Author: lilabut PM
"Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea." - A tragic incident forces Sybil and Tom to return to Downton, but they soon realize that safety is not all that makes one feel secure.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Drama - Sybil C. & T. Branson - Chapters: 11 - Words: 80,239 - Reviews: 94 - Favs: 42 - Follows: 46 - Updated: 10-05-12 - Published: 05-18-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8127829
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
Stretching out his legs under the heavy duvet, Tom could not keep his hands still any less, smoothing his palms over the smooth, silky fabric, so cool in comparison to the heat that seemed to radiate from its other side.
"What's the matter?" Sybil asked as she stepped away from the dressing table, her nightdress flowing around her as softly as mist, and Tom could not keep his eyes off her as she slipped under the duvet next to him, her pale features illuminated by the dim glow of the small lamps on the bedside tables.
"The bed is so soft," Tom replied quietly, pushing his bare feet deeply into the mattress. He wondered how anyone could find this comfortable, while the feeling of being swallowed by the mattress reminded him of nothing more than quicksand, or what he imagined it must feel like.
"They all are."
The bed gave in a little as Sybil climbed fully under the duvet, pulling it up against her body, the soft tendrils of her hair falling over her shoulder in a much more sophisticated braid than she usually wore to bed.
"This is so strange," Tom said with a voice so quiet that he wondered if Sybil had even heard him when she remained silent for a few moments. He could not quite tell why he felt so intimidated by the vastness of the room, even more evident now that he sat in bed, surrounded by the room fully. For a moment, Tom felt reminded of the feeling of stepping into a church - the sudden respect, the sudden urge to not utter a word, the serene but almost frightening silence.
"What is?" Sybil asked, kneading a thick, white lotion into the palms of her hands, the smell reminding Tom of summer, of fields of green and long, warm nights that would never fully be disrupted by darkness.
"Laying here, when you spent all those nights I was laying awake in my cottage thinking about you right here," he explained, his memory replaying all those years of sleepless nights in which he had wondered, waited and wished, "And now we're here together."
"What were you thinking about?" Sybil asked, her voice as much a whisper as Tom's had been moments ago, although so much softer and gentler. She leaned slightly on her side, resting her now shining hands against the duvet, her head slightly cocked to one side as she looked at Tom. A mellow smile fluttered across her lips.
He reached out, trailing his fingers against her hands absent-mindedly.
"You. Everything about you. Whether you would ever think I could be good enough for you."
Sybil took a strong hold of his wandering hand, wrapping it up in both of hers. The palms of her hand were even softer than usual, so much warmer than they could ever be in the coldness of their bedroom in Dublin. Tom felt utterly conflicted, a sudden guilt creeping up his spine that he could not keep his wife warmer and safer, while he could not suppress the longing to feel her hands glide up his arms, wrapping around his neck and resting against his face, to feel her more fully, to be closer to her. Always closer.
"I never doubted that for one second, Tom," Sybil insisted, and Tom needed a second to remember his own words and give her reply a meaning, his mind so distracted by her soft fingers brushing ever so slightly against the back of his hand.
"It's what I told myself, anyway," he muttered, feeling the echo of the dull ache in his chest that had robbed him of his sleep for such an agonizingly long time. It had been a while since he had fully recalled how much pain her hesitancy had caused him, how many waking hours he had considered leaving it all behind to protect himself, to not give her a chance to break his heart.
"Well, we're here now, that is what matters," Sybil said defiantly, Tom's response being a mere faint smile as he took in the dark lines around her eyes.
"You look so tired."
"We should go to sleep, then."
He pulled his hand out of Sybil's soft grasp, shuffling around under the duvet a little more, desperate but unable to find a more comfortable position.
"We should," Sybil agreed, resting her head against the headboard as she watched Tom carefully, "Are you feeling alright?"
"Of course, why wouldn't I?"
"Tonight, it must have been a lot to take in."
Tom sighed at her words, leaning his own head against the headboard. Knowing that he would only find the worry on Sybil's face that he regretted so much having caused against his will, his eyes wandered across the shadows cast against the closed curtains, not a flicker of moonlight shining through.
No matter how many times he had cursed it, all of a sudden he longed for the too-small curtains in their small bedroom in Dublin, the moonlight and flickers of street lights never quite allowing full darkness to take over the room. The complete barricade that was formed by these curtains made him feel trapped, not a tiniest hint that a world outside of these walls even existed or was allowed to break through.
"Well, since nobody seemed to really take notice of me, I should think everything went better than we feared, don't you agree?" he finally replied, the past few hours replaying in his mind piece by piece. He had been truly grateful to be ignored for the most part of the evening, to only be addressed a few times and to be largely kept out of conversations that he had no means to keep up.
Mr. Carson had offered him not a single glance, and Tom was sure it was not his meticulous attention to the progressing of the dinner that had caused the dismissal of Tom's presence. He had been utterly grateful that he had never met the new footmen, for the mere idea of being served dinner by Thomas seemed so far-fetched that it was nearly hilarious.
It had been during dinner, everyone else busy with conversation and his own name only falling a few times, that Tom had realized how very little contact he would have with his former colleagues. For the first time, it had truly dawned on him how everything that kept the house running happened between closed doors, in the dark of the night and the early hours of the morning, in the absence of anyone's presence, in scattered minutes that could be spared.
He had no more business in the kitchen, in the servant's hall. He did not know either of the new footmen, and apart from them, only Mr. Carson seemed to really be present in the charade he had felt himself being sucked into. Briefly, he had seen Anna as she had stepped into Sybil's bedroom, their bedroom, to assist Sybil getting ready for dinner. Kind Anna, who had offered him a bright smile and a compassionate nod. Who else was there for him to cross paths with? Perhaps Mrs. Hughes, he wondered, losing himself in his thoughts.
"I'm so sorry," Sybil whispered, her voice so sincere that it almost overwhelmed Tom. He turned to look at her, prepared for the worry, but not the unexplainable guilt he found in the dark pools of her eyes.
"Darling, nothing happened," he sighed, reaching out to reclaim his hold on Sybil's warm hands, "Your father did not try to stab me with the fish knife, everything is fine."
She laughed softly, not as much as he loved so dearly, but just enough to make him feel like he accomplished at least a little.
"That is true. But he... Tom, I don't think he'll ever come around," she continued, and Tom understood exactly whom she meant. Her father's blunt ignorance of their presence had been edging around the lines of being rude, and Tom could not imagine what Sybil must feel like, being treated as such by her father, "He didn't look at me for one second, and he was so... cold. I've never seen him like that before. He doesn't want you here, and he doesn't want me here, either."
It hurt to admit it to himself, but Tom found no words to say in this moment. There was no point in pretending that her father had not been acting in complete ignorance, and he felt no confidence in making promises he knew he could definitely not keep this time around. The tiny flicker of hope he still had, it was what urged him to rest his arm around Sybil's shoulders and pull her gently against him.
The moment her head came to rest against his chest, she seemed to relax, her palms pressing softly against his stomach.
"I'm so glad that Matthew was being so kind to you," she murmured sleepily, and Tom felt anger surging inside of him at her father for keeping her mind so occupied when she should be resting.
He nodded, recalling Matthew being the one to address him a few times during dinner, asking him questions that he actually felt confident answering, including him in conversations he actually understood, unlike chatter and gossip about people he had never heard of and long, exhausting sharing of ideas for the wedding.
"He was," he agreed, trailing his hand up and down Sybil's back," He has always been very kind. I still recall that night you got injured at the count."
The memory was as clear as day, as if it had been burned into his mind like a scar, never fully healing. Those cruel moments of fear, not for his job, not for himself, but for the young woman with so much passion and so much to live for, the woman he, in that moment, understood he could love if the world were a different place. It had taken him a while, months, perhaps years, and the spark that Sybil added to all his dreams and ambitions to make him hope that that world might be on the horizon, that he could love her in spite all of the reasons why he should not.
"When I took him back into the village that night, he told me that you were just fine, and he told me that if your father knew what was best for him, my position should be a safe one," he continued, thinking back to that seemingly endless drive through the night, his hands trembling against the wheel, "Although I never quite understood what he meant, he wouldn't tell."
"I threatened to run away if he fired you," Sybil explained, and Tom, as confused as he was, cherished that he could hear the smile in her words.
"You did?" he asked, suddenly imagining the younger Sybil he had known standing up to her father because of the chauffeur, "Why on Earth would you do that?"
"Because none of it was your fault, I tricked you into taking me there. I couldn't have lived with myself knowing you lost your position because of me."
"Where would you have run off to?" he asked quietly, his imagination running wild, fed with memories of promises to stay until she changed her mind, with glimpses of stealing his employer's car and driving through the dark night up North.
"Who knows. I hit my head, remember? Maybe I was being a little delusional," Sybil explained, laughing softly, and Tom joined in as her body rocked gently against his.
"You two are quite alike, actually," Sybil murmured as her laughter had died down, readjusting her head against his chest, breathing steadily alongside him.
"Matthew and I?"
"We are?" Tom asked, failing to see any resemblance between Matthew Crawley and himself. He liked him, yes; he had always liked him, much more than other members of the family. Never, though, had he seen any significant similarities between them.
"Yes. When he first came here, after James and Patrick died, nobody really wanted him here. He was the new heir, the man to take away what everyone believed should go to Mary one day, and he simply did not fit in. This was not his world."
"He didn't drive your father about, though," Tom chuckled, moving a stray curl of Sybil's hair away from her cheek.
"No, he didn't. But still. In certain ways, you are very alike."
"More in what happened to us," Tom mused, for the first time really letting the fact sink in that Matthew had not been born the heir to all this, but had become so through other men's misfortune.
"Oh, so I happened to you?" Sybil chuckled, propping her chin against his breast bone to look up at him, the smirk on her face reflecting his own.
For a moment, he listened to the clear sound of her laughter, before he gently pressed his fingertips against her plump lips.
"You are the best thing that ever happened to me," he whispered, leaning to replace his fingers with his lips, softly pressing them against hers. Sybil sighed as they parted, and she snuggled closer against his side.
"At least Granny wasn't being too forward."
"I was surprised," Tom confessed, having been prepared for much more of the Dowager Countess' commentaries. However, she, too, had not paid much attention to him at all, every now and then throwing him a stern look when Sybil had to discretely help him with the dinner procession.
"I suppose we should be grateful that the wedding gave everyone enough to talk about. Let's not assume that she'll be this peaceful for much longer," Sybil went on, the mixture of annoyance and defeat in her voice ruining whatever lighter mood had finally settled around them earlier.
"I will try to be prepared."
"As odd as it may sound, I truly think she likes you."
"The chauffeur marrying her youngest grandchild?" Tom asked with a chuckle, surprised by the sincerity behind Sybil's words.
"No, not that part," she began to explain, her fingers beginning to trail over his ribcage, "But she very easily dislikes people. She may not approve of you, but I believe she is quite alright with who you are. She'll never want you as my husband. Or as a part of the family that she will have to explain to everyone. But, truly, she does not despise you."
"I'll take that as a compliment, then."
"Never forget it, no matter what she says," Sybil murmured, the mocking emphasis and theatrics in her voice causing Tom to chuckle.
"I must apologize for my mother. I have no idea what she is trying to achieve with all this sudden enthusiasm," Sybil went on, shaking her head slightly while it still rested against Tom's chest.
"Be glad," he said quietly, once more unsure of what to say to her.
"I simply don't trust it," she stated, "The only explanation I have is that she is trying to make herself accept the situation by pretending that she already has."
"Maybe she has."
"Even if she has, it makes me so furious that she is taking over everything – even the nursery. Shouldn't we wait a little longer before we start worrying about that?"
"Would you have waited if we had moved into a new flat?" Tom asked tentatively, not wanting to enrage Sybil by making her believe he was on her mother's side.
"Don't make me feel bad for being angry with her," Sybil warned him, but he could hear the slight hint of mockery in her voice, "I'm just scared that she's taking over my life again."
"She won't. Only if you let her."
"I feel like I'm walking on such a thin line," she went on, despair in her voice, the movement of her fingers against his chest ceasing slowly, "They're allowing us to stay here, and I am grateful for that. But at the same time I feel so ungrateful because we have only been here for a few hours and already I am refusing them."
"You've had a very different life for the last year, and you are tired. Not just from the travel, but everything that has happened lately. They can't chain you to this life like they might have once. Don't be scared. And don't blame yourself, or them. Let's just take this one day at a time."
Tom kept his voice low, soothing, once again picking up his habit of gently stroking her back. The two of them fell into silence after that, only their breathing between them, and he began to wonder if she had fallen asleep just as her tired voice mumbled against his chest once more.
"Edith's question made me wonder."
"Hmm?" Tom hummed, trying to recall what Sybil was talking about.
"We haven't discussed any names at all."
He remembered then, the flicker of realization he had felt himself when his sister-in-law had brought up the subject. It was true; they had not given a single thought about naming their child.
"There's no rush," he claimed, suddenly not sure why they had not discussed this before, "But if you want to, we always can."
Sybil nodded, and for a moment, Tom's thoughts wandered back to the moment on the ferry, standing in the wind with the smell of the sea filling his nostrils. The moment he had felt their child move, live, underneath Sybil's skin for the very first time. There was no rush to find a name, but now that he considered it truly for the first time, he wondered if they could ever find a name beautiful enough for their child, meaningful enough for their child, completely and utterly worthy of the miracle that was the baby sleeping inside of the woman he loved so much.
"I wonder what makes me so sure it will b a girl?" Sybil wondered after a few moments of silence.
"I'm wouldn't know," Tom whispered truthfully, unable to explain how he felt about this, why he himself kept seeing a little dark haired girl with Sybil's deep and thoughtful eyes, wise beyond her years, whenever he really imagined what it would be like to have a child of his own.
"Would it bother you very much?" Sybil asked, and her voice dropping slightly as she turned to look up at him.
"If it's not a boy."
"It wouldn't bother me at all, darling," Tom reassured her, resting his palm against her cheek, "Don't you worry about that for one second. Of course the prospect of having a son is extraordinary, but so is that of having a daughter. This is our child, Sybil. That is all that matters."
He leaned down to kiss her briefly, the press of his lips harder than intended, and he relished in the soft hum in the back of Sybil's throat.
"I want our child to have an Irish name, Tom," she whispered breathlessly against his lips as they parted, skin still damp, each other's touch lingering.
He would not have insisted on it. No. Not when Sybil was the one who, in a few months time, would have to give birth to their child. Still, to hear her say this meant more to Tom than he could really put into words, so instead, he smiled lovingly at his wife, his thumb brushing along her cheekbone.
"Yes," Sybil replied in a whisper, leaning further into his touch, "We will go back. It's our home. I want to raise our child there, and I want him or her to fit in, to really belong there, despite being the grandchild of an English earl. I do not want our child to face the same troubles I have. I want a better world, and a better life, I want our child to truly belong, Tom."
"I love you," Tom whispered, releasing his chaste hold on Sybil's face to allow her to snuggle against him even tighter, their legs intertwining as she rested her head in the crook of his neck.
"You will have to help me out," she murmured against his skin, sending an unnerving rush of goosebumps and shivers down his spine.
"The name, of course."
"Now?" Tom asked, feeling his eyelids becoming heavier and heavier, pulled down by invisible weights of iron with every breath he took.
"We don't need to decide now, silly. But I'd love to hear a name or two. Just to see what we are looking for," Sybil explained, despite the exhausted slur in her voice sounding so excited that Tom could not refuse her.
His mind began to race as he recalled friends and family members, colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances, their names and faces melting into one big blur instead of standing out crystal-clear.
"Well, I'm not really an expert when it comes to that," he admitted, suddenly feeling terribly insecure. Should he have researched this? Should he have been more prepared? Should he be aware the meaning behind every name known to mankind?
"But you must know a few names."
"Tell me," Sybil urged him on softly, her soft lips pressing against his temple as she leaned back to look at him in anticipation.
"There's Maire," he whispered, merely naming the first name that came into his mind.
"Sounds a lot like Maera, don't you think?"
"That's true," he admitted, trying hard to concentrate despite the exhaustion that seemed to spread through his veins like a disease, "And I believe it has the same origin as Mary."
Sybil chuckled, sifting her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck.
"I love my sister, but I am not sure how much she would appreciate that reference."
It was Tom's turn to chuckle. The prospect of Lady Mary Crawley's face upon learning that her youngest sister and her Irish chauffeur of a husband had practically named their first born child after her was one he would rather not put to the test.
"What does it mean?" Sybil asked quietly as their laughter had died down, her voice calm, softened by the waking hours they had seen lately.
"I'm not sure. I think I heard somewhere once that it has something to do with the sea, but I can't be sure of that."
For a few moments, they were both completely silent, and Tom was sure Sybil could hear the rush of the waves just as clearly as he could, could see the glistering of the horizon as the sun shone down upon the restless surface of the sea.
"It sounds too much like Maera," Sybil finally decided, the determination behind her words making it clear that it was simply not an option. Too similar. The mere thought re-opened wounds that had had no proper time to heal yet.
"It does," Tom agreed, a different name suddenly popping up in his memory, "There's Darcie."
"Like Mr. Darcy?" Sybil giggled, and Tom smiled down at her.
"It's spelled differently," he explained, a surge of gratefulness washing over him that despite everything that had happened, this part of Sybil had not been lost along the way. The part of Sybil that shocked her family in a pair of bright blue trousers, "It means dark."
"Isn't that a little sinister?"
"Probably," Tom murmured, the young, dark-haired girl wandering through his mind again, "There's Enda."
"Hmm. I think it might be connected to ean."
"What does that mean?" Sybil asked, somehow wonderment lingering in her voice.
"I like that," she whispered, her eyes suddenly out of focus, almost in a daze, "I always wanted to be a bird when I was a child. They're free, free to go wherever they want."
"You went where you wanted," Tom murmured, leaning into the warmth that radiated from her body, "Maybe you turned out to become what you wanted."
Sybil nudged her nose against his face, her hands wrapped tightly around his neck, and when she began to trail a line of feather-light kisses along his jaw, Tom found himself caught between exhaustion, and the pure devotion that filled him so completely.
"Is there another?" she whispered huskily, resting one of her hands on his shoulder to steady herself.
"Not any that would stand out. Nothing that would mean something. But as I said, I'm not an expert when it comes to names."
"What does freedom mean in Gaelic?"
Her question came so suddenly, so determinedly that Tom wondered if it had lingered on her tongue for longer than just the last few minutes they had spent having this discussion. There seemed to be a story behind it, a long process of a growing idea in her mind and the sudden urge to simply and bluntly free herself of each syllable.
"Why do you want to know?"
"I want a name with a meaning, and I liked Enda. The birds, the freedom that they embody. But what does freedom itself mean?"
"Saoirse," Tom answered, plainly at first. It was not the first time he had translated things for her, and he was sure it would not be the last time. For a moment, it meant nothing to him, until a flash of black ink and the smell of freshly printed paper ripped through his memory, "I've heard it being used as a name."
"Saoirse," Sybil repeated quietly, the word sounding different coming from her lips, not quite the way it was intended, a bit bumpier but softer at the same time, "I like that."
Tom said nothing, simply watching Sybil as she stared into nothingness, her lips still slightly parted. Hearing the word coming from her lips, he felt as though it would fit. The little girl in from his imagination, she seemed to embody freedom more than anything he could hope and aim for in this world.
"If it's a boy, do you want to name him after your father?"
Sybil's words were hesitant, the topic of fathers seemingly loaded with burden these days. Looking down at the pale skin of Sybil's arm, Tom thought for a moment, relying on the handful of memories of his father that he had left.
"No," he finally said, his determination only slightly, only barely clouded by the hint of his bad conscious.
"Why not?" Sybil asked carefully,.
"I don't really have many memories of him, but I know he was a good man. It seems like bad luck, though. He died so young."
The conversation seemed to have reached an end, Sybil's whisper barely audible as she rested her head back against Tom's shoulder.
"I can write to my mother. We'll find a name."
"Can we wait for the baby to be born before we decide?" she asked sleepily, sighing as Tom rested his palm against her belly, "I would like to see him or her before we decide on a name."
"Of course," Tom whispered, kissing the top of her head, the even rise and fall of her chest telling him that she had already fallen asleep, "Good night."
The preparations for the wedding proved to be the ideal circumstance for Sybil and Tom to dare their return to Downton.
Nobody seemed to waste a thought on anything else, every conversation dominated by guest lists and flowers, menus and music, decorations and arrangements, appointments and frocks, schedules and the seemingly endless list of things that still needed to be done.
Sybil and Tom felt different kinds of relief overcome them during the first few days that seemed to pass much quicker than anticipated, the rush and bustle of the big house and everyone in it so on edge and preparing for the big event always holding some task, some distraction, some straw to make the clock move faster.
For Sybil, it meant that she could always find something to do to fill the empty hours, a helping hand for her mother with the flower arrangements here, or a look over the menu there, or a walk in the rare spring sunlight with her sisters to discuss lace and cream and silk.
For Tom, it meant that there were dozens of things happening all around the house that drew everybody's attention away from him, that required everybody's focus on so many other subjects and matters rather than making life a whole lot harder for him.
Instead of the long and tiring arguments with his in-laws that Tom had expected and silently accepted, he now spent his time wandering around the long, dark corridors of Downton that he had so rarely seen, only ever just a glimpse of what lay behind those doors, all the secret and all the past lives that had been lived there. He found himself oddly fascinated by the history that appeared to be seeping out of each crack in the stones, a history he found himself too insulted by, a history so speckled with blood and pain and injustice.
Sybil made no secret out of her surprise that the two of them were not locked away with a tray in their room whenever there were other guests joining the family for dinner. With the wedding only a few weeks away, the house seemed to be invaded by guests, relatives and acquaintances causing a rush about dinner parties.
On these occasions, Tom was introduced as Sybil's husband, and the conversation quickly steered into a different direction, all attention meticulously driven away from the young Irish husband that nobody seemed to be able to place. Whenever a curious question did pop up, Robert was quick to interrupt, and Violet at the ready to give a quick, blurry answer that was never quite a lie and never quite the truth.
Moving his hands out of the pockets of his trousers, Tom opened the door to their bedroom, his neck stiff from another night of restless sleep.
Stepping into the room, flooded with the grey, lifeless light provided by the cloud-covered sky, Tom stopped in his tracks as he saw Sybil and Anna standing in front of the wardrobe.
"Oh, forgive me," he apologized, making a move to turn back around, "I'll come back later."
"No, it's alright," Sybil told him, stepping away from Anna, smoothing her hands over the dark blue fabric of her coat, "We're done."
Tom shut the white door behind him, his eyes following Anna as she collected Sybil's nightdress and dressing gown, carefully draping them over her lower arm.
"Thank you, Anna," Sybil said with a kind smile, taking a blue hat from the back of a chair, twirling it in her gloved fingers.
Anna nodded, making her way to the door. Tom stepped aside, making room for the one colleague he had always felt most comfortable around, most welcomed and accepted by.
"Anna?" Sybil called as Anna wrapped her fingers around the door knob, "I'm sure it'll all turn out right."
Sybil's voice was kind and caring, a reassuring and soft smile on her lips that was as far away from joy as the tears she had quietly shed the night before, the frustration of her father's rejection finally taking its toll on her. Tom had held her against him, helplessly listening to her quiet sobs, humming against her temple, fingers intertwined tightly with hers.
"Thank you, Milady," Anna replied, her voice much quieter and unsteady than usual. Tom took a closer look at her, unsettled by the glassy look in her kind eyes.
With a last polite nod in Tom's direction, Anna stepped out of the room and into the empty corridor, quietly closing the door behind her.
"What was that all about?" Tom asked curiously as Sybil secured the plain hat on her head, her hair as meticulous as he had not seen it during the months they had lived in Dublin, not even on the day of their wedding, when her sisters had helped her.
"Bates is not in the best health," she explained, her heavy sigh matching the exasperation on her face, "She's afraid if they won't get him out of prison soon, he might take a turn for the worse. I feel so dreadfully sorry for them."
"It's terrible," Tom agreed, stepping over the Sybil to softly draw her in for a kiss. The dark cloud of Bates' uncertain fate had lingered ever since they had arrived, not quite able to overcast the happiness and excitement caused by the anticipation of the wedding, but with enough impact to keep reminding everyone that nothing lasts and nothing in life was certain.
"When will you be back?" he asked, remembering now that today was Sybil's appointment for a dress fitting along with her mother and sisters.
"You know how long those dreadful fittings last, and it's the four of us going. We probably won't be back in time for luncheon," Sybil replied, looking around in search for her bag, which hung from the side of the bed, blue and green embroidery against the rich cream of the duvet.
"So it's only your father and me?" he asked, his insides suddenly seeming to twitch and tumble at the thought of spending time alone with his father-in-law in one room, in the presence of knives and other sharp objects. He was not afraid of her father, no. Neither did he feel as intimidated by him as he could sense would be appropriate. Nevertheless, being ignored and ignoring him in return had worked out more than well for over a week now, and to change that state of semi-peace seemed like a rather reckless venture.
"You can ask for a tray, nobody is going to question that," Sybil reassured him, opening her bag, rummaging through the small space with her fingertips.
"Least of all your father," Tom muttered, already wondering if he could last until dinner with only the biscuit jar on the mantel piece, resenting the idea of ordering someone to prepare a tray for him alone. What would it sound like downstairs, when the former chauffeur ordered a tray for luncheon?
Sybil sighed at his hushed words, and she sat down on the edge of the bed, carelessly dumping her bag into her lap. Realizing his unfortunate choice of words, Tom walked over to her, sinking down onto the too soft mattress by her side.
"It'll be alright," he reassured her, resting his palm flat against her back.
"I hope so."
"I think it makes you look terribly pale," Mary commented matter-of-factly, only really side glancing at Edith, who was wrapped in pale yellow silk. The skirt was too long, the sleeves too wide, and the embroidery lining the shoulders stood out much alike the spikes of an untrimmed hedge.
Mary's blatant disinterest in her sister's possible new frock was no change, no sensation, and neither was the way she seemed so utterly indulged in the pieces of fabric that were neatly placed on the small table in front of her. Silk and velvet, lace and cotton.
Sybil took in Edith as she stood in front of the large mirror, the back of the dress held together by one of Madame Swann's assistants, the dress beautiful in itself, but unflattering on her sister.
"I agree," Cora said in reply to Mary, standing up from her plush chair to inspect a different angle of the dress, "The last one suited you much better, darling."
"But don't you think it looked too much like Sybil's?" Edith asked, looking intently at her reflection in the tall mirror.
"Not at all," Cora reassured her, apparently having firmly decided that the pale yellow dress was not an option, as she sat back down.
"I could always wear the purple one, it was quite comfortable," Sybil commented, seeing the uncertainty in Edith's eyes that had become too familiar over the course of their lives. To attend their oldest sister's wedding in a frock that looked too much alike that of her younger sister, in the circumstances they were under, seemed to equalize disaster in Edith's eyes. Sybil was the one whose husband caused so many raised eyebrows and questions, Sybil was the one expecting a baby and having come to visit from her new home abroad, from a country that seemed to slip into war more and more with each passing day.
Sybil could see in Edith's eyes that she was comparing herself once more, seeing nothing as exiting in her life as Sybil's life seemed to burst with. To wear a similar dress meant to be swallowed by the crowds of people whose attention she so often longed for.
"Nonsense, the blue one was perfect for you," Mary commented, picking up a pale peach-coloured stripe of silk, running her bare fingers along the shiny, smooth surface.
"The last one was the right one for you. It suited you. You look as pale as a ghost in this one," their
mother continued, smiling kindly at Edith.
"I suppose," Edith said rather quietly, nodding at the assistant to indicate that she would be taking the dress off. Following the small, elderly woman into the small dressing room, Edith cast one last glance into the mirror, a glance Sybil did not miss. She felt so dreadfully sorry for her sister, all her insecurities and feelings of not being accepted, not being noticed, amplified by the glorious shine cast upon their world by Mary's wedding. Mary, who had always stolen her thunder. Mary. Mary. Always Mary.
Sybil had felt quite guilty over the last weeks, knowing that her situation, her unaccepted marriage, uncertain future and pregnancy were drawing much attention onto herself, once more away from Edith.
Sir Anthony Strallan had been a more than frequent dinner guest, however, and Sybil could feel so much love and joy for her older sister whenever she saw the radiating happiness in her eyes, an emotion she had so rarely seen on Edith, and did not connect with her at all.
"Mary, dear, have you given any more thought about the veil?"Cora asked as Mary put down the peach silk, apparently unimpressed, but the smile on her face at their mother's words undoubtedly that of a happy bride.
"I have," she confirmed, turning away from the table with fabric pieces to face Cora.
Sybil could not hear what Mary's words were after that, her eyes fixed on her sister's pale face, the bright, almost carefree smile so utterly new and fresh. It was the only difference to the past that Sybil could detect, so subtle, yet so beautiful, but at the same time gut-wrenchingly painful.
The last two hours spent dressing and undressing, holding fabric against fabric, sipping tea and discussing colours, shapes and embroidery, hats, jewels and shoes – it had all been the same, almost an exact duplicate of the many, many hours spent in this small, warm, brightly lit room with the red-carpeted floor, large mirror and plush chairs.
It seemed as if nothing at all had changed, as if the past year had never happened, and none of the changes it had brought taken place. Their mother's enthusiastic, yet critical last word in her daughter's choices, Mary's proud demeanour, always certain of what she wanted and what enhanced her beauty; Edith's quiet resentment of Mary's apparent superiority, her longing glances into the mirror, aching with unfulfilled wishes and prayers.
They treated Sybil exactly how they had always done, and nobody would have thought of her failed elopement, of revelations in the drawing room that almost tore the family apart, or of the husband that now needed to have a tray in their bedroom because her own father could not overcome his pride long enough to spend a short amount of time in his company.
Perhaps, Sybil wondered, she was forced to take a glimpse at what her life could have been like. For it made no difference in this moment. Had her husband been the spouse her family would have wanted for her, this dress fitting would have gone along no differently. The only difference would have been the honesty in that case, and the lingering veil of pretences in this moment, in reality.
She tried her hardest to recall a time when these hours spent with her mother and sisters used to be so special, so exciting, utterly thrilling and wonderful for her. Back then, when her world had been so small and limited, that new frocks were the only excitement allowed in it. It made her sad these days, to think of that young and naïve girl that she had been forced to grow into, the girl that had first met Tom on the way to this very place, and had returned with the first step into a future that was not bright, but so brightly lit with possibilities and opportunities.
The frocks were still beautiful, and to slip back into a embroidered gown, to feel the silk float around her legs and the light cream-coloured sleeves encasing her arms had still felt extraordinary. Still, Sybil felt no more adrenaline pumping through her veins, no more giddiness at wearing the new frock just as soon as an opportunity appeared around the corner.
She was tired already, unable to cling onto the scattered remains of her younger self long enough to appear as excited as she felt she should be. This was not who she was any more, was not who she had been for so long now. Not just since she had married Tom. No. It went back far longer than that, to the time when she still lived under the ancient roof of Downton, but had worn her uniform so much more often than her gowns and tea dresses.
In this moment, it all became much clearer than it ever had before, that she had shrugged off the naivety and innocence of her childhood long ago, and that the woman she had grown into under the shadows of the war, found no absolute joy and pleasure in pearls, silk and lace.
None of it ever lost its beauty. But its charm, she was now sure, was not as permanent as she had once believed.
"Sybil?" her mother's voice suddenly pulled her out of her winding thoughts, and Sybil's vision was blurred for a moment as she realized her mother and Mary had moved in front of the mirror.
"Excuse me?" she asked, knowing that her attempt to sound less taken aback was failing with each unsteady syllable.
"What do you think?" Mary asked, holding up a long piece of delicate lace against her dark hair.
"It looks beautiful," Sybil replied, and as confused and uncomfortable as she still felt, it was the truth. The only true excitement she felt concerning this entire charade was to properly see Mary in her wedding dress. As meaningless as all this had become to her, she could feel the youngest sister awakening in her, always in awe of Mary's beauty and grace, now amplified by the sheer happiness that seemed to radiate from her.
Her oldest sister getting married not only reminded Sybil of her own wedding – so incredibly and unbelievably different from every tiny detail of what she was experiencing right now – but it also reminded her of their childhood, of admiring her eldest sister, always aching to be more like her, to be with her, to love and be loved in return. Their happiness seemed to be somehow, very deep down and in ways so twisted that it never quite became clear, intertwined, connected, and depended on each other.
"Darling, is anything the matter?" Cora asked tentatively, her eyes filled with the mixture of concern and suspicion that only a mother could truly be capable of.
"Oh no, I'm quite alright," Sybil reassured her, taking in the contrast of the pristinely white lace against the dark shine of Mary's hair to avoid their mother's gaze, fearing that her partial lie would be detected before she could make herself believe that part of it was really true.
Tom's steps were hesitant on the gravel path that circled the grand house, much slower and less determined than they had been years ago, when he would take these very steps more regularly. Back in the days, when his head was shielded from the sun by the constricting frame of his hat, and when his uniform made every step a little bit harder to take.
His empty stomach was protesting as he walked along the many tall windows, reflecting the sun in the early summer heat of the day. The warmth seeped into his skin, and Tom could not help but wonder if the sun was shining with an equal force back home, if his mother's days were brightened by the clear sky and warm breeze. If Sean's children could smile, playing carefree in the heat of the day.
The thought of Sybil surrounded by silk and pearls and all kinds of valuables that he would never be able to give her, came with a painful reminder of the life they had left behind only a little while ago, so close still. Although the days passed quicker than they had feared, Tom found not enough distraction to erase thoughts of his family back home, shaken by grief and unsettled by the raging violence and chaos that surrounded them every minute of every day. In their mind, and every time they set a foot outside of their homes.
For a moment, Tom's steps slowed down even more, and he almost stood still as his eyes gazed at the path in front of him, splitting into two, divided by the huge tree that served as a canopy for the bench snuggled against it, overlooking the cast fields of green, of flowers, of peace.
There was no doubt where he was headed, where his feet now began to carry him almost subconsciously, following the path they had walked time and time again. He turned away from the trail of gravel that lead downhill towards the gardens – gardens he had only seen for the first time a few days ago, walking through the blooming blossoms with Sybil holding on to his arm, smiling brighter than any petal ever could – he began to walk down the path towards the stables and courtyard. Soon, he felt the gravel under his feet turn into more solid ground, and he looked up, the sun brightly in the sky and the ornamented outlines of the castle walls turning into plain brick.
Had he abandoned his family in a time of war? In a time of death and pain, of poverty and struggle? Was he really the eldest son to walk out on his family when they most needed him? Was this who he was, who he had turned out to be?
He thought of his dead cousin's face, the young boy who had clung to him like a leech every single day of their childhood, trying to impress him and get his attention, turning into a bitter man, with so much passion for a cause that was not wrong, but misguided. And he thought of Sybil, and their unborn child sleeping between them each night, moving and living, becoming a part of them as much as they were of each other.
As he turned the corner around the high brick wall, Tom could see the garage peeking out from behind the ranking bushes, the gates closed shut. It looked so utterly deserted, even though he knew that it was not, that someone else had taken over the place that had served as his home for almost six years. There would be life behind those gates for a little while longer, for however long this surreal world surrounding him would last. Only it would not be him.
Taking in the sight in front of him, fighting against the urge to look for the spare key he had kept behind the green making its way up the wooden posts that framed the garage, he realized that he had not abandoned his family.
Quite the opposite. It was his family he was trying to protect, even if it meant that he was swallowed up by all the charades and unspoken games that made up this world.
With a last glance at the half-hidden garage, Tom turned around, for a moment steering towards the back entrance around the corner, the way he had always entered the house, before dragging himself up the gravel path back towards the green fields surrounding the house.
A/N: First of all, I'm terribly sorry for the long delay. As I said in my last note, I moved back to Germany, and I'm just getting settled. It's all a bit stressy and strange at the moment, and a few things have come up that require a lot of my attention. But there are only four chapters of this story left, and I'm determined to finish this before the third season starts to air in the UK.
A very special thanks to Katie who was my beta reader for this chapter.