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The Heart Has a Memory of its Own

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There are only two other tables occupied when Anne arrives at the small coffee shop on the corner of the busy street. She’s fifteen minutes early, but she wanted to make sure she could secure them a table, clearly overestimating the lunch-hour crowd in this quiet café. Spotting a corner booth by a window overlooking the back patio, she makes herself comfortable in the seat while she waits for her student to show up. It was a blistering hot summer day in Ames, Iowa, and it seemed like the whole city had gotten the memo to stay indoors for the day, all except for the few brave souls in the sleepy coffee shop, most of them completely plugged in as they worked on their laptops, oblivious to the world around them. Anne taps impatiently on the table, looking out of the window. She's feeling strangely anxious about her meeting, which was unusual considering how many times she’d met with her graduate students to talk about research. And yet, there was something gnawing at the back of her mind when she thought about her newest PhD student, Ann Walker.

She’d been an Assistant Professor in the department of Cognitive Science and Behavioral Psychology at Northern Iowa University for 2 years now, and in her brief time at the institution, she’d advised her fair share of bright and talented graduate students. But none had captured her attention like young Miss Walker had. It had only been 4 short months since they’d met and started working together on Ann’s dissertation on the role of episodic memory on expert knowledge structures. She was still narrowing down the focus of her work, but she had already made more progress on her research than other students had in the span of a whole year. And yet, this didn’t explain the uneasy feeling of something fluttering in her stomach when Anne spotted Miss Walker walk through the doors of the café in a bluster. Her hair was slightly wild from being whipped around by the strong afternoon breeze, and her cheeks were flushed from the intense summer sun beating down outside. She spotted her advisor in the booth and made her way over, a thin smile growing on her face.

“Dr. Lister!” She approached the table, dropping her bookbag on the seat opposite her and sliding into the booth unceremoniously.

“Hi Ann.” Anne greeted her with a warm smile. “How are you?”

“I’m good! Well, it’s really hot out there,” An impish smile from Ann. “But I’m good.”

“Good.” Anne echoed, eyes wandering to a drop of sweat drawing a line down the side of Miss Walker’s forehead and sliding onto the space right below her jaw. She tore her eyes away as she heard Ann speak again.

“How was your vacation?” She inquired, looking genuinely interested.

Anne blinked. She’d almost forgotten about the trip she’d taken with her wife to Chicago earlier that month. It’d been almost 4 weeks since she’d met with Ann because of her travels, but that felt like a lifetime ago. She’d offered to meet with her for coffee instead of their usual weekly meetings in her office in order to get re-acquainted in a more casual setting after the long hiatus.

“Oh, it was good! Chicago was amazing as usual.” Not wanting to talk about it, Anne quickly deflected. “Tell me about your trip to California?”

That seemed to divert their conversation. “I had so much fun.” Ann appeared to light up at the memory. “It was a lot of driving, but we managed to get a lot of sightseeing in.”

“Yes, I’m quite fond of the west coast.” Anne felt a small smile grow on her face. “It’s quite an interesting place to visit… not sure I’d ever want to live there.”

“Oh I don’t know.” A wistful look graced Ann’s face, like she was daydreaming about another life. “It’s not so bad.”

“Mm. Well.” Anne straightened up in her seat. “I’m glad you had fun. It’s good to take a break after the semester and take some time for yourself before starting up with research again.”

Miss Walker nodded, looking down at her hands that were now picking at a scuff on the old wooden table. She seemed suddenly quiet.

“I know your first year has been difficult.” Anne spoke steadily, affection present in her voice even while she tried to maintain some emotional distance. “No one said that starting a PhD program would be easy. But you’re doing good. You’re managing well.”

Ann glanced up from the table, a sad smile on her face. It seemed the praise had touched her more than was intended. “Thank you, Dr. Lister. That means a lot, coming from you.”

Anne couldn’t keep a soft chuckle from escaping her lips. “It doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is that you’re back and ready for a productive summer.”

“Yes.” Ann squared her shoulders, determination in her eyes. “I do feel ready. I mean, I am ready.”

“Well let’s hope you are.” Anne raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a lot on your plate. We’ve got the conference coming up next month, and the other one at the end of August…”

“Ah yes, I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that.” Ann rummaged through her bag, pulling out a notebook and pen and opening to a well-used page, crowded with her big loopy handwriting. “I’ve arranged a lunch meeting with Dr. Stuart to talk about my dissertation. She said she’s going to be in Delft, at the conference, I mean, and we’re currently scheduled for Tuesday at 1pm.”

Anne was quietly impressed by her initiative. She had not even begun planning for these trips. Recent life events had derailed some of her plans.

“That’s good.” She said shortly. “Make sure you send her your research prospectus before we leave so she’ll have time to look over it before our meeting.”

“Okay.” Ann scribbled in a tiny sliver of space left in the corner of the page. “Thanks.”

She finished writing and shut her notebook. Then she regarded Anne as a thought occurred to her. “Is Mariana coming with you to Delft?”

Ah.

Anne tried to push down the sudden emotion that had welled up in her at the mention of her wife. She was not ready to talk about this and she could feel her mood instantaneously darken. And the meeting had been going so well.

Ann’s eyes widened when she noticed her sudden change in demeanor. “Umm…” She didn’t know what to say, afraid she may have overstepped some line. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s ok.” Anne shut her eyes and took a deep breath. She may as well tell Ann now. It would probably make itself known soon anyway, so what’s the point in trying to hide it?

Steeling herself, she opened her eyes and met Ann’s with what she hoped was a neutral expression. “Mariana is not coming with me to Delft.”

A pause.

“She’s not going to be coming with me to any conferences from now on.”

“Oh?” Ann looked puzzled.

“Because we’re getting a divorce.”

A painful silence settled on them. It seemed that the news that stunned Ann speechless, as she stared at the table, eyes darting back and forth, processing the news. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she spoke very quietly.

“I’m so sorry, Dr. Lister.”

“Anne.”

“What?” Ann finally met her eyes.

“I want you to call me Anne.” She said quickly snapping her eyes away from the younger woman. For some reason, it was unbearable to look at her right then. She preoccupied herself with glancing out the window at the passing traffic.

“Okay… Anne.” Ann said slowly, testing out how the word felt in her mouth. It felt strange that they shared the same first name. “I’m so sorry. That’s terrible.”

“Mm. Well…” Anne’s tapping on the table got faster. “That’s not— I mean, it’s fine. It’s not going to affect you, or my work, so you don’t need to worry about any of that.”

It looked like Ann wanted to stay something. She opened her mouth, but the words seemed to die on her tongue. At her silence, Anne glanced back out of the side of her eye.

“I’m sorry if I’ve shocked you.” She placed her hands, palm down on the table, trying to smooth away her worries. “I shouldn’t have told you. Like I said, it’s not going to affect—” She choked on her last word as she felt Ann gently touch the back of her left hand where it rested on the table. Her eyes snapped to their joined hands, the sudden warmth of the contact was overwhelming.

“Thanks for telling me.” Ann looked at her squarely in the eyes. “And it is terrible.”

It was Anne’s turn to be speechless. Ann was now rubbing the back of her hand ever so slightly with her thumb, and the tender gesture made her ache with a painful longing for something she had no name for.

Then, almost as if remembering herself, Ann withdrew her hand and sat back in her seat. “These things are terrible.” She said reflectively.

“Let’s talk about something else.” Anne sniffed and clasped her hands together. She absently rubbed the back of her hand, as if she was trying to rub off the tingling sensation that lingered on the spot that Ann had touched moments ago.

And so they talked about other things: the two journal articles Ann was working on over the summer, plans for data collection in the Fall, her comprehensive exam, and preparations for her conference presentations. The weight of their previous conversation still lingered until the end of their meeting, but neither woman wanted to acknowledge it. Privately, Anne felt relieved to share the news of her divorce with someone else. It had been such a tightly kept secret, the both of them feeling shame over the failure of their marriage, that it had just been easier to keep it to themselves. But now that someone else knew, she felt a glimmer of hope- maybe she could find it within herself to get on with her life and move past this.

***

The weeks pass in a blur, the steady flow of work consuming hours and days in a predictable rhythm. On most days, Anne remains in the office well past 8pm, chipping away at the long list of tasks that need to be completed, letting the work take her mind off other worries. Her days are filled with endless committee meetings, writing sessions with graduate students, curriculum planning duties, and the various faculty trainings and obligatory workshops sprinkled in here and there.

She still manages to see Ann twice a week, giving her a generous amount of her time and working closely with her on her journal papers. It seemed that the intensity of their conversation in the café weeks ago was fading into the background. In its place, a strange tender understanding had begun to develop between them. Anne told herself that this was a result of them working so closely together. It certainly was not because of the unusual spark that ignited in her chest every time they accidentally made physical contact. Like that one time they were sitting next to one another in her office, necks craning to look at Ann’s laptop screen as they worked through addressing the many edits that she had added to a journal manuscript. Absorbed in the task, Anne had reached for the keyboard without thinking and accidentally brushed the tops of Ann’s hands resting atop the keys. The warm tingling sensation that ran up her arms at the contact seemed to sear itself in her brain, making her ache with a sudden longing for more contact from the younger woman. No, it certainly had nothing to do with that.

That’s what Anne tells herself when she feels her heart beat speed up unexpectedly when she pulls up to John Booth’s house. They were having a summer research group party for all the faculty and students of the lab, and her colleague had graciously offered to host at his house. Despite her protests, Mariana – the soon to be ex-wife, had insisted she come along, even though it would be easier if she had just made some excuse about not feeling well. People would probably have wondered why Mariana was absent- she was always with Anne at these events- but it would have saved her any awkwardness of having to explain why Mariana was not accompanying her to Delft for the conference. It didn’t matter now, and she just needed to make the best of the situation. She took a deep breath as she closed the door of her car and walked up the stairs of the house, trailing behind Mariana.

A curious swirl of smells greet them as they walk in through the front door, calling out their ‘hello’s and ‘how are you’s. The gathering already seemed to be in full swing, and a sizable group of people part as they make their way through into the kitchen to the heart of the event. At some point Mariana hangs back to talk to Eugènie, John’s wife, while Anne forges forward through the crowd. She finally spots John, and gives him a tight smile, her anxiousness betraying her.

“How are you, John?” She brusquely nudges him on the arm with the back of her hand.

“Thanks for coming!” John is a tall man of 40-years of age, head topped with scruffy blonde hair that seemed to defy gravity. Even as a tenured professor, he had a very casual, down to earth energy that made him very approachable. That was probably the reason why Anne had taken so quickly to him when she started out 2 years ago, and she was always grateful for his steady mentorship throughout her transition.

“I see things are already in full swing.” Anne reached out to accept the can of beer offered by John, the fizz of the can opening cutting through the low hum of conversation in the room.

“Yes, indeed.” John ran a hand through this unruly hair, a sheepish look crossing his face. “But I made the mistake of starting the grill a little late this evening.” He pointed through the screen door leading to his patio where a charcoal grill was starting to let off small amounts of smoke. “So people have just been getting drunker and drunker while waiting for food!”

Anne chuckled and looked around the room. It was getting pretty loud in there. She spotted Harriet, another new faculty member already glowing in the cheeks and gesturing a little too wildly. The graduate students were being rather friendly as well, but the constraints of propriety kept them from completely losing themselves around their professors. Nevertheless, Anne felt gratitude wash over her as she watched the easy way that her research group conversed with one another. They really had a good thing going here, and the sense of community was so good for the students. She turned back to John.

“Well, it’s not a party until Elizabeth gets drunk and starts shooting her mouth off about undergrads, is it?” That got a laugh out of John.

“That’s true!” He grinned at her then rested his can of beer on the kitchen counter. “Excuse me, I’m going to check on the grill again.”

“Mm.” Anne nodded her acknowledgement and swung back more of the fizzy liquid in her can. She suddenly felt an urge to lose herself to the night. Work had been very draining lately, and this seemed like the perfect way to unwind. She took another big swig of her beer, feeling the liquid already working its magic, warming her up from the inside out.

Then the sound of the front door opening and closing was heard, followed by some shuffling and murmured greetings as someone made their way through the crowd.

Anne turned around to face the newcomer and felt her heart jump in her throat.

There stood Ann, hands full with a six pack of beer and a cheese tray, dressed in a close-fitting black cocktail dress, complete with a daring slit up the side of the skirt, revealing an almost inappropriate amount of leg. She was in the midst of balancing the items in her arms, when their eyes met. They were standing on opposite sides of the kitchen, but the space between seemed to crackle with energy, and Anne felt momentarily stunned at the sight. It was almost as though it had not, up to that point, occurred to her that Ann might show up in something other than her usual shirt and jeans combo. The unexpected appearance of the little black dress took her completely by surprise.

Ann was the first to recover, placing the items down on the counter before her. She smoothed the front of her dress as she made her way around the kitchen to where her advisor stood, a nervous look in her eyes.

“Hi.” Her voice was small, and Anne noticed it tremble ever so slightly. She was gripping the can of beer tightly in her hand until it started to buckle under the pressure. Noticing this, she quickly put down it on the counter next to her and wiped the condensation from her hand on her pants. Her modest black button down and slacks seemed to pale in comparison to Ann's stunning outfit.

“Hi.” Anne echoed back, silently berating herself for her sudden lack of eloquence.

“You look…” She trailed off, unable to complete the sentence as her eyes flitted down to take in the beautiful black dress. Up close, she noticed how the material had a velvety sheen that accentuated her curves in ways she hadn’t noticed before. She took a hard swallow, quickly lifting her eyes to meet Ann’s gaze.

“Thanks.” There was a slight flush forming on her cheeks from the compliment she knew her professor wanted to give her.

“So.” Anne tried to move the conversation along. “You’re here. Your first lab party. What do you think?” She gestured widely to the room at to the other faculty and students forming small clusters of conversation throughout the space.

Ann’s eyes skirted around the room, taking in the party. “It’s nice. This is nice.” She met Anne’s eyes again. “I haven’t been to such a gathering before. It’s really special that our research group does things like this throughout the year.”

“Yes, I know. It’s really important that we develop a sense of community.”

There was a small pause as they each searched for the next thing to say. They stared at one another, feeling a strange pull between them, like the space was collapsing on itself.

“So are you—”

“Where can I—”

They both laughed and stopped midsentence, the tension between them breaking.

“Sorry, go ahead.” Anne gestured for her to continue.

Still laughing, Ann shook her head and pointed to the dented can of beer sitting on the counter. “I was just going to ask where to get a drink.”

“Oh! There’s a bunch of drinks in the cooler outside.”

“Right. Thanks.” Ann had a wide smile on her face, eyes sparkling in the dim light of the kitchen. It seemed that she was lingering, not wanting their conversation to end just yet. Anne couldn’t help but notice the way her nose seemed to crinkle up with laugh lines and felt an aching tender feeling bloom in her chest.

“Go ahead.” Anne motioned with her head to the screen door leading to the patio. “Grab a drink. I’ll be right here.”

“Ok.” Ann said, giving her a sheepish smile. “I’ll be right back.”

The kitchen was tight between the counter and the patio door, and she shimmied around the small space, coming within inches of Anne. She murmured a soft “excuse me” as she squeezed by her, leaving a trace of a faintly sweet scent where their bodies had almost been touching. Was that vanilla? Peach? Anne felt a sudden need to know exactly what the fragrance was as she watched Ann disappear through the patio door into the quickly fading light of the evening. She sighed and picked her drink up again, taking big gulps and emptying it of its contents, trying to shake off these unwelcome feelings.

“Going hard tonight, I see.” Mariana had made her way through the house, and was now at her side, giving her a disapproving look.

“It’s not like that.” Anne set down the empty can, not meeting her eyes.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter to me, I guess.” Mariana shrugged. “Just take care of yourself. You know how you get when you’ve had too much.”

“You’re right.” Anne gritted her teeth. She was quickly getting tired of the conversation. “It really shouldn’t matter to you.”

Mariana opened her mouth to retort with something equally biting but seemed to think better of it. With a sigh, she seemed to deflate and rocked back on her feet.

Sensing the change, Anne tried a different tack. There was no need to start something in the middle of a party. They could still be civil with one another, even if this was probably the last time they would show up to a gathering like this together.

“So how’s Eugènie? I saw you talking with her when we arrived.” Anne asks casually, hoping to redirect the conversation to something mundane. She leans back against the counter, resting her elbow on the surface, propping herself up.

“She’s good.” Mariana mimics her position, leaning up on the counter beside Anne. “She’s busy as usual.”

There’s a pause as Mariana thinks about what she’s going to say next. “I told her.” She takes a deep breath.

“About us.”

“You did what?” Anne hisses through her gritted teeth, straightening up and rounding on her. “We were going to wait until the paperwork was finalized! That was the plan!”

“I know, but she was asking about the trip to Delft, and I just didn’t know what else to say—”

“How about anything but that!” Anne cut her off with a loud whisper, almost as if she was afraid of someone overhearing their conversation.

Mariana gave her a pitiful look. “Oh come on. It’s fine.” She brought her hands up to rub Anne’s shoulders, trying to soothe her. The feeling does not have a soothing effect- quite the opposite, in fact. It makes her want to pry herself out of the embrace the moment she touches her.

Before she could act, she hears the patio door behind her squeak open, and then there’s a quiet little “Oh” that follows.

Anne whips around, heart thudding in her chest as she sees the quickly retreating back of Ann escape through the open door with startling speed. She’s not quite sure what Ann saw, but it clearly upset her enough to make her leave in such a hurry.

Turning back to Mariana, she sees her wearing an equally puzzled look on her face. “What’s that about?” She muses out loud, frowning slightly.

“I don’t know, but I’m going to check on her.” Anne starts to go after her but turns around just as she reaches the door. She raises a finger in warning.

“Don’t say anything to anyone else,” she says. “Seriously, let’s just get through tonight.”

“Ok.” Mariana agrees, holding her hands up in surrender. “Whatever you say.” She pushes off from the counter, making her way further into the house.

Taking a deep breath, Anne pushes open the door, letting the cool evening air wash over her. The setting sun cast a dim orange glow in the sky, and she feels the tension already begin to leave her body. She rounds the corner of the house, entering the peaceful patio decorated with strings of outdoor lights crisscrossing overhead. Large potted plants line the rock walls, and there’s a steady trickle of an outdoor fountain bubbling away in the far corner. The tall trees and lush vegetation around the outdoor space makes it feel more private than it really is.

It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darker lighting, and she eventually spots Ann perched atop a wide retaining wall, flanked by two large ferns that are gently swaying in the breeze. She sees Anne round the corner and mutters a curse under her breath while angling her face away from the light.

“Ann?” Anne calls out cautiously, uncertain if she had interrupted something. “Are you alright?”

Her voice is wavery, but she manages to answer. “Yes. Yes I’m fine.” She’s still not looking up.

Anne slowly makes her way closer to where Ann is seated, trying to get a better look at her face. What could have gotten the girl so upset?

She finally stops in front of Ann. “Hey,” she says quietly, tentatively, like she’s afraid of scaring her away. “What’s going on?”

“It’s…” Ann’s eyes are barely visible in the dim lighting, but she can see her eyes dart about, searching for something. Then, taking a deep breath, she steels herself.

“It’s just that I thought Mariana wasn’t going to be here…” Ann finally meets her eyes, an unreadable expression on her face.

Anne stands before her, dumbfounded. It feels like her mind is trying to play catch up, moving slower because of the effects of the alcohol. Then, her eyes grow wide as she puts the pieces together in her head: Her awkwardness earlier in the kitchen. Showing up in that delightfully sexy dress. Running out when she saw them together – almost as if she was disappointed - almost as if she—no. It can’t be. Her silence spurred Ann on.

“Of course it’s none of my business. I-I’m really happy that you’re back together. I didn’t mean to interrupt you two—"

“You didn’t—” Anne tried to interject, but her student kept going, unable to stop.

“—I just wasn’t expecting to see her. I don’t know why I behaved that way. It’s a good thing, really. I’m really happy for you--”

“Ann!” Anne said louder. She was smiling now, amused at how flustered Ann was getting. “We’re not getting back together!”

That stopped her. “What?” Ann breathed out, disbelief on her face.

“We’re not getting back together. She’s just here because… well… because we haven’t told anyone else yet.” Anne’s shoulders sagged, the explanation seeming flimsy when spoken out loud.

A pregnant pause settled between them. Anne was still shaken, trying to work out what it all meant, but a slow smile of relief was spreading on her face. There was something undeniably adorable about the way Miss Walker rambled on and on when she was nervous, the way she was blushing in embarrassment now, balking at her behavior.

“I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes, a sheepish smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

Anne chucked softly, waving her apology off. “It’s alright.”

“No, it’s not.” Ann ran a hand through her own hair, making a few strands fall in her face. Her eyes dart around the patio, trying to look anywhere but at Anne. “I shouldn’t have behaved like that… I wish you could forget that I ever did that.”

Her heart pounds in her chest when she sees the way Ann looks up at her – like she wants her comfort—no, her approval. She aches to close the distance between them, to hold her, to make her stop shaking as much as she is. But how can she? The weight of her conscience screams at her, telling her she shouldn’t. Instead, she settles for reaching out and squeezing her thigh lightly where it rests on the stone wall, trying to reassure her. The skin below the fabric of her dress feels so warm, and the contact sends unexpected bolts of pleasure through both of them.

Anne leans in closer to Ann, bending her knees slightly to bring herself to the younger woman’s eye level. She gives her a small smile, trying to reassure her. There’s a lump in her throat and her heart feels like it’s going to leap out of her chest. She can’t stop herself from saying what comes next, even though she knows it will start something dangerous.

“I can’t forget what you did… and I don’t want to.”

Their eyes meet, and she sees hope swirling in Ann’s eyes. The contact is electric, and she doesn’t want to stop touching her, but even this casual gesture somehow seems too close – too intimate – to be strictly professional.

So she moves away, hand sliding from where it was resting on Ann’s leg. The movement generates a small friction against her skin, and she sees the younger woman’s eyes flutter at the sensation.

Anne’s voice is low and scratchy, strained from the effort of holding back her emotions.

“I’m going to head back in.”

Ann is looks down and bites her lip. “Ok. I’ll be right there.”

Anne walks back towards the house, glancing back at where she’s still sitting on the wall, trying to compose herself. She stops at the entrance to the patio, looking back at her. She’s still looking down at her hands, like she’s miles away. Standing there, a fleeting thought occurs to her:

She’d made it all the way through six grueling years of graduate school. Yet, nothing had prepared her for the mad little crush she was now developing on one Miss Walker.

Chapter Text

Anne finds that it’s surprisingly easy to avoid Miss Walker in the next week leading up to the conference. She truly has more to do than there are hours in the day and saying ‘yes’ to a few more meetings here and there manages to fill up her calendar with startling speed. She tells herself that she just has too much to do before leaving for Delft, but the truth is, she’s not sure she can trust herself around Ann after what she said at John’s party. She can already see that encouraging the poor girl could make things spiral out of control so easily, and they had already come dangerously close to saying things that they would regret. It seemed that Ann herself understood at least some of this, because she didn’t put up a fight when her advisor canceled both their meetings throughout the week, giving her the excuse that she had some “scheduling conflicts that couldn’t be resolved,” and that she would “see her in Delft.”

The brief time apart from one another should have given Anne more clarity, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect as she found herself, for the second time in a row, completely losing track of what she was looking for. She was hurriedly packing some last-minute items that she had forgotten to put in her suitcase the night before, but now, just 3 hours away from her flight, she suddenly couldn’t recall what she was walking into the bathroom for.

She was all over the place, her thoughts frequently slipping to Miss Walker. In the back of her mind, she kept wondering what Ann was doing, having spent the last few days visiting with her uncle in Delft. It was turning out to be a little bit of a distraction. Frustrated with herself, she stood looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, trying to call up the memory of why she’d come storming into the bathroom in the first place.

A quiet panting could be heard at the door as Argus, her Irish Wolfhound and steady confidant, especially in these last few weeks, had been dutifully following her around as she anxiously rushed through the house.

“What was I looking for, boy?” She gave him a fond smile, chucking to herself when he cocked his head to the side at the question. He wasn’t going to be much help here.

Sighing, Anne left the bathroom, resigned to miss whatever item she had meant to pack in the upcoming week. She didn’t need to reach down far to scratch behind Argus’ ears as she passed by the tall, lanky dog. He responded by panting even harder and squinting his eyes.

“I’m going to miss you, boy.” Anne felt that familiar pang of wistfulness at the thought of being away from home, for however short a period of time. She thoroughly enjoyed travelling- it was one of the best things about her job- but it didn’t keep her from missing her dog, her space, her things. At least Argus would be with Mariana this time while she was away. Since she wasn’t accompanying Anne on her travels, she had volunteered to take care of Argus while she was staying with her sister. They had agreed that having Mariana stay in the house they had shared together would be too awkward- to painful, even if it was for just a week. Say what you will about Mariana, she really did care for the giant Wolfhound, and Anne felt more at peace knowing that he was going to be around people he was familiar with while she was away.

Right on cue, the sound of the doorbell snapped her out of her musings. It was time to say goodbye.

“Come on, Argus.” She called to him, the little clicks of his nails on the hardwood floor followed behind her as she walked through the house. Reaching the front door, she paused for a moment to take a deep breath and centered herself. She could already feel the familiar tension building whenever she was around Mariana. She threw open the front door and tried to put on a smile.

Mariana is leaning against the one of the posts flanking the front entrance to the house when she sees Anne. She takes off her sunglasses and returns Anne a tight smile.

“Hi.”

They both pause in the doorway, uncertain about exactly what to say.

“Um…” Anne is the first to speak. “He’s all set.” She gestures down to where Argus is standing by her, tail wagging at the sudden appearance of his second favorite person.

“I’ve got his stuff here.” She reaches back behind the door and pulls out a canvas bag full of cans of dog food and half-destroyed toys.

“Okay.” Mariana takes the bag without ceremony and slings it on her shoulder. “Are you heading out soon? For your flight?”

“Yes.” Anne quickly pulls up her sleeve to check her watch. “Plane leaves in a little less than 3 hours.”

Mariana shifts on her feet. “Well… have a good time in Delft.”

“I will.” Anne tries not to think about how Mariana must be feeling- not going with her.

“Ann has family in the area, so she’s actually quite familiar with the city. So she’s going to show me around.”

“Oh really?” Mariana raises her eyebrows, suddenly interested. “And how is little Miss Walker? All better now?”

Anne doesn’t react to Mariana’s teasing tone. She doesn’t take the bait. “What do you mean?”

“At the party. At John’s house. She seemed upset, remember? She stormed off in a huff?” Her voice was starting to take on a patronizing tone, like she was trying to explain something very complex to a very simple person. Anne could feel it start to fray on her nerves. She took a deep breath and sighed.

“Oh that. Yes, she’s fine. She was just…” Anne waved her hand, like she as trying to wave away the topic of discussion. “… she didn’t expect to see you there.”

Mariana’s brow deepened in a frown. “Why not? I always go to those things.”

Anne spoke quickly, without thinking. “Well, I had told her that we were splitting up, so she—”

“What!” Mariana’s voice rose an octave. “Are you serious, Anne?!”

Anne stopped and looked at her. She did not appreciate being talked to that way. “What?

“You bite my head off when I tell Eugenie, who might I remind you, is a good friend of mine—”

“Well yes, I—”

“—but then you think it’s perfectly fine to spill it all to your funny little student—”

Anne is suddenly livid, her face red with anger as she steps closer to Mariana. “I didn’t spill it all—”

“You’re ridiculous!!” Mariana throws her hands up, and Argus lets out a quiet little whine as he grows more anxious at their charged interaction.

“You’ve always done this to me! You’re such a hypocrite, Anne!” She roars at her, pointing an accusing finger right at her chest which Anne swipes away violently. Her eyes are wild as she stares at her soon-to-be-ex-wife, the truth of the statement catching her off guard. Because of course Mariana is right. Of course she’s being a hypocrite. She didn’t need to tell Ann, and she let her emotions get the better of her at the party. If she was being honest with herself, she selfishly didn’t want Mariana to share the news of their separation with Eugenie because she felt shame - and she took it out on her.

Anne steps back, hands coming down to her sides. She breaths deeply, trying to summon some calm to the situation. She can see that Mariana is rearing for a fight, and they’re quickly spiraling into a familiar pattern, bringing out the worst in each other.

“Okay.” She finally admits under her breath. “As much as it pains me to say it…” She grits her teeth, almost like it hurts her. “You’re right, Mary.”

Mariana opens her mouth, instinctively ready for a retort, but Anne’s use of her pet name makes her pause.

“I – I am?” She stammers out, hardly believing that the great Anne Lister was admitting that she was wrong.

“Yes.” Anne looks at her with defeat. “We need to stop doing this to each other. I don’t want to fight with you. Not when I’m about to be off.”

That seems to deflate Mariana as well. She glances down at Argus and ruffles the top of his head reassuringly. A few moments pass as they both calm down, each woman studying Argus absently.

“Where has this reasonable woman been hiding?” Mariana gives her a sardonic smile.

“Don’t start,” Anne says warningly as she passes Argus’ leash to her. Mariana takes it and clips it to Argus’ collar. The Wolfhound glances at Anne, uncertainty in his eyes.

Seeing this, Anne bends down to look him in the eyes. She grasps his chin with her one hand and gives him a quick, almost bruising peck on his head. “I’ll see you in a week, boy.”

“We’re going to have fun together, aren’t we?” Mariana’s voice rises as she talks to Argus, a trait that Anne never cared for. He’s a dog, not a child.

“Well, I best be off.” Anne said brusquely, straightening up and checking her watch again. “I’ve got a ways to go.”

“Alright.” Mariana shrugs at the strap of the bag on her shoulder, and Argus perks up as well. “Have a good flight. Safe travels.”

They both share a look; an unspoken familiarity lingering between them. This is usually when they would’ve shared a goodbye kiss. Things are different now, but there is still tenderness between them that cannot be erased quite as easily. Mariana settles for reaching out to Anne and squeezing her upper arm. The gesture makes some warmth leak out in a tentative smile.

“Thank you. You take care.” Anne says softly, not meeting her eyes.

She watches as Mariana and Argus make their way down the driveway and into the little Jeep parked on the side of the street. She feels a sense of relief wash over her. As much as she loves her dog, the excitement of the trip starts to beckon toward her, tempting her with its sweet freedom.

With a start, she suddenly realizes what she had nearly forgotten to pack. Her toothbrush. How could she almost forget her toothbrush of all things? She closes the door and lets out a quiet chuckle at herself. Miss Walker really was proving to be quite a significant distraction.

***

The flight to Europe turns out to be mostly uneventful, save for the 2-hour delay from Dublin to Amsterdam because of “dense fog” on the ground. When they touch down in Amsterdam, while the plane is being taxied to the gate, Anne turns her phone back on and it buzzes with the telltale alert of a text message. She opens it instinctively and her heart skips a beat when she sees who it’s from.

Ann: Are you in Delft yet? Did you want to grab dinner tonight?

She quickly taps out a response before she can think too hard about it.

I’m still in Amsterdam. My flight got delayed. Probably won’t be in Delft until closer to 7pm.

She sees the text bubble indicating that Ann is typing out a response animate for a moment, then it disappears. Anne frowns at this, wondering what could be taking her so long. Maybe Ann had misread her text? Maybe she should have been more direct and just said yes to dinner. Her phone buzzed again with a response, pulling her from her thoughts.

Ann: There’s a night market tonight, it could be fun to get some food there?

They were starting to deplane, so Anne quickly replies.

Sounds good! Text you when I get there.

As much as she tried to tell herself otherwise, she was secretly thrilled at the prospect of seeing Ann in less than 2 hours. It had only been barely a week since they’d last talked, but it somehow felt notable, almost special to be meeting up for dinner that night, just the two of them. Anne tries to cast the implication of it out of her mind, which she only manages somewhat successfully, made possible by the hustle and bustle of exiting the airport and getting a cab to her destination.

She finally arrives in Delft just as the sun is going down, and she’s bone tired by the time she checks in to a cute little historical hotel a block away from the university. She shoots off a text to Ann, and they agree to meet up right outside her hotel, and to walk together into town for dinner. She doesn’t have time to jump in the shower, so she settles for washing her face and brushing her hair out, trying to look presentable after the 12 hours she’d spent travelling. Before she leaves her hotel room, she checks out her reflection in the mirror, suddenly feeling nervous about her appearance. The light grey cotton button-down shirt and black slacks she’s wearing are slightly wrinkled from all the time she spent sitting on the plane, but she decides she’s satisfied with her smart casual wear. The little blue birds printed all over her shirt seem to wink at her, and she summons up an easy confidence, ready for what comes next.

Stepping out into the evening feels instantly refreshing. She spots Ann standing at the end of the street on the corner, and the scene steals her breath away. Ann Walker is looking up into the trees where a pair of squirrels are chittering away over a disagreement about an acorn. She’s playing absently with the sheer sleeves of the lovely pink summer dress she’s wearing, its flowy skirt fluttering in the breeze. She’s chewing at her bottom lip, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth as she watches the squirrels chase one another with rapt attention. Anne is struck by how absolutely gorgeous Miss Walker is, and she’s almost sorry that the moment has to end.

“Ann?” She approaches her, watching as she pulls her attention away from the animals. Her dreamy smile faltering for a brief moment, before her eyes light up when she sees Anne and gives her a huge grin.

“Dr. Lister—I mean, Anne!” She plays nervously with her hands, looking like she doesn’t know what to do with them.

Anne finally makes it to the end of the street and stands before Ann. She sees the way the younger woman glances down her body unintentionally, and she sticks her hands in her front pockets to keep from fidgeting.

“Hi. How are you?” Anne responds breathlessly, and she can’t help but return Ann’s toothy grin.

“Shall we?” Anne motions with her head, starting to walk down the street. She finds that she doesn’t need to try very hard to slow her pace to match Ann’s. She’s instinctively drawn to her.

“So how were your flights? Not too bad I hope?” Ann asks as they fall into sync, walking shoulder to shoulder.

“No, not bad. My last flight was delayed, as you know. I’m glad to be out of a plane.”

She glances sideways at Ann and notices the way a faint breeze blows at small tendrils of hair coming lose from where they’re tucked behind her ear.

“How’s your uncle? He lives here? In the city?”

“Yes…” A tense look passes over Ann’s face, but it’s gone quickly, replaced by guarded neutrality. “He’s pretty far north. About a thirty-minute walk from here.”

“Oh Ann!” She smiles gratefully at her student. “You didn’t have to come all this way. We could have met up in town!”

“It’s no problem, really.” Ann looked slightly flustered at the attention, going back to playing with her hands.

They were rapidly approaching the center of the city now, and the sounds of the night market could be heard in the distance. From the tops of the tree line, Anne could make out a church tower, lit up with lights, like a beacon in the center of the city. The ornate gothic architecture glowed yellow against the deep blue of the evening sky, and Anne felt her eagerness grow at the prospect of laying her eyes on such an ancient work of art. Mesmerized by the view, she stepped off the edge of the sidewalk on a red-brick overlay, onto what she assumed was a crosswalk.  

“Watch it!” She felt Ann’s hand grab her shoulder and pull her back as a bicyclist whizzed past her, narrowly avoiding a collision. The cyclist was going at quite a good clip through the intersection, barely acknowledging her presence.

“What?” Anne looked around, disoriented. “Why was that-“

“The red brick is for bicycles.” Ann pointed down to the ground. “It’s bicycles first in the Netherlands. Pedestrians second.”

“Oh.” Anne looked up at Ann, still gripping her shoulder. She felt tingles shoot down her arm at the contact. “Thanks.”

Remembering herself, Ann quickly dropped her hand where it was resting on Anne’s shoulder, a slight blush forming on her cheeks. “No problem.”

As they make their way to the center of the city - carefully this time, avoiding all red brick roads- the city seems to come alive, with more and more people strolling about leisurely, enjoying the night. They eventually arrive at what appears to be the center square, a large cobblestone area in the middle of the city, flanked on opposite ends with the church that Anne had been eyeing earlier, and the equally ornate City Hall facing it across the way. Just for that night of the week, a bustling market had sprung up in the square, delicious smells from the various food stalls greeting them as they approach the center of activity.

From where Anne is standing at the base of the grand church, she can see just how tall the structure really is. She looks up, admiring the stained-glass windows and detailed stone carvings. She lets the grandeur of the building wash over her, pondering how many people have tirelessly worked on this magnificent feat of architecture. She takes in a deep breath and smiles to herself. This is exactly where she wants to be. This is her element.

She feels Ann move closer next to her, silent as she appreciates the view with her. Anne doesn’t take her eyes off the church as she speaks.

“Did you know, scientists did early experiments on earth’s gravitational force from that very tower.”

“Really?” Ann tilts her head, almost in disbelief that such historic advances in science could be made not 50 feet from where they were standing.

“Yes. They dropped two lead balls, one ten times heavier than the other, from the top of the tower- and they showed that both heavy and light objects of the same size fell to earth at the same speed. You know, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.”

“Wow.” Ann was awestruck. “How do you even know that?”

“Oh I read about these things.” She looked at her sideways, an impish smile on her face. “Here and there.”

She looked back at the church tower, pointing to the top. “Do you see that?”

Ann leans in closer, trying to match the angle of her gaze. Anne feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up as the younger woman’s body moves in front of her, brushing against her in the process. She lowers her voice and speaks close to Ann’s ear.

“The tower. See how dark the stone looks? It looks like it’s fire damage, but it’s not. It’s the kind of sandstone that they used to build it… it’s discolored from acid rain, making it look that way.”

Anne glances down to watch her and sees that the younger woman has her eyes closed and her breathing has quickened. This close, she notices the smattering of freckles along her cheek and down her neck, like constellations mapped across the delicate skin, waiting to be traced by gentle kisses. She catches herself leaning in ever so slightly and breathing in that delightful scent once again. It’s sweet, and flowery, and she longs to bury her nose into Ann’s neck and breathe all of her in. It takes a monumental effort to stop herself, but she manages to pull away, feeling shaky from their proximity.

“Shall we get some food?” She looks around, acutely aware of the look that Ann is giving her now. She refuses to meet her eyes. Surely she must know how wrong this is. Surely she must know that nothing between them could end well.

“Yes.” Ann clears her throat, taking her turn to look around at the food stalls. “How about we get some cheese first? It’s classic Dutch.”

And so they endeavor to eat their way through the night market, temporarily distracted from the intensity of their feelings by the novelty of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. They’re both swept away by the experience, delighted to be in a new city, enjoying each other’s easy company. They spend the next hour sampling all manner of food throughout the market, filling up on bits and pieces of fruit, fish, and cheese. Anne decides it’s equal parts delight and torture to watch her student experience the range of emotions associated with eating good food, because the way she reacts to taste is like pure ecstasy. One particular variety of cheese is especially to blame, because Ann flutters her eyes closed and makes a delicious little sound when she tastes the tangy flavor on her tongue. The moan shoots straight to Anne’s core, and she grips the bag of spiced nuts she’s holding so tightly that she rips through the packaging and has to apologize profusely as cashews and almonds scatter to the ground.

It seemed that the universe was conspiring against her because they had moved on to the sticky, messy task of eating freshly made Stroopwafels, a “true Dutch classic” according to Ann - although she was starting to catch on to how liberally that label had been applied to the many things they had eaten that night. Anne had initially declined to partake because of how full she was, but it turned out she was no match for the tempting smell of toasted butter and caramel coming from the food stand. They had taken their still-too-hot-to-eat desserts to a park bench overlooking one of the city’s many canals, and were presently juggling the crumbling rounds of cookies, their cooling ropes of caramel stretching across the fragments they were devouring.

Anne was struggling with one particularly sticky piece that she had pried loose, lifting it from its container and quickly popping it in her mouth. She wagged her eyebrows at Ann, a triumphant look on her face, proud of what she thought was her dexterity with the messy dessert. Ann took one look at her face and giggled gleefully.

“I think you missed a little…” She reached across the space, not thinking twice, and swiped a string of caramel off Anne’s chin with her index finger, bringing it back to her mouth and wrapping her lips around it. She sucked the caramel off and released her finger with a pop. She seemed completely oblivious to the effect she was having on her advisor as she continued to work her way through the remaining cookies. Anne told herself it really wasn’t the girl’s fault. She’d never seen such a petite little creature devour so many sugary treats in such a small amount of time – it probably never even occurred to her that it was not entirely appropriate to practically eat off someone’s face if a little bit of their dessert happened to be there.

By the time they are done with their mini food marathon, the sun had truly set beyond the horizon, and the crowds of people were starting to thin around the city. The darkness brought it with a new kind of peacefulness to the streets, and Anne found herself mesmerized by the way the city lights glimmered off the surface of the still waters of the canals. Strolling along the quiet streets, Anne suddenly notices that the vast majority of people still walking along the canals are coupled up, the romantic atmosphere of the old city working its magic. She somehow feels guilty about making the observation, but she tells herself she’s done nothing wrong… not yet.

The back of Ann’s hand brushes lightly against hers as they walk side by side, but she can’t bring herself to maintain a proper distance. The light and intermittent contact is delightful and excruciating, and she can’t help but wonder if Ann’s doing it on purpose.

“It really is a beautiful city, isn’t it?” She observes casually as she looks around at the closely spaced apartments, complete with creeping vines around the windows, a charming old-world aesthetic that adds to the romance of the night.

“Indeed.” Anne nods. “I love how old Delft is. I’ve been to other parts of Europe, but this place has some of the oldest buildings and structures I’ve seen.”

“Have you travelled a lot, Anne?” Her eyes sparkle, curious about the enigma of her advisor’s past.

“Mm.” Anne nods again. “I used to. As a child. My parents believed in giving me and my sister many different experiences, going to many different places.”

“Wow, how nice.” Ann looks off in the distance, like she’s imagining all the different places a young Anne Lister would have gallivanted off to. They’re closer to Anne’s hotel now, the street lights further apart, shadows dancing between parked cars.

“Do you not travel with your family anymore?”

Anne knew her line of questioning was innocent, but she dreaded talking about it. “Well… it’s just my sister and father now. And we aren’t close anymore. We don’t talk anymore.”

“Oh.” Ann sounds genuinely sad, and Anne finds her crestfallen tone so adorably innocent.

“It’s fine.” Anne is waving off her concern. “It doesn’t matter. They didn’t even come to my wedding.” She shrugs. “Maybe it’s for the best… now that--“

“Oh?”

“— Mariana and I—”

“Right.” Ann catches the meaning.

“—didn’t work out, anyway.”

“No.”

They stop in front of Anne’s hotel, the quiet street illuminated by the glow of a few windows. She turns to face Ann, giving her a warm smile.

“This is me.”

Her voice is quiet, breathy, and she feels too close to the other woman. They both pause in front of the door, a sudden tension blooming between them. The thing that has been quietly burning away in the back of her mind all evening suddenly makes itself known with startling clarity: Having dinner together, walking along the canals, standing so close she can practically feel her breath on her neck – it felt like a date.

It seemed that Ann had come to a similar conclusion on her own, because she was giving her an uncertain look through her lashes, a question written all over her face: What now? Do they kiss? It seemed like the natural conclusion to the night.

“Maybe now you’ll get another chance,” she says, drawing Anne out from her thoughts.

“What?” She frowns in confusion.

“With your family. To attend your wedding?”

Anne can’t help but let out a quiet chuckle. “Hah.” She looks at her pointedly. She can’t imagine going through it all over again.

They’re silent for a few more beats, processing what’s been said. Then, with a quiet sigh, Ann finally speaks. “Well. Goodnight.”

She lingers, not knowing what do to. She awkwardly reaches out and rubs Anne’s upper arm casually, almost like she’s trying to soothe the older woman, but doesn’t know how to.

Anne melts at the adorable gesture and grabs her wrist gently, pulling her into a tight hug, breathing out “Come here” as their bodies meet. She cradles Ann’s head against her neck with one hand, while she wraps her other arm around her waist, breathing in the smell that is just so Ann. She feels so small- so precious pressed up against her, that she lets out a breath against Ann’s cheek. She can feel her trembling in her arms, hands fisting the material of her shirt on her back. An uncontrollable wave of emotion hits her, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to pull back and look into her eyes.

They’re still holding on to each other’s arms when she sees Ann blink back tears. Her eyes glisten in the dim light, and she takes in a shaky breath before opening her mouth to speak, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I—”

“Shh…” Anne brings two fingers up to rest on her lips. She can’t bear for her to speak the words. She can’t bear to hear it.

She swallows hard, her frown deepening on her forehead as she shakes her head. “I know. I know.”

Ann’s lips feel so soft beneath her touch, her hot breath warming her fingers where they rest. She presses down with the smallest amount of pressure as she slides her hands away from her face, drawing a quiet sigh from the younger woman.

“We can’t.” Anne whispers, closing her eyes as she steps out of the embrace. She opens her eyes again, and their gazes lock: She sees that Ann understands. Even with the overwhelming pull between them, they must control themselves. They have to.

With that, she tears herself away from Ann and opens the door to the hotel. She looks back and sees a flash of pain cross Ann’s face before she turns away too. And then she’s disappearing into the night, the fabric of her skirt billowing with the force of her walk. Anne can still feel the phantom heat of the other woman’s body pressed up against her own, her distinctive scent lingering in the air, the only evidence of what had just passed between them.

Chapter Text

“Anne Lister!” She hears a familiar voice call to her from across the lobby. The ceiling of the newly renovated academic building is tall, and the sky lights make sounds echo harshly in the space.

She smiles when she sees Dr. Sam Washington standing by a cocktail table. She’s a little out of breath from her walk to the university as she approaches him.

“Sam! How are you?” She gives him a one-armed hug, her open palm almost painfully thumping him on the back.

“Oh you know how it is.” Dr. Sam Washington gives her a cheeky smile, dressed very smartly, as usual, in a tailored maroon suit, complete with his usual preppy bow-tie, this time, printed with tiny little airplanes.

“You look very nice.” Anne ran her hand through her hair while she pulled back and straightened her outfit. Although she admired Sam’s eccentric sense of style, she always opted to wear more muted colors at academic conferences. Yet, it could not be said that Anne Lister did not have style. After all, she always managed to make an impression with her effortlessly smooth and androgynous professional wear. The morning of the first day of the conference was no exception: she was dressed in an off-white tuxedo with a relaxed fit, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and jacket opened to reveal a black vintage waistcoat made out of a luxurious smooth material that had a subtle shine to it. She wore a black silk tie that rested against her bare neck, a transgressive move to signal that she could play with the big boys, but didn’t quite belong to the boy’s club.

“Did you just get in?” Sam was already nursing a steaming cup of coffee, breakfast pastries temporarily forgotten on his plate. The lobby of the building was bustling with the sounds of conference attendees lining up to get their programs and the clink of glasses and silverware being bussed for a simple breakfast served before the first round of sessions.

“No, I got in last night.” She said absently, looking around for some of that caffeinated beverage.

“Ah.” She manages to snag a cup of coffee from the tray of a waiter passing by, a satisfied smile spreading on her face as she sips the hot liquid. “What about you?”

“I’ve actually been here for a week.” Sam gestures to their surroundings. “I got here early because of some planning meetings… you’ve heard we’re trying to start up the North American Chapter of the NEURO-Society again, right?”

“Hm?” Anne’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh yes. George asked me join in but I’m absolutely full up to capacity as is. No way I’d agree to such a big service commitment.”

Sam gives her a hearty laugh. “Maybe if you didn’t have so many students you might have some time for the rest of us.”

“Not a chance. I’m happy where I’m at.” She took another sip of her coffee, feeling the caffeine begin to do its job. She knew she was woefully sleep deprived. All night, she’d been unable to think of anything but the moment she shared with Miss Walker outside her hotel, playing the scene over and over again in her head until she felt her sanity start to fray. But she was hopeful that with enough caffeine, she’d be able to make it through the day.

“So how are things at Northern Iowa? Still causing trouble with the Administration?” He gave her a wolfish grin. Anne Lister was nothing if not headstrong, sometimes to a fault. Yet he enjoyed hearing about the intellectual- and sometimes not so intellectual- scrapes she got herself into with those she fundamentally disagreed with.

“Oh, Good Lord, Sam.” She rolled her eyes. “They’re impossible. You know I heard the new Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs say that he wants to increase maximum class sizes. Again.

“Again?” Sam echoed, looking genuinely concerned. “Aren’t you already at 75?”

Anne gave him a pointed look. “Exactly. It’s never going to end, you know. They’re going to keep pushing, what with the new state budget looking dismal this year.”

Sam scoffed. “Well, I know you’ll push back.”

Anne opened her mouth, prepared to launch into a tiresome tirade about the impact of increasing class sizes on the quality of undergraduate instruction, when she felt a tap on her arm.

“Anne! Hi!” She was immediately enveloped into a big hug by none other than Dr. Madeline Blücher, her longtime friend and research collaborator.

“How are you Madeline?” Anne beamed as they pulled apart. Most people hated networking at conferences, but Anne lived off the social interactions. She had so many friends and collaborators in the community, and she was so very well respected. It was hard to not feel just a little smug about herself at these events.

“I’m doing very well!” Dr. Blücher was a tall, slim woman with a distinguished sort of air to her that immediately gave you the impression that she’d seen so very much in her time as an academic.

There was someone lingering behind her, and remembering herself, Madeline quickly turned around and beckoned to the young woman to join their table.

“May I introduce Dr. Sophie Ferrall? She just joined our department last year, and has been dying to meet you.”

Anne extends her hand to the other woman and puts on her most charming smile. “How are you, Sophie?”

Their hands meet, and Anne can see that she’s already having an impact on the young woman. She has a petite figure of no more than 30 years of age, she guesses, and she has a lovely mane of dark hair, rolling down her shoulders in waves, contrasting a porcelain white complexion that doesn’t look like its seen much time in the sun. Sophie is looking at her with inquisitive dark eyes that glint with a hidden mischief, and if she’s being completely honest with herself, the woman is objectively very attractive.

“I’m very good, Dr. Lister…” She has a dazzling smile, accented by lips that are stained with a delicious shade of crimson that border on being too flashy for the professional setting.

“Call me Anne.” She brings her other hand up to grasp Sophie’s hands in both her own, giving it a firm squeeze before releasing it after a beat.

Both Sam and Madeline share a look, a silent understanding passing between them. Oh yes, they’re aware of the effect that Anne Lister has on impressionable young scholars. It doesn’t help that Anne really is a Rockstar in her field, garnering the admiration of many an aspiring researcher.

Sophie seems completely starstruck, and Madeline swoops in to help her out. “Sophie’s specialty is in neuroimaging- she recently got awarded a large grant for this new fNIRS equipment for our department.”

“Oh?” Anne hears Sam inquire, but she doesn’t take her eyes of Sophie.

“Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy.” Anne answers for Sophie, delighting at the way her eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “It really is promising. I’ve been looking into it for some of my own work.”

“Is that so?” It isn’t appropriate, but Sophie manages to say it almost flirtatiously, maintaining eye contact with her.

“Yes,” Madeline interrupts, breaking their moment. “Anne has many different interests. One can barely keep up with all the interesting papers she co-authors with her many students.”

Anne is about respond, probably with something playful to tease Sophie, but is cut off by Sam’s loud cry.

“Isn’t your student, Anne?” He waves enthusiastically to someone behind Anne, and she can already feel her heart drop at the prospect of who she’s about to see. She doesn’t need to turn around to know who he’s beckoning to their table.

“Ann Walker, is it?” Sam smiles warmly at her student as she approaches them.

“Dr. Washington, how nice to see you!” Ann’s voice chimes lightly through the din of conversation swirling in the lobby, sounding brighter and more inviting than she remembers. She’s right behind her now, and she takes a deep breath before turning around to face her fully.

Ann seems to finally notice her advisor at the table, face flushing a bright red when she takes in what Anne is wearing for the day. Her eyes widen ever so slightly as they flit down her body, and Anne feels herself heat up at the attention. Her student tugs self-consciously at her modest black blazer worn over a simple navy sheath dress, accented by clean business-formal lines– fairly standard graduate student dress for conferences such as these.

Ann is still speechless, so Anne comes to her rescue, speaking to Madeline. “Miss Walker is one of my new students. She just started the program last Fall.” She can feel Ann’s gaze burn into her, and she finds it much easier to completely avoid eye contact with her student.

“Oh good for you, Miss Walker.” Madeline gives her a warm smile, mistaking her stunned silence as a sign that she is intimidated by the table full of professors. She gently grabs the student by the shoulders and guides her to stand around the cocktail table, directly across from Anne who is still unable to meet her eyes.

“I’m Dr. Blücher, at UC-Bakersfield, and this is Dr. Ferrall, who just joined me in the Department of Psychology.”

Ann looks around the table, her blush starting to recede. It seemed like the poor girl was not prepared for Anne Lister’s full-throttle, no-holds-barred, all-out, conference-academic look. Anne would feel sorry for her student if she wasn’t so busy studying the weave of the tablecloth with excruciating detail.

Sensing nothing forthcoming from Anne, Madeline forged ahead. “And you know Dr. Washington, from CSU.”

“Yes.” Ann nodded, completely overwhelmed by the situation. She gave Anne a pleading look, with no results.

“So what are you working on these days, Miss Walker?” Sam asks, drawing her attention to him.

Ann’s face lights up. She’s eager to talk about her research. “Oh, I’m—I mean, we—” she gestures to Anne across the table. “—are working on trying to understand how experts form knowledge structures from episodic memories when training for skilled tasks, such as performing heart surgery, or playing Liszt’s La Campanella.”

“Goodness!” Sophie chimes in. “That’s quite a feat. What theoretical framework are you using?”

Ann takes a deep breath. “Well, we’re looking at Soltero’s work on Tacit Knowledge—”   

“Oh yes.” Sam murmurs.

“—since these skills are so subconsciously developed and applied. It can be hard to elicit what these tacit knowledge structures even are in experts. And therein lies the challenge we’re dealing with.”

“But surely since tacit knowledge is so isosteric, so personal, generalizing them can’t be very meaningful?” Sophie challenges.

Anne finally speaks up, unable to keep herself from engaging in the conversation any longer. “You’d think so, but there’s some recent work on the transfer back and forth from explicit and tacit knowledge in software engineering organizations, so we’re using that as a foundation for this work.”

Ann looks back at Anne, their eyes meeting for an electric second. But then Anne is glancing at her watch and gathering up her things. “I’ve got an Associate Editors meeting I need to head to.”

“Oh! I want to go to that too!” Sophie reaches out and rests her hand on Anne’s bare forearm, stalling her movements. She lingers a little too long, and leans in a little too close to Anne. “Can you accompany me? I’m new.”

Anne doesn’t pull away, but she does glance back at where Ann is standing, a stormy look in her eyes as she watches the interaction. She doesn’t say anything, because how can she? But there’s a small hurt growing on her face before her expression hardens.

“I’ve got a session to get to as well.” She’s standing stiffly, grasping the strap of her backpack so tightly that her knuckles are turning white. “It was very nice meeting you, Dr. Blücher, Dr. Ferrall. And nice seeing you again, Dr. Washington.”

And then she’s gone, before any of them can respond. Sam looks at Anne, a questioning look on his face, as if he means to ask if her student is alright.

She’s mildly irritated at her students’ behavior. After all, making connections with established researchers is the whole point of coming to a conference. But she also feels her frustration at the situation grow. Why should she feel beholden to Ann Walker when she can never have her?

She shrugs it off and turns back to face Sophie, giving her another charming smile and playfully extending her arm for her to take it. “Shall we, Dr. Ferrall?” Sophie glows, ecstatic to have Anne’s attention.

Anne tries not to think too hard about Ann’s wounded look of desperate disappointment that is now etched into her memory. What right does she have over Anne Lister? She’s a full grown adult who can go wherever she wants, with whomever she wants to. And so, she shall.

She has a meeting to attend. A woman to accompany. A conference to get to.

***

 

Anne doesn’t see her student again until they’re on the bus that’s taking them to the conference reception that evening. Every year, this conference has managed to impress Anne with its choice of reception venue, always held somewhere elegant like on the top of the Niagara Falls, or on a beach in San Sebastian. This year, she’d gotten wind that they would be holding the reception at a wedding venue in the woods, but she really didn’t know what to expect.

She had managed to find a seat next to Madeline who was currently completely absorbed in her retelling of a story about this one time she had a terrible experience working with some faculty member from the business school, when she catches sight of Ann Walker climbing the stairs onto the bus and taking a seat next to some other graduate student near the front.

Instinctively, she begins to stand up in her seat to go to Ann, but realizes that she can’t: She’s seated on the inside, and Madeline’s in her way, giving her a peculiar look and asking her “what’s the matter?” Not to mention the fact that the bus is now moving with a lurch, the narrow twisting roads making it difficult to stand in the moving vehicle.

Anne sits back in her seat with a huff, quietly frustrated at herself for being so eager. She had promised herself that she would not let Ann get under her skin, didn’t she? She doesn’t need to go see her right this instant. She’ll catch up with her when they get to their destination.

She turns back to Madeline and apologizes, and is quickly swept away again in the twists and turns of the surprisingly intricate tale of mistaken authorship and bitter academic rivalry.

When the bus eventually stops at their destination, Anne has resigned herself to a night without Ann Walker. She tells herself that space is what the both of them need, but her leg impatiently bounces in her seat, betraying her anxiety. And yet, once she does manage to escape her seat and leave the bus, Anne finds herself unconsciously scanning for a blonde head of hair in the crowd that’s quickly gathering at the entrance to the venue. She tries to crane her neck over the crowd, but there’s too many people, and Ann Walker is nowhere to be found.

She is temporarily distracted from her anxiety when she finally enters through a wrought iron archway decorated with white roses, and into what appears to be the courtyard of a lush botanical garden, outfitted for the night with an impressive amount of white paper lanterns hanging from cables strung across the landscape. She follows the flow of people as they meander their way through the gardens, to where their dinner is being held in an elegant outdoor tent, accepting a flute of champagne from a host as it’s thrust into her hands.

Anne looks around again for Ann but is interrupted from her search by the appearance of Sam Washington, who manages to steer her away to a table already occupied by several of her colleagues. She sits down reluctantly, and the festivities begin. The champagne flows liberally, and the tent gets hot with the heat of all the gathered attendees. Everyone’s talking a little too loud because of the alcohol, and all through dinner, she feels as if she’s in a daze, barely following along with the overlapping threads of conversation crisscrossing over her. She finds herself growing tired of all the petty details about who said what during which panel, and what exactly the acceptance rate for the papers were that year. When first half of the event is finally over, and they’re released from their individual tables to mill about the gardens for the rest of the night, Anne feels a weight lift off her shoulders.

She’s thankful for the chance to stretch her legs as she stands up from the table, muttering a polite ‘thank you’ to her colleagues before excusing herself. As she stumbles from the tent, legs stiff from sitting for too long, she notices a particularly inviting entrance to the gardens just ahead, a line of fragrant rhododendrons lining the dimly lit pathway that seemed to disappear into the night. She feels an unusual sense of relief at the prospect of spending a few minutes along among the fauna, and she tells herself that the dinner’s just been too stifling and too warm for her that night.

There’s a sweet smell of nectar that greets her as she sinks into the flowery paradise, and she immediately feels a sense of calm wash over her. There are paper lanterns hanging at intermittent intervals and sparkling fairy lights are woven through the landscape, making the atmosphere feel almost magical. She takes a few deep breaths and runs her hands along the clusters of pink flowers, admiring the way they part for her hands, like a sea of soft petals under her fingers.

Then, almost like in a dream, the long arching stems of the flowers give way and she sees Ann standing along the path, gently cradling a flower in her hands while she lifts it to her nose and breathes in its fragrance. She’s got her blazer draped over her arm, and she realizes with a start that Ann Walker’s navy blue dress is sleeveless.

She’s not as quiet as she thinks she is, because in an instant, Ann looks up at the sound, and the journey that her face goes through is truly spectacular. Anne thinks she manages to spot some desire in there, sandwiched between a strange combination of anger and embarrassment. Anne is swept up in the waves of her emotions, and she feels her throat close around the words that she wants to say.

“Anne?” She’s just as surprised to see her there. They’re both unprepared for one another.

“What are you doing over here, Miss Walker?” Anne teases playfully, still running her fingers through the flowers. As she gets closer to Ann, she can see the younger woman use all of her willpower to stop herself from glancing down her body. She’s somewhat impressed when Ann manages to tear her eyes away from her and continue strolling down the path. She follows her, walking side by side as she studies the specimens.

“I just thought I could use a walk through the gardens.” Ann’s voice is light, like she’s forcing herself to remain casual.

Anne nods. “Absolutely stunning.” She’s training her eyes on the rows of immaculately maintained flowers that line the path, but she feels the weight of the double meaning settle between them.

Ann stays quiet, angling her face away from hers so that her expression remains a mystery.

“How was your first day at the conference?” She tries to turn the conversation to something else- something normal for an advisor and student to talk about.

“Oh, it was good. There were so many interesting talks. It was kind of overwhelming,” Ann admits.

“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Anne gives her a teasing smile, tucking her hands into her pockets. “The conference in August is so much more intense.”

Ann’s eyes widen at the thought, a sudden insecurity rearing its head. “All the grad students that were presenting today—there was Catherine Rawson and Harriet Parkhill, and so many others—they were amazing.” She takes a deep breath.

“I’m so humbled in my estimation of myself. They’re all so smart, so brilliant, and they’ve done so much interesting research…”

Anne’s breath escaped in a puff of air as she let out a laugh of surprise. “Oh Ann!” She playfully nudges her shoulder with her own, giving her a sympathetic smile.

“Catherine and Harriett are both fifth year PhD students! They’re much farther along than you!”

Ann let out a quiet breath. “What?”

“Yes!” Anne looks at her, tone incredulous. “They’ve had a lot longer to work on their research. You’ll get there. You just need to work at it!”

“Really?” Ann looks at her in disbelief, like the confession had burst a bubble that she’d been trapped in all day.

“Yes, really.” Anne still has laughter in her voice. Poor Ann Walker had been twisting herself up in knots about this. She decides it’s time to volunteer some information she’d heard over dinner.

“I heard from Dr. Stuart tonight. About you.” She glances at her sideways, wearing a crooked smile.

Me?” Ann looks like she’s either about to faint or throw up.

“Yes you.”Anne nudges her again at her shoulder. “She said you asked some very good questions in her session today.”

“Oh!” Ann is flushing red, at a loss for what to say.

“You’re doing good. Stop worrying.” Anne added lowly, hoping to quell her fears. “Everyone feels like this at some point.”

“Like what?”

“Like they don’t belong.” Anne says soberly, her tone becoming more serious as she thinks back to her early days at academic conferences. God, what a mess she had been.

“You belong, you know.” She stopped and turned to face Ann, trying to give her a reassuring look.

“You certainly look the part.” She said jokingly, gesturing to her and the very sharp lines of the dress. “Very serious academic, Ann Walker.”

That made Ann laugh, her giggle tinkling like little bells through the night. Without thinking, she motioned back at her professor. “At least I don’t look like you!”

Anne clutched her chest, pretending to take offense, and gasped. “Excuse me!”

“Not everyone can pull that off—” She motioned towards her, gesturing to her whole being with her hand. Ann was teasing her now, a huge grin on her face. In a moment of unexpected boldness, she reached out and weaved her fingers through the ends of Anne’s necktie, now undone and loose around her neck. She tugged on both ends lightly, but enough for Anne to feel an exquisite pressure against the back of her neck, pulling her towards her student.

“My God, Anne. You look…” Her eyes raked down Anne’s body, admiring the way her tuxedo hung on her lithe frame in just the right way. Ann bit her lip as she finally looked up at her, pupils impossibly dilated, and Anne was speechless at the blatant display of desire in her eyes. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to give in to temptation and press Miss Walker up against the stone wall and take the sweet girl right there in that garden. But she was glad she still had the capacity to think clearly.

Clearing her throat, she grabs her necktie, snapping the ends back from Ann’s firm grip. “We should head back. I think they’re going to announce the paper awards soon.”

“Right.” Ann remembered herself. Her face flushed red again, as it seemed to be doing at an alarming rate around Dr. Lister.

They quickly made their way back to the reception, the brighter light of the event making the intimacy of their interaction almost recede into the shadows, left behind in the darkness.

Eager to catch a better look, Anne pushes through the people to the front of the gathering, where an opening in the courtyard houses several conference organizers already speaking into microphones. It’s not until she glances behind her that she realizes that she’d lost her student in the crowd. She tries to turn around to find Ann, but she’s stopped short when she comes face to face with one Dr. Sophie Ferrall, wicked smile on her face as she loops her arm around Anne’s.

They’re starting to announce the nominees for Best Paper Award when Sophie redirects her to face the speakers in the front. She leans closer to Anne, trying to be quiet during the announcement.  

“I’ve been looking for you Anne.” Sophie purrs into her ear, and she can’t help but shudder at the closeness of the young woman.

Anne turns her face towards Sophie, somewhat startled at how close she was leaning into her. She darts her eyes about, suddenly concerned about how they might appear to others, but the crowd seemed completely enraptured by what was going on in the front.

“Why were you looking for me, Sophie?” Her voice is low as she tries to stay quiet, but the low, breathy tone of her voice comes across more flirtatious than she intends. She doesn’t notice Ann make her way through the crowd, triumphant at having finally found her advisor again, but stopping short right behind them when she notices how Sophie is clutching her arm and learning into her. She’s close enough to hear the words that are whispered into Anne’s ear.

“Oh, no reason Anne.” Sophie is playing with her now, rubbing her thumb tenderly across the skin of her forearm. “I just thought that maybe… we could head back to my hotel. I’m not far from here.”

Sophie’s words send tingles down her body, settling at the base of her abdomen, stirring awake a carnal longing. She clenches her eyes shut and grits her teeth at the impossibility of the situation. Sophie is practically throwing herself at her, but she just can’t bring herself to do it. She knows she’ll never have Ann, but it somehow still seems wrong. Before she can say anything to Sophie, she feels the movement of air behind her, and she whips her head back to meet Ann Walker’s eyes.

Her student lets out a quiet gasp, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, hurt burning in her eyes. Then in an instant, Ann launches herself back into the crowd and disappears among the bodies as quickly as she appeared.

Anne pries her arm away from Sophie and gives her a reproachful look. She’s making her way through the crowd, searching desperately for any sign of the woman, but it’s almost like she’d completely dematerialized before her eyes. She feels her heart thud in her chest, a painful ache tearing away at her composure. Where are you, Ann?!

She reaches the end of the crowd, but she’s still nowhere to be found. Desperate, Anne pulls out her phone and quickly selects Ann’s number in her contacts. She lifts the phone to her ear, still whipping her head around, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. The ringtone sounds once, twice, then goes dead. Her heart sinks with dread as she’s greeted by Ann’s voicemail. She hangs up and dials again, pacing back and forth, eyes desperately scanning the crowd. It’s Ann’s voicemail again.

Damn it!” She can’t help from cursing as she hangs up, lifting her hand to rub at her forehand absently. If she could just talk to Ann – If only she could just explain.

If only Ann Walker hadn’t wormed her way into her heart, thoroughly unhinging her in the process.

Chapter Text

The next time she sees Ann is during a paper session the next morning.

Anne is fulfilling her responsibility as Chair for the “Memory and Problem Solving” session, introducing the speakers and their institutions, when she sees Ann hurry in, head down, sliding into a seat near the back of the room. Anne is temporarily distracted from her train of thought and has to reintroduce one of the speakers when she sees the deep, dark circles under Ann’s eyes. The skin around them look red and puffy- like she’s been crying. Ann doesn’t meet her eyes, electing instead to scribble away busily in her notebook, never once looking up to the front of the room at her advisor. Anne feels like screaming at her across the room: Why haven’t you called me back?! But she manages to rein in her impulses, and instead, sits back down and feigns interest in the first speaker’s presentation on “The Impact of Priming Examples on Word-Cue Recall Task Performance.”

Anne finds the presentations rather lackluster and doesn’t try to hide her disdain throughout the session. She manages to sneak a couple of looks to the back of the room but every time she does, Ann’s looking straight ahead at the speaker, a stoic expression on her face. For some reason, all the presenters seem to be presenting studies that suffer from some form of construct validity issue which she eventually concludes is due to this year’s more liberal acceptance rate. Anne typically endeavors to let the audience members in the session have priority when asking questions, but the last talk is particularly grueling and manages to raise her blood pressure enough to make her point out the flaw in the study during the question and answer session.

“You claim that presenting multiple views of the same object increases participants’ divergent thinking performance—” She starts her question, feeling the eyes of the room on her. Her tone passes for even keeled, but she knows she has a commanding presence.

“—but you never once in your study measure the discriminant validity of your experiment.”

The poor victim of her line of questioning is a second year PhD student who seems to have only recently come in possession of the dataset that he had run the analysis on for the presentation. It’s clear that he doesn’t have a clue what the intimidating Dr. Lister is alluding to.

“What I mean is,” Anne’s voice takes on a lecturing tone. “You have no idea if participants would have performed just as well if you had given them different images, of different objects. You could have given them four different random images of different objects and just the mere fact that they had different stimuli to attend to might have affected their performance.”

The presenter opens his mouth to respond to her question, but something in the back of the room catches his attention. There’s a pitiful amount of relief that washes over his face when he realizes that an audience member may be coming to his rescue.

“Correct me if I’m wrong.” Anne hears the familiar musical tone of Miss Walker’s voice carry over the length of the room, and she looks back at Ann in the audience, surprise evident on her face.

“But I believe that the study was trying to investigate if multiple views of an object affects divergent thinking, as opposed to a singular view. In that case, the trials with just a single visual stimulus acts as a baseline in the experiment.”

Anne’s thoughts take a moment to catch up because she’s stunned by how outspoken her student is being during the session. But the response is already cued up on her tongue, like an automatic reflex.

“Well, yes, but without running the proper controls, the central assertion that it’s multiple views of the that same object that enhances divergent thinking, not just multiple visual stimuli in the subject’s visual field, is woefully unsubstantiated.” Anne turns to more fully face Ann Walker in the audience, the speaker in the front of the room temporarily forgotten.

Ann is not letting up, her eyes glowing with the fire of the challenge. “So what’s your suggestion, that they run a study with random, unrelated visual stimuli to see if participants perform better on the task?”

“Well, that would—” Anne tries to interject, but Ann continues, the tone of voice now rising with agitation.

“And what would that accomplish? We all know that periods of mental incubation, marked by attending to unrelated stimuli, has a positive effect on idea generation.” Ann made a good point. The presenter and the rest of the audience members watched with morbid fascination as an impossibly brave graduate student takes on the great Dr. Lister.

Not one to easily give up in a disagreement, Anne responds, her heart beating faster with the exhilaration of an academic debate. “That doesn’t mean that we need to forget about construct validity. If the authors are going to make those claims, they need to do their due diligence and conduct the necessary manipulation checks.”

Ann’s face was livid as she bit back. “But surely, those manipulation checks depend on the research questions being investigated, don’t they, Dr. Lister?”

The last words were said with such venom, throwing Anne completely off guard. She looked like she was having a personal argument with Anne Lister, rather than a discussion about experimental design. The tension in the room grew unbearable. What has gotten into her?

Trying to diffuse the situation, Anne looks back at the presenter and gives him an apologetic smile. “I think it’s best we take this discussion offline.” He looked enormously relieved to be free of the awkward exchange as he made his way back to his seat, and Anne was glad to have the control of the room back.

“All presenters will be available for more questions after the session. Let’s thank our speakers.” The room filled with halfhearted applause. Most of the audience members looked at each other in bewilderment at the bizarre exchange that had taken place between the session chair and the plucky little graduate student in the back.

Then, without as much as second glance up at Anne, her student was throwing her things into her bag while she made a beeline for the door. Her face was red from the attention, and Anne could see that she was trembling ever so slightly from the adrenaline as she raced from the room. Oh no you don’t.

There was now a collection of several students and post-doctoral scholars forming a semi-circle around her, having ventured up to the front of the room to talk to her about the session. But Anne was beyond being polite. She gave them all terse look and said, “I’m sorry, I need to go,” before grabbing her things and fighting her way through the wall of bodies. She thinks she hears someone yelp in pain as she elbows her way past them, rocketing through the door.

She bursts out from the presentation room in a bluster, the loud slam of the door echoing throughout the quiet hallway. Anne whips her head left and right and manages to catch the tail end of Ann’s flowy light-blue skirt disappear around a corner with startling speed. Determined to catch her, Anne barrels down the hallway, calling out her student’s name.

“Ann!”

She rounds the corner and sees her student walking briskly away from her. She knows Ann heard her, but she still charges ahead, bookbag clutched to her chest, eyes cast down to the floor.

“Ann, wait!”

She has to practically run down the hallway to close the distance between them, reaching out to physically stop the younger woman from escaping her.

“Just-- stop!

She grips Ann’s upper arm, pulling harder than she means to, turning her student to face her. The look on Ann’s face as she meets her eyes makes her stomach drop. There’s so much hurt in there, causing the waves of quiet guilt that had been swirling in her all night to crest and slam into her at once.

“What the hell was that?” She’s breathing hard from the exertion of rushing after her, eyes wild with confusion.

“What the hell was what?” Ann says through gritted teeth, expression still full of rage.

“That! What you did back there!” Anne gestures back to the presentation room with one hand, her other still gripping Ann’s upper arm tightly.

“What are you talking about?” Ann is indignant.

Anne can feel her frustration rise at the situation. She wants to talk to Ann about last night, but the girl was making it very difficult. She leans in closer to Ann, trying to get through to her, hissing at her through gritted teeth. “You’re clearly upset at me, and we can talk about why that is, but that’s no way to fix this – to take it out on me, in front of all those people?!”

Anne is now so close that she can feel Ann’s hot breath blowing on her cheek. She can see her rapid pulse flutter under the pale skin of her neck and she feels her own heart pound in her chest, both of them vibrating with unspent energy. Up close, she finds herself mesmerized by the way Ann’s eyelashes seem to stick together from unshed tears, the way a light blush is forming on her freckled cheeks, and the way the intoxicating flowery scent of Ann winds its way through her consciousness, stretching her self-control to paper-thin strands. Anne is overwhelmed by the tender ache in her chest at being so close to her, but unable to do any more in the moment.

Ann remains quiet, the bitterness in her eyes speaking volumes.

“We need to talk, Ann.” She breathes out hard, eyes pleading with her. “Last night, you just… left… I couldn’t find you.”

“I didn’t think you’d notice.” Ann bit out.

“What? I—”

“Since you were so busy with Dr. Ferrall.”

And there it was. Anne needed to fix this. She needed to explain things to Ann. Her mind raced as she tried to formulate just the right thing to say, all the explanations she had rehearsed over and over again in her head seeming to jam together on its way out of her.

But just as she was about speak, she hears someone call her name at the end of the hallway. She curses under her breath as she sees Dr. James Holt wave at her, oblivious to what he’d just interrupted.

“Anne! I’ve been looking for you!” He’s quickly approaching now, and they’re running out of time. Ann yanks her arm out from her advisor’s grip and gives her one last look. There’s sharp resentment in her eyes that Anne wishes she could unsee. Then, Ann is gone – again- disappearing back around the corner they had come from.

“Do you have any plans tonight?” Dr. Holt is now just feet from her, and she’s momentarily torn about what to do next. Deciding that now was really not the right time, she turns to face him fully, regarding him with her best neutral expression.

“James! How nice to see you!” She smiles, but it’s forced. What terrible timing he had.

“I want to talk with you about this workshop I’m hosting next month. Do you have time before the Technical Committee dinner tonight? We could have drinks in town before heading to the dinner?”

Anne searches her brain for her mental calendar, thoughts moving slower as she recovers from the intensity of the last few minutes. “Yes. Yes that will work. What time?”

“Good.” Dr. Holt is pleased with himself. “How’s 5 o’clock? There’s this place right by the Market Square that should work.”

“Okay.” Anne is pulls her phone out and types in the name of the bar Dr. Holt mentions. “Sounds good.”

He turns to leave her to it, but a second thought occurs to him before he does. “Oh, and Anne?” He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out two crisp tickets, handing them to her.

“The session chairs have all been given these tickets to climb the New Church tower. It’s not terribly expensive, but it’s a nice gesture. I hear it’s the best view of Delft.”

Anne takes the tickets and inspects them. She’s genuinely intrigued by the prospect of exploring the inside of the architectural marvel, but then a pit forms in her stomach when she feels a plan click into place. She knows what she must do.  

“Thanks, James.” She points with the tickets. “I’ll put these to good use.”

Pocketing the little slips of paper, she heads back out to the lobby of the building, steeling herself for what comes next. She’s even more resolved to find Ann and fix the mess that they’re in.

Her determination only slightly wavers when she doesn’t see Ann for the rest of the day. It’s likely due to the fact that she finds herself running back and forth between panel sessions, symposia, and executive meetings. Between her various responsibilities and trying to avoid Dr. Ferrall’s pointed comments to her, it’s difficult to pay attention to much else. She tries not to let the quiet panic that’s slowly bubbling beneath the surface grow, but she surprises herself at how relieved she is when she finally spots the blonde talking with Dr. Stuart in the lobby during a coffee break.

Anne takes a moment to appreciate the way that her student seems to have captured the attention of the other professor. As she approaches them, she hears Dr. Stuart laugh out loud at something she just said, followed by Ann’s unexpectedly insightful reflection about how she “often wonders if team mental models really assess shared understanding, as opposed to simply being the manifestation of shared operational language.”

Dr. Stuart sees Anne approach them first and gives her a huge smile. “Anne!”

She sees her student stiffen at the mention of her name and turn around. Gone is the stormy hurt from before. In its place, there’s a cold indifference that seems almost worse.

“You’re lucky to have such a bright student over here!” Dr. Stuart seems absolutely enamored by Ann, clapping her on the shoulder as Anne stops in front of them. “Miss Walker here was just telling me about the study she’s planning for this Fall.”

Anne tears her eyes away from her student and nods in agreement. “Yes, well, I’m the lucky one. Ann has been nothing short of exceptional since joining us.”

“Well, I better get going.” Dr. Stuart glances at her watch. “Are you coming? I think we’re sort of expected at this meeting. You know how Dr. Priestly gets.”

Anne meets Ann’s eyes again, determined not to let her slip away. “Yes. Just give me a moment. I need to speak with Ann about something.”

“Okay,” Dr. Stuart shrugs as she starts to leave. “Be it on your head if you’re late!”

Anne shoots her a sarcastic look. “I think I’ll take my chances.” That gets a laugh from Dr. Stuart as she walks off, finally leaving Anne alone with her student. She sees that Ann is about to make some flimsy excuse to run off again, so she doesn’t let her.

“Ann, wait.” She holds her hands up, stepping in her way and blocking her exit. “Just hear me out.”

Ann glances about the lobby at the people remaining around them. It’s not the most private setting, and she starts feeling self-conscious. Anne can see her swallow down her nervousness before returning to glare at her, crossing her arms in defiance.

“Look,” Anne fishes out the two tickets from her pocket, holding them out in front of Ann like a peace offering. Her face wears a hopeful expression.

“I’ve got two tickets to go up the church tower. I need to run out after the last session to have drinks with Dr. Holt, and then I’ve got a Technical Committee dinner at seven, but I’d like for you to join me in between if you’re able. I’ve been told it’s the best view of the city.”

Ann looks skeptical. “Don’t you want to take Dr. Ferrall with you?”

This again. Anne sighs in frustration, her voice is incredulous. “Well, no! I want to go with you!

Ann flinches at the sharpness of her voice, but she’s listening now. She softens her tone, pleading with her. “Come on, Ann. We can talk then, we’ll sort this all out, I promise. Just—please meet me there at six. Please say you will?”

She’s holding the tickets out between her palms, like a silent prayer to Ann while she bends her knees to look her in the eyes. There’s an exaggerated pleading look on her face, and Anne breaks out her most tender, eager smile, hoping to convince her.

She can see an internal battle being waged across Ann’s face. She holds her breath while she waits for her response. Then, like sails losing their wind, Ann deflates, returning her smile and rolling her eyes at the ridiculousness of her pose. She can’t help herself. Anne Lister is so damn charming.

“Fine.” She plucks one of the tickets out from between Anne’s palms. She’s trying to fight the smile on her face and failing miserably. She bites her lip in an attempt to keep from breaking out into a full grin. “I’ll see you there at six.”

Anne feels the rush of victory, and relief floods her smile. She grips Ann by her shoulders, giving her a little squeeze. “Great! I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me too.” Ann’s still biting her lip, holding her smile back.

“I really do need to go now.” Anne motions with her head, releasing her shoulders and stepping back. “But I’ll see you later.” The thrill of not being rejected by Ann gets to her head, and she gives Ann a little comical salute as she walks backwards, wiggling her eyebrows at the joke. She sees Ann bite back more laughter and look away before she has to turn around. Rushing off to her meeting, Anne tries to calm her rapidly beating heart. She knows she’s getting ahead of herself, but she can’t help but feel the rush of hope at finally being able to resolve things with Ann.

***

By the time Anne is finally done with her meeting with Dr. Holt, there are orange streaks coloring the sky, and the air is damp with the promise of rain that night. She’s thankful that the bar they had met at was only 2 blocks from the church, the massive tower peeking out over the tops of the buildings, guiding her as she rushes to her destination.

She knows she’s running ten minutes behind, but Dr. Holt just wouldn’t stop talking. She’s off to a bad start with winning back Ann Walker’s favor, although in the hours since she’d convinced Ann to meet her there, she finds that she’s growing more uncertain about what exactly she hoped to accomplish. Even if she could convince Ann that nothing had happened between her and Sophie, where would that leave them? There were still impossibly large barriers standing between them, and she felt a small part of herself wonder if she’d even imagined the whole thing between her and Ann in the first place.

Anne tries to cast these doubts away as she approaches the familiar structure again, scanning the exterior for her student. Not seeing her outside, she makes her way into the building, her eyes needing a moment to adjust to the darkness.

Inside, she realizes just how quiet the interior feels, a stillness settling over the atmosphere that seems almost inherent to the ancient building. There’s a small ticket booth in the corner, and a modest little gift shop that’s currently unoccupied. Ann is still nowhere to be found, but she soon spots a gated entrance to the base of the tower in the far end of the gift shop. Approaching the turnstile, she leans in, craning her neck around the entrance.

“Ann?” She whispers, afraid to break the quiet of the sanctuary.

“Anne? Is that you?” She hears the echo of her name being called out from the darkness. “I’m in here!” There’s a tremble to her voice, and Anne immediately springs into action, scanning the code on her ticket and practically leaping over the metal barriers as they unlock to let her in.

“There you are!” Anne rushes inside and finds Ann standing at the base of an impressively steep set of spiral stairs. “I’m so sorry I’m late, the meeting ran over…” She trails off as she takes notice of their surroundings.

It is very dark, the only light illuminating the space coming from small cut outs in the tower wall, vertical slits in the massive stone that let slivers of the outside world in. Ann is looking up at the spiral of stairs, seeming to go on forever, each stair barely the width of half her foot, the surface of the wood worn down to a smooth shine from decades of use. The spiral of the stairs is so tight, she can see there’s barely any room for a single person to ascend without angling their body, let alone for two people to climb it side by side. From where they’re standing, sound seems to float up and disappear into the dark space above them, an indication of just how tall the stairwell really is.

“What’s the matter?” Anne turns to face her, sensing her trepidation.

“It’s so…” Ann trails off. “…tall.”

Anne tries not to, but she lets out a laugh. “Well yes, that’s the point.”

Ann is still nervous. “But what if I fall, Anne?” There’s something so incredibly adorable about her quiet concern.

“You’re not going to fall. Tell you what—” Anne grasps her shoulders and moves behind her, turning her to face the stairs. “—I’ll follow right behind you, so if you do fall, I’ll be there to catch you.”

“Oh!” Ann seems to like the idea, but she’s still skeptical, fear still evident on her face.

“It’s not as bad as you think it is.” Anne leads her gently to the start of the stairs. “With things like these, it’s best to just crack on with it. Don’t look down. Before you know it, we’ll have reached the top of all three-hundred and seventy-six steps.”

That didn’t seem to calm her down. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Ann pales at the number. “Three hundred and seventy-six?!”

Making up her mind in an instant, Anne gently coaxes her up the first step. “Don’t think about it. Just take one step at a time.”

Ann nods nervously, but seems to gather some courage from having Anne directly behind her, acting as an anchor. She senses this, and leans into Ann, applying a gentle pressure on her back with her hands. She speaks softly, over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’m right here.”

The words spoken are so tender, so close to Ann’s ear, they feel like they were made just for her.

“Okay.” Ann swallows, and starts ascending the stairs, her hands gripping the railing so hard that her knuckles turn white.

They move up the tower in this way, with Ann gingerly taking step after step, and Anne placing a reassuring hand on her back now and again. They’re quiet at first, but then three quarters of the way up the stairs, Ann seems to have temporarily forgotten about her fear, the exertion of climbing the steep tower commanding her full attention. Ann is breathing quickly, gulping in deep breaths of the still air when she finally speaks.

“Oof. This view better be worth it.”

Anne is only doing marginally better, being in slightly better physical shape than Ann. “It’ll be worth it. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.”

A thought occurs to Ann and she frowns slightly as she stops and looks back at Anne. “Why do you think no one else is here, Anne? You said they gave tickets to all the session chairs, right?”

Anne pauses, pondering the question. “I don’t know.” She shrugs. “Maybe they took a look at the stairs and decided they couldn’t be bothered.”

“Hah.” Ann continues up, shaking her head. “Or maybe they were hoping to wipe out the great Dr. Lister by making her climb all these stairs. What a way to go.”

Anne laughs, but regrets it, wishing she saved that precious breath. “Don’t be morbid, Ann.” Then, teasingly, she adds. “Besides, what a great loss that would be to the scientific community. Everyone loves me.”

She hears a big puff of air escape Ann’s lips as she scoffs at her. Then, she mutters darkly, “Of course they do,” before she speeds up the stairs, leaving Anne behind. What just happened?

Bewildered, Anne races after her, surprised at her sudden energy. “What’s that supposed to mean??”

Ann keeps ascending, going faster in her agitation, breath coming out in shallow gasps. “You know what I mean!”

“No, I don’t!” Anne is panting out her words, legs burning from trying to keep up with Ann.

In their race up the stairs, they don't notice how close they are to approaching the top of the tower until there’s sunlight filtering through the layers of stairs above. Ann’s still forging ahead, undeterred by the tremendous amount of energy it takes to run up the steep stairs.

Everyone loves you, Anne.” She says bitterly. “Including Dr. Ferrall!” She pauses momentarily on the stairs, reeling from the force of her own words. She looks back at Anne, trying to catch her breath.

Not this again. Anne lets out an involuntary groan at Ann. She’s getting really tired of this misunderstanding. Before she can respond, Ann is off again, climbing with even more fervor, if that were possible.

“Ann!” She takes off after her, growing irritated with this game of chase. “Nothing happened, Ann!”

Ann doesn’t stop, scoffing at her again over her shoulder. “I’m not stupid, Anne! I saw you two!”

Anne grits her teeth and takes deep breaths, the air feeling thinner the closer they get to the top. “You didn’t see anything! It’s true, Sophie was practically throwing herself at me, but nothing happened after you left! I swear, there’s nothing going on between me and Dr. Ferrall!” She’s frustrated at how hollow her words sound, even to her. She doesn’t like sounding this defensive, but she needs Ann to know the truth.

“It none of my business, anyway.” Ann’s feet pound on the last set of stairs as she spits out the words, voice trembling with emotion. “It doesn’t matter, you don’t need to explain yourself to me.”

“Well, I want to explain it to you!” Anne shouts up the stairs, finally making it up to the landing with her student, panting hard, eyes wild from the chase.

They’re now at the top of the tower, in front of a big medieval wooden door set into the stonework, complete with iron rivets. It’s the only thing separating them from the outside.

Why the hell would you?” Ann's voice breaks, and her eyes are burning with hot tears. She grasps the handle of the door, throwing the weight of her body into it angrily, like she can escape from her tears if she could just get it open.

Anne feels her frustration at the situation overcome her. Before she can stop herself, she’s yelling out the words that have been carving a hole in her heart. “Because I want it to be your business!”

The words ring out and echo around the stone chamber, but Ann isn’t looking back at her. Instead, she’s falling through the doorway, stumbling out into the narrow balcony, and stopping in front of a solid stone balustrade. Sunlight streams into the narrow space, and she’s awestruck by the view that greets her.

Before them, the city of Delft, awash in the golden glow of the sunset, stretches below them into the horizon, the setting sun casting long shadows across its ornate gothic structures, angles of red roofed apartments, and bright green rows of trees that line the sparkling waters of the canals. The view takes their breath away, harsh words seemingly forgotten in the dark stairwell behind them.

The moment feels like magic. Anne approaches her slowly, admiring the way the wind whips her blonde hair about her neck. She leans up on the stone next to her, and watches as Ann takes in the city. All anger and bitterness leave her face, the sheer beauty of the moment captivating her and filling her eyes with wonder. Anne feels a lump form in her throat. It occurs to her in this moment that she’s in too deep with this amazing woman to do anything to stop herself.

Then, as if suddenly remembering that Anne was still there, Ann turns to her, conflict returning to her eyes. “Anne--” Her voice is so soft, wavering with unrestrained emotion.

“Yes?” Anne feels hope return to her face. She can’t help herself around her.

“Did you mean that?” There’s tears brimming in her eyes, threatening to spill over if she blinks.

“Mean what?” Anne is mesmerized by the way Ann is looking at her.

“What you said—” Ann turns to face her fully. “—back there.”

Oh.

“Yes.” She steps closer to her, breathing out softly. “Every word.”

Really?” Ann looks like she can’t believe what she’s hearing. That a woman like Anne Lister would be interested in her. The tears finally overflow her eyes, wetting her cheeks and making streaks down her face.

“Mm.” Anne reaches up to cup her face, thumb caressing her cheek, rubbing her tears away. The wind picks up slightly, making a whistling sound against the stone of the tower. Ann shivers slightly, but she doesn’t know if it’s from the cold or from her touch.

Anne is smiling at her now, eyes studying the younger woman’s face. Three-hundred and fifty feet below, throngs of people, bicycles, and cars mill about the city. But up here, it’s just the two of them, and she feels the inevitability of what she’s about to do next crash into her. It feels like no matter what they did, no matter what they said, everything had still inexorably led them to this very moment.  

“Ann.” She breaths out and leans in. Her eyes drop to her pink lips before meeting her gaze again, a question hanging in the air. She takes a deep breath, feeling her heart pound so hard, she thinks it’s going to escape her chest.

“What would you say…” She brings her hand down her face, rubbing her thumb gently across Ann’s lower lip.

 “… if I told you…” She slides her fingers under her jaw and pulls her hand away, watching Ann’s jaw lift instinctively to follow her.

“…that I never wanted to do anything as much as I want to kiss you right now?”

Ann briefly closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, then looks at her with so much tenderness that it claws away at something deep inside her that she cannot name. For the first time in a long time, she finally feels seen, like Ann actually knows who she really is and isn’t going to pull away.

With a small smile, Ann breathes out, almost too quiet to be heard over the wind whipping against the tower.

“I’d let you.”

The words sear themselves into her mind, and she feels something shift within her. The thousand and more reasons why they couldn’t be together seem to melt away with those words. All that remains is Ann Walker, standing on a balcony three-hundred and fifty feet above the ground, asking Anne to kiss her.

She reaches for the back of Ann’s neck, winding her fingers through the waves of golden hair tousled around by the wind. They both breathe each other in, moving closer until their noses almost touch. Anne feels her body respond to the intoxicating smell of Ann Walker like an addict getting sweet release. Her tongue sneaks out to wet her lips, and she sees Ann’s eyes slam down to watch the movement. She’s shaking from the anticipation.

It's Ann who finally closes the distance between them, pressing her lips softly against Anne’s, mouths parted slightly as they meet.

Everything but Ann drains away from her consciousness.

The exquisite feeling of Ann’s lips brushing against her own is almost too much for her to bear. She lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and her eyes open briefly to look at the woman now kissing her, like she can’t believe this is actually happening. Then, she tightens the grip on the back of her neck as she deepens the kiss, and she feels the younger woman’s hands snake their way up her arms and grip her sleeves in encouragement.

She never intended for the kiss to heat up so quickly. In fact, she never intended to kiss her student at all. But as she slides her wet lips against Ann's and presses against the back of her neck to pull her in closer, she can feel their self-control slipping away from them with startling speed. Using every ounce of willpower that she possesses; Anne tears her lips away from Ann’s, noticing how red they have become from the kiss. She brings both hands up to cup her cheeks, a wide smile splitting open on her face.

Ann looks up at her with so much wonder and so much adoration, that she can’t control pure joy from exploding in her chest. She feels the excruciating longing for Ann dull to a bearable ache. The inexplicable pull she had felt towards the other woman had seem to come to a head, and now a sudden relief washed over her, like a rubber band snapping back into place after being stretched too far.

But in its place, a new, carnal hunger was now growing—sharper, and more urgent than before, and she could already tell, that there was very little she could do to stop it.

***

 

 

NOTE: This is the view that Ann and Anne saw from the top of the church tower in Delft. This is literally taken from that spot during sunset.

Chapter Text

There’s definitely something on Anne’s mind, making it very difficult to concentrate on much else. 

She doesn’t usually struggle to keep pace with work meetings that take place over meals. They are commonplace for her, and she’s usually so adept at juggling the various customs that follow a social meal with the ability to keep to a productive agenda. And yet, she finds that it’s excruciatingly difficult to follow along with the tedious details of study data collection, dissertation committee paperwork, and the finer points of how to build scientific theory during this lunch meeting.

Oh, and there’s the other matter of remembering how to just breathe. 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain her composure when Ann keeps “accidentally” brushing against her arm every time she reaches across the table to point at something in her research prospectus. Dr. Stuart is sitting across from them in a small café overlooking one of Delft’s peaceful canals, evidence of their lunch pushed off to the side. She’s carefully inspecting the printed document that sits between them on the table, reading glasses perched low on her nose as she nods along with Ann.

“So you see, while I think it would be a good idea to study these tasks in their naturalistic environments, I don’t think we can effectively get at their cognitive process if we don’t use this protocol.” Ann, for her part, seems to be somewhat convincingly engaged in the conversation, but she can detect an undercurrent of nervous energy rolling off her in waves. Her student seems to be vibrating on the spot, her voice taking on an almost wild tone at the ends of her sentences, a quirk that Dr. Stuart probably attributes to the student being nervous about their meeting, but one that Anne knows has much more to do with her proximity to the woman.

“Yes.” Dr. Stuart agrees with Ann. “But then I would like to see some adjustments to your third study, to make it more generalizable.” 

“Okay.” Anne moves again, reaching out to flip the pages of the document and leaning in closer to her advisor in the process. Anne catches a whiff of her floral scent and the desire for her student slams into her with exquisite force. She has to close her eyes and grit her teeth to control herself.

“What about if I did a protocol analysis on experts performing the same tasks and coded it deductively instead? To see if it maps to the findings from my second study?” She points to a section towards the end of the document, looking at Dr. Stuart expectantly. 

“Mm.” Dr. Stuart’s eyes scan the excerpt in question. After a moment, she leans back and takes off her glasses, looking at Ann thoughtfully. 

“I think that would work.” She nods, touching the end of her glasses to her lips. “That was really my main concern. Everything else seems fine to me.” 

“Good.” Anne seems to have finally found her voice. She turns to Ann, feeling her heart flutter when their eyes meet. Between the technical committee dinner last night and a series of panel sessions she had to attend earlier that morning, they hadn’t had the chance to reconnect after their kiss in the church tower, and she could feel her body yearn for the younger woman. By the look that Ann is giving her, she suspects the younger woman might feel the same way too.  

“You’ll make these edits and send them to Dr. Stuart when we get back, right?” She doesn’t miss the way Ann’s eyes skate down to her lips when she speaks. 

“Yes. Of course.” Ann’s voice is quiet, and they’re looking into each other’s eyes a little longer than would be considered appropriate. It’s a miracle that Dr. Stuart doesn’t catch any of the strange energy buzzing between the two of them, but her voice pulls them out from their trance, nonetheless.

“So, what do you need me to sign?” She’s all business, completely oblivious to way Ann’s face grows bright red as she looks away and rummages through her bag, pulling out a crisp white sheet of paper, complete with the university logo. 

“Here. You need to sign the spot that says ‘Outside Member’.” She hands the document to Dr. Stuart, and as she’s scanning the page, she sneaks a look back at her advisor. It’s equal parts teasing and adoration.

Anne can’t keep the gleeful grin from growing on her face. In a moment of reckless bravery, Anne sneaks her hand under the table and runs her palm down Ann’s leg, from the middle of her thigh to the top of her knee, stopping at the hem of her flowy red skirt. The delightful sensation of the smooth, silky material of her skirt rubbing against her soft skin makes every hair on her body stand at attention. Ann’s eyebrows shoot up at the bold gesture and she quickly glances to where Dr. Stuart is uncapping her pen, preparing to sign her name. The sound of the pen tracing on the metal surface below the paper marks the end of their brief moment of being unobserved. Anne squeezes her knee with the lightest pressure before moving away and leaning to the side casually, wicked smile on her face.

“There you go.” Dr. Stuart looks up and passes the paper back to Ann. “All done!” 

“Great! Thank you!” Ann manages to squeak out, the skin on her leg still burning from the sensation. Flustered, she throws the paper in her bag and stands up abruptly. The harsh scrape of the metal chair on the concrete surface is grating, and Anne sees embarrassment flash on her students’ face. 

“It was nice meeting with you, Dr. Stuart!” She thrusts her hand out across the table. 

Dr. Stuart is mildly amused by Ann’s awkwardness as she shakes her hand. “Good luck with your research, Miss Walker. It should be an interesting dissertation! I can already tell it’s going to be great under Dr. Lister’s supervision.” 

Anne, on the other hand, is secretly thrilled at the effect she’s having on Ann. She knows it’s wrong, but it’s just so fun to tease the girl and watch her react. 

“Yes, Ann. You’ll do great under me.” She lets her voice drop in pitch and raises her eyebrows suggestively at Ann. She knows her teasing comes across as playful banter to Dr. Stuart, but to Ann, the implication is anything but innocent. She watches as her students’ eyes widen at the suggestion, jaw dropping slightly at the nerve. It was pure torture for her and Anne was loving every minute of it. 

“I-I’ve got to go now.” Ann stammers out. “I’ve got to pack before our flight. My uncle’s driving me to the airport.”

“Yes.” Anne turns to Dr. Stuart and explains. “We’re both taking the flight out of Amsterdam this evening to Dublin. Then they’ve got me flying through Newark, while Miss Walker gets to stop in Chicago on the way home.”  

“Oh, you shouldn’t make your uncle drive all the way to Amsterdam!” Dr. Stuart exclaims. “A group of us—” she looks at Anne for names. 

“James, Sam, Madeline… I think Sophie—”

“—yes, we’re all meeting in front of the university and splitting the cab fare.” 

Ann turns to look at Anne, question in her eyes. 

“You should come with us!” Dr. Stuart insists. 

Anne nods, trying to remain neutral, but is secretly thrilled at the prospect of spending more time with Ann. Their kiss at the top of the church tower felt like ages ago, and she is burning with the frustration of not having had any time with her since then. Riding together to the airport would at least put them in the same place, at the same time, even if they couldn’t be alone.

“Okay then.” Ann’s eyes still contain some uncertainty, but like Anne, she’s eager to spend any time she has with the other woman. 

“We’re meeting there at three.” Dr. Stuart continues. “Now, if you have a moment Anne, I’d like a word before I leave.” 

“Sure.” Anne shrugs, turning back to Dr. Stuart. “See you in a bit, Ann.”

She watches as Ann walks off quickly, her eyes unable to look away from the way the silky skirt clings to the outline of her legs, accentuating her womanly figure. Good lord, she’ll be the death of her.

“So. Anne.” Dr. Stuart leans forward, a seriousness growing in her eyes. “I wanted to talk with you about something.”

“Right.” Anne clears her throat, trying to concentrate on the moment. 

“As you know, I recently became the Chair of the psych department at Nebraska State.” 

“Yes, congratulations again, Elizabeth.” Anne gave her a smile. “They’re lucky to have you!”

Dr. Stuart continues. “And as you probably heard, I’m trying to build up the department’s core faculty on Cognitive Science. We’re pretty underrepresented at the moment.”

“Mm. Yes.” Anne nods. She was familiar with the Psychology Department at Nebraska State University. They had a reputation for big money and flashy research projects, but she knew it was rather heavily biased towards Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

“And well,” Her colleague pauses, a look of hope growing on her face. “I’m personally leading a search for our next tenure-track faculty position, and I think you’d be a great fit for it.”

“Oh Elizabeth!” Anne gives her a reproachful look, but she can’t help but be flattered. “I’m not moving to NSU!” 

Dr. Stuart lets out a laugh, raising her palms. “Hear me out!” 

“I’m not—”

“I know you accepted the job in Ames because Mariana has family there, but surely-- with NSU being 2 hours away—it’s not that far.”

Anne searches for a way to respond, not wanting to reveal anything about her divorce. 

“That’s not it, Elizabeth.” She sighs. “I’m happy where I am. I’d be thrilled to work with you, but I don’t want to have to pick up and start all over again. You know I’m applying for early tenure next year.”

“Okay, okay.” Dr. Stuart smiles at her with a knowing look on her face. “Just think about it.”

Anne sighs again and rolls her eyes fondly. “Okay, I will.”

“Either way,” her colleague continues, “I wanted to talk with you about Ann Walker.”

Anne feels her heart drop. It was impossible that her colleague knew anything about what was going on between them, but the mention of her student made her feel instantly guilty. 

“What about Ann Walker?” 

Dr. Stuart doesn’t notice her change in mood. “I was thinking it might be nice for her to spend the Spring with us. At NSU. We have this visiting researcher program that we’re piloting. It’s for early PhD students to come visit us and do some data collection. Part of the new strategic plan to forge more collaborations across institutions in the region.”

“Oh.” Anne frowns, trying to wrap her mind around the concept. “I suppose.” 

Dr. Stuart sees that she needs some convincing. “It’s only for one semester, and she’d still be advised by you that whole time. It’d be a good opportunity for her to get more publications.”

Anne is silent for a moment, trying to fight down a very odd feeling that was growing in her chest. It was objectively a very good idea. Before Ann, she would have probably jumped at the opportunity for her students to work with other faculty and network with important researchers in their field. But this was Ann. At NSU. Two hours away. Working with Dr. Stuart. Not with her. 

“I, um…” Anne reaches up to rub the back of her neck, suddenly feeling too warm even though there was a pleasant cool breeze blowing through the outdoor café.

Dr. Stuart observes Anne in her silence and sits forward in her seat. She looks at Anne directly in the eye and speaks in a softer tone. “It’s clear you’re very fond of her, Anne.” 

Anne lets out a breath, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Well, she’s a very good—” 

“I know. Which is why I’m interested in her. Who knows, this may be a good way to get her foot in the door for a post-doc at NSU when she’s done with you.”

Anne pauses, turning the thoughts over in her head. Dr. Stuart really did have a good point. Why was she fighting this? 

“Alright.” Anne finally says, shoulders sinking a little in defeat. “I’ll run the idea by her.” 

Dr. Stuart leans back, a triumphant look on her face as she clasps her hands together. “Excellent! I will send you the details about the program. I really hope she seriously considers it.”

Anne nods. “I’ll make sure that she does.” 

“Okay, I’ve got to get out of here.” Dr. Stuart gathers her things and gets up from the table. “See you at three.” 

“Okay, see you at three.” Anne shakes her hand and tries to give her a warm smile before they part ways. It’s difficult to seem cheerful when there’s an uneasy feeling gnawing away at something in the back of her mind. She tries to move on from this feeling as she makes her way back to her hotel, throwing herself into her preparations for her journey. 

She moves through the next hour with a forceful determination, packing her bags for her flights and checking out of her hotel in record time. Before she knows it, she’s waiting outside the university, bags at her feet, anxiously awaiting Miss Walker’s arrival. She’s fifteen-minutes early and standing in a large, open brick square at the entrance to the university, lined with elegant conifers and complete with the odd student or two lounging about on the stairs, cramming in some last-minute reading. 

When she finally rests her eyes on Ann, making her way up the street with a ridiculous amount of luggage for such a small girl, it feels like her heart will to float out of her chest if she’s not careful. Hair slightly tousled, cheeks faintly pink from the exertion and lightly panting, Ann stops in front of her. The light pink summer dress with sheer sleeves has made an appearance again, and Anne cannot keep her gaze from wandering down, admiring the low-cut neckline, exposing her delicate collarbones. Her face lights up, eyes so bright, as she looks upon Anne. The sheer delight on her face makes Anne ache with the desire to swoop down and kiss her senseless right there, in the open square. 

Up close, the enormous suitcase, two duffel bags, and comically oversized purse capable of carrying an alarmingly large number of items seem even more absurd. She must have spotted the look of stunned amusement on Anne’s face, because she breaks out into a sheepish grin. 

“Hi.” Her bags land at her feet gracelessly. “I’m not a light packer.” 

The laughter that bubbles up from her chest is deep and loud, born out of pure joy. “Oh, Ann.” She’s grinning now, too captivated by Ann to control herself. “What’s even in there?” She motions to the purse, straps digging hard into the skin of her shoulder. 

Ann giggles, then says mysteriously, “Wouldn’t you like to know.” The words are breathed out conspiratorially, and Anne decides she absolutely loves Cheeky-Anne-Walker.

“I’m glad you’re coming with us.” Anne’s eyes sparkle as she moves half a step closer to Ann, feeling the familiar pull toward the other woman.

“Me too.” Ann is still grinning at her, completely enchanted by her charming advisor. “Personally, I’m surprised Dr. Stuart invited me at all.”

 “Why?” Anne is puzzled. “I thought it was a nice gesture.” 

Her student lets out a chuckle, embarrassment coloring her features. “Because of how ridiculous I was acting during lunch.”

“Oh? What do you mean?” Anne raises an eyebrow, moving even closer to her and enjoying the way Ann’s breathing quickens as her pupils dilate ever so slightly. 

“You know what I mean…” Ann gives her an accusing look. “You’re absolutely evil for teasing me in front of Dr. Stuart!” 

“Mm. You did seem a little flustered at the end there, Miss Walker,” she says teasingly, a wicked little grin growing on Anne’s face as she recalls the way Ann’s leg felt under her hand, the way the fabric of her skirt rubbed against her smooth skin as she moved against her.

“You just…” Ann pauses, swallowing hard. The space between them seems to shrink as they breathe each other in, as though that can help soothe their longing for one another. 

“You make me crazy. You do things to me.” The words are spoken so quietly but Anne hears them thunder through her soul. 

“Ann…” She breathes out, eyes raking over her face, dropping to her lips, then back up again to give her a smoldering look. They both seem to be moving towards one another, not close enough for a kiss, but close enough to feel the heat rolling off one another. There’s an unmistakable burning in the base of her abdomen when Anne takes in the way Ann’s chest rises and falls over the neckline of her dress, the smooth skin of her collarbones beckoning her to come closer, to kiss her delicate neck, to breathe in her delightful scent, to completely devour sweet little Ann Walker—

A loud slam startles them apart as Dr. Stuart and her colleagues in tow burst through the doors of a nearby university building. The group of five faculty members are struggling with their bags, and Anne and Ann fly apart just in time to avoid being spotted by the group. Hearts racing, they look anywhere but at each other, trying to recover from the moment. Anne feels shaky with adrenaline as they approach, but she tries to reassure herself that they weren’t doing anything wrong. After all, an advisor can stand next to their graduate student, can they not? They did nothing inappropriate. Not in that particular moment, anyway.

“Anne! There you are!” Madeline is all smiles as they approach. “How nice to see you again, Miss Walker.”

As they get closer, Anne spots Dr. Ferrall making her way through the bags and bodies, a wide smile on her face. Here we go again.

“Anne. How are you?” She’s standing a little too close to her, and Anne looks toward her student, trying to meet her eyes. But Ann is not looking her way, having been whisked away by Dr. Stuart to talk about the visiting scholars program. 

Then, within thirty seconds, two white taxi cabs pull up to the curb, and the group shuffles about noisily, lifting suitcases into trunks and shoving bags into seats. In the midst of all this activity, Ann gets hurriedly ushered into the back of one of the cabs by Dr. Stuart who is still talking excitedly about NSU. Their eyes meet briefly over the top of the cars, and there’s a moment of panic that crosses Ann’s face when she realizes that she’s about to be separated from her advisor. 

“I’ll see you at the airport, Ann!” She tries to yell over the chatter of her colleagues around them. Ann doesn’t get to respond as she falls into the seat, and Anne hears Sophie urge her into their vehicle. “Come on Anne, you can sit with me.” She’s flustered, but she tells herself that Ann is an adult, and can take care of herself for the 40 minutes it takes them to drive to Amsterdam. Herself, on the other hand? She’s not so sure. Not when it's just the two of them, and Sophie is leaning into her shoulder and giving her a grin fit for a Cheshire cat. 

The ride to the airport passes relatively quickly. Anne decides to humor Sophie with stories of Iowa weather, embellishing a few details about a couple of storms that recently rolled through Ames that may or may not have actually been tornadoes. Sophie is fascinated by the drama of this one time that a lawn chair blew right into her garage door, creating a spectacular dent the size of a person. Anne finds that Sophie actually is a fascinating person to talk to and can certainly hold her own against Dr. Lister. During their conversation, she’s struck by melancholy at the thought of an Anne Lister who doesn’t seem to exist anymore. In an earlier time, Sophie would be exactly her type of woman: sophisticated, outspoken, and drop dead gorgeous. She’d probably already have had her way with the beautiful woman by now, and have her begging for more, if her past record was anything to go by. But now, after so much had seemed to pass in a relatively short amount of time, she finds that the thrill of the chase doesn’t seem to have the same pull for her as one Miss Walker.

Dense traffic on their route manages to separate the two cars even more, and Anne doesn’t see Ann again until they’re about to board their flight to Dublin. She’s managed to check most of her bags in, but she still looks weighed down by the ridiculously large purse on her shoulder. She doesn’t notice Anne sneak up behind her as she waits in line at the gate until she’s right behind her. Anne leans forward and speaks right into her ear, her tone low and teasing. 

“Fancy meeting you here, Miss Walker.” The words make her jump on the spot and turn around, an admonishing smile on her face. 

“Anne!” She shoves her playfully on the arm. “We lost you. I wasn’t sure if I’d see you again before the flight.” 

“I knew I’d find you.” Anne teases, not moving away and noticing the way the younger woman keeps glancing down at her lips. She can see that it’s taken an enormous amount of effort for the both of them to keep their hands off each other and she briefly wonders if they’ll be able to make it all the way home without burning up from the desire.

Their group numbers are called, and they make their way onto the plane, getting separated again. Ann is seated towards the front of the plane, and Anne can just barely make out the top of her blonde head of hair from her seat eight rows behind. She closes her eyes and mentally prepares for her long journey home. She knows it’s unlikely that she’ll see Ann again when they reach Dublin as they rush off to their respective gates, and she tries to summon up some patience at the prospect of going so long without laying her eyes on the lovely girl. 

Soon, the plane is rolling down the runway and they’re taking off into the quickly darkening sky, the loud rumble of the cabin doing a surprisingly good job of soothing her tired mind. She almost forgets to obsessively check on Ann every five minutes when the she catches the light pink of her dress flash out of the corner of her eye. She pulls her focus away from the article she’s reading on the “Neurocognitive Development of The Ability to Manipulate Information in Working Memory” to watch Ann make her way down the aisle. 

As she approaches the row where Anne is seated, their eyes meet in the darkness of the cabin. She can barely make out any details in Ann’s expression, but she swears she catches a glint of something mischievous in her eyes as she walks by her, a big smile on her face. Her heart drops as she puts the pieces together.

It can’t be. Surely there was no way innocent little Miss Walker wanted that? 

Anne’s eyes follow her as she passes her seat and makes her way toward the back of the plane where the lavatories are. She feels her heart beat faster and her body heat up with the suggestion of what could happen next. She leans out of her seat and looks back, waiting for a sign from Ann, half expecting that she’d imagined the whole thing. Then, her breath stalls in her throat when she spots Ann open the folding doors, pause in the aisle, and look back at her. 

That’s all the signal that Anne needs before she launches herself out of her seat, and down the aisle, stumbling slightly over someone’s foot as she races towards the back of the plane. She feels like she’s in a dream, her mind not fully catching up to the reality of her body as she reaches the door and manages to slide in right after Ann. 

It's extremely tight, but in one smooth motion, Anne moves around Ann, pulls the door close, and slides the lock into place, trapping both of them in the small space. 

“Anne?!?” The other woman gasps in shock, but Anne doesn’t hear her. Her entire body is thrumming with desire as she pushes Ann up against the door, running her hands along her shoulders and down her sides. It feels like every cell in her body is screaming at her to kiss those pink lips, to press into that delicate body, to bury her hands into the blonde hair. 

And so she does. 

The moment their lips touch, she feels electricity explode through her body. Their first kiss was tender, but this was urgent—direct—born out of pure need. She could feel her conscience tell her to slow down, but her body wasn’t listening, starved for the feeling of any bit of Ann Walker that she could reach. The sudden forcefulness of the kiss makes Ann weak in the knees, and the only thing holding her up is Anne’s body pressing her back into the flimsy plastic of the door. Anne can’t get enough of the little gasps, moans, and pants that Ann makes as she crushes her mouth against hers, tongue reaching out to part her lips and dive into the warm wetness. The pleasure of finally connecting with Ann seems like it should soothe the burning in her core, but it has quite the opposite effect. Every delicious little sound that the girl makes only serves to strengthen the exquisite fire of desire roaring within her. 

Their lips slide against one another, mouths open, breaths mingling in urgent gasps. Anne winds her fingers through the golden locks, pulling on them slightly as she runs her hands down her neck, and lightly over her breasts. That causes a particularly loud moan to come spilling from Ann’s lips as her head falls backwards, thudding against plastic of the door. Even her moans in the throes of passion are magical and musical, making Anne wonder how someone can be so sweet and sexy at the same time. She’s panting, hard, and her chest rises and falls rapidly from arousal. Anne almost can’t believe how loud Ann is being, and she hasn’t even touched her yet. 

Anne uses that opportunity to trail hot kisses down her jaw, stopping at a particularly tender spot right above her pulse point. She nuzzles it tenderly, breathing in her intoxicating smell, the feeling burning itself into her memory, like nothing will ever come close to comparing to this moment again.

Anne runs her tongue over the spot, and she hears Ann gasp with the surprise of the sensation. 

“Anne…” she breathes out, gripping her shoulders and closing her eyes. Anne’s insides clench at the sound of her name whispered on those lips with such need. She continues kissing down her neck, leaving a wet trail on the smooth skin, their bodies rocking against one another in an attempt to just feel more of the other person. 

She hears Ann whimper, “Oh, God,” when she reaches her collarbone and pulls the skin there tenderly between her teeth. The small space fills with their pants and gasps, the mirror fogging up from the heat of it.

Anne runs her hands further down Ann’s dress and reaches down to hike the base of her skirt up above her knees. She’s both completely caught up in the moment and in utter disbelief that she’s about to have Ann Walker at thirty-thousand feet above the ground. 

She brings her face up next to Ann’s, breathing hard against her cheek, heart hammering in her chest. But just as her hand brushes the inside of her thigh, she feels Ann start to push against her shoulders. “Wait, stop.”

She instantly stills her hand, but it feels like eternity for her mind to catch up with the words, like she’s surfacing from a deep sensory overload. 

“What?” She pulls back from Ann, confusion written all over her face, voice still husky. She wonders briefly if she’ll burn up into nothing now from the anticipation of touching Ann Walker. 

“I’m not…” Ann’s lips are swollen from the kisses, her hair a complete mess. “I don’t want our first time to be in the bathroom of an airplane.” She’s breathing hard, still trying to catch her breath. 

Anne struggles to understand, mind moving slower from the arousal. “But then- why did you…why did you come in here…?”

Ann gives her an odd look, like it’s the most obvious thing. “Um… because I had to pee?” 

Oh.

Anne’s eyes widen as she tries to lean back, but the space is too small, and she ends up thudding her back against the mirror. “I thought you—”

It takes a moment, but then a look of understanding suddenly passes Ann’s face. “Oh you thought I was – that I wanted to—!” 

“Oh my God.” Anne runs her hands over her face, mortified. The tension breaks, and she hears Ann giggle at her. She can’t help but laugh along as well, the situation seeming ridiculous now.

“I’m so sorry.” Anne holds her head in one hand, embarrassment on her face. “I totally misunderstood.”

“It’s okay.” Ann is still grinning stupidly at her when she reaches for the collar of her shirt, playing with the fabric fondly. “I’m glad we got to see each other again before Dublin.”

“Mm. Yes.” She lets out a big sigh and gives her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry we got separated. I hope they didn’t bore into a paralytic stupor in the cab.” 

Ann breathes out a quiet chuckle. “No, it was quite good actually. Dr. Stuart talked to me about this visiting scholar thing at NSU.” 

She tries to push down that odd feeling again, giving her a tight smile. “Right. Yes.” 

Ann grows quiet and then looks at her with an unreadable expression. “Do you think I should do it?” 

She can’t bring herself to meet her eyes, so instead she pulls her in closer, murmuring against her lips. “Let’s talk about it later.” 

Ann cannot resist her advisor, and they kiss again, softly, tenderly. But the moment gets away from them as they continue kissing, and she feels the heat from before reignite with surprising speed. She’s not sure where she gets the strength, but she manages to pull away from Ann, breathing heavily against her lips. 

“Ann…” she smiles against her. “If you don’t let me leave soon, I can’t be held responsible for what I might do next.” 

Ann giggles again and pushes against her chest with her hands. “Okay. Okay.”

Anne stumbles out from the small bathroom, the air instantly feeling cooler on her skin. The cabin remains dark and quiet, their activities in the bathroom gone unnoticed by the other passengers. She makes her way back to her seat and collapses into it with a huff. She feels her body burn for a much-needed release after what just happened and she closes her eyes to summon the will to control herself. 

Out of the small space and away from Ann’s tempting body, she feels her mind clear, and her thoughts start flying through the events of the last few hours. Fragments of memories from the day flash through her head and she feels that painful ache again when thinking about the visiting scholar program; something that should feel like an exciting opportunity for Ann. 

It’s only then that the thought finally emerges without warning: Her feelings for Ann Walker are clouding her judgement, making her forget what’s actually best for her student. 

They’re making her a bad advisor.

The thought is so jarring, so unwelcome, that Anne grips her armrests and snaps her eyes open. Now that she has thought it, she can’t cram it back into the dark place that it came from. The idea swirls around in her mind, tearing a painful path through the high that she had been riding since she kissed Ann Walker. As she feels Ann brush against her, making her way back to her seat, she realizes she had been so quick to let the intensity of her feelings for Ann suck her in and forget about the rest of the world. 

But she has to do better now. Ann needs her to.

Chapter Text

The sun is high in the Iowa sky and there’s a warm breeze blowing her hair across her face. Anne squints her eyes and scans the figures across the open meadow, tucking her hair behind her ears again as she leans back in the park bench. It’s just turned noon the day after her late flight back into Ames, and the sleep deprivation from the 12 hours of travelling makes her feel like all her movements are happening in slow motion, like she’s moving through a thick honey, dulling her senses. She thought that the late morning might make up for some of it, but as she waits for Mariana and Argus at their favorite dog park, she can feel the pull of sleep call her, the exhaustion from the emotional and physical labor of the last week taking its toll. 

Anne finally spots the familiar small Jeep rumble down the gravel path leading up to the dog park, and she’s suddenly excited to be reunited with her dog again after a whole week away in Delft. As Mariana gets out of the vehicle and Argus explodes out of the trunk, the other dogs around the park start barking and howling in their excitement, creating a predictable chorus in greeting. She stands from where she’s seated on the far side of the dog park as they enter the gate and smiles gleefully as her giant Wolfhound spots her and breaks out into a mad dash across the meadow. 

“Oof!” She’s a little winded as he jumps up at her and tries to lick her face in greeting, feet barely able to touch the ground in excitement. “I’ve missed you, boy.” She crouches down and rubs him under his chin, looking right in his eyes and exhaling a huge sigh. It felt good to be home.

“Don’t mind me.” Mariana calls sarcastically out as she makes her way across the large open space, huffing from the uphill climb and stepping around several dogs who have decided to play a game of chase around her legs. 

Anne looks up at Mariana and feels a familiar tug of affection when their eyes meet. Despite everything they had been through, there was something about the other woman that just felt like home – safe, familiar, predictable. 

Mariana lets out a heavy breath when she finally reaches them across the park, a small affectionate smile on her face. “I know it was my idea to meet up here, but Good Lord does he get excited when we get close. I worry one of these days he’s going to jump straight out the window.”

“How are you, Mary?” Anne approaches the other woman, reaching out to touch her arm in greeting. In a moment of unexpected fondness, she leans over and gives her a quick peck on the cheek, the contact feeling hauntingly familiar and disconcerting at the same time to both women. 

They both pull back, and Mariana looks up at her with a quizzical look on her face. “I’m good, glad you’re back.” 

If she’s confused by Anne’s behavior, she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she sits down on the park bench, followed by Anne, close enough for their shoulders to touch—a habit that’s hard to break. They both look out into the meadow, watching Argus bound around the park, scattering groups of other dogs play-wrestling and stopping to sniff a particularly potent spot in the grass.

“So, how was Delft?” Mariana asks, eyes still trained on Argus. 

“It was good.” Anne can’t help a smile from spreading on her face. It was really good. 

There’s a small group of short stumpy dogs now surrounding Argus, sniffing his legs as he whips around, trying to greet them all. Anne sneaks a look over at Mariana, noticing the way she studies Argus with a fond smile on her face. 

“Well??” Mariana finally looks at her. “Tell me more! What did you see? What did you do?” 

Anne tries really hard not to let her emotions leak out around the edges of her smile, mind racing through all the events that happened in the last week. Mariana was the last person she wanted to tell about Ann Walker. She feels a strange possessiveness over the secrets of their time spent in Delft.

“The usual.” Anne shrugs, trying to appear casual. “Old buildings, old streets. I didn’t have much time to do any exploring, but we did manage to go up to the top of an old church tower.”

We?” Mariana cocks her eyebrow, cogs already turning in her head.

“Well.” Anne looks ahead, not meeting her eyes. “Yes. I told you, Ann showed me around Delft.”

“I see.” There’s a pause, and then her voice comes out a little strangled, like she’s holding some emotion back. “That’s nice.”

Anne quickly looks back at Mariana and sees that she has a strange expression on her face. She didn’t think it would be easy when or if they started seeing other people, but she didn’t think it would happen this quickly. In a way, she actually does appreciate how difficult it must be for the woman she spent the last eighteen years of her life with to see her with someone else, or at the very least, see the beginning of something with someone else. Either way, now was not the time to reveal the details of anything surrounding her quickly evolving relationship with Ann Walker- not when things were still so unsettled between them, or when secrecy was still the best course of action. 

“And how was your week, Mary?” She tries to move the conversation along, looking back to Argus and spotting him unceremoniously drop down to the ground and roll around in a particularly muddy spot of the park. 

Mariana sighs and follows her gaze, a wistful look on her face. “Oh it was alright. Nancy has me applying for a job at this animal hospital in town. She thinks I could stand a chance working the front desk for a few months while I figure out what I’m doing.”

Anne nods, looking down at her lap. She’s not regretting their decision to end their marriage. In the eighteen years that they had been together, they had both brought out the worst in each other, but that didn’t make it any easier to see Mariana flounder as she tried to pick her life back up again from the pieces of their divorce. Anne had always been the primary breadwinner, making all the decisions, forging ahead with her career. That left Mariana with the unenviable task of trying to make a new life of her own using what little resources she had. At least she had a support network in Ames, and she was forever grateful to her sister, Nancy, for agreeing to take Mariana in after they had finally decided to end their marriage in May. It had been months in the making—almost a year of them not sleeping in the same bed—but when they had finally given up on trying to make it work, Mariana’s family had been there to catch her and put her back together. Now, when barely enough time had passed for the healing to be complete, Anne still felt a sense of duty and responsibility to make sure her former companion was not cast out from the lives they had built together with nothing to fall back on. 

“Yes, I’ve been meaning to talk with you about that.” Anne takes a deep breath and looks up at Mariana. “I finally heard back from Mr. Parker about the paperwork.”

Mariana seems to perk up at this, shoulders tensing in anticipation. It had been taking months for their attorney to finalize the divorce paperwork and separate their assets because Anne had been exceptionally picky about so many details in the legal documents. It was driving Mariana up the wall- she knows Anne thinks of herself as a little bit of a legal mind sometimes, but she wishes she would just let the professionals do their job.  

“Finally!” Mariana exclaims softly. “And??”

“Well, I had him look into the health insurance, and it turns out that I can’t count you as a dependent if we legally divorce now. So, I had him throw out the divorce paperwork and draw up a Legal Separation instead.” Anne is speaking quickly, not waiting for Mariana to catch up.

“W-wha--?” Mariana’s protest is unnoticed by Anne who is forging ahead, triumphant smile on her face, proud at her ability to maneuver through the system and get the best deal for the both of them in the process. 

“That should keep you on my health insurance until after you’ve found a job and can get on your own plan. After eighteen months, the divorce gets granted, and we can go our separate ways with minimal fuss. It’s all settled now, you should be getting the paperwork in the m--”

I can’t believe you!” Mariana snaps at her loudly, enough to draw the attention of several other dog owners who give them a curious look from across the park. She is livid, eyes wide with disbelief, shoulders shaking with rage. 

Anne stops, stunned by Mariana’s reaction. She takes in the other woman’s angry expression, confused by the interruption. “What’s the matter?”

Mariana notices the attention they are getting and leans in to speak in hushed tones, her tone still bitingly harsh. “I really wish you’d told me sooner. I had no idea you were even considering this, and now you’ve gone ahead without asking me—” 

“Well, I’m telling you about it now—” Anne cuts in, defensive and getting frustrated at Mariana’s reaction. She was just trying to solve the problem in the best way she knew how. 

“Oh, Anne.” Mariana laughs darkly, shaking her head, voice dripping with bitterness. “It’s just like you to steamroll over everyone to get your way—” 

“I’m not steamrolling over—” 

“—Anne Lister: Solves all problems. Knows better than everyone else.” Mariana mocks her, anger flashing in her eyes. 

That makes Anne furious. She hates it when Mariana speaks to her that way. She feels a scorching feeling lick her insides, the passion of their argument igniting a familiar tension between them. Even after everything they had been through, there was, and had always been, an undeniable physical attraction between them, usually stoked by heated disagreements about all manner of things. Anne has lost count of the number of times she’d won an argument, buried deep inside the other woman, her points emphasized by each thrust of her fingers, as Mariana loses her focus from coming hard around them. Anne’s thoughts flicker in and out of these memories, and she feels like a dispassionate observer, watching a previous life happen in a flash. The time for settling arguments with Mariana in that way was over. She is too old for this.

“Why are you making such a big deal about this?” she says incredulously while letting out a big sigh. “We already talked about this, remember? We agreed that we should try to keep things as stable for you as you figure things out, that includes things like health insurance—"

“No, we never agreed to that.” Mariana counters quickly, brushing her off. 

“Yes, we did.” 

“No, we didn’t—”

Yes. We did—" Anne insists again.

No. We didn’t—” Mariana looks at her in disbelief. “I didn’t think you were being serious about it!”   

Of course I was being serious about it!” Anne hisses at her, throwing her hands up. “Do you think I just joke around about these sorts of things??” 

“No, I thought you were just saying those things at the time. Not because you really meant it!” Mariana bites back, hurt reflecting back in her eyes. “I’m not your charity case!”

And there it was. 

“Mary…” She drops her voice, trying to soothe her as she reaches across the space and gently holds her hand. “I don’t see it that way. You know I’d do anything for you…”

Mariana stiffens up at the physical contact, torn about whether she’d like to pull away or accept the comfort. 

Anne continues to speak to her, forcing tenderness in her voice. “I think this will be best… for both of us. You know I still care about you.”

Their eyes meet, and she can see Mariana’s defenses start to crumble. Despite her outburst, she must know that this was the better option for them. 

Finally, Mariana deflates and leans back against the back of the bench. “Okay.” She pulls back her hand from under Anne’s in the process. “You’re right. Let’s do it.”

“Okay.” Anne echoes, letting out a breath. 

They both sigh and look around for Argus. In the heat of their argument, they had lost track of him, and now they spotted him giving a rather large Saint Bernard puppy a run for his money. 

After a few moments of silence, Mariana finally speaks up, a defeated tone in her voice. “Thank you, Anne.”

They look sideways at one another, an unspoken understanding passing between them.

“You just…You have good intentions, but sometimes, you just have this way of…” Mariana waves her hand, searching for what to say and how to say it in the most diplomatic way.

“… being always right?” Anne teases, lifting her eyebrows and nudging her shoulder with her own.

No.” Mariana smacks her on the arm and gives her an admonishing smile. “I was just saying, you have this way of just assuming you know what’s best for everyone, without actually checking with them first.”

Anne can’t help but roll her eyes. They’ve been having this same argument throughout the course of their marriage, and she didn’t want to hear it again. “Okay, Mary. Whatever you say.” She pats her leg and stands up. “I need to go. I’ve got to get Argus settled back home, and then I need to head to campus for some meetings.” 

She hears Mariana sigh again behind her before standing up with her. “Okay. I’ll leave you to it.” 

Anne nods and gives her a final look. “Just sign the papers and get them back to Mr. Parker.”

“I will.” Mariana’s already heading to her car. “See you.”

“Mm.” Anne looks at her retreating form wistfully. Marriages were hard, but God, was divorce even harder. Thankfully, it looked like they were going to muddle their way through it somehow. Things with Ann Walker were hard enough as it is without the added complication of their separation hanging in the balance. 

With a new determination surging within her, Anne whips around and lets out a shrill whistle for Argus. “Come on boy, let’s get out of here!” 

***

“Time for me to get out of here.” John Booth says, pushing back his chair and standing with a groan. He gives Anne a crooked smile. “Class isn’t going to teach itself.” 

“Right.” Anne is sitting across from him, behind her desk. She leans back and crosses one leg widely over the other while rubbing her chin in thought. “I’ll be in touch to get the form signed. I need to speak with Abbott about it first, but then if—when—he agrees to it, we should be good to go.”

“Okay, sounds good.” John nods at her and makes for the door to her office, speaking over his shoulder. “I’m actually excited to work with her. She always seemed like a good student—from what little I’ve seen of her.” 

“Yes.” Anne can’t help but beam at him. “Yes she is.”

John doesn’t catch her unusual fondness for her student because he’s already opened the door and is stepping out of her office. 

“Oh! Excuse me!” The light voice of the woman in question rings out beyond the threshold. Anne could recognize Ann Walker’s voice anywhere.

“Miss Walker!” John sounds pleasantly surprised to bump into her outside Anne’s office. “Speak of the devil!” 

“You were talking about me, Dr. Booth?” She can hear Ann’s puzzled voice beyond the door. 

“Ann?” She calls from in the office, craning her neck to look around the door, heart hammering in her chest now that the woman she’d been waiting to see all day was just steps away from her. 

“I’ve got to run to class.” John steps around her and glances back at Anne with one final look. “Dr. Lister will fill you in on the details.” 

And then the John is gone from the doorway, and Ann takes his place, the sunlight streaming in from the hallway windows casting a halo around her frame, making her glow in the entrance. To Anne, she looks like an angel, sent down to simultaneously delight and torture her.

Anne is speechless as her student takes a step into her office. And then, without taking her eyes off her, she swings the door closed, pushing it shut with her back. She leans back against the door and gives Anne the most eager, enchanting smile she remembers ever seeing.  

Now that they are finally alone again for the first time since returning to Ames, Anne feels a strange apprehension wind up through her. It is almost as though seeing Ann in her office, back at their university, transplanted the magical memories of what happened between them in Delft—like a dream she had too many times finally becoming reality before her very eyes.

She stands, slowly, intently watching Ann’s eyes take in what she is wearing. She already knew Ann had a thing for her more formal look, but she is curious if the black silk button up shirt and subtle gold trousers she was wearing would have the same effect on her. She didn’t want to take any chances with their first reunion back from Delft, and from her experience, the outfit that she currently had on always managed to get her appreciative looks from interested parties—and others that needed some persuasion. 

Ann needed no convincing. On the contrary, the way her breath picks up and eyes rake over the shimmery material covering Anne’s body tells her everything she needs to know. 

Anne tries to rein in her eagerness, stepping around her desk and taking slow steps toward the other side of the room. Ann is back in her usual grad student uniform of jeans and t-shirt, emblazoned with the university logo, but Anne notices that the jeans she chose for their meeting are unusually tight, hugging her hips and legs in a way that leave very little to the imagination. This realization makes a flirtatious grin appear on Anne’s face, growing as she closes the distance to where her student is pressed up against the door. She can barely contain herself as she takes the last few steps, doing the one thing her body had been starving to do since she last saw her somewhere above the skies of Europe.

Ann is silent, mouth open, breathing deeply as Anne approaches her.

Leaning into Ann’s body, she lowers her mouth to her waiting lips, but instead of meeting them with her own, she angles her face sideways and overshoots, bringing her lips right next to her ear. 

She hears Ann let out a soft groan at the frustration of the almost kiss, and she feels wicked as she whispers in her ear. “I’ve been waiting for you, Miss Walker.” She reaches down with her right hand to where the door knob is pressed against Ann’s hip and firmly depresses the push-button of the lock, the sound of the mechanism sliding into place, marking the certainty of their privacy. As she pulls back from the knob, she brushes her fingers against her student’s hips, running her hand up to rest on her waist. Ann groans again at the sensation, and she finally relents, pulling back just enough and brushing their lips together with the lightest touch.

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times they’ve kissed because every time their lips connect, it manages to steal Anne’s breath away. She marvels at how soft Ann Walker’s lips are, pressing into them more firmly as she pushes her back into the hard surface of the door. She kisses her slowly, deeply, with her mouth open, feeling the tip of Ann’s tongue brush against her own. It’s like every touch of her body, fingers running down her arms, lips sliding against her own, hips pushing gently back into hers, is giving her soul sweet relief from all the hours they spent apart.

Ann is trembling when they finally part to catch their breaths, and she chuckles as she rests their foreheads together. “We need to stop meeting against doors, Miss Walker.” 

Her giggle in response is musical, and she feels a strong urge to make her laugh again, if only to hear the delightful sound of pure joy once more.

“Hi,” Ann breathes out, speaking for the first time since she entered the office. She runs her fingers down Anne’s silk shirt, marveling at how smooth the rich material is. Her student bites her lip and her gaze follows her hands down the front of Anne’s body, stopping at her hips and bunching the silk up around the waistline of her pants. “You can’t expect me to concentrate on anything if you’re going to wear this to our meeting.”

Anne grins smugly, happy at the effect she’s having on her student. “Well, hopefully you can concentrate enough to listen to this…” She leans in and gives Ann another soft kiss, pulling on her bottom lip with her teeth as she moves away, thrilling at the small moan that she lets out when she does.

“I’ve got some good news…” Anne is still breathing against Ann’s lips, unable to tear herself away from the younger woman. She feels like she could spend forever pressed up against Ann Walker, breathing her in, and wonders why it took them so long to finally connect in this way.

Ann runs her hands up her neck, cradling her jaw as she stares hungrily at Anne’s lips. “Yeah? What is it?”

“Mm.” Anne smiles against her. “I spoke with Dr. Booth.” She feels Ann press against her jaw lightly, pulling her in, and she gives her another slow kiss, breathing in that intoxicating scent again, feeling it embed itself in her nerves.

She pulls back and looks at her right in the eyes, wanting to see her happy reaction when she tells her the news. “He’s agreed to be your dissertation advisor. And he even has an opening for a teaching assistant this Fall so I can take you off my grant.”

Anne leans in again to give her another kiss, unable to wait for her to speak, but she feels a hand push on her chest firmly, stopping her in place. She pulls back and looks up.

You did what?” The color has drained from Ann’s face and there’s suddenly so much hurt in her eyes. Her voice trembles in a whisper.

Anne frowns, confused at the unexpected reaction for the second time that day. She opens her mouth to speak, but before she can, she’s pushed back with surprising force and has to stumble to regain her balance. 

“Why would you do that??” There are tears in Ann’s eyes, her voice breaking with emotion. 

“What?” Anne struggles to catch up with Ann. She thought she would be happy. She thought she would be thrilled that she had fixed their problem, that they could finally—

“How dare you?” Ann’s voice is still quiet, bitter accusation seeping into it.

“I thought you’d be happy!” Anne exclaims, throwing her hands up. Why can’t she seem to get things right today?

Ann looks at her in disbelief, like she can’t believe how such a smart woman like Anne Lister could be so stupid sometimes. “Really, Anne? You thought that you could upend my PhD career, not to mention my plans for this Fall, and I’d be happy about it??”

“Well, no—” Anne tries to defend herself.

Ann launches herself past Anne into her office and turns away from her. She clutches her forehead and runs her hand through her hair. “This was the one thing I had. Why do people always think they can do this to me? Why can’t they just let me make my own decisions??”

“Ann—” She reaches out and tries to turn Ann to face her, but her hand just gets shrugged off as her student whips around, cheeks red with anger.

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Ann breathes in such a light whisper, almost like it wasn’t meant to be heard. 

But she did hear it. And it makes her stomach drop.

The words slam into her and she feels a red-hot anger sear through her mind, making the edges of her vision blur. Sleep deprivation may be to blame for her frayed nerves, but it doesn’t explain the fury that courses through her. She is sick of being misunderstood, sick of being told that what she does isn’t good enough. God damn it. She was just trying to help.

With a rage that she cannot control, Anne finally explodes, frustration at the situation overflowing her patience with a violent force. “What did you expect, Ann??”

Her student takes a step back, flinching at the volume of voice.

“That we’d get back to Ames, and we would get together, and you’d still be my student???” She can’t stop herself from saying the words that had been picking away at her insecurity this whole time.

“No, I—” 

She laughs bitterly, cutting her off. “You have no idea how this works, do you? You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into!” The words are said so sharply that it sucks all the air out of the room.

Ann clamps her mouth shut, tears spilling over her cheeks, a hard look forming in her eyes. 

“Did you think we would just carry on, like we did before, and everything would go back to normal?” There’s no stopping Anne now, not when the dam has been broken and she’s crashing through her outburst with a relentless force. 

“That’s not possible for me! I can’t be your advisor, not when I have these feel—” She slams her fist in her chest, stopping herself. She can’t say the words. Not yet. It scares her that she is so close to saying them. Instead, she takes a deep breath, and the next words that come out of her mouth are said with such venom.

“I’m sorry if you thought that’s how this would work, but that’s incredibly naïve of you.” 

Anne finally finishes, the words ringing out around the walls of her office. They probably could be heard throughout the floor, but she was past the point of caring. 

Now that the sharp words had been said, she could see an unbearable pain bloom in Ann’s eyes. As her students’ mouth twisted down in a frown and she sniffed at her tears, she suddenly wished she could take back her words. But it was too late.

“I see,” Ann finally spat out. “If that’s how you feel, then I won’t bother you anymore.” 

It felt like the floor shifted beneath her feet. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. 

“Ann—” She reached out again to grab her, but she was moving too quickly, yanking open the door with surprising force. 

She turns around in the doorway and glares back at her, resentment in her tear-filled eyes. “You know I may be naïve, but at least I think about others every once in awhile.” 

“Wait a minute, Ann—” She goes to move towards the door, but it’s slammed in her face before she can get there, the force of the sound echoing throughout the building, shaking the walls. 

Anne’s mind is still reeling, struggling to process what just happened. She’s rooted on the spot when the realization comes to her: She’s doing it again. She’s making rash decisions, assuming too much, crashing through life without regard for other people—just like she did with Mariana, all these years. And here she is again, doing the same thing to Ann Walker. 

Except now, maybe she has a chance to fix it. Maybe it isn’t too late.

Chapter Text

Anne Lister has never been a very patient woman. 

That’s probably why she often finds it very hard to endure any type of suspense, be it in the form of a student being late for a meeting, or waiting to hear back from Ann Walker after her numerous calls and text messages have gone unanswered. It has been almost a week now since she last saw her student, and the anxiety of resolving their conflict is starting to eat away at her restraint. In the last twenty-four hours, she found herself seriously considering contacting the university registrar to get her home address, but her better sense kicked in, and she reminded herself that Ann Walker is a grown adult, who will contact her when she is well and truly ready to face her.

Anne taps her pen impatiently on the table, glancing at her watch again, eyes darting about her office. Rachel Hemingway, one of her graduate students, is late for their meeting. While Anne would typically remain unaffected by it, today, her tardiness is really getting on her nerves. Letting out a shaky breath, Anne decides that enough is enough. She needs to do something with all the nervous energy rolling around inside of her. 

Pulling her laptop in front of her and opening the lid, Anne launches her email program and starts typing away at the keyboard, furiously composing a new email message. She needs to do something to get through to Ann Walker, and if she isn’t going to respond to her personal calls or texts, maybe she would respond to an email coming from Dr. Lister.

 

Ann—I need you to contact me right away. It’s been a whole week and I haven’t heard anything from you. You’re not answering my calls or text messages, and I am worried about—

 

No. Anne stops herself, lifting her fingers from the keyboard. There is no need to sound so desperate. Ann knew exactly what she was doing to her. How could she ignore her for a whole week after what had happened between them? Shaking with anger, Anne deletes the draft and begins typing. 

 

Dear Miss Walker,

This is your research advisor. I still have yet to see a draft of your paper presentation slides for the upcoming conference. I typically expect these slides at least a week prior to the conference so I may give you my feedback on it, but I’ve heard nothing from you. We have work to do, and you have responsibilities to fulfill per your Graduate Assistant contract. You have been absent for a week, and that’s completely unacceptable—

 

Unexpected tears have started to well up in her eyes, and Anne tears herself away from the computer. Lifting her hand to rub her forehead, she tries to calm her breathing. She sees that her hands are shaking with fury. 

No. That won’t do either. She refuses to let her emotions get the better of her. Shaking her head, she straightens up in her chair and pulls the laptop back in front of her. She takes a deep breath and deletes the draft one more time, starting over.

 

Ann – I haven’t heard from you in a week. I know you have your reasons, and I want to give you space, but I need you to send me those slides for the conference next week so I can give you my comments. I’ll be here if you need to talk. I miss—

 

Anne lifts her hand to her mouth, holding back a shaky breath. God, she missed Ann Walker. She missed the way her laughs tinkle like music notes, the way her freckles paint a pattern across her skin, the way her blue eyes look up at her in adoration, her eager face asking Anne to kiss her. But she can’t say that. Not now, not after everything that had been said. Gathering her strength, she deletes the last line. She types out something she hopes sounds more neutral instead.

 

I hope you’re doing well. Talk to you soon. Anne.

 

Nodding her head, she reads over the email before hitting the send button. Anne felt resigned to the situation. She would have a chance to fix things with Ann Walker. She couldn’t avoid her forever, and when she eventually did see her again, she would have her opportunity to explain things to her. Today just wasn’t the day to do it. 

A loud knocking at her door brought Anne out of her thoughts. Looking up, she spots Rachel standing in the doorway, face red from rushing to her office, apologies already on her tongue.

“Dr. Lister! I’m so sorry, traffic was horrendous—” 

“Rachel.” Anne cuts her off, pushing her laptop off to the side with more force than was necessary. “I’m not interested in your excuses. When you’re late for our meetings, you don’t just show disrespect to me, but you also show how little you respect yourself.” 

Anne was being harsh. She knew that. But the weight of the last few minutes was clouding her judgment, making her more brittle than usual. 

Rachel was speechless, mouth open, trying to formulate something to say next. Seeing nothing forthcoming, Anne sighed deeply and motioned to the chair across from her. “Sit. Let’s begin.” 

That brought some color back to Rachel’s face, her shoulders sagging with relief as she took her seat. “Thank you for meeting with me. I have some results to show you from the analysis we talked about last week.”

And so they spend the next hour talking about research, Anne doing her best to concentrate on the exact details of the results being presented to her. For the most part, Anne finds she’s doing a decent job at giving Rachel some useful input, even if her fuse is just a little shorter today. One particular set of statistical tests has Anne shifting in her seat, growing agitated at the obvious error in her student’s analysis. 

“So you see, there are numerous statistically significant results here when we compare the completion time across tasks—” Rachel is proudly pointing to several rows of a table on her laptop screen. 

“Wait a minute,” Anne interrupts, frowning as she leans in to look at the screen. “Did you do multiple comparisons here?” 

“Well, yes—” Rachel starts to explain, but a ding from Anne’s computer cuts her off. They both pause, looking at Anne’s computer screen and the single notification that had popped up on the email icon. 

Anne’s heart skips a beat as she raises a finger to tell Rachel to give her a moment, while she pulls her laptop closer to her and launches her email client. There, in bold letters, is a new message from Ann Walker. A reply to the email she sent an hour ago. 

Hands shaking slightly, Anne moves her finger across the trackpad and opens the message. It’s brief, a single line, with an attachment at the end of the email.

 

Dr. Lister- Attached you will find my slides for the conference. Let me know your comments. Thank you.

 

Rachel must have seen the color drain from her advisor’s face because she leans forward, craning her neck to try to read the screen. “Are you alright, Dr. Lister?” 

Anne’s mind had been racing all week, trying to formulate the best way to reconcile things with Ann Walker, desperate to hear back from her, and aching for any contact from the other woman. But now that the terse words have reached her inbox, she’s not sure that she’s any better for it. In fact, if it were even possible, the formality of the email seemed to hurt her even more, the words cutting again at wounds that were still fresh and open.

“I’m—” Anne tears her eyes away from the words on her screen. It feels like the room is closing in on her. Taking in a few deep breaths, she glances back at Rachel, wearing a look of concern on her face. What was happening to her? How could such a simple email make her feel so devastated? So crushed? She needs to take back control of the situation. And fast. 

Anne feels a new determination swell through her. “I’m always alright.” 

She closes the lid of her laptop firmly. “What we need to talk about, Rachel, are the results of these tests.” She motions to the table still up on her student’s laptop screen. 

“Oh?” Rachel looks back at the screen, still a little unsure about what just happened with her advisor. 

Anne leans forward in her seat, her voice sharper than it needs to be. “I’ve told you this before, and you should have learned this in your statistics course, but when you perform multiple comparisons like you’ve done over here, you need to use a Bonferroni correction on the significance values to maintain a family-wise error rate of 0.05.”

Rachel is taken aback by the hardness in her voice, but she continues. “You’ve made a fundamental mistake in your analysis. You’ve increased your chances of making a Type 1 error by running these tests again and again. These are basic first-year psych concepts, Rachel.” 

“Oh. Okay.” Rachel sits back in her chair, frowning but nodding along. She tries not to show it, but it’s difficult not to feel personally attacked when Anne Lister speaks in that way.

“Good.” Anne leans back as well, mirroring her posture. “Make those corrections and send me your results again.” 

“Yes, will do.” Rachel is gathering her things up, closing her laptop and sliding it in her bag. “Thanks, Dr. Lister.” 

“Mm.” Anne waves her away, attention already shifting back to her computer. She is itching to read and reread the email from Ann Walker that is now burning a hole through her hard drive. Before Rachel can even close the door behind her, Anne is already snatching her laptop, opening the lid, and eagerly consuming the words on the screen. 

Dr. Lister” The words stare back at her again, severe and sharp, a painful reminder of the rift between them. Anne lifts a shaky hand to the keyboard, aching to send a response across the divide—anything to get her to let her back in. But before she can start, another ding sounds from the computer, and there’s new message sliding into her inbox. 

Anne’s eyebrows furrow as she reads the name of the sender, her mind grinding to a halt as she processes the new information. 

Elizabeth Walker.

Burning with curiosity, she opens the email immediately, eyes going wide at its contents:

 

Dear Dr. Lister- 

I apologize in advance if this email in inappropriate, but I didn’t know what else to do. My name is Elizabeth Walker. I am Ann Walker’s sister. I believe you are her PhD advisor, is that correct? I got your email from Ann’s computer after she sent a message to this address, just a few minutes ago. 

To cut to the chase, Ann is in a really bad way, and I didn’t know who else to reach out to. She lives with me and my family, and since she started her PhD program, she talks about you constantly. Or at least she had been up until about a week ago. She’s not left her room in almost six days, and there’s something clearly going on with her. I’ve tried to get through to her, but nothing seems to be working. The only thing that seemed to snap her out of it briefly was the email she suddenly needed to send to you an hour ago. Other than me, Ann doesn’t really have any close friends, and I know there’s no one she’d rather be influenced by than you.  

I know this is probably an imposition, but if you have time, and soon, would you be willing to meet with me for coffee? I’ll need to bring my kids with me (I have three, all quite young) but if you could give me 30 minutes of your time, I’d really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about Ann. I’m really running out of options here. For reasons that I’ll explain if/when we meet, I’d really rather not alert the rest of the family if possible. It’s really last minute, but I could meet you at Lightcliffe Coffee in two hours, or tomorrow morning if that’s better. Just let me know. Thank you very very much.

Sincerely, 
Elizabeth Walker

 

Anne is shaking as she finishes reading the email, mind whirling with the terrible possibilities of what was happening to Ann Walker. Biting her lip, she forces herself to read the body of the email for a second time, and then a third, just to convince herself that what she was reading was real. Then, feeling a surge of adrenaline at what she was going to do next, she quickly sends out a one-sentence response:

 

Elizabeth- yes. See you there in two hours. Dr. Lister.

 

***

By the time Anne steps into the quaint little coffee shop just fifteen-minutes from campus, she’s practically jumping out of her skin with anticipation. It doesn’t take her long to spot Elizabeth, a mousy woman of about thirty years of age who shares the same blonde head of hair as Ann Walker. Surrounding her are three young children in various states of distress. The first is the youngest, sitting on her lap, fussing about noisily. The second is in a high-chair, currently poking at little rounds of cereal scattered on the tray. The third, slightly older, seems to have escaped his mother’s clutches and is currently stumbling around the table banging his sippy cup against the legs of the chairs.

Sackville, come back here!” The woman doesn’t see her approach the table, too busy trying to soothe the infant in her lap while keeping an eye on the mobile toddler. 

“Elizabeth?” Anne asks tentatively, stepping around the rogue child. “Walker?”

She looks up at her, blue eyes connecting with brown, and a bolt of recognition shoots down her spine. There’s a little bit of Ann Walker reflecting back in that face, enough to make Anne’s pulse quicken in response, like a reflex she cannot grow out of. 

“Yes. You must be Dr. Lister?” She goes to stand from her seat, but remembers the baby in her lap. She gives Anne an apologetic smile and extends her hand from where she’s sitting. The poor woman looks completely overwhelmed. 

“Yes. Anne Lister.” She grasps her hand, giving it a firm shake and sitting down across from her. She looks around at the café, noting the sudden increase in volume as the post-lunch crowd filters into the space for their afternoon caffeine fix.

“Thank you so much for meeting me here.” She’s bouncing the infant in her lap, and Anne notices the bags under her eyes. “And on such short notice.” 

“It’s no problem.” Anne feels a tense energy streak through her, the agitation of the children only serving to heighten her anxiety. “What’s going on with Ann?”

“Right.” Elizabeth sighs, looking defeated. “So. As I said in my email. Ann’s been in one heck of a mood since about a week ago… right around when she came back from Delft.”

A small bit of food goes flying from the highchair, the source of the projectile laughing with glee as the piece of cereal skitters across the table. 

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Elizabeth is mortified, reaching over to soothe the child in the highchair. She speaks sternly in a low voice. “Don’t do that. It’s not very nice.”

“It’s alright.” Anne shifts in her seat, getting a little uncomfortable at how much attention the children seem to be attracting in the café.

“As I was saying.” Elizabeth continues. “Ann hasn’t left her room for almost a week. She doesn’t do anything, and she barely eats at all. It’s like she’s just sort of… given up. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

Oh Ann. 

She feels her heart clench at the thought of Ann, alone in her room, with what she can only imagine are thoughts of their fight tormenting her. Her own anxious frustration at the situation seemed to pale in comparison to what Ann seemed to be going through. It’s impossible, but Anne feels an urgent itch to be with Ann Walker, to look upon her face, and see her look back at her. It had only been a week, but her absence felt so acute—she seemed more like a dream at this point.

“The last time she was like this, was when…” Elizabeth trails off, like she’s calculating how much to reveal to Ann’s advisor. Then, making up her mind, she lowers her voice and leans across the table. “…she broke off her engagement to a Thomas Ainsworth. About two years ago. It was really ugly.” 

Huh. Anne frowns, trying to keep herself from being distracted with that information. “Has she said anything to anyone?”

“No—” 

“Nothing at all? Not even to you?”

“No.” Elizabeth sighs in frustration. “That’s the thing. I’m getting really concerned. And well…” She pauses, looking reluctant to say more, but she takes a deep breath and forges ahead. “I really should contact our aunt, and our cousins, but they always overreact about these sorts of things.” 

“Yes.” Anne tilts her head, trying to absorb all the information. “How so?”

“Well. They think she’s lonely, and they’re always trying to set her up with some eligible bachelor or another. Even when I think she just needs a little more time to process some things than other people, you know?” 

Anne nods, biting back the question on her tongue: Is Ann Walker not out to her family?

Elizabeth continues, oblivious to Anne’s internal query. “And they think that everyone’s problems could be solved if they just married the right person, had children, and lived happily ever after. But our Annie isn’t like that. She’s… different. She’s very smart, as you probably know—”

“Yes.” She’s brilliant.

“—and she’s very thoughtful, and driven, and not many people—men, I mean—take to that very well. That’s what happened with Thomas. The family pushed her into it. I never approved of their engagement. I mean, he seemed like a nice enough fellow, but he never made her happy, not the way she’s been recently.”

And there was this talk of the fiancé again. Ex fiancé. Anne gritted her teeth and nodded for her to continue.

“When Ann wanted to go back to grad school, he put up such a fight, and well, I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I’d never seen Annie quite so angry like she was back then. It was probably the first time in our lives that she’d ever gone ahead and just done the thing she wanted, regardless of what everyone said.” Elizabeth looks off in the distance, like she’s reliving the memory all those years ago.

“Why did… he… not want Ann to go back to grad school?” Anne is trying to stay calm, to speak in an even tone, despite the quiet rage burning in her.

“Oh.” Elizabeth sighs and rolls her eyes. “God only knows. Men are so…” She lets out a quiet chuckle. “…ridiculous sometimes.”

“Mm.” Anne shoots her a look of understanding. “They can be.”

“I think—” Elizabeth drops her voice again, speaking in a hushed tone. “—that he just wanted to control her. To take what he wanted, never mind what she wanted. The family has been doing that to Ann all our lives, and he thought he could just swoop in and do the same to her.” 

Elizabeth gets wistful, looking off in the distance again. “Poor little Annie…She’s never had much of a choice when it comes to her life. All except for her decision to go to grad school. And work with you. You’ve really lit a fire under her. I’ve never seen her so passionate about something as she is about her research. You must do some really fascinating work, Dr. Lister.”

Anne can feel the realization work its way toward her. It takes her a moment to turn over the information, examine the facts, and replay the memories over again. Then, like pieces of a puzzle clicking into place, she finally understands: In all her bluster to try to do the right thing, Anne had tried to take away the one thing that Ann Walker had chosen for herself. It was no wonder she had reacted the way she did. How could she have been so stupid?  

Anne feels a smile start to grow on her face. She can’t help but feel a small amount of triumph at having finally figured it out. She knows what to do next. She knows how to get Ann Walker back.

“I see what’s going on, Elizabeth.” Anne abruptly sits up in her seat. She points her finger into the table, making her point. “I know what to do.”

“You do?” Hope blooms on Elizabeth’s face, lighting up her blue eyes in a way not unlike Ann’s. 

“Yes! I—” Anne is interrupted by young Sackville hitting her knee with his sippy cup. 

Sackville! Stop!” Elizabeth is mortified, but she manages to grab him by the arm and sit him back on the seat next to her. “Sorry,” she looks back at Anne apologetically.

“As I was saying.” Anne shoots the child a stern look. “I believe I know why Ann might be feeling this way. I had… in a moment of poor judgment… suggested that she work for another faculty member, in a different area of research.”

Elizabeth gives her a puzzled look. “Why’d you do that?” 

“I…” Anne searches for what to say, struck by the simple truth of the question. Why did she do that? 

“… had my reasons. But in retrospect, it wasn’t the best decision, and I think she may have misinterpreted me, and got the wrong idea.”

“Oh, I see.” Elizabeth nods. “Well, that makes sense. Her research is everything to her. The poor thing must be so broken up about it.” 

“Yes.” Anne takes a deep breath. “I know how to fix it though. I’m going to send her an email now, and I need you to make sure that she gets it and reads it, okay?” 

Elizabeth looks enormously relieved. “Yes, of course!” She lets out a huge sigh, resuming her bouncing of the baby in her lap. 

Anne is already pulling out her laptop from her bag and opening the lid. She doesn’t look up at Elizabeth as she pulls up her email client. “Don’t worry… I’m going to fix this.” 

“Okay.” The other woman shifts in her seat, unsure what to do now that Anne had begun typing furiously at her keyboard, paying no attention to her. “Dr. Lister?”

“Yes?” Anne looks up from the screen, eyes bleary from the concentration. “Oh. Right, you can go. I’m just going to be a few more moments.”

“Great.” Elizabeth goes to stand, lifting her two children into the twin stroller parked behind them, and grabbing the fidgety toddler by the arm. “Thank you again, Dr. Lister. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for Ann.”

Anne nods, eyes still glued to the laptop screen. “Mm. Just—make sure she reads it, ok?” 

Elizabeth mutters one last quiet “yes, of course” before she’s hustling out of the café, children in tow, making her way through groups of people lined up for their coffee. 

Anne doesn’t look up at her retreating form, attention solely focused on the words she has now written on her screen. She takes a deep breath, feeling hope blossom in her at the prospect of finally getting through to Ann, and rereads her email:

 

Dear Ann,

I know you are still angry with me, and only now do I understand why. I fully acknowledge that who you choose for your dissertation advisor is a very personal choice, and one that’s entirely yours to make. I did not mean to take your choice away from you. I have attached two versions of your dissertation committee form, one with Dr. Booth as your advisor, and one with me. Whichever one you choose to sign, I will honor, and you will hear no objection from me. However, I also believe that it’s entirely within your right to be in possession of all the facts before making such a decision, so here they are:

  1. Dr. John Booth does research on olfaction and decision-making in older adults. His specialty is in cognitive science, focusing on perceptual psychology, but not necessarily in memory, which, from what I recall, is your main area of interest in psychology. That being said, he is a good researcher, and will likely make a great advisor for you. But you should know, he is already tenured, so it’s unlikely that he’s as focused on publications and going to conferences, which may negatively impact your job prospects after graduation.
  2. I, on the other hand, will help you get where you need to go. I have expertise on Executive Functioning and Memory Formation, which are your key areas of interest. I am also very prolific when it comes to publications, and I have an extensive network of colleagues in other institutions who I intend to introduce you to at conferences and other professional meetings. If you stick with me, you’ll likely do really well in the program, score a good post doc, or even get a tenure-track job right out of grad school. 
  3. Please note, that if you choose #2, I will do everything in my power as your advisor to remain objective, like we have discussed before.

 

Anne takes a deep breath, eyes scanning the last sentence. There is only so much she can say in an email to Ann’s university address. It would have to do. Not wanting to agonize any more over the wording of the email, Anne drags the two files sitting on her desktop into the email client, and completes the message.

 

I hope to hear back from you soon. When you’ve made your decision, please come and see me with the signed form, and we will go from there. Again, I cannot say this strongly enough: It’s entirely your decision. No one else’s. 

As ever,
Anne

 

Her hands shake as she hits the send button. There’s no taking it back now. She just hopes that her words will spur Ann into action. She is finding that she cares less and less about which choice Ann will ultimately make. She just needs to see her student again, to see her alive and well, and to convince herself that she has not made up this beautiful woman that haunted her dreams for the past week.

***

The next day is full of anxious waiting for Anne, punctuated by the obsessive checking of her email client, hoping for any response from Ann Walker. The hours pass painfully for her, the long lists of things she has to do temporarily pushed aside in favor of her compulsive pacing around her office, mind flashing to the many far-fetched reasons Ann had not responded to her yet. Maybe she was too quick to assume the email would fix the problem. Maybe Ann really didn’t want to speak to her ever again. Or maybe, something bad had happened to Ann—

No. She would not let her mind wander down that dangerous path. She tells herself that she just needs to be patient, to let Ann come to her with her decision. It was no use worrying about what she cannot possibly know. Ann would have to contact her at some point. She is her graduate assistant, after all. Surely, she isn’t that irresponsible? 

Just as Anne starts to settle down at her desk to focus on the many tasks awaiting her attention, she hears a quiet knock on the door. The sound cuts through the air, her focus suddenly narrowing to a single point in front of her. Lifting her head to look at the door, she feels paralyzed. 

Even without seeing her, Anne immediately knows who is on the other side of the door. Hair standing on end, she feels the anticipation of finally seeing Ann Walker soar through her.

“Come in.” She tries to sound confident, but her voice shakes with nerves. 

Then, as if in slow motion, the door opens, and Ann Walker floats in, like a vision pulled from fantasy. She can barely believe that she is finally in her office, in front of her, close enough to touch, if she could just close the distance between them. 

Their eyes meet, and Anne’s heart sinks when she sees how gaunt her cheeks are and how sunken her eyes appear on her pale face. The only thing eclipsing her disheveled appearance is a bright look of determination in her eyes. 

“Ann.” She finally manages to breathe out as she stands. Like in a trance, she feels herself move towards the other woman, as if by instinct. It isn’t until she makes it halfway across the room that she sees what Ann holds in her hands. The crisp white paper rustles as Ann turns to quickly close the door behind her. Facing her again, she thrusts the piece of paper forward, face wearing an unreadable expression. 

She has made her decision. It is now time for Anne to accept it. Whatever the outcome. 

Swallowing hard, Anne steps closer and pulls the paper from her hands. Her heart pounds as she turns it over, eyes scanning the words on the page. 

There, under the header titled “Dissertation Supervisory Committee Chair” is her name printed in bold font: Dr. Anne Lister.

A loud, violent breath escapes her lungs as the words burn themselves into her memory. All the clever words of explanation, all the visions she had of sweeping Ann Walker off her feet, of winning her back—dies in that moment. 

Ann has chosen her. But not in the way she wants her to. 

Summoning her strength, Anne looks back up at her student, tears burning the backs of her eyelids. She blinks them away. She will not let Ann see her cry. She tries to nod, tries to appear approving. She hears herself say “Good,” through the roaring in her ears, but she can’t be sure that the voice actually belongs to her. 

Ann sees her internal struggle and gives her a look of such tenderness and affection. It confuses her—it makes her want to scream at her to stop looking at her that way, not after she’s chosen the way she has.

“Oh, Anne…” It’s the first time she’s heard her voice in over a week, and the adoration in her expression burrows its way into a space in her heart she’s desperately trying to close.

“I adore you.” Ann is moving closer, touching her forearm and looking up at her. The contact is simultaneously gratifying and excruciating. Her lashes flutter as she parts her lips and breathes out, the quiet words only living in the space between them. 

“When I’m with you, nothing else seems to matter. You make me feel something I’ve never felt before. You make me feel brave, like I can do anything. You’re the reason I finally have this—” She pauses, looking at the ground for the right words. “—passion to pursue this research, to go through grad school.”

She breathes out, rubbing the skin of her forearm through her sleeve. “I know my sister Elizabeth spoke with you yesterday.” 

“Ann—” two fingers stop the words from coming out of her mouth. The soft pads of Ann’s fingers rest against her lips, a reminder of an earlier time when so much less had passed between them. 

“I know what she told you.” Ann moves her hand to cup her cheek, looking at her right in the eyes. “So you know why I need to see this through. And why I need your help to do that. Can you understand that?” 

Can she? Anne isn’t sure about many things at this point, but she knows she can’t deny Ann. Not when she’s looking at her like that.

“Of course, Ann,” she hears herself whisper. She fights the urge to press her face into her hand, to imprint herself into the other woman. But then her student is pulling back, she’s moving away, straightening her shoulders and sitting down in the chair in front of her desk. When she looks up at her with a neutral expression on her face, she looks just like any other student in her office, waiting for their meeting to start. 

And yet, in that moment, something changes. It’s like she’s suddenly seeing Ann Walker in a new light. Despite the undeniable desire between them, despite everything that’s happened, Ann is willing to put aside her feelings and focus on the things that are important to her. She’d always known that Ann is physically very attractive—an exquisite, gorgeous creature that looked up to her and absolutely adored her. But now, looking at the quiet determination in her eyes, the force of the resolve on her face, she realizes that she is so much more than that. 

Ann Walker is a beautiful, powerful, woman—full of strength. And she’s starting to fall for her. 

What hurts the most is that there is now nothing she can do about it.

Chapter Text

The soft sound of glasses and silverware tinkling in the background greet Anne Lister as the elevator doors slide open. Stepping out of the small space, Anne notices that the elegant rooftop bar of their hotel is quietly buzzing with activity, the after-dinner crowd filling up the interior with subdued conversation. 

Moving into the bar, Anne silently appreciates the stylish and tasteful décor of the space, noting the impressive collection of liquor bottles lining the illuminated walls behind the bar. Even if they are a few blocks away from the main attraction, there’s still some refinement to be had at the hotel. For the life of her, she can’t understand why this year’s conference needs to be held in Anaheim, California, home of Disneyland Park. She’s just thankful that the conference reception isn’t going to be held at the theme park, even if the constant parade of tacky Micky Mouse ears on every other person’s head is a constant reminder that they are now in Disney territory. After the sophisticated and historical backdrop of Delft just three weeks ago, Anaheim feels like crashing back to earth, the loud colors and garish overtones of the park seeming to spill over into the surrounding atmosphere.

Looking around, she can see that most of the patrons are here on business as well, shirt collars unbuttoned, and jackets slung over the back of chairs, taking respite at the end of the day. Scanning the dark interior equipped with moody lighting, Anne looks for a familiar figure through the crowd. Finding no success, she moves further into the space, spotting a set of double doors leading out to what appears to be a balcony in the western corner of the building. 

She manages to shoulder her way through a particularly boisterous crowd gathering in front of the glass doors, rolling her eyes at one particularly red-cheeked man who yells a “hey, watch it lady!” as she brushes right past him. There’s a suctioning of air as she finally reaches the doors and she swings them open, a blast of cold air hitting her in the face and garnering a collective groan from the group of people behind her. 

The clear California sky affords little protection from the sun during the day, but at night, the desert welcomes a chill that can surprise the unprepared. This evening is no different, the wide-open balcony offering little protection from a faint salty breeze blowing through the seventeen-story structure. Anne pulls her light trench coat closer around her neck in an effort to block out some of the chill. It is no wonder there’s hardly anyone out on the balcony that evening to enjoy the rooftop view of the park.

Spotting a puff of smoke float up against the quickly darkening orange sky, Anne breaks out into a broad smile, striding quickly to the corner of the balcony whence it came.

“Tib!” Her voice rings out over the distance, carrying over the sparsely occupied groups of tables between them. 

A loud laugh can be heard as the legs of a metal chair scrape against the concrete surface. “Anne!”

The source of the noise doesn’t even wince at the jarring sound, ignoring the nasty look she gets from the few other patrons on the balcony. 

Tib stands up and pulls Anne into an almost violent bear hug, the force of their bodies colliding driving the air from Anne’s lungs with a quiet “oof”. Anne pulls back and looks over the other woman fondly.

“How are you Tib?” She says lowly, still holding on to her arms. It seemed that she had hardly changed at all, ears still adorned with numerous piercings, boyish clothes still accentuating how dashing the masculine woman was. The only thing that had changed since she last saw her a whole year ago was her short-cropped hair, dyed a vibrant shade of magenta, making her seem even more outrageous if that were possible.

“Good Lord, Tib!” Anne grins as she ruffles the other woman’s colorful hair. “What did you do?” 

Tib lets out a huge guffaw, pushing at Anne’s shoulders playfully. “What, you don’t like it?” 

“No! I like it!” Anne raises her palms. “I’m just wondering how this went over back at U of P.”

“It went over fine, Anne.” Tib pulls her down to sit next to her, angling their chairs closer together until they were almost touching. “I mean, there was all the usual bullshit about professionalism which I told them where to stick it. It’s my hair and I can do whatever the fuck I want with it.”

Anne chuckles at Tib, her eyes twinkling with laughter. She’d almost forgotten how brash and utterly uncensored Tib could be. God, she missed her.

“Of course, you can, Tib.” Anne reaches across and squeezes her arm fondly. “What are you drinking?” 

“The usual.” Tib waves her hand at a generous glass of whiskey, before stubbing out the end of a cigarette on the table. “They make their drinks really weak up here, I swear.” 

Anne shakes her head at her old friend’s antics. “You can’t make straight whiskey weak, Tib. You just drink too much, is all.” 

“I detest that!” Tib gasps in mock offence, laughter spilling out from around her eyes. She toasts to the air with the glass before tossing back some of the liquid in one quick gulp. 

Anne spots a waitress weaving through the mostly empty tables and waves her down. But before she can order a drink for herself, Tib has already shouted out an order of not two, but three glasses of whiskey. 

Turning back, Anne angles her body to face her friend more fully, tucking a leg under one knee and leaning in closer. “I really could use that drink, yesterday, I think.” She sighs, eyes betraying a vulnerability that she often tries to hide.

“Alright, love.” Tib turns to her as well, face growing serious. “Time to spill the beans. All I know is what Mariana let slip when we spoke on the phone last week. In her usual cryptic way, she wouldn’t tell me what was going on, just that you two are getting a divorce, and she’s miserable because she’s now staying with her sister in a tiny little apartment.”

Anne pauses and bites her lip. Logically, she knows she has to tell Tib about her and Mariana at some point, but now that the moment is here, it seemed so difficult to start, like ripping a band aid off. 

“Come on, Anne.” Tib pats her leg gruffly. “What’d you do? Cheat on the poor bitch?” 

“Tib!” Anne admonishes her. “I didn’t cheat on Mariana!” 

“Well, then? What?” Tib raises her eyebrows at her, demanding to know. 

Anne lets out a big sigh, leaning back in her chair and looking up at the sky. There are faint white streaks where a plane had crossed the atmosphere, but other than that, it’s a perfectly clear night in Anaheim, California. 

“We just…” Anne trails off, eyes searching the sky for answers. She shrugs after a moment, a resigned look on her face. “We just had enough. Of the fighting. Of all the drama between us, you know?”

Tib scoffs, the breath of air puffing across Anne’s neck from how close they are sitting. “Oh, I know, Anne. You two could tear down a building with your epic yelling matches back in the day.”

“That’s just it, though.” Anne sighs and looks back at Tib. “We still do that. We’re still always at each other’s throats. I’m tired of it.”

Tib snorts out, laughter bubbling from within. “But surely, that’s just because you two are such passionate people! You fight hard, then you fuck hard. It’s always been that way, right Anne?” She elbows her in the ribs.

“My God, Tib!” Anne can’t help the grin growing on her face. “Stop it.”

“What!” Tib throws her hands up incredulously. “It’s true, isn’t it? That’s what makes the two of you work so well!” 

“But I don’t want that anymore!” Anne’s voice is raised, ringing out against the stone of the patio. “I don’t want to be miserable every few weeks just because we’ve decided to pick a fight over some godawful stupid thing. We’re just so terrible for one another. I just want to be…”

“Happy?” Tib is giving her a knowing look, a small smile on her face. 

“Yes. I guess so.” Anne looks down, wringing her hands together. What does happy even mean anymore?

“Listen.” Tib shifted, moving even closer and putting her hand on her knee. “You deserve to be happy. If you two aren’t working any more, then you need to do what you have to do. God knows we’re not the same people we were twenty years ago.”

Anne lets out a loud laugh. “We certainly aren’t.”

Tib gives her a mischievous look. “Do you remember that time… when we did it on Maria Browne’s desk in the lab? Do you remember how she walked in on us and couldn’t look us in the eye for weeks after that?”

“Oh, Good Lord, Tib!” Anne rolls her eyes, her mind flashing back to the vivid memory almost twenty years ago. Try as she might, there was no way she’d ever forget that incident. If she recalls correctly, it was Anne herself who was up on the table, arousal dripping down the inside of her thighs as Tib pounded into her over and over again, the rattle of the table echoing around the empty research lab, causing the racket that ultimately got them found out. The first summer she spent as a research assistant in the same lab as Tib was one of the steamiest, messiest, and most erotic periods of her life. 

Loving the rise she’s getting out of Anne, Tib keeps egging her on. “You really were a firecracker back then, Anne. We certainly have fun together, don’t we?”

“That’s one way to put it.” Anne gives her a sharp look out of the corner of her eye. “We would never have worked. Not in the long term.” 

“Mm. No.” Tib nods, a far off look in her eyes. “You’re too much of a fucking prude now.”

“And you’re still a horny bastard.” Anne shoots back, not missing a beat. Tib’s laughter is thunderous as she smacks the palms of her hands on the table loudly. 

Anne leans in to Tib, humor still in her voice. “I hope you’re behaving yourself these days, Tib?” 

Tib feigns shock at the accusation. “How could you even say that?” 

“I know you Tib…” Anne pushes, a reprimanding tone in her voice. “You’d sleep with any woman who’d give you a second look, regardless of who they are. You can get away with many things—” Anne motions to the bright red pile of curls on her head. “—but U of P would never stand for an instructor sleeping around with all her students.”

Associate Professor of Teaching, mind you.” Tib corrected her. “And how do you know what I’ve been up to? You left U of P so quickly after graduation, it’s a wonder you didn’t get whiplash!”

“And you never left.” Anne nudged her shoulder with the back of her hand. “I don’t know how you could work at the same place you went to grad school. I’d go insane.” 

Tib takes a huge swig of the drink, smiling at Anne over the rim of her glass.

“Not everyone’s like you, Anne Lister. We can’t all pick up and gallivant across the country, working in fuck-knows-whatever national research lab, and manage to convince our girlfriends to come with us.” 

“Fat lot of good that did her.” Anne murmurs into her fingers, now tracing a line on her bottom lip. “Sometimes I wonder if Mariana had stayed in Philly… with you lot. If she’d not have been better off.” 

“Stop it.” Tib says sternly. “Don’t do that.”

Anne looks up at Tib, uncertainty swirling in her eyes. “Yes, but—”

“Anne.” Tib raises her hand, stopping her. “If you told me twenty years ago that you’d settle down with someone, get married –” 

“Well, we’re not—” Anne tries to correct her but Tib cuts her off.

“You were married. For eighteen fucking years, Anne!” 

Anne clamps her mouth shut. Tib had a point.

“If you told me the great Anne Lister would stay with someone for eighteen whole years—I’d have told you that you were insane. You’ve grown, Anne. Like you said, we’re not the same people we were, and that’s a good thing. You need to be with someone who brings out the best in you, someone who makes you happy. And if Mariana’s not that person anymore, then you need to move on. Make your mistakes. Learn from them. But don’t ever look back. You’re a fucking amazing human being, don’t you forget that.”

Affection bloomed in Anne’s chest, the familiarity of her old friend soothing the pain of the last few weeks. No matter what had transpired between them, Tib always held a special place in her heart. There’s no one who can cut to the meat of something quite like Tib can, and it felt so cathartic to just talk about these things out loud for once.

“And besides…” Tib looks at her impishly. “After eighteen years of being with the same woman, aren’t you just dying for some fresh p—"

“Tib!!” Anne exclaims, chastising her. “You’re such a dog!”

“Oh, you know you love me!” Tib breaks out into a huge smile, reaching out to grab Anne’s face, pulling her in closer. Anne tries to angle out of the grip, but Tib goes to grip Anne’s chin playfully, trying to kiss her on the cheek. They’re wrestling, hands grasping wrists, arms flying everywhere, an elbow sharply landing on Tib’s chest. 

“Ouch!” Tib’s eyes are wide, in disbelief that Anne got the upper hand. Anne is trying to hold back her laughter. 

“Oh, come here you!” Tib roars with laughter, and there’s more tangling of limbs, playful shouts punctuating the physical struggle, and then Tib manages to grab a hold of the back of Anne’s neck, pulling her in and finally landing a bruising kiss on her cheek with a loud smack. 

“Okay, okay!” Anne flies back in her seat and wipes her cheek with the back of her hand in exaggerated disgust. “Truce!” 

They both grin at one another, trying to catch their breaths. Despite the scuffle, there’s an undercurrent of affection between them, their physical familiarity speaking volumes. 

But then, Tib’s eyes flicker to something behind Ann, and suddenly she’s leaning into Anne again, a wicked smile growing on her face. Anne tries to duck away, not wanting a repeat of the last minute, but Tib pulls her in by the collar and whispers in her ear. 

“Don’t look now, but there’s this blonde bombshell giving you fuck-me eyes—behind you—looks like she’s totally into you—” 

“What?” Anne goes to turn around, but Tib grabs her jaw and stops her, still whispering in her ear.

“She looks like she wants to murder me—I think she thinks we’re together.” Tib is loving this.

Anne grabs Tib’s wrist, wrenching herself free from her grip. She twists her body in her seat, craning her neck to look behind her.

She expects to find an unsuspecting girl who isn’t the least bit interested in her. Tib always has a way of assuming that everyone wants to sleep with everyone. 

What she doesn’t expect to see are the brilliant blue eyes of Ann Walker, staring back at her in utter surprise. 

“Ann??” She hears herself exclaim. Her student turns bright red, embarrassed at being spotted, smoothing down the skirt of a blue sleeveless sundress, dotted with little sunflowers, the light fabric blowing in the breeze. She’s standing by the railing, tucked away in a corner, presumably having snuck out on to the balcony in the last few minutes.

“Wait, you two know each other?” Tib is confused, eyes darting back and forth between them. 

“Um…” Poor Ann is speechless; unable to tear her eyes away from how close Anne and Tib are sitting next to one another.

Regaining her composure, Anne whips back around to regard Tib. “Yes. This is my student, Ann Walker.” 

“Oh!” If Tib notices the tension between them, she doesn’t say anything. “Ann! You must join us. I insist!”

“Oh, I don’t want to intrude— I just came up here for the fireworks—” Ann looks like she’s going to collapse into herself.

“Don’t torture the poor girl, Tib—” Anne says warningly.

Tib is not having any of it. “Nonsense!” She bellows so loudly that her voice bounces off the wall of the building, echoing back at the empty space, three of them being the only brave souls remaining on the blustery rooftop. “Come sit with us, Ann!”

Tib launches herself out of her seat and makes a show of pulling out the chair on the other side of the table, gesturing with her hands for Ann to take a seat. 

Ann hovers nervously at the table, fingers fidgeting with the fabric of her dress. There’s a question hanging over her, making her pause as she looks to Anne for what to do next. 

As much as Anne doesn’t want to drink socially with Ann, she also recognizes that refusing Tib’s offer would raise more questions than they could afford to answer. It is not at all uncommon for faculty and students to socialize at conferences, especially with the intent of networking with other researchers in their field. After all, would she not be standing in Ann’s way of getting to know her colleague, a significant figure in the field of educational psychology, if she refused? Giving in to the moment, Anne finally nods and motions to the empty chair across from her, trying to appear casual, but eyes still wide with anxiety.

Tib is grinning at her student as she sits back down next to Anne, clasping her hands together and rubbing them with glee. 

“So! Ann Walker!” Tib’s unnecessarily loud exclamation pulls Ann’s attention away from her advisor. “Tell me a little bit about yourself! You’d have to be pretty special to put up with Anne Lister over here.”

“Tib…” Anne says lowly, giving her a reproachful look, but Ann Walker is already responding, trying her best to look unintimidated by Tib’s colorful character.

“Not at all, I think it’s Dr. Lister who’s special, for having the patience to put up with me while I get up to speed.” Her voice is light, airy, like she’s trying to catch her breath.

Anne sees the opportunity to take back control of the conversation. “Ann, this here is Dr. Isabella Norcliffe. She’s a—” 

“Associate Teaching Professor,” Tib preemptively supplies.

“—Yes, a teaching faculty at University of Philadelphia.” Anne continues, undeterred. 

“Oh! U of P!” A look of recognition flashes on Ann’s face. “Your Alma Mater, Dr. Lister!” 

Anne’s dark eyes connect with intense blues and an electric moment passes between them. Ann’s delight at uncovering a little more of her advisor’s past brings a thrill to Anne, making her flash a dazzling smile in her students’ direction. “Yes, indeed, Miss Walker.”

Ann practically glows at the attention, wide smile lighting up her features. Anne is briefly captivated by the way the outdoor lights make her eyes sparkle and throw dynamic shadows across her delicate features. Even if they had only met forty-eight hours ago back in Ames to practice Ann’s presentation, the change in setting seemed to entrance Anne Lister all over again. 

Tib clears her throat, breaking the moment between them. Regaining her focus, Anne leans back and apologizes, motioning to Tib. “Dr. Norcliffe here studies the impacts of cognitive load on students’ ability to learn and retain information. We were both in the same research lab back in grad school.” 

“Ah!” Ann looks back at Tib, studying the other woman’s strikingly masculine appearance, lingering a little too long on the bright red of her hair. 

Noticing this, Tib gives her a chuckle. “Miss Walker, you don’t have to pretend. I know I’m not what you expected.” She gestures down her body, raising her eyebrows. 

“What? I—” Ann stutters, cheeks flaming red again at having been caught staring.

“It’s fine!” Tib leans forward, speaking to Ann directly. “After you’ve been in academia for awhile, you start to realize that it’s all just bullshit—”

“Tib!” Anne is admonishing her again. 

“—I mean, superficial.” She corrects herself. “The clothes, the titles, the conferences—” She motions widely to their surroundings. “It’s all just a façade. To make us feel like we’re more intelligent, more important than the rest of them.” 

Ann looks apprehensively toward Anne, completely thrown off by Tib’s strong statements. But her advisor isn’t meeting her eyes. Instead, she’s looking at her friend with a fond look on her face, nodding slightly in agreement. 

Tib picks up her drink and downs the amber liquid in one smooth motion, not taking her eyes off Ann.

“This hair?” Tib points at her head emphatically. “It doesn’t affect my ability to teach, to do research. The only reason it gets a second look at all is because it disrupts people’s expectations of what the serious and proper academic is supposed to look like. We put on these clothes—"

Tib reaches over to flick the collar of Anne’s button-down shirt. “—their style codified by gender, to project a professionalism, an elevated image of what it means to be an academic—and for what? It’s all a performance.”

Ann’s eyes zero in on the lapel of Anne’s collar, now unfolded and sticking up at an odd angle, the stiff dark blue material contrasting the pale skin of her sharp jawline. She itches to reach over and smooth down the fabric, to run her fingers along the skin of Anne’s chin in the process, her eyes tracing the line of her jaw up to her ear, unable to tear her eyes away from the mesmerizing view. 

While Tib doesn’t notice her wandering eyes, Anne certainly does. She reaches up to fix her own collar, folding down the lapels, meeting Ann’s eyes as they snap up to connect with her own. Anne takes in a sharp breath, when she sees the intensity of the look now on Ann’s face. Why does the other woman’s gaze have such an effect on her?

Completely unaware of their silent exchange, Tib continues on her rant, violently waving her hands in the air. “This conference, for example? You wouldn’t believe all the bull—I mean—complicated mechanics that go into organizing it.”

Their waitress chooses a very bad time to appear with their drinks because Tib’s wild gestures almost cause the tray to go flying from her hands as she approaches their table. Anne gives the waitress an apologetic look and silently reminds herself to leave a generous tip when they’re done. 

Temporarily distracted by the appearance of their drinks, Tib pauses to slide one of the three glasses of whiskey across the table to Ann. “Good thing you showed up when you did, Miss Walker. You can keep me from excessively drinking tonight.” 

Anne scoffs and murmurs over the rim of her glass. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think Tib?” 

The two friends shoot each other teasing looks and miss how Ann balks at Tib’s brashness. She is not prepared for the pure, unadulterated whirlwind of energy that is Tib.

“I can’t take your drink—” Ann starts to push it back, but Tib clamps a hand over the rim of the glass, stopping her movement. 

“Don’t be silly. Drink.” Tib says the words so forcefully, looking at her directly in her eyes, that Ann has no other option other than to accept it. 

“Alright. Thanks…” She looks over to where her advisor is sitting, amusement on her face. Anne shrugs at her and motions for her to drink up, a sparkle in her eyes. It takes her a moment to identify the feeling, but she suddenly realizes that Anne looks so different when she’s relaxed, in the company of a dear old friend, no barriers or pretenses to put up. There’s a warmth in her eyes that’s unlike anything she’s witnessed before—so different from the hard, cold exterior that she projects at work, but also a world away from the intense tenderness that she looks at Ann with when she thinks she’s not looking. There’s an easy fondness that passes between them, belying the playful annoyance she projects at Tib.

“Anyway,” Tib continues after taking another big swallow of her drink, ready to continue with her tirade. “Do you know how the organizing committee actually chooses where we’ll hold the conference each year?” Her eyes dart back and forth between Anne and her student, excited by the scandal.

“No, but I have a feeling you’re about to enlighten us, Tib.” Anne speaks out of the corner of her mouth as she raises her eyebrows at her student across the table, like sharing a private joke with her. The playful look on Anne’s face makes a warmth shoot straight down into her core, and in a moment of desperation, she picks up her drink and gulps down more than half of it in one swig, feeling the burning liquid warm up her insides. 

“Well.” Tib takes a deep breath, unaffected by Anne’s teasing. “First of all, since we’re such a large conference, close to five thousand attendees every year, that really limits which venues can actually hold us. So that really narrows down the list of cities that actually have venues this large.”

“Mm.” Anne nods, her eyes sliding to the side to look at Tib. The topic of the conversation is beginning to bore her, and she can feel the alcohol in her system start to soften her focus on her surroundings, freeing her mind to dance between other things that pull on her restraint. Like the way Ann Walker’s cheeks are starting to glow from the generous amount of whiskey she just drank, or the way the tendons in her neck pop as she turns to look to Tib, the pale skin of her shoulders on full display by the low cut of her summer dress.

“And did you know, they won’t hold the conference at a venue that has an employee union?” Tib looks at Ann, eyes glimmering with scandal.

“Really?” Ann’s eyes widen, genuinely curious. “Why?”

“Oh, they can’t afford a venue that has a union. Then they’d actually need to pay the staff a living wage, and they couldn’t possibly do that! It’s a whole bunch of politics behind the scenes that no one talks about. We’re constantly debating about where we’ll hold the next conference, whether the different regions are being represented fairly, but in reality, it’s just about making ends meet, getting the lowest bid.” 

Tib is completely engrossed in her dramatic explanation of conference venue selection and doesn’t notice Anne study her student carefully, finger slowly tracing the rim of her glass. She has a small smile on her face, eyes twinkling as they take in Ann Walker’s lovely features. Anne knows it’s wrong, but there’s something about the way her student looks that night that’s making her forget the about the boundaries in their relationship. She’s privately swept away by not just how beautiful she looks right now, but how her bright eyes dart back and forth, her clever mind processing the information quickly coming out of Tib’s mouth. It’s a small consolation, but Anne tells herself that there’s no harm in looking, not when she’s in perfect control of the situation. 

Then, as Tib launches into a related but not relevant side plot about the one time she went toe to toe with the conference chair about the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms at a conference venue, Ann looks back to her briefly, presumably just to check on her, but their eyes meet and suddenly, she cannot look away. 

Their gazes lock together, attention completely focused on one another. 

Anne feels her breath pick up, blue eyes reflecting back her own silent appreciation for the woman across from her. Ann bites her lip as she searches Anne’s face, adoration for her advisor clearly visible in her eyes. Small smiles are tugging at the corner of their lips as they continue to stare at one another, gazes flitting back and forth from eyes to neck, lips to shoulders, then back up to eyes. There’s novelty in the way they’re openly evaluating one another, a mutual admiration for the other, in all their complexities. Anne feels a strange calmness wash over her, the turmoil of their difficult relationship seeming to pale in comparison to the exquisite pleasure of knowing such a woman. Her smile broadens as she comes to this realization, and she sees Ann return her tender smile, almost like she understands what’s going through her mind. 

“—and I don’t think they even cared how wrong it was, they just wanted to brush it all under the rug, and—” Tib looks back at Anne, stopping midsentence when she notices the strange look on her friend’s face. Her eyes dart back and forth between Anne and her student, narrowing with suspicion at the way they’re looking at one another. 

“Hang on. Wait a minute—” Tib’s sharp tone breaks their gazes, and Anne sits up in her seat with a start, like waking from a dream. She quickly looks back at Tib, trying to appear casual. 

“Hm?” Anne’s eyes are wide, looking innocently back at her friend, but it’s too late. Tib is a smart woman, and she’s already putting the pieces together, her eyes going wide with understanding.

“—is there—are you—” She whips her head back and forth between the two women, unable to form the words quickly enough to catch up with the revelation.

Both Ann and Anne are stunned, breaths held in anticipation. There’s no way that Tib could know—

“—are you two fucking??” Tib finally splutters out, and the color drains from both their faces. Well, not technically, Anne finds her mind automatically correcting the assumption, but on the outside, she’s already trying to deflect the accusation.

“No, Tib—” 

“Yes, you are!” Tib almost looks triumphant, proud of herself for finally figuring it out. She claps Anne on the shoulders roughly, jostling her in the process. “Oh my God, Anne! You sly dog, you! Still got it after all these years!” 

No, Tib.” Anne insists, firmly this time. “We’re not—I mean, there’s nothing going on between us.” 

Tib rounds on Ann, trying to search her face for any clue. Her student’s complexion is bright red and she’s looking at Anne with a stricken look in her eyes. She can’t meet Tib’s eyes, so she elects to gulp down the remaining whiskey in her glass instead. 

Taking her silence as guilt, Tib roars with laughter, drumming her hands on the table with excitement. “This is fucking great.” There are tears in her eyes from the amusement.

“Stop it, Tib.” Anne hisses at Tib, heart clenching from the look Ann is giving her. Even though there’s no one else out on the balcony, she feels the need to speak in hushed tones. “This isn’t funny!

Tib lets out a snort, unable to hold back her laughter. “Oh my God. Look at you two!” She motions to the both of them, sitting stiffly in their chairs with anxiety. “Would you just fucking relax? You look like someone just died!”

“Well—” Anne tries to speak, but she’s cut off by Tib, waving her off.

“Do you know how many people are sleeping together at this conference?” Tib’s tone is incredulous, like it’s the most obvious thing ever. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“Tib, don’t be inappropriate—”

“If I had a penny for every time people in the academy fucked each other, figuratively and literally, I’d be a fucking millionaire—” 

“Dr. Norcliffe.” Ann’s voice is quiet but commanding. The two other women stop and turn to her, surprised by her tone. 

“I think what Dr. Lister is trying to say, is that the bounds of the advisor-advisee relationship require a certain level of propriety—” 

Tib lets out another scoff. “Miss Walker—”

“Let her finish, Tib—” Anne growls at her friend, annoyance showing through.

“No, you let me finish!” Tib’s voice thunders above Anne’s, the force of her words pinning them to their chairs. “I obviously don’t know what’s going on with the two of you, but don’t let something as silly as “propriety” stop you from being happy.”

Anne opens her mouth with a rebuttal, but sees the fire in Tib’s eyes and thinks better of it. 

“All this—” Tib motions around them to the building, the surrounding streets. “Doesn’t matter. What matters is right now-- what’s in here.” She points right to her heart, looking at them both. “That’s forever.”

A silence descends on all three of them as they sit and stare at one another, catching their breaths and processing what’s been said. Anne looks to her student, afraid of what she’ll see, but Ann is surprisingly calm, head bobbing lightly as she takes in Tib’s words. 

“I haven’t seen you look at anyone like that in a very, very long time, Anne.” Tib has a wistful look on her face as she looks down and studies the whiskey in her glass. “Don’t let anyone take happiness away from you… you’ll only have yourself to blame in the end.”

“Oh, Tib…” Anne is reaching out, putting her hand on Tib’s arm, squeezing it in reassurance. A quick look of understanding passes between the old friends before Tib tips back all of the liquid in her glass one final time. 

Shaking off the sudden sentimentality, Tib looks back up at the both of them. “I should really head to bed. I’m running on fumes here. Plus, I’d like to skip the torture that is Disneyland fireworks.”

“Oh.” Ann looks forlorn, the unexpected departure of this dynamic woman she just met taking her by surprise.

Tib stands and puts her hand on Anne’s shoulder again, giving her a quick squeeze. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Anne.” Then she’s digging around in her pockets and throwing down enough bills to cover their drinks on the table unceremoniously. 

“And you, Miss Walker.” Tib walks around the table, looking at her right in the eye. “You take care of yourself. See you at the conference.” 

And then she’s gone, taking her larger than life presence with her, and leaving a void between the two remaining women. They both stare at each other, almost in disbelief at what just happened. 

Anne is the first to break the silence, her voice wavering, still slightly shaken. “Are you alright?” 

“Mm.” Ann gives her a small smile, nodding her head, the curls of her hair bouncing around her face. “You?”

Anne lets out a breathy chuckle. “Yes, always. Don’t worry about me. I’m used to Tib. I know she can be a lot.”

Her student giggles at that. “That’s one way of putting it.” 

They both share a moment of quiet laughter, the tension between them dissipating temporarily. 

Then, Anne is looking at her watch and standing up from her seat. “Fireworks go off at 9:30. Do you want to get a better view?”  

“Oh, right!” Ann stands with her, and they move towards the other end of the balcony, to the corner closest to the park. 

The sun has fully set now, and pinpricks of orange lights from the Ferris wheel in the distance dot the dark purple of the sky. From where they are standing, they can make out the illuminated towers of the Cinderella Castle in the distance and colorful lights dancing across the many pockets of activity scattered about the park. 

They both lean up against the railing of the balcony, looking out into the distance and breathing in the crisp night air. Anne feels the comfort of the other woman’s body heat through her shirt as she moves in close beside her, shoulders almost touching. There’s a slight trembling in her small frame, and Anne can’t help but notice that her student is shivering from the chill of the night.

“Here.” She breathes out, as she shrugs off her coat and holds it up to Ann. “You’re shaking.”

Anne pulls the coat around Ann’s shoulders, and as she lingers for just a few seconds, it almost feels like she’s holding the younger woman in her arms. Blue eyes look up at her, their breaths so close to one another, a quiet surprise on her face at the gesture. Yet, she doesn’t object. Instead, she seems to melt into the coat, the residual warmth from Anne’s body sinking into her skin. “Thank you.”

There’s a painful tug in her chest at the intimacy, but Anne quickly moves away, resuming her position by Ann’s side. 

Then Ann lets out a quiet little breath, almost swooning, as she looks out at the park. Anne notices how her eyes twinkle as she looks at the tall spires of the castle, so she leans in. “You know, the design of the Cinderella Castle is actually primarily inspired by the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.”

That gets her a fond smile from her student, a small chuckle sneaking out around her lips. “Of course, you would know that, Anne.” 

“What?” Anne shrugs. “It’s fascinating.” She looks back out to the park. 

“I’ve always loved Disney. It’s so magical.” Ann gets a dreamy look on her face. “When I was a little kid, I’d sing along to all the songs, I knew all the words. I still do sometimes… there’s something so universal about the stories. It brings out the best in people. It makes them happy.” 

Anne lets out a surprised laugh, shaking her head at the familiar words. In a rare moment of honesty, she hears herself speak the words. “I guess that’s the problem isn’t it? We never brought out the best in one another…” 

“Who?” Ann is looking at her, curiosity radiating off her in waves. “You and Tib?”

“What? No!” Anne shakes her head, finding the notion ridiculous. “Well, many, many years ago, we were… somewhat of a thing. But no—I was talking about Mariana and I.” 

“Oh.” Ann looks away, a frown appearing on her face as she takes in the information. 

Anne swallows hard, voice trembling slightly with vulnerability. “We’ve always been horrible for each other. Even when we first got together. We both know it’s time to move on. It’s just… breaking up, picking up our lives, going our separate ways… it’s so messy and terrible… it makes me feel like I’ve failed—” There’s a lump in her throat, stopping the words from coming out, and she can feel the burning of tears in her eyes.  She can’t bring herself to look at Ann.

A moment passes, and then Ann is speaking, her voice distant, like she’s thinking of a far-off memory. “In the past, when I’ve gone through terrible things… I’ve come out on the other side realizing it’s been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”

Ann has a peaceful smile on her face. “Maybe, after all this is done, the pain that you’ve endured will teach you things about yourself, and you’ll be all the better for it. Stronger. And maybe happier.” 

When she’s done talking, Anne is speechless, blown away by the quiet power of Ann’s words. Who knew such a sweet girl would possess such profound insights about the world? Anne is overcome, wonder shining in her eyes.

Anne lets out a hard breath, body aching to close the distance between them, to tell her how much she means to her, to show her how she makes her feel. Their eyes meet in the darkness, and it feels like they’re falling into each other, the space between them somehow shrinking even when they’ve barely moved. 

But then a loud bang shakes them out of their daze, and the night sky lights up with a multicolored array of sparks, shimmering down onto the horizon. 

Ah!” Ann jolts with the surprise, a brilliant smile splitting open on her face as she looks up at the sky, mesmerized by the fireworks. There’s a look of pure wonder on her face, like she’s only living for the moment. It takes effort for Anne to tear her eyes away from how beautiful she looks, awe flickering on her face, the same the way the colors dance across it in vivid patterns. 

She looks back up and is quietly impressed by the colorful explosions in the sky. A particularly brilliant sequence of trailing sparkles takes her breath away, and she hears Ann’s soft gasp beside her. They both lean forward with their elbows on the railing, enjoying the display in the sky.

Maybe it’s the awe-inspiring beauty of the fireworks, or maybe it’s the way Ann’s little finger is now lightly brushing up against the back of her own, rubbing her skin gently, but Anne feels a tender warmth radiate its way out from her chest, overwhelming her judgment, making her say things she really shouldn’t. Before she can stop herself, she’s speaking, still looking up at the brilliant display of colors in the sky. 

You bring out the best in me, Ann Walker. 

When she finally looks back at Ann, she knows she understands what she means. Bright colors shimmer in the reflection of her blue eyes, and no words need to be said. It seemed that in the short amount of time she had known her, the other woman had already begun taking all the things that hurt in Anne, and healing them, piece by piece. 

Slowly, tenderly, Anne reaches out and moves her hand a fraction of an inch closer to Ann’s, twining their little fingers together in a small embrace. The contact sends sparks of pleasure shooting through them, the same time that sparks of light shimmer across the sky.

In that moment, the agony of not being able to be closer burns through them. But along with it, a strange peace has started to descend on them, a clarity of thought growing in their minds. Tib’s words from before echo in the space between them: “What matters is the here and now. What matters is what’s in your heart.” 

Anne can’t know how this will all play out, but she knows she doesn’t want to do it without Ann Walker. 

Looking back up at the vast sky, admiring how the bright sparks fade out into the dark, dissolving into little pinpricks of light where the rest of the infinite universe lies beyond, Anne Lister feels something she hasn’t felt in a long time—she doesn’t feel so alone.

Chapter Text

Anne sighs heavily in her chair. She should really get used to this by now. It’s not the first time she’s finding it difficult to focus on what’s going on whenever Ann Walker is around. 

Her distraction might not be quite so inconvenient if isn’t also happening at the same time as Ann’s paper presentation that she had prepared so hard for in the last week. She had clearly spent hours practicing exactly what to say, and precisely how to say it. Despite being her first conference paper presentation, Anne is impressed by her students’ composure, her light voice coolly ringing out across the room that morning. She can detect a slight nervous tremor in her words, but for all intents and purposes, Ann Walker looks and sounds like a competent researcher, drawing the attention of everyone in the audience. 

At least that’s what Anne assumes is happening, because there’s no way she can focus on anyone other than Ann in the front of the room. Not while she’s is wearing that. 

It really shouldn’t surprise Anne anymore. After all, she knows that Ann Walker is objectively a very attractive woman. But when the shape of her body is perfectly complimented by a stark white button-down shirt, stiff collar standing out against her delicate neck, Anne feels powerless to resist the pull of the other woman. 

And that skirt. 

Ann has her shirt tucked into a dusty pink pencil skirt that ends right above her knees, the simple, sharp lines of the skirt hugging the curve of her hips in a way that Anne rarely gets to see in their everyday interactions. The formal, clean silhouette of Ann’s clothes contrast her soft, feminine essence, driving Anne crazy. 

Ann is finishing up her talk, ending on her last slide and making her final points. There’s a brief moment where their eyes meet through the audience, and Anne suddenly feels very warm under her clothes. She tugs at her black stiped necktie and pulls the stiff collar of her shirt away from her skin in discomfort, averting her eyes. Part of her wonders if Ann is as aware of her presence in the room, as distracted as she is by their connection. She’s grateful that she made it a point to wear something significantly more understated on this day: a simple navy-blue business suit over a subtle black waistcoat; a white pocket square peeking out of her breast pocket the only flair she allowed herself to indulge in. 

“Thank you for your attention. I’ll be happy to take any of your questions now.” Ann’s words draw her eyes back to the front of the room, where the session chair is standing and addressing the room. There are a few polite questions from other faculty in the audience, which Ann answers well enough, and an increasingly infuriating line of questioning from one particularly gutsy grad student in the front row. Anne rolls her eyes at the barely concealed self-aggrandizement that the student is currently engaged in, not surprised to hear overly detailed queries about which statistical tests exactly were conducted, but not having the patience to deal with it either. 

Having had enough of the barely coherent ramblings of the student, Anne clears her throat from where she’s seated in the back row, speaking up over the length of the room. “Let’s take this offline, shall we? Miss Walker will be available to answer your questions after this session.” 

Ann meets her eyes, gratitude shining in them, a coy smile starting to tug at the corner of her lips from the way her advisor can so effortlessly shut down pointless detours in topics with grace. 

Then her student is picking up her laptop, making her way to the back of the room, and sliding into the seat beside her. The next speaker is already cuing up their slides, the audience members shifting their attention away from her. But Anne is all too aware of Ann’s proximity. The seats in conference presentation rooms have never been the most spacious, but she’s just now remarkably aware of how close Ann Walker is seated next to her in that moment. 

Turning to regard her, Anne gives her a dazzling smile, proud of her student for completing a major milestone in her graduate career. She leans in to speak in a low murmur, voice gravelly, breath blowing across the other woman’s cheek. “Well done, Ann. You survived!” 

She sees goosebumps erupt over the skin of her neck, her breath increasing in speed at how close the words had been whispered into her ear. Ann looks at her with delight on her face, glowing at her approval. “Really? You really think I did good?” 

There’s a pause as Anne thinks through her distracted musings during Ann’s talk. It’s true that there were probably some elements that could use improvement, but overall, her student really did do well at her first presentation. Her eyes dart back and forth as she processes her thoughts, their faces close to one another for moment. Then, unable to bear the thought of Ann’s wide smile dimming from any criticism she could share with her, Anne thinks better of it and returns her smile. “Yes, you did good.” 

Ann notices her advisor’s hesitation, but before she can press Anne for more information, the next speaker is beginning their talk. Letting out a breath, she straightens in her seat and looks to the front of the room. Anne does the same, but she’s quickly distracted by the way that her student’s leg accidentally brushes against hers as she crosses her legs in her seat. 

Her eyes fly down to smooth skin of Ann’s thighs peeking out from under her skirt, the fabric riding up her legs in the process. Ann doesn’t notice how her eyes rake across her figure, flitting back and forth between the tight skirt covering her legs and the open collar of her shirt barely concealing her cleavage visible from the side. From where she’s seated, she can see the way Ann’s chest gently swells with every breath, delicate collarbones rising and falling to the rhythm. Tracing the freckles on her neck with her eyes, Anne feels the same deep burning inside her that has only grown in strength since she last got to kiss the soft skin. Vivid flashes of their brief time in the airplane bathroom over the skies of Europe fly through her mind, making her snap her eyes up to meet bright blues. 

Ann has caught her staring, and she’s staring right back. 

Just as quickly as their eyes meet, Ann is looking back to the front of the room, cheeks flaring red from the attention, shoulders stiffening with tension. Anne knows the other woman is fully aware of what she’s doing, of where her eyes had been wandering, and she doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, her lips are now parted, quick breath passing through them, eyes glimmering with barely contained desire as they bore into the front of the room. Anne is mesmerized by the effect her mere gaze can have on the other woman, and she can’t help but swipe one last look across her legs, mind briefly flashing with the fantasy of what those legs might look like spread a little wider, giving her enough room to slide her hand up her smooth thighs, inching further up into the space between her legs, touching the burning warmth underneath the ridiculously sexy skirt that Ann Walker had decided to torture her with that morning—

“Anne.” The whisper of her breath across her cheek snaps her out of her fantasy. She can’t help but feel guilty at where her mind had wandered as she looks up at Ann who is now leaning in to speak quietly to her. 

“Yes?” Anne bites her lip, trying to control herself. She feels like she is going to burn up from the sheer strength of her desire for the other woman.

“That’s not how you assess a mental model, is it?” Ann is asking her a question about the current speaker’s presentation. She’s asking her a question about research. The thing they’re there to pay attention to. Right.

“Um…” Anne’s eyes flick to the front of the room, trying to catch up with what the speaker has been talking about for the last ten minutes. She quickly scans the diagram on the projected slides, mind working through the details of the concepts. It’s easy enough to deduce what the speaker is saying, so she takes a risk and answers simply, trying to sound like she knows what’s going on. 

“I think…” She turns back to face her student, noticing the way her eyes scan hers intently. She has to lean in to speak in low tones into Ann’s ear.

“They’re using participants’ responses as a proxy for their mental models. Not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but it’s just a limitation of their protocol.” At some point, her lips actually graze the shell of Ann’s ear and she hears the other woman take in a sharp breath at the contact, knuckles turning white as she clasps her hands together tightly. 

Anne quickly pulls back, amazed that she even managed to get so close to Ann while in public, but being in the last row affords them a certain level of privacy.

Anne takes a deep breath and looks back to the front, straightening in her seat. She silently resolves to start paying better attention to what’s happening at the conference. There will be other opportunities to be visually tormented by Ann Walker’s outfit, and now is simply not the time to do it. Her student seems to be of the same mind, because they spend the rest of the session avoiding looking in each other’s direction, for fear that they won’t be able to stop if they do.

***

She doesn’t see Ann again for the rest of the day, committee duties and meetings stealing her away from the paper sessions that her student attends. The end of the first day of the conference approaches swiftly, and Anne finds herself at yet another conference reception dinner, this time, the event is being held at a more modest venue, the big open square between the conference hotel and the convention center. 

Large outdoor tents and food serving stations have sprung up in the open space, and she finds she’s enjoying the brief moment of solitude, grazing at the Hors d'oeuvres, picking her way through the crowds, and sampling some of the California wines that have been laid out for tasting. As she meanders through the courtyard, festive decoration lighting up the scene, she’s eventually called over to one of the large round tables with a few open seats remaining. Tib is waving her over, voice carrying over the conversation at the table. She’s saved Anne a seat right next to her, and she pats it loudly as Anne approaches.

“There you are, Anne!” Tib’s loud greeting attracts the attention of the other guests seated around the table, all of them turning to look at her as she takes her seat. 

“Hello everyone.” Anne gives them all smiles, scanning the familiar faces around the table. There’s the usual suspects in attendance: Sam Washington, Madeline Blücher, Eliza Priestly, James Holt, and much to Anne’s dismay, Christopher Rawson and his brother, Jeremiah Rawson. Anne had somehow never gotten along with the Rawson brothers, despite the how frequently their paths have crossed over the years. Both brothers have always been a thorn in Anne’s side, ever since her grad student days at U of P, when they were faculty members in her department, all the way to the present day, where they were conference organizers at this event. It seemed that she could never be rid of the arrogant, abrasive attitude of Christopher, in particular. 

They both give her strained smiles as she settles in next to Tib, the many disagreements they’ve had unspoken for the moment in favor of a tenuous truce. 

Hardly anyone else around the table seems to notice the tension between Anne and the Rawsons, because the usual small talk is resuming, Madeline fawning over Anne’s outfit, Sam supplying a glib comment about the reception food, and Eliza complaining gratingly about the switch from paper programs to electronic programs this year. Anne’s body is angled towards Tib out of instinct, their legs touching under the table, like an anchor through the madness of the social situation. 

Anne watches Tib run her hand through her brightly colored hair, and she feels the urge to unload on her, to share the burden of what’s transpired between her and Ann since she last saw her not twenty-four hours ago. But before she can, she sees the telltale sparkle in her friend’s eyes as her gaze overshoots behind her, lighting up in recognition. 

“Ann Walker!” Tib is waving her student over, pointing to an empty seat across from them, between Madeline and James. “Please join us!” 

And then Ann is in front of her, balancing a place of food and a wine glass, still in her wickedly sexy pencil skirt, biting her lip as she regards their table. 

“Thank you, Dr. Norcliffe!” Ann meets her eyes briefly before she’s being ushered into her seat by Madeline, the other professor practically doting on her student. 

“So nice to see you again, Miss Walker!” Sam leans forward in his seat to look at her, a friendly smile on his face. 

“Dr. Washington!” Ann beams at him, clearly fond of the other professor. “Same here! It feels like just yesterday that we were all in Delft, doesn’t it?” 

“Indeed, it does!” Madeline laughs at the sentiment, delighted to be reacquainted with Dr. Lister’s bright and pleasant student. “We’re only missing the lovely company of Dr. Stuart and Dr. Ferrall, both unable to attend because of the start of their semester.”

At the mention of Dr. Ferrall, Ann’s eyes shoots over to meet her advisor’s gaze, giving her a knowing look. Anne lowers her head and shakes it subtly—there’s nothing to see here. 

This silent exchange goes unnoticed by everyone at the table, most of them going back to their previous topic of conversation. One strain of discussion in particular sticks out from the rest of the scattered dialog at the table, Christopher’s tone sounding more and more agitated in a way that instantly grates at Anne’s nerves. It seems that no matter the topic of conversation, no matter who he’s talking to, he always manages to sound like he’s having an argument with everyone else. Tonight is no different, his snide remarks drawing the attention of the other occupants of the table.

“—and I heard, that he didn’t even try to deny the accusation when the administration cornered him about it. He just said that they were both adults, able to make their own decisions, and that it was nobody’s business what they did in their spare time.” Christopher’s lips curled up in a sneer as he finished, clearly enjoying talking about other people’s reprehensible actions.

“Who are we talking about?” Anne leans in quickly to Tib, missing the start of the conversation. 

Her friend rolls her eyes, exasperation in her voice. “Oh, it’s this faculty member from the Biology Department at U of P-- Dr. Kenny.” Tib looks back to the others who have eyebrows raised in confusion, raising her voice to be heard across the table. “He had an affair with an undergrad last year, it was all steamy and scandalous, had the whole administration in an uproar. He claims it was all consensual, and the university couldn’t do anything at the time because they never had an official policy about students and teachers dating, but now—”

“But now!” Christopher exclaims, his agitation gaining momentum from the conversation. “Now, they’ve gone and imposed these ridiculous policies on the rest of us. We’re completely blameless, we did absolutely nothing wrong, but now we have to attend hours of sexual harassment training, go through endless background checks, and get this—” He takes a deep breath, eyes darting around the table in challenge. “We can’t even meet with our own students in our office without leaving the door open!” 

“Okay, well—” Madeline tries to interject, but Christopher barely even acknowledges her before speaking over her.

“When will these people learn?” He shakes his head in remorsefully. “They just ruin it for the rest of us when they can’t stop themselves from fucking everything that strikes their fancy!” 

“Oh!” Ann has gone bright red. It’s clear that Dr. Rawson has shocked her with how blunt he’s being. 

Christopher notices this and shoots her a sarcastic smile. “Sorry, Miss Walker. You must forgive me for my language.” 

“No! Not at all!” Ann’s eyes are wide, she’s trying to appear unaffected by the discussion, but there’s a wild look in her eyes from how close it hits to home.

“Christopher,” Tib speaks up, drawing the attention away from Ann who’s now shaking in her seat. “Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge… not without knowing all the facts, hmm?” 

He sneers again, not pleased at being spoken to in such a placating tone. “Oh, I know all the facts, Isabella.” 

His words are sharp, holding hidden meaning, like he knows something the rest of them don’t. “I know exactly what’s going on. It’s completely inappropriate, and absolutely revolting. I don’t know how any self-respecting faculty member could bring themselves to sleep with their student. It’s sick—a perversion.”

There are several sharp intakes of breath around the table, the tension making Madeline in particular, very uncomfortable. Tib herself has gone red in the face, barely concealing her rage at being spoken to in such a patronizing manner by her colleague. 

She opens her mouth, biting retort already on her tongue, but Anne has beat her to it, a dangerous undercurrent lacing her calm voice. 

“Christopher.” Her tone is so clear, so commanding, that everyone at the table stops and stares at her. “No one’s questioning the fact that relationships between students and professors are fraught with problems, including potential issues of favoritism and exploitation.”

“Yes, exactly—” He doesn’t get to finish.

“But the question of whether both parties should ever act on their desires is separate from the one you’ve just brought up.”

Her eyes dart over to where Ann is sitting, and she sees a dark look on her face, expression swimming with conflict. It seemed surreal and yet so fitting that they should be having this very conversation, at this very moment. Not allowing herself to get distracted, Anne takes a deep breath and looks back at Christopher, the thoughts that have been tormenting her mind for the past few weeks finally making their way out of her, into the world, becoming more real than ever.

“If we think of academia as a purely professional setting, one where services are exchanged for a fee among rational, perfect, decision-makers, then sexual relationships are clearly inappropriate—especially when you think of the relationship between a superior—the professor, and the subordinate—the student. There’s such a power imbalance, that no rational actor would see it as appropriate to pursue a romantic relationship in that workplace.”

Anne’s getting worked up, breath coming out quicker, hands gesturing forcefully with barely restrained emotion. Everyone is rooted to their seats, watching her with rapt attention. It’s not entirely surprising to see Anne Lister speak passionately about a subject, but this one in particular, is unusually charged. 

“But here’s the thing.” She stabs her finger into the table, forcefully. “We’re not just any workplace, are we? The academy is not just any professional setting.”

Ann’s eyes meet hers across the table and she feels a surge in her chest, the emotions of the past few weeks animating a passion in her, compelling her to speak.

“The academy is more than that! Surely, we all see that?” She gestures widely to the table. “It’s a place where deep, lasting, intense bonds are formed between its members, where mentors and their proteges work closely with one another in structures not unlike a family unit. And where young, promising lives are transformed by an exhilarating encounter with knowledge, awakening their own true potential. Students’ aren’t fragile, breakable beings without feelings of their own. They’re adults, learning through experience what this world has to offer.” 

Anne’s voice is shaking, but she can’t stop herself. She feels these truths so deeply, her soul pouring into her words, an excited smile starting to pull at her lips.

“Think about it.” She looks around the table, fingers grasping at the ideas in front of her, willing her audience to see it as clearly as she does. “Isn’t it exciting? That we can be part of something so magical? So electric? What is education if not the power to change people’s lives? To transcend the everyday limitations of our capabilities? To learn more about ourselves and the universe than we could ever have dreamed of?”

Ann’s eyes do not leave hers, they’re watering with the effort, her chest rising and falling rapidly, like she’s racing to keep up with Anne’s points. 

Anne smiles at the table, a look of wonder on her face as she reflects on her own words. “Surely, in this hyper-charged environment of transformation, of hunger for knowledge, of passion for the truth, we cannot possibly, rationally, or responsibility stamp out the potential for desire to arise?”

Most of them are nodding slightly, deep in thought, her words ringing uncomfortably true. Then, Anne lowers her voice and says the thing that has been eating away at her since the moment she realized her true feelings for Ann Walker.

“Maybe it’s possible to separate the thrill of intellectual growth from sexual attraction—” She pauses, looking at Ann right in the eyes, lips carefully forming around her next words. 

“—but maybe what makes academia so powerful, also makes it inherently erotic.”   

There’s a moment of silence that passes as everyone absorbs Anne’s provocative words. Her words strike deep, making them sit back in reflection. All except Ann, who’s pupils are now blown, forehead dotted with tiny drops of sweat barely visible in the dim light. Anne notices this, and the distress on her face pulls her out from the trance of the last few minutes, her concern for her student bringing her back down to earth. Ann’s breaths are coming out in short gasps, and her shoulders tense as she grips the armrests of her seat with trembling hands. 

She feels Tib reach down and squeeze her thigh under the table, a silent reminder that she’s right there, ready to back her up, that it’s all going to be okay.

“Well said, Anne!” Sam sits back in his seat, thoughtful look on his face. “You’ve given us a lot to think about. In your usual fashion.”

There are chuckles about the table, but Christopher is still snarling, growling out a snide remark at her. “Yes, leave it to you to put into words what ought not to be said.”

But before Anne can shoot back an equally biting remark, Ann Walker is pushing back her chair with such a force that it almost topples over, and she’s standing up abruptly, wine and food forgotten on the table. Her face is still red with an unreadable expression, but she’s muttering something about needing to use the bathroom under her breath. Then, before any of them can say anything, she’s turned around and fled the table, rushing out of the courtyard towards the safety of the convention center.

Stunned by her sudden departure, Anne automatically looks to Tib, searching for answers to her students’ odd behavior. Unsurprisingly, Tib gives her a knowing look, leaning in to speak quietly to her.

“You know, maybe you shouldn’t have made that whole speech… given what’s going on between the two of you?”

Anne pulls back slightly to regard her friend. “What, do you think I upset her?”

Tib raises her eyebrows, shrugging in the process. “Yeah. Maybe. Go find out.” Then she leans in close again, speaking right in her ear. “Go get your girl.”

Anne doesn’t need to be told twice, the words spurring her forward and out of her seat, the rest of the faculty at the table giving each other puzzled looks, amazed by the events of the last few minutes. Her thoughts are thoroughly scrambled as she races through the courtyard after Ann, long strides quickly bringing her to the entrance of the convention center. 

She bursts through the double glass doors leading into building, now quiet and empty, a stark contrast to the bustle of the conference during the day. Her footsteps echo through the long corridors as she searches for any sign of Ann Walker. Eventually she spots the women’s bathroom at the end of a hallway and decides that she may as well check it out, in the event that her student really did need to use the bathroom. The stillness of the atmosphere in the large empty space makes her every movement echo across the hard tiles and walls, causing Anne to suddenly slow her movement, not wanting to make more of a scene than she already has. 

Padding quietly into the bathroom, Anne listens intently for any noise that might give away the presence of another living being in the space. Just as she’s about leave, steeling herself for yet another night of not knowing where she stands with her student, she hears it. 

It’s quiet, barely noticeable at first, but it’s there, coming from the stall at the very far end of the bathroom. Heavy gasps of breath can be heard from behind the locked door of one of the stalls. Anne’s mind draws the most logical conclusion, and her heart aches from the thought of her student crying, alone, in a bathroom stall, over something that she has said. She feels an intense frustration at herself for doing this to Ann again.

She approaches the stall slowly, unsure if it really is Ann behind the door. She gets to the end of the bathroom and angles her head this way and that, trying to make out the figure through the small slit in the door. It’s dark, but she eventually recognizes Ann’s face through the opening. Relief washes over her. Moving closer to the space between the door, she touches the cold metal softly and whispers her name through the crack. “Ann?”

There’s a sudden rustling of fabric and frenzied movement behind the door, and she almost misses it, but she swears she sees Ann’s hand fly out from under her skirt in that moment. 

It takes Anne a moment to process what she just saw, but there’s no mistaking the flush on her cheeks, pupils dilated from arousal, the glint of wetness coating her fingers as she tries to wipe them off on the wrinkled fabric of her skirt. 

The realization burns right through Anne, like a hot poker through fresh snow, draining away everything but the thought of what Ann’s hand was just doing. In the back of her mind, she feels mild satisfaction that Tib is wrong about these things, for once. 

Ann Walker isn’t upset at her. She’s just really turned on by her.

Fuck.” She hears herself breathe out at the revelation.

Their eyes meet through the slit in the door and Anne can see that she’s flustered, completely mortified at the situation. “A-Anne!” She stammers out her name in surprise, voice raspy from breathing so heavily. Her mouth opens and closes, the words dying on her tongue from the embarrassment of being caught. 

Before she can change her mind, Anne whirls around and darts into the stall directly adjacent to Ann’s, swiftly closing and locking the door behind her. There’s a small space between the barrier, and she presses up against the gap, trying to meet Ann’s eyes through the slit. 

“It’s alright Ann.” Her voice is low, raspy, carrying across the small space in a whisper. “It’s okay.”

“Oh God,” Ann flushes bright red, angling away from where Anne is looking at her through the gap. She’s embarrassed, curling in on herself, wanting to fold into nothingness from sheer humiliation.

“No, don’t—” Anne reaches her hand up over the barrier separating them, desperately needing to make any contact with the other woman. “—come here—come here.”

There’s a moment of hesitation as their gazes meet, and turmoil dances in Ann’s eyes. But then, desperate to feel any bit of Anne, she relents, reaching up and lacing their fingers together, clasping their hands over the barrier of the stall. They both take in sharp breaths. The contact is electric, their connected hands completing a circuit, desire pulsing through them in unison.  

The very notion that Ann Walker was touching herself, so desperate for release that she couldn’t wait—all because of what she said—drives her mad beyond the point of reason. There’s a delicious fire burning through her veins, every fiber of her being screaming for Ann to continue, pleading with her to not stop, not now. Gripping her hand tightly, not letting her escape again, Anne chokes out the words drumming around in her head, her voice sounding even more strangled from the effort of holding back. 

“Don’t stop. Please.” 

Ann’s eyes widen with shock, embarrassment battling with the sharp need that’s rapidly undoing any self-restraint she has remaining. She searches Anne’s eyes intently and sees just as much desire reflected back in them. Then, coming to a decision, she tamps down her modesty and hesitantly leans up against the barrier so that her forehead is pressed up into the gap that Anne is leaning into, their breaths dancing between the small opening. She slowly reaches down with her other arm, hand trembling, and hikes up the fabric of her skirt. There’s a slight angling of her hand as she works her way beneath her underwear.

Then, her eyes flutter close when she eventually makes contact with the space between her legs that’s burning for relief. A puff of hot air blows through the gap when Ann gasps with pleasure, chest rising suddenly from the sensation of her fingers pushing against her aching center. 

Anne can hardly believe that this is happening at all. She can’t believe that Ann Walker is in a public bathroom, gripping her hand, touching herself—while she watches. The visceral sound of her wetness sliding against her fingers anchors her to reality, keeping her from flying away with the belief that none of this is real. Ann is completely drenched, and it’s all because of her. 

They’re both shaking with desire, unable to control how desperately they want each other. Ann is panting, her hand moving quickly under her skirt, and Anne is equally breathless, as though the very act of watching the other woman touch herself is enough to bring her the same amount of pleasure. The sight of Ann careening through her desire races across every inch of her skin, lighting up her nerves with an excruciating craving for the other woman.

“Ann…” She can’t keep herself from breathing into her mouth, just an inch away, faces separated by the cold barrier between them. The guttural groan that Ann makes at hearing her name is enough to make Anne’s insides clench with need. She decides in that moment that there’s nothing she’d like more than to elicit more delicious sounds from the other woman.

“That’s it, baby. Keep touching yourself.” Her voice comes out low and hard between breaths, and she barely recognizes it as her own. “Touch yourself for me.”

Ann keens at her words, eyes clenched shut, short gasps now turning into sharp moans of pleasure as her hand starts moving erratically under her skirt. It’s barely been thirty seconds since her hand dipped back under her skirt, but she’s already so close. 

Stunned at how quickly Ann is approaching her climax, Anne grips her hand harder, trying to imprint the memory of it into her brain. It feels like it’s only just begun, but now it’s already ending, the moment speeding right by her. Wanting to make the most of the few seconds she has left, Anne hears herself breathe out the words she’d only ever dreamed of whispering into Ann’s ear in the most private of her fantasies. 

“Come for me, Ann. Come for me, baby. I want you so bad.”

Oh my God!” Ann’s eyes fly open to meet hers as her body slams forward into the barrier, shaking the doors on their hinges, violent sound mirroring the intense spams of her body as she reaches the peak. She tries to contain her loud moans as she shakes from her release, a strangled cry making its way through her lips, hand grasping Anne’s over the barrier to hold herself upright. 

Even through the small slit between the stalls, Anne is blown away by the sheer magnificence of Ann’s orgasm ripping through her body, and she feels pinpricks of tears sting the corner of her eyes. Between the erratic breaths and moans, Anne thinks she hears her name being whispered on those lips, but Ann’s panting is too rapid, too forceful, for her to be sure. She longs to be able to hold her, to feel her in this moment, but the wall of the stall isn’t the only barrier between them. Instead, she settles for squeezing Ann’s hand over the barrier, like she’s trying to press a small fraction of what she’s feeling into the other woman’s skin. 

When her spasms eventually die down, and her breath starts to slow, she looks at Anne through the small space, eyes swimming with raw emotion. Anne knows she must be looking at the other woman with wonder on her face, unable to hide how she feels any longer. She opens her mouth to say something to Ann, anything to let her know that she’s right there, that she’s got her, but she’s interrupted by the loud sound of someone slamming open the bathroom door and shuffling into one of the stalls on the other side of the bathroom.  

Ann’s eyes go wide and she snatches her hand back from Anne’s, embarrassment crashing back into her. Her transformation is swift, the need to escape already compelling her into action. 

Before Anne can react, her student is launching herself out of the small space, disappearing from her line of sight, footsteps echoing across the length of the tiled floors. Fumbling with the lock on her door, Anne finally swings the door forward, stumbling out into the open. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirrors on the wall and is amazed by how wild her eyes look.

Two more women enter the bathroom, chatting with one another as they pass by her, oblivious to the heat of their activities in the last few minutes. The sudden presence of other people in the space is jarring, and she wastes a few precious seconds trying to catch her breath. Then, remembering herself, she rushes out of the bathroom, in pursuit of Ann Walker, heart hammering in her chest.

Everything feels like a blur, her mind whirling from the events of the last few minutes. She’s not even sure what she plans on saying if she does catch up to her. But the hallways are empty, and she’s once again lost sight of the other woman. She could be anywhere by now. 

Cursing at herself for not acting sooner, Anne eventually returns to the conference reception, hoping to spot her student back at the table they had left behind. Outside, the cool night air blows over her overheated skin. It should clear her mind, but all it does is sharpen her desire for the other woman. 

As she approaches their table, her eyes meet Tib’s over the crowd, wearing a quizzical look. She looks around, not spotting Ann, and shrugs in return. 

Then, steps away from joining the group again, she feels a telltale vibration in her pocket, stopping her in her tracks. Frowning, she reaches in her pocket to pull out her phone, mind already anticipating the usual possibilities of who might be contacting her at that very moment. 

But she’s not prepared for the single line that flashes on her screen.

Ann: What’s your room number? 

Everything around her melts away as her eyes scan the text over and over again, reeling at the implication. The moment balances on the edge of a precipice, holding the potential to change everything.

Hands shaking, she types out a one-word response:

14423.

Chapter Text

Anne Lister considers herself to be a generally well-informed, intelligent woman who’s lived a full forty-two years of life. So, it’s not often that she finds herself learning quite so many new things in the span of one night.

But this night is not just any night. Tonight, Ann Walker is burned into her soul, mated with her very essence, and try as she might, there are now five new facts she cannot ignore.

Number one: When it comes to Ann Walker, nothing else seems to matter. 

Anne knows this because even as she looks back up at Tib through the crowd, meeting her puzzled gaze, she doesn’t bother explaining, doesn’t even bother pausing a moment. Without a word, she’s turned around, gone from the courtyard reception, her phone clutched in her hand, screen still lit up with Ann’s message. 

Speeding through lobby of her hotel, she doesn’t even notice someone calling her name until she’s in front of the bank of elevators, fingers forcefully punching at the call buttons in a frenzy. 

“Anne!” She whirls around, coming face to face with Madeline. The look of shock on her face at seeing her colleague there makes the other woman reach out to squeeze her elbow, chuckling lightly. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Anne!”

“No, I’m fine. Sorry.” Anne shakes her head, but the fog she’s in is too thick. She can think of nothing but getting up to her room, seeing Ann Walker, and quenching this burning feeling inside her.

Madeline is speaking again, her voice a distant hum as Anne looks up at the indicator arrows above the elevator, body vibrating with impatience as excruciating minutes tick by. What is taking so long?

“—had enough of Christopher if I were honest with myself.” 

“—what?” Anne blinks, refocusing on Madeline and her words. 

“—you know, he’s just so full of himself sometimes, I can barely stand listening to him talk—” Madeline finally notices Anne’s state of distress, the wild look in her eyes, the red tinting her cheeks, the heavy breathing. “Are you quite alright, Anne?”

Anne’s eyes dart about, the collar of her shirt suddenly feeling too tight. She’s burning up, heart racing in her chest, she can barely choke out the words, voice sounding too thick in her throat. “Yes, of course. I’m just a little tired.”

A look of concern crosses Madeline’s face, but before she can lean in to inquire further, there’s another voice calling at them across the lobby. Anne’s heart sinks as realizes who it is. Sam is jogging to join them at the elevators, hair slightly tousled from the activity. 

“Anne! Madeline!” He has a huge grin on his face as he approaches them. “Heading up for the night?” 

“Sam! Yes, I think we’ve both had enough fun for tonight.” Madeline says affectionately, giving Anne a small smile that isn’t returned. 

Anne is tapping her foot on the floor, the torture of the wait fraying at her nerves. The time for pleasant small talk with her colleagues is over. She cannot bring herself to look anywhere but at the indicator arrows above the elevator doors, the flat white plastic of the lights mocking her with their inactivity.

Finally, the up arrow lights up green, but just as it does, yet another voice calls at their group, interrupting their entry through the elevator doors.

“Dr. Blücher!” It’s Harriet Parkhill, wide smile on her face, eyes twinkling with the excitement of running into her advisor at the end of the night. 

“Harriet!” Madeline is pleasantly surprised as well. “We’re just headed up for the night. I hope you enjoyed the reception?” 

Anne cannot bring herself to stay any longer, the wide open doors of the elevator beckoning at her. Without a word, she’s stepping into the small space and punching the button for the 14th floor impatiently, propping herself up on the panel with her other hand and breathing heavily. Her legs feel shaky, like they could give out at any moment.

“Oh! Here we are!” Madeline notices Anne’s sudden departure and ushers the rest of their group into the elevator with her. They’re talking excitedly about something that Anne cannot bring herself to focus on. But then she’s being tapped on the shoulder, and numbers spoken at her. She watches herself, as if in a daze, punch at the buttons on the panel. 

“I’m on the twelfth floor—” Okay, twelve.

“Ten for me, please.” Ten.

“—no, hold on, I’m on fifth—” You cannot be serious.

“Can you hit thirteen for me, Anne?” Jesus, fuck.

It requires monumental effort for Anne to bite down the tortured moan in her throat, watching as more buttons light up the panel like a Christmas tree. The door closes and the elevator starts moving, the smooth upward motion feeling glacial in its pace.

The light chatter resumes behind her, their collective voices sounding too loud against the hard mirrors on the elevator walls.

 “What did you think of the food, Dr. Lister?” Harriet’s voice grates on her nerves a little too much.

“Mm.” She breaths out in frustration, still leaning against the panel, eyes boring holes into the numbers. “It was fine.”

“I thought it was all rather good. The food at this conference is always very impressive. Although I heard Dr. Rawson almost choked on the—” The loud ding interrupts her as the elevator doors slide open. 

“Oh, this is me!” The student steps out, and the floor of the elevator bobs with the change in weight. 

Three stops to go.

The elevator doors slide close and they’re moving slowly again. She hears Madeline say something to Sam about Harriett, but she can barely comprehend the meaning—something about how the student means well but is a gossip, nonetheless. She can’t believe she’s stuck in an elevator, listening to this mindless stream of nonsense about Harriett Parkhill, all while Ann Walker is waiting for her, up on the fourteenth floor, in God knows what kind of state after what they just did. What kind of new, fresh hell is this?

After what seems like an eternity, there’s another loud ding, and Madeline is stepping out onto the tenth floor, calling out her goodbyes to Anne.

Two stops to go.

It’s just Sam and her now as the doors slide close once again. The elevator lurches up again, and her colleague sighs heavily, leaning into the back wall. “What a day.” He chuckles as the elevator stops on the twelfth floor, doors sliding open to what was supposed to be Harriett’s floor. 

Anne jabs her finger repeatedly on the door close button, unable to keep herself from muttering “Jesus Fucking Christ” under her breath. It feels like forever before the doors slide close again, but eventually they do, and she feels a sharp thrill run through her as the elevator lurches up again.

One more stop.

When Sam steps out of the elevator, he gives her one last look over his shoulder in parting, but Anne doesn’t see it. She can’t when she’s closing her eyes, trying to slow her breathing, trying to calm her racing mind.

The doors to the fourteenth floor finally slide open, and she steps out onto the landing, freezing for a moment as the weight of what she’s about to do slams into her. But there’s no turning back now. She doesn’t think she could even stop herself from careening through the hallway to her room even if she tried. 

The journey from the elevators to room 14423 is long, the hotel’s massive layout feeling like a maze made just to torture her. Numbers whiz by her vision as she practically runs through the carpeted corridors: 14110—14213—14418.

It’s only when she turns the last corner to her room, the hallway ending abruptly in front of her, that another fact crashes into her with remarkable force:

Number two: Ann Walker is quite possibly the most beautiful thing she’s ever had the pleasure of knowing.

She’s standing in front of the door to her room, looking down and biting her lip with worry. Her fingers are fidgeting at the flap of her small purse, picking away at the fabric. There’s an aura of frantic energy radiating from her, her hair slightly mussed, her clothes slightly wrinkled. She doesn’t know if it’s because or in spite of the way she looks, but the sight of her steals Anne’s breath away. 

Something tender aches in her chest when she looks up, their eyes meeting across the length of the hallway. The burning look passing between them is hot, threatening to melt away everything it touches. Anne slows her strides as she approaches Ann, the air between them sizzling with something unspoken.

When she’s finally just steps away from the other woman, she pauses, waiting to see what will happen next. But Ann doesn’t move, she just leans against the closed door, looking up at her intently, a dark look in her eyes. Her breath passes quickly through her parted lips, but no words are spoken. 

Giving in to the pull towards her, Anne closes the distance between them, moving into her personal space until she’s only an inch away from pressing her entire body into the other woman’s. They’re not touching, but the heat radiating off their bodies is enough to make them both feel like they’re melting into one another. Their hot breaths mingle in the small space between, and the moment seems to stretch out before them. Anne’s eyes slide close as she breaths in Ann’s now familiar scent. It’s not enough, but she feels a small relief from finally being so close to the other woman.

Then, looking right into Ann’s intense blue eyes, and not moving an inch away, Anne reaches into her pocket and fishes out the hotel room keycard. The black plastic glints in the dim light of the hallway, and the anticipation that it holds makes Ann’s breath catch in her throat. She looks down to Anne’s lips, so close to connecting with her own, and she angles her face upwards in expectation. 

Just as the boundary between air and Ann Walker’s lips blur against her own, there’s the quiet beep of the door, and then Ann is stumbling back into her dark room as the door swings open behind her.

Anne slides in after her but pauses in the entrance, the hiss of the pneumatic door closing cutting through the silence of the room. 

She watches Ann wander further in, taking in the quiet space and all its dark corners. Only the desk lap illuminates the room, but there’s enough light to see how large the room really is. The spacious suite is a stark contrast to the small, cramped rooms of the lower floors, and the realization that of course her advisor would get the executive suite at a conference only then occurs to her. Everything about Anne Lister screams luxury.

Anne sees these thoughts fly through her students’ mind and she feels the significance of it. Their worlds are crashing together, the distance between their lives closing. And she wants nothing more than to throw herself into the collision.

Their eyes meet across the room, and then like the strike of a match, the fire between them roars to life, consuming what little restraint remains between them. 

Striding forward forcefully, Anne shrugs off her jacket, the fabric whipping through the air as it lands somewhere over her suitcase. Ann turns to face her quickly approaching body, dropping her purse to the ground, back arching in preparation for the impact.

There’s a gasp as their bodies collide, lips pressing together urgently, hands grabbing and clutching at any bit of each other they can reach. Fire races across Anne’s skin as she feels the soft lips of the other woman give way beneath her hungry kisses. Somehow, their last kiss seems like a lifetime ago, and yet, there’s a familiarity that burns beneath her touch. 

Ann Walker is making soft little moans into her mouth, and every cell in her body feels like it’s crying in agony at how perfect she sounds. What did her lips do before she could kiss her? How did she feel anything before Ann Walker?

Overcome with need, Anne pushes her body firmly into Ann’s, trying to embed the other woman into her consciousness. Ann must not have expected the force of it, because she’s stumbling backwards, clutching at Anne’s shoulders for balance. The little surprised gasp that Ann makes when she grabs her hips to steady her shoots straight past Anne’s restraint, lighting up the part of her that is beyond caring.

Anne doesn’t let up. She can’t. Every nerve in her body is screaming for Ann Walker, and she’s powerless to resist the call. Lips not leaving the other woman’s, she pushes against her again, guiding Ann’s body backwards until she feels it bump into the desk at the back of the room. 

“Ah!” Ann breaks their kiss, eyes flashing with surprise as the hard edge of the wood digs into the back of her legs. The sharp intake of breath makes her chest rise suddenly, collarbones peeking out from the open collar of her shirt. This draws Anne’s mouth lower, unable to resist pressing kisses against the soft skin of her neck, lips tracing a light pattern over her freckles. She feels Ann grip the sleeve of her shoulder roughly, the unexpected force of her fingers tearing at her control, causing her to nip at the skin with her teeth. She doesn’t mean to leave a mark, but she doesn’t regret it because of the loud moan that escapes Ann’s lips when she does.

“Anne!” Her voice is hoarse when she cries out, throwing her head back, and exposing more of the creamy white skin of her neck, now marked with a faint purpling bruise. Anne grins against her skin and reaches up cradle the back of her neck with both hands, holding her close, pressing her face into her skin. This causes Ann to buck involuntarily into her hips, and Anne’s smirk grows wider.

“God, the things you do to me, Ann.” She’s leaving open mouth kisses leading up to her jaw, breathing against her cheek. “We shouldn’t—but I want you.” 

Ann breathes out a whine, her body shaking as she does. “You’re right—we should stop.” 

This makes Anne chuckle against her skin. “Of course, we should.” She runs a hand down the middle of her chest, stopping right in between her breasts, fisting the material of her shirt. With her other hand, she grabs the back of Ann’s head, pulling her in for another scorching kiss.

“We need to talk.” Ann pulls back and pants against her lips, hands on her chest, the heat from her palms burning through the fabric of her shirt.

“I don’t want to talk,” Anne’s voice rumbles lowly as she leans back in again, mouth open, ready to claim her lips.

“Anne…” She manages to breathe out before her mouth is captured by Anne’s insistent lips. The kiss is hot, wet, Anne’s lips sliding over hers again and again, igniting an excruciating heat that’s impossible to ignore. When she pulls back to catch her breath, she murmurs against her advisor’s mouth. 

“You need to stop doing that to me.”

“Mm. Doing what?” Anne gives her another kiss, bringing her hand up to cup her cheek. 

“Looking at me… like that, especially when we’re in public.” Ann whimpers, almost pouting.

“Like what?” Anne is getting tired of the interruption, so she moves her mouth to the side, nipping at Ann’s earlobe, causing the younger woman to gasp in surprise.

“Like you want me.” Ann cries out in exasperation, frustration evident in her voice.

Anne chuckles against her cheek. “But I do.”

“Be honest with me…” Ann is squirming, pulling away from her. “What did you think of my presentation this morning? Do you really think I did good?” 

Anne lets out a frustrated huff, growling out an unintelligible groan as she leans back. The torture of wanting this woman is almost too much to bear, but she makes herself pause, makes herself be patient. She regards her student, watching her as she leans back on the edge of the desk, a sincere look on her face. 

She really does want to know. Right this moment. 

The tangled ball of ‘we shouldn’t’ and ‘we can’t’ starts to unravel in Anne’s mind. And that’s when Anne Lister realizes another fact: 

Number three: Ann Walker wants all of her. Advisor, lover, and everything in between. 

With this newfound truth, Anne looks back up at Ann, a fire burning in her eyes. 

“You want to know what I think, Ann?” She takes a deep breath, speaking quietly but clearly. “Do you really want to know?”

Ann nods, a bolt of uncertainty running through her when she sees the dangerous glint in Anne’s eyes. 

“First of all…” She licks her lips, voice dropping low. She slowly reaches her hand up to the opening of Ann’s shirt, hooking her finger over the fabric and tugging on it gently.

 “It’s ‘did well’. Not ‘did good’.” 

She deftly pops the first button open, eyes raking over the pale skin being revealed. Ann’s mouth falls open, chest rising and falling rapidly.

“Second of all…” Her eyes drop to her students’ lips, before slowly sliding back up to meet her gaze, the blue of her eyes dark from arousal. “There were things that you missed in your presentation. For example—" 

Her fingers free the next button, the fabric of her shirt opening to reveal the top of her bra. The sight of smooth pink fabric peeking out from the white material almost makes her lose her train of thought. 

“—you left out the detail about how you coded the qualitative data.” Her voice is serious, gravelly and hard.

“You spent too much time on introducing the topic, without actually including any citations in your related work.” She searches Ann’s eyes, seeing how she processes her words, even as she pulls open the third button, the fabric falling away to reveal the swell of her breasts, covered by a simple pink cotton bra. It’s surprisingly plain and innocent, but so Ann Walker. The realization that she even knows this is jolting, making her heart skip a beat.

“And—” She catches herself leaning down, the urge to lower her mouth to her chest roaring through her. “—you didn’t tie in your findings with prior work on knowledge structures. That’s why you got questions about the implications of your research after you were done.” 

Her voice is molten, setting fire to the heat between Ann’s legs. She can barely believe the effect her words are having on her student. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined speaking to Ann about her work while practically undressing her. 

“Anything else?” Ann’s eyes are smoky, breath heavy with arousal. 

“Mm.” Anne chuckles darkly. Of course, Ann Walker would consider research talk a form of foreplay. She slowly pulls open the last button of her shirt, tugging the material free from her skirt with more force than is necessary. 

“When we get back to Ames, I’d like you to run those transition probabilities like was suggested today.” The fabric of her shirt falls open, revealing more milky white skin ready to be devoured. 

“We should see if there are any connections with the factors you identified in your analysis…” Anne brings her hands up her exposed neck, lightly caressing the skin downwards.

Ann lets out a loud groan, shaking from the teasing. Anne runs her hands over the smooth material of her bra, delighting in the way her nipples strain against the fabric at her touch. Ann’s legs buckle and she grabs at the edge of the desk, bracing her hands on the hard surface to hold herself up. 

“Anne…” She whines again, biting her lip and angling her face away.

Anne then grabs the back of her head, making her look right into her eyes. There’s conflict swimming in them, but she knows it’s already losing the battle against her desire. “Tell me you don’t feel the same way. Tell me you don’t want me, Ann.”

Their eyes meet, and despite the heat of the moment, a surprisingly tender understanding passes between them. No more pretending. No more lying. She would give all of herself to Ann Walker from now on.

This realization completely overwhelms Ann, making her surge forward into Anne, grasping at her face with both hands, kissing her soundly on the lips. The time for talk has passed. She needs to feel Anne on her—in hernow. 

Fire dances between their lips, tongues reaching out to massage one another. Ann runs her hand through her dark hair, winding her fingers through the soft locks, tugging gently at the ends. She reaches out blindly, grasping at Anne’s wrist, pulling her hand down to the space between her legs. She cannot wait any longer. 

Anne’s head is swimming from how fast they’re moving. But she understands the need that burns in Ann Walker. It burns in her too. Her skirt is too tight, the space too narrow, so she reaches down and hikes her skirt up around her hips, gathering the material in one hand, while her other grasps at the inside of her thigh, fingers digging into the flesh there.

“Anne. Please.” She’s desperate, voice rising, frantic. She cants her hips forward, seeking any contact to dampen the need. 

“Shh—I’ve got you.” Anne breathes into her mouth, holding her face and resting their foreheads together. Then, inch by inch, she trails her hand upwards, towards the source of the heat, heart pounding in her chest, the weight of the moment sharpening to a point in her.

Finally, her fingers touch her center. There’s cotton between them, but she can feel how absolutely soaked Ann Walker is through the thin material. And it’s all for her. Anne presses harder against the fabric, feeling the swollen, hot flesh that lies beneath it. The action rips out a sharp gasp from Ann. 

It’s not enough. She must feel Ann Walker under her fingers now or she thinks she’ll combust from the desire. Need suddenly exploding in her, she grabs the elastic of her underwear and yanks it down, soiled garment pooling around her ankles. 

Then, modesty burnt away to embers, she doesn’t waste any more time. She reaches up quickly, running her fingers through Ann’s folds. Her eyes slam shut at the sensation, and everything else melts away into the background. 

“Fuck.” She hisses through her teeth, right into Ann’s open mouth. The feeling is so overwhelming, that the other woman cries out into the room, body jerking violently. She grips Anne’s shoulders painfully hard, fingers digging into the muscle, holding on to Anne like she’s her reality.

Nothing compares to how exquisite Ann’s most intimate area feels under her fingers. The sensation is so powerful, her mind involuntarily flashing through dozens of memories of the other woman in response, like it’s struggling to comprehend—trying to put together the pieces of how they arrived at this very moment. There is so much wetness gathered between her folds that she feels some of it drip down her hand as she dips into her center. 

“Ann, baby, you’re so wet.” She murmurs into her mouth, but her voice is so low, it’s just a whisper across her lips.

Between breaths, Ann whimpers, nodding her head, unable to form any words in response. She’s breathing rapidly, chest rising and falling, like she’s running a marathon.

It’s an awkward position, but Anne angles her shoulders downwards, trying to get better leverage. She presses into Ann with her hips, pinning her to the edge of the desk.

Softly circling her opening with her finger, she tries to meet Ann’s gaze, but the other woman has her eyes clenched shut, mouth open, head tilted back in silent worship. It feels ironic that Ann should be in reverence, when it’s Anne Lister who’s never laid eyes on something so divine. 

Then, watching her closely, she pushes into Ann, middle finger sliding in up to her knuckle in one smooth motion. 

The resulting moan is so loud that she hears it bounce across the walls of her room, searing itself into her brain, forever changing something deep within her. Anne feels like she’s come into contact with something profound—she will never be the same again.

Ann opens her eyes a fraction and looks at Anne through her lashes as she pulls back out, almost completely, before slowly sliding back in again. This action gets her another long, gut-wrenching groan in response.

She is not prepared for how visceral Ann Walker sounds while being fucked. Every light moan, every sharp breath, strings together to form an exquisite melody. She’s so responsive to every thrust in and out—like she’s a violin, and Anne is the bow playing across her taut strings.

She sets a slow and steady pace, making sure to grind the heel of her hand into Ann’s hard bundle of nerves every time she impales her. She counts not more than ten repetitions before she feels Ann’s walls start to quiver around her finger, her climax approaching quickly again.

“Anne….” She gasps out between breaths, her name sounding on her lips like a warning as she approaches her peak. Anne is speechless, hardly believing that Ann is so near to orgasm again, so quickly, and for the second time that night. It seems there’s no justice in the universe because Anne is not even close to satisfying her hunger to be inside Ann Walker, yet she would do anything to see her fall apart in her arms. Gasping out a breath from the toll of her own emotions, Anne tightens her grip on the back of her neck, pulling her in for a breathy kiss, their lips barely able to make contact from how much they’re panting. 

Ann’s hands fly up to tangle in her hair, winding her fingers through the strands and gipping them painfully. Her breath starts to stutter in her chest, body lurching forward erratically from the wave of pleasure swelling in her. 

“Oh God—Anne, I’m—” Ann’s words die in her throat and her mouth falls open. Anne feels the convulsions start, her smooth walls gripping her finger tightly, making it almost impossible to keep moving within her. So instead, she pushes in one last time, farther than before, and bears down on her nub with her hand. 

She’s awestruck by the look what washes over Ann Walker’s face as her orgasm crashes into her. She doesn’t know how Ann manages to keep her eyes open, but she’s thankful that she does, because the way she’s looking at her, all pupils, like she’s the only thing that matters in the world, makes something break open within her. In that moment, as their eyes meet, another fact slams into her unexpectedly:

Number four: It scares her to death, but she thinks Ann Walker is a little bit in love with her. 

She only gets to soak in the revelation for a second before Ann buries her face in her neck, crying out in release against her body. Anne didn’t think it possible, but she actually blushes from how loud and raw Ann sounds while she pulses around her finger.  She clutches the back of Ann’s head, cradling her tightly, pushing her into her skin, so that she may never forget what this moment feels like. 

When Ann’s moans fade into deep breaths, and when her body slackens in her arms, she pulls back and searches for her lips with her own. It’s sloppy, but Ann manages to kiss her back, still panting into her mouth. There’s a slight jerk in her body when Anne pulls out, but she just presses her closer to her lips, trying to soothe the younger woman.

She can’t help but let out a chuckle, though, when she realizes just how much of Ann’s wetness is dripping from her hand. Ann pulls back, puzzled at her laugh, but then blushes when she sees Anne reach over the desk for a tissue to clean herself up. 

“Oh! I’m sorry—” Self-consciousness is already seeping back into Ann’s words, making her drop her face into her hands. But Anne’s not having any of it. Throwing the used tissue into the wastebasket under the desk, she turns back to Ann and grips both her wrists, pulling them from her face and pinning them to the surface of the desk. 

“No.” It’s only one word, but the command is clear. No, she shouldn’t be embarrassed. No, she may not hide from Anne. She looks right at the younger woman, hunger burning in her eyes. Desire still pulses thickly through them, the painful ache only slightly dulled. They both know that what they’ve done doesn’t even come close to soothing the urgent need that remains between them.

Anne breathes the younger woman in, eyes raking over Ann, the hidden treasures of her body only half-exposed. 

It’s just as well because she’s only half done with her. 

“Oh, Ann… you’re…” She searches Ann’s body with her eyes, but she doesn’t finish her sentence. Instead, Anne roughly pulls down the open shirt over her arms, the sleeves tangling around Ann’s wrists as they struggle with the fabric. Ann’s skirt is next, the wrinkled garment joining her soaked underwear around her ankles. Anne pulls her back in for another kiss, heat reigniting between them. There’s some fumbling behind Ann’s back as she works to unclasp her bra, but before long, Ann’s last piece of clothing falls to the floor and she guides her to step out of the pile around her legs.

Ann is scrabbling at the buttons of her waistcoat when she’s abruptly lifted up by the back of her thighs, legs wrapping around Anne’s waist in the process. Ann yelps out a tiny ‘Oh!’ at the sudden movement, hands flying up to grip the back of Anne’s neck for balance. 

The little musical giggle that escapes Ann’s lips as she’s carried across the room makes Anne’s insides throb almost painfully, and she practically growls into her neck as she walks them over to the bed. “I’m not done with you, Miss Walker.”

Anne throws the woman down on the mattress, taking a moment to admire her bare body. Even if she has spent many nights dreaming about what lay beneath her clothes, the fantasy could not even come close to how divine the other woman truly is in all her naked glory. Ann is all soft curves, pale skin dotted with freckles, the dip of her hips begging to be touched. Her legs are spread slightly, draped over the edge of the bed, and she can see her inner thighs glisten with evidence of her arousal. The sight makes a powerful desire pulse through her, a strong urge to taste the copious wetness coating the pink lips peeking out from golden curls.

Franticly unbuttoning her waistcoat and tossing it to the side, she moves between Ann’s legs and licks her lips in anticipation. She quickly glances up to meet Ann’s eyes as she loosens her necktie, a hungry look on her face. She’s pulling at the silk knot with one hand, unbuttoning the collar of her shirt with the other, but Ann quickly sits up when she sees this, stopping her movements with both hands.

“No, wait—” She’s sheepish, blush coloring her cheeks as she looks at Ann through her lashes. “Let me.”

Anne pauses, not expecting Ann’s request. She drops her hands to her sides, eyes wide in amazement as she watches her work. 

Ann continues untying the silk, breaths coming out faster, harder, as more of the material unravels in her hands. She’s not sure how the other woman manages to make the simple act of undoing a tie so significant, so sensual, so erotic. She darts her eyes up to look at Anne when she’s done, pulling on both ends of the silk gently. The tension on the back of her neck is delicious, and she lets it pull her closer to Ann’s mouth, delighting in the way her eyes drop down to stare at her lips.

“These neckties are torture, Anne.” She breaths into her, lips brushing against her own in the process. “You shouldn’t be allowed to wear them in public.” 

A laugh escapes Anne’s lips, mouth curling up into a smile. “So, I must wear them in private? Just for you?” 

Ann groans in response, pulling the silk tighter around her neck. “Why are you still wearing so much?”

That’s a good question. Anne pulls back and starts unbuttoning her shirt, yanking the material out from where they’re tucked in her pants. Ann is helping her, undoing the buckle of the belt, the metal clinking loudly in the stillness of the room. When she’s finally rid of her shirt, Ann has already moved on to unbuttoning her pants and dragging down the zipper with shaky fingers, but she stops when she sees what’s peeking up from under her pants. 

Oh right. She’s wearing those today.

Ann runs her hands over the elastic band, eyes widening at the sight, small smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Because of course Anne Lister wears boxer briefs. And of course the elastic band is colored rainbow. 

A soft breath escapes her lips as she runs her hands down Anne’s hips, dragging down her pants as she goes. Anne feels a slight pang of nervousness as more of her body is revealed. The other woman must sense this because she looks back up her body, catching sight of the plain black sports bra, the broad shoulders rolling in a little from the scrutiny, and finally meeting her eyes with a look of wonder on her face.

“Oh, Anne.” Her eyes are glimmering as she reaches back up and caresses her cheek. It seems like there’s something she wants to say, but she stops herself. Instead, she kisses Anne softly, running a hand down her chest, smoothing over the quivering muscles of her abdomen, making her twitch from how close she is to where she really wants her. 

She hooks her fingers over the elastic of her boxers and slowly, inch by inch, pulls it down her hips. She does it so gradually, almost like she’s waiting for Anne to stop her. But she doesn’t. Instead, she’s pulling off her bra, stepping out of her clothes, and leaning into Ann, feeling her bare skin press into the length of Ann’s body. The sensation of soft skin sliding against one another is agonizing, bringing into focus the painful throbbing between her legs. 

“God, I need you, baby.” Anne breathes against her lips, tipping them back onto the bed until she’s hovering over Ann’s body, her hair spilling forward around their faces, creating a private little space where their breaths can mingle together, where secret words can be spoken to one another.

She slots her hips against Ann’s and straddles her leg, gasping when she feels Ann’s damp curls brush up against her thigh. 

“I can’t get enough of you.” She moans into the younger woman’s mouth, husking against her lips as she reaches down to the space between them, fingers seeking out the wet heat between Ann’s legs again. 

Ann lets out a gasp, eyes slamming shut when she makes contact with the tender bundle of nerves, oversensitive from the earlier stimulation. A fresh wave of arousal floods her hand as she massages the nub slowly, teasing her as she dips back down to her opening, then up again in an erratic pattern. 

Anne…” The younger woman grumbles lowly, squirming at her touch. Anne is shaking from arousal, legs trembling from the effort of holding still. She breathes hotly into Ann’s neck, desire shooting up her spine as she continues stroking through Ann’s soft wet folds.

Without warning, Ann bends her leg, bringing up her thigh to press against Anne’s core, groaning loudly when she feels how wet she is. The moment Ann’s leg presses against her center, her body jerks from the contact, causing her fingers to dip ever so slightly into Ann’s ready entrance. The cascade of sensations sends sparks of lights dancing behind her eyes. 

The relief from the contact is overwhelming, and she can’t hold back any longer. She starts rutting helplessly against Ann’s leg, taking her pleasure from the other woman with desperate thrusts.

Ann is moaning softly, holding her hips against her, guiding her to grind down onto her leg. She’s completely coated Ann’s skin with her own arousal now, the messy sliding and rubbing making a deliciously wet sound between their bodies. Ann’s nails dig into the flesh of her hipbones, and she feels the beginning of an uncurling in her belly. 

Her fingers have stilled between Ann’s legs, all intent to touch her temporarily forgotten as she’s overcome by the sensation of rubbing out a relief between her legs. But Ann cannot stand it anymore. It’s torture to not be taken by Anne Lister when she’s wild like this, hair loose, eyes shut, mouth open in ecstasy.

“Anne…” her voice is begging, frantic and trembling. “I need you inside. Please.” 

The request shoots down her spine and pulses in her core. Fuck—Yes! In one motion, she impales Ann with two fingers, delighting at how tight she feels at the intrusion. She muffles the sharp cry on Ann’s lips with her own, kissing her through heavy pants. 

She’s uncoordinated, not exact in her movements, but she manages to angle her thumb so that it’s pressing against Ann’s clit as she thrusts into her, feeling the stretch of the other woman, insides grasping at her fingers. Her own rapid movements against Ann’s thighs are becoming uneven, her release finally within reach. She knows it’s going to be over soon, so she bends down, capturing a nipple in her mouth and sucking on it gently in rhythm with her thrusts. This makes Ann moan loudly, “Oh God!” falling from her lips, her pants sounding like screams to her ears. She feels her walls start tightening around her, rippling against her fingers. The realization that Ann is going to come for the third time that night is what finally brings her over the edge. 

Bolts of pleasure shoot through her body as it spasms with her release. She reaches up and brings their lips together, but the words that she wants to cry out into Ann’s mouth choke and fall away before they can be formed. Everything that makes sense is simultaneously confounding—their bodies pressed against one another is the only thing that that feels real in that moment. She thinks she hears herself chant Ann’s name over and over again, but she can’t really be sure because Ann’s lips are also moving, crying out the same sound in unison. Through the haze of her climax, body thrumming with waves of pleasure, she feels Ann contract around her fingers in a delicious rhythm, her insides pulsating in time with her thrusts. They’re both lost to the sensation, neither one of them able to control the tremors shooting through their bodies. 

It feels like forever, but bit by bit, the room and all its sounds come back to her. There’s the rasp of Ann’s heavy breathing under her, the hum of the air conditioner in the vents above, even the quiet tick of her watch on her wrist next to her ear. She’s still moving inside Ann, slowly and gently, pulling out her pleasure for as long as she’s able. The rush she gets from finally getting her release starts clearing her mind, allowing her to feel the tendrils of something monumental pull at her reality—it’s something raw and achingly sensitive, but she can’t know its name yet.

Her focus finally sharpens enough to hear Ann whisper something next to her ear, voice shaking from effort, choking with vulnerability.

“I can’t believe I found you. I can’t believe you exist.”

Those words make the final fact of the night click into place, completely upending Ann’s world:

Number five: They can never go back to the way things were before—even if her head tries to forget, the heart has a memory of its own.

She knows it’s true, because just as vividly as she feels Ann’s body pressing into her own, she knows that somewhere inside of her, there’ll always be the person she is tonight. 

Chapter Text

Anne Lister feels like a raw nerve—like the world is now too vivid for her to bear. 

Her pupils contract almost painfully against the glow of the late morning sun as it filters through the sheer curtains of the hotel room, lighting up the white sheets on the bed. Even the sound of her breathing in the quiet room feels sharp, like it’s scraping away at her outer layers, exposing an inner core that’s too sensitive to her surroundings. 

Everything feels sore—her body from the physical activity, her mind from the events of the past few days. Small motes of dust lazily dance in the thin columns of light over the bed, a stark contrast to the frenzied and urgent activities of its occupants barely six hours ago. As she stands over the bed, half-packed suitcase spread across its surface, she momentarily loses her train of thought, her mind flashing to the events of the night before. 

Wild blonde hair—wide blue eyes—piercing cries muffled by the bedsheets.

The sudden reminder of the last two nights spent with Ann Walker makes her cheeks grow hot, her legs shaky, as she draws in a sharp breath. Even if it’s only been less than thirty-six hours since she chased down her student into that quiet bathroom, and marginally fewer hours since she received the message from Ann that changed her life, their two nights together seem to have somehow stretched time out, such that Anne can no longer really tell which day it is. 

Ann Walker has crashed into her world, stripped her of her defenses, and left her exposed and wanting, at the mercy of a relief that did not seem to be forthcoming. It’s not Ann’s fault—not really. During the long hours they spent together in this very room, the younger woman has proven to be an eager and voracious lover. For someone who appears so innocent and inexperienced, Ann Walker certainly has a sexual appetite to match, if not exceed, some of Anne’s most adventurous lovers. 

And therein lies the crux of the issue: Ann Walker keeps coming back for more. 

When Anne thinks that surely, finally, the younger woman must have had enough for the night, desire rears up in those crystal blue eyes, and her body somehow finds a way to reach the peak of pleasure again—and again, and again. 

While Anne admires how just a simple touch of her hand can ignite such a strong need in the younger woman, this was having the unfortunate effect of winding Anne up and leaving her unfulfilled. Anne would normally be perfectly satisfied with giving pleasure and not receiving—the act of bringing a woman to orgasm, of directing, precisely, how and when she’ll finally give them their release—has always been a potent drug to her system—has always been enough. But there’s something about her time with Ann Walker that seems to pull at something deep in her that she doesn’t recognize. Long hours spent pleasuring the other woman, coaxing her through climax after climax has left her painfully frustrated from a lack of a satisfying release. 

It made no sense to Anne. It never seemed enough—even when Anne gave in, unable to wait for Ann to be done for the night before giving herself what little release she can afford with her own fingers, or against Ann’s leg, or once, even sliding against the skin of Ann’s bare waist, coating her abdomen with sticky wetness, as her hands grasp, massage, and pinch at the soft flesh of her breasts—

Good Lord. The memory that particular position shoots through Anne’s mind, making the edges of her vision blur and her scalp tingle with tiny pinpricks of pleasure. Ann Walker has certainly taken root in her soul, making her vibrate with unspent need—an aching feeling coiling up in her, like an itch she cannot reach, cannot scratch.

Anne lets out a frustrated huff, shaking her head to clear her thoughts. Of all mornings to be distracted, to be behind schedule, this one is the worst. Tib, Sam, and Madeline are probably already waiting for her in the hotel lobby, anxious to start their three-hour drive to Bakersfield. Ann’s never-ending hunger to be touched took up the better part of their last night together, until by the time they both collapsed into a deep slumber, exhausted by their physical activities, the early dawn light was already filtering through the curtains. She chuckles to herself at what a mess she’s become since Ann came into her life. And yet, sleep deprivation seems like a small price to pay in exchange for hearing Ann’s delightfully shy, pleading voice last night, asking for “more, Anne—more fingers, please”.  

Smiling to herself, Anne bites her lip and files away that memory, promising herself to revisit it later when she’s alone tonight. 

She unceremoniously drops a piece of clothing into her suitcase and goes grab another, but pauses, distracted by a dash of black peeking out from under the bed, like an ink stain against the light beige of the carpet. Frowning, she bends down to pick up the black silk tie from the floor, breaking out into a bigger grin when she recalls the way Ann had practically melted from the act of untying the knot, and pulling her in for a hot kiss. 

A quiet knock on the door stops her from delving down another delicious memory of their first night together. She knows exactly who it is, and her heart skips a beat as she drops the tie onto the bed, eagerly moving through the room and flinging open the door.

The sight of Ann Walker—hair up in a messy bun, loose t-shirt and delightfully form fitting khaki shorts—does something to her. Her student’s sudden casual appearance contrasts with the sharp, formal lines of the clothes she has gotten used to seeing in the last two days, and the realization that she’s seeing another side of Ann Walker makes her breath catch in her throat. 

“Hi.” Ann’s voice is quiet, the corners of her mouth curling up in tension, like she’s trying to stop a huge smile from erupting on her face. 

“Hi,” Anne echoes back, smiling from ear to ear as their gazes meet. She quickly casts a glance down the hallway, eyes darting around to make sure they are alone, before she hooks her fingers through the belt loops of Ann’s khaki shorts and tugs her in toward her own hips, pressing their bodies together as she walks them back into the room.

The little giggle that comes from the younger woman scrapes again at that place in Anne that’s itching with need. They both stumble into the room, not willing to let go of one another, wide smile on their faces, speechless for a moment as they take each other in. 

Everything seems to stand still as they gravitate towards one another, hands to hands, eyes to eyes, souls almost touching.

Anne can feel the soft curves of the other woman through her thin t-shirt where they’re pressed against one another, breathing each other’s breath, neither one of them sure who will act first. Anne is the first to break the trance as she brings up her hand to cup Ann’s cheek and stroke her thumb over the soft skin of her face. The younger woman’s eyes cloud over in a blissful daze as she does this, and her smile falters. There’s a faint, barely audible moan as Ann breathes out, and Anne cannot help but stare longingly at the pink parted lips. 

Slowly, tenderly, Anne lowers her lips to the other woman’s, savoring the way Ann’s chest starts rising and falling rapidly the closer she gets to making contact. Finally, after lingering for a moment too long in the inch between, Anne closes the gap, exhaling loudly as their lips connect. It’s been barely six hours since they last kissed, but somehow, Ann’s lips still feel like sweet relief against her own. 

Eventually, after they start pressing harder against one another, after Ann has started releasing soft little gasps into her mouth as she nibbles against her bottom lip, Anne pulls away, breath coming out short and cheeks flushed from their kiss. 

She leans her forehead against Ann’s and murmurs against her lips, the crinkle of her smile making its way to her eyes. “I’ve got to pack—I don’t want to be late.”

The little whine that Ann lets out while gripping her arms tighter almost destroys her. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to tear herself away from Ann and to turn around and face the open suitcase on the bed. She chuckles to herself as she picks up the black silk tie and neatly folds it into an open space between two piles of clothes.

She feels Ann’s body heat on her back as she hovers behind her to catch a glimpse of what she’s doing. There’s a soft “Oh” when she realizes what’s so amusing, and when Anne turns around, the younger woman is already blushing red, tucking her chin into her chest bashfully. 

Anne reaches forward and lifts her chin up with a finger, making Ann look her in the eye. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispers, her soft smile carrying a tenderness that cannot be put into words.

“Mm.” Ann is still sheepish, but she returns her smile. “I’ll miss you too. Disneyland won’t be quite as fun without you, even if Harriett and Catherine will be there.” 

“Hah!” Anne rolls her eyes and moves away, turning back to continue gathering the clothes strewn about the bed. “Have fun with them.” 

“What?” Ann’s tone is accusing, detecting the sharp edge of sarcasm in her advisor’s voice. 

“No, nothing—” Anne shrugs, busying herself with folding her clothes into neat little piles. 

“Anne.” Her tone hardens, insisting—a perfect contrast to her usually soft demeanor.  

Anne doesn’t meet her eyes, hands still active with the task of packing. “I don’t know. I’m just surprised that you and Harriett and Catherine are suddenly so close.”

“We’re not so close—what wrong with Harriett and Catherine?” Ann leans forward, trying to catch Anne’s eyes as she focuses intently on stuffing a sock between a tight space.  

“Nothing!” Anne’s voice rises defensively, shrugging again and not meeting her eyes. “They’re just…”

“What, Anne?” She’s crossing her arms, giving her a withering look. It’s the first time she’s made any friends who are actual grad students—people who she can talk to and who can relate to all the same struggles, and she doesn’t appreciate Anne’s glib attitude about her new friends.

Anne turns around fully, giving her a teasing look. “Come on, Ann… Harriett’s so…” She trails off, unable to complete her sentence when she sees the stern look Ann is giving her. 

At least she’s trying to, because the corners of her mouth are quirking up with amusement, her left eye twitching from the effort of holding it in. With a loud breath, she finally breaks out into a wide smile, words rushing out in laugh. “I know, Harriett’s such a gossip, and Catherine just loves hearing herself talk.”  

“Exactly.” Anne quirks up her eyebrow. “But. I get it. Grad school is tough.” She turns back around to continue the packing, shoulders straining with the effort of pressing down on a pile of clothes. “It’s nice to have people to talk to about these things.” Her voice is laced with nostalgia. She’s not sure where she would be today if she didn’t have Tib to vent to during all those excruciating years in grad school. 

Ann gives her a watery look, tilting her head to the side. It’s the same look that Anne recognizes now whenever her student starts wondering about her past. Faintly, Ann speaks, a note of sadness in her voice. “I wish you weren’t leaving… I wish I could spend the rest of the day with you.”

Anne lets out a big breath, and turns around, reaching out to caress Ann’s cheek. “I’d like nothing more than to spend the day with you…” Her fingers trail a line down to her jaw before she pulls away.

“Mm…” Ann smiles, eyes fluttering shut from the sweet gesture. 

“But I need to get to Bakersfield...” Anne’s voice is low and scratchy when she turns back to the suitcase. “…I don’t really have a choice.” 

“I know.” The younger woman sighs, as she wraps her arms around Anne from behind. “It’s not like you’d actually be able to join us at Disneyland anyway.”

“No—” Anne frowns, shaken by the thought, but the way Ann is leaning into her, breathing hotly against her neck as her hands grasp at the fabric of her jacket makes her heart skip a beat.

“—I mean, you know. It’s not—” 

“No.” Anne’s frown deepens, and she pauses over the clothes. Something uncomfortable turns and coils inside of her as the impossibility of being together in public looms over them again. Even if they could pull off a casual outing between student and advisor, the fact that Harriett and Catherine will be there made that a really, really terrible idea. Despite the two nights spent in a hazy tangle of pleasure, they can feel the sting of reality quickly approaching, threatening to split apart the safe little bubble that they’d tried to trap themselves in.

Anne knows that she’ll have to deal with the real world sooner or later, but right now, she doesn’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t want the dreamy look on Ann’s face to disappear, or the small smile on her lips to fade. And Goddamnit, she doesn’t want Ann to stop playing with the lapels of her jacket with her fingers. 

Throwing a cheeky smile over her shoulder, Anne’s voice is low and teasing. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to go to Disneyland anyway.” 

“What!” Ann gives her a look of mock horror as she pulls away. “Why not??” 

“I don’t know.” Anne is coy, shrugging as she scans the suitcase on her bed, satisfied with the arrangement of its contents. Leaning over to close the lid, she grunts out in response. “I just don’t.”

There’s laughter in Ann’s voice, but also a deep undertone of mischief. “Are you afraid, Dr. Lister?” 

Anne scoffs, shaking her head. “What would I even be afraid of?” She’s focused on closing the suitcase, pressing down at the lid with one hand.

There’s a rustle of some plastic, the movement of air behind her, and then there’s suddenly something being snapped on top of her head without warning.

Wha—!” Anne whirls around, hands flying up to tight band on her head, identifying them as those blasted Micky Mouse ears that everyone’s been wearing about town. Before Anne can whip the offending object off her head, Ann has her hands on her wrists, gripping them tightly and pulling them down to her sides.

“If you have nothing to be afraid of…” Ann’s eyes burn into her own, the younger woman’s sudden dominance igniting the fire within her. “…don’t take it off, Dr. Lister.”

The way Ann says her name makes her want to throw the other woman down on the bed and forget about packing. But the challenge in the younger woman’s eyes also feeds her defiance, and Anne Lister does not easily accept defeat. 

“Fine.” She casts a look of nonchalance on her face, turning back around to continue zipping up her suitcase. “I’m fine. I’m not afraid.” She shrugs and makes a show of lifting up her heavy luggage and heaving it to the floor. Proud of her work, she turns back around to face Ann, hands on hips, one eyebrow up, and a comically suave look on her face. 

But before she can react, there’s the sound of the camera shutter, and Ann is giggling gleefully at the photo she’s just taken of her advisor in Mickey Mouse ears, striking a ridiculous pose. 

Anne’s eyes grow wide as she realizes what’s just happened. “No! You didn’t!” 

Her student shrieks as Anne lunges for the phone in her hand. The ensuing struggle is a blur of arms, hands grabbing on to shoulders, and bodies clashing into one another. Soon they’re falling back on the bed, Anne pulling the younger woman on top of her, both laughing uncontrollably from the scuffle. 

Anne is still angling for her students’ phone, but she’s trapped by Ann’s legs straddling her, the phone held just out of reach towards the ceiling. In an effort to grab the device and delete the illicit photo once and for all, Anne arches her body off the bed, twisting this way and that to gain the upper hand. This has the unintended effect of pressing the length of her body against Ann’s soft curves, eliciting a sudden and unexpected moan from the younger woman. 

Anne pauses her movement under her and searches her eyes, breathing deeply from their struggle.

Ann is biting her lip, grin still on her face from teasing her advisor. But now, there’s a dark look blooming in her and its making her look down at Anne with barely concealed hunger. Anne cannot resist the way she’s looking at her, so she leans up on her elbows and kisses her soundly on the lips, lightly bucking her hips upwards in the process. She can feel the familiar burn of longing begin low in her belly, and there’s a voice in her head screaming at her to end this now before they start something she doesn’t have the time for. The voice almost wins, but her resolve falls apart from what Ann does next. 

Pulling back from their heavy kiss and dropping the phone somewhere beside her head, she puts both of her hands on Anne’s shoulders and presses down, pinning her onto the mattress. Then, very gradually, she moves her hips back and thrusts them right into Anne’s—slowly, but firmly.

Even through the layers of their clothing, the delicious pressure against her center has Ann throwing her head back and breathing out a loud moan into the room. The sound is pure ecstasy, and it races across Anne’s skin in delicious waves, like a fire that’s hot and cold at the same time.

“Ann…” her voice is low, carrying with it a warning that they don’t have time for this. But her hands are gripping Ann’s hips, pressing her down into her body as she rocks against the rough seam of her shorts. Anne can feel how hot the other woman is through their clothes, and she can’t believe that Ann is ready to go again after the long night they had.

“You’re insatiable, you know that?” Anne is grinning up at her, desire clouding over her eyes at the way Ann is slowly, deliberately, grinding down into her hips. 

A muffled “mhmm” makes its way out of her lips between breaths, but she’s not looking at her. Her eyes are screwed shut, bottom lip between her teeth, chest rising and falling rapidly. The woman is completely lost to the sensation of rubbing herself against Anne Lister, and she’s taking her time drawing out her pleasure, savoring the friction.

One particularly sharp thrust up against Ann’s center has the younger woman crying out into the room, fingers digging deeper into her shoulders, mouth falling open from the sensation. 

Anne decides she’s had enough of this slow torture. Feeling time rapidly slipping away from them, she franticly starts undoing the button of her shorts and pulling the zipper down forcefully. The urgency of her actions makes Ann gasp, her body trembling from the anticipation of being touched again. 

Quickly slipping her arm between their bodies, Anne works her hand through the opening of the zipper, angling into the small space between her underwear and the stiff material of her shorts. It’s a tight squeeze, but Anne manages to press her fingers up against Ann’s center, feeling how hot and damp the woman already is through her underwear. 

The muted pressure through the soft cotton makes Ann fall forward into Anne, leaning her forehead against the crook of Anne’s neck and whimpering into her skin. 

Anne crooks her fingers upward, trying to give the younger woman enough pleasure through the fabric, but she doesn’t need to work very hard. Something explodes in Ann, and she’s suddenly moving fast against hand, breath increasing in frequency by her ear, small whines falling from her lips. Her hips are grinding down helplessly onto her fingers, wetness spilling out of her and soaking through the thin fabric of her underwear. There’s something about the frantic way that Ann is riding her hand and clutching on to her shoulders—like her life depends on it—that makes Anne feel like the moment lives in a dream she’s never had before, but cannot let go of now. 

Anne grits her teeth against the burning of tears in the corner of her eyes, and her free hand flies up to tangle in the blonde tresses now coming lose from its hold. Even amidst the urgent rutting, grinding, and moaning, she knows the other woman feels it too—it’s the same thing that burns through her core, blazing up into her chest and making everything else melt away. She buries her nose into Ann’s wild locks, hair-tie coming loose, spilling her golden mane across her face. The words she wants to say are ripped out from her throat; voice rough with the strain of holding it in.

“God, I’m crazy about you, Ann.”

There’s a puff of hot air against her neck, and a high-pitched whimper against her ear, and then Ann is falling apart, tumbling over the edge as her hips move erratically against her fingers. Between the loud moans against her skin, she hears the other woman gasp her name, voice shaking with emotion, almost like she can’t believe that she’s right there, that she’s real. 

Not wanting to be apart a moment longer, Anne pulls her lips back to her own, whispering into her mouth before they connect. “Come here, baby.” 

They kiss, even though it’s mostly hard breaths and quick gasps, Ann working her way through the end of her orgasm while she clings on to Anne’s shoulders with shaky hands. 

When the tremors die down, and she can open her eyes again, there’s a look of pure wonder on Ann’s face. She smiles down at Anne, pulling her hand out from her shorts and kissing her again languidly. A small giggle erupts from her chest when she sees the dark band still perched on top of Anne’s head, slightly skewed from all the activity, but still in perfect condition. 

Realizing where Ann’s gaze has trailed off to, Anne growls out in annoyance and rips the ridiculous ears from her head, throwing it off the side of the bed where it lands on her suitcase. “So that’s what does it for you, hm?” 

Blushing and looking down, Ann bites her lip. “Maybe.” The way she looks up at her through her lashes makes the fire in her roar up again, and suddenly, the they’re wearing too many clothes, and it doesn’t matter that she’s going to be very, very late. She needs to feel Ann against her skin or she’ll go crazy from how much she wants her.

Ann recognizes the look in her eyes, because her fingers fly to the button on her pants, fumbling with the metal buckle of her belt, the flurry of activity between their bodies the only thing that matters right now. Anne is shaking from the anticipation of finally being touched by Ann, her body practically screaming out for the other woman in a desperate attempt to soothe the uncontrollable need that’s been building over the last two nights. 

Just as Ann’s delicate fingers manage to work the button lose from its hole, just as she thinks this heat between her legs might be sated, there’s a loud ding sounding from her phone as it roughly vibrates against the nightstand. The sound is so jarring against the wood that it makes them stop.

“Oh.” Ann’s fingers pause against the sliver of skin now revealed at her hip, looking up at her uncertainly. 

There’s a moment that passes between them as Anne briefly contemplates blowing everything off—throwing herself recklessly into the temptation. But there’s still reason left in her muddled brain. 

The groan that Anne makes as she finally comes to her decision is so loud, so tortured, that it would be funny if she wasn’t so desperate in that moment. “I should really get going.” She huffs and sinks back into the bed, running her hands over her face. She feels Ann deflate against her body, disappointment palpable in the little sigh that she exhales. 

Holding Ann close, she sits up quickly with an ‘oof’, cradling the other woman now sitting in her lap as she reaches for her phone on the nightstand. Ann circles her arms around her neck and starts to nuzzle her cheek as she reads the message:

Tib: Where the fuck are you? Get down to the lobby now, Lister!

Anne groans as she throws the phone down on the bed, motioning for Ann to get up. “It’s Tib. She’s already downstairs.”

Trying to hide her disappointment, Ann crawls off her lap, standing at the foot of the bed and straightening her clothes. She runs her hands through her messy hair before pulling it all back into a ponytail that barely keeps the blonde locks out of her face. 

Anne tries to do the same as she stands, buttoning her pants and buckling her belt before she catches her reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. It takes her a moment to realize why her image is so unfamiliar: there’s a huge smile on her face, reaching up into her eyes, making her glow with an unfamiliar warmth. 

Tearing her eyes away from her reflection, she grabs the handle of her suitcase, chuckling to herself she tucks the ridiculous ears into a side pocket. She looks back at Ann who’s now reaching across the bed, bending down and gathering all her belongings strewn about the room. “Ready?” 

“Yep.” Ann follows her out of the room, face cast down with a coy smile on her lips. It’s difficult to leave behind everything they’ve created in that space, and she feels the precious memories follow them out into the hallway, like a cocoon safely wrapping around their feelings for one another. 

They’re quiet as they get into the elevators. No words are said, because they are not needed. They both feel the gravity of how much their time at this conference has changed them, and how much has passed between them in two short days. This realization grows as the elevator lurches, starting its decent downwards. To Anne, there’s a strange familiarity about the situation, almost like she’s reliving the fateful night in reverse. 

She thinks she may dissolve away into nothing when she hears the little sigh that Ann makes as she leans against the wall across from her, eyes twinkling with the secret they’re leaving behind on the fourteenth floor. 

Anne can’t help but let out a quiet laugh at how enamored she is by sweet little Ann Walker. Everything she does—from the way her chest rises and falls under her soft shirt, to the way her eyes reflect the soft points of light in the elevator—works its way somewhere deep inside, making joy bubble out uncontrollably. Hearing her laugh, Ann’s face splits into a smile as well, a quiet giggle spilling out into the small space. Even if they wanted to, they cannot help it. Their hearts are too full for their lips to contain their joy, their souls too free for their mouths to hold back their laughter.

They’re both still silently shaking with amusement when the elevator doors slide open, revealing the bustle of the hotel lobby. Stepping out into the big space filled with sounds of other people feels like surfacing from a long dive—it’s a painful awakening, a shock to the system. It’s incredibly difficult for them to tear their eyes away from one another as they approach Tib, but they eventually do, trying to wear somber expressions and failing miserably. 

“There you are, Anne!” Tib has sunglasses perched on her bright red hair, eyes sunken from late nights spent at the bar, and she’s wearing an exasperated expression on her face. 

“Hi, Tib.” Anne’s voice is low, but her lips are still curled up into a secret smile as she looks around for her other colleagues. “Would you relax? Sam and Madeline are not even here yet.”

Tib lets out a huge sigh. “I know. Thank God for that. I cannot be alone with Madeline. That woman drives me insane with how fucking cheerful she has to be all the time.” 

Ann’s light giggle at the sentiment makes Tib pause and look at her. It takes her a moment, but her eyes widen when she takes in the huge smiles on both their faces. The intense energy passing between the both of them is undeniable. 

Tib’s eyes crinkle up in delight, mouth dropping open with the shock of the realization. “Well done, Anne!” Her fist slams painfully into Anne’s shoulder as she roars out in laughter. 

Anne can’t help but break out into a smile, but she leans in, grabbing Tib’s wrist and stilling her hand as she speaks in hushed tones. “Shhh!!! Not here, Tib!” 

“Oh, Good Lord!” Tib is reeling from the recent development, not keeping her voice down. “I am the least of your problems, alright?”

“What do you mean?” Anne slides a look over to her student, spotting the bashful smile on her red face as her eyes dart about the lobby, uncomfortable with the attention. 

Tib snorts out a laugh, indelicate and brash as usual. “Just look at you two! Are you even trying to hide it?”

“Oh!” Ann flushes an even deeper shade of red if it were possible, hands flying up to cover her mouth in astonishment.

“Tib-“ Anne whispers sharply at the other woman, but Tib is shaking her head at the both of them.

“You are going to need to be a hell of a lot better at hiding it. You two look like you’ve just been thoroughly fucked—" 

Let’s not do this here!” Anne practically clamps her hand over Tib’s mouth, eyes flashing with warning. 

“Okay, okay!” Tib sighs heavily as she wrenches herself out of Anne’s grip.

Ann is completely mortified, eyes glued to the ground. Anne can already see the cogs turning in her head, the tendrils of fear creeping up and leaving her shaken at how easily they were called out by Tib. 

Not wanting to dwell on it any longer, Anne turns back to Tib, changing the subject. “Did you have a good conference, Tib?” 

“Ah! Well—” Tib shrugs. “I suppose. I’m glad it’s over. It’s always such a three-ring circus—so many people under one roof.” 

“Hm. True.” Anne’s eyes dart to the side, anxious to know how her student is doing. “Glad to be off to UCB.” 

“It’s been years since you’ve been back there, hasn’t it, Anne?” Tib’s eyes follow Anne’s gaze, landing on Ann who’s now fidgeting with hem of her shirt and trying to look casually around the lobby.

Anne lets out huff as she mutters lowly under her breath. “Thank God for that.” 

Tib glances back at Anne, the change in her tone catching her attention. Then, like a switch turning on, recognition lights up on her face. “Oh right!” She claps Anne roughly on her back, grinning widely at her old friend.

“I totally forgot about Miss Barlow!” She guffaws loudly, drawing an inquisitive look from Ann. 

Anne grinds out a heavy groan at her friend’s reaction, hand flying up to massage her temples, soothing a migraine that’s steadily building behind her eyes. Tib continues, oblivious to Anne’s suffering.

“Maria Fucking Barlow—now that’s one wild woman! What a riot!”

“Maria Barlow?” Ann frowns slightly as she chimes in, the name sounding so familiar. Then, recognition flashes on her face as she turns to her advisor. “Isn’t that the name of the artist who did that painting in your office, Anne?” 

“What—!” Tib sputters out, eyes wide as she looks at Anne in disbelief. 

“Yes, she is!” Ann continues, a fond smile on her face as she recalls the memory. “I’ve always loved that piece. It’s so beautiful, so raw! I never knew what it was supposed to be of, but I suppose abstract art can be like that.”

Tib is shaking with laughter now, leaning on Anne’s shoulder to hold herself up. “Jesus, Anne! You have that painting in your office??” 

Anne is trying her hardest to look away, to look stoic, but there’s a twitch at the corner of her mouth that betrays her emotions. She bites her lip to keep from breaking out into a grin.

“Why? What’s wrong with that painting?” Ann’s curiosity about the painting, and its artist, are mounting. 

“Ann. Darling.” Tib leans in, a wicked look on her face, loving every second of it. “It’s an intimate painting…” she pointedly looks downward, trying to hint at the meaning. “Of a very womanly part of the body.”

Ann is silent as her eyes get unfocused, flickering as she processes the information. Her mind flashes back to the painting, visually picturing it hanging up in her advisor’s office, trying to wrap her mind around Tib’s words. 

Then, her eyes go wide and her cheeks grow hot as she makes the connection, finally seeing the resemblance in her mind’s eye. “Oh-! That’s-!” 

Tib roars with laughter as the realization finally slams into innocent little Miss Walker. “Oh, you’ve gone red! I can’t believe Anne has it up in her office!”

Ann is shaking her head, still not believing, but there’s a gleeful look on her face from uncovering the secret. “That’s not true!” 

“Of course, it’s true!” Tib leans back, glancing at her friend who’s still biting her lip, trying to restrain her laughter. “I was there when it was given to our darling Anne. Maria doesn’t do anything by accident. Certainly not when it comes to her lovers!”

The moment the words leave her mouth, Anne’s stomach drops. 

“What?” Ann’s voice is so faint, so light, barely a whisper. 

Anne’s head is pounding now, a large vein popping on her forehead. “Now, Tib, there’s no need to—" 

“You—and Maria—you’re—?" The look on Ann’s face is so pained, like she’s seen a ghost, and she immediately regrets ever hanging up the painting in her office. This is not the way she imagined Ann finding out about her complicated on-and-off-again relationship with Maria.

“Well, we’re not—"

Tib sees the effect the information has on the younger woman and steps in. “Oh, don’t worry about Maria. It’s not Anne’s fault. No one can resist her. That woman is pure sex.”

“What!” The look of horror on Ann’s face grows. There’s a stricken look on her advisor’s face that does not comfort her.

Tib keeps talking, trying to ease the tension. “Really, it’s nothing serious. You should be thankful—she taught our Anne here a lot about the way around a woman’s body.” She winks at Ann as she finishes, trying to lighten the mood, but if anything, her words have made things worse. 

Anne’s head is pounding painfully now, migraine in full swing. She opens her mouth to say something—anything—to ease Ann’s worries, but Tib’s still speaking.

“Honestly, Maria is the least of your worries. From what I’ve heard, a Sophie Ferrall has been sniffing around Anne lately, and she’s one I’d look out for at UCB.” 

Anne?!?” Her voice is frantic, reaching into its highest registers, not realizing up to this very moment that of course Sophie Ferrall would be there with the rest of the UCB faculty. Of all the ways for this conversation to go, this is probably the worst. 

“Tib, that’s enough!” Anne snaps sharply, guiding Ann by the elbow and turning them away from Tib. She bends her knees to get eye-level with Ann, trying to communicate tenderness in her smile. “Maria Barlow doesn’t mean anything to me. That’s all in the past.” 

She can see that her words are doing very little to ease the worry from Ann’s face. She takes a deep breath, explanation already on her tongue, but she’s interrupted by the sound of her name being called across the hotel lobby.

She grits her teeth at the disruption but pulls away from Ann, trying to remain neutral in her expression. “Sam! Madeline! Good of you to join us!”

Behind them, she can hear Tib darkly muttering “Finally” under her breath.

The two other faculty approach their group, completely oblivious to the heat of the interaction between them just moments ago. 

“Miss Walker!” Madeline is beaming at her as usual, thrilled at her unexpected appearance. “What a pleasant surprise! What are you doing here? Not coming Dr. Holt’s PI-meeting, are you?” 

“PI… meeting?” Ann puzzles, frowning slightly, unable to snap herself out of her troubled daze.

“Yes, oh, Principal Investigator’s meeting.” Madeline grasps her elbows, in an affectionate embrace. 

Sam grumbles behind her. “Oh, the joys of federally funded research.”

“Hello again, Dr. Washington!” Her student is trying to be cheerful, but Anne can tell that she’s barely holding it together, a look of panic still in her eyes.

“Well? Shall we, my friends?” Madeline is looking around, grabbing her suitcases and heading for the entrance. “I can’t wait to be back in Bakersfield.”

Anne shoots back a look at her student, standing stiffly with a haunted look on her face. The rest of the faculty are slowly making their way out of the glass doors, but she tears herself away from the group to approach Ann, sticking her hands in her pockets and trying to appear casual. 

“Ann…” She breathes out softly when they’re within arm’s reach, trying to communicate a fondness that she cannot speak out loud. She searches her student’s eyes, heart breaking a little at the hurt in them. She can see that the other woman has so much she wants to ask, but her eyes flit to something over her shoulder, and Anne glances back, catching sight of Sam giving them a watchful look from the other side of the glass doors.

Turning back, Anne pauses, looking down the length of the other woman’s body fondly, a sharp twinge shooting through her at the prospect of spending the next three days apart. It feels like they should kiss—like they should do something more in parting, but the lobby feels painfully public, and they feel painfully exposed. 

Two deep breaths pass before Anne whispers out “Come here” in the space between. Their eyes meet, and the familiarity of the words flash across their eyes, sparking their need to be in contact with one another. Their bodies collide roughly as they crash into a tight hug, arms grasping hard at one another’s shoulders desperately.  

It’s risky, but Anne can’t help herself when she angles her face towards the other woman’s neck, speaking quietly into her skin. “Don’t worry, baby.” Her breath blows hot against her ear. “I won’t forget about you.”

Ann almost sobs against her ear, and Anne holds the woman even tighter against her body, trying to press any form of reassurance into her. “I’ll see you back in Ames.” 

It feels painful to pull apart, almost like the skin is being ripped off her body, but eventually they do, and they step back from one another, eyes glimmering with passion. 

With one last sad smile, Anne turns to leave, grabbing her suitcase and letting out a deep breath. After she makes it through the door, she turns around to give Ann one last look, but she sees Harriett Parkhill and Catherine Rawson make an appearance, stealing the attention of her student away from her. They’re talking animatedly, and Ann’s face is splitting into a big smile, excitement gracing her features as the other girls burst into laughter at something she says. Anne watches the silent interaction through the glass, feeling farther away from Ann Walker than she’s felt in a long time.

She senses Sam’s presence behind her, and she gives him an apologetic look, grabbing the handle of her suitcase again, and moving towards the rest of the group as they wait for the valet to bring Madeline’s car to the curb. But before she can move off, he walks up to the glass and joins her, a far off look on his face. 

 “You know—it’s never easy.” He’s speaking quietly, an unexpected sorrow creeping into his voice. 

Anne turns to look at him, but his eyes are trained on the three students gathered in the lobby. 

“We faculty have complicated relationships with our graduate students. On the one hand, we’re supposed to let them grow, to learn from their failures, and come into their own.” 

Ann is now leaning over Catherine’s shoulder, pointing at something on her phone while Harriett huffs and stares at the ceiling with impatience.

Sam continues, never taking his eyes off them. “But no matter what, we still care so much about them. We want them to avoid the mistakes we made—we want them to be better than we ourselves could possibly hope to be.” 

Anne watches as her student studies the phone screen intently, scrolling through something and frowning in concentration. Golden tendrils fall into her eyes, and she quickly brushes them away with the back of her hand, eyes never leaving the screen as she takes in the information. 

Ann Walker is equal parts soft femininity and sheer brilliance. 

Her heart pounds in her chest as she recognizes this truth, and she lifts her hand up to the glass, pressing against it like she could reach into the space and touch her.

“It’s easy to get too involved—to care too much.” Sam sighs, finally turning to look at her. “The trick is, Anne, that it’s all about trust. We need to trust them to make the right choices, and they need to trust us to do what’s best for them, no matter how difficult it may be, or what distractions come along.”

Anne lets out a shaky breath, the truth of his words striking something deep in her. She realizes now that Sam can’t know the extent of her relationship with Ann, but there’s something about what he’s saying that feels oddly resonant—like he’s spoken the words she needs to hear in this moment. 

Before she can fall further into her thoughts, Madeline is calling out at them, her car finally pulling up to the curb. Giving Ann one last look through the glass, she turns around and follows Sam to the car. Then, they’re loading their bags into the trunk, and she’s piling into the back with Tib, slumping into the seat from exhaustion. 

There’s a moment when she looks back up through the window, fully expecting to see the woman who has taken over her thoughts and worked her way into her dreams. 

But the space where they stood just a minute ago is now empty, and like the heat of their last two nights together, Ann Walker is now gone, leaving an unbearable ache in her chest.

Chapter Text

It’s been exactly 8 hours and 42 minutes since she last saw Ann Walker through the glass windows of the hotel lobby, and this fact is driving Anne absolutely insane. The whole situation would be ridiculous—laughable, really—if it weren’t for the fact that her heart pounded in her chest every time her phone vibrated in her pocket, every time she saw Ann Walker’s name flash on the screen, every time she got anything—any scrap of words from the younger woman. 

She knows that the way she was holding on for dear life to the little device buzzing intermittently in her hands is driving Tib insane. Sitting next to her, Anne can feel the other woman’s eyes on her, even as she tries to look like she’s listening to James Holt go on about another one of the ridiculous faculty search committees he’s been on. Anne knows her friend is not used to the sheer amount of time she’s spending with her face buried in her phone, and frankly, she’s surprising herself with how little she cares.

Such is the situation that the two friends find themselves in that night, in Madeline Blücher’s house for a “small gathering of like-minded folks” following the first day of the workshop. Most of the usual cognitive science faculty attending the workshop are already in attendance, with the notable exception of one Dr. Sophie Ferrall, which Anne is particularly grateful for, seeing as how the added distraction would probably make her fall completely apart at this point. The spacious house on the outskirts of the University of California-Bakersfield campus is heating up with the temperature of a few dozen bodies, and the low buzz of quiet conversation from earlier in the evening has been steadily rising to a constant drone of voices that is making it difficult for Anne to really concentrate on her thoughts, whirling around as they are from the largely one-sided conversation she is currently having with Ann over text messages.

She can feel Tib shift in agitation next to her since she is supposed to be keeping her company, supposed to be acting as a buffer between the overly showy displays of academic fortitude from faculty members overcompensating for one insecurity or another. It’s bad enough that Tib has to endure another social event with people she barely knows, but it truly is torture to sit through yet another of James Holt’s stories about ridiculous faculty candidate dinners. Just as James is about to launch into another animated retelling of this one time a candidate practically rearranged the restaurant furniture during a dinner interview, he’s called into the other room by another faculty member who’s just arrived. Tib leans back on the couch with a huff, thankful for the reprieve, and glances back over at Anne, still trying to hide the small smile on her face, eyes glued to her phone.  

“Anne, you need to save me from another one of James’ stories. Anne—" Tib tries to lean over to glance at her phone, but Anne pulls away, thumbs typing furiously on the screen. 

 “Anne—” Tib’s voice is harsh as she tries to draw her attention, but Anne is staring at the last message from Ann, blinking rapidly as she processes what the girl could possibly mean by her words:

Ann: Having fun. But probably not as much as you.

Anne shakes her head as she stares as the message. Not as much as you? What was Ann Walker even getting at?

“Anne, are you even listening??” Tib is craning her neck from where she’s sitting next to Anne on the long couch, feet up on the coffee table, trying to catch a look at her phone screen.

Anne angles away from her prying eyes, still starting at the screen, formulating what to type out next. It’s an awkward position, but Anne manages to reach across and tap out her quick response before Tib has a chance to catch a glimpse of the phone.

Anne: Things are dead here. I’d rather be with you. Tell me how your day was?

The message sends with a telltale swoosh and Anne deflates back in her seat and gives Tib a look of nonchalance. “What?” She shrugs, as if she has been listening all along.

“Anne!” Tib huffs, incredulous at her behavior. “You’ve been glued to your phone this whole evening! Who are you even talking to?” 

“No one!” Anne’s eyes are wide, feigning innocence—at least until her phone vibrates again, and her eyes slide over to look at the device, unable to keep herself from reading the incoming message lighting up the screen:

Ann: Oh, it was alright. 

What? Anne thinks the thought so loudly that the word actually spills out of her mouth.

“What?” Tib is confused, thrown by Anne’s sudden outburst. She leans into Anne, trying to catch her eye, but Anne is too distracted, confused by Ann’s strangely short and distant messages. Before she can stop herself, she’s already typing away on her phone furiously, still trying to angle the screen away from Tib:

Anne: What do you mean it was alright? You’ve been dying to go to Disneyland this whole time! Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy the rides, the sights, seeing all the characters??

The little bubble animates across the screen, indicating that Ann is typing out her response, but then it disappears for long moments, and Anne waits with bated breath. 

Then, after a long pause, Ann sends a short response:

Ann: There’s only one character I wanted to see though.

And then before she can respond, there’s an image sliding into her inbox, and the photo makes her take a sharp breath in, eyes growing wide. 

Tib senses her sudden change in demeanor and subtle stiffening of her body where she’s leaned up against her and takes the opportunity to deftly snatch the phone out of her grasp to look at the photo that Ann Walker just sent. When she recognizes the subject of the photo, it’s her turn for her eyes to grow wide, and she lets out a sharp laugh into the room, enough to attract the curious gaze of a few other guests.

It’s not the sharpest of images, and the lighting from the big windows in the hotel room wash out the color of the photo, but the contents of the image are as clear as day: It’s Anne Lister, wearing Mickey Mouse ears, striking a ridiculous pose.

“Oh my fucking God, Anne!” Tib is grinning from ear to ear, holding the phone out of Anne’s reach, as she studies the screen, not believing her eyes. 

“Tib—Give it back!” Anne is struggling to reach for the device, grabbing at Tib’s arms in vain. 

Tib is laughing uncontrollably now, tears glistening in her eyes. “Who even is the woman in this picture??” 

Anne finally manages to snatch back the device and shoves it back in her pocket while glaring at Tib. “It’s nothing! It was just a ridiculous—”

“Oh, I know exactly what that is!” Tib leans forward to grab Anne by the chin, but she rips her face away roughly, eyes still hard and irritated at her friend. “You’re completely whipped, Anne! This girl has you wrapped around her fingers so tight, it’s almost pathetic!” 

“Stop it, Tib.” Anne growls out, crossing her arms across her chest and glaring out at the room and trying to drop the subject. 

“Oh, don’t be like that.” Tib fondly bumps her shoulder with her own before turning serious. “I like seeing you like this.” 

Anne glances over to where Tib is sitting, unable to hold back the sudden vulnerability in her eyes. “What do you mean?” 

A teasing smile is now pulling on her lips, but there’s also something beneath the surface of Tib’s eyes that makes Anne pause and look harder at her friend. Tib glances about the room at the other occupants clustered around in small circles of conversation. Except for Sam chatting away with two other newer faculty in the corner, none of the other guests are paying them any attention. Tib leans in ever so slightly, voice low and warm, making them feel like they’re enjoying their own little bubble of privacy on the couch.

“You look happy, Anne. In the photo, and right now. It reminds me of your early days. Back before things started getting so messed up with Mariana. Before Charles, before she found out about Maria, back before you became this hard, shell of a woman.”

Tib’s words cut at something painful in Anne, and she opens her mouth, stinging remark already cued on her tongue, but Tib reaches across the space and grasps her upper arm firmly, the gesture grounding her to the moment. She closes her mouth with a snap, sharp words dying on her tongue.

Anne lets out a huge sigh and deflates against the back of the couch. “Yes, but…” Anne’s eyes fly down to her hands, fingers fidgeting and rubbing against one another. “What if my days of… all that… are over? It’s been twenty-years, Tib. I couldn’t keep myself from fucking up then, what makes you think I wouldn’t do the same again?”

Tib leans in even closer, eyes wide, words hard. “You listen to me, Anne Lister. You made mistakes. But so did Mariana. You two just keep hurting one another in your own twisted little ways. It’s how you two have always been.” 

Anne looks up to study her friend, eyes darting back and forth while she turns the thoughts over in her head. She knows there’s truth to Tib’s words, but the thought of starting over again with someone else, of trying to break past habits, terrifies her. Everything has been electric, and hot, and explosive between the two of them so far, but now that she’s confronted with what she actually wants them to be moving forward, the fear is paralyzing. 

“What if I’m not ready for all that again?” 

A moment of contemplation stretches out between the two women. Tib appears to be lost in thought, eyes far away in a memory.

“Do you remember the time, in grad school, when the four of us went to that place—with the cabin in the woods—and those waterfalls--?” Tib snaps her fingers, struggling to recall the name.

“Rickett’s Glenn,” Anne sighs out. 

“Yes, right!” Tib claps her hands together. “You and Mariana were barely dating for a month at that point, and I was just fucking around with Claire back then.” 

Anne lets out a low chuckle, small smile tugging at her lips. “Hah. Right. I remember that.”

“You two were so sweet for each other, it was fucking disgusting, do you remember?” Tib pokes her side, sticking out her tongue at Anne.

Anne just nods, laugher bubbling up in her chest at the memory. Those early days with Mariana were intoxicating. Like everything they’ve been ever since, Mariana and Anne crashed together like two hot suns colliding in a massive explosion. Except now, the blast has destroyed everything around them and all they have left are the ashes. 

Tib continues, the nostalgia of the memory making her eyes glaze over as she speaks. “I remember thinking to myself, God, I never want anyone to see me like that. It was fucking scary, if I’m honest with myself.”

“What?” Anne turns to look at Tib, the new information surprising her. “What do you mean?”

Tib sighs, and her shoulders sink so much that she looks like she’s going to melt into the couch cushions. “It was that weekend, up in—”

“Rickett’s Glen.” 

“—right. Whatever.” Tib waves off the detail. “Claire asked me to run away, to leave with her to visit her aunt in Canada.”

What?!” The word is hissed out between Anne’s teeth, her eyes wide with surprise. “You never told me any of this!!”

“I know!” Tib shrugs and looks away. The other guests in the room completely oblivious to their whispered conversation on the couch. 

Still unable to meet her eyes, Tib grinds out her next words, voice trembling ever so slightly. “She wanted something more than I could give her. And I think she also needed to get out of PA, to escape her ridiculous family. And at the time, I thought I was just the excuse she needed, but really… it was all so fucking terrifying. I saw what the two of you had, and I just freaked out. I couldn’t do it.” 

“Tib…” Anne studies her friend’s face, watching the deep notes of pain play across her eyes, pulling at something old and aching in her memory. “I never knew any of this. I thought you and Claire broke up because she wasn’t out yet. That’s what you told everyone at the time.” 

“Yes, well.” Tib swallows hard. “That story was easier to tell than the truth.”

Anne is silent, searching Tib’s eyes, waiting for the woman to say what’s been so clearly on her mind.

When Tib speaks again, it’s with an uncharacteristically soft voice, but there’s a tenor of wisdom that laces through her words. “I was so afraid of commitment, I let the one person in my life who I ever truly fell in love with get away from me. And when I realized how I felt, it was too late.”

“Oh, Tib…” It’s Anne’s turn to reach out and grasp Tib’s hand. She squeezes it fondly and pulls her closer. “There’s no way you could have known—anyone could have known that she would—” 

They’re silent for a moment. The words that need to be spoken next dying in the space between them. It feels too painful—too raw—to be said out loud. But then, with a snap of her eyes, Tib’s teeth flash in the low light, and she snarls out her words. “She would fucking die from leukemia before I could grow the fuck up?” 

Anne takes in a breath, reeling from Tib’s sharp words. She always knew that Tib never really got over Claire, but she wasn’t ready for the raw emotion she could detect in her friend’s voice. She’s not surprised, really. She doesn’t believe in soulmates, but if ever the word could be applied to any two people, Tib and Claire would be the best candidates. 

“Tib…” She tries to soothe her, tries to comfort her with her words, but the woman somehow seems stronger after the admission, if it were even possible.

“It’s okay. I’m okay. Really.” Tib looks at her with an odd smile. There’s something about the look in her eyes that tells her she might actually be right.

“I’m not trying to dig up the past.” Tib takes a deep breath. “But I wanted to say that you’ll never actually be ready. There’s no such thing as truly ready. I thought I wasn’t ready, but the world doesn’t wait for you. It moves on, and sometimes it moves on without you and then all you have left is regret and no one else to blame but yourself.”

Anne feels the weight of her words press on her mind, and she sits back instinctively into the couch with a big sigh. On a cognitive level, Anne knows that Tib is at least partially right, but there’s a tangled web of emotional baggage that weighs surprisingly heavy in her heart. No matter how she tries to look at it, she can’t seem to pry away the twenty-years of pain and heartache that swells up whenever she thinks about fully committing herself to someone else again. Then there’s the fact that she’s not even really supposed to be with Ann Walker. Together, these thoughts make the normally straightforward task of seducing and bedding a woman exceptionally complicated.

“It’s okay.” She feels Tib pat her on her shoulder. “You don’t need to say anything. Just promise me you’ll think about what I said. Seriously.” 

Anne feels herself nod, mind too busy to formulate a verbal response. She hears the sound of voices from the other side of the house, indicating the arrival of someone new at the party. She shoots Tib a look of gratitude, trying to relay her fondness for the other woman before she stands up from her seat. She feels the sudden urge to escape into something else, to give her mind a rest from the heavy thoughts that won’t seem to leave her alone. 

Moving through the house, followed closely by Tib, Anne stops by the kitchen to refill her glass of wine, pausing for a moment to take comfort in the burning liquid as it slides down her throat and warms her chest. She hears Tib make a snide comment about California wines to another faculty member in the kitchen, but before she can fully process what’s been said, she can feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand, and she immediately knows who’s arrived at the party, even without laying her eyes on her.

There’s a loud thud that rings across the kitchen tiles, the clink of bottles against one another, and a low, sultry chuckle that follows. 

Anne sees Tib’s eyes slide to something over her shoulder before they widen with surprise. “Oh, fuck,” she hears her friend breathe. 

Taking a deep breath, Anne turns around, hand gripping her wine glass tightly in anticipation, ready to meet bright green eyes. But instead, those eyes are trained on something else, and Anne is not prepared for the scene that greets her.

Dressed in form-fitting red dress with an almost see-through lace bodice, is Maria Barlow, fiery green eyes, wild strawberry blonde hair, and seductive smile that’s all teeth. The woman is an exquisite picture of sensuality, and she knows it. This much is clear because the newly arrived Sophie Ferrall is hanging off her arm, as well as on to her every word. The younger faculty has completely fallen under Maria’s spell. If Maria notices Anne there, she doesn’t show it. Instead, her voice is low, teasing, as she leans into Sophie and whispers something in her ear and steers them out of the kitchen and into the living room. 

Anne’s tongue feels a little too thick, and her mouth too dry. She swallows, trying to regain her voice, but she’s stunned. She feels Tib move beside her and place her hand on her shoulder. “What’s she doing here? She’s not part of our workshop, is she?” 

Her friend’s words in her ear kickstarts something in her. She absently mutters out the thing she is having trouble believing herself. “No, Tib. A fine-arts instructor isn’t part of our workshop. She’s Sophie’s date.”

Blinking rapidly, processing what just happened, she feels something hot and uncomfortable rise up in her. It makes no sense, and is completely uncalled for, but she feels the prickle of irritation at Maria. It’s true, she was dreading seeing her again, but she wasn’t prepared for the woman to not even acknowledge her presence at all. Instead, Maria is choosing to shamelessly flirt with the one other woman that Anne isn’t prepared to see either. 

Still in a daze of disbelief, Anne moves out into the living room, needing to confirm what she had just saw for herself. Leaning up against the stone façade of the fireplace, licking her lips flirtatiously, is indeed Maria Barlow, and standing not a foot away from her, is Sophie Ferrall, completely enchanted by the mesmerizing beauty of the blonde woman. Sophie says something quietly to Maria, and the laugh that escapes the woman’s lips practically drips with desire, and Anne feels something tug low in her belly at the familiar sound. 

Tib’s voice is in her ear again, and the soft words barely make their way through the roaring in her ears. “Poor Sophie. She barely stands a chance…”

Anne almost admires the skill with which Maria carefully tucks a stray strand of her own hair behind her ear, showing off her elegant neck, blinking slowly, once, as she catches Sophie’s gaze. But the confused ball of hurt inside of her is threatening to take over all reasoning, and she hears herself bite out the words before she can stop herself. “Good. They both deserve each other.” 

She feels Tib turn to look at her, but she doesn’t meet her gaze. Instead, busies herself with gulping down her wine as rapidly as possible, wanting to lose herself, to forget the scene in front of her. 

Then, with the slowest, most deliberate motion, Maria sweeps her eyes up from where they were trained on Sophie’s lips, all the way up to meet Anne’s from across the room. The heat in her eyes practically melts Anne on the spot, and in that instant, she recognizes something that makes her blood boil: Maria Barlow is doing this on purpose. Just to torture her. 

Reeling from the realization, Anne whips around, body already hurtling through the space in an attempt to find somewhere quiet where she can catch her breath, away from watchful eyes. Darting back through the kitchen, slamming the wine glass down on the counter, and racing through the house, she finds a small bathroom at the end of the dark hallway. It’s empty, the sounds of the party are muffled in here, and the cool air soothes her burning skin. She feels her heart race in her ribcage, beating out a rhythm that she can practically hear in the quiet of the bathroom. 

Anne doesn’t even bother flicking on the light before going to close the door. All she needs is just a few moments to catch her breath, to steady herself, to figure out the tangle of emotions eating away inside of her. But before the door can click shut, there’s a hand wrapping around the edge, nails painted bright red, pushing back against her. 

“Wha—” Anne stumbles back into the bathroom from the force of the door pushing open.   

“There you are.” Maria pushes into the dark room and closes the door behind her. There’s an enormous grin on her face and a dangerous glint in her eyes. 

“What are you—” Anne is still lost for words, heart thudding in her chest from being so close to the other woman. 

“Don’t you miss me, Anne?” Maria moves forward like she’s stalking her prey, flipping her wild blonde hair over her shoulder as she approaches Anne, thrilling at the way Anne’s eyes slam down to the pale skin of her neck.

“Maria—don’t—” Anne says warningly, backing up until she feels the cold porcelain of the sink dig into her hips. 

The low chuckle that Maria makes shoots down her body, settling into her abdomen. It seems she underestimated the reaction her body would have being so close to the other woman. There’s a strange duality pulling at her: On the one hand, her physical desire for Maria Barlow is undeniable, but on the other, she feels repulsed by who she becomes around the other woman. Maria feels like something pulling her back into the past, pulling her back into the Anne Lister that she used to be.

Maria is now inches away, studying her face, watching her expression as she battles with herself over her desires. She’s still smiling broadly, bright red painted lips pulled over her perfect white teeth that seem to glow in the darkness of the bathroom. There’s an inevitability in her eyes, like she knows what Anne is ultimately going to do, and it scares Anne half to death when she recognizes the look.

“Are we going to do this, Anne?” Maria’s voice is low, smooth, like melted butter. Anne cannot help but stare at her lips as she speaks the words. 

Anne swallows hard, trying to sound more determined than she feels. “No, Maria. Aren’t you with—” 

There’s that wicked chuckle again. “Oh, honey. Are you jealous?”

Anne’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “Jealous? Of who?”

Maria pouts, pursing her full lips together in way that makes Anne’s insides twitch in response. “Of pretty little Sophie Ferrall?”

“What?” Anne scoffs, trying to lean back, but she’s trapped. “Of course not.” 

Maria reaches out and runs a single finger down Anne’s neck, stopping right above the collar of her shirt. The feeling of her finger against her skin makes her gasp. She hates that Maria is having this effect on her, but her chest rises and falls rapidly against her single finger, fire coursing through her veins at the sensation. 

“Mm.” Maria’s tongue snakes out to lick her lips and Anne hears herself let out an obscene groan in response to the sight. The woman has always known how to push all of Anne’s buttons. “She’s a delicious little snack, but you’re the main course, baby.”

A big sigh rushes out of Anne’s lungs, and she reaches back to grip the edge of the sink, hoping the cold material will pull her back to reality. Maria is leaning in, lips almost touching hers, but Anne manages to turn her face to the side at the last minute, avoiding a searing kiss.

Maria lets out a frustrated huff but doesn’t stop. “Come on, Anne. Don’t be like that.”

“Maria, I’m not—” Anne swallows thickly again, looking up, hoping to find some strength from the ceiling. “—we’re done. I’m not doing this anymore.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that before.” Maria laughs at her again, and she feels an anger boil in her veins at how cocky she sounds. “Even when you were with your precious Mary you could never resist me.”

Anne grits her teeth at the memory, Maria’s words scraping away at a tender part in her, revealing the tangle of guilt and shame that’s always lived beneath the surface. 

Maria is still speaking, amused by her own words. “Say what you will, Anne, but you know you want nothing more than to taste me, to put your tongue into me, to choke me while I come around your fingers, to pound me with that fucking fake plastic cock until I’m so sore I can’t stand.” 

Anne’s knees buckle slightly, the mental imagery of all the filthy things she used to do with Maria hijacking her mind. She doesn’t know how, but she somehow manages to growl out her words. “No, not this time. Not while I’m figuring things out with—”

“Oooh!” Maria suddenly leans back and claps her hands together. “With who, Anne??” 

Anne hates the gleeful look on her face, and she gives the other woman a hard glare.

Maria presses forward, leaning her body against Anne’s, pushing her back into the sink while she breathes into her mouth. “Who’s this mystery woman, Anne?” 

The pressure on her hips is overwhelming. Suddenly, all she can feel is how wet she’s become from the attention, and she can’t help the loud moan that escapes her lips. The burning need to be touched by Ann Walker has been eating away at her, and now that someone else is pressing against her core, she feels her brain misfire, confusing the two women, their blonde hair blurring into a single point in her mind, crossing her wires, and driving her mad. 

Little points of light flash behind her eyelids as Anne closes her eyes and throws her head back. Through the sound of her own sharp breathing, she can hear Maria chuckle again, her voice low and teasing. She thinks she may actually be losing her mind because there’s ghost of a light musical giggle that echoes around in her brain. She is powerless to stop her body from responding to this phantom sensation, not when Maria’s hair glows golden in the faint moonlight, and not when her soft curves feel so eerily familiar. 

She doesn’t know when Maria started touching her again, but she can feel her hands work their way down her body, trailing lower, tugging at her belt-loops gently. Anne’s mind flashes to earlier that morning, when delicate fingers worked at the same material, when Ann Walker had been so close to touching her. The memory makes her groan out loud, and her shoulders sink a little more into the body in front of her. She manages to breathe out quietly, muttering “Please, don’t,” against Maria’s neck.

“Poor baby…” Maria whispers into her ear as a wandering hand dips down to the space between her legs, pressing against her firmly through her pants. The resulting cry that’s torn from her lips bounce across the hard tiles of the bathroom. She can feel herself pulse painfully around nothing, the intensity of the sensation is so overwhelming that she thinks she might pass out from needing relief. She hears herself plead into the open, voice sounding unrecognizable to her ears. “Maria, stop…”

But the hand is pressing harder, rubbing gently against the seam of her pants, and Maria is breathing hotly in her ear. “Now that’s a surprise. You’re dying to be touched, aren’t you?”

Anne lets out a huge sigh as Maria increases the tempo of her insistent grinding against her center. She bites her lip and tries to control the loud groan that’s lodged in her throat, and it comes out as a strangled “No” instead. The friction against her aching core is as unbearable as it is delicious. Her breath comes out in short gasps, and for a moment, as she clenches her eyes shut, she can almost feel Ann Walker pressed against her, whispering sweet nothings into her ear, rubbing out her release through her pants.

But then Maria keeps speaking, voice too low, too full of mirth for it to be her student. “Why, has this mystery woman not been taking care of my darling Anne?” 

Anne’s eyes fly open. Maria’s words strike something in her. My darling Anne. Coming out of Maria’s mouth, it feels wrong—it feels perverse. 

The next few moments happen in a flash—an explosion of arms reaching out, hands grabbing wrists, and bodies swinging around. Anne presses Maria Barlow back into the sink, reversing her positions and grabbing her wrists with a little too much pressure. She doesn’t touch their bodies together. No. Instead, she puts her weight on her hands, pushing Maria’s wrists backwards almost painfully into the cold hard porcelain, and leaning in until their lips almost touch. There’s fire in her eyes, and a snarl on her lips.

“Haven’t you ever heard of consent, Maria?” 

If anything, the other woman seems to come alive under her stare. There’s a wide smile splitting her gorgeous red lips, and her chest rises and falls rapidly under the sexy red dress. She doesn’t say anything, she just licks her lips, pink tongue darting out and wetting her red-stained flesh. Anne almost whimpers in response. Maria Barlow certainly knows how to rile her up and wriggle her way past her defenses. 

The two women stand there in the small bathroom, breathing each other’s breath, staring each other down in the dim light, waiting for the other to act first. It would be so easy to reach down and claim the other woman’s lips with her own, to take her up against the sink in Madeline’s house, to fall back into the same pattern of desire, and recklessness, and meaningless sex that has been the last six years of her life. Anne knows it’s easy, because she’s been powerless to stop herself before. But now, there’s a new strength burning in her, and her name is Ann Walker. 

Snapping into action, Anne roughly drags the other woman to the door, flinging it open, and pushing her out into the dark hallway. She can hear Maria let out a squeak in surprise, but her protests are muffled by the loud slam of the door on its hinges as she closes it forcefully and clicks the lock into place. It feels like she’s jumping out of her skin, the heady mix of arousal and adrenaline rushing through her blood. 

She thinks she’ll fall apart into a mess on the tiled floor of the bathroom if she doesn’t do something. With shaky hands, she pulls her phone out and scrolls to the name of the one person that she needs to speak to right now. She knows it’s late, and that Ann is probably on her way to the airport, but she can’t stop herself. She doesn’t even know what she’ll say, but she knows she needs to hear her voice. 

Lifting the phone to her ear with a trembling hand, she hears the one faint ring, then two, then three, and just as she’s about to give up and throw the phone across the bathroom, she hears a soft click as the line is engaged, and a quiet “Hello” rasp into the speaker. 

Ann Walker’s voice washes over her overheated brain, soothing her frayed nerves, and cooling her flushed skin. She hears herself gasp audibly at the relief that floods her mind, and she closes her eyes as tears squeeze out from their corners.

Anne?” Her voice is louder, concern lacing her tone when she doesn’t hear anything on the other line. 

Her throat is dry and it sounds more like a cough, but she manages to choke the words out. “Ann, I’m here.”

Anne! My goodness!” Ann’s voice lights up with a smile. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”

A swell of laughter breaks out of her chest and she can’t help the words from tumbling out of her mouth. “Ann, baby, I’ve missed you so much!” 

She hears the static of a sharp intake of breath on the other end before the other woman whispers back into the phone. “I’ve missed you too, Anne.”

Anne is smiling so wide, but her breath is loud, heavy, and she knows that Ann can hear how fast she’s breathing on the other end. 

Anne, are you ok?” Ann finally asks after a moment passes. 

“Hmm.” Anne manages to groan out. The frustration of needing to be touched by Ann, the exhilaration of Maria pressing up against her just moments ago, the sweet sound of Ann’s voice on the phone, all seemed to be bringing back an intense longing for release. 

Anne, are you—” There’s a pause as Ann struggles to find the right words. “—what’s going on?” 

“I’m fine.” Anne swallows hard, trying to steady her breath. “Tell me about your day. You’re on your way to the airport?”

Oh, yes.” She can almost hear the gears turning in Ann’s head. “I’m in the cab. We’ll be here in thirty minutes.” 

“Good.” Anne takes a deep breath. “Good.” And another. “Excited to head back to Ames?”

There’s a light sigh on the other end, and she can almost picture Ann’s wistful look on her face. “I suppose. Although it’ll be lonely, what with my sister and her family gone for the weekend.” 

“Oh?” Anne can feel her heartbeat slow, the distraction of mundane life events taking her mind off the searing hot need between her legs. 

Yes, they’re gone for a weekend trip to the lake. To Saylorville Lake. Won’t be back until late Sunday.” 

“Mm.” Anne nods, even if Ann can’t see her. 

Are you…” Ann trails off, and she can hear the insecurity through the phone. “… having a good time at UCB?”

“Ann.” Her voice is low, heavy, like she’s trying to communicate more than she can say over the phone. If only Ann could know how much she wanted her, how much she had changed her life in the span of a few short weeks. 

Is um…is Maria Barlow there?” Ann’s voice shakes, and Anne is a little surprised as how forward the younger woman is being. The words are spoken softly, but there’s a world of hurt sounding from it. 

“We need to talk.” Anne hates how her voice trembles. She clears her throat, starting over. “I mean, we need to talk about what this all means between us. What we are to each other. What we’re going to do.”

Ann sighs again, not dropping the subject. “What is Maria Barlow to you, Anne? Are you two…sleeping together?” The last two words are whispered out so painfully, like it almost hurts the younger woman to say them.

 “We’re not—I mean, we were, but—” An involuntary sigh of frustration makes its way past her lips. “I mean, it’s complicated. It’s always been complicated with Maria. I’ve always had trouble saying no to her.”

Ann’s voice sounds tearful, and it breaks her heart to hear it shake over the phone. “Even when you were with Mariana? Anne?” 

It feels like it’s the hardest thing she’s had to do. It would be easier to brush it off, to deny it, but she somehow manages to grind out the truth, feeling her shame engulf her, making her want to collapse into herself and disappear forever. 

“Yes. Even while I was married to Mariana.” 

There’s a puff of air across the speaker on the other side of the line, and Anne has to lean forward to grasp the sink to hold herself up. The guilt of what she’d done to Mariana feels sharper now, if that were even possible. While it’s true that Mariana had been the first to betray her trust, it was Anne who had knowingly, repeatedly, and shamelessly, indulged in Maria Barlow without a thought of how it might hurt her marriage.

Well. Who am I to judge?” Ann’s words are compassionate, but she hears a hard tone settle into her voice. “I can hardly blame them. All these women throwing themselves at you…and why should you change yourself? You’re allowed to do whatever you want.”

“Ann, no—” She tries to stop her but Ann just keeps going.

I mean, you could have any woman you want. So why would you even choose me?” Ann’s voice is shaking, and she thinks she may be crying, but she can’t really tell because she’s speaking too quietly.

“I don’t want anyone—” Anne’s voice sounds weaker than she feels. 

You’re so clever, and interesting. You’ll soon get bored of me.”

No, Ann—”

God, no one even compares to you. You’re so incredibly sexy, Anne.” 

Anne cannot keep the loud groan from escaping her lips at those words. There’s no hiding her arousal anymore, and she hears Ann take in a quick breath when she hears the raw desire in her voice. 

Anne, are you…?” 

“Mhm.” Anne bites her lip and nods quickly. “Ann, baby, I need you.” 

Oh, Anne…” She can tell the other woman doesn’t quite know how to respond, and there’s tension in her voice as she puts her hand over the phone to keep her voice from being heard.

“Just—” Anne runs her hand through her hair, making up her mind in an instant. She’s throbbing painfully now, and the need for release is burning through her self-restraint. “Just keep talking, Ann. Just tell me something, anything.” 

Huh.” Ann’s voice sounds far away, like she’s thinking how to proceed next. Then, she whispers quietly into the phone, “I can’t wait to see you, Anne. I can’t wait to kiss you again.”

Anne feels like she’s burning up, which seems ridiculous when she compares Ann’s innocent words to Maria Barlow’s filthy ones while she had her pressed up against the sink just moments ago. But like all things Ann Walker, she’s somehow managed to defy all logic and break all convention once again. 

Cradling her phone with her shoulder, Anne franticly undoes her belt and pants, the clinking of the metal sounding out in the empty room. Ann hears the sound over the phone, and releases a soft “Oh” when she does. But then she regains her composure, and even if she sounds unsure, there’s a deep and undeniable need burning in her voice.

Anne, I want to make you feel good. When you get back to Ames, will you show me how?” 

“Oh, God!” Anne’s body jerks suddenly, and she’s not sure if it’s from her fingers coming into contact with the hard bundle of nerves between her legs, or from Ann’s words spoken timidly into her ear.

I know I’m not as experienced as all the women you’ve been with, but I want to try.” 

“Good Lord, Ann!” Her fingers are rubbing quickly now, moving in tight circles as she feels the low uncurling in her belly. Ann’s breath through the phone feels sharp, like it could pierce her heart even from so far away. Closing her eyes, she can imagine the beautiful blonde woman in the same room, stepping closer to her, replacing her hand with her own, and starting right into her eyes as she touches her slick wetness. The thought of Ann touching her most intimate area alone feels jarring, and the mental imagery makes her eyes fly open. 

Ann’s voice on the phone is so quiet, hushed from trying to not be heard, she almost misses what she says next. “I want to make you feel as good as you made me feel, Anne. I can’t stop thinking about it.” 

Anne flushes red at how quickly her orgasm is approaching, and she feels uncharacteristically self-conscious of the shaky moan she releases into the speaker of her phone. She doesn’t have long to dwell on the feeling because a tidal wave of ecstasy crashes over her, and all other thoughts are completely obliterated from her mind as she twitches rhythmically against her finger. Tremors run through her body for what feels like an entire minute and she sways dangerously on the spot. 

The cold of the sink digs into her arm where she’s leaning against it for support, and she’s not even sure how she’s still standing. Amidst her sharp gasps into the phone, she hears herself groan out obscene ‘Oh God’s and ‘Fuck fuck fuck’s, but she is past caring. All that matters is the sensation of something reaching into her chest and stretching out across one-hundred and thirty eight miles, vibrating in time with the beat of the other woman’s heart, connecting their breaths together into one static symphony.

Anne is breathing hard, clutching on to the sink for balance, but the need for her release has receded back into the recesses of her mind for now, and she can feel her mind clear up enough to formulate sentences again. 

“Ann. Are you there?” Her voice is croaky and hoarse, barely recognizable.

A sharp breath of air on the line. “Yes. Anne. I’m here. Are you alright?”

The low chuckle that escapes her lips sound too loud in the quiet bathroom, but the rush of her climax has made her loose, uninhibited, and she’s overflowing with warm feelings for the woman on the other side of the line. “Never better. Thanks. I needed that.” 

Oh.” There’s that tone in Ann’s voice again, like she wants to ask Anne something, but she’s afraid of her answer. “What happened, Anne?”

Anne can feel the pull of how easy it would be to just obscure the truth, to just tell Ann that nothing had happened, to fall back into the same predictable pattern with Maria that she had all these years. But there’s something about the soft but steady strength in Ann’s voice that gives her pause. Then that feeling in her is blooming again—the same one that makes her want to do better for Ann than anyone else she’s ever been with before. 

Voice shaky and low, she tries to tell it as plainly as she can. “Maria Barlow was here—is here—she’s Sophie’s date, if you can believe it. She cornered me in the bathroom and tried to…”

There’s a sharp intake of breath on the other line, but she keeps going.

“…she tried to… come on to me. And I may have let it get too far, but nothing happened, Ann. I threw her out and called you right away. I don’t want you reading into things, because nothing happened, do you understand?

Ann is silent, but she can hear her breathing heavily through the phone. 

“Ann—”

Anne—”

They both stop and laugh, the chorus of both their names spoken in unison feel strangely comforting, like they can be whole even while they’re apart. But then Ann gets serious again, sad voice whispering through the phone.

“As I said, Anne, I don’t want to change you. I love you just the way you are. I’m lucky you’re even interested in someone like me—”

“What?” Anne can’t move on from the word now that it’s spoken. She brings up her fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose, the conversation getting away from her faster than she anticipated.

What? I—Oh.” Ann sounds just as shocked, and she goes silent. 

“Ann.” She breathes out but doesn’t know what to say next. She just knows that she needs to see Ann as soon as possible. She can tell how little her words are doing to reassure the other woman, and how there’s so much more that needs to be said between the two of them than should be said over the phone. 

“I’m sorry.” Ann’s voice is shaking, and there’s a note of hysteria rising in it. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Making up her mind in an instant, Anne straightens up and stares at herself in the mirror, eyes burning with determination. “No. Don’t.” She quickly buttons up her pants and buckles her belt before running a hand through her messy hair. 

What?” 

Anne gives herself one last glance at the mirror before yanking the door open. “Don’t do that.” Her voice is firm.

Do what?”

She’s speeding down the hallway now, ducking around other guests and whipping her head around looking for Tib. “Don’t take it back.”

But Anne, I—”

“I’ve got to go. I’ll see you soon, ok?” Anne finally spots the red-haired woman leaning up against the arm of a couch, already working her magic on a beautiful older faculty member with a flowy floral skirt and long strings of beads hanging around her neck. 

Okay, sounds good.” Ann sounds confused, if not a little hurt, but Anne can’t stop herself. She’s vibrating with the anticipation of a plan, and her mind is barreling ahead at a thousand miles an hour. 

“Alright, see you soon.” Anne hits the call end button and pockets her phone before grabbing Tib roughly by the upper arm and yanking her away from the other woman. She growls out into the other woman’s ear, “We’ve got to go. Now.” 

Tib lets out an ungainly yelp at her sudden force, but she follows Anne out the door into the cool night. When Anne Lister is moving with such determination, when she has a white-hot fire in her eyes, you don’t do anything but follow along and hope you don’t get burnt along the way.

“What’s going on, Anne??” Tib finally wrenches her arm free from her strong grasp as they race across the street and along the sidewalk back to their hotel. 

Anne is walking as fast as Tib’s ever seen her, but she’s not looking in her direction. Instead, she’s already got her phone out, fingers tapping away at the screen in a frenzy. Her voice is low, but it’s anything but steady. “I need to catch the next flight out to Ames. I need you to drive me to the airport.” 

“What??” Tib is incredulous, trying to keep pace with Anne. “But we’ve only finished one day of the workshop. We still have breakout sessions tomorrow!” 

Anne doesn’t skip a beat, her voice burning with unspent emotion, raw and loud as it cuts through the night. “Fuck the workshop—fuck the breakout sessions! I need to see my—” 

But her voice catches in her throat, and she feels weight of the words she doesn’t have yet slam into her. She suddenly stops in the middle of the sidewalk, and Tib nearly crashes into her. 

What is Ann Walker to her? What could they even be to each other? The situation feels impossible, but needing Ann has been the easiest thing she’s ever done. Even if their circumstances make it hard, it’s still so easy—needing Ann feels like breathing. 

Tib’s hands are holding on to her shoulders as she takes in a few deep breaths, staring at the sidewalk. The brick pattern swims before her eyes, as she sways on her feet. It feels like the earth is moving under her and Tib is the only thing anchoring her to reality.

Anne finally looks up at Tib. Her friend is giving her a pitiful look, eyes swimming with concern. “Need to see your what, Anne?” 

She barely recognizes herself anymore. Who is this woman, barely able to stand, unable to complete sentences? She may not have the right words to describe what is happening between her and Ann, but she realizes she doesn’t care anymore. She has the only words she needs in that moment:

“I need to see Ann Walker.”

Chapter Text

Anne cannot remember the last time she felt so jumpy, so on the edge of her seat. But then again, she cannot remember the last time she’d gone on quite so little sleep in quite so many days. 

She can do very little to keep her knee from bouncing in her seat, as it has been doing on her two overnight flights back from Bakersfield, and now on the drive back to Ames from the airport. As an expert in cognitive science, it does occur to Anne that she’s probably not in the best state of mind to be operating a vehicle. She knows that sleep deprivation has detrimental effects on psychomotor speed, executive attention, and working memory. But she also knows that the anxiety of seeing Ann Walker again is somehow giving her a buffer against these cognitive lapses. In fact, she’s surprised that she even managed to work through editing and commenting on Ann’s draft of her dissertation proposal on the plane. The red ink stained pile of papers sits haphazardly in the back seat of her car, thrown there in her hurry to get back to Ames.

Her knee temporarily stops bouncing in her seat when she approaches one particularly peaceful hilltop along the interstate. Her heart soars at the sight of the early morning sky, painted with pink and orange brush strokes. Light rays of an emerging sun peek over the horizon, refracting through rows of late harvest corn, pale and golden in the dawn. Even at eighty miles an hour, Anne feels a calm stillness settle over her—she’s home.

To the east lies the silhouette of the university campus buildings, the short, blocky structures reaching up into the quickly brightening sky. The weekend ushers in a strange emptiness to this part of the city, and Anne is briefly thankful for the quiet as she fumbles in her pocket, pulling out her phone with one hand. Her eyes dart back and forth from the road to the device, scrolling down a list of messages until she finds the one she’s looking for. She’s grateful for the address she’s managed to wrangle out of the student database on her layover in Phoenix, but she also knows she should feel guilty for abusing her power as an academic advisor. Except she doesn’t. Because now she has Ann Walker’s address, and now she’s that much closer to seeing the woman who her body has been screaming for since they parted ways in Anaheim.

Turning east toward the residential district of the city, Anne takes one last look at the address, memorizing the street name. It’s an area she’s vaguely familiar with, but being a new development, none of the houses are actually traceable using her phone. She has faith in her navigation abilities though, so she dials the number that’s been drumming around in her head the whole drive back from the airport, unable to wait any longer to hear the other woman’s voice. She lifts her phone to her ear, steering the car with one hand and biting her lip in anticipation. It’s barely seven o’clock in the morning, but she hopes beyond all hope that Ann is awake and able pick up her phone because she doesn’t know how much longer she can hold off not seeing the other woman. Not after how they left things.

The dial tone rings seven times before she hears the line click, and a sleepy “Hello” croak out on the other end. Her voice sounds so raw, scratchy from sleep, and the intimacy of hearing Ann in this state makes her mind flash back to the early mornings they spent together back in Anaheim. 

“Ann?” She’s looking around at the houses and street signs, unfamiliar with this part of the city. The houses here are big and grand—almost like mansions—and for a moment, Anne feels a jolt in her stomach when she realizes how very little she actually knows about Ann’s background. 

Anne? What’s going on?” The other woman sounds completely out of sorts, tendrils of sleep still clinging to her voice. 

“I didn’t mean to wake you.” Anne holds the phone out again to glance at the address. The houses all seem strangely similar, and she’s losing track of where one street ends and another begins. She thinks she may have even seen both a Jones Street and a Jones Circle since driving into the neighborhood. Whoever thought up the street names should be strung up. 

Ann’s voice is still soft as she clears the sleep from her throat. “No, it’s fine. I should be up anyway.”

“Mm.” Anne narrows her eyes at the house numbers, squinting at them as her car rolls slowly through the sleepy street. “I just needed to hear your voice.”

Oh, Anne.” There’s a long exhale on the other line, and she can imagine Ann stretching out in bed, sending a delicious shudder down her spine. “I miss you. Can’t wait to see you when you get back to Ames.” 

There’s a quiet chuckle that leaves Anne’s lips, but she’s focused on finding the right intersection to turn onto, so she just hums in response.

I…” There’s a tremor in Ann’s voice. “After last night, I wasn’t sure when I’d hear from you again.”

Anne’s heart flutters a little at the vulnerability she can hear in the other woman’s voice. “I’m sorry, I just… I had to go. Sorry.” There’s not much she can say without giving away what she’s been up to.

Oh.” A pause, like she’s swallowing her feelings down. “Well. I’m glad you called. I was going crazy imagining all sorts of awful things happening.”

Ann Walker is so wistful, her light voice sounding so ethereal even through the phone. It makes Anne take in a sharp breath. “Oh baby, don’t do that.”

I can’t help it.” Ann chokes, voice thick with anxiety. “After what Tib said about Maria, and then last night, you…” 

“Ann. No, stop.” Anne’s shaking as she grips the steering wheel. She’s making her way down a long street, trying to focus on finding the right house number. “Nothing happened. I already told you.” She hates how sharp the words sound once they’re out of her mouth.

Ann is silent for a beat. Then, she breathes out “okay”, almost too silent to be heard on the phone, but Anne hears it, and instantly wants to take back what she said. She takes a deep breath and tries again, willing her voice to sound calmer than she feels.

“Instead of imagining all the bad things that can happen, just imagine what you’d say to me—if you could see me now.” Anne is approaching the end of the street, and she thinks Ann’s house must be on the corner, because she’s running out of numbers. 

Hmm…” Ann’s light voice sounds breathy over the phone. “Well, I’d say that I missed you. And I… I’m going crazy from how much I want to see you again.”

“Mhm. What else, Ann?” Anne nods as she finally comes upon the house. The sound of the car engine dies as she stops along the other side of the street. It’s a large and sprawling two-story house, complete with grand pillars at the entrance, large bay windows, and creeping ivy covering the west facing walls. Somehow, seeing the building in front of her makes the reality of what she’s done come crashing into her. Did she really just take an overnight flight back to Ames? Did she really just leave before the second day of the workshop? Is she really in front of Ann Walker’s house, about to surprise her with a grand gesture fit for the most romantic of movies? 

She doesn’t get much time to ponder the impossibility of the person she’s becoming because Ann is speaking into the phone again. “I’d say that I was so miserable at Disneyland. I kept missing you so much, and I wanted you there with me.”

Anne opens the car door, stepping out into the crisp morning air, straightening her shirt and smoothing down her pants, both a little wrinkled from all the travel. She takes in a deep lungful of air and exhales into the phone. “Oh, Ann. You’ve been so looking forward to Disneyland…”

I know.” There's a small laugh on the other end of the line. “But it wasn’t the same without you there. I know it’s supposed to be this magical experience, but all I could do was picture what it would be like to have you there with me.”

Anne hums again into the phone, reaching into the backseat of the car for the two items she needs. She can’t hide the smile on her face when she snaps on the ridiculous ears while tucking the draft stained with red ink under one arm. If Ann is into Mickey Mouse ears, if she can just get a small smile from the plastic band on her head, that’s a good enough reason as any to endure the humiliation for a few minutes. 

Ann keeps talking, and she can sense there’s things Ann needs to get off her chest. “I just kept thinking about you, and… our time together in your hotel room, and imagining what it would be like to finally see you again.”

Anne’s heart is racing in her chest, and she feels her palms get sweaty as she crosses the street. She rolls up the thesis draft in one hand and looks up into the windows of the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of the other woman, but all blinds are drawn, and the only thing she can see is some light activity on the first floor. 

Taking a deep breath, she says as steadily as she can, “You don’t have to imagine, baby.” 

What?” Ann’s voice rises when she’s confused, and Anne grins in anticipation.

“Open your door.”

She can hear some shuffling on the other side of the line, the sounds of sheets sliding against one another as Ann sits up more fully. “What do you mean?”

Anne chuckles into the phone and repeats herself. “Open your door, Ann.”

I—” There’s a huff, and the sounds of movement in the house. “What—”

Several moments pass, but then she finally hears the sound of the lock turning in the heavy wooden door. It flings open to reveal a very startled Ann Walker, hair mussed from sleep, dressed only in an oversized white cotton shirt that hangs down to the middle of her thighs. Her eyes widen when she takes in the sight before her, and then all the color drains from her face. 

Anne suddenly feels like she’s moving in slow motion, trying to play out the scenario that she’d imagined in her head over the last several hours, but the look on Ann’s face isn’t clicking in with the rest of the fantasy. Her tongue feels thick in her mouth as she tries to give her a crooked smile and shove the rolled-up proposal draft forward, holding it out like a bouquet of words. “I’m sorry we couldn’t be together at Disneyland. So, I thought I’d bring the magic back to you.”

Ann’s completely speechless as her eyes flit from papers thrust out in front of her, to the travel-worn clothes on her body, and finally, to the Mickey Mouse ears on top of her head. Her mouth falls open, and their eyes meet. The moment seems to stand still, hours of anticipation hanging in the balance above them. There’s a haunted look on Ann’s face that makes her heart sink, and she’s suddenly very aware of how many boundaries she’s crossed, broken, and trampled over to be standing at her front door, in front of Ann Walker, in her sleep clothes.

She opens her mouth, hoping to say just the right thing to kickstart the fantasy of how she’d imagined this going. “I—”

But just as gets the first word out, she’s suddenly very aware of the light sounds of activity in the background, the clinking of dishes in the sink, the low murmur of voices in conversation, and before she can react, there’s someone else rounding the corner, shattering their private bubble by the door. 

“Dr. Lister?” Elizabeth Walker looks harried and stressed, but most of all, she’s completely surprised to see Anne Lister at her door. 

Anne’s eyes quickly dart back to Ann’s, noticing how pale and shaky her student suddenly looks. There’s an urgent bolt of panic that flashes in her eyes, but there’s no time say anything.

“What are you doing here?” Elizabeth is now standing by Ann, hand on her shoulder, puzzled look on her face. 

“I—Ah—Well—” Anne feels her face flush from her sudden lack of eloquence. “I just came here to…” She looks down at her hands, then thrusts out the stack of papers again. “Give Ann my feedback and comments on the draft of her dissertation proposal.”

Even said with such confidence, the idea still feels hollow. But the frown lines on Elizabeth’s forehead are disappearing, as she takes in her sister’s research advisor. Her eyes crinkle up in amusement when she notices what’s on Anne’s head. “And, you’re a fan too, I take it…?” She points to the ears, trying hold back laughter.

Anne’s eyes go wide as she remembers, “Oh, I um.” If only the earth would just swallow her up whole. She whips the ears off her head violently, and smooths down her hair. “Forgot I had those on.” 

Ann has her lips pressed together in a tight smile, eyes dancing with fondness for her advisor. The look on her face almost makes the ears worth it—almost. 

“Since you’re here, would you like to join us for breakfast? I’ve made too much food for just the six of us as usual!” Elizabeth looks back over her shoulder, checking on the occupants in her kitchen and looking back at her expectantly.

Anne looks back at Ann, and the way her eyes widen makes the message very clear: this is a very bad idea. So Anne shakes her head. “No, no, I don’t want to intrude, I—”

“Nonsense!” Elizabeth is beaming now, excited at the prospect of hosting her sister’s advisor in her home. “I insist!” 

Anne shares a quick look with Ann, and they both know that they’re losing control of the situation quickly.

Ann finally speaks up, voice shaking as she wraps her arms around her body protectively. “Elizabeth, it’s fine, really.” 

“Yes, you must be exhausted from your trip.” Anne motions towards Elizabeth. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the lake…?”

“Oh yes!” Elizabeth claps her hands together. “We decided to head back early since it’s supposed to storm all day tomorrow.” She shoots Ann a fond look and rubs her shoulders. “And we felt bad for leaving this one all alone to herself…”

Anne looks back to her student, face now turning pink from the attention. She cannot help but let her eyes wander down her body, the light t-shirt doing very little to cover her soft curves. Her mind flashes to the early morning hours spent in bed with the other woman, and it feels like her heart is exploding from how much she misses her.

Elizabeth takes a deep breath after looking lovingly at her sister and regards Anne again, voice firm with her command. “Come on in!”

Shooting her student one last look in apology, Anne shrugs and crosses the threshold. Ann murmurs that she’s going to get dressed and darts back up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Her swift exit almost goes unnoticed because Anne is immediately assaulted by the aroma of strong coffee and frying bacon coming from the kitchen. 

With Ann temporarily out of her sight, she allows herself to take in the spacious home, clearly built very recently, and with intent to impress. While Anne has always been partial to the charm of old houses with history, she must admit that the grand interior is enviable in its own right. 

As they make their way further into the house, the light sound of children’s voices become more distinct, and it finally sinks in that she’s about to have breakfast with Ann’s family. The thought feels jarring—like she’s been plucked out of her space and placed in a moment she doesn’t belong in. She hasn’t allowed herself to imagine a future with Ann, but this isn’t how would have planned meeting the family. 

They round the corner into the kitchen, and she finally sees who’s seated around the table. Even if she’s never been particularly good with children, she’s still happy to see their familiar faces, the messy fingers, their loud voices. What she’s not prepared for is the man who’s seated at the head of the table, the person she assumes to be the father of the children—Elizabeth’s husband.

Her entrance immediately draws his attention and he looks up from where he’s had his nosed buried in the newspaper and arches his eyebrows. He has a stern face, and the corners of his lips suggest he’s more used to scowling than smiling. 

“Honey, this is Ann’s research advisor, Dr. Lister—she’s going to be joining us for breakfast.” Elizabeth’s trying to appear casual, but she notices a slight tremor in her voice.

A dark flash of annoyance passes over his face, but he manages to compose himself enough to turn to regard her with as neutral an expression as possible. He is a distinguished man of not more than forty but the deep creases in his forehead make him seem older than he is. 

Anne extends her hand to him without thinking. She can already see he is a man who is used to coming out on top of every interaction and he’s thrown off by her forwardness. “Dr. Lister, and you are…?” She tries to smile, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. 

The man stands, wiping his hands on his pants before taking her hand in his own strong grip. “George. Sutherland.” The exchange is stilted, awkward, and there’s tension flaring up in the space. She senses Elizabeth’s fidgeting on the other side of the table, like she’s waiting for an invisible explosion.

“It’s so nice of you to have me for breakfast, George.” Anne tries to put on her most charming smile, sensing that smoothing over the tension is in the best interest of everyone else. “Elizabeth insisted I join, otherwise I wouldn’t have intruded on your family time.”

His voice is cold even if his words seem warm. “It’s no problem, Dr. Lister. Please. Sit.”

Anne senses Elizabeth deflate behind her, like a puff of air letting out tension. The implication makes the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She pulls out a chair and sits slowly at the table, never taking her eyes off his intense green ones as he does the same. As she lowers herself intentionally into her seat, her eyes don’t waver, and eventually, he breaks her gaze and looks over her shoulder to his wife. 

“Where is Ann?” His voice is sharp, almost like he’s starting an argument that never quite ended.

Elizabeth doesn’t meet his eyes as she serves out breakfast to the table: piles of steaming eggs and bacon that the children immediately start picking at with their bare hands. 

“She’s coming. Just getting dressed.” She swats away at the children’s reaching fingers and sits down on the other end of the table from her husband. The plates of food get passed around, and before long, Ann emerges again from the stairs, and she’s dressed in her usual jeans and t-shirt combo she’s seen her in so many times. The sheer domesticity of situation makes Anne’s heart flutter, but the feeling turns sour when she sees the pained look on Ann’s face as she sits across from her.

There’s a lump in her throat as she meets her eyes, and she instantly knows that something is wrong. It goes beyond her surprise drop in, beyond Ann missing her. And the mystery of it claws away at her chest until she barely notices the food making its way to her. 

“Dr. Lister…” Elizabeth breaks her out of her trance. She takes the plate from Ann’s sister, but her eyes dart back to look at her student, willing her to give her any clue as to what’s going through her head. Ann doesn’t meet her eyes though, choosing instead to fidget with the hem of her shirt under the table. 

Her gaze is interrupted by baby Sackville who choses that exact moment to drop his spoon on the floor. The metallic clatter of the utensil on the floor seems to break a spell, and she feels George bristle at the sound. The change in mood sets Elizabeth on edge and she quickly jumps out of her seat to fuss over the toddler in hushed tones. Noticing this dynamic, Anne quickly swoops in, trying to distract them with conversation.

“So, how was Saylorville Lake?” Anne passes the food to George who doesn’t even meet her eyes. “I hear it’s so tranquil. So sublime.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth returns to her seat with a huff. “It was beautiful. The children really love it. It’s a shame we had to cut our weekend short.” 

“That’s too bad.” Anne’s voice is light. She knows how to make casual conversation. She knows how to be charming. And it seems to be working for a moment, at least with Elizabeth.

“It is what it is.” Ann’s sister tries to meet her husband’s eyes from across the table but he’s back to reading the paper and doesn’t see her.

The food is good, and Anne tucks into the eggs and bacon gratefully. In her rush to get back to Ames, she had completely neglected feeding herself, and she suddenly realizes how famished she is. Looking across the table at Ann, she notices that the girl is lazily playing with her food, not having had a bite to eat at all. There’s still the same pained look on her face, but there’s fear slowly creeping into her expression, and Anne is baffled by this. 

Turning back to Elizabeth who’s now leaning over her seat to feed one of the children, Anne gives her a small smile. “Well, it’s good you got to get out there anyway. Regardless of how long the trip was.”

She hears George give a small scoff at that, but he doesn’t say anything else, eyes still trained on the paper. Both Ann and Elizabeth’s husband are turning out to be terrible contributors to this conversation.

Anne turns up her smile a little more. “So, what is it that you do, George?” 

The mention of his name makes him flick his eyes up to her then back down. “I work in the Iowa Department of Transportation. I’m a training specialist.” 

“Ah.” Anne takes a moment to let that sink in. Her eyes instinctually dart around the interior of the kitchen. She knows the type of job he’s talking about, and somehow, she doubts that he makes enough to afford such a grand house. “Good man. What’s it like working for our state government, George?” 

George lets out a heavy breath and lowers his paper a little. “It’s fine. It’s a job.” 

She can’t help her excitement. State government has always been one of her many interests. “It must be thrilling to be part of the grand machine that makes this state function, surely?”

“That’s one way to put it.” The man starts folding up the paper and looks at her directly.

Anne looks back to Elizabeth and Ann, trying to draw them into the conversation. “Don’t you think it’s amazing? State governments are one of the most important institutions in our country—what makes it function the way our founding fathers had imagined.” 

“Well, our state government is fairly broken at the moment, so I’m not sure “amazing” is the word I’d use, Dr. Lister.” There’s a sparkle of something in George’s eyes which makes Anne angle her body to face him more fully. The promise of engaging conversation has her heart picking up speed in her chest.

“Oh, I absolutely agree!” She glances back at Elizabeth and Ann. “But just because there are parts of the system that need work, doesn’t make it ineffective on the whole.” 

Her words do not seem to get through to George though, because he continues speaking like he doesn’t hear her. “Take for example all the ways our state government is trampling all over our Religious Freedom lately.”

“Oh?” Anne is slightly taken aback by the venom in his voice. She catches Elizabeth share a look with her sister, but no one says anything. 

George seems like the kind of man with a quiet fire burning beneath the calm exterior, and when he speaks, Anne catches a glimpse of it. “Yes! They’re trying to make us, hardworking taxpayers, pay for crazy people to have that ridiculous tranny surgery! Procedures like that shouldn’t be included in a state-sponsored program like Medicaid! It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!” 

All the air is sucked out of the room. Anne is stunned, but her mouth keeps moving, the words coming out of them automatically. “Gender Reassignment Surgery.”

“What?” He pauses and looks at her.

There’s a small voice in her head telling her to stop talking, but the roaring her eyes is louder, drowning out any ability she has to remain quiet. “It’s called Gender Reassignment Surgery, George. And they’re not “crazy people” as you put it.” 

“Well, whatever you call it—it’s ridiculous.” He waves her off, reaching for his newspaper again.

“It’s not ridiculous!” Her voice is hard, and she’s trying really hard to not let her rage leak out with her words. “Other essential procedures are already included in Medicaid, why shouldn’t this be too?” 

The moment the words leave her mouth, she knows she said the wrong thing. Both Elizabeth and Ann take in deep breaths, like they’re waiting for a storm to hit. 

George huffs and throws down the paper on the table, voice rising. “Because it’s wrong! It’s sick, and I’m not paying for someone to indulge in something so unnatural!” 

Red hot anger explodes in Anne and she throws her own fork down on her plate, the clang ringing out around the kitchen. “You know what? You’re the problem George! It’s people like you who are making our government broken. Here you are, spouting off your turgid and uninformed opinions about something you know nothing about!”

Excuse me?” He is livid, face red as he spits the words out. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Elizabeth flinch at his outburst. “Now, George, let’s not—”

“I don’t know why I’m surprised!” He throws his hands up. “You ivory tower elites think you know everything, you think you can push your views on everyone else just because you’ve got all the big words and fancy numbers.” 

“What?” Anne scoffs out, hardly believing his tone. 

George keeps going, face growing red as he spits out the words. “Don’t tell me that you actually believe someone can or even should change their gender? Given to them by God at birth?” 

Anne catches sight of how distressed Ann looks, but when she hears him speak again, she tears her eyes away from the other woman. She just cannot let something like this slide. “First of all, yes, that’s the whole point of being a transgender person, George.”

He opens his mouth to counter, but she’s tired of being interrupted and speaks right over him. “And second of all, gender isn’t set in stone, and it’s certainly not granted by God.” 

“That’s ridiculous—”

“And frankly, I find this entire discussion to be extremely troubling. The fact that you have so little respect for the lives and dignity—”

“Now wait a minute—”

Her eyes flash at him not to interrupt. “—the lives and dignity of my trans brothers and sisters, speaks volumes about the kind of person you are. You know, we’ve come a long way with gay rights, but I’ll not sit here and have you insult members of my community—"

George does a double take. “Your community?”

“I—” Anne is taken aback. Does he not know? “The LGBT community?”

There’s a pause around the table, silence thick and uncomfortable.

Anne tries again. “You know, the queer community?” 

George’s eyes widen. “You—what—!” 

Anne opens her mouth to explain, glancing back to Elizabeth and Ann, but the look on her students’ face makes the words die in her throat. The poor girl is shaking, and her face has gone so pale, she looks like she might faint at any moment. 

With surprising force, the reality of what she’s done comes slamming into her. The feeling is eerily familiar, and it makes her sick in her stomach. Never in a million years did she think she would having breakfast over at Ann’s house, and now she’s ruined everything with her brash behavior—just like she used to do with Mariana, and just like she’s doing again with Ann. Making her mind up in an instant, she gets up from her seat as calmly as she can and clears her throat. 

“I think I ought to leave you to it.” She feels her insides tremble with the implication of what she’s done, but she impresses herself with how cool her voice is. She turns to Elizabeth. “Thank you for having me, Elizabeth. You really shouldn’t have.”

There’s a gruff “hmpf” heard from George, but she doesn’t stay to dignify it with a response. Instead, she whirls around and dashes to the front door, face burning with fury. 

Her feet carry her out of the house and she crosses the street to her car but doesn’t stop. There’s too much energy coursing through her veins for her to even consider sitting still now. She can hear the muffled sounds of shouting in the house behind her, and she grits her teeth in frustration. Her breath comes out in short gasps as she walks quickly away from the house, like she’s trying to run from her regret.

Why does she always have to do this? It feels like she is watching a reel of all the times she’d started yet another argument with Mariana’s family play out in slow motion, and she’s powerless to stop it from happening again. She doesn’t know how, but she wants to take back the last twenty-minutes of her life, to go back to a point in time where Ann Walker is sleeping, most likely with a peaceful look on her face, not the haunted one now seared into her mind. God, what a mess.

Her thoughts propel her faster by the houses, and it feels like she’s pounding out her frustration on the pavement. She approaches a small park with playground equipment and a gazebo with a low roof—a quaint scene, but she barely notices it. She’s so intent on burning through her irritation at herself that she doesn’t see the small children playing on the swings, doesn’t realize how striking a figure she’s cutting through the neighborhood. Instead, all she sees are flashes of all the times she’d made a scene at yet another gathering with Mariana’s family, the pattern of toxic shouting and arguing becoming familiar over the years. 

She knows she can be brash—knows that she can run others ragged when she’s passionate about something, but Good Lord, did Mariana have to always make her feel worse about it after it was over?  Weren’t they supposed to be partners? Weren’t they supposed to have each others’ back? The thought makes her eyes sting with tears, and she curses at herself for feeling so much—too much—all the time. 

She’s lost in her thoughts, agonizing over regrets swirling around in her head, and doesn’t even realize she’s made a giant loop around the neighborhood until she’s almost back on the same street where she began. Her legs slow their pace as she approaches her car, and with a start, she recognizes the figure that’s nervously pacing on the sidewalk by it.

Ann Walker’s hair is frazzled and from the angle as she approaches, Anne can make out the red of her eyes against the pale skin of her face. Her footsteps are loud, and as she gets closer, Ann looks up from where she’d been staring holes into the ground, and the watery look in her eyes makes her heart sink.

The words are out of her mouth before she can even control herself. They feel too big, clumsy, but she’s drowning in regret and she needs to let them out. “Ann! Thank God you’re here!”

She finally stops right in front of her, and breathes out in relief. Ann still looks stricken, but if she can just apologize enough, say the right words, make her realize how sorry she is, maybe she can put the smile back on her face. “I’m really sorry about all the trouble I caused. I’m sure you’re angry with me, and you have every right to be.”

She takes half a step closer, trying to be nearer to Ann, trying to take in any of her essence that she’ll let her, but her heart breaks a little when Ann takes a step back instinctively, eyes darting about to glance at the empty street around them. Anne follows her gaze, but doesn’t see anyone else out there with them who might overhear their conversation. It makes Anne want to scream into the sky at how unfair it is that she hasn’t even touched Ann yet since she got back to Ames.

Trying to bridge the gap between them with more words, Anne keeps talking. “I know I can be a lot. I know I can come on very strong. I can be abrasive. And I am sorry about that. It’s just that—George had to go and say those things, and how could I not say anything, Ann? How could I just sit there and let him spout all that nonsense, completely disregard people’s humanity? It would just destroy me, I had to—”

“Anne—” Her voice is soft and there’s an undercurrent of something urgent running through it, but Anne doesn’t notice because she’s too caught up trying to mend the broken pieces of her past, and more words are tumbling out of her mouth, filling up the space in front of her like a desperate buffer for her guilt. “I didn’t know that they’d be back early. I didn’t mean to cause a scene. I suppose I should have checked with you first, but I just… I wanted to surprise you.”

Ann opens her mouth to say something but closes it as Anne finishes talking. It’s only after a moment of silence passes between them that Anne finally notices the way the younger woman is shaking. It looks like she is vibrating with the implications of something momentous, but its significance is lost on Anne. Until now.

“Ann?” She bends her knees to try to meet her eyes. “What’s going on?” 

The younger woman worries her bottom lip between her teeth, and she sees her struggle to surface from the depths of something very painful. 

“I….” She looks up, eyes shockingly red, voice cracking with tears.

Anne tries again. “Ann? What happened?” There’s panic rising in her, but she tries to stay calm.

Ann takes a hard swallow, and tears start welling up in her eyes. “I just…” She closes her eyes and the tears fall down her cheeks. She looks absolutely devastated, and that terrifies Anne.

Even as her body screams for the other woman, she can’t hold her, can’t kiss her. In that moment, she wants nothing more than to take her and wrap her up in her heart, protect her from whatever has her so broken. “Baby…” she whispers, and the word makes Ann cry even harder. “…tell me what’s going on?”

Ann sobs as she tries to speak, shoulders shaking from the emotion. Then, taking in a deep breath to steady herself, she whispers out the words painfully, like they’re falling out of a crack in her that she cannot mend. “I just came out to my family.”

When the words are out, Ann starts crying even harder, body shaking with silent sobs, and she holds both hands to her mouth, trying to keep them in. 

Anne feels her mind grind to a halt as she processes what’s been said. It breaks her heart that she cannot do more for Ann in that moment, but she knows how personal and emotional this journey can be. Her hands flex instinctively around nothing, needing to hold the other woman to her body. 

“How—” Anne clears her throat, words sticking on their way up. “How did it go?”

The younger woman lets out a teary laugh. “Terribly. But maybe… with time… it’ll get better.” 

“Oh, Ann…” Anne looks upon her with wonder. Again and again, Ann Walker amazes her with her quiet courage. She doesn’t know what will happen next—can’t promise how this will play out—but she knows with every fiber of her being that she’ll be do everything she can to help her work through the coming tide.

“I just needed to say it. I just needed them to know. I couldn’t take it anymore.” Ann’s voice is rising as she relives the moment. “After you left, he—It was just—Oh, Anne! I couldn’t just sit there and listen to him talk like that about someone I—”

She stops herself and glances up at Anne, the weight of the unspoken words resting heavily between them. Ann studies her face, eyes wandering across her forehead, her lips, her eyes, like she’s trying to burn the details into her mind before they disappear. 

“What?” Anne whispers softly. Every other thought leaves her mind because she’s never wanted anything more than to hear Ann finish her sentence. It feels like the three words could fill her soul up so easily—could heal her cracks so quickly.

Ann sees the glimmer in her eyes and smiles at her through her tears, a sudden calm washing over her face. Then, the words rush out on a breath that Anne feels on her lips. “I love you, Anne.” 

She cannot help but expel a loud breath from her lungs, face splitting into a big smile as well. “Oh.”

“I am in love with you. Just the way you are.” Ann shakes her head, like she can’t believe the woman she’s seeing standing in front of her. “Passionate. Strong. Magnificent. Anne.” 

There’s a lump in Anne’s throat, and she feels raw and exposed in front of Ann. It’s as though the other woman is taking all ugly parts of herself that she’s learned to live with and is slowly pulling them into her arms, healing her piece by piece. This revelation is overwhelming, and she can’t stop her hand from reaching out to grasp Ann’s upper arm, trying to press into her emotion she cannot express. Anne has always prided herself with taking action, with doing rather than talking, so it kills her that she can’t do more but squeeze her arm and try to imprint into her how much she cares for her. 

Glancing over at the house windows, she sees a curtain whip back into place, and the need to be alone with Ann Walker becomes too strong to ignore. Ann follows her gaze and the same haunted look creeps back into her eyes. She can see that there’s a lot more that Ann wants to say, but standing on the street in front of her house is not the place to do it. 

She feels an overpowering urge to shield the younger woman from all her heartbreak. If she could fight all her fights for her—if she could push away all the trauma of coming out, she would. Instead, all she can do is lean over to open the car door behind Ann, motioning for her to get in the passenger seat, before sprinting over to the driver’s side and sliding in next to her. 

Her hands shake as she turns on the ignition, buckles her seatbelt, and engages the car into gear. The need to act—to go somewhere safe—courses through her veins. In the space between them, Ann reaches over and rests her hand over the one trembling on the emergency brake. Her skin is cold but soft, wrapping over the ridges of her knuckles with such fondness that it makes her pause and look up. 

Their eyes meet in the small space, and the look that passes between them is electric. They’re both almost bursting with need for one another. Too many words have been said, and not enough kisses have been shared. Ann’s voice shakes as she asks the question. “Where are you taking me, Anne?”

There’s a surprising wave of insecurity rising in her, but she finds that it doesn’t hold much power over her. She now knows Ann wants her—just the way she is. And she’ll throw herself headfirst into the terrifying thing that’s growing between them if it means she can have any bit of Ann Walker that she’ll give her.

“Come home with me, Ann.” She means every word, means every tenderness passing through where their hands are touching. “Come be with me.”

Ann’s eyebrows twitch ever so slightly, and she smiles while biting her bottom lip. “I’d like that.”

“Okay.” Anne nods and returns her smile.

With that, the car moves, pulling away from the curb and slowly rolling through the street. They’re silent as they pick up speed, both too overwhelmed for words.

As the houses whip past the windows, it feels like they’re both leaving behind their regrets—the parts of themselves that never really fit and speeding toward the magic of what they see when they look at each other. Anne’s smile widens when she realizes that she can’t wait to see who they become together.

Chapter Text

The drive over to Anne’s house is mostly spent in strained silence, with the weight of what Ann Walker just did sitting heavily on both women. Anne occasionally takes her eyes off the road to sneak a glance at the younger woman as she stares out the window, blue eyes cast up at the sky, looking like she’s a world away. 

Every few minutes, Anne feels her stomach tense up at the implications of what Ann just did—coming out to her family—in the way she did—she knows it can’t be easy. There’s a small part of her heart that’s aching with the need to comfort Ann, to reassure her that she’s still so into her, to hear the same words spoken back to her, but she knows there will be time for that later—when Ann has had time to process her own emotions.

She hears Ann sigh lightly as they turn into her own neighborhood, the houses markedly older, and more traditional in their styles than the new sprawling mansions they just came from. When they finally pull up to her house, Anne’s heart suddenly skips a beat, quickening with each step they take up the driveway. It’s not until they approach her front door that a sudden realization dawns on her: 

Ann is about to enter her marital home of the last ten years—all the choices made about their lives laid out to bare in every piece of furniture, every dark corner, and every carpet stain. It’s the last vestige of her life that hasn’t been touched by Ann Walker, and the significance of that revelation makes her heart sink with vulnerability.

She doesn’t get to dwell on the competing thoughts tugging back and forth in her mind because her key is in already in the lock, and the door is already swinging open as she steps into the familiar dark foyer.

She turns around when she doesn’t sense Ann’s presence immediately behind her and sees the younger woman pause in the doorway, an uncertain look on her face as the same thought occurs to her. Their eyes meet in the dark, and Anne feels the crushing weight of the impossible start to tear her apart from the inside. It’s impossible because she knows she couldn’t have lived the past twenty years any differently, but she feels herself yearn for memories with Ann Walker that don’t exist. How can she possibly miss a piece of herself that she didn’t even know she needed until the other woman came along and showed her exactly what it was like to feel complete, to finally have her restless heart click into place? What happened to two decades of searching for something that had eluded her, only to find it on the other side of all the heartbreak, struggle, and disappointment? It’s as though she had been walking through a grayscale world only to have it explode into glorious technicolor when Ann Walker kissed her.

“Anne?” The younger woman’s voice breaks her out of the spell she’s in, and she quickly fumbles around on the wall for the light switch. 

When the space floods with the soft glow of the recessed lighting, she hears Ann let out a quiet gasp behind her. 

Anne has never considered her home to be grand by any measure, but the modest house still holds a meticulously selected collection of antique furnishings that have been painstakingly restored and maintained by her. The love she has put into curating all her furnishings shows clearly in every polished piece, in every book lining the oversized bookcase along the back wall, in all the gentle signs of use at the welcoming fireplace. 

Ann instinctively steps forward into the inviting space, a small smile already tugging at the corner of her lips as she takes in the well-lived surroundings. Where her house was all bright lights and stark lines, Anne’s house swells with the comforts of rich leather, smooth edges, and dark wood. There’s a spirit of something full of age and history that hangs in the air of the home, and at first, she cannot put her finger on the root of the feeling. But as she moves further through the living room and starts entering the space adjoining the large kitchen, she stops short as she catches sight of the back wall. 

Anne can feel the change in energy even before she sees Ann stop dead in her tracks and her back stiffen with tension. She shouldn’t be surprised, because she knew this was bound to happen, but she’s not prepared for how much the sharp pain in her chest hurts when confronted with the reality. 

“Ann?” She approaches the other woman from behind, moving slowly to her side, almost as if she’s afraid to scare her. When she approaches the brightly lit wall that has caught Ann’s attention, she allows herself a moment to take in the familiar sight of the impressive collage of photographs detailing a life full of family events, birthdays, and travels to the farthest corners of the earth. The vivid colors and details in each photograph paint a picture of a life lived quickly—almost frantically—and through it all, is the face of the woman who’s been at the center of it. 

She watches as Ann’s eyes flick to Mariana’s face in each of the photographs, looking at the sharp, almost teasing smirk that appears so often next to Anne’s quietly stoic expression. Anne sees her taking in the places they’ve been together, the people they’ve surrounded themselves with, and she wonders if she feels a tiny sliver of envy for all of her good years she’s spent with someone else. 

She feels a prickling on the back of her neck as she looks around, suddenly realizing that she can feel Mariana on every surface, in every room, in the very air that they breathe. She wonders if Ann can feel it too, and the very thought that she can never erase that part of herself makes her want to scream—to tear down the wall of photographs— to scrub every inch of her skin raw until no trace of Mariana remains. Standing next to Ann, she quietly grieves her inability to give Ann the part of her that is untouched by Mariana, but fate seemed have to other plans, and now, it’s much too late for that. 

After several moments of studying the faces, Ann tilts her head up, as if contemplating something hidden behind the photographs. 

“You’ve done so much, Anne.” She still doesn’t meet her gaze, and there’s a strange strangled quality to her voice. “You both have.” 

Her eyes wander and eventually land on a large photograph of Anne and Mariana, both holding on to one another and laughing at something the other said. It takes Ann a moment to realize it, but when she takes in the smooth silk of Mariana’s white dress and the smart tailored tuxedo Anne is wearing, she flushes bright red. 

It’s a photo of Anne on her wedding day.

Seeing this, Anne leans in closer to speak softly into the curve of her shoulder, trying to get closer to her by instinct. “Are you alright?” The sweet floral scent of Ann that meets her nose makes warmth radiate out from her heart, and Anne has to tear herself away from pressing her lips to the soft skin of Ann’s neck.

Her soft voice murmured into the space between them seems to break Ann’s trance and she hums quietly as she tilts her face to look back at her. Then she motions back to the photo with a nod of her head. “You two look so beautiful in this one.”

There’s something breaking inside of Anne as she hears the other woman speak, and she needs to swallow down the lump that’s forming in her throat. She tries to look at the picture of their smiling faces as objectively as she can, and if she focuses enough she can almost remember what it felt like to be with Mariana on the day of their wedding—all smiling faces, excitement brimming in their hearts, the victory of defying Anne’s family to get married against their wishes spurring them forcefully through life. Looking back, Anne realizes that so much of what had defined their relationship was overcoming adversity together, rebelling against a world that has only ever seen how unusual Anne is, not how clever she is. But gradually, over the years, all the energy spent fighting against the world started getting redirected toward one another, tearing them apart piece by piece, until all that was left were two bitter, battered women, who woke up one day and realized they had barely anything in common anymore. 

Anne feels a sudden anger well up in her as she looks upon the wall full of a lifetime of memories spent with the wrong woman, chasing a dream she never wanted, her soul splintering apart from a heart that shattered in slow motion.

She doesn’t realize she’s trembling and clenching her jaw until she feels Ann’s hand on her shoulder. The warm contact grounds her, and she blinks through the tears that threaten to spill from her eyes. Anne Lister thinks of herself as a proud, accomplished, confident woman, but in this moment, the shame of her failed marriage threatens to eat her up whole, and she can barely bring herself to look back at Ann. 

When she eventually summons the strength to speak again, her voice is thick with emotion. “I haven’t had the…” she takes a deep breath, “time… to take these down.” She motions weakly with her hand at the wall of photographs, knowing that the excuse sounds equally flimsy to the both of them. 

No longer able to tolerate the sight of the photos, Anne starts turning away, trying to look anywhere but at the evidence of the biggest personal failure in her life. Even if it’s Ann’s gentle but firm grip on her shoulder stops her from turning completely away, it’s her quiet voice full of understanding that stops her from sinking further into guilt. 

“It’s okay, Anne.” There’s sadness in her voice, but where Anne was expecting jealousy, she only hears wisdom.

“What?” She looks up at the younger woman through her lashes, once again in awe at the quiet strength she sees in her. 

“I mean it, Anne.” She’s smiling softly at her, eyes glittering with the lights from the kitchen. “Whatever needed to happen, whatever heartbreak we’ve both had to endure to get here—I’m glad for it. Because I get to have you in my life now.”

Ann’s words claw away at the shame that’s been slowly suffocating her since they stepped into her home, and for a moment, she feels like she can start to breathe freely again. Anne sighs deeply, feeling the some of the weight roll off her shoulders. Then, it’s her turn for quiet contemplation. “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we had met twenty years ago. If I hadn’t married Mariana.”

A quiet chuckle escapes Ann’s lips in a puff of air. “I would have still been in grade school, Anne!” 

Anne does the quick calculation in her mind and breaks out into a smile too. “Right.” The image of a young Ann Walker going off to school flashes through her mind and she feels her heart swell at the thought. It’s wistful thinking, but she so desperately wants to know all the mundane details, all the peculiar preferences, everything that has made Ann the woman she is today. 

“My point is,” Ann continues, still smiling at her. “Things couldn’t have worked out differently for us. I am in love with the Anne Lister you are today, not the woman you were twenty years ago.”

Anne is silent as she takes in the way Ann Walker manages to deconstruct the impossibly complex situation into something so simple. She feels suddenly foolish for mourning what has happened, when Ann Walker is standing right here, right now, smiling at her like she is her world.

“You’re right.” She faces Ann fully, reaching out to grasp her shoulders as she speaks, her voice soft as she aches for the other woman. “Our time on this earth is brief.” 

“Yes.” Ann nods, moving closer to her, eyes shining with tenderness as her breathing picks up.

Anne’s nostrils flare as she catches a whiff of Ann’s distinct scent. “We should all try to make the most of the time we have.”

“Mhm.” They’re moving closer, eyes dropping to each others’ lips as Anne continues speaking softly.

“And try to be as happy as we can be.” Anne murmurs, their faces barely an inch apart, her hot breath ghosting across Ann’s parted lips.

Ann tilts her head up, almost like she’s inviting Anne to capture her lips with her own with the subtle movement. 

“And you, Ann Walker…” She whispers, feeling her lips lightly brush against Ann’s as she speaks. “Make me very, very happy.”

Her heart flutters as their eyes meet, hearts skip a beat, and then they lurch forward, unable to wait another moment longer to be connected again. 

When their lips meet, it feels like the air rushes out from the space between them, and all that remains is the electric need to feel as much of each other as they can. Anne’s hands make their way up to the back of Ann’s head, fingers winding through her blonde locks as they try to pull her closer, try to merge their bodies into one. She presses her lips harder against Ann’s, an urgent need for the other woman bubbling up from deep within her. The added pressure rips a low moan from Ann’s mouth as she stumbles backwards from the unexpected force, and the sound, coupled with the exquisite feel of the younger woman’s soft curves under her simple clothes makes a scorching heat roar to life within Anne. 

They keep moving backwards slowly towards the kitchen, lips sliding against one another, hands grasping at clothes, until Ann’s back meets the cold stone of the granite countertops. Ann breaks their kiss to breathe into the hot space between their lips. “I’ve missed you.” 

Through the thick desire coursing through both their veins, Anne recognizes the tenderness in her eyes. There’s an unexpected amount of devotion reflected back in them, but she barely registers the deep pull of something profound in the back of her mind because a wild and desperate need for the other woman is burning through her chest, spreading like wildfire across her limbs, making her close the distance between them again with another scorching kiss. She presses her body into Ann’s, and feels the other woman push back into hers, like she’s responding to Anne’s desperate call to somehow merge their souls into one.

Their bodies rock against one another, hips pushing roughly forward, grinding against whatever friction they can find between them. But it’s not enough. It’s Anne’s turn to break their kiss, and the whimper that follows the separation rings out sharply against the hard surfaces of the kitchen. Her mind is racing faster than her body can act, but she manages to grasp Ann’s hips and give her a brief warning look before roughly lifting her up to sit on the counter. 

Ann gasps and giggles at the sudden change in position, and Anne cannot help but grin in return. The delightful combination of soft innocence and feminine sensuality that the younger woman exudes sends a thrill down her spine, and the need to devour Ann Walker whole makes her almost growl out her words under her breath. “I’ve missed you too. I’ve missed this.

Anne kisses her again roughly, tongue darting out to taste Ann’s lips while her hands skate across her hips, tugging at the hem of her t-shirt, trying to feel her soft skin beneath her fingertips. The frantic grabbing of the fabric makes Ann groan softly into her mouth, and Anne finally works her way underneath the shirt, coming into contact with the warm soft skin of Ann’s hip. 

The whimper that Ann releases into her mouth winds its way up Anne’s neck and lodges itself into the back of her mind, bringing to life the rhythmic chant of “Ann, Ann, Ann,” over and over in her head, until the words spill out into reality and she’s moaning them out loud as she runs her hands up her body, cupping her breasts firmly in both her hands. 

Ann throws her head back to cry out into the quiet air, “Oh God. Anne!” Her chest rises and falls under Anne’s firm grip, nipples hard and straining against her bra as they push into Anne’s warm hands.

A haze has started to creep in the corners of Anne’s vision, her desire for the other woman altering her senses, making her mind whirl and world tilt on its axis. She feels drunk from the way Ann fills all her senses— the delightful way she smells, the way her soft skin feels under her fingertips, the way her lips part for her tongue, like she wants to drink all of Anne Lister if she’ll let her. 

She doesn’t remember consciously making the decision to take Ann right here, right now, on her kitchen counter, but before she can second guess herself, she’s already unbuttoning her jeans, pulling down her zipper, and urging the younger woman to lift herself off the hard surface so she can pull down her pants past her knees, taking her underwear with it in the process. 

They are both breathing hard, like they’ve run a marathon when their eyes meet again. Anne can see how wide Ann’s pupils are, and how a subtle flush of red is creeping down her neck from her arousal. Anne steps forward between her legs where she’s perched on the counter, and she doesn’t break her gaze as she slides the palm of her hands up Ann’s naked thighs. Ann hisses through her teeth at the sensation and her eyes slam shut in anticipation. Her breaths come out in short bursts as she tries to control her trembling. 

It’s taking every ounce of self-control that she has, but Anne manages to stop herself from burying her fingers to the knuckles in Ann and pull back ever so slightly. Even though it’s not their first time, the significance of their physical intimacy in this context makes everything feel new, like they’re crossing an invisible boundary. After this, there will be no more hiding behind the exception of conferences, historic churches, airplanes, or Disneyland. Anne feels like they are standing on a precipice, the magic of how good they are together crashing into the reality of their everyday lives.

“Ann,” She whispers against her lips, hands lingering near the apex of her legs, brushing against the soft flesh of the inside of her thighs. When she stills her wandering hand, Ann finally opens her eyes, her bright blues searching for what caused Anne to stop. 

They finally lock gazes, and Anne licks her lips before asking in a low, gravelly voice, “Can I touch you?”

Ann bites her lip and nods so vigorously that her blonde curls bounce around her face. She looks like she might pass out from wanting something that’s so close but just out of reach. “Please,” she cries out, shamelessly pleading at Anne.

Anne doesn’t need to be told twice. Her eyes try to flutter shut but she manages to maintain eye contact as she trails the middle finger of her right hand up to meet the wet heat between Ann’s legs. The amount of moisture that she slides through as she works her way between the soft folds makes the both of them groan loudly, and she sees Ann throw her head back and lean back with her palms down on the cold stone, holding herself up as her body shudders at the sensation. 

The slick wet sound of her fingers slipping through her swollen flesh makes them both turn bright red, and Anne can’t keep the words pounding around in her head from slipping out through gritted teeth. “Fuck. Ann. You’re so ready for me.”

At her words, Ann jerks her hips forward, and the new angle makes Anne’s thumb accidentally brush against the swollen nub peeking out between her folds. The contact sends Ann careening forward, a loud cry on her lips as she clutches Anne’s shoulders with more force than she intends. 

A dark chuckle leaves Anne’s lips at the reaction. “Oh, you like that, huh, baby?” She feels Ann’s hot breath against her ear as she brings her fingers up to rub light circles around Ann’s clit. The action earns her a loud moan in her ear, and she feels Ann’s body quake around her, arms trembling from the strain of holding on to her. 

Oh my God,” she feels Ann whisper against her jaw, and when Anne pulls back to look at her face, she realizes that there are streaks of tears making their way down her cheeks, eyelashes dotted with the moisture leaking out from the corners of her eyes. She almost stops to ask Ann if she’s alright, but the blissful smile on her face tells her everything that she needs to know. It is clear from the way that Ann rocks against her fingers and gasps against her ear, that Ann feels so deeply in that moment. The realization that the simple motion of her fingers against her sensitive flesh can bring her such earth-shattering pleasure makes something warm bloom in her chest.

Anne is so caught up in soaking in the way the other woman feels that she doesn’t realize that Ann has almost reached her climax until it’s almost too late. The fingers gripping her shoulders have been steadily increasing in pressure, and the breaths against her cheek have been getting more erratic. There’s something tearing inside Anne when she realizes that it’s happening too quickly—that she’s not ready for Ann to be so close yet—not when she’s barely had time to get reacquainted with her glorious, sensual, delicate body. 

So, she does the only thing in her power at that moment. She stills her movements, leaving her finger pressed against Ann’s swollen clit. 

Ann’s eyelids flutter as she opens her eyes, searching for Anne’s. “W-what?”

Anne is breathing hard, trying to control her body, but she manages to groan out between her pants. “Not yet, baby. Don’t come yet.”

A whimper escapes Ann’s lips at the command, and she leans back, palms slapping against the cold stone of the countertops in frustration. She swallows once, twice, then nods almost imperceptibly at the ceiling, her eagerness to please Anne momentarily overriding her desire for release.  

Anne takes the opportunity to rake her eyes down the slim figure before her, taking in the delicate curves, the pink of her nipples, the soft patch of hair leading down to the wet, hot, folds that her hand was stroking not a moment ago. As her eyes drop down to the space between her legs, she hears Ann let out a quiet moan. 

A fraction of a second later, she feels it: Ann’s clit throbs— hard—under her finger. She darts her eyes back up to look at Ann and catches her looking down the space between her legs as well. 

The realization that Ann is getting off on simply looking at her touching—not moving—simply just touching her, jolts through her body, and she lets out a low groan into the space between them. “Jesus, Ann. You’re incredible.” 

The moment the words leave her mouth she feels Ann’s clit twitch again under her finger, and they both moan in unison at the sensation. Their eyes meet and the silent question passes between them: How is it possible for things to feel so good between them? For them to fit so well together?

Anne is overwhelmed by the need to feel Ann’s lips against her own again, so she leans forward to capture her lips with her own, finger applying more pressure on the sensitive flesh in the process. Their lips meet with a raw moan dying between them, and she feels Ann’s breathing pick up as their tongues dance and slide against one another. She’s still barely moving against her, but she can feel the twitching and throbbing increasing in frequency as their kisses heat up. 

Ann suddenly pulls back and whispers a warning, “Anne… I’m…Please…” 

Red hot desire courses through her veins when she hears the way Ann practically begs her for her release, so she nods her head, relenting, and grinding out her permission between her clenched teeth. “Okay, baby. You can come now. Come for me, Ann.” 

The cry that rips from the younger woman’s throat at the command can probably be heard two doors down, but Anne is beyond caring. All her attention is focused on the way Ann feels beneath her finger, pulsating as she reaches the edge. And then in an instant, Anne makes up her mind and angles her hand downwards and slides her middle finger into the other woman in one smooth motion. 

There’s a low groan that escapes Ann’s lips at the intrusion, and then her body is curling forward, head pressing into Anne’s chest as she twitches from her orgasm. Because of her angle on the counter, she’s deeper in the other woman than she’s been before, and Anne can feel her inner walls clamping down around her single finger. The ripples that cascade around her digit as Ann moans loudly through her climax is almost enough to induce her own orgasm, but instead, she manages to whisper into the other woman’s hair, “Oh God, Ann. I can feel you coming around my finger, baby. That’s it.”

She thinks she hears Anne try to say something between sharp gasps and strangled moans, but she cannot make out the words. She can feel Ann tremble in her arms as she rides wave after wave of her release, and she can’t remember the last time she felt so complete—so exactly where she needed to be than in that moment. 

When the tremors die down and Ann starts relaxing in her arms, she pulls back, and the look on the younger woman’s face takes her breath away. There’s a glimmer in her eyes, full of wonder for how much pleasure can bring her.

“Anne…” She brings her hand up to stoke her cheek as she studies her face. It seems that both of them are at a loss for words, and the tears that have been collecting at the corner of Ann’s eyes start to fall again. 

“Come here, baby.” Anne pulls her to her chest and wraps her arms around her, trying to soothe the younger woman. 

Ann sobs into her chest, “I—” But the words die in her throat, so Anne clutches her tighter, hearts beating as one as they press into each other.

“I know.” She strokes the back of her head. “I know.” She repeats. Because no words need to be said. The truth between both women is clear: They belong together. They’re made for one another.

Anne clutches her eyes shut, something overwhelming threatening to spill out from her heart. How is it possible that Ann is real? That any of this is real?

Almost as if she can hear her thoughts, Ann pulls back slowly, nose red from her tears, eyes unfocused from her crying. But beneath the watery glance, she sees a quiet calm reflected back in them—almost as if she knows that will happen next. 

“Take me to bed, Anne.” Her soft, melodious voice cuts straight through the fog taking over Anne’s brain, and before her mind can catch up, her body is already pulling Ann off the counter, leaving her discarded clothes scattered on the kitchen floor, and leading her down the dark hallway to her bedroom. 

While letting Ann into her home has left her feeling vulnerable, inviting her into her bedroom—the inner core of her house, filled with her dreams, her wishes, her deepest desires—feels exceedingly intimate. Their footsteps are muffled as they step into the bedroom, the push carpets and bedding making their breaths sound closer, quieter, compared to the open space they were just in.

Anne turns around as they approach the bed, the faint glow of the morning sun filtering through the thick curtains illuminating the space. The other woman’s face appears calm in the darkness, her eyes still glittering from moisture as they take in the bed, the little things on Anne’s nightstand, the pictures on the wall. It’s as though she’s searching all the dark corners of the room for any little piece that will give her clues about who Anne Lister is. 

“So,” There’s a lightheartedness in Ann’s voice as she clasps her hands behind her back playfully. “This is where the magic happens, huh?” 

The laugh that rips out of Anne’s throat surprises her, and she steps forward, arms out in a dramatic gesture, wide smile on her face and mischief glimmering in her eyes. “Yes. Welcome to my inner sanctum, Miss Walker.” 

A similar look of amusement lights up her face, but Ann’s giggle is much more musical, filling the space, bouncing off the walls, and making Anne’s heart lurch in her chest. The pounding in her ears gets louder as the other woman moves closer to her, soft smile still lighting up her face. 

“I’m really glad to be here, Anne.” The sudden seriousness in her voice brings them back down to earth. There’s a sincerity in her eyes that makes Anne focus on them.

“Well,” she smiles at her coyly, heart brimming full of joy that this woman—this woman in particular—is with her, right here, right now. “I’m glad you’re here with me.” 

It feels like there’s something pulling them closer to one another, almost beyond their control, until their hips are pressed against one another, their noses almost touching. Anne can feel hot breath against her own lips, the heat of the other woman radiating against her own skin.

“Is this okay?” Anne tentatively asks as she reaches out between them, fingers craving to touch any inch of Ann’s flesh, but settling instead with winding her arms around her slim waist, pulling her firmly against her body.

Ann lets out quiet groan as her eyes flutter shut and her hips cant forward instinctually into her own. “Anne…” 

The intense heat building low in her belly starts up again, and she feels her pelvic muscles contract at the way Ann’s chest rises and falls rapidly, mere inches away from being devoured by her lips. They’re both breathing hard, but Anne manages to groan out between pants, “Hmm?”

“Tell me…” Ann swallows hard, still grinding her hips forward as her hands snake around Anne’s hips to pull her even closer. “Tell me… what do you want, Anne? What do you want me to do to you?”

Anne blinks two times and tries to focus on the words. It takes her a few seconds to process Ann’s question, but when she does, she can hardly believe what she’s hearing. “You want to... what--?”

The corner of Ann’s lips quirk up in a shy smile. “I know I’m not…” She tucks her chin into her chest. “…the most experienced.” 

“Ann—I’m not—”

Ann brings her finger up to Anne’s lips, stopping her midsentence. “I know you’ve been with many other women before—”

“Well, I—”

“It’s okay, Anne!” Her eyes flash with a small amount of annoyance at the repeated interruption. “What I’m saying is,” she takes a deep breath before continuing. “I may not know very much when it comes to these things, but let me please you. Show me how to please you, Anne.” 

The earnestness in her voice makes Anne’s heart skip a beat and she pulls back to study her face carefully. Is it possible that Ann actually means what she’s saying? Does she even know what she’s asking for? What if it all becomes too much? What if—

“Anne,” Her quiet voice interrupts her musings before they spiral out of control. She can see that Ann is trying to hide her embarrassment at the request, but something more urgent is overriding it, making it spill out from her before she can stop herself. “Maria Barlow—"

Anne’s eyebrows shoot up at the mention of the name, and she opens her mouth to say something, but the sharp look that flashes across Ann’s face makes her stop and close her mouth.

“What…” Ann swallows nervously, biting her bottom lip. “What did you like to do with her?”

The thought crosses Anne’s mind before she can stop herself, and the mental image it produces makes her eyes go wide and her cheeks flush slightly. Ann doesn’t miss the change in her expression and her grin widens as she pulls Anne closer. “How you do want me, Anne?”

The way Ann widens her eyes, like she’ll do almost anything to please Anne, makes the throbbing between her legs intensify, and the fog of desire floods her senses again. Anne doesn’t even remember making up her mind, but she gives Ann one last pointed look before leading her over to the foot of the bed. 

Her heart is pounding in her chest, the anticipation of what she’s about to ask Ann to do threatening to paralyze her. But the look on Ann’s face gives her courage. Here is the woman who holds her heart. The one who wants all of her. And she’s standing in front of her, eager to please. All she has to do is say the word.

Anne swallows thickly before growling out her instructions lowly. “Take off your clothes.” She swears she can see Ann’s pupils visibly widen at the request, but she’s moving too quickly, whipping off her shirt and unclasping her bra. Anne herself makes quick work of her own pants and underwear, too heated to care about modestly, but she stops from undressing further when she sees Ann fidget with her hands, unsure of what to do next.

“Here.” Anne steps closer, the burning deep inside her intensifying at how eager Ann is to please her. “Get on the bed.”

Ann moves to get all the way up the bed, but she stops her before she does. “No. Just.” She puts her hands on her knees, stilling her. “Right here.” 

There’s a question in Ann’s eyes as she sits at the edge of the bed, legs open, Anne moving between them, before dropping to her knees on the floor. “Oh!”

Anne feels the terror of potential rejection fight with the crackling bolt of desire shooting through her body at the sight of Ann’s neatly shaven patch of hair between her legs, moisture seeping out between her swollen folds.

“You asked me what I’d like,” Anne doesn’t take her eyes away from the sight before her as she grinds out her words. “Well, I’d like to taste you.” She finally slides her gaze up to meet Ann’s eyes. “If you’ll let me?”

She can see Ann processing her request, uncertainty dancing in her eyes, but there’s also a flash of curiosity and desire chasing one another. Then, bringing her hand up to rest on Anne’s head, she nods quietly, looking down at the space between her own legs. 

The moment Anne gets her consent, she moves forward, inching her face closer to the heat before her. It feels like her brain is on fire as she realizes what she’s about to do, and the moment right before she makes contact with the slick heat, she hears Ann softly moan at the anticipation. But soon it’s all wetness, hot, soft flesh, and she can barely hear anything else over the roaring in her ears. The feeling of her tongue sliding through Ann’s folds almost short circuits her brain, but she’s brought back to the present when she feels fingers clutch her hair painfully. It’s only then that she realizes Ann has been crying out noisily, gasping out her name, breaths coming out in loud puffs of air.

She angles her face to look up at Ann, her tongue sliding up against her swollen clit in the process. The guttural moan that the other woman produces vibrates across the space between them, bouncing off the walls of the bedroom, filling the space with sounds of their shared desire. The way Ann writhes against the bedsheets, arching her back, panting loudly, suddenly makes Anne want to feel more of her. 

Without preamble, she brings her hand up and her fingers join her tongue, working their way through her wet folds until she finds what she’s looking for. 

Ann makes a strangled, primal sound as her finger circles her opening. “Oh my God, Anne!”

She doesn’t let up, tongue firmly stroking Ann’s clit as she slowly pushes two fingers deep into her wet heat. She’s trying to focus on fucking Ann Walker, but the slow pulsing around her fingers, the stretch of her entrance as she takes her fingers, and the way her clit twitches beneath her tongue every time she drives into Ann, makes her moan out loud into the swollen flesh. The vibration it causes sends Ann over the edge, her smooth velvet walls contracting almost painfully around her fingers as she comes for the second time that morning. Anne didn’t think it was possible, but she can feel her own arousal start peaking, just out of reach.

A rhythmic convulsing begins around her fingers and under her tongue, and Ann is chanting “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” into her forearm, her entire body tense and trembling from her orgasm. They’re both panting loudly into the room, in sync with one another, bodies writhing from the shared pleasure. Anne feels a tugging start pulling low in her belly, and the combined sensation of feeling Ann ripple around her, the raw cries of pleasure, and the wet sound of her tongue sliding against her bundle of nerves imprint deep inside Anne’s soul—like a memory waiting to be played over and over again in her most private moments. 

Her eyes start to fill with tears from the intensity of their coupling, and they instinctually dart up to look at Ann’s face twisted in pleasure. As she does, a profound thought crashes through her mind: She doesn’t understand, but she’s somehow managed to find this huge gap in her heart that’s shaped exactly like Ann Walker, and it is crying out to be filled by the other woman.

Ann’s soft voice cuts through her thoughts, making her pull back and wipe her chin on the back of her hand. “Come here, Anne.” 

Her heart feels like it’s exploding as she moves up over Ann, straddling her hips and meeting her lips with her own, a smile on her face. 

“Oh!” She hears Ann breathe in sharply with surprise, and she quickly pulls back, looking at her with confusion.

“You’re… uh…” Ann blushes, then glances down at their bodies pressed against one another. 

“What?” Anne frowns slightly, and suddenly realizes where her crotch had been resting on Ann’s body, and feels her face heat up at the realization as well. She’s so wet and she’s making a mess on Ann’s stomach.

“Do you--?” Ann looks up at her, a question in her eyes as she trails her hand down their bodies, fingers reaching but not quite touching the place that Anne needs her most. 

She’s almost afraid to hope that Ann is thinking the same thing, but the desire coursing through her is burning away her modesty. She feels herself flood with even more wetness at the mere thought of Ann touching her, and before she can stop herself, she’s groaning out her pleading request, too far gone to feel embarrassed. “Please, Ann. Please touch me. I’m already so close, baby.”

Ann doesn’t say anything. Instead, her tentative hand slides down into the space between their bodies, and time seems to stand still as her gentle fingers probe her swollen flesh, breath hissing through her teeth as she feels how slick she already is. 

“Anne—” She gasps as she reaches her swollen nub. “You feel amazing.”

Her mouth makes a sound, but Anne is too far gone to be coherent. Her mind cannot believe that Ann is finally touching her, and the sensation is beyond anything she could have even dreamed of. In the back of her mind, she registers Ann’s inexperienced touch, but in that moment, her body responds to the contact like nothing she’s ever experienced before. All the pent up tension and desire breaks open and washes over her, and she’s once again right there, at the precipice of her own release, all within mere seconds of being touched by Ann Walker.

Oh my fucking God, Ann!” Her jaw is clenched, and the words come out more like a growl as she squeezes her eyes shut at the oncoming wave of her pleasure. She doesn’t even know what Ann is doing to her—probably some clumsy combination of uneven circles and tentative strokes, but it somehow doesn’t seem to matter, because everything feels tight right before the explosion. 

She feels Ann’s other hand softly caressing her cheek as she jerks forward with the first wave of her climax, and she manages to flutter her eyes open to look into the crystal blues right before her. There’s wonder reflected back in them, like she can’t believe how quickly Anne came alive under her fingers, and how magnificent she looks as she falls apart above her.

Wave after wave of her release wash over her and she can feel Ann eagerly continue to massage her sensitive spot, gasping and panting in time with her own stuttering breaths. In the throes of her pleasure, Anne cannot stop the flashes of fantasy about their future from shooting through her mind: soft kisses laced with the taste of coffee in the morning, walking around a lake hand in hand as sunset hits the late Fall amber of the maple leaves, falling asleep in each others’ arms as a cheesy movie plays out in the darkness of the living room. 

A sob is ripped out of her throat as the vivid visions play in her mind. She falls to the side, clutching on to Ann tightly as she recovers from her intense release, eyes squeezed shut as she tries to dispel the pointless fantasies. She doesn’t know how it’s possible to miss something that she’s never had, but the gaping hole in her life that aches for Ann Walker is suddenly more than she can bear.

“Anne? Are you alright?” The other woman is stroking her arm slowly, concern lacing her voice. But before she can reassure her, a sound in her periphery sends the hair on the back of her neck straight up. 

The click of the deadbolt turning is unmistakable, and she feels Ann stiffen a second later when the sound of the front door opening tears through the cocoon they’ve been hiding in since they got home.

Anne’s mind still feels addled from the rush of endorphins, and her limbs feel heavy as she tries to untangle herself from Ann. There’s a light squeak of surprise as Ann registers that another person is now in the house, and they’re suddenly scrambling to action, eyes wide with panic. 

Footsteps thud closer as they sit up in bed, hair wild from their activities. Anne’s brain kicks into overdrive at the prospect of an intruder, but before she flies into action, her heart drops when she hears the familiar voice call out somewhere in the kitchen.

“Anne? Are you home?” 

Time stands still as reality slams back into her. It’s the last voice she wants to hear right now. It’s Mariana.

Chapter Text

In the moments between hearing Mariana’s voice in the kitchen and the paralyzed seconds spent hovering over her new lover, a million thoughts fly through Anne Lister’s head. She can hear Mariana slowly make her way across the wooden floors, boards creaking slightly as she wanders through the house.

“Anne?” Mariana calls out again, voice rising slightly with concern, muffled by the solid wood of the bedroom door. 

Anne brings her focus back to their bodies, hearing Ann’s ragged breathing where she lays underneath her, soft curves rising up to meet Anne’s more angular form. Their eyes meet as a current of panic runs through them.

Even with her bright blue eyes wide in shock, Anne is struck by how utterly gorgeous the woman beneath her truly is. The traces of their lovemaking still seem to swirl in the air around them and the younger woman’s soft skin is practically glowing in the dim light of the room. Anne feels tortured by her exquisite beauty, torn between wanting to curl up into the other woman and never leave, and the need to deal with whatever catastrophe is waiting for her beyond the door.

With a deep sigh, she comes to her decision and lifts a single finger up to her lips before quietly and swiftly rolling off the body beneath her. She hears Ann make a soft whimper at her sudden departure, but she turns back around to give her a reassuring look from the foot of the bed. The sooner she can get this over with, the sooner she can be back in Ann’s warm embrace. At least that’s what she tells herself as she quickly pulls on her clothes and runs her fingers through her hair. 

She knows she doesn’t look her best, but it’ll have to do for the moment. Reaching the door, she gives Ann one last look, warmth creeping out from her heart when she sees the way the blonde looks at her—eyes wide with uncertainty and mussed hair making a golden halo around her head. 

“I’ll be right back, ok?” She murmurs softly, trying to appear calm. But there’s a roaring in her heart that won’t stay silent because every fiber of her being wants Ann Walker, and every moment spent apart feels like a splinter in her soul.

“Mm.” Ann nods, deflating back into the bed, reaching down to pull the sheets farther up her chin, like the linens might shield her from the unknown threat outside the room. 

Not wanting to delay the inevitable any longer, Anne takes a deep breath and opens the door, quickly stepping into the dark hallway and closing it behind her as quietly as she can. It takes her a moment to adjust to the low light, but she can already see the shadow of Mariana’s figure moving slowly at the end of the hallway. 

She’s trembling a little as she approaches the kitchen, and it bothers her that Mariana should make her feel this way in her own home. Technically, Mariana’s name is still on the title of the house, but after so many months of living apart, her sudden appearance in the space feels like an intrusion. 

Up to this moment, it’s felt like she had been living two lives—one of secrets and desire with Ann Walker, and another of bitterness and misery with Mariana. The realization that these two lives were now colliding together makes her heart leap into her throat.

“There you are!” Mariana’s face washes over with relief as she catches sight of Anne. She throws her hands up as she approaches her. “Where were you? Your car was out front, so I knew you were home, but you didn’t answer the door.” 

“Oh,” Anne tries to wave off her questioning, eyes darting around nervously, but eventually landing back on Mariana. For the first time in what has felt like a long time, Anne finds herself noticing just how beautiful Mariana really is. 

“I was…uh…” she trails off, taking in what appears to be a new green strapless dress accented with white floral details, hair worn down in a style she hasn’t seen before, curls brushing against her bare shoulders and accentuating the elegant arc of her neck. 

Anne’s eyes dart back up to meet Mariana’s and there’s a slight ache in her chest when she takes in how different she looks. It almost feels like all she did was look away for a brief moment, and now she’s missed out on so many little changes happening to the woman she had spent the last twenty years with. It is excruciating that she should suddenly miss so many things that she never even noticed before, but she swallows down the swell of regret threatening to bubble up and clears her throat. 

“I was taking a nap.” The excuse sounds reasonable when said out loud but seems hollow when she catches a whiff of Anne Walker on her lips as she talks. It had been barely ten minutes since the other woman came in her mouth, and even less time since she experienced one of the most earth shattering orgasms that she can ever remember. 

If Mariana notices her flushed face, she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she pulls out a big white envelope from her bag and plops it down unceremoniously on the kitchen counter.

“There.” She looks up, a sadness glazing over her eyes. “I signed it.”

“What?” Anne blinks twice, confused. Then, she catches sight of the envelope on the counter and her heart sinks. 

The Legal Separation Paperwork. This is it. 

“Oh.” She swallows hard, tearing her eyes away from the envelope and looks back at Mariana’s face, expecting to see turmoil. Instead, Mariana is wearing a strangely peaceful expression that she doesn’t recognize. 

“Anne—”

“Mary, I—” 

Both women deflate a little and Mariana lifts her hands, motioning for her to continue, her face breaking into a softer expression. “Go ahead, Anne.”

Anne audibly swallows and takes half a step forward, opening her mouth to say something—anything—but no words come to her. What can she say to Mariana? What can she say to the woman who she’s spent half her life with? The woman who she should know the best of anyone in the world? Who she barely recognizes anymore?

Mariana notices her falter and steps forward as well, making her way around the corner of the kitchen island, a rare expression of warmth spreading on her face.

At first, Anne feels relief bloom in her chest. Even after everything they’re been through, Mariana’s presence is still strangely comforting to her. But then the relief quickly turns into panic as she realizes what awaits Mariana as she steps closer.

Just around the corner of the white cabinetry, strewn across the floor and quickly becoming visible to Mariana as she steps around the island, is Ann Walker’s haphazardly discarded clothes—jeans still with the leg inside out from when she had stripped them off in a rush to touch the other woman.

Anne’s eyes widen as the realization dawns on her, and if Mariana didn’t notice the clothing on the floor before, she does now. Her eyes instinctively trail to follow Anne’s stricken gaze, and she stops in her tracks when she sees the clothes on the floor. At first, she doesn’t know what she’s looking at. But then, recognition registers on her face when she processes the item of clothing, pale pink underwear still wound up in the crotch of the pants, the color and cut not something that Anne Lister would be caught dead in. 

There’s confusion melting away into hurt when their eyes finally meet again, and Anne feels the air catch in her lungs. She knows this is the moment that she’s been avoiding, and she is not prepared for how the hurt lands in her gut. 

“Anne… W-who—?” Mariana stammers out, hand flying out to steady herself on the cool countertop. “Is that—”

“I wasn’t expecting you to come by…” Anne waves her hands, trying to move the conversation along, anxiety gnawing away at her belly. 

“I know.” Mariana narrows her eyes, trying to put the pieces together. “You weren’t supposed to be back in town for another day. I was just coming to drop that off.” She motions to the envelope on the counter. 

“And give this back to you.” She holds up a key that she must have been clutching in her hand, the cool metal glinting in the dim light of the kitchen. 

“Oh.” The sight of Mariana’s house key makes Anne grow still. She’s somehow unprepared for how real everything is starting to feel, and her heart clenches painfully in her chest as she realizes that Mariana is finally stepping out of her life permanently. 

Anne nods, tongue feeling too thick in her mouth. “Well, there was a slight change of plans.” 

“Clearly.” Mariana arches her eyebrows, understanding slowly clicking into place. There’s a silence filled with sharp pain that is starting to swell between them. They both let out a deep breath together, eyes downcast as they both search for the strength to face this new reality. Mariana finally takes a hard swallow before speaking quietly. 

“Are you seeing someone, Anne?”

And there’s the question. The one neither of them want to talk about, but now that it’s been said out loud, it hangs over them like a thick cloud that cannot be dispelled. Anne knows that answering it will hurt Mariana, but she knows not answering will hurt herself even more. She can barely meet Mariana’s eyes because she’s met with a rare form of vulnerability from the other woman that takes her breath away. Up to this point, even though their separation was concrete, the possibility of either of them dating other people seemed so abstract—so hypothetical. Anne can feel the fragility of whatever implicit agreement between them hang in the balance—so easily broken with a simple word. 

“I… uh…” Why is she suddenly at a loss for words? She’s usually so direct and determined, but she had been so swept away by how she feels about Ann Walker that saying it out loud to someone else now feels like she’s crossing a line—reaching the point of no return.

Mariana sees the thoughts fly across her face, and without Anne needing say anything at all, knows it in her heart. 

“Who is it?” Her voice is quiet but her tone screams of hurt. And how could it not? Anne knows that she’s given twenty years to her and it’s heart wrenching to think of her moving on so quickly. She knows she should just tell her the truth, but she somehow can’t bring herself to say Ann Walker’s name.

“Come on, Mary—” 

Something flashes in Mariana’s eyes, hurt transforming quickly into frustration as she throws her hands up. “Don’t do that to me, Anne!” 

“Do what?” Anne spits the words out instinctively, eyes turning hard as well.

“That thing you do!” Mariana points a single finger at her, and the sight of it makes her blood boil. “Where you say ‘Mary’ like that—like I’m going to blow up any second—like I’m too fragile to hear the truth.” 

“I’m not—!” Anne can feel her face flush. Why does Mariana always set her on edge like this?

“Just come out and say it, Anne!” Mariana huffs as she throws her hands down by her side, exasperated by the interaction. “Just tell me what’s going on, for fuck’s sake!” 

Anne can feel her blood pumping in her veins, and she suddenly feels very cornered. Rationally, she knows what she must do, but it somehow feels like Mariana has stepped right into the safe, warm world that she and Ann had dreamed up together, and she feels resentment build in her at the thought. Before she can think better of it, she’s opening her mouth and spitting out the words with more force than she intends.

“Mariana, I really don’t see how it’s any of your business how I spend my time, or who I spend that time with.” 

“Oh, I see.” Mariana crosses her arms and gives Anne a skeptical look. “That’s how you’re going to play it, then?” 

“I’m not—” Anne takes a deep breath. “—not playing it any way, alright?” Even though she knows Mariana is not strictly owed details about her personal life anymore, she feels the pull of all the time they have shared together all these years. Mariana will always know her like no one else ever will, and maybe that meant she was entitled to more than denial and secrets. 

“You don’t need to protect me, Anne.” Mariana sighs. “You can tell me. I’m not going to fall apart.”

“I know you’re not,” Anne’s shoulders sag a little, and she takes a step toward Mariana. “I just—” But she trails off again, unable to look her in the eyes. 

“Unless…” Mariana sees her hesitate, and a small spark of understanding starts growing in her eyes. 

“What?” Anne feels panic rising in her. She does not like the way Mariana is looking at her—like she’s slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle without her permission.

“You’re not…” Her eyes narrow slightly as she studies Anne. Like she’s trying to decide of Anne is stupid enough to make the mistake she thinks she’s made. 

Anne shifts uncomfortably on her feet and a quiet scream has started in her ears. She sees the pieces of the puzzle click together in Mariana’s head as she looks down again and notices the collegiate “NIU” print on the shirt crumpled up on the floor. She watches helplessly as Mariana’s eyes widen and slide back up to look at Anne in disbelief.

No…” Mariana shakes her head slightly. “You’re not that stupid.”

Anne swallows hard, trying to find something to say, but she’s overcome with shame and guilt.

“Anne—Seriously?!?” Mariana is now standing right in front of her, gripping her shoulders firmly, shaking her slightly like she’s trying to wake her up from a trance. She can feel the imprint of the house key dig into her arm from how tightly she’s holding her.

“It’s not—” Her voice is thick and it catches in her throat.

Mariana gives her a stern look through her lashes. “Please tell me you’re not fucking your graduate student, Anne Lister.” 

Anne knows she doesn’t even need to say anything. The look on her face tells Mariana everything she needs to know, and before two seconds can pass, the other woman is stepping back and giving her a look that can only be described as utter disappointment. 

Anne is suddenly overwhelmed with all the decisions she’s made. A series of memories flash through her mind as she involuntarily tries to piece together everything that has brought her to this point. She feels a thought jolt through her body and it’s everything she can do to keep standing: What happened to the successful and accomplished woman who seemingly had everything made for her? The house, the wife, the job? She barely recognizes her life anymore, the surreal details of the last few months whizzing by her at lightspeed. 

Tears start creeping in from the corner of her vision, and it’s her turn now to reach out and steady herself on the counter. Through the haze, she thinks she hears Mariana speak, but it’s muffled through the blood rushing in her ears.

“… this is really reckless, even for you, Anne.” She can detect a note of worry in Mariana’s voice even though she’s trying to hide it. “Anne, are you listening to me?” 

Running her fingers through her hair, she finally looks up at the other woman. The level of concern on her face momentarily stuns her. But she finds her voice again. “Mariana, now’s really not a good time for this.” 

The other woman lets out a sharp scoff. “Anne, this is serious, what are you doing? 

“I don’t know.” There’s a cloud of weariness descending on her, numbing her to Mariana’s line of questioning. 

Mariana doesn’t let up. “Anne, you could get in serious trouble with this. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.” 

“Does anyone else know? What’s going to happen to her thesis?” Mariana tries to meet her eyes, but she’s already turning around, too overwhelmed by the situation.

“I don’t know.”

“How long have you been seeing her? Does she even know what she’s getting into?” 

I don’t know.” Anne finally snaps, whirling around with fire in her eyes. It’s the last question that finally breaks open the million little worries that have started to take root in her mind the moment she kissed Ann Walker and she’s not prepared to deal with them.

Her outburst seems to have sucked all the air out of the room, and for a full minute, both women stand across from one another, chests heaving, eyes meeting in a familiar dance of defiance. But then Mariana starts to take in her appearance—the way her clothes bear the wrinkles of travel, the way her hair sticks up at the odd angle that it does after not being washed for more than a day, the way the sharp shadows dancing across her face almost hide the bags of exhaustion under her eyes. Mariana’s expression softens as she realizes the state that Anne is in, and she reaches out a hand to squeeze Anne’s arm. 

Instinctively, Anne flinches at the contact, and before she can apologize for her reaction, she sees the hurt flash across Mariana’s face. 

The other woman reels backwards, eyes dark with fury. “What, you can’t even stand to be touched by me anymore?” 

“No, I—” 

“That’s just great, Anne. I see how much twenty years of marriage means to you.” Her voice drips with venom, and just like that, the anger springs to life again in Anne. 

“Just fucking stop, alright??” Anne roars so loud she thinks she hears the glasses rattle on the counter. When Mariana pushes her buttons like this, she feels like she cannot control herself. “I am beyond exhausted, alright? I really don’t need your hysterical bullshit right now—”

My hysterical—” Mariana’s voice booms just as loud as Anne’s, and her face is livid, glowing red with anger. 

And just like that, something snaps between them—the same thing that’s always been the only thing standing between them and a full-on fight. They both suck in deep breaths at the same time, each preparing to take aim with the most painful of words, just like they used to do. Just like they only knew how to do.

But before the laser sharp insults could leave either of their mouths, a soft musical voice cuts through the fog of elevated emotions. 

“Anne?” There, just down the hall, still cast heavily in shadow, is Ann Walker in a too-large crewneck sweatshirt and exercise pants that she no doubt fished from the depths of Anne’s closet in her desperation. 

Both women in the kitchen freeze as they take in the sight of the slightly rumpled woman now staring at them in confusion. The softness of her hair, the way the oversized clothes fall on her curves, the delicate features frowning slightly—all contrast the hard edges of Anne and Mariana’s jaws, both clenched in tension. 

Anne feels the inevitable collision of her two worlds approaching, and the realization makes her sick to her stomach. “Ann? What are you doing here?” 

“Yes, Miss Walker, what the fuck are doing in my house?” Mariana bites back without missing a beat, accusing and bitter in a way that was meant to cut. The flicker of hurt on Ann Walker’s face sends fury racing across Anne’s brain, and before she can stop herself, she’s back to the point of tearing into Mariana without mercy. 

Rounding on Mariana, she bites back with as much force as she can muster. “You have no right to talk to Ann that way! This is not your house anymore, Mariana!”

“Oh yes.” Mariana matches her fury and forcefully throws down the key onto the granite counters. The sound of metal pinging against the hard surface rings out across the kitchen, only matched by the stinging of Mariana’s words. “I am reminded of that every day, Anne. Every day that I wake up and realize how you gave up on us!”

“What--! I gave up--!” Anne isn’t thinking anymore, she’s simply reacting to Mariana like her body never forgot how to do this dance with the fiery brunette. “You were the one who stepped out on me first, Mary. Or have you forgotten about Charles?” She spits his name out like the sound of it burns her tongue. 

The mention of the name sends a darkness across Mariana’s face, and her voice drops dangerously. “Oh, it’s about that. Of course, it is.”

“It’s about respect for my personal space, you cannot come barging into here—” 

Mariana scoffs because she sees right through her. “Whatever it starts off as, it always comes back to that.”

“No, it doesn’t!” Anne folds her arms, but her voice is rising. She pauses to take a deep breath but cannot let it go. “Well, why wouldn’t it? Am I supposed to take it lying down that my wife would cheat on me with another person—you wouldn’t—”

“Yes, I have.” Mariana doesn’t miss a beat. “Or have you forgotten?”

“What?” Anne rocks back on her heels, not expecting the retort. 

Mariana shakes her head like the answer is so obvious. “Maria Barlow? 

“Don’t bring her into this, that’s not the same—” 

“How is it any different, Anne?” Mariana’s voice is laced with frustration. “You and your double standards, as always.” 

“Don’t turn this on me. That’s different, she’s different—”

The bitter laugh that comes out of Mariana’s mouth hurts more than any of the other words she could say. “Oh, that’s different, is it?” 

Then, almost like she suddenly remembered that Ann Walker was standing right there, Mariana quickly glances back to the younger woman, voice dripping with sarcasm. “You see, Miss Walker, Anne here cannot help but jump into bed with any woman who would even give her a second glance. No, that’s different. That’s just your nature, right Anne?”  

Anne barely even notices Ann Walker because she’s overwhelmed by the rage that comes rushing out of her. 

“How dare you, Mariana?” Her voice shakes with explosive wrath. “I gave you so many chances to fix what we had. I was willing to overlook one mistake. I asked—no, begged for you to stop seeing him, to come back to me, but you—”

“No, you threatened him—” Mariana tries to interject, but she’s cut off by Anne—too far gone to listen.

“—you refused to even try to work on us. You had given up on us long before I went back to Bakersfield—”

“—right into her arms—”

“—you have always been so quick to cast blame on other people that you cannot even see what’s right in front of you—”

“Oh?” Mariana’s eyes widen in challenge.

“—that you’re a coward—”

“Fuck you, Anne—”

“—and you’ll always be too self-absorbed to see—”

Both women are so enraged by one another that they almost miss the soft voice in the background, calling out “Anne,” just as they pause between breaths. It’s so quiet compared to the verbal slings being shot at one another, that Mariana is completely taken off guard when Anne stops her tirade mid-sentence. They both turn once again to look at the younger woman, seemingly out of place in the cruel world of insults and injury that they are so adept at creating. There’s a quiet, determined look on Ann’s face that does not match the energy between the two women at odds with one another.

Mariana glances back at Anne who looks for all the world like she’s been broken out of a trance. There’s an unreadable expression on her face as she looks at Ann Walker, and whatever venomous words she was ready to spit out die right on her tongue. In its place, a stunned silence swells between all three women.

“Anne.” The younger woman repeats, stepping closer to them. “That’s enough, don’t you think?” Her voice is tender but underneath it all, is a firmness that Mariana has rarely seen directed at the strong-willed brunette. Her eyes dart back and forth between Anne and her student who are sharing a look that she doesn’t recognize. 

Anne finally clears her throat, the red starting to drain from her flushed face. She straightens her posture and it seems like a struggle, but she manages to give Mariana a barely detectable look of apology. “I… uh…”

Mariana’s eyes meet hers in wonder. Never in all her years of knowing Anne Lister, has she seen the other woman turn from completely enraged to placated in such a short amount of time. At first she thinks she must be going insane, but the look that passes between Anne and her student is unmistakable. 

“I think maybe it’s time for you to go.” Anne finally mutters under her breath. 

Eyes still wide, Mariana nods numbly. “Yeah, okay.” She can scarcely believe it, but it somehow seems that Ann Walker has managed to do in two months what she could never do in twenty years: get through to Anne Lister. 

“Okay?” Anne looks surprised by how quickly Mariana agrees with her. 

“Yes,” Mariana shrugs. “It’s clear you’ve got…” She motions between Anne and her student. “…some business to take care of.”

“Mary—” Anne moves forward, like she’s about to say something. 

“It’s okay, Anne. Really.” Mariana casts a quick glance toward Ann, who is maintaining a steady gaze, but is trembling slightly. 

“I’m going to head out. Take care, you two.” She looks pointedly at Anne. “Especially you, Anne.” There’s a seriousness that underlies her look, a worry that seems genuine, and it makes Anne’s stomach sink. 

And with that, Mariana whisks out of the kitchen, the green fabric of her skirt trailing behind her as she walks quickly by Anne. The familiar smell of her soon to be ex-wife—the signature combination of hair products, perfume, and a scent that is distinctly her—meets her nose, and Anne closes her eyes at the emotions that unexpectedly accompany it. There’s a finality to her exit that Anne is acutely aware of, but she cannot face the grief lies beneath the surface, waiting to ensnare her if she thinks too hard about it.

When she opens her eyes again, she’s staring right into Ann Walker’s bright blue orbs, and she hears the sound of the front door click shut. With Mariana gone, Anne feels something deflate in her, and she’s suddenly very tired, world tipping around her as she sways on her feet.

“Oh, Anne!” The younger woman rushes to her side and guides her gently to a stool by the counter. Anne doesn’t even protest, doesn’t even notice the tears leaking out the sides of her eyes, until Ann bends down to look at her, brushing away the wet streaks on her cheeks. 

“I’m fine,” Anne instinctively says, angling her face away from scrutiny. It feels somehow wrong to have Ann comfort her when she should be the one to protect her from all the ugliness she had to witness. She knows she should feel ashamed by her behavior, but all she can feel now is exhaustion.

“You’re not fine,” Ann insists, cupping her cheek, urging her to look back at her. 

Anne opens her mouth to protest but shuts it when she feels the younger woman stroke her temple softly. The tenderness in her eyes are arresting—unexpected—and she’s taken off guard by how novel it feels to be cared for in that way. 

Ann lets out a breath, continuing to rub her temple. “That was intense.”

The bitter laugh is out of her mouth before she can stop herself, “No kidding.” Anne’s eyes flick back and forth between the floor, her feet, and Ann’s concerned face.

“Well, Mariana is…” The younger woman trails off, searching for the right words.

“Yeah.” Anne nods, understanding how hard it is to put a finger on what Mariana actually is sometimes.

Ann meets her eyes again, tentative, like she’s not sure if she’s entitled to an opinion about Anne’s wife. “Difficult.”

“Mmm.” Anne continues nodding, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She’s entertained by Ann’s assessment of Mariana—kinder than she would be if it were up to her. She doesn’t know how she got to be so cynical when it comes to Mariana, but she feels weary from being so at odds with someone who used to be the center of her world. 

Noticing this, Ann ventures forward. “Are you alright, Anne?” 

Her voice is so light. So tender. It makes Anne ache inside. “I just—” She lets out a big sigh. How can she explain how she feels to Ann when she’s not even sure she knows it herself?

Ann’s warm hand comes up to rest on her shoulder, and she takes another deep breath. “It feels so impossible sometimes.”

Ann waits for her to continue, eyes searching hers like she’s trying to understand. 

“This is not how I wanted things to go...” Anne motions to the space between them, throwing her hands up in frustration.

“Right.” Ann leans back a little. Because of course she gets it. What they’re doing is wrong. They’ve barely had any time to give it much thought, but she knows that there will be a price to their happiness—one that they would have to pay dearly.  

“And yet…” Anne looks up. Their eyes meet and glimmer with the promise of so much more yet to come. “…how could I ever have done anything differently when it comes to you? How could I say no to you when everything inside of me is screaming yes?”

Ann’s breath catches in her throat, and her gaze turns watery as she leans in, bringing their faces closer. “Oh, Anne.”

“I wonder…” Anne continues, a far off look in her eyes. “…if there comes a time in someone’s life… where—they just know what they must do. And everything leading up to that point just—”

She swallows, eyes darting back to Ann’s, body instinctually leaning forward into her warmth. “—confirms the inevitability of that moment.”

The whispered words ghost across Ann’s lips, and the space between starts feeling smaller. Because everything between them leading up that point has felt inevitable. As though they could have tried to fight tooth and nail to keep away and they’d still end up right here: across from each other, barely any space between them, souls almost touching and hearts beating as one.

“Oh, Anne…” the younger woman reaches up to cup her cheek. “I adore you.”

They lean in closer, lips brushing against one another, and Anne starts to feel a calm wash over her. Her eyes begin to slide close, and she feels like she’s bathing in everything Ann: the subtle floral smell of her hair, the warmth radiating off her skin, the way her breath sounds when she’s close. Anne can’t believe how good it feels to be in Ann Walker’s orbit, and with her eyes shut, she starts feeling the lull of sleep start pulling at her consciousness. Her eyelids flutter open, and they feel heavy with how tired she is.

“You look exhausted.” Ann pulls back, blue eyes scanning her tired face, both hands coming up now to brush the hair back from her forehead. “When was the last time you had some decent sleep?”

There’s something achingly warm curling its way up her chest and into her throat, and Anne manages to swallow thickly before responding. “Well, I—” 

She stops, because she’s momentarily stumped. She had fled Bakersfield in such a rush to get back to Ann that she truly cannot remember the last time she had decent sleep. Was it on the plane? Before that? At the airport? It must have been at least twenty-four hours since she had decent sleep, and she has a suspicion that it was while Ann Walker was still in her arms in Anaheim. 

“I, uh…” Her eyes dart back to Ann’s, and she lightly shrugs. “I don’t really remember. It’s…” Her fingers instinctively come up to rub at her forehead. “It’s been a little while.” 

Ann gives her a smile that crinkles the corners of her eyes, like she finds Anne so endearing. “Well, let’s do something about that, shall we?”

Anne knows she should feel defensive about the way Ann is fussing over her, but she finds she cannot help but be completely enamored by Ann Walker when she’s looking at her that way. She knows she’s perfectly capable of fending for herself, but there’s something very comforting about not needing to for once. 

“Yes.” And before she can stop herself, Anne is beaming like she’s never done before. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her, or when she started getting so soft, but can’t bring herself to care when Ann is leaning so close to her, when her smell is winding up her nose, working its way into the corner of her mind where all she needs is Ann Walker.

Ann lets out a quiet chuckle and looks back at her with wonder in her eyes. 

“What?” Anne breathes out, eyes sliding down to look at the delicious lips parted slightly right before her. 

“You’re looking at me like…” Ann gently shakes her head, seemingly at a loss for words.

“Like what?” Anne leans forward subtly, lips now that much closer to Ann’s. She can almost taste them with how close she is to the other woman.

There’s a low rumble in Ann’s chest as she laughs again, but their eyes meet, and there’s something profound reflected back in them that makes Anne pause her journey forward to close the distance between their lips. “Like I’m everything to you.” 

Anne doesn’t get to respond because her lips are now on Ann’s, and the softness and warmth of them feels almost too much to bear. There’s a thought beating out a rhythm in her head and it says to her over and over again that Ann absolutely is everything to her. With her lips sliding against hers, hot breath puffing on her cheek, hands grasping her shoulders, she finds herself wondering how she survived this long without knowing the pleasure of Ann Walker’s love.

She tries not to think it. She tries to bury the thought deep inside where she can’t find it again, but she can’t help but feel it flit across her mind like the shadow of a bird passing in front of the sun on a sunny day: what will she do without Ann? How could she possibly go back to the way things were? How could anyone ask her to? It would be absurd. It would be like trying to fall back into her former life and finding that she could no longer fit into the hole she’d left when she stepped out of it and into her arms. 

She lets out a whimper as she comes to the conclusion, and she feels Ann pull away. Anne’s lips chases after hers, desperate for the contact and too far gone to care. 

“Let’s get you back to bed.” Ann’s words sound more sultry than she probably intended, but Anne doesn’t resist. 

“Okay.” She gives Ann a warm smile. 

“Do you need a shower before heading to bed?” Ann asks casually, but there’s a spark of something mischievous in her eyes.

“Oh?” A sly smile is spreading on Anne’s face, and before she can think too hard about it, she stands up and grabs Ann’s hand in her own. “Maybe I do.” 

“Yeah?” Ann looks surprised, like she can’t believe that Anne is actually going along with it. “Well, then.”

They both pause, hands holding one another as they grin at each other. 

“Come on.” Anne says lowly, pulling her forward back down the hallway, gently stroking her fingers as they make their way towards the bedroom.

When they get to the room, Anne notes the rumpled up sheets on the bed and she feels her face heat up at the memory of what they had been doing right before Mariana had showed up. 

Turning around, Anne gives her an excited smile as she starts unbuttoning her shirt. “Shall we?” 

Anne is delighted by the color that starts up the younger woman’s neck and can’t help but wag her eyebrows in her direction. The blush that she gets as a reaction spurs her on further, and temporarily forgetting about her own clothes, she steps forward and runs her hands along Ann’s waist. The younger woman’s breathing start picking up again.

The feel of her skin on her fingertips as she works her way beneath the hem of the oversized sweatshirt makes Anne’s eyes flutter for a moment. Starved to feel more of her, Anne quickly lifts the heavy material up and over her arms and sees goosebumps erupt over the pale skin of her shoulders as her warm skin meets the cool of the air.

Ann doesn’t wait for her to continue undressing her. In a burst of enthusiasm, she steps out the borrowed pants, and dashes by buck naked into the adjoining bathroom, leaving an echo of a light giggle as she disappears behind the door.

“Wha—” Anne whips around, stunned by Ann’s sudden departure, feeling the cold of the air on her own skin as she quickly strips down in pursuit of the other woman.

“Ann!” She steps into the bathroom just as the sound of the shower starts and steam begins filling the small space. 

There’s a narrow beam of sunlight streaming in through the small window, lighting up the room and making everything glow orange. Through the clear glass doors of the shower, she catches sight of Ann naked under the stream of warm water, droplets falling and misting around her like a halo surrounding the woman who’s come to save her from a life of wanting the wrong thing.

 When Ann turns around to meet her gaze, the water from the shower has soaked her hair, and wet streaks have made their way down her face, dotting her eyelashes and making them sparkle in the warm light. The sight of the other woman’s naked body glistening with moisture and inviting her into the steamy space takes Anne’s breath away. For a moment, she forgets about the events of the last half hour and instead feels an intense wave of gratitude wash over her. The fear and anxiety that has gripped her starts falling away, like the droplets of water making their way down Ann’s body, rolling off her shoulders, her nipples, the tips of her fingers. 

“Are you coming in?” Ann breaks her out of her trance, catching her openly staring. 

Anne grins as she steps forward and slides open the glass door. She’s hit in the face with steam from the shower, and she feels her heart rate double as she moves closer to Ann Walker. 

The water feels warm—almost too warm as she steps into its spray. The low groan that escapes her throat when the hot water touches her skin echoes against the hard tile and makes Ann gasp in surprise. 

They’re both face to face now, their noses inches apart as they try to keep their eyes open against the spray of the shower. Even this close, Anne feels her body scream out the need to be against the other woman—touching, holding, pleasing.

Giving in to the voice in her head crying out for Ann Walker, she brings her hands up to hold the other woman, leaning in closer and angling her head as she prepares to kiss her.

 The breath of words spoken in the space between them stops her advance. “Anne.” 

“Hm?” She looks back up to meet Ann’s eyes, longing to feel her lips on her own.

“We should get you cleaned up…” Ann brings her hands up to cup her cheeks. “…right?”

She knows Ann is probably right. The sooner she can get clean, the sooner she can get back in bed. And she’s already feeling the weight of her exhaustion pulling at her from the edges. 

“Right.” She gives Ann a warm smile, and starts reaching behind her for the bottle of shampoo. But as she moves by her, she feels the tip of her nipple graze the other woman’s upper arm, and the sharp gasp that she hears makes her heart skip a beat. 

She manages to retrieve the bottle, but not without first leaving a slow kiss on the space between Ann’s shoulder and neck, letting her lips linger over the wet skin in the process. 

“Mmm…” Anne feels and hears her hum at the contact, and as she pauses her movement, wanting to savor the moment, she suddenly feels the bottle of shampoo yanked out of her hand forcefully, and hears Ann let out a light giggle.

“Ann!” She’s lightly admonishing her but can’t hold a straight face as she watches the younger woman work up the shampoo into a lather in her hair, a big wet grin on her face. 

“Give me that!” Anne yanks back the bottle and starts shampooing herself as well. “You think you’re very cheeky, don’t you?” 

Ann doesn’t respond, but by the proud look in her face, it’s clear that she’s pleased with herself.

“Well, just you wait—”

Ann’s eyebrows shoot up into her hair. “Oh?”

“Yeah.” Anne returns her proud look. “You’ll get what’s coming to you later.”

Ann is all teeth, already delighted by her own joke before it is spoken. “Oh, I’ll be coming alright.”

It’s a side of Ann Walker that she’s unaccustomed to, so it takes her a few seconds to process what she just said. When she does, she gives her a dark grin and starts soaping up her body, eager to get through the cleaning stage of their shower. 

Ann notices this increased pace and lets out another giggle. “Someone’s in a hurry.” 

The steam is starting to get denser in the shower as Anne reaches forward with the soap. “Come here.” Her voice is low, rumbling across her chest as she practically growls out her command. 

Ann’s skin is soft and the soap makes it exquisitely slippery as she runs her hands down her abdomen, relishing the gentle slope of her body right above her hipbones. She continues working the soap into a lather over the younger woman’s body and she feels a thought creep into her mind as she watches the bubbles slide over perk breasts: She doesn’t think she’s ever seen or touched anyone quite as beautiful as Ann Walker. 

Anne doesn’t realize she’s lingering, soap clutched uselessly in her hand as she takes in the body in front of her. It’s not until Ann gently takes the soap and places it back in its holder that she looks back up. 

“My God, Anne…” She comes even closer, skin of her breasts sliding against Anne’s, the wonderfully slippery sensation of her wet nipples catching on her own causing Anne to feel a heat immediately ignite in her core. 

“When you look at me like that…” Ann continues, grasping her shoulders in a way that is starting to feel familiar. And the fact that they are beginning to even have anything resembling a routine makes something warm bloom in her chest. 

“And how do I look at you, Miss Walker?” She barely even registers their conversation, getting lost in the feel of her body against her own. They are now hip to hip, Ann’s pubic bone at just the right height to press into the space between her legs.

“Like you want to devour me.” 

Their eyes meet again in a flash of desire and Anne is again fighting her shock at the words that leave Ann’s mouth. Who knew little Miss Walker would be so delightful? So sensual?

They surge forward in a frenzy of lips and tongue, hands sliding over hot flesh, breathless moans filling the space as they rock into one another. The heat from the water and the residual soap on their skin heightens the sensation of every touch, every press of their fingers, until Anne can barely take it any longer. Her need to feel more of Ann Walker is starting to spread low from her abdomen, consuming every other rational thought in its way. She can’t remember the last time she’s felt so much desire for one person wrapped up so tightly in a ball of adoration for everything that they are.

As she trails her hands down Ann’s body, not breaking their kiss, she notices Ann’s legs clamped tightly together, thighs rubbing against one another, instinctually seeking relief that she cannot reach. Without hesitation, she reaches down into the space between her legs, fingers running through the soft wet patch of hair before getting to their destination.

The sound that Ann makes is half moan and half pained cry. She pulls back to look at the younger woman as her fingers meet the slick folds, and she can’t help but gasp at how much moisture rushes out onto her hand. 

“Anne!” Her body jerks at the touch, hips angling forward, seeking more pressure. Anne reaches around the other woman to steady her when she feels her tipping backwards in the process. Ann is always so reactive to her touch, practically reeling from the desire that flares up so quickly from within. 

“Wait.” Anne pulls back, idea forming in her head. “Turn around.” 

There’s a question in Ann’s eyes but she doesn’t ask it. So implicit is her trust, that her body is moving, rotating in the small space before her mind can catch up. 

Anne traces her fingertips down Ann’s forearms, lacing their fingers together and bringing Ann’s hands up to press against the shower wall, warm palms meeting cold tile. Her breath is hot in Ann’s ear as she leans forward, pressing her body into Ann and moaning as she feels her nipples harden against the slippery skin of her back. She brings one hand down, running her palm over the curve of her bottom and angling it upward as she reaches the slick space between her legs again.

Oh.” Ann finally realizes what she has in mind as she works her fingers slowly between her folds, breath hitching in Ann’s ear as she meets her warm core again. It is so wet—her lips so soft and velvety—that Anne forgets to breathe for a few seconds. She can feel Ann throbbing against her fingers as she works them into her opening, fingertips barely dipping into her center before Ann falls forward even more against the shower wall, barely able to hold herself up. 

Anne brings her other hand around her body, wrapping her arm tightly around her hips, grinding her own aching center against one of Ann’s round cheeks. 

Oh God!” The feel of the wet skin sliding against her own outer lips, the continual pulsing of Ann’s opening pushing against her fingers, makes Anne lose her mind. “Do you want me, Ann? Do you want me inside?” 

“Mhmm!” Ann is beyond words, rutting back into Anne and closing her eyes shut against the assault of sensations arcing through her body. 

Finally, unable to wait any longer, Anne slides her right middle finger as deep as she can reach into Ann. It’s not her first time being in Ann Walker, and it’s not even her first time in that same day, but the feeling of being enveloped by Ann’s tight, twitching pussy still drives her crazy. 

“Jesus, you feel amazing, baby.” She feels Ann grip her finger even tighter as she tries to withdraw it, and it makes her own core throb with desire. 

Realizing that she needs a better angle, her other hand joins Ann’s against the tiled wall, pushing deeper into Ann in the process. 

She can feel Ann start to unravel as she reaches even farther into her, bending her finger slightly upwards and pressing against her smooth walls. At this angle, she can feel Ann rippling around her finger as more wetness starts to drip out of her. The telltale tightness around her finger as she approaches her release starts from deep within Ann, and it makes the fire that’s been smoldering in Anne’s chest roar to life.

Anne…” It’s almost a warning, murmured low, because it’s all that she can manage between panted breaths. 

“Yes, baby, I know.” Anne herself can barely get the words out through gritted teeth. The effort of thrusting into her tight hole is starting to make her wrist ache, but she barely notices it. There’s an urgent, burning desire to bury herself as deep into Ann as she can, to become one with her somehow, and it’s taken over all her senses, sending her into a frenzy of in and out, and in and out again as Ann’s walls clamp down around her finger.

“Oh my God!” Ann sounds desperate, crying out in ecstasy as the first wave of orgasm hits her. Her pussy convulses around Anne’s finger so hard that it pushes it almost all the way out.

Anne can’t even think. All she can do is push forward hard again, impaling Ann between wave after wave of convulsions that start deep inside her pussy and make their way up her body and into her shuddering breath.

The water from the shower runs down the curve of Ann’s ass cheeks, mixing with her arousal and pooling in her palm so that every thrust forward makes a wet sound against her skin. The water hitting the tiled floor beats out a rhythm to accompany the swell of their panted breaths and strained moans. It’s loud and messy—just like them—just like everything they’ve been—and Anne never wants it to end. 

Anne doesn’t slow her thrusts in Ann’s core, holding her tight around her trembling waist as she continues to pulse around Anne’s finger, orgasm drawn out longer than either of them have ever experienced before. 

The wonder in Ann’s voice is clear even as it shakes uncontrollably. “It’s not stopping, Anne…”

“I know.” Anne chokes out in a strangled voice, straining to maintain her pace and rubbing against Ann’s inner walls. 

“I just keep coming.” The younger woman lightly shakes her head, like she can’t believe what’s happening right now, leaning forward so that her forehead rests against the cool tile for support. 

Anne feels the throbbing muscles around her finger relax slightly as Ann shifts forward, the new angle opening her up and exposing more of her slick folds. She instinctually trails her other fingers along her slit as she pulls back mid-thrust, and when the tip of her index finger accidentally brushes against her opening, Ann lets out a loud, guttural moan at the prospect of more fingers.

She cannot even manage the words, but Anne knows what the other woman needs. Her opening is still pulsing with the traces of her orgasm as she firmly slides both fingers into Ann’s pussy, pushing against the hot flesh and feeling her stretch almost painfully over both digits. 

“Oh my God, Anne!” She slumps forward even more on the tiled wall, grinding back into Anne as the hot burn of another orgasm starts from deep within again. 

Anne cannot help the dark chuckle that escapes her lips at Ann’s reaction. “Oh, you like that, huh?” 

The response she gets is a growl that she feels rumble against her chest. She pulls almost all the way out and then thrusts inside again, feeling Ann hit her limit with how much her pussy can take. 

“You like it when I fill you like this, baby?” Anne barely recognizes her gravelly voice anymore. She faintly registers the cooling temperature of the shower but nothing seems like it could compare with the heat of their bodies writhing together.

Ann cries back sharply, words exploding out of her in a rush of air. “Yes, Anne!”

“Oh, Jesus.” Anne takes off, thrusting into her faster and harder than before, red hot desire overtaking her body as she pounds into Ann’s warm wetness, making her press forward into the bathroom wall with each thrust. 

“Oh, God…” There’s the warning in Ann’s voice again, but Anne doesn’t need to hear it, because she can feel the other woman approach her second orgasm with the way she’s gripping her fingers tightly. She’s pushing so deep into her that she can feel the swollen ring of her cervix push back against her fingers as her release approaches again. 

“That’s it, baby.” Anne growls into her ear, fingers curling downward to rub against the rough patch of skin and not slowing her movements even as the muscles in her forearm are burning with the exertion. “Come around my fingers, Ann. Do it.” 

And with that, Ann lets out a scream that bounces against the hard tiles of the shower, fingers curling and nails scratching down against the cold surface. There’s an immense amount of wetness that’s suddenly gushed out of her pussy, and in a rush of excitement, Anne realizes that the other woman is squirting against her hand. Her arousal drips down her legs, washed away by the stream from the shower, but the pooling liquid is slick and unmistakable, and it makes Anne’s toes curl with delight.

“Ann, you’re coming all over my hand.” She leans forward and whispers in her ear, the sound of her thrusting into her wet pussy serving as evidence of her observation. “You’re making a mess.”

She feels her walls pulse again, hard, around her fingers as Ann moans out an incoherent response. Her inner walls slacken as she takes in a deep breath.

Then she’s pulling back, legs shaking under her as she turns around to look at Anne. The water has cooled off by now, and she wraps her arms around Anne’s neck, holding herself up, shuddering under the cold spray.

Anne quickly reaches forward and turns off the shower, all the while murmuring quiet reassurances into Ann’s ear as she comes down from her climax.

“You’re okay, baby.” She opens the shower door with one hand while rubbing her back with the other.

“Let’s get you dried up.” She pulls a towel from its holder and wraps the smaller woman in the fluffy material. Ann has a blissful look on her face as she holds the towel tightly around her shoulders, blinking slowly like she’s waking up from a dream. 

Anne takes her own towel from the holder and leads them out from the shower, feeling chill of the air hit her wet skin as they step into the bedroom. 

They both pause as they stand in front of the bed, both damp, both shivering slightly as they clutch their towels to their bodies. 

Ann turns to look at her, and in her eyes is a swirl of wonder, contentment, and exhaustion. The last few hours have taken its toll on the both of them. 

Looking upon her face, it doesn’t take much to forget about the rest of the world. In two seconds, they’re both under the covers, naked bodies warm against one another, towels strewn across the floor along with their worries.

It’s easy to think of nothing but the way Ann’s breaths gently puff on her cheek, slowing as sleep creeps up on them both. It’s even easier to give in to the perfection of the moment, to think that this will last forever, that nothing else in the world matters but the woman who’s given herself to her completely, quietly slumbering in her arms. 

Anne’s almost given in to the quiet blackness, but before the peace of sleep can fully take over, one question manages to work its way into her consciousness, slipping in between the tight layers of denial that she’s worked so hard to maintain. Mariana’s cruel words echo back to her, like a perpetual reel of thoughts that awaken the most painful fears she’s tried to hide away: 

Does Ann Walker even know what she’s getting into? 

Haunted by all the mistakes she’s made before; Anne somehow doesn’t think so. 

Chapter Text

The lights of the streetlamps are pinpricks of white in the night, flecks of snow streaking across them like tiny little fireflies out of place in the dead of winter. The characteristic soft glow of the fallen snow feels so real—so visceral, that for a moment, Anne swears she’s living this memory all over again. But something about the way Mariana’s eyes never come into focus, and the muted crunch of snow under Argus’ paws give away the dream. 

Why is she back here? Why this moment?

In the far corners of her mind, Anne feels the pieces of this memory click into place, but the sweet nostalgia of this moment is now bittered by the loss of the last few months. 

“Anne, baby—” Mariana’s voice is too distant, distorted into a faint whisper. “—quickly, come in!” She holds the door open for Anne as Argus trots happily back into the house, eager to escape the cold Iowa winter.

Her body moves in the dream, like it never forgot what it was like to be back in this memory. Warm, moist air greets her as she steps over the threshold and back into her house. It’s strikingly familiar, with all its dark shapes, soft textures, and handsome antique charm, but just different enough to remind her of everything she’s lost when Mariana left.

Argus shakes in front of the fire that’s already going strong, droplets of moisture landing on the logs and causing a hiss as they evaporate to steam. She watches Mariana kneel down in front of Argus to take her boots off and dry them by the fire, but she stops when human eyes meet canine. Argus is still young—barely a year old, but huge like an ox. They’re both still, starting into each other eyes, and Mariana’s face slowly splits into a loving smile.

“You’re such a good puppy,” she brings her hand up to cup Argus’s chin, scritching it in the process. The hound sniffs it a little and melts imperceptibly into her hand. There’s a look of such adoration, such love and tender connection between the two of them, that it takes Anne’s breath away.

Anne suddenly remembers why she’s back here—and the significance of this moment hits her in the gut: This is the moment that she first realized she really has everything: a wife, a handsome dog, and a beautiful home. She will go on to build a life with Mariana, make a name for herself, but in this moment, she’s poised on the precipice of greatness, and she remembers feeling complete. Her heart breaks a little as she lives this moment again, aching for the woman she was all those years ago, and mourning a feeling that passed many years ago. 

Deciding that Mariana’s hand is no longer enough, Argus proceeds to push into her space, gradually lowering himself into a sitting position, awkwardly trying to maneuver all eighty pounds into her lap. Mariana’s laughter tinkles like little ornaments hanging on this memory, and she looks up at Anne, eyes bright with the sheer joy that Argus shines into her life. 

No longer content being an observer, Anne moves forward again, reaching out to rescue Mariana from sinking under the weight of the massive Irish Wolfhound. She pulls Mariana up from under Argus and he collapses unceremoniously into a pile of fur and limbs in front the fire. 

“Oh, Argus,” Anne berates, but the grin on her face betrays her delight at the dog’s antics. “In the way again!”

They both step over him and Mariana stumbles into her arms. Her teeth gleam in the dim light of the fire and she embraces Anne, clutching her elbows and drawing her close. Warm breath puffs on Anne’s lips and she watches as shadows dance across her wife’s strikingly beautiful features. 

“Mmm…” She feels Mariana trace her jaw with her fingers and an odd feeling creeps into her chest. The action is all too familiar—done a thousand times before—but stuck in a time that no longer feels real. This Anne is now changed with the heartache of her failed marriage, and this Mariana is now bitter with the wounds that they’re inflicted on one another. 

“This is nice, isn’t it?” Mariana’s voice is light and airy, reminiscent of a time when they still believed they could have it all with each other. Anne nods her head in the dream, like following the moves to a dance she hasn’t forgotten the steps to.

They’ve started swaying to the sound of some imaginary music, Mariana bringing her arms up to wrap them behind Anne’s neck, a motion that’s so intimate, yet done casually so many times. The look on Mariana’s face tells her that she knows Anne is hers—she needs no permission to lay her hands on her, to bring their faces closer together, to lean up into Anne’s tall frame and close the distance between their lips. 

The kiss blinks by in the dream like it never happened. The next moment, they’re pulling apart and staring into the flames like they could find the answer to all their questions in it. They’re still swaying together nonchalantly, and Mariana is speaking, the words slipping by before Anne can catch it. But she doesn’t need to hear it again to remember what was said in this moment, because the weight of it is forever etched in her heart: “This is perfect, Anne. This feels like home.”

Even in the moment when it happened, Anne knows that something inside her was splintering from those words, and in the dream, she feels the shards of the splinters poking through the back of her mind. She says the words—lips moving like they know what they’re supposed to say, but it’s all wrong, and doesn’t feel right: “I am home with you, Mary. Come here—”

She turns her wife around and pulls her back into her arms, her chest pressing into the back of the stunningly beautiful brunette, the sweet smell of her hair tickling her nose is a reminder of what it felt like to be close with another human being. Standing in this moment, Anne realizes that Mariana had wound her way through every aspect of her life. Their lives had become so intricately connected and dependent on another—no other human ever knew so much about her, and probably ever will.

The dream starts pulling apart at the seams as Anne comes to this realization. She can still feel Mariana’s soft curves pressed against her body, but the smell of her hair is a shadow on her senses, creating a void where it used to be the first thing she smelled when she woke up. Mariana is leaning back into Anne now, turning her head and speaking against her cheek, but the words make no sense, and Anne feels even more of the world blur into white. 

As strange as it seems to relive this memory now, Anne’s heart breaks a little as the warmth of her wife’s body slowly dissipates. Drumming around in her head as the dream fades is the sweet ache of missing someone who was always there—someone she built a life with—someone who knew her—intimately. 

Even as the dream fades, Anne feels a soft warm body pressed against her front, and for a fraction of a second, she thinks her brain is playing tricks on her. It’s not until she feels soft curls of hair brushing against her nose that she realizes it’s not Mariana from her dream that she’s holding. It’s sweet Ann Walker – with her hair smelling of lilies and soap and everything that Mariana is not. In the twilight space between dream and reality, the two women blur together and Anne blinks away tears that burn in her eyes at the abruptness of the dream ending. 

There’s a lump forming in her throat, the fog of sleep making it hard to process what just happened. But she barely gets a chance to blink awake when she feels the woman in her arms slowly shift closer to her, and she hears her sigh into her pillow.

Anne blinks a few times, adjusting to the darkness of the room. Based on the amber light peeking in through the window blinds, she estimates that evening is quickly approaching, most of the day already gone while they slumbered.

Ann moves again against her body, smooth, soft skin sliding against her, making Anne involuntarily jerk her hips forward to press into the round of her bottom. The pressure causes Ann to let out a heavy breath, soft sigh turning into a low moan. They’re both still caught in the space between sleep and waking, but their bodies move together sensually on their own, unable to deny themselves the sweet sensation of being together.

Anne’s eyes flutter shut at the feeling of Ann’s hips bucking against her own, and her hand trails down the younger woman’s side, marveling at the soft curves meeting her under the sheets. When she reaches her hips, Ann lets out another soft moan, but this time, her pelvis angles upwards, like they’re searching for contact from her fingers, craving her touch. 

Their eyes still haven’t met, but their breaths are picking up speed as they rock their bodies against one another, trying to get friction to relieve the fast-growing ache between their legs. As Anne presses her body closer to the younger woman, she’s amazed by how much she still wants her. She lets out a short breath, amused by how insatiable the both of them are, but her breath turns into a sigh when she feels Ann reach around to grab her by the waist, pulling her closer, encouraging her to grind into her with more force.

Anne lets out a guttural groan and starts bearing down on Ann’s ass cheeks with her pelvis. They’re both naked and sliding against one another, and the movements only create a dull sensation between her legs, but the pressure is enough to keep her going. She hears Ann cry out at the sudden force of her thrusts and her fists grasp at the sheets in response. 

Her hand is still wandering down Ann’s hips, grasping and pinching as they rub against one another. She feels Ann shake with desire, their movements not enough to release the tension steadily building between her legs. Anne props herself up on one elbow to whisper down into her ear in the dark. 

“Ann, baby, do you want me?” From her position over Ann, she can see the outline of the younger woman biting her lip and clenching her eyes shut at the overwhelming pleasure. She bites her lip harder as she nods vigorously, trusting that Anne will give her what she desires without needing to look at her.

The closeness of the other woman and the intimacy of the moment overrides any hesitation that Anne might have had in taking her again for the third time that same day. She starts slowly trailing her hand down the shallow dip of Ann’s hip, tracing the soft skin that leads down to the patch of lightly trimmed golden curls already radiating heat. Just as her fingers start to move over the source of the heat, she pauses and she feels Ann take in a sharp breath and wait in anticipation. 

Her heart thuds in her chest when she sees how much Ann wants her touch. She’s taken off guard by how profound the moment feels to her. Ann wants her. No one else. And she’s practically shaking with desire as she presses her into the bed. It’s intoxicating, and Anne can’t help but revel in the sweetness of the wait. 

Almost as if she could hear her thoughts, Ann squeezes her waist even tighter, pressing back against her body and letting out a quiet whine at the anticipation, “Anne…”

Deciding she’s been tortured enough, Anne finally reaches down with her middle finger to dip into the liquid heat between her lips. It’s impossibly slick and wet, and it makes both of them moan at the same time. She’s surprised by how hard her clit already feels as she massages the swollen nub with her one finger. 

Ann’s breathing picks up and her body shakes with arousal. More wetness flows around Anne’s finger as she continues her ministrations, and the slick sound of flesh rubbing over swollen flesh mingles with their gasped breaths. 

“You’re so wet, Ann…” Her lips brush against Ann’s ear as she whispers the hot words in the dark. “You’ve just been waiting for me, haven’t you, baby?” 

“Nngh—” Ann tries to speak but all that comes out is a strangled groan as Anne’s finger picks up speed against her clit. Both their bodies are heating up, moving against one another in pursuit of a shared ecstasy. 

Anne bends down again to whisper hotly into Ann’s ear as she feels her abdomen tense up with her oncoming release. Red hot desire flashes behind her eyelids as they slide shut from the intensity of the sensation, and behind them are traces of a world she dreamed not too long ago. Anne means to say something erotic to push her over the edge, but instead, other words slip out past her lips and blow against the tendrils of Ann’s hairline. 

“I am home with you, Ann.” The familiar words once spoken to someone else take on a life of their own and Anne instantly feels a pit of regret grow in her stomach. She’s waiting for Ann to freeze and push her away, but instead, the younger woman grinds even harder against her body. 

Oh my God, Anne!” Her voice is broken and shaky and her orgasm rips through her body at breakneck speed. Anne can feel the telltale twitching and pulsing of her clit as wave after wave of pleasure race up and down her spine. She holds her close through her release, even as her mind grapples with the words she just let slip. The sharp gasps of breath and the way her body moves when she comes is striking, and even through all the emotional clutter in her mind, Anne knows she’s never loved something so beautiful in her life. 

Anne feels the tension leave the other woman’s body even as she still trembles from the aftershocks of her orgasm. She should feel good, content—proud, even. But the tears burn in her eyes before she can stop herself, and suddenly, there’s a wave of sadness washing over, crowding everything else out. She’s momentarily crippled by the pain of losing the life she used to have, and it feels cruel that she should miss a life with someone she doesn’t want any more.

She feels Ann turn around in her arms and tries to look away but is too slow. The flash of wet tracks down her face are unmistakable. 

“Anne?” The younger woman’s voice is shaky but it’s tinged with concern. Ann shifts closer, instinctively reaching out to pull back her tear-stained face to hers.

“It’s—”Anne is speechless. All at once, she’s overcome with the urge to bury her face into Ann to seek comfort, but to also hide herself away from the world until her vulnerability passes. 

“What?” Ann’s warm hand caresses her cheek, guiding her back to look at her.

Anne doesn’t resist, fighting the urge to flee. “Nothing,” she mutters out.

Settling for wiping her tears away—with an almost violent vigor—Anne flashes her eyes up to meet Ann’s in the dark, body ready to spring up from the bed at the slightest indication of rejection. But instead, she meets warm orbs of blue radiating with tenderness. Anne is blown away by the sheer amount of care and adoration she sees in them that she forgets to finish wiping her tears away.

“It’s okay, come here.” She feels the other woman bring her into her arms. The thudding of Ann’s heart can be heard through her chest as she rests her head against the warm flesh. Her hot tears stain the spot right between Ann’s breast, and the wet pools on her skin before sliding off onto the bed.

Ann shifts to look down at her between her arms. “Tell me what’s wrong.” It’s not a question. It’s not even a request. It’s almost like Ann knows what will happen next, and she’s willing to wait to hear it.

Anne takes in a shaky breath, mind trying to work out what exactly is wrong after all. Pieces of her heart that were drifting about—floating through the uncertainty—are starting to come together, and the story they’re trying to tell hurts just the same.  

“I understand—” Anne swallows, clearing her throat of the tears. “—that I did this to myself.” She vaguely motions to their surroundings, as if to refer to the house and all the memories it contains. 

“It was my decision to—” She swallows again, struggling to say the word. “—to get a divorce.” 

Ah,” Ann slightly nods, finally catching up.

Anne squeezes her eyes shut as she continues speaking, trying to brace herself against the tide of difficult emotions coming up. “And yet… everyday—” Her voice breaks. 

Ann holds her even closer, encouraging her to continue.

“—everyday,” Anne tries again, voice steadier this time. “I need to face the reality that the life I lived… the family I had… it’s over.” 

Anne can’t help but sniffle as she continues, the words now coming out easier than she thought possible, almost like they were waiting for the right time—the right person—to find a home with. 

“It’s just that what I had… should have been good enough. It was almost good enough. I had almost everything I wanted. A home, a family, a great career… a place I belonged. It’s everything I’ve been working for… for almost twenty years now.” 

Ann’s hand is absently stroking her hair as she struggles to maintain her composure, but the truth of her words strikes something deep in Anne that aches in a way she’d never experienced before. 

“I try to tell myself that I did the right thing—to rise above it. I think this would have happened at some point, anyway. Ultimately, we’re better off for it. But—” Her voice breaks again as more tears blur her vision and spill down onto the bed. 

There’s a sharp pain that cuts at her heart as memories flash through her mind. She almost had it all. The life she longed for was a hair’s breadth away from becoming hers. It was next to perfect. Except that it was with the wrong person. 

I came so close…” Anne finally sobs out, clutching to Ann even tighter as the realization hits her. The tears are flowing freely now, but she’s too far gone to stop herself. In the back of her mind, she recognizes that it is unfair to unload her guilt about her failed marriage onto Ann, but this is the closest she’s felt to any single person in a long time and her feelings are tumbling out unchecked. 

“Oh, Anne,” The younger woman is holding her tight now, almost like she’s afraid she’ll fly away. She can feel Ann’s own tears fall on her, making hot tracks down her forehead.

“I feel like,” Anne takes a deep breath, trying to put words to how she feels. “I’ve never quite fit right in this world. And all my life… I’ve just been trying to make myself fit… but every time I try, a little bit of me breaks a little.” 

She’s openly sobbing now, the broken pieces cutting her from the inside. She feels a pull downward into despair and darkness, but before she can give in, she feels Ann shift again, this time she’s tilting her chin up to meet her eyes. There’s a firmness in her touch and gaze that surprises Anne.

“You’re not broken, Anne.” Ann’s voice is low but fiery. “And your life isn’t over. You can still have it all.”

The younger woman pulls her body closer so that they’re pressed against one another, their limbs tangling together, hearts beating as one. 

“You don’t need to change yourself to fit in the world. You already fit me perfectly.”  Ann nudges her hips into Anne’s to emphasize her point. 

Her words are so perfect—full of so much clarity—that it’s all Anne can do to hold on to her while the tears continue to flow. Exhaustion is once again creeping up on her as Ann’s warm embrace envelops her, shutting out the rest of the world. 

“Shh…” Ann whispers against her forehead, and she suddenly realizes that the waves of pain coursing through her body are coming out as loud sobs. 

“The past cannot hurt you, Anne.” Her voice is soft, full of promise. “Let me love you.” 

Anne feels her body obey, melting into the woman holding her together. She can’t remember the last time she’s fallen apart in front of someone else like this. 

But in Ann Walker’s arms, she doesn’t care. In Ann Walker’s arms, she’s the woman she’s meant to be. All the heartache and pain can’t compare to the way she feels more like herself when she’s with this exceptional woman. Maybe she hadn’t exactly planned on saying those words in the heat of the moment, but she now realizes that she meant every word of it: 

She is home with Ann Walker.