It had been a long week. The Queens were becoming accustomed to their new schedule with their show, and performing was taking a toll on all of them - they were ready, but not as ready as they could have been. Of course, they knew that endurance came with practice, but… It wasn’t really the same when you knew you could be better.
Anna lay on their couch, watching Kitty and Joan play Mario Kart. Usually, the sight would make the woman smile, and she’d cheer for both sides - Kitty, you’ve got it! or You go, Joan!
Now, however, there was some weight inside her preventing her from voicing encouragement. Anna’s head ached, and it was admittedly difficult to keep her eyes open. Her eyelids fluttered every once in a while, but for the most part, she managed to stay awake.
Really, she knew the thoughts running through her mind were quite irrational. Still, when it was what you’d heard for years, decades, even centuries, it was difficult to change your mindset. Anna was used to hearing degrading words, but something she found much different in this life was that most of the time, the malicious words didn’t come from others - no, they were her own words. In a way, that made it worse. The words were crafted perfectly; the knife smithed just for her very soul.
She wondered if any of the other queens felt this way.
Surely not now, she told herself as she lay there, barely able to keep her gaze on the screen. Kitty, for however traumatic her past might have been, was always able to find something to take her mind off what was bothering her. The thoughts always plagued her in the form of nightly phantoms. Anna hadn’t seen Joan talk about her thoughts too much, but she knew the dear girl had plenty of invasive thoughts as well.
She didn’t think Aragon or Anne had many intrusive thoughts aside from the usual. The Usual was a phrase everyone in the show was familiar with, and it usually referred to nightmares or flashbacks of some sort. With Jane and Cathy, it usually surfaced in the form of vague dreams where nothing made sense, but they were reminded of everything they lost - and they were led to believe it had been their fault. Anna hadn’t heard about Aragon’s troubles; the older woman hardly ever shared her thoughts, let alone those that troubled her. The cousins’ troubles were obvious; they’d sit up in bed in the middle of the night, clutching at their necks, sobbing. From what Anna had heard, and she’d heard a lot, especially from Kat, the girls were reminded that trusting was awful and would lead you to your downfall.
With Anna, it wasn’t the same. The Usual came with sleep, yes, but not in the same fashion it did for the others. When she slept, she slept soundly - if she lacked tact, she’d have said she slept like a dead person. That was inaccurate, however, in a house where literally everyone had already died.
Instead, the unwanted thoughts and memories began to seep in when Anna was being pulled into the inviting arms of sleep. It tended to make the fourth queen moody when the feeling struck, but she wasn’t sure exactly why she thought this. It was usually on a double show day, like today, and she was usually ready to topple over when the thoughts hit her. You’re nothing compared to the rest of your family, or You know you can do better or maybe even You Dummkopf! How did you make that mistake?
In other words, it was the small things that picked at her confidence slowly, causing her to feel as if her usual emotions were all a facade of some sort. Although the thoughts of worthlessness were hardly as common as Kitty’s panic attacks, they seemed to stay with her in the way a panic attack didn’t. Sure, panic attacks left anxiety and an upset stomach behind - among other things, of course - but each one was different, causing you to feel a different strong surge of emotion.
Anna felt emotion, sure, but it was hardly anxiety. The thoughts she had spurred on worse thoughts, thoughts of self-loathing, and sometimes she would see faces from her past. Sometimes she saw her family, hoping to wed her off to a prominent king and realising she had failed. Other times, she saw Henry. That would have been fine and dandy, but that gave her a new version of self-loathing, one fuelled by guilt. She could have prevented Kitty’s death; she could have tried to have her taken away from court.
But when she thought about it, she doubted that would have helped. Kitty’s family would have just found some other way to let men use their daughter to the Howard family’s advantage.
Anna gave a grunt, tearing her gaze from the glowing screen in front of her and beginning to make her way to the first floor. For once, she was glad to share a floor with the two queens who were the least likely to question her on something like this - Cathy and Catalina. In fact, she would have bet a hundred pounds that Lina would have understood her cry for solitude.
Seeing others made it worse, making her think about her failures, and Anna knew if she shared her thoughts, they would see her as a failure. Anna was supposed to be strong; she wasn’t supposed to let anything bother her.
And yet, as she shut the door to her room, she felt her breaths grow erratic. Her heart was pounding as if she’d run up the stairs - and she hadn’t, mind you. Those hardly bothered her; what made her stop breathing altogether was the sudden warmth on her cheek. It wasn’t only warmth, and Anna clapped a hand over her mouth in a vain attempt to stop the hot, salty, wet tears from escaping her hardly-open eyes.
Anna hardly noticed when she sat on her bed, trying to steady her laboured breaths. This was different. Usually, she was alone when the tiredness hit; she was able to control herself. What had happened?
The lack of control of her emotions was also bothering her, she noticed with a strangled noise. It sounded like a laugh, but she knew it was more of a groan. If anything made her feel useless, it was this. Anna was in no state to help even Kat if she got hurt… If Kat got hurt again.
She hadn’t seen Katherine’s death, but from what she knew, it was particularly painful when one’s head got separated from one’s body. That wasn’t the only thing Anna felt as if she could have prevented somehow. She could have prevented more abuse from the men in Kitty’s life. If only she had been good enough to stay the Queen.
Sometimes, Anna felt lucky. She’d survived, even longer than the ‘Survivor’. But there was a curse that came hand in hand with every blessing, and as Anna buried her face in her hands, she began to realise just what Anne had once meant by that.
She’d been the ‘real’ survivor. But in that, she’d gotten to see all the others leave their fair Earth. That hadn’t been enough for fate, however, and it seemed she’d have to carry this awful feeling called guilt. There were so many choices in every life, but it seemed to Anna that they never made the right ones.
Although her survival had been a blessing, the guilt that came with it was no doubt a curse.
The woman shifted on her quilt, letting out a small sob and feeling immense hatred as she did so. She shouldn’t have been the one to live. Anyone else would have made better choices.
Choices. The word was vague; choices were what made up the world. Choices were what defined a person, but in this moment, Anna felt as if they defined her as an idiot, as a monster, as someone who couldn’t help those closest to her. Her chest ached; it felt tight, as if someone was reaching in to take her heart out of her lungs and she had to protect herself.
She hardly noticed when she curled into a ball, the walls finally collapsing as tears finally streamed down her cheeks. She let out a sob, a noise that sounded hardly human from how long it had been repressed, and then the tears came in earnest. They racked her entire body, causing her to wrap her arms around herself as she lay on her side, whimpering pathetically.
As if the crying bit wasn’t awful enough, the words flooded her mind, fully breaking the dams that had held them back. Anna forgot she was in a house with relatively thin walls; she forgot the times she’d heard Catalina crying in the dead of night, and she herself cried until no more tears would come.
Only then, as Anna was grumbling to herself about the headache the tears had given her, still thinking about how useless she was, she heard a knock. Anna had noticed that everyone’s knock had a distinctive sound, and she immediately ruled out Jane, Kitty, and Cathy. Their knocking style was nothing like this. And the person had knocked once, not three times, so it had to be Catalina, not Anne.
She’d memorised everyone’s knock style so she could be the one to let people in or refuse them when comforting a crying queen. She’d just never expected to be the crying queen to be comforted.
She hesitated at first. Catalina was the strongest-seeming of them all, a hard wall surrounding what Anna was sure was a slightly softer personality. Still, Anna had to inhale deeply before uttering a croaky, “Yes?”
The door opened, but not in the way Anna was used to. Usually, Kitty would be the one running into her room full-speed after a nightmare. The door would open with a speed that gave Anna quite the shock. This… This wasn’t shocking. Catalina opened the door slowly, just barely peeking into the dimly lit room. “Anna, bella, are you all right?”
Anna opened her mouth to respond, but no words came out - she hardly had the energy to lift her head, let alone form a coherent sentence. She wanted to nod; she wanted to show she held no weakness.
Weakness, however, at least according to Anne, could be the source of your greatest strength.
Anna wasn’t quite sure where Anne got most of those thoughts from. Blessings and curses, those she understood. But as she lay frozen on her side, some part of her wondered how being weak could show strength. It wasn’t as if fainting during a marathon won you first place.
Catalina’s movement went unnoticed until the bed dipped next to Anna, and she opened her eyes to see Lina sitting next to her, rubbing her shoulder in a way that made her realise she was tense. Anna let her muscles relax as much as she could, which, admittedly, wasn’t much. Nevertheless, she found that her heartbeat grew slower and her breathing found a rhythmic pace as Catalina instructed her to focus on her breaths.
Lina’s chest rose and fell in time with Anna’s; the German could feel her friend’s arms as they wrapped around her. “I’ve got you,” Lina whispered. “It’ll be alright.”
Anna didn’t quite believe that, but she still allowed herself to melt slightly in her friend’s arms, letting Catalina raise her so she leant on the other woman’s shoulders. She drew in a shaky breath, not quite opening her eyes, and realised just how much she ached.
It wasn’t a normal ache, but rather an ache that you felt throughout your entire body. It wasn’t anything like Kitty described her phantom pains as. This, while just as real, made her ache on the inside in a way she hadn’t thought was possible. Anna’s heart felt as if it were being twisted, and she wondered for a moment if this was what Catalina had felt when she said she had died of heartbreak upon their initial return to the world.
This was much similar to that moment, she thought, just the two of them in the midst of a coldhearted and confusing world. It was just as it had been when she’d awoken, terrified because she’d known she was dead, and then suddenly there had been movement next to her. Lina hadn’t known her at the time, but she had been willing to help anyway.
It was that alone that made Anna wrap her arms around the other woman, burying her face in her shoulder. She felt less useless knowing she was allowing herself to show weakness. This was of her own accord. Somehow, knowing that Catalina likely understood how she felt made her smile as the tears began to dry on her cheeks - or Lina’s shirt; she wasn’t sure which it was.
What she was sure of, however, was that she was safe in her friend’s arms. Although all the walls had already fallen, Anna felt there was more to break down. She knew all of them had their walls, and she believed that was a good thing. Still, though, she wondered what it would be like if she mentioned the things she kept to herself to others.
As if reading her thoughts, a soft voice broke the room’s silence. “Anna, do you want to talk about it?” Catalina asked, her voice much softer than it usually was. It was once again reminiscent of when they were the first two.
Despite knowing Lina was safe, despite knowing the other woman meant her well, Anna hesitated. She tensed in a way that was obvious - even she herself noticed it - and she lifted her head from Lina’s shoulder. “Dunno,” she said, her tone noncommittal. She paused once more, swallowing the lump that had formed in her throat before continuing. “It doesn’t make sense.”
She heard Catalina sigh, warm breath grazing the hair atop her head. “This is the twenty-first century,” Lina whispered, the thickness in her tone allowing Anna to realise that the Spaniard, too, was holding back tears. She was unsure where Lina was going with this, but it did calm her, just a bit. It was the twenty-first century. There was no going back.
Catalina’s words usually managed to ground those she talked to, Anna had noticed, and they had the same effect on her. “It’s the twenty-first century,” Catalina said again, this time laughing bitterly, “I’d be surprised if anything made sense.”
Hearing laughter, no matter how bitter, made Anna’s lips quirk upward. “Really?” she asked, looking up at Lina. She saw the other woman nod, also holding back a smile of sorts, and she let out her own laugh. “We’re all here. Certainly we can confirm that the ground floor dwellers and Anne are crazy, right? That makes sense.”
Although she no longer felt as if she was going to burst into tears once again, Anna did feel an odd sense of nostalgia. She’d always lived based on something, knowing that at least one thing in the midst of it all was real, and that alone made the world a sensible place. Hearing that Catalina, the queens’ cornerstone, was lost… That made it feel as if the cornerstone had never been placed, and the entire building would come crashing down.
Catalina let out another chuckle, this time more genuine. “Well, that’s a true statement,” she said, “But it’s hard to believe we’re all here. It’s hard to believe reincarnation is a thing, but it’s the only explanation. It makes me question everything, even the grass I’ve walked on, in this life and my last… And any other, now that that’s a possibility.”
Anna nodded slowly, contemplating Lina’s words. They, if nothing else, were reasonable. She let out a sigh, leaning into her friend. “I don’t know exactly what happened. I felt like I was going to fall over during our Megasix today; I haven’t been sleeping well.” Her tone was serious once again, and she gave a small half-shrug as she spoke. “I just… I hate being useless.”
Catalina’s expression, while already soft, was akin to the one any of the queens wore while gazing at a cute animal. “Oh, querida, you’re not useless.” The tone of her voice made Anna crack a genuine smile, but she still felt a lead weight in her chest, making it so that her spirits would not - no, could not - soar.
“Yes, I am!” Anna protested, pushing herself away from Lina and tumbling back onto the bed. “I’m the reason Kitty died the first time! I could have saved her. Mein Gott, I should have been the one to die instead; I’d have traded my head for hers.”
The Spaniard frowned, narrowing her amber eyes. “Anna,” she said calmly, “I don’t know why you would ever think that.”
Anna scoffed. “It’s true,” she said in response, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m a realist, Lina. I see things as they are.”
Catalina’s gaze was full of worry, and it nearly made Anna laugh again. Lina, worrying for her. She didn’t need protection.
Yet as she sat next to Lina, feeling scrutinised under her friend’s gaze, she thought for a moment that she missed being fretted over. It was nice to know others cared. Anna herself was usually the person who showed care and love to everyone, but sometimes, she reckoned, she needed some given back.
“I don’t think that’s… It’s not how things are,” Catalina said quietly, wrapping an arm around Anna and tightening her grip when the German tried to wiggle out of the embrace. “You’re your worst critic, love. Besides, there’s no telling what would have happened if you’d been the one to go.” Her words hit differently, causing Anna to wonder exactly why she’d say that.
Uncertainty was quite possibly the one earthly thing Anna hated, and this conversation was causing her to realise that uncertainty was everywhere. No matter if she looked underneath Jane’s bed or in their pantry, she would be greeted with something different. Sure, Anna knew there was food in the pantry and blankets under Jane’s bed, but she didn’t know what type of food or the colours of the blankets.
She let out a huff, gritting her teeth before she spoke. “Yeah, and that’s what I hate. There’s no way to know whether or not I’ve been making the right choices!”
Silence followed her words, and since Catalina merely held her, Anna spoke again, her voice stronger. “I’ve been so tired recently. My dreams haven’t been a safe haven like they usually are. Instead, they’re what torture me. I don’t see much…” She paused, unsure of whether to continue. Upon glancing at Lina, she saw an encouraging smile, and she cracked a simper herself, clearing her throat. “But I hear. I hear what was said about Kitty, and I hear what might be said about me. I… I don’t want to prove anyone who says I’m useless right.
“I’m the least-known of us, I think. While all of you had interesting fates, or at least plenty of stories behind your names, I was just the one turned away because I wasn’t worth it. Frankly, I’m thankful, but there’s a lot of emotions behind that.” Anna sighed. “Cathy’s one line, during I Don’t Need Your Love… It hits me a lot. I think it hits more than it’d hit you, or Anne, or Jane… Or maybe even Kit and Cathy. Because sure, I was the German princess. Sure, I was nobility. But I didn’t do anything.”
Anna shut her mouth quickly, hardly refraining from clapping her hand over her mouth. “And that’s what scares me, or at least part of it. It’s really complex,” she said with a small chuckle. “I don’t know exactly where these voices are coming from. But I know I need to get myself out there; I know I need to be remembered.”
Lina pulled her closer, and this time Anna didn’t try to escape from her embrace. “Oh, Anna,” she said softly. “You needn’t listen to those voices. They’re wrong. We remember you; I’m sure so, so many others do as well. We remember how you hold us together when nothing’s gone well all week. We remember how you recorded Joan’s piano concert when the rest of us were busy. You’re the glue that binds us together, and the fact that you see all the faults within yourself reminds us we've got to work together to remind you of the good things.”
Anna had to take a moment to process Catalina’s words. She’d always thought Lina was the glue, but she had to think about her friend’s most recent interactions with Anne, and even Jane… Was Lina saying that she was the cornerstone of their little house?
Lina might have been the outwardly strong one at home, but everyone showed their strength in different ways. Anna might have been confident, but everyone had their insecurities. Her smile grew as she glanced up at Lina until it was a huge grin. “Yeah,” she said, her brash confidence back, and while she knew the voices would return, she also knew she had something to fight them with. “You’re right. I’m the cornerstone.”