Disclaimer: The characters and items quoted are not mine. However, I think we should put it to a vote. If I were given custody of them, I would quickly dispense with their problems and let them go at it like bunnies. Show of hands?
A/N: I will be the first to admit this story has nothing much profound to say. I wrote it mostly as wish fulfillment, given that I suspect Series Two is going to be a bit of a trial for Anna and Bates (and by extension, us). It occurred to me how hard it must be to try to have a relationship when you never get more than a few uninterrupted minutes to talk. So, in this story I am giving them the gift of a slip of the tongue and time to have an actual conversation.
Things had changed swiftly since news of the war had reached Downton. In short course, the young men were gone. Mr. Molesley, being too old to serve, was prevailed upon to help shore up at the estate. Male help was all but impossible to find, and therefore his services were greatly needed.
He didn't mind, not really. He rather enjoyed the more varied society at the grand house. Scarcity of men had also raised his wage substantially, even though he was doing much of the lesser work of a footman.
Another happy benefit of his new position was that he was regularly in the path of Anna. Closer inspection had done nothing to dissuade his earlier opinion of her. She was a nice girl—pretty, clever, and funny. She was quick with a smile or a little joke, providing a bit of cheer in the overworked, preoccupied servants' hall.
One question did continue to perplex him. Bates had assured him that she had an admirer, and a keen one at that. Watching her, he could detect no sign of such an entanglement. She didn't go running for the post or out walking on Sundays. She didn't seem to be burdened with worry for a sweetheart off to war. Maybe Bates had been mistaken. He wondered at it, as it appeared that he and Anna were friendly, but maybe the man had made a hasty assumption. Or maybe the admirer was no more. Either way, Molesley decided that it was very much worth a go.
Anna sighed as she began her mending. Industry had always benefitted her. It had made her strong and given her a bit of means. She preferred to keep moving—idle hands, her mum always said. She was rarely without her needlework. Before the war she had even spent her few leisure hours making lace and embroidered squares for the shop in Ripon. A few extra shillings could always be put to good use. Now any spare moments were spent knitting socks and scarves for the Red Cross, but she was happy to do her bit and didn't mind the work.
She did not find sewing so tedious when she had pleasant company, but the hall was all but deserted this afternoon. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes were occupied with their own matters, the young men were gone, and O'Brien rarely came down these days. It was strange, her sudden withdrawal, but Anna didn't question her good fortune.
Mr. Bates had accompanied Lord Grantham to London for a short stay, and there, precisely, was the reason Anna did not want to be alone with her thoughts. The longer she thought about him, the more frustrated she got. It had been nearly two and half years. To be honest, she felt a bit trifled with. He hadn't betrayed any reaction when she told him she loved him so long ago. Instead he'd told her he couldn't share his secrets with her, told her to dream of a better man, and carefully held himself back from any declarations.
There was no denying, though, that he'd also brought her flowers, speculated as to Mr. Patrick Crawley's true feelings, and very nearly kissed her in the servants' yard. He had encouraged her, that much was obvious.
She knew it had been foolish to declare her love for him so plainly. She was sure before she said it that he wouldn't return the sentiment. Even though he had called her a lady, and the finest he'd ever known, his delicate side-step of her feelings had stung.
She had been resilient, for a time. Full of hope that love would conquer all and that everything would somehow work out. Perhaps it had been more hubris than hope. She hadn't truly realized until the garden party that Mr. Bates may not share her determination, or even her desires. He seemed inert; unwilling to confess any further or move forward to resolve his situation, which left Anna helpless. Without his action, there wasn't really anywhere left for them to go.
The seeds of doubt had been planted, and for the first time Anna allowed herself to believe that maybe Mr. Bates wouldn't be hers after all. Much as she loved him, maybe she would have to let him go.
Watching her at her work, Molesley was struck again by how young and lovely she really was. He would be a very lucky man if he could win her.
He settled himself across from her at the table, placing his paper and tea before him. She looked up and met his eye, offering a small smile, which he returned.
He sat for several minutes trying to think of something to start a conversation. He rejected several possibilities as too eager, too dull, or just too stupid. He knew he was out of practice, but he hadn't felt this tongue-tied in years.
Finally it was Anna who broke the silence. "What news today?" she asked, nodding at his paper.
"The war, as usual. Bit of progress in Belgium, it sounds like."
"That would be wonderful. Good news seems so rare these days. It's hard being here at home. I wish there was something more I could do to be useful."
Molesley brightened. There was his opportunity! "My father and I were going to take some time this Sunday to make arrangements for the hospitals. We could certainly use a woman's touch. Would you like to join us?"
Anna was thrilled with the idea. A chance to be part of something, even so small as flowers, was wonderful. She would love the opportunity for an afternoon away from Downton—the walls had been closing in on her lately. "I shall have to speak to Mrs. Hughes, but if she is agreeable I would love to. Thank you, Mr. Molesley."
"My pleasure, Anna. We can walk out after church." Deciding he ought to leave while his fortunes were good, Molesley collected his paper and strode back toward the kitchen, a new lightness in his step.
Mrs. Hughes' consent was easily obtained, and Anna found herself becoming very excited about the outing. She couldn't remember the last time she had something simple and happy to look forward to.
Sunday afternoon found her spending an extra moment in her looking-glass. She had chosen her best dress and decided to liven it up with a bit of lace she had been working on for the shop before everything started. She couldn't see any harm in treating herself, just this once.
She hurried downstairs, not wanting to be late. As she entered the kitchen Mrs. Patmore greeted her.
"Aye, Anna. Nice to see a bit of sparkle in you today!"
She smiled at the complement and noticed Mr. Bates looking her way. He had perked up when Mrs. Patmore spoke and now regarded her curiously.
He must have liked what he saw, because he let his eyes twinkle, a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. She allowed her gaze to meet his until they were interrupted.
"Ah, Anna. All ready to go?" Molesley's chipper salutation rang through the kitchen.
She moved to greet him, but not before noticing a change in Bates' expression. Darkness had come over his countenance before he had quickly turned away.
"Yes, all set."
"Wonderful. Shall we?" He nodded toward the door.
Anna grabbed her bag and started to leave. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Bates and could feel his scrutiny. She couldn't bring herself to meet his eye. She was just going to arrange flowers. And why should he be concerned anyway? He'd made it abundantly clear where he stood.