Hello! I wanted to post something before the holidays - I wish you happy ones, by the way! I'm sorry this lost the sexiness and snowballed into what it did. I hope to wrap this up with one more chapter, because the longer I drag stories on the more out of touch I think I get. This is just more heavy, heavy reflection and reasoning. I promise it will settle soon, though. I just get off on a tangent when I go inside of their heads. I wanted to say thank you, always, for the kind words in your reviews - Truly, through some low times recently, reading reviews and insight from fellow Downton fans & you wonderful readers was important to me. I am so inspired by these characters, and so inspired by the other amazing fanfic writers in this community.

When Henry died, Tom sat beside Mary at the funeral and held her hand. Tom watched as demure Mary Crawley stood motionless beside his casket at the end of the service, her hand resting atop of it. Tom wept for Mary that day, as he watched her try to keep her mask from slipping. She was strong for her children, whispered to them words of comfort, so Tom was the one to whisper words of comfort to Mary. It was cancer, and after the diagnosis he was gone within two months.

When Matthew died, Tom was not sure by whom he had sat, but he knew it was not Mary. Things were different then.

She was the family's backbone now, for which they were all grateful, because she was everlasting. Her daughters cried on her shoulder, and Mary held them close, for though she did not break down openly, she was not going to criticise them for doing so.

None of the three were completely like Mary. They were softer and more free than their mother. They were born without the burdens that their mother was.

George was not completely like Mary, either. George was not completely like anybody.

George sat on the other side of Tom at Henry's funeral, and he held his own the best he could. He was Matthew Crawley's son, but was raised by an array of good men.

His gentler sensibilities inherited from Matthew Crawley fought against the poise and smoothness learned from Mary and Henry. George's expression was otherwise neutral, even as his lip trembled with grief. George was strong throughout the service, though he stayed close to Tom's side, looking a little lost. Tom was his first father figure, and one he still looked to for guidance.

George had learned from Tom, too, of course.

Henry died weeks before George came home from war. It was his last profound worry, the first thing he and Tom talked about every day, and the last thing he talked about at night. His boy at war - Mary's boy, Tom's boy - The only boy the family had seen in decades.

The only child to bear the Crawley name, and one who looked so like his beloved and deceased father that his very likeness was a shrine.

The sun rather rose and fell on one George Crawley, though most would deny it, even as his sisters and cousins would roll their eyes about it. Their war hero, who had survived against all odds. Dear, eldest, strong George - People looked at him the same way people looked at Sybbie, for they were living, breathing extensions of their dead parents.

Tom had felt strange at Henry's funeral, in a way drastically different than how he felt at, say, Matthew's. He felt despair for the family, for all of those Henry left behind, for Mary so resilient in the face of anything, but he felt...energized, motivated...

It was tragedy, losing Henry - But it was...something else for Tom.

The days and weeks after Henry's death, Tom frequented the Abbey for overnight stays. It seemed important for him to be there. It seemed that it was not just George who was coming home - It felt like Tom was coming home, too. It almost felt like, well, the jig is up - Henry had lived out his life married to Mary, and now he was gone and it was - sad, and a loss - but it also felt like...Tom's affections could settle into their rightful place again.

Certainly, he felt selfish for thinking these things.

He was delirious with the familiarity of the Abbey, with the comfort and ease, even more so than he found in the few years they returned to and lived in Ireland. He knew the workings of this place inside and out, above and below stairs, and he knew the woman at the helm of it just the same.

This really was his home now. Sybil would be glad, his Mother would be stricken.

By the time Henry died, it had been three years since Emmeline left Tom, and he had started to make peace with these, well, feelings for Mary. He even persuaded Sybbie to stay for a couple of weeks more with them all together at the Abbey. It was so instantly and neatly the life they had left behind twelve years before - Except for the absence of family members and staff, and for Mary and Henry's grown daughters in the home, and for those hard years where Sybbie had been so angry that they had moved on, and for the fact of the second world war...

Well, it was not so easy as that. It was not simply going home again. Tom was intruding on their intimate grief. He was pushing in to what was a time for George to ease back into this life away from warfare. Tom assumed no one had filled his role after he left - And, maybe, on some level, they had not.

But Henry's daughters were not raised under Tom's tenure at the Abbey, and he laid no claim over the life that had been built there.

He felt like he had given up his livelihood those dozen years, he felt like he had lost so much, lost the home he had been apart of. He felt like he lost a certain future, for an uncertain path. He had his girls with Emmeline, and he would not change that or trade them for the world, but he was not his whole self for so many years now.

Robert and Henry had passed away in quick succession, and the pall of mourning over the Abbey was almost as thick as it had been all of those years before. Going back afterwards, Tom felt like he was wedging himself back in where he did not quite fit anymore, and was not necessarily invited.

He was stupid, he thought. He was a fool, a sad fool.

Tom went home to village and stayed and had not spent a night at the Abbey in the two years since.

Not until this night, after Rosamund's wake.

What was it about death that brought him back here?

Why did he consider this an opportune moment?

Pull yourself together, Tom, he might have said to himself in a lifetime before, when there was a semblance of his old self left.

Mary might have said the same thing. Mary from that previous lifetime would never have followed him into his bedroom in the wee hours of the morning.

Tom pondered deeply, recalling that near fumble, a time when he overestimated and overstepped.

Would he go home for two years after this night, as well?

"Do you know how that sounds, Tom?" Mary asked, quietly, before even considering how the words made her feel.

What had he said?

It was hard to consider anything with him wrapped around her so closely. His words changed the atmosphere of the room - Somehow what felt like a brief chance of closeness was weighed down with that of which he spoke - Love.

Mary frowned.

Mary had hoped that the darkness by the flames could lend them some humility, baring their souls and feelings as such, but she still felt her cheeks burn as he spoke so openly. He did not only love her, he was in love with her. She did not quite know what that meant anymore. She was not even sure she was still in love with Henry before he died. Their marriage was pleasant, was a nice companionship, but the burn had gone off of it in the last years, in terms of actively loving one another. It had just faded, as priorities, business, children, and war came to be.

How could she be in love with anyone else now?

Mary knew she was backtracking as she calmed, and she felt bad but also felt like she had to protect herself.

"I don't care how it sounds." Tom murmured, watching as she tried to get a read on him out of the corner of her eye. She could not see him like she wanted, with the way they stood. She was without her armour.

The firelight highlighted her eyelashes as she blinked through the emotion. He could perceive everything about her in this moment. Her eyelashes were fluttering, she stiffened in his arms, snapping her head straight from his shoulder, and she placed both of her hands on his forearm, as if she may be about to pry him off of her.

"You're the only one to hear it. We're alone, Mary." His voice deepened, and Mary could sense a shift - Where she had been exasperated earlier, he was becoming exasperated now. Or was it desperate? She felt he was darker, suddenly, not intending to persuade her, but...defeated if another chance was lost.

"Yes, but we won't always be." Mary said, softly, her fingers tightening on his arm.

It did not feel like the right time for this, now, she was deciding.

But she was right, was she not? This was a stolen moment, it was not their reality.

"So we just never try? I won't lie to myself anymore."

"I'm not asking you to lie to yourself, Tom. I don't think you have done for quite some time. But what's the sense of it now? You've been alone in that flat in the village for five years - Punishing yourself. You could have went anywhere, but you've been sat down there."

Tom did not question what she thought he was punishing himself for. He knew. She knew. They were always on the same level, even if it was unspoken.

Punishing himself for his failed marriage to Emmeline, punishing himself for his feelings for Mary, for his perceived betrayal of Sybil because of those feelings, punishing himself because he took Sybbie away from the family, had tried to break away...

How very much, Mary must know, he made himself suffer.

Because she punished herself for some very similar things.

Mary tried to wrap her mind around the conflict, the problems with all of this, but so too digest his words - He was in love with her.

She was angry that, hearing him say that, caused her to feel so guilty, and she was angry that she felt this way for him at all (for oh yes, she did feel it), and that she did not have better control of herself. She was angry that he just said it, as if anything could be done about it, as if they were youthful, and in love could mean anything, could have any possibility.

She was battling against her softer emotions. Mary could not piece it together in a way that it would work, and if it was not going to work, then it was just going to be painful. They were going to get hurt, all for naught.

How could she let that happen when they both had been hurt so much already? When they both barely survived their great losses, when they both invested so much into their second chances, only to be disappointing and disappointed. Who were they to assume there was a third chance? Who were they to think they were somehow different than, or above the complications that would come with this?

Mary's eyes widened as her thoughts whirred, as she felt panicked and trapped, and his embrace was none too comforting. It was alien, it was forbidden all these years, and yet...

"Tom," Mary said, her chest rising and falling, as she finally did indeed extract herself from his arms.

"I'm tired." She touched her forehead which throbbed, and she took a step nearer to the fire, away from him, her back still to him.

"Do you want me to go," He asked, and she knew he was sincere.

She knew he had stayed so close for so many years, never entirely leaving, because of what they shared.

From Tom Branson there was a lifetime of devotion, more so than Mary had time to experience with either of her husbands, nor anyone else (save one Charles Carson, who had set the tone for devotion and loyalty in this household long before she was even born, rest his soul).

"This is your room," Mary sighed, and she shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut, feeling her shoulders tighten.

Mary did not quite feel like herself, did not quite understand the trajectory of life that lead her here, that found her in Tom Branson's arms this August night. Her past became so murky when she considered making him her future.

Had she not been a more subtle creature once upon a time? Had she not been able to carry herself through situations like this more easily, with less aching in her chest, or at least less evidence of said aching in her expression?

Mary did not like how the years had softened her, had dulled some of her edges, though most would deny that she had dulled one bit. She did not like that she was so easy to read, that she could not shut herself off to him like she could anyone else (everyone else).

It was just so...taboo. It just seemed so unlike either of them, so out of the blue and drastic. Could they not just let it fade out, as sad as that may be? How could this develop sensibly?

She thought of going down the road to the dower house, and holding her Mama's hand as she looked into her icy eyes, clouded with age, and asked her what she thought of, say, a third love in her daughter's life - What say you, Mama, of Tom Branson and I shacking up?

Her dear, feeling Mama, what would she possibly think?

Mary felt shameful, in a way. She felt like the whole world would be able to see that she, that they, had these feelings for much longer than had ever been acknowledged.

She worried it would be written across her face, though good as she was at suppressing things. She worried that everyone would assume they had carried on like this all along - and they had not - and it made her insides twist in humiliation.

Mary did not want anyone to know this much about her, did not want anyone to think about her that way - She did not want anyone to assume she was a reckless woman (wasn't she, though?), who was in some affair with her brother-in-law. It had not been like that.

She did not want their children to wonder what had gone on behind closed doors.

Would people think that? How could she stop them from thinking it, if they did?

Or, perhaps, would they believe it was innocent, it was gradual, and gentle? Would they care to know that it was never spoken about or acted upon, that they were just a strength and support to the other, and that was it? That they were lucky to care so deeply for each other, after losing their first spouses? That without each other...Mary could not finish the thought.

Would anyone care, or did she care most of all?

"What could we have done differently?" Mary asked, a murmur, a ponder, a plea. Her eyelids fluttered as her pulse quickened.

She could use another drink about now, for she could not stop questioning everything and anything, and the mood was just about ruined. She needed an answer from him, a good answer. She wanted to shake him as her brain pulsed.

"Nothing," Tom answered quickly, brow furrowed, wanting to reassure her.

"Well, everything," He then sighed. "It isn't fair to look at it like that - We could have done everything differently, but it would have been less...honourable."

"Oh Tom, let's not pretend there's anything honourable about this. Waiting until now..." Mary sighed, too, and she had not fully opened her eyes in several moments, immersed inside her own head. Behind her eyelids was red, the glow from the fire seeping through.

"We weren't waiting." Tom said pointedly, as she had mentioned the same thing earlier.

"I suppose not - I suppose we thought..." She trailed off, shaking her head. "I never thought I'd be widowed again with any life left to live."

Mary had not turned around, could feel him looming over her shoulder with expectations.

It seemed they were a world apart now, the minutes he held her were fading fast, the space between them shadowy and dark, an entity in and of itself.

"We couldn't very well have been waiting when we didn't know how the other felt," Tom said, reasoning with her, as if he was talking someone down from the ledge.

He was frustrated talking to the back of her head. He was losing her before he had even found her.

"I still don't know how you feel." Tom finished, and Mary's neck flexed uncomfortably as she tried to ground herself, tried not to let her thoughts tumble from her mouth without consideration.

"You must." She clenched and unclenched her fists habitually, speaking through her teeth.

She turned round then, and bent to collect her wrinkled dress from where it pooled onto the floor, from that moment when it seemed like they were heading somewhere, when impulses were controlling them both.

She clutched the dress to her chest, shielding what little modesty she had left, and turned to face him again. She found his expression was calm and patient, even as her own features were pinched with stress.

"Well, essentially, but...I've said it, haven't I?" Indeed, he had. Mary remembered when he loved her sister, loved her so fiercely, so desperately, defiant in the face of rejection and divisions.

Mary and Tom were practically one in the same now, there was no divide, class or otherwise.

Could she deny the chance to be loved again? Her nose stung with emotion as she replayed the words. Oh, how many precious times had she been told that, by how many men. Love. How few of them had even really known her. How few of them she had loved in return. Certainly the score was not even. She had not loved them all, had loved but a fraction of them.

This man, though, this good, strong man, this supportive, loving man - This passionate, caring man - Of course it was Tom, it was this version of Tom that perhaps she could, perhaps...

"What say you, Tom, maybe in another lifetime?" Mary ventured, sad and careful.

Where had gone her bravery from earlier.

"You must see, Mary - This is the other lifetime," Tom said, his tone still deep, but it was sad, too, though still steady and calm. "In any other time, in any other life, if we could...have them, we certainly would never come to be. We are simply what is left."

How profound, but of course he was right. If there was any other chance after this, she would want Matthew, and he Sybil. If there was anything beyond this long life to see their beloved again, of course - Of course that was what they wanted. This life without them was the alternative, was the only tragic scenario in which there could be Tom and Mary, together.

Mary gathered herself up, taking a deep breath, and took one step closer to him again. Mary looked into his light-coloured eyes, her face casting a shadow across his own. She had never been this close to Tom before tonight, or rather had never stayed this close to him - A peck on the cheek in greeting or parting, perhaps, and then on she would go, but these moments were slow and heavy.

She could see him in a sort of detail that she never had. She could see his wrinkles and faded freckles. She could see the cleft in his chin, the curve of his lips. She could see the sprinkling of grey in his hair, though he somehow still looked boyish and bright to her, to everyone.

She could see the man her sister had married, through the age and the years, and she saw the man who raised Sybbie and his younger girls, who loved George as his own, who loved Downton as his own, now, too.

It was his home, though he had not lived there in some time, and Mary wondered if she should ask him to come back.

Some part of him had been waiting for years for her to ask him to come home.