Title: A Bloom in Age

Fandom: Little Women/ Jo's Boys

Pairings: future Laurie/ Jo, present Jo/ Fritz, Amy/ Laurie

Rating: PG-13

Chapter: 1/?

A/N: This story has been designed as a way to believably get Laurie and Jo togther. It takes place after Jo's Boys, and adheres reasonably to the morality of the time, and I have tried to get the author's style to an extent. Neither Amy nor Fritz Bhaer are made hate figures.

Summary: Love does not always have to bloom in youth and beauty. There are other types of love, slower and deeper, and Jo and Laurie find such love. Set a year after Jo's Boys. Adhers to canon

Dipping her pen in the ink, and inscribing a final sentence, Jo, more formally known as Mrs Bhaer, laid it aside with a sigh, stretching her arms, relishing the freedom. She wasn't sixteen years old anymore, and writing no longer seemed such a joy as it once had, when she had thought nothing of spending hours working on a bit of poetry, or a short story. Now her bones seemed to ache a little more, and her once slender frame more lethargic than usual.

She stood, pushing the finished manuscript to one side, and making a mental note to remember to post it as soon as she could, and the maid came into the room. Mary shook her head. "Mrs Bhaer," she remonstrated. "You've been ill, you shouldn't be working so hard."

Jo smiled at her friend. "Nonsense. I can scarcely call writing work." Nonethless she sat back down a little hurriedly, feeling the inevitable weakness which came after a bad bout of influenza. Sitting on the comfortable sofa, she caught sight of herself in the mirror as Mary bustled in her comfortable way around, and felt a little shock of recognition. The illness had caused her to lose weight, and her face seemed all hollows and sharp bones, her eyes brighter than usual. More than anything she looked oddly young again because of it, which frightened her. She scolded herself sharply. Why she was only in her late thirties, and that was scarcely ancient. Even so, it was a shock to see the face she used to have looking back at her, and it prompted uncomfortable memories of her younger self. On a whim she let down her hair, still chestnut if a little faded, and let it fall around her face in the old way.

A knock came at the door, and without waiting for an answer, Laurie came in jauntily. In mortification Jo lunged for her hairpins, and began doing her hair back up, despising the vanity which had caused such a thing. Gentle fingers tugged at her hands, removing the hair pins. "Leave your hair Jo," commanded Laurie, and the old affectionate diminutive caused her hands to drop, and the flush to fade. He sat down beside her, talking of some minor thing, he'd had some news from Nat that he wanted to share, and she tried to listen, but the words seemed to escape her attention.

Finally she spoke. "Stay to dinner Laurie," she attempted a smile. "I'm afraid I'm still not very well, so I shall dine in here, but there is nothing to stop you from joining the table."

He looked at her, dark eyes shining mischeviously. "I'd rather dine with you," he said. Then adopting his old exaggerated pose, he flung himself down in front of her, the attitude as becoming to the man as it had been to the youth. "I beg you let me dine with you," he requested, and there was something more than joking in his manner, some deep hurt hidden in his eyes, that made her grant his plea with seriousness rather than a joke. He leaped up, and promised to see the kitchen to organise it, with more than his customary gratitude.

Jo looked out of the window. It was autumn again, and the leaves were all shades of brown, red, gold and green, swirling past her eyes. One of the girls had filled a vase with the long stemmed chrysanthems, and with delicate movements she opened the panes of glass, inhaling the air for one guilty moment, before slamming it shut. As she looked around the small comfortable room that served as both study and bower, she pondered on what she had seen in Laurie's eyes. He had looked broken, there was something almost desperate under the usual teasing words and actions, something belonged neither to Laurie the boy, nor the man she had watched grow. It was a look that she had seen before in Dan's eyes, one of misery and almost shame. Only in Dan's eyes it had been self-shame, while in Laurie's there had been something utterly different.

When he returned, she made no mention of anything wrong. Merely with the subtlety she had learned through years of dealing with masculine minds, she artfully inquired after subjects, watching closely for a reaction. Bess, the college, money elicited cheerful responses, but when she inquired as to how Amy was she saw the small flinch. So it was something to do with her youngest sister then. She left the subject with ease, but pondered the problem with stern thought, while making light hearted responses to his questions on the finishing of the book. Dinner arrived, just simple lamb, peas and boiled potatoes, with a piece of sponge cake to follow, and it wasn't until the dishes had been cleared away, and the lights dimmed that he felt safe enough, to drop down beside her and put his head in his hands. "Jo," he said quietly. "If I was to ask you to come with me and Bess to Europe for six months what would you say?"

She was struck dumb with amazement. Of all the things she had thought he could possibly say, this was the most unexpected. At a loss for words, she stumbled for a moment. "Laurie, I couldn't possibly, you know that. There are the boys, there is Fritz, my work even. Everything Laurie dear."

Laurie persisted. "Jo it would be just the thing for you. You're still ill, a convalescence in Europe would put you to rights, you know you've always wanted to go again, and I could show you everything. The boys would be fine, after all there are almost none of the old crew left, and if you wanted perhaps Teddy could come." This last said with a little reluctance. "Oh do Jo. Please." The last word was uttered with a look that tore at Jo's heart strings, and made her kinder in her reply than perhaps she should have been.

"Teddy, tell me what the matter is. I promise I'll think about it faithfully, but I need to know why. Why do you not want Amy to go with you?"

There was misery in the face lifted up to hers. "Oh Jo," he groaned. "I couldn't ask Amy to go with me. We are estranged in all but name, and have been so for the last six years." At the shock in her eyes, he smiled bitterly. "I am a rather good actor it would appear," he observed, then softening. "I am so sorry. I should not have told you, it will only hurt you this knowledge, will make you think the worst of me."

Jo could have shook him. "Laurie, I'm thirty eight and I've been looking after boys for eighteen years. I am scarcely shockable. I am dismayed, and sad for you both, but Laurie I could never think the worse of you, you should know that." She ended with a soothing caress. "Now if you wish to tell me, I shall listen."

He nodded, and stared at his hands. "We never loved one another. To be fair, for a time I thought I loved her, and I was foolish enough to believe that she loved me. Then the years passed, and Bess was born, and I truly thought that she would bring us together. But she drove us apart, forcing us to take entrenched positions as to whom was given the most love. With her painting and her art and her sculpture, Amy was best fitted to amuse an artistic child, and I could only watch, could only offer money and music lessons, as my daughter grew further away from me, grew into a beautiful cold inhuman statue, who cared only for clay and paints. I despaired sometimes, and by the time Bess was twelve Amy and I rarely spoke even." He paused, and brushed at his eyes. "So I asked her. I sat down beside her, and took her hand and asked her if she loved me. And she laughed. You have never heard a chilling laugh, until it's been uttered by a beautiful woman."

With sympathy Jo clutched the hand he had offered. "Go on," she murmurred, feeling as though she pried, and yet desperate to know if she could help.

"She laughed," he continued, "and said 'Theodore, did you ever suppose I did?' There was genuine surprise in her voice. Then she added to her words. 'I've been a dutiful wife in every respect that you could possibly wish, you have been an excellent husband, and we have a wonderful child. What more could you wish?' I didn't have an answer. I need to leave Jo, leave a dream turned sour, a Parnassus that has become a Tartarus. I need to take my daughter and go for at least a time, yet I cannot bear the thought of leaving you here."

Reaching her hand to her eyes, Jo found them wet. "Oh Laurie," she sighed, feeling very much as though her sister was at fault, yet torn by the filial feeling she ought to bear her youngest sister, and the deep and sincere friendship she shared with her best friend. A strange feeling thumped through her veins, and she realised with a start what it was. Something she hadn't felt in years was pouring through her, the spirit of adventure, of daring and something else that she couldn't quite name. She tried to laugh it off- the thought of her and Laurie, middle aged dashing off to Europe as though they were fifteen and seventeen respectively was laughable, even ludicrous, and yet something called to her in the notion, and it was with the spirit of the younger Jo, that she lifted her head. "Yes," she said clearly. "Yes, I will go with you and Bess." She drew in a deep shuddering breath as she realised what she had offered, but the words had been spoken and nothing could bring them back.

For the rest of the evening, they began laying out plans, as though they were children again. Laurie with an eye to the seemliness of the venture, proposed to speak to the Professor about the notion, citing Jo's health, while Jo was to begin organising running the household smoothly in her absence. A dreamlike atmosphere clung to the whole endeavour, as though it could be fractured by the smallest noise or misstep.

Mr Bhaer listened most carefully to Laurie, and at the end folded his spectacles and rubbed his eyes wearily. Age was beginning to catch up with him, and he no longer felt as well as he might. "Brother Laurie," he said gravely. "This is a good thought of yours. My Jo is very weary, and perhaps no longer feels the same joy in her work as she once did. Perhaps as well as a physical recovery, there can be a spiritual one for you both. You look as tired as she does. I can think of no-one to whom I could more safely entrust her welfare. You know her better than I do..." as Laurie made to protest he held up a hand, "it is true. I think only you could persuade her to undertake this voyage."

Laurie shook the older man's hand warmly, and repoked the fire. "I shall do my best by her," he promised with the utmost sincerity. "She is very precious to us all."

"Indeed," was the reply. "You said that Bess is going? Does her gentle mother Amy not wish to attend such a voyage?"

Laurie took a sip of the claret cup he was holding, and reflected. "Amy has very much to do here," he replied, "she does not wish to leave Parnassus unattended, and she has expressed a wish to be alone for a little time." The claret cup was thick and sweet in the back of his throat, warming his stomach, but leaving a faint aftertaste in his mouth.

"I see," replied Mr Bhaer, and coughed into his large handkerchief. "When do you wish to go?"

"With anyone else I would advise them to wait until spring before beginning such a voyage. But in this case, if we go after Christmas, in perhaps two months time, then we should arrive in spring and the better weather. It would give us plenty of time to prepare all necessary details."

The other man nodded slowly. "That is a good idea. Spend Christmas with us, then afterwards go."

After her period of feverish excitement, Jo relapsed into an attack of influenza, further complicated by the pnuemonia that the cold weather brought on. It was pitiful to hear her cough, but she fiercely resisted any attempts to prevent her from writing, or organising the household from her bed. She made copious lists of things she would have to take, and of what must be done, and more times than could be counted, mutinied at the thought of the journey coming, and insisted she would stay. One night, she stared up at the ceiling. It was a month until Christmas, and her breathing was still hoarse and raggard, and she was even thinner and weaker. Sometimes it panicked her this sensation, and she longed to moan and to toss and turn, only with difficulty restraining herself. Meg and Daisy were perfectly capable of looking after the household she told herself. Rob had shocked them all, by taking an offer from Yale to study further, causing not a few raised brows. Ted was more than old enough to look after himself, and with such a profusion of people looking out for him around, he could scarcely go wrong. Fritz, she felt a pang at leaving, but that was only natural, and he would be well looked after in every respect.

Christmas came, and many of the old boys were reunited, some travelling especially to see Jo, knowing she would not be there for some time. Neither Emil nor Franz could be there, but it had been arranged already that they would meet in Germany at some point. Nat of course was there, arm in arm with Daisy, both Dolly and Stuffy had popped by to wish a Merry Christmas to the travellers, but the best surprise of all was Dan. No-one had expected to see him since he had been so busy amongst the Indians, fighting their corner, but he had made the trip, not only to see Mrs Jo, but to catch a glimpse of Bess before she left. It was a bitter sweet Christmas, a Christmas it seemed of partings. It seemed to Jo as though by a flash of foresight that it would be the last time she would ever see Dan, and she embraced him especially tight, feeling in her heart that maybe she loved this black sheep just a very little more than her flock of white, and he seemed to feel the same way, for he muttered several incoherent words that meant more to her than the most eloquent speech before he stepped away. His eyes sought Bess, but he did not go any nearer, feeling as though it would be sacrilige, one hand stealing to his breast where he kept his locket, before he boarded the train. She however drew closer to him and held out her friendly hand, which he could not help but take. Then with sisterly grace she imprinted a kiss upon his brow. "Be well," she whispered to him, as though sensing he needed a word of encouragement, and he broke loose before he said something he regretted.

Mrs Jo sighed, but alas she had more pressing things on her mind. Her trunks were packed with everything she could possibly need, everyone knew all that she could tell them, all that remained was to board the steamship. It was with a sinking heart that she embraced her flock farewell, and when it came to Fritz she could barely restrain tears. Onboard she waved at the departing figures until all that remained were specks in the distance. Curiously she had expected to feel downcast and sorrowful, yet she felt cheerful and lightened. She was surprised to see these emotions mirrored on Bess's face, and made a mental note to use this voyage to become better acquainted with her niece.

The cabins were scarcely spacious, but as Laurie said cheerfully, they would do. The ship's library was well stocked, they had a decent piano, and there seemed to be little more that they could possibly need even on such a long voyage. They had agreed that it would be better to have an individual task each to do, to pass the time and to have something to focus on. Jo wanted to get a good start on her next novel, Bess was determined to improve her music, and Laurie though he hadn't thought of anything yet was perfectly agreeable to anything that might turn up. It definitly looked the start of an adventure.

First chapter. It'd be nice to get some reviews!

A.W.