"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear."
--- H.P. Lovecraft
The question came as they nursed coffee around the Crawleys’ dining table.
“Flying.” Joe immediately announced. “Flew to Lanzarote once. Spent the whole time worrying I was going to die.”
“You know statistically you’re more likely to be killed crossing the road than you are in an air crash, don’t you Molesley?”
“Don’t say that, Rob.” John grinned. “He’ll never leave the house again.”
Something hard knocked into his ankle under the table. He twitched his lip apologetically at Anna as she glared at him over her mug.
“So what are you afraid of, Bates?” Cora asked with a smirk.
Five pairs of eyes immediately turned on him. John suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He knew what was coming.
Flying didn’t bother him, nor did spiders. Hours of exploring his mother’s attics as a boy meant that cramped spaces weren’t an issue – which was fortunate, as most spaces were cramped when you were six foot two – and while he wasn’t an animal devotee like Robert, he couldn’t think of any that actively made him uncomfortable. There was only one conclusion to be drawn.
“Nothing,” he said.
Robert and Joe snorted.
“Pull the other one, Bates.”
“But you must be scared of something, surely.” Phyllis said incredulously.
“Public speaking.” Joe cut in. “You said at the last staff meeting you didn’t like it.”
“You can dislike something without being scared of it, Joe.“
Robert waved dismissively. “No, we served abroad, we saw snakes all the time.”
“And I spent most of my evenings trying to get them away from your tent,” John added with a grin.
“I’ve already owned up to my weaknesses, Bates, don’t try and change the subject.”
“I’m not - “
There was a loud clattering from the doorway and something small and hairy lauched itself across the room at Robert with a bloodcurdling scream. He grunted as it pulled the mask off, revealing a flushed, bright-eyed George.
“Got you, Donk!” He yelled, dissolving into peals of laughter.
“You certainly did,” Robert gasped, massaging his ribs where his grandson’s head had made contact. “What are you meant to be?”
“A werewolf,” George said proudly. To prove it, he let out a remarkably realistic howl and shot off into the kitchen.
“You’ve never managed to shake, Donk, have you?” Anna giggled.
“I think it’s cute,” Sybil shouted from the hall.
“Of course you do,” Robert grumbled, before his mood brightened considerably at the sight of his granddaughter. “Hello, Sybbie darling. Come and show your old Donk what you’ve got.”
Sybbie skipped over to them and clambered onto Robert’s knee, all glitter and fairy wings. From the kitchen, George and Mary were engaged in a spirited debate about whether or not it was bathtime.
“We should probably make a move,” Phyllis said. “But thanks so much for tonight Cora. It’s been lovely. Are you sure you don’t want us to help with the dishes?”
“Not at all.” Cora said warmly as she embraced them. “Robert and Bates are more than capable.”
“I thought I was under doctor’s orders not to do anything to strenuous?” Robert said, as Sybbie scampered off.
“Come on, Rob. Or are you scared of hard work as well as snakes?”
He thought he heard Robert mutter something about “giving him bloody snakes in a minute” as he reached for his cane.
“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”
--- Eric Hoffer
“Are you two still arguing?” Cora said as she wandered into the kitchen some time later with Anna, amusement on her face and empty coffee mugs in her hands.
“I just think it’s completely ridiculous.” Robert ignored her, sending bubbles everywhere as he gestured. “You can’t tell me you’d walk through a dark house and not for the slightest second be wary that someone was going to jump out.”
“You forget I was trained in the army, Rob.” John said cheerfully. “If someone jumps on me in the dark I promise you I won't be the one screaming.”
“Anna,” Robert whined. “Help me out here. I know he’s your boyfriend - ”
“I’m younger than you!”
“ - But you can’t let this stand. There must be something he’s afraid of.”
Anna had turned to put the leftover chicken in the fridge, but John saw the flush at the back of her neck. They’d had a similar conversation the previous morning until Anna had slyly accused him of being scared of doing several incredibly risque things to her.
He'd felt obliged to prove her wrong. Which he had. Enthusiastically.
“Not that I know of,” she said casually. John smirked, and immediately busied himself with the tea towel when Robert look at him suspiciously.
“I’ll find something, Bates.” He said. “One day when you least expect it, I’m going to scare you out of your wits.”
“You could always cook me dinner,” John grinned. “I’ve seen some of your efforts, mate, they’re definitely cutting it fine.”
Robert threw the dish brush at him.
“Perhaps by now I'd come far enough that I had the guts to be afraid.”
They agreed a truce, more because of the late hour than Robert’s willingness to concede. He bid them goodbye with all manner of threats, most of which left John’s eyebrows nestled somewhere in his hairline while Anna giggled.
“So,” she said as they closed the front gate behind them. “You're really not scared of anything.”
John rolled his eyes.
“I just find it hard to believe, that's all!”
“How long have we been together?”
“Two years.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “There must be something that’s frightened you in the past.”
“My marriage,” John said solemnly. Anna nudged him again, slightly harder, and he yelped. “No, in all seriousness, being in the army makes you pretty resilient to everything.”
“You weren't even scared when you were in a war zone?”
He shrugged. “What's the worst that could happen? I’ve been shot. I know what it’s like to feel like your life is hanging in the balance and completely in the hands of someone else.”
“Yes but - weren’t you afraid you were going to die?” Anna asked in a small voice.
John stopped and looked at her in surprise. They rarely spoke about his time in the forces, his reluctance to relive it marrying perfectly with her distress at imagining him in danger. It might have been years before he met her, back when he was married and not crippled, but he knew she pictured him in scenes from news reports and broadsheet front pages.
He hoped beyond all hope she never found out how much worse it was.
“Not really,” he sighed. “I think on the whole people are more afraid of being about to die than they are about dying itself. You make peace with a lot of things very quickly when you think your number’s up.”
Anna suddenly threw himself into his arms and squeezed the breath out of him. He rested his chin on top of her head and held her close.
“You wonder why I never get caught up in the Halloween hype.” He said cheerfully. “I'm just sorry I have to be such a downer.”
“Never,” Anna said, looking up to meet his eyes. “I’m lucky I’ve got such a big, brave man to protect me.”
“Always,” he murmured as their lips met.
Cat calls and wolf-whistles floated over to them from a gaggle of teenage trick-or-treaters, but he elected to ignore them. It was worth it when he felt Anna’s perfect, perfect tongue slip into his mouth.
She released him unexpectedly and giggled when he groaned, turning his eyes skyward.
“There’s something scaring me right now.” She said in a breathy voice. “I wonder if you can help me.”
“If I can, I will.”
“You see, Mr. Bates, I’m absolutely terrified that if we don’t get home in the next few minutes I’m going to have to strip off and have my way with you right here in the street.”
John felt his jaw slacken. Christ.
“Well,” he said as levelly as he could, grabbing her by the hand. “We can’t have that.”
“Find out what you're afraid of and go live there.”
--- Chuck Palahniuk
As it happened, they didn’t get further than the sofa. John was sure his knee wouldn’t thank him for it in the morning – he’d forced it into some rather interesting positions – but he found it difficult to care when Anna reappeared in her dressing gown, hair rumpled and expression soft. He’d stretched to pulling his jeans back on and he was sure he heard her breath catch as she saw him sprawled, shirtless and satisfied, on the couch.
“There’s a really terrible horror movie on in a few minutes,” he said, waggling the remote. “I’ll even cuddle you if you get scared.”
“Go on then.” She said. “I’ll make us a cup of tea.”
John grinned and gave her a cheeky slap on the backside as she walked round him to the kitchen.
The news was finishing up as he switched on the TV, and he let his attention drift as the headlines rolled. Usual miserable stuff. Arguing politicians. Underfunded NHS. Yet another royal wedding. A policeman shot in the line of duty in Leicester, wife and son weeping as they laid a bouquet in the street. He felt a pang in his chest. As a soldier, it wasn't an unfamiliar sight.
He’d always felt a selfish stab of relief that Vera didn’t seem to care if he was around or not his first couple of deployments. He'd only had to care about himself, knowing that she would be happy with his Army pension and compensation if he was killed in action. His knee had put paid to his forces career, but he wondered what it would be like, being in a combat zone and knowing that he had someone to think about. Someone he loved far, far more than he had ever loved himself.
He jumped as Anna put his mug and the packet of biscuits on the table.
“John? What’s wrong?”
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
Anna just raised an eyebrow at him and went back for her own tea.
If the shoe was on the other foot, he wondered, what would he do? Having to deal with the fact that he’d never see her again. Putting flowers down where she'd died.
The sudden clench in his gut was so intense he almost doubled over.
His life would be over if Anna's ever was. The man John Bates was began and ended with her. He'd known it from the first time she'd slipped her warm little hand into his, when he’d just begun to resign himself to the fact that his life was going to be miserably loving her from a distance.
They lived together. They shared the same bed, the same life, the same dreams. But suddenly, with an intensity that knocked him for six, he wanted more. He needed more.
“John, do you want - “
“Marry me, Anna.” He shouted hoarsely.
There was a loud crash, followed by absolute silence.
Half dazed, he walked into the kitchen to find her standing in the remnants of her mug.
“What did you say?”
He faltered, running a hand through his hair.
“John.” She said. “Is this...did you just propose?”
“If that's what you want to call it.”
Anna gawped at him for a second, and then dragged a chair out from under the table and collapsed into it.
“I mean I haven’t got a ring or anything, I didn’t plan on doing this right now…”
Christ, a few minutes ago he wasn't even thinking about proposing. Now he thought he might crumble into dust if she turned him down. He was shaking. So was she. He wasn’t sure if this was a good sign or not.
“Where’s this come from?” She said. The look on her face wasn’t giving anything away.
John ran a hand over his face and took several deep breaths.
“I found something I’m afraid of,” he said finally.
“What is it?”
The thought made his chest physically ache. He blinked furiously at the ceiling, trying to will away his wet eyes and the lump in his throat.
“Oh, John,” Anna said, and one look at her face was his undoing. They met each other halfway across the kitchen and Anna as good as threw herself into his arms, tears falling into his neck as he lifted her off the floor.
“You'll never lose me,” she whispered to him. “I won't leave you. Not ever.”
“I know,” he murmured back. “But I realised - ”
He put her back onto her feet and cupped her face in his hands.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he said. “I know we’ve talked about it before, but I want the whole thing. Kids, dog, Christmases, birthdays, those ridiculous family portraits on the walls. I've never wanted anything more. And - “
“Ask me again.”
“I - what?”
Anna took a step back and looked at him expectantly.
“Ask me again.”
She was smiling, even as fresh tears rolled down her cheeks. Suddenly nothing else mattered.
He tugged her clear of the broken mug and dropped onto his left knee ungracefully, clutching both her hands.
“Anna,” he said, not bothering to keep the tremble out of his voice any longer. “I’ve been in war zones. I've seen some godawful things. And I promise you, nothing back then even came close to frightening me the way that the thought of being without you does.”
He took a deep, staccato breath while he looked for the words.
“I love you more than life itself. I want to stand up in front of everyone and shout about it, with you in a white dress and me looking like a fool. I want to be able to introduce you as my wife, as Anna Bates. I want there to be a whole day where all anyone thinks about is how much I love you. God knows it's all I think about most days.”
Anna wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her dressing gown, and knelt on the floor to wrap her arms around his neck.
“You're a daft, soppy beggar,” she said.
“Is that a yes?” He said, hardly daring to breath.
“You haven’t really asked me anything yet.”
“No, you're right. What an arse I'm making of this.”
She dissolved into giggles, burying her face in his chest.
“Anna,” he whispered, lips against her hair. “Will you do me the highest honour I can imagine, and be my wife?”
The words had barely left his mouth when she made a strangled noise in the back of her throat, buried her hands in his hair and kissed him.
“Yes,” she said breathlessly when she let go of him. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”
John didn’t think he’d ever smiled as widely as he did when Anna threw her arms around him again. He buried his face in her hair, breathing in.
His wife. She was going to be his wife.
“Just one thing,” he said slightly breathlessly when she let go of him.
“What? She said, dreamy-eyed and tousled from his arms. He wanted to marry her on the spot, while she looked exactly like that.
“Don’t tell Rob I said any of this. I’ll never live it down after earlier.”
Anna giggled. “You're idiots, the pair of you."
"I'm your idiot," he said, with a grin that threatened to split his face. "Forever."
"Forever," she murmured in agreement as their lips met again.
Some time later, as Anna lay bonelessly in his arms whispering the depth of her love for him, John realised he needn't worry. After all, if all he had to be afraid of in the future was a ribbing from his best friend, he was doing rather well indeed.