Author's Note: This is my first Downton Abbey fic, so please let me know what you think! I'd love to write more. :) This takes place during season 1 after 1x06.
A True Friend
Branson stood beside the car, his eyes on the door several yards away. Lady Sybil was calling on a friend in a manor down the road and had been visiting for the past two hours. The door had started to open, so he had stood at attention. But now it closed as a laugh rang out. He couldn't be sure from this distance, but he thought it had been Sybil's laugh. Not ready to leave, after all.
Sighing, he sat back down in the car where it was no less hot but was at least shaded. His uniform was thick and constricting and combined with his leather boots and gloves, gave him cause to hate summer. Even a mild day was enough to torture him while waiting with the car. Wiping the sweat off his temple with the back of his arm, he picked up his newspaper once more.
Well, it wasn't exactly his. Lord Grantham was always generous enough to leave the paper out for him to read at the end of the day. As such, the news he read was often a day old, at best, but Branson didn't usually mind. He'd already read the thing front to back and if he had to stare at that soap ad one more time, he'd go mad.
No one was around to see him, so he took off his hat and used the newspaper to fan his face. Then to swat a fly. Of course, it was then that the door to the manor really did open. The Lady of the house was already through it, escorting Sybil out as Branson tossed aside the paper. He scrambled down out of the car, stumbling and nearly tripping as he did so. The two women were staring his way at the commotion and his cheeks burned for having drawn such attention to himself. So much for trying to look on top of things!
"I'll be sure to send a card round to remind you of the luncheon," the young Lady was saying to Sybil, whose response Branson couldn't hear. He opened the door to the car and stood stiffly in position for a moment before realizing why the sun was so unbearable: he'd forgotten his hat in the cab. His cheeks burned even more and, feeling like an idiot, he abandoned the door and trotted to the front of the car. Snatching up his hat, he yanked it onto his head then returned to his post, waiting for Sybil.
But the two women were still chatting in the lane. Branson knew better than to hope that they hadn't just seen his mishaps. As such, he had no complaints about Sybil taking her time with her departure. It allowed him a moment to collect himself.
The color had just drained from his cheeks when Sybil started to walk down the lane towards the car, only to be stopped by a shout from someone inside. Furrowing his brow, Branson saw a young man trot out of the house, carrying a pair of gloves. Grinning, Sybil held her hand out for them. Apparently she'd forgotten them. Forgotten or intentionally left? The thought made Branson look away. Whatever was going on was Sybil's business, not his, as he had told himself over and over since she was injured at the vote count that had turned into a riot. He'd overstepped his bounds by getting too involved and it had almost cost him his job and much more.
Seeing Sybil injured had filled him with a little-known panic. He had failed to protect her and her blood was on his hands. But it was more than guilt or fear of his employers being upset with him. It was fear for her life, her health. Fear for her well-being. He hadn't cared what happened to him that night. In fact, he would have happily walked away from his job if it had meant that Sybil would be all right.
He hadn't been able to sleep at all that night, and knowing that he wouldn't be able to pay a visit upstairs to ask after Sybil had been agonizing. As he paced his cottage, he had been forced to face the reality of the situation. Sybil would heal and was already on the mend. He however, was only just beginning to hurt and if he wasn't careful, would never mend. Because he was falling in love.
The shock that he hadn't lost his job made him all the more subservient in the following weeks. The fact that he now had to not only hide his feelings but stamp them out made him try to remain as busy as possible. For the time that Lady Sybil was grounded, it was manageable. She wasn't making any calls nor attending any outings, so she had no need of the car, which meant she had no need of him. He tried hard to shift his focus whenever his thoughts drifted to her. No more looking forward to taking her places. No more daydreams that one day she might adore him in return. No more her, period.
Until today, he had thought he was successful. He'd worn and mask and kept his eyes downcast and tried to pretend he was a machine and not a man. Now he was paying the price of lying to himself. For if he had truly managed to squash out his feelings for her, he wouldn't care that she was currently laughing with a young gentleman. He wouldn't care that she was toying with the fingers of her gloves as they spoke. Wouldn't care that the young gentleman's face was animated as he very obviously tried to make her laugh again. She did have a beautiful laugh…
Branson scolded himself. She's not yours to get jealous over. Not by a long shot. So just shut your face and be happy for her. She deserves someone with wealth who can give her everything.
"I really must be going," Sybil said rather loudly. Branson weakly lifted his head to see if she really was coming this time. The young gentleman was heading back towards the house with the Lady who must've been his sister. Sybil strode towards the car and Branson was sure to banish all emotion from his face. Whether she had come to visit the sister or the brother was none of his business, just as the matter of if she had left her gloves on accident or on purpose to get the young gentleman's attention.
"Thank you for waiting, Branson," Sybil said as she approached. "I know it's terribly hot out."
He held out his hand to help her into the car and felt a pang in his chest when she grabbed on. He knew he needed to say something in response but couldn't get his mind to work. "There's been a lovely breeze," he lied. Shutting the door, he avoided looking at her and promptly climbed into the driver's seat. He couldn't chit-chat. Not now when it cost him so much just to make eye contact.
Starting the engine, he focused on driving as they turned around and headed back down the country road. Sybil was unusually quiet which suited Branson just fine. He didn't dare glance back at her for fear of seeing her smiling face lost in daydreams of her new beau. While the idea hurt, there was a small part of him that was happy for her. She deserved to feel the same intoxicating affection for someone else as he had felt for her. But that didn't make it hurt any less.
"I wish more men thought as you do," Sybil said, breaking the silence after several minutes.
Branson was so surprised that he glanced back to see an expression of consternation on her face. "Like me?"
Sybil shook her head. "It's just that… I had hoped Women's Rights would have more support among other young men. Instead, Mr. Southby insisted upon commandeering Sarah and my tea by bombarding me with reasons why women shouldn't be allowed to vote."
Branson had rarely heard such bitterness in her voice and it took him a moment to reconcile what she'd just said with what he'd thought had happened. "But you were smiling," he blurted out without thinking.
"One does in uncomfortable situations." He couldn't be sure of what she muttered after but it sounded like, "It was either that or cry."
Branson craned his neck to look back at her and found her nibbling a nail, peering out the window at the passing countryside. "Anyone who makes you cry will have to answer to me."
Sybil smiled and met his gaze. "I daresay they would."
Smirking, Branson returned his eyes to the road. Her smile cut through his anxiety like a ray of sun through fog, and he wished he could live in that moment forever.
"You know, Branson," Sybil began. "You're a true friend. I know it's an odd thing to say to one's chauffeur, but I often feel as if you're the only one the world who understands me."
Had there been a turn to make, he would've missed it. Had there been a cow in the road, he would've hit it. The sunlight she'd already shed was now filling him and coursing through his veins. He found himself talking without thinking. "I don't find it odd at all. In fact, I'm honored." He glanced back at her and found her fixing him with a curious stare. He looked to the road again.
"Even my own father doesn't understand."
The monolith of Downton came into view as they approached. "He's not from our generation." He regretted the words as soon as he'd said them. Now he really was crossing the line. He'd just lumped a noblewoman and lowly Irishman in the same category. He braced himself for the scathing retort that he'd expect from one of her sisters.
"He's wearing blinders," Sybil replied, alleviating Branson's worry.
"He'd have to be to ignore your grandeur."
Sybil used her glove to lightly slap Branson in the back of the head for his brashness and he laughed. The front door was now in sight but he wished it was still miles off.
"Thank you, Branson," Sybil said in falsely haughty voice as he pulled the car to a stop.
"Of course, milady." He hopped out and opened the door for her, holding out his hand to help her down. "It's always an honor to escort Your Greatness."
Sybil laughed as she set foot on the gravel. Thomas opened the door and cast the two a suspicious glance once he heard Sybil's laughter and saw Branson's smile, but Branson didn't care. Let him look.
Letting go of his hand, Sybil strode towards the house. She glanced over her shoulder, a smile still on her lips. "I'll see you soon, Branson."
Since he was still under Thomas' gaze, Branson forced the smile off of his face and tipped his hat to both the young Lady and the footman. Once back in the car and driving it to the garage, away from prying eyes, however, he couldn't stop smiling. Knowing that Sybil counted him as a true friend, despite the differences of their births, was more than enough to make him strive to be worthy of her friendship.
Thank you for reading!