It Was There, By The Sea
A/N: Like all the Tom/Sybil shippers out there, I was left devastated following Episode 5. I couldn't stop crying after watching the episode and nearly had a meltdown the following morning at work when I started up my internet radio only to be met by Celtic music. Every time I thought about the show, especially that scene and the last image of Tom holding his daughter at the window, I almost felt sick. I've read the tumblrs, blogs, and authors notes on fanfiction, and thank God I'm not alone, otherwise I might have committed myself to the nearest padded room.
Despite the horrific tragedy of watching Sybil die, I love how beautifully everything was acted (especially Allen Leech and Elizabeth McGovern) – nothing too 'over the top' – simply painful and real. Tom and Sybil, even though they got little screen time (at least for us shippers), were what drew me to the show. I hope that Fellowes does Tom justice for the rest of the season (although I'm harboring doubts on that point), because I'll be waiting to see how he copes and begins a new journey with his baby girl.
I'm a long-time reader and occasional writer, though all my drabbles have been kept in the closet so far. Unfortunately, my happy stories and one-shots, written mostly in anticipation of Season 3, are largely AU now. Some of them got re-worked and incorporated here. Like many of you, I hit the keyboard for therapy after Sunday's episode – this was the result. As soon as I heard Sybil say "We can just lie back and look at the stars," an image popped in my mind. I knew there were happy times buried in that hallucination and I wanted to write it. At first I didn't know if I could write something with Sybil in the past tense – it was just too hard to think about (I know, such emotional attachment to fictional characters can't be healthy), but writing certainly helped process the grief. This was supposed to be a quick one-shot based on what wound up as the last flashback, but in getting there, the others started pouring out. I hope I've done these characters justice. I don't know what the timeline for the series is henceforth, particularly as it relates to Tom's grief, so this will likely be AU in a few hours when Episode 6 hits the airwaves.
I own nothing here except the time and the computer to write it, and of course any grammatical errors or historical faux pas.
The billiard game had been a complete disaster. He briefly wondered if, someday, Matthew would tell his children about their crazy Irish uncle who declared war on the English through a priceless family heirloom. Since Sybil's death, or at least since he had returned to eating with the family, his habit was to retire to the nursery after dinner and hold his baby daughter, rocking her to sleep. He had no desire to prattle after meals or socialize over cocktails. He simply wanted to eat, hold his daughter, and hopefully fall into a restless sleep before starting another monotonous day. It had been two months since Sybil had brought their daughter into the world, so blissfully happy for a few short hours before she passed painfully into the night. The days were long, except when he was cradling little Sybbie in his arms, but the nights were even longer.
This evening, without thinking, he accepted Matthew's offer for a game of billiards after dinner. His brother-in-law had been a true friend to him in the aftermath. He never hovered, never offered too much advice, but supported him with quiet words and actions. They were opposites, but shared the bond of having fallen hopelessly in love with the Earl's daughters. Matthew was beloved son Lord Grantham never had, having risen from middle-class solicitor to the heir of Downton, not to mention the estate's financial savoir. For his part, Tom was the working class, hot-tempered, son-in-law with his emotions on full display. The Earl tolerated him only because he fathered the first grandchild, a beautiful little girl, named for her mother. Little Sybbie was Tom's only hold on the cold, dank house now. Banished from his home country, Downton was their refuge for the moment. He supposed he could go back to Ireland, be arrested as he descended to dry land, and accept what happened to him in prison. But, he had fallen as hopelessly in love with his daughter as he had her mother. Just as Sybil had fought for him against her family, he did the same for his baby girl. He wanted her christened a Catholic, and she was. He wanted to take an active role in her daily care, and he did. He met resistance from his father-in-law every day, but Tom fought for her. He fought for Sybil.
The billiard match with Matthew, played largely in silence, came down to a final shot. His brother-in-law understood, like no one else in the house, the pain brought about by losing a love much too soon. No doubt Matthew loved Mary; indeed, they were destined to be together. But, he had also loved Lavinia, and was by her side when she succumbed expectantly to the Spanish Flu, just hours after being declared well. Their situations nearly identical, Matthew empathized with him. Somehow, through the marriages and sufferings, the two had bonded. So, they retired from their father-in-law's company, the brandy and cigars, to a quite game of billiards.
Tom had almost, almost, been able to divest his mind of his lost wife through the clicks and clatter of the game. Things would never be back to normal in his mind, perhaps, but he was finding ways to survive in a new normal without her. He lined up a shot, an easy attempt at a corner pocket, and missed. He remained bent over the table, stunned, as the ball idled harmlessly away. He stared blankly at the offending object and felt an inexplicable rage bubbling in his chest. He was banished from his home land, his wife dead, his child motherless – was God so cruel as to torment him into a place where he couldn't even sink a simple play at a corner pocket? He pulled back, inhaling a deep breath, and snapped the cue stick over his knee (which left an unfortunate linear bruise the following morning). Tossing half of it into the floor, he used the other half to take out his frustration on an unsuspecting vase on the mahogany sideboard. Dozens of shards burst into the air and rained helplessly to the floor, which he continued to beat both with the broken stick and then with his polished dinner shoes, emphasizing each with a muttered profanity.
"Fecking…English…vase," he spat, crunching one last decent-sized piece with his foot.
To his credit, Matthew stood aside, not altogether shocked, while he threw the tantrum. Once silence blanketed the room, and the clinking of porcelain remains had stopped, his brother-in-law asked, "Feel better?"
"Not really," Tom replied, running a hand through his ruffled hair. "Sorry."
"Hm." Matthew nodded slowly and eyed the shattered vase with a raised brow. "Perhaps we should call it a night?"
Tom half-laughed, and pitched the remainder of the cue stick in the corner. He felt horrible, but mostly because one of the staff would have to clean up his mess. Damn the vase. It probably cost more than five-years' salary for him, that is if he still had a job, which he didn't. He strode toward the door, leaving an incriminating trail of blue porcelain in his wake. The outburst had summoned Lord Grantham, Mary, Edith and the Dowager Countess from the drawing room. He passed them at the threshold, where they stared at him in merciful silence. Robert and his daughters then scuttled into the room, presumably to ensure he hadn't decapitated the future Earl of Grantham in his fit of madness.
In the hall, he paused in front of Sybil's grandmother, suddenly ashamed. Propped regally on her silver-handled walking stick, she observed him with silent disapproval. He had driven her about the estate for nearly seven years, and had overheard the sage wisdom parceled out to everyone. She was at once fiercely protective of her family, but determined to meet society's expectations of their position. He remembered shortly after being fitted for the morning coat for Matthew's wedding, she sent him directly to Mr. Carson for "further instruction." He hadn't understood the curious remark until the butler led him downstairs to Mrs. Hughes' sitting room. For the next several hours, Tom sat like an awkward school boy, the door shut, and a full dinner place setting on the small table in front of him, with Mr. Carson playing the role of footman and Mrs. Hughes directing him to the correct pieces of cutlery and goblets for each serving. Apparently, the Dowager was taking no chances with his etiquette at the wedding reception. Tom stubbornly reminded them he had once waited a table. Mr. Carson glowered at him, and responded, Considering the last time you waited a table, Mr. Branson, I wouldn't brag if I were you. After that, Tom sheepishly accepted the instructions, and grew anxious at the plethora of rules he would have to remember.
Since Sybil's death, though, the Dowager he had been surprisingly supportive, a noble champion in his corner, though she was still quick to condemn inappropriate behavior (even through a sharply raised brow) when she thought it warranted. Like now.
He gave her a nod. "I'm sorry," he admitted. "I lost my temper."
"A game of billiards," he replied. "Sybil. The occupation of Ireland. Everything."
"My Heavens, and we only lost a vase?"
He sighed and glared the menacing staircase that led to another night of loneliness. "Just when I think I've got everything sorted out in my head, the reality of my life drops down on me like a load of bricks."
"My dear boy, the reality of your life is that you lost your wife, whom you loved very much. As did we all." She sighed heavily, moisture glistening in her aged eyes. "The reality is also that you have a family that supports you and a daughter who needs you. Grief can be either a good servant or a cruel master." She squeezed his arm affectionately before heading toward the door and her ride home.
Sinking his hands deep into his pockets, he slowly made his way toward the staircase. He was learning that grief was indeed a peculiar thing - too many maybes, what-ifs, doubts, and regrets together in a hellish conspiracy designed to torment him. After the lonely weeks dragged on, he found himself in a perpetual, consuming cycle. Nights of quiet sobs, clutching a pillow where she should have laid beside him, were followed by other nights of forcing happy memories, so many captured in the short time they were together. He replayed them over and again in his mind, burning them to memory so that he would never forget.
At other times, he gave into depression and blamed himself. If he had simply resigned his position that day she refused him in York, she would have found another life, away from him. Perhaps if he had been more pragmatic in his political views and actions, he wouldn't have been banished from his homeland and exiled back to Downton. They would still be in Dublin, living in their economical flat and she would have given birth at the hospital where she once loved to work. Maybe she would have lived to see their baby for more than a few minutes. Maybe. He knew he would have to let the grief go. Eventually. But he wasn't ready. Not just yet.
Alfred, one of the two new footmen, stopped short in the hall. "Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" he asked hesitantly.
Tom shook his head and forced a gracious smile before ascending the stairs – after all, the lad had been one of the few downstairs staff to not treat him as a pariah. It was Alfred who was assigned the job as Tom's de facto valet (which he didn't need, but tolerated), and it was Alfred that found him a week after the funeral, passed out on the bathroom floor from a night of nausea and vomiting. The days after Sybil's death had left his system disarray. His food refused to stay down. He lost weight. His head swam every time he stood. His hands shook uncontrollably, and he often woke in the night, his sweat-soaked clothes strangling him like a vice. In those hellish moments as he came to consciousness, he found himself gasping for air, just as she did in her final moments. His last images of her, struggling between life and death, were still too real. They haunted him, along with his futile pleas for her to stay with him.
He successfully hid the debilitating effects in the immediate aftermath, and rarely strayed beyond the confines of his room, capitalizing on the ritual of mourning to take his meals in solitude. Nervous exhaustion, Dr. Clarkson called it. It was Mary, Edith, and Cora who nursed him back to health, ably aided by Matthew's mother. Most of the time he silently prayed for God to just go ahead and take him so they could be together. But the Crawley women refused to grant him that wish. He soon realized Sybil came by her stubbornness honestly. It was a family trait. It took more than a week for him to function again, or at least feel like his body hadn't been hit by a train.
He awoke one morning to a bright and sunny summer sky. Automatically, he rolled over, refusing to face the empty side of the bed, and instead squinted against the light glaring through the opened drapes. He heard Alfred scuffling about, fetching clothes to launder and putting away those that had just been cleaned. "Good morning, Mr. Branson," he said, a cheerful tone.
Alfred smiled – most mornings his charge just harrumphed, his thoughts far away. "Would you like to take breakfast downstairs, sir?" he asked, a hopeful tone to his question.
Tom sighed heavily – he wasn't quite ready for that yet. "Here will be just fine. Thank you."
"Very good – I'll bring something up in a jiffy." He had no more gotten to the door when a sharp wail came from the adjoining nursery where baby Sybil slept. Both of their heads turned to the open doorway. "Shall I check on her, sir?"
Tom's brow furrowed. "The nurse should be in there – it's time for her morning feed." Weakly, he propped himself up against the headboard. His whole body ached. "Where is she?"
Alfred dropped the clothes in a nearby chair and strode into the nursery, which he found absent of the nurse. The baby continued to wail, her face scrunched up, reddening by the second. He glanced back at Tom through the door and shook his head.
Tom swung his feet to the floor and attempted to stand, but his head swam violently. Alfred caught him just before he toppled into a table by the window, and then pulled him safely into an overstuffed chair. "Bring me Sybbie."
Alfred stared at him blankly. "I've never held a baby before, Mr. Branson, what if…"
Tom grasped the arm of the chair to stay the dizziness. "Just pick her up, blankets and all, and bring her here."
"Yes, sir." The footman soon returned with the bundled baby, awkwardly trying not to drop her nor squeeze her too hard. He eased the wailing infant down into her father's arms.
"What's the matter, love? Are you hungry?" His gentle rocking only seemed to intensify the cries. He eased some of the blankets aside and winced. "Oh. I'd be screamin' too."
Alfred looked alarmed. "What is it?"
"Well if the bloody nurse isn't here, I suppose we'll have to take care of it."
"Take care of what?"
Tom slowly stood, Alfred on guard with his arms outstretched for any wobbles. He carefully lay the wailing infant on top of the nearby table and nodded towards the nursery. "Fetch some clean nappies from the other room."
Alfred's eyes widened. "What do they look like?"
Tom sized up square with his hands in the air. "And bring a basin of water and a wash cloth." He steadied himself against the table with one hand and lightly stroked her cheek with the other, trying to soothe her cries. Through the plague of seclusion and sickness over the past few weeks, he hadn't had the chance to take all of her in, not since the first two days of her existence, when he nearly refused to let her go, to top staring at her eyes, Sybil's eyes. Soft wavy strands of hair framed her face, angelic to him even through the resounding cries. Her chin, his chin he noticed, quivered as she took in a bountiful amount of fresh air for another scream. He smiled and rubbed her belly, which seemed to have gotten bigger and rounder.
Alfred interrupted his thoughts with half a dozen nappies draped over one shoulder, a few wash cloths on the other, and a basin in his hands. Tom set about undressing the baby and cleaning her for a fresh set of clothes. The cold water only made her cry harder, but she finally settled down once he started wrapping her little bottom warmly in the fresh nappy. He changed dozens of cousins, nieces, and nephews as a young lad, but he was out of practice and had forgotten how to fold and pin the garments securely. By the time he finished, it looked more like a failed experiment, but it stayed on securely when he picked her up. She seemed happy enough, her cries muted to hungry gurgles as she sucked on her tiny hand. He smiled down at her; she blinked back, her wide eyes affixed to his.
Both he and Alfred startled when the nurse appeared at the nursery door. "Oh, thank God," she gasped, her hand clutching the front of her dress. "I thought someone had snatched her. It looks like a thief has torn through the bureau."
Tom glared at her. "She was screaming her little ears off and needed a change."
The nurse glared back. "Well, it was time for her to feed, wasn't it? I had to fetch fresh milk from the kitchen."
"Did you have to find the cow, too?"
She narrowed her eyes, opened her mouth to speak, but decided against it. She knew of the man's troubles and how despondent he had been over the past weeks, and just simply reached for the baby. "I'll take her now."
"No," he said, shortly. "I'll take care of her this morning. Just hand me the bottle and leave us be."
"What do you know about feeding a baby?"
"More than you think. Now please just do as I ask," he snapped. "And you can take her soiled clothes as well."
Alfred watched warily as the nurse huffed off with the dirty garments and returned with the bottle, setting it a little more firmly than necessary on the marble-topped table.
Tom ignored her as he eased back into the chair, cradling his daughter. The footman passed him the bottle and smiled at the pair of them as the infant greedily suckled on her breakfast. "She's quite a beauty, sir," he said. "Everyone downstairs says so as well."
"Don't be getting any ideas, Alfred. She's going to be her Da's girl for a long, long time."
"I'll be back up shortly with your breakfast," he said, but Tom didn't hear. He was too engrossed in his daughter's eyes, Sybil's eyes.
They had taken their morning meals together since then. He had even learned the art of holding her in one arm, the bottle carefully wedged against his chin or chest, while he read the paper and ate his own breakfast. It was their time together, father and daughter. He found her to be a morning person, just like her mother, bright-eyed and eager to get a start on the day with the first light.
As had become his nightly ritual, and avoiding for as long as possible the return to an empty bedroom, he turned at the top of the staircase and headed for the nursery. Mercifully, following the funeral, his mother-in-law had quickly and quietly arranged a suite for them, down at the end of the family gallery and away from the room that was once Sybil's and then theirs together – the room where she struggled through the final stages of her life. But he still had to pass their old room every night to see his daughter. He paused outside the door, placed his hand on the knob and closed his eyes. He hadn't been in there since they removed her body. He had watched her go while he held the baby in his arms, with a frustratingly endless stream of tears dripping from his chin. It would be the last time the three of them were alone together, as a family. He wanted to go in and face the past, but didn't know if he could ever return to the brightly papered walls that were so reflective of Sybil's personality.
The first time he entered the room was their return for Mary and Matthew's wedding. Sybil walked in, so comfortable, automatically placing her gloves and purse on the dresser and moving freely about – she knew where everything was supposed to be. Suddenly realizing it was his first time in her Downton bedroom, so large and airy and bright, so different from their spartan but comfortable Dublin room, he felt small and inadequate. This was where she grew up, dressed for balls, and laughed with her sisters.
Later, after dinner, they lay in bed holding each other, discussing the expectations for the remainder of the trip, which included an ominous visit by one of her former suitors. Satisfied that they would face whatever came together, she slipped her hand beneath his shirt, a wicked smile lighting her face. The first months of her pregnancy had left her exhausted and he certainly thought she would have been too tired from the trip, but as usual, she surprised him. She drew him too her and kissed him greedily, but after a few moments, pulled back with confusion and concern at his reticence.
"Nothing," he answered quickly.
Too quickly, she observed. "Nothing, indeed, seems to be the problem," she hedged, her hand sliding downward towards his waist, her fingers teasing the band of his pajama bottoms. "What is it?"
Embarrassed and red-faced, he rolled away from her. This had never, never, been a problem for him before. He should have known she wouldn't let it go.
"Tom," she hedged, snaking an arm around him, pressing her swelling middle to his back.
He sighed and squeezed his eyes. God, she felt so warm and soft against him.
"Tell me." She waited, her worry growing by the moment. "If something's the matter, perhaps you should pay a visit to Doctor…."
"It really is nothing," he cut in hastily. He loved her passion as a nurse, but hated it when she started dissecting every ailment. She could be terribly clinical at times. He huffed. "I'm just tired is all. It's been a long day."
She rested her chin on his shoulder. He could feel the smile on her lips as she bent to kiss his cheek and then again in her voice when she spoke. "I don't believe you," she whispered, her fingers tracing lazy patterns on his stomach. "Talk to me."
Reluctantly, he turned in her arms, wishing his ears and cheeks hadn't been set aflame in humiliation. He watched her gaze down at him as she brushed a wayward lock from his brow. She patiently awaited and silently demanded an answer. After a moment, he sighed heavily. "The room's too big, the walls are too bright, and the bed's too soft," he rattled quickly.
She raised that eyebrow and bit back a smile. "What?"
"It's not home."
She smiled and he knew she understood. They had made their lives in that small corner room back in Dublin, had found peace there on their wedding night. It was theirs, with its clean, white-washed walls adorned with a few small inexpensive paintings that Mary and Edith brought over for the wedding. Their furniture was plain and second-hand, but in good repair. The bed had a terrible squeak that they had yet to fix and had just learned to live with. The size of the room left them bumping into one another as they dressed for work, her fussing with her nurse's cap in front of the dresser mirror, him scrambling behind her in the limited view to straighten his tie. Within the first few days of their marriage, modesty had been relegated to a distant and laughable memory. They had left Downton and all of its luxury behind for a simpler life and they both reveled in it.
But, their little flat wasn't the only place they had found happiness. "That's never stopped us before," she reminded him, and huskily whispered something about Portmarnock in his ear.
He rolled his eyes, his resolve weakening. "Not to mention that we have your sisters on either side of us."
She laughed aloud then. "These walls are pretty thick."
He smirked at that. "Not thick enough for us," he replied smugly, and found it hard to suppress a smile as she traced his lips with her fingers. He kissed them, feather-light.
She snuggled closer against him, her hand sliding further beneath his shirt. Her kiss was at first tender and inviting, but quickly evolved into an urgent request. Her ministrations began to get the better of him (he knew they eventually would). She felt him harden against her thigh. "There's the Tom Branson I know and love," she whispered, pressing deeper into him with an exploring kiss.
He woke the next morning to a blinding light. Anna, or Mrs. Bates (he wasn't sure which the appropriate title was) had slipped in quietly to open the curtains. He had not even thought about the daily routines of the staff as it pertained to the bedrooms and here he was, the former chauffer, settled comfortably under the bedcovers with the Earl's youngest daughter, their naked bodies spooned together. Mortified, he tried not to move or even breathe as Anna darted about her duties.
"Good morning, Lady Sybil," she said brightly.
Sybil took a hearty breath, exhaling against the morning chill. She tried to wedge herself further back into the warmth of his body, her frosty toes digging into his shins like icicles. "Good morning, Anna."
Anna finished tidying up the room, including retrieving discarded garments for laundering. Pulling his nightshirt from the floor, she peered at him from the corner of her eye with a suppressed smile. "Good morning, Mr. Branson."
"Good morning," he replied awkwardly. He supposed it was too much to hope she wouldn't notice him.
"Lady Sybil, is there anything in particular you would like for breakfast? Or maybe I should ask, in your condition, is there anything that you don't want?"
"No, I'm past all that now. At the moment I can handle most anything." She yawned and rolled in her husband's arms to kiss him, shaking her head at his embarrassment.
"Well, I'll have something sent up for you then and will be back 'round to help you with anything you need."
Tom's eyes followed her until the door clicked shut; he exhaled a relieved sigh and buried his face against his wife's neck.
She kissed his temple. "What did you expect?"
"I certainly didn't expect just anyone to barge in without knocking."
"She wasn't barging in, darling. She's doing her job."
"Well, she certainly didn't take my order for breakfast."
"That's because you get to eat downstairs with Papa and my sisters."
Pressing her hands on either side of his face, she smiled and kissed him soundly. "I'm a married woman. I can have breakfast in bed if I like."
"We've not been here twenty-four hours and already you're sending me off on my own to have breakfast with your father and sisters? I'm a lamb to the slaughter."
She muffled her laughter against his chest. "You'll be fine, darling. Edith's always liked you. She'll help steer the conversation to more pleasant topics." Her hand meandered under the covers and found its target. "Speaking of pleasantries, breakfast won't be ready for a while yet…."
His lips curled into a lazy smile. "Are you honestly trying to get me killed?"
Her only response was another kiss, her warm tongue probing and finding his own. His eyes squeezed shut as his body quickly responded to her stroking hand. He groaned and pulled her on top of him, wondering what he could have possibly done right to deserve a life with this woman.
The memory flooded through him like a dull knife; he swallowed hard against the threatening tears and pulled his hand away from the door knob. He wasn't ready to go back in there. Not yet. He turned and padded slowly to the end of the hall, to the corner suite Cora had set up for them. It offered them a little privacy, their own space in a world that neither was destined for.
He found his mother-in-law in the nursery, the lamp light casting a soft glow across the room. She rocked the baby, who was wide awake and entertaining her Grandmama with quiet coos. It was he and Cora who held onto Sybil as she passed from this world, the last to feel the warmth of her skin and the weakening pulse beneath it. Beyond himself, Sybil's loss had hit her mother the most acutely. For weeks, she isolated herself from Lord Grantham, blaming him for their daughter's death. Tom stayed out of the couple's fray; he had quite enough troubles of his own without playing judge and jury over the matter. But, the baby girl in Cora's arms seemed to heal some of the pain for her. It was the Countess' first grandchild, and she was more than accustomed to girls by now. And, in the loss, she also gained a son. Tom may not have been from the right society, or even the right country, but Cora had no doubt how much he loved her daughter.
He closed the door behind him. "In the absence of a priest, I might as well confess to you," he said. "I destroyed one of the vases in the billiard room."
"The blue one?"
She smiled. "That's quite alright – it was never one of my favorites – that's why I put it in there. Men have no taste for such things."
"I'm sorry nonetheless. I lost my temper over a silly game."
The vase was of no concern to her, particularly in light of the angel that fought sleep in her arms. She rocked gently, the baby grasping her little finger.
He sat across from her, elbows propped on his knees. "I thank you for the chair," he said. "She seems to enjoy it."
"My father sent this chair to me before Mary was born. Neither she or Edith ever had much use of it. But Sybil – it seemed as if she would never go to sleep unless I rocked her first. She was happiest when she was moving, constantly on the go, until she fell asleep. She wanted to squeeze every ounce of life from the day," she said. "It seems this one is going to be just like her. You're going to have your hands full."
"That's fine by me. The more she's like her mother, the better person she'll be."
"The more she's like both of you," Cora corrected, firmly. "Don't sell yourself short, Tom."
He sighed heavily. "I wish she hadn't left this world seeing me a failure…."
"No," she interrupted. "If my daughter were here, she would raise this roof hearing you say that."
He shrugged, leaning back in the chair. "I don't know what to do," he confessed. "I've sent out inquiries at several papers, but not one has responded. It seems no one wants to take a chance on a disgraced Dublin journalist, an Irish Catholic at that. I suppose I could always go back to working with cars if I had to…"
"Sybil didn't want that. She wanted you to move forward. She loved you very much, and was so proud of everything you had accomplished." She stood, kissing her granddaughter on the cheek, and motioned him towards the rocking chair. Easing the baby into his arms, she said, "Sybil would want you to continue making this world a better place, so that her daughter can experience all the things she never could." Little Sybbie yawned, widely, and blinked back up at him, still fighting sleep as he began rocking her.
"You will stay here as long as it takes," she said. "You are a part of this family now, not because you married my daughter and fathered my first grandchild, but because Sybil adored you and you made her happier than anyone else ever could. That means more to me than anything. It's not just little Sybbie brining light back into this house, it's you too, because you and my daughter were so much alike."
She smiled down at the pair of them, feeling her heart both ache and take comfort at the sight.
He paused momentarily, carefully forming the words in his mind. "In the end, do you think she knew we were there?"
Her eyes suddenly prickled at the catch in his soft, lilting voice.
"Only, she was in such pain, and her mind didn't seem to be…even before the baby was born, she was confused. I hate to think she left this world alone."
She felt a familiar burn in her chest, the images of that night flooding back into mind, and the hallucinations that triggered the growing fears for her daughter's life. She sighed heavily, and wondered if there was any answer that could comfort him. "I remember my mother once said that God doesn't let people suffer."
He scoffed quietly.
"….but that even when death is painful, He finds a way to let them have peace," she said. "When I came into the room that night, before the baby was born, Sybil asked Dr. Clarkson about being on duty. I think you'll agree that one of the happiest times of Sybil's life was when she worked at the hospital."
He nodded. "She loved it very much."
"Then perhaps her mind found peace there to block out the pain she was enduring."
He pondered briefly on what Cora had said, and wondered if there was any truth in it. He glanced down at Sybbie, who had latched onto his finger with her tiny fist. She let out another yawn, stubbornly fighting against impending slumber. She was so like her mother that it took his breath away. He smiled, suddenly, his throat tight.
"I was just thinking about something she said before…." He bent down to place a kiss against his daughter's head. "She said 'We can just lie back and look at the stars.' I had forgotten about it until now."
"Did that mean something to her?"
He nodded. "Yes, it did."
"Was it something that made her happy?"
"It was," he whispered through the threatening tears. "It made both of us very happy."
She bent down and placed an affectionate kiss on the top of his head. "Then she didn't die alone, Tom. Even as she began to slip away, you were in her heart. And you always will be."
It was unusually warm and pleasant for an early October in Ireland. The cold gray skies of the previous weeks had opened to abundant sunshine, undoubtedly the last gasp of summer's breath. After four months of marriage, they had settled into the routines of their respective jobs. She relished her position at the hospital, despite its unpredictable schedule that sometimes required working on the weekends or overnight. His work at the paper was not lucrative, but it was a start. He refused to dip into her dowry unless something drastic happened, like when they had to replace the stove. To facilitate a little more for savings, and only when her schedule left him at home by himself, he worked a few hours at his brother-in-law's garage.
One particular Saturday, he went there to tackle a personal project. A surprise for Sybil. Up under the motor, he felt a tap on the bottom of his shoe, accompanied by a husky voice. "You know, with all the time you spend over here, I was beginning to think you had taken a mistress." Surprised, he forgot was he was doing and moved his hand too quickly. A large bolt from somewhere in the belly of the car dropped directly on his forehead. An emphatic Irish profanity escaped before he could help it.
He rolled out from beneath the motor, wincing, his palm pressed to a spot just above his left eyebrow. "You could call her that, I suppose, but she's not so charming as some others I've met."
After hours of working on the car, he was glad for the opportunity to stand. He looked at the position of the sun and assumed it wasn't even noon yet. He knew he must look a mess in front of her, covered in grease and dirt, his forehead now highlighted by a giant crimson welt. He peeled his hand from away his head and looked at it, thankful there was no blood.
"What on earth are you doing out here? Why aren't you in the shop with Michael?" she laughed.
He smiled as she took a nearby cloth to playfully wipe away a smear of oil from his nose. "It was supposed to be a surprise," he said, pointing over his shoulder. "I hope you don't mind, but I worked out a deal with Michael for it."
She glanced around him and eyed the car suspiciously.
"Don't worry. It didn't cost much."
"I should hope not. The poor thing looks like it's been abused."
He chuckled. "You're lucky, then, that your husband knows a thing or two about cars. She runs well enough for the moment, but it will take a while to get her in tip-top condition. Michael's been good enough to let me borrow the shop tools. You don't mind, do you?"
He looked so happy and satisfied with himself, that she couldn't help but laugh. "Of course not, but what possessed you to want one? I thought you would have done with motors for a while."
"Well, it's quite a walk for you back and forth to the hospital, and it won't get any easier with winter coming on soon. And, I need to be able to get around on my own as well, with the work Seamus has me doing at the paper. So, I thought it a practical investment. Besides, you haven't seen Ireland beyond Dublin yet. Once we finally get a break in our schedules I thought I would take you out into the countryside for a day or two."
She leaned up to kiss him, soundly. "Thank you," was all she could say.
His greased hands slipped to her waist and pulled her closer. "I would have made other plans, though, if I'd known you'd have such a short work day."
"I didn't know it myself, but they accidentally over-staffed and decided to send a few of us home." She trailed her fingers lightly through the hair at the back of his neck.
"They've certainly worked you hard enough. You deserve a bit of a rest."
"I'd love to rest. Only, today is so beautiful that I feel we should go somewhere and enjoy it."
He smiled, his eyes alit, and patted the bonnet of the car. "You know, I think the old girl could scuttle us as far as the seaside."
An hour later, with a basket of food and a backseat piled with blankets in case the fickle Irish weather took a sudden turn, they were on their way to Portmarnock. She snuggled next to him in the seat, the motor sputtering along through the outskirts of town toward the shore.
The fine weather had brought out plenty of other sun-seekers as well. Nonetheless, together they were alone, the afternoon spent with linked hands, walking the wide sandy beaches and nudging shells with their toes. The sun, warm against their backs, prompted them to test their feet in the water. She squealed when a small icy wave rolled over her ankles. Both of them laughing, he hoisted her high above him while the water receded and lapped again at his feet. He gazed up as her smile burst into view, radiant, her hands outstretched against the wind and her neck arched back to absorb the sunlight. If anyone had told him a year ago that he would be here with her on the shore, England and the Irish Sea safely behind them, he would never have believed it. He wished he could somehow capture the beauty of that moment. He wanted her family, who was resolved that she had left for an uncertain fate in a foreign land, to see how life removed from Downton had set her free.
They picnicked on a blanket in the dunes as the afternoon grew old, and then laid back to enjoy the sun's display in the cloudless evening. Their left hands linked together, she rested snuggly in the crook of his arm, watching as the sky proceeded to turn pink, orange, and then a fiery red. The afternoon in the sun coupled with the preceding weeks of endless work had left them tired, but happy.
As she stared skyward, he watched her, the sunset casting a warm glow on her ivory skin. She took his very breath away. "If we're ever blessed to have a daughter and she's half as beautiful as you, I'll have run every lad in Ireland from our doorstep."
She turned to kiss him. His fingers sifted through her dark locks, long since pulled loose from their ribbon in the breeze. "You're going to make a wonderful father someday."
He lightly touched his lips to the tip of her nose. "And you a wonderful mother." They lay facing each other, largely in silence just listening to the breeze through the sea grass, until the sun had nearly escaped beyond the horizon.
"We should go," he murmured.
She toyed absently with his open collar. "No, not just yet"
"It's getting dark."
She leaned up to kiss him, softly. "Then we can just lie back and look at the stars." She hesitated with a blush. "You brought enough blankets."
He softly brushed the back his fingers against her cheeks, and recognized the dark hue in her eyes.
"And there are other ways to keep warm…."
After a moment, neither uttering a sound, they slowly fumbled with their clothing, exposing their skin to the breeze from the Irish Sea in the darkening night. He pulled the other blankets around them before nudging her back gently to hover over her. She kissed him, urgently, one hand pressed against his heart, the other moving lower to grasp him. He pressed himself against the palm of her hand and bent down to kiss the soft mound of her breast. Their eyes locked as he sank into her, guided by both their hands. She gasped as he slowly pushed deeper, sighing heavily against her neck. They began an unhurried and familiar rhythm, the sand beneath the blanket yielding to their movements. He kissed her deeply, relishing the warmth of her tongue against his, capturing the soft moans that emanated from somewhere in the back of her throat.
In all the years spent waiting for her, he could never have imagined how truly satisfying their lovemaking would become, the boundless pleasure of stretching within her, or the look in her eyes tinged with both ecstasy and concentration as they rocked together. She was beautiful, he mused, and he was more than a little satisfied with himself. She was meant for this, with him, as he was with her. His fingers dug into the blanket on either side of her and he forced his eyes open to watch her as she came, clutching at his back to pull him closer, helping her ride out every wave and her body rippling around him. She was so beautiful in these moments that he never wanted it to end. She pulled him to her, kissed his ear and whispered for him to let go. He placed a kiss against her palm as his body shuddered at last. He spilled into her, the blood pounding in his ears. He nearly collapsed as the last tremor surged through him; he gave in, buried his face in her neck, stifling an audible moan.
He lay against her for a long while, allowing his breathing to return to normal. He pressed soft kisses against her shoulder, her neck, finally settling on her full lips. Her fingers sifted through his hair, damp at the ends from the sweat trickling down his scalp. He finally pulled back to look at her, and finding a satisfied, but tired smile on her face, kissed her again, slowly. 'I love you' didn't seem quite enough, but he whispered it anyway. He rolled her over against him, securing the heavy blankets around their bodies, and they both fell into an exhausted, but contented sleep beneath the stars.
A month later, as they readied for bed, she told him about the baby. He pulled her to him, one hand gently against her middle, the other drawing her in for an appreciative kiss. Happily engrossed in his excitement, she insisted it had happened at Portmarnock. When he teased her and suggested any number of subsequent nights could have been the reason, she shook her head. "No. It was there, by the sea," she said resolutely. "I know it in my heart." She was so sincere in her delivery, her eyes reflecting the same glow as that night in the dunes, that he believed it too.
A soft cry from his daughter pulled him from the memory. Her little uncoordinated hands swiped at her cheeks where he realized a few tears had fallen. He was so lost in thought he didn't even realize how flooded his eyes had become. "I'm sorry, love," he said, quickly brushing them away with his thumb. "I'm making a mess, aren't I?" Sybbie gurgled, and rewarded him with a gummy smile. It took his breath away. Her first smile, he suddenly realized, and so like her mother's. He briefly wondered if that night was the beginning of the end or a new beginning, but immediately pushed the thought from his mind. Some questions were better left unanswered.
"Someday we'll go home and I'll take you there, little one, where your life began." He bent down and pressed a lingering kiss against her brow. "And we'll wade in the Irish Sea with your Ma watching over us. I promise."