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University Challenge

Chapter Text

If it weren't for Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Mary would not have been there at all.

After two weeks of slaving over her essay it was finally handed in and she could forget about the catalogue of blame, the allocation of responsibility, and whether Angel really was as big a nob as he appeared. (The lecturer's term, not hers.) It had been a long slog. Interesting to be sure, but long. She was glad to send off the document and turn off her laptop.

Mary was not one of those people who worked steadily. She thought about work a great deal, but it was only when the deadline finally loomed that she headed to the library and got stuck in. And then she worked very hard, almost continuously, until it was done. Nobody could say that Mary Crawley's work was not thorough, when she bothered to do it.

What to do next though? She had hardly seen anyone in all the time she had been working and felt starved for conversation and excitement. Anna had been there most evenings to cook for her it was true (Mary could barely boil an egg; it was embarrassing) and she always saw Evelyn in the library, but no evenings out, no dancing, no dinners...

The day the essay was due in, Anna was busy. Well, she was spending the evening at John's, as she did every Friday. Mary did not hold it against her for it wasn't as if Anna was her personal cook, at her beck and call constantly. Still, she could not face another evening of M&S ready meals. Every time she ate one she hated herself just a little bit more.

And so it was that she decided to go to the debate.

It was the annual Conservative Association versus the Labour Club's debate and dinner. She would never have bothered going normally for she was only a member of the CA to meet rich and upper class men to marry. However, in almost two years of dedicated membership she had failed to find anyone who ticked all the appropriate boxes. The boys interested in her were obnoxious and stupid and the ones she was interested in were either taken or gay. It was too depressing.

The annual debate was hardly going to be productive because the only new people she would meet would be Labour Club members and they rarely fell into the upper class bracket. Still, it was a chance to get out of the house, wear a pretty dress and think about something a bit more relevant than issues of female consent in nineteenth century literature. Tess was such a bloody depressing book. She should have done the Austen paper after all.

Mary took the whole day off after submission. In the afternoon, she went shopping, and bought a cute, black dress from Reiss to wear that evening. Then she got her hair done. Then her nails. Then she went home, feeling much more human, and caught up on two weeks worth of news. She did not want to look silly and ignorant at the dinner after all, though she hoped she would not be sitting next to anyone too political. Political activists were so boring. (She should know; her youngest sister kept sending her invitations to highly inappropriate liberal facebook groups. Bless her for trying, but really. In the past feminists actually chained themselves to the railings, not spammed their siblings on social networking sites.)


As usual, when Mary turned up to the debate, everybody looked at her. So she liked to be elegant and smart, what of it? Better to be overdressed than looking like that ginger girl in ripped jeans who looked as if she'd just rolled out of bed and then got stuck in a hedge who was priming the Labour Club speaker at the podium. Mary rolled her eyes and went to sit down on the Conservative side of the room before suddenly realising that the redhead was Anna's friend, Gwen. Oh dear, well, she had no intention of talking to her, not when she was dressed like that!

She had not been sitting down long before Anthony "I don't like my name being abbreviated, please" Strallan joined her. He was one of the most boring of the Club and for some reason always thought she would want to talk to him. On the other hand, he was rich, so she did not like being too dismissive. Fortunately the debate started before long and she could shush him.

The topic was "This house believes that the current government does not represent its subjects" and it was being proposed by a certain Matthew Crawley from the Labour Club. Mary raised her eyebrows at their shared name.

"Perhaps you're related!" joked Anthony in a whisper and she giggled back. This was surprisingly witty for him.

Mary disagreed with what the speaker for the proposition said in principle but she had to admit he delivered his arguments well, and the Conservative speaker did not put up much of a fight. She answered every point with the unhelpful, "Yes, but-" while Mary clenched her fists, her fingernails digging into her palms. She could have done so much better, she knew she could have done.

"Yes, but what?" burst out Matthew at one point, with a grin to the audience. The Labour supporters laughed. "I really think I ought to stop now, since you've conceded all your points! It'd hardly be fair otherwise."

He was having far too much fun. Little as Mary cared for the actual politics of the Conservative Association, she nevertheless felt all the sting of humiliating defeat. Later, when the floor was opened to the public, she could not help it, and raised one elegant, bare arm.

"The lady at the back in black!" said the chairman.

Mary stood up slowly and chose her words with care. "I have a question for the speaker for the proposition."

Matthew Crawley leaned on his lectern and smiled confidently at her.

"Go on!"

She narrowed her eyes.

"You have mentioned several times the need for MPs to truly represent their constituents and come from all walks of life, and yet I wonder how you would go about making this a reality. Do you really want the country to be run by ignorant, school drop-outs and drug-addicts from council estates? I appreciate you yourself might feel more at home there, but I fail to see how it would benefit the country especially on the international stage."

Matthew glanced down, bit his lip, thought a moment and then replied. "Thank you, er?"

"Mary. Mary Crawley."

For a second he met her eyes (his were a very beautiful blue, she noticed, even from this distance) and a flash of surprise crossed his face at her name. Then he returned to the point in hand.

"Thank you, Mary. That-"

"It's Lady Mary actually."

A ripple of laughter ran through the room and a couple of "ooohs". Mary flushed. She had no idea why she had said it; her title was something she revealed or concealed whenever it was most beneficial for her, and in the middle of a debate surrounded by Labour voters, she could not imagine what or who she was trying to impress with it.

Matthew's lips twitched and he coughed briefly into his hand. Now Mary felt properly enraged, mostly at herself for having been so stupid.

"Lady Mary then. Thank you for sharing that detail of your background, it explains a great deal!" More laughter. "I take your point though. Really, I do. There's a contradiction at the heart of all this. To be able to run a country you need education and intelligence. That automatically makes you a part of the elite. If you are a part of the elite and live in a democracy, how can you claim to represent the majority of the country you are purporting to govern?"

"Yes, that is the question I am asking!"

"Well, the answer is in what I just said: education. A free, good quality education for all will mean that anybody from any background will be able to rise above their birth and, if they want to, become an MP and represent those very people who do not have any representation currently and change things for the future."

"Such as yourself?" sneered Mary. "Perhaps you wish to be the People's Prime Minister?"

He flushed and looked annoyed. She was pleased. "My background and ambitions are irrelevant. I was speaking generally."

"And hopelessly optimistically!" she cried. "Do you really think that-"

"All right!" interrupted the chair. "Thank you very much, Lady Mary. I think we'll draw this one to a close there. Does anyone else have any questions for either of our two speakers?"

Mary sank back into her chair. She had given him a bit of trouble at least. She looked up again and realised with surprise that Matthew was still looking thoughtfully at her while the Conservative speaker answered some asine comment. She glared at him and he looked away, abashed.


Dinner was in nice restaurant that the Conservative Association had picked. Mary was glad; left to the Labour Club, they'd probably have been eating in McDonalds. In an attempt to avoid sitting next to Anthony, however, she found herself stuck on the end of the table next to Matthew Crawley of all people. On the plus side, she could not even see Anthony.

As they sat down, they exchanged rueful glances of acknowledgement and Mary sighed silently at her bad luck before making something of an effort.

"Shouldn't you be sitting in the centre? You are the conquering hero of the hour, after all!"

Of course Labour had carried the motion in the end.

He smiled and shook his head. "I'd feel a bit better about my victory if you lot had put up a bit more resistance."

"We shall simply have to try better next time!" replied Mary drily and opened her menu, turning a little away from him.

After choosing her food, Mary settled down for a very dull and lonely dinner. She had managed to find herself at the Labour end of the table. The two people opposite her were clearly a couple and more interested in each other then making new friends. (Of course she did not mind; they looked annoying anyway.) On her right was Matthew who was now deep in conversation with the guy on his other side and she had nobody on her left. She rested her chin on her hand and stared off into space. Perhaps she would have been better tagging along with Anna and John. She could have locked them in the downstairs lavatory until they finally got together. That would have been amusing. She would have to consider it seriously...

The waiter came to take her order and when he had gone, she determined not to spend the entire evening in silence. Shooting the couple opposite a scornful glance (public displays of affection were so vulgar and enough to put her off her food; these Labour Club members were proving right all her prejudices, it was so depressing), she turned in her chair and fixed her brightest smile on her face.

"So, Matthew, do you intend to steer the ship of state yourself? You wriggled out of answering me earlier which rather suggests you have talents in that direction."

He raised his eyebrows when she spoke to him. "If I did, I doubt you would vote for me, but no, I have no political ambition for myself. My interests lie elsewhere."

"Bravo! If you are trying to persuade me of your suitability to rule, then you are saying all the right things."

"You are no Platonist, I gather," he replied, his lips twitching slightly.

"As much as you are a philosopher king, I fancy!"

For a moment their eyes met in surprised and gleeful acknowledgement that they actually understood each other, then Matthew looked away as if he had been caught doing something he oughtn't. Mary pressed her advantage.

"If you do not want to go into politics, then what? Law?"

"Am I really that obvious?"

"Either that or acting. You certainly seem at home on a stage."

"I'll take that as a compliment, I think, Mary!"

She smiled. Perhaps she had spoken too soon in thinking that all her prejudices would be proved correct this evening.

After a few moments, he addressed her again. "So, you're really a Lady? Does that mean your father is a Duke or something?"

"The Earl of Grantham," she replied, sitting up a little straighter and unable to resist a little smirk of superiority.

"Earl. Duke. Whatever. I've never met a real aristocrat before."

"And what do you think?" She leaned back against her chair, unconsciously displaying herself to best advantage.

His lips twitched again as he looked her over, eyes narrowing. Finally he replied with a hint of laughter, "Depressingly normal, for St. Andrews anyway. Maybe only a little bit more entitled than most of them!"

"A little bit more entitled? I'm offended!"

"Of course you are. Ah, steak!" he broke off as his food arrived, an expression of intense pleasure and anticipation passing over his face.

Mary stared at him. When he noticed, he shrugged. "My girlfriend's vegetarian. She's a great cook, really, but this is just..." His eyes closed a second. "Fabulous!"

For some reason Mary felt disappointed. She could not explain why. She ate a few forkfuls of her own prawn linguine before speaking again.

"Your girlfriend didn't come to hear the debate?"

"Lavinia?" replied Matthew thickly through a mouthful of food. Mary pursed her lips at his bad table manners and he swallowed before continuing. "She's not interested in politics. Anyway, she has to do work this evening."

"Is she also a lawyer?"

"No, classicist."

"I suppose I would be too, if I were called Lavinia!"

Matthew smiled. "She's doing her dissertation on Lavinia actually. Well, on all of Aeneas' wives, but she mainly wants to prove that Lavinia is the most important to the story."

God, thought Mary, she sounded boring. Boring and up herself. It would be like her studying theology and writing her dissertation on how awesome the Virgin Mary was. Though really, she was sure enough such dissertations existed. Some were probably even written by people called Mary. Instead she smiled sweetly and said, "How extremely interesting!"

"Isn't it just? I have to say, I was always more into the Greek side of things, but it's better that way. We'd have really got under under each other's toes if we had had the same interests within the subject."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, sorry! I did my undergrad in classics too. It's how we met."

Mary raised her eyebrows. "A classicist who votes Labour. Isn't that a contradiction in terms?"

"Just because I didn't go to Eton, it doesn't mean I'm incapable of appreciating culture and getting a good education!" He speared a thick, golden, hand-cut chip with unnecessary violence.

His defensiveness made her defensive. "I'm only surprised that they teach Latin on the council estates! Amazing that you had time for it in between dealing drugs to underage kids and shooting each other!"

"I don't know why you should assume that my background is anything like that, Mary. And, not that I suppose you're interested, but I learned both Latin and Greek from scratch at university. Nowadays, even a subject like classics is open to all and not just the preserve of the historically privileged."

His superior and prissy tone of voice was grating on her. She started to think she would have preferred Anthony's company or even just watching the couple opposite feed each other mashed potato.

"Well, I can't imagine why anyone else would want to study it. It's not going to get you a job, and I suppose you need one."

He put his knife and fork down and stared fixedly at his plate for a moment. "I'm studying law now, remember?" he commented stiffly. "What do you do?"

"English literature."

He glared at her. "Oh, yes, and what do you intend to do with that then? But of course you are probably just going to inherit a massive pile in the country and a ton of servants and won't ever need to work!"

Mary gripped her fork. Oh, she wished! But since her grandfather had been forced to give the estate to the National Trust in the 60s to save them from bankruptcy, all she could look forward to inheriting was a useless title for her son if he was born before her father's death and the opportunity to live in one wing of the Abbey watching tourists trample all over her family's ancestral home and holding vintage car rallies in the grounds.

"I'll think of something," she deflected proudly.

Suddenly he laughed and waved his knife at her. (She winced.) "Ah, I know your type! What you mean is that you're trawling the place for potential rich husbands. In fact, that's probably the only reason you're here at all. I knew people like you at Oxford. Well, sorry, Prince William is already taken!"

She did not hear the rest of what he said after that. A wave of sudden misery and envy washed over her and she stood up suddenly.

"Excuse me," she muttered abruptly, interrupting him. She dumped her napkin on the table, and squeezed out behind the chairs, making straight for the ladies, Matthew twisting in his chair to stare after her, his mouth slightly open.

Alone, she leaned against the sink and pressed her eyes closed. It had been over three years now. She should be over it, but every time something like this happened, it was just another piece of evidence proving that she was not. It hurt even more than usual this time though. She could accept that some people did get into Oxford, even that they deserved it, but not in this case. The idea of her having been denied her rightful place at the college her father and grandfather had both attended while an arrogant, liberal upstart like Matthew Crawley swanned around the place felt like a personal dig.

Behind her closed eyelids, her mind's eye ran riot. Matthew waiting in a fluttering academic gown on the steps of the Bodleian for the pale, anaemic looking Lavinia of her imagination to emerge, almost completely swamped in books. They were smiling so cheerfully. (Of course they were; they got to study at Oxford!) Then they were punting with champagne and strawberries... She jerked her head down as if she could avoid the pain by physical movement.

She forced her eyes open. This was utterly ridiculous. Mary was happy at St. Andrews, really she was, and, honestly, what did it matter where Matthew had done his undergraduate degree? She was never going to see him again after this evening. It was not worth it. He was not worth it.

She examined her reflection critically and reapplied her make-up, taking her time until she was perfectly satisfied. Then she adjusted her dress to give her breasts greater prominance. She might not have been clever enough for Oxford, but she looked hot, and that had to count for something. (Lavinia probably wore massive glasses and no make-up.) She gave her reflection one last smirk, patted her soft, brown hair and then exited the bathroom, swinging her hips a little.

"I'm sorry, Mary," said Matthew as she sat down. She was pleased to notice his gaze dipping down to her chest for a split second. Bah, Lavinia probably dressed like a farmer. Poor, poor Matthew. Well, it served him right for dating a nerdy classics grad doing a dissertation on herself. "I truly am. I didn't mean to get so angry at you. It's just – it's just it really frustrates me when I see people taking all this for granted, when I had to work so hard to get there at all."

"It's quite alright," she replied with breezy unconcern. "I feel exactly the same way about people who work hard to get what should simply be mine automatically!"

He looked at her sideways, as if not sure whether she was being sarcastic or not but Mary was sipping her wine and gave him no clues. She drained her glass and reached for her purse, putting down a £20 note on the table. This would easily cover her main course and drink and more, but she did not mind it if they thought she could afford to throw away money without thinking about it.

"You're leaving?" asked Matthew, and he actually looked quite sorry.

"Yes. I have to see a friend." Well, perhaps Anna would need comforting after John failed to make a move yet again. Idiots, the pair of them.

"Oh." He hesitated, looking up at her as she shrugged her jacket on and did up the buttons. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Mary."

She smiled. "You too. Well done on winning on the debate."

"Thank you for taking defeat so graciously!"

"You can return the favour next time."

He grinned broadly at that. "We'll see about that!"

She did not know what she was still doing standing there looking at him like this. She tossed her head and squeezed out, her departure only held up by Anthony suddenly pushing his chair back and grabbing her arm.

"There you are, Mary! What were you doing down that end of the table? Are you coming to the pub? I wanted to tell you all about my cells – they finally changed colour yesterday! I thought you'd be interested."

She made a face and pulled her arm out of his grasp. "Are you for real?"

She made her escape as quickly as she could. The evening had been an unmitigated disaster.

Chapter Text

Matthew woke alone to the gentle sound of typing. Groaning slightly, he opened his eyes to find that sunlight was already streaming through the large bay windows of the bedroom. At the desk in the window sat his girlfriend, Lavinia, in her dressing gown, a cup of coffee by her elbow, already at work. Matthew groaned again and shielded his eyes with his arm.

"What time is it?" he said, or would have done if it had not come out as an incoherent mumble.

Lavinia turned round. "Ah, you're awake! How do you feel this morning?"

He groaned again and thrashed around on the bedside table until he managed to get hold of his watch. He squinted it. Only ten in the morning. Could be a lot worse.

"What on earth did you get up to last night? You were so drunk!"

"Was I? Um. We went to the pub after the meal. Somebody bought shots." He blinked as memory flooded back and groaned yet again. "I hate shots."

Lavinia laughed slightly. "I know you do, darling. I can't imagine what you were thinking! But who knew the Communists could party so hard! Doesn't having fun go against the manifesto or something?"

"They're not -" He gave up and stared at the ceiling.

"I'm glad you won though. That was really well done of you." She unfolded herself from the chair and came to sit on the bed and kissed him on the forehead.

Matthew grinned sleepily up at her. He was starting to come to himself more. "Thanks. It wasn't difficult though. The girl they had on the opposition wasn't up to much."

"No? That's a shame. I know you like a good argument."

"I did get one though, Linny, just not during the debate. Ended up sitting next to this girl at dinner." He chuckled slightly. "Went on at me the whole time."

"How annoying!"

"She was okay actually. Rather amusing to talk to. Dyed in the wool Tory, of course. Aristocrat too. Father's the Earl of Granchester or something."

"Ohhh!"

"Oh what?"

"You're talking about Lady Mary Crawley, aren't you?"

"You know her?" Matthew rubbed his eyes with his fist. Now the headache was kicking in.

Lavinia laughed again and gently removed his hand from his face. "Darling, everyone's heard of Mary! She's like... she's like the Regina George of St. Andrews."

"The huh?"

She leaned down and opened her eyes very wide. "Her hair is so big because it's full of secrets. You know, Regina George."

Matthew closed his eyes. "But her hair isn't big. It was just, uh, normal sized. Quite-"

"It's a film, you silly! Never mind. Well, you found yourself next to Mary Crawley. Poor thing! Was it awful?"

"Not at all. As I said, I quite liked her." He realised with some surprise that this was true. "Anyway, what did you get up?" He reached out and tangled his fingers with hers and smiled affectionately at her. "I'm sorry for abandoning you last night."

"Oh, don't worry about that! What did I do? Well, I did a bit more reading, I made some soup, then Parks came round for supper and we watched some Grey's Anatomy, she went home about nine and I just did some more work and went to bed early. Terribly boring really!"

She smiled ruefully at him and he met her smile.

"How's Aeneas?" he asked after a moment of comfortable silence..

Lavinia perked up. "I've been doing historical background for different wedding ceremonies in antiquity, trying to ascertain how legal his marriage to Dido was."

"And?"

"The usual! Some scholars say one thing, others say the opposite and they have very polite little arguments over it in the footnotes. Cute, but unhelpful."

"Oh, Linny..." He propped himself up in bed to kiss her. "You work too hard!"

"Ew!" She pulled away, wrinkling her nose. "You need to clean your teeth!"

Matthew groaned again for an entirely different reason. Lavinia stood up, patted his cheek affectionately and padded back to her desk. He watched her back and then made a massive effort and swung his legs out of bed.

"Okay. I'm up. I'm going to have a shower."

"Alright, darling," she replied, eyes on her laptop once again.

Matthew stood up and hesitated, looking at her but received no response and he left the room quietly with only a slight sigh. Once upon a time, his statement would have been met very differently by her.


Mary sat on the sofa wrapped in her lovely, soft Afgan blanket waiting for her laptop to boot up. On the TV in front of her was one of those dreadful Saturday morning atrocities that passed for programming. Some woman had apparently left her husband for the cleaning lady and his sister and was then complaining to a chat show host about how he wanted to divorce her and keep half of her race horse breeding fortune. Mary stuck her hand into her box of luxury triple chocolate crunch cereal and ate another handful without taking her eyes off the screen, her expression disgruntled. Human nature was utterly incomprehensible sometimes.

She had only just logged on when the sitting room door open and Anna wandered in. Mary looked up. She had not seen her since the previous afternoon.

"How're you? How was your evening?"

Anna shrugged and came to sit down slowly next to her on the sofa. "I'm alright. Evening was good."

She raised her eyebrows and Anna shook her head, resigned.

"Anna!"

"I know, Mary." She looked down. "It's complicated."

Mary dumped the cereal box on the floor and twisted to look at her friend very seriously. "It's not complicated; it's incredibly simple. You are in a relationship with John in every respect apart from the most important one! You go on dates regularly every Friday night, you're head over heels in love with him – and nothing! Anna, you have to do something."

She shook her head. "I've tried dropping hints. Honestly, Mary, I'm doing everything I can! I even made him watch When Harry Met Sally last night. I just don't want to do anything that would ruin our friendship if that is – that is all he wants. I'm happy with it, really."

"If it is then he's taking terrible advantage of you because you're hardly subtle. Oh! I have a friend request!"

Her eye had caught the little red box appearing at the top of her facebook homepage and she turned back to her laptop to see who it was.

"Matthew Crawley wants to be friends on facebook," read out Anna over her shoulder. "Ooh, he's a bit of alright! A relation of yours?"

Sometimes Mary wished she could swap surnames with Anna. If she were called 'Smith' nobody would keep making this stupid connection between them just for having the same name. It was already old.

"No. He was proposing the debate last night – won it too, worst luck. We sat next to each other at dinner."

She accepted the friend request and immediately clicked on his profile. A Church of England high school in Manchester (just what she might have imagined), five years at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (how long was a classics degree?), they both liked Yes Minister and Queen, Gwen Dawson was a mutual friend, he was in a relationship with Lavinia Swire... She clicked on Lavinia's profile. Most of it was hidden, but she could see her picture – an attractive red head in a floral print dress and sunglasses with her arm round Matthew taken on the Acropolis in Athens. Mary pulled a face. So she might be a nerd, but she was a hot nerd. Of course she was.

"So," began Anna in that speculative tone of voice that always suggested trouble, "shame about the girlfriend!"

Mary shrugged with disinterest. "I really don't care."

"You're far prettier than her anyway."

"Well, yes, but I didn't like him much anyway."

"Whatever you say," replied Anna with a grin.

"He spoke with his mouth full."

"That's absolutely terrible. How on earth did you cope?"

Mary narrowed her eyes at her. "Please remind me why we're friends."

Anna leaned back on the sofa and tucked her legs under her. It was a familiar game. "Well, sometimes you lend me your dresses."

"I suppose you do make the best Sunday roasts north of the border."

"Going on holiday with your family is the absolute best because they're loaded."

"You can do things to my hair that I would never have considered possible. If you fail your degree, have you ever considered being a beautician?"

Anna laughed and then stopped and smiled more soberly. "You trust me enough to tell me things you tell nobody else."

Mary also sobered. "You listen."

For a moment they just looked at each other then Anna noticed the cereal. Her expression darkened.

"Mary, please don't tell me you've just been sitting here all morning eating this out of the packet! Do you have any idea how many calories are in this stuff?"

Mary shrugged. "It doesn't make any difference to me, whatever I eat."

Anna stood up. "Well, it's alright for some! I'm taking this off you and putting it away now and then I'm making you a smoothie and scrambled eggs. I swear you wouldn't eat properly at all if it wasn't for me!"

"Very likely!" she responded as Anna left the room, and turned her attention back to the television with a sigh of indolent boredom. Apparently she had missed the next major revelation in that the sister (who was having the affair with the wife and the cleaning lady) had turned out to have earlier seduced the husband's helicopter pilot who was twenty years younger than her and he now wanted to bring legal action against her for blackmail, a fact complicated as he was having a baby with the niece (not present on the show for legal reasons). Mary turned it off in disgust. At least on Desperate Housewives the people were pretty.

Looking back at her laptop, she saw she had another notification. Her sister Edith had written on her wall.

"Mary Crawley is now friends with Matthew Crawley." So you've found Daddy's missing heir, have you? Guess neither of us will get our hands on the title now. Shame. xxx

She sighed heavily and immediately commented.

He's not Daddy's heir, you moron. He's from Manchester. xxx

The answer pinged back almost immediately and Mary flexed her fingers, preparing herself for the usual argument that conversations with Edith inevitably turned into.

I'd rather he was than any of your descendants. xxx

At least my unborn child actually has a chance of getting it. The Queen would never pick you over me. xxx

Are you sure about that, Mary? You wouldn't want her delving too deeply into your records, would you? xxx

Mary stared at her screen in sudden consternation, then angrily deleted Edith's last comment and sent her a message. It was to the point and unusually crude for her:Fuck off.

She slammed her laptop lid shut and stared into space. When Anna came in a few minutes later with two glasses of raspberry smoothie, she had not moved.

"Oh dear," said her friend, sitting down and handing her the glass. "What happened?"

"Edith," replied Mary succinctly. "I think she must spend her entire life refreshing my facebook page waiting to pounce on every little thing I do. It's so lame, but that's Edith for you."

Anna nodded sympathetically but did not say anything. She had met Mary's middle sister a couple of times and found their relationship baffling. It was one of those matters where remaining neutral was probably the smartest option.

Suddenly Mary realised she was holding the smoothie and she looked over at Anna and smiled ruefully and received a patient smile in response.

"Ah, Anna, sometimes I hate my life and then you bring me a drink and everything is better again!"

"I love you too, Mary."

They curled up on the sofa and drank their smoothies in silence.

Chapter Text

A week had passed since the Labour-Conservative debate, it was Saturday once again, and Mary was bored out of her mind. That was the problem with only having essays a couple of times a term and being so generally lazy that without the stimulus of a deadline one had no motivation to do any work.

It is a truly terrible curse being clever, she thought, slumped on the sofa, obsessively picking the pith off an unseasonal satsuma before eating it and idly watching Anna pore over a large, shiny textbook at the desk by the window. University was such a tedious waste of time if there was not enough work set and you were clever enough not to need to spend too much time on what was set. If she had gone to Oxford, of course, there would have been an essay a week, but – Well, no use dwelling on that.

"I wish you'd stop staring at me while I'm doing maths," said Anna without looking up. "The back of my neck is prickling like mad and I keep forgetting what I've already put in the calculator!"

Mary shrugged, not that Anna would have been able to tell. Then she stood up and stretched until her joints popped.

"Does it matter?" she asked grandly and rhetorically. "Does any of it ever matter?"

"It matters to me!" replied Anna tartly. "I need a sixty in this module to pass the year and it's the hardest paper."

"I'm sure you'll be fine, darling."

She stared vaguely out of the window. It was a blustery, bright, cold day, typical of the time of year and the coastal climate, clouds scudding across the blue sky from a strong wind high up in the atmosphere.

"I think I shall go for a walk."

"Good idea!" Anna enthused with some relief, and Mary sloped into the hall, slowly put on her fur lined boots, buttoned up her long, black tailored coat and wound a red pashmina round her neck for a bit of colour. She added a jauntily perched red beret over her long, dark hair and a pair of leather gloves finished the ensemble.

Once outside, she walked as quickly as she could, hands stuck in her pockets, till she got to the coast. There was a nice, smooth path there where she could walk out towards the famous golf links, the wind in her face and the smell of the sea pervading everything. Birds flew high in the sky with screeching calls and Mary breathed deeply as she slowed her pace. Spring had well and truly arrived and indeed there would be only a few more weeks until the Easter vacation. She was unsure whether this was a good thing or not. On the one hand it would be nice to be back at Downton with her family and away from the tedium and closed society of St Andrews. On the other hand it would mean being back at Downton with her family and having to endure the tedium and closed society of rural Yorkshire. Hers was such a hard life. Perhaps she and Anna could go away somewhere this summer. Of course, Anna wouldn't want to be away from John for long (silly girl!) and Mary had no intention of playing third wheel to a non-couple. She'd rather spend a week on a crowded beach in Greece getting sunstroke and food poisoning on a package holiday with Edith.

Well, maybe not a whole week. A few days might just about be manageable. At a stretch.

Then there would be her twenty-second birthday at the beginning of September. After Great-Aunt Elizabeth's inconveniently timed death a week before her twenty-first the year before had put paid to any celebrations then, her parents had promised a really slap-up party this year. They were even going to hire the Abbey off the National Trust for the weekend. How ironic that one had to hire one's ancestral home for a party. How depressing. Still, it was something to look forward to.

She was still walking and absorbed in thought when her iPhone rang. She pulled off her gloves to answer it, glancing first to see who it was. Her mother. She sighed inwardly and made her way over to a nearby bench overlooking the sea, predicting a long and probably unpleasant conversation.

"Hello, Mummy!" she began brightly enough and immediately added, "Is all well? Are you in London this weekend or back at Downton?"

So long as the conversation steered clear of Mary's future prospects and all those internships she was failing to apply for she would probably be alright.

Her mother's voice came across anxiously. "Darling, I'm glad I caught you. I'm in London, we both are."

"Daddy too?" she replied in surprise. Generally speaking, the Earl remained in the country most of the year round while his wife and Sybil worked and went to school in London during the week and went up to Yorkshire some weekends.

"Yes, he came down last night. We're going to a show tonight with your aunt."

"How lovely!" said Mary, studying her nails and wondering why she still sounded so tense.

"Yes... Mary darling, have you heard from Sybil recently?"

She sat up and blinked. "Sybil? No, why?"

There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. Mary rubbed her nose and frowned out at the sea.

"Well, you see, we don't know where she is."

"You don't know where she is. But she's with you! Where else would she be?"

"Of course she ought to be, but she isn't, and I've rung her again and again and she just won't pick up! She hasn't taken it into her head to pay you a surprise visit, has she?"

"Mummy, nobody makes surprise visits to St Andrews from London or anywhere else for that matter!"

Mary laughed incredulously, but she felt a seed of worry start to grow. Considering Sybil's developing interests in causing trouble (suspended from school for three days before Christmas for getting purple highlights – if they had been navy blue and matched the uniform then it would probably have been ignored, at least so Sybil had self-righteously claimed), disappearing was not completely out of the question. But Mary had thought she had calmed down after her latest protest against the establishment. (This time it was against the obligatory religious assemblies on Thursday mornings.)

"That's what I thought. But she hasn't called you, has she? Texted? Facebooked? Twittered?"

"It's 'tweeted', and no, I haven't heard anything. You'd better start from the beginning."

The story was easily told. Sybil was meant to be going to a sleepover ("A sleepover? Mummy, she's seventeen!") at her friend Daisy's house on Friday night as, it turned out, she often did. There was nothing unusual about that except that this weekend, Cora had needed to contact Sybil about something and, her daughter's phone being turned off, she had called Daisy's step-mother only to discover that Sybil was certainly not at their house, had not been at their house for a very long time and, according to Daisy herself, the two girls had had a falling out at the very beginning of the academic year and were now barely on speaking terms.

"I just feel so useless!" Cora almost wailed at the end of her explanation. "My daughter's been lying to me for months about what she's doing and I have no idea where she is or where she's been! She could be dead in a ditch for all I know. No, maybe not in London... Do you think it's drugs, Mary? It could be drugs. Or rap music. What if she's joined a gang?"

"Does Daddy know?" Mary interrupted.

"Good Lord, no, and he's not going to. You know what Daddy's like about this sort of thing."

Mary did and winced inwardly.

"I'll tell him she's spending the whole weekend at Daisy's if I have to. But, darling, would you try phoning her? If she is in trouble, she's more likely to talk to you than her old mother."

Mary leaned back on the bench and closed her eyes in resignation. "Very well, if I have to."

"Thank you, darling. Will you do it now? And as soon as you know what's going on, call me back!"

"Yes, Mummy."

Mary rang off and sat for a few moments in silence staring at the screen. She had no idea what her sister was doing but very much doubted it was anything half so bad as what her mother was imagining. After all, she'd been doing it every weekend for months without any noticeable effect. Sybil in a gang doing drugs? Hilarious.

She shook her head, briefly put her phone down to blow on her exposed fingers and then called her sister. Chances were she wouldn't pick up anyway.

She picked up.

"Mary! Hi! What's up?" she said sounding far too chirpy to be in any trouble, but Mary could hardly hear her over background noise on her end from a strange metallic banging and the sounds of tinny, radio musak.

"Sybil darling, you're okay!" she cried loudly and with a little relief she did not want to acknowledge.

"What? Of course I'm okay! Why wouldn't I be?"

"Are you with Daisy?" Mary asked casually.

"Daisy?" She sounded blank then came an exaggerated sigh. "Oh, I see: Mummy's put you up to this. She's been ringing me constantly since last night. It's so boring!"

Mary counted to five before replying. "She's worried sick about you. She rang Mrs. Patmore. Sybil, where the hell are you?"

"Oh shit."

"Don't 'oh shit' me, Sybil! You think I want to be middleman between you and Mummy while you play at teenage rebellion? For God's sake, I'm in Scotland! What am I meant to do about it all?"

Sybil was silent.

"Well?"

Mary felt she fitted the role of interrogator and grown-up judge of her sister particularly ill. Yes, Sybil was almost five years younger than her, but they had always been relatively close and Mary felt quite sure that whatever her sister was doing or had done, it could not possibly be worse than some of the things she had done. It made her feel a moral fraud which only increased her frustration at the situation. Who was she to judge?

Perhaps something of that nature was crossing Sybil's mind too because after a few moments she replied quietly, "I'm not doing anything wrong, Mary."

"You'll have to talk louder than that if you actually want me to hear what you say; what on earth is that racket?"

"Promise you won't tell Mummy?"

"I see: you're not doing anything wrong but I'm not allowed to tell Mummy. Honestly, darling! I promised her I'd ring back as soon as I got through to you."

"Mary, please! I'll tell you if you promise not to tell her! I swear there's nothing bad about it. She just wouldn't like it..."

Mary crossed her fingers in her coat pocket. "Alright, I promise."

"OK. Don't get angry, Mary." Sybil took a big breath. "I met this boy."

Mary almost felt like laughing. Of course it was a boy. No drugs involved. Well, probably not. "Oh, darling, and let me guess – you didn't meet him through Mummy's City contacts at a cheese and wine party?"

Sybil giggled. "Hardly. I met him at a concert I went to with Lily – her brother's band was playing – it was totally legit. And Tom, that's him, he played drums in another band. And, well, we just clicked, you know?"

"And Mummy doesn't know about it?"

"Of course she doesn't! He's five years older than me and he left school at sixteen and works in a garage. She'd never let me see him, and Daddy would blow a gasket!"

Suddenly the noise in the background made sense. Sybil was speaking from a garage. Of course.

"Well, you have chosen wisely!" Mary commented ironically. "Are you there now?"

"Yeah. I'm here every weekend. It's fascinating, you know. I'm learning all sorts. I'm now thinking I might study engineering at uni instead of politics."

Mary rolled her eyes. Whatever. Sybil changed her mind every few months about her university options. Nevertheless, she noticed that her voice had taken on a genuinely enthusiastic tone since she had started talking about Tom.

"And where do you spend Friday nights then since you're clearly not tucked up in a sleeping bag in Daisy's loft watching Disney films and eating party rings as Mummy seemed to think?"

"On a mattress."

"Yes, I'm sure. And where is this mattress?"

"In the back room of the garage."

Mary wearily pressed her fist to her eyes. Sybil had clammed up again and it was perfectly obvious why. She really did not want to be having this conversation.

"And are you all alone on that mattress in the back room?"

There was a long silence from Sybil, though not from the banging and the radio in the background.

Finally - "I don't really think that's any of your business, Mary."

"I quite agree; I want nothing to do with it! But Mummy's involved me and I have to tell her something so you'd better give me something to work with."

"Can't you just say I'm with friends?"

Mary clenched her fist in her pocket. "Why on earth would she believe that? Who are your friends anyway since Daisy's out of the running now?"

"The other people at the garage. There's-"

But Mary could no longer hear anything her sister was saying. Some eejit was riding a motorcycle along the path towards her and what with the engine noise, the wind, the roar of the sea and all the background noise on Sybil's end, she lost what she was saying. As the rider, all speed and brown leather, shot past her, she jumped up and waved her arms violently at this ASBO candidate who breached the peace so offensively.

"Sybil, I can't hear you! Give me a moment!" she called down the phone.

She still couldn't hear anything and pulled it away from her ear only to realise that her sister had ended the call at the first sign of her distraction. Incensed, Mary shrieked at it, "At the very least I hope you're using protection!" and then sank back down on the bench and angrily pulled her gloves back on with trembling fingers.

The motorcyclist had slowed to a halt some way further down the path, dismounted, and was walking back towards her leading the bike. Mary only looked up to notice when she became aware of the relative silence. She stood up and glared at him since there was clearly nobody else in the vicinity that he could be stopping for. She girded herself up for a fight, her self-righteousness making her brave. Surely there was a restriction on motor vehicles on this path? The whole point of it was to be a pleasant promenade along the coast, not for teenage daredevils with souped up bikes to disturb the peace.

"Isn't it illegal to – oh!"

She broke off because the rider had parked his bike on the grass just off the path near the bench and removed his helmet and shook out wavy, fair hair. It was Matthew Crawley. He was smiling ruefully at her as he stopped a few in front of her.

"Sorry."

"No, you're not!" She couldn't stop glaring at him. It was compulsive.

"Well, no, I'm not, but I am protected, you see!" He dangled his helmet smugly at her off one finger.

She stopped glaring long enough to frown in confusion.

"I heard you shout something at me, something to do with hoping I was protected. That was very considerate of you, Mary, I must say!"

She stared at him, her mouth falling open in surprise and then, quite unexpectedly, she began to laugh quite helplessly. She laughed and laughed and laughed and the more bemused Matthew looked, the more she laughed. Then his lips turned up and he laughed too, without knowing the cause, and they eventually fell side by side, weak and breathless onto the bench. Mary clutched at her chest and closed her eyes until the mirth had subsided. Then she turned her head and saw him watching her with an expression of the keenest interest and amusement on his face. It made her want to laugh again. She had not felt so warm and liberated for years. She swallowed down this strange elation and tried to explain, her eyes still dancing with mirth.

"I was talking to my sister, you see, not you."

He raised his eyebrows. "Your sister?"

"Yes! I was telling her-" Oh Lord. Another inappropriate giggle escaped her and she pressed her fist to her mouth. "Never mind!"

"Well, it must have been a hilarious conversation. I'm sorry I missed it!"

"Oh no," (more stifled giggles), "it wasn't funny at all!"

His lips twitched at the sight of her. "No, I can see that!"

She glared at him again but it did not quite reach her eyes and his expression did not change. "Really, it isn't funny; it's very awkward actually. I was telling her-"

She sighed, for it really wasn't funny and then, just as inexplicable as her laughter, she told Matthew the whole story. Perhaps it was the way he shifted slightly towards her with his arm along the back of the bench as if he really wanted to hear what she had to say, perhaps it was because he was ultimately a stranger and knew nothing about her and her family, perhaps she simply wanted to talk to someone. She could not really explain why she did it, but she told him and he listened.

At the end he was silent a few moments while Mary sat hunched forwards and stared out at the glittering sea. After mulling it over, he said, "And she just cut you off?"

Mary sat up straight again and faced him. "Yes! And now I have to think of something to tell Mummy. I promised Sybil I wouldn't and, honestly, it's not my affair, but I can't not ring her back."

"Hmm."

"Oh, look, Matthew," she cried with a little frustrated dip of her head, "it's not your problem. It doesn't matter. I'll think of something."

"Of course it matters," he replied with a frown. "You're worried about Sybil and you've been put it a very difficult position between your mother and your sister. I understand that."

"That doesn't mean you have to think of a solution for me."

He grinned at her. "I'm a lawyer, you forget. I like solving problems!"

"I thought lawyers mainly created them!"

"Of course; otherwise how else could we be paid to solve them?"

She blinked and then gave him a half smile before looking away. To give him his due, he didn't crow his victory but immediately continued, "How about you ring or text Sybil and say that if she goes home straight away and feeds your mother whatever story she likes, or the truth, you will just say that she's safe?"

It was a good plan. In fact, it was such a good plan that Mary was kicking herself for not immediately thinking of it.

She appraised him proudly. "Not bad... for a Labour voting lawyer."

"So you'll do it?" His pleased expression was hopeful and boyish and incredibly attractive.

"Maybe."

He nodded, making it quite obvious that he was hiding a smile and observing her slyly out of the corner of his eye. "Right: you'll consider it."

Mary clasped her hands tightly together and avoided his gaze. She was beginning to be alarmed by her reaction to him. She didn't want to like him – in fact, he infuriated her – but she did like him. Rather a lot. It was unhelpful.

"You must forget all this," she said finally in a bit of a rush. "I shouldn't have told you. It's only silly family trouble; in fact, I've probably exaggerated the whole thing into a kind of epic saga! Which I suppose you'd know all about."

"Yes, I noted your clever use of epithets and formulae," he replied lightly but his eyes remained serious. "I won't breathe a word, Mary, of course I won't."

Before she could thank him, his lips had twitched again. "You know, I suppose this is evidence that even toffs have issues like the rest of us!"

She rolled her eyes and retorted crisply, "Of course we do. Did you never watch Brideshead Revisited?"

"Must have passed me by, I'm afraid."

"Yes, it's terribly high culture, for a TV show," she replied smugly. "Driving that thing, I suppose you just watch re-runs of Top Gear. What on earth possessed you to get it anyway? You strike me as far too nice to be a biker."

He laughed, glanced fondly at the bike, and then sobered a bit. She watched him, curious in spite of herself and he shrugged.

"Rebellion, I suppose, was at the bottom of it. At Oxford everyone cycles everywhere. Old fashioned bikes with twee, wicker baskets ridden by old men in tweed jackets smoking pipes and getting in the way all the time. It all seemed pretty naff to me... so I got this!"

Mary smiled faintly, her heart only beating a little faster at his mention of the coveted city of gleaming spires. Of course someone like Matthew would not have appreciated the grand traditions of Oxford. She could rise above it.

"You must have been popular!" she commented smoothly.

"Oh yes, the porters loved me!" He laughed again, ruefully. "Lavinia can't stand it. Her idea of a bike ride is pootering along the river on a sunny afternoon, while I prefer roaring off to some distant village and getting away from it all!"

"So she doesn't cling on behind you, screaming as you take sharp bends at seventy?"

"Not once!" He looked at her speculatively and then, as if suddenly aware of where he was, his position shifted slightly. "Look here, why don't you come over for dinner sometime this week? Linny loves cooking for people – and she's very good."

Mary raised her eyebrows. Come over for dinner? It sounded terribly grown-up. Dinner parties were what parents did, not students. But how sophisticated could a dinner hosted by Matthew and Lavinia be? Nevertheless, she found herself agreeing and Wednesday was agreed to be the day.

"And, er, bring – I mean, is there anyone you'd like to bring? We wouldn't mind at all!"

She laughed at his sudden awkardness. "No, not like that. But if it's not too much trouble, I can invite my housemate, Anna." Anything to stop her spending the evening on MSN pining over John.

He grinned. "Brilliant. Sounds great. No trouble at all. Just warn me, is Anna secretly a princess and does she dine on caviar and truffles before saying her prayers to a portrait of Margaret Thatcher every night? Should we dust off the throne in the attic for her arrival?"

"I say, Matthew, is that what you think of me? How little you know! But no, I expect you will find Anna perfectly normal."

"Ah, I suppose it would be too much to hope there would be two of you. Well, I should be off. I have a bathroom to clean and case notes to read before Monday." His face fell a bit. "Can I have your number to sort out arrangements for Wednesday?"

They were friends on facebook; there was no need for exchanging numbers, Mary thought, but she dictated her number to him all the same in crisp tones and he typed it into his old Nokia.

"Here, did I get it right?" He held up his phone for her to inspect, his eyes sparkling at her.

She glanced down. Her number was correct and it was saved under the contact name 'Lady Mary Crawley'. She bit her lip and met his eyes, her gaze mocking, supercilious and just a little bit delighted. "Quite correct!"

Matthew stood up, after holding her gaze just a moment longer than was quite necessary, and pulled his helmet back on. "Good. I'll see you next week then!"

He righted the motorcycle, swung his leg over it and turned the ignition on, the engine roaring into life.

"Remember that suggestion of mine, Mary!" he cried as a parting shot.

"I said I'd consider it!"

His lips twisted into an upwards curve under his visor. "You do that then!"

He raised one hand in salutation and kicked off. As he roared away back down the path in the direction of town, he saw her in his mirror, still sitting on the bench, her phone out and texting her sister or her mother. He grinned to himself. Good girl.

Chapter Text

Very little took place between the weekend and Wednesday to distract Mary from anticipation of dinner with Matthew and Lavinia. Sybil had taken her advice, or rather Matthew's, and returned home with a plausible excuse and apology, so effectively that Lord Grantham had remained completely oblivious to his daughter's going missing in the first place. Mary's next essay was not due in for another couple of weeks, just before the spring vacation, so she had no pressure of academic work either. Monday, she went to Edinburgh, bought an emerald green silk blouse and wandered around the National Gallery of Scotland on her own. Tuesday, she stayed in bed most of the day eating cereal out of the packet and alternating between watching re-runs of Friends on day-time television and doing some desultory preliminary reading for the essay. (By supper time she felt terrible. She always did after days like that, not that it stopped her from repeating them.)

Then it was Wednesday.

Mary took the opportunity of wearing her new blouse. It was expensive but didn't look it. At least she didn't think it did, especially when combined with jeans. Anna eyed her thoughtfully but knew better than to suggest that Lady Mary Crawley was overdressed, and prepared to spend half an hour making her hair look naturally elegant.

Matthew and Lavinia's flat was on the first floor of a large nineteenth century granite house about twenty minutes from where Mary and Anna lived.

"This will be nice!" said the latter as they walked through town. "I've been wanting to meet Matthew for a while now."

"Really?" replied Mary indifferently. "I can't think why; he's not that interesting. And he's very full of himself."

"Of course he is. Remind me why are we going to have dinner with him?"

"I hear his girlfriend's a good cook."

"Figures." Anna shook her head and hid a smile.

A few moments later, Mary changed the subject and asked, "Talked to John much recently?" She had noticed Anna wasn't on her computer quite as much this week as she usually was.

"No." She sighed. "He's on a training week in Dundee."

"A training week?" Mary made a face. "He works on a checkout in Morrison's!"

"He's a retail consultant," retorted Anna, though her lips twitched. "And they have training weeks too, you know!"

"What on earth do they do on them? Is that where they're told that people like it when they ask them how they are, and learn how to perfect those ghastly smiles of desperation that accompany the question?"

Anna could not help laughing guiltily at this. "Something like that!" Then she sighed again and shifted the bottle of wine in her arms. "I miss him, Mary, I really do. I know he's only gone for a week but I miss chatting to him every day."

Mary didn't reply but eyed her thoughtfully for a moment. Her friend's drippy romanticism baffled her as much as she secretly envied it. Mostly though it just frustrated her.

"What kind of phone does he have?" she asked casually.

"Huh?"

"What kind of -"

"Just a normal one, I think. Why?"

"Does it have internet?"

Anna stared at her in confusion. "Well, I think so, but-"

"Get twitter. Then you can tweet each other constantly about important things such as what you're having for lunch when he's away and it'll be just like MSN! Or, you know, you could just ring each other."

"John doesn't like talking on the phone much."

"Odd," commented Mary, making a face.

"Some people just don't!" replied Anna defensively.

"And most of them grow out of it by John's age."

"Not that ridiculous complaint -"

"This is number nine," Mary interrupted, pausing in front the garden gate to a semi-detached house. She looked up, seeing a welcoming light in the upstairs bay window, before walking down the path, Anna following. She pressed the buzzer next to 'Crawley & Swire' while Anna murmured in her ear, "We'll talk about this later, Mary! I'm not letting you get away with this."

"If you like," she replied with a little shrug and then plastered a smile onto her face as the door opened to reveal Matthew, wearing a beaming, enthusiastic smile and his deep blue shirt untucked from his jeans.

"Hello, Mary! It's so good to see you again. And you must be Anna."

Introductions were quickly performed and Matthew ushered them in and closed the door behind them. "Our intercom's broken – sorry, I should have said – so I came down to get you. Lavinia's just upstairs; she is looking forward to meeting you both! You know, you do look lovely – both of you. Please, come up."

He led the way up the stairs and Mary glanced down at Anna, involuntarily wanting to see her response to him as they followed and then wished she hadn't. Anna's good humour had completely returned and she looked as if she was trying not to laugh when she met Mary's eyes. She quickly turned back to the front, her gaze hitting Matthew's back as he went upstairs in front of her. She immediately neutralized her expression as they reached the landing.

"Something smells fantastic!" cried Anna as Matthew ushered them into the flat.

"Oh, you'll love it," replied Matthew with a grin, and then called across the open plan living room, "Linny, they're here!"

Lavinia emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron, looking just as much the hot nerd that she had appeared from her profile picture. Considering the apron she was wearing (who actually wore aprons if they were under fifty? Really?) she also had the pink-cheeked look of a domestic goddess. At least her style was suffering from a severe case of Marks and Spencer-itis, Mary thought with some satisfaction.

"How lovely to meet you," she said advancing towards them. They all kissed on the cheeks and Anna handed over the bottle of wine while Matthew stood a bit aloof.

"Should I call you Lady Mary or is Mary fine?" Lavinia said with a smile, giving the bottle to her boyfriend, who disappeared to the kitchen in search of a corkscrew.

"Whichever you feel more comfortable with!" Mary replied drily, her eyes following Matthew retreating to the kitchen. "I do hope white goes with what you're cooking. Matthew said you were a vegetarian so I thought it might be preferable to red."

"Oh, yes, it'll go wonderfully with the lasagne. Thank you, you didn't need to!"

"Nonsense, of course we did."

Lavinia ushered them over the settee and a couple of wicker chairs with cushions round a glass topped coffee table and they all sat down.

"So, Mary," began Lavinia, "I hear you're studying English?"

Mary resisted rolling her eyes at the predictable subject. "Yes. I'm in my second year."

"Oh lovely! Are you enjoying it?"

"I'd enjoy it more if there was more work," she replied honestly.

Lavinia's eyes opened wide. "Oh. That must be frustrating. But at least with a subject like English you can never stop reading around the subject."

As if anyone actually did that... She smiled brightly. "Naturally!"

Lavinia smiled back and then turned to Anna. "And what about you, Anna? Are you also doing English?"

"God, no. I'm too practical for that sort of thing. I'm doing management."

"And afterwards," Mary could not help adding drily, as Matthew emerged from the kitchen with four glasses of wine on a tray, "when you're running your chain of luxury hotels, you'll be doing better than all of the rest of us put together!"

There was general laughter and Matthew chipped in, "I wouldn't say I was completely useless, Mary. People will always need lawyers!"

She shrugged. "Maybe. Or perhaps the world will change so that even the meanest of us are content to settle disagreements out of the law courts."

"I don't think so!"

He met her eyes with a challenge and she found herself pursing her lips to hold back an automatic smile, only to be interrupted by Lavinia exclaiming, "Oh my, I say, Mary, Anna, this wine is delicious! Where did you find it?"

Mary shrugged. "Oh, it was one of my Sunday Times wine club bottles. A 2002 Vouvray, a particularly good vintage apparently. So glad you like it, Lavinia."

Matthew sniffed the wine and raised his eyebrows. "A cut above our usual student fare I see. We're honoured, I'm sure."

Lavinia quietly excused herself to check on the cooking and soon declared it was ready. They all moved to the beautifully decorated table and sat down. The vegetarian lasagne not only smelled delicious but tasted wonderful as well. The wine complemented it perfectly and there was a crisp, green salad as well. For several minutes there was nothing but the sound of knives and forks on the plates, the clinking of glasses and the normal sounds of satisfied eaters.

Eventually Mary turned to Lavinia and said with an engaging smile, "Matthew tells me you're doing a dissertation on The Aeneid."

She really wanted to know, after all, exactly how a person managed to talk about doing a dissertation on oneself and not sound like a complete ass.

Matthew groaned slightly and turned his head away, muttering, "Really, are we going to discuss books all evening?" (An unfair complaint if ever there was one.) "Back me up here, Anna!"

While Anna's loyalties were torn and she tried to think of something diplomatic to say, Lavinia's face glowed as she replied, "Oh, what's Matthew doing talking about my dissertation! Yes, I am. I'm looking at the influence of patriarchal oppression on the female characters and the diminution of their agency- how Dido is tragically torn between the promise she made her dead husband and her forbidden passion for Aeneas, whereas Lavinia is simply a political pawn passed from one fiancé to another with no distinctive characterisation at all."

"Linny..."

"She did ask!"

Mary inclined her head with regal condescension. "I did indeed, and it sounds very interesting."

"Are you doing a dissertation, Mary?"

She shrugged. "I shall be next year. We need to start thinking about it after the break. I'm considering something on Henry James – and it just so happens that a new professor will be joining the department next year who's a specialist. I hope he will supervise me."

"That is lucky!" said Matthew supportively.

"You never told me about this," complained Anna. "Best friend privilege to hear everything first?"

"Oh, my tutor only mentioned him the other day... Yes, he's edited the critical editions of most of the novels and is something of an expert. Quite famous too for an academic– he does lots of television interviews and gets asked as an advisor on period films... He should be a breath of fresh air in the department, I must say!"

"What's his name?" asked Lavinia. "I might have heard of him."

"Professor Richard Carlisle. He's coming from London, from -"

"From UCL. Yes, I know."

Mary blinked. "You know him?"

She frowned. "N-no. That is, I don't think so. But my cousin went to UCL to do English and I think she knew him. But I may be mistaken."

She stared down at her plate and Mary glanced from her to Matthew. There was something odd about her reaction but nobody else seemed to have picked up on it so she mentally shrugged and dismissed it. Perhaps Lavinia disapproved of academics who weren't stuffy and one hundred years old and dared to supplement their meagre income by media work. She wouldn't be at all surprised.

Dessert of white chocolate mousse, also made by their hostess, was just as delicious as the first course, and Mary and Anna stayed several hours longer just chatting and drinking coffee. Lavinia mentioned her PhD plans, though how they would fit in with Matthew getting a training contract in a law firm was not quite clear. Then, to a great deal of mocking laughter from the others, Mary tried to explain the rules of polo and Anna adopted a thick Yorkshire accent.

When the two girls finally left at eleven they walked almost an entire block, huddling into their coats, before Mary finally let out a sigh and said, "That, Anna, is an example of domestic bliss!"

Anna laughed. "You think?"

"Absolutely. Their flat's far nicer than our house and spotlessly clean, she cooks fabulously, they're both beautiful and know what they want to do in life, they're just..." She broke off and shook her head, irritatingly dissatisfied.

Her friend was still amused. "You wouldn't need to change much, Mary, to get a spotlessly clean house, cooking's not that hard and I thought you knew what you wanted to do in life!"

"I do?"

Anna nudged her as they walked. "Marry someone rich – wasn't that your plan?"

For some reason Mary found it hard to laugh as she knew she ought to. "Oh, I don't know. I wonder sometimes if I mean that."

"I should think you have more of a chance of achieving it than most of the wannabe Kate Middletons here."

"That's sweet..."

Mary in a reflective mood was always difficult to navigate. Anna lapsed back into silence for a while until the tapping of their heels on the quiet cobbles became too much to bear and she ventured to ask, "Do you ever want what they have?"

Mary turned to look at her sharply. "The future with the two point five children and a mortgage? No, never!"

"That's not what I meant. I mean..." She sighed. "Someone. Do you ever wish you had someone to share it all with, all the doubts and the fears and the arguments as well as the good times like Matthew and Lavinia do?"

"Dear me, you do paint a dreary picture of life – nothing but problems and drudgery! Anyway, I've got you for all that! Honestly, I don't want a man hanging onto my apron strings. I can't wait to get a flat of my own in London. As for the rest," she grinned mischievously down at Anna, "if I wanted sex, I wouldn't have any problems getting any! But I don't!"

She jerked her head upwards with decision and walked faster, leaving her friend behind. Anna sighed and paused for a moment before catching her up. She wanted it. She wanted it all. She wanted the two point five children and the mortgage and the man and the sharing and the sex too. She even knew who she wanted it with, but some things, it seemed, were not destined to be. Not unless she was prepared to make them happen anyway. Maybe, Anna wondered, it was time to put the moves on John.

Chapter Text

Anna spent every Friday evening with John. He had a little terraced house in the 'town' part of St. Andrews and every week Anna ventured out beyond the boundaries of the 'gown' to spend a few hours alone with the man she was in love with. John was a man too, not a boy. He had a house and a job of his own; he was independent and knew his own mind without feeling obliged to follow all the stupid trends and fashions of student life. He didn't drink either, which made a pleasant change from the drunken slobs Anna came across everywhere else in the university. More than that, he was good and kind and despite having suffered much in Afghanistan and currently working a dead-end job in a supermarket, never complained or was anything other than upbeat and selfless. Anna admired him enormously and, in the six months since she had first helped him with his groceries after his bag split outside Tesco's, she had fallen irretrievably in love with him.

Mary had doubts, of course (but when didn't Mary have doubts?). She thought the age gap a problem, his lower social status a reason for looking down on him, and Anna had an idea she did not quite believe in her love for him. Apparently nineteen was too young to meet The One, especially if he was a thirty-five year old, working class ex-soldier with a limp. Much as she loved Mary and was willing to believe that she had her best interests at heart, Anna found her cynicism frustrating. She would have probably found it easier to deal with, however, if she did not feel terribly insecure herself. She thought her feelings must be terribly obvious – she had never employed any arts to hide them after all, but while she truly believed John cared about her a great deal, she had no idea what his actual feelings for her were. Every untrained instinct she had told her that he loved her and yet... and yet why did he do nothing about it? Evenings spent eating home-made pie and mash on the sofa while watching romantic films in a candlelit room, long walks on the beach telling each other their secrets; she had everything that a devoted girlfriend could dream of in her relationship with John except the relationship itself.

Seeing Matthew and Lavinia's domestic bliss had rekindled a determination to do something about this stalemate they had reached. She had always thought she was a traditional sort of girl, who wanted to be wooed with flowers and dinners for two, and an eventual proper proposal with kneeling and a ring and everything but it turned out that she loved John more than she loved the trappings of conventional romance. If he wasn't going to say something, then she would. Moreover, Mary had always said that if you wanted to change a relationship the end of term was the best time to do it because if it all went wrong then you wouldn't have to see the person for an entire month. Considering that in the one and a half years she had known her, Mary had never appeared to have been romantically involved with anyone, Anna could not help wondering if this strategy had ever been put to the test.

At any rate, so it was that a week before the end of term, Anna put on a particularly nice dress, borrowed one of Mary's nicest pashminas, did her make-up particularly carefully and set off for John's house determined that when she left something in their relationship would have changed.

Changing a relationship requires delicacy and timing and courage, however. Anna found herself easily settling into their usual routine. He took her coat (such a gentleman!), she asked after his day at work, he told her that the weekend had started now that she was with him, and they went into his kitchen for a drink. Anna tried to pick up on any signals he might be giving off but she simply could not tell whether he was behaving like a good friend or a potential lover. She had never had a boyfriend before (well, not since Alex Radcliff had asked to hold her hand during break time back in primary school) so she was not convinced she knew how to pick up on all the things she ought to be picking up on. Then she met John's eyes and she felt that she could not mistake the tenderness in his expression. She tried to screw up her courage time and time again and every time she was distracted by a fear of changing things, of being rejected, of not giving him one more opportunity to make a move on her before she reversed what was expected.

By the time she usually left she was thoroughly fed up with them both. It had to be now or she would never forgive herself. She turned to face him on the sofa, folded her hands in her lap, and took a deep breath.

John also shifted his body towards her. "What is it, Anna? You've had something on your mind all evening."

"Yes, I have." This was it. "You see, the thing is- and I know girls aren't meant to say it first but I won't care about that if you don't- but I love you, John Bates." She blinked, suddenly feeling so much lighter for having said it, and she could not help smiling. "I love you and I'm not sorry I said it either!"

His fingers wrapped around hers as his face creased into fondness. Her heart seemed to explode with happiness until he spoke. "Oh, Anna," he said, "I'm not sorry you said it either. I could never be sorry for anything you did or said. And I wish – I wish so much that I could give you what you want and deserve to have."

She frowned. "You can't?"

He let out a sigh and lowered his gaze. "I can't."

"But I don't understand. Are you saying you don't like me that way? Because-"

"No!" it almost burst out of him. "I'm not saying that at all. I mean what I said; I can't."

"I still don't understand."

"I don't expect you would. One day I hope things will be different but for now, it wouldn't be fair on you to-"

"Wouldn't be fair on me?" Anna shook her head vigorously. "This is about the age difference, isn't it? I've told you before that I don't care about that!"

"No, it's not just the age difference." He sounded as if he was going to continue and Anna waited a moment but he didn't.

With a suppressed sigh she withdrew her hand and stood up, smoothing down her dress with trembling hands. She felt suddenly desperate to go home. Mary would still be up and would want to have a cup of tea and say, "I told you so." Right now, even that sounded preferable in its comfort and familiarity.

John watched her step away from him and the words broke from him. "I like you so much, Anna. I wish-" His eyes pleaded with her. "Can't we just go on as we are? As friends?"

Anna closed her eyes briefly but there was no way she could resist him when he looked at her like that and she knew it. With a silent sigh of resignation, she forced a smile. "Friends. Of course we can."

She wanted to be with him even on the wrong terms than not at all. If friendship was what he wanted then she would just have to manage with friendship.

Instead of getting the bus as she usually did, Anna walked all the way back to the house she shared with Mary in the centre of town. By the time she got home it was drizzling and she could not tell whether it was rain on her cheeks or tears. Behind the curtains, a light was still on in the sitting room and it had never looked so welcoming. Anna dried her face with her handkerchief before she opened the door.

Mary was curled up on the sofa with a heavy volume of feminist literary theory abandoned next to her and a period drama on the television. She was cradling a mug of hot chocolate. Anna smiled to see her, hung up her coat and sat down next to her without a word, turning her attention to the screen, very glad of the distraction. Mary hardly glanced at her.

"I can't imagine who you mean," said Elizabeth Bennet, her face a mask of politeness as she pretended not to understand the question.

"I understand that certain ladies found the society of Mr. Wickham curiously agreeable," replied Miss Bingley, trying to be clever. Georgiana Darcy was so overwhelmed she played a perfectly placed diminished seventh chord. Her brother rose out of his chair.

For a moment all was lost and then Elizabeth came quietly to the rescue. "I'm so sorry, I'm neglecting you. How can you play with no-one to turn the pages?"

Mr. Darcy sank back into his seat again as Georgiana modulated into a more gentle key.

"There. Allow me."

Elizabeth raised her eyes from the music and as she did so, met Darcy's. Both girls smiled and sighed without even being aware of it. Mary suddenly paused the DVD on Darcy's face and broke the spell created by this magical glance.

"How does he do it without appearing to move a muscle? Do you think anyone will ever look at us like that, Anna? She's not even singing any more, just turning the pages!"

Anna forced a smile. "I think you're more likely to get an Austen hero in love with you than I am, Mary."

"I wouldn't be so sure; you're so much nicer than I am. How was your evening?"

Here it came. "It was very nice, very much as usual only... John just wants to be friends."

Mary's face did something similar to what she had accused Colin Firth's of doing as she softened into sympathy. "Oh darling. You told him?"

Where was the expected "I told you so"? Anna had to hand it to her friend; she was rarely predictable.

"I told him and he said he liked me very much but that we couldn't be together."

Mary rolled her eyes in a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. "Why ever not? Is he gay?" she rapped out.

Anna had to laugh. "No, of course he isn't!"

"No of course about it. He's either gay or he's a lying, emotional manipulator who wants something from you and finds it exciting to string along a girl fifteen years younger than himself. Unless you think he has a mad wife locked up in the attic."

"Oh, Mary," sighed Anna, "not everything in life can be explained by a classic literature reference."

"Most things can. Anyway, you can do much better than him. Phil McHeath has a crush on you."

"He has a crush on you."

Mary did not even bother feigning surprise. "Oh? Well, he could always change his mind."

Anna shook her head and leaned back wearily on the couch. "It's no good; I don't want Phil or anyone else."

Her friend looked at her with more concern than before. "No, I didn't suppose you did," she murmured in response.

Without another word, Mary drew her knees up onto the sofa and pressed play. Anna sighed and decided she might as well try to forget her own troubles in the world of a period drama. A few seconds later she found Mary's hot chocolate pressed into her hands. It was only half drunk and still warm. Her fingers were freezing and she shivered at the sudden contact with the hot mug. She looked anxiously across at her, but Mary's eyes were glued to the television.

"I wasn't going to finish it," she said dismissively without looking up.

*

On the other side of town, Matthew and Lavinia were also having a quiet night in. They both sat at the table in the window, Matthew surrounded by a pile of law books and two empty mugs that had once contained tea. Lavinia was writing an essay on her laptop. In the background, Fauré's Requiem was playing softly. It was Matthew's choice: Lavinia found it morbid but he believed it helped him concentrate.

Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a gasp from Lavinia. Matthew looked up. "What?"

She was staring at her screen. "Sam and Emily are engaged! Isn't that brilliant?"

Matthew blinked. "Sam and Emily?" He cast his mind back to one of Lavinia's best friends from Oxford and her boyfriend. "But they've only been going out for two years." Not half as long he and Lavinia had been.

"Mmm, I suppose you simply know when it's right. Come and look at her ring, darling!"

He got up obediently and leaned over Lavinia's shoulder, resting his hand lightly on it as he peered at the obligatory facebook photo of a slender, white hand recently adorned with delicate, silver ring on the fourth finger with a single stone set in its middle.

"Pretty," he commented, not being much of a judge but feeling that some response was required.

Lavinia was already furiously typing a comment.

Congratulations, you darlings! This is fabulous news. So happy for you both. Lots of love from-

She twisted in her chair to look up at him. "I'll sign it from both of us, alright?"

Matthew shrugged his assent. Emily and Sam were nice people. He didn't mind wishing them well even though there was a part of him that felt slightly peculiar about the whole thing taking place over facebook. It depersonalised it somehow and an engagement was a very personal thing.

Lots of love from Lavinia and Matthew xxx

"I wonder when the wedding will be," Lavinia continued as he sat back down in his own chair. "I wish – that is, do you think there's any chance of Emily asking me to be a bridesmaid? Katrina will be maid of honour, of course."

Matthew stared at her, his mouth opening slightly. "I, er, I really don't know, darling. Probably; you were pretty good friends, weren't you?"

"Yes. Only..." She hesitated. "I've never been a bridesmaid before and I would really like to before it's too late."

"Does being a bridesmaid have a best before date on it?" replied Matthew with an amused quirk of his lips.

Lavinia blushed. "Well, only traditionally..."

"Oh." He looked down at his books with a frown, his mind refusing to make the connection being asked of it.

"You're going back to Manchester for Easter, aren't you?" she continued quickly.

"Yep. Are you coming too? Isobel loves you; she wouldn't mind."

She hesitated. "I think I'm going to spend the vacation in London. My dad's not been well and-"

"Of course you must be with him."

They both lapsed into a silence that felt uncomfortable and strained though neither was quite sure why. Into the quiet, muffled trumpets from the CD player announced the Day of Wrath.

Chapter Text

A week had passed and it was Friday night again. Not much had changed in the intervening week in Matthew and Lavinia's charming first floor flat. Lavinia was on her laptop with a glass of still lemonade on one side and a Loeb of Virgil on the other; Matthew was lounging on the sofa passing a deck of playing cards through his hands, staring blankly at the ceiling. The only thing that was different to any other Friday night was that Lavinia had spent an hour skyping her father before supper about her travel plans. She wanted to delay returning to London until she got hold of a book she had requested from the library. She would probably stay in St Andrews until Monday.

Matthew's phone buzzed on the coffee table and he lunged at it. It was a text from Gwen:

What r u doin? Party at my halls- u shld come, every1 here!

He shook his head with a smile. "Gwen's invited me to a party."

Lavinia looked up. "Are you going to go?"

Matthew shrugged. "Do you want to go?"

"Come on, the worst day of the year to go out is the last day of term! The streets are full of drunks and, seriously, Matthew, do you really want to spend your last night here at an undergrad party?"

He sighed. "Obviously you don't."

He texted Gwen back to say he was busy and then started throwing his phone up and down in the air as if it were a cricket ball. Busy? He was not sure he had been more bored in his life. He could not even distract himself by packing because he had already finished. His suitcase was in the hall ready for his 10am train back to Manchester.

"Do you want to do something?" he asked after a few minutes.

"Hmm? Like what?"

Matthew rolled his eyes. "I dunno. Watch a film. Play scrabble. What do you want to do?"

Lavinia did not reply and when she remained silent, he raised himself up onto his elbows and peered at her. "Linny?"

She was gazing with a fixed, breathless expression at the computer screen.

"Linny?" queried Matthew again. Then she stood up very slowly and crossed the room to him and knelt at his side, taking his hands in hers. There was a trembling restraint about her as if she was struggling to contain something.

"Matthew..." she began with shining eyes. "They've accepted me."

"Accepted you? Who have for what?"

Her face melted into an enormous grin. "St Andrews. They're accepted me for a PhD – with full funding! Full funding for three years, Matthew! Imagine that!"

Matthew let out a cry of laughter and grabbed her round the waist, pulling her down onto the sofa with him, kissing her soundly. "Brilliant news, darling! I'm so thrilled for you."

They righted themselves so they were sitting next to each other, breathless and smiling. Matthew kept his arm snugly round her shoulders.

"It's rather wonderful," continued Lavinia. "I haven't heard back from Oxford and Cambridge yet but to be honest, you know, I really do want to work with Alan more than anything. He's the number one in his field and he's right here so, nice as it would be to say I'm getting my doctorate from Oxbridge, in terms of research I'm actually better off here."

"That's absoutely splendid. So you're going to accept it?"

"I'll think about it first, of course. I need to talk to Dad- St Andrews is just so far away from everywhere, but yes, I want to accept. It's such an adorable little place anyway, I love it! What do you think then, Matthew – three more years here?"

"I think you'll be very happy," he replied sincerely. "You've always been a small town girl."

"And what about you, dear? Will you be happy?"

He blinked at her. "Me? Well, it's unlikely I'll stay in St Andrews after this year. It depends where I can get a training contract and the big cities are the best bet. I mean, how many law firms are there even here?"

She frowned and pulled away a bit. "But we will still live together?"

"Darling... we can't very well live together if you're doing a PhD in St Andrews and I'm working in a law firm in Birmingham!"

"We won't? But you're not really going to be in Birmingham, are you?"

"I don't know," Matthew replied, with the uneasy feeling that somehow he was saying all the wrong things but not sure what the right ones were. "I've also applied to places in Edinburgh which would be more convenient, wouldn't it? But we'll just have to wait and see."

Lavinia brightened immediately. "Oh yes, of course. Edinburgh's so close; you could still live in St Andrews."

"You mean commute to Edinburgh? It's a good hour on the train!" Matthew almost squeaked. "That's ridiculous! Anyway, if either of us is going to be commuting, surely it should be you. I'll be working full time with long hours, and you'll still be a student."

"Are you saying I won't be working hard? Because-"

"No! Not at all. I'm just saying that you won't need to be based in St Andrews all the time. You could work just as easily in Edinburgh and just go in a couple of times a week. Whereas I'd probably have to get up at five in the morning every day to make that work. I don't see the problem though. We survived four years not living together so we can survive more... can't we?" He pleaded with her.

"But I don't understand. Don't you want to live with me anymore?"

"It's not – it's not about that! Why are you making it about that? I'm not even sure where I'll manage to get a job but we have to be prepared that it may not be in St Andrews."

"Are you going to apply to every firm here though to increase your chances of staying?"

Matthew suddenly stood up. He felt claustrophobic and unbearably irritated by this entire discussion though he really had no idea at what point he had started feeling so annoyed or even really why. "I don't know! Honestly, Lavinia, I'm not even sure I want to stay."

They stared at each other in mournful, frustrated surprise at the unexpected direction the conversation had taken, and then Matthew's phone rang. He frowned silently at her and picked it up.

"Hello?"

It was Gwen. She sounded drunk in a very noisy environment. Matthew struggled to understand her and eventually rang off. Lavinia was still staring at him.

"Gwen really wants me to go to the party," he explained rather pointlessly.

Lavinia shrugged and began plucking at some fluff on her jumper. "You should go. You sound like you want to go."

"I don't want to go without you," replied Matthew stubbornly.

"No, I want you to go."

"I don't think I should go. It wouldn't be right, not when we're like this."

She shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Matthew turned away, and shoved his hands into his pockets, hoping the movement would help him feel less stupid. "You know, I think I'll go to the party."

"Fine."

He strolled into the hallway and grabbed his coat and shrugged it on. As he was picking up his gloves, he heard Lavinia call from the sitting room, "I think Gwen has a crush on you."

He wandered back to the door. "Really? Or are you just saying that?"

"No, I really think she does."

Matthew shrugged with a twisted smile as he tried to work out if she was still angry with him or not. "Is this some kind of female intuition thing? Anyone else fancy me that I should be aware of?"

She met his eyes across the room, a sad, almost resentful gaze. "I'll leave you to work that out."

He blinked. Still angry. "Oh. Alright. Well, it won't make any difference to me; you know that. I'm with you."

"Yes." She paused. "Have a good evening, Matthew."

"You too..."

*

He left the house feeling dreadfully confused, guilty even. He and Lavinia never argued. It was one of the things that people always commented on: how suitable they were, how happy, how easy-going, how solid. They agreed with each other, they compromised, they understood each other. They were a couple. This was what being a couple meant. Yet all of a sudden Matthew knew he had messed up without knowing how. Had she not realised that they could not go through the rest of their lives together all the time? It was completely unrealistic! He had chosen to do his legal training at the university of her choice – well, he could do a conversion course anywhere, but it mattered more to her to go where the professors were good – but he had no intention of following her everywhere forever. Nearly every relationship went long distance for a while and people survived it. If they could not survive living in different cities for a period then what did that say about their relationship?

He was walking through the city towards Gwen's halls keeping his head down against the drizzle but at this point he looked up, his eyes hitting the ruins of the castle on the cliffs, silhouetted against the night sky. He was once again filled with that same sense of claustrophobia he had felt earlier. God, he needed to get out. Five years of Oxford to be followed by another year of St Andrews which was more Oxford than Oxford itself. The prospect of another three years of it terrified him. He needed bright lights and not bumping into people he knew all the time and a proper range of shops and entertainment venues and normal people who didn't live in peculiar little academic bubbles. He was suddenly incredibly glad that this time tomorrow he would be back in Isobel's flat in Chorlton, surrounded by the familiarity of his childhood. He would be able to see his schoolfriends who had real jobs and real lives, tred the familiar streets of Manchester, and eat meat whenever he wanted.

Maybe he was simply tired from a long term. He hoped that was all it was.

If he had not been sure where the party was being held then the noise spilling out onto the car park would have alerted him. Stopping outside the door a little way away from a gaggle of girls in skimpy dresses and very high heels taking a cigarette break (they must be freezing, he thought), he rang Gwen to find out where she was. She didn't pick up and with a sigh of resignation at the slim chance of his ever finding anyone he knew inside, he pushed inside and headed for the bar.

Armed eventually with a beer he took in the situation. There were two rooms in use: the one with the bar and a second room towards the back where there seemed to be some sort of karaoke going on and dancing. He felt self-conscious being here on his own. It felt as if everyone would be staring at him and wondering what kind of loser he was to be hanging around at an undergraduate party on his own. Lavinia felt conspicuous by her absence. He took several large swigs of beer to quieten his nerves before he chickened out altogether and spent the rest of the night wandering aimlessly around the cathedral ruins and the graveyard in the rain which would surely be an even worse fate.

Fortunately he had only managed to drink half of his pint when he found himself face to face with none other than Gwen, accompanied by Anna Smith.

"Told you he'd come! Debating champion ex-tra-or-di-naire!" slurred Gwen, already very drunk, grabbing Matthew's arm to steady herself on her way to the bar.

Did she fancy him? he wondered. He really couldn't tell but hoped not; he couldn't imagine ever thinking of her in that way, even if Lavinia weren't his girlfriend.

Anna, much more sober, rolled her eyes at him. "Ignore her. She's been calling up everyone in her phonebook all evening trying to get them to come out."

Matthew nodded in rueful comprehension. No, she did not have a crush on him. Well, that was a relief.

"Isn't Lavinia here?" Anna continued with friendly interest, cutting short Matthew's relief that felt strangely like disappointment. (Which was inexplicable because he really had no romantic interest in Gwen whatsoever. Perhaps it was simply the allure of someone actually finding him attractive...)

"No," he replied, "not really her scene."

"I thought it might not be."

For a few moments they swayed awkwardly next to each other while the music pounded over their heads. Matthew drank his beer very quickly in an effort to make the atmosphere somewhat more bearable.

Eventually Anna made another attempt at conversation. "I keep thinking about that dinner Mary and I had at yours the other week. It was so nice and very kind of you and Lavinia to invite us. We'll have to have you both round next term."

Matthew waved it away. "Oh, you're very welcome. It was a lovely evening." He turned away to pay for his second beer and then added, "How is Mary? Not seen her for a while."

Anna laughed. "She's the same as ever. She's here somewhere actually if you want to say hi. Last I saw of her she was preparing to sing, so I got out while I could."

Mary Crawley doing karaoke? The Lady Mary Crawley?

"This I have to see!" cried Matthew with more enthusiasm than he had expressed all evening. He grabbed his drink and ploughed through the sea of students towards the inner room, forgetting all about Anna.

He was just in time, for the first thing he saw from the doorway was Mary herself on the stage singing jazz into a microphone. She looked stylish and beautiful, a cut above every other woman in the room, and she had stage presence too. Even more than that, she could actually sing! Matthew did not know the song but he was spellbound by her performance. Then, quite unexpectedly, she happened to look straight at him, right over the heads of all the writhing people in front of the stage and through the flashing fluorescent lights. Her eyes widened and Matthew's mouth fell open as he felt the warmth of her voice surround him as if he were standing right next to her.

"Try to tell me I was evil, try to trample on my soul. Try to make me think that they were righteous but the plot of the lie was whole," she sang.

Matthew shook his head to clear his head of the powerful impression she was imprinting on his very soul. In doing so he realised that he was in a minority in his reaction. People were getting bored; talking and moving away. Mary was singing too well, too seriously, and a kind of music that wasn't being appreciated. Suddenly he was very angry on her behalf and before he could question the wisdom of his actions, he was elbowing his way to the front of the room. He emerged by the DJ.

"Here, stop playing this!" he yelled. "Put on something else!"

"Eh?" retorted the confused DJ. "I can't just do that."

"No. Look here, mate," Matthew continued very reasonably, "that girl's my friend and nobody's listening to her. She's amazing. Can't you hear how amazing she is? But she's not singing the right stuff. So put something on that people want to hear. What's popular? Let's make people sit up!"

"I'm not doing that."

"You want my beer? You can have my beer!" He put the glass down on the desk and nodded sincerely.

The DJ rolled his eyes. "On your own head be it then. You want the Spice Girls?"

"Anything!"

And before he could be stopped, he had jumped up on stage and taken the second microphone. Mary broke off mid-line, "There ain't no place for people like- Matthew!"

The music cut out. She glared at him but he couldn't help smiling broadly at her. She was so much more beautiful close up than far away and she could sing and it was all too much...

"I'm getting you your audience back," he exclaimed over the opening beats of a new song. "Honestly, who sings jazz at karaoke?"

"Oh no," replied Mary. "Oh no, no, no!"

Matthew's face split into an even wilder grin. "Oh yes!"

The crowd went wild proving Matthew's low opinion of their populist taste. He cleared his throat and glanced across at an unimpressed Mary before singing the first line.

" Summer lovin' had me a blast..."

"Summer lovin' happened so fast... Really, Matthew, Grease?"

"I met a girl crazy for me... Everyone loves Grease!"

"Met a boy cute as can be... Is this the best you can do?"

Their sniping between the lines had brought them considerably closer to each other and now they eyed each other, Mary suspiciously and Matthew gleefully, before singing together, "Summer days driftin' away, to uh-oh those summer nights..."

Down below, the crowd were really getting into it and happily belted out the chorus parts without prompting.

"See?" cried Matthew triumphantly. "They love it!" He had finally worked out what was wrong with Mary. "Someone get the lady a drink!" he yelled.

However, he needn't have bothered. Somehow, from the enthusiasm of having a backing chorus or perhaps because she had simply seen the funny side of it, Mary had loosened up. He turned back to her to discover a new glint in her eye. She raised her hands and with a sharp tug on two sticks, her hair came tumbling down over her shoulders. She shook her head until it felt as a cloud round her face, raised her eyebrows at him, and Matthew almost missed his cue in staring at her. Now she threw herself into the song and, just as he had predicted, the crowd loved it and them even more. Soon enough people were jumping onto the stage to join in, boys behind Matthew, girls behind Mary. There was dancing. It was a real showstopping musical theatre number.

By this point, Mary had acquired a bottle of some brightly coloured vodka mix from somewhere, not that she seemed to be drinking it, and had thrown herself into overacting the song. He glanced across at her across at her, catching her smile off-guard as the music abruptly changed.

"It turned colder - that's where it ends..."

She stretched her arm out and her fingers curled round his wrist.

"So I told her we'd still be friends..."

He found her hand and clasped it.

"Then we made our true love vow..."

He could feel her pulse, warm and steady.

"Wonder what she's doing now..."

Matthew felt a shiver of something deeper and more serious than the song merited ripple through him and squeezed her hand far harder than necessary. It was gone in a moment.

"Summer dreams ripped at the seams, but-" Their eyes met and suddenly Mary grinned. "OH, those summer nights!" She almost collapsed against him with the most delightful and natural giggle he had ever heard.

With a final burst of "Tell me more"s from the chorus, the song ended in applause and hugs all round. Matthew and Mary alone escaped the madness, standing together at the front. Then he dropped her hand, ashamed of having retained it.

"Hello, Mary," he said rather shyly.

She tilted her head to one side, sizing him up as if she was seeing him for the first time. "Hello, Matthew."

"I, um, can I get you a drink?"

For all that she had let go during the song, she seemed to have become more subdued again now. She raised her eyebrows and pointedly placed the bottle which she was holding between finger and thumb on a ledge. "Alright, if you can get me something better than that."

"I accept the challenge!" He jumped off the edge of the stage and held out his hand to help her down, before pushing back through the crowd towards the bar.

"You interrupted my song! Was it so very bad?" she shouted after him.

He turned round even as he pressed on. "No! Quite the reverse. You were wonderful but nobody was appreciating you. I wanted them to pay attention."

"By turning us into an episode of Glee? A bit humiliating, don't you think?"

Matthew stopped abruptly and faced her. "With your voice, Mary, you could be doing the rounds of Paris and Berlin in the 1920s. I mean it."

She rolled her eyes but he thought she looked pleased all the same. "What a shame it isn't the 1920s then. We could have had such fun!"

"Didn't we anyway?"

Now her lips twitched in recognition, but all she said was, "Come on, if you're going to buy me that drink."

They easily managed to get two stools at the bar. Matthew suspected it had something to do with Mary being considerably more attractive than everyone else in the room and the fact that she carried herself like a queen and was therefore treated as such. People simply got out of her way.

"What do you want?" Matthew asked her as she perched gingerly on her stool next to him. She deserved a glittering ballroom, he thought, with a handsome prince, not a dingy student bar and him and all the mistakes he was making.

"Oh, just a glass of-"

"Shots!" he interrupted, his mind having already skittered away from his previous thought. "A round of tequila shots!" he ordered the barman, waving his arm to attract attention.

"Oh no, I don't do shots," protested Mary but not loudly enough to stop him.

"You don't?" Matthew replied, unfazed. "What else do you drink when out clubbing with Prince Harry?"

Mary raised her eyebrows very highly. "I've never been clubbing with Prince Harry, I'll have you know. But if I did I wouldn't settle for anything less than a £300 chrystal encrusted bottle of Moet."

His lip twitched. "I guess not!"

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the shots, little dishes of salt and wedges of lime. Matthew could already hear a voice in his head that sounded a lot like Lavinia telling him that this was a bad idea, that he would feel terrible in the morning, that he didn't even like shots... He told the voice to get lost. If he wanted to get drunk on shots and feel dreadful afterwards then that was his affair and no-one else's! Besides, what if he liked shots after all and had simply never had the opportunity to find out? What did she know? As a final nail in the coffin of his good sense, he remembered that all he had to do in the morning was get on a train and leave the country for three weeks. He didn't need a brain for that.

Mary meanwhile was eyeing them with distrust. "I meant it when I said I don't do shots."

"Oh, it's very easy. You just lick the salt off your hand then-"

She shook her head. "No, I know how to do it. I have done shots before in my time, you know. I just don't any more."

He frowned at the firm tone of her voice. "Why not?"

She shrugged. "I grew up. Or something like that anyway." Then, aware of what a dampener she was putting on the mood and the fact that Matthew had bought the drink for her in the first place, she forced a smile. "Alright, I suppose I don't mind regressing just this once."

He grinned at her. "Good. I'm sorry, you know, really. Whatever you want afterwards. Ready?"

Still she hesitated. "It'll be alright, won't it? You're having exactly the same thing? You'll still be here afterwards?"

Good God, Matthew realised, Mary Crawley was afraid of taking shots! It seemed such an utterly ridiculous thing to be afraid of but somehow he found it endearing. She was humanized by it, brought down to the realm of ordinary mortals. His world shifted on its axis as he understood it.

"It's okay, Mary," he reassured her. "I'm not going anywhere. And it's only one shot – honestly, no-one's that much of a lightweight."

She gave him a wan smile and then a look of determination crossed her face, she took a pinch of salt on her hand, licked it away, downed the shot with her head thrown back and immediately sucked the lime, all with the fluid movements of somebody who knew exactly how to do it. Matthew scrambled to keep up with her. She flung herself forwards, her hair flopping around her face and then sat back up.

"There!" Her expression was so smug and triumphant that Matthew could hardly restrain from tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. He raised his hand to do so but even through the hot buzzing in his head he realised in time how inappropriate it would be and let it drop.

"And you know," she was saying, leaning forward on the bar towards him, "I actually think Prince Harry is a bit of a prick."

Matthew choked slightly. "What?"

"I do understand why he did the Nazi stunt as a cry for attention, you know, but it was terribly tasteless. He should have known it would backfire on him in the press. I know people who've been out with him and to be quite frank if I wasn't so clever I would probably be among them, but as it is none of that holds much appeal to me."

Matthew's jaw dropped and he stared at her. He wondered blankly whether she was actually a complete lightweight, or if she had been less sober than he had thought before. Then none of that mattered and he started laughing. She was hilarious. Only Lady Mary Crawley could prop up the bar talking seriously about how she would turn down a night out with Prince Harry as if it was within the realms of possibility. Yet for this impossible, wonderful woman next to him, it really was. Matthew laughed with almost hysterical abandon and Mary watched him with an open kind of bemused curiosity, eyes bright and lively and appreciative.

It wasn't until he became aware of being surrounded by people that he stopped for breath and looked up to discover he was surrounded by half of his cricket team.

"Nice one, Justin Bieber. What's up?" snickered Josh Wakefield, clapping him on the back.

"Hey!" Matthew responded as Mary clapped a hand over her mouth to hide a laugh.

"That's not your girlfriend," pointed out Adam Davis.

Matthew was starting to develop a headache. "You're observant."

Mary meanwhile stood up, grabbed hold of the bar to steady herself and flicked her eyes up and down Adam. "No, I'm not his girlfriend."

Then, with perfect condescension and near perfect poise, she turned her back on him. "Thank you for the drink, Matthew Crawley." She held out her hand very formally to him. "I appreciate what you made me do."

Matthew took her hand and tried to match her formality even as he spoiled it by raising one eyebrow. "Another shot then?"

She considered this. "No. No, I do not think so. I think Anna should take me home now. Goodnight, Matthew."

She squeezed his hand and then dropped it, before swaying off into the crowd. Matthew stared after her with his mouth slightly open and his hand, warm and tingling, still held out in front of him. "Goodnight, Mary," he whispered.

He blinked and turned back to his friends who were all deeply amused.

"Ooooh," taunted Adam, "Crawley's got himself a posh bird. So if Linny's on the market, can I have a go? No idea what she's going on about most of the time but I think she'd be really good at-"

"Aw, shut the fuck up," said Josh quickly, pushing his friend out of Matthew's reach before he could do anything more than glare and splutter incoherently that Linny was most certainly not on the market and how dare he...

"You better get back in there as well," put in Mike Jedburg. "Now we know you're a right Disney princess we thought you'd like another try. We put your name down for another song."

"Oh, damn you all," exclaimed Matthew though without much malice. Nothing this evening seemed real any more; he might as well go with it. He pushed himself away from the bar. "Tell me the worst. What do I have to sing? It's not actually Justin Bieber, is it? Because if it was I think I would-"

"Relax!" laughed Josh. "You'll like it."

And they began to push him back towards the inner room while singing, "Find me somebody to love" under their breaths in between their laughter. Matthew's eyes closed briefly before he surrendered to his fate.

Chapter Text

Matthew was not having a very exciting vacation. It had not started particularly auspiciously when he had crawled onto the train hungover from the previous night, missed his connection in Edinburgh and arrived home three hours late in Manchester. Fortunately there had been the immediate comfort of Isobel meeting him at the station and driving him home, of dumping his suitcase in his old bedroom, slumping on the sofa, and then eating one of his sister's best, homemade meals.

After supper, he collapsed onto the sofa again and stared blankly across the room. He felt completely drained. Presumably it was just the journey and the hangover. He went to bed early.

The lethargy, however, did not wear off as the days passed. Matthew had no idea what to do with himself. Usually he was quite dedicated to his work and got his vacation studying out of the way at the beginning of the holiday but not this time. He sprawled on the sofa, he ate crisps and dropped the packets on the floor, he watched quiz shows and didn't even bother trying to guess the answers. Isobel tried to initiate conversation, looking at him anxiously from the door of the living room, but he was unresponsive, even to her.

Matthew was confused. He had no idea why he felt so disinclined to do anything. He ought to be working. He wanted to work. Why wasn't he working? Lavinia wouldn't be impressed with him spending the vacation so unprofitably... In fact, when she rang him and told him excitedly about how she had spent every day in the British Library and was getting so much done and was planning on going up to Cambridge for a day after Easter to speak to an eminent professor of Latin there, he lied to her and said that he had managed to get himself work experience in a law firm and was tremendously busy there all the time. It was the first time he had ever lied to her and he did not even understand why he had done it, especially considering what a pointless, stupid lie it was.

In fact he had spent the day with an old school friend, Joe Molesley. Joe was one of the few of his friends who was still living nearby; he'd never left. After a degree in some nebulous subject related to business from Manchester Met, he had got a job doing something to do with IT in a firm doing... something. He was explaining it in great detail and Matthew was... bored. Just plain bored. Was this what the rest of life would be like, listening to people he no longer had anything in common with talk about their tedious, insignificant jobs as if they had some kind of meaning? Would that be what he would be like once he had qualified as a lawyer? Just a man with a job? Going out in the morning, doing some work that ultimately didn't change anything, coming home in the evening, kissing Lavinia, eating dinner, going to bed, then repeating for every day for the rest of his life? He knew he was being tremendously unfair to both Joe and himself but at that moment he felt almost sick at the thought of it.

They were sitting in the food court of the main shopping centre in Manchester. It was a Saturday afternoon and the place was heaving with loud and foul-mouthed, orange, teenaged chavs with their babies. Matthew picked at his greasy pizza and reflected morosely that it had been precisely to avoid spending time doing things like this that he had made such an effort to get out and rise above his origins and why he had applied to the oldest and most traditional university in the country to study the oldest and most traditional subject of them all. Thanks to natural intelligence, ambition, a good amount of luck, and one teacher who believed in him, he had made it. So surely he should now feel more grateful than he did? Unlike Joe, in two weeks time he would be able to put Manchester behind him again and return to the ancient towers and hallowed halls of St. Andrews where it practically reeked with learning and class. He had succeeded at everything he had set out to do, but now he was forced to consider that after five and a bit years at Oxford and St. Andrews maybe he needed a change from that lifestyle as well. The bubble was starting to smother him. But even half acknowledging that caused him to freeze with guilt over the callous way he was treating his very enviable life.

He could not stand it any longer and invited Joe back to the flat, just to get them away from this ghastly shopping centre. There they regressed into their teenaged selves, digging out Matthew's old Playstation 3 and playing Call of Duty 3 for the rest of the afternoon. At supper time, Isobel invited Joe to stay to supper just as she always had done in the past and they all ate hotpot in the kitchen before returning to the Playstation. He eventually left at about nine o'clock and Matthew evaded his sister's frowns, hiding in his bedroom and staring at the ceiling. He really had no idea what was wrong with him.

Then, when she rang, he had lied to Lavinia.

Isobel was concerned about him, he could see that quite clearly, but at least finishing the computer game in a record two days gave him an excuse for ignoring her as much as possible. Easter weekend came, however, and she had booked a week off work to spend with him. They had no other family after all. They shared the cooking of the roast lamb, went to church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday and had a very jolly meal together afterwards, even if a part of Matthew was waiting anxiously for the inevitable moment when she would ask him what was wrong.

It never came. Instead, when they had finished the meal and the washing up and were sitting with cups of tea in the living room, she announced that they were going on a day trip the following day.

"I don't know about you, Matthew," she said, "but I've been stuck in the city for too long. I've been looking in my National Trust book and there's a house not too far away that we haven't been to before. How about we make a day of it? See the house, have lunch in the tea-rooms, have a walk around the grounds – how about it?"

Matthew was in the kind of mood where a sulky shrug seemed like an appropriate answer to everything, but he actually thought it was a good idea. Getting out of the city would be nice and he hadn't done anything like this for a long time.

The weather next day supported their plan. They left Manchester early to avoid all the bank holiday traffic which such a lovely spring day only encouraged and once they were out of the suburbs and onto the quieter roads up into Yorkshire, Matthew started to relax. Isobel was driving, very little map-reading was needed and it was so good to see green fields, animals, hills and picturesque villages.

Matthew's thoughts wandered and eventually he said, quite without the intention of speaking, "I think Lavinia wants to get married."

"What makes you say that?" replied Isobel immediately. Matthew almost felt offended by her total lack of surprise.

He shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know really. Things she says, I suppose, hints, that sort of thing..."

She did not reply for a moment, distracted by turning off the main road onto a smaller one. Then she said, "I suppose it's natural you don't want to, considering mum and dad."

Matthew blinked. "No!"

"You do want to?" Now she sounded surprised.

"No!" he repeated then sighed, aware of how ridiculous he sounded. "I don't know what I want, alright? I don't think I'm against marriage, at least not for that reason- in fact, I quite like the idea of it..."

Being with someone, doing things together, having children; it all sounded rather appealing, one day. He didn't need to make his parents' mistakes; he wanted to prove that he could succeed where they had failed. And yet...

"But I don't... I don't..." He swallowed, and then finally said out loud what he had barely admitted to himself, "I don't think I want to marry Lavinia." There, he'd said it. "And if I don't want to marry her," he continued in a rush, "then what's the point? What's the point of it all? Almost five years of a relationship, her love – what am I meant to do? Just throw it in her face because I don't want to get married?"

"Are you saying," said Isobel calmly after a few moments silence in which Matthew recovered from his outburst, "that for Lavinia it's marriage or nothing? What would be wrong with continuing as you are? You're both so young. There's no need to rush into anything especially while you're still studying."

It was wise advice as always, but Matthew knew it was wrong. "No. It won't work. I – I don't want it to work."

"Well then," said his sister and there wasn't much more to say.

Matthew stared out of the window. His heart was pounding from realisation, fear and, somewhere mingled with all of these strange and melancholy emotions, an odd, fluttery feeling of freedom. Then he became aware that his view of the attractive, old village church and graveyard hadn't changed for several seconds. With a frown he came back to the present and looked around: they were stuck in a traffic jam.

"What's going on?"

Isobel shrugged. "No idea. We're in Downton village so we're very close to the house but I've no idea why it's so busy. Even for a bank holiday this is ridiculous."

They crawled through the village and out the other side in a single line of cars (and one horse box), simply hoping they would not meet a tractor coming the other way. Isobel turned on the radio. Eventually a turning appeared in the fence with "Downton Abbey" signposted on the familiar brown National Trust sign. All the cars indicated and turned. As they began to drive slowly along a winding, narrow road through fields filled with sheep, Matthew caught sight of a banner hung from the fence.

"Look!" He read it out, "The Downton Fayre: Bank Holiday Monday. All the fun of the fair with the Earl of Grantham!" He raised his eyebrows. "They're not going to the house, Isobel, they're coming to this country fair- just our luck!"

"Never mind, the house will be deserted then if all the visitors are watching the ferret racing or whatever they have going on."

In fact they ended up missing their first sight of the house looming over a hill because they were distracted by the rows of trailers and horse boxes, a brightly coloured helter-skelter in the distance, and an arena filled with jousting, Medieval knights. Matthew was starting to get excited in spite of himself for if nothing else, a day at Downton Abbey and a country fair would provide a welcome break from his own thoughts.

Having found a parking space, they swiftly made their way to the ticket office and got entry to the house. It was an imposing, neo-gothic pile, sitting very squarely and solidly in its grounds. Matthew, standing back on the drive to take the whole thing in, was not entirely sure it was to his taste.

"As far as a display of wealth and self-importance go, it does pretty well," he commented wryly to his sister and glanced down at the information leaflet. "Building completed in 1878. I'd like to have seen the Georgian house that came before this one; it's a bit over-the-top for me."

Isobel grinned. "Nobody's asking you to live here."

Matthew laughed and they made their way inside. The hall was just as imposing as the exterior with a vast staircase rising out of the centre, surrounded by enormous, full-length portraits of the previous Earls and Countesses of Grantham and their families. Matthew and Isobel tipped their heads back and stared around them with open mouths, making suitably impressed noises.

They followed the direction of the tour through the elegant two-part library (dominated by the wedding portrait over the fireplace of Reginald and Josephine, sixth Earl and Countess), the billiards room (with a sneak peek into the music room containing an artfully positioned harp and eighteenth century fortepiano), back through the saloon to the cold and over-large dining room, before finally returning to the main staircase. They moved up to the second floor and passed through a series of bedrooms- master bedroom, red bedroom, Chinese bedroom, dressing room... Matthew was starting to find that these immaculately presented rooms were no longer grabbing his attention and he forced himself to concentrate on a series of early photographs of Labradors that were lined up along a corridor.

He had got as far as Euclid and Aristotle, offspring of Isis and Barney-from-the-farm when he was pulled out of his glazed reverie by a voice addressing him. He blinked and looked around.

"Excuse me?" The speaker was a very pretty girl, a few years younger than him, dressed very smartly in riding clothes.

"Yes?" said Matthew.

"I don't mean to be rude," she said apologetically, "but you're really not meant to be here."

"I'm not?" He looked about him and realised that he was in fact the only person in this long, dark corridor. Isobel, last seen absorbed in the information panel for the upper gallery, was no where nearby.

"No," replied the girl, still more apologetically. "This part of the house is private, it belongs to the family. There should be some kind of sign..." She frowned and brushed past him. "Yes, here it is. Someone must have forgotten to put the rope back across." She grinned at him suddenly. "Probably me!"

He grinned back automatically. There was something about her that was familiar and drew him in, but he could not place what. Something about the shape of her face, or the low, well-bred tone of her voice perhaps.

He followed her back down the corridor. "I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to trespass. I was just-"

"It's alright," she interrupted, waving it away, "I couldn't care less. If people are going to look round the place they might as well look everywhere; it's only fair. But I guess my messy room isn't going to be as exciting as the bedroom I might have slept in had I lived a hundred years ago. Are you particularly interested in dogs?"

"Um, not really," replied Matthew, as she carefully pulled the rope back across the beginning of the corridor and hooked it at the other side. "That is, they're very beautiful photos!" he quickly added.

Again, she was unoffended and even rolled her eyes. "Those Labradors – it's a family obsession, at least it is among the men. I'm with you though: I just don't give a crap, though I do love Plato to bits – Daddy's dog, you know."

"Oh, of course," he replied vaguely. He was starting to feel rather uncomfortable. There was something about her...

Fortunately their encounter came abruptly to an end. The girl glanced at her watch and gaped. "Oh my God!" She looked quickly up at Matthew. "I'm sorry, I'm entering the dressage at the fair down there and I'm on in only half an hour. My sister's tacking up my horse and I don't even know where she is. Shit, I've really got to go!"

"Of course!"

"I leave everything to the last minute," she flustered, pulling her phone out of her pocket. "You should come and watch later. The dressage's bound to be boring but my sister's doing show jumping which is always fun." She stuffed her phone away again and was about to leave when she suddenly stopped and held out her hand, becoming immediately more elegant and befitting her clothing and the setting. "I'm terribly sorry, I'm forgetting my manners. I owe you a name at least after rudely forcing you away from the dog photos. I'm Sybil; nice to meet you."

Matthew took her hand automatically and replied, "Matthew," but he was rooted to the spot and when she had darted away across the gallery and down the main staircase, pushing past visitors coming the opposite direction, for a moment he could not move. Then he made his way quickly to his sister.

"What's the name of the family here?" he cried, snatching the house guide out of her hand.

"Grantham, isn't it?"

"No, no, that's their title."

"Isn't it the same-"

"No, it's – Ah!" He found the information on the back of the leaflet. "Crawley. Like us. The current earl," he read out, "is Robert Crawley, who still lives in part of the house with his family and beloved Labrador, Plato. He is a governor of Ripon Grammar School and known for his charitable donations to - Anyway."

He looked up and stared at the spot where he had last seen Sybil. "I just met Lady Sybil Crawley."

"Did you now? Did she condescend to speak with you?"

"No, it's not that..." Matthew replied, too amazed to even bother teasing Isobel for her prejudices. "It's just... I know her sister!"

"You know one of the Grantham family?"

"Yes!" he exclaimed, starting to walk briskly in the direction of the back staircase which would take them down to the kitchen and servants hall, the final section of the house tour. "Mary Crawley. I told you about her, remember?"

"No...?"

Matthew rolled his eyes and tried to keep his cool. He felt suddenly as if the weight of the world had been taken off him. He felt younger, happier, full of potential and life, for the first time since leaving St. Andrews. He couldn't stop to analyse it, he could only feel it.

"I did mention her. The posh girl from the Labour versus Conservative debate. And then she and her housemate came to dinner the other week."

"Oh," replied Isobel thoughtfully. "Yes, I remember now. I didn't realise I should be paying attention."

They did not give the basement the attention it deserved. There was a plastic Edwardian dinner laid out on the table in the servants hall and the kitchen and storeroom were filled with interesting, old fashioned gadgets but Matthew hurried them out into the bright sunshine of the back courtyard. Once the location of the coal hole and storage and work rooms, it was now a pretty, open space with flowers in hanging baskets, picnic tables, the shop and the restaurant.

"Shall we have lunch?" suggested Isobel.

Matthew rocked backwards and forwards on his feet. "Why don't we go and have a look at the fair and find something there? Seems a shame to waste the good weather sitting indoors."

"If you like."

They left the courtyard and crunched round the house to the open parkland where the fair was taking place. Matthew wondered at what time Mary would be show jumping; he rather wanted to watch – and it would be nice to see her again. Apart from a couple of desultory text messages about nothing in particular and several 'liked' facebook statuses they had not communicated since they had been at the karaoke party. He had not known that she rode, though considering she lived on a country estate and had talked about polo when she had come to dinner he realised he probably should have made the connection. Then again, he had not known the name of her estate or even her father's title. In fact, he knew hardly anything about her.

As if she was reading his mind, Isobel asked, "So how well do you know this Lady Mary Crawley? I thought you'd only met her a couple of times."

"I have," replied Matthew as they drifted into the queue for Lakeland Picnic Burgers with a little inexplicable embarrassment. He felt he ought to have seen her much more than he had in reality. Only four times altogether- at the debate, on the path along the coast, at dinner, then at the party. "That is, we just keep bumping into each other. Must be fate!"

"Or coincidence," retorted Isobel, with a hard glance at him and he was happy to let the conversation drop in order to decide whether he wanted cheese and onions on his burger and ketchup or chutney.

Armed with their food, they wandered among the stalls as they ate. Isobel was easily distracted by craft and produce stalls, leaving Matthew to his thoughts. So that was Sybil, he mused, the rebellious younger sister with the secret boyfriend. Preparing to ride a dressage test at her family's country estate she had not struck him as particularly rebellious, especially not to someone who had had Matthew's upbringing. She swore more than Mary did – he had never heard Mary once say a swear word, it was quite striking – but swearing was hardly a sign of moral delinquency. No odd piercings though, no dyed hair, and a devotion to an expensive and pretentious sport. Perhaps the rather charming Lady Sybil Crawley was not quite as rebellious as her sister seemed to think her. And what of Mary herself? What would it be like seeing her on her own turf here at Downton Abbey? Perhaps she wouldn't even want to speak to him with his jeans and trainers and liberal politics in this context. Goodness, it was odd to think that this place was home to her!

They finished their burgers and had just bought large slabs of intriguing looking home-made beetroot cake for pudding and tea in cardboard mugs, when a loud-speaker announced that the show jumping would be starting in five minutes.

"Let's go watch!" suggested Matthew.

"I didn't know you were interested in show jumping," replied his sister, "but alright. I think the arena is this way."

"I'm not," he replied. He was beginning to feel as if he had spent the entire day denying being interested in things: Lavinia, Labradors, show jumping. He sighed. "But Mary's taking part and, well, I can't not say hello since I know she's here, can I?"

"What are you going to do then? Jump up and down shouting "coo-ee" while she's trying to concentrate?"

"Don't be ridiculous, I'll find her afterwards."

They managed to find an empty patch of grass in the sun by the arena and sat themselves down. The jumps seemed terribly high. Matthew unwrapped his pinkish coloured cake and sniffed suspiciously.

"Do you know anything about this?" he asked Isobel as the first rider entered the ring and saluted the judges.

"Not a thing. Watch and learn, little brother!"

Over the first few riders, they managed to pick up some of the rules. The riders were timed but it seemed they also had to get a clear round without knocking any of the poles to the ground.

"They get four points for that, don't they?" murmured Matthew. "Or is it six?"

"Four," replied Isobel firmly. "That last girl knocked down two poles and got eight points."

"Right. Four. So why did the girl on the white horse get four points? She didn't knock anything off."

This was difficult. "I think... I think it was because she hesitated before the water jump. That's a refusal and you get points for that too."

Matthew made a face. "Imagine if we learned how to do this at school instead of football."

They met each other's eyes and then burst out laughing. Just thinking about it was utterly ludicrous. They were still laughing when they were joined by Sybil. She was wearing an oversized jumper now instead of her jacket and her boots were muddy. She looked far more relaxed.

"Oh, you did come to watch!" she exclaimed in some surprise. "Did you see me? I was terrible, not even placed. I don't mind though; it's not about the winning."

"No, we didn't catch the dressage unfortunately. I'm sorry you didn't win." Matthew didn't quite know how to continue so he rushed forwards anyway. "I didn't realise when we met before, but I know your sister."

Sybil stared at him and then dropped to the ground next to him. "Really? Which one?"

He had not realised there was more than one. "Er, oh, Mary. I'm at St Andrews too."

"That's so cool! What's your name again?"

"Matthew Crawley. And this is my sister, Isobel."

"Pleased to meet you." They shook hands over Matthew, who was sitting in the middle.

"No," continued Sybil with a frown, "Mary's never mentioned you. I would have remembered because of the name. Do you think we're related?"

"It's impossible!" replied Matthew more sharply than he had intended, a little stung that Mary had never even mentioned him once.

"Not really," put in Isobel. "We could easily be distant cousins. After all, we know so little of dad's family, who knows who we're related to!" She leaned across her brother to explain to Sybil. "Our father died when I was only a teenager and Matthew, oh, he was barely a toddler. We haven't kept in touch with his family at all so you see, it's not actually impossible that we're related somewhere down the line."

"God, I'm sorry about your father," replied Sybil with immediate sympathy. "It was bad enough when Grandpa died but I can't imagine losing Daddy..." She frowned a second and then cheered up again. "Well, mind you don't say all that when Auntie Ros is around; she's really into family history and would soon sniff out a link if there was one, and then where would we be?"

They all laughed. "But surely your mother must have some information on your father's family even if you don't?" pressed Sybil again after a moment.

Matthew and Isobel glanced at each other and then Isobel replied calmly, "We're not in touch with our mother any more."

Sybil blinked. This was clearly incomprehensible to her. Matthew took pity on her. "Isobel brought me up really," he said enthusiastically. "Who needs parents when you have her?" He put an arm round her and squeezed her shoulders.

Fortunately Mary's sister was far more naïve than Mary herself probably was, at least so it seemed. She accepted this without any query. "How nice it must be to be brought up by a sibling. So much more fun! I sometimes think," she said, "that parents really don't know what they're doing. I swear Mummy has no idea what I get up to half the time because she's so out of touch – I can't talk to her about anything – and when Mary was acting out she didn't know what to do either."

"Mary acting out?" This was a sufficiently amusing idea to be distracting.

"Oh, yes. When she was my age she was a real celebrity – going out all the time in London, paparazzi everywhere, drinking every weekend – that sort of thing."

Perhaps Matthew's jibe at the idea of her clubbing with Prince Harry had not been so far off the mark after all.

"Sounds just your type of person, Matthew!" commented Isobel with raised eyebrows.

"She's not like that any more," sighed Sybil. "She got boring after her gap year. Boring and disapproving of everything. I'm not going to take a gap year, I don't think; I don't want to become boring. Oh, there she is!"

There she was indeed, though Matthew would not have recognized her at a distance under her hat, cantering into the ring on a large, gleaming black horse. Her supporters fell silent to watch her ride, holding their collective breath as she soared effortlessly over fence after fence.

"Clear round for Mary Crawley and Diamond! One minute thirty seven seconds," called the announcer through his megaphone at the end over the applause.

"That's a good time, isn't it?" asked Matthew, who felt he was really getting into it now.

"Pretty good," agreed Sybil. "She should be placed with that. Come on, let's find her."

She was already on her feet and the others scrambled up after her. As they circled round the outside of the ring, Matthew became aware of feeling terribly nervous. What on earth would Mary think of him turning up like this with her sister and watching her show jumping? What would Isobel make of her? Why did it matter so much?

He shoved the last piece of his beetroot cake in his mouth and threw away the paper bag in a bin as they passed.

"Great cake!" he exclaimed, swallowing down his feelings. "Very distinctive."

"Oh, is that the veg cake?" replied Sybil with a grin. "It's Mrs. Travis, the vicar's wife, who makes them. She does a great courgette cake as well. You wouldn't think it works but it does."

"You actually have a vicar's wife here?" said Isobel, trying not to smile.

"Well, we have a vicar and he has a wife," answered Sybil, nonplussed.

"I think what my sister means," put in Matthew, "is that she is expecting Miss Marple to jump out from behind a hedge at any moment with a plate of a scones and a bloody dagger."

"Actually, Matthew," interrupted Isobel before Sybil could look even more confused, "I was just surprised by anyone being defined by whose wife they are. It seems a bit backwards for our day and age. Doesn't Mrs. Travis have a job?"

"I, er, I actually don't know," said Sybil. "I think she does supply work at the village school so I suppose she's a teacher. Do you know, I've never thought of that before. Vicar's wife seems like enough work as it is!"

"Come on," pleaded Matthew, "surely defining somebody by their job is just as -"

He broke off because they had found Mary. She was pink-cheeked from her exertion, a few strands of glossy, dark hair were escaping from her hair net, and she had a riding hat over one arm, and Diamond's reins looped over the other. She looked utterly astonished.

"Matthew! Goodness gracious, what are you doing here?"

"I caught him trespassing in our part of the house," put in Sybil with a grin.

Mary's eyebrows shot up. "Really? Whatever for?"

"I didn't know it was your house," he replied defensively and irrelevantly, even blushing.

"Indeed!" Her eyes slid to Isobel and Matthew quickly introduced them.

"Well done on your clear round," he added with a hopeful smile. The feeling of nervousness wouldn't go away even now they had met.

Mary shrugged. "Thanks. There's been a tie, however, so there'll be a jump-off to decide the places. No rest for the wicked, is there, Diamond?" She gave her horse a firm and affectionate pat on the neck. "I'm sorry, Matthew. It'd have been nice to catch up but I have to sort myself out before the next round and walk the course."

"Oh, it's quite alright," replied Matthew easily, not knowing whether to be disappointed or relieved. "I wouldn't want to get in your way."

"You could always stay to dinner though if you liked," she continued suddenly. Her lips twisted into a smile. "I do owe you a dinner after all."

"Mary..." said Sybil, "are you sure that's a good idea? Granny's coming to dinner."

Her sister shrugged. "All the more reason to dilute her! Well, will you?"

"That's very kind of you, Mary," replied Isobel, "but I don't want to drive in the dark and we have quite a way to go to get home tonight."

"Stay the night. It'd be no problem at all."

"I, er, really, we couldn't possibly..." replied Matthew in a kind of panic.

"Well, alright then!" said Isobel at the same time. He stared at her.

"Excellent," replied Mary with a pleased smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me... Sybil darling, hold Diamond for me while I get a drink; I'm dry as a bone. Don't forget to cheer for me in the jump-off, Matthew! Until later."

They were dismissed. As Mary hurried off, Matthew and Isobel hung around awkwardly with Sybil and Diamond for a few more minutes. When a harassed girl with messy, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail wearing a muddy University of Exeter hoodie and carrying a bucket full of grooming implements joined them and was briefly introduced as the third sister, Edith, both of them felt they were in the way and wandered off back to the fair to try to find more of Mrs. Travis' delicious cake.

"You just said yes because you want to be able to say you've spent the night at Downton Abbey and had dinner with a real earl, don't you?" Matthew accused his sister once they were out of earshot of the Crawley sisters.

Isobel shrugged slightly and leaned in, replying wickedly, "You mean you don't?"

He was almost ashamed to admit it, but there was a part of him that was just as curious as his sister was.

Chapter Text

Mary ended up placing second in the show jumping. Matthew was extremely impressed, for he found the mere idea of jumping over those massive fences on horseback a scary enough prospect without doing it at speed and, as far as he could tell, flawlessly. When he said this to Mary afterwards, however, she merely shrugged it off and said she supposed it was good enough but she could have done better.

"Coming second isn't winning, is it?" she finished with airy unconcern. "But I suppose we all have to get used to failure at some point!"

Matthew watched her head for the stables, rosette in one hand, Diamond's reins in the other, his mouth slightly open. It seemed an excessive reaction.

"Perfectionist," said Isobel at his side and he snapped out of his reverie to look at her curiously. She turned away. "Takes one to know one."

They spent the rest of the day wandering around the parts of the fair they hadn't yet seen. There was ferret racing (bad smelly), a set of Edwardian reenactors demonstrating how to make a perfect Apple Charlotte (good smelly), a childrens' bouncy castle (noisy) and many craft stalls. By the time the stall holders were packing up it was almost time for supper and Isobel thought she had better move the car from the main car park to a private car park Sybil had told them about earlier.

The back of the house was as imposing as the front though Matthew was not sure what else he had expected. Unlike the front, however, which was completely dark now all the visitors had left for the day, lights glowed in some of the windows. Matthew stared up at them wondering which room was Mary's and how odd it must be to call somewhere like this home, while his sister adjusted her make-up in the car mirror.

"They're probably going to expect us to dress up and I'm just in my jeans!" she muttered, squinting as she applied mascara.

Matthew shrugged. He also felt out of place and unprepared, secretly wishing for a suit or dinner jacket or even his old Oxford gown (it seemed appropriate) but there was very little he could do about it. "Well, do you have a ball dress in the boot?"

"Of course I don't."

"Well, there you go. Ready?"

"As I'll ever be." She snapped her make-up bag shut and gave him a reassuring smile.

The door to the living quarters was normal sized in the great stone wall. Again, Matthew was surprised, though he did not know why. A drawbridge over a moat seemed more suitable, if implausible. Isobel rang the bell and a few moments later the door was opened by a tall, solid man of about fifty.

"Mr. Crawley, Ms Crawley?" he asked in a deep, cultured voice.

"It's Dr. Crawley actually. Pleased to meet you," replied Isobel holding out her hand. "Are you Mary and Sybil's father?"

For a moment the man looked surprised then he gravely shook Isobel's hand once though Matthew could tell his sister had already got it wrong.

"I am Charles Carson, Lord Grantham's butler. Please follow me."

Butler? Matthew and Isobel exchanged similar looks of incredulity and nervousness as soon as his back was turned before following him down a narrow, stone hallway. Once inside it was, in fact, relatively normal; that is to say, it felt like a home. The walls had children's drawings on them, a pile of boots and riding crops were left by the door and there was a delicious smell wafting through a partly open door on the left with a radio playing 60s pop music. At the end of the corridor was a hall with stairs, plainer than the grand staircase in the public part of the house, but still shiny and clearly at least a hundred years old. A door on the far side of the hall opened and Mary appeared. She had changed out of her riding things and Matthew was extraordinarily grateful to the fact that while she still appeared elegant and well-dressed the clothes themselves were casual.

"Come in then and meet the family!" she cried with a smile.

"Thanks," replied Matthew, grinned in what he hoped was reassurance at his sister and followed her into a pleasant sitting room. French windows opened onto a private garden, a real fire roared in the grate and the furniture was a mix of solid but shabby old arm chairs and tables with a very modern leather sofa and hi-fi system. Before they could take it in properly however, their attention was demanded by a golden labrador which bounded up to them, tail wagging furiously. Isobel bent to pat him.

"What's his name?" asked Matthew, remembering all the dog pictures he had seen earlier.

"This is Plato," said a voice from the fireplace and both newcomers looked up to see the only person who could possibly be the earl. "Don't mind him, he loves new people."

He walked forwards and held out his hand to Matthew, who shook it. Only an earl, he reminded himself. He had sat next to world famous academics at dinners and been introduced to minor royalty and top level politicians at Oxford – a family dinner with an earl and his family should be nothing in comparison.

"Lovely to meet you, Matthew," said the earl. "And you, Dr. Crawley-"

"Please call me Isobel!" she responded with a nervous laugh, one hand still patting the dog.

"In that case," replied the earl genially, "you must call me Robert. And may I introduce you to my mother, Violet?"

He stepped aside to reveal a formidable looking elderly lady sitting upright in the most comfortable armchair.

"Hello," said Matthew. "Pleased to meet you."

She inclined her head and he happened to catch Mary's eye. She looked faintly amused.

"Hello, Violet," said Isobel with a smile from his side.

"That's Lady Grantham to you, Miss Crawley!"

Isobel opened and shut her mouth and then retorted, "Actually, it's Dr. Crawley!"

Lady Grantham raised her eyebrows. "Oh, I see. Are you a real doctor or only a philosophical one?"

"I'm a doctor; I work in a hospital!"

"Oh, you work! Of course you do." She looked Isobel up and down and Matthew felt ashamed of their informal dress and the mud on the bottom of their trousers from walking around in the fields during the day. "No wonder you're not married."

"Mother..."

"I am-"

"Why don't you both sit down and stop me from eating all the crisps?" cried Sybil suddenly from where she was curled up on the leather sofa with a cat and a bowl of crisps on her lap.

Matthew tugged on his sister's hand, knowing perfectly well how she might react if left to herself and they both sat down on the sofa.

"This is Ludwig," said Sybil, stroking the cat and smiling. "Don't mind Granny, please," she added in a low tone. "She doesn't live in the right century but she's great really. Have a crisp – they're sweet chilli flavour."

Both of them took a handful and nibbled gratefully.

"Well!" said Robert, the only one now standing, after Mary had sat down quietly as well. "Sherry, everyone? Isobel? I have Bristol Cream or Manzanilla."

"Really, whichever you recommend, thanks," replied Isobel rather desperately. Distinguishing between varieties of sherry had never been part of her upbringing.

"Well, I shall have Bristol Cream if that's alright," said Matthew quickly, grateful for five years of formal halls, and trying desperately to remember which way the port got passed in case it came up later.

"Then I'll have that too."

"Excellent."

To Matthew's surprise he did not move but Charles Carson who had been unobtrusively standing by the door – so unobtrusively he had not even noticed him – crossed to a drinks cabinet and began pouring, handing them all their drinks with a short bow.

Robert finally sat down opposite his mother. "Well..." he said, leaning back with a complacent smile as this was all a very everyday occurrence. "Cora, my wife, is just putting the final touches to dinner but I'm sure she'll be in soon. Girls, where's Edith?"

Sybil shrugged but Mary replied sardonically, "She's discovered Pottermore. I'm sure she'll be down soon."

"What," asked Lady Grantham in terms of deep confusion, "is a pottermore?"

"Don't bother, Granny," replied Mary. "It's the stupidest thing-"

"Basically," interrupted Sybil, "it's this website linked to the Harry Potter books where you can pretend you're a student and go to Hogwarts and get house points and things. It's really cool – I'm a Gryffindor!"

Her grandmother raised her eyebrows. "I can't pretend I understood a single word of that sentence, Sybil. All this time spent on the computer... It can't be good for you. In my day you would be preparing to come out into society and find a husband!"

"Yes, but the world's moved on a bit since then," replied Sybil, rolling her eyes.

"Moved on? I'd like to know how all this fiddling with your – your mobile telephone and drawing diagrams of rivers or whatever it is you spend all your time doing at school is going to help you when you are grown up."

"For goodness sake, there's more to geography than drawing rivers, Granny. We learn all about other cultures like Bangladesh and how we can-"

"I suppose at least we should be grateful that Mary at least is studying a suitably feminine subject which shouldn't damage her chances too much."

"Damage her chances for what?" burst out Matthew, who felt very much as if he had stepped through the looking glass.

"For making a good marriage, of course. What else would I mean, young man? Men don't like clever girls."

He snapped his mouth shut, not wanting to be impolite and gawk. "Well, I, er, I don't, that is-" he blustered, before daring a look at Mary. Her lips were pursed and she was staring fixedly at the fire, mechanically fondling Plato's ears who had rested his head on her lap.

Fortunately before the atmosphere could become too surreal, the door opened again and Mary's mother came in, wearing an apron.

"Everything's almost ready. Sybil darling, could you come and help me bring things through? Is everyone here?"

Matthew did a double take. He had not expected Mary's mother to be American but she very definitely was. More than that, she was a breath of modern maternity in this peculiar, out-of-time place, though in some ways that only made it more incongruous.

Both Mary and Sybil stood up, the cat leaping from her lap just in time and going to rub against Matthew's legs.

"Here's Matthew, a friend from university, and his sister, Isobel, Mummy," said Mary.

Her mother crossed the room with a bright smile and held out her hand. "Cora Crawley, pleased to meet you both. It's always wonderful to meet the friends of my children."

This time there were no faux pas over the introductions. Matthew wondered in passing whether she knew about Sybil's secret boyfriend yet who worked in a garage and didn't have any A Levels, let alone had been pleased to meet him.

Presently they all went through to an old, wood panelled dining room across the hall.

"This used to be the music room," explained Mary in a low voice. "Through that door is the big library that you will have seen this morning."

Matthew tried to take it in but he was distracted by hearing Violet say rather unnecessarily loudly, "Are these people meant to be related to us? Is that what they're doing here?"

He did not catch Robert's reply.

Edith, still slouching in her University of Exeter hoodie joined them in the dining room but did not say much. Cora placed a massive, delicious smelling shepherd's pie on the table along with buttered carrots and broccoli.

"I hope none of you are vegetarians!" she said brightly as she stood back to let the butler do the serving.

Matthew thought suddenly of Lavinia and a wave of guilt washed over him. He really ought to phone her after supper... But what could he say? That he was at Downton Abbey eating shepherd's pie with Mary Crawley and her insane aristocratic relatives? Somehow he felt that would not go down well though he really wasn't doing anything wrong so there was no good reason to feel bad about it...

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he was the last to sit down, and quickly bowed his head while the earl said grace, a ritual that was clearly for the benefit of the older generation more than the younger.

"You really should have borrowed Sharon for tonight, Cora," said Violet, "for a meal of this size."

"Oh, but you know I like cooking when I have the time, and shepherd's pie is so easy," replied her daughter-in-law. "Everyone got what they need?"

Everyone nodded silently, their mouths too full to reply.

"Who's Sharon?" asked Isobel when she had swallowed, adding with a light laugh, "Your cook?"

The dowager countess fixed her with a piercing stare. "Yes, she is. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, you have a cook!" retorted Isobel and took a sip of wine, raising her eyebrows in much the same way that her declaration of being a doctor had been treated earlier. "Of course you do."

Matthew fell a great desire to disappear under the table.

"So, you have the same last name as us," said Cora brightly. "Perhaps we are distant cousins."

"Imagine that!" muttered Violet.

Isobel glanced at Matthew and frowned. "I think we'd know if we were related to the aristocracy. Crawley is a pretty common name, isn't it?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, but dad... I mean, would we really?" The rest of the table was staring at them so Matthew cleared his throat and continued. "Our dad died when I was only a baby and, well, mum didn't talk about his family much, even before..."

He trailed off and swallowed. Talking family history had definitely not been something he had intended doing. An uncomfortable silence fell and once again he found his eyes drifting to Mary. She was looking at him closely with an expression of – not sympathy precisely, but of interest. He looked away quickly, feeling suddenly warm, and returned his attention to the food.

"Do you also study English with Mary, Matthew?" asked Robert politely to fill the silence.

"No," he replied, glad to be back on a neutral subject. "I'm doing a law conversion course actually."

"Ah, you intend to become a lawyer? Excellent." He smiled.

"Yes, all being well."

"Mary, you should consider law!" said her mother suddenly. "You'd be quite good at it."

She seemed to sag in her seat. "I don't think so, Mummy."

"Well, I wish you'd consider something. I keep emailing you the details of internships but I don't believe you read them; and if you want anything for the summer you really need to be applying now. I've got so many contacts in the City and I wish you'd let me use them!"

"Go into business? I'd sooner die!" she exclaimed passionately and then ate a large mouthful of mashed potato.

"Can't you stop pestering the poor child?" interrupted her grandmother. "Mary is a girl after my own heart and is just looking for the right man. She doesn't need to work and certainly not in your line of trade, Cora!"

This was utterly disastrous, Matthew thought. Cora looked as if she badly wanted to respond but was doing her best to hold her tongue, the earl seemed embarrassed, Mary was glowering at her plate, Edith looked bored, Sybil pained, and neither he nor Isobel knew how to take anything that was said.

"Well, Matthew," continued the earl with desperate courtesy, "your undergraduate degree was in-?"

"Classics," he replied, "but not at St Andrews. I was at Oxford five years before coming to Scotland."

Robert brightened immediately even as Edith huffed audibly. "An Oxford man? Well, that will always go down well here. We're an Oxford family after all. Which college were you at?"

"Corpus Christi. It was small but very friendly. I liked it."

"Ah, Corpus! I was at Christ Church myself, just over the wall from you."

Matthew raised his eyebrows. He suppose it was fitting that the earl of Grantham would have gone to the largest, richest, most pretentious college of them all in the shadow of whose cathedral the little people of Corpus like him and Lavinia went about their daily business.

"I was at Christ Church, my father was before me and his father too," Robert continued wistfully, "so you could say there's a family connection."

"And Mary would have gone too if she hadn't flunked her interviews," said Edith, speaking for the first time.

All eyes now turned to Mary and it was Matthew's turn to feel sorry for her. He had not known she had applied to Oxford and now she was clenching her knife and fork, looking as if she wanted to stab somebody. She forced herself to look up and say lightly, "Oh, don't worry, it's no big deal; it's only Oxford, what does it matter?"

Matthew blinked and licked his lips. "I'm – I'm really sorry you were unsuccessful, Mary. I didn't know."

She raised her eyes to his, looking at him bleakly for a second and then nodding her head almost imperceptibly in acknowledgement. Matthew felt, not for the first time that evening, a complete fool. He hoped he would have a chance to talk to her later on.

"It was three years ago, darling," pleaded her mother. "Isn't it time to move on? You like St Andrews, don't you?"

Mary shot her a cold glare as Edith continued as if nothing had happened, "I think Mary just has a hard time recognising Oxford's new admissions process. Apparently you actually have to be clever to get a place these days."

"Thank you, Edith," said Robert heavily. "That was a helpful contribution to the conversation. Poor Mary was just unlucky."

"This is absolutely delicious!" cried Isobel.

"I'm so glad you like it," replied Cora with equal determination. "It's really very easy and we use meat from the estate which does give it a special flavour... Would anyone like seconds?"

The flurry of refilling plates smoothed over the unpleasant atmosphere but Matthew kept one eye on Mary who looked far more uncomfortable and unhappy than he had ever seen her. She was always so self-possessed in St Andrews, every inch the stereotypical aristocrat, but here surrounded by her family where she should be most at home, she seemed embarrassed and reserved. Perhaps it was simply that the conversation had not gone her way. Or maybe she was ashamed of him. That was an unpleasant thought but, he considered, just how good friends were they? They hardly knew each other! On the other hand, she had been the one to invite him to dinner. But these reflections were futile.

Suddenly she spoke, looking up, and addressing him and Isobel. "Do you have everything you need for tonight? I would imagine you don't."

Brother and sister exchanged glances. Isobel replied for them, "Well, no we don't actually. We weren't intending to spend the night away, you see."

"Carson, what spares do we have?" asked the earl, turning in his seat.

"Just towels, my lord, but I can get spare nightclothes and toiletries within the next hour."

Mary twisted her head in frustration. "Oh, don't you bother, Carson. I'll go. The 24 hour Tesco at Ripon will do, won't it?"

"Mary-" began her mother.

Matthew shook his head firmly. "Really, it's entirely unnecessary! I feel terrible about putting you out so much."

"Unnecessary?" retorted Mary. "Do you sleep naked then?" Her lips twitched and while Matthew swallowed, blushing, he at least felt glad that he seemed to have been the unintentional means of cheering her up.

"Uh-" he stammered. "Well-"

"Honestly, it's no trouble. I want some air anyway." She put her napkin down on the table and stood up.

"I'll come with you!" exclaimed Sybil, jumped up as well. "Can I drive?"

"Oh, really..." she sighed. "Alright, you can come with me though I'm not sure about the driving. We won't be long."

"Mary, this is very good of you," said Isobel quickly before they could leave the room.

She flashed her the first proper smile of the evening before leaving the room followed by her sister. It was only when the door had closed behind them, the whole scene having taken place so quickly that they were gone before the rest of the party could get their heads round it, Matthew realised he really had been abandoned to the wolves.

Chapter Text

"Well, are you driving?" tossed Mary over her shoulder, grabbing the car keys from the bowl on the hall table.

"Isn't that the whole point?" replied Sybil as she shrugged on a jacket and a scarf. "I need driving practice, you want to get away, and Matthew and Isobel need night things. A win situation for everyone."

Mary rolled her eyes. "Have you ever driven in the night before? Are you even any good?"

They crunched onto the gravel outside and paused by the car, Mary dangling the car keys enticingly. Sybil held out her hand for them.

"Stuart says I can book my test soon so I must be. I think I am. We're aiming for the end of the summer at the moment."

Her sister made a face. "You're five months off getting your licence. This doesn't fill me with confidence."

"Mary, you promised!"

She gave in, simply to get them out, threw the keys to her sister, and got in the passenger seat. Within moments, the engine was on and Mary was rummaging in the glove pocket for the L plates.

"How do you turn on the headlights?" muttered Sybil. "Is it – oh!"

The back windscreen wiper came on. Mary closed her eyes for a second, dragging up reserves of patience. "Other side. And don't forget to dip them if you meet another car."

"Right. I knew that!"

Eventually they were on their way and Sybil was manoeuvring them slowly out of the yard and onto the private road through the estate.

"I'm glad I've got you alone actually," said Mary as soon as she felt sufficiently reassured that her sister knew roughly what she was doing. "I rather feel that you've been avoiding me this holiday."

"Really? It's not my fault I was in London with Olivia to work on that politics project before Easter when you got home."

"Politics project? I suppose you did absolutely have to do it in London. Did your boyfriend help?" inquired Mary blandly.

Sybil huffed noisily. "I knew it! You wanted to get me alone to have a go at me about Tom. Well, it won't change anything."

Mary shrugged and shook her head. "I don't want to have a go at you; I just want to understand. I suppose Mummy is still ignorant of all this."

"I haven't told her, if that's what you mean. Honestly, Mary, I just don't want to make things complicated when they don't need to be. I'm happy with Tom, Mummy and Daddy are happy not knowing anything. What's wrong with that?"

Her sister opened her mouth to reply and then changed her mind. They came to the end of the drive. In the silence, the sound of the indicator was loud and intrusive until Sybil had checked both ways and turned onto the road to Ripon and it flicked off.

"Are you and Tom serious?" Mary asked.

It was Sybil's turn to shrug and hesitate over replying, using concentrating on changing into a higher gear as an excuse.

"I don't know exactly," she replied finally. "I mean, I really like him. I like spending time with him and everything, but in the end I'm only seventeen and you have to be realistic about these things. I'm not going to marry him or anything."

"Well, that's a relief, I'm sure!"

"I don't know that I'll ever get married," continued Sybil blithely and accelerated without even being aware of it as the road straightened out. "I just don't see the point. And I mean, maybe Tom and I will stay together forever. I guess I wouldn't mind right now if we did... but I don't want to limit myself. It's good for now and the future can take care of itself, right?"

"The future has a habit of creeping up on us, I'm afraid. You may think this is okay now but is that how Tom feels? Or how you may feel next year when you're thinking about universities and making big decisions about your life."

"Ugh, Mary! You always have to be such a Debbie Downer about everything. Tom is cool with just having fun and as for how I'll feel in the future, I don't know. That's kind of the point of it being the future, isn't it? Why do you have to be so serious? It's a relationship, not the end of the world."

Mary flung up her hands. "My God, calm down, darling; all I meant was that even if you are just in it for fun, relationships are serious things and have serious consequences. I just-"

"And when were you last in a relationship, Mary?" interrupted Sybil. "Sorry, but the last time I checked, you've only had one boyfriend and he was fucking gay! Really worked out well for you, that, didn't it?"

"That was different," snapped Mary, getting annoyed and wishing she wasn't. "Anyway, you've no idea what I get up to at university!"

Sybil snorted. "I've a good idea what you don't get up to! I remember when you were my age, going out and getting drunk all the time like a normal person and I know what you're like now. Trust me, Mary, you have absolutely no grounds to lecture me on how to manage an adult relationship like mine with Tom."

"I do wish you'd slow down round these corners!" she deflected and then sighed in irritation. "Just because I don't have certain – certain particular experiences doesn't mean I don't have any at all that are relevant. I'm still older than you, I've seen more of the world than you have and I'm certainly far more objective than you are."

"Objective?" replied Sybil, raising her eyebrows, and slowing down a bit even though she scowled at being instructed. "Are you really?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. Only, you have seen how your friend Matthew looks at you, haven't you?"

Mary's heart suddenly pounded, quite inexplicably. "As he would look at anyone. He has a girlfriend, you know."

"Really? Poor thing! Because if he doesn't have the biggest crush on you, then I'm a giraffe as Sarah at the garage would say."

"What?" Mary blinked and clenched and released her grip on her seatbelt. "No, you're wrong about that, I'm sure you are. I've met Lavinia; she's lovely and they're lovely together. They're the perfect couple. Don't say such things. I hope they stay together for a long time and are very happy."

"You don't mean that! Come on, Mary; I only met him a few hours ago but it's quite obvious how he feels about you. He couldn't take his eyes off you all dinner."

Mary was silent. She felt a conflicting mix of trembling excitement, irrepressible however much she tried, and a strong sense that Sybil was wrong – had to be wrong. If Matthew and Lavinia could be broken, if their comfortable, warm, stable relationship could be upset, then what hope was there for anyone?

"Well," added Sybil in a conciliatory tone as she turned into the Tesco car park, "I'm sure you don't want to get involved in anything between Matthew and his girlfriend but take it from me, as someone who unlike you does know something about this, they won't be together much longer and then you can think about what you want to do."

"What I want to do..." murmured Mary with a frown. "Oh, if only it were that simple!"

"Isn't it? Don't you want a boyfriend? Or do you still only date celebrities to get on the cover of fashion magazines?"

Mary rolled her eyes and didn't bother replying until she saw her sister swing into a parking space surrounded by equally empty spaces, far away from shop, and miss the actual space quite considerably. "Darling, that's absolutely dreadful! A monkey could park more accurately than you."

"Oy!" Sybil poked her, torn between giggling and being offended. "Okay, so I'm not great at the manoeuvres yet but you have to admit my driving's fine."

"Ish," replied Mary with a grin. "I suppose we are still alive."

Car doors slammed and Sybil locked up before they walked across the car park. As she picked up a basket by the shop entrance, she hesitated and turned to her sister.

"Friends?" she asked anxiously. "I didn't mean to blow up on you like that. You're the only one who even pretends to be on my side at all; I do appreciate it."

Mary loosely put her arm round her shoulders for a moment. "Don't give it another thought. I shouldn't have had a go at you either. I just don't want you to get hurt. You do know that, don't you?"

"'Course I do, but I won't. It's okay, Mary; I can take care of myself. Anyway, what do we need to get here? Toothbrushes and pyjamas, right?"

"Right." They aimed for the clothing section first. Mary tilted her head to one side, considering the selection. "Can I get Matthew Sonic the Hedgehog pyjamas, do you think?"

Sybil giggled as she caught her sister's eye. "Aren't they just in children's sizes?"

"Perfect for Matthew then!" retorted Mary smugly, with a toss of her head. She had to recover her superiority after her equilibrium had been disturbed by what Sybil had said in the car.

After choosing more suitable nightwear for both Matthew and Isobel they headed in the direction of the dental products aisle. The shop was quiet this late at night and sparkling expanses of floor stretched out in front of them, the sound of their feet echoing all round the cavernous superstore.

"This is fun, isn't it?" exclaimed Sybil suddenly, swinging the basket at her side. "It's like being grown up!"

"Really? This is your definition of responsible adulthood?"

"Sure! That is, okay, maybe not exactly. But I mean, driving to a shop, buying things you actually want to buy, having independence - that's what being grown up's like. Mary, can we get dried mango?"

"Dried what?" Mary cried, making a face.

"Sumira brought dried mango in her packed lunch the other week and it was so good you have no idea and I've been desperate for more ever since, but I know Mummy would think I'm really weird for wanting it on the shopping list."

"I think you're really weird!"

"Yes, but-"

"But we can get some if you really want it. You go and find it and I'll get the toothbrushes."

"Fine."

They split up, meeting up a few minutes later at the checkout. Sybil had four packets of dried mango and shrugged at Mary's raised eyebrows. "Nothing wrong with stocking up!"

"You'll be sick of them by the end of the first packet."

Sybil laughed ruefully. "You're probably right there. Never mind."

Mary insisted on driving home, finding it less stressful to drive herself than to pay attention to her sister. Before they drove off, however, Sybil put a CD on and opened her first packet of dried mango, offering her sister a piece. Mary chewed on it thoughtfully and then laughed.

"Couldn't you have just got chocolate biscuits? I suppose they aren't as edgy and hipster as dried mango pieces."

"Don't use that word, Mary. Just... don't. You really don't know what it means."

Mary only laughed again and started the car. "You know, darling, there's more to being grown up than buying snacks from supermarkets at ten at night. There's responsibility and paying bills and working-"

"Oh, come on, you know about as much about those things as I do! Anyway, I'm looking forward to that sort of thing. Life without a purpose is pointless after all."

Mary only sighed and took a hand off the steering wheel to dig back into the packet of mango for another piece. As far as she could tell, Sybil's only purpose was to rebel against the establishment in rather trivial ways, hardly something to glorify. But at least she had a purpose.


When they got back to Downton they found Cora, Matthew and Isobel sitting very comfortably round the large kitchen table by the Aga lingering over cups of tea, Ludwig prowling around them, still deciding who had the most comfortable lap. It was an unexpectedly pleasant and homely scene.

"Where's Daddy?" asked Sybil, as Mary's eyes immediately went to Matthew at the same moment as he looked straight at her. She smiled tightly and quickly and immediately looked away, blushing and hating herself for it.

"He's taking Granny home and Edith's gone up to bed," replied Cora. "Do you girls want some cake since you missed dessert?"

Both sat down and helped themselves to large pieces of fruit cake, purchased from Mrs. Travis' stall at the fair earlier in the day. The atmosphere had lightened so much since dinner and Mary was relieved. She could not have expected that people like Matthew and Isobel would get along with her father and grandmother, though she had been quietly impressed with the former's handling of the situation. Her mother, on the other hand, at least understood which century they were living in and so it was not quite so surprising to see them all getting on now.

Tea finished, Sybil said goodnight and disappeared upstairs, taking her stash of dried mango with her. Mary stood up as well, concealing her smile at Sybil's secrecy – it was hardly crack cocaine – and volunteered to show Matthew and his sister to their rooms.

The guest rooms were on the second floor, where servants' bedrooms would have been originally. Mary gave Isobel all she needed outside her room, telling her with a wry smile that she was sleeping where housemaids would have shared a room in previous centuries. Then she continued down the corridor, Matthew following.

"And here you are!" she said brightly, holding out the pyjamas, toothpaste and brush neatly placed on top. "You have the scullery maid's room. I hope you'll find it more comfortable than they probably did."

"Very distinguished accommodation," he replied with a smile.

"Yes." She blinked at him, suddenly awkward. She should leave him and yet her feet seemed rooted to the floor. She could not stop thinking about what Sybil had said, even as she forced herself to ignore it.

"Look, Mary, can I talk to you a moment?" he said suddenly with almost equal awkwardness.

"Of course."

They went into the bedroom and he closed the door behind her, briefly distracted by appreciating the plain but comfortable way the attic room was done up.

"I forgot," said Mary, "the bathroom's at the end of the corridor. The shower's not always very powerful – you know what it's like in houses like this – but it should be hot. You'd be better off having a bath really."

"Thanks." Matthew ran his hand over the towel folded neatly on his bed and then looked at her, suddenly very intense. "I want to say how sorry I am about dinner, Mary."

"Sorry?" she exclaimed, staring at him blankly, her heart fluttering. "Whatever for? It wasn't your fault."

"Maybe not... But I feel responsible somehow. I hadn't realised about Oxford and, well, I guess I just wanted to say that I'm sorry. For everything."

Mary sat down heavily on the bed, suddenly feeling incredibly tired. She sighed. "You're not responsible for Christ Church rejecting me."

"No, I know that, but-" He hesitated and then sat down next to her, ducking his head to peer across at her. "I'm probably the last person you want to be trying to sympathise with you about this because I don't know what it's like to be rejected from Oxford and quite honestly I don't think it ever meant as much to me as it does to you but-"

"Why did you apply then?" Mary interrupted him. "If it didn't mean anything."

"Ambition, I suppose," he replied after a short pause. "People with my background didn't go to Oxbridge and they certainly didn't study subjects like classics. They all assumed at school I would go to Manchester or Nottingham or Leeds or somewhere like that and do a law degree but I wanted..." He trailed away with a frown. "I suppose I wanted to prove I could do something more and that I was worth more than a profession."

"And get a damn good education in the mean time," she added softly. She felt a strange ache in her chest that she did not recognize.

He was still looking at her closely. "Yes. That is, of course I was interested in ancient history and literature and so on in the first place or I wouldn't have got in but -" He passed his hand over his eyes. "God, you must think the worst of me for this when it's something you've-."

"Actually I rather envy you."

"You do?" he replied, looking rather confused. "Well. What I wanted to say was that I might not know what it's like for you but I do know what it's like to be judged because of Oxford. It's always going to be an issue that people feel very strongly about, whether they actually know anything about it or not."

The ache was not going away. "Yes."

"And Mary," he continued very earnestly, "I'm sorry you were unlucky when you applied especially since I can't imagine anyone more deserving of a place. From talking to tutors, I know how hard it is to make decisions when you've got so many good applicants and-"

She held up a hand to stop him. "Please don't, there's no need." She turned to face him, meeting his eyes for a moment, her heart flipping again. "I know everything that can be said on this subject. There's no great mystery to my rejection: I applied to a popular college to read a popular subject and I didn't get in. That's all there is to it."

"I've made you angry. I'm sorry."

She shook her head, closing her eyes briefly. "No," she breathed. "Lots of things make me angry but you're not one of them."

For several quiet moments they sat together on the edge of Matthew's bed, their hands only an inch or two apart where they rested on the blanket. Neither made any move to close the gap but both were incredibly aware of their situation, even imagining they could hear the other's breathing.

They turned to each other at exactly the same moment.

"Mary-" began Matthew at the same time as she said, "I should let you get to sleep."

She stood up abruptly and he let her, only a brief expression of frustration crossing his face as he nodded and rose as well.

"Goodnight!" she said.

"Goodnight!" They looked at each other for a moment, questioning and unsure, and then Matthew stepped forwards and hugged her, as he would have done any other friend. It didn't quite work, they bumped together, felt the other for the first time and she hugged him back for a second before stepping away, not quite meeting his eye. Once she had left the room, Matthew flopped onto the bed and groaned.

"Idiot!" he muttered out loud. "Idiot!"

In the corridor, Mary closed the door quietly behind her and stood still a moment, breathing rapidly. He has a girlfriend, she repeated to herself over and over again. And even if he did not, what then? He was – he was not at all the sort of person she ought to be interested in, let alone date, assuming he asked her and she was not simply allowing herself to believe in Sybil's fantasies, imagining something between them. And anyway, did she want – how would she go about – what would it even mean? Girls her age should find falling into bed with any kind of boy easy; with her good looks she certainly should. What did it matter if Matthew wasn't the right sort of person to have a relationship with? She could fuck him and discard him when she was bored of it. That's what other people did all the time. Sybil would probably approve of such a cavalier, modern, feminist sort of attitude.

And yet.

She gave herself a shake. These thoughts were unproductive and completely hypothetical. As long as Matthew and Lavinia were still together, and she really, truly did not wish them to be otherwise, then she had no right to be thinking this way in the first place. She went back downstairs to her own room in what had once been the nursery, and pulled a face at her new second prize rosette before slowly and pensively getting ready for bed, her thoughts remaining with Matthew, hardly able to believe he was sleeping under the same roof.

Chapter Text

Matthew woke to sunshine streaming through the pale curtains of his attic room. He felt wonderfully relaxed, something to do with the quality of light, the complete silence of the countryside surrounding him and the deep comfort of the bed. Stretching, he grabbed his watch from the bedside table: only just after eight o'clock and yet he was already awake. He swung out of bed, smiling at his new pyjamas, and padded to the window, opening the curtains. There was a little condensation on the glass but the sun was already bright and promised a warm day. His room looked out across an expanse of lawn ending in a rather hideous Grecian folly on a raised mound. He and Isobel had wandered up to it the previous day and decided that compared to similar constructions at other properties it was not very impressive.

Now he grinned to himself. He was staying at Downton Abbey, the guest of an earl and countess. He might be sleeping in a scullery maid's room but it was still bigger than his room had been growing up. How the other half lives indeed, he muttered to himself, taking up his towel and quietly opening the door.

The corridor was deserted and he padded softly to the bathroom at the end. Mary had warned him about the pressure and it was true that he had definitely had more powerful showers in his time. On the other hand, he had never before been in such a big bathroom with a large window looking over deserted fields and a nineteenth century bath with feet. He could get used to this.

"I am the one and only Earl of Grantham!" intoned Matthew pompously, the sound of the water drowning out his voice. "I live at Downton Abbey, I have a butler, and I am really, really, really rich."

He chuckled to himself, feeling suddenly rather bad for making fun of Mary's family background. Only, well, it was rather ridiculous, wasn't it? Then the water turned abruptly icy and he jumped backwards with a yelp, grabbing onto the window ledge to steady himself. Perhaps poky, over-heated bathrooms in modern blocks of flats had their advantages after all.

There was still no sign of anyone else stirring by the time he returned to his room to dress. Not wanting to waste any of his remaining hours in such a fascinating place, he put on his jacket and descended the stairs to the hall. He poked his nose into the kitchen but it was deserted apart from Plato. The dog had a basket near the Aga and raised his head when Matthew entered, his tail thumping on the stone floor.

"Good boy," murmured Matthew with a smile in response the hopeful expression in Plato's expressive eyes. He was not the master, however, and the dog sighed in disappointment and laid his head back on his paws. Matthew rolled his eyes slightly as he closed the kitchen door quietly behind him.

Outside the house everything had an early morning stillness about it. He crunched across the gravel of the private driveway and out into the parkland until he thought he could see his bedroom window. He walked several paces backwards and stared up at it, hands on his hips.

What did it do to you, being brought up in a place like this? he wondered. He had lived in the Oxford bubble but not until after he had experienced a proper slice of real life to ground him. Growing up here must have been the equivalent of always living in such a bubble. What warped perceptions of the world must one have? The classicist in him found it anthropologically fascinating, but the boy who desperately wished to understand Mary Crawley as much as he admired her, found it utterly perplexing.

"Impressive, isn't it?" came a cool, amused voice from behind him.

Matthew spun around to see Mary sitting on a bench under an ancient cedar tree, observing him. He blushed as he walked over to her.

"I - I didn't see you there," he blustered as he sat down next to her.

"Apparently not!" she smiled. "Did you sleep well?"

"Very, thank you."

He leaned backed back on the bench, his arm briefly brushing hers as he did so. Mary shifted in response, pulling her cardigan more firmly round her; a little, hesitant movement. Silence fell between them with a kind of breathless intensity. A blackbird could be heard singing at some distance.

"It's quite something," commented Matthew eventually, raising his eyes up to the soaring gothic pinnacles.

"Yes."

He glanced over at her. Despite her casual dress and hair pulled back into a ponytail she still looked immaculate and as much part of the scenery as if she had been wearing a hooped skirt and carrying a parasol. "I suppose it'll be yours one day, will it?"

She met his eyes curiously. "It belongs to the National Trust now. We pay them rent to live here."

Matthew could have kicked himself. "Yes, of course. Silly of me."

"Still," Mary continued with a slight shrug, "the title has to pass to a boy and the rest of the estate goes with the title so I still won't get anything."

"How incredibly archaic! Aren't there any loopholes? This is the twenty-first century after all!"

She shook her head and was going to reply to explain further about all the changes in how the entail worked that had in fact taken place and what it all meant for her and for Edith and for their lives and their parents' lives when Matthew interrupted her eagerly.

"I could look into it, if you liked. I've not specialised in property law but I'm not completely ignorant either. If you wanted me to, that is."

Mary laughed but not unkindly for he appeared so genuine that it was hard not to feel a little bit grateful. "Oh, Matthew, that did occur to us and we've actually gone so far as to consult real lawyers about it – ones who are not only qualified but even experts in the field! But I do appreciate the offer." Her eyes danced at him with a compelling mix of mockery and warmth.

He could only join her amusement even if it was at his own expense. "Of course you did. It just seems all so unfair, but I suppose the point is your life is basically Pride and Prejudice. Who's the lucky Mr. Collins then?"

"Nobody," said Mary, her lips twitching, and then added with a suppressed sigh, "At least, not anymore. When we were growing up it was never an issue, you see, because Daddy's cousins were going to inherit it all."

Something in her tone made him wary. "What happened?"

"7/7 happened," she replied succinctly, staring out over the park. "Patrick was only nineteen. Such a terrible waste."

"God, I'm so sorry, Mary," muttered Matthew and reached across to her hand before he could stop himself. In the same moment she shifted and hugged her arms round herself so, heart pounding, he let his hand fall onto the bench, the action going unnoticed.

"It puts my rejection from Oxford into perspective, I suppose," she said with a mirthless laugh.

He closed his eyes a moment, feeling terribly sorry for her. "Were you close to them?"

Mary shrugged. "To James – Patrick's father that is – not so much. He and Daddy didn't like each other very much. But Patrick... Well, he was our cousin," she finished simply.

Matthew moistened his lips and thought a moment. Finally he said quietly, "I know what it's like – to lose someone. So I – I'm sorry."

This brought her out of her reverie and she tilted her head to look at him. Her eyes were wide and soft, but just as keen and clear as ever. "Your father died," she stated.

"Yes, when I was a baby. I don't remember him at all. I mean, there are the odd photos but it's not the same."

"No. Well, I'm sorry too."

He forced himself to smile at her, and she returned it tentatively. He felt very close to her in that moment, so much so that he was aware of every breath she took as her chest rose and fell. In a desperate attempt to lighten the atmosphere, he managed a laugh. "You know – I shouldn't complain. My sister's the best in the world and you never know, I might still get my Hogwarts letter one day."

Mary gave him an understandably funny look. "Your Hogwarts letter?"

He laughed again, more spontaneously this time. "Yes. Because Dad died in a car accident my friends and I at school – we had a thing where I was actually a wizard and what happened was that Voldemort had murdered my dad and when my mum left she did it to protect us and she's out there somewhere battling the forces of evil and one day when things are safe again she'll come back and explain everything."

He ducked his head, suddenly embarrassed to meet her eyes. What was he thinking sharing such stupid past history with Mary? Without looking at her, he added hastily, "But I'm twenty-three and of course I know it's all a fantasy. I don't really still think I'm going to open a letter one day and discover I'm a famous wizard or something now. It's ridiculous."

Instead of mocking him as he expected, she only shrugged and replied reasonably, "Oh, don't say that; it wasn't back then." He raised his eyes to hers as she continued, "When I was a little girl I dreamed that I was a princess locked in a tall tower and that one day a handsome prince would cut through all the brambles and rescue me." She smiled wryly at him. "I study literature, Matthew, and can analyse dreams like that as well as you probably can with your great classics degree from Oxford."

He met her eyes. "I could probably have a stab at it, yes."

"Of course you could," she murmured, leaning slightly towards him, an entirely subconscious inclination but one which made him almost hold his breath.

Then she shivered suddenly and pulled back to look at her watch. "Goodness, we'll miss breakfast." She stood up. "Coming?"

He blinked and stood up with her. "Of course."

As they walked back across the lawn, conversation returned to Downton. Mary explained how although the family no longer owned the house, the estate, which included the village, was still their's. It pays for itself, she explained, in rents and produce from the farms – but the house had needed so many repairs and that was why.

When they reached the house it was clear that the rest of the family had woken up. The radio was on in the kitchen and when they came in, they found Cora making coffee and Sybil hugging a cup of tea, still in her pyjamas.

"There you are, my dears!" said the countess brightly. "Now tell me, Matthew, what do you want for breakfast? Are you just a cereal person or do you want bacon and eggs?"

"Well-" began Matthew, who had not had a proper English breakfast in months.

"I would offer pancakes but my children always laugh at me when I suggest it."

"That's because pancakes are for tea on Shrove Tuesday not breakfast any old day," put in Mary, going round the table to kiss her. "Morning, Mummy." She turned back to Matthew with raised eyebrows. "She's American, in case you hadn't noticed."

Matthew half laughed as Sybil groaned. "I feel so rough. Stop talking about frying things. It's too early."

"Trying to get out of revision, are you, darling?" replied her mother unsympathetically. "You'll regret it when it comes to the exams."

She scowled and stood up, picking up her cup. "I'm going back to bed. Nice to meet you, Matthew, if you've gone before I'm up again."

"Nice to meet you too, Sybil!"

They watched her leave and then Cora sighed. "I'd say I'll be sad when you're all out of your teens but it'd be a terrible lie. Now, Matthew, did you say you wanted bacon and egg?"

"Well..." He glanced at Mary and grinned, "I'm normally a toast and jam person but - if it's not too much bother, Lady Grantham."

"None at all. Mary?"

She hesitated, glanced in turn at Matthew and then shrugged. "Why not? It is the holidays after all!"

"Excellent. It's all from the estate, you know, Matthew," Cora said, as she got down a large frying pan. "Our pigs actually won an award for their quality of meat."

"Four years ago," added Mary, rolling her eyes.

"It's still the best, and you know it, darling; anyway, we all know Oakshott Farm cheats dreadfully."

"I look forward to trying it," said Matthew. He felt torn between amusement at this American countess and the real feeling of warmth and love radiating from within this unusual family as soon as they were taken away from the pressures of a formal dinner.

"Have you seen my sister yet?" he asked. "She does like to sleep in when she can but she wouldn't want to be late."

"I think she was in the bathroom when I came down. Oh, Mary, before I forget, Colin rang this morning – my PA," she added for Matthew's benefit, "and I'm going to have to go down to London this afternoon. Do you want to come and do some shopping or do you have work like Sybil?"

"I have work," replied Mary, "but I'd like to come to London anyway."

"Well, if you're sure you can take the time. I was thinking of getting the 2.05 from York." She put the rashers of bacon into the pan, looking up as a new thought occurred to her. "I guess I'd better see if Edith wants to come too. Where is she anyway?" She frowned. "She spends so much time holed up in her room it's easy to overlook her sometimes. Awful of us really but you know how it is when you're busy..."

"Seriously, Mummy, where do you think she is?" replied Mary disparagingly.

Cora sighed. "Well, will you be a darling and go and see if she's coming down for breakfast? Your father's out with the dog but should be back soon."

Mary scraped back her chair with an audible huff, muttered an apology to Matthew and stalked from the room. Left alone with the countess, he looked around the kitchen for inspiration, finally saying, "So you work in London?"

She was quite happy to talk. "Yes. That is, the work never stops when you're the figurehead for a company like Levinson International, but the office is in London."

"Levinson International?" Matthew's eyes widened. No wonder the family was rich!

"Oh yes," she continued as if there was nothing extraordinary about her position. "It was my father's brainchild but he died suddenly and left it all to me, a naïve kid just out of college with no more idea how to run a business than you do. I was meant to tour all the offices – London, Berlin, Hong Kong – before settling back in New York; well, I didn't get very far as you can see!"

Matthew met her smile. "You married?"

"I did and how! Then I guess I added countess and wife to the list of things I didn't know how to be. At least cooking's a universal skill!" she added with a knowing grin that reminded him strongly of Mary's.

Their conversation was interrupted at that point by the return of the earl and Plato from their morning walk. The excited dog soon made the kitchen seem very small but Lord Grantham also filled it with his presence. There was a stateliness about the earl that demanded respect and formality, something he had not seen in any of the rest of the family, excepting Mary on some occasions. Robert was very civil and attentive to him but Matthew could not help suddenly feeling that he needed to sit up straighter. It was a reaction that he instinctively resented.


Matthew and Isobel left Downton about an hour after their breakfast of award winning bacon and eggs.

"What a nice young man," said Robert afterwards as he lingered in the kitchen over coffee and The Times. "Polite, intelligent, and well-educated. Where did you say he came from, Mary? Do we know anything about his family background?"

"Manchester and no, we don't," replied Mary after a moment's hesitation.

"That's because there's nothing to know," said Edith. "I googled him and there's absolutely nothing on any of them apart from some awards he won at school, his involvement in the Labour Club at St Andrews-"

"The Labour Club!"

"Yes, Daddy, the Labour Club, contact details for his sister's surgery, and an old notice from his dad's funeral but nothing else."

"Well," sighed Robert, "I suppose nobody's perfect."

"He doesn't even have a wikipedia page!"

"No need to sound so outraged, dear," murmured Cora. "Internet fame isn't the be all and end all."

"I have a wikipedia page!" cried Edith.

"Yes," put in Mary, rolling her eyes, "and it says 'Lady Edith Crawley is the middle daughter of the nineth earl of Grantham' and then it says 'this page is a stub'." She stood up. "Excuse me. I have to read some Old English before we go out."

When she reached her bedroom, however, her copy of Beowulf remained unopened on her desk. She took out her phone and her finger hovered over Anna's number. Then she changed her mind and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling and tapping a pen compulsively against the table.

If Matthew were not going out with Lavinia then what – what, she wondered, would have happened the previous night or this morning? She drew in a breath and then scolded himself. He was going out with Lavinia and speculating about what might have been if circumstances were different was a completely futile mental activity. Knowing that, however, did not prevent her from wasting almost half an hour inventing a fantasy in which Matthew had disturbed her after she'd gone to bed to say that he'd just broken up with Lavinia over the phone and was terribly upset, to which she had said "Poor dear" (as if that was something she would say!) and then he had sat down next to her again and one thing had led to another – only, it hadn't. Mary's mind skittered nervously away from imagining anything so conclusive and revealing of her own feelings as a genuine romantic encounter between them. After inventing several equally implausible scenarios all ending with them sitting facing each other on her bed in exactly the same way, she gave in to her conscience and stopped. She distracted herself by going to see Sybil who was curled up in a bed with a geography textbook, loud rock music, and a bad temper, before getting ready for her trip to London. There was nothing that a few days in the bright lights of the metropolis, a West End show, and some new clothes could not cure.

Chapter Text

The vacation limped towards its close and by the middle of April Mary and Edith had been packed off to university again at opposite ends of the country and Sybil had been dragged reluctantly back to London to sit her AS Levels.

"I should have sent them all to boarding school as Robert wanted," complained Cora, pouring herself a glass of whiskey. "Then they would have been somebody else's problem. Teenage girls are the absolute worst."

It was late at the end of Sybil's first day of school and the countess was finally getting to put her feet up with her sister-in-law and the head of marketing at Levinson International London, Ros Painswick, at the London house.

"Well, I was sent off to Roedean and you can see how well I turned out."

Cora laughed but shook her head. "I couldn't have done it. Maybe it's the American in me but eleven just seems far too young to separate girls from their parents. Mary would probably have done well enough but I can't see it working for Edith or Sybil."

"You mean Mary would have been the class bully. Cheers, darling." Ros toasted her and took a large gulp of whiskey. "Don't worry about it – I was."

"Oh, I don't mean that exactly, but she's rather more resourceful than the others."

"Is she? I suppose she's the only one who's travelled and that must make a massive difference. Always felt rather rather jealous of her for that gap year, you know. It wasn't the done thing when I was growing up. School, university, job, and dealing with Mother's wrath when I didn't marry one of her cronies as soon as I turned eighteen. That was the way my life worked out."

Her sister-in-law was silent a moment, looking into her glass before she raised her eyes again. "Do you ever wish you'd done it differently? You know, marriage and children and garden fêtes."

"No, never. I was far too much of a rebel for that and besides, I loved Marmaduke, whatever anyone else thinks."

"I know you did."

"Anyway, no use crying over it. I may have loved him but he was screwing his PA so that was that." She drained her glass and recovered her poise. "You should just be thankful that my brother is far too dull to ever think of cheating."

"My goodness, is that all that stands between him and adultery? Should I be worried?"

Ros laughed. "God, no. Men are born cheaters, darling, but you might just have got the one who wasn't."

"I like to think so," replied Cora, looking away with a private smile and for a few moments they enjoyed their drinks in the silence of their own thoughts.

"When you had that day out with Mary last week did she mention Matthew at all?" she inquired eventually, changing the subject.

Ros raised her eyebrows. "Matthew? No, I can't say she did. Should she have?"

"I'm really not sure... Just an idea I had but I'm probably wrong. Never mind."

"Now you can't stop there, darling! Those are the best ideas. Who is this Matthew and why should we care?"

So Cora told her about Matthew and Isobel's visit and mentioned her suspicion that there might be something between him and her daughter. "The only university friend she's had to stay is Anna and Matthew was – well, he was different."

Ros nodded. "Rather telling that she didn't mention him then. Do you like him?"

Cora thought about this and poured herself another half glass of whiskey while she did. "Yes," she replied finally. "He seemed a nice boy. Whether he's up to taking on Mary is another matter but I suppose we'll just have to wait and see."

"God, darling, I know she can be picky but she's not that bad! This is your daughter you're talking about."

"No, no, that's not what I meant." Cora frowned but quickly added, "Well, Robert likes him at least. He went to Oxford, you see."

"Well, no wonder he likes him then! Is he from a good family – I mean, my brother's idea of a good family? If he is then you might as well just book the church straight away."

Cora shook her head with a short laugh. "You know what's funny, Ros: he's a Crawley. Not one of us, of course, but it's a strange coincidence all the same."

"Is he now?"

"Oh no. No, no, no! I know that look very well. He's just a nice kid from Manchester. I forbid you to go prying into his background. His father's passed away, you know- it would be incredibly insensitive. Ros, I forbid it."

Ros pursed her lips. "Me, insensitive? Anyway, I don't believe in coincidences and I do believe in a full and complete family tree. Let me prove there's no connection and no harm's done."

"And what if there is a connection?"

The two women met each other's eyes.

"I also believe in telling the truth," said Ros carefully. "Whatever the consequences."

"Even at my daughters' expense?"

"Would it really be at their expense? If you're right about Mary and Matthew."

Cora stood up abruptly and put her glass down on the sideboard. "I hope for everybody's sake the only reward of your meddling is tracing his descent through a long line of north English – I don't know - fishermen and many smelly research trips to Morecambe Bay. Now, I'm going to bed; you're welcome to stay if you like."

Ros rolled her eyes at her sister-in-law's back and also stood up. "I think I shall."

"Good. You can take Sybil to school with you in the taxi in the morning. Save her getting the tube."

"I thought she liked getting the tube."

"I can't understand why when she could get a taxi!"

Ros laughed. "Then you don't understand Sybil very well! Night, darling."

"Goodnight."

After Ros had left the room, Cora remained a few moments, clearing up the drinks and picking up her heels that she had discarded earlier in the evening. She was bothered by what her sister-in-law had said. The idea that there could be any link between her husband's family and Matthew's was ludicrous – it was a common enough name, but that did not stop her worrying and she knew the same idea had been in her husband's mind ever since Easter. They hadn't spoken of it but they didn't need to. It had been a question mark for the entire family ever since James and Patrick's deaths seven years earlier and she wondered whether Mary had considered it when she had met Matthew. What if, despite all appearances to the contrary, there was another, direct male heir to the title out there that they did not know about? What if it was Matthew?


Even travelling first class with its advantages of larger seats, free wi-fi, and biscuits, it was a long and tedious train journey up from York to St Andrews. Mary finally arrived home in the early evening and tipped the taxi driver generously to carry her suitcase right up to the front door. It was a balmy spring evening, a pleasant breeze wafting tangy salt air from the sea. Already it was much lighter at this hour than it had been when she had left a month before. Mary took a deep breath as the taxi drove off leaving her alone on the threshold, relishing this moment of solitude, before turning her key in the lock and pushing the front door open.

"Anna?"

She dragged her suitcase into the hall and shut the door behind her.

"In here, Mary!" came her friend's welcome voice and she entered the front room to the surprising sight of both Anna and John sitting on the sofa, his arm round her shoulders, watching a DVD. Mary's eyebrows raised automatically even though Anna jumped up so quickly that she might have thought she had imagined it all.

Anna hugged her tightly. "Welcome back. I've missed you so much. How was your journey? Do you want a cup of tea?"

Mary hugged her back and smiled warily at John over Anna's shoulder. "Tea would be lovely, thanks."

They separated and she unwound her pashmina and sat down on an arm chair as Anna disappeared into the kitchen.

"How are you, John?" she asked, unable to completely hide her curiosity. He and Anna always spent time at his house and only on Friday evenings. This was not a Friday and it was Anna's house.

"Very well, thank you, Mary. Can't complain. And yourself?"

"Oh, you know me; a little tired but perfectly well."

An awkward silence fell between them. Mary had never really understood Anna's interest in John Bates and while she tolerated him as the object of her friend's quite inexplicable crush, she did not have much to say to him when left alone together. She looked to the television for inspiration.

"Pirates of the Caribbean?"

"Yep, we just felt like something fun and relaxing. Do you want to watch the rest of it with us?"

He started to shift on the sofa to make room for her but Mary shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I need to unpack."

"Right. Of course you do."

Fortunately before the conversation could get any more stilted than it already was, Anna came back with Mary's tea. She stood up with it and, with a significant look at her friend hinting at essential future conversation, left them to their film.

Had Anna and John actually got together over the Easter break? Mary wondered as she slowly and dreamily unpacked, taking many breaks to perch on her bed and sip her tea. She was not sure how she felt about that. Anna and John's relationship had always seemed safe, in some strange way, because it was so clearly going nowhere. The nineteen year old student with a crush and the thirty-five year old checkout worker oblivious to all signals – it was obviously never going to come to anything. There was no real danger of Mary's real importance in Anna's life being supplanted by the closer claims of a boyfriend. And of course for as long as Anna pined over him she would not be interested in anyone else.

Mary sat down heavily and suddenly, shocked at this revelation of the depth of her own selfishness. She liked to think she was a good friend to Anna but was the real reason that she was ambivalent about John because she did not want to lose her privileged best friend status? If Anna was in a relationship, then who would cook herdinner? Who would make her tea and listen to her complaints about her day? Who would do her hair and tell her she looked beautiful before she went out? Anna was an absolute treasure and deserved every happiness but not, Mary was ashamed to realise, if it meant she would be left in the cold.

Angry with herself, Mary drained her tea (now cold) and set herself to finishing unpacking with a vengeance. By the time her room was spotlessly tidy and clean, it was ten pm and John had finally left. Mary heard the front door bang and came downstairs to see Anna clearing up the remnants of dinner.

"Sorry, I thought you'd be back later," she began, "or I'd never have invited John round."

"Really?" Mary collapsed onto the sofa and stared at her pointedly. "Wouldn't you have? I rather think there's something you haven't told me!"

Anna sighed and shook her head, coming to sit next to her. "Not really." At her friend's incredulous expression she continued, "Well, I suppose we have been getting closer but nothing – nothing's happened."

She looked down and Mary felt incredibly guilty for her earlier, disloyal thoughts. "Oh, Anna," she murmured. "What's been going on?"

Anna almost sagged against her and swallowed. After a moment in which Mary really thought she might cry, she pulled herself together and raised her head. "We're not going out. Nothing's been said and we've not – we've not kissed or anything. But something's changing because we held hands all the way back from town this afternoon!"

"You held hands?" repeated Mary with gentle mockery. "Maybe if you're very lucky tomorrow you'll get to share the same milk bottle at morning break or something equally daring."

This provoked a smile and shaky laugh. "Oh, Mary! And you saw how it was tonight. I just... I just don't understand. He knows how I feel and I'm sure he feels the same way, but..."

Mary hugged her tightly and frowned out across the room. She did not understand either. "Is it worth it, Anna?" she asked eventually. "Is he worth it?"

Anna's reply came immediately. "Yes. I know that he is. I'll wait as long as it takes, only... I'm afraid I'm not as patient as I try to be!"

Mary squeezed her shoulders again and half laughed. "You're more patient than I think I would be in your situation. Well, I suppose even holding hands is an improvement on last month."

"Yes. I must look on the bright side."

They pulled away from each other and Anna sat up straight. "Anyway, tell me about your vacation. We haven't talked for so long but I saw on facebook that you were in London. Was it fun?"

Mary smiled and shrugged. "I suppose so. It was nice to see Aunt Ros and the play was good. I bought this gorgeous new summer jacket that I'll have to show you when we go upstairs, but Mummy just won't stop going on about internships. She thinks I'm burying my head in the sand but I really don't see what the hurry is. And all these placements look so dreadfully tedious. Who wants to spend their summer stuck in an office anyway? I have Diamond to train; that's far more important."

Anna shook her head with a long-suffering sigh. "People who want to actually get jobs when they graduate, that's who. Anyway, I'm glad you had a good time with your aunt. And did you say you saw Matthew in London? You sent me that weird text about him suddenly turning up and then you never replied when I responded."

"Oh..." Mary blinked. "No, he came to Downton with his sister, just as visitors, you know, and ended up staying the night. It was-"

"Wait, what?" interrupted Anna. "He stayed the night? I swear if you haven't told me-"

"Not like that!" Mary cried, blushing and feeling angry with herself for reacting at all. "Nothing happened. It was just too late for them to go back to Manchester. Honestly, Anna, how could you even imagine that when he's got a girlfriend?"

Anna bit her lip. "It seems to me that a lot of nothing has been going on over Easter, don't you think?"

Their eyes met in understanding, nothing further needing to be said.

"Come up and see my new jacket," said Mary, standing up and stretching. "I think it will go really well with that grey silk blouse I bought in January for Evelyn's birthday."

Anna followed her out of the sitting room, turning off the light as she left, happy to be distracted for the moment by the pleasure of new clothes, something far less insecure than the prospect of potential romance.


A week passed and 'nothing happening' continued to sum up Mary and Anna's lives. The milk bottle turned out to be not so ridiculous an analogy for Anna's relationship with John after all for the only thing they shared was a large plate of nachos on Wednesday evening, and Gwen was there as well so it hardly counted.

As for Mary, she did not think about Matthew... much. On the one hand, it was rather odd that he had not been in contact at all at the beginning of term. She had assumed that after they had spent more time together in the vacation the friendship that seemed to be developing between them would persist back in Scotland. She had to call it friendship because to call it anything else would be – well, she could not even consider it. This did not seem to have happened. On the other hand, as she kept reminding herself, what were she and Matthew to each other really? They had only spoken to each other on a few occasions, they were in different years doing different subjects, they came from completely different social spheres. Why on earth should she assume they were friends and, for goodness sake, why would she want to be? No, Mary did not think about Matthew very much at all.

Then one evening everything changed. Anna had made chicken curry for supper and it was gently cooking away, the delicious smell permeating the whole of the house, and both girls were at work revising in the sitting room when the landline phone rang.

"You can get it," said Mary, without looking up from her annotated copy of Spenser.

Anna hesitated for a moment, swallowing her irritation, before putting her pen down. Her train of thought had been broken anyway.

Going over to the bracket on the wall by the door, she lifted the receiver.

"Hello? … Oh hi there! How are you? … Yeah, I'm fine, thanks. Did you want to talk to Mary?"

Mary's head snapped up at hearing her name and she opened her eyes wide in curiosity.

"Oh... alright." Anna frowned and shook her head slightly at her friend.

Who is it? mouthed Mary but Anna was now definitely ignoring her.

"What is it? I mean, what do you-"

Anna fell silent and her expression changed to something so odd that Mary stopped mouthing impatiently at her and waited.

"I'm – I'm really sorry," she said eventually. "Really sorry. And of course, I'm sure we'll be able to- Let me just ask Mary."

She lowered the receiver and covered it with her hand.

"Well?"said Mary, when she still didn't say anything.

"That was Matthew," Anna replied, looking up. "He was wondering if he can crash on our sofa for a few days."

"Crash on our-"

"You see, he and Lavinia have broken up." Mary drew in a sharp breath as she felt something shift within her, leaving her feeling strangely on edge. "So obviously it's far too awkward for him to stay with her now and he needs somewhere to sleep and would we be willing..."

The odd feeling was not going away but Mary forced it to the back of her mind. "But of course he can. Tell him – tell him of course."

Anna smiled briefly and picked up the receiver again. "Mary's fine with it so just come over whenever. We have a spare sleeping bag if you need it. And - … Oh, really, don't worry about it. Do you like chicken curry? … Excellent. See you soon, Matthew. Bye then."

There was silence after she hung up. Mary stared at the table, clenching and unclenching her fist round her highlighter and Anna watched her for a moment. Then she said, "I guess I better put on more rice and we should make this room look more presentable if he's going to be sleeping in it."

Mary cast a glance around the room and twisted her lips in rueful acknowledgement. Then, as Anna disappeared into the kitchen, she closed Spenser for the evening, zipped up her stationary in her pencil case and swept the entire mishmash of paper, books, unopened post, and takeaway leaflets into a pile on the floor in the corner. The mugs on the coffee table she took back to the kitchen and rinsed out. Then she went upstairs and found a spare pillow and blanket and brought them downstairs, leaving them in a neat pile on the sofa. She hesitated there, looking around the now (superficially) presentable room and imagining him there, aware that her heart was beating strongly not just because she had run up and down the stairs.

Matthew was single and, however much she tried to convince herself that it did not matter, she could not do it: this changed everything.

Chapter Text

Just as the rice was starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, Matthew finally arrived. Mary and Anna only had time to help him hastily transfer two suitcases, a battered hiking rucksack, and several large, clear plastic boxes from the taxi to their hallway before they all sat down to dinner. Very little had been said by this point and silence fell rather awkwardly once the food had been served and dinner had commenced.

"I really appreciate this," said Matthew eventually, between mouthfuls of curry. "It's incredibly kind of you, putting me up like this at such short notice. I mean," he turned to Mary, "your family has already been so hospitable to me, and Anna," he turned to her, "I've only met you once! I'm going to be in debt to you both for a long time now."

"You might not be so grateful once you've spent the night on that sofa," observed Mary with a wry smile.

"I'm sure it'll be perfect," he reassured her, inwardly sighing. From the bed he shared with Lavinia to a sofa... "It'll only be for a few days anyway," he continued hastily to avoid dwelling on it. "I'll go to the accommodation service first thing tomorrow and plead my case."

"They should be able to help you," said Anna. "It's exam term and not having a proper place to live could really affect your results."

"That's what I intend to tell them!"

For a while they ate in silence. Mary glanced over at Matthew frequently, trying to read him, but it was difficult. He seemed closed off, understandably enough, and she did not know him well anyway... though it felt as if she did sometimes. The silence seemed uncomfortable to her and eventually she looked up with an engaging and hopefully sympathetic smile.

"I'm sorry about it, Matthew, really."

He met her eyes almost forlornly and she nearly forgot that he had not actually replied to her question until he eventually spoke. "It's – it's, well, I suppose it's no different from any other breakup but that doesn't mean it doesn't..." He trailed off and stared at his plate. "Well, you know."

Mary looked at Anna and raised her eyebrows. She was not convinced that she was the best person in this situation but she did, truly, want to help. Anna shrugged back.

"When girls have a break up," Mary began, "we eat lots of ice-cream and watch terrible films. I'm not sure what the masculine equivalent is."

This provoked a smile. "Neither am I to be honest. When my school girlfriend and I broke up I think I just spent all weekend shooting things on the playstation and then had to be friends with her in class on Monday morning." He hesitated. "Do you have any ice-cream?"

"I'll go check," said Anna and went into the kitchen.

Mary continued to observe Matthew with silent compassion but, not being a self-pitying person herself, had little tolerance for it in others. She said in a normal tone, leaning slightly towards him over the table, "When my boyfriend and I broke up, it was splashed all over the front covers of Teen Chat."

Matthew blinked at her. "It was?"

She shrugged and smirked, sitting up taller again. "Well, our entire relationship had been discussed at length in its pages so it was only natural that our break-up made the front cover. He was famous and I'm titled – it was gold dust for the tabloids."

"You've missed out the bit about him being gay, Mary!" added Anna, coming back into the room with a tub of chocolate ice-cream.

"Gay?" repeated Matthew, enjoying the distraction immensely. "You had a gay boyfriend? Really? That's brilliant! That is-"

"He was certainly gay by the time Mary was finished with him," murmured Anna, nudging her friend as she sat back down again.

Mary opened her mouth and tossed her hair, trying to be offended, but her eyes sparkled. "He was always gay, Anna. I'll have you know, Matthew, that it was a relationship of convenience in which his sexuality was not an issue. Among my sort of people these things happen all the time."

"Right," said Matthew nodding. "I get that. Wait, no, I really don't. You went out with some gay celebrity – why exactly? Or am I just being terribly middle class?"

"I'd just assume you're being middle class," put in Anna. "It works for me most of the time."

Mary heaved an exaggerated sigh. "I see you're going to want the whole story. We'd better start on the ice-cream."

Nobody objected so bowls were procured and the three of them relocated to the sofa, with Matthew sitting between the two girls. Mary waited until they were all established before starting.

"You must have heard of Rashid O'Donahue." Matthew looked blank and Mary rolled her eyes. "Apparently not. He was the Irish-Pakistani star of Going for Goal – you know, that dreadful soap about a youth football club in the East End."

"Oh..." Matthew dragged his memory back to about seven years ago. "Yes, that. Some people at school followed it, I think. I only watched a couple of episodes but it always seemed pretty boring. Sorry."

"Don't be. It was almost certainly the worst show on TV at the time. Anyway, Rashid played the druggie goalkeeper and was something of a teen celebrity in certain female circles. He didn't want to come out as gay and I wanted my face on the front page of a magazine. So we dated for two years."

"Wow," was Matthew's only response. "As you do."

Mary shrugged. "It worked quite well too, until he fell for another guy and no longer required my services."

"I see. I suppose... I suppose a story like that makes mine seem simply very mundane. We were together and then one day we weren't. The end."

She frowned. "I'm sure it wasn't mundane."

Quite without intending to, she touched his wrist for a moment and then her hand was gone but the warmth of it remained with them both, as Matthew turned to look properly at her.

He shook his head with a rather sad laugh. "No, but it was. Terribly, terribly mundane. All of it."

Mary bit her lip as she flexed on her knee the hand that had touched him. The truth was that in all its glorious domesticity and apparent maturity, Matthew and Lavinia's relationship had seemed rather ordinary – in a wonderful way. At least it had seemed wonderful from the outside. She was not sure what to say.

"Well, we've got the ice-cream," interrupted Anna brightly. "How about the film then?"

Matthew shrugged acquiescence and at least ten minutes were spent deciding on a film that would appeal to all three of them. In the end, Disney was the obvious option and Beauty and the Beast was selected. The ice-cream was soon finished, tea was drunk and all of them started to relax, though Mary was constantly aware of Matthew at her side, of the way he breathed and the slight changes in his expression, and spent most of the film wondering what he was thinking rather than paying attention to the singing, dancing candlesticks on the TV screen.

About half an hour before the end, Anna stretched, yawned, and stood up. Muttering something about a nine o'clock class, she wished them both goodnight and disappeared upstairs. With more space on the sofa, Matthew shifted along and Mary tucked her feet up under her. They watched in silence to the very end of the credits.

Eventually, when the DVD had returned to the root menu and they had listened to the same bit of music play over and over again several times, Mary finally uncurled herself from the sofa and switched it off. The quiet of the sleepy, dark house suddenly seemed deafening. She sat back down next to him.

"I should let you get ready for bed," she said reluctantly but she had hardly finished the sentence when he interrupted her.

"Mary, I feel such a fool coming here like this," he burst out, shifting to face her.

"Why should you feel that?"

"I mean," he dropped his eyes, "that you and Anna must think me a fool. Like I said, I hardly know you and yet here I am..."

"Really, don't mention it." She was beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable at the intense, determined way he was looking at her and to wish there was more space between them.

"The thing is," he continued, ignoring her, "most of my friends aren't my friends at all – they're our friends. I came here with Linny and, well, apart from the cricket team who are mostly undergrads and so they're not really... Anyway, what I mean is, there weren't all that many people I could call up and not feel that I was putting them in some kind of awkward position and making them take sides. Or something like that anyway." His lips quirked up into a rueful smile. "Sorry, I'm not sure if that made much sense."

"I'm not sure that it did," replied Mary honestly, "but it's alright. If it was a problem we wouldn't have said yes."

"I'm quite sure you wouldn't!" He grinned and though there was still melancholy in his expression, it was warm and genuine so she responded to it with a tentative smile.

It really was very, very quiet... With a wrench, Mary tore her gaze away from him. "I should go to bed, Matthew. I may not have classes this term but Hardy won't analyse himself!"

"Of course."

They both stood up and looked at each other again. After a second Matthew shifted, almost as if he was going to hug her goodnight as he had done at Downton Abbey, but at that very moment, she said, "The bathroom's just at the top of the stairs and the light switch is outside," and the opportunity was lost.

Mary turned off the kitchen light, shut the sitting room door behind her and went up to bed, leaving Matthew to unpack his sleeping bag and make himself as comfortable as possible on the sofa.


Matthew slept badly. It was partly the sofa's fault and partly the fact that the curtains were thin and let in the light early, but it was also strange for him to be sleeping without Lavinia. Oh, the physical fact of not having her beside him was nothing out of the ordinary but to not have her with him and to know that he never would again made it so much more poignant. Eventually, after he had lain there dozing for about an hour, Anna crept in to pick up a banana, cereal bar, and her work bag, whisper good morning and hope she hadn't woken him up, before slipping out again. Matthew stayed in his sleeping bag a bit longer before giving up. He wandered into the kitchen, was not sure where anything was kept, and ended up getting nothing more than a glass of water and an apple. He took his breakfast back through to the sitting room, slumped back down on the sofa and munched on his apple while inspecting the bookcase. It had to be Mary's, for most of the books were classic literature and a good number of them looked very old, as if they had been taken from the Downton library. It was an incongruous reminder of who she really was amid the modern trappings of student life.

He had just picked up a copy of Oscar Wilde to flick through when the door opened and Mary came in. She stopped on the threshold, swallowing as her eyes flicked over him in nothing but t-shirt, boxers, and socks. In comparison, she was fully dressed, even a little over-dressed for a day of analysingTess of the D'Urbervilles; hair washed, blow-dried and cascading over her shoulders with artful disarray, perfect make-up, and a very nice top over her designer jeans. Matthew did not pick up on these details which would make Anna raise her eyebrows when she got in later, but he did think she looked very pretty.

Mary blinked and forced herself to move forwards. "Good morning, Matthew!" she said brightly. "I won't ask if you slept well but I hope you slept tolerably."

He laughed, following her progress to the kitchen with his eyes. "Oh, very tolerably, thank you."

"Good. Have you had breakfast?"

"Just an apple. I wasn't sure..."

"Oh, for goodness sake, you must make yourself at home! Come and get some cereal. Anna has a selection of the usual things or you could have some of mine." She took down a box from a cupboard and held it up in front of her as he joined her. "This is not just chocolate cereal; it's Marks and Spencer chocolate cereal."

She smirked with a touch of self-mockery and poured herself a large bowl while Matthew decided on rice crispies. It would make a change from his usual breakfast of toast and jam anyway. As they returned to the sitting room, his eye fell on the Beauty and the Beast DVD case on the table.

"I wouldn't have put you down as a Disney fan," he commented, sinking back onto the sofa.

Mary sat down at the table and raised her eyebrows at him. "No? Well, I'm not. It's Anna's DVD. Left to myself, I would have preferred to watch a foreign art house film without subtitles."

"I'm sure that would have been very cheerful."

"Mmm. I saw a good Japanese one recently made by Norwegians with four suicides and lots of water lillies. Very symbolic and extremely pretentious. Just my kind of film."

Matthew pursed his lips to hide his smile. "Was it called Yes by any chance? I think I know the one you mean."

She paused in the middle of taking a mouthful of cereal and lowered her spoon again. "Oh," she murmured. "You saw something nasty in the woodshed when you were little too, did you, Matthew?"

"Perhaps I did. But I was looking at your bookcase earlier so Cold Comfort Farm was in my mind anyway."

She met his eyes briefly before lowering them again. "Cheat," she said distinctly and ate her spoonful of cereal, her expression amused.

"It's one of Isobel's favourites and she made me read it. I'm glad she did though; it's very funny."

"It's one of my favourites too," replied Mary. "Who wouldn't like Flora Poste?"

Matthew smiled warmly at her and she suddenly felt overcome with embarrassment and awareness of being alone in the house with him and his bare legs.

"So, what kind of films do you really like?" he persisted, not noticing or ignoring her awkwardness.

Mary firmly paid no attention to her feelings. "You're staying here for a few days, Matthew. You can work it out for yourself."

She brushed past him to take her bowl back to the kitchen, her heart beating particularly fast, as he turned to stare after her, helplessly enthralled.

Mary retreated to her bedroom to leave Matthew to get ready to go out, with every intention of going soon to the library to revise. However, when he returned from the accommodation service at lunchtime she had still not left the house and no Hardy had been read.

"How did you get on?" she asked Matthew over a snack lunch.

He shrugged. "Alright, I suppose. They think they can find me a room in Andrew Melville by the end of the week."

Mary made a face. "Andrew Melville? But that's miles away!"

"And full of undergraduates. Not that there's anything wrong with-" He gave up since Mary was clearly only pretending to be offended by that. "Anyway, it's somewhere to stay and it'll only be for a couple of months."

"Quite a step down from your nice flat though," she said sympathetically. "To be back in catered halls like that."

"Yes."

For a few minutes as they ate together a more comfortable silence fell between them than ever had done before. It helped that Matthew was wearing proper clothes by this point and they had the full length of the table between them. But there was more to it than that for there was something undeniably pleasant about the situation, something that worked that neither dared to allude to or even think about too hard or spoil by breaking the silence except for trivial remarks about the weather or passing the fruit juice.

"How are you feeling today?" Mary ventured to ask softly as they neared the end of the meal.

Matthew, relaxed now, leaned back in his chair and took his time to reply. "Alright," he said eventually. "I think it will hit later but I was the one to end it, you see, so perhaps that helps a bit."

"You were?" She kept her eyes fixed on him. "That must still have been hard."

"Well, it wasn't an easy decision to make. I'd been thinking about it for a while but actually doing it..."

He trailed off and Mary wondered if he would continue. When he did not, she asked, "What was it that – I mean, when did you-" He looked up. "Oh, of course it's none of my business. I shouldn't pry."

"No, it's alright. You can ask."

Actually, he found himself quite keen to talk about it. Left on his own, he was inclined to brood and feel sorry for himself, which he was able to recognise as a bad attitude. Still, wanting to talk was different from being able to.

"It was at Downton Abbey, I think," he said after a few false starts, "that I really realised how much it wasn't working."

"At Downton?" interrupted Mary sharply.

For a moment her heart had almost frozen with the horrible idea that in some way she had been responsible for the ending of Matthew and Lavinia's relationship. That she should even assume she could have been was suspicious enough and it was becoming harder and harder to lie to herself as she had lied to Sybil only a few weeks previously about the nature of her and Matthew's so-called friendship.

His eyes shot to hers and suddenly the awkwardness was back. "In the car going there. Before I knew the place belonged to you or anything... My sister said something and it made me realise what was wrong. But I did want to give it another chance when I came back up. We'd been together for four and a half years. You can't rush to end that."

"But when you did come back you realised it wasn't going to work?"

"Right." Matthew sighed. "I love Lavinia; how could I not? She's quite perfect. But she wants..." He broke off. Who was he to say what Lavinia wanted and to Mary of all people? "Well, what she wants isn't what I want."

Mary leaned her elbows on the table and frowned at him. "And what do you want, Matthew?"

Now that was the question! He opened his mouth and then shut it again. Observed anxiously by Mary, he stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets, staring blankly out of the window at the rain soaked street.

"I don't know what I want, Mary! What I thought I wanted it seems I don't want and the person I thought I was – I'm clearly not or at least I'm not any more. So who on earth am I?"

He stared at her in perplexity as if the answer might be written on her face and for a few moments she could only stare back. Then she inclined her head away from him with a bit of a huff. "I think you'd better return to your Plato if you want answers to that sort of question!"

He blinked, a bit abashed. "Well, yes. Sorry, that was rather existential, wasn't it? But it does change things, you know, going from being with someone to – not being with them. But so long as I don't do anything stupid like rebound or anything like that, I should be okay..."

His gaze dropped from hers as Mary's eyes widened and she fiddled with one of her earrings in sudden, hot embarrassment. Had he admitted to himself the same possibility she had? But even if he had that did not mean anything. After all, it was hardly as if she relished the possibility of being Matthew Crawley's rebound fling. The reminder was timely and she sat up straighter, reasserting her pride.

"Well," she said rather haughtily, "that's entirely in your own control. Anyway, I really must get to the library this afternoon. The great Victorian novel waits for no man."

Matthew was about to suggest going with her, for he also had revision to do, but stopped himself. The chances of finding Lavinia there were high and, perhaps more pertinent though less explicitly acknowledged, it would probably be a good idea if he and Mary spent slightly less time alone together.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lavinia? Hello! May I joined you?"

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

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

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

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

"You too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm sure you didn't-"

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

"What do you mean?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's alright."

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

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

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

"You too, Lavinia."

"We must have coffee together some time."

"Oh, that would be lovely!"

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

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

She sent it to Evelyn Napier.


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

"Yes."

"You don't fancy him!"

Mary shrugged. "I can work on it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Go on."

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

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

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

Anna smiled. "And if you were?"

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

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

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

"And you know it. Enjoy your evening."

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

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

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

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

"I've enjoyed this meal."

"So have I. Thank you very much."

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

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

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

"But Evelyn-" she cried.

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

"Evelyn-"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sure? Well, goodnight then."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I guess the muffin man. Who?"

"Matthew!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would buy a new dress.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Darling, what's wrong?"

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

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

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

She sneezed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"For now!"

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

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

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

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

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

"He may be, but what about me?"

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

"If I'd like you to!"

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

"Oh, I can promise you that."

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

"Do you approve?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"So I have your blessing?"

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"You own a top hat?"

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

"Worse and worse!" But her lips twitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thank you very much."

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

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

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

"I'm a friend," said Matthew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"And I took your name?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do tell!"

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

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

"Yes..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We will?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But-"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is that what you want to do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"To your job!"

They drank a sip.

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

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

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

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

They drank again.

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

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

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

"You could."

"If you wanted me."

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

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

"Of course."

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

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

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

"Again?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When you put it like that..."

"So are you coming?"

"Alright."

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

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

"Sybil?"

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

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

"She liked you too."

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

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

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

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

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

"Dance with me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, it is."

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

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

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

It was only a girl from the hotel reception.

"I'll be out in a minute."

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

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 shethought 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.

Chapter Text

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 shouldAnna 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.

Chapter Text

Mary woke up to blinding sunshine streaming through the light curtains of the sitting room and felt instantly aware of being very uncomfortable. Her mouth felt furry from not having brushed her teeth the previous night, her eyelids when she opened them were stuck together with make-up, her short, tight dress had ridden up her thighs and felt shorter and tighter than ever, and it was never pleasant to sleep in tights. Hot, sticky, unrefreshed as she was, her second impression on waking up was a kind of new but entirely delightful realisation that she was not alone. An arm across her stomach kept her in place on the narrow sofa and the regular breathing that warmed the back of her neck was both exciting and soothing at the same time.

Mary blinked a few times, rather uncomfortably, and shifted experimentally, trying to work out where exactly her body brushed against his (most places) and whether she could move and stretch without waking him (unlikely). Her legs were stiff and one foot had almost gone to sleep. She wriggled, flexing first one foot and then the other, trying to disturb him as little as possible, but it didn't quite work. Matthew made a quiet, content, snuffling noise against her shoulder and her breath caught in instant, uncontrollable reaction. She stiffened, not knowing quite how to respond and, as his arm moved unconsciously against her belly in a caress, she jerked in surprise and overbalanced, sliding ungracefully to the floor.

The thump, the "oh!" that she could not hold back, and the loss of her warmth against him was enough to wake Matthew up. He sat up directly in shock, his eyes opening and staring straight at her.

"Oh my God!" he exclaimed, sounding so surprised it was hard to hold back a burst of laughter.

For a moment she stared back at him from where she was sprawled on the floor, her heart pounding, and then his expression softened as he looked at her properly.

"Hello."

The desire to laugh faded and she could not help the slow smile that blossomed on her face.

"Hello."

They stared at each other, not moving, for what felt an eternity. Finally, when Matthew could be sure that she was really there and not going to run he stretched out a hand and gently tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his hand lingering on her cheek.

"Are you alright?"

Her lips twitched up further. "Are you?"

"I'm so glad to be here... with you," he replied, his eyes glowing at her and her lips parted in wonder and disbelief that such an expression should be aimed at her.

She broke their eye contact and scrambled to her feet with as much dignity as she could, her tights slipping on the floorboards. Matthew stared up at her.

"I should – I should shower." Her fingers knotted in front of her as she looked at him in indecision, taking in his ruffled hair, crumpled shirt, and the space next to him on the sofa that she had occupied. On a whim, she bent down and kissed him quickly on the lips before darting away and up the stairs before she could see the look of stupefied longing on his face.

Once upstairs, she went straight into the bathroom and locked the door behind her, taking deep breaths as she leaned on the sink, only raising her eyes to her reflection in the mirror after a few moments had passed. She looked a complete fright, as she had known she had to: blowzy hair, caked make-up – and yet he had looked at her as if... as if she were the most wondrous thing in the universe. It was too much to take in. She undressed as quickly as she could, sighing in relief at finally being out of the constricting party clothes, and stepped into the shower, turning the temperature up.

She remained in the shower as long as she dared, washing away all traces of the previous night's party and shampooing her hair several times. Only when someone started banging on the door did she jump out, wrap herself in a large towel and open the door a crack. It was Sybil, wearing Mary's silk dressing gown. She brushed past her sister, making a dive for the toilet bowl where she retched, miserably. Mary watched her, torn between anger at having her shower interrupted, irritation towards Sybil which was coming back to her despite her reluctance to think about it, and a kind of desperate pity. When she came up for air, Mary handed her the tissue box in silence.

They went back to the bedroom and Sybil crawled into the bed to sip her water while Mary got dressed.

"You really are pregnant then," she said eventually.

"I guess."

A part of Mary had hoped it had all been some terrible mistake or a bad dream but the frightening sight of her little sister suffering from morning sickness before her very eyes had cured her of that delusion. "How do you feel?"

Sybil just groaned.

This she was less sympathetic about. "Serves you right for drinking too much last night!" She swung round to face her. "Sybil, what were you thinking? Don't you know what the consequences of drinking alcohol are when you're pregnant?"

"I didn't know I was pregnant, did I?" she shot back, folding her arms over her chest.

Mary rolled her eyes. "Oh, because people who don't think they're pregnant take pregnancy tests all the time!"

"Leave it alone, can't you?"

"Why should I? No-one else will." She sighed. "I don't know how I feel about you right now but if you think I'm going to suddenly forget this then you're quite wrong." She turned back to the vanity table and began to re-apply her make-up.

Sybil watched her in sulky silence for a minute before saying very reluctantly, "Why do you think I waited until I was here to do it then?"

Mary looked up, meeting her eyes in the mirror. "Why did you?"

"Well, better you than Mummy."

"Better me than – Good Lord, do you think you can keep this from her?"

"Yes! No, I mean, obviously not forever but I don't have to talk to her just yet, do I?"

"That depends on what you decide to do," mused Mary in response, judiciously tilting her head as she considered the effects of her mascara before adding casually, "Oh, and Matthew's here."

Sybil had looked down at the bed clothes. Now her head shot up again. "Matthew? What's he doing? Why is he here?"

"Don't you remember anything from last night? He brought you home after you passed out at the party."

Her expression was blank. "I don't remember... Why's he still here? Where did he sleep?"

"On the sofa."

"He slept on the sofa." She considered this. "Where did you sleep?"

"On the sofa," repeated Mary coolly, her face so close to the mirror that it was impossible to distinguish her blush.

"Mary..." Her sister could hear the growing smugness in Sybil's voice. "Is there anything you want to tell me?"

"I don't think my kissing Matthew Crawley is quite on a level with you being pregnant, is it? I wouldn't want to rain on your parade, darling."

"Oh for God's sake!" scoffed Sybil. "Like that's the point. But seriously, you kissed? That's amazing but what are you still here for? What's up with that? Matthew's downstairs and you've been poking at your face for about half an hour now and you can't even tell."

Mary sat back on her stool and flung out her arms. "Unlike you, I like my make-up to be subtle. And I haven't even blow dried my hair yet anyway."

Sybil slid off the bed and winced before crossing the room to stand behind her sister. "Rubbish. As if Matthew will care two straws about your hair being wet. Go! I need to get my clothes from downstairs anyway."

She half pushed her off the stool and towards the door, following close behind. Her hand on the handle, Mary stopped and turned. "I told him – about you being pregnant."

Sybil's eyes widened. "You told him? Mary, why-"

"I'm sorry." She twisted her head away with a sigh. "I just – I needed to tell someone. I didn't mean to. He won't breathe a word."

"That's not really the point though, is it?"

Without waiting for any reply, she opened the door and called down the stairs. "Matthew?" She clutched Mary's dressing gown more tightly round her.

Immediately Matthew's head popped round the sitting room door as if he had been standing close to it. He grinned up at the sisters. "Morning, Sybil! How do you feel today?"

"Much better, thanks. Head still throbbing like hell but I'll live." She began to descend the stairs, clutching the bannister rather more tightly than she would normally do. Mary, hovering on the landing, thought Matthew's continued presence was a good thing if only because it forced Sybil to behave herself. "Mary told me what you did for me last night. It was kind of you."

"Oh, any time..."

He had raised his eyes to find Mary's, Sybil already forgotten as she passed him. Judging from his expression, he did not look like someone who cared about her make-up being only half done and her hair being wet. Taking a deep breath and smiling a bit unnaturally, she ran lightly down the stairs to join him. As she reached him, he caught her wrist and drew her close to him, raising one hand to stroke her cheek.

"You're so..." His eyes flickered over her face and she could see his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "So beautiful."

She barely breathed, her lips parting. It was the loveliest compliment she had ever heard and she leaned in to meet him as he brushed his lips against hers, gently at first but with increasing intent as she responded.

"I can't find one of my shoes!" called Sybil from the sitting room and Mary pulled away reluctantly.

"Try under the bookcase!" she called back, rolling her eyes at Matthew in apology. She stepped away from him, but he kept hold of one her hands as long as he could, until he was forced to let go, his fingers sliding from hers as she preceded him into the room.

"Oh!" she exclaimed as she entered. "You really shouldn't have."

While she and Sybil had been upstairs, Matthew had cleared away all the mess from the previous night and started on the washing up.

He gave her a lopsided smile. "That's okay. I'm sure you've got things to discuss."

Sybil emerged triumphantly from where she had been scrabbling about on the floor, shoe in hand. Mary half smiled and suppressed a sigh. "I suppose we do."

"But I do hope you'll give me a look in at some point even so," he added, taking her hand again and looking at her very intensely. He released her and went back to the kitchen, leaving her feeling suddenly light-headed.

Her eyes still on Matthew's back, she addressed her sister. "Darling, come and sit down with me. We need to consider what you're going to do. There's someone you need to talk to before you even think about Mummy."

"You mean Tom, I guess." She flopped down next to Mary.

"I should think so. How do you think he'll react?"

Sybil made a face. "How should I know? It's not like we spend all our time talking about babies."

"I can't help wondering whether you spend any time talking at all!"

Out of the corner of her eye at the sink, Mary saw Matthew's lips twitch.

"What if he hates me?" asked her sister after a pause. "What if he wants nothing to do with me? He's only a guy and we're just – we're just dating! It's not been exactly serious."

"Well, it's serious now whether you like it or not. I should be prepared for him turning tail though," she added a bit too complacently for Sybil's liking.

"Mary! You're hoping that he dumps me! How could you?"

She rolled her eyes. "You have to admit it would be easier to deal with Mummy and Daddy if Tom isn't in the picture."

"That's a horrible thing to say! And Tom's – he's fine. I know he'll stick by me – whatever happens. We're not all as cynical as you."

"No need to get defensive; it's a valid point." She smiled up at Matthew as he crossed the room and handed her a glass of orange juice. "And I'm not so very cynical, not all the time anyway."

He had lived with her for a week and remembered what she liked to drink in the morning.

"Do you want anything, Sybil?"

She shook her head and Matthew retreated back to the washing up.

"This is beyond the call of duty," Mary shot after him.

"I'm sure you can make it up to me later!" he murmured just loud enough for her to hear and her eyes widened. Sybil looked between them keenly – she was enjoying herself too much – and Mary quickly continued, "So when are you going to tell him?"

"I could tell him tomorrow," she replied reluctantly. "Otherwise I don't know when I'll see him."

"Tomorrow! That's very – will Mummy let you go out so soon after getting back to London?"

"Oh, she knows all about it. It's Livia Fitzgerald's seventeenth and she's getting The Tomcats to play."

"A party. I see. Yes, you could catch him then."

"Yeah."

She lapsed into silence and Mary sipped her orange juice, distracted by watching Matthew's shirt stretch over his shoulders and thinking about just what making it up to himwould consist of and when on earth she would get a chance.

"Will you come?"

Mary's eyes snapped over to her sister. "What?"

"Will you come with me to the party?"

"Sybil, I-" She bit down a retort at the pleading expression in her eyes. "What good would I be? I'm not telling him for you if that's what you're wondering!"

"No! But you could – you could meet him and then that might help when I tell Mummy... And you'd be there if – if something went wrong."

"What makes you think my meeting your twenty-two year old car mechanic boyfriend with no A Levels would be at all helpful to anyone? Anyway, it's in London and I have an exam next week."

Sybil stood up abruptly. "Aren't you on my side? I thought I could count on you at least!" Her bottom lip trembled dangerously.

"I'm on your side, darling; that doesn't mean I'm on his."

"Can't you at least think about it?"

Mary shrugged expressively and promised she would think about it. She also had to think about Matthew and was happening between them and she needed to think about Anna and what was happening to her. As the thought occurred to her, she grabbed her iphone – no messages or missed calls. She put it back down, feeling a shiver of worry. But surely if something had happened, Anna would have called her? Hopefully she was still asleep at Gwen's. It was still quite early.

There was a lack of clattering from the kitchen. Matthew had wandered over to them and looked between them rather diffidently.

"I couldn't help overhearing and – you can tell me to get lost if you want but – would it make any difference if I came too?"

"You?" Mary's eyes opened very wide. "Why?"

He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets and smiled faintly at her. "Because then you could support Sybil and I could support you. I've finished my exams, I don't need to start looking for a flat in Edinburgh yet, and I would really like to spend time with you, even if that is on a train and crashing a birthday party."

It was left to Sybil to say, "That's so sweet!" and touch his arm in gratitude. Mary just stared up at him, feeling confused at why anybody would want to put up with so much inconvenience even to spend the weekend with her. She wouldn't have volunteered to do it, she didn't think, if their situations had been reversed.

She swallowed. "Well... What kind of party is it? If it's pass the parcel and balloons then I'm not doing it and Matthew certainly isn't."

Sybil laughed. "She's seventeen, not seven! It's going to be an absolutely massive gig at their house in Wimbledon with plenty of adults doing their networking stuff while we party. You know what Mr. Fitzgerald's like – never misses an opportunity for doing business. Liv's making it themed – characters from fantasy."

"Oh God. Olivia always was a bit nerdy, wasn't she?" Mary made a face. "What are you going as?"

"I'm going as Princess Leia. I got the bikini off the internet last week."

"You're pregnant and you're going as – You know what, I don't care. We'll discuss it later."

She was acutely aware of Matthew standing there, of not quite knowing what to do with him, of not having any kind of plan for how to deal with Sybil, and of starting to feel really in the need of a proper breakfast.

Once again, Matthew came to the rescue without even knowing he needed to. "Look, Mary, you're not the only one who needs a shower this morning and I'm just in the way right now. I'll go home now and change and then if you like we can have brunch in an hour or so?"

Brunch! She stood up to face him, feeling a sense of unreality wash over her. But she could not help smiling in response. "Alright. That sounds nice."

It was a rather unsatisfactory reply but he grinned happily anyway. "I'll be back soon then."

He picked up his jacket and slung it over his arm and then crossed back to her, drawing her into an embrace and kissing her cheek, holding her close a moment longer than was strictly appropriate as she let her eyes close just for a second as she revelled in his warmth and stability. Then he drew away, gave Sybil a quick hug too, and was gone. Mary felt instantly bereft.

"Now he's a keeper!" commented Sybil sounding amused and a bit envious, and she spun round.

"I'm not sure I exactly have him," she replied lightly, clearing up her empty glass to cover her sudden embarrassment, "so it's a bit early to talk about keeping him. He's not even asked me out."

Behind her, her sister laughed lightly. "He doesn't need to!"

As she automatically put the glass in the sink and turned on the tap, her heart beat faster and she wondered about what their relationship was now – and what it was becoming.

Chapter Text

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 Text

Mary had never been to the university clinic before as neither emergency contraception nor STDs had featured in her life since coming to St Andrews. With Sybil in tow, however, she marched up the steps and into the reception as if she had been coming there regularly. While her sister cringed at her side, she demanded an appointment as soon as possible. She might not be a student, Mary pointed out forcefully, but she was seventeen and pregnant and needed to be seen now. Fortunately, it was a quiet afternoon and a nurse was free within half an hour. During the wait Sybil had hardly spoken, staring into space, and Mary flicked through a three month old celebrity magazine. Once upon a time she would have merited a paragraph – for being particularly well dressed at the theatre perhaps or being seen eating a croissant on a Saturday morning with her boyfriend... Nothing now of course. After Prince William had left St Andrews, so had the paparazzi. The last time she had graced the society pages had been last year at the royal wedding.

On the walls of the clinic were posters. How to recognise chlamydia. Rape helplines. Discreet advice about abortion. The facts about prostate cancer. A silly cartoon about coming out as gay. Considering the reasons a person might be in that waiting room, it was not, Mary thought, a very welcoming environment and she buried her nose in a copy of Homes & Gardens from September of the previous year.

"Will you come in with me? Please?" cried Sybil impulsively, just as her number was called and Mary nodded her assent, even going as far as to lead the way.

The nurse was very efficient and while she was not particularly warm, she let Sybil take her time in answering the intrusive questions. Mary tried not to listen as her sister was quizzed on the dates of her last periods (why hadn't she kept a regular record?), her usage of contraception, and her general health. Sybil started answering defiantly but the longer the interrogation continued and the more obvious her thoughtlessness had been, the more unsure she became. Mary pitied her naivety.

Since she had taken four pregnancy tests and they had all come back positive the nurse saw no reason to make her do another. While Sybil was hazy on precise dates, they came to the conclusion that she was at least two months gone, possibly closer to three. Good Lord, thought Mary, counting back the months, she had already been pregnant when they were all back home at Easter! It was hard to take in.

Her options were discussed. Did she have family to support her? She had Mary. And Mummy if she told her. Sybil was not at all sure about that but Mary was and they could not discuss it in front of the nurse anyway. Was she going to keep it? Abortion was permitted up to twenty-four weeks but after twelve weeks it would have to be an operation and as she could be as far as ten weeks pregnant if she wanted to abort she should think about that very soon. She was offered counselling she could not accept because she did not live in St Andrews and told to make an appointment with a teen pregnancy midwife as soon as possible at her local hospital. It was perfectly normal for her not to be showing yet but she could start at any time. She really should go to an Early Pregnancy Unit to get an accurate date of conception. Would her sister accompany her perhaps? She should avoid smoking, alcohol, and drugs altogether and try to keep fit and eat healthily. Don't worry about flatulence and constipation at this stage; it was perfectly normal!

It was left to Mary to take all the information leaflets and ask the questions. Sybil sat there in mute shock. She had not said a thing after the nurse had mentioned abortion. She seemed incapable of it. It was Mary who expressed concern over the alcohol she had drank at the party the previous night. The nurse tutted and acknowledged that any drinking, especially binge drinking, could be harmful to the baby but that it would be impossible to tell this early on and that she should remain hopeful. After all, for centuries women had drunk alcohol during pregnancy and many women still did before they knew they were expecting with no adverse effects. Assuming it was a one-off of course. Skewered by a direct question, Sybil managed to mutter that she had been stuck at home revising for her ASes for most of the last few months and when exactly was she going to have been drinking? It was as good as could be hoped for.

They left in silence, Mary still stuffing the last helpful advice leaflet into her handbag. It was starting to rain, a warm summer drizzle, but neither bothered to open an umbrella. They walked a block in silence before Sybil suddenly stopped and faced Mary. She was breathing heavily.

"That woman thinks I should have an abortion."

When Mary was sure she wasn't going to say anything else, she replied, "No, she doesn't. She can't give you that kind of advice, but she is right in suggesting you at least consider it as an option."

"You want me to have an abortion."

Mary rolled her eyes. "I didn't say that but I think you should consider it too."

Sybil said nothing but there was a dark look in her eyes.

"Think about it, darling. You don't even want to tell Mummy you're pregnant. In a few weeks everyone will know whether you want it or not unless you abort. You're seventeen, you haven't even finished at school. Do you really want be a single mother with no qualifications?"

"I have Tom."

"Don't be naïve, is he really going to stick around? The statistics are against it."

Sybil twisted her head away. "Don't be horrid, Mary."

"I am not..." She closed her eyes for a moment. "I am not being horrid. I am being realistic and trying to help you."

"You are helping me to decide to kill my baby!" cried her sister suddenly spinning around and Mary noticed that for the first time she had one hand on her flat stomach.

"Try not to sound like an Evangelical pro-lifer from Florida, it doesn't suit you," she snapped, but she felt a flair of terror as the unreality and enormity of the situation washed over her again. "We are talking about a bundle of cells about the size of a peanut. It is not a baby."

"Prune," said Sybil, looking down at the hand on her belly as if it was an alien appendage and not her hand at all. "The nurse said the size of a prune."

"Whatever size it is, you can't go down the road of thinking of it as a person when it quite simply isn't, and don't pretend you have religious scruples because I know you don't. You have to think about your future. That is the only thing at stake here."

"I can have scruples without being religious. Can't I?"

"Have as many as you like so long as you put yourself first. Keep this baby and your life will never be the same again."

"Perhaps I want my life to change," Sybil frowned. "I'm not you and I don't want what you want."

"No. You are not me."

They faced off against each other for a moment before Mary sighed and opened her umbrella. She held it over her sister. "Come on. Let's go home."

Sybil hugged her arms round herself but did not object. A few minutes later, she said more calmly, "I know you're trying to help, Mary, and I really appreciate everything you've done for me and how you're coming to London tomorrow. I really do appreciate it but can you stop giving me advice? What you say sounds all very sensible on paper but it's quite another thing when it actually happens, you know, and I'm sorry but you have no idea what this is like so don't think you can dictate what I should do."

As far as Sybil went this was a better compromise than Mary could have hoped for. She bumped her shoulder and managed to smile. "I'll try not to be a tyrant; only promise me, darling, don't dismiss anything just yet. Think everything through carefully and if you can't discuss it with me then talk about it with someone else – Tom, Mummy, another friend maybe. Promise me you'll do that."

"I promise I'll think about it. It's just... all so much to take in."

"I know."

Perhaps she had been too hard on her, Mary considered as they walked quietly back. It was a lot to take in and Sybil had barely even adjusted to the idea of being pregnant in the first place. And yet these were difficult decisions, decisions no seventeen year old should ever have to make, especially one as sweet and innocent as her little sister, and sugar coating them would be of no help to anyone.

Fortunately they were given a reprieve when they reached the house, for Anna had finally returned. She was sitting on the sofa nursing a large cup of tea. Mary let Sybil scamper up to her bedroom and was glad to put Crawley problems to the side to find out what had happened to her best friend after the party. Anna was happy to lean her head against Mary's shoulder and tell her everything. She was exhausted.

She had spent the night on Gwen's floor and had rung John first thing in the morning without getting any reply. Gwen had stayed with her, refusing to let her out of her sight, until John had rung back before lunch. He had managed to get rid of Vera at least temporarily and wanted to meet Anna. They hadn't gone back to his house but had spent most of the day walking on the beach. A neutral setting.

John had had a lot of explaining to do and even several hours worth of conversation and consolation had not been enough to get the full story. She was legally his wife, that much was clear, but he had not seen her since he had gone to prison about four years earlier. Mary's eyebrows shot up into her head at that. Benefit fraud, Anna explained miserably, but she did not really understand how that had come about. John would never do anything illegal, she was quite sure he wouldn't!

"And you're sticking with him?" Mary wanted to know. Mitigating circumstances or no mitigating circumstances, a jailbird was still a jailbird!

"Wouldn't you? I'm sure there's a good reason for everything that's happened," she replied very simply. "That's what you do for people you love."

Mary tucked her feet under her on the sofa and met her friend's eyes, knowing that at least for the moment there was nothing to be done. She was afraid that this infatuation of Anna's could not possibly end well but after Sybil's rebuke earlier felt that she had better hold her tongue this time. She leaned forwards and drew her friend into a tight hug.

"And they are always grateful for you, darling. You're too good for the rest of us."

Anna tucked her chin on Mary's shoulder and hugged her back, chuckling slightly and shaking her head.


Matthew was at the house the following morning in time to share a taxi to the station with Mary and Sybil. He had with him the incongruous combination of a scruffy rucksack and a suit bag. The previous night Mary had lain in bed for over an hour on the phone to him telling him everything Anna had said (for unlike Sybil's pregnancy, there was no particular secrecy about this) and how the trip to the clinic had gone. Admittedly there were things she did not tell him, things that were too deeply personal between her and her sister to share with anyone, especially at this stage in their relationship, but it was nice, she had thought as she drifted off to sleep afterwards, to have someone to talk to at the end of the day, someone who would listen.

Sitting on the train and watching him surreptitiously as he read opposite her she was glad of his company once again. Sybil had her eyes closed, her ear phones in, as she leaned against the window. They might as well be alone. Matthew looked up and caught her staring, smiled slowly and happily at her and continued to smile a moment after she had looked back down at her Shakespeare notes again. It was pleasant to feel the warmth of his gaze on her and know that he was there, even as she tried to memorise quotations from Macbeth for her exam on Tuesday. At least the long journey gave her ample time to catch up on her revision.

In London, they took a cab from King's Cross to the house in Kensington: a tall, slim, white washed terrace house that was probably worth at least several million pounds in Matthew's estimation despite its relatively modest appearance.

"It's not Grantham House of course," Sybil explained to him while Mary paid the taxi driver. "That was in Mayfair and we had to sell it in the fifties. Mary can take you there one day; there's an Italian deli on the ground floor now and a Saudi Arabian business man owns the rest but it still looks roughly like it would have done for our grandparents, if you're interested in that sort of thing. This is Mummy's place."

Cora met them at the door, embracing her daughters and smiling curiously at Matthew, though she welcomed him with every appearance of hospitality. Mary had rung her mother the previous night, telling her to expect both her and Matthew, but he was not sure what she had said about the change in their relationship. The beautician booked to turn Sybil into Princess Leia had already arrived so she scampered down to the basement to have her hair done, while Cora took Matthew up to the guest room at the top of the house. It was a small room in the roof space, perfectly decorated and laid out as if it were in a hotel, with a window across the street to the narrow park that split one side of the road from the other. It was no Downton Abbey, he thought, but it was just as luxurious in its way.

Mary's bedroom was next to his and after he had hung up his suit, he knocked lightly on her open door and entered her domain. Immediately, he felt he had taken a step into Mary's past when she had lived here almost exclusively as a school girl. There was the Edward Cullen poster Sybil had teased her about above her bed, its corners peeling away from the wall with age. Next to it was another poster of a famous Edmund Blair Leighton painting showing a Medieval lady giving a trinket to her knight as he rode off to war. On the window sill was a row of differently coloured shot glasses gathering dust and a cactus. Scattered around the room on the wall and in frames on the desk were many photos.

Mary waved a hand to give him permission to look. "They're no Gainsboroughs but they serve the same function really."

There was a picture of a girls' sports team on the wall in a silver frame. Mary was in the captain's seat at the centre holding a large cup and wearing a smug smile with a pair of lacrosse sticks crossed at her feet. Then a lovely picture of her on a grey pony in a tweed jacket. Her hair was bobbed and-

"How old were you?" He picked it up to look more closely at the pretty, eager, grinning girl that was so clearly Mary and yet seemed so different to the cool, poised young woman standing next to him now.

"Thirteen. That's Dinky, he was my first pony. I outgrew him not long after that was taken. It was our last Pony Club games together."

She sounded wistful but while Matthew was still smiling over her adorable short hair she had picked up another photo. She nudged him. "Do you remember me telling you about our cousin Patrick who was killed on 7/7? That's him."

A lanky teenage boy with messy blond hair and a tan stood back to back with a young Edith, almost unrecognisable from the sulky girl he had met at Easter with a sunny smile and a pair of dark glasses on the end of her nose. Sybil, still very much a child with her hair in bunches, stood between them giving the camera a toothy grin. They held their hands in front of them as if holding guns in the iconic Charlie's Angels pose. In the background was Downton Abbey. All looked as if they were on the point of bursting into laughter.

Matthew glanced at Mary. "And you?"

"I took it." She ran her finger gently over the glass protecting the photo. "Poor Patrick. He could be so irritating but it was never quite the same afterwards."

He leant his head briefly against hers in silent sympathy, feeling immensely privileged to have these little insights into her life before him and St Andrews, both the good times and the horribly unfair parts like the death of that boy who had been their friend and cousin, his vitality frozen forever on camera.

Mary put the photo back on her desk and ended the moment between them. Matthew stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans, cleared his throat, and cast his eyes round the room again. In one corner was a cello.

"You play?" he couldn't help saying and Mary looked amused at his surprise.

"Not since school and I was always better at singing than playing." She shrugged. "I didn't even take it to St Andrews. Edith's the musical one in the family anyway."

He came back towards her and placed his hands on her waist. "But you can sing. I'm never going to forget hearing you – what was it you were singing?"

"They got no room here for someone like me," she hummed, leaning her forehead against his. "Sans Souci. Perhaps I'll sing it for you again some time."

He kissed her hungrily, as he had wanted to all day, before she could tease him by pulling away. She responded in kind, however, and they clutched at each other, longing for closeness, until she eventually broke the embrace, breathing heavily, at the sound of her mother coming up the stairs. As she stepped away from him to talk to Cora, Matthew could have sworn she mouthed, "Later." It was enough for him to wish they could skip the party altogether.

On the wall next to the window was a photo that was really a faded newspaper cutting. "Pupils at Kensington Girls' School celebrate record A Level results," ran the caption under the five attractive girls leaping in the air clutching brown envelopes, the kind of picture that launched a thousand new Daily Mail controversiesevery August without fail. Matthew picked out Mary as the second from the left, her hair flying in the air behind her and grinned: his school had never been featured in these articles.

"What have you got there?" murmured Mary, leaning over his shoulder and making his stomach lurch pleasantly. "Oh," she added when she saw it. "That was so embarrassing; it was all posed, see. Nobody ever jumps in the air because they got an A in French."

Matthew pressed back against her. "You could have said no."

"Turn down free publicity?" she breathed against his neck. "Never! Anyway, the school wanted us especially; we were the elite."

"What did you do?"

"Me, I was lacrosse captain and I had been a prefect the year before. Suyin was head girl, Georgie was a deputy, Cressida was brilliant at everything and went to Cambridge – though I think she spends most of her time in therapy now because she can't cope with the pressure, and Bekki produced the fashion show and led the Young Enterprise group."

She pointed each one out, listing their achievements very coolly.

"Were they your friends?" he asked curiously.

"Oh yes. We went round the world together, you know, on our gap year. If that's not friendship I don't know what is. Anyway, you don't want to look at these old things any more – we have a party to prepare for!"

She spun him round and was smiling very widely. Matthew had opened his mouth to ask her more about these great friends he had never heard of but he closed it again.

"Mummy got us fake fangs to wear when we arrive. We can ditch them once we've shown ourselves to Olivia but we ought to play the game at the start."

She put a small paper bag in his hand and closed his fingers round it. "Come and find me when you need me to fix your bow tie for you!" she smirked at him, pushing him out of the door with a caress to lessen the implied insult. He returned to his room, starry eyed with infatuation and hope for the evening.

Chapter Text

The Fitzgeralds lived in a large house near Wimbledon, not far from the river and set in considerable gardens of its own. In many ways, Matthew decided by the end of the evening, it was more impressive than Downton Abbey. It was not half so big or old but it was immaculately maintained, every inch of chrome fitting and polished wooden furniture gleamed, and it effortlessly absorbed the hundred or so people invited that evening to celebrate Olivia's seventeenth birthday. Downton Abbey, or at least the part the Crawleys inhabited, felt like a home. A strange, implausible, out-of-time, National Trust owned, country mansion type home but home all the same. This place felt like a show home on some exclusive edition of Move to the Country specifically aimed at millionaires.

"Don't let the flies in," hissed Mary as they entered the hall and Matthew abruptly shut his mouth. "And fangs out!" she added.

He glared at her.

"Shall we play the game for at least five minutes?" She brushed away a bit of white face powder that had got onto his collar and smiled apologetically.

"I feel like I've fallen down the rabbit hole," Matthew breathed in response, his eyes roaming over her face. "Again."

She was beautiful this evening, dressed more as a vampire princess than as Bella Swann, even with the necessarily overdone make-up. Matthew kissed her and squeezed her hands softly. If this was going to be his one chance to see how the other half lived then he might as well take advantage of the opportunity. Then they put in the uncomfortable rubber fangs and grimaced ludicrously, still holding hands, at Olivia when she ran out into the hall to greet her friend.

When the birthday girl had darted off to mingle some more with her guests, Sybil slipped away to find Tom. The band was setting up in the study and as she opened the door, she came face to face with their lead guitarist, leaving for a cigarette break.

"Woah, too much skin! Too much skin in my face!" He shaded his eyes with his hand as she brushed past him before calling back into the room, "Booty call for you, Branson!"

"Sybs!"

Sybil broke into a grin at her boyfriend's exclamation. He pushed himself up from an armchair and crossed the room towards her as she half ran to him. They met in the middle and kissed before Tom pulled back and stared at her, his eyes raking up and down her body.

"Wow."

"You like it?" She did a self-conscious twirl and posed with a hand resting on her waist.

"Like it? Sybil, you're wearing a gold bikini!" Tom shook his head. "I have the best girlfriend ever!"

For a moment she had worried that she was showing her pregnancy even though she had spent an impossibly long time in front of the mirror when getting ready examining herself. Perhaps she looked a little more rounded than she had been but nothing that would be noticeable to anyone who was not very familiar with her body and even Tom seemed distracted enough by her costume.

"If you can't dress a bit adventurously when you're young then I don't know when you can," she replied, stepping back into his arms.

Tom chuckled and almost kissed her. He stopped. "You haven't called me all week. You've hardly texted me. What's up?"

Sybil grimaced. "Oof, Tom. I was on holiday!"

"In Scotland. You still get free calls. I missed you."

"I missed you too." She kissed him again before pulling abruptly out of his arms. She walked away from him and sat down on one of the chairs that had been pushed to the sides of the room. "I had – I had to sort out Mary's love life." He looked incredulous and she pushed on with nervous quickness. "She's the sort of person you'd think would have it all sorted but she's hopeless. I had to – well, anyway."

"I still don't see why you couldn't text me. Come on, Sybs; I started thinking you'd gone off me and dumped me for some prince your sister knows."

Sybil stared at him and he quickly knelt before her and took her hands in his. "You haven't, have you?"

"God no! Anyway, it's Mary who's been getting the action this week. Hey, you can meet them tonight – Mary and-"

"Mary's here?" Tom sprang to his feet and smoothed down his black t-shirt with the Tomcats logo on it, glancing down at himself.

"Yeah, she came back with me. I want you to meet her and Matthew too – you'll like him, he's really normal."

"Normal? And he's going out with your sister Mary?"

"You're doing that thing again where you're mean about my family when you haven't even met them." She took a deep breath. "Anyway. Tom. I need to talk to you."

He came back to her and sat down on the chair next to her and smiled reassuringly. "Sure. So long as you're not breaking up with me I'll talk to you about anything. But the band's first set is in fifteen minutes so we don't have that much time."

"I'm not sure," said Sybil, proud of how steady her voice was, "that we'll be done in fifteen minutes."


Matthew and Mary had drifted into the main room of the party. A stage was set up at one end of the large room in preparation for the band and French windows opened onto the gardens.

"You could fit my sister's entire flat into this single room." Matthew muttered in Mary's ear as they mingled with hordes of Medieval wizards, superheroes, and Harry Pottercharacters.

"Do you even know anybody here?" he asked her a few minutes later. "Otherwise this could be an awkward few hours."

"I'm looking for Olivia's sister. She did a law conversion course last year and she's doing a training contract now. You should talk to her. We just need to find where the adults are."

"Oh great. Networking. I love those parties."

Mary shrugged one elegant shoulder as she nudged her way through the guests with ease, Matthew trailing behind. "Of course networking. You don't think people over eighteen come to these events to enjoy themselves, do you?"

Passing a bin they got rid of the horrible fake fangs. Olivia had seen them so they had served their purpose. Mary was aiming for a smaller room off the main one but before they reached it, they were confronted by a petite brunette who might have been a member of the Stark family or any other high fantasy lady who had an impressive hair do.

"Mary!" she cried.

"Viola!" replied Mary and made significant movements with her eyebrows at Matthew.

"I had no idea you were in London, how are you?"

Matthew shoved his hands in his pockets while Mary and Viola kissed each other on the cheek and caught up.

"And this is Matthew," she said eventually, beckoning him forwards and interrupting a pleasant daydream about running his hand down Mary's velvet-clad back and brushing away her hair to kiss the exposed skin on her neck. "He's training to be a lawyer too."

"Is that so?" said Viola, shifting her balance and turning a pair of piercing brown eyes on him. "It's lovely to meet you, Matthew. So where are you doing your course? Do you have a training contract lined up yet?"

He was caught and, feeling Mary's approving gaze on him, decided that he might as well talk shop to Sybil's friend's sister as do anything else.

"I'll get us some drinks, shall I?" said Mary, brushing his arm with her fingers. Her voice was light and agreeable and just a little distant. It was the same voice she had used when he had first met her at the debate. It was, he realised, her public voice. She flitted away without waiting for any reply, leaving Matthew staring after her until Viola's voice interrupted his admiration.

"You haven't been going out very long, have you?" She sounded amused.

"No," replied Matthew still looking at the doorway through which Mary had disappeared, "not long at all."


The room off the main party room was smaller and more intimate and the average age significantly higher. There was a drinks table with glasses of red and white wine and juice against one wall and another table with finger food on it along the opposite wall. Mary hovered near the drinks, waiting for an opportunity to inch through the people crowding round it and get something for her and Matthew. Would he prefer red or white wine? So many things she did not know about him yet, she reflected with a flutter of pleasure as she thought about finding these things out, slowly and in their own time. She would get white; white was more classy for drinking on its own, red went better with food. She had just decided this when the laugh of a woman in the little group of people currently blocking her caught her attention. She was an elderly woman, sharply dressed with no concession to the theme. Mary recognised her as Demelza Quartermaine, a great patron of the arts in London, and a friend of her grandmother's. She would have to talk to her once there was an opportunity to break into the group.

Mrs. Quartermaine was talking to three men. One Mary recognised as the editor of a well-known financial newspaper, the unexpectedly good-humoured Alfred Sterne. He was the only one of the group who had made an effort to wear a costume, a good attempt at a wizard complete with long, fake, white beard. He was laughing uproariously at whatever the third member of the group had just said. This young man presented a breakfast show on television but Mary could not remember his name. The final member of their quartet had his back to her and she could not tell who he was until he spoke.

"You'll find it's a complete fallacy, Lazenby," he said to the young man. "The public will eat up anything you give them provided they think it's drivel. It's all in the presentation."

Mary's eyes widened. She had watched enough popular literature television programmes presented by Professor Richard Carlisle to know his voice when she heard it.

"Even heavy nineteenth century novels?" inquired Mrs. Quartermaine in tones of deep irony.

"Especially," he replied. "Anyone who saw my series on Hardy's teenagers would agree. You don't need a fancy degree to understand literature; all that matters is-"

Mrs. Quartermaine had caught sight of Mary and abruptly cut Professor Carlisle off with the rude confidence of the very old and very rich.

"Mary Crawley? Is it you? What are you doing here?"

Carlisle and Lazenby stepped aside to let Mary through to kiss Mrs. Quartermaine's cheek.

"I could say the same about you. Granny complains you never come to see her any more."

"When Lady Grantham deigns to come to London to see me, at that point I will consider making a trip to Yorkshire to see her. You can go away now," she added to the men around her. "I have someone more interesting to talk to."

Lazenby and Sterne smiled indulgently and left them but the professor was not inclined to leave.

"I recognise the name, Mary Crawley," he said coming round so he could see Mary better.

"I shouldn't be surprised if you did. Mary, this is Professor Richard Carlisle who makes those dreadful programmes about literature that everyone says will inspire people to read more. You know, Richard, in my day the things that inspired people to read were books."

"Thank you for that wonderfully flattering introduction, Demelza," he replied, shooting her an amused look. "But I think Mary Crawley already knew that. We have emailed each other, haven't we?"

"Oh you know each other!" cried Mrs. Quartermaine, lifting her hands up. "I needn't have bothered. Suit yourselves, I am going to get one of those adorable little cheese things on sticks."

She hobbled away leaving Mary alone with the professor. He was peering at her from bright blue eyes. Not the same shade as Matthew's, she noted – as if everything was about Matthew! And yet, at that moment, at some level it was.

"I'm right, aren't I?" he insisted. "You study English at St Andrews and want me to supervise your undergraduate dissertation next year."

"Yes," said Mary. "It's a real pleasure to meet you, Professor Carlisle."

She held out her hand with a polished smile, adjusting quickly to meeting someone she had had no intention of seeing in person until September.

He hesitated for a moment before taking her hand and shaking it firmly. "Likewise, Mary. And don't you have a Lady somewhere in your email signature, or did I imagine that?"

"My father is the Earl of Grantham," said Mary crisply. There was something about the close way she was being observed that made her self-conscious and reluctant to say anything more than what was strictly necessary.

"Your father is the Earl of Grantham. Hmm." It was hard to tell what he thought of that, if anything. He finally let go of her hand. "It's not often undergraduates contact me out of the blue to work with me. You must like Henry James a lot."

"I'm certainly not one to pass up an opportunity to study one of my favourite writers with one of his most eminent critics so I really couldn't help myself when I saw you were moving to St Andrews."

She leaned back to get herself a glass of wine from the table and sipped it, looking at him curiously over the rim of the glass. He was older than he appeared on television, without the flattering make-up, probably about forty, but he had the same magnetic presence in real life as he did on the small screen; she could feel that even from their brief conversation.

"So, are you going to supervise me?" she asked hastily, smiling hopefully and raising her eyebrows at him.

He looked her up and down without replying. "I'm intrigued to see you here in London," he said eventually. "Isn't the dreaded exam season going on at the moment?"

Mary did not like this feeling of being judged, especially as she already felt bad enough about coming up to London when she still had Shakespearean Tragedy looming over her. "Yes, there are still exams going on."

He inclined his head. "I've not decided about taking you on yet. I expect a lot from my students. I want to know, are you capable of great things, Lady Mary Crawley? Ah, this must be-"

He looked over her shoulder, just as Mary had opened her mouth to retort something, she was not sure what, except that he really deserved a retort, and she looked behind her. It was Matthew and anxious surprise melted into pleasure.

"There you are!" he exclaimed, coming up behind her and putting his arm round her waist, a possessive touch that made her heart beat faster. She was Matthew's... She wasMatthew's and he was hers.

"This is Matthew," she introduced him. "My boyfriend."

She felt him shift beside her and his hand tighten on her waist.

"And this is Professor Carlisle. He's going to be joining the School of English at St Andrews next year."

"Pleased to meet you," said Matthew breathlessly. Mary fancied she knew why. She felt breathless too.

Professor Carlisle looked less impressed. He cast his eyes over Matthew very briefly and then turned his attention fully back to Mary. "I'll send you a preliminary reading list for over the summer. Tell me what you make of that when you've read it all and then we'll think more about dissertations. Nice to put a face to the name, Mary. Excuse me."

Raising his arm to someone on the other side of the room, he walked away from them, and Mary immediately turned to Matthew, handing him his drink.

"I'm your boyfriend?" he murmured instantly, just as she knew he would.

"Why, are you complaining?" she murmured back facetiously, heart fluttering under the warmth of his gaze.

"I wish I could show you just how much I'm not complaining."

"Perhaps you can. The Fitzgeralds have a large garden going down to the river. Do you want to go for a walk?"

Matthew leaned very close to her. "I think you know perfectly well, Mary, that you could suggest just about anything and I would agree." His breath warm on her cheek, he pressed his lips to her skin briefly.

She shivered as she pulled back. "Anything? God, I'm not sure I'm that creative."

"Really?" He grinned at her so suggestively that she felt a wave of fainting desire wash over her that was as unexpected as it was strong. "I think you could be very creative if you wanted to," he whispered, leaning forward, his cheek almost against hers.

The wine slopped against the sides of her glass. "Come on," she said abruptly and held out her hand.

He took it and let her lead the way through the crowds.


"Pregnant?"

Tom stared at the floor as he tried to take it in. Sybil watched him anxiously, knotting her hands together. In the end it had been easier than she had thought it would be. After all, they were only words and she was not a coward. This, this was where it got hard.

He looked up at her suddenly. "Are you sure? Quite quite sure?"

She huffed. "I've missed two periods, I took like a hundred tests, and then I threw up in Mary's bathroom two days in a row so-"

"Okay okay, so you're sure." He lapsed back into silence.

Sybil waited as long as she could bear then she said very tentatively, "Are you alright?"

He shot up into a straighter position. "Am I fucking alright? I'm -" He flailed a moment before shaking his head. "I really don't know how to deal with this."

"You think I do?" she shot back. "At least you don't feel like crap all the time."

"God, I'm sorry. It's just that – everything's changed and I – Sybs, this is just..."

"Are you going to dump me?" she interrupted, very quickly, before she lost her nerve.

"Dump you?" He stared at her as if seeing her properly for the first time. Then he pulled her into his arms, tucking her head onto his shoulder and pressing his lips to her hair. "Why would you think I'd do that?"

"Mary said-"

"Fuck Mary!" he muttered making her laugh shakily against his cheek. "Sorry, I don't mean it but she seriously needs to back off." He held her more tightly. "You shocked me. I still don't... Okay, look, it's going to take me longer than a few minutes to process this, but I didn't want you to think..." He pulled away from her. "Look at me, Sybs." She opened her eyes and looked at him, half hopefully, half suspiciously. "Doesn't matter what else happens, right, I'm still going to be here."

"You are?"

He looked at her as seriously as he could, a solemn, scared young man in a black Tomcats t-shirt. "I want to run a million miles right now but come on," he pushed a strand of hair away from her face to stop her turning away, "if I run, I'm taking you with me."

"Together?" she said, a grin bursting over her face, because nobody had ever said anything so blissfully romantic to her before and although she was not the kind of girl who dreamed of knights in shining armour, she still could not help responding in a giddy way.

"You're having my baby – oh God, that sounds so weird – but you are and so yeah, together."

"Oh Tom!" she fell back against him and wrapped her arms tightly round his neck. "I knew you wouldn't leave. I knew it," she breathed into his neck. "I knew it."

He held her gently, rubbing his hand against her back in small circles and feeling her heart beat rapidly against his chest. She was such a strong, such a steady girl, he had always felt, but just then she felt so delicate, so little, so vulnerable. Tom stared out across the room at an elegant grandfather clock that seemed out of place considering the instrument cases and junk the band had accumulated over the afternoon. He watched the pendulum swing regularly back and forth, each second marking another way in which his life was changing before his very eyes.


It was a very warm evening with just a slight breeze coming up from the river to add some freshness to the air. Hand in hand, Matthew and Mary slipped out of some French windows and immediately made their way down the sloping lawn to the path at the bottom that overlooked the water. After all the noise of the party and the band, which was now about half way through their set it was refreshing to be out here alone.

"They don't sound half bad," said Mary after they had strolled in silence for a while. "Tom's band, I mean. I've heard worse amateurs."

Matthew shook his head fondly. "Mary... I don't want to talk."

He took both her hands then leaned in and kissed her deeply, pressing her back against the fence. Mary wrapped her arms round him, threading her fingers into his hair, as she sighed into the kiss. It had been hours since she had last kissed him. It seemed like a lifetime.

The night was quiet, nobody was near them, and somehow the kiss did not end as all the other ones had done. No taxi arrived, Sybil was not missing a shoe, Cora was not coming up the stairs. Matthew grew bolder, his lips roving from her mouth to her chin and down to her neck, pulling her closer to him as his hands started to explore the curves of the velvet evening dress more deliberately. Mary gasped and clutched at him, suddenly leaning back and looking at him.

"We're alone!" she cried in a loud whisper.

Matthew smiled and returned to sucking at the pulse point of her neck. "I should hope so!"

"We-" she gasped. She was going to say 'we can't' but half way through she decided she didn't care. Instead, she pulled up his head and kissed him with such desperate force that it took his breath away. She pushed against him so hard that they swayed away from the fence and then they had swapped places, Mary pressing him back against it, her hands in his hair.

"God, Mary-" he gasped out, tearing his lips from hers for a brief moment.

"We can be seen from the house!" he managed to get out the next time the contact broke.

She pulled him around again with a breathy laugh, lower and more seductive than he had ever heard her sound, and somehow, half tripping, half running they hurried along the path and past a tall hedge that divided the main lawn from another part of the garden. This area was more enclosed, grass surrounding a formal pond with a fountain sticking up in the middle of it, not currently turned on. Mary and Matthew looked around long enough to take in the high hedges and the seclusion before allowing the laughter to fade away in more, longer kisses that soon had them sinking on weakened knees to the grass.

"Is it-" muttered Matthew reaching out to pat it, overbalancing and suddenly sitting down, pulling Mary down with him.

"Dry," she finished, laughing against his mouth - as if it mattered.

The grass was soft and smelled of spring earth. They lay side by side, legs tangled together, exploring each other with trembling fingers and hot mouths. The gentle breeze contrasted pleasantly with the fire they were generating between themselves and the light fear of discovery, however unlikely, only added to the thrill of it.

With a sigh, Mary relaxed onto her back, Matthew rolling with her and all of a sudden he was above her staring down at her wide-eyed with wonder and desire, his hair flopping over his face. His hands were pressed against her side and breast, burning hot points of pressure. Mary's breath caught as she met his eyes, her chest tightening.

She breathed his name anxiously and he only smiled, placing one finger softly against her lips. "It's alright, sweetheart."

"No," she said around his finger. "I mean, we can't." At his questioning frown she rolled her eyes, wishing she wasn't blushing as she felt she was. She wriggled under him. "It's not – not being here that is,but I'm not – we don't have – my sister is pregnant!"

For a moment, his forehead had creased but then he understood and his face relaxed into a smile again. He kissed her, slowly and intimately. Stroking his hand down her cheek, he breathed into her ear, "Do you trust me?"

Mary frowned even as her arms tightened round his neck. "Yes. I do trust you, but I don't want..."

"Shh, I know. Relax, Mary."

"Whenever someone tells me to relax, I feel immediately tense," she whispered with a shaky laugh. She pushed him away to be able to look at him again.

Matthew met her gaze, open and affectionate and very understanding. He bit his lip. "You know, there are other - I mean, we can..."

Blustering hopelessly, he trailed off but his discomfort perversely made Mary feel more confident. She rolled her eyes and leaned up to kiss him before she could change her mind.

He was very gentle, delightfully gentle, almost too gentle, Mary might have thought if she had been inclined to think, as he set about making love to her. She did trust him though, and she lay back, her eyes open to the cloudy night sky and a moon that if not full was almost full, fading in and out of visibility. It was beautiful and she felt beautiful too, worshipped, and protected by Matthew's hands skimming over her body, lingering just long enough in the right places to cause little gasps, and which always moved on a moment too soon, leaving her strangely unsatisfied.

It had been warm enough during the day that she had eschewed tights under her long dress and she next felt him carefully pull off her ballet slippers and run his hands over her ankles. She giggled, pressing her fist to her mouth. Who knew she would be ticklish there? Then his hands moved higher up on her bare skin and she briefly stiffened in surprise. Matthew kissed the hand that lay limply at her side, each finger at a time and she sighed, reaching down to touch his face with a feather-light caress. She trustedhim, and when his fingers continued and completed their journey, the giggles turned to pants and she flung out her arm behind her, grasping at stalks of grass, her hand clenching and releasing in time with the rhythm of his strokes. She stretched out to him and he was there at her side with her, pink in the face and earnest, shuddering with her. When release finally came for her, suddenly and blindingly, he pulled her into his arms and rolled onto his back, breathing heavily as she came back to earth. He kissed her all over her face and ran his hands down her arms until she opened her eyes to meet his.

"Alright?" he murmured, taking several deep, calming breaths.

Mary ran a heavy, trembling finger down his cheek. She could not stop staring at him, at the curve of his lips, the straightness of his nose, the brightness of his eyes. She did not think she had ever felt so much for any other person before in her life as she felt for Matthew in that moment. She gave a barely perceptible nod and moistened her lips.

"I wish..." Her eyes frowned in sympathy for him. "I wish I could..."

He smiled adoringly at her and kissed her very softly and chastely. "Later. It's okay."

She shook her head in lazy disbelief and curled herself against him, using his chest as a pillow and twining their fingers together. Her mind was a wonderful vacuum, void of any thoughts, only picking up indistinctly on the little sounds of their breathing and the solid thump of Matthew's heartbeat, gradually slowing and the feel of his hand, gently running through her hair and the pressure of his body against hers.

Eventually though reality would intrude and Mary reluctantly pushed herself up into a sitting position.

"The band have stopped playing."

"Mmm." Matthew stared up at her, unconcerned about such things as bands and parties when there was Mary Crawley sitting in the grass with mussed hair and flushed cheeks and it was all because of him.

"We should find Sybil."

"Probably." He started drawing patterns on the palm of her hand.

"Don't you want to leave this blasted party?" exclaimed Mary. Her tone was demanding but there was a softness about her expression that negated any sharpness. "Don't you want to go home?" she added, raising her eyebrows.

He simply looked at her and then he shook his head. "You're marvellous, Mary. Utterly marvellous. Do you realise that?"

For a moment her expression was completely unguarded and he could hardly breathe at the utter longing he saw reflected in her face. Then she gave herself a shake and actually stood up and arranged her skirts around her. She smirked over her shoulder at him. "So I've been told."

She held her hand out to him. "Coming?"

Matthew didn't hesitate.

Chapter Text

When Matthew and Mary re-entered the house, the band was on a break and they quickly spotted Sybil standing near the stage, hand in hand with a young man with messy brown hair and a Tomcats t-shirt.

"He's very short," said Mary critically.

"Come on, sweetheart, that's hardly his fault!" responded Matthew, his hand warm on her back as they brushed past a tipsy Katniss Everdeen.

"It might not be." But she gave him a quick, wicked smile as she spoke to show she was – probably – joking.

Sybil caught sight of them and raised her arm to beckon them forward.

"Hey, you two. Do you know my friends? This is Thomas who plays guitar in the Tomcats; Jimmy, the singer; Lily I think you know, her brother Will's on keys; and this, this is Tom. Guys, this is my sister, Mary and her boyfriend, Matthew."

Matthew decided to keep a low profile so he greeted them all pleasantly but let Mary take the lead.

"Your band was very good," said Mary, using the same tone of voice she might use to congratulate a pensioner on her roses at a parish flower show. "I enjoyed your cover of that Belle and Sebastian song very much."

Matthew had to bite his lip. They had been listening to the band for all of two minutes and he hadn't even noticed what the song was. He did not know whether to laugh at Mary or admire her. Either way, he could not imagine wanting to be anywhere other than where he was.

"Glad you enjoyed it," replied Jimmy, stepping forwards and making Matthew automatically slide his arm more firmly round her waist. "We've got plenty more classics lined up after the break."

"And I'm going to do Someone Like You," said Lily. "First time performing."

"You'll be great!" cried Sybil. "Um, Mary, did you want to talk to me?"

"Actually, yes, though it was Tom I really wanted to talk to." She turned a pair of very sharp eyes on him. He shoved his hands into his pockets and adopted a more confrontational stance. Mary's polished smile did not quite reach her eyes. "I've heard so much about you."

"Mmm, I'm sure you have," was all he replied, staring right back at her.

"Okay then..." Sybil glanced nervously between the two of them. "We could go on the terrace?"

"Lead on," said Tom.

Thomas made a cutting motion across his throat with a grimace. "Nice knowing you, Branson."

Tom ignored him. Once outside, he folded his arms across his chest as he leaned against the patio table.

Mary tried her best to ignore his attitude. "Well, I must say, it's nice to put a face to the name. I'm so glad that this party has given me the opportunity to-"

He chopped one hand straight through her rhetoric. "I don't do bullshit, Mary, okay? And right now you are bullshitting all over my territory."

"What a charming way to open the conversation. I was going to start with pleased to meet you finally."

"Really? Look, my band is in the middle of a concert and I've just found out I'm going to be a dad; let's cut the crap. We both know why we're here. I genuinely don't care what you think of me, but don't patronise me because I really can't stand that."

Mary took a deep breath. "Well, now that you've made that perfectly clear-"

"See, that's exactly what I was talking about!"

"Mary, Tom, please!" Sybil came between them. "Can you do this later?"

"I'm trying, darling. I just want to look out for your best interests-"

"Bull. Shit!" Tom glowered at her while he put his arm round Sybil. "All you've said so far in this conversation is I I I. If you stopped for just one moment then I could tell you everything you want to know. Like – hell yes, I'm scared but I am going to be here one hundred per cent for Sybil and the baby while she does this so if there's anyone looking out for her best interests, it's me!"

Mary ignored the adoring way her little sister was now looking at her boyfriend. "Heroically spoken, I must say, if unnecessarily bullish, but for now we haven't yet decided that there is going to be anything to do so I suggest you save your breath for now."

"I'm sorry, what? Sybs, what does she mean?"

Sybil bit her lip. "Mary thinks – well, she thinks I should maybe consider not having the baby."

"Yes, and the window is closing up for that so you'll need to decide soon."

Tom threw up his arms and paced away, rubbing his hands down his face as if he was tired . "Wow. Okay. Seriously. No."

"What?" asked Mary.

"Tom's... Tom's Catholic."

Mary deflated in a shrug that seemed to encompass her entire body. Matthew, who had been trying hard to keep out of it all by concentrating on the impressive array of potted plants and hanging baskets that were decorating the Fitzgeralds' terrace and trying not to think about what he had been doing with Mary a mere half hour earlier, decided to intervene.

"Look, I know it's none of my business, but perhaps now's not the best time to go into this. It's late and it's an emotional issue for you all."

This was all Mary needed to recover her poise and he felt the full weight of her gratitude as she discreetly squeezed his hand.

"Matthew's right." She pressed her eyes briefly shut. "Tom, I'm sorry we seem to have got off on the wrong foot. Truly I am." Tom nodded but said nothing. "Would you like to come round tomorrow morning for brunch and we can discuss it all rationally?"

He seemed to find the idea of discussing things over a silly meal like brunch laughable until Sybil elbowed him with a frown.

"That would mean telling Mummy," she protested. "About Tom and the baby, both together!"

"I really think you're going to have to do that, don't you?" Mary replied, trying to be as gentle as she could.

Her sister chewed her lip. "Alright," she said finally. "Tom, will you? See my house, meet my mum?"

He glanced between her and Mary. "Is she as nice as your sister?"

"A thousand times nicer," replied Mary with a half smile. She was holding Matthew's hand very tightly.

"Right. I guess I'll come along tomorrow morning then. To brunch." He was still looking annoyed and suspicious, but at least he was civil.

"Until then. Sybil, I think we should all go home now."

Her sister looked like she wanted to protest but she changed her mind and shrugged apologetically at her boyfriend.

Matthew steered Mary gently away while Tom and Sybil said their goodbyes. She leaned against the door frame and expelled her breath in a light huff.

"That went well!"

He ran his hands up and down her arms. "Shh, it's alright. I really can't imagine how hard this must be for you." He leaned his forehead gently against hers and smiled as she knotted her fingers through his.

"Sybil's the one who's pregnant."

Matthew shrugged. "That doesn't mean you can't be unhappy about it."

Only half an hour ago they had been alone together by the river and she had come apart in his arms. Already, he could feel tension radiating from her once more, this time for less pleasant reasons. He detached one hand to stroke her hair, wanting only to keep her in his arms. How difficult it was for their relationship to progress in these circumstances! Perhaps when they got back to the house... But that might be too much to ask for. Then, Mary tipped her head back and pressed her lips to his with a feather-light touch. Reluctant to deepen the kiss, not now when even the lightest touch was a reminder of her and was enough to send him spiralling away with desire, he held her gently and smiled against her lips.

"Oy, lovebirds, let's go if we're going."

Sybil broke into their brief moment of togetherness and Mary pulled reluctantly away from him, though she still kept his hand as they threaded their way through the house to say goodbye to Olivia.

Once in the dark of the taxi, Mary sighed and said, "Come on, Sybil, what on earth did I say that was so bad?"

Sybil was sitting opposite them, staring out of the window, her arms crossed in sulky determination.

"You didn't need to say anything," she replied, after what seemed an incredibly long time. "It was your tone of voice, your attitude, what you were wearing, the way you looked at him... Since going out with Tom, I've started to see things the way he sees them and you – you, Mary, you open your mouth and he gets his back up."

"That's his problem, not mine!"

Sybil shook her head. "Perhaps he could have been a bit nicer to you but honestly, it's everyone's problem. It's everything that's wrong with the world."

"Oh come on, darling, that's reading a bit much into it, isn't it?"

"You would dismiss it like that." And she refused to say anything else for the rest of the journey.

Matthew kept hold of Mary's hand, hidden under their coats, and stroked his finger along its veins and ridges until her leg brushed against his and he felt her shiver. He had to look away, concealing a smile and shifting uncomfortably.

Finally, just as the taxi turned off the bright lights of Kensington High Street into their road, Sybil thawed enough to say, "I'm going to tell Mummy about Tom tonight to prepare her, but I'm not going to say anything about the baby until the morning, so don't you dare say anything either."

Mary rolled her eyes and pressed slightly down on Matthew's palm, her finger nail digging in with insistent pleasure. "I wouldn't dream of it," she replied, slightly breathlessly.

Cora was waiting up for them.

"Good party?" she asked, paying the taxi and ushering them into the hall. "Would anyone like a cup of tea or you going to head straight to bed?"

"I think I'd like some tea, please," said Sybil, meeting Mary's eyes for a brief moment.

"But we're going to go to bed," added her sister.

"Alright. I do want to hear all about this party! Matthew, I left some towels on your bed and I'm sure Mary will help if there's anything else you need. See you both in the morning!"

"Thank you. Goodnight, Lady Grantham," he managed to reply with a straight face, hoping that the direction his thoughts were going in about Mary helping him with what he needed wasn't completely obvious.

Before they started up the stairs and the countess ushered Sybil down to the basement kitchen for tea, Mary pulled her sister into her arms. "She'll understand," she murmured, kissed her cheek, and brushed a few strands of hair away from her face almost carelessly before letting her go.

Matthew and Mary hurried up the two flights of stairs to the floor where Mary had her room in the attic, next to the spare room Matthew had been put in. They stopped on the landing and faced each other.

"Well!" said Matthew, taking a deep breath.

For a moment, Mary looked indecisive and bit her lip. Then she held her hand out to him. "Well?" she repeated, a half-smile ghosting across her face.

Almost reverently, Matthew placed his hand in hers and felt her pulse leap under his fingers. She turned and led him to her bedroom and when they were inside, pushed the door closed with her foot. It made a quiet but satisfactory click.

As if the sound of the closing door which effectively shut out the rest of the world released a floodgate, Matthew could wait no longer, and he pulled Mary into his arms and kissed her with all the passion that had been building up throughout the evening. She responded eagerly but there was something about her that seemed to flutter against him, the trembling, almost, of a fragile bird. A wave of strong emotion washed over Matthew as he felt the weight of her trust and of the importance of his gentleness, his patience, his affection at this significant moment in Mary's life.

He pulled back from her a moment and looked at her face, so perfectly symmetrical, her cheeks flushed and her lips swollen from his kisses. He ran a finger softly down one cheek and smiled. "Are you – are you sure?" he asked breathlessly.

Mary's eyes widened and he felt he could easily lose himself in them, as her expression seemed somehow to relax. She stepped out of his arms and retrieved a plastic bag from her open suitcase. She held the contents of the bag up to him with raised eyebrows.

"Oh, I'm sure," she replied, tossing the condoms onto her bed and winding her arms round his neck once more.

"Darling!" murmured Matthew, overcome by emotion and he buried his face in her neck, pressing hot kisses to her warm skin, lost.

Things progressed quickly now and it was easy to recapture the frantic, luxurious heat of their tryst earlier in the Fitzgeralds' garden. Matthew's dinner jacket and tie were discarded first, followed by both of them kicking away their shoes. Then, he slowly unzipped Mary's velvet evening gown and, with an expensive rustle, it pooled round her feet on the ground. He saw her then for the first time, pale as untouched snow, and even more beautiful, covered only in mere scraps of black lace underwear. Before he could fully appreciate her, however, she returned to him to attack the buttons of his shirt with trembling fingers and concentrated determination.

Finally divested of all clothes, she pulled him onto the bed with her, pulled him on top of her with something that was nearly ferocious. Matthew's desire could hardly keep up with her. He felt a need, as he finally found himself looking down on her, her dark hair fanned out on the white pillow, to slow down.

Catching his breath, he kissed her more gently and forced himself to control the pounding of his heart and the heaviness of his own desire. This was for Mary, it had to be for Mary and in that moment he realised that her haste and resolution were symptoms of quite understandable nerves. Using the necessity of getting a condom as an excuse to pause, he rolled half-off her, though never completely losing touch of her. The bed, after all, was only slightly wider than the average single. She lay there passively, watching him solemnly. He smiled reassuringly.

"Done?" she murmured, her eyes large and luminous and he was full of admiration for her current calmness. His first time, he remembered, he had been all fingers and thumbs and speed and nervous laughter.

"Done," he replied as he lowered himself over her once more and kissed her deeply. The spark had been lit once more and her fingers tangled in his hair and her lips bruised his as she pushed herself against him, writhing under him. Matthew broke the kiss briefly to cry breathlessly, "Careful, sweethear, or-"

She laughed, a trembling, deep movement that made him spasm against her, feeling her under him, around him... But there was a kind of panic to her laughter.

"It's all right," he gasped, hardly knowing if it was the right thing to say. "I promise - I promise to be ..." Her hands, her fingers, her legs squeezed him and he gritted his teeth. "Gentle."

"Why?" she murmured, against his ear. "I'm ready."

"I just - I don't want to hurt you. It might be a bit uncomfortable at first and-" It was hard to speak for his mind had already leapt ahead to what she wanted, and he felt he was just spouting platitudes, things some teacher had maybe said once in a sex education class, or Lavinia, when she had confided in him about her own first time.

Now Mary suddenly pushed his head away from her to meet his eyes. "Why would you hurt me?" she asked, her tone somewhere between confused and confrontational.

"Because-" She had shifted somehow and had brushed against him and, really, this was torture!

Mary frowned as she realised. "You think I've never done this before! You think I'm a virgin!"

"You mean – you're not?"

She blinked at him, more angry than he could understand why. "Oh my God, Matthew!"

At least, it seemed like anger; it could have been simple frustration or even disappointment. He felt thrown off course, unable in that moment to read her.

She pressed her eyes closed and swallowed. When she opened them again, the anger had gone, but so had something else, though it was hard to know what. It seemed he was not the only one who had been knocked sideways by their brief dialogue. Everything was happening so quickly but as he stared into her eyes, it felt almost as if some part of her had distanced itself from the situation, from him.

"You won't hurt me," she said emphatically, "so you can stop worrying about that. Just- I want you to make love to me, Matthew. Now."

What man would be able to resist such a plea? Especially when it was accompanied by a bruising kiss, her hands tugging and twisting in his hair, her legs wrapping round his and pulling him towards her. Matthew certainly could not. He had lost control of the situation and, while a part of him was crying to stop it all, that this was not the right way for it to happen, he barely had control over himself. With a groan, he buried himself inside her, finding her tighter than he had expected, or had he? He heard her gasp, did not see the wince that accompanied it, but she had been right: he met with no barrier.

Panting, he lifted his head from where he had buried it in her shoulder and showered her face with kisses. She lifted herself towards him, wrapped her legs properly round his waist and encouraged him deeper, drawing him back to her lips, biting down so hard he shuddered, a wave of the strongest desire washing over him. It was all too much; the friction, the emotion of the moment, how long it felt they had waited, the steady build-up through the evening, the unreality of it actually being her, Mary... Mary... He withdrew and thrust several times in a chaotic, messy rhythm, with her clinging tightly to him with every muscle as he moved – before collapsing on her in a burst of passion, far too soon.

It was over, but she was still clamped round him and it took several minutes before she slowly unwound her legs and relaxed her arms, each limb loosening one at a time as if being consciously instructed to do so. Matthew roused himself slowly to a feeling of blissful relaxation and the growing realisation of how much he had messed up.

"I'm so sorry," he muttered into her shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Mary."

She was gently stroking his hair, had been all the time he had been out of it, and for a moment didn't reply. He raised his head and found her staring into space, though she looked down at him when he spoke and faintly smiled. Her expression more serene than it had been, though there was a kind of solemn resignation about her; beautiful and luminous and inexpressively sad, like a Madonna in a painting.

"It wasn't meant to be like that," he continued, wishing she would say something.

Finally she did, bringing herself back as if she had been far away. "Few things do turn out as we plan them," she agreed, and gently pushed him off her. "But it's alright, Matthew, really. It was very..."

He obliged and rolled off her, scooting to the far side of the bed against the wall and leaning on one elbow while she struggled to find a suitable word to describe the experience.

"Memorable," she said finally as she sat up and reached for the bedclothes. Matthew thought it a curious term, but did not question it, though it hardly made him feel any better. Still, there were many things she could have said about his performance which would have been even less complimentary.

"It was more uncomfortable than I was expecting, considering," she added thoughtfully, a moment later, and Matthew felt his heart sink further. "But perhaps that's natural."

"It'll get better?" he tried, running a finger down her arm, and feeling a very small triumph that at least she did not flinch away from him.

Now she looked at him properly, almost as if she was seeing him for the first time. "Oh, Matthew," she murmured, "I'm sure it will. Anyway, don't exaggerate; it wasn't so bad. I'm very glad – I'm very glad it happened!"

"Are you really?" he asked in surprise.

"Of course." She pulled the duvet over them both. "Here, if you have one of my pillows, there's room for us both."

"You want me to stay?" At this point, whatever she said, he wouldn't have been surprised if she threw him out onto the street, stark naked.

"Well, don't you?" And a flicker of doubt crossed her face.

He was quick to reassure her. "Of course I do!" He pulled her into his arms and she turned onto her other side so they were lying much as they had done on that uncomfortable sofa in St Andrews, only two nights before. It seemed like a different world and an impossibly long time ago, so much had happened.

There was a light switch above the bedside table. Mary leaned up and flicked it, plunging the room into darkness, save for the glow of the street lamps round the curtains and the single bright line under the door from the landing light. Matthew pressed his lips to her shoulder and tasted salt; he hugged his arms more tightly round her waist, as if holding her like this could make up for his dreadful failure as a lover. He should have been able to hold back, he should have thought more of her pleasure, he should have he should have he should have -

"I'm so sorry too." Her whisper was so quiet, so heartfelt, so unexpected, that it took several moments for him to register that he had heard it at all. He raised himself up on an elbow to see her face, but her eyes were closed and he could feel her breath come more and more deeply. Perhaps he really had dreamed it.

"It's alright, Mary, it's alright," he murmured and smoothed her hair away from her forehead. As he did so, his eye caught a glimmer in the darkness; one single drop of water. It hesitated, caught in her eyelash before slowly rolling down her cheek and dripping off the end of her nose onto the pillow.

Matthew lowered himself back down onto his side and closed his own eyes. His feelings of physical satisfaction and tiredness had been almost completely taken over by his emotional devastation. Though he had Mary in his arms, naked skin pressing against naked skin, and nothing should have been more intimate than this, he had never felt more detached from her, rarely felt more miserable.

Chapter Text

Mary woke first and for a moment was lost in warmth and comfort. She had relaxed during the night and in the morning found herself lying on her front, her cheeks pressed in her pillow and Matthew's arm flung over her back as he slept. His deep breaths tickled her hair and she smiled into the pillow and let out a sigh of contentment before she tried to stretch her muscles and became more aware of new aches as she came to.

Oh.

Sybil was still pregnant. Her boyfriend was the wrong sort. And she and Matthew had slept together. It had been more awkward than she had expected, though less uncomfortable than it could have been, she imagined, and indeed her nerve endings prickled into awareness at all the points where their naked bodies touched, his fingers on her back tracing imaginary trails of fire down her spine... She swallowed. It had been less satisfying than... well, it was hard to know what she could compare it to. Instantly, her chest tightened with an ancient sorrow and she could no longer bear to stay there under Matthew's protective arm. She slipped quietly out of bed and reached for her dressing gown. Staring down at him as he shifted in his sleep, her eyebrows drew together in a frown even as her heart called out to him. It had not been so satisfying... but she was glad it had happened. She felt bound to him now, more so than she had imagined the previous night when she had been so desperate (too desperate perhaps for it had shocked him, she thought) to get it over with, and that made it all so much harder, so much more complicated. She chewed her lip and her heart ached with an unfamiliar thud, flashes of physical memory of his fingers, his lips, the light in his eyes, breaking into the fog of impressions and ideas that were far more established than her relationship with Matthew. They would not be undone as quickly as all that and, as she stared down at him at peace, she felt as separate and above him as much as she felt drawn to him. Reaching out to him, she gently smoothed a soft lock of his hair away from his face before forcing herself to turn away and slip out of the room to the bathroom.

Matthew was still asleep by the time she was dressed and went downstairs to find her mother and sister. A part of her hated leaving him but the part that was not so courageous was afraid of what would happen when he woke up. The last thing she remembered before drifting off to sleep was his regret and her apologies and she did not want to repeat them. She did not want to discuss her stress the previous night or rehash their conversation about his assumptions about her virginity, she did not want to discuss his own loss of control, she did not want to discuss any of it at all.

Fortunately there was plenty to distract her with the rest of her family. She arrived in the kitchen at an opportune moment. Sybil was sitting on one side of the table, cradling a mug of tea and looking miserable. Her mother sat opposite, her eyes bulging in disbelief and horror, toast getting cold in front of her. Sybil looked up as Mary came down the stairs and made a face before sighing heavily.

"Did you know about this, Mary?" asked Cora suddenly, looking round and pinning her eldest daughter with a direct stare.

"About what?" replied Mary cautiously, not sure how much she knew.

"The baby, Mary," drawled her sister, as if exhausted with the whole thing already. "I just told her about the baby."

"Yes! The baby!" Cora sounded as if she wanted to be hysterical.

Mary got down a mug from the shelf and flicked the kettle on. "Yes, I did know. That's why I'm here actually; to have Sybil's back when you explode."

"Oh, I'm not exploding. I'm very calm about it. Teenagers fall pregnant all the time. Why should my daughters be any different?"

"See? She's very calm," Sybil muttered into her tea.

Mary rolled her eyes. "So I see. Coffee, Mummy?"

The countess blinked. "Yes, please. My, it's a good thing your father isn't here. Can you even imagine?"

"I might not tell him. I mean, if I have an abortion I won't have to."

"Don't speak of it just yet, Sybil. Not until I've had my coffee."

"Good luck trying to persuade your Catholic boyfriend to go along with that," said Mary.

"Oh good, he's Catholic," murmured Cora faintly. "Robert will just love that."

"It shouldn't make any difference!" cried Sybil, crossing, uncrossing and re-crossing her arms. "It's not as if he even goes to church except at Christmas."

"Not going to church never stopped people from holding inherited prejudices when it suits them," replied Mary with a shrug. "Tom would hardly be the only one."

"Yeah, Mary."

"Girls, don't squabble, please don't squabble!" Their mother held her hands up for peace. "When Tom arrives we can all discuss it sensibly; at least – Mary, you met Sybil's boyfriend last night; do you think he will be able to discuss it sensibly?"

Mary wished she could say something nice about him but honesty trumped her concern for her sister's immediate feelings. "I think he will certainly be keen to discuss it."

Cora sighed as Sybil started up with more animation than she had shown so far. "Don't be so snide! He is sticking with me, he said he loved me, Tom is... he might not be what you'd want for me but he's what I want and he will stand by me. At the moment, he's the only one who is."

"Oh, so what am I doing then?" Mary glanced over her shoulder as she prepared two cups of coffee.

"Being a bitch?"

"Sybil!" said her mother sharply. "Don't speak to your sister like that. Mary's being very rational about this. By the way, where's Matthew?"

"Still asleep," she answered before adding quickly, "I think."

"Oh that's something... Whatever shall we do with him with Tom gets here?"

"Matthew knows." She handed her mother a cup of coffee and sat down with her own. "I didn't mean to tell him but... he was there." She looked down, feeling her face growing hot and wishing it wasn't.

"Yes, Mary blurts all our secrets out to-"

"To my boyfriend," Mary said sharply. "Matthew is my boyfriend. I can keep a secret as well as anyone."

Cora laid a restraining hand on her arm but smiled almost desperately up at her. "Matthew's your boyfriend? I have to say, I did wonder if there was anything like that going on. How lovely!"

"Oh great! You love Mary's boyfriend but-"

"Sybil, you need to pull yourself together. Do you want Tom to see you like this? I'm going to get cross soon. This morning is going to be challenging for everyone and if you want me to help you, you need to be able to listen as well as talk."

Sybil thumped her head down on the table with a groan. Mary and her mother shared an exasperated look but Cora frowned. She shook her head and leaned in towards Mary. "I'm finding this difficult, darling. My little girl..."

Mary placed her other hand over her mother's. "It will be alright." She forced herself to hold her gaze. "You will make it alright. You always do."

"My dear..."

This was getting uncomfortably sentimental for Mary's taste. She pulled her hand away and sipped her coffee. "When's Tom coming, Sybs?"

She pulled her head off the table with great apparent effort. "Soon."

"Well." Cora girded herself up and even managed a stoical attempt at a smile as she stood up. "I better get cooking. I feel like pancakes. Do you feel like pancakes, girls?"

For the first time that morning, Mary and Sybil met each other's eyes. Pancakes were their mother's comfort food, a hark back to her American childhood, reserved for special occasions and treats.

"Pancakes sound good, Mummy," said Sybil, much more subdued. She added, as Cora turned away to get down a mixing bowl and some scales, "Are you going to get really angry?"

Her mother sighed. "Perhaps later. I guess I'm still in shock. Anyway, what would be the point? What's done is done."

Matthew came down into the kitchen, hair wet and sticking up, searching for Mary. She took a deep breath as her gaze was automatically drawn to him and her hands clutched her mug more tightly. He stared at her, smiled, and then the smile dropped and he looked questioningly at her. What did one say in this situation? She was not sure, so she fell back on learned politeness.

"Good morning, Matthew! Come and sit by me!" She indicated the chair.

Sybil waggled her eyebrows suggestively and Cora fussed over him, enjoying a distraction from her younger daughter's love life by focusing on her elder daughter's. Amidst this, Matthew slipped into his chair and prised Mary's hand away her mug. He was warm and slightly damp from his shower – and utterly delectable. Her gut twisted.

"You weren't there when I woke up," he whispered, lowering his gaze to her.

Her eyes darted across his face and dipped momentarily to his lips. "Should I have been? You were asleep and I wanted to see Sybil..."

"Of course." His expression cleared slightly but he still did not look perfectly happy. "But, Mary, are we alright? I just wanted to say, about last night-"

"Not here!" she hissed back, uncomfortably aware of her sister watching them and her mother only a few paces away making pancake batter.

"Right." He squeezed her hand. "I understand."

But he really didn't understand anything at all and she began to draw patterns on the table with her finger as she tried to work out how to behave and what to say. She had only had one boyfriend before and Rashid had been different anyway and she had been younger. Now she thought she should have woken him up rather than seeing him again for the first time under her mother's nose. Matthew was so comfortable in this role as boyfriend; it came naturally to him to be kind, to be loving. It did not come naturally to her, not in the same way.

"Pancakes, Matthew?" asked Cora.

He twisted around, still holding Mary's hand. "Oh, um, you know, I was thinking about going for a walk."

Cora's eyes bulged. "A walk?"

He shifted in the chair. "Yeah... Look, I know Tom is coming round and you have a lot to discuss and, well, I wouldn't want to get in the way." He looked appealing at Mary. "I thought maybe I would go to church."

Three pairs of eyes looked back at him.

"There's St Mary Abbots just on the High Street," Sybil said. "They have several services on Sunday morning."

"Thanks. I guess I'll walk that way then."

"I'll come up with you," Mary put in hastily and stood up with him. They left the kitchen together, Mary following Matthew closely up the stairs.

"You could have stayed," she said as they faced each other in the hall. "I don't think Sybil would have minded. She likes you." She smiled faintly.

A painful expression crossed Matthew's face. "Right." He looked at her suddenly, directly. "And you?"

"And I-?"

"Do you like me?"

"Oh, Matthew!"

He took her hands and pulled her towards him. "No, I get it, I do. I messed up last night. I was thinking about it and – Mary... I'm so sorry."

She blinked at him, worrying at her bottom lip in consternation. "You didn't mess up."

His expression was devastatingly clear and honest. "I did though. I wasn't thinking, I was overwhelmed, it was all so – but you don't need my excuses. I was rubbish. Our first time together should have been wonderful and it- I mean, you're – Mary, you-" He cleared his throat and glanced away. "I like you so much and I know you're so far out of my league and if you don't want to continue this, I understand and-"

Mary was growing more uncomfortable the more he spoke and eventually she had to interrupt him. She placed a finger against his lips and had to fight the urge to sway more closely against him as the imprint of intimacy washed over her. "I don't care about – what you care about. I don't mind. That is, these things happen." She forced a smile. "There isn't anything to discuss."

"There isn-"

She kissed him, covering his lips with hers and swallowing his words. For a moment she felt his surprise and then he melted against her, drawing her more closely to him and returning her kiss with a knowledge and sensuality that was thrilling and new. It was Matthew who pulled away, however, and smiled at her with hope, but with some measure of remaining confusion. "I should go. Get out of the way and leave you free to deal with Tom and Sybil."

"Yes."

"Good luck!" He kissed her quickly again, lingered over relinquishing her hands, and finally managed to pull himself away from her and out of the door.

Mary stood rooted to the spot, her heart racing. With cold horror, she realised she was trembling. Matthew, kind, sweet, generous, occasionally misguided Matthew... It was Matthew and he deserved better than her. She twisted her head away as if she could escape herself and her thoughts.

"Mary?" her mother called up the stairs. "Any sign of Tom? I'm wondering whether to start frying the pancakes yet."

She swallowed and made herself reply. "No, no sign. I'm coming down."

One fist clenched tightly at her side, she slipped quietly back downstairs. In fact, the doorbell rang only a few minutes later and Sybil went to get her boyfriend.

"I have to admit I'm not predisposed to like this Tom," confined Cora to Mary.

"I should hope not!"

"I shall make an effort – and so must you, Mary – for Sybil's sake and for – for the baby's sake, but I really find it hard to sympathise very much with a young man who impregnates a teenager."

Mary rolled her eyes and made a non-committal noise just in time before Sybil reappeared, leading Tom Branson into the room, anxiously clutching his hand. Fortunately, he seemed more subdued than he had been the previous evening and was dressed conservatively in jeans and a regular t-shirt.

"Mummy, this is Tom, my boyfriend. Tom, this is my mum, and you remember, Mary."

He rubbed his hand against his trousers and stepped forward into the room. "How do you do, Lady Grantham?"

Mary wondered with grim amusement whether Sybil had been giving him a quick lesson on aristocratic titles on the stairs. And also on good manners. It seemed a demanding elder sister was one thing, but a titled mother quite another.

The countess straightened up and gave him her hand to shake. "It's nice to meet you, Tom. I would say at last but as I only heard of you for the first time last night I can't. I wish we could have got to know you before today so we could all get used to each other before this – this issue arose, but unfortunately that has not been possible so we shall have to manage as best we can. Anyway, would you like pancakes? They're just about ready."

Tom blinked and reclaimed his hand. "Pancakes? Er, yes, ma'am... milady. Thank you."

"Excellent."

Cora turned back to the oven to put the finishing touches to breakfast and Tom looked across to Mary. He nodded to her. "Hello again."

She inclined her head but saw no particular reason to put him at ease.

"Well!" said Sybil brightly, sitting back down and pulling Tom down in a chair next to her. "This is my house."

"It's really nice." Tom's eyes were skimming around the room.

"Our London house," Mary could not resist adding. "Our main residence is naturally in the country at Downton Abbey."

Sybil's glare said Must you? very clearly but her sister only shrugged. Tom glanced between the two of them. "Yes, Sybil mentioned something about that."

"Are you from the country, Tom?" asked Cora, handing him a plate of blueberry pancakes.

"Thank you. No, I grew up in Dublin, though my granddad owned a farm. Wow, this looks amazing!"

"Mummy's pancakes are amazing," Sybil smiled, upending a bottle of maple syrup over her plate.

Within a few minutes they were all served and sitting down. Cora drank half of her cup of coffee before resuming conversation.

"Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself, Tom?"

He swallowed his bite. "I'm not sure there's much to tell. I'm Irish, I came over to England when I was eighteen to look for work and I've been here ever since, working as a mechanic in a garage in Shoreditch. It's good work."

"Do you have family over here?"

"An aunt and her family, yeah. I wasn't totally alone when I came over here. They're up in Liverpool but I couldn't get a job there so easily so I came down to London. Sarah, who owns the garage, was really helpful at getting me sorted."

"How kind of her. Do you have a place of your own then?"

"I share a house with a few of the lads in my band."

"Tom's too modest to mention his band, the Tomcats, but it's really awesome," put in Sybil proudly. "Weren't they good at Livia's party last night?"

"Very good," replied Mary, injecting as much condescension into her tone as she could.

"And are you professional?" pressed her mother.

"Mummy!" protested Sybil. "What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?"

"I think what Mummy is trying to work out is just how realistic it is to expect Tom to pull his weight in supporting you and a baby."

There was a brief silence before Cora pursed her lips. "I wouldn't have put it quite so bluntly, Mary, but since you bring it up, I am concerned to find out if you are in a position to take responsibility for this child you have created."

Tom sighed and looked down for a moment. When he raised his eyes, his expression was determined. "I'm not rich, Lady Grantham, and I don't have two houses to spread out in, but I do love Sybil very much and I will always be there for her. And the baby. Whatever it takes."

Sybil clasped his hand in adoration but the countess leaned back in her chair and sighed. "Bringing up children is hard work and just when you think you might be getting it right life throws you a curve. How old are you, Tom?"

He stared at her. "Twenty-two. Twenty-three next month."

"And my daughter is seventeen. She is a minor. Do you understand what this means?"

"So? I'm over the age of consent!" exclaimed Sybil.

"And still legally a child."

"That doesn't even make sense," she huffed.

"I'll tell you what it means," continued Cora with deceptive calm. "It means that I hold you, an adult man, fully responsible for what has happened here. You seduced a child, you got her pregnant and, I swear to God-"

"Hold up!" Sybil leapt to her feet. "You can't just go blaming Tom for this like he raped me or something! I consented. I consented to everything. I'm not some stupid child."

"Really? Because you sound exactly like one!"

Cora's sudden glare was so frigid that it stopped Sybil in full steam. Tom glanced between them but he also looked rather afraid.

Mary cleared her throat and injected quietly, "Aren't you glad Sybil's willing to take responsibility for what happened? Isn't that something?"

Her mother gave her a piercing look. "There can be such a thing as taking too much responsibility, Mary. I'm more interested in seeing some sign of it from the adult part of this couple."

"I do take responsibility, Lady Grantham," said Tom. "Only, with respect, I see Sybil as an equal. She's-" He looked up at her. "You're smart, independent, beautiful..."

Sybil touched his cheek as she sat down again. "Whatever we do, we do together. Even the mistakes. It was both of us."

Cora sighed and laid her hands flat on the table. "Right. Okay then. You want to be treated as adults so I'll treat you as adults. Here is what we're going to do. You two are going to sit here in this kitchen with pen and paper and you are going to work it all out. You are going to decide whether you are going to keep the baby or not, you are then going to discuss the practical implications of your decision; you will be open to each other about your financial situations, your living arrangements, and you will have a frank conversation about the influences on your own upbringing that will impact on how you choose to bring up a child of your own."

Mary, watching all three of them, felt in this moment that she could see the Cora Levinson who had run a multi-national company since her early twenties emerging from underneath the façade of the American countess. She had seen this side of her mother only several times before and felt a grudging admiration for her.

Sybil looked increasingly miserable. "Mummy..."

Cora pursed her lips. "If you're keen to boast of your maturity and you're ready to do adult things then you're also ready to take adult responsibility for them. That's the way it works, Sybil."

"I don't think I want to have a baby!"

Mary rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "Then don't! That's what I've been saying all along."

"Sybil, please, don't do that, not to our baby! We'll make it work. I promise you-"

She pulled her hand out of Tom's and shook her head. "Honestly, the more you try to pressure me with this anti-abortion bullshit, the more you make me want to go straight out and get one! Stop it, both of you!" She bit her lip. "You're right, Mummy. We need to think to this through properly. We'll do it as you say."

Lady Grantham sighed, her expression relaxing slightly. "You'll have to make up your own minds. I can support you and fight your corner if I have to with your father, God knows you'll need all the help you can get, but at the end of the day it's your baby. You need to take the decisions – and if you can't, perhaps Mary is right and you should consider an abortion. But that has its own price, so think about it very carefully."

She stood up. "In the mean time, I'm going upstairs to hear all my other daughter's news." She smiled widely at Mary and pushed her chair under the table. "You can do the washing up, Sybil, while you talk. I find it very therapeutic. Come on, Mary."

Mary stood up too and followed her to the stairs. Sybil sat forlornly next to Tom who was staring at the table. She hesitated and turned round, stopping behind her sister's chair.

"What?" She craned her neck to look up at her.

With a shake of her head, Mary lightly squeezed Sybil's shoulder before turning tail and preceding her mother up the stairs.

In the hallway Cora stopped and shook her head. "Oh, my darling. What are we going to do?"

Mary remained silent and still, waiting for her to continue.

"I just want to look after my little girl, Mary. I want to make everything right."

"But you can't." It came out harsher than she had intended.

"No, I can't." She gave herself a shake. "But you, my dear, you have been a pillar of strength!"

Mary recoiled in surprise. "Me? Sybil resents me!"

"Of course she does. Can you blame her? But she came to you, Mary. Not me, not your father, not Edith- you. And you were there for her and put your own life to the side to come down here and be with her when she told Tom and me. That's not nothing. I know you haven't finished your exams yet. And I know you, Mary." She looked at her with solemn pride. "I know how hard this must be for you. Don't think I don't know that and love you even more for it."

Mary looked away, her stomach knotting up with the anxiety she had felt ever since she had woken up that morning. "It's not the same thing."

"I didn't say it was the same thing." She squeezed her arm affectionately. "Now, come into the sitting room and tell me all about your lovely young man before he gets back from his walk."

Mary forced a wan smile and followed her obediently but her worry did not ease at the mention of Matthew.


When Matthew returned to the house after church, it became necessary for him and Mary to leave immediately in order to catch a train back to Scotland that wouldn't get them in too late. They said their goodbyes quickly to Cora, Sybil and Tom. Mary managed to extract a promise from Sybil that she would keep in touch and would ring any time she needed to talk and the countess issued Matthew with an open invitation to Downton Abbey over the summer holidays.

On their own again, Matthew was inclined to be cheerful. Church had given him the space he needed to consider everything that had happened in the past few days and he was ready to appreciate Mary's comment that there was nothing to be discussed and remember her kiss over any niggling doubts. But Mary could not enter into his good mood. Her mind was filled with the look on Sybil's face as the reality of her situation hit home but also her expression of complete trust and reliance on Tom. She held Matthew's hand in the taxi to the station and smiled at what he said, but she hardly felt him or heard him. On the train, she pulled out her annotated Shakespeare and writing pad and used her imminent exam as an excuse not to talk much. Instead, she wrote out quotation after quotation to use in her essays on Tuesday.

At the station when Matthew suggested coming back with her, she put him off. Revision... and she needed to talk to Anna, talk to her properly. She had neglected Anna since the party, but that had been disastrous not just for Sybil. Friendship always made an impression on Matthew and, though disappointed, he accepted her desire to be with her friend.

"Shall I see you tomorrow?"

She shrugged unhappily. "I'm not sure. My exam is on Tuesday..."

"Tuesday then? After your exam? It's a morning one, isn't it?"

"Yes." She forced a smile. "After my exam then."

He took her arms and pulled her to him, frowning. "Mary, what is it? You said we were okay but... are we? I don't understand you today!"

"Then stop trying!" she cried, irritated beyond endurance by what felt like his constant questioning. "Do you honestly think you're the most important thing in my life at the moment?"

He stepped back from her, his face creasing in offended hurt. "Clearly not. Whyever would I think that?"

She stared at him, wishing she could take back the words, however true they were. At least, they were true on one level but the iron band round her heart suggested otherwise.

"I didn't mean-"

"Then what? What did you mean, Mary?"

She could not reply and finally he exhaled in a huff. "Whatever. Let me know when you want to see me. Good luck with the Shakespeare!"

With that bitter parting call, he hauled his rucksack onto his shoulders and marched away towards the bus stop leaving Mary alone at the taxi rank. She pressed her eyes closed before turning away so she did not have to look at him.

Never had the sight of a light on in the front room of the little terraced house she shared with Anna been so welcome. More welcome still was her friend getting up from the sofa with a smile of happiness to see her, hugging her, and helping to take her bag upstairs.

Soon they were seated side by side in their usual places on the sofa with one of Anna's home-made smoothies. Strange as it was to believe considering where she had come from, Mary felt as if she was only now at home.

"Tell me everything," Anna said. "You and Matthew-"

"No, you first," Mary insisted. "What news about John?"

Anna shrugged. "Nothing really. His - that is, Vera - she wants to see him but he hasn't taken any of her calls. He doesn't know what she wants. Mary, I honestly think she's insane!"

"Those leopard skin leggings certainly were. How did they end up together anyway?"

"One night stand. Years ago. Then she said she was pregnant and her family threw her out. So he married her."

Mary tipped her head back as far as it would go against the back of the sofa. Too many pregnancies where there shouldn't be... "Ugh."

"I know."

"I suppose she wasn't really?"

"He doesn't know for sure. There definitely wasn't a baby. He'd been chasing her for a divorce for ages but he hasn't been able to trace her until now when she suddenly pops up in his life again. He wants to keep her away until we've come up with a strategy for dealing with her."

"We?" queried Mary, latching onto the important part of the sentence.

Anna rolled her eyes. "Yes,we are still together. Sorry about that, Mary! I'm not giving John up just because he has a crazy wife and a bit of a chequered past... Okay, it does sound a bit ridiculous when you put it like that, but what kind of coward would I be if I did?"

Mary looked down, fiddling with the edge of her top. "Better a coward than..."

Anna placed her tumbler on the coffee table and studied her friend. "Okay, out with it, Mary. What happened in London? Tell me exactly what happened."

"I slept with Matthew."

Her friend's eyes widened. "Yess! Oh, I am so happy! And, if I can say- Finally!"

Mary smiled wanly and avoided her eyes by sipping at her smoothie.

"I mean, this is good, isn't it? You and Matthew; it's what you want, right?"

"Yes; that is, I think so. Only-"

Anna had the sense to hang back and wait.

"I'm not sure it's going to work." She managed to meet Anna's eyes.

"No! Why do you say that?"

She shook her head. "I thought that sleeping together would be the ultimate climax of everything we'd done so far and after that we would, oh, I don't know, live happily ever after, but it wasn't like that at all."

Anna bit her lip to hold back a smile. "Oh, honey, it's only the beginning!"

"Yes. You see, it changed me, Anna. It made me feel so... so dreadfully close to him. As if I couldn't- I couldn't- I can't bear it!" And suddenly, surprising herself, she burst into tears, covering her face with her hands.

Instantly, Anna's arms were around her, holding her tightly. "Hush. It's alright. You can bear it. There's nothing that can't be fixed."

She raised her head and stared at her bleakly. "That's not true. And I pushed him away."

"What did you say?"

She told her.

"Oh dear, that's pretty bad..."

Mary half laughed, half sobbed in agreement. "But he has to understand..."

"He's only human, Mary. He's just got the girl of his dreams and he wants to spend time with her. Not so unreasonable, is it? And he may be head over heels in love with you but he's not going to wait around forever while you jerk his string."

"I'm not trying to hurt him."

"Of course you're not, but you are all the same and you'll carry on hurting him the longer you push him away."

"Yes."

She took a deep breath and brushed her tears away from her cheeks. "What should I do, Anna? I'm afraid I can't be with him, not as he wants me to be. You know, I thought sleeping together wouldn't change things but it has. I can't be with him like that without him knowing the truth. It feels dishonest." Her voice dropped. "And I can't tell him."

Anna looked at her with infinite sympathy. "I think you should though."

"Don't you see I can't? Not him, not anyone!"

"Tell him, Mary. Tell him everything since you can't move forward otherwise. And if he runs, he wasn't worth it in the first place. But you'll regret not telling him far more than you will telling him."

Mary frowned and chewed her lip, unwilling to agree.

"Look at me! I didn't run, did I?"

This earned her a reluctant smile. "No, you didn't," she replied softly.

"And honestly, Mary, no even semi-decent person is going to. We can't help what happened in our past, especially what wasn't our fault, but you're an idiot if you're going to throw away a guy like Matthew because you can't let go."

"How am I meant to let go?" she cried. "Because I've tried!"

"I don't know. But Matthew's a good guy and if anyone can help, I think it's him."

Mary sat back and pondered, coming to no decision. Eventually she shrugged. "Well, I'm not going to do anything till after my exam."

"So long as you do actually do something then," pressed Anna.

"You're a hard task master, Smith!"

"I learned from the best!" She quickly jumped up from the sofa as Mary aimed a cushion at her. "And if you're going to use your exam as an excuse for avoiding him, I think you should at least go to bed now so you can work productively tomorrow. Right?"

Mary sighed and stood up. "Right. And Anna..." She bit her lip and held out her hand.

Her friend rolled her eyes and squeezed her hand tightly before letting go. "I know. Now get along with you!"

"I mean it."

"So do I!"


It was over. The five minute warning had been given, the order to put down your pens had rung out, the papers had been collected, and the cohort of second year undergraduate English students who had taken the Shakespearean Tragedy paper were finally released into the bright sunshine of the first week of June.

Evelyn had a bottle of very good quality prosecco on hand to share with his friends and Fiona, another member of the class, had a bottle of cheap champagne to shake and spray on anyone who got in her way.

"All this fuss now and our actual finals will be an anticlimax," Mary commented wryly to Evelyn as she sipped his prosecco from a plastic cup as they hung around the maid quad outside St Salvador's.

"We've got two years to get over this excess," he replied with a smile. "I think we'll cope!"

"We've finished we've finished we've finished! Down with Macbeth! Longest three hours of my life!" shouted Fiona, hugging everyone in sight. "Jannetta's for lunch, everyone?"

With murmuring agreement, the group began to make its way down North Street, Evelyn and Mary making up a rather staid rearguard. The sense of relief was enormous. The final exam might not have been a real priority for her when compared to Sybil's pregnancy but it had weighed on her mind all the same, almost as much as she had told Matthew it had. The realisation that it was actually over, that the academic year was to all intents and purposes ended, the long vacation begun, and that there would be no more work until September, made her feel light and free and filled with possibility.

They crowded into the cafe, ordered the usual round of sandwiches, paninis, cakes, and ice-cream sundaes and fell into small chattering groups, picking over the exam they had just done ("What the hell is peripeteia? Have we even done that?" "So obvious they would make us do a prac crit on that speech of Iago's!") and discussing summer holiday plans. Mary joined in for a while but her mind soon turned to other things. What was Matthew doing now? Was he thinking about her? Was he waiting for her to call? Or had he given up on her in disgust? Even as she talked, she had her iphone out on the table in front of her, restlessly entering the passcode, waiting for the screen to switch itself off again, before repeating the process again.

"Just text him," said Evelyn quietly. Mary glanced at him. "Whoever it is you're not texting, text them."

"You think?" she replied, before adding with a small smile, "It's Matthew. Should you be encouraging me?"

He shrugged. "Even if Matthew wasn't in the picture you still wouldn't go out with me so I don't see why not."

Mary raised her eyebrows at him but she unlocked the phone once more and opened up a new message. She hesitated but Evelyn was watching her surreptitiously over his ice-cream.

Exam over! Where are you? x

Almost immediately, a reply came back.

Well done! Did it go OK? I'm at the Sports Centre for cricket practice. Are you coming to find me? xxx

Mary's heart skipped a beat and she glanced around Jannetta's as if something there could provide the answer.

"Coming out tonight? Pre-drinks at mine! You two in?" exclaimed Fiona suddenly, appearing at Evelyn and Mary's table.

"Not me," said Mary. "I have – I have plans."

And just like that, her mind was made up for her.

Yes. Don't move! xxx

Wouldn't dream of it. So glad you're coming. xxx

She stood up and grabbed her handbag, made her excuses to her friends and set off through town, Matthew's texts and his desire to see her even after what she had said spurring her onwards. By the time she reached the sports centre, she was warm from anticipation as much as from her brisk pace. Another flurry of texts took Mary across the green parkland towards the cricket pitch and the sight of Matthew waiting for her, sitting on the steps of the pavilion, his practice having already finished.

He was one with the summer scene; white kit with grass stains on the knees, fair hair catching the sun, and tentative smile. He could have been the poster boy for some kind of nostalgic notion of what it meant to be British. He was beautiful and Mary's throat closed up with emotion. She walked slowly towards him, not letting her eyes leave his face. He stood up, she paused in front of him and brushed a strand of hair away from his forehead with trembling fingers.

"Mary...?"

Her heart expanded at the sound of his voice, questioning and unsure but so incredibly hopeful. Her lips curving into a fond smile, she leaned forwards, wound her arms round his neck, and kissed him deeply.

For a brief moment, she felt his surprise and uncertainty, then his arms were around her and he was kissing her back. At first, her heart pounding and her fingers twisting in his hair to pull him closer, she felt a panic that she needed to assure him of her feelings as quickly as possible, until his own insistent gentleness forced her to slow. There was no hurry. No need to rush through things. Nothing competing for their attention.

Smiling against his lips, she pulled back. "Come with me." She tugged on his hand.

"Where to?" he asked delightedly, pulling her back for another kiss.

"Home. And you're coming with me. Don't say you're not!"

"I want to. But, Mary-" He tugged on her hand and forced her to face him. "Wait. I want to apologise. On Sunday, I wasn't thinking. Of course I wasn't your top priority considering everything going on with Sybil and Anna and with an exam still to go and after I was so inconsiderate the night before. I shouldn't have pushed you."

Mary shook her head, even as she warmed to him for his goodness. "Don't apologise, Matthew. We were both wrong. Anyway, you're my top priority now. Is that good enough?"She raised her eyebrows.

His eyes glowed with appreciation. "It's more than I could have hoped for."

"Anna's not in till later, you know."

His smile became mischievous and her stomach fluttered and clenched with the onset of desire. "She isn't?"

"Not till much later!" She darted away from him across the grass with a laugh, hearing his answering laugh as he followed her.

When he caught her by the edge of the pitch and pulled her willingly back into his arms, he murmured between kisses, "This time's for you, sweetheart. It's going to be all for you."

And it was.

Lying in his arms afterwards, the only sounds in her room the ticking of the clock and their mingled breaths as they slowed, she reflected that their first time had changed things for good too: this time she had no longer been afraid.

Matthew was tracing patterns on her shoulder. "I'm glad you gave me another chance."

"Well, you know what they say about practice!"

His eyes gleamed. "I do indeed." He leaned over her, pressing her into the pillows as he kissed her lips and trailed kisses along her cheek and down her neck until she gasped and clutched at his shoulders, delicious tingles running up and down her body. She laughed, the sound huskier than usual and he pulled back a little way. "Should we do a lot of practising, do you think?"

Mary pretended to consider this. "We probably should." She tilted her chin up to rub her nose against his and laughed again as he aimed a bite at hers, pushing him until she was leaning over him, propped up on her elbow. His face was flushed and eager, adoration shining out of his eyes. Mary's expression softened visibly and her smile faded into something more serious. As if understanding the gradual shift in her mood, Matthew found her hand and entwined their fingers together, kissed her knuckle, and smiled up at her.

"I want to talk to you," she said, looking down at him.

"Alright. What about?"

Mary took a deep breath and stared out across her bedroom, tears suddenly prickling behind her eyes at the momentousness of what she was about to say.

"I want to tell you what happened in Thailand."


Chapter Text

"I want to tell you what happened in Thailand."

If Matthew had had any preconceptions about what Mary might want to talk to him about, it certainly wasn't this.

"Um, okay." When had she been to Thailand? He had some vague idea that it had come up once at some point, perhaps talking to Anna or one of her family members, but it couldn't have been a recent trip and he had absolutely no idea why she should want to bring it up now. He stroked her arm and smiled. "What happened in Thailand?"

She did not smile back nor did she reply for a moment either, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

Matthew frowned. "Hey, it's okay. You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to."

This made her blink. "No," she said, forcing herself to meet his eyes again. "I do have to tell you."

"Okay. Then... then tell me!"

Mary flopped back onto the pillow and stared at the ceiling. Matthew stroked his finger up and down her arm in a gentle pattern, waiting for her.

"I'll have to go quite a long way back, if you're going to understand any of it." She looked at him anxiously. "Do you mind? It could take a while."

"I'm not going anywhere."

She smiled, painfully, and it did not reach her eyes. "I could just tell you the facts. It would be quicker that way and you would probably think better of me if I did. But I want you to understand. There's no point if you don't understand."

"I'd like to understand too," he replied, more and more mystified and worried at where this was going.

"Well then." She wriggled to make herself comfortable and considered how to begin. Finally she said, "When I was a teenager, Matthew, I wasn't a very nice person."

He could not help the snort escaping and she glared at him.

"Sorry, sorry! Only – were any of us nice when we were teenagers?"

"You probably were. I wasn't. I was... I hope I wasn't a bully but I was definitely one of the mean girls." He didn't get the reference and she continued. "I saw being the most popular as my right and I liked to rule it over other girls. There were five of us who grew up together at Ken Girls; me, Cressida, Suyin, Bekki, and Georgie. We were the elite in both the social and academic hierarchy of the year – we won the most prizes, dominated the sports teams, sat on the committees and, of course, our parents held the most clout with the school because they donated the most money. Suyin's father, he owns most of Hong Kong or at least that's what it felt like, so he paid for a new gym and Olympic size swimming pool. My own parents, you know, created an Oxford scholarship for girls from KGS. I should have got the first one... but you know how well that turned out!"

She rolled her eyes but Matthew did not interrupt.

"Anyway, there we were, and very pleased with ourselves we were too! It went to our heads, of course, all this power and money. We had fake IDs, we went out every weekend to clubs and parties, we drank too much, we courted tabloid exposure – anything to prove how much more beautiful and popular and cool we were than anybody else." She sighed and turned to him, a slight frown on her face. "I wonder now why we did it, why that was so important to us. We had everything, every advantage in life, and yet we squandered it by behaving recklessly and without any kind of dignity."

"I think you're being very hard on yourself," said Matthew when she paused for breath. "Everyone rebels and does stupid things at that age, everyone has social drama at high school and you just had more opportunity to do it on a grander scale. You know," he grinned, trying to lighten the mood a bit, "I got myself and my friend Joe into an eighteen once when we were only sixteen. It was pretty hardcore."

"Did you enjoy the film?" She allowed herself to be momentarily distracted.

"Nah, it was gross and Joe actually threw up into his popcorn. But the point stands!"

"I suppose it does. Well, thank you for that, Matthew. I appreciate it." She squeezed his hand and kissed him lightly before lying back down and sighing as she returned to the past.

"It was through this party scene that I met Rashid. I had to have a boyfriend, you see, and he couldn't just be anyone. We were always trying to pull footballers or a minor member of the royal family – or Prince Harry. He would have been the ultimate catch!"

"You're serious?"

"Oh, perfectly serious. We were in the same clubs sometimes. You know my background, and Cressida's father is a viscount so it's hardly implausible. It was a game, Matthew, a stupid game. We all wanted boyfriends, we all wanted romance and, being who we were, we had to outdo each other either in the number of boys we caught or the quality."

"The quality?"

"I mean how famous they were or how rich. How good they'd look as our date to Ascot or Henley. How much social status they'd bring us if we married them. Anyway, I wasn't very good with boys."

"I highly doubt that!"

She laughed bitterly. "I wasn't though. I could attract them and I could flirt with them but as soon as they got too close I pulled away. I didn't know what to do. It seemed like all my friends found it easy to make out with boys in clubs when they were drunk and sleep with them but I didn't. I wanted to very much but I couldn't bring myself to. Naturally they got angry and lost interest and said I was leading them on and – and other things." She shrugged and blinked away sudden tears. "Can you understand it at all, Matthew? I wanted it and I didn't want it at the same time."

He slid his arms round her and pulled her close until her head was lying on his chest. "Of course I understand. You had scruples."

"I had something, I'm not sure it was scruples! You see, I wanted more than drunken fumbling with a stranger. I wanted to be wined and dined and to go dancing – proper dancing – and I wanted someone to whisper poetry in my ear... I wanted to be Lady Mary Crawley, something fitting who I was at home, the person I was so proud of. Something grand and romantic. But despite the expensive champagne and the VIP lounges, it was all so terribly common. Life wasn't a period drama even if you lived in Downton Abbey and I desperately wished it was. But at the same time, I wanted to know what sex was like as much as any sixteen year old and I didn't want to be outdone by my friends."

"Were they actually doing it like you thought they were? Because there were people at my school who pretended they were into all sorts of crazy stuff so people would think they were cool. But I think they just got half of it from porn and exaggerated the rest."

"I don't know," she replied thoughtfully. "To this day I don't know. Maybe. It definitely seemed like they were at the time and we were all very close. Then again, I lied too, because when Rashid and I started going out, we never got further than kissing and I told the others we did. I would have happily slept with him if he'd wanted to so when he told me he was gay, I was bitterly disappointed."

"I should think you were!"

"You'll say I should have broken up with him then but he was too good to throw over. I was in magazines, Matthew! We were being photographed whenever we were out together and that was something none of the rest of the girls had. They were all so jealous of me! I didn't want to give up Rashid even though we didn't really have a proper relationship and, until he decided he could no longer live a lie and decided to come out publicly, it worked for him too. Then he came out the beginning of my upper sixth year, the middle of university applications, and we had to break up. The media enjoyed that immensely."

"I can't imagine you did."

Mary tilted her head up to meet his eyes. "I learned an important lesson from it and that's all we'll say about that. They forgot about me soon enough."

"I don't like this Rashid. He treated you terribly!"

"Maybe at the end. But he really was a perfectly decent fake boyfriend and it wasn't his fault the tabloids were all over our break-up considering it had been a sham relationship in the first place."

"I'll take your word for it. I still think he treated you badly though."

She shrugged. "You can think that if you like. It won't make any difference."

"Well, what happened next?"

"Next?" She was fiddling with the ends of her hair and did not continue for a while. Matthew was patient, feeling that more was coming and that it was probably going to be worse than the public humiliation of being dumped during Year 13 university applications by one's gay boyfriend.

"Nothing happened next," she said eventually. "I didn't get into Oxford, I accepted my offer for St Andrews, worked hard – well, not very hard actually – for my four As and that was that for KGS."

"Good riddance?"

"No..." She thought about it. "It was a good school in many ways and I was too involved in it, too important a member of its community to see its flaws at the time. Ask Sybil and she'll tell you everything that's wrong with it but despite everything I was sad to leave."

"Poor Mary," murmured Matthew, hugging her. "You were queen of your castle."

"A temporary castle, perhaps. Anyway, that was school done. The five of us had spent our last year planning our gap year so that was next on our agenda."

She fell silent, still playing with the ends of her hair, so Matthew prompted her, "So that's when you went to Thailand?"

"Yes, we ended up in Thailand but we went all over first... We split it into two. In January we went off to Kenya to build an orphanage for a few months then for the second part we toured India a bit before doing Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and ending up in Thailand. The first part was the serious bit, how we justified the expense to our parents," she added with a wry smile. "After we had done enough good deeds to ensure us a clear conscience for at least five years, the rest of the trip was just an extended holiday."

"What was it like? There were people at my school who did gap years like that and I always wondered... They'd come back the following year and do an assembly about how meaningful it was and how it changed their life. Did it change your life?"

Even as he spoke, he realised it was a stupid question. If it hadn't, why were they even having this conversation?

Mary's lips quirked up. "We resisted change, you know. Kenya was very different to anything we knew before – it wasn't five star luxury, we had to do manual labour – and in blistering heat too, the food was strange and the people... the people were different. The poverty in the village where we were based was extraordinary. We were horribly unprepared for it and I'm not sure we did very well, culturally I mean. We did build the damn orphanage though!" She paused and frowned. "Georgie got on with it, she was always the most down to earth of us but she was also the most easily led so she could not persuade the rest of us to behave as sensibly as her."

"And you?" Matthew wished he could think otherwise of Mary, but he could easily see her standing in the dust in a designer dress and sunglasses not knowing what had hit her and demanding an ice cold drink or else.

She shook her head. "It got under my skin. It took me longer than Georgie but I was affected by the country and by the work we were doing, more than I let on. I became very uncomfortable with the attitude of the other girls. But you see, Matthew, we were a group and we only had each other; we couldn't split up. It was hard to go against the group because when I did the atmosphere got horrible – you know what girls being passive aggressive are like! and nobody enjoyed that. I wasn't as confident as I looked and Cressida wasn't as easy a target as Edith is."

"Oh, Mary..."

"No, don't say anything. I said I wanted to tell you what happened and that's what I'm doing." She raised her eyes to his and he saw determination in them, but also a fear she could not quite disguise. "It's your choice to stay and listen."

"I'm not going anywhere," he replied quietly.

"Well then," and she sounded pleased, "we were glad to leave Kenya when our tour of duty was completed. We assumed that when we were out of that situation our relationships would improve. Partying and drinking and sight-seeing was something far more familiar for all of us and we thought things would get back to normal. For a while they did."

"But?"

"India was lovely. India was the best part of the trip. We all made an effort to get on and the places we visited were just so interesting that it was impossible to get bored. India was the most cultural part of the tour which meant more to do than drinking and quarrelling. After India..." She sighed. "You know what they say about Laos and Thailand – about why people go to these places?"

"Sex and drugs? Only the other week there was an article in The Guardian about a place called Vang Vieng-"

"Oh yes, we went there. We spent three days there getting off our heads. It was the thing to do and anyway, this was the first experience of true freedom we'd had. No parents, nobody else we knew, no tabloids, we were overage and we had nothing to prove to anyone apart from each other. We weren't free, of course; we were forced into following specifically constructed rules as much there as we had been at home. I didn't like it, Matthew. I didn't enjoy being drunk all day, I didn't enjoy not being in control of what I was saying and doing, and I didn't want to take the drugs."

"Did the others?"

She shrugged. "I think so. Maybe. Cressida did – but she'd done cocaine a few times back home as well. Georgie took anything that was given to her – she was a wreck. Suyin gets really sick if she has too much to drink so she at least had to be careful. I'm not sure about Bekki. I wasn't so close to her by this point; she was very thick with Cressida."

"So what did you do?"

"I got drunk with the rest of them but I didn't take any drugs. But oh God, Matthew, it was so boring! We could have been exploring these fascinating countries and learning about their history and culture but instead we were fulfilling every negative gap year stereotype. And... And there was another thing."

"What was that?"

"Well, there was the drink and the drugs but there was also the sex. The others were keen to pick up boys in bars. Or if they weren't keen they pretended to be. You see, when I said we only had to prove ourselves to each other, that was quite a tall order. But I... My boyfriend had been gay! I hadn't – I was a virgin."

"Nothing wrong with that!" Matthew protested stoutly.

"There was though. It was holding me back and I hated being teased about it. They kept throwing boys at me and I'd go so far and then – but I didn't want my first time to be a drunken fumble with a stranger in a shed in Laos! But I didn't see how else I could manage it. Sometimes I tried to make some kind of meaningful connection with the men we met in the bars but you can imagine it wasn't a meaningful connection they were after. At any rate, this went on for months from one resort to another till I was about as tired and fed up of the other girls and the whole trip as it was possible to be."

"You could have just come home?"

"And concede defeat? Oh no, I couldn't have done that. Looking back, it seems such a waste that I should have been so obsessed with losing my virginity but I was. Every encounter became about it, every man we met was a potential pull, my friends would be watching everything and suggesting first one option or another. It was like a twisted Jane Austen novel."

"I have to say they don't sound like very good friends," Matthew couldn't help saying. Perhaps the popular girls at his school had been like this too but he had never spent any time with them. They had just been the popular girls, far out of his league.

A hard look came into Mary's voice that had not been there before. "They weren't. But they were all I had and I couldn't be objective. They had been my friends for about seven years after all."

"I understand. At least, I think I do." Matthew was not sure he did though. He had not had many friends at school but they had been good ones: Joe Molesley and Lizzie Hall who had become his first girlfriend, as well as a few others. Good, sympathetic people who had accepted who he was and had not tried to change him or pressure him into anything. Then again, he had never tried to be anything except himself.

"Thailand was the last stop of our tour, in June, before we came home and- Do you want a drink, Matthew?"

"A drink?"

"Yes. Some water or fruit juice or a cup of tea or-"

"I'm fine. Shall I get you something?"

"No, I'm – a glass of water, actually."

Matthew swung himself out of bed, put on his boxers, turned back to kiss Mary's forehead, before taking her water glass and filling it up in the bathroom. When he came back, she was sitting up against the pillows and had put on pyjamas. She took the water with a smile and patted the space beside her. He slipped back into bed and raised his eyebrows at her.

"I know why you asked for water, you know."

"Because I was thirsty?"

He smiled and pushed back a lock of hair from over her eyes. "Just say it, Mary. I promise you, whatever it is, I'll still be here."

"If it was a matter of just saying it don't you think I'd have done that half an hour ago?" She put the glass down on the bedside table and folded her hands in front of her, staring straight out. "Only two people know the rest of it – well, Edith knows a bit but that was an accident. I'm not..." She glanced at him. "I don't talk about it. I don't want you to talk about it. I'm telling you because I want you to know, but that's the end of it. Do you understand?"

"I understand," he replied, bewildered but serious. "If you don't want me to ever mention it again then I won't. But you're scaring me, Mary!"

"There's nothing to be scared of. It's just... Well, you'll see. Embarrassing mainly. Humiliating. As I said, Thailand was our last country and after we spent some time in the north at Chiang Mai and in Bangkok, we went to the islands for a week. We timed our departure to allow our last night to be after the full moon and we went to the island where they have the famous full moon parties so we could have one last blast before flying home. This was my last chance, Matthew. I knew it was coming and I had been building up to it. After months of prevaricating, months of pressure, I knew that if I was going to actually go all the way with someone it would have to be then. When we were back in England, the chance would be lost and I'd have failed – I'd have failed!"

"No," he murmured, putting his arm round her. "You wouldn't have failed. It's not a race, sweetheart! I, um, I didn't sleep with anyone till I was at university and not until I was in my second year at that. Lavinia was..." His mouth turned up ruefully at the corners. "Until you, it had just been Lavinia."

"Really? You see, I think that's rather charming but it wouldn't have counted for much back then. But don't distract me."

"Sorry. Go on."

"There's not much more to say. I made a decision – we'd argued only that morning and I was determined to show them I wasn't a coward or whatever it was I was trying to prove. I got very, very drunk, more drunk than I had ever got before or after and-" She glanced down, away from him, her fingers plucking at the edge of the duvet. "And then I woke up."

Matthew blinked. "You woke up? When?"

"The next morning. I was in my bed, if you can call it that, in the beach shack and the sun was streaming in and I was..." She stopped suddenly and chewed on her lip. Matthew found he did not want to question her.

"I was alone then... but I hadn't been." She glanced at him quickly and away. "I was naked, well, almost. And I felt – I knew – oh, god, Matthew, you know. It feels different afterwards."

"Yes," he said heavily, "it does."

"So I looked at my watch and it was late in the morning – so late! And our flight to Bangkok was leaving... I got dressed and ran outside, and they'd gone!"

"What!"

"Yes, their rooms were bare and they'd gone! My phone was out of battery but I plugged it in to charge and I just had a text from Bekki. It said something like, oh, I can't remember now, something silly about my clearly having a good time and not to forget about them. That was the previous night. Then there was one from Georgie saying that they had to go but assumed I would be following and one from Suyin saying they'd banged on my door but I wasn't replying so they'd assumed... I don't know what they assumed."

Matthew could hardly speak. "They left you on an island in Thailand? I can't – I just -"

She twisted her head away. "The last thing I said to them before I stalked off to take about five double shots was that I could do without them and do better than them as well. They probably thought that's what I was doing and maybe I was. I can't remember."

"You don't blame them? Mary, they-"

"I blame them," she snapped. "And that is why I haven't seen or talked to any of them in almost two years."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"

"It's not your fault. Anyway, once I realised they'd gone I knew I had to get to the airport so I stuffed everything into my bags and got out of there."

"How? Mary, you must have felt- I can't imagine how you must have felt."

"Yes, exactly. I cried and I threw money at everyone just so they would get me to the airport, I cried the whole time."

"But, sweetheart," said Matthew, as if only realising what he was saying, "you didn't remember anything? Nothing at all?"

"I remember being in the bar, I remember there being men crowding round me, buying me drinks – there were some Germans, an Australian or two, several Americans but then I- I don't remember."

"Did you remember later?"

She pressed her eyes shut a moment. "Give it up, Matthew. Do you think I haven't been asked that? By Mummy, by the useless therapist she made me see who was only interested in what I was wearing – a bikini and sunglasses if you must know, just like everyone else. I don't remember now and I never want to. What good will that do?"

"But you don't know what happened!"

She pushed him away suddenly. "There was a before and an after and what happened in the middle... Do I need to have it spelled out to me by my memory?"

"No, no I don't mean it like that. I'm sorry, Mary. Only, if you don't remember, if your mind has blocked it out so thoroughly, if you were drugged so that you remember nothing at all then there is no way anything you did was-"

"Don't say it," and there was a warning in her eyes that made him fall silent. "I know what you're thinking but don't, please don't."

"But-"

"I said don't!"

For a moment they were both silent, neither looking at each other. Matthew was not sure what to say. His lawyer's brain was filling in the gaps in her story with speed; laws and terminology, probabilities, comparable cases, and defences and counter-arguments flashing rapidly through his mind, but he did not think Mary wanted Matthew-the-lawyer at that moment. Matthew-the-young man, however, was out of his depth.

Mary spoke first, very quietly. "I don't want to remember because if I know for certain what happened then I think I would rather have been ignorant. There are certain... certain taints that it is impossible to ignore once they are labelled." She shifted to face him, her heart-shaped face pale in the growing gloom of the late afternoon. "I won't be turned into a victim to serve other people's interests in defining my own experiences."

For a long time Matthew looked at her and she looked back at him. He thought of many things he could say, things she had probably already heard from people who meant well or if not heard then thought herself, and eventually decided to say none of them. It was, after all, not his decision.

"Okay," he said eventually.

She blinked. "You're not going to... to tell me what happened as if you know better than me? To blame me because I put myself in that situation- though I hope you understand why I-"

"Blame you? I couldn't blame you when none of it was your fault."

"Some of it was. I behaved badly."

"Even if you did, that makes no difference! And for what it's worth, I don't think you were the one who behaved badly. Your so-called friends- how could they!"

She shrugged and did not reply. Then, gradually, she moved closer to him until her head rested on his chest, just under his shoulder. She was tentative, as if she expected him to reject her, but he did not.

"Poor Mary," he murmured into her hair, rubbing her arms with his hands. "There were things that I wondered about and I think I understand better now."

"I didn't have another boyfriend. There were a couple of boys last year I tried to date, but it never worked. It was very hard when I got home."

"What happened?"

"First of all, I couldn't get home. They found drugs in my bags at customs and I was detained. I suppose there had been plenty of time the previous night to plant them."

Matthew pushed himself up and stared at her. "What?" He could not have imagined how her story could possibly have got worse.

"Oh yes, Mummy had to fly out and deal with it herself - with one of the top lawyers in the country at her side. She's rich but it dented even her fortune, and I don't know how much else it cost her to keep it out of the papers- and for Daddy not to find out."

"But-" Matthew was not interested in the price of the lawyers. "You were in prison? In Thailand?"

"Yes, I'd rather not think about it. Bridget Jones it was not. No," she added when Matthew looked like he wanted to say more, "I really don't want to discuss it. Unfortunately I can remember everything that happened then, and I wish I couldn't. I will say though, because I've seen your anxiety over my response to Sybil's pregnancy, that there was a time before I returned to England and could see a doctor, when I was very afraid I might be pregnant. Stress can do strange things to- but you don't want to know those details. But I would have aborted it if I had been without any regrets. I think Sybil should do the same; she is too young to be a mother."

Matthew was silent but he held her more tightly. "But you did get back?" he said eventually.

"Yes, of course, and they were all told I had been ill. Edith found out about the prison somehow though and keeps threatening to use it against me to spoil my chances of inheriting Downton over her, but she hasn't done anything yet. I suppose she's clever enough to realise that nobody likes a tittle-tattle. It was a difficult summer, though, and I didn't come up here in the best frame of mind in the autumn."

"I'd have been astonished if you had."

"I didn't have any friends until I found Anna crying in her room on the corridor we shared one evening. Her grandmother had just died and she hadn't wanted to go out with the others. I hadn't been invited. She made me hot chocolate and we got talking." Mary smiled suddenly. "I don't know how it happened but I ended up telling her everything, just as I've told you. After that... it wasn't so bad."

"Good old Anna."

"I owe her everything," she said, serious again. "She is more my sister than my own sisters are. Anyway, now you know it all and I'll understand if you want to leave. I'm not an easy prospect, I'm aware of that, and I'm sorry for all the mixed messages, all the delay, and most of all I'm sorry for what happened in London." She glanced up at him. "I have not found this - us - easy, but I do want it. Very much. If you will have me."

"If I'll have you?" Matthew pushed himself onto his side so he was leaning over her, and brushed a lock of hair away from her face. "Mary..." His heart was too full to be able to say everything he wished he could communicate to her. "You are one of the bravest people I have ever met, one of the most truthful, one of the most admirable." He blinked, suddenly feeling tears spring to his eyes. She was staring up at him, looking as if she desperately wanted to believe him and not quite trusting herself to do so. "I am- I am so honoured by your confidence and you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to be sorry for. Nothing you could say would make me care for you less and if anyone has anything to apologise for, it's me for pushing you, for not understanding..."

"How could you have understood what you did not know?" She touched his cheek with her fingers, an unexpectedly tender act from her, and smiled painfully.

"Mary..." There was more that was welling up in his heart, emotions strong and overpowering, but he struggled to put them into words that would not overwhelm them both. Instead, he bent his head and folded her into the safety of his arms, pouring everything that he felt for her into his kiss. Sliding her arms out from where they were imprisoned between them and pulling him to her, she opened herself to him and relaxed.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four

Sybil was not in a frame of mind to be persuaded into anything, and yet by the end of the weekend in which she told her boyfriend and mother of her pregnancy, she found that she had agreed not to make any further decision until she had told her father. Much discussion had taken place between Tom and Sybil which had left her with very mixed feelings. On one hand, she resented being dictated to on what she should do with her own baby and a desire she knew to be spiteful to have an abortion simply as a declaration of her own autonomy. On the other hand, she acknowledged that as the father of the baby and her own beloved boyfriend, he did indeed have a right to some say in the future of their child. If there was to be a child at all. The window in which abortion would be available to her was closing up and she would have to decide quickly if the decision was not going to be taken out of her hands. It was very stressful.

Following Tom's friendly but firm ejection from the pretty, white house in Kensington, more discussion took place between her and her mother. Sybil loved her mother but had always seen her as rather useless. The pressures of her job, which she had never fully understood, meant that she was often absent at important moments and she rarely seemed fully on top of domestic matters in the country. Sometimes she also made amusing gaffs that showed she had not been brought up to aristocratic life and sometimes she said 'pants' when after this long in England she should have known to say 'trousers'. Sybil could be an exacting teenager and her mother was never quite modern enough or country enough to satisfy her expectations.

However, there was a reason Cora Crawley had maintained her hold over the multinational company she had inherited and her daughter began to discover it now. In a crisis, she could act with both discretion and authority. When needed for something more challenging than opening a village  flower show, she came into her own. Sybil was her very dear daughter and she would be on her side when needed, but she was also made to feel clearly that she was in a good deal of trouble and she needed advice.

"If you and Tom had come downstairs today and said you had decided absolutely on an abortion," she said that evening, "I would have booked your appointment today and held your hand through it all, but that is not what you have decided, is it?"

Sybil thought of Tom's face and shook her head.

This being the case, Cora insisted on Robert being told. "If you keep the baby then he must find out anyway and it will be better for you if you have involved him from the beginning. And if you do not keep the baby, that will be difficult too. You will need the support of people who love you."

She did not say it but she thought it and Sybil understood without being told that the decision to have an abortion could cost her her relationship with Tom. Not that Cora had much expectation of it lasting if she kept the baby either. Tom, she considered from what she had seen so far, was not very promising. Still, she had already seen one daughter suffer in private and she felt strongly that a second should not endure the same fate.

"Daddy won't support me," complained Sybil. "I'd be bringing disgrace on his precious Downton. He'll hate me."

"Your father loves you. Nothing you could do would ever change that."

But her words rang hollow and Sybil went to bed feeling persecuted on all sides. All she wanted was one person who would just support her unconditionally and did not have some kind of personal agenda to promote at her expense.

The following week brought her final two AS exams which she sat with the gloomy feeling of knowing she had certainly under-performed. Would she even be returning to KGS in the autumn? She disliked the school on principle and in other circumstances would have rejoiced at leaving early but she could not help quailing at the thought of the kind of gossip that would surround her departure in that manner. After all, teen pregnancy was hardly something the hallowed halls and pristine ethos of Kensington Girls' School would wish to advertise.

There was a week remaining of study leave before the lower sixth formers were required to return to school to start their A2 courses and there was no reason for Sybil not to spend that week in Yorkshire. "Tell your father!" insisted her mother as she put her on the train at King's Cross.

Edith was home as well, her second year exams having just finished and it seemed she had not wanted to stay for the end of year balls and festivities that followed. Sybil hardly saw her, however, for she remained closeted in her bedroom with her laptop and only emerged to get food.

The day after she arrived back, the crunch came and the earl shut the kitchen door after breakfast with a definitive click and demanded to know what the matter was. Sybil had been awake half the night debating what to do. If she did not tell her father, would Mummy? If she did tell him, what would he say? How could she tell him? And how on earth was she to decide about the abortion when the absolute deadline to make such a decision was approaching relentlessly and she felt just as scared and conflicted as she ever had been? She had thrown up again that morning and afterwards had slid down onto the bathroom floor, sobbing. "This is your fault," she had muttered, poking her abdomen before feeling, irrationally, that she shouldn't have done it. She had hugged herself and cried some while longer until she had found the strength to clean up after herself so that nobody would suspect. It was hard to keep a secret like this.

The act of telling him was a relief. The anger and disappointment she could see appear on his face as she told him, however, was not easy to bear. He did not say anything for a while, nor did he look at her.

Finally, still looking down at his desk, he spoke heavily into the silence. "I have never been more disappointed in a member of my family than I am now in you, Sybil."

She said nothing. It was easier not to.

"But are you sure?" he blustered moments later. "Quite sure? I mean, I understand that sometimes... A woman's cycle can be..."

"Oh yes," she cried, to spare them both the embarrassment. "By several months."

"Several months! My god. And... And your mother knows? Mary knows? You tell your poor sister who hasn't the least idea how to deal with this sort of thing and you didn't tell me?"

"I told Mary because I thought she would help me. And she did."

"She hasn't helped you very much if you are still pregnant."

"Meaning what?" Sybil's voice rose.

"Meaning that there is absolutely no way you are keeping this baby!" His voice rose too. "This sort of thing does not happen to people like us! It would be a disgrace! We would be the laughing stock of all society! Crawleys do not-"

"Maybe," said Sybil and she felt a kind of icy calm settle over her, "I don't want to be a Crawley any more. Maybe I don't give a fuck about society and honour-"

"Language, Sybil!"

"And maybe I want this baby because if there's one person who does not get a say in what I do about this, about my baby, it's you!"

"You don't know what you're saying. You can't possibly."

Quite unconscious that she was doing it, her hand covered her stomach. "Actually, I do. I know exactly what I'm saying. I want out. I want out of all this crap. Downton Abbey and society and honour, whatever the fuck that means, and trying to control my life! I want Tom! And I want this fucking baby!"

Her father stared at her, his expression setting into a line of resigned disapproval. "We'll talk about this later. You're very emotional."

Sybil opened her mouth to object, saw that it would be useless, so span round and left the room.

The stairs in the hall were near the kitchen and as Sybil looked up, she saw her sister Edith standing half way up holding an empty cereal bowl. They looked at each other warily.

"How much did you hear?"

Edith didn't meet her eyes. "Enough."

"Right." She did not know what to say, how to explain herself. She could not anticipate how Edith would react.

"Do you want to get out of here?"

Sybil's eyes darted up in surprise. "Oh yes!"

"C'mon then!"

Edith ran down the last few stairs, dumped the cereal bowl and grabbed the car keys from the hall table and her jacket from a hook.

"Can I drive?" asked Sybil. At least that way she would get to be in control of something.

"Till the end of the drive if you like, but I'm not twenty-one so legally I can't-"

"Whatever, give me the keys."

They did not speak again till long after they had reached the end of Downton land and Sybil had swapped places back into the passenger seat.

"So you're pregnant," said Edith eventually, as they approached the outskirts of Downton village. "That's different."

Sybil almost laughed. "I guess that's one way of putting it!"

"Who's the father?"

"He's called Tom. He's really cool!" she added defensively. "He plays in a band and works in a garage."

"Well, I can see why Daddy doesn't like the sound of him."

"Yeah." Sybil still felt subdued. She was still struggling to make sense of what had happened this morning.

Edith parked the car up on the curb on the village green and turned off the engine. "What do you want to do?"

Sybil shrugged. "Anything that Daddy would disapprove of."

"Chips on the swings?"

Sybil looked at her sister with a sudden rush of affection. Edith had never quite got over her teenage moodiness and, compared to the rest of the family, kept herself to herself. Unlike Mary, who radiated big sister confidence, she would not have gone to Edith with a problem. And yet here she was, the most accepting of them all.

"Sounds a plan."

However, it was too early in the day for the pub to be serving food and the chippy wasn't open yet. They settled for a tube of Pringles and cans of coke from the post office, before heading down to the playing fields where there was a small children's play area. The fields were deserted apart from an old man with his dog over by the far goal posts. Edith and Sybil took a swing each, looped their arms round the chains and swung gently back and forth, passing the Pringles between them.

"Remember when we used to come here and play at being chavs?" said Sybil. "Pretty cringe."

"And everyone knew we weren't. Then those boys from Ripon Grammar chucked stones at us and there was such a row because Daddy's a governor."

"Good times!" The sisters grinned at each other.

Edith shook her head. "What have you done now, Sybil? Like, what have you actually done?"

"Well." Sybil took a swig of coke and stared across the field. "I had sex and now I'm going to have a baby and I think Daddy might cut me off."

"He always comes round eventually."

"Maybe not this time, Edie. It's the old dishonour on you, dishonour on your cow thing he loves so much but this is way worse than dying my hair in the school colours."

Edith didn't reply for a moment and Sybil had just opened her mouth to say that she didn't care about family honour anyway, when she said, "You sure you want to have the baby, Sybs? I mean, do you know anything, anything at all about bringing up children?"

"Not a thing. But, you know what... Oh god!" She covered her face and laughed.

"What?"

"I'm going to do it. I'm going to have this baby!"

She could not say when she had made up her mind in the end. Perhaps it had partly been Tom's feelings which were important even if she didn't care for his pseudo-Catholic reasoning, perhaps it had been her father's objections striking a chord of defiance, perhaps it was some biological change within her prompting her to accept the baby. Maybe they were not good reasons and it was possible she would regret her choice but she felt a kind of joy and exhilaration simply at having decided and she grinned in elation at her sister.

"I'm having a baby! I'm going to be a mum!" The idea was absolutely ludicrous but saying it out loud made it seem real. Sybil smoothed her shirt down over her stomach and looked down. "Hello!" she muttered and blushed, glancing at her sister and feeling self-conscious.

"Congratulations, I guess." Edith had never looked more sceptical and even a bit freaked out.

Sybil glared at her. "You're going to be an aunt."

"Yeah, I didn't think that would happen for a while. And then I assumed Mary would be the first. You know, in her desperate effort to secure the succession for herself." She shook her head. "That's a dumb reason to have a baby."

"More dumb than what I'm doing?"

Edith grinned and pushed Sybil's swing. "It's Mary so of course it's dumb."

Sybil twisted her mouth a moment in thought. "She's going out with Matthew now, you know," she said tentatively.

Edith shrugged and didn't reply. Eventually she sighed and complained, "Why do nice boys always go for mean girls?"

"Mary's not that mean. And Matthew makes her nicer."

Her sister stared at her incredulously. "I'll believe that when I see it! Oh well, she'll just have another thing to crow over me now."

"I don't think she cares, Edie. Not enough to crow."

"No. I guess she doesn't care."

They swung gently back and forwards in silence for another few minutes, lost in their own thoughts.

"Want to go on into York?" Edith suggested eventually. "We can go shopping and I'll treat you to high tea at Betty's."

Sybil was not sure she felt like shopping; what was the point of buying clothes which wouldn't fit her for long anyway? Still, she recognised the kindness behind her sister's offer and she agreed quickly. She did not want to go home anytime soon.

*

Up in Scotland, Mary accepted Sybil's decision to keep the baby with equanimity.

"Everything will change, of course," she said to Matthew and Anna over dinner. "There's no use pretending a baby in the family won't change things but we'll just have to deal with it. Even Daddy."

"How's he taking it?" Anna asked. Now that the decision had been made, Mary had been allowed to tell her which was a great relief.

She shrugged. "Not well. They're not on speaking terms from what Sybil says but he hasn't cut her off or done anything drastic yet. Probably because that would involve actually talking to her."

"Poor Sybil. At least she has you and Lady Grantham and Tom. I think she'll be a good mum though."

Mary raised her eyebrows. "You think so? She's a spoilt seventeen year old with no concept of responsibility whose hobbies include going to amateur rock concerts and social justice blogging. Personally I'm not sure how that translates into ideal motherhood."

"Necessity is the mother of invention, sweetheart," put in Matthew. "I don't know your sister well but she seems a strong, determined person. I don't mean that it'll be easy for her but I think she'll succeed."

Mary squeezed his hand. "With champions like you, how could she fail?"

"You remember how I told you my mother left when I was little?" She nodded. "She never really got over my father's death. I don't know. Anyway, she left. She chose her moment well because Isobel was just eighteen and so legally able to take responsibility for me. So Isobel was still a teenager, she'd got offers to study medicine from everywhere she applied, she was popular, hard working, driven. And her mum walked out on her and left her with a six year old kid to look after. She had a choice. She could have put university on hold and got a job immediately in McDonalds to support us or she could have put me in care or dumped me with Aunt Harriet and attempted to pursue her dreams anyway. But she rejected that decision. She took up her place at Manchester University so we didn't have to move, she got a part time job while studying and she did both. She looked after me and she became a doctor. And now, she's still in debt and she doesn't own her own house yet and she's never had a boyfriend, but you know what? She did it. She did it all. And she never let anyone say she couldn't." Matthew smiled and cleared his throat as he realised how long he had been speaking for. "I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you never really know what people are capable of until they're tested. I think Sybil will be okay."

Mary leaned forward and kissed him on the lips, her hand remaining pressed against his cheek as she pulled back. "I think you're okay."

Term was winding down in St Andrews as exams ended. Anna and Mary had a pair of tickets to the summer ball and there was a brief moment of awkwardness when they wondered who should give up their ticket to allow the other to go with her boyfriend. Friendship triumphed in the end. Matthew claimed he didn't care about balls and Anna and John's relationship was going through a tricky patch thanks to his former wife continuing to remain in the area.

"We're not breaking up," Anna insisted, "definitely not. We're just... not seeing each other so frequently while John sorts this mess out."

So the girls went together and had a lovely evening without any romance getting in the way.

Without lectures or exams to keep them tied to the university, Matthew and Mary were able to spend their time really getting to know each other. They took long walks on the beach, played at being tourists round the castle and ruined abbey and ate out in different restaurants until Matthew grew anxious about the expense and decided to teach Mary to cook instead. She was a distracting pupil but neither minded very much if dinner was delayed or completely forgotten about. It was a golden period for both of them since they were very much aware that their relationship would not be so easy to manage the following academic year. Matthew would be starting his job in Edinburgh at the beginning of September and they would only be able to see each other at weekends.

"Therefore we must make the most of the summer," Mary stated one day when they were out in Edinburgh looking round flats. "You will have to come to Downton."

"You will have to come to Manchester," he countered, raising his eyebrows.

She laughed. "Very well, I shall! But wouldn't you rather spend the summer in the countryside?"

Matthew had to admit he would and accepted her generous invitation with pleasure. Suddenly he grabbed her arm.

"What is it?"

He lowered his voice and stare over her shoulder. They were outside an estate agent's on a busy shopping street but he could have sworn...

"I think someone took a photo of us."

Mary whipped her head round but couldn't see anything. "Probably a tourist."

"Probably." But he wasn't convinced and he kept looking over his shoulder for the rest of the day.

They returned to St Andrews that evening with the lease signed on a one-bedroom flat not far from a bus stop that would get Matthew to work within half an hour.

"Almost unbearably poky," was how Mary described it to Anna while Matthew was on the phone to his sister, "but I suppose that's what you get if you're going for such low rent."

While Mary was in the shower, Anna asked Matthew what he thought. He replied, "A jolly decent find in a nice area, but a bit on the pricey side for what I'll be earning."

Anna concealed a smile.

Chapter Text

Term was over in St Andrews. The exams were long finished and the results published, the Summer Ball had seen in the dawn over the harbour and the town was soon full of the cars of parents arriving to pick up their children for the long summer vacation. Unlike the previous year, when Charles Carson had driven all the way up to Scotland to collect Mary and Anna who had spent part of her summer at Downton Abbey, this year neither girl was so quick to leave. Anna did not intend to leave until August when she would spend a few weeks with her parents and then come to Downton to help Mary prepare for her birthday party which was going to take place at the end of August. Until then, she would stay in St Andrews at John Bates' side, prepared to fight for him or submit to a break up, depending on what he arranged with his estranged wife. Mary thought she was a fool but a few words from Matthew persuaded her to hold her tongue more than she would otherwise have done. It was Anna's life after all

Mary also lingered a little longer in Scotland. Now that Matthew had found a place to live in Edinburgh, she stayed to help him move in and to assist with the inevitable trips to IKEA to furnish the flat. By the time they left for England together, Mary still felt the place looked overly bare and clinical - she could not imagine Matthew actually living in it - but he assured her that it would soon become a home, especially when she visited at weekends.

"I'm glad you don't think the distance will be a problem," he said to her and Mary didn't mention it but she knew he was thinking of Lavinia.

"What distance?" she protested. "What's an hour on the train? We'll see each other every weekend either in St Andrews or Edinburgh, and if it's a light work week and I don't have morning lectures I can come midweek as well."

However, she wondered if light work weeks would be a thing of the past in her third year. She had passed her second year exams well, better than she had expected considering everything else that had been going on in the meantime, though her Shakespeare paper had suffered somewhat. Still, Honours level was a step up and the inclusion of a dissertation would be a new challenge. Professor Carlisle had accepted her as a student and before the end of term had already emailed her a long list of reading he expected her to do over the summer. Mary's suitcase, when she finally made it onto the train south, was weighed down with feminist literary theory and critical studies of Henry James.

The Crawleys had been delighted when they had heard that Matthew and Mary were going out and an open invitation to spend as much of the summer with them as he liked had been issued. Matthew did not mind much where he spent his summer provided Mary was with him, so he accepted invitations to the Abbey and to accompany the family on their summer holiday to the south of France. "In for a penny, in for a pound," he told himself, for he was a little afraid of Mary's aristocratic family, Sybil excepted.

The whole summer could not be spent in Yorkshire though, for he would not neglect his sister even for new love and he insisted Mary came with him. It was only fair, if he was going to be with her family the rest of the time. Nervous as he was about going abroad with an earl and countess, he was equally nervous about showing the earl's daughter his sister's two bedroom flat in Chorlton, a short tram ride away from the centre of Manchester. He felt a kind of pride and inverse snobbery about his own life that amused Mary when she perceived it and much as she wanted to make gentle fun about the small size of the rooms and the lack of place to keep a horse, she held herself back.

Isobel was very kind to her though both Mary and Matthew perceived a slight restraint that diminished throughout the week she spent with them. "She got on well with Lavinia," Matthew explained to her one night, which did not altogether help.

If Matthew had been curious to see Mary's rooms in both London and at Downton, Mary was equally curious to see his in Manchester. It was small, with only just enough room for a double bed, chest of drawers, bursting wardrobe and small desk. A dusty Manchester City scarf hung over the frame of an abstract painting above the bed and toy cars and fire engines were stacked under the desk along with large volumes of classical scholarship left over from his Oxford degree. On the window sill and stuck higgledy piggledy onto the wardrobe doors were photos of him and Isobel over the years - together on a ride at Alton Towers, on Blackpool Pier, at the summit of a mountain in what looked like Wales, at her graduation from Manchester, at his from Oxford. There were some of him and Lavinia too which he quickly swept up and shoved in a drawer when Mary came in.

"None of you parents?" she wondered out loud, sitting down on his bed.

He flung himself down next to her, sprawling on the bed and staring up at her from under a shock of fair hair. "My mother walked out on me when I was a child. It doesn't make me want to keep mementos. But here's one of my dad and Isobel."

Mary studied it. George Crawley was wearing the flare trousers of the 70s and sported a thick moustache to go with his bushy brown hair. He was balancing a baby on his hip. Mary laughed. "Daddy looked the same back then - you should see his beard!"

"Ridiculous, isn't it?" Matthew agreed, also laughing, though he looked at the photo wistfully.

He gave her another one, this time of him as a grinning child with floppy hair and chubby cheeks being embraced by a fierce, older woman who looked a good deal like his sister. "Aunt Harriet," he explained. "She didn't take me in but I spent most of my school holidays with her to give Isobel a break."

"I see she indoctrinated you early," Mary commented with raised eyebrows, pointing at the large red Labour rosette pinned to young Matthew's coat.

"She's an MP; that's kind of her job!" he replied with a grin. As he spoke, he remembered how they first met at the Labour versus Conservative debate in the spring and his gaze softened as he looked at her, his hand trailing gently down her back until she forgot the photos and curled down next to him.

"You do have a family, you know, Matthew," she murmured some time later.

"I know. Aunt Harriet and Isobel. I'm lucky really because I couldn't ask for a more loving aunt or sister."

She raised herself onto one elbow. "No. I meant me. You have me too." She bit her lip, her words sounding awkward to her own ear as they often did when she was saying anything of any significance.

The look that Matthew gave her then was so powerful that she was obliged to continue quickly with, "And Sybil and Mummy and Daddy, even Edith if you want her - we have the same name so we might as well be family."

"I love you too, Mary," he replied and kissed her fiercely before she could make any sort of reply.

*

Downton Abbey, when they arrived there in mid-July, was full of tension. Sybil had not been thrown out altogether, for the last thing the earl wanted was a public scandal making its way into the tabloid papers, but she was barely on speaking terms with her father or her grandmother, once her pregnancy had become general knowledge within the family. Not that that stopped the dowager countess from coming to dinner just as regularly as she had before and airing her opinions just as freely. Sybil was now in her second trimester and while the nausea she had suffered from had disappeared, she was now unable to hide the bump very easily, despite the loose clothing she wore, and had headaches and occasional indigestion to contend with as well. The summer holidays had given her an excuse not to see or talk to any of her school friends, for she did not know what to say to them, so she was glad of the prospect of Mary and Matthew's arrival to give her some company other than Edith, judgemental relations and the tuts and states of the villagers in Downton who knew exactly who she was and how old she was too.

The very morning they arrived, Lord Grantham had earlier summoned Sybil to his study. She came with bad grace and slumped in the deep leather chair at her father's desk while she waited for him to come.

The earl was carrying a sheaf of papers and followed by a small man with white hair and a beer belly underneath his suit whom Sybil recognised as her father's lawyer from York, Mr. Murray. She glared up at them.

"Sorry for not getting up," she said. "I'm pregnant."

Lord Grantham rolled his eyes, sat down opposite her and looked very seriously across the desk.

"Well, Sybil, I know you find it difficult to think beyond the next hour of your life-"

"Oh my God, Daddy."

"-but some of us must think about the future. You have decided to have this baby and as such it will be part of the Crawley family and your parents will have to get used to that fact. But there is one area of this unfortunate business I doubt you have considered and that is the inheritance of Downton."

Sybil pulled herself up into a more suitable sitting position. "What?"

"Mr. Murray, if you wouldn't mind explaining?"

The lawyer coughed and came forward. "As per the revised conditions of the entail, as established in 19-"

Sybil interrupted, "I'm sorry, Mr. Murray, but I don't give a shit about legal history."

"This is your history, your family's history!" cried her father repressively. "Forgive her, Murray, she's very hormonal at the moment."

Sybil had plenty to say to that but being constantly bad-tempered was tiring and she was a little bit curious about what the lawyer had to say.

The lawyer cleared his throat and continued, after a glance at the earl. Sybil crossed her arms over her chest to make it even more obvious she did not want to be there.

“I shall try to keep this brief. Since the revised entail, it has been possible not for direct female descendants to inherit the title unfortunately, but for the title to pass through a direct female descendant rather than going into abeyance if a male heir can’t be found.”

“So? I already know this.”

“So the point is this, Lady Sybil. At present, your unborn child, if male, stands to inherit the title of Earl of Grantham, pending approval from your father and the agreement of your sisters. Or he may be passed over, again pending agreement and approval from the rest of your family.”

“Mary will never agree to that,” pointed out Sybil. “Nor Edith, for that matter.”

“That would be a matter of discussion between you and your sisters and would be ratified legally on a later occasion after the child’s birth. What I am here today to discuss,” – another glance at Lord Grantham – “is the possibility of your child, if male, not being in line to inherit anything at all.”

Sybil raised her eyebrows and looked at her father.

“You told me that you weren’t interested in Downton, in inheriting anything. And I agree with you. The next Earl of Grantham will not be the illegitimate offspring of an Irish car mechanic!”

“Fine,” said Sybil, who just wanted to get out of there. “Whatever. I don’t want my child to be an earl either!” She pushed herself forwards in the deep leather chair. “My child is going to have a normal life without all this aristocratic crap we’ve been subjected to.”

Her father drew in a breath and for a moment she thought he might exploded. Mr. Murray even took a step backwards. However, his shoulders fell and he passed a hand across his face. Sybil thought her father looked tired all of a sudden and the light seemed to catch on his grey hairs that she had not noticed before. Still, she was too angry to care.

“Then I can’t believe you will have any objection to signing these documents.” He passed a wad of formal looking sheets across the desk.

“None whatsoever,” said Sybil and grabbed a pen.

She skimmed the text. There was her name next to the phrase “relinquishing the rights” followed by three pages of things she was apparently relinquishing rights to, most of which were things she had not been aware she had rights to in the first place. She got to the bottom, signed her name with a flourish, flung down the pen and leaned back. Her father glanced at her with sadness, but she was staring straight ahead and did not see, slowly signed underneath and then Murray signed as a witness. It was done.

“That’s all?” cried Sybil, standing up. “I can go?”

“That’s all,” said her father. “Sybil-”

But she was already out of the room.

When Matthew and Mary arrived a few hours later, Sybil dragged them outside to explain what happened.

“I feel lighter,” she said, when they were sitting down on the grass in the small, private garden that was not open to visitors. “I mean, I don’t know what will happen and that’s worrying… I guess… but at least I don’t need to worry about my kid turning into someone like Daddy.”

“You mean someone like me, someone like you even, Sybil,” pointed out Mary. “For all you like to rebel, you’re as much a product of your upbringing as I am.”

“Yes, but at least I can change. I want my baby to grow up like a normal human being in a house with parents who work and go to a normal school and-”

“And we didn’t? Sybil, come on. We were brought up in a house and our parents work and we went to a perfectly normal school-”

“An exam factory that charges over £7000 per term? Mary, that’s not normal! Right, Matthew?”

His head shot up. He had been examining the grass, trying to find a four leafed clover, and keeping out of a discussion he still felt had nothing to do with him. “Uh, well, your school fees were about the same as my sister’s total income when I was growing up so...” He trailed off. “I suppose it’s normal for a certain kind of person.”

“Don’t let’s quarrel about it!” cried Mary with a flash of a smile and she wriggled her shoulders as she often did when she wanted to avoid an uncomfortable topic. She had had a sudden vision into the future of what would happen if she and Matthew stayed together. She would send her children to private school as a matter of course but what if Matthew objected? She was not sure in that moment, if he could ever be brought around to the life she took for granted.

“I’m glad you signed the document, Sybil, if it’s what you really wanted. You were never going to want your children to inherit anything anyway.”

Sybil smiled. “No, it would always have come down to you and Edith fighting it out.”

After what he considered an unhelpful contribution, Matthew had been silent and thoughtful. Now, as a pause stretched out, he spoke again. “Look, I don’t want to stir anything up that shouldn’t be stirred, but what’s the big deal? You and Edith are fighting over who is the mother of the next earl, right? When surely you can’t guarantee you’ll have children at all or when… I’m sorry, but what’s the advantage of being an earl? I know it’s important to you, Mary, I do, but what I don’t know is why.”

Sybil flopped onto her back. “You answer him, Mary. It’s none of my business now, thank God!”

“Oh Matthew…” Mary sighed. If it were anyone else she would be tempted to be sarcastic, but it was Matthew and she supposed he was trying. “It’s not so much about what an earl does as what it means symbolically. My father works harder than you might think actually – he sits on boards of charities, schools and hospitals; he still owns most of Downton village and therefore has a duty passed down to him from his father and his father before him to be a good landlord and to protect the countryside. Since the house is now owned by the National Trust he does not have so many responsibilities there compared to previous earls but he does work very closely with Elsie, the house manager, to protect its legacy and find strategies for making the house and our family still relevant in the twenty-first century.”

“Downton chutney,” put in Sybil, squinting up at the sky. “Carols from Downton. Lady Grantham’s Cookbook. My Lord and My Lady matching tea towels. Hiring out the main staircase for perfume commercials. Life changing legacies like that.”

“Well, the estate has to make money somehow! Matthew, it’s – it’s our family.” She held out her hand for him to take and squeeze. “We used to be important once upon a time and we still are in a little way. We’re important to the people who live in this part of Yorkshire and to the many people employed on the estate. Isn’t that worth something?”

“Yes, of course it is.” He did squeeze her hand and while he felt as if he understood more about why being an earl was important to Lord Grantham but he still felt unsure as to why it mattered so much to Mary. She wasn’t even going to be the countess! She was so clever and talented and had so many advantages in life; why was she so fixed on the idea of being the chatelaine of a great estate her family did not even still own? He supposed at this stage in their relationship when he still did not know her that well, he would just have to simply accept that it was important to her.

*

Only a few days after Matthew and Mary came up from Manchester, the whole family was due to set off for the South of France. Aunt Rosamund turned up a day before, not because she was also going to France but in order to take the dowager countess up to Scotland for her annual visit to her niece Susan and her family.

“Susan used to be married to the Marquess of Flintshire,” explained Mary to Matthew on the way down to breakfast. “Very messy divorce but she got a beautiful house with twenty acres and half custody of the children out of it. They’re all coming to my party in August so you’ll get the pleasure of meeting them then.”

“Is Rosamund staying in Scotland too?” asked Matthew, ignoring the sarcasm.

Mary laughed. “Definitely not – she can’t stand any of them. She delivers Granny up to the cousins and then jets off somewhere much more exciting on her own.”

Over breakfast it turned out that this year Rosamund was going to Ontario.

“But why?” asked Cora plaintively behind the coffee pot. “Last year you went to Cuba and the year before was safari in the Serengeti with that very odd woman, I forget her name... What’s so special about Toronto?”

“I have never been to that part of Canada. That seems as good a reason as any” replied Rosamund with dignity. “And may I remind you that you are going to the South of France for your holidays this year which is hardly the most exciting destination these days.”

“It’s my fault,” put in Sybil, unnecessarily loudly. “Mummy doesn’t want me to fly in my delicate condition.”

“Nothing wrong with the south of France!” protested Robert. “Wonderful vineyards near the villa we’re renting. It may not be the other side of the world but you can’t go wrong with a couple of weeks in Provence.”

“On that note…” began Cora and she sounded sufficiently sheepish that everyone turned to look at her.

“What have you done now?” said Rosamund with muted glee.

“Robert, everyone, we’re taking an extra person to France.”

“Anna!” cried Mary hopefully, even though she knew perfectly well Anna was still in St Andrews.

“Uncle Harry’s coming!” suggested Edith.

“I’m afraid neither. Robert, you’re going to be angry but I really am quite determined. Sybil, I’ve invited Tom to join us on holiday and he’s said he’ll come for the first week. He’s your boyfriend as Matthew is Mary’s and he’s going to be the father of my first grandchild. Like it or not and I can’t say I do like it much, he’s part of this family now.”

There was an uproar. Only Sybil, who sat perfectly still at the table with a growing look of delight on her face, and Matthew, who wanted to keep out of it, did not take part in the hubbub around them as the point was debated back and forth. 

“You know,” said Matthew during a lull in an attempt to provide a distraction, “my father’s family is originally from Toronto." 

Nobody was interested. Tom Branson coming on holiday was of far greater importance. The conflict only ended when Sybil, with tears in her eyes, went over to her mother, put her arms round her and murmured a heart-felt, “Thank you.”

After such a beginning, the holiday to France went much better than might be expected. Only Edith and Robert were upset: Edith because she felt like a constant third wheel and Robert because he didn’t want to share his space with Tom or for that matter with Sybil. Fortunately for the former, the villa had excellent Wi-Fi so Edith could ignore the bright sunshine and swimming pool in favour of messaging online with her fake friends, as Mary put it. And fortunately for the latter, the villa was large enough for Tom and Lord Grantham to keep out of each other’s way as much as possible.

They drove down in two cars which meant the young people always had transport when they needed to get away and both Edith and Mary were insured to drive. Tom volunteered as well but the suggestion was met by a deafening silence. The countess had been right to include him, however. His presence made Sybil less irritable and deflected her irritation when she was and he got on well enough with Edith and Matthew. In fact, Matthew found himself really appreciative of Tom. They were both outsiders in a way and while Matthew was desperately trying to fit in, Tom was much more open about how odd the whole Crawley family was. They would sit together by the pool or in pleasant cafes drinking beer and trying to make sense of this alternate universe of wealth and status which they had fallen into while the girls went off shopping in one or other of the fashionable Mediterranean resort towns nearby.

“I’m just a guy who mends cars and plays in a band!” Tom would say as if nothing further needed to be explained.

Matthew would reply, “I’m just a trainee lawyer from Manchester.”

“I’ve never been abroad before. Just Ireland and England. And I went to Wales once to watch the rugby.”

“I’ve been abroad but never like this.” He was thinking of the four bedroom villa with its private swimming pool and hot tub surrounded by patio lights, a barbeque and the whirring of cicadas in the warm evening air.

They’d look at each other, shrug, and order another beer.

Mary remained suspicious of Tom. Mainly, she was suspicious of his growing influence over Sybil. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t like him if he wasn’t her boyfriend,” she explained one evening to Matthew when they were alone in their room. “Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even speak to him. But it makes it difficult to like him when we can’t seem to get rid of him and there’s going to be a baby in the picture. You see, he’s never going to fit in and the best thing they can do is break up sooner rather than later. He’s not one of us.”

“And what about me? Aren’t I an outsider too?” Matthew wanted to know, trying not to feel offended.

She rolled her eyes. “Darling, he makes you look like the heir to a dukedom!”

This was a sufficiently funny image that Matthew had to laugh and forget that by this point in the holiday they had almost quarrelled about this several times.

By the time Tom had to go back to work at the end of the first week, some reparation had been made. Thanks to being stuck in the same place together, Robert and Sybil were on tentative speaking terms and Matthew, Tom and Edith had made friends.

“I have to thank you for making this easier,” Sybil said to Matthew one day by the pool after Tom had left. “You’re like the bridge between him and them. You’re not as bad as he is in my parents’ eyes but you’re not as bad as they are in his. You’re a half-way house.”

Matthew laughed as his eyes fell on Mary coming out of the house looking stunning in a bikini, over-sized sunhat and large sunglasses and flip-flopping her way towards them, incongruously carrying a copy of The Madwoman in the Attic. She raised her hand and waved at them and Matthew felt himself smile helplessly back at her. Surrounded by Crawleys on all sides, he felt as if with only a little bit more practice he really could fully integrate himself and that at least he ought to try, whatever the outcome. For Mary, he would do anything.

“Thanks. I think,” he replied to Sybil and she laughed and nudged him with her shoulder, just as a real friend or a sister would.