Beaulea had not changed since they’d left it the previous spring. Actually, it was a little shocking just how much had not changed over the course of twelve months. The same horses were hitched to the same wagons being driven by the same rough-clad farmers; the same merchants were displaying the same wares outside the same shoddy storefronts, which were still hung with the same strips of color in an attempt to give an illusion of class or at least prosperity. Looking at all of it with eyes a year older, Trowa could not but feel all the time that had gone, which made the impression that nothing had changed all the more uncanny.

He’d heard stories of places where time did not pass, or at least did not pass normally; how odd it would be if, upon reaching the Winners’ house, they found that here it was still only what they would consider last spring, and that they were arriving just in time to be expected back from their trip to Silbreaker. He did not at all think this likely, since the Beast would have told them if it were the case, but it was an interesting thought.

They attracted a good deal of attention once, having slowed to a normal pace, they walked through the streets of the little town; but either nobody recognized them in their fine clothes after a year, or nobody had the courage or energy to approach or greet them. That was why they weren’t aware of the first change they encountered until they encountered it.

Rooms to let?” Quatre read in surprise from the sign on the door of what at least had been his family’s house.

Hearing the touch of dismay in his master’s voice, Trowa calmly reminded, “We knew they might have moved. If they’re doing any better, they’ll certainly have wanted to.”

“You’re right.” Quatre shook himself and smiled a little. “At least whoever’s here now should be able to tell us.” And he knocked on the door.

The answer came in the form of an elderly man whose face looked vaguely familiar and whose clothes, to eyes accustomed to a secluded world of finery, almost startlingly plain and rough — though in actuality they were better than what Trowa and Quatre had been wearing when they’d found their way to the Beast’s palace.

“Good afternoon, sirs!” The old man was evidently and very understandably surprised at the sight of them. Even should a fine gentleman be in need of a room in a place like this, it was unlikely he would come to inquire about it himself; in the clothes they’d chosen today, Trowa and Quatre might have passed for servants of an incredibly rich, possibly even royal master… but that such a master should need such an errand performed at all was beyond belief. “How can I…” The man trailed off as his eyes seemed to focus more specifically on Quatre’s face. “Aren’t you Lord Winner’s oldest?”

Clearly a bit startled at this, Quatre blinked. His father, ashamed of his fall and feeling himself without the energy to maintain the dignity of a baron in his new poverty, had previously kept quiet about the fact that he and his family were nobility. If townspeople were referring to him now by his correct title, that was a more significant change than just having moved house.

It didn’t matter what it meant, though, nor that Quatre was startled by it; the old man went right on without waiting for confirmation. “Yeah, it’s Quatre, isn’t it? The one who’s been off making a fortune somewhere! You have the same hair as most of your sisters, but still I almost didn’t recognize you, you look so fine! Look at you dressed in the latest cut! I shouldn’t be surprised, though, after all the help you sent your family; I should have known you must be doing well!”

“Yes!” Quatre managed at last. Trowa thought it wasn’t just the old man’s loquacity that had taken him somewhat aback, but the mere fact that he was talking to another human besides Trowa for the first time in a year. “Yes,” Quatre hastened on, forestalling any further comment, “we’ve been doing quite well. I’m glad my family got those things we sent. Can you direct us to where they’re staying now?”

The old man tsked. “Didn’t even give you directions to the new house, did they?”

“They didn’t know we were coming.”

Trowa couldn’t help but appreciate the consistently plural pronouns.

“A surprise visit, eh?” The old man grinned. “Won’t they be glad to see you! And I’m sure you’ll be glad to see how well they all are! You must have been anxious to come see them all this time; it really was a shame you couldn’t make it to any of the weddings.”

Surprise at this last word was not limited to Quatre, though Trowa managed not to emulate his master’s stiffening and drawing in of a quick breath. Despite the awareness that four or five of the Winner girls were of marriageable age and that the greater prosperity hopefully conferred by the Beast’s gifts must have granted them more leisure to socialize, the idea that any of Quatre’s sisters might have married during their brother’s absence was not just disconcerting — it was downright shocking.

Misinterpreting Quatre’s reaction, the old man said hastily, “I mean that sincerely; I’m not trying to criticize! I’m sure you’d have come if you could! Heaven knows I know about the demands of business on a body!”

Quatre shook his head; Trowa guessed it was as much to shake off the surprise as to reassure the old man. “No, I… I just wish I could have been here.”

Perhaps in response to the regret in Quatre’s tone, the old man finally gave them the information they needed. “Do you remember the big old place on the other side of Camilo’s land? The one that rich couple lived in for years and years before they died? I suppose that was before your time, but you probably remember a few others in and out of the house temporarily over the last few years. It turned out too big for most of them, but just right for your family!”

“I remember,” Quatre confirmed. Trowa could tell he was already thinking back to everything he knew about it, trying to call up details that could help him decide how fitting an abode it was for his loved ones and what the choice of it said about their level of prosperity.

“Good. The quickest way out there is just to keep on down this road until you hit the lane that leads out to that and Maronstead and those little places in Becheurwood (unless you want to cut across Camilo’s land). Then it’ll be on your left; it’s the first turn-off.”

Trowa had a feeling they did want to cut across Camilo’s land, but neither of them said as much to the old man for fear of prolonging the conversation further. This impetus was doubtless also what led Quatre not to wonder what the old man meant as he appended to his goodbye, “Tell your father I’ll have the rents over at the usual time! I’d send them with you, but I didn’t know anyone would be by who was on their way out there, so I don’t have everything in order yet!”

Once Quatre had made his own grateful goodbye and they’d set off again down the road toward the edge of town and the farmlands beyond, Trowa spoke for the first time in a long while. “If they took the house just past Camilo’s lands, they’re probably still working for him.”

“If they’re working at all.” Quatre added after a moment, “Camilo was always a good employer; it would make sense for them still to be working for him.” His tone held a sound of deliberation that led Trowa to believe he was specifically discussing this in order not to have to discuss the weddings they’d heard mentioned — a topic on which speculation was fruitless.

The conversation didn’t last long in any event, for the very moment they were out of anyone’s sight just beyond the edge of town, they let their impatience get the better of them and resumed their magical pace. Off the road, over a sturdy fence, into and across a cow-filled pasture that would have been very familiar if they hadn’t been moving so quickly as to make it no more than a cow-filled blur, around a huge barn and a couple of sheds, across another field and over an irrigation ditch (twice) and another fence they hastened with rose-quickened steps. In the lane beyond, shaded by tall old trees, they paused, looking around for the turn-off toward the house they wanted.

The latter was a place Trowa had seen only once or twice during the years he’d lived in Beaulea. He’d spent much of his time working just across the lane, it was true, but there had never been any real reason to visit a house that was either shut up or let out to someone he didn’t know. Quatre, he thought, couldn’t have seen the place much more often, so it was unlikely either of them would be surprised at any changes it had undergone since the time of their vague memories.

And so it proved. The big, comfortable-looking house they approached through a continual, pleasant shade of trees, with its welcoming face that had obviously had fresh paint applied and repairs made to its structure sometime within the last year, did not much resemble the rather more dilapidated, partially boarded-up, and decidedly lonely-looking empty residence of Trowa’s memory, but this lack of complete resemblance caused no dissonance in his thoughts, nor, apparently, in Quatre’s.

Not that there was time for mental dissonance, or even a terribly detailed examination of the house. For as they approached the building and almost before Trowa had even noticed the motion off to one of its sides, there was a shriek from that direction and a sudden flurry of skirts and pounding legs, and the air was abruptly filled with shrill variations on, “Quatre! Quatre! Quatre!”

Olalle and Merci reached them first and nearly simultaneously, almost knocking Quatre over with the enthusiasm of their very physical greeting; his balance was further threatened when Madelein and Elyssine caught up and joined in clinging to him. Half-buried in sisters that were all attempting to talk to him at once and that seemed disinclined to let go, Quatre was laughing and crying and attempting futilely to hug all of them — whereas Trowa, unencumbered, had more leisure to look at the girls.

The clothing they wore, though still plain and simple, was of much better quality than anything Trowa had seen them in for several years; and they looked healthier, and, what was more, a good deal happier than when he’d taken his leave of them.

Of course at the moment they were expressing a great, sudden joy, and must necessarily appear happy — but in the past, when they’d been poorly-clad, often hungry, and overworked even at their young ages, whatever momentary happiness they’d ever happened to feel had always seemed not only like a painfully inevitable aberration but also difficult if not impossible to express or maintain. Its being otherwise now was a sight that did create a striking contrast with what Trowa remembered — a wonderful, satisfying contrast that brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t help thinking that it must please the Beast too when he eventually heard what a difference in their lives his presents to the Winner family had made.

The four girls, still a tangle of limbs surrounding Quatre, were mostly talking at once. In addition to Elyssine asking if Quatre had brought more presents and Merci wondering whether he was staying for supper and Olalle (louder than all the rest put together) demanding where he’d been and why it had taken so long for him to visit, they seemed to be attempting to give him all the last twelve months’ worth of news in the span of five minutes.

Though uncertain how much Quatre managed to pick up when he was in the middle of this, from outside of it Trowa was able to determine (among a good deal of town-related gossip that he cared about a good deal less) that the family was now in possession of a whole cow of its very own; that it was Etienette, Tabithe, and Aubori that had married during the last year; that one room in the new house was designated by most of them ‘the if-Quatre-comes-back room’ (though some would insist on calling it ‘the guest room’); and that Olivie’s friend Masette and Tabithe and her husband Essue and Lord Winner’s friend Roldeen and a real, honest-to-goodness servant named Vidal all lived with them now, and nearly everyone had a room of their own since Etienette and Aubori moved out because the house was so big but father shared with Roldeen and Olivie and Masette shared because they wanted to and of course Tabithe and Essue shared (giggle) and Madelein and Elyssine were still stuck together but if Olivie would ever just get married (assuming Masette went with her) or somebody else would leave, one of them could have that room but even having to share wasn’t so bad because the new house was so much nicer than the old one.

A little concerned that Quatre’s homecoming might be somewhat soured by the news about the friend of Lord Winner’s that had been so instrumental in bringing about the family’s fall, Trowa turned his eyes away from the girls and back to his master’s face. He needn’t have worried, though: Quatre, looking nothing short of overjoyed, was still laughing at the overflow of information with tears running down his glowing face. He’d gone from trying to return the embraces of his sisters to protecting from their exuberance the rose he wore. When he caught Trowa’s eye he grinned, and Trowa, loving the happiness in his expression, had to smile in return.

Then he glanced down in some surprise at the feeling of small arms slipping around him. He found Madelein looking up at him with big eyes the same color as Quatre’s, her little round face framed by similarly bright blonde hair. “Hello, Trowa,” she said.

“Hello,” he replied.

Evidently the others heard him (somehow), and soon it was his turn to be attacked and bombarded. Guarding the rose on his chest just as Quatre had done, he enjoyed nearly as much as Quatre had the greetings and interested questions of the girls he looked upon almost as sisters. And though he probably wasn’t quite as deeply attached to them, he was undoubtedly more touched by their welcome and their show of affection, which he hadn’t expected — at least not to this degree.

“Where is everyone else?” Quatre had to ask this question a couple of times before anyone heard and answered him, and then everyone did. The chaotic response managed to convey that father and Roldeen were inside the house, that Olivie and Amarante still worked for Camilo and would be back in time for supper, that Tabithe and Essue were trying to keep a shop afloat in town, that Rynette had taken a position with the laundress and Emiliane with the laundress’ seamstress sister, and those last four might be a little later since it was farther to walk.

These four proudly announced that they were in charge of domestic affairs, and did not at this time do other work in addition to keeping the house and laundry clean, coordinating with their father for the purchase of supplies, keeping everyone fed, and tending the garden — at least not until they were a little older. Olalle planned on working at the inn in town when that time came, whereas Merci had her eye on a spot at the bakery where Olivie’s friend Masette worked.

Here, then, was another fairly significant change that Trowa wasn’t entirely certain how he felt about, and not one he had expected. In previous years, the concept of work had never been a subject of pride or enthusiasm to these formerly-rich young ladies, whereas now they seemed pleased with their current duties and eager to take on more. It made sense for heiresses unaccustomed to a life of that sort to be discontented with hard work, especially when, during the earlier years in Beaulea, it had never been enough and must have made them feel as if they were suffering for no reason. Perhaps the ability to regulate their amount of work to a more rational level without sacrificing regular meals made the work more palatable.

It was by far the best and most practical attitude for them at this point. No matter how well-off the Beast’s gifts had made them, it obviously hadn’t been enough to raise them back out of the working class; so unless the girls happened upon the unlikely good fortune to marry gentlemen, it was improbable that they would be free of the need to work for the rest of their lives… but Trowa couldn’t help thinking it was a little sad to see the daughters of a baron brought so low as to be looking forward to a position in the local bakery. And yet he admired them for it. To have transitioned from pride in not having to work to pride in being able to work and do their share for their family, at their young ages, was remarkable; the Beast would have to hear about that too.

“I need to start cooking supper,” Merci declared in the same businesslike tone Trowa remembered from her. “Madi, come help me.”

Madi, who had detached from Trowa and gone back to hugging Quatre, shook her head vigorously.

“Go help her, Mad,” Quatre urged, laughing. “I’ll still be here. We get to stay for a whole month.”

“And then you’re leaving again?” Elyssine wondered in dismay.

At the same moment, for perhaps the twentieth time, Olalle demanded, “Where have you been?”

“You won’t believe it,” said Quatre with a grin. “But we’ll wait until everyone’s here to tell the story.”

Olalle wailed, “But it’ll take days to get Nette and Aubori over here!”

“Everyone who lives in this house,” Quatre amended. “But right now I want to see father! You said he’s inside, right?”

They moved in slow procession across the yard, Quatre still hampered by the clinging Madelein, the girls still talking all at once, and Trowa wondering what story, exactly, Quatre planned on telling everyone that lived here. He realized with some interest that the Beast never had forbidden them to mention him or his palace; he wondered what to make of that.

Inside, Trowa looked around with approval at the venerable house. It was so old that the ground rooms and corridors all appeared to have the hard earth floors of a previous era of architecture, and some of the moulding on the walls and ceilings could do with being removed entirely and replaced with something a little less decrepit; but the place was solid and spacious and not terribly run-down, nor so old that improvement wouldn’t significantly increase its overall value. The Winners had made a very sensible choice.

Now the contest to see who could greet Quatre the most enthusiastically changed to a contest to see who could inform Lord Winner first that his son had returned (with a second prize for ‘most repetitiously’). And soon Quatre was clasping his father’s hands in that warm yet restrained fashion that passed for an embrace between men of their class and always seemed atypical of the open-hearted Quatre.

Lord Winner, Trowa noted, was still walking with a cane, though he’d handed it off (almost unconsciously, it seemed) to the accompanying Roldeen when he’d caught sight of his son. His weakness, before — at least in Trowa’s estimation — had always been one of spirit, not of body, and now Trowa guessed it was simply one of habit. Whatever his state, Lord Winner was nearly as voluble about his son’s return as his daughters. The same questions about where in the world Quatre had been and what he’d been doing were interspersed with comments on his fine clothes and healthy looks and how glad his father was to see him.

The girls were dancing all around them in the fairly narrow hallway where all this was taking place, their voices joining with those of their male relatives to create a cacophony of welcome and curiosity for the returning wanderer, while Roldeen stood back holding Lord Winner’s walking stick and smiling benevolently at the entire display.

This friend of Quatre’s father had lost a considerable amount of weight since the old days, and even since Trowa and Quatre had seen him last in the immediate wake of his final financial downfall, and he had a sort of sagging look to him as a result — but, besides this, also appeared just as healthy and happy as the rest of them. Trowa was still a little concerned about what Quatre’s reaction to the man’s presence might be, but he couldn’t help being pleased at seeing an old family friend looking so well.

Next, for a second time, he was surprised and touched to find himself greeted nearly as enthusiastically as his master when Lord Winner eventually noticed him. “Trowa!” was his cry of greeting. “Good to see you, my boy! And still stuck to my son like glue; that’s good to see too. Wherever you two have been, I’m glad you each had a friend around!”

Wondering whether Quatre’s father would have the same opinion if he knew just how stuck Trowa was to his son, Trowa accepted a warm handshake of his own. Quatre, meanwhile, had been greeting Roldeen, evidently politely enough; admittedly the great kindness on both sides made it difficult for any interaction between them to be too terribly unfriendly, even if one was still bitter about the other.

“I’m going to go start supper,” Merci announced at something of a shout, and raised her voice even farther when she added, “Madi, come help me.” This time Madelein was prevented from refusing by Lord Winner’s recollection that, even in the midst of his joy, there were practical considerations to be made.

“Of course, supper,” he said. “Thank you, Merci, Madi. The others will be home soon, won’t they? Oh, they’ll be so glad to see you, Quatre! Are you boys hungry?”

“We’re always hungry for one of Merci’s suppers,” Quatre replied. Merci, who had already towed her reluctant sister halfway down the hall, giggled happily. “But what we really need,” Quatre went on, “is to get these backpacks and cloaks off. I heard something about an in-case-Quatre-comes-back room…?”

“I’ll show you!” shrieked Olalle and Elyssine almost precisely in chorus.

So, Quatre laughing and half-dragged by the two girls, their father having retrieved his walking stick, and both Trowa and Roldeen following in dutiful, amused silence, they all continued down the hallway and up an equally narrow staircase to a room at the end of another long corridor.

The furnishings of this guest room were sparse and the decoration almost entirely nonexistent, but at least the bedding didn’t appear terribly threadbare and the washstand had been painted (by Olivie, no doubt) a cheery green with a pattern of little flowers. The wardrobe appeared to have one door broken (it was wired shut), and the curtains didn’t match the bedspread, but overall, though it was a far cry from what Trowa had become accustomed to lately, it was better than the Winner’s previous home had been.

He couldn’t help musing on the interesting variance of fortune he’d experienced during his twenty-two years. He’d been born into abject poverty, whence he’d been rescued to live his formative years (as a servant notwithstanding) in the midst of opulence and luxury; from there he’d returned to miserable privation again, only to find his way to and spend a year in an enchanted palace where he had almost anything he wanted. And here he was preparing to stay in a room in a house that was neither one nor the other (though distinctly closer to the lower end) And yet none of it really mattered. With Quatre there, the poorest situation was better than bearable, and without him the finest of riches would be worthless.

“You know what we need next…” Quatre said thoughtfully as he looked around the room and then moved to shed his cloak onto the end of the bed and his backpack onto the floor beside it, “is a bowl of water we can put these roses in.”

Trowa had followed him and was mimicking his actions, and therefore was for a few moments not facing the others. He could feel through the back of his head, though, at least two intense, interested gazes lock onto the travelers in reminiscent curiosity. Then the girls again spoke almost in unison — “I’ll get one!” — and tore off.

“The horses had roses too,” Lord Winner said, sounding intrigued. “When they showed up out of nowhere in the kitchen-yard behind the house in town. Have you two been working in a rose garden?” He didn’t ask the question that must have been on his mind — that is, whether or not the roses were magical. Trowa thought that must have been something of an effort.

Quatre smiled at his father. “Not exactly. It’s all part of the story we’ll tell once everyone is home.”

“I don’t know if I can wait,” Roldeen said jovially. “I didn’t even get to see the horses, and only a few of the treasures you sent with them, but I’ve heard the stories, and I’m just dying to hear more!”

Quatre actually shot him a grin. “This story is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.” And, if he intended to tell even a fraction of the truth, that was certainly the case.

“I’m impatient too,” his father said. “Some of those things you sent were astonishing! I only hope you didn’t steal them.” His expression and tone indicated that he was teasing, but Trowa would be very surprised if the thought hadn’t seriously crossed his mind at some point. Saddle-bags impossibly full of valuables combined with Quatre’s cryptic note might lead even the most biased of recipients to believe that somehow, somewhere, some manner of banditry must have been involved.

He thought Quatre would probably have made the same point if at that moment they hadn’t all been distracted by the sound of hasty pounding feet on the stairs followed by a thump, a wail, a torrent of castigation from one sisterly voice, and defensiveness from another.

“Oh, dear,” said Roldeen in wry amusement, moving immediately to go stop Olalle from abusing Elyssine for an accident that had probably arisen from the exuberance of both. Lord Winner gave him a grateful look, and Trowa reflected on the interesting circumstance of this family friend performing such an almost parental duty; doubtless it was because Lord Winner’s weakness slowed him down a great deal. Trowa wondered just how much influence Roldeen really had over his friend’s daughters. It must have been a fair amount, for the commotion down the hall died immediately, and three sets of footsteps receded down the stairs, probably to replenish the contents of the spilled bowl.

Turning, Trowa found Quatre listening just as intently, certainly caught up by similar reflections in the interest of protecting his family from any future errors in judgment like the ones Roldeen had made in the past. At the moment Quatre didn’t appear terribly worried, and thus was much better able than he might have been to pretend, when his father also turned back toward him, that he hadn’t been watching the other man with specific concern.

Quatre resumed the conversation with, “I want to hear all about what you did with those things, and how everything has gone since then!”

And, though Lord Winner still looked impatient for Quatre’s story — as who would not be? — he also didn’t seem averse to telling his own. So as they waited for the return of the others with the requested bowl of water and then got their roses settled into it; and as they tried very hard not to show or be distracted by the diminution of strength and energy resulting therefrom; and as they were led down to and seated in a comfortable, rustic parlor where Elyssine was in Quatre’s lap whenever she wasn’t bouncing up to join Olalle at the window watching for the others so as to race out and deliver the happy news at the earliest possible moment, and where Trowa and Quatre sat facing Roldeen and Lord Winner in a circling quartet of much-used chairs, the account of the Winner family fortunes unfolded.

Quatre’s message of the previous spring had been both surprising and alarming to his family, and somewhat baffling when taken in conjunction with the gifts that had very clearly at least been packed by magic. The news that Quatre couldn’t come home, with no explanation or duration given, had, in fact, been so much of a shock initially that his father hadn’t been able to bring himself to look into selling the objects in the bags.

Etienette had prodded him, at first gently and eventually rather severely, with the facts that neglecting something like this that could so improve his family’s situation would be tantamount to abuse, and that, if Quatre had sent the things for a specific purpose, it would be unthinkable not to use them for that purpose as soon as possible. So, shaken from his stupor, Lord Winner had gotten back into touch with certain old colleagues in Silbreaker and begun selling off the trinkets. Some of them had proven immensely valuable, which only increased the family’s astonishment about their mysterious delivery and Quatre’s concurrent disappearance.

Disappearance they knew by then it had been, for Lord Winner, in conducting business once more with merchants in Silbreaker, had of course contacted Roldeen, who had informed him of having seen Quatre and Trowa in town only a few days before the arrival of the horses and the news that the young men wouldn’t be returning to Beaulea.

Quatre, Trowa noticed (because he was watching for it), shifted a little in his seat at hearing how involved Roldeen had become in the ongoing sales process (a process that had apparently only recently concluded); but, probably because it was obvious that everything had gone well despite Roldeen’s part in the affair, he didn’t appear too agitated about it. As Elyssine was just vacating his lap again at that moment, Quatre was able to hide what concern he did feel fairly well.

The sale of the artifacts had allowed the Winner family to purchase a new house outright, and it had been during negotiations with the previous owner’s agent that it had become widely known throughout the area that Master Winner the infirm widower was actually Lord Winner the tragically impoverished baron. He’d been embarrassed about this, but found (not exactly to the lessening of his embarrassment) that it made him quite popular. Evidently the locals were more than a little pleased at having their own nobility, especially when the noble daughters were such good, hard-working girls that generally didn’t put on airs — and apparently the fact that the Winners had been for a while one of the poorest families in the area made them pitiable enough that the acquisition of a greater fortune was not begrudged them.

So they’d moved into the new house, and Lord Winner had decided to keep the old one as well and rent it out as a source of active income, just to be on the safe side. Roldeen had gladly accepted his friend’s invitation to abandon his poor rooms in the city for some peaceful country life. Those that were too young or too weak to be working outside the home were able to cease doing so, at least for a while. The remainder of the money from the sales was set aside for the girls’ dowries.

Trowa was impressed. Lord Winner had handled things remarkably well for a man that, having lost everything, had been for years considering (and thus rendering) himself more and more frail and miserable and ineffectual. And it was clear by now that, cane or no cane, those days were over: the Beast’s gifts to the Winner family had restored more than just their financial security. Quatre could obviously see this too, and the sparkle in his eyes above his pleased smile looked a lot like happy tears. If Trowa wasn’t careful, he would soon be crying as well.

Perhaps to stave off or hide that reaction, Quatre next inquired about the three of his sisters that had married during the year he’d been gone; but there was no time for such a discussion, as just then Olalle and Elyssine ran shrieking from the house to greet other sisters returning home from work, and soon the party expanded to include Olivie and Amarante.

Then there was again the news to be delivered that Quatre and Trowa were visiting for a month, that the full story would be told once everyone was gathered (after supper, Quatre decided, so they could sit here comfortably in the parlor), and all the last year’s updates from the newly-arrived sisters to be heard. Olivie, who’d always been the calmest of Quatre’s sisters, expressed her joy at seeing him again in certain but relatively placid terms; Amarante seemed a little more flustered than Trowa would have thought to find her even in such a situation, and didn’t make nearly as many bad jokes as he’d been expecting.

They had barely finished this batch of greeting and rejoicing when they had to start all over again upon the arrival of Rynette, Emiliane, Tabithe, Essue, and Masette. And if Trowa had thought his and Quatre’s initial entrance into the house had been noisy and chaotic, it was nothing compared to this. He didn’t mind it in the least, however. Once again, they all seemed happy to see even him, and he was pleased not only by this but also at the sight of Quatre’s pleasure in the reunion with his family.

Essue was a man Trowa barely remembered as the son of some beekeepers in the area, and as he and Tabithe talked happily about the tiny shop they’d opened up in town to deal related goods (mostly candles and honey), Trowa found himself inspecting the new husband with as critical and suspicious an eye as if the bride had actually been his blood relation. About halfway through this process, he noticed an expression on Quatre’s face that indicated he was having much the same reaction; it almost made him laugh. On the evidence thus far presented, he thought he and Quatre were both willing to grant reserved approval to this brother-in-law, more complete approbation pending further information.

Masette, Olivie’s roommate and the same age as her friend, was another only slightly familiar to Trowa; he thought her parents were farmers, but couldn’t recall anything in particular about them. She gave off an air of great reliability and solidity, though, and as such must be a welcome addition to any household. Simultaneously there was about her at times (usually when she was talking with Olivie) something of mystery, of a satisfying secret she didn’t need or intend to share with anyone. This seemed to suit the rather private Olivie very well, and Trowa wasn’t surprised that they had become as close friends as they’d seemed to in the last year.

Eventually Merci entered and announced a little impatiently that supper was ready, if anyone was interested in eating tonight, and there was a mass exodus. The dining room was gratifyingly large, given the circumstances; the long table it contained must have been one of the house’s original furnishings as it couldn’t possibly have fit through any of the doors in a single piece, had sixteen places, and looked a century old. Some of the chairs seemed as if they’d belonged in a set with it, though they were by now rather the worse for wear, and others had obviously been collected since and did not at all match. It was quite functional and very comfortable.

Evidently the beekeeping in-laws were generous, for there was a lot of honey involved in the meal, and, as far as Trowa could tell, absolutely no magic. He did think that Merci’s cooking, always acceptable, had improved in the last year, though it took a conscious effort to shift his mindset so as to be able to enjoy this rustic style of food again. It was also a bit of a shift to return to the frame of mind that could listen with equanimity to the conversation of fourteen other people at once — no, it was fifteen; the servant Vidal joined them for supper. Much as he loved this family, he’d never been terribly fond of the overly-complex conversations that arose when so many of them were together… though he wouldn’t dream of complaining, especially now.

Tonight the discussion jumped from one topic to the next and the next and yet another with dizzying rapidity and enthusiasm. Everyone wanted to tell the returned wanderers everything that had been going on in the life of everybody they knew, and their joy at seeing Quatre in particular couldn’t be expressed frequently enough. Even Trowa was drawn into the conversation far more often than he would have expected, and overall the meal was loud, long, and cheerful.

But once they’d eaten all the food on the table and the latter had been cleared and the dishes washed (a process about which there seemed to be a certain level of dispute among the four girls that were in charge of domestic affairs, but which was taken care of quickly enough), everyone retired with an air of breathless expectation and excitement to hear the much-anticipated story in the parlor.

The latter, though a fairly large room, was still a little cramped for sixteen; the smallest sisters snuggled into a mass on the rug so readily that Trowa assumed they must be quite accustomed to doing so, while the rest found places and deferred to each other in what seemed to be a well-practiced routine, until they were all watching Quatre, who stood before the fire. Knowing he wouldn’t be expected by his master to add anything to the story unless specifically questioned, Trowa leaned against the wall nearby. The wide hearth, not a third the size of many of the fireplaces at the Beast’s palace, was piled up by Vidal before he politely excused himself, and, as there were no lamps going in the room, provided the only real source of light.

“Well,” Quatre began, looking down with a smile at the pile of sisters on the rug at his feet, “who wants to hear an unbelievable story?”

They all did, of course.

“This isn’t exactly a secret,” he went on, “but I don’t think it’s a good idea to spread it around; so if you all wouldn’t mind keeping it to yourselves?”

They all agreed, of course.

“After Trowa and I left Silbreaker last year, we got lost on our way home…..”

Trowa listened admiringly as Quatre skillfully and intelligently told the tale of their discovery of the Beast’s palace and the time they’d spent there, very neatly setting it in exactly the light he wanted cast on the events. He didn’t mention where they’d gone astray, probably in the interest of protecting the location of the palace (despite the facts that, according to the Beast, it was nearly impossible to find deliberately, and that ‘in the forest’ was the obvious guess as to where they’d taken the wrong road); and he introduced the Beast in the most sympathetic possible way — “The master of the palace is under an enchantment: he’s been trapped there for two hundred years and he’s shaped like a monster,” despite the fact that they didn’t technically know all of that to be true — so as to prevent his family from too much active horror at the description of him.

There certainly was horror, though, hearing about the Beast’s physical attributes, and a measure of disbelief, as predicted; but this clearly faded into pity and intense interest as Quatre’s tale continued, especially upon hearing that the gifts that had brought the Winners out of their misery had actually come from the Beast, not Quatre. The pervading sad atmosphere of the palace, the Beast’s inability to discuss his situation, the wounds that were occasioned whenever his roses were picked and the magical requirement that he take a life for every flower stolen by a stranger, the mysteries of the sleeping men and the anonymous woman — Quatre’s family ate it all up.

Rynette winced audibly hearing about threats by scorpion tail; Olivie made a wistful sound at the description of the art room on the sixth floor, and Masette sympathetically squeezed her hand; Emiliane reacted similarly to the account of the music room, while Merci made a positively lustful sound (disturbing from a girl of her age) when she heard about the kitchen; Elyssine and Madelein were extremely interested in the account of the children’s courtyard and the sporting yard; Roldeen loved to hear about the deliciousness of the food and the prolificacy of the wine; Tabithe was fascinated by the manner in which their wardrobes supplied them with clothes of royal quality to match their tastes, while Essue just listened in wide-eyed astonishment to the entire tale; Amarante was horrified at hearing how ill Trowa had been; Olalle was supremely entertained by how the Beast often amused himself at night; and Lord Winner thought he would love to try out a telescope such as Quatre described. They were all engrossed, they all sympathized, and they all believed.

Trowa answered frankly any questions that were put to him, but he was primarily interested in watching and listening to Quatre. Though he had on some level been aware, it hadn’t properly hit him until now, now when Quatre was trying his earnest best to convey it to his family, just how much his master loved the Beast — the Beast’s fathomless kindness and understanding, his interesting and amusing ways, unpredictable though they were, the engaging mystery and pathos about him, and his own engagement in the lives of Trowa and Quatre.

The latter had always been the type to have plenty of friends wherever he went, but Trowa didn’t think he’d ever seen him this deeply attached to any of them; over the last year, the Beast had become a much more important part of Quatre’s life than the frivolous friendships of Silbreaker or the weary friendships of necessity of Beaulea. So brotherly a love could not even make Trowa jealous, especially since he felt precisely the same. And he was grateful to Quatre for painting this important friend of theirs in such a positive light to his family; he realized he would have been distinctly hurt if the Winners had expressed any negative opinions about the Beast based on incomplete or poorly-delivered information.

The story was so fantastical, and inspired so many questions that led to so much further discussion, that the conversation dragged on long past the time when Trowa guessed most of the family was usually in bed, and this only seemed to come to everyone’s attention when Madelein fell asleep and the sisters she was leaning against started squabbling about which of them was responsible for keeping her propped up.

Then there was a sort of startled scrambling to get to bed before more sleepable hours could be wasted. There were hasty but very warm goodnights, especially from Quatre’s father; reiterations of how glad everyone was at Quatre’s return echoed through the upstairs hallway where everyone was dispersing into their separate bedchambers; and after not too long Trowa found himself alone with Quatre in the guest room in what, after the last few hours, felt like an uncanny quiet.

Silently he moved to hang up their cloaks in the wardrobe while Quatre rummaged through a now-unmovable backpack for nightclothes. Then they changed with their backs to each other, and Quatre remarked quietly, “Won’t he be happy when he hears how much of a difference his gifts made?”

“He will.” Trowa followed this agreement up immediately with, “What’s wrong?” For the forlornness of Quatre’s tone would have been more at home at the lonely palace than in this cheerful house.

“I’m all right,” said Quatre. He sighed, and the sound of his weight settling onto the bed told Trowa it was safe to turn around. He found his master staring down at the clothes he held in his lap — clothes that had come that very morning from a carved ebony wardrobe in the Beast’s palace. Wordlessly Trowa reached out for them, then turned again to put them away in the faded, broken wardrobe that was what they had to work with here.

“Thank you,” murmured Quatre. And he sighed again.

When he was finished with his task, Trowa fixed a stern gaze on Quatre, and the latter smiled a little as he probably realized that he wasn’t going to get away with silence.

“I’m so happy to be here it hurts,” he said, pressing a fist to his chest. “I’m so happy to see everyone again. But I’ll be happy to go back to the Beast when this is all over, too, and tell him about all of this.” His forlorn smile grew, and he even laughed a little before adding, “I’m just selfishly wishing I could have both.”

“Not selfishly,” Trowa contradicted at once. “You’re wishing you could have both by rescuing him from that place. You know he would love the family, and you want to share this life with him, and that’s not selfish.”

Quatre grinned. “I can always count on you to say whatever will make me look better… but are you sure you’re not applying your own desires to me?”

Ignoring the interesting wording of that question, Trowa answered, “I think it’s what we both want.”

“If only we could figure out how…”

Trowa shook his head; it was no good thinking about that here.

“Yes,” said Quatre, as if Trowa had given some specific instruction, “better not to worry about that right now.” And he stood and pulled the covers back on the bed. “Let’s go to sleep. Maybe we’ll see Nette and Aubori tomorrow.” Before Trowa could move, however, he added in a lighter tone, “Oh, and can you put that lamp out? I’m too used to magical candles; I almost forgot.”

Trowa smiled a bit as he moved to comply, and then joined his master in the darkness.

Though it was nothing more than the faintest whisper of wood against wood and the click of a latch, the sound of the door closing was portentous, and both Heero and Duo turned to look as if it had spoken to them in words rather than simply making the noise it always made. In fact, Heero felt a hot tingle run up his spine at the sight and the awareness of what it meant.

That door had just closed behind them as they brought into their little house the last of their personal belongings. Which mean that, despite the fact that most of the furniture they wanted for their rooms was still nonexistent and they would be making use of a grand total of four dishes for cooking and eating for an indeterminate period of time, they were officially moved in. They were now living together.

The room was warm, since they’d lit the stone hearth’s very first fire earlier for the comings and goings of the day and tended it every time they’d returned from one of their errands, so by now it had heated their new dwelling to a delightful contrast to the snowy outside air. Heero was proud of the tight walls and corners he had worked so hard on that held in the warmth so well, and in that moment he was nearly overwhelmed not only by the sense of accomplishment that came with setting up a new home of his own, but doing so with the help of someone he loved.

He put down the crate he’d been carrying and moved to join Duo, who had gone to stand before the fire. Duo’s face, staring down at the glowing embers and occasional flame, bore a look of intense glee mixed somewhat incongruously with the stillness of a dreamer that fears sudden movement lest he awaken.

Heero had to agree. “I almost can’t believe it,” he murmured. “We’re really here, together.”

Duo turned toward him with a slow grin, and stepped forward until his chest was warm against Heero’s, reaching down to grip both of Heero’s hands in his own. He matched the volume, if not the precise tone, of Heero’s murmur as he replied, “You just wait ’til we go to bed; I’ll make you believe it.”

Heero shivered, and suddenly wanted out of his cloak rather a lot. He would have removed it if he hadn’t decided that kissing Duo was a much better option; and he would have kissed Duo if Duo hadn’t suddenly, unexpectedly shifted and taken Heero by the waist. His other hand, which was still clasped with one of Heero’s, he raised into the air. Heero only realized what was going on and dug in his heels when Duo attempted to swing them off around the room.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, half laughing and half panicking.

“Didn’t you say you first saw me dancing? And that you wanted to dance with me?” Duo was still pulling at him.

“I also thought, at the time, that I’d never be able to do it.” Heero was still standing his ground.

“Come on, there’s nobody here to see.”

“Only the person whose opinion I care about most.”

“What, the person who loves every single little thing you do?”

Heero found he could not resist the wheedling tone, the sparkle in the eye, or the little kiss Duo planted on his cheek; he relaxed and allowed himself to be swept (or, more accurately, dragged) into what he supposed must indeed be called a dance despite his own clumsy part in it. He was blushing and Duo was laughing, and they only stopped when they’d knocked twice into a wall and nearly fallen when Heero’s feet got tangled in Duo’s.

Finding themselves conveniently and somewhat breathlessly beside another wall, they settled complacently into a more sedentary position against it as their arms went around each other properly and their lips met; then there was a moment of near-silence in the room while they inaugurated their new life in their new home with a very long, very satisfying kiss.

Just then they clearly heard the sound of the latch and the door opening, and jumped apart, startled. They hadn’t noticed anyone behind them on their way up here, and had no idea who was likely to be entering at this point without knocking. Perhaps it was Duo’s mother, and they wouldn’t have to be so careful. Not that Heero would feel comfortable kissing Duo in front of Duo’s mother, but there would, at least, be less to worry about in their proximity to each other.

But the woman that entered was not only a complete stranger, but completely strange.

She wore an improbably elegant silver gown with long pristine skirts that obviously had not trailed along the dirt path, muddied with the moisture of snow, to this house. Her hair fell loose over bare shoulders that must have been uncomfortably cold at this time of year, and over her eyes she wore spectacles. Her face itself, beautiful in a harsh sort of way, was riveting.

There was something immediately and undeniably familiar about it, Heero thought, and yet he was absolutely certain he’d never seen her before; he was sure he would remember her if he had. She didn’t appear to belong here, but, rather, somewhere much, much finer than the rough new three-room house of a couple of Rubiset rustics; honestly, he couldn’t even picture her walking down one of the nicer streets in Silverbreaker Cove or looking disdainfully out a carriage window as he’d sometimes seen rich ladies do. She seemed farther distant than that, almost as if she was not even human.

And yet there was something very human, almost painfully human, about her expression and the maelstrom of emotions in it. She looked… distraught… distracted… miserable, angry, hurt… and if the wildness of the wide eyes behind the glinting glass of her spectacles was any indication, this mixture of feelings was not doing anything for her rationality of mind. Additionally, there was in her entire bearing a clear, pointed purpose, one moment seemingly malignant and the next just desperate and confused. Heero noticed, as if it was innately related to this, that she clutched in one hand the long stem of a single rose that drooped a bit from the force with which she held it.

So unexpected was the sight of her and everything about her that Heero and Duo both stared, speechless and surprised, for several long moments. The woman returned the scrutiny, and her already complicated expression took on an additional aspect: deep resentment, even loathing. What they could have done to offend her Heero couldn’t guess, but it was clear that something about them had played directly and dangerously into an already unstable frame of mind.

Finally Heero broke the silence with a wary, “Can we help you?”

“You’re disgusting,” she replied in a harsh, clipped tone, her hands clenching into fists. The rose stem was convoluted even further by this, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Men like you are an insult to women.”

Heero felt Duo’s hand reach out to grip his defiantly; and since there really did seem to be only one way to interpret that last statement, he didn’t see why not. “Who the Hell are you,” Duo demanded, “and what do you want?”

“I’ll show you what it’s like,” she said, in a tone of reply despite the seeming non sequitur. “I’ll teach you both a lesson. You’ll learn.” Her voice had a ranting quality to it now, and she continued to look them over with calculating disgust. “Your kind can’t be allowed to keep living like this, to keep on with this sort of unnatural behavior, to keep hurting people.” Heero found himself drawing closer to Duo. This woman was obviously mad, and Heero wasn’t quite sure what to do about her.

Her next statement was in a tone so much softer all of a sudden, accompanied by such an abrupt abeyance of all the anger in her gaze, that it was almost the most disconcerting thing she’d said so far. “If I could only be certain… I wouldn’t mind so much… This should prove it one way or the other.”

“Who are you?” Duo asked again, and it was clear that he’d come to the same conclusion Heero had about her sanity.

Instead of answering, the stranger looked around, but somehow it didn’t seem she was seeing the little room. “There’s a lot of free magic in the area,” she said as if to herself. Her tone was once again the harsh, commanding one she’d used before, and at her mention of magic Heero suddenly realized what was so familiar about her: she reminded him of the yara — not in feature or figure, as physically she did not resemble her at all, but in her abrupt, inscrutable appearance here, her very evident sadness, and perhaps some sort of aura about her similar to that of the last magical woman he’d encountered. Which made the stranger’s incomprehensible threats suddenly a source of very real concern.

But that concern was nothing to the cold fear that abruptly gripped him as the woman turned her insane eyes back toward the two men, tossed the yellow rose carelessly aside as she raised her hands, and added, “How convenient.”

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I wasn’t terribly pleased with how the colors came out on that picture; here, see the pencil.