Ann was shaking.
She was sitting down, leaning on a comfortable cushioned chair, and yet shaking and fearing she could sink at any moment.
She could feel as if her heart was all around her, its accelerated beat pressing on her entirety as if projected on the walls, on the elegant carpet under her feet, on the marvelously carved ceiling.
Her breathing was growing faster, more erratic. She knew the motions of this, she understood exactly what was happening, yet she could not stop it.
What was taking so long? Why wasn’t anyone coming in? How long was she to wait there? Could she go to the bathroom? Should she? What if she couldn’t leave it afterwards? What if she went into that stall to never come out again? How could she explain it to strangers if she couldn’t leave?
The purse in her hands was slipping through cold sweat, her fingers clasping it desperately.
She closed her eyes, tried to regulate her breathing. She attempted to remember all those meditation videos, all those guided mantras, but she couldn’t figure them out from the overwhelming pile of intrusive thoughts inside her head.
This was a terrible idea. She felt sick. She had to leave.
“Sorry for the delay.” The door opened suddenly, a flash of dark clothes and strong perfume approaching the desk.
The woman started rummaging through papers without even looking at her, without minding at all the fact that Ann was just about to flee the moment she entered, unaware of the deep pit of anxiety she had been sinking into.
Ann was incredibly grateful for the disinterest. It was like a hand reaching out, a speck of sense, of something real and casual and present .
“Marian!” The woman called out, still searching through the papers.
Ann looked at her intently, focusing on her to avoid sinking into herself. She was, in a way, just like in the photos. Taller than Ann, neat auburn hair, with a dark and elegant clean-cut pant suit, punctuated with a pair of Louboutins.
She was, also, completely different. The smell of her perfume, the stance of her body, the certainty in her eyes. She was real, intimidating and so powerful .
“Anne, don’t shout when there’s…” The young woman who had welcomed Ann smiled from the doorway. “... clients. ”
“Where is the folder with the receipts?” The woman continued, undisturbed.
Ann’s breathing started to normalize by the mere presence of her. Her demeanor, so far from the professional and detached bureaucratic image she had projected onto her, was somewhat reassuring. It felt less pressing to make a good impression when she seemed so human instead of the goddess she had conjured her up to be.
She was incredibly handsome, though.
“Anne, just…” Marian, as Ann was learning the secretary was called, came into the room and took the papers from the other’s grasp with force. “Focus on Miss Walker, would you?”
There was a threatening frown on Marian’s face, a swift nod toward Ann’s direction, and finally those dark eyes focused on her.
“Miss Walker.” She breathed out, like waking up from a trance. “Miss Ann Walker?”
Ann nodded, stiffly, nervously. Marian smiled at her, reassuringly, yet stuck her tongue out to the woman at the desk on her way out.
She stuck her tongue out to Anne Lister .
“Sisters, am I right?”
At that, Ann turned back towards her. She was smiling, kindly, taking a seat on the chair across the desk.
“I...I guess,” Ann stammered, her words caught in the verge of the anxiety episode she was trying to keep at bay, “I haven’t seen my sister in a while.”
“I wish I could say the same.” Miss Lister sighed. “Yet Marian works with me.”
With , Ann repeated in her head. Not for but with . That seemed nice.
“I apologize for my rude entrance, Miss Walker,” she continued, leaning on the desk, the slightly unbuttoned collar of her blouse attracting Ann’s eyes, “I’ve had quite a day, but please don’t think for a second that I’m not interested in you.”
Ann nodded awkwardly, averting her eyes. Miss Lister smirked.
“In fact, I am delighted. ”
“Absolutely!” She grinned. “I haven’t read such an enthralling piece in a long time.”
Ann frowned, uncertain. She had never been good at taking compliments, much less when she wasn’t used to receiving them for her work...or what she considered her work and her family considered a hobby.
“The illustrations took me by surprise, however.”
Miss Lister stood up again, moved her chair in front of Ann’s and sat, not behind her desk but right across her. She leaned towards Ann, as if they were in a friend’s party rather than a business meeting.
“I understand that...the genre is not your specialty…” Ann stared intently at her purse, the floor, the striking black shoes in front of her.
“You think I wouldn’t be able to handle it?”
There was a challenge in her tone and Ann panicked when hearing it.
“No! Of course not! That’s not…” She looked, finally, at her face, and found a playful smirk and gleaming dark eyes. “I meant...I know it isn’t advisable to go for a publisher whose catalog doesn’t have what you’re offering…”
“Well, that depends.” Miss Lister leaned back, grazing her bottom lip with her index in thought. “It depends on whether the editor is ballsy enough to get an opportunity when they see it, and educates themselves on the decision.”
“I know that the genre is not...normally reserved for pieces like this one…” Ann continued.
“I’m dreadfully sorry, Miss Walker,” she interrupted, “here I was, thinking that this meeting was for you to try to pitch me your work, not to convince me to dismiss you.”
“Oh, no! I…”
Ann was stopped again by the smirk, the conspiratorial lean of Miss Lister’s body towards hers and the scent of her perfume in such proximity.
“It’s alright, I understand.” Miss Lister nodded. “You’re not used to this.”
Ann considered that the statement could encompass more than whatever Miss Lister intended. Not used to pitching work to publishers, not used to receiving compliments, not used to feeling overwhelmingly enraptured by business women in suits at such close proximity…
“I like your original, Miss Walker, I truly do,” she continued, “but this is more of a commitment than I am used to making for any of my authors...this is uncharted territory for me, as you have stated, but I am willing to commit... with you.”
Ann felt her breath catching and her pulse faltering.
“If you’re willing to give me a chance, I think we would be able to make something good out of this, you and I, as a team. ”
She reached out, her hand on Ann’s, and even though Ann was sure this was not what business meetings normally entailed, there was something that felt like reassurance in the touch, there was space and comfort and not at all overwhelming force...and Ann knew the difference. The latter she had experienced more often than the former.
Ann felt, for once, listened and understood.
“Yes.” She heard herself say, with more certainty than she had ever shown before. “Yes, I would love to.”
Months of work had passed. Four months and they were still on chapter 8.
Ann had moments in which she blamed herself for it. Most often than not her tiredness made her want to just concede, to say yes to anything Miss Lister wanted to change, not argue anymore, because, after all, who was her to say no to Anne Lister .
But then Miss Lister got upset.
She disliked it when Ann didn’t fight back on her choices. Which was absurd, if you asked Ann, because if she didn’t want the changes then why propose them?
There seemed to be a certain dimension of their relationship that escaped Ann’s understanding, especially since most of their conversations were via email or messages. The most she had grasped was when Miss Lister sent her audio messages, while walking on a bustled street or in the midst of the laughs of a lady in the background.
She was severe. Not unfair, not mean spirited, not disrespectful, but severe. And frustrating.
Still, Ann wanted so much to please her. And she was angry at herself for it, for wanting to be what she thought Miss Lister wanted, and yet was never able to understand fully who that was, who was the Ann Walker she was looking for. She was tired, yes, tired enough to concede her anything just to move forward.
That was, until the last email.
We are going to have to re-work the character’s motivations. It is unrealistic that she wouldn’t stand up for herself. It is unreasonable for the female representation of 2020 to have such a weak personality in a lead. I would dread to have such lacking image of female leads when we are entering a new decade. Think about it.
Miss Lister’s correspondence wasn’t often that short. She had a lot of notes, upon notes, upon links of reference, upon examples on how to improve things. She was like a source of all knowledge, had experience in many fields, and what she didn’t know, she learned.
This, though. This was subjective. Subjective and unfair . Ann was, for the first time since their meeting, actually angry.
With that in mind and the printed email in hand, she entered the office in a rush. She didn’t find Marian, maybe it was her lunchtime. Still, she didn’t want to lose her steam. It wasn’t easy for Ann to argue choices, but this anger, this frustration, was bigger than her fears and her worries and she needed to use it to bring her point across.
It was crucial .
Miss Lister’s door was ajar. She could hear voices. Without thinking it through, she opened the door.
“Miss Lister, I need a word…” Her voice was severe, but it died down as she took in the scene.
There was a woman sitting on Miss Lister’s desk, her mini skirt riding over her knees, her thighs very exposed. Miss Lister’s hands were on her hips and their faces were incredibly close. There wasn’t any lack of clothing but, to Ann, the scene seemed more private and intimate than it would have been if both of them had been stark naked.
“I...I’m sorry.” Ann paled, the printed email crumpling in her hand. “I didn’t...I should have called…” Ann turned around walking towards the door. “I’ll come back later,” she offered, not looking back, absolutely sure she would never come back again.
Ann was aware.
She was aware of her 6 missed calls, her 10 unread emails, her voicemails, her un-checked messages.
That didn’t mean she had the energy to face them.
It wasn’t the scene she had stumbled on what bothered her. It wasn’t the knowledge of Anne Lister flirting with an author of hers. She had never met Mariana Lawton in person before, even less in such intimate detail, but she was one of Anne Lister’s biggest success authors and, after the fuss her mind had been in, she had recognized her face...and maybe also her thighs.
There was, however, a sense of...disappointment and doubt.
She had felt, upon meeting Miss Lister, that they could have a sort of bond, an understanding. That she was interested in her art, in her content.
She was advised by her family against her. Several times. They said that her publishing company, which she had taken up after her father retired, wasn’t in the best state and that she was to blame for its stagnant pace. That she was... biased with her choices of authors.
Rawson & Rawson had spoken publicly against Shibden Publishing, saying that their new editor in chief chose manuscripts based on subjective reasons and personal vendettas rather than originality and creativity.
Ann hadn’t listened, she believed that Anne Lister was brilliant. She had single-handedly turned Shibden from a small, non-fiction publisher to a wider indie success and made careers flourish for many female authors that would be dismissed in many other big enterprises, including Rawson & Rawson.
The proof was in that success, however slow and steady, and in how authors vouched for her and became well-known, even with an indie publisher backing them. Authors like Mariana Lawton and Vere Hobart, before she ditched Shibden for the multinational Cameron Inc. once Miss Lister had edited her into her first best-seller.
Ann didn’t care if Miss Lister was involved with any of them, or all of them. She wasn’t bothered by that, it seemed all perfectly consensual. What she cared about, though, was the subjectivity involved in those working relationships.
She wanted her work to be picked because it was good, and not because she was an easily malleable author that an editor could push around and transform into the next Vere Hobart or Mariana Lawton. She didn't want to think that her severity was intending to transform Ann into the type of author Miss Lister wanted instead of meeting her halfway. If this was the reason behind Miss Lister’s exigence, then what was the point?
And yes, alright, she was also a bit jealous of the fact that all she got were reprimands and severe emails, when other authors were treated more... cordially .
Her phone rang once more and she looked at it from her sofa. The sound was strong in the small apartment she had procured, in order to take a break from her family home.
She wasn’t used to living alone, but her family hadn’t been much help or companionship after her sister married and left. They kept pushing her to do other things instead of writing and drawing, to veer her away from ‘those hobbies’ and into a ‘reasonable career path’.
The phone stopped and there was only room for a single sigh before she heard the doorbell. With her heart beating out of her chest, Ann got up from the sofa and approached the door.
“Yes?” She asked without opening it.
“It’s me.” Miss Lister’s voice sounded severe. “Let me in, please.”
Ann was then painfully reminded of her slouchy clothes, the messy bun in her head, her kitten slippers and the episode of She Ra paused on her tv.
There wasn’t much she could do about it, though.
When she opened the door, Anne Lister looked exactly as she always did. Black pant suit, straight shiny auburn hair, those black Louboutins with red bottoms that made her seem like she had sprinted over the corpses of her enemies.
The kitten slippers stared back at Ann in despair.
“We need to talk.”
She let herself in, walking towards the sitting room and taking a glance at the leftovers from dinner, the ramen container and the paused face of Adora, defeated on the screen.
Ann knew that, for someone like her, it was a lot to take in.
“Listen,” she said, finally, “if you are going to terminate our contract, you need to let me know so we can contact the lawyers, but I’d rather you told me directly, face to face, before having an impersonal envelope from some firm delivered to my desk.”
Ann frowned, confused.
“I said, if you’re leaving…”
“ Leaving ?”
It was Miss Lister who seemed confused at that.
“Well, yes...you haven’t talked to me since you walked in on...when you saw…”
Ann blushed, hiding her face in her Aristocats sweatshirt.
“I promise you that what you saw was consensual, and I am fully aware that it wasn’t respectful for my clients or the company to have it happen in my office, but it was not at all something Miss Lawton and I hadn’t both consented to.”
“I...I assumed so, it didn’t seem...I understand, Miss Lister.” Ann crossed her arms over her chest.
“Then...then why ? Why are you ignoring me?”
“I know it’s unprofessional of me, and I’d understand if you want to dismiss me.” Ann was still resolutely not looking at her. “I’m just having...a bit of a personal crisis, I guess.”
Miss Lister remained silent for a while. She seemed out of place in her small shabby apartment, and Ann was sure that she was expecting a lot more from someone whose family was as rich as Ann’s. The Aristocats sweatshirt and cat slippers were probably not helping either, but Ann was past caring about that.
“Maybe we should sit down...and talk about it?” Miss Lister offered. “You can tell me about your crisis and I can be honest about...what happened with Miss Lawton.”
“You don’t have to…”
“But I do.” She moved to the couch. “It’s the least I could do, to clear the air and apologize for my lack of professionalism.” She nodded, serious. “The least I want is for you to feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”
Ann approached the couch as well and removed the rest of food from the small table.
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Do you have any wine?”
Ann did not. But she didn’t have to say it, it seemed.
“Whatever you were having is fine.”
“I could get you some wine from…”
“No, let’s stick to…” She looked at the table. “Coca Cola?”
When Ann came back from the kitchen, she noticed the tv still paused and turned it off.
“Sorry for keeping you away from…” Miss Lister made a vague gesture towards the tv.
“She Ra.” Ann finished for her.
“Weren’t those toys in the 80s?”
“They were.” Ann smiled.
They were in silence for a while and, as usual, Miss Lister was the first to speak.
“I’ve seen Mariana on and off for a long time, since before she was an author and before I was an editor.” She took a sip from her glass. “We were lovers before we were co-workers and friends before we were lovers.”
“Sounds lovely.” Ann smiled.
“On paper, maybe.” Miss Lister smiled, but there was sadness drenching her demeanor. “Not really in practice...she isn’t intent on having a serious relationship...with me, at least.”
“Yes...I may be a passing fancy, I suppose.”
“Don’t be, it’s alright, I don’t...I’m used to it.”
“You?” Ann couldn’t help sounding incredulous.
“You seem surprised.”
“I...I’m sorry, it’s just...you’re not...you don’t seem like someone who would be anyone’s second option.”
“Don’t I?” She smirked.
“Of course not, you’re…” Ann blushed. “I’m sorry.”
“You really need to stop apologizing.” She sighed. “It’s very tiring.”
“I’m…” Ann closed her mouth abruptly.
“What about you?” Miss Lister offered. “What is this crisis you’re facing? Is it a family thing?”
She looked around the apartment, probably trying to tie the image of the Walkers, as she had probably researched them before meeting Ann, with this small place in the city.
“Kind of, I suppose...what doesn’t have to do with family, in a way.” She smiled, shyly. “It’s about my work, but I guess my family’s views on it may have cemented a certain...hesitancy for me to defend it.”
“And I was...that day in your office I was going there to speak to you about it.”
“You were angry.”
“How did you…?”
“I could tell...I was worried it was about what you saw...that you’d be disappointed in my behavior or my romantic and sexual preference...it wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Oh, no!” Ann reached out and touched Miss Lister’s arm. “It’s not that! It was...about what you said...in the email.”
“You were that angry about the email?” Miss Lister laughed.
“I still am!” Ann removed her hands from her arm and frowned. “You called her ‘weak’, you called her...you said she wasn’t worth it.”
“I didn’t say…”
“You think she’s not strong enough for her story to be worth telling, that is what you’re saying with your email!” Ann frowned. “You are making her seem pointless and unnecessary and not a good representation of women, therefore, what? Unrealistic? Impossible?”
“Huh…” Miss Lister’s index went to her bottom lip, as it did when she was considering something. “Are you...self-inserting?”
It was as if she had slapped her. As if she had taken her manuscript, set it on fire and danced around the flames.
“Excuse me?!” Ann stood up. “Am I not allowed to project? To tell something that I feel represents me? To see myself reflected in my work?”
She started pacing, her vision unfocused and lost.
“Why is it that when cis men are writing their fantasies, their stupid sexist fantasies, they’re seen as geniuses and tortured souls, and when someone else writes something about themselves in their own stories they’re ‘self-inserting’?”
She was aware that her voice was rising but wasn’t able to stop it.
“I wish I had seen myself reflected more! That my fears, my mental health, my identity had been reflected more! And what, if my weak disposition and my cowardice doesn’t fit the standards for a ‘strong female character for 2020’? Am I not allowed to see my weaknesses represented in my own work? It’s bad writing if I take from my own experiences and don’t transform them into clear-cut expectations of femininity that exist in a vacuum? Into statistics ?”
Ann was heaving. She realized then that Miss Lister was turned towards her, her eyes open wide and her expression unreadable.
Ann felt as if she had been possessed. By her anger, her frustration and her own feelings of mediocrity. For once there was something she was sure of, something she wanted to tell in her story, in her drawings, in this blend of a genre she was creating, and it was too personal not to defend.
She had, however, screamed at her editor .
“I see,” Miss Lister said, uncharacteristically soft.
“Oh, Miss Lister, I…” Ann tried fixing the tone with which she had spoken.
“Anne,” she interrupted, “call me Anne...and please, come see me in my office on Monday.”
She stood from the couch and walked the opposite way from where Ann was standing, her demeanor as certain and stoic as usual, her eyes reflecting how her mind was turning, thinking, planning.
“I think I have an idea for the direction of your piece.”
As she opened the door, she looked back at Ann over her shoulder.
“Oh and sorry if my emails were too severe, I was trying to push you for... that. ” She signaled with her hand towards where Ann was standing, all-encompassing. “I had a feeling you had that voice in you, I just wanted to coax it out.”
“It’s magnificent.” Anne said, smirking, before closing the door behind her.
The book was difficult to market.
Ann knew that would be an issue even before she pitched it, or attempted to pitch it, many months before. Still, it was a bit deflating to find so many difficulties when they had worked so hard on it.
Anne didn’t have much experience with publishers. She didn’t have any experience, actually, before ending in Shibden. But she was sure that the level of work Anne Lister had put into her project was unparalleled.
It was true that Shibden didn’t have as many authors as it used to, especially after it delved less into non-fiction. Although Ann had considered that non-fiction was what Anne had wanted to write herself, if she ever gave herself the same level of trust she gave other writers.
After Vere Hobart had left and Mariana Lawton had decided to stay in an indefinite hiatus, prompted by her fianceé’s travels, there weren’t those many other projects to focus on in Shibden. But instead of finding more originals to bring into the catalog, Anne had worked tirelessly with Ann to try to make her project work, and whenever she felt she was lacking expertise, she went out and got it.
It had become their project, in a collaborative sense, and Ann was finding, more and more, the unabashed narrative voice she had always buried. Anne was able to make her feel like it was safe to speak out, to open up, both in her writing and in her life. The more Ann’s protagonist found her voice in the book, the more Ann herself was able to say out loud, both in the workplace and in her daily life.
She also had a massive crush on her editor, not that she was going to do anything about it.
“I’m finding it hard to get it across their thick heads that this won't be a graphic novel or a comic book.” Anne sighed, sitting behind her desk.
She had just arrived from a meeting with the freelance marketing team she was working with, because Samuel Washington, her single marketing guy, wasn't going to be able to pull a campaign for this book on his own, and Shibden couldn't afford an entire department of its own.
“It’s like they can’t grasp the concept, and when I talk about picture books, they think…”
“Children’s literature.” Ann nodded. “I assumed so.”
“It’s not like there aren’t books out there that are blends...I mean, Ransom Riggs has a best-seller series that combines photography and text, and Edward Gorey had been publishing since the 50s! but if I try to pitch it in comparison then…”
“They think it’s YA.” Ann finished.
“How did you know?”
“I’m a woman writing fantasy,” Ann sentenced, “of course they think it’s YA.”
“Why are you taking this so much better than I am?”
“Because I had considered all these things almost a year ago, when I came here.” Ann moved towards the desk, leaning on it next to Anne’s chair. “I thought you were going to say all these things when I pitched my book to you.”
“Huh...that’s some trust you had in me...”
“I didn’t come to you because I thought you’d understand the concept.” Ann shook her head. “I came to you for the wrong reasons...and I was lucky.”
“I wanted to work with you.”
Ann sighed. The silence after that admission was pleading for an explanation that Ann had been scared of admitting for months on end. She had to try, though. Her protagonist would.
“It’s not advisable to choose an editor because you like them as a person, especially if they don’t work with what you’re offering, but I had seen all you had built and the help you gave women, women who were overlooked in regular media because their voices were shrunk to fit a publishing landscape that is easier to sell...I wanted your approval, and for you to think I was worth your time...and I got so lucky that you were you in the end.”
“Your crush on me is showing.” Anne bit her lip.
She wasn’t even attempting to hide the smirk. Ann blushed profusely and turned back towards her chair. Or the door. Or the exit of the entire building.
“I was joking!” Anne reached out for her arm. “Don’t get mad.”
“I’m not mad.” Ann tried to retrieve her arm. “I’m...I’m sorry”
“What did I say about apologizing for nothing?”
“It’s not nothing, though, is it?” Ann felt as if the grip in her wrist was scalding. “I don’t want to ruin this with...my stupid feelings. ”
Anne let her go. The feeling of that vacancy, the cold spreading like poison through her arm, made it impossible for her to turn and face her.
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“I sort of do, though, don’t I?” Her voice was sharp. “Look at me.”
“Look at me when you’re talking about your feelings, it’s the least you can do.”
Ann flinched. Her own weakness became more disarming to her when confronted with someone as strong and unwavering as Anne Lister.
When she turned, though, and finally looked, really looked at her, she was anything but stoic. Her eyes were glossy, deep and haunting, set in a frown that seemed to be containing so much history, history Ann didn’t know and couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“I can’t do this, Ann.” She sounded determined, but her eyes seemed to be pleading, as if they were asking her to argue with her, to deny what she was saying. “I can’t be with you like that.”
And yes, Ann knew, of course she knew.
Anne Lister, the incredible Anne Lister, in all her prowess and power, who had been in relationships with women like Mariana Lawton, who was able to unabashedly flirt with famous stars like Marie Sophie Hesse, who commanded every room she entered and walked as if the men-filled business meetings she had to attend were her battlefields to rule over...how could a woman like her ever look at Ann, let alone return her feelings?
“You are not understanding.”
She commanded Ann’s attention back to her, to the room, to her face, and was able to cut through the flood of thoughts that plagued Ann’s head as if it was the easiest thing.
“I’m not strong enough to do this anymore.”
At that, Ann faltered.
“To do what?” She asked, instead.
She gestured, all-encompassing, at the distance between them, the room, the desk, the office, the entire small private universe they had built together and which Ann had come to adore.
“...giving my all to someone who will eventually desert me when the novelty of me dies down.”
There was silence, in the space between them, in the room, in the office, in their private universe. And also, for once, there was silence inside Ann’s head too.
“How do you know that?” Ann frowned. “How do you know I’ll leave?”
“They all do.”
She looked down, her sorrowful eyes avoiding hers, and that was when Ann saw it. She saw, for the first time, a version of her own insecurities, her own fears, reflected back at her.
“I think we’ve reached an impasse.”
Ann’s voice sounded stronger, more powerful in the silence.
“I have decided, single-handedly, without talking to you, without telling you how I feel, that you won’t, not in a million years, like me back.”
Anne smiled at the word ‘like’, and it would have made Ann feel self-conscious of speaking like a teenager when she was months away from turning 30, but seeing the faint smirk spreading through Anne’s sorrow like a balm, she took it as a win.
“And you have decided, also single-handedly, without telling me how you feel, that I would leave you, like whoever else did before.”
“It wasn’t just one partner…”
“I don’t care,” Ann interrupted her.
Ann interrupted Anne Lister .
“I don’t care who it was or how many of them, you are giving me no credit if you think I’m like them.”
Anne smiled again, a sad, haunting smile, but she still didn’t look at her.
“You say that now…”
This was known territory. Ann knew this. It was known and familiar because it was the same she felt, the things that plagued her head, the same strokes of insecurities in a different canvas.
She didn’t know how to handle them, most times, but she knew how she would have liked people to treat her when she was plagued with them. And that was what Anne needed.
She crouched in front of Anne’s sitting figure. She could see, that close, the tired expression of her face, the defeated look in her eyes. She was still strong to her, even more so than before, if she was willing to keep going with all that on her shoulders, with that much pain inside her heart. She was, to Ann, even more invincible.
“Maybe we should just...keep going as we are,” Ann offered, gently, “keep working on the book, getting to know each other, be friends...and maybe in time we’ll know.”
“Know what?” Anne lifted her head, those striking deep eyes looking at her with something akin to hope.
“How we feel.” She smiled. “How we really feel for each other...and where we want to go with that.”
“It sounds so simple…”
“Why shouldn’t it be simple?”
Ann didn’t have the experience, didn’t possess the knowledge, to have any certainty on that. She didn’t want it either, she wasn’t interested on any of it, at least not with anyone else. She was willing to take her time with Anne, to explore her limitations and her boundaries, what felt good and what did not, if Anne ever cared to give her the space.
And that, to her, was simple enough to understand.
“I’m not...experienced, like you.” Ann was aware of how she was blushing, but continued regardless. “I know you have enough proof to be worried and to think that you can guess how things can go, especially if you’ve been hurt before, but…”
She reached out, tentatively, and held her hand.
“...I need time, and patience, because I’m not...I don’t know what I’m comfortable with, what I want…” She bit her lip before continuing. “But maybe...maybe you also need it, for different reasons...maybe you have always needed time and patience too, but gave it to others more than you’ve received it yourself.”
Ann smiled, feeling like it was so clear to understand her this close, to catch a brief glimpse of the person behind the Anne Lister facade. She hoped Anne would someday let her in enough to always coexist with that version of her, the soft, strong, warm core she could see now.
“So, if we take our time to know each other, we could figure out what we both want?”
Ann knew, as soon as she said it, that she had to offer more certainty than that. This wasn’t a moment for questions, it was the time for statements.
“If we can just... exist together...the rest will fall into place, and in the meantime, that’s more than enough for me.”
Ann couldn’t quite understand how things had turned out that way, how she ended up being the one offering comfort and asking Anne Lister, of all people, to take a chance on her, on a potential future something with her.
Nothing made sense in theory but in context, for some strange reason, it felt right.
Anne took her hand.
“I would kiss you right now, if you were anyone else.” She said.
Oh. Oh, well. That was harsh.
“No, you goof.” She laughed at Ann’s evident distress. “That’s a good thing...taking things slow, I mean, I don’t want to ruin that pace, it sounds nice.”
“Oh...that’s...yeah, that’s good.”
Anne’s hand closed on hers, intertwining their fingers.
“ Good. ” Ann sighed.
“You are asking me to rewrite the entire chapter ?”
Ann frowned, turning towards her editor-turned-friend-and-growing-crush, who was currently sitting on the sofa in her shabby apartment.
Even in less formal clothes, in tight black jeans and a gray v-neck t-shirt, she looked elegant. And out of place in Ann’s pastel and floral-wallpaper environment. Out of place and still incredibly attractive.
But at that moment, Ann wanted to rip her very attractive head off.
“I mean, why would we settle with something less than optimal when we know there is a better option?”
“Because the entire original is already set digitally for the printer? Because Eugénie is going to murder you in your sleep if she has to go over the graphic design all over again? Because we have a release date ?...Should I continue?”
“Absolutely, you seem to love the sound of your own voice when you rant…”
“This isn’t a joke!”
“I’m not joking.” Anne sat straighter. “I want to make this book the best it can be, and for that to be the case, the chapter needs a final revision.”
“A rewrite isn’t a revision…”
“Listen, Ann, I don’t have a huge team with me, alright? Maybe if I had 3 correction departments aligned at my doorstep, I could have seen this before moving on to style correction but, alas, I did not.”
Anne sighed and rubbed the side of her forehead, wincing in pain.
“I am aware that this is my personal failing as an editor, not to have brought this up beforehand, but there’s so much I can do by myself with only John for micro editing and style and Thomas as an intern...if Samuel was better for anything else than marketing, I’d have him doing revisions to, but as it stands…”
“If you apologize, I’m going to flip this coffee table.” Anne frowned. “You have a right to be upset and to shout at me a bit, I get it, it’s alright and it’s fair and the goddesses know Eugénie is going to dismember me and scatter the pieces when I tell her we’re re-doing a chapter...I just want you to understand that I think it’s for the best.”
Ann sat beside her on the sofa, ungracefully yet uncaring of it.
“ Fine. ” She turned to her. “I understand.”
“Thank you.” It was more a relieved sigh than a statement.
Ann noticed then, with the veil of anger removed from her eyes, how tired Anne seemed, how frail the thread keeping her together was.
“I have one condition.” Ann turned to her fully.
“Condition?” Anne tensed again.
“I’ll rewrite the chapter with your notes and work through the editing with John and Thomas this week, while you rest.”
“Rest? The entire week?”
“That is ridiculous, I’m absolutely fine. ”
As she raised her voice, she winced, her headache most surely pressing harder in retaliation.
“You’ll see it when it’s done, not a minute earlier.” Ann frowned. “I’ll talk to Marian about your absence.”
“She’ll be delighted for my absence.” Anne leaned her head on the armrest of the couch, her legs finding a resting place on Ann’s thighs. “I might have been a bit too vocal this week.”
“Poor Marian.” Ann winced in sympathy.
“Oh really? Poor Marian ? What about me ?”
There was something behind the banter, something that tasted a bit like insecurity, faint enough that Ann would have missed it earlier in their acquaintanceship.
“You will leave this project alone.” She removed the pages from Anne’s hands. “You will lie down for a bit while I make some dinner.” She set the pages on the table and removed Anne’s legs gently to stand up. “And you will pick some nonsense to watch on Netflix for the rest of the evening.”
There was a moment of silence, in which Anne just stared at her with an indiscernible expression, and Ann considered that maybe ordering Anne Lister around wasn’t the best idea.
“It’s getting incredibly inconvenient, you know.” Anne sighed, finally. “This ‘taking things slow’ thing, when you’re asking me to ‘netflix and chill’ and you mean it so painfully literally .”
Ann blushed profusely and turned decidedly towards the kitchenette with more speed than necessary.
Ann descended the Uber swiftly on the entrance of Shibden Publishing. She tried not to slam the door too strongly, the poor driver was not responsible for her anger.
She walked resolutely towards Anne’s office and saw that Marian wasn’t there. Upon thinking that it was probably her lunchtime, she was reminded of another time, almost two years before, in which the same thing had happened.
Anne’s door was slightly ajar and, upon opening it, Ann found her sitting on her desk, her feet propped up on it, a lot of papers surrounding her slightly disarrayed frame. It was an unusual sight, finding Anne Lister in any form that wasn’t pristine and commanding, especially in her office.
When she looked up and her eyes found hers, Ann knew immediately that something was wrong. There was something very much like hurt , deep and agonizing, painting her eyes, her frown, her pout, but it disappeared as soon as Anne caught her noticing.
The icy stare that replaced it, professional and distant, was like a slap to the face and Ann was unaware of why she deserved it.
Still, Ann was angry.
“I was approached by Jeremiah Rawson.” Ann let herself fall on the chair across Anne’s desk, fuming.
“I am aware.” Anne looked down towards her paperwork, not seeing her anymore.
“He gave me a ‘heads up’, as he called it,” she said, looking everywhere but at Ann, and speaking with disinterest, “the same ‘courtesy’ has been granted to me in other similar cases before.”
She frowned, noticeably.
“This is new, though, you being here,” she continued, “I expected a letter or an email instead.”
“What are you talking about?”
The indifference that Anne was treating her with was fueling Ann’s anger, and she was trying very hard not to let all of that affect her enough to take it on Anne.
“Why are you here?” She looked up, putting her feet down, staring defiantly at Ann as if she was personally attacking her. “Come out with it, stop beating around the bush as you do when you’re scared.”
It was a low blow, a very low blow and Ann was not aware what she had done to warrant it. She frowned her incoming tears into submission as well as she could, because hearing someone you trust throwing your weakness at your face was something that could have broken her very easily before.
But, after two years, she had learned that she didn’t deserve that. And that, when she thought she didn’t deserve something, she had a right to demand explanations and respect. Even from someone she loved.
“I came here to rant with you about an asshole proposing me to shift publishers,” Ann stated, “I came here because I hate Jeremiah Rawson and you loathe Jeremiah Rawson and I thought that, after being annoyed by him, I could trust on you to help me feel better.”
She stood up, increasingly angry.
“But then I come here, you treat me... like this and you inform me that you knew he was going to bother me and not only didn’t try to stop him and fight for me but also didn’t tell me ?”
Anne’s face changed before her, confusion morphing into what looked like regret and guilt.
“Why are you being so dismissive?” Ann didn’t stop, though. “Why are you treating me like this when all I’ve done is try to insist an asshole to leave me alone?”
“You said no.” Anne’s voice was soft, barely present.
“Of course I said no!” Ann put her arms up in despair, which was maybe a bit too dramatic, but who could blame her. “Why would I say yes? You are the best editor I could have hoped for, whether or not I have stupid feelings for you, you fought for my work, you made it happen, why in the fuck would I say yes to Rawson & Rawson?!”
Ann rarely cursed, let alone like that, with her hands all over the place and her voice getting higher, but she felt like the world around her made no sense at all and was getting increasingly more desperate.
Anne, though, didn’t seem to care. She looked at her as if she had opened up the clouds in the sky and illuminated her entire day. She looked as if she couldn’t believe the fact that Ann wanted to remain in Shibden, which was a nonsensical thing to be surprised of, if you asked Ann.
“What am I missing here?” Ann lowered her voice, walking towards the desk, setting her hands on it and staring at Anne Lister in defiance. “What is it that you expected of me? What is it that you want ?”
Ann asked it to know where their professional agreement stood. She thought Anne would talk to her about contracts, or past experiences with authors, or ask her to write another book.
She did not expect Anne Lister to stand up, lean on the desk across her, take her face in her hands and bring it impossibly close.
“I want very much to kiss you senseless,” she said, almost in a whisper “I’ve wanted it for a long, long time and I was scared to ask and scared you’d be disappointed.”
“Go ahead,” Ann said, simply, and it sounded very much flustered and shy and not at all as stoic and sexy as she would have wanted.
But Anne smiled and leaned in anyway. Anne Lister kissed her anyway.
It wasn’t overtaking and passionate, it wasn’t hungry and devouring, although Ann imagined Anne could be like that too. No, it was gentle and pleading, it was reverent and thankful , as if Ann was some sort of deity that should be upheld and worshiped.
The tears came back, prickling Ann’s eyes as she felt their lips parting. Anne rested her forehead onto hers softly.
“I should have talked to you,” she said, regretful, “I should have told you what he said and fought for you and met him with you to punch his stupid face in your doorstep.”
“Yes, you should have.”
It was the first time Anne said it, like that, like Ann used to.
“I’m so so sorry.”
“You still thought I’d leave.” It wasn’t a question, it didn’t need to be.
“It’s not you, it wasn’t because of you, I just thought…”
“You thought you weren’t good enough.” Ann kissed the corner of her mouth, gently, reverently. “I know how that feels like.”
There was much to talk and to discuss, and it was going to take time for both of them to finally understand . Ann still had insecurities and fought with her own demons every day. Anne had her own past, all those rejections embroidered on a heavy mantle that she had carried for longer than she deserved, making her feel unwanted and unlovable.
They had much work to do by themselves, on themselves, but they could share that path together, Ann considered. Slowly, gently.
But, for the moment, Ann decided to step back.
“No fooling around in the office anymore, Miss Lister.” She winked, playfully. “We’ll talk about it later...we have time.”
Ann’s couch had never felt so cozy.
She was sitting with her back on Anne’s chest, nestled between Anne’s legs, her head was leaning on Anne’s shoulder while her lips caressed Ann’s neck.
“We’re supposed to be proofreading.” She admonished, but there couldn’t be heat behind her words.
Not when Anne could do that with her mouth.
“Mmh.” Anne’s arms trapped her against her chest. “I can multitask.”
Anne’s right hand traveled slowly, sneaking underneath the hem of Ann’s sweatshirt, furrowing beneath the layers until it finally found skin…
“No.” Ann stood, disentangling herself from those very talented hands.
Anne frowned, confused and a little bit dejected. If Ann didn’t know better, she would have missed the slight pang of self-doubt, but she was well-trained to notice now, to understand that she wasn’t the only one with fears and worries.
“I want your attention focused in either me or my work,” Ann said, “not both at the same time.”
“Those are the only two things I’m allowed to focus on?” She teased. “That’s very possessive of you…”
“I mean right now!” Ann blushed. “I don’t mean all the time!”
Her eyes were disarming. She looked as if she was zeroing in on a conquest, as if she could see every inch of Ann and had plans for all of it. Ann started doubting whether the focus of attention was a good idea.
“We’ll work, then.” Anne sentenced, changing her countenance immediately and picking the papers back up from the coffee table.
She could change moods so fast that she left Ann completely helpless and drifting. There was, she had to admit, a pang of disappointment in being second best, but it was to her work , so it wasn’t that bad…
“Do you have objections?” Anne’s voice cut through her reverie.
“No, of course not.” Her voice sounded a lot more deflated than she wanted it to.
It must be so tiring for Anne, she thought, being involved with someone so not used to teasing and flirting in this way, maybe it turned boring after a while…
“I’m trying really hard to focus here,” Anne said, interrupting her thoughts once more, “but I can’t when you look so flustered and adorable and…” She bit her lower lip.
Ann was taken aback, flushing profusely.
“We could…” She leaned in, slowly, trying not to look directly at Anne’s lips. “We could take a break...maybe.”
“If you wanted my attention solely on you, you should have said that.” Anne smirked.
“I...I was...is it ok if I do?” She frowned. “For now, at least?”
Anne left the papers on the table once more and caressed her cheek.
“It’s more than ok.” She kissed her jaw. “It’s what I want too.”
When their lips met, it was hungry but tender, vulnerable but sweet, and Ann didn’t know all those things could happen together, clashing each other, into one incredible moment. She leaned her back on the couch and let Anne follow her, over her, everywhere and anywhere, until she was breathing her in, until they were one single experience.
When Anne’s hands found the hem of her sweatshirt again, Ann decided proofreading could wait a long while.