little women. modern! au. for falseeeyelashes. 4300 words. r. misbegotten endings, love letters that never got written and always, always the road never taken. together, they burn brighter than she ever could alone.
notes: this was supposed to be comment! fic for hazyflights's meme but kind of got out of hand? it isn't entirely faithful to events on the book and sort of plays with the timeline quite loosely. also, i understand that most people are quite attached to winona and christian and while, i think they were perfect, i seem to have decided that gillian jabobs and armie hammer would make an excellent, if slightly too blond jo and laurie, though this is primarily because i am writing rpf about them and therefore biased. that is all! read away. (oh and some lines are stolen from places because that is how i roll, okay.)
I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.
[MAYAKOVSY - frank o'hara]
It doesn't work that way
Wanting not to want you doesn't make it so
The house across the road starts as a dream when they are younger, a ghost of the future hanging over their stories and their games.
It is Jo who sees him first. It is a Friday afternoon and the world is drenched with rainwater and Jo misses the bus and she has to walk to home, her boots squelching against the cement pavement and she is shaking the thick fringe of black hair violently out of her eyes when she sees a shape move across the lawn.
The boy waves, a quick, hesitant turn of the wrist.
This is how they meet.
(“Do you want to - could I lend you an umbrella or something?”
There is a laugh, a movement of soppy sleeves and the admission “what good would that do me now?”
Laurie grins, shrugs off his jacket. Their fingers meet in the passing of the article, her wet ones sliding over the dry knuckles of his hand. They both of them jump at the sensation.)
Meg takes her shopping a few weeks later; there is some sort of party that she is being coerced into attending and since Jo’s wardrobe hosts little other than jeans and a modest selection of shirts, her sister deemed it important that they pilgrimage to the mall and find a suitable outfit. After three department stores and several dressing room changes, a black dress is decided upon and they are eating Chinese takeout in the backseat of the car, when her sister asks her how long she’s been dating the Lawerence boy.
Jo spits out her noodles, scrambles for a napkin in the dashboard.
“There’s no need to have such a violent reaction, Jo,” Meg frowns, sounding irritated, “I would think you’d appreciate some advice, never having had a - “
“Laurie’s not my boyfriend,” she insists.
“Then, how come you’ve never brought him over?” Meg points out, tapping her sisters nose with the end of her chop sticks.
She doesn’t have an answer to that.
(She supposes she wanted something that she did not have to share with her sisters. She doesn’t allow herself to voice that thought.)
The walls of strangers come down.
He learns to treat her house, her sisters, all as his own, banging at the door till someone lets him in and he sits in the empty seat at their table, where their father used to be and slowly, the shyness melts away and then, he is bold and she is relieved because there is someone else, some like her who says what they think and doesn’t care, someone else to be loud with. She feels a weight lift of her shoulders when he walks into the room, the burden of being the only person there who feels the way that she does and who chooses to live like her; all of that dissolves when Laurie is around.
Together, they burn brighter than she ever could alone.
He admits to her, later, that he used to watch them from his window, the one opposite hers.
She had laughed around the cigarette, smoke coming through her nose. “You used to watch a bunch of girls play dress up? That is unsettling indeed, Mr. Theodore.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“So, you weren’t a pervert?”
He pulled at a lock of her hair.
“I wanted to be friends with you.”
“And which one of us, did you like the best?”
“Meg,” he lied and Jo laughed and laughed.
Jo cuts her hair when they are eighteen.
It changes everything - everything about her face, bare without the weight of it hanging around her shoulder, the long line of her neck, exposed, the bones in her face sharp and unsoftened by the messy bangs that would swing into her eyes, bright brown lined with black. Meg hates it and Amy mourns the loss of her old locks, Beth loyally says that it looks lovely and if their mother makes any comment, Laurie does not hear of it.
This is the summer that their aunt drops words like Europe and travelling companion so he takes her to get her passport made, waits with her in the halls till her number is called up.
He watches her shift under the camera to get her picture taken. The man behind the lens says “smile!”
Jo bares her teeth like a weapon.
Jo does not go to Europe that summer. Jo does not need her passport.
Jo does not go to the airport when Amy leaves the country for the first time, she sits in her room and stares at the blank computer screen and she tries to write but her fingers don’t work the way that they used to.
(She remembers when she was younger and the family had only one computer because they could not afford more than that and how she wrote on a second hand type writer that her father gave her for her twelfth birthday and how she’d sit out by the window, overlooking the Lawerence house and her fingers would tap away at the keys till their tips were worn, spelling out words that she could not yet pronounce and telling stories about a boy she didn’t know.
She remembers the set of pages, crisp and fresh with ink and she remembers coming home to find them burning in the stove.
Jo remembers what it felt like to hate her sister and she does not want to feel that way again.)
“You wouldn’t have liked Europe anyway,” Laurie says, fixing her a drink. His back is to her.
They are in New York. He starts Columbia in the fall and she has accepted a place at NYU. She goes up with him to set up the apartment, help him move his things and for now, the piano forte also serves as a bar, the whole place already heavy with the kind of careless elegance that Laurie wears and works into. The walls are bare and he has not bothered to put up shelves, merely lining his books up in stacks against them. She pointed out that if he pulls one out the whole lot of them will fall but he didn’t seem to care. She is lying sideways on the couch, her head propped up by one elbow, arching an eyebrow that he won’t see towards him.
“Why wouldn’t I have liked Europe?” she asks.
He hands her the drink.
“You read too much.”
“I read too much.”
He nods, laughs, puts back the golden contents of his glass with one smooth gulp and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You’ve already got this idea of what everything is like and all these big plans for what you’ll do when you get there. The reality - reality can’t keep you with you, Jo,” he finishes, tartly, “We’re all just trying to live up to your expectations.”
She meets his eyes, long and searching and there is something bitter about the way he says it that turns over the pit of her stomach.
“You know, Laurie, you sounded just like everyone else when you said that,” she tells him. The words are difficult to get out.
He brings his hand up to the side of her face and holds her chin.
“Did I, really?”
“Just a little.”
“Well,” he goes on, fingers drifting down to her throat, her collarbone, ghosting over the neck of her blouse, “I suppose I ought to apologise for that.”
“No need,” - she is shaky, flushed. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”
“I won’t,” he promises.
Their breaths heave into each other, heads drawing closer together and he swoops down towards her, the curve of his lips, slow, sensual but she doesn’t let him kiss her. She takes his mouth between her teeth instead and bites down on the flesh till it is dark and full of blood. Her thumbs tug through the loops of his belt and they roll off the couch and onto the floor, fingers unfastening zips and buttons and the sounds of their nails clicking against each other fills the apartment in accompaniment with hitched breath.
He bends between her open legs, dragging thumbs across the outside of her thighs. One hand fists in her shirts, drags it up over her belly, mouth stamping warm kisses against the exposed skin, the coarse stubble that he has been growing out lately scratches against the top of her navel, mouth moving down to her cunt and Jo looks up at the ceiling, eyes wide open, eyes rolling back under the circles of his tongue.
She has to remind herself to breathe.
He wakes up to an empty bed the next morning.
Jo moves her things to a hotel.
There is a napkin on the nightstand that might have at some point been a note but is now just a damp stain of ink, spreading across the cloth like a river.
He crumples it in his fist with a curse.
Over the phone, Beth asks, “Have you and Laurie had a fight?”
Jo looks out of her window, at the early grey sky learned with dirty orange and she drains the contents of her coffee cup before she answers, voice breaking on a gulp. She tries her best to be patient with Beth. It can’t be easy to still be at home, with only Meg and mother for company. Amy is still in Europe, art school in Florence. She sends Jo postcards sometimes. Drawings of her handsome art teachers and imitations of Impressionist paintings.
“Of course, we haven’t.”
“He said he hasn’t seen you since he got there,” and Beth sounds worried, her voice furrowing over the phone, the eyebrows knitting over her nose.
“We’ve been busy,” she says, “It’s the start of term, I’m sure he has better things to do than sit around with me, Beth. He’s only just gotten out of that awful house, he’s probably just making good use of his freedom. Spreading his wings a little.”
“Getting smashed,” she offers, “Trying new things, like prostitutes.”
“That doesn’t sound like Laurie.”
“I have to go,” she cuts abruptly, “I’ll talk to you later.”
They avoid each other for another month. The leaves in the city start to change colour.
It is not difficult to stay out of each other’s way; New York is large enough for the both of them and Jo finds other things to fill the time that Laurie used to occupy, classes and books and she writes less now (there is no time.) There are places to go, people to see and she crowds up her life with little things that pass quickly, sparkling into the night and she had been looking forward to this for so long, for the big city and if it is duller than she imagined, she tries not to think about it.
His words hang over her like a noose circling her throat.
It tightens when she sees him again, standing in line at a coffee shop, one of his hands shoved into his pocket, searching for change to pay the barista.
She fishes out a note and slaps it down on the counter. “Broke already, Lawerence?”
He looks up. There are low dark circles around his eyes, the proof of too many late nights and not enough late mornings. She wonders if what she told Beth on the phone rings closer to the truth than she’d thought. She tries not to think about that as well.
“Jo.” He bites his mouth, slowly dragging it between his teeth and holding it there for a second, pink framed by white and when he releases it, she smiles. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ve never minded rescuing you.”
“No. No, you haven’t. Its good to see you.”
It is a little awkward between them, which is both strange and amusing. She’s never held her tongue around him, not even when their friendship was young and new and there’s a short gurgle of laughter caught in her throat.
“Its good to see you, too.”
They sit in the coffee shop for two hours, forcing small talk out of their lips and catching up on small details that have passed through their lives. Classes, professors, people that they have met and she learns that he speaks to her sisters, almost as often as she does, sometimes more. This is unsurprising but it tugs something in her chest because Laurie was always hers first and now, she has let months go by when he belongs to the rest of the family and not to her.
“I think I’ve missed you,” he says, at her door, later that night.
Jo lets the laugh tumble through her mouth and nose, warm and dark in the air.
She opens the door to her room. Laurie comes inside with her.
He wakes up before her these days. She jokes that its to make sure she won’t run out on him again.
This is not a joke that Laurie finds particularly amusing.
“What are we doing, Laurie?” she sighs, over breakfast, sitting opposite him in his apartment, her small bones covered in his shirt, curled up on the chair.
“I believe the commonly used term for the first meal of the day is breakfast.”
She smacks him across the table.
“That isn’t what I meant. What we - earlier.”
“Well,” he goes on, cracking his mouth open in a grin, “Biology would call that fucking.”
“I’ve never read a textbook that uses the word fuck.”
“Maybe you should write one.”
Her mouth softens around a laugh. She spreads her fingers against the table and looks up at him.
“I - I don’t really think this is a good idea and - “
“That would be why you avoided me for two months.”
(His face goes hard.)
“I’m sorry about that. That was childish of me,” she says, twisting her fingers together, “I just - I don’t know what to - “
She breaks off. Their breath rings loud.
It does not end here.
(It ends a week after that morning.
They are getting out of a cab, heads light with too much wine, feet tripping up the stairs to her dorm, shaking snow off into the hall and Laurie pushes her up against the door, hands on her waist and he tells her he loves her before he kisses her.
“You don’t mean that.”
“Jo - “ his mouth breaks contact with her neck, “I have loved you since we were both fifteen. Don’t tell me I don’t mean that. I don’t think I’ve ever been more damn certain of anything in my life.”
That is where it ends.)
The succession of events after this is rather quick.
Laurie joins his grandfather in Paris for Christmas. He does not come back to New York.
Amy gets a semester in France.
Jo and Laurie stop speaking to each other altogether.
At first, it feels only the way that it did when they were avoiding each other, as if he is still only on the other side of the city and she has only to pick up the phone to have him by her side but it is different. It is different because there is an ocean open between them, wide and sore like a festering wound and she realises that she misses him, in ways that she did not know how to before. His fingers turning over the keys of the piano, sliding under the waist of her skirt, his mouth against her clavicle, hot and wet. She does not just miss him, she misses his flesh, the weight of him between her hips and her fingers find her clit in the darkened bedroom and she thinks of him when the lights go white behind her eyes.
School starts to grate on her nerves, like a bad itch and there is no one to laugh like Laurie, no one to pop open a bottle of wine with, no one to read her stories or hear her rant at four in the morning about the paper she’s already handed in and no one fucks like he does.
Her fingers drift over the keys of her phone and she has all but decided to call, to break the ice when she realizes she does not have his number.
It would be too humiliating, she thinks, to ask Amy.
They stand opposite each other at Meg’s wedding.
Neither of them say more than is required of them and her heart throbs in the case of her mouth till he is out of her presence.
He no longer looks like himself.
Later, she will wish he had not come at all.
On their first week in New York, a day or so before they slept together, Jo and Laurie had dinner in a small diner, sitting opposite each other and drawing into the steamed up glass with the tips of their fingers.
The waitress had mistaken him for her brother.
Jo had found this hilarious.
Laurie had not.
She never learns to date.
There are too many rules and it seems to difficult and she’s never been sure that she wants a relationship anyway, so she stops trying and the boys are all too young, too eager and the men are all too old and too married and by her second year, she is convinced that there isn’t a person on the whole damn island worth talking to.
It is around this time that she meets the professor.
He teaches German at Barnard and runs a literary magazine that published one of her pieces. He calls it “inspirational” and asks to meet her with to talk about her work. When she meets with him, in the small Italian restaurant with red checked table cloths, Friedrich is already there. His mouth sits stiff as he holds the menu, fingers gripping it with something that looks like certainty. He does not smile when he looks up
He’ll do, she thinks.
The first time that they go to bed together, Jo does not look at him. She shuts her eyes to his face, the strong lines of his jaw and the soft, curving beard around his chin and when she comes with Friedrich driving into her, hands fisted in the sheets below them, her lids snap up.
She fixes her eyes to the ceiling, the white paint burning onto her irises.
It feels a little dirty, afterwards, the white behind her eyes just like it was that first time with Laurie in his new apartment. She makes herself shrug that off.
In the morning, the two of them shuffle around each other. They laugh.
The stiffness passes more quickly than she’d thought it would; he is a good man, she realises. She could learn to love him.
In the right way. In the proper order. Things will be as they should.
By the time the next fall rolls around, Jo has three postcards from Amy.
There are none from Laurie.
She is standing in Bhaer’s apartment when she gets the phone call about Beth being ill. She feels the blood thrum in her ears. The room grows hot.
She pulls off her scarf that Beth sent her just a few weeks ago and stands there, holding the length of it in her hands, turning it over and over, not able to comprehend.
“I don’t understand.”
Meg sighs heavily across the line.
“I think you should come home.”
By nature, Jo is not a patient person, she is not calm and she is not wise. Her blood runs quick and her temper even quicker but she teaches herself, in those months in the white hospital room with Beth to slow down, to breathe the right way. The days are endless and they roll into each other, constant and unchanging, something hard about the mood that sets over them, all of them but Beth who smiles even when her throat won’t open to words.
It is long but it is useless and when the doctors give their final word, they take her home and she dies in her old bedroom with the small, virginal bed her sisters standing red eyed around her.
She dies before Amy comes home.
Jo answers the door to see them both at the doorstep, Laurie and Amy, Amy and Laurie.
Her face is bare, hair pulled up at the back of her head and she is bleary eyed and barely awake and the sun hurts her eyes, she scrunches them up and peeks out at the sun. One hand tugs down the hem of her sweater and when she looks down, she sees their locked hands, his shoulder pressed against hers and then their faces and her head spins a little.
Amy leaps at her, burying her cold little face in her neck.
Over her shoulder, Jo sees Laurie’s fingers disentangle themselves from her sisters. She sees him step back.
He does not look at her.
After the tears are shed, Amy lifts her head up, wet eyelashes sticking together and she asks -
“You don’t mind about Laurie, do you?”
Jo chokes on a laugh. Her first since Beth died. “Why would I mind?”
Meg stands in the door and she does not say anything but she shakes her head and the March sisters sit together for a minute, sitting with their grief and their heavy hearts. There are no words to fill the empty spaces in the room.
Her father comes back in time for the wedding. This is the second March wedding.
It is a year after Beth’s death. The house is draped in white and gold and there are chairs lined up in the lawn, chairs in little jackets of cloth. Amy’s dress is from Paris, something artfully cut and white. Meg helps her fasten it in the back while Jo sits in the corner, one arched eyebrow and stares down at the garden, at her sister’s fiance nursing a beer in his crisp suit below. She has cut her hair again, a sleeker sort of 20’s bob that swing into her eyes when she laughs, with her neck thrown back, but that is not so often anymore. She is getting a phD. Academics don’t laugh like that, she says, cynically to her sisters when they comment on the serious smile and the new severe clothes.
Even Aunt March is proud of how serious she has become, Aunt March who has always disapproved and who still does, of her writing, of her small apartment and the man she lives with but won’t marry.
She steps across the grass, loops a hand through Friedreich’s arm. He and Laurie seem to have been making some kind of small talk.
“I’m the best man, you know,” she boasts, catching Laurie’s eye, “Isn’t that right, Teddy?”
Their eyes meet over the top of his bottle and there is a click, like he is waiting for something.
Jo flushes under his gaze and she says nothing at all.
When he told her he loved her -
“It wouldn’t work, you know.”
“We’re both too strong, Teddy, too stubborn. We would fight all the time - “
“No, we wouldn’t.”
“We’re already fighting about fighting, Laurie.”
“Don’t make this into a joke,” he’d growled.
She went quiet for a second. “I’m not laughing, Laurie. I’m sorry.”
“I just - I don’t think I could come to - “ her voice broke off on the words.
Laurie paced up and down the hall, legs crawling like a caged tiger. His mouth turned down with contained anger.
“I think you’re just scared, Jo. I think you’re afraid of loving me.”
She shook her head.
At the time, she had been so sure that she was right.
Friedrich asked her once, about her and Laurie.
“My sister’s boy, Laurie?” she’d volleyed back mockingly.
He’d raised himself up on his elbows and tilted his head to one side. “He wasn’t always your sister’s boy,” he’d pointed out and it is so true that for a moment, she cannot breathe.
“Well, what do you want to know?” she’d asked sharply.
“Has he ever been inside you?” he’d asked, one hand on the inside of her knee, breath close to her cheek.
“He’s always inside me.”
They learn to be close again, to tip the delicate, fragile line of what they mean to each other. At first, they are forced into it, everyone expecting to be together always like they used to be. So they try, they go out into the coffee shops (again) and they sit at their old table and they talk for hours about her books and his music, about the films that they haven’t seen yet, about Amy, even about Beth.
On the surface, everything is the same.
(Under the table, Laurie’s knee jerks away from the contact with hers. Jo’s fingers curl into knots.
Their breaths are uneven. These are things that the people around them do not notice.)
She would like to say that it gets easier with time, that is easier to bury the impulse for her finger to run over the curve of his ear, mouth against his jaw.
Maybe it does. Or maybe they stop trying.
Amy and Laurie get married in the spring after Beth’s death.
They get married in the gardens of the March home. There are jokes about Laurie taking up her name, finally fulling his life long ambition to be a member of the family.
“I always wanted to be a March,” he grins.
Jo gets very drunk afterward.
The world around her starts to blur.