Because you always need one-off hurt/comfort fic/smut! A few months into their marriage, and Mary suddenly finds herself playing nursemaid again to Matthew who is fighting a fever. Once again, the original concept of this story was quickly hijacked by these two characters and they ran off with it in a different direction, tossing out some angst as they went. Hopefully you can enjoy it as much as I've come to, since they obviously know better than I do what their story should be...
Thank you again to the usual suspects for the feedback, prodding, and encouragement, and of course to the wonderful beta skills of .
He was trying as hard as he could to ignore the burning sensation in the back of his throat. Dust from the ledgers, he told himself as he poured through the piles of paperwork at the desk in the library. The shifting light from the windows beyond held the promise of tea at any moment, and certainly that would help.
He jumped at the light touch on his shoulder, startled by Mary's silent approach. "Matthew? Are you all right? You seem miles away."
Leaning back, he rubbed a hand across his eyes, wincing slightly at the dull ache that seemed to be spreading throughout his body. "I've been sitting too long," he muttered, then turned to try and smile at Mary. His brow furrowed as he took in her coat and hat. "You're heading out?"
She gave him a puzzled look. "No, Edith and I just got back. I stopped in after luncheon to tell you we were headed out then. Darling, I think you need to take a break from these books, you are quite out of sorts."
"No, I am fine. I really need to get this muck up on the Tollbrooke parcel sorted." He made a face as he turned back to the books, catching Mary's sigh.
"Very well, but not after dinner again tonight." Her hand rested briefly on his shoulder once more, then moved to his neck. "Matthew," she breathed, her tone now anxious, "let me feel your forehead. You feel warm."
Annoyed, he tried to brush her hand away, "Honestly, I'm perfectly —" but her cool hand was now pressed to his forehead.
"You are not, you are feverish!"
He'd started to open his mouth to snap at her again when Carson entered with the tea tray. He brushed her hand aside as he stood, "Ah, perfect timing. All I need is some tea and my throat will feel fine."
She arched a brow at him, a glare flashing in her eyes. "Your throat? Pray, what is wrong with your throat?"
Damn, he thought. Ignoring her look, he walked over to pour himself some tea, nodding his thanks to Carson as the man left. He could feel the angry tension from Mary behind him, and forced as bright a smile as he could before turning round to face her. "Go put up your hat and coat, and I promise I will sit right here with you for tea. No papers, no ledgers, nothing but my darling wife."
She considered him for a moment, tapping her foot briefly, before quietly answering, "Very well," and stepped back into the foyer.
Closing his eyes, Matthew blew out a breath and leaned his head against the high back of the settee. He did feel awful, and a headache was now beginning to pound deep in his skull. Taking a sip of his tea, his stifled a groan as it hit the back of his throat and only caused the fire there to suddenly begin to rage. He made a face into his cup, wondering why on earth it tasted so off.
"What's the matter with the tea?"
How had she suddenly become so quiet when entering rooms? He looked up and shook his head at Mary. "Nothing, just thinking. But I promise to stop if it is bothering you."
She rolled her eyes as she turned and gathered her own cup and a couple of small biscuits, then settled down next to him. He could still feel her gaze on him, and he sipped at his tea once again, forcing himself not to wince at the taste or raw grate against his throat.
"Oh, for Heaven's sake, Matthew!" Her cup made a soft clink as she placed at on the side table. "This is not from spending too much time at those papers."
She was deftly taking the cup from his hands, and tugging at his arms to bring him to a standing position. He couldn't avoid her gaze now, the concern in her dark eyes, the slight crease on her perfect brow. He felt both sheepish and annoyed at the same time, knowing immediately what her next words were going to be, and he cut her off.
"Fine, I will go lie down until dinner. I don't know why you are making such a bother over this."
The sharpness of his tone startled even him, and he wanted to wince at the look of shock now on her face. As usual, she recovered herself quickly, and simply nodded at him.
"Thank you." If his face was hot, her words were icy cool. "I'll let Molesley know not to disturb you until the dressing gong." She turned her back on him and retrieved her tea and a magazine, paying him no further attention.
He tried hard to ignore that he felt like a sulky schoolboy stomping up the stairs as he headed to his room. It became easier to do as the simple exercise of walking was making every part of him ache and pound, and he was almost certain he was breaking into a sweat. The slam of his dressing room door behind him did nothing for his temper. He undid the buttons of his jacket, but struggled to get it off his shoulders. With a frustrated sigh, he flopped onto the bed. The answering throb behind his eyes made him groan aloud, and he threw an arm up against his brow. A nap. Honestly, all he needed was a nap.
The echo of the dressing gong was still hanging in the air as Mary turned the corner from their sitting room to her bedroom. She found Molesley hovering at the door, a look of relief breaking across his face as she appeared.
"Yes, Molesley, what is it? Is Mr. Crawley worse?"
"I'm not sure, Lady Mary. That is the thing, I wanted to check with you. I mean, Mr. Crawley is still sleeping. Should I wake him? He didn't stir when I went in, but really, I wasn't sure if I should disturb him."
The bundle of worry Mary had fought back all afternoon was beginning to bubble up again. "Thank you, Molesley, I will check in on him. I doubt he will be dressing for dinner, but I'll have him ring if we need anything else."
She was closing her door behind her before he could finish thanking her, heading straight for the connecting door to Matthew's dressing room. She tapped softly as she pushed open the door, catching her breath as she caught sight of Matthew sprawled out on the bed, suit jacket tangled behind his back. His pale face suddenly reminded her too much of seeing him unconscious on a hospital bed, and she swallowed hard to try and set that disturbing memory aside.
She stepped gingerly to his bedside, and gently reached down to touch his shoulder. "Matthew, darling?" She could feel the heat of the fever radiating through his clothes, and she didn't like that it was so high. "Matthew," she shook his shoulder a bit this time.
He stirred slightly and let out a low groan. She tried to slip his jacket off his arms where it was trapping him, but realized she could do little unless he sat up. He was shifting himself to the sound of her voice, and she smiled at that. At least he was waking up, but still….
She sat beside him on the bed, once again emphasizing her words with the touch of her hand on his chest. "Darling, can you sit up for me? We should get you settled into bed a bit more properly." She reached up to begin loosening his tie.
Another groan as he tried to follow her command. "There is nothing proper about settling into bed with you, Mary Crawley," he rasped, his eyes squinting at the slant of sunlight into the room.
She shook her head, able to finally reach her arms around him to strip him of his jacket, and began to unbutton his waistcoat. "Trust you to be focusing on something else as you are sick."
"I'm not the one intent on undressing someone," he retorted, his tone peevish. She tried hard not to chuckle, though it relieved her that he still had a sense of humor, despite being clearly unwell.
She heard the door of her room open and close quietly, and she touched Matthew gently on the arm before she stood and peeked through the door.
"Oh, good. Anna, I need your help.
"Is Mr. Crawley worse, milady?"
"Possibly, or just finally admitting how sick he actually is." Mary heard the derisive snort behind her, followed quickly by a groan of pain, and she fought not to let her mouth twitch into a smile. "Can you see that Dr. Clarkson is called at once, and let my mother know that neither Matthew nor I will be down for dinner."
"Certainly," Anna was already setting aside the dress she had brought in, laying it across Mary's bed. "I'll have them prepare a tray for you up here. What about Mr. Crawley?"
Mary chewed at her lip. "Let's wait until Dr. Clarkson sees him. I think right now just some cool water and cloths."
"And some aspirin," rasped Matthew's voice behind her.
Mary looked at Anna, and they both answered in unison, "And some aspirin." Nodding at Anna, she turned back to find Matthew fighting with the buttons of his shirt.
"My head is pounding."
"I can tell." She turned to his wardrobe and pulled out a pair of pyjamas before sitting back beside him on the bed, taking over unbuttoning his shirt, and swiftly slipping it off his shoulders.
"Molesley could help me."
"He didn't want to disturb you." She deftly helped him don his pyjama top, and turned to remove his socks before helping him swing his legs off the side of the bed. "Besides, it isn't as if I haven't helped you into pyjamas before." Her tone was quiet as she once again remembered him lying so still in the hospital.
"You mean out of pyjamas."
She stopped and looked at him. She could see the pain of the fever and his head in the redness around his eyes that were blazing an eerie blue, but she also caught the slight twist of a smile to his lips. "Honestly, Matthew, really? This is serious. You're ill!" There was no hiding the slight panic that had entered her voice, and she turned quickly to gather up his already discarded clothing.
He reached out to catch one of her hands in his. "Trust me, I know. I just —" He looked at her rather sheepishly. "I'm not very good at saying I'm sorry. Or admitting I'm ill. And I think I owe you both of those."
She stilled, rubbing her fingers against his, trying not to worry at the heat of his touch. She glanced up at him. "You were rather horrid earlier."
He nodded. "I am sorry." He let out a sigh. "I was an utter beast. Forgive me?"
She smiled ruefully at him. "What do you think?"
"That you will withhold the aspirin from me until I admit I am ill, so I confess. I am ill and feel terrible. Please help me."
She shook her head and chuckled as she helped him out of his trousers and into his pyjama bottoms. "In sickness and in health," she quipped, before placing a soft kiss on his fevered brow.
Mary sat stiffly in a chair next to Matthew's bed, her eyes focused on Dr. Clarkson as he delivered his diagnosis.
"We've seen several cases in the village. A virus, but it runs its course quickly enough. Headache, fever, blisters at the back of the throat. But it should pass in 24 to 48 hours." He nodded at Matthew, "You are in good hands here, I know. And as uncomfortable as it is, you need to keep drinking." Matthew groaned as he made a face, and Clarkson turned back to Mary. "Broths, tea, water, but the cooler they are the easier it will be for him. Oh, and you may see a few blisters erupt on the hands or feet in the next week or so. Nothing to be alarmed about. Everyone seems to be right as rain as soon as the fever breaks." He smiled at Mary, "In the meantime, keep doing what you are, and make sure he rests."
She raised her brows and turned to look at Matthew, but his eyes were closed, and she knew the light in the room was bothering him.
"Thank you Dr. Clarkson, I appreciate you coming out to check on him." She rose and showed him to the door that opened out to the hall. As she stepped into the hall, she clicked off the main electric switch at the doorway. Her mother was waiting for an update on Matthew, and Mary leaned against the door at her back as Clarkson shared his diagnosis.
Cora looked at Mary, clearly concerned. "Mary, dear, you look tired already. Are you sure you don't want to have Dr. Clarkson send a nurse to look after him?"
Mary shook her head firmly. "No, Mama, I am fine, and it sounds like the most Matthew will be doing is sleeping for the next day or so." She looked at Dr. Clarkson who nodded in agreement. "Besides, I can't see him accepting the idea if he is barely tolerating me making a fuss. If you could just see that a tray is brought up with some tea and broth set in ice for him to sip on, I'd appreciate it." With that, she carefully excused herself to tend to Matthew again.
Turning on the lamp farthest from his bed, she headed back to her room and rummaged in her dressing table for a couple of silk scarves that she came back and draped over the lamp's shade, dimming the glare of the single light and softening the room into golden shadows.
Matthew's voice was a sleepy murmur from the bed. "Thank you."
She sat down next to him again, this time on the edge of the bed, leaning to wring out a cloth in the bowl of cool water on the bedside table, and carefully placing it across Matthew's brow and closed eyes. He hummed with appreciation, and she brushed back his unruly forelock, her hand trailing down to linger on his shoulder again. "Mama is seeing that a tray with broth and tea is sent up. Do you need anything else right now?"
"No," he answered, his voice barely above a whisper. "I think I will take Dr. Clarkson's advice to get some rest. So tired…"
She squeezed his hand as his voice drifted off. Despite the rumblings of her own stomach and her untouched dinner tray in the next room, she didn't move until she was sure he was asleep. Even then, she paused to watch the steady rise and fall of his chest, how his skin stood out so pale against the dark blue of his pyjamas. Not the light blue of the hospital issue pyjamas she had watched him in thus so many times before, but still, that old familiar flutter of anxiety was with her now. Trying to push the tightness of it in her chest away, she gently rubbed his hand again, leaning in to brush a feather-light kiss on his cheek. The heat from his fever kissed her back.
Returning to her room, she rang for Anna before picking at her now cold dinner. She was distracted as Anna helped her undress and ready herself for bed, fighting back those images of a wounded Matthew lying so still — too still — in a hospital bed. Try as she might to tell herself that this was nothing to be overly concerned with, she was losing the battle of chasing back the fear and anxiety.
Settling into bed, she reached for the novel Matthew had been reading to her the last few nights, hoping the story would help to distract her. It was several minutes before she realized she had simply been staring at the page, her thoughts on him in the next room, the words remaining unread in front of her face. Sighing, she closed the book, and set it back on the night-table before turning off her lamp and sinking lower onto the pillows.
She tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable, suddenly aware she no longer knew how to sleep alone in her bed. For all that she used to roll her eyes at her parents and their insistence at sharing a bed every night, she now found herself staring into the dark at the pillow where Matthew's head should be resting, her arm stretched out against the sheet instead of draped across his chest. Her legs kicked restlessly, and she flopped onto her back, puffing out an exasperated breath as she stared at the ceiling. It just didn't feel right, not having his touch, his presence, the soft whisper of his steady breathing filling her mind as the proper night sound.
That was it, she told herself as she rose and slipped on her dressing gown. It was just too quiet without him there for her to be able to settle in and sleep. Gathering up the silky duvet, she slipped back into Matthew's room, checking first that he was actually sleeping before she moved closer. She could tell that he had struggled himself in his sleep, his hair mussed on the pillows, and one leg kicked out from under the covers as his arms seemed to be reaching for something beside him. Carefully, she rearranged his blankets to cover him, retrieving the displaced cloth from his head. She thought about trying to smooth down his hair, but worried she would wake him. Instead, she delicately held the back of her hand to his brow, her own furrowing as she realized his fever had not eased at all. Rewetting the compress, she carefully placed it back across his forehead before settling herself into the armchair she had pulled to his bedside, tucking the duvet around her.
She jumped and nearly cried out as Matthew's voice rumbled up from beside her, "I hardly need a night nurse."
She gasped against the sudden pounding of her heart. "Well, I might after you give me a fright like that." She peeked over at him, and saw he had thrown one arm up above his head and his gaze was steady on hers. "I couldn't sleep," she confessed.
"Neither could I." His gaze was unwavering as he studied her, but his voice was surprisingly soft as he spoke again, "Mary, darling, I am going to be all right."
She shivered and dropped her gaze, wondering how he could so easily read her emotions when for years she had always managed to hide them from everyone else.
"I know," her voice was brisk, and she plucked idly at the duvet wrapped around her. Steeling herself, she glanced back at him with an arched brow. "That isn't what was keeping me up."
"Then why are you in here, ready to sleep in that chair?"
She tried to laugh, but it came out an odd, strangled sound instead. "Really, Matthew, what makes you think I was going to sit up and sleep in this chair?"
His answering chuckle was steady and clearly recognizable as such. "So the coverlet you dragged in here was just to throw me off? Good. Now come here," He reached out his hand for her, tugging the duvet away from her.
"Matthew, you are sick and need rest, I can't —" she protested, trying to bat his hand away.
"I. Can't. Sleep," he growled lowly, managing to grasp her hand, and tug her down next to him. She tried to struggle but it was far easier to settle herself against him as he shifted to make room for her on the narrow bed. "Any good nurse, which I know you are, would do whatever was needed to make sure her patient was settled and able to rest." He dropped a kiss on the top of her head where it was tucked under his chin and sighed.
She bit her lip and curled the edge of the duvet that had followed her onto the bed under her cheek where it rested against his chest. She fought to keep her breathing steady and light as she felt his own shift into the deep and constant rhythm of sleep. Only then did she give in to the warm prickling behind her eyes and let the tears run down her cheek, catching them on the satin of the duvet so that Matthew wouldn't know how right he was about her fears.
It was still dark out when she stirred, aware of how hot Matthew's chest felt under her cheek. Moving carefully so as not to disturb him, she glanced up and saw the sheen of perspiration on his face, his hair damp against the pillow. She moved silently through the still-sleeping house to fetch fresh cool water and some towels from the bathroom, and returned to Matthew's bedside to once again try and cool his temperature. He murmured slightly in his sleep, turning his head toward her hand, an arm reaching out for where she sat beside him on the bed. She wanted to rain kisses down on the burning skin of his face, to curl her arms back around him and somehow will this fever to go away, but she knew she could do no more than what she already was. And so she sat and watched him, one hand resting lightly on his, until the soft rosy, gold of dawn began to peek around the edges of the curtains.
Anna quietly brought the tea tray in to Matthew's room, and Mary smiled as she noted the fresh iced broth and tea for Matthew to sip on once he woke. She nibbled a piece of toast before taking her cup of tea and wandered to the window to glance out at the day that had begun to stir. The sky was clear, letting the sun catch the drops of dew on the grass and leaves, turning everything into a shining diamond before her. She was already rearranging her day's plans in her head as she heard Matthew begin to move behind her.
She wanted to laugh at the vision of him sitting up in bed, rubbing at his head and sending his already mussed hair into an even more wild state. But his still sleep-heavy eyes were red rimmed and his color still too pale, both a sobering contrast.
She stepped back to perch herself on the edge of the chair, bringing the tray closer to him.
"Your fever is still high," she said quietly, fixing him a cup of tea. "How is your head this morning?"
"Better, I think." His voice was an awkward rasp and he made a face at it. He glanced at the tea she was holding out to him, then up at her.
"Yes, you must," she said softly. He sighed and took the cup, grimacing afresh with the first sip. "And you will eat the egg as well."
He gave her a look at that, but didn't say anything right away.
"You didn't sleep enough," he finally said, leaning back against the pillows. "You have circles under your eyes." Her brows shot up at this assessment, and he groaned, reaching for her hand. "No, I didn't mean — Can I blame this on the fever?"
"I think you should," her tone was tart, but she didn't pull her hand away from his.
"I just... I mean, I was thinking, is this what it is going to do to you when we have children, for every little cold or fever? Will you over-extend yourself to this state?"
Mary caught her breath at the mention of a child, her stomach turning in its usual nervous flutter at the subject. No one had ever judged her as especially maternal, but she knew the moment she had been able to dream of a future with Matthew that it was one thing she wanted more than any other— what she needed more than anything else — a physical embodiment of the love she had for him, a love so great that her own self was not enough to hold it all. And the addition of little Sybbie to the family had only confirmed her wish to be a mother. But these were now things she kept locked away. Worries that it wouldn't happen now made even whispers of those longings and dreams to Matthew as they would lie in the dark at night far too terrifying to voice.
She looked down at their joined hands, and forced a bright smile on her face. "I am hardly over-extended or in any kind of state. And besides, when there are children, it is something I would want to do, as I do with you."
He squeezed her fingers gently, and stroked his thumb over the back of her hand. "You are going to make such a wonderful mother."
"Mother-henning over you when you are sick is hardly the same as being a wonderful mother to a child." Gently, she slipped her hand from his and busied herself with refreshing her cup of tea. "And if that is your way of pointing out that I'm making too much of a fuss over you, you are in luck as I have a couple calls this morning I'd rather have over and done with. Do you mind?"
"No. Honestly, I'd love the chance to wash the feel of this fever off me. And no, I will not over-exert myself," he said, stopping her from interrupting. "I'll even ask Molesley to lend a hand to make sure I don't fall or anything. Would that satisfy you?"
She reached over to try and brush his hair back down in place. "Yes. And you must promise to rest again. And eat that egg." She gave him a small smile as he sighed. "Now, I had best ring for Anna, as it seems I will need some extra time to get ready this morning. Apparently, I have circles under my eyes."
It had seemed such a logical idea at the time. He had felt so refreshed after washing up and shaving. The pounding in his head had nearly vanished and even the rawness of his throat had begun to abate, giving him a false sense of energy. Knowing he couldn't get away with dressing and heading down to the library, he'd had Molesley bring him the pile of papers he had been working on the day before, the various land contracts and deeds, and one of the ledgers. Sitting up in his bed, he started once again to pour over them. And then the wave of exhaustion hit. Surely, he just needed to close his eyes for a moment, and all would be to rights….
He was sure he had only dozed off for a moment, but when he opened his eyes, Mary was sitting in the chair watching him.
He glanced down and realized his lap and the coverlet beside him were bare. Confused he looked up and spotted the pile of papers stacked neatly on top of the bureau across the room. He looked at Mary again, but her face was disturbingly calm. There was even a hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
"Mary, I, ah … yes, I don't suppose there is a way to explain, is there?"
She raised her brows. "Certainly there is. I'm glad that you feel up to some reading." He noticed then she was holding in her hand a novel, the one he had started reading to her a few nights before, and she tilted it at him.
He rubbed a hand across his brow and chuckled. "Yes, well…. But I'm not sure my throat is up for it, darling."
"Of course it isn't," she settled back deeper in the chair. "Which is why I'll be reading it to you."
He simply stared at her as she opened the book to the marked page. It took a moment for his brain, surprised by her reversal of their usual roles for reading, to catch up with the narrative now flowing in her silky rich voice. Feeling a warmth of love and pride begin to swell up in him, he settled back against the pillows, watching her as she read, losing himself in both the story and his storyteller. As she read on, her face glowed with the emotion of the romantic tale, and she was as completely enraptured of the story as Matthew was in watching her tell it, of that moment when the veil is lifted for the hero and he sees before him the love that could be his life in the heroine. He smiled, thinking of that moment with Mary, so many years ago, when he knew, just knew, she had captured his heart and he would never be the same.
So they spent the afternoon reading, Mary eventually shifting to sit beside him on the bed when she caught him beginning to doze off at one point, and, deciding she would be grateful to close her eyes for a brief nap as well, she curled up beside him. They talked quietly about her morning calls over tea when it was brought up. But that look of worry was still there in her eyes, no matter how much she managed to hide it with a soft smile or small talk. It would flicker across her whole face whenever she reached out to brush the hair back from his forehead, her hand catching the heat from the fever that was still leaving him feeling battered and worn.
As much as he wanted to spend the evening as they had the afternoon, his head cradled in her lap as she read, her delicate fingers idly stroking through his hair, he couldn't keep his eyes open for much longer, and he could hear her voice beginning to go hoarse. At the sound of the dressing gong, he sent her to ring for Anna and change for dinner, promising he would be well asleep when she came back up. She nodded, but still hesitated there beside him, hands stroking over his for a few moments more before she finally gave him a soft smile, and leaned forward to press a soft kiss to his cheek.
Matthew's legs were too tired and weighted down; he didn't think he could take another step. The ice-cold mud was as high as his knees now, sucking him down even further as the bitter cold rain continued to pelt against him. He could see the blinding flashes and feel the vibrations of the shell-fire around him, but all remained silent. A terrifying, eerie silence hung in the air, disturbing him more than finding himself here, back in the trenches of France, struggling once more to feel his legs, to take another step. There was something, something he was supposed to do, but he couldn't remember what it was. All he knew was that if he didn't, all would be lost. All those men, those boys, all would be lost, and then….
A particularly bright flash of shell-fire seemed to hover before him, and he shielded his eyes. No, not shell-fire, Mary. She was standing there in naught but her nightdress, hair loose about her shoulders. That was what he was supposed to do, to get her out of here, before anything —. Another flash and the ground shifted beneath him, throwing him forward into the freezing mud.
"Mary!" He tried to call out to her, to tell her to run, but she just stood there, ten meters from him, smiling so gently, but her eyes were so full of pain.
His body was exhausted, unable to move. Unable to do anything as he watched a bright red flower of blood blossom across the white of her nightdress.
She shook her head, still smiling at him. And then another crimson stain appeared, lower down. Another at her shoulder. God, no, not Mary! Why couldn't he move? Why didn't she turn and run? As he made to call out again, he was blinded by another mortar flash, and when he opened his eyes again, the trench before him was empty, Mary gone. A scream formed in his throat, but froze there, just as his body was frozen, unable to move.
He was suddenly aware he was in bed, but still damp and chilled, shivering violently. Mary's hands were on his shoulders, gripping him firmly as she called his name.
Gasping, still caught in the threads of the too-real nightmare, he reached up and pulled her tight against his chest, "Oh, God, you're here! You're here!"
She struggled for a moment in his suffocating embrace, before finally wrapping her arms around him, stroking over his hair.
"Yes, it's all right now. It was just a dream." Her gentle tone was a warm whisper against the damp skin of his neck.
He let out a strangled sob against her, still holding her tight to try and hide the shaking he could feel overtaking him.
"God!" he breathed out. She was pressing kisses against his temple, somehow managing to rock him ever so slightly as she murmured soothingly to him. He sucked in another deep, unsteady breath, forcing himself to breathe out the last of the terror, the fear that was so intent on pulling him back down. He turned to kiss her cheek gently, "I'm sorry."
"Shh, nothing to be sorry about," she hummed against him, pulling back slightly in his loosening grip to watch his face. Her hand trailed across his cheeks, and she smiled. "Your fever is gone!"
Matthew suddenly realized the cold and wet he had felt wasn't the last bit of the dream chasing him into the waking world, but rather that he was covered in a cold sweat from the fever breaking.
He started to struggle, and Mary helped him to sit up. "Oh, darling, you are soaked through!" She plucked at his pyjama top, then began to unbutton it. "Let me fetch some towels and help you get changed."
He took a moment to close his eyes, leaning forward to cradle his head in his hands, trying very hard to chase off the icy fear that still clung to him, a heavy weight in his stomach. She was here, she was alive, nothing had happened.
He started as Mary gently touched his shoulder, her dark eyes filled with concern. "Matthew?"
He shook his head, letting out another shaky breath. "It's nothing, I'll be fine in a moment."
He pulled off his pyjama top and let her run a damp washcloth across him before quickly drying him with a thick towel. There was a thin line of tension around her mouth, a tiny crease across her brow. She stepped back so that he could stand and shuck his pyjama bottoms, glancing up to meet his eyes for moment.
The unspoken fears of each of them hung there for a moment in that gaze, and began to shift into something else.
Turning away, Mary murmured, "I'll get you a fresh pair of pyjamas."
His hand grasped her wrist pulling her back to face him. She hesitated a fraction of a second before stepping closer, the front of her nightdress brushing up against his chest. He watched the storm of emotions flash in her eyes; that fear, the worry, her love, and arousal.
He swallowed hard, trying to fight back his own conflicting feelings, but his strength began to tumble away as she slipped her arms around his waist, pulling him against her, thumbs caressing steadily against his lower back as she pressed a soft kiss against his jaw, with a gentle murmur.
"I won't go anywhere."
His fingers flexed against her shoulders, the hot sting of tears burning behind his eyes. As if she sensed it, she held him tighter, her silky cheek pressing against his neck. Circling her shoulders with his arms, his resolve crumbled, and he let his tears fall into her hair, forcing himself to breathe out all the fear, the regret, the terror from the nightmare as his sobs sucked in her solid presence and calm.
Slender hands stroked a steady rhythm across his back, and there was a gentle sway to her embrace of him. Her touch chased away the darkness that had followed him into waking, and now he drank it in for what it was: warm, familiar, his Mary. He thought of that constant concern laced with fear he had seen in her eyes the past few days, her own darkness that was not chased away with sleep or waking. Moving his hands to cup her cheeks, he lifted her face to look again into her eyes, to see what still haunted her.
He dropped a lingering kiss on her brow, sighing into her, "I'm sorry." Another on her cheek, "I'm sorry." Each one whispered against her not an apology for his behavior the last few days, not for his terror of the nightmare, but for each wound he had seen opened up against her in that dream, each wound he had caused with his own words and actions since he had known her, all those years past when he had first lashed out in hurt, in fear, in desperate and hopeless love.
He had to say it, to say it now, to try and chase away that fear she kept trapped inside, a fear that all could be lost.
"I'm sorry," shifted to "I love you," as he brushed his lips against hers. Another, "I love you," as his kiss pulled a soft sob of her own from her throat.
One hand cradling her head, the other around her back, he tumbled her gently back onto the bed. They fit together in a familiar embrace, mouths and hands comforting and seeking, until pulses raced and breaths came quickly, soft whispers and sighs turning into deeper moans of need. Facing each other on the pillow, he rocked himself into her, finding a steady rhythm as one hand grasped at her hip, the other stroking over her face and back into her hair as they locked gazes. He caught her mouth with his, again and again, never losing focus on those dark eyes of hers, nothing but her desire visible there now. Each caress, each thrust, was one more piece of himself offered up to heal her wounds. Every sigh, every soft cry from her a soothing balm to his own soul. He held her tighter, seeking deeper as she clung to him more desperately, her need louder in each moan until her fingers dug deep into his shoulders, her shuddering release echoed as she breathed out his name. Her clutching hands pulled him closer to the edge, the fierce matching thrust of her hips against him pushing him over with a catch of his breath, until he was aware of nothing but the sweat-slick slide of their skin against each other as he tried to bury himself even closer into her.
They remained tangled in the damp sheets, gentle touches and whispers exchanged until exhaustion reminded them of the larger, warmer, and more familiar bed in the room next door. The shared the short stumble, each supporting the other, finding their way back into what had become familiar and necessary since their first night sharing a bed. Touch, the constant contact with the other, the soft matching rhythm of steady breaths locking them together in a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
Matthew carefully set the tray with tea and broth on the bedside table, but Mary just groaned and buried her head deeper in the pillows. He touched her warm shoulder. "Darling, you know you have to drink something."
She shot him a glare from under dark lashes. "This is your fault," she croaked in a raw voice.
"I'm well aware of that," he sighed, thinking of the constant barrage of that same comment from her for the past day. "But, a little something, please?"
She shifted uncomfortably, taking the cup he offered. She sipped a few times, then handed it back to him. "My head hurts too much."
He pushed loose strands of hair back from her face. "I could read to you," he offered gently.
"You had better." She turned to shift closer to his side of the bed as he walked around and picked up the book from the opposite nightstand. Toeing off his shoes, he sat back against the headboard as she curled herself against his chest. He felt her sigh and relax deeper into him as he began to read the lines of verse, his right arm curling around her to hold her close. He felt her shift eventually into sleep, and paused for only a moment to press a kiss to the top of her head before continuing to read on.
In sickness and in health, he thought to himself. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
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