silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Twelve

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 Eleven here!

Chapter Twelve


Just as the rice was starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, Matthew finally arrived. Mary and Anna only had time to help him hastily transfer two suitcases, a battered hiking rucksack, and several large, clear plastic boxes from the taxi to their hallway before they all sat down to dinner. Very little had been said by this point and silence fell rather awkwardly once the food had been served and dinner had commenced.

“I really appreciate this,” said Matthew eventually, between mouthfuls of curry. “It's incredibly kind of you, putting me up like this at such short notice. I mean,” he turned to Mary, “your family has already been so hospitable to me, and Anna,” he turned to her, “I've only met you once! I'm going to be in debt to you both for a long time now.”

“You might not be so grateful once you've spent the night on that sofa,” observed Mary with a wry smile.

“I'm sure it'll be perfect,” he reassured her, inwardly sighing. From the bed he shared with Lavinia to a sofa... “It'll only be for a few days anyway,” he continued hastily to avoid dwelling on it. “I'll go to the accommodation service first thing tomorrow and plead my case.”

“They should be able to help you,” said Anna. “It's exam term and not having a proper place to live could really affect your results.”

“That's what I intend to tell them!”

For a while they ate in silence. Mary glanced over at Matthew frequently, trying to read him, but it was difficult. He seemed closed off, understandably enough, and she did not know him well anyway... though it felt as if she did sometimes. The silence seemed uncomfortable to her and eventually she looked up with an engaging and hopefully sympathetic smile.

“I'm sorry about it, Matthew, really.”

He met her eyes almost forlornly and she nearly forgot that he had not actually replied to her question until he eventually spoke. “It's – it's, well, I suppose it's no different from any other breakup but that doesn't mean it doesn't...” He trailed off and stared at his plate. “Well, you know.”

Mary looked at Anna and raised her eyebrows. She was not convinced that she was the best person in this situation but she did, truly, want to help. Anna shrugged back.

“When girls have a break up,” Mary began, “we eat lots of ice-cream and watch terrible films. I'm not sure what the masculine equivalent is.”

This provoked a smile. “Neither am I to be honest. When my school girlfriend and I broke up I think I just spent all weekend shooting things on the playstation and then had to be friends with her in class on Monday morning.” He hesitated. “Do you have any ice-cream?”

“I'll go check,” said Anna and went into the kitchen.

Mary continued to observe Matthew with silent compassion but, not being a self-pitying person herself, had little tolerance for it in others. She said in a normal tone, leaning slightly towards him over the table, “When my boyfriend and I broke up, it was splashed all over the front covers of Teen Chat.”

Matthew blinked at her. “It was?”

She shrugged and smirked, sitting up taller again. “Well, our entire relationship had been discussed at length in its pages so it was only natural that our break-up made the front cover. He was famous and I'm titled – it was gold dust for the tabloids.”

“You've missed out the bit about him being gay, Mary!” added Anna, coming back into the room with a tub of chocolate ice-cream.

“Gay?” repeated Matthew, enjoying the distraction immensely. “You had a gay boyfriend? Really? That's brilliant! That is-”

“He was certainly gay by the time Mary was finished with him,” murmured Anna, nudging her friend as she sat back down again.

Mary opened her mouth and tossed her hair, trying to be offended, but her eyes sparkled. “He was always gay, Anna. I'll have you know, Matthew, that it was a relationship of convenience in which his sexuality was not an issue. Among my sort of people these things happen all the time.”

“Right,” said Matthew nodding. “I get that. Wait, no, I really don't. You went out with some gay celebrity – why exactly? Or am I just being terribly middle class?”

“I'd just assume you're being middle class,” put in Anna. “It works for me most of the time.”

Mary heaved an exaggerated sigh. “I see you're going to want the whole story. We'd better start on the ice-cream.”

Nobody objected so bowls were procured and the three of them relocated to the sofa, with Matthew sitting between the two girls. Mary waited until they were all established before starting.

“You must have heard of Rashid O'Donahue.” Matthew looked blank and Mary rolled her eyes. “Apparently not. He was the Irish-Pakistani star of Going for Goal – you know, that dreadful soap about a youth football club in the East End.”

“Oh...” Matthew dragged his memory back to about seven years ago. “Yes, that. Some people at school followed it, I think. I only watched a couple of episodes but it always seemed pretty boring. Sorry.”

“Don't be. It was almost certainly the worst show on TV at the time. Anyway, Rashid played the druggie goalkeeper and was something of a teen celebrity in certain female circles. He didn't want to come out as gay and I wanted my face on the front page of a magazine. So we dated for two years.”

“Wow,” was Matthew's only response. “As you do.”

Mary shrugged. “It worked quite well too, until he fell for another guy and no longer required my services.”

“I see. I suppose... I suppose a story like that makes mine seem simply very mundane. We were together and then one day we weren't. The end.”

She frowned. “I'm sure it wasn't mundane.”

Quite without intending to, she touched his wrist for a moment and then her hand was gone but the warmth of it remained with them both, as Matthew turned to look properly at her.

He shook his head with a rather sad laugh. “No, but it was. Terribly, terribly mundane. All of it.”

Mary bit her lip as she flexed on her knee the hand that had touched him. The truth was that in all its glorious domesticity and apparent maturity, Matthew and Lavinia's relationship had seemed rather ordinary – in a wonderful way. At least it had seemed wonderful from the outside. She was not sure what to say.

“Well, we've got the ice-cream,” interrupted Anna brightly. “How about the film then?”

Matthew shrugged acquiescence and at least ten minutes were spent deciding on a film that would appeal to all three of them. In the end, Disney was the obvious option and Beauty and the Beast was selected. The ice-cream was soon finished, tea was drunk and all of them started to relax, though Mary was constantly aware of Matthew at her side, of the way he breathed and the slight changes in his expression, and spent most of the film wondering what he was thinking rather than paying attention to the singing, dancing candlesticks on the TV screen.

About half an hour before the end, Anna stretched, yawned, and stood up. Muttering something about a nine o'clock class, she wished them both goodnight and disappeared upstairs. With more space on the sofa, Matthew shifted along and Mary tucked her feet up under her. They watched in silence to the very end of the credits.

Eventually, when the DVD had returned to the root menu and they had listened to the same bit of music play over and over again several times, Mary finally uncurled herself from the sofa and switched it off. The quiet of the sleepy, dark house suddenly seemed deafening. She sat back down next to him.

“I should let you get ready for bed,” she said reluctantly but she had hardly finished the sentence when he interrupted her.

“Mary, I feel such a fool coming here like this,” he burst out, shifting to face her.

“Why should you feel that?”

“I mean,” he dropped his eyes, “that you and Anna must think me a fool. Like I said, I hardly know you and yet here I am...”

“Really, don't mention it.” She was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable at the intense, determined way he was looking at her and to wish there was more space between them.

“The thing is,” he continued, ignoring her, “most of my friends aren't my friends at all – they're our friends. I came here with Linny and, well, apart from the cricket team who are mostly undergrads and so they're not really... Anyway, what I mean is, there weren't all that many people I could call up and not feel that I was putting them in some kind of awkward position and making them take sides. Or something like that anyway.” His lips quirked up into a rueful smile. “Sorry, I'm not sure if that made much sense.”

“I'm not sure that it did,” replied Mary honestly, “but it's alright. If it was a problem we wouldn't have said yes.”

“I'm quite sure you wouldn't!” He grinned and though there was still melancholy in his expression, it was warm and genuine so she responded to it with a tentative smile.

It really was very, very quiet... With a wrench, Mary tore her gaze away from him. “I should go to bed, Matthew. I may not have classes this term but Hardy won't analyse himself!”

“Of course.”

They both stood up and looked at each other again. After a second Matthew shifted, almost as if he was going to hug her goodnight as he had done at Downton Abbey, but at that very moment, she said, “The bathroom's just at the top of the stairs and the light switch is outside,” and the opportunity was lost.

Mary turned off the kitchen light, shut the sitting room door behind her and went up to bed, leaving Matthew to unpack his sleeping bag and make himself as comfortable as possible on the sofa.

*


Matthew slept badly. It was partly the sofa's fault and partly the fact that the curtains were thin and let in the light early, but it was also strange for him to be sleeping without Lavinia. Oh, the physical fact of not having her beside him was nothing out of the ordinary but to not have her with him and to know that he never would again made it so much more poignant. Eventually, after he had lain there dozing for about an hour, Anna crept in to pick up a banana, cereal bar, and her work bag, whisper good morning and hope she hadn't woken him up, before slipping out again. Matthew stayed in his sleeping bag a bit longer before giving up. He wandered into the kitchen, was not sure where anything was kept, and ended up getting nothing more than a glass of water and an apple. He took his breakfast back through to the sitting room, slumped back down on the sofa and munched on his apple while inspecting the bookcase. It had to be Mary's, for most of the books were classic literature and a good number of them looked very old, as if they had been taken from the Downton library. It was an incongruous reminder of who she really was amid the modern trappings of student life.

He had just picked up a copy of Oscar Wilde to flick through when the door opened and Mary came in. She stopped on the threshold, swallowing as her eyes flicked over him in nothing but t-shirt, boxers, and socks. In comparison, she was fully dressed, even a little over-dressed for a day of analysing Tess of the D'Urbervilles; hair washed, blow-dried and cascading over her shoulders with artful disarray, perfect make-up, and a very nice top over her designer jeans. Matthew did not pick up on these details which would make Anna raise her eyebrows when she got in later, but he did think she looked very pretty.

Mary blinked and forced herself to move forwards. “Good morning, Matthew!” she said brightly. “I won't ask if you slept well but I hope you slept tolerably.”

He laughed, following her progress to the kitchen with his eyes. “Oh, very tolerably, thank you.”

“Good. Have you had breakfast?”

“Just an apple. I wasn't sure...”

“Oh, for goodness sake, you must make yourself at home! Come and get some cereal. Anna has a selection of the usual things or you could have some of mine.” She took down a box from a cupboard and held it up in front of her as he joined her. “This is not just chocolate cereal; it's Marks and Spencer chocolate cereal.”

She smirked with a touch of self-mockery and poured herself a large bowl while Matthew decided on rice crispies. It would make a change from his usual breakfast of toast and jam anyway. As they returned to the sitting room, his eye fell on the Beauty and the Beast DVD case on the table.

“I wouldn't have put you down as a Disney fan,” he commented, sinking back onto the sofa.

Mary sat down at the table and raised her eyebrows at him. “No? Well, I'm not. It's Anna's DVD. Left to myself, I would have preferred to watch a foreign art house film without subtitles.”

“I'm sure that would have been very cheerful.”

“Mmm. I saw a good Japanese one recently made by Norwegians with four suicides and lots of water lillies. Very symbolic and extremely pretentious. Just my kind of film.”

Matthew pursed his lips to hide his smile. “Was it called Yes by any chance? I think I know the one you mean.”

She paused in the middle of taking a mouthful of cereal and lowered her spoon again. “Oh,” she murmured. “You saw something nasty in the woodshed when you were little too, did you, Matthew?”

“Perhaps I did. But I was looking at your bookcase earlier so Cold Comfort Farm was in my mind anyway.”

She met his eyes briefly before lowering them again. “Cheat,” she said distinctly and ate her spoonful of cereal, her expression amused.

“It's one of Isobel's favourites and she made me read it. I'm glad she did though; it's very funny.”

“It's one of my favourites too,” replied Mary. “Who wouldn't like Flora Poste?”

Matthew smiled warmly at her and she suddenly felt overcome with embarrassment and awareness of being alone in the house with him and his bare legs.

“So, what kind of films do you really like?” he persisted, not noticing or ignoring her awkwardness.

Mary firmly paid no attention to her feelings. “You're staying here for a few days, Matthew. You can work it out for yourself.”

She brushed past him to take her bowl back to the kitchen, her heart beating particularly fast, as he turned to stare after her, helplessly enthralled.

Mary retreated to her bedroom to leave Matthew to get ready to go out, with every intention of going soon to the library to revise. However, when he returned from the accommodation service at lunchtime she had still not left the house and no Hardy had been read.

“How did you get on?” she asked Matthew over a snack lunch.

He shrugged. “Alright, I suppose. They think they can find me a room in Andrew Melville by the end of the week.”

Mary made a face. “Andrew Melville? But that's miles away!”

“And full of undergraduates. Not that there's anything wrong with-” He gave up since Mary was clearly only pretending to be offended by that. “Anyway, it's somewhere to stay and it'll only be for a couple of months.”

“Quite a step down from your nice flat though,” she said sympathetically. “To be back in catered halls like that.”

“Yes.”

For a few minutes as they ate together a more comfortable silence fell between them than ever had done before. It helped that Matthew was wearing proper clothes by this point and they had the full length of the table between them. But there was more to it than that for there was something undeniably pleasant about the situation, something that worked that neither dared to allude to or even think about too hard or spoil by breaking the silence except for trivial remarks about the weather or passing the fruit juice.

“How are you feeling today?” Mary ventured to ask softly as they neared the end of the meal.

Matthew, relaxed now, leaned back in his chair and took his time to reply. “Alright,” he said eventually. “I think it will hit later but I was the one to end it, you see, so perhaps that helps a bit.”

“You were?” She kept her eyes fixed on him. “That must still have been hard.”

“Well, it wasn't an easy decision to make. I'd been thinking about it for a while but actually doing it...”

He trailed off and Mary wondered if he would continue. When he did not, she asked, “What was it that – I mean, when did you-” He looked up. “Oh, of course it's none of my business. I shouldn't pry.”

“No, it's alright. You can ask.”

Actually, he found himself quite keen to talk about it. Left on his own, he was inclined to brood and feel sorry for himself, which he was able to recognise as a bad attitude. Still, wanting to talk was different from being able to.

“It was at Downton Abbey, I think,” he said after a few false starts, “that I really realised how much it wasn't working.”

“At Downton?” interrupted Mary sharply.

For a moment her heart had almost frozen with the horrible idea that in some way she had been responsible for the ending of Matthew and Lavinia's relationship. That she should even assume she could have been was suspicious enough and it was becoming harder and harder to lie to herself as she had lied to Sybil only a few weeks previously about the nature of her and Matthew's so-called friendship.

His eyes shot to hers and suddenly the awkwardness was back. “In the car going there. Before I knew the place belonged to you or anything... My sister said something and it made me realise what was wrong. But I did want to give it another chance when I came back up. We'd been together for four and a half years. You can't rush to end that.”

“But when you did come back you realised it wasn't going to work?”

“Right.” Matthew sighed. “I love Lavinia; how could I not? She's quite perfect. But she wants...” He broke off. Who was he to say what Lavinia wanted and to Mary of all people? “Well, what she wants isn't what I want.”

Mary leaned her elbows on the table and frowned at him. “And what do you want, Matthew?”

Now that was the question! He opened his mouth and then shut it again. Observed anxiously by Mary, he stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, staring blankly out of the window at the rain soaked street.

“I don't know what I want, Mary! What I thought I wanted it seems I don't want and the person I thought I was – I'm clearly not or at least I'm not any more. So who on earth am I?”

He stared at her in perplexity as if the answer might be written on her face and for a few moments she could only stare back. Then she inclined her head away from him with a bit of a huff. “I think you'd better return to your Plato if you want answers to that sort of question!”

He blinked, a bit abashed. “Well, yes. Sorry, that was rather existential, wasn't it? But it does change things, you know, going from being with someone to – not being with them. But so long as I don't do anything stupid like rebound or anything like that, I should be okay...”

His gaze dropped from hers as Mary's eyes widened and she fiddled with one of her earrings in sudden, hot embarrassment. Had he admitted to himself the same possibility she had? But even if he had that did not mean anything. After all, it was hardly as if she relished the possibility of being Matthew Crawley's rebound fling. The reminder was timely and she sat up straighter, reasserting her pride.

“Well,” she said rather haughtily, “that's entirely in your own control. Anyway, I really must get to the library this afternoon. The great Victorian novel waits for no man.”

Matthew was about to suggest going with her, for he also had revision to do, but stopped himself. The chances of finding Lavinia there were high and, perhaps more pertinent though less explicitly acknowledged, it would probably be a good idea if he and Mary spent slightly less time alone together.

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