After S1 I began the project of trying to imagine every possible outcome for Anna and John. This is one idea that came from that.
No spoilers for S2.
Before she met John Bates, Anna's experience with sin was very limited. She had been seven years old the first time she intentionally ignored her conscience and did something she knew was wrong. It was her sister Eleanor's birthday and she had received a large packet of sweets from their parents. She offered Anna a taste, but when she left to go play with her friends Anna crept back into the kitchen and ate the whole thing.
The consequences were severe. Aside from the painful stomachache, she faced the shame of her parents' disappointment, the humiliation of having to confess to her sister, and the insult of having her doll taken away for a month as punishment. Thus ended Anna's career as a miscreant.
As she had grown her mother had always referred to her as "my good girl." She did her chores without being nagged, studied hard at school, and didn't whisper and giggle with the other girls. Later, she always kept her distance from boys. When her father took her to Downton he boasted to the new housekeeper that Anna had never been in any trouble and wouldn't need looking after. She had lived up to that promise in her work and had been rewarded for it, getting herself promoted all the way up to head housemaid by the time she turned 24.
All of that changed, one spring morning.
She was the most seductive thing he'd ever seen. She had long dark hair that she pulled over her shoulders, letting the curls rest just so, right where his gaze was already drawn. There was no innocence at all in her bright green eyes. Instead they held something closer to a sneer, daring anyone to think themself worthy to approach. She followed her father around the docks where John worked, waiting as he inspected holds and ledgers, not even pretending to listen as he explained the business that kept her fed. She caught him watching her and he gave her a wink, letting his eyes run up and down her figure. She lifted her chin defiantly and stood her ground, examining him just as boldly. He knew right then he had to have her.
They walked away and he got back to work. The next time he looked up he saw her walking toward the gates by herself as her father went back into the office. He hollered to his foreman than he needed a head call and took off after her. He slowed as he got close and drew himself up before he spoke. She turned around and he had no idea what he said, but somehow he got out of her that she'd be at The Stag that night.
He met her there every night for the next two weeks and now, as he pressed himself against her, he was amazed that she was letting him do this; letting him touch her hips, her bottom, and her breasts as he ground his mouth on hers. He started to work a hand under her dress, drawing her skirts up, when she stopped him. She wouldn't, she said. Not without a wedding ring.
It was a tolerable enough prospect for him. He was 28 years old—it was high time he stopped chasing barmaids and found himself a wife. He had just gotten a good posting in the army and he could certainly do worse than her. She wasn't the kindest woman he'd ever met, and didn't seem the type to settle down and keep house, but he assumed that if it was her idea it must be what she wanted. He grazed his hands over her ample chest once more and made her an offer.
They were married a month later, and a year after that he was on a steamer, headed for Africa.
Wouldn't it be better just to end it all? He was at least halfway there already, he figured. Why not quit buggering about and finish the job? He had nothing—he'd thrown it all away. Vera was done with him; had been done with him before his ship left the Channel, probably. The army was done with him. His father had snuffed it while he was in prison and his mother had been very clear he was not welcome to call anymore. Not in the state he was in. No one was going to miss him.
He'd been walking for hours and his knee was throbbing, so he turned into the next alley and sank down against the bricks. As he leaned his head back something shiny caught his notice. He forced his eyes to focus and peered closer. His hand shook as he plucked a florin out of the gutter. He imagined some rich man, maybe like the Earl, hurrying through this side of town in search of things they didn't like to keep in their part, not even noticing that it had fallen out of his pocket. He wondered at the fates. Why were some people were made earls, others bricklayer's sons, and still others born so they could watch their fathers gunned down before they're hauled to camps to die from dysentery? It didn't matter, he supposed. To hell with it all.
If he were a better man he would take his find to the lodging house and get some sleep, then clean himself up and go look for work again. But he knew well enough not to entertain that fantasy anymore. Even if his damn leg would let him, he wasn't much good at keeping a job these days.
No, two bob should buy just enough so he wouldn't have to think anymore tonight. He could be out cold before sun-up. Maybe, if he was lucky, he wouldn't wake up this time.
Anna had never wanted so fiercely in her life.
She had noticed right away that he had a fine smile. That he was tall and broad at the shoulders. Her heart fluttered when his dark eyes sparkled and crinkled at the corners and his voice, with its deep timbre and musical lilt, would push right into her, making her tremble.
Lady Mary, or any of the girls really, could love any man they wanted. They could look across the dining table or the drawing room and flutter their eyelashes, play with their jewelry, and receive an offer by midnight. They were free to marry that man, set up their home, and live their lives with no obstacles in the way.
Mary could kiss men she fancied without any fear of losing the roof over her head. She could even entertain naked men in her very bedroom with no noticeable consequences. Had Anna been caught in a similar situation she would have been dismissed without a reference, instantly put out of the house, and left to fend for herself.
She'd always been content, before, to chalk up the differences between herself and the Crawley girls as the way the world worked. Some girls slept in big, soft beds. Other girls made up those beds. But now that there was something worth wanting just out of her reach she resented them their privilege. Coveted. Seethed.
He had nothing to give her. What was there to say?
She had stood there, so brave, so open, and told him she loved him. He could have told her, realized later. Not necessarily right then, but he could have found a private moment and told her his secrets. His disgraces. His shackles. He had thought, even then, that she might understand, and she proved him right months later when she sought him out in the dark and told him there was no better man. He wanted her that night. Had almost crossed a line. Probably would have done much more than he ought had they not been interrupted.
He couldn't do it, though. He couldn't make himself go back and seek her out again. Couldn't bring himself to tell her about all the ways he had failed, all the terrible things he had done, and the impossible trap in which he was now caught. He had countless opportunities. He had learned all of the quiet corners of the estate and knew when moments could be stolen. He could even have taken her far away from prying eyes during their stay in London, but he hadn't, and if he were honest it was at least partially because he couldn't bear to see the light in her eyes when she looked at him dim even further.
Now he watched the back of her as she hurried away to pick up another tray. She'd taken it upon herself to find him out and it gutted him to see the change in her. She might still think she loved him, but that blind trust and admiration were long gone. She looked nothing more than disappointed and defeated when he reminded her of his limitations.
If only his shame could be all that was standing between them. He couldn't admit that this problem might be beyond him, beyond his ability to control or fix. That he might need help. Or understanding. Or compassion.
If he couldn't give her everything, there was nothing at all to give her.
He stopped in his tracks, startling her and causing her to stumble. She looked up at him curiously as he stood, frozen, and followed his gaze to a woman who was now heading straight for them.
"What are you doing here?" he gasped as she approached.
She fished through her bag and drew out a sheaf of letters. "Apparently my dear husband has finally decided to clean up his messes. Why are you still in Yorkshire? I suppose the Army wouldn't have the likes of you?"
Anna stared at the woman with horror and foreboding in her heart. Her face was rough, but she had high cheeks and striking eyes that Anna could easily imagine as having been very attractive at one time. The woman returned her appraisal like a scrapper in a ring sizing up a new opponent. "Well aren't you a pretty young thing? I can see the appeal, Johnny."
"That's enough," came his sharp reply.
Anna had been determined up until now to refrain from passing judgment should she ever meet the elusive Vera. She knew she had no claim on his past—she really didn't have any claim on him now, to be honest—but in that moment she couldn't stop a blistering hatred from flaring up in her. This woman who had known him, claimed his freedom, and saw him as a man she'd never recognize, had everything Anna wanted and nothing to recommend herself.
She hated him too, a little bit. How could he have picked her? How could he have sold himself so cheaply? Didn't he know she was out there waiting for him? She knew it wasn't fair or rational and vowed to never let on, but it was there just the same.
She had spent so long hoping that Mr. Bates would be able to find his errant wife—he'd been trying for nearly two years—but now felt very foolish realizing she hadn't thought of what would happen should the woman actually turn up. Now that she was here, Anna longed for the ignorance of the past. Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true, her mother had often warned. How right she had been!
Anna stepped aside to allow them the illusion of privacy, but there was no way to avoid overhearing.
"Vera, I wanted to talk to you about a divorce."
"Oh, no, absolutely not."
"We haven't been married in the proper sense for years. It's time for us both to move on."
"Why would I want to agree to that?"
"It wouldn't be any inconvenience to you. I can set the whole thing up and pay for it. All you would need to do is appear in court and sign the papers. You would be free."
"I don't see how that benefits me. My husband has a good job now in a nice house. I should be very well fixed."
"I highly doubt you've been faithful for the last 10 years."
"Prove it," she answered with an indifferent shrug. "I've not been daft enough to get myself in trouble and you'll find no one to swear to anything in court."
Anna couldn't take any more. She had to get away. She started walking down the path again, and was almost grateful that Vera refused to yield, seeming to want to make a point by standing her ground and claiming her space. Little did she know Anna was in no mood for games. Instead of stepping off the path to move around her, she simply lowered her shoulder and pushed straight through, allowing herself a tiny smile at the woman's affronted cry.
He told her of the letter. Paul Moss, poor bloke, was one of the first Americans to arrive and had been maimed in a training accident less than a month after his ship deposited him on England's shores. Between his injury and the infection he'd acquired in the hospital, his condition wasn't stable enough for him to return home, so he'd been sent to Downton for rest and rehabilitation. He and John had taken a liking to each other, John seeing a lot of himself in the younger man and Paul finding comfort in John's steadiness and perspective. They had spent weeks engrossed in long conversations and he had been genuinely sad when Paul was well enough to return home.
Now, this soldier he'd spent so much time with had written to him, saying that he'd started up his dairy again like they had talked about and business was booming. He was expanding his operations and offered John the opportunity to be his general manager, if he were willing to come and settle in Wisconsin.
She felt a little unease as she listened to him. Finally she could bear it no longer and asked if he intended to accept. He seemed shocked at the question and told her no, of course not. He appreciated the offer but he was settled at Downton.
Anna, however, couldn't let the idea go. For two nights she'd tossed and turned, going over and over it in her mind and always coming to the same unlikely conclusion.
She pulled him outside the next day before tea, and led him down the path toward the pond. When they were far enough away from the house she gathered up her courage and prayed for a miracle.
"Have you written Mr. Moss back regarding his offer?"
He looked at her oddly, not expecting that to be the topic of her conversation. "No, not yet. I had intended to do it tonight."
"What if," she began haltingly, "what if you took it? And we both went." She said the last words in a rushed jumble, her heart thundering in her ears.
He stopped and turned to her, his brow furrowed. "What are you trying to say?"
She swallowed, trying to force some moisture back into her mouth. Her pulse hadn't slowed a bit and she was feeling quite lightheaded. "What if we both went?"