It was very British, he thought.
Europe was poised on the brink of crisis, Lady Grantham had not yet recovered from her calamity, and here they all were, lords, ladies and gentlemen, wandering daintily over the gorgeous grounds of Downton and grazing on canapés. To Matthew, it still felt a little unnatural to be in the presence of dozens who still didn't quite believe that he should be there. He shouldn't be surprised, of course; it would take more than two years for the upper classes to change their minds about social upstarts.
He cruised the party with as much élan as he could muster in the face of his current situation, attempting to avoid his cousins. After all, to inflict his presence on Lord and Lady Grantham would be nothing less than cruel. Sybil he would speak to happily, but he had never much enjoyed Edith's company, and Mary -
"Matthew? Would you walk with me?"
He had been expecting this. From the moment that her mother had been miscarried of her poor baby, he had known that Mary would seek him out to accept his proposal. No doubt she saw the garden party as the perfect time to confirm their engagement. She was probably picturing a public announcement to the guests, spiting Edith by being the first to be engaged. The first stirrings of anger began.
He smiled down at her, the image of courtesy. "Of course, cousin Mary."
She took his arm, gently steering him out of the earshot of the milling aristocracy. He went along willingly, but the simmering bitterness that was so familiar between them was rising to a boil, and her gloved hand burned on his sleeve burned. They rounded a stout, spreading oak and immediately he tore away.
"What do you want, Mary?" he demanded.
He saw her flinch slightly before answering: "I wanted to talk about your… your proposal."
"Oh, of course," he said scornfully. "Now that there is no obstacle between me and the estate, now that I am secured as your best prospect, has that clarified the matter for you?"
She was about to answer, but he didn't let her.
"Is that all I am to you, Mary? A title, an Abbey. Do I mean nothing more to you than that?"
"Yes!" she burst out, breaking through his tirade.
"Oh, really," he retorted. "So what are you here to tell me? That the reason you've had no answer for me for weeks – weeks! – has nothing to do with your poor brother?"
She blanched. "No!"
"Then what, Mary?"
"I don't know!"
He stared at her. "You don't know. You don't know? Fine answer that is! You've been saying that since I asked you!"
"I don't mean that!"
"Then tell me what you mean!"
There were mere inches between them; the short silence echoed as he realised just how violently he had thrown those words at her. He was breathing heavily, and if she had been any other lady, then he would have felt ashamed at such a performance.
She spoke in a tremulous voice. "I wanted to ask you…" Her eyes closed. "What do you want me to do?"
Surprised, he stepped back. "I'm sorry?"
"What do you want me to do?" she pressed. "If I say yes, you'll just assume that I only want your claim to Downton. If I say no… If I-" She took a sharp breath. "What would you have me do?"
Her frank question took him aback, and he found himself quite unable to answer.
The colour was coming back to her cheeks now; her pride was returning. "If what you said before I went to London still holds true, then I think it's quite simple. Do you love me enough to put all of this out of our way? Or do you want me to leave now?"
"You're twisting the issue," he accused her. "This isn't about what I feel."
"Is it not? Then why are you so angry?"
He felt as though he were under attack. "Because if you marry me then I will never know whether or not you really love me."
And for only the second time since he had arrived at Downton, he saw the ice melt from her eyes. He expected her to – hoped that she would – assure him of her love, but instead –
"I'm letting you decide."
It took a moment for him to understand.
Proud Mary, stubborn Mary, controlling Mary was letting him take control of her life, trusting him to control her. She was offering to promise to love and to obey, and she was showing that she would uphold that vow. She was offering to obey his rule, where before she had always sought to rule herself.
She loved him. And she would willingly obey him.
"You're letting me decide?" he echoed, finally beginning to smile. "Then I decide yes. Let's get married."
The smile that blossomed on her lips was like none he had ever seen.
Yet: "I'm not forgiving you," he cautioned.
Her smile faltered; he brushed his hand against her cheek to restore it.
"I'm letting you have the chance to earn my forgiveness."
Her maiden pride rose up in her eyes and in the set of her brow, but then she quelled it, and that meant everything. There was a compromise there; he would make an effort not to hold her flaws against her, and she would make an effort to correct those flaws.
"I love you," he told her.
In answer, she brought the fingers that lingered at her cheek to her lips. "Shall we-"
But her question was cut off by a commotion from the way of the marquee. Their battle was over, but the war was just beginning.
"What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band."
Beatrice, Act 3, Scene 1, Much Ado About Nothing.
A/N: This may feel rather old-fashioned in its stance on the balance of power between man and wife. That's because this is set in 1914. I hope it doesn't give too archaic an impression. I thought the issue particularly pertinent to Matthew and Mary. As for the AU nature of this, well, I confess that I just wanted a happy beginning for them. I originally thought of this from two points of inspiration: I wanted to switch the roles enough to give Mary the chance to say "Do you love me enough... or not?" and I love that speech of Beatrice's in Much Ado. Bring them together, along with a very boring technical rehearsal, and this is what comes out.
Please review if you have a moment. Normally I don't ask, but I'm not sure about this one. In fact, if anyone wants to do a full beta, then please PM me. But if you don't, please at least take a moment to tell me what you thought. Thank you.