The oldest of Quatre’s sisters had married a farmer’s son Quatre had never met, and now lived with him on his family’s lands. The latter were far enough away that they were considered an attachment of Sobreton, the next town over, rather than Beaulea — but evidently the gossip had spread so quickly about the return of Lord Winner’s son that even out there they’d already heard it before Lord Winner had begun considering sending someone to let them know. Etienette showed up with her husband in the early afternoon the next day, and Quatre had another very pleasant reunion during which he was occupied simultaneously with rejoicing in seeing his sister again and carefully inspecting his brother-in-law.
The latter was especially a concern when Nette told him, quietly but with a glow about her that seemed to radiate from her very bones, if not deeper, that she was pregnant. She’d been planning to visit her father soon in any event to bring him the news, and upon hearing of Quatre’s return had come out immediately.
Quatre was thrilled for her, and told her so, but had to admit to an increase in forlornness at the thought of nieces and nephews he might never meet. After all, Nette was only the first of many that were likely to have children while he was busy fulfilling a lifelong vow elsewhere; he might be able to visit again, but he doubted the occasions could be anything but few and far between.
Aubori and her husband made their appearance the next day. Just like Nette and her husband, the sister was ecstatic to see Quatre and the brother-in-law pleased to meet him. Just like Nette and her husband, they were astonished and interested by Quatre’s story; unlike with Nette and her husband, Quatre was unsure how much they actually believed it.
He was unsure how much he liked Aubori’s husband, actually. The man raised cattle, which was a good, solid career in this area, but the life seemed to have made him far more blunt and less considerate than Quatre would have expected any husband of one of his sisters to be. Of course this was based only on a brief initial impression, and there was nothing to be done about it in any case, but Quatre soon thought he preferred the friendly, deferential man Tabithe had married or even Nette’s husband that he’d also barely met. Upon discussing this with Trowa, the latter looked dark and admitted that he felt the same. Quatre was relieved that he wasn’t the only one.
They attended church with the family and found that, change in circumstances notwithstanding, the Winners were still lining up in the same two pews. But where Lord Winner had previously gone as a dismal weekly duty he now lingered willingly to gossip with the villagers and discuss the keeping of the house in town with the old man that ran it for him. The girls, too, all seemed to have numerous friends with whom they chatted happily after the service, but the attention of most of the churchgoers was reserved for Quatre and Trowa.
They had to resort to explanations that were misleading at best and downright dishonest at worst, but Quatre didn’t feel particularly bad about it. The tale that he and Trowa had been lucky enough to find service with a rich and reclusive lord was fairly believable and might as well have been true, and he didn’t really feel like sharing the Beast with anyone more in any case.
Most of the townsfolk only knew that Quatre and Trowa had been ‘able to support’ Lord Winner over the last year, but a few of them that were a little closer to the family knew about at least some of the marvelous things that had been sent back. Their mention of these reminded Quatre of the new set of gifts the Beast had sent, which he’d nearly forgotten in the joy of seeing his family again. So that evening he and Trowa unloaded them, and there was a great to-do as the girls insisted on wearing everything wearable and Lord Winner and Roldeen discussed the things and their potential market value.
Quatre was… concerned about Roldeen. For the first few days, at least, he wrestled with the possibility that this was just his old bitterness talking and he shouldn’t be a wet blanket, but he didn’t actually feel any bitterness anymore. It was difficult to be displeased with the man himself, since he was so kind and friendly and ready to help anyone anytime in any way he could… but on the fourth day, when the little girls came up with the idea of purchasing (in honor of Quatre) some oranges from a fruiterer that only came through town once a month or so, and ran up to see if their father’s happiness at his son’s presence would lead him to approve the expenditure, Quatre’s concern about Roldeen redoubled.
Indulging in luxuries like that was exactly the sort of thing Roldeen had used to urge, or at least speak in favor of to the exclusion of any rational argument; how much of that was still going on? How much of the girls’ dowries would be left by the time they needed them? No, Quatre thought that Roldeen’s level of involvement in family finances was a legitimate source of worry, regardless of his own feelings. As a matter of fact, he was perfectly happy Roldeen was here; he just didn’t want to see him exerting any sort of influence over the budget.
And he might not be; Quatre couldn’t tell for certain — not without asking his father outright. Which was where the whole thing really rubbed, because this very topic had been the cause of the worst argument Quatre and his father had ever had.
He didn’t exactly discuss this with Trowa, but neither did he attempt to hide it from him, and he was fairly sure that Trowa, as was generally the case, knew exactly what was going through his head. Trowa certainly seemed, at least, to observe Roldeen with as much analytic interest as Quatre did. Roldeen, on the other hand, making Quatre feel a bit guilty for worrying about him, showed the same unconditional, almost fatherly kindness he always had to both Quatre and Trowa.
It was interesting to watch his family’s interaction with Trowa and to think back on how Trowa’s position in the household had changed over the years. When they’d taken him into their service, it had been as a kitchen-boy, but Trowa’s quiet calmness, sense of responsibility, and talent for emulating the manners of the higher-born servants had won him a position as a page almost immediately. Then it hadn’t been long before he’d become Quatre’s all-purpose personal servant and companion, in fact if not in name (though Quatre did remember a few instances in his childhood when he’d overheard the adults refer to Trowa as ‘Quatre’s boy’) — and it had remained that way for several happy years.
Quatre wasn’t sure exactly when he’d ceased thinking of Trowa as a servant and instead as an invaluable friend, but he knew his family had joined him in this opinion even before they’d moved house within Silbreaker; certainly by the time they lived in Beaulea Trowa was as much an older brother to the girls and a son to Lord Winner as Quatre was — though Quatre couldn’t exactly think of him that way. Trowa was definitely closer to him than a friend, but ‘brother’ somehow wasn’t quite right.
And evidently Quatre wasn’t the only one that couldn’t see Trowa as related by blood. After the eighth or so time Amarante appeared wildly rattled when her brother and his friend entered the room, and in response to her lack of attempts at humor during the entire week they’d been there, Quatre asked the next adult he happened across (Olivie) what was wrong with his fifth sister.
Olivie gave the smile of someone with an amusing secret and said, “I guess it won’t hurt to tell you, since Mara’s so bad at hiding it and you two have to go away after not too long anyway: she’s in her Trowa phase.” At Quatre’s look of surprise she elaborated. “They all had a Trowa phase at about her age, but I think she may be the last, with things changing the way they are.”
She meant, of course, the probability that Trowa would not be around when the younger girls each reached the age Mara was now, but Quatre could not dwell on the unhappiness of that speculation in his mirth at the news that his sisters had each gone through a period of attraction to Trowa so consistent that it had earned itself a title among them. His burning desire to share this news with Trowa was not satisfied for a couple of hours, but then he was rewarded for his patience by the extremely rare sight of Trowa absolutely flustered and taken aback.
Patting his friend on the shoulder, Quatre attempted to keep a straight face as he reminded him that the older sisters had gotten over it just fine and three of them had even married other men. But Trowa was still visibly startled, enough that only Quatre’s continued amusement allowed them to pass it off as a private nothing when Lord Winner and Roldeen, coming into the room just then, wondered what was wrong.
Quatre’s father obviously loved having Roldeen around… to the point where any questioning of his merits would start another painful argument? Quatre didn’t know, but nine days into his stay he still hadn’t worked up the courage for what seemed a risky conversation. He needed to, though, and sooner would probably be better than later. But he kept coming up with other things to do and to think about.
They discovered that the servant Vidal had been a fortuitous find on the part of Lord Winner; he was very interested in building, and, in addition to having mended just about everything that needed it around the property, had a dozen good ideas for how to improve the place in the future. One of these was to install wood flooring in at least some of the downstairs rooms, which would retain warmth better in winter and modernize the house somewhat.
Since the new set of gifts would undoubtedly bring in money enough that they could do any number of building projects without worrying much about the cost, Lord Winner quickly approved the commencement of this scheme, and Quatre and Trowa cheerfully assisted Vidal in getting it started. They knew almost nothing of carpentry, but they were good at following orders, and it was a pleasant way to spend their days knowing that they were helping the family.
The evenings were spent just as pleasantly, and much more noisily, with everyone around. Sometimes Nette or Aubori (with or without their husbands) would join them, sometimes friends from town would visit; there was talk of Quatre and Trowa’s time at the palace, and of the goings-on in Beaulea, and of the doings of the world, and of their memories of the past, and everyone was very happy.
Quatre’s opinion of each brother-in-law did not change from his initial impression, but the upshot of that was that at least he hadn’t come to like Aubori’s husband less. He thought, in fact, he might grow to like him more after a certain length of time; there were just some unusually (and, he thought, unnecessarily) rough mannerisms to be gotten used to.
The nights were spent, aside from working hard to get any sleep in the rather uncomfortable guest bed, wondering why he hadn’t yet talked to his father about Roldeen. Well, there wasn’t actually much wondering to be done… he knew why, really. He couldn’t stand the thought of putting a blight on the happiness his father had rediscovered at such great cost; he couldn’t stand speaking out in any way, even if it was just a gentle inquiry, against a man that had been so long a faithful friend of the family and of his father in particular — not to mention a man that he himself liked and respected; and he couldn’t stand the idea of another argument with his father, especially when he had no idea when he might see him again after this visit.
And yet he feared he would not be able to live with himself if he didn’t have this discussion. He had to be sure that Roldeen was not heavily involved in the family’s finances, was not going to ruin them again (this time probably beyond repair), or it would haunt him for the rest of his life. His one consolation was that he still had a couple of weeks to work up the nerve to do it.
The days seemed to be passing remarkably fast, however. Busy from sunup to sundown in such good company, with work and domestic pursuits and the future of the family to think about, the time was pleasant enough to fly. Lord Winner was getting in touch with his contacts in Silbreaker again to begin the sale of the new set of trinkets; Nette and her husband were considering baby names and plotting, with Olivie and Masette’s help, how the child’s room should be decorated; Tabithe and Essue had to show Quatre their shop and everything they did there; Aubori and her husband still had to be watched carefully for signs that Quatre and Trowa could pass approval on the man and the relationship; Amarante was still obviously fixated on Trowa, which meant that Trowa had to be teased on a nightly basis; Emili wanted Quatre to practice music with her at every available opportunity; and whenever they weren’t running errands for the little girls, there was an endless number of games to be played with them. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do and say everything that a year’s absence rendered desirable.
When their visit had gone on more than three weeks, as they were preparing for bed one night, Trowa asked him specifically whether he planned on talking to his father about Roldeen.
“Yes,” Quatre sighed, “I need to just go do it…”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Trowa offered.
Quatre smiled. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, “but it’s probably better if you don’t.”
Trowa nodded, and reminded him neutrally, “Remember that we need to leave next week.”
Quatre did remember, and didn’t really want to think about it.
And then next week came, and there was work to do and fun to have and a number of stories to tell and to hear, and Quatre, without meaning to, adopted as a sort of mantra, I’ll talk to him tomorrow.
None of his family mentioned his supposed time of departure — some of them because they hadn’t been keeping track of how long he’d been there, and some (he thought) because they feared that reminding him of the stated duration of his visit might hasten his leaving. And when the week — and therefore the month — was over, I’ll talk to him tomorrow took on a more frantic mental tone, and there was a sort of desperate agitation to everything Quatre did that did not involve getting up and going back to the Beast.
Trowa started giving him looks every time Lord Winner was in the room; he too was very clearly feeling guilty about their lateness in returning — probably more than Quatre, since he’d always been the more responsible of the two of them. In the end, an entire week passed beyond the cessation of the promised month before the issue was forced more heavily upon Quatre’s conscience in a manner he had not expected.
Quatre wasn’t certain, when he awoke, why he was suddenly beginning a new day in something of a panic. He lay motionless for a long moment, frowning up at the ceiling, wondering why his heart was racing and suffused with the hot conviction that something was wrong. Trowa was still asleep beside him, there was no noise from other parts of the house, everything seemed normal… so why was he breathless and agitated as if he’d just awakened from a nightmare?
Abruptly, eyes widening and breath catching, he sat up and threw off the blanket. Half scrambling and half vaulting over Trowa, who grunted, Quatre ran to the window and the bowl of water on its sill.
“Quatre?” Trowa always seemed to gain his presence of mind upon awakening faster than anyone else Quatre knew. “What is it?”
Quatre, staring down at the bowl in dismay verging on horror, responded almost in a whisper, “Did you dream about them?”
At first Trowa didn’t seem to know what he meant, but after a moment he too caught his breath. “I didn’t.” And by the sound, he rose from the bed; soon Quatre could feel the warmth of him at his back.
It had been over a year since he’d had a night free of some dream or other about the two sleeping men in the secluded palace courtyards. Even here they’d followed him like faithful companions; he and Trowa had agreed that the roses probably kept them enough connected with the palace and its mysteries to keep the dreams coming. And though neither of them had ever been able to remember what happened in these dreams, Quatre at least was so aware of the dreams themselves — as if aware of the presence of those two unknown men just outside his range of vision — that not having seen them last night was disconcerting and even frightening. And the roses, which he’d been prompted to look at by his lack of dreams, were more distinctly so.
The pale peach one that he’d worn, previously darkening to an intense salmon color at its edges, now faded rather to an ill-looking greyish-brown, and those edges looked cracklingly dry and stiff. Where it had collapsed outward and begun to lose its hardening petals to the water around it, its companion had instead shriveled in onto itself: Trowa’s rose, which had been a pale purple before, was also now laced with a marbling of dull brown that was the edges of the limp petals as they huddled into each other. They both looked horrifyingly forlorn and deathly.
“We need to leave,” Quatre said. Behind him, he could swear he felt Trowa’s nod of agreement. Quatre took a deep breath. “I’m going to talk to my father right now.” And, before he could lose his nerve, he left the room in his nightclothes and went looking for Lord Winner.
The latter did not seem to have arisen yet; when Quatre knocked rather vigorously on his bedroom door, there was the sound of shifting and mumbling inside for some time before footsteps approached.
“Good morning, Quatre,” the dressing-gowned Roldeen greeted him, yawning. “Up so early?”
“I was hoping for a private word with my father,” Quatre said.
“Mmf,” came his father’s voice from further inside the room. “Coming.” And soon he too was at the door, fastening his own dressing-gown and putting an affable hand on Roldeen’s shoulder as he passed.
There was a small sort of upstairs parlor that Quatre was surprised hadn’t been converted into a bedroom, given how many people lived in the house, and to this they retired. Inside, his father looked him up and down, and smiled at his attire. But this shifted to a forlorn expression as his eyes rose to meet Quatre’s. “You’ve been more and more agitated the last few days, and you’ve already been here longer than you said you could stay; you obviously want to leave and get back to your friend… what have you been waiting for?”
Quatre simply told the truth. “I’ve been a bit of a coward. I’ve been putting off talking to you.”
His father’s smile returned, but now it was distinctly sad — some of that emotion, Quatre thought, directed inward at himself. “If it’s about Roldeen,” he said gently, “I’m not surprised. I’ve had a feeling you wanted to talk to me about him ever since you got here.”
“And,” Lord Winner added, “I’ve been a bit of a coward about that myself.”
Surprised, Quatre could only wonder what he meant.
“Roldeen means more to me than I can say, but he’s much too kind and easy-going to be much of a businessman. You tried to tell me that years ago, and I’ve known it… well, I probably knew it even then, but I admitted it to myself not long after we argued about it. But I was never able to tell you how sorry I was for my part in that argument, and that you were right all along.”
“I never meant to imply that he wasn’t a good man,” Quatre said quickly, “just that he…”
“And I realized that eventually. I should have apologized to you, but I never did.”
“It’s all right.” Quatre was very relieved at the way this conversation was going, which made him simultaneously very annoyed at himself that he hadn’t started it sooner. “All I want now is to make sure that what happened before doesn’t happen again.”
His father nodded. “Roldeen and I have talked about it, and agreed that he has no part in any of our financial arrangements.” His eyes were sad as he added, “It’s an unfortunate agreement to have to come to with another intelligent person; nobody likes to hear something like that, especially from a friend. But he’s man enough to admit his own weaknesses.”
Seeing the truth in this and feeling a speculative touch of the pain and embarrassment this must have caused, Quatre smiled a little awkwardly. He wanted to say something placating, reassuring, and, “I can tell he’s a good friend,” was what he came up with.
“He is,” Lord Winner agreed. “I always hope all my children will find such fulfilling friendships. Though I rather suspect,” he added with a warm smile, “that you already have.”
“Trowa?” Quatre returned the smile. “Yes. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
“I’m grateful to you both for what you’ve done for the family,” Lord Winner went on. “And as long as we’re still in here talking privately, I might as well tell you I’m proud of you both, too. I guess you can even tell Trowa that I said so.”
Quatre chuckled, though there was at the same time a tightness in his throat that threatened to make speech impossible if he wasn’t careful. “Thank you,” he said. “And thanks for setting my mind at ease. I didn’t want to ask at all, but I couldn’t leave without knowing.”
“That’s right; you need to get back to that hairy friend of yours before he gets too lonely.”
“Yes. I’m afraid we have to leave as soon as possible.”
“Etienette and Aubori will be sorry not to be able to say goodbye.”
“I’ll be sorry too,” Quatre frowned, “but we’ve put it off too long already; we don’t have time to wait for messages to get out to them to let them know to come.”
“Will you at least wait for the others to come home from work this evening?”
Quatre pursed his lips. Now that the one thing that had been holding him back was out of the way, he realized he was more than a little desperate to get back to the Beast. “I think not. We’ll go find them all and say goodbye on the way out. That may take a while, but it’ll still be quicker than waiting around all day.”
Lord Winner smiled sadly. “I should have known you would leave as suddenly as you appeared.”
“I’m sorry… I’d like to stay… but I’m worried about him.”
“Oh, I don’t blame you for going. But it’s going to be a sadder place around here without you.”
“But you’ll still be happy,” Quatre insisted. “You’ve done so well making this into a good home and recovering your spirits… as long as we’re still in here talking privately, I might as well tell you that I’m proud of you for that.”
“Very little of that was my doing,” Lord Winner smiled. “Your sisters and Roldeen helped, but it was primarily those gifts from that friend of yours. You’ll thank him for me when you see him, won’t you?”
Trowa was unsurprised when Quatre, upon returning to the guest room, announced that they would leave immediately; he was also, apparently, unmoved by Quatre’s rather dictatorial tone, so Quatre didn’t bother apologizing. As a matter of fact, Trowa had already dressed and begun packing up everything he’d brought with him into the now-empty backpack that had previously held an impossible world of valuable trinkets. Quatre joined him wordlessly at this pursuit, and didn’t himself get changed out of his nightclothes until Trowa headed down to the kitchen to see if he could find any quick breakfast for the two of them.
The last order of business before leaving the guest room was to remove the pathetic roses from their bowl, gently shake the water off them as best they could, and find some way to attach them to their tunics — in Trowa’s case with a pin through the receptacle — and then to be seriously dismayed at the utter lack of any apparent change in the vigor of their movements as a result. They really had waited too long; the magic of the roses seemed to be gone.
There were protests and denials and even an attempted bribe or two when Quatre and Trowa went to say goodbye to the little girls. The latter had a difficult time accepting the fact that their guests were really leaving until the guests were actually at the door saying goodbye to Lord Winner and Roldeen, and then there was weeping. Guiltily Quatre regretted not giving longer notice, but there was nothing to be done about that now.
Roldeen wished them well and hoped they would be able to visit again soon, and Quatre was able to respond with unreserved pleasure. His father was less optimistic about seeing them again any time in the near future, but warmly wished them health and happiness and sent his regards to the Beast. And then they were off, away from the house and across the lane onto Camilo’s lands, in search of more sisters to say goodbye to.
It took them over an hour to find everyone and make their farewells, but, as Quatre had told his father, that was much quicker than waiting for them all to come home that evening; they got out of town just after nine. And it couldn’t be clearer, as they started toward the close green horizon, that the roses were not making one bit of difference. If they sped up, they did so entirely under their own power. There was no telling when they would reach their destination at this rate.
Trying to fight off his own concern regarding this issue, Quatre started a conversation. “Did you notice how I rescued you back there?”
Trowa seemed ready for a distraction as well. “Did you rescue me back there?”
“Mara was going to kiss me so she would have an excuse to kiss you too.” Quatre forced the grin that seemed appropriate for this teasing remark. “But I cut the goodbyes short before she could.”
“That was kind of you.”
“It was. It would be a shame if I had to start giving you the suspicious brother-in-law look.”
“It would,” Trowa agreed.
That sort of exchange was rendered simultaneously more effective and a little awkward by the fact that Quatre simply could not see Trowa married to any of his sisters. Of course the awkwardness made the teasing better, but perhaps Trowa didn’t think so, for he changed the subject. Quatre didn’t mind, as it gave him a chance to pass along his father’s words of praise from earlier. Trowa appeared pleased, but soon all conversation faded away entirely under the weight of their growing concern. The roses weren’t guiding them anymore; the first crossroad they came to, where they simply had to make what they considered an educated guess, killed their last frail hope in any remaining efficacy of the flowers. Now they worried not just about reaching the palace in a timely fashion, but about reaching it at all.
They stopped for a rest around lunch time and ate the bread and butter Merci had insisted on sending with them, then started off again just as a light rain began. Nothing was familiar. Granted, the two times Quatre had traveled the forest in the vicinity of the Beast’s palace had been neither of them conducive to detailed memory, but he could swear there had been a steep hill and a sort of tunnel of denser trees, and they had seen nothing of the sort. And when they came upon yet another fork in the road as indistinctive as all the previous, he stopped in frustration and looked around.
His heart seemed to be resting, cold and heavy, in the pit of his stomach, and he’d reached a point where every new step forward jolted it more firmly into that uncomfortable position. He took a deep breath. “Just guessing the way isn’t getting us anywhere. We need to get lost.”
“I think you’re right,” Trowa nodded; he appeared just as darkly thoughtful as Quatre felt as he too glanced around. He raised an arm and pointed. “There?” The spot he indicated looked as good a place as any to leave the road and get themselves thoroughly disoriented, so Quatre nodded and headed in that direction.
Abandoning the track was more of a plunge than he had expected. The trees were fairly thick here, limiting visibility and slowing movement, and the undergrowth was constantly and complacently in the way. The ground was uneven even when it wasn’t rising or falling steeply, and their steps often faltered. But they pressed on doggedly, giving each other a hand up whenever one of them stumbled, working together to cross little streams or scale difficult hills, willing themselves first lost and second where they wanted to be.
Eventually, frustrated and worried almost to the point of tears, Quatre was about to call for a rest. It was growing later and later in the afternoon, which meant it had probably been several hours now since they’d last stopped. But as he took another few weary steps and looked around for a good place to sit down, he saw instead a sight that made his heart leap for the first time in that long day. It was just the briefest flash of color — a distant red-grey at about the appropriate height — but it was galvanizing. He practically jumped forward, pushing through bushes and around trees and nearly stumbling several times because he was looking so steadfastly upward.
And his reward was, finally, a very clear sight of a familiar tower showing through the foliage ahead and above. They’d made it. They were almost there.
Trowa restrained him when he would have broken into a run. “It may be farther than it looks,” he said reasonably. “And if you fall or twist your ankle, we’ll never get there.”
Quatre complied with the good advice only grudgingly, and once they had emerged from the trees onto the road — it had indeed been farther than it looked — he took to a jog toward the hedge-wall and the high dark arch in which the gates, as usual, stood open.
Perhaps it was just a new perspective, seeing the place again after a month away in more conventional (that is, less magical) surroundings, but the grounds seemed different somehow as they moved past them up the road toward the palace. Quatre couldn’t say exactly what it was that had changed, if anything had, but the scent of roses hit him like a blow, reminding him of just how absent it had been in Beaulea. And as his quick steps took him closer to the building, he was practically welcoming the good old loneliness as if he enjoyed it, because it meant he was back. He would soon see the Beast, make sure he was all right, apologize for the long delay.
Actually it was a little strange that the Beast was not already out here greeting them; he usually seemed to know where Quatre and Trowa were at any given moment. And the loneliness, now that Quatre really concentrated on it, seemed… well, not necessarily more intense than usual (that would be quite a feat), but perhaps more pointed. As if things were coming to a head.
In response to this realization, panic began creeping along the edges of Quatre’s consciousness, similar to what he’d felt that morning in response to the absence of the usual dreams. He crossed the tiles in front of the main entrance with even quicker steps, wrenching open one of the doors before the magic could do it for him and dashing inside.
“Beast! Beast! We’re back!” His words echoed through the great entrance hall, bouncing off the huge marble statues and getting lost eventually in the hangings on the walls and the dimness near the ceiling.
There was absolutely no answer.
A chill knifed through Quatre’s body. The Beast had never failed to respond to a call before, unless he was specifically trying to avoid a conversation. Quatre couldn’t imagine that the case now. So where was he?
“Let’s check his room in the cellar.” It was clear from Trowa’s tone that he was just as close to panic as Quatre was, but his presence, as always, was bolstering and even calming.
Though his breaths were ragged, and it was an effort, after the long walk and half paralyzed with concern as he was, to get his knees to bend on the stairs, Quatre joined Trowa moving toward the servant’s corridors; they shed their cloaks and backpacks somewhere on the way, and soon reached the narrow staircase that would take them down first into the kitchen and then the wine cellar — and this time, at least after a corridor or two, they really were almost running.
Trowa stumbled on the steps down, Quatre caught him, and they went on without comment. Though the amount of light was the same as ever, it seemed darker down in the earthy cellar than they were accustomed to, not to mention colder. Barren. Lifeless. And indeed so they found it; there was no sign that anyone was there, nor had been there any time recently. The message scratched into the dirt, which meant nothing to either of the humans — NOT EVEN AT THE END — looked days old.
Quatre was again near tears, gazing around in despair. “We waited too long,” he whispered. “What do we do?”
“We keep looking,” Trowa replied stonily.
“How could we leave him to be so lonely for so long…” It was a statement purely of self-castigation, and reminded Quatre of the sight of the miserable Beast tearing the roses away from the face of a sleeping man so he could make a useless, desperate show of affection. With only such friends had Quatre and Trowa left him for over a month. “Let’s check outside,” he said.
As the closest door to the grounds was nearer the southern sleeper’s courtyard, they went there first — and there they found exactly what they had been looking for in precisely the arrangement they had feared to find.
The Beast lay in the grass beside the dais on which the human slept, his great hairy back against the stone. Quatre couldn’t be sure how long he’d been there, but it must have been quite some time, for rose vines had already grown up and criss-crossed his dark figure with twisting, leaf-dotted lines of green and big blossoming spots of color. He lay utterly still, and his eyes were closed.
They were kneeling in the tall, wet grass at the Beast’s side before Quatre was even fully conscious of having told his body to move; his hands were scrabbling at the vines, tearing his own flesh on the long, sharp thorns. “Beast,” he was gasping out, still without remembering having told his throat and lips to do so. “Beast!”
Trowa took Quatre’s wrists in an iron grip. “If you hurt the roses, you’ll hurt him,” he reminded tersely.
Letting out a ragged breath, Quatre nodded and swallowed. “Beast?” he said again. “Can you hear me?” As Trowa let go of him, Quatre buried his fingers in the curling dark brown fur and shook the Beast with enforced gentleness that wanted to be a good deal more insistent. “Please open your eyes,” he whispered.
“I thought he was exaggerating,” Trowa said, in the same tone, also gripping the Beast’s fur as if for comfort. “All that about eight percent… I never thought he would actually…”
“Beast!” Quatre almost sobbed.
Then, to his immense, heart-stopping relief, the little eye on this side of the Beast’s head opened, rolling slowly to look at them each in turn. There was some movement beneath their hands as the Beast took a deeper breath, and in a quiet growl he said their names. “You came back.”
“Did you really think we wouldn’t?” Quatre wondered miserably, half accusing and half penitent.
“Maybe. A little. I’m just glad to see you again.” He shifted slightly, and made a sad small noise as if of pain.
“What’s wrong?” Quatre demanded. “What can we do for you?”
“Nothing,” the Beast replied simply in an even quieter growl. “Soon I’ll be dead. I hope I can hold out… ’til after sunset… but I doubt it.”
Tears beginning to pour down his face, Quatre found himself unable to say anything but, “No… no…”
“You’re not injured,” Trowa insisted, as if reminding the Beast of this could prevent his death.
“Trowa…” The Beast chuckled weakly. “You should know… about loneliness… what it’s like… to be so close… you can almost… but not quite…” His eyes fell shut again. More quietly still, so much that it was nearly unintelligible, he said, “Thank you both… for this year… for being my friends…” And then he went silent, and utterly still.
Though he tried for another denial — in fact he thought he might have shouted this one — Quatre found his throat too tight, his lungs too constricted to say anything. Instead, it was Trowa that spoke: “This is all my fault.” His harsh tone was so quiet he was almost whispering.
Quatre shook his head and managed to choke out, “It was my fault we delayed so much… If I hadn’t been such a coward…”
“No… no, it’s all my fault.” Trowa’s expression was twisted with anguish, and through the Beast’s curled fur that he squeezed along with the rose vines that covered it, blood was trickling from the tightness of his hold on the thorns. “None of this would have happened if not for me,” he went on somewhat desperately. “That night when we first came here, in the rain… I knew it wasn’t the right way. If I hadn’t deliberately led us off on the wrong track, he would never have met us… he wouldn’t be dying right now…”
“But…” Even in the midst of his greater concern for their friend, Quatre was struck with the oddity of the circumstance Trowa described. “Why would you…”
“Because I love you. I’ve been in love with you as long as I can remember.”
The words hit Quatre like a blow, and not because of the miserable roughness of Trowa’s tone. The startling unexpectedness of their meaning, the earnestness and sorrow and absolute despair in Trowa’s eyes… it took Quatre’s breath away and almost made him unable to concentrate on the rest of the explanation.
“I knew your father would insist I leave you when we got back with the news about the ship, and I couldn’t stand it. I just wanted a little more time with you, even if it was lost in a rainstorm. It seemed like such a little selfishness at the time…” Trowa bowed his head, his tears, tearing from eyes abruptly squeezed tight shut, falling hard onto the Beast’s motionless flank. “If I’d known it would end up killing someone…”
Quatre only realized just how overwhelming a revelation this was when, in moving slightly, he found himself reeling. His head was spinning, aching, overfull, and there was such a hugely painful tightness in his chest he didn’t think he was breathing. Trowa… Trowa loved him? Well, of course Trowa loved him. But Trowa was in love with him! And had been for years, apparently…
And precisely concurrent with this, the thoughts not so much alternating or meshing as fighting violently for dominance of his head, there was the desperate, helpless awareness that the Beast was dying, and that it was Quatre’s fault. He didn’t think he had room for it all, for the two huge systems of divergent, tumultuous thought, like battling thunderstorms, raged unchecked through his heart and mind.
All the years he’d spent with Trowa seemed to rush past his eyes, a jumble of shared experiences — happiness and sadness, always shared — Trowa’s rock-solid presence and support; his subtle, wry humor; his intelligence and the dedication with which he’d educated himself so that his every opinion was worth hearing; his quiet, practical consideration for others that never affected nor was affected by his precise awareness of their attributes; how he’d always been more of an obliging brother than a servant to Quatre’s sisters, especially in recent years; how Quatre’s father had always respected him; and how Quatre himself could not begin to imagine life without him.
He remembered how he’d felt during Trowa’s illness, as if he might be dying as well. He rather thought he felt the same now.
He should have known better than to think another week or so beyond what he’d sworn would have no material effect. He should have realized that, when magic and soul-crushing loneliness were involved, when the Beast had already been suffering for two hundred years, he was unlikely to exaggerate regarding his probable fate. Quatre should have kept his promise properly as a man of honor would; should have paid attention to the roses.
Even the rose that had started all of this had been an offering of love, hadn’t it? In what had started as a slow trickle but was now quickly increasing to a roaring flood, he recalled an uncountable number of gestures, hints Trowa had given that Quatre had never taken, from years long past all the way up to the recent one spent in the Beast’s palace. “You. I wouldn’t leave you. Quatre.” Quatre felt like a blind idiot. What was worse, he felt like a cruel idiot that had been for much of his life tormenting the most important person in it.
For surely Trowa had never made this crucial confession, even when they were back-to-back in the same bed, unable to sleep apart, because he assumed Quatre would never be able to share the unusual feeling of romantic love for another man. Admittedly it was something Quatre had never heard of before, but was also something that didn’t seem at all unnatural, and probably shouldn’t even have been unexpected. If only Quatre hadn’t been such an idiot.
An idiot that was now killing one of the best friends he’d ever had, killing someone that had already suffered, had continually suffered, had suffered for ten times as long as Quatre had lived and was now dying because Quatre was a careless, selfish fool. Trowa might believe this was all his fault, but despite his one little mistake — a mistake motivated by love and whose outcome he could never have begun to foresee — things might still have turned out all right… they might even have been able to better the Beast’s situation, perhaps figure out someday what they could do to break his curse or change his situation… if Quatre hadn’t been cowardly and imperceptive and pathetic. Trowa was nothing to blame for this; Quatre could not let him feel that he was.
Despite the shock and the guilt and the chaos, the actual, final realization slipped into Quatre’s consciousness surprisingly gently, perhaps because it was simply a new awareness of an emotion nearly as old as he was. It seemed almost peaceful, somehow: a refuge against the turmoil of his thoughts. He hadn’t known he had a hole in his heart whose shape was precisely that of the name of what he felt for Trowa, but now that he’d filled it he found a sort of internal dissonance he also hadn’t been aware of fading. Set against the current, howling dissonance that was his awareness of the tragedy in the grass before him, it made him want to cling and never let go. But he couldn’t.
“Oh, Trowa…” His words were almost unintelligible from the midst of that maelstrom. “I love you too… more than anything… I think I always have, but I never…” One of his hands gripped frantically at Trowa’s where the latter still held the Beast’s fur tightly. “But this isn’t the right time,” he finished at a whisper. “I’m sorry…”
Even as Quatre’s eyes fell away from him, Trowa shook his head minutely as if to dismiss the apology and agree with Quatre’s statement that they had other concerns at the moment, and there was no adequate term for the look on his face. It was an echo of the chaos that had previously gripped Quatre — and which was, to a certain extent, still gripping him — but in place of the near-bafflement and rapidity of recollection that had so occupied Quatre, there was an almost disbelieving awe that verged simultaneously on incomprehension and ecstasy. But it was interlaced with the terrible concern Trowa, like Quatre, felt for the friend that lay dying before them and to whom they now returned their attention.
But even as they did so, the Beast seemed to waver before their eyes and grow insubstantial beneath their hands — just for a moment, after which he dissolved entirely, disappearing as if he had never been. He left behind him only a dent in the grass and a collapsing mess of leafy vines that slowly imploded into the space his body had occupied.
“No… no…” Gasping out these words, releasing Trowa’s hand, Quatre scrabbled among the greenery, scratching himself even more and, of course, finding and accomplishing nothing. “No… you can’t…”
“Quatre, he’s…” Again Trowa seized Quatre’s wrists, this time before Quatre could begin pointlessly digging into the earth with his bloody fingers. “He’s gone.”
At the sight of Trowa’s face, haggard with the strength of this unusual sorrow and streaked with tears, the full flood of Quatre’s own sadness overwhelmed him. He moved somehow — he didn’t really notice how — and was in Trowa’s arms amidst the tall grass and thorns, clutching at him, feeling Trowa gripping him tightly in return, his face buried against Trowa’s shoulder and chest, shaking with sobs. And so for a while, forgetting the rest of the world in their grief, they held each other and cried.
It wasn’t only that their friend had died, though that shocking circumstance was certainly the final straw; it seemed to be the culmination of all the sadness and pity and confusion of the last year. How could they have braved the loneliness of the palace for so long, only to have it defeat them in the end? How could they have resolved themselves to life with the Beast, and probably never knowing his secrets, only to lose him at last? How could they have finally come to a full understanding of their feelings for each other right in the midst of their cruelty to, their slaying of, someone else they had loved?
And knowing that they had done so, how could they live with themselves — or each other — after this?
After I got my sister and her husband to pose for reference photos to use for that picture, I’m extremely disappointed with how it came out. Mostly Trowa’s skewed face…