“You’ve been quieter than usual today,” the Beast observed, looming curiously over Trowa. “And that’s saying something.”
Trowa glanced up, and found his gaze resting, for some reason, on one of the Beast’s shining, curved horns — possibly because he didn’t have the energy to seek out either of the little eyes. He then turned back to the table and his neglected supper plate. “I slept badly last night,” he said. “I’m tired.”
It was true; Trowa hadn’t been able to get properly to sleep the previous night, and had been lethargic all day. But there was also the fact that this morning Quatre had remarked a little forlornly, “I should probably try to learn how to fall asleep by myself in the other room; I can’t spend the next forty years in your bed like a frightened child.” That hadn’t helped Trowa’s mood much.
“I’m sorry,” said the Beast. He was snuffling absently at the dishes on the table, as he sometimes did after supper, presumably wishing he could eat this kind of food without getting sick; he’d told them at one point, somewhat discontentedly, that he lived off of hay and green fodder. “I hope you haven’t gotten too tired playing with me out here every night!”
Wearily Trowa shook his head. “It was just insomnia.”
As he was fairly certain he wasn’t going to eat any more than the little he already had, he turned his chair slowly around to look through the arch in the hedge into the next courtyard. There, Quatre was setting up a game of tenpins for them in the light of several braziers that had appeared when it became apparent they were going to be out here routinely with the Beast after dark. Trowa would join him eventually, but at the moment didn’t feel like getting up.
Settling down beside Trowa — his head higher than the human’s even in a crouch — the Beast joined him watching Quatre as the latter set up the pins with a neatness and precision that seemed charmingly absurd, given their purpose. Conversationally, though in one of his quieter growls, the Beast remarked, “You love him, don’t you?”
Trowa’s eyes were torn from Quatre almost against his will and turned toward the Beast, startled and even astonished. Finally, after a long moment of silence, he looked back at Quatre again and murmured with forced placidity, “Of course I do.”
“I mean,” said the Beast impatiently, “you’re in love with him. You love him like a lover.”
Trowa felt a slow flush burn its way up over his face, and he couldn’t look at the Beast again. “Yes,” he admitted in a whisper. “Yes.”
“So why do I know this and he doesn’t?”
“He doesn’t think of me that way. And if he doesn’t after all these years, is it likely he ever will?”
“How do you know?” The Beast scratched at a hairy spot just above his nose with a clawed hand. “Have you asked him?”
Trowa shook his head as if he could shake away the painful suggestion. “How could I ask him something like that?” he demanded harshly, though still quietly. “I’m his servant. His father is a baron, and mine mends fishing nets on the docks in Silbreaker.”
“Are they letting men marry each other these days?” asked the Beast unexpectedly, almost idly.
His blush undiminished, Trowa replied, “No…”
“Then why do you care who your fathers are? That only makes a difference if you’re arranging a marriage. I think it makes even less of a difference here.”
Trowa wanted to curse at the Beast for rendering him suddenly susceptible to hope again, even just for a moment, when he’d become so accustomed to doing without any. “The point is that I don’t deserve someone like him.” This conversation was tiring him more than ever.
“You’ve starved for him. You’ve stayed several months in an enchanted palace with a terrifying monster for him. I’m not sure what else you’re asking of yourself.” When Trowa did not answer, the Beast went on more matter-of-factly. “Well, I think you should tell him. But I’m just a beast… what do I know about love?” An unmistakable undercurrent of deep bitterness crept into this last question, and made Trowa look up from where he’d been staring, unseeing, at the flagstones.
“What do you know about love?”
“Quatre!” the Beast shouted, rising abruptly from his crouch and bounding forward through the arch in the hedge into the sporting yard. “They don’t have to be perfect, you know! The point is to knock them over, remember?” And as if to demonstrate this principle, he ended his all-fours run toward Quatre with a roll into the pin setup that sent them all flying in different directions and him partially into the hedge.
“Hey!” Quatre protested with laughter in his tone. “Not like that!” And he began tugging the Beast’s fur and pushing at him. The Beast, clambering to his feet under Quatre’s onslaught, defended himself easily, undoubtedly with only a fraction of his great strength.
Just watching them seemed to drain the last of Trowa’s energy; even his thoughts were suddenly exhausted. He was only vaguely conscious of some amusement at the sight, and some interest as he reflected on how differently they felt about their host now than they had before. Earlier in their stay, they had never been willing to touch him voluntarily; even a month in, they’d still started if the Beast moved suddenly… but by now all their fear of him had melted away, until Quatre could be out there wrestling with him and laughing without worry.
Trowa also recognized that his jealousy was completely gone. It had been fading as the weeks passed and he watched the way the Beast treated Quatre — and the equally friendly way the Beast treated him — and after the discussion they’d just had, the last of it had vanished entirely. That was nice. His head fell back against his neck and shoulder, and he looked at the stars for a moment before closing his eyes.
There was no wind this evening, and the conversation in the next courtyard, being rather loud, was mostly audible over here. “I could just kill you, you know,” the Beast was saying, not sounding even the least bit threatening.
“But I’ve already spent part of my life here,” Quatre replied. Trowa, opening his eyes and looking again, was in time to see him push the Beast’s tail carelessly away and start casting about for the scattered pins. “If you killed me now, you would owe me four — almost five months.”
“Only if I was fair!” the Beast pointed out. “But I was just joking anyway. Actually, I’ll tell you a secret…” His voice dropped to an unintelligibly quiet growl, and Trowa felt vaguely annoyed when he couldn’t hear what was said next.
“Really?” Quatre wondered in some interest. “I wonder why…” But Trowa couldn’t catch the rest.
The Beast either said nothing in response to this, or spoke again too quietly to be heard from here; Trowa thought he really ought to go in there so as to get more of the conversation, but he still didn’t feel like standing up.
Eventually, however, Quatre had arranged the pins again, at which point he called, “Trowa, are you playing?” and Trowa felt compelled to go to him. Slowly he dragged himself out of the chair.
It was an unusual weariness that gripped him. It wasn’t sleepiness, as might be expected as a result of insomnia, but, rather, a malaise that had been creeping up on him throughout the day until at dinner he’d found it a little difficult just to lift a fork as far as his mouth. Now as he stood and moved toward the arch in the hedge, he felt it redoubled, weighing down his limbs and slowing his steps.
As he entered the light of the brazier, Quatre threw him a skeptical glance. “You look half asleep! I’m going to win for sure.”
Faintly Trowa smiled. “Probably.”
As Quatre bowled and the Beast announced his score, Trowa was torn between watching him — Quatre always looked so good when he… well, did anything, really — and seeking something to lean against. There really was nothing, since the hedges were full of thorns and the braziers were hot metal, and his uncertainty about what he was doing led him to miss half of Quatre’s movements. Discontented, he turned his eyes to his companions again, and found Quatre offering him the use of the ball.
“Thank you,” he murmured, accepting it. It was heavy, and he found as he took it and moved to the place where Quatre had just been standing that he’d forgotten what its purpose was. A long moment passed while he stared down at the unfamiliar object in his hand before seeming to hear in his head, “The point is to knock them over, remember?” Ah, yes. The goal was to use this ball to knock down the pins over there. It seemed a shame to do so, when Quatre had gone to all the trouble of setting them up, but that was the reason they were out here, if he recalled correctly.
Although he thought that the best way to knock down the greatest number of pins would be to hurl the ball overhand at their central point, he found he couldn’t muster the energy to do so; it was a heavy ball. Instead, he just swung his arm to gather some momentum and rolled it along the close-cropped grass. Its trajectory was off, though, and he only knocked down two or perhaps three of the pins.
“Three!” the Beast confirmed.
Quatre was suddenly at Trowa’s side, taking his elbow as if to steady him. “Trowa, are you all right?”
“I need to go to bed,” Trowa murmured.
Reaching up, Quatre felt first Trowa’s forehead and then his own for comparison. “You’re not hot,” he said solicitously. “But you’re moving like you’re exhausted. We’ll do this game another time.”
Trowa nodded his agreement, and allowed Quatre to guide him around and back toward the palace.
“I hope everything’s all right,” said the Beast, bounding up to join them in their progress inside.
“It’s fine,” Trowa said shortly, aware that the Beast must be examining the way Quatre held his arm and speculating along the same lines as earlier. Again Trowa wanted to snap at him, tell him to stop trying to dig up hope where there was none, but he just didn’t have the energy.
The Beast walked beside them — or, rather, completely unable to match their slower pace, ran back and forth on all fours beside them — into the palace and up to their doors. He seemed more than a little concerned. “Are you sick, Trowa? If I’ve made you sick dragging you two outside to do things after dark…”
“I’m just tired,” Trowa reassured him, touched by the worried sound of the growling voice. He was afraid his own words might be a lie, however, as everything around him seemed a little hazy, and his level of weariness definitely felt disproportionate to the amount of effort he’d expended today or even the amount of sleep he’d missed last night.
“Well,” said the Beast doubtfully as Quatre opened the bedroom door, “get some rest, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Good night,” Trowa nodded. Quatre echoed this, and they moved into the room together. Trowa noticed that the Beast did not stir; as the door closed, he could still see him standing outside it looking a little anxious. Trowa hoped he wouldn’t wait around out there worrying for any prolonged length of time; but at the moment, above and beyond this, there was a nearby bed to think about. With a grateful noise, Trowa went to it and sat, then lay down on his back.
“You are tired,” Quatre said, and, like the Beast, he sounded worried. “But don’t go to sleep there like that. Can you get your nightclothes on?”
With a monumental effort that only spoke more and more to Trowa’s cloudy head that he was definitely unwell, he dragged himself up into a sitting position and then painstakingly stood. “Yes,” he said.
Quatre nodded and, not without a backward glance of continued concern, went into his room to change.
In a moment very much like the one he’d experienced outside, Trowa found himself holding his nightclothes without any clear idea what they were for or what he was supposed to be doing with them. Eventually, though, he remembered that they were intended to be worn to bed in place of what he had on now, and, with a faint, silent laugh at his absent-minded state, went through what seemed an unusually difficult and lengthy process of changing.
By the time Quatre knocked on the door — he’d evidently waited a little longer than usual, with Trowa’s current sluggishness in mind — Trowa was curled up on his side in the bed in a sort of dreamy haze, and barely remembered that he was supposed to respond to the noise. A few moments after he’d made some inarticulate acknowledgment of the knock, he felt the mattress sink under another weight, and then Quatre’s hand on his brow.
“You still don’t have a temperature, as far as I can tell, but it does seem like you’re getting sick.”
“Mmm,” Trowa said.
“I think I’d better sleep in the other room, in case you’ve got anything catching. And hopefully you’ll be all right in the morning.”
Trowa didn’t like the thought of Quatre leaving him alone all night, but couldn’t work up the energy to protest. So he merely lay still and silent as Quatre tucked the blankets around him and started drawing the bed-curtains.
Just before he pulled the last one shut across the remaining triangle of light, he said, “I’ll leave the door open. If you need me, call me, all right?”
“Mmm,” said Trowa.
Quatre’s soft good night came from behind the curtain as the lights went out.
Despite Trowa’s weariness, he couldn’t seem to sleep, but his mental state was such that he didn’t even notice the incongruity of this for quite some time. He drifted through strange daydreams — or perhaps he really was partially asleep and they were genuine dreams — aware always of the bed in which he lay, and the absence of Quatre at his side, in addition to his odd visions.
He imagined he was dancing with Quatre in the ballroom to music played by nobody on invisible instruments; but he was so tired that he kept misstepping, and it was something of a relief when, all of a sudden, it was no longer they that were dancing, but the sleeping men from the courtyards with the two aspects of the mysterious woman they’d occasionally seen wandering the corridors. The man with the braid was grinning, the darker man was blushing, and the two faces of the woman displayed the expressions they usually did. Trowa and Quatre watched them in silence, Trowa leaning back against a wall because he didn’t feel himself capable of standing straight.
The Beast appeared out of nowhere as if Trowa had called him, and said, “Let me show you how I dance.” Then Trowa was clinging with weakening arms around the Beast’s neck as they ascended the outer walls of the palace in a jerky, terrifying climb from window-ledge to balcony to carving; Trowa was going to lose his hold and fall at any moment. But they reached the top of the tower, where Quatre chided them for filling his entire view in the telescope. As usual up here, looking out from such a height over such a distance, Trowa felt a little sick — except that this time it was more of a pain in his stomach, or just lower, than any degree of nausea.
He sat up in bed, dizzy and fuzzy-headed, then stumbled out of the curtains seeking he knew not what. On the bedside table some considerate magic had left him a carafe of water with a glass placed upside-down over its mouth, and he found that his hands were trembling as he poured himself a drink. Actually, his entire body seemed to be trembling a little, which was odd since he didn’t feel cold. His limbs were leaden tired, his eyes wanted to close on their own, and there was still a sort of haze over his vision and his thoughts.
How long he’d been deliriously attempting to sleep he couldn’t rightly guess; he had the idea that a great deal of time had passed, but there was no way of knowing for certain, and he couldn’t trust his own impressions at the moment. After getting some water down his throat and some other water down his front, he crawled exhaustedly back into the bed and lay still again. As he clumsily tried to arrange the blankets around himself as comfortably as they had been before, he distinctly missed Quatre. He couldn’t quite remember why Quatre wasn’t there.
Things were a little better with his eyes closed. He would see Quatre in the morning, and everything would be fine. He certainly wasn’t feeling well, but he would be all right if he could just sleep. If his head would clear up and his body would stop shaking and this pain in his abdomen would cease and if he could just think straight for ten seconds together, he was sure to be all right.
“…and she sank down into the water. She disappeared with a look on her face like she was heart-broken that things had turned out this way. That was the last I saw of her. I went straight home, and all night I kept thinking I still heard her singing… I’ve never had such strange dreams.”
A long silence followed the end of the story before Duo, lying on his back with his head pillowed on upraised arms, wondered somewhat slyly, “So does this mean if I say ‘I told you so,’ you won’t hit me in the face?”
Heero sat up abruptly from where he too was lying in the grass. “When have I ever hit you in the face?” he demanded. Having come into this conversation penitent and reflective, he hadn’t expected to need to use a tone so accusatory.
“Well, but you might think I deserved it,” Duo pointed out, “and that’s just as bad.”
“No, no,” Heero sighed, subsiding, “you’re welcome to say ‘I told you so’ as often as you want. You did tell me. I didn’t listen. I’m sorry.”
Duo waved in lazy dismissal. “You don’t have to apologize. It’s a weird thing to be asked to believe.”
“It isn’t about whether or not I believed you,” said Heero. “You didn’t want me going there. It wouldn’t have been difficult for me not to, but I went anyway.”
Now Duo sat up, leaning on one hand and looking down at Heero thoughtfully. “It really was pretty bad of you. You’re going to have to make it up to me.”
Startled, Heero wondered, “What happened to ‘You don’t have to apologize?'” Not that he objected to attempting some sort of reparation; Duo’s contradictory statements were just surprising.
“I changed my mind.” Duo was smiling, but there was an underlying seriousness to the expression that indicated he was only partially teasing. “I’m going to have to ask you to do something for me.”
A little too quickly Duo said, “You promise? You swear to do whatever I ask?”
Heero was instantly suspicious. “People only ask for a promise like that when they want something they know you won’t want to do.”
“So? You did just say, ‘Anything.'” There was still in Duo’s smile and in his tone an unusual gravity that blended irresistibly with his joviality.
“Fine,” Heero said, feeling his lips pull into a reluctant smile. “I promise I’ll do whatever you ask.”
“Then,” said Duo, his voice suddenly devoid of any inflection other than the deadly serious, “I want you to take me to that pool where you met the yara.”
“What?” Heero sat up again, startled. “Why?”
“As far as I know, she usually backs off once her victim gets married… but even if we move in together, we won’t technically be married. And there’s no way in Hell I’m going to let her keep targeting you for the rest of our lives. Now that we know for sure she’s real, we need to take care of her right away.”
The protective glint in Duo’s eyes gave Heero a not unpleasant shiver, but the words made him frown. “Duo, I’m a carpenter. And you’re a preacher’s son. How were you planning on ‘taking care of her?'”
Darkly, Duo grinned. “Hey, don’t underestimate the abilities of a preacher’s son.”
And that was all Heero could get out of him. Only with the understanding that Duo did have a plan of some sort, and wasn’t just posturing — and would, moreover, attempt to find the place himself if Heero refused to take him — did Heero, reluctant still, agree to this proposal at all. But his further attempts at getting from Duo his secret idea for dealing with the yara were unsuccessful.
He had to admit, it was extremely nice to have Duo at his side throughout the trip back down to the southeastern end. Only on one or two other occasions had Duo taken this path with him; usually Heero walked it alone. If he hadn’t been so distracted by their current situation, he could have pretended quite complacently that Duo was coming home with him and would be joining him in his little bed in the room in back of the carpenter’s shop.
As it was, though Duo did introduce an unrelated and innocuous topic of discussion to pass the time as they went along hand in hand, and though Heero did attempt to converse with him as always, there was no way to get his mind off of where they were going and what might happen there. He wasn’t happy about this. He was, however, extremely curious about what Duo had in mind.
It couldn’t be some kind of exorcism or other religious rite, he knew, but he was at a loss how else to interpret that comment about the abilities of a preacher’s son. Duo’s manner, too — obviously pleased with himself and amused at keeping Heero in the dark, but simultaneously still completely serious about the mystery plan — could only make Heero wonder more intensely.
At Duo’s request, Heero alerted him when they were nearing their destination, and at that point Duo stopped to give instructions. Again Heero demanded to know the plan, and again Duo put him off with words and looks half playful and half in stone-cold earnest. He did frankly admit that Heero would be taking the role of bait in this situation — which Heero had already rather assumed, given that they had to draw the yara out somehow — but much more than this he would not say. “It’s a good thing I trust you,” Heero grumbled.
It was remarkable and unnerving how much the events of one night could so entirely alter a place. Previously the pool had seemed to Heero a pleasantly private retreat, calm and welcoming after his workday; but now he felt as if it had betrayed him, and that secrets and misery lay in every shadow. He had no desire whatsoever to be here at all, let alone to undress and enter the water as if he were bathing as usual. Would the yara really believe that, after denying and escaping her so pointedly last night, he would return as if nothing had happened? Would she really fail to notice Duo in his barely-concealed state not three paces from the water’s edge? Heero had his doubts about the entire situation, and only because his lover had been so insistent was he cooperating at all.
As before, the haunting song began the very moment he touched the water. And if he’d thought its hypnotic pathos would be lessened by the nearby presence of Duo, he was sadly mistaken. Even before he saw her, he found himself longing every bit as much as he had before to go to her and comfort her; the likelihood of forgetting about Duo as he had last night was significantly lessened, but the desire to help the yara was unchanged.
When she did appear, stepping from the deepest shadows at the far end of the pool as she had the previous night, once again Heero was unable to remove his eyes from the sad, beautiful figure, or even attempt to shut his ears to her pulling, unhappy song. He could only hope that Duo knew what he was doing.
Still as a statue he stood, watching the yara as she repeated her previous performance. It was strange almost to the point of unreality to have yesterday’s experience thus mimicked but with these slightly different emotions — still wishing with all his heart that he could help her, but lacking now the almost irresistible urge to move toward her; uneasy about being so near her but impatient to see what Duo would do — and Heero found himself drifting into a sort of hypnosis almost as strong as last night’s, if totally different in composition.
Only once the yara had taken several steps toward Heero and lifted her arms again to welcome him to his death was there any interruption to the scene. A voice from behind him — Duo’s voice, of course — spoke up all of a sudden, loudly enough to be heard clearly even over the yara’s echoing song: “Julia!”
At the sound, the yara stiffened and stopped singing abruptly. It looked as if she might retreat into the water at any moment, as she probably hadn’t expected a second visitor tonight. But something seemed to hold her back; her expression had become somewhat haggard, and a touch surprised, as if the name Duo had called out to her had been a palpable blow.
As Duo repeated the name, Heero couldn’t quite bring himself to turn away from the yara, even to look at his lover. But by glancing part of the way with some effort, keeping her in the corner of his eye, he saw Duo moving from the shadow of the trees and slowly toward the pool’s edge. The yara took a step back, now with the silence and tension of a hunted animal. And the moment Duo’s feet touched the water, she sank suddenly into the same and disappeared.
Duo didn’t look discouraged, however; he kept moving forward, wading right in without regard to his shoes and clothing. “Your name’s Julia, isn’t it?” he called out toward the deeper end. “You were the daughter of a cooper who lived here forever ago, weren’t you? You had two sisters and a brother, right?”
Heero thought he saw motion out in the shadows.
Just beside Heero, Duo stopped, the hem of his tunic darkened by his passage through the water. “I live up at the old church,” he went on, “which would have been where you attended back then, wouldn’t it? We have all sorts of old records up there: births and baptisms and deaths… and engagements and weddings.”
Now the yara was with them again, stepping once more from the darkness at the other end of the pool. She must have risen back out of the water in the shadows in her interest in what Duo was saying. Her face was fretted as if every word pained her, but there was a longing to it as well as if she was desperate to hear what else he had to say. She was not singing.
“You were, what, nineteen?” Duo hazarded, “when you got engaged to Alonzo?”
The yara’s pale hand rose to her mouth as her eyes widened, but still she made no sound.
“He was from around here too. A laborer, right? A couple years older than you?”
The yara took a slow step closer.
“But then you drowned right here the night before your wedding. You were supposed to be with him for the rest of your life, but instead your life ended before you could be with him at all.”
Now the yara’s expression was so sad, so intolerably wretched, that Heero felt the urge to protest, to tell Duo to stop hurting her. He could only assume that Duo, having heard so much less of her song, was that much less under her spell, and therefore could continue the history with placidity.
“You don’t have any idea what happened to Alonzo after you died, do you?” Duo let the silence stretch out for several long, momentous seconds, and two or three more steps of the yara toward them, before he spoke again. “He was devastated. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t think about anything but you and what he’d lost.”
Heero was torn between thinking Duo was laying it on a little thick — this sort of detail surely hadn’t been in any of the church’s records — and considering that what Duo was describing was precisely what his own life would become if Duo were in any way to leave him. The yara, on the other hand, was obviously hanging on Duo’s every word.
“It lost him his job,” Duo went on, “and his friends, and eventually his mind. He just couldn’t keep going the way he had without you, and it drove him completely mad.”
The yara seemed to draw a deep, uneven breath in response to this news, but still she made no sound. The water streaming down her face from her wet hair looked more than ever like tears.
“So finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, when he decided he really couldn’t live without you, he drowned himself. Not here, obviously, or you’d have known; it was farther up, in the stream that comes down Rubiset in a little valley up there. There’s a waterfall these days, but I don’t know if it was there back then.”
The yara now had both hands pressed over her mouth, and the whites of her eyes, clearly visible around iris and pupil, glinted in the light of the moon. As if in denial, she shook her head vigorously, sending a cascade of droplets splashing down into the water.
From somewhere — Heero didn’t quite see where — Duo drew a packet of crackling, time-yellowed papers that looked as if he really shouldn’t have risked folding them. “It’s all here,” he said quietly. Heero very much doubted that, since he was pretty certain Duo had made up the emotional parts of the story, but evidently the yara didn’t care: she reached out again with both arms, like a child after a toy. Duo stood still where he was, but extended the papers in a clear indication that she would have to come to him.
“Duo…” Heero whispered, very uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging the yara to move so close to them. But Duo just shook his head. Heero couldn’t help himself; he reached out and took Duo’s free hand, uncertain whether he was asking or offering support. Duo didn’t seem averse, and returned the grasp tightly as his other hand continued to beckon the yara closer with the lure of the papers it held.
It seemed to take an increasingly tense eternity for her to cross the distance between them, and by the end of her journey Heero had almost stopped breathing. Her slender outstretched fingers nearly touched the papers, which meant that another quick step would bring her within reach of Duo’s hand and wrist; of course Heero was holding onto Duo with all his strength, but the yara’s strength was sure to be superhuman. What if she decided to take the messenger along with the message? Would there be anything either of the men could do about it?
The unmoving solidity of Duo, standing there unflinching in the thigh-deep water, holding out his lure for a creature that might drown them both at her leisure, was incredibly impressive, especially when the yara’s hands finally actually made contact with the papers and slid over them in a slow, nearly caressing movement. Her fingers brushed Duo’s, at which sight Heero really thought his heart stopped beating for a few moments.
And then the yara had stepped back again, drawing the papers gracefully to her breast. She didn’t unfold them or make as if to read them — actually, the errant thought crossed Heero’s mind, the probability that she could read was rather remote — but her eyes widened again as if she had somehow absorbed their meaning through her clutching hands. As close as she was now, it was perfectly clear that the moisture on her face was that of tears, and she drew a deep, soundless breath that seemed to make her whole frame shudder. Heero wondered if she was going to sing again.
She smiled at them.
Now Heero felt his own cheeks wet with tears, for the yara’s smile was not one of happiness or satisfaction. Indeed, if possible, it seemed sadder than everything that had gone before, and even more bitterly compelling. And yet there was to it now a quality of acceptance, of understanding — in themselves nearly as miserable as the actual sorrow. Heero feared that this time he really must go to her, that there would be no stopping himself. Except that presently there was no ‘her’ to go to.
For, still clutching the papers to her chest, still smiling, the yara disappeared. She did not sink into the water as Heero had seen her do before; she did not step back into the shadows. Rather, she seemed to diffuse, to spread out in a sparkling mass into the air, where the glittering motes fell and faded before they could quite touch the pool’s surface.
Then there was no remaining sense that a third person was present; all that did remain was a certain thickness to the air, almost stifling, as if they were now breathing the heavy, lonely, dissipated magic the yara had left behind.
“Trowa?” There was a hand on his shoulder and a soft voice speaking his name. “Trowa?” He didn’t really want to wake up — he felt as if he would never have energy again, and as if he’d only just fallen asleep mere moments before — but the voice was one he could not ignore.
“I can tell you’re not feeling any better,” the voice said as Trowa struggled to open his eyes and look around. There was a gentle hand on his forehead all of a sudden. “You’re still not running a fever, I think… you look pale….”
“Quatre?” Trowa hazarded.
“What are you feeling?” Quatre asked gently. He was coming into focus as a glowing blur seated on the bed beside Trowa, leaning over him.
“Fuzzy,” replied Trowa. “Tired.” Why was it so bright in here? It had been dark before.
“Well, I’ve got some breakfast for you, if you can sit up for a few minutes. Then you can go back to sleep if you want.”
Breakfast didn’t sound too bad, but sitting up did. He would rather just close his eyes and rest. But when he tried to do so, Quatre’s hand was on his shoulder again and his voice said somewhat sternly, “Trowa, you won’t get any better if you don’t eat anything. You can go back to sleep after you eat.”
That was probably true. Trowa took a deep breath and forced himself to sit up. Once he’d done so, he found that the fuzziness in his head diminished somewhat at the new altitude and he could think a little more clearly. He also felt an immediate headache, a painful pressure blooming in his skull, and thought it would be best to get through breakfast as quickly as possible so he could lie down again.
Quatre had withdrawn from Trowa’s view, and now returned with a tray in his hands. “Good man,” he smiled when he saw that Trowa was sitting up.
Evidently designed for breakfast in bed, the tray was fitted with props that folded down so as to stand across Trowa’s lap. As Quatre arranged it for him with great care, Trowa murmured, “Thank you.”
“Any idea what you’ve got?” Quatre asked, seating himself once more on the edge of the bed and watching Trowa.
The latter would have shaken his head, but feared the motion would exacerbate the headache. So instead he just said, “No.” He looked down at his breakfast; it consisted of a large bowl of hot broth that smelled quite appetizing, two glasses of fruit juice — different kinds — and a third of water.
Quatre followed his gaze. “The palace knows you’re sick, I guess,” he said, sounding a little apologetic. “I hope you’re in the mood for lots of liquids.”
Trowa shrugged slightly and began very slowly to eat the broth. It had a rich, meaty taste that was for the moment as satisfying as a more solid breakfast would have been; that was enough for him, though he had to worry a little about how many trips to the washroom he might have to make later — probably not in any mood to want to get up and walk there — after this sort of meal.
“I haven’t heard you coughing or sneezing,” Quatre mused as he watched Trowa eat. “You say you still feel tired and fuzzy — I assume you mean your head feels fuzzy… anything else?”
Trowa was better able to articulate his symptoms now than before. “I have a headache. I may have had some pain in my stomach last night, but I may have dreamed it. I was delirious.”
Quatre nodded. “Hopefully some rest will help; you may be able to sleep this off. But I’ll ask the Beast if he knows of any books of medicine in the library, so we can see if there’s anything else we can do.”
“Thank you,” said Trowa again. The only treatment he felt the need of right now was to lie back down. He closed his eyes.
Seeing this, “Finish your breakfast,” Quatre commanded.
It was proving a fairly serious effort to do so. Trowa’s arms still felt heavy and unwilling to move, and little energy of will seemed to remain to him by which he could insist. It was an agonizingly long time before he was even halfway done, and he looked at the rest of the broth and the juices in some despair.
Quatre obviously saw this too. “Well, that’s probably enough,” he said kindly. “Let me get this tray out of your way.” As he did so, Trowa wasted no time in lying down again. The pillow was a blessed relief beneath his head; the ache in the latter quickly diminished, though unfortunately the greater bulk of the fog returned. He wasn’t sure whether he preferred pain over this confusion of thought or vise versa, and, under the influence of the second, was in no real condition properly to decide.
Returning, Quatre put his hand once again on Trowa’s brow. “I’m sorry you’re sick,” he said sincerely. “Let’s hope you can recover quickly.”
“Backwards,” Trowa mumbled.
“I should be taking care of you. That’s my job.”
Quatre smiled; he was already fading once more to a bright blur as Trowa’s eyes closed to slits. “There’s no master and servant here, remember? Just friends. Now go to sleep.” And he pulled the curtain closed again, pleasantly dimming the intrusive sunlight.
Trowa tried to obey, with those words ‘just friends’ echoing in his ears. Once again, though, weary as he was, he didn’t seem able to sleep properly. What had it taken for him to fall asleep last night? Several hours of delirium, hadn’t it been? He was probably in for a repetition of that; how troublesome.
He thought he heard a knock at the door, and the shifting of clothing and soft footsteps as Quatre went to answer it. He thought he heard the Beast’s voice, and Quatre’s answering; they were discussing him. There was something about his symptoms, and that Quatre wasn’t certain how dangerous this illness might be, and something about books in the library, and then Quatre seemed to come back into the room alone. Trowa thought he sat down in the chair by the door and started to read something; there was the occasional sound of pages turning. Trowa was fairly sure that all of this actually happened, but it was admittedly a little difficult to distinguish from the eclectic daydreams or half-dreams that came after.
This time he was chasing the unknown woman through the halls of the palace, through empty offices and quiet bedrooms, dining rooms and parlors, up and down long corridors and stairs almost impossible to tread. She kept always just ahead of him, though she did not run, here and there disappearing from sight but always reappearing again as he pushed himself to continue the chase. And each time some corner or door or hanging blocked her from his view, she reappeared as her other self, baffling his tired eyes and his uncomprehending brain. He knew he would have been able to catch up with her if only he weren’t so exhausted. If his knees would bend and his feet would move just a little bit faster…
She held answers; he was certain of it. She knew exactly what was going on here, the nature of the palace and its magic and its prisoners, particularly its master. If he could just speak with her, she would give him the information he needed, that he and Quatre had been so desperately curious about for so long. He could bring those answers back to Quatre, lay them at his feet as an offering, and maybe then… maybe then…
But here was Quatre at his side, joining him in the pursuit of the stranger. And since nothing was wrong with Quatre — nothing — he moved more easily and ran faster. Soon he had outstripped Trowa and was gaining on the woman, who abandoned her previous brisk walk and began to run as well. Her gown fluttered out behind her as she fled down a hallway that seemed to go on and on and on forever. Candles flickered around them, coming to life and going out erratically as the chase intensified.
Trowa couldn’t allow himself to slow down, despite knowing that Quatre was going to catch the woman and finish this, but it hardly mattered since he felt he was already moving at a crawl; ‘slowing’ would bring him to a complete standstill, and it wouldn’t affect much. But speeding up was entirely beyond him. Or so he thought, until the moment that Quatre actually did draw even with the woman, many paces ahead down the forever-long hallway, and put out a hand to stop her. For in response she turned and flung her arms around him and kissed him, her usual expression of unfathomable sadness melting into a smile of joy.
Trowa was momentarily stunned into stillness, but thereafter began to move much more quickly than he had before. Why was Quatre holding her hand? Why were they turning away from him? Where were they going? That door that opened just ahead of them… where did it lead?
“Quatre…” He was too tired to call out properly, but he tried anyway. “Quatre…!” He didn’t care about the woman anymore, didn’t care about answers. He would give it all up as long as Quatre did not leave him. “Quatre!”
But he didn’t know which way they’d gone; the doors were all the same. One after another he flung open, crying his master’s name in an urgent whisper, his arm more and more loath to move toward each new handle, his legs stumbling, his voice sinking ever lower, the lights fading darker and darker. The desperation that filled him nevertheless could not invigorate his failing limbs. “Quatre! Quatre!”
“I’m here. Trowa. Trowa, I’m right here.”
Trowa awoke with what felt like a jerk, and yet didn’t seem to have moved even a fraction of an inch from the exhausted position in which he’d fallen asleep. And there was, he supposed, one thing to be said for lethargy and weakness: they left little room for panic. Or perhaps that was Quatre’s hand on his chest and his soothing voice speaking reassurances. “You’re all right, Trowa. I’m right here.”
“Stupid… dreams…” Trowa muttered almost inaudibly.
Quatre sat down beside him and smoothed his hair back from his face. “How do you feel?”
“Awful.” Though if Quatre asked him to describe in exactly what way, he would be disappointed.
“Can you sit up and eat some supper?”
Remembering breakfast, “Any actual food?” Trowa wondered.
Quatre smiled wryly. “I guess we’ll see.”
Despite having asked, Trowa didn’t really feel up to the effort of eating any actual food, so it was probably all for the best that his supper consisted of some kind of soupy potato and vegetable mash and, again, several different drinks. He got through less of it than he had of his breakfast, but couldn’t bring himself to care.
After this everything became even more a blur. Sometimes it was light and sometimes it was dark, sometimes his head hurt and sometimes it didn’t, and he gradually gave up trying to distinguish reality from the rest of what was going on. He thought everything around him shattered into glasslike pieces that floated in and out of his field of vision. He thought Quatre was always there, in the chair by the door, reading or sleeping. Certainly Quatre would often help him sit up and drink something, or would try to talk to him; Trowa had no idea what they said to each other.
He thought there were rocks or other hard objects in the bed, pressed uncomfortably all around him so he couldn’t move; but his arms were too tired to reach out and shift them. He thought the Beast was frequently there, discussing unhelpful books and other things with Quatre or just crouching in a corner. Sometimes the Beast carried Trowa to the washroom; it was a little startling to wake up (or, rather, to come out of the fog somewhat) to find himself curled in the Beast’s huge arms and his face pressed against a warm, hairy chest.
During one such instance, a memory that might or might not have been real suddenly occurred to Trowa in a manner pointed enough to make him feel that it must be important; and also feeling, just at that moment, temporarily up to conversation, he asked about it.
“Hey. Hey, Beast.”
“Yes?” The Beast’s acknowledgment was a deep rumble against Trowa’s entire body.
“What was the secret?” He sounded very childish asking this, but he supposed that was allowed, given how sick he probably was.
“You told… Quatre… a secret.”
“Was it last night?” Trowa mused, so completely without energy that the words were barely audible. “Or… the night before…”
“I don’t remember telling Quatre a secret,” the Beast said gravely. “Maybe you dreamed it.”
“No.” Abruptly it was crucial that Trowa have this question answered. “No, you did. The first night… I was sick…”
“Trowa, that was over a week ago.”
“Oh.” Trowa felt as if he couldn’t lift his head from against the Beast’s chest, and now he didn’t seem to have strength left for any more words. Over a week? How had he gone so many days without realizing it? He knew he’d spent longer than he wanted to remember lying in bed hallucinating, but to think that it had been more than seven days… It would be frightening, if he had the energy to be frightened anymore. And he still wanted to know the Beast’s secret.
But after his bath, which was a very troublesome and wearying experience, as he was being returned to his bed by the Beast, the latter told him softly, “I think I know what secret you meant. I had to think about it.”
“What was it?” Trowa asked, with all the eagerness that was left to him. At least, that’s what he wanted to ask; he thought it came out as a sort of incoherent mumble.
The Beast seemed to understand, though, for he answered in the same quiet growl, “The ‘secret’ was that I have no venom in my tail.”
“Oh…” This was extremely interesting, and Trowa would have liked to say so, and to ask why it was shaped the way it was at all in that case, but found he couldn’t manage it. Instead he just lay in bed thinking about it — or what passed for thinking these days — while a parade of huge friendly scorpions (the Beast’s relatives, perhaps) walked all over the walls.
He thought Quatre’s sisters came to visit him, and either they all did so more than once or Quatre suddenly had more sisters than Trowa remembered. In retrospect, this probably hadn’t actually happened. He thought Quatre and the Beast discussed a tonic, possibly magical, that had begun to appear along with Trowa’s meals; but perhaps he’d just imagined this as an explanation for why his food and drink began tasting so vile. He thought the shadows in the room were actually lithe, darting creatures, and couldn’t quite think why part of his brain seemed to find it so unlikely that the furniture in the palace was suddenly casting animals rather than shadows.
He thought he started to feel a little better, but that probably wasn’t real either.
There were dark patches under Quatre’s eyes, patches that Trowa imagined having been applied with a paintbrush. But he knew that couldn’t be true; they were there because Quatre kept sleeping in that chair, if he was sleeping at all. He always looked grave and tired anymore, as he had in Beaulea, and the only reason Trowa was able to stand it was that he himself was too tired to do anything else.
Trowa was still wearily wandering the wavering corridors from his bed, pursuing or being pursued, locating new rooms that didn’t exist and doors that opened onto nothing; he still looked around to find his bedroom full of unfamiliar objects or creatures, and himself too tired to react… but he was definitely starting to feel better. Reality was becoming a little more accessible as time passed, and he was increasingly conscious of the passage of time — though exactly how much had passed he still didn’t know and didn’t think he really wanted to.
He knew the swarm of bees that spent a day hovering around his bed was likely to have been a dream or hallucination, but he couldn’t be sure about some of the quiet conversations he overheard or sometimes at least believed he took part in. The one about the bath salts was only his imagination… probably… but he wasn’t quite able to decide about this one:
“I just went to check on that injured bird. That chaffinch — do you remember?” Quatre’s tone was an attempt at normalcy, at cheer in the face of an exhausting and unhappy situation. “Our other patient,” he added with a tired smile.
“I remember the chaffinch,” said Trowa. What he didn’t remember was Quatre leaving the room any time recently — though a break from the interminable watch at Trowa’s sickbed was a very understandable desire.
“I think she should be able to go home any time now,” Quatre went on, “if she wants to. But while I was in there, I noticed something interesting.” As he continued, he began speaking very pointedly, quite obviously directing his words somewhere besides his ostensible addressee. “Someone — I can’t imagine who — has taught the other birds — well, the ones that can imitate speech — taught them to say our names. I walked in there, and all I heard was, ‘Quatre! Trowa! Quatre! Trowa!’ from every corner. It was a little unnerving!”
In a growling tone from somewhere Trowa couldn’t see through his bed curtains, the recipient of these statements responded, “Just be glad it wasn’t dirty phrases.” Despite the growl, the deadpan was so flawless that Trowa might almost have believed the Beast hadn’t had anything to do with the indoctrination of the birds… if he had been sure that this discussion had taken place at all.
Whether it had or not, after that he started wondering, as his level of personal coherency increased, what he might not have said to Quatre during his delirium and then forgotten about. Because if he could fabricate entire conversations out of his head, surely he could just as easily erase ones that had actually taken place. And perhaps the darkness of Quatre’s eyes was not just a reflection of his concern for a sick friend… perhaps he knew now about the unnatural desires of the man with whom he’d shared his bed for three years and his life for much longer. Being the kindest person in the world, Quatre would not wholly abandon even someone that had betrayed him… but there might be Hell to pay once Trowa was well.
These fears gradually lessened as Trowa gradually regained his presence of mind and his vigor. Even if Quatre were putting off an unpleasant conversation until Trowa was hale enough to handle it, Trowa doubted Quatre would be able to hide his displeasure with his servant in the meantime. So Trowa had to assume that Quatre didn’t feel any, given that his very evident relief and joy only grew with Trowa’s returning health. Trowa must not have told him, then; either his repressive instincts had been stronger than his delirium, or to the latter Quatre had ascribed anything Trowa had said.
The Beast, too, seemed overjoyed to witness Trowa’s recovery. As Trowa was able to keep his wits about him for longer periods of time, and subsequently began to grow bored of a bed he did not yet have the energy to leave, the Beast would gladly bring him any type of book he requested from the library, and still carried him to the washroom at any time of day with perfect willingness. And when Trowa was strong enough to sit up in a chair for an entire meal, the Beast carried him there too — mostly into the parlor next door, sometimes to the balcony room beside the aviary, and occasionally even all the way down to the courtyard of the tables (though the weather was turning rather chilly). But eventually Trowa was able to walk again, and therefore didn’t need to be carried anywhere.
He would never forget the Beast’s attentiveness on this point, however, nor how it had felt to be carried through the halls and up and down the stairs of the magnificent palace in those strong, hairy arms. The Beast’s kindness and concern and willingness to help had almost rivaled Quatre’s, and Trowa thoroughly regretted every unpleasant thought he’d ever had about him.
After a great deal of consideration and comparison, Trowa had eventually decided that the fuzziness was worse than the headaches; and perhaps it was in response to this that the latter were his longest-lingering symptom. Even when he had largely regained his vigor and autonomy, so that most days were like the ones preceding his illness, he still found himself in pain at random intervals and not averse to an early bedtime. But at least he could finally sleep properly, and easily distinguish from reality the dreams that filled his nights.
As these came once again to be exclusively concerned with the sleeping men from the courtyards, he could no longer precisely remember them, as before; but that type of dream was by now familiar and comforting, despite the oddity of having what seemed to be accurate and detailed visions about people he didn’t know and which he could not recall in the morning. In any case, they were infinitely superior to unnerving hallucinations he could remember and would honestly rather not.
Positively the best part about pulling out of his sickness was the return of Quatre to his bed. Trowa was fairly certain that he was shallow and pathetic to feel this way… valuing over his own health and life this third of each day spent in totally innocuous contact that would never mean to Quatre what it meant to him and would never come any closer to what Trowa really wanted… and yet when Quatre apologetically asked if Trowa minded if he joined him, Trowa thought he would cry.
And so things gradually returned to normal. Only after several days of enjoying the freedom to choose his pastimes and the strength to carry out his decisions did Trowa realize that what he’d previously believed impossible had actually taken place: ‘normal’ had become an acceptable descriptor for his life here. He hadn’t thought he could ever really grow accustomed to the mysterious palace and its magical ways and original inhabitant, and yet here he was reflecting on how nice it was that everything had gone back to the way it should be. The human heart was a funny thing. Perhaps, after all, he could live out the rest of his life in relative happiness here.
Yes, he thought, he probably could. With Quatre at his side, even if only as a friend, Trowa thought he could be happy anywhere.
This chapter’s picture is OK, I guess. Trowa’s fingers are supposed to be buried in the Beast’s fur, not… dissolving? or something. Also, I’m not sure why his arm is all in front of the Beast’s ginormous chin the way it is. And the Beast has teddy-bear arms. But whatevs; I still like it.