Title: A Bloom in Age

Fandom: Little Women/ Jo's Boys

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

Rating: PG-13

Chapter: 3/?

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. Currently adhering to canon

Jo had expected their next meeting to be more fraught than in the event it was. She supposed, there was only a certain length of time that high drama could be sustained for, and certainly meeting Laurie at dinnertime was no more tempestuous than the average bath tub. Her over- active brain was still trying desperately to imagine what secret could be bad enough that Laurie could speak of it with such anguish and power. Her mind instinctively rejected those ideas that trod the borderline of morality. She knew Laurie, perhaps more than anyone else on the face of the earth and it was utterly impossible that he would involve himself in something sordid or demeaning either to himself or to his family. Yet nothing came even to her vivid imagination that could conceivably be even close to the truth, and her promise forbade her from actively pursuing a mystery so interesting to her.

Dinner was a quiet affair, with Laurie pre-occupied with his food, Bess glancing anxiously backwards and forwards between Jo and Laurie as though she were wondering whether her father knew of her ambition yet, while Jo pretended more interest than she felt in discussing the last novel she had read. Eventually the meal was over, and all three of them adjourned to the largest stateroom for an after dinner coffee and a discussion. Bess perched anxiously on the arm of her father's chair, and looked beseechingly at her aunt who at length took pity on her.

"Laurie, dear old boy," she said using the old familiar form of address. "Put your daughter here out of her suspense, with either a yea or a nay." Her hands stilled on her knitting for a moment as she awaited his answer, her fingers having been long accustomed to the art, though she still needed to look at it occasionally.

Laurie took a deep breath, and perhaps only Jo with two sons of her own could understand the cost he paid when he spoke his next words, like he was setting a nightingale free in the realisation that it might not come fluttering back to him. "My dear. I have written a letter to a great artist, he was a friend of my father's and for his sake I am certain he will receive us. He will assess whether you would benefit from further tuition, and if he believes so then we shall see what we can do," he hadn't reached the end of his sentence before Bess's arms flew around him and she was crying into his shoulder.

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you so much." She sat back and shot a grateful radiant smile at her aunt. "I promise," she said with the dignity she had inherited from both beautiful parents, "that I will listen to whatever he says. If I am no more fit to be an artist than any other person with a modicum of talent I shall return home, and continue to play with my paints and my clay in my studio. And if by some miracle there lurks enough talent then I shall work as hard as it is possible for someone to work, and make you proud of me." She spoke simply and unselfconsciously, not knowing the effect she had.

Jo turned to Laurie, "she's exactly like you," she said with more than a touch of wistful memory about her.

There was a little bitterness in the smile that she was graced with in return. "She's so much more Jo. Which is what every parent hopes for from their child." He turned and brushed the hair from Bess's forehead. "Whatever Tosceti tells you, I shall be proud of you." He smiled again and stood. "Another walk round the deck Jo? Bess looks tired." Jo readily acquiesced and they made their way out.

When they reached the deck, Laurie allowed his smile to drop, as he gripped the rail tight, and stared over it into the sea. Jo stood beside him, taut with sympathy, allowing him room to be silent. The deck was almost empty for once, and she felt justified in putting one hand on his shoulder, letting him know that she shared his turmoil. "Jo," he choked out. "Oh Jo," and she felt her heart wrench. Still she said nothing. There was nothing she could say that could make unmake the choices he had made.

When later he had recovered enough from his anguish to venture back inside, they partook in a glass of wine in the large lounge that was their favourite. For the first time in a long time, Jo properly looked at Laurie, her eyes tracing his face, drinking in the changes that made him so different. Just as she was no longer the shorn tomboy of yester-year, so he was not the dashing youth who'd been a companion to her through so many adventures. He was a man- with a man's demeanour, still handsome (always) but with the wisdom of his extra years that the boy had never had. Yet still he was her Laurie, and always would be, through everything that life threw at them both, something that was hard for anyone else to understand. There were some people that simply made life worth living.

They talked quietly as always, until Jo realised the time, and excused herself to go and see to Bess. The younger woman was already ready for bed, hair brushed, curled up on the love-seat reading a book that she hid with a blush when she saw her aunt. Jo's curiosity was aroused, and she contrived to sneak a peek, as she poured Bess a glass of water and helped her turn down the covers. The title was in French, and when Bess saw her glance at it, she blushed until she looked as though she was on fire. Jo looked at it assessingly. It wasn't her place to judge what Bess chose to read, but she had a low opinion of French novels in general and knew that in her incarnation as moral guardian she should ask. Bess saved her the trouble. "Please don't tease me over it Aunty," she whispered. "Mother says it is such a waste of time to read books like that, but oh it is so romantic."

"I didn't know you liked to read," Jo said as she fetched another pillow, feeling easier in herself. Bess was just shy.

Bess nodded, blonde locks falling about her face. "We hardly go anywhere outside of mother and father's friends and occasionally to the city. I read once that to be a great artist you must experience all you can, and see all you can, and until this journey the only way to do that was through books. It's hard to find good ones, especially good interesting ones, but anything is better than nothing."

Her fancy tickled, Jo tilted her head, feeling once more that perhaps she had not done as well by her niece in the past as she had hoped. "I had hoped to use this voyage as a way to catch up on a lot of reading myself," she said casually, speaking nothing but the truth. Two children, and the care of a vast quantity of others, her own writing and running a house had eaten up so much of her time over the past twenty years, that she doubted if she read as many as four or five books a year, and more and more she felt as she looked over her own work, that it was lacking in the genuine inspiration that she had always hoped to find, and the key to that might be in other's work. "If you'd like I'll pass some books onto you." She was rewarded with a brilliant smile, and with a gentle kiss she left the room, dimming the light as she went.

On her way back to the lounge, she was so preoccupied with thoughts of Bess that nothing else intruded. When she looked through the door to spot Laurie however, she was more than a little surprised to see him talking to a young lady, extremely fashionably dressed. Laurie she knew of course would never act with impropriety, indeed was far less likely to than herself in most occasions. But it was still a shock to realise that women found Laurie so attractive. She came over, feeling awkward as though she were interrupting something. Closer to them, she realised the woman was older than she had thought at first glance- closer to late twenties than early, and dressed in what Jo was to realise some weeks later what was in the height of fashion on the continent, but which was at the moment quite shockingly low cut, and made her feel in her dark merino quite dowdy and old-fashioned. She turned a fascinating face towards Jo, who despite her initial reservations felt them melt away in front of the beautiful smile. The other woman stood to shake hands, and Laurie introduced her as Countess Maria von Tesch, an old friend of his who he had met originally in Germany.

"I have heard so much of you," the Countess proclaimed, having begged Jo to call her Maria. In amongst her initial mistrust, and subsequent melting, Jo found time to marvel a little inside at meeting a proper Countess- the sort she had conjured up many a time in the old thriller stories she had once written to fund her family. "Laurie speaks of you so often in his too infrequent letters, it is as though you are an old friend, and I have read several of your books translated into German." Despite meeting in Germany, being fluent in the language and her German surname, the Countess's accent was delicately French.

The evening flew by swiftly in her company- Maria had a fund of amusing stories and was adept at light conversation, as well as being well read. It transpired she'd been so ill for the first days of the voyage that she hadn't so much as ventured from her room even once, which accounted as to how she hadn't known Laurie was on board. Jo looked closer at the other woman and realised that she had indeed been ill. The dim lamps of the room concealed many things, but she looked tired and drawn, and her skin which must under normal conditions have been superb, was still wan. Despite that though she was ebullient and playful, and Jo found herself liking the other woman more and more. It was rare that she liked other women so much- Jo was truthful enough in herself to know that she preferred the company of men more, but Maria was such a charming creature it was impossible to dislike her. The Countess excused herself when the clock struck half past ten, claiming her illness, and Jo looked at Laurie who was looking at her anxiously.

Jo put him at ease instantly, saying with perfect truthfulness, "What a lovely person, I hope we get to know see her more. Didn't you want to have the chance to have a good long talk with her though?"

Laurie smiled. "It's a long voyage, I'm sure we're bound to get bored of all our friends before the end. We have more than enough time." He hesitated for a moment, as though he wanted to say something, even opened his mouth to speak and then thought the better of it. "I'm so glad you liked each other so much. She has been a good friend in the past." His eyes darkened as though with some painful memory. "I knew her mother well, Lady Victoria."

The part of Jo that never stopped thinking wondered for an instant whether Countess Maria, or indeed her mother had been some failed love concern of Laurie's, but dismissed it not only in belief of Laurie's faithfulness but also because the ages didn't match up. Maria was at least twenty eight too young for Laurie to have had an interest in when he was free, and her mother by the same token must be too old. She didn't voice any of this though, merely murmuring quietly, "meeting her makes me anxious to meet others from Europe." Not for the first time she was glad she was venturing there with Laurie rather than anyone else. There were doors open to him, that would not have been open to her otherwise, even as a celebrated author. She wouldn't have known where to knock. Laurie on the other hand through his parents had a ready-made pass into that world. Not merely through his money, looks and talent, but also from the fond regard his parents had been held in by all those who knew them. Hi mother's family had been impoverished true, but was remembered even now by the older generation as having been a scion of a famous family, and like her American husband in talent and independence. For their sake he was received graciously, and for his own qualities was liked and praised.

Laurie looked affectionately at her. "You will love it. I have a feeling that you'll never want to leave."

The days after that went by swifter and swifter, as they settled into their daily routine. Morning walks and exercise on deck, began their day before their breakfast, and then in various combinations they spent their day in useful tasks. Bess on Laurie's advice, began to compile and pick through the best of her sketches, and paintings, though she regretted being unable to bring any of her sculpture along as well, and also spent her time at the books that her aunt recommended for her, as well as course as the hours she spent in silent contemplation before she began her new sketches. Laurie on the other hand as well as practicing his music, had begun to compose again as he had not for years. Jo at her own advice had left her writing entirely behind until she felt compelled to pick it up again rather than writing just for the sake of writing, and spent her days reading, and in her own activities. The library aboard the ship was small but well stocked, and she was amazed at how out of touch she was with the world of literature. Many old favourites were there of course, but there were volumes that she'd never heard of, yet whose obvious power drew her to them. Laurie further amazed her by being blasé about them. "This is nothing," he said once when she had finished the first Balzac she had ever read, and shaken her head with pure satisfaction. "There has been a revolution in literature over there. Especially in France and England, stuff is being published that we would never dream of writing in America."

It had given Jo pause for thought. "What is so bad about these books that they aren't read in America?" she said with caution, unready to commit herself to hedonistic delight in books with the same passion that sixteen year old Jo would have,.

Laurie looked at her abstractedly. "Oh they are read," he amended. "By certain people in certain parts of America. There is much that could be termed distasteful to our senses. But equally there is much wisdom, and so much genius that nothing else seems to matter, to me at least." He smiled at her worried face. "Europe is different," he said quietly. "Much there will shock you. In England there is a trend against belief in God, in France there are still the rumblings of the Revolution and the accompanying freedoms that we should perhaps call licentiousness. In Italy the rules of chivalry are held, and morals perhaps not as stern as they should be. The authors write Tom Jones, The Reason of Mankind, Dangerous Liaisons, and while they may not believe what they write, society here is far more willing to listen than our own is."

There was silence as Jo attempted to take in what she had heard, blushing as Laurie spoke of morals and freedoms, aware of a struggle in herself, not unlike the struggle between her young and old self that had driven her to Europe in the first place. It was the struggle of religion, propriety, society, of every principle she had learned in her youth, against the lure of adventure, of the beautiful spread canvas offered for her perusal. The words Marmee had once spoken to her, she felt dimly applied here. 'Evil can look beautiful, and offer a pleasant face. There are people who will try and tempt you from the right path.'

'But,' she argued with herself. 'Laurie would never do that to me. Never seek to lead me from what was right. Surely he wouldn't.' Yet the voice of her mother was still there, speaking a silent warning. She looked up and saw Laurie's anxious eyes, and bit her lip hard. The world Laurie was offering was unlimited. Unlimited by the known and familiar, the safe and the conventional, and it was dangerous and thrilling in every respect. She would brush shoulders with people who had lost their faith in God, yet did not lack, eat with those whose situations were hardly those compatible with strict American morality. She shook herself mentally. She was thirty six years old. It was time to discover whether the values that she had struggled so hard to attain, could stand up to other people's conception of the world. It was prudish, she reasoned with herself to reject others, and their viewpoints simply because they did not agree, unaware that she was taking a first step into a world she would be left forever changed by. Now was the time to shout 'no,' now that Laurie had made her aware of what she might be getting into. But the moment passed, and neither of them acknowledged the brief silence.

"I would like to read Tom Jones," she said quietly. And with that she took the final step, and plunged into a new world.

Notes: One thing I really wanted to try and start developing was a way for Jo to abandon the rather stultifying moral sensibility of the later books, and retrieve the spirit of Jo (and the author herself). The chapter was very slow, but it's setting groundwork for some radical changes in Jo. Hope you enjoyed. Please review!