A/N: I do not own or profit from Downton Abbey, I just enjoy it!
Sybil was a little girl, and Mary had told her and Edith a ghost story. It was a masterful tale of hidden corpses and weeping spirits and it had thrilled Sybil from her toes to her fingertips. When Mary concluded the tale with a dramatic flourish and they finished their hushed shrieking and giggling, Sybil looked around and thought that Downton Abbey was a little bigger and much darker than usual. Edith sniffled a little and said she wished she could sleep in bed with Mamma. Sybil thought that sounded like a really good idea, but before she could agree out loud Mary gave Edith such a look of disdain that Sybil knew if was to remain friends with her oldest sister she'd better be brave.
She was huddled in her blankets pondering the likelihood of there being a corpse in her armoire when she was overcome by the suspicion that there was something lurking under the bed; something frightfully dark and growling with long claws and sharp teeth. She started to pull the blankets over her head, but then wondered how long she would have to hide. The monster might stay under her bed for hours or even years and she didn't want to sleep with the blankets over her head forever. Sybil drew a deep breath and threw back the covers and stood up on her bed. "I am not afraid of you," she spoke in a voice that was unusually low and solemn for a child, "Go away!" The room was silent. She dropped to her stomach and pushed herself over the side of the mattress, feet waving in the air for balance as she hung upside down to peer under the bed. There was nothing there. Sybil jostled her way back into bed, wrapped herself in blankets, and fell into a deep sleep. After that night Fear left Sybil alone for years. Her world was perfectly safe, filled with sunny days and peaceful nights.
Sybil was a young lady, and Branson had been shoved away from her. People were growing violent and the situation was getting out of hand; she turned to look for a way out and met Branson's eyes as he struggled towards her against the crowd. Sybil saw unbridled panic on his face, and suddenly she was filled with alarm. She wanted to call out to him and tell him that he was right - she shouldn't have come here and she was sorry she had brought them into such a dangerous place and they should leave immediately. But then Cousin Matthew was shouting and fighting and she didn't even have time to be properly shocked about that before something threw her sideways and there was only the confused image of a table rushing up to meet her and a distant sound of shattering glass before she was plunged into darkness.
When she came to it was first to the pain in her head that made everything else foggy, and then to the slightly blurred but recognizable face of Matthew, his clear blue eyes that could never hide anything full of worry. She swam in and out of consciousness, Matthew's eyes always staring back at her when she surfaced, until they weren't blue eyes but brown and Sybil had to concentrate through the murk to bring her sister's face into focus. That was when she saw it for the first time in years, Fear. It was deep in Mary's eyes, pulling at the corners of her mouth and tugging at her voice. Mary carried it home, it gripped her as she gripped her sister's hand to reassure herself more than Sybil who could barely stay awake in the back seat. No one else in the car could have known, but Fear sat in the front seat as well, twining around their chauffer's heart and squeezing until his breath was shallow. Fear followed them into Downton Abbey and up to Lady Sybil's room where it wrenched angry words from her father's mouth and pressed silent tears from her mother's eyes when they saw their daughter stained with blood.
It lurked in the shadows until she was alone, and then Fear finally came to Sybil in the night. In the dark it crept upon her and she relived the violent press of bodies, the angry shouts ringing in her ears, the moment she realized she was falling with no time to shield herself; these memories ran through her mind over and over until the thought what if fell into her head. What if Branson hadn't come back for her, what if Cousin Matthew hadn't been there, what if she had been alone in that mass of angry, shouting violent people? What if she had been unconscious on the ground and no one came for her and she was trampled under boots and her body dragged through the mud - Sybil realized she was shaking and ill. She practically jumped out of bed and gathered her hair in one hand as she ran to the bathroom. Thankfully, it was easy to blame her illness on the injury to her head. Lady Sybil couldn't bear to admit that she had been scared sick.
Sybil thought that Fear would leave her alone after that night, but it stayed in her room, bringing nightmares in which she was crushed and trampled and Branson's face was full of panic. She was rescued by London, for the city filled her with excitement and new sights and sounds and frocks until she was too full to feel anything but happiness. When they returned home she felt that Fear had left for good because her days were full of sunlight and her nights filled with peaceful sleep just as they used to be. But Fear was only waiting for the day when the words Lady Cora and doctor and accident were being shouted urgently through Downton Abbey. Then it swept through the house like a storm and Sybil was consumed with a terror that left her feeling stupid and helpless. But she had learned when she was a little girl that she had to be brave, and she loved her mother so much that she wanted to be strong, and just wanting it made her so. Lady Sybil kept Fear at bay, diminished its power with her strength and grace, and everyone at Downton Abbey could see what a fine woman she would become.
The word was ringing in her ears and the ground was spinning below her feet and she thought it was too soon, too soon to be feeling this overwhelming horror. She felt oddly weightless, as if gravity had released her from its tether and she might just drift slowly off the ground and into the open sky. And suddenly she wanted very much to run to her mother, to crawl into her lap and feel her soft arms holding her fast. For a moment she resisted, but the instinct was too strong and it was all she could do to keep her pace slow as she turned and began to walk towards Lady Cora, if only to be near her. "Chin up," she reminded herself when she realized she was watching her shoes and their measured steps across the grass. She jerked her chin upwards and her eyes fell on Branson. She stared at him and tried to remember if she had ever apologized for that terrible day, or even thanked him for staying by her side. Maybe he felt her gaze because he turned and met her eyes. Sybil expected to see the panic on his face that had haunted her dreams, and it was there, but there was also something else that she did not expect. She couldn't even tell what it was, but it wasn't fright. She had seen it before, just a few minutes ago when they had been with Gwen. Could it really have been just a few minutes ago when they were all so content? The world had changed so much since then. They were grinning madly at Gwen's happiness, basking in her glow of joy when Sybil noticed that her fingers were wrapped in Branson's. She looked down in surprise at their clasped hands and then up at his face and he was smiling at her and his eyes were full of…hope. Now their country was at war and he might die in a far away land and who could tell what would become of any of them and he still looked at her with eyes full of hope. Sybil wasn't sure what exactly this meant, but it felt terribly important and something inside her shifted. Gravity resumed its pull and the earth felt solid and still beneath her feet again. She understood that she would never stop being afraid for years, maybe for the rest of her life, but now she was sure that Fear would not live inside her alone; it had been joined by Hope, and that made all the difference in the world.
Lady Sybil was a woman, and Tom Branson had fallen in love with her.