Trowa rather expected Quatre to come sleep with him again after their long exploration of the palace and that strange supper. The loneliness of this place had in no way diminished, and Trowa sincerely doubted that the thought of having sworn to stay forever could make it any better. Surely Quatre must feel it still, again, and desire a companion as he had last night. Or perhaps Trowa was thinking wishfully, letting the loneliness and his desire to have Quatre there get to him.
At any rate, Quatre did not at first appear, but it didn’t take long to realize why: Trowa, as he walked past the door between their rooms, clearly caught the sound of sobbing from beyond it, and paused.
It wasn’t the first time he’d overheard Quatre’s solitary despair, but neither was this a frequent occurrence. Quatre had always felt the need to be strong for the sake of his family: to smile and carry on and actively hide how much he was hurt by the loss of his mother, by their poverty, by his father’s decline. He’d always been the first to go without whatever was in short supply, he’d always worked the longest hours, and he’d never let them see him grieve over the situation, over his hunger or his weariness… but there had been times when Trowa had come upon him in the woodshed or out with the cows sobbing as quietly as he could.
Observing Quatre in so much pain always brought Trowa to tears as well — in part because it hurt to see Quatre suffering, in part because there was nothing he could do to help him… but also because it was agony to realize that he was one of those from whom Quatre felt the need to hide this. Of course that just marked Trowa as part of the family in Quatre’s eyes, but Trowa would rather share in his master’s sorrow and give what comfort he could than accept the dubious compliment of Quatre’s brave face and false smile over a secret suffering.
And if Trowa had thought things might change here — here, where the sadness of the situation was too obvious to be any kind of secret, and where Trowa was all Quatre had left of his previous life — he was mistaken. Obviously Trowa was still not one to be shared with; Quatre still had to hide. And it still hurt… but at least this was a pain to which Trowa was accustomed.
Brushing the tears from his own face, he moved away from the door, trying not to strain his ears for further sounds of Quatre’s sorrow or its abatement as he readied himself for sleep. And a few minutes later, there came a knock. Trowa, who had just gotten into bed but hadn’t yet arranged the covers or pulled the curtains, said, “Come in, Quatre.”
It would have been impossible to tell he’d been crying — whether because Quatre had mastered the art of doing so in secret or simply because he possessed that natural grace that allowed one person in a hundred to look normal after tears, Trowa didn’t know. Quatre just gave Trowa his beautiful smile, this one somewhat abashed as he asked, “Can I sleep with you again?”
Trowa nodded and shifted over in the bed.
“First the inn at Silbreaker, now here,” said Quatre ruefully as he moved across the room. “I can’t seem to fall asleep by myself anymore. I guess it has been almost three years since I had a bed of my own…”
Trowa replied to the apology in Quatre’s tone, assuring Quatre it was all right. He doubted he would be able to fall asleep on his own either.
Once they were settled and the lights had gone out, the familiar warmth of their backs against each other beginning to grow, Quatre said quietly, “Why didn’t you tell me you haven’t been paid in so long?”
The truth of the matter was that Trowa had never been able to stand the thought of what Quatre might say if he learned this. It had been bad enough having Quatre’s father regularly express the opinion that Trowa should leave them, however kindly he meant it… to hear Quatre say it would have broken Trowa’s heart.
But the answer he gave was, “I didn’t want to worry you.”
“It’s all water under the bridge now, I guess,” said Quatre, “but you deserve better than that.”
“Thank you. But room and board were enough for me.” As long as that continued to allow him to be near Quatre.
“‘Room and board,'” Quatre snorted. “A room you shared with two other people, not even a bed of your own, and board not guaranteed on any given day.”
“Like you said, it doesn’t matter now.”
As silence fell, Trowa had no doubt they were both reflecting on why it didn’t matter now. These exceptional new circumstances were something that would surely linger on both their minds for quite some time. Indeed, could they ever become accustomed to this? Trowa knew humans were capable of getting used to the most outrageous things, but this… he thought this might lie beyond the pale. It must always be incredible.
“Why do you think he wants me here?” asked Quatre at last.
“Misery loves company,” was Trowa’s speculation.
“You think he wants to make others suffer because he’s suffering?”
“I don’t know. He scares me,” admitted Trowa. And it didn’t help that the Beast’s face and animalistic body language were so difficult to read.
“Mmm.” Quatre’s tone of agreement seemed equal parts pensive and exhausted. “But I don’t think he’s really unkind… just… lonely…”
Trowa made a sound that conceded the possibility of this point, after which they spoke no more. He couldn’t help wondering, though, as he fell asleep, exactly what the Beast’s intentions might be if it was motivated by loneliness.
As quietly and slowly as he could, trying hard not to allow any rustling from the branch he gripped to keep his balance, Heero leaned forward and looked down through the leaves into the shadows below. Moonlight stretched across a long empty patch of ground nearby, and he was sure to mark the moment Duo appeared out of the shade of the trees.
How exactly he came to be up here was something of a mystery to him. Not how he’d actually climbed the tree, but how it was that he so frequently ended up doing silly things like this — and enjoying them — when Duo was around. He’d previously thought himself almost entirely devoid of playful impulses, and yet here he was playing hide-and-seek with another grown man in the middle of the night five miles from home, and knowing he would not regret, later, how he’d spent his time.
Duo was trying as hard as Heero to be sneaky, but it was more difficult when he was moving — and when he had that great length of tightly-braided hair, which he’d just washed, to catch the light and give away his position. Heero, however, was at an equal if dissimilar disadvantage in that he found the sight of Duo in the moonlight — especially with that glint on his wet hair — utterly breathtaking. At the sound Heero thus inadvertently made, Duo’s face snapped upward, his mouth split into a grin with a brief flash of moonlight on teeth, and he made a little triumphant noise.
Abandoning all efforts at subtlety, Heero scrambled back down his branch and searched for another path to the ground besides the one Duo was now using to come up. It didn’t look promising. His heart beat rapidly in the giddiness that always seemed to overtake him at moments like this — something that came across a lot like genuine fear, despite the fact that he actually very much wanted Duo to catch him, and made him feel like shouting out loud.
He’d managed to move two branches laterally and one down before Duo, far more reckless and simultaneously more experienced at climbing trees than Heero was, caught up with him. He dropped onto Heero’s branch and came toward him, that triumphant grin still on his face. For a few breathtaking seconds he walked without holding onto anything before he pushed Heero up against the trunk of the tree and wrapped his arms around both.
“Duo, we’ll fall if you–” But Heero was cut off by Duo’s mouth hard against his, and his awareness of balance and its importance and his current position in a tree wavered a bit.
A few minutes later they were both seated on the branch, which only creaked a little beneath their combined weight, close together, arms around each other and Duo’s head on Heero’s shoulder, their legs dangling down into the darkness. There wasn’t much of a view — just a largely indistinguishable tangle of black branches and leaves, with here and there at random a patch of green or brown haphazardly illuminated by the moon — but they were perfectly content.
“I’ve never seen your hair down,” Heero was complaining idly. He had Duo’s wet braid in one hand, and was swinging it gently around; it had been four months since he’d first set eyes on that braid, and it seemed a trifle unfair that he’d never seen it unbound.
“I’ll show you sometime,” Duo replied. “But it’s not all that exciting.”
“Sometime…” echoed Heero, and felt a touch of uneasiness creep into his tone as into his thoughts. He couldn’t help contemplating the future at moments like this — their future. More specifically, whether or not they had one.
Duo picked up on his changing mood immediately. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you heard of… people like us… before?”
“You mean beautiful geniuses?” Duo wondered with mock seriousness.
“Men together like this,” Heero said with real seriousness. He supposed there might possibly be women in such a situation too, but didn’t feel the need to add that, as there were no women here. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, we haven’t told anyone. Probably neither has anyone else. There could be thousands of people like us, and we just wouldn’t know.”
This was actually a fairly reassuring point. “I wish we could tell someone, though. I wish we could tell everyone.”
“You? ‘Tell everyone’ something?”
“Just this one thing. They don’t need to know anything else. But I would like to tell them how much I love you.”
“I’d climb up onto one of the rooftops in the square and shout it out during the festival if I could.”
Duo’s face against Heero’s neck seemed to have gone hot. “God, would you really do that for me? I think the world would come to an end!”
“Then I probably wouldn’t.”
With a chuckle, Duo squeezed the arm he had around Heero’s waist. “So kind of you to probably refrain from bringing the world to an end.” After a long moment of silence he added, as if in afterthought, “I know how you feel, though… I’d like to be able to tell my mother.”
“What do you think she’d say?”
Duo removed his head from the crook of Heero’s neck and chin and puffed out his cheeks in a long breath. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I doubt it’d be good, though… I mean, if you and I are wondering about this, while we’re in it — if we can acknowledge that it’s unusual, and we’re feeling it — I don’t know how anyone who’s not in the middle of it would react.”
“Probably think we’d both gone mad.”
Duo nodded glumly. “Right now nobody but my mother even really knows we’re friends, since you always come and go after dark. I mean, I’ve mentioned you to some people, but I haven’t tried to make anyone understand how important you are.”
“Alan thinks I’ve found a sweetheart,” Heero replied, with a slight smile, knowing Duo would be amused to hear it. “Darl thinks I’ve found a lover.”
“Well, you have!” said Duo, a little indignantly, and, turning his head, kissed Heero again.
Heero liked that. Duo was his sweetheart. He was Duo’s lover. The words brought a hot, twisting sensation to the pit of his stomach and made him clutch at Duo more tightly. Of course, ‘lover’ implied something a bit more than ‘sweetheart’ — something the kind-hearted and somewhat naive Alan wouldn’t ascribe to the unmarried Heero, but which his son gladly would. “Darl’s been annoyed with me,” Heero went on when he could. “I suddenly became social without him. He can’t wait to see me in trouble for knocking up some girl.”
“There, I think, we have a distinct advantage over tradition,” Duo pronounced dogmatically.
Heero seemed to feel all the skin on his body tingle and heat and tighten, and he wanted simultaneously to pull Duo closer and to push him away. “But we haven’t even–”
“But we could,” Duo broke in intensely.
“I don’t know.” Heero’s voice was a little shaky. “I wouldn’t have any idea what to do.”
“Oh, I bet you’d have some idea,” said Duo pointedly. “We figured out kissing, didn’t we?”
“But I don’t know if…” Heero gave up and let his real objection out. “If we should.” Helplessly, fearing it might hurt Duo but feeling he had to say it, he went on. “I love you, but sometimes I think it’s not right. That something’s wrong with me, and we shouldn’t be doing this at all. Taking the next step, going that far… I’m afraid it might… I don’t know.”
With a defeated-sounding sigh, Duo let his head fall back onto Heero’s shoulder again. “I know,” he said softly. “Sometimes I want you so bad I feel like I’m going to scream, but if all of this is already… unhealthy or something… we’d just be hurting each other more, wouldn’t we? Damn it all.”
“I’m sorry,” Heero whispered. “I wish I could give you something normal and right… or that one of us had been born a woman or something.”
“I don’t,” said Duo fiercely, straightening so abruptly that they were both for a moment in danger of losing their balance. “I don’t want to be a woman, and I wouldn’t like you to be one either. You being a man is part of who you are, and I love who you are. If some faery came along right now and offered to change one of us into a girl so we could live happily ever after, I’d tell her to fuck off.”
So surprised and touched was Heero by this — not to mention just a little amused — that he had nothing to say in response. After a moment Duo settled into him again and added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about ‘normal and right,’ either. Well, all right, maybe this isn’t normal. As far as I know, I guess it’s not. And I wish I could say there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t know that for sure either. But if it’s wrong, it’s the rightest-feeling wrong I’ve ever felt.”
Heero had to laugh. “That’s one way to put it.”
“My point is that I’d rather be wrong with you than right with anyone else.”
“That one was a lot more eloquent.”
“Hey, I’m trying to make a dramatic romantic statement here, and you’re mocking me.”
Heero pulled him closer. “I love you, Duo,” he murmured into Duo’s hair.
“I love you too.” Duo’s tone was intense as he returned both the declaration and the gesture, squeezing Heero tightly. “I just wish that could be enough.”
“I’m going to fatten right up in this place,” Quatre said as he sank into a chair at the breakfast table and gave the latter’s contents a look of appreciative helplessness. “And wine with every meal…?”
“We’ll get some exercise exploring today,” Trowa reminded him, moving around from where he’d held Quatre’s chair to take his own. He had nothing to offer on the subject of the wine, however, so he just added, “You don’t think the Beast intends to fatten us up, do you?”
Quatre paused with his first bite of potatoes halfway to his mouth, looking as if the idea had never even occurred to him. “No,” he said at last, “I don’t. I can see how ‘I’m going to eat you’ could be expressed as ‘Stay with me forever,’ but he doesn’t seem the type for that kind of word game. Besides, I was looking at him last night, and I don’t think he’s built to eat meat. He doesn’t have the teeth for it.”
“Now you’re being reassuringly mundane,” Trowa said with a slight smile.
“Good,” said Quatre. “Because I’m not entirely certain I believe it myself.”
Trowa gave a brief, bitter laugh, then turned his full attention to breakfast.
When they’d finished eating — and Quatre for all his complaints had done justice to the exquisite meal — Quatre declared, “Now I’m going to use one of those wonderful-looking washrooms. It’s been a long time since I had a real bath.”
Well aware of this, as every moment Quatre spent unclothed for whatever purpose was carefully cataloged in the back of his head, Trowa just nodded.
“So I’ll meet you back here in about an hour,” Quatre went on, “and we’ll go explore outside.”
Once he was alone, Trowa reflected that he might as well seek out a bath of his own, given the excessive number of washrooms they’d seen yesterday and the fact that sitting here thinking about Quatre bathing wasn’t going to do him any sort of good. Less enthusiastically than Quatre had, he rose and left the parlor, and inquired of the candles on the corridor wall the way to the nearest unoccupied washroom.
That this contained every imaginable amenity that could assist in bathing, Trowa was in no way surprised. That every substance smelled of roses, Trowa was in no way surprised. That he rather enjoyed the experience of complete submersion in hot water — something, as Quatre had pointed out, that was rarely available to him these days — and eventually left the room feeling refreshed and ready for the day, he might have been a little surprised.
Back in his bedroom, as he was reaching for the clothing that had again reappeared, folded neatly, on his tightly-made bed, he was struck suddenly with the thought that, if he was to wander around a palace for the rest of his life, there was no reason to continue dressing like the pauper he therefore no longer was. So he left his rough, worn garments sitting on the bed for now, and moved to the wardrobe.
He didn’t know whether the palace was aware, somehow, of what colors he preferred, or whether it was just by coincidence that everything in here was silver and dark green and brown; but even just pulling some of the items halfway out to glance at them proved that they should all fit him. It was a little unnerving, actually, and the more he looked through the available clothing the less he felt inclined to wear any of it. It would be, he thought, a sign of his acceptance of this situation and his future here, and he wasn’t sure he was ready for that. So when Quatre entered, Trowa was lacing up his old, worn boots again beneath his mended trousers, scratchy shirt, and patched tunic.
“I’m glad you’re here, Trowa,” Quatre said, the touch of sadness in his tone lending credence to his words despite their sounding otherwise mostly cheerful. “This place is beautiful, but having something familiar around is a huge relief.”
Trowa was glad then that he’d retained his familiar outfit, even if it hadn’t been for this reason. What he said in response, though, was, “So I’m just familiar, not beautiful?”
Quatre laughed. “Come on; let’s go explore outside.”
They started their sight-seeing down near the silent temptation that was the open front gates, where Trowa couldn’t help wondering if there was anything magical actually keeping Quatre here. Would the gates swing closed again if they approached? Would the Beast then come bounding out of the palace once more and ask whether Quatre was tired of this place already and wanted to die?
Quatre’s thoughts seemed to be running along the same lines, though not quite so dismally. “I guess he trusts me,” he murmured, looking out the arch in the hedge-wall to the forest road beyond.
On one side of the gravel, in the northeastern corner of the grounds, lined by hedges, there was a great green space where the grass was cropped low as if by extremely diligent servants. In one corner there stood a stone shed, which they hadn’t noticed from any of the windows yesterday — probably because it was covered in creeping vines and roses that caused it to blend in somewhat with the greenery against which it stood. Inside they found various sporting articles: balls and bats and nets and racquets for playing all manner of games, which were evidently meant to be enjoyed out on the smooth lawn. It was an interesting discovery, and not bad for the very beginning of their day’s exploration.
“We’ll have to remember this,” Quatre said, running a calculating eye over a set of tenpins in a corner.
Opposite this, to the south of the gravel, stood a garden full of tiered beds of flowers with benches set among them, shaded by well-placed and meticulously-groomed trees. Trowa thought the effect would have been better if the flowers had been anything other than the ubiquitous roses; these even grew, impossibly, on the trees, which otherwise he would have thought to be maple of some kind.
An arch led westward to a tiled courtyard with a small fountain set into the hedge-wall on one side and more benches similar to those in the previous space. The fountain was shaped of white marble to resemble a small natural waterfall (which looked a little odd in that green, rose-dotted setting) being enjoyed by some ducks that had, like everything else, been carved in exquisite detail in their various acts of splashing and fluttering.
There seemed to be a woodland theme to this courtyard, in fact; there were other statues here and there, in the corners and against the benches, of deer and raccoons and foxes, and even, on one of the seats, a butterfly so delicately wrought out of the same stone that Trowa thought it must snap off and fall to pieces if it was touched. And he wondered who it was that had decided the palace needed more beasts around.
Across from there, adjacent to the sporting green, was another courtyard, this one apparently specifically for the purpose of outdoor lunch parties. It was full of little tables with two or three chairs each, all in sturdy wrought iron that could outlast weather (not that the lifespan of any particular material was probably much of an issue in this place), and on one side stood a sort of sideboard of the same. “We’ll have to eat out here sometime,” Quatre observed.
The gravel road formed a sort of upside-down teardrop shape in front of the palace’s entrance for the sake of carriages Trowa couldn’t imagine ever visiting, and inside the resulting central loop was a grove of trees. Like those in the gardens, these were pruned into neat, upward-sweeping shapes, and they were were surrounded by rose-bushes. A small opening in the latter led into a surprisingly private enclosed space where a couple of benches stood facing each other and whence very little of the rest of the grounds could be seen.
On the south side of the gravel again, adjacent to the stable-yard, they found a riding yard whose dirt floor was immaculately free of weeds despite its being God-knew-how-long since any horse had been exercised there. Obviously reminded by the thought of horses, Quatre said soberly, “I wonder how things are going at home. I guess I shouldn’t say ‘at home’ anymore, though, should I?” He sighed, then amended firmly, “How things are going in Beaulea.”
“At the pace those horses were going…” Trowa tried to estimate the timeframe, but wasn’t familiar enough with the distance to do so. “They’re probably there by now.”
Slowly, sadly, Quatre smiled. “I just wish I could have seen their faces when they saw all those things in the bags.”
A fabulous orchard was their next destination, on the north side of the gravel again and adjacent to the courtyard with the many tables. It seemed to have been planted with variety rather than convenience in mind — Trowa would have pitied the servants set to harvest such a diverse crop, if there had been any — for the trees bore fruit of every imaginable kind. They also bore roses, like everything else around here, and it was exceptionally strange to see the flowers alongside apples, pears, cherries, oranges, and others more exotic and less easy to recognize, and to find thorns on the stems. What they picked idly and tasted, though, sitting in an elegant little gazebo with cushioned seats that stood among the trees, tasted healthy and delicious.
Back on the south side, beyond the riding yard and sharing one wall with the stables, there stood a coach-house entirely devoid of any sort of equipage, which was, like everything else, in disconcertingly good repair for something so unused and undoubtedly old. They didn’t spend long there, but entered a space beyond that was so obviously a kitchen-yard, despite the absence of chickens or washlines or loafing scullery children, that they began immediately looking around for the kitchen door.
They found it just as quickly, and so detoured indoors for a while again: down a flight of stairs to where a spacious and well-equipped basement kitchen looked uncannily pristine and a number of other chambers obviously designed for the use and housing of servants were, as Trowa had predicted last night, empty. On the level beneath this, its plain dirt floor attesting to its being finally the lowest, some unused storage rooms gave way to a neatly-ordered wine cellar that seemed to stretch across the entire remaining width of the palace.
“No wonder,” Quatre breathed as they walked slowly down one of the many lanes of floor-to-ceiling racks filled with endless dark bottles. The air was damp and a little chilly, and there was a strangeness to it that Trowa did not at first recognize. After his next few footsteps stirred the scent of earth and sent it rising to his nostrils, however, he realized that this was the first place he’d been within the palace grounds — from the front gate to the stables to the top of that unnerving tower — that did not smell like roses. They smelled like roses, but for once it was not predominant.
It seemed they were about to turn back by a silent mutual consent, as there could be little of interest amidst these endless racks of wine; but just then one of the torches ahead of them — which, true to form, had been scrupulously lighting their path as they moved — dimly cast its luminance, as it came to life, on a wall containing a door some distance ahead. Quatre made a noise of curiosity and moved toward it, and Trowa was not averse to following.
The purpose of the small room they entered was not immediately apparent. Its only furnishings were a sort of wooden trough in one corner and an empty bucket, and at an initial glance there seemed to be nothing more remarkable about the space than that. But a second glance showed that the earthen floor had been disturbed across half the room, that there were markings in the loose dirt. Both men moved slowly forward, and Trowa heard Quatre’s breath catch as they drew close enough, and into a proper angle, to see the words that had clearly been scratched into the floor by great bird-like talons:
I COULD NEVER FORGET YOU.
Trowa shivered, suddenly cold for no discernible reason. Though he was staring at the words in the ground, he was hearing words that had been spoken aloud yesterday: “If you’re ever tired of this place and want to die, tell me; I’ll kill you quickly.”
“We shouldn’t be here,” Quatre said in a choked voice.
“No.” The soft, growling tone from behind startled both of them into a quick-drawn breath, and they whirled to find the Beast dark against the even darker doorway. “This is your home now,” it went on coolly. “Nowhere is forbidden.”
“But…” Quatre sounded apologetic. “This is your room, isn’t it?”
The Beast nodded. “But you’re welcome to come here.”
Perhaps given confidence by this statement, though he still spoke deferentially, Quatre asked, “What does it mean?” And he gestured at the message on the ground.
The Beast raised one padded hand, extended the claws briefly, then dropped it again to his side. “It’s impossible for me to use a pen,” it explained briefly, emotionlessly. “Sometimes I write my thoughts here.”
“And this thought?” Quatre wondered, sounding almost breathless with interest. “Whom could you never forget?”
For a long, silent moment the Beast stared at them both with its expressionless face. Then, abruptly turning, it vanished into the darkness of the cellar beyond. When they followed it a few moments later, there was no sign it had been there.
Quietly resuming their exploration once they were out in the sunlight again, they moved past the kitchen-yard into another grassy court off of which another little staircase led down to a door into the first cellar. A hedge, running from the outer hedge-wall to the stone wall of the palace, blocked further progress toward the rear of the latter, but just as they were about to turn back and explore in another direction they noticed an opening in this, beside the juncture of the two hedges and nearly invisible. When they drew close, they found a wrought-iron gate set deep within, like the front gate and equally immovable when closed.
Huddled together in the arch against this gate, they peered as best they could at what they could make out of the space beyond. It seemed to be just another yard, perhaps a bit wilder than those they’d seen thus far: tall grass, longer than seemed to be the standard around here but still neat and even, grew all around some kind of stone block like a table or dais in the center, and clinging vines covered the structure in uneven lines. That was all, however; the yard had no other features. Still, a good half of the space was invisible from here; perhaps there was something of greater interest past–
“There’s someone in there!” Quatre gasped suddenly.
“Where?” Trowa wondered, startled. “The Beast?”
“No, look, on the dais. All covered in roses — someone’s lying there!”
It was difficult to tell from this angle, and those self-same roses made it nearly impossible, but as Trowa looked more carefully, he thought he could see what Quatre meant: there were touches of color, beneath the vines, that might have been clothing, and the overall shape could have been that of a human figure.
Quatre rattled the gate, but it proved as unyielding as before. Then he stood back, frowning at it thoughtfully. Shaking his head, Trowa tried to draw him away; it was obvious they couldn’t get in.
As if reading his thoughts, Quatre protested, “No! ‘Nowhere is forbidden,’ remember?”
“It doesn’t need to be forbidden if we can’t get in.”
Quatre shook his head. “Come on.” He turned, and Trowa followed him down the stairs into the building. In one of the pantries they’d explored earlier the lights immediately came on, and these Quatre addressed: “Can you show us how to get into that yard just outside? It looks like it’s possibly the southwesternmost one?”
The candles twinkled in what Trowa could swear was eager acquiescence, and a distance off, closer to the door into the corridor, another pair sprang to life in the by-now-familiar pattern of beckoning and leading.
A staircase put them up on the ground floor inside the system of narrow servants’ hallways they’d seen the first night; thence they were drawn around tight little corners and down more constricted corridors that ran among many of the great rooms, then through a door that unexpectedly led them outside again.
Between the back of the palace and the outer hedge there was nothing more than a grassy lane leading off a great, straight, unbroken distance in either direction, and the hedge-wall itself was so high that the space felt much like a tunnel as a result: lonely, shadowed, chilly in a whistling breeze. But if the lights were to be believed, this was the way to their destination, so accordingly they went. And down at the end, once they’d reached the southwestern corner of the building, they found what they were looking for in the form of another hedge with an arched opening. This one had no gate, and when they stepped through it they found themselves in the little courtyard they’d previously viewed from the other side.
The yard’s only feature was, in fact, a plain stone dais of the same sparkling reddish stone as the palace, though it lacked the carvings most of the other stonework bore; perhaps the roses were meant to compensate for that. And there was, in fact, someone lying on top of it.
He was young — about their age, it appeared — and clad in fine but relatively simple garments that looked as if they could have come out of a wardrobe here at the palace. Even motionless and with eyes closed, his face was pleasant and friendly. His hands were folded across his breast like a corpse’s, and beneath them he held the end of the long braid into which his chestnut hair had been gathered and which was draped over his shoulder onto his chest. And all across his body from head to toe the roses had grown, winding snakelike paths over face and torso and legs, criss-crossing in a pattern of deep green dotted with color.
“I think I’ve been dreaming about him,” Quatre said softly, “the last couple of nights.”
The words snagged something out of a hidden memory, and Trowa nodded. “So have I. Him and… someone else…” He could not quite remember.
Cautiously Quatre moved closer to the still figure on the dais. “Do you think he’s dead?” he murmured, reaching out.
Instead of answering the question, Trowa reminded him, “Careful of the roses.”
Very gently, Quatre brushed aside part of a leafy vine and touched the man’s face; then he withdrew his hand abruptly as if from a flame, though the man did not stir. “He’s warm,” he hissed.
“Asleep?” Trowa wondered uncertainly.
“But for how long?” Quatre’s eyes flicked over the flourishing vinework.
Trowa shook his head.
“And why are we dreaming about him?” Quatre’s voice dropped to a pensive murmur. “I wish I could remember what happened in those dreams…” Quoting Trowa from moments before he added, “Him and… someone else…” Then his head snapped up like a hunting dog scenting the wind (though here it would smell nothing but roses), and he turned abruptly. He said nothing, only began moving suddenly, quickly, out of the little courtyard and down the long, chilly grass corridor beyond. There was something about his abrupt, animal-like movements that reminded Trowa a little of the Beast, and he followed closely in some agitation.
Upon reaching the palace’s northwestern corner, Quatre’s instincts were proven right when they entered another courtyard identical to the first — including a plain stone dais and a sleeping man.
Trowa was a little worried at how well Quatre knew this place already. “Why did you think this would be here?” he wondered uneasily. But Quatre just shook his head and moved toward the dais, so Trowa continued to follow, and stood beside him looking down.
This sleeper had a distinctively beautiful face, with thick lashes hiding his closed eyes, and messy short hair so dark a brown it was almost black. And he had definitely featured in those dreams Trowa could not quite remember, alongside the one with the braid.
“Who do you think they are?” Quatre wondered quietly.
Trowa made the first speculation that came to mind: “The last people who picked the Beast’s roses?”
With a slight shiver, Quatre built on the hypothesis. “And they swore to stay here forever, but eventually they couldn’t take the loneliness and just lay down and went to sleep.”
And wandered thence into the dreams of the newest rose prisoners, Trowa finished mentally. It was not a heartening idea.
“It’s as good a guess as any, I suppose… and probably the best we’re going to get, since I can almost guarantee the Beast won’t answer any questions about them.”
“Oh, you noticed that too?” Trowa wondered dryly.
“I’m sure he must be under some kind of spell,” Quatre said. “You’ve heard stories about curses that won’t let you talk about them, right?”
Trowa nodded; it made too much sense to deny.
“And these men have something to do with it too.”
“And so do we, now.”
They took one last uncertain look at the sleeper before turning to leave. As they headed back down the narrow lane to the door by which they’d left the palace, Quatre remarked, “I wonder why we didn’t notice them through any of the windows yesterday.”
“Maybe the palace didn’t want us to.”
Slowly Quatre nodded. “Those yards do feel more… secret… more private, maybe, than the rest of the grounds.”
Wordlessly after this, Trowa followed Quatre, not sure where they were going. Inside, up some stairs, out of the servants’ corridors, into a larger hallway Quatre moved with purpose, but then he slowed, stopped, and looked around vaguely. Patiently Trowa waited for him to declare his intentions.
“I just can’t stop thinking about that trough and that bucket down in that cellar,” was what Quatre said at last, unexpectedly. Trowa had been thinking about the sleeping men, and wondered by what train of thought Quatre had been brought back to the Beast. “That’s what he meant when he said he can’t eat in a fancy dining room: he eats like an animal. Do you think he was once a man?”
“Maybe.” It was just like Quatre to pity the Beast so much after only a day and a half. Sardonically Trowa added, “Why don’t you ask him?”
Quatre laughed a little. “Let’s go have lunch in that balcony room next to the greenhouse again.”
“If we can find it,” Trowa agreed. As he’d rather expected, a couple of candles flared up ahead of them at these words, clearly offering to guide them. Trowa was getting the hang of this place too — though, thankfully or otherwise, he wasn’t yet so attuned that he could anticipate the presence and location of sleeping men from half-remembered dreams.
As they followed the lights onto the second-floor landing that stretched across the entrance hall, Trowa felt Quatre suddenly grip his arm. Swiftly following his other, pointing hand, Trowa’s eyes fell on a very distinctly human figure standing at the head of the stairs that led down to the ground floor. He thought he saw brown hair, some garments of burgundy and gold — he definitely saw the glint of scholar’s spectacles as the figure threw a glance back at them — but otherwise, the stranger’s militaristic stride down the steps was too quick for him to catch any more details.
“Wait!” Quatre was calling. “Please wait!” He’d released Trowa’s arm and hastened forward, and Trowa jogged after him. But by the time they reached the spot whence the figure had moved out of sight, and looked down the stairs, there was no sign of anyone else in the hall.
“This place is full of mysteries,” Quatre frowned.
“Was that who you saw last night?” Trowa wondered.
Quatre, who had been turning this way and that as if he might find some hint of the stranger if only he looked hard enough, finally stopped. “Last night’s was definitely a woman,” he said with a shake of his head.
“So we have a number of people around,” Trowa said, taking Quatre by the arm and drawing him away from the stairs and back onto their path, “none of whom we can talk to.”
“Maybe they’re all under enchantments,” speculated Quatre. “Maybe this is a place where enchanted people gather.” More lightly, though he didn’t exactly sound pleased with his facetious idea, he added, “I wonder what our enchantments are…”
Trowa was even less pleased with the idea, and couldn’t help dwelling on it a little as they continued moving toward the third floor and their lunch. If they were each under an enchantment, Trowa certainly knew what his was; but what Quatre’s might be he didn’t like to think.
I am quite pleased with this chapter’s picture. Heero and Duo there correspond, of course, with their viney selves in the title image, and I like the way all of them look. Well, not Duo’s mouth, but once you get him upside-down it’s not too bad.