silvestria (silvestria) wrote,

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University Challenge, Chapter Four

Title: University Challenge
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Author: silvestria
Rating: PG-13/T
Summary: Modern university AU. Mary is an Oxbridge reject with a past, Anna and John are in the friendship zone, Sybil has a secret life at the weekends, Matthew and Lavinia are stuck in a rut, and Downton is owned by the National Trust. Drama and hijinks naturally ensue.
Genre: Romance/Friendship

Read Chapter Three here!

Chapter Four

Very little took place between the weekend and Wednesday to distract Mary from anticipation of dinner with Matthew and Lavinia. Sybil had taken her advice, or rather Matthew's, and returned home with a plausible excuse and apology, so effectively that Lord Grantham had remained completely oblivious to his daughter's going missing in the first place. Mary's next essay was not due in for another couple of weeks, just before the spring vacation, so she had no pressure of academic work either. Monday, she went to Edinburgh, bought an emerald green silk blouse and wandered around the National Gallery of Scotland on her own. Tuesday, she stayed in bed most of the day eating cereal out of the packet and alternating between watching re-runs of Friends on day-time television and doing some desultory preliminary reading for the essay. (By supper time she felt terrible. She always did after days like that, not that it stopped her from repeating them.)

Then it was Wednesday.

Mary took the opportunity of wearing her new blouse. It was expensive but didn't look it. At least she didn't think it did, especially when combined with jeans. Anna eyed her thoughtfully but knew better than to suggest that Lady Mary Crawley was overdressed, and prepared to spend half an hour making her hair look naturally elegant.

Matthew and Lavinia's flat was on the first floor of a large nineteenth century granite house about twenty minutes from where Mary and Anna lived.

“This will be nice!” said the latter as they walked through town. “I've been wanting to meet Matthew for a while now.”

“Really?” replied Mary indifferently. “I can't think why; he's not that interesting. And he's very full of himself.”

“Of course he is. Remind me why are we going to have dinner with him?”

“I hear his girlfriend's a good cook.”

“Figures.” Anna shook her head and hid a smile.

A few moments later, Mary changed the subject and asked, “Talked to John much recently?” She had noticed Anna wasn't on her computer quite as much this week as she usually was.

“No.” She sighed. “He's on a training week in Dundee.”

“A training week?” Mary made a face. “He works on a checkout in Morrison's!”

“He's a retail consultant,” retorted Anna, though her lips twitched. “And they have training weeks too, you know!”

“What on earth do they do on them? Is that where they're told that people like it when they ask them how they are, and learn how to perfect those ghastly smiles of desperation that accompany the question?”

Anna could not help laughing guiltily at this. “Something like that!” Then she sighed again and shifted the bottle of wine in her arms. “I miss him, Mary, I really do. I know he's only gone for a week but I miss chatting to him every day.”

Mary didn't reply but eyed her thoughtfully for a moment. Her friend's drippy romanticism baffled her as much as she secretly envied it. Mostly though it just frustrated her.

“What kind of phone does he have?” she asked casually.


“What kind of -”

“Just a normal one, I think. Why?”

“Does it have internet?”

Anna stared at her in confusion. “Well, I think so, but-”

“Get twitter. Then you can tweet each other constantly about important things such as what you're having for lunch when he's away and it'll be just like MSN! Or, you know, you could just ring each other.”

“John doesn't like talking on the phone much.”

“Odd,” commented Mary, making a face.

“Some people just don't!” replied Anna defensively.

“And most of them grow out of it by John's age.”

“Not that ridiculous complaint -”

“This is number nine,” Mary interrupted, pausing in front the garden gate to a semi-detached house. She looked up, seeing a welcoming light in the upstairs bay window, before walking down the path, Anna following. She pressed the buzzer next to 'Crawley & Swire' while Anna murmured in her ear, “We'll talk about this later, Mary! I'm not letting you get away with this.”

“If you like,” she replied with a little shrug and then plastered a smile onto her face as the door opened to reveal Matthew, wearing a beaming, enthusiastic smile and his deep blue shirt untucked from his jeans.

“Hello, Mary! It's so good to see you again. And you must be Anna.”

Introductions were quickly performed and Matthew ushered them in and closed the door behind them. “Our intercom's broken – sorry, I should have said – so I came down to get you. Lavinia's just upstairs; she is looking forward to meeting you both! You know, you do look lovely – both of you. Please, come up.”

He led the way up the stairs and Mary glanced down at Anna, involuntarily wanting to see her response to him as they followed and then wished she hadn't. Anna's good humour had completely returned and she looked as if she was trying not to laugh when she met Mary's eyes. She quickly turned back to the front, her gaze hitting Matthew's back as he went upstairs in front of her. She immediately neutralized her expression as they reached the landing.

“Something smells fantastic!” cried Anna as Matthew ushered them into the flat.

“Oh, you'll love it,” replied Matthew with a grin, and then called across the open plan living room, “Linny, they're here!”

Lavinia emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron, looking just as much the hot nerd that she had appeared from her profile picture. Considering the apron she was wearing (who actually wore aprons if they were under fifty? Really?) she also had the pink-cheeked look of a domestic goddess. At least her style was suffering from a severe case of Marks and Spencer-itis, Mary thought with some satisfaction.

“How lovely to meet you,” she said advancing towards them. They all kissed on the cheeks and Anna handed over the bottle of wine while Matthew stood a bit aloof.

“Should I call you Lady Mary or is Mary fine?” Lavinia said with a smile, giving the bottle to her boyfriend, who disappeared to the kitchen in search of a corkscrew.

“Whichever you feel more comfortable with!” Mary replied drily, her eyes following Matthew retreating to the kitchen. “I do hope white goes with what you're cooking. Matthew said you were a vegetarian so I thought it might be preferable to red.”

“Oh, yes, it'll go wonderfully with the lasagne. Thank you, you didn't need to!”

“Nonsense, of course we did.”

Lavinia ushered them over the settee and a couple of wicker chairs with cushions round a glass topped coffee table and they all sat down.

“So, Mary,” began Lavinia, “I hear you're studying English?”

Mary resisted rolling her eyes at the predictable subject. “Yes. I'm in my second year.”

“Oh lovely! Are you enjoying it?”

“I'd enjoy it more if there was more work,” she replied honestly.

Lavinia's eyes opened wide. “Oh. That must be frustrating. But at least with a subject like English you can never stop reading around the subject.”

As if anyone actually did that... She smiled brightly. “Naturally!”

Lavinia smiled back and then turned to Anna. “And what about you, Anna? Are you also doing English?”

“God, no. I'm too practical for that sort of thing. I'm doing management.”

“And afterwards,” Mary could not help adding drily, as Matthew emerged from the kitchen with four glasses of wine on a tray, “when you're running your chain of luxury hotels, you'll be doing better than all of the rest of us put together!”

There was general laughter and Matthew chipped in, “I wouldn't say I was completely useless, Mary. People will always need lawyers!”

She shrugged. “Maybe. Or perhaps the world will change so that even the meanest of us are content to settle disagreements out of the law courts.”

“I don't think so!”

He met her eyes with a challenge and she found herself pursing her lips to hold back an automatic smile, only to be interrupted by Lavinia exclaiming, “Oh my, I say, Mary, Anna, this wine is delicious! Where did you find it?”

Mary shrugged. “Oh, it was one of my Sunday Times wine club bottles. A 2002 Vouvray, a particularly good vintage apparently. So glad you like it, Lavinia.”

Matthew sniffed the wine and raised his eyebrows. “A cut above our usual student fare I see. We're honoured, I'm sure.”

Lavinia quietly excused herself to check on the cooking and soon declared it was ready. They all moved to the beautifully decorated table and sat down. The vegetarian lasagne not only smelled delicious but tasted wonderful as well. The wine complemented it perfectly and there was a crisp, green salad as well. For several minutes there was nothing but the sound of knives and forks on the plates, the clinking of glasses and the normal sounds of satisfied eaters.

Eventually Mary turned to Lavinia and said with an engaging smile, “Matthew tells me you're doing a dissertation on The Aeneid.”

She really wanted to know, after all, exactly how a person managed to talk about doing a dissertation on oneself and not sound like a complete ass.

Matthew groaned slightly and turned his head away, muttering, “Really, are we going to discuss books all evening?” (An unfair complaint if ever there was one.) “Back me up here, Anna!”

While Anna's loyalties were torn and she tried to think of something diplomatic to say, Lavinia's face glowed as she replied, “Oh, what's Matthew doing talking about my dissertation! Yes, I am. I'm looking at the influence of patriarchal oppression on the female characters and the diminution of their agency- how Dido is tragically torn between the promise she made her dead husband and her forbidden passion for Aeneas, whereas Lavinia is simply a political pawn passed from one fiancé to another with no distinctive characterisation at all.”


“She did ask!”

Mary inclined her head with regal condescension. “I did indeed, and it sounds very interesting.”

“Are you doing a dissertation, Mary?”

She shrugged. “I shall be next year. We need to start thinking about it after the break. I'm considering something on Henry James – and it just so happens that a new professor will be joining the department next year who's a specialist. I hope he will supervise me.”

“That is lucky!” said Matthew supportively.

“You never told me about this,” complained Anna. “Best friend privilege to hear everything first?”

“Oh, my tutor only mentioned him the other day... Yes, he's edited the critical editions of most of the novels and is something of an expert. Quite famous too for an academic– he does lots of television interviews and gets asked as an advisor on period films... He should be a breath of fresh air in the department, I must say!”

“What's his name?” asked Lavinia. “I might have heard of him.”

“Professor Richard Carlisle. He's coming from London, from -”

“From UCL. Yes, I know.”

Mary blinked. “You know him?”

She frowned. “N-no. That is, I don't think so. But my cousin went to UCL to do English and I think she knew him. But I may be mistaken.”

She stared down at her plate and Mary glanced from her to Matthew. There was something odd about her reaction but nobody else seemed to have picked up on it so she mentally shrugged and dismissed it. Perhaps Lavinia disapproved of academics who weren't stuffy and one hundred years old and dared to supplement their meagre income by media work. She wouldn't be at all surprised.

Dessert of white chocolate mousse, also made by their hostess, was just as delicious as the first course, and Mary and Anna stayed several hours longer just chatting and drinking coffee. Lavinia mentioned her PhD plans, though how they would fit in with Matthew getting a training contract in a law firm was not quite clear. Then, to a great deal of mocking laughter from the others, Mary tried to explain the rules of polo and Anna adopted a thick Yorkshire accent.

When the two girls finally left at eleven they walked almost an entire block, huddling into their coats, before Mary finally let out a sigh and said, “That, Anna, is an example of domestic bliss!”

Anna laughed. “You think?”

“Absolutely. Their flat's far nicer than our house and spotlessly clean, she cooks fabulously, they're both beautiful and know what they want to do in life, they're just...” She broke off and shook her head, irritatingly dissatisfied.

Her friend was still amused. “You wouldn't need to change much, Mary, to get a spotlessly clean house, cooking's not that hard and I thought you knew what you wanted to do in life!”

“I do?”

Anna nudged her as they walked. “Marry someone rich – wasn't that your plan?”

For some reason Mary found it hard to laugh as she knew she ought to. “Oh, I don't know. I wonder sometimes if I mean that.”

“I should think you have more of a chance of achieving it than most of the wannabe Kate Middletons here.”

“That's sweet...”

Mary in a reflective mood was always difficult to navigate. Anna lapsed back into silence for a while until the tapping of their heels on the quiet cobbles became too much to bear and she ventured to ask, “Do you ever want what they have?”

Mary turned to look at her sharply. “The future with the two point five children and a mortgage? No, never!”

“That's not what I meant. I mean...” She sighed. “Someone. Do you ever wish you had someone to share it all with, all the doubts and the fears and the arguments as well as the good times like Matthew and Lavinia do?”

“Dear me, you do paint a dreary picture of life – nothing but problems and drudgery! Anyway, I've got you for all that! Honestly, I don't want a man hanging onto my apron strings. I can't wait to get a flat of my own in London. As for the rest,” she grinned mischievously down at Anna, “if I wanted sex, I wouldn't have any problems getting any! But I don't!”

She jerked her head upwards with decision and walked faster, leaving her friend behind. Anna sighed and paused for a moment before catching her up. She wanted it. She wanted it all. She wanted the two point five children and the mortgage and the man and the sharing and the sex too. She even knew who she wanted it with, but some things, it seemed, were not destined to be. Not unless she was prepared to make them happen anyway. Maybe, Anna wondered, it was time to put the moves on John.

Read Chapter Five here!
Tags: downton abbey, fanfiction, university challenge

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