silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
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University Challenge, Chapter Six

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 Five here!

Chapter Six


A week had passed and it was Friday night again. Not much had changed in the intervening week in Matthew and Lavinia's charming first floor flat. Lavinia was on her laptop with a glass of still lemonade on one side and a Loeb of Virgil on the other; Matthew was lounging on the sofa passing a deck of playing cards through his hands, staring blankly at the ceiling. The only thing that was different to any other Friday night was that Lavinia had spent an hour skyping her father before supper about her travel plans. She wanted to delay returning to London until she got hold of a book she had requested from the library. She would probably stay in St Andrews until Monday.

Matthew's phone buzzed on the coffee table and he lunged at it. It was a text from Gwen:

What r u doin? Party at my halls- u shld come, every1 here!

He shook his head with a smile. “Gwen's invited me to a party.”

Lavinia looked up. “Are you going to go?”

Matthew shrugged. “Do you want to go?”

“Come on, the worst day of the year to go out is the last day of term! The streets are full of drunks and, seriously, Matthew, do you really want to spend your last night here at an undergrad party?”

He sighed. “Obviously you don't.”

He texted Gwen back to say he was busy and then started throwing his phone up and down in the air as if it were a cricket ball. Busy? He was not sure he had been more bored in his life. He could not even distract himself by packing because he had already finished. His suitcase was in the hall ready for his 10am train back to Manchester.

“Do you want to do something?” he asked after a few minutes.

“Hmm? Like what?”

Matthew rolled his eyes. “I dunno. Watch a film. Play scrabble. What do you want to do?”

Lavinia did not reply and when she remained silent, he raised himself up onto his elbows and peered at her. “Linny?”

She was gazing with a fixed, breathless expression at the computer screen.

“Linny?” queried Matthew again. Then she stood up very slowly and crossed the room to him and knelt at his side, taking his hands in hers. There was a trembling restraint about her as if she was struggling to contain something.

“Matthew...” she began with shining eyes. “They've accepted me.”

“Accepted you? Who have for what?”

Her face melted into an enormous grin. “St Andrews. They're accepted me for a PhD – with full funding! Full funding for three years, Matthew! Imagine that!”

Matthew let out a cry of laughter and grabbed her round the waist, pulling her down onto the sofa with him, kissing her soundly. “Brilliant news, darling! I'm so thrilled for you.”

They righted themselves so they were sitting next to each other, breathless and smiling. Matthew kept his arm snugly round her shoulders.

“It's rather wonderful,” continued Lavinia. “I haven't heard back from Oxford and Cambridge yet but to be honest, you know, I really do want to work with Alan more than anything. He's the number one in his field and he's right here so, nice as it would be to say I'm getting my doctorate from Oxbridge, in terms of research I'm actually better off here.”

“That's absoutely splendid. So you're going to accept it?”

“I'll think about it first, of course. I need to talk to Dad- St Andrews is just so far away from everywhere, but yes, I want to accept. It's such an adorable little place anyway, I love it! What do you think then, Matthew – three more years here?”

“I think you'll be very happy,” he replied sincerely. “You've always been a small town girl.”

“And what about you, dear? Will you be happy?”

He blinked at her. “Me? Well, it's unlikely I'll stay in St Andrews after this year. It depends where I can get a training contract and the big cities are the best bet. I mean, how many law firms are there even here?”

She frowned and pulled away a bit. “But we will still live together?”

“Darling... we can't very well live together if you're doing a PhD in St Andrews and I'm working in a law firm in Birmingham!”

“We won't? But you're not really going to be in Birmingham, are you?”

“I don't know,” Matthew replied, with the uneasy feeling that somehow he was saying all the wrong things but not sure what the right ones were. “I've also applied to places in Edinburgh which would be more convenient, wouldn't it? But we'll just have to wait and see.”

Lavinia brightened immediately. “Oh yes, of course. Edinburgh's so close; you could still live in St Andrews.”

“You mean commute to Edinburgh? It's a good hour on the train!” Matthew almost squeaked. “That's ridiculous! Anyway, if either of us is going to be commuting, surely it should be you. I'll be working full time with long hours, and you'll still be a student.”

“Are you saying I won't be working hard? Because-”

“No! Not at all. I'm just saying that you won't need to be based in St Andrews all the time. You could work just as easily in Edinburgh and just go in a couple of times a week. Whereas I'd probably have to get up at five in the morning every day to make that work. I don't see the problem though. We survived four years not living together so we can survive more... can't we?” He pleaded with her.

“But I don't understand. Don't you want to live with me anymore?”

“It's not – it's not about that! Why are you making it about that? I'm not even sure where I'll manage to get a job but we have to be prepared that it may not be in St Andrews.”

“Are you going to apply to every firm here though to increase your chances of staying?”

Matthew suddenly stood up. He felt claustrophobic and unbearably irritated by this entire discussion though he really had no idea at what point he had started feeling so annoyed or even really why. “I don't know! Honestly, Lavinia, I'm not even sure I want to stay.”

They stared at each other in mournful, frustrated surprise at the unexpected direction the conversation had taken, and then Matthew's phone rang. He frowned silently at her and picked it up.

“Hello?”

It was Gwen. She sounded drunk in a very noisy environment. Matthew struggled to understand her and eventually rang off. Lavinia was still staring at him.

“Gwen really wants me to go to the party,” he explained rather pointlessly.

Lavinia shrugged and began plucking at some fluff on her jumper. “You should go. You sound like you want to go.”

“I don't want to go without you,” replied Matthew stubbornly.

“No, I want you to go.”

“I don't think I should go. It wouldn't be right, not when we're like this.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Matthew turned away, and shoved his hands into his pockets, hoping the movement would help him feel less stupid. “You know, I think I'll go to the party.”

“Fine.”

He strolled into the hallway and grabbed his coat and shrugged it on. As he was picking up his gloves, he heard Lavinia call from the sitting room, “I think Gwen has a crush on you.”

He wandered back to the door. “Really? Or are you just saying that?”

“No, I really think she does.”

Matthew shrugged with a twisted smile as he tried to work out if she was still angry with him or not. “Is this some kind of female intuition thing? Anyone else fancy me that I should be aware of?”

She met his eyes across the room, a sad, almost resentful gaze. “I'll leave you to work that out.”

He blinked. Still angry. “Oh. Alright. Well, it won't make any difference to me; you know that. I'm with you.”

“Yes.” She paused. “Have a good evening, Matthew.”

“You too...”

He left the house feeling dreadfully confused, guilty even. He and Lavinia never argued. It was one of the things that people always commented on: how suitable they were, how happy, how easy-going, how solid. They agreed with each other, they compromised, they understood each other. They were a couple. This was what being a couple meant. Yet all of a sudden Matthew knew he had messed up without knowing how. Had she not realised that they could not go through the rest of their lives together all the time? It was completely unrealistic! He had chosen to do his legal training at the university of her choice – well, he could do a conversion course anywhere, but it mattered more to her to go where the professors were good – but he had no intention of following her everywhere forever. Nearly every relationship went long distance for a while and people survived it. If they could not survive living in different cities for a period then what did that say about their relationship?

He was walking through the city towards Gwen's halls keeping his head down against the drizzle but at this point he looked up, his eyes hitting the ruins of the castle on the cliffs, silhouetted against the night sky. He was once again filled with that same sense of claustrophobia he had felt earlier. God, he needed to get out. Five years of Oxford to be followed by another year of St Andrews which was more Oxford than Oxford itself. The prospect of another three years of it terrified him. He needed bright lights and not bumping into people he knew all the time and a proper range of shops and entertainment venues and normal people who didn't live in peculiar little academic bubbles. He was suddenly incredibly glad that this time tomorrow he would be back in Isobel's flat in Chorlton, surrounded by the familiarity of his childhood. He would be able to see his schoolfriends who had real jobs and real lives, tred the familiar streets of Manchester, and eat meat whenever he wanted.

Maybe he was simply tired from a long term. He hoped that was all it was.

*


If he had not been sure where the party was being held then the noise spilling out onto the car park would have alerted him. Stopping outside the door a little way away from a gaggle of girls in skimpy dresses and very high heels taking a cigarette break (they must be freezing, he thought), he rang Gwen to find out where she was. She didn't pick up and with a sigh of resignation at the slim chance of his ever finding anyone he knew inside, he pushed inside and headed for the bar.

Armed eventually with a beer he took in the situation. There were two rooms in use: the one with the bar and a second room towards the back where there seemed to be some sort of karaoke going on and dancing. He felt self-conscious being here on his own. It felt as if everyone would be staring at him and wondering what kind of loser he was to be hanging around at an undergraduate party on his own. Lavinia felt conspicuous by her absence. He took several large swigs of beer to quieten his nerves before he chickened out altogether and spent the rest of the night wandering aimlessly around the cathedral ruins and the graveyard in the rain which would surely be an even worse fate.

Fortunately he had only managed to drink half of his pint when he found himself face to face with none other than Gwen, accompanied by Anna Smith.

“Told you he'd come! Debating champion ex-tra-or-di-naire!” slurred Gwen, already very drunk, grabbing Matthew's arm to steady herself on her way to the bar.

Did she fancy him? he wondered. He really couldn't tell but hoped not; he couldn't imagine ever thinking of her in that way, even if Lavinia weren't his girlfriend.

Anna, much more sober, rolled her eyes at him. “Ignore her. She's been calling up everyone in her phonebook all evening trying to get them to come out.”

Matthew nodded in rueful comprehension. No, she did not have a crush on him. Well, that was a relief.

“Isn't Lavinia here?” Anna continued with friendly interest, cutting short Matthew's relief that felt strangely like disappointment. (Which was inexplicable because he really had no romantic interest in Gwen whatsoever. Perhaps it was simply the allure of someone actually finding him attractive...)

“No,” he replied, “not really her scene.”

“I thought it might not be.”

For a few moments they swayed awkwardly next to each other while the music pounded over their heads. Matthew drank his beer very quickly in an effort to make the atmosphere somewhat more bearable.

Eventually Anna made another attempt at conversation. “I keep thinking about that dinner Mary and I had at yours the other week. It was so nice and very kind of you and Lavinia to invite us. We'll have to have you both round next term.”

Matthew waved it away. “Oh, you're very welcome. It was a lovely evening.” He turned away to pay for his second beer and then added, “How is Mary? Not seen her for a while.”

Anna laughed. “She's the same as ever. She's here somewhere actually if you want to say hi. Last I saw of her she was preparing to sing, so I got out while I could.”

Mary Crawley doing karaoke? The Lady Mary Crawley?

“This I have to see!” cried Matthew with more enthusiasm than he had expressed all evening. He grabbed his drink and ploughed through the sea of students towards the inner room, forgetting all about Anna.

He was just in time, for the first thing he saw from the doorway was Mary herself on the stage singing jazz into a microphone. She looked stylish and beautiful, a cut above every other woman in the room, and she had stage presence too. Even more than that, she could actually sing! Matthew did not know the song but he was spellbound by her performance. Then, quite unexpectedly, she happened to look straight at him, right over the heads of all the writhing people in front of the stage and through the flashing fluorescent lights. Her eyes widened and Matthew's mouth fell open as he felt the warmth of her voice surround him as if he were standing right next to her.

“Try to tell me I was evil, try to trample on my soul. Try to make me think that they were righteous but the plot of the lie was whole,” she sang.

Matthew shook his head to clear his head of the powerful impression she was imprinting on his very soul. In doing so he realised that he was in a minority in his reaction. People were getting bored; talking and moving away. Mary was singing too well, too seriously, and a kind of music that wasn't being appreciated. Suddenly he was very angry on her behalf and before he could question the wisdom of his actions, he was elbowing his way to the front of the room. He emerged by the DJ.

“Here, stop playing this!” he yelled. “Put on something else!”

“Eh?” retorted the confused DJ. “I can't just do that.”

“No. Look here, mate,” Matthew continued very reasonably, “that girl's my friend and nobody's listening to her. She's amazing. Can't you hear how amazing she is? But she's not singing the right stuff. So put something on that people want to hear. What's popular? Let's make people sit up!”

“I'm not doing that.”

“You want my beer? You can have my beer!” He put the glass down on the desk and nodded sincerely.

The DJ rolled his eyes. “On your own head be it then. You want the Spice Girls?”

“Anything!”

And before he could be stopped, he had jumped up on stage and taken the second microphone. Mary broke off mid-line, “There ain't no place for people like- Matthew!?”

The music cut out. She glared at him but he couldn't help smiling broadly at her. She was so much more beautiful close up than far away and she could sing and it was all too much...

“I'm getting you your audience back,” he exclaimed over the opening beats of a new song. “Honestly, who sings jazz at karaoke?”

“Oh no,” replied Mary. “Oh no, no, no!”

Matthew's face split into an even wilder grin. “Oh yes!”

The crowd went wild proving Matthew's low opinion of their populist taste. He cleared his throat and glanced across at an unimpressed Mary before singing the first line.

“Summer lovin' had me a blast...”

“Summer lovin' happened so fast... Really, Matthew, Grease?”

“I met a girl crazy for me... Everyone loves Grease!”

“Met a boy cute as can be... Is this the best you can do?”

Their sniping between the lines had brought them considerably closer to each other and now they eyed each other, Mary suspiciously and Matthew gleefully, before singing together, “Summer days driftin' away, to uh-oh those summer nights...”

Down below, the crowd were really getting into it and happily belted out the chorus parts without prompting.

“See?” cried Matthew triumphantly. “They love it!” He had finally worked out what was wrong with Mary. “Someone get the lady a drink!” he yelled.

However, he needn't have bothered. Somehow, from the enthusiasm of having a backing chorus or perhaps because she had simply seen the funny side of it, Mary had loosened up. He turned back to her to discover a new glint in her eye. She raised her hands and with a sharp tug on two sticks, her hair came tumbling down over her shoulders. She shook her head until it felt as a cloud round her face, raised her eyebrows at him, and Matthew almost missed his cue in staring at her. Now she threw herself into the song and, just as he had predicted, the crowd loved it and them even more. Soon enough people were jumping onto the stage to join in, boys behind Matthew, girls behind Mary. There was dancing. It was a real showstopping musical theatre number.

By this point, Mary had acquired a bottle of some brightly coloured vodka mix from somewhere, not that she seemed to be drinking it, and had thrown herself into overacting the song. He glanced across at her across at her, catching her smile off-guard as the music abruptly changed.

“It turned colder - that's where it ends...”

She stretched her arm out and her fingers curled round his wrist.

“So I told her we'd still be friends...”

He found her hand and clasped it.

“Then we made our true love vow...”

He could feel her pulse, warm and steady.

“Wonder what she's doing now...”

Matthew felt a shiver of something deeper and more serious than the song merited ripple through him and squeezed her hand far harder than necessary. It was gone in a moment.

“Summer dreams ripped at the seams, but-” Their eyes met and suddenly Mary grinned. “OH, those summer nights!” She almost collapsed against him with the most delightful and natural giggle he had ever heard.

With a final burst of “Tell me more”s from the chorus, the song ended in applause and hugs all round. Matthew and Mary alone escaped the madness, standing together at the front. Then he dropped her hand, ashamed of having retained it.

“Hello, Mary,” he said rather shyly.

She tilted her head to one side, sizing him up as if she was seeing him for the first time. “Hello, Matthew.”

“I, um, can I get you a drink?”

For all that she had let go during the song, she seemed to have become more subdued again now. She raised her eyebrows and pointedly placed the bottle which she was holding between finger and thumb on a ledge. “Alright, if you can get me something better than that.”

“I accept the challenge!” He jumped off the edge of the stage and held out his hand to help her down, before pushing back through the crowd towards the bar.

“You interrupted my song! Was it so very bad?” she shouted after him.

He turned round even as he pressed on. “No! Quite the reverse. You were wonderful but nobody was appreciating you. I wanted them to pay attention.”

“By turning us into an episode of Glee? A bit humiliating, don't you think?”

Matthew stopped abruptly and faced her. “With your voice, Mary, you could be doing the rounds of Paris and Berlin in the 1920s. I mean it.”

She rolled her eyes but he thought she looked pleased all the same. “What a shame it isn't the 1920s then. We could have had such fun!”

“Didn't we anyway?”

Now her lips twitched in recognition, but all she said was, “Come on, if you're going to buy me that drink.”

They easily managed to get two stools at the bar. Matthew suspected it had something to do with Mary being considerably more attractive than everyone else in the room and the fact that she carried herself like a queen and was therefore treated as such. People simply got out of her way.

“What do you want?” Matthew asked her as she perched gingerly on her stool next to him. She deserved a glittering ballroom, he thought, with a handsome prince, not a dingy student bar and him and all the mistakes he was making.

“Oh, just a glass of-”

“Shots!” he interrupted, his mind having already skittered away from his previous thought. “A round of tequila shots!” he ordered the barman, waving his arm to attract attention.

“Oh no, I don't do shots,” protested Mary but not loudly enough to stop him.

“You don't?” Matthew replied, unfazed. “What else do you drink when out clubbing with Prince Harry?”

Mary raised her eyebrows very highly. “I've never been clubbing with Prince Harry, I'll have you know. But if I did I wouldn't settle for anything less than a £300 chrystal encrusted bottle of Moet.”

His lip twitched. “I guess not!”

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the shots, little dishes of salt and wedges of lime. Matthew could already hear a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Lavinia telling him that this was a bad idea, that he would feel terrible in the morning, that he didn't even like shots... He told the voice to get lost. If he wanted to get drunk on shots and feel dreadful afterwards then that was his affair and no-one else's! Besides, what if he liked shots after all and had simply never had the opportunity to find out? What did she know? As a final nail in the coffin of his good sense, he remembered that all he had to do in the morning was get on a train and leave the country for three weeks. He didn't need a brain for that.

Mary meanwhile was eyeing them with distrust. “I meant it when I said I don't do shots.”

“Oh, it's very easy. You just lick the salt off your hand then-”

She shook her head. “No, I know how to do it. I have done shots before in my time, you know. I just don't any more.”

He frowned at the firm tone of her voice. “Why not?”

She shrugged. “I grew up. Or something like that anyway.” Then, aware of what a dampener she was putting on the mood and the fact that Matthew had bought the drink for her in the first place, she forced a smile. “Alright, I suppose I don't mind regressing just this once.”

He grinned at her. “Good. I'm sorry, you know, really. Whatever you want afterwards. Ready?”

Still she hesitated. “It'll be alright, won't it? You're having exactly the same thing? You'll still be here afterwards?”

Good God, Matthew realised, Mary Crawley was afraid of taking shots! It seemed such an utterly ridiculous thing to be afraid of but somehow he found it endearing. She was humanized by it, brought down to the realm of ordinary mortals. His world shifted on its axis as he understood it.

“It's okay, Mary,” he reassured her. “I'm not going anywhere. And it's only one shot – honestly, no-one's that much of a lightweight.”

She gave him a wan smile and then a look of determination crossed her face, she took a pinch of salt on her hand, licked it away, downed the shot with her head thrown back and immediately sucked the lime, all with the fluid movements of somebody who knew exactly how to do it. Matthew scrambled to keep up with her. She flung herself forwards, her hair flopping around her face and then sat back up.

“There!” Her expression was so smug and triumphant that Matthew could hardly restrain from tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. He raised his hand to do so but even through the hot buzzing in his head he realised in time how inappropriate it would be and let it drop.

“And you know,” she was saying, leaning forward on the bar towards him, “I actually think Prince Harry is a bit of a prick.”

Matthew choked slightly. “What?”

“I do understand why he did the Nazi stunt as a cry for attention, you know, but it was terribly tasteless. He should have known it would backfire on him in the press. I know people who've been out with him and to be quite frank if I wasn't so clever I would probably be among them, but as it is none of that holds much appeal to me.”

Matthew's jaw dropped and he stared at her. He wondered blankly whether she was actually a complete lightweight, or if she had been less sober than he had thought before. Then none of that mattered and he started laughing. She was hilarious. Only Lady Mary Crawley could prop up the bar talking seriously about how she would turn down a night out with Prince Harry as if it was within the realms of possibility. Yet for this impossible, wonderful woman next to him, it really was. Matthew laughed with almost hysterical abandon and Mary watched him with an open kind of bemused curiosity, eyes bright and lively and appreciative.

It wasn't until he became aware of being surrounded by people that he stopped for breath and looked up to discover he was surrounded by half of his cricket team.

“Nice one, Justin Bieber. What's up?” snickered Josh Wakefield, clapping him on the back.

“Hey!” Matthew responded as Mary clapped a hand over her mouth to hide a laugh.

“That's not your girlfriend,” pointed out Adam Davis.

Matthew was starting to develop a headache. “You're observant.”

Mary meanwhile stood up, grabbed hold of the bar to steady herself and flicked her eyes up and down Adam. “No, I'm not his girlfriend.”

Then, with perfect condescension and near perfect poise, she turned her back on him. “Thank you for the drink, Matthew Crawley.” She held out her hand very formally to him. “I appreciate what you made me do.”

Matthew took her hand and tried to match her formality even as he spoiled it by raising one eyebrow. “Another shot then?”

She considered this. “No. No, I do not think so. I think Anna should take me home now. Goodnight, Matthew.”

She squeezed his hand and then dropped it, before swaying off into the crowd. Matthew stared after her with his mouth slightly open and his hand, warm and tingling, still held out in front of him. “Goodnight, Mary,” he whispered.

He blinked and turned back to his friends who were all deeply amused.

“Ooooh,” taunted Adam, “Crawley's got himself a posh bird. So if Linny's on the market, can I have a go? No idea what she's going on about most of the time but I think she'd be really good at-”

“Aw, shut the fuck up,” said Josh quickly, pushing his friend out of Matthew's reach before he could do anything more than glare and splutter incoherently that Linny was most certainly not on the market and how dare he...

“You better get back in there as well,” put in Mike Jedburg. “Now we know you're a right Disney princess we thought you'd like another try. We put your name down for another song.”

“Oh, damn you all,” exclaimed Matthew though without much malice. Nothing this evening seemed real any more; he might as well go with it. He pushed himself away from the bar. “Tell me the worst. What do I have to sing? It's not actually Justin Bieber, is it? Because if it was I think I would-”

“Relax!” laughed Josh. “You'll like it.”

And they began to push him back towards the inner room while singing, “Find me somebody to love” under their breaths in between their laughter. Matthew's eyes closed briefly before he surrendered to his fate.

Read Chapter Seven here!
Tags: downton abbey, fanfiction, matthew/mary, romance, university challenge
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