A/N: Hello! Sorry about the lack of an update last week, but I had horrible writer's block and it just...wasn't going to happen. But I was finally able to write this chapter, and I hope you like it! I broke it into two parts mainly for my own mental organization, but maybe it'll help you, too. And a HUGE thank you to those who voted for the Highclere Awards! It means so much to me!
Yours Forever: Chapter XIII
Mary had said she would meet him at the station herself.
"Are you sure? I could go down in the-"
"Yes, quite sure!" Mary had insisted, cutting off her brother's kind offer to drive down to the station to pick up Matthew when his train arrived. Because it had to be her. She needed every moment before telling him to be precious, so she could cherish them afterwards.
Time is a curious thing. Anticipation draws each tick of the clock out unbearably. Toes tap and hands rub together impatiently in the infuriating slowness of waiting. Dread, however, is far worse. Dread quickens time, spinning the hands of the clock faster and faster until nausea sets in and palms sweat. And so, as the days went by, the strange nature of time had not been lost on Mary, because she found herself oddly, uncomfortably, situated between both anticipation and dread.
For weeks the happiness that always accompanied Matthew's return from school had made the bleak, dark winter days drag by at a frustratingly slow pace. Yet, now, as those days grew smaller in number and Downton began to be spruced and decked for the holidays, a terrible trepidation rose like bile in Mary's throat. A week ago she had been one Mary, and now she was a whole other. Matthew knew nothing of it, and the knowledge of his innocence in the matter ate away at Mary's heart.
Henry was right. She would have to tell him. She had rehearsed it time and time again, walking over the crisp, ice-dusted grass on the lawn that she had somehow come to take comfort in, their blatant crunching underfoot a physical and audible reminder of the frankness with which Mary knew she must approach the topic.
It was not within her nature to be coy, nor was it possible for her to veil what had happened, to sweeten the bitter taste she knew it bore. She would have to be direct, or avoid it completely. And Mary knew the choice she would have to make, however unpleasant it would be for both of them. The conversation she played over in her head at night, horribly aware that she would at some point soon have to live its unforgivingly blunt reality, made her stomach ache.
She had rephrased, edited, and agonized over how she would possibly breach what she had to say to Matthew, knowing what his inevitable reaction would be. She could see it now, clearly, in her mind: the hurt, the disappointment, and, perhaps (although the very prospect of it abhorred her) pity.
But Mary bore it. She bit the inside of her cheek, crafted a smile as bright as the sparkling tinsel, and threw herself in the last few days before his arrival into the preparation for Christmas. She was unspeakably grateful for the distraction, choosing ornaments to hang, organizing the menus with her mother, and finishing her shopping in the village. And then, all at once, it was Friday, and Matthew's train was due in at five o'clock.
"Quite sure!" Mary had said, although as she walked onto the platform and absentmindedly looked in the direction his train would be coming from she was suddenly seized with the desire to escape, to run away from it. She needed more time.
As much as it pained her, Mary had rallied up the courage and confidence to meet him here at the station alone. She couldn't have stayed at home, greeting him only when he and Isobel came for dinner -it would have been too much, the surprise of seeing him with no time to prepare. But this wasn't much better, Mary realized as she heard rather than saw the train approaching. She had thought it would be easier to greet him alone, to have a moment of just them, together, before facing an entire dinner across from him, maintaining her untroubled disposition in front of everyone else.
The train flew into the station, cold winter wind slapping Mary unforgivingly, blowing her coat and skirts, and hitting her cheeks harshly. Trepidation pooled in her gut, and she took the opportunity before he disembarked to wrap her arms around herself for a moment, the action giving her comfort as well as warmth.
Doors opened, whistles blew, and passengers' feet found the reassurance of solid and still ground beneath them again as they all disembarked. Mary scanned the crowd, far from large at this time of day, and it was not long before she spotted him.
Matthew hadn't seen her, not yet, anyway, and Mary indulged herself in being able to observe him unabashedly without his notice. He was purposeful with his luggage, kind in his thanks to whoever had helped him with it. He nodded politely, motioning for a woman with a sleepy little child to go before him as he moved. And then his gaze was drawn upward, as if he knew, somehow, that he was being watched, and his face lit up with joy at seeing her there, for it had been a long time since she'd seen him off or met him at the station. Her heart tugged horribly and, although she felt guilt at deceiving him seeping into her, she couldn't help but smile back at Matthew. Strangely, seeing him now was the greatest comfort she could have imagined, although she reminded herself that she did not deserve it. All week she had dreaded this moment, and now it was upon her and she was filled with guilty happiness and relief. He smiled confidently, with nothing to hide. And for an instant, Mary felt severely sick, but then he greeted her, and it disappeared as quickly as it had come.
She smiled breathlessly. "Frozen," she answered, when he asked how she was, shivering in the evening wind.
Matthew chuckled and leaned over to kiss one cold cheek, and Mary's eyes closed for a moment as she inhaled his familiar smell. She exhaled shakily when he pulled away, and shook herself slightly, once again smiling widely.
"And everyone else, how have they been?" he asked.
Mary shrugged. "Henry has a cold, and you know how dramatic that makes him." They shared a laugh, and the pressure began to build rapidly inside Mary's chest -a need to tell him interwoven thickly with an intense fear of doing so.
Matthew watched her, the grey smoke of her breath mixing with air as she walked, and the slight redness to her nose from the winter wind. "You shouldn't be outside. You'll get a cold next," he chided, and Mary looked over at him. His kindness, his consideration, was crippling her.
She laughed quietly and rubbed her gloved hands together, then looked up at him from the corner of her eye. "I'm so glad you're home," she said as they walked off the platform, and she meant it. His presence had brought a strange, inexplicable calm to her troubled life.
Matthew turned to look at her again, at her pale face and shy smile. "It's good to be back." And he meant it.
He chuckled as they got into the car and pulled out of the station.
"What?" Mary asked curiously, shivering from the cold.
He laughed again. "I was thinking of the time Henry was ill when we were children."
Mary smiled. "When you both had the chicken pox?"
Matthew shook his head. "No," he inclined his head as if to acknowledge the amusing aspects of that time as well. "No, it was when he was sick with that wretched cough."
"I remember," Mary said, her eyes sparkling with the memory.
"We were horrible, weren't we? In teasing him."
Mary raised an eyebrow. "Us? If anyone could be described as 'horrible' in their teasing it would be my brother."
Matthew laughed in agreement, then sobered as he remembered something.
"It's dreadful what happened to that Turkish gentleman," he mused, and Mary stiffened, her playful manner dropped in an instant. He noticed, and looked at her in concern. "Do they know what caused it?"
Mary pursed her lips. She had been trying so hard to behave normally, and she immediately felt all her efforts die at Matthew's mention of Pamuk. "Dr. Clarkson said it must have been a heart attack," she said quietly. Matthew looked at her hands in her lap and saw that they trembled almost imperceptibly.
"Mary, are you alright?"
She widened her eyes at him. "Of course! Why wouldn't I be?"
She looked out the window and smiled as Crawley House came into view. "Here we are!" she said brightly, and Matthew paused, wanting to say something else, then brushed aside her behaviour. It was a shock, and quite recent. There was reason for it to be upsetting. He promised to come to the big house for dinner that evening and climbed out of the car, smiling at her again as he left and the chauffeur fetched his luggage.
Breathing a sigh of relief as he walked into Crawley House to get settled and then dressed for dinner, Mary sat up in her seat, regaining some of her confidence after the initial hurdle of seeing him. If she could do this, she could very well make it through the rest of the evening.
Anna had noted a marked change in her mistress within the past week, made no attempt to enquire after Lady Mary's welfare as she had done in the first few days after the death of poor Mr. Pamuk, when Mary had seemed particularly shaken.
"You pick, Anna," Mary said quietly, glancing at herself in the mirror as Anna tied the final strings of her corset. She looked away. Mary thought of her younger self, and found that over the years some of her vanity had worn off. And, now, after what had happened, she felt no need to look in the mirror, entrusting Anna with the task of sending her downstairs in an acceptable state. But it did not derive from a renewed sense of confidence. Now there was no one to impress. She had no wish to draw attention to herself. For the first time in her life, Mary wanted to blend in and go unnoticed.
Anna dutifully went to pick a dress, not questioning Mary's almost silence demeanor. She returned with the one Mary had always liked best -the red- draped over one arm. Unbuttoning it, she gently turned her mistress to begin dressing her.
"No!" Mary exclaimed, shaking her head. Then she took a breath, calming herself, and looked at Anna, a sincere apology in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Anna," she said softly. "Not the red, please."
She couldn't wear red. Not now. Red was her eighteenth birthday. Red was the day she returned from France. Red was love.
Red was deceit.
Her maid brought black with hints of green, and Mary was dressed quickly. She patted one hair back in place before leaving to go downstairs and join the others. Anna looked on, watching Mary leave without a single piece of jewelry, but said nothing.
Mary had never been more grateful to have Henry as a sibling. Even with his cold that made his voice change and break, he was the entertainment for the evening. Sitting beside Matthew while Mary sat across from them, Henry kept him occupied with old jokes and asking after old friends from school. Mary listened, laughed, smiled, and joined in with the happy conversation. She hated doing so, but she could not deny herself the joy of seeing Matthew after three months apart, even though she knew it was only a matter of time before the perfect happiness would be extinguished. And even as guilt and shame flooded through her, she continued to smile and laugh with them after dinner just as they had always done.
Foolishly, Mary had spent years dawdling, denying what she felt for him. And, now, just when everything had fallen into place and she had finally let herself openly love him as more than a cousin and friend, she had ruined it. Again.
Matthew looked back to the front door after getting into the car with his mother, watching as Henry and Mary walked back inside after saying goodbye to them. The bright smile she had worn all evening faded slightly as she went back in. Henry was saying something, putting a hand on her shoulder, and Matthew saw Mary nod. He looked back to his mother.
"Did you notice anything odd about Mary tonight?"
Isobel looked up in confusion. "No, I don't think so," she said. "Why do you ask?"
Matthew shrugged. "She seemed strange, that's all." He paused. "Quieter."
Mary had been preoccupied, as if she were holding something back. And Henry, for all his jokes and stories, had curiously behaved in the same manner. After ten years of knowing each other, Matthew could sense that a shift had occurred. Something had happened that he wasn't privy to, something that was troubling both of his cousins greatly, and he knew it had to be more than the death of Mr. Pamuk.
"Mother, has something happened?" Matthew asked suddenly, and Isobel looked at him with concern.
"Matthew, what do you mean?" she asked in a soft tone.
He looked up at his home as it came into view, directly his attention out the window. "Nothing," he said. "Never mind."
It had taken everything in her power not to break at the dinner table as she sat across from him, to not hide from him afterwards, to kiss his cheek as she and Henry had said goodbye to Isobel and Matthew outside, and now Mary was utterly exhausted. She declined Henry's offer of another drink and went upstairs, back to the swirling red and white wallpapered room she had come to despise being in. Anna came quickly, and readied her mistress for bed in the same almost silent manner as before. Mary sat rigidly at her vanity table as her maid started removing the pins from her hair, her neck tensed, her shoulders tightly pushed back, and it was only when her hair fell down, tumbling in dark waves from its chignon that she broke. She leaned forward, resting her face in the palms of her hands, her elbows on the table, and she shook as barely-restrained sobs tore through her.
Mary felt Anna's gentle hand on her shoulder. "Milady?" she asked, although her voice bore no trace of surprise. She had known this would come, for it rarely did.
"Oh, Anna," Mary cried, shoulders still shaking, and Anna knelt next to her, hand still on Mary's arm.
"Milady, it's alright," she said, trying to soothe her mistress.
Mary laughed bitterly. "How can it be?" she said in broken gasps. "Oh God, I wish I didn't love him!"
Anna wrinkled her brow in confusion. It was unlike Lady Mary to be so open, and in the safety of her mistress' bedroom, Anna decided she could be open as well. "Mr. Crawley?"
Mary nodded. "That would make it easier to tell him, wouldn't it?"
Anna was at a loss, not having the faintest idea what her mistress was referring to, but knowing she must follow her lead. She was about to speak when Mary began to calm, drying her tears with her fingers. "It's easier to tell the truth to a stranger, isn't it?" Mary asked cryptically. Anna considered, then looked her mistress in the eye.
"Perhaps, but it's much harder to lie to someone you love, milady."
Mary looked at Anna for a moment, then nodded, brushing her hair over one shoulder. She smiled weakly. "You're right. You're always right," she said, and laughed at how silly she thought she was being. Anna, after ascertaining that Mary had truly recovered, stood up and, after a moment, resumed the task of braiding her hair. The moment of weakness, of fragility, had ended just as abruptly as it had started.
"You must think me rather foolish," Mary said as she continued to dab at her eyes, looking at Anna through the mirror. Anna only smiled, tied off her perfect braid with a blue ribbon, and put a soft hand on Mary's shoulder again.
"No, milady," she said with a smile. "Everyone needs a good cry."
For a week Henry had kept a close eye on his younger sister. He watched her decorate the tree with Carson, just as they had always done; he looked up from books to the sound of her voice planning the menu for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with his mother, and couldn't for the life of him understand it.
He had always been more forward with his emotions than his sister, so it came as no surprise to him that she continued on as if nothing had happened. But how could she? Perhaps he was more sentimental than her, and felt things more acutely, but he didn't see how it was possible for her to go about planning menus and hanging ornaments when only seven days earlier she had been sobbing in his arms.
Spending hours in the library with his books and writing, Henry was able to escape the preparations for the holidays. Occasionally, he would make an appearance in the drawing room for tea, but Mary wouldn't speak to him, and he wouldn't speak to her. If their parents noticed, they said nothing, for each child behaved normally in every other regard.
Days passed, and Henry felt them grow further and further apart. In nineteen years they had never had any serious disagreements. They teased each other mercilessly, but it had never broken any tie between them. This new, strange coldness from his sister hurt Henry deeply.
So, when Mary walked into the library one afternoon and sighed deeply against the door before continuing on to the shelf where the book in her hands belonged, not noticing her brother hunched over his desk, her presence pained him.
The shuffling of papers dragged Mary's attention away from the spines she was perusing, in search of another novel to distract her. Turning around to find the source of the noise, she jumped.
Her brother turned, seeing her holding her hand to her heart. He saw how startled she had been, and how, for a moment, her façade fell.
"Sorry," he said brusquely. He continued to look at her, watching as she stood up again, held her chin high, hardened her eyes. She turned and put her book back in its place quickly, determined that her brother not get the satisfaction of seeing that it was Dickens, and made towards the door again.
"Mary," Henry called quietly, and she turned. Her eyes were sharp and wide, but they softened as she found her hidden sadness mirrored in her brother's eyes. She took a step closer to him.
"How can you carry on as if nothing's happened?" he asked. Mary looked to the right for a moment, then at the floor. "How?" he asked again. When she finally raised her eyes, they shone, and her chin trembled. Henry stood up from his chair, immediately going to her, knowing in an instant that it was only when she was away from everyone else that she allowed her despair to show on the surface.
Mary made no move to reciprocate her brother's embrace as he drew her gently to him, and she did not cry, however much she might want to. All that she allowed was a small, dry cough against his chest to soothe the burn in the back of her throat from holding back tears. "You're not all right," Henry confirmed, then stepped back from her. Now her shoulders visibly relaxed, and he knew why she had sighed in relief against the door upon coming in the library. She was exhausted. Exhausted from having flung herself into the preparations for Christmas, exhausted from keeping her secret, exhausted from distancing herself from Henry, exhausted from pretending to be her old self when she was anything but.
She laughed, and Henry looked at her in surprise. "What?"
Dabbing at her eyes with her fingertips, Mary chuckled again. "I was just thinking today," she laughed again. Henry looked on with worry. "The odd thing is, Henry, that I felt, for the first time, really, what it is to be happy." Her eyes filled with tears again. "With Matthew. And now I know that I won't be."
Henry tilted his head to her. "Don't say that, Mary. You love each other. Surely that can be enough."
"I see. And what do you know of love?" She regretted it instantly. "I'm sorry, Henry, that was-"
He waved his hand in dismissal. "He'll be furious when you tell him, Mary, there's no getting around that." He chuckled himself. "He'll want to kill him, just like I did."
Mary nodded. She knew that much.
"But he'll be even more angry if you keep it from him," Henry said gently, his tone tentative and soft.
"Don't you think I know that!" Mary said sharply, resting one hand on her hip. "I couldn't bear the way he'd look at me."
Henry sighed. His sister's pride often ruled her actions. "Matthew knows you, darling. He won't think of you as anything less than you are. You know that."
She turned slightly, her hand coming up in the air in an incredulous gesture. "Oh Henry, don't you see? You treat me differently because of it. You see me differently, and I can't stand it! Telling Matthew would only make it more unbearable."
He sighed in exasperation. "What are you talking about, Mary? Nothing's changed between us!"
She laughed bitterly. "'Nothing's changed'?" She began to pace, wishing for a necklace to occupy her restless fingers. "You walk around all day moping, looking at me as if I'm a little fragile bird who can't fly."
"I don't understand-"
"I don't want your pity. I can hold myself up, you know. I've been capable of that since I was a little girl." And as if to prove her point, Mary straightened her back, fixed him with shining, imploring eyes. "I will tell Matthew when I'm ready, Henry."
She turned and walked away from him, back to the door of the library without looking back. Henry sat down again. He regretted ever having brought it up, now feeling as if he'd set even more pressure on his sister's shoulders. He hadn't meant to, just to encourage her again that prolonging her own suffering in order to save Matthew learning what had happened wasn't worth it. But now he feared he had merely reminded her of her troubles, and he was sorry for it.
"Oh, my dear, they're lovely!" Cora gushed, looking to her daughter as she unwrapped a pair of beautiful, deep purple gloves on Christmas Day. Mary looked up from where she sat with her grandmother on the sofa and smiled.
"I wondered what colour..."
Cora shook her head. "No, they're beautiful, Mary. I love them." She peered into Mary's lap and saw a green bag with a gold bow. Mary hadn't touched it.
"Go on," Matthew said, leaning against the mantle.
"I am!" she insisted, and carefully untied the bow, shifting the tissue paper in the bag and pulling out a large, thin yellow book. Mary looked at Matthew with a soft, touched look and he nodded slightly in return.
"What is it, Mary?" Violet asked curiously. Her granddaughter set the book down in her lap for her grandmother to see.
"You don't already have it, do you?" Matthew asked suddenly, but Mary shook her head.
"No, I don't." Her voice was gentle. She ran long fingers over the music books and stood up, setting them down and going to the tree, picking up her own gift to Matthew and bringing it to him.
"Thank you," she said sincerely.
"Will you play it?" he asked.
She raised her eyebrows. "Goodness, you think me more of a musician than I am!"
He chuckled wryly. "I didn't mean today."
Later that evening, however, when the men rejoined the women in the drawing room Matthew heard the hesitant, unpracticed notes of the new pieces drifting through from the adjoining music room.
"Thank God," Henry said, pouring himself another drink. "I was getting tired of what she's played lately." He was only teasing, as usual. Henry had always been fond his sister's music.
Matthew glanced towards the music room and his cousin chuckled. "Go on, then. And bring her back so she can play chess after you lose."
Matthew laughed, received a friendly pat on the back from a very happy Henry, and then crossed the floor to the small music room.
The light from the lamp cast a soft glow over the room. For a moment, as Mary continued to play, strange shadows passed over her face, hardening it. Matthew blinked, and they were gone, just her concentrated expression and the way she bit her lip as she played. Then she looked up, saw him, and stopped.
"I'll have to practice before it sounds anything like it should," she said, shrugging her shoulders. The room, which had always been somewhat of a safe haven for her, suddenly seemed much too small, and very hot. When she had been alone with Anna she had cried, she had almost cried in the quiet of the library, and now she was alone with Matthew, and she felt panic rise in her chest.
"It sounded beautiful," Matthew said, and Mary rolled her eyes (that she could do quite easily).
"Don't placate me," she said lightly, and stood up from the piano bench, feeling the need to escape.
"I miss your playing at school," Matthew said as she stood, and she flashed what she hoped was a touched look his way. "It's nice to hear it when I'm home."
"I'm afraid your opinion would be changed if you lived with it all day," Mary said with a tilt of her head.
He smiled. "Do you play all day?" he asked quietly.
Mary shrugged, and her breath caught as she realized just how close they were. Her hands felt hot in her gloves. "Sometimes," she said in an even softer tone.
Matthew looked up above them and then back at her. "There's mistletoe..."
"No, there isn't," she said, her heart beating faster than any melody she could ever play. He laughed.
"You're no fun."
She shrugged at that and laughed nervously, her entire being aching to throw itself into his arms. And then it did.
Mary was sure it had been her, and Matthew was sure it had been him, but all at once they came together. The space between them had not been large to begin with, and their bodies seemed to melt into the other. The kiss was not hurried. In fact, it was rather reverent, for both of their heads were spinning.
The burning in her throat returned, and it took all the strength Mary possessed to hold back a dry sob at what this meant. As his hands lightly found her back she reached hers up to his shoulders, then to cup his cheek, feeling the place just before his ear and running her index finger over it. They pushed closer together, and Mary's eyes opened as his tongue tentatively touched hers. Memories of another kiss, a horrible and unwanted kiss in this very room, brought Mary harshly back to reality. This kiss would be their last.
Matthew suddenly felt Mary pull at his lapels, whimpering into his mouth, and he smiled against her lips. He had known for some time, really, what she meant to him. Mary was his sun, bright and guiding, if not a little too blinding at times. For she would never be a planet. She would not revolve around anyone.
But he found himself hopelessly revolving around her. In the past months Matthew had realized something, something he very nearly laughed over -he had been in love with Mary for far longer than he originally thought. In fact, he was able to trace it back clearly in his mind, straight to the moment he had fallen for her.
He had been eleven. They were children, but there was something about that first curtsy, the initial detachment, and then the warmth of her friendship that had made him love her, even as a boy. Matthew recalled vividly the dainty pink of the dress she had been wearing when they were introduced, and now his fingers brushed over the cream and gold of the one she wore and he knew it with unwavering certainty. He felt her pulling away from him and they parted.
Mary. There she was, her eyes shining, her lips red, her eyes dark, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt what their kiss had meant. He was sure, now, that this was the woman he would marry. He wasn't sure there had ever been an alternative.
He wanted to be able to kiss her for the rest of his life.
A/N: So many thank you's need to go out for this chapter! I'm not sure I can even remember everyone who helped me, but you all know who you are! Thank you to people on Tumblr for sending me writing prompts, and for people encouraging me as I complained endlessly about not being able to write. Finally, done with this chapter! What do you think?
P.S. Who caught the allusion in the beginning?