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Many Happy Returns: Love & Hedgehogs

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“The marquee’s just arrived. It’s bigger than the one I ordered but either it’s going to be too hot and everyone will be dying for some shade or it’ll p-” Ann’s mouth fell open as she rounded the corner and came into the living room at Shibden. “You’re here.” Ann managed as a large grin spread across the familiar handsome face that greeted her. She expected this moment to happen. Marian had told her that Anne was coming back to Halifax for work. She had hoped that when they did eventually bump into each other she would manage something a little more articulate.

As she took in the impressive sight of Anne Lister she was amazed that she had been able to form any coherent sentences. They were no longer adolescents, and it had been almost eight years since they’d seen each other, but that hadn’t changed the reality that all Anne ever needed to do was glance her way and everything else in Ann’s world shrank in significance as her heart swooned. It didn’t matter what she had come into the Hall to say to Marian, or how much she needed to get done, Anne was back and that was all that mattered.

As they stood opposite each other Ann slowly took her in. Still dressed head to toe in black, the tortoise shell rimmed glasses were a new edition though - a welcome one, as were the splattering of grey hairs at her temples that gave her an air of distinction. She had commandeered the entire living room with the large papers she had spread out on the tables before her. She looked like she always belonged there in what used to be the grand room of Shibden Hall, and she did. Ann hadn’t known how she had ever chosen to leave, but she supposed that was what love did. 

“Ann.” She hadn’t intended to, and she wasn’t sure whether it was hearing her name again or the smile that accompanied it, but that single word completely disarmed her. Ann crossed the room in just a few strides and threw her arms around Anne’s neck as she enveloped her in a huge hug. Anne was a little surprised at first by the force of her greeting but as the embrace continued she found her own arms wrapping around the small blonde as she held her close. She breathed in the sweet intoxicating smell of Ann’s perfume, still the same one she wore years ago. 

“Didn’t take long for you two to find each other.” Marian’s voice broke the two of them apart as they both simultaneously pulled away increasing the distance between them. “I knew you would.” The two of them smiled sheepishly as she gave them a knowing look. “Is everything alright with the fundraiser?” At her question, Ann remembered why she had come up to the Hall. “Yes, everything’s perfect. We’ve got the marquee. I’ll ask Sam to help me put it up. I was just going to bring some of the boxes down.”

“I can help if you need an extra pair of hands.” They both turned in surprise. Anne had never been one to offer to help, organise and bark commands yes, but never help with the more menial tasks. “Marian said you’re doing something with hedgehogs.” Ann nodded. A small smile played on Anne’s lips as she asked teasingly, “Still trying to save the world?” 

“No,” Ann responded quickly. “Just Shibden. One small creature at a time,” returning the smile. Anne’s face softened immediately at the words. She hadn’t changed. She was still the same kind person she knew. Always trying to help people, and hedgehogs now apparently, and of course - Shibden. Ann had always loved the estate as much as any Lister had. It was undeniable that Anne had come back to Shibden instead of staying in York because she missed it, and if she admitted - she missed Ann too. 

Marian looked at the two of them making eyes at each other. It had been five minutes and she had already caught Ann in her sister’s arms. She knew this would happen. It was like they were teenagers again. She’d had to nurse Ann through years of adolescent pining after her big sister, and even worse when she’d decided to marry Mariana. She hoped that this time it would take a little longer for Ann to fall for her sister’s charms completely, although secretly she still held the hope that Anne would finally realise how good Ann was for her. Perhaps now they were older they could make this work. If she hadn’t changed she wasn’t about to make things any easier for her sister to break her friend’s heart.

“What you can do is get all of your stuff off those tables.” Marian gestured at the drawings, once again interrupting the moment between them. Anne turned to her, her brow furrowed. “We need those for all the food and games stalls.” Marian shook her head, “You’ve just gotten here and you’ve already lay claim to whatever you like.”

“Hardly Marian,” Anne sighed heavily. “I just needed somewhere large enough to look at the plans.”

“Well don’t you have an office for that?” she shot back. 

“Yes, in York. It’s a little inconvenient for me to just pop into.” 

Ann stifled a giggle. She’d missed the way the Listers sparred with each other. The sounds of their bickering had coloured her childhood and were part of almost every memory she had of Shibden. 

“What are the plans for?” Ann’s voice, just as it had always done, stopped the sisterly bickering. Anne seized the opportunity to ignore Marian and talk about something far more interesting and admittedly much more appealing. Anne took her hand and pulled her to stand next to her like an excited child. 

Ann’s heart quickened at the feel of her hand in Anne’s. She tried to concentrate on what she was showing her, thankfully she’d paid some attention when Marian had told her Anne’s company had won the bid to design a new public space in York. Anne spoke rapidly about her plans to convert some of the reclaimed land along the River Ouse into a public space that celebrated the history of Yorkshire but would also be a hub for learning and science. 

She had forgotten how animated Anne got when she spoke passionately, she had missed the way her eyes lit up. She gesticulated with her free hand, drawing Ann’s attention to the important design details she included that she was sure had won her the bid. All the while keeping a firm grip of Ann’s hand. When Anne finally paused and turned to find her staring back at her she couldn’t help but grin smugly as Ann tried to hide how much she was blushing from being caught.

There was a loud cough from behind them, they both glanced back and found Marian standing with a large box in her arms. “Should we get started then?” Anne narrowed her eyes at her sister as Ann turned to leave. She was immediately pulled back, she looked down and realised Anne hadn’t let go of her hand. There was a hint of mischief in the dark brown eyes looking back at her, “I’m going to need that back.”

“Are you sure?” Anne asked playfully.

“Quite sure.” Anne cocked her head to the side as she raised her eyebrows, silently challenging Ann’s resolve. 

Marian groaned as she watched the flirtatious exchange between them. If this was how they were after less than an hour she was sure they’d be shagging before the end of the week.

===

Anne sat in the large leather recliner in her library. Marian and the rest of the family were watching television in the parlour. The sound of their commentary over whatever show Marian was making them endure carried through to her across the Hall was comforting. It had been a long time since she had been surrounded by those voices, and longer still since she had been home long enough to enjoy it. 

She had been back at Shibden for a few days now, slowly settling back into the pace of Halifax after years spent in London living life at breakneck speeds. It was a welcome reprieve, she needed to slow things down again after the last few months. The divorce from Mariana had been building for years, but the finality of it all had sent everything crashing in around her. After a few weeks wallowing in the depths of her own regrets, she had finally pulled herself out from the rubble of their tumultuous marriage.

The project in York had been exactly what she needed to refocus her life and she had poured all of her energy into it. The last few years she had felt stifled creatively, everyone wanting the same sort of building someone else had already designed. Some glass monstrosity that would be gone within a few decades when people realised there were better things to spend money on than window cleaner bills. She wanted to design something that would last, something that was reminiscent of the architecture she had fallen in love with when she had started her degree but with modern functionality.

Thankfully York City Council had agreed with her and after an arduous tender process her firm had won the contract, with her leading perhaps the most ambitious project she had in years. The challenge thrilled her, she was excited to create again. The project came with the added appeal that it gave her an excuse to leave London, for a while at least. So she had come home, to Shibden. 

The shared animosity between her family and Mariana had made being there difficult. It was tolerable in the beginning, but it only seemed to increase after they married. Her father had begrudgingly given them his blessing, saying she was old enough to make her own mistakes. Her aunt echoed the sentiment, although more kindly. Marian had all but stopped talking to her for months afterwards, it was still a surprise that she had even gone to the ceremony. It was not long before Mariana no longer tried to mask how she felt about how provincial Halifax was or the irony that the ancestral home of one of London’s leading architects was in her opinion, shabby. 

As civil as her family had always tried to be, when they saw the toll it was taking on Anne they felt the need to speak out. Lines had been drawn, and she had to choose her wife’s side. She had hoped they would choose hers, but it always felt like there was a secret third option they hadn’t told her about. After a while it was easier to jet off to the south of France or to the Caribbean for the holidays, so that’s exactly what they did. She would try to get back to Shibden for a few days every now and again, always without Mariana. Now they were over there was no obstacle to her returning, so that’s what she had done. 

She felt better being there. It wasn’t just her ancestral home, or her family home, it was where she felt most at home. The dark wooden panels, the intricate carvings that were centuries old, the exposed wooden beams of the vaulted ceilings. They calmed her in a way no other space did. This building was a part of her and she a part of it. It saddened her to think how Mariana was never able to understand that. 

The sound of her aunt’s laughter rescued her from her thoughts before they turned dark. She glanced down at the local newspaper she had open on her lap. Since she was home she thought it was best to get caught up with local events. Whilst having coffee with Eliza Priestley tomorrow would catch her up on the gossip there were other things she was sure she would leave out. She shook the newspaper out before turning the page. She let out a small chuckle at the cartoon of a hedgehog that stared back at her. It was a full-page advertisement for the fundraiser Ann was holding on the estate at the weekend. She really had gone all out to make sure everyone in Halifax knew about it.

The possibility of seeing Ann again had played on Anne’s mind when she knew that she would be going home, even before then. They weren’t unpleasant thoughts, far from it, she had missed her friendship with Ann. Whenever she closed her eyes and thought of home, there she was. The two were synonymous. However, she wasn’t sure her return would be a welcome one. 

She had been surprised by the way Ann had greeted her, perhaps it was just reflex - the warm greeting you give to an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, with little intention of seeing them again. The hug had been more than she deserved after the way she’d treated her. She had slowly disappeared from Ann’s life after she left Halifax. At first only responding briefly to any messages, the space between replies widening, until she stopped replying at all. After a while Marian stopped saying that Ann asked how she was and as much as it saddened to think that Ann no longer cared about her it was to be expected.

Ann had also made her feelings known when Anne had announced that she was marrying Mariana. She could almost accept her family's reaction, but it was Ann’s that had come to hurt her the most. As always she refused to be anything but happy for her, even at the cost of her own happiness. 

Back then Anne hadn’t believed, or hadn’t wanted to may have been more correct, that she was the great love of young Ann Walker’s life. Growing up it seemed there had always been an understanding between them that Ann had a huge crush on her, but the subject was never broached. There was always a hint of flirtation, Anne couldn’t help herself. It was flattering to have someone as beautiful and lovely as Ann hanging on her every word. She was always respectful of her feelings though and never did anything to lead her on. She knew how special Ann was, and she was not going to destroy their friendship by doing something stupid as break her heart. 

As they grew up Ann’s feelings didn’t diminish, despite her being closer to Marian in age. Their friendship was something they had both cherished. They confided in each other. When Anne had gone off to uni, it was Ann that she found herself calling at the weekends and rushing to see when she came home for holidays. Anne wasn’t sure how she would have gotten through the first two years of uni without Ann’s calm reassurance that she was just as clever, if not more so, than the other people there. She always had time for her to talk through the imaginary debates she would have with her lecturers until she was confident she had formed her arguments clearly. Then in her third year it had all changed, that was when she had met Mariana. 

They had been a whirlwind from start to finish. Anne had fallen completely for the alluring first year student as soon as she saw her. She was everything Anne thought she wanted - beautiful, educated, well-travelled, and from a wealthy family. Ann noticed the change almost immediately. Anne was always involved with someone, it would have been foolish for her to think that any number of young women wouldn’t succumb to her charm. Whilst she knew of them Anne always dismissed them as a distraction when she needed to take her mind off her books. Ann knew there was some truth in that but suspected that her discretion had often been for her benefit out of respect for the feelings they both knew she harboured. 

Instead of worries about her studies, their phone calls were filled with discussions about Mariana and how Anne had never felt this way before. Though it hurt to hear it, Ann couldn’t deny the happiness she felt reverberating with every word. That was until their first argument when Anne had called her sounding completely broken. Ann had to spend a whole 24 hours on the phone with her as she talked to her through her heartbreak. When they finally hung up Ann was sure that she had passed through the worst of it, only when they spoke again Anne told her that it had all been a misunderstanding and they were back together. 

After that their calls seemed to be less frequent and far less candid. Anne no longer spoke to her as freely about her relationship, until something went wrong. And it always went wrong. Whether it was Anne’s jealousy or Mariana’s, something that Anne had said or worn that she didn’t approve of, they always seemed to be fighting. Each time Anne would always bring their problems to Ann’s door, so that by the time they came home to meet the family Ann had a very firm opinion of Mariana in her head and it was not a favourable one.

Their pattern continued for years. Ann hoped that after Anne graduated she would see how destructive their relationship was, but she was wrong. They moved to London after Anne finished her Masters and the behaviour worsened. Ann tried as best she could to understand why they stayed together. Anne always tried to explain that life wasn’t simple, it took work. Ann was that mirror that reflected everything that was good in her, and through her marriage there wasn’t much to see. 

When things started to fall apart she wanted to turn to Ann, but she realised that was part of her self-destructive pattern too. She had taken advantage of Ann’s kindness, she was determined not to do that again. It wasn’t until it was too late that she was willing to admit they had married for all the wrong reasons. One final attempt to prove to each other that they were totally committed to each other, as though the last ten years had meant nothing. 

Anne had spent a lot of time lamenting over the mistakes she had made. She had regretted so many of her past choices. It was the loss of her friendship with Ann that she realised she regretted the most. More than that, the unspoken part of the relationship that they had always thought Ann would grow out of, had gnawed away at Anne until it was all she had been able to think about. She wasn’t foolish enough to think that Ann might still care for her, but the smallest voice inside of her had told her that she at least had to see. 

The corners of her mouth started to curl up as she thought back to that afternoon. It had been so easy being back in her presence. She felt the same energy she always had between them, and there was a confidence in Ann that she hadn’t noticed before. Maybe it had always been there. She had been blind to so much it would have been easy to have missed that too. She looked back down at the ad for the fundraiser, quietly hoping that it would prove the perfect opportunity to spend more time with her.

===

“What kind of milk?” The question perplexed Anne. She had asked for a coffee, why was she being asked what sort of milk she wanted? Surely it just came with milk? The barista stood with her hand on her hip as she waited for an answer. Anne tried to ignore that she was being questioned by someone probably not old enough to drink coffee. She squinted up at the chalkboard as she tried to read the menu. She had often been berated for her penmanship but the lavishly swirling cursive in front of her was barely legible. 

“Why aren’t you wearing your glasses?” The familiar voice next to her asked. She turned to find Ann standing next to her, a tiny smirk playing on her lips.

“Ahh,” she didn’t want to admit her vanity had gotten the better of her this morning. The last thing she wanted was to have Eliza Priestley reporting back to her gossip circle that her eyesight along with her marriage had failed in the time she had been away. 

“I thought you looked very handsome in them.” Anne held her head up high at the compliment as a large grin filled her face. 

“Have you decided?” The surly tone quickly reigning in the slight uplift in her mood Ann’s presence had brought. She huffed as she looked back at the board. She scratched her chin as she tried once again to order her coffee, now with the added pressure of Ann watching her. “Organic? Soy? Lactose free? Oat? Coconut? Almond? Rice?” Anne balked at that last one, surely she was joking. Milk from a grain of rice, the idea was preposterous. 

Anne narrowed her eyes and fixed her stare on her inquisitor, “Cow. I just want cow.” Anne turned sharply when she heard Ann tried to muffle her snicker. Ann pressed her lips firmly together as she stood up straight, pretending there was absolutely nothing funny about the exchange.

“Skimmed? Semi-skimmed? Low-fat? Non-fat?” Anne’s head shot back as she glared at the barista, nostrils starting to flare. She was definitely mocking her now. Ann was sure that Anne was about to vault over the counter and choke the barista until she got her coffee. 

“She’ll have a cortado, skimmed. Large.” Ann furrowed her brow as she looked her up and down and considered her agitated state, “You’d better make it a medium.” She smiled at the barista, “And I’ll have an iced caramel macchiato, medium. Oat milk. Thanks.” 

“Anything else? Sugar in the cortado?” The barista asked cheerily, completely ignoring Anne’s presence now that she’d found someone sensible to talk to.

“Oh no, she’s sweet enough already don’t you think?” Ann answered cheekily. She knew better than to look at Anne directly, she could feel her outrage as the barista gave a strained smile. “Your drinks will be ready at the end of the bar.” 

After the ordering fiasco the rest of their coffee shop adventure unfolded seamlessly and after only a few short minutes they had their drinks. Choosing to flee from the scene of what could have been a justifiable homicide in her eyes, Anne suggested they take a walk. They walked in amiable silence as they sipped on their respective drinks, stealing glances at each other when they didn’t think the other one was looking.

“When did ordering coffee become so complicated?” Anne finally asked, breaking their silence.

“You’ve ordered coffee before.”

“Of course,” she bristled. Ordering coffee hadn’t been the problem, the milk had been what scuppered her.

“Well how do you normally order your coffee?”

“Ahh.” For the second time that day Ann had caught her out. Ann noticed her hesitation and stopped where she stood, patiently waiting for an answer. Anne had seen that look on her face before, the quiet determination that meant they wouldn’t be going anywhere until she gave a response. She licked her lips and gave her most roguish smile, “Eugenie. Coffee.” 

Ann guffawed at her answer as she started to march off, “You’re hopeless!”

She had taken a seat on a nearby bench by the time Anne had caught up with her, she didn’t remember her ever walking so fast. Surely she hadn’t slowed down that much since she’d been away? The sound of her laughter still lingered in the air. She had forgotten the lightness her laugh brought. It was the perfect mix of mischief and glee. Ann wiped away the tears that had formed because she had laughed so hard as Anne sat next to her.

They looked out at the view of Halifax’s rolling hills before them. Anne took in a deep breath as she filled her lungs with the fresh Yorkshire air, “Good to be home?”

She turned and nodded, “It’s exactly what I needed.” She didn’t want their afternoon to come to an end but feared the almost empty coffee cup in Ann’s hand would soon signal it was time for them to part ways. 

“So what else have you been up to, apart from saving Shibden’s hedgehogs?” Ann shrugged her shoulders, she always hated this question. She never thought anything she’d done was very interesting. Her life had been as it always had. She explained that she’d moved out of Crow Nest into Lydgate, it wasn’t as grand but it also meant she didn’t need any help maintaining it. It also gave her more autonomy, being able to come and go as she pleased. 

Anne was glad to learn that she had more independence, it was something she’d always talked about when they were growing up. Having been orphaned so young, and with her sister Elizabeth living in Scotland with her family, it had meant her other relatives had taken an often intrusive interest in all aspects of her life. That was a big part of why she spent so much time at Shibden, it was a haven for Ann. One that she was happy to learn she still had even if she had her own home now.

Ann talked about the veterinary surgery that she volunteered at whenever she could, and that had led her to the hedgehogs. Anne listened attentively as she spoke about how the increase in local traffic had meant she’d seen more small creatures being brought in that people had found by the roadside. Through her own research she’d discovered a large population of hedgehogs lived on Shibden, and that’s when she’d had the idea for the fundraiser. Anne was quietly impressed as she explained all of the events and activities she’d organised. 

“I meant what I said, I’d be more than happy to help.” Ann lowered her head, she felt like she had gone on far too long about nothing very interesting and now Anne was being polite with an offer of assistance when she knew how busy she was. “It’s just a silly fundraiser, you’ve got more important things to do. You’re redesigning York.” Ann waved her hand dismissively but was surprised when she felt it being caught midair. Anne dipped her head as she looked up at her, holding her hand firmly in hers, “It’s not silly. You’ve got to stop having such a poor opinion of yourself. If it’s important to you then I want to help however I can.” 

She smiled as she let go of Ann’s hand, the blush colouring her cheeks. “If you need me that is, I’m sure you’ve got people falling over themselves to help.” She knew it was clumsy but the question had been niggling at the back of her mind since she had met with Eliza early that day. “Hmm?” Ann tilted her head, missing the subtle question behind Anne’s comment.

Anne squared her shoulders as she shifted slightly uncomfortable with what she was about to say, “I heard that you got engaged. That Ainsworth fellow that had been hanging around you in college.” Ann’s eyes widened, she had deliberately skipped this part of her recent past. 

“That was a mistake.”

“I'll say.” Anne hadn’t meant for her thought to slip out, but it had surprised her when she had heard the news. She remembered once when she went to meet Ann after college he was practically following her home. She had taken an instant dislike to how persistent he had been, even more when Ann had told her how he would warn off other boys by telling them she was his. Ann, good natured as ever, dismissed it as his half-assed attempt at chivalry, making sure no one bothered her. Anne saw it as something else. 

Ann folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips as she looked pointedly at Anne. She knew that she had never been a fan of Thomas’, but she had been all but missing for the last decade of her life. She neither wanted or needed her judgement. Anne immediately softened, she saw the stubborn set of Ann’s jaw and knew that if she wasn’t careful she would march off again. “I didn’t think he was your type,” she offered meekly. 

“And what is my type?” Ann asked, eyebrow arched, waiting for Anne to dig her hole deeper.

Anne scratched the back of her head as she searched for a response. She locked eyes with Ann’s steely gaze, unable to hide the smirk as the only possible answer came to mind, “Well..me.”

Ann’s mouth hung open in shock as she smacked her arm with the back of her hand, “Wow. That divorce didn't do anything to your ego!” She had said it jokingly, but immediately worried that her words had been insensitive. When she saw the mirth in Anne’s eyes she allowed herself to relax as they both laughed lightly over their past relationships. Ann shook her head gently, smiling softly, “I’ve missed-”

“I’ve missed you too,” Anne rushed out, wanting to let her know that she felt the same.

“-This.” Ann finished. 

“Oh.” That wasn’t quite the same thing was it? She missed Ann, Ann missed their conversations. She felt a little silly, everything had been so effortless and then she’d gone and put her foot in it, allowing her thoughts to regress to a time when Ann still adored her. Perhaps she had mistaken the ease at which they had seemed to fall back into their friendship for something that no longer existed between them. She tried to shake herself out of thinking so negatively. She was certain she didn't second-guess herself as much as she was doing today. Every step she took towards Ann was a cautious one, constantly worried that she’d say something wrong. This was what years of having everything she’d said twisted had done to her. 

“How did you know about Thomas?” Anne welcomed the subject change, even if it did switch back to someone she didn’t want to talk about. He had been a mistake, by Ann’s own admission. He had been the only name Eliza had mentioned which surely meant she hadn’t been seeing anyone else of significance. 

“I have my spies,” she tried to add mysteriously.

“You’ve seen Eliza then.” Ann was of no doubt who Anne’s spy was. Her cousin was sure to have called Anne up to arrange a time for them to catch up as soon as she knew she was back in Halifax. As much to fill her in as well as to extract any juicy bits of information she could feed back to the rest of her gossip circle.

“What?” Anne feigned innocence. 

“She needed someone to talk about with you gone, why not the invalid relative?” Ann said dismissively. Anne bristled at the word invalid, she knew that it didn’t bother Ann anymore, they’d heard it too many times growing up. She still hated it though and had taken Eliza to task over it when she’d said it once too often. 

Trying to add some lightness back into the conversation she quipped, “Nice to see I wasn’t the topic of conversation, for a while.”

“Oh you were, don’t worry. Just not as often.” Anne found herself marvelling at how much Ann had grown in confidence. There was a time when being the subject of the town’s idle gossip had often caused her to withdraw further into herself, now it was one of those minor irritations that came with Halifax life. “I only believed what Marian told me.”

Anne’s ears perked up, “You talked to Marian about me?”

“Well, she talked to me about you. There’s a difference, but yes.” 

Her spirits started to lift, she had worried that when Ann had stopped asking after her, out of sight would mean out of mind. She should have trusted that Marian would have relayed everything about her life to anyone she came across, including Ann. She was thankful that Ann had listened, whether it was out of politeness to Marian or an actual interest. She hoped it was the latter. 

“I shouldn’t have let things tail off the way I did.” 

“It doesn't matter Anne.” Ann answered shortly. 

“It does.” Anne replied, equally as quickly. “I just disappeared. I don’t deserve to be back in your life.”

“That was always your problem.” Anne shrank at the frustration she sensed in Ann’s voice. “You never think you deserve anything you have.” There was truth in that statement, perhaps too much. Her perceptiveness was another thing she had missed about her. “You didn’t think you deserved Mariana, and look what happened. She used that against you every time.” 

“You should be angry at me.”

“Yeah, I should.” Here it was Anne thought, she had walked right into it. Decades of arguing with Mariana and still somehow she was always the one to blame. Her shoulders sank as she waited for Ann to unleash all the anger she had been building. “But what’s the point?” Not for the first time since she arrived Anne was surprised by her response. 

Ann turned so that she was facing her square on, she took hold of her hand and held it tight. It was a tactic they both developed when they were younger, it meant the other was about to say something important and they weren’t allowed to run away. It was a way of anchoring the speaker as much as the listener. They’d only used it a few times, the last being when Anne told her she was going to marry Mariana. Anne focussed her attention on the person sitting in front of her. As she fell into the deep blue eyes she tried to remember if she had always been so easily disarmed by them. 

“I was always going to forgive you.” Anne could sense a ‘but’ coming along. She wanted to tell her to stop talking there, that was all she wanted to hear. Anything else surely would hurt her more than she could bear right now. Ann tightened the grip as she felt Anne starting to fidget. “As soon as you saw sense.” She waited for the words to sink into Anne’s obstinate head. She could see her mind ticking behind those brilliant eyes, jumping to all the wrong conclusions the way she had learnt to do with Mariana. 

It took a moment, but then she saw it - the flicker of recognition, of the hope she had seen chipped away, “I could make you wait, but what would be the point? We’ve already lost so much time.” Ann pulled their hands into her chest, “Are we supposed to lose more because I’m meant to punish you?” Anne felt herself nodding unintentionally, another learned reflex. Ann shook her head at her, “Not my style.” 

Ann faced forward again, looking out over the view. Anne stared at her profile a while, no longer awed by how kind Ann was, but that it still surprised her. “You’re missing the view,” Ann nodded in front of them. She took the hint and stopped staring at her, instead shifting so that she could focus on the spectacular vista in front of them. She thought to herself that the sight she’d been looking at was much more beautiful. Ann’s arm linked with hers as she snuggled in closer against her. Anne sighed contentedly making a mental list in her head. Favourite sound, Ann’s laugh. Favourite feeling, Ann’s head on her shoulder. Favourite moment since she’d been back, this.

===

Anne had insisted on walking her home even though they’d have to go past Shibden to get to Lydgate. She still asserted that it only took her 25 minutes to ever walk anywhere. Ann hadn’t wanted to ask when the last time she’d timed herself had been. She had noticed that Anne looked a little more winded than she normally did when they climbed up the Old Bank. Out of practice maybe because she was still incredibly athletic. She had been silently thankful more than once during their walk up Old Bank that Anne had chosen to stride ahead of her. The view along that walk had never been more magnificent. 

She smiled to herself as she made her bedtime cup of chamomile tea and thought about the afternoon they’d spent together. It was lucky that she’d gone in for a cup of coffee otherwise she may not have seen Anne, although she might have seen her being escorted out of the coffee shop after throttling the barista. The thought of just being able to bump into Anne again filled her with joy. That was twice now she’d been surprised to see her, and with her promising once again to help out during the fundraiser she was sure to see her at the weekend. 

She had meant what she’d said to her, she always intended to forgive her, as soon as she came back into her life. She hadn’t thought that it would take almost eight years, all that wasted time, but it was what Anne needed. She was noticeably different now, a little hesitant but that was to be expected. They were still trying to find their feet around each other again, although it was less awkward than she had thought it might be. She had seen some of her old self in her today, particularly the flirting. It was always dangerous, given how she felt about her, but it had always been hard to resist when Anne had been her most charming self. 

Whilst she was more than ready to have Anne back in her life, she was still a little apprehensive about letting her know her feelings still hadn’t changed. After she’d left the Hall the other day she questioned whether she should have hugged Anne so quickly. It had been an impulse she wasn’t strong enough to resist. She missed Anne, and she missed being held by her. 

She had spent the years they’d been apart resigned to the fact that her feelings for her would never change. She had been engaged to Thomas, but it wasn’t an exaggeration when she’d said that he was a mistake. Everything about that relationship had been wrong from the start, she was only grateful she’d had the sense to break it off before she’d actually married him. 

She had never been confident enough to talk to Anne the way she had today. She was on too high a pedestal back then, the Anne she spent the afternoon with was more real to her. Anne too seemed to have a new drive, she was excited about her work again. She had followed the projects her company had worked on and though they were impressive, they didn’t have the heart or flair of the buildings Anne used to talk to her about that she’d sketch in her notebook for her. 

Even though she’d only been divorced less than a year, she knew that their marriage had been in decline for a long time - from the start if they were all being honest. Her heart had always belonged to Anne. Every part of her was telling her that now was their time. They were in the perfect place to see if they could move on from her adolescent fantasy of what life with Anne would be like. As she sipped her tea, she stopped fighting the idea that finally the two of them could be happy, together. 

===

Anne wandered casually through the fundraiser, everything seemed to be going well and there were smiles on the faces of all the people she saw. She hoped that it would translate into lots of donations for the veterinary surgery. She wasn’t sure about having all these children running wild on the estate but they all seemed to be suitably enclosed far away from the Hall. They had the perfect weather, blue skies and not a threatening cumulonimbus cloud in sight meant it was another unseasonably warm day, not that she was complaining.

The thermometer in the hallway had said 22 degrees celsius but it felt like it was nearer the thirties. She would have to get it checked, it had been hanging in the Hall as long as she could remember. She chose to wear a pair of smart black shorts with a black v-neck but she was still feeling a little warm under the noon sun. She shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked down towards the marquee. The prescription sunglasses she’d ordered hadn’t arrived yet and she was trying to use her glasses more, it didn't hurt that Ann had commented how handsome she looked in them.

If Ann wasn’t busy her plan was to suggest they go over to the ice-cream van and get some cones. It had been a day but it felt like an age since she had seen her. She had spent all of yesterday working on the new illustrations she’d had sent up from London so that she would have the weekend free to help out. If she hadn’t been so busy she was sure she would have made an excuse to go and find Ann. 

Anne stuck her head into the marquee, she could see Ann in the back speaking animatedly to someone on the phone. She couldn’t make out what was being said, it didn’t seem like good news. She decided to wait until she had finished her call, from the way her hands were flying wildly through the air she wasn’t sure she’d be able to duck in time should one inadvertently come her way. There was a loud huff before Ann finally turned. She took a step back when she saw Anne stood there giving her a small wave. 

The last thing Ann wanted right now was to be distracted by Anne, but there she was looking undeniably striking dressed all in black as usual despite the forecast for unbroken sun. She was certainly loyal to this aesthetic. She felt more than a little smug when she saw that she was wearing her glasses, she supposed her compliment had quietened any inner voices Anne had about how she looked in them. She was immediately distracted by the thin sheen of sweat on her neck. As her eyes travelled downwards it only got worse as she saw her toned biceps peaking out from her shirt sleeves, leading down to the strong forearms, and further. Ann felt it getting increasingly warmer as she took note of the shorts and the muscular legs on display.

“Is something wrong? Ann?” She shook her head when she heard her name being spoken, she hoped she hadn’t been staring for long. Anne tried not to laugh as Ann finally acknowledged her question. She didn’t want to speculate what had rendered her speechless but from the way Ann’s eyes had spent the last few moments raking over her body she had a fair idea. 

“John’s stuck. His car’s broken down out somewhere near Bradford.”

“What was he doing in Bradford?” Anne shook her head chastising herself, the answer to that question did nothing to help the immediate situation and she could see Ann starting to fret. She stepped forward and took both of Ann’s hands in hers, dipping her head slightly so that she could look her in the eye, “What do you need me to do?” 

===

Ann pulled open the flap and stepped out of the marquee and into the sunshine, a large smile on her face. “Are you sure there’s nothing else I can do?” came the voice from behind her. She stifled a giggle as she turned her head, “No, you’re the only one who’s the right height.” She heard a loud groan, that’d been about the fifth one she’d counted in the last ten minutes, “You did say you’d be more than happy to help.” 

“Yes, but I didn’t mean this,” came the muffled voice.

“The sooner you come out, the quicker it’ll be over with.” She heard more shuffling coming from inside, “You just have to judge the kid’s fancy dress contest and then dance with them a bit-”

“Dance?” Anne stuck her head out of the marquee, “You didn’t say anything about dancing.”

“It’s a kid’s fancy dress party Anne, of course there’s dancing.” The scowl on her face deepened, “Thirty minutes max. I promise.” Ann tried to smile as sweetly as she could, that had always worked in the past. It looked like Anne was still considering whether or not she wanted to help. “I’ll take you out to dinner.” The bodiless head immediately shot up. Now, there was an interesting offer. 

She had been trying to figure out a way of asking Ann to dinner, now by doing this one - rather large favour, she would not only get dinner, but she’d also score massive Brownie points. Ann fluttered her eyelashes at Anne as she toyed with her bottom lip. Anne exhaled, it was a good thing she’d offered to take her to dinner before that because she would’ve said yes to anything Ann asked after that. “Fine,” Anne grumbled before disappearing back into the marquee.

A few moments later she emerged, from the neck down she was dressed as a rather round, very furry, hedgehog with a brown belly and soft spikes on her back. Tucked under her arm was the rest of the costume - a very smiley looking hedgehog head. If the pout she wore had been any bigger Ann was sure it would have touched the floor. She closed her lips tight together as she made a half-hearted attempt not to laugh. Anne scrunched her face up, daring Ann to comment. She took a deep breath, composing herself, “This is the first time in years I’ve seen you in something other than black.” 

Choosing to ignore that comment, Anne reached up and tried to take her glasses off but her large furry paws were making it impossible, “Could you?” Ann stepped forward and reached up, taking hold of the frames and gently removing them. She hooked them into the front of her shirt, “I promise I’ll look after them.” Anne looked down at the ridiculous costume she was in, she couldn’t believe she was doing this. 

She tilted her head up and was stunned when she felt Ann’s lips on hers. She forced her eyes open, wanting to ensure that this wasn’t some sort of hallucination. The press of Ann’s soft lips against hers was undeniable. After a moment Ann pulled away. The kiss was brief but longer than any they had shared before. The large grin slowly spread across her face as Ann stood opposite her, “Alright handsome, now go entertain those children.” 

===

The kiss had apparently done wonders for Anne’s mood. As Ann and Marian supervised the fancy dress party they were surprised by how much the hedgehog was interacting with the children. Ann had expected her to just stand there whilst the children took photos and danced around her, but she’d seen her striking silly poses with them and had even joined a few of them for a dance. Ann thought the hedgehog and a young girl in a puffy blue dress were particularly well suited dance partners. When Marian had wandered over she’d commented on how well John was doing considering how hot it must be in that costume. She hadn’t even thought of that, good thing Anne was wearing shorts. She started to feel warm again just thinking about it.

Marian had brought the last of the prizes they were going to award, including one for the final party game - the limbo dance, and the prize for best costume. As the current song ended Ann waved at Sam who was in control of the music, “Alright kids, it’s time for the final game of the party.” There was a collective groan from the children at Sam’s announcement, even the hedgehog threw her arms up in the air in dismay. “But we’re going to end it with a limbo contest!” The children cheered as he started the music back up.

Ann and Marian each grabbed the end of a large wooden stick and moved to the middle of the grassy area that was the makeshift dance floor. They looked on amused as all the children lined up behind the hedgehog as they had apparently decided that they were all going to follow her lead. Anne looked around, not realising what was going on until she felt a pair of small hands pushing her towards the waiting limbo pole. Ann raised an eyebrow challenging her, though she couldn’t see her face she knew that she was being met with the steely determined gaze she’d always seen whenever Anne was tested. 

They held the pole just above their heads. Marian giggled as the hedgehog shimmied the bottom half of their body before starting to jerk forward, their back arched until they had successfully cleared the pole. The hedgehog turned and gave a grandiose bow at Ann who returned a curtsey as the rest of the children followed the hedgehog’s example. They had gotten the pole to shoulder height with the hedgehog and the majority of the children still left in, although they had a considerable height advantage. 

The pole was lowered again slightly so that it was chest height once the last of the children had passed through. The song changed as the hedgehog clapped their hands together, the costume meant that their balance would be off and they would have to arch their back considerably to try and get under it. As they leaned back and jerked their body forward Ann yelled, “Thrust those hips forward hedgehog!” Upon hearing those words the hedgehog appeared to lose their balance as they tumbled backwards landing unceremoniously onto their bottom with a loud thud.

Ann immediately dropped the pole and rushed to her side, “Are you okay?” She asked, her voice full of concern as she crouched down and tried to pull the head off the costume. Marian stood there perplexed, a fall onto his bum wouldn’t hurt John. She’d seen him do much worse lugging plants all around Shibden. The hedgehog reached up and seemed to pull at something just beneath their chin before placing its paws on the side and lifting the head off.

There was an audible gasp as Marian saw that it was Anne who had been in the costume the whole time. “Anne!” She cried out in shock.

Anne let out a loud laugh, this truly was the most ridiculous situation she had found herself in for years, and yet she had been enjoying herself immensely. She looked up at Marian who was still standing there open mouthed, “Bet you didn’t know I could limbo.” 

Ann stood and offered her hand out to Anne who tried to pull herself up, she knew if she did she’d bring Ann tumbling down on top of her. That wouldn’t be a terrible idea but with all of the children still watching it probably wasn’t best. Anne reached out her other hand to Marian who begrudgingly took it, helping Ann to haul her fallen sister up off the floor. Of course Ann Walker had convinced her to dress up in a hedgehog costume, she was quite possibly the only person in the world who would manage to do that. 

It must have been sweltering in the costume, the hair slick with perspiration stuck to Anne’s face and neck but as she flashed that toothy grin she still looked totally dashing - even in a hedgehog costume. “Was that alright?” Ann asked worriedly. She realised Anne had been in the costume for almost an hour now and the sun was still high in the sky. 

“I’m fine Ann, honestly.” She still looked a little concerned, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a hedgehog costume.” Ann giggled at the silliness of the statement. Anne knew she would have suffered another hour in that costume to hear that sound.

“I definitely owe you a fancy dinner now. This week?” 

Anne’s smile faltered as her packed schedule ran through her mind, “I have to go to York this week, that office of mine Marian’s always trying to shoo me off to.” Ann looked forlorn at the prospect of an entire week without Anne. It had been too easy for her to become part of her every day thoughts and actual reality again. Anne paused for a moment before looking up again bright eyed, “Shall we say April 3rd? It’s my birthday.”

“Your birthday.” They said simultaneously.

Ann looked up at her bashfully. Naturally she knew when Anne’s birthday was, she was sure there wasn’t a significant moment in her life that Ann hadn’t committed to memory. 

===

Anne had wondered what fancy restaurant Ann would be taking her to. She used to be familiar with almost all of the restaurants in Halifax and was eager to see what had sprung up in her absence. As it happened it was a lot more local than she had expected, she had cooked her dinner at Lydgate. Anne was happy to save the actual restaurants for any future dates. She’d questioned whether this was an actual date, or simply Ann’s way of thanking her, but then there had also been that kiss. She must have looked adorable dressed as a hedgehog but she thought it must have been more than the costume that warranted it.

They had texted each other the entire time she had been in York, it had increasingly started to feel like how things used to be with them. The conversation flowed freely as Anne stole moments throughout her day to respond to the walls of text that Ann would send. When Ann had texted her to confirm the details of their dinner she had been a little apprehensive. The first time Marian and Ann had tried to cook them dinner from something they had learnt in their Food Tech class had almost resulted in Shibden needing an entirely new kitchen. In the decades since she had learnt something from somewhere because her birthday dinner had been delicious. 

She was happily full as she sat in the spacious living room whilst Ann disappeared back into the kitchen, insisting that she not lift a finger to help after her exertions in the hedgehog costume. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had actually been in this house, one of Ann’s relatives had lived it in when they were younger. She took her glasses off and absentmindedly started to clean them as she looked around the l room. She was getting more used to wearing them, and Ann's appreciative smile made it work it. The room was perfectly Ann in its classic elegance. The light colours matched perfectly with the short pale blue dress that she had chosen to wear tonight.

As she waited for her to return Anne thought to herself that this had been the best birthday she’d had in years. Normally Mariana would organise a dinner with mostly her friends that Anne would have to drink far too much to get through. A quiet dinner with Ann had been perfect. Ann walked quietly back into the living room, noticing the wistful look on her face.  She hoped that she had enjoyed the dinner. She had wanted to make it special for her, almost caving in and calling a caterer at the last minute when she couldn’t find the right mushrooms she’d needed for her recipe. She had persevered however and had been pleased that Anne had tucked into the food with gusto. 

She sat down heavily on the sofa next to Anne, rousing her from the thoughts. She smiled gleefully holding up the rather large cupcake with black frosting and a solitary candle sticking out of the top. It was the perfect little cake, “Happy Birthday handsome.” Anne laughed silently, she didn’t know the last time she’d had to blow a candle out for her birthday, “Don’t forget to make a wish.” She focused on the woman holding up her cake, who had gone to so much trouble to make her birthday special, who had so willingly welcomed her back into her life after she’d behaved so appallingly. There was only one thing she wished for. She closed her eyes and made her silent wish and blew out the candle. 

She felt the soft press of Ann’s lips on hers, smiling into the kiss as she felt the small hands press down on her thighs as Ann leaned forward. Anne leant back as she pulled Ann on top of her, deepening the kiss as she felt the tip of Ann’s tongue pressing against hers. She wrapped her arms around her waist, enjoying the feel of Ann lying on top of her. She heard a small moan escape her lips when she pushed her thigh up between Ann’s legs. She added that sound to the list of her favourite things about Ann. 

Ann broke the kiss as she started to push herself up, Anne kept her grip around her waist, looking up at her pleadingly. She didn’t want this to stop. “You’ve still got to unwrap your presents.”

“Aren’t you my present?” Anne asked roguishly as she pressed her hips upwards. Ann felt her heart quicken, she paused for a moment, she had thought of nothing else since she had kissed Anne in the marquee. 

Throughout the week she had tried to ignore the flirtatious undertones in Anne’s messages. They still needed to talk to understand where they both were and whether there could be anything between them. She had no intention for that conversation to happen on her birthday, or for her to act on any of the desires she’d felt when Anne had shown up at her door dressed impeccably - in black of course. However, when she’d seen her on her sofa, eyes closed behind those glasses, looking perfectly serene, she hadn’t been able to stop herself from kissing her again.  

Ann prised Anne’s grip from her waist and sat on the over side of the sofa stating firmly, “No.” Her heart lurched when she saw how crestfallen Anne looked. She couldn’t allow her to have the upper hand though, she had a plan, “If you’re going to be like that then there’ll be no presents at all.” 

Anne’s chin trembled as her brow furrowed, “But it’s my birthday!” For a moment Ann worried that she had upset her, until she jutted out her bottom lip in an exaggerated pout giving her the best puppy dog eyes she could muster. Ann narrowed her eyes and took a pillow from behind her and swatted her over the head as she recognised the cunning ploy that had been used against her time and time again. "Watch the glasses!" Anne held her hands up defensively from the blows, “I wondered if that still worked,” she added cheekily as she ducked away from another swipe from the pillow. She finally held her hands up in surrender as Ann huffed on the other side of the sofa. 

Slowly, Anne moved closer to her until they were sitting side by side. Ann ignored her gentle nudges, but Anne noticed how much her breath was hitching from their close proximity. She turned her head and started to nuzzle at the base of Ann’s neck as she started to place light kisses against her skin. She lowered her voice to just above a whisper, “I’m sorry, can I have my presents now?” There was a small shake of her head, as Ann tried to maintain her resolve. Anne started to suck gently on the exposed skin of her shoulder, “Please.” She heard the sharp gasp as her fingertips started to trace indiscriminate shapes along the inside of her thigh. Ann closed her eyes, this was a tactic Anne had never used on her before, but it was certainly her most persuasive one. 

Anne’s lips made a trail upwards till she could feel the tip of her nose press against the outer shell of her ear. “If you don’t want to give me my present…” Ann felt herself getting impossibly wet as Anne’s low sultry tones filled her ears, her fingers driving her further with her maddeningly teasing touch, “You could always unwrap me.” With that filthy suggestion any willpower Ann had was completely lost, as she turned and straddled Anne as she kissed her hungrily. Anne ran her hands up and down Ann’s thighs as she felt them squeeze together against her. 

Ann pulled back, her breathing heavy as she looked down at Anne as she snaked her hands between them to unbuckle her belt. Neither of them broke eye contact as Ann’s hand slid into her trousers. She could feel how wet Anne was as she started to stroke her over her boxers. Anne gripped her hips as she started to slowly grind against her hand. Ann leaned forward resting her forehead against hers as she fell deeper into those incredibly dark eyes filled with need. “Is this what you want?” As if to answer her, Anne’s hips started to move faster as she felt her climax building. Anne’s throat was impossibly dry but she managed to answer, “I’ve wanted this for so long.” Ann pressed a little harder as a groan escaped Anne’s lips. 

Anne reached up, pulling Ann’s mouth to her own as she captured her lips in a searing kiss as Ann’s hand slipped into her boxers. Their kisses grew sloppy as Ann’s deft fingers found Anne’s swollen clit. Years worth of desire was unleashed as she continued to work the hard nub as the sound of their laboured breaths surrounded them. Anne’s hands were everywhere. Her fingers thread through Anne’s chestnut locks as she pushed her tongue against hers, the other gripping her hip tightly as she ground her hips up into her. She knew she was so close to completely unravelling her. She twisted her wrist slightly as she pushed against her, the touch was met by Anne thrusting up as she lifted her hips, a moan that started from the back of her throat filling the air as she came hard against her. Anne sank back into the sofa as the ripples of her climax moved through her as Ann continued more gently, bringing her down from her peak. 

She collapsed onto Anne as they both tried to regulate their breathing, Anne’s arms wrapping around her as she held her close. She felt the soft kisses as she placed against the side of her face as she rubbed her back. The sound of Anne’s laughter coming from below her made her sit up as she looked at her confused, “What’s funny?”

Anne placed a gentle kiss against her lips, “Was that really my present?”

Ann smacked her hand against her chest, “Did you want something else?” Anne wiggled her eyebrows as she started to run her hands up Ann’s thighs, “It’s exactly what I wished for.” Ann dug her hand into Anne’s side when she saw the smug grin spread across her face. She leaned over and pulled a small box out from between the sofa cushions and held it between them, “This is actually your gift.”

Anne looked down at the small black box wrapped neatly with a pale blue ribbon, the same pale blue of Ann’s dress. “You shouldn’t have. You already made me dinner, and...” Ann rolled her eyes as Anne pushed her hips up against her, she truly was incorrigible.

“It’s just something silly-” Her sentence was cut off by another kiss.

“Whatever it is, I love it.” The sincerity of her words reached deep into her heart. She could feel herself starting to choke up so she held the gift up in front of Anne’s face. Her eyes lit up as she finally extricated her hands out from underneath her dress. She pulled the end of the ribbon and it came undone. She slowly lifted up the lid, the contents wrapped in tissue paper. She glanced up at Ann who was still watching her, a small worried crease across her brow. She carefully peeled back the paper and laughed heartily when she saw the gift. 

She started to undo the cufflinks on her shirt sleeves, “What are you doing?” 

“I’m putting my present on,” Anne answered matter-of-factly as she reached into the box and pulled out the hedgehog shaped cufflinks. Ann watched with rapt attention as her dexterous fingers slipped them quickly into the cufflink holes with ease, trying not to picture what she hoped those fingers would be doing later. Anne held her arms up proudly for Ann to look at, a ridiculously wide grin on her face, “See, they’re perfect.” She tilted her chin up and kissed her chastely, “Thank you.”

Ann rested her arms on her strong shoulders as she started to run her fingers lazily through Anne’s hair, “What are you thinking Miss Walker?” Ann hummed as she looked at her. She wanted to tell her that she thought she was perfect, that she had waited a lifetime to be held in her arms like this, that the night was far from over, that she loved her. She placed a gentle kiss against her lips as a cheeky smile formed, “I’ve got a fundraiser next month for rabbits, I was wondering if you were available.”