A/N: After that awful teaser, I had to find some way to set things right.
Standard disclaimer applies: not mine. But given a few minutes alone with them, I'm sure I could get them to see sense.
He watched her draw the back of her hand roughly across her red eyes and sniffle loudly. He hated himself for having made her cry, and for all the times lately she probably had. Everyone could tell she was miserable—her eyes were gaunt, her shoulders slumped, and she was much too thin. If they had looked, they would have seen the same in him, but it seemed the house had reached the consensus, and rightly so, that she was the one to be pitied. Even O'Brien let her alone, though he once overheard her in a corridor, mumbling to someone he couldn't see. "Don't know what she was expecting to happen, taking up with the likes of him. That wife of his is a right terror for sure. "
Terror didn't even begin to describe her. The humiliation that came with the entire house knowing his private business was only the start, but John had reached the point where he just couldn't care any longer. Vera seemed determined to secure his misery and he finally understood that he was making her job incredibly easy by being stupid and bull-headed with Anna. He realized that he had never once asked her what she thought about the situation or how it should be handled. He had paid her the great insult of pretending she wasn't a part of it, when in reality she was the only part that mattered.
It had taken weeks of trying, apologizing, and groveling, but she'd finally consented to at least listen to him. He wasn't about to squander the opportunity. He poured his heart out, explaining the mistakes that caused him to get mixed up with Vera in the first place, the mess he'd made of his life, and how he'd been so heartbroken and scared when their tentative happiness began to fall apart that he'd panicked and made the worst possible decision.
"I'm so sorry, Anna. I've been a fool and I know it. I will spend the rest of my life making it up to you if you'll let me."
"I honestly don't know yet. I'm not sure how to fix this, but I promise you I will never stop trying and I will never let you go unless you ask me to."
She looked at him oddly and he took a deep breath, staring down at the ground. "It is not an honorable thing, to ask you to tie yourself to me when I have nothing to offer you. I'm a selfish man to do it, but I am asking."
"Do you love me?"
The sound he made was something between a choke and cry and when he spoke his voice was raw. "I hardly remember what it was not to love you. I will go to my grave with you in my heart, but I won't hold you back. If you find someone who can give you what I can't," he ground out, even the words paining him, "I will step back if you tell me that's what you want. I won't make it difficult for you."
"What you still don't seem to understand is that the very idea makes me as ill as it makes you. I love you and I'm willing to face whatever comes, but I can't do this if I'm always going to have to be afraid that you'll run away when it gets to be too much."
He reached for her, sighing with relief when she came willingly and let him put his arms around her. "One of the few things I can say for myself is that I rarely make the same mistake twice. These last months without you have been agony. I won't run again. I'm yours for as long as you'll have me."
"One way or another I intend to have you forever, John."
He held her tightly against his chest and rested his chin on her head. "I'm ready to tell you."
"No. Not yet."
They sat together on the old crate, savoring the few minutes they would get to rest before the family was ready to go to bed. He reached over and took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb over her third finger where her ring ought to be. They were only a month into this last, agonizing wait. In five more months the final decree for the divorce would come through and she could take her ring from the chain she kept hidden under her clothes and wear it proudly.
He'd had to learn to ask for help; to set aside his pride and admit he couldn't manage alone. In the end Vera had been bought, and he was even further in Lord Grantham's debt. Surprisingly, he didn't find the yoke oppressive. It felt more like loyalty than obligation, and it was inexorably joined to the happiness he now felt. He couldn't stop himself from imagining everything to come. Their wedding and the night that would follow. Their little home. Coming back to her at the end of a long day and being welcome in her arms. Their family.
"We're going to have an icebox," he opened. It was a silly little game they'd started playing, making each other giddy by dreaming of all of the things they were going to have once everything was sorted.
"And a garden. I'm going to plant tomatoes." He wasn't sure why tomatoes were important, but it was endearing the way she announced it so decidedly.
"My mother will bring us a statue of St. Joseph the first time she visits and insist we keep it in the parlor."
"We can put it next to my grandfather's clock on the mantle. My mum's been saving it for me since he passed."
"Two big, comfortable chairs next to each other in front of the fire," he added.
"A pile of your socks to mend," she teased.
"Hairpins and ribbons and face cream cluttering up the dressing table."
"I'm going to have your name," she sighed. He squeezed her hand.
"I'm going to have the finest wife a man could ever dream of." She pressed a tiny kiss above his collar.
"We're going to have a big double bed, John," she whispered huskily in his ear. He didn't even try to stifle his groan, and she shivered.
"We're going to have our half days together to use it," he replied with a wicked gleam in his eyes.
Her voice grew wistful. "A cradle in the nursery. Maybe a little boy who looks so much like his father that I can never stay cross with him."
"Or a little girl who is too pretty and clever like her mum to give her old dad any peace." He dared slipping his arm around her waist.
"It can't come fast enough."
"We're almost there, darling. It's high time I told you, don't you think?"
"Not quite, love. If I have to wait, you do too."
The bright moonlight shone in through the lacy curtains in their room at the hotel, casting an almost ethereal glow over her. He turned on his side to face her, and for a moment he felt quite odd. The strange new feeling of her heat and weight in the bed next to him, combined with the unusual sensation of his bare skin against the sheets, was keeping him from settling down and going back to sleep.
He watched her as she lay there. He couldn't imagine how exhausted she must have been. She'd had all of the preparations for their wedding in the last few days, including managing to keep the peace as her entire family descended on the village. She'd wanted as much time as possible for them afterwards, so she'd only started her fortnight's leave the day before the ceremony.
The wedding had been beautiful and she was a perfect bride, of course. She was a charming and gracious hostess for all of her relatives and his, ensuring that no one went hungry, thirsty, or lonely right up until the moment they left for the train station. He felt oddly privileged when she slumped against him in the car, touched that she would let him see her weariness and turn to him for support. It wasn't often he felt like he had something to offer her.
She shifted, rolling slightly toward him and kicking the blankets off her feet. He stared at them, realizing somewhat stupidly that he'd never seen them before. It occurred to him he'd hardly seen her even now—they'd been so caught up in finally satisfying the desire they'd both wrestled with for years that things had gone rather fast. For the most part they had hastily removed their own clothes and quickly fallen into the bed, eager to touch and experience and consummate.
His hands reached out almost as if they were possessed and eased the covers off of her. He gasped when she was revealed. Regrettably, he had come to think, he was not an inexperienced man. He'd had women, had a wife, and had seen plenty of the female form. Something about her, however, took his breath away. Her body was long and lean, naturally disposed to slender limbs and flat expanses, and he could see strength under her silken skin. He was entranced by the beautiful womanly curves of her figure, all dips and hollows where he was solid and straight.
He considered himself fortunate that their circumstances would be changing. She would be leaving service shortly, just as soon as her replacement could be found and acclimated to the house. He was going to begin spending part of his days with the estate manager, with the aim of taking over for him when he retired in the next year or two. He found himself grateful he wouldn't be trapped in the house with her all day. Having come to know her in this way, he would have no hope of controlling himself. One chance meeting in an empty corridor and they would both be in terrible trouble.
His reverie was interrupted by her sleepy voice. "If you're going to steal my blankets the least you could do is be a gentleman and keep me warm."
He did as she asked, moving to cover her. She wrapped herself around him and it didn't feel strange at all anymore. It was the most natural thing in the world to hold her against him, kiss and caress her body, and then slide into her, making them one.
He rocked slowly above her, his chest pressed into hers, her legs around his waist. He pushed himself up on his forearms and locked his eyes to hers, overwhelmed at the affection and contentment in her gaze.
"Anna," he panted. "I want to tell you now."
"It's not time just yet, John," she answered, arching her back. "You feel so good," she moaned, then shifted and captured his mouth with hers, putting it to much better use.
She had been so brave. He'd always known she was a strong woman, but after this there were no words to communicate the depths of his awe. It had been torturous, waiting and listening alone downstairs, praying that everything would be all right. As she left, the midwife actually commented that she'd had a pretty easy time of it, for her first. He shuddered to think of what it could have been like. What Anna had endured to give him this gift, his fleeting chance at immortality, he could never repay.
When he'd finally been allowed into their room he saw her, propped up on the pillows, tired but radiant, cradling an impossibly small bundle. The air held an odd scent, somehow both earthy and antiseptic, and he suddenly felt awkward and out of place in what used to be their sanctuary.
The smile she gave him reassured him and he was a little embarrassed to feel his eyes begin to welt as the worry, anticipation, and joy of the evening all finally released. "Come here," she invited tenderly. He slid into bed next to her and drew her under his arm. She shifted the baby and he got his first glimpse of his daughter's face. He reached out to touch her dark, downy hair and gently ran a fingertip over her wee nose and soft cheeks.
He had never seen anything so perfect in all his life. Each tiny, wrinkled finger had a tiny, perfect fingernail on the end. Her little hand was so small and red; his own looked like the paw of a giant beast next to it.
"Here," she said, lifting her up and toward him. "Why don't you hold her?" His nerves suddenly got the better of him and he was terrified he'd drop her or crush her. Anna laughed lightly at his panicked look. "You'll have to get used to it sooner or later," she said with a smile and transferred the baby into his arms. "There you go. Just make sure to support her head. She can't hold it up on her own just yet."
He'd never actually held a baby before. He was the youngest of his family and never had much interest in his cousins or the other neighborhood babies as a rambunctious young boy. He'd grown, found work, joined the army, and by the time his brothers and sisters began having their children he'd been off at war and then well on his descent.
He could hardly even feel her weight in his arms. She opened her eyes for a bit and he stared, riveted, until she drifted back off again. He made her so many promises in those moments. As hard as he had worked so far, he would work even harder. She would never want for anything and never know a minute's unhappiness. He would slay any dragon that ever troubled either of them.
"Please, Anna," he entreated quietly, afraid to disturb their peace. "I need to tell you."
It was not to be, however, because when he looked down, anxious for her response, he found her very much asleep.
He had just finished shining his shoes when he heard Jack start to cry. Emily had been making a holy racket all morning and he was sure she'd finally woken the baby up. He rushed downstairs, noticing that he was running behind. He was now fully settled as the estate manager for Downton and today he and his Lordship had a full diary of appointments and inspections, starting early.
He found Anna in the kitchen, scurrying around with Michael on her hip. She looked up and smiled at him as she flew between the stove, the table, and the bassinet in the corner. He successfully dodged around her to pour a cup of tea and snatch a piece of toast, which would have to do for breakfast this morning if he hoped to meet his Lordship in time.
He watched her gracefully set a bowl down in front of Emily, adjust her grip on her spoon so she was holding it correctly, then pull the milk out of the icebox and pour her a glass all with only one hand. "Are you eating?"
"I can't. I'm already late and we have a full day today."
She deftly grabbed another glass and filled it for him. "At least drink this. You'll need more than toast to hold you through the morning."
He snuck a kiss as he took it from her. "Thanks."
"I want jam!"
"Try again, Emily," John warned kindly. A wail came from the bassinet.
"May I have jam, please?"
"Just a moment, darling. Your brother is ready for his breakfast too, I think. John, can you take Michael for a second?"
"Hello, chap," he greeted his son. "How are you this fine morning?" He was concerned to find that the boy seemed listless and heavy against him. He leaned his cheek against his forehead and noticed it was quite warm.
"Anna, did you feel how warm he is?"
"Yes. He's been out of sorts all morning, poor babe." She sat and tried to soothe Jack so she could feed him. "I'm going to try to get him to eat a bit and put him back to bed after I get these two taken care of."
Their exchange was accompanied by the clattering of Emily's spoon against the table, her patience exhausted.
"Emily, if you don't stop that banging this instant, not only will you not get your jam, but you will also not be playing outside after school today."
In the next moment, three things happened simultaneously. Emily, having gotten her stubborn streak in spades from both her parents, defiantly raised her fist and slammed her spoon on the table for one more terrific bang. Unfortunately her aim was off and it landed on the side of her bowl, upending it and sending porridge flying all over the table, her clothes, and her hair. Jack, finally nursing hungrily, brought down one of his new teeth in his enthusiasm, biting Anna and causing her to yelp and jostle him. Startled by the noise and the interruption of his meal, he began to scream. Michael then picked that moment to lean over and get sick, all over his father's freshly shined shoes.
There was an eerie stillness in the aftermath, broken only by Jack's muted snuffling as Anna switched him over and set him back to eating. They shared a look of horror between them. "If we left now, we'd just be able to catch the morning train," he offered. "We'd be miles away before anyone knew we were gone."
She laughed and relaxed—somehow the twinkle in his eye always made everything all right. "Give him here, dish Emily some more porridge, and go sort yourself out. Jack will be done in a few minutes and I can manage the rest of this."
He lowered Michael into her lap, put another bowl in front of his contrite daughter, and moved as fast as he could back upstairs. Luckily his trousers had been spared so he quickly switched his shoes, but realized he didn't have enough time to clean his other pair. Returning to the kitchen, he stood in front of her sheepishly. "I know you're going to have a devil of a day on your hands today. I'm sorry to ask this, but I don't have the time to take care of these and I think they'll be ruined if they're left all day."
"Ooh you're lucky I love you, John Bates. Put them on the rug by the door and I'll get to them as soon as I can."
"I'll stop by Mr. Martin's today and buy you the naughtiest cake he has."
"And a chocolate biscuit."
"You'd best run while you can."
"I am a very lucky man, Anna." He looked at her seriously. "I don't suppose you'd let me tell you now?"
"Really?" he answered, shocked. "After all this time I thought you were never going to let me."
"I'll get them settled early and you can tell me tonight while you feed me cake in bed."
His eyes darkened and they shared a knowing smile. "I love you," he breathed as he leaned in between their sons to kiss her.
"I love you, too," she murmured against his lips. He pulled back with a grin, dropped kisses on each of the children's heads, and hurried out the door, counting the seconds until he could return.
The gravel crunched as he shuffled his feet and worked up the will to do what he had to do. He'd gone over and over it in his head during the train ride, practicing what he'd say and reminding himself why it had to be.
His nerve faltered when he saw her in the drive and her face lit up when she spotted him. Her excitement was short-lived as she noticed his expression and she began to look troubled.
"What is it?" she'd asked.
Best to do it quick, he thought. No need to draw it out for either of them. "We can't go on as we have been, Anna. I realize now it was irresponsible to let it start in the first place, and for that I apologize."
"What are you trying to say?"
"This…entanglement can't continue. It's not right and it's not fair to you."
"John?" She looked crushed and bewildered and his control started to slip.
"Forget me and be happy," he pleaded, trying hard to keep his face set as he watched hers fall. He had to get out of there.
She moved to block him. "I couldn't," she gasped, her eyes begging him to reconsider.
"Anna, there is no other way. It's hopeless."
"Nothing is hopeless, John. No matter what, we'll manage."
"It's not that simple! I have no way out. I'm never going to be able to marry you. Move on while you still can!"
"I've loved you for years. Do you really think it can just be snapped off like the electricity?"
He ground his teeth and forced himself not to meet her eye. Why was she making this harder than it had to be?
She took a long, calming breath. "I understand your despair, and I'm going to try to remind myself that that's why you're doing this. But one day you are going to look back on this moment and see how completely ridiculous it is." She saw his eyes flicker almost as if he was offended, but that didn't stop her.
"Someday you are going to look around at our wonderful little life and you are going to tell me that you realize how much you tried to give up right now and how you can't imagine you were ever that daft. And I am going to thoroughly enjoy hearing you say it."
He finally turned to walk away, completely rattled. This conversation hadn't gone at all like he'd thought it would and as he heard her start to break down his heart tightened in his chest so much that he could barely draw breath. Somewhere, very deep inside, a faint spark in him hoped she was right.