Author's Note: This is an idea I came up with a few months ago, but I never thought it would really work, so I didn't publish it. With some mega-encouragement I've decided to post this first chapter of it to see what people think of the story. Yes, it's horribly AU, but some people like that, so I've decided to give it a go! It's a complete departure from anything I've ever written, which is a big challenge.

Yours Forever: Chapter I

January, 1903

Families are complicated. They are messy, never whole. They contain a world within them: a microcosm of love and hate, real and fake, life and death, truth and deception, happiness and sorrow. But we cannot escape them. We are born into one, live in one, and, eventually, leave one. No family is simple. No life is simple. Nothing is as it appears on the outside.

To Robert Crawley, his family was everything. His estate, his wife, and his children, were the world to him. He would dedicate his life to them all, so it was with a heavy heart that he set down the letter he had just received and ran a hand over his troubled brow.

So, his cousin was dead. He hadn't known the man well, only familiar with him from the occasional Christmas or garden party. No, he hadn't known him well at all. He remembered Reginald Crawley as an intelligent man. A doctor, that was it. And now he was gone, leaving a wife and son behind. Lord Grantham couldn't recall ever having met his wife, Isobel, as the letter said, but knew something of the boy. Reginald must have mentioned him in passing, but he couldn't be sure. Of course, it was a distant relation, and that would make the boy, Matthew, what, a third cousin? Whatever the case, the Earl of Grantham had to do something. Family was always put before anything else, and these two, however distantly connected to them all, were his family. He would help them, as the letter suggested.

The widow, it appeared, had already lost both her parents, and after the untimely death of her husband was left with relatively no family whatsoever. Robert looked up from his desk, his gaze going out the window and towards the bottom of the large, sloping hill where Crawley House stood. He had at least something to give them. And it would make him feel far better about the situation than sending money periodically. Of course, he couldn't expect them to uproot their life and make a new one here, to be sure. But it was one solution to the problem outlined by their lawyer.

And so he took out a fresh sheet of paper and inhaled deeply before putting pen to it and writing to Mrs. Crawley.

June, 1903

They were all mildly surprised that Isobel Crawley had accepted the offer. It was, to say the least, unconventional. But, knowing that the money left to her by her late husband would not last long, and with the generous and completely unexpected offer by Lord Grantham, a man of no relation to her other than marriage, Isobel Crawley realized that however unconventional the arrangement might be, it was her best option.

So she had packed up their house in Manchester. There wasn't much, their life had been relatively simple and quaint. Mrs. Crawley only discovered how simple that life really had been once she was presented with Crawley House. She had expected much less. After all, the Earl's letter had been almost apologetic in tone. 'Just a small house on the estate. I only wish I could give moreā€¦' Well, this was certainly more! It had taken all of three hours to move in, and a note had come down from 'the Big House', as their new bumbling butler had called it, in Lord Grantham's hand, apologizing that he was unable to welcome them himself, but urging them to join their new family at dinner that very evening.

Isobel had been watching Matthew. She worried for him, so. He had wordlessly packed up his room, slept on the train, and was now, she supposed, still sitting on his new bed as she had left him. Usually such a happy, delightful boy, he had quieted with the sudden death of his father. The pain came in waves, she knew it did for her. Some moments he seemed to forget: when he told his mother about his day at school, or when she read something amusing from the paper and he laughed. But then it would return: his eyes would notice the closed door of his father's study, and Matthew would realize with a lurch that unlike other nights, his father was not behind it, and he could not barge in and sit across from him as he worked.

Maybe this would be good for him, Isobel thought to herself. Maybe he needed a change. New people, new friends, a new home. She comforted herself with these thoughts, but was painfully aware at the same time how hard it was for the boy. At eleven, he was just becoming a man, and was now left with no father to guide him. She was vaguely aware that Lord Grantham had children. Two, she remembered. And she fervently wished that they would welcome Matthew into their home and be friends to him in this dark hour.

If Crawley House had made her aware of her upper middle class background, Downton Abbey crashed over Isobel Crawley like a tidal wave. Everything was grand, gleaming, shiny, ancient, stately, and beautiful. "It's like a castle!" Matthew had whispered before they were led in, and she had agreed wholeheartedly with him. The very air felt different. Isobel felt herself stand up straighter as the first glimpse of the family came towards them. This, she assumed rightly, must be Lord Grantham, the one who held out his hand and warmly took hers.

"We're so very glad to have you here." he said in a low, welcoming voice before turning to Matthew and shaking his hand in turn.

"This is my wife, and mother, " he continued on, and Isobel greeted his American wife and very English mother with what she hoped was as much grace as they possessed.

"We can go in the drawing room until dinner is served, if you'll follow me." Lord Grantham said in that same warm tone, and led the way to another grand room. Isobel couldn't help looking around her in awe as they passed vases full of glorious flower arrangements and century old portraits. It was almost too much.

Not knowing quite what to do in such an unbalanced, adult party, Matthew moved to sit awkwardly beside his mother as she took a seat next to Lady Grantham on an elegantly carved sofa, but was surprised when the Earl tapped him on the shoulder and mentioned that he'd like to show Matthew something.

The boy followed him willingly, not knowing what else to do, feeling slightly vulnerable all of a sudden without his mother beside him. Now she was the only remaining link to his previous life.

"If you look here, you can see the whole estate." Lord Grantham said, pulling the leather cover off a large atlas-like book and revealing the industrial drawings of Downton itself from an aerial view, motioning for Matthew to come closer and take a look at them. Matthew found himself intrigued by the drawings, and plucked up the courage to ask about several smaller buildings lying along the outskirts of the grounds, which turned out to be cottages rented out to tenants.

"Does architecture interest you?" Lord Grantham asked with curiosity, turning his attention from the drawings to the boy himself, whom he found to be serious yet eager in disposition.

"Yes," Matthew admitted, looking back at the drawings, "but I prefer the law." His eyes finally met the Earl's, and Robert realized how blue they were. So, he had the Crawley eyes.

"The law!" he responded in surprise. "That's quite ambitious! Remind me, and I'll show you the library, there might be some books there that'll interest you."

"Thank you." Matthew said, slowly becoming aware of the fact that this Earl wasn't quite as intimidating as he had appeared at first glance. He heard his mother striking up conversation with Lady Grantham at the other end of the room and was just about to turn back to his companion when Lady Grantham's American accent sprung up.

"Ah, there you are!" she exclaimed, and Robert put a hand on Matthew's shoulder.

"Ah, these are my children," he explained, and motioned for them to draw nearer while walking forward with Matthew. "Henry and Mary."

Henry looked quite like his father, with dark hair and blue eyes, and bore a friendly expression, immediately holding out a hand to Matthew and shaking it jovially. Mary smiled prettily and curtsied as she had been schooled to do, trilling out a welcome of her own. Lord Grantham, sensing that they would get on better together if he were to remove himself, made an exit and returned to the adults. Cora looked relatively pleased with Isobel, and even his mother had managed to show an outward expression of liking the woman, so it was with a sense of calm and accomplishment that Robert took his seat and joined in the conversation.

"I'm fourteen, and Mary'll be eleven in two weeks." Henry explained in a relaxed manner. "How old are you?"

"Almost twelve." Matthew said, proud of the fact. His eyes moved to Mary, who was looking him over with her careful dark ones. There was something about her, something captivating that Matthew couldn't quite put his finger on, but then the chocolate eyes traveled back up to his face, seemingly satisfied in their appraisal, and she spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Papa says we're to treat you just like another brother." Her voice was smooth and pleasant. And at first, Matthew sensed a cool detachment in it, but heard beneath it the warmth of a new friend, and was put to ease by it.

"Which we will." Henry affirmed. "Do you like reading? Has Papa shown you the library?"

Matthew shook his head. "I haven't seen it yet, but I'd like to. I love to read."

"I'll ask him," Henry said, "excuse me for a moment."

He left to find his father, and Matthew was then alone with Mary. She bounced slightly on her toes to get his attention, and once she had it she spoke once more.

"How about riding? Do you ride?"

"I haven't much, really." he admitted, rather embarrassed because he could tell from her bright eyes that it was something she loved.

"Oh," he gaze clouded with disappointment. "perhaps Lynch can teach you. You can ride Henry's horse, I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"I'd like to learn." Matthew said, pleased with her offer, and was rewarded with a smile.

"I would let you ride my horse, but I haven't got one yet." she cupped a hand near her mouth and leaned up to his ear. "I might get one for my birthday!"

"I hope you do." Matthew said warmly, much more comfortable with her and Henry than he had been with the adults.

Henry had now returned. "Papa says we can show you the library, if you'd like."

Matthew nodded eagerly, and followed his cousins out of the drawing room and down a wide, beautifully adorned corridor. His older cousin walked proudly towards the apparently treasured room and Mary skipped alongside them, happy to be away from the restraints of propriety, even if it was only for a moment.

Matthew's mouth opened slightly in shock as he entered the room, and he turned a slow full circle once in the center to take it all in. It was a room that he knew would seem enormous both from the perspective of a child and that of an adult. Books lined its walls from floor to ceiling. An atlas was draped across one table, a globe on another, and the largest dictionary was opened to a middle page on its ornate stand.

"One day I'm going to read them all." Henry said reverently, noting Matthew's appreciation of the collection.

"I doubt that's even possible." Matthew murmured, and heard Henry's chuckle.

"Perhaps. Papa said to show you the books about law. They're right-"

"I'll show him! I know where they are! Come, Matthew!" Mary took his hand in hers and pulled him along the room with her brother in tow, leading him to an area with several large numbered volumes. "I know where all the books are." she put forth proudly.

"But you've yet to read any real ones." Henry teased.

"I may not have read as many large books as you have, Henry Crawley, but I am just as smart as you are!" Mary argued. Matthew could tell from her tone that she was quite serious, and could also sense that the claim was probably true.

"I'm only joking." Henry said in apology, and let Matthew step closer to the books and run his index finger over various spines, reading their titles out loud when he came to one that sounded interesting.

"I'm sure Papa would let you take one out. He's quite generous in lending them. Only don't lose it if you do." Henry warned.

"I wouldn't!" Matthew said, as if horrified by the idea.

"Mary lost one last year. Dickens, wasn't it?"

Matthew heard Mary's exasperated sigh in response and felt it was a sore subject.

"Turns out she had signed it out and put it back in the wrong place! So it was lost for months and months before someone discovered it!" Henry laughed.

Matthew looked around in time to see Mary blush and push his arm slightly. "I only took it because you were reading Dickens. I barely read the first page!"

Henry laughed again playfully and gestured to his younger sister. "See? She loves books."

Matthew saw Mary's mouth take on an annoyed frown. It was clear she greatly admired her brother, and was hurt at his dismissal. He could tell she didn't like to be made fun of. Or maybe it was just because a stranger was in their midst and it embarrassed her. Matthew decided to come to her rescue.

"Perhaps just not Dickens."

Mary quipped an eyebrow and the corners of her mouth turned up. Matthew decided then that her smile was one of the loveliest ones he had ever seen, and never wanted it to disappear. "Thank you for that, Matthew. Henry could learn lessons in being a gentleman from you, it seems!"

They turned around as a male voice cleared its throat and were greeted by the same butler Matthew recognized from opening the door for him and Mother an hour earlier.

"Dinner is served." he said in a low, serious tone.

"Thank you, Carson!" Mary chirped from her spot next to Matthew, and as the butler turned around and walked on she took another opportunity to breach propriety by skipping back to the door ahead of the boys. As they caught up with her, Mary looped an arm through each of theirs and looked up to Matthew.

"I thought you would be horrid, but I don't think I'll mind having another brother so terribly much now I've met you."

This time there was no hint of coolness in her tone. Only the warmth and friendliness of her father and brother, and Matthew smiled down at her. Henry took the opportunity to ruffle her hair, which earned him a swift kick from Mary's little foot.

Turning back to Matthew, Mary looked up at him seriously. "Perhaps I'll just have you and Henry can be my cousin."

A/N: Because I'm currently working on another story, this one is going to take a back seat until that one is wrapped up. Especially since I want to see what everyone thinks. If the reaction is overwhelmingly positive, I'll definitely try continuing it. But I know it's confusing (at least, it took weeks to plan out and that was a headache for me), so if you have any questions don't hesitate to PM me. Also, keep in mind that while this is AU, some parts will definitely be canon, and not everything will be rosy in the garden all the time. So, please leave a word or two for me to let me know your thoughts!