At last Trowa said, “Well…”
“I…” Quatre began, but really had nothing more to offer.
Trowa looked at him with that slight angling of brows and compression of lips that indicated concern. “We should find something to eat. You look like you could use it.” And given how pale Trowa appeared at the moment, Quatre had no doubt that his own face was much the same.
He nodded. “And then… explore, he said? That sounds like… fun…” He wasn’t entirely sure about that. However, he didn’t see that there were many other options to be pursued.
Trowa’s answering nod seemed forced.
They saw no sign of the Beast inside, but Quatre hadn’t really expected they would. The lights, preceding them as usual, led them up into another section of the palace they hadn’t yet visited; Quatre thought that, although they were simply candles springing to light and going out again, there was something pleased, an air of almost dog-like eagerness about them as they led Quatre and Trowa wherever they were leading them. Quatre supposed that, if they had any share in the entrail-twisting loneliness of this place, they might be as happy as anything else here that he had promised to stay forever.
Abruptly, in a mental flash of familiar faces and the knowledge of the love and responsibility he’d always felt toward them, that word, that concept — forever — crashed down on him in its massive entirety and shook his world to its core. He stumbled briefly on the stairs they were climbing and went still, clutching desperately at the balustrade.
It had been so easy to say, out there with that insectoid tail pressed against his face. In the moment, it had been incredibly easy to say anything, promise anything that would put off death — his friend’s or his own. In the long run, he feared, life might be the much more difficult option — life in such a lonely place with such a frightening host, never seeing his father or sisters again…
“Trowa,” he whispered. “What have I done?”
Calmly Trowa, who had appeared at Quatre’s side the moment he faltered, ready to support him, answered the question he himself had posed to Quatre not long before. “Saved one or both of our lives.”
The carved wood beneath Quatre’s clutching fingers and the rich, warm colors around him came gradually back into focus at the sound of Trowa’s level voice; the deep, stabbing sensation in his heart, which he’d previously thought might kill him, slowly diminished; and the brief pressure of a hand on his shoulder reassured him that Trowa was there. Even in this mad situation and this chilling place, Trowa was there for him. With a deep breath he forced himself to keep moving, following Trowa and the eager lights.
Lunch was set out in a beautiful open-air room like a balcony covered with potted plants. Glass doors on one side led into a greenhouse where Quatre could see a world of exotic foliage that seemed, for once, not to consist of roses, and he had to admit that, despite his agitation, he was curious. Trowa, however, pulled out one of the wrought-iron chairs at the similarly-constructed table with silent insistence, and Quatre moved in that direction rather than toward the enticing glass.
At the slightly suspicious determination in the set of Trowa’s jaw as he waited for Quatre to begin eating, Quatre felt something unknot inside of him. He must still be looking particularly pale, and Trowa wasn’t going to let him leave this room until he’d done something about it… and that was comforting, somehow.
“You’re being reassuringly mundane about all of this,” Quatre said with a faint smile.
“What’s done is done. I can just make the best of things.”
Quatre smile widened sadly. “I’m sure you can. But can I?”
“I’ve seen you put up with worse than this.” Trowa made an ironic gesture at the luxurious beauties around them.
“But everyone at home… I’m not so worried about how they’ll get on after sending all those things, but… I just can’t stand the thought of never seeing them again.”
Trowa’s lips tightened, and he obviously had nothing to say to refute this; Quatre would have been disappointed if he had.
They ate in silence, an excellent lunch of fresh fruit and flaky pastry with cold chicken in a creamy sauce, and looked out over the elaborate railings of the balcony onto the grounds. Quatre was trying not to think about his father or sisters, but, though he was fairly successful, the predicament in general could not but be heavy on his mind.
And he couldn’t help reflecting, suddenly, what this would have been like if he’d been alone… if he’d come here by himself somehow and offended the Beast, or if Trowa had done as he’d asked and ridden away. He doubted he would have made it up the stairs to lunch, to begin with; he would probably be curled up helplessly beneath the fountain down in front of the entrance, terrified and weeping.
“Thank you,” he said suddenly, looking up at his friend, “for staying here with me.”
“Thank you,” replied Trowa seriously, “for keeping that Beast from killing me.”
Quatre smiled wryly. “You didn’t think I’d do anything else, did you?”
Trowa, who was finished eating, stood and moved slowly to the railing. “You pulled it off me onto yourself. Don’t think I’ll forget that.”
Heart beating overquickly again for some reason, Quatre tried for a joke: “It was pretty brave, wasn’t it?” Though the truth was that he’d hardly been thinking at the time: he’d just done whatever had occurred to him that might get a murderous monster off his best friend. As he too stood from the table, he found Trowa turning back toward him, looking at him carefully. Quatre forced a smile and said, “Is my color better? Shall we go exploring now?”
Trowa returned the smile, and his looked almost as unenthusiastic as Quatre’s felt. But he nodded and turned toward the greenhouse doors.
It was wet and steaming inside, full of interesting blended scents and, to their surprise, birdsong. The latter, they discovered once they’d admired and puzzled over the many beautiful and unfamiliar plants, arose because the room opened onto an aviary, and the birds had freedom to fly throughout the greenhouse as through the distant forests they had undoubtedly originally come from.
They were birds such as Quatre had only seen pictured in books: flamboyantly colorful and very wild-looking… and yet they proved quite friendly. Many were willing to come down from vines or branches or their delicately-inlaid ivory perches to sit on arms and shoulders and eat from a hand the seeds that were in ready supply in bright boxes all around the room. They introduced themselves in almost human-like voices, and seemed disappointed when the men moved on.
The other rooms Quatre and Trowa looked through that day had a few things in common: the color scheme they had already seen of mahogany, burgundy, gold, and white; beautifully carved ebony furniture, often pillowed with velvet; similarly carved stonework wherever this base material of the building showed through; a heavy, lonely silence devoid of any feeling of life but their own; and a size and number purely impossible to fit inside the palace as they had seen it from the outside.
They looked out windows in all directions — north and south onto the narrowest expanses of the grounds and the forest beyond, west onto rocky mountainside that leapt abruptly up at the palace’s back, and east over a view they were coming to know well — so they always had a general idea of where they were… and yet sometimes it didn’t seem possible for them to be where they were. The third time Quatre, after glancing out a window in one room, found himself looking at the same view without any apparent shift in angle four doors down, he was finally forced to accept that the palace was simply bigger on the inside.
There was a plethora of bedrooms with adjoining parlors; there were elegant breakfast rooms, and playrooms for children; there were marble washrooms fit for a king. “How many guests does this Beast expect?” Trowa wondered cynically as they climbed a flight of stairs.
On the next level there were offices and reading rooms. Above that, an enormous library smelled of all the books in the world (and roses) and seemed to take up the entirety of two floors. Here Trowa, at least, would have been content to remain, leaving further exploration for another time; but the presence of an open book on one of several cushions in a sunken area of the floor designed for comfortable reading, combined with certain movements Quatre thought he caught out of the corner of his eye, led Quatre to hasten them on before they could either inconvenience the Beast with their presence or be forced to deal with him when it was not strictly necessary.
Moving again upward, they found evidence that boredom at least must be impossible here. Quatre didn’t take much interest in the chamber full of cloth and boxes of thread and needles, varied and dazzling though the many colors and textures were; but he gazed greedily and enthusiastically over a large room that contained every musical instrument he’d ever heard of and seemed to have been built to acoustic perfection.
Another room held a variety of paints and brushes as well as easels and blank canvasses of all sizes, and this chamber opened onto a long gallery of examples of this type of work. “I doubt most of them were painted in that room, though,” Trowa remarked, gesturing behind them. Quatre had to agree; too many of the paintings on the velvet-hung walls were far too happy-looking.
The next room was also a gallery, this one of carvings mostly in white marble similar to the huge man and woman in the entry hall. And after this, a door opening onto a final, narrow staircase led them spiraling up to the towering highest point of the palace.
As they emerged through another door onto a windy, railed circular balcony that seemed to look down over the entire world, they were surprised to see that the sun was already behind the mountains and the landscape was orange and blue in patches. Tired though he was from all the walking and stair-climbing and admiring, Quatre wouldn’t have guessed they’d been wandering for so many hours.
“It’s a beautiful view,” he said, moving to the railing to look out northward. “If I had better vision, I might be able to see to the edge of the forest from here.” Though Beaulea would probably still be invisible, he refrained from adding aloud.
Trowa, who had not joined him at the railing but stayed by the door, still gripping its handle, said nothing; and Quatre, deeming it unwise to stand staring out toward a home he would never see again in the already forlorn light of sunset, turned away.
“I’m so tired of stairs,” he complained as they headed back down. In an almost facetious gesture, Trowa patted him on the shoulder.
The tower stairs, they found, traversed the entire vertical length of the palace (unless there were more levels below ground) — and, indeed, were quicker to walk and had them all the way down to the bottom of the building much sooner than Quatre’s weary knees expected. The first two floors were all they had left to look over, and they did so now, Quatre thought, more out of a desire for completion than any currently remaining curiosity. They were both tired, had seen enough fine rooms to last a lifetime, and Quatre’s stomach was beginning to grumble.
Besides the huge entry hall and a number of visitors’ parlors whose type they were already familiar with, they found an enormous ballroom — “For whom?” Trowa wondered — a succession of increasingly large dining rooms, and several halls that seemed to have been designed for parties or assemblies — “Why?” Trowa asked.
As the darkness grew, they found each room blacker than the previous, but the lights obligingly came on the moment they entered, like footmen snapping to attention. And when they felt they’d finally seen everything and Quatre addressed a tentative, “Supper?” to one of the ensconced candles, the usual leading pattern began.
They were taken to one of the smaller dining rooms, where the family would have had their more casual, private meals if this had been the home of a family of any kind (assuming it was not a family of fourteen). The table had eight places but was set for two, and the palace magic had even had the sense to put them only two seats apart rather than at opposite ends.
“You don’t have to keep doing that,” Quatre said, half-laughing, as Trowa pulled a chair out for him.
“I’m not going to waste the first chance I’ve had in years,” Trowa replied.
Quatre snorted faintly, but did not argue. Instead, reminded, he remarked, “Do you know what we haven’t seen anywhere yet? Kitchens. Or pantries. Or servants’ quarters, or linen rooms, or laundries, or anything.”
“They’ll just be empty,” Trowa said, sounding a little weary.
With a nod Quatre went on thoughtfully, “And what’s more… you’d expect a place as big as this, so far from anywhere else, would have its own chapel… but we haven’t seen anything like that either.”
“You don’t want to go looking for all of this tonight, do you?”
“No,” said Quatre, reaching for one of the dishes in front of him. “Maybe tomorrow. I think I’ll go to bed after supper. It isn’t late, but I’m tired.” He left unspoken the sentiment that it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t have plenty of time to find out everything there was to know about this place in the future, but he thought Trowa caught it even from his silence. Trowa only nodded, however, and joined Quatre in perusing what they had for supper.
They’d barely begun eating when a great carved door opposite the one by which they’d entered was flung open with a silence incongruous with the force and speed of its movement, and the Beast came bounding in on all fours. He didn’t pause or greet them verbally yet, just loped right up to Trowa — who of the two of them was closer to the door — and began snuffling at him with his great nose. Trowa at first jerked away in startlement and fear, but then, when the Beast simply pressed closer to diminish the space again, went stiff and sat still.
Quatre watched in nervous silence, wondering whether the Beast was going to change his mind and send Trowa away after all — or worse. He’d sworn that Trowa was free to come and go as he pleased, but what did the sworn word of such a creature really mean? Or perhaps in exploring the palace today they’d caused some other inadvertent offense against its master and some other disproportionate price would now be demanded of them.
But the Beast merely finished his inspection of Trowa, and, without comment, bounded down the remaining length of the table to do the same to Quatre. At the nearness of the huge, warm, hairy bulk with its claws and deadly tail, at the feel of that hot breath moving over him, Quatre found himself sitting just as stiff and still as Trowa had — and in the corner of his eye he could see Trowa watching just as anxiously as Quatre had. The amusement that arose in him at this mirroring of behavior gave him confidence, and with a deep breath he said, “Good evening, Beast.”
The Beast drew back and looked at him for a moment with one of his undersized eyes, in which Quatre thought there showed some interest. Then, in an unexpectedly hearty tone, he said, “Good evening!” And, circumnavigating Quatre’s chair and end of the table with the same surprising snakelike litheness he’d displayed earlier, he moved to a spot approximately opposite the two diners. There he pulled a chair some distance out, jumped easily up onto it, and looked across the table at them both.
Nervous under that animal gaze and trying to think of something to say, Quatre snatched at the first thing he happened to notice in the Beast’s vicinity — namely, the number of place settings. “Aren’t you eating?” He asked it before he realized that he might very well not really want to know the answer. The Beast’s head didn’t look like part of a carnivorous animal, but other parts of his body did.
To Quatre’s surprise, the Beast laughed, a rough, broken sound like the barking of a dog. “No, I’ll spare you the sight of that,” he said easily. “It’s not appropriate for a room as nice as this.”
Quatre stared at him, extremely curious about what he meant but unable to bring himself to ask.
“But you can eat,” the Beast went on. “Don’t let me stop you. You’ve had that same bit of meat on your fork since I came in.”
Quatre looked down, a little abashed. Despite his hunger and how marvelous the meal was, he’d entirely forgotten about the food on his own plate, and had indeed had a bite lifted just off of it for some time. As he put it in his mouth and chewed and swallowed, he stared at the wine in his glass and listened to the Beast’s next comment.
“So I don’t think we ever had a real introduction. You’ve been calling me ‘Beast,’ and you might as well keep on doing that since it is accurate.” Here some movement drew Quatre’s eyes; the Beast was making an almost mocking bow from where he still stood on the chair. Then he fell into an easy crouch with his hairy arms laid across his upraised knees. “But what are your names?”
The voice was so casual and friendly, lacking the cool tonelessness of earlier, that if it hadn’t been so much of a growl, Quatre might have been able to close his eyes and imagine he was talking to a normal man. As it was, he just answered the question. “I’m Quatre of the Winner Barony, and this is Trowa Barton.”
“His servant,” Trowa put in; for some reason he was always careful to clarify that part.
“A lord, huh?” The Beast sounded intrigued.
Quatre shrugged. “My father’s the baron,” he explained, picking at his food. “It’s a wonder he didn’t have the title stripped from him years ago; if there were still any administrative duties connected with it these days, he probably would have. As it is, he’s just the poorest Lord Winner in family history. It’s too bad he can’t sell the title… When you don’t always know where your next meal’s coming from, being Lord Anything doesn’t mean much.”
“You did say your father was poor,” the Beast recollected. “How did that happen, if he’s a baron?”
Quatre sighed and laid down his fork, reaching instead for his glass of wine. Of all the places he never would have thought to be tonight, here he was in a magical palace explaining the family misfortunes across a dinner table to a relatively terrifying monster that talked like a man. But after he’d drunk, he explained. “We were never a landed family. We had an estate, of course, in Silbreaker–”
“Silverbreaker Cove?” the Beast broke in interestedly.
Quatre nodded, and let his thoughts wander briefly to how long it had been since anyone had referred to the capital by its old, complete name, and how long, as a consequence, the Beast might have been shut off from the world. Then he went on.
“We had the estate, but the family fortune was always wrapped up in the shipping business. My father always took a direct interest in the business, instead of leaving it to his clerks. But about five years ago… now…” He paused, losing his train of thought again as he watched the Beast.
For the latter, absently raising one clawed hand to the opposite shoulder as if to scratch an itch as he listened, had brought it away bloody from the wound that still stood open there. When, glancing over at Quatre’s pause in the narrative, he observed the man’s slight gape, he looked down at his hand and made a soft, frustrated growling noise. “Sorry. There’s another thing that’s not appropriate for such a nice room!” And, leaning forward, he snagged a free serviette from the table and clumsily set about cleaning off his hand. He didn’t touch the wound, though, and it was difficult thereafter for Quatre to remove his eyes from it. “Go on,” said the Beast, almost harshly. “Five years ago…?”
“About five years ago…” Quatre cleared his throat. “My mother died on a sea voyage when the ship she was on went down in a storm. My father loved her very much — we all did — and after that he could never stand the sight of a ship again. He abandoned the business, and wouldn’t even hear it talked of. He left it entirely to a friend of his, whom he’d always worked with… and who very sympathetically offered to help… but this man is…”
Quatre’s hand clenched his own serviette into a cream-colored silken crumple. “I won’t be unfair,” he insisted, mostly to himself. “He’s a good man. He cares about our family; he never tried to take advantage of my father’s trust for his own good, which he could have done… But he’s…”
“Not a businessman,” Trowa put in. Quatre threw him a grateful glance. Trowa knew that Quatre struggled constantly not to be unjust toward the man that had always done everything he could for them, knew that Quatre would immediately regret the harsh term on the tip of his tongue, and had provided this gentler one instead.
“Within a year,” Quatre went on, “he’d mangled my father’s business so badly that we had to retrench and rent out our estate house. We had to leave a lot of our luxury and most–” he smiled forlornly at Trowa– “of our servants behind. My sisters — especially the younger ones — were confused about why we couldn’t go on living the way we had, and they weren’t very helpful when it came to cutting back on expenses.
“I was sixteen at the time, and I understood things a little better. I tried talking to my father about what his friend was doing to us, tried to make him see what I saw coming if he didn’t do something about it, but he wouldn’t listen. He always had trusted his friend, and he still trusted him; he was sure he would pull through this. And he thought I was too young to know what I was talking about. Of course I stupidly had to bring up my mother and what she would have wanted, and… it was probably the worst argument we ever had.
“Within another year, we were completely ruined. We had to sell the estate outright just to keep my father out of a debtor’s prison. We left Silbreaker in shame and moved to a tiny house — well, tiny for all of us — in Beaulea, and we’ve been doing farm work and half-starving ever since. We would have been fine if there hadn’t been so many of us… or if more of us had been capable of harder labor that pays better… but I have eleven sisters, and they’re all younger than me.”
“Eleven?” the Beast burst out. “What were your parents thinking?”
“That they’d always be rich,” Quatre sighed.
“Well, at least you got to send them all those things today.”
Brightening a little, Quatre nodded. “Thanks again for that. I think it will really help them.”
The Beast shrugged; the motion was uncannily human, and uncanny in general with that red slash on one of his shoulders. “As if any of that stuff is any use to me.” Then his tone reverted to the previous somewhat annoyed skepticism. “But didn’t you have any friends or family who could have helped you?”
“My father was an only child, and his parents died years ago, so his inheritance was already part of what Roldeen — his friend — was losing for him. My mother’s family cut her off entirely when she married because of some stupid old blood feud, and they wouldn’t even answer my father’s messages. And after that he refused to ask anyone for help — partly, I think, out of injured pride, and partly because he wanted to stand by his friend and not tell everyone whose doing it was that we were in such dire straits. But everyone knew… it was a bit of a scandal, actually, which I think was why none of our former friends from before things fell apart were willing to step forward and volunteer help — though they might have done something if they’d been specifically asked.”
“And that friend of your father’s?” growled the Beast. “What did he do for you?”
Quatre laughed mirthlessly. “It wasn’t only our finances he ruined. Trowa and I just saw him in Silbreaker; he’s living in a single room above a shop in Fishmarket Street. Not that there’s anything wrong with living in Fishmarket Street,” he added hastily, not looking at his friend that had been born there. “It’s just that he’s lost so much, and it’s all his own fault.”
Quatre wasn’t sure how he thought he could tell, but the Beast’s nod of understanding appeared pensive and pitying. Everyone was silent, and Quatre went back to picking at his food. He’d still eaten very little, but found he’d rather lost his appetite.
“Where is Beaulea?” the Beast asked at last, suddenly.
Tired of the story, Quatre didn’t immediately answer, so Trowa supplied, “North of the forest.” Quatre noticed he hadn’t eaten much either.
“And what were you doing in the forest?”
Trowa continued to provide information in Quatre’s place. “Near the end, Lord Winner’s friend sent out all three of the ships that remained to the business in a last-ditch attempt to turn a profit before everything was lost–”
“A last-ditch attempt to put all our eggs in one basket,” Quatre muttered.
“It was probably a bad idea,” Trowa agreed. “But there was no way he could have known they would all three be lost at sea. But just recently he sent us word that one of them had been sighted coming back at last. So we rode out to see if there was anything left on board to the Winner name.”
“Some of my sisters still don’t quite understand,” Quatre put in wanly. “They were asking, before we left, if we could bring them back fine gowns and things like they used to have. They thought this one ship was going to make us as rich as we used to be.”
“And let me guess,” said the Beast: “It didn’t.”
Trowa shook his head.
“Just another mistake from my father’s loyal friend.” It was a losing battle for Quatre to keep the bitterness from his tone. “I know he thought he was helping, but he could have waited until he was sure…”
“It wasn’t one of Lord Winner’s ships at all,” Trowa explained.
“The luck you folks have had…” The Beast shook his shaggy head, and he sounded somewhat sad; Quatre wondered whether in this statement he was including the fact that Quatre was now sworn to remain for the rest of his life in an enchanted palace with such an improbable creature.
Then the Beast turned toward Trowa, as if the latter’s entrance into the conversation had reminded the Beast of his presence. “And you,” he said, and added, “Trowa,” almost experimentally.
“What about me?” Trowa wondered.
“You’ve been with them through all of this?”
Trowa nodded wordlessly.
“Good man. Well done. But how have they paid you if they were starving themselves?”
“They haven’t. I haven’t had a wage for two years.”
Quatre threw him a startled look. He’d known that Trowa’s wages had sunken pitifully, and he wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that his friend had been working for only nominal recompense for quite some time… but two years with no pay? He felt, however, that now was not the time to bring it up.
The Beast was commending Trowa once again for his dedication, and when he fell silent Quatre ventured on another topic. “And what about you? You said we can call you ‘Beast,’ but what’s your real name? Will you tell us about yourself and this palace?” It was as close as he dared come to asking, ‘What the Hell is going on here?’ which he thought might come across as a little rude. He didn’t think questions like ‘What are you?’ or ‘How is it you can talk like a man?’ would go over very well either.
But the Beast was not to be questioned even obliquely on this topic. In a movement that seemed somewhat annoyed, he stood up straight again on the chair, looming over the table with his great head for a moment before jumping down. “Actually,” he said, “I think I’ve had enough of supper for tonight.” He crossed the room on all fours, but went upright again at the door for just long enough to favor them once more with that ironic bow. “Good night to you both! I’ll see you tomorrow.” And then he was gone, bounding out the door that closed silently behind him, leaving Trowa and Quatre, for the second time that day, staring helplessly in his wake.
After a long silence Trowa pushed away his still-mostly-full plate with a regretful glance, as if to say he thought he’d had enough too.
“Having him in here made me too nervous to eat much,” Quatre said. “Well, that and telling him all those things. But I thought he was easier to talk to than earlier.”
Trowa nodded, standing up and moving to pull out Quatre’s chair.
Outside the dining room, the lights immediately began to guide them again, which was a relief since Quatre doubted he could have found the bedrooms from last night on his own. They walked in silence through the shadowy corridors and up the stairs, and Quatre was contemplating the conversation they’d just had.
The Beast had seemed genuinely interested in his family’s troubles; was that simply because he hadn’t had anyone to be interested in before? He’d also appeared somewhat impressed to learn that his guest was the son of a baron, while he himself lived in a spectacular palace; who was he? Pensively, Quatre glanced behind, though he knew they were by now far away from the dining room and that the Beast wouldn’t be visible anywhere around them in any case. What was his surprise, therefore, to see someone after all, dim in the light of the closest candles. With a hitch of breath Quatre stopped and turned entirely.
“What’s wrong?” Trowa asked.
“Hey!” Quatre called, and took off back the way they’d come. “Who’s there?” The figure he thought he’d seen, which had appeared to be a woman in a blue gown, had disappeared around a corner just as he’d caught sight of her; now his steps quickly re-covered the space of carpet between him and that corner as candles accommodatingly came back to life, but around the turn he found nothing.
“Who was it?” Trowa asked as Quatre flung open the nearest door onto a completely empty room. Evidently the magic hadn’t anticipated this abrupt movement, since it usually opened doors ahead of them without their needing to touch the handles.
“I have no idea.” Quatre stood still at last, chewing on his lip. “But we’re not alone here.”
“I don’t know if that’s comforting or not,” Trowa murmured as they slowly resumed their progress toward their bedrooms.
Quatre had to agree with him, and remained pensively silent throughout the rest of the walk. They might have explored most of the palace during the course of that day, and they might be able to see everything there was to be seen of the grounds tomorrow, but he had a feeling there was a great deal more to this place than anyone could find in just a couple of days. And he couldn’t really consider it a fortunate circumstance that he had all the time in the world to do so.
“It’s, what, five miles from your house up here?”
On a grassy hillside that was the only spot in the vicinity devoid of trees (besides the road, of course), Duo was lying on his back looking up at the stars. They’d done this a lot lately, not necessarily because the stars were more interesting or attractive recently but because they’d discovered that it was a perfect atmosphere for private conversations, a place where they could talk and laugh as much as they wanted without disturbing anyone.
When Heero confirmed the distance cited by Duo, the latter idly started picking individual grass blades that lay beneath his hand and throwing them at Heero. Sometimes they landed on Heero, sometimes they fell between the two men; every once in a while the breeze picked up and threw them back at Duo.
“How long does that take?”
“An hour, if I walk fast,” Heero replied, lying still under the grassy assault and making no protest.
“So that’s at least two hours a night you spend walking,” Duo mused. “And you’re usually here with me for at least another two. How much sleep can you possibly be getting?”
“Not a lot,” admitted Heero. He sounded at first as if he might go on to some kind of explanation, but eventually his silence deepened and it was obvious that he would say no more.
“And this doesn’t bother you at all?”
Heero’s shoulders shifted through the grass in a shrug. “Not really.”
“I mean, I can sleep in; all I ever have to do is transcribe old church records or do chores around the place or run easy errands. So it doesn’t matter how long I’m out here, or if I feel like spending half the night taking a long walk. But you do some pretty heavy work sometimes, don’t you?”
“Not much, anymore. You remember I did that carving on those chairs for Ireen the weaver? Alan realized he can get a better price on just about anything if I carve it first. He has me mostly doing that now.”
Duo raised himself up on one fist and gave Heero a skeptical look. “So instead of hammer and nails, you’re working with knives sharp enough to cut wood… but lack of sleep doesn’t bother you.”
Heero shook his head.
After throwing an entire handful of grass at him this time, Duo lay back down and pillowed his head on his arms. For several silent seconds he watched the stars, but he wasn’t properly seeing them. Finally he said, “What I guess I’m really trying to figure out is what’s so interesting up here that’s worth you giving up half your sleep-time for.”
Heero remained silent.
“Because as far as I can tell, you’re not coming up here for any other reason than just to talk to me. Not that I’m complaining, but, seriously, why?”
Still Heero said nothing.
Duo removed his arms from the prickling grass beneath his head and folded his hands across his chest. “It’s been almost three months now,” he went on conversationally, for all Heero seemed determined to keep this one-sided. “You just showed up here one night and announced that you wanted to be friends, and that made no sense, but it worked fine… in fact, I’m not sure how you became my best friend as quick as you did. And then you’ve been coming up here almost every night ever since then.”
From beside him, silence.
“And you always get quiet about it, just like this. You never want to tell me what it is you really come up here for.”
Finally Heero spoke: “There’s nothing to tell.”
“You know I can always tell when you’re lying,” said Duo dismissively.
“What do you want me to say? I come up here to see you.”
“Yes,” Duo allowed in some annoyance, “but that’s not all there is to it. Why do you come up here to see me?”
“Would you rather I stayed home?”
“Stop being evasive!”
Heero made a frustrated noise, and moved abruptly. Rolling over, he threw himself on top of Duo, straddling his legs and keeping him down in a sort of wrestling hold. And just as if they had been wrestling, Duo’s heart was suddenly pounding and his breaths were coming a little short, though he hadn’t actually made any real exertion.
“When I first saw you at the festival,” Heero said quietly, almost grimly, his face very close to Duo’s, “you were dancing. I couldn’t stop staring at you. I could barely even see who you were dancing with because it hurt to move my eyes that far off you. Then for the next two weeks I couldn’t get rid of the memory. I saw your face everywhere I looked. I saw you dancing. I dreamed about you at night, when I could sleep at all, and I didn’t even know your name. I had to come find you. It was like I didn’t have a choice. You were going to drive me mad otherwise.
“But once I did find you, it only got worse. I still see you when I close my eyes. I still dream about you. And whenever I’m not here with you, I wish I were. You’re all I can think about. When I’m with you is the only time I feel like I’m alive, instead of plodding through some routine that just goes on and on and never makes me happy. And the idea of not coming up here to see you… of spending a quiet night at home without you, working on something or sleeping… it’s impossible. It would kill me.”
Duo stared up at the glint in Heero’s dark eyes, smelling cedar, wondering why the throbbing of his heart had yet to diminish and wondering why the heat of Heero’s body atop his seemed so much more noticeable than if they really had just been playfully wrestling in the grass. For a long moment he had nothing to say in response to the unexpected outburst; he could only lie there and feel. But finally he managed a chuckle, and remarked, “It sounds a little like you’re in love with me.” Then he sobered completely as the meaning of what he’d said hit him. “Actually it…” Now that he thought about it… His voice sank almost to a whisper. “It sounds a lot like you’re in love with me.”
Heero’s eyes had widened slowly at the sound of Duo’s words, and now in a sudden movement he got to his feet and started walking away down the hill and into the trees. Duo, combating an unexpected turmoil of heart and regretting the careless statement that had driven Heero from him, taken his warm weight off of him, struggled to rise and follow. “Hey, I didn’t…” he began as he caught up, but he wasn’t sure what to say.
“Is that it?” Heero murmured harshly, not slackening his pace. More quietly still he wondered, “What is wrong with me?”
“Nothing!” Duo’s heart beat even faster, his chest seemed tight and painful, and suddenly he was thinking about all the things that were implied by that phrase ‘in love.’ He’d always assumed that someday he would find himself there, but he’d never had a particularly clear picture of what it might involve: just a hazy, faceless figure at his side through a number of vague, comfortable circumstances.
But now it was as if a fog had shredded from before his mental vision, for all of those circumstances seemed suddenly real and detailed and very desirable, and the figure that shared them with him invariably had both a face and a name. It was bizarre and perhaps a little frightening, but it was perfectly unambiguous. He felt his throat constrict, and his next words came out sounding choked: “Nothing that isn’t wrong with me too…”
Finally Heero slowed his manic stride, pausing in the deep tree-shadows and turning to look at Duo with a face almost invisible and a voice full of uncertainty. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you too.” Duo’s tone was not terribly strong as it shaped these strange words, but he pushed onward anyway. “I never thought about it before, but… but I think I am.”
“Duo…” Heero gripped Duo’s arms tightly with his strong carpenter’s hands, and now in his voice, behind the continuing desperate uncertainty, was a hope he was trying fiercely to conceal or even eradicate. “How can we… there’s no way… Duo, we’re both men.”
“Oh, you noticed that?” The joke fell utterly flat, but it had at least been worth a try. Slowly and more seriously, “I don’t know about the ‘how,'” Duo went on. “But what you just described, and what I’m feeling now… if that isn’t love, then somebody’s been telling me wrong for years and years.”
“But then…” Heero’s arms dropped, but something about his stance changed with these words, eased somehow. He still seemed very stiff and uncertain, but whereas previously his response to this had been flight, away from Duo and the discussion and the startling truth of their situation, the uncertainty seemed now rather to include Duo, as if they two were together in this and the enemy, if there was one, lay outside of them both. “What do we do?”
Duo reached out through the shadows and took Heero’s shoulders. The warmth under his hands only made them hunger for more, so he stepped forward to embrace him fully, pressing up against Heero’s rigid figure. “I’m not sure,” he said.
Though Duo could not have called it ‘relaxing,’ Heero did slowly lean into him and raise his own arms again to return the embrace, almost tentatively, as if he dreaded moving with any more purpose.
It was a strange, sad, wonderful moment; Duo still wasn’t sure how this had happened, didn’t quite understand how two men could have come to this, but he was increasingly confident of what he felt for Heero. The realization of it had been abrupt and unexpected, but he saw now that the feeling itself had been slowly growing over the last few months since he’d met him.
Heero’s skin against his jaw and neck was smooth and inviting, and Duo couldn’t help reflecting once again on some of those images of love he’d hazily cherished for so long and now pictured so much more clearly. “I think…” he said at last, into the silent darkness, “I know one thing we can do.” Drawing back — a little reluctantly, it was true, for Heero so warm and solid against him was something he didn’t wish to abandon — he raised his hands to Heero’s face.
“What?” Heero’s features were nearly invisible in the shadowy forest, but there was still a glint that marked his eyes as they looked intently at Duo.
“You can kiss me.”
Duo felt the face beneath his fingers go hot. “Can I?” Heero asked, sounding almost childlike, and rather uncertain yet, in his surprised anticipation.
“I’m pretty sure you can.” Duo still couldn’t make a joke work in this serious atmosphere, but it came closer this time than the last one had.
And so Heero kissed him, a soft, almost frightened touch of mouth against mouth for which Duo’s few, careless kisses with girls in the past had not adequately prepared him. When it was finished he couldn’t seem to catch his breath, and he clutched tightly at Heero, never wanting to let go. He thought he was on the verge of tears. Something fundamental about the world seemed to have shifted during the course of that kiss; somehow, he knew, his life would never be the same again.
I can never manage to draw the Beast the way I picture him; he’s never bulky enough, and I can’t seem to convey his looming size. This is undoubtedly because there are few references available of humanoid-ish bison-cat-ape-scorpion-bird-monsters.