The rays from the eaves streamed down like a glorious sun shower, falling squarely at John's feet where he stood. Despite the surroundings he smiled when he followed their path, cascading up the aisle to meet her perfectly. It surely wasn't a coincidence how the light framed her from every angle, making her shine as she appeared so reverent and completely absorbed in the moment that had caught her. A moment of pure serenity, it was plain to see, and nothing in this world made him happier to behold than to witness his wife in such a blissful state.
It was quite different from being there late on a Sunday morning with the rest of the troupe of servants, hardly any space available in the packed out pews as the whole village descended to pay their dues and worship. Even as everyone bowed their heads in unison there was a divide in the flock between the more devout and those who had lost their way for whatever reason. John knew there was little point disguising which side he fell into, but by her side he found redemption. When once he only parroted the verses and sung the hymns dully, now he truly did his best to find the deeper meaning in the holy words, pouring more of his heart and soul into them but never able to give himself over completely. Too much of his heart was given solely to her and he would not surrender the space for anything. The church was a great deal quieter of a Wednesday afternoon, a short mass given to a handful and persisting even when none appeared. They had got there just in time to hear the first set of prayers, John watching as Anna listened intently, the beauty of her concentrated features never a revelation to him and yet still leaving him spellbound, uttering sacred mantras in her honour.
He had been brought up in a Catholic household but the broken promises and misused phrases of his father, stumbling home full of ale not just of a Sunday evening, had caused his beliefs to waver at an early age. His old man hardly ever joined them in church, nursing a sore head that could not be balmed by the Lord. Yet he had fond memories of standing between his mother and aunt as they vowed, only letting go of his mother's hand to join his own. As a boy, he recognised the certain unique quality of peace held within that place. Before the brutality of the battlefield well and truly shattered any semblance of faith he possessed he took comfort in visiting the makeshift chapel that had been constructed just outside of the camp, offering up several prayers for his soul to be saved for the acts he had been forced to commit. Little did he know that they would be answered some years down the line, his life being built up again from the rubble and more blessed than he could have ever imagined, all stemming from a simple greeting. Since he met her he believed in everything.
His thoughts never strayed far from Anna, revolving around her as did his whole world. She had gone ahead of him, giving her own private reflection before the altar which he certainly did not mind about. They had stayed side by side for every moment before then and he had done well not to sneak too many glances at her throughout the mass. Afterwards while the other members of the small congregation knelt to pray they walked slowly to the back of the church, the rows of candles lined up and awaiting. Anna's dainty hand reached out, and using a little of the flame from one of the others that was already burning she began to make her way down, lighting one, two, three. A remembrance each for William, Lady Sybil and Mr Crawley. Her gaze brightened upon him when she lit the fourth, her other hand holding out towards his and giving a loving squeeze when they were circled together. John's own eyes filled with tears, his silent nod never being enough appreciation for the act she had done and always did whenever she had the chance. She had met his mother only twice but she was full of praise for her, telling him time and again that she knew exactly from where he got all of his kindness, stoicism and good nature. He knew she would have loved to have been able to see her again, at a time when she could truly call the elder woman mother as he had always done, and John mourned dearly too. But he was heartened by the fact that his mother had adored Anna just the same, the proof of affection held in letters he was sure to read over again.
It was a fact that his own faith strengthened by miles in her presence, and right now hers was particularly visible. It had not been infallible, after all; for a time afterwards she stayed in church for no longer than she was required to save face, the beliefs she held so dear in certain peril. John had even considered that she had lost her faith in the depths of the darkest periods and inwardly he raged against it, knowing how it had always been of such importance to her. The crisis did not last for too long and indeed her convictions had won out in the end, emerging stronger than ever. She cradled it close to her, flourishing in the support given to her by it, backing up that which she got elsewhere. It remained as unassuming as ever; she felt no need to preach or convince. The aura that exuded spoke enough about the peace, hope and happiness within her, and John would always be a faithful follower of whatever fostered that, stepping out of his shadows to find shelter in the light that surrounded her.
He felt less guilty for smiling so widely now, meeting her own expression of quiet joy as she turned to look over her shoulder towards him. Her arm extended out upon its own accord and he made his way as quickly as his feet would allow, feeling renewed as he joined her once again. There was no hesitation on his part, his hands bracing the support while he lowered himself, his left joining tightly with her right as they prayed in their own manner which Anna assured him her God approved of.
Before she closed her eyes to offer up her devotion the smile that graced her face and that was aimed towards him was breathtaking, lifting his heart completely. With the wonder of that in his mind and the feeling of significance that grew stronger as they remained in that holy place, the notion he considered from time to time struck him plainer and with a greater image than it ever had before.
They made the walk home via the village underneath skies wide and open. Anna hooked her arm through his, staring up at the faint wisps of clouds and the white and pink blossoms hanging from the trees, while John followed her gaze intently. She made the suggestion to go into the butchers and get them something special for dinner. John responded honestly when he said that anything they had would be special. He couldn't help but be proud and delighted in equal measure with the smirk she offered him that soon turned into a full-blown grin, and played along by letting out a yelp when she tapped him lightly on the arm, his chuckling in melody with her sweet laughter.
The roast leg of lamb was eaten quickly, they had washed and dried the dishes between them – Anna giggling as she decided to flick some of the water from the bowl against his shirt, John laughing too as he ducked from her aim – and now they were both reclining against the couch, her head half-pillowed beneath his shoulder. She had set about dusting and trying to rearrange some items on the mantelpiece, seemingly determined to get the task done that night. While he loved to regard her taking pride in their home, he didn't want to think that she needed to make the time up for them being away from the big house that afternoon. With a gentle tone and a look deep in his eyes that did more of the pleading, John persuaded her to leave off and sit down with him instead. After less than a few minutes she relented, shrugging off the apron and draping it over the arm of the chair opposite. He sighed audibly to feel her fit her frame against his, his hand instinctively smoothing down her side and claiming her waist softly. He loved the little sound of happiness she made as she got herself comfortable, the most elegant note in the finest symphony.
John was so relaxed that he could have fallen asleep there and then, his eyelids drooping slowly closed as he was warm, content and with the woman that he loved more than anything by his side. Then his senses were stirred by the drape of her fingertips up and down his torso, lingering on the small wet spots that dotted here and there upon his shirt. His lips twitched before his eyes opened again, revealing his amusement and the fact that Anna knew precisely where he was ticklish. He remembered exactly when she had happened upon that discovery not too long after they were first here, her hovering over with eyes that sparkled while he lay against the pillow, revealing his body and soul to her. A hand stroked back her hair and landed on her shoulder while hers raked over him, unable to suppress his gasps and satisfied sighs as Anna decided to trail her lips over his bare chest instead. Ever the explorer, his wonderful wife. Though the memory could never be too much, he wanted the here and now.
Her bright blue eyes were the first things he saw, followed by the adorable scrunch of her nose and her captivating smile. She looked different at the close of the day – somehow less tired than she was in the morning, pleased with her accomplishments and not too caring of her appearance – but at whatever hour, she was always more beautiful than at the previous one that had passed. John found himself overwhelmed, filled with pride and such deep affection, which was more than given back in the way that she stared up at him as if he was the most remarkable man living. He could never claim to be but if he was somehow and someday awarded the title it was only due to the love she gave him.
He could think of no better time to say what had been on his mind since before they had left the church.
"What would you think to the idea of us getting married again?"
John bit back a grin as Anna rose up a little, looking at him as if he had gone half-mad. Yet there remained a distinct light in her eyes, not dissimilar from one he remembered sparking so many years ago.
"Is that even possible?" came her slightly puzzled but joyful reply.
"Well, I suppose it would be more of a vow renewal, strictly speaking," he responded thoughtfully, unable to take the smile from his face at the way she was wondering, her gaze roaming his features over and again. "I haven't enquired with the vicar as of yet, I only really thought of it properly today. But I can't see that there would be any restrictions. I am technically a widower as opposed to a divorced man, and since my name has been cleared of any blackness against it, there should be no reason why a ceremony can't take place in church."
He came to the conclusion that even if it could not be done officially it would not matter given that they were already husband and wife. A blessing would do just as well, technicalities were not of importance. The only concern he had was for the woman before him, who deserved all the riches of the earth though she would never ask or indeed wish for them.
Though much had passed between them, a thread of worry was still in John's mind. He was sure that Anna knew that this wasn't about proving anything or making anything new between them, trying to absolve the past – for all that had happened so much of their past was cherished, and he had no intention of consigning it away. Any moment he expected her to ask him whatever would it be for, and he racked his brain to think of an answer that would prove to be suitable. The only one that kept coming back to his mind was the truest matter of it.
Because I love you.
Anna made no sort of questioning and only stayed smiling at him, her initial disbelief having ebbed away and replaced by what appeared to John to be unabashed glee.
"I know how much being in church means to you," he offered all the same, believing he had to say more regardless. "And I can only imagine what your parents would have thought of me if they'd known I hadn't married you there."
"Well, you made an honest woman out of me," she smiled a little impishly, no doubt recalling how she was willing to go against that, "and I dare say that's all they could have asked for."
From all that she had told him in letters while he had spent such a long while away from her and later in the comfort of their own home, Anna's family life had thankfully been happier than his own, at least for a good while. Her father died when she was relatively young, leaving her mother to raise the children on her own with some support from a great aunt. She had three siblings, two sisters who perished young of scarlet fever and a brother who died in what was supposedly the 'Great War', on whose passing she had sobbed her heart out in his embrace in the courtyard. Even before they were married he remembered her wide grin as she told him that their own family would be all the more blessed for the tragedies they had both faced.
He reached a hand up to cup her face, smoothing her hair and still marvelling at how his palm almost covered her.
"I want to make you happy," he said softly and yet with more emotion than he'd ever confessed anything.
She leant her small frame forward to place a kiss on his cheek, and he revelled in the warmth of her lips against his skin for a long time after.
"Anything you do makes me happy," she countered, laughing lightly as she rubbed her thumb against his other cheek. "It's the little moments in our life that I hold the most dear. Waking up with you every morning, coming home with you at night. I wanted a marriage more than I wanted a wedding, although that day was the most wonderful of my life."
John wouldn't have argued with that. There was no doubt it had been the culmination of their love that had burned for so long and grew even stronger in all that time. They both meant it with the entirety of their hearts when they pledged their vows, but he only wished it hadn't been so rushed or made into a secret. At the time it was necessary, and in truth neither of them could have waited much longer, but he sometimes wondered how it would have been if he had been able to go to the proper lengths.
As was usual for him, he entered into a state of vague anxiety, worrying that he had said the wrong thing in bringing it up in the first place. He saw Anna's face fall a little as he shifted in his seat, reaching for the newspaper to feel less awkward.
"It's fine," he assured, "it was just a suggestion."
He was unable to express his surprise as in the next second Anna crashed her lips to his, clinging onto the back of his neck and firmly kissing away the frown that lined his face. Her cheeks were glowing when she pulled away, lips reddened from her efforts.
"Silly beggar," she whispered, before her voice grew louder, her smile captured within it. "You know that I would marry you this moment, even if I am already your wife." The delight was clear striking up about him as she exclaimed happily. "I could think of nothing better than doing it all over again."
Anna linked both of her arms around his as she snuggled down against him, and in that perfect moment John was very glad that he'd learnt to be a little more forthcoming.
"Well, I can't say that I have heard of anything like this before," Lord Grantham was kind enough not to point out the obvious differences in their status at that moment in time, or indeed ever at all. A small smile lifted his lips as he continued, "but then we've never had a pair of married servants in the house before, either. Of course you have my utmost blessing, Bates."
John bowed his head in gratitude as he worked at fastening his Lordship's cuffs.
"Thank you, m'lord. I understand that it must seem rather strange but I feel that it is only right, now that we have the faculties to do so. Really, it is something I have wanted to investigate for some time. Not for my sake, but Anna's."
Though their relationship was a good one, a bond brought about after years of trust in the most extreme of situations, it always felt slightly uncomfortable to John to be discussing such personal matters with his Lordship. They didn't ever say too much in the way of things, Lord Grantham usually moving along the conversation before it strayed too far. However it had been inevitable in the recent years for both of them that joys as well as sorrows could not be completely hidden and John was grateful that he could relieve at least some of his burden, even if not everything was explicitly stated. He had never revealed the extent of his wife's ordeal to his employer, prizing Anna's confidence before all else, but the words that had been uttered by Lord Grantham in the time of his greatest turmoil remained with him. There would always be a source of support in the form of his superior, no matter how unconventional it may have seemed, and for that John could bear a bit of awkwardness amidst dressing every now and again.
"As chaps, we must prize the wishes of our beloved all else. God only knows that most of my life since I married her has been dedicated entirely to her Ladyship. Learning peculiar American ways that my mother is still aghast at. I fear it's a war I shall never win."
John let out a polite chuckle as he ran the brush over Lord Grantham's shoulder blades. "I'm certain you're doing quite well, m'lord."
"You offer me too much credit, Bates. But I am relieved that someone does."
A silence fell between the two men as John made the final adjustments to his Lordship's attire and then turned to tidy away the other items. It wasn't particularly unusual for their conversations to go this way as the valet worked methodically, but not everything had been disclosed.
"Is there anything else you wish to say, Bates?" Lord Grantham enquired with a careful tone. "I don't like to imagine you'll be preoccupied all day long."
John pursed his lips as he endeavoured to stand up straighter, folding the nightclothes over his arm.
"Nothing that I should trouble you with, m'lord. Probably nothing that I should fret over either." And yet he would, unable to bring his brooding to a halt, especially when it concerned his greatest misgivings and deepest regrets. "She may tell me otherwise, but quite often I feel that I have not been the best husband to Anna. Certainly not of the calibre she merits."
Though he had come to accept that perhaps he was deserving of her and her love, John could never shake the feeling that no matter how hard he tried his inherent faults meant that he would never be what Anna truly deserved. He had made her endure so much trouble and agony of his own doing, and most mournfully, had not been able to prevent what was out of his hands – the very worst pain that she had suffered – from occurring. Such a thing as this ceremony would only be the smallest drop in the ocean, the slightest bit of penance.
He tried his best to remain stoic in his expression, feeling that it was quite inappropriate for his Lordship to know the extent of his self-imposed mental torment.
"I have failed her so much throughout our life together, and I fear I will continue to do so."
His eyes lifted from their aimless descent to be met with a look from his Lordship that was almost incredulous, though his words were safer.
"I can't imagine that would ever be the case. Forgive me if I speak out of turn, Bates, but I do believe that you are a God to Anna. She worships the ground that you walk upon." John coloured slightly at this grand admission. "The way is never smooth, and certainly not for those who know how to fight most of all. But we can only be sure that we endure, in the eyes of those who love us enduringly."
After dismissing such pearls of wisdom Lord Grantham looked suitably alarmed, fiddling with his collar and it seemed fighting for air. John smirked to himself before he did his duty, loosening and then fixing the garment back in place.
"Thank you for your kindness, m'lord."
His employer – and by some lengths, his friend – had been very kind indeed. As their conversation rounded off, Lord Grantham offered the day of the ceremony off to all of the downstairs staff, the use of the house for a small celebration afterwards and even a week's leave to John and Anna to enjoy a honeymoon that was long belated. John could only imagine how surprised and delighted Anna would be when he told her afterwards, although he suspected she would be pleased most of all that he had conducted things the right way around this time by telling his Lordship of their plans second. She still from time to time teased him about his unconventional proposal, making him fluster even though he knew it was all in jest. Then he had only acted to show how serious he was, that he would not do the least thing to risk her reputation and to make sure that she knew she was placed higher than all else in the world to him. Now, and for always, that was truer than anything.
Anna made her way down the corridor back into the servants' quarters, more than pleased with Lady Mary's reaction to the news. She wasn't sure why she might have expected that her mistress would have been anything but overjoyed for her and Mr Bates after all that both women had weathered. Though she was not at the stage of considering another set of nuptials herself, things had smoothed out considerably for Lady Mary in the past year or so. Rather to everyone's surprise and perhaps her own too she had realised the depth of her feelings for Mr Napier, a lifelong friendship coming to fruition in the form of something more. Their courtship was continuing at an easy pace, not interfering with the increased responsibilities Lady Mary had in overseeing the running of the house and the surrounding estates. Though it was none of her business really, Anna was very pleased with the choice that had been made; Mr Napier was a kind and courteous man who clearly made Lady Mary happy in the devotion he paid to her and Master George. If her mistress was happy it contributed to her own wellbeing too, and a smile eased onto her face as she thought of the terrible storms they had both faced of late and how, largely, they had each emerged on the other side, inevitably and unavoidably changed but doing much more than mere bearing up.
Before Anna had departed from the room Lady Mary had expressed her wish to be at the church if at all able, confident that she had learnt enough to be able to look after herself for that morning. Such a gesture made Anna's already lightened heart lift further and she said that indeed she would like that very much, recalling how she had looked on proudly when her mistress had been a bride, consumed with thoughts of how she would stop at nothing to free her husband, ensuring justice would be done.
She had persevered against the odds and rejoiced in the moment he had been in her arms once more, never to leave again. They had built a wonderful life since, with so much happiness that she could not fathom at times, and Anna only knew there was so much more to come, each day brighter than the last.
Anna's gaze raised as she came to the entrance of the servants' hall and she was pleased to see the reliable figure there, standing like one of the house's most treasured ornaments but poised in a rare moment of peace. Now was as good an opportunity as any to ask her request.
"Mrs Hughes, may I have a word with you?"
The housekeeper's face lighted naturally on hearing the younger lady's maid's tone. "Of course. I have a few moments, let's go to my room and take the weight from our feet."
Despite saying that, both women remained standing as the door to the little snug was closed behind them.
"Not long to go now," Mrs Hughes enquired cheerfully with her own sense of anticipation.
"Not at all," Anna replied, "just a little over two weeks."
"You and Mr Bates must be very excited."
Anna felt herself blush as she considered that she may have been even more excited now than she had for the first time, though she wasn't quite sure given how momentous the day of their union had been.
"Yes, we're both looking forward to it." She fondly caressed the skin around the golden band on her hand as she spoke, the possession she prized the most on earth. "The arrangements have all been made. Well, that is all but one."
She could not restrain the beam as she looked at Mrs Hughes, who was waiting patiently to hear whatever it was Anna had to say. Of course the housekeeper had been the first person she had informed; she felt it was only her duty after everything Mrs Hughes had done for her throughout all the years she had been at Downton. The joy the older woman had expressed had been rather overwhelming, and there had been a few tears shed, at least this time around of the happy kind. Mrs Hughes had no daughters of her own to witness such an event, and indeed she had been so much like a mother to Anna that it was not at all strange to say. Indeed it made Anna even happier to be able to ask, wanting the housekeeper to play an even greater part in proceedings.
"Mr Bates and I would like it very much if you would give a reading, just before we say our vows again. Of course, you can choose whatever you like, we both trust you implicitly."
The older woman brought a hand to her mouth, tears threatening to fall from her eyes once more.
"Oh, my girl, it would be my honour," she said delightedly, and Anna burst into a grin. "Though I'm no good at picking these things. I'd best consult Mr Carson, he has a far better idea than I do." Anna watched as Mrs Hughes clasped her hands together, and then walked the little distance to take up her own, giving them a little squeeze. "It would be the greatest thing I've ever done, to bless you both in such a way."
Anna nodded her thanks, feeling quite overwhelmed herself and letting out a few sighs of laughter. Though they both had things to be getting on with, she made no effort to move after Mrs Hughes had released her gentle grasp. Of course the housekeeper noticed the hesitation from the younger woman and eyed her curiously. She hardly had to ask, always aware when something was bothering Anna.
"Anna, what is it? If you have any misgivings, you know they won't go any further, if that's what you wish," Mrs Hughes asked softly.
She shook her head from side to side instinctively. It was the furthest thing from her mind to even think about calling a halt to proceedings, the very thought causing her insides to sink. She hated to acknowledge such feelings, especially when she was in such a cheerful state otherwise, but at the same time she realised it did no good to pretend they did not exist.
"It's something of nothing, and I don't know why I'm dwelling on it," Anna began, dropping her gaze for a few moments as she brought forth her courage. She took a steadying breath before carrying on, looking the housekeeper in her ever kind eyes once more. "I don't care what some people may think of our plans, and I know that God doesn't judge me."
She stumbled on her words, and offered a tight smile to Mrs Hughes when she came forward again, placing a hand on Anna's arm.
"But I wonder how it will be when the day comes, and I'm standing at that altar. I suppose I'm a little worried," she fiddled with her hands, weaving fingers together, "that I won't feel worthy."
Seeing Mrs Hughes's face nearly crumble before her caused Anna's heart to fracture a little. She had been so wonderful to her, and she hated to think that she was placing another burden upon her sturdy shoulders, albeit a fleeting one.
The older woman took a few moments before she smoothed her hand down Anna's arm.
"Mr Bates has your best interests at heart, I dare say he holds them well above his own. He would never do anything without considering what it would mean to you."
"I know my husband, Mrs Hughes."
The housekeeper smiled at Anna's confident words and her renewed demeanour.
"Then I would not worry," her tone was both lightly jovial and instantly reassuring to Anna. "Once you lay eyes upon him there won't be room for any other thought in your head other than the way he is looking at you as though you are the most precious thing in the world."
There was a certain emphasis Mrs Hughes placed on the last half of her sentence that revealed much of her own feelings towards the young woman who was once her charge. She smiled through the mist clouding her eyes to regard Anna, so brave and resolute throughout it all. Just the way she would have wished any child of hers to have turned out.
"I am certain of it when I say there are no two people who are more in love than you and Mr Bates are, and that makes you both worthy, indeed. Much more than that."
Anna smiled widely and graciously, uttering her silent thanks before she went to leave the room, eager to spend some time with John before they were required prior to dinner. She laughed lightly to herself as Mrs Hughes muttered something about finding time to go to the library. Somehow, it was already top on the list of her priorities.
The day arrived quickly, and Anna's stomach teemed with butterflies before she awoke to sun beating at the curtains of their bedroom. She shifted lightly, happy to still have been met with her husband's warm weight by her side – usually, he was up long before she was, and at the very least alert, a lighter sleeper than her. The sound of the soft huffing of his breath contented her and the sight of his dishevelled hair upon his forehead thrilled her, and she couldn't quite believe that this amazing man was hers. Being careful as she slipped out of the bed she pressed an angel's kiss to his lips, smiled as she traced a finger at his chin. Already she was looking forward to being back here, with none in the world to bother them.
They were together in the hall long enough to have breakfast, sharing knowing smiles and whispers, before Mrs Patmore pointed out that really they should be kept separate until they were at the church. Mr Carson gave an exasperated roll of his eyes, which was soon tempered by Mrs Hughes's fond glare towards him. The butler marched John off to the male half of the quarters, while Anna stayed downstairs with the female staff, many of whom were already fit to bursting with excitement at the prospect of an almost entire day free thanks to the couple. It was not without fond gazes and a matched mouthing of 'I love you' that they departed from one another.
Madge had happily presented Anna with a small bouquet of flowers that had been made up by the youngest housemaids, and she held the token in her hands as she sat at the table, the hall empty except for her and Miss Baxter who had volunteered to put up her hair. A sorrowful smile sparked as she remembered Daisy sitting in the very same place where she was those years ago, and then it was her ensuring that the young girl would look as pretty as possible. Miss Baxter had been kind enough already in her assistance, having worked on the dress Anna was now wearing in her spare time. The ivory garment was a hand down from Lady Mary and pretty enough as it was, understated but elegant. It had needed taking up to accommodate Anna's petite stature and Miss Baxter said that it would be quicker to use her sewing machine for the task. Besides, there was no reason why the bride should alter her own dress. Expecting nothing else than what needed to be done, Anna was quite astounded when she was presented with it that same morning, marvelling at how Miss Baxter had skilfully added the lace sleeves and also fixed some lace to the bodice. It was as if the dress had been bought for her as new.
Fingers left her crown and the sound of heels could be heard quietly clicking against the floor as the older lady's maid took a step back.
"Would you like to take a look, Mrs Bates?"
Anna accepted the small mirror that was handed to her, touching her hands lightly to the waves that Miss Baxter had styled.
"It's beautiful. Thank you so much."
Miss Baxter took the compliment quietly, collecting up the spare pins from the table. Her nature was rather reserved anyway, and Anna wondered whether that was the reason why she liked her so much. She had come out of her shell much more though, largely thanks to the friendship that she had struck up with Mr Molesley, which Anna thought very sweet indeed. Though she was sure the same kind of companionship was at the heart of it, it also seemed to move in a different nature to that of her and John's courtship. Despite her enthusiastic involvement in Anna's preparations for the ceremony Miss Baxter was not as talkative about it as the rest of the staff. She smiled along genuinely, more so when good wishes for the couple were made rather than over any specific details of the day, but aside from that she was happy to let other people be the ones to ask questions or make comments.
It was only when Anna stood, gathering her dress carefully to ensure it didn't snag against any stray splinters, that Miss Baxter had said anything.
"I hope that it all goes well for you today. You've both been so kind to me since I came here, and I think it only speaks to what good people you are. You're very generous, Mrs Bates, and Mr Bates is a very good man."
Anna's smile said more for her than she could possibly answer in kind.
"Thank you, Miss Baxter, and I have to say that I quite agree in respect to Mr Bates." A glow brushed against her collarbone as she considered all the perfect qualities of her husband. "He's not the only one. Mr Molesley is very admirable too." Anna bit her lip smiling slightly, not sure whether to put voice to her thoughts. "I don't suppose you might ever…"
Miss Baxter's blush was tempered by the shadows that crossed her eyes momentarily, a type that was not quite the same as her own but which Anna recognised all the same.
"It's not for everyone," the other lady's maid said quietly, and Anna nodded before she looked away for a moment, hoping she had not done too much to unsettle or embarrass the quiet and kind woman. "But I do appreciate everything that Mr Molesley has shown me is possible."
The addition brightened the atmosphere, and her gaze was lifted when Miss Baxter placed the momentarily forgotten bouquet into her hands, gracing Anna with a sincere smile.
"I'm certain you don't need it, but I really do wish you all the happiness in the world."
She might not have had her relatives as decided by birth any longer, but Anna knew that she was certainly blessed to have such a family as Downton had provided to her, and she was very pleased indeed that they would all be able to join her and John as they affirmed their love once more.
The church was hardly full, a few rows filled with familiar faces, some neighbours from the nearby cottages as well as a couple of villagers who had stopped by for their regular prayers. Music from the organ drifted around, and somewhere in his mind John heard it as he stood waiting with the vicar. He was relieved that he didn't feel like a fraud, the only matter surging through his head imagining in so many different but equally enchanting ways just how his wife would look, dressed in what he was sure would be the finery that she didn't need to appear marvellous but which befitted her perfectly. Already he longed to hold her hand within his, taste her soft lips, bring his heart back to hers where it would always belong.
Feeling the sudden need to do so he edged his view around, and though the music surely continued to play for everyone else, it ceased for him the moment he took sight of Anna gliding towards him. John held back tears as he wondered once again what on earth he had done to deserve her, this goddess who had captured his heart and soul. He was certain that the world had never seen a bigger fool as the way he looked now, the smile that stretched across his face making his cheeks hurt, but he did not care one bit.
A crowd of faces were smiling out fondly at her from the pews, but they passed Anna by completely as she made her way down the aisle. All she was aware of – all that she ever wanted to be aware of for the rest of eternity – was the man whom she was lucky enough to already call her husband, her John waiting for her. He stood so tall and proud, her heart fluttering wildly in her chest as she saw how handsome he looked and her eyes lighting when they connected with his. They did not need to speak words to know that the bond they shared was everlasting, it was all in the way they gazed upon one another as if nobody else in the world existed. In one another they had found their soulmate, supporter, lover, best friend. They had found their home.
The ceremony passed with many smiles and tears from the congregation. It had hardly been in doubt since the years had gone by but now the depth of the love between the two was clear for all to see. Mrs Hughes received hearty applause as she recited the beautiful words she had chosen, which had caused Anna to weep with sheer emotion. She could do nothing but smile at John as once again they repeated their vows, pouring themselves into every promise which held such greater meaning now. His hands held hers throughout, his thumb stroking soothingly against her skin. A ray of light teemed from the heavens as their lips met, sealing everything that was between them anew.
Their hands remained entwined on the journey back to the Abbey, John's heart no happier than when he perceived the sound of Anna's giggles, quietened for moments while they indulged in quick, sweet kisses. He admired the look of surprise on her face and the way she broke out into the brightest grin when she discovered the little display that had been set up on the lawn outside the great house, the fine summer weather being taken advantage of. Walking up hand in hand, they laughed to see Miss Sybbie running as fast as her little legs would carry her, a hail of petals leaving her balled hands. Master George toddled behind his cousin, holding his own basket to him rather shyly, yet he still had a keen smile for Anna, who ducked down towards him and patted his small hand with hers, John standing back proudly and feeling as though he would burst from the sight. Behind both children Lord and Lady Grantham were waiting, greeting the couple with exclamations. Lord Grantham shook John firmly by the hand, speaking enough good wishes to last several lifetimes.
Wine flowed in the sunshine, Anna having a small glass while John stuck to water. The other servants were a little more eager to celebrate on behalf of the couple and did their share of revelling with Mr Carson keeping a close eye out. Still, even he managed to loosen up a little as the afternoon went on.
Out of the sight of the others, Anna and John managed to sneak away underneath the shade of a beech tree. John was amused to notice that his wife had caught the sun on her face, the tip of her nose a little pink and her faint freckles more apparent underneath her eyes. She smiled up at him as he caressed her cheek, and in this moment he felt like he were a king to have her adoration as well as her love so close to him.
"Well, Mrs Bates," he uttered roughly, causing them both to chuckle as they revelled in a private memory, "you are so once again."
She looked so breathtaking as she beamed, it was all he could do to keep from kissing her forever.
"I just hope you don't regret it."
Anna knew he was playing, but still she had to counter his words firmly, yet with the smile she couldn't remove covering her face.
"Never. No matter what comes." She wasn't sure what else life could hurl at them, but on this wonderful day it did not concern her. When she had her husband by her side and she was looking into his eyes, she could never be troubled. Taking up his hand, she ran her fingertips over his roughened skin before laying a kiss into his palm. "I couldn't ever regret becoming the person God intended me to be."
John smiled, adoring his wife more than ever in her strength and beauty. He almost lifted her from the ground and delighted in another sweet laugh that escaped her lips, before he melded them to his own, a kiss truly made for husband to gift wife.
Utterly contented, Anna sighed against John's chest as she traced the light upon the ceiling, the evening still light enough that the sun as yet had not fully set. She moved her cheek slightly and couldn't refrain from giggling as the soft hair tickled against her skin. John chortled too, his hand moving soothingly through the strands of her tresses. They had rediscovered the full extent of their intimacy in nights previous with gentle, considerate touches and gradually heating kisses that had made her body sing a melody that it hadn't forgotten after all. Tonight it had been more than enough for them to hold one another, kisses pressed as they cuddled close, bodies warmed by each other where arms couldn't be separated.
In between embraces and passionate kisses that lingered, they had talked softly, the sound of each other's voice a perfect comfort and the aligning beats of their hearts a rhythm that couldn't ever be denied. Silence was just as good too, words never needing to be said when they more often than not could tell what the other was thinking by a mere look.
John's palm wandered to the curve of Anna's shoulder, his most perfect bliss coming from the way he could happily admire the flawlessness of his wife before him. The way she snuggled her arms closer about him told him exactly how she felt, but he didn't think he would ever tire of hearing it.
"Are you happy, my love? Has today been all you hoped?"
She placed her hand over his chest as he looked at her not too expectantly and his heart thumped more insistently with just the graze of her fingertips.
"I am very, most inordinately happy, Mr Bates." Anna smirked, pleased with herself watching John's face contort as she raked her fingers through the thatch upon his chest, dotting a few lazy kisses upon his skin. "This day has been perfect, all I could ask for and more. I'm lucky to have a husband who would do anything and everything I desired."
"Always," John breathed, angling his head so he could meet Anna in a slow, deep kiss.
She rested her head against him, hoping this night could stretch on forever. "It was lovely to be in church with everyone. Although I wouldn't have much cared if it couldn't have happened. I would have been just as happy marrying you in the middle of a rainstorm, or in the dark with only the stars to shed a bit of light on our faces."
"We are in Yorkshire," John reminded her as he wrapped his arms tighter about her, "I'm quite certain both of those instances could be easily arranged."
They laughed lightly in synchronisation, and while they remained totally occupied with her, John's thoughts began to drift too. This county would always be held dear to his heart, being the birthplace and home of the most dear person in his life, but sometimes he did ponder what their life may be like somewhere else, perhaps a place that neither of them had been before. He knew that wherever he was with Anna would be like the home he had always known. She seemed perfectly content to remain in Downton and so he was reluctant to mention anything otherwise, never wanting to disturb the peace she had fallen into once more. Their dream of a hotel could wait a few years, it probably wouldn't hurt to let a bit more money build up.
"John?" Her sweet voice punctured his thoughts, and he was eager to catch the perfect blue of her eyes.
"Yes, my darling?"
He felt Anna shift upon him, and soothed his hand over her arm as she sat herself up, the sheet draping away from her slightly.
"I was just thinking…and I suppose I have been for a little while, now."
In rare moments Anna appeared quite bashful as she turned something over in her mind, and this was one of them. John worried a little but more than anything was overtook with affection for the look on her face. Her palm braced him once more as she worked up her courage, seeming to draw it from him. She smiled as he kissed the back of her hand tenderly.
"I know that this doesn't change anything, at least not in most ways," she sighed softly. "But in some ways, I rather hope it would."
John looked a touch bewildered as he couldn't quite figure out what she was trying to say. Before he could fret any longer she came out with it, happily faster than he was prone to do in his wonderings.
"I think perhaps it's time for a new beginning, for us." She smiled as she grew more confident and excited, her fingertips moving swiftly across him. "We don't need to go straight away, but we can give Lord Grantham and Lady Mary, as well as Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, notice that we'd like to start looking for prospects elsewhere. There's enough money, but we can save some more working another year or so. Or perhaps, if we find something, we could even leave sooner."
He had to smile freely at the plan his wife had worked out, and had not the slightest bit of argument about it.
"I'd like that," John said, stroking his hand at Anna's cheek. "But only if you are completely sure that it is what you would like, too."
The grin she gave him was enough answer on its own.
"I can think of nothing that I would like more," Anna answered with complete conviction and unrivalled happiness. "I know that I'm ready for it now. For the next chapter of our life to begin."
The kisses that came next were a good opening to it, and with their minds made up and their hearts yearning for the same thing, both Anna and John were assured that whatever was to come for them, it would most certainly be for the better.