What if Robert had squandered Cora's fortune before the Titanic sank? What if Matthew had inherited the money needed to save Downton before he became the heir? What if Tom had made something of himself before he met Sybil? An alternate Downton universe set in season one that explores how Sybil and Tom's relationship would have developed if they'd met under different circumstances.
I am still working on Physical Therapy, but I've got that one more or less outlined until the end and was eager to get something new going. Anyway, I wanted to write a period-accurate Downton fic that went back to season one, but I didn't want to do another Sybil and Tom "missing moments" fic as there are already lots of great ones out there. What I decided to do was to keep bits and pieces of the canon plot but change the chronology of Robert's bad investment and the Swire inheritance and change Tom's background. In this version of events, he is the child of Reginald and Isobel Crawley's Irish housekeeper and grows up alongside Matthew—I love the bromance, can you tell :)—but he never worked in service himself. He will still be an Irish republican, a socialist, and a supporter of women's rights, but thanks to help from Matthew' parents, which will be explained in the story, he has a middle class job and is financially independent and comfortable.
I will try to remain true to the characters as we know them, but when tweaks are necessary to accommodate the plot changes I've made I'll try to make them as believable as possible. Lastly, regarding Sybil's age, I'm making her 15 at the start of this story, so she'll be 18 for her first season in 1914.
Sybil Crawley knew her father to be a sentimental man. So it was with great curiosity that Sybil watched him on this day. For this was the day the Crawley family was leaving its ancestral seat, leaving the only place Sybil had called home, leaving a life of exceeding excess and opulence, leaving Downton Abbey.
Perhaps, she thought, shame overrules sentimentality. Papa cries when he's sad and surely he is sad today, but more than sad he is ashamed.
Sybil knew Robert Crawley saw Downton as his duty, his life's work. And yet there were no tears in his eyes this morning, no emotion in his expression. Nothing.
But, indeed, if Sybil could have looked into her father's heart now, she would have witnessed his deep, deep shame. He had let down his family, his forbears, his employees, everyone. Those were the words that kept running over in his mind, the same words he had used back in April, when he and his wife, Cora, had informed their daughters that Downton Place, a smaller house further north in Yorkshire, was to be their new home. Robert, Cora, Mary and Edith would go to London for the season, as usual—Sybil, not yet out, would stay behind with her governess for one more summer to enjoy the abbey's glorious library on her own—but upon her family's return to the country, they would all have to say goodbye to the grand house and to the majority of the staff, Sybil's governess included, who would not be moving on with them.
The move was the result of a series of bad investments that had shriveled Cora's fortune. (Sybil knew enough about her family's history to know that though her father had brought his aristocratic blood and title to the match, Cora had brought her American money.) The large parcel of land that made up the estate had to be broken up for sale. The house itself and its immediate surroundings would not be sold—Robert's pride could not take so great a hit—but would be left vacant or rented if a suitable tenant could be found. The price of its upkeep and staff was now too much for the family to bare if it expected to maintain a London house and its position in society. Everyone would talk about it, of course, but Robert had hardly been the first lord to mismanage and then lose his estate.
How could he be expected to run it efficiently, be in charge of it, Sybil had always wondered, when his upbringing requires everything else to be done for him. It was a contradiction that made Sybil uncomfortable with the position and comfort that she understood was hers only by accident of birth.
She thought of this again as she watched her father standing, stoic, outside the abbey's doors just as the family was set to depart for Downton Place. Then she thought of the day she'd first seen him cry.
She was 8 years old, and one of Robert's beloved dogs had died. Sybil herself had been fond of the creature and didn't know life without it. So when her mother had told Sybil that the dog's old age had finally caught up to it, Sybil felt the sting of tears in the back of her eyes. On the verge of crying, she sought out her father, his comfort, only to find him as emotional as she was. More emotional, in fact.
It was jarring to realize at such a young age that the pillar you expect to lean on is suddenly not as sturdy as you had imagined or hoped. She supposed now, nearly 16, that that might have been the moment she realized her parents would not always have the answers she was looking for. She supposed too that holding back her tears and not throwing a tantrum, as other children might have, and instead offering her father the comfort she had sought from him was the first time she did something other than what might have been expected of her. It was, in effect, her first rebellion.
Robert was not crying now. Nevertheless, Sybil stepped out of the motor, where she'd been sitting and waiting along with her sisters, walked to her father and took his hand. Then, she said what she'd said to him when she was 8 years old.
"We will be all right."