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not all things holy are about grace

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It is most decidedly rude when your best friends talk about you in your presence, but Ann Walker is curled up into a little ball in the corner of the couch in Harriet’s dorm room, swaddled in the dark blue university hoodie that she’s had since she was five and her father first told her about his Alma mater, and she can’t feel her hands.

There is a notebook in them that she’s flipping through, notes that she has near-memorized scrawled across its pages, but it’s the only thing currently steadying her nerves.

“Do you think we should get her something?” Harriet asks quietly, face and half her upper body turned towards her friend.

Catherine chuckles, looking over at the bundle of blonde hair and blue-eyed concentration. “A triple shot of vodka and a sedative, maybe.”

Ann looks up over the rim of the notebook, those baby blues growing at once clouded as her eyebrows arch downwards. “Hey, it’s not that bad.”

Having finally been acknowledged again after about ten minutes of being easily ignored, the two take it as their cue to join Ann on the couch. Catherine sits in the middle, nudges Ann’s knees off the couch so she can drape her legs across her thighs. “You’re only cramming everything you studied this summer in Greece because you want to impress professor Lister.”

“Harry, Cath, I don’t need this right now.” Ann gesticulates the notebook into their faces. “I really need her to be my thesis adviser. She is only the most brilliant and clever mind we have at our department, let alone that her honor students usually end up top of their class and published in academic journals.” She has said this so many times, Harriet and Catherine fall in to mouth it along about halfway through. “I can’t mess this up.”

It’s definitely the anxiety that’s numbing her all the way to the tips of her fingers, not the ill-advised crush she’s had on professor Lister since she took an elective on queer poetry in her Sophomore year. She hadn’t known what to expect, but not a professor so animated, elevated, illuminating. Anne Lister was an academic rock star, her wit so sharp it had sliced many lesser people, and her talent of enrapturing an audience was unparalleled. Ann had been swept away in more ways than one.

For her own sake, she had forgone taking any more classes with her last year in hopes the crush would fade away, and it had somewhat. Up until the point, anyway, that she saw Anne Lister at Edinburgh Pride over the summer. Her crush had lodged itself to stay this time, because her feelings had no regard for their improper power balance, the lack of any apparent interest, or zero trust that Ann could even garner it.

It seemed, instead, like a tremendous idea to take another class by her now, in her most stressful year ever. She filled out the request form a couple of weeks ago, spent several days waiting with her stomach in knots, and felt her heart burst when she received the approval to sign up. It’s a good sign, she thinks, because the requirements were steep and the places limited, so she must already have done something that puts her one up over others.

It gets her one step closer to sealing Anne Lister as her thesis adviser.

“Sure,” Catherine sniggers, leaning into Ann and blowing a raspberry against her forehead. “You are entirely academically motivated in this regard, oh aspiring published essayist.”

Harriet digs her elbow into Catherine’s side and shoots her a glance, then smiles softly across the wild heaping of dark curls at Ann. “Ease off. We’ll have all semester to give her shit, maybe the whole year until her thesis deadline.” She seems on fraying nerves as it is, and we don’t want a repeat of freshman year. It isn’t said aloud, but the worry in Harriet Parkhill’s eyes speaks tremendously.

Catherine groans and slouches down further. “Fine. Buzz kill.”

The three friends spend the rest of their morning compressed onto the two-thin-people-at-most-couch, with Ann reading snippets of her travel diary through the locales of ancient Grecian history preserved into the twenty-first century, with Harriet reading text messages she has gotten from her summer fling who only had a handful of English and a whole emoji keyboard at his disposal, with Catherine’s running commentary on both.

Sore and sort of lazy, they pull out eventually when Ann and Catherine need to head to class. Harriet walks them down to the lawn in front of her dorm building, then waves after them until they circle around a copse of trees and disappear from view.

Catherine closes the distance with her best friend and walks with her shoulder-to-shoulder. “Don’t worry so much. You never missed a lecture, got an A on the essay, and she smiled at you that one time. She doesn’t smile. Not at students. I would know.”

And she would, at that. Catherine always seems right on the pulse of gossip.

“Sit at the front today. None of that hiding in the middle of the crowd crap. You want her to notice you? Sit right in front of her.”

Those words of advice trail behind her as she trudges up the stairs to the Classics building. She never expected when she started her Sociology major she would be reading quite this much fiction. That damned course in her sophomore year had impacted her enough that she had tumbled head-over-heels into a Classics minor.

She loves it, though. And it makes sense.

(And, really, she doesn’t need any goddamn excuses.)

Bag clutched to her chest, she makes her way through the now familiar hall, up another set of stairs, circumventing a particularly obnoxious group of freshmen still high on excitement and volume fresh off Welcome Week, and ducks into the spacious lecture hall.

Descending the semicircle of rising rows of seats, Ann can’t help but think that it’s not as impressive anymore now that she has been to Athens and seen the Theater of Dionysus and the Acropolis. But Dionysus is no Anne Lister.

Adrenaline and warmth rushes through Ann as her eyes land on the tall, imposing figure of her professor. She doesn’t seem aware of her presence yet, or uncaring—she is turned away, bent over her desk rifling through a stack of syllabi. She is wearing all black, which seems to be her custom: a long-sleeved, semi see-through blouse tucked into leather dress pants. Her hair has grown longer over the summer, resting down her back in its low ponytail. At once daring and stylish, combining the feminine with the masculine, Ann is instantly reminded why she paid such rapt attention to professor Lister that very first time.

Trusting Catherine, she keeps moving down until she can slide into the first row of seats and settle about as smack dab in the middle as she can estimate. She isn’t even fully seated yet when professor Lister turns around.

There are glasses perched upon her nose, and a slight inclination towards her tiredness sits puffy beneath her eyes, but she is still the most breathtaking woman Ann has ever seen. Her heart pounds a wicked drum beat against her ribs at the prolonged eye contact.

“I recognize you. Spring term 2018. You wrote your essay on the importance of Sappho to the lesbians of our current day and age.” The skin between her eyebrows wrinkles as she smiles, Ann notes—it’s safer to look above her eyes than into them or beneath. “Remind me of your name again?”

“Ann Walker, professor.” She is grateful her voice doesn’t waver, at least, but she can tell her skin is starting to prickle with a blush. “You told me about this class when you gave me my essay back. My schedule was really full last year, so...” Full with trying out Tinder, blind dates set up by Harriet, and an embarrassing amount of nights spent getting drunk at Sophie’s. “But here I am. Managed to squeeze it into my final year.”

Anne Lister does not walk—she prowls, she stalks. The way she comes up to Ann’s desk, there is no doubt in her mind this is a woman that would and could kill if she needed to. Her thoughts circle to teeth, tearing into her neck, and the slither of tantalizing ecstasy only intensifies when they are suddenly within mere inches of each other. She looks up at the woman leaning her hands onto the top of her desk, the muscles of her arms and shoulders tensing, showing against the fabric of her shirt. Of course she’s also fit as hell. Ann’s entire type of woman is embodied in this singular figure.

“You are either very brave or very stupid to come sit right here,” Anne Lister murmurs, her intense eyes coming level with Ann’s. “Let’s see if you can intrigue me again this time, miss Walker.”

Pushing away, she walks backwards with open arms, addressing the crowd filtering in with the bravado of a god herself. Many of the entering students seem instantly daunted.

“Welcome, everyone. Take a seat, throw your cell phones out of the window. For the next hour and a half, I would like to talk about our lord and fucking savior: Zeus.”

Ann leaves the lecture both charged and drained at once. Her skin feels chafed raw from the constant proximity of Anne Lister. Being up front had meant that whenever the Professor looked her way, it had been at just her, and that had been almost too much to bear.

Looking over the notes she has made, she can tell the exact moments Anne looked at her by the suddenly shaky, uneven script. There is one spot in particular where her pen broke through the paper. Anne had been talking about how Zeus liked to seduce women, young and vulnerable and beautiful women, and her eyes had remained on Ann throughout that entire drawled explanation.

Never mind that it switched to how awful Zeus was after that, how he had likely created the earliest building blocks of our rape-forgiving patriarchal world—it was an Anne Lister course after all, and it would not shy away from the gnarly truth, rather delving into every traumatic and tragic bit immediately.

That’s what made it so interesting.

Ann had never had a professor quite so willing to speak out on subjects like these.

Unsurprisingly, there’s nothing else Ann can think about on her walk home. Edinburgh is still very nice this time of year, though with September comes the first significant decrease of temperature and a setting-in of a chilly wind. Hugging her arms around herself, she hurries along, along a route she has made so many times for the past three years.

Home looms after a short fifteen minutes at the end of the cul-de-sac, currently filled with children skateboarding across it while wearing the knee pads and helmets their parents, who are watching from their front lawns, probably forcefully slapped onto them.

She lets herself in through the back door that leads into the kitchen and leaves her sneakers on the mat outside. Elizabeth is already behind the furnace, surrounded by the heavenly smells of a rich vegetable soup stewing beneath her magically domestic hands.

Ann plants a kiss on her cheek in passing. “How many plates?”

“Six, please. The Priestley's are coming over.”

Her mind strays back to its previous subject as Ann dutifully sets the table for six, brings out the nice China and the champagne glasses, because it’s the Priestley's. They’re practically family, after both Elizabeth and Ann spent their every summer working at their Bed & Breakfast. They’d been friends of their parents once upon a time, back when they had still been alive.

She finds the prospect of dinner much nicer knowing she won’t have to sit between Elizabeth and George. Ann likes her brother-in-law, to some degree. He took her in, helped her pay for her school, treats her sister right—so maybe she should stop holding it against him that he convinced Elizabeth not to go for a career and instead prepare for the life of a wife and mother instead. And maybe she can try a little harder to find anything he says remotely interesting or intellectually stimulating.

But tonight, she won’t have to. With the Priestley's coming over, it’s definitely going to be a pleasant evening.

George comes downstairs just as she is re-arranging the bouquet of flowers sitting in the crystal vase, a colorful collection of yellow sunflowers, red marigolds, and orange geraniums. From afar, it looks like a soft, petalled bonfire. “That looks nice,” he comments, smiling easily.

Ann curtsies with a bit of a grin and plucks a sunflower away from the arrangement to take upstairs. There is still a glass on her desk, which she fills with water and puts her single flower into.

Her room isn’t much, but it’s entirely hers. Elizabeth and George vowed to never enter it unless she wanted them to, so that it’s her safe space in every way. It holds her desk (empty, currently) and her extremely comfortable bed (messy, currently), which leaves just enough space for some book shelves against her walls, a framed Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster, and a reading chair by the window.

She drops into her desk chair and pulls her laptop from the top drawer. A shot of the Acropolis she took herself, from afar, with more of Athens sprawling around and behind it functions as her wallpaper and as a reminder that she truly fell in love with Greece over the summer.

After filing through the mandatory first week of classes emails, containing information that she has known since her freshman year or has stopped caring about since her freshman year, she pulls open an empty input field and starts typing away, while her throat starts to itch and she can feel her nervous pulse in her wrists.

Backtracking. Deleting parts. Changing words. Making her word vomit more concise, to the point. Ann labors over the few lines longer than she has labored over essay outlines for exams.

She wants to get it just right. She wants Anne Lister as her goddamn thesis adviser.

Eventually, feeling winded and heated, she sits back and reads it over a thirty-second time.

Dear Professor Lister

After today’s class, I am more convinced than ever that our interests and morals align. I would like to write my Bachelor Thesis on a culturally relevant, feminist topic that I would like to tie to a comparison between modern works of literature and the classics of Ancient Greece.

Should you still have a spot for advising an honors student, I would very much appreciate getting an opportunity to tell you more in-depth about what I am planning.

Thank you in advance for getting back to me on this, whether positive or negative.

Yours sincerely,
Ann Walker

All throughout dinner, no matter how pleasant the Priestley's are, or how much George and Elizabeth are trying, that email is all she can think about. Would professor Lister have read it already? No, of course not. As if someone like her doesn’t have anything better to do than go through her correspondence on an evening as nice as this one.

Or if she has, if she might just be stumped for something to do miraculously, would she answer? Would she let it sit there for weeks, waiting until every applicant has gotten their bid in before selecting her chosen ones?

That, briefly, sends her into a daydream about Hogwarts and Harry Potter, but she blinks out of it when the dessert and the wine are served. She drinks more than she normally would around her relatives, but she needs something to calm the storm inside her chest. Her heart is kicking up a ruckus.

What if professor Lister isn’t taking any honors students this year? What if she really doesn’t like her? The what ifs keep spinning around each other—she imagines them as bunnies hippity-hopping around her mind, breeding litters and litters of doubts.

She drinks until she stops thinking about bunnies and wagging tails and the mouth of her professor in the process of speaking about the gods of old and Ann only seeing her tongue tap against her teeth or the corners twitching in amusement.

It’s late, incredibly late, when Ann finally excuses herself and leaves back to her room. She has worked herself into a conflicting mess of arousal and worry, a worrisome combination. Nothing she can work through immediately, even though the world is fuzzy around the edges and every step bounces.

First she needs to get rid of the worry, then the rest.

She fires her laptop back up meaning to open Facebook and start lamenting to her best friends, but she didn’t close the school web platform after sending that email... and the need to check is just too strong. She knows if she didn’t get a reply she’ll worry about it even more, but—she needs to know.

She refreshes her password and sees her email count has gone up by 3. Two are about new course content now available to her, documents and files and deadlines that have been added.

One is a reply by Professor Lister.

It says no more than:

Dear Ann

I would be delighted to be your thesis adviser.

Talk to me after class next week.

Yours sincerely
Anne Lister

Euphoria filters in with steady drips straight to her blood stream, this fizzing and prickling sort of giddiness. It sparks through her, seems to burn holes into her palms. Her eyes close as she lets this settle in.

Weeks and weeks of working together with her unfold in front of her mind’s eye: no lecture hall, no other students, just the two of them poring over the thesis she is going to write. Intimately. She feels Anne Lister all around her—the whiff of perfume she caught earlier now winds around her, the heat of her proximity, her attention undivided, laser-focused through those intense eyes on her.

Her whole body thrums.

With her heart hammering somewhere between her ears and her skin vibrating with need, the wine heavy and warm in her belly, she is starting to realize, and drunken giggles drop off her lips with a slightly crazed note as she does—what a majestically, astronomically bad fucking idea she has had, making Anne Lister her thesis adviser.