Quatre doubted it could be a coincidence that his awareness of the month (if not necessarily the precise date) and the dark, noisy weather outside the palace’s many windows were accompanied by a discontented listlessness on his part that would not allow him to keep at any pursuit for any significant length of time.
It was too rainy to use the telescope; the artwork in the upstairs galleries seemed even more tiresome than ever; the materials in the sewing room failed as always to hold his attention, though he did, unusually, try to find some entertainment there; he couldn’t get through half a piece on any instrument, nor the same percentage of a chapter in any book; he had not the Beast’s talent for teaching random words to the inhabitants of the aviary… so he ended up passing most of the day, in between the aforementioned attempts at amusing himself, moving aimlessly from chamber to chamber almost as if he were exploring the palace all over again, listening to the thunder even in rooms with no windows. He even wandered into the servants’ quarters and the kitchen, though he didn’t have the patience for another attempt at making use of the latter.
And through all of this — from tower to cellar, from one fruitless pursuit to the next — Trowa was with him, uncomplaining, ready to try whatever Quatre suggested, to all appearances completely unperturbed by the frenetic nonsense of the day. He was a calming influence, to the point where, in the afternoon, Quatre found himself able to sit still for a while and think rather than venturing foolishly outside into the unabated rain.
It had been a year, give or take a few days, since they’d come here, and right now in particular Quatre couldn’t help dwelling on the lives that had changed in that time. He truly, honestly didn’t mind it here, but the situation was still so strange, relative contentment or no, that he felt as if his thoughts were floating in a hazy distance when he remembered the plans and aspirations he’d had as a younger man, and even the more modest goals he’d set in more recent years for the betterment of his family’s situation.
He wondered, as he did every day, how his family was doing. He’d had faith all along that the Beast’s gifts had reached them, and those must have helped… the Winners must be better off than they had been when Quatre had left… but were they happy? How was each person, individually, getting by? Did they still live in the same house, or had they been able to move to some place a little more comfortable? Was Beaulea the same as it had been? Was he ever on their minds? — and, if so, what did they suppose he was doing? Did they resent him for his apparent abandonment of them?
Aside from these reflections about himself and his family — no unusual thoughts — he also couldn’t help thinking, as he also had on many previous occasions, about Trowa’s part in this. It didn’t seem fair that Trowa, who could have been leading his own life somewhere that wasn’t mysterious and enchanted and lonely and possibly actually nonexistent, who could have been accomplishing something beyond following Quatre around all day and helping him stay entertained, who could have been living elsewhere with friends or even a family of his own — that this kind, loyal Trowa was trapped here catering to the whims of the master that had chosen this prison in the first place seemed cruelly unfair. And the fact that Quatre still couldn’t stand the thought of Trowa not being with him didn’t really lessen this feeling.
Given that not one moment of this contained anything new, and the only unusual thing about it was an intensity and relentlessness to the thoughts that he hadn’t experienced in many months, the afternoon was easily as difficult to get through as the morning had been… but eventually he managed it. The hunger he felt as the sun went down and Trowa suggested they go to supper was a relief, as it gave him something else to think about.
Trowa wasn’t the only one to notice and be concerned by Quatre’s mood; the moment the Beast entered the dining room to join them for supper in his usual seat across the table, he demanded, “All right, Quatre, what is wrong with you today?”
Quatre pursed his lips and looked at his plate. It hadn’t occurred to him until now, but it might not be the kindest move to tell the Beast most of what he’d been dwelling on.
Succinctly, Trowa answered for him. “This rainstorm is just like one we got lost in a year ago.” Quatre wasn’t even a little surprised that Trowa knew precisely why he’d been so restless and pensive today.
“Oh,” said the Beast, and fell silent. He shifted on the chair the way he used to when he was about to get up and leave the room at some question he couldn’t answer, and this spurred Quatre to speak.
“It isn’t you! I was just thinking about how, back then, I was looking forward to getting home to my family, but then never…” Never, in fact, saw them again.
Now the Beast got down off his chair and began pacing agitatedly on all fours. Making only slow and absent inroads on his supper, Quatre watched his friend in silent concern. Was the Beast hurt? Obviously he was agitated, but what was he thinking? And what was there to be said, in any case?
Finally, the Beast began in his low growl a very unexpected sort of recital. “Etienette, Olivie, Tabithe, Aubori…”
Quatre could only stare at him.
“Amarante, Rynette, Emiliane, Olalle, Merci, Madelein, Elyssine.” The Beast paused, then turned one of his small eyes on Quatre. “Is that right?”
“Yes!” Quatre half-stammered in some astonishment. “In the right order, even!”
“I don’t think you’ve gone one single day here without mentioning at least one of them. And you’ve been here twelve months. That’s one month for each of them, if you include your father.”
Quatre looked down at where he clutched a serviette in one hand, feeling awkward.
“I remember…” The Beast’s tone was lower now. “The first night you were here after you’d promised… I stood outside your door trying to decide whether to try to talk to you, and I heard you crying…”
Startled to learn that the Beast had done this, Quatre tried not to look abashed. He had thought he’d been fairly quiet about that, too…
“And when I did eventually go in,” the Beast went on, “all I found was that rose he gave you torn to pieces all over the floor.”
Though this was nothing particularly shameful, Quatre avoided looking at Trowa. The latter might well — in fact, probably knew of Quatre’s tears that night, but he couldn’t have known how Quatre had treated the flower — the innocent gift that had brought upon them what at the time had seemed like a world of misery — for the shreds of petal and stem had been gone in the morning.
In an even lower growl, the words consequently a little difficult to distinguish, the Beast concluded, “I hate myself for what I’ve done to you.”
Quatre gave up pretending he was going to eat anything more than what he already had, and jumped from his chair. He hastened to put himself in front of the Beast, forcing him to stop pacing and sit back on his haunches. “Don’t say that!” he commanded. “I don’t know what kind of magic is going on here — God knows I’d like to, but I know you can’t tell me — but I think I know you pretty well by now, and I know you wouldn’t have done it if you’d had any choice.” As he spoke, he was running his hands over the Beast’s face in little fur-smoothing, almost unconscious gestures. “I don’t blame you at all,” he finished earnestly.
The Beast stared at him wordlessly for a moment through his tiny, shining eyes. Finally he said, “So you forgive me for being a monster, do you?” He sounded simultaneously forlorn and bitterly amused.
“I don’t think of you as a monster,” said Quatre firmly, “so there’s nothing to forgive.”
The Beast turned his great head to where Trowa had quietly joined them and placed a hand on his hairy shoulder in a silent show of agreement. “You too, huh?”
Shrugging them both off, the Beast turned away. He gave one of his barking laughs, though it held the same bitterness as before, and said, “You guys are just too nice.” Quieting again he added, “That’s the problem, really…”
“What do you mean?” wondered Quatre.
“I have to take a life for every rose someone picks.” The Beast’s back and swaying tail still turned toward them as they were, he might have been intently studying the wainscotting. “You were right,” he went on haltingly. “I don’t… have any choice… about that. Unless you actually wanted to die… I had to make you promise…”
At the palpable ‘but’ that was clearly to come, hope stabbed abruptly into Quatre’s heart and made him catch his breath.
By contrast, the Beast, hearing this, let out a sigh, as if he’d been listening for this sign of hope from Quatre and hoping not to hear it. “But… if you promise me you’ll come back,” he finished heavily, “I can let you go visit your family.”
With a little cry of joy, Quatre ran forward and flung his arms around the Beast, hugging as much as he could of the great hairy bulk and trying futilely to keep back his tears. “Thank you!” he said, laying his face against a soft shoulder. “Of course I’ll come back! I swear to God I’ll come back!”
“Don’t,” said the Beast. He chuckled, somewhat weakly and a little darkly yet, but less bitterly than before. “I really can’t handle you swearing to God at this point.”
Why there was no chapel in or around the palace, or any other indication that God was at all welcome here, was one of the forbidden questions, but Quatre couldn’t help asking, “Why? What’s wrong?”
The Beast shook himself, dislodging Quatre’s arms, then turned and looked from one man to the other. “It isn’t really because of the magic you’ve got to promise to come back. It’s because…” He seemed somewhat reluctant to explain, but forced himself onward anyway. “Look, before you two showed up, I was alone… I was worse than alone… for… two hundred years.” He spoke the number with evident difficulty; of course the length of time that he’d been under this curse (or whatever it was) must be one of the things he wasn’t supposed to mention. So there was one part of the mystery solved… but… two hundred years..?
“I won’t go back to that,” the Beast went on. “I can’t go back to that. Not after having friends around — the contrast would kill me. So if you two leave and don’t come back…” His gaze swung again from Quatre to Trowa in a clear indication that they were both included in this warning. “That’ll be the end of me.”
“I already promised I’d come back,” Quatre protested, horrified. “Do you think I was lying?”
The Beast gave him a long look and finally said, “No. Not at all.”
“Will you feel any better if I promise too?” asked Trowa, calmly and unexpectedly, earning himself a long look in his turn.
“You know, I think I would,” the Beast said at last. “You don’t have to, of course, since you’re not under oath in the first place, but you’re just as much my friend as he is, and–”
“Then,” Trowa broke in, “I swear I’ll come back after we’ve visited Quatre’s family.”
The Beast appeared pleased. He looked again between his two guests, then at the supper table they’d all abandoned. “Well,” he said at last, “if we’re done in here, let’s go pack up some more presents for the Winner girls!” And as he bounded for the door, he began chanting their names again. “Etienette, Olivie, Tabithe, Aubori…”
In the moment between the Beast’s disappearance through the door and the others following him, Quatre looked at Trowa and wondered, “‘Worse than alone?'”
Though a flicker of dark pensiveness crossed Trowa’s face, he obviously had no insight to offer, for he just shook his head.
The Beast was waiting for them in the room of trinkets on the fourth floor with a couple of backpacks and all his usual evening energy and joviality returned. He seemed quite pleased at the prospect of getting rid of more of the useless valuables in this room, and pointed out which remaining pieces he thought would fetch the best prices with an enthusiasm that made Quatre laugh. He didn’t seem to have the most accurate concept of market value, but, if he’d been trapped in this palace for two centuries, that was only to be expected.
“You’ll have to go on foot, of course,” he told them while they gathered things up as they had that first day and, as then, stuffed their bags impossibly full. “But a couple of roses will get you there faster than horses anyway.”
“Oh, but you don’t need to be hurting yourself just so we can travel faster!”
The Beast waved away Quatre’s objections. “It’ll hurt worse the longer you’re gone, so the faster you can go, the better.”
Quatre didn’t know how seriously to take the Beast’s warning about their absence killing him, but decided that caution was definitely the better side on which to err. “How long, do you think… How long is safe for us to be gone?”
“I don’t know,” said the Beast thoughtfully. “I want you to have a good long time with your family, but… I don’t know. Ask me again in the morning. You can’t leave ’til after the sun comes up, of course.”
Having just put his back to the Beast in the process of gathering objects, Quatre felt it safe to frown at the words. If the Beast had thought they might want to leave immediately, tonight, he must really believe they hated it here — and Quatre had no idea how to reassure him beyond what had already been said. He was also a little concerned that the Beast might not actually believe the promise he’d given. He’d sounded sincere enough when he’d admitted that Quatre didn’t seem to be lying… perhaps, rather than deliberately lying, he simply thought Quatre incapable of keeping his promise. He feared, maybe, that Quatre would forget about him, or would be detained somehow. Which made Quatre wonder…
“How will we find our way back here?” This question had the double function of soliciting its answer and offering further reassurance that they would, in fact, come back. “We didn’t see the way we took before clearly.”
The Beast was snuffling around the shelves himself now, and answered over his shoulder, “You were probably lost. People only tend to find this place when they are. But the roses will guide you, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding it again.”
Quatre restrained himself from wondering what other people had found their way to the palace and what had transpired then. Had any of them picked roses? Had the Beast killed any of them? Or had any lived out lonely lives here with him sometime during his two-hundred-year stay? Were two of them still here, sleeping in the courtyards? But Quatre did not ask any of this, and after a few moments even managed to push it from his thoughts.
“All right,” he said instead.
And the Beast, whether feeling the need to change the subject or legitimately interested, returned to the topic of Quatre’s sisters. “Etienette is nineteen years old, isn’t she? She’s the one I think you said always tried to explain to your other sisters over and over why you weren’t rich anymore.”
“She’ll be twenty by now, but that’s right,” Quatre agreed. “She feels very responsible for our other sisters.”
“And Olivie is eighteen — nineteen — and she likes to paint. And Tabithe is… younger than that… seventeen? Eighteen? And she’s the vain one, right?”
“But surprisingly willing to clean house all day without complaining,” Trowa put in in defense of Quatre’s third sister.
Quatre laughed a little, but behind his amusement he could already feel building an almost giddy excitement to see his sisters again. It wasn’t that he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed them during this last year; it was just that he hadn’t fully appreciated it until being given the opportunity to visit.
“And then the fourth one is Aubori,” the Beast went on, “and she’s… we’ll say seventeen… and she loves the cows, right? So she didn’t mind moving to that little town so much.”
From where he was trying to decide how best to pack a complicated-looking necklace so it wouldn’t get tangled and ruined amidst all the other things in the overstuffed backpack, Quatre nodded.
“And Amarante, who is probably sixteen, is…” Every time the Beast scratched his hairy face with a catlike claw, Quatre had to wonder how it was he didn’t cut himself. “I can’t remember a damned thing about Amarante,” the Beast finished, sounding disappointed in himself.
Quatre laughed. “She likes to make jokes,” he said. “She read a book once that described a woman as a ‘sorceress with the quick tongue,’ and she’s been trying to get someone to describe her that way ever since.”
“She isn’t funny,” Trowa put in, so quietly as to be almost inaudible. This only made Quatre laugh again.
“You should be supportive of aspiring entertainers!” the Beast chided.
Quatre winced even as he continued chuckling. “I can only imagine what my father would think if any of his daughters became entertainers.”
The Beast turned to give him a puzzled look, and Trowa had to explain: “It’s a class thing.”
“Yes,” Quatre admitted somewhat abashedly. “There are some parts of being nobility he’s… we’ve never been able to let go of, even if we were just noble dairy-hands.”
The Beast looked from Quatre to Trowa for some reason, then nodded his great head. “I see.” He made a growling throat-clearing noise, and went on. “All right, so… Rynette is probably fifteen…”
“Fourteen,” Quatre corrected.
“Fourteen… and… she’s scared of bugs, right? Especially spiders? I know that’s right, because I remember you said when you were younger you used to call her ‘Scarynette.'”
Quatre winced again, this time just because his younger self had been so inelegant (not to mention the fact that he’d ever told the Beast that idiotic piece of family history).
“And then Emiliane,” the Beast went on in a grinning sort of tone — “and I give up trying to remember their ages — is the one who loves music, like you do. You two used to play together, didn’t you?”
Again Quatre nodded, this time rather sadly. He had been somewhat rusty on his instruments when he’d come to this palace, but had been able to recover fairly quickly; whereas twelve-year-old Emiliane was at a stage in her musicality where she needed much more frequent practice than she’d ever been able to get in borrowed sessions on the few instruments in Beaulea (none of which belonged to the Winner family)… and yet Quatre, not Emili, was the one that had been able to practice constantly over the last year.
“Olalle is the one you said always has energy even if she’s been up all night. Merci is the one who cooks. Madelein always wants to hug you, sometimes at really inconvenient moments. And Elyssine… she’s the youngest… what have you told me about her… Didn’t you say she’s a little spoiled, even in the small town? But nobody seems to mind?”
Smiling, Quatre confirmed this. “And well done!” he added. “I doubt I could have remembered all those things after only hearing them a couple of times over the course of a year…”
The Beast shrugged slightly. “They sound like a lot of fun.” Almost as if to himself he added, “I wish I could meet them.”
What could Quatre say to this? “I’m sure they’d like you too?” “I’m sure someday you will?” Additionally, he thought the Beast’s somewhat bitter-sounding statement had more behind it than just the surface meaning of the words.
It was Trowa that spoke. Evidently he too had sensed the Beast’s half-hidden agitation, for bluntly he said, “Stop worrying about being alone here again. We will come back.”
The Beast turned to give Trowa a long, inscrutable look, which Trowa returned with equal facility. Quatre thought, in fact, that the Beast only won the long, inscrutable look contest because of his inhuman facial structure. Finally he said, “Thanks. I’ll try not to worry.” And though the casualness of his tone sounded markedly forced, simultaneously he seemed happier, less agitated.
For some time after this they continued packing things up in a silence that was increasingly tense and awkward. When Quatre judged the backpacks to be about four-fifths full (though with magical bags, who could really tell?), he ceased his picking-over of the room’s shelves, which were finally beginning to look a little sparse, and turned toward the Beast. His plan had been to ask whether his host intended to go jump around outside or something and whether he wanted company, but he found himself unexpectedly dismissed before he could even ask the question.
“If you think that’s enough, just leave those backpacks here for now. You guys should head to bed; you need to get plenty of rest for tomorrow.”
Quatre wondered for a moment whether or not he should protest, insist on staying with the Beast a little longer. Would that help convince him that Quatre and Trowa honestly enjoyed his company, or would it just impose on him when he wanted to be alone?
Trowa’s interpretation (not much to Quatre’s surprise) was the latter; he put a firm hand on Quatre’s arm as if expecting resistance, and said to the Beast, “You’re right. We’ll go.”
The Beast did not move as Trowa drew Quatre away; evidently this was to be their final sight of him tonight. “Goodnight!” Quatre called over his shoulder, wishing he could say something more, something reassuring, but having no idea what might fulfill that purpose.
“Night,” the Beast nodded, barely looking over toward them. The last Quatre saw of him was his little eyes abstractedly scanning the shelves and the objects that remained thereupon while he shifted slowly from one taloned foot to the other in almost absent agitation.
“Duo, calm down.” Heero’s tone and the look on his face indicated that he was only making this admonishment as a matter of form, and didn’t really care whether or not Duo obeyed.
“You know, I tried,” Duo admitted from the other end of the front room, “and it is just not working.” He spun around, arms outstretched, his cloak twisting around him and his excited breaths showing as swiftly-dissipating mist on the winter air. “This is still the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen!”
Heero, in the doorway between this room (the first of three) and the second (which would be their bedroom), smiled. “I’m glad it makes you happy,” he said. “But we’re supposed to be deciding what furniture we need, remember?”
Ceasing his spinning, “Well, how about a bed,” Duo suggested suggestively.
“Yes,” replied Heero with infinite patience. “You’ve said that a few times already. It’s first on the list, I promise. But for this room…?”
Duo attempted to be serious for a moment. In their beautiful new home, however, where they would officially be living as soon as Heero had the aforementioned bed finished, it was difficult to be anything but giddy. So just at first, “Um… chairs…?” was the best Duo could come up with.
Heero chuckled. “Chairs. All right. And a writing table for you, maybe? To write letters at?”
“Oh, that’s a perfect idea!” Duo could picture it suddenly, and it made the empty, sawdust-scented room even lovelier. “It can go right here, so it won’t get in the way of the windows.”
Heero nodded, looking around with a calculating eye. “You’ll need a chair for that. I think you’re right about a couple more, comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace.”
Imagining lounging in front of a fire with Heero every evening for the rest of the winter, Duo said, “Mmmmm…” That he himself had carried stones to assist in constructing the fireplace made it even nicer to think about.
Heero smiled again. “It’s going to be awfully barren in here, though. At least for a while.”
“I don’t think I’ll notice,” replied Duo, still with the previous delightful image in mind. And he bounded across the freshly-smoothed dirt floor to attack Heero with a capricious embrace. Heero allowed this without any further reference, at the moment, to what they were supposed to be here for, and a long, pleasant interval followed before they returned to the topic of furnishing and decoration.
It was actually Duo that brought them back to it with the remark, “Curtains will add some color. I don’t really have any idea of how curtains work, but I’m sure we can get somebody to show us.”
“I think I may be able to figure out curtains,” Heero assured him with facetious gravity.
Duo sobered a bit as he went on. “My mother has some old ones in a closet that she says we can have. They’re probably faded and half worn-out and smell like mothballs, and I’m pretty sure she’s only been storing them because she hates the color, so they may be ugly as Hell… but they’re free…”
“That’s very kind of her,” Heero observed, his perfect neutrality of face and voice undoubtedly in response to Duo’s incongruous seriousness in bringing up curtains.
Duo frowned slightly as he considered the rest of the conversation with his mother.
“What?” Heero wondered. “Was she preaching at you again?” When Duo didn’t immediately answer, he went on, teasing mildly, “She is a preacher, after all.”
“No, she wasn’t… well, yes, she was, but I don’t know if she meant… I mean, it wasn’t… well, technically it was…” Duo decided to start over. “What she said was — and this was in a way as if she was just making an observation, not as if it had to do with anything — she said, ‘You know, God has allowed us to face so many trials in this world, and so much suffering… I don’t think He meant for love to be another trial, or for someone who loves someone else to suffer because of it.’ And then she mentioned the curtains.”
Now Heero too looked pensive. “That seems… pretty blatant.”
“Doesn’t it?” Duo still didn’t quite know what to make of it — or, rather, wasn’t sure he dared accept what most of his brain was telling him he did make of it.
“Heero and Duo: Duo’s-mother-approved?” Heero suggested.
“Well… yeah, it kinda seems that way.”
“I think…” Heero took a few absent steps, looking pensively around the empty room. “Maybe we’ve been reacting to disapproval that was never there. Maybe we’ve been creating this aloneness that didn’t really exist.”
“You say that,” Duo teased, “but I’m pretty damned sure you like your aloneness.”
Not bothering to deny this, Heero said instead, “In any case, your mother’s approval means a lot to me.”
“Because you think God may be all right with this after all?” Duo thought he did fairly well keeping the sarcasm out of his voice.
Heero heard it anyway, and his tone turned wry. “I’m not going to pretend that isn’t part of it. But it’s also because…” He shrugged a little, his back still to Duo as if embarrassed to meet his eyes just at the moment. “Well, because you love her. I don’t know her very well, but she’s your mother. That makes her important to me too. So of course I’d prefer to have her approval.”
Duo moved forward to join Heero again, reached out for his hand, and squeezed it. “You feel a lot better about this now, don’t you.”
Heero seemed reluctant to agree, but agree he did.
Laying his head on Heero’s shoulder, Duo tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry about it. You thought it was weird that I took validation from the yara, and I think it’s weird that you take it from someone’s supposed Godly authority. But the point is, we’re both happy, so it doesn’t really matter.”
“You’re right,” Heero said.
“I usually am,” replied Duo loftily.
Heero’s pensive smile widened into a grin as he rolled his eyes. “Let’s go decide what we want in the kitchen,” he said.
The room was still dark when Quatre awoke, but full of that thin, grey pre-dawn sensation that told him it wasn’t too early to get up. When he pulled back one of the bed-curtains, all he could see for a moment was the faintest glow out the window, but presently the candles came obligingly — and, he thought, somewhat groggily — to life.
Despite the Beast’s advice about getting plenty of rest in preparation for today, Quatre’s sleep the night before had been neither plentiful nor steady. He’d talked to Trowa on and off for half the night; he’d felt bad about it, and still did despite Trowa’s reassurance that he wouldn’t be sleeping anyway either (which he’d probably made simply to keep Quatre from feeling bad).
He rethought this assessment, however, as Trowa sat up in the pale candlelight. He obviously hadn’t been asleep, and had the look that only appeared on his face after one of the bad nights that were holdovers from his illness. The sight rendered Quatre no less sympathetic, but did serve to decrease his guilt.
“What bad timing,” he said, looking pityingly at the dark smudges under Trowa’s eyes.
Trowa, obviously understanding what he was referring to, pointed out with a slight smile, “I don’t think you slept any more than I did, though.”
“I was too excited,” Quatre admitted. “And there’s no way I’ll be able to get back to sleep now, so I might as well get up and have a long bath.”
Trowa closed his bleary eyes and nodded through a yawn.
“We should probably pack some clothes, too, now that I think about it. Even if they’ve kept our things all this past year, that’s… not much…”
“And we’ve gotten accustomed again to wearing a different set of clothes every day,” Trowa agreed wryly.
Reflecting on how easy it was to take such a luxury for granted, Quatre murmured, “I wonder how they’re doing…”
“We should find out later today.”
“You’re right!” Quatre scrambled from the bed with more energy than he would have expected of himself at this point. “Breakfast in an hour?” That would still probably be earlier than they usually ate.
“All right,” Trowa said.
The plan to take a long bath seemed destined for the same fate as the plan to get plenty of rest, but at least in the bath there were no strangely detailed dreams Quatre still couldn’t quite remember afterward, and he could force himself to get cleaned up and thus fulfill the bath’s purpose better than he’d managed to take advantage of his broken sleep. Still, as bathing did technically amount to little more than sitting around, and Quatre had almost no patience for such an activity today, he was out of the marble bathtub and drying himself with one of the big, thick, burgundy towels sooner than he’d anticipated.
He had to give more consideration than his impatience would have preferred to what he should wear. No matter how his family was doing, it couldn’t possibly compare to the magical riches here, and Quatre didn’t think he would feel terribly comfortable showing up dressed like a prince. But whether the aforementioned magic wasn’t eager to abet his even temporary escape from his sworn prison or whether in his excitement to get home he wasn’t wishing specifically enough, it took him four or five instances of closing and reopening his wardrobe before he found anything in it that seemed appropriate to visit his family in. Despite this delay, however, he was still well within the promised hour when he knocked gently on Trowa’s door.
Assuming from the lack of any answer that Trowa was still busy with his own bath, Quatre made free to enter and move through the room into the parlor. However, he found Trowa there, damp-haired and dressed, looking out the window in what seemed a very pensive silence. Quatre noticed that he too had chosen the plainest clothing he could find — though, Trowa being Trowa, this wasn’t a significant decrease in finery — and was pleased (though not surprised) that the same thoughtful consideration had occurred to Trowa.
The latter turned from the window and gave Quatre one of his rare spontaneous smiles. He still looked tired, but not unhappy. Of course he too was pleased at this opportunity to visit a family Quatre knew he was very attached to.
They’d barely taken their breakfast seats and begun pulling lids off dishes when there came a knock at the door. By now this sound, intense from the strength of the great arm behind it but somewhat muffled by the fur on the hand, was completely familiar, and Quatre called, “Come in, Beast,” without concern.
The Beast appeared placid enough, as he always did in the morning, but also recognizably discontented. Evidently their reassurances last night hadn’t been enough. This was dismaying, but Quatre honestly couldn’t think of anything more to offer to correct it. But the Beast said nothing about their impending departure; he just settled into the corner he always occupied when he joined them at breakfast, and talked about something else. His conversation seemed a bit forced, and Quatre wondered at first why he was even here; but he hypothesized after not too long, somewhat sadly, that the Beast was simply trying to enjoy their company as much as he could while they were still around.
When they’d finished eating, however, the subject could no longer be avoided, and was, in fact, brought up by the Beast himself: “I expect you two want to leave right away.”
“Yes,” said Quatre a little apologetically. “As soon as we’ve packed a few things.” He hesitated a moment, then asked, “Do you have any idea, today, about how long it’s safe for us to be gone?”
The Beast looked thoughtful. “It took me two years here to start wishing I could die. That was approximately eight percent of my life prior to this place. If we assume we’re working with that same eight percent, you two have about a month.
Quatre laughed weakly. “You’ve got to stop reading those mathematical books.”
“Meet me down by the front fountain when you’re ready,” was the Beast’s parting remark.
Unsurprisingly, the backpacks the Beast or the palace had provided yesterday were waiting in their rooms when they looked, and, also unsurprisingly, there was space inside for whatever else Quatre and Trowa felt the need to put into them. And their wardrobes, apparently having gotten the message, provided them with clothes similar to the ones they were wearing without a rigmarole of opening and closing of doors.
Quatre’s bag was unmovable, but, remembering how things had gone a year ago, he trusted this would not be a problem. He merely loaded up enough garments for a week or so atop the previous rich contents, closed and fastened the flap, and left it where he’d found it. Then the last thing he sought before leaving the room was a hooded cloak, since just the briefest glance out the window told him that even if it wasn’t raining yet, it would be after not too long. And by this time Trowa — who, of course, had finished packing before Quatre — had joined him, so they headed down toward the palace entry together.
The Beast awaited them beside the fountain in the wet pre-rain air, staring out at the grounds so motionlessly that he might have passed for marble as well if it hadn’t been for the color and texture of the dark hair that covered him. He looked weary. By this time Quatre had reached the conclusion — though he’d never had it specifically confirmed — that the Beast didn’t sleep at all, but had his energy sustained by the magic of the palace… and he couldn’t remember ever having seen him so tired, so drained, so… hopeless. Presumably it was because the humans were leaving: the Beast still didn’t believe that they would come back, that everything would be all right. It almost made Quatre rethink the entire plan; if there hadn’t been much-beloved and greatly-missed family members involved, he certainly would have.
As they approached, the Beast turned slowly to look at them; Quatre’s expression must have given away some of what was going through his head, for the Beast seemed to take immediate pains to appear less doleful himself. “It will be good for you to see your family again,” he said at once. “Hopefully they’re doing well.”
“Beast…” Quatre began, though what he would follow it with he hadn’t the faintest idea.
But the Beast didn’t give him a chance to think of anything; he turned away from them and said, “Come with me.” And, dropping to all fours, he began his dangerously fast loping run away from the palace along the lane. Quatre and Trowa had no choice but to follow.
They’d been down to the gate frequently enough during their time here that the mere location was nothing strange; but adding to that the presence of the Beast and the rainy weather gave Quatre a surreal feeling, as if no time at all had passed and yet everything had changed. And how everything had changed…
Their backpacks were waiting, propped against each other on the gravel, beside the gate-arch, and the Beast was already reaching into the hedge in search of roses as the humans caught him up. Quatre winced as the snapping off of the first flower opened a red line right across the Beast’s temple, but there was no protesting now. He just stood still as the Beast’s great bulk moved in front of him and hairy, clumsy hands painstakingly threaded the stem of a rose through his top few buttonholes.
Quatre had been planning on saying something, but as the Beast’s hands withdrew, he found himself overcome by the most unusual and interesting sensations, which distracted him even from watching the Beast find a rose for Trowa. He felt light, suddenly, as if the pull of the earth had no more effect on him; nothing could keep him down or hold him back. He felt energized, too, as if he could run forever without tiring — and he wanted to. His concern for the poor Beast hadn’t diminished, but his desire to set off had abruptly become overwhelming.
When he finally did look again, he found the rose process finished for Trowa as well. Judging by the thoughtful and somewhat surprised expression on Trowa’s face, the latter was experiencing the same rush of energy Quatre was.
The Beast had stood back after giving Trowa his rose, and after watching them both for a moment nodded his great head. “You should be able to carry those backpacks now.”
Impetuously Quatre ran to him and, as he had last night, flung his arms around as much of the Beast as he could, careful not to touch the two new wounds but otherwise moving with abandon. Unlike last night, the Beast, after a moment’s hesitation, returned the embrace. Indeed, this was unlike any time previous; Quatre had hugged him on a few occasions over the past year, and never before had the Beast hugged him back. Feeling the crushing strength in the hairy arms, Quatre thought that perhaps he hadn’t safely been able to without the influence of the magical rose.
“Thank you,” Quatre said. “We’ll see you in a month.” He could feel the Beast’s head shifting in a nod against him, and finally moved away from him.
Trowa had already hefted one of the backpacks easily onto his shoulders and put his cloak over it. This was a good thought, and probably not one that would have occurred to Quatre until inconveniently late; it had been so long since he’d needed to worry about travel gear and the weather… As he moved to make a similar arrangement, finding as he did so that the backpack now seemed to be of negligible weight, the Beast gave his final instructions.
“Take those off and put them where you want them before you take the roses off. Put the roses in water. Try not to let anyone else touch them. They should last the month.”
Quatre thanked him again. Then followed what might have been a moment of awkwardness but for the overwhelming energy and impatience provided (or at least heightened) by the roses. So instead of dithering and hesitating, Quatre just smiled and said, “Goodbye.” He did repeat, though, “See you in a month!”
“Goodbye,” the Beast echoed, his previously-emotionless tone now holding a distinct touch of forlornness.
“Goodbye,” was also Trowa’s last word before the humans turned toward the gate and stepped forward with their new alacrity.
Quatre had thought it would be interesting to travel the forest again after a year and with such a new perspective… but, though their journey was indeed full of interest, the forest was not the cause, for it passed in a positive blur. The lightness he’d already been feeling under the rose’s influence seemed only to increase as he walked, and, though the latter motion seemed no different than usual — pick up one foot and move it forward, then the other — he felt as if he was racing, skimming over the dirt road at impossible speed. The cool, wet air rushed across his face and through his hair as if a strong wind were blowing, but it didn’t bother him; and when the rain started, it seemed to be having less effect on him than usual, as if he were moving too quickly for the greater number of drops to hit.
Once they passed a horse and wagon making a plodding way through the forest to some mundane destination; it seemed not simply to be standing still, but actually immovable, as if it were a statue destined to take up half the road and be circumnavigated by travelers for all time. The driver, little more than a smudge of color as Quatre and Trowa picked their way around the equipage, showed no sign whatsoever that he noticed anyone nearby.
Quatre had thought that he and Trowa would talk as they went, but the wonder of this mode of travel was so great that neither of them said a thing until after an hour of steady walking when they paused for a brief rest. Then, “This is amazing,” Quatre commented as the forest came back into focus around them. If he shifted even slightly, it blurred again until he stilled.
“It is,” Trowa agreed with unusual emphasis.
Quatre was gazing around, attempting to get a clear idea of their surroundings; it was at first a little difficult when the very drawing of a breath obscured everything, but after a while he found that if he moved a certain way, he could slow himself to a normal pace and see things the way they were. There was a trick to it, and it took some practice to get right, but forcing himself to move slowly was almost as interesting as the inherent quickness of wearing the roses. “I wonder how far we’ve come,” he commented as he worked at this. It occurred to him suddenly that he hadn’t given a single thought to their direction this entire time. But it was only with mild concern that he added, “I hope we’ve come the right way…”
“I’m sure we have.” Trowa sounded entirely unworried on that score. “The Beast said the roses would guide us.”
“The Beast…” Quatre repeated a little sadly.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Trowa didn’t sound nearly as unworried on this score — and, coming from Trowa, that was fairly significant.
When they started again, Quatre’s next thought was that he couldn’t really be sure of how long they’d actually been on the road. He couldn’t trust his impressions while they were walking, and the combination of trees and clouds made it difficult to gauge by the sun how much time had passed. Not knowing where they were, how they’d gotten there, how long they’d been on the move, how long it would be before they reached their destination, or even how they were to do so, combined with the constant rushing of air and the feeling of skimming along and the vague forest around him, put him into an almost trance-like state from which he did not emerge until Trowa laid a hand on his shoulder to stop him moving.
At the sight of Trowa’s gesture ahead of them, Quatre finally looked with eyes that saw. How Trowa had noticed the thinning of the trees when Quatre hadn’t, he didn’t bother to ask; he just peered forward through a mist of rain to where, in the distance past the end of the forest and across a hazy expanse of flat land, a familiar town was visible.
This chapter’s picture is my other absolute favorite Rose Pale image. Fortunately, when I only have to draw part of the Beast, workable references are waayyy easier to find.