Note: This is it, everyone - the epilogue. You have no idea how much it's breaking my heart to let this little fictional universe go, but I'm afraid it's time! I want to thank so many of you for your support and your comments over the weeks that I've been writing this story - knowing that others were enjoying the story helped motivate me to finish it more than you know. If you've not stopped in and commented yet, I'd love to hear from you as the story is coming to a close as well. It means a great deal to know that people are reading!
I am planning one more story for Downton Abbey right now - look for a six-parter called "first" to be published in the next few weeks. Thanks again - and a Happy Easter and Happy Passover to those celebrating today!
He's deeply sleeping, dreaming absurd things about missing book deadlines and flights, when the little footsteps shuffle through his bedroom door. He registers the sliver of light that cuts through the darkness first, groaning a bit and rolling over. But he can't ignore the small hand that reaches up and pats at his arm, first softly and then harder.
"Mags?" he says gruffly, fumbling on the bedside table for his glasses. He switches on the lamp and finds his daughter standing beside the bed, pyjamas rumpled and lower lip trembling.
"Da, I want Mummy," she asserts, shifting from one little foot to the other. He frowns – he's certain he put socks on her before he put her to bed. It's too cold not to have done.
He sighs as one fat tear slips down her cheek. "Ah, come here, a mhuirnín," he mutters, reaching down and scooping her up with one arm, snuggling her in beside him, rubbing her toes to warm them.
"Mummy," she demands.
"You talked to Mummy after dinner, remember?" he says, brushing her dark curls with his fingers. "Remember?" She wriggles a little in his grasp, grunting. "Remember what she told you?"
Maggie shakes her head vigorously, and he can't help but smile. "Two sleeps, remember? You have to sleep tonight, and then you have to sleep tomorrow night, and then Mummy will be home."
This type of solid logic is not appeasing a two year old in the wee hours, apparently, so he just sighs and arranges the covers around her, letting her cry and burrow against his shoulder until she starts yawning and then finally, finally falls asleep again, a heavy warm weight against his chest.
He's yawning by now, and he's barely got his glasses on the night table and the lamp switched off before he's asleep again, too.
The first year was not the most difficult one, but it certainly wasn't the easiest. He imagined from the start that this was going to be a struggle, trying to grieve and build a relationship at the same time. And the election dates loomed closer and closer – they danced together at Mary and Matthew's wedding, looking like quite the happy clan, and then a week later the election was called and it was back to opposite sides.
But all that – well, nothing went quite as planned there, either. One day, he was working with Corin on plans for the expected contest, and the next, Grantham was resigning and handing over power to John Bates. The whole of Westminster was in shock – he remembers quite clearly calling Sybil from work that day, and hearing her equally shocked and confused voice on the other end of the line. Things started to make sense when her mother abruptly flew to New York. Things made even more sense when a newspaper printed a photo of Sybil's father embracing a member of his staff. Three weeks later he found himself the speechwriter to the newly-minted Prime Minister MacLeod.
He remembers living in fear that year that the breakdown of Sybil's parents' marriage would send her back into her shell once more, far away, out where he could not reach her. But it didn't. They'd learned to rely on each other, and she'd cried on his shoulder more than a few times as her family fractured. But she'd refused to let their problems steer her off course, and she'd started at the LSE in the autumn as she'd planned for months. He worked, she studied, and that was the first year.
He makes pancakes in the morning, cutting them into Maggie-sized bites and sprinkling them with powdered sugar and strawberries, watching her eyes grow larger and larger as the powder falls to the plate like snow. They're his eyes, too, stuck right in the middle of her mother's face, hair, lips, cheeks, everything. "No denying this little one, Tommy," his mother had said as she'd watched her granddaughter's eyes blink open for the first time.
He spreads out a couple of papers on the table while Maggie pokes at the pancakes, playing with her food more than eating it, as usual. "Eat your breakfast, sweets," he says, peering over his coffee cup at her.
She sighs dramatically – she's seen Sybil do it, and now she's mimicking like crazy – and uses her plastic fork to spear bits of food, guiding them steadily to her mouth. When she's done, he picks her up, brushes her off, and sets her down on the floor in the living room to play. He watches her stack blocks expertly, slowly, stacking them high until the tower bends and tumbles to the ground all around her. She shrieks and laughs – Sybil's told him more than once that they should probably be concerned that Maggie enjoys destruction so much. He always counters that she's stacking the blocks higher than the books say she should be able to right now anyway, so it's just that she's a mad genius. Sybil's so far been unconvinced.
He sits on the couch and half reads, half watches her for a while. Eventually she gets bored playing by herself and clambers up on the couch beside him, bothering him until he switches on the telly and starts the same cartoon DVD that they've watched over and over again for the past few weeks. A little dog scampers around a farm with his little animal friends, and Maggie wriggles in delight.
He's got a deadline in two weeks – he really should be writing, but normally he's got the house to himself during the day. And he's been having trouble – he can't deny that. The last book came so easily, like he was just a channel for the words, but this one just wasn't working. He doesn't know why. But he can't really hole up in his study now and think about it, not while he's in charge of a child who, at this age, sways and toddles about the house like a happy miniature drunk. (Or, depending on the moment, a very angry miniature drunk.) It's cold outside, but the sun's shining across the floor, and the radiator's rolling out a pleasant warmth. Soon enough both of them are dozing, cartoon animals still romping about on the screen.
The second year is a bit blurry – most of it just rolled along from the previous year, but he worked so much harder than he ever had before after Corin was elected. He remembers coming home to their flat – the one they'd gotten together after some months of shuffling back and forth between their old places – and just collapsing into bed beside her, letting her curl her warm body around his.
But there are moments from the last part of that year that are seared into his mind. In the autumn, she finished her graduate work, and he looked on proudly with her parents – one on either side of him – as she accepted her diploma. She clung tightly to his hand as the four of them went to dinner afterward, watching her parents warily. Cora and Robert separated formally shortly afterward.
They were all together again soon enough, though, when Mary and Matthew's first child was born – a son, Stephen, another earl for the line. He remembers watching Sybil warily as Matthew handed her the baby, watching the way she looked uneasily at the bundle in her arms, watching the brightness of her eyes as she told Matthew how beautiful the baby was. He knows that he must have held Stephen that night, too, but he can't remember that – only Sybil.
When Stephen was baptised at Downton a few weeks later, just before Christmas and with Sybil as one of his godparents, the two of them went out alone one night to the churchyard. It's the only time he's ever visited that particular grave.
Bundling up Maggie in her coat and mittens and hats takes ages longer than it should – the wee thing squirms and darts and evades him at every turn. "We're going to Granny Violet's house," he reminds her, exasperated. "You like Granny Violet. This should not be a problem." She continues to behave abominably until he – shamefully – scolds that perhaps Mummy will stay away longer if she doesn't cooperate. Terrible Parenting with Tom Branson – clearly that's the book he should be writing.
Violet's driver is there waiting when he parks the car in front of Grantham House. Since he and Sybil bought their own, Violet has reluctantly stopped sending her driver to come pick them up – but she still makes him wait to act as valet once they arrive. Tom hands over the keys with a nod, reaching into the back of the car to free his wailing daughter from her car seat. It's clearly going to be one of those nights.
To his surprise, it's Cora who opens the door, not Carson. "What are you doing here?" Tom exclaims, immediately regretting the words. "Is Edith here, too?"
"And hello to you, too," Cora says with a smile, reaching out for Maggie, who climbs a bit hesitantly into her grandmother's arms. "No, Edith couldn't make this trip. She sends her love, though. Hello there, my little darling."
Tom drops the diaper bag and his keys on a chair in the drawing room as they head inside. "She's been impossible all day," he warns. "We're all grouchy without Sybil, apparently."
Cora gives him a small smile as Violet stands shakily. Her recovery has been impressive, but some things are still difficult. She leans even more heavily on her stick these days than she used to. "I'm so glad you could come, dear," she says, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "I had a feeling you'd want out of the house."
"You thought right," he says. "She's been a piece of work today."
"She's a Crawley," Violet sighs. "She can't really help it, I'm afraid."
The third year is India – the long flights, the smells, the colours, the rough sheets under his back. Sybil had stayed on with UNICEF after finishing up at the LSE, but it wasn't long before the World Health Organization had come calling with an impressive offer. He still remembers the fear on her face when she told him that the job was in New Delhi. He remembers thinking that they'd had a good, long run, but that was surely it – there was surely no way they could stay together with half the world between them.
But Sybil had been adamant that she wanted to try – that she loved him, and he was the most important thing to her, and if he would just let her explore this chance, they could make things work. He'd agreed to try – how could he not? It had been a long time since he'd been able to imagine living without her.
So he'd somehow found time in his schedule to fly to India three times that autumn to see her, even with Corin's regular schedule and a state visit to South Africa also on the calendar. He remembers the heat and the noise and the crowded streets – the beautiful, crumbling temples and the pristine white monuments. He remembers her cramped little flat, remembers making love with her in the tiny bed pushed against one wall.
He also remembers, every time he flew home, wondering if that was the last time he'd ever see her. He had never been less optimistic about the coming spring than he'd been that year.
"So is this permanent?" he murmurs in Violet's direction after Cora takes Maggie out of the room to change her. He's seen his mother-in-law so rarely over the past few years – she spends almost all of her time in New York and Bermuda these days. They'd taken Maggie to visit her on the island the previous summer, and he'd built castles with his daughter in the sand. He knows that the challenges of motherhood have been made even more acute for Sybil by her own mother's absence.
Violet shrugs. "Your guess is as good as mine, my dear." She sips at her wine; he notes that her hand is shaking a bit. "She's nominally here to make an appearance at a charity function tomorrow. She's still a countess, after all." She sits back in her chair. "Take no offence at all at this, Tom, but years ago I never could have imagined that you'd be a more reliable dinner invitation than my daughter-in-law."
He laughs a little against his own wine glass. "Absolutely none taken, your ladyship."
She smirks at the use of her title. "When's Sybil coming home?"
"Her flight lands sometime tomorrow night," he says. When Violet raises an eyebrow, he rolls his eyes and amends, "Seven forty-three, if it's on time."
She nods knowingly. "And how has the single parenthood been treating you?"
"Ah," he says. "Not really helping the writer's block, I'm afraid."
"I can imagine not. Active girl, your daughter."
"Probably shouldn't surprise anyone. Sybil's told me what a hellion she was growing up on the estate."
Violet smiles fondly. "A grubby little girl with hair braided down her back and a stray animal and a book tucked under each arm."
"Sounds about right," he says. He feels his heart tug a little. Oh, he has missed her, so much more this time even than before Maggie. "I'd expect nothing less from her daughter."
"You've got an interesting decade or two ahead of you," she says, patting his hand.
He nods. "And you've been feeling well? Good report from last Thursday?"
She sighs. "Who knows what those ridiculous doctors are saying half the time? I'm rather convinced that one of them was recruited from Casualty. He looks far too well groomed to be an actual physician."
"Not really what I asked, you know."
He gets a harrumph before an actual answer. "Same as usual. Some prescriptions tweaked, some blood drawn, some more dietary restrictions." She waves a hand dismissively. "I'll live until I die, my dear. That's the long and the short of it."
"Hopefully the long of it."
She gives him a sad smile. "You know, some days I certainly hope that you're right."
If the third year was India, the fourth was Denmark – and change. There was a long, tearful telephone call from Delhi in February, replete with confessions about Sybil's own unhappiness at being so far away. He had known for a long time that she hates failure more than anything, and she read her inability to adjust effortlessly to a new life on a new continent far away from her home, her family, and him as a failure indeed, no matter what he said.
He was secretly pleased, but that feeling lasted exactly as long as it took for her to explain that UNICEF was willing to have her back – but only for a job in Copenhagen. At least the flights were shorter. But he missed the everyday and the mundane with her so much that it physically hurt. He was ill over and over that year, with upset stomachs and pulled muscles and head colds and aches and pains, and he's sure it was psychosomatic as much as anything else.
He vividly remembers the night that he sat straight up in bed in Denmark, looking down on her as she slept beside him, skin glowing in the light filtered through the curtains. He had decided then and there that he couldn't do it anymore – couldn't be half here and half at home. He'd nudged her awake, urging her beneath him, murmuring that he was going to stay with her, that he wasn't going back.
Corin had been less than understanding – Tom was abandoning the project, the ideals, the possibilities – but eventually he was able to overcome his resentment of Tom's departure. In fact, it was Corin who started the next phase of his career, recommending that the Guardian should hire Tom to write a column about a minor revival of tensions in Ireland. And one column turned into several, and then things grew from there, in a little flat with a laptop in the bustling Danish capital.
After dinner, Cora's sitting on the floor, prompting Maggie to answer questions – something that never seems to go well. Maggie's precocious and adorable, like all two-year-olds should be, but she's not so keen on performance on command. "Can you tell me where your mama is, Maggie? Do you know what it's called?"
His daughter studiously ignores her grandmother for a while, rummaging around with some old toys that Violet keeps in the house for her great-grandchildren. "Mags," he says softly, reaching down to ruffle her curls. "You can tell Gran Cora where Mummy is, can't you?"
"Africa," Maggie mumbles, fat little fingers struggling to force a circular block through the square hole of a small toy box.
"That's right," Cora says, beaming. "And when's she coming home?"
Maggie shakes her head, turning suddenly and clinging to his leg, burying her face against his trousers. "Sore subject," he jokes weakly, stooping down to scoop Maggie up in his arms. "One more sleep, right, love? That's all, just one more."
But Maggie is clearly feeling even more insolent than earlier and starts to answer him in Irish. He sighs heavily – that's what he gets for giving his mother extended Skype time on Saturday afternoons. "English," he urges, but she's clearly had enough, and when he glances over at Violet, he sees that her eyes are drooping, too. Time for a swift exit, he thinks, even if Cora seems extremely reluctant to let her granddaughter go.
"I'll have Sybil call you when she's back in the country," Tom promises, once again warring with Maggie to fit her arms in her coat. She's fairly screaming by now, and it makes him want to shout right back at her. He just grits his teeth instead.
"I may be back in New York by then," Cora says, trying to time her words in between Maggie's cries. "But we'll try. I was so glad I could at least see the two of you."
"Sorry she's not in better form," he replies, wincing at a particularly shrill scream. He says his goodbyes quickly and packs her away into the back of the car, praying for a quick trip back to Woking.
In the fifth year, they broke their contract. But not the way he always feared they might – there were suitcases and tears and key swaps, but each time they were packing and crying and moving together, not apart.
He thought about asking her to marry him in March. He'd just turned thirty-four, and Sybil was getting closer to thirty, and if she were ever going to be willing to make a permanent commitment to him, it seemed reasonable that it might have been then. But then her parents had another catastrophic argument, one that reverberated across the sea all the way to their flat in Copenhagen, and Sybil began railing against traditional institutions and expectations. The time had suddenly seemed less than opportune.
But then Sybil's job was relocated once more, back to London this time, and it only seemed logical that they buy a place together instead of renting this time. They found a cottage in Surrey that was close enough for her to take the train in and rural enough that he could write in relative peace. And then, blindsiding him completely, two months after they move back, she told him that she thought she might want to be pregnant again.
This had set off a series of conversations and fights and long nights without sleep. It wasn't that he didn't want to be a father again – he was more experienced with actual children by then, having spent plenty of time with Matthew and Mary's two. He was even a godfather to baby Alice. But the thought of having to watch Sybil give birth to a dead child again, or having to watch Sybil die trying, drove him absolutely mad. He knew, for certain, that if they lost another child, they'd stand a good chance of losing each other, too.
Sybil was more optimistic about the situation – he wasn't sure why; he wasn't honestly even sure what had made her suddenly broody again in the first place – and he couldn't deny her. If he were ever to have a family, it would be with her. If he were ever to be a father again, his child would have her as a mother. Of that much he was sure. So he asked for one thing in return: that she marry him first. Maybe that way, he had reasoned, it would be more difficult for them to drift apart from each other, unmoored and unharboured, if the worst happened again. He'd been so sure she'd say no – after her parents' marriage dramas, plus her own earlier pronouncements against the entire institution – but she didn't.
Their wedding was a quiet affair at the registry office nearest their house that November, with just Dave and Lil – by now married themselves – as witnesses. They shared a bottle of wine to celebrate. And by February, Sybil was expecting a baby once more.
They get to Heathrow the next night far earlier than they really needed to. Maggie had been difficult to corral after she'd realised that her mum would be home by bedtime, and if he was honest, he'd been more than a little anxious himself. They sat in one of the standard-issue airport chairs close to the bag claim. Maggie's kept busy with a video on his phone, but he's practically jumping out of his seat with anticipation each time another throng of passengers emerges from the inner sanctums of the airport.
When they get close to her arrival time – all the monitors have consistently noted that the plane is indeed on time – he stands and gathers up Maggie in his arms. Her little fists grab at the lapels of his jacket, and he rests his cheek against her hair. "Mummy's going to come through that door," he says softly, delighting in the sounds of rapture that his daughter makes in response. An elderly woman next to them smiles knowingly at them. Maggie twists her little fingers into the hair at the nape of his neck.
He sees her first – finds the dark crown of her head bobbing amid a throng of exhausted people coming through the passageway – and he feels like his own heart's going to explode. It's only been a week, but they haven't been apart this long since before Maggie was born, not even when he'd done the book tour over the summer. "Look," he says, adjusting his daughter in his arms so he can point. "Look, there she is."
Maggie starts wriggling frenetically, her little rump bouncing against his arm, shouting "Mum-Mum-Mummy!" louder even than he'd thought she was capable. He sees recognition dawn on Sybil's face, watches her tired eyes and mouth break out into a grin, and she starts rushing toward them, jostling a few fellow travellers on the way. Maggie nearly launches out of his arms, reaching out for her mother.
"Hi!" Sybil says breathlessly, letting Maggie tackle her a bit, hugging her tightly and closing her eyes. "Oh, I've missed you two." She opens her eyes and smiles at him, stepping closer and letting him envelop both of them in a hug. "You have no idea how much."
"Maybe a little," he says wryly, leaning in to kiss her softly. "Just a little."
The sixth year – the first year, for those who started charting their relationship post-marriage, as if those years pre-vows were just practice – was Maggie. All of the years after had been Maggie, really, but that was the year that he'd watched Sybil swell and grow again with a baby, so different than the last time, but so much the same. Other things had happened – the book contract, poor Aunt Reenie and the heart attack back home, Mary winning her father's old seat in the Commons – but nothing, nothing eclipsed his wife and his daughter.
He remembers holding his breath for a good part of the year, from the day when Sybil told him that she was pregnant (and, with a twinkle in her eye, asked if he was prepared to stay for another year) to the day that Maggie emerged, squalling and crimson, into the world. He doesn't exactly remember why Sybil chose Margaret for the name, but he liked the way it sounded – Margaret Crawley Branson. He remembers watching Sybil's face as the baby's cry echoed through the delivery room and feeling like something small had been lifted from his shoulders. Not their son – he'd never be gone from them. But something.
She'd been almost like a kitten when she was born, small, with dark hair and tiny features, little fingers that curled around one of his as she slept against his chest. The other echoes in the day hadn't escaped him – they never escaped him – but now she was here, and it wasn't tragic, but good, and somehow the horror of the first time made the second one one that much sweeter.
Sybil fairly collapses on their bed after they tuck Maggie in – it had been a job to get Maggie to detach from Sybil after so many days away, but he could see that Sybil was practically asleep on her feet already. He chuckles a little as he eases off her shoes, urging her to sit up so that he can pull her shirt over her head.
"You're much more cooperative than your daughter," he muses, leaning down and pressing a kiss to her cheek.
She reaches up and twines her arms about his neck, rubbing her nose against his cheek, seeking his mouth with her own. "I missed you so much," she says when they part, letting her body fall back against the bed again.
He lays down beside her, reaching up and stroking her hair. "I didn't really miss you that much," he says lightly, propping himself up on his elbow.
One of her eyes opens sceptically. "Oh, really?"
He makes a non-committal noise and rolls to his stomach, pressing his cheek to the duvet.
She snorts. "I'm assuming the writing issues totally evaporated with a clinically insane two-year-old going mad in the house?"
"Clearly that's the solution to writer's block."
He laughs. "No, not really. I didn't write a single bloody word the entire time you were gone. I learned a lot about children's television, and I went to the zoo twice, but no writing to speak of."
She frowns and scoots closer, tangling her limbs with his. "I'm sorry."
He shrugs. "We arranged this months ago. I knew it was coming. It wasn't like I resented taking care of her this week."
"I know that." She kisses his collarbone. "I'm just sorry you're stumped right now, that's all."
He grunts a bit and wraps his arms around her, rolling to his back, letting her rest on top of him. "I'm just happy you're here again. I hate sleeping without you."
"I know," she says, kissing him gently. "I thought about you a lot."
"Oh, did you now?" He raises an eyebrow wolfishly, and she laughs.
"Maybe." She gasps as he suddenly rolls her beneath him, and it turns out she' s not really that tired after all.
The seventh year taught him precisely how difficult parenthood really is. He was immensely happy to have a child – he didn't think he could love anyone so much – but good lord, she was a lot of work. He was closing in on forty and starting to feel his age, and now the never-sleeping and the always-worrying made him feel even older.
They worked out a routine fairly quickly, at least – the UNICEF offices had a crèche that they could use. They'd floated the idea of Maggie just staying at home with Tom while he wrote, but he quickly learned that wasn't the most productive of ideas. And besides that, the book he was working on that year wasn't exactly the lightest and most carefree of works – it was a long meditation on the effects of terrorism on children, mostly comprised of interviews with others, but concluding with a long and difficult piece of his own about his father and his own experience. It had been a bestseller – he knew that every time one of his books sold, it was probably because people knew he was the tragic husband of the former prime minister's tragic daughter with their tragic story, but there wasn't really any way around that.
They'd taken Maggie to Ireland for the first time shortly before the book was released; his mam had visited them several times after her birth, but this was the first time his daughter was stepping foot on Irish soil. It had made him more emotional than he'd thought it would, watching Sybil dipping Maggie's feet in the chilly sea on the Antrim coast.
And then shortly after they'd gotten home, it had been Violet – the stroke had come on with no warning at all, and she'd been in a care facility for weeks afterward. He'd never had a grandparent before, not really, and he'd surprised even himself with the level of worry he felt about the Dowager. But Sybil's family really was their family by that point, and when Violet had made her triumphant return to Grantham House, they'd all breathed a sigh of relief. He was a Crawley now, he supposed. No turning back from that.
When Sybil's finally asleep beside him, sated and sighing against his shoulder, he thinks about that first night in his bed at the old flat in Shepherds Bush, the first night they'd made love, the first night they'd slept in the same bed, the first night they'd made a baby together.
He thinks that he's probably living, to some extent, the best-case scenario he could have dreamed up that night and in the weeks that followed. He's committed and settled, he loves his wife, his wife loves him, they have a wonderful (if complicated) child, and they have good jobs and a good house and enough money to keep them secure for a long time. But they're not just resting on those laurels – they're making an effort to effect changes in their world, to make other people's lives better, too.
It's not as if it's a wholly ideal world, though – it's no Utopia. People he loves are dying. Sybil's family is still a fractured and tension-filled mess. He's a frustrated and often impatient parent, when he knows that he should be measured and kind and consistent. He's always certain that his writing could be better and more accomplished. But when he thinks back to that first year with her, to the constant feeling of walking a tightrope, to the paralysing grief after the baby's death, he knows that he can never be truly dissatisfied with his life as it is now.
They're happy, he thinks, watching her mouth move and twist a little around silent words in her dreams. They really are, the two of them together. They've both grown up, but they've grown together, not apart. And now, he can't imagine his life any other way.