"I thought you said it was just a title?"
"It is just a title, it just...happens to have a huge house attached to it."
Sybil Crawley – Lady Sybil Crawley, he reminded himself – was grinning at him, and it was a grin he knew well. It was a slightly apologetic but not ashamed grin – perhaps, the grin said, I didn't tell you the whole truth.
It was not the first time Tom Branson had seen that look on her face, and he knew damn well that it wouldn't be the last.
She slipped her hand through his. "Thank you for playing boyfriend. They'd be unbearable if they thought I was in need of a man." She laughed at the thought of it – Sybil Crawley, needing a man. "They think they're so modern, they honestly do... But even the hint that Mary could possibly be pregnant and they were demanding a marriage..." She shook her head, glancing at Tom's face. She squeezed his hand. "It'll be fun. And it's mostly granny that's the..." She didn't want to say problem, but there wasn't really another word for it, so she let the sentence hang in the air.
He'd been distracted, anyway.
"Do you have servants?" He looked at the giant house, finding himself mildly intimidated.
"Staff is the preferred term. And only a few – nothing compared to when the house was in its heyday."
Sybil was his best friend – she had been since roughly ten minutes after they met in their first seminar, three long years ago. He'd noticed her previous to this, having decided that she was at least in the top five prettiest girls in his lectures, but they spoke for the first time during that seminar(he was very pleased when they were assigned to the same discussion group) and clicked almost immediately.
She had left out the detail of her title until later on, when he'd accompanied her to collect some post and noted the "lady" on the envelope. She had explained, absently, that she just so happened to be the daughter of Lord Grantham, but she wasn't an heir, she was just the third daughter.
As if that made a difference.
It had taken him a while to get his head around the idea; she didn't fit with any of his prior ideas about titles, nobility. If he'd been told that he'd meet – become close to – a Lady-with-a-capital-L he would never have believed it.
But here he was, "playing boyfriend" for the weekend.
She had mentioned the wedding a while ago – said that her sister was engaged, sort of planning to have a long engagement, that the main reason for the engagement was to confirm to the family that, yes, actually, they did intend to stay together.
Matthew, apparently, was theoretically a very, very distant relation ("In the way that we're all probably distantly related, if you trace it back far enough" Sybil had explained with a wave of her hand. Tom wished he'd been driving at the time, but she'd insisted on driving them down for this. At least her eyes had remained on the road.) but, much more importantly, he was a lawyer in the city. The city, in this case, being Manchester, but Mary had been careful not to mention that around her grandmother (London, apparently, was the centre of the universe; anywhere else hardly mattered).
They had met, apparently, in a bar in Manchester, with Mary quite stubbornly refusing to acknowledge just how drunk she was. It had taken, he claimed whenever he told it, most of his legal prowess to convince her that she really shouldn't be driving (and that she shouldn't really be getting into cabs with strange men).
Regardless, Sybil had decided that she liked the man, and wholeheartedly approved of the match. She was also somewhat excited about being an aunt.
"Edith doesn't particularly like him, but I think that's just because she got a little crush on him. She's always wanted Mary's things. It's sad, really." Sybil had given Branson a brief summary of her sisters in the past, but somehow everything felt more serious knowing that they were nobility. He half-expected a period drama to spring up around them.
She smiled slightly at him as they wandered down the drive – "Are you nervous?"
"It's a lot to take in." He replied simply, attempting to keep his tone neutral, not to let on that he was really rather taken aback and a little nervous.
He should have known better than to attempt to hide it from her.
She laughed – gently, affectionately. He got the feeling that, to her, this was very much like someone being terrified of the semi-detached house she'd shared with a few friends last year. "Really, it's fine. Just... Well, I think it's probably best that you just don't speak to granny at all. Unless I'm there. She doesn't approve of our degree – well, she approves of the history, I suppose, but definitely not the politics- if she hears some of your more radical thinking..."
"Socialism really isn't radical."
"She's very much old-fashioned aristocracy." Sybil flashed him a grin. "Not like me."
It was that grin that had made him begin to fall in love with her. That same grin that she flashed him before they went to riot against tuition fees, the same grin that had convinced him that he should apply for that internship, that same grin that she had given him when they'd got their results at the end of last year.
"Dyed in the wool Tory?"
"And the rest." Sybil made a face. "I love her to death, though."
They approached the door, which was opened before them. Tom found himself beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. Sybil beamed. "Carson! How are you?"
The aged butler smiled warmly. "Lady Sybil, it's wonderful to see you. I'm well, thank you. And this is Mr Branson?"
Tom nodded. "Tom Branson, yes." He offered his hand for the older man to shake, but was given a somehow stern smile. Sybil gently batted Tom's hand down. "It's a beautiful house."
"Thank you, sir."
"A lot of history – "
"I can give you a tour later." Sybil said meaningfully. "Do you know where my father is, Carson?"
"In his study, m'lady. Are there any bags you would like to be fetched for you?"
Sybil shook her head. "No, no, we parked at the back – partly so father wouldn't have to see what state my car is in – we can bring them through ourselves. You have more than enough to be getting along with, what with the wedding and all."
Carson's smile this time was more genuine – Sybil would inform Tom later on that Mary was very much Carson's favourite. "It's really no trouble, m'lady."
"Yes, it is, you have enough to do. Tom and I can manage. I'll leave you be – it's always so lovely to see you."
Carson nodded, pausing before leaving. "Your haircut suits you, m'lady."
Sybil chuckled, rubbing the back of her newly-exposed neck. "I doubt Mama will agree."
Carson fought a wide smile. "I couldn't possibly comment, m'lady." He left them, standing in the grand entrance hall.
Sybil glanced at Tom. "You don't shake hands with a butler."
"That information would've been more helpful earlier. Anyway, why not? He's just – "
"A butler is a dignified figure, restrained and polite. As a guest of the house, he has to set himself below you." She paused, a playful smile across her lips. "Even though you are a scrffy student and he is your elder."
He gave her a look, bumping her with his shoulder. Today, at least, he looked far from scruffy – his jeans were clean and this particular shirt had actually been ironed. "Anything else I need to know about staff?"
She very deliberately ignored his exaggerated pronunciation (she had given him some forewarning – not told him everything, obviously, or he'd never set foot on the grounds, but she'd mentioned some things).
"I'll explain it as it happens." Sybil waved a hand, letting go of his. "Now. Father will be in his study, and he does so want to meet you. I've told him all about you."
Tom made a face. "All about me?"
"Well, not all, I did want him to still approve of us being friends."
He gave her a look, and she giggled. "Come on. This way."
"You will give me that history, later?"
Downton's history had been one of many appealing factors of the weekend – it was what had won him over, despite the casual mention of staff (how had the independent Sybil ever needed servants – staff – whatever they were?) and caveat that he'd be playing boyfriend (simultaneously an enticing and unsettling thought).
"I'll give you a proper tour – although father might oblige, if he likes you."
Tom didn't need that kind of pressure. Even if he was only playing boyfriend.
"History and politics at Oxford? Very impressive."
Lord Grantham was surprisingly amiable – Tom wasn't entirely certain what he'd been expecting, but the man was genial and had a ready smile.
"Thank you, sir. Your Lordship. Mr Crawley. Lord Grantham." He looked at Sybil imploringly, not appreciating her giggles. "You said you'd explain things as they happened."
Sybil forced back giggles. "Well, it's really up to Papa." She looked at her father. "Tom tried to shake hands with Carson."
He had a horrible feeling she'd be telling a lot of people about that one.
Lord Grantham smiled kindly. "Better to try to be too polite than not to try at all. And you can call me Robert, if you wish. That's what Matthew tends to call me." He paused, mouth twitching a little, possibly with an unshed laugh. "Although he is starting to call me father."
"Robert, then – thank you, Robert." Tom replied brightly, eager to change the subject. "Your house is beautiful – your books... may I?"
Robert flicked a glimpse at Sybil, as if to inform her that he wasn't surprised at all, that this Tom character was everything he'd expected. "Of course." He guided Tom over to the shelves, and began to point out the first editions, the more interesting finds.
Sybil relaxed. It was going to be fine.
She and Tom were close enough to pull this off – everyone seemed to mistake them for a couple, so she may as well capitalise on it. It would make for a much more pleasant weekend than her mother subtly introducing her to supposedly handsome young lords who bored her to tears, society boys who didn't seem to care about what a girl thought, only how she looked.
And of course, she was fairly certain that Tom would cut a fine figure in a suit.
She had been stubbornly ignoring the odd undercurrent that had been flowing beneath them of late; it'd be a lie to say they were just friends, and even best friends didn't cut it, not anymore.
It would work itself out in time. One way or another. After the weekend was over, she could think about it then – but not now. This was her sister's wedding. Sunday evening, her sister would be a married woman, and then perhaps her parents would allow Mary to announce that she was also going to be a mother (such old-fashioned principles – sometimes she wondered if they were trapped in the past).
She simply didn't have time to think about the way that Tom looked at her sometimes, or the way that she found herself listening to him more than any other person in her life. It was not the time or the place for her to consider the unspoken attraction she'd felt towards him ever since they first locked eyes across a crowded seminar room (well, not that crowded, but still). Nor was she even going to consider how much she loved his Irish brogue (because it was an Irish brogue, his voice could be described in no other way). And she certainly wasn't going to dwell on the fact that her parents had just presumed that he was her boyfriend, that she simply hadn't bothered correcting them (it was one way to avoid "accidentally" bumping into the eligible son of a friend of her mother's).
And she definitely wasn't going to think about the way he looked in the light of the early evening, as it fell through the window and lit up his profile.
But she was only human; she couldn't help but smile, feeling her heart warm as she watched Tom's face light up, without need of dying sunlight, as he discussed ancient books with her father.
"Feel free to borrow any – will you be visiting us often?" Robert's eyes alighted on Sybil, before looking back to Tom.
"I think that's more up to Sybil than myself." Tom hoped that he fell the right side of humble; he didn't want to lie to this man, he felt oddly warm towards him.
This entire visit was going to be baffling.
Robert seemed pleased with it, though, although Sybil had a slightly strange expression on her face. "Well. You should really be getting settled in, since you're here for the weekend. Sybil, your old room has been tidied."
"And where will I be – " Tom began to ask before Sybil's hand found his. "Oh. I – I was expecting – "
Robert laughed. "Really, just because I have a peerage doesn't mean I'm old-fashioned. I'm not going to banish you." He waved a hand in the vague direction of the grounds.
"Come on, Tom, let's unpack." Sybil squeezed his hand. "We're allowed to share a room." She confirmed, attempting to use that as an explanation for the surprise on his face. "I told you they weren't that behind the times, that you had nothing to worry about."
She could've been a fine actress.
"I – yes."
He would never make a good actor.
"Oh, really, Tom, are you surprised?" Sybil chastised him – although it was gentle. "We're pretending to be a couple." She hung up a dress, allowing Tom a glimpse at an array of gowns.
The last dress he'd seen Sybil wear had been over some short jeans (cropped, was that it? He'd never know. Or care, really – she'd looked lovely, that was all he'd really registered) and even that had been a casual affair. These looked like they would cost a year's wages. Each.
"I had presumed that your parents would want me as far away as possible, unless you had a ring on your finger." He looked out of the window. "There. That small cottage there. That's where I expected to be holed up. Or possibly in the next postcode."
Sybil joined him at the window, leaning her head over his shoulder, wrinkling her nose. "The chauffeur's cottage? Don't be so silly, Tom. Nobody's lived there for years."
"Yes, yes, very silly." He muttered, turning to see her unpacking his case. "I can – "
"Good, you brought the waistcoat, I was hoping you would." She beamed at him. "It does suit you."
"I wanted to make a good impression."
She chuckled. "Really, Tom." Having hung the suit up, she embraced him warmly. "Thank you so much for this." She gently kissed his cheek. "You're not worried about sharing a bed, are you? I can sleep on the sofa, if need be – "
The very idea of being in a country house – her country house – and sleeping on a sofa.
She really was a modern noble.
It shouldn't be a problem – they were both adults.
Or maybe that was precisely the problem.
"So long as you don't try to take advantage of me." He gave her one of his smirks.
She released him. "No more than I usually do."
There was more truth in that than she intended.
"I was expecting a leather jacketed revolutionary."
Matthew Crawley ("I told you, if you go far enough back – ") was, Tom had to say, a breath of fresh air. Mary or Edith, it seemed, made fine company, but once the two were combined all hell broke loose. Sybil had gone out with them, checking that it was fine for the two boys to spend the afternoon together – and of course it was, in a house apparently full to the brim with oestrogen.
No wonder Robert surrounded himself with books.
"I left the jacket at home."
He did have a leather jacket, but had presumed that it would not be needed at a large country house in the middle of summer. It had been a vintage find, and was probably the most valuable (if not the most costly) item in his wardrobe.
Tom wasn't convinced that he could possibly be as relaxed as Matthew seemed to be, the day before his wedding, but then again it had been in the hands of a Crawley woman. Tom didn't know Mary all that well, but he knew Sybil well enough; once the girl started planning something, she was a force to be reckoned with. From what Sybil had told him, Mary was even more determined than her younger sister.
Matthew laughed. "I don't think we look like the young lawyer and aspiring politician."
"Thank god for that." Tom smirked.
"So. You're the fake boyfriend." Matthew rose up in his seat. "I like Sybil, like her a lot. She deserves a good man."
Everything seemed to have become serious without him noticing it. "You're right, she does."
"I'm just wondering...how fake are you?" Matthew fixed him with a piercing gaze.
Ah. But of course. He was a lawyer.
"I don't have representation for this." Tom pleaded, only half-joking.
Matthew smiled at that – possibly a little too politely. "Mary wants to know the truth." He fixed him with a cool stare.
The man must be a fierce opponent in court.
Then again, he was working his way up to Member of Parliament, somehow (probably, anyway, maybe). "So do I."
He hadn't known that Sybil had let Mary and Matthew in on it –then again, it seemed that the two sisters told one another almost everything.
"You're avoiding the question."
"No, I'm avoiding the answer." Tom smirked in triumph – petty, word-based victories still counted as victories. "If I knew then I'd be acting on it." He said finally.
"And you have no intention of taking advantage of Mary's baby sister?"
This was much more intense than it should've been, stood out in the garden (an understatement, but it was still a garden) under a warm midday sun, surrounded by sky (and, somewhere in the distance, a marquee being erected – a nicer marquee than the usual, but a marquee nevertheless).
"I think I'm more at risk from her."
Matthew's seriousness melted away in seconds. "Excellent! Well, now that's sorted, how about I show you the local area? There isn't much, but I'm sure we can find a pub – do you mind driving?"
"...and of course mother was terrified by my hair, but I think she's coming around to it." Sybil beamed, unconsciously running her fingers through it. She settled beside him in bed, smiling broadly (surprised – but not surprised enough – at how natural it felt). "I really can't thank you enough for this. You're doing a wonderful job – mama and papa adore you, just enough for you to be able to slip under the radar. You may never know the hell you're saving me from."
He was still knocked for six from dressing for dinner. When she'd insisted he bring multiple suits he'd thought it silly, but now he understood why.
It had been worth it, seeing her decked out like that – compared to her sisters, her dress was practically plain, but she had looked stunning.
And, of course, compared to what he usually saw her in, it was jaw-dropping. He was fairly certain his jaw had actually dropped. And she'd laughed good-naturedly, gently lifting his chin for him before he'd even noticed her doing it.
"It was nice to meet Molesley, he seems like a nice enough chap – he's one of Matthew's best friends, he'll be the one walking me down the aisle."
"If you want me to subtly leave you two – " Tom began, speaking for the first time since they'd entered the room.
"No, no, I didn't mean that." She shook her head, wondering if she'd spoken too quickly. "We don't want my parents getting suspicious – besides, I'm sure you'll be a fine date." She smiled genuinely at him. "Besides, I think I saw him making eyes at Edith."
A complete lie, Tom was sure, but a kind one. He slung his arm around her shoulders, not really thinking – on occasions such as these (i.e. in bed with a beautiful woman) it was something of a reflex. "I'll do my best."
She curled into his shoulder – was that a reflex? "I know you will. You always do."
He looked at her seriously, at her head nestling so neatly there, looking so right against his shoulder. "Sybil."
"Where's the light switch?"
"You look beautiful."
He meant it – she did. She twirled around, her skirt gently lifting slightly. "It's been so long since I wore something like this. Typical Mary. Did you see where I left my bouquet?"
"Here." He passed the flowers into her hands, and just for a moment –
Well. It was just a moment.
She had awoken that morning entangled in his arms, and found herself not certain what to make of it.
Other than the overwhelming desire to simply stay there.
"Thank you. And – oh, Tom, could you help me put my necklace on?"
"What else are boyfriends for?" He smiled, noticing people beginning to filter in. He gently lay the necklace around her neck, the tiny clasp almost getting lost in his fingers – but there, it was done, it was perfect.
She glanced at them in the mirror – him behind her like that, one hand on her waist (when had that happened?)
It really was perfect.
She looked at him, about to ask something when he cursed – lightly, in fractured Gaelic. (He claimed it was Gaelic. She didn't believe him.) "I need to find out where I'm sitting."
"I'll find you, after the service." She promised.
He looked at her, almost blankly. "I should hope so, you're the only one I know here."
Of course. Of course she was. This was a date, not a chance encounter, and not a real date at all, and –
It was her sister's wedding day. Any love-life that she may have was sat in the backseat, and it was having nothing to do with the driver.
It was, he had to say, a beautiful ceremony – lavish and yet somehow understated at the same time. Then again, one look at Cora Crawley and it was clear; the woman exuded elegance. She would, no doubt, have made planning the event look near effortless.
Then again, he reminded himself, she would have had copious amounts of staff to help her.
It was obvious from the way that Mary and Matthew were together that, despite the arguments (apparently a running joke, the room had rumbled with good-natured amusement when Matthew mentioned it) they were very much in love, very deeply entangled. He glanced at Sybil – she looked so content, just happy to see her sister glow like that.
Damnit. There was no doubt about it, looking at her like that, seeing that smile – there was no doubt that he loved her. Utterly. Completely.
Well. That was one friendship ruined.
He'd never had this trouble when his best friends had been boys.
They watched the first dance – had anyone asked him previous to this, he would have dismissed it as a tawdry Americanism, but there was something oddly special about it, about the way they danced slowly, elegantly – about the way they drew Mary's parents onto the dancefloor, then Matthew's, then Edith and Molesley (maybe Sybil had been right), then –
He really should have seen that one coming.
At least she was enjoying herself – that much was clear. She was laughing, letting him lead, letting him twirl her around (a dizzy Sybil, he had discovered many years ago on many a drunken night, was a very entertaining Sybil).
She spun almost too far – but he caught her, close against his chest, as the song shifted.
"That waistcoat really does suit you." She said quietly, meeting his eyes.
"I've been thinking. This playing at being your boyfriend thing. I think it should stop."
She stared at him. "Do you really think this is the time or the place – "
"No, no." He shook his head. "No, I don't mean that I'm planning to storm out, I mean..." His hands were on her waist, her hands flat against his chest. "I mean that I don't want to play at being your boyfriend. I want to – " He faltered.
"For a future politician, you really do need to work on those articulation skills." She teased gently, moving her hands up his chest (slowly, very deliberately) until they arrived around his neck. "And I think that sounds like a good idea. You did a very good job at pretending, I'm sure you'll be excellent at the reality."
He couldn't decide if she'd taken the romance out of the situation or not.
He kissed her anyway.
It turns out I've found a way to write fluff for them...a completely different universe! Hurrah...?
The idea of the two of them in a modern AU has been prodding at me for a while now; I'll be revisiting this concept, I can promise you! I'm uploading this now, all-in-one, mostly because if I don't upload it now I'll keep editing it to death. Or it'll expand and become a ten-thousand word epic to describe roughly two days. It is possible that I'm exaggerating.
It is also possible that I'm not exaggerating.
"And so now you've met granny."
"Beer. Please. Beer."
"But really, was she as bad as you were expecting?"
"I need more beer."
"And I'm sure she'll warm up to you in time. If you defect now. And sacrifice all of your principles."
"Sybil. This isn't helping me to drink to forget."