This is my first DA fic in a loooong time, and it's actually one that I've posted on tumblr before. I decided to polish it up and post it here as well. I have ideas for future chapters for this AU, although I'm not fully sold on continuing it just at this moment.
Big shout out to foojules for being an awesome in general and a wonderful beta in particular.
His first mistake was ordering for her.
"We'll start with the uni risotto."
And he didn't have the good grace to inflect his words into a question, either. Nor did he raise a querying eyebrow, or pause for Mary to smilingly agree. Charles Blake wasted no breath as he sallied into the fine details of her dinner order – "prawn and caviar sunomono, followed by the foie gras makizushi" – punctuated by a nod to the waiter who snapped up her menu before she'd even had a chance to open it.
On her best days Mary Crawley was an icicle, cold and sharp, yet possessing a beauty impossible to ignore, whatever the danger. At this moment her piercing stare went straight for his jugular.
Yet he remained undaunted, his preening smile firmly intact. "You look displeased, Mary. Have I upset you in some way?"
"Don't tell me you don't like sea urchin?" He chuckled, his head shaking lightly. One dark curl fell over his eyes.
"What I don't like is presumption."
"I've been to this restaurant countless times. The first thing you mentioned when we stepped foot in this place was your lack of experience with Japanese cuisine. I meant no presumption. I merely thought you'd appreciate the guidance of a…." He swept both hands inward, into his fresh-from-the-city tailored suit. "Connoisseur."
He fairly reeked of luxury and self-possession. So unlike Matthew. "I like being consulted, not guided. Or dismissed." Red lacquered fingernails thrummed against the table. "I like choosing myself what I'm going to eat for dinner."
"Fair enough." He lifted his sake cup. "Kampai, Lady Mary." He took a swift drink and tilted the small ochoko in her direction. "And you'll pick dessert."
Mary stifled a smile. She hadn't noticed before, but he had dimples in that boyish grin.
He got her to like him.
That was his second mistake.
The night was pockmarked with yellow pools of lamplight. Cars swept down the street. Mary's keychain was causing a ruckus outside the door, metal tinkling in her palm as she searched for the right one. Whether a habit or a compulsion, Mary kept these fixtures of her life – keys for the office, keys for the Abbey, keys for her assortment of abodes – on a single, groaning ring that never left her pocket or handbag.
(Mary, let me drive.
Nonsense, Matthew. I've already got the keys.)
She turned the lock and pushed against the door, easing her way into the dimly lit house. Mary Josephine Crawley, tailored and buttoned into the most expensive outfits London had to offer, gave the impression that her home must cater to the same immaculate tastes. But the explosion of books, toys, and clothing that littered the floor like shrapnel told a different tale.
Mary frowned. He never makes them clean up. "Tom?" she said in an undertone.
There was no reply. A faint glow beckoned her, the row of track lights beaming down onto the kitchen sink. She moved towards it and saw the back of his dark blonde head, headphones in place as he finished the washing up.
The volume was loud enough to hear a bit of the buzzing overflow. I'm Gwen Dawson, with the BBC. Mary flicked on the living room light.
Tom caught movement from the corner of his eye. His head twisted to meet her smile. "Mary." He shut off the water, dried his hands, and pulled the buds from his ears. "You're home early. How was the date?"
"You first." She removed her heels, raising each foot in turn, then set the shoes aside and padded over, one hand massaging the back of her neck. "What do you have to report?"
"George spewed up on my best shirt. But don't worry; he's cleaned up and asleep and I've already gone through your wallet for the money to buy a new one."
She laughed lightly, her head vanishing into the pantry amid the sounds of distinct rummaging. "Didn't you just eat?" he asked with a smile.
"One doesn't eat at those kinds of establishments."
"What else is 'one' supposed to do at a bloody restaurant?"
Her head popped out. She had settled on a bag of crisps, and ripped them open. "Taste. Savor. Nothing so barbaric as digesting." She popped one into her mouth. "I'm not even sure they had a loo," she said with a crunch and a dry laugh, that bob of black hair shimmering. "And what about Sybbie? How was her night?"
"Oh, she was out like a light after her fifth episode of Chuggington."
"What have I told you about letting them watch too much tv?"
"It's educational, Mary! She already knows more about trains than I do about cars."
She flailed him with a severe eyebrow on her way to her bedroom. When she emerged some time later, makeup scrubbed off and clad in a pair of printed silk pajamas, he was back at the washing up.
Mary flopped onto the couch. Her body sagged against the leather, one arm laid over her eyes. These were the moments she showed her age. "Would you like some help with that?" she asked, the other arm half-heartedly extended.
Tom rolled his eyes. "Thanks, but I'm almost done." She was already knocking back an Ambien with a glass of water. "And don't think you're off the hook. I still want to know how you and this Mr. Blake got on."
"It wasn't awful."
Tom snorted. "High praise, for you."
"It wasn't very awful. But he was arrogant. And he asked me about, as he put it, 'the nature' of our relationship."
"You and me?" he asked. She nodded. "And what did you tell him?" He grinned. "That I was your chauffeur?"
"Well. You did use to drive our town car."
"I drove a town car, occasionally for you, and years ago." The dishes done, Tom hit the lights in the kitchen. Mary drew her feet in as he sat beside her. "So what did you tell him?"
She traced the rim of her glass with one finger. "The truth. What else would I say? I live – platonically, I emphasized that –with my late sister's husband and our respective children. It's not the most orthodox arrangement, but it's hardly scandalous."
"And what did he say?"
"He found it strange, at first. Romantic, in a sense." Tom quirked an eyebrow. "Not between me and you, of course not! Only that…" She tilted her head. "Living with each other like this...in some odd way it keeps Matthew and Sybil in our lives, doesn't it?"
Mary's eyes fluttered. The somnolence was reaching for her, engulfing her like a slowly rising tide, waiting for her to give in. But she wanted to keep the moment alive a little longer. She couldn't do this with anyone else but Tom. Talk about them. Talk about Matthew and Sybil.
(Really, Mary, you must let me drive!
I told you no! Now be a good boy and get in the passenger seat.)
"Remember how everyone told us moving in together would be such a mistake?" she said. "That'd we'd never be able to move out of the past? But Charles feels quite differently. He said that sometimes staying exactly where you are is the best way to move forward, the best way to cope. You're the only other person who's understood that, and to hear someone else say it…" She opened her eyes. He was staring at her intently. "I was touched."
Tom smiled in his triumphant, maddening way.
Mary swatted at him. "What?"
"Nothing." He pointed a finger at her. "But I can see what you're trying to hide."
"That you're smitten."
Mary narrowed her eyes. Her arm snaked behind her, and in a flat second a sofa pillow smacked into his face. "What is it with the men in my life and their disgusting presumption?"
"Calm down!" A wrestling match ensued. Tom won and flung the pillow far out of arm's reach. "Easy, Mary, it's not like I'm planning your wedding!"
"Then exactly what are you doing?"
"All I mean is that you're smiling and you had a good time and it's a good thing."
"Is that so?" Her face softened. "Then why do you have that look? Your sad happy face? The one you have whenever Sybbie does something frightfully precocious?"
Tom laughed. Was he that transparent? While Mary would quickly confess she had the opacity of marble, she enjoyed likening Tom to cut crystal, multi-faceted and reflecting everything inside. "Dunno. I guess looking at you, come off from a date with a man you might actually like – it's just hit me that it's going to happen one day."
"You're going to move on. Find someone else. And we…." His voice buckled. "It won't be like this anymore." Mary was quiet. Tom rose. He began pacing, hands haggling with the air. "You know, you're just...you're better at this than me."
"Better at what?"
"Meeting people, dating. All the things everyone keeps telling me I should be doing."
"Would you stop running circles in the carpet? Come here. Come sit down. Good. Now look me in the eyes, because this is important: The truth, Tom, is that I'm not better at it. I'm just doing it. And you'll have to as well, eventually."
He didn't respond. And she didn't push. They sat companionably in a draping kind of silence, like a soft blanket shared between them. Tom rubbed his eyes. Mary drifted. Soon she'd be caught in the dreamless web of a medicated sleep. He never took the stuff despite his frequent bouts of insomnia. Dreams were the only place she ever spoke to him anymore.
(Matthew, you know it's useless to argue with my sister. Get in the passenger seat, I'll get in behind you.)
How many times had he dreamed that a three second decision didn't end in utter ruin?
Mary rose with a yawn. "'Night, Tom. You've done your duty tonight. I'll get up with the kids in the morning."
He watched her stagger into her bedroom. She wasn't yet ready for the leap of recovery, but in time –
She'll get there.
And so would he. Kicking and screaming, she'd drag him there. The pair of them, broken down, immobile. But together they were stronger.
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