Author's Note:As with all stories worth telling, we begin in canon, and shall soon take a different path. This particular chapter, and its prequel, Upon a Midnight Clear are dedicated to whatifthisstormends on tumblr, as it was my honour to write for her as her 2013 M/M Fandom Secret Santa. Grazie Mille for now allowing me to share your gift with the world.

Thanks also go to patsan for literally making this story possible, and to Willa Dedalus and Lala Kate for constant inspiration and motivation, even when they don't know they are providing it.

Chapter 1: With No One Else

King's Cross Station, London, England, April 1918

"We're over here, Sir," William called, walking briskly to the correct train car.

"Slow down, William," Matthew smiled. "The train won't leave without us. You'll be back with Daisy by nightfall."

William looked away bashfully. Matthew patted him on the back and walked up the steps into the train. They found their cabin easily and both of them sat down gratefully.

"Did you…" William hesitated. "Did you get a chance to see Miss Swire, Sir?"

Matthew looked out the window. "Yes," he said softly.

The train whistle shrieked and the late afternoon train to York pulled out of the station.

Downton Abbey, England, April 1918

Edith nodded at Mary and began playing the song on the piano. Mary looked out into the audience, trying to calm her shaking hands and still her rapidly beating heart. It did not help.

It was the uniforms, she decided. It was always the uniforms. The dull brown colour, the row of buttons, the same cut, the same style. If she focused on the uniforms closely enough, she could picture him easily. At first, this was a help to her. She could go about her duties each day and tend to the wounded, comforted in the knowledge that she was helping, that he wasn't them so he wasn't hurt and he was safe somewhere far away.

The absurdity of her delusion came crashing down yesterday when Edith gave her the news. Mary's foolish ignorance was a cold burden in the face of the harsh reality that struck her with enough force to knock her over.

Matthew's missing.

He wasn't safe anymore. He probably never was. He wasn't here, but that didn't mean he wasn't hurt, and it certainly did not mean he wasn't in danger. She felt useless. Her prayers every evening. Her good luck toy dog. Her fierce resolve that she would sacrifice her true feelings if it meant he would be happy, even with another woman. None of it did any good.

He was on patrol and he just sort of…vanished.

As Mary took her cue and began singing the song, the uniforms that faced her were no longer a comfort.

"Sometimes when I feel bad, and things look blue…"

He was out there somewhere, wearing the same uniform, and Lord only knew what condition he was in. He could be as badly wounded as some of the men now looking back at her. Or worse.

"I wish a pal I had, say one like you…"

Her blasted letter was as clear to her now as the day she posted it.

'Please be glad for me, as I will always be for you. Your affectionate cousin, Mary.'

Affectionate, indeed. So affectionate that she tore his heart out and drove him away to join the Army, then when he had rebuilt himself with wonderful Lavinia, she wrote to him just to say she had found someone else.

"Someone within my heart to build a throne. Someone who'd never part to call my own."

'That's over. Finished.' Mary had told her Granny, boasting almost about what a great life she would have with Richard. 'He's rich and getting richer.' Of course that's all that mattered, she told herself. Money. It was the only thing she was entitled to. She had lost her right to happiness years ago.

"If you were the only girl in the world and I were the only boy…"

Mary was grateful that the men took up the chorus with her. She was struggling and did not know how she would be able to get through the song without breaking down in tears. 'I don't think I owe him anything' she had told her Papa when he had implored her to write to him. Owe him? She owed him more than was in her power to repay. She owed him a lifetime of love and happiness and children and memories and all the things that they should have had before her own stupidity had cost them all of it.

"Nothing else would matter in the world today. We could go on living in the same old way…"

Mary's voice wavered as she fought on, choking out the words. She was cursed. She was being punished for her horrible mistakes from years ago and now her wickedness had reached out and claimed the one person who deserved to be spared more than anyone else. If only she could see him once more. If only she could have one last chance to tell him everything. To tell him all he deserved to hear. That she loved him, had never stopped loving him, would never stop loving him. And if she had an ounce of the strength and bravery that he did, she would have accepted him immediately back then, would have fought for him, would never have let him leave that damn Garden Party in 1914 when the world changed forever…

"A garden…"

Mary's mouth hung open but no words came. Edith realized something was amiss and stopped playing. Some of the men continued to sing before seeing that no one else was continuing.

Matthew walked slowly into the room, his eyes locked on her, never leaving her as he came past the seated men and into the aisle. William followed behind him, his eyes on Daisy standing at the back of the room.

Mary continued to stare, afraid to blink as that may make him disappear. Slowly the rest of the crowd turned to see whatever she was staring at. Cora, Robert, Violet, Sybil, Edith, the other soldiers, they all looked at this blond haired, blue eyed man standing in the aisle beaming as if he had not a care in the world.

Silence became murmurs. Murmurs became gasps. Gasps became happy, relieved laughter as her Papa went into the aisle and embraced Matthew.

"Thank God," Mary whispered, finally allowing herself to close her eyes in a thankful prayer.

"My dear boy," she heard the Earl exclaim as he looked at Matthew adoringly. "My very dear boy."

Papa was never one for eloquence, but Mary could barely imagine words now either. She looked at her cousin and smiled, grinned widely, ecstatic that he was here. She didn't care how it had happened; barely even cared if this was all a cruel illusion or joke. She kept her eyes on him, smiling and committing his thin face to memory, adding the image to the dozens of others that helped her sleep at night.

"Come on, don't stop for me," Matthew huffed, his cheeks flushing red. He looked about for someone to save him from being the centre of attention. His eyes darted here and there, finding no assistance, until he settled back on her.

"I would say such wonderful things to you…"

His smile was confident, his stride assured as he stepped down the aisle and was suddenly next to her. Had she ever heard him sing before? She couldn't remember. But hearing his voice now she knew she would never be able to forget it, never be able to go without it. She wet her lips and lifted her voice again, smiling as his eyes seemed to plead for her to join him.

"There would be such wonderful things to do…"

Edith picked up the tune once again as Matthew turned to face the audience. Mary looked away from him momentarily as the men joined in once again. They finished the song, singing loudly, gratefully, with a joy that came from being among friends and family, a feeling that was so often taken for granted before, but now was so rare it was a treasure to be cherished when they were lucky enough to have it again.

"If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy…"

The crowd applauded merrily. Matthew blushed again and nodded to them in acknowledgment. William caught Daisy's eye and they shared a smile. Mary turned and looked at Matthew, less than an arm's length from her now. He had lost weight, she noticed, and there were slightly dark rims below his eyes. His hair was not quite as well coiffed as normal, and his uniform was somewhat frayed around the edges. He never looked more handsome, she concluded.

"Somehow we got lost and then we were trapped behind some Germans for three days, and when we got out of that, we stumbled into a field dressing station and we were immediately admitted. But we weren't in any danger, so they didn't inform our unit," Matthew recounted, his voice calm and even.

"Well they should've jolly well told us when you got back to base," Robert grunted, relief in his voice.

"I hope you weren't really worried," Matthew said, his words directed at the Earl but his eyes darting over to Mary before looking away.

"Oh, you know us. We like to be sure of our hero at the front," Robert smiled.

Mrs. Hughes interrupted and summoned the Earl to see Cousin Violet away for the evening. With Robert gone, Matthew shifted nervously, realizing that despite the full room, he was now alone with Mary.

Mary's pulse sped up as he looked at her. The many desperate thoughts that ran through her mind less than an hour ago when she thought he was gone and all the things she vowed to do if he somehow came back were now bombarding her. She opened her mouth to speak, and propriety and duty again defeated her desire and longing.

"What will you do for the rest of your leave?" she asked, focusing on a safe topic.

"Well I've learned that Mother isn't here," Matthew answered.

"Yes," Mary replied, her stomach churning at the implication. Cousin Isobel was gone following her row with Mama, so there was no reason for him to stay at Downton. His likely destination was obvious and Mary blinked as she tried not to show her disappointment.

"I imagine you'll run up to London and see Lavinia, then?" she said quietly.

"No," Matthew replied right away. He paused as Mary's eyes widened in surprise. "I had time to see her already when we were transferring trains in London."

Mary frowned in bewilderment, then recovered and kept her face neutral. He already saw Lavinia? Transferring trains took mere hours. Why would he not go back to London to spend the remaining days of his leave with his fiancée? He had delivered the message to the family that he was alive. There was no reason for him to stay.

"Ah," she answered, afraid to say anything else that may betray her happiness at this development.

"I asked your Papa if I could stay here, actually," Matthew continued carefully. "There's no need to go back to Crawley House and be alone." Matthew blinked as he realized his choice of words. "That is, I mean I would be here visiting the family for the rest of my leave in any event, so it seems more efficient to stay here. Your Papa agreed. I believe Bates already brought my things upstairs."

"Well it will be good to have you around," Mary replied, mulling over each word. Her heartbeat was racing now. Matthew was back. He was alive. And he was staying over for the rest of his leave. He would be mere steps away from her at all times. She was filled with anticipation, joy and fear all at once.

"I got your letter about Carlisle," Matthew stated plainly.

Mary silently cursed. Her earlier thoughts dissipated as her current situation blanketed her again. They weren't alone, the two of them. They were still Mary and Matthew, and all the things that she knew stood between them were still there, War or not. She composed herself despite her heart breaking a bit more.

"I hope you'll approve. I know you don't like him much now…" she began.

"I hardly know him," Matthew replied. "But I'm sure I'll like him when I do." He spat out the words as if they were poison. "That's if he's good to you. If he's not, he'll have me to answer to." Matthew looked at her intently as he uttered the last phrase.

Mary smiled, her heart soaring. She could not decipher his meaning. Was he being a concerned cousin? A jealous ex-suitor? Or something more? She realized she didn't care. She continued to smile at him, content that he felt something for her welfare. Regardless of what his intention was, he thought of her, wanted her to be happy with Carlisle. Even though she knew she never would be, the fact that he still cared enough to want that for her made her feel lightheaded.

Matthew looked away from her momentarily and his vision was filled with the convalescing soldiers. Soldiers in wheelchairs. Soldiers with bandages around their limbs or around their heads. Soldiers clearly wounded in battle and wounded still now. Matthew blinked several times. His face dropped. His breathing quickened.

"What's the matter?" Mary asked, catching his change in mood immediately. "You suddenly look rather haunted."

"I am," Matthew retorted, closing his eyes to calm himself. He looked up at Mary, his eyes apologizing for his rudeness.

"You see when I'm here, nothing seems real. I know I have to go back and," he swallowed. "That thought stays with me always."

Mary frowned. His eyes betrayed him. They always did when he was around her. She imagined that she could look into his blue eyes and see everything he wanted to reveal to her, and even much of what he didn't. She looked into his eyes now and saw what she never wanted to see in him – fear.

"Take care of yourself, please," Mary said, her voice almost begging him. She instinctively reached for his hand and the contact caused both of them to blink and stare at each other. "It really can't be long now," she said firmly, though the words seemed to ring hollow in her mind.

Matthew gave her a brave smile and nodded. "Excuse me, Mary," he said quietly.

Mary nodded and let him walk away, watching as he crossed the room and greeted Sybil, Edith and Cora. There was still so much she wanted to tell him, so much she needed to say. She held back her desire once again, convincing herself that it was enough that she would get to spend the rest of his leave with him. That would be enough, she thought. It was more than she deserved.

Mary smiled as a familiar face came into the room.

"Hello," she said cheerfully. "What brings you by the wards?"

"I was looking for you," Matthew answered. "I didn't know if you were allowed breaks or when your shift was over. I thought we could take a walk around the grounds."

"That sounds lovely," Mary smiled, grateful for his kindness. He must be either bored or feeling a sense of obligation to spend time with her. She didn't care what the explanation was. It was enough that he had sought her out. "Sybil is relieving me in an hour. Shall I meet you in the Great Hall?"

"Perfect," Matthew bowed. He left the room, walking briskly towards his bedroom so he could change. He took several deep breaths along the way, trying to muster the resolve he would need.

"How long do you have left?" Mary asked. Their walk naturally took them back to their tree and their bench, both of them steered there without thinking.

"Two days," Matthew replied, motioning for her to take a seat, then joining her. "My train leaves the day after tomorrow.

"I see," Mary said. She knew he did not have much time, but she was hoping for more than two days. He had just shown up the night before. She scolded herself. How could she be so selfish? In two days' time she would still be at Downton in safety. In two days' time Matthew was going back to hell.

"I wanted to tell you something, Mary," Matthew said, looking down at the ground.

"Yes?" Mary asked, looking at him curiously.

"I released her," he said quietly.

"What?" Mary blurted out.

Matthew looked up, focusing his eyes on her, his gaze intense, his voice serious.

"I released Lavinia," he repeated. "When I was in London yesterday, before coming here, I met with her and told her I could no longer be engaged to her. It's over."

"You called off your engagement?" Mary asked, not believing what he just said, nor believing the words coming out of her own mouth.

"I did," Matthew nodded.

"I don't understand," Mary frowned in confusion. "You were at the front, you haven't seen her in months. What could have changed in that time for you to make such a grave decision?"

"I opened my eyes," Matthew said, his eyes remaining on hers. "It wasn't fair to her. I wasn't being fair to her, just as I wasn't being fair to myself. I released her so she could have a better life, find a better man."

"She had a better man," Mary answered, biting her bottom lip when she realized what she said. "What I mean is that I don't follow. What was so unfair that you had to release her?"

Matthew looked away, his eyes darting here and there searchingly. He turned back to her, taking a deep breath and composing himself.

"It was unfair for me to keep her bound to a commitment that never should have been made," he explained. "To stay engaged to her would have doomed her to a terrible fate, and even though I am far from a perfect man, I could at least do right by her, so I let her go."

"What terrible fate?" Mary asked.

"Being engaged, then one day being married to a man that…" Matthew paused, breathing deeply. "To a man that doesn't love her."

Mary gasped.

"She's a very sweet girl," Matthew continued. "She's never caused a moment's sorrow in her whole life. And for that reason she doesn't deserve sorrow or regret, and she would have had more than enough of both if she stayed with me. For as much as I would have tried, I never would have made her happy, because I never would have been happy with her, not as happy as I should be anyway."

"If you say you don't love her," Mary said slowly. "Then I suppose it's a very brave thing that you did."

"Brave?" Matthew laughed ruefully. "No, Mary, I'm not brave. Not in everything, in any event."

"Oh I don't know," Mary said, looking at her hands. "Stopping yourself from going down a path that won't make you happy takes courage. Many people would wish for such conviction."

"Then why do I feel like such a coward?" Matthew mused, looking up at the blue cloudless sky.

"In what way?" Mary frowned.

Matthew looked back at her and smiled wanly. "Forget I said it," he said forlornly. "It doesn't matter."

"It matters to me," Mary said strongly. "You aren't a coward at all. You're strong, and brave and good, and I won't send you back to God knows where in such a state of mind."

Matthew chuckled. "Still passionate, I see." His eyes twinkled at her.

"When I'm sufficiently moved," Mary agreed, blushing slightly. Why was he looking at her like that?

"What would you call someone who spent most of his time speaking his mind, both in his personal and professional life, and yet when faced with the most important thing in the world, was strangely silent? What would you call someone who yearned every day to give voice to his desires, and yet when handed the opportunity, did nothing? Who could that man be but a coward?"

"Life isn't always about what we want, Matthew," Mary said quietly. "Sometimes we can't have what we want. Sometimes we must accept that our actions have consequences and that can mean we have no right to want anything anymore."

"In another time I probably would have agreed with you," Matthew nodded. "But War has a way of putting things in perspective. When you face your own mortality each day, you begin to understand what matters and what doesn't."

"And what matters to you, Matthew?" Mary asked.

Matthew closed his eyes. His brow frowned and he swallowed hard before opening his eyes and looking at her.

"You do, Mary. You matter. You matter to me," he said.

Mary's heart leapt into her throat.

"That's very kind of you, Matthew," she whispered. "You must know that I am concerned for you. I only wish for your safe return. All of us do," she said guardedly. "But you need not worry about me. You have far more important things to be concerned about than my welfare."

"I'll always worry about you," Matthew responded. "Not because I don't think you're capable of taking care of yourself, but because I want you to be happy."

"Well you need not worry about that," Mary said, rolling her eyes.

"Of course," Matthew said regretfully. "You're engaged now. You have someone to give you a life and make you happy. I'm glad for you."

"No," Mary replied, looking out across the grounds. "I do have someone, well, more accurately someone has me, but whether I'll be happy or not remains to be seen. It's usually that way with our sort of people," Mary recovered, trying to disguise her emotion.

"Well then I'll worry about you," Matthew said with a smirk. "I'll worry about you until I know you're happy."

"Why?" Mary frowned, turning to look at him. "Whether I end up happy or not isn't your concern."

"No, I suppose it isn't," Matthew said nervously. "But all the same I do think about it."

"What about you?" Mary asked. "You said you knew you wouldn't be happy with Lavinia, nor her with you. How can you be so sure?"

Matthew's eyes widened.

"Well, it's as I said," he hesitated. "I don't love her."

"But I still don't understand," Mary shook her head. "You loved her before. What changed?"

"Nothing changed," Matthew said. "Nothing changed because I didn't love her before either. I just was too much of a coward to admit it, among other things."

"What?" Mary asked, in rather unladylike fashion.

"I never loved Lavinia," Matthew repeated. "I loved the idea of her, I suppose. She was safe, she was predictable, she was always supportive. I fell in love with the idea of having someone like that. I convinced myself that being content with a marriage that was safe and predictable was enough for me."


"And I realized I was wrong. I don't want to just be content. I don't want to settle for safe and predictable. The War has shown me that we live on borrowed time to an extent. Life is too short to merely accept being content."

Mary frowned. "But are you so sure you'll be able to find this happiness that you seek? To give up Lavinia for a dream that you may be happier with someone else someday is rather risky, Matthew."

"It is," Matthew nodded. "And I suppose that was why I didn't do it sooner. I tried to convince myself to accept it and make the best of it. But it didn't work."

"Why not?" Mary asked. "Is it because you didn't give it enough time?"

"No," Matthew smiled at her. "I spent a considerable amount of time trying to convince myself, believe me."

"Convince yourself that you would be happy with Lavinia?"

"Yes, but I also…" Matthew stopped and looked away.

"You also what?" Mary pressed.

"I also spent years trying to convince myself that I didn't love you anymore," Matthew whispered, looking back at her. "Lavinia was supposed to help me forget about how I felt about you. But I didn't. I couldn't. It wasn't fair to her that I thought that I could replace you with someone else."

Mary's eyes widened and her mouth opened in shock.

"I don't mean to cause any problems for you," Matthew sighed. "I know it's too late for this to mean anything to you now and I've accepted that. You've moved on. You have a new suitor. But I love you, Mary. I always will. I'm convinced of it now. I've spent four years trying not to, and I've failed miserably at it. And I find that," he looked at her and sighed. "I find that I don't want to not love you."

Matthew rose from the bench quickly and nodded to her.

"I'll head back in, I think," he said. "I hope this won't make things awkward between us," he said nervously. "It's wrong to use War as an excuse, but I sometimes lie awake…out there…and I think of you. I find myself thinking about you often, and berating myself for not telling you – before. I don't…I haven't thought of…all I know is that I needed you to know."

Mary nodded and offered him a wavering smile.

"I'm very glad that you told me," Mary said quietly.

Matthew smiled and nodded and walked back to the house.

They both acted as if nothing had happened. They talked and laughed and smiled guardedly with each other, avoiding any dangerous topics or returning to Matthew's confession of the afternoon. He was usually swept up in conversation by her Papa, and for once Mary was grateful for the Earl's infatuation with his heir. She stayed close to Sybil and Edith, ensuring she was never alone with Matthew, either at the dinner table or afterwards when they came through.

But they would look at each other. They never could avoid that. He would glance over at her, hoping to watch her as she talked and laughed. She would look up at him suddenly, as if she knew his eyes were upon her and she didn't want to look away. They would catch each other staring, and would offer nervous smiles before returning to their respective conversations.

"I've been thinking of going up to London after all," he said quietly.

Mary looked up from the fireplace and blinked, realizing he was standing next to her with no one around them.



"But why?"

"I don't want to," he frowned in resignation. "But I'm a burden to you. I was selfish to say what I did and it's made you uncomfortable. This stay has been…well it's been wonderful. But I've seen everyone now and they've seen me, and it's probably best that I go and stay with friends before shipping out."

"No!" Mary said quickly. She paused and composed herself. "Please don't, not if you don't really want to. This is your home, and you should spend your leave here, instead of in a strange place. I…I'm not uncomfortable. You have to know that. I like having you here," she said quietly.

Matthew's eyes widened and he smiled. "All right, but only if you're sure."

"Of course I am," she said, putting on a brave face.

"Mary, we're going up," Cora called.

Mary nodded to Matthew briefly before turning and retiring with her Mama and her sisters.

Matthew turned and looked into the fireplace. He knew he had unfairly complicated things for her, but he couldn't stop himself from smiling at the fact that he had offered to leave her alone and she had implored him not to.

It was a knock. It wasn't the wind against his window or the floorboards creaking or the Big House settling in the night. It was very clearly a knock.

He went to his door quickly and opened it, his mouth falling open as the low light from the fireplace revealed who his visitor was.

"What are you doing here?" he hissed, taking her by the arm and bringing her inside. He closed the door behind her and looked at her with wide eyes.

"I needed to talk to you," Mary said. "Mama had us retire early and I wasn't ready to leave you just yet."

"Someone could have seen you," he warned. "Can't it wait until morning?"

"No," Mary chuckled at the absurdity of the situation. "I've waited long enough."

"All right, what is it?"

Mary ran her hands along her arms. She forgot how much colder the Bachelor's Wing was than her side of the house.

"You're cold," Matthew frowned. He turned and went back to his bed, picking up one of the quilts and turning back.

He gasped slightly, not realizing that Mary had followed him. He handed her the quilt, swallowing at how close she was.

"Thank you," she smiled nervously, wrapping the quilt around her shoulders. Her legs wobbled a bit and she sat down on the edge of the bed. Matthew carefully sat down next to her, trying to maintain some distance despite his heart thundering in his chest. Mary was so close, sitting on his bed, and he had to still his hands with great effort.

"You said you still love me," Mary said quietly.

"Yes," Matthew acknowledged nervously. "I'm sorry if it's made you feel strange. It was never my intention to…"

"It doesn't make me feel strange," Mary said quickly.

"Oh?" Matthew blinked in surprise.

"No. Knowing that you love me, that you still love me, after all of this time, makes me feel…" Mary paused.


"Blissful," she smiled. "Yes, that is how I would describe it – blissful."

Matthew grinned. "Well I'm glad for that," he replied, then his smile dropped. "I've no right to interfere with your life. I meant what I said. I'm sure I'll like Carlisle when I have a chance to…"

"Don't say his name," Mary shook her head vigorously. "I…I don't want to think about him, not when I'm with you."

"I don't want to think about him either," Matthew nodded. "But Mary…" he closed his eyes and shook his head. "I'm sorry Mary, but this doesn't change anything unfortunately. You have to know that I do love you, and you'll always have my support, but I should have told you long ago and I didn't, and the result is that you're lost to me now."

"I am," she agreed bitterly. "But it isn't because you didn't tell me before, Matthew. So I'm still very happy that you did now. It will make things easier, it will be a comfort to me in the future."

"What do you mean?" Matthew frowned. "A comfort to you during what?"

"Life," she said sadly. "As I go through the rest of my life, I'll feel better knowing that you love me, even though I don't deserve it."

"What?" he frowned again. "How can you say that, Mary? Of course you deserve it. You deserve someone to love you and to be happy and all of it. I thought that was why you were considering marriage to Sir Richard."

"No," Mary blinked, pushing her tears back down. "That isn't it."

"But why?"

"I'll tell you," Mary said bravely. "I'll tell you but you must promise not to interrupt, and you must swear to me that you'll at least give me a proper goodbye afterward. And that you'll be civil to me in front of the family."

"Be civil to you?" Matthew repeated incredulously. "Mary, what do you mean?"

"After you know, I'm afraid," she shook herself again, reaching for courage that she did not know if she had. "I'm quite sure you'll despise me, and even though I can't bear the thought, I still need to tell you, because you need to know."

Matthew studied her carefully, the firelight dancing across her face. The thin silk of her dressing gown did very little to conceal the shape of her breasts and he had to keep his focus on her face, lest she give him a well deserved slap.

"I swear to you, Mary," he whispered. "I won't interrupt. I'll give you a proper goodbye, whatever that means, and I'll always be civil to you. Please, tell me."

She told him everything. Every detail from the flirting during the Hunt, to the stolen kiss in the sitting room, to how the Turk had somehow found his way to her bedroom and all that transpired until he lay lifeless on her bed.

"I didn't love him," Mary choked out as she finished her shameful story. "I barely knew him. I suppose it was…" she cringed. "It was lust, Matthew. Or the need for excitement, or something in him that I…oh God," she sobbed.

"The precise reason doesn't make any difference," Matthew said slowly, his mind a jumble at this discovery.

"No, it doesn't. All that matters is that I've fallen. I'm, as Mama says, damaged goods," she sobbed again.

"Wait," Matthew frowned. "Is that why you're considering Carlisle's proposal? Because he's willing to look past this revelation?"

"He's not looking past it, not exactly," Mary widened her eyes, trying to stop her tears. "He found out about it on his own. But he's prepared to accept it and to give me a life, subject to certain conditions."

"Certain conditions? That sounds terribly close to blackmail."

"He's willing to guard my secret if I marry him. Truth be told, I don't have much choice in the matter. If word ever got out, every door in London would be slammed in my face."

"I see," Matthew said shortly.

"You must know though," Mary whispered, gathering all the strength she had left. "Despite everything, despite my scandal and the way I've treated you, and what will be my sham of an engagement, I've always…" she swallowed.

"You've always…" Matthew said imploringly.

"I've always loved you, Matthew. I…I still love you. I know you must not believe it because I have given you no reason to, but not accepting your proposal was the biggest mistake I've ever made, and I've been living with that ever since."

"You love me?" Matthew said in shock.

Mary nodded. "Everything you said earlier, it was all true for me as well. I tried to forget you. I tried to convince myself that you were better off with someone else, and you probably are. But, you were so brave to tell me before, and I needed you to know everything. You can't love me now that you know who I really am, but you deserve to know the real me, so you don't have to torment yourself loving someone that I'm not."

She sobbed, her hand covering her mouth. The quilt fell from her shoulders.

"Mary," Matthew whispered, reaching out and taking her hand in his. She looked up at him with wet eyes.

"I love you, Mary," Matthew said softly, leaning towards her. He stared at her lips unashamedly before looking into her eyes. "I love you. Not who others say you are. Not who you used to be. Not even who I thought you were. I love you."

He kissed her.

His lips were demanding and firm, pushing against hers and giving no quarter. Mary moaned, first in surprise, then in pleasure. Her arms wrapped around him, her hands going into his hair. He held her by the waist, pulling her closer and darting his tongue between her lips. Mary opened her mouth to permit him entry and his tongue caressed hers. He held her for several moments, enveloping her in warmth, his kisses setting her skin delightfully on fire.

His hands moved. One slid around her waist and up her back, drawing small circles and causing her to shiver. The other moved to her front, across her stomach and pausing at the tie of her robe.

He pulled back, his eyes blazing, dark and needy. His breath was short, as was hers, and he swallowed, staring at her.

"Mary," he gasped. "Tell me to stop and I will."

She nodded quickly, shutting her eyes to calm herself before she opened them again, her need reflecting his own.

"You know now that I'm not…" she struggled. "I wish I could be…"

Matthew nodded in understanding. He smiled at her, a combination of reassurance and something more primal in his gaze.

"This will sound very rude of me, but I don't care," he whispered. He pressed his lips to her cheek to emphasize the point. "I don't care about your past, Mary. I should have given you a chance to tell me back then but I know I don't care now. I don't know what the future holds and I don't know if I can come back to you, but I…"

Mary moved forward and kissed him firmly. His arms tightened around her, pushing his chest against hers. She gasped into his mouth at the feeling of him deliciously close to her. She had never felt like this before.

"I don't know what future I can give you, Matthew," she said, looking into his eyes. "But tonight, if you want me, you can have me. We can…we can have this."

He grinned and kissed her. Their hands moved at the same time, clutching and grabbing at each other, untying their robes, pushing silk away, undoing buttons and discarding clothing. Matthew's shirt fell to the floor, joining Mary's dressing gown. His hand clutched at the silk of her thin nightgown, bunching it across her thigh.

"Mary," he sighed into her lips. His arousal blazed and he desperately held himself back.

She moved her hand from his back and down his arm, resting it over top of his hand against her leg. She kissed his cheek, and licked his ear, her breath ragged.

"I'm yours," she whispered, moving his hand with hers encouragingly. "I'll always be yours."

She lifted her hips slightly and he moved her nightgown up her legs and across her stomach, his fingers brushing against her knickers and across her bare back. She continued to kiss him and gasped as both of his hands brought her nightgown above her breasts and to her shoulders.

Mary lifted her arms, breaking contact with his face just long enough for him to take her nightgown off completely and drop it to the floor. He pulled her against him and they were skin to skin for the first time in their lives, her breasts pushed against his firm chest, his hands caressing her bare back, causing gooseflesh to flare delightfully across her skin. Her hands roamed his broad back, moving boldly downward. Her fingers spread across the swell of his buttocks.

Matthew pushed her back into the soft blankets. His weight was comforting over her, bathing her in warmth as he kissed her neck and shoulder. Mary moaned in pleasure, her hands clutching his back as he moved upon her. His hand slid down her side and across her thigh, moving her leg to the side slowly.

Mary gasped loudly as she felt him against her, the silk of her knickers and the cotton of his pyjamas doing nothing to conceal his arousal, nor hers. His mouth kissed her breast, his tongue licking her skin, causing her to arch her back, and as he continued to love her with his mouth, she cried out.

Her hand moved into his hair, holding him tight against her as he licked, sucked and teased. He moved to her other breast and repeated the same delightful attention and she whimpered. Her mind leaped with the knowledge that she had never done this before, never felt this before, and that this feeling would always be theirs, this moment would always be his, that Matthew would still be her first in so many incredible ways.

Mary's skin was warm and her desire was overpowering. She gasped for air as her hands moved down his sides and clutched his pyjamas. Matthew stopped his movements and lifted up, looking at her face searchingly.

Mary looked up at him with dark eyes and nodded slightly, her lips parted. Matthew held himself above her on his arms, his hands spread out to either side of her. He lifted his hips and Mary moved her hands down and he was suddenly naked against her, his legs kicking his pyjamas off the end of the bed.

Her hands caressed his bare bottom, feeling the firm muscle of his thighs, his back and his stomach. She nervously brought her hands around to his front and paused, looking up at him in wonder.

Matthew nodded slightly and she reached down between them, her eyes staying on his. Her fingers wrapped around him and she gasped. Matthew's eyes closed as she stroked him. Her pulse was racing and her breathing was ragged as she tried desperately to understand what she was doing and how to give him pleasure to comfort him when she would have to bid him goodbye again.

Matthew's hand moved down her side and his fingers curled around the band of her knickers. Mary bit her lip and stilled her hand.

"Mary," he gasped, control slipping from him quickly. "We can stop if you want to."

Mary shook her head vigorously. Keeping his eyes on her for any sign of alarm or discomfort, Matthew eased her knickers down. Mary moved her legs to assist him and she gasped and swallowed when they came back into contact, pressed against each other.

Her hand moved on him again and he bit his lip at the sensation. He held himself above her, watching her, allowing her to do as she wished. Matthew willed his eyes to remain open despite the mounting pleasure consuming him. He wanted to remember her this way always, her hair spread across the pillow, her eyes dark and filled with desire for him, and her chest rising and falling with her shallow breaths while they loved each other.

"Matthew," she breathed, removing her hand from him. "Darling."

She nodded, holding her breath as he leaned forward. He slid against her, barely entering her. They both cried out at the contact and Matthew stopped himself, gritting his teeth. She felt incredible around him.

Mary brought her hands to his buttocks again, keeping her eyes on him. Her legs spread around his hips and she pulled him forward. Her eyes shut and she called his name as he plunged inside of her.

Matthew went as slowly as he could, which became increasingly difficult as Mary continued to moan under him. She clutched his back and brought him down against her, kissing his shoulder, his cheek and finally his lips as he continued to thrust. She came apart and cried against his neck, hugging him fiercely to her. Matthew followed shortly after, pushing hard into her and holding himself still. She cried out and another wave of pleasure overtook her as she felt him release.

Matthew turned on to his back, taking her with him, holding her against his heaving chest as they both tried to calm themselves. He kissed the top of her head, then her forehead and she leaned up and kissed his lips, lying down against him and holding him close.

"Are you all right?" he breathed.

"Very much," she laughed contentedly. "I am very much all right."

She turned on to her front, her warm skin brushed teasingly against his. She looked at him and smiled.

"And what about you?"

Matthew grinned at her, his arms wrapping across her bare back.

"I cannot recall a happier moment in all my life," he laughed.

They parted soon after, with Mary promising they would talk again about all that still was left to say between them. She returned to her room and buried herself beneath her heavy blankets, the memory of Matthew's touch and kisses all over her body causing her to shiver in delight. He had one last day at Downton before leaving, and she vowed to make it as wonderful as possible. Thoughts blazed in her mind as she closed her eyes to try and sleep the remaining hours before Anna would wake her. They would have breakfast together, then perhaps go riding or for a walk down to the Village. They could either have lunch at a café or at Crawley House before spending the afternoon talking or reading. Dinner would be with the family, then she would find a way to sneak him into her bedroom so they could make love before he left the next morning. She almost giggled at the thought. A man in her bedroom had almost led to her ruin, and now she was plotting to get another one in. She just needed to find the right man, apparently.

She was surely mad because she could not stop thinking of endless possibilities. She would sack Carlisle, that was certain. Let him publish her secret. The one person who mattered the most knew all about it now, and he still loved her. They could be engaged over his next leave, perhaps married by next Christmas, and if she was a fallen woman in the eyes of Society, so be it. She could never be that in his eyes. He had told her so, with his kisses and his love, and his words of assurance when she left to go back to her bedroom.

"I love you, Mary. You've lived your life, and I've lived mine. And now it's time we lived them together."

None of it mattered anymore. The War. Her scandal. Her family's possible reaction when she would tell them. The branding she may receive from her so-called friends. None of it was important. She knew what mattered now. He mattered. They mattered. With all they had been through, there was no use caring about anything beyond that.

They were Mary and Matthew. And finally, after everything, they were together in love.