A/N: And now for something entirely different! This story was inspired by a thread on the DA forums imagining what our characters would be like in the 21st century. I got intrigued by the background I created for Mary and it spiralled from there. I should point out here that I have no idea where I'm going with this - I'm just playing with the ideas and the scenario and I have no overarching plot planned, though I do have some vague ideas of how to continue. I may abandon it when it loses interest but not, I hope, without some kind of resolution. This is not Consolation Prize! (which you should totally check out if you haven't *plug plug self publicity plug*) I hope this doesn't put you off reading and enjoying the world, but I wanted you to know this in advance.
This is not a retelling of DA in modern times. I've borrowed freely from different things in the series and twisted them to fit a modern setting. What's really interesting (to me as I write it) is how different things make the characters react in similar ways to how they did in the past. So, you'll see an example of this at the end of the chapter. Obviously Mary can't resent Matthew for inheriting Downton instead of her, but there are other things that can produce the same effect. The one debt of gratitude I owe here is to Bespectacled for stealing from her wonderful modern AU stories (which you should DEFINTELY read) the idea of Mary and Anna sharing a flat. I'm pretty sure the rest of this is original...
A/B and S/B shippers: there's hardly anything for you in this chapter and the focus will be M/M, but the ideas I do actually have for this story will include some A/B and S/B!
Finally, if you enjoy my writing, please do vote for me in the Highclere Awards! (Sorry for the shameless self-promotion; not sure how else to get the word out about it!)
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.
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?"
"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?"
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.