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The Second Time Around

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The Glove

When she heard his step in the doorway, Anne paused, the papers she was refiling- honestly, Treville’s system was a travesty- still in her hands, but she wouldn’t look up.  Not just yet.  

“Anne,” he said, and it came out like a sigh.

She held herself very still.  “I don’t know how disappointed I should be, that your men let me live here for weeks,” she said.  “I was the enemy once, wasn’t I?” She’d walked into the garrison covered in blood and been confronted by a stable-boy, a man with one leg, and a musketeer so old she’d been expecting him to keel over ever since, and that was how she found out that France was at war with Spain.  When she told those musketeers- if indeed that title could even apply- that she was their new captain’s wife, they’d let her stay in his quarters without asking any questions at all. Honestly, if Constance hadn’t stubbornly refused all her offers of tea and company, Anne would have thought that everyone had lost their senses.  But a week more of waiting for their musketeers to be called back to France and Anne suspected that even Constance would have worn down.

“Anne,” he said again, and she looked.

Athos… wasn’t the mess she’d imagined, with a mix of fear and sadistic pleasure, that he would be.  Probably, he’d cleaned himself up once or twice on the way, and reported to the palace with his men before returning to the garrison.  But he did look so very tired.  There were circles like bruises under his eyes. 

She stated the obvious: “I never made it to the boat,” and then found it difficult to continue.  “Catherine… wasn’t done with me.  I killed her.”  She looked at the ground.  “I don’t know why I came here.”  She had wanted so badly not to kill again, and then the moment it was done she hadn’t been able to remember why that had been so important to her.  And what exactly did she want Athos to say to her?  That he had made his choice that day, given up on her, and she was, as ever, lagging behind?  That perhaps he might have been willing to give her a chance, but war breaking out had prevented it, and now that there was one more death on her shoulders it would be impossible?

He crossed to her, silent, and reached into his jacket.  He withdrew a glove.  It had been white, once, but it wasn‘t anymore.  Oil, gunpowder, dirt and blood had entirely transformed it, but it was familiar.  Dropped in the struggle.  Hers.  

“So you were there,” she whispered.   

Athos fell to his knees.  Not like he’d planned to.  Like he simply couldn’t hold himself up anymore.  She took a step forward, and her fingers itched to touch him but she held back.  

“I had no choice,” she told him, and regretted the phrasing immediately.    

But then he rested his cheek on her thigh and said, “I believe you.”    

Ah.  Perhaps that was what she’d wanted.  It calmed something inside her that had not been still in a very long time, and she sighed and let her hands come to rest in his hair.       

The Apple

Anne remembered little of her childhood.

She couldn’t remember her parents. She didn’t know if she had any siblings, or where or when exactly she was born. She recalled, certainly, a kind of general poverty. She knew that she had always understood that there were those that had means and those that did not, and which category she fell into. She knew too that she always known how it felt not to know where her next meal would come from. But in all that, so little was concrete.

There were little snatches of this or that, there were always those, but Anne’s oldest, most concrete memory was very distinct. Tiny details of what came before often appeared in her mind, but that one memory glowed like a beacon among everything else, held apart. It was one of the few memories Anne possessed that had not clung to her like a burr, unwanted but impossible to shake loose, but rather had been something she had chosen to keep.

She had been in market with other children as thin, grimy, and desperate as herself. They scrambled among the stalls, hoping a scrap of food or coin might be tossed their way. Anne had just picked a spot to crouch near the stall of a man who was selling vegetables when she saw a noble lady, accompanied by several servants who carried her purchases, picking her way through the marketplace.    

Looking back, Anne could remember almost nothing about her, either. Not the color of her hair or her eyes or even her dress, not the particular porcelain quality of her skin. In fact, she couldn’t remember if the lady had even been beautiful at all.

What Anne remembered, oddly enough, was her chin. The graceful curve of it, the almost-unstudied pride. The way she held it high and it seemed, in turn, to bring her higher still. She side-stepped beggars as if they were ants, and it seemed to Anne as though it was only right that she do so. It was something Anne would never be able to forget, nor would she want to, that the difference between having and not having was carried primarily in the chin.

“You look at her like you’re planning to rob her,” the produce merchant said.

Anne considered that. Some of the older children were pickpockets, and Anne didn’t doubt that she would follow in their footsteps one day. She intended to be good at it, perhaps good enough to rob such a woman one day. “Maybe,” she said. “But that’s not what I really want.”

“What do you really want?”

“I want to be her.”

The merchant laughed out loud, so merrily it was difficult to be angry, even though she knew he was laughing at her. He tossed her a shiny apple.

Anne caught it proficiently, unable to ask why he’d given it to her but desperate to know nevertheless.

“You amused me,” he said.

Without another thought, she took a bite. Probably there was some deeper metaphorical significance to that.

Halcyon

Athos left and came back several times the night he returned to the garrison. He seemed to grow more and more tired with each trip. Did leading these men take a greater toll on him than going into battle did? It seemed likely. Athos was many things- a natural leader, certainly, but always a reluctant one.  

When he finally settled he was exhausted, silent. For a time, that suited Anne. She gathered a bowl filled with warm water and a cloth. A part of her couldn’t believe that she was doing this. A part of her remembered how vividly she had imagined it once and was more amused than anything.

She and Athos had not been married long, but if they had been perhaps he would have been called to muster his men and go into battle. And perhaps he would have returned from it weary, just like this, and perhaps she would have cleaned him. She had certainly wanted to. Once.

When Anne lingered by his side with the bowl in her hands and the cloth across her wrist, he watched her silently, and then nodded once.

So she rested the bowl on the table by the bed, and reached for him. He gripped her wrist lightly and held it, still gentle but enough to still her, and raised his hands, removing his pauldron, his jacket, and so on. Interesting. That he would undress in front of her, but felt it too intimate for her to do it for him. She backed off, leaning against one of the bedposts, and to break the silence that suddenly felt too close she said: “Being the captain suits you even less than I imagined it would.”

He snorted. “Less than I imagined, too.” His voice was muffled by his shirt as he stripped it over his head. “If that’s possible.”

Athos cast the garment aside and fell still again. It gave her the chance to look him over, and from the way he angled his head he knew it too. He had acquired a great many scars since she had last seen him shirtless, but only a few were red and fresh, the result of the war. And under his clothes he was still quite dirty. She steered him to sit on the edge of the bed and dipped the cloth, going to work.

She did not expect him to make conversation, and was almost alarmed when he spoke. “Constance and d’Artagnan are quarreling.”

It was startled out of her: “But he just got back. I would have expected the... enthusiasm to last them the night at least.”

Athos was a little wide-eyed when he looked at her, surprised but amused. She found herself flushing and looked away sharply, feeling his eyes on her turn curious. Why? Did he not think her capable of blushing? Of being embarrassed to have said something crass and unplanned? She huffed quietly.

She didn’t expect him to rescue her, but he surprised her again. “At any rate, I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”

“They quarrel loudly?”

“Very. And they forgive louder still.”

The back of his beck was faintly red. She let out a breath and ran the cloth over his shoulder-blades.

“Did we-” he began.

“Did we what?” she asked, even though she knew why he had hesitated.  

“Well.” He sighed. “We didn’t quarrel.”

“No.”

“Should we have?”

It took her a moment to understand what he meant, and it was worth something that he asked. Worth more still that he did so without judgment in his eyes- only curiosity. “I hardly remember.” She slid the cloth low down in his back. “Those days passed in a kind of dream, to me. Certainly I chose what I said with care. Few of us don’t, to some extent. But it all felt so… easy. Too easy. Like we were in the calm before a storm.”

She moved on to his chest, and he caught her wrist again, holding her eyes. “And we aren’t now?” he asked.

She didn’t have an answer for him.       

Catherine

Anne was in such a daze after she first married Athos that it honestly hardly occurred to her until later that everything between them was based on lies, lies that could be unraveled all too easily. At first she had lived for his smiles, and the smiles he drew from her in return, and it was only later that she began to wonder whether she had set herself up for a fall, began to hope that he loved her enough for it not to matter.

But. Even from that daze, she saw things. She would remember her first sight of Catherine as long as she lived- stepping from the carriage, hand in Athos’ hand, watching that regal face harden, those unmistakably possessive eyes go cold.

“Who is this?” Catherine asked, voice brittle.

“This is my wife,” Athos replied.  

Athos was a fool to think Catherine would ever give up. But in her way, Anne had been a fool too.

Waking

There was only the one bed, and accordingly they hadn’t really discussed whether or not to share it.  When she climbed in he did, briefly, look at her oddly- but when she tartly assured him that she had no designs on his virtue for the moment he had joined her, laying stiffly down as far away from her as the bed would accommodate.  He was so exhausted that he fell asleep in moments, and though sleeping next to another person was something Anne had assumed she lost the knack for when he tried to kill her the first time, she soon followed him.    

When she woke the next morning he was wrapped around her back, and she kept herself very still, made sure her breathing was regular and her eyes remained closed.

It was true- too true- that she’d missed him. It wasn’t something she ready to face just yet.

She felt it when he woke, first the change in his breathing, the slow journey wakefulness, and then the way his arms stiffened around her and then slowly withdrew.  

He rose and she listened to him walking around the room, washing his face and putting on his clothes. She felt him glance at her now and then, and knew that he knew she was awake but that he wouldn’t call her on it. Good. She couldn’t get it out of her head, when he’d asked her if they weren’t in a calm now. A part of her thought maybe they were, and- if that was the case- what would the storm look like?

She kept silent, and he left.

Call Me Milady

It was a Sarazin who gave her the nickname.

He’d been just like any other man to her then, a man among others whose pocket she picked just walking down the street- which meant that he had been in her estimation more dangerous than he actually turned out to be- and yet at the same time nowhere near dangerous enough. 

She was several steps away when she heard, “Hey.”  

And she knew better than to stop- but something in his tone, in the way his eyes felt on her back, made her half turn and look over her shoulder at him.

“Oh,” he said, leering. “You’re good.”

Something about the mixture of excitement and something else… something predatory and possessive, made her turn back around and keep moving, holding her head up high. He wasn’t chasing her. Just watching her. She might still be safe.

“You can run,” he called after her, voice thick with amusement. “But I will find you, Milady.”

The sarcasm of it- him calling her a lady when he clearly knew she was anything but- stayed with her for a long time. She ruminated on the matter as she counted his coins. She might not be a lady, but one day she would be.

Later, she would be the one to find Sarazin. She had even less by then than she’d had when she picked his pocket, but she held her head high and said that if she was good, she would get better, and that she would do her best work in the exchange for his protection. He said, “And what will I call you?”

And she said, “Milady, of course.”  

Later still, it was the name she would give the cardinal, even the king. The latter had been a gamble- what must the king have thought of her when she said it?- but it had seemed like the best option. Sharing even something as small as her real name had gone so badly in the past.  

Being Useful

Athos spent most of the morning doing whatever it is musketeer captains do   Anne, likewise, spent it as she had spent most of her days since the war broke out- reorganizing papers, filing their contents away in her mind. Whatever came next for her, there was no way to be sure what would next prove worth knowing.

The system Anne had come up with was an intuitive one; it wasn’t as though Athos would need her if he wanted to find anything, although she would be lying if she said the notion didn’t carry some allure.

When Athos returned she had papers in her hand, and it was a strange mirror of the previous night- except that she took a breath to steady herself and looked right at him where he lingered in the doorway. Except that he looked… so different. He still looked a little tired, and little thin, a little battered around the edges- perhaps musketeers always did- but his eyes were alight. He’d gotten that look back at La Fere, sometimes, when he’d come up with something he thought was particularly clever. She’d wondered if that kind of hope had been battered right out of him. Perhaps not.

He lingered in the doorway for a moment, silent, taking her in. Just as she thought about saying something he crossed to her, fingers gentle on the sides of her face. He didn’t speak at first, but his eyes telegraphed the notion well enough. Athos confused her, but there were some things that had always made perfect sense between them. “May I?” he asked.

She nodded and met him halfway.

He didn’t kiss her anywhere near as fiercely as he had before, in Rochefort’s office- there was a different energy to it, something softer but just as focused. Her fingers gripped leather and she pulled him closer. He went willingly, following her the step or two back until she hit the desk and then lifting her easily to sit on it.

When he drew back he rested close to her, breathing heavily. “Anne.”

“Hmm?”

“Are you happy?” Athos asked.

His tone suggested… something. It was a leading question, that much Anne knew, and she stiffened a little. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that…” He sighed and started again: “I suspect you’ve been… satisfied, in your way, being queen of this… rather unimpressive little castle. But are you happy?”

“I’m not unhappy,” she said, but even she could hear the ‘yet.’ She liked herself, who she was and where she was, right at this moment, but she had never been good as standing still. Bad things happened to her when she did. “I would like to be doing… more. To be useful.”

He nodded.

She let herself touch his face. “We didn’t work together so badly did we, you and I?”

“No.” He looked down. “But I’m the captain now. And I can’t-”

Anne’s gut twisted and she slipped off the desk. He backed up to let her go and she made a circuit of the room, arms crossed protectively over her chest. She knew exactly why he couldn’t give her missions as Treville might have done. She wasn’t even sure he was wrong. But she was very sure that this was a good example of why she should have gotten on that ship to England after Catherine and never looked back.

Her back was to him when he said, “The queen is attempting to finesse a peace with Spain- from both sides, you understand. After what happened with Rochefort, she isn’t much happier with the country of her birth than the rest of us, but peace is in everyone’s best interests. It’s very much of out my particular sphere, but necessary. And I’m sure this will not be the only time when it will be so. She could use your… expertise.”

She kept very still. “You would recommend me to her?”

“If you wished it, yes. I don’t know if you would answer to her or to Treville- but it would not be to me, do you understand?”  

“Yes.” Anne swallowed, heavily, and managed to half look at him.

“And?” he asked.

“Well.” She didn’t have it in her anymore, to say the words, say what she really thought. Perhaps one day- perhaps even soon- she would get them back. Until then- “It’s not the worst idea you’ve ever had.”       

Comtesse de la Fere

She wondered sometimes- too often- if Athos thought she’d planned it, the way they met, what happened after. She hadn’t.

She hadn’t been there for Athos.

Sarazin had learned early on how apt his nickname had been and that she could play the part of a noblewoman when it suited her. Anne had watched and learned on the street for a long time- picked up little tricks, like the tilt of the head and the haughty, lazy look in the eyes. Anne could have been dressed in rags and passed for a lady if she had a mind to, but Sarazin had bigger plans.

How he got a hold of the invitations Anne didn’t know. Sarazin got her in, that was what mattered. From there, she would either attach herself to a man and learn whatever secrets he might not want to get out, or she would scope out the household, learn about the entrances and exits, the staff, what was especially valuable and where it was kept. As for what Sarazin did with that information… it was her privilege to not know. Anne had earned as much, in what was by that time many years of service.

She’d had a particular target that night- not Athos, oh no, some other man- and it had not gone well. Not that he was particularly canny- quite the opposite- only that there are secrets that it is dangerous to have and secrets that is dangerous to know, and Sarazin wasn’t in the business of the latter and Anne had no desire to be. Later, she would learn things that men died by the hundreds over and consider it all in a day’s work, but she was younger then- too young to shake such things off as if they didn’t matter.

She escaped him in during the dance, transferring from his arms into someone else’s and saying to him, without even looking at him properly, “I don’t suppose you would pretend to be my lover and scare off an unwanted suitor.”

The words were calculated, to be sure- and they had thrown many men off-balance before. But those men had not been Athos.

He was younger then, too. Even stiffer than he would be later in life, he did not take to being startled well. He said, “No,” the same way she had made her proposition to him, startled, without looking or assessing at all. It was only after that their eyes met.

Looking back, Anne was disgusted at the way the world seemed to melt away. She did not think him handsome, especially. She did not find the awkward way he held himself or the flush just spreading down his neck disarming, nor did she consider the shocked, slightly stern gaze he turned on her particularly compelling.

But there was… something. Something in the way his fingers curled around her waist as he held her that felt… safe, and something in the way his eyes took her in and seemed to see beyond her pretty- stolen- gown, beyond the way she held her head, that looked all the way into the secret soul that only in her silliest moments did she even believe existed. Anne did not need to be saved, especially not by some baron or count who could never understand what she’d been through- so why did she look at him and think, ‘This is the man to save me’?  

But the world had not melted away, and her… target was in hot pursuit. “Excuse me,” he blustered. “But the lady and I were talking.”

“No doubt,” Athos had replied, so frigidly Anne would not be surprised if an icicle developed on her target’s nose. “But since the lady is my wife, you will have to forgive her.”

Anne’s target considered his next move for a moment, and seemed to decide to take a risk: “Forgive me,” he said, “for not knowing. I did not recognize her, as I do not recognize you.”

“I am rarely in Paris.” Athos had bowed, sharply. “I am the Comte de la Fere.”

Something about that made Anne’s target pale and turn away as if he’d been set aflame. She looked at this man, this Comte de la Fere, who puzzled her as no man ever had before, “What scared him off so quickly?”

“You don’t know-" his brows lifted.  "Forgive me, I assumed you chose me.”

“A coincidence,” Anne said. “You are rarely in Paris.”

“Indeed.” He didn’t smile, but his eyes crinkled in a manner that was almost warmer than a smile. “I have a reputation.”

“As a jealous husband?”

“No, I am not married. As a duelist. In some circles I am considered the best swordsman in France.”

“Well, then,” Anne managed. “Thank you. But you said you wouldn’t help me.”

“No. I said I would not pretend to be your lover.” His mouth did turn upward then, crookedly- and then, somehow, he was handsome, and disarming, and compelling. And for a moment she just… wanted. She wanted to be his wife and she wanted to be the Comtesse de la Fere, and she wanted both very fiercely and for too many reasons to keep straight in her head. She would have money and position. Her honor, such as it was, would be protected by the best swordsman in France. She would get away from Sarazin and the work he did before someone was arrested, or before she got caught up in something she couldn’t talk her way out of. She would see this man’s odd, lopsided little smile every day, and that surprised look that came over him whenever he thought he had the measure of her, and found that he was wrong.

She didn’t realize that he was still holding her hand until he bowed over it, bent further and kissed it lightly.

He might have said something, but she only knew that he was turning away. A part of her dismissed her girlish fantasy a moment before as just that and nothing more; another part of her was already running after it. Anne had never had to pursue a man before. Then again, she had never wished to. “Will I see you again?” she asked, catching his sleeve.

Again he looked surprised- surprised that she was interested? She could work with that. “If you wish,” he said, and paused, as if waiting for a name.

“Anne,” she said. “My name is Anne.”

“Anne,” he repeated.

She liked how it sounded in that careful, cultured voice- like it was something better than it was, ethereal and dignified. She let a smile she felt all the way to her bones loose.

Girlish fantasy or no, they were married a week later.

The Job

Once Athos had her permission to move matters forward, they moved quickly and she was brought before the queen.

Besides a few glances exchanged in the heat of a moment, Anne had not properly seen the queen since she was the king’s mistress, and it made for a less than pleasant reunion.

The queen spent a long time just looking at her. When she spoke at last, she said: “I asked Athos if I could trust you.”

“And what did he say?” Anne tried very hard to keep any emotion out of her voice.

“That he is still learning who you are,” the queen replied.

“Ah,” was all Anne said. Anything more, and she would have failed.

The queen changed the subject, fractionally- whether because she sensed that Anne was mildly in distress, or for another reason, Anne didn’t know. “I was never overly fond of Cardinal Richelieu,” the queen said. “But France, if not I myself, has missed him since he’s been gone. You did work for him?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“And you could do it again?”

Anne’s gut twisted very slightly as she considered her response. Failing the king himself- and that bridge was well and truly burned- she couldn’t ask for a more powerful patron than the queen, and what was more she was moderate, practical, and possessed of a strong will, three things her husband was not. A part of Anne wanted to say that she could, and would, do anything required of her. Another part… the first time she had killed, it had been out of necessity; that part of Anne desperately wanted the last to be the same. “That would depend,” she said after a while.

Something about this seemed to please the queen, and she said, “Have a seat.”

The Crossroads

Catherine had planned her next salvo better than the first one.

She had hired men with her- Catherine alone Anne probably could have handled, but there were too many. Anne would need to come up with a plan on the road. Luckily, Catherine’s men hijacked Anne’s carriage, and Anne didn’t need to overhear them talking to know that Catherine meant to take her to le Fere.

Anne decided that she would not go back to that place, one way or another. Catherine joined her inside, pistol turned on her, and was mercifully silent while the carriage began to move.

Anne decided to break the silence herself. “I am sorry about Thomas,” she said, “in one respect. The two of you deserved each other.”

It was true, in a way. Thomas had been many things, but not especially bright. Thomas, who had claimed to know everything about her and still tried to use what he knew to manipulate her, as if he knew the first thing about what it was to be desperate. Anne had been desperate many times, but never so desperate as she had been when she realized that after everything, she still wasn’t truly safe.  

But Catherine, who had only ever wanted to be Athos’ wife, snarled and struck her.

Good, Anne thought, tasting blood as her cheek cut on her teeth. That was precisely what she had been hoping Catherine would do.

“I knew you for a killer from the start,” Catherine said. “And you will die as one.”

That almost, almost surprised Anne, but this was Catherine. She couldn’t possibly understand. Anne had done many things before Thomas, most of them illegal, but she had never killed. If she had- if she had been anything but astonished but the feel of blood on her hands, if it hadn’t taken her several moments to even register that it had been a knife she struck at him with, that he’d fallen, that he’d died- she would damn well have handled herself better than she had. If she had been the killer Catherine had so quickly convinced Athos she had always been, she might have even found a way to change his mind about her, convince him that she was no murderer. There was a great deal of irony in that.

“Perhaps I will,” Anne said. “But not today.”  

Not unlike with Thomas, she’d only half processed Catherine's blade fitted in her hand until was already plunging deep. She’d told herself over and over that she wouldn’t do this again, and what for? She had to protect herself, and Catherine was dangerous and unstable and if she let Catherine or her men kill her on the way to le Fere, how would she ever get back to Athos?

And then she cursed herself for thinking only of him and how to convince him she had been justified while she cleaned blood off her hands, like somehow seeing herself as a good person in his eyes was more important than being alive.

But she would get back to him. She would walk right back into the musketeers’ garrison, no matter that he had never come to meet her, no matter that he was apparently able to let her go. What she would do next she was less sure about, but she would live, and she would see him again.  

Begin Again

The queen’s proposal was a sound one. Anne would not, in fact, be doing the same work she had for the cardinal. She would be a spymaster, of sorts- making sure the queen’s wishes were carried out without her ever being directly involved. The work would rarely take her out of Paris, a fact which pleased Anne more than she had wanted it to. Did she really so desperately want to make her home in the Musketeer’s garrison? She didn’t know, but she did enjoy the thought of the queen’s spymaster and the captain of the king’s musketeers, building a better France together.     

When she walked through the marketplace on her way back to the garrison, Anne stopped at one of the vendor’s stalls and bought an apple. As she lingered, a tiny body brushed against her, so light she almost didn’t notice.

She reached out by instinct and turned around to find that she was gripping a small girl by the skinny shoulder. The girl had quite skillfully made Anne’s purse disappear, but it was somewhere all the same. Anne regarded her in silence for a moment. On the one hand, there was the principle of the thing. True, there was very little actually in the purse- most of Anne’s collateral was not in the form of coin, and most of what she did have had not been on her person- but that wasn’t really what mattered.  

On the other hand- well, that was the other hand. What did matter, really, besides that she had a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in that was unlikely to be cold for the foreseeable future, and honest employment?

Anne looked at the child long enough to be certain she knew she’d been caught- and by a woman of stature, as it would no doubt seem to her, no less, and it didn’t do to be that sloppy- and then released her.

She continued on her way, thinking of what she would do with Athos would she got back. He wasn’t exhausted anymore, and if his mood from earlier had held… well, it had been too long since she’d touched him properly.    

She went home.