Lavinia begins to lose count of them, the polite evenings spent staring across proper distances at one another, their conversation as pleasant and unsurprising and dutiful as Isis trotting along at Lord Grantham's heels. And underneath brews a small, ignored, unignorable storm.
Sir Richard stays at Mary's side most of the time, some selfish parody of gallantry, and even his light remarks are too biting to seem quite proper in this very proper room. On occasion, Mary or Matthew will steal one another away, just for the briefest bit of conversation. On occasions like these, Sir Richard catches her eye, lifts a brow. Lavinia makes a point not to look at him. She watches Mary and Matthew instead. Matthew is looking well, she thinks, with a bit more color to his cheeks and expression in his face. He almost seems to forget the chair at times. She would like to take credit for that herself, but it is never more apparent than when he's talking with Mary. She knows she ought to worry, and she does, a little – but all the same, she can't blame him. There is something in Mary, an arch upright exquisiteness that would make anyone bloom under her gaze. Matthew described Lady Mary Crawley as cold once, back when he and Lavinia were first getting to know each other. Lavinia had expected a very different sort of girl.
Matthew still balks at the idea of Lavinia as the eternal nursemaid. Her apparent selflessness seems to drag him into the darkest corners of himself, sometimes. She does wish he wouldn't be so ridiculous.
"Please," she says one afternoon, putting a blanket over his lap, letting her fingers rest on one knee for a few thoughtless seconds before she moves them up to his forearm, "don't treat me as some kind of saint. I love you, that's all. For better or for worse."
"Oh, my dear," he says, a testament to her sainthood in the syllables.
Her fingers curl in frustration. He starts, slightly.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she says, shame flooding her. "Did I hurt you?"
"No, no." He gives her a tired smile and a rather brotherly pat on the hand. "I'm made of stronger stuff. Even now."
She kisses him; he lets her, which is progress at least. She wishes she could drink in every bit of his sorrow - make it hers, let it bind them. Show him that she can withstand it very well, that they might let it fade into a scar together.
"I know," she says, pulling away sooner than she would like. "I know you are."
And so is she.
While Matthew naps, she goes out walking. It begins to rain when she's halfway to Downton Abbey -- a proper Bronte storm, lacking only lightning, soaking her in seconds. She contemplates running back to him before deciding that the great house is the better choice. Perhaps it will do Matthew good to wake and find her away. It will give him a chance to miss her.
Carson greets her at the door with a look of total bafflement, then a sort of grim resignation, as though it is not possible to hope for much better conduct from London ladies.
Mary is crossing the hall, a book in her hand, when she spots Lavinia.
"It began to rain," Lavinia explains, running a futile hand through her wet, tangling hair.
"I see that," Mary replies, taking in the sight of her. Amusement warms her eyes and pulls at her mouth. "Come along, then."
Mary offers to fetch Anna to help Lavinia out of her wet things, which Lavinia insists isn't necessary. It’s just the two of them in Mary’s bedroom, then. Mary rifles through the wardrobe while Lavinia undoes the buttons of her coat with slightly trembling hands.
"I suppose you're not used to being dressed and undressed like a doll," Mary remarks as she searches.
"No," Lavinia agrees, then feels herself blush. "Oh – not that I mean that there's anything wrong with it—"
"Isn't there?" Mary asks with a sigh. "God, even I wonder, these days. It seems old fashioned to the point of stupidity.”
"I wouldn't call you old-fashioned," Lavinia says.
Mary turns away from the wardrobe, briefly, and blesses Lavinia with a smile. "What in the world brought you out into the elements? It's looked like rain all day."
"Matthew fell asleep," Lavinia says, pulling the pins from her hair. "I felt like a bit of fresh air. I thought that maybe—"
"Maybe both of us could use a break," she finishes as casually as she can.
"Is it going badly then?"
"No, no," Lavinia says, and hates how much it sounds like ‘yes.’ "It's just that—"
“Take these,” Mary interrupts, in what might be an act of mercy, and hands her a blouse and skirt. “They should do all right, I think.”
“Thank you,” Lavinia says, and disappears behind the dressing screen. She hangs Mary’s clothes over the top and sets to work on more buttons. She listens to Mary bustling around the room, and the silence around it. It’s been so long since she had anyone to confide in. Matthew’s former beloved seems an unwise candidate, but she has trouble seeing Mary as only that. And maybe she’s a bit desperate. Matthew is all she truly needs – or at least that was how it felt, being away from him – but it would be a lie to claim she doesn’t yearn for friendship too.
She thinks of that quick kiss, and all the things she wanted to find in it. She’s beginning to feel like such a fool. “I know –” she begins – and then keeps on, even if it is unwise, “I know that he won't be able to be a proper husband to me, but honestly, if he thinks the two of us are going to go an entire lifetime without even kissing, I'll have to strangle him."
From the other side of the screen, Mary laughs: a surprised, delighted laugh that sounds so much younger than she ever seems.
"I'm sorry," Lavinia says, mostly because she’s a little disoriented at having sparked such a reaction. "I doubt you want to hear about any of this.”
“On the contrary,” Mary says, a smile in her voice, “now I’m riveted.”
"I can't shake the feeling that he's given up on me," Lavinia confesses. It’s a strange relief to say it. "And I don't think it's fair. Lord knows I haven't given up on him."
Mary doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t move, either. It’s suddenly as if Lavinia’s talking to an empty room.
“Did he seem like he missed me?” Lavinia presses, her heart pounding. She has wanted to ask this so badly, and couldn’t bear to take the question to Isobel. “After – after I left?”
“Who couldn’t?” Mary answers.
“Oh, please,” Lavinia sighs. “Not more of how virtuous and invaluable I am.”
“I suppose you’ve been getting rather a lot of that.”
Mary pauses. “It is true, you know.”
“I don’t see what’s so selfless about it. I love him. I want him.” Lavinia colors a little at how frank it sounds, but carries on. “What isn’t selfish about that?”
“It sounds perfectly selfish to me,” Mary says. She sounds very far away, for someone on the other side of a dressing screen. Lavinia slips out of her wet clothes.
They ring in the New Year with champagne; midnight is all clinking glasses and happy greetings for (God, how they all hope it) a happy year at last. Lavinia leans down to kiss Matthew; he meets her with a fond smile, pressing his palm to her cheek and murmuring, “Happy New Year, my darling” in a way that makes her nearly dizzy with relief and hope.
Or that could be the champagne.
While Matthew is distracted by an embrace from Isobel, Lavinia’s attention wanders to Mary and Sir Richard. They’re having one of their sharp, low conversations that make them seem so equally matched – ‘equally matched’ is the way Lavinia always finds herself phrasing it in her head. It is not quite the same thing as ‘well matched.’
Sir Richard kisses Mary’s cheek; Mary accepts it with a frosty, elegant smile (Matthew called her cold, once), then finishes off her glass of champagne. She crosses the room; to Lavinia’s surprise, she stops at her side.
“I could use a bit of air,” Mary announces smoothly. “Join me?”
“Of course,” Lavinia says.
It’s snowing lightly outside. Mary wraps her arms around herself, an action Lavinia mimics.
“1919, now,” Mary says in a lofty voice that isn’t quite convincing. “And husbands are still so dreadfully necessary. It makes one wish those suffragettes would get a move on.”
“Perhaps you’ll have to blaze your own trail,” Lavinia suggests.
“At this point, I’m seriously considering it. Just imagine it otherwise.” Her face goes nearly blank with exhaustion. “An endless stretch of New Year’s midnights exactly like this one.”
Lavinia hesitates a moment, then presses a gloved hand against Mary’s bare shoulder. “Do you think you could love him?”
“I respect him, in a way,” Mary says. “Of course he’s handsome. I would quite like that voice, if it weren’t for the things it said. The real truth of it is that he’s cold, and I know very well I can be colder. I will be, if only to beat him at his own game. I never could resist a challenge.”
“I don’t think you’re cold,” Lavinia says.
Mary shivers distinctly; the timing makes both of them laugh. She has such a wonderful smile: how radiant Mary Crawley is, in those rare moments when she forgets to bear the weight of the world on her shoulders. Any man who wouldn’t want to devote his life to making her smile just like that would be an unforgivable fool, Lavinia decides.
“Mary?” she says.
Mary turns, and Lavinia kisses her. She’s not sure what she means it to be – a sisterly gesture, maybe, but Lavinia’s never had a sister and does not quite know the protocol on those. But then Mary’s mouth opens against hers, making the kiss a vivid, blissful demand of a thing, and it shocks through Lavinia like a sudden fall.
She gasps involuntarily; the kiss is a casualty of it. They all but jump away from each other.
“There,” Lavinia says, feeling ridiculous and giddy all at once. “Just – just to give this New Year some distinction.”
“Well,” Mary observes, her ivory skin quite pink. “You don’t do things by halves.”
“Nor do you,” Lavinia observes right back.
“No,” Mary agrees.
They consider each other.
“I think I had a bit too much champagne,” Lavinia volunteers.
“As did I,” Mary says. “Absolutely.”
“So,” Lavinia says, reluctant. She does not quite want to give herself back to polite evenings and proper distances yet, to Sir Richard or the Crawleys or even to Matthew; not when she has the black sky and cold clean air. And Mary, who kissed her like neither one of them could ever break.
Mary, who says, “In that case.”
And she kisses Lavinia again, the snow falling around them like stars.