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her knight in shining academia

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She comes back that first summer brimming with excitement, and she seems to almost fill your tiny flat all on her own, as she raves about the boys she’s met and the lecturers and even the architecture, all the things you’d practically forgotten you missed. You’re glad she’s here though, how could you not be, you’ve missed her something fierce all the time she’s been gone, and you’ve been glad of her letters and now you’re glad she’s here, real, in your living room. You can’t live off letters alone.

Because you realise that what you do, you see the smartest girls off to universities and they come back and see you once or twice, maybe three times, and you live off the letters and the stories they offer up to you. Jenny is different though, always has been, especially in the last year when you found yourself sat on your own floor in your own private space, bumping shoulders with the smartest girl you’ve ever taught, Latin translations scattered around the both of you (it never was your best subject). You weren’t lying when you said it would break your heart, and seeing her here, beaming, laughing her way through a story you’re not listening to but has something to do with another boy and a lecturer and you’re not sure she should be telling you about this, but that right there is what makes the difference with her. She treats you like a friend, like she cares, like she wants to come home and she wants to see you more than she wants to see the others, the ones that she used to be inseparable from but you know that she came to see you first, that she hasn’t even thought about them. Jenny’s first thought is you, but she’s also already thinking about going back, dreaming of all of the things she'll do during her second year, all of the things she'll tell you about. But for now you have the summer, and she ends up spending almost all of your six weeks off at yours, just laying around complaining about her father and reading as many books as she can get her hands on. Then suddenly it’s time for her to disappear off again and you’re even sadder than you’d anticipated, sadder than you should be, and your life feels dull as you go back to sitting on your desk, making unwilling teenage girls read from books they’d never choose, and to analyse monologues they don’t care about. You miss having someone who understands, who understands the beauty of the written word, the craft that lies behind the colours and the metaphors and the semi-colons.

She doesn’t stay long that Christmas, doesn’t even come back for Easter, and you wish you could be angry but you know that Jenny knows the effect she has on people but bears it no mind; she knows that she’s a heartbreaker, that she’s been one since the very first boy showed interest in her, but she doesn’t let that stop her. Since David everything she does has been for herself, (you could even argue that David had been for herself, had been part of her need to make her own mistakes) and you know that she’s right to spend as much time away as she can, that Oxford is where she belongs right now.

Her second summer is the same as her first, just you feel like she’s forming into something different, something that’s maybe colder and fiercer than the bruised girl you took under your wing, something different from the naive sixteen year old that she had been, and then the cynical seventeen year old. Nineteen year old Jenny is a mix of these two things, and she’s guarded but still spoilt, and her French is still excellent (you miss that, the random slipping into French, when she’s not there). You spend too much time that summer wondering what she’ll be like next year, if three years is long enough for her to be a fully formed Jenny, if she’ll keep changing. You wonder if she’ll ever fall and not have someone else pick her up (you doubt it; girls like her always have someone that will come to their rescue), and you think that maybe that’s what she needs, but you’re fully aware that if anything happens you’re the first person that will make sure she survives, that you’ll continue to try to be the one that saves her.

The Jenny that comes home after her third year is the same, apart from small things, like how she picked up a tendency to drink during the early afternoon and smoke roll ups, nicotine staining her delicate fingertips, too long knitted jumper sleeves falling over her hands. She dresses like she doesn't care now, men's jumpers and trousers that always don't fit quite right, her shoes scuffed, and her hair is always messy but somehow charmingly so. You love it, this combination of effortlessness and grace, the way she leaves her jumpers around your flat like a knitted trail, and doesn't mind when one of them eventually becomes yours.

You couldn't even say what the two of you talk about, or if you even talk at all, curled up at different ends of your sofa with a French record on in the background, her singing along as you smile at the sound of her voice, warm and soft like the stolen jumper you're wearing, and you can barely concentrate on your book on those afternoons, buzzing with contentment.

You're not sure what exactly you were expecting Jenny to do after Oxford, but somehow what you hadn't expected was that you'd end up basically housing her as she spends her time scribbling away, as her parents say that trying to write is not a real job, not even as she gets article after article published, not even as she considers moving into London to be part of the "scene" or whatever she was calling it. She doesn't go, and you try not to think about the possibility that she will eventually leave you. You consider quitting teaching, write some things of your own, get some small things published. Teaching is background to the main part of your life now; Jenny is the most important thing, and you subconsciously worry about how thoroughly this skeptical, cynical, beautiful woman has you wrapped around her little finger.

It's not until you're staggering out your bedroom at six am to get ready for work and she's still there, asleep on your sofa with her head pillowed by a book, mouth open as she snores quietly, and you just tuck a blanket around her without comment, wearing her jumper to combat against the frost of a December morning, that you realise she's basically moved in. You wonder when her parents last saw her, and think about her washing tucked in with yours, her t-shirts and her badly fitting trousers on your rack, her shoes by your door, and you're not surprised when you think that you always want it to be like this. You put the kettle on and wake her up gently, leading her into your room so that she can steal your bed, as you're not using it, and she thanks you with a sleepy grin and kiss on the cheek, snuggling under your still warm duvet. You're inordinately pleased by the image of her there, hair spread across your pillow, and you leave the room before you're too tempted to skip work and join her.

When you get back that afternoon she hasn't woken up yet, and you laugh at her ability to sleep for twelve hours at a time, leaning against the doorframe of your own room, a soft smile on your face. You want to wake her, to complain about terrible essays and rowdy girls, how everyone had giggled at a not even scandalous passage in one of their assigned books, but she looks too peaceful to disturb, her face half buried into your pillow, and you find yourself glad at the tiny thought that that pillow would smell like her when you went to bed that night. You get changed into one of her jumpers and some loose soft trousers in the bathroom, and she doesn’t get up until much later, shuffling into your living room with a sleepy smile on her face, her hair sticking up in a way that should be silly but you just find adorable, and you can’t help but smile at her, this sometimes cold woman with a line of broken hearts trailing behind her, looking warm and soft with sleep. You wonder if your heart is going to join the queue, even as she drops onto the cushions next to you, trying to peek at what you’re writing, even though she knows you’ll instinctively move it out of her line of vision, that she doesn’t get to read things until you’re finished.

You’re not really sure how it happens, how she goes from being curled up on your sofa to tucking her cold nose against the back of your neck, but you’re sure it had something to do with your flat being freezing and the whiskey she’d brought along with her that afternoon. You’re only tipsy, only enough that you don’t argue when she whines about the cold and slips into bed behind you, curling herself around you like she couldn’t possibly ever be too close, and you’re glad your back is to her; you’re not sure you could hide anything in your tipsy state, and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t want to draw her even closer.

You wake up bleary eyed but not too hungover, and the bed is warm and heaped with blankets and your arm is around her slim waist, and when you mostly subconsciously snuggle closer she smiles and doesn’t even complain when you breathe on her neck.

It’s a little awkward when she cautiously asks if she can share with you again “because it’s cold” but you let her, because you realise that while sharing a bed has never been something you’ve enjoyed, you don’t want to sleep alone either. Or rather, you don’t want to sleep without Jenny’s cold feet tangled up with yours.

You feel like the both of you are just waiting for something to happen, or maybe that’s just you, because you don’t believe you can keep your feelings hidden forever, that she can somehow continue to not catch you when you look at her while she’s distracted writing, how you have to stop yourself from reaching out to sweep her hair behind her ear, how you find yourself aching to lean in and kiss her. You feel like she must know, that she must be aware that while you go to school and come back and she drags herself home from London, which is where she spends a lot of her time, protesting and writing and talking to the upcoming minds of her generation, she's the one thing in your life that you look forward to, that somehow the two of you carving out an existence together is what brings you real joy. She must be able to see it on your face, and you wonder if she just doesn't know what it is, if she isn't aware of what love looks like on a woman’s face instead of a boy’s.

As January and February pass, as you start to seriously consider quitting teaching at the end of the school year, you swear that she starts daring you, that the small smile she wears sometimes turns into a small smirk, and her eyes seem to dare you further, and suddenly situations that were almost untenable before she makes worse, smirking as she finds excuses to touch you constantly. You wonder why she wants you to be the one to make the first move, you wonder if you’re making it up, and you decide that you will not do anything unless she makes it clear what she wants. She’s been chased by older men enough times that you think it’s her turn to make it clear what she’s looking for, and you let her tease and touch and smirk and you (mostly) manage to ignore it with minimal embarrassing reactions.

You can see her get frustrated as the weather starts to get warmer and it rolls into April, the two of you writing more than ever and her still not just outright stating what it is that she’s angling for, instead she’s started talking about these girls she's friends with, that are "roommates", and she always says it with that little special inflection, the one that she doesn't seem to realise people use about the two of you when they think you're out of earshot (the staff have always thought you must be odd, to be happily living alone for so long). It's almost childish, the way that she tries to communicate how modern she is, the way she tries to show you that she knows, or that she thinks she knows. You wonder if she'll at least ask if the rumours were true, because you know she heard them, the older girls always did. You almost want to put her out of her misery, you can feel her glancing up at you every so often, like there's something she really wants to ask but doesn't know how to. She takes a fortifying sip of her drink and then finally.
"I was just wondering why you never got married, I mean you obviously got asked?"
"We've talked about this before," you don't look up from your book, hiding the small smile on your face as you try to force her to narrow her line of questioning.
"Well, yes we have, but," she ground to a halt and then took a deep breath, a light blush dusting her cheekbones. "You know, there were rumours, back at school and I was just wondering if -"
"Yes?" you look up at her, trying not to laugh at how nervous she looks, how she's trying to keep her cool, hands clenched around her cup.
"Well, if you've ever been with women. In a romantic sense." it was forced out in a rush, and you're surprised but glad that the two of you are finally having this conversation.
"Yes, I have." You said it as simply as you could, and laughed when she gaped at you, both of you turning on the sofa to face each other. "Have you?"
"No, but," she blushed again. "I'm interested in someone. A woman."
You feel your heart drop at those words, the knowledge that she's interested in someone else, and you start to consider the fastest ways to shut the conversation down.
"It was just that I wasn't sure how she would take it, if she wasn't understanding what I was trying to say because she wasn't interested in women." She's all bold now, all dark eyes and porcelain skin, sitting upright with a look of determination. "But now I'm starting to consider that maybe she's just been toying with me, that she's been trying to make me take the first step." You stop thinking about how terrible everything is for a moment to think and you feel the breath almost knocked from your chest; she means you? surely that's what she means.

"This is me taking the first step," she murmurs and suddenly she's there, up on her knees leaning into your space, her dark eyes searching yours, looking for some kind of resistance, something which you do not give, and she barely hesitates, kissing you and sliding her hands into your hair, already taking it down out of the ponytail you know she hates, and you can't help how eager you are, arms wrapping around her waist as you try to pull her closer. When she draws back you're both breathing heavily, and you know you look ruffled with your hair falling down around your face, Jenny looks slightly shell-shocked and you wonder what happens now.
"I would say we should take it slowly but I appear to have already moved in," she says, a slow smile spreading across her face as she absentmindedly tucks your hair behind your ear, and you can't help yourself when you lean up to kiss her again, softly and lightly, and you smile when she tries to follow you as you move back.
"Maybe we should still take this slowly," you try, but Jenny's eyes are burning and you doubt you'll be able to ignore that look, not when you've both already been waiting such a long time for this to happen. Before you can say anything else she kisses you again, and she tastes like whiskey and tea and cigarettes, and something you don't recognise but you're sure you'll grow to, and you don't push her away.