silvestria (silvestria) wrote,

University Challenge, Chapter Thirteen

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 Twelve here!

Chapter Thirteen

Matthew only spent four nights on Mary and Anna's sofa. On Friday morning the accommodation service rang to tell him that he could move into his catered, undergraduate room on the other side of the town. Insisting that the girls had already gone beyond the call of duty to help him, he enlisted a couple of male friends to help him move his things and settle in. Mary was glad to see him go, not because she disliked having him around, but rather for the opposite reason. Matthew was a subdued, helpful, and responsible house guest, not to mention an amusing and friendly one. His low spirits were natural in the circumstances but despite that, he made an effort to appear cheerful and Mary suspected that to anyone less observant he might have succeeded very well. He ate supper with them every night, made himself thoroughly at home, fixed the annoying drip on the kitchen sink, and was in general a welcome addition to the household.

At least Mary assumed he was welcome from their ultimately limited interaction. The extent to which she liked him disturbed her and scared her. There was no getting away from it now, not when he was staying in the same house as her, approving her collection of Queen CDs and doing the washing up with them. Matthew was not the sort of person she was supposed to – to fancy. There was no other word for it, despite its frivolous and vulgar connotations as a piece of vocabulary: she fancied Matthew. But Lady Mary Crawley should not have crushes on left-wing law students from broken homes in Manchester. It interfered with all the plans she had for herself, and in addition to that there was the complication that he was actually with her so much those few days. He was not an object to be admired from afar but a person she came into daily contact with and, whenever she thought back to her conversation with Sybil, someone who could actually reciprocate. The idea of Matthew fancying her and acting on it terrified her because she had no idea how she would react if he did.

In Mary's grand plan, she would date whom she wanted when she wanted on her terms and so far that had been nobody... Matthew, on the other hand, unnerved her and she did not like it. It was not a familiar feeling. To give in to that smile, that accidental brush of hands, those eyes – what would it be like? Sitting upright beside him on the sofa pretending to listen to the conversation the three of them were having, in her imagination her head was on his shoulder, and as the week progressed so did her fantasies until she was almost ashamed to meet his eyes. Almost; she always managed to hold her head high and conceal her thoughts and feelings whenever there was any danger of him perceiving them.

All in all, she was glad when he was gone, though her efforts to avoid him during the day had been productive in one respect, for they had got her to the library as nothing else would have done. All week she had stuck it out with the great Victorian novel and Evelyn Napier. Even if she did spend half the time daydreaming that was still more revision than would have taken place otherwise. Evelyn's presence was also a great motivator. He took the subject and the approaching exams seriously and naturally expected her to do the same. Mary felt guilty about not working when he could see her distraction so she made sure she had at least the appearance of concentration when she sat with him. If anything, the breaks they took together were more productive, for Evelyn would inevitably choose to discuss the literature they were studying over tea and a cherry slice and Mary was far more happy to speak her own thoughts than to sit in silence reading other people's.

After Matthew had moved out and Mary had no longer any reason to avoid her house, Evelyn's encouragement and an increasing awareness of the reality of the approaching second year exams still kept her in the library more than usual.

It was a particularly gorgeous May day just over a week after Matthew had moved out when Mary found herself on her own at lunchtime, Evelyn having other plans. She bought her customary panini and crisps from Jannettas but instead of eating it in the cafe as usual, she took it along to the Abbey to take advantage of the sunshine. She was not alone, however, and all the benches in the cloister ruins were already filled with several groups also on the grass. Mary had no intention of getting grass stains on her clothes so she hesitated until she spotted a familiar figure sitting hunched over a book on a bench with free space next to her. It was Lavinia Swire and Mary's heart sank. For a moment she considered retreating and pretending she had not seen her. But no, such behaviour was unworthy of her and even as the possibility occurred to her, her feet had carried her forwards and she found herself standing in front of Lavinia and smiling down at her.

"Lavinia? Hello! May I joined you?"

She started at being addressed and for a second seemed quite as shocked to see Mary as Mary herself had been a moment earlier, not that there was anything surprising about the two of them meeting in this popular place at lunchtime on a sunny day.

"Oh! Hello, Mary. Of course you can."

She shifted along the bench to make room even though there was no need for it and Mary sat down and unwrapped her panini.

"It's nice to see you again," said Lavinia, her tone guarded though friendly.

"You too."

They lapsed into an awkward silence and Mary started to eat her lunch. As Lavinia closed her book, she raised her eyebrows and could not help exclaiming, "The Hunger Games? I assumed you were reading something very erudite for your masters."

"It's an interesting novel actually with more political and social commentary than you might expect. Quite a few shades of 1984. Anyway," she quickly continued, a little embarrassed, "I can't read about Virgil all the time, can I?"

"I quite agree," replied Mary with a quick smile, but secretly she thought Lavinia might as well read about Virgil all the time if her reaction to a young adult fantasy novel was to over analyse it. If you were going to go to all that trouble, why not concentrate on good literature? Not that she had read The Hunger Games herself or had any intention of doing so.

Lavinia ran her fingers over the book on her lap and looked down at the ground. Mary took a few more bites of her panini and felt that this tension was ridiculous.

"I'm sorry about you and Matthew," she said eventually, turning towards her companion.

"Are you? I mean, yes." She sighed. "I'm sorry too."

This was difficult. "When Anna and I came to dinner, we were struck by how well-matched you seemed. Anyway, I'm sorry."

"Thank you, Mary. I thought so too, you know. I thought..." She stared hard at her hands and the novel she was clutching more and more tightly. "I thought our relationship was going in a very different direction but I suppose I was mistaken."

Mary was silent and only observed her with uncomfortable sympathy. She did not want to like Lavinia at all but for all she might mock her serious attitude it was quite impossible to dislike her.

"It's funny really," she continued. "Understanding the motivations of fictional characters from hundreds of years ago is second nature to me but I can be awfully dense about what's going on under my own nose, it seems."

"No, you're not dense," sighed Mary. "Don't say that. Nobody else saw it coming either."

Lavinia looked up and retorted, "Why should anybody else see it coming? I was his girlfriend! That was my job and I failed rather spectacularly."

"I'm sure you didn't-"

"I suppose I should have seen it coming really. I mean, how could someone with Matthew's background ever be expected to commit?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you know – after what happened with his parents..."

"I know his father died and his mother is no longer around," said Mary, feeling that she had no business prying yet quite unable to stop herself.

"His mother left the day after Isobel's eighteenth birthday, the day when she could legally take custody of him. She was dreadfully unhappy before then, I understand. His sister brought him up while going through medical school and working at the same time. I can't imagine what it must have been like. They didn't have very much when Matthew was growing up."

Mary raised her eyebrows as she looked across the quadrangle, without seeing any of the students spread out on the grass with their picnics and books.

"Among my sort of people," she commented rather bleakly, "when things go wrong in families it just gets splashed across Hello magazine and the children get a new nanny. That just sounds so sordid."

"I think the aftermath of a broken home is always going to be sordid," replied Lavinia quietly, "whether it happens in Buckingham Palace or on a council estate."

A memory flashed into Mary's mind of happening upon her aunt Rosamund weeping when she thought nobody was looking while the divorce settlement was being processed and how terribly sad she had felt about it all, comforting herself with the thought that at least there were no children in the case. How devastated she would have been if anything had happened to Mummy and Daddy. She swallowed the reply she was going to make about money making a great deal of difference in these situations.

"Anyway!" cried Lavinia, taking a deep breath, "I really don't know why I'm venting to you of all people about this; I just don't seem able to think about much else at the moment. Silly of me, I suppose. He stayed with you and Anna, didn't he? He said he was going to."

Mary felt thrown by this sudden shift of focus towards herself but she recovered quickly. "Just for a few days. We were glad to be able to help out."

"Yes, of course; I'm sure you were."

Mary frowned, half suspecting a double meaning here, but Lavinia's expression was clear. She glanced at her watch. "Oh, I'm sorry, I have to go. I'm meeting a friend for lunch."

"That's alright."

She felt an immense sense of relief for Lavinia was unexpectedly hard work on her own. She briefly wondered if Matthew felt the same way and instantly dismissed the thought as being unworthy of her.

Lavinia shoved her book into her shoulder bag and stood up. "Well, it was so nice to see you again, Mary."

Surely that had to be insincere or was she reading too much into it?

"You too, Lavinia."

"We must have coffee together some time."

"Oh, that would be lovely!"

Well, that would never happen, said Mary to herself when she finally had the bench to herself. She ate the rest of her panini and then her crisps, one by one, her thoughts far away. When she had finished her lunch she did not immediately return to the library but continued to sit there, overcome by indecision and doubts. Eventually she pulled out her iphone, opened up a new message and again hesitated. The message she eventually wrote was as follows:

Would you like to have dinner tonight with me? I think we deserve it, don't you! Let's go to The Seafood Restaurant. x

She sent it to Evelyn Napier.


"So let me get this straight," said Anna, checking to see if the hair straighteners were hot enough. "You're going on a date with Evelyn Napier?"


"You don't fancy him!"

Mary shrugged. "I can work on it."

Her friend had nothing to say to this but she tugged on a strand of hair a bit more vigorously than she needed to.

"And really," continued Mary, "I think it's worth the effort. The Napiers have been at Branksom for centuries; I'm sure I heard they were mentioned in the Doomsday Book but that could have been the Kent Naviers so please don't quote me on it. It's a lovely estate – I went there for his nineteenth Christmas of first year, remember? - and Evelyn's an only child. Oh, and his mother's a cousin of Lady Westlake. So you see, I could do a lot worse."

"Okay. So are you hoping he's going to pay for your dinner tonight or propose marriage?"

"I think we're a bit young to be talking about marriage, don't you?" replied Mary coolly even though she knew perfectly well Anna was being at least half facetious.

"But Mary, you're almost twenty-two! How can you stand it? Aren't your parents worried about you being an old maid?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, Granny is; that's true enough. Mummy's more concerned that I'm not preparing myself suitably for a career in some tedious business capacity. Frankly I'd far rather be married to someone I didn't fancy than spend my life stuck in vulgar board meetings on the seventieth floor of some ghastly skyscraper in the City."

The fact that despite being perfectly good looking she did not find Evelyn physically attractive really was the only thing against him. That and being sometimes rather dull, but it was a comfortable, friendly sort of dullness that she felt she could easily endure, at least compared to the active, irritating tedium of someone like Tony Strallan.

"How about you assume that your life will turn out a bit better than that, hmm?" said Anna, twisting the straighteners round a carefully selected piece of Mary's hair. "Anyway, what about Matthew?"

Mary's heart suddenly began to pound. "What about him? And actually," she added, twisting in her chair to look up at her friend, "more to the point, what about John? Have you progressed beyond holding hands and soulful staring yet?"

Anna gave Mary a look that expressed how little she was impressed by the change of subject but discussing her feelings was irresistible. "Well, sort of... In a way... That is, not really. Can you turn round? I want to finish your hair."

Mary obliged and met her eyes in the mirror instead. "Do you know what I would do?"

"Go on."

"I would sit opposite him and look him directly in the eyes – and then I would just kiss him and not let go."

Anna raised her eyebrows. "And is this what you're going to do to Evelyn tonight?"

Mary considered a moment. "Perhaps I shall. But the difference is that I am not hopelessly in love with him and have not been waiting for months on tenterhooks for a long overdue progression in our relationship."

Anna smiled. "And if you were?"

"Oh, well, then..." Her hand reached up to the pendant resting in the V of her dress and turned it over and over in her fingers, watching herself in the mirror as she did so. "In that case things would be very different." She gave herself a shake and sat up a bit straighter. "How do I look?"

"Just perfect for a date with someone you don't fancy."

Mary dabbed on perfume and smirked as she stood up. "Excellent. You're a darling, Anna."

"And you know it. Enjoy your evening."

Mary swept out in a cloud of orange blossom scent and designer couture to walk the short distance to The Seafood Restaurant, one of St Andrews finest restaurants, a new establishment with gorgeous views over the golf course and the sea. Evelyn was already there when she arrived, looking very dapper and suitably dressed for the occasion. That was the good thing about going on a date with him; he was the right sort of person so he always did things properly. They sat down opposite each other at their table for two in the corner, a candle was lit, and they proceeded to enjoy a three course dinner with wine.

It was extremely pleasant, as spending time with Evelyn always was, especially in the context of fine dining, something Mary enjoyed a great deal and did not get enough of as a student. They talked about their families, about meeting up at Ascot in the summer and which horses they would be supporting, a topic which led seamlessly onto a discussion of classic Audrey Hepburn films, which led to adaptations of classic novels which led quite inevitably back to their revision and the books they were studying. At least they had plenty to say about them and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine.

After the meal was over and they were waiting for the bill to arrive, there was a pause in their talk. Mary drained her coffee and after observing her for a moment, Evelyn said quietly, "We're good friends, aren't we, Mary?"

She glanced up at him. "I hope so."

"I've enjoyed this meal."

"So have I. Thank you very much."

"It's my pleasure." He seemed to be making his mind to say something and Mary found herself glancing nervously round the restaurant, suddenly wishing he wouldn't. "You have to know how much I like you," he continued eventually, daring to meet her eyes.

Mary opened her mouth, found she could not reply and ended up deflating slightly, twisting her head away.

"But the thing is, I don't think you like me as much as I like you and it makes me feel awkward having dinner with you like this when it gives me hope for something you can't give me."

"But Evelyn-" she cried.

He shook his head with a faint smile. "It's alright, Mary. I like the fact that you were willing to try. But when I ask a girl out, I want something a bit more than a pleasant time. Maybe that's unrealistic of me but I'm not giving up just yet."


"I love studying with you, I love talking to you and hearing your opinions on literature, I loved going to those ballroom dancing classes with you last year but I think perhaps we should limit our relationship to that, unless your feelings have actually changed."

He looked hopeful despite himself but Mary found she could not maintain the charade to someone as direct and decent as he was.

"Oh, Evelyn," she sighed but was cut off by the waiter bringing the bill. She did not need to say anything further, however for her expression said it all. Evelyn paid in silence and helped her into her jacket before they walked out of the restaurant together. Both felt rather depressed.

There was a stiff breeze coming off the sea and Mary's dress wrapped round her legs. Evelyn shoved his hands in his pockets.

"I'll walk you home," he said.

Mary shook her head gently. "There's no need. But thank you for suggesting it."

"Sure? Well, goodnight then."

"Thank you for dinner." She smiled at him before stepping forwards and kissing him on the cheek, a friendly gesture. "Goodnight, Evelyn."

They turned in opposite directions but after a few paces, she turned around. "See you in the library!" she called and heard his answering laugh with relief.

When she got home, she found Anna curled up on the sofa attempting to study economic theory while watching a film. She got up as soon as Mary arrived.

"How was your meal?" she asked. "How was Evelyn?"

Mary sank down onto the sofa next to her and kicked off her shoes. "Both were fine, but you won't be hearing wedding bells for us any time soon."

"I'm sorry, but that was quite predictable, wasn't it?"

She shrugged and stared in a glazed way at the TV screen. "What are we watching?"

"Knocked Up!" Anna quickly paused it. "Anyway, guess who rang while you were out?"

"I guess the muffin man. Who?"


"Same difference. He eats a lot of cake," she dead-panned to conceal the way her heart fluttered whenever his name was mentioned now. "What did he want?"

"He wants to take us both out to dinner in a couple of weeks once his exams have finished to thank us for putting him up last week."

"When exactly? Because my mother e-mailed earlier and announced that she's sending Sybil up here for half term."

"She did? I mean, it's fine – she'll have to go on the sofa but I'm sure she can cope with that."

"Yes, sorry; I only picked up the email at the restaurant. Are you sure it's alright?"

"Of course it is. I like Sybil. Anyway, I think that will be after this."

Anna named a date in the last week of May which was before the end of Mary's exams but she had never before let academic work get in the way of her social life and had no intention of starting now, especially if it involved Matthew. She was, however, perfectly well aware that such a reaction went in direct opposition to everything she was trying so hard to convince herself she felt – or did not feel.

She would buy a new dress.

Read Chapter Fourteen here!
Tags: downton abbey, fanfiction, university challenge

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