silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Ten

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 Nine here!

Chapter Ten


Matthew woke to sunshine streaming through the pale curtains of his attic room. He felt wonderfully relaxed, something to do with the quality of light, the complete silence of the countryside surrounding him and the deep comfort of the bed. Stretching, he grabbed his watch from the bedside table: only just after eight o'clock and yet he was already awake. He swung out of bed, smiling at his new pyjamas, and padded to the window, opening the curtains. There was a little condensation on the glass but the sun was already bright and promised a warm day. His room looked out across an expanse of lawn ending in a rather hideous Grecian folly on a raised mound. He and Isobel had wandered up to it the previous day and decided that compared to similar constructions at other properties it was not very impressive.

Now he grinned to himself. He was staying at Downton Abbey, the guest of an earl and countess. He might be sleeping in a scullery maid's room but it was still bigger than his room had been growing up. How the other half lives indeed, he muttered to himself, taking up his towel and quietly opening the door.

The corridor was deserted and he padded softly to the bathroom at the end. Mary had warned him about the pressure and it was true that he had definitely had more powerful showers in his time. On the other hand, he had never before been in such a big bathroom with a large window looking over deserted fields and a nineteenth century bath with feet. He could get used to this.

“I am the one and only Earl of Grantham!” intoned Matthew pompously, the sound of the water drowning out his voice. “I live at Downton Abbey, I have a butler, and I am really, really, really rich.”

He chuckled to himself, feeling suddenly rather bad for making fun of Mary's family background. Only, well, it was rather ridiculous, wasn't it? Then the water turned abruptly icy and he jumped backwards with a yelp, grabbing onto the window ledge to steady himself. Perhaps poky, over-heated bathrooms in modern blocks of flats had their advantages after all.

There was still no sign of anyone else stirring by the time he returned to his room to dress. Not wanting to waste any of his remaining hours in such a fascinating place, he put on his jacket and descended the stairs to the hall. He poked his nose into the kitchen but it was deserted apart from Plato. The dog had a basket near the Aga and raised his head when Matthew entered, his tail thumping on the stone floor.

“Good boy,” murmured Matthew with a smile in response the hopeful expression in Plato's expressive eyes. He was not the master, however, and the dog sighed in disappointment and laid his head back on his paws. Matthew rolled his eyes slightly as he closed the kitchen door quietly behind him.

Outside the house everything had an early morning stillness about it. He crunched across the gravel of the private driveway and out into the parkland until he thought he could see his bedroom window. He walked several paces backwards and stared up at it, hands on his hips.

What did it do to you, being brought up in a place like this? he wondered. He had lived in the Oxford bubble but not until after he had experienced a proper slice of real life to ground him. Growing up here must have been the equivalent of always living in such a bubble. What warped perceptions of the world must one have? The classicist in him found it anthropologically fascinating, but the boy who desperately wished to understand Mary Crawley as much as he admired her, found it utterly perplexing.

“Impressive, isn't it?” came a cool, amused voice from behind him.

Matthew spun around to see Mary sitting on a bench under an ancient cedar tree, observing him. He blushed as he walked over to her.

“I - I didn't see you there,” he blustered as he sat down next to her.

“Apparently not!” she smiled. “Did you sleep well?”

“Very, thank you.”

He leaned backed back on the bench, his arm briefly brushing hers as he did so. Mary shifted in response, pulling her cardigan more firmly round her; a little, hesitant movement. Silence fell between them with a kind of breathless intensity. A blackbird could be heard singing at some distance.

“It's quite something,” commented Matthew eventually, raising his eyes up to the soaring gothic pinnacles.

“Yes.”

He glanced over at her. Despite her casual dress and hair pulled back into a ponytail she still looked immaculate and as much part of the scenery as if she had been wearing a hooped skirt and carrying a parasol. “I suppose it'll be yours one day, will it?”

She met his eyes curiously. “It belongs to the National Trust now. We pay them rent to live here.”

Matthew could have kicked himself. “Yes, of course. Silly of me.”

“Still,” Mary continued with a slight shrug, “the title has to pass to a boy and the rest of the estate goes with the title so I still won't get anything.”

“How incredibly archaic! Aren't there any loopholes? This is the twenty-first century after all!”

She shook her head and was going to reply to explain further about all the changes in how the entail worked that had in fact taken place and what it all meant for her and for Edith and for their lives and their parents' lives when Matthew interrupted her eagerly.

“I could look into it, if you liked. I've not specialised in property law but I'm not completely ignorant either. If you wanted me to, that is.”

Mary laughed but not unkindly for he appeared so genuine that it was hard not to feel a little bit grateful. “Oh, Matthew, that did occur to us and we've actually gone so far as to consult real lawyers about it – ones who are not only qualified but even experts in the field! But I do appreciate the offer.” Her eyes danced at him with a compelling mix of mockery and warmth.

He could only join her amusement even if it was at his own expense. “Of course you did. It just seems all so unfair, but I suppose the point is your life is basically Pride and Prejudice. Who's the lucky Mr. Collins then?”

“Nobody,” said Mary, her lips twitching, and then added with a suppressed sigh, “At least, not anymore. When we were growing up it was never an issue, you see, because Daddy's cousins were going to inherit it all.”

Something in her tone made him wary. “What happened?”

“7/7 happened,” she replied succinctly, staring out over the park. “Patrick was only nineteen. Such a terrible waste.”

“God, I'm so sorry, Mary,” muttered Matthew and reached across to her hand before he could stop himself. In the same moment she shifted and hugged her arms round herself so, heart pounding, he let his hand fall onto the bench, the action going unnoticed.

“It puts my rejection from Oxford into perspective, I suppose,” she said with a mirthless laugh.

He closed his eyes a moment, feeling terribly sorry for her. “Were you close to them?”

Mary shrugged. “To James – Patrick's father that is – not so much. He and Daddy didn't like each other very much. But Patrick... Well, he was our cousin,” she finished simply.

Matthew moistened his lips and thought a moment. Finally he said quietly, “I know what it's like – to lose someone. So I – I'm sorry.”

This brought her out of her reverie and she tilted her head to look at him. Her eyes were wide and soft, but just as keen and clear as ever. “Your father died,” she stated.

“Yes, when I was a baby. I don't remember him at all. I mean, there are the odd photos but it's not the same.”

“No. Well, I'm sorry too.”

He forced himself to smile at her, and she returned it tentatively. He felt very close to her in that moment, so much so that he was aware of every breath she took as her chest rose and fell. In a desperate attempt to lighten the atmosphere, he managed a laugh. “You know – I shouldn't complain. My sister's the best in the world and you never know, I might still get my Hogwarts letter one day.”

Mary gave him an understandably funny look. “Your Hogwarts letter?”

He laughed again, more spontaneously this time. “Yes. Because Dad died in a car accident my friends and I at school – we had a thing where I was actually a wizard and what happened was that Voldemort had murdered my dad and when my mum left she did it to protect us and she's out there somewhere battling the forces of evil and one day when things are safe again she'll come back and explain everything.”

He ducked his head, suddenly embarrassed to meet her eyes. What was he thinking sharing such stupid past history with Mary? Without looking at her, he added hastily, “But I'm twenty-three and of course I know it's all a fantasy. I don't really still think I'm going to open a letter one day and discover I'm a famous wizard or something now. It's ridiculous.”

Instead of mocking him as he expected, she only shrugged and replied reasonably, “Oh, don't say that; it wasn't back then.” He raised his eyes to hers as she continued, “When I was a little girl I dreamed that I was a princess locked in a tall tower and that one day a handsome prince would cut through all the brambles and rescue me.” She smiled wryly at him. “I study literature, Matthew, and can analyse dreams like that as well as you probably can with your great classics degree from Oxford.”

He met her eyes. “I could probably have a stab at it, yes.”

“Of course you could,” she murmured, leaning slightly towards him, an entirely subconscious inclination but one which made him almost hold his breath.

Then she shivered suddenly and pulled back to look at her watch. “Goodness, we'll miss breakfast.” She stood up. “Coming?”

He blinked and stood up with her. “Of course.”

As they walked back across the lawn, conversation returned to Downton. Mary explained how although the family no longer owned the house, the estate, which included the village, was still their's. It pays for itself, she explained, in rents and produce from the farms – but the house had needed so many repairs and that was why.

When they reached the house it was clear that the rest of the family had woken up. The radio was on in the kitchen and when they came in, they found Cora making coffee and Sybil hugging a cup of tea, still in her pyjamas.

“There you are, my dears!” said the countess brightly. “Now tell me, Matthew, what do you want for breakfast? Are you just a cereal person or do you want bacon and eggs?”

“Well-” began Matthew, who had not had a proper English breakfast in months.

“I would offer pancakes but my children always laugh at me when I suggest it.”

“That's because pancakes are for tea on Shrove Tuesday not breakfast any old day,” put in Mary, going round the table to kiss her. “Morning, Mummy.” She turned back to Matthew with raised eyebrows. “She's American, in case you hadn't noticed.”

Matthew half laughed as Sybil groaned. “I feel so rough. Stop talking about frying things. It's too early.”

“Trying to get out of revision, are you, darling?” replied her mother unsympathetically. “You'll regret it when it comes to the exams.”

She scowled and stood up, picking up her cup. “I'm going back to bed. Nice to meet you, Matthew, if you've gone before I'm up again.”

“Nice to meet you too, Sybil!”

They watched her leave and then Cora sighed. “I'd say I'll be sad when you're all out of your teens but it'd be a terrible lie. Now, Matthew, did you say you wanted bacon and egg?”

“Well...” He glanced at Mary and grinned, “I'm normally a toast and jam person but - if it's not too much bother, Lady Grantham.”

“None at all. Mary?”

She hesitated, glanced in turn at Matthew and then shrugged. “Why not? It is the holidays after all!”

“Excellent. It's all from the estate, you know, Matthew,” Cora said, as she got down a large frying pan. “Our pigs actually won an award for their quality of meat.”

“Four years ago,” added Mary, rolling her eyes.

“It's still the best, and you know it, darling; anyway, we all know Oakshott Farm cheats dreadfully.”

“I look forward to trying it,” said Matthew. He felt torn between amusement at this American countess and the real feeling of warmth and love radiating from within this unusual family as soon as they were taken away from the pressures of a formal dinner.

“Have you seen my sister yet?” he asked. “She does like to sleep in when she can but she wouldn't want to be late.”

“I think she was in the bathroom when I came down. Oh, Mary, before I forget, Colin rang this morning – my PA,” she added for Matthew's benefit, “and I'm going to have to go down to London this afternoon. Do you want to come and do some shopping or do you have work like Sybil?”

“I have work,” replied Mary, “but I'd like to come to London anyway.”

“Well, if you're sure you can take the time. I was thinking of getting the 2.05 from York.” She put the rashers of bacon into the pan, looking up as a new thought occurred to her. “I guess I'd better see if Edith wants to come too. Where is she anyway?” She frowned. “She spends so much time holed up in her room it's easy to overlook her sometimes. Awful of us really but you know how it is when you're busy...”

“Seriously, Mummy, where do you think she is?” replied Mary disparagingly.

Cora sighed. “Well, will you be a darling and go and see if she's coming down for breakfast? Your father's out with the dog but should be back soon.”

Mary scraped back her chair with an audible huff, muttered an apology to Matthew and stalked from the room. Left alone with the countess, he looked around the kitchen for inspiration, finally saying, “So you work in London?”

She was quite happy to talk. “Yes. That is, the work never stops when you're the figurehead for a company like Levinson International, but the office is in London.”

“Levinson International?” Matthew's eyes widened. No wonder the family was rich!

“Oh yes,” she continued as if there was nothing extraordinary about her position. “It was my father's brainchild but he died suddenly and left it all to me, a naïve kid just out of college with no more idea how to run a business than you do. I was meant to tour all the offices – London, Berlin, Hong Kong – before settling back in New York; well, I didn't get very far as you can see!”

Matthew met her smile. “You married?”

“I did and how! Then I guess I added countess and wife to the list of things I didn't know how to be. At least cooking's a universal skill!” she added with a knowing grin that reminded him strongly of Mary's.

Their conversation was interrupted at that point by the return of the earl and Plato from their morning walk. The excited dog soon made the kitchen seem very small but Lord Grantham also filled it with his presence. There was a stateliness about the earl that demanded respect and formality, something he had not seen in any of the rest of the family, excepting Mary on some occasions. Robert was very civil and attentive to him but Matthew could not help suddenly feeling that he needed to sit up straighter. It was a reaction that he instinctively resented.

*


Matthew and Isobel left Downton about an hour after their breakfast of award winning bacon and eggs.

“What a nice young man,” said Robert afterwards as he lingered in the kitchen over coffee and The Times. “Polite, intelligent, and well-educated. Where did you say he came from, Mary? Do we know anything about his family background?”

“Manchester and no, we don't,” replied Mary after a moment's hesitation.

“That's because there's nothing to know,” said Edith. “I googled him and there's absolutely nothing on any of them apart from some awards he won at school, his involvement in the Labour Club at St Andrews-”

“The Labour Club!”

“Yes, Daddy, the Labour Club, contact details for his sister's surgery, and an old notice from his dad's funeral but nothing else.”

“Well,” sighed Robert, “I suppose nobody's perfect.”

“He doesn't even have a wikipedia page!”

“No need to sound so outraged, dear,” murmured Cora. “Internet fame isn't the be all and end all.”

“I have a wikipedia page!” cried Edith.

“Yes,” put in Mary, rolling her eyes, “and it says 'Lady Edith Crawley is the middle daughter of the nineth earl of Grantham' and then it says 'this page is a stub'.” She stood up. “Excuse me. I have to read some Old English before we go out.”

When she reached her bedroom, however, her copy of Beowulf remained unopened on her desk. She took out her phone and her finger hovered over Anna's number. Then she changed her mind and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling and tapping a pen compulsively against the table.

If Matthew were not going out with Lavinia then what – what, she wondered, would have happened the previous night or this morning? She drew in a breath and then scolded himself. He was going out with Lavinia and speculating about what might have been if circumstances were different was a completely futile mental activity. Knowing that, however, did not prevent her from wasting almost half an hour inventing a fantasy in which Matthew had disturbed her after she'd gone to bed to say that he'd just broken up with Lavinia over the phone and was terribly upset, to which she had said “Poor dear” (as if that was something she would say!) and then he had sat down next to her again and one thing had led to another – only, it hadn't. Mary's mind skittered nervously away from imagining anything so conclusive and revealing of her own feelings as a genuine romantic encounter between them. After inventing several equally implausible scenarios all ending with them sitting facing each other on her bed in exactly the same way, she gave in to her conscience and stopped. She distracted herself by going to see Sybil who was curled up in a bed with a geography textbook, loud rock music, and a bad temper, before getting ready for her trip to London. There was nothing that a few days in the bright lights of the metropolis, a West End show, and some new clothes could not cure.

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