Chapter 1: Make Us Take Our Different Sides
By the time she wakes up, late afternoon light is filtering in through the curtains and there’s a steady drumming behind her eyes. When she slides a hand across the bed, she finds herself alone. There’s an indentation on the pillow next to hers and a familiar soreness in her back and legs, but the sheets are cold beside her and she counts it as a blessing. She wipes the sleep from her eyes and takes a few deep breaths before throwing the covers off and dragging herself from bed.
She pulls on a robe and nearly trips over one of Evelyn’s jackets on the way to the kitchen. There’s a half-empty bottle of champagne on the counter; last night it made her giddy, made her laughter climb two octaves, but it’s lukewarm now and bitter and it drips down between her fingers when she drinks. She stands in the middle of her silent flat and slowly stretches out the tightness in her neck and shoulders. The walls around her are a dusky pink that catches on the photos there, the light brushing over all the faces staring blankly from their frames. Mama and Edith at a birthday party, her sister’s gap-toothed grin wide and beaming; Granny and Sybil at a piano recital, flowers clasped excitedly in her sister’s small hands. The photos are all older than they should be and her father is absent from all but the smallest, which sits at the end of a shelf, half-tucked behind a stack of books. If any of her family notices on their infrequent visits, they’re not so foolish as to mention it.
Mary sweeps her eyes across the photos on her way toward the windows and squints into the glaring sunlight as it slips down toward the horizon. She reaches out to touch the glass, splays her hand out wide enough to cover a dozen city blocks. It’s there, between her first and second fingers, across the skyline and a taxi ride away. The ledges are crumbling and the windows full of sunset, but she still imagines she can see straight into her father’s office. When the estate agent first brought her in she went straight for the windows, found Downton Tower by force of habit and nodded, just once. She paid for it with her father’s money and signed the lease with a cold smile.
The fading light turns the tower’s windows orange. Mary’s fingers are sticky with champagne and they catch as she slides her hand along enough to press her palm over Downton, covering the whole building street to sky. She stands there until the glass warms beneath her skin and by the time she turns away, the sun’s slipped down beneath the skyline.
She drains the last of the champagne on her way to the shower, fills the bathroom with music and steam and doesn’t come out until her skin’s a fierce pink. She styles her hair, does her make-up, lines her lips and eyelids with colors so bold Granny’s eyes would roll back in her head. She’s methodical in her actions. She sways her hips as the speakers pulse and she runs her fingers along this blouse and that dress and a jacket Kemal gave her for her birthday. Buttons are done up and zips are zipped and when she walks across the foyer, she pauses long enough to check herself in the mirror. Her dress is tight, her jacket fitted, her hair curled just so against her shoulders. Chin up, shoulders back. There’s no give in the click of her heels across the tile, and when she steps out into the night she hardly feels the cold.
Mary wears the black chiffon for her mother, the hem grazing her knees and the fabric hugging her curves only loosely. When she was dismissed from Said (“dismissed,” her mother tells people when they ask, because it’s more forgiving than “kicked out” or “dropped out” or anything a bit nearer the truth) Mama had done her few favours, reigned her father’s temper in only slightly. What she feels she owes her mother is most often quite little, and yet. The black chiffon suits her, Mama says, when they’re finally sat for tea. Mary smiles demurely and pours milk into her cup, and doesn’t comment on the fact that Sybil’s sense of fashion wanders haphazardly toward the bohemian and no one seems to mind. Sybil just smiles and fiddles with one of her dozen bracelets.
Granny fills them all in on the latest gossip from around town: the Schaffer’s daughter is in rehab again, the Lennox boy ushered out of yet another school. Frederick Barton’s business is floundering and Jean Simpson’s been under the knife again. Mary sips her tea and wonders what the gossip about the Crawleys is these days. She hopes Jean Simpson looks as delighted to tell it as Granny does right now.
Sybil tells them about school, about the philosophers she’s studying and the books she’s read. Mama nearly beams and Granny says, with her usual air of satisfaction, “Of course you’re doing well. Crawley women are known for more than their looks, dear.” Maybe it’s Mary’s imagination but the silence that follows is unusually long and the look her mother and grandmother exchange seems more than a little pointed. Mary has the wisdom to keep her opinions to herself and ask after Sybil’s study groups instead.
Granny and Mama set off together after tea, kisses pressed lightly to Mary’s cheeks and her mother’s voice soft in her ear. “You should come to the charity ball,” she says. “Your father would love to see you.” Mary keeps herself from rolling her eyes, but only just.
She and Sybil decide to do a bit of shopping, though that gives way to walking up and down Knightsbridge just peering in the windows. Sybil keeps pointing out scarves in colors Mary wouldn’t be caught dead in, but Sybil’s always pulled them off well enough. There’s a bright blue spot of silk beneath her chin now, tucked into the collar of a leather jacket. Mary reaches out and teasingly tugs at the zip. As much as her family situation can be tense on its best days, things with Sybil have always run a smoother course. Sybil smiles and pulls away and asks, “How are things with Kemal?”
This time Mary doesn’t keep herself from rolling her eyes. She digs in her bag for a cigarette and lights it while they look through the window at a shoe display. “How should I know?” she says. She watches herself in the glass, smoke billowing away over her shoulder. “He’s abroad somewhere, I think.”
“You think?” Sybil’s eyes catch hers in the reflection; Mary tries not to notice just how grown up her baby sister has become. “You don’t know?”
Mary flicks ash onto the pavement and wipes at an imagined smudge of make-up in the corner of her eye. When he’d left two weeks ago--for a “sojourn in Italy,” as he’d called it--he’d swiped his thumb along her jaw and kissed her hairline. She hasn’t heard from him since and if she had to name the silence, she’d call it restful. “I’m not his keeper.”
Sybil’s laughter is just shy of mocking, but it’s still the kindest thing anyone in her family has had to say about her and Kemal in months so Mary doesn’t mind. They keep walking, tucked close together against the wind, while Sybil rambles on about her classes and her clubs and her committees, the thousand and one ways she’s intent on changing the world. “And I’ve been helping out at the office,” she says, very nearly under her breath.
Mary slows to a halt outside a display of evening dresses, fuchsia and violet and cobalt blue all flashing through the window. With all this talk of school and now the business, Mary’s fingers twitch and she lights another cigarette just to occupy her hands. She only takes one drag before Sybil’s fingers close over her own, pulling the cigarette away.
Sybil tugs at her jacket and pulls at her scarf, half turned away as she brings the cigarette to her lips and takes a drag. Mary waits a long moment for the cough and sputter that will surely follow, but they never come. “Don’t look at me like that,” Sybil says, exhaling. The smoke curls in ribbons above their heads.
“Give me that,” Mary says and Sybil doesn’t fight her. “That Branson’s a bad influence on you.”
“Don’t blame Branson.” Sybil comes to his defense as if by rote. Robert Crawley would be less than thrilled to find out his youngest daughter keeps company with a budding socialist, and if Mary loved Sybil less she’d have told their father long ago just to see the look on his face. “Gwen already harps on me enough.”
Mary breathes out a laugh. “As she should.”
Sybil smirks. “Hypocrite.”
“Bloody right.” They’re silent a long moment. Mary turns away from the window and watches the buses and taxis pass by. When the cigarette’s burned down to the filter, she finally says, “You’re helping out at the office?”
Sybil keeps her eyes on the gowns behind the glass. “Papa wants to get more involved with the charities the company gives money to. He said I could help.”
Mary crushes the stub beneath her heel and lets a wave of resentment creep into her voice. “Papa wants a tax advantage and to keep you under his thumb.”
Ever since they were little girls, Papa’s treated Sybil differently. A bit gentler, less roughness in his speech and mannerisms, more generous with his affection. Perhaps it was because she was the baby and always sure to be; complications during the delivery meant her parents knew there’d be no more. Maybe that’s what made Sybil precious to their father; what makes her precious to everyone else is a tougher question to answer, but Mary supposes it has something to do with the kindness that creeps into Sybil’s eyes when she leans over and nudges Mary’s shoulder with her own. “I like doing it,” she says. “I have real meetings and everything. Well, lunch meetings. Matthew and I--”
And whatever spell Mary might’ve been under is snapped in two. “Ugh, Matthew again. If I hear his name one more time, I’ll spit.”
Sybil narrows her eyes. “He’s not so bad, you know.”
“He’s a twat,” Mary answers.
Sybil stifles a laugh. “You’ve never even met him.”
“And I still know he’s a twat.” Six months of hearing his name, of hearing everyone refer to him so reverently, have given Mary enough spite to last a lifetime. She only keeps herself from pouting through sheer force of will.
Sybil turns back toward the shop window and peers through the glass. “He’s cute you know,” she says.
A bus clatters by behind them, sending Mary’s hair whipping around her face. “Of course, he is.”
“How do you know?”
Sybil keeps her eyes trained on the window. “Never mind that. He’ll be at the charity dinner,” she says, “and I think you should come meet him.”
Mary laughs and the traffic carries the sound off down the street. “And why is that?”
When Sybil turns to her, the grin on her face is very nearly wicked. No wonder Gwen can’t get her to stop smoking; she can’t be denied anything with a face like that. “Because if you wear that blue number in the back there, you’ll absolutely flatten him.”
They’re still laughing when they step into the store.
“Do we have the proposals from Crowborough?” Matthew shuffles papers around his desk, flipping over files and checking underneath his blotter. “I can’t find them.” Molesley shouts something from the outer office but Matthew can’t hear it. He pauses, hands pressed down onto his desktop, and sighs. It’s especially long-suffering and makes him feel perhaps a little bit better, but does nothing to locate the papers he needs.
Molesley comes striding into the room with a file folder tucked under his arm. “Here are the proposals for the Crowborough deal. Mr. Crawley needs them by four.”
Matthew takes the folder from Molesley’s outstretched hand and flicks through them hurriedly. They’re in the final stages of a deal that’s taken six weeks and a thousand man-hours, and Matthew’s felt the pressure every day since the deadline started to close in. Six months on the job and he feels sure-footed enough until someone who thinks he could do better walks in. Which is to say, anyone whose place he took when he got promoted apparently out of the blue. Which is to say, everyone. Matthew sighs again and runs a hand through his hair. “Did Bates--”
“He filed the papers this morning. Nothing but a few signatures left.”
Matthew snorts out a disbelieving laugh. “Touch wood it goes off that smoothly.”
Whatever Molesley was going to say is cut off by a knock on Matthew’s office door. When he looks up, Sybil’s in the doorway with a paper bag in her hand. “Am I early?”
Matthew waves her in and points her toward the sofa. “No, I just need a minute. Getting Crowborough sorted today.”
Sybil nods her head understandingly, even though she probably has little idea what he’s on about. She sits down and starts setting out lunch while he and Molesley finish marking the pages for signatures, checking that every last thing is in place. Sybil waits.
It’s been nearly two months since they started working together on Downton’s charitable contributions. It was Robert’s idea. He went on for awhile about social responsibility and the necessity of giving back; he stopped short of saying “noblesse oblige,” but only just. What Robert didn’t explain quite as well was why his youngest daughter would be helping with the allotments and approvals, and at first Matthew hadn’t understood it either. She didn’t have anything to do with the company and didn’t seem especially interested in the way it ran or what he did, but by the end of the meeting he knew why she was there. Her eyes were bright and she talked with her hands, floating them in front of her face as she told him about articles she’d read and research she’d done: living conditions in eastern Europe and southeast Asia, hungry children and felled forests and species on the brink of extinction. Her enthusiasm was catching. She talked like she’d give away the whole company out from under them, from the money right down to the office supplies. Matthew liked her immediately.
It takes a few minutes to get everything settled and by the time Molesley leaves and Matthew takes a seat on the sofa, Sybil’s halfway through a salad. She pushes his sandwich toward him and tilts her head.
“Africa, Asia, or England today?” It’s very like Sybil, he’s learned, to rush forward and wait for everyone else to catch up. His sandwich isn’t even out of the wrapper yet. “Well,” he says, pretending to give it extra thought. “England, I suppose.”
And with that Sybil’s off, pulling out folders and brochures and proposals. A women’s refuge in Cheapside, a children’s hospital in Surrey. There are ten different institutions laid out on the coffee table by the time she’s done. It makes for an intimidating spread. It’s amazing how enthusiastic she is; maybe even moreso than during their first meeting. Matthew listens and nods along, genuinely interested in the things she has to say, in her unflagging belief that they can change people’s lives. He’s more than a little bit envious at her tireless enthusiasm.
“And there’s a youth group in Chiswick that needs new classroom supplies,” she finishes. “Don’t worry, I made sure some of them have plaques we can put the company name on.”
Matthew laughs. “Yes, that’s very important too.”
Sybil pokes at the last bits of her salad. “I just want to be able to help,” she says. “We have so much, we should give back.” It’s basically the same speech he got from Robert ages ago and it’s the same speech Sybil gives him twice a month, but it sounds different when she says it.
Matthew picks up a folder for the classroom in Chiswick. “Tell me again how your father took it when you changed your major?” There’s a hint of teasing in his voice, but Sybil just smiles.
“Very well,” she says. “Social policies are important.”
Matthew looks over lists of crayons and markers, rulers and sheet paper. “They are,” he says, “but I’m sure when you got accepted to the London School of Economics he might’ve had something else in mind. Something, I don’t know, a bit more to do with the building we’re sitting in?”
Sybil laughs good-naturedly. Sybil does everything good-naturedly. “It’s the school of Ecomonics and Political Science. And I was rubbish at the economics bits anyway.”
“I doubt that’s true.” It seems impossible that there’s anything she’d be bad at. Two months and maybe a dozen lunches in and she’s already the closest thing to a friend he’s made since he came to Downton.
Matthew polishes off the last of his sandwich and stands. “Put your three favorites at the top of the pile and I’ll look them over tonight.”
“I do. Now you should stop by your father’s office before you head back to school.”
Matthew looks at the folder. The hospital, the shelter, and a food bank in Clapham. Those will do. He puts the folder for the classroom in Chiswick in his desk drawer. He’ll take care of that one himself.
“You know, you don’t have to do that anymore.” Anna ignores her. “You didn’t have to do that at all, actually, not even back in our flat.”
Anna doesn’t look up from the sink, hands full of suds and dirty dishes. “If I don’t do it, you’ll let it sit forever. Black mold will take over this flat and you’ll die.”
“Mm,” Mary says, flipping the page of her magazine. “Pity.”
“It would be a pity.” Anna turns off the water and wipes her hands on a towel. Mary tried to explain about her cleaning lady being sick a day, that someone would get to them eventually, but Anna’s never been one to let messes lie. She flops down on the sofa with a sigh. “If you died, who would I borrow clothes from?”
Mary laughs and dog-ears the page, marks a shoulder bag that Anna would love. Her birthday’s in a few weeks. “If I died,” Mary says, pulling her feet up onto the sofa and wrapping her hands around her knees, “you could have all my designer things.”
Anna smiles and kicks her feet up on the coffee table. She’s possibly the only person besides Sybil who feels at home here, Mary thinks, and she pokes at Anna’s thigh with her foot. “You want to borrow something for the charity ball?”
The grin on Anna’s face could light the room. “Of course, I do,” she says, pushing herself off the sofa. She’s practically sprinting to the closet, and Mary hears her call from the hallway, “Even the Chanel?”
Mary laughs. “Especially the Chanel.”
Anna tries on what seems like a hundred dresses. There are piles of clothes spread across the bed and Mary sits in the middle of them, scoring each outfit. Mary tells her she looks beautiful in every one, but Anna disagrees, finds some reason or another each one doesn’t work; an unflattering seam, an awkward silhouette. It’s the same scene they’ve played out a million times, ever since University and all the days since.
Finally Anna comes out with the blue dress Mary and Sybil bought, dangling from its hanger with the tags still on. “What about this one?”
Mary plays with the hem of one of Evelyn’s dresses. “Actually, I thought I might wear that one.” She very studiously does not meet Anna’s eyes.
“Wear it to what?” Anna’s turned away, studying herself in the mirror.
Mary barely keeps her voice steady. “To the charity ball.”
Anna spins around so fast, the pattern on her dress blurs together. “You’re going?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
Anna hesitates and Mary rolls her eyes. As long as they’ve known each other, as many things as they’ve been through together, there’s still a part of Anna that shies away from pushing too hard or saying too much. It’d make Mary laugh if it didn’t make her so sad. And Mary always thought aristocrats were the repressed ones.
She watches Anna pick her words carefully and only because it’s Anna, only because there are a hundred debts unpaid for a thousand different favours, does Mary keep herself from telling her to just spit it out. Mary’s not known for her graciousness, but she does have her moments every now and again. Anna finally settles on an acceptable phrasing. “Why the change of heart?”
Leave it to Anna to mull over her words and come up with the most inoffensive statement possible. Mary shrugs her shoulder. “No change of heart. Sybil asked me to come.”
“Sybil always asks you to come.”
It’s easy enough to lie to everyone else, but Anna sees right through her every time. Mary sets her jaw and her voice goes cold. She counts it as a small victory. “I want to meet Matthew.”
Anna’s always been a bad liar and Mary can read the surprise that crosses her face plain as day. There’s not nearly as much of it as she thought there would be; her features slide toward sympathetic almost instantly and it’s all Mary can do not to hit her with a handbag. Anna hangs the blue dress over the closet door and picks her way through Dolce wrap dresses and Gucci skirts. She clears herself a small spot on the bed and tucks herself next to Mary. Not too close, but close enough. “You want to meet him?”
Mary can’t keep the bitterness from her voice; even if she could, she wouldn’t bother. “Papa picked him out of the mail room and made him his pet, and all because we happen to have the same last name.”
“First of all, he didn’t work in the mail room, and second of all, you know that’s not why your father keeps him around.” Anna traces the pattern of a dress with her finger; Mary wore it to dinner with Kemal last month and she saw it later splashed on the inside fold of the society page. Anna's voice is quiet when she says, “He’s nice.”
Her father would call the groan that escapes Mary’s lips petulant. “Bollocks to nice and bollocks to Matthew Crawley.” She pushes herself off the bed and stalks over to the closet, pulling the blue dress off its hanger as she passes. Sybil had made her try on a few more just for fun, but in the end she’d bought this one. It dips low in the back and gathers at her hip and Sybil had been right--she looks amazing in it. She holds it close over her curves and feels Anna watching her, knows the exact look on her friend’s face without even having to check. Anyone else would accuse her of vanity as Mary studies herself in the mirror; Anna knows she’s just buying time.
Mary forgets sometimes that even though there are whole chunks of her life that her family and the company don’t touch, Anna isn’t one of them. Anna is still deep in the heart of Downton and as much as Mary will never admit it, as much as she denies it every time Anna asks, it bothers her, that the lines she tries to draw between Downton and everything else still blur and smudge together. She forgets sometimes that Anna knows more about the people Mary spends her time resenting than Mary does.
The sudden rush of anger feels good as it settles into Mary’s hands and chest. She sees herself in the mirror the way Matthew and her father will see her: steely and proud, unyielding. Chin up, shoulders back, just like Granny taught her. It’s a buoy she’s all too familiar with. When there’s a place inside her full to burst, these are the things she covers it with: next-season jackets and costume jewellery, and a disdainful expression like a knife. It’s harder with Anna on her best day and this is certainly not her best day.
Whatever changes Anna sees in her face, she doesn’t say anything as she walks up behind Mary and gently tugs on the ends of her hair. “You wear that. I’ll wear the silver Chanel.”
Mary doesn’t answer. Chin up. Shoulders back.
The Crowborough deal goes off without a hitch. The papers are signed and the deal is done and Matthew’s made them all a great deal of money. Robert sweeps him into his office after everything’s finalized and pours him a glass of scotch.
“To Downton,” he says, holding out his glass in salute.
Matthew clinks his drink against Robert’s. “This was a good day for you.”
Robert gives him a benevolent smile. “It’s a good day for us all.”
Matthew never feels quite so middle class as when Robert talks about Downton as a great moral and social responsibility. It had taken awhile for Matthew to realize: this company is Robert’s life as well as his livelihood, and he looks on it as a parent and a spouse and a child, all three together. Matthew still doesn’t entirely understand; his thoughts must be easily read on his face because Robert props himself on his desk and shakes his head.
“You don’t love it yet,” he says, swirling the liquor in his glass.
Matthew takes a seat in one of the chairs facing the desk. “What do you mean?”
There’s a strange look in Robert’s eye when he says, “This place. Downton. It’s still just a company to you. You don’t love it yet.”
Matthew doesn’t actually have anything to say to that. Truth be told, Downton Industries is really the last place he thought he’d be working, and he never possibly imagined he’d be heir apparent to Robert Crawley. But Robert, for reasons Matthew still hasn’t worked out, had pulled him aside in a meeting six months ago, picked his brain over a long lunch meeting, and nothing has been the same since. He’s never asked for Robert’s reasoning lest the man suddenly come to his senses and send Matthew back downstairs to stale deposition summaries and boilerplate contracts.
Just as the silence is about to get uncomfortable, there’s a knock on Robert’s door. Robert’s senior assistant, Mrs. Hughes, peeks around the frame. “Mr. Carson is here to see you, sir.”
Without quite realizing it, Matthew’s suddenly sitting much straighter in his chair, elbows tucked in and shoulders back. It’s not that he finds Mr. Carson intimidating, exactly, but he’s so perfectly composed all the time. It’s a bit unnerving.
Robert waves Carson in with a smile. “Carson, what can I do for you?”
Carson glances back and forth between Robert and Matthew. “I had a question for you, sir, but if you’d rather I come back--”
“No,” Robert says, shaking his head. “We’re just celebrating about the Crowborough deal, come in.”
Matthew’s never seen Carson be anything but entirely deferential to their boss and now is no exception. Carson walks to precisely the centre of the room and says, in his low, reverberating baritone, “Ms. Smith informed me that the eldest Ms. Crawley is planning to attend the charity ball.”
Matthew suddenly has a very strong desire to be absolutely anywhere else. He’s only been at Downton for six months and already he knows that any conversation revolving around Robert and Mary Crawley is best avoided. The air in the room is very, very still. “Did she?” Robert asks, and the edge to his voice is unmistakable.
For just a moment, Carson’s whole face seems to soften, the strong lines of his jaw easing ever so slightly, but only for a split second. Matthew probably wouldn’t even have noticed if Robert’s features hadn’t done the exact opposite, closing off with not even a moment’s hesitation.
Matthew has never met Mary Crawley. The closest he’s come is seeing the picture hung behind Robert’s desk of a beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters, and even that is years old. He’s seen her in the papers occasionally; while he doesn’t frequent the society pages or the style section, he’s seen her there, photographed at this fashion show and that club premiere. The photo behind Robert’s desk is, for lack of a better word, entirely too picturesque. Sybil’s smile is too small, less brilliant than it is when she’s harassing him about his energy usage or his eating habits. Edith’s eyes don’t have the mischievous glint to them he’s seen whenever she leans down to whisper something in Robert’s ear. He wonders about the ways Mary’s different, what more there is to her besides the tight smile she wears as she sits very primly between her sisters.
When he looks back at Robert and Carson, their voices are hushed and he can’t hear what they’re saying, so the only thing he’s sure of is that they’re suddenly looking quite apprehensively in his direction. It’s Carson’s expression that’s catches him off guard. As head of PR, it’s his job to keep the company’s--and by extension the family’s--image spotless. Matthew can’t imagine that’s an easy task with Mary Crawley waltzing onto the inside pages of The Daily Mail twice a month. But whatever they’re discussing now, Carson’s the one looking sympathetic and Robert’s harder around the edges than Matthew has ever seen him.
With a few more muted words, Carson leaves the room with just a small nod to Matthew on his way out. After a long minute Robert sets his glass down on the desk and takes the seat beside Matthew. He’s never seen Robert so unsure of himself as when he casts his eyes about the room, hands tensing around his knees, and says, “So Mary’s attending the charity ball this weekend.”
“Yes,” Matthew answers, “I heard.”
“You’ve not met, but--” Robert stalls again. Matthew looks over at the picture on the wall and wonders what about Mary Crawley has her father so tightly wound. If the gossip were true--though it hardly ever is--it could be any number of things.
When Robert speaks again his voice is changed; Matthew wonders if this is what he sounds like when he’s explaining something to his daughters. “Mary can be a bit difficult,” he says carefully, “and a bit of a child at times. And she’s sure to have no surplus of kind words for you.”
Matthew shakes his head. “Well, as you said, we’ve not even met.” By the look on Robert’s face and the rumours in the halls of Downton, there’s much more to this story than Matthew knows and he’s none too keen to waltz into the middle of anyone’s family affairs.
Matthew remembers once when he was small and got into trouble. He’d broken one of his mother’s crystal vases and his father yelled so loudly Matthew ran and locked himself in his room. When his father had come to apologize, had sat Matthew down to explain himself, his face had been anxious and drawn, and even though it was decades ago and his father’s long since dead, he’s never forgotten the look on his face. It’s very nearly what Robert looks like now as his eyes wander toward the photo of his family on the wall and he says, “Things between Mary and myself are strained, which you’ve surely heard. I’m under no delusions about the gossip at this company. So you should know that any ill will she bears toward you is certainly directed at me.” Robert leans forward, and in another man Matthew would call it affection but with Robert he’s not so sure. “I’d thought once, with Mary and Patrick, that they might--that the company should go to them, but--” Matthew’s not sure where to look, so he keeps his eyes on the ground. “But Mary left school, and then Patrick was in New York when--” Robert pushes himself out of his chair with an off-balance, lurching step. “Never mind,” he says and Matthew certainly doesn’t press him. “The dinner will be fine,” he says. The confidence creeps back into his voice by small degrees. “I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful impression, same as you’ve done with the rest of us.”
“Thank you,” Matthew says. The clock on Robert’s desk reads 3:00 and Matthew hurries to finish his drink. “Well, I’ve a meeting to get to.” The scotch is still burning down the back of his throat as a beats a hasty retreat to his office.
Matthew spends the meeting thinking about Robert and the strange edge in his voice, about Mary Crawley’s flat smile trapped on the wall in her father’s office. When he gets back to his desk, he hesitates for a reasonable minute before he clicks on his computer and types “Mary Crawley” into the search bar of his web browser. The results that come up are mixed, but third from the top is a spread from a fashion show, complete with pictures and a small blurb underneath. Mary Crawley, daughter of business tycoon Robert Crawley, walks the catwalk for the Napier collection wearing a sapphire evening gown. Her face is unsmiling and her features schooled into what he imagines is a perfect catwalk look, but it doesn’t sit much more naturally on her face than the smile in the photo on Robert’s wall. Both look like window dressing; neither reaches her eyes. Matthew spends longer than he’d like to admit staring at the photo and wondering exactly how painful the charity dinner is going to be, and whether or not the tight knot that’s settled into the pit of his stomach is dread or something else, something warmer and harder to name.
Evelyn likes to think he’s “of the people” or “part of the masses,” but the space he rents as his studio is still in the poshest part of the city and his dresses cost the average person’s weekly wages. Mary likes to remind him of that as often as possible but Evelyn never says anything in response besides, “It’s the thought that counts, dear.”
She spins a dress on one of the dolls and watches the fabric swirl out and settle back in, out and in as she moves it round and round. It’s not quite grey but barely silver and it’s more beautiful than any of Evelyn’s sketches. It makes the light dance. “Careful,” Evelyn says, pulling her away by the hand, “there’ll be plenty of time for twirling once you’re in the damn thing.”
“It’s for me?” She can’t help but bounce up on her toes a bit and slide her arm through his. “You don’t want someone taller?”
Evelyn rattles off a bunch of words about the draping of the fabric and the proportions of the design but Mary’s too busy looking back across the room at the dress, its fabric still swaying ever so slightly on the doll. Evelyn catches her staring and lifts her chin with a finger. “Not yet,” he says. “Have a look at these first.”
He steers her toward a table spread with sketches and swatches and bits of jewellery all around, pats her on the shoulder and says, “Have at it.” She shrugs out of her jacket, settles down on the stool and picks up the first sketch.
It had happened mostly by accident, their friendship. They’d been sat next to each other in class during their second year, something horribly boring and tedious like “British Economic History since 1870,” and he’d spent the first month making her laugh behind her hands while the professor lectured on in his insufferable drone. She’d known him a year before he’d shown her his sketches and designs, and it had taken two bottles of wine before he’d confessed he wasn’t studying finance with the family business in mind, thank you very much, but he wanted to know how to run his own company. She’d called him mad back then. She calls him mad now for entirely different reasons, but there have been enough nights spent stumbling toward the other’s couch after a long night on the town that the affection there is understood.
It had been Evelyn who’d introduced her to Kemal back at university. She’d been smitten instantly--with his dark hair and dark eyes, his olive skin and sly smile. He first kissed her the night she decided not to sit her last set of exams, not to go back to school at all, and the steady thrum of her blood when he touched her, equal parts rage and lust and a few different flavours of rebellion, has never gone away.
It’s not what she’s meant to be thinking about while she thumbs through the pages of Evelyn’s sketches and runs the bits of silk and chiffon between her fingers, but she can’t help but imagine her body in the gowns and jackets he’s designed, the way they’d pull across her hips and shoulders and set Kemal’s teeth on edge. When Evelyn comes back, pins held tight between his lips, she slides a few of the sketches forward and says, “These. The jacket there’s a bit matronly, and the lines on that gown won’t flatter anyone with a figure.”
“Like you’d know anything about that.” He knocks her shoulder with his. “What about the fabric? The patterned bits?”
They spend the next hour going over the designs and materials, finalizing accessories for his show next month. When he finally pushes back from the table and waves her toward the silver gown, now sitting still on its doll, she all but runs across the room to be fitted.
It’s tight in the bodice and loose below her natural waist, piles of fabric and amazing beadwork and a colour that makes her look like she glows, like she’s got lights pressed up beneath her skin and at the sharp edges of her bones. Evelyn leans back against the mirror and looks her up and down. “I knew it’d suit you,” he says, stepping forward to lift the hair off her neck. She raises her chin and pulls her shoulders back, adopts the studied catwalk look she’d worked so hard to get right.
“You’d think it’d come naturally,” Anna had said at her first show, surprised at Mary’s nerves. Of course everyone would think she loved the attention, the lights, every eye pinned on her as she walked up and down the catwalk. She’s got better at putting on the face since then, and truth be told, she loves helping Evelyn, even with something as superficial as this.
“I meant to ask,” he says, fiddling with a seam beneath her left shoulder, “I left something at Kemal’s awhile ago and he’s nowhere to be found for weeks now. Can you get it back for me?”
“You can’t get it?” She jerks away from a pin pressed too close to her skin.
Evelyn’s reflection scowls. “You know that doorman. Bit of a prick. Won’t let me up.”
Mary meets his eyes in the mirror. “Why did you try to use the front door?” Kemal had long ago showed her all the secret ways up to his flat, back stairwells and service lifts, all best used when avoiding unwanted attention. They’ve used them more than a few times, if only for the fun of it. “What do you need? I can go round tonight.”
“He borrowed a jacket of mine, black overcoat.”
“And you don’t have another one you could wear instead?”
Evelyn pouts at her, an oft-used expression in their friendship. “I like that one. I tailored it especially.”
Mary rolls her eyes. “Fine.”
Evelyn goes back to checking the seams and the lay of the fabric and it’s a long minute before he says, quietly enough that she could ignore it if she wanted--and that bit of kindness is why they’ve stayed friends so long--“Have you heard from him lately?”
He must know she hears him, if only by the sudden tension in her shoulders and chest. She opens her mouth to speak but shuts it just as soon. It’s no yearning heartache that stops the words in her throat but the words stop nonetheless. Evelyn lets the silence sit and when he finally steps back, the smile he gives her is best called kind. “Alright then,” he says. “Let’s see.”
Mary spins. The light dances.
The ballroom is decorated in silver; the centrepieces are blue. Matthew’s suit too tight in the shoulders and his hands tingle slightly when he first glances around the room. Beside him, his mother stares openly at the decorations, the baubles and streamers and lights hung from every corner and engulfing the room in an almost over-bright shine. He can’t help but feel out of place, even as he smiles at his mother’s apparent delight. There’s a flurry of people around all the tables and a band in front playing old standards. “Matthew?” His mother’s voice shakes him to action and he pushes them forward through the crowd to find their table.
Matthew recognizes only a few faces: Mr. Carson in the corner talking to a blonde woman--Ms. Smith, he’s fairly certain; someone whose name he ought to know from board meetings; someone he’s fairly sure won a BAFTA last year. They’re almost to their table when a figure clad in scarlet steps in front of them, the expression on her face as joyous as ever.
Matthew pulls his features tight into what he hopes is a smile. “Mrs. Crawley, the ballroom looks wonderful.” His voice doesn’t waver and he’s unreasonably proud. “You and Mrs. Crawley have outdone yourselves.” It seems a benign enough compliment, but judging by the expression on her face, Violet Crawley can find something to take issue with. Violet Crawley can take issue with everything, it seems.
If Robert sometimes makes him feel especially middle class, Violet makes him feel like a chimney sweep from Solihull. He only sees her at the bi-monthly board meetings, but her regard for him has been plain as day since the beginning. It’s not that her comments toward him are catty, exactly, but he’s often found himself at odds with his surroundings; he hadn’t fitted in at his posh public school, he hadn’t been like the other wealthy students at Cambridge. No one ever rushed to befriend the student on scholarship, with his jackets that came just a bit short at the wrists and were entirely too threadbare at the elbows. No one that wealthy is ever just rude, he’d learned quickly, but there’s a special tone of voice they take when talking to someone like him. Violet Crawley puts them all to shame.
“Thank you,” she says, managing to look down her nose at him even as he towers over her. “It’s so wonderful you could attend.”
He feels his mother getting anxious beside him and puts his hand on her back as he says, “Mrs. Crawley, this is my mother, erm.” Violet might as well be ten feet tall. “Also Mrs. Crawley.”
His mother extends a hand that Violet takes with a shockingly small amount of disdain, but the handshake is short-lived nonetheless. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Isobel says. “Crawley and Crawley, that’s quite a coincidence. Do you suppose we’re related somewhere down the line?”
Violet has the good grace not to sneer. “Oh, wouldn’t that just be charming?”
“I think it would be delightful.” Cora Crawley appears behind Matthew, one hand already outstretched toward Isobel. “Mrs. Crawley, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Cora clasps both hands around Isobel’s and Matthew can’t help but feel grateful, even as Violet narrows her eyes at her daughter-in-law. “Matthew always speaks so dearly of you.”
Isobel smiles warmly. “That’s wonderful to hear, Mrs. Crawley.”
“Mrs. Crawley, Mrs. Crawley, Mrs. Crawley.” Matthew smiles as Sybil leans around her mother, hair piled onto her head and long earrings dangling down toward her shoulders. Her dress is a deep purple and she looks entirely unlike the girl who pops into his office once a week with cheap Italian take-away and a folder full of charity information. He smiles, even as Violet’s eyes go wide at her grand-daughter’s choice of attire. If Sybil notices, she doesn’t show it, just squeezes in next to Matthew and says, “That’s entirely too many Mrs. Crawleys to be getting on with, don’t you think?”
His mother smiles and Matthew’s glad that Sybil’s here to diffuse the tension; he’s more than a little bit grateful when Sybil slides over and winds her arm around Isobel’s and says, “We’ll have to think of nicknames. Let’s find your table.” Matthew’s left staring after them, eyes darting between Cora’s and Violet’s. The former are warm if put-upon, the latter are edging toward hostile. He’s been around the both of them enough to know when to take his leave and he bows out gracefully before trailing after Sybil and his mother.
They’re all sat at a table in the corner, far enough away from the band that they won’t have to shout all night. He lets Sybil entertain his mother, only butting in to defend himself against the most embarrassing of childhood anecdotes. Sybil laughs so loudly at the story of Matthew and his punk rock phase that more than a few heads turn in their direction, but the sight of her and Isobel doubled over is enough that he doesn’t mind.
Just as he feels himself starting to relax, he hears a voice behind him. “Papa’s looking for you.” When he turns around, he finds Edith Crawley staring at them, her mouth pinched and her eyes narrowed. To say that Edith and Sybil differ in their demeanor and appearance would certainly be an understatement. It’s not that he dislikes Edith--as part of human resources they don’t interact too regularly, but she’s always seemed nice enough, if somewhat short-tempered and entirely too preoccupied by her father’s opinions. Still, he smiles at her and nods a hello.
Sybil’s smile never falters. “Where is Papa?”
“Over there talking to Carson and Mr. Bates.” Edith gestures across the room to where the three men stand huddled.
Their expressions are hard-set and Matthew perks up. “Is anything the matter?”
For a moment, Edith looks at him in a way she almost certainly learned from Violet. “He didn’t ask for you,” she says. She heads off after a pointed look at her younger sister, who smiles apologetically and then follows.
He and Isobel watch Sybil as she crosses the room and if anything’s the matter with Robert, he looks amiable enough when his daughters slide in beside him. “Sybil’s a charming girl,” Isobel says.
“Yes,” Matthew replies, “she is.” They watch more and more people file into their seats, all elegantly dressed and looking as if they belong right at home at five-thousand-pound-a-plate galas. The company footed the bill for the employees who were invited, thankfully; even though Matthew makes quite a bit more than when he did all his own filing, and even though the money’s going for a good cause, it’s enough to make his thoroughly middle class heart beat a bit too fast.
He’s busy calculating how many classrooms in Chiswick could’ve been sponsored on the money that was spent on centrepieces when his mother leans over. “Matthew, might you get us some drinks? White wine, if you don’t mind.”
“Certainly,” he says, and it only takes him a minute to squeeze past the assembled toffs before he’s at the bar. White wine for his mother, whiskey and soda for himself. The bartender turns away for glasses when he feels someone squeeze in by his elbow.
“I always feel a bit stuffed at these things,” Molesley says, signaling the bartender for another whiskey and soda. He pulls at his bowtie and looks around anxiously. “If you don’t mind me saying.”
Matthew huffs out a laugh and takes a too-large sip of his drink. “Not at all. I’m feeling a bit stuffed myself, now you mention it.”
He didn’t always get on quite so well with Molesley. It took Matthew the better part of a month to remember there was an office outside his, with someone there to answer the phone and make his appointments and do his filing and type up his reports. Truth be told, it had made Matthew uncomfortable at first, but after the initial gaffes and sputters, they’d got through it well enough. If nothing else, Molesley didn’t make him feel like he was better suited to a corner cubicle miles below the executive floor. It’s enough like having a friend that Matthew leans over and says, “Violet Crawley intercepted me earlier. I think if she had her way I’d be serving dinner instead of eating it.”
Molesley smiles. He’d worked his way up from the mail room himself, so the understanding look he gives Matthew isn’t faked. “Eh, never mind the old lady. It’s Robert you should concern yourself with.” Molesley gestures across the room to where Robert stands between Edith and Sybil, fatherly exasperation on his face. “And if you don’t mind me saying, the favour of one of them Crawley girls wouldn’t hurt too much either.”
Matthew laughs into his drink. “Oh, certainly. I’ll just get off with the boss’s daughter and then he’ll have to keep me around.”
“Well, that’s certainly one way to go about securing your new position.” It’s not Molesley who answers, and before he even turns around Matthew’s sure he knows who the voice belongs to. He tells himself the feeling that settles into his hands as he turns around is something other than fear.
Mary Crawley is both more and less beautiful than the pictures in the paper. She’s thinner than the photo in Robert’s office, her hair longer and her smile cooler. She’s dressed in a blue gown, sheer against her shoulders and cutting low on her chest. Her hair is gathered behind one ear, and when she steps toward him the fabric catches the light across her collarbone. To say she’s beautiful would be a ridiculously short sell, and it’s more than a few silent seconds before Matthew realizes he’s been staring, mouth half-open and eyes undoubtedly wide as saucers.
She steps between Matthew and Molesley and signals to the bartender. “Champagne,” she says, and Matthew gets no more than a sympathetic frown from Molesley before the older man heads quickly in the opposite direction.
There’s no avoiding it for Matthew. He stands awkwardly while the bartender pours Mary’s drink but once she turns back around, he steps forward. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean what I said, I was only joking.”
Mary gives him a long look up and down; he shifts uncomfortably on his feet, and when she speaks he can’t quite hold her gaze. “Sorry to tell you, but Sybil’s taken.” Mary takes a step toward him. “I know you two have been spending quite a lot of time together.”
Matthew nods and puts on what he hopes is a winning smile. “Yes, she’s been helping--”
“There’s always Edith,” Mary interrupts, “but I’m not sure you’re quite up for that challenge.” She looks him up and down again, lips purses and eyebrow raised. It’s like being in school, shuffled off to mingle with the girls of St. This or St. That. There’s a hollow pit where his stomach should be. “And then there’s me of course. And everyone knows I’m a sure thing.”
It’s like all the air is sucked out of the room. Matthew wouldn’t be surprised if he looked away to find everyone else staring at them, or everyone else making quickly for the exits to avoid witnessing the scene. But he can’t look away, not when she’s leaning toward him and pressing a hand against his chest, tugging lightly at his tie as she raises her lips to his ear. “Dear Matthew,” she says, “don’t believe everything you read.”
When she pulls back, there’s a gleam in her eyes that he’d almost call soft, but it sharpens in an instant when she looks over his shoulder and across the room. She straightens, lifts her chin, and all the sound comes flooding back in his ears, people jostling past them on their way to the bar. “Oh look, we’re being summoned.” She pushes past him and sets off across the room, and once he takes his eyes from the swing of her shoulders as she slides in and out of the crowd, he sees Robert and Cora at the table with his mother, glances cast warily in his direction. He drains the whiskey and soda in one gulp, grabs his mother’s wine, and heads toward them.
The first thing he hears when he gets to the table is his mother’s laughter. Cora’s got one hand over her husband’s and Robert’s smile is as tight as a drum. “Yes,” Mary says, twisting to look at Matthew over her shoulder, “Matthew was just telling me about his plans for his future at Downton.” The panic that flares up in Matthew’s chest is quelled when Mary smiles brightly and says, “Everything with Crowborough? Quite a triumph.”
He tries not to let his relief show. There’s still a warm spot on his chest where her hand had been, or maybe that’s just his imagination. “Yes, that was quite a coup for us.” He tries to catch Robert’s eye but it’s Cora who smiles up at him, fingers ever tighter around her husband’s hand.
Mary gestures to Sybil as she takes a seat beside Isobel. “Sybil’s been telling me about your charity work, Matthew. What a wonderful idea, getting her involved. Papa’s always made sure we know that family is an important part of the business.”
Matthew’s wise enough to keep his mouth shut, but he sees the marks of Cora’s fingernails on the back of Robert’s hand. Beside Sybil, Edith leans forward and asks, loud enough for her parents to hear, “Where’s Kemal tonight? Surely you’d rather be with him instead of here with us.”
Mary takes a sip of champagne and looks at her sister with a syrupy smile, slick and sweet enough to trap a hundred flies. ““He has better thing to do than come here with me.” Sybil opens her mouth, eyebrows turned down questioningly, but Mary silences here with a look and continues, “I’ll be meeting him later. Would you like to come? I’m sure he could show you a good time.” There’s a bite to her words that twists Edith’s coy smile into a frown, and just as the younger woman is about to respond, Robert’s voice hisses out across the table.
“Enough,” he says. Mary doesn’t flinch; Cora does. Robert casts his eyes around the room and slips his hand from his wife’s. He pushes his chair back too roughly and if Matthew knew him better, he could maybe read the lines of his face--it’s more than anger that sets his jaw and narrows his eyes. If Mary knows him well enough to decipher the sad snarl of his lips, she doesn’t show it. Robert tugs at his vest and straightens his jacket. “You shouldn’t have come,” he says, almost underneath his breath. “Cora, we’ve other people to see.” He holds out an arm for her, expectant.
Mary looks at Robert; Cora looks at Mary. There’s a whole room around them of laughing, happy people and it fades just at the edges of this table, at the inflexible bend of Robert’s elbow and the concrete contours of Mary’s smile. Cora looks for a moment as if she might speak but a man appears at Robert’s shoulder and whatever Cora might’ve said, she’s silent now.
“Anthony,” Robert says, turning to extend a hand. Anthony Strallan smiles at Robert and then at everyone else, oblivious to the tension he’s interrupted. Matthew notices for the first time just how tightly Mary’s fingers grip the chair in front of her, how much tension there is in the lines around Cora’s mouth. It’s obvious that this isn’t the first time this scene has been played out and he wonders how many times Cora’s had to play peacemaker, how successful she’s been in the past. He wonders whether this was a step forward or backward in whatever is so obviously broken between her husband and her daughter. He gives his own mother a smile in sympathy and thanks and by the time he turns back to glance at Mary, she’s smiling sweetly again, the corners of her eyes turning down.
Anthony Strallan lifts a hand toward Sybil and smiles amiably. “I hear you’re helping out at the office now,” he says. “Your grandmother was telling me.”
Sybil’s as sweet as ever when she answer, “Just sitting in, mostly. Working on a bit of charity business with Matthew.”
“She’s doing brilliantly,” Matthew says. “Always keeping me on my toes.” The smile Sybil gives him is almost conspiratorial. Matthew pretends not to notice the way Mary’s back straightens in response.
Strallan doesn’t seem to notice a thing. “It’s always the mark of a true entrepreneur,” he says, “giving back to one’s community. I worry your generation might not know that.” His tone is even stuffier than Robert’s. Matthew’s about to make the same bland response he’s given a hundred times but Mary who beats him to it.
“I couldn’t agree more,” she says. Mary, who in the space of five minutes talks so sweetly and earnestly about social responsibility and giving that Anthony Strallan nods his head and smiles the whole time. Mary, who in the space of those same five minutes has secured herself a spot on Sybil and Matthew’s unofficial charity committee. Mary, who posits the idea in front of Anthony Strallan and gives her father no choice but to grit his teeth and say, “Of course, Mary, that’s a wonderful idea." It’s more impressive than any haggling Matthew’s ever seen between CEOs of top-market companies and he’s reminded all in a rush that she’s Violet’s granddaughter, Robert’s daughter, and a force entirely her own. By the time she’s finished talking, Strallan’s smile is so wide it doesn’t fade the entire time he walks back to his table, Cora and Robert on either side.
Isobel has the forethought to excuse herself after Robert and Cora. Edith is quick behind her, pushing out of her chair in a rush. Matthew’s eyes trail behind her until she disappears into the crowd.
It’s Sybil who breaks the enveloping quiet that falls between them. She looks uncertainly at Mary, fingers running along the stem of her wine glass. “I thought Kemal was away.”
Mary turns sharply, glances first at Matthew and then at Sybil. “Papa doesn’t know that,” Mary says. Her words are pointed, her mouth a sour pinch of lipstick and anger. “Let him think what he likes.” She slumps inward just a bit, only for a moment, and Matthew has the urge to apologize. It comes unbidden and sticks in his throat. Just as the words push up past his lips, Mary looks over at him and says, “I thought you’d look more like Patrick.”
Matthew has no response. He wants to apologize, to explain himself, to ask the hundred questions circling around in his head--but he says nothing instead. Everything will be wrong.
Mary takes a step away and draws her shoulders back. “You’re right you know,” she says. Her face is a mask. “This is all a complete joke.”
He watches her as she crosses the room, keeps his eyes on the stiff set of her shoulders as she weaves through the crowd and out the main door. The knot in his chest is equal parts ice and fire, and he stares after her long after she’s gone.
Chapter 2: One & One Make One
Thanks to Meg, Erica, and Helen for all their help in getting this chapter out. Sorry for the huge delay between chapter 1 and chapter 2, but lots of family and work things made a ridiculous case of writer's block that much worse so. Chapter 3 will be up when ... chapter 3 is up. Cheers.
It had taken thirty minutes to get Mary sewn into her gown; it takes twice as long to get her out of it. She has two glasses of champagne in quick succession while one of Evelyn’s assistants buzzes around her to undo the stitching at every necessary seam. When Anna finally make it backstage, Mary’s got one of her arms bent awkwardly over her head while Daisy picks at the thread along her side.
Anna’s got two more glasses of champagne in her hands and she holds one out to Mary. “One for me,” she says, “and one for you, Twiggy.”
Mary clinks glasses but doesn’t drink. Her fingers are already tingling so she sets the champagne down on the table and focuses on the feel of Daisy’s hands at her ribcage. Her stomach is still twisted into tight and anxious knots, the same as it’s been after every show she’s done so far. There’d been a moment halfway down the catwalk where she’d been sure she’d ruin everything, but she’d kept her eyes planted firmly on the back wall and managed not to trip over her ridiculous shoes. Daisy snips a bit too close to her skin and Mary winces while her eyes scan the crowd for her sister. “Where’s Sybil?”
“She was waiting for Gwen, they’ll just be a minute.” Anna leans against one of the make-up tables and says, “Evelyn must be thrilled. I heard everybody talking about how amazing the new collection is. Everyone loved the show.”
Mary smiles and feels the tight ball in her stomach ease a little bit. Evelyn’s designs have always been popular enough with a certain crowd to keep the financial side of things from ever being too big a problem, but she wants more for him than breaking even. She wants more for the both of them. She’s invested enough money into his lines to have her own interest in his success, and there’s a selfish kind of pride she gets from seeing everyone’s positive reactions.
Daisy finally sets down her scissors and says, “Alright, out you get.” Mary grabs the robe Anna holds out and just as she’s knotting the belt, Sybil rushes forward dragging Gwen at her heels. “You looked beautiful.” She presses a fervent kiss to Mary’s cheek. “Everyone looked beautiful, the whole collection was amazing.”
Sybil’s dolled herself up for the show, her hair slicked back and shining instead of piled into a mess atop her head. Gwen’s wearing a dress of Sybil’s, the skirt far shorter on her than it ever seems on Sybil. She tugs at the hem self-consciously and smiles around the anxiousness in her lips and says, “That was fantastic, Mary.” The north squeezes out in her vowels and Mary clasps a hand around her wrist in solidarity or understanding or something she doesn’t mean to be pity. Gwen’s fingers flick out to grab at Sybil’s hand but Sybil’s pushing back toward Anna, stepping ever so slightly away; the corners of Mary’s lips pull themselves into a frown. She makes a mental note to corner her youngest sister at a more opportune time, when they’re not surrounded by friends and acquaintances and several members of the press.
There’s an endless parade of people, all offering compliments and congratulations and Mary deals with each of them in turn. She may not bear the brunt of the Crawleys’ high society duties but she’s still her mother’s daughter and she learned her lessons well. She only rolls her eyes toward Anna and Sybil when she gets caught up in something especially long-winded: Judith Reynolds asking after Granny; Rachel Kingsley inviting her to a charity event next month; Melanie Tribett not so casually asking after Kemal’s whereabouts. She keeps her smile stuck wide and friendly, only letting the edges chill when herding Melanie toward her next available target.
Mary watches her weave toward Harris Stewart, oldest son of one of her father’s friends and next in line to take over his father’s massive manufacturing conglomerate. Anna leans in after Melanie’s carefully out of earshot and says, “She’s an eager one.”
Mary doesn’t say anything. For all the ways she dislikes Melanie and doesn’t even fake more than the most necessary civility, she’s all too aware of how easily it might’ve been her in the same shoes, the same situation--chasing after the oldest sons of her parents’ oldest friends. It sets her teeth on edge more than a little and she turns toward Sybil rather more aggressively than she needs to. “What are your plans for tonight?” Melanie has her hand worked into the crook of Harris Stewart’s arm and Mary turns away and drains her glass in one.
If her sister notices the sudden tension that Mary can feel radiating off her skin in waves, she doesn’t say. Sybil fiddles with one of the necklaces at her throat and glances up at Anna from the corner of her eye. “Meeting Branson, probably. What do you think, Gwen?” In all the time Mary’s known her, she’s never seen Gwen refuse her sister anything; for all Mary loves Sybil, she wants to reach over and shake her for the way Gwen’s throat works before she answers.
“Of course,” Gwen says. She keeps her eyes set exactly on the toes of her high heels. “I’ll give him a call right now, actually.” Gwen excuses herself and weaves out through the crowd. Mary can’t help but watch Sybil watch Gwen, the way her sister’s eyes trail after the mess of red curls all the way across the room.
Mary leans toward her sister and flattens her voice into as neutral a tone as she can manage. “Careful there.”
Sybil doesn’t answer, just runs the charm of her necklace back and forth against her throat. When she was younger, Mary would find her with her hands dug into their mother’s jewellery box or their father’s desk drawer or a tin of biscuits in the kitchen. Sybil’s never been one to stay idle and it pours out from the ends of her in mad bursts sometimes; Mary suddenly can’t remember the last time she saw her sister dance.
Sybil’s fingers finally still when Gwen comes back in and slides up against Sybil’s shoulder. It makes Mary want to smile; it makes Mary want to cry. She waves over a waiter and passes them all champagne instead, and spends the next chunk of the night passing on all the fashion gossip she can think of.
Backstage after an event turns into its own little party more often than not, with Evelyn entertaining investors and reporters and finding time to flirt with every available blonde. Mary watches him out of the corner of her eye and when he finally slides an arm loosely around her waist and presses a kiss to her hairline, she tucks herself comfortably against him and says, “Need help handling anyone?”
Evelyn tips back his glass--his third or likely fourth, judging by the gleam in his eyes and the red tint swelling up toward his cheekbones--and digs his fingers into her hip. “If Melanie Tribett tries to corner me one more time--”
“She’s not with Joseph Parker anymore, you know. I’d thought her mother never would’ve let his money slip through her fingers.”
Evelyn reaches for another glass of champagne. “Was she asking after Kemal?”
Evelyn plays with the end of Mary’s belt, twisting it around and through his fingers, and she can tell just by looking at him how badly he needs a cigarette. She makes to pull him toward the rear door when she’s stopped up short, her heart suddenly somewhere between her mouth and shoulders.
She hears Kemal’s laugh before she sees him, high and boundless and ringing out over the crowd. It hits her straight in the chest. She grips the glass in her hand almost hard enough to break it and when she finally finds him in the flurry of people he’s got a girl in his arms and one trailing behind and there are arms and hands everywhere. He’s browned and beautiful and the burn that settles into Mary’s ribs is equal parts lust and something too rough to be weariness. Anna slides a hand around her wrist but Mary doesn’t look away from Kemal’s curls brushing down against his forehead and the endless smile that lines his eyes. He sets down the blonde and comes rushing toward her and she’s up into his arms before she has any time to react.
“Mary,” he breathes into her neck. His palms slide around her waist and up against the plane of her back. She fists a hand in his jacket and goes rigid against him, soft only in the bend of her neck toward his lips. Some habits, she thinks, as her fingers slide up to his collar. He smells like leather and Kemal and, inexplicably, the sea, and when he sets her down and presses his lips to hers--greedy, always, as he nips at her lower lip and licks into her mouth--she tastes salt and the expensive Turkish cigarettes he smokes. He marks a trail of kisses from her mouth to her collarbone, making enough of a scene that people are starting to stare. There’s a backstage photographer snapping pictures from the corner.
This thing with Kemal--it comes in waves, she has found. She has known him for nearly five years and her life takes no different shape when it is wrapped around his. It’s not that she’s unbending or that he’s an especially accommodating person, but she has found that she’s as happy to let him go as she is to welcome him back and he’s not one to stand still for long. Kemal is here or not, and she loves him or not, with equal and opposite force. It’s not something her parents understand and not something she’s wont to explain to them. His kisses still taste like rebellion; his hands pressed against her hips feel like their own kind of freedom.
“Mary,” he says again, hot air puffing out against her skin. His hands circle her waist and there’s a tug of something tired behind her ribcage. “I’ve missed you.” He buries his nose in her hair, and even as she doubts the truthfulness of his words, she’s pulling him closer. Over his shoulder, Anna and Sybil exchange a look and Evelyn clears his throat. “Let’s get out of here,” Kemal whispers against her cheek. Mary imagines if she pressed her ear to his chest, she might just hear the ocean. “Right now. Let’s go.”
He kisses her once, twice, and steals the no from her lips.
Matthew cleans his office twice, reorders the papers on his desk, tidies the books on his coffee table and fluffs the cushions half to death. He undoes it all five minutes later. Papers and folders are scattered to look casually disheveled, like he’s been hard at work all day doing anything other than driving himself to distraction waiting for Mary to come barging through the door at half twelve. Matthew stops halfway through spreading a contract out on the coffee table and runs a hand through his hair. He sighs. The papers go back into their folder. He fluffs the cushions.
Sybil comes at noon like she always does, bags of take-away in her hands and the scent of garlic wafting out from the spread she sets up on his coffee table. He wraps up a phone call from Berlin just as she starts taking plastic lids off containers.
She passes him a plate of shawarma. “I didn’t know you spoke German.”
The food in his hands smells amazing and breakfast feels like a very long time ago; it only ever consists of too-strong coffee and whatever Molesley leaves at the top of the pile of the most urgent contracts. It’s occurred to him that maybe he should take better care of himself, and that maybe Sybil beat him to this conclusion by a mile. Matthew settles down on the couch and leans back against the perfect cushions and tucks into his food. He smiles around the first bite, hot and spicy and delicious. “I’m a man of many mysteries.”
Sybil picks at the tines of her plastic fork, lip quirking up into a grin. “That seems unlikely.”
“Caught. I am exactly as boring as you’d think.”
“Now, now,” Sybil says. “Don’t sell yourself short. I’m sure you could exceed everyone’s expectations and be twice as boring as people think.” She knocks her elbow against his and smiles. Matthew chuckles to himself and heaps more rice onto his plate.
In the six weeks since Mary’s been coming to their meetings, she’s shown up on time exactly never. Sybil still comes at noon with lunch, just like she did before, and when she hands him his food--usually something exotic, strange spices and names he can’t pronounce (Sybil’s bound and determined to expand every horizon she meets, apparently)--her smile is usually half an apology.
Matthew’s been at Downton almost a year, but he’s not met anyone he likes quite so well as Sybil. Sometimes the wait for Mary lasts ten minutes; sometimes it’s closer to an hour. In the meantime, Sybil tells him stories of University, horrible exams and boring professors and the ridiculous behaviour of her peers. Matthew tells her stories of his own--Michael Davies being chucked from the girls’ dormitory with nothing but a scarf and his very recently ex-girlfriend’s umbrella; Stan Wilson’s getting caught out with an illicit substance or two by the head of their halls. He stays quiet about the very goriest of details but he doesn’t doubt Sybil’s ability to keep his confidences. He’s never had any siblings and has few female relatives to speak of, but he imagines those relationships would be much like this one: good-natured ribbing, friendly banter and easy companionship. Sometimes he doesn’t mind waiting for Mary at all.
It had taken him longer than he’d like to admit to notice that Sybil’s stories, though entertaining in the extreme--sometimes she puts on voices; there’s a history professor she mimics that Matthew considers a personal favorite--are very rarely personal in nature. She mentions Gwen and Branson in passing, enough for Matthew to know that they’re important, and the rest of her family not at all. When he’d noticed the detached bent of her stories, he’d also noticed other details: strange tension in her hands when she talked about Gwen, an unconscious quirk to her mouth when she mentioned Branson. It makes Matthew wonder at the parts of Sybil’s life that he doesn’t get to see and at how much effort goes into carefully constructing the parts that he does. He’s seen Mary’s face splashed about the papers and he wonders how much Sybil’s guardedness has to do with Mary’s overexposure. He wishes he could ask, that he was sure enough of their friendship to offer a friendly shoulder or whatever support he could, but there are still pitfalls at Downton that he’s learning little by little, and he fears this might still be one he’s best off not falling into.
As little as he’s heard of Sybil’s most guarded relationships, he’s heard even less of Sybil’s relationship with Mary. After the second, third, fourth time Mary had shown up late, he’d asked Sybil if they ought to reschedule for later in the day; she’d just shrugged. “That won’t help,” she’d said, and her eyes had been pitying and resigned. Mary may still consider him green behind the ears but he knows a power play when he finds himself inadvertently caught in the middle of one.
Their first meeting he’d made the mistake of ignoring any potential awkwardness and carrying on like usual. Mary’d put an end to that with a few pointed remarks about the mail room and an unnaturally fast climb to the top. Sybil, for all Matthew’s sure of her friendship, hadn’t been much in the way of help. He tells himself not to pry at split loyalties and does his best not to hold it against her.
He’d had a fleeting moment of hope in their third meeting when Mary had expressed a genuine interest in one of the deals he was working on, but when he’d started to explain about mergers and acquisitions and straight payment versus stock options, she’d rolled her eyes and stepped out for a cigarette. To call it the high point of their interactions is as true as it is discouraging. Six weeks and he’s no closer to figuring out Mary Crawley than he was the day they met.
He’s done his best to keep his frustration in check when Robert asks--which he rarely does, though Matthew very much doubts that’s down to a lack of interest. He keeps trying to reconcile the Robert he knows with the Robert Mary sees, but they seem two different men entirely. When Mary speaks of her father--which is a rare enough occurrence that it’s not hard for Matthew to recall every instance--it’s haltingly, detached, like something sharp is set behind her teeth. It’s not quite the same look that Robert gets when he asks about her, but it’s close enough that Matthew can’t help but see the similarities.
He tries not to spend the entirety of his meetings with Mary wondering at the history of the Crawley family, but he must be doing a far worse job with Sybil because she stops him halfway through a story about Uni and breaks her usual silence and says, “She’s not so bad, you know.”
Matthew pauses halfway through a mouthful of rice and says, more curtly than he means to, “No?”
The smile Sybil gives him is sympathetic. Matthew can’t help but wonder whether it’s nature or necessity, the way that Sybil’s always playing perfect daughter and helpful mediator. “It’s complicated,” she says. She keeps her eyes on her food and pushes bits of rice around with her fork. “It’s always been complicated and now that Kemal’s back Mary’s sure to be even more, well.”
He watches the way Sybil’s hands tense and the sudden lines at the corners of her eyes and feels unbearably guilty. He’d seen photos of Mary and Kemal from a fashion show a week or two before, Sybil just peeking out in the background. The totality of what he doesn’t understand about her life--about Mary’s life--is huge. He tries to keep his voice lighter when he repeats after her. “It’s complicated.” For the millionth time he wants to ask why, how; he wants to ask what happened between Mary and Robert to create so wide a gulf between them and he wants to ask about Kemal’s role in everything. He doesn’t ask--he would never ask--but he wonders at the closed-off expression on Sybil’s face in those photos, watching Mary bundled up in Kemal’s arms.
He finally pulls himself from his thoughts and makes to tell Sybil about one of the programmes they’d funded last month, but he’s interrupted by Mary breezing in through the door, all offhand apologies and insincere smiles. The looks Mary gives him while they clear their lunch away fall somewhere between disinterested and icy. Matthew pretends not to notice and offers her tea instead.
It takes the better part of an hour to decide on three new charities. Mary offers reasons against all of Matthew’s choices. Matthew makes a token contribution but generally defers to Sybil, much as he always does. By the time they’re nearly finished, Sybil’s mobile buzzes and she steps into the hall while she tucks the phone against her cheek.
Matthew is suddenly very aware of the fact that it’s the first time he’s been alone with Mary since the first night they met. He corrects himself immediately--alone is not in a room with 300 other people, but when she’d slid her hand up the front of his jacket, those 300 other people hadn’t been on his mind at all. He meets Mary’s eyes across the coffee table and can’t help but remember her voice in his ear. He’s fairly certain that’s not what she’s thinking about as he clears his throat to fill the silence.
“So that’ll be Branson then?” His voice is too loud; he fights off a wince and soldiers on. “She’s not said but that’s his name, isn’t it? Her young man, as your grandmother would say?” He doesn’t know what makes him keep talking, what has him feeling like the burden to make amends is his. Whatever it is, it’s probably the reason he’s not called off this farce of a charity committee in the first place. He can’t help feeling as if he owes Mary something, no matter how hostile or terse her responses.
Mary doesn’t do much more than narrow her eyes but he’s already sure he’s said something wrong. She doesn’t raise her voice when she speaks and her tone isn’t exactly unkind, but he feels chastised nonetheless. “Whatever Sybil’s relationship with Branson, I think that’s Sybil’s business.” She pointedly picks up her cup of tea and says over the brim, “There’s rather enough prying into the love lives of the Crawley sisters as it is, don’t you think?”
“And how is Mr. Pamuk?” It’s out of his mouth before he even thinks it, hanging thick and heavy in the air between them. Mary’s features go slack. She sets her cup back in its saucer, sets her saucer on the table, and all with so much controlled hostility that Matthew’s half torn between feeling ashamed of his outburst and in awe of how aristocratic Mary’s upbringing must have been. It makes him sad and unbelievably tired and just as he opens his mouth to apologize, Sybil steps back into the room.
“So sorry, Gwen had a question about a report.” The cheer in her voice dies as she looks between Mary and Matthew. He doesn’t know how he looks, but Mary’s got her shoulders back and chin tipped up to the point of fury.
She grabs her bag and stands in one smooth motion. “If everything’s settled for today, I’ve other plans,” she says. “See you both next week.”
Sybil gives him a questioning look and Matthew’s off the sofa and across the room. “I didn’t mean to--I said--” He leaves Sybil with half-sputtered explanations and heads off after Mary to apologize, certainly, and explain himself if he can. Every explanation running roughshod through his head as he makes his way past Molesley’s desk and out toward the lifts seems wholly inadequate.
He spots Mary not at the lifts but heading toward Mr. Carson’s office. A dozen heads turn toward him when he calls out her name; when Mary stops she runs smack into a man with his hands full of files. Paper floats down toward the floor, underneath desks and chairs and Mary’s mouth opens into an O of surprise, the young man’s one of rather more panic.
Matthew jogs toward them to help and reaches them just in time to see Mary drop down toward the bulk of the pile. “I’m so sorry,” she says as she shuffles files and reaches for folders.
The young man--William, Matthew half recalls, a very junior associate in Carson’s department--drops to his knees beside her and gathers up whatever papers he can reach. “Not at all, it was my fault.” His face is blushing red to the roots of his blond hair.
Mary gives him a reassuring smile. “Don’t be silly, I stopped right in your way.” They finish gathering the papers from the floor; Matthew stands dumbly, reaching for the few sheets atop the nearest desk and thrusting them out toward William as they both climb back to their feet.
“Here you are, William.” He tries to look anything other than surprised or completely idiotic, but he’s certain he fails spectacularly. William takes the papers with a muttered “Thank you, Mr. Crawley” and a last look toward Mary. The smile she gives him can only describe as genuinely warm. It sits so naturally on her usually sharp features that Matthew forgets himself. He’s staring. He knows he’s staring and he can’t look away. It takes too long for Matthew to find his voice, time enough for Mary’s features to cool considerably, but what he might’ve found cold before is now just guarded. “I’m sorry,” he says, “for before. That was out of line.”
Her smile is diamond sharp and brittle and it stretches across her face in stages, mocking and furious and tired in turns. He wonders if he will ever stop cutting himself on her edges. She draws her shoulders back and narrows her eyes and it seems more and more unlikely all the time.
“Maybe a touch less garlic for lunch next week, hmm?” She spins on her heel and continues across the room, presses a kiss to Mr. Carson’s cheek and disappears into his office.
Matthew’s left standing in the middle of the office and he wonders, certainly not for the first time, if there’s more of her to be had when she’s not in this building, whether the edges of her fan out into something more gentle and less severe. He wonders what she looks like then, whether the lines of her mouth smooth into something gentler, what the muscles in her shoulders feel like when she doesn’t have her hackles raised. He can’t help but wonder--quite suddenly and mostly unbidden--what her hair looks like draped over her pillow in the middle of the night, or what her voice sounds like at the end of a lazy Sunday afternoon.
He wonders what the parts of her that she keeps so closely guarded look like, and whether she shows them to anyone at all.
For all that Mary’s worked to remove herself from the social circles her family still travels in, there are some things she cannot escape. Weekly tea with her mother and grandmother is something she’s never been able to get out of, and now that she’s got half a foot back in Downton, they’re half as likely to let her off the hook.
“I saw Melanie Tribbett at the Shaw opening last week.” Cora stirs her tea primly. Cora does everything primly, and Mary straightens her back in response and sighs.
“She was at Evelyn’s show. Delightful as always.” She doesn’t tell them about Miranda chasing after every wealthy man in attendance. It feels--unkind, which isn’t something Mary would usually care about when it comes to the socialite families she grew up with, but she holds her tongue nonetheless. “Where’s Sybil? I thought she was coming.”
Cora waves at someone past Mary’s shoulder. No matter where her mother picks for tea, there are always half a dozen people Cora knows, all sitting in their prim and proper outfits eating finger sandwiches and gossiping mercilessly. Mary’s been the subject of enough pointed looks to last a lifetime. “Sybil had schoolwork, I think. You know how she is about her studies. She told me about the show though, she said it was lovely. She showed me the pictures online.” Cora reaches over and squeezes Mary’s wrist; Mary most likely imagines a snigger from the table behind theirs, but she’s never quite sure. “You looked beautiful, darling.”
Mary smiles and tells them all about Evelyn’s autumn line: prints and pastels, new cuts and styles. She tries to fill as much time as she can before the inevitable happens.
“And how are your meetings going?” Cora stares into the bottom of her teacup and tries to look only casually interested. Mary can tell from her mother’s hands--white-knuckled even around bone china--that if she could, Cora would open up Mary’s throat and pull every word out by force. She’s tried before; Mary’s made her, stayed silent through pride and stubbornness until Cora couldn’t take it anymore. Mary finds a tiny bit of truth that costs her nothing and offers it up open-handed.
“It’s nice to spend the time with Sybil,” she says, stirring milk into her tea. She can see Cora’s lips form the questions--have you seen your father? have you spoken at all?--but she bites down on them at the last minute and stays quiet instead.
Truth be told, Mary hasn’t even seen her father since she came back to Downton, which has come as its own kind of terrible relief.
She’d shown up far too early for her first meeting with Matthew. When the taxi had dropped her off at the doors, she’d taken one look at the lines of the tower and walked straight in the other direction and gone to a cafe to wait. She smoked one cigarette on the way there and then another while she stood outside with rapidly cooling milky tea clutched in her hands. No sense in being early, in appearing too eager or ambitious or--whatever reasons she had for worming her way into these meeting had little enough to do with actually wanting to accomplish anything. She finally walked into the building ten minutes late, and anyone who looked at her wouldn’t have known she spent the trip to Matthew’s office trying not to catalogue all the changes in the place since she’d last been inside. She purposely didn’t notice new furniture or redesigned office spaces, and she certainly didn’t dwell on all the places she’d played as a child.
When she remembers Downton, it is always in half-light, red and rich and familiar even at the blurring edges. There are corners of that building she’s spent more time in than whole sections of her parents’ home, and she’d know them even now by smell or by touch. If she closes her eyes, she can feel the groove of the moulding underneath Carson’s desk, would know the sound of the drawers on their tracks anywhere. For as long as she can remember there has been a box of sweets tucked into the back of one of Carson’s desk drawers, chocolate in foil wrappers that used to crinkle in her small hands. He would pull her onto his lap, let her sign blank carbons and draw up contracts for ridiculous, extravagant things. One time, she remembers, he might’ve sold her the sky. If she left fingerprints on his paperwork, a chocolate thumbprint on a client file, he never scolded her or sent her back to her nanny, not until her head dropped down onto his shoulder and she dragged along behind him down the corridors to her father’s office.
She remembers hiding behind someone’s knees to escape from Mrs. Hughes, who’d never quite taken to her as Carson had. She remembers books spread out on the floor of her grandfather’s office and Sybil’s hands tugging at the ends of her hair. She even has a memory, half-formed, of falling asleep in her father’s lap while he reviewed reports, of being sat behind his great big desk while he mumbled budget items into her hair. She’s wondered in the years since if it might not be a false memory, something she constructed out of bits of air and wishful thinking, but it sits in her chest with a weight that feels real either way.
They’d grown up there, Mary and Sybil and Edith all run ragged through the offices and down the corridors. Every time she walks into Matthew’s office she remembers its old occupant Mr. Shandling and his twisted hands gripping the end of his cane while he scolded them not to run, to keep their voices down. “People are working,” he’d say, his mouth a sour pinch and Edith’s laughter trailing off behind them. There is a memory for every step she takes inside that building, and she’d rather die than share a single one with Matthew Crawley.
Mary doesn’t tell her mother any of it though; how her memories have bubbled up at random, thoughts of Edith and Carson and Mrs. Hughes and Granny all jumbled together with Matthew and charity files. It still feels very much like trespassing, coming back to a place that has moved on without her. She tries not to look for one, but there’s no place for her at Downton that she can find.
Cora is talking about someone Mary went to school with, the son of a friend of a cousin of the family, something long and convoluted that Mary doesn’t care about, and Mary presses her hands against the planes of her thighs and feels like this should all hurt less than it does. After all this time, it should hurt less, or differently at least, but sometimes it still feels as harsh as it did the first week she left, the first month, the first year. It’s been five years since she gave up any hope of running the company and Mary stills knows Downton’s stock value on any given day. If anyone asked, she’d deny it. No one asks. Cora keeps on with her story and Mary crosses her ankles underneath her chair.
Mary’s phone chirps once, twice, and she thumbs through messages from Kemal, hot and teasing enough that she forgets about Downton for awhile and doesn’t notice any glances that linger on their table longer than they ought. Kemal has always served as the most useful of distractions; Mary shifts in her seat and crosses and recrosses her legs and studiously does not meet her grandmother’s eyes.
Violet clucks her tongue disapprovingly every time Mary reaches for her phone. “In my day,” she starts--Mary would swear that those three words start off 90% of Violet’s conversations--“if a man wanted to take your call, he’d wait by the telephone.”
Mary smirks. “I thought only lovelorn girls waited for the phone to ring. You never did?”
Violet looks down her nose but there’s hint of amusement at the corners of her eyes. “We’re Crawleys, dear. We don’t do lovelorn.”
“So they should pine for us?” It’s an appealing enough image for Mary, if rather too romantic for her usual tastes.
“Why shouldn’t they?” Violet asks. “You’re still a lovely and respectable women, despite all that business in the past. He’d do well to woo you, dear.”
Mary forgets as often as not that Granny was her staunchest supporter, all that ferociousness tucked carefully into Mary’s corner in the most practical of ways. When she does remember, it’s in fragments and bits: coming home from those months abroad, her skin rather shockingly tanned, and driving past her parents’ flat and straight on to Granny’s instead; newspapers kept out of the house when her name appeared in the headline; Violet daring anyone to speak ill of her family with nothing more than a look and a well practiced smile. It’s a skill Mary’s not yet mastered, but she knows she’s been learning from the best.
Mama’s face shifts into the same coy, needling look Mary’s seen for as long as she can remember. “Your grandmother is no stranger to wooing, Mary.”
Violet shifts in her chair pointedly enough that even Mary hears the warning in it and says, “Mona Watson has been gossiping again, has she?” Violet leans in toward Mary conspiratorially and Mary can just see the edges of a much younger woman behind her grandmother’s lined face. Mary used to scour the albums in her parent’s library and flip through page after page of photographs of her grandmother. She doesn’t think of it often but she remembers it now, when Violet’s eyes are bright and sharp; how beautiful she was when she was younger. No stranger to wooing, indeed. “Crawley women have a weakness for dark-eyed lovers, child, and there’s no sense denying it.” She lifts Mary’s chin with a knobby finger. “But best be careful with that heart of yours.”
Mary sips her tea and smiles and wonders what lives in the place where her heart should be.
In the eight months since he was promoted at Downton, Matthew can remember taking a night to himself exactly twice. When he leaves the office at eight, the night guard gives him a curious look--he’s walked out at midnight every evening for the past six months. His heels echo around the lobby and the sound rattles around in his head for miles.
There’s a club he walks past on his way home and every night loud music spills out onto the pavement and puddles at the feet of all the sharp-dressed people bent around their cigarettes at the kerb. He’s never been one for the scene, for bright lights and ridiculous drinks--he’d rather a pint over a martini any day of the week--but his feet walk themselves in and seat him at the bar before he lets himself catalogue all the reasons he’d rather just go home.
The lights inside are pink and paint everyone in a blush that settles high on their cheekbones. The color makes the lines of the world run together. The music is loud and pounding; the bass settles deep in his chest, shifts around inside his ribcage and stays. By his second drink, he feels lighter. By his third, there’s a blonde at the end of the bar who keeps catching his eye.
He’s always appreciated the razor sharp distinction between being lonely and being alone. He’s always valued privacy, put stock in the restorative power of solitude, but tonight the distinction is hazy at best and seems altogether useless. The blonde has hair that falls over her shoulder and halfway down her back, and Matthew can’t stop staring at her wrists and wondering what she’d look like with the flimsy straps of her dress pooling down around her elbows. He orders them both another drink.
Her name is Hayley and she’s got a warm, red mouth and a voice that pushes up against the heavy bass in his chest and hums. He feels it all the way from his teeth to his toes. The pads of her fingers are soft when she rests them on the back of his hand, his wrist, the skin of his forearm, and she laughs like she’s got a secret she’d love to tell the world.
He lets himself unwind by small degrees, the edges he keeps close radiating outward with every drink and laugh and casual touch. Hayley leans closer, the better to be heard over the music, and her breath is warm on his cheek.
It’s not often that he does this. It’s not often that he has the time. He’s never been particularly good at it anyway, but Hayley’s smile is wide and she’s warm where her knee is pressed against his beneath the bar. They talk about sport and work and politics through two, three more drinks, until they’re tipped towards each other on their stools and light touches that were comfortable have shaded toward lingering and he can’t stop staring at her mouth. He keeps thinking about Sally May who’d sat in front of him for English in sixth form, about how she’d talked like an adult and had bright blue eyes that made him feel restless as he thumbed through Chaucer and Milton, not listening to anything their teacher said. Sally had always been first with an answer or a quote or a definition and he’d stared at the back of her neck for months, at the long blonde plait swept over one shoulder. He hasn’t seen her for fifteen years, hasn’t thought about her for almost as long and doesn’t know why he’s thinking about her now, but when Haley shifts toward him and smiles into her shoulder, he thinks maybe Sally grew up to look like this, miles of smooth skin that make his palms itch.
Matthew doesn’t know if it’s a new finely tuned radar or Mary’s ability to enter a room and take it over immediately, but he sees her the second she steps through the door. She’s backlit, the edges of her vague and indistinct, and she leans back against the hand that comes out of the shadows to settle in between her shoulder blades. The corners of Matthew’s mind that’ve spent the past hour smoothing out into a whisky haze come slipping back together, but nothing lines up quite right and his tongue is too thick in his mouth. Hayley’s talking about the cinema or the news or something else entirely, and Matthew’s tracking Mary in the mirror above the bar and trying to blink back the fog in his head.
“Matthew?” Hayley’s hand has been settled at his knee for the better part of ten minutes and the press of her nails against the fabric of his trousers jerks his eyes down to hers.
Matthew clears his throat and flicks his gaze up to the mirror above the bar; Mary and her small group have settled themselves along a booth in the corner. Best Matthew can tell, she hasn’t seen him yet, and he smiles quickly into the rim of his glass. “Sorry. Colleague of mine just came in.”
Hayley nods, loose curls brushing against her shoulders. Matthew keeps his eyes on the honey golden sheen of her hair. It’s almost enough to hold his focus but then he sees Mary’s reflection crossing the floor toward them. The muscles in his back knot themselves together all at once.
Mary slides in beside him and smiles an awful smile. “Matthew,” she says. She doesn’t raise her voice to compete with the music still blaring from the speakers at each end of the bar but he hears her just fine anyway. She’s wearing silver, something loose and billowy that falls to her forearms and down against her thighs. It makes her eyes look wide and bottomless.
Matthew swallows the anxiety creeping into the back of his throat and says, “Mary, hello.” His mouth won’t quite do what he wants it to, the words coming out thick and syrupy. Mary smirks at him, signals the bartender for a drink. Matthew checks the mirror for the rest of her party, still sat at the booth in the corner. One man--Kemal, presumably, though Matthew will deny recognizing him from any tabloid photographs--has his gaze fixed on Mary all the way across the club.
Matthew shuts his eyes and breathes in and out. He doesn’t believe in fate or karma but this seems especially unfair of the universe, to throw Mary Crawley at him when he can’t quite focus on--well, anything. Hayley’s still next to him, fingers drumming on the bar top. His knee feels cold. He hadn’t noticed her pull away.
“I’ve never seen you here before.” Mary’s voice brings him back to himself. When she tips up the end of her glass, her throat is long and pale, all exposed with her hair pulled up like that, and Matthew is staring and staring, eyes fixed on a freckle just under her jaw.
Beside him, Hayley stands suddenly, her arms tucked against her frame and her hands still and so far away. “I have to, excuse me,” she says, and Matthew watches her as she weaves in and out of the crowd, her skin changing colors in the light.
When he turns back to Mary, she’s got the corner of her mouth crooked up at him. “Last time I saw you with a date, it was your mother. The blonde seemed an improvement.”
Matthew snorts into his glass. He doesn’t imagine for a second that he looks anything close to dignified, with his suit jacket slung over the back of his chair and his tie hanging loose around his throat. It’s been a long day. It’s been a series of long days, truth be told, and Matthew’s sure the wear has started to show. Mary, however, manages to look glamorous and poised and put-together, even with two mostly drunk men pressing as much of themselves as possible up against each other just over her left shoulder. Three months of meetings and he’s never seen her with anything less than a rigid spine. He’s never even seen her with her hair down.
“I’ve never seen you with your hair down,” he says. The part of his brain that usually filters those things out before they reach his mouth seems to have stopped working.
Mary doesn’t answer or even acknowledge that he’s said anything at all. “If it’s blondes you’re after, I’m sure Edith would be more than happy to take you under her wing.” She pauses for the space of a breath, and if he knew her better he’d know whether it was scorn or envy that colored her words when she says, “It’d delight Papa, I’m sure.”
“Would it now?” Matthew runs his finger through the condensation on his glass. In the mirror over the bar, he sees Hayley at a table full of women, paying him no attention at all.
Mary draws her lips into something that would, on anyone else, be called a smile. “I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to wrap all of Downton up in a neat little package. It’d make him quite happy. You should think it over.”
“I didn’t know you had any interest in making your father happy.”
He doesn’t meant it as a barb, but she bristles anyway. It happens so quickly it might as well be a trick of the light--blue now and seeping into the metallic sheen of her dress. She pulls herself together with nothing more than a breath and a motion to the bartender.“You can ask, you know. If you want to.”
Matthew’s known for two months that he’s been doing a poor job of hiding his interest in the Crawley’s family drama--Sybil’s made him aware enough of that--but it’s still embarrassing to have Mary point it out so bluntly. If you want to. Matthew catches the bartender’s eye and motions for another drink. “I don’t want to.”
“Yes, you do.”
The bartender sets a glass in front of him, brown liquor, ice, and bad ideas all swirling together on the bar. Matthew watches him, his eyes passing over Mary and lingering on the most obvious parts of her. Something bright flares up in his chest. “Edith says you were expelled.”
Mary breathes out a laugh, her sharpest corners tucked away, even if only for a moment. “Edith says an awful lot of things. Few of them are worth listening to. So maybe not the best choice for you after all.” Her mobile buzzes against the bar; she flicks her eyes into the mirror and toward the back of the club. He tries not to follow her gaze to the booth in the corner but he can’t help it.
“Mr. Pamuk, I presume?” Mary makes a noncommittal noise in the back of her throat. “And he’s the reason you were expelled?”
She shrugs up one shoulder, then the other. “Kemal isn’t a reason for anything, he’s just--Kemal.” She gestures toward the booth in the corner. “That’s it? That’s all you want to know?”
“I, really Mary, I don’t want to pry.” His voice is embarrassingly small when he says, “I don’t want you to hate me.”
For just a second, Mary’s face goes soft and open, the lines of her smoothed out. Matthew can’t keep his hands still and he can’t meet her eyes, because he’s spent the better part of two weeks thinking about what she looks like when nobody’s around, whether the glint in her eye is all for show or something natural; he’s spent it thinking about what the ridges in her spine would feel like under his thumb, what she looks like when she’s laughing so hard she can’t catch her breath. Wondering if he could ever make her laugh so hard she couldn’t catch her breath. He wants a cold shower and a cigarette and another drink. Her elbow slides against his when she moves and it’s enough to make the bottom of his stomach drop out.
There are whole parts of Matthew’s brain that seem to have stopped working entirely. At least he’s staring at his hands and not her face when he says, “Your father, do you--do you hate him?” The words slip right past his better judgment and sit there on the bar between them until Mary clears her throat and takes a drink. He’s spent four months imaging he’d already seen the sharpest points of all her corners, but when he hazards a glance in her direction, the glass that was just full is now empty and her knuckles are very nearly white where they’re pressed against the bar.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He wants to say something else, wants to have cause to do anything other than apologize, but she’s got her shoulders angled so slightly away from him, just barely tucked into herself. “Please, I didn’t mean anything, I just.” He runs his fingers through his hair, drops his elbows onto the bar and his head into his hands. His mouth is dry; his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth and the cotton wool feeling in his head presses against the back of his eyeballs. He breathes out and tries to get his bearings. “I’ve had too much to drink. I shouldn’t have said anything, I--”
“I don’t hate him.” He can just barely hear her over the sound of the music, the thrumming of the crowd. She’s still turned mostly away from him but she twists to run her cheek against her shoulder and then meets his eyes--just for a second. His hands curl into fists. If they didn’t he’s fairly sure he’d find them wandering toward her wrists, her elbows, the planes of her shoulders. She may be slight as anything but he’s never thought her truly small until just now. The shape of her pricks at his memory. I thought you’d look more like Patrick. It makes his breath catch in his chest.
Their shoulders are a whisper apart and his chest shifts, contracts; his tongue feels loose and stupid and brave. “I think sometimes you’re one person, the way people talk. The way you hold yourself.” He knows he ought to stop talking, that whatever thin ice he’s skating toward is unlikely to hold his weight, but there’s a piece of hair that’s come loose from the knot at the crown of Mary’s head. She tucks it back behind her ear, pinches her lips together and doesn’t say anything. He can feel the warning bells at the outskirts of his mind slip back beneath the pounding of the music. I don’t hate him. “And then sometimes, I think you’re someone else entirely.” Matthew leans in, just a fraction of a whisper of an inch, and all the skin on his body feels anxious and wanting. The lights all around them slide from blue to pink. “What do you look like Mary?” Her eyes go wide and unfocused and he wants to kiss her so badly his fingers itch.
Sally May was bright and lovely, sun golden and so, so young; Mary is lovely, amazingly so, but she’s brittle and tired, too. It shouldn’t make her more beautiful, the way her whole body shudders a little when she finally takes a breath--but it does. Her eyes are fixed somewhere on the back wall. Matthew’s eyes are fixed on her. He wants to curl his fingers in her hair and press his lips to the stretch of skin beneath her ear, slide his hand up her waist and slot his fingers one, two, three against her ribcage. He wants to lick the champagne from the underside of her lip. He wants a lot of things and all he can do is turn away, stare across the bar and into the mirror. He feels the flush spread down his neck and chest, and--and he has definitely had enough to drink.
The silence between them lasts for a minute, or a lifetime. By the time Mary turns to look at him, her face is a cool, collected mask again, but he can see now--the effort it takes her to wear it, to tamp down the parts others aren’t meant to see.
He can’t think of anything to say so he doesn’t say anything at all, just swirls his glass and watches Mary out of the corner of his eyes while she drums her fingers against the bar in front of her.
“Mary, are you coming back? We miss you.” A hand settles on the bar between them, Kemal wrapping himself around her and pressing his lips to the side of her neck. Matthew tries not to watch in the mirror, but Mary catches him at it anyway. “Evelyn won’t shut up about some old bird who wants to give him all her money and kidnap him forever and be his muse. I don’t care at all, come make him stop.”
Mary takes a deep breath and then smiles, just barely. “Kemal, this is Matthew Crawley. Matthew, Kemal Pamuk.”
Matthew tries not to be offended at the offhand nod Kemal gives him. His eyes are wide and unfocused, something just a bit off kilter about his stance as he wraps himself around Mary again and presses his lips back to the side of her neck. It’s not just rumours about Mary that Matthew’s caught up on, and by the look of him, most everything he’s heard about Kemal is true. Matthew’s hands have gone quite tight around his empty glass, but he keeps his eyes off the mirror and stares at the bar instead. The music suddenly feels far too loud, the whole club overwarm. He wants a glass of water and some fresh air.
“Next week,” Mary says. She’s spun the wrong way around on her stool, barely slumped back against the bar, and Kemal still has her hand in his, tugging her slightly toward their booth in the back. “I’ll see you then.”
Matthew nods and does his best to look cheerful. He tries not to think about Mary curled into herself or her cheek rubbing lightly against her shoulder, and definitely not about Kemal’s lips at her throat and his hands--everywhere. “Next week.” His voice sounds entirely unlike his voice.
He watches Mary trail Pamuk across the club and slide in next to him in the booth. By the time he’s finished settling his bill, she’s slumped back, Kemal’s arm around her shoulders. She looks toward him, just for a second, and he carries it with him all the way home--Mary’s face, eyes hooded and brushed pink with light.
Kemal presses her back into a corner of the stairwell and fixes his mouth to the place where her neck meets her shoulder and bares his teeth in a smile and bites down. Mary gasps. The light from the gaudy harsh fluorescents has gone soft and hazy at the edges and when she closes her eyes and pitches her hips against his, there are stars. There are pinpricks too, in the hard press of his fingers against the back of Mary’s thigh when he drags her leg around his waist. The inside of Mary’s chest feels unbound and restless. Whatever Kemal gave her at the club is filtering down from the crown of her head to the pit of her stomach and she can feel the buzz of it all along her skin where she’s pressed up against him. It makes her fist her fingers in his clothes and pull, and feels not unlike being turned inside out, and is amazing. Mary makes a greedy noise in the back of her throat--she needs his hands and his mouth, right now and everywhere. Heat blooms off her in waves that break just past the ends of her fingertips. It’s all she can hear and all she can see--heat and Kemal and stars and Kemal and she throws her head back against the wall and comes.
She’s dizzy in the stairwell and makes the trip to the flat on unsteady feet; Kemal’s got one arm around the small of her back and it’s heavy and possessive and warm and if Mary hadn’t already come twice, if the fight to keep her eyes open wasn’t surely a losing battle, she’d press him up against the door of his flat and make him tip his head back and scream. The thought makes her smile through the soft-focus chemical fog in her head and she presses a kiss to the underside of his jaw as he leads her through the door.
They fall into bed heavily, king and queen of a world that stops just past the edges of their bare skin. When Mary closes her eyes and drops off to sleep, she can still see the stars behind her eyelids and she rolls toward him and smiles.
She wakes hours later, half-queasy with a flutter in her stomach and Kemal’s arm draped heavily over her chest. She pushes him off with a grunt, stumbling through the dark room with her eyes still closed and walking a jagged line toward the toilet. Her head feels noticeably clearer and markedly worse; there are no stars in her eyes now, just ragged drum beats at her temples. She splashes water on her face and drinks straight from the tap to soothe her aching throat, still smoke sore from the night before. The room’s fully dark; she can’t have slept very long. She feels very likely still drunk, leaning against the door frame while the room spins and spins.
It’s not until she lowers a knee onto the mattress that she realizes something is wrong, and even then it’s a long time before she understands. The room stops spinning with a jerk and she stumbles forward onto her palms on the bed, one hand on Kemal’s waist and the other fisting into the sheets beside him. Mary stares and stares, at his arm, his chest, his throat, his cheeks, his wide open, unblinking eyes. His skin beneath her fingers is cold and she doesn’t understand--until she does. She reaches a shaking hand toward his throat and lets out a raw, aching moan when the fingers she presses to his neck close over still, clammy skin. No pulse, no frantic rush of blood. She pulls her hand away and the sound that escapes her throat is half a sob.
It feels very much like falling, like steady weight settling into her veins. She shuts her eyes and when she opens them again, everything is murky and smudged at the edges. She doesn’t realize until much later that it’s tears that blur her vision, because everything has gone coldly numb. She dresses in what feels like seconds, or hours, and the hands that pull her dress over her head are shaking badly enough that the zip catches in her hair. It barely registers .The sharp pull at her roots is no more than a faint buzzing behind her eyes.
She slips out as quietly as they’d sneaked in, down the hallway to the stairwell with her heels dangling useless from her hand. All the places in her body that were open last night--her chest had felt so vast and wide and wanting beneath Kemal’s hands and when he’d kissed her it had lasted for a thousand years--feel closed off and cold and very far away. When she passes the corner they’d hidden in last night, the weight in Mary’s chest that should maybe be grief is mostly just panic and she doesn’t let her steps slow at all.
When she pushes out onto the street, the city has the eerie, still quality of night sliding just into morning; the edges of the silence rub up against the empty roaring in Mary’s brain. She slips on her heels and pulls her jacket tight around herself and with no destination in mind, begins to walk.
She won’t remember, when she tries to, exactly where she went; she won’t remember hailing a cab or giving an address or the trip across the city. She’ll remember instead the most basic and useless details--the worn fabric of the taxi’s seat and the smell of flowers and mint that drifted back while the driver kept his silence through the city’s empty streets. She won’t remember paying him but she will remember the sky shading slowly into day over the edges of the windows at the top of her parent’s house.
She stands on the doorstep and rings the bell for what feels like the vast majority of her entire life. She hears it echo through the house, through her parents’ empty rooms, and with a sudden shot of self awareness, she prays her father isn’t home.
Cora answers the door--alone. Her eyes are wide as saucers and her hair is in curls against her cheeks. She’s still wiping sleep from the lines of her face when she looks out into the morning and sees Mary--who will only later think of what she must’ve looked like in the lightening sunrise on her mother’s front step, last night’s make-up still smudged across her face and panic coming off of her in waves .Cora tugs her in without a word and her hand is a vice on Mary’s wrist.
Robert is in New York; Cora is biting down on all the questions Mary knows she wants to ask. By the time they’re settled onto the sofa, tea untouched at their elbows and all the pieces of Mary’s story still howling around the room, the sky outside the windows is a blushing shade of pink. Mary keeps her eyes on the flashes of morning through the glass for as long as she can, until all the bones in her body stop their shaking and she can meet her mother’s eyes.
Cora’s looking at Mary in a way she hasn’t done for years and Mary can’t imagine what her mother sees right now, can’t imagine what she must look like. Desperate, surely, and very, very small; frail, most likely, never mind her hands curled into fists in her lap. When Mary speaks, her voice is a stranger’s. “He was dead. I woke up and he was just--dead.”
For all she looks as if she wants to, Cora doesn’t flinch and she doesn’t turn away. She keeps her voice very, very steady when she asks, “Are you sure you weren’t seen?”
It hasn’t been an hour and already half the details are muddled and the other half are gone completely. The dull lights in the stairwell, the hard glare off the headlights on passing taxis, and always, always Kemal’s eyes--unblinking and staring on and on forever. Mary isn’t sure of anything.
She squeezes her hands tighter and digs her nails into her palms. “You can’t tell Papa,” she says. Her voice is raw. “Please.” It’s not an afterthought so much as a fresh wound. “Please don’t tell him. If he doesn’t need to know, don’t tell him.”
Cora’s eyes are very hard and her cheeks look hollow. “It might come out, Mary.”
The tension in Mary’s jaw is infinite. “I’ll tell him if it comes to that.” Each word claws her throat as she says it and she realizes, with sudden clarity, what people mean when they talk about mercy. It takes more begging than Mary’s done in her lifetime, more begging than she’d ever hoped to do, before Cora agrees that Robert won’t know unless worse comes to worse and he must. By the time she gives in--with a nod like it pains her and for all Mary knows, it does--Mary’s voice is a rough whisper and she’s half-asleep in her chair. She stands up in the middle of her mother’s perfect, pristine sitting room and tugs awkwardly at the hem of last night’s dress. Her knees shake; her face is sore.
“I should go,” she says. She sounds impossibly young and feels every bit of it--young and unused and unsteady on her feet. She doesn’t protest when Cora takes her by the hand--very delicately and without a word--and leads her up the stairs. She doesn’t let go but to pull Mary’s dress over her head. Mary knows somewhere far away that she ought to feel self-conscious, a grown woman being undressed by her mother like a child, but she doesn’t feel anything until Cora stands her beneath the shower and turns the water on as hot as she can stand. Mary washes until she feels clean again. She washes until the water runs cold.
It’s Cora that bundles her into a towel and brushes out her hair. When she slips her robe over Mary’s shoulders, the scent of her perfume is a wave right at Mary’s chest. For the first time in a very long time, Mary feels like a girl playing at her mother’s dressing table, Sybil and Edith to left and right. How many times did they do exactly this? How many times did they color their lips and style their hair and play at a future that seemed bright and endless? It feels a thousand years ago now and very far away. Mary catches Cora’s wrist between her fingers and pulls her mother close. “I’ve made a mess of things, haven’t I?”
Cora runs her hands over Mary’s cheeks and sweeps her fringe from her forehead. She leans forward and presses a kiss to Mary’s temple, but says nothing at all.
She leads Mary down the hallway and into her old room. She peels the covers back silently and tucks herself in behind, knees fit to Mary’s beneath the sheets. Mary falls asleep with Cora’s hands rubbing circles against the small of her back. When she finally sleeps it’s fitfully; she wakes up gasping, alone and reaching. Her hands stretch out and on forever and close around nothing every time.