Mary and Carson bonding, which I've been meaning to touch on for awhile now. Carson is my second favourite Downton character, so. Thank you to Sam the wonderful for beta.

It had snowed that night, and the wind cut through the walls of the abbey, icy panes of glass rattling in the windows, although it just as well could have been her cold, shaking bones.

Mary found herself, in nightgown and robe, wandering the halls to the nursery, for she wondered how warm it would be as the depths of winter finally got under their skin. He was young, not even five months old, but she couldn't believe how quick the seasons passed, how they were nearly upon a new year, again, another one, but this time – oh, this time…

When she arrived, quiet and hesitant, she found the door already open and the warm glow from the hearth lighting the room and hallway. It crackled with life and she felt reassured at the comfort of the nursery and her son. She nearly turned back without being detected by whomever was also paying a late night visit. Either the nanny, or perhaps her Mama, in any case the baby boy would be well better off in their hands, so she wanted for the warmth of her own room until she heard a man's voice.

Of course not the man's voice she often imagined in there with him, as she was so certain he would have been, cooing and soothing his little heir, humming and reading, laughing and musing over the child they had brought into the world. Not his, though, it would never be his and she only heard it vaguely when the more maddened recesses of her mind took hold and she lost herself to it, needy and crazed – desperate to reconcile the baby boy and his father but it was impossible, the schism was great, one alive and the other dead and she could do nothing for it, could do nothing for them.

It was Carson, though, so that meant she was within her sanity, at least tonight, and she was thankful when she kept her wits about herself. But, she also wondered if she walked off of the brink, would she be reunited with him, would she hear his voice and see him everywhere, a loving ghost haunting her during her descent into madness? Only time would tell, she figured.

"Now now, little Master Crawley, what's the matter? Just the wind howling keeping you awake, maybe?" Carson's deep voice rumbled quietly to her child, and a smile touched Mary's lips before she knew it, for it was a tone she hadn't heard for many years – since she was a child herself. It was a softer side of Carson, a bright voice, comforting and teasing.

Mary stepped closer, wrapping her robe tightly around her, and peered through the crack in the door, watching Carson. He made sure the window was locked so as to prevent more rattling, held his hands along the frame to feel for any draft coming in, drew the curtains shut, and then he stoked the fire and it roared in the grate, bigger and better than before. He dusted his hands off and warmed them, proud of his handiwork. George was quiet for a moment but began to squirm and fuss, and Carson didn't hesitate to scoop him up in large arms, the boy so tiny against the butler's broad frame.

George looked protected and Mary's heart sprang to her throat, as she thought that was the one thing she hadn't been able to do for him – not since nearly the minute he was born and she couldn't protect him from a loss so great…

"There, there," Carson looked at him with ease, this Mary knew, for he had practically raised her, as Edith came along so soon after she did, and her Papa and his Boer war demons…Mary was lucky for Carson. He cared for her without the constraints of blood nobility or title, which was easy to do when one is young, and it was a funny thing that, growing up, she spent as much time downstairs as she did upstairs.

It was funny, too, that she couldn't quite remember when that changed.

But even though it had changed, even though her title did beckon her away for seasons and balls, weddings and honeymoons, Carson had always been on her side, always been the strength she might need if ever she were lacking.

And indeed there were times she was lacking, hurt and discouraged by the entail, jilted by Matthew at the garden party, bound to Sir Richard, oh and Carson, she put so much faith into him, unfairly so at times, and yes, he had always been there when all the others went away – even the only one, the lifelong one…Matthew.

"You can't be hungry, can you? It wouldn't do us good to wake your Mama at this time of night," he walked a pattern on the rug, bouncing George side to side, gently, humming quietly. Indeed, all the things a father might have done. "No, you only need coaxed back to sleep, your big eyes are closing already, hmm," Around and around and Mary watched as George's blinking slowed, nearly there, and her cold, sealed up heart nearly burst with all the love she felt, then, buried for months in pain and sorrow.

"You look very Grandfatherly, Carson," The butler, so very dear to her heart, didn't seem startled nor lose his determination in soothing the baby into a slumber as Mary stepped into the room, met with the warmth of the leaping flames in the fireplace.

"Oh, oh," He cradled the baby, turning to look at her, slowing his pace as the child's fussing became sleepy breaths and his wide, clear eyes hadn't opened for a few seconds. "I hope you don't mind, milady, nanny just put him down but he was fussing soon after,"

"Not at all, I rather it you than me," Mary said, and Carson's bushy brows knit nearly together as he considered her words, and noticed her pale coloured nightgown.

He'd only seen her in black for so many months now.

"How heartening it is to see you in white, Lady Mary," he said genuinely, and Mary pulled at the silk, self-conscious in something so light, something that contrasted the night, instead of black for her to hide away in.

She had not worn white in so long, and had worn it best on her wedding day.

"I feel foolish in it, to tell you the truth," Mary peered over at her son, peaceful and at rest in Carson's big embrace, and he adjusted the blanket so she could see how very asleep and beautiful he was.

Indeed, when she looked at the child as someone enjoying a newborn baby, she thought him beautiful and precious, but when it was her turn to hold him, or time to nurse, or the nanny was off duty so she had to take him for walks – well, she thought he was small and a bit scary, with blue eyes too big for his face, a tuft of hair that might match her own. No, she couldn't lie – she did love the child, she must, for it became too painful to resent him for reminding her of Matthew – and sometimes she still flinched when he'd coo or cry for her but other than that..she knew George was hers, was her child with Matthew, and she would grow to appreciate it more, she was certain, when he was older and the wounds on her heart eased some.

For now, though, it was much easier to see him in someone else's arms, rather than her own awkward ones, her timid and detached words hardly ever helping him. Yes, don't cry, I don't want you to cry, George – she could very rarely call herself Mama and had never once said aloud Papa, for to do so would be to remind everyone that he had none.

"You don't look foolish, you look alive," Carson huffed, speaking eloquently but dismissively. There were still barriers for their affection, he was the butler and she the Lady, though she loved Carson more openly than her own son, it seemed. "This is as close to grandfathering as I'll get, milady,"

"Mmm," Mary mused, now beside Carson, running the backs of her fingers along George's soft, plump cheek until he wrinkled his nose and then settled again. Yes, much easier when he was asleep, and she couldn't say, well that's Matthew's frown and his eyes and my nose and the only thing I have with Matthew, anymore… "You know, you are a grandfather to him in my eyes, Carson. Just as you were a father, too. Don't feel lesser because you're not blood – you might as well be and you've been apart of my life more reliably than anyone."

More reliably than Matthew, who had left her alone, broke her heart and damned her spirit, killed her soul – took the living part of her with him and left for the world a figment, a spectre, a shell of a woman, indeed, she was the ghost of Downton now.

"I appreciate that, my lady," He said seriously, softly, the baritone in his voice replaced with emotion.

Mary's eyes welled suddenly and her nose stung, but she wouldn't cry, for she hadn't cried for months. She cried hysterically, wickedly for days, and then eventually she just stopped and felt no emotion for the longest time. Especially no emotion for him, for Matthew – no, she wouldn't, she wouldn't feel that loss again and again, she refused to.

But for Carson, well, she thought of the fact his only family were the Crawleys and how he cared for them dearly, he supported her and loved George, oh, better than anyone could. She wished for him a full life, one in which he felt loved, and she hoped that he would know, family or none, they were his and he was theirs. How hard it must be to age and get further from having blood relatives – to know the reality of working as a butler and abiding by the lines dictated by titles and she hoped he did not regret his life, nor feel any loss for it.

Carson could spend as much time with George as he liked, which was important to her, because there was loss at their very cores, George was practically born into mourning, and he would need all the love he could get, her tiny heir of a boy, with no father and an equally lifeless mother.

"I mean it. You're very dear to me, you'll be very dear to him,"

"And is he very dear to you?" He asked, as she secured the blanket back around the sleeping baby, and Carson lowered him into his bassinet, while Mary returned to her detached regard of the boy.

"He should be, shouldn't he," She murmured quietly, watching him sleep, not feeling particularly attached or moved at the precious scene. "Maybe he will be, someday."

"I'm sure he already is, milady, but it's something difficult to know right now,"

"Well of course, the moment I held him – I loved him deeply, but it's all felt…stunted since,"

"You mustn't let yourself be defeated, Lady Mary. It'll bloom again someday," They stood side by side watching the babe, the saviour of Downton, Matthew Crawley's heir.

"What will – love? Oh, I don't know," she scoffed and sighed, moving across the room to the window, peering through the curtains to watch the snow flurry down in swirls and whirls with the gusts of wind.

It would soon be 1922, another year, another change, and it was just – oh, just two years since – how could it only be two years since then, since that magical, lovely night? That was it, that was all they'd had? Somehow she had never thought of it in terms of numbers, had never counted it out but – just two years since he had proposed to her in the snow after the servant's ball, we've been on the edge of this so many times, Matthew, please don't take me there again unless you're sure, and he was sure, and he held her hand, down on one knee, and he kissed her and spun her round and round as the snow fell and her heart beat fast, her cheeks cold and ached from smiling, loving, sweet Matthew…

"It snowed like this when he proposed to me, only softer," she touched the window and her fingers printed on the glass. "He gave me the ring the next day, trekked back up through the snow, never stopped smiling the whole night, he told me. Nor did I."

The butler clicked the lamp off and the fire created strange shadows on the wall, dark and leaping, the stuff of nightmares, shapes she could imagine told the tale of his death. She was never free from it, she lived within it, the inescapable fact he was gone, and she feared for the day that it never felt like he was ever there.

"That was a happy time, milady,"

"The happiest," Mary croaked, suddenly loathe to return to her empty bed, her room closed off from the world, from the living, a place in which she imagined him and dreamed of him and ached for him. "I'll never feel that way again."

"You can if you want to, I think," Carson's voice rumbled soothingly beside her and suddenly the room was too dark, George's quiet, peaceful presence too much of a reminder, and she left in a billow of silk to the well-lit hallway.

Carson was behind her, and pulled the door to, and they walked away from the nursery and away from Mary's room, descending the stairs together without thinking much about it.

The thing was, she didn't want to feel that way again, not about anyone but Matthew. Even if she did want to, she never would – She never could recapture that, for even now, just the winter after he died, she could only remember the way he made her feel in fleeting moments that stole her breath. He was gone and he was leaving her so quickly, fading through her grasp, slipping from her fingertips. She worried of all that she would forget, all she wouldn't be able to tell their child – she regretted their lost years, some days she regretted everything because cursed, doomed, damned and this was what became of them.

"You must also think me selfish, Carson. Bemoaning my loss but at least I had…" Mary trailed off, turning to the butler, wondering if she was about to offend him.

"Lady Mary," Carson said, louder than he had since they'd met up, and he sounded perhaps defensive. "I'll have you know that I don't regret anything I've done with my life,"

"No – not at all. You're an accomplished man, Carson, and we couldn't do without you,"

"Even so, milady, I'll say it's better to have had…what you had with Mister Crawley, rather than not," On their way downstairs, she stopped for a book, and then they continued, the butler and Lady moving through the grand house like the oddest of partners, a formidable pair, prideful and proper but both cared deeply for each other, and those around them, more than they could say. Yes, their bond, their tie, their kinship.

"Thank you, Carson, I'll know so someday,"

Mary watched Carson, knowing him as he was, knowing him for all he had done, and wondered, at that statement, of the life he may have had, the children, the love he could have known. It didn't make his life mean less for not having had it but – it put into perspective Matthew Crawley, her love and loss, and she hoped to appreciate that time together, short as it was, as the pain passed over her…through the years, as the years most certainly would pass…leaving her alone without him, leaving her to…try…

To try to love their son, to try to love him, as he rested in her memories, far away from her, stagnant in her mind and their time together standing still, nothing new to come from them, no – the only new she would know of Matthew would be his child and oh, wasn't that something, wasn't that everything?


They found themselves downstairs, Mary standing beside the stove as Carson prepared her his hot cocoa, and then into Carson's parlour, a habit from many years gone by. Mary would take a book down to spend the twilight of the day with the butler, she his favourite, and they would be quiet, as Carson worked and scribbled, arranged things and sipped his own tea. He would harrumph and make notes, cross things out, take stock of this and that, and eventually he would reach the end, satisfied enough for the night, and he would relax.

And then she would relax, taking such a comfort in his presence, especially then, comfort which she found no where else – This was somewhere Matthew's ghost didn't lurk, something untouched by him, a place free from the darkness, quiet below the stairs where she felt most at ease. She felt younger, too, this ritual unchanged by the time that had gone by, the years that had eroded them, taken Crawley members aplenty.

She felt they were equal in this moment, Carson still dressed in uniform and she in her night clothes, dishevelled and flirting with the brink. Here they were both seated and comfortable, unlike upstairs where a butler didn't make himself at home on the furniture and it was stupid and meaningless, but it was her life – her legacy – so she simply thought these moments precious between them.

Quiet and easy, whereas much of her life wasn't anymore, where there were times she hardly recognized herself and wondered if he, if Matthew would either. Look what I've become, Matthew, she would mutter to an empty room and to her empty self.

"Master Crawley – George, that is – looks most like you, a very great deal, I think I should say," Carson interjected, matter-of-factly, holding his teacup and saucer and Mary smiled, not looking up from her book.

"You're just saying that because you're angry with Matthew on my behalf," She mused, turning a page, teasing him. "You've always been on my side like that. But I can't deny those eyes aren't mine."

"Not angry, milady," Carson folded some in his seat, tired with the hour and oh the loss of the last few years took a toll on everyone. The employees felt the deaths just as awfully as anyone, and they had lost their own…had lost William, a good man who had saved Matthew's own damned life…yes, they were all scathed by the war and the years surrounding it…

"Just protective," Mary offered, looking at him across the room, an understanding sentimentality heavy between them.

"Well, he was always quite fickle, in my opinion,"

"Oh Carson, I don't think we can blame him for this, as much as I've tried. I don't think one can be fickle in death." Mary laughed, shaking her head, sloshing her cocoa.

"Hmph," But the slightest smile touched Carson's face, too. "What's that you're reading, milady?"

"A book he loved very much," Mary ducked her head, very nearly embarrassed at her undying attachment to Matthew but, then again – of course she'd feel this way, of course she'd want to maintain that connection somehow, even as she felt it abandoning her, she was desperate to hold on.

"He loved you very much." Carson sighed, as weary with the notion as was she. Yes, he had, but then –
"Sometimes, when I wake…I forget – and I can feel him still there – but then when I become aware…he's gone as quick as he really left me. I wish I could…live within those briefest moments before it comes back to me." She picked at the book, at the peeling spine, a torn page, and she felt the ache low within her, that never entirely left. It burned between her stomach and heart, came and went, and she wished, she wished...

"But you can't, can you? You mustn't,-"

"Let myself be defeated, I know; you said. But I am defeated and won't make promises saying otherwise."

Carson sighed again, swirling his tea around, likely wishing it were port instead, and regarded her with a softer expression – fatherly, that of a confidante, seeing a broken woman, instead of the Lady.

"Do you think you're on your way out of the fog, Lady Mary?" He asked softly and she met his eyes, concern etched faintly across his features, lines settling onto her own face as she pondered.

"No, not likely. The holidays…and Edith so happy, in love…it was just after New Year's that he proposed…a new year without him…" Mary trailed off, not saying what she could have, not sharing the darker part of that thought.

That it was all bearing down on her, a black cloud from which she saw no escape, a cold winter, a cold grief that would strand her in that bedroom until she was but a shell, until she flinched at daylight and snapped at all who stood in the way of her decomposition into mourning.

"But maybe so, Carson, maybe I am coming out of it." A bright voice, a practised tone, a false hope – a lie, and they both knew.

"Glad to hear, milady."

They finished their warm beverages in silence, an easy silence, one of the few she had known since her husband had died, for all she heard was wailing from herself and George and the last words that he, that Matthew spoke to her – over and over again in her head until she wanted to spit them onto his grave.

She rose from the table, leaving the book behind, thanking the dear butler for the hot cocoa, wrapping herself into the layers of white fabric that entirely betrayed her black heart.

"You're welcome, Lady Mary. Perhaps I'll see you for the meals tomorrow?"

"No, not likely."

And the widowed mother of the heir of Downton returned to their bedroom, ascending the stairs, on her way back to that hell, one that catered so perfectly to all of her fears that it was an astonishing thing.