Thank you all so much for your reviews and stuff on the previous chapter and, once again, I apologise if I haven't got back to you yet. Now that I'm finished with my M/M modern!AU (All's Fair in Love and Law), I'm giving this my undivided attention - it's not going to be a very long story at all, in fact there are only two more chapters and an epilogue left. This is a much shorter chapter because I'm exhausted and I think I've covered everything I need to. More soon, hopefully. Enjoy and let me know what you think :) x
He's absolutely exhausted by the time he arrives back at the Abbey. It had been an emotional few days and, as much as he had wanted to stay in Ireland with his family, he needs nothing more than to get back to normality. He'd picked such a late flight back so as to avoid his colleagues – they'd all know about his mother's death by now and, in all honesty, he just isn't in the mood to listen to yet more people offering their sympathies and words of condolence when it's all he's heard for days. His farewell to Órlaith at the airport had been understandably tearful, but he'd promised her that he'd stay true to his word and bring her to London when the time was right.
Just as he begins to climb the stairs up towards his room, the clock in the lobby strikes midnight. He wonders if one last little bit of escapism could be possible – perhaps if he lingers here just a little bit longer then he'll find himself back there with her. He would give anything just to feel her in his arms again, to hold her close while they dance and to hear her laugh and see her smile. If it doesn't happen then he'll know that it was all just a figment of his imagination and that Matthew was right about him being stressed afterall. If not and she is there... well, he'll deal with that if and when he comes to it.
He doesn't recognise her at first among the sea of grey and khaki coloured uniforms. She looks different somehow – she's older, wiser and it's clear from the look on her face that she's seen things that will scar her very soul for the rest of her days. He smiles back at her when she finally notices him and, the next thing he knows, she's pulling him into a crushing embrace.
"I thought they'd got you," she whispers in his ear. "I thought you were... Oh thank God you're here!"
He chuckles as he holds her close to him. "It's only been a few days since I last saw you."
Sybil pulls away and looks up at him quizzically. "It's been four years!"
"I danced with you at a ball in nineteen-fourteen... It's now nineteen-eighteen and what with everything that's happened since then I have been so worried about you."
He swallows hard as the full force of what's happening hits him like a ton of bricks. If it truly is nineteen-eighteen then so much has happened in such a short space of time – the world is at war and it's going to change everything.
"I didn't know if you'd enlisted, been conscripted or if you'd gone back to Ireland..." she looks away from him as she fights her tears. "I thought you were in Dublin when..."
"The Rising," he mutters – the War of Independence was something he was particularly interested in and had formed the subject of his dissertation during his final year at University. "You heard about that?"
Sybil nods. "From a British perspective, obviously."
Tom cringes – the sources he'd managed to get his hands on that had been written by English journalists had made his blood boil. He'd known from the old stories and the diary of a great-great-great uncle or someone that the events of that week had torn his family apart, and the blood of the Branson's had been spilled in every battle in the fight for his country's freedom.
"I wasn't there, no," he tells her.
"Do you want to know something else?"
"I even found myself questioning whether or not you were even real," she laughs nervously. "it's quite mad really."
Tom smiles. "Not that mad. I've found myself thinking the exact same thing."
"Where are you from, Tom?" she asks – a million questions race through her mind and she thinks it's about time she got some answers.
"I told you... a very long way away."
She sighs and shakes her head. "That's not what I mean..."
"Do you mean when am I from?"
She stares at him in amazement – it's all so wonderfully impossible but, at the same time, it makes perfect sense.
He takes her hand in his and pulls her towards the door. "Come with me," he says. "People are starting to stare and I really think you should be sitting down to hear this."
She takes him to that same tree down by the lake where she's come to hide from the world ever since before she can remember. They sit there for what seems like hours as he tells her everything. Much to his amazement, she doesn't run away or proclaim him a madman. In fact, she's the one who ends up shocking him.
"I... I've seen it too. The things you speak of, seeing a world that's not your own. I've seen it."
Tom stares at her – he honestly doesn't know whether or not this should make him feel better or worse about the whole situation.
"When did you see it?" he asks. "Where did you go?"
"It was about two years before you first came here. It was the night we'd learnt about what had happened to the Titanic," she tells him. "My cousin, Papa's heir, was on board and nobody was quite sure what it meant for the family now that there was nobody to take the title. My eldest sister wouldn't be allowed to inherit it seeing as it only passes through the male line which, personally, I find to be terribly archaic..."
Sybil chews her lip, realising that she's simply just assumed that he was aware of who she was and what living at Downton entailed.
"My parents are the Earl and Countess of Grantham."
"So that makes you?"
"It's really not that impressive," she says with a smirk, running her fingers through the blades of grass. "In fact, I think one of the reasons why I enjoy being a nurse so much is that I don't feel like a Lady. I'm not treated any differently from the farmer's daughters and shop girls that I trained with in York. It sounds utterly selfish, but it's the truth."
Tom smiles at her. "It isn't selfish at all," he says. "You've found a little bit of freedom and you're doing something good at the same time. But you never did say where you ended up."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologises. "I got distracted. As I was saying, that night I was sitting in the library just after midnight when I heard someone singing. Thinking that everyone was already n bed, I went to see who it was..."
Sybil furrows her brow as though she's struggling to find the words to adequately describe what she had seen.
"I saw a girl," she says. "She was dressed in a very peculiar way but I liked what she was wearing. I could tell that she was sad. She saw me from across the room and looked at me as though she'd seen a ghost. We looked so alike and that's what made me doubt that she was real."
"Did you speak to her?"
"No," she replies, shaking her head. "I was going to, but then a man who I assumed to be her father appeared and they had the most horrendous argument. The next thing I knew, I was back here."
Tom nods and, without even thinking, takes hold of her hand. "It feels so very real though, doesn't it?" he asks, unsure what he's actually referring to.
Sybil looks down and smiles at how natural the sight of their intertwined fingers is.
"Yes," she replies in little more than a whisper. He's so close now that she can feel his breath tickling her face and she's reminded of that night in the library. "But I'm scared that, either way, whether it's real or not, that you're going to disappear or that I'll wake up and I never see you again. I'm scared about what's going to happen to me when the war ends. I know that it's going to be a blessing for all this to finally be over but I know that, when it is, everything will go back to the way it was before, but I can't... I can't go back to that old life and I'm scared because I never speak of my feelings to anyone but there's something about you that I..."
His lips are on hers in an instant and she sighs into his kiss, releasing her hold on his hand and bringing her arms up around his neck. She gladly welcomes his tongue into her mouth and smiles as she hears him groan in satisfaction, pulling her closer to him as though he's afraid she'll vanish if he lets go. They finally break apart, breathless and smiling as their hands find each other's again. Tom kisses Sybil's nose and rests his forehead against hers.
"You are magnificent, milady," he smiles. "And don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise."
The rain hammers against the windows of her modest Parisian apartment and she's caught in that blissful state between sleep and consciousness, aware of little else but the warm weight of her boyfriend's arm around her waist and the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he sleeps.
A loud bang on the front door sees them both suddenly wide awake and sitting bolt upright in bed.
"What was that?" she whispers groggily.
"I think there's someone at the door."
She groans as she looks over at the alarm clock on the bedside table. "But it's twenty past three in the morning!"
"I'll go," he says, pulling on his t-shirt and climbing out of bed. "Wait here."
Yawning, Evelyn Napier pads down the narrow hallway and mentally curses whoever it is that has woken them at such an ungodly hour. All is soon forgiven as he takes in the sight of the bedraggled state of a girl standing on the doorstep.
"Edith!" he shouts. "I think it's for you."
Next Chapter: He runs a hand through his hair and sighs as he studies the family tree of the House of Grantham - what he's seeing on the page before him is like a knife through his heart and never once has he found himself questioning his own sanity as much he finds himself doing in this moment...
He's in love with a woman who has been dead for over thirty years.