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University Challenge, Chapter Eleven

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 Ten here!

Chapter Eleven


The vacation limped towards its close and by the middle of April Mary and Edith had been packed off to university again at opposite ends of the country and Sybil had been dragged reluctantly back to London to sit her AS Levels.

“I should have sent them all to boarding school as Robert wanted,” complained Cora, pouring herself a glass of whiskey. “Then they would have been somebody else's problem. Teenage girls are the absolute worst.”

It was late at the end of Sybil's first day of school and the countess was finally getting to put her feet up with her sister-in-law and the head of marketing at Levinson International London, Ros Painswick, at the London house.

“Well, I was sent off to Roedean and you can see how well I turned out.”

Cora laughed but shook her head. “I couldn't have done it. Maybe it's the American in me but eleven just seems far too young to separate girls from their parents. Mary would probably have done well enough but I can't see it working for Edith or Sybil.”

“You mean Mary would have been the class bully. Cheers, darling.” Ros toasted her and took a large gulp of whiskey. “Don't worry about it – I was.”

“Oh, I don't mean that exactly, but she's rather more resourceful than the others.”

“Is she? I suppose she's the only one who's travelled and that must make a massive difference. Always felt rather rather jealous of her for that gap year, you know. It wasn't the done thing when I was growing up. School, university, job, and dealing with Mother's wrath when I didn't marry one of her cronies as soon as I turned eighteen. That was the way my life worked out.”

Her sister-in-law was silent a moment, looking into her glass before she raised her eyes again. “Do you ever wish you'd done it differently? You know, marriage and children and garden fêtes.”

“No, never. I was far too much of a rebel for that and besides, I loved Marmaduke, whatever anyone else thinks.”

“I know you did.”

“Anyway, no use crying over it. I may have loved him but he was screwing his PA so that was that.” She drained her glass and recovered her poise. “You should just be thankful that my brother is far too dull to ever think of cheating.”

“My goodness, is that all that stands between him and adultery? Should I be worried?”

Ros laughed. “God, no. Men are born cheaters, darling, but you might just have got the one who wasn't.”

“I like to think so,” replied Cora, looking away with a private smile and for a few moments they enjoyed their drinks in the silence of their own thoughts.

“When you had that day out with Mary last week did she mention Matthew at all?” she inquired eventually, changing the subject.

Ros raised her eyebrows. “Matthew? No, I can't say she did. Should she have?”

“I'm really not sure... Just an idea I had but I'm probably wrong. Never mind.”

“Now you can't stop there, darling! Those are the best ideas. Who is this Matthew and why should we care?”

So Cora told her about Matthew and Isobel's visit and mentioned her suspicion that there might be something between him and her daughter. “The only university friend she's had to stay is Anna and Matthew was – well, he was different.”

Ros nodded. “Rather telling that she didn't mention him then. Do you like him?”

Cora thought about this and poured herself another half glass of whiskey while she did. “Yes,” she replied finally. “He seemed a nice boy. Whether he's up to taking on Mary is another matter but I suppose we'll just have to wait and see.”

“God, darling, I know she can be picky but she's not that bad! This is your daughter you're talking about.”

“No, no, that's not what I meant.” Cora frowned but quickly added, “Well, Robert likes him at least. He went to Oxford, you see.”

“Well, no wonder he likes him then! Is he from a good family – I mean, my brother's idea of a good family? If he is then you might as well just book the church straight away.”

Cora shook her head with a short laugh. “You know what's funny, Ros: he's a Crawley. Not one of us, of course, but it's a strange coincidence all the same.”

“Is he now?”

“Oh no. No, no, no! I know that look very well. He's just a nice kid from Manchester. I forbid you to go prying into his background. His father's passed away, you know- it would be incredibly insensitive. Ros, I forbid it.”

Ros pursed her lips. “Me, insensitive? Anyway, I don't believe in coincidences and I do believe in a full and complete family tree. Let me prove there's no connection and no harm's done.”

“And what if there is a connection?”

The two women met each other's eyes.

“I also believe in telling the truth,” said Ros carefully. “Whatever the consequences.”

“Even at my daughters' expense?”

“Would it really be at their expense? If you're right about Mary and Matthew.”

Cora stood up abruptly and put her glass down on the sideboard. “I hope for everybody's sake the only reward of your meddling is tracing his descent through a long line of north English – I don't know - fishermen and many smelly research trips to Morecambe Bay. Now, I'm going to bed; you're welcome to stay if you like.”

Ros rolled her eyes at her sister-in-law's back and also stood up. “I think I shall.”

“Good. You can take Sybil to school with you in the taxi in the morning. Save her getting the tube.”

“I thought she liked getting the tube.”

“I can't understand why when she could get a taxi!”

Ros laughed. “Then you don't understand Sybil very well! Night, darling.”

“Goodnight.”

After Ros had left the room, Cora remained a few moments, clearing up the drinks and picking up her heels that she had discarded earlier in the evening. She was bothered by what her sister-in-law had said. The idea that there could be any link between her husband's family and Matthew's was ludicrous – it was a common enough name, but that did not stop her worrying and she knew the same idea had been in her husband's mind ever since Easter. They hadn't spoken of it but they didn't need to. It had been a question mark for the entire family ever since James and Patrick's deaths seven years earlier and she wondered whether Mary had considered it when she had met Matthew. What if, despite all appearances to the contrary, there was another, direct male heir to the title out there that they did not know about? What if it was Matthew?

*


Even travelling first class with its advantages of larger seats, free wi-fi, and biscuits, it was a long and tedious train journey up from York to St Andrews. Mary finally arrived home in the early evening and tipped the taxi driver generously to carry her suitcase right up to the front door. It was a balmy spring evening, a pleasant breeze wafting tangy salt air from the sea. Already it was much lighter at this hour than it had been when she had left a month before. Mary took a deep breath as the taxi drove off leaving her alone on the threshold, relishing this moment of solitude, before turning her key in the lock and pushing the front door open.

“Anna?”

She dragged her suitcase into the hall and shut the door behind her.

“In here, Mary!” came her friend's welcome voice and she entered the front room to the surprising sight of both Anna and John sitting on the sofa, his arm round her shoulders, watching a DVD. Mary's eyebrows raised automatically even though Anna jumped up so quickly that she might have thought she had imagined it all.

Anna hugged her tightly. “Welcome back. I've missed you so much. How was your journey? Do you want a cup of tea?”

Mary hugged her back and smiled warily at John over Anna's shoulder. “Tea would be lovely, thanks.”

They separated and she unwound her pashmina and sat down on an arm chair as Anna disappeared into the kitchen.

“How are you, John?” she asked, unable to completely hide her curiosity. He and Anna always spent time at his house and only on Friday evenings. This was not a Friday and it was Anna's house.

“Very well, thank you, Mary. Can't complain. And yourself?”

“Oh, you know me; a little tired but perfectly well.”

An awkward silence fell between them. Mary had never really understood Anna's interest in John Bates and while she tolerated him as the object of her friend's quite inexplicable crush, she did not have much to say to him when left alone together. She looked to the television for inspiration.

“Pirates of the Caribbean?”

“Yep, we just felt like something fun and relaxing. Do you want to watch the rest of it with us?”

He started to shift on the sofa to make room for her but Mary shook her head. “No, I don't think so. I need to unpack.”

“Right. Of course you do.”

Fortunately before the conversation could get any more stilted than it already was, Anna came back with Mary's tea. She stood up with it and, with a significant look at her friend hinting at essential future conversation, left them to their film.

Had Anna and John actually got together over the Easter break? Mary wondered as she slowly and dreamily unpacked, taking many breaks to perch on her bed and sip her tea. She was not sure how she felt about that. Anna and John's relationship had always seemed safe, in some strange way, because it was so clearly going nowhere. The nineteen year old student with a crush and the thirty-five year old checkout worker oblivious to all signals – it was obviously never going to come to anything. There was no real danger of Mary's real importance in Anna's life being supplanted by the closer claims of a boyfriend. And of course for as long as Anna pined over him she would not be interested in anyone else.

Mary sat down heavily and suddenly, shocked at this revelation of the depth of her own selfishness. She liked to think she was a good friend to Anna but was the real reason that she was ambivalent about John because she did not want to lose her privileged best friend status? If Anna was in a relationship, then who would cook her dinner? Who would make her tea and listen to her complaints about her day? Who would do her hair and tell her she looked beautiful before she went out? Anna was an absolute treasure and deserved every happiness but not, Mary was ashamed to realise, if it meant she would be left in the cold.

Angry with herself, Mary drained her tea (now cold) and set herself to finishing unpacking with a vengeance. By the time her room was spotlessly tidy and clean, it was ten pm and John had finally left. Mary heard the front door bang and came downstairs to see Anna clearing up the remnants of dinner.

“Sorry, I thought you'd be back later,” she began, “or I'd never have invited John round.”

“Really?” Mary collapsed onto the sofa and stared at her pointedly. “Wouldn't you have? I rather think there's something you haven't told me!”

Anna sighed and shook her head, coming to sit next to her. “Not really.” At her friend's incredulous expression she continued, “Well, I suppose we have been getting closer but nothing – nothing's happened.”

She looked down and Mary felt incredibly guilty for her earlier, disloyal thoughts. “Oh, Anna,” she murmured. “What's been going on?”

Anna almost sagged against her and swallowed. After a moment in which Mary really thought she might cry, she pulled herself together and raised her head. “We're not going out. Nothing's been said and we've not – we've not kissed or anything. But something's changing because we held hands all the way back from town this afternoon!”

“You held hands?” repeated Mary with gentle mockery. “Maybe if you're very lucky tomorrow you'll get to share the same milk bottle at morning break or something equally daring.”

This provoked a smile and shaky laugh. “Oh, Mary! And you saw how it was tonight. I just... I just don't understand. He knows how I feel and I'm sure he feels the same way, but...”

Mary hugged her tightly and frowned out across the room. She did not understand either. “Is it worth it, Anna?” she asked eventually. “Is he worth it?”

Anna's reply came immediately. “Yes. I know that he is. I'll wait as long as it takes, only... I'm afraid I'm not as patient as I try to be!”

Mary squeezed her shoulders again and half laughed. “You're more patient than I think I would be in your situation. Well, I suppose even holding hands is an improvement on last month.”

“Yes. I must look on the bright side.”

They pulled away from each other and Anna sat up straight. “Anyway, tell me about your vacation. We haven't talked for so long but I saw on facebook that you were in London. Was it fun?”

Mary smiled and shrugged. “I suppose so. It was nice to see Aunt Ros and the play was good. I bought this gorgeous new summer jacket that I'll have to show you when we go upstairs, but Mummy just won't stop going on about internships. She thinks I'm burying my head in the sand but I really don't see what the hurry is. And all these placements look so dreadfully tedious. Who wants to spend their summer stuck in an office anyway? I have Diamond to train; that's far more important.”

Anna shook her head with a long-suffering sigh. “People who want to actually get jobs when they graduate, that's who. Anyway, I'm glad you had a good time with your aunt. And did you say you saw Matthew in London? You sent me that weird text about him suddenly turning up and then you never replied when I responded.”

“Oh...” Mary blinked. “No, he came to Downton with his sister, just as visitors, you know, and ended up staying the night. It was-”

“Wait, what?” interrupted Anna. “He stayed the night? I swear if you haven't told me-”

“Not like that!” Mary cried, blushing and feeling angry with herself for reacting at all. “Nothing happened. It was just too late for them to go back to Manchester. Honestly, Anna, how could you even imagine that when he's got a girlfriend?”

Anna bit her lip. “It seems to me that a lot of nothing has been going on over Easter, don't you think?”

Their eyes met in understanding, nothing further needing to be said.

“Come up and see my new jacket,” said Mary, standing up and stretching. “I think it will go really well with that grey silk blouse I bought in January for Evelyn's birthday.”

Anna followed her out of the sitting room, turning off the light as she left, happy to be distracted for the moment by the pleasure of new clothes, something far less insecure than the prospect of potential romance.

*


A week passed and 'nothing happening' continued to sum up Mary and Anna's lives. The milk bottle turned out to be not so ridiculous an analogy for Anna's relationship with John after all for the only thing they shared was a large plate of nachos on Wednesday evening, and Gwen was there as well so it hardly counted.

As for Mary, she did not think about Matthew... much. On the one hand, it was rather odd that he had not been in contact at all at the beginning of term. She had assumed that after they had spent more time together in the vacation the friendship that seemed to be developing between them would persist back in Scotland. She had to call it friendship because to call it anything else would be – well, she could not even consider it. This did not seem to have happened. On the other hand, as she kept reminding herself, what were she and Matthew to each other really? They had only spoken to each other on a few occasions, they were in different years doing different subjects, they came from completely different social spheres. Why on earth should she assume they were friends and, for goodness sake, why would she want to be? No, Mary did not think about Matthew very much at all.

Then one evening everything changed. Anna had made chicken curry for supper and it was gently cooking away, the delicious smell permeating the whole of the house, and both girls were at work revising in the sitting room when the landline phone rang.

“You can get it,” said Mary, without looking up from her annotated copy of Spenser.

Anna hesitated for a moment, swallowing her irritation, before putting her pen down. Her train of thought had been broken anyway.

Going over to the bracket on the wall by the door, she lifted the receiver.

“Hello? … Oh hi there! How are you? … Yeah, I'm fine, thanks. Did you want to talk to Mary?”

Mary's head snapped up at hearing her name and she opened her eyes wide in curiosity.

“Oh... alright.” Anna frowned and shook her head slightly at her friend.

Who is it? mouthed Mary but Anna was now definitely ignoring her.

“What is it? I mean, what do you-”

Anna fell silent and her expression changed to something so odd that Mary stopped mouthing impatiently at her and waited.

“I'm – I'm really sorry,” she said eventually. “Really sorry. And of course, I'm sure we'll be able to- Let me just ask Mary.”

She lowered the receiver and covered it with her hand.

“Well?”said Mary, when she still didn't say anything.

“That was Matthew,” Anna replied, looking up. “He was wondering if he can crash on our sofa for a few days.”

“Crash on our-”

“You see, he and Lavinia have broken up.” Mary drew in a sharp breath as she felt something shift within her, leaving her feeling strangely on edge. “So obviously it's far too awkward for him to stay with her now and he needs somewhere to sleep and would we be willing...”

The odd feeling was not going away but Mary forced it to the back of her mind. “But of course he can. Tell him – tell him of course.”

Anna smiled briefly and picked up the receiver again. “Mary's fine with it so just come over whenever. We have a spare sleeping bag if you need it. And - … Oh, really, don't worry about it. Do you like chicken curry? … Excellent. See you soon, Matthew. Bye then.”

There was silence after she hung up. Mary stared at the table, clenching and unclenching her fist round her highlighter and Anna watched her for a moment. Then she said, “I guess I better put on more rice and we should make this room look more presentable if he's going to be sleeping in it.”

Mary cast a glance around the room and twisted her lips in rueful acknowledgement. Then, as Anna disappeared into the kitchen, she closed Spenser for the evening, zipped up her stationary in her pencil case and swept the entire mishmash of paper, books, unopened post, and takeaway leaflets into a pile on the floor in the corner. The mugs on the coffee table she took back to the kitchen and rinsed out. Then she went upstairs and found a spare pillow and blanket and brought them downstairs, leaving them in a neat pile on the sofa. She hesitated there, looking around the now (superficially) presentable room and imagining him there, aware that her heart was beating strongly not just because she had run up and down the stairs.

Matthew was single and, however much she tried to convince herself that it did not matter, she could not do it: this changed everything.

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