Title: A Matter of Rhetoric
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Word Count: 600 words
Characters: Branson, with appearances by Robert, Cora, Mary, Bates, and Violet.
Summary: Five conversations Branson had, and one he never did. A drabble set.
Notes: Spoilers for 2x01, and the usual disclaimers.
He is granted permission to speak and the apologies rush out, though he hopes above all that his sincerity is conveyed. (He is not as controlled as he would like to be, as he usually is, but this is a special circumstance.) A long pause follows.
"It will not happen again."
"Lord Grantham, I will do everything in my power to ensure Lady Sybil's safety."
"Every man has his limits. I trust, Branson, that you are aware of yours. You will not have a third chance."
He sits silently in the cottage after, remembers the threat, reflects on alternate histories.
Mary speaks first, dismissing his effusive attempts to thank her with a small wave. (He knows he wouldn't have heard about her intervention if not for Mr. Carson, feels that much more indebted to the eldest Crawley sister.) "We all have Sybil's best interests at heart, don't we? Papa will forgive you, eventually, though he certainly will never forget."
They don't speak much after, though she inquires as to his well-being from time to time. He notices, however, that she now offers him a smile when he helps her in and out of the car. It's progress, he decides.
He evades trouble by reading iin/i the library, cautiously placing innocuous books in plain sight before him while pouring over treatises.
The Countess appears, and he quickly hides the potentially subversive material. "Oh, Branson. Perhaps you could help me. There's a book I'm looking for, but it's rather high on the shelf."/p
It's nowhere to be found, but then she remarks with considerable amusement, "I wasn't aware that you enjoyed Ms. Alcott as well."
He notices it then, the book in question at the top of the stack he had pulled. "Don't worry," she says gently, "it'll be our secret."
It happens gradually, but he moves from being too opinionated to begrudgingly respected downstairs. (He even lets William know what news he will brief them on so that he can present a confident opinion to Daisy, much to his delight.)
"O'Brien only means it half the time when she calls you a fool."
"No, it's all the time. She's doubled the barbs since Thomas left."
"Still, it is good that you stand by your convictions."
"As all men should. But wouldn't you agree that we should allow ourselves room for error in their execution?"
"I'd have no need for it."
He's driven this route hundreds of times but this afternoon is different, for he is - in no uncertain terms - under interrogation. He answers politely, wondering about the sudden interest in his parents, his siblings, his health.
Nothing catches him off-guard until she asks about his plans to enlist. His response is measured. "I respect those at the front and wish for their safe return."
She doesn't question him further and he thinks he hears her say "that's one less thing to take care of," but convinces himself he must have been mistaken. The Dowager Countess does not mumble.
The newest volume by her favorite poet (he knows; he scoured the library ledger for confirmation) rests in his pocket. The letter, a touchstone, is hidden inside - nothing incriminating, because he's fully aware of the consequences, but it's as eloquent as any young lord's declaration and inevitably more honest in its intent.
"Yes!" he imagines. (The speech that follows will be extemporaneous; he has not dared to dream that far.
He's met with silence and averted glances instead, burns the letter the first chance he gets. The smoke lingers long after; he can not shake the thought of her.