Thanks to Carissa for her support and to Laura for her marveleous oink idea. Happy 22nd! Enjoy! ;)


Yorkshire, 1916

Two years. She has been away for two years. Sometimes, she can hardly believe that it has been that long, but there are also days when her past seems a lifetime away. A past from which she can no longer run, she realizes with helpless agony as the train promptly moves across the fields that lead back to home. Downton. A lifetime away.

He has moved on, she has been told. Found someone else, a nice girl - nicer than she ever was, and now he is engaged to be married. The thought should not affect her as much as it does, but as they move with steady speed, quickly approaching her old life - his new life, she feels cold fingers of regret touching an old wound. And she knows that the feelings that she resolutely chose to forget are slowly being unveiled. But one does not have control over such emotions, do they?

The breeze that tickles her skin is a welcome interruption. And so is the hand that takes her own. She is dimly aware of the passing scenery as her gaze drifts from the blur of the trees to the man sitting beside her.

Charles.

She smiles as their eyes meet, she cannot help but smile.

"Everything alright?" He asks.

"Of course," she says, but her smile do not reach her eyes.

He knows that she is lying, and she loves him for not saying anything.

"It is going to be fine, Mary."

She leans into him, burrying her face in the crook of his neck. She cherishes his smell, oak and cigars, and the warmth of the arm he drapes across her shoulders. They settle in this comforting silence for the majority of their journey, and she is glad they are alone as she struggles to keep old ghosts in the past, focusing on his body against her own instead. It is not long until he falls asleep, she can tell by rise and fall of his chest, and she laughs in spite of herself. She takes his hand, plays with his fingers, and laughs.

A lifetime away indeed.

And soon she is lost in her own reveries again.

She thinks of that day, so long ago, with a heavy heart. She is happy now, more than she ever thought she would be, and much more than she believes to deserve. But his words are still painfully carved in her soul.

Do you love me enough to spend the rest of your life with me?

She can hear him as if he were there, and she fights against the tears threaten to fall. Albeit not usually allowing herself to dwell on the past, she has not been able to keep him away from her thoughts. Perhaps it was Mama's letter, telling her about his engagement, or perhaps it is the imminence of their encounter... And she shivers again, dreading to see him, and to acknowledge the grief that is all too fresh in her memory.

How much has happened since he walked away from her? Since he left her bereft and without any perspectives...

The turn her life has taken is almost too much to grasp, she realizes.

From those days indeed, the pain remains her only memory. The only vivid proof of what transpired in that garden. The suffocating ache that threatened to tear her apart, the desire to reach out to him and scream, and the powerlessness as she felt her life slipping through her fingers. The enduring emptiness when she understood what had been lost. Everything else is just a blur.

She remembers Carson's soothing words, and his arms coming around her. A moment later, she was in her room upstairs, packing. Mama's plea no more than a murmur, words that Mary still cannot quite make out. And then, she was in a train, seeking an escape from the only life she knew. Her vision as clouded as the sky she looked upon, and she finally acknowledged the pain as a part of her, a constant that she did not seem to be able to get rid of, however far she ran. A steady ache that faithfully followed her throughout those dreadful few months.

The first few months.

And just as her thoughts turn in that direction, her gaze moves to the handsome figure resting in the seat beside hers. And she smiles again.

Indeed, for those first several weeks, all of her actions had been out of duty. She would get dressed because it was necessary, smile because it was the polite thing to do, and attend dinner parties because it was expected of her. But she felt numb, as if life had somehow drained from her. The life she had dreamed of and was now permanently out of her reach.

But then...

"Mr. Napier!" She called, and a most genuine smile formed in her lips. To see a familiar face was a tremendous relief.

"Lady Mary," he said. "What a surprise! I didn't expect to see you tonight."

"A good one I hope," she said wryly.

"Of course."

"And who's your friend?" Her gaze moved to the man standing near them, studying him in a most discrete way.

"Oh, forgive me," he said. "Lady Mary, may I introduce you to Mr. Charles Blake."

"Mr. Blake," she greeted.

But she eyed him curiously. There was something intriguing about him. He was handsome, yes, but it was not that. There was something almost unreadable in his expression. Something fidgeting that she could not quite point out...

"Milady," he said dryly, and she raised a characteristic eyebrow at his unexpected poignancy.

"Mr. Blake works with me," Evelyn said in an attempt to break the uncomfortable silence that settled around them. "Or used to, before the war. Advising estate owners, that is."

"So you try to help?" She inquired.

"Not quite," was Charles answer. "Before the war, perhaps. Now Mr. Napier and I seem to disagree on the matter. He believes that the owners need help..."

"And you don't?" She interrupted.

"No," came his short reply. "I believe that the war has fundamentally changed our society, and we must adjust in order to survive."

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not sure I understand."

"We must look after the people, not the aristocracy. Those estates don't have as much room in this changing world anymore," he said.

Mary grins again as she remembers their first encounter. How his every word stirred her blood, enraged her, and yet how drawn to him she was. She did not like him, but there was something mysterious about this man that she could not get enough of. His wit aroused something in her, curiosity in a way, but not quite that. He challenged her, made her feel alive again, and she craved that... Far more than she was willing to admit.

"Lady Mary," a familiar voice startled her. The voice of a man she was barely acquainted with, and yet could not keep away from her thoughts.

"Mr. Blake," she said, her eyes rounding in surprise. "I didn't know you were on leave."

"My sister passed away four days ago," he lowered his gaze, playing with the lap of the hat in his hands. "But I'm afraid I must go back in three days time."

"I'm so sorry," she offered and touched his hand in a act of empathy.

The unexpected contact startled both. And a most delicious thrill washed over them. There was a pause though, not an uncomfortable silence like before, but rather a moment of understanding until he gathered the strength to speak again.

"Thank you," he said, mentioning for her to sit back down. "But I was rather hoping to speak with you."

"Oh," she gasped. Somehow, knowing that he wanted to see her again was a most delightful thought, even under such circumstances. The shadow of a smile thugged at the corners of her lips, and she fought to suppress it. Even if the faint blush in her cheeks might well have already given her away...

But Charles simply stared at her. What was it about Mary Crawley that he could not seem to let her go? He was mesmerized by her, utterly and completely. He had been, actually, since the first time he laid eyes on her. He adored her alabaster complexion, her freckled skin, her dark yet melancholic eyes... The way her every word challenged him in a most exciting fashion.

He could not keep her away from his thoughts, however much he tried.

Yet, how terribly rude he had been when they first met. He, more than anyone, should know how ephemeral like could be. But even after all he had lost, after all he had seen, he had once again allowed his damned proud to get in the way.

And now he ought to make amends.

His heart thudded loudly in anticipation of the words he knew must be voiced. There was no other way, or was there? No, not if there was to be hope...

"Please forgive me," he started. "I'm not sure how appropriate this might be."

"The suspense is killing me," she said wryly. But her aloof exterior in no way reflected the feelings building up inside her. An excitement that she longed for, but never thought she might experience again, not after... Or at least not for a long time to come.

"Lady Mary," he faltered. Her comment having escalated his nerves more than she knew, making his ability to speak seemingly impossible to grasp. "I would like to appologize. For the way I behaved. In our last encounter, I mean."

She was taken aback by his words, utterly shocked by his move. And immensely content. She opened her mouth to speak, but he was faster. Determination to make his cause before she could rebut him urging him to go on.

"To my surprise, I can't think of anything but you," he conceded at last. His nerves now clear as he spoke. "And I was hoping that perhaps we... could see more of each other."

She closed her eyes at his admission. His choice of words bringing back feelings that she would rather forget.

"I thought you didn't like the aristocracy," she said mockingly. Her one last defence. But it was a lost battle, she knew. His charming smile was completely disarming, as was the excitement of being in his company. He intrigued her, and she wished nothing but to untangle every detail about this mystery man.

The whistle of the train alerts Mary that they are getting closer, but does not pull her completely out of her musings. Charles is still asleep, she notices, and she does not have the heart to wake him. Instead, she dives back into this world of reminiscences.

Their first letter, their first date, even their first fight. She thinks of how his every visit is a cause for celebration and grasps that feeling, holding it onto her heart. The glee found by his side numbing the pain caused by another man, sorrow that slowly succumbed to rediscovered happiness. And now to think... She stops and grins. The sight of the rock on her finger almost too much to take in.

She is completely absorbed in her own memories when the train stops and reality hits her. The intensity of the blow almost knocks her out of breath.

Matthew.

But as she takes Charles hand and steps out of the train, she harbors no doubts.

I love this man.

And she lies to herself.

Everything is going to be fine.

To be continued...


A penny for your thoughts?

This tale was initially planned as a one shot, but now I would love to finish it on a five-ish chapter story. So feedback would be most appreciated. Oh, just out of curiosity, this was inspired by a song called Let Her Go, by Passenger.

Ps: still haven't decided if this is going to be MM or MC, it could go either way ;)