"Would you hold still--?"

"I'm trying! Is this tie that complicated? It lasted through the ceremony well, why won't it now?"

"Only because you're fidgeting like a squirrel on crack." A huff.

"That's graphic, thanks, I really enjoy being compared to rodents on drugs."

"I didn't mean it in a bad way."

"That can be taken in a good way?"

"Naturally - hand me my bouquet?"

"Fine."

Scowling, he hands me the square bouquet and I grin, dusting off his lapels gingerly. He looks quite dashing in a tuxedo, but who am I to really let on and compliment him? Blasphemous. Instead, I peck him on the cheek and push him aside gently to examine my own reflection.

I usually hate bridesmaid dresses, really, I do. They are monstrous contraptions designed to steadily draw the eye away from any lingering woman and onto that great white spotlight that is the bride. But Kay Ascot nee Smith has taken pity on us poor souls - especially her maid-of-honor - and has chosen a flattering cut and a deep, violet jewel tone.

It really doesn't seem to bother many that I'm adjusting my boyfriend's wardrobe in the middle of the lavatory of the Church either - the ladies' lavatory to boot. It does wonders for his pride. It also doesn't help that I've accidentally spritzed him with perfume in filtering through the junk in my satchel, and now he's sitting like a wounded toddler on the countertop by the sink.

Suddenly Mary enters the restroom quickly, looks up for a moment, squeaks and flinches backward. Fred winces - actually, I'm pretty sure we're wearing identical expressions, and there's a sufficient pause before anybody says something.

"Hello," Mary purses her lips, glancing between us. I still fail at my attempt to stifle a smile - I know how strange it is for her. I can recall the phone conversation I had with her a week after our reunion, with perfect clarity:

"You mean to tell me, that Fred Wentworth was your great love in college, who we housed him this summer, who we encouraged rampant flirting with Louisa and mortification on your part?" a breath, "And you didn't say anything?"

"Yep, you've got it."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?!"

It's been amusing, to say the least, ever since, to see the Musgroves tiptoe quietly past and avert eyes gingerly. Charlie's been one of the most entertaining encounters. He was the supreme member of that family who thought that Mary was literally joking about Fred and me. It needed several explanations and a couple demanding phonecalls. Now he's cool.

The Musgrove twins, Hannah and Louisa, I've managed to avoid these past couple months, but I hear both are doing splendidly at their own respective universities. It never lasted with Jimmy Benwick, unfortunately. But need not despair - he's been pretty chummy with a fellow journalist for the last couple of months, and Louisa's been scoping out the college scene.

Hannah Musgrove and Chase Hayes are still together - I suppose Lou's meddling did someone some good.

Mary slings her purse quietly over her shoulder and shuffles towards the mirror, eyeing Fred wearily, "Any particular reason he's sitting on the countertop?" she pauses, "In the women's restroom?"

"It smells better in here."

"He's having trouble with his tie," I sigh, tightening it a bit. He winces and I apologize, but he just smiles quietly.

Mary's smirks knowingly at us, withdrawing a tube of mascara from her purse, "Do you guys need a ride to the reception?"

"We're ditching the reception," Fred coughs into his fist briefly, head bent.

Mary casts me a disapproving glance, "You're a bridesmaid!"

"So are you!"

"Only out of limited resources," she retorts, rolling her eyes, "Does Kay know?"

"There are two hundred and seventy people at that reception," I shrug, "What's one missing bridesmaid and her date?"

And my darling little sister, trying desperately not to judge us, weakens under our scrutiny and slumps her shoulders, "Fine. Have fun."

I beam at her and launch in for a hug, just as the door swings open again and Cathy Russell - slightly ashen at the observation of present company - lingers, unsure of her next movement and thoroughly surprised.

"Well this is an awkward!fest if I ever saw one," Fred murmurs, and I elbow him lightly.

"Everything okay?" she asks sweetly, looking at Fred, glancing down, and looking back up with a slight blush, "I never saw you three leave for the reception."

"We'll be there soon, Cathy," Mary informs her, "Is Charlie still lingering out there?"

"Yes - but your father and sister are long gone."

"Good," Mary and I mutter in unison, make eye-contact, and snort accordingly.

Cathy purses her lips, clears her throat strangely and dismisses herself.

"You weren't glaring at her, were you?" I ask Fred, pivoting my hands on my hips. He is all innocence, however, dark eyes wide.

"I was politeness personified, ask your younger sister."

"Was he?" I ask Mary.

She shrugs, "I think so - Cathy just dies a little inside every time she sees you two together. Consider it a slap in the face."

"A good one," Fred murmurs, "She needs it, it'll build character."

"Be nice."

"I'll try."

Needless to say, the first time I dragged a (extremely grumbling) Fred back to my family's apartment, only to be met by three pairs of raised eyebrows (Cathy's, my father's, and Elizabeth's) the result wasn't exactly a pretty one. Elizabeth was surprised but relatively indifferent. My father wasn't pleased but fully aware of the fact that I couldn't give a shit about his opinion.

Of course, his opinion was duly elevated once reminded of Fred's successful financial situation - but this doesn't really matter, my father is still a shallow twit. I wouldn't need his approval to love the man that I love.

Cathy? It was brutal all in silence and disapproving glances. Actually, it was just difficult informing her that I wouldn't be taking her advice in the future - that I was happy with my own choices. Of course, still smarting from my own rejection of her personal candidate, Colin, this was the figurative cherry on her cake. But this simmered eventually. She's a pretty reasonable woman when you get down to it. She responds well when you make it clear you've become resistant to bullshit and being commandeered.

Fred, understandably, still holds her in negative favor. But this is slowly mending. I've made it crystal clear that I cannot cut her out of my life. She has been the only maternal figure I've ever known - and while she's caused something that's hurt us both supremely - she always held good intentions.

Mary gathers her cosmetics and looks up at is inquisitively as Fred hops down from the counter and picks a dust particle from the strap of my dress.

"So," she grins coyly, "You two are invited to Uppercross next summer, of course. Let's just hope that things will be a little bit different."

Fred shakes his head and smiles good-humoredly, "I'll consider it if Anne will."

"No promises," I tell Mary, and she laughs. I kiss her briefly on the cheek and she excuses herself from the bathroom, the door closing snugly behind her.

Fred smiles at me thoughtfully, "I'll really have to pass on her invitation, Anne, sorry. I've seen enough Musgroves to last me three summers."

"We haven't even started winter holidays," I laugh, taking his arm. We walk out into the lobby of the church, scattered wedding programs littered along the tabletops. He takes my coat from its proper hook and helps me into it, and we walk out into the chilly evening air.

The sun is setting, and the sky is dappled with oranges and smoldering pinks as we take a seat together at one of the benches nearby the stone pathway that leads onto the street, not exactly eager to leave just yet. It's quiet and peaceful here - alone anyway.

"So," I stretch my arms, smiling quietly at him, "What now?"

He shrugs, "I don't know," he rubs his chin thoughtfully, "I'll probably take cab home - call Sophie, shave, turn on the television. Gather some paperwork for Monday."

"That's not really what I meant," I smirk.

"Sure it is," he frowns thoughtfully, "You could come with me," he adds softly after a second, "To live, even."

"In New York?" I balk.

"I know," Fred mock winces, "Ridiculously far, isn't it? It might as well be a third world country."

"I'm going to hit you."

"No you won't," he grins, dimples apparent.

"Do you really want me to move in with you?"

"Anne, I don't ever want to be away from you," he clarifies, "How you could even ask me this is incredible." I'm silent for a moment, so he adds, "Only if you want to, of course."

"Of course I do," I murmur, nestling my face into the collar of my coat, "I just don't want to fuck things up."

"We won't," Fred says quietly, taking my hand. I rest my head against his shoulder and he brushes my bangs out of my eyes. "You know what - Let's take things slowly."

"Like we have been, you mean?" I grin.

"Okay, maybe a fraction of an inch faster," he laughs.

I sigh, smiling, and glance back towards the church, "So - You want to do that someday?"

He follows my glance toward the entrance of the church, and smiles, "What, that that?"

"Pretty much."

"That little, itty bitty thing they call marriage?"

"Yep."

He pauses and then grins down at me, "Let's do it now!"

"What? No. You're neurotic. What will Sophie think?" I scoff, thwacking his arm.

"I love that your first thought is my sister's reaction," he adds conversationally, "Instead of, you know, time complications and financial issues and other things you usually obsess about."

"I do not obsess," I mumble, laughing. He wraps his arm around me and I nestle closer.

"I would marry you now, for the record," he murmurs against my cheek, "I just know that the feminist in you would run away screaming that it's way too early and that you don't want to 'fuck things up.'"

I can't help but grin at this, "She so would - are you going to persuade me to put a time restraint on this? An engagement by so and so months?"

"I can't persuade you to do anything, Anne, you're your own person," he says.

After a moment, I reply, "I always was, you know -- contrary to popular belief."

"I know," he murmurs, smiling crookedly, "In a way, I think you were meant to take Cathy's advice those years ago - you were meant to be persuaded so we could reunite, bitch constantly and then realize that we still loved each other. It might have made it stronger, but maybe I'm being way too analytical."

"Insightful of you, Freud," I say, recycling one of his lines and he gives me a funny look.

"You don't think so?"

"No, I do," I argue quietly.

He laughs and shakes his head, staring off into the distance, "Somebody should write a story about this."

I give him a meaningful stare, "Danielle Steele, top contender?"

"Shut up," he laughs, catching me in a bear-hug. I laugh and try to pull away, but after awhile, I don't even feel like struggling. I sit beside him and watch as the sky darkens lazily, perfectly content.

"Let's go home?" Fred murmurs after awhile, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear.

I glance up at him and agree, smiling, "Let's."

---

Author's Note: Wow, I can finally tick that box that says 'Completed'! Oh, joy of joys - I've never completed a story until now. Thank you guys so much for pulling me through this, it's been such a great journey as a writer to develop this story and see how other writers and readers reacted. You all have been so wonderful and supportive and I can't thank you enough. I'm also indebted to the absolutely magnificent Miss Austen, whose novels inspire me to write in general. Persuasion's always been a top favorite next to Pride and Prejudice, and I'm really happy that I had the opportunity to add my own spin to it.

So, as a last time with this story - please, please leave some final thoughts!

Take care and much love,

Ari