A/N: It has actually been four years... goodness me... but here I am with an update! If it helps, any, I have frequently felt guilty that my muse for this fic just dried up... it stayed there, niggling, but nothing would seem to stick... but I've found it again, and rediscovered where I wanted it to go, and had some new ideas, and my muse is back!
I can't tell you how much it has meant to me that sporadic interest has continued in this story, over four years. Thank you. If you're new to it, or need a refresher: first came Of Course It's The End, How Could It Not Be?, an AU in which (SPOILERS AHEAD!) Matthew had fled back to Manchester after 2x08 and Mary married Carlisle after all (written before the S2 Christmas Special, so I guess not AU at the time?!). In that, and this sequel that followed, to cut a long story short: lots of tension, Matthew and Mary begin an affair, after a VERY awkward dinner at Downton Carlisle found out, and Matthew ended up with concussion. Mary confronted Richard to ask for a divorce, and... here we are.
I very much hope you enjoy this update, and I promise it won't be the last!
Oh! It's glofig's birthday today, too. :) Happy Birthday!
If Mary had thought dinner the previous evening to be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as she'd poised on edge to deflect the radiating dislike and unease between Richard and Matthew, this evening was a thousand times worse. To sit among her family, to know that they knew, to feel the judgement unspoken but glittering in their eyes every time they looked at her that she had a lover outside of her marriage, that her lover was Matthew, that their relationship would wreak scandal on them all… They couldn't say anything, of course, not a word. It wouldn't do to speak of such things at the dinner table, in front of the servants - never mind that the servants all knew by now anyway. They couldn't speak of it, or the fact that her father was now refusing the money that Matthew was offering to save Downton, and yet to speak of anything else felt unbearably trivial, to the point of farce.
So they ate mostly in silence, with terse, occasional chatter, and the heat of discomfort rose in her cheeks. She couldn't call it shame, not quite - if she did feel shame, it was only at the unforgiving exposure of their affair, for what had passed so intimately between them to be suddenly in the open and inviting of such gossip and scrutiny. As for loving Matthew, though, and the glorious physical expression of it that sent pleasant shivers down her spine even to think of… She could feel no shame in that, however wrongly the world may judge it, not when his love felt so pure and so right in comparison to what her husband had purported to be love, twisted and coercive as it was.
"Where did you escape to this afternoon?" Edith asked, her look pointed under the cover of innocent curiosity. "You can't possibly have been upstairs the whole time, after sneaking lunch up there too."
Mary's fingers tightened round her fork at the unspoken insinuation of judgement had she been with Matthew, never mind the fact that he was still so weak with concussion.
"Of course not. I went for a walk, and felt much better for it."
"All afternoon? Where to?"
"Nowhere in particular. I just needed to clear my head, not that it's any of your business."
"I'm afraid you've rather made your affairs our business," their father scoffed, then paled angrily as his choice of words caught up with him.
"Not now, Robert," Cora said more calmly.
At her warning glance, he relented with a huff of displeasure, and they lapsed back into quiet. Mary's eyes rolled heavenwards as she sighed, then dropped to stare at the dessert which Alfred had just placed in front of her. While the delicate concoction of raspberries, meringue and cream would normally make her mouth water, this evening she felt no appetite for it. She'd been so elated at having escaped the cold clutches of Haxby that the prospect of feeling so excruciatingly uncomfortable in Downton hadn't really crossed her mind.
Thankfully soon they gave up the pretence of a normal family dinner, retreating to the drawing room together as the Earl seemed in no mood to dwell on it all in solitude (though Mary half wished that he would). Had it really been only the night before, that she'd stood here with their family still blessedly ignorant and their secret still safe? It felt like a lifetime ago. The scene played again in her minds eye, like one those dreadfully over-dramatic films that people paid to go and watch because their own lives were dull, and - God, the gossip of her scandal when it came out would be those same peoples' entertainment - it was too awful to think of. Her eyes dropped to the mantelpiece, where Matthew had fallen (thankfully no trace of his blood still remained), and her chest tightened against it all so much she could hardly breathe.
She sank onto the sofa, exhausted by the strain of the day that had passed since then, reminding herself how Matthew had seemed much more himself by lunchtime, weak though he was. That he would be alright, given time.
She blinked, back to herself, and saw her mother's expectant gaze.
"I'm so sorry, what was that?"
"I was asking if you've heard from Sybil at all lately. Her last letter seems an absolute age ago."
Mary gave a little shrug. "A few weeks ago, I think." It was before she'd visited Matthew in Manchester, and she'd been so preoccupied since then - even if Sybil had written since, Mary wasn't sure what she could possibly have written back in any case. Her brows furrowed gently. "I'm sure everything's alright. They're in Ireland, it isn't the dark ages, and she can reach a telephone. You know how busy she keeps."
"I know, but with the baby due soon-"
"Branson shouldn't let her," Robert said sharply, suddenly. "Heaven help him if he's too wrapped up in his politics and pamphlets to look after her properly…"
He trailed off as Edith's bitter laugh rose above his words. Incredulous eyes turned to her, but she seemed to stare right past them, a wretched smile on her lips.
"It's quite funny, when you think about it," she said without humour. "Poor Mama and Papa. One daughter married to a socialist chauffeur, one having an affair with the middle-class heir. It's like something out of a sensationalist novel! And I doubt there's much hope for me to redeem it, not once word gets out."
"For goodness sake," Mary sighed, not in the mood for her sister's spite, and pushed to her feet. "I'm going to bed."
"Your own, I hope," Edith muttered uncharitably.
"Oh, grow up."
"Really, girls, please…"
Cora's weak plea fell on deaf ears as Mary stalked out, her shoulders tight with tired anger. She shouldn't have expected anything less from Edith, really. In fact, she was surprised it had taken so long for her to attack. The worst of it was, she thought bitterly, that her sister was right… Never mind being stuck with the choices they'd made, she knew she and Sybil would stand by them and make them again, but society wouldn't see things that way. Just as society wouldn't look kindly on Edith; no-one would want to marry her now and take the risk of being attached to a family like that. She'd probably feel horribly bitter about it, too, if their roles were reversed. She swallowed back the sting of tears, calming herself by focussing on the click of her heels across the Great Hall.
As she reached the base of the stairs, Edith caught up with her.
"You just can't help yourself, can you?" The words spat from her lips with an air of disgust.
Mary shot her a weary look, then carried on up the stairs. Edith clearly wasn't after a reasonable discussion, and she was too drained to sling insults back and forth. Life seemed to have hardened her lately against such pettiness.
But Edith would not be put off, the spite having simmered in her all day. "You had that Turk, then it seems a rich husband still wasn't enough, you had to have Matthew in your bed, too-"
"Now look here-"
"-I've often wondered if I was too harsh, you know, what I said back then. But I was right after all. You are a slut, aren't you?"
Mary recoiled as if slapped, the words stinging with hurt and shame just as they had six years ago. Her eyes were like ice.
"Don't talk of things you know nothing about," she said sharply.
"I'm not a child, Mary!" Edith looked almost desperate, and only a little ashamed of herself beneath her distress. "So don't treat me as such. How could you be so selfish… You've ruined all of us, dragged us all down by your shame! Did it cross your mind even once that your… deplorable actions would affect us all? Don't you ever think of anyone but yourself?"
That was too much. Mary almost felt she might laugh, if it weren't so horribly serious. She pulled Edith into the nearest room off the gallery and shut the door behind them. She wasn't angry with her, really… Not entirely, anyway.
"Look," she said, with a shake of her head. "I don't pretend to be innocent, so judge me all you like for loving Matthew. You won't be the last, so I might as well get used to it. But selfish? If it was selfish to marry a man I can't stand, precisely to keep our family from scandal and out of the newspapers, then I suppose I must have been so."
At that, Edith had the grace at least to look cowed.
"I didn't realise…" she said slowly, understanding dawning in her features.
"Obviously. And let's not forget, without your spiteful little letter it might all have been passed off as idle servants' gossip."
"Well maybe, but-"
Mary had no interest in hearing whatever justification she might have, and they glared at each other in an uneasy truce. She equally had no interest in justifying her own feelings for Matthew, or speaking at all about their relationship to Edith, or explaining how thinking of anyone but herself was all she truly felt she'd done for years.
How she wished they could just be past all this! She exhaled, softening, wondering if she was mad for what she was about to say but knowing that she should. "How do things stand with Sir Anthony?"
"What?" Edith's eyes narrowed, as she drew back with caution.
Mary sighed. "You, and Sir Anthony. Are you serious about that, still?"
"Yes, very," she said tightly, "not that it matters much, now!"
Mary rolled her eyes. Oh, she could shake her! Couldn't she see, she was trying to be serious for once? Instead she took a calming breath, and said slowly, "Then you should tell him what's happened. About my indiscretion and divorce, if Richard will do it - and the likely scandal either way, if he doesn't. Tell him before it all comes out, so that he hears it from you, and nowhere else. If you're lucky, and he's as good a man as you believe him to be, you might still be married before the gossip-mongers get their claws in. It isn't your scandal, after all."
Edith's gasp was so horrified, so certain, that Mary almost laughed. Of course it was a shocking idea, to expose any shame to the person you want only to think the best of you. She knew it only too well, had spent years agonising over the idea and fiercely regretting her inaction. It had haunted her, still haunted her, to know now what she might have had with Matthew, without shame, from the start if only she'd felt able… Her lip curved into a rueful smile.
"That's what I thought, once. I was wrong, and I have been paying for it ever since." Her sister didn't understand, she could see, but wasn't feeling so generous as to open up any further.
"Why would you try to help me?" Edith still looked wary, waiting for the sting that surely must follow as kindness had never been a habit between them, and especially not following such argument and insult. Mary's eyes dropped to the twist of her necklace between her fingers, and she gave a nonchalant shrug.
"Well, I'm not sure you deserve it. But I know what it's like to be miserable. And if you are going to be miserable, in the end, I'd really rather it was your own fault at least, and not mine."
"Thank you… I think. And… I suppose I'm sorry, too."
The last was almost whispered; Mary could barely see her sister's lips form the words in the shadows. All she did was nod, then, lifting her chin, she walked out to the gallery with head held high. It took only seconds for her to decide her course towards Matthew's room; Edith could think what she liked and be damned.
Softly opening the door, she saw that he was sleeping, and smiled to herself. Good. Probably still recovering from her father's onslaught earlier, and what a fool he was being to turn away Matthew's aid because of all this! But that was a fight for another day; she'd done quite enough today and would face that afresh after a better night's sleep. God, she felt exhausted.
As she perched by Matthew's side, stroking cool fingers down the softness of his cheek, she felt the tension ebb from her body. His sleep was peaceful, she could see by the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. Thank God.
Leaning forward, she pressed her lips in a soft kiss to his, lingering against the delight of his sweetness and warmth. "Goodnight, darling," she whispered, holding on one moment more to touch his face and see him, as if to reassure herself that he really was there and alright. Well, as alright as could be expected, still. Then she rose, trailing her hand down his arm to squeeze his hand before retreating to her bedroom.
She rang for Anna, and sank onto the stool by her dressing table, simply resting for a moment before unclasping her earrings. This day seemed to have gone on forever, her fraught meeting with Richard only that morning seeming like a lifetime ago. At least, after the horror of the night before, Matthew had roused enough to put her mind at ease for him, even if it had only been brief. She was so glad he'd seemed more himself again - so glad - but their future was still so uncertain, darkly clouded ahead. Oh, how she hated to feel at the mercy of her husband's whim and pride… but it remained their only real hope. At least it was a real hope, now, and she couldn't help but smile at that.
It took him some time. Not to decide, as such; no, that didn't take long once he considered it. But the minutiae, the finer details, the way it would all come about… That took him longer. It had to be right.
In the lamplight of his study in Haxby Park, his pen hovered threateningly above the page, ink beading at its tip ready to sign. It would feel final, then, Richard thought, once his name was put to it. The pen lowered in his hand, rose again, waiting. He needn't send it right away, after all. Let it sit for a few days, stew for a while… Let them stew for a while, and be damned. Leaning on his elbow, he cast his eyes one more time over the letter, tapping his lip gently, before a determined frown creased his brow.
In the insult of their affair, they had accused him of fixating on the value of everything. Of Mary. Well, he thought fiercely, whether they liked the idea or not there is an inherent value to everything, yes, even Lady Mary Crawley and her love, and it would cost them dearly. Only one question remained to be answered: would Matthew be willing to pay?
The black ink of his signature flew across the bottom of the page.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I had such fun writing this, and I'd so missed that feeling. I'm so curious to know what you thought! Don't forget I'm on tumblr as well, and always happy to chat. Until next time, dear readers, and it REALLY won't be another four years!