silvestria (silvestria) wrote,

University Challenge, Chapter Fourteen

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 Thirteen here!

Chapter Fourteen

It was now over a month since Matthew and Lavinia had broken up and exam season was well under way at the university. Mary had taken two papers and still had two to go, the great Victorian novel and Shakespearean tragedy. Before she got to tackle the last exams, however, she had dinner with Matthew and Anna and a few days after that Sybil would be arriving for a week's visit.

The evening Matthew had picked was a couple of days after his final exam and the location was nothing more nor less than the fanciest restaurant in St Andrews, which had recently won a Scottish dining award. Mary raised her eyebrows at the facebook message he had sent to her and Anna explaining the arrangements.

"He can't afford to take us there!"

Anna shrugged. "That's his affair; it was his idea to go there. Anyway, I've never been. I'm excited!" She grinned at John who was sitting next to her with his arm casually along the back of the sofa near her shoulders.

"Perhaps..." John began as Mary chewed her lip over her friend's answer. "It looks like a symbolic gesture to me. He's doing it to make a point."

"And I think we all know what point that is!" smiled Anna and nudged Mary.

"He's not – We're not-" She gave up and rolling her eyes at them both went up to her own room, leaving them to not make out or whatever it was they did together when they were alone.

In the weeks that had intervened since Matthew had moved back into halls, she had only seen him once. He had been coming out of Tesco's on the main street and she had been walking past on the way to buy organic fruit from the health food shop. They had talked for less than three minutes about the weather (warm but a miserable lack of sun; still, that was preferable for revision) and how Matthew was settling in (pretty well except for his next door neighbour who continually played hip-hop into the small hours). Finally they had descended into embarrassed silence broken up by occasional smiles and Mary was forced to remember that she was in a great hurry before she did something idiotic like ask him if he wanted to get an ice-cream and walk along to the coast.

The day of the dinner Mary decided not to do any revision at all – she felt she deserved a break whether she really did or not – and instead went down to Edinburgh and bought a new outfit. She had not bought any new clothes since her trip to London at Easter and was only too happy to pass the day in her favourite designer shops spending a considerable amount of money. There was nothing so relaxing.

However, when the taxi finally dropped her off at her house with enough time to shower, do her hair, and get dressed, problems arose. She found Anna huddled under a blanket on the sofa with a hot mug of tea and an almost empty tissue box. Mary dropped her bags onto the floor and hurried to her side.

"Darling, what's wrong?"

"Just a cold. Nothing serious but I thought I'd better take it easy for a bit."

Mary frowned at her and put the back of her hand against her friend's forehead. "No, you're not hot, thank goodness, but you do look rather miserable. Poor Anna! I'm afraid this is a punishment for too much revision."

"No, surely not." Anna pushed away the blanket and stood up, groaning slightly as she did so, and stretched. "It's probably just hay fever."

She sneezed.

"Well, whatever it is, you're definitely not going to the Old Course Hotel tonight. We can't have you coughing into the hors d'oeuvre. I'll call Matthew to reschedule." Mary was not sure how she felt about that.

Anna grabbed her arm. "Wait; don't do that."

"What? You can't go looking like that."

She shook her head. "No, but you can."

For a long moment the two friends looked at each other before Mary twisted her head away. "Anna, I'm really not-"

"And I don't think you'd mind much if I wasn't there anyway, would you?"

"Now I'm starting to suspect you're faking."

"I'm not," Anna smiled, "though I did consider it earlier."

Mary could not help smiling back but her expression sobered quickly. "Matthew and I, we're not – that is, we're friends and I'm glad of it."

"For now!"

"He's just come out of a long term relationship. It's too soon to-"

"It's been five weeks! That's plenty of time."

Mary shook her head and turned round to pick up her shopping bags. She straightened and, still facing away from her friend, took a deep breath.

"Anna," she began softly, "I'm not sure I want this. I'm not sure I'm..." She swallowed, turning suddenly back. "There are so many reasons why anything like what you're thinking would be a bad idea."

"Well, I'm sure. Somebody has to know your mind even if you don't!" Her expression softened. "Mary, he's a good person. You know he is."

"He may be, but what about me?"

Her gaze dropped to the floor. Anna sighed and reached out to her again. "I might not be up to a five course meal but I think I can manage to do your hair if you'd like me to."

"If I'd like you to!"

"But I want to see that new dress in return."

"Oh, I can promise you that."

An hour later, Mary returned to the sitting room fully dressed and made up with the hair straighteners in hand. Anna nodded appreciatively. The new outfit was a figure hugging cream knee-length dress with new black heels. It was smart without being so fancy she would appear overdressed. Mary sat down at the table in front of Anna, flicking her hair behind her ears in preparation.

"Do you approve?"

"I do, and I think Matthew will too, more to the point."

Mary raised her eyebrows but made no reply for some time. She fiddled with pens and hair bobbles lying around on the table while Anna straightened her hair then re-curled bits to give it a bit of a bounce. Finally she raised her eyes and spoke.

"You should invite John round tonight to look after you."

Unseen, Anna smiled. "I was going to actually."

"Get him to make you dinner. He lives alone so he must be a decent cook."

"He does do a mean pie and oven chips, it's true."

Mary laughed. "I'm quite sure he does."

She suddenly stilled. "Mary, why are you encouraging us? I thought you didn't like him."

She turned around and squeezed Anna's hand. "I like him just as much as I should, which is a good deal less than you do. Anyway," she added ruefully, "you're not the only one who can give advice."

"So I have your blessing?"

Mary rolled her eyes and stood up. "For goodness sake! Have you finished?"

"Wait- there's just a... There you go. Perfect."

Mary snatched up her iphone on the way to the floor length mirror in the hall, already dialling for a taxi. As she made the call, she surveyed herself from head to toe and was pleased with what she saw. Finally, she slipped into a new black leather jacket, made Anna promise to look after herself, and slipped out of the house when the taxi hooted outside the door.


The Old Course Hotel was a little way out of the centre of the town above the Links, though not as far as Matthew's new halls of residence. It was a pleasant enough walk especially while it was still light but Mary was wearing heels and had no qualms about getting taxis where more money conscious students would have simply worn sensible shoes and changed when they arrived.

Matthew was already there when she got there, just as it should be so that she did not have wait around for him. He was staring off into the distance, his hands shoved into the pockets of a summer suit that matched her own dress and jacket in terms of colours, the formality off-set by the lack of tie and his leaving the top button of his shirt open. Mary could not sparkling at him as she got out of the taxi and made her way towards him.

Even as he opened his mouth to say something, his eyes darting appreciatively over her, she anticipated him. "Well, you do look quite the part. I wasn't sure you would."

Matthew raised his eyebrows. "Weren't you? I could always go home and change if you feel you're missing an opportunity to sneer at me. I could return in shorts and sandals – or I have full black tie back in my room, and a top hat."

"You own a top hat?"

He grinned. "Well, it's a fake from a joke shop – I went to a bop once as Charles Dickens – but it looks quite convincing if you've never seen a real one."

"Worse and worse!" But her lips twitched.

Matthew held her gaze a moment longer then his smile fell slightly. "But where's Anna?"

"She's ill and wasn't up to coming out."

"Oh no! But – but shouldn't you be with her?"

Mary shook her head and preceded him into the hotel, giving him a meaningful look as she passed him. "She'll have another nurse with her – and one she'll like far more than me. She sends her apologies."

"Well, I'm very sorry to hear it and I hope she feels better soon."

He did not, however, sound terribly sorry and in fact, Mary thought as she glanced quickly at him as they passed through the hotel reception to the restaurant, there was an air of almost irrepressible excitement about him. Her eyes narrowed for a moment before she gave herself a mental shrug. It was good to see him looking happy.

Pushing through the swing doors into the lobby, a sense of calm fell over them both. The carpet was plush, the decoration luxurious and just inside the restaurant itself a pianist was playing a Mozart sonata on a baby grand.

Matthew stepped forward to give his name to the waiter at the door but he had only managed to open his mouth to speak when the head waiter emerged from behind a screen and greeted Mary.

"Lady Mary, how delightful to see you again. I was hoping when I saw your name in the reservation book that you or your family would be honouring us tonight."

Matthew raised his eyebrows but Mary replied smoothly, "Oh, you're far too kind! The reservation is not actually mine; it's my friend's."

This was his cue and he took it. "Right, yes. Matthew Crawley. We have a table booked for three people but it will only actually be two."

The waiter looked between them. "Of course. In that case, we shall have a different table made up for you. I believe we can arrange to have one free in the window if that would be acceptable?"

Mary raised her eyebrows at Matthew, allowing him to take the lead.

"Thank you very much."

They followed the waiter across the room to what was quite clearly the best placed table there.

"So, sir, are you-?" he queried.

"Not related, believe it or not," interrupted Mary firmly. "It's a small world, and a coincidence."

"I'm a friend," said Matthew.

"Of course, sir. May I take your coats? I was wondering if perhaps you were a cousin of his lordship's or-"

An expression of sudden panic flashed across Matthew's face and Mary was forced to swallow her amusement at his expense to reply with a neutral expression, "Oh, no. Absolutely no relation."

"Very good. Well, I shall bring you your menus in a moment but can I get you an aperitif in the meantime?"

Again, they glanced at each other and this time it was Mary who replied. "Just a jug of water please, and we'll have a look at the drinks menu."

The waiter bowed and left them. Matthew leaned forward across the table.

"I'm getting rather tired of everyone assuming we're related, aren't you?"

Mary smiled as she flicked her napkin open, replying coolly, "At least they don't think we're married."

"And I took your name?"

She shrugged. "It's not unheard of. Anyway, you do realise that if you were my cousin and we shared the same surname you'd stand to inherit the title from my father in all probability? How'd you fancy being an earl, Matthew?"

He stared at her. "I can't say that it's an eventuality I've ever spent a great deal of time thinking about!"

"My, you do surprise me," she murmured as the waiter brought the water and menus.

When he had gone Matthew again leaned forwards to ask quietly, "So how do they know you here? I wasn't expecting that."

"Whenever my parents come up they stay here. The hotel very much enjoys the patronage of the Earl and Countess of Grantham."

Matthew cast his gaze around the opulent dining room. "Of course they do."

Mary hid her smile as she opened her menu but immediately looked up. "Anyway, how are you? You've finished your exams now, haven't you? Lucky!"

"Yes, I'm all done." He hesitated and again she had the impression he was holding something back. She looked at him with encouragement. "I'm well. Actually, I'm very well." He ducked his head and then looked back up at her, fully grinning. "The fact is, I got some rather amazing news this morning."

"Do tell!"

He was bursting to and as Mary listened, her smile softened without her even being aware of it.

"Well, you know I've been applying for jobs and training contracts for the autumn most of this term with the best possible outcome being a training contract in London, Manchester or Edinburgh?"


"I heard back from a firm in Edinburgh this morning, Harville & Carter's, and they want to offer me a job, a training contract, starting from September. Pending my exam results of course but still."

"Oh, Matthew, that's fabulous! It's what you've always wanted, isn't it?"

He blinked several times, the force of her beaming smile taking him by surprise. "Yes, I suppose it is," he managed to reply. "And Edinburgh was always my first choice of location if I was lucky enough to get a place. I mean, when I was with Lavinia – that is, it's only just over an hour from St Andrews – anyway, I'll have other friends here next year so that's still... And of course there's a direct train to Manchester which is a great advantage."

Mary ignored his blustering; she did not want to talk about Lavinia. "Then it's completely perfect, isn't it? Your sister must be absolutely thrilled."

"Oh, she is. I rang her as soon as I got the letter. I think she'd have preferred it if I had gone back to Manchester but she's realistic and Edinburgh's a really great place. Honestly, Mary, I can't wait. I've been six years in small towns, but I'm a city boy really."

His enthusiasm and happiness was boyish and completely infectious. Mary could not have stopped smiling at him if she had wanted to and he smiled back and – and there was the waiter wondering if they'd picked drinks yet.

Matthew tore his eyes away from his companion's to glance at the menu which he had not even opened yet. "Maybe a glass of wine... Er..."

Mary looked up. "No, this calls for celebration. We'll get a bottle of champagne."

"We will?"

The waiter seemed pleased by this development and turned their menus to their appropriate page. Mary seemed unfazed, but Matthew gulped when he saw that the cheapest bottle was over fifty pounds.

"Well," he began, "how about..."

"A bottle of the Krug 1990, if you please," cut across Mary with a charming smile, handing back her menu.

"An excellent choice, my lady," said the waiter. "I shall leave you a few more minutes to choose your food."

Of course it was an excellent choice: the bottle cost £530.

It was almost worth keeping silent to watch Matthew squirm but Mary put him out of his misery quickly. "Don't worry, it's on me."

He recovered quickly and hissed back across the table, "But this evening is my treat to you to thank you for putting me up before. That's hardly going to work if you're throwing £500 around on champagne all over the place!"

"Pssht." She dismissed it with an elegant wave. "You're the one who's just got one step closer to the career of their dreams. I don't know what calls for a spot of extravagance if that doesn't."


"Come, Matthew, we can treat each other."

This sounded so reasonable and she looked so winsome as she suggested it that he gave in easily. "Well, thank you. I don't think I've ever had champagne that expensive before so I'm rather looking forward to the experience."

"It's very good. My aunt visited the vineyard a few years back and brought us all bottles back with her. Predominantly dry and oaky. You should like it. And-" she leaned close to him across the table, her hair falling in curtains around her face as she told him a secret, "it's vulgar to talk about the cost of things like that."

"I know it is," he whispered back, very close to her. "That's why I do it."

She raised her eyebrows, her eyes darting over his face in mingled delight and frustration. Then, as if they made the decision simultaneously, they both leaned back with the attitude of having each just won a point.

"I've never asked," said Matthew. "What's your dream career? Or don't earls' daughters have them?"

She sighed and shook her head. "Don't ask me that. Mummy's desperate that I follow in her footsteps and go into business."

"Is that what you want to do?"

"Not at all! I can't imagine anything worse."

He pressed his lips together in a sympathetic smile. "Fair enough."

Mary frowned. This was not the usual reaction she got on this subject. "You don't think I should then?"

"I think you should do what you want to do, not what your parents want you to do." He shrugged. "My parents were both doctors, my sister's a doctor, I'm going to be a lawyer. See? And you know, I really am going to be a lawyer! It's official. I still have to pinch myself every now and then."

"Provided you don't fail your exams," she remarked, eyes twinkling. She was far happier to discuss Matthew's future than her own.

He glared at her. "Yes, thank you for that, Mary."

She blushed faintly as she met his eyes and she lowered her own to the menu. "Perhaps we should choose our food."

For a few moments they were silent in contemplation of their options, only speaking to decide that they were both going to get three courses. (In for a penny in for a pound, as Matthew might have said if he had not thought he had already proved himself quite vulgar enough for one evening.)

The waiter took their orders at the same time as another brought their champagne. The cork popped in a very satisfactory way and after Mary had tasted a sip to ensure it was up to standard, the ice bucket was brought for them and they were left to enjoy it alone.

"Cheers!" cried Matthew, clinking his glass against hers.

"To your job!"

They drank a sip.

"Wow," said Matthew. "This is definitely better than the stuff college gave us at graduation and that was pretty good."

"I'd hope so," she replied. "This isn't the kind of thing you buy in bulk."

He raised his glass again. "And to your – your exams; you still have some left, don't you?"

"I do! Victorian novel and Shakespeare. And I appreciate the support."

They drank again.

"How are they going, do you think?" he asked. "You have to pass second year, don't you, to do honours? I always get confused by the Scottish system but it's quite similar to Oxford in this respect, I think."

"Yes." Mary tilted her head in consideration. "Well, let's just say that if I fail, I shall be suing the university for all they've got."

Matthew's lip twitched. "I could be your prosecution."

"You could."

"If you wanted me."

She met his eyes and for a second the world seemed to stand still and she forgot to breathe. A light-headedness came over her, fizzy as the bubbles of the champagne she could still taste on her tongue. She raised her glass back to her lips with a trembling hand and drank deeply for several moments.

"And to Anna's swift recovery," said Matthew, when she finally breathlessly lowered her glass.

"Of course."

She drained her glass and there was soon a welcome distraction to be found in the arrival of rather exciting bread, rolls that were somehow divided up into different flavours within each one, and differently flavoured pats of butter.

The very drinkable champagne eased them further into friendliness and by the time Mary's scallops and Matthew's warm chicken salad were cleared away to be replaced by the main courses, both were quite ready to think their companion quite the most wonderful and engrossing person on the planet.

"Steak again?" said Mary with a smile, eyeing the large slab of sirloin on his plate.


"The first time we met at the debate you had steak, remember?"

Matthew opened and shut his mouth and then laughed. "So I did. I had completely forgotten."

She shook her head. "I could never forget; I'd never seen anyone so happy to see a steak before in all my life. Do you ever eat anything else?"

"Mary!" He looked at her with mock reproof. "You know perfectly well I do."

She only smiled, shivering with a frisson of heat as her hand brushed against his as she took up the salt. The steak proved to be excellent, even in Matthew's vast experience, and Mary's roast pork was equally delicious. She had been quite happy to abandon the half drunk bottle of champagne in favour of ordering red wine to go with the main courses, but Matthew's look of horror at the idea of not finishing the bottle had been enough to abandon the suggestion before she had even finished the sentence. Therefore they continued their reckless way through the bottle of champagne during the whole meal.

"Do you have any plans for the Jubilee?" asked Mary over dessert.

"Uh... The Jubilee..." Matthew avoided answering by taking a large mouthful of his chocolate pavé. "That is, it isn't really something that excites me."

"I should have known – you're a Republican, aren't you?"

"I'm not sure I'd go quite that far but I can't pretend to be particularly enthusiastic about all the Jubilee hype."

"Of course not, most of it is dreadfully tacky, but you surprise me. Shouldn't someone with your politics be actively campaigning for liberty, equality, and bloody revolution?"

Matthew laughed. "I'm politically left wing, not an anarchist. There are problems with the monarchy in the twenty-first century of course but-"

Then he stopped because somehow as he had been speaking the hand that was not holding his spoon closed over her free hand that was also lying on the table near her cup of coffee and both froze. Mary's lips parted and her eyes flew up from her dessert to meet his. Matthew swallowed and she saw his Adam's apple bob as he did.

"The reason I asked," she said presently into what felt like complete, heavy silence despite the background chatter and music of the restaurant, daring to be still and not move her hand, "is because John – you know John, Anna's not-quite-boyfriend – is holding a party of some kind at his house next Thursday and Anna and I would like you to come along."

"Really?" He also didn't move his hand and didn't take his eyes off her either.

Mary shrugged slightly. "At the very least you can sit in a corner with me out of the way of all the chavvy flag waving."

"When you put it like that..."

"So are you coming?"


"Good." Mary smiled. She desperately wanted another sip of coffee and the longer she could not get at it the more she wanted it. Gradually, without looking away from him, she slid her hand from under his, the tingling warmth remaining but instantly chilled by the air. She picked up her coffee with both hands and sipped it, still watching him over rim of the cup. Matthew leaned back slowly in his chair, relaxing into a more casual position.

"Sybil will be glad you're going," Mary continued, lowering her cup, her breathing starting to return to normal.


"Oh yes, she's coming up for half term. Mummy says she needs a change of scene to inspire her to revise harder but I think she just wants to get rid of her for a while. Apparently she's got very stressed about her exams and is being a complete bear to everyone who tries to get close to her. Teenagers, you know!"

Matthew looked sympathetic. "I don't blame her. I for one hated doing my ASes. Well, I'll be glad to see her anyway. I liked Sybil."

"She liked you too."

He smiled back and drained his coffee. Mary ate her last piece of rhubarb parfait and followed it with a marzipan covered walnut from the plate of petit fours that had accompanied their coffee. Neither wanted to make the first move to end the evening but when the waiter came to clear away their dessert Matthew quietly asked for the bill.

"I should ring for a taxi," said Mary, but made no move to do so.

The bill came; Matthew paid for the meal and coffee, Mary put the champagne on her credit card, and finally there was nothing more to do but to stand up unsteadily, put their jackets back on, and wait for Mary's taxi that she finally ordered at the last possible minute.

In the lobby the pianist had moved on from a classical repertoire to something more popular and was playing an arrangement of the waltz from Anastasia. Mary, whose head was filled with champagne and heart with Matthew, swayed gently on the spot, her mind curiously blank of its usual worries and restraints.

Then she blinked to see Matthew standing in front of her with one hand stretched out. The corner of his mouth twitched up.

"Dance with me?"

Mary's eyebrows shot right up. "You can waltz?"

"Well... Come on; nobody's watching."

Her eyes flickered all over him and then, feeling warmth begin to spread all through her as her hand touched his, she stepped forwards into his arms, sliding her other hand up his arm to rest on his shoulder. It soon became clear that while Matthew did have some very basic ballroom dancing training, he was hopelessly out of his depth with a Viennese waltz. Mary, who really could dance, was not satisfied with stumbling around.

"Here," she murmured, "let me lead. It's much faster than you think it is."

"Let you lead?" Matthew met her eyes. "I'm not sure-"

"Don't worry, I'm very good at it. And you'll have to hold me closer or we'll end up going in opposite directions."

Now his eyebrows rose. "If you insist." His right arm curved more fully round her waist, pulling her flush against him.

"Better," said Mary breathlessly, tilting her head to look over his shoulder. "Now follow me."

By the time her pushing him round the room actually managed to fit the rhythm of the song there was not much of it left. As the pianist finished, they skidded to a stop in the middle of the lobby, breathless and hot.

"How did I do?" whispered Matthew, pulling far enough away to look at her but otherwise not changing his position or hold.

Mary blinked several times. She could not look away. "The room is spinning."

"Yes, it is."

Something shifted in the way he was looking at her and one by one his fingers entwined with hers. Mary felt weightless, the room still dipping and swaying around her with only his face appearing as an anchor in the middle of it. She was aware of nothing but the points where his body touched hers and the deep blue of his eyes, a caress.

"Excuse me? Sorry for interrupting, Lady Mary, but your taxi has arrived and has been waiting outside for several minutes now."

Mary jumped as if shot, stumbling back as Matthew's arms fell from round her. In the corner of her eye she saw his close briefly.

It was only a girl from the hotel reception.

"I'll be out in a minute."

She turned back to Matthew, almost dreading what she would see in his expression, but he had stuck his hands in his pockets and was staring at the ground, only the rapid rise and fall of his chest giving away any emotion. Mary hesitated. Then she touched his arm gently making him look up at her immediately. She smiled faintly at him and was rewarded with an answering smile. Taking a steadying breath, she took another step forwards and pressed her lips to his cheek, lingering a moment longer than she ought to and feeling the warmth of his sigh on her own cheek before she pulled away.

"Thank you, Matthew," she murmured, her gaze flickering down a brief second but, before he could respond, she had taken another massive, shuddering breath and rushed away from him and out to the taxi, hardly hearing his own rather confused "Good night!" over the roaring in her ears.

She collapsed in the back seat of the taxi and realised she was trembling all over. She felt feverish, giddy, nauseous, wonderful, scared, happy. However, pressing through all these conflicting emotions was an overwhelming understanding that what had previously only seemed possible was now inevitable and that she was quite powerless to stop it.

There was no light on in the sitting room when she returned home. Not bothering to call Anna's name, she went straight upstairs but paused on the landing. There were voices coming from Anna's bedroom, muffled and indistinct, but she heard her friend's – and she heard John's as well. Her stomach turned over and sobriety hit her abruptly. Suddenly feeling cold and terribly, terribly lonely, she pushed open her own bedroom door and closed it behind her, trying not to let herself listen.

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

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