--

i did love you, once

The power of beauty will sooner transform honest from what it is

to a bawd than the force of honest can translate beauty into his likeness.

This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it prove.

I did love you once.

- Hamlet, Act 3 Sc. 1

--

Twelfth Night went up three days late. He didn't watch.

--

Ann didn't exactly welcome him home, but she didn't make him sleep outside either; she simply opened the door and walked back into the kitchen without looking at him. Susanna barely glanced up from her sewing when he came in, and it took her several seconds to recognize him when she finally did.

Her voice was much older than he remembered—was she ten already? "Daddy?" She asked, setting aside her needle and thread.

She had long brown hair. So like her mother.

He held open his arms and she leapt into them, wrapping her tiny hands around his face and kissing him over and over. Instantly forgiving him for a five year absence. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" He teased, tickling her sides. She squealed delightedly and squirmed, but refused to let go of his face. "No! Thou art more lovely and more temperate…"

He heard Ann snort quietly. "Careful, Susanna," she warned, turning at last to face him. "Your father's tongue could charm a snake."

The little girl gave him a dazzling smile. (So like her mother.) "I told you he would come home," she said simply.

--

"Hamnet looks more like you every day," Ann told him after dinner as she slipped her nightgown over her head. "Although he isn't half as silver-tongued, thank God."

Will smiled. "Poetry is a learned art," he murmured. "Just wait. By the time he is eighteen he will be as much a scoundrel as his father."

Ann rolled her eyes. "I should hope not, William. That's the last thing I want for my son."

"Ann…"

"I'll be sleeping in with Susanna. She's been having nightmares of late, and I wouldn't want to trouble you with something silly, like your children."

She swept from the room with more dignity than Her Majesty and didn't bother saying goodnight. Will sank back into his pillows and sighed at the ceiling, thinking of ships and storms and cotton growing wild in the untamed wilderness of Virginia.

He wondered if a child produced from him and Viola would have his hair, or hers.

--

Ann doesn't herself wake him, but makes no attempt to keep quiet as she dresses either. The twins rip through his bedroom in a whirlwind of flying fists and ripped clothing; Ann's tired voice barely raises an octave as she commands: "Hamnet, Judith. Stop."

Instantly they obey, untangling themselves and standing at attention by her side. Will watches them from behind half-lidded eyes, enjoying the sight of his children. Ann is right: Hamnet does look just like him, down to the tan skin and short brown hair.

Judith, though.

Judith is a mystery, the opposite of her brother in every way. She is soft where he is hard, quiet where he is loud, fair when he is dark. With all others, she is shy to the point of rudeness, and yet when with her brother she is as fierce and opinionated as her mother.

Will likes Judith, although he's not entirely sure that she likes him.

He wonders if Ann ever felt that way, like the little people that they made want nothing to do with him.

--

They are getting ready for bed the first time Will realizes that he threw away a life (and a wife) he might have loved. "I liked Two Gentleman," Ann muses, drawing her hair back into a ribbon. "Frankly, though, I thought Titus was a little too bloody."

Will sits up sharply, straining his neck as it swivels to stare at her. "I beg your pardon?"

She sends him a Look—one he knows well—and sighs. "Despite my best efforts, you are my husband, Will. I see all your plays." She pauses. "You deserved the fifty pounds for Romeo and Juliet," she tells him quietly, after a moment.

Then she looks at him, and there is sadness in her face that he had never intended to put there.

Without another word, she blows out the candle and he is left alone, in darkness.

--

"I'm sorry," are the first two words he says the next morning. Susanna is out in the yard, watching Judith and Hamnet race.

Ann looks at him only briefly. "I know," she says after a beat.

"I never meant…"

"I always knew you would." She sighs, her eyes distant when she looks at him. "You are a poet, Will. You loved me in poetry and you married me in poetry and when the time came, you left me in poetry. But I never gave it back, and I never doubted that you would go looking for someone who could."

He looks at his hands. Viola's voice is in his head: I love you, Will, beyond poetry.

"So you saw Romeo and Juliet," he murmurs.

"She is beautiful," Ann answers, with a nod. "She must have really broken your heart to drive you back to me."

He wonders how much he should say. How much would be too much. But Ann doesn't look sad; she has her head cocked and that curious furrow to her brow that made him fall in love with her, the first time. "She got married," he tells her after hesitation. "Her new husband took her with him to Virginia. Her name is Viola."

It feels good to talk about her, somehow.

Ann smiles. "Viola. So you have found your new muse." She looks back at the children, now a big pile of screaming, laughing bodies. "I liked Twelfth Night. Although I felt sorry for Sir Andrew the whole time. I kept wanting someone to fall in love with him."

He laughs. "You always did love the losers."

"I married you, didn't I?"

But the words aren't as cutting as they might have been, so he simply smiles and takes her hand. "Yes," he says, "You married me."

--

In the end, that's what it boils down to.

Ann married him. Viola didn't.

He will never love his wife the way he loved sir Thomas Kent. He will never love her with that all-encompassing love that, once upon a time, had inspired a play worth fifty pounds.

But Ann is… comfortable. She reminds him of the days before Viola, when the words were just beginning to slip out of him. She was his Silvia, his first muse, and that's not nothing.

And when darkness falls, it was Ann that married him.

--

They met when he was eighteen. She was twenty-three. He was with his cousin, causing general havoc in town and running from the angry shop owners. She was walking with some other woman, prettier than she, but nevertheless it was Ann that caught his eye. He and his cousin showed off for the two women, but Ann remained unimpressed.

He went to her window that night and waited patiently until she opened it.

He fell instantly in love when she looked neither surprised nor upset to see him there. She simply shook her head, and sent him that Look he knows so well now, and said, "Well, for pity's sake, did you have to come so late?"

And that was Ann. Always sensible, always amused, always somehow above him. But she loved his poetry. She never showed it, never spoke it back, but he knew that she did. Knew it by the way she kept all of his love letters, by the way she refused to tell her father who it was that had gotten her pregnant.

He proposed because he loved her and because it was what was right, and because he knew she would say yes.

And when, later, he realized that he couldn't stay in Strafford and give up on the words inside him, Ann did what she had always done.

She simply lived. What needed to be done was done. Ann never complained to him. And when he returned, five years later, she simply opened the door.

And though she didn't say it, he heard her thoughts: well did you have to come so late?

--

He fell in love with Ann for the second time a year after he had been home. He was trying to write his next play but his mind flipped repeatedly between romance and comedy, tragedy and truth.

He was sitting at his desk when Ann came with the letter. It was addressed To The Poet Shakespeare, from Sir Thomas Kent.

He stared down at the letter and Ann briefly touched his cheek. "You need more ink for your quill," she murmured, and left him to the letter.

Will stared for a long time at the words. He expected to feel… more, somehow. And he did feel—he felt sadness, and love, and perhaps even hope.

But then Ann returned with fresh ink and a new quill and he drew her lips to his. It was comfortable here.

It was home.