Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: It is two months since the events of episode 8 when the reappearance of a forgotten talisman in Matthew's sock drawer sets off a chain reaction which might be enough to break a cycle of destructive behaviour. Eventual catharsis.
Read Chapter Two here!
Her lips were chapped. It was a silly thing to notice but it was nevertheless the first thing Matthew was aware of when she kissed him. It was also the last, as delirious heat rushed through him making his head swim, and he pulled her to him, his arms tightening unconsciously round her waist and smoothing over her back. One of her delicate hands slid up into his hair but her other, the one clasping the toy dog, still hung limp by her side. She kissed him fiercely however, and her lips, strangely softer than they seemed a second ago, parted under his. Another bolt of hot desire shot through him and shocked him to the core. He pulled desperately away from her. Their lips were the last to part, however, and even as he pushed her away from him back against the pillar, they lingered on hers before finally separating.
He held up his hands in defence. “What – what was that?” He stared at her wildly, breathing heavily as he tried to control his reaction. It was utterly inappropriate in every way. He was inappropriate.
Mary had turned her head away from him and covered her mouth with her hand before wiping it slowly across her lips. She looked back at him, her eyes dark with passion and hurt.
She took a shuddering breath and swallowed before replying, “That – that was you.”
“I don't understand.”
“No, but I want you to. I want-”
“By kissing me?” Matthew spluttered. “Good God, Mary, what is that meant to achieve?” He shook his head as his breathing calmed a little. “Life isn't the fairytale you seem to want to believe. The princess won't ever wake no matter what you do.”
She moved forwards and took hold of his arm, speaking with more urgency. “Then let her sleep, Matthew!”
She was too close to him again and he reacted automatically to her proximity, his eyes dropping to her lips for a split second before he pulled them up, ashamed of himself.
“No!” he cried, taking a step back and flinging off her hand. “Mary, you're like a witch! A – a siren or some kind of dark fairy.”
“A siren? Oh, I assure you I'm perfectly human.”
Matthew felt that he was losing his grasp on reality. Her kiss had thrown him completely and he felt as if he were being backed into a corner, a corner of his own creation. The sun, lower in the sky than it had been, was still beating down on him even under the portico and he felt a prickly stickiness under his waistcoat that removing his jacket had not helped. The only bright reality was Mary and this argument that seemed to be being passed backwards and forwards like a flaming ball that neither dared to touch for too long. For arguing they most certainly were and although he felt as if he was slowly losing the thread of the debate, it seemed tremendously important to him to keep throwing the ball back at her. Because if he stopped... if he stopped...
“Because you tempt me! That's what sirens do, tempt people from the path of duty and virtue and that's exactly what-”
She flung out her arms. “Oh, Matthew Matthew Matthew, do stop sounding like the heroine of an eighteenth century novel; nobody cares about your virtue!”
“I do!” He jabbed his finger at his own chest, glaring at her. “What else do I have? I let her down, I failed, I fell. How else can I atone?”
“Do you think you're the first?” she burst out at him, her expression anxious, desperate, pleading. Her earlier coolness had completely gone, to be replaced by a harsh, burning intensity that terrified as much as it treacherously excited him. She stepped forwards again, invading his personal space and he stumbled back, feeling the tension in his legs. “Do you think you're the first to make a mistake? The first to regret their actions?”
“Of course not, but-” She had been engaged too, he considered. She still was.
“But you have a choice! You have a choice, Matthew,” she repeated more quietly but with no less insistence, “between letting it rule your every waking moment and giving your years up to what you cannot change and letting it dominate everything you do or-”
“Or?” he interrupted as his back hit the next pillar along; she had pushed him with force of will alone.
“Or continuing to live, as the rest of us have to!”
Her eyes were too bright and the sun too low. He looked away. “I can't!”
Mary expelled her breath and momentarily twisted her head away with an expression of the greatest pain. It hurt Matthew to see her and quite unexpectedly he felt tears prick at his eyes as his throat closed up once more, though he had no idea whether his pity was for her or for himself.
“I can't,” he repeated.
She raised her eyes to his and something in her expression had settled. Taking hold of his hand, she raised it so that their palms were laid flat against each other then slid her fingers between his, holding on so tightly that her knuckles were white. Matthew's lips parted as his eyes flickered from her face to their joined hands and back again.
“There aren't many choices in life, I know that better than most,” she said with a false steadiness. Now that he allowed himself to listen, he could hear the fragility in her tone and the way her voice trembled under its smooth surface. “But the one thing we always have control over is how we manage the cards we have been dealt.”
Her grip was painful as if she was clutching at him for dear life and he brought his own fingers down over her fist to mirror hers. His nails dug into her skin. He did not know how to respond and could only repeat the same words with a cry of anguish, “Mary, I can't!”
“Oh, Matthew,” she sobbed, almost losing her final shred of control, and her nails dug into his skin too, “of course you can!”
It was the hitch of her breath that undid him. Or maybe it was the way the sun suddenly caught the moist shimmer in her beautiful eyes. Or the way that her pressure on his hand wasn't actually as painful as it should have been. Or the strength of her belief in him that had never once wavered.
Maybe it was simply her.
He caught her round her waist and pulled her towards him, flush against his chest, and bent his head to kiss her. She stretched against him, meeting him halfway with a force that took their breaths away. For a second they froze against one another and then her arm was round his neck, her fingers still fisted round the toy dog, and he could feel the angles of her shoulder blades through her blouse as it bunched under his hand, clutching her more possessively to him. There was no more stillness. The power of the kiss, all lips and tongue and teeth and desperate shifts of position and tilting of heads, was bruising, all encompassing, nothing either could have imagined was possible.
Matthew's eyelids were pressed together almost painfully tightly. Everything about him was tense and on edge – his legs, trembling with the effort of supporting him, his arms, rigid and clinging, even the force of his kiss was hard. She was so much the opposite: everything about her which should have been tough and unforgiving and hurtful to him was soft and pliable and warm in his arms. His hand came up and stroked her cheek, long, juddering strokes against the most delicate of skin and his shaking fingers came away wet: she was crying. Now he could feel it in the way she was kissing him more gently, more slowly, more deeply. Then she nibbled lightly on his lip and a groan slipped out of him from the very depths of his soul as his head tilted back, bumping gently against the pillar.
He pulled their clasped hands in against their bodies and his thumb grazed against her breast causing her to shudder, a fluttery movement he felt all the way down his body. He leaned back against the pillar, shifting awkwardly from one aching leg to the other without breaking the kiss. Her skin was so soft even through her thin, summer blouse and he rubbed his hand all over her back. With a gasp she arched against him and he pulled his lips away from hers for a moment to kiss her jaw. Another gasp that was more a suppressed sob. She pulled his head down to her neck and he buried his face against her skin and kissed her there too. She was so sweet, and the kisses turned into licks and then into sucks as he marked her with bruising need.
It was Mary and she was there against him like a fantasy. She had always been a little unreal to him, and there was a glorious paradox between the impossibility of what was happening – the very real feel of her warm body moving against his and her little sounds of emotion and want – and how perfectly, how easily it could all be a hysterical dream. Maybe he would awake and find himself in his damnable bedroom back at Crawley House surrounded by the evidence of his packing. Or even worse, his army dugout or his childhood bed in Manchester. Then she twisted in his arms and bit down on his earlobe, pulling her hand out of his grip in order to wind that round his back too. He grabbed indiscriminately at her as he felt real, throbbing pain, and cried out, “Oh God!”
His eyes flew open and hit the glowing, evening sun. Blinking spots from his eyes he forced her head back from his and stared at her.
“Mary...” he began. He felt drugged, peculiar, both hot and cold, tense, longing, nervous, everything. He couldn't stop touching her, running his hands over her back, her sides, her neck, her cheek... Anything to avoid breaking their contact and returning to the gloom of what he knew to be reality. He blinked again and licked his lips, tasting her on them. His stomach clenched and he felt another almost unbearable way of desire wash over him as her chest, rising and falling with her rapid breaths, brushed lightly against his.
“Mary,” he tried again, his voice impossibly deep and hoarse, “you're going to be married.”
A tiny line appeared between her eyes as she frowned and she pulled her lips in and chewed them, a little mannerism he had never seen on her before and which he could not help focusing on. Then she spoke and his eyes shot back to hers.
Matthew opened his mouth and then closed it. Memories shot through him and he shook his head and brushed away the remnants of her tears from her cheek.
“Well, aren't you?” he replied tensely.
Now she glanced down to his lips and Matthew briefly closed his eyes and leaned his head against the pillar: she wanted to kiss him again, she did. And he wanted to kiss her too because, God, he always wanted to kiss her and what-
“You know, I'm not so sure any more.”
She was staring at him in perplexity and somehow Matthew felt that the balance of power had shifted. She was looking at him as if she were the one asking the question and he could be expected to answer it. He didn't know how he was meant to, he wasn't even sure what the question was, but then her fingers slid into his hair on the base of his skull and he forgot what he was trying to understand and kissed her again.
Mary melted against him instantly, her mouth opening to him, and there was something different about it. This new kiss felt both sweeter and yet more intimate. Something had changed. Her arms wound round his neck and he held her more tightly, exploring her, questioning her, and receiving only the warmest, deepest confirmation in her response. He felt emotion well up in him and the only possible answer seemed to be to kiss her and hold her and be kissed and be held by her. It wasn't enough though. He could feel her body through her blouse, lithe and solid and human, but it still wasn't enough. His feet hit the base of the pillar as he attempted to shuffled backwards and straighten up. Instead he swayed forwards and forced her back; they needed to be closer... In response, she tugged on his shirt pulling it half out of his trousers in the process, and moved them both backwards. Matthew stepped forwards, pressing against her, and almost collapsed as he was deprived of the pillar and his legs, strained, pressured, trembling with the tension he felt all over, were forced to bear his full weight. She stumbled and had to push him away to prevent them both from falling.
“Matthew!” she gasped, retaining his hand in a tight grip. “What is it?”
He shook his head, raising his eyes to the ceiling of the folly in despair. A sudden, new wave of humiliation and shame washed over him. He really was good for nothing. “My legs. I can't even-”
“Ssh, it doesn't matter,” she interrupted him, and then her arms were around him again and she was burying her face in his neck and kissing it. Matthew expelled a sigh and leaned back against the pillar. For a moment his desire for her was dimmed by his feelings of inadequacy and the aching in his legs.
“Oh, Matthew,” she murmured into his hair as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “I love you so very much.”
He felt a strange, momentous hesitation before he wrapped his arms gently round her and stroked her back. For the first time he felt able to accept her and her love. Saying it out loud made it real as nothing else had done. He tipped his head back and stared out at the evening sun burnishing Mary's hair and turning it a glittering gold. Then he kissed the top of her head.
“I know,” he replied thickly.
For a few minutes they remained together as the sky turned a deeper and deeper pink outside the folly. Matthew continued to gently stroke Mary's back, feeling her soft breath tickle his ear. He felt her gradually relax in his arms and a new calmness fall over them both, only marred by the inevitable prickling, coiling need that he could not help feeling and the growing stiffness in his legs, brought on from such unusual exertion. He shifted from foot to foot, trying desperately to ignore it.
Mary pulled away and met his eyes. “You're in pain.”
His fingers danced along the baseline of her hair and her eyes fluttered closed for a moment.
“No,” he replied. “Not really. I can manage.”
It was an obvious lie and the corner of her lips turned up. “It's alright, Matthew. You don't have to be a martyr to me.”
She kissed him briefly and traced down his arms with her hands until she held both of his. She descended from the steps of the folly and onto the grass. Matthew frowned and broke eye contact to glance at where his stick lay abandoned on the floor. Then he looked back at her. What did he need that for when he had her?
She led him down the steep slope and finally stopped when they reached level ground. Matthew blinked in the brightness of the sun illuminating the house in the background and the woman in the foreground. He felt uncomfortably warm out here once more, heat beating down from all sides and radiating from her hands and spreading all through him.
He frowned and licked his lips. “What do you want, Mary?” he asked her, rubbing his thumbs gently over her hands.
She smiled slightly. “You, Matthew. If you'll have me.”
He blinked and looked down, his insides churning at the intent he could perceive in her voice, however deceptively light it was. He knew her better than that.
Poppies were growing in the grass, their redness like a splash of vivid blood in the green. Poppies for remembrance. Poppies for Flanders. Poppies for the dead.
And yet... Poppies, wild and waving and bright and unstoppable in their takeover of the field. Poppies for the living.
Slowly Matthew raised his eyes to hers and took a step forward. He cupped her face with one hand and then leaned forward and very deliberately kissed her, his hand sliding into her hair and pulling her clip out. They fell to their knees opposite each other and her hair tumbled onto her shoulders in one fluid movement. It was soft and warm and so very much hers and he ran his fingers through it with wonder as she pulled the rest of his shirt out of his trousers and set to work on his belt. Now her fingers were on his skin ghosting over his back and waist, hot and tender and so very alive and real. He shivered and suddenly her hair and her lips weren't enough. He lowered his hands and started to explore her, the curve of her neck, her back and waist and breasts, her hips... Every touch, every caress, every responding gasp or moan was a brilliant proclamation of her reality and brought him to shuddering life. She sank back into the grass and he lowered himself over her, feeling every contour of her body beneath him, trembling and open and alive. So very, very alive.
The low sun was in his eyes, the blue sky above them was streaked with red, red as the poppies in the green grass around them and under them. Everything was luminous with colour and radiance, a brightness that drove away forever any thought of his black jacket, abandoned on the floor of the folly with his stick and other trappings of what once had been. High above them, a bird circled in the sky, the merest speck of white, and Mary tore her eyes from Matthew's to look at it over his shoulder. The bird emitted a piercing shriek, flying lower, and the woman cried out with it and buried her face in his neck, biting down on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms round her, cradling her to him, and rocking against her, pressing his eyes shut. But even then the brightness would not disappear. Everything in him was brilliant, shining, pulsing, living, liquid heat. He kissed her over and over again, every kiss an affirmation, an apology, a pledge and she arched to meet him every time, pulling him closer to her until he could go no further. Matthew's eyes opened wide and met hers, seeing the sun reflected in them. They seemed to shoot gold sparks and for a moment he was lost in them and she was was lost in his before, with a wordless groan, everything coalesced into a kaleidoscope of colour, bursting forth it seemed from the very earth, throbbing in tune with their ecstasy.
Even afterwards, when Matthew had rolled onto his back and finally opened his eyes, nothing had faded. He looked up and the sky was still streaked with brilliant red and gold. Flying off towards the west were two birds, wheeling and calling to each other, burnished by the sun's rays like a pair of phoenixes.
Everything felt limp, as if he had been turned inside out, broken into pieces, and then somehow put back together but in an indescribably different way. His head was heavy and throbbed when he turned it to look at Mary. She lay on her back as well just a foot away from him, her chestnut hair spread out like a halo. Her chest rose and fell visibly with her breaths and her limbs were so loose that her hand fell from where it was resting on her stomach and she did nothing to stop it. Matthew watched her with fascination, his eyes tracing over her face, her eyelashes, her nose, her freckles, her lips, the curve of her neck and downwards, taking in every inch that his hands and lips had explored barely minutes earlier, with almost breathless incredulity combined with a full and satisfied appreciation of her, of the woman he had loved and still loved so very dearly.
As he became more and more aware of his own body he realised he was lying on something and squirmed on the grass until he was forced to half sit up and stick his hand in his pocket. Mary opened her eyes at this and turned her head with a frown.
“What's in my-” began Matthew in some confusion, reflecting as he spoke that these were probably the most inauspicious words possible with which to start a conversation considering what they had just done. Then he looked at what he pulled out of his pocket and fell silent: the toy dog.
He looked from it to her and she shrugged a little. “I had to put it somewhere,” she murmured contentedly.
Matthew had to admit he had really not been paying attention at that moment. He swallowed, suddenly feeling strangely nervous, and held it out to her.
“What are you doing?” she asked, sitting up.
He tried out a smile, just a small one. It felt unfamiliar. “Giving it back to you. Without a scratch, remember.”
Mary looked down at it briefly and then back at him. She tilted her head to one side. “You already gave it back to me.”
He shook his head. “No, I didn't; I threw it at you. It's not the same thing, Mary.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled sweetly but still didn't take it. “Are you giving yourself a second chance to get it right then?”
“Maybe I am.”
She flopped back on the grass and smiled up at the sky, one arm stretched above her head. He could never have imagined seeing her so informally. Not sure what to do, he lay back down beside her, stretching out his arm between them with the toy lying in his open hand in case she wanted to take it. A few seconds passed and then he felt her fingers touch his palm, but she still didn't take the dog back. Instead, she curled his fingers over it and then without a word enclosed his hand with her own.
They lay like that for several long seconds or maybe minutes or even hours. Even now Matthew didn't know what to say. He didn't know where they stood with each other. He could never have imagined himself in this situation. He didn't even know if she was still engaged to Richard Carlisle or not. It seemed impossible that she should be and yet she had been and far be it for him to presume what Mary Crawley should do or what her motivations for marrying would be. Moreover, what on earth did one say to someone who had given their virtue freely and willingly to him in the grass below the folly? What did one say to the girl to whom one had just lost one's virtue? Matthew was sure there had to be an etiquette for this sort of thing but he didn't know what it was. There was so much he still didn't understand.
“Do you think we'll be happy?” she asked suddenly, in a pensive and curious murmur.
A feeling of warmth, pleasanter and less intense than the heat of earlier, began to spread through him at her words. He didn't say anything for a moment before eventually replying honestly, “I don't know.” She turned her head towards him, examining him carefully, and he turned his towards hers. “I – I'd like to think so, Mary. One day. I hope so!”
She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. “I hope so too.”