This takes place towards the end of series one, but after the garden party. However, as you will find out, there is a curious lack of war mentioned. I suppose, then, that- for the purposes of this fic- I have rearranged world history. Oh dear. Carson/Hughes.

1.

It was a great bore to have to deal with all three girls as well as her Ladyship, Sarah thought. Damn Anna for being ill. And damn Lady Sybil for taking so long: did she think that a lady's maid had nothing better to do than to wait around for her employer's daughters all day? She wandered distractedly around the bed, scuffing her heels on the carpet deliberately, knowing it would make Mrs Hughes mad to see her. The morning light at the window was unnecessarily bright and she turned her back against it to stop it irritating her.

Her legs were tired and she was very tempted to sit on the bed if the silly girl was going to take this long, but even the baby of the house could scold her and it would be hard to stand up quickly and remove the creases from the bedclothes quickly. She hovered towards the dressing table; considering perching herself on that instead, but no; it didn't look to be a very sturdy structure and the last thing she wanted was a collapsed piece of furniture on her hands. She sighed: Lady Sybil kept her dressing table in an appalling state of clutter, if she let her Ladyship's get like that her guts would be had for garters by multiple parties. She lifted a pile of books to the side, trying to reach a state where the wood could be seen; why did she even keep books on the dressing table anyway? Perhaps Mrs Hughes was right after all, perhaps the youth of today were going all to pot.

Something went fluttering to the floor and she heard herself swear under her breath. Picking it up, she found it was a newspaper clipping: probably more socialist claptrap that bloody fool Branson was drowning the girl in.

"The Cheerful Charlies..."

She didn't know that the socialists were big on musical hall. She furrowed her brow and read on.

"Ah, O'Brien, sorry I've been taking my time."

She dropped the clipping to her side as the girl came floating into the room- to put it behind her back would have only attracted more attention- hoping that it would go unnoticed. No such luck though, Lady Sybil could be astute when it suited her.

"Tidying my dressing table?" she asked innocently, but not without a slightly accusing edge, "What's that?" she asked nodding towards the clipping in her hand.

"I'm not sure, m'Lady," Sarah replied, for it was the truth although she did have an astute idea.

She held it out for Lady Sybil's inspection. The girl's frown grew as she read on. Finally, she finished and looked back at O'Brien then at the paper as if trying to calculate something. Sarah waited to see if she would receive an answer.

"It's nothing really, O'Brien," the girl concluded.

No it's not, Sarah thought immediately, you don't frown like that over nothing. Having been mildly interested at first, her intrigue escalated at Lady Sybil's pretence.

"Would you like me to dispose of it, m'Lady?"

Lady Sybil thought and then nodded firmly.

"Yes, O'Brien, I think that would be best," she told her, "Straight away."

Now she was interested. She tucked it discretely into her pocket.

"As you wish, m'Lady."

2.

"That'll be the day! That tongue of yours'll get you into trouble one of these days, Sarah O'Brien."

Mrs Patmore surveyed her imperiously: she did not suffer fools gladly by any means.

"I'm not making it up!" she protested crossly, "Even my imagination dun't stretch that far! Read it for yourself."

The cook straightened her glasses and took the paper as it was handed to her.

"Cor blimey!" she exclaimed upon finishing, "I'd never have believed it if I hadn't read it with me own eyes!"

"He's no better than the rest of us," Sarah murmured to herself; indignant while beside her the cook hooted with laughter, "Putting on airs and graces he's no right to: no better than the rest of us!"

"He were an 'andsome man in his day," Mrs Patmore told her wiping a tear of mirth from her eye and returning gradually to her pastry.

Sarah snorted at that.

"Well then we can safely say his day's passed then," she declared, turning to lean against the kitchen table in time to see Thomas entering the kitchen, "And I don't care how handsome he's been at any point in his life, he's still no better than the rest of us, no matter how mighty he makes out he is, " she brandished the piece of paper once more for emphasis.

"Who's no better they make out to be?"

You could always, Sarah thought, at the mildest whiff of antagonism rely on Thomas to stick his nose in.

"How long've you got?" she asked dryly, but then seeing the look on his face: "Mr Carson, since you asked."

Thomas picked up a thin slice of cake before Mrs Patmore could put it on the plate and crammed it into his mouth.

"Tell me something I didn't know already," he replied, between mouthfuls, "Why? What's new?"

"This."

She handed him the newspaper. Frowning, he read it quickly; eyes scanning back and forth, comprehension and disbelief mixing in his face. Looking up, she thought she saw him try to hide the fact that he was impressed by her having got her hands on it.

"Where did you get that?" he asked suspiciously, eyeing the paper and then her.

She took it back from him.

"From Lady Sybil," she replied, "I don't know what she was doing with it but I found it in her books."

Thomas, heaven forbid, was thinking; little by little she saw a smirk appear on his face.

"You've come up trumps this time, Miss O'Brien," he admitted, barely attempting to disguise the smile on his face now, "Imagine that; Mr Carson on the stage," he snorted contemptuously, "The Cheerful Charlies, I ask you."

"Now you won't go being unkind about him, will you?" Mrs Patmore waved her rolling pin at the pair, "It's a ridiculous thought, I know, but I'd rather you kept him on side. It could be useful."

She continued to mutter something about "the wench": clearly Mrs Hughes had been asserting her authority once again. Thomas threw her a quick grin.

"When've you ever heard of us being unkind, Mrs P?" he asked, feigning incredulity.

Mrs Patmore shook her head at him, there was no point trying to get through to the youth of today, and returned to her pastry; declaring haughtily that she might as well keep herself out of this whole business but still inwardly chortling at the very idea of the butler tap-dancing. That would certainly keep her amused the next time he or Elsie Hughes felt the need to spring an impromptu pep-talk on them. Thomas and Miss O'Brien, almost telepathic whenever there was gossip to be spread, were dedicated to a united cause; waiting for whomsoever came into the kitchen next, so that they might enlighten them.

"Daisy, come over here a second."

The girl wouldn't wait to be told to do something twice by Thomas and practically came bounding over. Non too quietly she was informed of a shortened yet somehow exaggerated account of the butler's life story. Little did they realise that the subject of their speculations stood silently behind the kitchen doors, listening to every word and hovering on the verge of burying his head in his hands.

3.

He had heard enough, he decided. He wasn't going to stand there and hear himself ridiculed by his own staff. As quietly as he could, he stood up so he was no longer resting against the wall and made his way- via the long route so as not to be conspicuous- back towards his pantry, taking care to try and muffle the brisk snap of his shoes on the stone floor. He had almost made it when a small figure in her usual black came almost careering around the corner and into him.

"Oh goodness me! I'm sorry, Mr Carson!" Elsie exclaimed.

There went all pretence of being inconspicuous. But, he thought, she hadn't meant it and sighed accepting her apologies and asking if she was all right; she had come running into him at such a speed that she had staggered almost drunkenly for a moment.

"I'm fine," she assured him, looking up at him, blinking and frowning; "Are you sure you're all right, though?" she asked, her frown deepening in apparent concern, "You look as white as a sheet."

"I'm perfectly all right," he told her, trying to repress the rising echoes of the conversation he'd recently overheard.

"Are you sure?" she asked, "I really shouldn't have been running like that- I'm so sorry- I didn't mean to-..."

"Really, Mrs Hughes, it's all right," he told her rather brusquely, interrupting her in what, judging by her answering expression, had come across as a sharp manner.

After the moment's uncomfortable silence, she addressed his knees.

"Well, if you're sure..."

"Perfectly sure, thank you."

It was still coming across as sharp, apparently. He couldn't help but notice that she looked rather dismayed.

"Well, I shall be seeing you later, then."

"Good day, Mrs Hughes."

As soon as their final formalities had been exchanged she slipped past him and hurried off down the corridor, arms folded across her chest in an uncomfortably business like fashion.

4.

"So that's why he was so standoffish this afternoon!"

It made a certain sense:to a man like Charles- who regarded himself, expected himself to be nothing less than an institution of dignity- such a frivolous revelation must be an incredible blow. Ridiculous male pride!- she thought to herself. Mr Bates, in the chair beside her, nodded.

"I expect that would be it," he told her.

She was hard pressed not to breathe a sigh of relief.

"And here was I thinking I'd offended him somehow!"

Mr Bates smiled quite sadly at her.

"No, I can't imagine you did, anyhow. I expect he just took this whole thing quite hard; he's not exactly the type who enjoys having his personal life discussed around the staff quarters."

"Are any of us?" she asked, breathing back a heavy sigh.

"No," he conceded, "But there are some who enjoy discussing other people's and expect exceptions to be made for them."

They were both hard-pressed not to glance to the other end of the table where Thomas and Miss O'Brien sat together, no doubt conferring. She bowed her head towards the wooden surface; part of her felt guilty for not pressing him to tell her why he had been upset earlier on. Now he had not come for his supper and she was beginning to worry about him, more than usual. But then he hadn't seemed to want to talk. That's why you should have pressed,idiot woman, otherwise it would have just been straightforward asking. She shook her head at the conversation she seemed to have inwardly struck up with herself. Mr Bates, she found when she regained some concentration, was watching her- his expression calm and kindly.

"He told me and Anna not to tell anyone. I assumed that meant you. Otherwise I'd have told you sooner, I know you worry about him."

"How long have you known?" she asked, confused. She had been under the impression that it had been just as much of a surprise to hear of it today fo the rest of the staff as it had been for her.

"Quite a while now," he admitted and briefly recounted the circumstances that had lead to him, Anna, Lady Sybil and Lord Grantham hearing about- what he assumed was- one of the more obscure parts of the butler's life.

At points she was tempted to laugh, but held it in: the last thing he needed was to feel that she had joined in ridiculing him, even if he wasn't there to see it.

5.

Her knock at the door sounded much braver than she felt. Not really expecting him to answer to anyone at the moment, she waited a moment but wasn't deterred by the lack of response and entered anyway. Sure enough, he was there; it was too early for him to have gone to bed and she had already looked for him everywhere else. He was half-reclined in his armchair, as much as the furniture would allow him, gazing at the ceiling. She cleared her throat to alert him to her presence but received minimal response. That meant trying the next tactic: talking.

"Charles," she began cautiously, "Are you all right?"

Silly question really, when was the last time he'd failed to show up for a meal? However, it seemed to be the question that she was hell-bent on asking him today and so stuck to her guns. Still receiving little response, she pressed on, as she hadn't done earlier.

"I'm... I was worried about you," she told him, "I came to see if you needed anything."

He let out a sigh. At least he was still capable of audible sound, she reflected. But he still avoided her gaze.

"I'm fine," he told her.

"Really," she asked, "Because if you're fine at the moment, I'd hate to think that your usual state means you're being perpetually torn by some inner conflict."

It was a weak stab, but he needed to be told that she wasn't stupid; she had eyes and- he could protest all he liked- he plainly wasn't all right.

He huffed in response.

"Just leave me, Elsie," he told her, "I don't deserve to command any more of your attention."

Ah, so this was what it was all about.

"Why not?" she asked pointedly, folding her arms across her chest and trying her best to look imperious.

To an extent, it worked: at least he was sitting properly now. However he did not answer at first and required a few more seconds of piercing stare to get an audible reply out of him.

"Well, what must you think of me?" he asked, his voice breaking a little, "Miss O'Brien's right: what right have I to command the respect of anyone on this staff, let alone you. Especially you."

She shook her head at him; his flannelling wouldn't get him anywhere with her.

"If this is because you made a living on the stage..." she began, the deep breath she drew adding to her height for a second, "There are far worse ways to do so, as I'm sure you're aware."

"I'm a laughing stock," he told her.

"Is that what matters?" she challenged him, "Who's laughing at you?"

"The staff, my staff- supposedly- are."

"What rubbish! You mean Thomas and O'Brien are, and let's face it, any one of us is lucky if they escape their disparaging comments."

"I've lost the staff's respect."

"No you haven't, you ridiculous man. The only person's respect who you lack is your own."

She had struck a chord, if the silence that followed was anything to go by. And about time too, she thought.

"Charles," she began more gently now, aware of the way his gaze had dropped, "I can honestly say that as far as I can tell the staff think no worse of you. And I know I don't."

She said this last very firmly, just to make sure he got the point. He glanced up: maybe he had.

"Are you sure?" he asked, "Even bearing in mind the tap-dancing idiot I've been?"

She smiled at that. Reaching out her hand to his, she squeezed his fingers in comfort.

"Especially bearing that in mind. I wouldn't mind a private performance, actually."

"Elsie!"

She laughed at her own flippancy. Thankfully, so did he, after a moments mock sternness. And then he squeezed her hand back.

End.

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