such a helpless resignation, that Isobel's heart at last began to soften. That her own son, her darling son, might never have the chance to love his own child as she could him, broke her heart. She laid a hand upon his shoulder, softly, and the tears in his eyes that had been held so fiercely in check these past few hours at last began to break from him as he clung to what little support she could give him.
"You needn't worry about any awkwardness with the family, on Christmas day. Mary won't come, she'll… claim to be ill I suppose," Matthew explained in a quiet, shaken voice. "Because it would have been too difficult, for everyone… It would have been even before we… It was what she came for, to tell me. To say goodbye. She'd already decided, you see."
"I think so, yes," Isobel murmured softly. Her free hand began to rub across his back, in familiar patterns as she'd done to soothe him when he was young, easing the tension of his trembling sobs before they could begin. "That's probably best, now."
"And then I'll go, and be no more trouble to her. I know… I know I've already caused her trouble enough."
His shoulders heaved into a sigh, and Isobel kissed the top of his head.
"Perhaps. But never with intention, at least, and Mary knows that, I'm sure."
Matthew shook his head. "She does, at least I hope she does. God, I'm so sorry… for all of it."
"So you should be, and I'm glad to hear it," his mother said with kindness. "Still, what's done is done, however foolish it might have been. You can only do your best now to move forward from it with as much grace and sense as you can manage."
Grace, and sense? Matthew didn't suppose that he possessed either quality in much measure, but… he would do his best, if it were even possible to move forward from this… It must be. Only short hours ago, Mary had been here, and they'd been together, and he'd known for the briefest moment what heights of bliss and fulfilment it was possible to feel. His life now, he knew, would be nothing after that… After knowing her, and having her, in that most intimate way to feel the very completeness of her love, he could be nothing more than a shadow of himself.
What an utter fool he had been.
Christmas day dawned bright and clear. Matthew rose, and washed, and dressed, his every movement automatic and done without feeling or thought as it was easier not to feel or think. Everything was easier that way. He almost laughed, to compare Downton to his life in the trenches in even the slightest way, when once the two had been the most far removed of existences; but it seemed somehow apt. To survive in the trenches had required a kind of numbness of body and soul, for his daily protection and sanity. And now, to survive this Christmas day at Downton required the same thing.
At least Mary would not be there, but still he must face her father, and maybe her husband as well unless he remained with her… and Matthew didn't know how else to cope.
All of it was going perfectly well. He managed to greet the Earl with a warm smile and a handshake, fooling himself into believing he could do so because he'd soon be doing them all a favour by leaving their lives in peace. He smiled graciously as the family exchanged gifts, and politely expressed his disappointment that Mary (and Richard, he supposed he must say) weren't there to receive theirs too.
"Oh, you needn't be sorry for that," Cora assured him pleasantly. "There'll be another day, won't there."
"Of course there will!" Isobel smiled, interjecting before Matthew had a chance to announce his determination to leave Downton the moment he could. It was Christmas day, and there was no need to face such things just yet, nor the questions his intention would inevitably spur. Matthew pursed his lips, but remained quiet, thankful for Edith who broke the disquieting silence that had fallen.
"Who's coming to the shoot on New Year's Day, Papa? Have you invited Sir Anthony Strallan?"
Robert glanced up from the luncheon table. "Oh, the usual guns, not too many chaps. I did invite Sir Anthony, but he declined… You'll be coming, won't you Matthew?"
He took a slow sip of his wine, taking advantage of the moment before answering and giving a firm look to his mother not to interfere this time.
"I'm afraid not," he said simply. "As nice as it would be, and I thank you for the invitation, I've commitments in Manchester that I must get back to."
He held his breath, releasing it at last when Robert nodded his understanding, smiling sadly. There, he'd done it, there'd been no questions asked…
"Of course I understand, my dear boy. Though I'm sorry to hear it."
"As are we," a chill voice came from the library doorway in the moment before Carson announced the arrival of Sir Richard and Lady Mary Carlisle. Matthew stiffened in horror, his eyes wide as Richard smiled without warmth. "It's a great shame, but if you must go so soon…"
"Mary!" Cora exclaimed with a smile, rising with eagerness to greet her daughter and her husband. "We hadn't expected you, I thought you weren't feeling well…"
"I wasn't," Mary shrugged coolly, leaning forward to accept her mother's kiss and embrace. "I'm still not quite, to tell the truth, but better enough – it is Christmas day, after all."
She smiled faintly, and amid the greetings of her family she tried desperately to seek Matthew's gaze, to tell him somehow that she'd tried her best, but hadn't been able to put up any more excuse in the face of Richard's relentless enthusiasm to come… but it was impossible, his eyes were anywhere but on her, and it didn't surprise her. The evident discomfort that riddled his demeanour echoed in every nerve of herself, as memories of being together with him flooded her mind. She shivered.
"Why don't you sit by the fire, dear," Richard soothed her with a hand on her back, steering her towards the settee where Matthew still hovered uncomfortably. Was he doing it on purpose? Mary flared with irritation at the falseness of her husband's care. "I'd hate for your chill to worsen after I've forced you out after all." She could hardly refuse when everyone was looking at her with such concern, and tightened her arms around herself as she sat down. She wasn't at all surprised when in the same moment, Matthew stood up more purposefully, but Richard accosted him before he could excuse himself.
"Merry Christmas, Matthew," he said coolly, and held out his hand. "I'm glad Mary recovered enough for us to come – I know she'd have been sorry to miss you – wouldn't you, dear?" He turned to Mary, without releasing the tightness of his grip on Matthew's hand that made the younger man more uncomfortable with every second.
She glanced up. "I would've," she agreed quietly – what else could she say?
Matthew swallowed uncomfortably, meeting her eyes for the first time and painfully aware of their family around them as heat prickled at the back of his neck. He was numb and hot and terrified and Mary was there, with her husband. He tugged his hand free of Carlisle's and muttered,
"It's lovely to see you of course, Merry Christmas." His voice was flat and shook as he made his escape back to the luncheon table, picking at the food distractedly, allowing the others to take up the conversation with the newly-arrived couple.
Mary wasn't supposed to be here. They weren't supposed to see each other now, they couldn't, it was too difficult… He couldn't look at her and not think of what they'd done, remember how she'd felt and how wrong but how wonderfully, wonderfully right it had been; only there was her husband standing beside her and the heat in his veins chilled. It was supposed to have been the last memory they shared together, that bliss, that kiss… but now they were together again in this nightmare.
He didn't realise that Violet was hovering beside him until she spoke.
"Dear me, you look as if you've seen a ghost. Let's not pretend we're in a Dickens' novel, even if it is Christmas," she said with her usual indifference.
"Sorry," he cleared his throat and straightened, trying to smile. "I suppose there are some things on my mind, but… I'll be back in Manchester soon enough to deal with them."
Violet raised an eyebrow. "So your troubles lie in Manchester, I see. Then I wonder why they're concerning you so now? They'll wait, surely, while you're on holiday."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at avoiding my problems," Matthew chuckled humourlessly. Not when his largest problem was himself, certainly.
"Well do try, for all our sakes. At least for today," Violet sniffed, and Matthew wondered if he only imagined her looking at Mary as she spoke. He'd certainly try… Whether or not he'd succeed, with Carlisle baiting him as he was sure to, was questionable to say the least.
When the telephone rang late in the afternoon, it was an unexpected blessing. Released from the pressing discomfort of company if even for only a minute or so, Matthew hurried out to the hall.
But the conversation was brief, unpleasant, and when he replaced the receiver it was with a heavy sigh. His fingers stroked over the cool metal as he considered the news… until a soft voice snapped him from his thoughts.
"I hope that was nothing too serious," Mary announced herself quietly, without ceremony, "but your expression seems to suggest otherwise."
"Mary…" He tensed, fighting the urge to reach for her, to touch her. Glancing behind her, he faltered, unsure of what to say to her and breathlessly expecting this moment's unexpected solitude to be broken.
"It's alright, Sir Richard has already gone up to change. He's causing a fuss about having a different valet, or something." She looked down at her hands, idly twisting her wedding ring.
At last, she looked at him, her gaze fixing him in her presence.
"I know you weren't expecting to see me today, and I'm sorry … There were only so many excuses I could muster, I'm afraid–"
"Don't – apologise, Mary. Please." His lip twitched into a smile and he shifted, almost towards her, aching for her and hardly able to bear it. "I know we'd said goodbye, but… I'm not sorry to have seen you again. Only that it's so damned… difficult…"
"I know." Her eyes fluttered closed, the memory of him shivering through her, and she drew a breath. When she felt his fingers clasp firmly around her own, she looked up and felt almost faint with the intensity of his touch and his gaze.
"I'll go," he said softly, almost earnestly. "Now, it's alright. I won't stay for dinner… I can't."
"Matthew, it's Christmas day. You must–"
"I can't." It almost made him smile to feel her slender fingers tightening with his, her body testifying to her words that she couldn't let him go. But he didn't, he couldn't, and it hurt. "I can't spoil it for everyone else, for you–"
"My darling…" A sigh trembled from his lips, the distance between them closing as they sought each other's strength. "I'd rather leave you now, properly, than to have to say goodbye again with everyone there. With…"
"I know," she whispered again, her heart breaking with his. They'd already suffered this once, and to do so again was unbearable…
"Does he suspect, do you think?"
She gave a little shrug. "No, I don't think so."
"Good," he breathed in relief. "When you came this afternoon… I'm afraid I was being terribly obvious about it all. Mary, I simply couldn't–"
Laughing, she pressed a finger quickly to his lips. "You were being terribly obvious. But I think, if anything, he's taken your discomfort around me to mean that his nasty little plan worked. You're obviously so horrified by my indiscretion that you can't bear to be near me."
The irony of it struck Matthew, and he chuckled. Nothing could be further from the truth, how he longed to be near her… Not merely to be near her, but with her, joined with her and… But such thoughts were no use, and he forced them away.
"I'm glad, for your sake." He smiled, and took a step back, forcing some distance between them in false propriety as their hands fell limply by their sides. "Anyway, by chance I seem to have been granted a way out… I'm afraid an old associate – well, an old friend – isn't at all well. That was the telephone call… so as it happens I need to go to London as soon as I can." He didn't mention that it was Lavinia's father, it didn't seem right.
"I'm sorry," she frowned. "But even so you couldn't go this evening."
"It's enough, I think. I need to be ready to leave first thing in the morning, and at least it reasons away my mood for the afternoon, a little – I hope so anyway."
Slowly, Mary nodded. Silence hung, thick in the air between them, neither willing to make the move to say goodbye. It was too difficult to do again, when they longed for – when they knew – so much more.
With a deep breath, she straightened more purposefully.
"I should go and change for dinner. If you hurry to the library you can say goodbye before the others go up."
A weak smile flickered between them, and Mary turned to go, unable to bear the weight of everything between them for another moment. If they didn't say it, they could pretend, believe that this wasn't the end of everything… But his fingers shot out and clung to hers, halting her as the dressing gong rang, and he knew they had only seconds before the family and servants would start to move.
He was desperately close to her, filling her vision with the piercing blue of his eyes and his darling face. "I'll miss you," he whispered breathlessly. "I'll think of you, always, and – I know it isn't my right to say it, but–"
Her expression glowed with her smile. "Yes, it is. Say it anyway."
"I love you," he said in a rush of earnestness. "Until the last breath leaves my body, I will love you, Mary."
"Me too," she breathed, and pressed her lips for the purest, briefest moment to his. It was enough of a goodbye, enough of a promise between them, that no other words were needed.
They parted ways, he to the library to bid the rest goodbye and she to the security of her old bedchamber, relieved for the comfort she would find there with Anna's long-missed service.
By the time they sat down to dinner, Mary had composed herself once more. Of course there were comments about Matthew's empty seat, though it seemed he'd explained himself well enough, and she tried to draw strength from the knowledge of his love. She could bear it, her life, her marriage, now that she'd known Matthew…
At least, that was what she'd told herself. But with every pointed word that passed her husband's lips (she'd been right about his belief, the smugness that reeked from his attitude was clear about that) she felt her irritation rise and rise. Now that she knew Matthew in every intimate way, now that she knew how he loved her and what they might have had… how could she bear this, in its place?
As the motor bore them back to Haxby that night (thank God she'd claimed illness earlier, giving her license to escape to grieve the loss of her love all over again), she stared coldly out of the window into the darkness, unsure, horribly aware of Richard's very real presence beside her. Her husband.
Before, she had been able to bear it, and accept her lot as she had chosen. She had had no choice, after all. She'd borne it as she knew a wife should, and though the pretence and the coolness of it tired her every day, she had managed.
Now, all she could think of and all she desired was Matthew… and now that all lay resolved between them, healed and sealed by the desperate, impossible delight of their passion and his precious declarations of love, oh; how could she bear it anymore?
Her fingers tightened in her lap, determination steeling in her veins. Matthew was gone. Again. He was gone, and though things were different between them now (oh God, how different, how glorious), she knew that to dwell on it would serve her no favours, except to warm her soul when she felt that there was no warmth left to feel.
Matthew was gone, and she must go on, here, alone. Somehow… Somehow, she would.
A/N: Thanks ever so much for reading! I can assure you that this is only the beginning of the story... but I'd love to know what you think so far! I'll do my best to update relatively regularly, though reasonably I'd expect once a week or so - I'm sorry it can't be more, but I thought I'd make that clear now.
Thanks for your support - come find me on Tumblr at orangeshipper dot tumblr dot com for writing updates and musings!