silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Fifteen

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 Fourteen here!

Chapter Fifteen


Coming downstairs in the morning to discover John Bates wearing pyjamas and eating a yoghurt in her kitchen was not a sight that particularly appealed to Mary but after the previous night she had been expecting something of the sort.

Without expressing any surprise, she nodded to him. “Good morning. Where's Anna?”

“In the shower. She's feeling much better this morning.” He finished the yoghurt and put the spoon in the sink. “I hope you're well, Mary.”

“Perfectly, thank you.”

She began to get her breakfast. This was terribly awkward. What did one say to one's best friend's lover? That was not something she wanted to think about... Not when her head still felt thick with the effects of that £530 bottle of champagne anyway.

She turned round from the fridge, facing him with a bright smile. “So, you and Anna? About time too, I must say.”

John looked both pleased and embarrassed; a foolish expression on a grown man, Mary thought uncharitably. “Yes. I suppose it was overdue.”

He was not very communicative, was he? thought Mary, taking a spoonful of cereal. Anna clearly liked the strong and silent type, whereas she thought she preferred a man who could talk well. Someone like... She ducked her head to hide her smile, feeling warmth and remembrance flood through her.

“Did you have a good evening with Matthew Crawley last night? Anna was so sorry she wasn't feeling well enough to come.”

Mary was quite sure she wasn't but she managed to reply with a straight face, “Yes. Yes, I did. It was really rather wonderful.” For a moment she forgot she was talking to John Bates and was lost in her feelings. Then she pulled herself together. “I took the liberty of inviting Matthew to your party on Thursday. I hope you don't mind.”

“Oh no. Not at all! Everyone's welcome – your sister too if she wants to come, though there will be alcohol. I don't know how you feel about-”

Mary rolled her eyes. “Oh, Sybil drinks! I don't think she'll be a problem but thank you for including her.”

She found that she no longer wanted to remain in this kitchen, especially now that she heard the bathroom door open and shut upstairs. She did not want to see the reunion between Anna and John, the inevitable kiss, and the looks on their faces. Shoving aside her half-eaten cereal, she picked up her bag again.

“I should go to the library.” She hesitated on the threshold of the sitting room and then made up her mind to say it anyway. “John, I'm glad for you and Anna, really. But please know this, she's my best friend. Don't ever hurt her; don't even think about it.”

He met her eyes. “I would never hurt Anna.”

At least he was sincere, that much she could tell, and she nodded. “Good.”

She escaped the house quickly, taking deep breaths as she did. Nothing would ever be the same again for if Anna had a boyfriend then he would necessarily come before her. She had just begun to chastise herself for such selfishness when her iphone beeped and she was distracted by picking up a message from Matthew.

Good morning Mary! Hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I did last night and I didn't offend you in any way- you ran off so quickly. Would you like to meet up or are you deep in revision for the foreseeable future? x

She spent the rest of the walk to the library debating how to reply to it and eventually wrote an answer inviting him to join her for lunch at Jannetta's. She debated over the wording of the message for another ten minutes before eventually pressing 'send'.

In the end Evelyn came along too. They nearly always had lunch together and Mary could hardly forbid him from getting a sandwich at their favourite café simply because she was meeting Matthew there. In fact, she thought the two boys seemed to get on well all things considered though she was not so naïve as to realise that both would have preferred the other not to be there. She dreamed of being fought over by attractive men; the reality was rather more awkward.

When Evelyn disappeared for a moment to get a pudding, Matthew leaned quickly across the table.

“Mary, we have unfinished business from last night.” He smiled at her imploringly. “Don't we?”

She fiddled with her crisp packet and wouldn't quite meet his eyes.

“Yes, I suppose we do,” she murmured.

“So... When can we finish it?”

“I-”

His hand covered hers and the crisp packet forcing her to be still. “It's alright. I have nothing to do now but I know you still have exams.”

She nodded, swallowing. “And Sybil arrives tomorrow.”

“Of course. When do you finish?”

“A week on Tuesday.”

Matthew smiled. “A week on Tuesday. I can manage that.”

She felt hot and cold successively. It was all happening so quickly! After months of wondering and theorising and making excuses for how she felt, here was Matthew pursuing her quite single-mindedly and she was... She was...

“But I'm not sure I can,” she found herself replying with a tremulous smile.

His eyes glowed with sudden warmth and for a moment it seemed that the issue was about to be removed altogether when Evelyn returned. Mary snatched her hand away and sat back in her chair, blushing. She caught Matthew's eye as she did so and his lips twitched upwards in a private acknowledgement meant just for her. She flicked her eyebrows at him in response. All in all, she had never looked forward to the end of term with so much eagerness before.

*


Sybil arrived late the following afternoon and Mary met her at the bus station.

“Why on earth didn't you get a taxi directly from Leuchars?” she cried as Sybil almost fell into her arms as she stumbled from the bus, dragging her suitcase behind her. “I couldn't think what you were doing when I got your text saying you were on the bus from the station.”

“I was going to,” sighed her sister, “but the bus was just there so I thought I might as well.”

“Well, here you are anyway! Come on.”

She put her arm round her and led her away towards the street.

“How was your journey?”

“Oh, you know. Long. Tiring. Mary, I'm so tired!”

Immediately Mary took over the wheeling of the suitcase and was rewarded with a smile for her trouble. “Never mind, darling. You're here now and you don't have to go anywhere all week.”

“Thank goodness for that!”

Mary looked at her out of the corner of her eye as they weaved in and out of the other pedestrians on the crowded pavement. Her mother had warned her that Sybil was stressed from her exams and permanently bad-tempered but so far she saw no sign on her apart from the exhaustion which was evident from the way she dragged her feet to her lack of excitement at having arrived. Well, this was not so surprising at this time of year. Mary was ready for a break as well.

“I should warn you,” she said as they approached the house, “that Anna and John have finally got together. He'll be joining us for dinner tonight so don't look too surprised to see him.”

“Oh, cool. Good for them! And what about you?”

“What about me?”

Sybil stopped walking abruptly. “Oh my God, Mary, stop being so dense! Matthew Crawley breaks up with his girlfriend, spends a week on your sofa-”

“Four days.”

“Whatever. And a month later you're trying to tell me nothing's happened? I've been looking forward to some proper gossip for ages now.”

“Well-”

“Honestly, what is your problem? I mean, what is the point of even having a sofa if you're not going to take advantage of it? If you were normal you'd have jumped him ages ago. ”

Mary almost laughed. “If I were normal?!”

“Don't you even want him? Because I'm telling you, he wants you. He wanted you back at Easter and now he's single he'll definitely want you even more.”

“Sybil!” She held up a hand to stop her flow. “It's more complicated than just jumping him. He was with Lavinia for a long time; these things shouldn't be rushed, you know. I want – I want to do it right and so does he, I think.” She blushed a bit. It seemed so terribly real to say these things out loud. “And I really think that on the whole people tend to have a lot less sex than they do in people's imaginations. You shouldn't be so obsessed.”

Her sister sniffed. “Only people who aren't getting any at all say stupid things like that.”

Mary closed her eyes a moment and then set off again, Sybil's case rumbling along behind her. “So, how's Tom then? That is his name, isn't it?”

“Yes. Tom Branson.” She broke off.

“What is it? You are still going out with him, aren't you?”A thought flashed into Mary's mind that Sybil was not stressed about her exams at all but rather had secret boyfriend troubles that she could not share with her mother. Serve her right for having a secret boyfriend.

“Oh yes, of course I am but-” Sybil sighed. “I guess I just need a break.”

“From Tom?” Mary raised her eyebrows.

“No need to sound so gleeful! No, I just... I'm just really glad to be up here with you for a week. Get things in perspective.”

She smiled up at her, begging her acceptance but Mary was not so quick to let the matter drop.

“What sort of things? Is he pressuring you into anything? If he's making trouble-”

“Nothing like that! Look, you wouldn't understand. You don't know anything about this sort of thing.”

And again Mary felt put in her place.

“Can we just not talk about Tom? What's for dinner?”

“Fish, but-”

Sybil made a face. “Ugh, I hate fish.”

“No, you don't! Since when?” exclaimed Mary, feeling her irritation rise.

“Since now! What's your problem?” And she stomped up to the front door of the house and began impatiently ringing the bell until Anna answered. Mary was starting to see her mother's point. It could be a long week.

*


True to her word, Sybil ate only two bites of the fresh salmon John and Anna had prepared, pushing the rest of it despondently round her plate. She ate ten new potatoes, more than her fair share of broccoli, perked up at the prospect of pudding, ate three slices of carrot cake, and promptly fell asleep on the sofa. This naturally put a bit of a dampener on the evening. John and Anna left to go back to John's house and Mary alternated doing revision and texting Matthew until Sybil woke up again and decided she was ready to go to bed properly.

Mary was not able to entertain her sister the entire week and fortunately Sybil had been packed off to Scotland with her own politics revision folder and textbooks. However, it would have been terribly unfair if she had had to spend her entire half term stuck in Mary's sitting room reading about electoral reform and the British constitution simply because Mary herself also needed to work.

Matthew, currently the king of free time, had volunteered to look after her for an afternoon, refusing to be put off even by Mary's description of her sister's unpredictable attacks of teenage angst. He liked Sybil apparently.

Does she like museums? he had texted her.

She's seventeen- of course she doesn't! she had replied immediately.

In the end he had taken her for a long walk on the beach, returning her to Mary's care that evening so exhausted she could barely speak.

“What on earth did you do to her?” she cried.

Matthew shrugged. “We can't have gone for more than four miles. She said she was up for it!” he added defensively.

“Oh, Sybil...” sighed Mary, looking over at her sister, sprawled on the sofa, with her head in her hands.

By the time Thursday arrived, the big day of Anna's final exam, Mary's penultimate one, and John's house party, Mary did not know whether she was more worried about three hours of Victorian literature or her sister's state of mind. Whatever it was that was bothering her, whether this was her AS Levels, her relationship with Tom or something else entirely, it was making her subdued, irritable, and taking up considerable mental energy. Mary vowed that she would confront her the following day; she was not going to send her back to London without getting to the bottom of the matter.

Matthew was not the only person kind enough to babysit and while Mary was doing her exam Gwen had stepped in to take Sybil to see the castle. At first Mary had been reluctant to go along with this plan when Anna had suggested Gwen, knowing that she had finished her exams as well by then. However, she eventually came to the conclusion that while she might not like her much Sybil was almost certain to.

The day was warm and sunny and though Sybil sulked most of the morning at being forced to do cultural things with some friend of Anna's she didn't know or, it seemed, do anything at all, as soon as she met Gwen on the high street and she proposed getting ice-cream first, things looked up.

With a large scoop of mango sorbet in hand, Sybil was prepared to be friendly. The girls wandered down to the coast before going to the castle and Sybil felt for the first time that week free to be herself as she talked to Gwen with whom she instantly felt an instinctive sympathy.

“You're not much like your sister, are you?” said Gwen after they had been out together for over half an hour. “I don't know Lady Mary well but-”

Lady Mary!” giggled Sybil.

“Well, yeah. I can't seem to think of her without the title. Me and Anna lived on the same corridor as her in halls last year – she had her own room of course – but we saw her all the time and I'm sorry but she really was the most awful yah you can imagine.”

“Most awful what?”

“Yah. It's what we call those people who, um, well, you know – people like your sister. The Oxbridge reject lot. She never really fitted in and was always talking about how her daddy was an earl – as if that would make us like her more!”

Sybil made a face. “Ugh, she can be such an idiot. If I could get rid of the stupid title I would in a shot. It's just embarrassing.”

“That's what I mean – you're not like that at all! And she did get a lot better after she became friends with Anna.”

“Anna's great.”

“That she is. And now she's going out with John. I'm really happy for her. Have you met him?”

“Yeah, he's always around at the house whenever Anna is now. It pisses Mary off when they're not there because she has to cook herself and she's crap at it.” Sybil hesitated then whispered, “He's a bit old, isn't he?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “He's ancient but whatever floats her boat. You going to the party tonight?”

“They invited me but I don't know...”

“Aw, come on!” She looked at her new friend. “Party like it's next year already and you're at uni with the rest of us! You'd be very welcome and there'll be more than enough booze to go round.”

She smiled wanly. “Yeah... I'm just not sure I feel like like going out tonight.”

“C'mon, Jubilee party, John Bates, unlimited mixers; how can you not feel like that?”

“Yeah.” Sybil took a deep breath. “The truth is, I've not been feeling so good lately. Should probably just lie low a bit.”

“Nah! That's all the more reason to come out with us and blow off the cobwebs!” grinned Gwen, dancing backwards across the grassy centre of the castle ruins. “Come on, Sybil; I want you to come.”

“Well... I guess I'll think about it.”

There was nothing more attractive than being wanted. Sybil set off at a run in pursuit of her new friend and they eventually came to a stop on a promontory overlooking the sea. Gwen flung herself down on a rock and Sybil sat down more gingerly next to her and took a deep breath.

“It is beautiful here.”

“Right? Full of the biggest freaks you can imagine but at least we get great beaches and views to die for. What more can you ask for?”

Sybil grinned. “I feel like I should be offended on Mary's behalf for that but I can't be bothered.”

“Oh, we're all freaks here really. Look at me – I'm a girl from the local comp in Bradford and I'm doing compsci. I don't even know how many minority boxes that ticks.” She sighed. “Add 'secretary of the Labour Club' and 'likes girls' and you've pretty much got it covered.”

Sybil tipped her head to one side to look at her. “I know how you feel, Gwen.”

“Really?” She sounded sceptical.

“Yes. You probably think I'm terribly privileged and in many ways I know I am but I do know what it's like to be different. People judge me because of my background as much as they judge you. Sometimes I just want to run away and pretend I'm not Lady Sybil Crawley any more but just – just some random girl from somewhere. People keep asking me what I'm going to do when I leave school and when I say I want to do one subject they think it isn't suitable and that I should do something else so I change my mind but that's not good enough either and there are all these expectations and Granny's obsessed with the idea I should be getting married even though I'm only seventeen and Daddy goes along with it because he lives in some kind of fantasy world and all Mary and Edith care about is fighting over the stupid succession and nobody understands that none of this is important and-”

She was forced to draw breath, alarmed that tears had sprung into her eyes (or perhaps that was just the wind off the sea making them smart) and glared at Gwen who was laughing immoderately.

“Oh, God, all that – it's got nothing to do with your dad being a toff. It's called being a teenager. Everyone feels that way. I did. Still do really. Well, not the getting married bit but the rest of it.”

Sybil wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Really? Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one.”

“Trust me, you're not.” They smiled at each other a moment. “So, tell me, what do you really want to do? Never mind what your crazy grandma thinks or what your teachers want. What do you want to do next year?”

Sybil hugged her knees up to her chest and stared out to sea for a long time. Finally she said in a small voice, “I don't know. I keep changing my mind.”

“That's okay.”

“I thought I wanted to do politics but I'm not really sure I'm cut out for a career in that. And then I got a boyfriend and he works with cars so I thought it would be cool to do engineering but I'm doing the wrong A Levels – I'm not even doing maths let alone physics. So then I thought maybe sociology or something like that, you know, but everyone says it's a wishy-washy subject so I really don't know... What do you think I should do?”

Gwen shrugged. “Me? No idea. Take a gap year?”

“I could...” She didn't seem convinced. “Mary had a gap year and got really ill in Thailand. She was in hospital out there until Mummy flew out and brought her home. It was really horrible.”

“You don't have to go abroad to have a gap year, but even if you don't you've still got ages before you need to apply.”

“Sometimes,” Sybil continued almost speaking to herself, “I wonder if there's any point in going to university at all. Tom, my boyfriend, he didn't go and he's got a great job. I'm not sure it'll really make any difference if I do or not but everyone just assumes I will.”

Gwen opened her mouth to reply but she was cut off.

“And what happens if I don't? I mean, what if something happens? What happens if I don't even finish school?”

“Why wouldn't you finish school?”

“I dunno. I just think – does it even matter? Like, what if something did happen?”

She shivered and her bottom lip trembled. Gwen noticed and pulled herself up into a sitting position.

“You're not going to cry over hypothetical scenarios, Sybil!” she said firmly. “It's nearly the end of term for us all and you can have a nice, long vacation and come back to all of this in the autumn.”

Sybil's lip trembled even more and Gwen pulled her into a hug, feeling mingled sympathy and a good deal of irritation towards Anna for asking her to look after a miserable, hysterical teenager and herself for agreeing.

“I'm just so scared!” sobbed Sybil suddenly into her shoulder.

“Of what?”

“Everything!” she wailed after a moment's hesitation. “It's all going so wrong!”

At this point it seemed a good idea to go home. Sybil recovered remarkably quickly once they were walking again. She dried her eyes, sighed a few times, muttered something about having made a fool of herself, and was completely calm by the time they reached the high street. They paused outside the chemist.

“I should buy some paracetamol,” she said with a grimace. “If I'm coming to the party tonight then I want to have got rid of this beastly headache before then.”

“So you will come?”

Sybil shrugged. “The alternative is spending more time on Mary's sofa so yeah, I guess I will!”

Gwen grinned. “Awesome. I should go. Take care of yourself, alright?”

“I will.”

“See you tonight!”

“See you!”

Sybil waited until Gwen had disappeared down the street before she turned and pushed open the door to the chemist's.

*


By the time Mary arrived home from her exam at four o'clock, there was already a party atmosphere. Anna was on cloud nine. She had finished all her exams and was free for the summer, and she was about to host her first party with the boyfriend she had been in love with for over a year. Mary found her and Sybil sitting at the table in the window painting their nails while listening to loud and summery music. She could not help grinning at the sight as she dumped her bag on the hall floor.

“How was it?”

Anna was all smiles. Quite honestly, her exam could have been terrible and she would still have been in a good mood. Fortunately it had gone well. Sybil too was in high spirits and full of enthusiasm for having met Gwen and the party later as she painted mini union flags onto her nails.

“I honestly can't wait. It'll be like I'm a real student. It's going to be amazing, right, Anna?”

And Anna beamed. “Well, John is very good at organising things and everything's all prepared. I have a really great feeling about it all. I'm so looking forward to it.”

“Come on,” said Mary humorously, “don't jinx it!”

Sybil's face immediately fell. “God, thanks for that, Mary.”

“No, it's okay,” replied Anna. “I think it's going to be good.”

Mary looked between her two favourite girls and in her mind's eye she was already looking forward to seeing Matthew again later in the evening. She smiled. “Well, I've never been superstitious. With Anna at the helm it can't be anything other than a success.”

Leaving the other two together, Mary went to have a bath before joining them for the final stages of getting ready. Anna had opened a bottle of rum for pre-drinks and Mary instantly took over at mixing as she did not trust anyone else to do it better. It also meant that she could make sure that Sybil got more mixer than alcohol without her noticing. Anna left first to help John with the final preparations. An hour and a half later and fortified by a couple of drinks, Mary and Sybil arrived at his small, end terrace house in an estate just out of the centre of the town to find the party already in full swing.

John's house was even smaller than Mary and Anna's, with the front door opening directly into the sitting room. In order to fit everyone in, people were spilling up the stairs to the landing, out into the small back garden and both the sitting room and the kitchen were packed. Noise and heat assailed them instantly. Mary lost her sister in the crowd within minutes of arriving but she was not overly worried. The house was small, Sybil was sensible for the most part, and she already knew several people here. She wanted to find Matthew, but before she could do more than turn on the spot, pressed up against several loud and uncouth bodies, and try not to feel a wave of nausea at the type of party this was clearly going to be, he found her, tapping her on the shoulder.

She span round and smiled broadly at him. “Matthew!”

His hand brushed against hers by her side but perhaps that was accidental in the crush.

“Not quite the Old Course Hotel, is it?” he asked her, leaning close to her to be heard when speaking so quietly.

Her eyes gleamed at his in response. “I suppose there are certain differences.” She was suddenly rather glad she had come.

Pressing more closely against her, he murmured, “What do you think of the decoration? Patriotic enough for you?”

Mary had not noticed any decorations but on giving the room a closer look she noticed that the staircase was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting which was also looped across the ceiling. She rolled her eyes at Matthew but with too much enjoyment of doing so to be malicious.

“Buckingham Palace has nothing on it.”

He grinned back at her.

“Crawley!” someone yelled and they both looked up, realised what they had assumed, glanced at each other, smiled, and then looked to see who wanted them.

Josh Wakefield and Adam Davies were elbowing their way through the crowd. Matthew groaned slightly.

“Why are you here? Do you even know John Bates?”

“Who?” grinned Adam, his gaze raking over Mary. “Someone cried PARTY on facebook so here we are. Dude, you want a jungle juice?”

“Uh, no, thanks.” Matthew held up a beer.

“You're the singing chick, aren't you?” said Josh.

“Am I?” replied Mary, giving him a disparaging look and raising her eyebrows at Matthew. “Introduce me to your friends.”

“Oh. Josh and Adam. We play cricket together. This is Mary Crawley.”

Josh whistled. “The Mary Crawley? Your reputation precedes you, my lady.”

“How nice for us all.”

Mary shifted her weight. She did not mean to be rude but she had not come to the party to talk to strange, unattractive boys who wanted to make fun of her.

“Do you want a jungle juice?” offered Adam, holding out a plastic cup of an unappetising brown mixture.

Mary wrinkled her nose and pushed it away from her. “No, I really don't think that I do.”

With an apologetic glance at Matthew, she elbowed her way into the kitchen which was slightly less crowded and found Anna, stressed out and pouring Doritos into bowls.

“Where have all these people come from?” she cried as Mary came up to her. “It's meant to be our friends and some of John's work friends. I don't know half these people!”

Mary explained about it getting round on facebook and Anna shook her head. “Well, it's good to be popular, I guess?”

They made faces at each other. Mary started to look around for something to drink – that wasn't that vile mixture she had been offered. She had a feeling getting through the evening without alcohol would be an impossibility.

“Is there anything unopened?” she queried.

Anna shrugged. “Try the wine rack.”

Mary found an unopened bottle of wine, lamentably with a screw top but this was not the time for fussiness. Failing to find any clean glasses, she opened it and after a long, unimpressed stare at the vintage, took a swig straight from the bottle.

For some time she remained in the kitchen with Anna, John and a few others to give moral support. After a while, however, she felt that Matthew had had long enough to talk to his friends and she went in search of him.

Instead she found herself cornered by Anthony Strallan between a potted plant and the hi-fi deck.

“Mary! I haven't seen you for ages!”

“Hello, Tony,” she said with a forced smile.

“Actually – would you mind? I prefer Anthony. Anyway, I really wanted to ask you something?”

“Mmm?” She craned her head trying to find Matthew.

“Since you've finished your exams now I was wondering if-”

“Actually, I haven't finished them.”

“Oh.” He was put out but unfortunately only briefly. “So when you have finished your exams which I imagine must be soon, would you like to play golf with me sometime?”

Mary stared at him in frozen horror. “Golf?”

“Yes. You do play golf, don't you? I mean, everyone plays golf! This is St Andrews! And my father-”

“You guys!” yelled someone on the stairs so loudly that he was heard even over the music. It was a student Mary had never seen before, clearly drunk.

“Guess what I found in the waste bin in the bathroom!” he shouted into the sea of party goers, who were regarding him with various levels of interest and bemusement from various levels of inebriation. “Three, positive – wait for it – pregnancy tests!”

“Oh my God, Bates is pregnant!” shrieked a girl. “Oh my God oh my God!”

“You went through his bin?!” shouted someone else.

The original speaker seemed to be holding the tests up and then threw one into the crowd in the sitting room. There were yells, someone stumbled backwards to avoid being hit by it, a drink was spilled.

“Someone peed on that!” cried a different girl.

“Gross! Jason, you twat!”

But Mary heard hardly any of it. A band of cold terror had settled on her chest, almost smothering her. For a moment she felt light-headed with only one thought in her mind.

Anna.

Ignoring Anthony who was still trying to tell her that his father owned half the golf courses in Scotland or something of that nature she pushed rudely through the crowd and back into the kitchen. No sign of Anna. She went out into the garden, taking deep, calming breaths of fresh air, and saw her friend talking quietly to John, Matthew, and a couple of John's work colleagues who were smoking. They had been out here all the time while she had been enduring hell on earth? Good God, she hated this kind of party and this one was particularly bad, though she supposed it was not Anna's or even John's fault it had somehow been crashed by the worst kind of student layabouts.

Ignoring the rest of the group, even Matthew, she grabbed Anna's arm. “I have to talk to you.”

The expression on her face was enough to make Anna frown and let herself be dragged off to a corner of the yard, by the compost bin.

“What is it, Mary?”

For a moment she could not speak. She could not believe that Anna...

“Are you pregnant?” she said in a low intense whisper.

Anna looked absolutely shocked. “Pregnant? Of course I'm not! What on earth would make you think-”

Mary felt so relieved that she was once again light-headed. She took a shaky swig of the bottle of wine she was still clutching. “I don't know – I thought – They found pregnancy tests in John's bin – three of them. And I couldn't think who else would be taking pregnancy tests here.”

Anna squeezed Mary's arm, her expression melting into sympathy. “Mary, it's sweet of you to be concerned about me but – I've been going out with John for less than a week. If I were pregnant, which I'm really not, I'd hardly know yet, would I?”

She was quite right. Mary pressed her eyes closed. “I'm sorry. I just-”

“I know.”

“But if not you then who?”

“Hey, there are lots of people here. John's colleagues, and they're older than we are too.” Anna grinned. “Bet you an ice-cream from Jannetta's that on Monday someone announces at work they're taking maternity leave in the near future.”

Mary smiled wanly. “Of course you're right.”

She felt such a fool. But the thought that something like that could have happened to Anna was just... She would have had to drop out of university. She would have ruined her life. The relief was indescribable.

“Come on, Mary; let's get you back to the party. It may not be a debutante ball but it is possible to enjoy yourself at these things!” Anna smiled encouragingly at her and practically pushed her towards Matthew, who had broken away from the others to perch on the low wall around a flower bed, nursing his beer.

She sat down next to him with a rueful smile. He looked at her with some concern but bumped his bottle against hers.

“Cheers!”

“Cheers.”

He nudged her shoulder gently. “Are you alright? You looked as if you'd seen a ghost back there.”

“Nothing so lurid, I'm afraid.” She gave herself a little shake. “I was being stupid.” The whole thing seemed utterly ludicrous now. “Someone found three positive pregnancy tests in the bathroom, but Anna's quite right – it's nothing to do with us. Still, who takes three tests one after the other and goes to a party to do it? How idiotic can you get?”

Matthew frowned. “Or scared.”

“Scared...” She looked away, troubled.

He touched her arm. “Mary...”

She turned to face him. He didn't let go of her but slid his hand down her arm to curl round her fingers. Mary's stomach flopped with longing.

“Mary,” he said again, his voice soft. She could only blink at him. “You've just got one exam left, right?”

“Yes,” she replied in the same tone. “But it's only Shakespeare and I've studied most of the plays before.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?”

She smiled tentatively and opened her mouth to reply when the kitchen slammed open.

“Mary? Thank God you're there.”

It was Gwen. Mary closed her eyes in resignation and she felt Matthew slump at her side. Forcing a smile, she turned around.

“What is it?”

“It's your sister. She's completely wasted. You'd better...” She jerked her thumb back inside and rolled her eyes.

Mary reluctantly let her fingers slide from Matthew's and stood up a little shakily, leaving her bottle of wine on the floor.

“Once more unto the breach,” she sighed, the apology in her expression.

He smiled reassuringly at her. “Go. I'll be out here.”

She nodded and took a deep breath before plunging back into the house, hotter, noisier, smellier than before. She did not envy John the clean-up the following morning.

Sybil was slumped in a corner of a sofa, clutching a bottle of bright blue liquid as if it was a life-line, squashed next to a couple who really needed to learn some etiquette about acceptable public behaviour. Mary's lip curled at the sight though most of her scorn was caused from frustration at having been interrupted yet again. Just as the party was starting to look up – and she'd probably have to take Sybil home now. It was her fault of course for not looking after her properly and probably for taking her to a student party with alcohol anyway and this only made her more irritated.

Her poor sister looked a mess. She perched on the arm of the sofa and shook her arm.

“Sybil? Are you alright? How much have you had?” She had to speak louder than she would have liked to be heard over the general chatter and music.

Sybil raised a tear stained face to hers and an expression of complete horror passed across it as she saw who it was.

“Not much! I swear I haven't. I'm not that drunk. This is only my...” She frowned and looked at the bottle as if it could tell her just how much she had had. “This is my...”

Mary rolled her eyes. “Right. You're not drunk. Come outside with me and get some fresh air.”

She started to stand up but Sybil grabbed her arm and cried to her in even more panic. “Mary, don't leave me!”

She sat down. “I'm not leaving you but you're going to come with me and-”

“Mary, I-” Her throat worked. “I have to tell you something.”

“Alright, darling. You can do that outside.”

Never mind Sybil, she was not sure she could stand another minute of this terrible, claustrophobic atmosphere.

“No, I've got to tell you here!”

Mary took a breath. “Fine. Tell me here.”

Her sister's hand clutched more desperately at her sleeve and she had to bend down to hear her.

“Mary... Those pregnancy tests that guy found... They were mine.”

She froze, her ear close to Sybil's mouth, balanced precariously on the arm of the sofa. Pulling away far enough to look straight at her, she stared in wide-eyed horror. “Don't be ridiculous,” she said shakily. “What do you mean that they were yours?”

“What do you think I fucking meant?” exclaimed Sybil. “I took them, they're mine, I'm pregnant!”

“No, you're not.”

Mary felt that same suffocating band descend round her and all she could do was parrot meaningless denials of what she instinctively knew was the truth.

“I'm not? I took three of them – do you want me to take another?” Her voice rose hysterically. “For fuck's sake I threw up in your bathroom this morning so I had to fucking clean it before you and Anna fucking saw-”

“Will you stop saying that word!” snapped Mary, her voice trembling dangerously.

“Oh fuck off. Don't you see? I had to take the test because I knew that I – because I knew that – I couldn't try to pretend that I wasn't – ”

She was looking wilder and wilder but the more out of control she got, the more Mary found that she was able to control her own response. Becoming convinced that her sister was telling the truth, an unnatural calm descended over her.

“Well, you're not drinking any more of that!” she exclaimed, seizing the bottle of alcopops from her sister's hand after only a brief struggle. She placed it behind her on the floor.

“How could you be so stupid?” But even as she said it a worse alternative flashed before her eyes so strongly that she gasped out loud. “Sybil!” she cried urgently, grasping her shoulders and giving her a little shake. “Tell me – this is Tom's, isn't it? Please tell me all you've been is stupid. Dear God, if-”

Sybil was beginning to cry in earnest, glaring at her. “You're hurting me... Of course it's Tom's; who else's would it be? You think I'm a slut, don't you?”

Mary was so relieved at her sister's innocent answer that she dropped her hands and did not even bother replying. “Thank God for small mercies,” she murmured to herself. “Thank God.”

“Mary, what am I going to do?” She hiccoughed. “I don't know what I'm going to do! What am I going to do?”

And she clutched her arm and leaned her head against her sister's side, sobbing like a child. Mary continued to stare blankly across the room for a moment. She had no idea what she felt – anger? Sadness? Fear? Worry? Shock? - except that she had to do something because there was nobody else who could. Touching Sybil's hair she said, “We're going to go home.”

She pulled her iphone out of her pocket to dial for a taxi when the ringing of the doorbell cut suddenly across a lull in the music, as a playlist came to an end. This was not unusual, for people had been coming and going all evening, but the woman who entered when someone opened the door, certainly was. She was tall and imposing with blowzy hair and a pair of leopard print leggings that were so offensive to good taste they distracted even Mary in the act of making the call. She did not fit in with anybody else there, neither student nor shop worker.

“Oh, how nice!” said the woman in a lilting Irish accent as she stood on the threshold. “A welcome home party. That's so sweet.”

She was stared at in deafening silence.

“This is John Bates' house?” she continued.

“Oy, Batesy!” yelled somebody into the kitchen. “Someone to see you! Did you two work together or something?”

The woman tilted her head. She seemed amused. “Yes, I guess you could say that.”

“Hello? G&A Taxies; how can I help you?” said a tinny voice from Mary's iphone but she ignored it. John had pushed out of the kitchen, Anna just behind him holding a plate of nachos. The colour drained from his face.

“My God. Vera?”

“You changed the locks.”

Anna placed her hand on her boyfriend's arm. “Who is she, John?”

The entire room seemed waiting for his response, including Vera herself, who crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow.

John's face dipped in resignation. “She's my wife.”

“Hello, honey!”

Anna dropped the plate.

Mary's instinctive reaction to this nightmarish turn of events was to jump up and go to her but as she moved, she felt a heavy weight fall against her: Sybil had passed out.

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