A/N: Happy Wednesday! Here's the next installment, which spans quite a few years, so make sure to pay attention to dates!
"No, it's too much." Isobel protested once more, although she knew she was slowly losing the battle.
Robert sighed and looked to Cora for reinforcement. They heard Mary's laugh from outside followed by shouts from the boys as they rough-housed in the small back garden of Crawley House.
Cora smiled gently at Isobel. "Isobel, be sensible. We've all seen Matthew running circles around his classmates. This way he could be properly challenged, and Henry would always be there to help him if he needed it."
Isobel thought it over quickly in her head. She had been wrestling with the idea ever since Lord Grantham and his wife had proposed it to her a month ago. It would mean a big change for Matthew. Another new school, new environment, new friends, not to mention entering an overwhelmingly upper-class society. And then there was the issue of money. No, it was far too much.
Isobel took a deep breath and sat up straighter in her chair. "I couldn't bear the idea of being further in debt to you than we already are."
Robert's eyes took on a dark hue. "Is that what you really think?" he said in as calm a manner as he could muster. "That this is merely charity? It is nothing of the kind. We want what's best for Matthew. Sending him to Eton would be the best for him. And if it's the money you're worried about, don't be."
"It would be our pleasure." Cora interjected.
Isobel bit her lip slightly and looked out the window, hearing Mary's shriek as the two boys chased her and then her laugh when Henry grabbed her around the waist and caught her. Matthew laughed at Mary's struggle as she reached out her arms to him.
"Matthew!" she begged through her laugh and was rescued from her attacker with his hands.
Isobel looked back. "Alright." she agreed with a smile.
Robert exhaled and Cora's eyes twinkled in delight. "Marvelous!" Robert said, standing up. "I'm sure Henry will be delighted with the news."
Isobel stood as well and held out a hand. "Would you mind terribly if...if I told Matthew first? I want him to have time to get used to the idea."
"Of course." Robert said with understanding. "And if the boy doesn't like the idea, we won't dream of forcing it upon him."
Isobel smiled at them both. "Thank you ever so much. It's so generous of you."
She showed them out, her heart swelling with affection for her relatives at their obvious love for her son. As they exited, Cora gave her disheveled daughter a sharp look and Mary instantly straightened, holding her head high and smoothing her rumpled skirts.
"Come along, children." Cora said and beckoned for Henry and Mary to come with them to the waiting car. Henry and his sister waved at Matthew and walked obediently towards their parents, Mary calling out over her shoulder,
"Goodbye, Cousin Isobel!"
Isobel waved and glanced back at Matthew, who was looking at his retreating cousins with a hint of disappointment. She motioned for him to come over and put a hand on his shoulder as they walked back inside, taking a fortifying breath as she prepared to breach the topic with him.
At fourteen and sixteen, respectively, Matthew and Henry had grown significantly since their first meeting two years previously. Matthew was slightly taller than his cousin, but Henry's voice had deepened and made him sound the older one. Their maturity had not only shifted in appearance, however. Two years of school and companionship had fostered a mental growth as well, and they now were able to join in well with Lord Grantham's conversation at the dinner table or as he walked with them on the estate. The Earl truly thought of Matthew as a second son, and was eager to show him all that he had taught Henry through the years. The two did practically everything together, and Matthew had accepted Robert's offer to attend Eton readily, grateful not only for the education, but also for the fact that he could continue his friendship with his cousin during the school year.
Mary had changed as well. Still more petite than her cousin and brother, she had still grown in height. Her body hadn't quite caught up with her yet, and so she was a skinny little thing, with long arms and legs and an elegant neck. Her dancing had vastly improved, although she had yet to really use it, and so she contented herself with forcing Matthew and Henry to partner her when she practiced. This time it was she who teased them, laughing openly when they forgot a step. She stifled her louder laughs into Matthew's shoulder when he stepped on her feet and began to apologize profusely, clutching her side and then her foot at his bashfulness.
But all too soon September arrived and it was time to say goodbye again. This time it was doubly hard on Mary, and on the morning of September 1st she refused to come down from her room to see them to the station, instead sitting at the window-seat in her room and looking down sullenly as they loaded their trunks into the back of the car below her.
She wasn't good at goodbyes. She locked the door to her room and sat there, her knees drawn up to her chest under her blue frock, her dark hair pulled back with a ribbon, and watched the footmen take the boys' trunks out to the car.
Her chin quivered as she saw the boys go out on the pea-stone driveway, Henry's dark head and Matthew's light one small below her. Her throat felt tight, but she refused to cry. They had tried to get her to open her door earlier, but not even Robert had been able to persuade her to say a proper farewell.
"She's really being a child about the whole thing!" Cora had exclaimed in resignation. "We've spoiled her for far too long, Robert."
Her husband had rubbed her arm gently and nodded. "She is still a child, Cora. Let her feel the way she feels."
He ruffled the boys' hair as they bid them all farewell, the servants included. The children were well-loved by all, and Isobel wiped her eyes with her handkerchief tearfully as Matthew and Henry prepared to climb in the car. Suddenly, Matthew put his hand on Henry's arm and motioned for him to look up at a high window. Henry followed his finger and saw his younger sister, her small body leaning against the window in her room. He could tell by her expression that this was her goodbye, she was saying it in her own way.
He smiled sadly and waved up at her, as did Matthew, which only made several tears burst from her eyes. She wiped them away immediately and inhaled sharply, refusing to let her weakness at their departure show. Matthew nodded encouragingly, and they watched her perk up slightly, garnering her emotions like any good British aristocrat should, before offering a small smile in return and a wave of her own.
They climbed into the car and waved goodbye to their parents, and as the car drove off, Matthew looked back up at Mary's window. She was no longer there.
Christmas Holiday, 1907
"They're home, Mary!" Robert called up the staircase, but his fifteen year old daughter was already running down, having heard the sound of gravel under tired from her room upstairs. Cora gave her a withering look and Mary slowed down, running her hands over her dark green dress to smooth the fabric and smiling widely as she walked with more dignity out to the front.
No sooner had Henry stepped out from the car then Mary was in his arms, laughing happily with childish delight. He set her down after kissing her cheek and moved out of the way so Matthew could climb out as well. Mary hugged him tightly, earning a wary eye from her mother, and linked her arms in both of theirs before leading them inside the warmth of the Abbey, which was lit and decorated for another spectacular Christmas.
"You're so tall!" she exclaimed as they handed their coats to the butler. Matthew must have been almost half a head taller than her, almost the height of a man, while her brother was just a bit shorter, but just as mature looking. At eighteen and sixteen they were well on their way to becoming men, and Mary was frightened at it. Only seeing them on holidays had made her miss out on months and months of time that could have been spent together, and she sometimes felt that she knew them less and less as time went on.
Over the course of the holiday, Mary became more and more aware of how much they had all changed. Henry and Matthew spoke about books to her father that hadn't heard of, and she vowed to read them all so she too could understand. They laughed at jokes from school together, like always, but Mary had never felt more left out. It was as if they had completely forgotten about her, and about the times they had spent together growing up. Even as they opened her gifts to them on Christmas Day and kissed her cheek in thanks, she still felt terribly apart and neglected.
There is nothing more unfair than being a girl in this world, she thought often. While the boys were still allowed to playfully smack each other and discuss politics and their horrible teachers, she was expected to sit perfectly straight and listen attentively, one foot tucked behind the other ankle, and smile prettily no matter what was being discussed. Under the shrewish eye of her mother and governess, she boiled inside. It wasn't fair! None of it was fair!
One evening, after they had all retired, she heard noise coming from Henry's room around the corner. Struck with the desire to rebel against her mother's hawk-like gaze, she pulled on her dressing gown and snuck carefully out of her large bedchamber, her bare feet padding silently against the thick red patterned carpet.
Light was dripping out from under the closed door, and, without bothering to knock, Mary turned the knob and quietly squeezed inside.
"Mary!" her brother exclaimed, pulling his head back from the window in surprise as his sister shushed him and shut the door behind her. He saw her eyes widen.
"Henry Crawley, what do you think you're doing?" she cried in a whisper, seeing him leaning slightly out the window, a small cigarette held lightly between two practiced fingers. Matthew turned his head around and Mary saw, with shock that he also held one. She moved closer to them, hugging herself as the winter chill leaked from the open window.
"Promise you won't tell?" Henry asked, seeing his sister's outraged expression.
She waved her hand and scoffed. "Oh, I won't tell but-" she wrinkled her nose in distaste. "where did you get them?"
"A chap at school, Frank Leonard." Matthew answered, taking a drag from his cigarette and blowing the smoke out the window.
Mary shook her head sadly. "It's a disgusting habit."
Henry chuckled. "You're probably right." he held out the cigarette to her. "Why don't you take a try at it?"
Mary's mouth fell open. "What? But it's revolting!"
It was Matthew's turn to laugh at his cousin's innocence. "Go on, Mary."
She pursed her lips but, not wanting to appear a coward, took the cigarette delicately from Henry's fingers and brought it to her mouth, inhaling much too sharply and promptly dropping the blasted thing to the ground, where Matthew lunged to pick it up. She coughed and and Henry held her by the window as she gasped and retched desperately.
When she recovered, she turned around to them, tears streaming from her eyes at the effort, and shook her head. "Definitely a disgusting habit."
Matthew laughed, much too loudly, and Mary clapped a delicate but firm hand over his mouth. "You mustn't! You'll get us all in trouble! If Mamma found me here…"she suddenly tugged the tie to her robe tighter around her thin waist and waved stray hair out of her face.
Matthew raised an eyebrow. "Then what?" his words were muffled under her fingers.
Mary gave him a piercing look. "I have to get back. You boys put those out!" she chided.
New Years Eve, 1909
The New Years Ball was always spectacular. The house was still decorated with tinsel and greenery from Christmas, and guests filled it up with chatter and laughing. At midnight fireworks were set off, and the whole village gathered each year to see them shower down over the moors, the explosives lighting up the starry winter sky in wonderful patterns and ringing in the New Year with a literal bang.
There were always too many people, most of which Mary did not know or didn't care to know. So she wandered aimlessly around in search of Elizabeth Williams or Julia Finch, two daughters of family friends whom she'd known for years. Finally locating them, she laughed and sipped cider in the ballroom while others danced, the women's skirts swishing beautifully against the freshly cleaned floors, men's hands gently placed on their backs. Elizabeth, who was somewhat round and plain, lamented the fact that she hadn't been asked to dance.
"Except Percy Rowan, but I wouldn't dance with him if he were the king of England!"
Julia snorted into her drink at Elizabeth's comment and looked at her own card. "I do hope your cousin Matthew would ask me, he hasn't yet, and he promised he would."
Mary's eyes blinked curiously at her, but she said nothing. She sought him out on the dance floor and saw him gracefully leading Claire Parsons out on his arm as the music started again. He looked rather smug, and Mary scoffed at him quietly.
"Who's your next dance, Mary?" Julia enquired, setting her glass down on a silver tray that passed by them.
Mary looked down at her dance card. "Peter Cross." she said. She was dancing with him at her father's insistence. They had been pushed together since the night of Mary's debut ball in June, and while he was pleasant and gentlemanly, there was something lacking in his person. Mary found his conversation rather dull and mediocre compared to the verbal sparring she engaged in with Matthew and her brother. She had become quite well-read in the past years, devouring each book the boys read to be able to match them when they returned from university on holiday.
Henry was reading Classics, and Matthew had pursued the law, but she proved to be their equal in any type of debate. This pleased and impressed the boys, but mildly annoyed Cora, as she wanted nothing more than to get Mary married before she ruined all her chances by appearing to be too much the intellectual.
As the dance ended and Mary watched Matthew release Claire, find her a drink, and walk over to where the three of them stood, her heart rose up in her chest. He was even taller in his white tie, and Mary felt Julia rise up on her toes in anticipation as he approached them. Matthew smiled at the three girls and greeted Julia and Elizabeth by name with a kiss on the hand. Turning to Mary, he took her hand and kissed it, the gesture seeming ridiculous to both of them given their history of jumping into forbidden lakes in their underthings and splashing each other with mud as children.
"Is your dance card filled yet?" he asked Mary, and she felt Julia sink back down to the floor with a small sigh.
Mary smiled nervously and withdrew her hand quickly as she saw Peter walking towards her from across the room.
"Yes, actually!" she said in a raised voice. "I'm dancing with Peter!"
"Peter Cross?" Matthew asked with a laugh. "Why, aren't you sick of him yet?"
Mary's eyes flashed at him. She was mortified that he would speak to her so informally in front of her friends. "I'll have you know I quite enjoy his company!"
It was a lie, and they both knew it. She walked away from them quickly before he could say anything else and joined Peter halfway across the floor. Mary gave him no time to ask before walking out with him to the dance floor as the music began. She motioned for him to take her waist and arm and he did so quickly. Smiling prettily as the orchestra struck up a quick waltz, Mary followed his lead gracefully, her deep blue dress swishing across the floor as the had seen the other women's do moments ago.
She looked over Peter's shoulder as he said something she couldn't care less about and saw Matthew smiling charmingly at Julia, who looked positively smitten as he swirled her across the ballroom.
"Lady Mary?" Peter prodded, and she suddenly realized she hadn't been listening to him at all.
"Yes? Sorry, Peter," she apologized, forcing her eyes to focus back on his face and not on Matthew's hand which was on the small of Julia's back. "I was distracted."
Mary found herself again next to Peter as they all filtered outside at quarter to midnight to see the fireworks. She was shivering, and he stood slightly too close to her as they descended the steps from the back of the house. She had danced with him twice during the evening, and spoken with him at length about Dickens, which she was surprised to find he actually knew quite well. Mary had lost sight of Matthew in the ballroom, but saw him now leading Claire out onto the lawn with the rest of them. There was still some snow on the ground, and they all chattered impatiently as the servants and some handy villagers set up the traditional fireworks.
"You know, New Years is my favorite holiday." Peter said in a low voice, looking up at the starry night sky.
"Oh?" Mary responded automatically.
"It's so full of new beginnings and new memories to be made, don't you think?" he looked to her and smiled.
She saw his look and chuckled. "Good heavens, Peter, I didn't take you for such a romantic!"
They were a bit set off from the crowd, and Peter daringly put an arm at her waist. Mary felt a blush immediately spread up from her chest to her cheeks and she swallowed, remaining as cool and calm as she possibly could. She spotted Matthew, not far off, and looked down at her shoes which peeped out under her skirts. Anywhere but at Peter.
"And what if I am?" he asked flirtatiously.
The countdown was beginning, and the adults began to chant the numbers as they became smaller and smaller. Finally, the bang of the fireworks went off and the New Year was here. Mary jumped predictably, and whether it was from nerves or from the sound of the explosives, she couldn't say. Peter tightened his hold on her waist. Her heart was beating rapidly.
Suddenly he pulled her closer to him and, before she could do anything about it, his lips met hers. Her heart sped up even further and she was sure the beat of it must be audible. It was her first kiss, and after he pulled away from her, grinning wildly, she felt light on her feet.
The fireworks were still shattering around them and, overcome by it all, Mary smiled breathlessly back at him, too shocked to speak. Less than a moment later, when the familiar lyrics of Auld Lang Syne drifted around the party, Matthew appeared before them. He offered his arm to Mary and smiled politely at Peter.
"Your mother's asking for you." he explained, and Mary looked at him angrily, taking his arm with a subtle hint of force.
"Excuse me, Peter." she apologized, turning around to him.
He waved his arm as if it were no trouble, but the smug grin remained on his face from kissing Lady Mary Crawley.
"Where's Claire?" Mary drawled as Matthew swept her away.
He scoffed. "She's a nice girl, Mary. You like her!"
"I suppose." Mary admitted softly. "Why does Mamma want me?"
"She doesn't, I just wanted to get you away from that ghastly boy." he explained, but Mary pulled her arm out from his.
He shrugged his shoulders. "You looked unhappy, so I came to your rescue!"
She gasped in outrage. "You what? I'll have you know I was quite content where I was! You needn't 'Rescue me' unless I expressly ask it of you! I don't need to be rescued!"
His eyes widened at her anger. "He kissed you!" he argued, as if this were reason enough.
"Yes, and what of it? I'm allowed to be kissed, aren't I?" she retaliated sharply.
"Not by Peter Cross!"
"Well, I like him!" Mary cried, brushing past him and walking at a quick pace to leave him behind. He caught up with her and grabbed her arm.
Her cheeks were outlined by the light of the moon, creating hard lines and casting a shadow over her eyes. "I don't need you to protect me! I'm a woman now, Matthew, whether you like it or not."
She yanked her arm back. "I'm going inside. Go back to Claire." she commanded icily, and turned back, practically running up the darkened steps and into the still brightly lit interior of Downton Abbey.
A/N: The plot thickens...let me know what you think! I'm floored by the amount of response I've gotten so far. You are all fantastic!