A/N: HELLO! I have only just been reconnected to the internet, over a month after moving house. Brilliant. It's been tough! Life is very busy, but at least now I'm connected again, and please know that I haven't given up on either this or AETAT.
That also being the case, please forgive this being un(properly)beta-ed - with things as hectic as they've been for me, writing hasn't come easily or often. This is dipping my toes back in, and I was so pleased to have finished it that I wanted to get it to you while I was able (frightening amounts to do in the next week!). My dear thanks go to miscreantrose who pep-talked me through most of the chapter!
Lying in Mary's arms, still trying to catch his breath as his cheek lay resting on her shoulder, Matthew closed his eyes to commit every last detail of what he felt to memory. The warm smoothness of her skin, each texture, the pressure of her against and around his own body, the precise taste of her on his tongue. The way her nails had tightened into his back as they'd each come apart, the way her breath had quickened and caught.
What had he done to deserve this? What mortal could be worthy of it? He couldn't fathom it, could only try to grasp at the reality and accept it, cherish it. He felt protected, here. Safe, whole, untouched for the moment by any darkness beyond. Though their union had been hurried, and how he wished he could have held on longer and prolonged her pleasure, he felt exquisitely whole in a way that humbled him. It had changed him. Somehow, it felt now as if he had only ever been half of himself before. There had been a piece of him missing, deep within, and now he had found it in Mary, in the delight of her love.
Perhaps this was his punishment, he thought, as his palm stroked over her hot, dampened skin, from her slender waist to cup her breast, settling there with a gentle caress. He felt her arms tighten around him, her fingers laced in his hair, heard her soft hum of approval, and kissed the elegant length of her neck that his lips could reach. A small, weak smile curved upon his lips. Such punishment, to have known her in the most intimate of ways, to feel that he had seen heaven, and to know that he must be torn away from it in only a few short hours.
Perhaps heaven was closer than he dared to think. He shuddered at the thought, feeling heat sting behind his eyes. Did he deserve heaven? Once he might have thought so, but in recent years he'd begun to doubt it. Sometimes he wondered whether he believed in it at all. On the one hand the belief had become even more important to him since the war began, the desperate need of something better to cling to proving paramount amidst the destruction. On the other hand, being so relentlessly entrenched in such mindless death threatened always to make him more cynical of it. War had thrown him into a strange coexistence of belief, though his faith in God remained as strong as ever. It had to.
The memory of battlefields assaulted him, fear pooling in his belly at the prospect of his imminent return. He drew a shaky breath, opening his eyes, focussing again on Mary's warm skin and the soothing sensation of her fingers stroking through his hair. This, he could believe in. This, he could rely on and remember. Whatever might happen to him now, he - no, they - would always have this. A deeper part of his conscience pricked at him, and told him they'd done wrong, but he ignored it, burying it away as his face nuzzled closer into the crook of her neck and his hand flexed upon her breast.
He felt her squirm with a hum of pleasure, and kiss the top of his head. His lips found the line of her collarbone, then her jaw, murmuring along them as she whispered, "Are you alright?"
"Mmm." He leaned up on his elbow, his finger tracing languid circles upon her torso as he looked down at her. At the delicate pink of her cheeks, still flushed with erotic exertion, the light sheen of her bare skin, the movement of each breath that she took. So, so beautiful. "What about you?" Suddenly he felt shy, worrying whether he had been able to give her even a fraction of the pleasure that had coursed through his veins. After all, he'd been driven by instinct, encouraged by her cries and guided by her body, with little conscious thought of what he was doing. How did one learn these things? He licked his lips, blushing fiercely. "I'm sorry it was so quick, or... if I didn't manage to... If you weren't completely..."
"Oh, Matthew!" Her answering smile was breathtaking, as her fingertips caressed his cheek, as if she could erase the blush from them herself. "Don't worry, please. I am very... very much alright."
He huffed a relieved little chuckle, and leaned down to kiss her. "Good..." Their lips lingered together, caught by the delicious friction between them, before Matthew settled back against the pillows and drew her closely to his chest. His lips murmured, contemplatively, against her forehead. "Do you know, I always wondered how people could bear the shame of it... seeking comfort in the arms of a stranger, and paying for the privilege. They didn't seem to feel ashamed at all, in fact, it was more the... naive young fools like myself who clung to romantic notions of love that were supposed to feel the shame of innocence. I can't pretend about how often I wondered whether I was being the stupid one, missing out on... all that. Wondering what it would be like."
"And now you know." Her arm lay slung across his waist, her fingertips ghosting over his skin, feeling it flutter beneath her touch. "Do you think you have been stupid, to have waited till now? Or do you wish you'd waited still?"
"No." His answer was sure and immediate, his arms tightening around her as his lips pressed to her hair. God, did she think he'd have felt the same with anyone else but her? It may have taken him years too long to remember it, but this evening had proven to him beyond denial that Mary owned his heart and soul. As much as he now knew the thrill of passion, and the way it could burn away all fear, more certain still was he that he could only have felt that with her. Their union had gone beyond the carnal, he had made love to her, and sealed her as part of his very flesh. His felt his voice shake, and tried to restrain it as he sought to convict her of the strength of his feelings. "Mary, I... can't tell you how much it will help me, to remember this. Being with you. Not anybody, not someone I've... paid, to touch, or look at. My darling, I'm glad I'm with you. It wouldn't... It just wouldn't have been right, otherwise."
He felt the warmth of her kiss upon his chest, and smiled faintly as she eased up to look in his eyes. Her hair fell prettily over her shoulder, the braid messier than when she'd come in with strands loosened in their passion, and he reached up to twirl it gently between his fingers. Her hand closed over his, their fingers linking together, and he released a shuddering breath. She knew, he could feel it in her touch. So much of his heart he couldn't quite reach to put into words, and yet somehow, she knew.
Then her hand lowered to his face, stroking tenderly over his still-flushed cheek, touching his lips, communicating the depth of her words. Her eyes shone dimly, her smile somehow sad. "It is different. With someone you love," she said softly.
He blinked up at her, registering her words that triggered a memory of what she'd said before. Of what he'd tried, almost as soon as he'd heard it, to forget. There has been another. If it hadn't been Richard, and she'd spoken of it so darkly... Who? It didn't make sense, though of course he knew nothing of her life in the two years after the war had begun, before he'd come back. Had he any right to, or any right to judge her, now? Still, he could see in the pinch of her eyebrows that it pained her, and his heart clenched.
"What happened?" he asked with a whisper, trembling as his hand lifted to tenderly push back a fallen lock of hair that framed her face. He wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to know, only that it mattered, because it mattered to her.
The startled flash of her eyes registered her surprise that he would ask, that she knew exactly what he meant. His lips twitched to a little reassuring smile, and he turned to face her as she lay down beside him, not quite meeting his eyes. She spoke as if to his lips, avoiding his gaze as though it might hurt her, though her hand continued to play distractedly along his side in peace.
"Does it really matter, now?"
"Yes," he replied emphatically. "Not because it makes any difference to me - it can't now, can it? - but it troubles you, and so I want to know... Because I want to know you, Mary, where I have missed the mark so terribly up to now."
He watched her face as his words sank in, turning them over, gathering the courage to explain it. Wasn't the hard part over? The knowledge that he wasn't the first sat heavily in his gut, simmering there, low enough for him to consciously ignore. As much as it hurt, that wasn't what mattered, not now.
At last, Mary shrugged. "Well... there isn't really much to tell. It was a very long time ago when I still thought it rather exciting to flirt with exotic young men. I just hadn't counted on... the exotic young man in question deciding he wanted more than that, and turning up in my bedroom after dark."
"But hadn't you - I mean, did he - Mary," his blood ran cold and then hot with sudden anger, "hadn't you wanted to?"
"It had never entered my mind to." Her eyes were unfocussed in memory that pinched her brows. "He took me quite by surprise, and I found... that there really wasn't any way for me to turn him away."
"God, Mary, there is always-"
"You might think so. But I couldn't find one that night, and I couldn't find a way to tell you when you deserved to know..." The words were swallowed up in her choking sob, and he wrapped his arms around her.
"You did." He kissed her forehead, and again, and again. "You told me just when I needed to know, before we... Oh, my darling, if the... bastard hurt you, I'll-"
"Stop." She shook her head and pressed her lips to his, soothing the terse anger in his limbs, calming away any thought of fight. "You needn't think of vengeance or anything silly like that. It'd be impossible anyway, he... isn't even alive, still. Please, let's not talk about it any more. Not now, darling."
Slowly, he drew back and looked at her, his heartbeat rapid in his ears. Studying the assurance in her eyes, in her voice, honing his senses once more on her warmth and her skin and this bed, he nodded. Somehow he read in her gaze that she had not revealed everything to him yet, but that this was for his own sake, as well as hers. Enough of it for now, there was so much, too much, still to process between them. Inwardly, he scoffed at himself. There was enough darkness in himself that he could never reveal to her, and he could demand no more of her... unless she would be willing. When she was ready, he knew, that she would.
He swallowed, holding her closer. His fingertips drew patterns on her skin, leaving goose flesh in their wake.
"Will you write to me?" he asked quietly. Did he even have a right to ask it? He hardly knew.
Without hesitation, she nodded. "Of course I will, if you'd like." Her smile quickly widened at his own pursed lips. "I would like to, Matthew."
Her kiss, alongside her heartfelt words, convinced him of it. Warmth spread through to his fingertips, and he drew a tremulous breath, savouring it as their lips caressed together.
"Thank you," he breathed against her lips. "I'll write on the train, or the ferry, before I get caught up in it all again, to tell you how to reach me. And... to Lavinia, as well."
"If you think that's best." Each kiss that she placed along his jawline distracted him, just as he longed to be distracted. And then she stilled, drawing back to bring her gaze to his, the remnant glow of firelight brightening her darkened eyes. Her words wavered, uncertain in the night. "Tell me you're safe. You know that's all that matters to me. Whatever else - I don't mind, really. Just write to me often that you're safe."
He nodded, though a frown momentarily pinched his brow. Was that all that mattered? Surely not; after everything between them tonight, there was so much more now that mattered! But then he saw it in her eyes, that steely glint that covered fear, more effectively in some than in others. He'd seen it in Mason's eyes as they'd hidden, seen it in the eyes of men no more than boys before walking out to fight, had thankfully never been able to see it in his own. Fear that begged the question, though few would dare to voice it, were they going to die?
When it came down to it, of course that was all that mattered.
The stark reality of what he must return to, of nothing else but life or death, drove his mind far away as the familiar cold crush of dread tightened like a band around his chest, quickening his breaths that drew in shallow gasps. Through the fog he tried to cling to her, her warmth, her arms, her glittering eyes, that suddenly seemed so far away.
A light snapped on. Instinctively he threw his arm over his eyes, flinching away from the sudden brightness in anticipation of the blast as his muscles tightened, blood and breath roaring in his ears, body shaking.
Like a vision he saw her above him, through eyes cracking open, the vision of his Mary that so often brought him comfort in his darkest nights.
"Matthew," again, and this time a sharp gasp of air filled his lungs as he felt her slender hands gripping his shoulders, her warm skin against his jolting him back from his waking nightmare to the lamp-lit room and the bed that they shared, the heat of her body beside him. Slowly, he felt the tension in his muscles relax, and as recognition dawned once more in his features he saw Mary soften in the lamplight, the relief spreading beautifully across her face. Her trembling fingers stroked his hair back from his forehead, now beaded with sweat, and he swallowed hard. Oh God, how he loved her.
He drew her closely to him, almost frantic, arms wrapping around her as they clung together in mutual need.
"Thank you." His breaths were ragged, lips murmuring to the top of her head as her kisses soothed the pulse beating at his neck. "My darling Mary, thank God for you."
She shook her head, her wry smile lost as their lips met in a fevered kiss. Still, he couldn't quite calm the blood rushing within him, his heightened nerves refusing to submit to her every gesture of comfort. You're safe now, he felt as much as heard her assurance, but he could hardly dare to believe her. If he gave in to it now, if he accepted that security, his return to the front would only be harder to face. He wanted to push it all away, as far away as possible, his instincts fighting against the trap of complacence.
In the back of his mind, he wondered still if this was a dream. Though he could feel the length of her body against his, the heat of her mouth and the smooth caress of her hands, he half expected to open his eyes at any moment and find it all ripped away, her softness replaced by harsh, frozen mud. With a shiver he forced himself to see, and breathed a sigh of relief as he saw her face before him, the delicate frown so very real on her brow. He didn't want to dream.
Her hand touched his cheek. "What is it?"
"I don't want to go to sleep." He shook his head, a nervous laugh to mask his fear that seemed so childish, afraid of the dark.
Her lips curved into a gentle smile, her features expressing far more than sympathy. An instinctive understanding, not of what he feared but of what he needed… what he desired, to drive the shadows of fate away.
"No," her voice fell softly between them. "Nor I do, not now. It's still hours till the morning."
He nodded stiffly, allowing himself for a moment to believe the warm promise of her eyes, then her hands, then her lips. Nothing else could enter his mind, no threat or fear, as she slowly encompassed his senses.
Unhurried, then, and unknown, the hours melted away, forgotten as wordless sighs rose to crescendos of bliss that went on and on, into the night.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading - if you've stuck with me still, it means an awful lot to me. As ever, I'd love to know what you thought - thank you!