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It was quiet in Lady Mary Crawley's room, a blessed reprieve from the voices of her family members all still discussing the horrible events of the day and the health of her father. If only the silence could permeate into her head and block out all the voices in her mind. She was shaken and unsettled, her current state only lending to her agitation. Mary was known for composure and self-control, yet as she raised a hand to take her earrings off, she could see herself shaking. Something inside of her wanted to cry, to weep for the loss of today and the loss her memory kept replaying over and over. She wanted to rage against the urges within her to seek comfort in another person. What good would it do her in the end but cause more heartache all around.

The door to her room opened and Mary startled, causing the young maid who entered to give a tentative little laugh. “I didn't mean to startle you, m'lady. I did knock.”

Mary shook her head distractedly. “It's all right, Anna. I was lost in thought and must not have heard you.”

Anna offered a smile of sympathy as she crossed the room and picked up a brush to run through Mary's hair. “I can't say as I would blame you. It's been such a sad day.” Mary nodded but said nothing, only holding her own gaze reflected in the mirror on the vanity before her. She sat with her back straight, afraid that if she moved, if she even blinked she would fall apart as she so desperately wanted to do. It shouldn't have come as a surprise when Anna stayed the brush and tilted her head, asking, “Are you feeling all right, m'lady?”

Mary nodded, her carefully constructed mask of indifference securely in place. She glanced upward in the mirror to see Anna watching her with concern. Though they were separated by class, Mary had come to love the woman nearly as much as she loved Carson, the butler, and felt she was one of the very few people she could speak about nearly anything with. For this reason, Mary sighed under Anna's watching eye and finally shook her head. “No, Anna. I am not feeling all right. In fact, I am feeling anything but all right.”

With sympathy, Anna nodded and returned to brushing Mary's hair. “I imagine the accident today must have brought up some rather dreadful memories for you.”

“It did,” Mary conceded. “I wish I could blame my state on the accident and the death of poor Mister Rogers, and of course it brought up terrible memories. All day I have thought of Matthew and the day he died...the way he died. It feels as though my heart has broken anew. I couldn't even bring myself to check on George before coming up, but that does not account for all of my misery.”

“There's nothing to feel guilty about in that. He's asleep and will never even know.”

“But I will.” Mary's forehead wrinkled. “That's not the worst of it.”

Anna stopped brushing and let her hands drop to her sides, meeting Mary's eyes in the mirror. “You know whatever you say to me never passes to anyone else.”

“I'm afraid to say it out loud. Your opinion of me may change.”

With a patient smile, Anna stepped around the vanity bench to be beside Mary. She tilted her head, amusement in her eyes. “After all we've been through, you and me? I don't see how that's possible.”

Mary gave her a fleeting smile, her shoulders lifting in a tiny shrug. “I've fallen in love again.”

Anna's smile only widened, but there was understanding in her expression. “Falling in love can never be the worst of it, m'lady. You've been without someone for so long now, and Mister Talbot is such a nice man, I don't think-”

“It isn't Henry,” Mary interrupted, shaking her head.

Clearly surprised, Anna blinked. “Oh! I had assumed-”

“Of course you did, as would anyone given the circumstances.” Mary pursed her lips and glanced at her carefully made bed. “You may want to sit down before I tell you who it is.”

Anna laughed and looked at Mary as if the suggestion were absurd. “I'm fine, really.”

“It's Tom.”

With eyes widened and jaw going slack, Anna slowly sank onto the edge of the bed and breathed, “Oh...”

The maid's reaction made Mary look down in an uncharacteristic moment of shame. “I know. It's dreadful and it's wrong. Tom is my brother.”

“But he's not really, is he?” The question was quiet. Though Anna still looked stunned by the revelation, it was obvious she was trying to gain her composure to support Mary as best as she could, as she had always done. “Lady Mary, you and I have always enjoyed something of a closer relationship than most do with their maids, so forgive me if I'm overstepping my bounds, but Mister Branson was your brother while he was married to Lady Sybil. Marriage vows say 'until death do us part,' not 'forever to be bound together.' I know it sounds cold...”

Mary shook her head. “I could never do that to my sister or to Matthew.”

“Do you think they wouldn't want you to be happy, the both of you?”

“Of course they would.” A dull pain throbbed in Mary's chest just thinking about her little sister and beloved husband, both gone for several years now. Days like today, when death reminded everyone just how close it stayed, made her feel the loss of them as fresh as they day it happened. “Matthew was one of Tom's biggest cheer leaders. He had a great deal of respect for him and the way he fought for both his beliefs and Sybil's love.”

“And Lady Sybil loved you dearly,” Anna added. “She would want you to be happy, and we both know she would want Mister Branson to be happy. She would never begrudge either of you that if you found it in one another, not when she's not here to love him herself.”

Mary was silent for a few minutes, thinking over Anna's words. There was no doubt in her mind that Matthew would have wanted her to love again. When he had been so badly injured during the war and believed he could never truly fulfill the role a husband should, he'd pushed her away in hopes of seeing her happy with someone else. It would have made him deeply miserable, she knew, but he was willing to sacrifice his happiness for her own. And Sybil...Mary couldn't help but smile at the memory of her free-spirited, caring, empathetic sister. Sybil loved Tom despite the difference of class between them. She saw the good and the beauty in him before anyone else could and fought to make him a member of the family. Somehow Mary knew she would be overjoyed in knowing Mary cared for him the way she did. The rest of the family was another story entirely.

“Tom is the only man to accept the way I am, be afraid of it, yet never back down from telling me what was on his mind,” Mary admitted after awhile. “Henry took the things he saw in me that he didn't like or agree with and tried to ignore them or change them. Tony tried to bully our differences out of me.” She looked down, the ache she felt deepening. “What am I to do, Anna?”

“Have you spoken to Mister Branson about your feelings?”

Mary looked at her like she was crazy. “Of course not.”

“Maybe that would be a good place to start.” There was sympathy in the way Anna reached out to touch her arm, a familiarity that would not stand among many ladies and their servants, but the touch was comforting to Mary and she laid her hand atop Anna's. “You deserve happiness, m'lady. Whether you believe it or not, you do. Take the night to think things through and talk to Mister Branson tomorrow. Everything is always clearer in the light of day.”

“You're right. Of course you are.” Mary gave a genuine smile of thanks to the blonde woman. “We certainly have been through a lot together, haven't we?”

Getting up, Anna resumed her duties of helping Mary get ready for bed by pulling a silk robe from the wardrobe. “I've never been bored, I can tell you that much.”

Laughing, Mary rose and slid her arms into the sleeves of the proffered robe. “Well at least I know I'm good for entertainment.”

“Never let it be said any different.” Anna clasped her hands before her. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No, thank you, Anna.”

“Sleep well, Lady Mary, and take heart; everything always works out the way it should in the end.”

The two women shared a smile before Anna left Mary alone with her thoughts once more. There was a book Matthew used to read before bed that Mary kept in the drawer of her nightstand, a story about great triumph among terrible hardship and tragedy. Every now and then on nights when she missed her husband the most, she would pull the book out and read until she fell asleep, almost able to feel him sleeping beside her. Tonight she held the book close as she crawled under her covers. The story itself wasn't all that entertaining to Mary, but she grasped it like it was Matthew's hand in her own, desperate to see him, to feel him and hear his voice. He always knew what to do in those rare moments she admitted she did not. Of course the irony of the situation was not lost on her – wanting to talk to her deceased husband about the affection she held for another man. It was an absolutely ludicrous situation, though as Mary lay her head down she could have sworn she could hear Matthew laughing at her.

“You would laugh, wouldn't you?” she chided darkly, running her thumbs over the gold inlay lettering on the cover of the book. “You would tell me how utterly ridiculous I am to think I was betraying you, especially after sleeping with Tony Gillingham.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “And for talking to myself.” There had never been any love for Tony or Henry, however. There was deep affection, certainly, but neither of them had ever stirred her insides the way Matthew had. It hadn't felt like a betrayal because neither men had ever gotten so deep into her soul to move her as he had. No one had until Tom, and when she'd realized as much, it had so unsettled her that she had been quite beside herself.

Mary put the book away and turned off her light before sinking down onto her pillow. She took in a deep, cleansing breath and let it out slowly before closing her eyes. Sleep was all she needed to clear her head. Anna was right, it would all be better dealt with in the morning.

Not even a minute passed before she rolled over to search for a more comfortable position. Then it was another turn-over, and another. It was impossible to tell how long she tried to sleep, but it was only a matter of time before Mary threw back her covers, slid into her robe and slippers, and poked her head out of her door and into the hallway. If anyone was still awake downstairs, they'd gone into another part of the house or were being rather quiet. There was no sign of anyone and Mary, looking to avoid even the watchful eyes of the servants, kept silent vigil in her doorway for several long moments before making up her mind to move. She was nearly silent as she rushed down the hallway, always glancing over her shoulder and looking to the stairways in fear of being spotted. When she reached the closed door to Tom's room, she knocked and held her breath, praying he was there and that no one else heard her. Her heart pounded hard against her chest when she heard a quiet “Just a moment,” and then the shuffling of feet.

The door swung open and Tom stood framed in the doorway, the light from his room making him almost as dark as a silhouette before her. Still, Mary could see the surprised expression on his face when he realized who stood before him. “Mary? Is everything all right?” He was still dressed from dinner and she realized her timing had been lucky. A moment too soon and she would have missed him, any later and one of the servants might have been there to help him ready himself for bed.

“I know it's late,” she said quietly, glancing over her shoulder once more. “Please...can we talk?” There was no chance for him to answer; Mary brushed past him and into the room, pulling her robe tighter about herself. “Have you rung for service?”

“Not yet.” Tom turned around to move closer to her, the door still open for propriety, concern in his eyes. “I'll ring now if you like.”

“No, don't.” She hurried past him yet again, grasping the door and closing it tight. She kept her back to Tom as he watched her, her hand on the knob as a sudden panic gripped her. She had to do this now, consequences be damned. Mary had never been a woman to wait once she got it in her mind to do something, neither had she ever shied away from uncomfortable situations, and she was not about to start now. Whether Tom returned her affections or thought her mad, she had to address it now so she knew how to proceed with her life.

Tom's brow wrinkled as he watched Mary. He was as well aware as she how quickly talk spread among the household workers, perhaps ever more so since he had been one of them. If anyone had seen her go into his room and then close the door, the gossip over the situation would spread to every corner of Downton before the sun was up. “Mary, I don't think-”

“Neither do I, apparently.”

She turned from the door and took Tom's face in her hands, pressing her lips to his. Parts of her were screaming scandal and betrayal, telling her that what she was doing was wrong. The way Tom was stiff against her and under her touch told her that she had made the wrong choice. Suddenly those voices that had warned her against such impulsiveness grew louder, and Mary knew there was a very good chance that she had just done irreparable damage to the friendship she and Tom had enjoyed for the past several years. With a gasp that bordered on a sob, she let him go and took a step back, her eyes searching his, but Tom gave nothing away. He simply looked back into her eyes, his expression unreadable. Then all of the sudden he was moving toward her, one arm wrapping around her waist to pull her close, his free hand at the base of her neck, fingers tangling in her hair as he covered her mouth with his.

All the tension in her body melted away, and Mary wrapped her arms around him. In that moment there was no thought of the accident they'd witness together, of Henry, of Tony, or even of Matthew. She was fully aware of every inch of her body that was crushed up against Tom, of the way he held her so securely and the hunger with which he kissed her. When he scooped her up she gave no utterance of protest, and when he laid her on the bed she pulled him down with her. For the first time in years, Mary forgot every ounce of worry and responsibility, and gave herself over completely to the moment.

It seemed as though all of her senses had come alive at once; everything was new to her her as Tom's hands explored her body, tender and caressing but strong and confident at the same time. They helped each other undress before finally giving in to the passion that had built between them.

When both of them were spent and breathless, Mary rested her head upon Tom's chest and listened to the way his heart sped, silent as it slowed with the passing minutes. Neither of them spoke for a long time, but there was no awkwardness, only comfort. Even guilt left her alone. She was happier than she could remember being in a long time and refused to let anything spoil the moment.

“I left because of you, you know.”

The soft admission came as Mary was beginning to drift, but Tom's voice pulled her back from the edge of sleep. She opened her eyes and wrapped her arm around him just a little tighter to let him know she was awake.

“I don't know when my feelings for you changed, only that it started to become harder and harder to be around you. I felt so guilty, as though what I felt would somehow hurt Sybil. I knew it would most certainly affect everyone else in the family. So when the opportunity to go to America with Sybbie presented itself, I thought it best I take it.” He trailed invisible lines over the skin of her bare shoulder with his fingers. “That night you told me that my leaving broke your heart...I can't tell you how broken mine already was.”

Watching the flickering light in the lamp across the room, Mary asked, “Why did you come back?”

Beneath her, he shrugged. “I decided I'd rather see you every day and hide my feelings than pretend I was doing fine so far away. Some days it's been like torture being here, seeing you with Henry, but it was worth enduring.”

Mary shifted to lift her head and look at Tom, her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Then why did you push me toward him? Why, when I was so upset after speaking with him tonight, did you not take advantage of the situation and try to at least console me? You tried to talk me into not breaking it off with him and I don't understand it.”

“Don't you?” In the dim light of the lamp, Tom looked at her with such tenderness that it made butterflies swirl in her stomach. “It's because I love you, Mary.”

She almost laughed but instead gave him a confused smile. “You certainly have a funny way of showing it.”

The corners of Tom's eyes wrinkled as he chuckled. “I suppose it would seem that way.” He lifted his hand from her shoulder to touch her cheek. “I wanted you to be happy and I knew, at least, I thought, that could never be with me. I'd hoped if you finally met a man who loved you and you could love in return, even just a little, it would make it easier for me.”

She studied his face, every bit of his expression from his forehead to his chin. Eventually she shook her head and said, “You are a wonder.”

“I've been called worse.”

“I never would have known how you felt; I never even had an inkling.”

This made Tom grin. “A compliment coming from a woman always so cool under pressure.”

Mary shifted in his arms so her head could rest on the pillow and she could look into Tom's eyes. “I could not have been more honest when I told you my heart was breaking over your departure. I told myself it was because you were my only true ally in the house, but the truth of it was that I felt like I was losing a part of myself. There had already been so much of me taken away, it was almost unbearable to lose you, too.”

Tom rolled to his side and brushed the hair from her face. “I'm sorry. I knew I was hurting you.”

“But you left for self-preservation. I understand, truly. I'm just so glad you're back...that you're home.”

He kissed her, then pressed his forehead to hers and whispered, “Me, too.”

“Promise me that you won't leave again.”

“Not unless I take you and the children with me.”

For some reason, the statement made tears prick behind her eyes. She was not a woman prone to crying or getting over-emotional, but Tom's promise and his inclusion of not only Sybbie, but George as well, tugged at something within her. “I do love you, Tom. More than I imagined, I think. I've said those words before but somehow they always felt deceitful. Perhaps because my heart knew they weren't being said correctly.”

“It doesn't matter anymore. Only this does. Only now.”

There was safety in those words, an unspoken promise of what was to come for both of them, together. A storm would surely come of their affections and she could hardly fault any one in her family for what may be said or done. Yet somehow she knew it would be like a bird flying into a clear window; nothing would effect the way she felt on the inside. “This will not be uncomplicated.”

Tom laughed once more, pulling her tight against him. “Nothing with you ever is.”

Despite herself, Mary chuckled and burrowed into the warmth of his embrace. Exhaustion from the day, from all the emotions of the accident, her father's illness, everything from the past few weeks was rapidly catching up to her, and it became harder and harder to keep her eyes open. “I'm so tired,” she admitted with sleepy reluctance. “Perhaps I should go back to my room.”

Tom's arms tightened around her. “Don't go yet. Sleep awhile. I'll wake you before the sun's up and we can avoid scandal by beating the clock.”

“And how will you stay awake?”

He bent his head to press a kiss into her hair. “I couldn't sleep now if you drugged me. I want to make sure I don't forget a single moment of tonight: how you smell; how you feel in my arms; how fast you make my heart beat. Don't go yet.”

She smiled against his chest, knowing she couldn't fight the invitation even if she wanted to. As she slipped into sleep, she felt at peace for the first time in years, and knew when she awoke that the man holding her would be the very one she would face the rest of this rapidly changing world with. As long as she had his love, she could face anything.
I know I said I wouldn't update until I'd moved, but this was in my head and desperately needed to get out, else it would feel like I'd held in a sneeze all day,

So half of Downton Abbey followers will love this, half of them will hate it. I don't really care. I've thought Mary and Tom would be perfect for one another for some time. He really is the only good match for her. They can have honest conversations, he's not bullied by her...it would just be such a perfect ending! ARGH!

This takes place after season 7 episode 7 because I am a week behind - PLEASE NO SPOILERS IN THE COMMENTS! - so if you haven't seen up to this point, there is a bit of spoilery content in this. Um...yeah, that's it.

Guess I should get back to the notes and edits for AoV: Awakening now...you know, the writing that I actually get paid to do. *headdesk*
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February 22, 2016
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