The next chapter of First Steps is some old fashioned Mary and Matthew verbal sparing/flirting. Wait? Matthew's not flirting, is he?

As this story would never have come into its own without the tireless help of my friend R. Grace she deserves a round of applause for everything she has done to support this series. *applause* Now on with the show!


First Steps - December

Matthew stood in the grand entranceway at Downton observing the Christmas tree. It was massive and very beautiful. He thought he would have to gaze at each of its needles individually to properly do it justice. The baubles were almost a distraction to him. The small Christmas tree at Crawley House had much to feel inferior about in comparison to the grandiose of this tree. However, he wouldn't trade. He loved the tree at Crawley House because it held baubles his parents had collected, one for every year of their marriage.

Christmas produced odd feelings for Matthew. On the one side, there was the joy of the holiday traditions, but, on the other side, there was always the lingering memory of his father's death. Although his sudden death had occurred several days before the holiday, the taint had spread to eclipse the entire season. He couldn't help but feel the melancholy even now, so many years later.

But that didn't mean he didn't appreciate the heavenly smell of the fresh fir tree. It didn't mean he wasn't grateful for the mirth of the season. Matthew felt his self-imposed hibernation was lifting, as though it was spring rather than winter. Even his mother had commented on his more cordial attitude, and he realized he had been obviously dreary for far too long. So he had vowed to himself to try and be jollier this season. Especially now that he had a few moments to himself while the rest of the family was occupied gathering themselves together for luncheon. It was December 23rd and tomorrow the family would extend and open its doors to include Robert's sister and Mary's fiancée.

Matthew could hear the distance voices of his family but kept his position by the tree, fixing his gaze. Truth be told, he was feeling slightly silly about the small, impulsive purchase in his breast pocket. He had picked it up earlier that morning while posting a late Christmas letter to an old acquaintance in Manchester. When he first saw the postcard it had seemed an appropriate gesture, but now he was having second thoughts. It wasn't a real present after all, just a small piece of painted paper. It served no actual purpose, except that it had done a two fold act on him. First, it had made him laugh, and then it made him think of her. The paper seemed to burn in his jacket; it seemed to make the fabric itch at his skin. He longed to see the look on her face when she viewed it, to find if the silly thing would make her laugh too.

But, it was bordering on ridiculous to pawn such trifles off on his Cousin Mary right before Christmas. There would be a time for actual presents on the day itself. Perhaps it would be best to either forget the holiday card or just casually stick it in the book he planned to give her. He still had to decide which book to give her too; he had so many ideas and they all seemed valid choices.

"Hello, Matthew," Edith said, breaking his reverie. He nodded and smiled. "It gets bigger every year," she observed as they both returned their eyes to the tree.

Matthew turned his gaze suddenly, as though he was able to seemingly sense her presence. Mary was approaching.

"It is hard to imagine that this tree looked perfectly natural outside, not at all out of place like it does here," Mary said.

"Edith dear, come here for a moment please." The stern voice of her grandmother Violet was heard as she entered the hall.

"Well," Mary said, her voice serious but her soft expression betraying the joke, "I hope you enjoy our last reasonably normal luncheon. After this, ham of bear from Finland, snails from France, caviar from Russia is all we will be having for the next two weeks, at least."

"Then I shall have to just grin and bear it I suppose," Matthew said in response, keeping his tone serious - or as close to serious as he could manage.

He took his eyes off the tree to steal a quick glance at Mary.

"Anything else would betray false feelings about the joys of the season that are upon us," she replied, her head angling with a little flare of exaggerated snobbery.

As their eyes met, she broke first, letting a small giggle erupt, her left hand coming up quickly to cover her smile. Matthew soon found himself laughing too.

"Well," she said, "I suppose I was correct then in assuming how much you will need this little offering to get you through this season." Suddenly, she revealed a peppermint candy stick.

"It's nothing really just a. . ." her voice trailed off as she was not allowed to finish. Matthew had reached into his pocket to give her the postcard which had derailed her finishing the thought that explained her small gift.

"I also got you a little nothing," he joked in response.

They laughed together for a moment. How long had it been since he had laughed with Mary? Matthew couldn't remember, yet the feeling seemed as familiar as riding his bicycle - a sensation once mastered that could never be forgotten. He had not attempted this skill since his injury, but he trusted the ability still remained. In a strange way, Matthew felt his friendship with Mary was similar.

Mary stared at the postcard with the first genuine amusement she'd felt in ages. It depicted two kittens, one orange and one black, eyeing each other with a delighted conspirators grin. The kittens were perched on a table, and next to them sat a pitcher of spilt milk, a teapot, a loaf of bread, and a knife covered in butter. Behind the kittens was a warm-looking fire place decorated with mistletoe and holly. The caption said simply: A Christmas Wish from me to you - Fond and True. Mary stared at the postcard, but before anything further could be said, they were promptly ushered in to the aforementioned luncheon. Matthew did notice, though, that Mary had clutched the postcard to her chest for a moment before handing it delicately to Carson. He wondered if that meant she was keeping it. For his part, Matthew carefully tucked his candy inside his breast pocket, content to know it would be safe and near his heart. Peppermint was his favorite flavor after all, and Mary had remembered this detail.

Matthew sat between Edith and Mary at the luncheon. He was often pulled into conversation, at first by Robert more often than either of his female cousins. However, when a slight disagreement began between Cora and Violet about when the first year the family had started the tradition of playing "the game" he was happy to turn his attention back to simply eating his watercress soup. Listening to them each justifying why they believed it was a certain year, he caught his mother's eye across the table and saw the sparkle of amusement in it. She winked at him fondly. Matthew had a warm feeling this holiday would be at least a lighter occasion than it had for years. He took a sip of his wine and relished the relief that seemed to fill him at the thought of such contentment. His head felt clearer than it had for ages, his thoughts simple and plain with no underlying currents or mischievous feelings plaguing him.

"Have you played 'the game' before?" Edith asked him, breaking his reverie.

"I've played charades many times," Matthew volunteered.

"But," Mary interrupted them both, "this is not charades. It's an insult to our tradition to confuse it with anything else." She said the last part under her breath in a mocking tone. Matthew was amused by the way she seemed to be in such a good mood and willing to poke fun at her family's traditions. He wondered if Carlisle's arrival tomorrow was casting this happy glow on Mary's actions. Matthew took another sip of his wine.

Mistaking Mary's jab, Edith, fond as she was of joshing her sister ,replied, "Mary could have a whole argument in Charade's clues. I believe her favorite category last year was 'Shakespearean insults'."

"That sounds like a challenge dear sister, and I am not one to back down from a gauntlet like that," Mary responded, wiping her mouth daintily with her napkin before placing it gracefully back in her lap. She picked up her wine glass and raised it in Edith's direction whispering,

"Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows."

Matthew smiled and bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud and drawing unnecessary attention to their fun.

Just as Edith was about to speak, Matthew eclipsed her. He couldn't help himself. The twinkle in Mary's eyes was like a beacon, and he had to chase it.

"I'll tickle your catastrophe!"

Mary's eyes perked up with surprise as she stared at Matthew. He raised his eyebrows at her playfully, challenging her back. She tipped her wine glass looking, first at Matthew, then at her sister.

"My cousin's a fool, and thou art another."

Matthew kept his eyes on Mary and shot back another quotation. Having spent so many recent evenings in the exclusive company of books was now proving most useful.

"Take you me for a sponge?"

Mary's response was quicker even then he had imagined possible. She was indeed quite adept at this game. Matthew felt his pulse quicken as they had still not broken eye contact. Neither of them had even blinked.

"You juggler! You canker-blossom!"

"Yes, yes; you are both very clever," Edith tried to redirect the conversation in exasperation, but they ignored her. Matthew smiled and stared at Mary, daring her on. He could safely say he felt better than he had in ages. Matthew felt the honest symbolism of his next quotation's truth, and it almost made him shiver.

"You are strangely troublesome."

Mary smirked rebelliously at that but did not break eye contract, continuing to lock eyes with her opponent. Matthew blinked first, and she then raised her eyebrows at him as if to say, Ha! I'm going to win! He bit his tongue slightly but held her gaze, transfixed by their verbal sparing. He continued to stare at her and twitched his nose at her playfully, hoping to make her laugh so that she would be distracted. It didn't work, however. Mary's voice was calm and confident.

"I would my horse had the speed of your tongue."

Before Matthew could respond with his next whispered Shakespearean insult, he realized the person saying his name was not in fact Mary, but his mother who was speaking with Robert.

"Matthew?"

He broke eye contact with Mary to see the slightly bemused look on his mother's face. She nodded to her left where Robert was seated, and Matthew redirected his attention.

"Will you have to go up to London, my boy? Isobel was just telling me that Mr. Swire is ill again."

The moment with Mary was all but gone. Matthew grew somber thinking about Mr. Swire. Another man named Reginald who would die in December. He felt the old pain of his father's death rekindle. At least he could sit with Mr. Swire; at least he could say goodbye. Matthew took a deep breath before responding to try and reframe his mind.

"Yes, I may have to. I will know more after I telephone later today," Matthew responded. He appreciated the effort Robert was making. It was frustrating being without resources to aid those in distress after all, his mother's reaction to the change in his own disposition had shown him that much recently.

"Do keep me informed, Matthew. I should like to know either way what your plans are," Robert concluded with an affectionate glance before Cora once again needed a referee from her mother-in-law and his attention was again diverted. Matthew turned his head when Mary spoke again.

"I'm sorry to hear about Mr. Swire," she said after a moment. "But that doesn't mean I'm sorry you lost our little competition."

Something within Matthew greedily absorbed these tranquil moments, appreciating all of these people, his family, at this luncheon. He was especially grateful for Mary's camaraderie, but he was far from feeling ready to concede defeat to her. It felt so natural to sit next to her and talk with her, to be challenged by her once again. To just be her friend would be more than enough. Matthew whispered from behind his wine glass with a lighthearted smirk. It would do no harm now to continue their game, after all. She shouldn't think he would give up so easily.

"More of your conversation would infect my brain."

The ladies then started to leave the luncheon and adjourn for pastries and tea in the drawing room. Matthew felt victory was close at hand. Mary stood up but retained her napkin in her hand, turning around to then drop it back on her chair. She whispered her final retort in a low purr as if she was one of the kittens from his postcard. As she bent over, her words practically fell into his ears, her breath lingering there slightly above him, warm and fragrant.

"Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eye."

Matthew felt the tickle of her breath on his face and shivered. As he watched her leave, her smooth, graceful steps a victory march. He knew she had won their little impromptu competition. Matthew took in her retreating form and appreciated the way her green gown seemed to light her up like the beautiful Christmas tree in the great hall. She was enchanting and still surprised him after all this time. Today Mary had even amazed him.

"Matthew?"

He turned his head, tearing his eyes from Mary's retreating figure to see Robert staring quizzically at him. A very reverent look graced the older man's face as he offered the cigar box with a smile, which Matthew was glad to return.


Authors Note: This is the last official chapter of First Steps - but there will be an epilogue chapter for January post the CS. Thanks for reading and I hope you've enjoyed Matthew's journey!