A/N: I told myself that I would begin the History essay that's due tomorrow. So instead I wrote this.
It stemmed from my musings on how Bates ended up with his photo of Anna in the Christmas Special. That first scene where he's holding it in his hands and weeping gets me every time. Anyway, this isn't particularly good because I wrote it quickly in an hour, but I didn't want to leave it to fester. I also couldn't think of a title for it. It ended up with this. So yeah.
Disclaimer: Downton Abbey is still not mine.
Hold on Hope
It's on her tenth visit that he broaches the subject that he has been unable to stop thinking about ever since his arrest.
"Anna," he says tentatively, lowering his voice to barely a whisper so that she has to lean in as far as she dare in order to pick up the message he is trying to convey to her, "I know that I have no right to ask anything of you–"
She makes a noise as though she is going to interrupt him, her face taking on that same vexed expression that it always does when he is putting himself down, but he ploughs on regardless, needing to get it out lest he lose his nerve and suffer more because of it.
"–But I desperately need you to do something for me. You have no idea how desperate I am."
She takes in the sight of him: hair longer and more unkempt than she has ever seen it; the dark shadows under his eyes, suggesting that he hasn't slept even once since their parting; the thick stubble that adds years onto him. She thinks that perhaps she does know how desperate he is. The look in his eyes is one of a man slowly losing his mind. It frightens her a little.
"Of course I'll do something for you. Whatever it is. You should know that by now." Her voice catches in her throat, and she swallows hard. "I'd do anything for you."
He lowers his eyes from her face, as though he cannot bear to even tarnish her with his gaze while he finds the words to make his request. In the time that elapses between them, Anna sits there with her heart in her mouth. Her fingers twist together on the table top. Sweat breaks out on her forehead. Just what is he going to ask her? She'd said that she would do anything for him…but what if he asks her to forget him, to move on with her life, to find someone who isn't in prison and awaiting the trial that will dictate the direction of his life? It will destroy her if he asks that of her. It's the one thing that she will refuse to do. She will gladly bear anything for him, like she has so many times in the past, but she doesn't think that she will be able to bear knowing that he has nothing left of hope, that he has given up on himself, on them. How can she be strong for him when he hasn't given her anything to be strong for?
At last he raises his head to meet her gaze. His is tired, world-weary. Her heart constricts. Tears threaten to well up in her eyes. He's going to ask it of her, she knows he is –
"Anna…would you have your picture taken for me?"
At first she is so shocked that she cannot even formulate a reply. The iron fist which had clamped itself around her heart has loosened itself, and she draws in a shaky breath; the tears that have been threatening to fall escape from the confines of her eyes to trickle down her cheeks.
John looks horrified and agonisingly guilt-ridden at the sight of his wife crying before him. He wishes that he could reach across the table and brush her tears away. He wishes that he could tell her that he is sorry that she has cried so many tears over him. Because of him. But he can't. Not here. It wouldn't be right to speak so openly, so intimately, in a place where the walls have ears and the eyes of the world can judge.
Instead he settles for saying, "Anna, please," in a voice that is cracked and hoarse. He wills her to be strong. He cannot bear to see her cry when he can do nothing to comfort her.
She nods at him, bringing a shaking hand to her face and brushing away her tears.
"I'm sorry," she whispers.
"Don't be sorry. Never be sorry."
He waits a few more beats for her to compose herself as best as she can. She sniffs once, then raises her head to look resolutely at him. Her blue eyes are watery, but ardently determined. The look takes his breath away.
"I'll get a picture for you," she promises him fiercely. "You can have as many as you want."
He smiles weakly at her. She understands. She knows what it will mean to him to have a piece of her with him in the long and lonely nights. He only wishes that he could give her the same comfort.
(She will have to cope alone, as she always has done when it has come to him.)
"Thank you," he whispers contritely, as the guard overseeing the visitations shouts that their time is up.
She nods once at him, rising to her feet. "I'll have it for you the next time I come. I love you."
His throat works, but he can't seem to find the words to echo hers. He offers her another feeble smile, and she seems to understand.
In the next instance she is gone, and he is being hauled roughly back to his cell by the guard who has been instructed to help him walk – without the aid of his cane, his steps are painfully slow and stilted.
(His knee screams in the middle of the night, protesting against the weight it has to endure without assistance.)
The lock is turned decisively in the door of his cell, and as the guard's footsteps fade away, he sinks onto his bed, twin feelings of utter grief and overwhelming tiredness forcing the barriers he carefully establishes for Anna to crumble.
He weeps into the silence.
On her eleventh visit, as promised, Anna produces the picture. She had begged and argued with the guards at the entrance to be allowed to bring it in this far. They had eventually relented when she'd pointed out the obvious.
"It's just a picture," she had said quietly.
But of course it's not just a picture. It's so much more than that.
She feels self-conscious as she pushes it across the table towards him, watching the way that his features, for the first time since she'd started visiting him in this god-forsaken place, lighten as he appraises it. She can pick out all manner of faults with the picture. She'd put on her best Sunday
dress, practised her little smile a dozen times in the small looking glass in her room, tamed her hair to perfection…but it does not hide her flaws; the sadness in her eyes that can't be chased away; the paleness of her complexion that announces the fitful hours of sleep, the slight hunch in her shoulders as she buckles under the weight of their separation. She wonders if the picture will perhaps make things worse for him, if it will make him feel guilty and worthless all over again.
To his credit, if he has noticed any of those inadequacies he has not mentioned them; he merely looks up at her with a soft smile on his lips, his eyes shining with love.
"Thank you," he breathes, drawing it closer to him and managing to gather it up in his grip. His handcuffs clink as he cradles it. "It's perfect."
"I'm just glad that there was something I could do for you," she replies honestly. "I hate the thought of not being able to help you."
"But you do help," he reassures her softly. "You're here, aren't you? What better comfort could a man ask for? If you were a different woman–"
Now she knows what he is going to say, and she cuts him off assertively. "I'll never want anyone else. You're the only one for me."
He looks sad for a moment, though she isn't sure if it's because of his desire to be with her or the fact that she can't seem to function without him. Either way, she has rendered him silent. But only for a moment.
"I wish there was something that I could give to you to help ease the burden," he admits wistfully. "I always seem to be taking from you, never giving."
"You have given me something," she says, and the force of her answer makes him look at her. She softens then, holding his gaze. "You've given me your name, John. You've given me your troth. You've given me my wedding ring. I have something of you with me even when you're here. I couldn't ask for anything more. Having these things…they give me hope."
Hope. Such a simple word. Such a complex emotion.
(She hopes that her gift to him will be enough to reignite his hope.)
John looks like he is going to say more, but the moment is broken once again by the guard who declares that their time together is at an end, and she drags herself to her feet. She hates that their visits are dictated to them, that they are meant to sit so formally and stiffly when they have shared intimacies far greater than anyone can possibly know, have shared the ultimate bond between a man and a woman. She wishes that she could kiss him goodbye, just this once.
This time it's John who tells her that he loves her, his voice hoarse and low. She manages a trembling smile and succeeds in choking the words back to him. She leaves the room quickly, not wanting him to see the tears that spill from her eyes.
(Their separation is trying, but she is determined to bear it.)
Back in his cell, John loosens his grip on the picture and gazes upon the sight of his beautiful wife. His thumb brushes over the top of her hair, recalling how it had felt like silk slipping between fingers as he'd run them through it, how soft it had felt against his chest as she'd lain with her ear pressed over his heart. He traces the outline of her jaw, remembering what it was like to kiss her there, the way that her gasps of approval had spurred him on. His fingers draw the outline of her slim waist, reminiscing over what it had been like to trail his fingers over her soft skin, what it had felt like to shower every inch of that milky expanse in kisses. He pauses at her hands, staring at the way she has strategically placed them so that her left hand is clasped on top of her right. He can almost imagine the way that her wedding band flickers in the light. She had worn it as they'd left the room where they had spent their wedding night together, and she had linked their fingers together for a few moments before they'd made their way back to the servants' quarters, allowing him to feel the warm band pressed against his hand, a reminder of what had passed between them.
(A reminder that she is his, that she has always been his, that she will always be his.)
"What's that?" the guard had commented gruffly as he'd hauled John back to his cell minutes earlier.
"Just a picture," he'd replied softly, hugging it closer to him as though it would shield the visions that sprang forth when he looked at it from prying eyes.
But he'd been lying. It's not just a picture. It's so, so much more than that.
Seeing this, knowing that he has a part of Anna with him at all times, even in his darkest hours, gives him strength and hope. He has to hope. He has to dream of the future. A future with Anna. And perhaps a couple of children. A future where she won't know heartbreak and pain, only love and happiness.
He won't give up on hope.
A/N: Feel free to leave your thoughts. :)