A/N - So it's been years since I've written anything for fun, but after gorging on articles and interviews and a press kit, something began to gnaw at me, and I thought I should probably write it to get it out of my system. This isn't based on any one spoiler for Season 2... it's a long game interpretation of several statements and hints without a timeline because I can't quite read how that's going to go... yet.
I hope this gives you one tenth the enjoyment I've had reading all of your stories. This is a marvelously talented bunch of writers.
I don't own any of the characters. I wish I did.
Any Other World 1/7
He was pale and unconscious when they brought him to Downton Abbey that morning from the field hospital, miraculously alive, but terribly restless, and Isobel knew from experience that it would mean a hard night ahead with the pain. The arm and hand were immobilized, and the rip across his cheek was perfectly, almost invisibly stitched, but the internal injuries were the ones giving him agonies, and she could do little to soothe the misery caused by each slow rise of his chest, the breath that nudged each cracked and broken rib and chafed the slight gas burns in his lungs, and pushed at the shredded muscles across his stomach.
Matthew was lucky, she knew, lucky the shrapnel had not embedded itself deeper in his abdomen, lucky the percussive injuries and gas inhalations were minor, and lucky he wasn't slowly bleeding to death like the two men directly in front of him did after the shell hit. She had aged ten years when she heard what happened to him, and dropped those years behind her when she saw pink underneath the paleness, the unmistakable sign that he would pull through. Yet it would not be an easy recovery, nor a short one, and most especially not a painless one.
So she was not unprepared when, as the ancient clock on that floor softly chimed one, Matthew began to moan. The sounds were small and childish at first, as if he was a little boy again, her little boy and she was soothing a fever, or a stomachache, or the rare nightmare. But the cool cloths and soft words that worked when he was a child could not calm the man who was crying in his unconscious state, tears streaming down his cheeks as he reached for something he could not find. He was sick once, the heaves making the pain even worse, and as he lay back, now half-conscious and still crying, the moan became a single word, over and over, a keening that chilled Isobel's soul. "Mary," was all he could say, his voice barely registering in the still room. "Mary."
"Matthew," she said sharply, "Matthew, wake up. Wake up."
But he wouldn't, or couldn't. He could only keep saying that name, over and over, sometimes a question, sometimes a whisper, but only "Mary."
She was about to give him morphine when she heard another voice.
Isobel had not heard the door open, but there was Mary, her dark hair loose about her face, her scarlet silk dressing gown like a flame in the lamplight as she settled on the bed. "Matthew," she whispered, in a voice so low and sweet, it thrummed through the room like the song of a cello. "Shhh, Matthew. I'm here. Shhhh." Her hand touched his brow, pushed back the dirty blond flop of hair across his forehead, and stroked at the frown between his eyes. "It's all right, Matthew. You're safe."
His hand, the good one, reached for the sound, fingers fumbling across her face before stopping on her lips. "Mary?" he whispered, and his eyes flickered open, unfocused. "Mary?"
Mary smiled and kissed his fingertips gently before taking his hand in hers. "I'm here, Matthew. You're home."
His eyes shut again, and the tears stopped as the ghost of a smile returned to his face. "You're safe, then?" he murmured. "I was so worried..."
"Of course I'm safe, Matthew. Don't worry." Her finger traced along his cheekbone, the still-intact one, and he turned his head toward it to kiss her hand, clumsily, but in so endearing a manner, it brought fresh tears to Isobel's eyes.
"Good," he whispered, and he pulled Mary's other hand tight against him. "I'll just rest my eyes."
And Isobel watched his face soften slightly, and as the minutes passed, the tension eased out of his mouth, and he slept.
She looked up to congratulate Mary on her success, but the words died in her throat at the sight before her.
Mary's eyes, the deep brown pools so unreadable most of the time, were filled with love, agony, joy, fear, desire, pain and longing. She stared at Matthew, her breath coming in soft sighs as she drank in the sight of him. Her hand, the one he had kissed so sweetly, was now pinned over her own heart, almost as if she had to stifle the sound of it beating, and her cheeks were nearly as red as her dressing gown as the corners of her mouth turned up slowly.
"You should get some rest," she whispered, and it took a moment for Isobel to realize that Mary was speaking to her. "I'll stay with him."
"He'll need nursing in the night. It's not pretty stuff."
Mary's eyebrow quirked up at that, but she did not take her eyes from Matthew's face. "I wasn't completely ignoring you during that nursing class you made us all take." She stood up. "Do you have an extra apron?"
It wasn't pretty. The stench of draining wounds, the sight of mutilated flesh, and the cleaning up after him as if he were still a baby would have tried the nerves of the best nurses, and the dreadful burned bits of himself he coughed up nearly did in his own mother.
But Mary had paid attention, and Isobel was pleased to see she was entirely unflappable when it came to wounds and bodily functions. Her face showed no disgust or repulsion through the long hours, only serenity and concern as she helped Isobel with the worst of the tasks. She held his head when he was sick, showed particular skill in cleaning the worst shrapnel wounds, and soothed his restless cries and tears with the softest kisses and nonsense words. She held his hand through the most painful of procedures. Only once did she react, when Isobel was rebandaging his belly and bumped a rib. He shrieked in pain, and Isobel heard her sharp intake of breath and tiny sob at the sound of it. He did not regain consciousness during all of this, something for which Isobel was grateful, if only to prevent her son from knowing that the love of his life was seeing him in the most helpless of states.
For Isobel knew that men in war will call for the woman they love when they believe they are dying, and she knew now, seeing Mary watch over her Matthew, that what had once seemed to her nothing more than a romantic fulfillment of duty between two attractive children (for they were children to her), had grown through hurt and war and time and friendship into something so deep and true in Mary's heart that Isobel's own heart swelled a little at the thought of it. What mother would not want her son to know what it was like to be loved so much?
The sound of wheels on gravel snapped her back to reality, and she looked back down at the young woman who was nearly her daughter-in-law, who was holding her son's hand and softly humming a tune Isobel could not identify. "That should be Dr. Clarkson."
Mary nodded, but did not move.
"He was meeting the milk train first." Isobel took a deep breath, as if steeling herself for the pain she was about to inflict. "Lavinia will be with him."
"Oh, good," Mary whispered. "Matthew will need her." She stood slowly, her face contorting in pain as she tried to loosen the apron.
"I'll get it," Isobel's fingers reached for the knot, but gasped at the sight of Mary's left hand. "Mary! Did Matthew do that?"
Mary looked at it, confused. The white skin across half the hand was bruised purple, swollen to nearly twice its size and clearly misshapen below the pinky. "I guess so. When... his rib." She looked sick for a moment.
"I'll send Dr. Clarkson to you first."
"But what about Matthew?"
"No buts. Go to your room."
Mary nodded, and moved toward the door, cradling the injured hand in the other. "You'll tell me, won't you? If he... needs me?"
"Won't you know if he needs you?"
"You couldn't have heard him calling your name, not from your room. It's clear across the house, on the opposite corridor."
Mary, whose tongue was sharper than her grandmother's, whose wall around her heart was thicker than any Isobel had ever known, did not contradict her. She merely looked at her, the tears spilling down her cheeks, the tiniest smile keeping it from being quite the saddest face Isobel had ever seen. "I thought I did hear him," she murmured, and looked past her to Matthew's face, quiet now, and her smile grew even sweeter. "He's alive," she whispered, and her eyes met Isobel's again. "Thank you."
"Thank you," Isobel answered. "Go. And don't faint."
She was worried the two women would cross paths, requiring an explanation, but Isobel saw the dark head turn the corner on the corridor just as the strawberry-golden one topped the stairs, and rushed toward her in a flurry of words and worry.
She was almost irritated by the fact Lavinia had to be told to be quiet.
The worst had passed that night. He regained consciousness later that morning, never once calling for Mary again. The family traipsed in, one by one, to visit and keep him company, their cheerfulness getting on Isobel's nerves, if not her son's.
Lavinia rolled up her sleeves and put on an apron.
Mary did not darken the door again.
She knew from Dr. Clarkson that Matthew's pain-fired grip had severely broken a bone in Mary's hand, and that she had tolerated the setting of the bone without a peep. The doctor was under strict instructions not to explain to the rest of the family how Mary came to be wearing a plaster cast on her left hand. "I fell," was all she would say.
No one paid much attention, as Matthew was all anyone would talk about at dinner, even as he remained upstairs, every day a little better, sitting up, eating on his own, and then finally taking those first tentative steps, Lavinia at his side.
And Mary retreated inside that old, brittle shell that Isobel now understood, knowing that it protected an easily bruised, yet loving heart, coupled with a strength of spirit she herself admired. But she knew Mary too well now, and knew she would never allow those things to be seen again, especially by the man she loved.
"Edith sent up some pictures of the farm, so you can see how it's going." Isobel put them on his tray with a smile. "And Sybil has sent a book. I can't tell what it's about."
Matthew looked at the pictures, shaking his head. "If she keeps this up, I think I might have a fight on my hands over who'll run it."
"There's no fight. She's already better than you'll ever be. She promised to stop by later. I said you'd be in."
He wheeled himself over to the window and looked down at the lawns. A lone figure, one he watched for every day, was walking slowly, arm in sling, the yellow dog at her side keeping pace.
"Has Cousin Mary ever..." His voice trailed off, and he answered his own question. "I suppose not."
It was the first time he'd mentioned her name. Isobel tried to pick her words carefully. "Would you like her to visit? I can ask.."
"She would if she wanted to." He picked at the blanket, pulling a stray red silk thread away from the white wool. "I thought, though, that first night... I thought I saw her."
She turned to stare at him. "You remember that night?"
"I ... No, of course not. Never mind." And he shrugged. "Cousin Cora said she broke her hand falling. Riding, I imagine. I can't see her nursing. Or farming. Can you?"
She smiled down at him. "Cousin Mary might surprise you."
"She always does." His tone was bitter and they lapsed into silence, broken only by his humming the same tune he'd hummed since waking up.
"What is that song?"
He frowned. "I don't know. Probably something from the trenches..." He turned the wheelchair away from the window. "I think I'll take a nap now, if you don't mind."
He would no longer let her help him, or Lavinia, so after the nurse stepped into the room, she walked into the hall and let out the breath she'd been holding.
What would she tell her son? What could she tell him? That the woman in whom he had no faith had helped nurse him through one of the worst nights of his life, and the woman he had promised to marry could not bear to look at his wounds? That the woman he believed wouldn't take him without a guarantee of position had seen him at his worst and given of herself the kind of perfectly selfless love he would never know from Lavinia? That the vows included "for worse" and "in sickness" and that Lady Mary Crawley had fulfilled those vows over and over again in a long, pain-filled night, and Lavinia Swire could not stand the smell of the sickroom?
And what if she did tell him? Would he end a two-year engagement on the strength of it? She knew her son would rather die than do anything dishonorable, a male characteristic of his father's that she had privately loathed. There was no point in honor if you made three people unhappy by it, but Matthew wouldn't see it that way.
Neither would Mary, if it came to that. Isobel was at first surprised that Mary was so kind and friendly to Lavinia, but after that long night together with Mary, she had begun to understand it, to see it as Mary's gift to Matthew to accept and love his choice. She would never allow Matthew to throw over Lavinia. The guilt would be too great.
And then there would be scandal, the third in Mary's life.
But remembering the look in Mary's eyes and Matthew's joy at her touch, no matter how delirious he was, and this idea that one unhappy person was a far better scenario than three unhappy people made Isobel only more determined to fix it.
That night, when the ancient clock softly chimed one, there was a knock on Mary's door.
A/N - Thinking of some different viewpoints, plus what's behind door number three. Reviews and suggestions welcome. Cheers!