Chapter Fourteen
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Chapter Fourteen 

 

“That isn’t going to-!”Annette shrieks, her chest collapsing into the wall before her. Cordelia’s body topples with her, sending the two of them tumbling towards the wood floors. 

Annette cackles, though Cordelia recovers far more quickly. She grabs Annette by the ankles and drags her closer, pulling her knees apart and kissing the inner sides of her thighs. Annette is still laughing as the detective’s actions leave her panting, and she enjoys the effervescent warmth in her chest, marveling at the majesty and the silliness of it all. 

“It seems to me that this is working quite well,” Cordelia’s eyes dart up to meet hers, a twinkling satisfaction in the corners of them. 

Annette tosses her head back and giggles. “I suppose that a backup plan is still sufficient in bringing me enjoyment,” she concedes. 

“Perhaps I intended you to fall all along.”

“Then I should suspect you are a poor planner indeed.”

Cordelia grins, gripping her fingers alongside the edges of Annette’s panties. “Careful, Miss Baker. If my feelings are wounded too deeply I may give up the fight.”

“Preposterous,” she shakes her head. “You’re too eager to see my pleasure.” 

Annette’s eyes pull closed as Cordelia’s kisses find her sensitive skin. She inhales sharply, her chest tight with the tensions of expectation. 

“Then prepare yourself,” Cordelia threatens playfully, “For I find myself quite eager this morning.” 

 

– – – 

“It’s more of a bob to the side than an outright duck,” Cordelia corrects as the afternoon draws on. Annette adjusts the wraps on her hands and wipes away the thick band of sweat on her forehead. 

“That’s what I did,” she defends, “I tried to keep my motion quick and only move as far as necessary.”

“Still too far,” Cordelia rolls her shoulders and returns her hands to a defensive position in front of her face, her knees bent and her feet light. “You’re expending more energy in defense than you need, and it’ll make it more difficult to counterstrike.” 

“Very well, I shall-,”

Annette yelps softly as Cordelia’s next punch undercuts towards her stomach without warning, and she quickly leaps back to dodge it. The detective keeps up the pressure, sending another combo of strikes that glance off of the outside of Annette’s forearms, narrowly blocked by an automatic reaction from her. Annette fights to keep her guard up, pushing Cordelia’s blows to the side or ducking under the heavier ones; the detective is far stronger, and despite being larger she is significantly faster than Annette. 

But then, Annette notices a rhythm to Cordelia’s strikes, a sort of pattern of put-put-POH; two smaller blows followed by a faster punch. She takes a hasty breath and lets the pattern play out once again to test her recognition. On the next iteration, she makes an overdramatic duck on the heavy blow, and just as Cordelia’s next light strike descends, Annette allows it to strike her side, pushing through the dull pain in order to make an aggressive leaping punch at the detective. She throws her whole weight into the attack, carrying her body forward to follow it, and feels her fist crash into Cordelia’s ribcage. 

Annette’s weight launches her forward and she topples into Cordelia, sending them flying down to the makeshift mat they had assembled in the living room. They land with a heavy thud, and Annette’s breath is pushed out of her from the impact; and it seems as though Cordelia feels the same. She buries her head into the detective’s chest, her skin wet and slick, and savors the feeling of their skin pressing into one another as she recovers her breath. Cordelia had insisted they be unhindered by burdensome clothes, and so the pair of them wore only a set of wraps to keep their breasts in place, underwear, and a loose pair of trousers. 

“I… I believe that means I win this round,” Annette mumbles, “does it not?” 

Cordelia’s chest puffs out with a laugh. “I am quite sure you’ve just committed a foul in the sport.” 

“There are no fouls in self-defense,” Annette grins. 

“Then I concede the round,” Cordelia’s arm wraps around her shoulders. “With the knowledge you would have lost had we been truly boxing.” 

“Nonsense,” Annette kisses her collarbone. “I was going easy on you.” 

Cordelia barks out a series of laughs, delightedly smiling at Annette. Underneath it, Annette knows there’s a small amount of pride in the sport that meant Cordelia would not truly concede the point, but she smiles with the understanding the detective was content to allow her this tiny victory. 

“Now…” Annette lifts her head up, sliding her legs more directly between Cordelia’s and feeling her sweaty skin stick to the fabric, “I find myself in the position of having fallen atop a conquered maiden…” 

“Oho, conquered am I?” 

“Clearly,” Annette smirks. “And I feel that perhaps I should take my reward with her.” 

“How could I possibly refuse?” Cordelia lays back, her face flushed with more than just exertion from sport. “I cannot, for I’ve been bested it seems.” 

Annette kisses her, feeling an excited hunger pour forth out of her. She can feel her clit straining in her panties, and the feeling of their hot and slick skin intertwining leaves her quite bothered. 

“Then prepare yourself,” Annette beams, “for I should like my prize for the duration of this evening.” 

 

– – – 

 

“Come now,” Annette restrains her giggles. “I am sure it looks nothing of the sort.” 

She reclines in the comfortable chair in Cordelia’s study, her feet kicked up onto the table and her hands tucked contentedly behind her head. There’s a small pour of cider in a whiskey glass on the desk, a necessary replacement drink for Cordelia simply to combat the habit, and she takes another sip from it. 

“Miss Baker,” Cordelia’s voice chirps back from behind the door of her bedroom. “It has been quite some time since I have-,”

“Have no fear,” she interrupts, “for I promise not to laugh!” 

“Well, then I have little choice in the matter,” Cordelia replies. Annette can easily imagine the begrudging and secretly amused scowl decorating her lovely face. Her chest flutters excitedly as she can hear Cordelia step towards the door, turning the lock to reveal herself. 

“It’s wretched, I know.” 

Nonsense!” Annette chips back, standing to marvel at her. “You look positively lovely!”

“You’re being too kind,” Cordelia rolls her eyes. 

Annette leaps forward and embraces her, then steps back to take in the scene once more. Cordelia sports one of Annette’s dresses; a long cotton skirt with wide shoulder straps, positioned over a long button-up shirt. Cordelia does a nervous twirl, pursing her lips bashfully, while Annette beams at her. 

“You look beautiful,” Annette insists. 

“It feels unnatural.” 

“I thank you for indulging me.”

Cordelia looks away and blushes. “I find myself… surprisingly open to suggestions that would bring you satisfaction.” 

Annette raises a hand to her cheek and pulls her into a thoughtful and appreciative kiss. “Consider me satisfied.” She takes a final look at the novel image of Cordelia in a dress and waves her away. “Now, go change, you’ve indulged me long enough.” 

“But, Miss Baker,” Cordelia’s lip tils up mischievously, “I cannot help but wonder if there is any other way I might satisfy you?”

“Ahh…. There is,” Annette whispers back, pushing Cordelia back against the wall. “It seems it isn’t only my submission you were interested in exploring.” 

“Well,” Cordelia blushes, “we’ve explored that this afternoon, last night, last afternoon, that morning, and the morning before… I’d not wish to risk your boredom.” 

“You must really care for me, indeed,” Annette marvels. 

“I thought it quite obvious.” 

Annette kisses her cheek and slips away to recline on the chair at the desk, opening her legs wide and squaring her shoulders commandingly. “Then come prove it to me once more…” 

“At once, Miss Baker,” Cordelia grins.

 

– – – 

 

Annette and Cordelia kiss for what feels like hours. It likely was, as the morning dew seems to melt away and be replaced by the early afternoon sun. The bed in Annette’s room might be smaller than the grand mattress in Cordelia’s, but there was a homely comfort in it, nestled up so close, just under the delightful window with the sun shining through. The cool air of a late autumn day only gives more satisfaction to the warmth between them.

The kiss is a gentle one, and carries on unhurried for as long as the two desire, wrapped into each other's arms and trading which partner would lay atop the other. There was such a comfort to it, such a restoration in it, and Annette knew well that it was an intoxicating feeling of lightness. It was a feeling of all the world melting away, along with all of its noise and complications and frustrations and history and whatever else it might wish to throw in the way of the only thing that could possibly matter: the sweet, unending, and delightfully timid embrace of a person one could not bear parting from. 

There are times when Cordelia’s kiss is commanding and filling. There are times when it is gentle and emotive. And still, there are times when it is receptive and grateful. She contained multitudes, and Annette feels blessed with each new window into her that she is granted. The walls had come down, the defenses shuttered. She gave Annette the precious and unfathomably valuable gift of bearing her whole, unguarded soul to her, and Annette resolves to hold it with the most deliberate kindness she can. 

There are things about Cordelia she’d never noticed before, and possibly that Cordelia made great effort into hiding. When the detective was excited, she would often circle the pads of her fingers against one another, releasing the jittering energy. Her eyes are seldom at rest, constantly flicking around the room and observing everything that she can. Her sense of smell was remarkable, and Annette had blushed fiercely each time Cordelia revealed a new note of scent buried underneath Annette’s normal odor. Recently, the detective had decided there was just a hint of the fragrant bark of an olive tree mixed in, and Annette had giggled with her for hours about it.

Their kiss pauses and restarts every-so-often, calmly retreating into the feeling of simply holding one another. Annette’s mind feels so free and gentle against the soft warmth of Cordelia’s body. Gone were her incessant ruminations about her guilt or shame. Gone was the feeling of panic that they might be found out at any moment. And gone was the fear that perhaps she was committing the gravest error of all: fooling herself into believing she deserved such intimacy and kindness. Cordelia has a remarkable way of holding her by the cheek, staring deep into her eyes, and professing to the majesty of her person. She speaks with such adoring conviction that it soon after becomes impossible to believe anything else might be true. 

“I…” Annette begins softly, burying her face into Cordelia’s neck. 

“I’m well aware, Miss Baker,” Cordelia runs her hands through Annette’s hair, stroking the back of her head with a sweet tenderness. 

“I need to say it, I think.” 

Cordelia kisses her temple. “Then I shall listen with great rapture.” 

“I love you, Cordelia.” 

“And I, you, Annette.” 

“I love you so ardently,” she sighs, squeezing the detective tightly. 

Cordelia exhales a contented breath. “I have loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you.” 

“Liar,” Annette puffs, blowing air against her cheek. “You told me you first thought you loved me the night I stole Bembrook’s letter and your clothes.” 

“Perhaps I’d like it to be true, then,” Cordelia admits, her voice sweet and filled with longing, “that I knew instinctively you were all that I desired when your lovely personage first arrived at my door.” 

“I wasn’t ready then,” Annette says, almost as though forgiving her. 

“I suppose I wasn’t either,” Cordelia rolls onto her side, meeting Annette’s gaze. “Being with you now… well, it feels as though every moment before was simply a waste of my time.” 

Annette kisses her. “I don’t think that-,”

“Of course it wasn’t a waste,” Cordelia smirks and completes. She runs her thumb across Annette’s cheek. “I’m sure I could not be this person you so cherish had it not been for all that came before. But, it feels good to say.” 

“It feels good to hear,” Annette affirms. 

“If all the world vanished today, leaving only you and I behind…” Cordelia lays back and stares at the ceiling, her voice full of promise and yearning. “I think it would be enough. I think I would still be content.” 

“You have great faith in my untiring ability to entertain your whimsy,” she jokes. 

Cordelia laughs. “I suppose we’d have to learn to garden. We’d need to eat.” 

“I cannot, from any dark place in my mind, conjure up the image of you farming for a living,” Annette teases. 

“Well of course you would do the gardening,” Cordelia supplies quickly, “I would have to be our hunter.” 

“Tell yourself that, if you must.” 

“I’d garden with you,” she concedes, “if only to watch your gorgeous hands work so meticulously and effortlessly.” 

“All your talk of agriculture is making me hungry.” 

“Then allow me to sweep you away for an early dinner,” Cordelia decides, slowly rising and stretching comfortably. 

“I believe it’s simply called ‘lunch.’” 

“I will carry you away to it nonetheless,” she boasts. 

Annette wraps her arms around the detective and pulls her back down, “No!” She giggles. “I’m not done laying with you.” 

“The day does have to begin sometime, dear Annette,” Cordelia indulges her, slipping back under the covers to join her. “But I suppose beginning a half hour from now works just as well.” 

Annette’s stomach gurgles loudly in protest, and the two of them laugh and relent from the task of ignoring the day. They shuffle out of bed and Cordelia retreats to her room to quickly get dressed, while Annette does the same, watching the detective leave and feeling a deep comfort in her person. She throws on her dress and does her best to make her short hair less disheveled, descending downstairs to wait for Cordelia. Harold sits patiently on a small perch by the dining room window, and Annette places a dish of seeds out for him and affectionately strokes the feathers on his cheek. 

This is your life, a little voice inside celebrates, and Annette turns to gaze around 167th Mill Street with an appreciation to call it home. It was her home. She had a home. The thought bounces contentedly inside of her. 

Cordelia smiles as she sees Annette, flicking the straps of her suspenders to get her attention and strutting down the stairs. She throws on her long winter trench coat and a matching gray hat, gesturing for Annette to lead the way. She places a quick kiss on Cordelia’s cheek, retrieves her own coat, and prances out onto the steps in the cold afternoon. She is just about to make a quick remark about the weather, when a voice stops her in her tracks. 

“Miss Baker.” 

Annette freezes, recognizing the raspy and scornful tone instantly, and feels herself halt in place. “Sister Pullwater,” she croaks, her stomach dropping with fear of revealing anything with Cordelia. “How lovely to-,”

“Don’t lie to me, girl,” the nun wags a finger. She stands just a little ways away from the front porch, and seems as though she was second away from knocking at their door. 

“Why are you here?” 

Cordelia steps forth, pushing past Annette and quickly placing herself between the two of them, acting as a human shield for her. “Sister Pullwater,” she greets, her arms tightly placed behind her back. “Have you come calling for the sole purpose of rediscovering that you are unwelcome in my home?” 

“I’ve come to speak with Miss Baker,” she declares. 

Cordelia nods briskly. “Then I shall answer your request straightaway: no.”

“Miss Jones,” Annette says behind her, “I’m sure it will be-,”

“I’m afraid we are about to be off on important business, dear Sister,” the detective continues, “and cannot be disturbed from it.” 

“Father Thomas has passed,” Pullwater says quickly, her eyes fixed upon Annette.

Annette is surprised to find herself concerned by the statement. “What? When?”

“Two nights ago,” she answers, stepping to the side to speak directly to the servant. Pullwater clears her throat and adds, “Having lived under his direction at the orphanage, I felt you deserved to know.” 

“Thank you for telling me,” Annette replies quietly.

“Indeed,” Cordelia steps forth. “Now, we must be off.” 

Cordelia leads Annette forward, walking past the Sister and beginning their journey down the street. But, before they’ve gone more than a few steps, Pullwater calls out to them. 

“Father Billings has asked to speak with you.” 

Cordelia turns sharply. “All business regarding the return of the contract has been settled.” 

“Not you,” Pullwater grumbles. “Miss Baker.” 

“Why? Annette furrows her brow. 

“Is it not enough that I ask?” The nun frowns, her voice shaking and hoarse. “I recall a time when you trusted me to watch over you.” 

Cordelia tosses a concerned look over at Annette and steps between them again. “Miss Baker and I must be-,”

“A moment, Miss Jones,” Annette sighs. “If I may.” 

The detective’s eyes carefully dart over Annette, trying to determine how serious she was. She purses her lips, but supplies a curt nod and paces away to give them privacy. Annette shakes her head as Pullwater walks over to her. 

“I guided you,” Pullwater lectures. “I supported you. I protected you from the scorn of all those who wished to deny you your rebirth.” 

Annette ignores her guilting. “Why does Simon wish to speak with me?” 

“He is taking the passing of Father Thomas quite poorly.” 

“So comfort him,” she shrugs. 

Pullwater is quiet for a moment, and when she speaks again her voice is low and measured, as though concerned she might be overheard. “I believe the pressures of presiding over the congregation are frightening him… I worry he will not last without intervention. If he leaves, there is no one to hold mass.” 

“Pity.”

“Mind your tongue,” the Sister scolds. “Without mass we have no tithe. Without a tithe we have little to support the orphanage with. It will take ages to replace him. Think of the children, Miss Baker. Think of Judith.”

“And you believe I could somehow prevent this?”

“He asked for you by name.”

Annette exhales a tense breath. “I’m not sure that I can-,”

“Please,” Pullwater pleads, clasping her hands together tightly. “Please. I beg of you.”

Annette frowns, suspicious. “If this is some ploy to convince me to marry him-,”

“It isn’t!” She hisses. “You’ve made your hostility to that suggestion quite clear, and while I wish you would come to your senses and-,”

“I have a condition,” the servant interrupts. 

Pullwater pauses apprehensively. “... tell me.”

“I want to see Judith as well.”

“I cannot simply ignore your transgress-,”

“Good day, Sister,” Annette smiles, moving to walk away.

“Fine!” Pullwater grabs her hand and halts her, her face contorted with frustration and acquiescence. “You may speak with her.”

“And not just this once,” Annette adds on. “I want to be able to visit her as often as I wish, provided she allows it.” 

Pullwater’s eyes peer into her harshly. “You are truly willing to hold my needs hostage for your own gain?”

“You’re no victim,” Annette cuts back. “These are my terms.”

“... you may visit Judith as much as you wish,” the sister relents. “If she agrees.” 

Annette nods, strolling back over to Cordelia, who watches the streets quietly in the cool afternoon sun. Her hands are still tucked behind her back, and her posture is frozen in such a way that Annette knows she was making a great effort to eavesdrop. 

“Apologies, Miss Jones,” Annette says gently, “but the Sister is quite desperate in her need, and my heart is moved for my former home.”

Cordelia steps close, dropping her voice to a concerned whisper. “Do you need me to put a stop to this?”

“Not at the moment. I’ll be fine.”

“A mild disappointment,” Cordelia smirks. She takes a long breath, taking in the brisk air. “Very well, Miss Baker.” 

“Thank you,” Annette smiles back. “And I apologize for canceling our scandalously early dinner plans.” 

“Sister Pullwater?” Cordelia calls back to the nun, waving her over. “Miss Baker is yours for the afternoon. Please ensure she receives lunch.” 

Cordelia places a quick hand on Annette’s shoulder and squeezes it, careful that she conveys enough warmth that Annette feels supported, but not too much familiarity that the Sister might be suspicious. She tips her hat at the two of them and sighs, strolling off down the opposite side of the street. Annette turns quickly, beginning the short walk over to the cathedral nearby. 

“I despise your hair,” Pullwater chokes out. “You look like a man.”

Annette runs a hand through her short hair, her neck cold from having to have her collar exposed. “I assure you, my breasts seem to prevent men from making the same accusation.” 

“What was the point in all of this if you were simply intending to act as a man regardless of your rebirth?” Pullwater complains, her hands waving accusingly. “Trying to keep your hair short, always playing in the dirt, sinning with every woman you meet… Why waste the Lord’s gift like this?”

“I’ve not sinned in such a way with you, dear Sister,” Annette quips back. “Unless you do not count under ‘every woman?’”

“Feeling bold today, are we?”

“Feeling immune to your critiques,” she shrugs. 

“What a waste of my efforts,” the nun grumbles and increases her walking pace slightly. 

Annette furrows her brow, but keeps her voice calm and measured. “My happiness matters so little in your calculations?” 

Pullwater scoffs. “How many souls do you believe meet the Lord in the next life and ask him the same question, only to be cast down below instead?”

“Enough to believe the Lord should devise a new strategy for measuring the work of men,” Annette answers quickly. 

“I didn’t realize you possessed the infinite wisdom of the heavens, Miss Baker.”

“Only on Tuesdays.”

The nun frowns deeply. “It’s Wednesday.”

Annette puffs out a quick peal of laughter. She truly had thought it was Tuesday, and it seems that in her blissful state with Cordelia at home, she had entirely lost track of the correct date. She maintains her sarcasm, and replies, “Then I shall provide a more satisfactory answer next week.” 

They arrive at a small home built just beside St. Bartholomew’s cathedral, set aside for the local clergy. It’s comfortable and well-kept, with a small garden out front that Annette remembers helping tend to while she was growing up. Sister Pullwater leaves her at the door, passing along one final supportive smile that could be mistaken for a scowl. Annette takes a breath and steps inside. 

She finds Simon sitting in a large recliner in the center of the cozy living room. Each wall is covered with large bookshelves and adorned with holy images and icons, perfectly situated as the library of a priest who loved to read as Father Thomas had. Simon sits motionless, with his palms gripping each arm of the chair and his face staring vacantly out into the room. Annette creeps into his field of view and remains standing. 

“I’ve been told you wished to speak with me?” She asks quietly. 

“Miss Baker,” Simon greets, his voice containing a warmth that didn’t meet his empty expression. “How are you?”

Annette returns a concerned smile. “How are you?”

“Quite well,” he smiles. 

She frowns, looking over his unsettled and frozen demeanor. “You seem… well.”

“I’ve decided something recently that has helped tremendously,” he chirps up, still hardly meeting her eye. 

“Oh?”

Simon nods, speaking as though all of the answers in his life might be settled by this singular statement. “You are my problem.”

“If that is what you have decided.”

“No, think about it,” he insists, clasping his hands together and placing them in his lap. “Before I met you, I felt quite prepared to endure great suffering for the sake of the Lord. I welcomed it.” He drops his shoulders. “But then I met you, and everything inside feels rotten once more. You ruined me.” 

Annette purses her lips, looking away and hiding her full frustration. “Not the worst confession of love I’ve ever received,” she quips. 

“It isn’t love,” he growls. 

“Forgive me if I feel relief upon hearing that.” 

Annette stares him down, trying to read through the scattered array of emotions on his face. He holds her gaze for a moment, meeting her determined position with an equal force, until he folds in on himself. He throws his head into his hands and groans. 

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he shakes his head. “I’m a priest now. I shouldn’t be speaking this way.” Simon lifts himself up, takes a shallow breath, and places another fake warmth into his expression. “What brings you here today?”

“... Your summons, father?”

Simon collapses in on himself immediately, dropping deep into the chair and letting his face fill with a look of grave horror. “I can’t do this,” he whispers, running his hands frightfully through his hair. “I can’t do this.”

“Then step aside.” 

“I can’t do that either.”

Annette folds her arms across her chest. “Send for a replacement priest.” 

“I mean that I cannot leave this place,” Simon exhales a shaky breath. When he speaks, his voice is filled with the panic of a man who is building his own fortress around himself. “The priesthood is my only refuge. It is the only place I can be.”

Annette swallows her frustration and forces herself to feel as much compassion for him as she can. She doesn’t exactly succeed, so she settles for a functional pity instead. She takes a seat in the reading chair next to him and sits in silence for a long moment, coming to understand his meaning. 

“You never told me his name,” she says. 

“Peter,” he sighs weakly. “I recognize the irony.”

“Irony?”

“Simon Peter, the disciple,” he explains. 

Annette nods. “What was he like?” 

Simon shakes his head slowly and frantically. “Please don’t ask me to think of him. Not now.”

She pushes forward, gently repeating, “What was he like?”

He looks at her, testing her seriousness, and closes his eyes for a breath, almost as though recalling the image of Peter. “He was kind,” Simon’s voice fills with tender nostalgia and longing. “God, there’s so few kind men in the world. He was gentle and quiet, and he loved nature. We used to take long walks by the river back home and talk for hours.” 

“What would you talk about?”

“Poetry,” Simon sighs wishfully. “Philosophy. Why the ducks looked the way they did. Why a willow tree was so beautiful. Everything.” 

Annette smiles. “You seem calmer when you speak of him.”

Simon leans over and glares at her, his eyes filled with fear and urgency. “I’m burning up, Miss Baker.” 

“Annette,” she says quietly. 

“I feel rabid,” he leans back into the chair and stares at the ceiling. “It’s like my mind has been bewitched. And it is all because of you.”

“It isn’t because of me,” Annette replies calmly. “You know that.” 

Simon nods and closes his eyes. “I know.”

“So why are you actually angry with me?” 

“You are constantly running headfirst into sin, with little-to-no care about it whatsoever,” he grumbles, “and it's working for you. The ground hasn’t opened up to swallow you.”

Annette laughs politely, sympathy filling her voice. “It doesn’t tend to do that.”

“But it should,” he insists. “It’s supposed to.”

“Are you happy, Simon?”

“What does that matter? Sin brings nothing but ruin upon-,”

“I am,” she interrupts the spiral she could tell he was about to descend down. “Happy, that is. Tremendously so.” 

“You shouldn’t be,” he whines.

“And yet I will be regardless,” she shrugs peaceably. “Am I to believe the holy life is one where I live in misery for every day on this earth, only to possibly find happiness in the next life?”

Simon’s voice fills with the tone of a man who has been in the church long enough he’s forgotten how to answer in any other way. “The scriptures say God’s presence brings unending joy.”

“Then my heaven must include a woman’s touch,” she asserts, ignoring his scandalized glare. “I will never be happy without it, in this life or the next. Don’t make yourself miserable.” 

Simon sighs once more and mulls over her words. Instead of replying, he reaches over to the small desk beside his chair and retrieves an envelope. “He wrote to me,” he says weakly. “We haven’t spoken in years but then he wrote to me. On the eve of Father Thomas’ death, no less.” 

 

“Is this what has sent you spiraling?”

Simon nods slowly. “It’s been years. What could he possibly say?”

“It seems you’ll have to open it.”

He frowns and shoves the letter towards her. “Would you?”

Annette takes a long breath and ponders the decision for a moment. But, as she sees the turmoil in his eyes and the conflict across his face, she feels moved to kindness. “Yes,” she exhales. She takes the letter from him, opens it, and reads it aloud:

 

“Dear Simon, 

 

‘What stories could dare lift the branches of willows?

Call them friends, whoever cross twixt their curtains.

For a willow must only tell stories befitting the weight of ages; 

Ages long forgotten and ages never lost. 

Comrades who stand the trials and turmoils of time, and if their efforts, 

demand to withstand the partition of days apart. 

Brothers, friends, lovers all the same:

Who but a willow could measure their worth, and in so doing, 

proclaim the undying love all things must carry?’

 

I met myself beneath a willow, and so too, met you on a day never forgotten, never past. I seem to recall you were afraid of nothing but the bees, and that I loved all I could see under and about the world so near to me. When conjuring the memory of your final day greeting me alongside Mother Willow, my heart can never decide if it is more convenient to sigh or to sorrow; and I’ve often indulged both. How wretched it is to miss a friend so dearly, how pitiful not to reconnect after so long, and in so doing, be made whole once more. You said once, on a day more beautiful than even this unique sun I write to you under, that I almost felt like a lost half to your soul, necessary to restore you to completeness. 

Forgive me for indulging my verbose prose; I find my ego tragically and unexpectedly inflated since my first collection of poems has been brought into publication. Many of them were the ones I read and wrote to you, looking for your critique and often your praise; and while I am flattered by the warm reception of my work by the public, I find myself only truly interested in knowing whether my collection graces your bookshelf. Does it sit beside your tea in the morning? Are its pages well-loved and worn? Do you see it only in passing at a bookshop, afraid to open its stories as though your memories too might fly out of it? 

I learned recently that you took refuge as a Deacon in Bellchester. I am jealous that you may spend your days devoted to the study of theology and philosophy. Perhaps, if you are ever in need of a practiced partner in discussion, you might think of this letter, and in so thinking, be moved to write back to your old friend. My business, on occasion, takes me past your new city of residence, and I would be overjoyed at the possibility of diverting my travel to visit you. Remember all that I told you beneath the willow, with the hope that such memories bring a smile to your kindly face and a brightness to your day. 

 

Your eternal companion,

Peter”

 

Annette looks over to see Simon has removed his glasses, and he slowly wipes away a tear from the corner of his eye. He’s silent, allowing the words to wash over him again and again as he replays it in his mind. Annette folds the letter carefully and returns it to him. 

“Are you going to write back to him?” She asks softly.

“I shouldn’t,” he croaks back hoarsely. 

“Yes, you should.” 

Simon shakes his head. “It wouldn’t be good for me.”

Annette sighs. “It isn’t good for you or anyone to languish under the pain of your aching heart.”

“I never knew he was… well, you know,” Simon replies with a mournful remembrance in his voice. “Nor… we, we were the greatest of friends. We spent time out of every day speaking with one another. And then… we were sitting in our favorite place, the grand willow tree he writes of, hanging just over a grassy clearing at the riverbank. It was always so peaceful.

“Peter… he… he kissed me,” he admits frightfully. “And I didn’t prevent him from continuing. I left to follow God’s calling and we haven’t spoken since.” 

“You should write to him.”

“What if he despises me?”

Annette avoids the urge to roll her eyes. “His letter is notably absent of resentment.”

Simon presses deep into the chair, his head shaking once more. “I don’t trust my unruly heart. The temptation… what if it is too great?”

Annette looks away, thinking about her own experiences with the sin Simon feared. She thinks about the warmth and sweetness of Cordelia, and the restoring comfort of her love. 

“Do you know what temptation is?” She asks him after a few breaths. “It is revelation. It is an opportunity to seize upon what lies inside your soul and bear it forth, good or evil. It doesn’t corrupt you. It unveils you.”

“Then Peter would unveil my corruption,” Simon concludes. 

Annette presses on. “I am in love with a woman,” she tells him. “And she with me.”

“Annette-,”

“And do you know what this love has uncovered in me?” She pauses, feeling herself dwell on the image of Cordelia in her mind. “Joy. Peace. Kindness. Compassion. Her love brings out the goodness in me. Perhaps Peter might pull the goodness out of you.”

“I am a priest now,” he rebuts. 

Annette snorts. “Some priests steal from their church. Some lie and cheat. Some assault their loved ones or the vulnerable. If the greatest sin you can uncover in yourself is being a kind and gentle lover to a man, you will be a greater priest than most. Write to Peter.” 

“I… I will think about it,” he says simply, his tone a little more secure and resolved. “Thank you,” he adds after a hasty breath. 

“The ground will not swallow you up, Simon,” Annette affirms. “But your aching heart will, if left untreated. Be… be open to him.”

Simon smiles weakly. “It seems your wit is not restrained simply to humor or disobedience.” 

“Write to him,” she pushes one final time. 

“I will,” he nods. “Thank you.”

With his confirmation, Annette rises to her feet. She places a gentle hand on his shoulder and squeezes it, then exits the house. Outside, Sister Pullwater awaits by the gate to the garden, pacing with great tension and an expectant anxiety. 

“He will recover,” Annette tells her, moving to lean her hips back against the short fence. 

“He will remain?” 

“I believe so.” 

The Sister pauses from her pacing and looks at her, thankful. “Then it seems I owe you my gratitude. Perhaps there remains something other than sin in your heart.”

Annette smirks. “Oh, there’s plenty of that in there as well.”

Annette…

“Sister, I am happy,” Annette exhales, letting her shoulders drop and embrace the cool air. “I ask only that you place some value in this quality in me, and trust that if humans are to be judged by their actions, there are far too many evil men to be concerned with before me.” 

Pullwater looks as though she wishes to protest, but she relents, saying instead, “I should have known you would have turned out this way.” She gives a frail and kind smile, the sort of a parent who is beginning to accept their child might not be what they expected, and that this might not end the world. “There never was a cure for headstrong.”

“I am becoming a woman I am proud of,” she takes Pullwater’s wrinkled hand into her palm, squeezing it warmly and gently. “I hope you can find it in yourself to feel the same.” 

The sister smiles and places her other hand to Annette’s cheek, holding it there for a moment and looking at her with something that could almost be perceived as fondness. She lowers her hand, and for a brief, unexpected moment Annette almost wishes it would remain, appreciating the comfort of such a motherly gesture. 

“Do you wish to see Judith?” Pullwater asks a moment later. 

“I do.”

“Might I make a request of you, dear child?” Her voice croaks. Annette waits for a moment, then nods. “I find that despite your constant tomfoolery… I miss seeing you grace my doorstep. I am not so hard-hearted not to think of you as my daughter.” 

Annette continues holding Pullwater’s hand, running a thumb over it thoughtfully. “Will I be subjected to lecture and judgment on each visit?”

To Annette’s surprise, Pullwater returns a kindly and mischievous grin. “Only on special occasion.”

“I will join you for tea,” Annette negotiates. “Once a month.”

“Could you be convinced for twice?” 

Annette looks away and smiles with a polite resignation. A feeling of bemused agreement and hope for something better between them presses forward inside her. “Twice a month,” she agrees. 

 

– – – 

 

Annette sits across from Judith in Sister Pullwater’s office, alone, and feels strange to be seated in the Sister’s chair. She was so used to being in Judith’s position on the bench, and it feels a little alien and unnatural to sit in the place of honor, the place of correction. Judith watches her carefully, holding herself in a careful and polished posture. Her hair has grown out a little, and she wears the simple dress that all of the girls in the orphanage were given. 

“Miss Baker,” her voice squeaks politely as they settle in. Her tone is far more formal than before, and Annette swears she’s even added a twinge of the accent more commonly heard from nobility. 

“Miss Judith,” she bows her head warmly.

“It’s actually Miss Velore,” Judith smiles. “That’s my surname.”

“Of course, Miss Velore,” Annette bows once again. “It’s lovely to see you again. I’m sorry that I was unable to attend your baptism.” 

“That’s quite alright,” she replies, careful to enunciate each syllable correctly. She looks as though prepared for a formal tea party, and Annette knew that Pullwater must be working diligently to train her femininity as quickly as possible. “Sister Pullwater said you were called away on important business.” Her eyes peek up towards Annette’s hair, and her formality drops ever-so-slightly. “I didn’t know women could cut their hair so short.”

“It isn’t a popular notion,” Annette admits. “Though, I suppose I’m not concerned with popularity very much. How have the others been treating you?”

“Very well,” she answers quickly. 

Annette furrows her brow softly. “Do they actually?’

Judith looks away and holds her breath. “Sister Pullwater tells me I’ll need to learn to endure,” she sighs. “That a true mark of a strong woman is to suffer hardship gracefully and patiently.” 

“There are other paths towards womanhood,” Annette says as a gentle challenge. 

“I didn’t know that.” 

“One of the strongest women I know wears trousers and boxes with men,” Annette smiles. “Sister Pullwater will teach you to survive,” she adds after a breath. “She will likely save your life in the process, and you should be grateful for that. But survival is not all that life must be.”

Judith nods slowly, and it seems as though her guard lowers. “The other kids only tease me because of what Sister Minerva says.”

“Sister Minerva is a crony bitch.”

Judith yelps in surprise and covers her mouth, hiding a cackling laugh. “I’m not supposed to say that,” she whispers happily. 

“Don’t repeat it,” Annette grins, “but it’s true. I’ll talk with Sister Pullwater and see if there are ways to make them stop.” 

“Thank you,” she nods sweetly. 

Annette looks her over, recognizing herself in the girl across from her. It was impossible not to, despite the fact that they looked so different. But Judith was the only twice-born girl in the orphanage, and likely would be the only twice-born woman most anyone had ever met. It takes all of Annette’s self control not to ambush her with every piece of advice, every hard-earned lesson, every avoidable challenge she could fathom. 

Eventually, she settles for asking, “Did Sister Pullwater tell you where your name came from?”

“The Bible,” Judith answers simply. 

“I picked it for you.”

“I didn’t know that. Why did you pick it?”

“Do you know the story of Judith?” 

“No.”

Annette shuffles in her seat and nods, recalling the story she knew so well. It was one of the stories she’d never understood why it was part of the Bible and why she was allowed to read it as a kid, and she loved it dearly. 

“So there’s this general attacking the city Judith lives in,” Annette begins. “His army is huge, and they surround the entire city, and things are looking bleak. So Judith, who is just a widow, makes a plan. She sneaks out of the city and finds her way to the general, and when she meets him, she tells him that she had a vision of the future, and in the vision she saw him winning the battle.

“The general was so distracted by her beauty that he believes her,” she continues, her voice excited and impassioned, “so he invites Judith to come back to his tent, alone. She goes, and the entire time they are together she’s encouraging him to drink more and more wine. She gets him drunk - so drunk that he falls asleep. Do you know what she does next?”

Judith leans forward excitedly. “What?”

Annette sits forward as well, whispering the scandalous ending. “She cuts his head off.” 

“What!? She does?” 

Annette smiles and leans back. “And the next day, without a general to lead them, the invading army is lost. Judith saved the city.” 

Judith grins and looks down at the look, glancing up at Annette with a look as though learning something forbidden and wonderful. “Sister Pullwater wouldn’t think that’s very ladylike.”

“Well, it’s in her Bible, too,” Annette puffs happily. “Judith is a name of power. A name of beauty. She’s a woman who uses the enemy's ideas of what is proper and ladylike to trick them and defeat them.” 

She takes a breath, proud to see the courage and the joy in Judith’s eyes. “There’s more than one way to be a woman, Miss Velore. Don’t miss out on them.” 

 

– – – 

 

Cordelia takes another large bite of her dinner, a surprisingly large drumstick of a chicken, and tilts her head to the side. “Forgive me if I remain apprehensive.”

“I would expect nothing less,” Annette grins, taking yet another look around the Faery and reveling in the joy of seeing so many women like her. The top button of her shirt is tightly clasped around her neck, not for any sense of shame in her status, but rather to avoid drawing additional attention to having a owner and servant flirting in a bar. Plenty of people knew she was a servant once more as the news spread, but Annette figures it’s better not to provide too many identifying factors - the short hair stood out enough on its own. While a relationship between a collar and owner was generally frowned on, Annette suspects that it is mostly only despised in the context of a male owner having his way with a servant girl; and that she and Cordelia would be better received than that. 

“You truly agreed to twice a month?” Cordelia asks, marveling at either Annette’s fortitude or lunacy. 

“It’s just tea,” Annette calms her. “And I’m more resilient than I was before. Plus, an inquiring side of myself is desperate to learn of what becomes of Simon and Peter.” 

Cordelia smiles, and Annette suspects she, too, was curious about their fates. “Well, I am impressed with your bravery regardless.” She gazes around the room, and asks, “Are you sure you don’t wish to drink?” 

“Have plans for me later, do you?” Annette teases. She looks back at Cordelia and gently replies, “If you must be content with unfermented cider, so shall I.” 

Cordelia nods. “I remember their beer being far too strong here anyway.” 

Annette smiles, once again reveling in the sweet novelty of the Fleeting Faery, and the joys the place had always held for her. A cop had already stopped by this evening, once again making vague threats about catching any impropriety, and as a result, the bar felt safe from additional intrusion. She catches Bill’s eye at the bar and smiles, and he tosses the two of them a supportive nod. 

“I cannot believe that I’ve never encountered you in this place,” Annette leans forward, resting her head in her palm. “There was a time I visited nightly.” 

“I wasn’t fond of encountering Lady Deveroux after we split,” Cordelia shrugs, taking another satisfying bite of her food. “She was enormously fond of flaunting her romantic successes over me.” She tilts her head to the side and smirks knowingly at Annette. “Still fond of it, now that I think of it.” 

“I’m sure you could have flaunted your own successes right back,” Annette playfully taps Cordelia’s leg with her foot, trying to stroke her ego. 

Cordelia lets out a barking laugh. “You are overconfident in your estimations of my ability to make a good first impression.”

Annette smirks. “‘I thought you’d be smarter.’”

“Scathing, Miss Baker,” Cordelia’s eyes twinkle, recalling their first meeting. 

“You generally improve past your first impressions.”

“One again,” Cordelia raises a contesting finger, “you place too much faith in my skills of conversation. I recall, back when I was trying to gain the favor of polite society, I put an incredible amount of effort into making a good impression.” She sits up into a more proper posture, and begins eating with a sophisticated and absurd elegance. 

“Perfect hair, immaculate dress, excellent dancing form, and practiced conversational skills,” Cordelia brags, and Annette can hardly conjure up an image of her in a gown at a ball. “But despite this, I remember Sir Alstair once remarked, and mind you this was during our courtship: ‘You know, a great number of people enjoy your company until they get to know you, Miss Jones.’”

“Christ,” Annette grimaces. “And you say I’m scathing.” 

Cordelia shrugs. “Some enjoy the outside but find the insides boorish. Some admire the depths inside but find the outside masculine and intimidating.” She looks up and smiles at Annette. “You alone seem to appreciate both.” 

Annette places a soft hand atop Cordelia's. “I find it endlessly confusing to be alone in that category.”

The detective smiles appreciatively. “I suppose it hardly matters, now that I have you-,”

“Detective Jones?” A voice chirps from the side. 

Annette grumbles slightly at the interruption, but turns her head to the side to see a woman standing just to the left of their table, lowering her head in as she recognizes the detective. She’s a fairly unremarkable woman, around Cordelia’s age, with tame brunette hair and gentle eyes. She has the sort of unassuming look of a woman you would pass alongside on the street and not be able to recall even just a few moments later. 

“Miss Blackburne,” Cordelia dips her head in greeting as Annette removes her hand. 

“Please, just Morrigan to you,” the woman smiles, her face gentle and plain. She holds her hands up apologetically, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I had not expected to see you here.”

“Nor I, you,” Cordelia admits. 

Annette extends a hand in greeting to the woman. “Annette Baker, pleasure to meet you.”
“Morrigan Blackburne,” she takes Annette’s hand and shakes it carefully, “at your service.”

Annette smirks and lifts her neck slightly to reveal the collar underneath her shirt. “Usually it is I who is at the service.”

Morrigan’s face drops. “Pardon,” she bows politely, “I had no intention of offending-,”

“Miss Baker is joking with you, as is her habit,” Cordelia laughs lightly, and Morrigan seems to settle slightly. “Would you care to sit with us?”

“I’d not wish to intrude.”

“It’s quite alright,” Annette waves away her concern. “I’m eager to hear how the two of you know one another.”

Morrigan nods, pulling a chair up to join them and lowering herself into it. “I’m the secretary to Mister Pemberley, of Pemberley Exports. Detective Jones has been working on another case for us.”

“Right, of course. I’m not sure that I’m familiar with the details of it.”

“Mister Pemberley’s successes in business are primarily the result of carefully cultivated trade secrets and closely guarded contacts, all of which are vital to his business. It’s in our best interest to protect those.”

Annette furrows her brow. “And you require a detective?”

“Oh, it’s good fun, Miss Baker,” Cordelia pips up. “My role thus far has been to attempt to uncover each and every one of these trade secrets, so as to test the strength of their security.” 

“How enjoyable,” Annette hides her smirk. She recalls that the case Lady Deveroux offered involved corporate espionage on Pemberley exports for the behalf of Benton & Hayle. Being employed by Mister Pemberley to uncover the very sort of insider secrets Benton & Hayle would desire was a perfect cover story, and Annette is sure that Cordelia enjoys the delightful irony of it all. 

Cordelia sets her elbows onto the table and folds her fingers into a bridge. “And how many do you suspect I’ve unveiled thus far, Morrigan?”

Morrigan smiles proudly, shimmering with loyalty to her employer. “I would be amazed if you have discovered a single one.”

The detective seems amused by her confidence, and she flashed Annette a knowing smirk. Annette smiles, wondering just how far from reality Morrigan’s guess was. 

“So confident,” Cordelia purrs. “Adorable.” 

“You’ll find Miss Jones to be frustratingly capable,” Annette adds. 

Morrigan takes a sip of her drink and grins with them. “Well, then I suppose it is Mister Pemberley’s problem now.” She glances over at their glasses and asks, “Might I buy you both a round of drinks?”

“I don’t drink,” Cordelia replies quickly. Morrigan raises an eyebrow to Annette, but she shakes her head. 

“For me alone then,” Morrigan nods. She stands to retrieve another drink from the bar counter, then returns contentedly. She glances between Annette and Cordelia and says, “So… it isn’t the most common sight for an owner and collar to shake a meal in this place…”

“Well,” Annette shrugs, “she is known for her eccentric habits.”

Morrigan leans in. “But you’re… together?”

“Indeed,” Cordelia smiles at Annette, tapping her with her foot under the table and causing Annette’s heart to feel warm and happy. “Though I’m not inclined to think of her as my collar, nor I as her owner.”

Annette blushes and quietly says, “It’s a relationship of great convenience.” 

Morrigan shares a knowing grin. “I heard about Annette’s escape from the papers, and I recognized the meaning of her hair, but I didn’t realize you orchestrated all of that simply for such an arrangement.” 

“Miss Baker has a flair for the dramatic,” Cordelia jokes. The detective returns to eating her food happily, and Annette watches with a bubbling warmth across her body. It was difficult not to find every aspect of her endearing. 

Morrigan is quiet for a moment, taking a few sips of her drink, then turns to Cordelia and asks, “I have a question.”

Cordelia swallows her bite. “She kissed me first, if you can believe it. During a thunderstorm, no less.”

“Not about that,” Morrigan blushes. 

“Oh. Do ask away.”

“What compels you to do your work? Why do you do it?” Morrigan leans in slightly, her voice brimming with something between curiosity and confusion. “Is it the money? Is it the satisfaction of uncovering a scandal?”

Cordelia thinks for a moment, and Annette wonders if she’s debating explaining the feeling underlying her insights. “I suppose I feel compelled simply by the fact that it is compelling.” 

“She’s nosy,” Annette teases.

Cordelia’s eyes glimmer at her. “I prefer to think of myself as a concerned citizen.”

“Do you ever get bored?” Morrigan asks, speaking as though it might be the most important question to be considered. 

“Never,” Cordelia shakes her head. “It’s always new and fresh and exciting.” Her eyes dart away as she thinks, and she tilts her head. “Mostly, I suppose. There are certain patterns in cases that grow tedious.” 

“But it’s never boring?” The woman insists. 

Annette sits back in her chair. “I cannot help but wonder if there is something upon your mind, Morrigan.”

Morrigan looks at her, then drops her eyes to the floor, a little bashful at being so persistent in her questions. “You are an unmarried woman,” she says to the detective, “willing to endure great ridicule to live out your life in such a way. You could just as easily marry for convenience and live out your days with glorious love affairs in places such as this while having your livelihood provided for by an unsuspecting husband.”

Her voice sounds a little wishful, and possibly a little sad. She continues, saying, “But instead you choose to work, and in a field dominated by vicious men. Why? Why is it worth it?”

Cordelia thinks for a long moment, occasionally glancing at Annette as though she could provide an answer or explanation. “I live my life this way simply because it feels necessary,” she says at last. 

“Are you a suffragette?”

“Only passively,” Cordelia shrugs. 

Annette faces Morrigan, trying to read where her prodding might be going. “I notice your finger is notably absent of a ring. It seems you made a similar decision.”

Morrigan’s face drops towards her lap, and her fingers fiddle with where a ring might be on her hand. “Widow, actually,” she says quietly. 

“My apologies.”

“Don’t be,” Morrigan smiles politely. “I’m here in the Faery, after all. My late husband left behind a comfortable enough estate, and I’ve no children.”

“Quite lucky,” Cordelia pips. 

Annette remains curious, and states, “And yet you work as well.”

“Mostly as a favor to Mister Pemberley,” Morrigan nods. “His business would surely be less organized without my involvement.” 

Morrigan smiles again, then slowly rises from the table. “Nonetheless, I must be on my way. There’s a lovely woman in the corner suffering the unenviable fate of sitting alone this evening, and I’ll not allow her to endure such trials on my watch,” her eyes shine excitedly. 

She faces Annette, careful to meet her gaze, and says, “A pleasure to meet you, Annette, and my sincerest condolences for the terrible trial of being taken captive by the police.” Her voice drops a little lower, and a tiny glimmer of seriousness creeps into her tone. “It seems they were exactly in the right place at the wrong time.” She shakes her head, looks back at the two of them, and says, “Good evening to the both of you.” 

Morrigan strolls away, and Annette feels a strange prickling in the back of her mind as she does. She shakes it away, turning to Cordelia to say, “Interesting woman…”

Cordelia purses her lips and watches Morrigan leave, her voice quiet and intrigued. “I daresay there’s something beneath the surface with her. I’ve yet to uncover even a single one of Pemberley’s secrets.”

“Indeed? How embarrassing for you?” 

Cordelia smirks, lifting her foot under the table and placing it onto Annette’s lap. “Careful, Miss Baker,” she teases, “or I’ll be required to remind you of your place when we return home.”

Annette smirks back at her, fluttering her eyelashes. “With threats like these, why would I ever stay my tongue?” 

 

– – – 

 

Annette lays in Cordelia’s bed, resting even after the detective has departed for work, and feels her mind churning in the background. It's cozy underneath the blankets, and even after the heated spot where Cordelia had slept fades, Annette still feels the irresistible urge to allow sleep to consume her. She exists for a while in the between stages of sleeping and waking, only truly feeling her consciousness when rolling over and pulling the covers tight. 

But her mind remains at work, and she feels a constant thought pulling at the back of her thoughts. Something about Morrigan’s words the day before unsettle her, and she ruminates constantly on her strange mention of the police. It seems they were exactly in the right place at the wrong time.

The strange seriousness in which she said it combines with Annette’s own frustrations of being nearly captured in Wemberly’s mansion. So few of the Mallets’ moves were interrupted or prevented in the act; and yet on their most significant move to date, the police just happened to arrive in time to stop them? She rouses, accepting the reality that the thought would continue bothering her until she acted upon it in some way. She throws on clothes, grabs her coat, and braces the brisk air of Bellchester’s streets. 

Annette walks at first without a destination, simply strolling around with the hope an idea would come to her. There’s a handful of people she considers visiting, in the hopes that perhaps they could validate her worry, or provide evidence to discount it, and she eventually settles on the one she trusts most. She turns abruptly in the streets, hardly caring for how unusual a sudden correction in her course might look, and makes her way over to Elenore’s Gallery. 

The greeters inside wave her in, hardly caring to inquire about her business there. One of them points the way to Marian’s room, and Annette thanks him and ascends the flight of stairs to the second floor. She finds the correct room and knocks gently at the door. “Marian?”

Behind the door she can hear a quiet rustling, and it takes a few moments for the girl to unlatch the door and peek out at her. Her face looks flustered, though is absent of any embarrassment. She furrows her brow, and whispers, “Annette? Can it wait? I’m busy?”

Annette grins and drops her voice low enough that it wouldn’t carry into the room. “Only if you swear that I’m a better lover than your current client.”

Marian snickers as quietly as possible and shakes her head in disbelief, “God, I’ve never faked so many orgasms in my life,” she hisses. “He’s so proud. He thinks I’ve finished four times already.” She closes the door behind her, leaving Annette to laugh to herself and wait in the hallway until she is ready. 

It isn’t a long wait, and after a little while a man stumbles out of the room, tipping his hat to Annette to cover his embarrassment. Annette flashes him a mischievous smile and ducks into the room behind him, shutting the door as she enters. Marian is slowly putting her clothes back on, and if she feels any shame from Annette seeing her naked once more she doesn’t show it. 

“It’s lovely to see you!” Marian leaps up when she’s done, pulling Annette into a tight hug. She keeps her arms on Annette’s shoulders, holding her close and asking, “How are things with her? Have the two of you…?”

“Constantly,” Annette boasts happily. 

Marian’s brow lowers curiously. “And it’s…?”

Annette grins. “Unbelievably good.” 

“Excellent!” 

Annette steps over and sits down on the edge of the bed, careful to sit closer to the foot of the bed and not lower herself into any unfortunate stains. “How is Wilcox?”

Marian plops down beside her, taking one of her hands. “Working on a careful balance between paying to see me and saving up to purchase my contract. Only a month or two left, I hope.” Her free hand raises to Annette’s collar. “Is.. why do you have a ring on your collar?”

Annette purses her lips and blushes. “Family heirloom.” Marian’s eyes widen excitedly. “Her family.” 

“Romantic,” she swoons. “Now, why have you come to see me? Not that you need a reason, I suppose. But you tend to have one anyway.”

“I have a question for you,” Annette begins. “The day the police stormed Wemberly’s mansion… did anything seem wrong to you?”

Marian shrugs and lays back onto the bed. “There was little right.”

“But, how did they know?”

“They’re police.” 

Annette shakes her head, feeling her mind racing slightly. “But they’ve hardly ever caught us before. And yet they knew the exact time and location of our biggest operation?”

Marian’s brow lowers. “You think someone tipped them off?”

“I… I just have this sense there is something more at work.”

“It could be a coincidence.”

Annette frowns. “It isn’t. I just know it isn’t.”

“Okay…” Marian sits up, brandishing a look of disconcern on her face. “And what do you intend to do? Storm up to Captain Beckett and demand to know why your crime failed?”

“I’m not sure what I intend to do,” Annette sighs. “It’s why I came to see you.”

“Annette, I never know what you should do,” Marian complains, though her voice is gentle and friendly. “You always already know what you’re planning. You just ask me as though I can give permission.” 

“But I don’t have a plan.”

“And I give you permission to explore it regardless,” Marian smiles. “I’m sorry I can’t do more, but I have another client coming at any second.” 

“Right,” Annette nods, snapping back to focus. “Of course.”

Marian hugs her once again, placing a friendly kiss on her cheek. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you as well.” Annette squeezes her a final time, then quietly slips out of the room and into the hallway once more. 

Annette is lost in thought as she exits the Gallery, and she wanders aimlessly around the surrounding blocks, trying to plot out what a path forward might look like. She would obviously tell Cordelia as soon as she returned home from work, but that likely wouldn’t be until later this evening. The feeling of mystery, of something troubling at hand, consumes Annette, and she knows instantly there’s not a chance she could simply wait until Cordelia could be back. She wants something to show for her suspicions.

The obvious possibility was that someone in the Mallets could have outed their plan to the police, even in exchange for some sort of reward. But, there weren’t many people involved with this plan, and of the ones who were, it was difficult to find any reasons they might be culpable. She trusted Marian without a doubt, so it couldn’t be her. Patrick might have betrayed her to the Mallets, but that was primarily a result of his massive loyalty to the cause. Failinis was out of the question; it had set the Mallets back significantly to lose the capture of Wemberly. That only really left Jarl, and as much as Annette struggled to find common ground with him, she knew that his hyper-suspicions and paranoia were devoted to keeping them safe. 

A noise alerts her just as she turns a corner, and she quickly ducks responsively as a fist crashes above her. Her body comes alive and she feels herself dart towards the meager boxing training Cordelia had been teaching her. She attempts to turn around and face her attacker, prepared to fight them off somehow, only to be interrupted by another punch at her gut. She moves just enough that it crashes into her side instead, but it knocks her off balance and sends her toppling into the wall. 

She tries to scramble back to her feet, only to feel her attacker’s hands trying to grab her and throw her back. Annette raises her arms defensively, swatting their hands away. She kicks her legs out, successfully catching one of his legs, but it only buys her a moment of reprieve. As he stumbles back, Annette’s stomach churns to recognize his face. 

She’s about to scream for help when Jarl throws a hand over her mouth, using one of his feet to hook around her leg and pull her further to the ground. He flips her around, locking his hands around her neck and slowly tightening his grip. She fights and squirms as best as she can, but Jarl is bigger and stronger, and with the surprise on his side it's nearly impossible to fight back. She chokes into his arm, gasping for air as her vision slowly fades out and her consciousness waivers into the dark. 

 

In case you're worried about Annette's safety, here's a brief spoiler with enough detail to ease your mind but not so much that it spoils the next chapter.

Spoiler

She's safe. He's going to question her, but not hurt her. As an author, I'm not interested in writing violence against women.

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