A/N: HELLO! I know it's been a long time. I'm so sorry - hopefully it won't be so again. I'm sure it won't be. Thank you so, so much for your continued enthusiam and support for this story - every review, every ask on tumblr, every mention has meant the world to me and inspired me afresh to continue. So my dearest thanks to all of you for that, and especially once more to miscreantrose for her cheerleading and beta magic!
It was the sharp, insistent stab of sunlight behind his closed eyes that convinced Matthew it had not been a nightmare, but dreadful flashes of memory that tormented his sleep. Confused snatches of heated words, angered scowls, the flush of mortification and flailing punches that ended in… pain.
Searching for any sort of detail within the mess of his thoughts only made the pounding of his head worse, and worse, until bile rose in his throat to rouse him. He felt a hand that rubbed his back – his mother's, he saw when his eyes at last struggled open – and eased back carefully against the pillows as she raised them so he could sit, uncomfortably aware of the point of throbbing pain at the back of his skull.
"There, my dear boy," he heard his mother's voice, soothing. "Don't hurry to wake up too quickly, you'll only make it worse."
He tried to moisten dry lips. "…Mary?"
"She isn't here just now. But, Doctor Clarkson is!"
"What?" He struggled to sit up more, his mind racing to wonder where Mary was. He was aware enough that he was in Downton, he remembered her hand holding his before he'd fallen asleep, and if she wasn't here with him… "If she's gone to – try to – oh, God–"
The effort of moving made his head swim and stars burst behind his eyes, and he collapsed back aided by the supportive hands of his mother and, he presumed, Doctor Clarkson, with gentle murmurs of "Easy, now, Mr. Crawley." Matthew covered his eyes pitifully and groaned.
He felt Isobel rub his arm. "I'm sure Mary will be in to see you soon, but all things considered perhaps it's best that she isn't in here with you every minute of the day. Rest for a while now so that you'll be in more of a state to see her when she is here, don't you think that's best?"
At that he gave in, too weak to resist anymore Doctor Clarkson's gently insistent examination, nor try to ignore the faint linger of memories it manifested. He swallowed and told himself, as he murmured responses to the doctor's questions, that this was entirely different from then.
By the time Clarkson had finished, and after a few sips of water Matthew had been able to respond to him with increasing clarity, the torment seemed to be over. The doctor seemed satisfied.
"Well, I'd say you've been very lucky. The wound itself looks clean, and will heal quickly, but the concussion I'm afraid will last a lot longer." He smiled at Matthew ruefully. "The next few days – weeks, even – won't be particularly pleasant, but so long as you're careful not to exert yourself unnecessarily I'm sure you'll manage well."
He settled back, nodding gingerly and only half listening as Clarkson and his mother discussed the finer details of his recovery, feeling slightly sick but on the whole far better than when he'd woken up. Even so, his weak smile bore relief when they at last left him alone, and more so when the doctor convinced his mother that she should return home for a while and rest. Well-meaning though they both were, he knew, the silence for a few minutes at least in the sunlight shaded by curtains was really most welcome.
A few minutes wasn't such a problem, but soon the minutes wore on and his mind was left to wander without distraction.
They all knew – all their family – and after his impetuous fight with Carlisle, Mary had been left to bear the consequences of it. Once more he'd let her down, by his own rash stupidity and inability to control himself. Carlisle knew, their entire family and all the servants knew by now, their sordid secret that would leave them both in shame. He couldn't care less for himself, but Mary had always cared more about these things. She had intimated that to him enough times as he'd pleaded with her to let them have a chance. For God's sake she'd gone so far as to marry a man to conceal what she perceived as shame. Now it was his own hot temper that brought shame upon her, and he was incapacitated to stand by her side as he'd promised he would.
God, he was pathetic.
The sheen of sweat that seemed to cover his body felt sickeningly cold, even as his cheeks seemed to flush with heat. His tongue felt thick in his mouth and he tried to swallow, his hand shook as he reached to the bedside cabinet for the glass of water there. It slopped onto the polished wood, ringing as he set it down again with unsteady fingers and stared hard at it, as though that might somehow transport it to his lips, but the effort to focus and the accompanying frown made the pounding in his head too much to bear. He sank back weakly.
The painful thoughts spun in his mind faster, and faster, blurring into blackness as he felt the cool of the pillow against his cheek. He was about to succumb to it, welcomed it, even, when the door opening roused him sharply once more.
Blinking, he scrubbed his hands across his face then consciously widened his eyes to focus. Mary…
"Good morning, Matthew," the Earl of Grantham greeted him with more solemnity than Matthew was used to, but found that he couldn't blame him. "How are you feeling?"
The question was slow, a courtesy, it felt, and Matthew was slow to answer.
"Not… good." His lip curled to a dry smile, as he lifted his eyes to the earl's. "But I've had worse. I think." He took several slow, deep breaths as Robert nodded in acknowledgement. "Could you... Please could you perhaps... pass me the water?"
"Oh, of course."
Robert quickly complied, though reluctant to meet his eyes. Nevertheless grateful for it, Matthew took his time over cooling sips, waiting for the Earl to speak. He imagined that he would, as Robert took several paces back and forth at the foot of the bed, a finger tapping in thought against his lower lip that parted and closed as the words would not seem to come. Eventually he stopped, shook his head and stood with folded arms, his eyes still resolutely on the carpet before him.
Matthew lowered the glass from his lips, setting it down now with a steadier hand on the bedside cabinet. He stared at his hands in his lap, flexing each finger in turn, until at last the judgemental weight of the earl's silence became too much to bear.
"I'm sorry," he said thickly, so quiet he could hardly be heard.
It was enough, though, to make the tension suddenly snap.
"You're sorry." Robert hissed quietly, whirling to face him as his voice raised with his anger. "You're sorry? I should damn well hope that you're sorry! Have you any idea of the consequences of this? Did you even think about that before seducing my daughter, my married daughter?"
"I didn't-" Matthew pressed his lips together. "We weren't - intending this to happen, not like this."
"No, I'll bet you weren't."
"Lord Grantham, please. I didn't set out to 'seduce' Mary, it would never have crossed my mind to do so, I believed she was happy. I made myself believe it, until I couldn't any more. I love her. I love her, so very much. The consequences will be worth her happiness, and that is all that I am mindful of." He stared at Robert unbowed, though his body trembled in toll of his impassioned speech.
"And you think that months, or years, of snide gossip and scandal, the shadow that this will cast on the family, is the way to achieve Mary's happiness? You are more thoughtless than I believed!"
"No, I don't, I just know... that she is desperately unhappy with her husband, and we both believe that to ride out a few months of scandal would be better than a lifetime of misery for her!"
Matthew's hands clenched tightly in his lap as Robert scoffed and shook his head.
"I only hope you're right." He glanced at Matthew, his expression slowly softening from rage to disappointment. "I can believe there has been love between you - heaven knows Mary lived in this house during the war, and it was plain for us all to see. But you had made your decision, and then she made hers. Whatever your reasons, you both chose another path, and life dictates that we must live with those choices."
"I don't expect you to understand. And things have changed, since then-"
Matthew's lips snapped shut. His head lowered, aching fiercely, and he didn't look up as the earl's voice took on a gentler tone. "No amount of love in the world will amend for the scandalous mess of an affair on the family's reputation. Not for a long, long time, at least. Not for our kind of people."
"No. I know," Matthew murmured, letting his eyes fall closed as he carefully rested his head back. It seemed hopeless, and all he could cling to was the hazy vision of a future finally with Mary, when all of the fuss would be over, and they could be together in peace. It was the only thought that could calm his churning mind.
"Good God." The soft curse escaped Robert's lips, rousing Matthew once more. He blinked, trying to understand the look of incredulity that now shadowed the earl's face. "Is that why you so freely gave your fortune, to... atone yourself, in some way?"
"What?" Perhaps he'd fallen asleep for a second or two, that's why he'd missed this ridiculous leap of logic, why the words seemed so slow to make sense in his head. "I don't know what you mean," he said weakly.
But Robert's fury had renewed. "I can hardly believe it. That you had the nerve to accept my invitation to this house and come here, letting me hail you as the saviour of Downton and knowing all the while what disgrace you've committed? If you thought such generosity might assuage your guilty conscience - well, nevermind that, I can't accept it now."
"What?" Matthew repeated, his face a mask of pained disbelief. "You can't possibly think - I assure you, Lord Grantham, there was no motivation behind my donation beyond simply wanting to help."
"Help who? The family or yourself; your own future, good name and conscience?"
"You're being ridiculous!"
"I don't think so. Whatever your reasoning, you cannot expect me to take it now-"
"For God's sake, you must!" The strain of the argument sent a dizzying wave of nausea through him and he lurched forward, pressing a hand to his stomach and taking several deep breaths. "Oh God."
Floundering for what more to do, Robert thrust a clean bowl from the cabinet into his hands and stood back, eyes averted as Matthew's gut protested against his exertion. The weighted silence, stifled air in the wake of their argument, trembled with his shuddering gasps and the muted sounds of regaining some composure, wiping his mouth, shakily replacing the bowl on the cabinet beside him and pushing it away as far as he could (but not too far, still, to reach).
"Sorry about that." The mumbled apology wrought Robert's attention, his voice fast regaining strength in determination. "But Lord Grantham, the alternative-"
"Look, Matthew, you really don't need to-"
"-the alternative," he went on, undeterred, "is for Carlisle to buy you out. And however low your opinion of me must be just now - and I don't blame you for that, believe me - surely your objection is not worth living in his debt."
Robert's brow arched. "So instead I must live in yours?"
Lips parting to respond, Matthew shook his head, but a knock at the door stayed his objection.
"Yes?" Both earl and heir called in unison, glancing at each other before turning their attention to the opening door, knowing that all was not settled between them yet.
"It's only me." The soft greeting graced their ears before her fingers curled around the door, the delicate features of her face following as she then came fully in. Mary was careful to leave the door ajar and address her father. "Mama said that you were here. I hope you've listened to Doctor Clarkson's advice to let Matthew rest."
"Really, it's alright-"
"I've been perfectly civil," Robert cut sharply across Matthew's placation, prompting the younger man to roll his eyes. "As much as you could reasonably expect with what I felt I must say, anyway."
"Oh Papa, couldn't you have waited for one day at least?" she snapped back, weary. "What's happened wasn't Matthew's fault alone, so it's not really fair for you chastise him alone - and certainly not when he's in no fit state to stand up to you!"
Of course Robert argued his defence, and as they both batted back and forth Matthew took advantage of their distraction to let his eyes fall closed. He heard Mary stand firm in support of him and his heart swelled, some warmth seeping in for the first time since he'd awoken. The sting of guilt still stirred him, but her voice softened it, her indignation aroused to her father for disturbing his recovery rather than the trouble he'd wrought for himself - though he knew that must come, in due time. He heard the sharp tone of Robert's authority, riling against what he perceived as impudence but slowly giving way in the face of Mary's sense and grace.
Then their voices seemed to fade, as he frowned at the ache still throbbing behind his eyes, until a feather-light touch began its soothing ministry. A tender touch that ghosted across his fevered brow, cool fingertips and then the brush of delicate lips, drawing him back to consciousness.
He willed to go to her, to open his eyes knowing the vision he would see, but the effort felt immense beneath the comfort she gave. At last they obeyed, with drugged lethargy till her features crystallised into focus. Her smile, the lock of her hair that fell forward past her face, her palm so smooth against his cheek.
"Hello," she murmured softly, and he felt his lips curve of their own accord to smile, but all they could muster at first was a muted grunt. He frowned gently, pursed his lips, moistened them to try to speak again... but Mary shook her head, eased forward to press a tender kiss to them instead. He hummed appreciatively, his head swimming in an altogether more pleasurable way at the soft, slanting caress of her mouth against his. He felt heat colour his cheeks, a fog of sensation from her lips and her fingers that traced the line of his jaw, and he sank willingly into it.
When she at last drew back for breath, he blinked up at her, grasping for coherent thought.
"I... um..." He swallowed thickly. "Thank you."
She smiled, smoothing his hair back from his sticky forehead. "What for?"
"Saving me..." He drew a slow breath, gaining strength. "How did you convince your father to go?"
"Oh, I can be very persuasive. Besides, I think he understood the chances were small of me leaping into bed with you while you were unconscious. And I left the door open."
He swallowed again, wondering how long he'd been out. A glance to the side revealed a clean bowl by the side of the bed, and he squeezed her hand in thanks, his eyes dropping in shame.
"I'm sorry, you've... done quite enough of mopping up my sick to last a lifetime." He shook his head, lost for a moment in the darkness of the past, and resurfacing memories of the night before. "Did I ever truly thank you for that? And... I'm sorry for landing us in such a frightful mess. I'm so sorry, darling."
She gave a little shrug, her eyes suddenly clouded. It was a moment before she spoke.
"I was terrified when you fell. I didn't know-" Her voice was small, her smile tight. "It doesn't matter now. You're going to be alright. And as for the other thing - well, I know how manipulative Sir Richard is. So please don't be sorry for that."
He sighed, soothed by the warmth of her arm beneath his fingertips that trailed along her skin. His gaze rose hesitantly to meet hers. Words seemed to slur through his brain as he fought to form them on his tongue, his brow creasing with effort.
"Don't... try to absolve the fact that I made a fool of myself. And that it means you've had to deal with this alone - because you have, haven't you?" He felt her stiffen, so slightly. "I know you, and I know that you would try."
He watched as she let it sink in, saw the struggle in her darkened eyes before she nodded.
"To be honest I'm quite relieved that it's out in the open." A nervous chuckle escaped her. "At least there's no more pretence, now, and I'm released from that house."
He spoke slowly, his fingers flexing, entwined with hers. "And what does Sir Richard have to say about that?"
"A lot of blustering threats, as you can imagine."
"Oh, my darling." He mustered the strength to squeeze her hand, every nerve reeling with fear that she'd faced Carlisle's wrath on her own, but thankful at least for her honesty. A shiver of distaste made his limbs tighten, and he gritted his teeth to breathe through it, clutching her tightly. He slowly calmed as she stroked his arm, his cheek, her fingers running through his hair as he fought down a forceful wave of sickness.
"Granny came with me," she added, once his trembling had stilled. "So I wasn't unsupported. I think she may have convinced him better than I did, however painful it might have been to hear."
Weakly, he nodded. "Then let's hope that it wasn't in vain."
Each word seemed to take more effort than the last, and he hissed in discomfort at the renewed ache that seemed to pierce every point of his skull. He gratefully sipped the water that Mary held to his lips, and sighed as she kissed the cool droplets from them, another sip, then the slip of her mouth against his, in a delicious pattern of shorter sips and longer kisses until the glass stood forgotten on the side as they lost themselves in each other. He felt the prickle of heat across his skin as his fingers sank into her hair, his body responding helplessly as she shifted closer on the bed, until the echoing threat of a footstep on the gallery caused her to spring away.
He blinked at the ceiling, breathless and pulse racing as he saw from the corner of his eye how she smoothed down her dress and touched a finger to her lips, her composure restored far more quickly than his own.
"I'm not sure," he rasped as he stared at the blush staining her cheeks, "that quite fits with Doctor Clarkson's recommendation to... rest, you know."
A smirk curved her lips. "I think that depends. Do you feel at all better now, darling?"
His tired limbs shook as he laughed. "Quite... quite better. I can't argue with that."
She smiled with satisfaction and kissed him again, more chastely now before she sat back to keep a proper distance between them. The respite she gave was a fleeting pleasure, he knew, a wonderful distraction from their pain and their fear - for a distraction was all it could be. But to acknowledge that caused a bone-deep ache in every part of him, and so he tried to do as she urged him, and rest.
They could face it all better together, then. But in the meantime their future hung weighed in a delicate balance of men's pride, waiting, waiting to learn what the reward of their indiscretion would be.
A/N: Thank you for reading! As ever I'd love to know your thoughts - and I am quite certain the wait will not be so long for the next chapter. Thank you!