Author's Note: I had to write this because f&!*k Edna. Also, Lisa Hannigan's "Couldn't Love You More" was my main inspiration, and you can listen to her song on YouTube :)
Couldn't Love You More
She saw him standing by a window, gazing out at the dreary landscape with a whimsical expression completely ill-fitting the cold, dreary day. She wondered if he thought he saw her out there, on horseback or strutting around the courtyard in a pair of trousers.
Elsie knew she ought to make her presence known, but the part of her that still saw him as one of hers took ahold. She remembered how passionate he had been when he first arrived at Downton, barely out of his teens. How he had fought his way to the servant's dining hall and won a place to eat among them. How he had been bold enough to reach for the highest stars with the type of confidence that wasn't borne of ignorance, but rather of hope. Youthful, unabashed hope.
And now he was so very old. If not in years and body, in spirit. Though she saw much less of him now that he was upstairs than she did when he was downstairs, she knew he had changed. She very rarely glimpsed the brightness in his eyes or the quirk of his lips that used to be his staple. The boy was gone. Forever. And that broke her heart almost as much as the whimsy in his face did now.
He needed to let go. She had told him as much after the carnival.
"Mr. Branson?" she quietly asked, expecting him to startle. Instead, he turned to face her with a polite smile. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but Lord Grantham wanted the library readied for his guest this afternoon."
Tom inclined his head the slightest bit and broadened his smile, though it never reached his eyes. "Of course, Mrs. Hughes."
He shuffled out of the room, his hands clasped behind his back, reminding her of a sunny day in August when she had once warned him that if he wasn't careful, he'd wind up with no job and a broken heart. The following years had proved her wrong… until now. Though she could never have predicted her words would come true by Sybil's exit from the world of the living.
The world of the living. She worried the gentle young woman had taken most of Tom with her to the other side, for even on his best days, Tom had been detached ever since.
When Sybbie got an earache a few weeks later, Elsie had to pretend she didn't admire Tom for insisting that he be the one to care for his daughter. He walked the halls of the manor, rocking the toddler for hours, humming softly as she fidgeted and whined through her fever and pain. Elsie passed him several times throughout the day, giving him a tight-lipped smile at each instance, but he hardly seemed to notice her, for she wasn't his daughter.
There was gossip in the hall about how awkward he was making them all feel by being everywhere in the house, even when they were cleaning. About how he seemed lost in his own world and ignored them.
"He's worried about his child," Elsie scolded. "The last thing he needs to worry about is how to pass you in the hall."
"But it's queer, isn't it?" Daisy asked. "A man fussing over a baby as if he were her mother."
"He's all the mother she's got," Mrs. Patmore snipped. "Now mind your own business. We've a soup to put on."
Later that night, after Dr. Clarkson had left and most of the servants had gone to bed, Elise heard a soft voice singing in the kitchen.
"If you plucked the stars out of the sky for me,
If you shone brighter than the sun,
If you laughed away all my pain,
I couldn't love you more. Darlin', I couldn't love you more.
No, I couldn't love you more."
Elise peeked around the corner to find Tom in a chair beside Sybbie, who was sitting on the table, looking much better. A pan of warmed milk was beside the pair and he was supporting her with a hand against her side as he offered her spoonful after spoonful while he softly sang a tune that, by the sounds of it, he was making up as he went.
"If you grew up and became a queen,
Or even a pirate or a lady who sings,
If you never, ever, did anything other than be your lovely self,
I couldn't love you more. No, I couldn't love you more.
Darlin', I couldn't love you more."
The unguarded words in the soft, untrained voice made Elsie ache. She felt her throat tighten and her eyes sting as he caught a dribble of milk on Sybbie's chin with the spoon. She wished she could become a part of the wall, for the sight was such a balm after so much grief. Instead, however, she was caught.
Sybbie made a soft sound around a mouthful of milk, causing Tom to stop humming as she bounced up and down on her diapered bum, staring at Elsie. Looking over his shoulder, the fret in his eyes made Elsie feel like a stranger until his gaze softened when he saw who it was.
"Don't stop on account of me," she said quietly, stepping over. "That was a lovely song."
Tom hastily looked away, and if he didn't have his daughter there to distract him, she was sure he would've blushed even more than he already was. "We helped ourselves to some milk and honey. I hope it's no trouble."
"Not at all." Elsie stepped over to the pair and smiled at the toddler whose cheeks were still flushed but looked much more like her happy, healthy self. "Now, there's a sight for sore eyes."
Tom followed her gaze and smiled at his daughter, pride making him glow despite the tiredness clinging to the corners of his eyes. "Clarkson said it would pass, but still…"
He didn't need to finish his thought. She knew they'd all believed Sybil was out of the woods when she'd suddenly been torn from them.
The thought made her forget herself, if only for a moment, and she rested her hand on Tom's shoulder, startling him somewhat at the contact. A sad part of her realized that Sybbie was now the only one to ever touch him. "She is very lucky to have such a caring father."
Tom's eyes slid from her hand on his shoulder to his daughter's face, his expression somber as Sybbie took the spoon from him and started swirling it around in the pan before clumsily bringing it to her lips. "One day she won't need me."
Elise watched the toddler attempt to feed herself, even as Tom wiped away the errant milk that didn't quite make it to her mouth. "I don't know about that. She'll always be your little girl, no matter how old she gets."
"Someday," he said softly. "She'll have her own family. She won't want her old da around."
And you'll be alone, Elise finished in her head. She gave his shoulder a squeeze then let go. "You never know. One day, you just might meet someone else yourself. You're a handsome young man yet."
The look he gave her was so startled that she chuckled softly as she pulled out a chair and took a seat beside them.
"That's very kind of you," he said quietly, gently prying the sticky spoon from Sybbie's fingers. "But I think I'm done with all that."
"And I wouldn't have it any other way."
There was a finality to his tone that she didn't like. Were he Daisy or one of the footmen, she wouldn't think twice before telling him that he was full of it. But he wasn't their chauffeur anymore. He wasn't one of hers. "Don't judge me too harshly for saying so," she delicately began. "But I knew Lady Sybil her whole life. She wouldn't want you to live a loveless life. She would want you to be happy."
Tom smiled a little, with a hint of the same whimsy she had seen when she caught him gazing out the library window. "But I have plenty of love." He shifted his gaze to his daughter, his expression doting as she tried to pry the spoon out of his grip.
"With all due respect, Mr. Branson, that's not what I –"
"I love her more every day. I see her in our child's smile and innocence. In the parlor and on the stair. And as much as I miss her, I love her more. Oh, so much more than I ever thought I could."
Elsie's lungs seemed to have stopped working as he spoke, and her whole body tightened as his eyes shimmered as he drank in his daughter's features.
"I don't need anything back. Sometimes giving love is so much more than receiving."
He ran the washcloth over Sybbie's face one more time then set her on his lap and kissed one of her chubby cheeks, making her smile, showing off her tiny teeth. Elsie didn't realize that her own eyes were stinging until her vision was blurred by tears.
Tom did a double-take when he noticed the way she was wiping at her eyes. "I'm so sorry, I didn't think –"
"No," she gasped around a little sniffle. "You've nothing to apologize for."
His gaze lingered on her questioningly, his brows lowered slightly in concern as Sybbie fidgeted in his arms.
Elsie could tell him that he hadn't reminded her of a lost love or regrets. She could tell him that what he'd just said was the most beautifully heartbreaking confession she'd ever heard. But the part of her that still thinks he's one of hers won't let her do anything to encourage his bond with the girl he never should've had. "She just so reminds me of her mother," she covered instead, smiling a little and reaching out to stroke a soft brown curl.
Tom's eyes warmed at that and he peered down at his little girl. "So very much."
"Da," Sybbie announces, patting at his cheek with a grin, making him return her smile. "My da."
"That's right," he coos. "You're da."
"Da go bed now."
"Ready to sleep, darlin'? Ready to go night night?"
Sybbie's only response was a yawn, after which she twisted around to try to find the spoon again. Tom rose to distract her, shifting her in his arms to free a hand to carry the pot to the sink.
"I'll take care of that, Mr. Branson," Elsie said, rising and taking the cookware from him. "You go on and get that little angel to bed."
He smiled somewhat sheepishly. "Her nanny finds me a nuisance, I'm afraid."
"All good fathers are."
She was rewarded with a full smile from him before she carried the pot and spoon to the sink and set it down in the basin.
"We have to be very quiet," he was whispering to Sybbie. "And use little voices as we walk back through the house, ok?"
Sybbie merely thumped her head on his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck. Tom kissed her curls and rubbed her back as he glanced around, assuring himself that he hadn't left anything behind. Elsie felt a tug on her heart with each step he took towards the stairs without speaking.
He paused to peer at her over his daughter's back. "Yes?"
"Lady Sybil was very fortunate to have you. And she would be proud. Damn proud."
Tom seemed to freeze for a moment before a crack splintered his cheek and spread across his face like spider webs as his eyes glistened. And just like that, the armored mask fell away and his expression and posture crumpled with a quiet sob. Elsie was no stranger to the young man's tears but the sight made her thoughts trip all over each other as she crossed over to him.
Sybbie pulled back and peered at her father with concern. "Da?"
Tom sucked in a lungful of air, composing himself so suddenly that Elsie suddenly worried that such lapses were more common than she had thought. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I don't mean to make you feel awkward."
"Da?" Sybbie asked again.
"It's all right, love," he assured her, sniffling as he reined himself back in. "You're daddy's just a bit of a fool."
"You're anything but," Elsie scolded before resting her hand on his back. Tom shrugged to wipe off his cheek with a shoulder. "Now go on to bed. You need your rest, too."
He nodded solemnly, his gaze downcast, his cheeks burning with shame over having once again broken down in front of her. "Thank you."
Elsie wanted to hug him, or to tell him that if she'd ever had a son, she'd hope he'd be like him. That he needed to stop apologizing and to regain some of the fire that had once nearly landed him in prison for plotting to cover an officer in ink and cow patties. Instead, she lets him quietly slip upstairs, and as he goes, she feels her hope that he will learn to be loved again fade. He would always be Sybil's.
"And if you slipped into the cold ground," she whispered, "If you left where I couldn't follow, if I never saw you again, I couldn't love you more. No, I couldn't love you more."
Please share your thoughts! And if you enjoyed this, then please check out my book, Darkling, on Amazon under my pen name K.M. Rice :) Thank you!