When it was obvious after a few nights that Trowa really, honestly didn’t mind Quatre invading his bed, Quatre stopped apologizing — and after four or five days stopped even asking; it simply became routine. Soon the palace seemed to grow aware of this, for eventually the bed disappeared out of Quatre’s room and was replaced by a divan. The palace was good at noticing and adjusting to their ways; after about the same amount of time, the door in Quatre’s room that had previously opened onto a little parlor he’d never used led instead into the washroom he preferred.
Additionally, they started having fruit juices offered with breakfast instead of wine, if the breakfasts themselves were just as hearty. Though Quatre had complained about the amount of irresistibly delicious food that appeared before them on a regular basis, a large breakfast was desirable, as the Beast continued to be present at supper and generally kill their appetites.
During their seventh supper in the palace he came bounding in as usual, jumped onto the same chair he nearly always occupied, and said, “So it’s been a week!”
Quatre was a little surprised at this; the Beast thus far had tended to avoid referring directly to the fact that Quatre was supposed to stay here for the rest of his life, instead mostly asking questions about Quatre’s past and his family and even occasionally attempting (generally unsuccessfully) to interrogate Trowa on similar subjects.
“It has,” Quatre agreed.
“A whole week, and you haven’t found the children’s yard yet!”
“Children’s yard?” echoed Quatre, and threw a glance at Trowa to ask if he knew what the Beast was referring to. Trowa just shook his head.
“You explored pretty well,” the Beast allowed, “but you missed that one somehow.”
“It’s probably on the north side.” Quatre made very sure to address Trowa as he said this. “I bet it’s right next to the northwest courtyard, and we didn’t find it because we were distracted on the other side of the building by the sleeping men.” Unable to restrain himself, despite having a fairly good idea what would happen, he’d asked the Beast a couple of evenings ago about the sleepers, and the Beast had made some transparent excuse and left the room; Quatre didn’t want to drive him out again.
The Beast did shift a little in his chair at Quatre’s remark, but it was difficult to tell whether this was because of what Quatre had said or simply because the Beast could rarely sit still through supper. “But then you’ve hardly been outside since then!” he said.
“It’s been raining,” Quatre protested. “We’ve spent most of our time reading.”
“Well, you need to see it. Come outside with me after supper, and I’ll show you.”
“Isn’t it still raining?” Quatre didn’t like the idea of flatly denying the Beast’s request, but he also didn’t think well of heading out into a storm very much like the one that had brought them here, such as had occurred yesterday evening.
“I like the rain!”
“Running around in the rain is a good way to catch cold. Probably even more for you, with all that fur.” Even as he said this, Quatre blanched a little. He was becoming gradually more at ease in the Beast’s presence, given that in seven days his host had not made even the smallest attempt to eat him, but he wasn’t sure that such remarks on the Beast’s person were acceptable. In fact, the Beast’s nature and the reason for his monstrous shape and manlike abilities was the subject that would most quickly force him to leave the room — and, though Quatre hadn’t asked a question just now, perhaps even mentioning the fur might spoil the evening.
But the Beast just shifted again in his chair and said, “I’ve never been sick in my life. But I think it’s stopped raining, anyway.”
After a quick look at Trowa, who shrugged slightly, Quatre said, “I guess we could come out and see it, if it’s not too wet.”
The Beast made a growling noise of pleasure.
As usual under the Beast’s eye, Quatre found himself having difficulties eating, and began mulling over what, exactly, he thought about his enigmatic new acquaintance. He was certainly still frightened of him, frightened of offending him again and what the consequences might be — but just as certainly interested in him and his situation. Curiosity and pity drove him to take the Beast’s feelings — whatever they might be — into consideration where otherwise he might deliberately have asked questions to drive the Beast from the room.
It was a strange contrast, a strange circumstance. And now he had accepted the Beast’s proposal of venturing out into the wet evening in a similarly torn state of mind: half a good-natured willingness to see what the Beast had to show him, and half a fearful disinclination to refuse.
After a while the Beast started making impatient noises, and got down off his chair to move restlessly around the room — probably because Quatre and Trowa were only picking at their food, an action based on nervousness that was only worsened by the Beast’s all-fours pacing; they really might as well just declare the meal finished. A look between the two of them expressing agreement on the subject, they took their last bites and drinks and moved to rise.
“Aha!” said the Beast, and headed for one of the doors. Quatre, marveling at himself, couldn’t help smiling at this show of enthusiasm.
They followed him out of the dining room and through the corridors of the palace. As on the first day, he was too quick for them to keep up with properly without running, but, unlike on the first day, he kept bounding back toward them whenever he got too far ahead, resembling an eager dog on a walk.
It had indeed stopped raining, they found as they left the palace by the great front doors and began crossing the fountain courtyard. The air still felt and smelled very wet, however, and it was not unpleasantly cool. As Quatre had guessed, their destination was on the north side of the gravel road and was probably adjacent to the northern sleeper’s courtyard. And on entering, he was immediately glad that they hadn’t found their way here during their exploration; they’d had enough turbulent discoveries that second day without adding this one.
Not that the place was inherently unpleasant: on the contrary, it was quite charming, with its wrought-iron framework from which two swings hung, its child-sized table and chairs of the same material, its metal slide fixed firmly to the grassy ground, and its neatly-built playhouse. It was, in fact, a little too pleasant, and Quatre’s thoughts flew immediately to the younger of his sisters and how they would have loved it — especially that miniature house.
He knew without even the faintest doubt that, even if they happened to live in such a place as this — an enormous palace with every possible amenity and numberless fine things — the girls would still be drawn to this little house, because it would be their size, and they could pretend they were agents unto themselves in its maintenance and administration. He’d been away from them now for three weeks, and, while he wasn’t yet fully inured to the idea of never seeing them again, he was growing hardier; but he was glad he hadn’t seen this during his first couple of days here.
“I love this place,” the Beast said as the two humans took in the view. He bounded up the slide with a clattering noise and crouched on the top, looking around happily like a dog that had conquered a rubbish heap. “Everything’s covered with roses everywhere else, and I have to be too careful.”
He leaped from the slide a good distance through the air to land on the little table, which rocked under him so precariously that he was forced to leap once more, flying about the same distance again to the roof of the playhouse. The latter creaked as his weight hit it, and Quatre wondered how often he’d done this, and whether it had ever broken beneath him and then been repaired by the usual magic. From the house the Beast leaped next to the swing framework, which also shuddered as his great bulk perched on top of it like a huge bird and his taloned feet clung. Thence he jumped back to the top of the slide.
As Quatre watched in some surprised amusement this vigorous activity of the Beast’s, he noticed that there really weren’t any roses here except for the ones in the surrounding hedges; he supposed he could understand, then, if the Beast wanted exercise (in a relatively suitable, outdoor setting), why this place was a favorite of his. Why he’d been so eager to show it to them was less easy to comprehend; perhaps it was simply because it was the last place in palace or grounds they hadn’t yet seen.
The Beast was making the rounds of the equipment again in a sort of don’t-touch-the-ground game he played all alone. He slipped a few times, so great was his speed, but he only laughed, twisting around in the air like a cat to land on his feet, didn’t appear to take any harm from it, and was off again. He seemed very much like a child himself as he took advantage of this children’s area, and Quatre found himself smiling as he watched. The Beast had never been the most elegant of creatures, but this so blatantly undignified display tipped the scales, just at the moment, from ‘inelegant’ to ‘absurd.’
There was, in fact, as always about the Beast, an appearance of having been very badly put together. Even if all of his body parts had seemed to come from the same animal, Quatre thought, he would still have looked unnatural. Which just made it more uncanny that he moved so easily. His movements weren’t exactly harmonious to the eye, but they fulfilled their intended purpose with no apparent handicap brought about by his strange shape, and must therefore be perfectly fitting and sufficient.
As the Beast crouched and stretched and flew through the air from point to point, some of these above the humans’ heads, Quatre also noticed — it was not really appropriate, but he couldn’t help it — that the creature didn’t seem to be possessed of the usual organs of manhood. He had that long hair hiding the area, it was true, but his current activities made it plain that he was not human in that sense any more than in any other. Quatre wondered if this was a source of unhappiness to him. If the Beast had once been human, it surely must be. But of course Quatre would never know, because obviously it was out of the question to ask, and the Beast undoubtedly wouldn’t tell him anyway.
Presently Quatre noticed Trowa moving; his friend was beginning to make a cautious way toward the shuddering swing-frame, giving the Beast’s circular path a fairly wide berth until he came within range of it again to take a seat on one of the swings. Quatre admired him for his bravery when the Beast was still using the swing-frame as a target in his game, which must be unnerving to be sitting right beneath, and decided he could do no less. He followed Trowa’s steps and was soon seated beside him on the other swing, which had had most of the rainwater shaken off it by the Beast’s comings and goings, and which jolted regularly every time the Beast landed on top.
Quatre gripped the chains to either side of his face and continued watching the Beast in silence. He flinched every time the Beast came around this way, but it grew less with each repetition; and the amusing nature of the Beast’s antics helped to calm his nervousness as well. Soon he was smiling again as he watched the Beast land on the slide, scramble a little for balance, and leap again to the little table, which always threatened to fall over onto its side but never quite did. The playhouse crunched and rattled under the great dark talons, and then the Beast was overhead, making the whole world seem to shake.
The Beast appeared to take a fierce, intense, focused pleasure in this activity, strange and repetitive though it was, and Quatre thought that, strange and repetitive though it was, it was good to see. Trowa seemed to agree; he watched, in any case, with evident interest just as great, and Quatre thought he caught the hint of a smile on his friend’s face from time to time.
Finally, though, the Beast finished with his play; instead of jumping from the swing-frame to the slide, he hit the turf just in front of them with a thud, causing both Trowa and Quatre to start back. Looking pleased with himself, the Beast sat before them on his haunches, chest rising and falling visibly in the moonlight. “See why this place is so great?” he panted.
“I like to come here at night,” the Beast went on. “For exercise and to look at the moon.” Quatre thought that this was the happiest he’d seen him yet. He also thought that, if jumping around on play-yard equipment in the dark by himself was the Beast’s idea of a good time, it was no wonder he seemed so painfully lonely.
“It’s fantastic.” Quatre felt that some verbal agreement was called for, which was why he said this aloud. “My sisters would love it.”
“All of them? I thought you said some were closer to your age.”
“Well, my youngest few,” Quatre admitted. “Elyss and Mad, at least, and maybe Merci too. Even at our estate we didn’t have things like this for children. We had a swing in a tree on the grounds, but this is all much better. In Beaulea, there’s nothing. Not even free time to use this sort of thing, even if it was there.”
After this statement, a fairly lengthy silence fell as the Beast’s breathing gradually returned to normal. Now he looked a little uncomfortable, as he sometimes did when Quatre talked about the dire situation of his family. Quatre was certain that, glad though the Beast was to have them here, he still felt guilty about extracting that promise from Quatre and stealing him from a family that needed him. And it occurred to Quatre to wonder —
“Do you have to take a life for every rose that’s picked?” Actually he hadn’t meant to ask aloud; it had simply slipped out the moment the thought crossed his mind. So he decided that, as long as he’d already possibly alienated the Beast, he might as well press on. “I mean, are you compelled by magic? Or is it something you do by choice?”
Just as he’d feared, the Beast drew himself up in that repressive way Quatre was already beginning to be familiar with. “Well, now you’ve seen the courtyard,” he said. “You can sometimes find me here at night, if you want me. But I’m done for now, so I’ll say good night to you both!” And he whirled so that his tail curled momentarily around him, and bounded away through the opening in the hedge onto the main grounds and out of sight.
Quatre and Trowa, sitting side-by-side on the metal swings, stared after him for a few moments. There was always a feeling of forlornness left over, Quatre thought, when the Beast departed like that. So many things here were a mystery, their host not the least. He sighed.
“Do you remember,” Trowa said quietly, unexpectedly, “when we used to push each other on that tree-swing at the estate?”
Forlornness or no, Quatre had to smile. “For hours,” he said. He rocked the swing on which he sat back and forth a little, but it was too close to the ground for any comfortable actual swinging with his adult legs. “We never got tired of it.” Of course Trowa, as a servant, wouldn’t have had the luxury of pleading tiredness to stop such an activity… but Quatre thought he’d been just as happy to waste entire afternoons at it as Quatre had.
“I wonder if he ever gets tired of this place,” Trowa murmured.
“Of course he does,” was Quatre’s immediate reply. “Remember what he said the first day? That it’s not unlikely that I’ll get tired enough of it to want to die?”
Trowa said nothing, only looked darkly in the direction the Beast had gone.
After a few silent minutes of scuffing his feet in the short grass, Quatre finally stood up. “Let’s go to bed,” he said. Though he was less weary in body than on previous nights by the time supper was done, life here was proving rather taxing to the mind.
Trowa nodded, and joined him standing; and together they walked in contemplative silence back into the palace and up to their rooms.
“I told you so,” said Duo, still a little breathless as he settled close up against Heero under the starlight. In the warm air of a windless night in late summer, their sweat was cooling only slowly, and if Duo felt the prickling grass uncomfortable under his damp, bare skin, he didn’t remark upon it; Heero himself was only vaguely aware of it.
“People who say that deserve to be hit in the face.” Heero made this reply entirely without irritation; as a matter of fact, the words came out sounding rather more lazy than anything else.
“So hit me.”
“I was going to,” Heero responded, his tone unchanged, “but my hand won’t move.”
“Your hand is moving.” And now that Duo pointed this out, Heero noticed it: one hand was running slowly up and down Duo’s side in an almost unconscious lingering caress. He made an indifferent noise, and Duo laughed faintly. “But anyway, I told you so.”
With a defeated smile in spite of himself, Heero asked, “What did you tell me?”
“That you’d be able to figure this out.”
“You did your share of figuring.”
“And pretty expertly, if I do say so myself!” This statement of false arrogance seemed designed solely to render more casual and natural the ensuing question, “What did you think?”
“I thought,” said Heero, closing his eyes the better to revel in the sensation of so much of Duo’s skin against so much of his, “it’s like you said: if this is wrong, it’s the rightest-feeling wrong I’ve ever felt.”
Duo chuckled. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?”
“I’m quoting you in all honesty,” Heero protested. “If we’re damned because of this, we might as well do it a thousand times more.”
“I would remind you what I think of people who talk about being ‘damned’ because of stuff, but I’m so happy with that suggestion that I can’t.” Duo stretched out his neck and kissed Heero’s face several times before Heero turned it and met Duo’s lips with his own. It was awkward in this position, but no less sweet for that.
When they broke apart with a mutual sigh of satisfaction and Duo’s face came to rest again against Heero’s shoulder, Heero leaned his head back a little so as to look at the stars. They seemed very big and bright and close tonight, as if they’d gathered in to watch. Somehow Heero couldn’t even dislike the idea of so many witnesses to what he and Duo had done here when those witnesses were so eternal, so celestial, and so apparently neutral. The stars never declared judgment; they looked just as silently, and shone down just as brightly, on saints and sinners alike.
Of course that returned him to the idea, constantly lurking in the recesses of his mind for all he tried to destroy it, that he might indeed be a sinner — perhaps of the worst kind — might have compromised his soul, might have dragged Duo down with him. It was maddening; the idea itself was maddening, the fact that he still entertained it at all perhaps even more so.
“You deserve better than this,” he muttered.
“Better than what?”
“Better than me doubting all the time. I wish I could be as confident as you seem to be.”
Duo laughed sadly. “I wish I could be as confident as I seem to be too.”
Heero echoed the melancholy sound. “I hope you know, though, that it’s not you… I’m still doubting, but it’s not you personally I’m concerned about. Everything about you, about being with you… being together may not be right, but being with you is… I’m not making sense.”
“No, I know what you mean. This may not be right, but I’m having a hard time thinking that anything about being with you is wrong.”
“I’m starting to think that, even if it is, it’s absolutely worth it.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or what.”
“That I’d rather be smiled on by you than by God? I think that’s pretty clear.” After Heero said this, Duo was silent for what felt like a very long time, and Heero started to fear that he might have hurt or offended him. “I know you don’t like the idea of God,” he began more quietly. “I’m–”
Duo interrupted him. “No, don’t apologize.” He hugged Heero more tightly. “I was joking. It doesn’t matter what I think about God… that’s still a pretty serious compliment.”
“Good.” Relieved, Heero also tightened his grip on Duo.
“So why don’t we do this: since we’re not going to stop any time soon — because I’m sure as Hell not giving you up, and it seems like you feel the same way — and we’ve decided we think this is worth whatever the consequences might be, let’s try to stop worrying about it.”
Again Heero had to laugh morosely. “Easier said than done.”
“But we can try, right? Nobody’s ever told us this is wrong; we’ve just been assuming, because it’s something we’ve never heard of before, something that usually isn’t done as far as we know. So why shouldn’t we try to get over believing that and just be happy?”
Duo’s logic was cheering, as were most of the things Duo said under most circumstances, but Heero felt that he had to point out, “Nobody could possibly tell us this is wrong. Nobody knows.”
“I might not believe them anyway if they did,” Duo declared. “Who are they to tell us how to live our lives?”
“Well,” said Heero reluctantly, “that’s getting into…” He trailed off without completing the thought, though; the last thing he wanted was to start a debate with Duo over God’s mortal representatives that were supposedly precisely qualified, and, indeed, specifically called to tell others how to live their lives. Instead he said, with a greater resolve, “But I think you’re right. We’re going to stay together no matter what it does to us. Worrying about it won’t change anything. So we might as well try not to worry.”
Duo nodded emphatically against Heero’s shoulder, then kissed it. Heero finally looked away from the stars at his lover again, taking in what he could from this angle of the faint light from above on Duo’s glistening skin. Once more they were silent for some time, and Heero felt, along with the warmth of Duo’s breath against his flesh, a certain tension inside him gradually easing. No matter what were his thoughts on the matter as a whole, it was wonderful to be here with Duo, to think back on how Duo had just made him feel, to anticipate being with Duo forever more. And the decision to continue simply enjoying that without reference to the unknown right or wrong of the situation — even if, as he’d said before, it was a difficult thing to bring himself to do — was already coming as a release of sorts.
Heero’s hand, running over Duo’s side and back again, deviated slightly from its pattern and found the end of his braid where it lay in the grass. He picked it up and began idly stroking it against Duo’s skin, causing Duo to squirm a little as if it tickled. “You’re so beautiful,” Heero murmured.
“That’s not usually a word you apply to men,” Duo protested, writhing more pointedly under the soft end of his own hair.
“There are other things men don’t usually apply to other men,” Heero replied softly. “I haven’t heard you complaining about them.”
“Actually, I think we just had a long conversa– aahh…” Duo broke away suddenly from Heero’s tormenting, as if he couldn’t take it a moment longer, and climbed completely on top of him. He scratched ferociously at his side where the tickling had been taking place, then descended into an equally ferocious kiss. When after some time he released Heero’s lips, he panted out, “I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.”
“Hmm,” said Heero.
“But I do remember you saying something about ‘a thousand times more,’ so let’s get started on that instead.”
“Mmm,” said Heero, and it was a sound of agreement this time, as Duo bent to kiss him again.
Quatre awoke to find that he was for some reason so much hotter than usual that he’d flung off the blanket in his sleep and was curled up under only a thin sheet. His back against Trowa’s seemed to be burning, and the air inside the bed-curtains was sweltering. Though he was still a bit groggy, he scrambled immediately out into the cooler air of the room. From there he half-stumbled, yawning, to the window, where the curtains were not yet open — apparently he’d moved too quickly for the palace to anticipate.
He had assumed that the clouds must have finally cleared and they were now in for a warm day — spring was moving toward summer, after all — but found somewhat to his surprise that it was still heavily overcast beyond the curtains and the glass. Whence that unusual heat had come, then, he could not guess.
If he tried hard to remember, he thought he could recall something from his dreams — an atmosphere, mostly — that might have explained it. But as usual he couldn’t bring up anything, besides a vague picture of the starlit faces of the sleeping men in the courtyards, from the images that had been in his head while he slept. It was frustrating, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“More clouds up from the south,” he said as he heard Trowa stirring. “Looks like another good day for reading.”
Trowa made a noise of acquiescence, and appeared shortly from behind the bed-curtains, standing and stretching out his long body.
“Although after lunch…” Quatre was interrupted by another yawn in response to the sight of Trowa’s stretching. “I think I want to find that room with the musical instruments again.” He was moving past Trowa toward the parlor, from which the smell of breakfast was already making his stomach growl, and saw his friend’s nod in passing. “You don’t have to be so perfectly agreeable, you know,” he added.
Trowa, who had, as usual, gotten in front of Quatre somehow and was now pulling out his chair, evidently thought he was referring to this behavior, for he said, “I told you I’m not going to waste this opportunity.”
Quatre shook his head with a wry smile. “I don’t know whether you have some sort of servant’s behavior ingrained in your blood, or whether you just really like it a lot. But I meant that you don’t have to agree with everything I suggest, and you don’t have to do the same thing I do. There are plenty of entertainments available here; you don’t have to choose the same one I choose every day.”
“You think I’m going to wander off alone?” Trowa wondered a little dryly as he took his seat opposite Quatre. “And leave you all alone?”
Quatre laughed. “Well, God knows I’d prefer you not to… but don’t let me bully you. You may pull out chairs for me, and you’d probably open doors for me if they didn’t always open on their own, but we’re not really master and servant anymore. We haven’t been for years, and here especially we’re not. So you’re really not required to agree with me all the time.”
“Since when have I ever done that?”
“You know what I mean. If you don’t want to go to the library, say so.”
“But I do.”
Half exasperated, Quatre laughed again. Trowa was deliberately avoiding the point, but at least that meant it had been made. Whether it would accomplish anything was another matter entirely.
So, after breakfast, they wandered up to the library, where they’d spent at least the beginning of each of the last few days while it had been raining so much. They hadn’t done their actual reading in there, despite how comfortably furnished it was for that purpose, because Quatre always had the feeling they were driving the Beast out by their presence. Today, however, he was determined to put a stop to that.
As usual, he thought he detected movement when they entered, and, approaching the sunken reading area at the south end, found the cushions there in disarray as if someone had only moments before been lying on and among them. It wasn’t right that the Beast felt the need to vacate this comfortable room because they wanted to use it, and then they turned around and did exactly the same for him, when it was so spacious — and especially after last night, when the Beast had been so friendly as to invite them out to see his favorite outdoor spot and his gambols therein; there was no need for this kind of stiffness in the library.
To this end, “Beast,” Quatre called softly.
Although he’d been expecting it, Quatre was startled by the abrupt and utterly noiseless appearance of his host — behind him, no less. He caught his breath and turned, finding the Beast standing upright in the shadow of one of the staircases that spiraled down from the room’s second level.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” the Beast said quietly before Quatre could speak.
“That’s all right,” Quatre said, waving one hand somewhat manically; his heart was still beating overly fast. “But I wanted to talk to you a little.”
Taking a step out from behind the staircase toward Quatre, the Beast nodded.
“You spend a lot of time in here, don’t you?”
The Beast seemed to hesitate, then nodded again. He was always so much quieter in the mornings, almost as if he wasn’t fully awake. Quatre wondered if he had difficulty sleeping, down in that chilly, dirt-floored room in the wine cellar.
“But you always leave the moment we come in.”
“I don’t want to bother you.”
“That’s what I wanted to say, though.” Quatre took a step of his own closer to the Beast. “We don’t want to keep driving you out of your own library; there’s no reason you should have to leave just because we come in. This is your palace, after all.”
“In a manner of speaking,” said the Beast very quietly.
“What do you–” Quatre actually bit his lip to silence himself. Something about the Beast’s demeanor suggested that the conversation would not go on much longer if he finished this question. So instead, he took a deep breath and forced his words to change shape. “My point is, you won’t bother us. Please don’t feel that you need to get out of our way.” When the Beast just gave him a long, silent look, as if weighing his request carefully behind those undersized, shining eyes of his, Quatre repeated, “Please,” in a tone he hoped would convey his serious intentions.
The Beast’s gaze shifted to where Trowa stood near Quatre, as if to ask whether he was in on this; and Trowa answered the unspoken question aloud with a quiet, “He’s right. There’s plenty of room for all three of us in here.”
“Fine,” the Beast said at last. It was a brief, gruff statement, but it didn’t sound upset, and Quatre was immediately congratulating himself internally. Then the Beast moved past them both — a little stiffly, Quatre thought — and down into the sunken reading area, where he settled onto his side on a pile of cushions and pulled a book from beneath one.
It was fascinating to watch him lie down, since he didn’t seem to be made for it; Quatre wondered at first if it was an effort for him to keep his head up, then had his question answered when the Beast rearranged the cushions slightly so he could rest it on one of them. Positioned thus, he had to turn the book sideways in order to read it, and, owing to the location of his eyes on his head, had to hold it up at an interesting angle as well; he did these things so readily, however, that Quatre assumed he’d had quite some time to get used to them and probably didn’t think about it anymore. He didn’t seem to be paying Quatre and Trowa any more attention.
Quatre turned to find Trowa also watching the Beast with a pensive expression; then they glanced at each other, and Quatre had to smile a little. He guessed Trowa had been having about the same thoughts he had. Next he set out to search for the particular book he wanted, while Trowa began wandering idly along the lower level pulling out titles at random.
At random was how Quatre had discovered the book he’d just finished reading, since he couldn’t make heads or tails of the organizational system — if there was one — used on the shelves of this library. This wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d been looking for another random selection, but at the moment he happened to want the second volume of what he’d just read. He couldn’t begin to remember what shelf he’d pulled it off of, though, and not by title nor author nor category nor even the color of the cover did any of this seem to be arranged. It also didn’t help that, after he had finished with the first volume yesterday, he’d set the book down and never seen it again; the palace must have taken it upon itself to re-shelve it for him without giving him the benefit of seeing where.
So he moved slowly along, his eyes running over one shelf at a time, searching without a great deal of hope for a familiar spine and (presumably) its similar-looking subsequent volumes. He wasn’t going to waste a huge amount of time at this; if he didn’t find it within half an hour or so, he would choose something else to read and try again for what he really wanted another day.
Rain was pattering against the tall, narrow windows he passed in his search, and this somehow gave the room, large as it was, a cozy feeling. It was the sort of day made for spending in a library, and Quatre wondered if the Beast was ever torn between curling up in here and going outside to jump around in the rain he liked so much. Probably not; he seemed to regulate his activities to the time of day when he had the most appropriate level of energy for them, and he never appeared to be in a mood to jump around anywhere in the morning.
Presently Quatre almost ran into Trowa, who had made the circuit of the lower level at about the same speed but in the opposite direction. Quatre grinned at him and requested, “If you see a black book with shiny orange lettering on its cover, would you tell me?”
Trowa looked briefly thoughtful, then turned to glance over at where three comfortable divans sat facing each other in the center of the room. As Quatre followed Trowa’s gaze, he clearly saw what he was supposed to: a book just such as he had described lying on the low table that sat in the center of these seats. Curious and pleased, he approached and picked it up.
“This is the first volume,” he said in disappointment. “The one I just read. I wonder what it’s doing here.”
“You just read that?” The question came, unexpectedly, from the Beast.
The divans and their numerous little footstools stood near the sunken reading area, so Quatre had only to turn to see the Beast sitting up amidst his cushions. “Yes, and I was looking for the second volume.” He gestured around a little helplessly. “But I can’t figure out how this place is organized.”
“You could have asked me.” The statement might have been mildly accusatory — or at least reproving — in any tone a little more emotional than the Beast’s rather blank one. As he spoke, he held up the book he’d been reading, and the light caught and gleamed along the orange text on its black cover.
“Oh!” Quatre had to smile. “You had the book I was looking for? How funny!” Mostly funny because Quatre had been specifically examining how the Beast went about the process of reading, but hadn’t taken in the details of the book he actually held.
“I read that one in your hand recently.” The Beast’s voice went a little quieter as he added, “Just before you came.”
There was a moment of slight awkwardness at this before Quatre, seeking something to do to take his eyes off the Beast, turned them toward the book in his own hand, which he’d opened and begun flipping through. “Why was this one on this table?” he asked with his gaze thus averted. “Does it need to be there?”
“I was thinking of reading some selections again,” replied the Beast. “I put it there to remind myself to look at it tonight.”
Quatre nodded. “It’s really quite good, isn’t it? That’s why I was so anxious for the second volume; I’m hoping for more poetry especially.”
The Beast left the sunken area — there were two stairs up, but the Beast just stepped right out — and came to stand beside Quatre. As always, his bulk and the great shadow it cast were intimidating, but in contrast his voice sounded noticeably friendlier than it had just minutes before. “Yes, I like his work very much. This volume–” he held up the book in his hairy hand– “is heavier on essay, but I’m very fond of those too.”
“My favorite was the one about royal heredity,” Quatre said, almost eagerly. “In here, I mean. It was so sarcastic it made me laugh.”
The Beast’s great head tilted to one side as he regarded Quatre with a thoughtful eye. “If you liked that, there are a few other authors here you might enjoy.” Then he seemed to draw back into himself somewhat, all of a sudden, as if he’d just realized that, given the situation, Quatre might not be too pleased to accept anything he offered. “I can find them for you,” he added stiffly, “if you want.”
“Thank you,” said Quatre. “I’d love that.”
Seeming to relax a little again, the Beast said quietly, “I haven’t read every single book in here yet, but I’ve gone through enough of them to know where most things are.” Once more he held up the one he was in the middle of. “There are two more volumes after this. I’ll find you the third. When we’re both done we can trade.”
Quatre found himself smiling warmly up directly into the Beast’s face, unexpectedly and possibly for the first time. “And then it’ll be a race to see who can get at the fourth volume first.”
Nodding, the Beast seemed pleased.
“Of course, I probably won’t be able to find it,” Quatre added ruefully.
“They’re organized by year,” the Beast snorted. His tone indicated just how intelligent he thought this system was, and Quatre wondered why he couldn’t simply order the magic to reorganize. But, then, he had mentioned that this palace was only his ‘in a manner of speaking.’
The Beast tossed his book down onto one of the cushions, then climbed the nearest spiral staircase to the second level by pulling himself up its side via the railings; it did seem a little too narrow for him to walk comfortably, and the action was almost as interesting to watch as his antics last night in the children’s courtyard. He also completely eschewed the use of ladders when seeking books on high shelves; he simply leaped right up and clung with claws and talons. From the floor of the lower level, his great dark shape moving over the lateral space so high up looked like a huge spider with half its legs missing.
Eventually he came back down, more slowly, one-armed as he held books in the other: the volume Quatre was specifically looking for and two works by the authors the Beast had mentioned he might like. As Quatre accepted them gratefully, he felt the brush of the Beast’s surprisingly soft fur against his hands. It was impossible not to start back the touch, and in an attempt to compensate for this he looked up at the Beast again immediately and smiled. “Thanks!” he said.
The Beast gave him a nod, and turned back toward the sunken area and his own reading.
Trowa had by this time settled onto one of the divans in the center of the room with a stack of three or four books. If Quatre knew Trowa, this was probably because he hadn’t been able to decide which seemed most interesting, and so had taken them all and was determined to read every single one of them today.
That was a distinctly positive aspect of spending forever in an enchanted palace… Quatre had always been so sorry to see the way Trowa looked at the collection of fewer than ten books the Winner family possessed these days — books whose extremely tattered state made their resale value low enough that they could be retained with good conscience (a couple of them, in fact, only existed in halves), and which Trowa must have read a thousand times each.
At the moment, though, Trowa wasn’t reading; he had a book open in his hands, but his eyes were gazing attentively over the top of it at Quatre and the Beast. Quatre, coming to sit beside him on the divan, wondered quietly, “What is it?” But Trowa just shrugged a little, shook his head, and turned his eyes downward to his chosen material.
Quatre relinquished his own stack. On top was the first orange and black volume, and as he went to replace it where it had previously awaited the Beast’s attention on the table, it fell open to a dog-eared page. None of them had been folded over when Quatre had read the book, so he looked with interest to see which selection the Beast had thought noteworthy enough to crease the corner so inexpertly with his unfortunate hands. It was a poem. Quatre had enjoyed all the poetry, but hadn’t taken any particular note of this one; now he reread it with greater care.
Though my conscience turn to stone as I endure the casual violence of the indifferent rain,
And softer, softer sound its voice until a cooling silence be its one refrain;
And though I stand alone throughout all time, my dullèd hearing never more to mark
The chiming, chiming church-bells, nor my eyes the searing light or ebon dark,
A single memory of you, the world transcending, would yet my stumbling spirit serve to guide.
But better, better, then, to have you within this crumbling sphere still by my side
To make of one man, who could else a monster prove, a thing exalted beyond his due,
Or, if worst be worst, to keep him ever wisely close in chain and halter, bound to only you.
Pensively he looked over toward the Beast, but found him entirely invisible from this angle down in the sunken area. He wondered why this particular poem had struck him, and whether or not he dared ask. Given the precedent, he decided probably not. He would just have to hope that, sometime in the future, he would come to understand the Beast a little better. Understanding him would certainly be better than living in fear of him.
Making sure the dog-ear remained undisturbed, he closed the book and set it down, then reached for the third volume, in which he was soon engrossed.
In the past, Trowa had informed him that he was a terrible reading companion, since he didn’t seem able to restrain himself from sharing aloud any lines or passages — sometimes entire pieces, if he was reading a compilation such as this one — that struck his fancy in any way. Back at the estate, Trowa had always made sure to snatch and peruse anything new that came their way before Quatre could, because otherwise Quatre would give everything away during the course of his reading and spoil the ending.
However, Trowa had made the accusation without rancor, always seemed to listen without displeasure to the parts Quatre chose to read out, and was sometimes even willing to discuss them — and therefore Quatre had never changed his ways. He had shared a good portion of the previous book with Trowa, and had already begun to do much the same with this third volume when he remembered abruptly that the Beast was in the room and would be quite justified in annoyance at the human that had invaded his space and then started reading aloud bits and pieces of a book he hadn’t gotten to yet while he was trying to concentrate on something else.
Mid-sentence, Quatre cut himself off, causing Trowa to look up at him questioningly. Quatre threw a sheepish glance in the direction of the Beast, and Trowa nodded his understanding. Then they both went back to reading in silence, Quatre determined to control himself and not irritate their host.
However, he became once again so engrossed in the book that he completely forgot his resolution. Not ten minutes later he came eagerly out with, “Listen to this — With distant roll of drum to pace their passage, unbroken ranks in grey are marching south. And, chilling every heart, one spreads the message: ‘It’s war, it’s war,’ he says without a mouth.” He stopped there, partly because that was the bulk of what had struck him and partly because he’d remembered suddenly that he wasn’t supposed to be doing this.
Trowa was looking at him emotionlessly, ready to comment if he ceased or to go on listening if he continued. For an indecisive moment Quatre sat still and silent, until a growling voice from not far off commanded somewhat impatiently, “Don’t stop. Read the rest.”
Quatre’s breath suddenly came more easily. He was a little surprised, but at the same time distinctly pleased. He also found his tone rather embarrassed as he explained, “It reminded me of the weather the last few days.” Then he cleared his throat, pushing away the embarrassment, and read out the entire poem.
When he’d finished, there were a few seconds of silence, and then the Beast made a low growling noise that caused both humans to flinch and stiffen. But it became evident soon after that it had been a noise of appreciation when the Beast said, “He did enjoy his rain.”
Relieved, relaxing, letting out the breath he’d drawn in perhaps a little too rapidly, Quatre said, “Just like you.”
“Yes,” said the Beast, and for some reason all of a sudden his tone was recognizably sad. “Just like me.”
After this they read on in silence — except for the occasional interruption Quatre simply couldn’t help — for a few hours, after which the humans rose to go find lunch. Quatre could tell they were both wondering whether they should offer some goodbye to the Beast as they did so, or perhaps some thanks for his tolerance of them in his favorite room all morning; but in the end they just left a little awkwardly without a word.
He was still thinking fixedly about his host as they descended the stairs out of the library. Their eventual destination was one of the smaller dining rooms on the second floor, since the rain made it impossible for them to use the balcony room beside the greenhouse. And as they walked Quatre murmured pensively, “One man, who could else a monster prove…” When Trowa gave him an inquiring look, Quatre explained about the dog-eared poem in the book both he and the Beast had recently read, quoted the piece as best he could remember, and wondered aloud what about it had struck the Beast and made him want to reread it.
He was glad to share this mystery with Trowa, though he doubted his friend would have any more substantial insight into the matter than he did. He feared that some of the things they were encountering in this place, and probably a good many they would encounter in days to come, lay unreachably beyond the comprehension of humans, of mortals. He wondered whether, even years and years from now when they were accustomed to every little magical detail around them, they would ever know the truth.
That picture… OH, LOOK, IT’S THAT ANGLE AGAIN. The one where we’re seeing someone’s face from a low angle, but instead it ends up looking like their face is just deformed and perched atop an abnormally long neck? Yeah, that angle. I almost got it right in the title image, but here it makes me wince every time I look at it. Other parts of the picture are OK, though, and I spent so damn long on it I couldn’t bear not to include it…