silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Sixteen

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 Fifteen here!

Chapter Sixteen


For a few moments Mary was paralysed by indecision. Sybil's head was a heavy weight against her side and prevented her from going to Anna's aid even if that had been obviously the best course of action. It was impossible to take everything in that had happened in the last few minutes and all she knew was that somehow she had to get Sybil home – but that would mean leaving Anna, and she was not willing to contemplate that. Anyway, how on earth was Sybil to be moved? She shrugged and her sister's body slumped further against her as she shifted; she was completely passed out and Mary was almost certain she could not carry her even as far as a taxi. Not in these boots. Not after half a bottle of wine.

She felt a sudden tightness in her throat and blinked rapidly, fighting the sudden urge to cry. This was not the time or the place – and jumped when someone touched her shoulder suddenly. She looked up into Matthew's concerned, friendly face.

"What's going on? I was outside and then there seemed to be something going on so we all came inside and there's this woman-" He glanced down. "Is Sybil okay?"

Mary swallowed several times and forced herself to roll her eyes. "She's drunk."

Matthew made a face. "Ugh, poor thing."

She smiled painfully as if all there was to it was a case of a silly teenager drinking too much at a party and an older sister shirking her responsibility. For a moment they looked at each other, caught in a bubble of questioning and questionable calm, in the middle of the chaos.

"I don't suppose there's anything I can do to help?" asked Matthew with a small smile, breaking the connection.

Mary's breath caught. It was on the tip of her tongue to reply as she usually did that there was nothing but she stopped herself.

"Can you take Sybil home?"

His eyes widened and she quickly added before he could reply, as much to justify it to herself as to him, "I can't do anything for Anna with Sybil like this. She shouldn't be here and I-"

"Of course I'll take her."

"Alright." She met his eyes and glanced away, feeling warm.

Between them, Mary managed to stand up, swaying a moment for her leg had gone to sleep where her sister had been leaning against it, and Matthew took her place supporting Sybil. Mary gave him her keys.

"If you get her outside, I'll call a taxi. I was on the point of it before..." She gave herself a mental shake and dug out her purse. "Here." She forced twenty pounds into his hand, shaking her head at his attempt to protest. "Just put her on my bed – it's the front room, you know – and I'll come back as soon as I can. Make yourself at home. You know where everything is."

He tucked the money and keys into his pocket and grinned at her, though his eyes were serious. "I do indeed. What about you? Will you be alright?"

"Me? Oh, I am always alright!"

His expression softened knowingly and grew warm but he did not reply. Instead, he put one arm round Sybil's shoulders and stood them both up before shifting position and actually lifting her into his arms. The people near them managed to get out of the way, at least far enough not to be accidentally hit.

"Is she-" began Mary anxiously.

"She's very light," he reassured her.

For now, she could not help thinking incredulously, her lips pressed together in a thin line as she managed not to say it. Instead she dared to touch Matthew's arm, meet his eyes and, when she was quite sure of his attention, say as sincerely as she knew how, "Thank you."

It was not the moment to delay, not when he was actually carrying Sybil, her head flopping over the crook of his arm. He acknowledged her with his eyes before turning away and leaving her anxiously alone in the corner of the room.

And now was not the moment to sit back and reflect either. Mary did not allow herself the luxury of seeing them safely outside but immediately re-dialled the taxi number and ordered a cab to be there immediately. This done, she turned her full attention to Anna.

In the time she had been talking to Matthew, the confusion near the kitchen had deepened. Someone had slipped on the spilt nachos, someone else was trying to mop them up and over the top of both were John and the woman he claimed to be his wife having a very public shouting match. Anna, looking confused and miserable, seemed to be trying to have her say as well. Mary pursed her lips and elbowed her way through the drunks to her side and grabbed her arm.

"What's going on?"

Anna looked at her and her face crumpled. "She's his wife. He says she is. I don't know. I don't understand, Mary..."

Mary was becoming aware of the throbbing in her head. She had not had enough of the cheap wine to be drunk but she was nevertheless starting to feel the effects of the alcohol combined with the close atmosphere in this tiny, crowded house. Still, Anna was in a much worse situation than her and someone needed to take charge.

"You need to come home, darling," she said quietly but firmly. "Sort it all out in the morning." Her eyes slid over to John and that – that creature. It was not a pleasant sight and it was hard to believe any of it was true. It all seemed so improbable.

Anna shook her head. "I'm not leaving. I can't leave, not now. I have to know..."

She closed her eyes for a moment. "Please. This isn't your affair. Come back with me now, get a good night's sleep, ring John tomorrow and-"

"He needs me now. Mary, my place is here. With him. Whatever happens."

Mary released her breath in a huff and tipped her head back to the ceiling in frustration. "Your place is not here! For God's sake, Anna, you've been going out for a week. You don't need to become a martyr for him. And if all this nonsense really is true... Come on, let's get out of here. It's not your problem."

Her friend's face closed off with hurt. "What does it matter how long we've been going out? I've made my choice and it's him. Whatever's in John's past we'll get through it. Together. Isn't that what you'd-"

It seemed on the tip of her tongue to say something she'd regret but she stopped herself at the last moment. Mary opened her mouth to argue and then she also held back. She had no power over Anna; she was over-age, independent, and quite free to make stupid mistakes in the name of love if she wanted to.

She deflated. "Well then. If you're sure. What can I do?"

Anna's expression relaxed into apologetic gratitude. "You don't have to do anything, Mary; it really isn't your problem even if it's mine. Oh! Sybil?" She started to look hastily around. "What's-"

"Matthew took her home. Don't worry about Sybil."

Don't worry about Sybil. Her heart contracted but this was still not the moment.

"Oh good! I'm glad she's okay. Mary, you should go. I can manage..."

There was a sound of breaking glass and Mary raised one eyebrow. "I'm not going anywhere until I can take you with me."

They glared at each other. Anna was the first to back down though, as Mary knew she had to be. "Can you – can you get rid of everyone? The party's over."

This was definitely something Mary could do and with pleasure. She flicked her eyebrows and only squeezed Anna's hand before spinning on the spot and contemplating the task before her. Everything had narrowed down to this one thing she had to do. And afterwards... She would cross that bridge when she came to it.

Firstly, she called the taxi company again and ordered another ten taxies. Her voice did not waiver once though she felt at the back of her mind that it probably ought to have done. Then she put her iphone away and her hands on her hips. John, John's wife, and Anna had taken their argument upstairs but on the ground floor it was a melting pot of those who were just continuing to drink and shout and dance without any idea of the drama going on above their heads, those who were gossiping about what was going on and trying to get upstairs to sneak a look, and those combining both with greater violence and disruption. Her lip curled. Then she stood up straighter and clapped her hands sharply. It did not accomplish much in the general riot going on around her but made her feel much better. Fortunately if there was one thing Lady Mary Crawley really was good at it was exerting authority. So she exerted it.

By a mixture of physical pushing, vocal encouragement, and a good deal of patience, within fifteen minutes most of the party goers were stumbling around outside in the road and the first of the taxies had started to roll up. Mary ignored all protests but herded them in groups into taxies. So long as they left, she really did not care how or whether they were happy about the arrangements.

The adrenalin was starting to wear off and the street was growing a little quieter when she found herself accosted by a small, elderly Scottish lady from one of the neighbouring houses, dressed in her dressing gown and furious.

"I've put up with this for as long as I can bear," she ranted at Mary, "but even ear plugs don't work any more! You students come along and take over the centre with your constant partying; do you have to come and disturb us in the town as well? I'll be on the phone to the anti-social behaviour unit if this doesn't stop right now-"

"The party's over now," interrupted Mary in utter exhaustion. "But please address your complaints to Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey if you wish to pursue it further. I'm terribly sorry you were disturbed."

Then she simply walked back to the house without looking back.

Inside, all was eerily quiet. Anna was slumped on the sofa, nursing a glass of water, with Gwen at her side. She looked up when she came in, but Anna kept her head in her hands.

"Where are they?" asked Mary.

"Upstairs," said Gwen. "They kicked her out." She stood up and came closer. "Thanks for what you did, Mary. I didn't think it would be possible to get rid of them so quickly but you clearly have some awesome talents."

"For driving people away you mean?" She raised her eyebrows but the attempt at a joke fell flat. "I suppose I have to be good at something." Still, it felt like some kind of truce.

"Is Sybil alright?" continued Gwen with a frown. "I was worried about her earlier."

"Don't worry about Sybil," repeated Mary. The words seemed to be ringing around her head like a dreadful, false ostinato that she could not drive away however much she wished she could.

"She'll be okay, yeah?"

"Of course she will. How's Anna?"

Gwen made a face. "How'd you think she is? But seriously, leave her with me. My place is nearer than yours and you've got your sister to look after. I promise I won't leave her."

Mary looked behind her to Anna, despondent on the sofa, sipping her water. She desperately wanted to go home. Without replying to Gwen except with a nod, she crouched down in front of her friend and forced her to look at her.

"I need to look after Sybil now but Gwen's going to stay with you." She bit her lip and thought a moment. "My phone's going to be on all night. Ring me, whatever time it is, it doesn't matter, for any reason, wherever you are, and I'll come and get you. Do you understand?"

Anna looked up and nodded, managing a wan smile. "Understood."

"At any time." Mary kissed her cheek and held her for a moment in a tense, uncomfortable embrace.

Finally she was free to leave.

"Do you have a taxi?" asked Gwen.

Mary dithered. "You know, I think I'm going to walk. I need..." She gestured outside. "Air."

Later, she would recognise that walking home alone in the small hours of the morning through the town dressed as she was, was not the best decision she ever made, nor something that she would have done had she been thinking more clearly. As it was, the silence of the suburban streets and the fresh breeze from the sea on her face were more than welcome and overruled any consideration of personal safety. She walked slowly, meandering along the deserted streets of the council estate where John lived and back into the centre of the town and its even more uncomfortable cobbled streets. Her headache sharpened as she was able to feel more aware of it and then dissipated as the fresh air gradually cleared it. A solitary figure in the middle of the road, she felt in limbo. She had spent the evening in hell and she almost did not want to reach her destination. She could not bring herself to think about Sybil and the role she would have to play in relation to her. With her parents far away, she would have to step into their shoes and the prospect was daunting. She even felt a bit sick at the thought of it. And then Matthew... What was she going to do with him? The events of the evening had overturned all her best laid plans; it seemed almost impossible to consider that in less than a week she would be sitting a Shakespeare exam. Oh, if only this lonely walk through the streets of St Andrews could last for ever!

Eventually, however, she found herself in front of her house. Pausing outside, she saw the window of her bedroom was dark but behind closed curtains the front room was illuminated. Matthew was still there. Well, of course he was, she told herself impatiently, but it was an odd feeling to think of him sitting in her sitting room waiting for her. Her stomach turned over yet again at the thought and she shifted from one tired foot to the other, nervously hesitating and doubting for no good reason. Entering the house seemed to represent some kind of return to real life after this quiet interlude and she could not help selfishly hoping that Sybil was still out of it.

Her prevarication started to irritate even herself and she forced herself to rummage through her handbag for her keys before remembering she had given them to Matthew. Taking a deep breath she rang her own doorbell. She looked away, folding her arms over her chest as she waited for the door to open, her heart beating faster than it really should. Finally, she heard footsteps and the lock being drawn back and the door opened.

She turned round, stepped across the threshold, met his wide, curious gaze and before she could weight up her options or think what to say to him, she found herself pulled into a tight embrace. Matthew kicked the door shut behind her and immediately tightened his arms round her, burying his face in her neck, his breath hot on her cheek and his hands gently smoothing over her back. She could feel his heart beat rapidly against hers and clutched him back with tight desperation. She pressed her eyes closed and for what felt like a long time could only stand there in dark disbelief. Then, very slowly, she began to relax. Her heartbeat slowed, the grip of her arms round Matthew's neck loosened and she started to become aware of the tickle of his hair against her neck and the soothing warmth of his hands. Her lips curved into a smile she couldn't help and as she softened in his arms, one of his hands stroked through her hair until he had cleared enough of her neck to press his lips to her skin. She sighed and shifted with a little shiver.

"Mary..." he breathed.

He loosened his arms, pulling far enough away to look at her properly and she slowly opened her eyes, her lips parting at the intensity of his expression. She froze, wide eyed, and then -

"Sybil!"

Now Matthew's eyes closed a moment as he let his arms fall to his sides. "I put her on your bed, as you said. I think she's asleep."

She smiled in mingled gratitude and apology. "I have to-"

"Of course you do."

She squeezed his arm, letting her hand drop slowly in a caress, before forcing herself away and running up the stairs.

Her bedroom was dark and Mary groped her way to the desk lamp, not wanting to wake her sister if she could help it. Sybil was lying on her back on top of the duvet. Matthew had taken off her shoes and put them neatly at the side of the bed. Mary stared down at her for a few seconds, not really knowing how she felt. It was hard to be angry with her, seeing her so peaceful and vulnerable like this, but Mary knew that below the surface she was holding back a great many feelings that she would have to confront. Tomorrow. She took Sybil's pulse and was relieved to feel it beat strongly under her fingers. Next, working swiftly and silently, she undressed her down to her underwear and manoeuvred her under the covers which she tucked round her. There was no way she was going to spend tonight on the sofa. She refilled the water glass on the bedside table and emptied the contents of Anna's metal waste bin into her own raffia one before placing that by bed. She could not be too careful. Finally, with her sister as comfortable as possible, she perched on a chair and unzipped her own boots, sighing in relief as her feet were freed. Turning the light off and quietly closing the door behind her, Mary padded back downstairs and into the sitting room.

Matthew was in the middle of the room carrying two mugs in one hand and a bottle of orange juice in the other.

He shrugged. "All your glasses needed washing. Is juice okay? I can get wine if you'd-"

"Juice is great." She blinked at the table where all the remnants of the pre-party celebrations she, Anna, and Sybil had enjoyed a lifetime ago had been shoved to one side to make way for the Domino's box. "You ordered pizza."

"I couldn't very well let you starve."

"You really didn't have to," Mary replied, feeling pleased.

"Well, I went through your cupboards but your bread looked quite stale. Hope you don't mind."

"Of course I don't mind. I hadn't even realised I was hungry until now."

Hungry, tired, confused, expectant. It was strangely hard to tell.

She was glad to sit down at the table, her eye catching the TV screen as Matthew sat down across the corner from her and poured them each a drink in the mugs.

She raised her eye-brows and looked at him directly. "Brideshead? That's a rather curious choice of DVD."

"You told me once that if I wanted to understand your world I should watch Brideshead Revisited so I saw it in your collection and thought I'd give it a go," he replied with defensive consciousness.

"I said that, did I?"

"Don't you remember?"

"Not as well as you do, apparently. Do you find it instructive?" She opened the pizza box and detached a slice.

He pretended to give this serious consideration and she watched him as she chewed. "I think I would have to know you all a good deal better than I do before I dared to answer that question."

"Is that a challenge?"

"Do you want it to be?" he shot back.

She shrugged slightly and raised her mug to him in a toast. "Maybe."

Matthew took a slice of pizza for himself. "Is Anna alright? I didn't understand anything of what was going on before I left."

She sighed. "I don't know. That awful woman is his wife apparently."

"His wife?" He stared at her.

"So they say. Really, I don't know if I believe it or not. It all sounds like a sub-plot from a ghastly second rate soap opera. Whatever the truth of it is though, Anna's caught in the middle of it. I tried to make her leave but she wouldn't."

Matthew frowned in sympathy. "Poor girl. What a horrible situation to be in. I don't envy her a bit."

"Oh yes!" Mary twisted her head away impatiently. "But honestly, she doesn't need to be in it. John has always been unsuitable for her and this ought to be the nail in the coffin. She should get out while she still has a chance."

"You're not interested in hearing his side of the story then?" asked Matthew, observing her closely.

"Not especially. Not only is he far too old and working class for her but now we know he has an awful ex and has been lying to her all the time! Why should I bother? Why should Anna for that matter?" She felt all the tension start to return and she had to swallow growing anger in another sip of juice.

"Do you call it lying? I mean, it's not really the sort of thing that comes up, is it? Hello, do you want to go out with me? By the way, I have a crazy wife you'll probably never meet but I thought you should-"

She held up her hand, torn between laughter and fluttery anxiety and frustration. "Stop, Matthew, please stop!"

"Alright, but you see my point. I suppose we all have skeletons in our closets and I actually rather admire Anna for sticking by John, at least till she knows the truth of the matter."

"Perhaps you have some skeletons of your own and that's why you're so sympathetic to his position," replied Mary, nervously picking at the cardboard of the pizza box.

He grinned and leaned towards her. "I'm afraid my background is very uninteresting."

"No madwomen in the attic then for you?" she murmured, still not looking at him.

"I suppose that depends on how you feel about Lavinia... What about you, Mary? You must have led a more exciting life than me."

Now she glanced up, her eyes darting over his face. "Oh, I don't think so. Nothing worth mentioning."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. I'm sure the story of a beautiful earl's daughter would be far more captivating than Mr. Ordinary from Manchester's."

"Now who's being hard on themselves?" She swallowed and abruptly stood up. "I don't think I want to eat any more."

Immediately Matthew rose too, standing opposite her, shoving his hands in his pockets and following her every movement with his eyes. Mary was surprised to find that her own hands were trembling slightly. Her mouth was dry and she could not tell whether her sudden light-headedness was dehydration or simply the way Matthew was looking at her and how she could see the rise and fall of his chest, a little faster than usual, because he was so close to her. She moistened her lips and as she did so his eyes dipped. Hers followed the same direction and somehow, without really knowing how it happened, they both moved at the same time and came together right there in the middle of the room.

Their lips met with no hesitation, no doubt, no insecurity. He gently clasped her wrist and one of her hands stroked along his cheek and jaw line before she pulled him closer and he took her in his arms again as he had in the hall. The only odd thing about it was how natural it felt. Warmth, relief, joy flooded through Mary and she responded to him with enthusiasm, her hands stroking and tugging through his hair, feeling the security of his on her back and tangling in her hair, restlessly roving and constantly shifting, always aiming to explore the other and bring them closer. Her lips parted under his or his under hers, it was impossible to tell, the kiss deepened, and he made a small noise in the back of his throat as his hands came to cup her face. They had waited too long, wanted too long, and it was all consuming.

Moments passed, minutes maybe, and eventually the initial passion lightened though the intensity did not. Their hands slowed their movements, their lips stilled and eventually, holding each other very tightly, they pulled apart a few inches, just far enough to see each other as their eyes slowly opened.

Matthew stroked his hand gently down her cheek. "Oh Mary," he murmured. "I'm so glad."

Her entire countenance seemed to soften and she shifted, her leg rubbing against his, her fingers running lightly round the neckline of his t-shirt. They stared into each other's eyes, their gazes as warm and intimate as the kiss they had just shared. The corners of Mary's lips turned up and she leaned forwards, her nose brushing his, and lightly pressed the mouth against his.

"What about your exam?" Matthew whispered a moment later.

She did not know what he meant and then she breathed a laugh as she realised. "Perhaps my priorities have changed."

He chuckled too, and it reverberated through them both. Clutching her round her waist, he kissed her again, just as deeply as the first time, and together they stumbled back to the sofa, falling in a tangle of legs and arms and breathy laughter. There could be no interruptions now, no distractions, nothing to stop them for enjoying what felt no more nor less than a blissful reunion.

Finally they slowed and caught their breath. Lying sprawled on the sofa, half on top of each other, Matthew's leg squashed between Mary's and his face pressed to her neck as he nuzzled at her throat, she murmured idly as her fingers traced over his back, "I have to sleep here tonight. Do you recommend it?"

"Based on my vast experience of it when I was here?" He smiled against her shoulder. "It's okay."

Her hand stilled. "Stay with me?" she asked, her voice so quiet he could barely make out the words.

"I was hoping you wouldn't chuck me out this late."

He moved up her a little and kissed her jaw, her cheek and finally her lips until she relaxed and opened her mouth to him again with a sigh of pleasure. It was a slow kiss, heavy and lazy, and even before it came to an end, Mary was tugging the blanket Sybil had previously slept under over them, shifting and twisting until they were both as comfortable as it was possible to be with his arms round her waist and his head tucked into the hollow of her shoulder. Mary wrapped her arms over his, pinning him and the blanket in place and they lay there in silence, their heartbeats slowing to match the other's.

Matthew had just about managed to get comfortable and was starting to wonder if there was any way he could possibly sleep like this, his thumb rubbing little circles against her stomach, when Mary suddenly spoke, her voice quiet but distinct in the silence of the house at night.

"Sybil's pregnant."

He drew in a breath and tightened his arms round her.

"I don't know why I'm telling you," continued Mary in a rush, "but I felt someone ought to know."

"Then I'm glad you told me."

"It's going to be very difficult at home. We may not be Catholic like in Brideshead but this sort of thing... well, Daddy won't be happy. I'm afraid you've chosen a bad time to get involved with my family."

He pressed his lips to her cheek where he could reach it, lingering as long as possible. "I don't think there's ever going to be a bad time for this, Mary." He kissed her cheek again and she clasped his hands over her stomach more tightly.

"I'm really tired, Matthew," she said a few moments later, her voice even quieter.

He sighed deeply, his breath causing strands of her hair to jump and float round her head as he released it. "Then sleep, sweetheart. It will be alright in the morning."

Mary knew that it would not be alright in the morning, that if anything it would be much worse and far more real, but she allowed herself to be seduced by his voice and the endearment that made her heart contract strangely and she let her eyes flutter shut with a smile on her lips.

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