They stayed after the brace sank into the lake, watching until the surface stilled again.
"Well. That's that, I suppose. Shall we get on back?"
"If you don't mind, I think I'll stay out here a bit. The fresh air will do me good."
"Very well, Mr. Bates. We'll see you at tea." It was not a request.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hughes." He meant it.
She nodded and started back up the path. Her brisk steps echoed off the wood planks and eventually faded, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He eased himself down on the edge of the small dock, legs dangling over the side above the water.
The throbbing in his lower leg was beginning to ease, though it was by no means gone. He had been able to convince Mrs. Hughes that a doctor wasn't needed, but she insisted he apply a poultice and bandage the angry sores where the metal had bit into his skin. He supposed he would have a new set of scars now to match the older, faded ones on his upper leg. It didn't matter. He was used to it. Who else was ever going to see them?
His stomach sank when he heard footsteps approaching. Was it too much to hope for a few minutes alone? He stayed silent, hoping that whoever it was would pass by. Luck was not with him that day, however, and the steps drew closer. He turned to look and bristled when he saw Anna.
She noticed him in the same moment. "Hello, Mr. Bates," she greeted him with a smile.
"Have you come to check up on me?" It sounded rude even to his own ears, but he just couldn't face her soft solicitude right now.
She stopped and looked at him quizzically. "No, I haven't."
"What are you doing down here?"
She propped her hand on her hip, her voice betraying a hint of impatience with his brusque manner. "This is where I always come to think. And frankly, given that I have been at Downton for nearly 10 years and you for merely months, I think I have the right to ask what you're doing in my spot."
He relaxed at that, relieved she wasn't there to pry or worry over him. "I apologize," he replied. "Perhaps we can negotiate a treaty."
She appeared mollified and moved to sit next to him. "Perhaps. It's an awfully nice spot though. I would have to demand quite a bit of compensation."
"I'm not sure I have anything to offer."
She let his remark pass. As they had begun to spend more time together he had developed the curious and maddening habit of making cynical, cryptic statements in conversation. It wasn't her favorite of his personal qualities, and she had decided the best course of action was to give it as little attention as possible.
"So what makes you think I'm here to check up on you?"
"I'm sorry. I made a hasty assumption."
"But why would you assume such a thing?"
"Come now, Anna. You're always first to arrive at any sign of misfortune. I've never seen anyone so much as sneeze without you flying to their side with tea and sympathy."
"You say that as if there's something wrong with it. Why shouldn't I help when I can?"
"Sometimes people want to be left to manage on their own. Sometimes they don't want a fuss."
"So they can suffer in silence?"
"What does that help? A burden shared is a burden halved. That's what my mum always used to say."
"It's not always that simple."
"I don't see why. There's no shame in accepting a bit of comfort. What kind of world would it be if we all left each other to manage on our own? I certainly don't want to live like that and I don't want it for any of my friends either. "
He didn't have an answer for her. Instead he turned his gaze back to the lake. Several minutes passed while they were both absorbed in their own thoughts.
"I bought a brace," he said, his voice startling her out of her contemplation. "For my bad leg. It was supposed to correct my limp. I went down to the village and gave a surly man a months' wages in exchange for a medieval instrument that tore my leg apart and didn't do a blasted thing to help."
She reeled at his confession. She knew he didn't share himself easily so the idea that he would trust her with something so deeply personal humbled her. "That was very brave of you."
"What?" Of any of the responses he had imagined, that was not among them.
"It can be very difficult to admit to yourself that you want something and harder still to put that into action. I admire your courage for doing it. I'm sorry it didn't work out. "
They lapsed into quiet again. He was dumbfounded by her grace. Realizing he had underestimated her, he looked at her with new eyes, wondering what else he had missed. For her part, Anna desperately tried to keep herself from getting carried away. He'd confided in her, not made a declaration, no matter how intimate it felt. Finally it was her turn to break the silence.
"I am a bit of a mother hen."
"And I'm very proud." They shared a smile.
"I do worry about you," she said, sobering. "You've been in so much pain these past weeks. It must be so hard for you. I wonder how you're managing and if you're going to be able to stay at Downton. Where would you go if you couldn't?"
"Please don't. I have appreciated your friendship these past months, but the one thing I simply couldn't bear would be pity. I don't want you to feel sorry for me and I don't need mothering."
He certainly needed something, but she kept that thought to herself. "Am I permitted to care?"
He softened. "That's very kind of you, but I do confess to wondering why."
She leaned over and gently pressed her lips to his. It lasted just long enough for him to be sure he hadn't imagined it, but not nearly long enough for him to recover or respond.
Before he could say anything, she got to her feet and started back toward the path. She stopped as she reached the end of the dock and turned to face him once more. "I feel many things for you, Mr. Bates, but you can be certain that pity has never been one of them."