A/N: Right, I tried to keep them as in character as possible which might mean that they come across as really, really horrible but I hope they're not too extreme. And for anyone who enjoyed it there will be a second part to 'The Women's War' just as soon as I stop being in love with O'Brien and write the others up!
"You off then?"
Thomas turned sharply at the familiar voice and nearly choked on his cigarette at her sudden appearance in the dark; between her dress and her hair all he could see clearly in the evening gloom was a pale, scowling face.
"Not this minute. I'm serving me month then I'll be rid of you lot for good."
Rolling her eyes Sarah O'Brien sat at the bench Thomas was hovering over, lighting her own cigarette as she did.
"And we'll think fondly of you when you're on the front line, I'm sure."
He studied her for a moment, contemplating whether his next comment would be misinterpreted or not. Finally he reasoned that O'Brien was likely to take offence whatever he said so he might as well push on.
"You should go too."
"Are you suggesting I join the army?"
"Course not," he allowed himself a small smirk. "German or not, they deserve a fighting chance."
He saw her lips twitch vaguely but otherwise she continued to look irritated, as though she were the one whose solitude had been imposed upon.
"But you should get away from Downton."
"Why? It's a decent enough position."
"Bloody hell…you've spent the best part of ten year going on and on about her indoors and now you won't leave. An' I know why."
"Oh, do you?"
"Yes I flaming well do," he sat down next to her on the bench, still far enough away that no one would mistake them for being friends. "Ever since the stupid cow had that accident you've been swaddling her in cotton wool. It weren't your fault."
"I was there."
"You were in the next room. And it's not like you pushed her, she slipped on a bar of soap she was too bloody lazy to pick up herself."
He could have sworn he saw her flinch and in a second he knew that there was something else that nobody had been told. She glanced up briefly and a moment of understanding past between them. He didn't ask, hoping that she might be forthcoming but knowing she probably wouldn't be.
"And to think, I spent all that time trying to get Bates' job for you."
He smirked again.
"Another reason you should jump ship. Once I'm gone you'll be stuck with them lot."
"Hark at you! A minute ago, I was part of 'them lot'."
He tossed his cigarette to the ground.
"You know I think you're better than the lot of them."
A heavy silence fell in the air and O'Brien wouldn't look at him, merely finishing her cigarette and tossing it next to his. Thomas felt his cheeks flush a little bit and was grateful for the dark – it was a backhanded compliment at best but for them it was practically a marriage proposal. He decided to ignore the sudden awkwardness and carry on as they always had.
"You goin' in yet?"
"I recon I might stay here for a bit…have another one while I still can…will you bloody talk?"
" 'bout what?"
"Well I think I'm right."
"You're alright you. You always were, even when I started."
She was silent for another moment, staring at the ground unceasingly as Thomas lit two cigarettes and handed one too her. She took it blindly.
"I moved the soap."
It took him a while to grasp her meaning. At first it seemed so bizarre that he though she must be cracking up but slowly, terribly, it fell into place. The unnecessary grief for a woman she always seemed to tolerate at most, the guilt about not being in the room, the sudden devotion she had shown.
"You moved the soap."
Next to him she nodded and shook silently. He could feel her crying but knew he would rather die than have him acknowledge it.
He could see the event in his head now. Could see the bar falling and splitting, see O'Brien handing back one half and gently nudging the other half along. He could see how bathing the same woman for ten years would give her an instinctive knowledge of how she would climb out, where the best place was.
"You didn't know she'd miscarry."
"No. I thought she might die!"
Leaning forward the woman next to him made no attempt to contain her tears now, one hand covering her eyes, the other holding her fresh cigarette to her lips.
"Well, she didn't did she? So it's alright."
She spun her head round so quickly that Thomas thought she must have hurt herself.
"She's alive and well."
"She lost the baby. I killed the ba-"
"Course you didn't. She fell over a piece of soap that was on the floor. Whether you moved it or not it's still just bad luck that she stood on it," they both knew this wasn't true but he pushed on all the same. "So if you've spent the last week thinking you're a child-killer then get a grip for Christ's sake."
She still shook but the tears seemed to have ceased so Thomas thought he had done some good.
"Listen, did you intend to kill the baby?"
She rolled her eyes at his logic and he felt a sudden stab of triumph that he had restored some of her former irritation.
"You need to get away from this place. And from 'er. You'll go mad looking after her majesty if you keep thinking you killed the baby."
She let out a small sob as he finished his sentence but seemed to compose herself well, something he was extremely grateful for.
"And look on the bright side. It might have just been another girl."
Despite the awfulness of the situation O'Brien couldn't stop herself letting out a short laugh along with Thomas' own.
"You're terrible, you know that?"
He laughed again and without thinking too much about it placed an arm around her shoulders.
"Train as a Nurse or something, just get away from 'ere."
"Isn't that what you're doing?"
"Oi," he swung his foot to kick hers gently. "I'll have you know I'm going to be a field surgeon."
"You're going to get shot then?"
"Eh, they'll only bounce off me."
She smiled minutely and took a drag from her cigarette, thinking upon his suggestion in light of recent events.
"I don't think I'd take to Nursing. Not much good at saving lives."
"Got to think long term Miss O'Brien. This war won't last long but it'll change things. We'll have a new skill and won't end our days as a footman and a ladies maid."
"Good grief, you needn't make it sound quite so bleak."
"I suppose we could be a housekeeper and a butler one day?"
"That'd be bloody worse."
Smiling they smoked in silence; Thomas still hadn't thought to remove his arm and she didn't seem to mind so he was in no hurry to do so.
"I don't hate her anymore."
"Who'd'ya think you daft sod? Lady Bountiful in there."
"Blimey, you must feel guilty. You've ben hating her solidly for ten year and now you let it go?"
"I know," she smirked slightly as she dragged on her fag. "Didn't think you'd understand somehow. You hate the lot of 'em."
"No I don't."
She actually laughed at that.
"This should be good. Who gets your reprieve?"
"The old lady's good for a laugh."
Rolling her eyes again O'Brien finished her cigarette but didn't move away from him.
"She won't last much longer though."
"Christ you're a morbid sod sometimes y'know that?"
He tossed away his cigarette too and, turning slightly towards her, swiftly took her hand. Before tonight they had barely touched and O'Brien could see the familiar fierceness of his gaze closer than ever.
"They're a dying breed Miss O'Brien. People like me and you are the future."
"And that lot in there?"
She nodded vaguely towards the kitchen where there was the faint sound of somebody, probably Daisy, being chastised.
"Are they 'eck as like! They'd never think about getting away. It's a state occasion if Mrs Hughes leaves the building and Carson'll probably die in that cupboard."
The ghost of a smile fell across her face once more and he smiled back.
"Once this war is over we'll be able to do anything. Go anywhere."
"You mean to say we can starve in Ipswich should we choose?"
He chuckled and pulled her body towards his, rubbing her arm in camaraderie.
"Ipswich. France. America. Skies the limit once you get away from Elsie Hughes locking you in at night."
They laughed quietly.
"In which case, Miss O'Brien," a cold voice cut across them. "I take it we can also expect your resignation any day now?"
They jumped out of their skins but neither O'Brien nor Thomas was foolish enough to allow the butler to see how effective his sudden appearance had been. The spell of possibilities and freedom that had been cast over the pair of them was broken and suddenly all Sarah O'Brien could see was a future in this house avoiding Carson.
"Well Miss O'Brien? Are you considering leaving us along with Thomas?"
Without the slightest quaver to her voice O'Brien answered.
"I'll consider leaving when her ladyship becomes dissatisfied with my work."
Thomas bit his tongue to prevent smiling. It was very well known amongst the staff that at the moment O'Brien could do no wrong in Cora's eyes, having, as far as the Countess and the family were concerned, saved her life after the fall. Apparently there had been a quantity of blood.
Running out of legs to stand on Carson honed in on their seating arrangements.
"I shall certainly be speaking to her ladyship, and indeed Mrs Hughes, about how free you and Thomas have become."
Utterly perplexed she turned to Thomas and only then noticed that he still had one arm around her and they were still holding hands. In the same moment they realised how it might look but Carson was further shocked by their behaviour when, instead of jumping apart as befitted being caught in a compromising situation, they laughed.
"And what, may I ask, is so very amusing?"
Both of them knew it would be impossible to explain to Mr Carson so they separated and walked towards the butler with as much contrition as possible.
"Nothing Mr Carson. "
"I should think that after the grave news today laughter would be quite inappropriate."
"Yes Mr Carson."
"And as Thomas is soon to leave us I shall do you the favour of not speaking to her ladyship directly about what I have just witnessed. Instead I shall consult Mrs Hughes, but mark my words Miss O'Brien, if I should come across the two of you like that again you will be leaving us whether you want to or not. Now is that understood?"
"Yes Mr Carson."
O'Brien didn't dare look at Thomas – she knew he was probably smirking.
"Inside now. Both of you."
Before she could take a single step Thomas spoke.
"If you'll allow us two more minutes Mr Carson, we were going to have a quick cigarette before bed."
"We are entitled to our free time after all."
"And you're more than welcome to stand in the doorway to make sure we behave if you like."
Carson looked distinctly put-out but had no response. Grumbling about seeing Mrs Hughes immediately he returned inside.
Thomas lit two cigarettes and passed one to her again.
"Well, I suppose I've got no choice now 'ave I?"
"Maybe. You're a bit desperate to make me the new Florence Nightingale aren't you?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "If I get a field hospital I'll want a competent Nurse."
He ignored her and they smoked silently for a while, both half-convinced that Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson were watching them from one of the windows.
"I'll mention it to her ladyship in the morning. That I might be off. Who knows, she might offer me a payrise to stay?"
He snorted without humour.
"Chance'd be a fine thing. They might have money coming out of their earholes but they're not gonna give it to the likes of us without a fight."
"It's a good job that the likes of us are about to get a lot of practice fighting then."
She tossed away the remains of her cigarette and without thinking about things too much she leant up and kissed his cheek lightly.
"Just mind you come back alright lad."
He smiled and winked slightly.
"Oh you know me, Miss O'Brien. The war won't last till Christmas and I'll spend most of that training. I'll be alright."
"See that you are. Good night."
With a final nod and turned to leave.
She turned back.
"You'll be alright too. And you'll be alright a damn sight quicker if you get away soon."
He tossed his cigarette away and leaned down to kiss her cheek is reciprocity.
"Come on then," he stood up straight and offered her his arm. "Can I escort you inside Miss O'Brien? No doubt tongues'll be wagging by tomorrow mornin' and it might be a laugh to fuel it for a while don't you think?"
Shaking her head slightly she took his arm all the same.
"You daft beggar. You know what they'll say."
"They can say what they like."
They went inside, trying not to laugh at Daisy's wide eyes in the kitchen. He even held her chair out for her.
Later that night Miss O'Brien heard Mrs Hughes lock the door in an unnecessarily loud manner, and she smiled. Let them talk, it would be amusing after all and they could do with a laugh.