A/N: So, I tried to prevent myself from writing more Downton fic... It didn't work so well. This is intended as a something of a trifecta, but could equally well be read as three independent one-shots. Taken together, they explore the effect of Matthew's injury on his relationship with Mary. I've always thought that the war was largely responsible for the growing intimacy and maturity of their relationship, and it's an aspect which doesn't get nearly enough attention in fanfic! The first is very slow and sensual in tone, the second is more thought-based and emotional, and the third follows a more traditional story arc. I'm not entirely sure that the three work well together, as there's not much in the way of repeated motif etc. I would be interested in your opinions. :-)
The title comes from the following verse by Wilfred Owen, which was written about two enemy soldiers, but which rather seems to fit for Matthew and Mary!
'Strange friend', I said 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said the other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild,
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.'
-Wilfred Owen, 'Strange Meeting'.
Whatever Hope Is Yours.
Pain, that unpurposed, matchless elemental; stronger than fear or grief, stranger than love.
-Robert Graves, 'Surgical Ward: Men'.
For years now, she had imagined touching him.
She watched, as if from a great distance, as Sybil bent over him. He lay so still. He seemed hardly to breathe. She felt her own breath stop as she gazed at him.
As if she had never seen them before, Mary watched her sister's hands. Slim and brown, defter, daintier than her own. The tapered fingers slipped momentarily on the first button of Matthew's pyjamas. He did not stir. As the row of buttons fell away, a sliver of pale chest was exposed, the skin grey and stippled with abrasion. He looked so cold.
"I don't want to lift him if we can avoid it," Sybil said, and Mary nodded blindly, oblivious to everything but the words drumming in her mind. Probable spinal damage. Sybil took Matthew's left arm, slipping the pyjama jacket from his shoulder and tugging the sleeve down over his wrist. At her nod of encouragement, Mary stepped hesitantly forward to take his right. In a kind of numbness that was beyond terror, she grasped the pyjama sleeve, placing a hand over his bicep in order to work it loose. At the contact, a tiny gasp escaped her, and she drew her hand away.
"He's warm," she explained, turning in agitation toward Sybil. "He looked so cold."
A look of compassion flickered in Sybil's eyes.
"Here," she whispered. Taking Mary's hand, she slipped it beneath Matthew's jacket and placed it on his chest. Mary trembled, wanting and yet not wanting to tear her hand away, but Sybil held it steady. Beneath her palm, Matthew's body was reassuringly warm, and faintly, it seemed that she felt the beat of his heart, matching the erratic pounding of her own pulse.
"It's alright, Mary," Sybil murmured gently. "He's alive, and we can make him well again."
Mary nodded, ashamed of her moment of fear. Her palm contracted slightly against Matthew's breast, and his skin was warm and pliant and living. She felt as foolish as a child and shaky with relief.
"Of course," she said, smiling at Sybil, with an attempt at her normal confidence. "I'm sorry, darling. What do you need me to do?"
His limbs were frail and yielding, bruised and swollen with infection. Elbows and fingers caught in his sleeves as they tugged them loose. Mary's thumb traced the depression between the bone of his wrist and the vein, her heartbeat jumping with every throb of his pulse, every tiny contraction of muscle. His forearms were broad and angular; pale beneath, but flushing bronze above, the fine, fair hair showing pale against the darkened skin. His arms, his hands, familiar, and yet changed: strengthened and browned, damaged and broken. His nails were torn to the quick, and bleeding.
Together, Mary and Sybil worked the stained pyjama jacket down beneath his unresisting body to where the small of his back provided the point of least resistance. Sybil tugged the jacket gently out from under him; it came away with a rusty stain, releasing a sharp, thick stench of blood.
For the first time, Mary saw him laid bare before her. Deep through the shoulders and chest, surprisingly slender about the hips and waist. His torso was leaner than she had imagined, his stomach a hollow scoop beneath the rib cage. She wondered when he'd last eaten a decent meal. Spread-eagled across the sheets, he looked surprisingly child-like, his chest bare of any but the lightest tracery of hair. Child-like, and yet so obviously a man. Even now, even here, something in her was stirred at the sight of him. A sharp pang of desire flared in her gut, coupled almost immediately to a lurching, sickening feeling of regret. Her eyes flickered across the sharp hip bones, the erotic swirl of dark hair about his navel, and she felt a visceral wrench that she did not quite care to analyse. This was the first time she had seen this, she realised. A naked man, in the full light of day; and not just any man, but Matthew. The same man who had held her, his touch a torment, his kisses passionate, instinctive, necessary. The same man. But terribly, irrevocably changed. There were wounds scattered across his torso, and scars beneath the wounds. Her eyes traced them, a shocking and indelicate inventory. A ragged chip of flesh removed high on his ribs; a neat, still-bleeding slice along his collar-bone; a lattice-work of scarring, mauve and white.
Taking up the cloth that Sybil passed her, she dipped it briefly in the basin and wrung it out. The steam smelt of disinfectant, bitter and touched the cloth to the ugly tear at Matthew's collar-bone, and imagined him flinching at the sting. The congealed mass came away reluctantly; the bright, inconstant blood, made liquid again, trailed in a slow rivulet down the crease of his chest. Legitimised somehow by water and disinfectant, Mary reached for him. She touched him, as she had imagined touching him once, in another life. Granted access at last by blood, her hands caressed the beloved body, her fingers flickering over the contours of his ribs, skimming lightly over the taut sweep of his abdomen.
Slowly, sorrowfully, Mary and Sybil worked together, counting every injury, tracing every scar, anointing every wound with iodine. With some difficulty, Sybil worked Matthew's pyjama trousers loose, tugging the waistband down to the base of his hips. Prosaically, she stripped him, folding a clean towel across his loins for the sake of decency, though whether his or theirs, Mary didn't know. She was astounded at the mundane competence with which Sybil undressed him, scarcely sparing him a glance as she lifted his ankle slightly to free the garment. Since when had her baby sister become so cool, so detached? Keeping his back as straight as they could, they turned him to lie half on his side. The reek of blood grew fierce, and as Sybil eased the stained dressings loose, the wound was exposed: a mass of blasted flesh, from which a stench arose, gangrenous and foul. Mary's breath caught in her teeth with a sharp hiss.
"Oh, Matthew . . ." Sybil murmured.
The wound was deep and ugly looking, dark with semi-congealed blood. The shape of the torn flesh brought to mind some brutal and violent impact. Mary's hand slipped gently down the curve of his waist towards the wound, and he stirred slightly, muscles shifting and re-arranging themselves beneath her palm. A breath escaped him, a tiny, incoherent noise of pain.
With all the care and tenderness they could manage, the two girls bent low over his back, easing away the dirt and crusted blood, teasing out splinters of wood and stone, trimming away the ragged, blackened flesh. It was long and difficult work, made more so as the effects of the morphine started to wear off and Matthew began to stir. At times as they worked he whimpered or flinched away, his muscles shaking, his skin slippery with sweat.
After a time, it began to rain. Softly at first, but gradually increasing in force as the sky outside grew greyer. Fat, sullen raindrops dashed against the hospital windows; slipping, trailing, like liquid quicksilver against the glass. The sky darkened, thunder rolling faint and far off, and the light in the hospital dimmed, until Sybil was forced to fetch an electric lamp to aid their work. Mary's thoughts strayed to the men still in France: raindrops swallowed up by the quagmire. It was all too easy to imagine bullets beneath the pounding of the rain. A bone-deep tremor ran through Matthew's body, and she wondered if he heard the same.
At long last, the task was done. Mary's limbs shook, both with fatigue and with aching, long-suppressed grief. Her vision blurred with the effort of concentration, and she felt a rush of love and admiration for Sybil, whose hands were steady as she taped a fresh dressing into place across the small of Matthew's back. Mary helped her to manoeuvre a pair of clean, powder-blue pyjama trousers up over his hips, settling the waistband against the new bandage as lightly as possible. Satisfied at last, Sybil sat back, shaking the stiffness from her shoulders.
"Can you hold him while I get his jacket on?" she asked.
Matthew stirred again, his fingers curling and uncurling against the sheet. Settling herself on the edge of the bed, Mary reached for him, easing his weight gently from the pillows in order to trouble his injury as little as might be. His weight surprised her; the muscles in her arms tensed to lift him, and she held him at a distance, wary of the damage to his spine. With her right arm braced beneath him, she supported his back, cradling his head in her left hand.
His body was warm: soft and smooth, naked and unbearable as a firebrand. Traces of water and disinfectant still lingered, scrawled like tear-tracks across his skin. The trail of fine hair below his navel was in disarray, an eddy of dark, damp curls that she ached to smooth. She held him to her, feeling the damp seeping through the thin flannel of her dress. Iodine bled through the fabric, staining her white collar, and the skin beneath. It was the first time that she had held him in her arms.
Briefly, while Sybil was occupied wrestling an unresponsive arm into a sleeve, she allowed her head to fall forward into the hollow of his neck. For a tiny instant, while Sybil's attention was diverted, her mouth touched the soft, sweet skin at the base of his throat. She breathed in the smell of gunpowder and disinfectant, and felt her temple grazed by an abrasive, unshaven jaw. And then the moment was gone, and she was forced to shift her grip to allow Sybil to pass the pyjama jacket beneath her arm. Gently, she lowered Matthew back onto the pillows. And now it was her fingers slipping over his buttons, her hands trembling with an emotion more than simple grief, as she fought the overwhelming impulse to lay herself down beside him.
Something of her distress must have showed in her face, for when she lifted her head her sister was watching her with entirely too much sympathy in her eyes.
"I should go and help with the others," she said tactfully. "You won't mind doing the last little bit on your own will you?"
'Of course not," Mary answered, a sob half-choking in her throat. Her voice was too bright, too quick; she knew it. She had to turn her face away.
For a long time after Sybil had left, she merely gazed at him. The rain thudded against the window panes, streaming steadily from the flooded gutters, gurgling in the over-full drains. The basin of disinfectant had long gone cold. Scarcely aware of her own thoughts, Mary re-filled it with clean warm water, testing the heat of it against the inside of her wrist as she had seen other nurses do. Settling herself again on the bed beside Matthew, it struck her for the first time how beautiful he looked. His face, beneath the shadows, was boyish, exquisite. In sleep, he seemed almost immortal. His lashes fluttered; a longed-for, half-imagined flicker of cerulean blue; she wanted only for him to wake.
Mary raised the damp cloth to his face, washing away the residue of grime and gunpowder that coloured his skin. She frowned for a moment over his hair – she would have liked to wash it, but was fearful of chilling him. She laid her hand against his forehead momentarily, carding the tangled locks through her fingers, stroking the untidy bang back from his brow. He probably had lice, like all the men. Brittle mud crumbled beneath her fingertips. A fistful of tarnished gold. She really would have to wash it properly in the morning.
Matthew shifted unhappily again, his shoulders tensing, neck arching back into the pillow. She soothed him as best she could with her cold hands. His face was set, but muscles worked beneath the skin, twisting his mouth into an expression of pain. Deep wells of bruising lingered about his eyes. With cloth and water, she eased away the crusted blood, but the shadows remained. Her fingertips brushed against his eyelids; it was like a benediction.
His lips were torn and ragged, pasted shut by a combination of blood and thickened, feverish spit. Gently, she drew her wet fingers across his mouth, moistening the dry lips, soothing the broken skin. He moaned suddenly, and his mouth moved against her fingertips. Her fingers slipped as his lips parted; the inside of his lower lip was unbearably soft against her skin. Mary drew back her hand as though scorched. She stared at him, but Matthew lay still, and gave no word or sign.
For so long, she had imagined touching him. Never had she thought that it would be like this.