A/N: HAPPY SPOILER PICS DAY! Oh, I'm so happy. My darlings are getting married. They're ACTUALLY GETTING MARRIED. Aaaaahhh!
*cough* Anyway! Here, at last, is the Christmas Special chapter of ATiL. I'm terribly sorry this update has been longer than usual, but I've had a stonking week at work. I know, I know - it might not seem like it, having popped out several one-shots in the meantime - but they were far less mentally taxing to write than a chatper of ATiL, and I just couldn't dedicate the time to it last week. My sincere apologies. In the meantime, thank you once more for your kind reviews, and thank you to everyone who's alerting or reading this fic. IT IS MY BABY. And this is the penultimate chapter. :( Enormous thanks as ever to my stellar beta EOlivet for helping me get my head around this!
OH! And thank you, so very much, to everyone who nominated or voted for ATiL in the Highclere Awards - I'm absolutely thrilled, and very, very touched - thank you!
I very much hope you enjoy it!
On the cold December morning of Christmas Eve, Matthew awoke with a gentle smile on his face. There was a pleasant contrast between the cold air on his chest, and the warmth of Mary's cheek nestled against his shoulder, her arm slung over his waist.
Tucking his arm a little tighter around her, he kissed the top of her head, and shivered a little. It was cold. Experimentally, he shifted his hand under the blankets to his thigh, squeezed it quite hard, and tried to wriggle his toes.
"Mary," he whispered quietly.
"Mm?" Sleepily, she wriggled against him and shifted up, greeting him with a soft kiss. She must have felt his hand slip down to his legs, for she quietly asked, "Is it your back again? Shall I –"
Pressing an obliging kiss to his lips, Mary slowly sat up while Matthew eased over onto his front. It had become a familiar routine to them over the last weeks. When Matthew had begun to find that, on particularly cold mornings, he couldn't feel much in his legs again, Clarkson had advised that it was likely only the bruising around his spine flaring up from it. It was a relief; the first time it had happened Matthew had panicked rather, but now he found the numbness dissipated quite easily with a little attention from Mary.
She knelt behind him, settling her knees comfortably either side of his thighs, and reached for the small bottle of scented oil on the bedside cabinet (sliding her hand up his back followed by a trail of soft kisses as she did so). "Thank you," he mumbled fondly, voice muffled by his arms.
"It's quite alright," she murmured, her hands already pressing warmly in a familiar pattern over the small of his back, still scarred and darkened though it was now over a year since he'd been wounded. A gentle smile broke over her lips as he breathed in a soft hum of contentment, wondering if he didn't rather put it on so that he could enjoy this pleasure.
With gentle pressure, she massaged him (and a little lower that strictly necessary, more for her own benefit than his, admittedly), enjoying the sensation of his skin, slick from the drops of oil on her palms, warming gradually under her touch. So, evidently, was he.
Mary chuckled softly, low in her throat as she felt Matthew flex his legs under her, testing the feeling as it slowly returned. "Is that better?" she smiled, leaning forwards to curl over him and nibble affectionately the back of his shoulders, and all the way down his spine.
"Much, darling… Thank you," he sighed deeply, and she could almost hear his smile, if that were possible. "Now, then…"
Mary felt his body tense for movement in the instant before he shifted, biting back a shriek of surprise as Matthew somehow flipped himself up and over her, so that she found herself without warning on her front now, with her husband's hands and lips already tracing soft patterns over her back. "Your turn," he whispered hotly against her ear, before he worked deliberately down every delicate ridge of her spine, to the very small of her back, his lips pressing warmly through the thin silk of her nightgown. She shivered in pleasure as he shifted lower, kissing down the backs of her thighs, until he reached the hem and began to slip it up, and up, retracing the path of his kisses with his tongue, this time against her skin.
When he'd reached her hips, at the gentle encouragement of his hand she eased back a little onto her knees, raising herself just enough for his hands to slip around to her front as he brought her flush against him… tracing fire over her skin as her nightgown was deftly slipped entirely off, thrown aside, and all she needed was his hands, his mouth, him… Toes curling, she writhed back and up against him, her hands fisting into the sheets as he made love to her, with that glorious balance of visceral passion and tenderness that overwhelmed her without fail. She lost herself entirely to him, gasping as he seemed to touch every part of her at once with every part of him and she squeezed her eyes closed, biting her lip as a raw cry rose in her throat just before she felt him stiffen and tremble behind her, within her, his arms wrapping tightly around her as they fell together and lay… his sweat-dampened arm over her waist, his lips against her neck, and she rolled over and curled against him, nestling her head between his neck and shoulder.
"You seem to have recovered, darling," she chuckled against his chest.
"I've warmed up a little, you see," he smiled as he pressed kisses into her hair.
"And I think I have you to thank for it…" His low murmur trailed off as her lips claimed his once more.
They could have laid in such a manner for hours, or all day, but as it happened they had only minutes before they were disturbed by a quiet, insistent knock at the bedroom door. Groaning quietly in frustration, Matthew sat up against the pillows, making sure he was quite adequately covered before softly granting admittance while Mary tucked herself down to his other side.
Molesley's head appeared around the door, his blush far less fierce now than it had been in earlier days when he'd been forced to intrude on them like this.
"I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, Mr. Crawley –"
"It's quite alright, Molesley, I was getting up in a while anyway. What is it?" He flinched, smiling, as Mary pinched his leg.
"Lord Grantham on the telephone for you, Sir."
"Oh. Right, I'll be just a moment. Thank you," he nodded.
Molesley bowed his head and ducked back out of the door, closing it softly. Reluctantly, Matthew left his bed and his wife, stamping his feet a little to make sure all feeling had fully returned to his legs while he wrapped his dressing gown around himself.
After he'd gone, Mary rang for Ellen and dressed. Matthew was still nowhere to be seen, so she wandered to the nursery. Mabel had been awake for a while already, and was dutifully writing out a Christmas card as dictated to her by Miss Ludbrook. She smiled, fondly, then turned her attention to Catherine who was scrawling a coloured crayon over a colouring book. The little girl showed it off proudly, pronouncing it as a Christmas present for Bobby, tomorrow.
"I'm sure he'll adore it!" Mary laughed, kissing her younger daughter's cheek fondly before going over to the crib.
There was their son, lying blissfully asleep and perfect, his delicate wisps of dark hair curling and clinging damply to his forehead, thumb firmly in his mouth. For an age, it seemed, she watched him, and when Catherine clambered onto her lap they peered together into the crib, smiling down at the tiny child below them. Mary hoped he would be like Matthew, so very much. And she was sure he would be, for Matthew adored him so utterly (as he did their two girls, as he always had) that Mary was sure his goodness and kindness would somehow rub off onto them.
Smiling, she placed Catherine gently down again, passed her sincere approval over Mabel's careful writing, and padded downstairs. The sitting room was modestly decorated for Christmas, which Matthew had enormously enjoyed helping with this year, as he hadn't been able to the year before. Doing it with the children to help, of course, had been a delight.
"Hello Isobel," she greeted her mother-in-law. "Is Matthew still on the telephone?"
"Good morning, dear." Isobel poured Mary a cup of tea, once she'd sat down. "As far as I – oh, there he is."
Matthew appeared in the doorway, still clad only in his dressing gown. Mary smirked a little, while Isobel only raised an eyebrow at him. "Do you intend on getting dressed at all today, Matthew?"
"Good morning to you as well, Mother!" he frowned affectionately.
"What did Papa want?" Mary prompted gently. Matthew's expression darkened, to her surprise; even more so when he asked Isobel to leave them for a moment. She might have pretended towards offence, but something in his manner did not allow for it, and so she quietly excused herself with plans to attend the hospital in any case.
Matthew settled carefully into a chair, taking Mary's hands in his own and staring at them thoughtfully.
"He was telephoning about Bates' trial," he said quietly, after a little while. Mary stiffened, searching his face for any hint as to what he meant.
"Why was he telephoning you about that? You weren't planning on going, were you – it's in London!" Something about his expression was definitely worrying her. So was his lengthy pause before answering.
"You – know that Mrs. Hughes has been called to testify? And he suspects Miss O'Brien, too?"
"He mentioned it, I think… Matthew, what is it?"
Matthew frowned at her hands, and rubbed them gently, pursing his lips.
"So has Richard Carlisle." As he'd imagined, Mary's lips parted into a silent gasp of surprise and he let the news sink in for a while before he carried on. "You see, the – story, it turns out, has become pretty central to the case. Bates was trying to protect Anna's part in it, so – well, Mrs. Bates obviously negotiated with Carlisle over the sale of the story, and we reckon that's why he's been called."
"Oh." She rubbed her lips anxiously together, and couldn't quite think of what else to say. It had been so long… so long, since any of that had claimed a moment of her sleep, or her concern!
"The story itself shouldn't be mentioned in any sort of detail – there's no need for it, darling, and certainly not your name."
"The details are commonly known anyway, Matthew!" she cried. "What does that matter!"
"I mean –" Matthew sighed, pressing his lips to her hands, "that there won't be any fuss about you. Though, you will need to sign a document confirming Anna's exact role in the matter, as that part is pertinent, but – you can do that here, and anyway we needn't worry about that after Christmas, darling. Then you needn't think of it again. Though… I do think that I will go, just to be there."
Mary nodded slowly as he spoke, listening carefully and calmly.
"Then so will I," she declared, as soon as he had finished.
Matthew argued, immediately and earnestly. There was no need for her to be there, it wouldn't do any good, she would only be upset by it… But she was determined; she had a right to know what was being discussed about her! Well, that was exactly why Matthew was of a mind to go – to hear the worst that there might be, so that he knew all of it, but there was no need for Mary to subject herself –
In the end, it was Bobby who swung the argument.
"He's too young to travel to London," Matthew said firmly. He hadn't much experience of babies at this age (none, in fact, much as it pained him) but he did know that much.
"Of course he is –"
"And you won't leave him," he implored his wife. "We can't all go, Mary, and – well, I know Mother's quite capable but I'd rather you were here."
Mary glared obstinately at him, feeling her resistance crumble at his argument. Her mothering instincts, now, were far greater than her own of self-preservation; so Matthew's appeal for the sake of their children, not to leave them, was utterly impossible to fight against.
"Alright," she snapped uncharitably, her hands tensing (still in his, they'd never let go). She was angry at him; for his manipulation, and his inherent rightness (of course he was right, he usually was), and all of it only because he wanted to protect her (all of them). She frowned at him, though her anger (or pretence of it) was fading quickly at the earnestness of his expression, and the fact that he was… still in his dressing gown, and that alone.
As if he sensed this waver in her resolve, Matthew leaned quickly forwards and pressed a warm kiss to her lips.
"Thank you," he whispered. Oh, he loved her, and that was all – surely she had to see that! Of course he understood her desire to be there, but… they had suffered enough from that story, more than enough, and he would not let it hurt her again. Protectiveness burnt fiercely in his breast, no matter her pride. Whatever she pretended, he knew that its mark would always be on her; and he didn't want that mark to be made any deeper than it need be.
He smiled, and rubbed his thumb over her knuckles reassuringly. Still, she glared at him. "Anyway," he tried to placate her. "Let's not think of that now. It's Christmas Eve, darling, and – we needn't put our minds to any of that for a week at least."
Now she wouldn't meet his eye, her hands were tugging out of his grasp and… to the belt of his dressing gown, fierce concentration in her gaze as it flew open under her quick fingers.
"Mary!" he gasped, grabbing at her wrists, but her mouth was on his neck, her hands already slipped under and on his skin… "What are you doing?" he choked out. It was the middle of the morning, they were in the sitting room!
Her lips barely broke from his skin for a moment.
"Taking our minds off it, darling…" she murmured, pushing him back and smiling in satisfaction as she felt him inevitably yield to her. This, at least… was one argument she could always better him at.
After an evening spent cosseted in warmth and comfort in front of the fire, and the small Christmas tree, the Crawley family retired to bed. Matthew sat in the nursery, and Mary with him, while the children all fell asleep to the soft, low lilt of their Papa's voice reciting The Night Before Christmas to them all in the shadowy lamplight.
The next morning was a joyful one. This was the first Christmas for Matthew, in many years now, when absolutely everything was right. There was no shadow of a threat hanging over him, nothing that could possibly take him from them now; and this year he could enjoy it properly with them. Catherine squealed in delight as he picked her up and spun her around the sitting room, simply because he could do so. She'd been very spoilt with a beautiful rocking horse, whose lustrous mane fell over the gleaming dappled grey wood of its neck, whose dark, beaded eyes glittered in contrast to the soft, dulled leather of the fixed saddle.
Mabel watched from where she sat curled with her legs up against Mary's side, her lavish picture book in her lap. Her lips pursed and a little frown crossed her face, and Mary couldn't help but laugh at it.
"Bel, darling, why do you look so sour? It's Christmas day!" She eased Bobby into the crook of her other arm, where he lay sleeping with his plush new teddy bear (almost as big as he was) clutched tightly to his chest, so that she could put her arm around her daughter's shoulders.
"S'pretty," Mabel mumbled quietly, staring at Catherine's rocking horse. Catherine was rocking on it with glee, wobbling occasionally despite Matthew's protective hand on her back.
Mary smiled. "It is, isn't it?" Pressing a kiss to the top of Mabel's head, she whispered, "I imagine you're thrilled that Kit's so lucky to have such a lovely horse, aren't you? Perhaps she'll be very kind and let you ride, too."
"Don't want to, Mama." Her bottom lip pouted out, and Mary had to bite back a laugh at the little girl's poorly concealed jealousy.
"Very well then, I'm sure Kit will be quite happy to have it all to herself! Now why don't you show Granny Bel your picture book, and your new coat – shall you wear it to the Abbey, later?"
Mabel supposed this was a decent idea, and wriggled off the settee to go to Isobel, who duly fawned over her book and coat, and patted her soft, golden hair just as she liked.
And she did wear her new coat, later, when they all went up to the Abbey soon after midday.
"Merry Christmas," Robert smiled, standing to greet them on the driveway. "Now, where's my boy?" The Earl beamed in delight as Matthew warmly passed the season's greetings, along with his son into Robert's waiting arms.
"There… Bobby boy's been very spoiled this morning, and I'm afraid he's not up to much else than sleeping for the moment…" he murmured fondly, grinning at the soft cheeks and puckered lips of the youngest Crawley (and heir) that just peeked over the woollen shawl around him.
"I'd expect nothing else!" Robert laughed, still unable to believe that he had a young grandson, now. "My dear chap, you don't know how thrilled I have been simply to be able to buy gifts suited to a little boy. Even if he shan't be able to enjoy them for a while!"
Warming with affection at the exchange, Mary went to greet her sister, as the girls bundled over to their great-grandmother who was, as always, exceptionally pleased to see them looking so well and grown.
"Dear Papa," she said quietly. "How has he been?"
"Alright, generally, but better now that you're here," Edith answered honestly. "I don't really know how we've managed."
"You've managed incredibly well," Mary cocked her head at her sister, who blushed a little. Everything had been different since they'd lost Cora, and Mary was really (if a little grudgingly) proud of her sister for taking on the role of organising the Christmas festivities so well. "Who'd have thought; you playing the Countess before me!"
"Don't, Mary –"
"Oh, it's only true, darling," Mary smiled, touching Edith's arm lightly. "You shall have to tell me your secret, in the far-off day when I'll need your expertise."
Her tone was light, but her point serious. How was she to be a Countess, how was she to learn without her mother to teach her the role? Her absence, which they had slowly grown used to (though the family still felt terribly incomplete, somehow, without Sybil now as well) had been thrown into sharp relief by the festive preparations, and it was hard to be quite as excited and happy as they should have been otherwise.
Luncheon passed pleasantly and quickly, and the library was soon covered in swathes of wrapping paper to the delight of the children. Bobby had found a place now in Violet's embrace, who frowned at Isobel's fussing and cooed over the little boy, shaking her stick at Isis when the excitable dog came too near.
Mabel had just about forgiven Catherine for receiving a far more beautiful present than she had been granted that year, when Matthew suddenly scooped her up into her arms, prompting a very loud (very unladylike, Violet frowned) squeal.
"Papa!" she laughed, twisting to hug her arms around his neck.
Matthew grinned, and exchanged a knowing look with Mary over their daughter's shoulder, who glanced to her father before nodding and standing up.
"Now, darling," he whispered conspiratorially against her hair. "Don't you think your lovely new coat is going to waste cooped up in here by the fire? Shall we go outside for a little while?"
Mabel leaned back in his embrace and frowned at him, plucking at her lip.
"Yes, I suppose so," she nodded. If Papa thought it was a good idea to go outside, she could see no reason why not. "Can Isis come?"
When Matthew agreed to that, she decided that it was, in fact, a splendid idea. So did everyone else, it seemed, and so they all trooped to the front door. Matthew held Mabel closely against his chest, quite firmly though she was content anyway to curl into him and not turn around.
The biting wind blew against them as they stepped out, and Mary came to stand beside them, and tapped Mabel lightly on the back.
"Bel, darling, we've a little surprise for you," she smiled.
Mabel stared at her for a moment, then at her Papa, who was grinning just as much. It seemed strange to get quite so excited about going outside… Matthew put her down, then, and took her hand as she turned around.
And in front of her was a dapple-grey pony (a real one!), standing calmly beside the old man she vaguely recognised that her Mama called Lynch who held the pony's reins. Her bright blue eyes grew wide, and she whirled round to the smiling faces of her parents.
"What do you think, darling?" Matthew asked quietly, crouching beside her.
Mary did the same. "Is she quite as pretty as Kit's rocking horse, do you think?" she grinned.
Mabel's eyes grew impossibly wider, her lips parting into an expression of pure delight as she realised what her parents were implying.
"Quite as pretty, or more!" she cried, bouncing up and down a little. "Oh – is she – really –"
"Really yours, Bel, though she will have to live here at the Abbey," Mary smiled.
"And Mama can take you out and teach you to ride her properly," Matthew said softly, "for she's a far better rider than I am, so you'll do very well indeed."
Mary laughed at that, and even more when Mabel threw herself at them both in delight, before bouncing off to inspect her very beautiful pony, that was her very own – though of course she dragged Kit along with her, who was enormously in awe. Isis bounced happily around them, all under the watchful, adoring eyes of the adults, while Bobby began to wriggle awake in his Grandpapa's arms as if aware, somehow, of the excitement.
It was as lovely a Christmas as it could be, with those missing, and the spirit continued over to the new year as they welcomed in the new decade together, celebrated by the shoot on New Year's Day. The atmosphere was perhaps more sombre than it might have been, as they reflected on all the turmoil of the preceding years. They had a great deal to be thankful for, besides all the upset… a very great deal. Still, though, the dawn of 1920 was welcomed with smiles and good cheer as the sign of a fresh start, for all of them. Put to bed were the troubles of the years past; now they all made an unspoken pact, as the clock chimed, to concentrate only on the future and what promises lay ahead. It was all that they really could do.
The next morning, Matthew's mood seemed similarly reflective as he stepped out to the front of the Abbey, to join Mary amid the bustle of activity preparing for the shoot.
"Is everything alright?" Mary turned to him, taking his arm familiarly.
He glanced at her, and licked his lips. "Oh, yes. I just had a telephone call through to sort out arrangements for the trial, that's all. But you needn't think of that now, darling."
"Oh," she frowned, rubbing his arm. She quite understood that, but she knew him too well to accept that as the sole reason for his discontent. "What else is it?"
"Only a very slight thing," he sighed, tucking his arm around her only to release her a moment later as a weighty shotgun was doled out to him. Mary watched him take it, the familiarity with which he handled it and readied it, feeling an old shiver of discomfort at the very idea of Matthew with a weapon. Luckily, then, he distracted her again. "I found out an old associate passed away just after Christmas, you see, Reggie Swire. I figured I might go to his funeral while I'm up there – I'd like to, given the chance."
"Of course you would," Mary murmured sympathetically. "Is – was, he the old friend who's daughter's name you rather fancied for Kit?" Her attempt to raise his spirits, with a cock of her eyebrow, fell rather flat at Matthew's response.
"Lavinia, you mean? Yes, I'm… sorry to say he lost her to the 'flu earlier in the year. About the same time that – well, that it was going around. Seems he never quite recovered from it."
"God, how tragic, I'm so sorry…"
"Mm, well. These – things happen, best not to dwell on them. Look, darling, they're ready –" Matthew muttered to himself, guiding Mary to walk with the rest of the gathering down towards the first drive through the cool mist. The very thought of a parent losing their child was all wrong, utterly wrong, and it made him shiver to even think of… A daughter, as well…
For a very short while he attempted to clear his mind by taking out his dismal thoughts on the forsaken pheasants, but both he and Mary knew that it was rather silly to do so.
"You still won't take a loader," she laughed gently at him.
"I'm still not very good at it," he smirked back, cheering a little at her teasing. "I'm not trying to be, to tell the honest truth," he shrugged. "I've had quite enough of – this sort of thing, for a lifetime, I think!"
"Oh, darling. At least there's only me to witness your incompetence!" Gently, she tried to steer his mind from those thoughts – he needn't think at all of the war anymore, not now, not in 1920! To do so seemed almost absurd.
He fired another shot, ricocheting into the sky, squinting up for a few moments before turning to grin at her.
"I don't mind that, darling. Just so long as you promise faithfully to lie when they ask you how I did!"
Mary grinned back fondly, before her lips twitched into a smirk.
"It's rather a good job you have other skills that you're quite competent at, isn't it?"
Matthew's fingers froze with the bullets in them, his eyes darkening as he stared at her with parted lips. She stood, hands innocently in her pockets, unwavering. He cocked his head.
"Skills that, similarly, only you are witness to?" he muttered breathlessly, his eyes fixed on hers as he readied the shotgun again.
It was as he glanced back up to the sky, bracing the gun against his shoulder, pressing his cheek to the cold metal to line his sight properly as he took a shot, rocking back, that she decided to answer him.
"Oh, yes." Her whisper was right in his ear, and he almost stumbled. "I count myself rather lucky to do a little more than witness them, you know…" She took the edge of his ear between her teeth, sucking gently as she felt him shiver.
"Mary!" he hissed, a pooling sense of excitement flaring in him.
"Come on, darling. There's no need to purposefully fail at something you're incompetent at anyway when you could be… proving your competence in other areas, rather more enjoyably…"
Matthew swallowed heavily, his eyes still rooted to the sky as smoke curled above them.
"Huh… I think I got that one," he barely managed to whisper before he turned around to see Mary striding rather determinedly towards a more enclosed copse… and followed her at a brisk pace, slinging his gun leisurely over his arm.
It was a few days later that Mary ventured to the Abbey alone, with only Bobby for company in his moses basket as Matthew was at the tailors.
Carson let her in, glad to see her as always (and even more so now, it seemed, after her visits had once become so rare), and showed her into the library where her father sat on the settee with a book. He looked up as soon as she entered.
"Mary, dear, what a lovely surprise," he said as he stood to greet her. She returned a wan smile, kissed his cheek and sat down, lifting Bobby gently out of the basket to settle onto her lap. He kicked his legs a little and grasped at the edge of the blanket tucked around him, tugging it into his mouth as he blinked across as Robert with wide blue eyes. "Hello, my boy," the Earl smiled and tickled at his chin before sitting down again. It made him a little sad, how strange this felt. How unusual it seemed.
"I wanted to come and see you before you leave tomorrow," Mary said, smiling as Bobby played with her hand, now, rocking forwards a little as she moved her hand away and back again. "I do hope it goes – as well as it can."
"I appreciate that," he said kindly. "And that Matthew is coming, too. I know he doesn't have to."
"He's going for my sake," Mary shrugged. That was it, that was the only reason, and she wouldn't have her father thinking otherwise.
"I know he is," Robert replied quietly. So much hung between them, so much still unsaid. So much hurt that hadn't yet been addressed, after all this time.
Mary shifted a little on the settee, and gazed down at her son, idly stroking her hand over the top of his head. She couldn't help but smile. Her voice, when she finally spoke, was barely above a whisper.
"I'm sorry you'll have to hear it all again."
Robert's expression twisted in distress, regret aching in his chest for how he'd reacted, then. But he hardly knew how to express that, he was not accustomed to such things.
Instead he settled for, "They shan't go into detail, Mary, it won't be necessary to –"
"But you'll think of it, won't you," she cut over him, still not meeting his eye. She took a deep breath. "And I know how terribly disappointed in me you are, and I am sorry, Papa, for – all of it –"
"Please, my dear, please – don't," he begged her. Her apology burnt through him, so sharply he couldn't bear to listen to it. It was not only for the indiscretion, he knew, but the spiralled ramifications that none of them had been able to imagine, that had nearly rocked their family apart. He saw Mary's eyes press closed, stubbornly blinking back tears as he carried on. "If I could take back – oh, Mary. You weren't the first Crawley to make a mistake, and – you certainly weren't the last," he sighed bitterly.
Her eyes flickered open again, her nose wrinkling as she sniffed quietly. Oblivious to it all, her son continued to play in her lap, bringing the gentlest of smiles to her face.
It had hardly been an apology, but it was as much as she supposed she expected, and it meant a great deal to her that he'd said it. He'd admitted his own part in their dispute, their alienation, the weakening of her mother and – oh, no-one would ever ascribe blame to her death but they all felt it, in some small way.
She wondered if, on some level, she meant her next words as a test. She wasn't sure, or whether she just wanted him to know anyway.
"I had a letter from Sybil yesterday," she started. Robert nodded, and clasped his hand.
"That's… wonderful to hear, my dear. How is she?"
Mary smiled, noticing his complete dismissal of Sybil's husband from the question.
"Sybil's pregnant, Papa."
A whole host of emotions played over his face, until he had to simply stand up, pacing away from her towards the window.
"Is she," he eventually managed, still not looking at her. "I see."
"You must be happy for her," Mary said quietly. "It will be your grandchild, Papa – just like Bel, just like Kit, just like Bobby. I know that you love them, and – if you didn't, I would never come here again." Her words, like ice, cut into him until he almost shivered. "Please," she implored him, "don't make Sybil feel that way. Not now." Not after all that's happened, all they'd lost, she didn't say. She didn't need to.
"I'm… sure I won't be able to help but love the child," Robert said slowly, and turned to face her. He was silhouetted against the window, and Mary peered directly at him, even as she rocked Bobby gently on her knees.
He seemed to struggle for a moment, clasping and unclasping his hands gently, before he settled upon what to say. Every word seemed to hide a thousand more beneath it. "You do know that whatever my feelings about Sybil, and – her husband," he whispered, "You do know that I never – not truly – blamed you and Matthew."
Mary nodded, slowly, pressing her lips together. Her hands were idle, restless, and she gently placed Bobby back into his basket to fiddle anxiously with her skirt. Her father shook his head. "If only you knew how sorry I was," he said, voice fierce with emotion, "and how I regret casting any sort of doubt on your marriage, my dear girl."
"Papa…" she tried, feeling her own voice crack and tremble in reflection of his. She twisted towards him.
"No, it has been too long and it must be said. If you ever thought – if Matthew ever thought that I…" He stopped again, and rubbed a hand over his face, and then suddenly smiled. "Do you remember, a very long time ago, when a Duke came to visit? After we lost Patrick."
Mary frowned, confused. "Of course."
"Yes. The Duke of Crowborough – he got through it, you know – and he gave us such ideas, and you were all so angry with me for turning him away and dashing your chances. No, don't look at me like that, darling, you were angry. Your Mama was furious with me. In many ways, you were right to be. Do you know why I was so sure in my decision that evening, really?"
"No…" Mary shook her head, staring at him as though she'd never seen this man in front of her before.
Robert looked oddly proud of himself, or… at ease, finally. A sort of peace, the peace of honesty and release, had settled over him.
"It was because – I only wanted you to marry a good man, my dear girl. A brave man – and the Duke of Crowborough was neither of those things. And Matthew –"
"Matthew –" he would not let her stop him, now, "is both of those, and more. And I am so very happy, so very glad, that you married him – whatever the circumstances. And I am – so very sorry, that I ever made you think otherwise. My dear girl."
"Oh, Papa!" he finally allowed her to cry, as she rushed into his arms, on her tiptoes and hugging him tighter than she had done since she was a little girl.
The courtroom was quiet, and serious. Matthew sat, his back straight as a rod, straighter than it had ever been, he thought, since he'd been at the front. His mouth was pressed into a hard line, his jaw set, as he listened to Sir Richard Carlisle calmly telling the court (and all the gathered journalists) how the late Mrs. Bates had sold the story of Lady Mary and the Turk to his newspaper for no reason more than to lash indirectly out at her estranged husband.
Oh, the details were not gone into. No. But it was enough, he could hear, no, feel the whispers, and indignation bubbled through him until his fingers had curled into fists on the bench by his side. Robert was tense, beside him, nervously awaiting his own turn in the witness stand. But Matthew didn't care about that. He cared about this, about his wife's name being bandied carelessly about between gossips, thrown to the gutter for the sake of petty revenge that was nothing at all to do with Mary, that had torn their family apart.
His blood boiled. And Sir Richard didn't care, he reeked calmness and coolness in complete oblivion to the devastation his bloody newspaper had caused. And it could not be laid to rest, no, it had to be reared up again now at a widely publicised and talked-of trial. Bates would need a miracle, Matthew reckoned, to get off after this. The prosecution mercilessly twisted the words – except that they didn't, they'd each only told the truth, it was impossible – of the witnesses, and things were fast going from bad to worse. Matthew's teeth unconsciously ground in frustration. Everything about this frustrated him; the injustice, everything that it drudged up, the complete unawareness of the feelings of anybody involved, no matter how indirectly! He felt a biting satisfaction that he'd come to listen, despite the anger it caused him.
The word rang and echoed around the lofty chamber, followed swiftly by Anna's wounded scream. Matthew winced. It really seemed impossible for it to have gone any other way – he doubted the press would have allowed it. His jaw clenched again as he made as quick an exit as he could, gasping for air, almost, out into the more spacious lobby away from everyone else. It was deserted, for everyone that was there was, naturally, packed into the courtroom to hear the verdict. But Matthew's ears were ringing, his body trembling with bitterness at the unfairness of it all. He was glad that Mary wasn't here. He couldn't have borne for her to be, not to be faced with it all again and reminded of it. And nobody seemed to care!
Quiet footsteps echoed across the marble floor behind him. He whirled around, his body tensed with agitation and upset, only to see Carlisle (of all people) appearing from a side passage. The older man stopped when he saw him.
"Ah, Mr…. Crawley, isn't it?" the newspaper magnate approached him, having the audacity to hold out his hand. Matthew took it with a vice-like grip.
"That's right," he snipped. "And you're Sir Richard Carlisle."
"Of course, I remember you," Sir Richard smiled without warmth. "I was a friend of your wife's aunt. In fact we've met, I remember a charming incident with your daughter at the report of the hospital at Downton."
"Yes, I know," Matthew replied, his voice cutting across the stillness of the chamber like ice.
Carlisle raised an eyebrow. "I needed some air after all that! Terrible business, isn't it."
"Not helped at all by you." Matthew had bitten the words out before he'd been able to stop himself.
"I beg your pardon?" The voices of both men had suddenly taken on a distinctly more dangerous edge.
"You and your bloody newspaper, stirring the whole thing up! Without – without any regard for the consequences!" Matthew was angry, he knew, he could feel it rising within him. Sir Richard's unflappable coolness was only making it worse. His fingers flexed uncontrollably.
"It isn't my job to care about the consequences," Carlisle said smoothly. "It's my job to sell newspapers; that is all. I'm sorry that you have a problem with that –"
"A problem?" Matthew hissed. Distant footsteps could be heard, signalling the emptying of the courtroom, but he was oblivious to all of it, as righteous indignation burned in his chest. "Do you have the slightest idea of what trouble –"
"No, I don't, and nor do I care. However your family chose to deal with –"
"Don't you dare speak about my family."
"It's rather too late for that, don't you think?" Carlisle quipped humourlessly, squaring up to Matthew. "I believe your wife already garnered a mention –"
"You slanderous –"
"I'd beg you not to use that word, it implies that I'm a liar. I am - many things, Mr. Crawley, but not that. I sell newspapers, but everything you read in them is true. You cannot blame me for your wife's –"
Something like a red mist descended over Matthew's vision as his fist connected with a sickening, satisfying thud into Sir Richard's jaw. He saw the older man snap back, careering into an ornate cabinet as his arm sent a fragile vase shattering to the ground. His blood raced in his ears, his whole body shaking in anger and tension as Sir Richard recovered and flung back at him, catching his fist on his arm as they grappled fiercely without thought for where they were or why on earth even they were fighting in their rage.
"Stop this at once!"
His father-in-law's horrified, authoritative shout cut through to Matthew's awareness, and he dragged himself off of Carlisle, trembling and wiping pursed beads of sweat from his forehead. Carlisle stood a foot or two away, glaring at him, touching his lip tenderly.
Robert stormed over. "What on earth –"
"Sorry about the vase."
It was the only thing he could think of to say. He'd been a fool, he knew, but he was not about to apologise for that.
Carlisle growled at him, maintaining a wary distance as the lobby began to bustle again with activity.
"You'll pay dearly for that, Mr. Crawley; if you think –"
"Here's what I think," Robert cut over him, glaring fiercely. "Matthew and I are going to leave, now, with our party. And this will be forgotten. That is it."
Matthew stood sullenly to the side, as Carlisle went to protest; but Robert did not allow him the chance. "I'll give you the credit, Sir Richard, of believing you an intelligent man. And you know that this would not be worth causing any trouble over – it is not worth your time, nor your money, and so you will walk away now, as will we."
The newspaper proprietor's eyes glittered coldly at Matthew's, for one final moment before he stalked off, to restore something of his dignity.
Robert glanced at Matthew, who was gently touching his chin for bruises. "That was very foolish, you know," he said quietly.
"I know. I couldn't help myself."
"I know." The Earl smiled. "I don't blame you, and – I must admit, I'm rather glad you did."
And they left it at that.
The verdict left an atmosphere of despair over the house and family, as they made the long and miserable journey back to Downton the next day. When Matthew finally reached his home, his family… he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with his wife and hold her. And he did, while she kissed his bruised knuckles, and did not need to ask him what had happened.
Slowly, they all tried to get back to normal. And when the news finally, unexpectedly came that Bates' sentence had been altered to life imprisonment, a tentative happiness broke out. It was not over yet.
The servant's ball, delayed for so long, seemed a fitting celebration. It seemed a celebration, at last, of so many things – of restored possibilities and futures, restored relationships, and healed hearts. Traditions of first dances were thrown out of the window (it was difficult, Edith had realised, without Cora – and so suggested that they scrap the idea of that altogether) as Mary took the first with her father, a sight that made Matthew smile broadly, as well as Violet, who watched quietly from the sidelines.
"Things always have a way," she murmured quietly, conspiratorially, to him, "of working themselves out. One way, or another."
Matthew shared her knowing smile, and watched his wife dance. She was… so beautiful, and so beautifully elegant, and he found himself amazed once more at how the strength of his adoration only grew and grew.
He watched her, and loved her. Through all of it – everything he'd suffered and borne – she'd been there, without complaint (or if she had complained, it was well within her right to), had fought for him when he'd been too despondent to fight for himself. Through the best of it, and the worst of it, she'd been there; an unwavering support at his side. He marvelled at her, wondered where on earth she drew the strength from. And more than any of that, she'd given him three precious children, who he (they) adored with the whole strength of their hearts. Watching her, he could not stop smiling for the love that ached in his chest.
She'd stopped, now, was chatting to his mother. Matthew was pleased, so very pleased, that they were so close. He would never dream of even wishing that his mother might become one to Mary – though he didn't know how close that was to being true. When it was all she had left of him, Mary had clung to Isobel (and she to her), and had formed a bond that Matthew would never have understood.
He got up, and walked around the edge of the room, until he reached her side with a sly, gentle smile. She felt his presence before he'd stopped, and only then did she turn to see him.
"What about it?" Matthew quietly asked, barely waiting for her answering shrug as he held out his hand and led her to the floor. And they danced, and danced, forgetting everyone else in the room as their eyes lingered only on each other, and their hands, tenderly holding and guiding as their bodies moved together in harmony. They were lost.
Later, when they could dance no more, they sought the air only to find the ground covered with a light carpet of snow, as fresh flakes floated gently down.
"That was fun," Matthew smiled, pulling her around into his arms and laughing as a snowflake landed on her nose.
"Mm!" she hummed, and lay her head against his chest. Her shoulders were bare, her dress not heavy enough to keep out the cold, but she was as warm as she ever needed to be in his arms. It was only a moment, anyway, before Matthew had draped his own jacket over her shoulders.
Gently, she placed a soft kiss to that one spot of his throat that her lips could reach, and smiled at his sigh. "I think Bel will be old enough, next year. I think she would like to dance with Carson."
"I think you would like her to dance with Carson!" Matthew chuckled, hugging her tightly. "But I admit, it would be a lovely sight."
Love blossomed in his heart and overwhelmed him, at the thought of their children and their future. Tears suddenly stung behind his eyes, and he kissed Mary's cheek, again and again, tucking his face into her shoulder.
"What is it, darling?" Mary asked softly, rubbing her hands up and down his back. His answering chuckle sounded tearful, and she frowned gently.
"Oh, my darling," he breathed, easing back to look at her properly. His eyes shone with emotion. Their past, their present, their future… it had all somehow been right – if they were here, now, like this – with their children as they were – then it was right, it had all been right.
All of it. "I was only thinking," he smiled, lips trembling as his voice shook with love. His hand rose to her cheek, brushing away soft flakes of snow from her face as she gazed at him, her eyes searching his for that understanding between them. "How very lucky I am, Lady Mary Crawley, that you ever did me the honour of becoming my wife."
There was such unadulterated adoration in his voice, in his whole expression, that Mary burst into a delighted laugh to save her own tears from falling. And Matthew laughed too, and then she was in his arms, as light as a feather, and they were turning and turning and laughing in the sheer joy and delight of loving each other.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! I had enormous fun writing this chapter, once it came to me, and I very much hope you enjoyed it too - it posed quite the challenge, considering a lot of what happened in the episode is completely irrelevant for ATiL's M/M, covering issues already dealt with. I know I changed some things and fiddled with some things - I'd love to know what you thought, and I appreciate every single review so very much!
One chapter to go, that will really be more of an epilogue. *sniff*
Thank you! :)