Disclaimer: For entertainment purposes only - you know the drill.
A/n: Ugh, I have wanted this so bad for so long, I hope I did it justice, at all. This was written for the Never Have I Ever Challenge over at The Beta Branch (I had never written a Downton Abbey fic, and also it's been a long while since I did something so directly shippy). Major thank you's to VLeRoux and Shazrolane who offered me edits and feedback, especially when I freaked out and re-wrote half of it after finishing watching season 5 (did you see how Tom looked at her? C'mon, I am not imagining this). XD
Note: According to the show timeline, Matthew dies in March 1921 and Tom leaves January 1925.
To Start To Live Again
A wonderful new chapter in Mary's life begins and ends exactly the day Matthew dies.
She comes to the nursery after a while, after she finds the strength to do so. But can you really call it strength? Mary wonders. It's really more her body numbly moving of its own volition. She has a sense of duty to her newborn, to her child – to Matthew's child – and it spurs her forward.
Mary sits down on the chair and she holds George close, and if tears make their way down her cheeks and onto her chest, the baby doesn't seem to mind. He sleeps peacefully or he gurgles curiously. He clutches at her clothes and cries on occasion, but mostly he's quiet. She thinks he can sense their loss and is sad too, though he only knew his father for mere moments.
Tom comes to the nursery too, to be with Sybbie for a time. Aside from the two children, he is the only person she finds she can tolerate being around. She supposes it's because he has been exactly where she is now, and therefore he knows every terrible thought and feeling coursing through her.
He settles into a chair across from her with baby Sybbie while she holds George, and they don't speak. They don't need to saturate the air with words and condolences and pointless, distracting small talk. This in turn fills her with a sense of overwhelming relief, because he understands.
And if she has to set George back in his crib so she can crumble to pieces on the couch (she doesn't break, she doesn't break, she can't stop breaking), Tom lets her. Doesn't pity her or try to make it better. Simply stays and keeps breathing.
"They all think I ought to marry again," Mary says. Her voice is dull and empty. "I can't say I fully disagree with them, but..." Her voice falls away, choked out by the tidal wave of emotion threatening to drown her. George chirps and burbles as he tries to crawl.
Mary takes a breath, wills herself to focus and keep her head above water. She lets her struggle bleed into her voice then, when she adds, "It was Matthew."
Tom nods and his eyes shine. He doesn't need to say a word. He ought to marry again someday too, she thinks. Probably soon, if society has any say in it, but for him it was Sybil. The one, the world, the sun and stars and heavens. She can tell by the look on his face, by the way he watches his daughter, that he can't fathom giving himself to anyone else either.
These people – Matthew and Sybil – are irreplaceable in every possible way. They swooped in and brought out the absolute best in the one they each chose. Left far, far too soon. Died too young, before life with them had properly started. Left Mary and Tom as hollowed out shells after experiencing the greatest love they could have dreamed of. There's no going back, no going forward – there's only this blank, empty limbo.
"I'll never be ready to let him go," Mary murmurs, stroking George's hair.
"Me neither," he says, watching little Sybbie play with blocks.
Neither of them are referring to the children.
Because Matthew was Isobel's son, Mary feels a special sort of bond with the older woman as a result of their shared loss of him. She's never felt particularly close to Isobel though nor has she taken to heart all the cynical things Granny enjoys muttering about the women either. Ever since Matthew's death, however, Mary is aware of how few people can properly understand the depth of the hole in her heart. She believes Isobel is one of the rare ones who can.
Mary finds herself taking tea with Isobel more and more often. As they grieve and work through the agony caused by Matthew's absence, it is nice to sit and do it together, even if he isn't even mentioned. His presence is everywhere, both a cloak of familiar warmth slid around her shoulders and a cloying, suffocating chokehold on her heart.
They chat idly about the weather, the goings-on at Downton, the latest scandal in town. Sometimes it's shallow and perfunctory, sometimes it's shades deeper, and sometimes they sip in silence. It's that bond that has formed that they both cherish and the words said are far less important than the shared company.
In the smallest, most far away place in her mind, she thanks Matthew for bringing her closer to his mother.
One afternoon as Mary is preparing to leave for Isobel's for their regular tea time, she stumbles across Tom wandering listlessly about the house with a book in his hand. She doesn't ask him if he's all right the same way he never asks her (because they're not and never can be and it hardly matters how many months it's been since their respective losses). Instead, she inquires what his plans for the day are.
"Ah," he avoids her eyes and rubs at the back of his neck with his free hand. "I was... I thought I might... take a walk?" It's plain that he's bored and antsy, but as usual refusing to admit it.
Mary levels her gaze at him, seeing right through him. "Well, I'm having tea with Isobel. You ought to join me." It's more of a statement, as if he's already agreed to come, rather than a question or offer.
"No, no," he waves his hand at her. "I wouldn't want to intrude."
"Tom," she says, stern but gentle. "You're pacing. You're going stir crazy – and you were just saying the other day you don't know what to do with yourself lately." She eyes the book, which is some dry volume of Edith's she knows he doesn't even like. "So here's something to do."
He still hesitates, and she thinks for a moment that the invisible line of classes that once divided them might never be fully smudged out. Whether it's his desperation for a distraction or some sense of affection and loyalty towards Mary, he finally agrees to come to tea.
Isobel is pleased when the pair of them arrive. Tom is unsure at first, clutching his hat and feeling socially awkward (something much more prominent without Sybil at his side, easing his anxiety), but after a time, he visibly relaxes and falls into the easy conversation between Mary and Isobel. They exchange memories of Matthew and Sybil for a time, and it's as though they've formed an exclusive club of the grieving and mourning while the world around them remains determined to spin on regardless of their need to stay stationary.
At the end of the afternoon as Tom collects his hat and jacket, a sort of silent agreement passes between the two women with nothing more than a knowing look: Mary will ensure Tom joins them each time from now on.
It's not a sudden moment or shocking epiphany, but well after a year or so down the road, Mary can entertain the idea of marrying again. In fact, as time goes by, she even begins to warm to the idea. The loss of Matthew will surely never stop stinging, but she can't be alone forever, and she knows it – knows in her heart that Matthew wouldn't have let her be alone for the rest of her life.
Mary runs her fingers over his books, still in a stack by her nightstand, and she smiles softly (she doesn't break, she doesn't break, she can barely stop from breaking). She pictures Matthew lecturing her on being a miserable widow, and teasing her about the affections of Blake and Tony and the others who've flitted by over the months and years. She imagines his bottomless, soul-capturing blue eyes and the sweet lilt of his mouth.
She can't hear his voice clearly in her memories anymore, and that hurts more than she cares to admit. The message in his beautiful expression, blurry around the edges behind her eyelids, tells her it is time to move forward.
Time marches on and so do they. Mary and Tom become partners with Robert in the running of Downton and the surrounding area. Tom searches for change and improvement while Robert digs in his heels all the while insisting he's open to new things. Mary smooths the waters between them, finds the middle ground, or convinces Papa to come around to Tom's side of things – much as she loves Papa, he is determined to fixate on the past, and Mary knows as well as Tom that they simply cannot do that.
(They of all people know and the loss still aches, even if it has been dulled over the past couple years.)
Tom is a natural at this; he's sharp and keen. He still struggles to find his footing in the world, in what he too often refers to as her world, but he's working on it. Mary is always there to lean on when he's overwhelmed by protocol and rules, outfit changes, excessive manners, or whatever else is too much that day.
She's finding she needs to hold his hand less and less, and she thinks Sybil would be proud.
Tom shoots her a smile when Robert praises them for the development deal they've come up with, and Mary thinks Tom knows she would have been too.
Mary and Tom develop a routine. They are usually present at breakfast with Papa, and then they go over anything on the estate that needs taking care of, dividing duties, and talking about any upcoming social engagements. They share amused looks over the tea and jam when Robert snorts and huffs over newspaper articles and business trends and Mary comes to Tom's rescue when Robert lays into his opinions on the improper, fire-tongued Miss Bunting.
Truthfully, Mary sort of enjoys the drama that the woman brings, and the way Tom seems to have woken up in her presence. Miss Bunting is far too intentionally inflammatory, however, and her liberal attitudes wear thin quickly. Tom, at least, has the sense to speak democratically and incite mild discussion, as opposed to throwing around thinly-veiled insults in the form of political and social leanings.
Tom and Mary often escape the house's going-ons in the afternoon by stealing Sybbie and George from Nanny. They tuck themselves away in the nursery if the weather is poor, or they head outside to walk about and let the children play as they might. Granny might look a bit pinched over the matter of Mary and Tom relieving Nanny, but she refrains from commenting (most of the time).
It's sometime after she returns from her "trip" with Tony that their routine expands to watching the fire burn to embers in the ante-library. It's irregular, probably improper, but Mary can't really give a damn – it's just her and it's just Tom and after all they've been through, she'll sit here and have a drink with him after the others have gone to bed if she damn well pleases.
He laughs at her attitude, but he doesn't get up from the chaise.
They don't talk much – simply sit and enjoy each other's company. In these moments, they are free from the constraint of their social obligations, from running the estate, from being single parents, from everything that wears them down day in and day out.
If they do talk, it's mostly idle chit-chat to fill the dimly lit room. Sometimes it's low-toned confessions, worries and anxieties. There are few people in the world she feels this at ease with, and it's both a comfort and a revelation (because the last person she felt this comfortable with…).
He still misses Sybil. She still misses Matthew.
"Are you going to marry Tony, then?" asks Tom, after a long stretch of quiet where they watch the fire smolder.
Mary offers a one-armed shrug, cool and non-committal. "I suppose so."
Tom fixes her with a searching look. "That's a very enthusiastic answer."
She smiles a little and swirls the cordial in her glass. She never intended to tell Tom the truth about where she'd been, but he knew her better than she thought and had been able to get it out of her in so many words during one of these late nights.
She had been excited, bursting to share the news that she'd decided to marry Tony, and he'd been the one she wanted to tell first. Damn him, Tom somehow had become her closest friend, though she could never pinpoint when that quite occurred.
The part Mary has yet to tell him is that the longer she clings to the notion of marrying Tony, the more it seems to dissolve, to feel strange and wrong. She wishes she had the words to explain exactly how she feels.
Tom is watching her, she realizes, and she glances up with a sigh.
"I don't know, Tom," Mary says. "It's never going to be the same, is it?"
"No," he admits. "I s'pose it isn't."
They lapse into silence again and Mary stares at her half-empty glass, conflicted. Tom doesn't push, doesn't prod, doesn't wheedle. Simply stays and keeps breathing. She's thinking of those days in the nursery again, where they sat together and they didn't offer each other advice or pity or verbal comfort – merely being there sharing their loss was enough.
Mary lifts her eyes to Tom, who is staring into the orange glow of a dying fire again. She suddenly can't bear to talk about Tony any more.
"What about Miss Bunting?"
Tom blinks. "Hmm? What about her?"
Mary's lips quirk into a sly smile – she knows him as well as he knows her, and everyone knows there's something there, at least on one side.
He chuckles. "I don't think so, no."
"Why not? Besides the fact that Papa cannot tolerate her presence, nor she his, it would seem…" Mary trails off on purpose, sips at her cordial, and hides her teasing smirk.
Tom shakes his head. "She's… she's a friend."
Mary nods, hearing the sadness in his tone. Miss Bunting was never meant to be more to Tom, and the poor boy is actually making himself guilty about it.
"There'll be someone else," she offers, even though she and Tom don't do pity and advice.
He sighs before levelling a too-serious gaze her way. "For you, too."
Mary accepts this, and finds the decision from a few weeks ago to marry Tony is entirely undone in her heart. Relief makes her shoulders release tension she didn't know was there, and for the first time in months while she courted Tony and the idea of Tony, this feels like the right thing to do.
She only hopes Tony will feel the same way.
It's Edith, coming up from her consistent ocean of misery for a moment, who comments one day how easy Mary and Tom are together. She questions if there is something more there, with a bizarre little spark of hope in her sad, sad little eyes.
"I've seen the way you look at each other," she says. "He doesn't look at anyone else the way he looks at you."
Mary scoffs and passes their relationship off as friendship. She is abrasive as usual, sharp and insulting, and Edith retreats back to her cloud without too much of a push. She is too busy moping to properly notice anything anyways, Mary decides, and ignores the moment altogether.
Except after that she begins to notice things. Like the fact that she and Tom are in fact damn good at running the estate together, and even Robert says so as he chooses to take a back seat, edging ever closer to retirement. Mary and Tom have a host of private jokes and secret smiles (he is able to draw genuine smiles from her and it's refreshing), and she spends more time with him than anyone else put together, whether they're in a crowded room or not. She seeks his company, and being there when Sybbie and George go out to play is just as much about spending simple, quiet time with Tom as it is about the children.
He begins talking of leaving Downton and going to America. She instantly hates the idea and tells him so nearly every time he brings it up, though it has nothing to do with her (non-existent) feelings for him, she's certain. He can't leave her with just Edith for company, and she doesn't want to have to wrangle Papa over the running of Downton alone. Besides that, George will miss Sybbie too much and Tom is just pleasant to be around.
The idea of her and Tom being something more is ludicrous and she won't entertain it. Really, what on earth could Edith have been thinking?
Except then one day everything changes.
Tom spends most of the morning tight-lipped and stormy and Mary can't get a read on his thoughts, which is troubling. She's been doing it easily for months and suddenly he is closed to her. She gently inquires after his mood, but he insists it's nothing.
After lunch, Mary decides to go outside and do some sketches. She's surprised to see Tom in the lobby, dressed to go out. Moseley sidles by with a couple of packed suitcases and Mary raises her eyebrow.
"Where are you off to?" she smiles, though he doesn't return it, and she feels her stomach flip over uneasily.
"I've had a letter, and I need to – I have to go to town," he says in a rush. "To London."
"Is everything all right?"
"It's – yes, it's my cousin from Boston." Tom dodges her eyes. He knows how prickly she is on the subject of him leaving for America. "I've been writing to him about moving to Boston. His good friend and colleague Patrick is up in London, visiting his aunt. I'm going to meet with him and talk to him about… moving."
"You're still on that, are you?" she replies, trying for a joking tone.
Tom nods and he still can't quite look at her. "Patrick and I are going to discuss details."
"Oh, I see," says Mary, and she will not feel a thing (she doesn't break, she doesn't break, she has no reason to break). "When will you be back from London?"
If the smile she offers than is cold and forced, Tom is too uncomfortable and distracted to notice.
"Perhaps a week," he says evasively. "I've spoken with Lord Grantham."
"Oh," Mary manages. In a brisk tone full of well-practiced faux-friendliness, she adds, "Well, good luck. Have a lovely time! See when you get back." She sounds genuine, even to her own ears.
Tom rather looks like he wants to say something more, but instead he nods, and she brushes past him.
She strides across the grounds and can hear the car rumble down the lane away from Downton behind her minutes later. She settles down to sketch and if her sketches are dark and harsh and full of sharp strokes, there's no one here to see them anyway.
Two days later, Mary is silently cursing Edith to high heaven for ever suggesting Mary's relationship with Tom was ever more than platonic. Mary had no idea how used to Tom she'd grown – to his company, to his presence, to him being a steady constant in her life. Sitting with Isobel at tea, the atmosphere is suddenly completely off-kilter and even Isobel can sense it.
"Where is Tom?" Isobel asks, stirring her tea gently.
Mary is cool and flippant when she answers, "Oh, meeting with his cousin's colleague, apparently. He's still on about tarting off to America. God knows why."
Isobel raises her eyebrow at this. "I was under the impression there were exciting opportunities for him there. It could be good for him, you know."
Mary makes a scoffing noise and silently swears she doesn't care a wit what "opportunities" are out there. The bottom line is that they result in Tom not being here and that's what she can't swallow.
"Who knows," she says aloud, and adds sugar to her tea hoping it will wash away the sudden bitter taste in her mouth.
Isobel's expression is all too knowing and it chafes against Mary's skin, so she forces out one of her famous smiles and asks after how things are with Lord Merten.
The longer the week goes on, the worse Mary feels. She thinks of things to tell Tom, but he's not in the room. She waits after dinner to have a drink and laugh about that evening's supper discussion, but belatedly remembers he's in London, night after night. She looks up at breakfast to toss him a secret smile while Papa rants, but it's Rose sitting there sipping tea instead of Tom. Mary has the urge to shout at someone and can't understand why.
Damn him, somewhere along the way he went from closest friend to someone she cared deeply for, and she's still not quite sure when that happened. It rankles more than she thought possible that he's truly planning to leave, and Mary has always hated the taste of loneliness.
After the string of men over the years vying for her hand and affections at exactly the wrong time, after losing Matthew, after everything so far, she never once expected to share her heart with Tom like this. She can't decide whether she should be upset that she missed her chance at happiness, or pleased that Tom didn't miss his.
Least of all, she never expected to fall in love once it was too late, and he was off signing travel papers to take off to damn America.
When Tom arrives back at Downton, travel weary with exhausted dark circles under his eyes, Cora is the first to ask how his trip went.
"Well, thank you," Tom answers, all politeness and decorum. His eyes seek Mary's, but she turns to Rose and starts up a conversation instead.
While Rose prattles on about her Russians and Cora pries more details from Tom about his visit with Patrick, Mary can feel him watching her. She's radiating indifference, and has to leave when Cora asks how the travel arrangements went. She can't bear to hear his reply – she's too angry and hurt that he never told her how serious he was about Boston, and that he didn't tell her about the London trip until he was standing there while his bags were loaded.
She retreats to the empty ante-library – what used to be their evening haunt together – and is mildly surprised when she turns to find he's followed her.
"Mary," he says and he sounds hesitant, like he's not sure why he came after her.
She hitches on her most genuine-looking fake smile. "So, London was lovely, was it? Things went well with Patrick?"
He frowns at little. He can tell she doesn't mean her cheery tone. "I've decided on a plan, yes: start the work in the village, find the new agent, and then set off for America. It's time."
He waits for her response, twisting his hands together in front of himself.
Mary's always had the ability to bury her emotion and come off as aloof, and she calls on that skill now, offering Tom a one-shoulder shrug.
"I was hoping you'd change your mind," she says. "With Rose off and married soon and you leaving, I'll have no allies left. It's going to be quite unbearable."
Her smile is small but teasing, and Tom relaxes a little.
"I don't know what I'm going to do without you," says Mary. Tom's eyes snap to hers.
She hadn't meant to sound quite so emotional or serious, so she clears her throat and adds, "You're taking away the buffer between Edith and I. I mean it – you're going to read about a murder at Downton, and it will be your fault because you weren't here to stop it." She tosses him another smile.
He laughs at this. "I can't stand between you and Edith forever."
"I must live my life, Mary." His tone is light, but it hurts nonetheless.
"And that can't be here?" She holds his gaze and she can't bear this, she can't bear this.
For a moment, he seems conflicted. For a moment, she can't breathe and she imagines he's going to declare he's staying. For a moment, she hopes.
Then Robert comes in, mumbling under his breath, and breaks the moment between them.
"Ah, here you are," he says, and launches them into a discussion about the new plans for the village.
Mary is all smiles and Tom is enthusiastic, but every mention of Tom's imminent departure kills her a little more. Given her track record with love, she figures it should be no surprise she'd be destined to lose him too.
The month after Tom leaves, Mary walks around in a cloud. She's sharper than usual to her family, to Anna, to everyone. Only Cora asks her outright what the trouble is, and Mary shrugs it off and makes up some excuse that no one believes. Tom's steadiness is gone, and she is aching for him to come back but refusing to say the words out loud.
Mary has tea with Isobel, but she is distant and sad.
"You never told him that you loved him, did you?" asks Isobel.
Mary nearly drops her spoon. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about."
Isobel fixes her with a look that says she doesn't appreciate Mary's coyness.
Mary sighs and her eyes fill with unbidden tears (she doesn't break, she doesn't break, she is desperate not to break). "No. I didn't."
It's plain Isobel has no sage advice to offer in this instance as she regards Mary with fond, sad eyes and sips her tea.
The rest of the family is out and about. Edith has George and Marigold, the child of a neighbor that she's taken in, somewhere out on the grounds with Cora. Robert is in the village with Carson, and with Rose off married to Atticus, Mary is quite alone. She shuts herself up in the ante-library and sits across from the chaise where Tom use to sit.
If tears make their way down her face and onto her neck, there's no one there to see them.
Mary is startled when the door bursts open and she hastily swipes her hand across her face before standing to see who has disturbed her. Shock, then joy crash over her when she sees Tom standing there, looking flushed and perfectly wonderful.
"Mary," he says, and the way he speaks her name – no, breathes it – sends unbidden chills up and down her spine.
"Tom! Goodness, I…" Mary is at a loss for words, completely thrown by his presence. She struggles to recover. "What… are you doing here?"
"Mary," he advances, and his eyes are so warm and wonderfully blue – damn him to high heaven. "I'm so glad you're here."
Mary crosses her arms over her chest as if that will slow her racing heart. He's here, he's standing right here, and she has a thousand things she wished she could say to him but none of them will come out. Instead she fumbles, "I didn't know – no one told me you were coming. They're all – it's just me."
"It doesn't matter. You're the one I'm here to see." He comes closer, just an arm's length away. "I've come back."
Mary huffs in exasperation. "Clearly." She's not sure what he finds so funny – eyes twinkling, lips turning up like that.
"Mary, I…" he trails off and laughs. "I really thought this was going to be easier, but now that I'm in front of you…"
The way he's looking at her is turning her knees to water. She reaches out to grip the edge of the chaise to steady herself.
"I miss you," he finally says. "Every minute of every day, and I've been… I've been a proper fool. You told me you didn't want to be without me, and I left anyways."
Mary's breath hitches in her chest and she's terrified she's dreaming.
"I needed to see you. I needed to know… that I made a mistake."
"And?" she prompts.
"I shouldn't have gone to Boston. I couldn't bear it without you." He's glowing and grinning, and Mary has the urge to slap him, thinking of the misery she's gone through the past couple months.
"Oh, you idiot!" she bursts out, though it comforts her to know that he was miserable without her too.
Tom laughs and comes closer, so there are only inches between them now.
"I love you, Mary," he tells her, voice soft and beautiful. "You may not feel the same, but I couldn't stand you not knowing. If you'll have me, I want to come back and be with you."
"Oh," Mary rolls her eyes, and she's grinning and glowing herself now too. "You idiot."
Tom begins to stutter and flounder, attempting to explain himself further, but Mary is quite finished. Damn impropriety, there's no one around to see, so she grasps his collar and hauls him close, crashing her lips onto his. Tom is surprised for a moment, but almost immediately he falls into the kiss with her, bringing his hand up to cradle the back of her neck.
Mary has never particularly thought about heaven or the afterlife, but as she pulls back and sees the brilliant expression on Tom's face – the naked love and admiration – she imagines somewhere Matthew and Sybil are smiling and shaking hands triumphantly.
"Mary, my heart is wholly yours," he whispers. "Don't think otherwise, even for a moment."
She can't help but kiss him again.
A wonderful new chapter in Mary's life begins exactly the day she kisses Tom.
(she doesn't break, she doesn't break… she is no longer broken.)