A/N:My apologies for the delay between chapters! On top of being crazy busy this week, I've also been crazy tired (probably from being crazy busy), which has not made for timely writing of this chapter. Thank you all for bearing with me, and for all your lovely feedback and encouragement that have kept me writing this fic. I hope you find the conclusion satisfactory, and I look forward to sharing more Sybil/Branson fic in the future!
A dance with Branson, Sybil thinks, leaving Gwen's side to rejoin him in front of The Darrowby Inn, is certainly likely to help her make up her mind about him.
Less certain is the likelihood of that decision being the correct one.
Her heartbeat quickens at the grin that stretches slowly across his face as she approaches the green-painted facade of public house-so much for her attraction to him fading with time-and she remembers the softness of his lips upon her own, and his earlier bold declaration that they have not kissed for the last time. Averting her gaze from his face doesn't help, as her eyes instead fix on his forearms, bared by rolled-up shirtsleeves-he must have got too hot when he went in for a drink-and she can think of nothing but his arms around her, the warmth of his skin radiating through the light fabric of her summer frock...
Out the corner of her eye she spies the car parked along the kerb. She should get into it, right now, and drive away from the pub, away from Thirsk, back home where the walls of Downton Abbey will keep them apart from each other where the bounds of society have, thus far, failed to do so. For if she remains here, at this wedding celebration, if she dances with Branson, it certainly will lead to more than a dance.
And Sybil simply doesn't think she has it in her to give him up for a second time.
She continues walking, straight past the car, without moving so much as a finger to open the door.
Because she also doesn't have it in her to refuse Branson a dance.
Not after he put so much effort into bring her to a place where they can dance together. Not when his eyes are looking at her, so bright and unblinking, as if being here with her is as unbelievable and wonderful as his dreams of being an MP.
It's only a dance, she tells herself. Deliberately, she slows her gait, deepens and lengthens each breath drawn and exhaled. Neither gives her a stronger conviction that it is only anything with Branson, but at least she is able to take his outstretched hand without trembling-much- when he makes her a slight bow and asks, "Would you be so kind as to favour me with a dance, m'lady?" and she can answer in-more or less-steady tones, "I should be delighted, Mr Branson."
It's only as they're weaving their way through the throng of the pub up to the narrow staircase leading to the rooms above where the dance is being held that Branson reveals any emotion other than the perfect confidence with which he proclaimed they would kiss again. With the hand not holding hers, he reaches up to wipe beads of perspiration from the back of his neck; the corners of his smile appear to be stretched a little too taut.
"I know it's not the sort of dance you're accustomed to," he says, "I can only imagine the ball Lord Grantham held for your London debut."
Though Sybil knows very well Branson's opinion of the differing styles of living between those in her station and those in his, she recognises a clear note of wistfulness underpinning his words. For an instant she indulges a fantasy of sweeping with him through gilt doorframes into a grand ballroom, he formally attired in tails, ivory waistcoat, and gold watch chain, she in the dream of creamy silk that just glows faintly pink like clouds touched by the dawn, and of him leading her out onto the dance floor for her first waltz under the approving gazes of her parents and the envious ones of her sisters. It's a vision she's held since she was a girl, sneaking away from nurses and governesses to watch Mary and Edith come of age in splendour, and she wonders if she's truly willing to give that life up for the humble one Branson can offer her, whole-heartedly as he does.
She shakes off the daydream and opens her eyes to the reality of the room into which he's brought her, where soldiers and merchants and farm-hands and servants dance with milkmaids and laundresses and shop girls and-spying Gwen-secretaries, all dressed in a variety of Sunday bests which would never pass muster with her family at any time. More eye-catching than their clothes is the joy that they all wear, equalling any merriment contained in the ballroom, in spite of peeling plaster and squeaky wooden floorboards in desperate need of refinishing, and fiddle and piano strings not quite in tune with each other. Joy, in turn, wells up within Sybil as surely as it did the night she was presented at Court as a grown woman. For here are women who don't attend merely because they are eligible, but because they are equal.
And that, she suspects, may be well worth whatever the cost to her.
She gives Branson's hand a squeeze. "It's the best dance I've ever attended-certainly you're the best partner."
He grins. "We'll see if you still think that after you've actually danced with me."
Think it, Sybil does, as Branson whirls her around the room. In fact, if either of them is clumsy or out of step, it's she, not being familiar with a number of the dances preferred by townsfolk. There are, of course, the waltzes and polkas that are the thing at society balls, though they have a decidedly different flavour when accompanied by a patchwork band of musicians culled from among the bride and groom's friend-not to mention when partnered with an Irishman whose rolled up his shirtsleeves and loosened his necktie and smells, rather exotically, like whiskey and a warm garage. She's fully reliant on his instruction in the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Two-Step, and the Foxtrot, which is so new that Branson himself hasn't had much practice at it, all dances which she's heard of from her mother as imports from America but of course hasn't danced because, they are, in her granny's words, too lewd for polite society.
But Sybil detects nothing improper about these dances, despite the proximity of Branson's body to hers at times, and she revels in the fun and the freedom of the movements, the feeling of relaxation the swinging ragtime rhythms allow to seep into her tendons and joints. It reminds her of that one fleeting evening more than a year ago when she dared to wear bloomers to dinner. She wishes she'd thought to wear them tonight, though Branson's smile at her even as she is matches the one he flashed her through the window that day.
"Are you a quick study at everything?" he asks her, practically shouting the question above the throng of the instruments and the pounding feet of the dancers and the muffled din of the pub below.
"It certainly didn't take long for you to teach me to dance like a commoner!" she puffs out, surprised to find herself breathless with exertion at the deceivingly effortless dance. "Or to drive a car."
"Or to be a Socialist. Which do you think Lord Grantham would be least pleased about?"
Teaching me to kiss, Sybil thinks, a little surprised Branson doesn't say it. "The dancing, without a doubt," she replies. "I'm sure to make a spectacle of myself at my next season, doing the Turkey Trot."
"I doubt if even London high society'd think any the less of you for doing the Turkey Trot than this lot here. Or haven't you noticed all the envious looks the other lads are sending my way?"
"What?" Sybil glances around, askance, though all she sees is the blur of the other couples whirling around them.
She finds herself drawn snugly against Branson's chest and his cheek pressed to hers as he murmurs in her ear, "You're the most beautiful woman at the party, Sybil Crawley. You outshine the bride. They can't keep their eyes off you."
At once Sybil's face flushes hot even as a shiver courses down from the place where his breath touched her ear. She wants to turn her head to kiss the lips that whispered so sweetly to her, but instead she reins in desire and holds her body back from his. She cannot, however, stop herself from indulging in flirtation.
"But you can spare a glance from me to notice the other men looking?" she quips.
"I'm simply employing the quality that makes me an excellent chauffeur."
"Being aware of my surroundings at all times, even while keeping my eyes on the road." His eyes rake over her, stirring up a blush, and he grins as if aware of the effect he has on her. "So to speak."
Sybil has observed his focus behind the wheel. To now be the object of that intense scrutiny herself...She has a feeling her head would be spinning even if she weren't in the middle of an unfamiliar dance. No one had paid this degree of attention to her even at her own debutante ball. Oh, she had admirers, to be sure, handsome, perfect gentlemen, all of them. But none of them looked at her as Branson does now: as if he really knows her, as if what makes her truly beautiful to him has nothing to do with clothing and coifs and cosmetics.
Suddenly, as he twirls her, she laughs, the sound mingling with a serious of rollicking notes from one of the fiddles, as if the music is an accompaniment to her high spirits. When she's face-to-face with Branson again, she meets him with his eyebrows raised.
"Is there some joke I'm missing?" he asks.
"I was just thinking..." Sybil hesitates, feeling rather sheepish about the thought that just occurred to her. But she's told a great many things to Branson at which most of her other friends would balk, and he's never made her feel foolish. So she says, "I feel a bit like Cinderella at the royal ball."
In true Branson form, he doesn't miss a beat. "I see the similarity-except that obviously you've not left a bed of ashes to come here, and your sisters are far from ugly."
"Though they're certainly quarrelsome enough."
"And you travelled here by car, not carriage."
"Hmm." Sybil must concede that point. "Which I drove myself, without any assistance from a fairy godmother."
"So what you mean," Branson says, "is that you don't actually feel anything like Cinderella at all."
Sybil doesn't know if she can explain herself properly to him. How she feels that at last, with the culmination of these driving lessons, she feels as if she's been released from the sheltered world within the walls of her family home. Not that she doesn't love Downton, and her family. It's just that since she met Branson, she's come to see that home is only a small corner of a much larger world, which she wants to see more of than what they would think she should see and show her. She wants the freedom to discover the world for herself, and to return home whenever she pleases.
"I'm afraid my car will turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight," she says. "I can't believe I'm really here, with you."
Branson's arm tightens around her, and he looks at her in such a way as must mean he is thinking of drawing her in closer for a kiss.
Before he can do, however, the song ends, and he leads Sybil off the dance floor to the refreshment tables at the end of the room. He gives her a glass of punch, which refreshes her after the vigorous dancing, but does nothing to cool the ardour Branson stirred up in her or her disappointment that the moment came to an end; as he tilts his head back to drain his glass, she watches the roll of his throat above his collar in fascination.
"If you're Cinderella," he asks, refilling their glasses from the punch bowl, "does that make me Prince Charming?"
"Of course not." When Branson turns back to her, his expression one of amused surprise, Sybil does her best to maintain a straight face as she adds, "You're a Socialist. You don't believe in princes."
To her delight, Branson, more one to merely smirk his amusement or chuckle silently than to guffaw, nearly snorts his punch. Sybil grins into her own glass as she takes a sip.
"Anyway," she goes on, "as you gave me the means to attend the ball, that must make you-"
"Dear God, don't say it!" Branson splutters. "That's how you thank me for teaching you to drive and taking you to a party? By casting me in the role of the Fairy Godmother in the strangest re-telling of Cinderella I've ever heard?"
Setting her empty punch glass on the table, Sybil arches up on her toes and brushes her lips across Branson's cheek as she weaves her fingers together with his. "This is how I say thanks."
She pulls him out into the centre of the room amidst other couples assembling for what is announced to be the final dance of the evening. The musicians strike up a slow waltz, and without hesitation Branson takes her in his arms and begins to move with her in time to the music. He holds her closer than is strictly appropriate for a waltz, their joined hands tucked against his chest, his other hand resting intimately low in the small of her back. At first she is rather taken aback by it, then observes the other men in the room locked with their sweethearts in the same slow-dancing embrace-particularly the soldiers; Gwen has even tucked her chin under Mr Masters' chin-and realises that this night is borrowed time, even for her. Branson may not be bound for the battlefields of France, but she's nevertheless to be separated from him. So she settles her own hand high on his shoulder so that her fingers brush the smooth warmth of his neck and stroke the softness of his hair. He leans into her touch as she arches into his, and she gives herself over to the dance. Their movements now are little more than swaying; she thinks of two strong trees, deeply rooted and entwined against the raging storm.
When Branson speaks, she feels the low rumble in his chest against her own. "If you're not Cinderella and I'm not the Prince, does that mean you won't run away at the end of the night?"
Sybil's heartbeat quickens, knowing the meaning behind his question, not knowing whether her answer ought to be the one she wants to give, or the one she should give. She knows that in any case, she wishes he would kiss her, either for the last time or as a fresh beginning to their halted romance, and tilts her face up toward his.
Branson responds in kind, and stops dancing as he pulls her against him, but she feels no more than the caress of his warm breath on her lips before he draws back. "We should go."
Needless to say, she's a little bewildered as he escorts her from the room and out of the pub, and even more so when he opens the back door of the car for her.
"I thought you wanted me to practice driving home in the dark?" she asks, making no move to get in until Branson's hand on her elbow boosts her up into the passenger seat.
No sooner has she sat, her mouth still open in question, than he is clambering into the car after her, his lips pressed hard against hers. For a moment her astonishment renders her unable to respond, but soon enough she recovers her senses enough to yield to the insistence of his kisses, to relish the scratch of his stubble against her chin and the throb at the nape of her neck as his fingers tangle in her hair. She makes a low moan at the familiar sensation of his tongue pushing her lips apart, deepening the kiss, and she elicits a similar response from him when she catches his lower lip between her teeth, the throaty sound accompanied by the tiny jingle of a few hairpins falling to the floor.
The world seems to tilt on its axis as she finds herself reclining backward in the seat, Branson bestowing kisses from above. Coherent thought begins to slip away, but as his lips leave hers as he adjusts his position to hold his weight off her, it occurs to her to give him one last chance to consider what this may mean for him if they continue on this irrevocable course.
She places her palm against his shoulder and pushes, gently, against him. He looks at her, breathing raggedly, his eyes blue flames of fire reflecting the moonlight beyond the car windows and the passion within him.
"It was only a dance, Tom. It didn't change anything."
"No," he says, hoarsely, his agreement so surprising that Sybil's heart constricts with an electric shock. Then he adds, "But it wasn't only a dance, my lady." He cups her face in one hand, his thumb stroking her cheek, as the other closes around her hand in the valley between her breasts. "It was hope."
...That Branson will be free love her without fear of reprisal from his employer...That Sybil will be free to return that love and build it on a foundation free of lies and deceit...That others will accept them as they accept each other...
She wraps her arms around him and holds his head against her breasts; his lips graze the skin above the neckline of her dress.
"We may have a long wait," she murmurs, "before we can really be together."
"You're worth waiting for," he replies, and he kisses her again and again, along her collarbones, up her neck, in the sensitive hollow between her jaw and her ear. "Worth working for...worth fighting for...even if I have to wait and work and fight for ten years or more."
If she is honest, Sybil still is not certain how much of her life this fight, like her quest for women's rights, will require her to give up, but then again Gwen's words return to her and Sybil is just as unsure how much will be taken by forces that are already at work in the world and far beyond her control. Loving Branson may well require the fewest sacrifices.
She draws his face up to claim his lips once more, but she pauses for a moment before the kiss.
"I know where our fight should begin," she tells him.
She nudges him, and he sits up, pulling her upright with him, and turns her head to look at the steering wheel in the front of the car. "With driving lessons."
"But you already know how to drive."
"Exactly," Sybil says, throwing her shoulders back and flashing her most defiant smile. "And it's high time my father knew it."