Anatole is fishing when Isä comes to find him with a pair of letters in hand.
“One from Juno,” he says, lifting his right hand, “and the other from Leto.”
“And none from Metis?” Anatole wonders, because Metis so loathes to be left out of anything that she always sends a letter with their sisters’, even though she’s never really wanted anything to do with Isä or Seta Aleksi. Or with Anatole, for that matter.
“Metis,” Isä says lightly, passing the letter from Juno to Anatole and breaking the seal on the letter from Leto himself, “has not been pregnant for the past nine months, pupu.”
Anatole is uncle to two nieces.
Leto’s letter is overjoyed, filled with glowing reviews of her baby’s starlight-silver hair and her already bright eyes, of her pearly pink cheeks. Little Jeanne - Jeanne! What sort of a name for a de Poitiers of Valentinois is Jeanne? - is the apple of her mother’s eye, and apparently of her grandmother’s as well. Little Jeanne is a proper Veela, sired by one of the Athenians, everything the grand duchess herself could desire in a granddaughter. Leto knows it, knows that she has succeeded,
Juno’s letter is much more brief. His eldest sister has always been his favourite, and so it hurts to see her disappointment in her baby. This child is Bellona, born of war and named for it, and she has the black hair and dark eyes of her very human father.
Anatole is sixteen years old, and until Juno invited him to London to meet her beau during the summer, he had never met a witch or wizard. The scars of Grindlewald’s War are still livid and aching across Europe, and Isä was so, so anxious when Juno announced that she was seeing a wizarding boy - and one of their vaunted purebloods, too! As though his people had not done enough harm, had not caused enough pain-
Had not cost them their mummo, long before they could even have a chance to know her. That more than anything had hurt Isä and Aleksi, and Anatole wonders if it had hurt Maman as well - she and Tante Invidia would surely not be pleased to see one of those who stole away their sister welcomed into the family, would they?
“Aleksi has already asked Cousin Helmi to watch the house so we can visit the ladies,” Isä says. “Do you feel strong enough for the flight, kirppu?”
“We can stop in Hamburg,” Aleksi says. “Break the journey there. Hans and Dagmar would be glad to have us.”
Anatole would prefer not to break the journey at all, but they are not wizards on brooms or Muggles in their aeroplanes, and he is not yet strong enough to fly through the night. Someday, hopefully, but not yet.
And besides - Aleksi’s wings have never fully recovered from being clipped, during the war.
They reach Valence just as the sun is setting, and the whole world seems fierce with colour. The lavender, the sunflowers, the brilliant pink and orange of sunset casting like fire against the white castle walls, it is all so beautiful - but it only makes Anatole long for the river and the woods and the uneven green-and-stone of the mountains.
Isä steadies Anatole as they land in the short, soft grass of the outer lawn, and Aleksi takes his heavy bag until he has righted himself. Isä takes a moment to fix Anatole’s hair with careful fingers, to straighten his shirt and to make sure the split folds of it fall straight and neat at the back.
Maman puts much greater stock in appearances than Isä, after all.
“Mon cher,” Maman says, coming forward to greet him with two sweetly-scented kisses, one on either cheek. Her hands are elegant, many-ringed, and always cool. “Welcome, welcome - Aleksi. Balder. ”
“Europa,” Isä says softly. Anatole thinks that maybe Isä still loves Maman, even though he doesn’t trust her or even like her very much. Aleksi does not like her at all, and so he puts a firm arm around Anatole’s shoulders and draws him toward Metis and Tante Invidia.
Anatole’s aunt is a strange woman. Maman and her sister have never gotten along, not as Juno and Leto and Metis do, but that she is here now means that there is a celebration afoot. No doubt it is for Leto’s baby. Aleksi, when drunk, still rages that there was no famed de Poitiers party for Anatole’s birth, and Juno’s baby is as much an unhappy surprise as Anatole was.
Anatole is sixteen, but he knows well that his mother wishes he had been born a girl. Why else would he have been raised by Isä, when the girls all were kept in Valence?
He is brought to Leto and her baby first.
Jeanne is beautiful, a tiny, dainty child with long, wispy eyelashes and, yes, pearly pink cheeks. She is wrapped in the de Poitiers shawl, an exquisite thing of antique lace that family legend says was first used for la Belle Diane’s own children.
By right, it should have been given to Juno, since her baby is an hour older than Leto’s. It always goes to the oldest baby.
The oldest baby is not, as her younger cousin was, nestled in her mother’s arms. Instead, Bellona de Poitiers is laid in a very beautiful basket on Juno’s bed, and Juno is sitting nearby with her arms wrapped around herself.
“I loved him,” she says, tearful and beautiful, “and I cannot have him, because of…”
The baby gurgles. Anatole lifts her from the basket without asking, fitting his arms around her as he saw Leto holding little Jeanne. Bellona blinks up at him with dark eyes a little too large for her face, and Anatole thinks- how can anyone blame such a lovely little angel for anything?
“She looks like you,” Metis says, and for once there is no malice in her smile. She has shown more interest in Juno’s baby than Juno has, so far as Anatole can tell, but that may not be a good thing. Metis is difficult to gauge. She is very like Tante Invidia. “But then, you and Juno both look so very much like Papa that of course she looks like you.”
“It’s a good name,” Anatole says, rolling his eyes. Metis sometimes makes fun of his accent, for the Finnish that creeps into his French, so he has always spoken sparingly around her. “A strong name. She will need to be strong.”
“You’ve grown up, little brother,” Metis says, sounding surprised. “Maman will be pleased.”
Bellona burbles happily in the cradle of Anatole’s arms. This evening, his nieces will be welcomed into the family. This evening, Maman will dress all in white, and she will wrap baby Jeanne in the de Poitiers shawl, and she will present her to the gentle dusk so that baby Jeanne will know who she is and where she belongs.
Maman has decided that Juno must present baby Bellona herself. Even Leto, so proud and superior, had tried to convince Maman otherwise. Wait with Jeanne until tomorrow, Leto had said, but Maman was adamant, and they all know better than to fight with her.
Isä has already had to stop Aleksi from stealing away with baby Bellona, as he stole away with Anatole all those years ago.
“You do not need to do this, Anatole,” Aleksi says, adjusting the straps of Anatole’s pack and fussing with his hair. “There are other ways.”
“Juno will not let me bring her here, Seta,” Anatole says, shrugging against the weight of his straps and the weight of his wings until they settle more comfortably. “So I must go there. I do not mind.”
He doesn’t, not as he should - Anatole has never enjoyed time spent in Valence, but he will go there for the sake of his eldest niece. He has four of them now, with Metis triumphing over both Juno and Leto by producing twins, sired by the heir to one of the great clans on the Caucasus.
She named them Artemisia and Appollonia. Metis has never been the clever one of the family.
Anatole has been home nine times in the three years since Bellona and Jeanne were born, which is six times more than in the three years before. Every time, he has been more and more certain than little Bellona is as unwelcome as he had been, and every time he has been too afraid to do anything about that.
No more. Anatole is nineteen, now, and he is no longer afraid of his mother. For the sake of his sweet little niece, he can suffer his mother’s coldness and his sisters’ strangeness. He will take up the de Poitiers name just so no one can deny it to little Bellona.
Isä emerges from the house with his own pack strapped firmly in place, his pale-as-dawn hair braided neatly away from his face. Anatole’s is styled similarly, although he’s never worn his hair as long as his father’s, and he still can’t grow a beard even half so fine as Isä’s or Aleksi’s.
“You are certain?” he asks, and only that. Anatole has always loved Isä best of everyone in the world, but never more than just now. Anatole nods, and Isä returns it. “Good - we will stop in Luxembourg. I have already sent word to Luca, and he and Ben will be pleased to have us.”
Luca is Isä and Aleksi’s cousin on their father’s side, and Anatole hopes - selfishly - that his husband’s nephew will still be visiting with them. He and Amand have written a great many letters to one another since meeting at Luca and Ben’s wedding, but that is not the same as seeing one another in person.
“You will write to us?” Aleksi asks, fretful only because he is not coming with them and so will not be there to fight with Maman if she is dreadful. “The moment you need us, kirppu, only send word-”
“They are my family too, Aleksi,” Anatole reminds him, leaning up to kiss Aleksi’s forehead. “Whatever they might say and do, they will do me no real harm - and even if they try, at least that means they will be leaving the little one alone.”
Leto is standing out to greet them when they arrive.
So is Tante Invidia.
“Go with your father, chouette,” Invidia says, shooing Isä and Leto away before Anatole can even say hello to his sister. “I would have words with my nephew.”
Anatole is taller than his aunt now - taller than everyone on this side of the family - but there is something about Invidia that makes her seem bigger than she is. From the thick, practical braid of her hair to the sturdy boots she’s always favoured, she stands apart from Maman in a way Anatole is only now coming to understand.
The scars on her cheek, earned during the War, are hardly noticeable against the sharp, piercing silver-blue of her eyes. When she peers up at him like she can see through him, Anatole remembers that she and Maman are only half- sisters.
“This is a good thing you are doing, you know,” she says, patting his cheek with her worn, strong hand. “I wish I had been brave enough to do the same for you, chouette. I am glad your father had the strength. I am glad you have the strength.”
“Will you stay?”
“I would kill your mother by the end of the month,” she says, rueful. “No, chouette. No. I will visit, though, if I think Europa is becoming her worst. Do not be afraid to send for me. Metis knows where I am. So does your papa.”
“Why should my father-”
“Who do you think insisted on your learning French, Anatole?”
She kisses his cheek, and then is gone.
“It is Juno’s right to raise her child as she sees fit,” Maman sniffs after welcoming him into her parlour - but not inviting him to sit. It is a small, cozy sort of room, but Anatole has never felt comfortable here. Can any man feel comfortable in la Belle Diane’s sanctum sanctorum? “Your motives for visiting are… Transparent.”
“I am not visiting, Maman,” he says. “I would not deny Juno her daughter - but Bellona cannot have her father. It can only be a good thing for me to be on hand. To help. ”
To help the child, not the mother, and Maman clearly understands by how razor-thin her mouth goes.
“Do what you wish, boy,” she says, waving him away. “You always have.”
“Yes,” Anatole agrees. “My father raised me to be bold.”
He only hopes he can do the same for Bellona.
The lady herself catches him around the knees at high speed, her black hair held back from her face by a silver ribbon and her dark eyes shining.
“Hello, Bellona,” he says, delighted to finally see her. “How are you, ma précieuse?”
“Tante Metis says that you’re staying , Oncle!” Bellona says, squealing when he swings her up into his arms. “Are you staying? Please?”
“Yes, yes,” he says, settling her easily on his hip and waving to Jeanne, who is peeping from around Leto’s sweeping skirts - he loves Jeanne very much as well, but she does not need him. Bellona does. “I am staying, chouette, until Maman tells me to go.”
Bellona launches into a very detailed story about a cat who sleeps in the tree outside her bedroom window, satisfied that he will be in Valence long enough to hear it all, and Anatole avoids catching Isä’s eye. He remembers how it felt when Isä and Aleksi told him he did not have to be alone anymore all too well.
“So you have convinced her to leave,” Juno snarls, pushing into Anatole’s bedroom like she has the right to be here. Anatole had been surprised, upon returning to Valence, to discover that Maman had kept his rooms as they were when he left as a little boy. He has changed them since, of course, and changed them again to show some flavour of Amand’s tastes and Bellona’s as well, but they are his. Even when Juno inherits Valence from Maman, these rooms will not be hers.
“I did nothing of the sort,” he says, rolling from his recline on the windowseat to stand before her. “I told her that she had the choice, and she made it. She is a very brave girl.”
“She belongs with me, Anatole,” Juno says. “She is my daughter, not yours.”
“And how I regret it,” he snaps. “If she were mine, Maman would never have been allowed-”
“Don’t dare speak so of Maman-”
“Do you not see that Bellona could have been happier living away from Jeanne’s shadow, Juno? Somewhere she isn’t a- a freak.”
“How dare you! Bellona is nothing of the sort!”
“Then tell her that, Juno,” he says. “Be gentler with her - be kinder! You are already so much better with Bellona than Maman ever was with me, but you must do more. She deserves it. She is a wonderful girl, and I think you only see it half of the time.”
“I know my daughter’s worth, little brother. I have never once told her that she is a freak. ”
Juno has never said the words, but she has never needed to. Lamenting over Belle’s dark hair and eyes against the silver and indigo-blue of Jeanne’s, sighing about her strong shoulders where Jeanne and the twins are slender, and agreeing when Maman complains about the human in her where she knows Bellona will overhear - that has been enough. That has been more than enough.
“Nothing is more difficult than to be the fourth of three in Valence, sister,” he says. “I would know.”
That brings her up short. The reason Anatole always loved Juno best of his sisters is that she, as the oldest, as Maman’s favourite, used always defend him from the unkindness of others.
It has always infuriated him that she never seems to do the same for Bellona.
“Do better,” he says. “From now, do better - Bellona loves you more than anyone, and she will forgive you anything. Be worthy of that.”
Bellona settles neatly under his arm on the windowseat without a word upon her return from London. She is wearing a very tall pointed hat, and the sort of sturdy shoes Anatole associates with Amand’s sister, who has four children and endless patience for rowdy games.
“Well, ma poulette?” he asks, gathering her closer and setting aside his book. “How was London?”
“Grey,” she says. “And drab, but there were so many people, Anatole, and all of them speaking English!”
“In England! Imagine that!”
“Do not tease,” she says, grinning. “It was so strange to have Maman all to myself, but she seemed to enjoy criticising the English styles - they are so old-fashioned. Eugh.”
“You will just have to show them how to dress, Bellona,” he says, delighted that Bellona is in such good humour - that must mean that Juno behaved herself. He hopes that’s what it means, at least.
He hopes Juno did as she was told, too, and that she did not buy an owl for Bellona. If she did, then his surprise is utterly, utterly ruined, and he has not spent the past week having his fingertips nipped to bleeding only for Juno to outdo him.
“You promise you will come with me to the train?” Bellona asks, clutching suddenly at his shirt. “People stared so, Anatole, and not only at Maman - do you promise?”
“Twice over already, chouette,” he assures her. “But for you, I will gladly promise a third time.”
He had planned on presenting her with the pretty, pale owl he’s kept hidden in the aviary this evening, after dinner, but Blanchefleur will keep. He only has so many evenings left to spend in Bellona’s company, after all.