A/N: Happy Monday! Welcome to my latest little venture, in honour of Pemonynen's birthday (coming on Wednesday). Her request was smut inspired by Matthew's very attractive red mess kit uniform during the S2 reruns, and as usual, it's gotten a little carried away from me. I envisage probably three chapters, and here is the first!
Set shortly after 2x04, and obviously AU. Massive thanks to Pemonynen for the idea, Patsan for talking bits through, and Miscreantrose for the polish.
Plain To See
When she found him late that evening, he was sitting in what had used to be the music room, a pensive frown creasing his brow. Now the room formed part of the soldiers' recreation area, next to their cots in the drawing room, but it found little use in comparison to the larger space of the library. As such it was more peaceful, and Matthew was glad of it as an uncomfortable blush crept up the back of his neck, his hand covering the small cards he'd found left on a table in the library. He turned one over again, lifting it, looking at it, blinking as he dared himself not to look away from the photograph on it, the hot sting of naive shame making his throat dry and tight.
God, he'd seen worse things than this! On the wasteland battlefields he'd seen men torn apart, parts of bodies and what lay within them that he'd never imagined to see, his own hand shaking as it gripped a gun, piss in the muddied craters of a trench. All that he'd seen, and now saw without flinching, it now being simply a part of his life. Natural. He shuddered. But this - more natural than any of that, or so his rational mind insisted, a woman's body - he shied away from?
Bringing the card closer to his face, Matthew breathed deeply against the tumult of feelings the image brought on. His eyes traced shapes and shadows, burning them into his mind, comparing and finding himself reminded of... or at least what he imagined of...
"Ah, there you are!"
At the sound of Mary's voice he slammed the card back down beneath his palm, twisting as he saw her. Her smile was damning in its simple pleasantness, her innocence of the thoughts that he'd been dwelling on making him burn with discomfort. "We wondered where you'd got to," she said, taking another step into the room.
He stood up sharply, shielding the cards on the arm of the chair with his body, distractedly smoothing out imagined creases in his scarlet and black uniform.
"I just needed some air for a minute. I'm sorry, it's very good of your parents to have put me up for the rest of my leave but I don't think I'm especially good company tonight." His nervous laugh shielded his fear, a poor cover for it. Mary's brow creased in immediate sympathy, but he didn't want that. He just wanted to forget it all, to find his usual state of numbness, before he was on the train tomorrow and safely away from here. Safely? He must be mad.
"Oh Matthew, don't be silly. It's a shame you weren't able to get up to London after all, I'm sure you'd much rather have spent time with Lavinia than all of us."
"Unfortunate timing, it couldn't be helped. I don't think I know the family well enough yet to warrant attendance at a distant aunt's funeral." His wry smile wasn't wholly convincing as the thought struck him again, of how little he really knew Lavinia and her family. And yet he was supposed to marry her. They should know each other better than anyone else in the world, but as he stood before Mary, it was her understanding smile that seemed to pierce to the depth of his soul and bare it. Not the thought of his fiancée. In fact the thought of his fiancée made his stomach clench with unease, and he pushed it away.
As if able to sense his distress, though he hoped she imagined its cause were simply his impending return to the front (wouldn't that be reason enough, after what had happened?), she stepped closer and touched his arm in comfort. "If you say so. Anyway, you won't find any complaint from us. You know we are all happy to see you, always."
"Thank you," he said stiffly, desperately aware of her closeness and his arm still tingling from the faint brush of her fingers against the fabric of his uniform that had sparked something deeper within him. Once more the fantasy flashed into his mind, unbidden, improper, and he wished he hadn't seen those damned postcards or had left them alone.
She must have seen his blush, his slight shift sideways to shield them from her view. Her eyes lit up, her lips quirking into a sly smile.
"What are you hiding, there? Whatever you were looking at when I came in."
"Nothing, I mean I'm not - hiding anything." He sidestepped, blocking as she tried to peer around his shoulder.
"Yes, you are! What is it?" They shifted again, a mocking dance as her hands landed on his chest to steady herself, and his clasping her arms to hold her back as he pleaded with her.
"There!" She cried triumphantly as she saw past him, and Matthew at last admitted defeat, hands falling to his sides as hers came out to sweep the cards up into her grasp. He could have argued, could have snatched them back or told her she mustn't look, but what good would that have done? His hand pushed back through his hair, shame biting at every heightened nerve as he saw her expression change.
First it was curious excitement, before her eyebrows shot up in evident surprise. They slowly lowered to a gentle frown, her face then revealing something between confusion and shock. Or disappointment, he thought. He, too, knew that he was better than that, than to stare at penny pictures of nakedness. He watched her do as he had done, bringing the image closer to her face, though her expression betrayed disbelief rather than his determination. Slowly, her finger traced the curve of breast and bottom so plainly visible, the raven dark hair cascading over the nameless woman's naked shoulders just as he'd often imagined her own would do.
He watched her, eyes shamefully riveted to her lips that parted into a whispered, "Oh." Her eyes flicked up to his, an unmistakable blush tinting the paleness of her cheeks above a taunting smile. "Well, Captain Crawley, you are a dark horse."
"I'm sorry," he said, unable to move as his body burned with guilt, his throat almost painfully dry. "They're not... mine, I just... they were left on a table, and..."
"What do you have to be sorry for? It isn't anything to me, whether they're yours or not."
Her tone was careful, her expression guarded, unreadable, and Matthew licked his lips, confused. He found that he didn't really know, only felt convicted that he should, that he was wrong, that this wasn't right. Nothing seemed right, not even his own body in his skin, he didn't seem to fit and could barely recognise himself. Of course he couldn't admit the truth, that he had seen those images and allowed himself to be reminded of Mary, to think of her. God, no. It wasn't right, and yet he still couldn't shake the slow, irrepressible pulse of need that stirred deep within. He needed so much, needed something, that he couldn't begin to admit to himself... let alone to her.
He shook his head. "Because... to look at them, even, isn't what I expect of myself," he said slowly.
Mary only blinked at him, lowering her head a little. "I see. I think the war has ruined many people's expectations, of themselves and everything else. I don't think," she inhaled sharply, as if it pained her to say the words, "anyone could condemn you for taking small pleasures where you're able."
She gave a dry chuckle, waving the cards carelessly until he snatched them from her hands, casting them away onto the chair. They fell and landed face up, all suggestive smiles and nakedness displayed without care, mocking him.
"Do you think I'd take pleasure so cheaply, like - like any common, filthy soldier?" He was angry, suddenly, furious, though more at himself for feeling so bloody bothered by it. "I'm not like that! I'm... not, I... I wouldn't."
But he had. At least, he'd looked, and he'd indulged the thought of it, and just for a moment he'd wished - he still did - and his own thoughts and desires taunted him now. He heard his own breath in his ears, harsh and ragged as his chest rose and fell, wishing he could run from the concern in her eyes but unable to move. She was so still, so calm next to his restless agitation, and something within him weakened.
"It's alright, Matthew." Tentatively, she reached out again, her touch a lifeline, and he swallowed back the sting of tears.
"No it isn't," he hissed, withdrawing into himself. She couldn't understand, she had no idea, of course she couldn't! It wasn't the same at all, for her, how could it be? His eyes glazed over as his heart beat with a familiar thud of fear, this time tinged with a greater fear, not only of death but of the loss of a part of himself that he'd never had the chance to find. And with his return to the front looming in the morning, the fear of it came flooding back, only heightened by the emotions wrought in him by those damned cards, and the woman before him.
"What is it?" Her voice wavered, and he looked up to see the worry in her eyes.
His resolve began to falter, the weight in his chest too heavy to ignore. Fear.
"I'm scared." The admittance was barely a whisper, barely a breath past his lips.
"Oh, Matthew." This time tears trembled at the edge of her words. "I can't imagine what it's like, I know, but you must believe that you'll come through it. Please."
"But what if I don't?" He gripped her arm now, too, instinctively, staring at her as if she could give him the answer. Warring feelings raged in his body, his voice shaking with intensity. "What if I don't, and I've never... I mean, I've never even... Oh God, it's stupid. It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters." She fixed him with an unrelenting look that was trying to understand, that only made him feel more pitiful. "Whatever it is, it matters. Please tell me."
"It's pathetic, really." His bitter laugh rang out at himself, his pride already trampled on, forgotten. He waved a hand toward the cards on the chair, as if they could explain it for him. "I haven't ever... Well. I suppose I've had the opportunity enough times, any man does if they pay the right price, but I haven't, I'm - I'm not like that, Mary."
She stared back at him, her eyes wide before she seemed to recover herself, and breathed.
"No, of course you're not."
"It hasn't ever bothered me before, I mean, I couldn't - with anyone I didn't love, and I always thought that when I married..." He shook his head, lost in memories of the dreams he'd had, that seemed so dreadfully naive now. And then the memory encroached again, of barren landscape and fear and the heavy boot steps of the enemy over his head where he'd lain hidden, and all his dreams had seemed to shatter. The constant pressure of Mary's hand on his arm slowly drew him back, and he swallowed thickly. "I suppose I should be afraid of dying more than anything else, but really I'm not. I'm afraid of all the things that I'll never have the chance for if I do."
She nodded, slowly, and he saw that she was trying to understand him. God, Mary... What an angel she seemed, what brightness in the shadows of his fear and insecurity.
"What about Lavinia?" She voiced the suggestion quietly, almost tentatively. The name came like a knife between them, a sharp intrusion, cutting air already thick with unspoken desperation. A stark reminder of the woman he was to marry, the woman he loved, the woman he was supposed to long for, anyway.
"Well there hasn't ever - been the chance. And if I'm honest," he paused, and frowned. "I've never really thought of Lavinia like that."
The realisation of his own words struck him like a blow. For all he loved Lavinia, and adored her sweetness and kindness, had his passion in proposing to her been misguided somewhere? There'd been passion, yes, but of a different kind. His own passion to put the past behind him, to have a woman's comfort to cling to and letters to look forward to. Looking back now, he realised he had never fantasised about her, never imagined the heat of them entwined together in tangled sheets, and in fact it felt almost wrong to do so.
He stared at Mary, his heart pounding.
Not like you. It wasn't that he thought Mary any less innocent, or less good, than Lavinia. There was just something about her, something he was rediscovering with every breath he drew, something indefinably alluring in her very being that he was proving powerless against.
Oh God. He'd managed to forget, to drive all of this out, and now the pent-up desire he'd managed to suppress for years came raging back through his veins.
He was so afraid. And Mary was warm, and safe, and here, steady, a beacon in the storm that threatened to drown him. She stood before him and listened with such compassion, such understanding in her deep brown eyes, as he raved and bemoaned about how he'd never made love to a woman, and if he could only ever have one, just one... Oh God.
"Matthew..." His name was soft on her lips, as her fingers slid down his arm to take his hand in hers. Her eyes were bright and locked on to his, questioning, or warning, he could hardly tell.
His breath caught in his throat. "Mary, I'm - so sorry," he choked, and she was only a breath away, just there, and he couldn't think clearly. He was sorry for so much, for walking away and for coming back and for how he felt, for not being able to control himself, for the thoughts he'd so shamefully had and now so desperately wanted to act on.
Her soft plea filled his senses, "Please..."
Please what? Please kiss me, please let me go, please don't say another word, please love me, please... But there was no air in the diminishing space between them, no breath, no thought, and he dimly saw her eyes flutter closed even as their lips pressed together in wondering torment.
A/N: Thanks so much for reading! Chapter 2 coming sometime Wednesday... Your thoughts are always so greatly appreciated!