Three days had passed since Lord Grantham's announcement that Downton was to be turned into a hospital. In those three days, Anna had done more work than she had in all the years she'd been a maid for the Granthams. There were endless deliveries of linens, bandages, blankets. Endless miles of beds to be set up and made. Endless rows of shelves that had to be stocked and labelled. At the end of each day, Anna was exhausted. She looked for John each evening, but his new duties kept him as busy as she was. Pausing as she rolled yet another bandage, she looked about the length of the Saloon where bed after bed covered the polished surface of the floor. Dust motes swirled in the air, and there was a deep silence here in the late afternoon.
"What will it be like?" she had asked John as he held her.
"it will be unlike anything you have ever seen." He had answered, eyes far away, hands still on her waist.
She shivered, and he pulled her closer. "I have been asked to help."
He turned her then, "Help?"
"The nurses. Mrs. Hughes asked if I would like to learn some basic first aid skills to free the regular nurses for more specialised duties."
"What did you say?" John asked quietly.
"I said yes."
That was two days ago. They had managed a free afternoon in between deliveries and Lord Grantham's recruitment duties. John had sought Anna out after telling Mr. Carson that Lord Grantham had released him for the afternoon. He found her alone in the kitchen where she was drying the mug she had use for a quick cup of tea.
"Fancy a walk?" John asked as he leaned against the doorway.
Anna jumped, nearly dropping the mug. "John Bates, " she scolded, "you nearly had me out of my skin!"
He laughed as he came towards her, bending his head to her ear. "I'd rather have you out of something else," he whispered as he took the mug from her and placed it on the shelf. Anna simultaneously stifled a laugh and an unexpected shiver of desire, but was spared from responding as Mrs. Hughes came into the kitchen.
"Ah, Anna, there you are. We seem to be done for the moment with the latest deliveries. Would you like some time off before dinner?" Anna didn't dare risk a look at John, "Why yes, thank you, Mrs. Hughes. If you're sure."
"Yes, yes, go on with you." She paused, looking at the two of them. "Both of you."
"What was that all about?" Anna asked John as they walked out the back gate of the kitchen gardens.
"I'm not sure." John replied. "I told Mr. Carson that his Lordship released me from duty for a couple of hours in case he needed me to help with anything. But he told me to be on my way. How did Mrs. Hughes know I was free?"
"But that would mean…" he paused.
"That Mr. Carson told Mrs. Hughes you had the afternoon off. She must have come looking for me straight away." Anna didn't know what to think about that. "That means they know about us."
"Yes," John mused, "but apparently they don't mind. We still need to be careful. Just because they don't mind us being together of an afternoon doesn't mean they won't come down on us like a ton of bricks if our duties suffer." He made a mock bow. "I shall remember to conduct myself at all times with the utmost decorum." He smirked up at her. "That means that I shall endeavour to keep you from jumping out of anything."
Anna slapped at his arm. "Go on with you." But she smiled up at him and leaned over to chastely kiss his cheek. "Come on. Our afternoon is slipping by."
They walked down the broad expanse of lawn towards the small grove of elm trees that flourished where the well-trimmed lawn came to an end and the natural growth began. They walked in and among the trees, choosing a sun-dappled spot underneath the broad canopy of an older tree. John spread his coat on the ground, and Anna lowered herself onto it, watching as he maneuvered himself down beside her.
Now they were here, and alone, all John wanted to do was take her in his arms, hold her, love her, feel her skin against his. For two days he had alternated between feeling insanely happy and hopelessly depressed. Never in his deepest dreams had he imagined that he would come to love and care for another individual as he did Anna, or that he could be the recipient of another's love. The idea was so new and unexpected that he still did not know how to think about it. One the one hand, there was Anna. So beautiful, so bright, so alive. On the other hand, there was Vera. He felt as if he were some massive cosmic scale. That the weight of his past was going to drown the brightness of his future. He needed to talk to Anna about this, about them, about her. He needed to explain that until the problem of Vera was solved, if it could be solved, they could have nothing. No future, no happiness. This was the source of his despair. But here, sitting next to him, patiently waiting, was Anna. The source of his happiness. The scales wobbled again. He sighed.
"Anna," he began, "the other night." Before he could continue, Anna's mouth found his, her arms went round his neck, and suddenly everything he wanted to say was gone like so much fluff in the wind. He found himself kissing her back, pushing her back, pushing all thought back as he let himself drown in her. Her mouth opened under his, her tongue teasing, inviting. Her hands were at his waist, under his shirt, on his back. She tugged on him until he lay half between her legs, arching into him. His body's response was quick and undeniable, and he knew he should move back, move away, put some space between them. But his hand found her breast, his mouth the hollow at the base of her throat, she said his name, "John." And he was lost. Lost in the taste of her, lost in the touch of her, lost.
Most maddeningly of all was her uniform. With buttons in the back it afforded no easy access to the creaminess of skin that was tantalizingly out of reach. He allowed his lips to roam away from her throat, to nuzzle at her breasts, his hand seeking the hardened nub of her nipple which he knew was trapped beneath her corset, his mouth nipping. The lack of contact was as erotic as it was frustrating. Anna arched into him again as his mouth and hands continued to roam down her belly, grasping her hip, pulling her into him. She moved the leg that was trapped beneath him, just slightly, but it was enough to elicit a groan from him as she moved against his hardness.
"Anna." Her name game as a gasp. "Anna, please." He moaned against her mouth, unsure of whether it was a request to stop or a plea to continue. His better judgment eventually overcame his desire. He slowed his hands, moved them to her waist, lifted himself off her, gazed at her eyes, bright with desire. "Anna," he whispered again. "We have to stop." He leaned down to kiss her, gently this time, and rolled to his side, pulling her with him.
They lay quietly for some time, their heart rates returning to normal. It was Anna who broke the silence.
"Is there something wrong with me?" she asked quietly. John tensed slightly in confusion.
Anna moved from his side, and sat up, head down, her back to him.
"Is there something wrong with me that I behave this way? God help me, John, when I'm with you, like this, everything I've ever known or believed or been taught seems to fly straight out of my head."
John sat up, "Because of what you feel?"
"Because of how I act. Because of how I want to act. Because of what I do. Because of what I want to do." Anna sighed. She was not used to feeling indecision. All her life she had been sure of her way, sure of her responses. They had been bred into her by the generations of those who came before. Morality, behaviour, propriety, all these things had been instilled in her from birth. Her job was an extension of that, and she lived day to day knowing that everything she did followed certain rules. Her response to the touch of the man seated behind her, broke those rules, went outside the boundaries of the behaviours that she knew to be proper. Why was she having these doubts now? Why, when she had been so certain? She turned to John, facing him, but not looking at him. "Is there something wrong with me?" Unbidden, a tear leaked from the corner of her eye.
John understood instinctively the doubts with which Anna was wrestling, but it broke his heart to see her so torn, so unsure. The words, when he spoke them, came from that calm center that she had created in him with her love.
He reached out and took her hand. "Anna, look at me." She raised her head reluctantly. "I love you." He reached his other hand up to brush a tear from her cheek. "You have become my life. This," he gestured to the ground around them where moments ago they had lain in each other's arms, "this is an extension of that love. What you feel is not unnatural. What you want is not unnatural." She looked down again, but he raised her chin with a gentle touch. "Anna, I feel all those things, too. I want all those things, too. The other night with you," he paused, searching her face, "was the natural fruition of that love. Needing, loving - it's never wrong. Not when the person you need and love needs and loves you, too." And I do, oh Anna, I do. He willed her to see the truth of his words. "Anna, will you marry me?" As he spoke the words, something clicked deep within him. He knew this was right, that this was what God had intended all along.
Anna's eyes widened at the words. "Will you marry me?" She felt her heart jump at the thought, the hope, that this could be her life. Almost simultaneously though, the thought of Vera, smashed that hope. "But what about, her? What about Vera."
John sighed. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I don't know where she is, I don't know what she is doing. But I do know that I will NOT remain married to her one instant longer than I must, because I intend to spend the rest of my life with you, if you will have me." He took both her hands in his. "Anna, I love you. Please say that when I am free, you will marry me."
Anna turned from him again, and John watched her silently, knowing that what he was asking of her was a huge leap of faith. When he was free, IF was free. Shifting sands, indeed.
He found himself holding his breath as Anna turned back to face him. The tears on her cheeks filled him with dread, and he prepared himself to hear that she had no intention of waiting for something that may never happen, that she could no longer live this double life, that the shame of it was too much for her.
"Yes, John," Anna smiled at him. "I will marry you - on two conditions." She held up the first two fingers of her left hand.
John felt a huge sense of relief as Anna said, "One. That you work on finding Vera as quickly as you can."
"I can do that." John replied. "And two?"
"That we keep this secret until such time that the divorce papers are in your hand."
"You can bear that?" He asked her. "Knowing that I will not make love to you until our wedding night? You can bear days like this," his voice grew husky, "and nights like the other night? Because I will understand if you cannot." His heart lurched in his chest at the thought of losing the physical closeness they shared. But it was a sacrifice he was willing to make if that is what she required, and he told her so.
Anna smiled then, a beautiful smile that led into a delightful laugh. "Oh, my love. I know the war makes things uncertain, but if we can steal a moment like this amidst the crush of duty, then I say we steal it."
John laughed then, too and pulled her into his arms. Anna felt him stiffen as a small groan escaped his lips. "What is it?"
"My blasted leg." John let go of her to straighten his leg and rub the muscle.
"Here, scoot back and lean up against the trunk of the tree." He did as she instructed and within moments, her strong hands were easing the spasms, bringing relief to the tautness of the muscle, lessening the ache. He watched her as she worked his leg. "You realize, that the leg comes with me?" He smiled.
"Oh dear," sighed Anna. "I may have to rethink this whole thing Maybe we should just send the leg to Vera, I'll keep the bits that are left!" She smiled at him and he laughed as she bent down, planted a kiss on his thigh, then leaned her back into his chest. He slipped an arm around her waist and held her still against him. That was when she told him about volunteering to help the nurses.