This is my contribution to STEAMM day in tumblr land (Sybil/Tom, Edith/Anthony, Mary/Mattew), a day to celebrate our favorite DA couples. How honored I am to be joined by the amazing piperholmes:A Better Place: Sybil's story and the fabulous queenlovet: The Pied Piper of Locksly: Edith's story. (These stories are also posted here on ff, so be sure to check them out.) This joint venture has been quite a pleasure, my dears, and I am honored to place my story alongside yours. :)
And thank you, Orangeshipper, for giving this story a once-over for me and contributing your always insightful thoughts. You're a dear!
We do hope you enjoy the Crawley sisters and their favorite men as we snatch them out of the early 1920's and toss them into the midst of war-torn Europe in the 1940's. And as always, your thoughts are most welcome and appreciated.
The set was over.
He remained in his seat, watching the band pack their instruments away as they had every night. The dancing had ended, tightly interlocked couples grudgingly making their way off the floor, sharing a lingering kiss or belated twirl as cigarettes were extinguished. Some pairs had arrived together, some had formed an acquaintance within the non-judgmental confines of these walls, seeking relief from the unthinkable reality that was now their existence in a life all-too uncertain. But they were all now moving to leave, forced to abandon this short respite as they trudged their way either home or to the nearest shelter in preparation for the nightly horror expected at any time.
The Germans would be arriving soon.
He had been among their number each evening, moving with as much dignity as he could muster, hating the bloody cane that had become an extension of his body more with every lumbering step he took. He would find the closest shelter on his way, limping towards it with a pained deliberation that always garnered him looks of pity. He had been a soldier, was still in uniform, actually, but felt much less of a man.
And he always left the club in the same manner in which he had arrived: alone.
But tonight, he lingered, downing the rest of his drink as he attempted to work up his faltering nerve. He had found this club by accident, needing to escape the confines of his mother's house where he had felt so useless ever since sustaining his injury. But then he had seen her take the stage, had heard the smooth, smoky tones of her voice as she crooned "Kiss me Goodnight, Sargent-Major". And he had been transfixed.
He had returned each night for her, imagining that she felt this magical connection between them, as well, even though the rational side of him knew it to be folly. Once he had even caught her smiling in his direction, and he had smiled back, fighting down the urge to wave. How very foolish, he had berated himself. She was exquisite, her black hair curled expertly, red lips full and pouty, ivory skin that just begged to be caressed. Yet she was most certainly above him, this goddess who took the stage each night to bring some joy into the lives of Londoners surviving the blitz. Why would she even spare him a second thought?
He—a man who couldn't even walk without the assistance of a cane.
But here he remained, determined to say something to her, to introduce himself, at least. What madness had possessed him to do this, he did not actually know, but he had downed an extra shot of brandy just to bolster his courage.
He only prayed he didn't make a complete fool of himself.
He stood as the room cleared, making his way to the front towards a stage already mostly cleared. She had her back to him, a glass of water in her hand, and he noticed small freckles on the back of her neck for the first time. He stifled an outrageous urge to trace the spaces between them, wondering just what picture would emerge upon her skin if he did so.
His tongue suddenly swelled, his mouth feeling nearly numb as the scent of her perfume tickled his nose.
And then the inevitable happened. He sneezed.
She turned quickly in his direction, much to his mortification, finding herself staring into crystal blue eyes sheepishly attempting to hide from her in a manner that made her want to smile.
Something she rarely did anymore.
He blushed profusely, warding off yet another sneeze as the rich texture of her voice stroked his spine from the bottom up.
"Thank you," he replied, managing a few steps in her direction, silently praying he wouldn't fall.
"Can I help you, soldier?"
Her question caught him off guard.
"No," he replied quickly, "I mean, yes…well, actually I don't need your help, I simply wanted…"
He stopped, mortified by his nervous stammering, making her smile even more as she turned to face him fully.
"I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your singing," he managed, casting his eyes down as he blushed in earnest. "You're quite good, you know."
"No, not really," she returned without thinking, suddenly catching herself and stating, "But thank you for the compliment."
"But you are, truly," he insisted with a lop-sided grin, flabbergasted that she could have any doubt concerning her talent. "Your voice is..is incredible. It's easy to compliment you when you bring me such joy each evening."
Too late he realized what he had revealed, feeling a flush rise from his kneecaps that engulfed him within seconds.
"I wondered what made you come back every night," she mused, daring a step off the stage and moving towards him. "If the bartender had a particular talent or you fancied one of the cigarette girls."
She had taken note of him? Sitting in the back corner, trying to be anonymous, trying to blend into the walls?
"Are there cigarette girls here? I never noticed."
She flashed a coy grin in his direction, feeling a slight flutter in her ribs that alerted her to be cautious. The last time she had felt stirrings like these, it had ended in disaster.
But still, he did seem harmless enough. And it felt so nice to smile again.
"I'm Mary," she dared, noting the rounding of his eyes as she extended her hand. "Mary Carlisle."
He blinked in succession, rather stunned at being offered such an introduction.
"I thought your name was Mary Rose," he delved, ears reddening a bit at the attention she was paying him.
"Stage name, of course," she remarked, looking towards his cane. "Is that why you never dance?"
He dropped his head slightly, clearing his throat.
"Rather difficult to dance with only one good leg, you know."
The sudden pain in his eyes made her flinch.
"Oh, I don't know. I'd say you could manage rather well."
A double-edged smile managed a path across his face.
"Easy to say when you've never had to be my partner."
He then blushed at the implication of his words, breathing deeply as he sought to correct himself.
"I'm sorry, I should never have…."
"What's your name?"
She was staring at him directly, awaiting a response with raised brows.
"God, I'm sorry," he replied. "I'm Matthew. Matthew Crawley."
"That's funny, actually," she replied with a grin.
"What is? My name?" he questioned.
"No," she corrected hastily. "No, it's a marvelous name, really. It's just odd that my name is also Crawley…or my maiden name, rather."
"Your married?" he questioned with a dry tongue, feeling quite suddenly deflated. He had noticed no ring upon her finger, something which he had ascertained for himself the first night he come.
"Technically," she sighed, the smile that had graced her lovely face conspicuously absent. "But not for much longer, thank God. I'm divorcing my husband."
"I'm sorry," he uttered, the sincerity in his eyes stirring something inside of her.
"Don't be," she returned. "I should have done it ages ago."
He looked back up at her, wondering just why she was standing here in a nearly empty club sharing this with him. He felt suddenly out of place, both curious and saddened for her circumstances before the scream of a siren broke through their conversation.
"We'd best get to a shelter," he stated calmly, calculating just how quickly they could traverse to the nearest one. But her arm on his own got his attention, a slight yet insistent tug stilling his tongue.
She led him through a small door to the backstage area where he saw the remnants of the band darting through a door in the rear. He started to follow him, but she clasped his hand, pulling down an out-of-the-way staircase that descended into nearly complete darkness.
"Wait here while I turn on the light," she issued quietly, understanding how difficult it would be for him to traverse the stairs in the dark. He heard her feet shuffle down wooden steps quickly, caught the sound of a chain being pulled that released a dim light. He made his way down slowly, cane pressing into his palm as he finally reached a rather bleak basement.
A dull but insistent throb began to pulse up his leg into his lower back, and she halted her steps, looking at him in concern.
"Can I help?"
"No," he admitted. "Sometimes I have these spasms, and there's nothing to do but wait them out.'
She nodded twice, the concern in her eyes clear.
"This way," she instructed, maneuvering slowly by cleaning supplies tucked against the wall towards a door in the back corner. She pulled out a key, making rather quick work of the lock as she tossed a look in his direction. A grimace pinched his face involuntarily, making him clench his teeth as he felt beads of sweat bullet across his forehead. Her eyes narrowed, studying him wordlessly as she let them both in. She then grabbed a torch from a small shelf, turning it on deftly before returning to douse the main light she had just activated.
Matthew looked around the small enclave, noting it was not much more than a decent-sized storage closet.
"Are you sure this is safe?" he questioned when she returned and shut the door behind them.
"It's where I always go to hide from the Germans," she returned calmly, taking a seat on the floor as she gestured for him to join her. "I'm rather claustrophobic, actually, and the one time I went to an actual shelter I nearly hyper-ventilated."
"Well, this is rather cozy," he commented with a small smile, noting how ethereal her face looked in the beam of a torch. "Should we put that out as well?"
"Why? There are no windows."
He noted the logic of her response and slowly managed his way down the wall to her side.
"Do you usually sit down here by yourself when the bombs are falling?"
Her matter of fact response was tragic somehow, that this beautiful woman would be sitting alone in a dark closet while London lay with held breath under siege.
"Aren't you ever frightened?" he inquired, attempting to hide the flinch in his cheek as his muscles cramped painfully.
"Always," she admitted, her confession accentuated by a momentary silence. The muffled wail of the siren was the only accompaniment to the sound of their breathing as a fragile sense of connection was laced in unlikely accommodations.
"Where does it hurt?" she finally dared, needing to take attention away from what was occurring all around them.
"It will pass, I assure you," he began, cut short by an insistent tone.
Resistance was apparently futile.
He leaned forward slightly, pointing to his lower back as best he manage, the movement tensing his body yet again. She stared at him wordlessly, the torch's rays making her appear as some sort of benevolent spirit. He then felt his jacket being unbuttoned, starting quickly at the boldness of her touch.
"What are you doing?" he managed, his tongue suddenly rather thick for normal conversation.
"I'm going to massage your back," she stated clearly, her tone leaving him no room for refusal.
"You really don't have to do that," he put in, suddenly quite self-conscious of having such exquisite hands working on skin marred by war.
"I know," she retorted, stilling the motion of her fingers for a moment. "I want to."
He paused, processing that in the darkness his scars would not be visible but would most certainly be felt. He was both touched and mortified by her offer.
"Alright," he acquiesced, sensing the small smile upon her face more clearly than he could see it.
She deftly undid the buttons of his jacket, relieving him of it with ease. Her eyes never left his as she slid cool fingers behind him, attempting to relax muscles balled into tight fists. He drew a quick breath, more from the shock of contact rather than actual discomfort.
"Sorry," she breathed, hesitating her ministrations as she eyed him warily.
"No, it's not you, believe me," he reassured her, daring a touch to her arm.
Did her eyes just deepen in intensity? The limited light made it impossible to tell as the unmistakable sounds of muffled explosions drew their attention.
The mere seconds of silence between them were stifling, eyes that appeared almost silver in their dim confines attempting to draw comfort from the other as fear encircled them both.
"Is this alright?" she questioned softly, kneading the small of his back expertly in a most welcome distraction.
"It's quite nice, actually," he exhaled, the warmth of his breath tickling her neck even as he flinched.
"How did this happen?" she inquired, hoping she had not encroached into territory too personal.
"In France," he began, somehow finding this discussion less distasteful than it had been in the past. "I was a bit too close to an explosion."
"Thank God you weren't any closer."
Her fingers stilled at these words, and he became quite aware of just how very near she was sitting.
"What happened with your husband?"
He wasn't sure what exactly prompted the question, hearing an audible release of breath through her teeth.
"Let's just say he's not the nicest of men."
He turned his face towards her fully, his stomach knotting in dread.
"Did he hurt you?"
Her hands stilled, a new state of agitation radiating palpably from her in the small space.
He exhaled harshly, his hand fleetingly touching hers in a gesture of comfort.
"The bloody bastard," he voiced, the rough texture of his tone rather taking her by surprise. "How long have you been married to him?"
"About two years," she answered, the resignation lacing her voice painful to hear.
"Dear God," he returned, wanting very badly to pummel the culprit, angered even further by his decided inability to do so. "How did you manage for so long?"
A rueful sigh escaped her, and she folded her hands in her lap as she scooted around to face him.
"It didn't happen much at first, and he was always so remorseful afterwards," she began, still attempting to explain to herself just how she had let this situation continue as long as it had. "Looking back, I really should have paid more attention during our engagement. There were signs, I think, but I choose to overlook them."
"You loved him," he deduced, saddened that such a lovely emotion could bring about such devastation.
Her frank reply stunned him.
"So why marry him in the first place?"
"Because it's what girls like me are expected to do," she answered flatly. "To marry someone wealthy and powerful, regardless of whether there is actually any emotion involved."
His mind was spinning, trying to interpret her statements and place them in a logical framework.
"Your family is wealthy, I take it," he ventured, leaning unconsciously closer to her.
"Used to be. But that's another story."
In other words, she did not wish to speak of it any further.
"How about you?" she questioned. "Any special woman in your life?"
He chuckled and shook his head, thinking to himself that she was the most incredible creature on whom he had ever laid eyes.
"Yes," he teased, observing her eyes widen slightly. "My mother."
She actually smiled again at this comment, scooting closer until her leg touched his thigh.
"I find it hard to believe that you don't have a sweetheart tucked away somewhere."
Her voice acquired a velvet-like lushness, and he began to wonder just how warm this closet could become.
"I did," he replied, his throat suddenly tight. "But she turned-tail and ran when I came back from the front."
"Because of your leg?"
She seemed truly affronted by this fact, reaching down to touch him below his knee.
"Please don't," he insisted quietly, grabbing her arm in motion with lightning-fast reflexes. He could not allow her to feel it, to see what had been simply too much for Lavinia to stomach.
"Why? Because it's artificial?"
Her frank knowledge rendered him speechless, and he gazed at her, too stunned to move. Finally, he nodded, unwarranted shame at his situation making him drop his eyes.
"Y-yes," he whispered, unable to look at her for some reason while making this confession. "Because I lost my lower leg."
She withdrew her hand from his slowly, gluing her eyes to his expression as she deliberately lowered her hand, touching him where he could feel nothing but raw emotion.
"I don't care, you know," she breathed, stroking the prosthesis in a rather intimate manner. "No self-respecting woman would."
"You don't think it makes me less of a man?"
He had to force the question from his lips, feeling every syllable acutely as he voiced thoughts purposefully kept secret.
He felt fingers in his hair, brushing across his scalp, his mouth suddenly dry as silken lips caressed his forehead. His breath caught in his throat at the contact, sensations he had nearly forgotten skittering across nerves already on high alert. She then moved on top of him gently, sitting on his lap, straddling his hips in the dark as she inched herself forward. His hands moved around her waist of their own accord, her scent thrilling every cell in his body as it tickled the inside of his nose. But he held his breath resolutely, refusing to succumb to a threatening sneeze...
Not when her soft curves were nestled so trustingly in his arms.
A thumb feathered across his cheekbone, her nose rubbing his in anticipation just before her mouth made contact with his.
And the bombs were all but forgotten.
Electricity shot through him in a jolt, his hands clutching her dress as he opened his lips to her. Her tongue slid inside, and his welcomed her quickly, together moving in a delicious dance accentuated by explosions rocking the city around them. She moved in closer, fisting his shirt in her palms as his arms pulled her tighter to him, the pain in his back be damned.
She shivered at the feel of warm fingers on her neck, physically shuddered as his attentions moved into her hair, caressing her scalp. A delicious abandon was flowering inside of her, acute fears and stresses of the past years of her life pouring out of her into his mouth, burning away upon the heat of his tongue. Mouths merged closer, drinking deeply from the other, obliterating the ensuing carnage outside of this heady cocoon they were spinning around themselves.
She finally drew back to breathe, clasping his face within her hands as she whispered into him.
"No, I'm certain it doesn't make you any less of a man."
He couldn't think straight, couldn't truly process what had just happened. But he found he didn't care, simply wanting more of this, more of her, keeping his arms about her tightly as he sought the right words.
"You're a wonderful woman, you know."
The sentiment escaped him in a breathless haze, and he felt her nuzzle in closer as she seemed to deflate.
"Don't get your hopes up on that one," she spoke into his cheek. "I can actually be quite dreadful when I want to be."
"I'm not sure I believe that," he attested softly, stroking her cheek so tenderly it nearly made her cry.
"Kiss me goodnight, Sargent-Major," she commanded throatily, leaning in forehead to forehead as the ground beneath them vibrated loudly.
"Gladly, Mary Rose," he grinned, pulling her firmly back to him as London stubbornly survived another night.