A one shot for my lovely beta-in-chief, Elisabeth Harker, with lots of thanks to the terrific elizabethisboss for her help in reviewing and editing this beast! This one-shot, which initially was only meant to be a short snippet of Jo and Laurie being trapped in a short-enclosed space together, simply grew and grew, until it encompassed practically a tiny novella. (Over 7,000 words! Gah, crazy.) Ah well... them's the break. And if enough people hold a fancy and I get interested in continuing, it may or may not have a follow-up. But for now, I can promise nothing!
Thanks again for all your help and devotion to the cause, my dear Eliza. I hope you enjoy your story! And once more, I love and thrive off of reviews, questions and concrit. ;)
It had all begun, Jo would reflect later, because of a desire for lemon ice on a very hot summer's eve.
Later on, of course, she would blame Laurie. After all, if it hadn't been for him, she would never have even known the glory of lemon ice, even if she had at first had to share it with a strange and shy young man she had met lurking behind an enormous curtain in a horribly stuffy party on one very fateful evening.
And furthermore, if it hadn't been for him and his trickery, Jo wouldn't have sighed nostalgically on that terribly humid day when Laurie had marched over to her attic home, spent forty minutes helping her work through the horrifically convoluted second act of her new story, and then smirked and told her that the Laurence household had just received a new shipment of a very special lemon-flavored something that awaited her in their very small, chill larder for just a few hours shortly.
And naturally, if it hadn't been for him and his 'playful' roughhousing, Jo wouldn't have ventured off to said chilled larder wearing nothing more than a thin summer's dress, and then had to shift about bang around the tiny space to duck his 'playful' embrace when he leaped at her with the same single-minded intensity he'd been demonstrating to a terrifying degree as of late.
And certainly, if it hadn't been for his ridiculously large elbow slamming into the door and then his shirt catching on the edge of the rusty door handle as he had tripped and then sprawled rather painfully onto her, they wouldn't have ended up in the predicament they were most certainly not currently enjoying.
The space was cold. The space was small. The space was the very opposite of refreshing. The space-- which was already narrow and barely enough to accommodate their two lanky forms-- was already crowded up by him even pre-fall, with Jo needing to practically plaster herself against the wall in order not to have anything licit of hers brush anything illicit of Laurie's, even as he recklessly leaned forward to furtively whisper something into her bright-red ear.
In short, it was a space that already stretched the proprieties of simple, physical propriety between an unmarried young man and a spinster-marked young lady. And thus, the space did not become any more comfortable when said young man accidentally got knocked backward by the unexpected weight of the door, slamming himself into a startled young lady and getting them trapped into a very cold, small, opposite-of-refreshing space for the Lord only knew how many hours.
It was then that Jo learned that hell didn't have to be warm in any way whatsoever.
"Please tell me," she gritted out as Laurie's face hung perilously close to hers and she got a far closer look at his chin than she had ever thought possible, "that the sound of the door slamming shut didn't mean what I think it means."
"Erm," Laurie began, his eyes growing wide even as his Adam's apple bobbed at a terrifyingly close range. "Well... don't we learn Sunday never to lie to one another? The pastor seems to believe it will send us careening into hell very swiftly."
If she wasn't so close to him, Jo might have been tempted to kick him. As it was, she closed her eyes and asked, a little more despairingly than she would have liked: "Are we truly trapped here?"
Laurie made a thinking noise which all but reverted back on her own body, given how closely they were squashed together in what Jo was fast coming to dub as Satan's Little Depository. "I suppose that all depends on what your definition of trapped might be."
She glared up at him and gained a view of the inside of his nostrils that she thought she ought to have spent the rest of her life being ignorant of. "My definition of trap solidly encompasses being trapped in a small, cold space with a certified nuisance. How about yours, Teddy?"
He simply grinned and Jo told herself that the butterflies that erupted in her stomach afterward must purely be from anger. "Well, I can't fault the company."
Jo sucked in a quick breath and told herself that if she disposed of him now, the conversation would only end up being even worse. "And while you enjoy the company-- which is leaning very much toward not enjoying you so don't start taking liberties!-- exactly how long do you suppose it'll take to be rescued?"
Suddenly, Laurie stopped looking quite so pleased and started looking far more anxious-- not a pleasant change, given the way they were still cooped up together, without even room to sit. "How hard would you hit me if I told you I had no idea?"
"Very hard," Jo promised swiftly.
"Then I imagine I ought to brace myself," he muttered, and Jo ended pounding fruitlessly against the stubborn door herself a few times, which of course meant only that she was deeply annoyed by him and not in the least feeling anxious about having to spend time locked up in a tiny, tiny room with him, where she could not flee from his piercing eyes or his tentative smiles or slow, loving hands that seemed to always linger on her when he reached out to rearrange a curl or pull a shawl gently over her shoulders or--
Not that Jo spent a great deal of her time dwelling on such matters anyway. They were merely an inconvenience that she spent a great deal of time ignoring. Or rather, not dwelling on to the point where it went beyond ignoring.
Heedless of her emotional turmoil, the man at the center of it went on, his voice strangely light, as though seeing her pummel a door was an every-day sort of thing. "And in any case, punishment not withstanding, this isn't really so terrible a fate, is it? I mean--" he continued, even as Jo shot him a look that would have killed if it could, "--at least we now have some time all too ourselves, without any interruptions sure to be coming. And finally..."
And oh, if the tone of his voice hadn't been alarming her before, it surely was currently.
"...Finally," he said, his hands delicately navigating around where it had been hanging by his side, to touch the white curve of her cheek, "I can tell you something that I've been longing to for ages and ages, Jo."
Unbidden, her lips parted in shock as she stared at him and wondered what on earth he could mean. Laurie had always had a talent for tantalization and enjoyed shocking people rather more than Jo thought necessary.
But surely he wasn't about to... Well, he couldn't possibly consider... After all, look at how many differences existed between them and... Surely even his stubborn self had realized by now that they were in completely different leagues as far as... as social standing...
But Jo's thoughts about where he stood in fine society relative to hers billowed up and lifted away as soon as Laurie carefully ducked down to press his lips against the lobe of her ear, so close she could feel her curls stirred by his smallest breath even as he avoiding touching her directly.
He always managed to do this and one of these days, Jo thought hazily, she would really have to get over it.
Just as soon as she finished smashing his heart in right here.
But even as Jo closed her eyes in dread of hearing Laurie finally come out with words she had thought were lingering on his lips for all too long a, she heard him laugh softly. And when he spoke, he spoke words enough to make her eyes open in shock and turn to him, the corner of her mouth brushing his in the tiny space they were trapped in.
"I was wondering," Laurie said, and his smile was sweet and terribly sincere, "if you would give me your blessing to my plan of going to Europe and chasing my artistic dreams?"
Jo rocked back on her heels much too quickly at that, which cost them both in an instant as her back collided against the cold walls of the larder, causing her to stumble forward into his arms again, the careful distance she'd been trying to maintain evaporating as he had to swoop forward to catch her. She had to practically wriggle her face away from his shoulder before she could answer, all too aware that her form was practically melting into his now but too in need of answers to worry about that just yet.
"What?!" she cried, and then, backtracking, tried to seem a little less frantic. "I mean-- I must-- not that I'm not glad but-- what exactly do you mean?"
When Laurie answered her after a moment's hesitation, he sounded a little breathless. (Jo ferociously told herself it was only because he had been knocked off-balance for as second, obviously.)
"I... meant just what I said, Jo. You know how long grandfather's been talking of taking me to Europe once I graduate by the end of this semester, surely?"
Tentatively, Jo began to answer. "Of course I know, Teddy. You've been raving about it justifiably! Oh, if I only could com--"
Come along. Which was completely ridiculous because, for all that they had been the best of friends for years, he was still very much a young man and she was still very much a young woman and from the looks he had been shooting at her from beneath those shockingly long lashes of his, it wasn't a fact that he had forgotten and so, wasn't a fact that she could either. She could no more ask to tag along on an overseas adventure than she could ask him to marry her.
And since she, of course, wasn't about to ask and didn't want him to forward the question either, she shut her mouth with a snap and wished she had said nothing.
Apparently unheeding of her inner conflict, her best friend went on blithely. "Don't worry, Jo. With your talent, I'm sure you'll find your way there, even if that old bag of an aunt doesn't take you along. You'd probably end up having a much better time without her anyway."
For a moment, Jo was tempted to open her treacherous mouth up again and maybe tell him not to talk about any relation of hers, no matter how disagreeable she might be, in such a way. But then she remembered how said relation had been hinting more and more about how wonderful Amy was as a companion, which led her to finally smile wryly at her friend and say, "I love your sterling sense of optimism."
"Only one of my many charms," he replied, though he sounded pleased. "And only one of the reasons you care for me. And even as Jo laughed and slapped him on the shoulder for outrageous immodesty, she knew that he was speaking the god's honest truth about that.
After all, she did love Laurie's never-failing sense of good will toward what the future might bring them. Even when she sunk into the depths of misery, somehow, he could always manage to help her resurface into sunnier spirits by being there for her and sparking her on more adventures, helping her remembering why the world around her could never be so gloomy when he was near.
But then, he had told her many a times that she did the same for him. It was a thought strong enough to make her bitterly wish again that she... she wouldn't distract him so from their friendship in ways she couldn't understand in the least, and which might end up destroying their hearty bond completely.
Which was why she ended up biting her lip, and speaking her next few words with a guilty flush on her cheeks that she knew he was sure to notice. "Well... anyway. Europe! You in Europe! Pursuing art! Not that I'm opposed to it, of course-- you've got a gift, Laurie, you really do-- and you would be utterly wasted in banking--"
(The broad, almost silly smile that spread over his face just then warmed her own heart, more than justifying a rare bout of her praise.)
"But," Jo continued, hating having to bring common sense into the scenario but knowing that she must, "what on earth is your grandfather going to think... especially given the fact that he's bank-rolling the entire venture abroad?"
And Laurie's face tightened and turned sadder and paler and even somehow older at that, Jo honestly wished she hadn't said anything-- or hadn't needed to either.
After all, She had known for a very long time that things were... strained between the two Laurences next door. Strained even despite the fact that Laurie had as of late acquiesced to many of his grandfather's desires in going to school and studying business, leaving behind all too much of the art that he so loved. Strained to the point where argument seemed to erupt between them every time Laurie sat down to play a tune or trot out a new composition. Strained to the point where even their next door neighbors felt anxious every time they saw Laurie storm furiously into their house and toward the attic for Jo, anger written in every line of his young, ardent face.
Judging from the way Laurie's tightened as he spoke, he already knew that last bit quite well.
"I imagine," he said, slowly and carefully, "that the old man's not going to be pleased in the least to head to the shores of Paris and Naples with me, only to learn that I've decided to take after my 'wild' and scandalous parents."
"I..." Jo began, before realizing she had no idea what to say in either consolation or support. "I'm sorry that... that's..."
"Don't be," he replied, and the two words were almost careless; if she hadn't known him so well and for so long, she wouldn't have even been able to see how much it cost him to say it. "I don't mind suffering for my art, Jo, not even if it means being cut off from the family fortune soon. In fact, my only real regret is that..."
And when he looked at her now, there was no mistaking the pain on his face, the sorrow and the tenderness.
Jo felt as though her heart had somehow become lodged in her throat, having escaped her breast.
"If that happens, this may be one of the last times we see each others for years until one or the both of us has earned enough to skip across a continent."
She stared at him white-faced, still and nearly limp in his arms for a moment. The very thought of-- of being separated from him not merely for a few weeks or months as he went on a holiday abroad but for interminable months, maybe even years, until they could afford to cross an entire ocean between the two lands...
"I--" she began, and then tried desperately hard not to have her voice crack again. "I-- Teddy, I'm sure you exaggerate! Your grandfather loves you and... and you're all that's left to him! Surely he wouldn't-- I mean--"
He stopped her with a gentle finger laid across her lips and it was a testament to the gravity of the moment that she didn't feel the customary flood of butterflies inside from the tender act, or swat him away either. When he answered, his eyes were resolute but sad, and Jo could feel her own heart ache as she saw him looking so resigned to the coming break.
"Maybe. But probably not. He did it to my father when he left and he may well do it to me. Did you know that my grandfather didn't even come get the chance to see my father again before both he and my mother died in Italy? He tried to rush to their homes as swiftly as possible but by the time he arrived..."
Laurie closed his eyes and with a soft cry, Jo pressed her hand to his cheek, in a gesture of comfort, solidarity. His own hand rose to cup it and though any other day might have led her to pull it back and step away, Jo sighed softly and held on, held on for all she was worth here.
After all, no matter what new awkwardness might have fallen on them in past years, he was still her friend. And she would give him every support he could possibly require in such a terrible situation.
"I was the only one left of the three of us," Laurie said, and his eyes were closed and his face was shuttered and his cheek trembled beneath her authorial calluses. "That's precisely how stubborn the old man can be. Stubborn enough from hating a daughter-in-law to be too late to attend his own son's deathbed. He may be a good man but-- oh, he's as inexorable as death itself can be."
Jo swallowed hard, finding it terribly difficult to reconcile the wonderfully kind, if gruff, old man next door to that image. And yet, she knew Laurie would never, ever lie about such a thing.
"Teddy..." she tried again softly, her other hand coming up to cup his cool face, "perhaps it shan't be as bad as you fear it to be. Surely your grandfather will know better by now. Surely he's learned about the consequences of stubbornness from that episode already!"
But Laurie simply smiled and shook his head, his fingers intertwining with hers as they rested on his cheeks. "Are you sure? You must know enough about Laurence men by now to know that we are very, very stubborn in what we want and how we want it. It's very hard for us to abandon a long-loved goal of ours." His eyes darkened, and Jo tried not to flush at the feel of his fingers tightening a little across hers. "Very hard indeed."
She tried to make her answer to that as dry as the desert itself, although she still blushed at the gaze he sent down to her currently. "Oh, I believe that I've seen first-hand what you being stubborn looks like already. It doesn't yet intimidate me."
Laurie simply laughed, looking a little happier than before, and buoyed by that, Jo went on seriously, carefully finagling her hands off him him, although it seemed to make him unhappy. "And what exactly are you planning to do in Europe, pray tell? It's all well and good to make abstract plans but you need some concrete ones as well, Teddy. Where will you go? And how will you be living?"
"Probably very, very poorly at first," he admitted dryly. But then, before she could speak and pepper him with more questions, he went on briskly. "But I shan't mind suffering for my art a bit either! After all, until I was twelve and under my grandfather's care, I didn't exactly live in the lap of luxury. My parents were wonderful but... well, we weren't exactly drowning in diamonds and yet we still managed to be very happy. I'll do what they did, Jo. I know more than enough French to decamp to Paris and try making an honorable, musical living. I can apprentice myself to composers already there and learn everything stuffy ol' Harvard wouldn't deign to teach me. I'd be happy to play the piano in saloons and private parties for decent pay and I've even been saving for about two years for this moment, so when my grandfather washes his hands of me with disgust, I won't be penniless completely."
He cupped her increasingly worried face gently in between his large palms, beaming down at her as though a smile alone from him would be able to still her increasing fears. "I'll make it somehow, Jo. I'm not quite the financial naif that you seem to take me to be."
Unfortunately for him, such a pronouncement did not convince her in the least. She bit her bottom lip hard as she made out her words, though she tried to sound airy for his sake. "Well, we'll see about that when you're reduced to catching rats for your daily meal." And then, more seriously, she asked: "And what about... about us? About you and m-- my family? How often will you be able to contact us? By letter, if nothing else?
He simply shook his head, sending a sharp bolt of pure ice through her. "That... that I can't say, dear."
She swallowed hard, her throat dry. "Oh Lord, Teddy..."
Gently, he smoothed a hand over her hair, pressing his fingers forward to rearrange a dark curl that had come loose even as he whispered his next few words softly, his lips almost to her cheek. "I truly don't, dear. If my grandfather does what I'm almost certain he will, we may not see each other for ages and ages. I wouldn't be able to afford coming back to the States and you wouldn't be able to afford coming abroad to where I am. Our letters would likely be a long time in coming We'd have a whole ocean separating us and who knows how long it would take us to reach across that breach?"
It had been painful enough to hear it the first time but to have him repeat those words again made her ache even more. She looked up helplessly at him, and even though she knew she was being reckless, ended up pressing her slightly trembling hands to his very solid chest.
Quickly, almost desperately, he ducked his head down and began to speak in fast, solemn spurts of language against the lobe of her ear. "And that won't even be the largest change, Jo. I wouldn't be a rich anymore in any case, dear. I wouldn't be able to give any wife of mine diamonds anymore, or lavish her with other fine things. I wouldn't be able to make her the belle of the ball-- or indeed, take her to any respectable upper-class gatherings. She'd probably have to work as well, since I doubt musicians make a fine annual salary. She wouldn't have servants, although I'd certainly help, and might well have to scrimp and save for a living. She wouldn't have any fine dresses or jewels to wear, and might well have to suffer from being the bride of a nobody. She--"
Babbling now. He was babbling. As though he were-- almost ashamed of the reduced circumstances he would soon be in. As though he were not merely talking to an old friend or welcome companion but a young woman who might-- someday be--
Jo stopped, her heart beating like a drum beneath her brown skin. And she stopped him as well, simply by covering his mouth with small brown hands that trembled at the feel of his lips.
And when he looked at her again, there was something wild and joyous and brave and alive lurking in them that made her want to step back, want to stammer, want to tell him--
No, don't. Teddy, don't. Please don't do anything to ruin our friendship!
But this was Laurie. Laurie! Laurie, who she knew now was willing to leave all the comforts of his wealthy and leisurely young life behind for the sake of a frail dream. Laurie, who she had known and cared for and who understood the gravity of her own imaginings. Laurie, who had ended up being braver than she had ever known previously that he could be. Laurie, her friend, the one who understood her, the only other person in her life who looked upon art with her same burning passion, who would do anything to better himself for his craft, just as she planned already.
This was Laurie, and even if she did not love him the way he loved her, she could at least honor him enough to let him speak of what he desired freely.
She looked up and somehow, summoned a tremulous smile. "What is it that you really want to ask me?"
He blinked hard at that, his face guarded, his breath turning shallow on her nearby cheek. "Are you sure you really wish me to be that bold?"
Years, she thought as she watched her hands clench and unclench on the material of shirt. He might be gone for years.
"Yes," she said, because he was her friend. "Please, just tell me."
"Then," he went on, and the chest beneath her hands shuddered, " I'm trying to ask if you would still take a... a husband, even if such a man wasn't everything that a husband ought to be."
Curious despite herself, she chanced a look up at him. "And what should a husband be like?"
She had never seen him blush before but he was certainly making up for lost time now, if the red that streaked across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose meant anything. " Able to care for a woman he loved. Able to ensure her happiness. Able to make sure she never has course to want for anything."
Smiling despite herself, she managed to place her hand on his cheek. "And who told you something that ridiculous?"
Shock colored his face again for a minute before he looked away and stuttered: "W-well, I mean, I simply assumed--"
She huffed a laugh against his chin and then quieting, gazing at him fondly. "Was that true of yours parents, old chum?"
"Well, well, they were-- were different--"
She laughed again and went on. "Is that true of mine either?"
Looking as though he knew not what to say, Laurie stumbled onto his answer. "I mean... Jo... I wouldn't ever accuse your father of... of...
She stopped him with her hand on his lips again, and when she went on, her voice was calm, even, laden with words she had never whispered before but needed to finally be repeated.
"I love my father, Teddy, but I'm old enough to see his flaws. I love my father and would never trade him for any other but... I know he gave my mother a few very difficult years. He wouldn't have fit the definition of husband you gave me just now, you know. Not while I was growing up and-- well, maybe not even now. Do you honestly think I write all those penny-dreadfuls for my pleasure only?"
Laurie closed his eyes almost penitently, as though afraid he had caused some hurt without even knowing it. "Jo..."
"Love doesn't have to be perfect," she told him quietly. "Love only has to be free. That's all that's necessary for it to be worthy of any woman who knows enough to need it above all other things."
He took a sharp breath at that, his eyes darkening at that, sending little sparks all through her. "And what of the man who deigns to love her? What if he knows that she deserves more than a pauper musician with little to give her from his hand freely?"
She wanted to pretend, at least for a moment, that she had no idea of what he was speaking. It would have made things so easy. If she moved away, and let down her hands. If she looked away, and pretended he was merely jesting. If she pursed her lip and threw back her hair and turned to the topic of Europe, not inviting him to speak any longer of his feelings...
But if she was his friend, then she needed to extend him at least the courtesy of listening to his words. Anything less would be false and unworthy.
"What are you trying to say?" she asked again, her breath caught between her teeth.
"I'm trying to tell you I love you," he replied, and then reared his head in surprise at his own words, as though they had slipped out of him before he had finished preparing.
Her whole body trembling, she looked up at him, her own eyes piercing. "Do you want me to marry you?"
"No!" he cried, and before she could say something, he went on, looking almost shocked at his own temerity. "No, I don't! Not now, anyway. For two reasons, Josie. First, because I couldn't provide for you properly--"
Indignant words burst out of her mouth immediately, although she herself couldn't understand why, considering she had long known she would have to refuse if he asked her now. "Who says I need you to, Teddy?!"
Impossibly, he only ended up answering her ire with a quick smile, before moving on. "--And second, because I know you wouldn't say yes at this point in your life anyhow either."
And just like that, the comfortable rage that had been building up in her was gone, leaving her feeling terrible and hurtful and awkward as she looked away from him painfully.
After all, what was she supposed to say? He was correct. She wouldn't have said yes to him if he asked just then. She wouldn't have said yes to any man. She had long had dreams and it didn't include giving over her hand to any husband that might control her ambitions as he saw fit.
But sounding not the least bit heart-broken, Laurie went on, his voice almost sanguine. "Not that I would blame you for coming to that decision."
And when Jo finally had the courage to look up at him, the predominant emotion on her face, besides pain, was sheer and utter shock at the strange twist this situation had brought up in them.
After all, whatever she had expected from him in the aftermath of a marriage refusal, she hadn't expected this.
"I... I thought..." She had to clear her throat before he could go on, her heart beating so hard she had to wonder if he could feel it through the bare inch that separated him from her breast. "I... I thought you would be upset at me, Teddy. I thought you might hate me for it!"
He almost looked tempted to laugh for a minute, before simply smiling wryly. "Believe me, Jo, I've contemplated it." And before she could protest, he twirled a curl of her hair around one graceful finger and went on to quietly say, "But I know you and I know you're about as ready to embrace change as a sun-burnt nudist would embrace a cactus."
Before she knew it, she could feel herself flushing beet red in surprise and what she hoped-- knew-- was merely anger. "Oh, did you now? I have to say, Teddy, if you still have any hopes of marring me, you're not really helping your own suite out here!"
Somehow, he still went on smiling and twirling, and only the sheer lack of room in the larder kept her from stomping on his foot and then away from the situation. Even his voice was insufferably smug when he answered her. "And I have to say that you only get all flushed like that when you know someone's being all too honest. And anyway..." And then his voice became more sober, his fingers abandoning her hair to touch her cheek though she still tried to look away, his dark eyes piercing as they met her skin-- "I wouldn't ask you to do something I wouldn't ask of myself."
Feeling hopelessly lost, but struggling to understand, Jo lifted her chin to look directly at him. "I know I likely sound like a mimic once again but... what on earth do you mean by that?"
"Well," he began, and his eyes were nearly a caress as they fell on her, "I meant... precisely what I mean. I feel as though I need to go off and become my own person before I can do anything as life altering as getting married. And why shouldn't I expect you have the same goal? You of all people should know that the similarities between you and I far outweigh the differences."
Se should. And Jo knew, looking deep into his eyes as he patiently hovered above her, that she did. And perhaps that was the reason why she ducked her head down now and whispered words that she had barely even known before this moment were inside her.
"It isn't," she began, quickly, quietly, "that I don't-- care for you, Teddy. Whatever you can attribute my... my failure to change, that certainly isn't it! I do... care for you, even if... even if I sometimes don't even know why, given how you're often such a big unbearable bother and sometimes much too much for even me to handle and rein in." He chuckled at that, at the myriad memories those words conjured, and she went on, furiously telling herself she was not blushing for him. "I do... feel deeply for you, Teddy. And if I had to marry anybody--"
He touched her cheek with hands that shook suddenly; she looked away, her heart feeling stabbed by guilt.
But when she said her next few words, she said them looking straight at him, knowing they might very well wound but that they desperately need to be said.
"But I don't know if I even want to marry. I can't know that yet! You know, I need to have my own adventure before I can do anything but refuse you. I need to go to my own version of Europe and be bold in finding what I need! I need to see what the world holds for me. I need to see if I'm happier by myself or with somebody. I can't chain myself down yet, Teddy. You can't ask me to. It wouldn't be fair! You can't ask and I can't--"
When she had dreaded this moment in her mind, she had thought that he would likely turn flush with anger and run from her just then. Years of acquaintance with him and his sometimes short-fused temper had taught her that Laurie was not a boy-- or a man-- who enjoyed being denied whatever it was that he wanted. And she knew, as no one still living in the world still did, how much uncertainty truly lurked beneath the charm and beauty he displayed so carelessly fro the outside world. Beyond the shining demeanor of a careless and handsome rich boy he displayed for society lay a very vulnerable young man indeed... and one who was certain to strike back and lash out when he felt rejected.
But even if he had wanted to lash out, he did not do so now. And even as Jo braced herself for angry words and arguments enough to fill their tiny space, Laurie surprised her but gently shushing her with a finger to her lips, his eyes gleaming with secrets when she finally looked up at him.
"Don't worry," he assured her, and his voice was gentle. "I won't ask you yet."
Swallowing hard, Jo found herself staring. "I-- Teddy-- do you mean that?"
"No," he answered patiently, his voice still calm, his finger now tracing the trembling curve of her lower lip. "It might be strange but-- I shan't. I love you and that's why I won't ask you. I don't want you to feel pressed into saying yes or guilty about saying no. I want you to see the world yourself, Jo. I want you to spread your wings as well."
She swallowed again, and when she blinked, his dear, young face became a little bit blurred about the edges. "And what if the question will never be answered to your liking? What if I spread my wings in a way that has no room for any possible husband?"
For a minute, he closed his eyes, as though in pain-- and Jo's own eyes blurred a little more at the thought of him hurting because of her, of all given maidens. But then he opened his eyes and they were firm and resolute, gleaming down at her with preemptive forgiveness.
"Then," he said, his fingers now trailing her cheek, "I'll learn to live with you. You don't owe me your life merely because I love you, Jo. If you were to place it in my unworthy hands, I would only want it freely given."
She sucked in a sharp breath, before speaking. "And how will you know when I've made up my mind? What signal will you leap for before you place your life in my overgrown and clumsy hands?"
And this time, he found yet another way to surprise her-- with a sharp, bright laugh. "Because this time, I'm counting on you to let me know, my dearest lunatic! Even if you never come to love me, I'm sure you can at least give me that!"
Taken aback, she could only stare at him. "By-- how, exactly am I supposed to let you know when the time comes to ask again? Brain waves that I'll be asked to send over an entire ocean?"
He quirked another infuriating and smug eyebrow at her. "Interesting thought but I should hope a letter would eventually suffice. Although worse comes to worse, you could probably try that interesting technique as well. Although I never would have thought you a new-found proponent of spiritualism."
The nice thing about having him right there, unable to escape, was that he couldn't maneuver out of the way of her elbow just then. And after he had finished doubling over (probably very calculatedly) her, Jo just had to sigh helplessly at him.
"And what happens if I decide to send you a negative brain-wave?"
"Then I guess... " And here, he smiled back helplessly. "... I'll simply have to take that chance."
She looked away, feeling wet cheeks flame. "You take plenty of them on me, don't you?"
"Well," he murmured, though she would not look at him again, "I'm sort of hopelessly in love with you. It's my lot in life, I guess."
And just like that, Jo found herself blinking back a small, fresh haze against her eyes once again.
Because why, why, why did he have to feel that way? Knowing who he was and knowing who she was and knowing she'd planned a life quite without any man having authority over her within it? Why, when he had to know his life would have proceeded so much more easily without her within it? Why, when he deserved someone far better than she was within it-- far better even if he lost his fortune and only had himself and his warmth and his smile and his talent and his eyes to offer whatever lucky woman would be able to accept it?
Why when he ought to have known that he could do so much better than her and he might very well live to regret his choice of Jo over all other women?
She ended up gazing up at him once more, giving him room enough to stroke the new trails of dew raining down her increasingly damp face. "Then you're sort of a fool for waiting around for me to love you, Teddy, I hope you can just imagine."
"I don't mind," he whispered-- and when had his face suddenly come so close to hers? When had his gentle, artistic hands come to cup her cheeks once more. "Some dreams are worth taking a chance."
She found herself gazing up at him again, feeling her lip burn for something she knew they shouldn't, feeling a whole host of butterflies and moths circle around her suddenly tight chest. "And so, you will wait for me? Months, if not years? Perhaps only to hear a confirmed literary spinster tell you that you could have used that time far more productively?"
"I will," he whispered, his voice hopeful and tender, his forehead tilting to come to rest on hers. "I always would have. If only you would give me leave to do so... and not reject my suite here and tell me that there's no hope in ever gaining your hand."
And that when was she made a noise, tilted her head, sucked in a breath--
And let her lips meet his for the first and perhaps only time in all of their being.
It was then that Jo learned that even the cold of a frozen larder meant nothing against the warmth of a lover's breath, or the tenderness of a beloved's cheek.
His lips were warm against hers, his mouth achingly soft where it met her, and his tongue was tender as it traced patterns against two thin lips lips that slowly opened up to admit him in. His face was hot against her as he pressed himself to her further, and his hands floated over her with the gentle brush of butterflies as they rose and fell to touch her all over, all over, his fingers loving as they caressed her with aching want stored up over six years. She parted her lips and her tongue pressed against his, and even as his piano-calluses fingers flitted from the skin of her cheek to the nape of her neck, all she could do was gasp and arch her back and give in finally.
She had never thought that she could feel like this when touched, had never thought a man-- even her Teddy!-- could make her feel like this. She had thought that even if a partner could not be blamed, surely her own clumsiness would somehow cause a moment of connection to crumble between them. She had thought that surely being a spinster and never marrying would be by far the best fate among a host of strange ends.
But when Laurie kissed her, he did it thoroughly, leaving no room for her awkwardness. When he kissed her, it felt like lightning in her bones, steam in her blood, flowers rooting deep in her breast. When he kissed her, he made a future life together seem suddenly so simple and easy, until the arguments she had rehearsed against him over and over fell away with the simple press of his mouth against the nape of her neck.
And then he pulled away and looked at her and she knew, she knew, that this was something she could never again dismiss easily again.
She couldn't say yes just yet but... perhaps she could do the next best thing.
"Give me time," she told him again, one last time. "And trust I may find my way to you again. After I fly to New York while you roam Paris. After I learn how to fly with wings grand enough to match the ones on your back."
And when he smiled, nodded, and touched his lips to hers for yet another kiss, she learned that even within a chilled larder buried in the wilderness could seem like the coming again of spring.