This is a bit of self-indulgent piece. How I sighed with disappointment when it ended up being William applying his fists to Thomas' face - I understand it was important that it should be him, but I was left wishing for Bates to get a chance to keep his promise to introduce Thomas' teeth to the back of his skull. And then MyMadness wrote the lovely Just Like Before, Today and Tomorrow, and supplied me with a wonderful image of Bates punching Thomas at last. The rest is not so much history as this story.
Unfortunately, I'm not nearly as good a writer as many of you here, especially when speed gets involved but hey, it's here and hopefully mildly diverting. No doubt I have got a few details wrong and missed numerous typos - I would be very grateful indeed for any heads-up on that matter and other useful critiques. Compliments welcome, too, if you're in the mood. ^_^
One more apology: I seem to have lost the knack for formatting files for publishing...
You never disappoint.
Mr. Bates' words came to Anna's mind as she caught sight of Thomas smoking a cigarette outside the kitchen. After Lord Grantham's announcement that war had broken out with Germany, the party had been cut a little short; it should have in theory meant less work for the staff, but it had instead made the day very fraught and only partly because it had played havoc with the schedule and their routine. It would have been bad news at the best of time, but on top of Lady Grantham's miscarriage, something of what Mrs Hughes liked to call 'an atmosphere' had settled over the place – something heavy that was only getting heavier, a kind of invisible, paralysing gloom made ever worse by the sunshine that had bathed over them all afternoon. Anna told herself it was simply the humidity of an August day: clouds had started to appear over the edge of the estate around five o'clock and there was now not a bit of sky to be seen. The sun had set unseen, and they were bound to be hit by a thunderstorm before the morning.
Thomas, however, was the only who seemed unaffected by it all, and she knew the reason why. It hadn't taken long for word to circulate that he had handed in his notice: everyone knew as soon as Carson quietly tried to remonstrate with him about the somewhat careless way he was looking after departing guests and Thomas made it clear, a lot less quietly, that he wasn't to be 'ordered about' anymore. And so, ever since he had finished everything that directly fitted into his duties, he had sat outside and watched the rest of them work, refusing to lend a hand when in the past he would have had little choice but to do so. She shouldn't have been surprised in the least – as Mr Bates said, Thomas never disappointed when it came to being unpleasant – but today she was finding it particularly hard to bear. What kind of a man, she wondered, could take such pleasure at spreading discord around him? When she thought of how Bates could have got rid of him a long time ago, she felt a little angry. Thomas hadn't deserved his mercy. Even now that she knew what she did about his past, she didn't quite understand how he could have placed his crimes so much higher than Thomas' that he didn't feel he could be the one to see justice meted out to him.
But then, she thought, if he were any different, he would not be John Bates. He would not be the man she loved.
It's the humidity, she told herself, wiping the sweat from her brow with her sleeve, and don't you dare waste any more time thinking about Thomas and letting him get to you. It's just what he wants.
"Everything all right, Anna? We were starting to worry about you."
She stopped in her tracks and turned around. "Everything's fine, Mrs Hughes. Just took a little longer getting everyone ready for bed."
"Very well. Why don't you go and sit with everyone else for some refreshments? You must be hungry."
"I'm famished, actually," Anna nodded gratefully. "Thank you, Mrs Hughes."
"Not to worry – you did very well today, Anna. Everyone did." She paused, sniffed the air and turned in the direction Anna had come from. Anna realised she could smell Thomas' cigarette, too. "Almost everyone, that is," she said wryly. "Go on, then, Anna – I have a few things to discuss with Mr Carson but we'll see you in there in a few moments."
Anna had thought she was the last one to be finished with her work but she was wrong: Mr Bates was not in the servants' dining hall, either. It was to be expected, really: he was Lord Grantham's valet, after all, and Lord Grantham was often the last one to bed. On a day like today, His Lordship would have had a great deal more to think about and do before turning in. It suddenly occurred to her that Bates was also the only person in the house that he could discuss the war with: they had both been soldiers and they had even served together. With that thought came another, much more worrying to Anna: would Lord Grantham return to the army? Would Bates follow? She reminded herself that it was unlikely, at least not in a fighting position; his injury would prevent it. But they could still both go, if not to the front itself, then to London.
Her mood had briefly lifted at the thought she could finally sit down and have something to eat and drink, but now it soured again, even when Gwen and William greeted her warmly as she settled in her usual place. Branson, who had just returned from driving the Dowager Countess and the Crawleys home, poured her and himself a glass of water that was mercifully cool. She looked to him for his usual cheerful smile, but tonight he looked grim, too.
"I've never been more glad for a day to be over," Gwen said.
"Speak for yourself," Daisy sighed as she handed Anna a plate of bread and cheese to go with a bowl of soup. Anna gave the girl a sympathetic smile: she looked dishevelled with the heat of the day and the kitchen and nearly dead on her feet; it was the curse of the kitchen staff that they were usually the first to start and the last to finish.
"How's your captain?" Anna whispered to Daisy, nodding in the direction of the kitchen.
"The usual," she answered, "only more so."
They all laughed at that, but poor Daisy was so tired that she had no idea she had said something funny. She slunk back to the kitchen, too tired to look confused.
Anna turned to Gwen between mouthfuls of her dinner. "Have you seen Mr Bates anywhere, Gwen?"
"I think I saw him with His Lordship in the library earlier. He must be getting him ready for bed now."
"So he does have some work to do, then?" Thomas said. "Remarkable."
"What do you know about work?" Anna retorted before she could stop herself. "I've never seen you do much of it, and certainly not tonight."
"Hear, hear," William added.
Thomas was about to snap something back when O'Brien, who'd been sitting surprisingly quietly – she'd been doing a lot of that since Lady Grantham had lost her baby – glared at him. "Not tonight, Thomas, for God's sake."
Without his ally, he was severely diminished and seemed to know it. He dropped onto the bench, looking as surly as ever and said nothing more.
Trying to distract herself from morose thoughts about Bates, Anna asked Gwen about her new job.
"I don't know, really," Gwen said nervously. "Beyond some typing and all, I've no idea what to expect. I'm mostly worried about what my parents will say."
"Surely they won't complain once they realise it's a better wage than what you're on now?" Branson suggested. Gwen shrugged, looking embarrassed. Talking about money was not something anyone ever did publicly at Downton but Branson, with his political proclivities, didn't seem to have a problem doing so.
"Look at you little country mouse," Thomas said to Gwen. "Off to town and all. Mind yourself there, little girl. There are some pretty big cats around."
"We don't need to hear from you, thanks very much," Anna said.
"I was only giving her some friendly advice."
"I used to believe that, if anything, you were smart, Thomas," she replied. "But you still don't seem to get that no one cares what you think."
"I just think it's odd how Gwen's leaving and dropping you in it – especially you, Anna – but no one seems to mind. I'm at least off to do something useful – now more than ever."
"You're off to do what you do best, which is to look after yourself," Branson said. "I don't blame you," he added, sounding very much like in fact he did. "I think it's a stupid war anyway."
"How very Irish of you."
Branson's answer was an indifferent snort and it could have ended there. Later, Anna would have to admit that she should have let it lie – it never did any good to engage with Thomas – but there'd been a storm brewing all day inside as well as out. Something had to give.
"Come off it," she told him. "You're going into nursing. If it was anyone else doing what you're doing – like William – you'd call it woman's work."
Someone sniggered behind her; it was Daisy, who'd returned with more water for the table. Thomas gave the girl a vicious look that sent her running back into the kitchen, then turned back to Anna. "Now you mention it," he drawled, "I'm surprised you're not interested, Anna. You must know all about looking after wounded soldiers now. I bet Mr Bates has taught you all sorts about looking after all of a soldier's needs. Shall I put the word out about you?"
There was a sharp intake of breath around the table. Anna felt her cheeks redden and blood pound in her ears. Her fingers tightened reflexively on the glass she was holding.
The only one who didn't move at the sound of that voice was the person whose name had been called. Maybe because there was no mistaking whose voice that was. Maybe Thomas thought, like a child, that if he didn't see him, Bates wouldn't see him, either.
Anna looked at him, standing at the hall's entrance behind Thomas. When his eyes met hers, they looked on her as warmly as they ever did. And then they turned back on Thomas and Bates turned into a stranger.
"Thomas?" Bates repeated. "Would you care to step outside?"
"Don't, Mr Bates," Branson tried, ever the peacemaker, as they watched Bates hang first his cane then his jacket on the doorknob. "He really isn't worth it."
"He may not be, but Anna is. Thomas, don't make me ask again."
Anna stared at him, silently begging him to look at her again. She was paralysed by two contradictory fears that frantically chased each other's tail. Thomas was going to hurt Bates, and hurt him badly. That was the first fear. But then – and there was the second fear - she considered the look in Bates' eyes and realised it was Thomas she should worry about. Or, rather, since she didn't give two figs about him, what would happen to Bates if he hurt Thomas badly. And right now, in spite of his age and his injury, it seemed the more likely outcome. Bates was a big man, but at that moment, without his cane in hand, in his shirt and vest, he looked too big to fit in the doorway.
After what seemed like an age, Thomas finally moved, throwing a glance over his shoulder at Bates. "Would I care to step outside? No, it'd hardly be fair. Beating a cripple must be as bad as kicking a dog. And I like dogs."
"You should apologise to Anna, Thomas," William said, his eyes flicking back and forth between Thomas and the valet.
"He should step outside," Bates said.
"I'm getting Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes," Gwen stuttered, scrambling out of her seat to squeeze past Bates.
Thomas looked at Anna and moved to light a cigarette. "Make me," he told Bates.
If only one or two of them had been there to witness the scene, no one would have believed the tale of it. Bates lunged forward, grabbed the back of Thomas' shirt and vest and, as though he was nothing more than a stack of hay, lifted him off the bench where he sat. There were shrieks as Thomas' flailing feet hit the table, sending crockery flying everywhere; O'Brien swore, closely followed by Branson, but before anyone had the chance to understand what had just happened, Bates was dragging Thomas and himself towards the door at the back of the hall, which had been left open to let some air come in from the courtyard. What made the whole thing look almost surreal was that his limp hadn't magically disappeared, far from it: instead, he looked to be carrying two things - Thomas and his weaker leg. He was simply making it look as though neither were particularly heavy.
Somehow Anna managed to regain her senses and she bolted after Bates, not caring that she had to shove William and Branson out of the way as they all crowded around the doorway to the courtyard. She stumbled outside into the darkening world but could only watch as Bates tossed Thomas across the pebble stones. The footman rolled over a couple of times before coming to a halt on his back. To his credit, he was quick to stagger back to his feet, but it took longer for the rather imbecilic look of utter stupefaction to disappear off his face. Anna was willing to bet six months' wages that it wasn't so much that he'd just been handled like a sack of potatoes that had left him reeling, but rather who the handling had been done by – especially as the man concerned took a few, ever-limping steps towards him.
"I'll give you a chance to apologise to Anna now, Thomas," he said, rolling up his sleeves, "but I won't ask again this time."
Don't apologise, Anna thought. Don't you dare apologise.
Thomas, his breathing ragged, snarled and threw himself at Bates' midsection –
"John!" she cried out –
- looking to tackle him. But Bates, once again, confounded expectations. Anna closed her eyes, waiting for the sound of Bates' body hitting the hard stones, and reopened them to find that Bates hadn't tried to stand his ground. He let Thomas' momentum guide them until his back hit a tower of crates, cracking wood and leaving Thomas to hang weakly to Bates' waist for balance. Before Thomas even had a chance to get a punch into his ribs, Bates had pushed him off of him and backwards. They all expected a reeling Thomas to land right on his backside again but he surprised them, too, and managed to stay upright.
Not, as it turned out, for very long. Bates hobbled forward and swung a fist in a simple, beautiful arc that connected so hard with Thomas' face that he didn't wait until he hit the ground to lose consciousness.
There was a long silence, broken only by what everyone thought at first was thunder. But it was Mr Carson, demanding to be let through into the courtyard. Once he got there, however, and saw Thomas drooling on the stones, Bates standing over him, he seemed to lose the power of speech. It was Mrs Hughes, who'd arrived close behind Carson, who asked the question that answered itself.
"Oh Lord," she sighed. " What has Thomas done now?"
Yes, that's right! It was going to be a one-shot but then a few things suggested themselves to me as I wrote, and I can see one more chapter, where Bates and Anna consider what has happened and what it means for them...