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Where were you?

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Where were you, when it happened?

Where were you? 

 

Were you in your own head, safely tucked away inside your skull, watching your life unfold in front of you, like a secret, nosy spectator? Or did you leave your body, drifted away somewhere, far away enough so that whatever was happening at the very moment would only ever get to you muffled, dimmed and unclear in every way? Or were you exactly where you were, painfully aware, and pleading with every fibre of your being that you could split apart and flee and hide, only leaving an empty shell to deal with the moment that was about to turn into a trauma in a matter of seconds?

 

We are affected by our worst experiences and memories differently. We turn inwards and never go back out to face what happened to us. We run, catching distance from ourselves, pretending what happened, happened to someone else entirely. We are stuck in the moment so much that we let it define who we fundamentally are. We blame and find faults, endlessly, in ourselves. We start to accept our unacceptable behaviour, because our trauma justifies it. We restrict ourselves, because we think we deserved whatever happened to us. We keep quiet, because it didn’t really happen and even if it did, it wasn’t so bad. Someone must’ve had it worse, surely.

 

We become wonderfully imaginative trying to separate our trauma from us. We run faster, starve longer, sink deeper. We alter our bodies, change our appearance to carve out a new being, one that didn’t take a heavy blow from existence. We remain still, exactly where we’ve always been, hoping our history would be erased the next time we blink, trying to look at the world anew, but it is still the same. 

 

Anne Lister could clearly, vividly see, and easily place herself at, every traumatic turning point in her life. She’d taken note of them all, voluntarily or not, and she had come to observe that not all of them, or what she remembered about them, had something to do with where it had taken place, or where she had been at the moment, but rather with how she’d felt, where her mind had escaped to, or where she had finally internalized the event. The episodes themselves had, in time, become nebulous in her memory, but certain sounds, smells, sights and sentiments could cook up an internal storm in seconds. Each of them had at least one sharp image, an unfalteringly precise visual stage that always appeared from the fog of her thoughts, should her mind happen to wander. 

 

Eliza’s hospitalization - At York station, in a train that was constantly trying to leave the station, but never got anywhere. She kept seeing the same cars in the car park and the rail yard’s rusty ruggedness again and again.

 

The death of her brother - Collapsed next to her backpack in the hallway, having just returned from a 10-day excursion to the Lake District. Throughout the funeral she felt her mind and body were still on the Helvellyn Ridge. Sam had become analogous to a clear-blue sky, high wind and happy exhaustion.

 

Mariana’s wedding - Sadly, exactly where it had happened. She had tried to think of anything and everything else, but it had been as if her body was more finely tuned than ever to notice and remember every minute detail of the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the horrid condition of her cuticles. Her heart rate had accelerated with every word the priest had spoken, and she’d felt like her lungs had been filled with her rushing blood, making her fear if she opened her mouth it’d gush out. The feeling had not abated even when Mariana had snuck away from Charles at the reception to come kiss her. Anne still sometimes felt the way, when they were close.

 

The death of her mother - Driving home from York, having to pull over to vomit. She can hear the cars speed past her, she can smell the muddy field and damp forest floor. The funeral was followed by a 2-month trekking trip and summit attempt on an 8k in the Himalayas. Nearly resulted in her own death.

 

The death of her uncle - in the hallway, at home, performing CPR on him. Didn’t work, obviously enough. Often, her uncle’s dry-faced, displeased solicitor joins her in the memory, sitting on the mahogany bench by the door, enumerating to her rather tediously what her uncle had left to her in his will. Everything.

 

Leaving Maria alone in Paris - Getting her takeaway coffee from the Starbucks at Gare du Nord, repeatedly extending her shaking hands to take the cup, having left Maria just a letter trying to explain herself. It had felt a bit like running away from home. Or just running. 

 

But now, before she opened her eyes, she couldn’t quite figure out where exactly she was. She felt heavy and soft, and she was lying down, and whatever she was lying down on was not terribly uncomfortable, but not something she was familiar with, either. It smelled dusty and warm, and it was much too light to be either her preferred waking hour (comfortably before 7 am every morning) or her own bedroom. She pondered, whether there was a reason for her memory to have blanked out momentarily to this extent, and she had a hovering hunch it was nothing pleasant. 

 

She opened her eyes slowly, and her eyes first caught a large, handsome red velvet carpet. She followed the edge of the carpet across the floor to meet a heater past its best days covered in dust. Above the heater, on a stony windowsill, an array of houseplants bathed in the bright grey daylight that had woken her, too. Sleepy, her eyes swept the room. The dusty smell was probably thanks to the numerous piles of books and papers that grew everywhere and reached varying heights. On both sides of the window, two large dark bookshelves housed a legion of volumes. Anne felt sorry for the works, especially the ones that had been shoved in between the flowerpots on the windowsill. They seemed to act as much as humidity collectors and decorative items as books.  

 

The window was big and drafty, but then again, she thought, remembering now where she was, it was the only window in this flat, save for that sorry shutter in the corner that acted as a kitchen. Anne blinked. She could hear the water running in the bathroom. Richie was awake then, too. 

 

For a moment, Anne was puzzled as to how she’d gotten to Soho in the first place. She didn’t remember arriving here, but she did remember leaving Hastings in a hurry. That was a bit foggy too.

 

Hastings. She struggled to remember the town, the apartment in which she’d lived for almost a year. It was impossible to remember Vere’s face, hear her voice, smell her scent. In her place, there ached a blurry stump, a remnant of something that hardly existed, and was now muted and murky to Anne. She knew what had happened; just she couldn’t remember any of it happening to her. But it must’ve been why she was here, crash landed on Richie’s worn, oversized, poison green sofa. So she took note:

 

Break-up with Vere - After an indefinite amount of sleep, Richie’s sofa. 

 

Anne took a deep, tired breath, feeling like she had not breathed for the last 24 hours at all. She watched a house spider sprint across the red carpet and vanish somewhere under the heavy, horrid, dust-ridden golden brown curtain that hung forgotten by the left side of the window. She didn’t flinch at the spider; Shibden was replete with them, anyway. Besides, killing it wasn’t an option. Richie had lived in this flat for decades now, and they’d come to highly value their eight-legged companions, who helped keep other pests at bay. They had, Anne thought, probably given a name to all the spiders that frequented their quarters. Last night, Anne remembered distantly, as Richie had let her in, one had gone out. Richie had called it Bartholomew. 

 

Anne heard Richie come out of the bathroom, and the scent of shampoo, and the smell of damp, hot air momentarily filled the living room. She heard Richie’s light steps, and detected they’d stopped by the sofa to see if Anne was alive.

 

“One of your friends hid under the curtain” Anne croaked, and could sense her friend flinching at her sudden words.

 

“And another has had some sleep, I see” Richie replied, “good morning.”

 

“I’m not in a position to evaluate the quality of it” Anne responded, not moving. The spider appeared from behind the curtain and ran up the wall to the windowsill, vanishing into the large flower pot that housed an overgrown monstera. 

Richie sat down on the arm rest and sought to look Anne in the eye, but Anne kept her eyes low.

 

“What time is it?” Anne asked, suddenly feeling a chill, her body waking from its warm slumber. 

 

“A bit past ten.” Anne was roused. She jolted up and turned to face Richie angrily.

 

“And you let me sleep?”

 

“Reckoned you needed it” Richie raised a brow, and the only thing telling Richie Anne quietly admitted they were right to have done so, was a sharp long exhale from Anne. Richie stood up, absent-mindedly caressed Anne’s hair, and made their way to the far left corner of the flat.

 

“Breakfast?” Richie called to her.

 

“Coffee, if anything” Anne placed her feet slightly cautiously on the floor. Who knew, if some of Richie’s friends were living under the sofa. When she sat up, her heavy braid glid from over her shoulder to rest against her chest. The only thing she remembered doing with her hair yesterday, now that she thought back to it, was rake her fingers through it throughout the train ride from Hastings to London Bridge.

“Did you braid my hair last night?” she spoke to Richie, fiddling with the dry ends.

 

“Yes. Not without consent, however” she heard Richie over the sound of running water. That would mean coffee soon, she hoped. She took a deep breath and sprung up, suddenly aching all over, but refusing to acknowledge that. She was wearing her own boxers and her own t-shirt. Good. Some sense of self, some structure had clearly remained. She took a few steps before reaching the sad kitchen corner, and started rummaging through the ancient cupboards and drawers covered in a thin, sticky layer of dated kitchen grease. 

 

“Are you looking for something specific, or is this a house search?” Richie sounded somewhat annoyed. They’d been sympathetic enough last night, and Anne had appreciated it, and certainly did not need their sympathy any longer. 

 

“Scissors.” 

 

“This is a house of no self-harm, young lady.”

 

“To cut my hair” Anne rolled her eyes. 

 

“What, now?”

 

“Yes, now. It’s dragging me down.” Anne was frustrated and she slammed shut the drawer she’d been checking. 

 

“Wait” Richie spoke, and Anne was afraid they’d disagree with her. She didn’t have the energy to counter-argue, but Richie continued, “I’ll tie it, so you can donate it.”

 

“No one wants my hair” Anne spat, but turned around anyway, when she saw Richie dug out an elastic band from a pencil stand near the sink. 

 

“As a breast cancer survivor, I can tell you someone wants and needs your hair.” On a better day, Anne might have apologised for her choice of words, but she remained quiet, and Richie didn’t contest her. 

 

“How short?” Richie felt her braid, yanking softly, “you sure? It’s quite handsome.”

 

“I’m handsome with or without. Just above the shoulders.” 

 

Richie took Anne’s braid gently with their slender fingers and tied the elastic band just below Anne’s shoulder line. Anne heard them open a cupboard and grab something, before their hand returned on Anne’s hair. 

 

“Ready?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you trust me?”

 

“Just cut it.” 

 

Anne felt a slight yank, and the prickling sound of hair breaking at the scissor blades sent a shiver on her skin. Her suddenly significantly shorter hair fell free and tickled her neck and shoulders. She turned and saw Richie hold the braid, looking at it down their nose. 

 

“It is ghastly, actually” they admitted, turning the now much less lively piece of hair in their hand. 

 

“Indeed. I’m going to take a shower. Can I borrow a towel?” Anne shook her freshly liberated head. 

 

“There’s clean ones in the cupboard by the door. Top shelf.” Anne nodded and strode back to the living room, dug out her wash bag and made her way to the bathroom, grabbing a soothingly coarse old towel from the hallway cupboard as she went.

 

“Oh, don’t be alarmed!” she stopped at the bathroom door, as Richie called out to her, “Larry lives under the sink now.” 

 

“Wonderful” Anne muttered and pressed the door handle, ready for another encounter with a house spider before her morning coffee. 

 

***

 

Despite the romantic decadence of Richie’s flat, they did have an ironing board and a clean, new iron Anne was grateful to use on her shirt she had, rather uncustomarily to herself, just tossed in her duffel bag and let it crumple. She’d hung her blazer on the coat rack, and was hoping the wrinkles on it would eventually smooth, or she’d have to go for her second-best option - a light grey jersey, one that Vere had gotten her, and one that she found herself disliking more and more by the minute. Richie came to her with a refill on her morning coffee. Anne didn’t appreciate the design of Richie’s biggest coffee mug (a Marvel mug with an Iron Man print), but she welcomed the size of it (460 millilitres). 

 

“I’ll open the shop at 12” Richie spoke as they handed Anne the mug, “will you stay here or go to Canary Wharf?” Anne shook her head and sipped her coffee, before replying.

 

“No. I don’t want to be alone. I’ll probably see if Mary’s in town.” 

 

She left the sentence hanging in the air, waiting for Richie to say something. She could hear their raised eyebrows, but Richie took a while with their words. 

 

“Hmm. Well, you know, you’re welcome to stay here, too.”

 

“I know. I value our friendship and love you deeply, but to be honest, your sofa is a comfortable bed only for someone in so much emotional pain they cannot pay attention to physical discomfort” Anne smirked, and was relieved to see Richie return her grin. 

 

“And has your emotional suffering cooled down enough for you to pay attention to bodily maladies?”

 

“I’m not sure.” 

 

“Then, might I suggest that you think twice before contacting Mary?” Richie was suddenly more direct than Anne had expected them to be, “as your friend, I should hope to spare you from any additional emotional burden now.” 

 

“Hmm” was all Anne was able to say in her defence. Richie sighed.

 

“I suppose you’ve already contacted her.”

 

“Charles is in Cheshire--”

 

“I see.”

 

“Well, what’s the harm, really?” Anne snapped, “it’s not like he hasn’t slept around--”

 

“You’ll never find in me an ardent supporter of monogamy” Richie interrupted calmly, “and frankly, I don’t care about his feelings, or Mariana’s for that matter--”

 

“Oh, how touching. Thank you for worrying about me. However, I can vouch for myself--”

 

“And yet you dash to her every single time you get your fingers burnt.”

 

“Well, not every time, surely.”

 

“She won’t yield, Anne.” Richie was stern now. Anne had to wonder how miserable she must’ve been the night before, as Richie was suddenly so annoyingly protective. And annoyingly right. 

 

“What do you mean?” Anne contested, raising her chin a tad proudly. 

 

“She’s never going to choose you over him. She’s not going to come live with you--”

 

“Yes, yes, thank you, yes, I’m aware of that---” Anne cut them off, nettled. 

 

“Are you, though? Are you really?” 

 

“Well, I still care about her very much, and--”

 

“Yes, she cares about you too, Anne, I know that. I know her, and I’ve known you for as long as you two’ve been on and off and on again” Richie stepped closer and took the coffee mug from Anne’s hands. She’d started to tremble minutely, presumably with anger and shock. 

 

“But she keeps you dangling, and it’s not fair.”

 

“Well, she’s not exactly free, either--”

 

“No, but… Anne, come on. She’s talked out of everything and everyone you’ve had. She talked you out of marrying Maria--”

 

“And she was right to do so, that wouldn’t have lasted--”

 

“Maybe so, but that’s your call to make, not Mariana’s.”

 

“What are you trying to convey?” Anne was firm, yearning for this conversation to end with hopefully hers as the winning argument. 

 

“Look, she’s got the best of both worlds. She’s living an easy, wealthy life of comfort, and she’s got you on a call button the minute she longs for company. But where does that put you?”

“On your sofa, apparently” Anne snapped. Richie took a deep breath and sat down on the back of the sofa. 

 

“Exactly. I know she’s got nothing, I hope, to do with your split with Vere, but…” they were quiet for a long while, and Anne lost her patience and turned back to ironing her shirt, “don’t hold her as a last resort. She’s been unavailable to you for years, and you know that.”

 

“What would you have me do, then? Hmm?” Anne retorted, “she’s my friend, first and foremost, and it may not have crossed your mind, but I might just want to talk to her--”

 

“Don’t seek comfort from someone who benefits from your pain” Richie spoke coolly and stepped back, knowing they may have just stretched Anne’s temper and patience to their absolute limit. Anne’s grip on the iron tightened, and she drew a sharp breath.

 

“I know what I’m doing” she finished, her lips tight, brow furrowed. 

 

“Well, as your friend I hope you do” Richie spoke and handed Anne her coffee back, “and I also kind of hope you’ll find a hairdresser before considering a lengthy outing in the public. It’s shorter, sure, but not very civilized.” Anne couldn’t help a smirk. 

 

“Thank you” she took the mug and didn’t flinch, as Richie tenderly caressed her shoulder. 

 

Richie got ready for work, and left some 20 minutes before Anne was ready to face the day. She was evaluating herself in the bathroom. The mirror was old and the light was yellow, but she knew a good deal of her reflection matched reality, bad light or not. She looked tired, tired like never before. Her skin was almost grey and she was unhealthily pale, her hair looking exactly what it was - chopped off in a mindless, pressing hurry. She felt a slight cold sweat all over, which could be due to her diet of coffee and water for the past 1,5 days, the conversation with Richie she’d just barely withstood, or her oncoming rendezvous with Mariana. Which needed to be postponed by an hour or two, as her need for a hairdresser was more dire than she had initially thought. She ran her index finger carefully across her face, over her cheekbones, under her eyes. Her skin was smooth, but clammy, and it was hard to feel the reality of her reflection on her fingertips. She stretched her neck assessingly, and decided she could not be bothered with beautifying herself (what for, she thought somewhat bitterly), and that her shades would have to do for looks for now.  

 

She strode back to the living room, and made sure she had everything packed, before she jotted down a thank you note on a post-it to Richie

 

Thank you for:

 

- 1 night crashing on a sofa in a central London location
- 2 hefty cups of coffee
- Exceptionally talented hairdresser services
- Midnight emergency reception of a very old, faithful, dear friend 

 

I’ll let you know when I’m in town next. May you and your friends cohabit this space in harmony.

 

Yours affectionately, 

AL

 

She knew Richie didn’t expect anything but their Iron Man mug washed, but Anne wanted to thank them, especially as she had been a bit curt to Richie this morning. A note would have to do; it was nigh impossible to be both sorry and vulnerably heartbroken in front of someone, even an old and extraordinarily understanding friend. She picked up her boots and knocked them together to make sure there were no spiders lurking in them, before she slipped them on and glanced around the flat once more. She’d crashed nights here ever since she came to study in the city a million years ago, and it felt homey. Somehow, this time, she felt as if she should no longer be here, at least not feeling like this. It was like her life had been rewinded to square one once again, only she was older and more tired now. Seemed a bit unfair, and she noticed she was frowning. She pulled on her blazer, plucked up her duffle and turned on her heel. 

 

“Goodbye, Larry” she spoke as she fiddled with the door lock, “and whatever your name is, monstera pot.” If possible, the air in the corridor was even stuffier than inside.





Chapter Text

Someone had cancelled their appointment, so she managed to get a haircut at a nearby hair salon only having to wait for an hour. She got a lousy chia pudding for breakfast from the nearby cafe, before sitting down in a small park. She texted Mariana to let her know she’d be a bit late, when texts from Vere started to flow in. 

 

The courier picked up your things this morning

Are you in London?

Anne

(seen)

Are you alright?

Anne

(seen)

I never wanted to hurt you

Please just let me know u r ok

(seen)

 

Anne’s lower lip trembled and she suddenly fought the urge to vomit. Her hand found its way to cover her mouth and she tried to gather her thoughts before typing a hasty reply.

 

Thank you. I’m in London now. I’m alright.

 

With that, she turned off her phone and shoved it in her duffle bag so deep she wouldn’t have a desire to dig it up until much, much later in the day. She thought the hot late spring air would’ve blown away the cold sweat, but she found it surfacing again, and she took a solid 10 minutes to gather herself. For the rest of the hour she had to spend she walked down a few streets and sought refuge in a bookshop. The smell of fresh volumes had an almost sedative effect on her, and she slowed her pace, breathing slow and deep, stopping in front of a shelf at regular intervals to appear to be looking for something. 

 

“Can I help you?” the clerk startled her, and she turned a tad too rapidly to seem calm and collected.

 

“Oh, no, thank you” she smiled hastily and slicked her hair back, “I’m just browsing.” 

 

She turned away before the clerk could say anything else, and continued her walk. She ended up buying a new black leather notebook (she didn’t need a new notebook, but it felt calming in her hands) and a book titled “Thinking, fast and slow” which seemed to be the very thing she needed just now. She arrived at the hair salon 5 minutes early, and was soon attended to. 

 

“Just--- make it even” she muttered tiredly, ready to mull over the past few days in silence. 

 

“Gosh, I have to ask, what happened here?” the hairdresser spoke under her breath.

 

“Ah, uhm--- my niece” Anne waved her hand dismissively. She didn’t have a niece, of course. 

 

“Oh gosh.”

 

“Mhh” was all Anne wanted to say on the matter, and supposedly the hairdresser took her cue, as she did not utter another word to Anne until she was ready to ask if Anne was pleased with her work. Anne glanced in the mirror quickly and could see that her hair looked like it had been taken care of and for now that was enough.

 

“Yes, thank you, wonderful” she got up and removed the barber gown a bit clumsily, and handed it to the puzzled hairdresser, “how much do I owe you?”

 

“That’s £64.” Anne tried to avoid looking stunned, and spitting ‘that’s criminal’ in reply. 

 

“Card, please” she spoke instead, strode to the cashier and paid her due, and left as if she never intended to grace the place with her presence again. 

 

***

 

While in London, Mariana and Charles resided in Marylebone, in a handsome townhouse so high above anything Anne could ever dream of owning that visiting was always somewhat awkward (not to mention the added awkwardness of their continued liaison, of which Charles was presumably aware, but to what extent, Anne wasn’t sure). 

 

Anne had her own flat in Canary Wharf, a comfortable, modern 1-bedroom flat that would’ve been at the high end of her budget, had she not taken ruthless advantage of Charles’ well-established professional connections in the London real estate market, and gotten hers at a very generous rate. A fact that added to the burden of her and Mariana’s relationship, but as Anne both refused to see Charles as any sort of benefactor at all, and prized her relationship to Mariana above any other, she comfortably and continuously ignored any prickings of conscience about the matter. She was entitled to Mariana as much as Mariana was entitled to her - that was their agreement, or at least had been for years, although how binding it was seemed to mold according to each individual situation (and it was mostly Anne and her occasional romantic engagements that had to give way for Anne to keep on Mariana’s good side.)

 

Anne was happy to walk the distance, both to allow her some time alone with her thoughts and to get used to her shortened hair. She reached the quiet one way street soon, and strode confidently to the dark door. She didn’t have to wait for long, before the lock clicked and the door opened; good - Mariana had been waiting for her, then. 

 

“Hello, you.”

 

“Mary. How are you?”

 

“Mhh, nibblish. Lunch in or out?” 

 

“In, definitely” Anne almost pleaded, and Mariana stepped aside to let Anne in. She nearly collapsed the moment she heard Mary close the door. She slumped on the sturdy chair in the hallway and kicked off her boots. Mary came to her slightly cautiously, but extended her arm and placed her hand gingerly on Anne’s head. 

 

“Are you alright?” she spoke barely audibly. Anne leaned her head shyly against Mary’s palm. She took a few heavy breaths, fighting the accelerating heartbeat and the sharp iron fist she felt squeezing her lungs flat. 

 

“Hmm. Yes, yes. Just tired.” 

 

Mariana bended down and gave Anne a gentle kiss on the corner of her mouth.

 

“I’ll take your bag upstairs.” Anne waited until she heard Mariana walk up the stairs before she wiped her eyes briefly and sniffed to the palm of her hand.

 

It was a hot day, and they ended up lounging in the living room, keeping the doors open to the back garden to allow in some fresh air. Mariana had ordered in sushi, and even though Anne’s appetite had not returned, she reckoned she needed sustenance, and forced down a few pieces. She made herself comfortable on the obscenely large sofa, involving herself in her new book, while Mary snuggled up to her. They were quiet, Anne absent-mindedly caressing and playing with Mary’s hair, not really internalizing the lines her eyes were glancing.

 

“Any good?” Mary asked and looked up at Anne, who sighed, took off her reading glasses and let the book drop from her hand on the floor. 

 

“Plenty” Anne replied and allowed Mary to climb up to kiss her, “just I’m unable to focus.” She held Mary close and brought her other hand up to caress the back of Mary’s neck. Suddenly, she looked so dour and pensive, she made Mary chuckle nervously.

 

“What?” 

 

Anne shook her head minutely.

 

“Just... “ she sought to form a sentence, “with you, I feel like nothing’s happened. The whole Hastings affair just---” she waved her hand dismissively, “it didn’t happen. Everything is just as it was.”

 

“And it is.” 

 

“Yes, but… I will have to work on it” Anne sighed and let her head fall back. Immediately, she felt Mary’s finger brush along her jawline.

 

“Yes. Eventually” Mary agreed, and Anne couldn’t resist the promise in her words of a sanctuary in which time had briefly come to halt. The sudden snapping sound of the curtains batting against the glass doors in an abrupt gust of wind reminded her of the awkward and rather depressing fact that they were in reality, hiding. 

 

“When are you expecting your husband to be back in the city?” she spoke calmly not to rouse Mariana’s temper at the mention of Charles all of a sudden. 

 

“Not until after the weekend” Mary responded, “he’s got some birthday party or something to attend… irrelevant. You can stay until Monday, if you wish.” 

 

“Hmm. I don’t know yet. What about your neighbours? Won’t they… think, if they see us together?” Anne pressed the matter softly. She did not mind being seen with Mariana, but she knew it was a delicate subject to Mary, and they both knew they’d stretched Charles’ patience, imagination and reputation too far already with their pitiful past fabrications and excuses. 

 

“Oh, screw the neighbours.”

 

“Oh, we’re into that sort of thing these days, are we?” 

 

“Well, I’m not one to kiss and tell.”

 

“No. We’re both more the ‘kiss and lie to his face’ type, aren’t we?” 

 

“Can you just nip it and let me enjoy you?” Mariana shuffled and climbed to sit astride on top of Anne, “it’s been almost a year since I’ve last had you like this.”

 

“Mary, I broke up 2 days ago--”

 

“Are you uncomfortable, then?”

 

“Well, no--”

 

“Good.” Mariana silenced Anne with a long kiss.

 

***

 

Anne listened with half an ear Mariana talk to her husband over the phone. They’d gotten ready to go to bed, but for some reason Charles had called Mariana just as she had gotten out of the shower, and now Anne could hear Mariana’s soft tone from downstairs, but had lost interest in the contents of their exchange. Judging by Mariana’s tone and conduct, she was trying to soothe Charles over whatever his agitation was about this time. Some 20 minutes later Mariana returned to the guest bedroom, where they always slept when Anne was visiting, and smiled appeasingly. 

 

“Well?” Anne raised a brow, but didn’t look at Mariana, keeping her eyes to her notebook that she had been leafing through.

 

I packed all my things. Her own scribbled, panicked words caught her eye, and she felt her breath turn icy. 

 

“He was a bit tipsy, still at the golf club. Pissed, because he’d lost handsomely. Practically begged me to drive up.” The satisfaction and flattery seeped through to Anne’s ear from Mariana’s tone, and it made her frown slightly. 

 

“And will you?”

 

“Perhaps. But only when you’ve left.” Mary came to the bed and snuggled to Anne, Anne lifting her arm to allow her to crawl in, her eyes still on the notebook, but her attention to it deteriorating. 

 

Turns out she’s engaged. Not to me, obviously. Anne drew a sharp breath and hurriedly closed the notebook.

 

“I don’t suppose you mentioned my visit to him.”

 

“I saw no reason whatsoever.” At her words, Anne turned to peck Mary’s forehead affectionately. 

 

“I suppose he misses you” she spoke and put her notebook away.

 

“I suppose he does.”

 

“Do you miss him?”

 

“Not right now.”

 

“That’s not what I meant.”

 

“What did you mean, then?” Mary propped herself up on her elbows, casting Anne a quizzical, slightly annoyed look.

 

“I meant, if you’d hypothetically ever even consider leaving him while he still lived--”

 

“God, Freddy, do we have to---”

 

“Would you miss him, if you lived with me?” Anne continued stubbornly. Mariana sighed and rolled her eyes displeased.

 

“Well, he manages to entertain and humour me occasionally.”

 

“And I suppose he doesn’t criticize you over your life choices as ardently--”

 

“Oh no, in that you are equals, you two” Mariana scoffed and cut her off, “I don’t think a day passes when one of you is not at my throat for my conduct and decisions in life.”

 

“Mary, I didn’t---” Anne tried a more apologetic tone.

 

“Yes, I suppose I would miss him, despite everything. I suppose he misses me, either because his housekeeper isn’t there to keep him busy or because he, like me, is accustomed to my presence. Why does it matter? We’re here now, why do you let one phone call upset you--”

 

“Upset me? D’you think I’m upset?”

 

“Well, yes! You very much seem like you are! Couldn’t we just spend this one night without having to bring this up again?”

 

“Well, no, as his presence seems to be looming over you constantly--”

 

“He’s my husband. Perhaps that’s why!”

 

“Oh, yes, and where does that put me once again, hmm? In the guest bedroom.”

 

Mariana turned and cupped Anne’s face gently. 

 

“Freddy, please. Just--- leave it. For tonight. For my sake. We’ve not had a moment like this for nearly a year.”

 

“Did you miss me?”

 

“You know I did” Mariana ran her finger gingerly along Anne’s cheek and jawline, and when she reached to press a soft kiss on the corner of Anne’s mouth, Anne didn’t refuse her. Mariana lay her head on Anne’s chest, and Anne pulled the duvet to cover them both, taking off her glasses and placing them on her notebook on the bedside table. Mariana fondled Anne’s chest with tender, long and careful strokes. 

 

“Won’t you stay a day or two?” she whispered. Anne turned to switch off the bedside lamp. 

 

“Mhh” she replied indefinitely, but tightened her hold around Mary ever so slightly.   

 

***

 

"Fred..." Mariana called her lover softly and turned in the bed, awaiting a welcoming embrace from the other side, but finding it empty, "Freddy...?" she opened her eyes and sat up. 

 

The curtains had been opened and the golden morning light had taken over the room. Anne’s duffel bag was placed neatly on the bench at the end of the bed, but otherwise there was no trace of another person having been in the room. Even Anne’s side of the bed had been made. Mariana sighed and rubbed her temples, before shuffling out the bed and slouching sleepy out of the room, picking up her dressing gown from the chair by the door, where she’d left it last night. Nothing but the subtle rustle of a newspaper told her that Anne was still in, and she found her standing by the kitchen counter, fully dressed, sipping a coffee, scanning a newspaper somewhat impatiently. 

 

"Oh, you're up. Good. I'll be leaving soon; I'll catch the morning train" Anne spoke without lifting her eyes from the paper. 

 

"Alright..." Mariana muttered, accustomed to Anne's rapid moves on just about anything. She walked over to Anne and kissed her lightly "where to?" 

 

"Halifax." 

 

"Wha-- you're going back to Shibden?" 

 

This Mariana had not expected. Anne quite openly detested the small circles of her hometown and the tedious company of her family. Glorious history or not, it was much too small for a globetrotter like her, and the last place Mariana had expected Anne to pick to mend a broken heart. 

 

"For now, yes. The estate needs taken care of--" 

 

"Oh, I see, and totally not because you got your fingers burnt and want to mull over in self-pity in complete social isolation--" Mariana mused and fiddled with the collar of Anne’s shirt.

 

"Because there are improvements I intend to make---" 

 

"Whatever. Fred, you don't need to leave just yet, Charles won't be back for another day or two--" Mariana put her arms around Anne.

 

"And as you surely won't join me in Shibden, I hardly find a reason to hang around for any longer than necessary--" Anne sought to brush her off with her words, with immediate effect. Mariana ceased her embrace and stepped back.

 

"Necessary? Oh, this was just a necessity? You came here so that I would pat you on the head and tell you it's gonna be alright?" Mariana scoffed.

 

“No, I came here to offer you a chance, once again, to change your mind, leave your husband and come with me. But since you have no intention of divorcing and proving that you do love me more than just for this--“ Anne made a side gesture with her hand, meaning the sneaking around behind Mariana’s husband’s back.

 

“I do love you, Fred. I’m just not— I don’t like Yorkshire.” 

 

“I’m hardly ever in Yorkshire, Mary, so what a load of bullshit” Anne folded her newspaper and straightened her shirt.

 

“Well, has it ever crossed your mind that I might enjoy life with Charles?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Well, he’s never here, he’s practically half deaf and reasonably interested in his housekeeper to leave me be mostly. It’s easy for me—“ 

 

“You’re a trophy wife!” 

 

“What’s wrong with that?” Mariana cocked her head. Anne’s eyes narrowed and she blushed very slightly. 

 

“Well, you could be my trophy wife” she knew it wasn’t her best offence, but it was the first that came to my mind and she allowed it slip.

 

“You’re not very trophy—“ 

 

“Excuse me?”

Mariana went around the kitchen island and sought a tumbler from the cupboard by the fridge. She looked sorry but proud at the same time, as she poured herself a glass of orange juice, while getting back to Anne. 

 

“He’s wealthy, and hasn’t denied me anything, even though he must be aware, to some extent, what goes on between you and me. He lets me keep a position on the board of his trust, so I’ll have something to fill my days with. I like living” she waved her hands around, “like this... And you can’t give me that.”

 

“Well, I’m not exactly poor--” Anne tried, hurt, “and you’d still get some of his fortune, if you divorced him--”

 

“Oh, you may like to think he’s an idiot, but do you seriously think the prenup isn’t waterproof? If I divorce him, Anne, I’m left with what I’m wearing at the moment.” 

 

Anne scoffed and turned away hard, taking her coffee cup into hand. 

 

“Just proves my point. You’ll never risk it for me, for us.” 

 

“And I won’t need to. Just be patient, we need to play our cards right--”

 

“I’ll be gone in a minute, and leave you to your life of leisure and luxury” Anne snorted and slammed the newspaper on the marble counter, turning on her heel and striding upstairs.

 

“Freddy, come on—“ Mariana rolled her eyes, picking up the newspaper and making sure Anne hadn’t left any ink stains on the delicate marble, before following her upstairs. 

 

She knew Anne was terribly hurt by her break up with Vere, and she just wanted company, comfort and security, but Mariana was losing her patience with Anne bringing up her marriage every single time they spent longer than two hours together. Anne was awfully clever coming up with reasons why Mariana should leave her husband, and Mariana racked her brain trying to come up with arguments as clever to counter. 

 

She nearly ran into Anne storming out of the guest bedroom, looking like thunder. They would’ve bumped against each other quite painfully, had Anne not let her duffel bag drop on the floor and caught Mary with her hands. Coming into touch with each other seemed to calm them both. Mariana placed her hands on Anne’s arms and ran them up gingerly to cup Anne’s face.

 

“You don’t need to go just yet” she mumbled, looking Anne keenly in the eye. Anne raised her brow and sighed.

 

“I know” she took Mary’s hand into hers, turned it over and pressed a faint kiss on her wrist, “but I want to. And Shibden will be perfect for me now. Hardly any sort of stimulus available. One can really seclude and commit to thinking, and thinking only.”

 

“Oh? Didn’t you just say you’ve planned renovations and all?”

 

“I can allow myself the occasional diversion” Anne smirked a tad sadly. 

 

“Good” Mary smiled and caressed Anne’s cheek, “I’ll be certain to promote myself as one, if I happen to go to Lawton. I suppose Charles can manage without me for a day or two, should I fancy a visit to Halifax.”

 

“He’s a grown man. I should think so” Anne mused, and leaned in to hastily kiss Mariana, “I must be off, Mary. I’m wealthy enough to afford another train ticket, but not munificent enough to allow myself to deliberately splurge.”

 

“Oh, yes, I’m sure your luxurious diet of coffee, bread and water keeps you on a tight budget otherwise.”

 

“Are you saying I’m a scrooge, Mary?”

 

“No, not at all, darling. I think you’re something worse, but I can’t blame you. It probably runs in the family, or, do remind me - did they not only add running water when you moved in?” Mariana smirked teasingly. Anne huffed. 

 

“I can’t believe my aunt and uncle used me as an excuse to yield to such frills. I could’ve done perfectly without.” 

 

“I’m sure, especially if it would save you a penny or two.” Mary reached to peck Anne’s cheek. 

 

“D’you know, I missed bickering with you” Anne spoke as they parted and started to make their way downstairs.

 

“Oh, Freddy, you really can exhaust a woman in so many ways.” Mariana smirked pleased as Anne turned to look at her from under her brow halfway down the stairs. 

 

Mariana watched silent as Anne slipped on her boots and pulled on her blazer, before briefly checking herself in the big mirror. She came to Mariana, lifted her chin gently with her index finger, and pressed an affectionate, quick kiss on her lips. 

 

“When can I expect you at Shibden?” Anne spoke suggestively, lips barely having left Mariana’s. Momentarily, Mariana was ready to discard everything, and leave with Anne for good. 

 

“A week or two” she mumbled with great effort, “I’ll keep you posted.” Anne cupped Mariana’s cheek and rested her forehead against Mariana’s.

 

“You do that, my darling Mary.” They were quiet for a long while, before Mariana softly squeezed Anne’s arm.

 

“Get going then, you.”

 

“Mhh. Look after yourself, Mary.”

 

“You know I will. Can you promise me that you will too?”

 

“No, not completely. No stupid risks, however.”

 

“That’ll have to do.” They shared one more brief kiss, before Mariana stepped to open the door for Anne. Their hands touched just slightly while Anne passed her in the doorway, but once out of the door, affection had to drop. 

 

Anne just nodded to Mariana, feeling suddenly the weight of having to hide their partnership fall on her the minute she was out in public, and trotted down the few steps before taking a sharp right and making her way down the street. She could feel Mariana’s eyes on her back, she lingered by the door for as long as she could see Anne. As Anne turned at the street corner, she in passing looked back and saw Mariana disappear back inside. She minutely shook her head and strode on, firmly deciding to walk all the way to King’s Cross station.   

 

***

 

She sighed and filled her lungs with the chill air, walking a good pace and letting the exercise wipe from her brain all the sadness she’d felt. She did feel better, her pulse elevated and blood humming softly in her ears, and once she got to the station and merged in the crowd, she felt less like her sadness and frustration would be so obvious to everyone around her.

 

She got some breakfast from the station and boarded the train early enough, texting Marian to expect her later today. 

 

Seriously? I thought you’d stay in London. 

Your things arrived this morning.

 

Seriously. I'm not. I'm coming home, staying for a while.  

 

How long is a while? 

 

I don't know, am I not welcome? 

 

Course you are, dummy. I'll let everyone know. 

Auntie will be happy.



Anne smiled slyly at her sister’s message, before putting away her phone and focusing on her work in progress. She had two reviews to write for next week, and due to the turbulence of the past few days in her personal life, her blog had come to a halt, too. What made matters worse, she had, in her blog, hinted at big personal developments in the near future; this too, of course, was a development, but not perhaps the one she had anticipated. It was hard to write about falling freshly in love and starting to build a home, when one had just been dumped by a girl who’d had a side affair with a man for quite a few months, and was apparently now moving said man in and planning the life Anne had just days ago pictured herself in. Well, Vere wasn’t a girl, but— Anne sighed and rubbed her temples as the train rolled out into the morning sun.

 

She spent the first hour of the train ride trying to remember what it felt like in the beginning, falling in love. That got her in a melancholy mood and it was hard to keep her heartbreak at check. She ended up spending most of the time just staring out of the window, looking at the green hills rolling by, not bothering to turn to the tasks at hand just yet. 

 

Her father was there to pick her up at the station although she had asked specifically not to come; she would’ve wanted to walk to prepare for the reunion with her family. 

 

“Hello, there” the old man hugged her, smelling like pipe tobacco. Anne smiled a bit forcefully. She felt sad and hopeless, but it was good to be with family at least.

 

“Where’s your luggage, love, you didn’t go to Hastings with a backpack, did you?” 

 

“I shipped everything from there, didn’t it arrive just this morning? I popped into London to say hi to Mariana. I didn’t want to drag it all with me.” 

 

“Oh, you went to see Mariana. I see. It’s all off then with... Vere, is it?” Anne turned her head away and the old man left it at that, just patting her on the shoulder. 

 

Her father opened the trunk and for a moment, Anne was speechless. She let out a surprised, quiet yelp and blinked in awe; there was a red Irish setter puppy in there, wagging its pitiful tail, clearly overjoyed.

 

“And who’s this?” Anne asked, blinking, but picked the puppy up and brought it to her chest. The puppy whimpered excitedly and licked her chin, and Anne brought it away from her and looked at it evaluating.

 

“This is Piero. I got him last week” his father spoke and smiled at the sight. The puppy had clearly brought something else to Anne’s mind, at least momentarily.

 

“Whatever for? We still have Argus.”

 

“Oh, I thought I’d take him with me hunting.”

 

“Hunting?” Anne frowned, “you can barely walk unassisted.” Her father huffed and rolled his eyes.

 

“I will have to take him, then” Anne decided, “and train him. And Piero is a ridiculous name. How’d you think people are going to look at someone shouting ‘Piero’ on the wolds? No, goodness, no. He’s--” she looked at him and squinted judgingly, “Jack, and that’s the end of it.” She brought the puppy back into a hug and scratched it behind its floppy ears. Her father chuckled and opened the door for her.

 

“Yes, well. You do as you see fit” he spoke as Anne sat down with little Jack still on her lap. He came around the car and climbed in. 

 

“Oh, I took the big car and all, thinking you had your suitcases with you... oh well, never mind. Come on then, I’m sure there’s lunch ready for you.” He started the car and Jack whimpered and moved nervously. 

 

“Shush. There’s nothing to it” Anne spoke to him and after a few sad little howls and whines, the puppy settled on her lap, resting his head on the back of Anne’s palm. 

 

“Good to have you back,” father spoke as they drove out of the parking lot.

 

“Hmm. Thank you” Anne replied, but fell silent, grateful that her father wouldn’t bother her more about any of it. Anne was free to mope around for as long as she needed. Maybe write next about heartbreak rather than falling in love. She knew everything about it anyway.

 

Seeing Shibden rise from behind the hills was not a sight to lift her spirits, and the puddled, bumpy unpaved road just reminded her of her tedious past here, and her ridiculous and desperate attempts to run away from who she was - much too country to live in a fancy seaside villa with an upper class girl. She sighed barely audibly and rolled the window open, letting the wind blow her hair. 

 

“Almost home” father said and pulled up before the side door to enter through the kitchen. Even if resentful, it felt good to return home, especially after Mariana's snobby comments this morning. Surely, Anne thought to herself, she was not the only one who loved her dear old home. One day there'll be a lady who would love Shibden the way she did. Respect it. She couldn't be the only one, and not all potential, interesting women can turn out straight, vulgar and stupid, surely. 

 

She got out, letting Jack run towards the back door. 

 

“Here we are'' she heard her father, but didn’t linger to listen to any more of his likely words of welcome. She just took her duffle, and strutting her way to the door, greeted their Irish wolfhound Argus on her way in. 

 

Her aunt and sister were sitting at the kitchen table, apparently enjoying what seemed to be the rest of their lunch. 

 

“Hello, aunt” she came to hug her aunt briefly.

 

“Hello, hello, my darling--”

 

“She’s cut her hair. You’ve cut your hair” her sister was snappy.

 

"Hello, Marian" she swooshed by her astonished sister, not even considering a hug.

 

"Did you leave him alone with your bags?!" Marian called after her. 

 

"Haven't got any, as you know, and I trust he can make it through the door on his own!" Anne replied. 

 

She kicked off her boots by the main door and made her way towards the sitting room, running up the stairs to her room. Little Jack dashed after her, slipping on the polished planks, barking as he tried to reach his new favourite person.

 

"Oi! Come downstairs, there's lunch---!" Marian strode after Anne.

 

"I need a change of clothes and perhaps a shower, I will join you in approximately 18 minutes," Anne curtsied at the end of the stairs to annoy Marian, before disappearing to her rooms.

 

She closed the door behind her, cutting off Marian’s annoyed bickering. She sighed and slid down to the floor with her back against the door. The tears came when she was finally alone.

 

She felt the respect and love for herself melt away, as she let her head rest against the heavy wooden door. She was spent, devoid of love or words of encouragement and comfort for herself. The feeling of disappointment, defeat and fatigue was so prevalent, that she felt her life force sucked out, and momentarily she was only able to breathe laboriously, her eyes fixated on her slightly trembling, folded hands in her lap. The bright midday light swept the old, dusty, dark floor and she noticed the few  cardboard boxes by her wardrobe. She whimpered just slightly, and was both crushed and astonished that there was so little for her to take back from living with someone for almost a year. It seemed impossible that that was all that was left of the affair, and she figured when she’d open the boxes and unpack, it would just be her old things, nothing that would tell her that she had been elsewhere, in a relationship and ready to be happy. Briefly, she considered crawling under her handsome wood framed bed with the intention of never crawling back into the light again (never meaning roughly 20 to 30 minutes). If she did, perhaps her uncle would come upstairs and bring her a cup of tea. But it was no use, she thought. She was 41, and her uncle was dead, and both those facts, to her, ruled out the (momentary) seclusion under the bed for good.   

 

Once her breathing was steady and more effortless, she tried to reason with her situation. What made her so unlovable? Or rather, what made men so much more lovable and desirable to so many of her liaisons than her? She felt herself expire. She was too old for a relationship with women who wanted to explore - she needed someone who knew what they were doing and what they wanted. 

 

Everyone decent by degree or intelligence was in their twenties, and young ones like that just wouldn't do for a life partner; they'd fly away with the next best thing before anything serious anyway. Anyone her age she could think of were Mariana and Isabella, the first of which was a possible life partner only hypothetically and the second no longer even hypothetically for the simple reason that Anne had rising difficulties abiding her for longer than a few days at a time. 

 

She looked at her phone and had received a few messages from Mariana, some apologetic and longing, and a couple of lines stating plainly that she’d only go up to Lawton next week and would likely not have much time to visit. Anne grimaced and she sent yet another iPhone flying across the room, and it knocked down an ancient brass candle holder on the way. She heard the screen shatter and was grateful she had kept her old phone in the top drawer, in case she'd break this one (which she knew would happen at Shibden most likely sooner or later, either due to a tantrum, maintenance work or a hearty fall at the crag).

 

She panted and gasped, trying to calm down. She got up and gathered herself. She changed clothes and pushed away thoughts of relationships. She opened her hair and washed her face before she tossed her duffel on the bed and began to unpack what little she had in it. 

 

She had money, she had friends, some family, and something of a name to herself, even. And she had been loved, by some, if not to the measure she herself hoped for and honestly thought she deserved, but nevertheless she had been loved. Life could've been much crueller to her, she thought, even though it did sometimes seem like it was cruel on no one else but her specifically.

 

There was a faint knock on the door, and she quickly wiped her cheeks to the back of her hand, before turning.

 

“C-- Come in” the words seemed to stick in her throat. The handle was pressed down, and the first one to enter was an overjoyed setter puppy, who was barely able to dash to Anne for all his excitement.

 

“He got quite miserable downstairs, not being able to follow you” her aunt spoke and peeked in, “may I come in?”

 

“Yes, yes of course” Anne smiled sadly and picked the puppy up. 

 

“If you want to be with me, you’ll have to learn to climb the stairs” she spoke to him, as he sought to lick her face.

 

“Gather he likes you, then? I thought he might. It’s good, really - Jeremy hardly knows what to do with him.”

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Anne huffed and put the puppy down, and sat back on her bed. 

 

“Are you alright?” her aunt asked, stepping in and closing the door after her. 

 

“Yes, yes, just-- unpacking” Anne shrugged. Her aunt sat down on the bed next to her. 

 

“I was surprised, when your things arrived” she nudged towards the boxes, “this morning. And then Marian says you’re on the train coming home. Is everything--- you’re not living in Hastings then, anymore?” she sought to take Anne’s hand and Anne didn’t refuse her.

 

“Hmm, no. No, I’m not. It’s uhm… it’s off. I’m here for a while.”

 

“Hmm. I see.” Anne felt the weight of the confession crash down on her, and she leaned her head against her aunt’s shoulder, trying to fight back the re-emerging tears. 

 

“D’ you know, we’ve had a bit of an episode here, too, the other day” her aunt spoke, “someone speeding on the main road in the dead of the night. You remember the Hardcastles?” Anne nodded, sniffing.

 

“Their eldest, Henry, he was driving home from a party, and had to pull over to not crash head on with this… lunatic. Poor Henry then crashed his motorcycle to the old stone fence, and Ms Walker her car. No casualties, thank heavens, just poor Henry broke his leg. The fence and bike and car wrecked, of course, what a mess--” 

 

“What on earth was Ms Walker doing there, then?” Anne muttered, frowning, but keeping her eyes closed.

 

“She was fetching her niece from the airport. Apparently she’s back from India after a lengthy trip. They came here, old aunt Walker and the niece and their driver carrying Henry, all very shaken, asking if we could drive them home. Marian did, and called the police and an ambulance for Henry; what a helpless, sorry bunch they were! You should’ve seen the girl, like a ghost. She’d hurt her head, and her aunt would’ve wanted her to see a doctor, too, and frankly, to me she looked… well, the lights were on, but there was no one home. Well, no, that’s mean, but… She looked spiritless, somehow.  Apparently, she is now settled at Crow Nest. Good to know the house isn’t empty anymore. Well, I told them we wouldn’t discuss any plans for reparations before we’d informed you.”

 

Anne turned her head minutely and sniffed again, before clearing her throat.

 

“You did right. And if her niece is settled in Crow Nest, then it's her land that borders ours, and not aunt Walker’s, so I should very much like to do my business with them. She has a family, doesn’t she?” 

 

“No, this is the younger one. I was wondering the same” her aunt added, after seeing Anne’s puzzled frown, “what would one do in such a big house alone?”

 

“What indeed” Anne scoffed and sat up.

 

“Unless she’s gotten married” her aunt pondered, “but it didn’t seem so.”

 

“Aunt, I’m not one for town gossip. I have neither need nor itch for it.”

 

“I know, darling. But it doesn’t happen everyday, something like that.”

“Well, as long as lives weren’t lost, the rest is just matter that can be replaced” Anne said rather coolly. Her aunt patted the back of her hand gently.

 

“Remember that, won’t you?” she pecked Anne’s forehead, before getting up, “won’t you come downstairs? There’s lunch. You look pale, have you gone without eating again?”

 

“No, no, I had plenty to eat at Mary’s--” Anne sighed and got up. She noticed the puppy by her wardrobe, quite confidently taking a wee next to a pile of books on the floor. Anne dashed to save the volumes, and the puppy scurried under her desk, evidently now aware that he may have done something out of the line. Anne exhaled sharply and placed the books on her bed. 

 

“I’ll come as soon as I’ve dealt with this mess.”

 

***

 

"Did something happen in Hastings?" Her sister did not waste time getting to the point the moment Anne sat down to the kitchen table for lunch. 

 

“I thought you’d be done with your lunch by now, Marian” Anne spoke unctuously.

 

“Lunch maybe, not you and your sudden turn up. Go on then, let’s hear it.”

 

“Ahh. Nothing. Nothing happened. I just got homesick” Anne thought it better to be civil now, to avoid more confrontation and allowing emotion to take over her. 

 

“Anne.” Her sister saw right through her, and was, as usual, persistent. 

 

“Well, yes. Everything fell through. So I’m alone again” Anne snapped, “happy?” 

She raised her brow for just a second and reached for butter, which now a much more sympathetic looking Marian handed to her. 

 

“No, of course not” Marian muttered, “are you alright?”

 

“Venture a guess, Marian” Anne smiled, her eyes narrowed, and Marian left it at that.

 

"Oh, dear” her aunt started, possibly to make sure they’d not bicker more, “Well, I--- I really thought she'd be the right one for you, Anne. Such a nice girl she seemed, Vere. Especially after all those years of turmoil with Mariana and---" 

 

"Yes, thank you, aunt, I-- mhhhm, it's fine, it's good. Turns out Vere was seeing-- someone while we were--- while I thought we were---" Anne struggled with her words, appetite gone.

 

"So, Vere isn't queer?" Marian muttered, trying to hide her satisfaction at her own pun. 

 

"No. No, not queer enough, apparently, anyway--" 

 

"So it was a man, then? She was seeing a man?" her father butted in, "how outrageous!"

 

“Yes father, it actually is when there is talk of engagement and commitment. It’s called cheating.” Anne snapped back and bit into her toast.

 

"And nothing short of it" her aunt accompanied, "we've had quite the storm here about such things too with--" she continued before snapping shut. Anne looked at her puzzled and then turned her head to Marian, who was suddenly growing red and blinking. 

 

"So you-- and that John guy--- no?" Anne tried to speak as she was processing Marian's changing expression. Marian just shook her head and excused herself from the table.

 

Anne lifted her brow quickly and turned her gaze away.

 

“Oh. Oh, well. Good riddance. You can do better.”

 

“Oh SHUT UP!” Marian burst and left the room, stomping upstairs, unable to stop her sobs.

 

Anne inhaled sharply and bit into her toast again. Her father and aunt remained silent, looking tense. Anne rolled her eyes and sighed.

 

"I'll go," she spoke and stuffed the rest of her toast in her mouth before getting up. Marian had disappeared to her rooms, and Anne took a deep breath, holding the bridge of her nose lightly, frowning as she arrived at her sister’s door and knocked. 

 

“Look, I was a bit terse,” she said dryly, “for which I apologise. But really, what I meant to say is that you’ll be alright. You’ll--” she exhaled and placed her hand on the door briefly to gather herself, “You’ll be alright.” 

 

Not seeing Marian gave her the creeping feeling that she was speaking as much to herself than to her sister. Then she heard a faint sniff from inside the room, and she shook her head minutely, patted the door promptly, and made her way downstairs, where little Jack was waiting for her at the end of the stairs. 

 

“Have they mistreated you or is there another reason why you are so keen?” she muttered to the puppy, but walked slowly enough to let it follow her with ease to the kitchen.

 

“Right, that’s dealt with” she declared and sipped the rest of her water, “I’m going out.”

 

"Wha-- now?" her aunt jolted. 

 

"Yes, now. I'll spend the day at Earl Crag, is my climbing gear still in the main hall? Good." 

 

"But you've barely eaten--!" her father exclaimed

 

"I've had plenty, thank you. I will be back after dinner, so don't wait up. Are the crash pads in the garage?"

 

“Yes, yes they are-- are you going alone?” her aunt interrupted Anne walking out of the kitchen.

 

“Thank you. Yes, I’m going alone. Does it seem like I’ve had the time to make plans to meet anyone?” 

 

“Wouldn’t put it past you, darling. Will you be alright? What if something happens--”

 

“Nothing ever does, so--” Anne waved her hands, frustrated, “am I dismissed?”

 

“Yes, yes, go on then, get your thrills” her aunt shook her head, “won’t you take the puppy with you?”

 

“He’s of little use to me there, so no. And I trust you can manage him for the rest of the day, surely” Anne was itching to leave already, her voice strained as she spoke. 

 

“Yes, of course. Have fun, you, and take care!” her aunt called after her, as Anne turned on her heel and strode down the corridor, out the door and across the front yard to the garage.

 

“Must be a new record” her father scoffed and took another slice of bread, “how long was she in this time?”

 

“An hour and---” her aunt took a look at her wrist watch, “3 minutes.” 

 

“And she’s cut her hair,” he added. 

 

“Again” she admitted.

 

They shared a pensive look and Anne’s father hummed discontent. 

 

Anne went her way with her crash pads and shoes with her, despite the questions and attempts to stop her. They weren’t persistent anyway, since they knew Anne did what she liked. She drove up some 40 minutes and found the place practically empty of other boulderers. She walked a short distance to a location she’d had in mind during her drive; a place that had enough soft warm up routes to prepare her for the two absolutely grueling climbs she was going to attempt. It wasn't optimal, but she wasn’t in the mood for sport climbing or returning to the boulders nearer to home now; she needed distance, a sense of something different but distantly familiar and welcoming, still. How she longed to drive up further north and do a proper session, and be gone for a whole week or two, even! Or just leave the country altogether and go climbing somewhere for six months, just absolutely vanish, and forget she ever felt pain other than physical. She twisted her shoes for a bit to warm them before putting them on and placing her crash pads under an agreeable first climb.

 

***

 

Not with quite as glorious a history as Shibden Hall, and not exactly a stone's throw away from Anne Lister’s home was another old building that had recently welcomed back an inhabitant. They, unlike Anne Lister upon her arrival, preferred not to venture, and to stay inside and lay low as much as positively possible.

Anne Lister would’ve called it a stroll, but to anyone else the distance from Shibden Hall to the main building of the neighbouring, much larger estate, was a solid walk. On a clear day, if you walked up the nearby hill at Shibden, you could see the slightly unnatural large patches of clear, green grass spread between neat lines of trees on the lowland to the west, marking the two golf clubs belonging to the Walker estate. If you’d have trouble finding the main building among the houses that dot the area next to the golf courts, you could possibly spot the Walker gardens before the building itself, and let your eyes glide across the third meticulously maintained green field in the area, with more trees, bushes, greenhouses and fountains than the golf courses, and arrive at the doorstep of a handsome country house.

Anne Lister had not passed the Walker estate on her drive north, and she didn’t much care for them, anyway. They were either dead or lived far away, little cared for what they owned, and she absolutely detested the golf courses - in her opinion, there was no greater waste of time, effort and money than golf. She would’ve, therefore, also missed the midday sun reappearing from behind a large, looming fair weather cloud, drawing out a resident that had spent their day mostly on a divan in the estate’s sun room. They opened the glass pair doors to the lush, well-tended garden, to let the fresh late spring air into the room that had acted as their lair for the past two or so days. Just as they stepped on the first step of the short flight of stone stairs leading to a small patio, marvelling at how warm the step was against their bare sole, they heard the doorbell ring.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake” Ann Walker cussed and buried her face in her hands, “just leave me be.”    



Chapter Text

Ann Walker’s aunt, confusingly enough also called Ann Walker, was not impressed by the sight of her niece.

 

“You are still in your nightgown!” she tutted and invited herself in, pushing past the dreary looking younger Ann Walker. 

 

Yes, and? Ann thought, but just sighed, nodded and closed the front door.

 

“It’s midday!” the older Ann Walker was shocked, and scanned her niece from head to toe. 

 

Ann Walker’s hair was loose, a tangled light cloud surrounding her face, falling over her shoulders, strands of it almost reaching her elbows. She was pale and somewhat gaunt, bags under her eyes. A handsome bluish-yellow bruise decorated her right temple, a solid reminder of the incident she’d been involved in within the first 2 hours back in her home country. Her old, dowdy flower patterned dressing gown dragged her down, and she guessed her ancient teddy bear print pyjama did not add to her aesthetics.

 

“I got home 2 days ago, I’m jet lagged” Ann tried to sound neutral, but annoyance likely seeped through; she’d been home for just about 56 hours, and her aunt and her cousins had popped by to check on her 6 times already; probably using the car crash and her mild injury as the perfect excuse to pop in unexpectedly (and not entirely welcomed). 

 

“Nonsense. I read, on the internet, that jet lag is not nearly as bad when returning home from the east--”

 

You googled jet lag just to get at me? Wonderful, aunt, admirable dedication--

 

“Maybe. You seem well, aunt.”

 

“The same can’t be said about you. How’s your head? Have you showered? Have you eaten? You look pale, dear, I’ll call the doctor--”

 

“Please, I’m sure they’ve got better things to do than to tell me to rest and recover” Ann tried to wriggle out from under her aunt’s scrutinizing gaze, “tea?”

 

“You look dreadful. Anemic.”

 

Thank you. Anything else? 

 

Ann sighed, nodded and rubbed her temples gingerly, fighting the urge to spontaneously combust and cease existing out of sheer irritation. Her aunt gave her a quizzical glance from under her furrowed brow. 

 

“Tea would be lovely” she finally spoke. Ann nodded and waved her hand towards the living room door.

 

“Please” she spoke and saw her aunt in, before making her way to the kitchen to pop the kettle on. 

 

The five or so minutes it took her to make the tea allowed her to calm down, ready to take on whatever her aunt had in the bag for her this time, with quiet nods and tired exhales of acceptance. She had figured that the best way to keep her relatives at bay was to either leave the country for as long as possible, or to just do whatever they wished her to, to keep them from meddling with her affairs any more than necessary. The two years she’d spent in India had been the happiest of her life so far, and she still wasn’t entirely sure if it had been a good idea to return home. Right now it felt like she’d sunken back into a muddy fish pond in the back garden, where nothing had stirred the water for at least a hundred years. 

 

Pouring the tea, she splashed hot water on the back of her hand, and had to keep it under running cold water for so long her aunt had gotten agitated, and joined her in the kitchen, making a fuss about Ann’s mistake, trying to convince herself and Ann that it would be the best to visit the doctor. 

 

“Look, my hand is fine. I was just clumsy, is all” Ann tried. 

 

“You are not yourself” her aunt insisted.

 

How could I be? I’ve been gone for 2 years. I don’t exactly know how to pick up from where I left. I don’t even know where I left.

 

“You are pale, and shaky, and-- Ann, tell me that you’ve eaten something in addition to the popcorn I found in the living room.”

 

“I’ve not been hungry---”

 

“Coffee and popcorn, then, is it? And re-runs of Pointless? You’ve left the telly on.”

 

Well, yes, it suits me. Just like my life. Pointless.

 

“That is not a good way to spend your days, young lady!”

 

Oh, a lady, really? By how you just talked me down, I’d venture to say I resemble a feather duster more. Ann was too tired to argue, so she just nodded, and served the tea a tad more crassly than she’d intended to.

 

“I’m just worried about you, dear!”

 

“Whatever for?” Ann sighed and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. I’m home and breathing, still, as far as I know--

 

“Well, for your injuries, to start with! And you’re here all alone, no company, no family, no friends… I made a promise to my brother to look after you, when he died.”

 

He died in an accident. How did you know to make a promise like that so fittingly just moments before he died?

 

Ann raised a brow and looked at her aunt.

 

“In my heart” her aunt’s voice trembled and she sought to take Ann’s hand, “and I intend to keep it. We need to get you back on your feet.”

 

Do we?

 

“I’ve been walking in the garden.”

 

“You know what I mean. Out of this house, out of eating popcorn and sleeping on the sofa all day.”

 

“Aunt, I’ve just gotten back, I haven’t had the time to--”

 

“Plan?” her aunt raised a brow.

 

“Exactly. Can’t you give me a day or two, still, to settle in? Or at least get rid of this--” Ann signalled at her bruised temple.

 

“Of course, dear. Just… I think starting with something usually gets you going more so than staying still. I understand. You are alone here, you miss your sister, you miss your life in India, but… Wouldn’t you just try to get out and about, if not for yourself, then for me?” Ann sipped her tea, deciding it was probably easiest to just let her aunt suggest whatever she had in mind for Ann, and be done with it. 

 

“Anyway, it would be the decent thing to do to go and say hello to your neighbours.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

What, to all of them? There’s over a dozen houses on the lane here!

 

“The Listers, from across the golf courses, up the hill. I think it’d be the decent thing to do, to thank them properly, and frankly I think they will be expecting you to pay a visit.”

 

“Why? What for?” Ann was puzzled. As if I can ever show my face in there again!

 

“Well, to thank them, and to discuss the reparations to the stone wall, you know, where we crashed--”

 

And why’s that my headache all of a sudden? You’re the one who put your nose into it, anyway. 

 

“What am I needed there for?” Ann blinked and sipped her tea.

 

“Because it’s on their land, and you are their neighbour.”

 

“Won’t the council take care of these things?” Ann cocked her head.

 

“The crash site is on a private road. The expenses will fall on the landowners, in this case, the Listers.”

 

“Well, can’t you take care of it, then, aunt? Since you already seem to be familiar with all the practicalities, and them, the Listers, and all” Ann pleaded.

 

“Well, I would’ve wanted to take care of it right away, but you remember they wouldn’t say anything about it before consulting Ms Lister. I suppose you can just wait until they contact you about it, sooner or later. But I think it would be proper, if you’d take initiative. You are their neighbour now, since it really is your estate and not mine, it should be you who deals with it--” 

 

Ann moaned internally and fought the urge to toss her head back. 

 

“Aunt, I know nothing about these things. They don’t expect me to march there and tell them that-- what exactly?” Her aunt shrugged and raised her brow.

 

“Well, if I remember Ms Lister correctly at all, all you have to do is to offer to pay your share. She’s not likely to let anyone meddle with anything that can be considered her business, on her land.” 

 

“Her? I thought her father owns the place.”

 

“No, it’s hers. Her uncle left it to her. I haven’t seen her in ages, though. Eliza reads her blog, and-- well, it seems she’s quite… busy.”

 

Good. Now I know not to bother her with something I barely know of myself.  

 

“Yes, I’ve heard about her blog. So she’ll take care of it, then?” Ann wished to conclude. 

 

“Well, I suppose so. But I still thought it would do you good to get out of the house,” her aunt continued adamant, “so I asked Eliza and William to take you with them. They’re going there for tea tomorrow.” 

 

Wonderful. That gives me a whole day to look for a place to hide. Ann exhaled sharply. 

 

“Oh, Ann!” her aunt was at her wit’s end, “it’s just a visit! Takes you 15 minutes, and then it’s done. And you’d see some new faces--”

 

I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see new faces. And who’d want to look at this face? I look mauled.

 

“I guess so.”

 

“Well, they’re not exactly new. You remember Marian? Marian Lister? She’s a little older than you, but could be great company for you--”

 

So, what? Now it’s a play date? Won’t it look just a tiny bit ridiculous that Eliza and William drag their bruised, reluctant, interesting-as-dust cousin there so that she may feel like she’s still a part of this world?  

 

Ann put her mug down a tad too forcefully.

 

“Alright.”

 

“Yes, dear. Wonderful. I knew you’d like it. I’ll tell Eliza to come pick you up at three.” Ann stared blankly ahead, wondering if everything about her was on a wavelength that could not be detected by her family members. 

 

***

 

To appease her aunt, Ann Walker had a slice of toast and a boiled egg, but after a two day diet of popcorn and coffee, eating something else suddenly made her nauseous and all the more dreary. It did not impress her aunt, and so she left with a guarantee to Ann that she’d be back to check on her first thing tomorrow morning. When she’d gone, Ann made her way upstairs to her bedroom, where a solid mess of partially unpacked bags was waiting for her. She’d had a sleepless night, and had decided to start getting her life back together, but had apparently then been too bored to finish what she’d started, and dozed off on the bed. The room smelled of dust and dirty clothes, although she knew her aunt had had the housekeeper in just days before Ann’s arrival. 

 

Ann tossed herself on the bed and found little reason to ever get back up again. Her ears rang softly and her head and neck ached, and she was exhausted physically and mentally, wanting to just close her eyes. 

 

She had, by some miracle, just a few days ago crammed her entire life into a handful of suitcases, and now it lay half unpacked around her, completely unattractive and unrecognizable to her. She knew they were her things; her clothes, her shoes, her books, her everything. Nothing of it seemed to fit this world around her now, however. In all honesty, she’d rather have shoved it back in the bags and dumped it all somewhere. 

 

It was incredible that somewhere, India still existed, that it was early evening in Himachal Pradesh, that people still lived there and went about their day even though she wasn’t there to witness any of it. She opened her eyes and the ceiling above her bed looked exactly like it had for all 29 years of her life. She wished she’d felt sad or angry or something, but she just blinked, feeling a vast emptiness grow inside, hollowing her and casting her back to being poor little lonely Ann, all alone in the big house once again, all the time in her hands, but nothing to do with it and nowhere she desired to go. She figured if she’d drop dead on the spot, she’d be sent back to haunt the building to make sure she didn’t leave it in the afterlife either. 

 

Oddly enough, she found herself not wanting to go back. Whatever she had left behind (it was all a hazy dream in her head already, and she wasn’t sure if she had lived or dreamt the whole thing) could no longer be attained in any satisfactory way. She’d had the most blissful two years teaching, volunteering and travelling, but then the obnoxious, annoying, lecher Ryan, a backpacker from where else but fucking Bristol, had had to pick the same spot as her, her beloved community where she trained and taught and enjoyed her life, and develop a crush on her, and act on it. So Ann had done what she did best: she panicked and fled, come the first opportunity. 

 

She turned on the bed and felt a slight bit of remorse over the fact that she’d let someone swoop in and rob her of her everyday life just like that, and not do anything about it, but then again, she figured, if she couldn’t be certain that the past two years had even been real, what was the use feeling sorry about losing something she wasn’t sure she’d had it in the first place. She was always, one way or another, homeward bound. Whether it’d been the death of her father, her mother or her brother, this is where she’d ended up every time - alone in the house, alone in her bed. Frankly, she was surprised no one had died this time around.

 

Unlike Anne Lister, Ann Walker could not clearly place herself in every major traumatic event in her life, but that didn’t mean they didn’t creep in on her occasionally and without a moment’s notice (like when one is left with nothing but their own gloomy thoughts and a messy room around them), tossing an elusive image on her eyes, just to swim away as soon as she paid attention to it. She could, of course, remember them all; but to her they were distant chapters of a story told to her, where the characters just happened to resemble those she had around her in her own real life. 

 

Shaving - As a child, she’d cut her hand accidentally with their father’s razor. She’d seen it by the bathtub and wondered what it was and, as she recalled it, it had cut her palm as soon as she had touched it. It had been a shock, of course, seeing blood, and thinking back to it she’d often thought that there was nothing quite so personal, upsetting and weirdly unnatural as coming across your own blood. She was always extremely delicate and cautious, when she shaved. During the two years away from home, she’d been happy enough to not bother.

 

July - The month of July sent her to a mental hibernation. Every year, they’d go to a summer camp. First as a family, but then just them, the children. They’d meet with friends, but Ann only really remembered the Ainsworths. She knew they were supposed to be happy memories, but she couldn’t help feeling queasy about the summers there. She guessed she was to blame; she could have stayed home and not go, if she really didn’t want to. She could’ve said that she didn’t want to. So perhaps, then, she had wanted to. 

 

Itching - Whenever she itched, she’d remember how one summer, just before the start of the school year, her skin, especially her left flank, had itched so bad that she had scratched it until it bled. It had been infected, of course, and she had started the school year in a sick bed, feverish and embarrassed. 

 

The death of her father - This memory was sharp and clear. She remembered vividly how her classmates had looked at her when she’d gotten back to school after the funeral. She knew they had probably had a laugh about it, and she couldn’t blame them; she’d sniggered about it too, in her head. Who falls off a roof and dies? 

 

Drinking beer - First year at uni, a night at a pub, and just as she had strugglingly finished a pint, a guy from her year had approached her and asked her out. She hadn’t even been drunk, but she had promptly vomited on herself and him, leaving her with a reputation that she was unapproachable to all men. For which she had, mostly, been grateful. No beer, then, ever.

 

The death of her mother - She knew this one crept in because her aunt had mentioned Anne Lister. Anne Lister always brought the first few weeks after her mother’s death to Ann’s mind. She’d visited them, the three of them, after the funeral, and Ann recalled having wondered if she, her sister and her brother were actually dead as well; Anne Lister had been so full of life that the house seemed to shift and arise from its sleep, when she arrived. She’d stayed a while, just chatting, and had told some absolutely horrible pun about death (something about autopsies being a dying business) and Ann shook of embarrassment remembering how she’d giggled hysterically at it. It had been the first time she’d laughed in days. She’d been both relieved and disappointed that Anne Lister had not been at Shibden Hall, when they’d suddenly turned up there in the dead of the night after the car crash. She must be busy being full of life some place else.

 

The death of her brother - Her body had completely given in, when John had died. She’d lost weight, become anemic, inhaling and exhaling had felt like the most arduous labour. Losing their mother so suddenly and so soon after their father had been a blow, but John was immortal. He was young and joyous. Elizabeth had been heavily pregnant and had bemoaned how utterly useless Ann was with the whole situation. They’d opted for a military funeral. Ann had been certain Elizabeth would die giving birth, and she’d be left alone for good.

 

A short series of other unfortunate, odd and unnerving, but much more minor incidents crossed her mind, but she blinked them away calmly. She could tell the sheets had been changed, but the cleaning had also roused the dust the house had gathered over the two uninhabited years, and so she could detect tiny, darker specks of dust that had landed on the crisp white pillow case. Listlessly, she started removing them one by one, until she was thoroughly bored, and she pulled the pillow to her and lay her head on it. The heavy, royal blue curtains that framed the three large windows in her bedroom, drawn to the side now let in an achingly bright early afternoon light, and she just wished the sky outside would already match the colour of the curtains, and the day would be over. 

 

She’d apparently dozed off, as she was awakened by her phone ringing. Drowsy, she sought for her phone in her pocket and swiped to answer before she realised it was a video call. 

 

“Hello…”

 

“Ann! God, are you alright?” her sister sounded concerned.

 

“Elizabeth. Yes, I just… I was just napping” Ann cleared her throat and sat up languidly.

 

“You look terrible!”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“No, Ann… Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Is it your head, does it hurt?”

 

“No, not particularly.”

 

“Particularly?”

 

“No, it doesn’t.”

 

“Are you alone? Is there someone with you?”

 

“Of course I’m alone, what do you mean?”

 

“You shouldn’t be. You’ve had a concussion!”

 

“That was 2 days ago, Elizabeth. And I’ve had visitors, trust me. I’m alright. It’s just the jet lag. How are you?” 

 

“Worried about you. Listen, I called-- honey, darling, can you keep it down for a moment, mummy’s on the phone-- sorry, I called to tell you I can’t come visit until next Tuesday, is that alright? George’s got some-- darling, please!” Ann winced at a sharp shriek at the other end of the line.

 

“That’s alright” she spoke, keeping the phone a bit further back now, “I won’t be going anywhere, anyway. Come when you’ve got the time. Just let me know a day in advance, so that I can make an attempt at cleaning the house.” Elizabeth chuckled briefly at her words.

 

“Don’t you have the housekeeping?”

 

“Auntie’s been taking care of that. I haven’t had the time to… well, anything.”

 

“That’s alright. You’ll figure it out. Listen, I have to run, I love you, take care, I’ll call again tomorrow, love you, bye bye--”

 

“Love you, bye---” Ann managed to sputter, before Elizabeth was gone. 

 

***

 

The rest of the day Ann spent in the sunroom, vaguely interested in the play of shadow and light the setting afternoon sun cast over her divan. When the twilight crept in, she got up and made another bag of popcorn, before bundling up in the living room and letting the television be her partner in lonely dialogue. Eventually she started to doze off around nine o’clock, and she shambled upstairs and collapsed on her bed. 

 

But, like the two nights before, she awoke at exactly 3 am, her heart beating a million miles per minute, a hard, gnarly fist squeezing and pounding her chest. She sat up, turned on the bedside lamp and gathered her duvet around her, trying to focus to breathe and not to sob. 

 

The room closed in on and wrapped around her; every single thing she looked at, thought of, touched or heard sent a word in flashing capital letters to her cortex, exuding a gushing burning hot wave across her whole body, causing her to gasp and gag at the crushing sensation. In the silence of the night, the horrible emptiness of the vast house, her internal accusations of her own incapability and worthlessness screamed in her ears louder than her raspy, sharp breaths, and she sprung up, dashing downstairs to the living room, hurrying to turn on the television. 

 

A meerkat popped on the screen, and Ann blinked at the harsh bluish light, warm tears falling on her pale cheeks. She turned on the volume and the soft murmur of the presenter told her of the meerkats’ hard life on some faraway salt pans. She collapsed on the sofa, bundling herself in the duvet, trying to mimic comfort, when her heart still raced and every word that crossed her mind was a source of stress and reason to panic. The meerkat documentary ended and she turned on teleshopping and had to channel hop for a moment to find one that was not about food (she was suddenly extremely nauseous again). She became acutely thirsty, and downed two tumblers of ice cold water, enjoying the feeling of the cool liquid travelling down her throat and swirling down to settle at the pit of her stomach. That then resulted in her having to pop to the loo every 15 minutes for the next two hours, before she finally fell asleep on the sofa and dreamt hazily of selling vacuum cleaners on ITV. 

 

She woke up to the credits of Heartbeat at almost half past nine in the morning. She did not want to leave the cocoon of her duvet, especially as the moment she shifted even minutely, her heartbeat was soaring again. Gently, she rubbed her chest and tried to steady her breathing. The day was bright and airy, she deduced from the clear light it cast on the high living room walls, and somehow the fact that morning had come was enough to soothe her, and eventually she sat up. 

 

She was just tired. It was just the jet lag. That is what she said to her cousin and his wife, and her aunt, who arrived luckily only after she’d taken a long shower and forced herself to attempt at breakfast (half a banana and some muesli). Apparently her aunt had dragged William and Eliza with her for her morning check up on Ann.

 

Perhaps she thinks she can’t manage me alone any longer.

 

“It’s just going to take me a few days to get used to it,” she explained and watched Eliza cross her hands and lift her eyes to pierce Ann, her gaze heavy with worry and doubt.

 

“I wonder if you shouldn’t have someone stay here with you, until you properly settle in” she suggested, “when’s Elizabeth coming to see you?”

 

“Uh-- she called yesterday, she’s got a hold up, some thing of George’s, she didn’t say--” Ann frowned and shook her head.

 

“Perhaps Catherine?” William suggested, “I’m sure she’d love to catch up with you, dear.”

 

“No, no--” Ann hurried, “no, I’d rather be on my own for now. It’s a lot to take in, returning so suddenly.” 

 

I can’t possibly drag anyone into the mess I am right now.

 

“Well, you know you are always welcomed to come stay with us. If you feel like it” Eliza smiled encouragingly and took Ann’s hand.

 

“Yes, thank you. I might, if I get terribly lonely” Ann hoped her brief smile was enough to reassure them all. 

 

“Have you unpacked everything already?” her aunt inquired. 

 

“Yes. Yes, I’m almost done” Ann nodded. 

 

I think I’ll just burn it all once you’ve gone.

 

“Good. I often feel like unpacking is the first step of really returning home from a trip” William nodded and smiled with reassurance, a hint at experience and advice in his tone. Ann tried to look like she appreciated them all, but frankly she begged with every fibre of her being to be sedated on the spot and allowed to lull until her life had taken some other turn or ran its course. 

 

“Aunt, could you see if there’s some ibuprofen in the top drawer, please?” Ann sighed and tried to deal with the dull, rising ache on her temples. 

 

Her request resulted in the three of them ushering her to rest and nap, and reluctant as she was, she withdrew back to the living room, assisted by Eliza. Ann slumped back on the sofa and wrapped the duvet around her. 

 

“Have you… slept here?” Eliza tried to sound calm and nonjudgemental, but Ann could detect both disappointment and disapproval in her tone. 

 

“Yes. It’s been hard to fall asleep these past few nights.” It was true, but Ann couldn’t help thinking that it had the ring of an excuse. 

 

“Mhh” was all Eliza had to say. 

 

Yes, it’s all gone down the drain. I’m irredeemable.

 

“So, I’ve come down here to watch some telly, and then fallen asleep on the sofa” Ann continued, annoyance bringing the colour back to her cheeks. 

 

“Yes, yes. Of course. Will sometimes dozes off on the sofa after a late night game. Makes his back ache.” 

 

“Hmm.”

 

“Get some sleep. We’ll get some lunch going, alright?”

 

“Yes. Thank you.”

 

“Any time, darling.” 

 

***

 

She was given some two hours of sleep, before her aunt came to wake her up.

 

“You had nothing here, Ann” she was sour, “absolutely nothing! Orange juice and popcorn and half a banana! I had to send Eliza and William to town to get something for lunch. You know you can ask for my driver to come take you to town any time, dear?”

 

“Hmm? Yes” Ann smiled absent-mindedly and combed through her hair with her fingers. 

 

“You’ll want to change, before we go” her aunt gave her an evaluating look. 

 

“Go where?” Ann frowned and got up, gathering the duvet to her arms, ready to return it to her bed upstairs. Her aunt sighed and tried not to take her frustration out on her niece, who had been the main cause of it these past few days.

 

“The Listers. Remember? That is why Eliza and William are here, Ann. I told you yesterday.”

 

“Oh” Ann blinked, and it came back to her, their conversation yesterday. It could just as well have been a year ago; sleeplessness twisted her sense of time, “yes. Of course.” 

 

Wonderful. First I was there half-witted because I’d bashed my head, and now I’ll go there hungover with sleep deprivation.

 

“Go on, then, dear. Eliza’s nearly done with the pasta.” Ann moved swiftly to avoid any physical consolation her aunt may attempt to offer.

 

Ready to leave, Ann found herself thinking of all other options of how to spend your day than visiting people you barely knew, but she figured also that she was in no position to appeal to her relatives now. It was as if she was a child again, and everything just happened, whether she liked it or not. Getting in the car after forcing herself to eat (out of courtesy) too much of the bland pesto pasta made Ann slightly nauseous the moment they started the drive. 

 

“Did you get the flowers?” Eliza asked, as they drove out the gates.

 

“What flowers?”

 

“No?”

 

“No.”

 

William reversed and apparently Ann was deemed the most able-bodied of them to go and fetch the bouquet her cousins had bought for the Listers. As she stepped back in the house, she in all seriousness considered dashing, jumping and crash landing face first on the stone tiles in the hallway to wriggle out of the whole affair. When she returned with the flowers, and the car was still waiting for her, she concluded there was no way out of it, and decided to turn herself off for the next hour or so. Her polite enough auto-pilot would have to navigate this one for her. 

 

Chapter Text

At Shibden Hall, in her study, Anne Lister was not in a good mood. Yesterday, due to a sloppy attempt at a topout on a fairly easy boulder, her right foot had slipped and she’d tumbled down, falling quite painfully and embarrassingly on her left hand, namely on her middle finger. She had had to return earlier, more physically damaged and in a much more sour mood than she had anticipated. Instead of fresh air, physical strain and homey, gorgeous landscapes she’d been dealt an evening with fussing family members, an attention seeking puppy and Giant Lobster Hunters as quality entertainment on the television. Said finger was now taped and kept aching, giving her a constant, and quite literally, painful reminder of her sloppiness and lack of skill. 

 

She had woken up to the dull aching around 5 am and had not been able to fall back to sleep. As the morning was clear and cool, she’d been out and about since the early hours, and had already taken an 8 mile walk to Northowram and Priestley Green to ease the simmering feeling under her skin urging her to do something with the day while simultaneously only allowing her to think clearly when she was moving. She had been out nearly two and a half hours and had been frustrated to find her family barely awake - nothing in the house seemed properly alive to her, least of all her slow-paced, dull as dishwater, ordinary, predictable family and their routines. 

 

After her sister had finished her breakfast at 11 (which was lunch hour to Anne; not that she ate lunch, but nevertheless), she’d coaxed Anne to come grocery shopping with her. Anne had agreed only because she saw a chance to walk home from town, and she’d put her plan in action on the Sainsbury’s parking lot, leaving Marian to drive home alone, huffing and puffing after her, as she walked off. It was barely afternoon, and Anne had started to feel fatigue in her legs, but nothing seemed to quench her need for a changing scenery. 

 

She had passed the concrete plant, and her mood had been slightly brought down by the contrast of the view of the old town and the tower of the Halifax minster over the stone wall and the degraded industrial mess that was the concrete plant yard. She had taken the footpath up the hill and headed towards Lister’s Road and continued uphill, before the road had taken a low descent and changed to Shibden Hall Road. 

 

The day was remarkably beautiful, but that she had already known; the walk had only been for the purpose of letting her think. She had racked her brain trying to come up with something to write about, to go through and fully grasp the events of the past few days. It was astonishing that her entire life had gone upside down, and yet here she was, still alive, and perhaps that was why she was walking again; to feel alive at least physically, even if her mind was still in dead calm, not moving forwards or backwards. The storm between her ears was raging, yes, but it wasn’t taking her anywhere. She could always trust her legs to provide sanctuary outdoors where she was free to let herself wander, physically and mentally. Now, however, it was taking so long for her mental engine to start running that she felt she had almost overheated her physical one. When she had reached home, her feet had ached, and she had ignored both her nagging sister and the barking puppy, and vanished upstairs to her room. 

 

“You could at least help with lunch!” she heard Marian bleating downstairs, as she closed the door after herself.

 

“Why? I don’t plan on eating any!” Anne yelled back. 

 

“Well, clean up after yourself! Your climbing gear is still all over the place!”

 

“Whatever for? I’m busy!”

 

“We have guests coming!”

 

"What? Who?"

 

"The Priestleys!" 

 

“Well, they’re not here for me!”

 

So, yes, the air in her study was thick with annoyance, frustration and agitation, as she sat down at her desk and opened her laptop. When she’d for an hour successfully blocked out Marian’s pleas for help, she found, to her astonishment and disappointment, the cursor still blinking at the top corner of an empty page. Nothing, absolutely nothing came to mind, and the distance between her head and her fingers seemed to stretch across the universe, and anything even remotely resembling a thought that appeared in her head had immense difficulties actually landing on the screen before her. 

Just as she was about to start typing down a list of all the places she’d physically been to during the past few days (it had previously proved to be a good starting point) she heard a sharp bark from behind her door. She closed her eyes, inhaled deep and slammed her laptop screen down before getting up and opening the door. 

 

“You’ve learned to climb the stairs” she spoke dryly to the puppy who dashed to her feet and whimpered happily at the sight of her, “good for you. Less so for me.” She plucked up the puppy and scratched its neck gingerly. 

 

“I wasn’t getting anywhere, anyway. What would you say if I were to let you lose in the garden to wreak havoc? I think you’d like that” she kept speaking to the puppy as she descended downstairs.

 

“ANNE!” her sister came bellowing to the living room, “oh, there you are.”

 

“Marian.”

 

“Can you please take care of your climbing things? Crash pads in the kitchen is not--”

 

“They’re not in the kitchen--”

 

“Yes, they are, and they are muddy--”

 

“They are by the kitchen door--”

 

“That’s as good as in the kitchen--”

 

“It is not, and you know that just as much as I do, but--”

 

“No need to get smart with me--”

 

“I don’t need to get smart, I am--”

 

“Oh, very funny, hilarious, Anne--”

 

“But I’ll move them” Anne concluded and turned back to talk to the puppy in her arms, “Jack needs to pop outside anyway.” 

 

Marian softened at the mention of the puppy.

 

“You’ve taken a liking to him” she smiled and cocked her head minutely.

 

“Too early to say” Anne replied brusquely and made her way to the kitchen, leaving Marian behind with a sly, knowing smirk on her lips. 

 

Anne let the puppy out to the back garden and picked up the crash pads, dragging them back to the stall that acted as their garage and shed these days. After the pads had found their place not too far back in the piles of miscellaneous tools and things, bits and bobs, she took off and dusted her loose grey knit, and wiped her old jeans of the mud and moss that had stuck to her from the crash pads. She tossed the knit on her shoulder and decided that she was certainly presentable enough for Eliza and William in jeans and a plain black, almost spotless t-shirt. Any luck, and her sister, aunt and father would keep them busy, and she could excuse herself almost as soon as they’d stepped in.

 

***

 

If Ann Walker could in her situation be grateful about anything, she was grateful that they’d dropped her aunt off at home before driving to Shibden Hall. Somehow she felt that overbearing as they were, Eliza and William would be much less custodial than her aunt, and would possibly even let Ann speak for herself (not that she especially wanted to). 

 

The car turned from the main road, and Ann tried to focus on holding the bouquet to avoid feeling any more nauseous than she already did. They drove downhill and Ann could see the building further down, surrounded by a well-kept greenspace and a tidy wood. She tossed her head back languidly. At least the place was aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps she could sneak out and take a walk in the garden to both seem interested in the place and avoid socializing. She knew she couldn’t, but she could at least dream about it.

 

Eliza gasped minutely as they drove in the gate and came to halt in front of the main entrance to the house.

 

“She’s home!” she exclaimed, as a woman in a black t-shirt and worn jeans walked across the yard, and stopped as she saw the car approach, “I didn’t know she was back, Marian didn’t say anything!” Ann jolted and peeked out the window. She inhaled sharp, as her eyes landed on the figure. 

 

It was her, certainly; she’d changed, yes, but she was definitely there, and Ann felt a warm wave wash over her. She felt a bit silly noticing how she’d imagined Anne Lister would be wearing the same oversized suit she had all those years ago when she’d marched to Crow Nest. She looked endearingly humdrum in just jeans and a t-shirt, Ann thought, and she wasn’t the ball of light she’d been in their living room years back. Still, Ann felt floating just looking at her. She was stern and grumpy, she had longer hair and--

 

“A puppy” Ann whispered, spotting the sloppy walking reddish brown pup trailing the woman, who now crossed her arms and gave the car an evaluating look. Eliza practically leapt out of the car to greet her old acquaintance. 

 

“Anne! How long it’s been!” 

 

“Eliza! Too long, I’d say. How are you?” 

 

Hearing Anne Lister’s voice gave Ann a shiver, and she stayed in the car, combing through her hair, trying to gather courage and reassurance that she looked presentable. She plucked up the bouquet and decided to use it as a shield to hide her nervousness.

 

“Anne, how are you?” William was out of the car by now as well.

 

“Very well, thank you, Will. Good to see you” Ann saw them hug and greet warmly. She drew a shaky breath and stepped out of the vehicle. It was hard to bear the weight of all eyes suddenly turning to her, as she emerged from the warmth and comfort of the car. The puppy was busy greeting Eliza, and Ann hoped it’d dash to her next to allow her a socially acceptable distraction.

 

“Oh, we took Miss Walker with us. You remember Ann, don’t you?”

 

“Yes” Ann and Anne both replied. Ann blinked in awe, but Anne Lister recovered quicker and chuckled softly. 

 

“Miss Walker” she nodded and took a few steps towards Ann, her hand extended ready to greet her, “how are you?” Ann tried to smile neutrally, and extended her hand in return, but couldn’t help a slight flinch, when Anne Lister took her hand and gave her a crushing handshake.

 

“Very well, thank you. Sorry to pop in so unannounced--”

 

“What’s that?” Anne Lister cocked her head and her eyes moved from Ann’s eyes to her forehead, her smile fading, “may I?” 

 

“Uh--” Ann only had the time to attempt at a reply, before Anne Lister’s index finger was on her temple and gingerly brushed away the few strands of hair that covered the bruise on Ann’s forehead. Ann felt a sizzling electric current ran through her body at the touch. She reckoned she was now squeezing the bouquet a tad too hard for the flowers to live.

 

“Oh, just the accident… a few days ago, the--” Ann looked down and sought to take a step back to escape the sudden physical contact with a stranger.

 

“Car crash. Yes, I heard about it. I’m sorry to see you’ve been hurt” Anne Lister spoke, her voice was deep and her tone clear and focused, and her eyes scanning, analysing. Suddenly, she put her hands on Ann’s cheeks.

 

“Look at me” she commanded more than asked, and as Ann’s eyes met hers, her gaze was intense, her brow furrowed. 

 

Ann tried to look at anything but her, but her field of vision was completely occupied by Anne Lister. Her hands were warm and dry, her long fingers gingerly touched Ann’s ears and her thumbs were a soft pressure against Ann’s cheekbones. Anne Lister’s stance was wide, and her leg brushed against the flowers Ann was holding. 

 

Ann could hear her steady breathing, catch the scent of menthol, fresh air and dry, soft dirt emanating from her. She looked the same, but different. Her chin was more pointy, her cheeks less round than Ann remembered, her features more angular, and a tad weary. 

 

Ann had not only heard of her blog. She had read her blog; of course she had. Anne Lister was busy, interesting, captivating and daring. 

 

Some people left Halifax and did something with themselves.  

 

Ann had ran up to her in the supermarket here in Halifax once, years ago, to invite her to tea. 

 

How horrible

 

Ann had doubled down in giggles at her stupid pun about 10 years ago. 

 

How embarrassing.  

 

Ann had told herself down for enjoying an estranged neighbour's company so much so soon after her mother’s death, but Anne Lister had just been so luminous. 

 

She was kind to me. To us.  

 

For weeks, she’d not been able to forget about Anne Lister and her brief visit. 

 

I went walking in Shibden Park to see her. How pitiful.  

 

Having Anne Lister so close, so suddenly, her anxious heart beat came running back, Ann was certain she’d go into a sensory overload soon, and just drop limp on the ground. 

 

I can’t breath. Please leave me be. Also, don’t.

 

Ann blinked and trembled, when she felt Anne Lister’s hands run up the back of her neck to press softly at the base of her skull.

 

“Tender?” she asked, their eyes locked.

 

“Mhhmm” Ann replied, fighting the urge to nod. Then, Anne Lister’s grip was a tad firmer and she tilted Ann’s head to the right.

 

“Tender?”

 

“No.” And to the left.

 

“Tender?”

 

“A little.” 

 

Ann had no idea what Anne Lister was doing, or if it was in any way legitimate at all, but she found herself surprisingly not opposed to it. Anne Lister’s hands pulled back, and suddenly Ann saw her lean index finger in front of her face. 

 

“Follow my finger with your eyes, please” Anne Lister told her, and Ann found it hard to look at the moving finger and not at Anne Lister’s concentrated face. She kept her eyes on the finger moving from side to side, until a sharp, dizzying wave sent a pressing, squeezing feeling to her head and she frowned, gasping just slightly.

 

“Dizzy?” Anne Lister asked and the finger stopped moving. 

 

“I guess… It’s hard to say…” Ann muttered, closed her eyes and shook her head a tad. 

 

“Don’t shake your head.” Ann opened her eyes and found Anne Lister trying to lock eyes with her. Then, Ann saw her raise her right hand to the level of her forehead and her left just below her chin, and point her index fingers sideways.

 

“Now, look at my fingers, up and down, just with your eyes, don’t move your head.” 

 

Ann hesitated for a second, but then started moving her eyes from the higher finger to the lower and back. Soon, she started to feel dizzy and her vision blurred somewhat, but she kept going to not seem lazy and feeble, until she lost her balance and stumbled slightly. Anne Lister caught her and steadied her with a firm grip on her arms. 

 

“Alright, good,” She held onto Ann until Ann looked back at her, “did you see a doctor? After the crash?”

 

“N--no. I didn’t think I’d need to.”

 

“Hmm. Is there anyone at home with you? A partner, flatmate, family?”

 

“No--” Ann hesitated, “but my aunt’s come to see me every day--” she tried to sound relaxed. 

 

Anne Lister glanced sideways at Eliza and William, and then took Ann’s hand quite nonchalantly and placed her fingers on the inside of Ann’s wrist, and flicked her left hand to look at her watch. 

 

“Shush. Please” Ann had opened her mouth to ask if there was reason to worry, but Anne Lister cut her off curtly. 

 

Ann inhaled shakily and blinked in a slight shock. Anne Lister’s fingers pressed firmly against her wrist, and she felt her heart beating frantically, slamming against her ribs, rising towards her collarbones and throat. Her mouth hung ajar and she stared at Anne Lister dumbfounded. Anne Lister was frowning minutely, looking at her watch as if down her nose, judging silently. 

 

The puppy had gotten bored of Eliza and William, and made its way to its master and the new acquaintance, and as if it wasn’t hard enough already for Ann to stay quiet and still, it tumbled next to her leg and barked. Ann fought the urge to flinch and pull away. After a pressing silence that seemed to stretch forever, Anne Lister dropped Ann’s hand and raised her brow conclusively.

 

“Your heart rate is elevated. Have you had sleep? Anxiety?”

 

“N--no. Yes.”

 

“Which is it?” Anne Lister looked at her like Ann was deliberately wasting her time.

 

“No to the first and yes to the second” Ann let her snappiness slip and take control. Anne Lister rewarded her with a sly smile.

 

“Very well. You should rest. No exercise until the dizziness and the tenderness is gone. And you’ll need someone to check on you, regularly. They’re not to mess with, concussions--”

 

“Are you a doctor?” Ann interrupted her, curious. 

 

She heard Eliza inhale sharply and William cough awkwardly, as Anne Lister cast her the most murderous glance. 

 

“No.” 

 

With that, she turned and walked off.

 

“Come on, then! My sister is expecting you!” they heard her call from the main door. 

 

Ann was left standing astonished. Eliza came to her looking both bothered and apologetic.

 

“Touchy subject, that one” she whispered to Ann, “let me take those for you, dear” she took the bouquet from Ann’s hands. 

 

Wonderful. 

 

Ann crouched to finally pet the puppy that was going crazy in her feet, and watched William and Eliza walk to the door. 

 

“Hello” she spoke to the happy animal, “you’re not a doctor, either, are you? Didn’t think so.” 

 

She plucked it up and let it lick her cheeks. She kept it close to her chest as she walked to the door. She’d just have to trust no one could be angry at a puppy.



Chapter Text

Perhaps she’d been a bit brusque. The girl couldn’t have known, and it had been an honest question. And she had examined her quite just like that. Besides, the poor girl looked half-dead already; Anne certainly didn’t need to add to that. The thought of having to apologize for anything made her skin crawl: it meant she’d been faulty in her conduct in the first place and admitting to that was intolerably horrible and humiliating. Maybe she could work her way around it by being a fair and a kind enough host. 

 

Marian had come to the foyer and had a ridiculously warm and welcoming smile on her face that faded as soon as she saw it was just Anne alone.

 

“Where’d you leave them? I heard you talking.”

 

“I didn’t murder them” Anne retorted, “look, here they are” she turned and held her arms up to welcome their guests. 

 

“Marian! You didn’t say she’s home!” Eliza exclaimed and slapped Anne gently on the chest with the back of her hand as she passed her, and went for a hug with Marian.

 

“I didn’t know! She turned up on the doorstep yesterday--”

 

“Oh, please, this is my home too, I’m not a tramp” Anne protested chuckling.

 

“Judging by often you choose to drop by, you could be” her sister smiled through her snarky comment. 

 

Anne tried to keep the smile on, but had to purse her lips to avoid further bickering. She let Marian see Eliza and William in, and she listened with half an ear something about the flowers from the Walkers as a thank you, while she made her way back towards the front door; Miss Walker hadn’t followed the couple. As she turned to the corridor leading to the front door, she saw Miss Walker step in with Jack in her arms.

 

“Are you allowed indoors? I’m not sure. You’re too cute, I can’t leave you out all alone” she heard her blabber to the puppy, and it made her smile.

 

“He’s fine” she spoke and could see her jolt. God, she was timorous! Her aunt had been right; she did look like she’d seen a ghost. Pale, trembling, frail and absolutely sleep deprived. 

 

“He lives indoors. They both do. Argus, our Irish wolfhound, he likes to lie in front of the fireplace in the living room--” Anne continued.

 

“Yes, I met him the other day. Night.” Miss Walker put Jack down and he came to Anne happily.

 

“Good boy” Anne told him, but didn’t crouch to pet him, “this is Jack. They’ve had him for a week or so.”

 

“He’s wonderful. So, he isn’t yours?”

 

“My father got him, but he has no skill with dogs. I’ll bring him up.”

 

“Well, he seems to be very fond of you” Miss Walker smiled, still lingering by the door. 

 

“Fond enough to wee on my books” Anne replied dryly, and she was comforted by the little chuckle she heard from Miss Walker. Perhaps she could make up for her earlier curt behaviour.

 

“Come in, please” she spoke and gestured with her hand, “I know they’re not the most interesting company…”

 

“Oh, this is definitely the most thrill I’ve had for the past few days” Miss Walker spoke as she walked to Anne.

 

“Oh? Weren’t you in a car accident?” Anne smirked, and Miss Walker let out a repressed chortle.

 

***

 

Ann fought the urge to reach for Anne Lister’s hand, as Anne Lister walked in front of her, guiding her through the house.  She hadn’t entirely forgotten what the downstairs layout was like, but given that she had been in shock, in pain and it had been in the middle of the night when she’d last been here, she was grateful for the guidance. She could hear Eliza and William greeting people, presumably Aunt and old Mr Lister in the living room. Jack, the adorable puppy, dashed past them sloppily. 

 

“Sorry I wasn’t here to help you, in your moment of need” Anne Lister spoke, walking slowly ahead of Ann. Ann noticed only now, that Anne Lister was hurt, too; two fingers on her left hand had been taped together. 

 

“What happened to your hand?” Ann didn’t really know how to respond, so she changed the topic, trying to not seem as stunned and nervous as she felt.

 

“Ahh---” Anne Lister breathed and chuckled dismissively, “I stumbled a tad while I was climbing. No matter. Nothing as serious as a concussion.” Ann smiled tight lipped.

 

I wasn’t trying to out-injure you. I just asked to say something. 

 

“Oh, you climb?” Ann tried to keep the conversation going, as they arrived in the living room, and Anne Lister signalled her to take a seat on the sofa. 

 

“Mhh? Yes, when I can. It’s the next best thing, when there are no mountains in sight” Anne Lister smiled and held out her hand. Ann looked at the hand for just long enough to apparently make Anne Lister think she didn’t need help sitting down, and so just as Ann had mustered the courage to raise her hand to take Anne Lister’s, Anne Lister pulled hers away. Ann tried to mask the sudden rush of disappointment and embarrassment behind an awkward chuckle, while Anne Lister’s hand presumably couldn’t decide what to do and kept rising and lowering, until it rather cumbersomely collided with Ann’s hand that was just hanging there looking for some purpose. 

 

Ann had no idea what had just happened there (except a terrible misreading of the other person by both parties), but Anne Lister recovered quickly, and with a twirl Ann’s hand was in hers. With a soft yank she pulled Ann forward, away from the fog of her puzzled thoughts, and guided her to sit on the sofa. Their shilly-shallying did not go unseen by the rest of the party; while Eliza chuckled comfortingly, Marian glanced reservedly at her sister. Ann thanked her social autopilot for keeping her kind, but vague enough smile on, while she herself was utterly perplexed. 

 

Anne Lister took a seat on the arm rest next to Ann, and Ann stiffened, as Anne Lister’s leg brushed against her arm gingerly. 

 

“I’d rather you kept mountains out of your sight permanently” Anne Lister’s aunt spoke quite sternly. Anne Lister waved her hand nonchalantly. 

 

“Mountaineering is a perfectly safe hobby--”

 

“You nearly died once!”

 

“She nearly died once!” 

 

Aunt Lister and Marian Lister yelped together. Ann looked up at Anne Lister, who just cast them a sly smile. 

 

“Hardly. We were just waiting for the storm to pass--”

 

“Was that the expedition in the Himalayas?” Eliza popped in.

 

“Yes, exactly, Manaslu--”

 

“Which they call ‘The Killer Mountain’ apparently” Marian butted in dryly. 

 

“Didn’t even lose a toe to frostbite” Anne Lister turned to smirk at Ann, whose autopilot flashed a shy smile in response, before turning away, trying not to blush. Anne Lister’s smile was still as radiant as it had been more than 10 years ago.

 

“You just keep closer to sea level, while I still live!” her aunt seemed to wish to put an end to the topic that had brought a gleam of interest to Anne Lister’s eyes, “there’s enough action to these parts of the world, too. How are you, Miss Walker?”

 

Ann jolted at the sudden mention of her name. 

 

“Uh, very well, thank you.” She probably wasn’t overly convincing, as everyone’s eyes seemed to linger on her pale, fatigued figure for much longer than she could comfortably bear. 

“I just wanted to thank you, again, for helping me and my aunt the other day-- night” she continued, “we were-- well, she was scared, and I was disoriented, and-- You were very good to call an ambulance--” she smiled timidly at Marian Lister. 

 

“Of course” Marian Lister nodded and smiled warmly, “how’s your--” she motioned at Ann’s bruise. 

 

“Good, good” Ann hurried, “nothing serious.” She could feel Anne Lister shift slightly by her side.  

 

“Did you see a doctor?” Marian Lister continued, “I’ve heard Dr Kenny does house calls, and he’s seen Henry Hardcastle after the accident, too---”

 

“Tosser” Ann heard Anne Lister mutter under her breath.

 

“Sorry?” Marian Lister turned to look at her sister. Anne Lister shook her head.

 

“Topnotch” Anne Lister smiled warmly, “well done, Dr Kenny.” Marian Lister looked just a tad bit suspicious, but let it go. Ann bit her lip to stop a chortle, and darted at Anne Lister, who gave her a smug smile. 

 

“Do you plan to travel again soon, Anne?” William cleared his throat and changed the topic. 

 

“Oh, I--” Anne Lister started.

 

“She only just got here, William, don’t encourage her” her father spoke and gave him an acerbic smile. The party chuckled warmly.

 

“No, not at the moment” Anne Lister continued, patting her leg as she spoke, “I fancied a break at home.”

 

“From what? Avoiding us?” Marian commented snarkily. Anne Lister dismissed her sister’s attempt at being smart with one wave of her hand. 

 

“It’s been… rather hectic, for me, for a while. I just need to clear my head a bit, is all.”

 

“Oh, that’s good, getting your thoughts sorted out” Eliza chimed, “I’ve been following you, I have, reading your blog. Goodness, you don’t stay still, do you? Have you read it, Ann? It’s wonderful, so witty, so on point, so relatable--”

 

“Stay out of her hair, Ann. You’ll end up in the blog, if you don’t” William pointed at Ann and made everyone chuckle again.

 

How? I’ve already crashed my car on her land. I think I’m very much in her hair already. 

 

Ann smiled, sighed and nodded shyly.  

 

“Doesn’t guarantee you a spot in my blog, if you anger me, Will” Anne Lister smiled slyly, and Ann could sense she turned to look at her. She turned her head and they locked eyes and Ann felt like the air from her lungs was sucked out, while she gently started to float up towards the ceiling, “I’ll write about people I really like, too.”

 

A soft popping sound sent Ann back on the living room sofa.

 

“That’ll be the kettle” Marian got up and left the room, “I’d appreciate some help!” she called from the hallway. Anne Lister sighed and got up, ushering her aunt, who was also getting up, to sit back down.

 

“I’ll give you a hand” Ann heard herself say, and she pushed up from the sofa.

 

“Oh, no need, you just enjoy--” Anne Lister turned to her, and Ann could see her friendly frown turn into astonishment, before her ears rang with an intensifying beep and her vision blurred. When she blinked, she felt Anne Lister’s grip on her arms, guiding her to sit back down. 

 

“Careful” Anne Lister let go of her arms and cupped her face, lowering her head to rest back, “look at me. Ann? Look at me.” Ann frowned.

 

“Yes. I just… got up too quickly…” she muttered, biting her lip, fighting the embarrassment that was starting to gush in. Anne Lister smiled briefly, her eyes still keen on Ann.

 

“That you did. You do look a bit peaky. Perhaps some fresh air?”

 

Ann nodded, thankful for the remark. Maybe they could leave early, and Eliza and William would just drop her home and she could just forget about the whole thing.

 

“Come, I’ll help you. We’ll take tea in the garden” Anne Lister crouched and slid her arm behind Ann’s back. Ann jolted and nearly gasped at the sudden contact, “there, put your arm around my neck. Ready? I’ve got you.”

 

“Oh, darling. Maybe we should ask Dr Kenny come see you tomorrow” Ann heard Eliza from somewhere miles away. Hurriedly, she slipped her arm around Anne Lister’s neck, while Anne Lister was already pulling her to her feet. Ann felt woozy and had to lean on Anne Lister more than she would’ve wanted to, but her vision was clear and her ears weren’t ringing any longer. Her heart had jumped to her throat and was beating at a million miles. 

 

“Lightheaded?” Anne Lister’s voice asked close to her ear. 

 

“No, I’m fine” Ann replied, trying to sound stern. 

 

“Mhh” she could hear Anne Lister’s smile, “good. We’ll go outside for a bit. Jack needs to go anyway.” Ann didn’t know if she was speaking more to her or the others in the party, but she hummed at the mention of the puppy. 

 

Anne Lister’s pace was steady, but slow enough to accommodate Ann's weak state. Ann tried to not lean on her too much, but despite her attempt to walk upright unsupported, judging by Marian Lister’s expression as they came across her in the hallway, she must’ve looked quite poorly. 

 

“Miss Walker needs a bit of fresh air” Ann shunned her eyes as Anne Lister spoke to her sister, “I’ll take her outside and we’ll have tea there.” 

 

“Oh, dear. Yes, of course. Do you need a hand--?”

 

“No, no. You go, I’ll take care of it. Thank you, Marian.”

 

Anne Lister’s hand moved to take Ann by the shoulder, as they turned a corner, walked across the kitchen and came to a door that opened to a back garden. Anne Lister made sure to warn Ann about the steep step, and Ann would’ve missed it had she not; the first breeze of fresh air was so relieving that she just gasped at it and forgot about everything else. 

 

Anne Lister sat her down on a worn wooden bench by the wall. 

 

“Alright?”

 

“Yes. Thank you.”

 

“I’ll get some tea. How do you take it?” 

 

“Milk… No sugar. Thank you.” Ann blinked languidly. Anne Lister crouched down to catch her eyes. When she did, she cast Ann a gentle smile.

 

“Very well. Jack, keep an eye on Miss Walker for me, will you?” she spoke but did not look at the puppy, who Ann felt slump down against her leg. Ann chuckled and nodded slightly.

 

“Please. Just Ann.” 

 

“Alright, Just Ann” Anne Lister spoke and Ann fought the urge to roll her eyes at the age old pun, “I’ll only be a minute.” 

 

***

Anne Lister strode to the kitchen with a curious, hopeful grin on her face. She knew of course Miss Walker was woozy, but she also could tell when a woman had a serious crush on her. And it wasn’t like her to not seize the chance for a bit of harmless flirt. She bit her lower lip, trying to hold the grin at bay, as she prepared the tea. She didn’t bother with a tray, but just took the two mugs and headed back outside. She pushed the door handle down with her elbow and stepped out. Jack barked to greet her, and she had to watch her step as he paraded around her feet. 

 

“Ah-- here you are--” she came to Miss Walker, who looked up at her and smiled a tad tiredly.

 

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you” Miss Walker took the mug Anne offered. Anne sat down on the bench next to her and shrugged, smiling.

 

“It’s only tea. That makes me an average host, at best.” Miss Walker chuckled softly at her remark. Good. Should be easy enough to warm her up. Anne watched as Miss Walker sat back and sipped her tea timidly. 

 

“So” Anne continued, placing her arm on the back of the bench, her palm just an inch away from the back of Miss Walker’s neck, “I hear you just got back from India.”

 

“Uh, yes. Yes I did.”

 

“I hope you had a good trip. Was it long?” Anne had hoped the conversation would flow outdoors with fewer eyes on Miss Walker, but apparently she was both poorly and terribly shy.

 

“Uh. Two years.” Anne’s cup came to a halt on her lips. 

 

“Two… two years?” she hid her surprise poorly, and regretted that it did not go unnoticed by Miss Walker, “where, if I may ask?”

 

“Uh, Himachal Pradesh, up--”

 

“North, yes. Must be lovely.”

 

“It is. Was. Have you been?”

 

“No, not there. I’ve only been to India once, to Delhi and Varanasi. But I’ve been to Nepal, as you heard, and I adore the Himalayas.”

 

“Mhh. I’m not a mountaineer, but we did trek a few times. I loved it, seeing the mountains. The sky looks brighter and the air feels different higher up, doesn’t it?”

 

“It does indeed. What on earth were you doing there for two whole years?” Anne chuckled somewhat stunned still. Miss Walker turned her head and took a moment to reply. 

 

“First, we volunteered at a farm. Then I taught English and yoga, too. Not a very respectable living, I know, but it was a simple life.” 

 

Anne couldn’t help raising her brows at this information. Miss Walker smirked, pursing her lips.

 

“I don’t look the type, do I?” she asked and combed through her hair absent-mindedly. Anne shook her head, slightly more captivated than she would admit by a passing gesture like that, combing one’s hair. Miss Walker smiled and looked down. 

 

“We went the first time in uni, me and a few friends. It was just a short trip then, but I loved it, and then, some years later, me and Harriet, my friend, we just decided to… Go and stay for a while. She’s still there. I left a bit earlier than I had planned--” 

 

“What happened?” Anne asked, leaning forward, surprised to find herself listening to Miss Walker’s account. Miss Walker frowned and shook her head minutely.

 

“Don’t shake your head” Anne guided her friendly, lifting her hand behind Miss Walker’s back, just gingerly supporting her head. Miss Walker nodded and smiled, and didn’t flinch at the touch.

 

“Nothing. I just-- I just felt like I needed to get back. At least for a while.” 

 

“Mhh. I know what you mean.” Anne pulled her hand back just a notch.

 

“Are you really not a doctor?” Miss Walker asked, catching Anne off guard. 

 

“Ah. Mhh. No, no I’m not.” The thrill of the delicate flirt dropped and she pulled her arm away. 

 

“You should be.” 

 

“And why’s that?”

 

“You’ve been more attentive to me than any doctor I’ve ever been to” Miss Walker spoke and smiled. That smile was not shy. 

 

“Ah, well, if you’ve been to the likes of Dr Kenny---” Anne started, but was interrupted by a hearty chortle from Miss Walker. 

 

“You’re right. He’s a tosser, for sure” she giggled and brought her hand to cover her mouth for a second. 

 

“Yes, I’d rather you not see him” Anne smirked and repressed a chuckle, “gives me the creeps, that one.” 

 

“Oh, I know what you mean--”

 

“Do you? Has he done something to you?” Anne was sharp suddenly, her arm returning on the back of the bench. Miss Walker shook her head.

 

“Don’t shake your head” Anne advised her again.

 

“Sorry, it’s hard to remember” Miss Walker apologised, “no, not per se, he’s just… Well, he was my parents’ doctor, and then we just, you know, kept seeing him, the lot of us, and… Once, and this is the last I’ve seen him, two years ago, before I went to India. You mustn’t tell him, or anyone, but he… Well, I needed a checkup and some vaccines taken, too, and I went to see him. And-- I’m sure it’s just me, but he listened to my heart and… Well he asked me to take my shirt off, and then he had his hand on my thigh the whole time” Miss Walker smirked and rolled her eyes, “you know, as you might expect--”

 

“That certainly is not what you might expect from your doctor” Anne’s tone was icy. 

 

“No, I know, but from-- what I’ve had from some men, in general. And anyway, I just probably thought too much about it. Maybe that’s how you do it, I wouldn’t know. I’m sure he’s alright. It’s just-- I don’t like him close like that, breathing on me.”

 

“No, I’m sure you wouldn’t. Well, thank you for giving me one more reason to avoid him. I took my aunt to him a while back, she’d fallen and hurt her wrist, and as we entered the room I saw him close the Wikipedia page for bones” Anne huffed and rolled her eyes.

 

“No!” Miss Walker exclaimed, an astonished grin on her face. Anne smirked and nodded. 

 

“Maybe he was editing the page” Miss Walker mused and sipped her tea. 

 

“Oh?” Anne raised a brow and leaned closer, “and how likely do you think that is?”

 

“Not very” Miss Walker nearly whispered, before erupting into shy giggles, drawing a chuckle out of Anne as well. 

 

Anne was satisfied, watching colour return on Miss Walker’s cheeks, her expression clearing. She sat back and sipped her tea, lifting her right leg to rest on top of her left. 

 

“So. Two years away from home. Tell me. What’s new about Crow Nest, then?” Anne asked. Miss Walker let her head fall to the side a bit, smiling sadly. 

 

“Absolutely nothing. I think even the dust on the floor is the same.”

 

Anne smiled understanding. 

 

“Must be a bit still, Halifax. After India.” Miss Walker sipped her tea and was quiet for a good while.

 

“The village I lived in was smaller than Halifax. Yet I’ve never felt more alive, or surrounded by more life than there. It’s not Halifax or the size of it. It’s just…”

 

“It’s home. Personal history weighs down on you differently here” Anne finished her sentence. 

 

“Yes. It does.”  Miss Walker seemed to welcome the silence, so Anne let her be for a moment, and they just watched as the wind rose from the forest behind the garden, blowing some dry leaves off the forest floor. 

 

“You were travelling too” Miss Walker then spoke, nearly making Anne jolt at her sudden words, “were you gone for long?”

 

“No. I didn’t travel, I stayed-- I lived, in Hastings, for nearly a year. So, not really gone, but--”

 

“Away, still.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m sorry” Miss Walker then frowned and brought both her hands to hold her mug, “please don’t think badly of me, but I do read your blog, occasionally, and I just wondered… Where’s your… didn’t you have a… partner?” She dropped the question, glanced hurriedly at Anne, but then turned her eyes away again, staring at her hands. 

 

“Ah. Well--” Anne stammered a tad, “well, she’s still in Hastings.”

 

“Oh. When is she coming, then? When are you going back?”

 

“She’s not. And I’m not. She’s not--- my girlfriend anymore. We split up.” Anne rebuked herself for sharing this with Miss Walker. She’d always kept to the principle that private matters should be just that: private. Perhaps she had subconsciously categorised Miss Walker as both not a threat and as someone who didn’t blabber. And in any case, it was true. No use trying to hide it any longer. Anne looked down at her mug in her hand, when Miss Walker turned to look at her again.

 

“I’m sorry” she could hear Miss Walker say. 

 

“I--- Mhh, thank you. So am I.” 

 

“Is it nice? In Hastings. I’ve never been.” Anne looked up at Miss Walker and appreciated that she kept talking, even though she did not seem like a chatty person. 

 

“Well, I---” Anne’s words stuck to her throat, “No. It’s just a seaside town, really. Paris was nicer.”

 

“Paris? You’ve lived in Paris?”

 

“Yes, twice.” 

 

“Goodness. Whatever dragged you back to Halifax from Paris?” Miss Walker laughed softly, astonished. A handful of uncomfortable memories surfaced in Anne’s mind, and she bought herself time to recover with an awkward chuckle.

 

“Well. Shibden is my fort. I return regularly to see that it still stands.”

 

“It does look a bit like a fort,” Miss Walker admitted, looking around, biting her lower lip. She looked suddenly quite adorable to Anne, and Anne stood up.

 

“Fancy a tour around the grounds?” She held out her hand to Miss Walker, who took it timidly, her smile fading on and off, “if you’re feeling better, that is.” 

 

“Won’t they miss us?” she nudged her head towards the door. 

 

Anne crouched and took Miss Walker’s mug from her hands, placing it on the bench next to her, before taking Miss Walker’s hands into hers. 

 

“I don’t really care if they do,” she whispered, smirking, making Miss Walker titter, “unless of course, you wish to hear either my sister complain about me or more praise for Dr Kenny. Or both, in all likelihood.” 

 

“Oh, gosh, I’ll take the tour any day, even at the risk of being lightheaded again” Miss Walker took a firmer hold on Anne’s hands and allowed Anne to help her up. 

 

“No need to worry about that. I’ll catch you. Jack? Come on, boy!”

 

***

 

The sun had set hours ago, when Anne Lister finally closed her laptop and dug out her black notebook from the top drawer. Hastily, she leafed through it, musing a tad bitterly at her anguished, hectic tone of voice just a day or two earlier, before she set her pen on a blank page. 

 

Bright, sunny day. Two good walks, one 8 miles, one home from town. The Priestleys and Miss Walker (Crow Nest) came for tea. Miss W-- poorly, hit her head in the accident a few days ago. Examined her, good practice and reminder for me. Took her out to the garden and walked around the grounds. A shy, timid girl in company, but when with me alone, very talkative. Observant even, and gigglish. Certainly had a good laugh over a thing or two with her. Last saw her years ago, and she surely was no longer a girl. Fair enough, and voluminous blonde hair. Made up to her subtly, and she seemed already thoroughly smitten with me. This morning I didn’t quite know what to do with myself here, but this is welcomed action and distraction. I shall go see her again first thing tomorrow morning.

 



Chapter Text

Ann Walker had not slept any better, but she somehow felt in charge of the day, still, as she descended from the sunroom to the small patio and spread out her yoga mat on the stone that had warmed a touch in the morning sun. She had dug out her favourite yoga pants from the still partially unpacked mess that was her life in India, and as it was warm in the sun, she’d decided on a t-shirt, a worn and oversized Red Hot Chilli Peppers shirt that had belonged to her brother. She got down on the mat and decided to follow Anne Lister’s advice; nothing heavy and challenging, just light stretching to feel a bit more alive. 

 

She reached for her toes and smiled at the memory of leaving Shibden Hall yesterday. Anne Lister had seen them to the car, helping Ann in, and then--

“Would you mind if I popped by at Crow Nest someday? It’s been a while” she had asked, letting go of Ann’s hand. Ann couldn’t recall what she’d said in reply, just that Anne Lister smiling at her had brought a bright smile on her face too. 

 

Eliza had possibly been a bit hurt that Ann had had Anne Lister all to herself for two whole hours, as they’d walked around the grounds. At least she had bombarded Ann with questions as soon as they’d driven out the Shibden gates, but Ann, lost in thought, had been, to Eliza’s disappointment, sententious, just a calm, dreamy smile on her lips. She had whole-heartedly welcomed the escape, and she’d learned more about concussions, puppies, Halifax history and forestry during their walk than she had during a lifetime in education. 

 

Ann bit her lip, when she remembered what Anne Lister had said to her, crouching down, just before she closed the car door.

 

“I can bring Jack, too, if you like. Seems he’s even more fond of you than he is of me.”

 

“I’d like that. He’s more than welcome. You both are” Ann had stuttered her reply. She took a deep breath to fight the rising, giggling embarrassment and excitement. She didn’t quite know which excited her more: the chance of Anne Lister visiting again after almost a decade, or the prospect of having a puppy in the house.

 

She’d gotten herself a hefty cup of tea, and she sipped it leisurely amidst her easy stretches. She arched her back and it cracked loudly and pleasingly. 

 

Gosh, I’ve really treated myself poorly. 

 

She sat down in a side split and rested on her elbows, sipping her tea, enjoying the slight effort in her muscles. She was fatigued, but it didn’t feel similarly overpowering like the day before, and the breaths she took seemed to actually bring air to her lungs.

 

She’d woken up again at three in the morning and come downstairs, letting the telly lull her back to sleep. Tonight had been different, however. Her heart rate had soared, but she felt more energetic than anxious and desperate. It had been as if her brain just couldn’t calm down, but instead of images and thoughts of impending doom, it had combed through her day, going through every word of the conversation she’d had with Anne Lister. She’d chuckled sleepy remembering Anne Lister’s story about Dr Kenny, but then, she had not wanted to think too much about Dr Kenny in the middle of the night, so she’d focused to just keep Anne Lister’s face in her mind, until she’d dozed off. 



She got warm so she pulled her hair up to a messy bun and tied the hem of the t-shirt to a knot to allow some air on her body. She stretched for a few more minutes, until her head started to ache again and she became dizzy, and she heard Anne Lister in her head, telling her to not shake it. For a moment she lay down on her back, her eyes closed, her face turned towards the sun, the light of it filtering through her eyelids a burning handsome mix of red and orange. 

 

When the sudden shadow of a cloud darkened the colours, she rolled on her side and slowly got up, her step faltering a tad. Her ears rang again softly, and she could detect a tang of iron in her breath. She rolled her yoga mat and picked up her mug, but was reluctant to return inside. She’d felt soft and content and spirited outside, and she feared the house was waiting to gobble her up and enclose her into perpetual darkness and loneliness, if she stepped in again.

 

When she stepped into the sunroom and continued further inside to the living room, she decided to open all the curtains in all the rooms to let the building bask in light. She finished downstairs almost in a frenzied hurry, but when it was time to ascend upstairs, she felt out of breath and effort, and just slumped down on the first step of the flight of stairs, resting her head against the ornamental railing. She’d barely closed her eyes, when the doorbell rang, giving her a jump. She sighed, annoyed, but got up and made her way to the door. Her aunt was later than usual, and Ann had almost forgotten to even expect her. 

 

At least it will seem like I made an effort today.  

 

She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, pressed the handle down, turned the lock and opened the door. 

 

It took her a moment to gather that the hearty greeting did not come from the setter puppy that jumped at her and bumped against her calf. 

 

“Good morning!” Ann lifted her eyes to meet Anne Lister, who stood one step down from the door, positively beaming at her. Ann let out a gasp of disbelief at the sight of her. She had indeed said she’d drop by, yes. Ann had, however, not expected her the very next day before 11 in the morning, no. 

 

“I hope I’m not disturbing--” her excitement dropped somewhat at Ann’s obvious shock and stunned state. She raised her brow quizzically and combed through her hair. 

 

“N--No--” Ann stuttered, trying to gather her thoughts. Anne Lister peeked behind Ann’s back slightly worried.

 

“I shouldn’t have let him loose, is he alright---?”

 

“No, yes, no--!” Ann blurted, “no, he’s fine, please, please come in--” 

 

Ann was immediately certain she’d never regretted opening the front door more than she did now. She herself donned perhaps her fartiest look, while Anne Lister was impeccable. Anne Lister wore black trousers, neat black loafers, a black turtleneck and a blazer, and everything about her outfit screamingly highlighted Ann’s shabby state. Ann watched as Anne Lister stepped past her and plucked up the puppy, who’d gotten interested in Ann’s slippers. 

 

Anne Lister turned to face Ann, smiling still, but a slight frown of uncertainty building on her brow. Little Jack was not too happy to be held.

 

“I like your t-shirt” Anne Lister cocked her head, smiling encouragingly, pointing at Ann’s shirt, “were you doing yoga? I’m sorry, I’ve disturbed you.”

 

Ann found it hard to process everything Anne Lister said. 

 

“Oh, uhm--- Yes, no--- It’s my brother’s-- was, he’s dead-- I mean--- Yes, I was doing yoga. Not too hard, like you told me-- not to--- just stretching” she felt like she had just opened her mouth and the words were scrambling out in an order that made no sense to anybody, “But I just finished, really--- No. You’re not disturbing me at all.” 

 

Anne Lister nodded and smirked. 

 

“I can put him on a leash, if you like” she turned to the puppy in her arms, “I’m sorry, I should’ve asked you before bringing him over--”

 

“No, no, don’t worry, he’s fine--” Ann hurried and stepped closer, “please, I’ll let you in the back garden, he can play there. Would you like some tea?” she blabbered and showed Anne Lister to the living room and through to the sunroom and patio. 

 

“Tea would be lovely” she heard Anne Lister and turned back to look at her, to see that her eyes were on the bundle that was Ann’s duvet and her pajamas crumpled on the sofa. Ann felt panic and embarrassment gut punch her.

 

“I-- I-- I-- sleep here--- some-- times, some nights. When I can’t sleep I come here to watch telly--”

 

“Jet lag?” Anne Lister turned to face her again, cocking her head evaluatingly. 

 

“Y-yes. It’s been bad these few nights.”

 

“Mhh. I’m sure. And you were gone for two years. Jet lag or no, it must be hard settling back in. How’s your head?” 

 

Ann chuckled and a sad, disbelieving smile crept on her face. She was suddenly angry at her family; the only words of even an attempt at understanding her situation came from her distant neighbour. 

 

“It’s--- It ached a bit, and I felt lightheaded when I finished stretching, but otherwise fine, really. Thank you.”

 

“Mhh. Through here?” Anne Lister signalled towards the sunroom double glass doors. 

 

“Uhm, yes! Yes, please. Sorry” Ann hurried past her and pushed the doors open. She opened the doors to the patio too, and Anne Lister let the puppy down. He took a slump at first, but managed the few steps of stairs down and made his way under the nearest rose bush. 

 

“I’d love to say he doesn’t mean trouble, but I think I’d be lying” Anne Lister smirked and stepped out, passing Ann who held the door open just to look like she was doing something. 

 

“No worries. I’ll just-- pop the kettle on and-- do you mind if I just took a brief shower?” Ann muttered. 

 

“Of course not. I’m the one bursting in uninvited--”

 

“No, no, not at all. Really, no trouble--”

 

“Please. Take your shower. I’ll be alright” Anne Lister mused, “oh, and if you would, a bowl of water for him. He’ll tire himself out in no time.”

 

***

 

Miss Walker was shilly-shallying by the sunroom door, biting her lip, smiling. Anne tossed her head back a bit and placed her hand on her hip. 

 

“I’m sure he will,” Miss Walker replied to Anne, “I’ll be a minute. Please, make yourself at home.”

 

“Mhh. I just might” Anne spoke and nodded. Miss Walker stood there, her eyes very clearly on Anne, before she shook her head minutely and turned back inside. Anne stayed still until she couldn’t hear her footsteps any longer, and then she chuckled and crouched, as Jack came to her.

 

“I figure she likes me” she muttered to the puppy, grinning, “what do you think?” Jack tossed on his back, barked protestingly and flailed his legs.

 

“Oh, yes. It’s clear she likes you more” Anne chuckled, “come on, then” she stood up, “let’s take a look around.” She strode back in, Jack following floppily after her. 

 

The humongous living room windows let the daylight reach the far end of the big room. Anne smirked, when she noticed that Miss Walker had gathered her duvet and pajamas from the sofa on her way in. The living room looked like it belonged to an old married couple who’d last paid interest to interior design in the early 00s. The walls were a heavy yellowish cream colour, and so were the two large sofas. The hardwood floor was dark, and a beautiful blue Persian rug covered it. The coffee table was an Asian style table; Anne remembered Mariana getting one for her London apartment, when they were all the rage. There were two large, classic, ornamental armchairs, one of which had a dip the size of a small, curled up person. Anne thought Miss Walker was certainly not short of spots to relax. The television was fairly new, but the stereo system was past its best days. There was a PlayStation controller on the coffee table next to an empty bag of popcorn. 

 

Anne walked around the room and came to a drawer by the door. It housed a dozen photographs, and Anne crouched down. Her eyes first caught a smiling young man in uniform. That must be Miss Walker’s brother. There was some resemblance, especially their eyes. Miss Walker had said he had died, but Anne didn’t know anything more about it; perhaps her aunt did, but she’d never heard it mentioned. Or at least couldn’t remember it. There was a dated wedding picture at the back; presumably Miss Walker’s parents. Anne leaned closed and, yes, she remembered the late Mrs Walker. 

 

Anne smirked, as her eyes landed on a serious looking teenage Miss Walker in a school photo. Next to it was a graduation picture, in which Miss Walker looked a tad more relaxed, but her smile was tight and her eyes tired. Anne could see a similar picture of another blonde girl; Miss Walker’s sister, she recalled. Her eyes moved from Miss Walker’s sister to Miss Walker to her brother and she tried to remember what they’d been like when she’d visited them here, but frankly she couldn’t really remember them at all. She’d only vaguely remembered Miss Walker, when they’d met yesterday. It felt weird to be in the house, suddenly, being left alone. These people had never been of any interest to Anne whatsoever. 

 

She was alerted by a soft thump and turned. Jack had tried to jump on the other sofa, and had caught one of the frilly pillows, pulling it down on the floor with him. 

 

“Come on, you” Anne went to him and gently took the pillow from him, “let’s not burn the place to the ground.” She picked him up and returned to the sunroom. She would’ve wanted to explore more, but she knew it was rude to go around uninvited, so she fought the rising curiosity, and slumped down on the divan instead. It was nearly hot already in the sunroom, so she removed her blazer and enjoyed the air on her bare arms; the turtle neck top was one of her favourite pieces. 

 

She smirked at the randomness of her situation. She had been in the house once, briefly, a decade ago, and before that, never. She hated their stupid golf courses. She didn’t especially like Miss Walker’s aunt, elderly Mrs Walker, who sometimes dropped by, babbling gossip as she came and went. The Walker children had been a pitiable bunch the last she’d seen them, and the house felt gloomy and lifeless. 

 

Still, yesterday afternoon had been interesting, fun even. It had made her smile and she’d had something else than her own irritation to think about. Afterwards, she’d squeezed out that blasted blog post. She’d finished her reviews. She’d made notes. She’d slept fairly well. 

 

Miss Walker certainly hadn’t caught Anne’s eye, but it was amusing how flummoxed she was around Anne, how easy it was to toy with her. And she was sufficiently cute to have a bit of fun with. Anne did feel sorry for Miss Walker, so perhaps her visit here was both an act of charity and entertainment for herself. She should’ve probably felt a slight bit of remorse about that, but her heart was light, and she didn’t. It was barely her fault if she made someone fluster.

 

***

 

Ann Walker very nearly slipped, as she hurriedly stepped out of the shower and reached for her towel. She cussed, sloppily dried herself and wrapped the towel around her body before exiting the bathroom, skipping across the hallway to her bedroom. She looked at the jumble around her in despair.

 

“What am I going to wear?” she mouthed and scanned the heaps of clothes and clutter, busted open suitcases and stacks of shoes scrambled around her bedroom. She wasn’t a messy person, so the havoc around her was all the more shocking and embarrassing each time she saw it. Only until now she hadn’t actually had to pay mind to how impractical it was; she had allowed herself to comfortably forget about it in her sleep deprived, anxious, lonely state. 

 

She tossed the towel on the bed and rummaged through the suitcase and backpack closest to her. She was beginning to despair, but at the bottom of the backpack she found her trusted floral-print jumpsuit. With a sigh of relief she tossed it on the bed too and sought through the remaining bags to find a pair of undies and a bra. Half dressed, she stood in front of her big mirror and redid her bun, making sure to pull all loose strands tightly in. She beat the jumpsuit a few times to get off at least some of the dust from the backpack, and she sniffed the fabric to make sure it didn’t smell absolutely ghastly. Stuffy, yes, but not too bad, and perhaps her perfume would cover it. 

 

She slipped on the jumpsuit and it fit her just as well as a few weeks back when she’d last worn it. It felt years back. She caressed the fabric softly, lost in her reflection. This piece had last existed in her shared room with Harriet, on her bed, next to the light linen jacket she always wore with it. She could almost smell the warm, cosy dustiness of the room, hear Harriet turn in her sleep, the river’s soft run outside. It was beyond absurd that such a piece of clothing could exist in Halifax, at Crow Nest, in her room, where nothing ever seemed to exist at all. 

 

A persistent strand of hair escaping from her bun brought her back, and she closed her eyes for a moment, inhaling deep, before she made her way out of the room and back to the still humid bathroom. She applied her perfume, and thought it best to use some mouthwash although tea would likely taste abysmal so soon afterwards. Gingerly, she made her way downstairs to hear if her guest was looking around, but she could not hear Anne Lister or Jack, and so, perhaps a bit disappointed, she made her way to the kitchen and popped the kettle on. 

 

“Do you need a hand?” Ann nearly dropped the two mugs she’d taken from the cupboard a second before. She turned and tried not to seem startled, smiling gently. Anne Lister was by the door. She had removed her blazer. Ann didn’t know why seeing her bear arms almost shocked her, but she found it hard to not openly stare, to keep her eyes to Anne Lister face. 

 

“Oh no, thank you. Let me just find that water bowl for Jack…” she shakily placed the mugs on the stone counter and crouched, opening the bottom drawer, and took out a small porcelain casserole, “I think this is the best I can manage. Is this alright?” She lifted it on the counter and got up, as Anne Lister came to her.

 

“Perfect” she smirked and took the casserole, “I’ll take it.” 

 

“Thank you. Uh-- how do you take your tea?” Ann asked. She realised that she should’ve paid attention to it yesterday, but there was no chance she could have noticed what Anne Lister had drunk. It could’ve just as well been tar, and she still would’ve only been able to pay attention to Anne Lister. 

 

“Black, one sugar” Anne Lister replied over the running water, as she was filling the bowl for Jack, “oh, would you mind if I moved the divan out on the patio? It’s a fine day and I thought we might just as well take tea outside.” Ann was still processing what Anne Lister had said, when Anne Lister stopped by the kitchen door and turned to her expectantly. 

 

“Oh-- yes, yes of course. If you like. D’you need a hand with that?” 

 

Anne Lister smirked reassuringly. 

 

“I’ll manage.”

 

Anne Lister walked out the kitchen and Ann inhaled deeply. Anne Lister made her terribly nervous.

 

 ***

 

Miss Walker only left the patio twice. Once to get them a second cup of tea and once to take a phone call. Anne heard her pick up the phone before Miss Walker was too far inside the house for her to hear anything more. She stood up from the rattan lounge chair she’d carried outside (she’d let Miss Walker take the divan) and stretched. She dug out her phone and noticed she’d been here almost four hours, and as much as she wanted to say she was entirely on top of the situation, the passage of time surprised her; even if she’d mostly talked about her travels to a keen audience, Miss Walker seemed to be a notch more captivating than Anne would’ve given her credit for. 

 

Jack woke up momentarily on the divan, stretching and yawning, before trying to find a more comfortable position to continue his nap. He had barely left Miss Walker’s side when she’d helped him up on the divan, and Miss Walker’s hands had barely left Jack, which obviously was much to the puppy’s liking. Anne had, amidst their conversations, mused at the thought of just leaving the puppy here with Miss Walker, but then again, he was a good reason to keep visiting. She could always say the puppy missed Miss Walker. 

 

Anne turned as she heard the door open. Miss Walker stepped out, smiling, putting on her shades as she returned to Anne. 

 

“Everything alright?” Anne asked, fighting the sudden, tempting urge to go and take Miss Walker’s hand and press a light kiss on the corner of her mouth. She doubted she’d be refused, but she decided against it. Too early for something so bold; she wanted to be careful.

 

“Yes, it was my solicitor. My aunt had called him about the car crash and now he called me” Ann sighed, “I agreed to meet him later today. I’m sorry. I’ve kept you here for hours and never once mentioned the whole thing, although it’s probably what you’re here for in the first place.”

 

Anne blinked and stepped back a bit, lowering her shades. 

 

“No. I came to see you” she stated quite honestly, but enjoyed the effect her words had on Miss Walker. She was positively blushing and bowed her head to hide her smile, “I mean I said I would. And I wanted to check up on you, since you live alone.” 

 

“Thank you. That’s very kind of you. But I can hardly say I live alone. Frankly, I’m astonished no one has burst in yet--”

 

“Save for me--” Anne smirked. Miss Walker chuckled and tossed her head minutely.

 

“Anyone of the tribe.”

 

“The what?” Anne snickered. Miss Walker bit her lower lip. 

 

“The tribe. My extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins once removed, their aunts and uncles… They’ve been all over me the minute I got back. I mean” she sighed and slumped down on the divan, “I guess I should be grateful and think it’s kind and nice and heartwarming, but it’s just… Would be nice to have a moment when you can think for yourself without someone pushing you one way or another.”

 

“Pushing you?” Anne frowned and came to sit at the other end of the divan. Miss Walker frowned, looking bothered. 

 

“I suppose they’ve all got brilliant ideas about how I should live my life. Just they don’t often bother to ask my opinion on any of it. I suppose when you’ve been poorly once, in some people’s books you’re poorly for good.” 

 

“Poorly? How?” Anne cocked her head and decided now was actually the perfect time to take Miss Walker’s hand, “you seem perfectly well to me.” She could hear Miss Walker gasp barely audibly, and it encouraged her to keep gingerly caressing the back of her hand with her thumb. 

 

“Long story” Miss Walker replied after a pressing, thick silence of a solid few seconds. Anne knew to retreat, so she slowly pulled her hand back and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, pleased to notice Miss Walker’s eyes were keen on her. 

 

“Well, perhaps you’ll share it with me another time” she mumbled, before she cleared her throat and straightened her back to get just a notch further away from Miss Walker, “who’s your solicitor? If you don’t mind me asking. Mine’s retiring and I’m looking for a new one. Are you happy with them?”

 

“Oh” Miss Walker seemed slightly stunned for a moment at the sudden change of topic, “Uh, yes, yes I am. I mean, they pretty much take care of everything for me and my sister. Samuel Washington, he’s running a local firm here in Halifax. They do my-- our accounting, too. Can’t complain. I don’t really know what you are looking for, but he’s been very good for us.” Anne waved her hand a bit dismissively.

 

“You know, someone to manage my properties, leases, sales et cetera--” 

 

“Well, yes, then I can recommend them” Miss Walker cut her off a bit, “I’ll give you his contact information.” Anne smirked and patted her leg before getting up. 

 

“Perfect. I should be going. I’ve overstayed my welcome--”

 

“Not at all--” Miss Walker hurried.

 

“I have” Anne nodded, her tone concluding, “and never mind the car crash. I’m sure your aunt’s insurance will cover a good part--”

 

“No, no, I’ll take care of everything” Miss Walker nearly pleaded, “just let me know what it comes down to--”

 

“Why? It’s your aunt’s car that crashed, isn’t it?”

 

“Y-yes, but I--”

 

“Were you driving?”

 

“No, but--”

 

“Then you’ve got no part to play unless you deliberately encouraged whoever was driving to crash--”

 

“No! No, I’d never--”

 

“Didn’t think so. So don’t worry about it--”

 

“No, please. I know it should fall on my aunt, but she--- She’s old and I don’t want her to lose money over something like that. And anyway, she wouldn’t have been out at that hour if it wasn’t for me. She was fetching me from the airport, and she didn’t have to. And she wants me to take care of it. I don’t think my father would’ve wanted her to--- You know, I think he would’ve wanted us to take care of her. So I will. And really, it doesn’t matter. Won’t hurt me in the least.” 

 

Anne shifted her weight to her back foot and crossed her arms. She herself would certainly not let a well enough off relative talk her into paying their dues, but Miss Walker seemed to think of it more as looking after her family rather than her aunt abusing her kind-heartedness. 

 

“As you wish. If you could brief your solicitor about it today. I’ll give him a call and if I find him suitable he’ll be in a much better position to deal with the matter swiftly.” 

 

Miss Walker nodded and smiled.

 

“Certainly.” 

 

Jack let out a tiny little whimper, as he yawned content, still on the divan. Anne sighed, plucked him up and placed him on the grass behind the patio. 

 

“He’ll be troublesome for the rest of the day after napping for four hours,” she bemoaned. Miss Walker chuckled apologetic. 

 

“Must be the house. Everything is still here.” 

 

“Quite the contrary” Anne countered, “I’ve had the most pleasant day with you. I was wondering if you’d like to go for a walk tomorrow” she loved the sudden astonishment on Miss Walker’s face, “just around here. Shibden Mill has this nice little inn, perhaps we could have lunch there?” 

 

“Oh-- y-yes, that sounds very nice.” 

 

“Wonderful. I’ll come pick you up at… say, 11?” 

 

“Sounds fair.”

 

“Excellent. Good” Anne smirked and clapped her hands together, “that means I’ve got plans for tomorrow, and that means I have to unpack today.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“I’ve been putting it off. Unpacking” Anne shook her head and didn’t really understand why she was telling this to Miss Walker, “it’s… hard, and it shocks me how a whole year with someone can be crammed into a few cardboard boxes.”

 

“Mhh” Miss Walker nodded, “it feels like… once you take the things out of the bags and boxes, they’ll lose the life they had before. They become just things again.” 

 

A silence fell between them again, suddenly reminding Anne that here really was a person who’d also been more or less unwillingly tossed back to Halifax from what felt lightyears away, and was possibly at the bottom of a very similar rut to her own personal mental gorge. 

 

“Ahh--- I should get going. You’ve got things to do. And possibly a nosy relative sneaking up on you soon enough” she spoke to not let herself dive any deeper to her thoughts. Miss Walker laughed out loud and tossed her head back.

 

“Most likely, yes. Let me see you out--” she was interrupted by Jack jumping against her leg. She crouched and picked him up, “Thank you for a lovely visit. Yes, thank you. Will you come walk with me tomorrow?”

 

Anne mused at the sight. 

 

“He’s too young for a long walk like that. I’m afraid it’s just me.” 

 

“Oh?” Miss Walker’s attention never left Jack, “well, until next time then, little darling” she kissed his head. Anne was perhaps just minutely hurt to be ignored like that, but then Miss Walker lifted her eyes and smiled at her. She turned and swaying walked back inside, leaving Anne a bit more flustered than she would’ve liked to admit. 

 

***

 

Ann Walker dug out her brother’s car from the garage. She drove to town, overcoming her anxieties about driving. She met with her solicitor and did the groceries. That evening, she received her aunt and cooked a light dinner for them. She called her sister and asked her to come over, when she could. She unpacked and did three rounds of laundry, not finishing until 11. She read Anne Lister’s new blog post, “Falling out of love in 72 hours”, and couldn’t quite grasp she’d spent her day with the person who’d written it. She picked an outfit she very much liked for the walk the next day. She fell asleep around midnight and didn’t wake up until the sun was high up. 

 

Chapter Text

“I thought you were heartbroken” Marian followed her all the way to the car, her tone beyond sour. 

 

“I am.”

 

“I thought” Marian raised her voice as Anne slammed the trunk shut a bit too forcefully, “that would keep you still for at least a few days.” 

 

“It’s just a weekend” Anne tried to not lose her cool, “Mary’s asked me to Lawton, she’s bored on her own, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t go.”

 

“Oh. Well, what’s stopping her from coming here, if she’s so desperate for your company?”

 

“You know she doesn’t exactly adore Shibden--”

 

“Well, we don’t exactly adore her, either--”

 

“All the more reason--”

 

“Will you take Jack? I’ve got to work late Saturday, Sunday both--”

 

“No, Mary wouldn’t like that---”

 

“Honestly, Anne, is there anything she does like about you?” her sister shot. Anne shrugged and waved her hands, annoyed. 

 

“Presumably. I’m about to find out, am I not?”

 

“Yes, and then crawl back here on Sunday, with your tail between your legs, because she’s done you dirty once again--”

 

“You know” Anne put her hands on her hips, “it’s really, truly heartwarming how involved you are in--”

 

“The biggest mess of your life--”

 

“My personal matters” Anne very nearly stomped her foot. Her eyes narrowed and lips thinned as Marian drove her extremely close to snapping at her, “but alas, it is my choice and my choice alone, so for your own mental health I’d advise you to keep out of it.”

 

“Well, perhaps it hasn’t crossed that brilliant mind of yours” her sister followed her promptly as Anne opened the car door and got in. Marian placed herself in the open door, making Anne inhale in fury, “but maybe the rest of us would’ve just wanted to enjoy a weekend at home with the family. But here you are, running off again, barely recovered from your latest romantic failure, jumping to her bed--”

 

“Don’t worry” Anne cut her off, her icy words barely audible, “I’ll be back to play house with you in approximately 48 hours.” With that, she started the car and just began driving while her sister was still trying to hold the door open. 

 

“You are--” Marian gasped and screamed, holding on to the door while Anne slowly, but stubbornly drove on “the most insufferable thick-headed idiot to ever have walked this Earth!” Anne, without delay, pushed Marian off the door and gave her the fingers before she sought to close it.

 

“I love you too, Marian!” she slammed the door shut and stepped on the gas as soon as she was out the gates.   

 

***

Ann had decided to use her Friday morning to prepare for the weekend. Her sister had managed to find a nanny for her children and she was coming over for an entire 2 days, and Ann had also invited their cousins Catherine and Delia to join them, as it had been nearly 3 years since they’d last all been together. She’d left her car for a check-up at the nearby car shop and driven in the ghastly courtesy car to do the groceries for the four of them for the weekend. 

 

She could cook fairly well, but she hated making lists and planning meticulously, so she just ambled through the aisles and picked everything that even remotely tickled her fancy or seemed useful. She suddenly had a craving for mint-chocolate-chip ice cream, and she turned the corner, nearly bumping into someone who was practically running down the aisle with their cart. 

 

“Oh, sorry! So sorry-- Oh, Ann!” Ann recovered and recognised Marian Lister, who seemed flustered, her smile a bit quick and panicked. 

 

“Marian” Ann smiled and pulled back a notch. They had nigh collided, “how are you?” 

 

“In a bit of a rush, actually, sorry to nearly run over you like that--”

 

“No worries--”

 

“Anne told me you’ve recovered well. How are you, how’s your head?” 

 

“As good as it gets” Ann tried to be amusing, but only received a slightly worried, pitying smile from Marian, “very well. Your sister’s been very kind to come see me. And Jack’s a wonderful pick-me-up, really.” Anne Lister had been visiting her with the puppy almost every day for the past week. Ann had begun to expect them around 11 in the morning, and it had been weirdly hollowing to not have received them today. 

 

I’m better now. She has no reason to visit me anymore.

 

“Yes” Marian spoke, her tone a tad sour suddenly, “Anne can be very kind. When she wants to. She’s out of town for the weekend, if you were expecting her---”

 

“Yes, she told me she’s visiting a friend.” 

 

She has plans for the weekend. I have plans for the weekend. It’s good. She’s visiting her friend. I’m not her friend.

 

“Mhh. Yes. Yes, she is” Marian seemed pensive, “got any plans for the weekend?” she then looked at Ann again, her smile casual.

 

“My sister’s coming over from Scotland, actually” Ann replied, “haven’t seen her for 2 years--”

 

“Oh, that’s wonderful! You must’ve missed her, are you close?”

 

“Yes, well, we used to be, at least. She’s got kids now, so we can’t really catch up as often as we’d like, but-- Yes, I’ve missed her. Terribly. You must’ve missed Anne, too, when she was gone.”

 

I miss her, and I barely know her. Good god, stop rambling.  

 

“Oh, well” Marian shrugged, “I did. But she drives me crazy, every now and then. You know. Sisters” she tried to smile. Ann nodded, but couldn’t really relate to Marian’s palled expression, “Listen, I know you’ve got a busy weekend ahead, but-- Could I ask for a favour?” Marian continued, looking slightly uncomfortable. 

 

“Y-- yes, of course” Ann was too puzzled to refuse right away, “anything.”

 

“Look, I’ve-- I’ve got to work this weekend, and my aunt’s got an appointment with her physiotherapist, and-- I was just wondering, since he’s spent so much time with you already, would you be able to take Jack, just for the two days?”

 

“Jack? I thought-- didn’t Anne take him?”

 

“No. Apparently Mrs Lawton, her--- friend, she doesn’t like a puppy in the house. And I wouldn’t ask, if I was home, but I don’t really trust my dad and aunt will remember when he needs feeding or going out. And I wouldn’t want them to have to clean up after him, if he---”

 

“No, of course not. Yeah, yes, I’d be happy to. He’ll be the light of the party, for sure” Ann mused. She’d missed the puppy already, although it had only been yesterday when Anne Lister had last visited her. 

 

“Really?” Marian gasped relieved and took Ann’s hand. Ann flinched at the touch, and Marian pulled her hand away swiftly, “oh, sorry, thank you, thank you so much, I’ll drop him over--” 

 

“No worries, I’ll pick him up on the way to get my sister from the station” Ann assured, “How’s 3 pm for you?” 

 

“Perfect. Thank you, Ann. Oh, shhi---” Marian was cut off by her phone ringing, “I’ve got to go, I’ll see you at 3, okay, thank you, thank you--” she hurried and went her way, picking up the phone, “Hello? Yes, I’m here. Of course--- No, she won’t be back until Sunday--” Ann heard her speak, before she turned the corner and headed towards the ice creams. There was a faint smile on her lips. If she couldn’t have Anne Lister, at least she’d have Jack for the weekend.   

 

***

 

There was no room for anything else in her head, when Anne Lister had Mariana panting under her. Her hands made their way up Mariana’s thighs, stopping briefly at her hips to pin her down, her leg resting between Mariana’s legs. Mariana brought her hand up Anne’s back to cup the back of her head, pulling her to a crashing kiss. Anne had been at Lawton for a whopping 4 minutes already, and since Charles was at a golf course a comfortable 20 minute drive away, they’d wasted no time in making themselves comfortable in Anne’s guest bedroom. 

 

Mariana’s scent twirled around Anne, absolutely fogging her senses, intoxicating her. She deepened the kiss, unable to pull back, and as Mariana moaned softly against Anne’s lips, Anne couldn’t help her hips grinding down minutely. Anne slid her hands up and behind Mariana’s back, seeking to open the zipper on her dress. Suddenly she felt Mariana’s hand on her chest, gently halting her for a moment.

 

“Go down on me” Mary locked eyes with Anne. Anne breathed heavy, then smirked content and kissed Mary again, leaving her lips and peppering kisses down her jawline and neck. Her hands found their way back on Mary’s thighs, now slipping under her dress, making their way up. Anne’s eyes shot open, when her hands reached Mary’s hips and found no piece of clothing to remove. Mary smiled and ran her finger down Anne’s cheek.

 

“See, that’s the perks of me knowing when to expect you” she arched her neck to whisper to Anne’s ear. Anne let out an astonished, but pleased chuckle. 

 

“Perhaps I should surprise you, then, sometimes. To catch you off guard.”

 

“You’re most welcome to work your way around me anytime, but if that mouth is staying up here, you could at least use it for kissing instead of talking” Mary mused and nibbled at Anne’s earlobe. 

 

“Impatience doesn’t suit you” Anne replied, a languid grin on her lips. 

 

“Mhh. But you do.” She dug her nails to Anne’s hair and pulled her to another heated, wet kiss. Anne gently pushed Mary’s dress up over her hips and sat up, removing her blazer and opening the top two buttons of her shirt. Mariana hooked her left leg behind Anne’s back and stared at her demandingly. 

 

“Take it off.” 

 

Anne’s hands stopped at the collar and she returned Mariana’s stare with a playful smirk, but Mariana impatiently and determinedly pulled with her leg behind Anne’s back, hurrying her, and Anne unbuttoned her shirt and tossed it on the floor. 

 

She moved closer, caressing the length of Mariana’s legs. 

 

“Mhh. I missed you” she muttered and kissed the inside of Mary’s thigh.

 

“I believe you. And yet you keep me waiting” Mariana tossed her head back, amusement and annoyance mixed in her tone. Anne smirked and nibbled softly at the tender skin on Mary’s leg, making Mary whimper in surprise. 

 

“Am I not allowed to take you in? To treat you?” Anne spoke, her lips hardly leaving Mary. 

 

“Treat me? This is torment, Freddy” Mariana drew breath sharply.

 

“Oh?” Anne asked mocking innocence, “I don’t think you’ve got the slightest about torment, my darling.” 

 

As she continued further down Mary’s thigh with her kisses, her hand glided from Mary’s hips to her core, and she carefully slid her middle finger down the centre, slightly parting Mary before gently cupping her. Her whole being shook with the moan that escaped Mariana at her touch. She pulled her hand away, as she lowered herself between Mariana’s legs, and for a moment rested her head against her hips. She caught Mary’s scent and tightened her hold of her thighs for a second, before she took her kisses lower, stopping to hover over Mary’s slit. It wasn’t too long since her stay in London, but she had been preoccupied then. Now, she was very much present and at ease, and as she opened her mouth and carefully slid her tongue on Mary, she knew she wouldn’t falter for a second. 

 

Mariana’s hand was tugging her hair the moment Anne’s tongue pressed against her and parted her folds. Her leg found its way on Anne’s back, twitching, urging her closer. Anne’s hands moved on to hold Mariana’s hips that slowly started to grind, when Anne’s tongue came to circle her clit. Anne was gentle with pressure, but she sucked at Mary softly every now and then, and was pleased to find it worked just as well as it always had. Mary’s grip on her hair tightened, and Anne licked the length of her with more pressure a few times before returning to suck at her clit ardently, making Mariana arch her back and thrust her hips up against Anne’s face. Anne continued to circle her clit and soon she felt Mariana tremble minutely, her leg tense against Anne’s back. She pulled away her right hand from Mary’s hip and brought it down to her middle, slowly pushing in her middle finger, her tongue still on Mary. 

 

Mariana moaned and her thighs clamped around Anne’s head. Anne licked and sucked greedily, bending her finger slightly while gliding it in and out. Mariana’s hand left her hair and her gasps and moans filled the room, her body shaking, her hips pumping against Anne’s mouth. Anne tightened her grip on her hip, not letting her escape a single movement she performed, until Mariana cried out and Anne felt her pulsating against her finger. Anne gently pulled her finger out and placed her lips on Mary, revelling at the feeling of the strong pulses against her lips.    

 

Mary’s hand returned on Anne’s hair, tugging affectionately, stroking softly. Anne got up and rested her head against Mary’s leg. She looked up and locked eyes with Mary, and for a split second she wished she could just slip under Mary’s skin and become one with her, never having to part. 

 

“Marry me” she blurted before she could stop herself. She hated the bubbly hopefulness that always swelled in her chest when she asked Mary this, because she was also extremely familiar with the crushing disappointment that always followed seconds or minutes after, depending on Mariana’s mood. 

 

“We’re hosting a dinner party tonight” Mariana replied, giving Anne’s hair one more long caress before pulling her hand away. Anne chuckled to mask the suffocating lump in her throat.

 

“Mhh. Who’s coming?” 

 

“Some neighbours and friends. Nantz will be here, so you won’t be bored.” 

 

“Oh. Well, pardon me, but I’ve never found her particularly engaging--”

 

“Engaging enough to fuck her, though” Mary shot, resting on her elbows, smirking dryly. 

 

“That was 16 years ago. Are you ever going to let that go?”

 

“You know, if you consider yourself married to me, you should at least act accordingly” Mariana tried to joke, but struck a sore spot. Anne crawled on top of her and caught her chin quite firmly. 

 

“Pretty rich coming from someone who is married and yet sleeps around with me” she nearly gnarled. Mariana reached up and pecked Anne’s cheek.

 

“I’m more married to you than I’ve ever been to him.”

 

“Not in the eyes of the law.”

 

“It wasn’t even legal back then for us to--”

 

“It has been now, for nearly ten years--”

 

“Freddy, stop. Please. Not now” Mariana cupped her cheeks and pulled her to a brief kiss, “I love you. More than anyone ever has. When’s that going to be enough for you?” 

 

Anne sighed, her heart heavy and bursting. She rested her forehead against Mariana’s, their noses gently brushing.

 

“It is” she muttered, “for now.” 

 

Mariana chuckled and pressed a brief kiss on Anne’s lips. 

 

“Good. I’ll see if I can come to you tonight. I might not, but I want you for the day” she stroked Anne’s chest pressing softly, “come on, then, put your shirt on. Let’s have lunch.” She pushed Anne backwards, and Anne sat up, getting off the bed, finding her scattered tops.  

 

“What are you cooking for me, then?” she asked rather humorlessly. Mariana laughed and tossed her head back.

 

“What do you think I have staff for?”

 

***

Goodish sesh with M-- right after I arrived at Lawton. Helped myself out later in the bathroom. Had lunch and sauntered in the garden. C-- home at 3 pm. Warm enough greeting from him, I very civil. A dozen people coming over for dinner. Planning on retiring early, hoping they will not be too noisy.

 

Anne was scribbling on her bed to pass the time before the arrival of the guests. Mariana was busy going over the evening with the staff and picking her outfit, and Anne had used the opportunity to escape to her thoughts for a moment, before the house would be filled with people she’d need to socialize with for at least a few hours. 

 

She was about to place her pen back on the cream coloured paper, when her phone buzzed on the bedside table, giving her a slight jolt. She frowned and took it to her hand, tapping the home button to activate the screen. 

 

Ann Walker

Guess who’s over at Crow Nest for the weekend? :) 

 

Ann Walker

Sent a video

 

Anne frowned and swiped her phone open. She clicked to her messages, found the clip and clicked play. It was the Walkers’ back garden, and--

 

“Jack! Jack, come here, boy! Come here, darling--” Anne could hear Miss Walker coo at the puppy. She was puzzled as to why Jack was there, but she couldn’t help smiling at his silly jumps and floppy running, as he dashed to Miss Walker, “come-- uhh, here we go” Anne could see Miss Walker pick the puppy up. Then the camera flipped around and a cloud of blonde hair framed the screen. Miss Walker smiled warmly, directly at Anne, Jack pressed against her chest. Anne took a deep breath, biting her lip.

 

“Wave to Anne, Jack. Bye bye” she took the puppy’s paw and moved it minutely. Anne couldn’t help a chuckle escaping her lips. The video ended and Anne started typing.

 

:) :) 

Why’s he with you?

 

Bumped into Marian doing the groceries

She asked me to take him, she’s working this weekend

 

Oh.

I’m sorry.

She probably has on-call duty then.

I’m sorry. I should’ve taken him with.



No, it’s good. He’s a darling

Where does she work?

I forgot to ask :D

 

Dental nurse.

Big thanks for having him.

I can see he’s living his best life!

Haha I’m sure he misses you, though

 

I miss him too.

Frankly I’m a bit bored.

Might go for a run.

There’s a dinner party tonight.

 

Sounds lovely :)

 

I’d rather not attend, tbh.



I just got my sister from the station

My cousins are coming later today



That sounds much nicer.

Have a lovely weekend!

 

You too! :)



Say hi to your sister and cousins from me.



Will do :)



And keep me posted about Jack.

Let me know if he misbehaves; I’ll come get him straight home! :)




No! I won’t. It’s my secret plan to keep him for good



Is that so? You may have him until Sunday.

 

Oh. And what if I want to keep him? 

 

You’ll have to fight me.

 

Oh I wouldn't. I’d bribe you



With what exactly? It’s a puppy. The stakes are high.



I’m aware. I guess you’ll find out on Sunday

 

Anne was positively grinning by now. She’d been to Crow Nest almost every day for the past week or so and now that she wasn’t there for their customary tea and walk in the garden or the nearby fields, she found her day somewhat lacking. Miss Walker had proved decent company, more than decent, in all honesty, and a welcomed catalyst for Anne to keep her mind active, providing a daily departure from the sedimentary stillness of life at Shibden. 

 

And now, just after a few hours of their first day without seeing one another, Miss Walker had contacted her. Yes, she’d used the puppy as an excuse (of which Anne saluted her scantly), but she had contacted her. Perhaps it was too early to call it a flirt, but she wasn’t certain she could exclude that option, either. And frankly, no one had managed to squeeze this many replies out of her for a good few years. For a moment she mused with the thought of spending the evening on her phone with Miss Walker, but then she remembered Miss Walker also had company for the evening. Chuckling, feigning a slight disappointment at the reappearing promise of boredom for the night, she got up, leaving her entry unfinished for now. She strode to the door and bellowed to the hallway.

 

“Mariana? I’m going out!” 



***

 

Ann returned from the kitchen with another bottle of white wine, and was greeted with a unison ‘yes!’ from her guests. She smiled and slumped down on the couch next to her cousin Catherine. Jack, who had stayed close to Ann throughout the evening, languidly opened his eyes, but seeing that his favourite person in the room was back, he got back to his napping, turning on his back and yawning. 

 

“That puppy will be the death of me, seriously” Delia spoke, “he’s so cute. Are you sure you have to return him?” 

 

Ann hummed and opened the bottle. 

 

“Yes. He’ll probably be terribly homesick during the night. You won’t like him then, I can guarantee that.”

 

“I’ll hold him. He can sleep in my bed.”

 

“He’ll wet it, for sure” Ann continued and filled their glasses.

 

“Sounds like having children” her sister huffed and took her glass before sitting back comfortably. The rest of the party chuckled at her remark, “god, I’d forgotten what this place looks like. You haven’t done much to lighten it up, have you?” she looked around, light disapproval on her face.

 

Ann chuckled, mocking hurt. 

 

“Excuse me! I’ve been home for scarcely over a week. It’s not like I don’t want to--” she waved her hand in the air, “I just haven’t had the time to get down to remodelling the whole thing.” 

 

“Have you been well?” Catherine asked, “I mean, I can tell you’re good, but judging by your aunt talking, I was expecting to meet a corpse.” Elizabeth and Delia tittered, when Ann rolled her eyes.

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake--” Ann cussed.

 

“Language!” Elizabeth commented.

 

“Oh nip it, you left your kids at home” Ann shot back at her, “it’s as if she’s been going door to door tattling about how poorly I am. Seriously!” she chuckled at the other’s smiling, but disbelieving faces, “you should see how people look at me in fucking Sainsbury’s! It’s like they expect me to drop dead on the floor.” The others smirked at her amused anger. 

 

“Seriously, though” her sister asked, placing her glass on the table, “how are you?” 

 

“Can we please talk about something else?” Ann chuckled, annoyed and nervous. 

 

“Annie--”

 

“Don’t call me that.” 

 

“Sorry. I’m sorry. Just… It must be hard, settling in. And I didn’t think you’d be coming back, just like that. Is everything alright?” 

 

“Yes. Yes, it is. I just… Gosh, there was just this… this guy--”

 

“Ohmygod” Catherine sat up, bursting, and placed her hand on Ann’s thigh.

 

“No! No, nothing like that” Ann was quick to cut their curiosity off, “just this stupid… bloke from Bristol. He came to live at the boarding house we were in, and he made a move on me.” 

 

“Well? How did it go?” Delia cocked her head. Ann frowned.

 

“I left.” 

 

The silence was almost unbearable. Then, Elizabeth sighed and tossed her head back.

 

“Oh my god, Ann…” she muttered, rubbing her temples. 

 

“What?” Ann was puzzled and frankly a bit hurt. 

 

“You can’t just… drop things off like that! Come on, he was just hitting on you. What’s the harm?”

 

“Well, I didn’t like him!” 

 

“Sounds like you didn’t really get to know him in the first place” Catherine muttered. 

 

“I’m sorry!” Ann was flabbergasted, “he was annoying, self-centred, rude, ill-mannered and he definitely groped me, so I’m sorry if that did not impress me in the slightest!”

 

“You didn’t say he groped you.”

 

“Well, I did just now. What?” she looked at them all, “you didn’t expect me to come back with a husband, did you?”

 

“Well, I honestly thought you’d found someone” Delia spoke quite innocently, “I mean, why else would you spend two years--”

 

“Because I liked it there!” Ann gasped, “good god, you’re just like the rest of them. I should’ve just kicked him in the nuts and tossed him out and stayed there…”

 

“No, Ann, come on” Catherine took her hand, “we just want you to be happy, is all. You’ve got this big house all to yourself. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a man around?” 

 

“Well…” Ann swayed her head to the side, “there is… a man who’s recently found his way to my heart.” 

 

“Ohmygod” Cathering blurted again and Delia gasped.

 

“It’s the puppy” Elizabeth mused dryly, “don’t get your hopes up.” Ann smirked and turned to scratch Jack, who slowly woke up and found his way to Ann’s lap. 

 

“Don’t underestimate him” Ann mumbled, caressing his silky hair, “he’s been pivotal in my recovery from returning home.” 

 

“How long have you had him here?”

 

“Oh, no, he’s not been staying. He’s just here for the weekend, it’s an exception. Marian, our neighbour, asked me to take care of him, while Anne’s out of town--”

 

“Oh, wait-- Marian? Marian Lister?” Elizabeth sat up, “is this the Listers’ dog?”

 

“Yes” Ann picked Jack up and allowed him to lick her face, “this is Anne’s dog. She’s been kind enough to come around with him to see how I’m doing.” 

 

“Oh.”

 

“Anne Lister?”

 

“Anne Lister’s been here?” Elizabeth frowned, “God, that was a while since,” She remembered the punk looking, short-haired arrogant, but charismatic woman vividly, “What’s she up to these days, then?”

 

Ann shrugged. 

 

“Writes her blog, I suppose. I haven’t really asked.” 

 

“When was she here?” Elizabeth continued. 

 

“Hmm, today’s Friday…” Ann thought for a moment, “everyday except last Thursday. We went for a walk in Shibden Valley then.”

 

“Oh. You’ve become friends then?” Elizabeth glanced at Catherine and Delia slightly awkwardly. 

 

“Well, sort of. She’s nice. And then there’s Jack” Ann smiled at the dog besotted. 

 

“You…,“ Cathering spoke, her tone reserved, “do know what people say about her?”

 

Ann frowned and shook her head.

 

“No,” she said quite earnestly, “what do people say about her?”

 

Catherine lifted her chin a bit cockily. 

 

“That she’d flirt with a door frame if it wore a skirt.” 

 

Delia chortled to her wine. Ann looked at her cousin unimpressed.

 

“Oh, you mean she’s a lesbian?” Ann cocked her head, “just so you know, it isn’t contagious, if that’s what you’re afraid of.”

 

“No” Catherine insisted, “I mean she’s a skirt chaser.”

 

“Well, good thing I’m not wearing one, then” Ann was sour. 

 

“Ann, I didn’t mean--”

 

“You know, she’s nice” Ann snapped, “she’s been nice to me. She’s been kind. We’re friends and that’s that. I’m not a lesbian. And she’s not interested in me.”

 

“So she hasn’t tried to--” Catherine pressed on, blushing now. 

 

“God no!” Ann wrinkled her nose, “No, she wouldn’t. She’s not like that. At all. She’s been nothing but kind, civil and helpful to me since I got back, which is a lot more than I can say for a bunch of other people much closer to me.” 

 

“Well, that’s good, then” her sister butted in to cool Ann down, “we’re happy you’ve made a friend. And a celebrity too. Bit of a B list one, but still” she remarked and made their cousins chuckle. 

 

“That’s not why I’m friends with her!”

 

“Oh, good. Must be terrible, the parties she gets invited to.” 

 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, will you knock it off? You don’t even know her, the lot of you. If you did, you wouldn’t be saying any of this--”

 

“Why are you getting so upset?” Elizabeth smirked. 

 

“Because you’re making fun of my friend!”

 

“I think you like her.”

 

“Oh, come on” Ann sighed and rolled her eyes. The rest of the party was quiet. 

 

“What?” Ann retorted, “I don’t like her!”

 

“Are you into girls, Annie?” Elizabeth teased her and Ann knew it, but it got under her skin. 

 

“Don’t call me that. And yeah, what if I was, hmm? What are you going to do about it?” Ann was trying to get a hold of the situation.

 

Elizabeth tossed her hands up in the air, spilling some wine.

 

“Oh, no, not me. But I bet Anne Lister could come up with something.”

 

They all burst into giggles, even Ann, who, embarrassed, buried her face in her hands.

 

*** 

 

Anne returned upstairs, definitely tipsy, verging on drunk. The dinner had been fun enough, and they’d sat out on the patio, enjoying the warmth emanating from the massive fire pit, smoking. At some point during the course of the evening, Charles had disappeared for a moment (presumably having gone after his housekeeper), and Anne had allowed Mariana to undo her tie and open the top two buttons of her shirt, before she’d felt prying, albeit intoxicated, eyes on the two of them. Charles had returned just a moment after Mariana’s hands had left Anne (presumably not having found said housekeeper), and had become overly fond of his wife all of a sudden. Anne, feeling the headache of champagne and one too many cigarettes seeping in, had excused herself, and was now on her way to her bedroom, when she noticed a figure by a door two doors down the hallway from her door. 

 

“Nantz” she greeted her, slightly shocked at how coarse her own voice was as a result of drinking, smoking and loud speaking. 

 

“Retiring already?” Mariana’s older sister asked her. Nanzt was already in her nighties, her dressing robe wrapped around her tightly. Lawton could be chilly, even in late spring. 

 

“Yes. I’d rather sleep in a bed than on a patio chair.”

 

“I thought you’d be with her tonight.” There was a slight challenge in her tone. 

 

“No” Anne shook her head, hazy, “not tonight.”

 

“But you are still sleeping with my sister?” Ah. There was the challenge. 

 

“Occasionally” Anne replied, tossing her head back a bit, smirking. Nantz chuckled and shook her head. 

 

“It’s good to see you.”

 

“It’s good to see you too, Nantz.”

 

“Won’t you come in a minute? I do love a late night chat with you.” 

 

“Oh? Just a chat?” Anne inquired, raising a brow. Nanzt sighed and clicked her tongue. 

 

“Yes, just a chat this time.” She opened her door and held her hand out to Anne. Anne came to her and allowed Nantz to take her hand. Nantz’s room was slightly smaller than Anne’s, and it didn’t have an en suite bathroom (something which Anne never requested but Mariana always provided her, likely in hope of a possible make out in the shower), but it did have a fireplace, and Anne felt the warmth soon on her face. Languidly, she took off her blazer and quite brazenly tossed herself on Nantz’s bed and made herself comfortable. 

 

“Water?” Nantz asked. Anne noticed a jug of water on the bedside table and envied Nantz’s solid preparations for a hangover. 

 

“Please. I have a feeling I’ll be in dire need of it in an hour or two.”

 

“Looks like it, darling” Nantz mused and handed her a glass, before sitting down next to Anne, leaning back against the headboard. 

 

“You know” Anne spoke, having gulped the water in a few seconds, “some years back I would’ve asked for whisky instead.” Nantz chuckled and shook her head. 

 

“Has been a bit longer than some years.” 

 

Anne smirked and reached to place the glass on the bedside table. 

 

“Has.” 

 

“I read your blog” Nantz spoke after a silence.

 

“It seems people do” Anne replied, closing her eyes. 

 

“How are you?” Nantz took Anne’s hand. The question surprised Anne, and suddenly in her drunken state, she was quite unable to hold her emotions back as well as she would’ve sober. She squeezed Nantz’s hand gingerly and sighed. 

 

“D’you know, I wouldn’t lie if I said I’ve been better” she managed to croak. Nantz caressed the back of her hand with her thumb gently.

 

“I’m sure you wouldn’t.” Silence fell over them. Anne sniffed and tossed her head back, hitting the headboard. 

 

“Goddammit--” she cussed and her hand flew to cover the back of her head.

 

“Careful, love--”

 

“Nah, I’m alright.” Anne shook her head lightly and bit her lip before she spoke again.

 

“You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Break-ups.” 

 

“One never is.”

 

“You’ve had any recently?”

 

“Break-ups or people?”

 

“I think the second usually is a prerequisite for the first to occur.” 

 

Nantz smirked at Anne’s quick, clever tongue. 

 

“Neither for a while. Life is much more tranquil without, I find.”

 

“I should agree,” Anne admitted with a sigh, “but before long I’m head over heels with some girl again, dragging myself into yet another joke of a relationship.”

 

“You’ll find someone. I know you will.”

 

Anne sighed in frustration and lifted her hand that was in Nantz's. 

 

“It’s not that I don’t find people” she muttered, her eyes now on their hands, “it’s that… no one seems to stick around for long.” 

 

“Well, perhaps” Nantz spoke, and the pregnant pause she took told Anne she wished to place her next words very carefully, “perhaps you’ve got some baggage you’ve been dragging with you.”

 

“Like what?” Anne was drunk and thus even more easily annoyed by people poking into her personal matters. Nantz didn’t need to say anything; she just waved her hand around. Anne crumbled under her observation and closed her eyes again. 

 

“Have you asked her to marry you again?” Nantz whispered. 

 

“Today last” Anne barked, bitter and disappointed in herself. 

 

“Oh, Anne…” 

 

“Stop. Stop, I don’t need that.” 

 

“I’m not sorry for you… Well, I am. But…” Nantz took a moment to consider, “not because I think you’re a fool.”

 

“I am a fool.”

 

“No, I just… You’re not. Can’t say I haven’t wondered how you make it work--”

 

“We don’t” Anne spat, brutally honest about her relationship to Mariana, “it’s a day here, another there, promises of maybe more days in the future.” Nantz didn’t say anything and Anne knew she was silently trying to encourage her to continue. 

 

“It’s not…” Anne stuttered, “It’s not baggage I choose to take with me.” 

 

“No” Nantz agreed. She lifted her arm and put it around Anne, and Anne didn’t refuse her. They were quiet again, Anne rested against Nantz’s shoulder and let her eyes grow dry and tired at the flicker of the fire across the room. They were both alerted, when her phone buzzed. Frowning, Anne took it out. When she saw who the sender of the message was, a smile crept on her face. 

 

“Well” Nantz nudged her head, “who’s the girl that makes you smile?”

 

Anne chuckled and shook her head. 

 

“Just my neighbour. She’s taking care of my dog for the weekend. Just letting me know how he’s been.” She locked the screen and didn’t read the message just now, but instead sat up and slid off the bed and onto her feet. Nantz handed her her blazer. Anne smiled ruefully at her, but smirked then, and took the blazer.

 

“You’ve known me for 20 years” she spoke and tossed the blazer over her shoulder.

 

“I have. It’s a friendship I’ve not regretted” Nantz cocked her head and smiled tired. 

 

“Me neither. How can I thank you for…” Anne signalled vaguely with her hand, ”I don’t know. Listening. Friendship.” 

 

“No need.” 

 

“You sure?” 

 

Nantz nodded. 

 

“Good night then” Anne smirked and turned.

 

“Well” she heard Nantz, and stopped on her tracks, “you could kiss me good night.” 

 

Anne grinned at her words and ran her thumb over her lips before she turned and walked back to the bed. Tenderly, she took Nantz’s chin and pulled her into a soft, deep kiss. She let it go on for a tad longer, and when they parted, she enjoyed Nantz’s warm breath against her lips. 

 

“Good night” she smiled, their lips barely parted. 

 

“Good night” Nantz replied somewhat laboriously, which widened Anne’s grin. She pecked Nantz once more, before she pulled back, turned and walked to the door. She stood by the door for a second and turned once more to face the room. Nantz sat on the bed looking a bit helpless.

 

“Sleep well” Anne wished her, and as Nantz only seemed able to nod in response, Anne stepped to the hallway and closed the door after her.

 

When she got to her room, she impatiently tossed her blazer on her bag on the floor, and dug out her phone. 

 

Ann Walker

Good night xx

 

Ann Walker

Sent a picture

 

Anne opened her phone. The picture was Jack curled up in his little bed. Anne smiled faintly. 



He seems comfortable.

Thanks again.

Good night xx

 

Anne was ready to call it a day, when she saw Ann Walker typing again. 

 

No trouble at all

They all loved him

I hope you had a good evening 

 

Good enough.

He must’ve loved being the centre of attention.

Don’t pamper him too much.

 

I don’t make promises I can’t keep

 

Didn’t you just say you’d bribe me today?

 

I still very much intend to

He’s my dream guy

I’ll do whatever it takes to win him over

 

True love, I see.

I think you’ve won him over already.

Now you just need to win me.

 

I said I’d do whatever it takes

I will win you over

 

Still can’t fat on how.

Fathom.

 

I’ve got until Sunday

I’ll figure something out

 

A little something won’t do

He’s my boy

And I’ve got big plans for him

 

Oh is that so

Yes.

He won’t come lightly.

 

Well I guess I’ll just have to ask your sister

 

She’s got no authority whatsoever over him.

 

Not for the dog! :D

The bribery

She must know what you like

 

She knows how to irk me.

You’ll have to pull some trick to win this one.

 

I’m confident

 

Why? You’ve known me for a week.



Well, perhaps you shouldn’t pour your life into a blog

Post stuff online, it stays there forever you know

I’ll just rummage through your archives

I’m bound to find something

 

Thanks for the heads up.

The archives will be unavailable from tomorrow onwards.

 

Good one

But I’ve got all night

Sleep well (I sincerely hope you do)

 

Anne chuckled out loud. She was still by the door, resting against it, trying to think what to type back. Her autocorrect was saving her admirably from too many drunken typos.

 

Fair enough.

Still 

If I were you, I’d prepare for a negotiation on Sunday.

 

See?

Now you’re already willing to negotiate

I told ya

I know what I’m doing

 

Touché.

Sleep well.

 

You too

 

Anne smirked and tossed her phone on the bed before starting to undress. Thirsty, she drank greedily from the tap before brushing her teeth, her head clearing enough for her to get some sleep. Knackered, she crawled under the duvet naked. Her notebook was still open on the bedside table. Hazy, she reached for it and read through her last lines from earlier. She grabbed her pen and propped herself up on her elbows to jot down a few notes of the evening.

 

Gooish . Gooish. Goodish party. M-- with C-- tonight. Chat with Nantz. Kissd her goodnigt. Miss W-- texting. Seems keen enogh. 

 

She tossed the book and pen back on the table, pulled the lush pillow to her and curled up, fast asleep as soon as she closed her eyes.



Chapter Text

Anne woke up, when another weight landed softly on the bed next to her. She frowned and just barely opened her eyes. The room was light and she foggily remembered she had not drawn the curtains. Her head ached, but not as badly as she had predicted last night. She felt a soft touch on her bare back. 

 

“Morning, Freddy.”

 

Anne smirked content and closed her eyes for a moment.

 

“How on earth are you up before me?” she mumbled and turned on her back, now facing Mariana, who sat on the edge of her bed, her hand now on Anne’s stomach. 

 

“I know you like to sleep naked after a night out” Mariana purred, “I came to enjoy the view.” 

 

Anne scoffed, but couldn’t help smiling. She scooted over and lifted her arm, allowing Mariana to crawl in. 

 

“I brought you breakfast” Mary muttered as she settled next to Anne, resting her head on Anne’s chest. Anne glanced over and on the bedside table, there was a small breakfast tray. 

 

“Goodness, Mary. What’s gotten into you?”

 

“I would’ve wanted to come to you last night.” Mary caressed Anne gingerly.

 

“I’m glad you didn’t. I was hammered.”

 

“You left early” Mary spoke and Anne imagined she could detect a hint of disappointment and pouting in her tone. She didn’t say anything in reply, but just pressed a kiss on Mary’s hair. 

 

“Sleep well?” Anne asked, running her hand down Mary’s back, stopping on the small of her back. Mary chuckled dryly.

 

“No. Charles was snoring throughout. I should’ve come up with you.” 

 

“You’re here now. What time is it?”

 

“Bit to eight.”

 

“Mhh. I’m getting up” Anne grunted and sought to move. Mary rolled over her. 

 

“Not just yet” she cupped Anne’s cheek and pressed a kiss on the corner of her mouth.

 

“Is that so?”

 

“Mhh. Yes.” 

 

“That’s likely” Anne barely gave Mary a warning, before grabbing her and rolling her over. Mary shrieked, and Anne chuckled mischievously, ending on top of Mary. 

 

Nantz stopped on her way down the hallway. The door to Anne’s room was ajar, and she could hear Anne’s chuckle and her sister’s shrieks and giggles. A plaintive look crossed her face, before she turned away and made her way downstairs. 



***

Ann Walker had resolutely decided that she would not let Jack in the bed, no matter what. She had been stubborn, when Jack had whimpered next to her bed; she’d just put her hand over the edge of her bed, letting him sniff and lick it to know that he wasn’t alone. She had been steadfast, when he’d started to nibble at her hand, howling miserably in between. She had been adamant, when he’d jumped against her bed, barked, dashed around the room and scratched at the door. 

 

Eventually, she figured, she must’ve given in in her sleep deprived state, and allowed him on the bed, for she now woke up to him whimpering in his sleep, curled up next to her on a pillow. She knew she could’ve slept better without him here, but she couldn’t help smiling at the sight of him. 

 

“I bet you 50 quid you’re not allowed in bed at home” she mumbled and propped herself up on her elbows. The rustling of the sheets awoke Jack, who stretched and yawned, before crawling to her, wagging his silly little tail sleepily. Ann picked him up and swiftly got out of bed, grabbing her dressing gown with her.

 

“I know you need to go” she muttered as she stepped to the hallway as quietly as she could, “please hold on for one more minute.” Jack didn’t seem to mind being carried, and he was heavy and sluggish still. Ann hurried downstairs and to the back garden, where she gingerly put him on the grass. He took a few slow steps and hid behind a bush to do his business. 

Ann sighed and rubbed her temples. She hadn’t checked the time, but the sun was high, so it must’ve been well into the morning. It was still chilly and she quickly wrapped on her dressing gown. The early morning fog had cleared, but the sun was not yet high enough to have dried the dew on the grass, so when Jack jumped against her leg, she jolted at his cool, wet paws on her skin. 

 

“Full awake, now, are we?” she was sour, but only for a split second, before she crouched and scratched the excited puppy behind his ears,”I’ll get a cuppa, and then we’ll walk through the garden. Mhh. Yes, we will. And you can jump and run to your heart’s content--” Jack jumped and sought to lick her face. Ann was caught off guard and tumbled down.

 

“Oh, if you jump like that, I’ll have to consider giving you back” she grunted as she pushed back up on her feet. Jack didn’t seem to care; he dashed back inside, up the stairs, slipped and slid face first to the sun room glass door. 

 

“Oh!” Ann gasped, but as he recovered in about half a second and continued his dash as soon as Ann opened the double doors for him, she reckoned there was not too much to worry about. He didn’t venture far without Ann by his side, and so they crossed the living room and the hallway together to the kitchen.

 

Ann made sure he had his breakfast, while she was waiting for the kettle to boil. Her sister and cousins were apparently still asleep, and as Ann looked at the time on the microwave clock, she couldn’t blame them.

 

“Half past seven?” she spoke to Jack, who had sat down next to his bowl expectantly, despite just having had his food, “you don’t think you could give me another hour or two?” she crouched down to pet him, but he jumped at her.

 

“Didn’t think so” Ann sighed and went to get her mug, as the kettle popped. 



***

 

Good, long sesh with M-- this morning. She brought breakfast to bed, which last happened when I had the flu 15 years ago. Very happy and moved by the gesture, and gave her all the love I had. She called me ‘husband’ which made me feel very odd and heavy in the heart. She acts as if on the fence about us, which I know not to be the case; her conduct here and in London two weeks back tells me I’m not the first thing on her mind, ever. M-- & C-- out to play golf with everyone else - only Nantz and myself at the house. Walked with her around the pond and to the church. Bored out of our wits, still no one at home by 3pm. Light lunch in the garden, played two rounds of casino (I lost both). Miss W-- texted me last night. She is certainly peculiar, and I’m more intrigued than I care to admit. It could be she’s only looking for a way to pass the time as well, but she is timid and takes her time to warm up to me whenever we meet, so I know not what to make of it. My instinct tells me to take it slow; whatever it turns out to be, at least I will have had some company while at Shibden. Kissed Nantz again when we got in. Thought about joining her in the shower, but then stayed writing. Whatever the case with M-- may be, it has never done me good to go behind her back too much. 

 

Her phone buzzed and she sighed annoyed, tossing her pen on the desk. 

 

Marian Blister

Wtf Anne

 

Marian Blister

Are you shagging Ann Walker?

 

Marian Blister

You’ve known her for a week!

 

Anne scoffed, frowning in confusion, and hurried to reply.



No

What the fuck Marian

Where’s this coming from?

And for the record

A week is a long time

For casual sex



Oh for fuck’s sakes

 

Exactly

 

Alright then why’s she texting me

Asking what’s your favourite food

??

 

What?

How would I know?

Ah

Wait

 

I KNEW IT

 

Not shagging her

She’s trying to bribe me



I’m going to tell her

That no one

Absolutely no one needs to bribe you

For sex



A bit desperate there are we?

Make it about sex all you like, Marian

She wants the puppy

And she’s trying to bribe me



Wtf

Jack?

For real?



I don’t know

I think she’s messing with me

But it’s fun

You didn’t tell her

Did you?



I will now

 

What?

Why?

 

Because it’s a joy

To see someone mess with you

Frankly I’ll pay her

If she does it well



You don’t even know

What my favourite food is

 

You think I don’t know you

 

You don’t

 

I was going to embarrass you

And say it’s naked ladies or smth

But then I told her 

Bread and butter pudding

 

What

You didn’t

 

I remember, idiot

You were a sucker for bread and butter pudding

Auntie use to make it all the time

For you



Well fine

No matter

She probably doesn’t know how to make bread and butter pudding



Fingers crossed she does

I’d love to see you struggle

You’re not giving him away tho

Are you?

 

Of course not

Don’t be stupid

I’m taking him shooting

Once he grows up

Pudding is not the deal breaker here

 

What is, then?

 

Nothing. I’m not giving up my dog.

 

Our dog.

 

Oh, yes, of course

Because you are so pivotal to his training.

 

Pivotal enough to find someone

to look after him while you vanish

after 3 hours at home as usual

I didn’t know you had on-call duty this weekend



I told you literally a minute before you left



Too little too late

And he’s happy with Miss Walker

How’s work?

 

Quiet

For now

yes she told me

Can I have some of the pudding?

If she decides to bribe you with it



Depends.

If it’s shit you can have all of it



Wow

So kind

You’re a good person

Asshole

 

Quit whining

It’s me she’s trying to bribe

So it’s my call

Knobhead

 

Get home in time tomorrow

 

Define in time

 

Tea latest

You’ll have to cook

I’ll be at work

 

Fine.

See you

 

See you

 

***

 

After a serious battle of rock-paper-scissors, Ann Walker was happy to slump down on her divan and watch her cousins slouch back inside to cook dinner. Elizabeth, who’d prepared most of their brunch earlier, accompanied her, and they languidly took turns tossing the still over excited puppy his tennis ball. They’d dragged the divan, two rattan chairs and an old sunbed from the garage out on the patio. Ann and her sister had barely been able to move the divan the two of them; it escaped Ann how Anne Lister had managed it on her own. Jack came to her and dropped the ball, but when Ann tried to reach it, he jumped at it, barking, and took it, seemingly unable to decide if he wanted to keep it or Ann to play with him.

 

“He’s been like that ever since we got up” Ann bemoaned, “do you think he’s ever going to calm down?”

 

“Eventually. I bet any minute now he’s just gonna stop and fall asleep mid jump” Elizabeth sat back in the rattan chair and sipped her wine.

 

“Suppose. On the other hand, if he tires himself out now, that might mean a good night’s sleep for me.” Ann took the ball and tossed it as far as she could partially lying down with a glass in her hand.

 

“Doesn’t work like that” Elizabeth marked dryly, “trust me, I’ve tried. There’s always a backup reserve of energy they’ve got stored somewhere. Especially handy when it’s bedtime.”

 

“Are you tired?”

 

“Beyond reason sometimes” her sister admitted, “but I’ve learned to nap when they do. It’s just… George has recently gotten madly jealous of his sister and he’s behaving like an absolute baby trying to get my attention.”

 

“D’you know, I do think you should’ve thought twice before calling your son the same as your husband” Ann was amused and Elizabeth chuckled. 

 

“There’s not much difference to their behaviour, to be honest” she smirked somewhat annoyed, “well, no, that’s mean, but…”

 

“Mhh, I get it.”

 

Elizabeth sipped her wine again and pulled her wide brim straw hat over her face.

 

“I came here to rest and now I’m hung over.”

 

“You’re welcomed to stay until it passes.”

 

“I don’t think it will,” Elizabeth mused, “not until well into tomorrow, anyway.”

 

“What time’s your train?” 

 

“I don’t want to think about that right now.” 

 

“Right. Sorry. Just tell me, I’ll drop you off at the station.”

 

“Thanks. Wasn’t looking forward to a walk from here anyway. What time’s your friend picking up her dog?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Hmm. Would be nice to see her. Anne Lister. I’m quite curious.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Well, you know” Elizabeth tossed her head back, “she’s got a bit of a name to herself. I wonder what she’s been up to.”

 

“Don’t you read her blog?”

 

“What reason would I have to read her blog?” Elizabeth huffed amused.

 

“If you’re so curious” Ann shot back.

 

“I take it you do, then” Elizabeth straightened her back a bit and lowered her shades,”local Anne Lister expert and enthusiast Ann Walker, what can you tell us about Miss Lister’s latest undertakings?” 

 

Ann calmly gave her sister the fingers.

 

“Enthusiast? Really?” Ann spoke, jaded.

 

“You wouldn’t shut up about her, after she came here, when mum died--”

 

“I was 18. And she was nice to us. No one else really was--”

 

“Save for auntie.”

 

“Save for auntie.”

 

“Well?” Elizabeth cocked her head.

 

“I’m not going to gossip. You can read it yourself.”

 

“If it’s out in a blog, it’s hardly gossiping. Summarizing, I’d say.”

 

“Well, she broke up with her girlfriend recently.”

 

“Oh” was all Elizabeth said. She leaned back in her chair again, “sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? A woman having a girlfriend. I mean, nothing wrong with it, obviously” she hurried and waved her hand dismissively, “just… sounds a bit odd, still, to me.”

 

“I suppose” Ann muttered listlessly, retreating. 

 

“Would be interesting to see her. I don’t really know anyone else.”

 

“What’d you mean?” Ann shook her head, a bit lost.

 

“Anyone gay” her sister spoke quite nonchalantly. 

 

“Why would you need to?” Ann frowned, utterly confused now.

 

“You know. I’m just curious” Elizabeth shrugged, “to see what they’re like. Do you think they’re okay in the kitchen, those two?” She changed the subject and looked back behind her shoulder. Ann drew a shaky breath and blinked in confusion.

 

“I’ll go check on them” she muttered and got up.



***

 

Anne had perhaps foolishly thought that a weekend at Lawton would mean hours alone with Mariana, while Charles busied himself with golf, socializing at the golf clubs or his housekeeper. In reality, it had turned out to be hours of watching Mariana entertain their guests with Charles, hardly leaving his side this evening, and Anne couldn’t quite fathom why Mariana had invited her here in the first place. She wasn’t lonely, and certainly not bored like she’d told Anne. No, Mariana was in her element, and Anne bitterly mused that perhaps she took some satisfaction in glancing at Anne’s direction every now and then, a content smirk on her lips if she caught Anne watching. 

 

“Uhm, Miss Lister?” Anne jolted as her name was called. One of the guests, a middle-aged man who reeked of self-hyped importance smiled at her, “Mrs Lawton tells me you are quite the hiker.”

 

“Ah. Yes, somewhat.”

 

“You haven’t walked the Pennine Way, have you?” he continued, a notch of challenge in his tone. Anne scanned him from head to toe. His jacket fit him ill, and his baby pink polo shirt was obscenely tight around this stomach. Anne could detect a sweat stain on his collar.

 

“I have” Anne spoke quite curtly. Being civil took some effort in her annoyed state. 

 

“What, all of it?” he frowned and pulled his head back a bit, smirking puzzled. Anne got the hint he didn’t believe her. 

 

“Yes. All of it” she replied, “one summer some ten years ago. Why?”

 

“Well” he tilted his head and smiled proudly, “I’m planning on hiking it, a part of it at least, this summer.” 

 

Anne was about to give him a hearty scoff in reply, but her phone buzzed in her pocket. 

 

“Really? How thrilling for you” she smiled, piqued, “excuse me.” She took out her phone and turned, walking out to the back garden. 



Ann Walker

I can see the archives are still in place

 

Anne grinned and took a seat around the fire pit, happy to find the back garden deserted of other guests so early in the evening.



I happen to know they were of no use to you.

You went directly to my sister.



Doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying going through your archives

First ever post

“Laws of lesbianism”

Amusing, I’d venture to say

 

My god

Is that still there?

Apologies.

 

Why? I think it’s clever

 

It was clever 20 years ago.

It’s nostalgic at best.

And offensive and hidebound at worst.

 

I can’t really say

Do you really

Really

Honestly like

Bread and butter pudding

 

Yes. 

Why?

You think it’s disgusting, don’t you?

 

No, I think it’s adorable

 

What, pudding?

 

No :D

You liking it

 

Why?

 

It’s such a kiddie thing

Our nanny used to make it

 

My aunt used to make it for me.

 

She doesn’t anymore?

 

I think she would if I asked her.

But I’ve not got the nerve to.

 

So it’s been a while?

Since you’ve had it?

 

Yes.

 

Gosh

Puts the pressure on me

I’ve got to put my heart into it

 

It better be out of this world.

Absolutely divine pudding.

Or I won’t even start negotiating.

 

Oh it will be

And really

As a dog owner

Could you bear to see him sad?

 

What’d you mean?

 

Well see for yourself

He’s head over heels with me

My sister took this earlier today

 

Anne waited impatiently, when an icon of a video popped onto the conversation and started loading. Soon, she could see Ann sitting on the grass, tossing a tennis ball, Jack storming after it and returning to her, jumping on her lap, licking her face as she giggled and petted him. Anne played the video three times. It was fun to see Jack so happy, and Miss Walker too. And she had nice legs. 

 

You are making me the monster here.

While, in reality, it was my sister who set up this scheme.

I just happened to be out of town this weekend.

 

Oh he took a liking to me last week

When you visited

So really that falls on you

 

Oh.

I should’ve sent him videos or called him.

So he doesn’t forget about me.

Isn’t that what people do these days?

 

Idk

Would you like to talk to him now?

I’m just taking him out now

Before dinner

 

Anne bit her lip and glanced back inside over her shoulder, before pressing the video call button. The phone rang a few times, giving her a moment to make sure she appeared presentable, before Miss Walker picked up. 

 

“Hiya” Anne could only hear Miss Walker; her camera was on Jack, who was sniffing around in the vast back garden at the Walkers’. 

 

“Hello” Anne replied, “I don’t think he gets the concept, do you?” she mused, and Miss Walker let out a giggle in response. It took a second for the camera to flip, before Anne could see Miss Walker, smiling slightly out of breath, combing through her hair. 

 

“No, I don’t think so. Oh wow, is that a suit? Must be a fancy dinner party then.” 

 

“A tad on the posh side, yes” Anne nodded and raised a brow, “hasn’t really started yet, so I escaped outside for a minute.”

 

“I’m not keeping you?”

 

“Not in the least. How are you? How’s it been, hosting your sister and cousins?”

 

“Well, first they were drunk, then hung over and now getting drunk again.”

 

Anne laughed and shook her head.

 

“And you?” she asked Miss Walker.

 

“Comfortably tipsy, I’d say. But just that. No, really, it’s been lovely. I’ve missed them so much, and we’ve just talked and had a good laugh. And Jack’s been an angel, really.”

 

“Has he now?” 

 

“Well he did wake me up last night, I think he must’ve been lonely and scared and--”

 

“You didn’t let him in t’bed, did ya?” Anne’s accent slipped for a brief second. 

 

“Of course I did! I’m not heartless!” Ann gasped and laughed in defense.

 

“What, so I am?” Anne feigned hurt.

 

“No, but… You’ve got him under your command. He’s only… What is he? 8 weeks, 9 weeks?”

 

“I wouldn’t know. Something like that.”

 

“Yeah, and he’d fly to the moon if you told him to.” 

 

Anne chuckled and got up. 

 

“Well, I take it you’ve had trouble with him. If that’s the case, I’m not sharing my secrets with you. If you want to manage him, you’ll need me on your team.”

 

“And I shall have you” Miss Walker lifted her chin and smirked confident, “My bread and butter pudding will have you pop by regularly.” 

 

“Oh? And what if I don’t take him with me?” Anne arched a brow. Miss Walker narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips.

 

“Who says you’ll have him back at yours in the first place?”

 

Anne smiled and shook her head, before flipping her camera.

 

“Fancy a tour around the place?” she asked and went around the fire pit, showing the back garden of the hall.

 

“Oh my, that’s gorgeous!” she heard Miss Walker, “are you sure I’m not keeping you?”

 

“Absolutely. There’s drinks before we start, and a sweaty middle aged real estate investor is trying to impress me with his hiking skills” Anne grimaced before she realised Miss Walker couldn’t see her. Miss Walker tittered nevertheless.

 

“God, sounds awful.”

 

“It is. So no, you’re not keeping me. On the contrary, I’ll avoid company for as long as I possibly can.”

 

“Right. Where are you again?” Miss Walker asked.

 

“Cheshire. This is Lawton. My friend, Mrs Lawton, this is her countryside home.”

 

“Oh. Looks nice.”

 

“Really? I think it’s boring. It’s too big, and polished, and drafty. But the lake’s nice. I’ll walk you.”

 

***

 

Ann slipped her phone back in her pocket, and started a saunter down the main aisle of their garden. Jack took a spurt, but suddenly stopped and barely slouched forwards; it seemed like he had finally used up his energy reserves, and was fighting to make it back to the house. Ann lifted her hands to her hair and scratched her scalp, trying to awaken herself from the mental slumber the phone call had sent her to. They’d been interrupted by someone calling out for Anne Lister, and although Ann couldn’t see a tiny Anne Lister on her phone screen any longer, whenever she closed her eyes, Anne Lister’s face appeared on her retina. Eventually she reached the patio and turned to marvel at her garden bathing in the warm early evening sunlight. She tossed the tennis ball for Jack one last time, and by now the puppy was almost too exhausted to even attempt at fetching it. 

 

“Where the hell have you been?” her dreamy bubble was burst by her sister, who stormed on the patio, looking nettled, “you’ve been gone for over an hour!”

 

Ann looked surprised and utterly oblivious to both the passage of time and any bother she may have caused to her family members.

 

“Oh, I---” she mumbled, looking back at the garden and then back to her sister again, “I was just out with Jack. We just walked around the garden.”

 

“I called you! At least twice!”

 

“Oh, I… I didn’t hear my phone…”

 

“Not on your phone, dummy” Elizabeth sighed, “I came here, and I called out, but you were nowhere to be seen. Dinner’s ready, if not cold by now. Come on, then! And don’t go missing like that again, Ann. Gives me a proper fright.”

 

“I’m sorry. I really am” Ann shook her head, lamenting. 

 

“Nah, you’re alright. Come on, get your puppy” Elizabeth hurried and turned on her heel. Ann went to Jack and picked him up, and he didn’t resist in the least. Ann took a deep breath before stepping inside. Anne Lister’s soft laugh rang in her ears.

 

***

 

Anne put her phone back in her breast pocket and raked her fingers through her hair before walking to Mariana, who was leaning against the patio door expectantly. When Anne got closer, Mariana stepped outside and came to her, gingerly taking Anne’s hand.

 

“Where’d you disappear to?” she muttered and gently pulled Anne around the corner, away from the glass doors and big windows that gave in to the garden. 

 

“Mhh” Anne replied as Mary tenderly pushed her against the wall and ran her hands down Anne’s arms, “I just fancied a short walk.” Mary hummed, smiling, and arched her neck, and Anne leaned in to kiss her. Mary caressed Anne’s cheek and smirked, when they parted.

 

“Come. Let’s get you a drink” Mary murmured. Anne shook her head.

 

“Not tonight. I need to leave early tomorrow.” 

 

Mariana pulled back and arched a brow at Anne’s words. Anne took her hands into hers and kissed them hastily, casting Mariana a jaunty smile.

 

“I have a puppy to fetch.”

Chapter Text

Johnny wasn’t allowed to go to the brook. Not alone, at least, he knew that. But dad was still up at the hall, and Johnny had walked around the place at least three times now, bored. And he had his wellies on. So he thought it’d do no one no harm if he just went for a little while. He sneaked out the back garden between the bushes dad had not yet trimmed and scurried downhill. He looked back and stopped to listen a few times, but he couldn’t hear dad calling for him, or see anyone around, so he continued and soon came to the stone bridge that crossed the brook. On his side of the brook, down the bank, he spotted someone. A boy was pulling out a big branch from the water. Johnny watched him struggle for a moment; he managed to drag it on the bank, but his foot slipped and he slid down the bank nearly all the way into the water. 

 

“Alright there?” Johnny called out to him. The boy turned to him, but didn’t respond. 

 

“D’ya need a hand with that?” Johnny asked and made his way to the boy. The boy just nodded and hurried up, before getting hold of the branch again. Johnny took a hold of it too, and after a while they managed to pull all of it on dry land.

 

“What’s that for?” Johnny asked and slumped down on the bank. The boy wiped his face to his sleeve. He looked rugged; his hair was short and all over the place, unevenly cut. His dungarees were dirty and worn and his yellow jumper was huge on him. He had bright red wellies and Johnny envied him a bit. His were grey and old.

 

“I’m building a raft” the boy replied and took off his welly boot and turned it upside down. A gush of water splashed on the stones on the ground. 

 

“Oh. To… to sail down the brook?” Johnny cocked his head. 

 

“What else?” the boy scoffed but then smiled at Johnny, “d’ya want to help?” 

 

“Yeah, alright” Johnny nodded, “I’m Johnny.”

 

“I’m Tom” the boy held out his hand and Johnny took it.

 

“Is that short for Thomas?” Johnny asked.

 

“No.” The boy turned to look at his feet and slipped his soaked boot back on. 

 

“Oh. Johnny’s short for John.”

 

“It’s longer than John.”

 

“Oh” Johnny chuckled a bit embarrassed, “blimey, you’re right. I haven’t thought about that. D’ya live here?”

 

“I live up at t’hall” Tom replied and nudged his head towards the hall. Johnny’s eyes widened.

 

“Really?” he whispered, “my dad works t’gardens. How come I haven’t seen you there before?” Tom made his way towards the water again.

 

“I moved in yesterday” he spoke as he went, picking up another branch, getting his sleeves wet til his elbows, “are ya helping or what?”

 

***



Ann felt like an absolute idiot. No, not just felt - she was an absolute idiot. She had a freshly baked bread and butter pudding on the backseat; she had a whining puppy on her lap (he had refused to sit still in his harness on the passenger’s seat); she had a sister and two cousins recovering from a hangover, still fast asleep in her house; she was driving with one hand on the wheel, one around the puppy, her mind on the pudding, praying it would remain intact throughout the short drive. 

 

The roads were quiet on a Sunday, and she thanked her stars for Jack, who’d woken her up early, and quite literally jumped on her until she’d gotten up and taken him out. Her head ached from the lack of sleep and one too many glasses of wine, but she had remembered to leave the bread out to dry for the night and had scrambled through the recipe with dignity (although adding the Baileys had made her turn her nose up somewhat). 

 

She barely managed the turn down towards Shibden Hall, as Jack jumped up and sought to lick her face.

 

“Jack, come on, darling--” she muttered and pulled him close, “we’re home in just a minute, now, calm down, love--” Jack wriggled free of her hold and stood up against the window. 

 

“Yes, home” Ann spoke to him as he looked out. Shibden Hall looked as imposing as ever, and Ann was hoping she was early enough for Anne Lister to only be on her way home. 

 

She’s had a party last night. She’s stayed up late. She wouldn’t leave her friends first thing in the morning. Would she?

 

“Good Lord, what am I doing?” she whispered as she drove through the open gates and stopped the car. She tried to hold on to Jack, but the puppy wriggled out of her hold as soon as she opened the door. 

 

“Fine, suit yourself” she sighed and got up. Jack dashed around the yard, sniffing, while Ann went to unbuckle the pudding on the backseat. 

 

Please don’t be home yet. Please don’t. Why is it that I always show up here half-dead?

 

She held the still hot oven dish firmly and slammed the car door shut. Jack had already made his way to the front door and was jumping at it eagerly.

 

“Come on, darling, no jumping, let’s not scratch the door” Ann ushered him, and looked for a doorbell, but there wasn’t one; just a huge old metal door knocker. 

 

Good god, I’ll be banging the door tomorrow still, before they hear me.

 

She lifted the knocker and gave it her best effort, surprised at the hard, deep sound it made. Perhaps these things did work. She waited for a good while, and was about to knock again, when the door opened. Ann gasped a little and put on a hasty, panicked smile. Anne Lister’s father stood at the door and looked at her openly puzzled. 

 

“Hello, sorry to bother you so early on a Sunday” Ann spoke, trying to keep the smile on as she watched his confusion turn into a frown, “I’m just here to drop off Jack--” at the mention of the dog he smiled and let out a laugh.

 

“Ah, Miss Walker! Yes, yes of course, please--- oh!” Jack dashed past him, bumping against his leg as he went.

 

“Oh my, I’m so sorry, I should’ve put him on the leash!” Ann hurried, extending her arm to help steady Anne Lister’s father. 

 

“Nonsense, he’s alright, he’s home” Anne Lister’s father chuckled, “come, come in, please. What’s that you’ve got there?” he nudged towards the oven dish Ann was holding. 

 

“Oh, I…” Ann blushed suddenly, “I made some… Bread and butter pudding. Marian told me Anne likes it.”

 

Anne Lister’s father let out an astonished laugh. 

 

“She does indeed” he closed the door and signalled Ann to continue in, “she’s not home yet, I’m afraid. Comes and goes as she pleases, Anne does.” 

 

“Oh, no, it’s fine, I don’t want to disturb you---”

 

“You haven’t, love. Come, go on, we must have a taste of it, before she gets here. There won’t be any left for the rest of us, once she gets her eyes on it” he muttered and lead the way down the corridor to the kitchen, “I can’t believe she asked you to bake for her--”

 

“Oh, she didn’t” Ann hurried, “I just--- I just wanted to thank her, for letting me have Jack. For the weekend.” It sounded like the sorriest attempt at an excuse. 

 

Anne Lister’s father turned and cast Ann a puzzled frown. 

 

“You take care of her dog, while she goes around the country, and you bake her a pudding?” he arched a brow, “are you sure that’s how gratitude works, love?” he smirked sly, and Ann giggled, biting her lip. 

 

“Anne!” Anne Lister’s father suddenly called to the house. Ann jolted; he’d just said she wasn’t home, but then she remembered that aunt Lister was also called Anne, “It’s Miss Walker with Jack! Pop the kettle on, would you?”

 

Ann followed him meekly, worrying that Jack, who had decided to tag along, would jump at him and he’d fall over. They came to the kitchen and Anne Lister’s father encouraged Ann to take a seat. Ann hadn’t paid attention to the room the last time she’d been at the hall; she’d just been guided through by Anne Lister, who’d taken her outside for fresh air. Ann felt a shiver or embarrassment and odd longing, when she thought back to Anne Lister holding her firmly by the shoulder. 

 

The room was dark even with two windows giving out to the yard. The table was sturdy and looked ancient, and Ann couldn’t remember where she’d last seen an actual bench at a kitchen table. She recalled there was another, more elegant dining table further in the hall, in the dining room adjacent to the living room where they’d sat for a brief while before Ann had nearly passed out. To Ann, the whole building was dark, secretive and slightly foreboding, a place for hibernation, where light had difficulties entering even during the brightest days. Feeling shy and awkward, Ann timidly took a seat, and regretted it almost immediately.

 

“Oh, no, please, I’ll help you set the table--” she offered, as she saw Anne Lister’s aunt busying herself with making tea and finding cups for them. 

 

“No, no, you sit, dear, nothing I couldn’t handle” Anne Lister’s aunt assured, “good to see you, love, how’ve you been?” 

 

“Oh, good. Thank you. Very well” Ann nodded and smiled shyly, unsure if she should place the pudding on the table, so she kept it on her lap. 

 

“Is that pudding ill-behaved or is there another reason you’re holding it to your heart?” Anne Lister’s father asked. 

 

“Oh, no sir--” Ann replied hastily, and the old man chuckled heartily at her accolade.

 

Fuck. Sir? Really, Ann? What are you, twelve?

 

“Please, just Jeremy. Let me get a pot coaster for you” he got up with a huff, “I for one will be sorry if you can’t part with that” he nudged towards the pudding and Ann hummed nervously. 

 

Why on Earth am I here? 

 

She placed the pudding timidly on the pot coaster Jeremy Lister had fetched for her, and folded her hands in her lap, twisting them nervously. Anne Lister’s aunt poured them tea and Ann took the creamer with shaky hands. 

 

“You’re early, love” Anne Lister’s aunt spoke and took a seat, “he hasn’t been a bother, now, has he?”

 

“Yes, no--” Ann started, but then felt tongue-tied, “n-- no, no he’s been good, really. Did wake me up a few times during the night, but otherwise just-- really lovely. It’s just-- I-- I-- I’ve got--- my sister and cousins staying over, and they’re still… packing, and I thought I just pop by here quickly. Less hassle for Jack.”

 

“Ah, I see” Anne Lister’s aunt smiled politely, but a bit reserved, “well, thank you for having him. We’d have been in a pickle with him, with Marian working for the weekend and--”

 

“And Her Highness off to wherever once again--” Jeremy Lister huffed.

 

“And Anne visiting her friend” Anne Lister’s aunt tried to correct him. 

 

“It’s a big house. She could’ve taken him” Jeremy Lister protested. 

 

“Really, he was no trouble” Ann hurried, increasingly awkward at the slightest rising argument, “we loved having him. Frankly, I’ll miss him the minute I get home” she gave them her best reassuring smile, which, judging by their confused, doubtful expressions, wasn’t reassuring in the least.

 

Oh Lord let this roof fall over me and put an end to this misery.

 

A silence fell over them and stretched on forever, before Jeremy Lister finally suggested they’d open the pudding. It smelled heavenly, when he cut it, but Ann’s stomach turned at the thought of food, so she took just a crumb and focused on getting and keeping her tea down. Ann played around with her pudding, glancing at Jeremy Lister and Anne Lister’s aunt taking a bite. 

 

“Mhh--” Anne Lister’s aunt was first to react. 

 

“Goodness” Jeremy Lister muttered, pudding still in his mouth. Ann felt a lump forming in her throat; the pudding was ruined. Perhaps it was the sultanas. Perhaps it was the Baileys. Maybe there was too much of it. Or too little. Maybe the bread had gone bad. 

 

Why do you even try? You couldn’t get it right even with the recipe glued to your face.

 

“Well” Anne Lister’s aunt bowed her head minutely, “I don’t think we’ve had pudding this good in this household.”

 

“No, I can tell you that” Jeremy Lister remarked and earned a slap on his arm from his sister.

 

“It… is it good?” Ann mumbled, astounded.

 

“Absolutely delicious, love” Jeremy Lister smirked and nodded.

 

“It’s very good, darling” Anne Lister’s aunt accompanied him, “what’d you put in it? These are sultanas?”

 

“Yes, sultanas. I soaked them, and then there’s uhm Baileys--”

 

“Baileys?” Jeremy Lister guffawed, “goodness gracious, no wonder it’s so good!”

 

“I’m sure Anne will love it, dear” Anne Lister’s aunt nodded and smiled. 

 

“Given there’s any left for her” Jeremy Lister helped himself for some more, making Anne Lister’s aunt glance at him rather murderously. 

 

After Ann no longer feared she’d embarrassed herself or poisoned the elderly Listers, she relaxed somewhat and their conversation flowed for a tad longer than she had intended to. She got up to help them clear the table and store the pudding for Anne, before she’d say bye to Jack for now. Jeremy Lister had retreated to the living room, for one of his daily naps, according to Anne Lister’s aunt. Ann set the mugs and plates to the dishwasher, and Anne Lister’s aunt gave her a container for the pudding, and once Ann had scooped it in, she turned to look for the fridge. 

 

“Just there in the far corner, darling” Anne Lister’s aunt noticed her looking around the room. Ann now spotted the fridge across the room and went around the handsome old wooden table. When she came to the fridge, curiosity took over her and she couldn’t help but scan the postcards and photographs on the fridge door. Some were fresh, but some were dated, their colours faded and lightened. A small picture at the top right corner caught her eye. 

 

“Is this… Anne?” she asked and stepped closer, her fingers gently brushing the curled up corners of an old photograph. Of course it was Anne; she was very recognizable, but the setting amused Ann. Anne Lister was maybe 11, 12, grinning at the camera, standing next to another child about her age, holding them by the shoulder. She was wearing a tweed jacket and breeks, her boots were muddy up to her calves, and she’d taken her cap off. Her hair was short, reaching her cheekbones, and it looked wavy and a bit frizzy. Ann squinted and cocked her head; did Anne Lister have braces? 

 

“Where…? Oh” Ann heard Anne Lister’s aunt, “yes, yes that’s my--- our Anne. First time her uncle took her shooting. That’s Johnny-- John Booth, a local boy. They became inseparable when Anne moved here. What are they… 12, maybe? He works the gardens here now, John, with his brother.” 

 

“Moved here?” Ann turned to look at Anne Lister’s aunt, “I thought… I thought this was her childhood home?”

 

Anne Lister’s aunt sighed. 

 

“It is, and isn’t. She was born here in Halifax, and they lived here for the first two years of her life, Jeremy and Rebecca, Anne’s mother, but then they moved to Rebecca’s home in Market Weighton. It’s roughly an hour’s drive west.” Ann nodded and turned back to look at the picture. Anne Lister looked like she was about to burst with joy. 

 

“Anne came to live with us, my brother James and I, when she was 9--”

 

“What, alone?” Ann shook her head, frowning. 

 

“Yes. Their home in Market Weighton wasn’t a big house, and I guess Anne felt more at home here” Anne Lister’s aunt tried to sound nonchalant about the matter. The fact had Ann’s guts turn cold. She’d had an… interesting relationship with her parents, for sure, but she could never have left her sister and little brother, no matter the home she’d be going to. 

 

“She looks happy” Ann nodded, her eyes still on the picture. 

 

“Oh, she was. She was happy here. And we were, so much life in the house, suddenly! Of course they visited her, almost every weekend they came. Sam was always bawling his eyes out, when they’d leave and Anne would still stay here” Anne Lister’s aunt continued, “Anne’s little brother. They were very close, much closer than Anne and Marian have ever been.” Ann turned to look at Anne Lister’s aunt again. 

 

“What happened?” she asked, although she realised as soon as the words had left her lips that it was terribly nosy. 

 

“He died,” Anne Lister’s aunt said plainly and conclusively.

 

“Oh!” Ann gasped and covered her mouth, “oh, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry--”

 

“Don’t worry, dear” Anne Lister’s aunt smiled sadly, “It was 20 years ago.” 

 

Ann nodded and looked down. She hadn’t known Anne Lister had also lost a little brother. Anne Lister hadn’t mentioned it. Ann hadn’t mentioned John, either, not really. Just briefly, once. Ann didn’t know what to say, so she just shook her head minutely and drew a deep breath. 

 

“I should get going. My sister and cousins must be up by now, and I wouldn’t want to worry them.”

 

“You go home, love. Thank you for dropping him home, and thank you for a delicious pudding. That’ll sustain her for a while, trust me” Anne Lister’s aunt mused. 

 

“I’m glad. Thank you for tea, and sorry to have bothered you, Miss Lister--”

 

“Not at all, love. I’m most grateful to you.”

 

“What for?” Ann cocked her head, genuinely puzzled.

 

Wasn’t that good a pudding, surely.

 

“She’s been happy. Out and about. More herself, and I gather she’s spent the last week or so with you.” 

 

“Oh” was all Ann could manage. It was true, but she could never have imagined the time they’d spent together would have any kind of an effect on Anne Lister, “well, yes, it’s been nice. Refreshing to have someone to talk to who isn’t trying to find me a purpose or a husband.” 

 

Anne Lister’s aunt chuckled.

 

“The latter will never be on Anne’s agenda, I can assure you.”

 

***

 

Anne Lister pushed the front door open with her elbow, her overnight bag tossed over her shoulder, the takeout dinner in the other hand, and kicked off her Chelsea boots. 

 

“I’m home!” she called to the house, “and so’s tea!” 

 

She dropped her bag by the bench in the hallway and strode to the kitchen, but stopped on her tracks, as an enthusiastic Jack came to greet her. 

 

“Oh.” A sudden flood of astonishment and disappointment washed over her. She’d not seen another car in the front yard. She couldn’t hear anyone but her aunt reply to her, no unfamiliar shoes by the door. Miss Walker must’ve been by to drop off Jack, then, and she’d not lingered. 

 

Anne crouched and greeted the puppy, who jumped and whined and barked in excitement.

 

“I missed you too, mate” she muttered, a smile creeping on her face in spite of the shy hollowing feeling that lingered in her chest and stomach. 

 

She got up and noticed her aunt waiting by the kitchen door. 

 

“I brought tea” Anne lifted the plastic bag and smiled a tad apologetically, “reckoned curry would do.” Her aunt shook her head.

 

“Marian won’t like it, us having takeout again.”

 

“Well I got Marian her precious vindaloo, and I’ll be delighted to tell her where she can shove her opinion about takeout when she gets home--” Anne scoffed and then went to hug her aunt. 

 

“Please don’t. It’s been a lovingly quiet weekend” her aunt pleaded and patted her niece on her back, “how was Lawton?” 

 

Anne sighed and walked past her, placing the bag on the dining table. 

 

“Crowded. They had guests over for the whole weekend” Anne furrowed her brow, “Nanzt was there and it was nice to catch up.”

 

“How was… Mariana?” her aunt asked cautiously. Anne chuckled awkwardly and turned her head. An image of Mary in her arms in the shower this morning crossed her mind and did its best to distract her. Her morning had been early indeed, but she was back home only now, barely for tea, and there were a couple of reasons for that.

 

“Busy. In her natural habitat with all their friends flocking to her” Anne slumped down on the bench and started to unpack their evening meal, “barely had a chance to talk.”

 

“What did she ask you down there for then?” her aunt sounded hurt and on the offence. Anne shrugged and tossed a box of rice on the table. 

 

“I don’t know. Didn’t bother to ask. Anyway, wasn’t half bad. The food was good and I had Nantz to keep me company. I take it Miss Walker’s been here” she nodded towards the puppy that circled her, sniffing ardently at the scents emanating from the boxes.  

 

“Yes, she came around early” her aunt fetched them plates and glasses, “said she had some family over she needed to take care of.” 

 

“Mhh” Anne nodded, thoughtful, “yes, she’s had her sister and cousin over for the weekend.” 

 

“Oh. How’d you know?”

 

“She told me last week” Anne shrugged and got up to get something to drink, “when I was there. And I called her yesterday, to check on Jack.” 

 

Her aunt was quiet and focused on opening the boxes and setting the plates. 

 

“She’s a nice girl” she then said, testing the waters, “shy, but she warms up to a conversation. She was terribly timid, when she came today, at first, but then warmed up nicely. She’s very polite and kind, and the pudding was excellent--” she jolted slightly, when Anne thumped the water jug on the table. Aunt Lister turned to look at her niece, who locked eyes with her intensely. 

 

“Where’s t’pudding?” Anne whispered.

 

***

 

The greyish-blue light of Resident Evil blinked off and on against the creamy living room walls, as Ann Walker entered the save room in the game. The familiar theme started playing as soon as the door closed, and Ann let the controller drop on the floor. She tried to keep her breathing steady, but she felt herself crumble under the sudden weight and squeezing sensation on her chest. 

 

Nothing in the old 90s game scared her anymore (they’d played it through with her siblings as kids a thousand times), but her quiet sobs emerged and echoed in the dark, empty room nevertheless. Her sister was on a train back home. Her cousins had left hours ago. Jack was-- well, Jack was home. It was so still and quiet she could hear the refrigerator humming in the kitchen on the other side of the building. 

 

One by one she’d dropped everyone off. First the puppy, then her sister and then her cousins, weirdly feeling all the while like she was ready to fight for them to stay, but also wanted them gone, wishing she’d already dealt with the pain and awkwardness of their departure. 

 

She’d not heard anything from anyone. Nothing from her cousins, although Catherine had forgotten her hoodie; nothing from Elizabeth, who’d promised to text her when she’d change trains in Edinburgh; nothing from Anne Lister about Jack (or the pudding). Harriet, with whom she’d shared a room for two whole years, and been thick as thieves for many more, had not contacted her once since she’d left Himachal Pradesh. Not even her aunt or Eliza had called, and even though she was grateful for their absence, it also highlighted her isolation and it weighed down on her crushingly. 

 

Apparently I cease to exist when I disappear from their field of vision.

 

She knew it wasn’t exactly true; in reality, she felt more like she lost all touch with life once she had no one around to reassure that the world still existed. Alone, she was just a tiny parasite, living in symbiosis with the vast house enjoying the safety it provided, in return letting it suck all life force out of her. A wave of anxiety washed over her, her skin suddenly prickling burning hot, blood rushing to her ears, her heart beating a million miles an hour. She cried out loud and buried her face in her hands, her nails digging to her scalp and cheeks. She felt the room wrap around her, a heavy, tight, black, suffocating cloth securing her in her place, unable to move, invisible to everything and everyone. Slowly, she stopped resisting, her tears flowing helplessly as she sank down to the waters of a dark pond at the back of her mind.

 

Just let me sink and never surface.

 

Somewhere, very faintly, from thousands of miles away, she heard the doorbell ring. She peeled away layer after layer of her own fogginess and bleary thoughts to reach the present moment and become alerted. Sloppy, she stumbled up from the armchair and made her away across the dark room, wiping her cheeks and her nose. The hallway was dark too, and she flicked the light on, which earned her a knock on the front door. 

 

“C-- coming” she barely whispered, her legs wobbly as she hurried to the door, grabbing her phone that was on the drawer under the big hallway mirror. She glanced at her phone. 19:50; 3 missed calls from Catherine, 2 messages from Elizabeth. Hastily, she wiped her nose and cheeks once more; she didn’t want to alert her aunt, or her cousins, in case it was them coming back for Cathy’s hoodie. 

 

Ann opened the door before she realised she was home alone and absolutely helpless, if it was someone with ill intentions. Immediately she knew she was safe, but her visitor made her feel both like she was gut punched and suddenly able to breathe again, coughing up the deep waters in her lungs. There, at the bottom of the short flight of stairs to the door, in the golden light flowing out into the darkness from the hallway of Ann’s grand home, Anne Lister beamed at her, and Ann felt life rush back into her body with an almost violent wave. She blinked and drew a shaky breath, certain that Anne Lister would disappear any second now; her sudden presence was such a stark contrast to the muddles of her mind Ann had been in just seconds ago, that Ann reasoned she had to be a mirage.

 

But there she was, still, after a few solid disbelieving blinks from Ann, combing her hair back, panting as if she’d run to Crow Nest. 

 

“It was excellent!” she declared and gestured with her hands excitedly, “best pudding I ever had. I ate the whole thing!” 

 

Ann chuckled astonished, sniffing, the choking feeling in her throat subsiding.

 

“It was a 12-person serving!” Ann gasped and didn’t know if she was to laugh or cry, and she felt like both. Anne Lister laughed heartily, her head tossed back, and Ann couldn’t help her own sobbing chuckles and giggles. Anne Lister locked eyes with her and smiled apologetically, from under her brow.

 

“Well” she then spoke, smirking, “I won’t be needing sustenance for at least a week, then.” 

 

“No” Ann agreed and nodded, unable to stop a sniff. Anne Lister frowned and drew closer, skipping up the few steps from the gravel to the door. She must’ve noticed Ann’s puffy eyes and shaky appearance, and as much as Ann wanted to deny the state she was in, she couldn’t counter Anne Lister’s concerned expression.

 

“What’s the matter?” Anne Lister asked, reaching to take Ann’s hands, not breaking eye contact with Ann, who timidly tried to avoid being examined and looked at. She sighed at Anne Lister’s touch and bowed her head, shaking it. 

 

“Nothing, it’s silly…” 

 

“By the look of you, doesn’t seem silly at all to me.” Anne Lister raised Ann’s hands a bit and arched her brow quizzically. Ann frowned and shook her head again.

 

“It’s just… I’m just a bit… It’s so quiet, suddenly” she tried, but speaking felt like gagging, “with everyone gone. It’s a big house, and it’s hard to be on my own again after having had so much life around for a change.” Anne Lister slowly let go off Ann’s hands and stepped back. 

 

“Mhh.” 

 

Ann trembled. She hadn’t realised how welcome the slight, sudden physical contact of someone holding her hand had been, and now that it retreated, she left like a lifeline snapped in front of her eyes and she slowly started to drift back towards the dark cocoon of isolation. 

 

“Would you trust me, if I told you what you need, although I’m not a doctor?” Anne Lister raised her chin, challenging. Ann’s lips trembled as she sought to reply. She couldn’t; Anne Lister stood there, evaluating her, scrutinizing her, certain to leave the minute she’d given her verdict about her. Ann only managed to nod. 

 

“Mhh?” Anne Lister pressed on. 

 

“Y--yes” Ann finally managed to breathe. 

 

“Well then” Anne Lister continued, her tone dry and eyes narrow, “Miss Walker, I think you are in dire need of a proper hug.” 

 

Ann’s titter was more a cry than a laugh. Anne Lister smirked and opened her arms. 

 

“Would you let me?” she asked, her eyes locked with Ann’s, her smile so warm Ann was sure she felt it on her skin. Ann’s eyes watered and her vision blurred, and she nodded to drop off the tears in her eyes, before looking back up. 

 

“Yes, yes of course” she tried to chuckle. 

 

“Excellent” Anne Lister spoke softly and gave Ann a radiant smile. 

 

Then, she stepped closer and wrapped her arms around Ann.

 

Ann melted in the hug. With great effort, she kept her tears at bay and just rested her chin against Anne Lister’s shoulder, shyly wrapping her own arms around Anne Lister. Ann could again catch a slight scent of menthol, but it was mixed with fresh air and physical effort, with a whiff of rosemary in Anne Lister’s hair. Anne Lister was radiating warmth, and her touch was tender, but firm and secure, and Ann fought a jolt as Anne Lister slowly caressed her back. 

 

“You’ll be alright” Anne Lister whispered barely audibly. Ann nodded and sank deeper into the hold. 

 

I’m so glad you’re here.

 

***

 

Anne didn’t quite comprehend her sudden act of kindness towards Miss Walker. Perhaps she was drained after a weekend of ebb and flow, disappointment and rekindled hope, at Lawton. Perhaps she was still unprecedentedly sore after the break-up with Vere. Perhaps she was affected by Nantz’s kind words and attentive company. None of her reasonings really hit home to her, but she noted that she had felt genuine worry and sympathy towards Miss Walker right there. Perhaps she had missed her company. No, she wouldn’t go that far - yes, she’d had fun with her so far, but she hadn’t truly missed her over a weekend. What a ridiculous idea.

 

Miss Walker saw her to the living room, and the sight made Anne chuckle in astonishment.

 

“A bit gloomy, are we?” she mused and raised a quirky brow at the sombre theme music and the bluish light the room was bathing in. Miss Walker flicked the lights on and crossed her arms. 

 

“Just a bit” she admitted, “it’s just something I like to do in the evenings, or when I can’t sleep.”

 

“Resident Evil?” Anne asked and smiled, surprised, “when we were playing this, we were absolutely shitting our pants. It certainly isn’t something I’d play to relax.”

 

Miss Walker gave a laugh and tossed her head back just a notch. She was leaning against the door frame, her arms still crossed, her messy bun partially collapsed, a few long strands of hair framing her face. Anne tried to appear to look around; she knew very well when she’d looked long enough for the other party to notice. She’d escaped Miss Walker catching her just now, but only narrowly. Perhaps one could say she was pretty.

 

“I was 8 when we played it through for the first time” Miss Walker shrugged, making Anne turn her head back to her, “I know it by heart now. Anyways, I just like shooting them. Calms me down.”

 

“Hmm” Anne smirked and nodded. 

 

“Can I get you anything? Tea?” Miss Walker asked, still standing by the door, some of her customary timidness returning to her conduct. 

 

“You wouldn’t happen to have beer?” Anne smiled and went around the sofa.

 

“Happens I have a few bottles left over from the weekend” Miss Walker replied, “I’ll be a minute.” She vanished quickly, and by now Anne had learned the signs of when she had flustered Miss Walker with just being there. Anne smirked, chuckled boastfully and grabbed the controller on the table. She saved the game and made her way to the TV stand and found an army of discs and a good selection of consoles as well. She ran her finger against the backs of the neatly stacked cases and bit her lower lip, when she came across a few good classics. Perhaps something a bit more cheerful than shooting zombies.

 

*** 

 

“D’you know, you don’t market yourself as a gamer in your blog” Ann spoke amused, as Anne Lister sat back on the sofa after another race on Gran Turismo. Anne Lister sniggered and reached for her beer. 

 

“I haven’t really played in years” she replied and sighed, “I never had a console at Shibden. I’d always play at my friend’s place. This gem, and many others.”

 

“Any favourites?” Ann asked and reached for more popcorn, only to find the bag empty. Anne Lister had apparently destroyed it. 

 

“Well” Anne Lister looked at her, smirking smugly, “I see that you are feeling better, and I hate to have to bring your mood down, but” she sprung up with a slight huff, “I was hoping you’d join me in a fine battle of Tekken 3.” Ann bit her lip, when Anne Lister crouched in front of the TV stand and searched for the game.

 

“Oh, dear” Ann sighed, “are you going to trash me?” 

 

“That is my plan, I’m afraid” Anne Lister replied and turned for a second to cast Ann a cocky smile, “don’t worry. I won’t go all in.”

 

“That’s very kind of you.”

 

“Anyway” Anne Lister took the previous disc out and put the new one in, “I may be a bit rusty. It’s been at least 20 years since I played this one, and about 14 years since I last played any Tekken, so---”

 

“Who knows? Maybe I can work that to my advantage?” Ann raised a brow and smirked, biting her lower lip. Anne Lister lifted one brow and answered Ann’s smirk with an arrogant grin.

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Best of 3?” Anne Lister suggested and took her controller. Ann reclaimed hers and threw her legs over the armrest of the armchair she was snuggled in. 

 

“Sounds fair” she nodded and looked sideways at Anne Lister as she was picking her character. Anne Lister had been here for nearly 4 hours. Anne Lister had become even more talkative after a few beers, and Ann’s head was comfortably buzzing as a result of having had a couple herself. Anne Lister’s cheeks were red with excitement, and Ann absolutely hated what was about to happen, but she knew it couldn’t be avoided. She picked her character and they were on.

 

Throughout the first round Ann kept watching Anne Lister, talking to her quite leisurely. 

 

“Did you often play with your friends?” she asked and jumped back just in time to avoid Anne Lister’s hit. 

 

“Hmm, yes. My friend John got a PS for Christmas one year, and we’d spend the winter locked up in his room playing, until his mother finally snapped at us.” 

 

“Our mum used to curse the day John got his first console” Ann reminisced and gave Anne Lister just a light knock. 

 

“I broke a lamp in Johnny’s room” Anne Lister replied, her voice tense now and her brow knitted in focus, “lost in arcade mode and threw the controller in a fit of rage. Couldn’t show my face there for two whole months.”

 

“Oh, dear!” Ann chuckled and Anne Lister took advantage of her momentary slack and punched her down. She got up a bit too sluggish, which allowed Anne Lister to kick her around until K.O. Anne Lister leaned back and placed the controller on her stomach, taking another swig of her beer.

 

“Yeah” she huffed amused and combed through her hair with her fingers, “that took me out of gaming for a while.” 

 

“Is that Johnny--- John, from the photograph?” Ann asked, a bit timid. 

 

“What photograph?” Anne Lister turned at her quickly, looking suddenly almost angry in her eager confusion.

 

“Th-- the one on y-your fridge” Ann stuttered, taken aback. Anne Lister’s mien softened, but there was a touch of pain in her expression. 

 

“Ahh-- yes, that one.”

 

“I’m sorry, I just saw it today, when I visited, and your aunt--”

 

“I’ve asked her to take it off” Anne Lister scoffed, “she refuses. I try my best to ignore it.”

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to--” Ann was worried now. She had hurt Anne Lister. If not hurt, then at least made her uncomfortable. 

 

“No, of course not. No matter. Yes, that’s him” Anne Lister replied curtly, plastering it with a tight-lipped hasty smile, “we were close.” 

 

“Are you still friends?” Ann tried to sound relaxed, but she guessed the slight quiver in her voice gave her away. At least Anne Lister turned to her and smiled a bit more warmly now.

 

“He’s my gardener” she replied and her tone made it clear there would be no venturing further on this topic. Ann took her controller and started picking her character for their next round to calm down a little. 


“I see you’ve got a good selection of consoles and games” Anne Lister changed the topic and nodded towards the tv stand. 

 

“They’re mostly John’s” Ann fought to steady her heartbeat and rested her head against the back of the chair, sighing, “only the GameCube is something I got. We played together, all three of us, and then just me and John, when Elizabeth got older and bored with her younger siblings.”

 

“Mhh. D’you know--” Anne Lister suddenly seemed quite amused, “One summer, I think I was 16, 17, my aunt suggested I come babysit you and your siblings.” Ann gasped and then groaned in disbelief and slight embarrassment. 

 

“But you didn’t. I think I’d remember you” Ann shook her head and made her pick for her character. 

 

“No” Anne Lister smirked as the match was starting, “no, I told her I already had a job for the summer.”

 

“And did you?”

 

“Oh yes.” 

 

“Where?”

 

“At the Coroner’s office” Anne Lister’s grin widened. Ann laughed out loud. 

 

“No!”

 

“Oh yes. A summer well spent.”

 

***

 

Ann Walker was a liar. Well, no, she hadn’t technically lied, but her bluff had been admirably good. She’d used Anne to mop the floors on Tekken for the last 5 rounds (Anne had insisted on a rematch, after Ann Walker had casually butchered her after her victory on their first round, which, as Anne later bitterly realised, had been only to learn her moves), and Anne was gritting her teeth trying to keep up with her on their last round. 

 

She couldn’t afford to tear her eyes from the screen for a second, but she could guess Ann Walker was still just slouching in her armchair as relaxed as a content cat, like she had for all their matches so far, her fingers tapping the controller at lightspeed while, deceptively, nothing else about her seemed to move or even pay attention. At least she’d stopped talking after Anne had stopped replying; she needed to focus entirely if she was to avoid utter and absolute humiliation. 

 

She landed two good punches on Ann Walker, and Ann Walker backed off slightly. For the first time during the round, Ann Walker’s health was lower than Anne’s, and Anne went in, a hefty combo move in mind. She sought to jump, but Ann Walker was faster; Anne saw the golden glimmer of the one hit K.O. punch bursting as her character landed in front of Ann Walker’s.

 

“Nononono--- NO!” Anne shouted and tossed on her back on the sofa, feeling like she’d received a sucker punch to the stomach herself.

 

“KO!” The game announced and Anne groaned, bringing her hands to cover her face. She heard Ann Walker giggle just minutely, and she sat back up, her head hanging low, before she looked up at Ann Walker, ready to give her hell for her deception. 

 

Ann Walker sat in her armchair, legs crossed, her head tilted and the slyest smile dangling on her lips. Anne felt her words stick to the back of her mouth at the sight, and she only huffed and shook her head, a smile returning to her in reaction to Ann Walker’s smirk. 

 

“Trash me, did you say?” Ann Walker purred, obviously pleased. 

 

“Who are you?” Anne croaked and let out an astonished chuckle. 

 

“Three-time Tekken champion of the University of Edinburgh Gaming Society” Ann Walker introduced herself, making Anne laugh and roll her eyes in disbelief, “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you.”

 

“A little warning would have been… welcome, yes” Anne admitted. 

 

“I’m sorry. I really am--” Ann Walker’s morale crumbled in a nanosecond, and Anne sat up, putting her controller down.

 

“No, no” she said sternly, “I brought it upon myself. Truth be told, I would’ve done the same, if I were you. Serves--- served me right.” 

 

“I- I- I hope you had fun, still” Ann Walker sat up, placing her hands on her lap, seemingly nervous again. Anne frowned; she’d been here for hours. How did one sentence bring back such timidness in the blink of an eye? 

 

“I did. I certainly did. And now I know where to look for a proper trainer” Anne smirked and winked, “a few weeks and I will trash you.” 

 

“Is that a challenge or a promise?” Ann Walker cocked her head, and Anne rejoiced as she saw the shyness pull away again. 

 

“A bit of both,” Anne murmured. The twinkle in Ann Walker’s eyes and the sudden, light rosiness of her cheeks did not go unnoticed by Anne, and she bit her lower lip content. Yes, she’d lost humiliatingly clearly, but she knew if she now got up and went to kiss Ann Walker, the poor girl would never recover. Anne was confident as well as eager to set the score straight. She ran her thumb over her lower lip, eyes still on Ann Walker, who got more and more flustered by the second, but did not look away. Then, Anne sat back again. No. Not yet. She’d barely started. Why spoil the fun now?  

 

Her phone chimed in her pocket. She sighed and let go of the momentum she’d had on her side, before digging out her phone.

 

Marian Blister

VINDALOO

 

Marian Blister

You do have a heart!

 

“Good Lord, I… I should be heading home” Anne mumbled and rubbed her temples, and stood up, shoving her phone back in her pocket, “I’ve kept you glued to the screen for hours.” She smiled apologetically at Ann Walker, who hurriedly scrambled on her feet as well. 

 

“It-- was my plan anyway” she replied, “no worries. You’ve made my evening much more enjoyable.”

 

“Mhh. And I take it our rivalry has subsided?” Anne asked, shifting her weight to her back foot, raising her chin. 

 

“For now” Ann Walker replied and crossed her arms, “But you know… whenever you're ready for a rematch--”

 

“A soul crushing abasement, you mean?” Anne cut her off. Ann Walker gasped and giggled, mocking shocked.

 

“A friendly showdown at the most” she then finished her sentence, and Anne accepted her offer with a warm chuckle.

 

“So be it. I’ll bring Jack next time. He’ll distract you.”

 

“Cunning tactic, playing to my weakness. Admirable” Ann Walker agreed and started gathering their empty bottles. Anne helped her clear the table and while Ann Walker took their bottles and empty popcorn bag away, Anne puffed the pillows on the sofa, gathered their controllers and turned the television off. She picked her leather jacket from the back of the sofa and pulled it on, before turning off the lights in the living room and stepping into the hallway. Ann Walker soon emerged from the kitchen across the hall. 

 

“I want to thank you” Ann Walker spoke, before Anne had the chance to say anything. Ann Walker seemed serious, but relaxed, her cheeks a bit flushed with probably the beer and the thrill of the game. Or me, Anne mused smirking. 

 

“You didn’t have to come here” Ann Walker continued, “but you did and… well, you made it tolerable.” 

 

“Well” Anne shrugged, “I really felt I needed to thank you in person. That pudding was, as I recall you promised, out of this world.” Ann Walker huffed and shook her head.

 

“Well, I’m certainly glad I can read a recipe.” 

 

“Takes a bit more than that, surely.” 

 

“Would you like me to call you a cab?” Ann Walker asked, stepping closer. Anne laughed softly.

 

“No. No, I’ll walk. Probably takes me less time than waiting for a cab to arrive and drive me home.”

 

“Will you be alright?” Ann Walker’s brow furrowed in worry. Anne nodded.

 

“Of course.” 

 

“Text me when you get home” Ann Walker stepped past her and opened the door, letting Anne to step out, “promise.”

 

“Cross my heart” Anne said and she did, “good night, Ann.” 

 

“Good night.” 

 

Anne skipped down the stairs and started walking across the vast front yard. 

 

“Wait!” she heard Ann Walker call out to her and turned. 

 

“Is it past midnight already?” Ann Walker asked. Anne pulled back her sleeve and flicked her wrist to check the time. The lights of the house were a bit far now and she squinted to see in the dark. 

 

“Yes. 24 minutes past midnight” she replied.

 

“Happy June” Ann Walker spoke softly and leaned to the door frame. A wide smile crept on Anne Lister’s face.

 

“Happy June.”

 

***

 

“Who let you on the bed?” Anne exclaimed and alerted the puppy who was curled up on her bed, fast asleep. He looked at her sleepy and apologetic, but didn’t even attempt to jump down. No, he even had the nerve to stretch before he curled up again, his eyes droopy. Anne pursed her lips and exhaled sharply through her nose. Apparently he’d used the wooden chest at the end of the bed as a stepping stone to relaxation, judging by the mess of books, clothes and slips of paper that were now scattered on the floor, while Anne clearly remembered they’d been quite neatly on top of the chest before she left for Crow Nest. 

 

Anne took her phone from her back pocket and snapped a picture of Jack comfortably drifting back to sleep. She opened her messages and sent the picture to Ann Walker before typing.

 

Thank you.

He now thinks he’s allowed in bed

at home too

 

It took about 5 seconds for the three dots to appear on Anne’s screen.

 

Glad to know you made it home

 

Anne tsked at herself; she had promised to let Ann Walker know. It was well past one in the morning already, and she’d spent a good 20 minutes in the kitchen enjoying a late night snack (and bickering) with her sister, who’d gotten home some half an hour before Anne. 

 

Sorry.

I forgot.

I’m home and safe.

Just there’s a man in my bed and I’m not overly fond of the concept.



You’ll thank me later

He’s an excellent cuddler

 

 

You’ve spoilt him.

I did not walk home in record time to find my bed occupied.



You could’ve stayed here.

Plenty of room

And no danger of a puppy

Since you left him home

 

Anne bit her lip and shook her head, amused, thinking her words through very carefully. 

 

Next time.

Good night x



Good night x

 

Anne raised a curious brow, before locking her phone and tossing it on the bed absent-mindedly. She crouched and gathered the things the puppy had shoved on the floor, cursing when she noticed the now crumpled pages of the newest book she’d bought. She undressed, did a quick wash up and changed into her boxer briefs and a loose t-shirt for the night. She felt fatigued, but her brain was still buzzing, so she sat down at her desk and took out her notebook.



Good day. Back from Lawton. Spent the morning with M--, two good seshs in the shower. Took care of myself afterwards. C-- horribly hungover and slept till just before I left. Drove home via Peak District and stopt for a breather at Torside. Found Jack at home, Miss W-- already having visited. Excellent pudding!! Walked over to Crow Nest to thank her, spent the evening, and only back now (1 am). Gather she’s missed me. She somewhat blue and anxious at first, but calmed down. Completely trashed me at Tekken. Increasingly flustered in my presence, which certainly is amusing. Yet I feel she blows hot and cold -- One moment very anxious and shy, then chatty, keen, flirty even. I think I should have her, if I pleased. I’m not sure what to make of her conduct, but I feel the whole thing requires subtlety and patience. I certainly won’t be carried away. It’s too soon and I’m too tired. Yet, I don’t know how it is. It upset me to see her cry. I don’t like her, no, but somehow I don’t want to see her sad. 

Chapter Text

Ann didn’t know which made it harder to focus on the task at hand; the cool, coarse rock scraping and pressing painfully at her soft fingertips, or Anne Lister’s hands landing firmly on her waist to support her. 

 

No, on second thoughts, she knew exactly which it was that distracted her from climbing any higher the face of rock in front of her. She moved her left hand laboriously to a tiny dent in the rock Anne Lister had pointed out to her, and she was momentarily comforted by Anne Lister’s steady hold of her, but also thankful she stood almost an arm’s length away. 

 

Ann was uncomfortably and embarrassingly familiar with all sorts of pain and discomfort and knew how to deal with both, but physical closeness was much more of an unknown territory for her, and so she fought to guide her focus away from the light, but securing warmth of Anne Lister’s hold around her waist to her hands and feet. But, in all honesty, she wasn’t sure what part of her body she should move next.

 

“Not that I’m getting tired” Anne Lister spoke, sounding amused, “but do you think you’ll want to climb any higher?”

 

Ann huffed and looked down. She was barely a foot off the ground, having wanted to try climbing a rock, but also having made Anne Lister promise she’d catch her. Anne Lister let go off Ann, now that she was secure and steady, and stepped back a bit. Ann felt her head clear and her nervousness wash away a bit, but the insecurity about her own powers returned and her mind flooded with images of inevitable, oncoming physical pain, should she let go now that Anne Lister was no longer holding her in place. 

 

“I don’t know what to do” Ann blurted, earnestly, surprised at how much of an effort it was to just stay still and hold on. 

 

“Turn your head” Anne Lister instructed, “to your right, see that little projection right there? Put your right foot on that.” Ann hesitated. She could barely see it. And Anne Lister had said trainers were abysmal for climbing. Ann didn’t trust her feet.

 

“It’s tiny.”

 

“It’s huge.”

 

“Anne!”

 

“Trust me. I’ve got you” Anne Lister reassured, and Ann was annoyed how poorly she hid the chuckle in her tone, “Go on, then.” 

 

Ann would’ve wanted to give Anne Lister a proper glare, but she instead took a deep breath and lifted her right leg from where it was, attempting to bring it higher up. Immediately, she felt the strain on the remaining 3 points of contact on the rock. With effort, she dragged her foot up the wall and placed her toes on the tiny hold, surprised to find her trainer actually sticking to it. 

 

“Good, very good.”

 

“Now what?” Ann panted, turning her head a bit lost. 

 

“Look up” Anne Lister guided, stepping a bit closer, her other hand softly landing on  Ann’s back, stopping her from falling backwards.

 

“I can’t, I’ll fall!” Ann gasped and felt her grip slipping already, but noticed that she hadn’t budged an inch. 

 

“I’ve got you” Anne Lister spoke and Ann realised she was pressing against her back quite firmly, keeping her in place with her hand, “look, you see that big hold, that sort of ledge right there?” Anne Lister pointed up with her free hand. 

 

“Anne, that’s miles away…” Ann moaned, fighting an urge to slump back and rest against Anne Lister’s hand.

 

“It’s not. Come on, I’ll support you” Anne Lister placed her hands back on Ann’s waist, “just commit to the move, keep your body close to the wall and push hard with your right leg, okay?”  

 

“What about my hands?” Ann breathed, spent. 

 

“They’re very good where they are” Anne Lister assured, “just make sure you pull with them and don’t just hold on.”

 

“Left or right hand?” Ann asked.

 

“Whichever feels more comfortable to you--” Anne Lister started.

 

“I need a real answer--” Ann felt sorry for being so snappy, but really, she was certain Anne Lister was making fun of her, even if only minutely. 

 

Must be the Tekken. Sore loser. What an absolute tosser you are. Don’t you dare let go.

 

“I’d go with my right hand.”

 

“Okay…” Ann whispered and inhaled deep, “don’t let go.”

 

“Look, it’s not that high--”

 

“Promise me--”

 

“I won’t, I won’t. You won’t fall. Trust me. You can do this.” 

 

Ann looked down once more before turning her eyes up, keen on the hold she was aiming for. Anne Lister had said it’s good to focus on where you’re trying to go next. Ann huffed, and she had a feeling Anne Lister was about to say something, but instead her hands were perhaps just minutely more securely on Ann’s waist. Ann inhaled sharply, let herself drop down a bit before pulling hard with her arms and pushing with her legs.

 

At first she was certain she’d miss it handsomely, but then she felt light, and to her surprise, her right hand landed on the hold alright, albeit cumbersomely. She yelped in awe and immediately felt heavy again, her body weight suddenly entirely on her right hand. 

 

“Yes! Keep your feet to the wall!” she heard Anne Lister and looked down. Her feet had left the holds they’d been on, and so had her left hand. And so had Anne Lister’s hands. Ann swayed and struggled to place her feet, and just as she, to her horror, saw her right hand pop off the hold, Anne Lister’s hands were squeezing her waist again. Ann prepared for the dropping sensation, but she found herself still high up on the rock, despite her hands and feet off the wall. 

 

“Down?” Anne Lister spoke, her voice strained with effort now.

 

“Please” Ann breathed and sought for a hold on the wall to take some of her weight off Anne Lister’s arms. With a light thump, Ann was firmly on her feet again, cross with Anne Lister.

 

“You let go.” 

 

“For two seconds. I wanted you to do it yourself. And you did. That was good, you held on nicely” Anne Lister dismissed Ann’s anger with a wave of her hand and a bright smile, “how’d you like it?” 

 

Ann took a few seconds to just pant, keeping her frown on as well as she could. 

 

You are not going to smile your way out of this.

 

“Hard” she then breathed, “great effort to just… stay still.” 

 

“Mhh” Anne Lister nodded and looked pleased, “you did well.”

 

“You’re just saying” Ann huffed and pulled her jumper back on, before picking up her backpack. 

 

“No, I mean it” Anne Lister hurried, stern, “you moved very well, and you managed to put your foot on that tiny hold very nicely--”

 

“You said it was huge!” Ann laughed in disbelief. Anne Lister smirked and shrugged in response. Ann closed her eyes, shaking her head.

 

“Come!” she heard Anne Lister from further away, and opened her eyes, “we can have breakfast up here!” 

 

Anne Lister had gotten herself up on the rock Ann had just now tried to top with significant assistance. 

 

“How’d you---?” she muttered, “how am I supposed to get up there?” she raised her voice and looked around. Anne Lister crouched and offered Ann her hand. Ann took it and with a bit of effort, managed to climb on the boulder, Anne Lister helping her up. 

 

“I like this spot” Anne Lister spoke and took off her windbreaker, “it’s not the most handsome view, but it’s safe from the wind. Come, sit down. I can’t wait to see what you’ve baked for us this morning.” She smiled radiantly, and Ann slumped down next to her, once again finding herself somewhat short of breath at the pace of things with Anne Lister.

 

During the past two weeks, Anne Lister had been to London three times; twice to York; at least once to Manchester. She had kindly let Ann have Jack for the days and nights she was away. The beautiful Crow Nest garden bore some clear marks of a puppy’s regular visits. Ann’s cheeks always hurt when Jack left; she was constantly smiling at his goofiness. 

 

Anne Lister had been everywhere. Ann Walker had been in her own head, mostly, Jack dragging her out of the building for the day, but never going further than where the footpath towards the golf club started. Much like Jack had been at her heel at all times, Ann Walker felt Anne Lister hadn’t really left her side. They’d been texting every day, and Anne Lister had called her a few times, the phone calls going on for hours. 

 

Ann Walker had been in her head, but she hadn’t been idle. She knew Anne Lister liked poppyseed muffins. She knew Anne Lister’s knees ached when it got cold. Anne Lister ran, hiked, climbed, rode, hunted, travelled and kept a keen eye on her grounds and gardens. Anne Lister suffered from splitting headaches from time to time. Anne Lister was like greased lighting. Ann Walker was a hibernating hedgehog. 

 

“Ann?” Ann twitched as Anne Lister called her name. Ann blinked and turned to face her, “coffee?” 

 

“Oh! Yes, please” Ann took the travel mug from Anne. Just a faint breeze reached their spot and blew the gentle steam of the coffee to Ann’s face. It was early, still, and she was in dire need of her first cup of the day. 

 

“I-- I-- I forgot” Ann hurried and placed the mug on the rock, spilling a little, “I did bake, wait…” she took off her backpack and brought it to her lap, opening it, “I thought poppyseed muffins would be good for breakfast. You mentioned you liked them.” Ann took out a little plastic container and handed it to Anne, who, if possible, was grinning even more now. 

 

“Ahh--!” she only sighed happily, and in a nanosecond the box was opened, and Anne had munched down two of the tiny muffins, washing them down with a hefty gulp of coffee. 

 

“These---” she mumbled, wiping her mouth to the back of her hand, “these are really good. Thank you. You’re really good.” She handed the container back to Ann, who took one small muffin and nibbled it shyly. 

 

These are decent.

 

Ann knew Anne Lister liked pasties and pastries, and she’d baked something for every one of her visits at Crow Nest. She knew Anne Lister hated cabbage and loved caramel (she had kissed Ann’s hand when she’d baked her a salted caramel pecan tart last Wednesday). She’d come to know Anne Lister covered the distance from Shibden Hall to Crow Nest in about 25 minutes on foot (although why she insisted on walking Ann couldn’t fathom. She had more than once suggested she drive Anne Lister home, with no success), and she’d also come to feel extremely pleased with herself when she’d now three times in a row just finished setting the coffee tray for them, when the doorbell rang. Anne Lister was unfalteringly precise; Ann Walker was unfalteringly observant. 

 

Ann glanced at Anne Lister, who flicked her wrist to check the time. Ann watched her frown melt and turn into a smile. 

 

“Quarter to 9” Anne Lister hummed, “perfect. We’ve got the whole day.” With that, she lay back and extended her arm towards Ann, who knew to hand her the muffins. Ann looked around and wasn’t entirely sure they could manage to spend the whole day hiking around Earl Crag. Anne Lister had said the hike was 7 miles, and even Ann wasn’t an enough leisurely hiker to stretch that for a whole day. 

 

“How long are you going to drag me around if we’re here for the rest of the day?” Ann tried to sound confident and funny. 

 

Anne Lister propped herself up on her elbows.

 

“Are you in a hurry?” she asked, raising a brow, smirking. Ann shook her head and gave a soft laugh. 

 

“God, no. There’s a family lunch today at my aunt’s, but any excuse to keep me away is more than welcome.” Anne Lister grimaced. 

 

“I take it you don’t particularly enjoy them.”

 

Ann sighed and turned to look at the view.  

 

“No. It’s mix of finding me a husband, moaning about how miserable my life has been so far, and how miserable it will continue to be if I don’t do anything about it” she spoke, “I thought the two-year break in India might have buried the whole concept, but it’s been revived, I’m afraid.”

 

“And I suppose you’re not the one trying to find a husband or complaining about your misery?” Anne Lister cast her a sad smile. Ann shook her head.

 

“No, not really. I was quite happy with my life in India.”

 

“Why’d you come back then?” Anne Lister shot and caught Ann off guard, “if I may ask?” Anne Lister attempted to smooth her inquiring tone. Ann felt an invisible grip tighten around her throat. 

 

“There was this guy…” she started, “he was travelling and he happened on the place we were staying with my friend Harriet.”

 

“Oh” Anne Lister raised her brow, “got your heart broken?” 

 

Ann let out a dry laugh.

 

“Oh, Lord, no!” she huffed, “no, he… Hmm… Unwanted attention, let’s put it that way.”

 

“Mhh.” Anne Lister was frowning, when Ann glanced at her. 

 

“My sister and my cousins think I should’ve just gone along with it. That he was just flirting. And he probably was, maybe it was harmless, I don’t know. I just didn’t feel comfortable there anymore.” 

 

“So you left?” 

 

“Mhh.”

 

“And he stayed?” 

 

Ann shrugged.

 

“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t heard anything from Harriet. I suppose she’s still there. I don’t know about him. Not sure I’d want to, really.” 

 

“Don’t blame you” Anne Lister mused. 

 

“How’s your--” Ann started, but then didn’t quite know how to ask what she intended to, “I mean you-- when you got back, you-- how’s your-- the uhm-- Hastings--” Anne Lister looked at her perplexed, but then sighed an awkward chuckle. 

 

“Oh. Mhh. Well--” she suddenly seemed short of breath, “that is-- she’s asked me to meet her. But I haven’t gotten back to her.”

 

“Do you… do you think she wants to try again?” Ann tried not to sound like she was prying.

 

Anne Lister’s chuckle sounded forced and her words strained.

 

“No. No” she shook her head, “No, she’s engaged.” 

 

Ann frowned and pursed her lips in disbelief. 

 

“What?” she nearly chortled her response. 

 

“Mhh. My sentiments exactly.”

 

“What, to-- to someone else? I mean--- not--?” 

 

“No, not to me.”

 

“Lord” Ann huffed and shook her head, “right after you broke up?”  

 

“No, I think it had been on for some time before she told me” Anne Lister continued and smirked sadly. Ann gasped, aghast, “I suppose it wasn’t serious. Well--” Anne Lister rested her head against her shoulder, “it was to me, but… Obviously we understood things a bit differently.”

 

“What a twat…” Ann muttered to herself.

 

“What… was that?” Anne Lister chuckled, astonished and amused. 

 

“Nothing” Ann said quickly, her cheeks rosy, “I-- I’m sorry… it’s just… not very righteous behaviour--”

 

“Did you just call her a twat?” Anne Lister was absolutely gleeful. Ann looked down ashamed at first, but then she felt a tiny ball of rage form in her guts. 

 

“Well, I’m sorry, but she treated you very poorly!” 

 

Anne Lister tossed her head back in a hearty fit of laughter. Ann was only able to titter nervously and blink, not sure if she’d insulted Anne Lister or not. 

 

“I-- I-- I’m s-- sorry” Ann tried. Anne Lister was wiping her eyes. 

 

“No, no, don’t--” Anne Lister hiccuped, trying to calm down, “don’t be. It’s good. It’s good to see someone else angry. For me. And you’re right. It was perhaps a bit of a twatty thing to do” she cast Ann a warm smile, “oh, goodness. Apologies.” 

 

Ann shook her head, smiling relieved.

 

“What’s her name? If I may ask?” she spoke shyly. Anne Lister sniffed and nodded.

 

“Vere. Her name is Vere.” 

 

“Were you… How long…?”

 

“We lived together for a year. Or so” Anne Lister shrugged, “so, who’s your space invader then?” she smirked at Ann. Ann groaned. 

 

“God, okay, first of all, not my space invader” she was stern, “never in a million years--”

 

“Not your type?” 

 

Ann let out a nervous, dry laugh. 

 

I don’t have a type. I don’t date people.  

 

“I’m not sure a bloke like that is anyone’s type” she replied after a while, “mostly just pissed me off.” 

 

“Mhh.”

 

“Like” Ann sighed, “d’you know, you’d expect me to know my way around the place after having spent two years there, but he apparently thought it his responsibility to enlighten me how dangerous it is for women to travel alone.”

 

“Ah. A mighty protector” Anne Lister smirked. 

 

“A mighty prick” Ann cussed and Anne Lister guffawed, “fucking Ryan from Bristol ready to protect me from anything but himself.”  

 

“Did he do something to you?” Anne Lister sat up, her brow knitted. Ann frowned and shook her head.

 

“No, not really. No, he, like,… tried to kiss me once, but that was it. I just got… uncomfortable. I didn’t feel like I could stay.” 

 

“I’m sorry” Anne Lister spoke. Ann shrugged.

 

“I’m not. I was at first, but then… It’s good to be home. And if I hadn’t left then, I wouldn’t have met you” she turned to look at Anne Lister and smiled softly. 

 

“You would’ve eventually. Somehow. Jack would’ve run off to your garden or something” Anne Lister hummed. 

 

“Maybe. But I’m glad.” 

 

“Me too. And I certainly hope I’ve proved better company to you than some sorry excuse of a man from Bristol.” 

 

Ann’s laughter was bright and her chest felt full of air and light. 

 

“Oh, I think you could comb the country and not find a person I’d rather spend my day with than you” she replied too honestly, not thinking, and blushed just lightly, turning her eyes to the view. 

 

“Ah” she only heard Anne Lister say. 

 

Well, it’s true. 

 

Anne Lister had brought something worth waking up in the morning for in Ann's life. When Anne Lister visited her, Ann felt a stormy wind blow through the whole house, taking the stiff air and suffocating dust of Ann’s life with it. It was impossible to stay still with Anne Lister; she made Ann’s blood run again. With Anne Lister around, Ann didn’t have the time to sink into her own loneliness and sadness, and she didn’t want to. She’d had enough of sitting still, thinking and weeping for a lifetime. 

 

“Well, I’m glad we’ve become friends” Anne Lister then spoke and Ann was brave enough to look at her again, “Halifax becomes bearable when you’ve got someone to talk to.” 

 

“Don’t you live with your family?” Ann smirked. 

 

“Yes, and what an ensemble of fabulous conversationalists they are” Anne Lister mused dryly and signalled with her hand, feigning dramatic. A heartfelt giggle escaped Ann’s lips. 

 

“I was wondering…” Anne Lister started and turned on her side, facing Ann, “would you like to come climbing with me? Not here, not outdoors right away, but if I took you to a climbing gym? I mean… I just thought, since you wanted to try it this morning---” Ann could see Anne Lister hesitate. Her eyes left Ann and she looked down at her own hands. 

 

“I’d like that” Ann cut her off a bit, nodding and biting her lower lip to stop her smile from spreading. Anne Lister looked back up to Ann and beamed. 

 

“Excellent” she nodded and then extended her arm and offered her hand to Ann, “deal?”

 

Ann chuckled and took her hand. Anne Lister’s grip was firm, and Ann felt her warmth rush to her own cool fingers and up her wrist and arm to the back of her neck, where her hair stood up at the touch. 

 

“Deal.” 

 

***

 

Anne parked on the side of the road and hopped out the car in front of a dated cottage. She’d dropped Ann Walker home on their way back, but hadn’t driven right home and had instead made her way a bit north from Shibden. She locked the car doors and skipped across the street and up the few stairs leading to the front garden. Three small bikes had been left lying on the well-kept grass and she smirked; they’d get told off by their father, when he’d notice. Briskly, she walked to the front door and gave it a hefty knock. 

 

“Oh” a woman soon greeted her seemingly surprised, “hello, Tommy.” 

 

“Becky. How are you?” 

 

“I’m good, all good. Come to get him out again, have you?” the woman smirked, her tone amused. 

 

“Just for a minute--”

 

“That’s what you’ll say and then he’ll turn up after midnight--”

 

“Is he in?” 

 

“Nah, he’s getting the girls from gymnastics. Shouldn’t be long. Come in, I’ll pop the kettle on--” Becky welcomed Anne and turned back inside, “Ma! It’s Tommy!” 

 

Anne stepped in and jumped over the pile of shoes that had spilled onto the floor from the shoe rack, following Becky down the hallway to the kitchen at the other end of the house. 

 

“I didn’t know you were in town” Becky spoke and made room for Anne at the kitchen table. Anne wiped the chair before she sat down.

 

“I haven’t been for long,” Anne replied, “and I’m not sure how long I’ll be. Just a breather.”

 

“Tommy?” Anne turned when she heard a woman call out to her. She jumped up to greet the elderly lady who’d just entered the kitchen. 

 

“Mrs Booth” Anne offered her hand, “good to see you. How’ve you been?”

 

“Oh, good, same old, same old” Mrs Booth let Anne help her take a seat, “where’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in ages! Still all skin and bones, I see.” 

 

“Ma, that’s not very nice, is it?” Becky set them the mugs, while Anne tried to chuckle away her awkwardness at Mrs Booth’s keen observations.

 

“Oh, for crying out loud, I’ve known her since she was this tall” Mrs Booth gestured with her hand, “am I supposed to stop worrying about her all of a sudden? Are you hungry? Have you had anything to eat?”

 

“All good,” Anne reassured, “I’ve got to be home for tea anyways. A cuppa will do just fine.” The kettle popped and they heard the door, and in a second the house was filled with piercing chitchat from the hallway.

 

“Yeah, alright, go wash your hands before you go in-- Charlotte! Hands, please!” Anne smirked when she heard her friend’s voice. Heavy footsteps approached and Johnny Booth strode in the kitchen. Anne shot up from her chair again. 

 

“Oh. Hello, Tommy. I didn’t know you were in town” Johnny stopped by the door and smiled astonished. 

 

“Ah. Yes, sorry to burst in unexpectedly--” 

 

“Yeah, no worries, mate, let me just wash my hands and we’ll grab a cuppa-- hello, you” he walked over to the sink and pecked his wife on the cheek as he went. 

 

“Mhh, how was it?” Becky asked.

 

“Yeah, alright” he replied and washed his hands, wiping them to the kitchen towel. 

 

Anne felt increasingly out of place, and didn’t quite understand why she’d come to say hi in the first place. She could’ve just waited until Johnny got back to work at the hall next week. She tried to make herself useful and poured the tea for Mrs Booth, Becky and herself. She jolted a bit at the loud stomping on the stairs, as the girls made their way upstairs. Except one of them abruptly entered the kitchen, nearly bumping into Anne.

 

“Auntie Tommy!” Anne smiled at the greeting. The girls had always liked her, but she hadn’t seen them in a while, and was surprised when Martha came to her and wrapped her arms around Anne.

 

“Hello, Martha. How are you?” Anne patted the girl’s back.

 

“Tired. Mum? Can I have an apple?”

 

“Yes, help yourself, darling.” Martha let go off Anne and went for the fridge.

 

“Are you staying for the night?” Martha asked, turning to Anne having found her apple. Anne frowned, puzzled.

 

“No.” 

 

Martha shrugged and went her way. 

 

“Front garden?” Johnny asked Anne, as he poured himself a cup. Anne took hers from the table, nodding. 

 

***

 

“How’re you faring?” Johnny asked and sat down next to Anne on a wobbly bench by the front door. 

 

Anne raised her brows and pursed her lips. 

 

“You look better than…” Johnny started and Anne turned to look at him, narrowing her eyes, “I mean… You look… You don’t look like... “

 

“Oh for God’s sake, spit it out!”

 

“You look better than I expected” Johnny finished.

 

“What did you expect then? Hmm?” 

 

Johnny shrugged and sighed uncomfortably. 

 

“I don’t know… Last we spoke you sounded like you’d stay in Hastings and all, so I just sort of thought... this’d be like… another Mariana or something.” 

 

“Which Mariana?” Anne barked dryly. Johnny uttered a laugh. 

 

“Yeah, I suppose there’s a few bad ones there to pick from. Have you seen her? Mariana, after you…?” 

 

“Mhh. Once” Anne replied curtly, “well, twice---”

 

“Okay---”

 

“Judge all you like--”

 

“Wasn’t going to” Johnny interrupted, “you know what you’re doing.”

 

“Mhh. Yes. Thank you.” Anne inhaled sharply and sipped her tea. 

 

“How long are you home for?” Johnny seemed to want to change the subject. Anne sat back and sighed. 

 

“I don’t know yet. I might let out the London flat---”

 

“Don’t you use it for work?”

 

“I could work from here. Just travel back and forth when I need to.”

 

“Where’d you stay then in London?”

 

“Mary’s, probably. Or a hotel. I might need a bit of extra cash. The main bath needs renovating and… you know... a handful of rental properties in Halifax isn’t exactly a gold mine.”

 

“D’ya know we can always put the bridge project by the brook on hold” Johnny suggested, “start next spring or whenever you’ve got more--”

 

“No, no” Anne cut him off, “no, I want it done. It’ll look all the more hideous unfinished.” They were quiet for a while. The sun was still high and Anne was getting uncomfortably warm, still wearing her hiking trousers and fleece jacket.  

 

“It’s good to see you” Johnny then spoke. 

 

“And you.” 

 

“Although I didn’t quite expect you in my kitchen on a Sunday” Johnny chuckled and Anne smirked.

 

“I thought it’s best to keep it short. Your wife was just complaining to me how I usually return you after midnight.” Johnny huffed. 

 

“Yeah, she’s right. I’m not taking a chance with a hangover these days. The noise they make is hard enough to tolerate without a headache.” 

 

Anne sighed and smirked bitterly. 

 

“Is it nice?” 

 

“What?”

 

“Having kids? Having a family?” 

 

“Yeah, well---” Johnny breathed, “they can definitely drive me up the wall. But that’s just how it is sometimes. Mostly it’s… You know, life. I don’t think we’d know how to be without them by now. And it’s nice being a dad.”

 

“Mhh.”

 

“Why’d you ask?” 

 

Anne huffed and let her head fall back. 

 

“I don’t know. Because I’m old and lonely and I wanted to feel sorry for myself for a moment” she smiled acerbically. 

 

Johnny let out an astonished laugh.

 

“Well, mate, we’re the same age. You’re not that old.”

 

“And yet you have a wife and a family, and I don’t.”

 

“I never thought you wanted a family.”

 

Anne shook her head. 

 

“I don’t know if I do. Family dynamics, I’m weirded out. Probably because of the borderline hostile mess my own family was.” Johnny quietly sipped his tea. 

 

“I don’t know…” Anne muttered, “I just… hate to be back here, just as stuck as always.” 

 

“Well” Johnny sighed, “it’s not the worst time of the year to be home, is it?” He looked up and Anne followed suit, taking in the beauty of a lilac in full bloom. Anne blinked and an image from earlier today popped in her mind. Ann Walker had gathered a bouquet of wildflowers and ferns on their way back. 

 

“No” she agreed, “no, it isn’t.”

 

***

 

Anne woke up gasping. The darkness in her room had started to turn from an all consuming blackness to a lighter shade of blue and grey filtering through the curtains, but her eyes were still heavy from sleep, and the room only slowly emerged from the dark. 

 

Her heartbeat was louder than a scream, thundering in her head and ears a million miles an hour. She uttered a moan and doubled down, her chest feeling like her heart was about to burst out. Under the bed, Jack whimpered and hurried to Anne, who sought to get up. She stumbled out of her bed, struggling for air, forced to slump down on the floor. Jack came to her, forcing himself on her lap, whimpering and licking her face. She dug her nails to his hair. 

 

Jack. Jack is here. Calm down. 

 

She breathed in the dog’s scent, burying her face to his hair. How silky and soothing it felt. Jack whined and Anne hushed him.

 

“Shh, it’s okay... “ even whispering took immense effort. Her throat was clamped shut. A violent wave of heat coursed through her body and made her skin prickle. She tried to moan, but only a soft mutter escaped her lips. She managed one long deep inhale, and the cool air brought a second of calmness to her mind. 

 

She didn’t know how long she sat there, holding Jack to her chest, but eventually the puppy got bored and wriggled out of her arms and made his way to the door. Anne took hold of the bedframe and got up panting. Her legs very nearly gave in, and she partially slumped back on the bed. Her heart rate soared again immediately at even the most minute movement. Fumbling, she tried to find her nightstand and her phone. Her fingers landed on the cool glass of the phone screen and she found the home button. 

 

4:21

 

She huffed and straightened her back, flicking on the torch in her phone. Jack was by the door, still looking sleepy, but alert now, and Anne knew if she wanted to avoid a puddle on the floor later this morning, she best let him out as soon as possible. Shaky, she made her way to the door and stepped after Jack in the cool hallway. She hoped they didn’t wake anyone up, but although she wanted to, she couldn’t trust her body now to pick up and carry Jack downstairs to avoid any additional noise.

 

Jack trotted down the stairs and Anne followed, holding on to the handrail for dear life. She made her way to the kitchen and let the puppy out to the back garden. The summer night air was cool and she shivered, plopping down on the bench by the door. She saw Jack sniffing around the rose bushes and hoped he didn’t have a lengthy excursion in mind.

 

It was a clear morning, just a few small tufty clouds in the sky, and the horizon was already red with the soon to rise sun. Anne let her head fall back against the wall. The cool air seemed to pacify her; her heart found its place in her chest again, slowing down, the iron grip in her lungs easing. She took a deep breath and tried to reason with her condition.

 

It hadn’t help. Talking to Johnny. She had thought that perhaps if she tried to put her life for the past month or so into words for someone else, it’d open up the concept for her, too. No. The gnawing feeling in her guts remained, the same fear had returned, pounding in her brain a never-ending chant. 

 

I’m alone. I’ll never find someone who’ll stay. 

 

Meeting Johnny had nothing but highlighted the fact that she was older, more tired and still alone. She whimpered and brought her hands to cover her face. 

 

She had thought she’d moved on. Somewhat foolishly, perhaps, but she really had. She’d worked like crazy. She’d walked. She’d run. She’d travelled. She’d been to London. She’d been to York to see Eliza. 

 

Eliza.

 

She’d been to York to see Eliza. Eliza had not wanted to receive her. She’d been to Manchester and she couldn’t even remember why. Not stopping worked during the days, but her thoughts caught up with her when she lay still in her sleep. 

 

What did I do wrong?

 

She suppressed a sob and bit her lip. She longed not to be alone so much it hurt. She felt her body very nearly cramp holding her tears at bay. She wanted a partner so much she felt her life depended on it; she’d woken up next to someone enough many times to know waking up alone was unbearable for her. She jumped up and started pacing back and forth, determined not to let this wave of loneliness cripple her. But the fear was glued to her, like a stubborn shadow, clearly visible even in the quasi-light of the early morning hour. 

 

What if this was my last chance? What if there is no one?

 

Another wave of heat rushed through her and made her gag. She wished to empty her stomach, but ended up only coughing up some slime and spit, remembering she hadn’t eaten anything since the rest of the poppyseed muffins on their drive back. 

 

She straightened her back and sat back down on the bench, reaching for her phone. She opened it and went to her messages. 

 

Ann Walker

Last seen today at 4:16  

 

Anne didn’t know what to write, but she needed… someone. 

 

“Please be awake…”



The sun is rising. 



 

Ann Walker’s status did not change, and sighing Anne let her phone drop on the bench. She closed her eyes and focused on taking deep breaths. She jolted, when her phone buzzed. 

 

Ann Walker

It is. Why are you?

 

Anne smirked sadly.



Couldn’t sleep. I’m sorry if I woke you up.



You didn’t. It’s good.

I had fallen asleep on the sofa again.

Bad dream?



Something like that.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Bad night for us both then.



Yeah

You have Jack though



What does that have to do with this?



Well 

I told you

He’s an expert cuddler

You’ll fall back to sleep in no time

Trust me

He’s cuddly




Hmm

I guess I have to believe his number 1 fan

Not sure though.

I might just get up and on with the day




Give it a try

It looks like a nice sunrise

But not that nice



Maybe you’re right

I’ll wait for a better morning.

Maybe we can go on a sunrise hike together

Later this year

I take it 4 am is too early for you




I’d love to

and yeah

although I’m not sure

if it’s early or late




Very true.

Good night.

Or morning.

You pick.



Good night x

Oh

And better dreams for the rest of it



Thanks

Night x




Anne closed her phone and lay down on her side on the bench. Jack returned to her, jumping up to sniff at her face. Anne scrunched up her face and smirked, reaching to scratch the puppy behind his ear. 

 

“Come” she huffed and sat back up, “let’s get inside.” She got up and stretched her arms carefully, pleased to find the tightness in her chest subsiding. She shivered when a sharp morning breeze caught her, but shook her head and smiled. The red on the horizon was a glowing, beautiful shade of orange now. She opened her phone and clicked into her notes. 

 

Poor sleep, ridden with anxiety. Up at 4:21. Cool, clear morning, light breeze. A formidable sunrise. I’m alone for now, but I will overcome, one way or the other.



Chapter Text

Anne

Anne please

Can we talk?

Please

Anne

 

I’m sorry

I’m so sorry

I never wanted to hurt you

 

I’m in London next week

Can we meet up?

Please

 

I just want to talk

Don’t cut me off

I miss you

I need to know you’re okay



The texts from Vere had started to flood in these past 3 or 4 days. Anne had avoided replying and thinking about them by turning off her phone for the most of the day, only checking her emails on her laptop before bed. This last message now, a little past 9 am on a Thursday morning tugged at her heartstrings, and she knew it wouldn’t leave her at peace if she didn’t deal with it somehow. 

 

I’m alright

I’m busy now

I’ll call you later today

Is that alright?

 

She could see Vere typing a reply immediately, so she kept her phone in her hand, while digging out her climbing shoes and chalk bag from her holdall. 

 

Thank you!

That’s okay

Talk to you then :) <3

 

The last message nearly had her groan out loud, but instead she locked her phone and tossed it in the bag, not really caring if it disappeared in its depths for good. 

 

“Ready?” she turned to Ann Walker, putting on a hasty smile. Ann Walker was just finishing braiding her hair. 

 

“Just a second---” she muttered with the hair band between her teeth. Anne had to admire her determination (which Anne had perhaps a bit unfairly tested) agreeing to come here, climbing for the first time in her life, at 9 am on a summer weekday. Anne had been ready to negotiate; she had been prepared to have to lure Ann Walker out of the house, when she’d come pick her up. But no; Ann Walker had been waiting for her on the doorstep and had practically skipped to the car, hopping in, full of energy. 

 

Anne was well-rested too; the restless night a few days ago had been fixed with forced relaxing and resting, and she was quite honestly itching to get on the wall. She felt a bit humdrum in her old climbing jeans and worn t-shirt that had at some point in her life been black but had already for years been dark grey with a permanent subtle white pill covering it. Ann Walker looked fresh and energetic, more like she was attending a yoga class; tight leggins and a crop top, although Anne had specifically told her not to wear anything she’d regret getting scratched or torn. Well, perhaps they weren’t fine clothes for Ann Walker.

 

“Alright” Ann Walker tied her braid, “good to go.”

 

“Mhh. Good.”

 

Anne had been looking at her for a moment now, and Ann Walker raised a quizzical brow.

 

“Everything alright?” 

 

Anne turned away to shove her bag in the locker and close the door. 

 

“Yes. Sorry, just… spaced out. Shall we?” she shook her head to get Vere and crop tops out of her mind, “we need to find you a pair of shoes.” 

 

Ann Walker just nodded meekly and followed Anne out of the changing room towards the shoe racks. 

 

“Pick a pair your size and try that on. If it feels loose, try one smaller” Anne was curt, trying to dilute her annoyance and stress; it wasn’t Ann Walker’s fault Vere was bombarding her with soppy texts. It wasn’t Ann Walker’s fault she looked very nice today. Well, perhaps that was partially Ann Walker’s fault. Maybe it wasn’t a fault. Anne shook her head. 

 

Focus, god damn you. 

 

Ann Walker had picked a pair and sat down on a flimsy plastic chair to try them on. Anne wanted to make herself useful and make up for having just bossed poor Ann Walker around, so she got down on her knees before her, feigning excitement helping her try on the shoes.

 

"You might find it a bit uncomfortable to start, they're quite tight and they force your foot to point downwards to be able to stick to the holds better. It should be around your shoe size, but you can go smaller, if it still feels comfortable."

 

Anne felt Ann Walker jolt slightly, and she looked up quickly, seeing Ann Walker blush as Anne briefly touched her foot, helping the shoe on. Anne let go and withdrew her hands, allowing Ann Walker to take a hold of the loops at the heel of the shoe and slip it on. 

 

"Well that was too easy. Might be too big if it goes on so smoothly..." Anne turned and sought for a smaller pair.

 

"Yes... Perhaps a bit smaller, like you said" Ann Walker muttered, “this feels a bit… weird but loose.” Anne nodded and squatted in front of Ann Walker. 

 

"Here you go, Cinderella, let's try this one" Anne tried to joke and handed Ann Walker the smaller pair, careful not to get too close this time. She did not want to give Ann Walker another jolt. She did not want to see Ann Walker’s nice ankles again. 

 

“How’s that?” Anne cleared her throat and slumped to sit on the floor. 

 

Ann Walker grimaced slightly. 

 

“Tight.” 

 

“Mhh, it should be, but not too tight. Can you stand up? How’s walking?” Anne huffed and stood up, offering her hand to Ann Walker who took it gingerly, getting up. 

 

“Ah… I don’t know… Ah--! Okay, I think that may be a cramp…” 

 

“Why don’t we take the bigger pair, and then you can swap, when your feet are more used to the feeling?” Anne suggested and helped Ann Walker sit back down. 

 

“Mhh--- Yeah, that’s… probably… yeah, that’s a good idea” Ann Walker mumbled and proceeded to remove the shoes, “is it supposed to… you know… when you’re on the wall, does it hurt?”

 

"Yes, at first” Anne sighed, slightly disappointed now. This might backfire, “You'll get used to it in no time, though. And you barely notice it on the wall, anyway. You're too focused on climbing. But yes, it hurts, and your feet will be sore after today. Are you okay with this? We can also drop it and go--" 

 

"No, I want to do this."

 

Ann Walker’s smile was faint and not reassuring, but it was a smile, and Anne was eager to take it. She handed the bigger pair to Ann Walker, who slipped them on.

 

“Maybe it doesn’t matter so much. It’s my first time and I’m honestly not expecting much” Ann Walker chuckled and gave Anne a sad smile. That drew out a smirk from Anne, and she nodded. 

 

“We’ll see how you like it” she spoke, “I’m glad you’re joining me. It’s more fun, when you’ve got company.”

 

“Even if it’s just a beginner?” 

 

“Especially with a beginner. I get to show off” Anne joked and made Ann Walker huff amused. 

 

“Okay, are these your shoes, then?” Anne nudged towards Ann Walker’s feet.

 

“Yes” Ann Walker nodded, “I’m not sure I’m ready, but I think we best get on with it, before I’ve second thoughts.” Anne uttered a laugh and offered her hand to help Ann Walker up. 

 

They did a leisurely warm up, Ann Walker did some yoga, while Anne found a skipping rope. Anne was comfortably warm now, but Ann Walker looked pale and timid, so Anne decided to go easy on her. She explained the basics and showed a few easy moves, enjoying the focused frown on Ann Walker’s face and the slightly widening eyes every time she did something that required a bit more skill.  

 

Anne picked a problem for her and stood next to the wall smiling encouragingly to Ann Walker, who’d gotten some chalk on her hands. 

 

“See these little marks?” Anne pointed out a strip of black tape next to a hold, “these mark the start holds for your hands. And then just follow the same colour all the way up to the last hold.” Ann Walker's eyes travelled up the wall and stopped at the last bright yellow hold quite high up. 

 

“It looks worse than it is,” Anne read her mind. 

 

“What if… I fall?” Ann Walker muttered, her eyes still on the hold. Anne shrugged. 

 

“Then you’ll fall. It’ll give you a fright, but you won’t be hurt. Come on, you’ve got this.”

 

“Will you catch me?” 

 

At first, Anne thought she was joking, but the way Ann Walker’s lips tightened told her she was serious.

 

“No,” Anne replied bluntly. Ann Walker looked minutely horrified, “the mattress is much better at that” she was glad that managed to draw a dry chuckle out of Ann Walker, “but I will guide you. You’ve nothing to fear.” 

 

Anne was certain Ann Walker would protest, wipe the chalk off her hands and scurry back to the changing room, but instead she nodded barely visibly and stepped to the wall, placing her hands on the starting holds. Anne was about to tell her where to place her feet, but Ann Walker started climbing, and albeit it shaky and cumbersome, she managed all the way up, matched the last hold with her hands and hesitated for a second, before jumping down. She cast Anne a shy, uncertain smile, and Anne nodded approvingly, moderately impressed. 

 

“Alright, good. You move— very well. You actually listened to what I said” Anne went to her and offered her hand. 

 

“Of course I did” Ann Walker huffed and took Anne’s hand. Anne pulled her on her feet.

 

Goodness, I’d forgotten how light she is. She moved well. She looks nice. 

FOCUS. 

 

“Well, you’re the first. When I went with Mariana like 20 years ago she just whined and cried and threw a tantrum at me.” 

 

“Who’s Mariana?” 

 

“My ex-- friend. My friend.”

 

“Oh… Is she in your blog?”

 

“Mhh. She might be.”

 

“Is she Rebel?” Ann Walker cocked her head, “I mean, you refer to her as---”

 

Anne frowned gingerly, slightly taken aback. 

 

“Yes. Yes, she is. But” Anne smirked and put her finger on her lips. Ann Walker frowned.

 

“Why? She’s quite prominent in it.”

 

“Yes, but I don’t think she’d be overjoyed, if she knew that--”

 

“She doesn’t?” Ann Walker gasped, “God, does she not read it?”

 

“Ah---” Anne shrugged awkwardly.

 

Talk your way out. This isn’t a pinch. 

 

Ann Walker shook her head, her brows arched. 

 

“If I’d romance with you, I’d read every bit of it” she then scoffed and a nanosecond after blushed handsomely, “sorry, I’m s-- sorry--! I didn’t mean to---” 

 

It was Anne’s turn to chuckle dryly in shock. 

 

“I don’t romance with—“ 

 

“I do read your blog.” 

 

“Ahh. Mhhh.”

 

Don’t get smart with me. This is not a good day. That’s a strand of hair escaped from your braid. Can I brush it behind your ear?

F-O-C-U-S

 

“Okay, what’s next?” Ann Walker asked and turned to look at the wall. 

 

Anne scratched the back of her head, taking a few deep breaths, trying to appear like she was giving it a proper thought. Ann Walker took a few steps back, as if to give Anne space to process. 

 

“The green one?” Ann asked herself and looked at the problem to the right of the one she’d just topped. Anne cocked her head evaluatively and shrugged then. It seemed easy enough.

 

“Yes. There’s one longer move over there” Anne walked closer and pointed at the middle of the problem, “just focus on your feet and you’ll be fine.” 

 

“If I can’t do it on my first go—“ 

 

“Flash. It’s called flashing.” 

 

“If I can’t flash it, will you help me try again?” 

 

“That’s what I’m here for.”

 

Anne’s tone was sour and she feared it did not go unnoticed by Ann Walker. Ann Walker stepped back from the wall and turned to face Anne.

 

“Are you alright?” 

 

Anne dreaded the question, no matter who asked it. What was she supposed to say? No, frankly, she wasn’t. But whenever the question popped up, she wasn’t in a position or place to answer it. So she always swallowed a spoonful of honest, hard words and went on with her day. 

 

“Yes, I… Mhh” Anne tried. Keeping her words down proved hard today, apparently. She closed her eyes and sighed. 

 

“It’s… my ex. I told you she wants to meet. She’s been sending me texts these past few days and... “ she waved her hands, “it shouldn’t have an effect on me, but alas, it does, so…”

 

“I’m sure it would” Ann Walker agreed, “Do you want to meet her?”

 

Anne laughed dryly. 

 

“I… I don’t know. Not really. But it might make complicated things less complicated. Or more complicated, I don’t know. Right now… I guess I’m contemplating whether to take the risk or not.” 

 

Anne wished Ann Walker would say something, but she just looked at Anne, and Anne darted a look at her. Her expression was not sad or pitying, but Anne did get the feeling she was being carefully read. 

 

“Do you want to go home?” Ann Walker then asked, bowing her head shyly. Anne let out a disbelieving laugh.

 

“No, no, goodness, no” she huffed and shook her head, “It’s fine. I’m fine, I just need something else to think about. Which is why it’s perfect we’re here” she gestured with her hand, pretending to be slightly more excited than she was, “I guess… I’m just annoyed that she seems to dictate this one too. She always set the pace for everything. I’d… I’d like to set the pace this time.” 

 

Ann Walker hummed and cast Anne a warm smile.

 

“I know how you feel. Sometimes I think people forget I’m a living, breathing, thinking thing and not just something they can reel in and throw out whenever it suits them best” Ann Walker mumbled more to her hands than to Anne, “I’m glad you asked me here. I’m glad we came. No one knows I’m here. This is me setting the pace. For once.” At the last words she glanced at Anne and smirked mildly. 

 

Anne blinked, stunned on the spot. She didn’t exactly share Ann Walker’s feeling (she considered herself high above being reeled in by anyone or anything), but her words were balm to the curled up Anne inside her who felt very much like she’d been used. Forgetting to think, she stepped closer and brushed the strand of hair hanging on the side of Ann Walker’s face behind her ear. She regretted it immediately.

 

Stop.

STOP.

You are weak, because you feel lonely and sad.

This is too fast. 

You need to be more careful with her.

Slow and steady. 

Don’t get carried away.

Apologise.

Retreat.

DO

SOMETHING

 

Ann Walker did not flinch at the touch, but slowly stepped back instead, and the instant Anne felt her body prepare for the movement, she pulled her hand back. Ann Walker walked back to the chalk bag and applied more chalk on her hands. Anne took the moment to comb through her hair, trying to ground herself. This was a horribly bad day.  

 

“Guide me” she was startled by Ann Walker’s words. She hadn’t noticed she’d returned to the wall and held onto the starting hold already.

 

“Yes, of course” Anne muttered, blinking, forcibly turning her thoughts on the wall and only the wall.    

 

Ann Walker let out a determined sigh, and got to it. She managed the first four moves nicely, and overcame the big hard move Anne had warned her about, and a smile crept on Anne’s face, but then Ann Walker got stuck, her feet placed awkwardly, setting her balance off. She dropped down, looking annoyed and embarrassed.

 

"Good! You did the hard move just like that!" Anne practically beamed, "fantastic! I shall make a good climbing partner of you, you are clearly natural to it." 

 

"But I fell---" Ann Walker protested, eyeing the wall keenly.

 

"Hey-ho, everyone does, all the time, beginner or elite. But the way you move... Goodness, it's a joy to witness."

 

Purely platonically. She did well.

 

Ann Walker smirked as if doubting Anne’s words, shook her head and got on her feet. 

 

“Okay, now, my fingers hurt, I want to—“ 

 

“Oh, they will hurt much worse, but we go on, okay, we can’t stop now or you won’t develop calluses on your fingers and then--“ 

 

“Anne! I mean I want to see you climb now before I go on again” Ann Walker chuckled. Anne’s mouth hung ajar for a moment, but then she chuckled and smiled too. 

 

"Oh. Mhhm... Alright. Let me warm up first" Anne got some chalk and did a few climbs on her comfort grades before feeling adequately sweating and slightly pumped. 

 

"There” she jumped back down and shook her arms. The lovely familiar sense of effort and mild fatigue coursed through her, and she revelled in the feeling of becoming hyper-aware of her muscles again, “I'll take 7 minutes off, you can give it another go now."

 

Ann Walker looked at her, her mouth ajar with astonishment. 

 

"What?" Anne frowned and wiped the strands of hair that had fallen on her face back. 

 

"You... you looked like you were flying" Ann Walker muttered. Anne smiled and looked down. 

 

It’s just a compliment. Don’t let it get to you.

 

"Ahh" she huffed and waved her hand, "go on, then. Really drive from your feet when you get to the point where you fell off. And no fear, just try it, no matter if you fall."

 

Ann Walker nodded and went to the wall. Anne wanted to make up for having been a bit brusk and sour the whole morning, so she put on a bright smile and patted Ann Walker on the shoulder.

 

"Go on, you’ll do great!" Anne beamed, and Ann Walker turned to give her a doubtful look, blushing, before taking hold of the first holds. 

 

The small huff Ann Walker let out told Anne she’d been surprised by the strain on her body as soon as her feet left the mattress and she was on the wall. Despite the small break, Anne could see her legs trembling, but she kept going, slowly and timidly, move after move. A subtle fear tugged at Anne’s chest as she watched Ann Walker; she could see her fatigue and hoped she’d have the sense to jump down when she felt absolutely exhausted, rather than fall mid move, likely giving herself if not a bruise, then a fright at least. When Ann Walker got to the hold where she had stopped and eventually let go the first try, Anne could see she was hesitating. 

 

“Right leg high up” Anne tried to sound calm, although her heart rate suddenly soared. She wanted Ann Walker to do this, “come on. Steady. Focus.”

 

Anne could hear Ann Walker’s laborious breathing, but she dragged her right foot up to the foot hold Anne had pointed out. 

 

“Come on…” Anne muttered more to herself than to Ann Walker, who was desperately reaching with her right hand for the next hold, but it was too far away. She would need to pull hard with her left hand and put her weight on her right foot to reach it.

 

“Ah---” Anne heard her pant with effort and retreat. Anne shuffled her feet nervously and drew a sharp, short breath. Ann Walker huffed and Anne could see her body tense, before she yanked with her arms and jumped a bit, reaching for the penultimate hold. She surprised Anne, and judging by the relieved, elated chuckle, also herself, as she grabbed it firmly.

 

"Come on, love, that's it!" Anne couldn’t help cheering her on. She could hear Ann Walker chuckle in response, as she reached for the last hold and matched her hands with ease, albeit exhausted. She was shaking as she tried to climb down, and slipped and fell from halfway, squealing and gasping. Anne’s spirit soared and she dashed to her, taking her by the hands and picking her up like nothing. 

 

"You did it! Excellent, that was so smooth! Well done, well done indeed! How are your feet?" Anne blabbered, holding Ann Walker’s hands, almost marvelling at her. 

 

She tried again and she did it. I never would’ve thought of her.

 

"I-- Now that you say it, they're sore, but I didn't think it at all" Ann Walker chuckled, astonished. Anne smiled wide, so proud of Ann Walker. And she smiled back at her. Anne frowned minutely and let go off Ann Walker’s hands.

 

“You did well” she nodded, wanting to keep her distance now. 

 

“Thank you” Ann Walker sighed, “I thought I’d fall. I was so tired. Alright, your turn. I’ve done my part.” Ann Walker smiled expectantly. Anne chuckled and asked Ann Walker to choose a problem.

 

"What grade did I do just now?" Ann Walker asked. 

 

"V2."

 

"Okay, wait, gimme a second..." Ann Walker went around and stopped in front of a wall that was very overhanging. Anne watched as she browsed the problems, before pointing at the starting holds of a brown problem that was graded V9. 

 

"This one" she patted the starting holds. Anne grimaced minutely, but smiled when Ann Walker turned to look at her.

 

That’s pushing it. Well. No use crying about it.

 

"Ahh. Very well."

 

Anne rolled her shoulders, got some chalk and then took to it. The strain was immediate, but nothing she wasn’t used to. Outdoors would always be more gruelling, more challenging, more her, and she secretly prided on cruising the harder grades indoors. This, however, was well at the top of her range. She worked her core and shoulders well, keeping them active as she made her way up, moving her hands and feet thoughtfully, not wasting an ounce of energy. Wasted effort would have her tumbling down in a second. 

 

She could feel Ann Walker’s eyes on her, which aided her movements somewhat (she couldn’t help the show off in her). Also, she knew she probably looked quite striking now, having taken off her t-shirt (it was getting hot inside now that the sun was high up), the effort putting a strain on her body. She did a long move with her left hand, twisting her body and dropping her knee to maximize her reach, and caught the terrible crimp that marked the hardest part of the problem. She could feel sweat on her back and her brow, and her breathing turned more laborious every second she spent on the wall. 

 

Anne approached the last two moves, a high leg raise and a horrible mantle before a ridiculous top out. She wasn't giving up, though, no way. 

 

Better to slip and fall tired than to leave the girl unimpressed-- 

 

It was ridiculous and absolutely against every rule of safety she’d set for herself, and she knew it, but she felt reckless and mounted that feeling as her driving force now. She managed the leg raise, thanking herself for all the years spent training, and despite a break from climbing, she did still have her agility. But the mantle was proving hard. She pushed herself up, locking off with her right arm, balancing on the lip for a while, feeling unable to fight the last inch. Her right arm shook and she struggled with the lock off, feeling herself drop half an inch. She was clenching her teeth when a cheer from below rang in her ears. 

 

“Come on, Anne!”

 

Fuck it. COME ON!

 

That got her to push so hard with her left leg she felt a cramp coming in, but she reached the last crimp and pulled herself up with a content sigh. The last hold for the top out was a jug and it felt light and easy. Ann Walker had picked her the hardest problem she'd done indoors for a while, and possibly the longest overhanging one in at least two months. At the top, she took her time catching her breath. 

 

"You're too old for this" she muttered, but couldn’t help smiling to herself, knowing she actually thought the very opposite. She let out a sigh and wiped sweat from her brow. Ann Walker was beaming at her from below. Anne came down from around and greeted Ann Walker with a smile. 

 

“That was amazing!” Ann Walker clasped her hands together.

 

"It was. I was certain I'd fall; I was so tired... Thank you for cheering me on. I couldn't have done it without you" Anne was panting, her hands on her knees, bent down, but casting a smile up to Ann Walker, before straightening and brushing her hair back. 

 

“Alright. What’s next for me?” Ann Walker asked. 

 

Anne raised her brow. By now, Mariana would’ve been at the cafeteria bored out of her wits, and Vere wouldn’t have joined her in the first place. Ann Walker, however, went on for a few more easy climbs, falling off an annoying V2 three times before finally topping the problem. And when she did, she dropped down and came to Anne, out of breath but beaming with joy. 

 

“That’s it. I can’t---” she gasped and slumped down on the mattress. Anne chuckled and put her hands on her hips. 

 

“You did so well” she did mean it. She was proud of Ann Walker, “How are your hands? If you didn’t absolutely hate it, would you like to come again? I’ll take you again next week if you wish—“ 

 

“Only next week? Can’t we come tomorrow?” 

 

“Ahh— you’ll be tired and sore tomorrow” Anne chuckled heartily, ”Better give it a rest.”

 

“Oh. Oh I see. I can’t next week” Ann Walker panted, closing her eyes, “I’m going to… my cousin’s summer house. In the Lakes.”  

 

“For the whole week?” 

 

“For the whole month” Ann Walker replied, “I’ve always spent my Julys there, ever since I was a teen. I’ve not been for two years, so Cath was-- my cousin, Cath, made me swear I’d come this year.” Ann Walker had sat back up and was looking at Anne with a slight, sad frown on her face. 

 

“Oh” was all Anne could say.

 

Very well. I misread it. She doesn’t like me that much. Hmm. I see.

 

“I hope you’ll have fun” Anne then added and pretended to be adjusting her climbing jeans. 

 

“I hope so too” Ann Walker sighed, “to be honest they’ve all been a bit… I don’t know… even more pushy than usual. And they asked about you, Cath and Delia. Her sister.”

 

“Oh? Did they now?” Anne smirked, looking at Ann Walker from under her brow. 

 

“Yes. Cath wanted to make sure you haven’t “tried anything” with me” Ann Walker mused with a smirk dangling on her lips, “apparently she thinks you’re a skirt chaser.”

 

Anne laughed out loud and tossed her head back.

 

“You’ll have to ask her to return her vocabulary to the 70s” she replied and Ann Walker giggled, “what did you tell her?” 

 

“That it isn’t contagious.”

 

“What isn’t?”

 

“Being gay” Ann Walker replied. Anne let out a soft laugh. 

 

“Are you sure, though?” she joked and grinned. Ann Walker pursed her lips, but couldn’t hold back a smirk, as she tossed the chalk bag angrily at Anne, who caught it chuckling.

 

“Do you still have one more try in you?” Ann Walker smiled and pointed at a problem, a slab, a crimpy bugger.

 

“That blue V6?” Anne asked. Ann Walker nodded, “Any day” Anne tossed her head back a bit cocky, taking a wide stand. 

 

“Well, then” Ann Walker nodded towards the well, making Anne smirk, “I’ll sit here and enjoy.”

 

Anne scoffed and laughed, cracking her fingers. She took chalk and rolled around her ankles to stretch and tease Ann Walker a little. She got on the wall, feeling confident. Her shoes held on the crimps nicely and her fingers found the slots to hold, feeling strong, if tired. The problem wasn’t the easiest V6, and she was fatigued, but she finished neatly without showing her fatigue to Ann Walker. She jumped down and did a forward roll, landing next to Ann Walker. 

 

“How’s that?” She mused and Ann Walker pushed her gently on the shoulder. 

 

“Very neat. Bit of a show off but—“ 

 

“Excuse me?” Anne pretended to be shocked.

 

“Well, I think you could have moved smoother and landed with more elegance--“ 

 

“I’m sorry it did not please your highness” Anne tossed on her back, “I’m done, what about you?” 

 

“Knackered” Ann Walker admitted, “I’ve not felt so sucked dry of all energy in a good way for a long while.”

 

“Good. I’ve got an idea for the perfect rest. Would you be up for hearing it?” Anne lay back, resting on her elbows. 

 

“Does it involve getting up?”

 

“Unfortunately” Anne smiled, rolled on her stomach and got up on her feet in one swift move.

 

“Alright then” Ann Walker extended her arms expectantly and, chuckling, Anne took her hands and pulled her up, “thank you, Anne. I can’t believe how much fun I’ve had with you. You’ve made being home not only tolerable, but… Enjoyable. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m so glad we met.” She brushed the back of Anne’s hands with her thumbs tenderly. 

 

Are you?

 

Anne beamed at her and in the rush of the moment, pressed her forehead quickly to Ann Walker’s, being so near and so very happy to hear her words. Ann Walker gasped and jolted a bit, which made Anne retreat in a nanosecond. 

 

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—“ 

 

You blithering idiot.

 

“No, no, it’s fine, I’m sorry, I was just taken by surprise—“ Ann Walker stepped back, dropping Anne’s hand, frowning and looking away.

 

“No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have, I just—“ Anne tried to desperately come up with any explanation, but she felt tongue-tied. 

 

“It’s fine,” Ann Walker said firmly and gave Anne a tight-lipped smile, “what did you have in mind?”

 

***

 

Ann had watched bouldering videos for three hours yesterday evening. She had practiced the basic moves in her living room. She had stretched. She had read about shoes and equipment and tips for beginners. She had decided she did not want to look like an idiot in front of Anne Lister. She had not wanted to be flustered. 

 

She had done well, she thought. At least Anne Lister had appeared happy and had praised her. Her plan had worked; she’d seemed interested. In control. Collected, calm. Focused. At least when Anne Lister’s smile was not shattering her to a million little squirming pieces of nervousness. She’d been more than grateful when it had been over. She had even congratulated herself; Anne Lister had no longer been sour, and Ann hadn’t absolutely embarrassed herself.

 

Oh shit. She saw me looking. Did she? She did.

 

Nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared her, however, for what followed their climbing. She had barely survived Anne Lister’s prowess on the wall (How could anyone look that good? Objectively, of course). After she’d felt her legs give in the first time Anne Lister had briefly touched her, she’d kept her distance, at the cost of seeming rude and unfriendly. But sitting in the steam room at the nearby fitness centre with Anne Lister was proving too much. 

 

Anne Lister tied her towel around her waist, leaving her chest bare. Ann had learned that in the dressing room. Anne Lister sat back, having combed her wet hair back with a few hasty strokes. Anne Lister looked softer with clothes on; Ann tried not to look, but her sinewy, shredded, lanky figure was hard to leave. 

 

Ann fiddled with her own towel, making sure it covered her well enough. She had opened her braid, and her wet hair now clung to her back in the heat of the steam, making it a tad harder to move her head swiftly, if she needed. 

 

Maybe she didn’t. Wait. Is she looking at me? Lord, why can’t I just… evaporate.

 

“I like this place,” Anne Lister spoke.

 

Yes. She saw me. Oh f---

 

“Mhh” Ann hummed, “do you… come here often?”

 

“If I’m climbing, yes” Anne Lister replied, “the sorry shower at the gym doesn’t really appeal to me. How do you like it?”

 

“I-- It’s nice” Ann stuttered, “helps--- my muscles relax. I-- I didn’t think I’d be this tired, to be honest.”

 

Anne Lister let out a low hum in agreement.

 

“It feels like you use every single muscle in your body, when you climb” Ann could see her sit straight and comb through her hair again, “it tires you in a very specific way.” 

 

She turned her eyes to Ann and smiled. Ann felt her blood rush to her head, and her chest filled with a gentle flutter. She took a deep breath and nearly coughed, when the hot steam tickled her windpipe. 

 

“I suppose” she managed, before covering her mouth with her hand. 

 

Please don’t look at me. I’m nothing to look at. 

 

“You did well” Anne Lister said, “I know I already told you that, but I’m really quite impressed.” Her smirk was teasing, but genuine, too. Ann bit her lip and fought back a blush of embarrassment. 

 

“I did--- look up a few things before--- just because I didn’t want to… you know, seem like an absolute novice---”

 

“Oh, I see” Anne Lister laughed softly, “no worries. You did seem like an absolute novice.”

 

Ann gasped, laughing shocked, but then she inhaled the steam and it made her cough. She doubled over, and before she knew it, Anne Lister was on her knees in front of her, her hand landing on Ann’s shoulder. 

 

“Are you alright?”

 

No. No, for fuck’s sake. Where do I fucking look? 

 

Ann nodded frantically and pressed her eyes shut.  

 

“Y--- Ye-- Yes, it’s just--- j-- just-- the ste-- steam---” 

 

“Come” Anne Lister took her by the shoulders and practically lifted her on her feet, “let’s get you out, and I don’t think a glass of water would hurt.” 

 

Ann but nodded in agreement, feeling dizzy suddenly. 

 

Must be the heat. I never was good with it. How could I’ve known this is what you had in mind? Don’t let go. 

 

Ann let Anne Lister walk her to the showers and sit her down on a bench. 

 

“Catch your breath” Anne Lister spoke, looking at Ann with a light concerned frown on her face, “I’ll get you a drink.” Ann nodded and closed her eyes. She didn’t open them until she was certain Anne Lister had gone. Her dizziness subsided. 

 

***

 

“Would you….?” Ann felt the words sticking at the back of her mouth, “I was planning on making pancakes f-- f-- for lunch. You could stay, if you’d like---” 

 

The drive back home had been quiet and awkward. Anne Lister had tried to make some conversation, but Ann’s head had been buzzing with fatigue and confusion, and she’d given her short replies and snappy comments, when she’d told Ann about hiking and climbing alone.

 

“Don’t you care about your family?” Ann had said, “how do they feel about you doing something so dangerous all alone? What if something happens?”

 

Anne Lister’s grip on the steering wheel had tightened. Ann had looked away. 

 

“I spent enough many years thinking about what other people think about me,” Anne Lister had replied, then, “I live for myself.” 

 

The casual conversation had died there. Ann had felt hollow; clearly she had hurt Anne Lister with her words, and likely also annoyed her with her hesitation in her company. She despised herself for it, but she couldn’t help it. 

 

Anne Lister touching her even minutely had felt so good she felt like she was floating, full of happy, bright light. But the whole thing simultaneously made her stomach turn. She couldn’t be touched. She hadn’t been touched for so long, and she wasn’t used to it. No matter how much she rejoiced Anne Lister’s hugs. No matter how wonderful it felt when Anne Lister helped her up, patted her shoulder, crouched to look at her to make sure she was alright, taking her hands into hers. There was just a mighty wall to climb, an inbuilt safety mechanism to guard her from all touch, however deprived and in dire need of it she was.

 

She tried to make up for it now. She did not want Anne Lister to go. She did not want Anne Lister to be cross with her. She prayed she’d stay. 

 

Anne Lister looked ponderous, but then she cracked a shy smile.

 

“Mhh. Sounds lovely” she nodded, “and I am hungry.” 

 

Ann smiled, uncertain, but relieved. 

 

“Great. It shouldn’t take too long” she muttered. Anne Lister just nodded and got out of the car. Ann followed suit and made her way to the front door, while Anne Lister got their bags from the trunk. 

 

“Where can I put my towel and clothes to dry?” Anne Lister asked, stepping past Ann in the doorway, dropping Ann’s bag on the floor. 

 

“There’s-- uhm--- a-- a-- utility room, at the back, in--- through the kitchen.” 

 

“Thank you” Anne Lister strode across the hallway. Ann picked up her bag and followed cautiously. Anne Lister had smiled, but she was clearly still a bit prickly. 

 

The pancakes will humour her. She likes all things baked.

 

Anne Lister had found the drying rack and was halfway done putting her kit to dry when Ann caught up with her. 

 

“Oh, please, help yourself to--- there’s juice and--- tea, if you like” Ann smiled and approached Anne Lister, who dusted her climbing jeans. Ann didn’t understand how anyone could move like that in a pair of jeans. 

 

“Thank you” Anne Lister replied and set her jeans on the rack, too, “anything for you?” she asked, passing Ann on her way to the kitchen. 

 

“Oh, no, no thank you. I’ll help myself, when I’m---”

 

“Excellent.” 

 

Ann frowned and got to setting her own clothes to dry. She heard Anne Lister open and close a cupboard and then the fridge. Anger and guilt started to boil in the pit of her stomach. She knew she could’ve been more delicate and friendly with Anne Lister, but Anne Lister had no right to just storm into her home, her utility room, her kitchen, and behave like a 5-year-old. Grunting, Ann set her things on the rack and marched to the kitchen, suddenly encouraged to ask Anne Lister what the hell she was pissed off about.

 

When she stepped in the kitchen, she couldn’t see Anne Lister. There were two glasses of orange juice on the counter, and then Anne Lister appeared, standing up from behind the kitchen island. 

 

“I’m sorry. I was trying to find flour and a bowl. That is what you need for pancakes, isn’t it?” she asked and blinked looking slightly confused. Ann bit her lip to not smile too wide. 

 

“Yes. And a few other things.”

 

“Ah. Yes, I figured.”

 

“Did you?”

 

“Well… an apron?” Anne Lister tried and smiled at Ann apologetically. Ann tittered in response. 

 

“Why don’t you leave this to me?” she suggested. 

 

“And do what? Loiter around?” Anne Lister argued, “I don’t like to be idle.”

 

“Well, bowls are in the bottom left drawer” Ann signalled with her hand, and Anne Lister crouched immediately, “take a big one. And then you can bring me eggs and milk from the fridge.” 

 

While Anne Lister was at it, Ann found herself an apron and the flour Anne Lister had tried to locate. Turns out Anne Lister didn’t mind being idle in the end; she quite comfortably sat on the counter and watched Ann mix the batter. Ann glanced at her quickly and noticed Anne Lister’s eyes were keen on the bowl.

 

Either she’s trying to memorize what I’m doing or she’s really hungry.

 

“Could you get me a frying pan ready?” Ann asked and Anne Lister jolted a little at her words, “right bottom cupboard by the stove.” Normally Ann would’ve let the batter rest for a while, but Anne Lister was hungry, so she got onto frying the pancakes. Anne Lister looked like she wanted something to do, so Ann asked her to set the table for them and put the ingredients back. She didn’t brag, but she was good with pancakes and the stack grew steadily. 

 

“Right, all done!” Anne Lister declared and came to Ann, “how’re you doing over here?” she looked at the pan expectantly. Ann darted her eyes at Anne Lister, and couldn’t hold back a laugh. Anne Lister frowned and turned to look at Ann, combing through her hair.

 

“Oh no, don’t---!” Ann giggled, “you’ve got flour on your face. And hand. And hair now.”

 

Anne Lister looked at her hands, displeased, and tried to shake the flour off. Ann stepped to the sink and reached for the kitchen towel. 

 

“Here--” she turned to Anne Lister who took the towel and wiped her hands clean. Ann felt the giddy light pour into her being again, and for a split second she forgot about herself, about everything, extended her arm and gently brushed the flour off Anne Lister’s cheek with her thumb. 

 

She’s soft. I thought she’d be made of rock. OH LORD.

 

Anne Lister stared at her, her mouth slightly ajar, her hands coming to a halt. Ann wanted to pull her hand back quickly, but moving any part of her body felt like she was trying to run in tar.

 

“I’m sorry” she managed to peep. 

 

“I’m alright,” Anne Lister muttered, and then tsked, frowning, “I mean, it’s alright.” She wiped her cheek with the towel, stepping back a notch. 

 

“No, I really am--” Ann lamented, but the doorbell rang and made them both jump in a mild fright. 

 

“Could you get that?” Ann asked, glancing at the pancake on the pan, “unless you want to--”

 

“No, no” Anne Lister put her hands up and made Ann laugh, “I’ll go.”

 

“Thank you. It’s probably just my aunt, anyway!” she called after Anne Lister, who’d disappeared in the hallway already.

 

***

 

Anne Lister bit her bottom lip to stop a grin. This girl was not straight. She wasn’t gay, not right away, probably not, or she hardly knew it herself, but there was a glimmer in her eyes when she looked at Anne, and Anne was determined to pull out a stronger reaction. Her hand on Anne’s cheek had surprised them both, and even Anne had to admit she had, if only just for a fraction of a second, flat-lined at the touch. 

 

This would be a fun little play, and she herself might end up lucky - Ann was nice, kind and funny, and if she was fond enough of Anne, she might be persuaded, with care, to spend at least a few heated months with her. If not longer. 

 

Don’t get ahead of things.

 

God she looked cute, why did she have such a cute, beautiful face, Anne cursed. She wanted to open that messy bun, run her fingers through Ann’s hair, cup the back of her head and pull her in for a nice little kiss— 

 

Alright, stop. One step at a time. Don’t let yourself ramble like that, not even in your head.

 

She reached the front door and hoped she did not have any more flour on her cheeks, and pulled on her most pleasing smile, before opening the door. 

“Oh!” 

 

A blonde, tan woman greeted her, her mouth a round o. Next to her stood a shabby looking young man with unkempt hair and beard. Anne put her weight on her back foot and placed her hand on her hip.

 

“Hello” she greeted them cautiously, “how can I help you?” 

 

“Oh, ah, hello” the woman spoke again, glancing back to the man, who just shrugged lazily, “I was--- we were just wondering, is Ann home? I’m Harriet, her friend---”

 

“Ah. The one from India” Anne clarified and the woman nodded. Anne turned to look at the man. She couldn’t help a disapproving frown at the sight of him.

 

“Oh, yeah, sorry--- Ryan, I’m Ryan. From--”

 

“India as well” Anne filled in, “I see. Yes, she’s home. She’s just cooking. Come in.”

 

Anne wasn’t certain suddenly she wanted the pair in the house at all, but it wasn’t in her power to turn Ann’s guests away without asking Ann first. 

 

“Ann?” the Harriet woman called out to Ann as soon as she was in the house. Anne winced at the high pitched tone. 

 

“In the kitchen” she guided somewhat sourly, but opened the door to the pair of them. The Ryan man slumped his backpack in the middle of the hallway floor, before following the Harriet woman. Anne grimaced, when the kitchen was suddenly filled with an excited shriek. 

 

That wasn’t Ann.

 

“ANN!”

 

“Oh my gosh, Hettie!” Anne heard Ann, “what are you doing here--- oh!” Anne heard Ann exclaim and then a loud clang. Anne stepped in the kitchen and saw that Ann had dropped the frying pan.

 

“R--Ryan--!” Anne saw Ann cast the man a terrified smile, “how’re--- how’re you both--- here?” her chuckle was nervous and she crouched to pick up the pan. Anne strode past the guests to Ann. 

 

“Let me” she mumbled to Ann and took the pan from her trembling hands. Ann closed her eyes and took a deep breath, before nodding. 

 

“We just got home, and I had to come see you!” Harriet’s volume was still a bit too loud for the venue, “we just got to Huddersfield late last night!”

 

“I-- I didn’t know you were coming home!” Ann spoke, her voice trembling. Anne set the pan back on the stove, but turned the heat off. 

 

“I didn’t either, but we just figured it’s time and we missed you!” Harriet was practically jumping up and down, before she finally dashed to Ann and hugged her. 

 

“We?”

 

“Yeah, Annie, good to see you” Ryan moved closer and opened his arms to hug Ann as Harriet pulled away. 

 

“Ann?” Anne interrupted, “the batter?” 

 

“Oh!” Ann turned back to the stove, “gosh, I forgot--! I’m sorry, Anne, where’d you put the pan? I’ll--- I’ll just quickly rinse this and fry the rest of them---” Ann got the pan and took it to the sink, opening the tap. The pan sizzled and Ann dropped it again. 

 

“Oh, god, I’m sorry!” she pleaded, “I--- we were just making lunch, and I’m--- surprised! You got me! I had no idea---” 

 

“You haven’t gotten our card?” Harriet asked.

 

“Wha--- no” Ann replied, turning to look at Harriet. Anne could see the colour draining from her face. 

 

“Oh gosh, I really thought it’d reached you by now, cos---” Harriet looked like she was about to burst, “Ann, when you left, we--- we’re dating!” she jumped and took a hold on Ryan’s arm. Anne turned to hide the incredulous grimace on her face. 

 

“What…” Ann’s response was barely audible. 

 

“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? The week after you left he took me on this most romantic hike on the hills nearby, and I just---” Harriet smiled and shook her head, “it just all clicked, didn’t it?” 

 

“Yeah, it really worked out” Ryan nodded, “anyways, we thought we’d try life back at home together for now.”

 

“I’m so--- happy for you” Ann sputtered. 

 

“I’m sorry we just turn up on your doorstep like this!” Harrie continued, “didn’t know you’d have company” she nudged towards Anne, who tried her best not to purse her lips.

 

“Oh, no, no worries!” Ann hurried, “you just… you know your way around here, take a seat in the living room, I’ll just finish up here, if that’s alright.”

 

“Yeah, yeah of course!” Harriet agreed. She did seem to know her way around the house, for she just got them both a glass of water, before they left the kitchen. Ann let out a soft cry and collapsed. Anne rushed to her and crouched by her side.

 

“Is that--- Is that him?” she already knew the answer. Ann only nodded and sniffed. Anne felt a knot of anger form in her gut. 

 

“I’ll tell them to leave,” she said sternly. 

 

“No!” Ann pleaded, taking a hold on Anne’s arm, “no, I’m glad… to see Harriet, and I don’t want them to think ill of me--”

 

“Ill? Ill of you? He groped you!” Anne snarled, “don’t tell me he didn’t. You’re as pale as a ghost, Ann--”

 

“I don’t want to upset her” Ann shook her head, “just… Can you stay? While they’re here? I can’t--- I don’t want there to be a chance that I’m alone with him. He won’t do anything, I know that, but I just… Please---”

 

“Of course” Anne interrupted her and cupped her cheek, “of course I will. It’s alright. I’ll bore them with… I don’t know, Marian’s puns or something. They'll leave in 5 minutes.” Ann let out the faintest titter. 

 

“I doubt… you could bore anyone even if you tried.”



Chapter Text

Calm, fair day. Out early to Leeds with Miss W--. Her first time climbing. She did well, though admitted having watched tutorials last night. Had lunch at Crow Nest with Miss W--, pancakes. Miss W--’s friends from India popped by. The girl, Harriet, tolerable, but noisy and much too enthusiastic. The boy, Ryan, an absolute noodle. Miss W-- told me he harassed her in Himachal Pradesh; one of the reasons why she left for home. Miss W-- pale and trembling when they arrived - he had the nerve to try and approach her! Would have told them to leave, but Miss W-- said no!-- she did not wish to insult them. They are, to boot, a new couple, which makes the whole thing all the more outrageous. Apparently Miss Harriet has no idea about what went on with her waste-of-space boyfriend and her friend before. Staid with Miss W-- while they were there - did not feel comfortable leaving her alone. There can’t be anything worse than having to listen to travel stories from people who haven’t done anything of interest and lack the talent to at least make it sound like they have. Asked the boy why he chose the volunteer program he was on. He said--- to make a difference. Vapid half-person. I said--- bit of a philanthropist, are you? --- what’s that, he said. Composed myself but I heard Miss W-- giggle. He said he was very much in love with Harriet, how he had realised it when Miss W-- had left and they were alone. So cross with his words and behaviour that I snapped in two the wooden paper knife I had been toying with! Miss W--’s cousin brought it from South Africa--- really truly sorry I broke it. Cut my hand handsomely as well--- Miss W-- dismissing the whole thing, more worried for my wound. Very attentive. Said how sorry I was, how could I replace it, she said no--- it didn’t matter. Promised I would think of something. She said she would hold it just as dear. No doubt the hassle  about my cut proved much to them, and they left, having staid barely an hour. Miss W-- timorous until the moment they left. His presence no doubt shocking to her, and his visit unwanted. He seemed annoyingly harmless, dumb as a boot--- hard to say whether he enjoyed seeing her so shaky or not--- a simpleton like that might not even think he’s done any harm. How it pains me that someone so absolutely useless has hurt her so much! Lingered for a few more hours at Crow Nest-- a good walk in the garden, tea and the rest of the pancakes in the sunroom. Miss W--’s mood greatly relaxed and elated once we were alone.

 

What a curious little thing she is! One minute she seems nothing but comfortable in my presence; the other she pulls back and acts cool. I don’t quite know what to make of it all, but I’ve seen the way she looks at me. I am now all too aware that she has some kind of emotional baggage that prevents her from thoroughly enjoying my company, something she has not shared with me yet, something that makes her avoid my touch and herself touching me. Either it will prove a problem or it will dissolve with time-- I will spend more time with her-- I have decided to pursue this woman. I am not certain of anything yet, but I find her company pleasing and her person relatively interesting; good education, clearly something of an adventurous nature, albeit a bit lost with herself for now at least. And, if I construe correctly from her talking and manner, she is probably the cutest and most innocent queer woman I have ever come across, though she hardly knows it herself. That alone makes it worthwhile to get closer to her. I find I am somewhat smitten with her; today it was nigh impossible to think straight (pun intended) in her presence. Could hardly take my eyes off her, stumbling on my words etc. I must take care not to push her in any way. I might be wrong (rare, but not unheard of), and I don’t want to risk losing her friendship over folly summer infatuation. Testing the water today; as I was leaving, we were joking about one thing or the other, she lamenting about how it is her lot in life to periodically have some man pester her, wishing she’d have me by her side to shoo them off. Said I would happily, as I was very fond of her already. Said I reckoned she felt the same about me. How I confused her! Said I regretted telling her, she must think badly of me or despise me, no! -- she, unwavering, said she never could think ill of me. She said she was glad I had told her, shaking her head, though, saying she did not know what to think. Then said she was fond of me too, but rather as a friend. Took her hand and told her very firmly she needn’t be afraid; I would not hurt her, and would always respect our friendship over everything. Thought to myself I was only flirting, but how my heart raced! She timid still, when I held her hand, but much less so than before. I will give her space now, and not visit for a day or two -- she seemed shaken and in need of space for her thoughts. She is to go to the Lakes next week for a month. I am sorry to see her go, but I have a feeling I needn’t fear losing her affection. She will likely be in touch sooner or later. In any case, some time alone to reflect and compose is welcome.

 

Anne tossed her pen to the pencil holder on her desk and sat back with a sigh, a content smile on her lips. 

 

Quite a day.

 

The cut on her palm had gone from bluntly aching to itching, and she tapped the patch on it lightly. It meant no climbing for some time, but she didn’t mind. Other matters were more pressing, more engaging now. 

 

She pressed her phone’s home button to check the time and remembered she’d promised to call Vere today. The mere thought of it made her stretch her neck irritated. The bubbly, elated feeling in her chest was gone, and all of a sudden her lungs shrunk and she felt she couldn’t fill them no matter how deep a breath she took. She knew the matter couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be avoided, but she was standing on a mental cliff’s edge. She had pushed all memory of Vere so far away she struggled to remember what she looked, smelled and sounded like, but the prospect of contacting Vere again blew a heavy wind over a valley covered in fog, revealing a landscape of memories painfully clear and raw. She shot up from her chair and very nearly sent another phone flying across the room, but controlled herself and just firmly patted her desk.

 

Don’t be a fool. You need to make your peace with it.

 

She opened her phone, found Vere’s number and brought the phone to her ear. Perhaps she was busy and wouldn’t pick up. That’d give Anne some more time to avoid getting in touch. 

 

Nonsense. You don’t need more time. 

 

“Hello?” 

 

Anne was not prepared to hear her voice.

 

“Hello…? Anne? Is that you?”

 

“Ye-- yes. Hello.” 

 

“Oh, thank god!”

 

Anne clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. The relief in Vere’s tone was unbearable to hear. 

 

“I’ve been so worried, you didn’t say anything--- I thought you hated me!”

 

That isn’t entirely out of the picture.

 

 “I’m sorry” Anne managed to whisper, “how are you?”

 

“Oh, me? Good. It’s--- I’m good. And you? Are you in London?”

 

“No, I’m home. For the time being.”

 

“Oh. I see. What’s the weather like in Halifax?”

 

Is that what you wanted to talk about? The weather?  

 

“It’s a lovely summer evening.” 

 

“That’s nice. It’s looking like a windy night here. Donald’s just gotten back from---”

 

“What did you want to talk about?” Anne spat, cutting Vere off. Her shoulders tensed and she bit her lip. 

 

“Anne, I---” Vere started, but fell silent. Anne didn’t encourage her to continue. 

 

“Anne, I’m sorry.” 

 

“About what?” Anne huffed and avoided a sniff by quietly wiping her nose to the back of her hand. 

 

“About… how we parted. I didn’t--- and please believe me--- I didn’t realize we were not… on the same page about-- Well, you know.” 

 

Do I? You can’t even say it out loud. 

 

“Anne?”

 

“Mhh?”

 

“Are you still there?”

 

“... Yes.” 

 

“Are you in London any time soon?” Vere asked, her whisper so kind and gentle it shattered Anne’s heart, “I’d really much rather talk to you face to face.” 

 

“I… I don’t know.” 

 

I don’t know about London. I don’t know about talking face to face.

 

“Well, I’m… I’m going next week. Let me know if you--”

 

“I’ll think about it.” 

 

“Thank you. Oh, I could bring your hoodie. You forgot it here.”

 

“Oh. Which one?”

 

“The Calvin Klein one. The one I… The one I borrowed.”

 

Anne felt a rapid, stinging frost grow over her lungs. The one Vere had borrowed. The one she’d snatched to herself every time she was cold and they’d cuddle on the sofa in front of the fireplace under the massive blanket. 

 

“You can keep it.” Anne let the phone drop from her ear. 

 

“Anne. Anne!” She heard Vere call her and reluctantly brought the phone to her ear again, “Anne, I don’t want there to be bad blood between us--”

 

“There isn’t” Anne croaked, “I have to go now.” 

 

“Anne---!” 

 

Anne ended the call before she could hear one more word from Vere. She shook, and with trembling hands she turned off her phone and tossed it on the desk. A stiffening wave of shock washed over her, and as soon as it was over, she felt a bout of nausea coming in. She rushed out of her study, down the corridor to the bathroom and barely had the time to shut the door before throwing herself over the toilet and emptying her stomach. 

 

The cramp in her gut refused to relent and it had her gagging and gasping curled up on the bathroom floor for a good while. Gingerly, she rubbed her stomach, steadied her breathing, letting the weird but welcome physical bliss that followed vomiting sooth her. When she felt like she could move again, she carefully sat up and rested against the sink cabinet, wiping her mouth to her hand. The coarse patch on her palm brushed against her lips and she was gently reminded that other things had happened today.  

 

She had a new person in her hands now. Someone interesting. Interesting enough to provide Anne with the distraction she desperately now needed. And she just might prove good enough. A friend, if nothing else. Someone who still wanted her company. So, she’d concentrate on her. Her fae of a neighbour.



***

 

Ann sat down on the utility room floor and rested against the quietly humming washing machine. Anne Lister had just left, packed her things back to her holdall bag; Ann could still smell her - well, she wasn’t sure if it was her perfume or shampoo or just… Anne Lister, but there was still a whiff of sweat, salt, juniper and rosemary in the air. Anne Lister had just left. Anne Lister had just left and said---

 

“You dealt with him so… well. I wish I’d always have you with me” Ann had shaken her head, smiling sadly. 

 

“You could have” Anne Lister had said, in the doorway, her smile bright, but a bit shy. 

 

“Hmm?” Ann had bit her lip, given Anne Lister a minute head shake. 

 

“I-- I could be here. For you. If you-- If that’s what you want.” 

 

Anne Lister had stepped closer, brushing Ann’s hand gingerly. 

 

“What…?” 

 

“I… Mhh… I’ve come to care about you, Ann” Anne Lister had whispered, locking eyes with Ann, “and I think you feel the same way about me.”

 

Ann buried her face in her hands and groaned. Something clonked loudly in the washing machine, and made her jolt. Ann had wanted to take Anne Lister’s hand, but instead she had pulled away, stepping back. Anne Lister’s smile had dropped and she’d bowed her head. Anne Lister had muttered she was sorry. Ann’s heart had clenched. 

 

“I’m sorry” Anne Lister had said, “You must think so poorly of me. You’ve just been forced to meet the guy who harassed you, and here I am---”

 

“No, Anne, I---”

 

“Forcing myself on you, not one bit better---”

 

Ann had finally taken her hand. Assured her she was a thousand times better than Ryan. Anne Lister had lamented her conduct and how Ann must despise her now. Ann had very firmly told her she could never despise Anne Lister. Anne Lister had nodded and stepped back, and had looked at Ann evaluatively, her head tilted. 

 

“Well, I… Have I… Misunderstood you?” Anne Lister had said. Ann’s heart had pounded in her chest like roaring thunder. 

 

“No, I… I care about you, too, Anne, just... “ her words had just been a quivering breath. Anne Lister had pursed her lips minutely, then smiled and nodded.

 

“I understand. I’m sorry, I’ve insulted you---”

 

“No, no you haven’t, Anne--”

 

“No, I have. And I’m sorry.”

 

Anne Lister had assured her she valued their friendship and would do anything to protect and respect it. Ann had wanted to take her hand, but hadn't dared approach Anne Lister. 

 

“You don’t need to be frightened. And I hope this won’t make things awkward” Anne Lister had said, “I will never hurt you, Ann, and I’m grateful and delighted to have you as my friend. I hope that won’t change.”

 

Ann had only managed to shake her head. Anne Lister had just briefly patted her on the shoulder quite cumbersomely, and left. They’d shared one shy smile before Anne Lister had gotten into her car. Ann had only returned inside, when she could no longer see Anne Lister’s car driving down the driveway. 

 

Ann had wanted to say something. She had wanted to say how her heart leapt when Anne Lister smiled at her. How she felt like she was floating when Anne Lister touched her. How every hug they shared seemed to take away an ache on her body. Anne Lister brought such light to her days, and she never wanted to lose her. She had wanted to say all of that, but of course she couldn’t tell Anne Lister. How embarrassing and off-putting would that be.

 

Anne Lister told me she liked me.

 

The thought brought a faint smile on her lips. 

 

Anne Lister told me she cared about me. Well. That isn’t the same as liking me. There’s not much to like about me. 

 

But she did say that. 

 

Ann got up, smiling, biting her lip. She cared very much about Anne Lister, too. She left the laundry room, turned off the light and closed the door. A frown took over her expression. 

 

She’ll get bored of me. I’m not what she’s looking for. I read her blog. I know what she wants. I can’t give her that. She’ll be fed up with me. Either as a friend or--- Well, as a friend.

 

She spotted the frying pan in the sink, their glasses and plates on the stone counter. She fought a smile and shook her head.

 

But she did say that.



***

 

Cloudy for two days now. Visited Eliza again yesterday-- she still did not want to receive me. Left her a little note, and she called this morning-- on the phone for ½ hour. She poorly for some time now, did not want to see me, being cranky and tired. I very sympathetic. Said nothing about Vere or having befriended Miss W-- Such talk always upsets her. Ended the phone call very good friends. Out with Jack and Argus for 1 ½ hours after lunch. Planning on visiting Miss W-- briefly this evening; she travels to the Lakes tomorrow. I have kept my distance; only brief texting, she asking about my hand etc. Told her I was away for these two days, which is partially true. She has not asked much after me, and I daren’t think what she thinks of me now. Could well be I ruined the whole affair saying what I did last time. I will pop by today unannounced and see how she receives me (if at all). My instinct tells me I need not fret one bit; she likes me well, and I know how to navigate situations like this. She’s certainly not the first woman to have a crush on me, and I doubt she’ll be the last. I need only to be careful - she can’t get the idea that I’m pushing her in any way. Which I’m not--- surely this is more a gentle nudge. But best be on my backfoot for now and give her ample time to think. I thought long about what to give her to replace the paper knife. I think I’ve found something I’m happy to part with and she will like. I want things to go smoothly and be in my control-- I will wear my turtle neck top I remember her admiring (though she never said anything; but I saw her eyes linger on me), and I will take Jack with me. She can turn me down, but I doubt she’ll say no to him. 

 

Anne’s phone buzzed in her pocket, interrupting her. She pushed back in her chair, sighing annoyed, digging it out. 

 

Ann Walker

I don’t want to pack

 

Ann Walker

Why is packing so awful

 

Anne chuckled and ran her thumb over her lips before opening her phone and typing a reply. 

 

Okay first

You need to pick one bag

Just one

 

I’ve got three now

 

Good Lord

How long are you going for again?



4 weeks

I need a lot of stuff




I suppose they’ve got a laundry machine over there



Yes ofc



Well then

Then you only need to 

pack enough knickers and socks for 2 weeks

 

I’m not going to hang out

in my underwear for 4 weeks Anne



I wasn’t finished

Here:

1 pair of jeans

1 pair of hiking trousers

3 t-shirts

1 hoodie

1 pair of sneakers

hiking boots

Wind breaker

Swimsuit

 

+ one smart casual outfit

 

And you’re good to go




It’s July

I will need shorts

And a few dresses at least

Ugh 

This is agony




You spent 2 years in India

I bet you didn’t have 3 bags with you there



You’re right

I had 7

 

Good heavens



See?

I’m hopeless

Come over and help?



Anne’s heart fluttered at the last message. Before she knew what to reply, Ann Walker was typing again.

 

My cousin’s here, but she’s useless

As bad as me

Or worse




The situation does sound dire

Perhaps I can bring someone with me?



“Jack!” she called the puppy gently. He was sleeping under the desk, curled up at her feet. Sloppy, he crawled out and turned his tired eyes to her. Anne snapped a picture and sent it to Ann Walker. Jack slumped down and rolled on his side. 



YES

YES PLEASE



I’ll see you soon

Don’t pick any more clothes



Yes, ma’am

See you soon



Anne hummed and got up, a soft smile dangling on her lips. She made her way to her nightstand and opened the middle drawer, digging out her jewellery box. 

 

Yes. Yes, I think she’ll like this very much. 

 

She closed the drawer, shoved the small leather pouch in her pocket and went to pick up the sleepy puppy. 

 

“I’m taking you with me” she spoke to him as he yawned, “I’m sure you’ve missed her.” The puppy wagged its tail lazily. 

 

***

 

“What’s so funny?” Catherine’s voice was a gentle snap to Ann, who immediately put her phone away. 

 

“Ah--- nothing” Ann frowned and tossed her phone on her bed, returning to the task at hand, “just Anne sending pics of Jack.” 

 

“Jack? Oh, the p---”

 

“The puppy, yeah.”

 

“Is she going to dump him with you again?” Cath mused slightly bitterly, “while she’s off to wherever.”

 

“No, she’s not” Ann cut her off, “she knows I miss him.”

 

“Have you been seeing her?”

 

“Wha-- what do you mean, ‘seeing her’?” Ann frowned and let out a disbelieving chuckle, “I saw her a few days ago, we went climbing--”

 

“Climbing?” Cath was astonished, “you? Up--- up a wall?”

 

“Yes, Cath, up a wall---”

 

“Well, I… I take it you’re still friends. With her, then” Cath cut her off and pursed her lips. 

 

“Yes, yes I am. Why? Is there a problem?” Ann cocked her head. 

 

Cath shrugged, looking mildly displeased and suspicious. 

 

“No, I… I just thought… You know, don’t gay people usually befriend other… other gay people? Why is she suddenly all over you?”

 

“Because we’re neighbours, for heaven’s sake!” Ann laughed out loud, “Cath, come on. What are you getting at?”

 

“Nothing! I just… I just wanted to make sure she hasn’t… you know… Done anything to you. And it’s just--- you’re not gay, are you?”

 

“No, Cath, I’m not gay---” Ann sighed and rubbed her temples.

 

“So, yeah, I think she’s a bit too friendly--”

 

“Too friendly? How’d you even know? You haven’t even met her.”

 

“You bring her up every time we talk--”

 

“Because you ask what I’ve been up to, and I’ve been spending time with her!” Ann was losing her cool, “Cath, I really don’t get it, why are you so upset about--”

 

“Because!” Cath cut her off, but didn’t seem to be able to continue.

 

“Hmm? Yes?” Ann pushed her, placing her hands on her hips.

 

“Because… Because I think she’s just trying to get in your pants” she declared. Ann laughed in disbelief, “I read her blog! Seriously, Ann, she’s--- she’s a casanova, and I… I don’t want you to be involved with someone like that. I don’t want her to hurt you--”

 

“Oh, oh thank you. Thank you, Catherine, for doing such thorough research for me. Thank you for also doing that with every single bloke that’s ever approached me” Ann spat sarcastically, “Thank you for also checking them and making sure I don’t get hurt.” 

 

“Ann! This is different---”

 

“How? How is it different?” Ann interrupted, “Anne is kind, caring and nothing but civil with me. She’s given me something else but my own misery and loneliness to think about. And I’m gutted that you think she’s got some… ulterior motive just because she’s gay.” 

 

“It’s not because she’s gay!”

 

“Oh, oh really?”

 

“Really. It’s because she’s--- Anne Lister.”

 

“Oh, please. Just because someone writes a bit of raunchy stuff on their blog doesn’t mean they bed their friends.” 

 

“Well, she does.”

 

“Well, not me.” Ann was cross, and took her anger out on one of her stuffed bags, opening it and pouring its contents on the floor. 

 

If you’d really read her blog, and not just the juicy bits, you’d know she’s had her heart broken time and time again. 

 

Cath sighed and slumped down on the bed.

 

“Ann, I’m sorry” she spoke, “I really am. And I’m glad you’ve got a friend, please believe me. It’s just… people talk, and it’s hard to not mind what they say. Perhaps, if I could meet her in person--”

 

The bedroom door opened on its own and both women froze to their spots. At first, they saw no one step in, but then a red setter puppy dashed across the room to Ann. 

 

“Oh---!” Ann crouched and greeted the enthusiastic puppy, “hello, Jack, hello---! Oh, I know, I know, it’s been ages! Oh---” the puppy jumped against her and she stumbled down, “oh, hello, darling---” 

 

Catherine stared at the pair of them, colour slowly draining from her face. Ann got back up on her feet and picked the puppy up. 

 

“Well” she turned to her cousin, smirking at her obvious horror, “it appears some dreams do come true, Cath. Come say hi.” She bit her lip at Cath’s audible gulp, and left the room. 

 

“Coming!” she called downstairs, unable to contain her wide grin. 



***

 

Anne had given her opinion on so many pieces of clothing that all fabrics, prints and colours looked the same to her now, but they had managed to narrow Ann Walker’s luggage down to one bag and one backpack. Anne sipped her wine casually, watching amused as Ann Walker and her cousin bickered over one final piece Ann Walker apparently needed for her stay; a cocktail dress. Ann Walker wanted to take a sage maxi dress, but her cousin insisted on a light blue a-line halter neck dress with a subtle lace pattern. 

 

“I like the colour better” Ann Walker looked at the sage dress evaluatively, “and this is a bit more comfortable.”

 

“You already have a maxi dress packed” Catherine counter-argued, “and besides, this is just in case you need something a bit more formal.”

 

Ann Walker turned to Anne, raising a quizzical brow. Anne shrugged.

 

“You’re only two hours away, so I wouldn’t overthink it” Anne tried to navigate, “but I’m with Catherine here. I think light blue would suit you better---”

 

“Yes! Thank you!” Catherine squealed, “you’re absolutely right, she looks like a corpse in sage--”

 

Anne chortled to her wine. 

 

“CATH!” 

 

“Well, it isn’t your best colour---”

 

“I’ve worked at a morgue, and I can tell sage isn’t the colour you’re looking for” Anne mused, grinning, drawing out a giggle from Ann Walker. 

 

“You’ve--- worked at a--- morgue?!” Catherine’s jaw dropped. 

 

“Coroner’s office” Anne corrected, “dead bodies anyway.” Catherine looked like she didn’t know if it was horrifying or fantastic. 

 

“Okay, can we then perhaps establish” Ann Walker spoke, “that I do not look like a corpse in sage.”

 

“I’m sure you look just fine” Anne smiled, but apparently that was not the answer Ann Walker wanted.

 

“Just fine?” she cocked her head, her brow raised, “not helping, Anne.” Anne snorted and signalled towards the open suitcase.

 

“I got you from three bags to one--” she started but was cut off by Ann Walker.

 

“Yeah, fair enough. Fair enough. Fine, I’ll leave this” she put the sage dress back in the wardrobe.

 

“Good. It’s always good to leave at least one item in” Anne teased, “lest the wardrobe think you’ve abandoned it for good.” Catherine laughed out loud at Anne’s remark, and Anne barely dodged the bundled pair of socks Ann Walker sent flying her way.

 

“Not helping!” Ann Walker declared again, but her stern tone melted into a laugh. Anne bit her lip. She enjoyed the relaxed mood; Catherine had been as stiff as a board when Anne had arrived, but once Anne had quite leisurely teased her about her remarks on Anne’s character to Ann Walker before (which had mortified the poor girl, but at least she’d seen Anne wasn’t someone to be afraid of) and they’d opened the wine, packing and chit chat had taken a much smoother, more pleasing course. 

 

“I thought you were done” Anne sniggered and tossed the socks back to Ann Walker, who caught them and dropped them in the suitcase, before placing her hands on her hips conclusively. 

 

“I am. I think I am--” a car honked and interrupted her.

 

“That’s dad” Catherine got up from the bed, “I’ll let him in. You better be ready in 5 minutes” she pointed at Ann, “ah---! Jack!” the dog had jumped against her leg and she nearly fell stumbling out the bedroom to the hallway. Ann Walker giggled at the sight before turning to Anne, who also got up, ready to leave. 

 

“Are you sure you can’t give him to me for the trip?” Ann Walker asked, smiling sadly. Anne huffed and shook her head.

 

“No. A month is too long. I’d miss him. And he’d miss home.” 

 

“I won’t see you for the longest time” Ann Walker spoke, and Anne had an inkling she perhaps did not mean the pair of them. 

 

“Mhh” Anne could only nod in response, “oh--! I meant to give you something. Before you leave” she searched her pocket, “for the paper knife I broke…” she pulled out the little leather pouch. Ann Walker came to her. 

 

“You shouldn't have, Anne. I told you---” she mumbled, when Anne handed her the pouch, “what is it?”

 

“Open it.” 

 

Anne sought to keep her smile at bay as she watched Ann Walker pull out an emerald pendant on a gold necklace.

 

“I bought it in Venice, a million years ago” Anne frowned slightly, “it’s something I’ve had with me on my travels many times. It’s silly, and not very useful--”

 

“It’s beautiful” Ann Walker muttered, eyeing the pendant, looking slightly stunned, “Is it--?”

 

“An emerald? Yes.”

 

“Anne, I can’t take it--” Ann Walker breathed, but Anne cut her off.

 

“Nonsense. Of course you can. I’m giving it to you” she insisted gently. Ann Walker gave her a bright smile and then sought to unclasp the necklace. Anne took it from her gingerly.

 

“May I?” she suggested. Ann Walker nodded and lifted her hair. Anne stepped behind her and carefully put the necklace around Ann Walker’s neck. She could catch the scent of jasmine on Ann Walker’s hair and skin. She closed her eyes for a moment, before she clasped the necklace and stepped back. 

 

“There.” 

 

Ann Walker turned and fiddled with the pendant, a shy smile on her face. 

 

“How does it look?” she muttered.

 

“It suits you” Anne spoke, her eyes keen on Ann Walker’s hands fiddling with the necklace. 

 

“Not just ‘just fine’?” Ann Walker smirked and Anne let out a soft laugh, “thank you, Anne. It’s perfect.” 

 

“I’m glad you like it. Anyway, it hasn’t seen any adventures with me lately” Anne huffed and waved her hands, “a jaunt to the lakes should do it good.” 

 

“I find that hard to believe,” Ann Walker smirked. Anne blinked, confused. 

 

“Well, fresh air has multiple health benefits--” she started, but was interrupted by Ann Walker’s hearty giggle.

 

“No, I mean…” she bit her lip, “you not having any adventures.” Anne laughed and tossed her head back.

 

“Ah-- well. Sometimes it’s good to just… take some time at home” she looked at Ann Walker smiling, “for now, that’s proved the best for me.” Ann Walker huffed a shy laugh. 

 

“I’ll miss you” she then spoke barely audibly. Anne stepped closer and placed her hands on Ann Walker’s shoulders. 

 

“I’ll miss you too” she said, “what plans do you have for the Lakes?”

 

Ann Walker shook her head. 

 

“I know you’ll think it’s absolutely criminal, but I’ll probably just occupy the sun bed for the most of the time” she admitted, sounding embarrassed, “what are you up to?”

 

“I need to go to London next week” Anne sighed and a wave of fatigue and low-key annoyance washed over her, “I need to meet with my publisher and… I decided to meet with Vere. I haven’t told her yet, in case I change my mind but… I think I will.” She looked down and twitched ever so slightly, when she felt Ann Walker’s hands on her arms. 

 

“I’m happy for you” Ann Walker spoke, “It must be hard, but I… I think you’ll feel better afterwards. Having done things your way. Setting the pace.” 

 

Anne lifted her eyes and met with Ann Walker’s. Ann Walker’s smile was faint, but kind and warm, and Anne felt herself melt before it. 

 

“You better be ready---” they heard Catherine a second before she burst in the bedroom, “oh--- Are you ready? Dad’s sour; Delia took 4 hours to pack her things.” Anne glanced at Catherine and received an icy, evaluating gaze in return. She stepped in to hug Ann Walker, and was surprised at how tightly Ann Walker hugged her back.

 

“Have a safe trip” Anne spoke and stepped away, “let me know when you get there. And any tips for hikes and whatnot, you know how to reach me.” Ann Walker bit her lip and nodded.

 

“I know. Thank you. Cuddle Jack for me, will you?” 

 

“I can’t promise you that. I’m not very cuddly.” Ann Walker smirked and narrowed her eyes at Anne’s words, but then shook her head. 

 

“Right, I’m off” Anne declared and patted the side of her leg. Jack came to her and followed her to the door, “Catherine, look after that one. And don’t let her wear sage.” Her last words made Catherine chuckle. 

 

“I won’t. Nice meeting you.”

 

“Pleasure’s all mine” Anne said, “come on, Jack. Bye” she turned to the room once more and made a silly little bow to them both. Ann Walker tittered. 

 

“Bye, Anne.” 

 

Anne closed the door after her, but left it just minutely ajar. Jack jogged down the hallway towards the stairs, but Anne listened on for a second longer. 

 

“What was that about?” she heard Catherine, snarky. 

 

“We hugged, Cath, for fuck’s sake--” 

 

Anne bit her lip and walked down the hallway. Jack was patiently waiting for her at the stairs.

 

“Come on, then, boy” she gave him a brief scratch on his neck before descending, “time to go home.”



Chapter Text

Anne was listlessly pushing around the paccheri on her plate. Her appetite gone after two bites, she’d downed her white wine quite fast, sip by sip, trying to appear interested and listen to Vere, but her heartbeat kept slamming, panicked, against her ribs. Her lungs felt small and tight, and swallowing was impossible. She tried to hide the trembling tenseness of her jaws with a tight smile and yet another sip. Vere’s voice seemed to flow to her from a distance, muffled.

 

“Mhh?” she had to ask. She realised the rising intonation on Vere’s tone must be related to a question she had just asked Anne, but Anne had no idea what the question had been. 

 

“I’m so glad to see you’re doing well” she heard Vere now, “what have you been up to? You’ve been awfully quiet the whole evening.”

 

“Oh, I---” Anne let out a dry chuckle and shrugged minutely, “nothing much. Walking. Writing some.”

 

“Always walking, you are” Vere mused and leaned forward, “how’s writing going?” 

 

“Good, good” Anne replied a bit too eagerly, “I’ve… not rushed it.”

 

Anne had hoped they could altogether pass her and the last few weeks of her life as a topic. She’d hoped the occasional “oh, really?”, “hmm”, and “tell me more” would keep Vere talking until they were done with dinner and Anne could slink away and pat herself on the back for having endured it. 

 

“You mentioned you’ve got a puppy” Vere sounded like she was coaxing a shy child to speak, which only served to irritate Anne, “in your last post.”

 

Oh. So now you read my blog?

 

“Ah. Yes. Would you like to see a picture?” Anne asked and hoped Vere would agree to it. At least it would give them something to talk about. Something else than Anne. Vere nodded encouragingly. Anne dug out her phone. 

 

“Oh, goodness!” a smile spread on Vere’s face, “he’s cute! What’s his name?”

 

“He’s Jack” Anne smiled genuinely for the first time that evening. 

 

“Oh, little Jack! He looks quite the heartbreaker” Vere let out a soft laugh.

 

You’re one to talk.

 

Anne let Vere browse through a few more pictures just to seem sociable.

 

“Who’s that? Your sister?” Vere stopped and handed the phone back to Anne, a video was playing on the screen. It took a while for Anne to register the lush gardens of Crow Nest and Ann, who was crouching, ready to receive Jack and toss him his tennis ball. It had been a warm, happy afternoon not two weeks ago, but the memory of such ease and tranquility was in her current state so distant to Anne she was certain she’d filmed the clip years ago. 

 

“My neighbour” she replied shortly, “she’s taken care of him, while I’ve been away from home.” The clip started to play again. In the chit-chat and clinks and clanks of the restaurant, Anne could faintly hear Jack’s tiny barks and whimpers, and Ann’s coos and cheers. She could see the tree branches in the upper right corner of the clip move in the light wind, and she imagined their gentle rustle, the warm spots of sunlight that seeped through them on her skin. 

 

“Anne?”

 

Anne shook her head and returned her eyes to Vere. 

 

“Hmm?”

 

“You must miss him,” Vere smiled fondly. Anne gave her a shy smile and put her phone away.

 

“Mhh.” 

 

She watched as Vere brought her hands together and interlaced her fingers. 

 

“Anne, I just… I want to thank you” she said quietly, “I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for you to come and meet me.” 

 

“No” Anne nodded, looking down as she took a steadying breath, “it wasn’t.” 

 

“I’m glad you came. I wanted to know that you’re alright.” 

 

“I’m always alright” Anne raised her eyes and gave Vere a brief, tight smile, “you needn’t worry.” 

 

Vere replied to her hasty smile. 

 

“I… I want you to know that it wasn’t my intention to---” Vere started, but Anne cut her off, waving her hand. 

 

“I understand.” 

 

She wasn’t sure she actually understood one bit of the whole thing, but she understood she wanted to be done with it, the sooner the better. If it required an excruciating, heart wrenching dinner, so be it. She would endure, she would overcome. 

 

Vere blinked astonished. 

 

“You… do?” 

 

Anne only nodded briefly. Vere let out a small, relieved huff of laughter and blinked. She looked down, and Anne could see tears fall on her lap. She felt a nasty twist in her gut and wanted to shoot up from her chair and hug Vere tightly, but she fought and sat still, only handing her her handkerchief. 

 

“Here.”

 

Vere took it and nodded, before she dabbed her eyes discreetly. 

 

“Thank you” she then looked at Anne again and handed her the handkerchief back, “I’m sorry things… ended the way they did. I hope… I hope we can remain friends. I’ve missed being with you.” 

 

Anne felt a hard sting in her chest. She straightened and leaned back, drumming the table nervously. 

 

“I’m sure we can. I think I should get going--” she then flicked her wrist to check the time, “I’ve promised to meet up with a friend--”

 

“Oh, I--” Vere was stunned, “I thought we’d have coffee and--”

 

“I’m really truly sorry” Anne reached to take Vere’s hand, pulling a sympathetic smile, doing her best to not let it show how the weight of their exchange crashed down on her, “another time then. Let me know when you get home--”

 

“Oh, we’re staying at a hotel. Donald’s got--”

 

“Well, let me know when you get to your hotel” Anne interrupted and crouched to kiss Vere’s cheek, “It was good to see you. I’ll ask for the--” she dug out her card case, but Vere dismissed her with a wave of her hand.  

 

“I’ll take care of it. It was good to see you too” Vere took her hand, “Oh, I wanted to ask you. We're planning a party to--- celebrate the engagement. In September. Will you come? It’d mean a lot to me.” 

 

Anne froze. She barely managed to keep an astonished smile on her face, while she felt her blood come to a halt. 

 

“Of course. Let me know” she struggled, “take care.” She gave Vere’s hand a light squeeze, before turning on her heels and striding out, barely waving at the waiter who tried to thank her. The summer air was hot and humid and anything but relieving. She took the first turn to a side street and stopped, leaning against the filthy brick wall, fearing her legs might give in. She raked through her hair with her fingers, anxious. Not realising how her hands were shaking, her phone slipped from her fingers when she pulled it out of her breast pocket, and fell on its screen on the pavement. 

 

“Shhhit!” She crouched to pick it up and assessed the damage. The top left corner had shattered. She closed her eyes and took a deep, but shaky breath, before opening her phone and clicked into her contacts. 

 

Mary. 

 

Mary. 

 

She hit the contact the second she found it. Mary picked up after a few rings. 

 

“I’m---” Anne started.

 

“Who the fuck is Freddy and how dare you disturb the lady?” a cocky man’s voice picked up. Anne frowned. The man did not sound like Charles. 

 

“You dolt, give it here…!” Anne could hear Mariana in the background, amused. 

 

“Who’s this?” Anne muttered, listening to Mariana giggling softly. 

 

“Will Crewe” the man said, an effort and a smirk in his tone. Anne heard Mariana shriek and the man chuckle, “who’re you, then?”

 

“May I speak to Mrs Lawton, please” Anne croaked to the phone, her heart beating a million miles an hour.

 

“Who is it?” she heard Mariana ask. 

 

“Some posh chick-- Why’s it called Freddy?” Anne’s throat clasped shut. She cupped her face and rubbed her cheek, biting her palm. 

 

“Give it here…” there was urgency in Mariana’s voice, “now! Freddy?” 

 

The softness in her tone made Anne’s knees weak. 

 

“I called you to let you know I’m in town” Anne muttered, “but seeing, well, no, hearing that you’re busy---”

 

“Freddy! Anne, no---”

 

“I’ll leave you to it.” 

 

She ended the call before Mariana could say another word and closed her phone swiftly. She wanted to smash the darn thing to the pavement, but calmly she slid it back into her pocket, straightened her jacket and stormed off. She zigzagged the crowds on the early summer evening Soho streets, barely missing bumping painfully into someone. Her feet knew the way, but her head was covered in a boiling, raging, savagely painful fog, not registering anything she heard, saw or smelled. After one more sharp corner she stopped and coughed, as if she’d forgotten to breathe for the last minute or so, leaning to the dark wooden door frame, panting, before raising her fist and violently banging on the door. The ‘Closed’ sign jumped and chimed at her loud thumps. 

 

“We’re closed, for heaven’s sake!” she heard a faint, but angry reply from inside. 

 

“Not to me!” she shouted back. Soon, the ‘Closed’ sign was pushed aside, and Anne could see Richie’s face through the old, stained glass. A moment later, she heard the lock click, and Richie opened the door. Anne swept past them and came to rest at the counter. She heard the lock click again and turned to face her friend.

 

“I wasn’t expecting you” Richie stood on the threshold, mild astonishment on their face. 

 

“I… I’m not…” Anne tried, before she slumped down against the counter.



*** 

 

They’d just left. The quiet hum of the AC and the odd beeps of the machines filled her room again. She sat back down on the edge of her bed. The day was grey and achingly bright. She hoped it would rain; there were bird droppings on the window. 

 

They’d not let her go outside with her family yet. Instead, they’d spent the visiting hour in her room. Elizabeth had mostly been on her phone. Mum had been overly chatty. Dad had looked like mum had dragged him there; he hadn’t looked at Ann once and had barely said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. John had been quiet, too, just asking a few questions about the machines in the room. He had seemed disappointed, when Ann could tell him nothing about them. 

 

It had been two days now. Ann had met twice with the social worker appointed to her. She was kind.

 

“I’ll fight for you” she had said and taken Ann’s hand, “I’ll make sure you are heard.” She had red hair and she smelled like mints and coffee. Her parents had briefly met with the social worker as well. 

 

“I’m not sure we need her help” mum had chirped and smiled sadly at Ann, “you seem well already, darling. Doesn’t she?” she had asked dad. Dad had grunted.

 

The door was heavy, and all conversation came to her muffled, distant and undetectable. Her family had mostly been quiet, save for mum, but their presence had made the room feel crowded and alive. Ann had been quite happy to see them at first, but then very soon she’d noticed she was being scrutinized, and so her loneliness was now diluted with the sense of relief she felt, their gazes and unvoiced questions having subsided. 

 

Ann fiddled with her braid. It seemed her options were either to lie down or to sit and watch the oncoming rain before dinner time. Mum had brought her two books from home, but she had read both already and hadn’t especially liked them. She’d sketched the whole morning and didn’t feel like it anymore. 

 

She turned, when she heard the door. Her brother peeked in, and when Ann quizzically raised a brow at him, he stepped in, closed the door, and hurried to her bed. 

 

“I told them I forgot my gum” he whispered and opened the zipper on his hoodie, “I know mum took your phone. Here---” he dropped his PlayStation Portable on Ann’s bed, “and here’s the charger…” 

 

Ann gathered the console and the charger and stuffed them hastily under her pillow. 

 

“Thanks,” Ann muttered, astonished. John grinned, and Ann couldn’t help a shy smile. 

 

“I emptied a file for you” John nodded, “I thought you’d get bored. Two books is lousy.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“When are you coming home?” 

 

Ann shook her head.

 

“I don’t know.” 

 

John nodded and looked solemn. 

 

“You’re gonna miss the summer camp” he said, “I heard mum talking to Mrs Ainsworth yesterday. Lizzy doesn’t want to go either. I think mum’s gonna make her, cos I want to.” 

 

Ann grimaced lightly and shook her head. 

 

“I didn’t want to go anyway. Doesn’t matter.”

 

“Thomas was asking after you. Do you want me to say hi to him?”

 

Ann folded her arms and looked down. 

 

“Whatever.” 

 

“It’s okay,” John said, “I don’t really like him either.”

 

“You don’t?” Ann cast him a look. He shook his head, “why?” 

 

John shrugged. 

 

“I don’t know. He has a squeaky voice.” 

 

The door opened and their mother peeked in. They both stiffened, and Ann sat back, pressing against her pillow. 

 

“Did you find it?” she asked John, who was quick to dig out his gum from his pocket, “good, come on then. Visiting hour’s over. Bye, then, darling” she turned her eyes to Ann. For a moment she looked hesitant, but then she walked over to Ann and crouched to give her a light hug. 

 

“You’ll feel better, darling” she whispered to Ann’s ear, “it’s okay, it’s alright---” Ann heard her voice crack and felt her hands tremble against Ann’s back. Ann just nodded. Her mother pulled away and signalled to John with her hand. 

 

“See you,” John said to Ann. 

 

“Yeah. Bye.” 

 

“Bye.”

 

***

 

Ann groaned out loud as she stretched her fingers. Her hand was almost cramping by now; she’d been sketching out on the patio for some time, crouched over her sketchbook on the sunbed, and her hand, arm and neck were now paying the price. She lifted her eyes and took in the view to the lake. The light had changed from the bright, high afternoon light to the softer, warmer glow of early evening. Ann reached for her phone and checked the time. 

 

19:13

 

She briefly looked over her shoulder. Catherine was napping on the sun bed next to her, and she could see Delia on her phone in the sunroom. Having made sure she was safe from prying eyes, she did what she had done with almost all her spare moments these past 8 days; she opened her phone, clicked into her photos and found the folder she’d titled ‘Jack’. 

 

Mostly it was Jack who was the star in the pictures, but the ones Ann found she was most drawn to were the ones where his owner was also featured. A faint smile crept on her lips as she browsed the photos. Anne running and Jack chasing her. Anne running to catch Jack. Anne throwing him his ball. Anne tumbled down on the lawn, Jack licking her face. Anne holding Jack in her arms, smiling at the camera. That one was probably Ann’s favourite. She remembered what had happened afterwards. Jack had jumped and turned to lick Anne’s face. Anne had chuckled softly, let the puppy back down on the lawn, and clapped her hands conclusively. 


“Well” she had sighed and smiled at Ann, “I really should get going. Can I have one more biscuit?” she had pointed at the Jammie Dodgers and had taken one when Ann had nodded. 

 

Ann heard Catherine move on the sunbed next to her. Quickly, she returned to the home screen and locked her phone. Catherine had already caught her looking at the photos a few times. 

 

“I just miss him so much!” Ann had argued. 

 

“No use” Catherine had said plainly, “after a month, he won’t remember you.” 

 

Ann felt her chest tighten at the thought. She hadn’t heard much from Anne. She knew Anne was going to London this week, but that was all. Ann had thought about it a few times, but she felt it was too nosy to call. Anne would let her know eventually. And if she didn’t--- Well, Catherine was right. A month was a long time. Ann’s hand found its way to her chest and to the emerald pendant. 

 

Her family’s reaction had been mixed, when they’d learned who she’d gotten it from. Catherine of course knew. She had glanced at Ann nervously a couple of times at the dinner table. Mrs Rawson had smiled somewhat sour. 

 

“Are you a lezzie now, too, Annie?” cousin Jeremy had joked. 

 

“She’s my friend” Ann had countered, just like she had done a dozen times already, “I look after her dog. And what if I was?” she had asked quite boldly. Jeremy had put his hands up and smiled cockily, but had said nothing. Ann had quickly learned that any mention of Anne Lister led either to an amused remark or two about Anne’s character or to an arduous conversation about Ann’s future. Would she find work? Was there a man? Countless observations about her age and children. 

 

“You know, maybe I’ll adopt” she had cut short one such talk, “saves me the trouble of trying to find someone.” 

 

“So you’d want a family?” Mrs Rawson had chimed.

 

“Yes, one day. Maybe. I don’t know” Ann had huffed. One would think they’d have noticed her sour mood, but Ann had little to no say when it came to discussing her life. It was a common, public topic, and she’d long ago learned to just smile and nod and be grateful for their input, while in her head compartmentalizing every single piece of “advice” to a trash bin. 

 

“I feel like I should do something” Ann jolted when Catherine suddenly spoke, “but I just can’t be arsed.” 

 

Ann smirked and turned to her cousin. 

 

“Well, you’ve already napped and rested. I think that’s pretty active. For you.” 

 

Catherine scrunched her nose and very coolly gave Ann the finger.

 

“And what are you up to then, huh?” she asked Ann, “another walk?”

 

Ann shrugged.

 

“Why not. That’s a good idea, actually---”

 

“God, Ann! You’ve been walking every day. Calm down.”

 

Ann chuckled and shook her head. 

 

“It’s just… too beautiful to miss.”

 

“What is?”

 

Ann gestured with her hands.

 

“This. The Lakes.”

 

“Oh, give me a break” Catherine scoffed, “we’ve spent what… 13, 14 summers together here and never have I ever seen you make any sort of initiative on leaving the house before. Ever.”

 

Ann frowned and gave Catherine a displeased smirk. 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Catherine turned on her side to face Ann.

 

“You know, why don’t you call that luscious Lister of yours--”

 

“Oh, for fuck’s sakes---”

 

“And ask her active ass to return my sluggard cousin to me, please. The sooner the better. Bad influence, that one.”

 

“Luscious? Did you really just say that---”

 

“Oh, you don’t think it fits, do you? Pretty rich from the one who is on her phone, constantly, looking at her photos---”

 

“THE DOG!” Ann cried out loud, “I miss the dog!” 

 

“Oh, yes of course. The dog who gave you that pendant---” Catherine teased, but she had crossed a line. Ann shot up and gathered her sketchbook. 

 

“Ann, come on---” Catherine got up and lazily started to make her way to Ann. 

 

“No, fuck you, seriously” Ann was boiling, her jaw tense with anger, “I’m going out. Don’t expect me for dinner.” She turned on her heels. 

 

“Ann, come on, it’s just a joke!”

 

“Oh, is it?” Ann turned back to Catherine, snapping, “well, just so you know, it isn’t funny. Not when it goes on day after day. Just…. God, just leave me be.” She turned and skipped up the stairs to the sunroom.

 

“Fine! Suit yourself!” she heard Catherine call after her, annoyed, before she stepped in the house and stormed past Delia. 

 

“Are you…?” Delia started, confused.

 

“Going out? Yes. Gay? No. In case you were wondering that too” Ann spat. She tossed her sketchbook and pencils on the living room sofa, before storming to the front door, only grabbing her jacket.

 

Fuck them. All of them. Fuck everyone. 

 

***

 

Nothing had ever been as grey as the empty, dusty, dark apartment around her. Anne had gotten home to her London flat, having gathered herself from Richie’s shop floor after two hours of tea and calm conversation. Richie had managed to soften the blow in as much to allow Anne to go home on her own, but now, after a quick trip to the Tesco downstairs and a short, cool shower, she found herself on the sofa in the still dark flat. 

 

It had almost been a year since she’d been here last. She’d put the groceries in the fridge (it did smell a bit, but she opted not to care) and noticed the thick layer of dust on the kitchen counter. Her footsteps were visible on the floor. Had she known she’d be coming here, she would’ve asked someone to come and clean. She’d hastily scrubbed the toilet and wiped the dust on the sink with a piece of toilet paper. There’d been cobwebs in the shower. The short spike of energy had lasted long enough for her to change the sheets in her bed, but after that she’d felt like breathing was the only activity she could manage, and so she’d slumped on the sofa. 

 

She’d been certain she’d sleep if not next to Mary then at least in the comfortable bed of her guest bedroom. When it had become obvious the choices for the night were Richie’s sofa or her own, empty flat, she’d chosen the latter even at the risk of being alone. Richie had talked her through the initial shock, yes, but she now ached for their company, their soothing, nonjudgmental tone, their rational approach that was so close to Anne’s, but what Anne couldn’t in her current state muster. However, she figured, if there was any sleep to be had she’d want an attempt at that in her own bed and not on Richie’s sofa. Returning to Richie’s flat would’ve quite concretely meant she was, in every way, at an all time low again, in less than two months, so at least she was avoiding the physical location of her last crash landing, even though she found little difference in her mental state.

 

Her hair was still damp, and quiet small drops wetted her worn pyjama t-shirt. She watched the residents in the building across the street move about in their flats. The lights of their homes were bright orange little cubes in the darkening evening. 

 

Anne opened her phone. It took a while before it connected to the wi-fi, but as soon as it did, messages from Mary started flooding in. Anne placed the phone on the coffee table, but the buzz of the texts was as loud as drilling to her, and annoyed, she tossed the phone on the sofa. The buzzing was muffled, but the screen shone bright still. Anne closed her eyes and leaned back. 

 

She took deep breaths and waited for the buzzing to end. When it did, and the bright flashing light of her screen no longer seeped through her eyelids, she opened her eyes and sighed, spent. She ran her fingers through her damp hair and was just about to get up, pour herself a glass of water and hit the sack, when the buzzing returned. Anne groaned and reached for her phone, ready to pick up and tell Mariana to fuck off, but she stopped when she saw the name on the screen.  

 

“H---” she picked up. She’d been quiet for so long her voice was hoarse, “Hello?” She cleared her throat. At the other end of the line Ann Walker sounded out of breath. 

 

“Are you--- Are you alright?” Ann Walker’s voice was a clear cool chime amongst her huffing breaths.

 

No. God, no. 

 

“Yes, I--- Mhh” Anne tried to assess her situation, “Yes, I am. Why’d you ask?”

 

“You… You sounded tired.” 

 

Anne let out a soft chuckle and rubbed her temple with her free hand. 

 

“I am a bit. Where are you? You sound fresh off the gym or something.” 

 

Ann Walker tittered, and Anne couldn’t help a smile. 

 

“I’m walking up a hill, actually” Ann Walker replied, “Just… behind the house really. I’ve been out for a while and I’m heading back home, but I just… Wanted to take… a good look at the Lake… The light’s… beautiful---”

 

“Mhh. I’m sure,” Anne could imagine the setting. The golden late evening light seeping through the trees, promising a reward at the end of a sweaty climb, “I’ve been meaning to call. How are you?” 

 

She hadn’t really. They’d texted, but Anne had been busy. Well, not busy, but in her head and she hadn’t felt the need or desire to reach out to anyone for a few days now. How odd it felt to be asking someone else how they were doing! Anne frowned and blinked to focus on Ann Walker’s reply. 

 

“Oh, crap---!” Ann Walker cussed. Anne could hear faint rustling, “sorry, sorry, I nearly fell over. Stupid roots--- Sorry.” 

 

Anne bit her lip to not chuckle. 

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yes, yes” Ann Walker muttered, “sorry, yes, I’m--- I’m alright, just… It’s been a long day. Week. Week and a half, and I just… I needed to get out of the house and talk to someone… well, someone else.” 

 

“Did something happen?” Anne muttered and sat back. She wasn’t exactly in the mood to be anyone’s emotional support. 

 

“No, no. Just the general… ‘What are you going to do with your life, Ann?’” Anne chuckled at Ann Walker’s squeaky imitation of her family members, “‘We thought you had a husband in India.’ ‘You’re not getting any younger, you know.’” 

 

“I wish I could say they just want what’s best for you,” Anne mused, smirking, “but that’s just rude and annoying.” 

 

“It’s funny how--- they’ve all got these great ideas… about what’s best for me---” Ann Walker’s panting got heavier, “but… they never really… bother to ask what I think is best… for me---”

 

“Well, what do you think is best for you?” Anne smiled and closed her eyes. Perhaps this was one way to spend the evening. At least it was nice to listen to someone talk. She pulled her legs up and hugged them, swaying gently. She and Ann Walker were wrapped in a tiny, social bubble where the empty flat around her didn’t exist. 

 

“I…” Ann Walker took a moment, “Right now I… I’d really just like to be home. I-- I meant to call to tell you how unfair it is that you get to be with Jack all the time, but then… I remembered… Are you in London?”

 

Anne felt a cool wave rapidly sink down her chest to her lungs and onwards to her stomach. She stopped swaying and let her head drop against her knees. 

 

“Yes. Yes, I’m in London. I-- I just got here earlier today, actually. I stayed in Halifax for a bit longer---”

 

Avoiding having to meet Vere. That didn’t really work out, now, did it?

 

“Oh, so you have been with him!” Ann Walker exclaimed, “lucky you. Gosh, I miss him.”

 

Anne let out a sad soft laugh. 

 

“I think he misses you too.”

 

“D’you think? Cathy said he won’t remember me.”

 

“He will, I’m sure. You’re his number one fan, after all.”

 

“When are you coming home?” Ann Walker continued.

 

Anne felt the question was loaded. If she’d had an ounce of effort left in her, she probably would’ve gotten dressed and hopped on the first train up North, but right now she could barely make her way to the fridge. Besides, going back home wouldn’t magically solve whatever was forming between her and Mariana. There was nothing waiting for her at home, either. Her only social contact outside her immediate family (well, the only social contact she wanted anything to do with) was busy with her family in the Lake District. Going home would still mean having to finish her pending reviews and columns, and she reckoned the latest turns in her private life meant she’d be snappy and rude to her family members. She might just as well lock herself up here, alone, and brew in her own misery until she was done with it. 

 

“Not any time soon” she replied finally, “why? Are you?”

 

“No, no I don’t think so. Right now I feel like I’d love to, but” Ann Walker sighed heartily, “there’s a beer festival in Keswick next weekend. Cathy’s gotten us tickets, and she’s meeting this bloke, who’s bringing his friend and---”

 

“Ah, I see. A double-date.”

 

“No, fuck no” Ann Walker was quick to correct Anne, who laughed for the first time that day, “no, I promised to go out of courtesy--”

 

“And for the beer, I suppose?”

 

“Nah, not really my thing, beer---”

 

“Then I have to say it sounds like a nightmare.”

 

“It sort of is, you know, but I just--- I haven’t seen her in two years, and it’s been nice--”

 

“Save for the constant prying and mocking?” Anne mused. Ann Walker tittered. 

 

“I think if I can bear the beer festival, I might be able to sneak back home a bit earlier. Or at least for a few days.” 

 

“Goodness, they’re not keeping you against your will, are they?” Anne scoffed and managed a dry laugh, “should I be worried?” 

 

“No” Ann Walker panted, “but they will have worried about me tonight. I don’t care. This view… is worth it. Look---” 

 

Anne took the phone off her ear and put on the speaker. Soon, the screen blinked and Ann Walker’s sneakers came into view. Ann Walker lifted her phone, and Windermere, a glimmering golden pool of light, shone brightly in the distance, the trees and shrubs around the hilltop just low enough to allow the lake to come into full view. 

 

“Can you see anything?” Ann Walker’s voice was further away, the wind trying to take her words with it. 

 

“Yes.” 

 

God, I wish I was there. 

 

“It’s not the highest hill around, but it’s nice,” Ann Walker spoke, “I’ve been coming up here every day. I miss our walks. Cathy says you’re a bad influence. I used to not leave the house.”

 

Anne chuckled. The video shook a little, when Ann Walker moved. Suddenly, Anne yearned to see her, to know she was really there, a real person and not just a voice on the phone, but really there, albeit someplace else. 

 

“Let me see you.” Her plea was so quiet she wondered if Ann Walker heard her. The wind rattled harder against the microphone now that Ann Walker had reached the hilltop. 

 

“Give me a second--” Ann Walker’s voice came a bit closer, “there.” 

 

She had freckles now, Anne noticed. Her hair was a wild cloud around her face, the little tufts on her forehead clung to her skin, sweaty after the climb. Her eyes were bright and she squinted in a sudden beam of light hitting the hilltop. Her cheeks were faintly red and she smiled shyly. 

 

“You look b--” Anne stopped herself, “you look well. Hello.”

 

“Hello” Ann Walker said and hummed, biting her lip, “I have to say it’s a bit weird not seeing you. How do I know you haven’t just left me on a table top and I’m talking to your ceiling?” 

 

Anne jolted and hurried up, making her way to the hallway searching for the lightswitch. 

 

“Wait, I haven’t got any lights on---” she hit the switch and took a brief look at herself in the hallway mirror. There wasn’t much she could do, but she combed through her hair hastily a few times, hoping it was enough to pull off a presentable ‘fresh from the shower and ready for bed’ look. Her hands trembled, when she pressed the little video icon at the top corner of the screen. 

 

“Hi” she quickly brought the phone up, before her video started, “I’m afraid I was just getting into bed--”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve kept you---” 

 

“No, no” Anne hurried, seeing the sad frown on Ann Walker’s face, “you haven’t. I was actually just--- I don’t know, I wasn’t doing anything. Don’t worry. Where are you exactly? Looks lovely.” 

 

They spent 15 minutes talking. Anne showed her around the flat. 30. Anne made an evening snack. 45. Anne went on the balcony and tried to show Ann Walker a glimpse of the river. An hour. All the way until the sun was low and Anne could see Ann Walker starting to tremble in the cooling summer evening. 

 

“Your place is lovely” Ann Walker blabbered on, her voice vibrating as she walked downhill with sturdy steps, “it’s been years since I’ve been to London.”

 

“I’ll take you with me the next time I have to come here” Anne promised and slumped down on her bed, smiling.

 

“Oh, wow, you have to go to London. How awful” Ann Walker mocked her, and Anne chuckled, “but I’d love that. Show me your favourite places. Your favourite things to do.” 

 

“I don’t know” Anne mused, “I don’t--- I don’t do much, to be honest. But my good friend has a comic book store. I try to visit every time I’m here. I’m sure they’d be happy to meet you.” 

 

Ann Walker scrunched her nose and shook her head, pursing her lips. 

 

“Your friend has a comic book store. Right” she chuckled, a touch of disbelief in her tone, “you do realize everything you do sounds… magical. Incredible.” 

 

“I had Tesco’s lasagna for dinner. Point out the magic to me, please” Anne huffed dryly. Ann Walker laughed heartily, before gasping and stopping suddenly. 

 

“Oh, Lord--! Sorry, sorry, there’s the road and I didn’t see that car--” she gasped to Anne, her hand having flown to her chest. 

 

“Best I let you go now. I don’t want you to get run over because of my magical lasagna.” Ann Walker giggled softly. 

 

“Fine. Thank you, Anne. And let me know how… it goes with Vere. If you want” Ann Walker tried to look right at Anne, but her eyes started to wander and she bit her lip. Anne felt a stinging twist in her gut, but she nodded and smiled minutely. 

 

“I will. Thank you. Good night. Look both ways, okay?” 

 

Ann Walker rolled her eyes. 

 

“Right. Bye bye.”

 

“Bye.” 

 

Anne hurried to press the red phone icon before Ann Walker could. Slowly, she sat back up and looked around. Her bare feet had left more footsteps on the dust covered floor. The lights were on in every room of the flat. Softly she rubbed her cheeks, for they ached. Ann Walker was worlds away, but she had made her smile. 

 

***

 

Ann looked left and right before she skipped across the road. Almost at their driveway, she could hear someone calling out her name. A figure came running up the road to her.

 

“Ann! ANN! Is that you?” Catherine looked disheveled and covered the remaining distance between them, locking Ann into a tight embrace.

 

“Cathy! Yes, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—!” Ann suddenly realised she’d been gone for hours without letting anyone know where she was, “I’m sorry, I got a bit carried away, the sunset was so beautiful—!” 

 

She tried to rub Catherine’s back soothingly, but her cousin clung to her. 

 

“I was so worried!” she breathed, “I thought you’d— That you might’ve--- I was so mean to you--“ 

 

“Cathy—“ Ann sighed. 

 

I wish I wasn’t such a burden to you. I wish you didn’t have to worry anymore. 

 

“I didn’t want to be, I thought I was just joking— I’m sorry Ann. I’m sorry.”

 

Ann felt the embrace was more suffocating than relieving, and so she let go and patted her cousin on the shoulders. 

 

“It’s alright. I’m sorry I just left like that. I should’ve let you know where I was.” 

 

Catherine looked down and nodded, letting out a huff. 

 

“Yeah, but… I’m sorry. I really am. She’s your friend, and of course you miss her--”

 

“Cath. Cathy, this isn’t about Anne Lister--”

 

“But it is. I’ve been making fun of her to you. We all have and I… We shouldn’t have. I don’t know what got into me. She’s nice, I’ve met her, for goodness’ sake. I’m sorry I went along with it.” 



Ann smiled tenderly at Cathy, feeling a little better having someone apologise to her.  

 

“I understand, it must be… well, I don’t know, a bit weird. Especially for your parents. The aunts and the uncles. It’s not really a part of their world. Someone like Anne.”

 

Catherine shook her head and took Ann’s hands.

 

“No, it’s not. And I think they’ve all heard… Well, talk. About her. What she’s like and… what she does.” 

 

“I don’t think she’s that different from the rest of us” Ann fought to not let her annoyance flare again. 

 

“No, no, I didn’t mean--” Cathy held on to Ann’s hands, rubbing the back of them with her thumbs, “I don’t mean that she’s… gay, just--- Well, you have to admit she’s not your everyday gal, now, is she?”

 

Ann let out a soft chuckle and nodded.

 

“No. No, she isn’t.”

 

“I can see why you’d be a bit flustered by her,” Catherine continued, “she must be an interesting friend to have.”

 

“I’m not flustered by her” Ann stated plainly, “Frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about. We’re friends, and that’s all there is to it.” 

 

“Alright, well, then I’m happy for you. I just--- I just want you to know that I w-- I wouldn’t mind if you— if you were— If it’s the case that you— are—“

 

Ann frowned and looked at her cousin, whose eyes were wide and expression extremely timid and awkward. 

 

“What are you---?” Ann muttered, but then it hit her. She felt her blood stop running. Her gut twisted and she noticed her hands holding Catherine’s started to tremble, her palms getting sweaty. 

 

What was she to say? Well, she should say no. Just like she had said almost every time when her friendship with Anne had come up in the conversations here. 

 

Just say no. You’re not.



Catherine hadn’t even said anything, but she looked at Ann like she knew something, something she thought Ann knew too, and Ann didn’t know how to avoid the look in her eyes. It felt penetrating. 

 

The lightness in her being after the phone call vanished as if blown away but a heavy gust of wind. She blinked, her mouth hung ajar as she looked for words. 

 

She told me she liked me. That she cares about me.  

 

She remembered how good it had felt. How bright and light and easy she’d felt afterwards. How bright and light and easy she felt with Anne. But that was something she felt. Not something she was. 

 

“No, Cathy” she heard herself say eventually, “I’m not. I appreciate you say that, but we’re really just friends, and I’ve only known her for a few weeks. She’s very kind and caring, but—“ 

 

“So you’re not… I mean, when we were younger, you said you might be bi--” 

 

Ann scrunched her nose. It was what they’d teased themselves with in high school and ended up kissing other girls as a dare. Everyone had declared themselves bisexual at some point. 

 

“Bi curious at max, but— not her” Ann continued, “She’s just a good, new friend of mine. Besides, she just broke up recently, I don’t think she’s exactly looking for company right now.“

 

“Yes, I read her blog, but don’t tell anyone” Catherine whispered, as if someone could hear them out on the driveway, “I’m just curious, you know, and I met her and she’s— well, I’m just nosy.”

 

Ann chortled.

 

“Yes, you are. I’m sorry I left like that.”

 

“I’m sorry I mocked you. He’s cute, I have to give you that.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Errm, hello? The love of your life?” Catherine raised a brow. Ann frowned and blinked confused. 

 

“Jack!” Catherine exclaimed in frustration. 

 

“Oh!” it dawned on Ann, “Oh, he is. And just so you know, he has missed me.” 

 

“Oh, how’d you know?”

 

“Anne told me. We--- she called me” Ann stumbled slightly with her words, “While I was out.” 

 

I called her. But she doesn’t need to know that. 

 

“Oh” Catherine hummed and let go of Ann’s hands, “well, I’m glad he’s alright. Come on, let’s get inside. There’re still tortillas left for you.” 

 

“Oh, god, yes, I’m starving” Ann groaned and followed her cousin inside. 

 

Ann quite successfully dodged questions about her evening walk. She was happy to finish her dinner alone in the kitchen, while the rest of the party started a movie in the living room. Quietly, she cleaned up after herself and slipped to the hallway, making her way upstairs, planning on retiring for the night. She tiptoed up the stairs and all the while felt like someone would spot and stop her. When she reached her bedroom, stepped in and closed the door after herself, she noticed she’d been holding her breath. 

 

She leaned against the door and trembled. Slowly, she closed her eyes and tried to take deep, steadying breaths. The moment she closed her eyes, her mind was flooded. 

 

She was so handsome. 

 

Anne had smiled. And talked. And waved her hands. Anne had laughed and made Ann laugh. Anne had frowned. Anne had joked. Anne had ranted. Anne’s apartment was wonderful. Her t-shirt was wonderful. Her wet hair was-- 

 

Ann rubbed her temples. Her breathing was a series of shallow, quick huffs and puffs. Anne’s gentle chuckle filled her ears. She opened her eyes and walked to the window. Then back to the door. Then back to the window.

 

I just like her. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything. I’m not--- I just like her. How would I even know if I was? 

 

“Oh, Lord…” she cussed and bit her knuckles. She felt her breathing picking up pace and getting out of control, so she made her way to the bed, crawled in and got on her back and forced herself to focus. 

 

In. And out. In. And out. In. And out. Anne--- IN. AND OUT.

 

Once she’d attained a steady rhythm, she allowed her thoughts to wander again. Her heart rate was through the roof, but she kept still, trying to trick her body into thinking she was resting. 

 

Very soon, she noticed she was caught in a vicious circle; every time she thought of Anne, she instantly felt light and warm, but feeling light and warm made her immediately question why she was feeling that way, which sent her right back to the far ends of her anxiety, from where the only escape at the moment seemed to be thinking of Anne. She twisted her hands and tried to think clearly. 

 

I just like her. That’s all. I’ve always liked her. She’s mesmerizing. Interesting. Handsome. No! Well---

 

She dug out her phone and stared at her lock screen for a moment. She had an urge to call Anne and just pour everything out, but what would she say? 

 

Hello, I like you? But not like that? Like what? I don’t even know. Sorry. Bye. 

 

She thought back to their phone call. Anne had seemed somehow gloomy when they’d started, but suddenly she’d been as full of life as ever, giving Ann a full tour of her lovely flat, complaining about the dust and the smelly fridge. Ann had been busy focusing on her smile, the way her brow creased when she focused, the soft low rumble of her voice just before she erupted into a hearty laughter. Anne. Anne. All of her. Her brain seemed to have come to a standstill, where images of Anne were on replay, and she kept browsing through. They simultaneously made her float and nauseous. 

 

Fuck. Oh God. Fuck, fuck. I can’t call her. 

 

She shook her head hard, hoping Anne would fall out. She opened her phone and clicked into Google and started typing.

 

How to know if you’re gay 

 

I’m not. I’m just checking. To be sure. 

 

The first two results were Buzzfeed quizzes, but the third page was from the NHS, so Ann, feeling ridiculous, clicked it. 

 

“It’s normal to be attracted to both boys and girls when you’re growing up” the article started. 

 

“Well I’ve already done that bit haven’t I?” Ann muttered and rolled her eyes. 

 

“During puberty, you have lots of emotions and sexual feelings” she read on. 

 

“Oh for crying out loud---” she clicked back to the search and swiped further, clicking on a link from Stonewall. 

 

“If you fancy someone of the same sex it may mean that you are lesbian, gay or bisexual” she muttered the words out loud, “well, I--- God! I don’t know…”

 

I’ve always liked her. I’ve liked her since that summer. I’ve liked her since I was 14.

 

“Some people know that they are gay from an early age and other at a much later stage” she read, “is 29 still counted as a later stage?” 

 

The article was mainly directed to youth, and it did have some information about how to come out and where to contact if you were a victim of violence, but nothing that would tell you how you knew. 

 

“Am I just supposed to guess this then?” Ann got a tad agitated, but searched again. 

 

Am I lesbian 

 

The results were no better. Quizzes and Cosmopolitan articles. She sighed in frustration. 

 

Am I gay chat

 

Dating chats and sites for gay men.

 

Am I lesbian chat

 

Dating chats and sites for lesbians.

 

Am I gay help

 

Same articles for youngsters as before. 

 

Am I gay helpline

 

Ann clicked the result to Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline. 

 

How we can help

 

Phone us

0300 330 0630

Open every day 10:00 - 22:00 

 

They were closed for the day. Ann clicked the chat icon at the bottom right corner. She pressed the chat box and the cursor blinked, waiting. 

 

Hi I have a crush on my

 

No

 

Hi I think I might be

 

No

 

Hi how do I know if I’m

 

No

 

She sighed and tapped on the backspace again. Her phone buzzed in her hand and she dropped it on the bed, gasping. 

 

“Oh God---!” she fought the jolt of the fright and picked up her phone. She returned to her home screen and saw the small red message notification on the WhatsApp icon. 

 

I hope you got home safely. 

I just wanted to thank you. 

I had a bit of a rough day and

you really cheered me up.

good night x 

 

Ann whimpered and rubbed her face, closing her eyes. She wanted to both throw her phone to the wall and call Anne, to say good night, to hear her voice. Her hands trembled as she typed her reply. 

 

I did. Glad to hear. 

good night

 

Her finger hovered over the letter for a solid 5 seconds, before she clicked it and tossed her phone on the bed. 

 

x



***



Chapter Text

“It only happened once.” 

 

Anne sighed and tried not to snap. She’d let Mary in, not saying a word. Mary hadn’t either. Mary had drawn a bath for Anne; she’d cleared Anne’s desk where piles of dirty coffee mugs and empty ready meal dishes had taken over most of the space; she’d loaded the dishwasher and wiped the kitchen counters, and Anne had let her. 

 

“Do you really think I’m stupid enough to believe that?” Anne grunted. Mary’s hand holding the sponge she’d been rubbing Anne’s back gently with came to a halt. Anne waited for Mary to say something, but she just dipped the sponge in the water and brought it on Anne’s head, tenderly squeezing it, letting the warm water wet Anne’s hair. 

 

“When have you showered last?” Mary asked. Anne frowned. 

 

“Monday. I had to go see my publisher and editor.”

 

“Freddy---” Mary tutted. Anne swiftly took the sponge from her, “it’s Thursday--”

 

“Thank you” Anne snarled, “I can manage.” 

 

Mary ran her hand up the back of Anne’s neck and cupped her head. Anne closed her eyes and after a spent exhale, she leaned into her touch. 

 

“I know you’re upset--” Mary started.

 

“Oh, really?”

 

“-- But you could’ve at least texted me you were alright.” 

 

“I wasn’t.”

 

“I had to ask Richie---”

 

“Oh no, all the trouble you’ve gone through---”

 

“And they didn’t receive me very well. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t blabber about my private life with our friends behind my back.”

 

My friend” Anne corrected, although she knew it wasn’t exactly true, “and perhaps you should practise what you preach, then, before you expect others to do the same.” 

 

“Oh, I see. You think I’ve cheated on you, don’t you?” Mary spoke and took the sponge from Anne. She was eerily calm, and it annoyed Anne, “do you think it somehow different to what you had with Sibella? Or Maria Barlow?” 

 

“Going into the archives to back your argument, are you?” Anne turned to face her, “well, in that case, for the record, you were already married, and I had no hope, whatsoever, of ever really being with you---”

 

“You were engaged to me!” 

 

“While you’re married to someone else?” Anne exclaimed, “I don’t think that’s how it works, Mary!” 

 

“So, what, we stopped existing the day I married Charles?” Mary countered, “Do I really have to remind you of all the times you and I have been very much a thing behind my husband’s back--”

 

“Yes, yes, please do. I’d like to get to the bottom of this ‘thing’ that is you and I, Mary!” Anne slammed her hand to the edge of the bathtub, “did you really think I’d take this lying down, hmm?”

 

“Yes! How is it any different from your--- excursions? Am I supposed to take it lying down that you take a new pet every other month--”

 

“I’m not exclusively yours, Mary. You broke us when you married him--”

 

“And I’m not exclusively yours, Fred. You’re a big hypocrite. He’s my personal trainer. It’s just a fling. Just like your Vera---”

 

“Vere---”

 

“Whatever. Whoever. It isn’t any different. You’re just upset, because it’s a man.”      

 

That stung Anne so hard she felt the air punched out of her lungs. It wasn’t fair that Mariana once again played her biggest fear against her, especially since she was the one who’d proved twice now that it was true; Anne wasn’t enough for her, because she wasn’t a man. Anne wasn’t enough for any of the women she’d dated, because she wasn’t a man. She was just Anne. And they could only love her up to a point. 

 

“So, that’s what I’ll have to settle with, hmm?” she muttered bitterly. 

 

Mary caressed Anne’s cheek and brushed a strand of hair behind Anne’s ear. 

 

“Well, if you’d for a change stop flirting with obviously straight women---”

 

“Cut the crap, Mary. I fell in love with you, and that didn’t really leave me any better off---”

 

“Oh for heaven’s sake, I didn’t marry him for love, I’m not sleeping with Will because I like him!” 

 

“Well, how comforting. What am I for then, hmm? Seems like you’re quite well off without me--” Anne’s bitter rant was cut off, when Mary crouched and caught her chin with her hand. Her eyes were keen and her gaze angry and wild. 

 

“Do you really need to ask that?” 

 

Mary’s low tone vibrated in Anne’s chest, sending shivers down her spine. She tilted her chin and ever so slightly leaned forwards, before she snapped out of it and abruptly turned her head, breaking away. Mariana sighed and straightened her back. Just as she was about to turn, Anne reached out and caught her wrist. Mariana jolted. 

 

“Join me” Anne husked, looking at Mary from head to toe, “won’t you?”

 

Mariana gave her a salty look, but when Anne didn’t let go of her hand and caressed her wrist gently with her thumb, her mien softened, and she reached to open her hair. Slowly, Anne freed her hand and watched as Mary undressed. She let some of the already lukewarm water out and opened the tap to let in some fresh hot water, before extending her hand out for Mary to take. Gingerly, Mary stepped in and Anne could see the goosebumps on her skin as she lowered herself in the bath. Anne opened her arms and legs to allow Mary to rest her back against her chest. Mary let her head drop against Anne’s shoulder, while Anne wrapped her arms around Mary. Mary turned her head and softly pressed against Anne’s jaw with her nose. Anne pressed a kiss on her hair. 

 

“I missed you” Mary whispered and Anne felt her hand on her leg. Anne hummed. 

 

“Did you? Is that why you--”

 

“Not now, Fred.”

 

“Mhh. Well, it’s only been a few weeks since I last saw you.” 

 

“And before that you were gone for months--”

 

“Oh, so this is really my fault?”

 

“It isn’t anyone’s fault” Mary pressed her hand hard against Anne’s leg, “there is no fault. I just missed you.” 

 

Anne swallowed hard and barely held her tongue. The last 3 days alone in her flat, working round the clock bore their marks on her, and she was exhausted, too tired to argue. Too lonely to refuse Mary and the closeness she offered. 

 

“I missed you too.” 

 

Mary squeezed her leg gently and arched her neck. Anne tilted her head and crouched, bringing her hand up to cup Mary’s cheek. Her nose brushed against Mary’s, and she smirked pleased, when she noticed Mary reach up to kiss her. She hovered just far enough for Mary to not reach her lips. Surprised, Mary opened her eyes and Anne looked right into them, unable to play it cool and pull away. She closed her eyes and kissed Mary softly and enjoyed the barely audible low hum Mary let out, as Anne deepened the kiss. 

 

Soon, Anne felt Mary’s tongue on her lips and she opened her mouth, while bringing her hand to cup Mary’s breast. She rubbed her nipple gingerly at first, noticing how Mary’s breathing got sharper. Mary yelped, when Anne gave her nipple a hard pinch.

 

“Oh” Anne muttered against Mary’s lips, “sorry.”

 

“You’re not” Mary breathed and softly bit Anne’s lip in return. Anne smirked. 

 

“If you say so.” 

 

Mary’s hand found its way up to the back of Anne’s neck, and she pulled her to another deep kiss. Anne held Mary’s nipple between her index finger and thumb and gently rubbed it amidst soft pinches and squeezes. When she felt Mary press against her hard, her hips backing up against Anne’s, she ran her other hand down Mary’s flank and stomach to her hips. For a moment she held Mary firmly, before moving her hand to caress the inside of her thigh, slowly making her way up between Mary’s legs. She gently jerked her hips against Mary’s, when she cupped her. Mary moaned into their kiss. Roughly, Anne cupped her breast, while she slowly parted Mary and ran her middle finger against her centre. 

 

Mary gasped and broke off their kiss, arching her neck, her head pressing hard against Anne’s shoulder. Anne nudged her head gingerly, and Mary exposed her neck. Anne slid her finger lower while she pressed a firm kiss on Mary’s neck. When she reached her core, Anne strongly cupped Mary while ever so slightly pressing against her with her middle finger. That was enough to extract a loud moan from Mary. 

 

Anne smiled and gingerly nibbled Mary’s neck. She knew Mary. She knew what she was doing. She knew what worked. Mary was hers and she knew exactly what to do with her. She pushed her finger in just slightly and as soon as she felt Mary’s hips move, urging her deeper, she pulled away and brought her finger up to her clit. Mary twitched in her arms. 

 

“Don’t… tease me…” Mary whispered. 

 

“Quiet” Anne replied, kissing Mary gently. 

 

She squeezed Mary’s nipple again, while she slid her middle finger down and pushed it in. Mary arched her back, her hips jerking against Anne’s hand. Anne brought her thumb on Mary’s clit and started circling softly. Mary pressed against her hard, pulling her into a crushing kiss. Anne felt a rigorous calmness come over her; she knew what she was doing, and she knew how long it would take her. She curled her finger inside Mary, expecting a moan in return, and smirked when she got it in a second. She pressed a bit harder against Mary’s clit and got the squirming she was looking for. She felt a pressure building in her crotch and abdomen, and momentarily she let go of Mary’s breast, just to yank Mary closer, ever so slightly grinding her hips against Mary’s. 

 

She picked up pace and brought her hand back up to cup Mary’s breast. She kept Mary close, intoxicated by her scent, overcome by the sudden jerks and minute squirms Mary made in her arms, under her command. She felt Mary’s legs starting to shake, and she knew Mary was close. She curled her finger harder and moved her thumb faster, letting go of Mary’s breast to pull her hips hard against her. Mary squeezed Anne’s leg so hard Anne knew she’d get bruised, but she didn’t care; Mary moaned hard against her lips and Anne felt her tighten and pulse against her finger. A hot, gushing wave washed over Anne and she jerked her hips up, failing to suppress her gasp as she got her own release, her Mary in her arms, their breaths shallow and rapid. 

 

Mary relaxed and let her head fall back against Anne’s shoulder. Her grip on Anne’s thigh eased and she began to caress Anne softly. 

 

“Do you want me to stay?” she whispered. Anne closed her eyes. She hadn’t thought about it. 

 

“Mhh” she hummed, “I think I’m going home tomorrow. It’s just this one night.” Mary turned in Anne’s arms and cupped her face, before reaching up to kiss Anne. 

 

“As you wish” she muttered against Anne’s lips. 



***



Ann had called the number three times now. The third time she had actually managed to say something. 

 

“I’m confused,” she had squeaked. The person at the other end of the line had been kind and patient, but Ann had ended the phone call after a few minutes. The only thing she had told them was that she liked her neighbour. 

 

I like her. I admire her. She’s nice. And admirable.  

 

Well, she had briefly mentioned she’d googled things. The person at the other end of the line had kindly encouraged her to look for information, but also warned her not to extort herself, advising her to take time for herself and her own thoughts. Ann had agreed that would probably be the best, and then promptly spent the following 3 days pretty much in her bedroom, on her phone. She’d ignored her cousins’ and aunt’s concerns, stating that she had a headache and wasn’t feeling that well. 

 

And her head did hurt. She had racked her brain for evidence that she was not-- 

 

She was only infatuated with Anne, because she was Anne. Anyone would be. Cathy had said so; she wasn’t your everyday gal. Everyone felt bubbly in her presence. They had to. 

 

Last night she’d found a set of questions answering which was supposed to help her navigate whatever this storm was about. She had agreed with herself that she’d write them down, and write down her answers too, but when she’d tried to do that, she’d ended up sketching until 6 am. No question, and therefore no answer to any, had been written down. She knew there were probably better things for her to do on a Friday afternoon, but she’d been sitting on her bed, wrapped in her dressing gown, staring at the questions (she’d taken a screenshot) for about half an hour now. She read the questions over and over again and tried her best not to get annoyed, but she felt like she was being questioned by a school nurse with an overly chirpy voice and a nervously kind smile. 

 

When I dream or fantasize sexually, do I think about other girls?

 

I don’t know. I don’t--- What kind of question is this? How’s that any of your business? My business. Fucking hell. 

 

Can I picture myself dating, having sex with, loving or being married to a woman?

 

I can picture myself being fucking done with this. 

 

I can’t picture myself dating. I just like her, okay? Let’s not get ahead of things. I don’t date. I never have. 

 

I mean--- I want to get married. I’ve dreamt of getting married. I don’t know who to. Whenever I think about it, I can see my husband waiting for me at the altar, but he doesn’t have a head. I think one of the requirements for a husband is for him to have a head. I can’t see him.  

 

Have I ever had a crush on or been in love with another girl?

 

Oh for fuck’s sake. 

 

No. I like Anne. Anne isn’t a girl. She’s--- Anne. Just Anne. What is a crush? I mean, I--- Well, okay, I can’t stop thinking about her. That could be a crush.

 

How are my feelings towards men and women different?

 

What? I don’t know, I--- Feelings? I don’t know when I’ve last had feelings for anyone. If ever, I--  

 

Women are my friends and men are--- I don’t know. 

 

I like to--- I like to dress up. Look nice. I think that I will like when they compliment or approach me, but when they do I’m… Petrified. Scared. 

 

Anne looked at me like… that, once. At the climbing gym. I’m pretty sure. No, she didn’t. She was just… I don’t know. I think she did. She might’ve. No. But I--- I felt elated.  

 

Do I feel uncomfortable or different from my straight friends when they talk about the guys they like?

 

My straight friends? I’m straight too. I’m just not seeing anyone at the moment. 

 

Fine. Fine. 

 

I just don’t know why they date. I’m afraid they’ll get hurt. I don’t see the point. It sounds boring and exhausting. 

 

There. She’d answered every one of them. For a moment, she was ready to congratulate herself, grinning victoriously, tossing on her back on the bed, but when her head hit the pillows, she realised she was none the wiser about her situation. She groaned out loud. She wished someone would just march up to her, kick down the door and tell her. Tell her what to think, what to be. The phone call had only been brief, but the person at the other end of the line had said something that had stuck with her. 

 

“It’s often the case that you already know. You don’t need anyone to tell you that. But it might help to think about what is standing between you and accepting the answer to your question.”

 

Everything. My whole life. It’s just… It’s not who I am. I don’t want to--- I don’t want this. 

 

She opened her phone again and clicked into her photos. She found her favourite picture of Anne and stared at it again, frowning. Two days ago she’d admitted to herself that she’d long since stopped looking at Jack. She’d stopped telling herself to look at Jack and let herself look at only Anne. Anne in the picture smiled like nothing had happened, nothing had changed, and of course for her, nothing had. Ann had thought about her so much she was a tad angry at Anne. It was unfair that she didn’t have to go through-- whatever Ann was going through. She was miles away, blissfully unaware of what she’d done to Ann. And yet---

 

I just want to see you again. 

 

She’d been shilly-shallying about calling Anne for the past few days. A part of her was certain just hearing Anne’s voice would clear her head and make her feel light again; partly she wanted to keep Anne at a distance. She’d thought about her so intensely she wasn’t sure she knew the Anne who’d pick up. At times she wasn’t sure the real Anne existed at all anymore. She hadn’t heard from her. 

 

She nearly had a heart attack, when there was a light knock on her door. Hastily, she locked her phone and shoved it under her pillow, combing through her hair with her fingers.

 

“Come in---” she coughed, her voice hoarse after having been quiet the whole day. A moment later, Cathy opened the door and peeked in. 

 

“How’re you feeling?” she mumbled as she stepped in. 

 

“Uhm--- better, I guess. The headache is gone” she lied, “I’m sorry, I haven’t been very good company--”

 

“No, no, don’t worry about it” Cathy came to sit on the bed next to her, “I just came to check on you. There’s tea, if you’re hungry.” She smiled shyly and took Ann’s hand. 

 

“Thank you. I should eat” Ann admitted, “how’s your day been?” 

 

Cathy shrugged. 

 

“I’ve been trying to pick my outfit tomorrow” she looked down and seemed uncomfortable, “and I… D’you think you’re coming?”

 

“What, to the festival?” Ann cocked her head.

 

“Mhh. You’ve been so poorly, I thought--”

 

“Yes, yes of course I’m coming!” Ann squeezed Cathy’s hand, “Gosh, Cath, I’m-- I’m so sorry, I’ve just been… In my head and not feeling like myself. Of course, I want to go. I haven’t been anywhere for two years--”

 

“Only to India---”

 

“Well, I didn’t have you there, now, did I?” Ann smiled and managed to draw out a smirk from Cathy, too, “come on. Tell me about the guy.” Cathy bit her lip and dug out her phone.

 

“Okay, so, here’s Matt. That’s him” she showed Ann a few photos. A brown haired guy on a motorbike. On a boat. On a golf course. Big, bright smile. A polo shirt, “and this is Josh, his friend. He’s coming also” Cathy pushed Ann with her elbow. Ann chuckled and crossed her arms. 

 

Josh had longer hair. It was on a ponytail. He was taller than Matt. He also had a big, bright smile and a polo shirt. 

 

“He’s a football player,” Cathy informed Ann. Ann nodded. He did look healthy.

 

“He’s dreamy” she sighed and cocked her head. Cathy tittered. 

 

“I can’t wait!” she jumped off the bed, “come on. Let’s get you something to eat, you look--” 

 

“Don’t. I know” Ann cut her off and extended her arms. Cathy took her hands and pulled her out of the bed. 

 

“Come on, we need to get you up and running again” Cathy took Ann into a squeezing hug, “can’t have you moping around like this tomorrow.” 

 

“Yeah, alright, thank you” Ann muttered, a notch piqued, “let me just change into something--- well, clothes. I’ll be right there.”

 

“You better be. I’ll give you 5 minutes. If I have to come up and I find you in this bed, I’ll set it on fire.” 

 

“Yeah, I got it” Ann rubbed her temples and gave Cathy an irritated look. When her cousin had gone, she went to the bed and dug out her phone from under the pillow. She inhaled sharply when she pressed the home button. 

 

Anne Lister

Someone’s happy to see me

 

Anne Lister sent a video

 

Ann’s hands were shaking as she opened her phone and went to her messages. She clicked the play icon on the video and tiny, sharp barks greeted her. 

 

“Hello, hello--- Hi, mate” she could faintly hear Anne over Jack’s barks and whines. He looked like he was still figuring out how tail wagging actually worked, but he was clearly overjoyed to see Anne. Ann’s hand found its way to her neck and to the pendant. She watched the video three times. Her phone chimed to signal another message. 

 

How’ve you been?

 

Ann sighed and closed her eyes. There weren’t words to explain the last 3 days. 



He’s so happy to see you! <3 

Say hi to him for me, will you?

I’m alright 

Bit of a headache for a few days now 

But otherwise fine

You?




Headache for a few days?

Have you seen a doctor? 



No

It’s nothing serious

Idk I’m probably just tired



Any other symptoms?

Fever?

Nausea? 

 

“Oh for God’s sake…” Ann cussed and slumped down on the bed. 



No, nothing

I’ve just slept poorly

But I’m feeling better now

Thank you



Good

Let me know if it goes on

I could pop by if you’d like

Anyway, would be nice to catch up

 

Ann trembled. She wanted nothing more. She wasn’t sure if she could ever explain any of this to Anne, but she strongly felt, somehow, that everything would settle if she could just see Anne. Right now. 

 

I don’t want to bother you

But it would be nice

I’ll give you a call someday soon

 

Good

Take care!

And rest

Go out, get some fresh air

I’m sure you’ll feel much better :) 

 

Thank you

:)

 

“Ann Walker!” she dropped her phone, when Cathy practically kicked the door in, “you better--- Still in your dressing gown!” 

 

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Ann barked back at her, “look, I dropped my phone!” She crouched to pick it up. 

 

“Wonderful! I hope it’s smashed” Cathy replied dryly, “probably the only way I can get you off it.” 

 

Ann crossed her arms and protestingly tossed her phone on the bed. 

 

“There, I’ll leave it here” she scoffed and walked past her cousin to the door, “happy now?”

 

“Weren’t you going to change?” Cathy asked after her, as Ann stepped to the hallway. Ann waved her hand dismissively.

 

“It’s a summer house. I suppose a nightgown is acceptable.” 



***

 

“Anne?” 

 

Anne heard her sister over the rustling of the grocery bags. Marian had come to pick her up from the station and they’d popped to the supermarket. They’d come in through the kitchen door. Anne had let Jack and Argus outside and sent a video to Ann Walker. 

 

“Mhh?” Anne let her know she had at least a sliver of her attention.

 

“Could you ask Elizabeth to start coming over every other day?” Marian had lowered her voice. Anne stopped loading the fridge to hear her mutterings, “Twice a week just isn’t… Especially when you’re not around--”

 

“Elizabeth?” Anne frowned and shook her head minutely. Marian rolled her eyes. 

 

“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Cordingley--” 

 

“Oh” Anne raised a brow and proceeded with the groceries, “why? Are we struggling?”

 

“You’re not struggling, ever, apparently” Marian continued, sour, “it’s just--- dad and auntie aren’t getting any younger, and I can’t keep an eye on them, take care of the house and work full-time on top of that. I’m… well, exhausted. And they can only do so much.” 

 

Anne sighed, pained, and slumped down to sit on the floor. She brought her hand to her forehead and rubbed her temples. 

 

“Mhh” she only hummed her first response. 

 

“Can you at least think about it?” Marian sat down on the bench. 

 

“It’s not whether or not I can think about it,” Anne replied, closing her eyes, “and, as a matter of fact, I already have. It’s… Mhhm. Washington called me the other day. One of my tenants is moving out in August. He’s on it, but he’s yet to find me a new one. And… Well, it’s Halifax. It’s likely the flat will be empty for some time.” 

 

“So no rent” Marian nodded. 

 

“No rent” Anne concluded and sighed, “I’ve been thinking about letting my London flat--”

 

“Really? Are you sure?” Marian looked astonished. Anne sighed, uncomfortable. 

 

“Yes, I--- I haven’t been there as much as I… And I can work from home, too. Anyway, it would leave us with a bit more money every month.”  

 

“But you’d lose the flat.” 

 

Anne exhaled deep and tossed her head back. 

 

“I’ve not…”

 

“I know how much it means to you” Marian continued, “are we… Are we tight? On money?”

 

Anne scrunched her nose and waved her hand dismissively. 

 

“No” she countered, “no, not… Well, not tight, but--- I can’t say yes to Cordingley coming in more often yet. I’ll have to--- Mhh. In any case, I’ll be home more now. I can give you a hand. I can take on a few more projects with my editor---”

 

“Could we sell?” Marian suggested, “at least one of the flats?”

 

Anne shook her head and got back to the groceries. 

 

“No. That’s only a temporary relief and would set me back on the long run” she spoke to the milk bottles, “I’ll only think about that, if I can’t find a new tenant for the flat on Blackwall.” 

 

“Well, yes, but… Anne, we need the help around the house now” Marian pressed on, “I know you like to think nothing changes around here and things will always stay the same--”

 

“I hope you know that I don’t think that, Marian, I’m painfully aware of the condition of this house--” Anne cut her off, nettled. 

 

“Auntie fell,” Marian stated, defiant, cocking her head, “yesterday. In the bathroom, doing laundry.”

 

Anne felt stress pierce her midriff. She stumbled up and turned, striding out of the kitchen.

 

“Anne--!” Marian called after her, but Anne ignored her. 

 

It couldn’t be serious. Marian would’ve told her if it was. Anne heard the television louder and louder as she marched down the hallway towards the living room. She grit her teeth; Marian should’ve told her. She should’ve told her right away. 

 

“Oh!” Her sudden appearance on the living room doorstep evoked a surprised exclamation from her aunt. Anne strode across the room to her arm chair and crouched, taking her aunt’s hands into hers. 

 

“Marian told me you fell” she started, “are you alright? Have you seen a doctor?” 

 

“I didn’t know you were coming home---!” her aunt stuttered and squeezed Anne’s hands, “when did you---?” 

 

“Marian picked me up just now. Are you alright?” 

 

“Yes, yes, yes” her aunt dismissed her concern, “I was just lightheaded. A silly thing, really. Nothing to worry about.”

 

“Well, hello to you too” her father mumbled, grumpy. 

 

“Yes, hello” Anne barely looked at him, “were you hurt?” she continued, scanning her aunt’s expression. Her hands were warm, but she did seem a bit pale. Her aunt shook her head. 

 

“No, no. Just a fright, is all. A tiny bruise on my knee--”

 

“Does it hurt? Did you see a doctor? Marian didn’t call--” Anne blabbered, but was cut off by her father.

 

“You know, we wouldn’t need to see a doctor, if there was a doctor in the family.” 

 

Anne felt a slow, heavy pressure on her chest, squeezing out the air in her lungs. She swallowed and managed a minute smile to her aunt. 

 

“Jeremy!” her aunt scolded her father. 

 

“Or if you were home. These things wouldn’t happen--” her father continued. 

 

“Well, I’m here now--” Anne started, trying to smile. 

 

For now!” her father barked. 

 

“Leave her be!” her aunt huffed, “it’s good to see you, darling. Are you…? How long will you--?” Anne hated the sad hesitation in her tone and mien. A wave of guilt washed over her, but she hummed and nodded, keeping her smile on.

 

“For the summer at least” she replied, “I’ve got some things to manage around here. I’ll see if I can get that renovation started with the main bath. And I need to find a new tenant for the Blackwall apartment.” Her aunt cupped her cheek and smiled warmly. 

 

“I’m glad. Are you glad, Jeremy?” She turned to her brother.

 

“What?”

 

“Are you glad?”

 

“About what?”

 

Anne rolled her eyes and straightened her back. 

 

“Anne!”

 

“What about Anne?”

 

“She will be home for the summer!”

 

Anne watched her father return his eyes to the TV. 

 

“Remains to be seen” he commented sourly, “is there anything for dinner?”

 

“We’re just unpacking with Marian” Anne replied, more to her aunt than to her father, “won’t be long. I just wanted to see that you were alright.”

 

“Fine, I’m fine. How was London?” her aunt asked, somewhat cautiously. Anne let out an awkward chuckle. 

 

“Ah--- quite busy. I’ll tell you later. I best get back or Marian will suffer a stress fracture in her jaws for complaining.” She gave her aunt’s hands one more gentle squeeze before leaving the living room and returning to the kitchen. Marian had already unpacked the rest of the groceries and sat at the table, casting Anne a hesitant, guilty look. 

 

“I’m sorry---”

 

“Next time something happens” Anne interrupted her, “I’m your first thought.” 

 

“Well, I--- Yes” Marian started, but yielded then, “yes, of course.” 

 

Anne popped the kettle on and poured herself a glass of water. 

 

“How was London?” Marian asked. Anne closed her eyes and exhaled. 

 

“Still there” she replied and earned an eye roll from her sister, “dad’s hungry. Any ideas for dinner?” 

 

“There’s some leftover stir fry. I’ll fix a salad” Marian huffed and got up, “oh. I meant to ask you. There’s a beer festival in Keswick tomorrow. Would you like to come? We were supposed to go with John’s sister and her boyfriend, but she’s got a stomach flu. I’ve got two extra tickets.” 

 

“John? John who?” Anne frowned and shook her head, confused. 

 

“John, my boyfri--”

 

“John Abbott?” Anne interrupted, “are you--- back together, then?” Marian smiled, looking giddy. 

 

“We’ll see how it goes” she bit her lower lip. Anne turned her back to Marian to hide her pained expression, “anyway, will you come? I thought… It would mean a lot to me, if you… made an effort. With him.” Anne pursed her lips to not groan out loud. 

 

“No, Marian, I’m---” she started, but stopped, “mhh. Fine. Fine, I’ll come. I’ll ask Johnny, since you’ve got the extra ticket.” 

 

“Really?” Marian whispered. 

 

“Yes,” Anne said dryly, “I’ll drive us.” 

 

“Anne!” Marian came around the table and promptly proceeded to hug her sister. Reluctant, Anne kept her arms in the air, but eventually patted Marian on the back.

 

“Alright, enough. Let go or I’ll take it back.”