Work Header

begin again with the smallest numbers

Work Text:

Anna is particularly careful with Mary's hair tonight, untangling small knots with fingers that are deft despite a certain unsteadiness Mary can't help but feel guilty about. Anna shares no blame in Mary's situation; she helped Mary when Mary asked, that was all, and she should hardly feel bad about it, or uneasy. She did nothing wrong—it wasn't her bed somebody let out his last breath in.

Once her hair is free of anything that shouldn't be there, Anna runs her fingers through it once more, twice, softly, massaging Mary's scalp. There's an absence about the touch, as though Anna is elsewhere, or thinking of something else entirely.

"All done now," Anna announces, moving back to give Mary enough space to stand. Mary steps around the chair and keeps still with her back to Anna, the way she does every night so Anna can work on the laces and fastenings of whatever new complicated dress Mary wore to dinner.

It takes Mary a few seconds to realise Anna isn't making any moves to take Mary's dress off, and another before she takes note of the fact that Anna's not stopped touching Mary as Mary stood; there are hands on her shoulders still, not gripping but grazing, Anna's fingers warm and light, hesitant over her collarbone. It makes Mary's skin rise, a localised shiver.

Mary groans quietly and rolls her shoulders into Anna's hands.

"Lady Crawley," Anna says now, sounding nervous, and Mary turns.

"What is it?"

Anna opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out. She hasn't moved her hands away—one of them has slid down to Mary's arm, and the other is idly brushing back a stray lock of her hair. When that's done, her wrist comes to rest on Mary's shoulder, and fingertips stroke the side of Mary's neck. Anna is watching them, not observing what she does but as though she does not dare to face Mary.

"Mary," Anna breathes, like she believes she shouldn't have addressed Mary as Lady Crawley earlier. Mary wishes Anna knew that doesn't matter, not with them, and she means to voice the thought, but Anna's gaze is trained on Mary's lips now, strangely, and suddenly Mary's mouth feels dry. She wets her bottom lip and Anna bites down on her own, looking down for a moment before meeting Mary's eyes.

Mary tilts her head, just slightly, trying to communicate a question. She isn't sure it's clear what that question is, as Mary herself has doubts as to what she’s asking. Nevertheless, no answer comes; Anna rises on her toes instead, fingers slipping across the back of Mary's neck now, and smoothly, calmly, she presses chaste lips to Mary's mouth.

It's only a touch before Anna pulls back. Mary is happy to see there is only a faint blush on her cheeks, and no panic in her eyes, even though none of that clears Mary's confusion. "You don't need foreign men you can't trust," Anna says softly. "You have me."

"Oh," Mary says. Anna's hands are retreating now, and Mary catches one of her wrists and presses it close to her chest. "This is not a servant's duty," she tells Anna, soft but clear.

Anna takes her hand back. "It isn't, milady. It was selfish of me to ask."

"Of course it wasn't, Anna," Mary says. "That isn't what I meant."

"It is," Anna says, but her head is shaking almost imperceptibly, as though she doesn't believe it herself, as though she is waiting for reassurance that Mary's words were truthful.

"Anna," Mary says, and reaches for Anna's wrist again, lifting it between them. The weight of it makes it slip down Mary's fingers, and then it is Anna's hand Mary is holding, solid and slightly damp with perspiration. "Anna, if you do this for me—if you want this, you cannot think of me as someone you serve. It wouldn't be right."

Anna's eyes meet Mary's then, curiosity clear in them. Her lips press together with reluctance; Mary can see and understand a desire to flee what one has started, but she wishes Anna would be surer of herself, that she would be surer of Mary. There is nothing Anna could do that would drive Mary to turn her back on Anna, and Mary wishes there were something she could do to convince Anna of this.

But finally, after what seems like a decade, Anna nods. "I won't." She coughs, and adds, "Let me help you out of your dress."

"Of course," Mary says, and turns around again. Anna's hands make quick work of the back, but they linger on her skin when the dress is open, her hands stroking Mary's arms as she drags the straps down. She is as careful as ever in putting the dress away, only coming back to Mary when it is hanging clean and smooth in her closet.

A step away, however, Anna's eyes run over Mary, and Anna bites her lip again, her eyes glassy. She blinks away the distractedness and continues forward, reaching for the fastenings of Mary's underskirt. Mary expects it to come off soon, as usual, but Anna's hands aren't as quick this time; they rest aimlessly on Mary's hips instead, as though Anna hasn't decided yet what to do with it, or whether to do anything at all.

"I care about you, Anna," Mary tells her, her voice low. She's unused to this type of confession. "Nothing changes that."

Anna visibly swallows as she looks up at Mary. "I do as well, milady—"

"Not here," Mary says, touching a finger to Anna's lips, "here I am Mary." Anna blinks slowly, heavily, and kisses Mary's finger before Mary draws it away.

"Good," says Anna, and goes back to contemplating Mary's underskirt. Mary gives her time; she can imagine this must be harder for Anna than it is for her, given the disparity of their positions. "Good," Anna mumbles again, her gaze crawling along Mary's body, her hands tightening around Mary's waist. She takes a step forward; now she is partly pressed against Mary, and Mary is surprised by how comforting and pleasant she finds it, for one, and then by the thrill that runs through her when Anna's thumbs skate over her ribcage, her palms soon splayed under Mary's breasts. There is still clothing between them and Mary's skin, but that doesn't lessen the impact.

Mary gasps, and Anna kisses her. This time, it isn't chaste, or brief; there's a touch of bravery to it, and Mary makes it as easy for Anna as she knows how to. She puts a hand on the back of Anna's neck and holds her close as she parts her lips and deepens the kiss. When she pulls back, Anna is flustered, her neck red under her collar.

"We can't do this if you keep all of your clothes on," Mary tells her, and Anna blushes harder. Mary steps back, enjoying the way Anna's hands move forward with her, clinging before letting go and falling to Anna's sides. "I have only ever seen you undress me. I'd like to see you undress you."

Anna blinks for a long moment, and then she says, "As you wish, milady," a playfulness in her words that makes Mary smile, and reaches for her belt.