A/N: Thank you so much, everyone, for your support. I'm so proud and pleased that people are continuing to enjoy it. This chapter is for the A/B fans and I really, really hope I do their relationship justice. Apart from two lines over a year ago in 'Last Night of the Fair' I haven't written any A/B before. To be honest though, I'm shipping Mary/Anna friendship in this fic more than any of the romances. I love writing them together. I know my updates are few and far between; I apologise but can't guarantee they'll speed up.
Disclaimer: Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle own their faces. The BBC and Jane Austen own Pride and Prejudice.
Anna spent every Friday evening with John. He had a little terraced house in the 'town' part of St. Andrews and every week Anna ventured out beyond the boundaries of the 'gown' to spend a few hours alone with the man she was in love with. John was a man too, not a boy. He had a house and a job of his own; he was independent and knew his own mind without feeling obliged to follow all the stupid trends and fashions of student life. He didn't drink either, which made a pleasant change from the drunken slobs Anna came across everywhere else in the university. More than that, he was good and kind and despite having suffered much in Afghanistan and currently working a dead-end job in a supermarket, never complained or was anything other than upbeat and selfless. Anna admired him enormously and, in the six months since she had first helped him with his groceries after his bag split outside Tesco's, she had fallen irretrievably in love with him.
Mary had doubts, of course (but when didn't Mary have doubts?). She thought the age gap a problem, his lower social status a reason for looking down on him, and Anna had an idea she did not quite believe in her love for him. Apparently nineteen was too young to meet The One, especially if he was a thirty-five year old, working class ex-soldier with a limp. Much as she loved Mary and was willing to believe that she had her best interests at heart, Anna found her cynicism frustrating. She would have probably found it easier to deal with, however, if she did not feel terribly insecure herself. She thought her feelings must be terribly obvious – she had never employed any arts to hide them after all, but while she truly believed John cared about her a great deal, she had no idea what his actual feelings for her were. Every untrained instinct she had told her that he loved her and yet... and yet why did he do nothing about it? Evenings spent eating home-made pie and mash on the sofa while watching romantic films in a candlelit room, long walks on the beach telling each other their secrets; she had everything that a devoted girlfriend could dream of in her relationship with John except the relationship itself.
Seeing Matthew and Lavinia's domestic bliss had rekindled a determination to do something about this stalemate they had reached. She had always thought she was a traditional sort of girl, who wanted to be wooed with flowers and dinners for two, and an eventual proper proposal with kneeling and a ring and everything but it turned out that she loved John more than she loved the trappings of conventional romance. If he wasn't going to say something, then she would. Moreover, Mary had always said that if you wanted to change a relationship the end of term was the best time to do it because if it all went wrong then you wouldn't have to see the person for an entire month. Considering that in the one and a half years she had known her, Mary had never appeared to have been romantically involved with anyone, Anna could not help wondering if this strategy had ever been put to the test.
At any rate, so it was that a week before the end of term, Anna put on a particularly nice dress, borrowed one of Mary's nicest pashminas, did her make-up particularly carefully and set off for John's house determined that when she left something in their relationship would have changed.
Changing a relationship requires delicacy and timing and courage, however. Anna found herself easily settling into their usual routine. He took her coat (such a gentleman!), she asked after his day at work, he told her that the weekend had started now that she was with him, and they went into his kitchen for a drink. Anna tried to pick up on any signals he might be giving off but she simply could not tell whether he was behaving like a good friend or a potential lover. She had never had a boyfriend before (well, not since Alex Radcliff had asked to hold her hand during break time back in primary school) so she was not convinced she knew how to pick up on all the things she ought to be picking up on. Then she met John's eyes and she felt that she could not mistake the tenderness in his expression. She tried to screw up her courage time and time again and every time she was distracted by a fear of changing things, of being rejected, of not giving him one more opportunity to make a move on her before she reversed what was expected.
By the time she usually left she was thoroughly fed up with them both. It had to be now or she would never forgive herself. She turned to face him on the sofa, folded her hands in her lap, and took a deep breath.
John also shifted his body towards her. "What is it, Anna? You've had something on your mind all evening."
"Yes, I have." This was it. "You see, the thing is- and I know girls aren't meant to say it first but I won't care about that if you don't- but I love you, John Bates." She blinked, suddenly feeling so much lighter for having said it, and she could not help smiling. "I love you and I'm not sorry I said it either!"
His fingers wrapped around hers as his face creased into fondness. Her heart seemed to explode with happiness until he spoke. "Oh, Anna," he said, "I'm not sorry you said it either. I could never be sorry for anything you did or said. And I wish – I wish so much that I could give you what you want and deserve to have."
She frowned. "You can't?"
He let out a sigh and lowered his gaze. "I can't."
"But I don't understand. Are you saying you don't like me that way? Because-"
"No!" it almost burst out of him. "I'm not saying that at all. I mean what I said; I can't."
"I still don't understand."
"I don't expect you would. One day I hope things will be different but for now, it wouldn't be fair on you to-"
"Wouldn't be fair on me?" Anna shook her head vigorously. "This is about the age difference, isn't it? I've told you before that I don't care about that!"
"No, it's not just the age difference." He sounded as if he was going to continue and Anna waited a moment but he didn't.
With a suppressed sigh she withdrew her hand and stood up, smoothing down her dress with trembling hands. She felt suddenly desperate to go home. Mary would still be up and would want to have a cup of tea and say, "I told you so." Right now, even that sounded preferable in its comfort and familiarity.
John watched her step away from him and the words broke from him. "I like you so much, Anna. I wish-" His eyes pleaded with her. "Can't we just go on as we are? As friends?"
Anna closed her eyes briefly but there was no way she could resist him when he looked at her like that and she knew it. With a silent sigh of resignation, she forced a smile. "Friends. Of course we can."
She wanted to be with him even on the wrong terms than not at all. If friendship was what he wanted then she would just have to manage with friendship.
Instead of getting the bus as she usually did, Anna walked all the way back to the house she shared with Mary in the centre of town. By the time she got home it was drizzling and she could not tell whether it was rain on her cheeks or tears. Behind the curtains, a light was still on in the sitting room and it had never looked so welcoming. Anna dried her face with her handkerchief before she opened the door.
Mary was curled up on the sofa with a heavy volume of feminist literary theory abandoned next to her and a period drama on the television. She was cradling a mug of hot chocolate. Anna smiled to see her, hung up her coat and sat down next to her without a word, turning her attention to the screen, very glad of the distraction. Mary hardly glanced at her.
"I can't imagine who you mean," said Elizabeth Bennet, her face a mask of politeness as she pretended not to understand the question.
"I understand that certain ladies found the society of Mr. Wickham curiously agreeable," replied Miss Bingley, trying to be clever. Georgiana Darcy was so overwhelmed she played a perfectly placed diminished seventh chord. Her brother rose out of his chair.
For a moment all was lost and then Elizabeth came quietly to the rescue. "I'm so sorry, I'm neglecting you. How can you play with no-one to turn the pages?"
Mr. Darcy sank back into his seat again as Georgiana modulated into a more gentle key.
"There. Allow me."
Elizabeth raised her eyes from the music and as she did so, met Darcy's. Both girls smiled and sighed without even being aware of it. Mary suddenly paused the DVD on Darcy's face and broke the spell created by this magical glance.
"How does he do it without appearing to move a muscle? Do you think anyone will ever look at us like that, Anna? She's not even singing any more, just turning the pages!"
Anna forced a smile. "I think you're more likely to get an Austen hero in love with you than I am, Mary."
"I wouldn't be so sure; you're so much nicer than I am. How was your evening?"
Here it came. "It was very nice, very much as usual only... John just wants to be friends."
Mary's face did something similar to what she had accused Colin Firth's of doing as she softened into sympathy. "Oh darling. You told him?"
Where was the expected "I told you so"? Anna had to hand it to her friend; she was rarely predictable.
"I told him and he said he liked me very much but that we couldn't be together."
Mary rolled her eyes in a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. "Why ever not? Is he gay?" she rapped out.
Anna had to laugh. "No, of course he isn't!"
"No of course about it. He's either gay or he's a lying, emotional manipulator who wants something from you and finds it exciting to string along a girl fifteen years younger than himself. Unless you think he has a mad wife locked up in the attic."
"Oh, Mary," sighed Anna, "not everything in life can be explained by a classic literature reference."
"Most things can. Anyway, you can do much better than him. Phil McHeath has a crush on you."
"He has a crush on you."
Mary did not even bother feigning surprise. "Oh? Well, he could always change his mind."
Anna shook her head and leaned back wearily on the couch. "It's no good; I don't want Phil or anyone else."
Her friend looked at her with more concern than before. "No, I didn't suppose you did," she murmured in response.
Without another word, Mary drew her knees up onto the sofa and pressed play. Anna sighed and decided she might as well try to forget her own troubles in the world of a period drama. A few seconds later she found Mary's hot chocolate pressed into her hands. It was only half drunk and still warm. Her fingers were freezing and she shivered at the sudden contact with the hot mug. She looked anxiously across at her, but Mary's eyes were glued to the television.
"I wasn't going to finish it," she said dismissively without looking up.
On the other side of town, Matthew and Lavinia were also having a quiet night in. They both sat at the table in the window, Matthew surrounded by a pile of law books and two empty mugs that had once contained tea. Lavinia was writing an essay on her laptop. In the background, Fauré's Requiem was playing softly. It was Matthew's choice: Lavinia found it morbid but he believed it helped him concentrate.
Suddenly the silence was interrupted by a gasp from Lavinia. Matthew looked up. "What?"
She was staring at her screen. "Sam and Emily are engaged! Isn't that brilliant?"
Matthew blinked. "Sam and Emily?" He cast his mind back to one of Lavinia's best friends from Oxford and her boyfriend. "But they've only been going out for two years." Not half as long he and Lavinia had been.
"Mmm, I suppose you simply know when it's right. Come and look at her ring, darling!"
He got up obediently and leaned over Lavinia's shoulder, resting his hand lightly on it as he peered at the obligatory facebook photo of a slender, white hand recently adorned with delicate, silver ring on the fourth finger with a single stone set in its middle.
"Pretty," he commented, not being much of a judge but feeling that some response was required.
Lavinia was already furiously typing a comment.
Congratulations, you darlings! This is fabulous news. So happy for you both. Lots of love from-
She twisted in her chair to look up at him. "I'll sign it from both of us, alright?"
Matthew shrugged his assent. Emily and Sam were nice people. He didn't mind wishing them well even though there was a part of him that felt slightly peculiar about the whole thing taking place over facebook. It depersonalised it somehow and an engagement was a very personal thing.
Lots of love from Lavinia and Matthew xxx
"I wonder when the wedding will be," Lavinia continued as he sat back down in his own chair. "I wish – that is, do you think there's any chance of Emily asking me to be a bridesmaid? Katrina will be maid of honour, of course."
Matthew stared at her, his mouth opening slightly. "I, er, I really don't know, darling. Probably; you were pretty good friends, weren't you?"
"Yes. Only..." She hesitated. "I've never been a bridesmaid before and I would really like to before it's too late."
"Does being a bridesmaid have a best before date on it?" replied Matthew with an amused quirk of his lips.
Lavinia blushed. "Well, only traditionally..."
"Oh." He looked down at his books with a frown, his mind refusing to make the connection being asked of it.
"You're going back to Manchester for Easter, aren't you?" she continued quickly.
"Yep. Are you coming too? Isobel loves you; she wouldn't mind."
She hesitated. "I think I'm going to spend the vacation in London. My dad's not been well and-"
"Of course you must be with him."
They both lapsed into a silence that felt uncomfortable and strained though neither was quite sure why. Into the quiet, muffled trumpets from the CD player announced the Day of Wrath.
A/N: Before I get 20 reviews that simply point out to me that I had Matthew call Isobel 'Isobel' let me anticipate you. For the purposes of this story Isobel is Matthew's sister, twelve years older than him. We'll get more backstory for them in Chapter Seven. I know some of you will want to complain about this, but please hold off if you can. If you trust what I've done to modernise the story so far, then I hope you will continue to trust me in this respect!
Next chapter involves karaoke...