“What’s a ‘telescope?'”
They’d decided to spend a few hours in the library this morning, and Quatre had come across this unfamiliar word in his chosen volume. Trowa tended to know everything, which (along with his patience and interest in just about any subject) made him an excellent reading companion, and Quatre had no problem asking any random question aloud that occurred to him.
It was, however, not Trowa but the Beast that answered, from where he lay, as usual, among the cushions in the sunken reading area. “A sort of spyglass. Like sailors use, but more powerful.”
“Oh,” said Quatre in understanding. “For studying the stars.”
“Or anything far off,” the Beast clarified. “It works day or night. There’s one here, on the tower.”
Quatre lowered his book. “Is there? I’ve never seen it when I was up there.”
“Do you want me to show you?”
“Sure; that sounds interesting.” Quatre noticed, as he closed his book and set it aside, that Trowa did the same. He’d given up insisting that Trowa was welcome to do whatever he wanted and wasn’t required to follow Quatre around — not that Quatre in any way minded Trowa following him around; it just didn’t seem fair to Trowa — but at the moment Trowa’s lips were a little tighter than usual, his brows a touch more constricted; so Quatre said, “Trowa, you don’t have to come if you’re not interested.”
“I am interested,” Trowa replied immediately, rather as Quatre had expected. What was causing those subtle signs of discontent, then, he couldn’t guess. Trowa was just too good at hiding his thoughts and feelings, which was sometimes frustrating.
It wasn’t far from the library to the tower, and soon they were stepping out onto the round balcony into a whippy late summer breeze and warm sunlight. Every time Quatre had come here it had been windy, perhaps simply because they were up so high. The wind was certainly stronger than it would have been below, but not unpleasantly so, and he raised a hand to adjust his hair so it wouldn’t blow in his face.
The Beast gestured, and Quatre, looking in that direction, saw that there was indeed a device of some sort on three legs near the railing a few paces away. If he’d been up here more than two or three times and spent more than a couple of minutes, he must have seen it before.
Following the Beast, he began moving toward the object, but noticed as he did so that Trowa remained in the doorway, holding the door as if for stability or balance, still looking somewhat displeased. Questioningly Quatre said his name, now seriously wondering what was wrong. Hearing this, the Beast also turned back.
Trowa swallowed and then took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t stand it up here. I’d like to see the telescope, but I think I’m going to have to go back inside.”
“Oh!” said Quatre, surprised and sympathetic. “I’m sorry!” He should have noticed; he should have seen before that this was how Trowa felt. For Trowa hadn’t ever come to the railing, had he? He’d always stood beside the door, just as he was doing now. “I should have realized! Yes, go back inside and find something fun to do that won’t bother you; don’t worry about us.”
Trowa looked from Quatre to the Beast, who nodded. Mimicking this gesture minutely, Trowa turned wordlessly and disappeared through the door, which closed in equal silence behind him.
“I never knew,” Quatre mused, moving to stand beside where the Beast was taking the telescope in his great hairy hands. “The balcony room on the third floor doesn’t bother him, but I guess this is just too high. And I never realized…”
Stilling his motions for a moment, the Beast turned toward Quatre. It was a strange look that Quatre didn’t quite understand; many of the Beast’s looks were, given the nature of his face, but Quatre had been coming to recognize what he meant by some of them — and this one was far outside the range of familiar expressions. All the Beast said, however, was, “It’s funny how long you can know someone and still never find out certain things about them.”
Quatre nodded, and finally gave his attention to the telescope. “So how does this work?”
“First, point it generally where you want to look,” the Beast instructed. “This is the eyepiece here. Use these knobs to adjust where you’re looking on a large scale. This one is vertical. This one is horizontal. These two for smaller adjustment. This one adjusts the focus.”
He was partially demonstrating the use of each piece of the long brass object as he spoke, and everything, from his bodily contortion to bring one of his inconveniently-placed eyes in line with the eyepiece to his slow, clumsy manipulation of the knobs, looked painstaking and difficult. Quatre had the urge to push his hands aside and make the adjustments himself, since he couldn’t help feeling pity and embarrassment for the poor construction of body the Beast suffered that made this difficult for him… but, while Trowa never had any problem doing this, Quatre still couldn’t quite bring himself to. It seemed like an insult coming from him, somehow. Not that it mattered much at the moment, though; the Beast gestured for Quatre to try the device himself, and the next several minutes were spent getting used to the workings.
Quatre remembered thinking, when he’d first stood on this tower, that if he had better eyesight he could probably see to the edge of the forest from here. Here, then, was artificially better eyesight, and he couldn’t help feeling a flare of bittersweet excitement as he considered that he might now even be able to catch a glimpse of Beaulea or its environs. He still wasn’t entirely certain of the exact geographical position of the palace — if it even had one, and wasn’t squeezed into some nonexistent space that only appeared to be surrounded by forest — but that didn’t stop him from pointing the telescope northward in what he thought must be the direction of his family’s home.
As far up into the foothills as they appeared to be here, the palace rose significantly higher than the bulk of the surrounding forest, giving Quatre a good view in most directions. At first he could see nothing but trees, but that didn’t make it any less exciting when shapes that stood he knew not how far away came into focus at his turning of one of the knobs. He couldn’t help exclaiming over what he saw, mundane as it generally was, simply because it was so interesting to be able to see it from here when it must be so distant. He’d known of spyglasses before this, of course, but had never used one, so this was an entirely new experience to him.
He didn’t spend long looking at any particular patch of forest, only kept moving his field of vision and refocusing, until suddenly he located a stretch of road bared to view because it ran along a little ridge or cliff so that the tops of the trees in front of it were just below. Here Quatre lingered for some time, hoping with a strange forlornness to see somebody pass by, as it struck him all of a sudden just how long it had been since he’d seen another human besides Trowa. But eventually, with some reluctance, he continued scanning northward, hoping to find the end of the trees.
The Beast seemed pleased by Quatre’s interest and enthusiasm, readily answering his questions about the telescope and responding to his fascinated sounds and comments. The only time he had nothing to say was when Quatre inadvertently mentioned the road and his hope that he might see someone on it, but that was no surprise.
Eventually the Beast volunteered the information that he enjoyed using the telescope himself from time to time, and that if there was something specific Quatre was looking for he could probably point him in the right direction. He said it a little hesitantly, which wasn’t unusual when he was offering one of his guests any kind of favor, but in addition to this there was in his words a touch of the sadness that seemed more related to his general situation than to Quatre.
And in the face of this, Quatre couldn’t bring himself to ask the Beast if he knew of a town that lay somewhere beyond the northern border of the forest, reminding him at once of the home he’d taken Quatre from forever and a place he himself, most likely, could never visit. In searching for a less awkward answer, he responded instead with a question.
“Do you look at the stars? This must be wonderful at night.”
“No. I never use it at night.”
The Beast’s unexpected shortness made Quatre glance up for the first time in quite a while. “Why not?”
Not looking at him, but gazing out over the railing on which his great hands rested, the Beast shrugged a little. His head was so large that, in the thick dark hair that flowed off of it, a movement so small almost disappeared, but Quatre had become fairly accustomed to picking it out. “I have less patience by the end of the day,” the Beast said. “My hands aren’t made to use something like this.” And perhaps he was remembering his lost humanity, for the sorrow in his tone had only increased.
Slowly Quatre nodded, and returned to the telescope in a more somber frame of mind. As he’d come to spend more and more time with the Beast and have conversations with him besides just at supper, it often happened thus: something the Beast said or did would, in rerouting Quatre’s thoughts to the mystery of the palace and its dubious master, irrevocably change the tenor of his current activity, if not the very activity, often for the more melancholy. Quatre couldn’t really blame the Beast for this. He remembered Trowa speculating once that the Beast wanted to inflict his own suffering on others; but Quatre believed by now that the Beast’s sorrow and loneliness were utterly beyond his control, that it couldn’t be his fault if they wore off on those around him.
He’d brought his view to the edge of the forest at last, but found this so far distant that even the telescope’s powerful eye could not do much for it. Still, he panned laterally and made what he could of the hazy shapes and colors. Some sort of noise expressing his minor frustration at his continued failure to find the town where his family lived must have escaped his lips, for the Beast asked him, “What are you looking for?”
Not inclined to lie, Quatre replied briefly, “Beaulea.”
He thought there was unhappy shifting beside him, but the Beast just said courteously, “Is it a big town? I’ve never been north of the forest.”
Finally abandoning the search as hopeless — though that didn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t retry it later — Quatre turned thoughtfully to face the Beast again. “The town itself isn’t very big,” he answered, “but some of the farmlands are. Where have you been to?”
The Beast was silent.
Seeing that he’d already managed to force his host into his question-evading attitude, Quatre felt he might as well follow his query up with, “You’re a prisoner here, aren’t you? You can’t go beyond the outer hedge.”
The Beast turned and began to move away in the swift, stooped walk he always used when he was upright, clearly toward the door.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Quatre sighed. “Please don’t leave.”
Somewhat to his surprise, as this had never worked before, the Beast paused. Half a moment later, however, Quatre realized that it wasn’t in response to the apology and request, but to something he’d seen farther along. The Beast moved past the door and almost out of sight around the curve of the tower, then crouched down.
Curious, Quatre abandoned the telescope entirely and stepped after him, asking, “What is it?”
As the Beast turned, Quatre was a little startled to hear an unexpected sound, like the chirping of a forlorn bird, seeming to come straight from him. He realized an instant later, however, that it was, in fact, coming from an actual forlorn bird that the Beast now cradled in his great hands. Quatre hurried forward, with an exclamation of sympathy and surprise, to gaze at the tiny creature held by the much larger one.
The bird was mostly black and white and pale brown, but where one of its wings didn’t seem to want to fold properly over its back he could see a stretch of pretty green. It ducked its head and chirped distressedly again as he looked at it, evidently not liking his proximity much, though it didn’t seem at all afraid of the Beast. He took half a step back so as not to alarm it, watching pityingly as it shook its awkwardly-bent wing in an even more awkward motion and made another unhappy noise.
“Is it broken?” Quatre asked, almost in a whisper. He was referring to the bird’s wing, and probably should have been more specific, but the Beast seemed to understand.
“I don’t know,” he rumbled. “She can’t fly. She was hopping around over there trying.”
“Poor thing… what can we do?” Quatre was looking around, up in the eaves beneath the round tiled roof, hoping to find a nest or some other sign of whence the bird had come.
“She’s a chaffinch,” the Beast informed him. “They usually nest in the forest. I don’t know what she’s doing here.” Even as he said this he turned toward the door into the tower again, and carried the bird very carefully in that direction.
“Maybe she was attacked by a bigger bird,” Quatre speculated as he followed.
The Beast made a sound indicating this was as good a theory as any.
“So she’s a chaffinch, you said.” Quatre was already being forced to move at a quicker pace as the Beast traversed the staircase in the tower’s interior with his usual swiftness. “Do you know a lot about birds?”
“The local types,” replied the Beast briefly.
In his earlier days at the palace, Quatre might have entertained some dark speculations as to why this was, but by now he’d had it specifically confirmed that the Beast was a herbivore. “What will you do with her?” he asked next.
“Put her in the aviary until she heals.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea; the birds in there are so friendly.”
It seemed to be the Beast’s intention to descend the spiral stairs all the way to the third floor, and as they passed the door onto the sixth, Quatre noticed it standing open. This was unusual, but he realized after not too long why it must be: Trowa joined them presently, wordlessly, with traces of paint on his hands; he must have been in the art room, and have requested that the doors remain open so he might hear when Quatre was finished on the tower.
Quatre explained what was going on as they hastened down after the Beast. In doing so, he was struck with another thought, and asked the Beast in some concern, “Do you think she has eggs?”
“At this time of year they’d probably be hatched,” was the somewhat grim answer. “They might even be fledglings by now. We can only hope so.”
As usual when they entered the aviary, the most social of the birds came fluttering over to land on their shoulders and arms; Quatre noticed that some even of the less energetically friendly ones did the same to the Beast, clinging to his thick fur as they did to the clothing of the humans. It was always interesting to see how other animals responded to the Beast: there was consistent interest and camaraderie where Quatre would have expected fear and avoidance.
The little chaffinch was at first skittish and reluctant to be introduced to the birds that hopped down the Beast’s arms to peer at and comment on her; she fluttered and chirped in alarm, and the Beast had to keep her in one hand and hover the other above her so she wouldn’t fall and so the other birds would not at first get too close. The very gentle way he did this suggested to Quatre that perhaps this was not the first time he’d brought the aviary’s inhabitants a new friend and patient; it made the human wonder, as he had wondered on most days for the last few months, just how long the Beast had been here living like this — for how often did you encounter injured birds, really?
Eventually the chaffinch calmed enough to allow some of the others nearer to her; one bright blue something (Quatre had no idea what it was), which was forever grooming its neighbors, began to nose around the chaffinch’s wings as if in search of something to do. Seeing this, the Beast, who had been standing still to allow the introductions to progress, moved again, startling some of his passengers into flight; he went to the golden filigree alcoves along one wall and gently placed the chaffinch in one.
Here Quatre observed another thing the Beast was not made for: picking up a handful of anything granulated. The birdseed from the decorated tin rolled off the convex curve of the pads on his thick fingers, and he was left with barely any. Evidently trying not to frighten the birds, he attempted to stifle his growl of frustration. Quatre was not surprised when Trowa immediately stepped forward to help him, taking up a handful of his own and scattering it across the little shelf that jutted out from the injured bird’s alcove. Soon a number of birds had gathered there to peck at the seed and chatter at each other, the poor chaffinch among them.
Silently the two humans and their huge host watched the birds for some time. It was good to see the chaffinch enjoying the meal and being offered such friendly treatment by the others; surely she would heal effectively here — though how quickly, Quatre couldn’t begin to guess. If she had eggs or chicks at home, he honestly doubted she would be able to return to them before some unpleasant fate overtook them. It was sad, but there was nothing to be done about it; Quatre just hoped the bird had a resilient spirit.
At last the Beast gave a satisfied nod and turned. “I’ll check on her again later.” And he began moving toward the door, undoubtedly heading back to the library.
“And we should find some lunch, I think,” Quatre added.
As they ate on the balcony next door, they discussed Trowa’s disliking of the view from the tower, as well as various other high places they’d visited in the past and how Trowa had felt about them. Thereafter, Quatre bullied his friend into disclosing what he would like to spend the afternoon doing, which turned out, somehow, to be just about what Quatre had been thinking might be nice — a walk through the grounds and then perhaps a game of croquet — and they set out to do it.
When on the way down and out of the palace Quatre let out a sudden cry of, “Hey! Stop!” Trowa appeared momentarily startled — but then obviously either realized what Quatre must have seen, or caught sight of her himself.
‘Her’ was definitely the right term; Quatre had been under the impression, the last couple of times they’d glimpsed this person, that it was a man — but in fact, now that he got a better look at the face and figure, he was beginning to think that this mysterious woman and the other they sometimes saw were one and the same.
She was dressed now in old-fashioned men’s clothing, which was what had misled them before — hose and high boots beneath her long tunic, all in the warm colors of the palace — and her brown hair was pulled into two braided buns at the base of her skull. Spectacles gleamed over her eyes, but even with this slight impediment it was easy to observe a facial expression so diametrically opposite the one she wore in her other garb (assuming Quatre’s theory was correct and it was the same person) as to be positively startling: the previous had been gentle and sad and pensive, whereas this was hard, calculating, and very direct.
Direct as it was, though, it was not directed at them for more than the moment it took to take all of this in and start hastily in her direction in the hopes that she would remain stationary long enough to talk to this time. Then she turned away and immediately entered a door that swung silently open for her the way doors always did around here. Quatre called again for her to wait, but by now there was very little hope in his tone, or in the motion by which he followed into the room she’d entered. He knew it would be empty of life; he knew he could not speak to her.
Half a pace into the cheerfully-lit but utterly lonely room, he clenched his fists in frustration. “It’s been months,” he muttered. “But we still know next to nothing about anything around us.” It wasn’t just the unknown woman; it was the unmapped palace in the middle of the forest, the unnamed sleeping men in their opposite courtyards, the unnerving sense of loneliness that hung in the air like a cold mist, and their unfathomable host that had the shape of a monster, wouldn’t tell them anything, and was kind to little birds.
Trowa, standing in the doorway behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. There was nothing he could say to banish this frustration, but his presence was a comfort in itself. As long as he had Trowa with him, Quatre knew, he would never really lose hope; he would never reach that point the Beast had once told him wasn’t so unlikely; he could always carry on.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t still extremely agitating, though.
One of the many things Quatre liked and admired about Trowa was that he rarely seemed to worry about things he couldn’t help. Oh, he acknowledged them; he simply very coolly and logically only spent his energy on circumstances where he might be able to make a difference… even if this just meant enjoying a relaxing walk through gardens and game of croquet in the face of an extremely frustrating situation. Seeing the wisdom in this, Quatre had been attempting to learn the skill. He wasn’t very good at it yet, but he did, at least, get plenty of practice; every quiet afternoon with Trowa brought him a little closer to more consistent complacency.
So they were both in a decent enough mood by the time the sun set and they headed inside to eat, and quite happy to see the Beast and talk to him about the day. He was never interested in discussing at dinner what he’d been reading in the library earlier, but he always seemed to enjoy hearing about what Quatre and Trowa had been up to. And eventually he asked, clearly hopeful, about their plans for after supper.
Quatre answered, “I want to use the telescope again, now that it’s dark enough to see the stars.”
“Oh,” said the Beast, sounding disinterested and perhaps a little disappointed. Quatre remembered what he’d said earlier about never using the device at night. It seemed odd to him still, but, then, what about the Beast did not?
Trowa, however, nodded and said, “I’ll keep working on my painting, then.”
“Oh?” This time the Beast’s tone indicated a good deal more engagement. “Are you painting something?”
“I’m trying.” Trowa shrugged a little. “It’s enjoyable, but I’m afraid I’m not very good at it.”
“That’s how I feel too,” the Beast replied. Quatre remembered the way those great hairy hands had held the mallets for that interesting instrument, and tried to imagine the Beast painting.
“You’re welcome to join me,” Trowa said. Perhaps he too was curious to see the Beast paint, or perhaps he was just being considerate. Lately they’d been going outside with the Beast after supper more frequently to play games in the sporting yard or just sit on the swings in the children’s yard while he jumped around. Trowa probably didn’t want him to feel they were deliberately trying to avoid him. Or perhaps he was genuinely interested in the Beast’s company; there had been a bit more of that lately too.
Whatever the motive behind it, the invitation seemed to please the Beast. Cheerfully he said, “I think I will! I’ll come paint a wonderful picture and then put it on a wall somewhere! That sounds like fun!”
Quatre smiled as he went on eating. There was another thing that had been changing: the Beast’s deleterious effect on Quatre’s appetite was decreasing. If Quatre hadn’t had a few years’ worth of lean pickings to recover from, he might already have been genuinely concerned about his weight.
But now the Beast seemed so excited by the prospect of painting that he was attempting to convince them to abandon what was left on their plates with all the insistence he had previously exercised toward that end without intending to or realizing that he did so. Quatre thought he had been reminded of the existence of the art room by the conversation — like people that, living in a town near some celebrated natural wonder, only ever went to enjoy it when they had guests — and was more than a little eager to find out if it was everything he remembered. Quatre couldn’t help being amused by him, as he not infrequently was these evenings, and tried to eat more quickly.
Eventually they were all three walking through the halls and up the many staircases to the sixth floor and the tower above it. Well, the Beast wasn’t ‘walking;’ he never walked during one of his energetic moods. He ran up and down the corridors that Quatre and Trowa traversed at an easier pace, bounded up staircases seven steps at a time and then came leaping back down to check that the humans hadn’t gotten lost, and sprang out from around corners trying to startle them (which only worked the first couple of times).
Upstairs they divided forces, and, though Quatre was looking forward to seeing the stars through the telescope, he left his companions with some reluctance. Besides being entertained by the Beast and curious about his painting abilities, he didn’t much like being separated from Trowa and completely alone. As long as they were together, Quatre had found, they were protected from the loneliness of this place, but even a few minutes apart — for whatever reason, even the washroom — allowed it all in again, chilling and miserable.
Perhaps this was the reason Quatre did not spend as much time as he’d planned on the tower. The stars were every bit as fascinating as he had expected, but he wanted to get back to Trowa. If he planned on indulging this interest in the telescope at all in the future, he would need to learn to deal with the atmosphere. The Beast had, but who could guess how long that had taken? Quatre thought working up to it wasn’t a bad idea.
When he entered the art room, he observed Trowa and the Beast down at the other end, close together, looking at a canvas on an easel. As Quatre made his way toward them, he heard the Beast demand, “What do you mean, ‘What is it?’ It’s a carnival wagon, obviously!”
“Oh,” said Trowa doubtfully. “Of course.”
“Just because I finished faster than you–” the Beast began, but cut himself short. The brush he held in one furry fist, which he’d been shaking at Trowa in reproachful emphasis, had spattered a not inconsiderable amount of bright blue paint onto Trowa’s grey tunic.
With one eyebrow elevated, Trowa raised a hand to swipe up the largest blob on the end of one finger.
“Sorry!” said the Beast. The growling laughter in his tone fired a sort of prescience like an an arrow right into the caution center of Quatre’s brain. He’d almost reached them, but now he stopped.
Trowa flicked the paint back at the Beast. It dappled the fur just above the huge nose a cheery blue.
“You’ve opened hostilites,” the Beast growled softly, reaching behind him toward where the tins of paint he’d been using still stood open.
“You drew first blood,” Trowa replied in an equally dark tone, his hand also moving slowly toward something Quatre couldn’t see from this angle (since he was now backing away).
“We will never surrender!” roared the beast. And the hostilities, as he’d put it, began.
It was actually worse than Quatre had expected. Laughing helplessly, he was forced to take shelter behind a large, board-mounted canvas he dragged off a shelf, only peeking out every now and then to see how the battle progressed.
With that snakelike speed and litheness and that laughter like a dog’s bark, the Beast darted here and there with a tin of paint and a brush, seeking what most warriors sought: to strike without being struck. Trowa, wearing a grim expression Quatre had seen on his face many times but with an unaccustomed sparkle in his eyes, pursued with single-minded determination and something that dripped orange.
Golden yellow flew and fuchsia red spattered, and Quatre was laughingly calling out to them that it wasn’t too late for peace talks, and the Beast’s fur was a wet rainbow, and Trowa’s clothes were simply ruined and his face looked as if he’d been in a real fight with all the bruise-colored blotches that covered it; and they only finally stopped when the easel holding the Beast’s painting, which had been a sort of centerpiece to the combat, got rattled a little too hard and threw its burden to the floor.
Hastily setting aside his weapons, Trowa gingerly reached down and lifted the fallen painting by its sides. As he replaced it on the easel he said, “Oh…” The Beast also relinquished the tin and brush and came to look. Sensing an end to aggression for now, Quatre deemed it safe to join them, though he (not having destroyed his clothing) picked his way over very carefully; there was paint everywhere.
The Beast’s painting was… a mess. Quatre found himself shaking his head as he looked at it, as if trying to clear his vision for another attempt at making sense of the wild jumble of colors. After a moment, he realized that, while some of the chaos before him had been splashed or smeared or splattered onto the canvas during the paint fight, some of it had been brushed on purposefully beforehand… if ‘brushed’ could be an appropriate word for strokes that looked as if they’d been made by a two-year-old.
Quatre thought his head was beginning to ache as he tried to pick the accidental apart from the deliberate and (futilely) to find the shape of a carnival wagon somewhere in there. He didn’t know what to say. He might not have known what to say about it originally, not really wanting to bring up the subject of the Beast’s ill-formed hands, and now the thing was ruined.
The Beast had been for several moments making that low, pensive growling noise that was more characteristic of his less energetic morning moods. Finally he said decisively, “This is a thousand times better like this. What do you guys think?”
“You… think so?” Quatre managed, fairly neutrally.
“It’s a collaboration now, though!” The Beast threw a brightly-speckled arm across Trowa’s shoulders. “What do you think, Trowa? Won’t it look good in a frame? Should we both sign it?”
Trowa, Quatre noticed, remained rock-still without the slightest flinch under that huge friendly arm. “Can you sign it?” he wondered, placid and daring.
“Well, no,” the Beast admitted. “You’ll have to sign it for me. And then it can go up somewhere!”
Quatre restrained a laugh at the enthusiasm that would actually seriously consider hanging something like this on any wall; meanwhile, Trowa, with some effort, freed himself from the hairy arm that was smearing more green and orange onto his shoulders and the back of his neck and head, and started looking through the paintbrushes on a nearby table for one that had escaped the devastation. “What color should I use?” he wondered.
“See if you can find any more of this red!” replied the Beast eagerly. Then he went back to staring at the painting. Quatre couldn’t decide whether he was making the best of a bad situation or really did like the insane outcome of his little step away from maturity with Trowa.
“There’s probably enough left on my chest,” said Trowa.
Quatre laughed. Then he continued to laugh as he watched Trowa write carefully in the lower right hand corner of the painting, Trowa and Beast, with the small brush he’d chosen and red paint off his mottled tunic.
“We’ll call it The Spoils of War!” the Beast announced, pleased. Quatre laughed again.
Finished, standing back, Trowa coughed suddenly, speckling with color from his lips the already spotted arm he drew in front of his face. “I got a mouthful of that purple earlier,” he explained somewhat brokenly.
“It tastes terrible, doesn’t it?” The Beast sounded a little smug.
“It’s not so bad,” replied Trowa, now in what must have been a rather maddening deadpan.
The Beast growled. Then, “I’m going to go decide where I want to put it!” he said, and bounded toward the door.
“That paint will be hard to get out of your fur if you let it dry!” Quatre called after him, though he wasn’t sure the Beast heard any of it. He couldn’t help laughing again as he turned back to Trowa. “He’s so funny…”
Trowa nodded his colorful head.
Quatre grinned. “And I haven’t seen you play around like that in years.”
In response to this Trowa just shrugged and started walking, so Quatre followed him. They paused beside another canvas-bearing easel, this one having gone untouched by flying paint as it was a few yards and facing away from where the battle had taken place. Quatre’s brows rose as he looked at it.
“Trowa… didn’t you specifically say you weren’t very good at this?”
“It turned out better than I expected,” Trowa admitted.
“We never painted, did we?” Quatre went on musingly. “Olivie always did, but we never really tried it. No wonder we didn’t know you could do it so well.”
With a little shrug, Trowa said nothing.
“I can’t say I think much of your subject, though.”
Wryly Trowa replied, “It was the first thing that came to mind.”
Quatre continued to stare pensively at the unexpectedly attractive painting, reflecting that everything about his life seemed suddenly contradictory, or bittersweet at the very least. He was a guest to whom no place was forbidden, yet he knew almost nothing about his surroundings. His host was kind and friendly, yet had the form of a monster and had demanded of him a lifetime’s penitence for a trifling offense. His lifetime’s penitence took him forever from a family he loved, yet Quatre felt it not impossible that he might be happy here. And the happiness he might have felt for his friend’s sake at discovering a heretofore unknown talent was marred and twisted by the fact that Trowa had chosen for his first subject a rose of the same pale blue-grey as the one that had originally trapped him here… here in this palace away from the family he loved, where he knew almost nothing about his surroundings, where it wasn’t impossible that he might be happy…
The darkness and confusion of these thoughts must have shown on his face — he’d never been any good at hiding such things — for Trowa said his name in a tone of concern and reached out a hand. The latter was still wet with paint in places, and, as Trowa must have realized this, only hovered above Quatre’s shoulder.
Quatre shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just impressed at this secret talent of yours.” And he forced a smile.
Trowa nodded slowly, still appearing concerned, and Quatre’s smile grew more genuine in rueful amusement as he considered the double standard that precedent could sometimes create. He could easily be expected to divulge his every thought and feeling simply because he so consistently did, but it would be unheard-of for him to press the unreadable Trowa to explain what was going on in his head. Not that that ongoing riddle wasn’t part of the charm, and, anyway, of greater concern at the moment was the exterior of Trowa’s head.
“Come on,” he said, turning away toward the door. “We should go get you cleaned up before that stuff dries in your hair.”
The song had started again, haunting and compelling and beautiful and heart-breaking, the very moment he’d set foot in the water. Heero wasn’t the least bit surprised anymore. In fact, besides the pity and curiosity that filled him as a natural reaction to such forlorn and pathetic singing, the only thing he felt was guilt.
He knew Duo didn’t want him to come here anymore. Duo had never explicitly said so, but Heero had seen it in his eyes, heard it in his tone, felt it in his embrace every night for the last week since Heero had told him about the first instance of the mysterious song. And Heero wasn’t even quite sure why he continued to worry his lover by insisting on bathing here when it would be such a small sacrifice to give it up and thereby satisfy Duo.
At first it had been his disdain for the entire yara myth. This pool was convenient — especially as compared to bathing with basin and sponge or hauling water to fill a tub — and he’d been unwilling to change his habits just because somebody was playing a prank on him. Darl, he’d thought, must have convinced one of his female friends to take the part of the legendary yara to try to frighten him.
But now… seven nights had passed since then, and each time he’d returned here he had heard the song again. He doubted Darl or anyone Darl might befriend had the patience to wait for his appearance — especially uncertainly timed as it always was — and put on such a show without fail so many days in a row. Beyond that, he did have to admit that there was an unearthliness to the sound of the voice that he hadn’t noticed or acknowledged at first… an uncanny, haunting quality to the song that he doubted anyone in the area could effect without his having heard of their talent before.
And then, there surely were many marvels in the world. He’d heard plenty of stories of magical, ungodly beings; this yara tale was nothing that did not fit into that catalog. So why did he return? There was possibly a murderous spirit here that seemed to have specifically targeted him, and it deeply worried Duo to know that Heero kept coming… so why didn’t he just stay away? Was it the compelling nature of the song? Was he half-hypnotized already and unaware of it? Or was it simple curiosity, a desire to know the truth of the situation before he could entirely abandon it?
In any case, here he was again beginning the usual bathing process and listening to the haunting melody as he was growing accustomed to doing. Except that there was something a little different about the song tonight… he couldn’t quite decide what had changed, but some quality clearly had; the voice sounded more pointed tonight, more purposeful, more… present…
Up Heero’s spine ran a shiver that had nothing to do with the coldness of the water. He’d already waded out to where the latter was thigh-deep, but now he stopped and repeated the thorough visual inspection of the pool that always began his time here — or had, at least, all this past week.
The shadows cast by the forest on the water’s circumference were blue and deep purple, and beyond, between the trees themselves, solid black except for where the moonlight stabbed down to bring all the true colors back to life. And across the pool from him and somewhat to his left, half in shade the color of Duo’s eyes and half invisible in the blackness, a figure stood.
It was pointless to ask who was there or demand she step forward; Heero knew who it was, and that she was unlikely to obey any command of his. It was funny; he’d never really completely believed in her before, and now, suddenly, he believed in her before he’d even properly seen her. Something about the slender shadow out there at the deepest end of the pool beneath the trailing willow-fronds was compellingly, almost painfully convincing; he couldn’t have denied her existence if he’d wanted to, even if he were to turn away this moment and never actually see her. And the song, previously impossible to trace, was now clearly coming specifically from that darkness.
As Heero noted that the figure was slowly moving in his direction, he took a step or two back, retreating toward the shore and a coward’s escape even as another impulse, nearly as strong, urged him to walk rather toward her and find out the truth. Logic told him to turn and run, but his heart wanted to go to her, try to soothe her intolerable sadness and change her song to one of joy. Something told him that he could, that he had the power to mend her broken heart… if only he would go to her.
The yara’s slow steps and the widening ripples that attended them brought her eventually out of the enveloping shadows into the moonlight, at which point Heero jerked to a stop, unable to continue moving away. His gaze was locked on her form now glowing faintly in the light of moon and stars into which she’d stepped; he could not tear his eyes from her.
He wondered abstractly how, dressed in shining white as she was and with skin only a touch darker, she had managed to shroud herself so effectively in shadows in the first place; he wondered a good deal more avidly where it was that he’d heard the description ‘incredibly beautiful’ in regards to this woman. It seemed an insultingly lackluster way to refer to her.
Beneath her fine-woven white shift, such as she might have worn under a court gown or wedding dress, she was all perfect curves and soft flesh, to which the semi-transparent garment clung in form-baring wetness. Similarly her shining dark hair fell slickly, cleanly down her back in a single smooth, streaming mass. And her sorrowful face, running with water as though she’d just emerged from the depths of the pool or as if with tears, was like a flawless gem through which a gentle light glowed.
She was beyond ‘beautiful.’ She was perfect, marvelous enough to break the world and sad enough to have reason to. Heero thought her singing would certainly break him, and, though he had no particular desire for her person, it made her, in his eyes, all the more pathetic that she was so wonderful. That such an angelic being should suffer thus was unendurable, and he wanted more than anything to comfort her. If he went to her now and put his arms around her, if he held her tightly enough, surely he could help her… surely he could fight off her despair and save her… And since he had no interest in her in any other sense, surely Duo would not mind.
Guilt and horror rose in him abruptly, a burning hot contrast to the chilly pity and sorrow, as he realized that, for a few moments, he had completely forgotten about his lover. After protesting so vehemently the idea that he could do so, after feeling real pain at Duo’s quiet insistence that he might, still it had happened without thought or struggle. He, who had considered himself so steadfast, so devoted, had given in without a fight, and was, in fact, the weakest and most despicable of men.
If he’d been expecting anything, it was that the yara would try to draw him with her beauty, to seduce him properly, and in this he had placed his faith — for surely someone with Duo in his life could find nothing along those lines even remotely tempting in comparison. He hadn’t anticipated that the yara would attack from a completely different side, playing on his sympathies until the desire to help and comfort her overwhelmed all other emotions and his better judgment. Heero had no sisters, nor had any woman ever filled that role for him, but if his mother had survived giving birth to him and lived to bear a female child, that child might have grown to be very much like the person in front of him.
She was still singing, though more softly now that she was here with him, still piercing his heart with the sadness and loss in her beautiful voice, still beckoning — challenging him, almost, to try to comfort her. And despite knowing his danger, despite recognizing her tactics, despite remembering Duo’s concern, Heero still could not push away the pity he felt, nor his desire to help the yara.
He also still could not move, and she was coming closer. She did not, he noted, walk quite on top of the water, but rather in it up to her ankles, as if it were only very shallow around her, though at that end of the pool it was deeper than a man was tall. Her steps were slow, but unrelenting; it wouldn’t take her long to cross to the shallower side… and a man could drown in an inch of water as easily as when completely submerged. This was exactly what Duo had warned about…
A slender ivory arm lifted as the yara extended a hand toward him, and Heero felt his own hand rising as if to accept everything she offered. Which was a miserable, ignominious death that would not even bring her the peace she claimed he could give, not even fulfill the desire with which he would have approached her in the first place, and the absolute certainty never to see Duo again.
That thought was simply too much. The pain Heero felt on the yara’s behalf and in response to her miserable song and tearstained face was eclipsed utterly by the horror of the idea that he might never see Duo again… never hear his infectious laugh or charmingly unorthodox opinions, never hold him in the grass under the stars, never make love to him again…
His hand that had risen and pushed forward now jerked abruptly back, clutching at his chest, seeking the one connection he had to Duo here and now: the leather pouch he wore around his neck that contained the lock of hair Duo had given him. His fumbling fingers found it, his hand clutched it desperately to him… and everything changed.
The flavor of the atmosphere, the feel of the cold water, the sound of the yara’s song, even the colors of the shadows and the moonlight seemed altered. Heero had suddenly in his mind such a clear image of Duo… the taste of his lips, the texture of his skin, the alternating cheer and darkness of his voice, every perfect curve or shadow of his face, and everything he was that went beyond physical description, every aspect of him that Heero had fallen so completely in love with… he sensed it all so perfectly that it seemed more than a memory… it was almost as if he’d somehow conjured Duo up as an invisible presence at his side. And the rest of the world simply could not compare.
The yara’s forward movement paused; she was little more than a yard away now, her beauty and pathos all the more apparent as she drew so near. But she must have observed that her hold over Heero’s mind had waned. Slowly, in a movement that wrenched his heart with the forlornness of its admission of defeat, her arm fell to her side, and the sorrow of her song increased.
Quickly then Heero scrambled backward, out to the shallower water and onto the gravel beach, never releasing his grip on the talisman at his neck. This was still a distinctly unsafe place to be, and if he wanted to live to beg Duo’s forgiveness for coming here at all tonight, he needed to put it behind him as quickly as possible. That was just a figure of speech, of course, since he didn’t intend for a moment to turn his back on the yara.
Clumsily continuing to retreat from her where she remained motionless in the pool not far from where he’d only recently been standing, he reached blindly for the clothes he’d left on the shore, still clutching at the leather pouch with his other hand. He wasn’t even entirely certain he’d managed to take hold of all his possessions before he continued moving away from the pool and the yara, but it didn’t matter; he could return during daylight to look for anything he’d left.
Or maybe, he thought at the unnerving sight of the yara sinking abruptly down into the water and disappearing, her song diffusing into the haunting placelessness it had always previously held, he could just cut his losses and avoid this terrible place for the rest of his life.
This chapter’s picture is tied for the position of my favorite Rose Pale picture; I just love Trowa’s paint-spattered face and hair, and I don’t think I did too badly on its details.