Title: Renewal, Chapter 1
Fandom: Little Women
Characters/Pairings: Jo/Laurie (Possibly One-Sided?), Laurie/Amy
Rating: PG-13 for Adult Topics
Summary: Amy Laurence is dead, Theodore Laurence is a widower, and Jo March still has her dreams.
"One of these days," Jo began, "I'm going to have to try and make a sandwich that doesn't give a person terrible stomach cramps only three bites in."
It was not the sort of truth, if honesty were to be held to, that Jo truly wanted to admit. It especially wasn't the sort of truth Jo wanted to face in the middle of an otherwise carefully arranged summer picnic, in the middle of an otherwise wrenching mourning period, in the middle of a solemn meeting that consisted of no one but herself and an old friend who had worn so thin that the shape of his skull could be seen as he lay down in the grass beside her, aimlessly taking in the sound of the wind as it whistled gently past the both of them.
Given the circumstances they were in, it was nearly adding insult to injury to realize that her carefully planned diversion-- meant to soothe, surprise and elicit a smile all at the same time-- might fail simply because she was an utter wart at anything and everything domestic. And it was especially galling when she was sure that almost any other woman at her advanced age would be able to arrange a simple set of sandwiches that didn't threaten to overturn one's bowels as soon as one attempted consumption.
Amy, were she still with them all, would have been perfection itself when it came to improving the picnic. Amy, were she here, would have let her sister know not only how to put together edible sandwiches, but also how to choose a better day and how to charm with less desperation. And this surely would have been on top of being able to handle the man currently beside Jo much more delicately, how to make him feel safe and loved and reassured, rather than man-handled by a manic sister-in-law who hardly knew what to do with him.
Amy, Jo knew, would have been so much better at everything that Jo now blindly attempted. But Jo had spent all too many hours realizing and remembering and mourning what had been and what could never be, what she had lost time and again. So rather than tempt anything burning back to just beneath her eyelids, Jo groaned, fixed her eyes on her sandwiches, and resisted the urge to disembowel one to see if the contents within the bread had began bubbling.
"Maybe," she finally admitted nearly to herself, "I shouldn't have tried to use liverwurst and red-currant jelly in combination, and certainly not within the same sandwich. I think I may be about three seconds away from regurgitating them all on your poor lawn, which surely doesn't deserve such contempt."
For a minute, Laurie was silent still-- not that she expected much chatter from him. Marriage to Amy had long since tamed him of the wildness of his youth, had long since moved him miles away from the neighbor next door who would tempt Jo out of her hobby-hole for adventures that might well disgrace them. The last two months, however, had somehow seemed to have solidified his silence, had made him yet more reticent, had made him so reluctant to speak that even when a person directly addressed him, he barely seemed to hear them. Jo had half wondered if even this carefully-planned disaster of a picnic would break through his weary ice, would make him respond as almost nothing else (short of her own pleas and company) had.
But at last, with a weary sigh, Laure replied, though he did not bother to open his eyes or even shift from his weary position.
"Heave all you want," he finally said, and his blind smile, though reflexive and tired, at least looked honest. "Technically, Jo, the lawn is still yours and you may do whatsoever you wish, which includes spraying it with any manner of fluids."
She laughed at that, though she didn't truly find it funny; at the least, however, she liked Laurie much better when he was attempting to make her laugh than when he gone wordless, much better when he made terrible jokes than when he went still and gray and silent. And evidently he agreed, or at least wanted to see what was making her go off like a mad hyena, for he smiled a little more at her general proximity and added:
"No, really, feel free to do whatsoever you like at Plumfield, Jo. Technically, I am merely a renter and you are my landlord still. If you wanted to, you could feed me all manner of mad food and chuck me out of your home for desecrating it with endless moping. You would have earned it, after spending the last few weeks of watching me be an endless pain."
A better woman than the one Jo was probably would have began commiserating with the sincere pain that reverberated all throughout that sentence, soothing all the aches in him that surely went down and deep. Jo being Jo, however, could only think of doing one thing in response to a statement of such blithering idiocy-- she hit him immediately. One quick smack on the upper arm later, he was startled enough to sit up a little and watch her waved her little finger into his face imperiously. And after he had finished staring in shock and was finally looking at her, Jo went on.
"Teddy," Jo said, and poked her finger into his nose for added emphasis. "Keep up talk like that and I will evict you Plumfield. If this is still technically my property, I'm declaring it idiot-free territory and you can't simply be as stupid as you please! You've been perfectly-- perfectly respectable the last few months and if you've been a little-- a little off, it's completely understandably, and I won't have you saying anything different. Don't be a fool and don't dog yourself for what can't be helped! Or I'll-- I'll--"
Staring down frantically at the remnants of their ill-fated picnic, Jo's imagination seized on a shredded piece of paper and the worst fate she could conjure up for him now.
"I'll feed you a battalion's worth of liver-and-jelly sandwiches!" she exclaimed. "Just you see if I don't, Teddy!"
Any other man in Laurie's position, faced with insurmountable loss and an in-law who seemed determined to scold him straight, likely would have told Jo to go to the devil already. But Laurie being Laurie, he ended up surprising them both by granting her a soft laugh, which seemed a minor miracle given his thoroughly understandable demeanor over the last few weeks. And then, shaking his head and looking just a shade lighter than he did before, Laurie replied at last.
"And here I was, thinking this picnic was something meant to cheer me. Who knew an otherwise lovely picnic would be the place at which my life ceased to be?" Then he smiled once more-- a little more sincerely-- at her purposely incredulous expression and went on, voice thawing a bit.
"Besides, it's not too terrible a threat. I practically grew up on your very... ah... interesting culinary techniques. Honestly, I rather liked the sandwiches, Jo... and I believe I hold the person who made them in even higher esteem."
Coming from both Laurie's heart and digestive system, that was high praise indeed. The only thing Jo would have liked better would have been the ability to hear it without blushing. Because of all the things that she didn't have the right to do, of all the things she didn't have a right to feel, of all the ways she was already taking advantage of his ignorance and weakness currently...
To distract the both of them from her suddenly rosy face, Jo made a show of mirth once more, throwing her hands up again carelessly, her laugh a little too eager at the compliment but still trying to seem merry. "Then my thanks goes to you and your peerless stomach for being able to handle us both with ease... though I very much know I should be a much better cook after living by myself for the last four years. Thank God for my decent land-lady! If it weren't for her, I'd have starved to death long before in New York. Really," she admitted, (and told herself that he surely wouldn't hear longing it), "when I have to leave Plumfield again, I will really miss that cook of yours. She really knows how to work wonders with nearly any given recipe."
Laurie laughed as well, though it came out rather joylessly. "It's true, she truly is a good cook-- if only because I've forced her to be. Thanks to me, she's become all too used to attempting to force food on the far too fastidious, which I suppose only makes sense. It wouldn't do her much good to let me fully starve away, given that I allot her a salary."
Jo laughed once more at that, even trying to seem casual as she looked over at him, at the form that had seemed to starve continually since he had gotten the news of Amy. He had lost at least fifteen pounds off his already slim frame since the summer had begun, even with Jo clucking at him over every meal, trying to get him to eat. She'd been in the habit of shying away from looking at him for too long ever since he had come back from Europe with Amy on his arm, and it was a bitter irony indeed to realize she could look at him all she liked only when the March girl he had truly loved had been taken from them unexpectedly.
A bitter irony, though not one that she enjoyed. Not one she could ever be grateful for either. And though it hurt to look at him as he was now, to see how he was wasting, Jo knew she could not look away, not if she were in the least capable of compassion or loyalty.
And certain not if she had any hope of making up for her previous, unanswered cruelties.
It was the least she could do; it was the only thing she knew how to do. And though she knew it wasn't enough for him-- that she was never enough for him-- she knew she had to keep trying.
It was her duty as a sister to both Amy and her husband. No matter how terrible a sister she could be.
So she looked at him and smiled and was as ridiculous as ever, in the only way she knew could still lift his spirits momentarily. It was almost nothing-- it was less than nothing-- but it was all she could do even after half a lifetime of knowing him fully.
"She's probably thinking that it's a shame you're losing those looks of yours so quickly," Jo said, and swallowed at the surprised smile that the words won from him immediately. "Look at you, Teddy-- you're wasting away like some limp-minded heroine from a penny romance! Amy would have scolded you so if only she could see it. She's probably throwing a temper tantrum in heaven right now, in fact. Saint Peter's probably standing by his pearly gates, watching paint splatter everywhere in her rage, and wondering whether he'll have to blow a trumpet or two to get her to settle already."
Laurie smiled again, though this time, it seemed more reflexive, more pained at the thought of his wife and where she was presently. It instantly made Jo sorry she had blundered once more, but before she could apologize, he went on, his voice gentle and easy.
"If she could, Amy would no doubt deliver me a lecture such as could rouse the devil himself from depravity and sin. She mastered the art of it long enough during our marriage." And then, shaking his head and looking determined to appear stronger than she knew he could possibly be, he went on quietly. "And I'm not languishing quite as much as I might seem, Jo. I shan't topple off anytime soon, believe you and me! Apparently it's in my nature to continue on in the face of... of, well, whatever disaster happens to strike. I may shrivel a little in the mean-time, but actually committing enough to death to go through with it seems rather beyond me."
His tone tried for lightheartedness but something in his words sent a deep, deep chill through Jo's body, one that even the warmth of the summer day and the feel of grass beneath their picnic blanket could not dispel readily. Scrambling to respond, Jo found herself staring at him a little wildly, her cheeks once more flushed as her eyes traced the handsome outline of his face, even as her words fell out her mouth fruitlessly.
"That may well be right," she ended up saying, keeping her voice from trembling only with effort, "but it's simply not fair for you to keep shriveling. We Marches have already dwindled down to you, me, and Meg's little family, and if we should shrink down any further with your absence, we'll be nearly extinct entirely! And wouldn't that be a terrible fate for an otherwise grand family?"
The quiet melancholy on Laurie's face shifted a little as he nodded, and Jo went on, desperate to shift away talk away from something that brought him so much pain, something that made his skull draw against his skin so clearly.
"And besides, if you die on me, I may have to topple off myself to get vengeance on you in the afterlife. You renting Plumfield is my only guaranteed source of income should my writing success ever dry up and for that alone, you must keep living!"
A rather complex series of emotions raced across his face at that, Jo guiltily drinking them in. And finally, he ended up raising one eyebrow in amused consternation and said: "So the only reason you're here to care for me is to guarantee your rent money?"
"Well, obviously," Jo snapped back immediately, as though she hadn't flown to his side immediately after hearing of what had happened to Amy, as though the one letter he had sent her after
(come back, it had plead, the words blurred by wetness; oh jo please come back)
hadn't torn at her heart and lodged in her veins, making her more desperate to protect him than she had been already. "Goodness, do you think I ever enjoy being otherwise with you, Teddy? No, I want you strong and healthy so you can keep paying me... unless you've already given me a generous portion of your wealth in your will. Then you can top off as you please, as long as you shunt no suspicion of it to me."
It was a statement that was at last ridiculous enough to make him laugh, the sound so earnest she knew it was the first time he'd honestly done it since Amy had died. And even as he did, Jo found herself smiling a little madly at him, barely conscious enough to keep her hands on her knees to hold her dress down in the wind, telling herself not to forget and somehow close their distance.
He was only about a foot away from her now. A mere matter of 12 inches. And though she had known him for nearly half her life at the age of eight-and-twenty, she knew it was a gap that could never be breached.
Not in this lifetime. Not after so many years.
She smiled herself at that, as though the thought didn't make her heart clench, didn't make her hands tremble, didn't make her want to do what was unforgivable entirely. And in lieu of anything else to do, she went on, her voice attempting to sound strong.
"There! Now I know you're getting a little better. Only you would dare to laugh at one of my homicidal attempts. It's still a shame about your withering looks, you know, but you might be right about that bloody stubborn nature of yours. And Amy would probably reach down from the thunderclouds and strangle me if I didn't do my best to salvage whatever prettiness you still have hanging."
Laurie smiled at that, the ghost of his former pride flitting across his face, making Jo nearly feel shy momentarily. "Then I shall have to do my best, if only because Amy would find being a ghost and flitting about in chains and pillow-cushions most beastly. She would scold us both if we made her go through as much. And besides, I find I can hardly quit the world when I have you with me. You're wonderful company even when you're jabbing at my vanity."
"But that's why trying to prick that enormous ego of yours is so irresistible," Jo returned, trying (and mostly failing) to not sound too pleased. "You know, Amy would be so upset if I allowed you to saunter about with it unchecked and likely growing nightly. Without proper care, I'm sure it'll get so big that you won't even be able to fit your enormous head into the magnificent halls of my manse. And then where will you be if you have to sleep outside like a mangy dog, my dear Teddy?"
He laughed again at that, though the bitterness in it was now unmistakable, especially to Jo's keen ears. "I imagine I'd finally be as well off figuratively as I am literally. Truly about time, one would imagine. It would be terrible of me to... to have gone through what I have without feeling much more than... more than just... more than..."
And though Jo automatically opened her mouth to refute and soothe, she found she had to close it in just another minute.
After all, she knew what he meant.
She had known if for years and years.
She had known it as well as she'd known all the rest of him in these last few days, in these past few weeks, in all those terrible days that had somehow gone and torn themselves up after Amy's death, after little Beth had been lost hours after she had been laid in her cradle, after everything they had known had been stripped apart and laid back clumsily again, leaving everything ruined, rusted, ugly.
She felt knew him now, as she used to as a girl, when she had known what he had been thinking, what he had been saying, what he had been feeling. When his thoughts had been hers, his joys had been hers, and his pains had lingered in her own body.
She knew him once, before he had left her. She had known him thoroughly. And perhaps this was why she smiled at him now, why she smiled though she knew she could never trust herself with him again, though she knew that for as long as they lived, there was a distance that could never be breached.
She smiled and she spoke again, her voice brisk and bright and businesslike, her tenderness hiding deep within the chiding tone she took currently.
"Don't be a twit, you idiot. What else are you expected to do here? Sometimes, I find it a wonder Amy went so four years of being married to you without starting every day by hitting you upside the head repeatedly. What do you think out to happen to you? What do you think Amy would want to see? Do you suppose anybody would be best pleased to see you wander around rending your garments and gnashing your teeth for something that... that nobody could have foreseen?"
Surprise flickered across Laurie's face again, bare and displeased. And for a minute, Jo wondered if she had misstepped again, if she had somehow once more mistaken simple friendship between them for unasked for intimacy. She was always doing that with him these days: always misreading him, always misplacing him, always mistaking his smallest gestures for something unintended entirely.
She had never had the view into his heart or mind that Amy had had after his marriage; he had chosen the March girl he had for a reason, and he had chosen wisely. And Jo knew it was long past time to flatter herself into thinking otherwise.
No matter what her heart might feel.
But she'd already begun and so, Jo thought she ought to finish, even if her hands shook under the thin fabric of her skirt as she went on furiously.
"Don't insult Amy by wasting away when she put so much care into you already. You loved her and she loved you and... and it would be betraying her if you felt you had to have a hole in your head to match the one in your heart. It would disappoint the both of us dearly... even if the financial windfall from it would benefit me."
Jo knew these were stupid words even as they exited her lips; she could feel their foolish lack of force quickly. It was all she could do not to curse at her inadequacy then and there; all she could do was fix her eyes fiercely on her own long, slender, ugly hands so she would not have to look at him and see how little use she was presently. But in another moment, she felt something soft touch the side of her arm, felt gentle fingers settle on her and press against her slowly.
And when she finally looked up, his face-- gentle, wavering, tender, illuminated-- was all she could see.
He looked, for a moment, like his old self again, like the Teddy she knew still existed in him, although he'd long been buried. And though she wished she could feel nothing more than approval at the sight of it, she could almost feel her heart flutter deep in her breast, like a bird in flight after years.
It was ridiculous; it was stupid; it was wretched; it was hopeless. It was nothing next to what it should be.
But when he smiled tentatively, she smiled back, and felt like she had been set free.
"Would you really miss me?" he asked, his voice a little rough. "Even if I perished shortly after writing my will and leaving you absolutely everything?"
"Not at all," Jo replied, and knew that he knew her lie from his answering laugh. "You're a decent enough friend but I'd love a chance at your fortune! Only, it'd be pitiful to see you waste away when you've not even written a decent operetta yet. And you know there's nothing Amy dislikes more than waste, my dear."
Laurie's face brightened a little more with her last sentence, surely with the reminder of Amy. "So you would advise me to force myself not to waste away for the sake of Amy's pride and my own hopes of being an artiste?"
Jo shrugged as though she barely cared either way, though she kept her arm very, very still beneath his fingers, so he wouldn't move them readily. "I wouldn't particularly mind either way, I suppose. Your fortune is very tempting! Though I suppose I might miss you just a little. Who else could possibly like eating liverwurst and jelly with me?"
"I try," Laurie replied flippantly, though his voice still soft and sincere. "It's been half an hour and wouldn't you know, my stomach isn't even cramping."
She smiled at him half without realizing it; he was so close she could barely breathe. "Darn it. That must mean the arsenic I smuggle in isn't working."
He managed another laugh, the sound of it somehow striking Jo as being both vulnerable and sweet. "I switched sandwiches with you ahead of time. Maybe that's why it's not working?"
Jo pressed her hand to her stomach and feigned a gasp, trying not to feel too disappointed when his hand fell off her slowly. "Poisoning? Poisoning me? That's rather terrible of you, Teddy, after I've just spent the past few weeks trying to lift your spirits entirely!"
He smiled again at that, and though it took more effort than she wanted, the expression itself seemed sincere. "I am a rather ungrateful brute, aren't I? I ought to be showering you with all the praise I can manage, rather than stealing your sandwiches and making you sick. You've come to care for me in my time of weakness and instead, I deny you my very lucrative death. Jo, you truly must forgive me."
And this time she had to laugh herself, with all of it tinged with surprise, with pleasure at finding that the Laurie she knew still surely lingered inside him fully. "It's not going to be quite so easy to find my forgiveness, dear brother! You're going to have to earn it-- and earn it with some difficulty. Are you prepared to hear of what I'd have you do?"
His eyebrow raised, Laurie looked a little piqued and a little interested... and more than a little curious, which was the reaction Jo had been aiming for exactly. "Hold on, dear fellow. I know I owe you more than I can even say, but what would you have me doing?"
Jo made a show of lying back on her picnic blanket, fluttering her lashes so outrageously, he would not take her seriously in the least. "Oh, and now you're giving me qualifiers to your gratitude? Oh Teddy, your gratitude sours so quickly!"
"Then that's a real shame," Laurie promptly replied, and then surprised Jo by coming down to lie next to her, his body mere inches from where she was laying. And then, smiling a little at her startled face, he went on speaking, his breath so close to hers that something between them nearly mingled while they were both exhaling.
It was nearly enough to distract Jo from his next few words, which contained surprises of their own.
"I wouldn't want to do anything to upset you, Jo. Not when... I mean... not when... well... you see..."
Laurie went silent and still for a second, Jo watching him closely. And then, a soft, defeated smile crossed his face and he sighed, letting his eyes flutter close so that Jo could look at him all she pleased.
"Not when you've been so good to me so far. Jo... if you hadn't come back to Conchord when you did, I... I don't know what I'd be doing..."
"You would be doing fine," Jo answered promptly, sure he was exaggerating. That realization wasn't quite enough to keep her face from being flushed, but at the least, it kept her voice steady as she replied. "And you might be much better off in some ways as well. You know I'm going to be a terror to you in the next week or so, don't you? I'm going to need to put you through the wringer to get you in tip-top shape for what I've long been planning!"
"The plot thickens," Laurie murmured, his eyes delicately flickering beneath that fringe of long, sooty lashes that had always ringed his eyes darkly. "What do you expect me to do? And precisely what have you been planning?"
She ignored the second question for the first, which she pounced on merrily. "Well, for one, I'd like you to step up with your hygiene! You've been absolutely lax with that as of late, did you know? If Amy was still here, she'd probably have you shoved into a giant wax ball and parboiled until she was sure you were fully clean."
Almost despite himself, Laurie laughed, his eyes raising to meet Jo's own, for a moment nearly seeming merry. "Jo, do all the husbands in the world a favor and never consult with their wives on admonishing misbehaving men. Some of your suggestions for what Amy would have done are more terrifying than even she could be."
And then, smile fading although his voice still strained for brightness, Laurie went on.
"What would you have me do, given that you're hopefully not advocating parboiling me truly?"
Given that she'd spent much more time dwelling on this matter than was truly proper, Jo answered back with ease.
"Well, for one, you could try and thicken up a little, with or without the help of liver packaged in with jelly. Given what I want you to do, you really can't go off while looking as though one stiff wind might knock you over easily."
Laurie's brow raised up once more as he concentrated on her cheerfully blank face. "And I suppose if I don't, you'll leave me behind on... whatever it is that you want me to do?"
"Most certainly," Jo replied with a certain good cheer. "And I'll be sure to write letters every day and let you know how much enjoyment I've garnered and precisely how much you're not having. And on top of losing weight, you've also got to sharpen up a bit. For one, you've got to shave that wretched mustache of yours. It makes you look as though you're getting on in years."
It was probably terrible of her, but Jo couldn't help but feel rather amused as she saw Laurie's fingers instantly rise up to his face, shock settling on it quickly. "Er... pardon me?"
"It makes you look like a red-headed walrus," she went on, cheerfully blithe in the face of his mouth audibly dropping. "Or like your jaw is covered with scabies. Or as though you've purposely dyed the hair on your chin to look like a flamingo. Or possibly as if you went and decided to take a pot of paint and..."
"And I'm going to stop you right here," Laurie interrupted, arresting her words all too easily with a delicate finger laid across her lips. "Before you wholly unman me."
And then, after his finger fell away and Jo was left speechless, he of course had to invite her to talk once more.
"What else would you expect from me?"
She licked her lips and reared away, sitting up to gain a bit of distance, smiling archly so he wouldn't see how easily he had unsettled her. "Would you like to hear advice on your wardrobe or have I made my point sufficiently?"
Laurie took a long, lingering look at her drab black mourning dress, which was itself about as fashionable as her usual wardrobe. Compared to Amy as she had once been, Jo always looked ready to stride off to a funereal at the drop of a pin. She could never be mistaken for a fashionable woman, no matter how wealthy from her works she might suddenly be.
"Oh fine," Jo said at last, conceding with a small smile. "I'll admit that wasn't quite fair of me."
Laurie smiled indulgently at her even as he got up as well, mirroring her actions with ease. And when they were finally sitting up together on their blanket, Jo with her eyes determinately fixed on her clouds and his still lingering on her face, he finally spoke once more, his voice soft and even a little hopeful, more so than it had been for weeks.
And she was glad to hear it, though she knew this idea of hers could still be a disaster. Glad, over and above every other selfish thing.
"What would you have me do, Jo?" he asked, and he sounded both grateful and more unsteady than she liked. "Where would you have me go? What would you have me be?"
Unspoken were the words: Without direction, I don't know what foolish thing I might do, now that I'm bereft of Amy.
Which was precisely why she was here. Never mind that she was not his beloved wife; never mind that she was not wanted truly. Never mind, even, that he leaned on her only because he had nothing left, that she was wanted only out of sheer necessity.
She was nearly all that he had left, and so, she could not even attempt leaving. No matter what it did to her to know that when he looked at her now, he was merely looking a placeholder for a far better being.
She was a better sister than that; she was a better person surely.
So Jo tipped her head back and looked at the sky and said, as though it were wholly painless:
"I want you to come to Europe with me."
Author's Note: There's a second chapter to this story, which will be coming up. Reviews in the interim would be much appreciated. ;)