A/N: This secret valentine fic is for Pointless Things (Happy Valentines!). I don't want to give away the plot (author's prerogative), so I put the requested prompt at the end. But the basic premise includes the Bransons being held hostage by their daughter's curiosity. General instruction for the fic exchange was to keep it at 2,500 words – ehh, plot happened in drips and drabs – oh well.
I developed this one in the same universe as my secret santa fic (A Frenzied Drum), in which Tom and Sybil remained in Ireland and he currently works as an Irish correspondent for Michael Gregson's paper. In the end, this one wound up being a sort-of AU for Episode 4.06, although I tweaked the timeframe so Sybbie could be older.
"Hold on, hon', we're gonna bunny hug!"
~ All That Jazz, Chicago
ALL THAT JAZZ
Downton, October 1923
With the rebellious Lady Rose MacClare now ensconced at the Crawley's Yorkshire estate, neither the house nor the family could escape her youthful impulses for very long. So, in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom and to curry favor with her Cousin Robert, Lady Rose had concocted a birthday surprise that would finally rattle the Abbey's ancient foundation into the 1920s.
Since Tom and Sybil both had responsibilities back in Dublin, they hadn't intended on returning to Downton for Lord Grantham's birthday. Tom had swiftly risen through the ranks of Michael Gregson's paper; his coverage of Ireland's struggle first for independence and then for solidarity had been re-printed in both America and Europe. With the civil war now tempered, at least officially, he was knee deep in outlining his next story on the consequences of the recent general election. Sybil was just as busy keeping up with three-year-old Sybbie and their newest addition, a chubby little boy they'd named Colin, who at four months was a glutton for his mother's time.
When the Bransons received Rose's vaguely drafted invitation suggesting a "Night of scandalous fun!" both raised wary brows and muttered a simultaneous "Uh-oh."
"Perhaps we should go," Sybil had wavered, and then snickered as she re-read the letter. "Papa might need a nurse to revive him depending on what Rose planned."
A subsequent guilt-laden message by Lady Grantham finally forced their hand: Your father and I miss our only granddaughter, and we've only met our newest grandson once. When you return to work after the first of the year – I assume that's still your intention – we'll hardly see the little darlings at all! So the Bransons packed up, children in tow, for a long weekend back in Yorkshire.
On the night of the earl's birthday, Tom and Sybil slipped into their "Downton Paraphernalia" and prepared to mingle, sip cocktails and try to find the slightest bit of entertainment in the posh conversations. After three years, Tom had finally shed his discomfort at these soirées. Not that he didn't feel conspicuous – he most certainly did – but he'd finally reached the point where he simply didn't care.
"It's just theater," Tom told Sybil as they readied for dinner. "I put on the costume, play the part, and all the while I'm dreaming of the star of the show." He gave his white tie two quick tugs and threw her a wink.
As she finished feeding Colin, she smiled naughtily. "And who is this mystery woman?"
He slipped into his jacket and turned, straight-faced. "Why, the Dowager Countess of course!" Rolling her eyes, she handed him the baby, which Tom draped over his shoulder and began to pat.
"Oh no- no- no," she scolded, rushing over to wedge a cloth under her son's chin. "No last minute wardrobe catastrophes." When Sybbie was a baby, he'd been a bit overenthusiastic about burping her on the night of another dinner party. To Tom's delight, it meant an evening in his tux rather than the wretched tails. Plan A foiled, he mused, kissing his son's chubby face.
Dinner was livelier than usual and the added guests meant that if idle chit-chat with one withered prematurely, more could be solicited quickly. Edith and Sir Anthony Strallan had come up from Locksley House with two-year-old Martha and had happily informed the family of another impending contribution to the menagerie of grandchildren. Mary and Matthew had extended a last minute invitation (it was the polite thing to do) to a Mr. Charles Blake who'd arrived days before with Evelyn Napier, Viscount Branksome, on a mission to analyze regional estates. Unwilling to let youth go unrepresented, Rose had herded a plethora of would-be-suitors – Viscount this and Baron that – that hung on her every word. Tom couldn't help but notice throughout the meal that Rose brimmed in her chair with anticipation. She was certainly spoiled and ridiculous at times, but at least she helped equalize the Dowager's monotonous platitudes. The meal passed in a buzz of lively exchanges and Lord Grantham seemed almost giddy at the celebration held in honor of his birthday.
Much to Tom's relief, the order of precedence put him next to Isobel, who asked after his situation in Dublin and made especial effort to comment on the precocious little Sybbie. He spent the next five minutes chattering about his children, noting that Colin's most recent milestone was achieved last week when he rolled over on his own accord.
Across the table, Rose huffed. "Honestly, Tom, he's not a dog! Can you not talk of something else?"
Brat. He reached for his claret. "I take a great interest in my children, Rose."
"Oh, I didn't mean it that way," she swept in with a dazzling smile. "I just remember when you and Sybil used to discuss so many exciting things!" She eyed him crossways. "Don't turn into an old fuddy-duddy on us!"
Matthew snorted into his glass. Sybil's eyes went wide. Tom turned to her, brows pinched, mouthing fuddy-duddy?! She lofted a placating a hand and shook her head. His mood shifted. Even the trifle for desert – his favorite – soured in his mouth.
As the meal ended, Lady Grantham turned in her chair, saying, "I'm catching the ladies' eye," and stood, the menfolk all rising obediently like puppets on a string.
Rose popped up. "No," she breathed nervously, and when everyone put eyes on her she declared, "No, we're not splitting tonight. We're all going out together!" She scurried past Carson through the door, and then a cacophony of staccato notes bubbled in her wake. Eyes alight, she burst back in. "Happy birthday, Cousin Robert!"
Amidst the gasps, Tom and Sybil went to inspect, hand-in-hand. The throng of guests filtered around them with child-like curiosity, each ogling the band and its beaming lead singer, who stood out in the sea of befuddled white faces. Sybil placed a hand to her heart, shaking with breathless laughter.
And just like that, Jazz had come to Downton Abbey.
Evelyn Napier ambled up beside them with the Dowager Countess on his arm. "Is this your first experience with Jazz, Lady Grantham?"
"Oh, is that what it is?" After perusing the band for a moment, she quipped "Do you think any of them know what the others are playing?"
Tom's eyes twinkled as he glanced down at Sybil's infectious delight. Her shoulders twitched with the disjointed beat and her gaze slithered upwards beneath fluttering lashes. "Shall we give it a try, Mr. Branson?"
"Are you sure you want to dance with an old fuddy-duddy like me?"
Lifting on tiptoe, she kissed the corner of his mouth. "Always."
"I don't know anything about this kind of dancing." Neither did anyone else it seemed. Except for Rose and a young noble – Viscount something-or-other – the revelers stood glued in place, reluctant to breach the cultural divide.
Taking her husband's hands, Sybil backed towards the band. "Think of it as making love, darling. Just follow the music and do what feels good!"
Behind him, the Dowager gasped.
This wasn't the first time they'd danced in Downton's saloon – Tom had always looked forward to the annual Servants' Ball and a rare opportunity to pull Lady Sybil into his arms – but those balls were like the old house itself: stiff, formal, and set boundaries of personal space. This new music, with its tin-tin popped notes from the trumpet and brushing snap of the snare was meant to chisel away the ancient walls one beat at a time. So the Bransons joined the wrecking crew and danced, taking the occasional breather to watch Rose – and whichever rested partner was bold enough to join her on the floor – show off her repertoire of fashionable steps: the Foxtrot, the Charleston, and something called the Tango which Sybil particularly enjoyed. On one swoop by the massive hearth, its fire blazing away the autumnal chill, Sybil asked her husband for a dip. Tom wasn't quite sure of what to do until she dropped a bit, forcing him to catch her. She leaned back, her breasts straining against the low neckline of her dress. For a moment, Tom simply savored the view before snapping her back up. Laughing, they shared a discreet kiss and whirled back into the crowd.
They stayed in the saloon as long as they could, but exhaustion soon set in. Giggling from an extra round of cocktails, they slogged up the stairs leaning into one another, which made the journey that much more treacherous. Tom's white tie hung loose around his neck and Sybil had kicked off her shoes before they reached the landing. Nanny West met them at the nursery door with a nasty frown, but Sybil pushed through to check on her daughter and to collect their son.
"I can bring young mister Colin when he's hungry." Nanny's voice oozed with condemnation; she'd already made known her disapproval of an earl's daughter feeding from her own breast.
"I wouldn't want to put you out," Sybil sniped, pulling the baby into her arms. She waited for Tom to kiss Sybbie and shot back a warning: "We'll be here early to have breakfast with our daughter. See that she's ready."
They'd closed the door to Sybil's old room, muffling the chitter and music from the ongoing party. By the time she'd tucked Colin in and undressed, she turned to find her husband sprawled face down on the bed. His arm dangled over the side, beneath which his jacket, waistcoat and shoes lay in a heap. One of his braces draped loose at his hip, the other was still strapped over his shoulder. A snore buzzed up from the mattress.
Sybil threw her dressing gown over a chair and, with one of the most useful skills she'd honed as a nurse, managed to peel him to his underclothes with nary a noise out of him. Sliding beneath the covers, she switched off the lamp and nestled down. Her fingers sifted through his hair. "Oh, my darling, you work too hard," she whispered, kissing his brow. One sleepy blue eye fluttered open; Tom's mouth curled into a small smile before his eyelids fell closed and he drifted off again.
Tom would never forget his first return trip to Downton as Lady Sybil's husband. That he was a fish out of water didn't begin to describe it. First, the staff – his former colleagues – condescended to him: yes sir, Mr. Branson; of course it would be my pleasure, Mr. Branson; and no sir, Mr. Branson, the staff will see to that. Then, after an old flame of Sybil's (Larry Gray prided himself as such) drugged him into the most agonizing hangover of his life, the Dowager Countess accosted him with a set of tails. Thirty years Tom had proudly walked the earth in his clean and efficient working-class garb, but five minutes at the Dower House had him polished and starched like some snotty toff from London's most exclusive club. And, as if the trip hadn't already redefined hell, one of the maids interrupted a rather amorous interlude on their last morning. Tom didn't even know which maid it was: he just remembered a shrieked apology accompanied by a slamming door.
But Tom was now attuned to the inconvenient routine of the house staff and when he stirred awake that next morning, he simply waited as the clock on the mantel snick-snick-snicked and sunlight cracked in around the curtains. When the door finally squeaked open, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep. Someone bustled on the far side of the room collecting clothes for laundry, and then the insides of his eyelids flashed when the curtains were flung back.
Snuggled in his arms, Sybil slept on oblivious, but Tom's skin was already prickling with anticipation. If there was one thing he enjoyed about being at Downton, it was the temporary use of Nanny down the hall. The woman may have been an unpleasant cow, but she at least controlled access to and from the nursery. Sybbie was fearless when it came to closed doors and, despite her parents' efforts, hadn't yet grasped the courtesy of knock first.
So when the door clicked shut that morning, Tom's hand went straight to his wife's hip, bunching up her gown in his fingers. His mouth came to rest behind her ear, brushing softly. "Morning."
Sybil awakened to his hand spidering its way between her thighs. "Your fingers are like icicles," she giggled, although the sensation wasn't entirely unpleasant.
"No worse than those scrawny toes of yours, milady." He shifted closer, his hand warming quickly, drawing out her arousal.
She hummed, content to just drowse in his arms. "Oh, I don't know if I can do this," she groaned when he rolled her over. "I'm a bit stiff from last night."
He grinned, writhing his hips against hers. "So am I."
Indeed he is, she mused and then squealed,"Tom!" His hands had seized her sides, tickling her into shifting so he could whisk off her gown. Sybil returned fire, pinching and tussling him out of his own clothes. They were soon shushing one another's laughter with clumsy kisses as the baby whimpered across the room; Colin calmed after a moment, his gurgles eliciting matching smiles from his parents.
Tom moved slower, teasing her ear with a whispered, "Tá grá agam duit."
"I love you, too, darling…oh…" Sybil's breath hitched and quickened as his mouth skimmed between her breasts and then feathered across the peaks. He couldn't get too greedy – they belonged to his son for the moment – and so worked his way to the satiny skin beneath, moistening a trail further. His fingers dug into her hips, his lips grazing downward until she gasped, sighed, and floated back into the mattress.
His eyes, so blue and lit with mischief, drifted up to meet hers, dark and drowsy. "Are you just going to lay there?"
"I thought I would, yes."
He crawled back into her arms, brushed a few kisses across her eyelids and grinned. "You know, we don't get too many opportunities like this..." He dropped another kiss on her nose. "...with Nanny holding our daughter hostage." He grinned again, reached to brush a lock of hair behind her ear. "I'm starting to think she doesn't believe that Mama and Da are just hugging."
"Well, she's more likely to believe that than – what was it you said – I'm keeping Mama warm." Sybil laughed at the memory of Tom's flushed face and the explanation yelped out as if he'd been caught with his hand in the pie safe. "Besides, if you'd ever get around to fixing the bloody lock..."
"Ah-ah-ah," he laughed, nipping at her cheeks. "Lock or no lock – that didn't stop her from asking why you were screaming. She was mad at me for days, thinking I was hurting you."
It was Sybil's turn to flush at that. "Well I for one am glad she's not afraid to ask questions," she insisted. "Better she learn the facts from us than elsewhere."
His head quirked back, twitched a bit as he narrowed his eyes. "You've given her quite enough facts, Mrs. Branson."
"She was helping me give Colin a bath! What was I supposed to do, ignore her question? Lie?"
When Tom and Sybil first brought Colin home, Sybbie had no use for her brother – she thought him a dull, smelly little creature always latched to her mother's chest. She'd finally come round when her Mama allowed her to help bathe and change him. What's that? Sybbie asked, and returned her mother's matter-of-fact answers with more innocent, but somewhat awkward, inquiries: Did mine fall off? Does it get cold? Is Da made like that? It was during that last question when Tom had arrived home from work; he stood, mouth agape in the bedroom door, before finally blurting, I am most certainly not made like that! But the ever-curious Sybbie lobbed back with So are you made like me and Mama? Sybil had waited, an impossibly smug brow aloft, as Tom backpedaled into the truth, a sheen of sweat leaking from his forehead.
"I'm curious, though," Tom mused. "Just how did you learn about that?"
"That?" She grinned. "What's that?"
"You know," he replied, "the differences between boys and girls."
Her mouth formed an amused 'o' before answering, "Well you forget, darling, that Downton has a marvelous sculpture garden. And my cousin Patrick was more than happy to use it to brag on the so-called virtues of the male physique." She laughed. "Bless his soul, he was rather a know-it-all."
"Ahhh..." Tom's voice arched roguishly. "Sounds like you weren't entirely convinced." He painted a flurry of kisses beneath her chin.
She moaned as his hand slithered between them. "And you think you can make the better argument?"
"I know I can." His fingers dipped in, stroking her near a peak, before his palm rested lightly on her mound. Her hips rose up, but he pulled his hand away, and then teased again with light and varied strokes until she brimmed on the edge.
"You're awful," she gasped, pulling him into a kiss.
She seemed to be quite literally sucking the air out of him. "That certainly…isn't…the impression…I got." She'd finally had enough, reached between them and wrapped her fingers around him. Their mouths parted long enough for Tom to tug a leg around his waist, and then another, melding them together in one quick movement.
He rose up on his palms, arching, and rolling and thrusting and – Oh God, a voice in his head whimpered – watching her writhe beneath him. He'd always watched her when they made love - loved the unchained and relentless passion as she met his pace or, more often than not, set her own. Her teeth came over her lip, pinching into the skin and stifling one moan and then another, spiraling until Tom knew she was close. Thrusting harder on her command, he ignored the cramp kinking its way into his back and dipped his hand between them, finding and teasing the little bud between his fingers. Her hips bucked so on his touch that he nearly plunged forward into the headboard. Instead he simply collapsed, their bodies rocking and molding as her walls clenched around him. His mouth dropped to hers to muffle their cries, and he came quickly, spilling softly into her as his thrusts subsided.
The heightened buzz beneath their skin waned into a familiar euphoric liquidity, and they whispered and nipped and giggled until finally drowsing again in each other's arms. The sun inched through its morning palette and cast a warm glow across Tom's back. He tucked his head beneath her chin, sighing as he drifted in and out of sleep. Though they'd always defied the houses' ancient custom of valets and ladies' maids, breakfast with both their daughter and the family loomed nearer with each snick of the clock. With two children, they'd come to seize these rare moments and neither wanted it to end.
"Thank you." Sybil's voice, soft and husky in the wake of their lovemaking, pulled him out of the hazy beginnings of a dream.
"Hmmm?" Tom propped his chin in the middle of her chest, his eyelids showing a flutter of life.
She glanced down, tracing her finger over one blonde brow and smiled. "For always making me feel so beautiful."
"Do you not?"
"Oh, you know...baby weight and all that," she sighed, gave a dismissive shrug. She'd had a harder time resuming her figure after Colin.
"Sybil..." He wriggled up, worming his arms beneath her shoulders. "Love, your body gave me two...gorgeous...and precocious...children," he whispered, dropping lazy kisses on her mouth. His softened with a smile. "That's beautiful to me."
Tom had always known how to make her heart flutter that way. She smiled, tears prickling her eyes as he nestled back into her arms. Her hand sifted through his hair.
"So you're a little thicker around the middle, so what?" he went on absently with a great yawn. "Just means there's more of me to love." Her fingers curled into a fist. "Ow!"
She twisted his head round and glared. "Did you just call me fat?"
"N-no." His mouth flapped open. "I...I meant it as a compliment."
"A backhanded one!"
Tom swatted her hand. "Sybil, ow...that hurts…" She seemed intent on making him bald. "Love, I'm sor…"
A tiny, but strikingly brusque, voice cut off his apology. "Mama, why are you mad at my Da?"
They hadn't heard the door squick open and both startled at the sight of Sybbie, still in her nightie, standing there with a chubby hand on the knob. The parents stilled under the blinding blue orbs. Maybe if we don't move, thought Tom, she won't...
"Where are your jammies?"
"Jesus!" He threw a hand behind him for the bedcovers.
"Sybbie, darling, shut the door!" her mother said, and the little girl pushed it to.
Grabbing a fistful of sheet, Tom snatched it forward, shrieking when a jolt of pain shot through his lower back. "Feck!"
Sybbie's eyes bulged. "Da!"
"Tom!" Sybil's reprimand came out in a grunt as his weight squashed her into the mattress.
"Oh God…Sybil...love...please don't move..."
Another spasm burned its way through his limbs. "Shit!" His fingers dug into the pillow beside her head. "My back...something..." He tried shifting his weight – he must have been crushing her – but fat tears pooled and he collapsed again.
"Can you move anything?"
"No," he whimpered.
Sybbie tottered up to the edge of the bed, eyes peeking above the mattress. "Da, were you playing horsey with Mama again?"
Tom struggled for breath against the pain. "Sybbie, love, now's not the time for questions."
Sybil parried the child's curiosity with, "Darling, why aren't you in the nursery?"
"Nanny told me told me to go find my cho-fer father," came her casual reply. "Mama – what's a cho-fer?"
"Honestly, the nerve of that...that...woman," Sybil spat.
"We can worry about that later," Tom muttered. He hissed as another twinge spiked across his back.
"Darling, we've got to get you up..."
"Mama, are you cold? Is Da keeping you warm like the last time?"
Sybil felt her husband's torso stiffen in her arms. "She's only three – she won't remember any of this," she whispered against his cheek. "Here, let's see if this will work..." She wedged a knee under his, prying his leg up until he yelped.
"Oh Jesus," he gasped. "Don't do that!"
"You've really wrenched it, darling," she said. "Sybbie, go get Grandmama..."
"No!" Tom's face flamed as he snapped his head back, his eyes watering as Sybbie padded towards the door. "Sybbie, don't you dare!"
The little girl wheeled around, brows thrown together at her Da's snippy tone.
Sybil huffed under his weight. "Darling, you can't move and I can't get up. We need help."
"Just give it a few minutes, maybe..."
"Please don't call your mother."
"Mama," Sybbie called. She'd made her way to the other side of the room and peered over in her baby brother's cot. "Colin stinks..."
"Then who do you suggest?" Sybil hissed. "God only knows who will show up once your son starts screaming."
There was only one person Tom could rely on not to pass judgment. "Sybbie, darling, could you go pull the rope by the hearth?"
The little girl tottered up to the bedside again. Lifting up on tiptoe, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You mean the one you told me not to?"
She shook her head gravely. "Noooo."
"But you said if I did it again I'd have to sit in the corner."
On their last visit, Sybbie had been fascinated by the rope that magically hastened the staff into their room. "I know," Tom choked out, "but you won't be in trouble this time. Just please do it."
As Tom tried to push himself up again, he gasped, "Oh God, yes darling, I promise."
The little girl grinned and bolted for the hearth, where she gave the rope several enthusiastic tugs. Sybil was in the midst of soothing her husband's pride (and unable to resist tossing in, You're not so svelte yourself) when their summoned savior breezed in a few minutes later.
"Oh!" Mrs. Hughes gasped, a hand flying to her eyes as she whipped around. "Lady Sybil, I'm so sorry, but I thought the bell..."
A little hand tugged on her skirt. "Da made me do it!" exclaimed Sybbie, pointing to the bed.
"Mrs. Hughes, we have a bit of a situation," Sybil said. "Tom's hurt his back and can't move..."
"Oh, jolly, she's awake," came a chipper voice in the hall. "Cousin Sybil, I need to talk to you about someth...jeepers!" Rose threw a hand to her chest. "I'm sorry, I saw the door was open and..."
"Rose, shut the door!" Tom snapped.
And she did, but contrary to his intent, Rose closed herself on the wrong side of it. "What's going on?"
Sybbie jogged over, reached for her cousin's hand and giggled. "They're hugging again."
Tom whimpered into his wife's shoulder.
Sybil groaned. "Rose, could you take Sybbie and..."
Mrs. Hughes looked askance at the bed and tsked. "Well, another pair of hands wouldn't go amiss, milady," she muttered, and then turned to Rose. "Mr. Branson's hurt his back. I'll need your help."
"Oh, well," Rose wavered, inching cautiously toward the bed. "If you think I can..."
"Alright, Mr. Branson, I'll try to lift from the waist and Rose, support his shoulders. Lady Sybil you...just try to scoot away. Ready milady? One, two, three..." Sybil slid across the sheet, snatching her dressing gown from the bedpost as the other women dropped Tom face down into the mattress.
"Oh God," he groaned, and squeaked out an Irish curse when Sybil rolled him to his back. The room whirled around in one great wave of the pain. He closed his eyes, felt her tucking sheets and blankets around him. His eyes blinked open and scanned over the room. Colin was belting out his discontent as Mrs. Hughes scrambled for a fresh nappy. Sybil swooshed in from the bathroom with a glass of water and pair of little while pills in her palm. "Here, darling, let these kick in and I'll draw you a hot bath."
He popped them back, wishing he could drown them with anything stronger. He tried lifting a knee, sighing in relief as the sole of one foot slipped flat on the sheet. His gaze drifted down to Sybbie who stood holding her cousin's hand. She giggled and grinned. "Da, you're a lot bigger than Colin...down there," she finished with a cagey whisper.
Sybil snorted on a laugh.
"I suppose I owe an apology for calling you an old fuddy-duddy," Rose tittered.
Tom shot her a glare, then turned piteous eyes at his wife. "I just don't understand – it's never seized up like this before."
Sybil dropped a kiss to his brow, and he sighed, grateful that the latest spasm seemed to be leaching away. "You probably tweaked it last night, darling, with all that jazz."
Rose's eyes twinkled. "All that jazz, indeed."
A/N: In case you haven't guessed it already, the prompt was for Tom to tweak his back during a bout of morning sexytimes and he's basically left stranded on top of Sybil. They call Sybbie, but (kids being kids) she keeps asking questions instead of calling help. Poor!Tom – he just can't catch a break, can' he?