It begins with that damnable dance.
Oscar flushes sharply and steps backwards automatically, her hand going to her mouth, pressing away the ghost of -- that other thing. Her queen turns quickly away, hides her expression.
"Until tomorrow, then," she says, projecting the words away from Oscar, towards the high palace windows and the empty night. Her voice is strained, and Oscar understands - hopes? - that this will not be spoken of again.
Her majesty must miss Fersen terribly, just as Oscar herself does; there can be no other explanation.
She turns on her heel and leaves, and scowls all the way home.
That women flirt with Oscar is nothing new. That they might wish to kiss her is nothing new. They see her, quite simply, as a man -- or as someone safe, unthreatening. Easy to love precisely because she is impossible for them to reach, and therefore no threat to their honour.
Oscar is quite sure that this is the reason, because certain other possibilities simply don't bear thinking about.
And in any case, Oscar likes to be sure about things, of herself, of the rules the world runs on. One of the rules is that no-one can reach Oscar, and she can't reach anyone else. And that will have to be fine. She is not fit to be a real woman and naturally she can't consider herself a real man, and therefore isn't allowed romantic love; but she is certainly a real soldier, and that's something she can anchor herself to.
She loves her job and her queen, in entirely proper and respectful ways.
But an hour ago her queen kissed her, and she has no idea what to think, so she settles for being angry with everything else: the weather, the idiocy of all the meal-time formalities which get in the way of simply enjoying one's dinner, the irritation of having to readjust her corsetry to keep her chest flat, the irritation of having anything to keep flat at all. Breasts are among the most impractical things she's ever encountered.
Although they do suit some people perfectly well.
André finds her with an empty bottle of wine and to her considerable shame she finds herself pretending to have fallen asleep in her chair in order to avoid questions she would have to refuse to answer.
She feels him place a blanket over her and hears the door click quietly shut again behind him. Opens her eyes to stare up at the shadowed ceiling, glares at it as though it was to blame.
Marie Antoinette carefully avoids looking at Oscar the next day, to Oscar's considerable relief.
That there might be something more complex in the queen's avoidance than embarrassment over her behaviour doesn't occur to her until rather later -- in fact, not until the next time they are alone together, and Marie Antoinette turns and looks up at her with wide, hopeful, half-frightened eyes.
"Oscar," she says, in a smaller voice than Oscar has heard from her in years, "I wish you would dance with me again."
Oscar struggles for neutrality. "My lady?"
"You dance wonderfully," Marie Antoinette says, a little too fast. "And..."
"Are you certain that it would be wise?" Oscar asks, as gently as she can. She understands the loneliness, of course, but some things should be steered away from, quickly and discreetly.
The issue at hand is the queen's honour, which has always been her first concern.
Any other concerns which might lie hidden beneath it can stay hidden there forever for all Oscar cares. There are questions she refuses to ask herself.
Fortunately it's rare to be entirely alone in Versailles, and even rarer to be alone for very long. It is a relief to leave this particular topic of conversation unfinished. Mostly.
"Ride with me," the queen says.
It's quite clearly an order.
"Of course." Oscar bows and excuses herself to change and to tell the staff to saddle her horse.
"No," she says to André. "You're not coming today. Consider it an afternoon off."
Is it that it only occurs to her too late that the presence of a manservant would be both perfectly acceptable and a useful method of controlling the situation, or is it that--
But the rest of that question belongs to the list of forbidden topics.
They ride hard, out from Versailles, into the forest, along small tracks, until they're breathless from the speed of their journey, faces flushed from the sting of the cool air.
It's really too reckless, the sort of ride Oscar usually takes alone, at night, when she's too full of doubts to sleep. It's a ride that feels like trying to outrun something, although the problem is that all those things one tries to escape know the short-cuts better than one does oneself.
The Issue is there by the lake, waiting for them.
"There's much more fuss if I want to ride by myself than if I want to ride with you," the queen says.
She's fishing for something, a response, a clue, permission or refusal. Perhaps just acknowledgement.
"Naturally," Oscar says, voice carefully measured. "I'm sure I don't have to point out that not everyone in the country wishes your majesty good health. You really shouldn't ride alone."
"It's as though I couldn't possibly create a scandal if you were with me," Marie Antoinette continues. She sounds so bright for a moment, lighthearted. But when she starts to laugh it comes out a little choked. "Isn't that funny?"
"My lady, I..." Oscar starts.
"Don't. Please don't!" Marie Antoinette lowers her voice again. "I can't bear another lecture now. Please just stay with me here a while."
It's a dry, crisp day. Marie Antoinette sits carefully down on the bank above the lake, and gestures for Oscar to join her.
There is a space of half a foot between them, a thin wall of air, a barrier - at least in Oscar's mind, which makes it a shock when her queen leans across the space and rests her head against Oscar's shoulder. Pale hair, slightly loosened from its curls by their ride, spills across the red of Oscar's jacket.
"Are you going to leave me too?" she asks.
Oscar closes her eyes. A lot of things are threatening to happen in her mind. "No," she says at last. "I am your majesty's guard, and I will do my duty."
"That's right," the queen murmurs. "But I meant... I mean... you'll always be there for me."
Because Oscar can be depended upon. Oscar is always depended upon, by everyone.
"Yes," she says softly.
Marie Antoinette's hand reaches out for her, curls around the fabric of her jacket over her chest, holds on tight.
"I've wished for so many things lately," she says, and Oscar has a vivid memory of the kiss, of being asked to dance again. She suspects her face has flushed.
"These things you wish for," she says. "You mustn't. You do realise, don't you? Not Fersen and not--"
Not me. Especially not me, never me.
"It isn't fair," Marie Antoinette says. "It isn't fair! It's too lonely."
"That's the price," Oscar says. But she strokes Antoinette's hair gently all the same. "Come. We should go back."
She wonders if her queen has thought about what would happen if she was found to have a female lover, how far it could go. She knows that it would be enough to destroy her personally, to remind the people that she is a woman in man's clothes, exactly the kind of person who is usually arrested, protected now by the authority of the royal family.
Not that she would take a woman as a lover. Wouldn't even consider it.
Except, of course, she has considered it, hasn't she.
"A good ride?" André asks.
"Refreshing. The air was marvelous," Oscar says, although she'd really rather throw something at him -- but that would be childish. Hopefully he doesn't even know there's a sore spot there to be poked, much less that he's hit it.
She doesn't lie awake at night and think about her majesty and other ways their conversations could have gone, other scenarios and possibilities and dangers and pleasures. All of that would be a waste of time -- why would she?
She definitely doesn't feel any kind of regret -- or curiosity.
Unfortunately, these kinds of self-deceptions only work up to a point. But her sense of duty is well-developed, and any insights she might gain in the middle of a sleepless night are basically irrelevant.
There are things that she cannot allow, however she may speculate. The queen, it is becoming apparent, needs a great deal of care and protection; Oscar can't give her what she thinks she wants, but perhaps she can manage what she needs. It's precisely because she cares for Marie Antoinette that she can't allow her to destroy herself in such a foolish way.
It all sounds like such terribly good reasoning. More personal fear really doesn't have to come into it.
Which is convenient.