The revelry shows no signs of waning, despite the lateness of the hour. Lady Cora has already secreted the Earl off to bed, the better to get a start on sleeping off his hangover. Lady Violet and Isobel, too, have taken their leave, though no one blames them for leaving the party to the younger members of the household.
Lady Mary Crawley stands alone in an alcove, just outside the wash of light from the enormous tree that's taken center stage in the drawing room. She's long since traded water for the spiked punch, but she's still feeling the blissfully numbing effects of the alcohol. It's the only explanation she has for what happens next.
"Hiding out, are we?"
She slants a glance at Tom Branson, who's slyly grinning back. "I fear the onset of a greatly embarrassing moment."
"Come now," he says, in that slightly cajoling way of his that always portends trouble. "Just how much trouble can you get in at a Crawley family Christmas?"
"A great deal, I assure you," is her crisp reply, but the harshness of the words is blunted by the smile she's favoring him with. "I seem to remember one year Papa's favorite chair not surviving the holidays."
"And you wouldn't know anything about that, now would you?"
"Mmmm," she hums. "That would be telling."
"And we Crawleys never tell, eh?"
"Now you're getting it."
They lapse into silence then as they watch the younger Crawleys et al dance and make merry. Not long ago, it would have been herself and Edith and Sybill out there. But times change, as they must, so better to leave it to another generation to carry on.
"I should head upstairs," she says without enthusiasm.
"Don't go on my account."
Mary turns, gets her first really good look at Tom since the 'grown-ups' retired. There's still a bit of an impish twinkle in his eyes, but there's sadness, too, as if going off to bed will bring the future on far more quickly than he might want.
They stand there, staring at each other for a long moment. It's all she can do to keep it together. She knows most of the family thinks of her as cold and unfeeling, but not this man, and that may be the thing she dreads losing the most. No one else can see through all her masks to the woman underneath quite as well as he does, and she hadn't realized until this very minute how much she'll miss that.
"I will miss you, you know. Like a lost limb."
Mary smiles, but it's a bit watery. "I'll miss you more, I think."
Tom reaches out and takes her hand, raising it to his lips to press a kiss to her knuckles. "It won't be forever, you know," he says as he holds her hand close to his chest.
"Long enough," she says quietly.
The moment spins out, and she can feel herself leaning into him, even as he leans in to her. They pause, just a hair's breadth away, her heart thundering in her chest in a way it hadn't done with any of her more recent suitors. She thinks for a second that this is the craziest thing she's ever done, and then he kisses her.
Or, more like, he ravishes her.
She reaches up, takes a handful of his jacket collar just for something to hold on to while the world seems to fly apart around her. He's assertive, she thinks distantly, yet tender at once. His tongue caresses hers, tangling playfully, charge and retreat, kissing her in a way she didn't dream was possible even a day ago.
Slowly, the kiss gentles, until he pulls back with a soft peck. He smiles tentatively at her, as though he's not sure how welcome he'll be in her space after a moment like that. She smiles back, hers just as tentative as his.
She's not sure where that came from. They're not exactly brother and sister, but they're also not the kind of friends that normally kiss, either. What they are, right now, is a total mystery.
"Well," Tom says, stepping back. "I should be off."
"Right," Mary says, nodding her agreement. "Morning will come too early as it is."
They wait a second more, and then each move off in a different direction. Never mind that he's headed for the kitchens instead of his room upstairs, or that she's maybe just a little glad that in a few days he'll be on a boat to America. She wasn't expecting to kiss Tom—to enjoy kissing Tom—so she's torn between feeling exhilarated and guilty.
And it's not something she's likely to forget anytime soon.
They can hardly be expected to avoid each other, even in a house as large as Downton, but it seems as though the rest of the household is conspiring to throw them together in the days remaining before Tom and Sybbie depart.
They end up next to each other at Christmas brunch and during the chaos that is opening presents, and at dinner that evening.
And when they're not sitting next to each other, they're staring at each other across the room, as though their eyes are now magnets, drawn to true north.
And the kissing.
There's lots of kissing.
There's the kiss in the servant's corridor. She'd been on her way down to talk to Anna about her dress for dinner and Tom had been on his way up after a conversation with the new chauffeur. If Anna noticed that her lipstick was a little smudged, she kindly didn't say anything.
And the one on the landing on the way down after breakfast one morning.
And the library.
Oh, the library, where they seem to find themselves abandoned on more than one occasion, including memorably when they were nearly walked in on by Lord Grantham himself.
Lord Grantham bids them both good afternoon, then walks out of the room, completely oblivious to what he'd just interrupted. Tom stands by the fireplace, trying and failing to suppress a grin, while Mary is perched on the settee, frowning fiercely through the matching grin on her face.
Mary shakes her head on a sigh. "What are we doing, Tom?"
"Snogging like a couple of hormonal teenagers?" He takes a deep breath, crossing to sit on the settee across from her. "I suppose we should talk about it, eh?"
Mary doesn't want to talk about it, because talking about it will make it more real, somehow. Which is ridiculous, really. She's aware of the implications of what they've been doing. Tom and Sybbie were meant to leave months ago, but something always seemed to come up. First it was seeing the construction on the houses in the village underway; then it was not being able to find an estate agent he felt he could trust. And in the meantime, there'd been all that kissing.
"Did you enjoy it?" she asks. "All the kissing?"
He looks at her like she's grown another head. "Didn't you?"
"Well, a lady isn't supposed to kiss and tell, but..."
Tom just grins, because yes, it has been wonderful. "Is this—are we...?"
"Do you want to be?" she asks.
He looks down, features gone pinched. When he looks up, his expression is hard to read. "I'm not trying to replace Sybil with her sister."
"And I never imagined you were," Mary says. "Just as you know that no one will ever replace Matthew in my heart."
"No one can, Mary," Tom says. "But do you have room for someone else to stand beside him? Is that even something you want, after everything?"
She looks at him—really looks at him then. He's handsome, surely, all boyish charm and brash courage. So like Matthew, and yet so different as well. But she's known for a while that she couldn't hold on to the memory of Matthew and the life they should have had forever. It's not that her son needs a father—her own father and Tom fill that place adequately, and she's resolved to ensure that the memory of her own dear beloved Matthew lives in her son's mind as he grows up—or that she needs a husband. But she also knows she can't live alone forever.
She wants someone to share her life with, to share the ups and downs, the good and bad. She wants a best friend, the one person who will be hers unreservedly, who sees her faults and loves her anyway. And she realizes with a start that the person she always envisions standing beside her through all of that is Tom. How did she never realize before?
When she looks up, it's to find Tom sitting on the low table, closer than he was before. His gaze is full of worry, but also hope. In that moment, she knows she would do anything for this man. It's not as startling as she thinks it should be.
"Tom," she says quietly. She reaches out and takes his hand in hers. "I don't know how I never realized, but you already do. I can't imagine going through the rest of my life without you in it. Though why you should choose me—"
"Hush," Tom says, laying a finger across her lips. "I choose you because under all the masks, you're a kind, generous soul who would do anything for those you love. I would like to be counted among those, if you think you can. Love me, I mean."
Mary levels an unimpressed glare at him. "Don't be foolish, Tom. It doesn't become you. Of course I love you."
They stare at each other, shocked beyond the measure of it that Mary has just admitted something so serious as love. It's Tom who breaks the silence first.
"Well, such a declaration deserves something special," he says, smiling gently. He pulls her to her feet, settling a hand low on her back, trapping the hand she still holds between them. "For the record, I do love you," he says softly, eyes dancing with joy.
He settles his lips over hers, kissing her so achingly tenderly that she feels it down to her bones. But this kiss is different than the ones that have gone before. This one speaks to a depth of love that shocks her even as it seems like the most obvious thing in the world.
He pulls back when he hears a throat clearing behind him. Mary makes to step back, aware that they've just been caught red-handed, but Tom holds her fast. He turns, and they both see her father standing near the door, papers held in his hand, a surprised yet fond smile on his face.
"Well, it seems I no longer need wonder why Tom and Sybbie have yet to depart for New York."
"Papa—" Mary starts, but Tom squeezes her hand gently, cutting her off.
He steps back, then around to stand at her side, his arm brushing hers as they face her father together.
"Sir, I realize this is unexpected, and I apologize that I haven't approached you before now—"
"Please, don't trouble yourself," Lord Grantham says, stepping further into the room. He stops beside the other settee, setting his papers down on the table as he glances between them. He returns his eyes to Tom as he straightens up. "I had wondered—you both seemed so content. I'm only sorry I didn't see it sooner."
"Papa—" Mary tries again, but is interrupted by her father this time. He steps forward and takes her free hand.
"Mary," he says, smiling softly, "whatever you're going to say, don't. I can't complain at your choice. I should have recognized the look on your face; I've seen it enough times on your mother's that it should have been obvious."
Mary raises a hand to her cheek, shocked mute at the idea that anyone could see what she's been feeling when she herself hasn't even been aware. It's disconcerting at best, but her father seems unperturbed at the idea. Yet another surprise in a day full of them, she supposes as she drops her hand to brush against Tom's.
"Then, with your permission, sir," Tom says quietly.
"You have my permission, Tom," Lord Grantham says. He takes Tom's free hand and places it in Mary's, still clutched in his own. "How can I object? For all that you had a difficult time joining this family, you are a part of it now. And I couldn't ask for a better husband for my daughter."
"I—thank you, sir," Tom says, swallowing heavily. "I swear I will treat her with all the love and care she deserves."
"See that you do."
Tom turns surprised eyes to Mary, who'd spoken the words he no doubt expected to hear from her father. He raises a hand to caress her cheek, his smile growing as the moments tick by.
"I intend to spoil you the rest of your life, love."
"That sounds like an excellent plan," Lord Grantham says. "I can assure you that Crawley women deserve nothing less. Now," he says, standing back. "Shall we announce this after dinner tonight, or do you need time to prepare yourselves?"
Mary looks at Tom, raising an eyebrow. His own raises in return, but he keeps his counsel, leaving the decision to her. She takes a breath and turns to her father.
"I believe sooner is better. The others have no doubt begun speculating as to why Tom and Sybbie haven't yet left for America. Perhaps we should give them a reason to celebrate instead of mourn."
"Excellent idea, Mary," Lord Grantham says.
When everyone has settled in to their usual seats in the salon, drinks in hand, and the servants have filtered into the back of the room at Mary's suggestion, Lord Grantham makes the grand announcement.
There is shocked silence in the room, everyone staring at Mary and Tom, standing beside each other at the fireplace. The moment stretches out, but before it turns from charged to awkward, Lady Violet huffs a laugh.
"Well, I suppose we couldn't be asked to break in another young man when we've got a perfectly fine one right here in the household." She pushes to her feet and moves in front of Tom and Mary. "You've both known too much tragedy in your young lives. May your marriage know nothing but love and blessings."
"Thank you, Granny," Mary says, nearly moved to tears by the clear affection on her grandmother's face. She hadn't realized until now what her grandmother's blessing would mean, but she's glad to have it.
"I promise to treat her the way the future Countess should be treated, Lady Violet," Tom says.
"See that you do, young man," Lady Violet says, but though her words are stern, there's a smile on her face that softens the words.
Lady Violet nods and returns to her seat as her father raises his glass in a toast. "May you always know love, and treasure each day with each other as the gift it is."
A chorus of here, here's ripples through the room, quiet conversation breaking out among the room's occupants. The family offers their congratulations as Tom and Mary circulate the room, most expressing some variation of surprise with a knowing smile. Even Anna and Bates say they felt something had changed for her without knowing what. Mary wonders how she could have been so oblivious, but Tom squeezes her elbow, sharing her chagrin in the smile he's worn all evening, and all is well.
Mary catches Isobel's eye at one point, and the woman smiles and winks at her. They'd taken her aside before dinner to tell her of their plans, knowing that to surprise her along with the rest would be cruel in the extreme. She'd been happy for them, and had said she thought Matthew would be as well.
Mary hopes that's true. She married her best friend once, and now she'll do it again. And she can't say she'll regret it, either.
There's still an inordinate amount of kissing, though now when they're caught, most just roll their eyes at the display rather than scold them. Not that it would change her mind about any of it. Mary is happier than she's been in a long time, and it's all down to Tom's role in her life.
Though the kissing doesn't hurt, either.