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All the Symptoms of Restlessness

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“Shibden? Who names their own lake house? Don’t you think that’s a bit…” Ann wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know, snobbish?”


“Oh, nonsense dear,” urged Eliza, the woman who had been Mrs. Priestley to her all her youth. While the pleasures of being twenty-two brought little, it did give her the right, finally, to use the woman’s Christian name. “Anne is absolutely wonderful, wouldn’t you say, William?” Eliza looked to her husband, who was seemingly engrossed in a magazine Ann didn’t care to squint at.


“What?” he murmured, and then, “Oh yes, yes, Anne is such a lovely girl. Quite lovely.” He didn’t look up once, and Ann bit her lip to keep the small smile on her face from forming. Eliza, tight lipped, looked back at Ann with a rigid smile.


“Yes, I wouldn’t say snobbish at all. She’s very worldly, you know. Travelled all over. I’ve always spoken very highly of her. She’s been running her uncle’s company for a few years, hasn’t she, William?” No answer, but Eliza pressed on. “He left everything to her, and he has such a right to, really. She’s just the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met.” Eliza’s eyes sparkled, a look Ann recognized easily, and not just from knowing the woman most of her life. The look of being associated with, of knowing a person of such intelligence or beauty or talent was certainly enough to give anyone that sparkle. It had a feeling of elevation, and Ann wondered when Eliza would desist the bragging about such a woman and finish her tea so Ann could take the Priestley’s dog for a walk. Currently, Lady was curled next to her on the plush chair, her head resting upon Ann’s thigh while she idly rubbed her ears.


Looking up from Lady’s soft cream curls, she realized Eliza had not stopped, and was in fact continuing to talk about the woman who Ann might have forgotten about immediately had they not shared the same name. Anne Lister, who was she that had captured such an intrigue with her friend? She seemed nothing special—owned the company her uncle left to her, classic nepotism, she supposed. Apparently was living in the house in the Lake District he’d also given her, all the while redoing it with the money she had gotten after his death. It was quite horrible to lose a family member, she thought, but certainly it couldn’t be the recent death of her uncle that interested Eliza so. Ann’s own family had tragically passed, both her parents and her brother, so certainly she remained more interesting in that regard. Ann grimaced inside her own mind—this woman she barely knew anything of was already driving her to such jealousy she was using her dead parents as an alluring character trait. Good Lord!


“Now, the rumors about her... well, some may say inappropriate behaviors are not lost on me.” Eliza took a moment’s pause for a sip of tea and, Ann suspected, a much-needed breath. “I certainly look past them, for its best not to judge someone on their faults.” Ann’s brows furrowed lightly, whether with annoyance or curiosity, she could not tell.


“Her faults?” she asked, trying and failing to keep the intrigue out of her voice. Eliza tutted, sipping her tea again before placing it back on the end table. She set her eyes on Ann, much the way she imagined a mother might before giving a lighthearted lecture on proper manners. Ann felt a dull ache in her chest at the reminder.


“Now, I certainly didn’t mean faults, and I certainly don’t think of them that way. It’s just the circles she runs with are quite...” Eliza looked to William, who had been unquestionably ignoring them the entire time. “Well, they’re quite free spirited. And that’s certainly not a bad thing!” She sat back in her chair, smiling with something Ann couldn’t quite place. “But she really hasn’t ever brought a man home for her family, even though I’m sure that’s what her aunt wants—who doesn’t want grandchildren?—and that sort of thing, coupled with the way she dresses, has certainly implied some… things.” Ann tapped her foot with impatience, mostly with Eliza’s overuse of the word thing, causing Lady to glance up at her in polite irritation.


“What, is she a hippie or something?” Ann laughed, and Eliza pursed her lips at her.


“No dear,” she said, “but many people say she’s a lesbian.” A pause. “Now, that may or may not be true, and I won’t take it for fact until I’ve heard it from her herself, and I certainly won’t judge her for it—” but Ann had already stopped listening. Her fingers on Lady’s ear paused, and the dog licked her hand expectantly, but Ann’s mind was somewhere else.


Her mind was on pink skin, and fluttering lips and giggles and eyes wrinkling. It was on the brush of blush to one cheek, and then the other, on the golden highlight that her fingers worked to blend smoothly. The shining, brilliant glow of a smile, and fingers, always grazing hers, always twirling hair or touching lips or turning pages of poetry and literature. Rose scented perfume, on her pillowcase, ever in her nose… even now, she felt her face flush with the memory—


“Ann, dear, are you listening?”


“Yes!” It came out loud, oddly enough, even though it had been simple moments since she last spoke, it had seemed hours in her own head. Her friend, Claire, with the rose perfume. She hadn’t known why her mind had gone there so quickly, to Claire’s red hair across her pillow case. University was… She felt her face heat up even more, and she ducked down to scratch Lady’s head, obscuring her tinged cheeks from view. University was not to be thought of just then. “Yes, Eliza, what were you saying?” She breathed out a heavy sigh and was thankful at least that came out even.


“I was just saying how we should go see that renovated cottage, as she’s just finished it.” Ann felt her hand still. “She invited me to a housewarming tomorrow night on Facebook, to celebrate. Would you like to join us?” Knowing next to nothing about Anne Lister, about her business or her home or her hobbies (except the one, of course, which Ann felt herself blushing over yet again), Ann felt nearly giddy, suddenly, with excitement.


“Oh, yes, that would be so lovely!” she chimed, and Eliza smiled, seemingly satisfied at her interest.


“You’ll just love her,” she cooed, bringing her tea back to her lips. “She’d love to chat about those plants of yours, I’m sure, and she’ll talk your ear off about biology if you’ll let her.”


Well. It seemed like tomorrow night, Ann would be set to meet the most interesting woman in all of England. She’d better look her best.

 


 

The ride went by torturously slowly. Ann was nestled in the backseat of the car, headphones blaring music as she stared out the window. She wasn’t sure if she could call herself excited to meet Miss Lister; perhaps anxious was the right word. She’d taken her anxiety meds just before she’d left, a prescription she hadn’t been without since her parents’ death all those years ago. She stared out the window now, petting Lady idly. The Priestley’s refused to leave the dog at home, citing Miss Lister’s love for the creatures as their reason for bringing her. At least it gave Ann some comfort in the back seat.


One and a half hours they were driving to see this woman and her fancy lake house. Ann’s one bedroom in London was small but certainly nice, given what she’d inherited from her parents’ passing, but she could only imagine the scale of the house in the Lake District.


“What did you say Anne did again?” Ann asked from the back, and Eliza looked over her shoulder at her. She had a book open on her lap, The Duchess, she saw, and her reading glasses were perched at the edge of her nose like a hawk.


“She’s running her uncle’s company, dear,” she smiled lightly. “I do remember telling you that.”


“But I meant what kind of company,” Ann pressed, and Eliza made a delicate shrug.


“I’m not sure,” she answered, turning forward and back to her book with a costumed Kiera Knightly on the cover. “Certainly makes enough to throw elaborate parties like this.” Ann sighed again and un-paused her music. Driving an hour and a half midday to see some house. She and her cottage must be quite a sight. Ann suddenly felt her mind veer into jealous territory, a silly battle of the Ann’s, but she skipped the raucous song that had begun to play, and it landed on a much calmer one. One that instantly made her want to skip it again because it forced her mind to what she had tried to forget so desperately the day before.


She’d tossed in her sheets for over an hour before sleep found her, and even then, her friend from English literature had haunted her. Red braided hair, falling behind her, long and straight. Have you ever kissed a girl? It had been after just one bottle of wine between them, but Ann had always been a lightweight. What? The question had startled her muddled brain. Claire laughed, tossing her head back and leaning upon the bed where they sat in front of it. Do you ever think about it? Ann sighed. She hadn’t, then, until that moment. And then after she could think of nothing else. How much sweeter would a woman’s lips taste than a man’s? Where would a woman touch, as opposed to a boy? How would the smell of rose perfume make her toss her head back in pleasure?


She remembered the boy she had been with—just one—at university. Gregory. What a boring name, she’d thought, but he was certainly handsome and quite good at what he did. Running, physics, the sciences. It was alright until that moment, bearable, even—she could pretend that this, between her and Gregory, was what everyone felt. That love was nothing but a dull, muted feeling that people liked to play up in songs or in films and novels. It wasn’t without its pleasures, of course, but she remembered looking into his eyes one morning over tea, thinking that besides that, there had to be something else. She must have been missing something.


Claire had pecked her on the lips that night, light and platonic, and laughed giddily at the oddness of it. She didn’t try it again and made light of the jest and moved to search Ann’s mini fridge for another bottle, or at least a wine cooler. It had taken Ann several moments to recover, and for Claire’s turned back she was infinitely grateful; she had not seen how she had undone her. Thinking about that night made her feel like a child, and she tried her hardest to push the thoughts out of her head. That wasn’t something Ann was really at the mercy to follow through on. It always had seemed utterly out of her grasp, that sense of happiness that she’d felt for a moment, and she’d never tried again.


The car gave a bump, startling Lady and causing her to lift her head in muffled annoyance. Ann gently shushed her, petting her soft head and cooing. William grumbled as the car shook on the rough road.


“We must be nearing the damn house. These old roads are in terrible shape, it’s a shame no one looks after them.”


“Maybe Miss Lister will become head of the road commission!” laughed Eliza, and Ann clenched her jaw. She peered out the window, not even having noticed the lush greenery of the Lake District. Trees dotted the rolling hills of farmland, and she watched as old, cottage style country homes passed their car. It was June, and while it wasn’t quite warm, it was incredibly humid, so Ann had opted for a long, balloon sleeved blush dress that hung to her calves. Paired with low heels, she hoped it would be enough to impress the remarkable woman Eliza had described. As they grew nearer, Ann felt her anticipation at meeting the woman grow. Her anxiety was giving way to excitement, now, as she watched the farm houses grow further apart. They passed a large, deep lake set in a valley, and Ann craned to see the sun shine upon its waters in the high afternoon.


“How much longer, about?” Ann asked, trying her best to keep her voice even. Her heart was beginning to beat faster, and she felt the all too familiar pit in her stomach. Had she eaten anything before she’d left their home in Leeds?


“Just a few more minutes, I think,” replied Eliza. “This house seems further out than some of the ones we’ve seen. Do you think it’s more of a farm?”


“Caring for a farm and a business? I doubt even her uncle would have time for that, much less her,” William responded. He braked as the car hit a more abrasive bump, jostling the back seat. “Especially with all her traveling.”


“Oh, yes, yes, you’re completely right.” Eliza turned to look at Ann. “You must ask about her travels, dear, she’s been all over the world. I hear she frequents America, too. You might ask her what it’s like!” Ann smiled politely back at Eliza. She’d never been further than… well, England itself. She’d gone to University in London, and with her part time teaching job there, she really hadn’t been able to leave. It was only the summer vacation her school gave that allowed her to pay a visit to the Priestley’s in Leeds at all. She’d never been even to France, something that her acquaintances back home thought was curious. But she’d never really had a reason to leave.


“Ah, I believe this might be it.” Ann looked up, leaning towards the middle seat to see better through the windshield. Eliza read the address off her phone and, after squinting for a moment at the old marker, ordered William to pull in. It was a long drive, and Ann had expected nothing less from a woman who named her own lake house. She sighed, pulling her headphones out and tucking a blonde curl behind her ear.


The driveway was annoyingly beautiful, with the same, moss covered stone half walls directing their path down the charming gravel drive. To the right and left were trees, artfully placed and beautiful—willows, poplars, maples, and tall birch trees managed to create a sort of clever pathway that obscured the house from view, except for a few grand turrets. Ann felt her mouth hanging open and closed it quickly—certainly a home like this would require an immense amount of care, and it was simply her vacation house.


“This certainly is grand,” mused Eliza from the front, and Ann could only nod. The car swung right with a curve, and suddenly, the house was visible. It looked like something out of a fairytale. Grey stone and white stucco were separating by leering dark beams and covered with a red tinged ivy. It was at least two stories, maybe three, with a massive entrance and a quaint, cottage style garden that made Ann nearly green with envy. It put her small one at home to shame.


William pulled up next to several other cars parked on the gravel driveway and turned off the car. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he laughed. “Miss Lister has outdone herself. This is a stunner.”


“I’d expected nothing less,” grinned Eliza, and she grabbed her bag. “Well, let’s go in, shall we? Judging by these cars, there are quite a few guests mingling already.” The prospect of meeting new people made Ann frown, and the pit in her stomach seemed to widen, like an endless chasm. It was dread. She hated social situations like this, fancying herself much more an introvert. “Ann, will you grab Lady’s things?”


“Yes, of course,” was her curt and quiet reply, before opening the door and setting the dog on the ground. It really was quite grand, she thought as she grabbed the canvas bag that housed the dog bowl and food. She suddenly ached for the home she had grown up in, large and white and airy, before she’d had to sell it after her parents had passed. No one wanted to live alone in such a house, especially with her sister long having lived in Scotland. She preferred a smaller, quieter space, where she could write and drink tea and simply be alone. Nonetheless, the largesse of the home planted a sort of sadness in her she couldn’t seem to shake as they walked to the door.


Eliza chattered aimlessly about Anne, wanting to ask her all sorts of questions Ann didn’t bother listening to. All she felt was the odd tightness in her hands, which she clenched and unclenched as a means to get rid of it. Per usual, it failed to work, so as they neared the grand, double doors that would open the estate, she began wringing them against the unbidden feeling. Three knocks on the door from William, and Eliza eyed her.


“Don’t be nervous dear,” she said quietly, and Ann grinned back weakly. “There’s nothing to be worried about. She’s quite kind, and it’s only for an evening. We’ll be back before you know it.” Ann sighed. She was right, it was only for one evening. It was already fast approaching four thirty, and she figured they’d be leaving at around nine. It was just over four hours, nothing Ann hadn’t had to battle in the past during drinks with her coworkers after a day of school. She could do this.


She schooled her face into a polite smile and stilled her anxious hands, clasping them in front of her. This was going to be alright. Lady nudged at her feet, and Ann let out a breath.


Then, Miss Anne Lister opened the door.

Chapter Text

In Ann’s mind, Anne Lister was a lot of things. A woman of roughly thirty, she had presumed, who owned a company, two extravagant homes, knew all sorts of things about biology and business and English, was irreverently intelligent, unfailingly interesting, and might as well have been seven feet tall.

 

The Anne Lister in front of them stood tall, taller than Ann but certainly not seven feet, yet she commanded the doorway as if she were. Her shoulders were set back, her posture a straight, confident one. She was dressed in long-sleeved boat-necked top and loose, low hanging trousers, both black. Her feet were tucked expertly into practical loafers. She wore a smile, welcoming, warm, her eyes alight with an honest pleasure to see her old friends. Her hair hung in a close-cropped bob, elegant yet messy. Two errant strands hung on the side of her face, and Ann watched as she slowly tucked one behind her ear, her gaze flitting between the Priestley’s. It was all Ann could do to keep a polite smile on her face, because Anne Lister had taken her breath away.

 

“Eliza! William, I’m so happy to see you!” she cried and pulled them both in for a hug. She reached down as Lady bounded from Ann’s side to hers and scratched her head. “And Miss Lady, it’s so lovely to see you again.” She glanced up at Eliza with a sparkle of joy. “I’m so glad you brought her; Argus will be pleased at seeing his friend again.”

 

“Oh, of course, Anne!” replied Eliza, touching Anne’s arm. “I am so pleased with what you’ve done with the place.” Anne grinned, looking between the husband and wife.

 

“I’m just blessed I was left with such good bones.” She gestured to the house, wide and animated. Then her eyes, for the first time, fell on Ann. She cocked her head, her eyes never leaving Ann’s as she spoke. “Now, who is this?” Her voice had lowered with its curiosity, and the sound of it sent a small shiver through Ann—something like giddiness.

 

“This is our dear friend, Miss Ann Walker,” William said, and gestured to her. Ann tried to smile, but it was becoming more and more difficult not to simply stare in awe. “She’s visiting us from London, for a few weeks, while she’s on summer break.” Anne was still staring at her, a smile teasing her lips. She reached her hand out boldly, and it took Ann a moment to remember that common etiquette suggested she shake it.

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ann,” she smiled again, her voice still low. Her shake was much stronger than Ann’s own, and she had to firm hers a little to match.

 

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” she managed, although the sound was a bit strangled. Anne’s smirk widened, pulling up the left side of her lips endearingly. When she spoke, they were plush as they shaped the vowels and consonants “lovely,” and Ann had to wrench her gaze from the woman’s mouth. She found herself having to order her body to breathe, to stand up straight, not to hold on to Anne Lister’s hand for a disproportionate amount of time. She felt distinctly the lack of warmth as she dropped it, even in the humid air.

 

Ann was wrapped up in her list of proprieties and didn’t catch Anne’s face as she turned brusquely, motioning them with a wide hand to follow her. “Come,” she spoke, and it was as if Ann had imagined her low, soft voice just moments ago. In its place was a light, but commanding tone that starkly reminded Ann she was talking to the CEO of a company. “You must have a drink, and I shall give you the grand tour of the place.” Lady followed first, then Eliza, cooing compliments all the way, and William ushered Ann in before him. She nearly tripped over her own heels walking into the threshold before forcing herself to steady her walk and looked up.

 

The entrance room that they stood in had high ceilings, and she watched in her periphery as Anne took Eliza’s jacket and bag and hung them on a charming coat rack. It might almost have been a sun room, she thought, had it had faced the east or west—but the long, antiquely paned windows still allowed a rapturous amount of light. Still looking around the room at the pristine finishes and the herringbone brick inlay of the entrance room—truly exquisite, she thought—, she left Lady’s bag and followed them down a hall. They passed a room she didn’t get a good look in before entering what must have been the great room. A large wooden dining table sat, framed with tall windows, which led directly into an empty living room. An archway opened into what Ann assumed was the kitchen, judging from the laughter coming within. Looking up, the tall ceilings were severed by dark stained wooden beams. It looked every inch a renovated English cottage than Ann might only have seen in an article in a magazine.

 

“Oh, this is just lovely, Anne,” said Eliza with wide eyes. Anne grinned back, smiling that smile of hers again. She enjoys the praise, Ann thought secretly.

 

“I had to knock out two walls for this space,” she said, her voice playfully grim. “Those beams were expensive, but worth it.”

 

“Oh yes, they were,” replied William, and Ann looked up from admiring the grand dining table to find Anne’s eyes on her own again. The woman held her gaze for just a moment before looking away, leading them further into the kitchen to meet the guests, but Ann felt herself flushing ever so slightly. She should have taken more medication, something, to quell the nervousness inside her, as that was assuredly what all of… that was.

“Now, Eliza, William, Ann, these are a few of my friends,” Anne nodded at the small gathering of people. “I believe you,” she nodded at the Priestley’s, “know my aunt and father, and of course Marian, but Ann, this is my Aunt Anne, and my father, Jeremy, and my sister Marian.”

 

“Hello,” Ann answered with a timid wave, and they all smiled warmly at her, even though Marian seemed perturbed for an unknown reason. Perhaps it was simply her face.

 

Anne continued to introduce them to the rest of the crowd: her friend Marianna, and a few of her coworkers, John, Joseph, and Eugenie. A few more friends were supposed to come, she said, namely including her friend Elizabeth, a family friend Jeremiah and his wife, and someone named Samuel. Ann had already forgotten most of the names, as she tended to do, though she was mostly training her energy on not staring too long at Anne Lister.

 

She realized, as Anne went to pour a whiskey for herself and William and to fetch a glass of wine for Eliza and Ann, that it was no wonder at all why everyone was so infatuated with her. She had inwardly mocked Eliza’s desire to be within her inner circle, yet now she so keenly felt it. Anne’s presence was intoxicating, and the want to be near her grew with every chance meeting of their eyes. She was certainly someone to strive to be friends with. Ann leaned against the countertop and watched as Anne tossed ice into two whiskey glasses and poured the dark liquid in. She for some reason wasn’t surprised at Anne’s taste for dark liquor, and as she watched Anne grab a bottle of wine from the fridge, she felt childish for preferring a sweeter white.

 

“Ann.” It was the lower tone again, Ann was sure of it, and she realized Anne had caught her staring. She swallowed thickly before looking back into her dark eyes. Anne raised the bottle. “Is a Riesling okay with you?” she gestured to Eliza. “I know that’s her preference, but I just wondered—”

 

“Yes, that’s perfect!” Her voice was thin in its response, too excited, too quick, and she clenched her hands tighter in front of her. Anne paused, and then grinned at her again with that smirk that made her feel like she was the only person in the room.

 

“Alright then.” She pulled the cork from the wine and adeptly poured the Riesling into two stemless glasses. Anne handed William’s whiskey and his wife’s wine to him, before grabbing her own drink and Ann’s and moving to her place at the counter. She reached out, handing Ann the wine. She could smell her perfume then, or was it cologne? A seductive lemon and bergamot scent, unlike the wood scented candle she must have burning in the house. Or perhaps it was just the house itself, the wood smell. Ann’s mind swam at the closeness of Anne Lister, the smell of her, the feel of her eyes on her and her alone. She reached out to take the wine glass from her, and their hands met, quickly, certainly born of politeness, and yet Ann felt her breath nearly leave her.

 

“Thank you,” she said, evening her voice in an attempt at nonchalance. Anne cocked her head again, those lips parted—why did Ann keep staring at her mouth? —and she smiled.

 

“Of course.” Her voice was soft, too, and she removed her hand. Up close, Ann could see the strong chin and jaw of the woman, the graceful slope of a long nose, and eyes inviting and dangerous and so, so

 

“Now, shall we have the grand tour?” Anne had moved away and was addressing Eliza and William. Ann ached for her gaze again but turned away in embarrassment from the want. She scolded herself for even letting her mind drift the way it had. From that moment on, she told herself, she would stop acting so… oddaround Anne Lister. She was intoxicating, endearing, in a way no one else Ann knew was. But surely, she could act civil and not like the utter fool she’d been since the moment they had stepped inside. She could act ordinary. She could feel ordinary. Anne Lister was simply hyped up to some extreme and Ann was simply affronted with it. Perhaps she could even be her friend.

 


 

 

Friend was certainly not what Ann wanted to be with Anne Lister, and this was made abundantly clear during the tour. It was all well and good to think she had simply been absorbed into the Anne Lister mania that her dear friend Eliza seemed to be in while Anne’s back was turned, but when she faced her, spoke directly to her, she felt herself shrinking in her gaze, yet wanting to fill it up completely all the same.

 

Anne led them through the house, starting in the parlor, the room they had passed on their way in. It housed an antique baby grand piano and a chaise lounge. It led into the old servants’ entrance, which Anne explained she had left for the simple bit of history it provided the house, even though she neglected to explain where the stairs actually led. There were one powder room on the first floor, and then through two of the most beautiful French doors Ann had ever seen, was her office. It held more books than she had ever seen outside of a library, showing hardly any wall space. There was a large bay window looking out on the backyard and the garden, and was that a greenhouse she spied? But Anne was already describing the historical significance of the desk, a large oak thing that someone in the suffrage movement had used.

 

“It really is quite fascinating,” Anne said, grinning as she sat on the corner of it. Her long legs were spread almost like a man’s might’ve been, and Ann, who hadn’t been able to look away, found it oddly thrilling. “Don’t you think so, Ann?” Ann looked up to meet the other woman’s eyes.

 

“Oh, um, yes,” she said quickly, and forced herself to look away. Her hands were still clasped in front of her, and she tried to still the tingling in her fingertips. She ground her teeth and forced her mind to focus.

 

“Come, this way,” Anne nodded towards the door, and they were off again, moving towards the grand staircase that led to what Ann assumed were the bedrooms. At the thought of seeing Anne’s bedroom, the intimate space where she slept and clothed made her stomach flutter not quite of her own accord. She cursed herself again, trying to focus on not slipping on the sheen of the stairs as she climbed. No one had made her feel like this since, well, since Claire, and that thought was enough to make Ann muster her courage and force away the awkward feelings she may or may not have had for Anne. She wouldn’t do that to herself—not again.

 

Once they were upstairs, Ann hanging carefully behind the other three, they saw three large bedrooms, all equipped with charming English clasps on the windows and views of sprawling green land. Anne opened one and let the cool air flow through, bringing in the smell of the pink roses and hollyhocks below. The two bathrooms upstairs were mostly white, neat and practical, one with a checkerboard floor that made Ann swoon. They paused at a painting in the hall while Anne explained its prestige, and then Ann glimpsed the thin stairway at the end of the hall. It wasn’t exactly hidden, but there was a more private look to it, and Ann wondered if perhaps there might be a sort of attic, or some cluttering of space that might make Anne Lister look a little less perfect.

 

“What’s that?” she asked curiously, and all three of them paused to look back at her. It was the first time she’d spoken since they’d been in the office downstairs. Eliza eyed her sharply for interrupting Anne, but Anne’s own eyes were sparkling with the beginnings of a temerarious smile. She reached an arm out towards the staircase.

 

“Now, for the last room in the house.” She began walking, and they followed. Ann presumed it was something Miss Lister was used to, everyone following her where she went, when she commanded it. Her lofty presence was that of a natural leader, and Ann thought she knew it, too. “The master suite.” Ann felt her heart leap a little, chastising herself for being foolish enough to bring it up. She had thought that maybe Anne had slept in one of the three rooms they’d just seen, though all of them had had the appearances of guest rooms, with little to no personal touch. “I actually created this from an attic space,” Anne said, still climbing. “I had to have the plumbing drawn up and insulate everything, but I think it was worth it.” She opened a door at the top of the thin staircase and stepped through.

 

The tall, triangular roof was the focal point of the room, and it was centered by two large windows looking out upon the backyard. Under one window was a large, low bed, made up in such a style that was undoubtedly Anne Lister. A wardrobe was nestled near the door, and to the left was a bathroom with no door at all, only two gauzy curtains separating the two spaces. It was beautiful—from the white walls to the ceiling to the dark wooden floors—it was like a dream. The whole house was like a dream, Anne Lister included. Ann could scarcely believe she’d been allowed to set foot in such a distinctly historic country home. She felt ancient at the thought, like some character in a Jane Austen novel, but she thought Anne must have been from old money. There was no way just anyone could own such a house.

 

“How do you like it?” Anne asked, leaning against the wall. She looked disarmingly at Ann, her long legs stretched in front of her. “I’ve half a mind to sell it. I’ll barely get any use out of it, what with the business and all.”

 

“No!” Ann cried, and for the second time in just a few minutes, everyone turned to look at her. Ann smoothed her dress, feeling the linen fabric beneath her fingers and trying to steady herself. “I mean,” she began slowly, “it’s just such a beautiful home. I couldn’t bear it if you sold it, after all the work you’ve done on it. Wouldn’t that be such a waste?” Anne looked back at her coolly, crossing her arms in front of her. For a split second, Ann worried if she had angered her somehow, but then a look of contemplation rolled over her face.

 

“Perhaps you’re right,” she queried, and looked at Ann again, shrugging. “Keeping it for a few more years wouldn’t hurt.” The idea of it made Ann smile. Even in the winter, the home would be beautiful, covered with snow and glinting icicles. If it wereher home, she’d certainly keep it. Ann tried to imagine writing there, reading all the books in the miniature library of Miss Anne Lister and sitting in the bay window, watching the leaves change, and she realized it wasn’t hard. Maybe she’d even garden—she doubted Anne did, sure that she had gardeners to keep the land pristine. But she would care for the flowers and water them by hand, weeding the beds and trimming the pink roses and the hedges. The thought made her smile.

 

“I’m glad,” said Ann, and it made Anne smile. She looked to the ground for a moment and then back at Ann, wetting her lips. Ann froze. That motion alone made her balk, and she felt the air go still around them. Anne’s mouth was still parted, and her eyes were staring with such intent at Ann’s own that she felt her lips fall open as well.  Perhaps this was how everyone felt around Miss Lister, Ann thought. They felt like they were the only person in the entire world when they were with her.

 

“Why, is that a clawfoot tub I see?” inquired Eliza, breaking the spell. She grabbed William by the sleeve and led him into the bathroom. “I’ve always wanted one of these for our bath. They’re so beautiful, aren’t they?” She continued talking, moving through the curtain, and Anne moved to sit at the edge of her bed. That was when Ann understood that she was done for. Anne Lister, lounging on her bed, in her room, staring at Ann with that intense gaze of hers, made her want to melt. Did friends feel that way, she wondered? She had very few, but was the fluttering she felt in her stomach ordinary?

 

“So, what do you think?” Anne asked, looking over at her. She crossed her ankles and leaned back, looking at Ann with her chin raised.

 

“It’s so beautiful,” she murmured, looking around the room. “I mean, this must have cost a fortune.” Anne laughed and sat up a bit. Ann suddenly was overcome with the need to sit next to her on the bed, knee to knee, but she remained stoically in the doorframe.

 

“Oh, it took a few years to do,” Anne said, smiling. “And it does make quite a nice getaway, when the hustle of London gets to be too much.” Ann started, looking at her.

 

“You’re from London as well?” That made Anne smile.

 

“Yes, that’s where my company is based. Although,” she moved her gaze from Ann’s and looked across the room. “I’m hoping to expand into America sooner or later. But we’ll see.”

 

Before Ann could ask anything else, the Priestley’s were already coming out of the bathroom, still talking about the tub that Ann had failed to see. It was no more a marvel than Anne Lister herself was, surely. She looked over at the woman, still perched on the edge of the bed, but her gaze was upon the Priestley’s now. Ann’s stomach flipped as she became aware of the fact that she would go to absurd lengths to keep Anne’s eyes on her, and her alone. She stared at her smooth profile, the hair hanging in her eyes, the long nose, the high arched eyebrows that seemed born of aristocracy. She was, Ann thought with a start, somehow the most compelling woman she’d ever seen.

 

“So, shall we return downstairs?” Anne gestured to the Priestley’s hands, both William and Eliza’s drinks low. “I can refill those if you like, and we can start to eat. It’s past five, isn’t it?” She checked her wristwatch and nodded her head towards the stairs, getting up and leading the way down. Her gaze hardly swept over Ann as she descended. Ann, who had hardly touched her wine at all, slung the glass back and took a large gulp, making a face at the tart flavor. She followed Anne diligently down the stairs, clutching the railing and hoping the friction of the wood would drive her to her senses. She would speak to Anne’s guests, and make polite conversation, and then they would leave in a few hours. She could manage that, surely.

 

At the landing, she finished her wine and took a deep breath. She could act like a reasonable person tonight, she thought, despite what her ridiculous mind was pushing her towards. Just a few more hours.That seemed to be her mantra as she stepped numbly downwards, trying her best to clear her mind. In a few hours, she would be back at the Priestley’s and could put this entire experience behind her. Do you really think you could forget her? her mind mused, and Ann huffed and marched towards the kitchen in annoyance at the little voice she could never really quiet. She needed more wine.

Chapter Text

Ann was on her third glass of wine and had begun to feel quite warm. They had gathered in the kitchen, eating the starters set out so meticulously on the marble countertops. The open wines had drifted between mild and dry and had landed on a Sauvignon Blanc, a token bitterer than Ann was used to. She sipped at it, nonetheless, finding the wine made it much easier to converse with everyone, and that it ebbed at the nervous feeling in her chest that hadn’t found an occasion to leave quite yet.

 

She’d learned a lot about Anne Lister’s friends in the hours she’d sat in her living room and kitchen, eating mildly from the charcuterie board. Ann had talked and listened to John and Eugenie, who were engaged and had met through Anne. They were quite cute together, she noticed, only the tiniest bit envious of Eugenie. John adored her, doting on her with such kindness and affection that Ann wished for just a fraction of. John had a kind face and a kind personality to match, and Eugenie was beautiful and clearly of a creative mind. Ann assumed they were higher ups in the company, seeing as Ann had invited them to such a small gathering. Eugenie had laughed and tipped her wine glass back for a drink (French women had quite a high tolerance, it seemed) and Ann spied the largest diamond adorning Eugenie’s finger that she’d ever seen. It seemed they were paid handsomely, as well.

 

Samuel, who had only recently shown up, was telling her of the intricacies of the company he worked for, the same one that Anne was now the CEO of. It was a geothermal energy company, and while Ann was familiar with the topic, it didn’t stop him from explaining (in his slightly tipsy state) the ins and outs of the business. “Clean, renewable energy,” he’d said passionately. “We’ll soon be in California, probably within the next month or so. The north part of the state is powered nearly sixty percent by geothermal, which is just astonishing—” She’d let him go on about it, smiling and nodding when it was appropriate. She’d then talked to Marian a bit—or tried to—but she generally had a sour look on her face which was only mollified when eating spinach dip or Swedish meatballs.

 

Ann excused herself to the bathroom for a moment to escape making small talk with the upper class, and when she finished, she looked at her reflection. Blonde, curly hair fell down her shoulders, seeming almost limp in the dim light of the washroom. She switched her part, fluffing it, and wiped gently at her eyes to remove the smeared mascara from under them. Blasted humidity.

 

Standing back again, Ann straightened the blush dress on her shoulders, standing tall and pushing her shoulders back. Nottrying to emulate anyone, of course. The action looked odd when it was performed by her, she thought. It made her slump down again, the idea that she held herself so poorly that even good posture looked foolish on her.  

 

Ever since the tour of the house had ended, Anne had spoken to her only once, and briefly, at that. She had been entertaining the other guests, which of course was expected, having only just met Ann, but she couldn’t help but feel bereft without her company or her wandering gaze. Anne’s brown eyes, crinkling at her as she asked do you like it? in that low voice of hers. Anne smirking at her across the room when Eliza made to woo her too much. Had she imagined it all? All the secret glances, the private smirks? She breathed out, tipping her head down over the sink. She felt so stupid, just as she had with Claire all those years ago. She’d created a fantasy in her mind that Anne Lister, intelligent and beautiful and successful, had been interested in her, and she scolded herself for letting her mind run amok at such a thought.

 

She looked back at her reflection, her eyes reddening. She closed them and willed herself not to let her anxiety get the best of her. It was fine, really—Ann preferred to be alone. She always had.

 

One, two, three deep breaths and she had pushed the feeling down. It was already getting late, the sun having set, and she was sure the Priestley’s would want to head home soon. Her mantra of just a few hours was soon to come to a close, and she’d be damned if she couldn’t make it another thirty minutes. She opened the door to the bathroom with a mind set to find Lady, a renewed sense of solitude humming in her ears, when she nearly collided with Anne Lister herself.

 

“Oh!” gasped Ann. She hadn’t expected anyone so close to the door and reached blindly behind her to close it. Feeling her hands grasp the wood, she pushed it closed with a soft click. She thanked God for the dim light above her, for it hid her flushed cheeks and still-red eyes. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She looked into Anne’s face and realized with a lurch that they were standing nearly chest to chest. Anne was a few inches taller than her, even in her slight heel, and she had to look up to meet her pointed gaze.

 

“Oh, it’s no worry,” she said softly, and Ann felt herself shiver all over again from the low timbre of Anne’s voice. “I was looking for you, actually.”

 

“Really?” It was too eager, Ann knew, but Anne’s face remained the same as she nodded.

 

“Come,” she said. “I want to show you something.” Anne turned with a start and Ann had no choice but to follow her. She led Ann through the hall, past the parlor and into her office, which was lit by only a single, yellow-toned lamp nestled in the corner of the room. It seemed smaller, now, without the sun, and Ann was almost taken aback by the difference. Anne fell gracefully to her to her previous perch only hours ago on the edge of the large oak desk. She folded her hands in front of her, and inclined her head toward Ann. “Sit down,” she said, no, ordered, and Ann balked but obeyed. Anne’s voice was assertive, inviting, but it wasn’t just that that made Ann follow her orders blindly. Her voice was telling Ann things she wanted to hear—it was difficult not to obey. She sat, allowing a generous distance between the two for her own sake, and Anne turned to her, effectively decreasing the space. I’ve always been fine on my own, Ann thought to herself. Thirty more minutes.The part of her mind that was so annoyingly keen on focusing solely on Anne Lister’s mouth was getting harder and harder to ignore. Ann was suddenly filled with the need so say… something, to break the silence that seemed only tense on her end.  

 

“Aren’t you worried about the desk breaking or something?” Ann laughed lightly, nervously. It sounded thin in the room. “It was the desk of a famous suffragette, was it not?” Anne let out a laugh, and it warmed Ann inside to know that she had caused it. The feeling was addictive, she thought, having such an impressive woman impressed with you, but she warned herself not to give in.

 

“This desk is probably stronger than one of those modern made couches in my living room,” she replied. There was a tinge in her voice of something, something of which Ann could not place. She couldn’t help but feel that Anne Lister was born in the wrong time, but all the while not knowing whether she belonged in the future or in the past. Anne sighed then, slouching as much as Anne Lister could slouch. It was oddly… humanizing, for such an impeccable person, and Ann bit her lip to keep from smiling. “I apologize, I haven’t had much time to talk with you tonight, and I feel quite bad.” She paused, looking at her. Ann held her smile at bay, but her strict regard for solitude made only minutes ago was steadily breaking. “I didn’t want you to get the wrong impression of me, or to think me rude.” I could never think you rude,were Ann’s immediate thoughts she deigned not share. She leaned back on the desk, balancing on her palms.

 

“No, no, you have guests, your friends, and, well, we’ve only just met—”

 

“That’s precisely the problem. I haven’t had any time to get to know you.” Their hands were close on the desk all of a sudden. Ann dared not look down, but she could see it in her periphery. She felt her heart beating with a new sense of vigor, and it seemed to her so loud that she wondered if Anne might hear it, too. The books lining the walls were pressing in on her, on them, and claustrophobia began to itch at her. “Now, the Priestley’s tell me you studied English?” Ann looked to Anne in mild surprise. She’d thought her major at University would sound dull compared to the many feats of Anne Lister but coming out of her mouth, it sounded like the most glorious thing in the world.

 

“I… yes, I did,” she responded, smiling lightly to cover her inward turmoil. “I have a part time job teaching now, in London.”

 

“What year?”

 

“High school. Upperclassmen, mostly.” Anne laughed at that.

 

“Well, I bet they love you.” It would have sounded biting and a touch cruel coming from anyone else, but the way Anne phrased it sounded almost… provocative. Ann breathed in slowly, choosing her words carefully.

 

“Why do you say that?” It sounded gravelly and rough in her mind, unpracticed. Anne smiled at her, and was her face closer now than it had been? Ann broke eye contact, looking to the side nervously, and felt their fingers touch. Was Ann’s hand drifting unconsciously, or was—

 

“I just wonder how they could possibly pay attention, with you as their teacher.” Her voice was pitched low and Ann was suddenly staring at her lips again. Anne shaped her words almost carelessly, her mouth always falling just slightly open. “What do you teach?”

 

“I teach a feminist literature class,” she said, her response delayed. Speaking seemed like a side thought, completely boring and mundane compared to the skim of Anne’s fingers against hers. “It’s more of an elective, which is why I only work part time.”

 

“Feminist literature,” Anne mused, brushing her fingers over Ann’s knuckles. “What novels?”

 

“A lot of the basics,” she replied hurriedly, and it was with painstaking care that her words did not come out as a sigh. The light brushes on her fingers were distracting and Anne was staring at her, holding her gaze while Ann stared back, helpless. “You know, Sylvia Plath, Kate Chopin…” Ann paused to swallow as Anne’s fingers brushed the inside of her wrist. “Margaret Atwood.”

 

“All lovely choices,” she said, her voice was slow and thoughtful. Something clouded her gaze for a moment and to Ann’s dismay she abruptly stood up. “I might have a book for you. Hold on just a moment.” Ann keenly felt the absence of her but watched as she scoured the bookshelves almost lazily before finding what she was looking for. Ann stared at the graceful arch of her arm as she reached up to grab a book, the stretch of her black shirt against her slim back. She could only imagine the taut feeling of her skin, the light but adept touches of her slim hands as she brushed them along the eager spines.

 

Anne turned around triumphantly with a burgundy book in her hand. She moved towards the desk, opening it and flipping through its pages. “It’s called Little Birds, have you heard of it?” Ann felt her mouth go slightly dry. It couldn’t be… “By Anais Nin.”

 

It was. Anne continued to flip through the book, examining the pages, completely oblivious to what she was doing to the woman next to her. Did Ann know it? Of course she knew Anais Nin, and of course she knew what was inside those pages. It made her blood warm, and her hands fidgeted where they were on the desk behind her. Anne appeared to have found a passage that pleased her, and she opened her mouth to speak. Anne’s stomach fluttered in anticipation. “‘With her eyes alone she could give this response,’” Anne read, “‘this absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness...’” Ann shivered at the alluring voice of Anne Lister. How could Ann have thought she wouldn’t have the perfect voice for reading? Notably, when reading feminist erotica from what looked like a first edition novel. She was poised and practiced, a thought that normally would have made Ann scoff, but now it only excited her. “‘Something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with a pleasure never known before.’” Ann sighed and watched Anne’s hands, thin and long, trail over the words as she spoke. It was a lulling, seductive spell, and Ann had fallen under it. She doubted she was the first.

 

Anne closed the book with a quiet sound. “It really is a true work of feminism. One of the first female erotica writers of her time, and she manages to truly depict a sense of feminine sensuality and lust.” Anne’s eyes were on hers, then, and her gaze was hot. She smiled broadly. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Ann could only nod slowly, awestruck and trying to hide it.

 

“Did you study literature at all, at university?” Ann’s voice was weak as Anne leaned closer to her.

 

“Yes, I did.” Her head was tilted to the side, and her gaze flickered across Ann’s face, landing at her lips. “It wasn’t my… main focus,” she murmured, and tucked a curl behind Ann’s ear. The breath she let out was less a breath than a shudder at Anne’s touch, warm and delicate, and the shudder reached down, past her shoulders and her chest and into her stomach, and then even further, and Ann shifted forward not entirely of her own accord to ease the ache.

 

“What was it then?” Ann said, forcing her eyes back to Anne’s. A look of confusion crossed Anne’s face.

 

“What?” she whispered, almost silent, and that was when Ann realized how utterly quiet it was in the room. She could only hear the muffled music from the television and the indistinguishable voices from behind the closed door.

 

“What was your main focus?” Anne paused and then laughed and leaned back, her hand leaving its place at Ann’s face and putting it over her own in a modest form of admonishment.

 

“I’m quite sorry,” she said, running a hand through her short hair and tossing a grin at Ann. “I’m afraid I had forgotten what we were talking about for a moment.” She crossed her arms in front of her, then, and motioned to the door with a nod. “I think it’s about time we get back to the other guests,” she said, smiling. No, no! Ann thought. Had she mucked everything up? She wasn’t quite sure what she’d done but Anne wasn’t looking at her anymore, and she felt her face fall as the woman stood and walked to the door.

 

Anne turned to her once she reached those glorious French doors, with the curtains drawn now, she saw, and winked at her. “Can I get you a drink?” Ann sighed with a tangible relief and nodded, even though she was still feeling warmth from the wine she’d had previously, perhaps mixed with the close proximity of Anne for the last few moments. That was the sort of thing that could leave her warm for longer than mere minutes. She stood and followed Anne through the door, pausing as she turned to her. “Here, take it.” Anne pressed the Anais Nin book into her hands. “You might find you like it.”

 

“Thank you,” she said, but Anne only nodded, and turned to stride into the room with a sort of confidence Ann wished to be able to wield. People greeted them, although they couldn’t have been gone for more than ten minutes. Eliza looked at her expectantly, with something in her eyes that Ann couldn’t quite place.

 

“Where’d you run off to with Miss Lister?” she asked pointedly—so it was suspicion, Ann thought, a little shiver rustling through her at the idea—and Ann grinned.

 

“Her study,” she said, holding up the book. “She lent me this—turns out she studied a bit of English herself.” Eliza scrutinized the title, but she’d never studied literature and wouldn’t know by the innocent cover and title what the book contained.

 

“That’s very kind of her,” she said, placated. “Didn’t I tell you how kind she was?” She leaned onto her husband with a smile, her cheeks tinged red, and that was when Ann realized how tipsy her dear friend was. And William didn’t look much better. He was animatedly laughing at something Joseph had said, both men enjoying the other’s company. Across from Eliza in a white upholstered chair was the woman Ann (hopefully) remembered as Marianna, one of Anne’s closest friends. She smiled at Ann, although it didn’t reach her eyes.

 

“Ann!” called Anne from the kitchen. “Come choose which bottle you want—I haven’t the faintest idea the difference between them.”

 

“Oh, dear, open the Pinot Gris we brought,” said Eliza, “and bring me a little.” She winked at Ann, and Ann had to giggle at the absurdity of seeing friends of her parents drunk. The pang that hit her at the remembrance of her parents was like a dull, constant ache she’d been reminded was there. It hurt, but not in the usual way—seeing the Priestley’s so happy made her want to smile. She was reminded of her parents, and how they might have been.

 

“I’ll be right back,” she said, and took Eliza’s empty glass from the table. She sighed and shook off the heaviness of the thought and moved to where the Pinot Gris that should doubtlessly remain unopened awaited.

 

 “Sorry to bother you,” Anne laughed, holding up two bottles of white wine. “Which would you like?” Her grin seemed utterly weightless.

 

“Eliza’s asked us to open the Pinot Gris she brought,” laughed Ann. “Apparently three bottles aren’t enough for her.”

 

“Oh, nonsense,” laughed Anne, setting about uncorking the wine with the most finesse Ann had ever seen. “Lots of people are sharing the wine, I’m sure she’s barely had any.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Ann said, and hovered in the archway. She looked upon the living area, seeing everyone cozy and nestled with their friends, families, lovers. John and Eugenie were sweet, both holding glasses in their hands, and Anne’s family was laughing heartily, Marian trying and failing to connect to the Bluetooth speaker and undoubtedly change the song.

 

“Aha!” came the exclamation behind her, and Ann turned to see a proud woman and a newly opened bottle, the former pouring the latter steadily into the two glasses on the counter. Ann watched her arm twist a little, not allowing the wine to drip between glasses, and while she claimed not to know much about the drink, Anne Lister certainly knew her way around a bottle of wine. She met Anne’s eyes with an unconscious smile. “Now I just need to make my drink.” Anne smiled at her, beckoning Ann over with a nod of her head. “It’s very difficult, so you must watch carefully.” She chattered on trivially about the hints of rye in her drink and the base notes of it, whatever that meant, but Ann wasn’t listening. She was watching Anne’s animated smile, her high brows lifting even higher as she unscrewed the cap of the dark liquor in front of her. Ann hardly watched as she tossed in some ice and poured a pull of whiskey into her glass—her gaze was trained solely on Anne’s face, the playful concentration pulling at her features, the pretentious words about the astute differences between whiskey and bourbon playing at her lips. It was mesmerizing, and Ann bit her lip. God, she was in trouble.  

 

“Ah, the finished product!” Anne lifted the glass to her lips and sipped. She sighed and threw a satisfied grin towards Ann. “A whiskey on the rocks. As you saw, it required immense skill to make.” Ann giggled in response, sipping at her wine. She really knew nothing about alcohol, other than the fact that most wine tasted like juice. Really, all these different fancy names and they tasted essentially identical. She laughed at the thought that Eliza might kill her for such a statement, scolding Ann’s lack of refined taste. God forbid she wasn’t sophisticated enough for Eliza’s high society friends!

 

“Would you like to try some?” Anne’s voice broke through her roaming train of thought, and with some embarrassment she realized she’d been staring. But at the thought of trying the whiskey, or any spirit at all for that matter, Ann’s face soured slightly.

 

“I’m not sure I’d really like the dark liquor,” she said, grimacing. “I’m much more of a Moscato kind of girl.”

 

“Oh, you must try it—what if you like it, and you would have lived your whole life never knowing how deliciousit was?” Ann met the woman’s eyes, thinking that no,dark liquor was something she doubted her weak taste buds would ever grow accustomed to, before a double meaning to her words sent a flutter to Ann’s stomach. Oh.

 

She would try the drink.

 

Lifting it to her lips, she sipped lightly at the already cold whiskey. It was… not as bad as she thought it would be, but it soured her face with displeasure. Whatever rye taste Anne had sought out was lost on Ann herself, and instead the drink tasted like what she might imagine diesel gas to taste, including the fuming feeling of it as Ann swallowed. Anne laughed heartily, taking the drink back from her. Ann shook her head, trying to shake off the bitterness it had left on her tongue and down her throat.

 

“I admit, it isn’t for everyone,” she laughed, handing Ann the wine. She sipped it, swishing it around for a moment to cleanse her palate and looking into Anne’s shining eyes. “Maybe one day I’ll get you onto a stronger mixed drink.”

 

“Perhaps,” she answered, and smiled at her. Maybe one day, she’d said, and it made Ann almost giddy to think about. Anne wanted to see her again, perhaps even be friendswith her. Oddly, her heart felt heavy at the thought, and her consciousness tugged at the carefully closed off corners of her mind. Anne’s eyes sparkled at her in mirth as they both made to drink at the same time, and Ann felt, in tandem, her heart lurch and the admittedly weakened walls in her mind start to fall.

 

“Anne, dear,” came a voice, and abruptly her gaze dropped from Ann’s. In the shadow of the archway where Ann had just been, stood Marianna, a small smile on her face. “I think I’d better head out soon, but I believe I left my coat in your room.” The words held a certain weight, and Ann struggled to determine why. Marianna’s face was expectant, kind, but there was something else there that Ann couldn’t quite place. Anne froze for a moment, her eyes glancing to Ann’s before looking back at Marianna.

 

“Yes, let me grab it for you.” Ann watched Anne move towards the stairs before Marianna stepped into her vision, blocking her view. Marianna was plain but pretty, with brown hair in a long bob, expertly curled. She had a youthful, round face that made it impossible for Ann to guess how old she was. It was her eyes that hinted at a maturity beyond her years—grey and solid and narrowed at Ann.

 

“She likes you.” It was a statement that really should have been of little consequence, but coming from her bowed lips, it felt like an accusation. Ann swallowed, toying nervously at the sleeve of her dress. She knew she looked meek, closed in, shoulders forward, but she had never been good at confrontation. Marianna tilted her head, a gesture that Ann had come to find complicit with Anne Lister, and her alone. It seemed she was wrong. “And you like her.”

 

“Well, I…” Ann started, looking to the left, then to the right of her. She daren’t meet Marianna’s grey eyes. “I do like her, yes.” Ann furrowed her brow. “She’s been nothing but kind to me tonight, and I find her conversation to be… very, ah, stimulating.” Marianna leaned toward her, forearms delicately on the counter, and Ann met her eyes again.

 

“She can be, yes,” she said. “Quite stimulating.” Her mouth punctured the consonants of the word, and Ann suddenly knew with exquisite clarity the extent of Anne and Marianna’s friendship. She felt her chest deflate, slowly, like a balloon that was left overnight and sinks to the ground, shriveled. “Be careful with her,” she said, frowning slightly. “For both your sakes.”

 


 

Anne Lister. The thought was in Ann’s mind as she sat in Marianna’s vacated chair and sipped her wine. The night had certainly gone differently than she had imagined, no thanks to the woman who occupied all of her thoughts. Currently, Anne was perched on the windowsill, laughing and drinking that disgusting whiskey thing she’d made Ann taste. The way she held it, wide and careless, seemed overwhelmingly masculine to her; but held in Anne’s long fingers it seemed perfectly at home.

 

Ann watched her face ignite in laugher at something Samuel had said, her eyes catching like dry tinder. It was intoxicating, Ann thought, sipping her wine again. Her movements, her laughter, her intelligence, her sense of humor. All else seemed to pale in comparison. Ann felt like a school girl, blushing and smiling every time the two women met eyes. It was absurd, really, the way her mind drifted when Anne brusquely shoved her sleeves up, revealing slender but strong forearms. Thinking of her skin, of her breath upon Ann’s neck as she stood behind her, and the distractingly beguiling way she had of stroking her middle finger on her glass when she was deep in thought, all made Ann a very poor conversationalist.

 

“I’m sorry, what was that?” she asked Eliza for the third time, and the woman sighed.

 

“You’re awfully absent minded,” she scolded, and Ann rolled her eyes. “What are you thinking about so intently?”

 

“W-well—” Ann started, struggling to push through her murky mind in search of a plausible excuse, yet finding none. Ever her unconscious savior, Anne Lister, in one fluid motion, sat lithely at the arm of her chair, effectively capturing Eliza’s attention and saving Ann from having to answer a, frankly, quite innocent question. She smiled and stretched to rest her hand behind Ann. Ann would have choked on her words had she not already paused and looked up the woman next to her.

 

“How are things over here?” Anne asked pleasantly, her voice smooth.

 

“Quite good, quite good,” Eliza responded, brandishing her empty wine glass. How many had that been? Three, four? “But I’m afraid,” she said, leaning in, “That neither Mr. Priestley nor myself is in a state to drive.” She sat back, setting the glass down with a smile. “I’d hate to make Ann drive us home…”

 

“Oh, it’s past ten already!” Anne cried, checking her wristwatch. Her response was fast, as if she were ready for it. And perhaps she was. “I wouldn’t have let you drive home if you’d tried.” Had the time really gone that fast? With a start, Ann realized she hadn’t checked the clock once since she’d been in the library—no, office—with Anne, a feat so rarely accomplished at social gatherings. Had anyone looked upon her, they might have thought she was having a good time.

 

“Oh, that’s so kind of you,” cooed Eliza with a smile, and Ann wanted to laugh at her. Her scheme to stay the night in such a beautiful cottage surely hadn’t gone unnoticed by Anne—she was much too clever to miss such a thing. But when she looked up at the woman, her eyes were on her own, and for a moment Ann thought that perhaps it had, in fact, been overlooked.

 

“I’ve an open guest room for you and William,” Anne said, tearing her eyes away. She moved her arm, then, and set it overtop Ann’s shoulders. It was meant as a friendly gesture, but Anne’s thumb brushed her shoulder slowly, methodically, and hidden from view. It seemed almost absent minded, but the motion sent a shiver through Ann to her core. “Ann can have my bed, I’m sure I can find a couch to sleep on.” With a start, Ann realized that the Priestley’s staying the night included her, as well. She’d be staying the night with Anne Lister. In her home. Possibly, if she agreed, in her bed.

 

“N-no, I couldn’t,” she said quickly, and Anne’s thumb on her shoulder stilled. She rushed to continue. “I just… I-I don’t want to force you to sleep on a couch in your own home.”

 

“That’s nonsense!” cried Anne, grinning at the Priestley’s, who were brimming over with gratitude and a sort of devilish accomplishment. “I have a chaise lounge in the room—I can take that.”

 

So, they’d be in the same room together. Ann tried to force a smile but could do nothing but stare up at the woman next to her. Anne was fingering her glass again, the same, steady movement, and Ann felt her chest seize. She had no idea how she would survive the night. Not with Anne Lister in the same room.

Chapter Text

People began leaving shortly after Marianna. First were Jeremiah and his wife, who had been fairly quiet all evening, and the pair of whom Anne explained to her were more rivals than friends. Inconveniently, social niceties implied he might be snubbed if she’d failed to invite him. Ann had rolled her eyes at it, of course, but understood how difficult it could be to maneuver family politics more than Anne would ever know. Even before her parents and brother had passed away, her extended family had always been grappling for her money—albeit in a far subtler way than sending her a card sparing less than a line of greeting before jumping to the point at hand, an incident of which had happened quite recently. She was a high school teacher for Christ’s sake, in London—did they really think she was in a place to lend them three thousand dollars?

 

Joseph and Samuel left together, thanking Anne for her hospitality and her delicious food. Both men took a large bag of leftovers home with them, claiming amnesty under the guise of it being for their wives, but Ann, and it seemed everyone else, knew better. Then followed Elizabeth, who had turned out to be one of Anne’s old teachers she was still in touch with. Anne had mistakenly called her “Ms. Cordingly” and it gave everyone a bit of a laugh to see Anne’s blunder, an occasion of which few were privy to. “She inspired me beyond belief,” Anne said of the woman as she was leaving, causing Elizabeth to turn red and mumble a self-deprecating string of nothings until Anne forced her out the door. Elizabeth hadn’t stopped talking about how proud she was of Anne, and if her mother could see her now, what she might’ve said. It made Ann smile, seeing the two women reminisce.

 

John and Eugenie were red faced and giggling when Anne showed them to their room, and her father and aunt seemed to have found their way to theirs after a brusque hug goodnight from Anne that precariously walked the line between loving and violent. Now, as William tended to Lady (thank goodness they had brought her things), it was Marian, Anne, Eliza, and Ann set to cleaning up the kitchen. Because of course, the men couldn’t be bothered to help.

 

“Where would you like the rest of the cheese and prosciutto?” asked Eliza. “Save it, or should I just toss it?”

 

“Save it,” Anne replied, handing her a glass Tupperware dish. “I’m sure someone in this house will eat it.” Ann watched as Anne bent over the sink, wetting and soaping up the sponge to wash the dishes. It was a surprisingly domestic picture, she thought, and something she hadn’t thought she’d find such pleasure in. She watched as a dark lock of hair fell into Anne’s eyes. She jerked her head to rid it from her line of sight, but the action proved futile and it fell back again. It was the warmth in Ann’s belly and in her mind from the wine that failed to prevent the affectionate smile from growing on her face.

 

“Let me,” said Ann, too quietly, but nonetheless she reached and placed the lock behind the woman’s ear. Anne paused, her hands stilling in the dishwater before turning her face to look at Ann’s. Her eyes, normally so alight with energy, were hard now, a blank slate, and Ann wondered faintly if they could be keeping something at bay.

 

“Thank you, Ann,” she nearly whispered, and Ann would have shivered had so many people not been around. She barely heard the scrape of a knife on a plate, or the opening of the refrigerator—not when Anne’s dark brown eyes were zeroed in on her own, like murky shadows she longed to dive into. Marian scoffed from behind her, and Ann turned sharply to see her rolling her eyes.

 

“I suppose I’ll be in my room,” she said, base, putting some food in the fridge. “Sleeping on a couch, seeing as my own sister can’t even offer me a real bed.”

 

“Goodnight, Marian,” said Anne, and Ann giggled a little at it before she realized Anne’s eyes hadn’t left hers, and her hands remained still in the sink. Something ebbed at the edges of her eyes like waves, and Ann watched, looking closer, forsomething

 

“Now, what should we do about the wine?” asked Eliza, and at that both women turned away hurriedly. Ann swallowed thickly before responding.

 

“I think you’ve had quite enough,” she laughed, scolding Eliza playfully in an effort to distract herself from the reverie she could not, for the life of her, stop falling into. Eliza scoffed, pretending to be affronted by the accusation.

 

“I certainly wasn’t going to drink more, for goodness sake, Ann!”

 

“Just put the cork in the bottles,” Anne said, scrubbing at a wooden cutting board with a renewed force. “The red can stay out but put what’s left of the white in the fridge.” Eliza nodded and did just that, while Ann leaned against the counter awkwardly, looking for things to do. Eliza had grabbed a rag and was pristinely wiping down the counter, and all the food had been put away, the trash thrown in the annoyingly aesthetically pleasing bin—it was garbage, she thought, it shouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing!—and Ann, in her dazed state, was at a loss for what menial kitchen chores could keep her close to Anne. It was a moment before Anne turned to her with a smile, one eyebrow raised.

 

“Would you care to dry?” she asked, a bit of an amused tilt to her grin, and she nodded towards the accumulating pile of dishes. Ann reddened.

 

“Yes, of course,” she said hurriedly, scolding herself for not offering to help sooner. She sent a prayer to God that she wouldn’t drop anything and break some doubtlessly expensive piece of crystal and grabbed a towel off the stove to begin.

 

William soon returned with Lady in tow, to whom Anne gave a kinder goodnight than she had any member of her family. She nodded towards Argus’ cage in the mudroom where the dog could sleep for the night, and she padded happily over to the large dog bed and curled up next to the larger, wiry animal. Eliza gave her a small hug and then the Priestley’s vanished upstairs, well-wishing their nights and heading to the open guest room which Anne explained was the closest to the stairway. They heard rather than saw the soft click of the door as it closed, which coated the room in a thick layer of silence.

 

And just like that, they were alone. The washing and dish-drying was, besides the faint tinkling of music from the other room, a mostly silent affair. Ann took immense care not to drop anything in her slightly tipsy state. It didn’t help that she grew weak at the knees every time Anne’s elbow brushed her or any time she caught sight of her stunning profile against the white cabinetry. She could see from this angle the thin dark hairs curling at the nape of her neck, still bent over the sink. Anne brushed her hair back with her arm, something that would have looked clumsy by anyone else’s hand but looked purposeful on her, and swiftly turned to look at Ann.

 

“Ann?” she said, raising a brow quizzically. Ann turned away, her face stinging from the shame of being caught staring. Good Lord, she needed to stop sipping the wine, she thought. Her gaze seemed heavy and slow, and her mind was wandering into places she never would let it go during the daylight. “Is everything alright?”

 

“Yes,” Ann responded, looking back to her. “I suppose I’m a bit tired, is all.” A look passed over Anne’s face then, and she turned back to the sink.

 

“Leave these,” she murmured, putting the last few glasses on the drying towel and wiping her hands on her pants. “I want to show you something.” Without warning, Anne’s hand clasped around her own, pulling her towards a pair of French doors even grander than the ones that led into her office. Her hands were warm and slightly damp from the dishwater, but Ann didn’t mind—in fact, she relished only in the fact that Anne’s hand was touching hers, feeling warm and solid in her grasp.

 

Then, the night air was upon her, cold and humid upon her bare ankles and tickling her neck with a slight breeze. It was pitch black outside, and Anne closed the door behind them, stepping forward onto the small patio. Ann hadn’t been out there—it hadn’t been a part of the tour she’d been given at the beginning of the evening, and even if she’d seen it through a window it was hard to recognize in the dark.

 

“Look up,” Anne whispered, squeezing her hand. She hadn’t realized she was still holding it, but she did as she was told.

 

Stars were one of the many things that Ann took for granted—they were just another pretty facet of nature, like streams and hills and much of what she’d simply grown up with. But the stars she saw that night were nothing to be taken for granted. They shone so brightly it was almost violent, layers of light and patterns she couldn’t even begin to comprehend. They spread so widely, across the entire expanse of the sky like they were endless, like they went on for eternity.

 

Anne was smiling wide, her face alight with something akin to excitement. Ann was more and more aware of her hand in Anne’s, but the woman didn’t look at her, even as Ann watched her awed face.

 

“Aren’t they beautiful.” It was less a question than it was a statement of utter admiration. “Can you believe that something like this even exists?” she laughed and finally turned to Ann. The light from inside illuminated one side of the woman’s face, eyes crinkled with amazement. “The universe is so expansive, so enormous and yet we are here, living and loving one another and laughing like it’s our own little universe. We’re content with just this, seeing the stars from trillions of miles away, assigning constellations to our birth months and we are so consumed with ourselves.” She breathed in deeply, stepping towards Ann. “I like to come out here to remember just how small we are—that no matter what happens down here, there is so much more out there to wonder about, to explore.”

 

“Doesn’t it make you feel grateful, though?” asked Ann quietly. The night was loud with crickets and frogs from the lake nearby, and her thoughts were still slow and muddled. She struggled a little to articulate her words into actual sentences, not just some prattling jargon that would pale in comparison to Anne’s ever-intelligent euphemisms. “You are a part of so many people’s worlds, you know. Their tiny universes—you make them better just by being around them.” That startled a laugh from Anne, whose smile was still wide in the dimness.

 

“Was that a compliment, Miss Walker?” she asked, and Ann felt her lips part in surprise. No one called her Miss Walker other than her students, and most of the time they called her Ann simply to spite her. Anne’s gaze was low, not on Ann’s eyes but on her mouth, and out of habit Ann wet her lips self-consciously. She watched, as if in a dream, as Anne took her bottom lip between her teeth, an almost imperceptible but utterly disarming movement. Ann’s mind flashed back to Anne Lister’s hands, her forearms, the hair at the nape of her neck, and her lips, oh, God, her lips. Ann felt a stirring in her stomach, no, deeper, and she shivered from it. Anne frowned at her, placing her hands on her shoulders.

 

“You’re cold,” she said, and Ann wanted to say no, it’s you, you make me feel weak at the knees and wanton and perfectly undone. Of course, she said none of this. Was she a coward for holding on tight to her desires, worried that if she let them go, they would be poison? Ann wanted nothing more than to be outside, the night air like a wash of cool on her too-warm body, the light of the stars casting a dreamlike glow on the both of them. Outside, nothing felt real. There were no rules, no forbidden touches, no gaudy displays of politeness or civility when civil was the last thing Ann wanted to be around Anne Lister. In the dark, they seemed small, inconsequential, yet so large at the same time.

 

But Ann was a coward, and she allowed Anne to gently pull her back inside the house. She realized the music was still playing, and Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac—finally, a song she recognized—was casting an enigmatic atmosphere over the great room. Eliza had turned off one of the lights when she’d returned to her room, and shadows hung in the corners, making the room seem almost secretive in its darkness. Ann exhaled slowly, a forced, even sound, to steady herself.

 

“I haven’t listened to this song in so long,” she murmured, and turned to smile at Anne. She’d meant it as a way to break their silence, to ease her own tension, but the tone of her voice was too soft for only that. The woman grinned, eyes sparkling, and Ann’s mind drifted as she wondered how her eyes could just do that, just sparkle on command and bring any woman to her knees in front of her. Anne held out her hand to Ann.

 

“Care to dance?” It was so absurd Ann almost had to laugh—dancing in the kitchen at nearly midnight to Fleetwood Mac, a band her parents had listened to almost religiously before their passing. She smiled. Life needed its absurd moments, she decided.

 

She slipped her hand into Anne’s and the woman swung her towards her, putting an arm on her shoulder and holding her hand out to the side, an altogether very formal movement. Ann giggled and glanced down, not wanting her eyes to betray her now that she was so close. What would she see, Ann thought, if she looked into them? They moved to the beat of the music, and Anne sent her into a twirl just to take her back into her arms and hold her even nearer than before. Ann felt the woman’s arm curl around her neck, lightly resting on her hair. She willed herself to breath evenly. Would you stay if she promised you Heaven? Will you ever win?

 

Their heads leaned together, resting side by side, temple to temple. The air stilled like it had outside. They were stars in the sky, moving for themselves and themselves alone. Anais Nin had said that people were made up of layers and cells and constellations—Anne’s hand reached down and held Ann at her waist, pulling her closer. What would be their constellation name? Ann let the thought slip, immediately wanting to pull it back inside, to not believe it was real. Holding her close, too close, certainly, for friendship, was the kind of woman that made Ann want to become a constellation, that made her believe she could be a star in the sky.

 

Ann felt a hand on her hair and a breath at the base of her neck all in one moment, and she nearly collapsed into Anne with a desperate sigh. How had this woman who she barely knew have drawn these feelings from her? Anne’s fingers splayed on the small of her back, and she felt the warmth of it beneath the linen of her dress.

 

“Can I kiss you?” It was so soft a statement Ann would not have heard it if her ear hadn’t been so close to Anne’s mouth. It made her skin tingle, her face sting, her throat close. Yes, yes! she wanted to say, but nothing came out but a choked breath. Anne could have asked her anything and her answer would have been yes, always yes, but she was speechless. She was—

 

She was pressing her lips softly, gently, to the skin of Ann’s neck and Ann’s fingers tightened on Anne’s shoulders unthinkingly. The opulent brush of her lips fell on the skin above her collar bone, then up to her pulse point, and then to the corner of her ear where Ann could hear her gentle, quiet breaths. Anne drew back and Ann looked into her eyes and saw something reveal itself, something she couldn’t quite define. It was much like how she imagined her own eyes to look, she realized, and then ever so gently, Anne pressed her lips to hers.

 

Anne Lister was kissing her. The idea that she’d want to, that she’d want Annwas enough to make her hands curl in pleasure. She pressed back, her eyes closed, reminding herself of the rhythm. With a start, she realized it had been over a year since she’d kissed anyone at all.

 

Anne’s lips were gentle, hazy, questioning. Is this alright?they asked, is this too much? God, how she had yearned for this in deep corners of her mind and they were coming out, fast, like a dam breaking and flooding her consciousness. Anne’s hand curled at the nape of her neck, holding her hair gently, too gently, and Ann wondered how she had gone so long without this exquisite pleasure. Kissing Gregory had been nothing like this, with its gentle, artful sways and graceful dips like a dance she already knew the choreography for. His had been sloppy and she’d wondered why making out was such a common pastime among her peers, when she had much preferred a good book. She understood it now. With a sigh Anne broke off from her, looking questioningly into her eyes, she chided herself for her foolishness. How could that have ever been enough, when there was this?

 

Anne brushed one cheekbone and then the other with her slender thumbs, gazing into Ann’s eyes. God, if she only knew what she was doing to her… When Anne came back down, Ann was ready with insistent lips, open and clamoring for hers. She heard Anne let out a low, breathy sound that made her ache,and she grabbed at Anne’s waist, her hands slipping just so under the fabric of her shirt and feeling the skin bared there. Anne made a choked sound at the touch and pushed lightly at Ann, backing her into the countertop behind her. Was this really happening?Ann’s brain was blank, thoughts limp as Anne licked at her lips, holding her chin firmly in her hand. The touch made her frail, and had she not been neatly pressed between the counter and Anne herself she imagined she might have fallen to the ground.

 

Anne dove back towards her mouth, nipping lightly on Ann’s lower lip. Ann cried out a little in surprise and then there it was—French kissing, which had seemed so detestable before, was now utterly glorious. Anne’s mouth tasted like whiskey and something sweet, her lips careless now and shameless with want. Ann sighed as Anne’s hands found her hips, her waist, her breasts over the dress, and Anne’s fingers played at the tie on the front.

 

“This dress,” she murmured, moving down to kiss Ann’s neck, her head falling black in pleasure. Her voice was dark, and it made Ann clutch her waist even harder. Anne pulled the string and it fell open slightly, and Anne’s mouth was already moving fast to her chest. Ann felt her hips move involuntarily against the woman’s, and Anne hissed, pressing even closer than before. Where Ann should have felt pain on her back, the sharp counter digging into her, she felt only the pleasure that began to pool low in her stomach. She felt ravenous, hungry in a way she’d never felt before and Anne sucked roughly at the skin above her breast. “You have no idea,” she whispered against her skin, and Ann let out a muffled cry as she buried her hands in Anne’s short hair, nails scratching her skull as she brought her mouth back up to meet hers. She wanted to drink from Anne’s lips, whatever she was offering, even if it was the most vulgar, rye-tasting whiskey in the world.

 

Ann was sloppy now, desperate with her kisses but Anne didn’t seem to mind. Her hands were roaming everywhere, lifting her skirts and brushing at the skin above her knee. “Oh, God,” Ann sighed, prompting Anne to push further, her hands sliding up the flesh of her thigh and lifting goose bumps in a trail where it went. So, this was want.

 

“Anne, dear,” came a voice from the stairwell, and Anne nearly jumped off her in abrupt surprise. Anne smoothed her shirt and patted down her hair and left a somewhat dazed Ann standing open-mouthed at the counter. It was all Ann could do in her mangled state of mind not to reach for her meekly, feeling bereaved of her presence. She came to her senses—barely—and yanked her dress back into place just as Eliza Priestley poked her head out from the stairwell. She took in the sight of them, standing feet apart now, disheveled and breathing hard, and laughed. “Did I frighten you or something, ladies?”

 

“No, not at all,” answered Anne, her usual, confident self, despite the fact that her hair remained in slight disarray from the path Ann’s hands had vigorously made. A piece stuck up in the back, and Ann felt fondness and a definitive something elsecourse through her. “What did you need?” Eliza looked at them, somewhat dubiously, before answering.

 

“William and I just wanted to know which bathroom we should be using,” she said, smiling tightly. Ann watched her face for any sign that she might have heard them, but Eliza had always been good at hiding her emotions. Good Lord, she thought. What if she had heard them?It made her stomach churn, chasing away the recklessness she had felt only moments ago, and she felt the familiar anxiety begin to suffocate her. She was staying yet another week with them, and she doubted they would take kindly to her fondling their friend while they slept upstairs. She could only imagine the car ride home, alternating between tense silences and spurts of chastising lectures.

 

“Whichever you’d like, Eliza,” replied Anne in an almost terse voice, and Ann realized they both knew Eliza’s nosy reason for coming to ask the question. “I hope you’ll find everything comfortable.”

 

“Oh, yes, it’s lovely,” she responded, looking between the two of them and hovering on the stairs for just a little too long. A pause. “Well, goodnight then.” She nodded at them and walked back up the stairs, and Anne offered her a curt wave.

 

As Eliza walked back to her room, Ann felt a bubble of something inside her threaten to burst. At first, she thought it was anxiety, the terror of almost getting caught and the possible humiliation she’d just barely avoided, but as it grew, she realized it was… laughter. Ann let out a snort as she heard Eliza’s door shut with a click, and Anne turned to her, high brows furrowed. That only made Ann giggle more, and soon Anne was watching with a grin as Ann broke down into a fit of laughter against the counter. Anne shook her head at her, joining in a little, and Ann briefly wondered at how crazed she must look.

 

“I’m sorry,” she breathed, slowing down her giggles and trying to take deep breaths. “That was just so…”

 

“Ridiculous?” Anne offered, and Ann nodded.

 

“Good Lord,” she said, tossing her hair behind her back. She was sure it looked absolutely atrocious with what Anne’s hands had been doing. The women looked at each other for a moment before Anne sighed and nodded towards the stairs.

 

“Shall we go to bed now?” she asked, and Ann nodded sheepishly before following her up the stairway.

 

 


 

 

An oversized Cambridge crewneck, red, with the emblem emblazoned on the front was what she’d grabbed from the designated “sleep drawer” that Anne had directed her to. It rested in her hands as another reminder that Anne was intrinsically perfect, pretentious college and all. She looked at herself in the gilded mirror and sighed. Ann looked thoroughly disheveled, her hair tangled and loose, her mouth just barely swollen with kisses. Her lip gloss was long gone, and she felt her chest flutter at the thought. Good Lord, she thought to herself, trying and failing to stop the replay of the events that had just transpired play in her mind. The memory of Anne moving her mouth from her neck to her chest, her hand clutching Ann’s dress dangerously, sent a shock of warmth through Ann’s core.

 

She slipped off her dress and stood in just her underwear, trying to focus. What did the night entail? She had eyed a chaise lounge in the corner of the room that would barely fit Anne’s height—would she sleep there, or in her bed? Would Ann offer to switch, cowardly as she was, and spend the night regretting her timid nature? And then, surely, she’d wake in the morning and be gone, never hearing from Anne Lister again and sharply feel the disappointment that she’d not done something more, and that she’d been a disappointment herself.

 

Ann pulled the sweatshirt over her head and set about washing her face with what Anne had on the sink. She swished mouthwash for a few moments, refusing to look herself in the eye. Yes, a coward she was. She finished finally and stepped back, taking in her bare legs and messy hair and dreary eyes, wishing she were more like Anne. Hereyes were bright, never tired and weary from the disappointment Ann so often felt. Ann sighed. She should offer to take the chaise lounge, she thought. She left the bathroom, brushing through the gauzy curtains and took her folded dress out into the room, laying it next to the bed. The light had been switched off, and the room was coated in a pale glow from a single bedside lamp.

 

Anne was in a white tank top and low hanging drawstring pants—black, but was she surprised? —and she looked up when Ann walked in the room. She’d been sitting on the chaise lounge but had just stood up and was holding her hands tightly in front of her. The nervous gesture Ann had felt herself perform so often looked entirely out of place on the woman, now that she knew what a commanding presence she was. Ann suddenly had an unmatched view of the peak of her hips, the stark skin of her shoulders and collarbones Ann had not earlier been privy to. She saw Anne’s eyes widen, almost imperceptibly, before she let out a small laugh.

 

“Are you trying to kill me?” Anne said softly, and Ann blanched at the tone of her voice. It was most certainly the other way around, she thought, watching Anne run a hand through her hair, shadows cast rakishly on her biceps and annunciating a strong cheekbone. “I’ll be right back,” Anne said lightly. “I’ve just got to freshen up.” She brushed Ann’s shoulder as she walked past. Ann breathed in and out, then did it again, trying to school her nerves.

 

Ann felt restless, suddenly, tapping her finger nervously against her side. She wanted to pace the room, but the thought of Anne walking out and catching her snooping made the embarrassment it would cause too much to risk. Anne had made up the small couch in the corner of the room and folded the sheets and duvet invitingly. It was perfect, annoyingly so, and it was with a heavy heart that Ann felt herself collapse on the bed, fearing she might have disturbed the neat corners. She tried to imagine the thread count of the sheets underneath her and felt a laugh bubbling in her chest at the thought that she couldn’t count as high. Nonetheless, that feelinginside her ebbed on, and she felt reflexively fidgety.

 

In a last-ditched attempt to relax, Ann began counting the beams on the ceiling, much as one might count sheep when trying to fall asleep. It was these small, unremarkable calming mechanisms that tended to help her the most when she felt the familiar drag of her anxiousness, pulling at her ribcage and dragging it to the ground. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth, repeating it, treating the tumultuous feeling in her stomach like she would any other wave of anxiety.

 

But it didn’t pass. Unlike her usual hand clenching, stomach dropping dread, this feeling was more volatile, more charged. Her hands clenched, but when they did, she wasn’t trying to ease her nervousness—she was imagining holding dark, sable hair in her fists, fingers digging into a scalp. Instead of the familiar hollowness filling her stomach, she felt butterflies in its place. Her head was pounding, but that—well, that was from the wine.

 

Ann closed her eyes, breathing out slowly and trying to drive out the image of Anne taking her sweatshirt off—Good Lord, was there no end to this strangely acute form of suffering? Ann distinctly heard the water faucet stop in the poor excuse for a bathroom and took in a deep breath. She had to calm herself before Anne came out there, thinking she was some sort of hysteric, clutching the sheets and staring longingly at the ceiling. What the Hell was she even doing, here in this woman’s bed? She should be lying on the chaise lounge, covered in a blanket and attempting to nod off to sleep, not writhing on these sheets—Good Lord, what the Hellwas the thread count on these?

 

“Ann?” came a voice, and Ann sprang up, sitting at the edge of the bed with her hands clutched tightly in front of her. Anne was leaning against the doorway, looking at her with an odd expression Ann couldn’t place. “Did I frighten you?” Her words were a joke, an allusion to what Eliza had said to them not fifteen minutes ago, but Ann couldn’t find it in herself to laugh at the jest.

 

“No,” she replied, and her voice came out even, much to her surprise. Well, she should be thankful for small mercies. “Sorry, I just—” But then Anne was moving towards her, sitting by her on the bed, their legs too close for Ann’s eager mind to even begin to try to ignore. Up close, Ann could see the thin fabric of her tank top, the sharp bones of her shoulders, the little strip of skin between her waist band and the shirt itself. Ann could smell her again, too—all too clearly.

 

Anne turned her head slightly to look at her. “Ann, what is it?” Ann looked at her—smooth, tanned skin, a defined nose and mouth, the one, slightly crooked eye tooth that was more like a little piece of beauty in itself than a chip in the paint of Anne Lister. Ann’s mind was… whirring, to say the least, and Anne’s closeness wasn’t doing the least bit to help her. The restlessness she felt now was simply a symptom of being near Anne, of holding her gaze and feeling warmth hum in her veins. A vague, distant part of her mind that she’d been listening to all night told her it was just the wine, she should simply go to sleep, that this thing wasn’t worth doing when it was weighed with its obvious consequences. But by now, the seemingly distant memory of Claire had faded and morphed into a dark haired, dark eyed woman with a strong chin that drew smiles and laughs from her as easily as if they were breaths. The swish of auburn hair on a pillow was replaced with strong yet delicate and gentle hands brushing a curl behind Ann’s ear. Claire’s laughter, if she could even remember it now, was drowned out by Anne’s vivid smile and her low, soft chuckles. So, this was desire, she thought again. This was how it felt to want someone so badly her skin prickled, and her hair stood up on end. 

 

She would not sleep on the chaise lounge.

 

With a new rush of bravery and a little bit of determination, Ann leaned forward and pressed her lips to Anne’s.

Chapter Text

When Anne had imagined how the night might have gone, she’d imagined many things. Three o’clock, on the dot, her family would arrive. Marian would complain about something, most likely the array of food or perhaps the finishes she’d chosen, and her father would demand dinner at the early hour. This request she would thus mollify with a smattering of miniature croissant sausages. Shortly after that—five or ten minutes—would arrive Marianna, dressed acutely in some sort of form fitting dress. Anne had been correct not only about the choice of clothing, but the punctuality of her old friend as well. Some things never changed.

 

John and Eugenie would come soon after, Anne had guessed around four o’clock. They’d ooh and ah over the house, and then crack open whichever bottle of wine they had brought. On Eugenie’s part, a tall glass would be required, and a lesser pour for John—the poor man had always been a lightweight. Elizabeth would be late, and Joseph and Samuel would arrive, if not together, around the same time. The Priestley’s were always somewhere in the middle, never too early and never too late, in an almost infuriatingly precise consistency.

 

What she hadn’t imagined was that the “young guest” the Priestley’s had in tow would be so… pretty. It hadn’t helped that she and Marianna had long since fallen out of their old, familiar rhythm and had already been at each other’s throats from the moment she’d arrived. Or that Anne had always had a sort of thingfor blondes. It alsodidn’t help that the girl had seemed so enthralled with her from the moment they laid eyes on one another—really, when she looked back on the evening, she’d shown admirable restraint.

 

What Anne certainly had not imagined, nor expected in the least, was… well, this.Ann, shy, lip-biting Ann, kissing her with more passion than she’d felt in a long, long time. Her open-mouthed kisses wreaked havoc on the control she’d adorned herself with so carefully. It was like ropes breaking on the barge of a ship, setting it off into dangerous, uncharted waters, and she could almost feel them snapping with each brush of Ann’s hands on her shoulders, or her shy fingers grazing the skin of her face.

 

Anne kissed back, softly and gently, always gently, her mind haphazardly bouncing between their previous kiss (had it really been just one, though, she thought with a smirk) and the way Ann’s lips were growing more and more insistent upon hers. God, that dress had been something to look at. Anne had never really felt herself turned on by the color before, sort of a blush that was probably on trend that season. But watching the thin fabric slip off of Ann’s shoulders, and watching just as closely as she absentmindedly tugged it back up with a bite of her lip or a tuck of golden hair behind her ear had convinced Anne again and again that, despite all her misgivings about the color, pink was sexy.

The girl made it very hard for her to focus on anything, really—always there at the edge of her vision, a little shy, yes, but lighting up the room nonetheless with a youthful spark and a laugh that sounded more like a bell than anything else. Anne had tried her best not to be disarmed by her light, the passion completely unhidden in her blue eyes. It was lovely—refreshing, really—her open, plain honesty, just as lovely as the turn of her nose or the strong jawline that softened when those pale pink lips parted, letting out a breath just inches away from Anne’s face.

 

When they’d been in her office, Anne had been so preoccupied with staring at the woman’s lips that she’d completely lost track of the conversation—it had taken all of her concentration to pull herself back into some semblance of respectability. Why Ann made it so difficult to perform her usual charming subterfuges she didn’t know—her focus broke at the slightest change in Ann’s eyes or the flicker of the set of her mouth. Anne felt that familiar grip of control and authority over her mind and body begin to falter, to rip and tear whenever Ann so much as touched her arm or reached to place a lock of hair behind Anne’s ear while she did the dishes—not citing any specificexamples, of course.

 

She felt Ann’s hand reach up behind her and curl her fingers into the nape of her neck, nails scratching and sending tantalizing shivers down Anne’s spine. Ann’s fingers were insistent, pleading with Anne’s predominant nature to just let go, and she was reminded of how emphatic Ann had been downstairs when Anne had all but jumped her. Reign it in, Anne, she thought to herself. You’re not twenty anymore. But she felt as though she was. Perhaps it was Ann’s light, emanating from her eyes, her laugh, her smile, or maybe it was—

 

Maybe it was the way Ann yanked her hair in a way that made Anne hiss with pleasure-pain, that made her lurch forward and capture Ann’s bottom lip between her teeth and pull in admonishment just to hear Ann’s gasp. Or the way Ann was careening herself into her lap, wanting nothing but closeness between their meager but still apparent layers of clothing. The way Ann hummed in her mouth with pleasure as Anne slipped her tongue inside, brushing her own.

 

Ann slipped Anne’s tank top straps from her shoulders and bent down to delicately kiss her there, her skin smooth and tanned from the summer sun. Anne let out a sigh, but whether it was for the lack of Ann’s lips on hers or the sweet brush of her lips on her collar bone she did not know. She reached down to hold Ann by the hips, and then felt a surprising brush of skin beneath her fingers. Lord, how had she forgotten? The unlikely gift of her oversized Cambridge sweatshirt, barely covering the girl and carelessly sliding off of one shoulder, skimming the tops of her thighs. The thing was a tease in and of itself. Many lovers had worn it before, she’d admit, but none with such sincere demureness as Ann had.

 

She wished, then, that what she did was for Ann and Ann’s pleasure alone, but when she reached down to palm the smooth skin of Ann’s thighs, it was entirely for her own gratification. The pale, almost ivory freckled skin was like silk underneath her wandering hands, reaching, grasping as Ann sighed into her ear, electing goosebumps down her spine. Anne reached up further, her hands grasping gently at Ann’s ass, afraid that she’d hurt her if she grabbed too hard, if she pushed back and gave in to what those carefully crafted restraints held back. She’d always been a generous lover, that was no problem. But to seek her own baser instincts, as her mind was whispering for her to do now, was what Anne refused to do. What little she knew of Ann Walker told her this—she had not done something like this before.

 

Ann sighed again in her ear and nibbled at her neck, and almost involuntarily Anne felt her hands tightened where they lay. Ann let out a sort of squeak in her ear, and Anne pulled back, terrified she might have hurt her. Ann’s face was in disarray—her hair mussed and falling into her eyes which were heavily lidded, her lips swollen with kisses and parted so delicately she looked almost like a doll. She was dainty, ravished, really, and it sent a lick of fire to Anne’s core to know that she was the one that had done it.

 

With careful precision, Anne slowly leaned forward and pressed her lips, once, twice, to Ann’s before pulling back again. Ann had leaned forward, chasing her kiss, and now rested her nose upon Anne’s cheek as Anne brought her hands to rest on the dip of her hips. Their breaths fell and rose in tandem, quickened by the urgency of their kisses, and Anne felt a rumble beneath her—something like laughter, a giggle of sorts from Ann.

 

“Well,” Ann whispered, and let out another laugh. “Don’t stop now.” Those words did something to her. In one fluid motion, Anne’s hand was on the back of Ann’s head and their lips were slanting across each other’s again as if they had never stopped. Ann smiled against the kiss, but Anne felt only the need rising up in her stomach and into her chest. She wanted Ann closer, pressed against her, belonging to her. Ann’s hands wound her way around her neck as they deepened the kiss, which had begun to border on frantic by the way the two women pressed at each other. Anne’s mind was swimming, her hand placement, normally so carefully calculated, shifted and her hands diverted their courses along her back, arms, legs, and face. She could smell her again, now that they were so close. Sweet vanilla, such a delicious fucking scent, and in an urge to envelop herself in the smell she pressed her mouth into the skin of Ann’s neck. Ann mewled above her and Anne moved madly upwards, laboring to be gentle. Ann gasped as Anne nipped at her earlobe, and she tried to remain mindful not to leave marks, hence any questions be asked in the morning. Because there would already be questions enough.

 

The thought made Anne pull back, albeit only slightly—but it sobered her. In the morning, would Ann think herself just another conquest or sorts, some Friday night fling to be tossed off? Would the Priestley’s suspect something of her, perhaps, and trouble Ann into thinking that she’d somehow made a mistake? Or worse, if she came to that conclusion without any of their help at all. The thought made Anne’s stomach drop.

 

The kisses slowed. Even with her rapid heartbeat, uncertainty began to rear its ugly head. Ann was young, really, much younger than Anne herself. Perhaps it was the novelty of it all, or the house that’s beauty sometimes managed to overshadow her, a sort of seductress itself. No bother, really. She was just another blonde, however bright eyed and passionate, that would change her mind and be just as easily replaced. It was no matter. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before, and by then, she was made of steel and pragmatism. She would not be hurt again.

 

Then, Anne felt herself being shoved backwards somehow, landing on the bed, her head flat against the mattress. Above her, hands perched on her shoulders, upstretched arms led to a determined and—God, was she beautiful—face, smirking at her as she pinned her to the bed. Now, this was only another thing Anne hadn’t been expecting, least of all from little Miss Walker.

 

She felt all the fight run out of her, Anne’s brain turning to mush at the sight before her. She watched as Ann stretched her legs, those pale, smooth thighs, to rest to the sides of her own. Good God, she was straddling her. Anne felt a new beam of pleasure race through her at the image. Debauched, beautiful, shining Ann Walker straddling her with hunger in her eyes and just waiting for her to make the next move. What a passionate little thing she was.

 

Anne reached up, slowly, moving her hands up Ann’s thighs to rest on the roundness of her hips, then to the slope of her waist. Her fingers travelled gently up her torso, feeling the outlines of her ribs, before finding their mark. The skin beneath her fingertips was smooth and supple, and she stared deeply into Ann’s eyes for any sign of hesitance, yet saw none. One thumb brushed gently over Ann’s nipple, and she gasped aloud and closed her eyes. Anne did it again, slowly, her eyes never leaving Ann’s face and watched the pleasure flicker over her features. She was so responsive, Anne thought, the gasps and sighs Anne were coaxing from her coming out as easily as air. She felt her lips part slightly, just watching Ann Walker and her dissolute little gasps.

 

With an almost brusque move, Anne’s hands cupped Ann’s breasts, more firmly than before, just to see the woman’s reaction. To Anne’s immense pleasure, she gasped loudly and ground her hips upon Anne’s own. She felt her arousal blooming, heat scorching her entire body at the friction of it all. She had to still her hands in an effort not to grab Ann and bring her almost violently to her. Her sounds went straight to Anne’s growing titillation, and she was nearly too on edge to do much of anything other than stare.

 

Ann opened her eyes, confusion clouding them. Already Anne could see the flickering of doubt in her eyes, wondering if she’d pushed her too far, the uncertainty gnawing at her second by second. But she hadn’t pushed too far. God, no, she had not.

 

Anne reached up towards her and brought their lips together in a kiss that asked, none too pleasantly, for more.

 


 

Eliza thumbed at the pages of her book. Things were heating up in The Duchess, and she kept peering sideways at her husband every time she read a risqué passage, wondering if he somehow knew what she was reading. William was holed up in some magazine she couldn’t make out the title of, even with her glasses perched on her nose, and was decidedly not paying attention to her. And Ann was… she sighed. She supposed she knew where Ann was.

 

She’d noticed nothing of merit early on in Ann’s disposition, and watching the girl stare longingly at Anne from every which corner had seemed only natural—she looked up to her, aspired for her confidence and poise. A niggling suspicion of somethinghad begun when the two women left the office together. Now, she’d never claim to be a master of longing looks in younger girls, but even in her slightly tipsy state… well, Ann had never been good at hiding what she was thinking, even when she was a child. Those innocent, round blue eyes had worked wonders when she tried to get what she wanted from her parents, but concealing secrets was certainly not her forte.

 

Eliza flipped a page, her eyes trailing along the lines of the story, but even though the buzz of the wine had worn off she found she couldn’t focus on the passage at hand. Her mind pointed an accusing hand at Anne Lister, for… for whatshe couldn’t quite say. She hadn’t exactly seen anything, except the two girls looking decidedly flustered upon her entrance. They’d known what she was up to, she thought, but rolled her eyes. They wouldn’t have been so affronted had they not been doing something they knew they shouldn’t be doing. It is Anne’s house, a part of her said, but she waved it away. Ann was her charge, and if Anne was taking advantage of her, young as she was, she was going to take responsibility for it.

 

Kiera Knightly stared prettily back at her when she closed the book with a light thump.She tried to relax her face and relieve the pinched feeling at the forefront of her mind, but it went unaided. She turned to her husband, who of course had noticed none of her inner turmoil. Typical.

 

“William,” she said softly, and he hummed in response. Eliza drummed her fingers on the cover of the book, considering her words. “What do you think Ann is up to upstairs?” He hardly paused in his reading.

 

“Sleeping, I imagine,” he said gruffly. Eliza frowned.

 

“No, William, I’m being serious.” He turned to her, his own reading glasses falling low on the slope of his nose. “I think that…I think that Ms. Lister is taking advantageof Ann!” He snorted and turned back to his magazine, leaving Eliza to huff in annoyance.

 

“Eliza, please,” he said, turning a page. Was he reading a car magazine? She had thought the car buying days of his fifties were over, but he was dog earing corners right and left. They had neither the money nor the garage space for another vintage piece of junk for him to work on. She frowned deeper. She never should have let him retire.

 

“I’m serious William.” Eliza tried to make her tone sharp, but the effect was almost whiny to her own ears. She pulled back and centered herself with a sigh. “I don’t want Ann getting hurt if Anne is just going to…” she gestured with a hand. “You know.” William rolled his eyes and closed his magazine. He turned a thoughtful gaze on Eliza.

 

“Ann is twenty-two years old,” he said. It was patronizing, but only in the mild way she was used to. “She can make decisions for herself.” He took of his glasses and set them on the nightstand beside him. “Besides, the girl deserves some fun. And I don’t just mean our Ann.” Eliza balked as he put the magazine next to his glasses.

 

“What on earth is that supposed to mean?”

 

“Eliza, please. Just let them be young for once.” She scoffed, but found she had nothing to say to contradict him. Certainly a rarity in their marriage. “Goodnight, dear. I’ll see you in the morning.” She huffed again but followed suit and put her reading things away before switching off the lamp. So, even William suspected something. At least on that account she was right. Come to think of it, Ann had never really brought a boy home to meet her parents, or even talked about one to herself or William. Eliza really oughtn’t have been surprised.

 

She sighed and closed her eyes, willing sleep to come. Let them be young,William had said. And so, she would.

 


 

Being quiet was hard. This had never been a problem Ann had faced, because before, she hadn’t felt the hissing warmth all over her body, or felt shivers wrack her spine even when the room was a comfortable twenty-two degrees. She’d never had practiced hands twisting her nipples and palming her sides, or someone kissing her neck at that one spotbeneath her ear where her neck met her jaw, leaving her mouth open and vulnerable to making all sorts of sounds. And the person doing this had never before been Anne Lister, which possibly made all the difference.

 

Anne had grown less gentle the more Ann pushed against her, and Ann couldn’t help but feel a small sense of pride. You don’t have to be gentle with me, her kisses said, biting and sharp. I don’t want you to be gentle with me.Part of her mind told her to calm down, maybe stop for a breath once in a while, and the fear that she was doing everything sloppily and unpracticed never truly went away. But as soon as those feelings would get too strong, Anne’s hand would graze another part of her body it hadn’t touched before, and her trivial thoughts would wash away with the waterfall of pleasure it brought.

 

She felt Anne’s hands, hot against her skin, brush her thighs and Ann’s hips careened into the other woman’s. Anne broke from her lips and groaned, pressing back into her. How wonderful it was, to want and be wanted in return. Anne’s mouth returned to her and her hands slid behind her, clutching at her shoulders and her sides in a way that made Ann clench her fistsd hard into Anne’s hair. Anne took that moment to tighten her grip on her, and then none too gently flipped Ann onto her back. Well, Ann thought, welcoming the hot, open mouthed kisses Anne was pressing into her now, that was bound to happen sometime. The other woman didn’t strike her as, well… a bottom. Anne wrapped her hands around Ann’s wrists and forced them backwards, away from where they were wandering down Anne’s back and sides with an unpracticed fervor. Ann let out a small sigh of surprise and her eyes flickered open, just to see Anne grinning down at her with a gleam in her eyes. She would be lying if she said that look didn’t make excitement leap within her abdomen like fire.

 

One hand still holding her wrists above her in a firm grip, Anne’s other hand made its way down her torso. Past her ribcage, her waist, her hips, and down to her thighs, before slowly reaching up to brush her already wet panties. Ann’s mouth fell open and she felt her eyes roll into the back of her head. She let out a heady sigh and nearly went limp in Anne’s arms. Good Lord,she thought, not for the first time, nor the last, she imagined.  

 

“Is this okay?” Anne asked, skimming her thumb against her center, ever asking for permission. Ann sighed rather than spoke her response, an airy sound she would have been embarrassed by had Anne not then chosen the moment to slip her fingers between the fabric and her skin and she made the same flurry of noises all over again. It had been so long since she had been touched like this, she realized. “And this?” Anne’s voice again, but she couldn’t bring herself to comprehend it. Her mind was racing, her lips parted and wanton. Anne slipped a finger inside her and she felt herself clench upon the intrusion.

 

Anne sighed above her, and when she looked up, the woman’s eyes where sharp upon her. Ann was suddenly overwhelmed by the gentleness, the utter kindness of the woman before her. She was so oddly considerate in a way no man had been before her, at least in Ann’s experience. Gregory had taken what he’d wanted, never offering to finish her off—not that she could have, with him. At least now she understood precisely why that was.

 

Anne’s mouth kissed and licked and nipped at her neck, her hands finally releasing their strong hold on her wrists. Ann felt them fall down, her muscles too weak and overwrought with arousal to do much of anything else.

 

“Take this off,” Anne whispered, her hand pausing to toy at the ends of the offending garment. Ann started. She had nearly forgotten the red sweatshirt was even there—must she take it off? What if… what if she wasn’t enough? The thought ran circles in her mind as Anne kissed the tops of her thighs, tugging at her panties, oblivious to Ann’s own private tribulations. But Ann was done being a coward—that had been her sealed fate the moment she’d kissed Anne, something that felt like it had been both minutes and also hours ago. She sighed and steeled herself with determination. She reached to pull off the oversized Cambridge crewneck, working slowly but adeptly so as not to get stuck in it. More embarrassment on her part might send her back to the depths of cowardice she’d found herself in earlier that day. She hadn’t bothered putting her bra back on after she’d changed, and now she was bare before the other woman, save her panties, which Anne was making quick use of removing. Ann wiggled her hips to help aid the process, something that probably looked more comical than sexy, but she didn’t care. Ann had no time to be self-conscious of her bared self because right then, Anne was grinning at her, and returning to her neck—and somewhere else—with vigor. She kissed upwards, slipping another finger inside Ann as she cried out in pleasure once again. There was so much feeling all at once—the tug of teeth against Ann’s ear, the friction of Anne’s tank top against her breasts, whatever she was doing down there—Ann had to stop herself from crying out.

 

Suddenly, Anne’s lips were moving down her chest, leaving that spot where she’d been hovering for a moment, coaxing keening sighs from Ann like they had been made just for that. Her lips kissed down her collarbones and down her chest, until one of Anne’s hands grasped her breast and she closed her mouth around it and licked. Ann let out a whine at the feeling, arching her back up, and Anne shushed her with a laugh.

 

“I’m sorry,” sighed Ann. “I’ll try to keep—oh!” Anne grinned at her again and returned to her chest, trailing soft kisses before setting back to her original task and laved at her breast. Ann felt the woman’s thumb begin to brush her clit, fingers still pumping, and Ann squirmed, both in an effort to escape the stimulation yet also get more. Ann felt something building that she had only every felt when she was alone, with just herself and her thoughts. Her abdomen was burning, her body tight and taut with anticipation. Ann yanked Anne’s head from her breasts and brought her back to her mouth, suddenly hungry for her lips once more. Anne laughed softly into the kiss, smiling, as she continued touching her with a rising rhythm that mirrored Ann’s arousal.

 

Then, she didsomething, brushed something with a curled tip of her fingers and Ann felt her hips lurch upwards towards Anne, her moan swallowed by her kisses. She could feel it in her hands, too—that familiar feeling, usually caused by anxiety and dread, but now she felt her fists clench for an altogether different reason. Her head fell back as she tensed and her toes curled, and with a few more pumps of Anne’s fingers she was—

 

—oh God, it was glorious, it was bright, it was blinding, euphoric, it was—

 

Anne was kissing her again, soft brushes of her lips, guiding her through her peak. It was so much all at once, the multitude of feelings she’d felt earlier seemed bleak and mild in comparison. With one last jolt, she felt her eyes roll back from her head. She was shaking as she came down, breathing heavily in little gasps and sighs, from what certainly qualified as one of the best orgasms in her life. Anne leaned up, gazing at her eyes, probably glazed over but she didn’t care. For once, she couldn’t be bothered by how she looked. The aftershocks of it all still coursed through her, and as she felt her breathing begin to slow Anne flipped over to lie next to her. They lay like that, on their backs, breathing heavily and silent for a moment. Ann’s short sighs were, besides Anne’s own labored breathing, the only sounds in the dark, quiet room.

 

Then, Ann giggled. It was a bad habit, she supposed, and something she did when she was nervous but God, she didn’t feel nervous then. She felt brilliant, revered. She felt her eyes slipping closed with exhaustion but spurts of laughter continued to bubble from her chest. She must think I’m so childish, thought Anne, but she felt the woman snort next to her in laughter, albeit softer than her own, but she was pacified.

 

“Wow,” whispered Ann into the room, and Anne gave a laughing sigh in response. “That was…”

 

“Amazing,” Anne finished for her in a hushed voice. “You’re amazing.” Ann would have blushed had she not already been flushed to her fullest extent. She willed her breathing to slow.

 

“You’re the amazing one,” she said, and leaned over to kiss her lightly. She smiled, and she felt full in a way that she never had after such an act before. The guilt wasn’t present as it usually was. She felt only happiness. She gazed at Anne, her eyes blinking once, twice, and the third time, they took long enough to open to give Anne cause for laughter.

 

“I’m glad I’ve exhausted you,” Anne said, and kissed her forehead in a chase, affectionate manner. “Get some sleep—you need the rest.”

 

“What about you?” Ann asked sleepily, but she was already slipping into unconsciousness. Anne grinned, biting her lip, and put a lock of hair behind Ann’s ear.

 

“Don’t you worry about me,” she said. Ann thought she heard Anne murmur something else, but she was already being swallowed by the vast blackness of a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

In a stark contrast to the manner in which Ann had woken up the previous morning, full of trepidation and a healthy dose of dread, she opened her eyes gently, feeling sated and full for the first time in a while. The beams on the ceiling were the first things she saw, her eyes still blurry from slumber, brown and stretching through the room and framing the open window. A breeze was wafting inwards, bowing out the white curtains that let in a smattering of light on the floor. The sun must just have risen, for besides the orange glow rising barely above the tree line, the dimness and fog of early morning still hung outside.

 

 

With a start, Ann realized that the bed beside her was empty, cold—she felt bereft for a moment and her stomach twisted, her pessimistic mind going to the worst possible scenario: Anne had left. Then, after a spell, rational thought pushed through—ever perseverant—and Ann realized that it was her house. She was probably eating breakfast—Anne Lister didn’t strike her as the kind of person that slept in late.

 

 

Fully placated, Ann relaxed against the pillows with a wild grin. She shut her eyes and bit her lip to try to shake of the absurd feeling of excitement she had, but she couldn’t lose it. She’d finally… done it and enjoyed it. And somehow, she’d been worthy of the most interesting person she’d ever met. Who was… very good with her hands.

 

 

The feelings she’d felt last night… Ann tangled herself in the sheets again with a sigh. She could still feel Ann’s hands on her, grasping and touching and doing… that. She tried to will the stupid grin off her face but found her efforts futile. She was stupidly, dumbly happy.

 

 

Loathe to get out of bed at the early hour of—she checked the nightstand—six forty, she slipped the covers off and cast her eyes to the ground in an effort to find her dress from the night before. It was momentarily obscured from view by the previously discarded Cambridge sweatshirt, a view that made Ann smirk. She padded into the bathroom, the tile cold, and took in the sight of herself in the mirror. Oh, God, had Anne seen her this morning?

 

 

Her curly blonde hair was more like a mass of tangled, yellow straw, an image her mother might have called a bird’s nest in Ann’s youth. Her face was still puffy with sleep, and just below her collarbone, was that—Ann frowned. Damn Anne and her accursed mouth. Shrugging on her dress, though, she realized it covered the offending mark well enough to save her from explaining it to the Priestley’s. It was for their sake, then, that she attempted to brush through the matted curls with her fingers, before ultimately tying it in a knot on the top of her head. It was loose, shoddy at best, but she doubted Anne had any hair ties lying around.

 

 

Giving her appearance one last up and down, she took a deep breath and made her way down not one but two flights of stairs—this damn house, she thought—and moved into the kitchen. There was a steaming kettle on one of the burners, but that was the only clue that anyone was awake or even downstairs. Ann wandered around a bit, looking for a tea pot, perhaps, until she saw that one of the patio doors was open and was letting a gentle breeze in. The rich smell of flowers from the expansive gardens blew in and Ann inhaled with a small smile. There, sitting with her back to her, was a figure Ann knew without a doubt was Anne. She was reading something and sipping tea, looking out on the hills and trees and the lake behind her house. Ann felt herself smile involuntarily and stepped out to meet her.

 

 

The light from the east nearly blinded Ann as she stepped onto the patio, reflected from the glass of the greenhouse she’d seen when she first arrived. The patio looked different in this light, in any light, really, and when she looked up to the sky, she could still imagine the massive expanse of stars that had been there just hours ago. Anne was buried deep in a book, tea cup in one hand, her hair tucked behind her ears charmingly. Ann took a moment to appreciate the sight of her before ruining her pleasant silence.

 

 

“Good morning,” she said softly, and Anne looked up in mild surprise, which quickly morphed into a satisfied smile.

 

 

“Good morning, Ann,” she said softly, and the way she said her name made Ann shiver. Anne set down her book and motioned her to sit, and Ann did, trying her best to smooth out her dress. Ann debated telling the other woman about the mark she’d left but ultimately decided against it. Best not start the morning on that particular subject.

 

 

“Tea?”

 

 

“Yes, please.” Anne had already set a few other cups out, and readied cream and sugar for the others who spent the night and might’ve wakened early. “I’ll just have cream, please.” Anne looked at her, eyebrow quirked, for just a moment too long before pouring the tea over the cream and handing it to Ann. As she stretched her arm out, Ann suddenly had an unobstructed view of what the other woman was wearing. Ann had been too wrapped up in her own appearance and how rumpled she must have looked in yesterday’s dress to even notice Anne’s. It was a simple long sleeve top and slacks, not really anything out of the ordinary, but she looked somehow both professional and yet at utter leisure. Perhaps what made Ann feel a little warm, then, was the way the woman had her legs stretched forward, spread, with one hand holding the book she had picked up again and the other with fingers spread throughout the pages. It was such a mundane gesture, but it didn’t look mundane on her. Ann tried not to stare as she fingered the corner of a page.

 

 

“Did you sleep well?” The question might’ve been innocent, but Ann flushed deeply anyway and hid her face behind the act of sipping tea.

 

“I—yes, I did.” She sipped. “Did you?” Anne hummed in response, still reading her book. Ann craned her neck to see the title—Life After Warming. Good Lord, did this woman ever take a break? Who reads doomsday environmental essays before eight in the morning?

 

 

Ann cleared her throat, but Anne ignored her, thumbing to the next page and breathing out her nose. Ann looked down at her tea, her eyes flitting between them, before Anne’s eyes met hers again with a quirked eyebrow. It pulled her lips up into a small smirk, one Ann had to already be looking for to see, and then—dammit. She was looking at her mouth again.

 

 

“So,” Anne said, and her book snapped close with a sound that nearly made Ann jump in her seat. “I don’t think I’ve had the privilege of showing you the greenhouse yet.” Ann felt her face light up, as if she weren’t in control of her own expressions. She inwardly grimaced at her own enthusiasm and hoped for a fraction of a second that Anne hadn’t seen. Anne’s smirk grew, laughing a bit with it, and Ann sighed. One day, maybe, she’d be able to conjure some sort of poker face around this woman to hide her unfortunate obsession. But when Anne rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck with a small sigh, it was all Ann could do not to jump her right then and there. Maybe someday.

 

 

Anne nodded her head towards the direction of the greenhouse, and obediently Ann followed her. The morning light was a watery yellow color, streaking across the still-wet grass and glistening as they walked across it. Anne was walking a ways in front of her, their pace quick towards the expansive glass structure, and Ann frowned at her back as she struggled to keep up.

 

 

Inside the greenhouse, the air was thick and humid, smelling like soil and flowers and greenery. Ann couldn’t help but take a deep breath in, letting her eyes close. It was beautiful inside, and the warmth of the air brushed over her arms and the skin of her legs. Much like something else had the night prior.

 

 

In a moment Ann was looking curiously at a large pot perched on a glass table, trying to push away the unbidden thought. Down, girl, she chastised herself, and lifted her finger to the petal of the gorgeous lily in front of her.

 

 

“Anne, these are absolutely gorgeous,” she breathed, and flitted towards another, larger section filled with hydrangeas. “These are so tall! How did you get them to grow like this? The ones I’ve seen in London have been so short—oh, Lord, and these hollyhocks are stunning!” Ann was making her rounds through the greenhouse, touching each flower and leaf with the same gentleness she treated her plants at home with. These plants, however, were much more exquisite than her own, something she hoped her plants would never hear her say. Her small apartment, however, never would have fit an entire bush of hydrangeas, much less had the light for them to flourish the way Anne’s had. Her devil’s ivy would have to do.

 

 

Ann pushed forward, meandering towards a group of hanging plants and a stack of pallets with an abundance of smaller pots of flowers perched atop them. Ann couldn’t keep the smile off her face at the tiny marigolds shining in front of her, illuminated by the orange rays of sun beginning to peek over the hill.

 

 

She turned towards Anne, who had followed behind her and was staring at Ann with an odd expression on her face. “These are…” Ann began, clearing her throat lightly as Anne moved to lean her back against the pallets next to Ann. Anne crossed her legs in front of her, her eyes never leaving Ann’s, and she swallowed. “This is just… amazing. I’m not sure I could’ve done something as lovely as this, even with the supplies, I’m just—” I’m blown away, she thought, and bit her lip.

 

 

She was about to reach out and brush one of the larger blooms with her finger, delighting at the softness of the petals, before Anne blurted out, “Have you ever done this before?” Ann’s hand stopped mid reach and she furrowed her brow. Had she ever gardened before? Well, of course—wasn’t that the point of bringing her out here?

 

 

“I mean, I have my own collection of plants at home, and before um… my parents died, I used to help my mom in her gardens outside—”

 

 

“No, Ann, not—not gardening, I mean…” Ann turned to her left, where Anne’s gaze was on the floor. Anne bit her lip and looked to the ceiling, as if bracing herself for something. Anne took a steadying breath. “Ann, have you ever done…” she gestured between them, and Ann felt the beginnings of a flush rise on her neck from her foolishness. “Have you done… this before?” Well, had she ever hooked up with a friend of a friend while said friends slept in complete ignorance a floor below and had one of the best nights of her life? Her answer was a most definite no, she had not, but Ann didn’t think that was what Anne was asking, nor did she find that in any way an appropriate answer. Ann didn’t exactly give off the sense that she might be… into women, at least not in the way Anne did. And she supposed Anne was right in asking—no, she’d never done that before.

 

 

“I haven’t,” Ann replied after a beat, and her voice was a little too quiet. She cleared her throat, mimicking Anne and looking at the floor. “But that doesn’t mean that I… that I, like, regret it or anything.” She pulled her bottom lip into her mouth. “It felt… right, I guess,” she breathed, and shrugged her shoulders in a poor imitation of nonchalance. Ann turned her head and finally looked up at Anne.

 

 

The older woman was watching at her with her lips parted and that thing in her eyes from the night before, and suddenly the prickling warmth of the greenhouse seemed to grow sharper, and she was surrounded by a stifling heat. Ann swallowed thickly and flinched as the fingers of Anne’s right hand brushed her left.

 

 

“You know,” Anne murmured, her fingers grazing more purposely against Ann’s. “I have some business in London in the next few weeks. Perhaps I could come… visit, or something.”

 

 

It was all Ann could do to keep her mouth from dropping open at Anne’s admittance. She wanted to… she wanted to see her again. See her home, where she lived. Maybe even her meek excuse for a garden. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and it came out in a short sigh.

 

 

“That would be… I mean, yes, I’d love it if you’d come visit,” she stammered, her voice breathy and words coming out fast. She couldn’t keep the dumb smile off her face. The poker-face-in-practice would have to wait. “My apartment isn’t nearly as grand as this, or as Eliza’s house, so don’t be disappointed, but… but I could make us a nice meal, and—” Ann never finished, because Anne brought her hand to the back of Ann’s neck and pulled their mouths together.

 

 

Somehow, it felt just as brilliant as the night before, perhaps even better with the absence of Ann’s trepidation. But her chest filled with that same warmth that travelled low, and her stomach filled with it, like butterflies. Her hands itched and she reached up to thread her fingers through Anne’s hair, the soft, dark strands feeling like silk beneath her fingers as their lips moved together.

 

 

Anne, who had clearly meant for the kiss to be rather chaste, moved to pull away, but Ann’s mouth immediately transferred to the other woman’s neck. She needed Anne close to her, the warmth inside her demanded it, and she felt a sigh leave Anne’s throat as she pressed her lips to the warm skin.

 

 

Then, a brilliant idea struck her.

 

 

Taking hints from what Anne had done the night before, Ann mouthed at the pulse point below her jaw, forcing an exhale again from Anne. When a nip of Ann’s teeth made the woman clench her hands into Ann’s forearms, she moved up towards her ear, bringing the lobe between her teeth and tugging at it.



The sound Anne let out, then, was worth waiting for years to hear.

 

 

Ann felt herself being backed up against the pallets behind her, the wood digging into her back in a way that only sent more heat unfurling within her, reaching down towards the apex of her thighs. Anne’s hands were on her hips, steadying her, as her aggressive mouth claimed Ann’s once more. She sighed, hips canting towards Anne’s, delighting in the feeling of being trapped by her.

 

 

“You’re a fast learner,” Anne breathed, her own breaths coming out quick as she pulled Ann’s dress over her shoulder to kiss her there. Ann shuddered below her, her head hanging back. The leaves of the plants above her brushed her face, and the added stimulation made her clench her hands again and hum through her mouth.

 

 

Anne’s lips glided over the bare skin of her collar bone and shoulder, her tongue darting out to lick a path for her mouth to follow. Ann reached her hands under the shirt Anne was wearing and pulled Anne closer to her, searching for some kind of friction to ease the ache that had irrefutably settled in her core. “Your skin tastes—” Anne paused, mid endearment, bringing her head up from mouthing at her chest to look at something more closely. Ann squirmed against her, almost mewling at the loss on contact, before she realized what Anne must be looking at. She paled, looking up into Anne’s eyes, but they were still trained on the love bite on her chest. Anne’s lips were parted, her hair a mess, and her eyes wild—to Ann, she had never looked hotter than she did right at that moment. Her throat felt dry as she swallowed, and she felt her underwear begin to grow damp the longer Anne Lister stared at her with unabashed hunger in her eyes.

 

 

Anne licked her lips, finally looking back to Ann, before moving forward to kiss her again, her mouth less controlled than before, less coordinated. Anne brushed her tongue against Ann’s, and Ann suddenly felt a nudge between her legs. Almost on instinct, Ann spread them, and suddenly Anne’s thigh was between her own, and she was pressed even tighter between Anne and the pallets.

 

 

“You’re so…” Ann grazed her teeth on Anne’s bottom lip, and Anne let out a low noise before giving Ann a punishing kiss that made Ann’s head spin. “Fuck—

 

 

Her hands fisting in Anne’s hair again, Ann gave an experimental roll of her hips on the other woman’s leg, and both women let out a groan at the much-needed relief. Anne pulled away from her, looking into her eyes. Ann shivered, and as she ground against her thigh again, Anne brought her hands up to her waist, her fingers brushing the undersides of her breasts, her mouth hanging open as she brushed her fingers against them.

 

 

“Oh, Lord,” sighed Ann, her voice high and breathy. Her hands pulled Anne closer, the other woman’s mouth finding solace in sloppily spotting kissing across Ann’s jawline. She staggered, then, forcefully shoving Ann against the wood behind her in a way that made Ann’s vision go white with pleasure, but also had the unfortunate repercussion of sending a single marigold pot tumbling to the floor, where is shattered loudly.

 

 

Ann gasped in surprise, her eyes opening to see the mess, but Anne simply reached to her face and held her by her jaw, tilting her head away to nip at her neck. Hopefully this time it was done carefully enough not to leave a mark.

 

 

“Ignore it,” came Anne’s hissed reply to the massacred marigold pot, her face still buried in Ann’s neck. “You’re so beautiful… you make me—”

 

 

Ann’s hearing seemed to short out for a moment, her eyes still staring at the shattered remains of the plant. Her mind flew back to the night before, where she’d immediately fallen asleep without doing anything to Anne. Oh, Lord, she thought, biting her lip as a familiar wave of anxiety hit her. What did she think of her, taking everything and giving nothing? Would she have been any good if she’d tried it?

 

 

The idea that Anne was so frantic right then because she had… rather pent up feelings from the night prior made Ann’s heart sink in her chest. She pulled her neck, probably covered in bites now, away from Anne. The other woman’s eyes were still wild, her lips parted and swollen, much like Ann’s probably were, and she felt another pulse of heat at her core. It sent a wash of guilt through Ann—what right did she have to want to do this, when she’d been properly sated the night before, when she’d left Anne completely wanting?.

 

 

Anne swallowed, wiping at her mouth with her wrist, and leaned back. She was still breathing heavily, her eyes trained on the floor. Make this better! Ann thought to herself, but she had no idea what she could do now for her. She blew out a steadying breath.

 

 

“What if…” Ann began softly. “What if the others are awake, now?” Anne sighed, the disappointment in her eyes flashing as she looked back to the ground.

 

 

“You’re right, of course,” she said, and her voice was low in a way that still made Ann shiver. Anne looked back to her and pushed a few flyaways behind her ears, in an affectionate yet still somehow very sexy gesture. “I want you to know I had a really, really good time last night.” She pressed her lips one last time to Ann’s, and Ann couldn’t help but lean into her as she pulled away, chasing her lips. Had she read her mind? Anne smiled against her, her eyes still closed. “And I’d really, really like it if I could see you again soon.” Ann beamed.

 

 

Anne pulled away from her and backed up, smoothing out her shirt and allowing Ann time to retie her dress and shake the wrinkles out of it once more. Fishing her phone out of her pocket, Anne handed it to Ann and gestured for her to take it.

 

 

“Your number,” she said, smirking out the side of her mouth. Ann flushed but took the phone and entered her contact information. “This way I can find you without having to ask nosy Eliza where you live.” Ann let out a snort and handed the phone back to her.

 

 

“Are you sure you want to take that away from her?” Ann asked as they moved out of the greenhouse, leaving the poor marigold plant unattended. “She really is in need for new gossip soon. I’m quite tired of hearing the same stories over and over again.” Anne smiled as they stepped into the sun outside.

 

 

“Hopefully, the next time you and I won’t figure so heavily into it.”

 

 

This time, as they walked to the house, Anne walked next to her with their fingers intertwined, lightly brushing as they entered into the large cottage once more.

 

 

Hugging Anne goodbye hadn’t been the anxiety inducing experience Ann would have thought it to be. John and Eugenie hadn’t even wakened by the time Eliza wished to leave, so the Priestley’s and Ann settled with saying goodbye to Anne’s aunt, her father, and Marian, who raised her eyebrows at Ann after she told them she’d had a wonderful night. Ann had turned red, and Anne had given some tongue in cheek comment about it being no thanks to Marian.

 

 

They settled in the car—Ann, the Priestley’s, and Lady—and William made the strenuous adventure of backing the vehicle down the driveway. Then, they were off, Lady’s head resting on the Anais Nin book in her lap that Anne had forced into her hands on the way out. “You mustn’t forget this,” she’d said with a wink, and Ann had found herself reddening for the umpteenth time that morning.

 

 

Ann ran her fingers over the cover, feeling the indentations of the title. Loathe to disturb Lady’s relaxation on the book cover, she carefully slipped it out and flipped the book open. It fell open to the passage Anne had read to her last night, and a small bookmark settled in the pages. For your personal enjoyment, it read. Signed, AL. Ann grinned down at the book, biting her lip and looking out the window.

 

 

“Ann, dear,” came Eliza’s voice from the front of the car. Ann met her eyes in the rearview mirror with a small smile. “What are you smiling about?”

 

 

“Oh, nothing,” she murmured, petting Lady’s head as the car jostled over a bump. “Just happy to be going home, I suppose.” Eliza hummed in response, looking back down at the book in front of her and leaving Ann to stare out the window at the scenery as they exited the Lake District.

 

 

She hadn’t completely lied to Eliza, she thought. There was some bit of truth to it. She was glad to be going back to London, back to her plants, her neighbors, her students, and the friends she’d made. And her mind was already thinking about when Anne was coming to visit her, and the things they’d to together—or, to each other. Ann smiled down at the book.

 

 

For her personal enjoyment, indeed.