Chapter 5

Sybil slept fitfully that night. Her restless sleep was punctuated by dreams where Larry's face kept appearing. In one such nightmare, she was back at the seaside as a teenager and Larry stripped her again. Except this time, he didn't just ogle her body — he aggressively groped her as she begged for him to stop, for someone to help her. But he didn't stop, and her parents never came to help her this time.

Although Sybil had never been terribly superstitious, she had to wonder at the significance of these horrible dreams. This was her second time dreaming of an intimate encounter with a man — except this time, he practically violated her rather than gently caressing her the way the man in her first dream had. But Larry was too well-born, too much of a gentleman to do that, she told herself. This thought was a thin, scant comfort to her, one that she needed to tell herself if she was ever to be strong enough to become Larry's bride.

Sybil realized attempting to go back to sleep would be fruitless — her thoughts were racing too quickly. She quickly dressed herself in a simple patterned blouse and high-waisted skirt — it was pointless to wake Anna so early when she knew perfectly well how to dress on her own—, left her wavy hair loose, and quietly slipped out of the manor to go for a walk.

She only had one destination in mind. She knew Tom was often in the habit of tinkering with the cars early in the morning to make sure they were ready for the Crawleys' use. It would be so hard to tell him the news she had that any other woman would have been delighted to proclaim. She had told herself so many times over the course of the long night that most of the girls she knew would be utterly over the moon at the prospect of becoming the future Baroness Merton, so she should consider herself lucky to be marrying a man who could fill her life with comfort and security. Although she knew that was about all he could fill it with…

Sybil entered the garage, and Tom's handsome face broke into a broad smile at her appearance. "I was hoping to see you!" he exclaimed, and her heart lifted in happiness.

"Don't be ridiculous, Tom! It's only been a week since we last talked!", Sybil teased giddily. The longest week ever, she added in her head.

Tom laid down his polishing cloth and practically skipped over to her, to Sybil's fond amusement. He lovingly took her face in his hands and tugged her lips up to meet his. She began to kiss him back and for once she nearly forgot about Larry. Her fiancé, she realized with a sudden jolt of guilt, and managed to extricate her lips from Tom's.

"Tom…" she began sadly.

"Yes, my darlin'?" Sybil noticed that he seemed a bit taken aback by her sudden change of mood. She wordlessly took his hand, the warmth of their linked fingers providing her with a tender, silent courage.

"Larry proposed to me last night," she confessed. She covered her mouth, hopelessly wishing she didn't have to tell Tom that. She was young, she was in love…the fairytale love she had dreamed of as a girl after reading stories like Cinderella did not go like this.

"Oh, Sybil…I assume you said yes?" Tom guessed correctly, his worried expression turning into a full-fledged frown. He knew her too well.

Sybil's throat burned with unshed, barely-bottled-up tears. She could only nod her confirmation.

Tom ushered her into his arms and rubbed his hands back and forth down her shoulders. The affectionate, constant gesture comforted her and reminded her of her father when he would bring her in from the cold.

"I'm so sorry," Sybil whispered, her words muffled by Tom's uniform.

Tom adjusted them so that she could face him and planted his hands firmly on her quivering shoulders. "It's your parents who should be sorry. Or maybe Lord Merton for raising such a cad. Goddammit, maybe it's our flawed society's fault for creating such social divisions or for having a woman's only viable path be marriage. But it's not you - never you. You did what you think will help the most people, and that isn't wrong."

"You're right," Sybil agreed, squeezing his hand thankfully. "But still - although it will help them, I know it's not what is best for me. I know that by accepting Larry's proposal, I am subjecting myself to a life of misery and dissatisfaction and misogyny. And I think it's just…difficult for me to live with the knowledge that I am, in some way, sinking myself into this mess."

"Darlin', you don't have to be miserable…" Tom reassured her suggestively, tracing lines across her hand with the pads of his warm fingers.

Sybil roughly snatched her hand away and looked at him with disgust. "Don't be ridiculous, Tom! Imagine if Larry found out - I'd be branded an adulteress and my life would be ruined even more! Besides, on the off-chance he never discovered us, I would feel so guilty and dishonest having an affair as a married woman."

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have implied that," Tom quickly apologized. "I mostly meant that you could have a confidante to rely on - me. Then you wouldn't be nearly as miserable as the future Baroness Merton."

Sybil nodded and began to pace the small garage as she talked frantically. "You know, Mary told me she didn't expect me to give you up completely if - when - I marry Larry. I know she said that to convince me to agree, but still…" she laughed wryly, reconsidering her previous statements.

She imagined meeting Tom in the garage on visits to Downton, making excuses to go on walks but instead winding up entwined with him in the backseat of the automobile. She daydreamed of rendezvous with him at modest London hotels when she happened to be in town for the season with her own daughters and when he had a day off. Oh God, the thought was enticing, more daring and more exhilarating than anything she had done in her life to date.

But…

That wouldn't truly be her. She knew deep down she was not the kind of woman who could wake up in the morning knowing she was breaking the holy bonds of marriage, no matter how arranged and strained hers and Larry's would no doubt be. She couldn't abandon her future children and miss out on moments of their lives even for Tom.

"Never mind," Sybil mumbled, and Tom nodded, somewhat dismayed.

"So what will we do?" he asked her. She appreciated how he gently left the answer up to her, how he let her chart her own course of action. Our marriage would have been a marriage of equality and happiness, no doubt, she thought sadly.

"First, I want one last kiss from you, Mr. Branson, to tuck away in my memory box one day," Sybil told him, attempting a lighthearted tone.

She crept up on her tiptoes and kissed Tom, sweet and slow. There was no hint of desperation in this kiss - only the air of first love and longing for what might have been. Tom played with the ends of her loose brown hair as Sybil drew him closer to her, for one final time.

Eventually, she pulled apart from him, but not before taking her time to savor the moment exactly as it was.

"And then?" Tom questioned, cocking a brow.

Sybil hesitated before speaking. As she had felt his lips on her own, something had occurred to her that should have occurred to her far sooner. Maybe that didn't have to be the final time she ever kissed him.

"And then we eat breakfast and begin our days. But then, we explore ways to save Downton and my family without me having to marry that anti-Catholic, anti-suffragist cad. And only if we absolutely can't, which is likely…I will marry him," Sybil said, pursing her lips resolutely in a thin line.

But she recognized a flicker of hope in Tom's eyes, And - for the first time in weeks - she felt it too.

Yes, I'm back. My sports season finally wrapped up, so my Saturdays are free for the first time in forever. As one guest reviewer kindly pointed out, it's been six months since I said I'd update. :(

Next chapter, Sybil and Tom will work together to find a better solution to Downton's financial problems. It will feature lots of Matthew, too - he's probably my favorite character after the Bransons.

Until next time! Please review or PM me with any thoughts you have. That greatly helps the writing process along for me and you will get another chapter much sooner that way. :))