silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Nine

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 Eight here!

Chapter Nine


“Well, are you driving?” tossed Mary over her shoulder, grabbing the car keys from the bowl on the hall table.

“Isn't that the whole point?” replied Sybil as she shrugged on a jacket and a scarf. “I need driving practice, you want to get away, and Matthew and Isobel need night things. A win situation for everyone.”

Mary rolled her eyes. “Have you ever driven in the night before? Are you even any good?”

They crunched onto the gravel outside and paused by the car, Mary dangling the car keys enticingly. Sybil held out her hand for them.

“Stuart says I can book my test soon so I must be. I think I am. We're aiming for the end of the summer at the moment.”

Her sister made a face. “You're five months off getting your licence. This doesn't fill me with confidence.”

“Mary, you promised!”

She gave in, simply to get them out, threw the keys to her sister, and got in the passenger seat. Within moments, the engine was on and Mary was rummaging in the glove pocket for the L plates.

“How do you turn on the headlights?” muttered Sybil. “Is it – oh!”

The back windscreen wiper came on. Mary closed her eyes for a second, dragging up reserves of patience. “Other side. And don't forget to dip them if you meet another car.”

“Right. I knew that!”

Eventually they were on their way and Sybil was manoeuvring them slowly out of the yard and onto the private road through the estate.

“I'm glad I've got you alone actually,” said Mary as soon as she felt sufficiently reassured that her sister knew roughly what she was doing. “I rather feel that you've been avoiding me this holiday.”

“Really? It's not my fault I was in London with Olivia to work on that politics project before Easter when you got home.”

“Politics project? I suppose you did absolutely have to do it in London. Did your boyfriend help?” inquired Mary blandly.

Sybil huffed noisily. “I knew it! You wanted to get me alone to have a go at me about Tom. Well, it won't change anything.”

Mary shrugged and shook her head. “I don't want to have a go at you; I just want to understand. I suppose Mummy is still ignorant of all this.”

“I haven't told her, if that's what you mean. Honestly, Mary, I just don't want to make things complicated when they don't need to be. I'm happy with Tom, Mummy and Daddy are happy not knowing anything. What's wrong with that?”

Her sister opened her mouth to reply and then changed her mind. They came to the end of the drive. In the silence, the sound of the indicator was loud and intrusive until Sybil had checked both ways and turned onto the road to Ripon and it flicked off.

“Are you and Tom serious?” Mary asked.

It was Sybil's turn to shrug and hesitate over replying, using concentrating on changing into a higher gear as an excuse.

“I don't know exactly,” she replied finally. “I mean, I really like him. I like spending time with him and everything, but in the end I'm only seventeen and you have to be realistic about these things. I'm not going to marry him or anything.”

“Well, that's a relief, I'm sure!”

“I don't know that I'll ever get married,” continued Sybil blithely and accelerated without even being aware of it as the road straightened out. “I just don't see the point. And I mean, maybe Tom and I will stay together forever. I guess I wouldn't mind right now if we did... but I don't want to limit myself. It's good for now and the future can take care of itself, right?”

“The future has a habit of creeping up on us, I'm afraid. You may think this is okay now but is that how Tom feels? Or how you may feel next year when you're thinking about universities and making big decisions about your life.”

“Ugh, Mary! You always have to be such a Debbie Downer about everything. Tom is cool with just having fun and as for how I'll feel in the future, I don't know. That's kind of the point of it being the future, isn't it? Why do you have to be so serious? It's a relationship, not the end of the world.”

Mary flung up her hands. “My God, calm down, darling; all I meant was that even if you are just in it for fun, relationships are serious things and have serious consequences. I just-”

“And when were you last in a relationship, Mary?” interrupted Sybil. “Sorry, but the last time I checked, you've only had one boyfriend and he was fucking gay! Really worked out well for you, that, didn't it?”

“That was different,” snapped Mary, getting annoyed and wishing she wasn't. “Anyway, you've no idea what I get up to at university!”

Sybil snorted. “I've a good idea what you don't get up to! I remember when you were my age, going out and getting drunk all the time like a normal person and I know what you're like now. Trust me, Mary, you have absolutely no grounds to lecture me on how to manage an adult relationship like mine with Tom.”

“I do wish you'd slow down round these corners!” she deflected and then sighed in irritation. “Just because I don't have certain – certain particular experiences doesn't mean I don't have any at all that are relevant. I'm still older than you, I've seen more of the world than you have and I'm certainly far more objective than you are.”

“Objective?” replied Sybil, raising her eyebrows, and slowing down a bit even though she scowled at being instructed. “Are you really?”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Only, you have seen how your friend Matthew looks at you, haven't you?”

Mary's heart suddenly pounded, quite inexplicably. “As he would look at anyone. He has a girlfriend, you know.”

“Really? Poor thing! Because if he doesn't have the biggest crush on you, then I'm giraffe as Sarah at the garage would say.”

“What?” Mary blinked and clenched and released her grip on her seatbelt. “No, you're wrong about that, I'm sure you are. I've met Lavinia; she's lovely and they're lovely together. They're the perfect couple. Don't say such things. I hope they stay together for a long time and are very happy.”

“You don't mean that! Come on, Mary; I only met him a few hours ago but it's quite obvious how he feels about you. He couldn't take his eyes off you all dinner.”

Mary was silent. She felt a conflicting mix of trembling excitement, irrepressible however much she tried, and a strong sense that Sybil was wrong – had to be wrong. If Matthew and Lavinia could be broken, if their comfortable, warm, stable relationship could be upset, then what hope was there for anyone?

“Well,” added Sybil in a conciliatory tone as she turned into the Tesco car park, “I'm sure you don't want to get involved in anything between Matthew and his girlfriend but take it from me, as someone who unlike you does know something about this, they won't be together much longer and then you can think about what you want to do.”

“What I want to do...” murmured Mary with a frown. “Oh, if only it were that simple!”

“Isn't it? Don't you want a boyfriend? Or do you still only date celebrities to get on the cover of fashion magazines?”

Mary rolled her eyes and didn't bother replying until she saw her sister swing into a parking space surrounded by equally empty spaces, far away from shop, and miss the actual space quite considerably. “Darling, that's absolutely dreadful! A monkey could park more accurately than you.”

“Oy!” Sybil poked her, torn between giggling and being offended. “Okay, so I'm not great at the manoeuvres yet but you have to admit my driving's fine.”

“Ish,” replied Mary with a grin. “I suppose we are still alive.”

Car doors slammed and Sybil locked up before they walked across the car park. As she picked up a basket by the shop entrance, she hesitated and turned to her sister.

“Friends?” she asked anxiously. “I didn't mean to blow up on you like that. You're the only one who even pretends to be on my side at all; I do appreciate it.”

Mary loosely put her arm round her shoulders for a moment. “Don't give it another thought. I shouldn't have had a go at you either. I just don't want you to get hurt. You do know that, don't you?”

“'Course I do, but I won't. It's okay, Mary; I can take care of myself. Anyway, what do we need to get here? Toothbrushes and pyjamas, right?”

“Right.” They aimed for the clothing section first. Mary tilted her head to one side, considering the selection. “Can I get Matthew Sonic the Hedgehog pyjamas, do you think?”

Sybil giggled as she caught her sister's eye. “Aren't they just in children's sizes?”

“Perfect for Matthew then!” retorted Mary smugly, with a toss of her head. She had to recover her superiority after her equilibrium had been disturbed by what Sybil had said in the car.

After choosing more suitable nightwear for both Matthew and Isobel they headed in the direction of the dental products aisle. The shop was quiet this late at night and sparkling expanses of floor stretched out in front of them, the sound of their feet echoing all round the cavernous superstore.

“This is fun, isn't it?” exclaimed Sybil suddenly, swinging the basket at her side. “It's like being grown up!”

“Really? This is your definition of responsible adulthood?”

“Sure! That is, okay, maybe not exactly. But I mean, driving to a shop, buying things you actually want to buy, having independence - that's what being grown up's like. Mary, can we get dried mango?”

“Dried what?” Mary cried, making a face.

“Sumira brought dried mango in her packed lunch the other week and it was so good you have no idea and I've been desperate for more ever since, but I know Mummy would think I'm really weird for wanting it on the shopping list.”

I think you're really weird!”

“Yes, but-”

“But we can get some if you really want it. You go and find it and I'll get the toothbrushes.”

“Fine.”

They split up, meeting up a few minutes later at the checkout. Sybil had four packets of dried mango and shrugged at Mary's raised eyebrows. “Nothing wrong with stocking up!”

“You'll be sick of them by the end of the first packet.”

Sybil laughed ruefully. “You're probably right there. Never mind.”

Mary insisted on driving home, finding it less stressful to drive herself than to pay attention to her sister. Before they drove off, however, Sybil put a CD on and opened her first packet of dried mango, offering her sister a piece. Mary chewed on it thoughtfully and then laughed.

“Couldn't you have just got chocolate biscuits? I suppose they aren't as edgy and hipster as dried mango pieces.”

“Don't use that word, Mary. Just... don't. You really don't know what it means.”

Mary only laughed again and started the car. “You know, darling, there's more to being grown up than buying snacks from supermarkets at ten at night. There's responsibility and paying bills and working-”

“Oh, come on, you know about as much about those things as I do! Anyway, I'm looking forward to that sort of thing. Life without a purpose is pointless after all.”

Mary only sighed and took a hand off the steering wheel to dig back into the packet of mango for another piece. As far as she could tell, Sybil's only purpose was to rebel against the establishment in rather trivial ways, hardly something to glorify. But at least she had a purpose.

*


When they got back to Downton they found Cora, Matthew and Isobel sitting very comfortably round the large kitchen table by the Aga lingering over cups of tea, Ludwig prowling around them, still deciding who had the most comfortable lap. It was an unexpectedly pleasant and homely scene.

“Where's Daddy?” asked Sybil, as Mary's eyes immediately went to Matthew at the same moment as he looked straight at her. She smiled tightly and quickly and immediately looked away, blushing and hating herself for it.

“He's taking Granny home and Edith's gone up to bed,” replied Cora. “Do you girls want some cake since you missed dessert?”

Both sat down and helped themselves to large pieces of fruit cake, purchased from Mrs. Travis' stall at the fair earlier in the day. The atmosphere had lightened so much since dinner and Mary was relieved. She could not have expected that people like Matthew and Isobel would get along with her father and grandmother, though she had been quietly impressed with the former's handling of the situation. Her mother, on the other hand, at least understood which century they were living in and so it was not quite so surprising to see them all getting on now.

Tea finished, Sybil said goodnight and disappeared upstairs, taking her stash of dried mango with her. Mary stood up as well, concealing her smile at Sybil's secrecy – it was hardly crack cocaine – and volunteered to show Matthew and his sister to their rooms.

The guest rooms were on the second floor, where servants' bedrooms would have been originally. Mary gave Isobel all she needed outside her room, telling her with a wry smile that she was sleeping where housemaids would have shared a room in previous centuries. Then she continued down the corridor, Matthew following.

“And here you are!” she said brightly, holding out the pyjamas, toothpaste and brush neatly placed on top. “You have the scullery maid's room. I hope you'll find it more comfortable than they probably did.”

“Very distinguished accommodation,” he replied with a smile.

“Yes.” She blinked at him, suddenly awkward. She should leave him and yet her feet seemed rooted to the floor. She could not stop thinking about what Sybil had said, even as she forced herself to ignore it.

“Look, Mary, can I talk to you a moment?” he said suddenly with almost equal awkwardness.

“Of course.”

They went into the bedroom and he closed the door behind her, briefly distracted by appreciating the plain but comfortable way the attic room was done up.

“I forgot,” said Mary, “the bathroom's at the end of the corridor. The shower's not always very powerful – you know what it's like in houses like this – but it should be hot. You'd be better off having a bath really.”

“Thanks.” Matthew ran his hand over the towel folded neatly on his bed and then looked at her, suddenly very intense. “I want to say how sorry I am about dinner, Mary.”

“Sorry?” she exclaimed, staring at him blankly, her heart fluttering. “Whatever for? It wasn't your fault.”

“Maybe not... But I feel responsible somehow. I hadn't realised about Oxford and, well, I guess I just wanted to say that I'm sorry. For everything.”

Mary sat down heavily on the bed, suddenly feeling incredibly tired. She sighed. “You're not responsible for Christ Church rejecting me.”

“No, I know that, but-” He hesitated and then sat down next to her, ducking his head to peer across at her. “I'm probably the last person you want to be trying to sympathise with you about this because I don't know what it's like to be rejected from Oxford and quite honestly I don't think it ever meant as much to me as it does to you but-”

“Why did you apply then?” Mary interrupted him. “If it didn't mean anything.”

“Ambition, I suppose,” he replied after a short pause. “People with my background didn't go to Oxbridge and they certainly didn't study subjects like classics. They all assumed at school I would go to Manchester or Nottingham or Leeds or somewhere like that and do a law degree but I wanted...” He trailed away with a frown. “I suppose I wanted to prove I could do something more and that I was worth more than a profession.”

“And get a damn good education in the mean time,” she added softly. She felt a strange ache in her chest that she did not recognize.

He was still looking at her closely. “Yes. That is, of course I was interested in ancient history and literature and so on in the first place or I wouldn't have got in but -” He passed his hand over his eyes. “God, you must think the worst of me for this when it's something you've-.”

“Actually I rather envy you.”

“You do?” he replied, looking rather confused. “Well. What I wanted to say was that I might not know what it's like for you but I do know what it's like to be judged because of Oxford. It's always going to be an issue that people feel very strongly about, whether they actually know anything about it or not.”

The ache was not going away. “Yes.”

“And Mary,” he continued very earnestly, “I'm sorry you were unlucky when you applied especially since I can't imagine anyone more deserving of a place. From talking to tutors, I know how hard it is to make decisions when you've got so many good applicants and-”

She held up a hand to stop him. “Please don't, there's no need.” She turned to face him, meeting his eyes for a moment, her heart flipping again. “I know everything that can be said on this subject. There's no great mystery to my rejection: I applied to a popular college to read a popular subject and I didn't get in. That's all there is to it.”

“I've made you angry. I'm sorry.”

She shook her head, closing her eyes briefly. “No,” she breathed. “Lots of things make me angry but you're not one of them.”

For several quiet moments they sat together on the edge of Matthew's bed, their hands only an inch or two apart where they rested on the blanket. Neither made any move to close the gap but both were incredibly aware of their situation, even imagining they could hear the other's breathing.

They turned to each other at exactly the same moment.

“Mary-” began Matthew at the same time as she said, “I should let you get to sleep.”

She stood up abruptly and he let her, only a brief expression of frustration crossing his face as he nodded and rose as well.

“Goodnight!” she said.

“Goodnight!” They looked at each other for a moment, questioning and unsure, and then Matthew stepped forwards and hugged her, as he would have done any other friend. It didn't quite work, they bumped together, felt the other for the first time and she hugged him back for a second before stepping away, not quite meeting his eye. Once she had left the room, Matthew flopped onto the bed and groaned.

“Idiot!” he muttered out loud. “Idiot!”

In the corridor, Mary closed the door quietly behind her and stood still a moment, breathing rapidly. He has a girlfriend, she repeated to herself over and over again. And even if he did not, what then? He was – he was not at all the sort of person she ought to be interested in, let alone date, assuming he asked her and she was not simply allowing herself to believe in Sybil's fantasies, imagining something between them. And anyway, did she want – how would she go about – what would it even mean? Girls her age should find falling into bed with any kind of boy easy; with her good looks she certainly should. What did it matter if Matthew wasn't the right sort of person to have a relationship with? She could fuck him and discard him when she was bored of it. That's what other people did all the time. Sybil would probably approve of such a cavalier, modern, feminist sort of attitude.

And yet.

She gave herself a shake. These thoughts were unproductive and completely hypothetical. As long as Matthew and Lavinia were still together, and she really, truly did not wish them to be otherwise, then she had no right to be thinking this way in the first place. She went back downstairs to her own room in what had once been the nursery, and pulled a face at her new second prize rosette before slowly and pensively getting ready for bed, her thoughts remaining with Matthew, hardly able to believe he was sleeping under the same roof.

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