A/N And so it is that we come to the end of our little tale. This one is the literary equivalent of a warm fluffy bath... possibly with bubbles and a little rubber ducky called Colin. I promise there are going to be no mad stalkers leaping out from behind the loofah! (Although I was tempted) You can relax.
A huge thank you to each and every darn one of you for the huge support, help, advice, reviews, etc, etc, etc, into infinity! Thank you so very very very much. I cannot say how much I have enjoyed your input and appreciated it beyond measure.
And so to our epilogue. This takes place on the eve of Matthew and Mary's wedding.
For the very final time... Enjoy x
Tom Branson tried yet again to tie the white bowtie. He frowned into the mirror.
"I hope you are not planning to wear that face all evening?" Sybil said amiably.
"It would be a lot easier than wearing this stupid penguin suit. Explain to me again why I have to get all dressed up?"
He saw the reflection of her sweet smile as she stood behind him, moved his hands out of the way, and proceeded to form the perfect bow tie.
"Because," she said, "My sister is getting married and we are here to celebrate with my family, our way. Did I complain when your cousin got married and they insisted we all dance a jig at four in the morning?"
"No." He couldn't help a cheeky grin as he remembered the image of her twirling and leaping with his family, her face flushed with delight. It was amazing really how the prejudices his kin had held against Lady Sybil Branson just melted away the moment they knew her.
"No. So this is what my family does. Papa is grateful for what you've done, and I know Mary will be too."
"But it just feels so… awkward."
She sighed sympathetically. "I suppose it will do. But, we are here for Mary and Matthew, and you are my husband, not a chauffeur. Just try not to instigate a revolution before the main course." She teased.
Tom tried to smile, but inside he had a sinking feeling about this whole dinner. His last private meeting with Lord Grantham had been unpleasant. It was something he had never mentioned to Sybil for fear of hurting her, but both he and Robert Crawley knew it had happened. Matthew Crawley was all right, but then there were her sisters, her parents and …. Oh god, the Dowager Countess.
Mary Crawley was someone who could freeze fire and Edith… well when he had taught her to drive it had been ok, but the whole family together… He groaned involuntarily.
"And then of course there is the baby." She smoothed her evening dress over the barely showing bump. "I know Mama is excited about her first grandchild?"
He knew she was trying to make him feel better, so why did he still feel as though he was stepping into the lion's den.
The family and close friends of the wedding party were assembling for evening drinks.
Matthew stood with his soon to be father in law by the fire place.
"I had a letter from Peter Gordon today." Robert began.
"I managed to get him into a rehabilitation centre. The man was after all Patrick's friend and did serve as part of the Entente troops."
"I don't doubt he would never have come back here had he not been under the influence of Carlisle." Matthew said ruefully. "Do you know, I must have asked him every question I could think of, and he wouldn't crack? You're with him for five minutes and he spills the beans."
"Hardly five minutes!" The earl exclaimed. "You left me high and dry with the man… who I hasten to add could barely stand."
Matthew had the good grace to look embarrassed.
"Anyway, it was the damndest thing. We were waiting for the rain to stop and I was talking about the time Patrick fell out of the old oak and broke his arm. Next thing I knew he was telling me everything."
Matthew shook his head. "Still, under the circumstances it was good of you to get him some help. The war affected him badly."
"Exactly, I thought it was the least I could do."
Thomas almost jumped out of his skin as O'Brian came out into the yard.
"Have you heard anything?" He asked, taking a nervous drag from his cigarette.
"You mean have they realised you were the one who supplied all that information to the lunatic who kidnapped Lady Mary?
Thomas stared at her.
"No." She said with a sigh. "I think you're off the hook. I may have mentioned that I saw Mr Brookes hanging around downstairs a few times so they all think he gathered the information. You're lucky that none of them know your handwriting!"
He exhaled loudly.
"So you're home and dry." The Lady's maid said with a slight tinge of bitterness.
"Hardly. I still have those blokes to pay off, and I somehow have to find the money or they'll be wanting bits of me in payment."
"That's your problem." She said pointing a finger at him.
"That's very nice isn't it?" He snapped.
"Your little scheme nearly cost my lady her eldest daughter. I'm no fan of Lady Mary, but you sailed too close to the wind this time. You got yourself into this mess, so you need to get yourself out… but don't involve this house!"
With a final glare, she turned and walked away.
As Mary circulated the room, she took her sister to one side. "Edith, there was someone I wanted you to meet." She said, steering her towards the fireplace. "His name is James Lansdowne, his family have a very extensive agricultural estate and he served with Matthew in the war. He is acting as groomsman."
Edith flushed slightly. "Mary… I?"
There was indeed a young man speaking to Matthew. He was tall with dark hair and gentle chocolate brown eyes that sparkled as he talked. Those eyes were now turned to Edith. "Captain Lansdowne?" Mary interrupted.
"Oh please, I, like Crawley, have given up the Captain. James will do well enough."
Mary smiled. "I would like you to meet my sister, Lady Edith Crawley."
"I am pleased to meet you Lady Edith." James said charmingly.
"And I you… James." She replied.
"And I do not believe that Crawley was exaggerating his praise for the loveliness of the daughters of the House of Grantham." James continued.
"Matthew, I need to speak to you." Mary said taking her fiancé's arm firmly. "Please excuse us."
Once they were a suitable distance away Mary stopped.
"What did you want to talk to me about?" Matthew asked.
"Hmm?" She seemed distracted as another guest caught her eye.
"You said you wanted to speak to…" He glanced back to where James was entertaining Edith, she was laughing at something the young officer said. "Oh." He said in realisation that there was no end to the schemes of a Lady of Downton.
"Lady Sybil and… Mr Branson my lord." Carson said. There was a slight edge to the way he announced the latter.
Sybil stepped forwards with Branson hanging back slightly. A hush descended on the room.
Awkwardly Matthew glanced around at a sea of faces. He remembered what it was like to come into this environment, with these people and be the outsider.
He approached Sybil and kissed her on the cheek in greeting. Turning to the former chauffeur he held out his hand.
"I hear congratulations are in order." He said.
Tom Branson hesitated at such an unexpected welcome. Collecting himself he shook the proffered hand. "Congratulations to you too Mr…"
"Matthew." He interrupted, we are family after all.
"My Darling!" Mary kissed her youngest sister. "How we have missed you!"
"And I you."
Lady Mary Crawley turned her attention to Tom Branson. He met her gaze. This was the one of the moments he had been dreading.
"I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for Anna and Bates." She said primly. "It was very decent of you."
It was about the last thing Tom had expected.
"Um." He looked at Sybil for support. She smiled back.
"I was lucky I managed to track the woman down. The information was a little limited. It's by no means certain that it will go anywhere." He said.
"But it's a start and a good one." Matthew said." We know now where she is, and thanks to you, that she was aware of Mrs Bates' plan. The next stage will be speaking to the authorities to see if we can get her back."
"I believe Granny has already started making enquiries. She apparently has a former beau whose grandson is working in the embassy in Dublin so no doubt she is already planning some daring scheme!" Mary said rolling her eyes.
"Crikey!" Matthew said.
"Yes." His fiancée replied. "And we all know how they turn out!"
Matthew Crawley surveyed the throng. Was it really such a short time ago that he would have dreaded a gathering like this? There in the corner, the Dowager Countess was sat holding court. He couldn't help but smile at the way she doled out her opinions with a graceful wave of the hand. Cousin Cora and Cousin Edith seated on the sofa talking with his mother, he dreaded to think how stilted and ultra polite that conversation would be, and Robert, ever the genial host and master in his kingdom, in a huddle with some of the gentlemen sharing stories. This was his life now, this was his reality.
"A penny for your thoughts?" Mary said quietly. "They look to be entertaining ones."
"I was just thinking, this time tomorrow… we'll be married."
"And this is amusing?" She smiled in that way she had when she was teasing him.
"There is a lot to being married; some of it may prove to be very amusing." He gave her a sideways look. There was no mistaking the mischievous twinkle in his eye. "At least I hope so?"
She raised her eyebrows in playful enquiry. "And what pray are you thinking of in particular?"
"Oh there are many things…" He replied with exaggerated innocence.
"Many, many things…" She agreed as she glanced down at her feet to hide her smile.
"It should not be taken lightly. Marriage requires a great sacrifice of time and effort." He said with mock earnest, whilst trying very hard not to smirk.
"Especially the very amusing parts." She agreed. As she caught his eye she could no longer contain her giggles. She inclined her head away, a slight blush on her cheek.
When she finally turned back to face him he was looking at her so quizzically, with a cheeky grin on his face, that she couldn't help herself collapsing once more into laughter.
Whatever Matthew and Mary Crawley's future at Downton Abbey, the heir to the Earl of Grantham had no doubt it would never be dull.