"Really, was that absolutely necessary, Mary?"
The door had opened with a snap, without even the most perfunctory of warning knocks. If this turn of events was one she was not accustomed to, the woman sitting at her dressing table betrayed no indication of it.
"I can't imagine what you mean."
Lucy's hand trembled as she removed the delicate, rosebud shaped jewel from her lady's hair. The girl nervously glanced from master to mistress, recognizing the familiar look of frustration on his face and the challenge in her eyes.
"Jones, could you leave Lady Mary and I for a moment, please?" Tight, controlled—but insistent all the same.
"Of course, sir." As she bobbed in curtsy and exited, he kept his eyes on the too-beautiful woman in the mirror. As the door snapped shut behind Lucy, she raised one perfect eyebrow.
"I think you can imagine exactly what I mean."
"I suppose that's true." He stood there, waiting for her to say something—anything, more. This Mexican standoff lasted for about fifteen seconds. "Really, Matthew, if you're going to go about barging in and ordering my maid out of the room mid-undressing, the least you can do is help me with these."
Sighing, he sidled up behind her and raised his hands in supplication. Mea Culpa. He began the familiar ritual of removing the pins holding her elaborate coiffure in place, one by one. Fingertips lightly brushed the side of her neck as he repeated the motion, less out of necessity than desire.
Matthew tossed the pins onto her table in a half-hearted attempt to express the already cooling frustration he felt about her conduct at dinner. His effort was to little effect, for his wife did not appear to notice at all. She smiled up at him in the mirror, a little stiffly.
"If only I could train you to put them back in. Then I'd have something truly extraordinary on my hands."
Her offhandedness renkindled his indignation.
"Between your father and grandmother he has trouble enough as it is, Mary," he frowned, dropping the last on her vanity table. "You needn't add fuel to the flame."
She raised her arms, unwinding her hair from the low, braided knot.
"Is this your opinion or Branson's?"
"How long must he be married to Sybil before you call him by his first name?" Dropping her arms, Mary's hair cascaded around her shoulders in elegant waves.
"I think you're accusing me of being a snob, darling."
Matthew could see in the mirror that she was very mildly affronted by the suggestion. He could not help but smirk while he twisted a strand of chestnut dapple around his finger.
"It would hardly be the most absurd allegation ever leveled against you." His broad hands found her shoulders and began to rub them, in the gentle, familiar way he'd grown accustomed to in the first few months of their marriage.
"For your information, Matthew Crawley," his wife closed her eyes, primly. "I don't dislike him because he's an Irish Bolshevik who used to drive us 'round in the motor."
He stopped massaging.
"I assume the other shoe is about to drop."
She shrugged off his hands and twisted on her cushioned seat, to face him.
"If you must know," She set to brushing her hair—long, even strokes, the result of years of careful study. "I dislike him because he's a sanctimonious and tiresome bore."
"That sounds like an excuse, darling," he laughed.
"I know it does, but it isn't. People accuse our kind of being high and mighty—" Her tone became noticeably more irritable, her brushstrokes more erratic and frenzied. "He acts as though by gracing us with his presence that we—that the whole family should consider itself lucky he deigns to dine with them."
"A traitor to his class of the highest order," he remarked, blithely.
"And the way Sybil hangs on his every word—"
"A wife hanging on her husband's every word," he ran one hand playfully down her arm. He could tell from her expression that Mrs. Branson was at the heart of Mary's irrational umbrage. "That is revolutionary."
"Oh, be honest—do you like him?"
Matthew thought seriously, while she absently fiddled with his tie.
"I wouldn't ask him to be the godfather of my firstborn, no—" He frowned, thoughtfully. "But I can't help but sympathize." Her face was only a few inches from his—her eyes sparkled teasingly, her brow rose in amusement, daring him to continue. "I've also been on the receiving end of one of your verbal lacerations before."
"You were more than a match for me, darling."
He sat down next to her on the loveseat.
"Despite not being one of your people?"
"…You aren't going to let this lie, are you, Matthew?"
"If you'd only pretend to like him, even tolerate him, I could—"
"He brings it on himself." Stroke, stroke, stroke—had she gotten to a hundred yet, he wondered? "He compared the institution of an Earldom to the Romanovs and inferred the estate ought to be split up and sold. What was he expecting, to be heralded as a great political philosopher?"
He grasped her wrist to stop her from pulling out her own hair.
"I'm sure he wasn't expecting you to imply that by marrying the woman he loved he became a hypocrite with no right to an opinion opposed to the aristocracy as a political institution."
He was quiet, grave and so unflinchingly sincere—it was enough to make her scream. That hadn't been what she'd said—not exactly, anyway—and wasn't it a point worthy of being made by someone, even if it wasn't exactly…charitable?
"Do you think Carson allowed him to chat about overturning the civilized world when we paid him to drive us and he ate below stairs?" She brushed aside what was beginning to feel suspiciously like remorse. "Why should we now?"
"And before you start lecturing me on equality for all God's creatures, great and small, remember that you're to be an earl one day and Branson will teach his children to hate us on sheer principle—"
"Mary." He repeated, more insistent, and she stopped out of surprise. One thumb rose to glide over her cheek. He was startled at her trembling. He realized then that she was fighting back tears. "…You can admit that you miss her."
For a split second her gaze, the certainty that she seemed to have about everything—that he would come back, that everything would turn out right in the end—faltered. He wanted to hold her, she ought to lean into his arms, if only she would let him.
"I don't know what you mean."
They sat in a tense, almost stifling quiet, the only sound the clink of jewelry being dropped listlessly into a china box.
"…I miss her, too, darling. I can't imagine how you feel. She was your little, dear sister and now it must seem—well, I haven't any brothers or sisters, but I'd imagine she's almost a stranger now, a mother and wife." He found her hand and clasped it. "How very difficultit must be, knowing she'll be gone so soon..."
When at last she crumpled into his arms, burrowing her head into his shirtfront and sobbing, he couldn't think of anything to say. When he had been able to think of something, it hadn't seemed at all adequate. He knew enough of his wife to understand what little store she set by the trite banalities that he could offer.
So he held her, hoping it was enough. .
"I…I suppose I have been a bit…brittle with him, haven't I?" She laughed a little while later, wiping her face. "Only he's so difficult to like."
"Between us, darling—" he muttered softly into her ear. "I don't think he likes you much either."
"I can't imagine why, when I've done my bit for social leveling." She might've not been crying at all, for how quickly she'd managed to recompose herself.
"Why—" her arms snaked around his shoulders. "By falling deeply and desperately in love with a middle-class solicitor from Manchester."
His breathing hitched at the feel of her fingers toying with the hair at the nape of his neck. Only one touch and his pulse quickened.
"It's not quite the same thing when he's in line to be an earl," his voice dropped to a husky groan. "I think he'd call that cheating."
She leaned in, limpid brown eyes darkening with promise, and whispered,
"Yes, but if Branson had seen what I had to work with—"
His sudden kiss stopped her, and when Mary broke it off a moment later, breathless, she was smiling.
"Shall I call the maid in again?"
"…Hang the maid."
This is both a gift fic and my personal response to all of the 'all the young characters pal around together and are rebels and it is hearts and rainbows except Robert is so backwards' speculation about S3. I hope this is closer to what we get, because frankly, it's a more interesting scenario. Mary x Branson...animosiTP.