|both alike in dignity
Author: thelastcountess PM
"He sees her for the first time in the narrow hallway at Jeremy Keeler's birthday party." Modern AU.Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Drama - Sybil C. & T. Branson - Chapters: 23 - Words: 78,199 - Reviews: 473 - Favs: 200 - Follows: 159 - Updated: 04-08-12 - Published: 12-13-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7633348
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: Thanks a million to all of you who have taken the time to review the story - I appreciate your thoughts more than you know, and I'm flattered that some of you are invested enough that you have even offered suggestions for how you'd like to see the story progress. Do know that I'm working from an outline, and that the story is planned to its conclusion already, so don't worry that I'm coming up with this as I go along! And please do let me know if you're reading and enjoying this chapter.
On Monday night, as promised, Sybil shows up at his flat promptly at seven. She looks beautiful – her hair is pulled back from her face, and the purple dress she's wearing makes her eyes sparkle. He looks doubtfully at his jumper and trousers. "Come on, you look perfectly fine," she assures him, taking his hand and leading him downstairs to the car.
It's a Bentley – a real, honest to God Bentley. He has a little freak out over the car, and Sybil laughs good-naturedly. "It's Granny's," she says. "We don't have anything like this. She thinks that ladies who take taxis will inevitably be kidnapped and murdered, so she sends a car when we go to her house."
"Feel free to have her send this for us any time you want," he marvels, stroking the curve of the door handle reverently. "What a beautiful machine."
Sybil rolls her eyes. "Let's go, Romeo."
She's acting flippant and almost carefree, but he can feel a tenseness in her muscles as she sits beside him in the car. He reaches out and rests a hand on her knee without giving the gesture much forethought, and then, after his palm is already curled around her knee, skin against the sleek stockings she's got on, he starts panicking about how he can discreetly pull away and pretend he was just picking at a piece of lint or something. But just as he's almost figured it out, she lets her own hand rest atop his, twining their fingers together, and leans against his side.
"You look wonderful," he murmurs against her temple. "How are you feeling?"
"I wouldn't say I'm feeling wonderful," she replies. "But well enough. I'll be fine."
"Good," he says, enjoying the feeling of her warm body pressed against his.
The trip from his flat in Shepherds Bush to Mayfair is quick enough – not much congestion on a Monday evening after everyone has already made it home from work. When they pull up outside the house, he almost swallows his tongue. Sybil's grandmother lives across the street from the American embassy. Jesus. She catches his eye and nods. "It's a security nightmare sometimes. You should hear Granny get going on the Americans. Mama just loves that."
"I can believe it."
Sybil thanks the driver, and he follows her as she hurries up a few steps to the front door. She's barely rung the bell before a smartly-dressed man greets her with a hearty "good evening, milady!"
She greets the butler – Sybil calls him Carson – who squints back warily at Tom before waving them toward the drawing room at the back of the house.
Sybil squeezes his hand tighter and gives him a small smile as they follow Carson, who actually pauses in the doorway and announces them, like they're at an old-fashioned debutante ball. She squeezes his hand once more, and he wonders if he's going to have any feeling in his fingers by the end of the night.
The family is arranged in the room like a tableau, with women in beautiful dresses posed on expensive-looking chairs and the prime minister in the midst of them all, standing ramrod-straight in his impeccably-tailored suit. "Sybil, darling," coos her mother – she's easily recognizable from the photos he's seen, plus there's that tell-tale American accent.
Sybil lets go of Tom's hand just long enough to step into her mother's embrace, but just as soon she's back at his side. "Everyone, this is Tom. Tom, this is my mother and my father." The PM steps forward to shake his hand – a rather unsettling sensation. Lord Grantham's gesture is warm, but his eyes are like ice, and Tom knows immediately that Sybil's father has not yet accepted his youngest daughter's new situation. Sybil's mother nods with a careful smile. "My sisters – this is Edith, and this is Mary." A small smile from bohemian Edith, not even a glance from bulldog Mary. "And this is my grandmother."
The dowager stands a bit shakily, leaning heavily on her stick, and steps forward. "So this is our new Irishman, Sybil?"
Of course she speaks about him as if he's not in the room. He expected no less. "Not so very new, but yes, Tom's originally from Belfast."
"Not so very completely Irish, then," Mary mutters from across the room.
He tries to keep his attention on the grandmother. "It's nice to meet you, Lady Grantham."
She sniffs a bit in response, nodding rapidly. "Well, then, we're all here, I suppose? No Matthew?"
"He couldn't come, he sends his regrets," Mary supplies, still looking everywhere but in his direction. This worries him – he doesn't much care if she hates him, but if it upsets Sybil, he finds that he cares a great deal. This also worries him a bit.
He accepts a gin and tonic from Edith, who also hands a glass of water to Sybil. "So, Tom," she begins brightly, "I don't think I've heard the story of how you and my sister met."
Good – he's prepared for this one. "Um, well, we actually met at a birthday party a few months ago."
"Six months ago, wasn't it?" Sybil contributes from her place beside him.
"I think that's about right. Anyway, I was there, and she walked in, and I was sort of bowled over." She smirks a little at this. "And from then things just sort of moved on, didn't they?"
"They did," she confirms. "It was my fault. One of my friends from work is seeing a Labour MP's staffer, and I went with her. I was the crasher."
"How can you be a crasher when you vote Labour?" Edith asks with a raised eyebrow. It earns her a bit of a punch on the arm from her sister.
"Not around Granny," Sybil hisses, and he smiles broadly. "And besides, at least I vote."
Edith shrugs. "I find the whole exercise a bit lacking, frankly." She smiles at Tom, her upper lip somehow curling in on itself. "What part of Ireland are you from?"
He swallows. "Northern Ireland, actually. Belfast."
"Oh, goodness," she replies. "That must be a bit … challenging at times."
He tries not to roll his eyes. "Tom's been in England since university," Sybil supplies. She slips her arm through his and leans against him a bit.
"Oh, really? Where were you?"
"Leeds," he says with a cough.
"That's fantastic," Edith says warmly, using that as her exit from the conversation.
"So far, so good," he murmurs in Sybil's ear. She just gives him a look and sips at her water.
"Well, then, shall we go in?" the dowager trumpets. Murmurs of assent follow, and they file into the dining room – not so large as he'd assumed, but opulently decorated. To his great relief, he's seated between Sybil and Edith, with Mary out of reach entirely.
It's a three-course meal – beef wellington follows the soup, and finally there's a sticky toffee pudding that is proclaimed to be "Sybil's favourite." He knows she's feeling ill when she spends more time poking and prodding the dessert than she does eating it. Throughout the first two courses, her mother deftly manages to keep the conversation light and non-controversial – no politics, no class issues, no talk of the coming arrival. It's impressive – he manages to get away with only contributing small comments here and there, usually at Sybil's prompting.
But when she's halfway through her pudding, Mary goes in for the kill. "So what can you share with us about Corin MacLeod's plans for the Russians, Tom?" Her voice is deceptively light, but her words are already dripping with venom.
"Ah…" he begins rather dumbly, clutching his fork like a lifeline. "I'm really not that involved in those sorts of things."
"Oh, come now, I don't believe that for a second. Gregory Morris told me that your fingerprints were all over the remarks from this weekend."
"Mary." Lord Grantham's voice is heavy with warning.
Sybil interjects. "Tom's good at what he does, but you know he can't speak about his work. You wouldn't ask them to tell you about private things, Tom, would you?"
"Of course not," he says, looking at her gratefully. "I'm here with Sybil, not as some sort of agent for MacLeod."
"But wouldn't it just be perfectly convenient if he did manage to pick up on something?" Mary replies, and it's becoming clear that she's got an agenda for the evening that she'll be seeing through, regardless of her parents' clear signals.
"I'm not working this evening," he says, feeling rather feeble as he reaches for his wine glass, only to find it empty.
"Oh, no, of course not." Mary targets him with an unnerving look – a smile round her mouth, but daggers in her eyes. "Though of course you're also well versed in how to undermine those in power, aren't you?"
"Mary, stop it," Sybil says, but her sister plows ahead.
"I assume those sorts of things are family traits." She looks over at her youngest sister. "You know that his father was IRA?"
"Yes, I know all about that," Sybil replies with a glare. "And I also know that children often don't share their parents' political opinions. You should all be quite aware of that by now."
"Sybil, has Susan told you any more about whether you can continue to work after you're at the LSE?" her mother interrupts, clearly desperate for a change in the subject, but to no avail.
"Not just IRA, either, but the Provisionals. You must have been just a baby when he went to prison."
His throat feels tight. "I was."
Sybil reaches for his hand underneath the table. "None of that matters. It's all in the past."
"Except that the Provos have been using his name in their literature for years, right up to now," Mary says.
"That's not my fault," he protests. "It's none of my business."
"I think if I were working in the highest echelon of the British government, I'd want to make sure that a radical terrorist group stopped mentioning me," she scoffs.
He knows that Sybil is speaking, but the sound of rushing in his ears drowns her out. "I've got nothing to do with any of it," he says, and his voice is perhaps just a bit louder than he intended. He takes a breath. "Both sides have been trying to use me as a mascot or a sob story or worse since I was a boy."
"But why would they do that?" Edith asks.
"Because my father accidentally blew himself up in our flat when I was five," he says, as matter-of-factly as he can. "He was trying to put together a bomb in our kitchen. I was the only other one in the house. There was an explosion, and a fire, and they barely got me out alive." Sybil makes a soft noise beside him, and he winces a bit.
"I think I remember seeing that on the news when it happened," Sybil's mother murmurs. "That was you?"
"Yeah, it was me," he says, looking down at his plate, pushing the remnants of his pudding around with his fork. "I never asked for any of it, not from the Provos and not from Stormont. I don't endorse anyone. But it's difficult to prevent people from talking about it. It's fact. It happened."
"Really, this is more than enough, Mary. I'm so sorry, Tom. My daughter has treated you abominably tonight, and you don't deserve that," Lord Grantham offers, placing his napkin on the table. "Shall we move to the library?"
"I just think it's important that we all realise what's happening here," Mary says.
"What's happening here is that Tom and I are going to have a baby," Sybil replies, voice breaking. "Your niece or nephew, Mary. Why must you be so cruel to me?"
Mary shakes her head. "Darling, it would be cruel to let you suffer under the delusion that he's got no ulterior motives about your relationship. How could you really think he had no idea who you were, that he didn't see an opportunity that was too good to pass up?"
"Good lord, Mary, give it a rest," Edith snips.
He feels like he's suffocating. "What's happened has happened. He didn't know I was the prime minister's daughter when we got together," Sybil argues. Her voice is small. "Why can't you possibly believe that anyone would want me just because I'm me, not because I'm Lady Sybil Crawley?"
"I never said that," Mary replies quickly.
"You might as well have," Sybil cries, and he presses a hand to her back, trying to be comforting. She turns to him with tears in her eyes. "This was a terrible idea. Let's go. I want to go home."
"Sybil—" her mother begins.
She holds up a hand. "I don't feel well. I'm so sorry, Granny. Please, Tom?"
"Of course," he answers, rising and helping her to her feet.
"Sybil, darling, please," her grandmother says. "Your sister's as nervous for you as the rest of us. There's no need to flee like a fugitive."
Sybil has a death grip on his hand. "Don't bother with the car," she says. "We'll make our own way home. Thank you for dinner, Granny."
The dowager starts to speak again, but then she merely sighs and nods. He thinks for a moment that he's supposed to echo the thanks, to reiterate that he was pleased to meet all of them, but in reality he's fuming. He's grateful when Sybil leads him out of the room, out of the house, and on to the quiet pavement.
"Let's get a cab," he suggests, but she shakes her head.
"Marble Arch isn't far, we can take the tube. I can walk that far. The fresh air will do me some good."
She tells him that she doesn't want to be by herself, so he comes with her to her flat. "This is really nice," he says as they walk through the front door. It's all wide open space, wooden floors, and soft furniture. Bookshelves line one wall, a good number of the spines marked by bright orange stickers denoting them as used textbooks. A reproduction poster from the Great Exhibition is propped on the mantle above a small fireplace.
"Nice because it was bought with their money," she mutters, tossing her keys in a dish by the door and sinking down into the sofa, head in her hands.
He doesn't know what to say to that, so he just follows her lead and perches beside her. Her eyes close as she leans her head back. "Do you want anything?" he asks. "Water, something?"
"I should probably be asking you that," she sighs. "I'm a terrible host, I'm so sorry."
"I'm fine," he says. She opens her eyes and looks at him in disbelief. "I mean, I'm exhausted after that, but I'm fine."
"That's why your back has scars on it?" she asks softly. "From the explosion?"
"Erm, yeah," he replies. "They've faded some, but they've never gone away. I've had lots of operations."
"Can I see?" She blushes. "I mean, I remember a little, but…"
He hesitates, but then he pulls his jumper over his head and begins to unbutton the shirt underneath. "It's not pretty."
"I can't imagine it would be," she says, her eyes steady on him as he peels the shirt away. It's cold in her living room, and he shivers as he turns to let her examine him.
Her fingertips trace the mottled flesh softly. "It's hard to believe these are remnants from when you were only five," she says. "You were just a baby, really."
"The scars are mostly from the grafts, not from the accident," he explains. "The last of those was when I was fifteen, I think."
"Can you feel – I mean, when someone touches you there?"
He grits his teeth as her soft fingers explore his back. "Yes."
Her hands on his shoulders urge him to turn back to face her, and he does – she's crying. "I'm so sorry about tonight. I knew Mary was going to be difficult, but I had no idea she was going to do that."
"I…" He doesn't know how to respond.
"Tom," she whispers, and he decides. He's leaning in, and he's kissing her hard, and she's wrapping herself around him as he presses her back against the couch cushions.
He tries to tell her with no words that he does care about her, that he wants to be near her because she's her, not because of who her parents are. As she moans softly against his mouth, he realises that there's no way to prove those things. She's just going to have to trust him. He trusts her when she says that the baby growing inside her is his child, she's got to trust that he's not using her.
He pulls back, and she looks so vulnerable beneath him – soft, red-rimmed eyes, swollen lips, pink cheeks. "Will you stay with me?" she asks, and he nods, not knowing if she means for the night or for the duration.
In her bedroom, he strips down to his boxers as she hangs up her dress. He catches a glimpse of her body before she pulls her nightdress over her head – flat stomach, swollen breasts. She looks over and sees him watching her, and she hugs her arms around her middle. He steps toward her and curls his hands around her biceps, pressing a kiss to her temple. "Please don't worry about dinner. I've a tougher skin than that."
"None of what happened tonight was fair," she whispers. "It's going to be a long time before I can forgive them." She lets her head fall against his chest, forehead to his collarbone. "A very long time."
"Come on," he urges. "Let's sleep?"
She nods. "Okay."
They slide beneath the duvet, and she presses herself to his side, just as she did that night at his flat. He's asleep almost as fast as he can close his eyes.
He wakes abruptly in the dim light of the early morning and has trouble at first deciding where he is – the space of her bedroom is unfamiliar, with its soft sage green walls and dark wooden furniture. He reaches out for her instinctively and finds her side of the bed cold, and only then does he register the light filtering through a crack in the door to the loo.
He steps carefully over to the door, mindful of the dark, and quickly realises that she's in the bathroom and that she's been sick. He cringes a little bit – suddenly the fact that she really, honestly is pregnant slaps him across the face. As he opens the door a wee bit wider, he can see her crouched in front of the toilet, trying to hold back her dark hair as she heaves.
For a moment, he thinks he should retreat, should give her some space and privacy. But for some reason, that makes him incredibly sad – the thought of her having to sit and vomit on the bathroom floor all alone, with no partner to try to make her feel better and no family to ring to complain about how awful the first months are. Without him, she is utterly by herself in this, and the weight of that responsibility on his shoulders terrifies him. You made her pregnant, he berates himself. This is your fault.
He shuffles a bit in the doorway and then steps in, shivering a bit in the early morning cold. The tile floor is freezing under his feet, so he goes back quickly to the bedroom and snags a throw blanket off the edge of her bed. He blinks in the bright light as he kneels down and wraps the blanket around her, tucking it under her bare knees, and only then does she seem to realise that he's with her in the room. Startled, she sits up suddenly, and then groans, leaning her head back over the toilet.
What else? He surveys the room, spots a hair elastic sitting on the countertop, and clumsily pulls her unruly hair back from her face. A cool damp facecloth on the back of her neck, a small cup of water set on the floor beside her. When he runs out of helpful things to do, he simply sits down on the floor behind her and rubs her back, trying to soothe her.
Eventually, she sits up, closing the toilet lid and pressing down on the lever to flush, resting her forearm on the lid and her head on her forearm. He opens his mouth, trying to think of what he should say, but can't find the words he wants, doesn't even know what words he should want. But just then, she sits up again and scoots back against him, leaning her head back against his chest. He folds his arms around her, holds her close, and she sighs.
"Is it always that bad?" he asks quietly.
She hesitates, looks at him for a long moment over her shoulder, eyes glassy and red, face ashen, and then nods. "Yes."
"For a long time?"
"For a couple of weeks." She pulls the cloth off the back of her neck, now surely warm from the heat of her body, and wipes at her face, her mouth. "It's worse in the morning, but I'm nauseous all the time. I had to phone in to work one morning because I could hardly get off the floor."
He presses his mouth against the top of her head, and she burrows deeper into his embrace. They sit for a long time together, the back of his legs going nearly numb against the cold tile, until she shifts and reaches down to help him off the floor.
"It's six," she rasps, wrapping the blanket around her body. "We should probably both get going."
"Yeah," he confirms. "I have to run home first, so I'll need to call for a taxi."
"I can do that for you," she says, regarding him with bright eyes. "Tom?"
She shakes her head and lets the blanket drop to the floor as she reaches up and hugs him tightly, pressing a kiss to his cheek. She pulls back without a word, just nodding a little, and slips out the door.
They dress, she in clothes for work, he in clothes from the night before, and she packs up her work bag as he watches. "Ready?" she asks. "The cab will be here in a few minutes."
He nods, shrugging on his trench coat and raking a hand through his hair. He doesn't want to leave her. Oh, God. He's done for, completely away in the head over her. "Let me cook you dinner tonight."
She waves a hand dismissively. "No, no…"
"No, I mean it. I'll make dinner, you can bring your favourite film, and we'll camp out on my living room floor like kids."
She hesitates, then gives him a small smile. "Okay."
"Okay?" He wasn't expecting such a quick capitulation.
"Yes, don't make me take it back!" she exclaims, grabbing an apple out of a bowl on the dining table and tucking it in her bag. She finds her keys and they head out into the hallway. After she locks the door, she holds out a hand – he stares at her, confused, but then slips his hand into hers, curling their fingers together as they amble down the stairs to the building's front door.
He's thinking about how soft her hand is, how naturally her fingers fit with his – no awkward angling of knuckles, no rough spots – and he's so lost in his own mind that he doesn't see the flash of the photographer's camera until after the first picture has already been taken.