The spirit of marriage wears an accountant’s face. A future of two people reduced to numbers and clauses in a contract, signed somewhere in a stuffy office that is the furthest thing away from the realities of life.
The parlor of Mr. Cavendish, solicitor, is dark and cramped. The only sound is rustling of newspapers, politely stifled coughs and poorly concealed groans of exhausted boredom.
A man walks by them towards the exit with a bounce to his step and a smile, stroking his cravat in a pleased fashion. They follow him with their eyes not out of any curiosity, but simply because there’s little else to look at.
“What do you think?” the man next to Edward asks, unintroduced and unprompted, leaning towards him and keeping his voice low. “Inheritance?”
Edward looks at him, startled at this unearned familiarity, but humors him. Studies the man’s back, as his jovial gait carries him around the corner. “He looks much too pleased for there to have been a death in the family,” he ventures.
The other man chuckles under his breath. “You overestimate the importance of family in some people’s lives. It may simply be that he isn’t putting on the mask of grief in the company of strangers.”
Edward scoffs and shakes his head at the notion.
The man looks at him with curious dark eyes. “What about you then?” he asks. “What are you in for?”
Edward blinks, because for a moment he doesn’t sound like they are two young men sitting at a lawyer’s; he sounds like they are inmates here instead. The image strikes too close to home, perhaps.
“A marriage contract,” he says, a little woodenly. “Hammering out the details. You know.”
The man hums in a way that suggests that he does know. It is not a happy hum.
“You?” Edward feels forced to ask, out of politeness, and out of the quality of that hum.
“Same,” he says. He sounds as unhappy about it as Edward feels.
If anything about this invites further conversation, Edward doesn’t know. He has never made acquaintances easily, so no appropriate follow-ups come to him. They resume their silence for a while: Edward, awkward, and his non-acquaintance, lost in his own thought, not caring a lick.
“I don’t believe I have ever had the pleasure of meeting you at any of the soirees,” he breaks the silence as suddenly as before.
“No, I don’t think you would have,” Edward says. “I do not frequent the social functions much.”
The silence stretches again. He really is out of practice as far as social graces are concerned. Lucy has not been happy about it.
“How about yourself?” he asks finally. His skill, apparently, has been reduced to parroting questions that are posed to him.
The man smiles sardonically. “Oh, I frequent them all.”
Edward arches an eyebrow, and wonders if that’s why he’s unglad to be here: mourning his freedom to cad about. But the bitterness in his eyes seems to run deeper and sharper than that.
“Edward Ferrars,” he offers up his hand.
The man gives him an unreadable look, nearly resentful, before accepting. His handshake is dry.
“John Willoughby,” he says.
“A pleasure,” Edward nods curtly.
Willoughby curls his lips into a sneer. “I’m sure it’s not,” he says, turning away.
Edward just looks at him, feeling like he’s missing something. Willoughby catches his eyes, and looks surprised. “You really don’t frequent the gentle society, do you,” he says. It isn’t actually a question. He leans in and says in a low voice. “I am somewhat on the outs with the noble London at the moment.” He shrugs, maybe to imply that he doesn’t care one way or the other, or that Edward is off the hook and may look for better company.
“Ah,” Edward says, for lack of anything more eloquent. “Well, I have never been on the in with the society, to be honest,” he offers. “So maybe I don’t care much for the opinion of ‘noble’ London.”
Willoughby answers with half a grin. “I see,” he says again, sounding almost sly. “Well, then. Feel free to make up your own mind. I’m at your disposal.”
The door to Mr. Cavendish’s office swings open once again, letting out another client, a stodgy gentleman in his fifties, with a bald head and a red face, shaking the lawyer’s hand vigorously, gushing with thanks. From bits and pieces, Edward gathers he is getting married. He briefly uncharitably wonders which number of wife this is to be.
“I understand, Mr. Milligan, yes,” Cavendish is saying, “but I have other people waiting on me.”
“Of course, of course,” Mr. Milligan replies, stumbling away and nearly dropping his stack of papers, but undeterred in his resolve to be the happiest man here today.
Edward leans to pick up the letter that has landed at the leg of his chair and hands it back to the man. “Congratulations on your marriage,” he says earnestly.
Willoughby snorts quietly—not obvious enough for the ears of Mr. Milligan who continues grinning happily on the way out.
When he’s safely out of earshot, Willoughby gives him an amused look. “Pardon me for not having offered any such congratulations to you,” he says. His tone is only slightly condescending. “You just didn’t look very happy on the account of getting married.”
Edward stares at him. “Of course I’m happy,” he says quickly, scanning the other men sitting in the parlor, like someone could have overheard his secret shame, or would have cared. “What makes you say that?”
Willoughby studies him for a moment, then asks, “Do I look happy to you?”
Edward stares at him, completely thrown. “I—wouldn’t know.”
Willoughby gives him an unimpressed look that seems to say: Come on, you can do better than that.
Edward huffs out a breath. “You look smug,” he says.
Willoughby laughs, and inclines his head in a nod. “That’s fair,” he says.
Edward sighs, letting his startled tension fade, and thinks again about his unhappy hum, his bitter tone of voice as they traded introductions. “Perhaps you did appear a little jaded,” he concedes.
Willoughby looks at him then, earnestly, and it shows, this deep-running sourness that he’s wearing. “So do you,” he says.
“That’s very presumptuous of you,” Edward says stiffly. “You don’t know me at all. I can be melancholy on account of a great many things.”
Willoughby appears merely amused. “So you are happy to be marrying then?”
There is almost no pause before Edward smoothly lies, “Of course,” with as much earnestness and conviction as he can summon. Which is evidently not a lot, or maybe he has a tell, because Willoughby stretches his lips into a thin line.
“There it is again,” he says.
Edward sighs. “You’re terribly unkind,” he mutters.
It makes Willoughby laugh, for whatever reason. The bitterest kind of laugh. “The most honest first impression I could have made,” he says. “Better you know now. I am a bit of a bastard.”
Edward looks at him and doesn’t quite believe him. In his experience, it’s two types of people who say things like that. The type who say it blithely, even smugly, like it’s this unchangeable thing that explains away cruelty, and an excuse to never rise above their baser natures. And then, the type who hides behind self-deprecating humor, because their conscience is burdened, and they may have done a wrong, or many wrongs, but they’ve owned up to it, they know their faults, they’re even plagued by them.
Another client exits the office, and the next person is invited in. “Mr. John Willoughby.”
There is a little rustle from the people who are still waiting. Some look at the man in question curiously now, or sharply; quite a few of them seem to have recognized the name.
“That’s my cue,” Willoughby twists his mouth into a sharp smile, like he hasn’t notice the dirty and the gossip-laden stares.
It makes Edward bristle on his behalf. (His mother has always berated him for taking things too personally.) It just instantly irks him, that they make assumptions about this man based on some rumor flying around—he is not unaware that this is exactly how gentle society operates, but there’s nothing ‘gentle’ about it. Willoughby keeps his head high. He seems to be good at not letting things get to him; but they shouldn’t be targeted at him in the first place.
Edward fidgets all the while as he waits for him to return. He does not take long, and he emerges unhappier than before.
“Mr. Willoughby,” he calls out, quietly, standing up. (Fewer people ogle them now, the novelty having passed, and the next person is walking in, so the queue rearranges.)
“Mr. Ferrars,” the man stops in front of him. He’s shorter than Edward, he’s startled to discover: he couldn’t tell while they were sitting down, or didn’t notice because of his personality, how much more sure of himself he acted than Edward has ever felt. Willoughby’s looking at him now, a little wary.
“What assembly rooms did you say you’ve been frequenting?” Edward asks. It’s a gesture. He doesn’t much care for the public’s opinion, and he’s making a point of it now.
“I didn’t,” Willoughby says, his lips spreading into a smile. He can read between the lines too.
“Whatever’s fashionable, but not restrictive,” he says, after some consideration. “Mrs. Frederic’s Red Ballroom at Cork Street has been my latest destination. Lady Griffith’s at Mayfair before that. Almack’s frequently, but no too often.”
“Thank you for your recommendations,” Edward nods primly.
Willoughby bows back, but there’s a glint of humor in his eye. He looks at the door to the office and at Edward again, and says, “Good luck.”
Edward looks at the door, and it seems larger than before, seems to be looming over him. He thinks about Miss Morton, and about Miss Lucy Steele, and him and Lucy, and him and Elinor, and something in him sags.
It’s three weeks before he sees Edward Ferrars again.
He seemed like a kind man. A little too kind, perhaps: half-idealism half-compassion, and it seemed like he meant for them to run into one another again. But there is no sight of him for days, so John lets it go. The man did say he doesn’t frequent high society, and one conversation doesn’t mean that’ll suddenly change his routine. Or maybe he wised up, heard things that are ugly and true about him, and is using his knowledge of John’s usual hunting grounds not to find, but to avoid.
After a week, John puts him out of his mind. They had one amiable conversation—a welcome change in how London has been treating him lately, but that is all.
He goes to pubs to relax instead of anywhere else he used to. He’s not John Willoughby there, the disgraced and the disgracer. He’s just another faceless screw-up, drinking himself stupid. He’s not welcome at the gentlemen’s clubs these days: the only ones that would let him in pass the time by quiet newspaper reading in utter silence, and John may be desperate, but he still prefers a company with a pulse. The other sort of clubs, where men are young, or pretend to be young, and enjoy their young men’s conversations, and drink, and gamble—he has no money for them these days, and they will keep looking down at him for such a public indiscretion until he’s properly married. He’s never quite figured out why settling down somehow erases all previous misconduct, but there it is.
And if in men’s clubs they look down on the fact that his transgression had such a loud aftershock, not at the deed itself, which happens too frequently to mention, the general society barely tolerates him at all. Too many holier-than-thou gossip types, eager to crucify him. He goes out almost to spite them, shoving down how it makes him feel; goes out for Sophia’s sake, to play their ruse out; spends most of these evenings hiding in her company, or in solitary nooks where no one disturbs him.
It’s there, in a private corner behind heavy curtains, as he’s reclining in a chair with closed eyes, that he is startled out of his drowsing state by a muffled, “Oh,” and an awkward cough, and opens his eyes to discover Edward Ferrars standing above him.
“Mr. Ferrars,” he greets the man cheerfully. Maybe too much: he has been drinking.
“Mr. Willoughby,” he says back, with stiff politeness, and there’s something to his tone John can’t quite put his finger on.
“You’ve made it into society,” he says.
Edward’s smile is affected and unusually sharp. Not that John knows him well enough to make statements about what is usual for him and what is not.
“As one must,” he nods, “to keep a lady happy.” He seems less overtly miserable on the account of her this time around.
“I wouldn’t know,” John says wryly. His presence is not required to keep Sophia happy: in fact, his absence is key in their arrangement.
Edward looks around. “You’re hiding here?”
“Always,” he says with a smirk.
Edward looks at him, with the same intensity as before. He seems edgier than he was when they first met: not the same smiling person, eager to be distracted from whatever was plaguing him. He seems sharp-edged and braced for something.
“Understandable. You know, I’ve been led to discover that we share a common acquaintance, actually.”
“Do we?” John asks warily, looking up at him, and something’s coming. He can sense it now.
“Mrs. Dashwood,” Edward enunciates, and he’s still standing, towering over him, really, and John feels pinned to the chair, suddenly. Feels stabbed and gutted. Like a punch in the abdomen, he can’t even breathe around it for a second, and when he does, his mouth is full of the scent of Devonian meadows, and Marianne’s perfume, and the wobbly handwriting of her final letter in those places where she cried.
“You do know the family, don’t you?” Edward asks, his voice puncturing through the haze, and oh, he definitely knows what he’s doing, he has come to wound. “She has two lovely daughters, Miss Elinor and Miss—”
“Yes, I know them,” John interrupts loudly. They stare at each other for a long painful moment. He stands up, regretfully sobered up in an instance. Edward, for all that he’s affable, suddenly seems to be everywhere all at once, square-shouldered and barrel-chested and barring his exit.
“Might I pass?” John asks through clenched teeth.
Edward says nothing, but his eyes are burning holes through him. The how could you? is written plain as day across his face.
“Well, do you wish to punch me, then? Do something? Go right ahead. You cannot punish me worse than I’ve been punishing myself.”
“Good,” Edward snaps at him.
The word hangs awkwardly between them, like an ugly inkspill. Edward blanches, and hides his eyes, the fight going out of him.
“Right then,” John says flatly, and pushes past him. Edward steps out of his way, not looking at him anymore.
His voice rings in John’s head for days, afterwards. The vicious sound of Good. Good.
Great London society can be so very small sometimes. He should have figured they’d keep running into each other: it’s not like the man who hates soirées attended just the one in order to give John a dressing down. They cross paths again not a few days later. Someone actually attempts to introduce them to each other.
The name ‘Ferrars’ is mentioned, and Sophia finds it desirable to meet a man of his standing. John excuses himself, and disappears into one of the further hallways with a bottle, while she’s looking for pleasure with somebody who isn’t him. Some half an hour later he hears footsteps approaching, and he imagines this might be a popular spot for lovers, and braces himself against what is likely to be an embarrassing run-in. It’s more excruciating than that.
Edward stops in his tracks, and stares at him, startled at this discovery. Not at the fact that John is hiding here—they have already established that it’s what he does—but to keep meeting like this, in dark corners of parties they both hate. John lets out a short laugh: it is pretty damned ironic.
“The lady I’m accompanying rather enjoys these assemblies, so I was obligated to make a repeat appearance,” Edward says inanely.
John stares at him and laughs some more. “Are you really explaining yourself to me?”
Edward inclines his head. “I just meant, I wouldn’t otherwise—” he waves his hand.
“Yes, I’m sure you wouldn’t,” John snorts.
Edward gives him a look that is almost a glare, caught somewhere between embarrassment and anger. He keeps the latter pushed down, and gives a stiff formal bow. “Good day,” he says, intent to leave John to his devices, but John has made his way through nearly a whole bottle of madeira.
“You keep a lot bottled up inside, don’t you?” he asks, a bit louder than necessary.
Edward stiffens and stops, clearly weighing if he should stay or just ignore him. Slowly, he turns around. “I beg your pardon?”
John raises his eyebrows at him, telegraphing: You heard me.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Edward says evenly after a moment’s pause.
John snorts. “This is exactly what I mean. You want to drag me across the coals, you are furious. And yet. You keep it all in.”
“That’s called having manners,” Edward says icily.
“You think anybody benefits from your restraint?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure Miss Marianne would have benefitted from yours.”
John gulps for air, and they stand there, dumbstruck, staring at each other, feeling the poignancy of that remark. John stares at his shoes. Lets the bottle clatter to the floor from his loosened fingers quite deliberately: enjoys the sound it makes, watches it roll away spilling the remains on the floor. All the merriment of having imbibed it has evaporated, and the things is, this is exactly why he stopped Edward just now. He wanted a fight. Edward’s righteous indignation seemed a welcome sort of comeuppance. (There is a scar on his right arm that does not seem likely to fully heal, not ever, but Brandon’s fury over Beth did little to his guilt. That’s not what he’s punishing himself for, and Brandon is incapable of making him feel remorse—only resentment. Edward’s sense of morality is much more effective at assigning blame.)
“I’m sorry,” Edward says. “That was—”
“No,” John stops him. “I can see now why you keep it all in,” he says wryly. “You’re scathing once you let it all out. Well done.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you? You were exactly right, too. And I shouldn’t bother you any longer.”
He’s the one to perform the cursory bow this time as he makes his escape, his insides twisting into knots. He is avoiding everybody’s eyes until he makes it back to Sophia, where he is drawn into making polite perfunctory conversation under contemptuous stares of their company who can undoubtedly smell the alcohol. He doesn’t really care.
‘How selfish sorrow ponders on the past,
and clings to thoughts now better far removed…’
He leans back in his chair, and thinks of the little cottage in Devonshire; of the dusted rooms of Allenham, never to be revived now; of how her skin felt underneath his fingers; of how his heart felt being mirrored in someone else’s heart.
The next time they meet, Edward moves towards him through the crowds of the ballroom with an unmistakable purpose. John notices him approach but stays where he is; he isn’t hiding. He’s staying in the back of the crowd, watching the dance floor. Him and Sophia have been paired in a perfunctory lackadaisical routine at the beginning, and he’s exempt from attending to her now.
Edward spots him across the room and carefully makes his way to him until they end up standing side by side.
“Mr. Ferrars,” John says, his eyes trained dead ahead on the dancers, not sparing him a glance. “Another excursion with your fiancée?”
Edward works his jaw over something before finally saying, “I regret how I spoke to you last time.”
John does look at him at that. “You’re kidding.”
Edward purses his lips. “It was unworthy of me,” he says.
John scoffs. “Sure. That I believe. You’re all about propriety.” He moves towards the table to steal himself a bottle of something respectable and find his usual respite some place else.
“Something you don’t hold in high regard,” Edward’s response comes faster than he can check himself.
John smirks, raising an eyebrow at him: the apology already made inconsequent. Edward is looking straight ahead, annoyed at himself for being so easily provoked.
“Why are you getting married?” John asks, snatching the bottle. Edward strikes him as a modern fellow who would want to marry for love.
“Excuse me?” Edward turns and stares at him. “How is that any of your business?”
John shrugs. “Would you like to know why I am?” he asks, moving towards a private curtained nook.
“I think most of London knows why you’re marrying.”
“Then I guess you have me at a disadvantage.”
He doesn’t really expect Edward to answer, but then he does. “We met when we were young. I was completing my education, and she seemed like the kindest person in the world. I was charmed. We got engaged. We’re finally making it official.” He says it all in a dull uninspired tone.
John studies him. “But?” he says.
Edward narrows his eyes. “There’s no ‘but’.”
“You do not love her. Isn’t that a ‘but’?”
“That’s ridiculous,” Edward scoffs. “Why would say something like that?”
“The way you talk about her. Like you wish she had never existed. Like you wish it was the last time you ever spoke of her. It’s the first time you’ve sounded angry at something other than me.”
“I definitely wish it was the last time you spoke of this,” Edward mutters, but he hides his eyes.
John looks away with a light shrug. “You’re badly matched,” he says.
“You’re wrong,” Edward shakes his head stubbornly.
“I’m not. You know how I know that?” He looks Edward up and down again. “Because I can use the same words you used to describe her to describe yourself. You are too similar. She bores you.”
“You’re wrong,” Edward says again, but differently this time, with an ease of conviction.
John cocks his head and studies him. “You know that, don’t you,” he says, and Edward keeps silent, and keeps hiding his eyes. John squints at him. “There’s somebody else,” he says slowly. “Somebody gentle and kind, who holds your interest, which proves you right. But it’s someone else, not your intended, which proves me right.”
Edward’s back is ramrod straight, and he keeps staring dead ahead, jaw clenched. His entire neck seems tense. He doesn’t need to say anything.
“Well, aren’t you an interesting one,” John toasts at him, and glances past the curtain towards the dance floor. Somewhere out there the future Mrs. John Willoughby is being entertained. “Say no more,” he says wryly. “I know how that goes.”
“You’re in no position to compare your situation with Marianne to mine,” Edward says icily.
John startles and looks up at him, taken aback. Edward looks grim, and half regretting his words. Abruptly, he gets up to leave. God knows why he even followed John here in the first place. John is staring ahead as the curtain sways. His chest pounding.
“I was near Devonshire by chance,” he says. He isn’t sure that Edward is still there to hear him. He isn’t sure it matters: he doesn’t owe him any explanations, he doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want to relive it. But something inside of him makes him say it anyway. “She had a nasty fall, sprained her ankle. And—” he chuckles helplessly. “I mean, you’ve met her. I have never known someone like her. So wild and innocent at the same time, but not in a way that’s fragile. She’s no one’s prey. She wasn’t mine.” He swallows hard, and looks down. “She wasn’t meant to be.”
The curtain sways again, and Edward sits back down. He doesn’t say anything, but he’s just there. Like some weird confessional.
John licks his lips. “The women here are chafing,” he says. “Restrictive. She wasn’t like that at all.”
“No,” Edward agrees softly. “Neither of them are.”
John shrugs. “I suppose.” He finds Elinor too reserved, restrictive in other ways, but he knows what Edward means. “But Marianne had me smitten. Smitten with how much she was smitten, with how openly and honestly and deeply she felt. She seemed like the other part of my soul.” He looks down. The wine has already lost its taste, and he is too sober for this. “My aunt forbade the marriage. Rescinded any financial support. I had to come here. Love doesn’t feed you, doesn’t keep you warm. I resolved never to see her again, as much as that pained me. And she was supposed to be in Devonshire.” Even to his own ears he sounds desperate now, grasping at excuses. “Nobody was supposed to know how close we might have acted with one another in private, how it may have seemed. Only then, she came to London. Wrote to me. I mean, who does that? And all that I loved about her, how little she cared for proper society, undid her, when she acted in a way the society deemed damaging. I tried to save her from herself, but it was too late for that. I didn’t—didn’t want this for her.”
When he looks up, Edward’s studying him with an expression that falls somewhere between contempt and compassion. “Why are you marrying then?” he turns the question back at John.
John’s smile is sour. “I need the money. I have done what so many young people do these days: found a wife that’s looking to settle down with someone who will never presume to pester her, nor she me. She has the dowry to allow for a decent living. She’ll have her lovers, and I’ll have mine, and I am—fine with it.”
Edward grimaces at the crassness of it all. “You don’t seem fine.”
John laughs. “No. No, I’m not fine. The thing, the one thing I cherish the most in this world is freedom: to choose; to act; to love—and I’m to be denied it all. Through no one’s fault but my own, I lost it. In a terrible way that I regret, I lost it. And I am about to trade in more to get some back.”
He smiles a razor-thin smile and toasts the irony of that at Edward.
Edward hurriedly descends down the stairs, caught entirely off guard by the visitor the valet has announced. He’s standing in the hallway like a foreboding shadow: always dressed in black and looking for all like an inkstain in this light house.
“Mr. Willoughby,” he says loudly, like an accusation. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” He reaches the end of the stairs and studies his unwanted guest.
Willoughby is looking around curiously. “Just wanted to see how the truly rich people live,” he says flippantly. “It’s a fine establishment.”
“Yes. Well.” Edward follows his stare and looks around, then back at him. “Did you want something?”
Willoughby looks up at him with a wry smile. “Not really,” he says. “Just invited myself over.”
Edward looks at him for a long moment before asking, in a pinched voice. “Mr. Willoughby… are you, somehow, under the impression that we’re... friends?”
Willoughby laughs. “Goodness, no.” He looks amused. “You don’t strike me as a fellow who’s looking for friends,” he says mildly.
Edward frowns. “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Willoughby’s face turns into a complicated equivocating grimace. “When you say ‘friends’, you mean people who’d share in your mental landscape. I mean social acquaintances. And since I am neither of those things, I hardly think I qualify to be your friend.”
“Fine. So why are you here then, if neither of us is looking for friends?”
“You don’t find me completely repugnant,” Willoughby says, dead serious.
Edward stares at him. “Trust me, I find you far more objectionable than most people,” he says flatly, and thinks about Marianne’s translucent face, her newfound desperate honesty, how subdued she’s become. And thinks about Elinor’s face as she watches her sister, helpless to comfort her.
And looks at Willoughby, and he should demand satisfaction—except the man already looks wretched, and drained.
He’s supposed to be above these things. Judge not, and you will not be judged, and all that. But he’s feeling more like Numbers 14 these days: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty.’ Edward feels both anger and pity towards the man.
The pity wins out.
“I can’t entertain you in this house,” he says. Willoughby’s face closes off, but he nods with pristine politeness.
“My mistake,” he says quietly.
“Not in this house,” Edward repeats. Willoughby looks up.
“But at the Ferrars estate?” he suggests quietly.
Edward thinks about his embittered humor, and his haunted expression, and thinks that he could be charitable to him, at least.
“I’ve met Lucy Steele many years ago,” Edward confesses to him in the privacy of his own estate the next evening. “I was finishing tutelage under the Reverend Pratt, and falling in love with what he does, and just falling in love.”
“How charming,” John says with a wry smile.
Edward’s expression is honest, if a little melancholy. “She really was, though,” he says, “and it seemed enough. Seemed like everything.” He shrugs. “I was young.” He says it like it explains everything. Maybe it does. Maybe young Edward had been exactly like Marianne was, is—eager to fall into being in love. “She has no dowry. No gentlemanly connections, so we kept it a secret. We still do, even as my family, in their bid to marry me off to someone of great standing, are insisting on me carrying on with Miss Morton. Taking her out to the assemblies where you and I keep bumping into one another.”
John frowns. “Wait. So that day at the office. Were you there to draw up a contract for Miss Morton or Miss Steele?”
“Morton,” Edward says, flushing with embarrassment.
“A woman that you do not intend to marry at all,” John says flatly.
“I’ve made a promise to someone. I’m just going through the motions as my family expects me to, while trying to figure out how to break it to them that I have other plans.”
John stares at him with growing surprise and amusement. “So let me see if I understand this. When I asked you about your intended, you described Lucy to me.” Edward raises his eyes to him, looking suddenly trapped. “But you’ve made it clear that you don’t love her anymore. So. You’re saying that you hold the romantic attachment of not one, not two, but three women right now, and you’re trying to juggle them all?”
Edward looks miserable, but John just laughs, he has to. This is really, truly ironic. For all that he’s a cad, for all that he’s left a trail of ruin behind him, unintended as it may have been, he at least always had the decency, or prudence, to focus on one woman at a time. Such level of revelry is not at all what he would have guessed about reserved and mild-mannered Edward Ferrars.
“Well. Are you going to tell me of your true lady love, then?” he asks merrily, as the laughter leaves his body.
Edward looks away, and looks disinclined to share, and burdened by the truth.
“I made a promise,” he says again, and shrugs one shoulder. “I intend to keep it.”
“Your honesty is your downfall, Mr. Ferrars,” John says, still privately merry over the whole charade.
“And your dishonesty is yours,” Edward returns dryly the very next second.
John just smirks, guilty as charged. “What a pair we make,” he says, and studies Edward’s profile.
It’s not exactly a shocking or novel train of thought for him, as it happens.
The first time he has ever done anything sexual was in the presence of another boy. Summer of 1790, him and one of his far-removed cousins were fourteen and only discovering the nascent pleasures of rubbing, and friction, and the sight of their lovely neighbour has been filling his nether regions with something hot.
They were in the attic, a hot August midday, talking about her legs in white stockings, and something neither of them fully understood, trying to pinpoint what it was exactly that made their groins tighten, no understanding of breasts, nor waists, nor how women gasp when your fingers slip inside, or when your teeth bite on their nipple; wholly innocent and curious and wanting, and barely aware of how it feels to touch yourself. The entire conversation left them both with aggravating problems in their trousers, and it was his cousin who started covertly rubbing his inner thigh with the heel of his palm, red in the face, because that’s not fucking proper—except John didn’t mind. And they both whipped it out, and it seemed wholly reasonable to reach out and tug at his dick, because just palming himself and letting him palm himself wasn’t enough, his entire body was burning with a desire to be pressed up against someone. He came that day with someone else’s dick in his palm.
He’s never thought about it that much.
It nearly happens to him for the first time some years later, when he is nineteen, and thinking himself utterly irresistible while playing at romance with Lady Radcliffe, a widow of two-and-thirty, substantial means and little care for rules. He was her plaything, and he wasn’t the only one, as he discovered her later in the arms of an officer much older than he, closer to her age and a Major, with the physique to match. It wasn’t a heart-breaking discovery, and John was about to gracefully accept his defeat to a worthier opponent, when she looked at him measuringly. And whispered something into the Major’s ear, who looked at him, and whispered something back. And then she nodded for John not to leave but to come closer. He hesitated; Lady Radcliffe beckoned; he pressed a kiss against her neck, her shoulder, and she was perfectly pressed between them, and they were naked soon, and both inside her, and she had asked them then. To kiss, for her, and they seized each other up, he was young and pliant still, and the other man was more than ten years John’s senior, grizzlier, thick-necked, and when their lips touched, John came harder than he had ever come before.
He’s been to a few molly houses in the years since, but not too often, as well as engaged with a discreet gentleman or two. The point of it all being. It doesn’t take him by surprise to catch himself looking at Edward. They aren’t friends; there’s no defining whatever they are; antagonists in the same boat, perhaps—and even so, Edward still treats him with casual kindness, and John is drawn to it like a lodestone. And whatever else they might be, they may as well be this.
“You’re making a habit out of this,” Edward says, the next time John arrives. He still hasn’t made up his mind about John’s character.
“I can serve some good here. What you tell me you can’t exactly say in a confessional,” John says, a little wickedly. “And I’m as good as. Your secrets are safe and buried with me.”
Edward considers him. “Elinor Dashwood,” he says, out of nowhere, quietly.
John’s insides crystallize with sickly fear, in a fight-or-flight response, landing cold in the pit of his stomach. “What about her?” he asks, his voice nearly disappearing.
“She’s the woman that I loved,” Edward says, oblivious to John’s abrupt panic. It takes him a second to realize they’re just having the same conversation they did the last time. “Despite being engaged, I knowingly allowed the attachment. It was unforgivable of me, and I know it.”
John blinks and, frankly, gapes. Gapes, secondly, because this is what Edward thinks is ‘unforgivable’? When John has ruined women’s reputations. Broken hearts. Broken two lives—a fact he is loath and scared to admit to Edward, because nobody could be understanding of that. Not even him. And Edward is torturing himself over proper and insignificant flirtations, where he has implied nothing, has promised nothing. (He doesn’t have to say anything about it, John just knows, because he understands how Edward works.)
But he gapes, firstly, because it’s Miss Dashwood. Because that’s an unbearable irony, and unbearable pain, and god John understands now why Edward was so irate with him over Marianne, an older brother’s fury and that they should meet, that they should intersect like that, that the both of them should have been—
“Um,” he says, or an approximation of an equally unintelligible sound.
“Don’t you dare,” Edward says gravely.
John shakes his head, because he wasn’t going to. “Why are you marrying Lucy then?”
“I told you already,” Edward huffs out in exasperation. “I have made her a promise. And upon my honor I intend to keep it.”
John grimaces, and Edward glares, and it goes unsaid that John thinks such sentiments nonsensical bullshit, and that Edward thinks John knows no meaning of honor.
“You poor fool,” he says instead.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Edward says.
“I don’t,” John easily agrees. “I don’t understand why anyone would willingly suffer like that. The engagement was secret, it’s not like you flaunted your affection to the world and would leave her reputation in any way damaged.”
“What about her heart?” Edward explodes. “Does she deserve to be in pain? She did nothing wrong. How can I abandon her out of my own selfishness! How would I live with myself? Do you think I could let myself marry Elinor after that? Do you think she would accept me?”
John stares at him, and knows that he is right. That is the downfall of moral people. Choosing for himself and causing another person pain would haunt him. He would self-flagellate, and not allow himself to be happy. And a woman like Elinor Dashwood, however little John can claim to know her, would not allow a man to break off an engagement and choose her over another either.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I truly am. That is an awful situation to be in.”
It seems to him as good a moment as any.
“Edward…” he says, places the name carefully between them.
The man stiffens at the familiarity. “I beg your pardon?” he says, his tone a palpable warning.
John stands and looms over him where he sits, and then touches his hair. Edward is staring back at him with eyes more innocent than any of the women John has supposedly ravished, completely taken aback.
“Let me do this for you,” John says, and gets down on his knees in front of him.
“What are you doing?” Edward whispers. His fingers dig painfully into John’s shoulders.
“Please,” John says. He doesn’t even know what it is that he’s asking for here, except that it goes against all reason and all sense and all sensibility, just, please, Edward, it doesn’t have to mean anything, just don’t hate me some more, and let me not hate myself. (He’s reasonably sure he only thinks that, and panics when Edward’s fingers start to relax their grip. But it’s Edward. He wouldn’t put it past him to read it all in his face anyway.)
He carefully unbuttons Edward’s trousers, freeing his cock, and takes it in his hand, slowly rubbing it into semi-hardness before bringing his mouth over it. He hasn’t done much of it, before. In fact, he has only tried just the once, but something about this situation pushes him to do exactly this for Edward, just let him relax and enjoy some pleasure that comes with no strings attached.
Edward’s hands leave his shoulders and dig into the armrests at about the same time as John’s tongue swipes around his cock. He doesn’t touch John at all—perhaps he isn’t sure he should, and that’s alright, John is doing it all for him, anyway, no reciprocation needed. There’s a certain power in sucking someone off, John finds, and it gets him hotter than he expected to get, his own dick growing uncomfortably hard in his pants.
“Nngh,” Edward groans as he comes, and John swallows him whole, and lets the softening cock slip out of his mouth, and tucks him back in. His fingers are unsteady over the buttons of his trousers. Edward is breathing hard, either disinclined or unable to help him out.
John rises to his feet, and expects to make a graceful exit: what they have just done leaves little room for words, and he isn’t so sure Edward has wrapped his head around this one yet, so leaving (fleeing) seems best. But when he’s about to turn, Edward’s hand shoots up and circles around his wrist.
“Wait,” he whispers. His face is flushed, and his hair is a beautiful mess, and something in John’s chest tightens at the flustered sight of him.
“You don’t need to,” he shakes his head.
Edward swallows. “I do,” he says, his face full of resolve rather than want. He should really backtrack, but John is weak, and has enough want for both of them, and he stays in place, as Edward stands up unsteadily, and leads him to a sofa and presses a careful hand to the bulge in his pants. John unfastens his trousers, making it easier for him, and Edward touches his erection and works it like he would his own.
Afterwards, John rights himself, while Edward cannot quite look him in the eye, and leaves without a word, without as much as a thank you. It doesn’t feel right to do so, but it feels even less right to speak. There is no etiquette for this kind of thing, and John has always done it with men who weren’t strangers to the act the way Edward clearly was. Whatever John has done in the past, this situation has called for something different, but he has no idea what.
He waits an entire week before showing up at Edward’s estate again. Acting like nothing untoward has happened between them, and it’s clear that Edward has come to the same decision, only he’s singularly bad at it. The knowledge of what they have done is written clearly in his eyes every time he looks at John, and it’s hard to ignore how wrecked he looks.
“I have always wanted to be a pastor, you know,” he says quietly, out of nowhere, once the polite chitchat is out of the way. He’s standing by the window, looking out onto the city.
John nearly spits his coffee out, and looks up at him incredulously. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” he offers, with the deepest sense of irony.
Edward looks at him sharply. “I’m pretty sure that is not what Shakespeare meant.”
“It’s Shakespeare. Of course, that’s what he meant.” John sighs and gets up and joins Edward by the window. “It isn’t cheating,” he says.
“Isn’t it?” Edward answers sharply.
“It’s not,” John maintains. “You aren’t married yet. You’re not in love with me. I’m just your friend, barely even that. I’m a guy that helped you out. You’re not breaking any promises.”
“I don’t know that I can look at it like that.”
“You feel like you’ve betrayed Elinor because you led her on. But you’re not leading me on. Lucy is getting your marriage and your future. I just got to come with your hand in my trousers.”
Edward winces. “Must you be so crude.”
John laughs. “You haven’t heard me being crude.” He puts his hand on Edward’s waist.
Afterwards, when they are both looking wrecked for an entirely different reason, Edward says, “You are not an honorable man.”
John folds his expression into careful blankness.
“I do not mean this as an insult,” he adds quickly.
“I must have missed the part where it was a compliment.”
“I envy you,” Edward says. “I couldn’t live with myself if I broke it off with Lucy. Her grief would be my forever guilt. But you. You talk of freedom so much, and you have it. Or you have the chance for it, at least. You’re not duty-bound to anyone but yourself, and you loathe the idea of your impending marriage more than I do mine. You shouldn’t go through with it.”
John looks at him with gratitude, his lips compressing into a sad smile. “I can’t afford not to.”
“You know what your problem is?” John tells him one of the evenings that he comes over.
“Enlighten me,” Edward says flatly, but a part of him is cautious; John is a born cynic, but he’s keen, too.
“You wanted to be a pastor. And you’re already one at heart,” John says softly.
“How do you mean?”
“You open yourself up to people, freely. You understand human hearts, and how to listen. That’s why Lucy fell in love with you. That’s why Elinor did, too. You get enraptured in it, in providing comfort. And then you and them both confuse it with being in love.”
“But, let me guess, you’re immune to my charm,” Edward says in that moment.
But the words haunt him afterwards for days, because that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what has happened to him. John’s wrong on one account: Edward has been in love with both of them. But John is right, too, that it’s his quality as a benevolent listener that does half the job.
He remembers what he himself told Elinor once: we all must have someone to listen to us; to understand what we feel. And he understands how people feel, and he reflects that understanding at people.
And maybe for the first time in his life it’s the other way around. With John, he has been his most honest self without thinking. With John, he has seen his honest self.
The truth is, he can white-lie his way around this all he wants, but he’s doing it purely out of selfish, greedy reasons. The men in John’s life have been scarce, and sordid, and secret. The women have all been the recipients of pleasure, and him the giver; he made them feel special, beloved, chosen, that it is them he was making love to. That he had a reputation of a rake, but there he was, with them, handsome and a catch, and they had him.
Edward has a brand of generous affection that he is ready to direct at anyone, even lost causes like him, and John’s entire skin burns with the desire to touch and be touched by someone who likes him. And in spite of everything Edward does like him. Likes him enough to be considerate. To flip the tables on him and make it all about John, just like John has wanted to make it all about him. And whatever greed for affection John has gets expanded tenfold, spoiled by the way Edward is with him. Edward makes him feel like he deserves to be cared for. Edward looks at him in a way that makes his chest ache.
Which is how, three weeks into it, John ends up at Edward’s door with his blood filled with bourbon, and his tongue full of confessions.
“You were right about me. I am not an honorable man,” he says, abruptly, nearly as soon as they are left alone. “You should judge me. You should detest me. I’ve done worse than you would deem forgivable.” He gets up antsily.
“John?” Edward gets up to his feet with him, and looks him up and down, and maybe he can smell the alcohol, or see it in his eyes, because he frowns, and then tries to make him sit down. John shrugs his hands off.
“I pursued a girl. A year ago. She fell in love with me, and I—” he chuckles. “I didn’t not love her. I fall in love with them all, that’s the pleasure of romance. Just a tiny bit, but I do. I did. I cared for her, there was a familiarity, a knowledge, an intimacy. It’s not being in love, but it’s a sort of an affection.”
Edward looks at him with mild confusion, trying to settle him down. “I… understand, I suppose?”
John looks at him then. Straight in the eye. “We were both in it,” he whispers hoarsely. “I need you to understand. I do not seduce the unwilling. She wanted the affair as much as I did.”
“John, I believe you are drunk,” Edward says softly.
“She got with child,” John says, still looking at him, and catches every miniscule expression of shock in his face. Edward startles back, eyes wide.
“No,” he shakes his head. “You can’t have—Don’t tell me—” He cannot stomach it. They are friends, of a sort, or on their way to being such, and John is crushing that budding friendship in his hands right now with this confession.
“That’s why my aunt disowned me. I didn’t know, is the thing. We carried on for a while, and then I left, it was just an affair. I came to Devonshire. Months passed. I fell in love. And when I arrived home to present the idea of marriage to my aunt, the girl was found out. She had given birth. And I was told to make amends, but. I couldn’t. I was never in love with her. I never intended for these circumstances, but I would not be tied down by them. I was set adrift in other ways instead. Fortuneless. Unable to marry whom I chose. Left to seek out a lady of fortune who’d take me.” He chuckles bitterly. “I am not your friend, Edward. You would suffer an unhappy marriage for the sake of another. But I am too selfish for acts like these. I couldn’t save that girl by hanging myself.”
“Don’t you regret it at all?” Edward whispers in the ensuing silence.
John looks into the fire, his eyes growing blurry. “I regret hurting Marianne more.”
They are silent for a while. John sitting there, way more sober than Edward gives him credit for, and Edward standing over him, a silent witness or a judge.
“There is a verse in your Good Book. One of the very few I remember,” John says quietly, studying his hands. “I know that good itself does not dwell in me. I have the desire to do good, but I can’t carry it out. I do not do the good that I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—that I keep doing.”
It has always felt like an admonishment inscribed on his very skin. The truth of him.
“You were right about me, Edward,” he murmurs. “I wish I was an honorable man, but I wasn’t. I was worse than wasn’t. I’m just a coward who mars people’s lives, and I will mar yours with my decisions, too.”
“Shut up,” Edward interrupts him.
John looks up at him, wretched and startled, and stills at the look on Edward’s face, thoroughly rattled. He opens his mouth, maybe to speak, or maybe because he can feel what’s coming, Edward stepping closer in one wide stride, and John leans back for a moment, this is not what the two of them do, this isn’t what gentle people do, and then Edward’s kissing him. He’s kissing him—this isn’t like any first kiss with a lady that he has known, where you let your lips rest gently upon each other’s, the promise of intimacy, with everything held back and controlled, because women are gentle creatures that you don’t want to scare with your violent urges, and this isn’t anything like that. (John has never thought of kissing Edward, because kissing is for lovers, which they are not, which men are not, they’re fucking, which is the only thing an arrangement between men is good for, it isn’t anything else, this isn’t anything—but even if he had thought of it, he would have thought of the same level of coaxing necessary, it is John here who has done things with people, sequentially and concurrently, that would make Edward blush, he has only ever found him a diffident recipient—) He is kissing him. And there’s nothing gentle about it, no timid exploration, Edward’s tongue is in his mouth, deep and hungry. John groans, and raises his hand to Edward’s skull, and shoves their mouths closer together, as far as tongues can go.
“Edward...” he whispers into his mouth, letting his hands drop down, caressing his neck, his chest, then unfastening his clothes. It’s more skin then they have allowed before, as John’s hand slips underneath Edward’s shirt, grazes across his abdomen, before diving for his cock, already half-hard. “Edward,” he murmurs again, just his name, like a rhythm, like a salvation, pressing his tongue to the pulse on his neck, licking off his sweat, as his hand works Edward’s beautiful cock.
“Come here,” he whispers, pushing their hips closer together, so that he can have both their cocks in his hand, rubbing against each other. Edward gasps and whimpers against his temple, and John catches his mouth again, he wouldn’t have thought he’d enjoy kissing, but this one simple fact is getting him hotter than everything else about the situation, is that Edward is kissing him, gently and softly and steadily, no rush, no pretense, but with full knowledge of what it is they’re doing here, and it’s lighting John up from the inside.
They aren’t friends.
That much has been ensure from the start.
They have skipped that step altogether, only John has no idea what footing they find themselves on now.
They aren’t lovers—they can’t be—men do not love each other, in general.
Except that’s exactly what John went and did. And he knows, very easily, that it isn’t the same for Edward, Edward has been half-coerced into it, and half his blasted compassion, it’s just a thing he does, giving parts of himself to people, freely. His brand of affectionate generosity.
Which doesn’t explain, and doesn’t help with the fact that the only thing John is looking forward to anymore is spending evenings with him. Doesn’t help with the fact that John can imagine a life like that, full of sardonic conversations and amicable compassion, and full of that nameless thing between them, he doesn’t have a word for it, or maybe he’s afraid to say the word.
John knocks on the door of a room he’s been led to understand Edward is renting, with what little money he still has. Edward opens the door, looking pale as a ghost, and John isn’t a charitable person, so in that moment he hates Lucy Steele for putting Edward through this. He hates her more for recognizing that she’s simply as selfish as John himself is, going after what she wants with no regards for others.
“I just heard,” he says out loud. “You’re the talk of the town.”
Edward chuckles, and lets John inside. The room is incredibly modest. John can’t imagine Lucy is happy with these circumstances. Pettily, he rejoices at the thought that she has lost all hopes of an inheritance, that she is now heading for a life of what she would consider squalor. Selfishly, he wonders if there is anything at all he can tell Edward to release him from his promise. To finally make him see that forcing himself into unhappiness isn’t the answer here.
Edward beats him to it.
“I’ve spoken to Elinor tonight,” he says.
“Oh,” John says, stiffening cautiously. “How... was that?”
Edward looks shaken, and perhaps John has misjudged that it was Lucy and his present engagement that have put that look on his face. “I think…” he says quietly. “I think she has found someone. A man by the name of Colonel Brandon.”
John swallows, and his scar aches. “I know him. She doesn’t seem his type.”
Edward seems to ignore him. “They are offering me a parish,” he says, and looks at John, like he wants someone to understand and share his shock.
“Oh,” is all John can muster.
“That’s personal,” Edward says insistently.
“Hardly anyone knows about my ambition to have one.”
“I see.” John has apparently lost the ability to speak in anything other than monosyllables.
“I feel like a terrible person,” Edward exhales. “I have… treated her badly. And she’s still being kind to me.”
There is a smile on his face that feels like a spear, cleanly entering John’s side and skewering him through and through. He’s still in love with her, and John is just a fool for ever thinking anything else.
“Yes,” he says quietly. “I’m glad you have firm footing now. You are lucky to have such a... friend.”
Everything about this household is, perhaps, grander, than Edward’s own. Makes one’s head spin, really.
“Whom shall I say is calling?” the butler inquires.
“Mr. Edward Ferrars,” he says, and keeps looking around.
It’s not the place he expected to find John at—or rather, the place itself looks nothing like he imagined—but none of it matters. He’s overcome with an odd giddy delirium.
There is no reason why this is his first stop. Past relief, past propriety, he’s imagined himself rushing to Devonshire. But he’s here instead.
It’s just that Lucy’s gone, and John is the one who has been pushing him towards it, so he should be told. Nobody else would get it. That is the reason, and no other. There can be no other. There isn’t an offer in the world he could put into words—
“Mr. Ferrars!” John exclaims, his voice a tad too loud over the impersonal address.
Edward doesn’t mind. In houses like these, walls have ears. “Mr. Willoughby,” he echoes, and cannot contain a smile. Keeps smiling, as John descends down the stairs towards him, until they are standing face to face.
“You have misled me,” Edward says finally, to break the silence, and gives a pointed look around. “You have been raised in more luxury than I have.”
John isn’t smiling. He’s watching him with concerned haunted eyes.
“Why have you come?” he asks quietly, cutting through the song and dance, the way he tends to.
And isn’t that the question. Edward wishes he knew the answer.
“I’m leaving London,” he says carefully, slowly choosing each word. “I have accepted the Colonel’s offer. That won’t make me a socially desirable gentleman: it’s only a fraction of my former income. But it’s an honest steady living. And—”
I am unattached, is what he means to say as the pause lingers. Somewhere at the end of the rambling he’s hiding behind.
“That’s great,” John cuts him off. “I’m leaving for Allenham.” He looks up at Edward, and he’s really not been paying attention to anything that Edward was saying. “I’m getting married.” They stare at each other at that, and John shakes his head. “You shouldn’t have come. Or, rather, you shouldn’t come anymore.”
His eyes are dark and somber, and Edward feels his face burn, the whiplash of it. Of coming here with a celebration, and finding a farewell instead.
“It was a nice fantasy,” John says quietly. “Pushing each other towards better futures and better decision. But in the end, here we are. You’re about to be married, and so am I. Time we stop fooling around, don’t you think?”
Edward takes a long moment to stare at him. Just committing him to memory. The way he looks now, on the verge of the rest of his life. His ridiculous obnoxious hair, and the sharp shape of his mouth, and his deep dark eyes. It’s not like he’s regretting this, but it’s not like he isn’t either. Edward isn’t another one of his wrecks.
He wasn’t meant to be.
He cannot fault John for getting married. If not Sophia, it would be someone else. That’s how these things are.
He cannot fault John for choosing money. He has never, not once, pretended that he isn’t anything but materialistic, anything but cripplingly dependent on funds.
You have always done what you said you would do, he thinks. You have done what you planned long ago. Another quote from the good book.
He cannot stand here and say, pathetically, insanely: ‘I could provide us with money. Please.’ It would be pitiful. And yet, he would have acted pitifully if he still could. If he still had his family’s money. But he can’t. His income has dropped one of its zeroes at the end, has no more claim to gentility. A pastor’s income. And Edward will be happy with it, but that’s not the kind of life John wants to lead. Edward may be happy with a peaceful country cottage, but John is beholden to places like Allenham and Norland. He cannot give them up, and Edward gets it.
He has always got it. Has always accepted John exactly like he is, with all his sybarite tastes, cannot imagine changing a single thing about him.
He cannot fault John for standing here and saying that this is over, because this time, this once, the pain isn’t his fault. Those girls, before—the girls he had ruined, however much he may regret it now—those girls had reason to hope. But Edward didn’t. It’s no one’s fault but his own that he found himself loving anyway.
Stepping forward, he offers John his hand. A final handshake. John’s eyes, when he accepts, are full of regret. Edward covers his hand with his other one, holds his palm between both of his, one last time.
“I hope it does make you happy,” he says, as earnestly as possible, because he does, by God but he does, he will always hope that John finds his way to a happy life. That’s all he will ever want for him, is to be happy, after so much misery. “I will miss you,” he says, too, because that much is true, and bears saying. Says it simply, smiling, without any rebuke.
He doesn’t say anything about his conversation with Lucy. Seems cruel to bring it up now. It won’t change anything anyway.
Lucy has been smiling pitifully at him for days. It’s nearly a grimace, the kind where you hedge all your bets in one place, only to realize that you lost it all in one blow. Edward looks at her, and for the love of him can’t imagine being married to her. He cannot remember the boy who thought it would make him happy.
“Lucy,” he asks her softly, “Did you ever love me?” It comes out wrong, when spoken out loud; it made sense in his head, on the heels of what he was thinking.
Lucy’s eyes go wide as she looks up at him. “How can you say that, Edward!” she exclaims. “Of course I love you.” She cannot quite meet his eyes when she says it though. Like it’s herself she’s trying to convince.
Edward smiles. “Why?” he asks.
She looks at him once more, still scandalized, but doesn’t have a ready answer. “Because you love me,” she offers finally.
And that’s just it. That was the play they perpetuated as young people, that was their theatre: him, finding freedom to talk about poetry, and God, and what truly mattered, and her, listening, and seemingly so smitten, and maybe even believing that she was. It was a role she wanted to play so badly. Falling in love with someone decent.
He sits down across from her, and takes her hand. “That’s not enough, though, is it?” he says.
She takes her hand back. “How can you say that,” she says again.
“It isn’t enough for you,” he says kindly. “Do you still want to marry me?”
“I—” she stops short. “Yes. Yes.”
“But this isn’t the life you wanted. You wanted Norland. You wanted—have waited for, saved yourself for—a different life than what I can offer you anymore. So let me ask you this, then. You like my brother.”
Lucy blushes, but cannot help her smile. “He—makes me laugh.”
Yes, Edward thinks wryly. He frequently has that effect on people.
Out loud he says, “And he thinks you’re charming.”
“Does he really?” Her eyes light up.
He squeezes her gloved hand again. “He can give you the life you wanted, Lucy. A husband of your equal. The life you’ve hoped for. The life you deserve. And he would adore you.”
He will adore you all the more for thinking he stole you away from me, he thinks uncharitably, but doesn’t say that either.
“What about you?” Lucy asks, searching his face.
“I’ll—manage,” he says evenly. She wants him to be heartbroken. She wants this to be hard for him. He doesn’t disabuse her of this notion. “I made a promise to you. It matters more that I uphold the spirit of it rather than the letter. You’ll be happy with him. And I would have ensured it.”
She smiles at him then, and gives him a look full of sympathy, and kisses him on the cheek.
“I’m really sorry, Edward,” she says, like this was all her idea.
Edward nods, and gives her a curt smile, and it feels like an ancient rock has fallen away from his shoulders.
After all the arguments, after all the fears, he has done it.
The choice was his.
It’s his lot in life, he resolves, leaving John’s estate. An isolated cottage for a solitary man. He has loved three times in his life: all at different points in time, all with different degrees of affection. And after losing all three, he can make peace with that. Love and him are destined to walk apart.
John should thank his lucky stars for meeting Sophia Grey. He isn’t anyone’s first choice, not anymore. No respectable woman should want him. Sophia is far better than he should hope for or deserve, but there’s a reason she picks him. She has nowhere else to turn to, either.
He isn’t exactly sober, when he meets her, and he’s definitely never charming anymore.
“Our mutual friend, Mr. Nelson, has mentioned you to me,” she says, and it’s the way she looks, the way she says it. John remembers Archie Nelson. Remembers having a hand around his cock. He doubts it’s something he talks about with ladies he entertains, so he has no idea how she knows anything, but she does. She doesn’t wield the knowledge as a weapon; she uses it as a bridge.
The truth of Sophia Grey is that she’s looking to get married, and she’s looking for a husband who won’t have expectations, because he would understand. The truth of Sophia Grey is that she has a friend, Caroline, and what she’s looking for in her husband-to-be is understanding that there’s friends, and then there’s ‘friends’.
They’re both imperious in their own right. The world makes them so. In private, he learns that Sophia is going to have an early crinkle on her forehead because she always worries, and that she lashes out with a sharp tongue because she’s insecure, and that she lets Caroline hold her when she’s tired, she’s so tired. He learns that Caroline acts a certain way around her family and the public, because she’s afraid, and that outside of Sophia she’s very lonely.
And it’s Caroline, in the end, who breaks the news to him. She visits them one day, (every day,) and in an off-hand remark she says: “You know that Ferrars fellow, don’t you? His brother just got married, I hear.”
John looks up, and sharply wants to know everything that has to do with Edward even a little bit. “Who’s the lucky broad?”
“Lucy Steele. I don’t know much about who she is,” Caroline says with disinterest.
John swallows hard around the avalanche of feelings. He’s free, then. Edward. He’s won. And on the heels of that thought, like a smack of a bat, is the other one: that he must be rushing over to Devonshire, then, to Elinor. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that he did it. After all that’s been said between them about freedom, Edward got his.
And that realization alone lands starkly in him, like an open flame. Freedom. Sweet freedom. And it isn’t Sophia’s fault. There is an eventuality in there somewhere in which he’s less in love, and a better friend, and he makes good on his promise to her, and him and her and Caroline live out the potential of their arrangement in relative happiness and peace. But he can’t.
No money, no amount of comfortable living is worth the prison he is about to make his life into. What he wants is just one chance. He wants the lazy mornings with Edward, and their conversations, and their dinners, their shared jokes, their everything. And sure, Edward would never want it. But he’d rather be alone, a perpetual bachelor, having a choice and be denied it by others, than be this, cocooned into a lack of any kind of choice by himself.
He loathes shattering Sophia’s hopes and dreams, but he has never not been a selfish bastard.
“Jonathan,” his aunt greets him, when he dares to show his face at her house. Her tone as she says that one word, his name, is laden with traps.
“Aunt,” he bows. She arches an eyebrow and waits on him. It’s tea-time, and she’s enjoying her cup and her sconces primly at the table. They’re alone in the room. He hasn’t been invited to sit with her, and continues standing there, a few feet away. “I have come to say some things.”
“Oh, by all means, delight me,” she says, and takes a delicate bite.
John clears his throat. “I’ve made a mistake.”
“Surely, not just a single one.”
“I’ve made a mistake with that girl. Beth.”
“Yes. Tell me, was it such a hardship to pull out in time?”
John’s mouth hangs open a little, and he’s taken aback by her brazenness.
In truth, he could say many things to that. That they were both young, which they were, that passion overtook them. That her legs were pressing him further and further in, that she didn’t want him to let go. That they both thought one slip-up wouldn’t matter. That there were herbs she could take to bring it off if she wasn’t so stubborn. None of it really matters at this point.
“I didn’t love her,” he says instead. “I’m dearly sorry for what happened to her, and for my part, for my fault in it. But I couldn’t marry her. I couldn’t trap us both in a union without love.”
“Half of London seems to do that just fine,” his aunt says unimpressed.
“And they choose that type of life,” John says. “They’re content to do without love. But I am not. I can’t sign off on the rest of my life being in wretched misery. I would have married Marianne. I was in love with her.”
“Is that where you ask for your inheritance back? On the grounds of true love?” his aunt sounds bored.
“No,” Edward says. “She’s better off without me.” Everyone is better off without him. Even Sophia.
“But you won’t marry Miss Grey.”
“She’s wonderful,” he says honestly. “Were I not in love, I might have considered it: she doesn’t love me either, and we would come to some sort of an understanding. Live in friendship, if not in love. But as I am now, I can’t reduce my future to a business transaction. There are more important things than an expensive living.”
For the first time since he has entered, his aunt’s eyes show something other than disdain; a modicum of curiosity as she reassesses him.
“I would have married Marianne in her poverty,” he says. “But I have debts, as you well know. I do not intend to marry her anymore, or anyone, but what I have come here for is to ask that you take care of those debts.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because you have taught me a lesson, and I have learnt it. Because you love me, despite everything. Because I promise, on my life, that I have changed. No more mistakes. No more gambling, no more debauchery. Because I don’t expect any funds from you outside this request. All I want is to disappear into a life that is small, and insignificant, and painless for you.”
His aunt studies him. “This is out of character, isn’t it?”
“Still, this is very sudden.” She looks, dare he hope, intrigued.
He’s silent for a while, before pushing forward with the other thing, which he didn’t really plan on bringing up, but her mood seems gracious enough. “I could ask you for one more thing.”
She looks amused. “You could ask.”
“The stipend that you used to pay me. By your leave, we could use it to help the child instead.”
His aunt scoffs.
“As much as that is my money, I would use it to build up an inheritance for her. That’s as much as I can think of to atone for what happened.”
The look the woman gives him is like she’s weighing him anew, like he truly is a different person. “Interesting,” she says. It sounds hopeful to his ears.
Brandon is skewering him with his glare as John stands before him, in the privacy of his reading room, away from prying eyes.
“How dare you show your face here,” he says quietly. The air is crackling with his barely contained rage, and John swears he can smell the morning dew over grass and the fog of that morning when they dueled all over again.
“I have come about the girl,” he says.
“Her name is Beth,” Brandon says through gritted teeth.
Somehow, John figures he wouldn’t have won there either way. “I was under the impression you’d rather not have her name grace my lips,” he says shrewdly.
“Nor your presence this house.”
John presses his lips tighter together. “I have come,” he insists, before this devolves into an outright fight, “to offer recompense.” Brandon’s nostrils flare dangerously at the mere suggestion, but John powers through. “A monthly stipend, for the child.”
“She doesn’t need it,” Brandon cuts him off. “She doesn’t need anything from you. She doesn’t need your presence poisoning even more in her life.”
“She doesn’t have to know,” John says, frowning. In fact, he would prefer this.
“You cannot see her,” Brandon insists anyway. Then quieter, almost too raw, he adds, “She is still too much in love.”
John stares at him, taken aback, and for a moment he cannot tell anymore if they are talking about Beth or Marianne.
“I don’t want to see her,” he says softly. “That is not why I’m here.”
“Then explain it to me,” Brandon says.
John looks at the floor for the moment. It’s easier to say these things to the rug rather than Brandon’s contemptuous eyes. “I have done you wrong. You and those close to you. I am trying to change things. And there is very little I can do to repair what’s been done, but I can at least do this much by my daughter.”
He looks up, and Brandon glowers at the mere suggestion of the relation. Too bad for him, John thinks. This is how things are, and John will have his way here, one way or another.
“You know Mr. Edward Ferrars, don’t you?” he asks quietly. “I hear you provided him with means of self-sufficient living.”
“What of him?”
John considers the floor again. “I have had the fortune of making his acquaintance in the past few months in London. He has had… some influence over me. If you can believe that I am capable of being even ten percent of a man that he is, even one percent of that man. Then believe me when I say that all I want is to make it right.”
It’s late afternoon going on evening when he leaves Delaford grounds and sets off westward, for the small cottage acres and acres away. Hesitates for longer than is appropriate on the porch before gathering up the courage to knock. Finds himself staring at his feet instead of straight ahead, because he’s a coward. Because then the door opens, and what he has bought himself is that pause, before he looks up, armed with a smile, and he wasn’t brave enough to know what Edward’s face looked like in that first moment of unguarded reaction.
“John…” Edward says, his voice soft and warm and everything that John has missed. He looks only surprised.
“Can I come in?” he asks, hiding behind his smile like a shield.
Edward stares at him a moment too long, before nodding and opening the door wider. “Yes,” he says. John carefully steps inside.
It’s a quaint house. Quite a step down from what either of them have been used to in London, but it isn’t bedraggled either. It’s compact, and tidy, and lived-in in the best possible way. As warm and comfortable as its owner.
John sways on his feet uncertainly, and Edward points towards the kitchen, and says, “Please,” so John walks further in and sits down. Edward doesn’t. His polite façade never falters, but he’s newly guarded, as stiff and uncomfortable as he used to be in the beginning. John deserves it, to be sure.
He wants Edward to ask him something, anything. It’d be easier to unravel from that point. He hasn’t really come up with any confessions.
Edward turns to the stove and starts brewing tea, disinclined to help him out. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks conversationally. It isn’t exactly the opening he’s looking for.
“Oh, you know. Decided to invite myself over, like I always do,” John says. Hates the question for being meaningless, and himself for being unable to cut through the bullshit and say something real. He’s only obfuscating the issue.
Edward sighs. “John—”
“I did it,” John blurts out.
Edward looks up at him with a slight frown. “Pardon me?”
“I broke it off. I broke it all off. I’m—out of the polite society. I’m out of money. I’m destitute. I’m probably gonna be shoveling horseshit for the rest of my life, just to get by hand to mouth.”
Edward keeps staring at him, and John cannot gauge his expression. “I’m sorry,” he says finally. What is worse: sincerely, because he is; of course he would be.
“No,” John smiles curtly. “You were right. You were absolutely bloody right. It would have killed me. It was already killing me.”
Edward’s face is full of sympathy and something tender, something too easy to mistake for affection. He isn’t saying anything, doesn’t offer a gesture or a word. He’s still waiting on John. For him to plough through this, or, maybe, apologize: Lord knows he’s got a lot to make up for here. Edward, who is generous to a fault with his kindness towards people, looks at him and doesn’t offer any of that kindness to John, not out of any measure of punishment, but because he did it already, and John didn’t want it, John broke it. The knowledge twists under his rib like a blade.
He licks his lips. “I was… wondering if you’d play the Good Samaritan for me one last time,” he says. “If I could sleep here for a couple of nights until I get my bearings. Find those stables looking for a shoveler.”
He smirks, trying for both self-deprecating and disarming, but Edward keeps looking at him with that same expression, like he can see right through him. All he needs is just to say it, three simple words, I’m sorry, lay it out at his feet, but—really—when has that ever been enough.
He stands up. “You know what, nevermind, this was a bad idea—”
“No.” Edward straightens up from where he was leaning against the counter, arms crossed. “No, stay. Of course you can stay,” he says. Like it’s that simple.
“I shouldn’t have intruded,” John says quietly, still standing.
“It’s fine,” Edward says, walking back to the door, and pushing the deadbolt into place, and on the way back placing one hand on John’s shoulder and pushing him back down as well. “I said you could stay. Means you can.”
They talk over tea, like old friends. Like there’s nothing else that needs addressing.
“Tell me,” Edward asks, or maybe offers, and John does, but doesn’t. He should: maybe it will score him a point. Or maybe he really is turning into someone more decent.
“I heard what happened,” he says carefully. “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ferrars?”
Edward snorts. “The only two truly happy people in the world. Theirs is the charmed life,” he says sardonically. John laughs. “I tried to tell you, that day,” Edward says softer.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”
Edward shrugs, then smiles. “What would that have changed, really?”
Everything, John wants to say, even though, really, it wouldn’t have, not that day. John was too much of a coward.
“Anyway. I finally practiced what I preached. I told Sophia that I couldn’t. She was—disappointed for her own reasons. Then I told my aunt, and my aunt made decisions accordingly, just like she promised.”
Edward looks genuinely stricken on his behalf. “I’m sorry. Is there really no chance, do you think?”
John shrugs evasively. “I don’t know,” he says honestly. “We’re—negotiating.”
“That’s good.” He takes a sip of his tea. “I expect I’m also not as unwelcome at home as I was after what Robert has pulled. If I were to come there now, and beg to be allowed back, they would probably jump at the chance, but still act like I was at fault, somehow. Hardly what I want. I expect Fanny will come by some time soon, invite me over, smooth the feathers. Let our mother keep her dignity. Honestly, they’re mostly appalled by this at this point,” he says, and makes a circling gesture about the room, meaning the parish. “That I would be content with something so low.”
There are a thousand things John could say here. Things like, I’d be content here too, or Would you be content with something as low as me? Edward’s looking at him, like he expects John to say it.
“How’s Elinor?” he asks instead.
Edward blinks. “More forgiving than I deserve,” he says. “Still hurt, I expect, so I am giving her and her sister space.”
John nods, and brings the cup to his lips again to mask what he really wants to talk about, but the tea’s all gone. He looks at it stupidly, and then Edward carefully plies the cup from his hands and deposits them both into the sink, leaving John to simmer in his cowardice.
I tried to tell you, that day, Edward has said, and isn’t that ironic? That having been freed, Edward’s first impulse was to come to him, and say it boldly, and having been freed, John has come here as well. Only he isn’t bold at all.
Isn’t bold, because he isn’t here for congratulations. He’s here for insane fantasies that he doesn’t know how to put into words. Things he has always been better at tracing with his hands and his mouth over Edward’s skin—
He looks up.
“I’m in love with you,” he says.
There is a sound that must be one of the cups cluttering out of Edward’s hands into the sink. He remains standing with his back to John. The water’s running.
“I love you. I can’t take this anymore, I love you. And I’m sorry that I love you. And I’m sorry for London. Sorry for pushing you away, that’s all I’m fucking good for, is hurting people I care about, people who are selfless and kind and good, and—god, I don’t want you to hate me. I want to make it all right. And I can’t. And if you tell me that I can’t then I’ll leave.” He rises from the table and comes up to Edward from behind. Touches his elbow with the tips of his fingers. “I just wanted to—I don’t even know.” The sentence falls apart in his mouth. He’s just staring at the back of Edward’s head miserably.
It’s a while before Edward turns around. It’s only half a gesture, he isn’t looking at John, his eyes are somewhere else. He’s guarded, and that’s fair. He has already made the first step, once, and John has shut him down, and did it hard and painfully. So now it’s his turn, even if he doesn’t think he’s allowed, after fucking up once already, and even if Edward’s face already looks like a polite refusal.
He places one hand over Edward’s heart. Then takes it back and presses it across his cheek instead, and Edward’s eyes flutter, and he nudges his face just a little closer into his palm. He still looks pained by the whole circumstance, and John wishes he could erase everything that made it so, but all he can do is kiss him. So he brings his face closer, and brushes his lips against Edward’s. Edward sighs, and moves towards him, but for a while their kiss is nothing but this, just a slow grazing of lips, just touching each other’s skin with their mouths.
“John,” Edward murmurs against his skin, and John inhales the vibration into himself, and opens his mouth, he’s the first to do it, because he’s still the greedy one, he opens his mouth to devour Edward, and feels Edward’s lips part in answer, and then they are kissing in earnest, and the hot coil of tension in the pit of his gut unspools into a flood of the familiar want and so much affection it drowns him.
“This okay?” he whispers, pulling back from his mouth.
“John…” Edward sighs again, differently this time, it’s too complicated an answer to give, there are so many reasons why it is not okay, why he shouldn’t let it happen—but his fingers remain tight around John, not letting him step away, and the choice is clear in that too.
Edward shifts his head, a follow me gesture, and steps away from the sink towards the staircase, and leads John up, unmistakably, into a bedroom. As soon as the door shuts behind them, John is kissing him again, hungrily, and is getting his fingers underneath the hem of his shirt, needs to feel his skin, only he isn’t about to stop for whatever reasons stopped them before. Edward is with him every step of the way, unsurprised by John’s desperate attempts to shed both their clothes as fast as possible, and helping him deftly.
“Tell me what you want,” John whispers hotly into his mouth.
“This,” Edward answers quickly.
John chuckles, sending vibrations through Edward’s tongue, making him moan.
“What else? Tell me what else. I want to make you feel good.”
“Your—hands,” Edward answers, even as his own hands land on his chest, travel the expanse of his skin that feels on fire with want.
John shoves him down onto the bed that creaks dangerously, and puts his hands to work, as asked, until Edward arches and gasps underneath his touch, and comes undone.
Afterwards, they just lie in bed next to each other. John’s hand is hooked around Edward, fingers travelling alongside the length of his arm languidly. It’s the first time they are actually in bed together. They avoided it before, it seemed too real a thing, and they were pretending that real is not what this is between them. And as much as John wants to bask in this new feeling, he can feel Edward thinking hard next to him, and it’s like a little storm cloud above both of their heads.
“John,” he finally says quietly, and he has a tone that John doesn’t like.
“Don’t,” he asks, and presses even closer into Edward’s side. Edward’s fingers tighten around him and trace over his skin.
“John…” he says again, kindly, and John looks up reluctantly. Edward looks torn, and pushes him gently onto his back and kisses him. It’s a new kind of kiss, full of new knowledge. Tearing himself away from John, Edward looks wrecked. “I can’t give you anything,” he says, dropping his forehead down. “This?” he looks at the room surrounding them, the cottage surrounding them. “This is all I am now.”
“This is who you’ve always been,” John points out shrewdly. “This is what you wanted.”
“It isn’t what you wanted,” Edward says simply, and his eyes flicker away.
“I didn’t know what I wanted. It certainly wasn’t the thing I was building out of my life,” John scoffs. “You just opened up a new door for me to walk in. And I want to walk in.”
Edward measures him with careful eyes. “That day in London,” he says eventually, “when you said good-bye.” (Which is a hell of a polite way to put it, because what John did was turn him away, really.) “I don’t ever want to experience that again. I don’t want to have to hear it again, some day into the future, that this isn’t what you wanted after all. John…” he says his name again, like a spell, like saying it enough will bring the most out of him, compel him into making a decision they both won’t regret. “Listen to me. I can’t go anywhere else. And this is Delaford, a place where you are universally despised. You will be miserable here, and a closely guard secret, and I’ve told you before, I’ve told you that I want you to be happy, and none of this will make you so.”
“You’ll make me so,” John says simply. “Edward. Please. Just give me a chance here. I won’t let you slip through my fingers again. So just ask me to stay. Please. Ask me.”
“You’re mad,” Edward whispers.
“Yes,” he laughs.
Edward gives him a heart-renderingly tender look. “Stay with me, then,” he asks.
John crushes their mouths together.
It isn’t perfect. And they cannot sustain it in secrecy for long.
Despite bridges half-mended, Brandon doesn’t like and will never like John’s character, but at least he doesn’t immediately evict Edward upon learning that John is a frequent guest at his former property, and that John and him are friends.
Marianne, on the other hand, is quick to forgive him. “It’s funny,” she says, when she visits Edward one day, and discovers John there. “I have poured so much of myself into the grief I felt over you. But I don’t even remember being in love with you anymore. I’m so much better now.”
“I’m glad,” he says, feeling a little less ashen.
It turns out that Brandon’s tolerance of John on his land may have a lot to do with Marianne’s forgiveness. Same goes for Mrs. Dashwood, who’s merely delighted to have his company. She has always found him charming, and seeing Marianne happy and unhurt allows her to be charitable with him. She’s more unhappy with Edward these days, not understanding why no offer of marriage has come from him towards Elinor.
Elinor, who doesn’t forgive John at all. He has hurt her sister, devastated her, brought her to terrible illness. She keeps it all inside, of course, but Edward still can sense it, and he’s torn between the affection and loyalty he feels for Elinor, and the love he feels for John, and the knowledge of John’s true character he has in his heart.
Edward is right. Fleeing would be easy, hiding would be easy, and John wants for them to elope every day, but keeps silent. Because Edward loves these friendships, and this commune, and hopes to make up with his family, and John is slowly mending his torn-up relationships with these people day after day. He takes up tutelage under a local doctor, and applies himself to be a potential replacement for when the old man retires: he has always been good with medicine. And he remains, just like Edward has asked, and just like he has promised.
It’s still a relief the first time Brandon extends an invitation to both of them for dinner.
“What do you imagine they know about us?” John asks, a little thrown.
Edward shrugs and shakes his head. “Elinor knows for sure,” he says. “She’s smart like that. Which, I imagine, might mean that Marianne knows as well, because she’s just as smart, and because they have very little secrets. If it means that Brandon knows I have no idea.”
“He’s not stupid either,” John points out. “Even if Marianne has been discreet, which, I believe, she would have been.”
“It’s just dinner,” Edward smiles.
“It’s gonna be painful,” John sighs. “Brandon is gonna be unpleasant, and Elinor will be cold, and I will be forced to retaliate, because I can never curb my tongue.”
“It’s a dinner, John,” Edward repeats, and he doesn’t have to explain what he means. John nods. He knows it too, that it’s the level of acceptance neither of them has hoped for, and he is so relieved to not have to hide in the shadows any longer.
He sighs, soothed this time. Edward comes up from behind him and kisses the back of his neck. “I’ll deflect the worst of it from you, I promise,” he whispers softly into his ear. “We’ll deal with it as it comes. Now, come with me outside,” he takes John by the hand. “There are swallows nesting in our barn.”
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.