silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Eighteen

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 Seventeen here!

Chapter Eighteen


By the time Matthew returned, Mary had decided that she would accompany Sybil to London for moral support. So she had an exam left, what of it? She could retake it if necessary (and she did not really think it would be; she was confident in her ability to write three hours worth of Shakespearean analysis without much difficulty) but her sister could not retake the decisions she made at this point. Would that she could. Sybil needed guidance or at the very least support and Mary supposed that when it came down to it that was more important than anything else, including Matthew.

Yet it was hard to simply put their fledgling relationship so completely aside. Mary discussed their London plans with her sister rationally enough but at least half of her mind was with Matthew. The memory of his hands on hers, his lips on her cheek, the feeling of his heartbeat against hers remained thrillingly present even though he had left. Would he come to London? If he did - and she could not decide whether she hoped he would or not – then what would happen? What would they say to her mother when they got to the house? Where would he sleep? God, where would he sleep and when would they-? What did he expect from her?

"... And if Matthew does decide to come, though I don't see why he would," she finished, dragging her attention back to the present, "you're paying his train fare!"

This was too reasonable a request for Sybil to refuse and anyway, they both knew her allowance would easily cover the amount required.

The bell rang. Mary, who had been listening for it, was up and opening the door in seconds. It was Matthew of course, removing his motorcycle helmet on the doorstep, his hair delightfully mussed. Her expression was so delighted to see him that he immediately embraced her on the threshold, kissing her more freely than he had all morning and leaving her breathless and trembling when he finally pulled away and pushed past her into the front room.

"Brunch, Sybil?" he called cheerfully, even though his eyes rested happily on Mary.

"Just the thought of it makes my stomach turn," she replied with a shudder.

"No brunch for Sybil then," said Mary, adding with a smile, "but I'd like some. I don't think there's anything in the house though, is there?"

"There wasn't last night. And that, my dear, is why we're going shopping. C'mon!"

He was refreshed, clean, enthusiastic, impossibly handsome... Mary found him irresistible and allowed herself to be pulled out of the house, with only a laughing request to her sister not to do anything stupid until she was back.

"Until you're back?" inquired Matthew, unlocking his motorbike from the lamppost near the house. "Then I'd be prepared for the worst on our return."

She rolled her eyes at him before looking over the gleaming bike that she had last seen getting in her way several months previously on the coastal path after Sybil had first told her about her relationship with Tom down the phone.

"Really, Matthew? You're taking me to the shops on this? Is that quite necessary?"

Grinning, he swung his leg over it and zipped up his leather jacket. "You know you want to, Mary."

He held out a hand to her but she hesitated.

"I disapprove terribly of your roaring around the town on this monster."

His gaze was steady. "But you still want to give it a ride, don't you?"

"Do I?" Her eyebrows shot up.

He adjusted the throttle and the bike shuddered under him. "Aren't you at least a bit curious?"

She took a step forwards. "Is it safe?"

"Perfectly safe if you hold on tight."

"Well..." She allowed him to take her hand and pull her towards him until she stopped right in front of him, her legs brushing his knee. She was terribly excited though she contained it well. "I've never done this before," she confessed, shivering as his thumb stroked her knuckle. "I might be a screamer."

"I can't wait to hear you."

His voice was deep, as deep as the rumbling of the engine, and she couldn't bear it any longer. Dropping his hand, she swung onto the bike behind him, wrapped her arms tightly round his chest and rested her chin on his shoulder.

"I knew you'd come round," he murmured and she could feel his mouth moving against her cheek.

Then they were off. Considering it was Mary's first time it was probably a good thing that they could not go very fast through the town but by the time Matthew drew up outside Spar she had relaxed her grip on his waist and even wished it could go on a little longer.

"See?" said Matthew grinning as he helped her off the motorcycle. "Not so bad after all."

Mary rolled her eyes at him as if she did this all the time but her legs felt wobbly as she walked into the shop and she could not forget the imprint of Matthew's body against hers or the smell of his neck.

"What are we buying?" she asked to distract herself.

Matthew grabbed a basket and strolled confidently down the aisle picking up mushrooms and tomatoes as he went past the fruits and vegetables. Mary watched him for a moment, her eyes skimming over the tight fit of his leather jacket on his shoulders and reflecting with a spasm of sudden desire that Sybil was right: right now, he was hers. She followed him slowly to where he was standing in front of the meat selection.

"Bacon, of course," he said when she came up, bumping his shoulder against hers. "Sausages as well?"

"Why not, if they have anything decent. The selection here isn't brilliant."

He laughed. "No, if you're looking for local, outdoor reared, organic ninety per cent pork sausages then we're probably in the wrong shop."

Mary bit her lip, hardly hearing him. "I'll leave it to you then; I never shop at Spar." She touched his arm gently. "Look, I need to buy something while I'm here. Meet you in a minute?"

"Oh, sure... At the checkout?"

"Alright."

She gave him a quick smile and darted off down the nearest aisle which was fortunately the one she wanted. Toiletries. She passed the cough and cold remedies and the feminine hygiene products where she normally stopped and paused in front of what seemed like a bewildering array of different forms of contraception. It was the sort of thing that everyone just assumed you knew but never talked about. Sex education back at school might have pointed out the importance of using protection unless you wanted to end up pregnant or with an STD but had never touched on the differences between ribbed and smooth and whether the strawberry flavoured ones really tasted of strawberry. Mary could not say she was particularly desperate to find out. She snatched up a couple of boxes, willing away an embarrassment she felt was beneath her, and picked up a packet of paracetamol and some toothpaste as well to dilute the condoms.

Meanwhile, Matthew had filled up his basket with everything he needed for the best brunch imaginable, a spring in his step and a song on his lips. He had kissed Mary Crawley, he had slept with Mary Crawley (in the literal sense) and now he was making her brunch. Mary Crawley, who was the daughter of an earl, was so beautiful she took his breath away even when her make-up was caked over her face after a night on the couch, and who could have any man she wanted! And she had chosen him. He had no idea why she liked him, why a girl so far out of his league wanted to be with him of all people but every time he thought of the way she smiled at him, almost shyly it seemed, or the way it felt to kiss her and hold her he realised he did not care. She could realise this was a ridiculous mistake at any time so he was determined to live in the moment while he could.

Mary was waiting for him as she had said she would be, cool and calm and twice as elegant as anyone else in the shop. Her face brightened when she saw him at the checkout and Matthew could not help leaning in and kissing her softly, pulling back in time to see her blush. As they left and walked over to where the motorcycle was parked, he entwined his fingers with hers and clasped her hand, meeting her eyes directly and raising his eyebrows right back at her. Somehow holding hands outside on the street felt just as intimate as waking up with her had been. Oh, he knew he was behaving like a teenager with his first girlfriend, but he didn't care. This was Mary and so everything was different.

"You're taking me back by a long route," she murmured in his ear a few minutes later on the bike, her arms once more wound tightly round his waist and her breath tickling his cheek.

"Are you complaining?" he replied. Of course he was taking a longer route: he had Mary Crawley on the back of his motorcycle and she actually seemed to be enjoying it; wouldn't anyone?

"No..." Her hands were roaming up and down his chest and he drew in a sharp breath, trying hard to concentrate on the road. "But I'm getting hungry and you promised me brunch."

When they eventually made it back to the house, Sybil pulled open the front door before Mary had even dug out her key.

"Well, Matthew, are you coming to London? I've just been texting Livia and she says it's fine if you both come – the more the merrier – but you really should be in costume if you want to fit in."

They had not had a chance to discuss it. Mary kicked the door shut with her foot and went directly into the front room. "You don't have to come, Matthew, it's really too much to ask of you, but I'm going to go. After all, someone needs to be there to beat Tom up if he's difficult and Sybil wants me over Daddy."

There was no debate in Matthew's mind. "Of course I'm coming!" He slid his arm round her waist. "Now, what's this about costumes?"

She gave him an doubtful look. "I really don't think we are required to dress up. Do you have black tie? That will be quite enough."

"Five years of formal hall at Oxford. I think it's safe to say that I have black tie," said Matthew, trailing her into the kitchen.

At the same time Sybil protested that Olivia's sister was absolutely definitely positively going as Sansa Stark and she was twenty-three.

Mary rolled her eyes. "I'm sure we can come up with something. Now what are you going to make us?"

"Me?" Matthew grinned at her. She stared right back and for a moment he allowed himself to be lost in her eyes before he stepped back and placed a chopping board and knife in front of her. "We are going to make brunch and you are going to chop the mushrooms."

She picked up the knife as if she had never seen one before. "Chop mushrooms?"

He came round behind her, pressing her against the counter and sliding his hand over hers on the knife. "Yes, you take a mushroom – you do know what a mushroom is? - and put it on the board, then..."

Daring to tease Mary, to flirt with her – it was a heady rush of exhilaration and sweetness. The knife cut through the mushroom sharply and Matthew, looking down at their joined hands, had a flash of recognition of that one occasion when a man and woman would traditionally share a knife to make a first cut. He blinked and chastised himself. Thoughts like that were definitely out of place for this stage in their relationship. Fortunately Mary did not seem to notice. She slid her hand out from under his and shifted against him but without separating them.

"I have never prepared mushrooms like this before," she confessed, sounding slightly breathless.

"First time for everything," he replied softly and pressed his lips to her neck, wondering if she had ever prepared mushrooms in any way before. "Time to live in the real world, sweetheart. It's not so bad when you get used to it."

Now she managed to turn in his arms and met his eyes. "Perhaps if you're my guide..." Her eyes dipped.

Matthew didn't wait to hear the end of the sentence but kissed her deeply. The knife slid from his fingers onto the chopping board as he wrapped his arms round her waist and drank her in, pressing her even more firmly against the counter. She responded eagerly, her fingers touching his arms, his neck, finally sliding up into his hair.

"It's lucky I'm the nice sister," commented Sybil from the sitting room when they finally parted, only far enough for him to rest his forehead against Mary's as they both caught their breath. "Please do carry on, don't mind me. Though if you are going to make any food at some point today I wouldn't object to some toast after all."

Mary laughed softly, a delicious husky sound that he felt all the way down to his toes, and gently pushed him away.

"What's the point of making me cook," she asked demurely, "if you're just going to distract me like this?"

Everything about this situation, thought Matthew, was perfect. He applied himself to the eggs and bacon without much regret at stepping away from her because he knew she was there on the other side of the hobs, chopping mushrooms, and he could watch her. A strand of hair came loose and flopped over her face, she pushed it away and returned to dicing the mushrooms far smaller and far more neatly than they needed to be. Matthew didn't care; he could hardly take his eyes off her.

The meal, now far more lunch than brunch, was eventually ready and the three of them sat down to it at the table. Sybil had got over her earlier nausea and now attacked everything on offer with enthusiasm. The conversation reverted back to the upcoming party.

"I think I have an idea for a discreet costume," Mary said. "Now, don't laugh, but do you remember those rubber fangs we got when the Christmas panto at school was Dracula? I know they're still lying around somewhere at home. Matthew and I could slip them in at the beginning and be-"

"And be what exactly?" put in Matthew.

"Well, it is characters from fantasy," retorted Mary, sounding defensive. "What could be better than going as Bella and Edward? We can get rid of the fangs after five minutes and we won't have to do anything else to put together a costume."

"Oh my God," muttered Sybil, burying her head in her hands.

Matthew stared at her. "Bella and Edward as in... as in Twilight?"

"Do you have any better suggestions?"

He didn't. "But, but Twilight! Isn't that filled with brainwashing attempts to make teenage girls accept abusive relationships? At least, that's what Isobel said when she read them..." He trailed off at the expression on Mary's face.

"Edward Cullen is not that bad," she said eventually, straightening her back and taking a defiant sip of coffee.

"Yeah... Still got that giant poster on your bedroom wall, don't you?" Her sister put in raising her head.

"You have a poster of-"

"Mary has terrible taste in men," Sybil explained to Matthew. "Though I'll let you be the exception that proves the rule."

"Had. Had," emphasised Mary and rolled her eyes. "I was fifteen. Honestly, I'm not trying to pretend the books have any particular literary merit but they're engrossing and Edward has a certain appeal if-"

"If you have terrible taste in men."

"Sybil, I do not!"

"Gay celebrity."

Mary opened her mouth to retort but Matthew could see this going on a while and also that Mary was uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was going so he interrupted with a smile, "Look, I don't mind who I go as so long as it's easy so if you want me to dress up as your teenage fantasy I suppose I can live with that."

Mary shot him a look that was both calculating and incredibly suggestive. He felt himself blushing when Sybil abruptly pushed back her chair. "Alright, if you two are going to stare at each other like that I'll get out of your way. Thanks for the lovely brunch, Matthew."

"Not so fast!" cried Mary, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Matthew. "Don't go. We need to discuss this afternoon."

Sybil paused in the doorway. "What about this afternoon?"

Mary heaved an exaggerated sigh. "You are pregnant or had you forgotten? And you asked for my help so I am going to give it to you. The first thing we are going to do is to take you to a clinic to get examined."

She shot Matthew an apologetic glance and he swallowed down his disappointment. He had hoped he would be able to spend the afternoon with Mary but of course her sister had to be her priority at this time. He would have thought less of her if she had behaved otherwise. The timing, however, was terrible.

"Examined?" repeated Sybil. "Do I have to?"

"Don't be such a baby about it, darling. We need to know how far along you are, check that the baby is healthy, look at your options..."

"My options."

Matthew got up quietly and started to clear away the dishes. This was not a conversation that he had any right to take part in.

"Do you have any idea how far along you are? That is, do you – do you know when it happened? I assume it was a – an accident."

Sybil rolled her eyes and came back to sit down. "Of course it was an accident! But I don't know exactly when... There were several occasions..."

"Oh, darling..." Mary was silent a moment and then she said in overly neutral tone. "You say several occasions. Sybil, were you even using protection at all?"

Suddenly a memory flashed into Matthew's mind of a wind-swept sea front and seeing Mary yell something about protection, thinking she was talking to him as he zoomed up on his motorcycle, misunderstanding her, and then being taken unexpectedly into her confidence. He smiled at the memory and how much he had tried to deny his feelings for her even at that early stage, but it was now a bittersweet recollection considering what had happened after that conversation. Poor Sybil.

"Most of the time," replied Sybil before quickly adding at Mary's disapproving expression, "Oh please! Do you know how hard it is, only having one night a week when we can be together? And sometimes we forgot and it was too late to go to the shops so we just-"

"You could have said no," interrupted Mary harshly. "You could have said no instead of just jumping into bed with him anyway when you were perfectly well aware of the consequences. How could you be so stupid?"

"Mary!" And now she sounded close to tears. Matthew ran the water for the washing up, feeling acutely uncomfortable. "It's not so easy, just saying no like that when you have to seize every moment together and all you want is this one person! All you want in the world and it's new and perfect and-"

"It's always easy to say no. Don't protend you didn't have a choice and made the wrong one."

Mary stood up and carried the mugs into the kitchen. Matthew noticed that her hands were trembling and he turned to her in concern but she would not meet his eyes.

"You would say that!" cried Sybil. "You've never got carried away in your life!" Then she ran out of the room.

Mary leant on the counter and took a few deep breaths. Matthew watched her, feeling helpless. Gingerly, he lightly rested a hand on her back.

"I can't imagine," he murmured, "how hard this must be for you. For what it's worth, I think you're managing wonderfully."

As if his words had recalled her to his presence, she stood up straight and forced a smile.

"You're very sweet, Matthew, but there's no use crying over it. Come on, I'll dry if you wash."

*


Matthew left once the washing up was finished. It was too hard to re-capture a romantic mood with Mary looking tense and miserable and Sybil playing rock music loudly upstairs on her laptop. She promised to ring him that evening once she had taken her sister to the clinic, booked the train tickets to London, and caught up with Anna. Anything beyond that she could not guarantee and Matthew, who felt he was beginning to understand her, accepted his dismissal with patience and a good grace. He had said he would be there for her and so he would be, for as long as she needed him.

Later when he was back in his poky room in halls and laying out his dinner jacket and trousers on his bed in preparation for packing for the weekend, his mind drifted back to Mary and Sybil. Of course it was a horrible situation for Mary to be put in and he did not blame her for being sometimes short-tempered with her sister. There had been a girl at his school who had got pregnant at fifteen. She had had to drop out before her GCSEs and was only mentioned afterwards in hushed tones as the greatest scandal St Catherine's Church of England High School had seen in a long time. She had not been in Matthew's year and he had not known her well but while Sybil certainly had more material advantages than Annabel Tamworth had had, teenagers and the social stigma they propagated were the same all over. It would not be easy for her or her family.

However, he felt that something else was going on with Mary than natural worry about Sybil's future. She blew hot and cold with him though he did not think it was intentional. He did not doubt that she wanted him, the eagerness of her kisses proved that wonderfully, but a small part of him felt that she was simultaneously pushing him away. Surely he had to be mistaken about that? But if she was not, why didn't she let him stay the night with her? Nothing needed to happen if she didn't want it to but hadn't he earned the right to hold her again as he had on the sofa the night before? She could be so flirtatious, so confident of her own attractions, but she could also blush in the most diffident and adorable way. She did not know how to take compliments, sometimes it even seemed as if she was not sure what was required of her and yet – and yet how could that be the case for someone so beautiful and sophisticated? As a dinner date to a Michelin starred restaurant Mary Crawley was worldly and classy beyond her years but take her out of her comfort zone of high society and superficial elegance and she was, dare he say it, even a little awkward.

There was only one conclusion that Matthew could come to and that was that Lady Mary Crawley was extraordinarily, unexpectedly romantically inexperienced. She projected the kind of image that suggested that she had a deliciously scandalous past with a trail of rich and famous lovers she had used and discarded at whim but that was not really true, was it? He knew from Sybil that she had had only one boyfriend and he had been gay. Had they slept together? It was hard to imagine, not at that age. Matthew had had a girlfriend at school too but they had both felt too young and unsure to progress their relationship beyond study dates in Manchester Central Library and holding hands in Pizza Hut every Saturday evening. Not that that meant the same values had applied to Mary and Rashid's relationship but he still found it hard to imagine a teenage girl actually having sex with a gay boyfriend she was only going out with for show. Perhaps he was naïve himself, however, and did not really understand how Mary's world worked.

And what about her life at St Andrews? Her friendship with Evelyn Napier seemed genuine however much he might want more, and the only other man he was aware of in her life was Tony Strallan whom she disliked. She had had no relationship that he knew of since coming to university and while it was entirely possible she had spent her first year working her way through the crème de la crème of the Conservative Association, the very idea of it made him want to laugh. Mary thought herself better than those stuffy Tory boys (and she was of course); the idea was absurd. Then there was the fact that she had made no moves on him and that their budding relationship had so far advanced almost impossibly slowly. If she was that kind of girl, and he was becoming more and more convinced that she was not, why had she not simply seduced him? Slept with him and then moved on to someone in a more suitable social class? With a inner squirm of embarrassment he realised that he would probably have gone along with it happily enough. One night stands had never appealed to him but he thought guiltily that he might well have made an exception for the possibility of being with Mary Crawley, even just the once. If she had offered.

Matthew found himself holding a bow tie in each hand. Clip-on or self-tie? The answer was obvious though. For Mary he would cut no corners and he threw the clip-on back in his drawer and packed the self-tie one. Maybe if he was very lucky she would tie it for him.

She liked him. She really did genuinely like him, it seemed, and if she was nervous and reticent then he could understand that and he vowed to himself then and there that he would be as patient and gentle with her as he knew how to be. If she let him, he would be her guide, he would be her first, whenever she was ready, whether that was the following day or the following year. It would be the greatest privilege he could imagine for, unlikely as it seemed in this day and at her age, Lady Mary Crawley was still a virgin. There could be no other explanation.

Chapter Nineteen coming soon!
Tags: downton abbey, fanfiction, matthew/mary, university challenge
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