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In Which Franny Comes Down to Earth

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11 October 2014

Franny had seen her name and face splashed across the front pages of newspapers, been fêted across Europe, and even met the queen, but she still felt entirely out of place among the rich and famous, and especially among those who were so rich that fame became irrelevant. She had no idea how she'd ended up here, looking out of the picture window of an astonishingly beautiful penthouse flat on a Knightsbridge street so exclusive she wasn't sure it had a name. It seemed like a surreal dream.

Her older sister, Sophia, came over and handed her a tall glass of tonic water with a wedge of lime on the rim.

'Cheers,' Franny said. 'No ginger ale?'

'None in the house, and I managed to stop the maid from sending out for some. Tonic with lime is your usual backup, isn't it?'

'Yes, thanks.' Franny took a sip, savoring the sweet-bitter tang, and considered venturing onto the terrace. It was cold and windy, and she probably wouldn't be able to see the stars through the urban glare, but looking up was a hard habit to break. She wondered when the station's next flyby was.

'Are you going to stare out the window all night?' Sophia asked. 'Go talk to the Musgroves. Or Louis, who I think is pining for you.'

'Louis, eh? You're taking your matchmaking duties very seriously.'

'Naturally,' Sophia said, 'or how will I know whether setting up Ned and Diane was a fluke? Besides, you really ought to pass those genius genes along.'

'You don't have to tell me twice. My biological clock sounds like Big Ben.' Franny gulped tonic as though there were gin in it. The old habit was comforting.

Laughter came from the end of the room where the Musgrove brothers—the surviving Musgrove brothers, Franny reminded herself, thinking of poor hapless Richard—were lounging on a black leather sofa and watching Sheffield United battle Leyton Orient on an enormous (and thankfully muted) flat-panel television. Charlie had apparently said something hilarious, for Louis was chuckling and slapping his thigh. Charlie, in a charcoal suit and striped pale blue silk tie, looked every inch the banker; Louis was slightly more rumpled in a brick-red cashmere cardigan, his sandy hair gelled up in a Niall Horan sort of way. On him it looked good.

Sophia surreptitiously glanced at them. 'Louis is quite the looker, don't you think?' she said. 'He'd give you some pretty babies.'

'He's very young,' Franny said doubtfully. 'Weren't you the one who taught me the half-my-age-plus-seven rule?'

'Which he just passes, I think, if we round half your age down to fifteen.'

Franny rolled her eyes. 'Technicalities.'

She could do worse than Louis, she supposed. He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he had his mother's easy verbosity, his father's bluff geniality, and a mule's stubbornness. Once he set his mind to something, nothing and nobody could persuade him away from it. He was rich as Croesus and would be unbothered by the risks and irregularities of Franny's work. And she had had quite enough of being sliced to the bone by sharp knives.

'Are you worried about seeing Anne again?' said Sophia, who had an unnerving knack for reading Franny's mind.

'Anne who?' Sophia gave her a look. 'No, honestly, I'm not. I could hardly call myself queer if I didn't know how to deal with seeing an ex at a social event.'

'She's not just any ex.'

'No, she's the one who led me on, tore my heart out, and stamped on it.' Franny shrugged. 'And now she's pushing thirty, still single, and living at home with her miserable family, while I've got the job of my dreams and half of England tweeting me love letters.'

'And dick pics.' Sophia still looked faintly traumatized by the choice specimens Franny had shown her before the daily round of block-and-report.

Franny laughed. 'What greater barometer of a woman's success?'

'It's nice that you have... fans,' Sophia said dryly. 'But fans aren't friends, friends aren't lovers, and you haven't gone on a second date with anyone since 2006.'

'I've been busy,' Franny protested. 'It's hard to go on dates when I'm two hundred and fifty miles up.'

'Mm,' said Sophia, clearly not convinced.

'But I did mean it when I asked you to help me find a partner. I think the time is right—David Parker emailed me this morning to confirm that I won't be going up to the ISS again for at least three years while the ESA rotates other people in. And I'm not looking for much, just someone reasonably clever and tolerable to look at who isn't threatened by my career and doesn't think science or space exploration is a waste of money.' One person who fit these criteria was exempt from consideration, but she was fairly certain she didn't need to say that aloud. Sophia knew.

'That ought to be manageable,' Sophia said. 'But if I set you up with somebody, I expect you to give them a decent chance. No more excuses, all right?'

'All right,' Franny said. 'And really and truly, you don't need to worry that seeing Anne will bother me. I've moved on. And I'm sure she has too.'

'You can't just not go,' Mary said. 'We're already here. I've texted Charlie to say we're on our way up.'

They were standing in the ground floor hallway of the Uppercross, waiting for the lift. Two enormous mirrors ran along the walls, reflecting Anne endlessly back at herself. It felt too much like home—except home was no longer home. She wrapped her arms around her middle, where regret and anxiety simmered.

'I could say I'm feeling unwell.'

'That's my line,' Mary said, in a rare display of self-awareness. 'You're never unwell.'

I'm always unwell, Anne thought. I just keep it where you can't see it.

Mary nudged her. 'You know: I'm the pretty one, Liz is the smart one, and you're the sturdy one.' It was one of their father's favorite barbed jokes, though Mary, whose naïveté sometimes beggared belief, seemed to think it was genuinely complimentary to all three of them. When Anne failed to smile, Mary sighed. 'Honestly, Anne, what's wrong with you? It's just a cocktail party. We'll go, we'll eat some wretched canapés, Charlie and Louis will watch the football game while talking about other football games, Martha will give me another piece of her ugly heirloom jewelry because Henny doesn't want any of it and who can blame her, Charles will repeat whatever was on the news... no different to any other Musgrove party ever. The Crofts are dull, but I suppose you'll like them, you usually like dull people. And you'll finally get to meet Franny after hearing all of us rave about her. It's too bad you were out of the house yesterday when she came by. She really is marvellous.'

She always was, Anne thought, but saying that would give her away, so she stayed quiet. Mary didn't notice; as far as she was concerned, the matter was concluded.

They rode up to the seventh floor in silence, Mary poking at her phone, Anne looking at scuffs and fingerprints on the shiny brass plate around the lift buttons. Someone ought to have that polished, she thought, and then she shook her head. She was too used to being 'someone.'

The Musgroves had the two uppermost stories of the building, and the lift opened directly into their foyer. April—who'd worked for the Musgroves for so long that Charles had once made a terribly tasteless joke about her being part of Martha's dowry—greeted Anne and Mary warmly, asked after Sir Walter and Elizabeth, and took their coats. The sisters followed familiar voices up the stairs and into the reception room, where the rest of the party had already gathered.

Anne permitted herself an indulgent moment of ignoring the people and instead appreciating the beautiful, understated decor of the room: elegant mid-century modern furniture in black leather and chrome, a few lovely paintings and sculptures delicately spotlit, just enough knickknacks scattered around to make the place feel lived-in without being untidy. It was so unlike her father's house, designed not to ostentatiously impress but to project comfort and elegance. She felt her shoulders drop a notch, as they always did here.

Then she looked around, cautious, keeping her focus narrow. She knew she ought to greet her hosts first. (Mary ignored this propriety and went directly to her husband, undoubtedly to voice some complaint that had occurred to her in the three minutes since she'd last texted him.) Perhaps if she engaged them in close conversation she could avoid—

But there, unavoidable, was Major Frances Wentworth, splendid in a flowing layered silk dress that was the furthest possible thing from her uniform. She was chatting with Martha and Charles Musgrove in front of their latest art acquisition, one of Hockney's portraits of Woldgate Woods. Anne had heard about it from Mary ('They spent five million pounds on it, can you imagine? I told Charlie they ought to have got something more abstract and exciting, liven the place up a bit, but no one listens to me') but not yet seen it; even from across the room it was electrifying.

As was Franny.

Anne straightened her spine and pasted on her social smile ('Remember that you are an Elliot,' her father's voice chided in her head) and went to be unnecessarily introduced.

'Anne,' Martha said with the note of real warmth that always surprised her, 'thank you for coming, dear.'

'I wouldn't miss it.' Anne punctuated the lie with air-kisses. 'Thank you for having me.'

'Of course, you're family! And I'm thrilled that we can introduce you to Franny. Major Frances Wentworth, may I introduce Miss Anne Elliot. Anne is Mary's older sister—not the oldest, that's Elizabeth, who's travelling with Sir Walter at present. Anne, Franny's an astronaut just back from a stint on the space station, isn't that exciting?'

Anne's voice failed her entirely. Franny, always bold, stepped into the silence. 'Thank you, Mrs Musgrove, but we've already met—years ago, when I was here visiting my brother.'

'Oh, have you? And now your sister has ended up in the same neighbourhood, how funny. And gracious, you must call me Martha, we're hardly so formal here.'

Martha's chatter faded to a murmur in Anne's ears as she struggled to accept that Franny was here, in front of her, after all these years. Franny was as defiantly feminine as ever, refusing to be pigeonholed by her height or muscularity. Her black hair was short but carefully layered and styled, with just a little grey beginning to feather in at the temples, flagrantly undyed. Her makeup was subtle and flawless. Her sleeveless dress showcased her toned arms and shoulders, and its rich brown shade was the perfect match for the eyes that Anne had spent so many evenings staring into. As she was staring now, and she knew she was being rude—she hadn't said a word, or even shaken hands—but she could not stop herself. If the ceiling had fallen down around their ears she would have simply stood there in the dust and rubble, staring still.

At last she recovered herself a bit. 'Yes,' she said. 'It's nice to see you again.' It sounded flat, insipid. In that moment she hated her voice, she hated herself, she hated everything she'd become.

Franny could barely catch her breath. Was this Anne, really? Her Anne? This woman was a shadow of the Anne she'd known. She was model-thin, almost stick-thin, dark eyes huge in her gamine face. She was too elegant to permit her simple navy blue sheath to hang on her frame, but Franny could see where it had been taken in, carefully but not expertly. And Anne was rich—what was she doing hemming her own clothes?

Of course, Anne was no longer rich, or at least not as rich. That was why Sophia and Danielle had rented her house while Anne languished in Mary and Charlie's spare bedroom and her terrible father and sister went off to God knew where. But old-money people like the Elliots never stopped being rich, Franny knew. There was always some property, some offshore bank account, some safety net, some minimum value below which their wealth could never be allowed to fall. So what if Anne was bending her aristocratic fingers to needle and thread? It wasn't as though she had a job to occupy her time.

Those aristocratic fingers also hadn't deigned to touch Franny's work-worn ones. Instead Anne stood with her hands clasped before her like a schoolgirl delivering a memorized poem, mouthing empty small talk. Franny knew her polite mask well, and knew, too, that there was nothing beneath it—no strength of character, no authenticity. Hardly any Anne there at all.

She looked as though a stiff breeze might blow her away.

Platitudes expressed, Anne turned to look at a nearby painting. 'Do you like it?' asked Mrs Musgrove (Franny could not possibly call this woman by her first name, it would be like saying 'Liz' to the queen). 'I know we already have a Hockney but when this one came up at auction I just couldn't resist asking Charles to put in a bid.'

Mr Musgrove nodded amiably, clearly content to serve as his wife's auction proxy. Franny added this to the lengthy list of things she would never understand about the wealthy.

'It's gorgeous,' Anne said, the most sincere words Franny had yet heard from her. The painting was a pretty but not especially interesting thing of trees, done on six panels as though seen through six panes of glass. Anne examined it like a prisoner wondering whether even this false window might represent some means of escape.

The maid—a live-in maid, for God's sake, what century was this?—came by with a tray of toast points. On smooth backdrops of white butter, tiny spheres of black caviar marked out inverse constellations. Franny took one that was probably meant to be the Plough; it had extra stars, presumably because it would look stingy with only seven caviar eggs or roe or whatever a unit of caviar was called. She nibbled it, grateful to have the awkward mood broken.

'Franny, the whole evening has an outer space theme in your honor,' Mrs Musgrove said. 'I hope you'll tell us some exciting stories of your adventures!'

'Not so much to it, is there?' Mr Musgrove said mildly before Franny could open her mouth. 'Just going round and round in a big tin can.'

'Aren't there asteroids and things?' Mrs Musgrove said. 'I saw that dreadful film about it, with Robert Duvall.'

'No, they just sit up there all day growing funny-looking carrots and taking pictures of Earth. Very pretty pictures, mind you,' he added generously.

Franny wondered how long she could keep herself quiet while listening to the Musgroves describe her career. Their misapprehensions were funny when they weren't appalling.

Anne murmured something and went off towards the dining room. Her shoulders were hunched a bit, as though she were expecting a scolding. 'Dear Anne,' Mrs Musgrove said. 'I think she looks quite well this evening, don't you, Charles?'

'Oh yes, quite well, quite well. Color in her cheeks.'

She looks awful, Franny thought.

'Did you know her well when you were here before, Franny?' Mrs Musgrove asked. 'I hadn't realized you were acquainted.'

'No,' Franny said slowly, 'I really didn't know her well at all.'

'When was that, did you say? 2005?'

'2006, the summer after my brother was ordained.' Franny looked after Anne, but she had vanished. 'I hardly recognized her. She's changed so much.'

'Has she?' Mr Musgrove said. 'I hadn't noticed.'

'Well, eight years! We've all got a bit more grey in our hair,' laughed Mrs Musgrove, who probably would have sacked her stylist had so much as a speck of grey been permitted to appear in her elegant blonde coiffure.

'She seems just the same to me,' Mr Musgrove said with a shrug. 'Good old dependable Anne.'

Franny stared at them, bemused. The Musgroves and the Elliots had been acquainted since Anne's childhood. How could they not see the changes in her? Her bright eyes were dimmed; her wry wit and wise observations were silenced; her beautiful curves had melted into angular tautness. Everything that Franny had loved in her once had ebbed away in their years apart. Franny had gone to space. Anne had gone to hell.

She had told herself seeing Anne again would be nothing. There would be a nod or brief greeting and then careful mutual avoidance, with Franny perhaps enjoying a bit of quiet smugness. But this—she couldn't feel smug about this. This was a tragedy.

Franny had, she thought, come to terms with Anne's abandonment of her. She had even sometimes managed to hope for Anne to find another lover, some genteel child of a moneyed family who understood all the upper-class social niceties and interfamilial entanglements without needing them explained. (Franny was still astonished that Anne's older sister had once seriously considered marrying a first cousin. She'd thought jokes about the inbred rich were just jokes, but apparently it was all entirely true.) Less magnanimously, she'd wished for Anne to be caught in the trap of her own making, married off to someone 'appropriate' whose suitability for her began and ended with her father's approval. She'd felt rage, misery, bitterness, all the expected things. Now she was awash in pity for a woman who ought to want for nothing, and the doubled grief of seeing Anne's loveliness lost not only to her but to the world. It was all deeply unsettling.

Anne came back into the room and caught Franny's eye as naturally as if they were still in each other's pockets. Franny felt the shock of it all the way down to her feet. The intensity and sheer pleasure of their connection floored her, and for a long, charged moment, like the sea drawing back before the tsunami comes thundering in, she let herself forget all the reasons they should never look at each other that way again.

Anne was clearly equally shaken. She took a step back and reached to steady herself against the wall. The look Franny glimpsed on her face was not regret or guilt (and why had Franny even hoped for guilt, when no amount of contrition could heal the break between them?) but pure self-loathing. Then the Elliot mask descended. Anne closed her eyes, took a single slow breath in and out, and carefully turned so that when she opened her eyes again Franny would be nowhere in her field of vision. It was the most magnificently executed cut direct that Franny had ever seen.

The tsunami crashed down upon her, but it felt more like fire—the burn of renewed rejection and the blaze of renewed rage. It scorched away all of Franny's pity. Enough maudlin mooning; enough thoughts of what might have been. If Anne so thoroughly despised herself, then Franny would follow her example.

The Musgroves, oblivious, had moved on to congratulating each other on the purchase of the tree painting. Franny caught a break in the conversation, politely excused herself, and went off in search of Louis.