Disclaimer: They're not mine, or else Anne of Cleves wouldn't be shagging Henry this season!
"Can you show me something the King likes to do?"
The question had been asked so innocently, and Charles felt as though a hand had just reached inside him and twisted, the guilt was so strong. This woman whose face he couldn't see, with her heavy accent that didn't hide the sweetness in her voice, was coming to England to be ruined. The decision had already been made, and once again he'd become part of a plot to bring someone down.
He'd allied with the Boleyns to take down Wolsey and with him Katherine, though he hadn't known at first that Katherine was part of it. He'd joined with Cromwell, Chapuys, and the Seymours to destroy the Boleyns. He despised himself for the first, unable to forget the Spanish Queen's words about how sorrow was better than joy, because in sorrow you remembered God. And as much as he didn't want to hate himself for the second… The country was better off with Anne Boleyn gone, and yet he'd still been forced to his knees by her quiet composure at her death, he'd still been infuriated for her sake and her brother's when their despicable father – worse by far than any of his children – only cared about his earldom, not his children's lives.
But this was somehow worse. He'd had a good reason to back the Boleyns – they helped get him back to court – and as for getting rid of Anne… Well, that was obvious. But now, this was something different. He'd decided, along with Bryan and the Seymours, to get rid of Anne of Cleves even before she arrived, so that Cromwell would fall with her. He hated Cromwell, but this method was beginning to bother him. This woman didn't deserve to be caught in their scheme, but it was too late to change his mind.
So he taught her to play cards, and pretended to be her friend, while every time he had the chance after returning to England, he encouraged Henry's dislike of her and pointed out whose fault it was that he was saddled with his "Flanders mare." But he was relieved, when Anne of Cleves' hopes for an honorable, fruitful marriage were finally dashed by the news of her annulment, that it was Edward Seymour who told her. God knew that cold man wouldn't care if his news utterly destroyed the woman, but for himself, Charles didn't think he could stand to be any more responsible for her pain than he already was.
He was stunned when Henry decided to invite Anne of Cleves for Christmas. If he didn't already know that his friend was capable of much greater cruelty, he would have been appalled. But then, knowing Henry, he probably thought that the invitation was an honor. But what would it be like for Anne, returning as a guest to the English court, required to pay her respects to the silly girl who now sat in her place?
And why, why did Henry have to make him escort her in? But then, he knew that part; he was the highest ranking noble at court, and therefore it fell to him to lead the King's 'beloved sister' into the hall. He didn't want to think about the other reason why that unnerved him. Even the guilt was easier to face than those memories – a ship, a foreign court, and a hot love that had burned out far too quickly.
But when he saw her, he stopped dead for a moment, utterly bewildered. He had expected her to still be wearing her German clothes, the ones that covered every inch of her body, but instead she was wearing an English dress, crimson with gold accents on the bodice, a holly wreath in her braided and coiled hair.
"Your Grace!" she said, with a bright, open smile. The knife twisted a little harder.
He made some greeting, though he wasn't entirely sure what he said. The pain of guilt and the shock of seeing that Henry's 'ugly' ex-wife was actually quite pretty when she wasn't terrified left him barely coherent for a moment.
"I remember that you once taught me to play cards. I am very grateful. As a result of your tuition, I have won a fortune!" He laughed with her, forcing himself to sound jovial as he offered her his arm and led her into the hall.
She behaved with the grace that her successor could not match, and it was clear to someone who watched carefully, like he did, that little Katherine was nervous in the presence of Anne. Anne seemed to notice it as well, engaging the girl Queen in conversation once Henry had taken his leave. She even initiated the dance that the two women performed together, and Charles watched it all with a growing discomfort.
Would things have been different, had the first Katherine acquiesced as gracefully as the second Anne had done? Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn would never have had the cheerful dynamic between them that Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard had, but they could probably have achieved a level of civility. Had that happened, perhaps Anne Boleyn would have given Henry his son, and Brandon would never have been guilty of helping to destroy either of the first two Queens, not really. And then he would have been saved from his most ruthless destruction yet, the breaking of the woman who now danced quite happily with her successor, making the best of a bad situation.
It was like a card game, he thought, cards the symbol of his last cruel intrigue. You played the hand you were dealt as best you could, and that was what Lady Anne was doing. She had gone from the King's wife to his 'sister', and she was doing all she could to make the awkward situation easier for all concerned.
It was a pity that the plan he'd helped to make had worked. Henry had lost a wife who, if her current behavior was any indication, would have made an amazing Queen given the chance to relax into her role. And it was his doing. The Seymours and Bryan couldn't have succeeded without him, the snake whispering poison in Henry's ear. He couldn't help but hate himself for it.
It was hardly the first time Charles had been told by Henry to "take care of" his latest lover, but when he entered the room to find a half-dressed Anne of Cleves, the world seemed to spin. Surely Henry hadn't taken his former wife as his mistress? What had he been thinking?
He was too stunned to immediately notice that Anne was kneeling by the bed, her hands covering her face. It was her sobs that broke him out of his shock, and he knelt next to her. "My lady?"
She looked up at him with a shaky smile. "He did not want me when I was his wife, but when I am not… And yet, only once. He was… horrified? Is that the word? But when he realized what he had done… 'Never again, this was wrong' he says, and I…" She shook her head, and he could see that she was pushing back more tears. "He must still think me ugly."
Without consciously deciding to, he went to his knees beside her. "You're not ugly, not at all, and if the King can't see that, he's blind."
Her brown eyes, so lost, focused on his face, and he could see the disbelief in them, the pain that Henry had caused her, time and again – that he'd helped Henry cause, by setting this mess into motion to begin with. He wanted to help fix the damage for once, instead of causing it. It was irrational, foolish, dangerous even, but…
He never knew how to relate to women. Catherine had made it easy, for a time, talking to him, coaxing him into conversation and making their relationship about more than the physical. But it had been her doing, not his, and on his own he didn't understand it.
So he did the only thing he knew how to do. He cupped her face gently in his hands and brushed his lips over hers. She froze, and he almost pulled back, thinking he'd made a terrible mistake, but then she responded, turning his light kiss into one filled with an almost desperate fire. He realized that what she needed was to believe she was beautiful in someone's eyes, and he thought that maybe, he could give that to her. Maybe if he could, he could find some sort of absolution for all the things he'd done.
So he kissed her back, and then stood, pulling her up with him, only to fall into bed with her. And when they were finished, tangled together in the sheets, he whispered into her hair, "You're beautiful, Anne. Never doubt that."
It hadn't ended there, of course. And now, sitting at a table in her bedchamber at Hever, Anne closed her eyes, remembering. Henry had tossed her aside, not wanting her as his wife, and then he had taken her as a one-time lover for reasons that she still didn't understand.
But Charles… She wasn't sure if he'd loved her, but then, she wasn't entirely sure if she'd loved him. She tended to think that they'd needed each other. He made her believe that she was beautiful, and she knew that she was the reason his eyes were a bit less haunted. They'd been there for each other, they'd helped each other. If that wasn't some kind of love, it was still something real, something good.
And now he was gone. Let her attendants think she had wanted solitude because the King was also dead, though why they should think that she didn't know. But she wasn't mourning Henry, not really. She was sad for Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, who had lost their only remaining parent, but she was sure that their stepmother, Katherine Parr, would be there for them, and so would she if they wanted her.
She was mourning Charles, the man who had managed to fix her, a little. She wasn't a fool; she knew that the King's dislike of her had given Thomas Cromwell's enemies a chance to destroy him, and that Charles had been part of that. She had understood English more quickly than her slow tongue had indicated, and the gossip had been quite informative. She didn't blame him though; it could have been worse. She hoped he'd known, somehow, that she forgave him for whatever he'd done.
In the end it didn't matter. He was gone now, so whether or not he'd known, she couldn't do a thing about it now. It would probably be best if she forgot what had happened. But as she toyed with one of her playing cards, she knew she would never be able to, not when she thought of him every time she held a card in her hands.