This was inspired by a prompt on tumblr I shall list at the end. Once again, what began as a one-shot has now shot ideas through my brain. In other words, I'm not sure how far this will go, but I would anticipate at least a few additions to this modern MM AU.

Own nothing. Many thanks to Julian Fellowes, Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens for creating such wonderful characters for writers like me to entertain.

He watched her from the corner of his eye, standing apart from the other parents, lost in her own private reverie. Back straight, face placid, this quiet creature who had drawn his attention kept her eyes fixed on her child, avoiding contact with the surrounding adults as she did on a daily basis.

He of all people understood the need to protect oneself in such a manner. Had he not often done the same thing himself?

He had noticed her on several occasions since the beginning of the school year. How could he not? She was physically stunning, the first woman to capture his attention since his life had shattered with the receipt of one phone call. Yet the nerve to introduce himself remained just outside of his grasp, his tongue always too thick or his throat too dry for common speech. So he chose to admire her from afar rather than bridging this invisible gap he had crafted around himself. Of course, the desire to meet a woman had been non-existent for nearly two years now, and he swallowed forcefully, wondering just what to do with the new stirrings of life that were taking him by surprise.

Had she just glanced in his direction? Surely that was his imagination playing tricks on him.

Or was it?

Two small figures nearly collided with him, bobbing ginger curls and ebony plaits making him smile brightly as his daughter tugged on the edge of his jacket.

"And just what are you two monkeys up to?" he queried, kneeling down to their level.

"We're off to the swings, Daddy. Will you push us?"

Blue eyes he could never refuse sparkled up at him, two sets of cheeks pink from the crisp fall air presenting him with bait more alluring than he could ever refuse.

"Alright, my darling," he answered. "Lead the way."

His daughter squealed and giggled, her companion eyeing him quietly, her excitement beaming through the soft smile that had broken across her face. She looked just like her mother.

Her mother—who was watching him now.

The swings sufficed for a few minutes before the allure of the slide pulled the girls away, leaving him standing in solitude. His hands returned to his pockets, his gaze back to the woman his daughter's friend so resembled. She had taken the seat next to where he had been standing beside the bench.

The corner of his mouth drew up in response.

Leaves shuffled beneath his feet as he made his way to her, taking in just how perfectly her black hair skimmed her jawline, framing her chin in a style both simple and flattering. She was so different than Lavinia, a fact he suddenly appreciated.

Dark eyes smiled up at him, her gaze dropping as he took the spot next to her.

"So you're Anna's mother?" he began, watching her expression lighten at the mention of her daughter's name. "I'm Matthew—Matthew Crawley. Belle's father."

"Mary Gillingham," she returned, accepting his extended hand as they became formally acquainted. "Anna speaks of Belle frequently. It would seem they have become the best of friends."

"I think Kindergarten must promote the formation of fast friendships," he grinned, appreciating the small sound she made in response.

"I daresay you're right," she returned, her expression losing a bit of its luster. "Although I do think another commonality has bound them together."

His heart stung smartly.

"How did it happen?"

Her exhale filled the space between them, her eyes fixing themselves on her hands.

"Road-side bomb. Afghanistan. Eighteen months ago."

His eyes closed in empathy.

"And you?"

He met her gaze directly, images of his wife dancing across his mind like stills from a silent movie.

"Car wreck. Drunk driver. Two years ago next month."

A knowing silence was followed by a sincere acknowledgement.

"I'm very sorry."

He sighed.

"So am I."

Gazes shifted to the light-hearted forms of their children, running and laughing as if tragedy's hand had passed over their lives rather than altering them irrevocably.

"Belle was actually excited that she had made a friend whose parent had died," he mused, shaking his head ruefully. "She told me it was nice to have somebody like her in her class."

"It's funny how children see things, isn't it?" she offered, tilting her head slightly in his direction. "Anna basically said the same thing. She frequently tells me that Belle understands her."

A breeze toyed with her dark locks as her hands clutched themselves together tightly.

"It helps to have someone understand, doesn't it?"

Eyes that knew watched her carefully,

"Yes. I suppose it does."

The girls moved from the slide to the teeter-totters, waving to their parents as they scampered past.

"So, are you helping with the Fall Festival?" he inquired, laughing as Belle's side of the see-saw shot up quickly.

"Yes," she replied. "It seems as though Ms. Laura has signed me up to manage the ring toss stand."

His brows drew together.

"That's funny. She has scheduled me to work at the same booth."

He glanced quickly at the teacher, noting how she quickly moved her eyes from them when she noticed he was watching.

"Well," she stated. "What a coincidence."

He chuckled softly.

"A happy coincidence, I hope."

She observed the slight reddening of his ears, doubting their shade was completely due to the autumn weather. It rather endeared him to her, and she felt a slight flutter in her chest.

"I think we shall manage fairly well. Don't you?"

His smile warmed a region left cold for too long.

"Yes. I daresay we shall."

She stood then, beckoning her daughter as the time to leave drew nigh.

"Until tomorrow then," he spoke, feeling something nice when she gave him a genuine smile.

"Tomorrow," she offered softly, her cheeks warming despite the cool air.

He watched the pair of them walk away hand in hand, looking forward to the Fall Festival with fervor he never expected.

Anonymous asked you:

m/m prompt - AU where Matthew and Mary meet. Mary is a widow or divorcee with a young child. Matthew forms a close bond to the child and wins her over this way.