Even in the midst of great pain, a part of Trowa that he wasn’t bothering to fight or attempt to push away was insanely, giddily happy — happier than he’d ever been, happier than he had any right to be, especially in the present situation. Quatre was correct: this wasn’t the time… and yet he was also in Trowa’s arms, and not just for comfort. He’d said the impossible, and turned Trowa’s entire world upside-down.

And the Beast had died. Because of Trowa’s selfish duplicity, they had made a friend of that strange, lonely person and then killed him. Trowa might somehow, unbelievably, miraculously have Quatre’s heart after all, but, after all, he did not deserve it.

From his despair at this loss and his own part in bringing it about, Trowa wouldn’t have thought anything could pull his attention until he had worked his way through the crushing bulk of his initial sorrow, but when he clearly heard a voice nearby cursing and grunting as if in pain or great effort, he was jolted somewhat back into awareness of his surroundings simply by the incongruity of the sound. With a deep, unsteady breath he tried to calm himself a little, to sit up straight and look around.

“Shit,” the voice hissed again. Trowa had almost thought he’d been imagining it, for, though he didn’t know whose it was, it seemed oddly familiar to him. But it was definitely real; he realized, as he opened his tear-sore eyes and turned them toward the painful daylight, that it came from the dais beside which they knelt and atop which there was now, for the first time in his memory, movement.

Abruptly he released Quatre and stood, reaching down a hand to help Quatre up after him. And once standing, they could both see that the sleeping man had awakened. He was struggling against the rose vines that held him captive with their thorns as effectively as any ropes could, but when he saw Trowa and Quatre he stilled for a moment, his eyes widening. These were a blue so warm it was almost purple, and their color and brightness might have come as a surprise to Trowa if he hadn’t seen those eyes so often in his dreams over the last year.

Though neither was in the clearest frame of mind, the mourners both moved to help the other man; they tore at the vines, Quatre with his hands and Trowa with his pocketknife, until the stranger was able to sit up and brush the last of the greenery from him. He was rather bloody even so, but, then, so were the hands of the other two.

Now he was staring at them with an expression so full of such a variety of emotions it was impossible to describe; Trowa thought, though, that disorientation was dominant. He opened his mouth as if to speak to them, but then, at a sound of rustling leaves and grass behind him, over by the opening to the path that led around the palace, he paused. His eyes went even wider, and he appeared to stop breathing. He turned in a movement so abrupt and wild that his braid whipped out around him, and was in the next instant scrambling off the dais without another glance at Trowa and Quatre.

The latter two also turned, and saw that the other sleeper had awakened. He looked significantly bloodier than the one that had been offered some assistance in getting out of his thorny prison, but also considerably less disoriented; and if he’d awakened at the same moment as his friend — the moment of the Beast’s death? — he must be less disoriented in order to have freed himself and then made it all the way over here from the northern courtyard.

There was a wildness to his expression that mirrored precisely that of the other man’s movements, and, as Trowa and Quatre watched in dull incomprehension, the two newly-wakened strangers half dashed, half stumbled toward each other until they met with a gasp and collapsed to their knees in each other’s arms in the long grass.

The one with the braid was speaking in a rough, broken murmur, and, though Trowa thought it was mostly profane, he did catch the word ‘Heero’ several times. Because, of course, Heero was the name of the other, the dark-haired man with the beautiful long lashes. If Trowa had ever been able to remember any of his dreams about these two, he would have known that without prompting.

Even with everything else that was going on in Trowa’s heart, even having no real idea who they were or what was happening, this reunion was good to see. They held each other as if intent on breaking bones, or perhaps on fusing into a single being, and their words, though still largely incoherent, were clearly words of love. Had they been apart for the Beast’s entire two hundred years? Had it been the Beast’s presence that had kept them asleep and separated?

Eventually, after quite a long time, they drew back and looked at each other again, and their locked gaze was so intense that Trowa almost felt he shouldn’t be witnessing it. Their murmured exchange continued, and Trowa was at last reminded of the name of the man with the braid: Duo.

With increasing greed of movement, the two strangers were touching each other all over, not sexually but still very thoroughly. They were covered in scratches, shallow but numerous, that had all bled at least a little, and their hands skimmed across these, acknowledging them and smearing the blood almost without really noticing; it was as if they hadn’t quite recognized the now, the current status of their situation yet, and were accepting the presence of multiple light injuries only as parts of a whole that they had longed for vast amounts of time to have under their fingertips again.

The one called Duo now began raining kisses on the scraped, tearstained face of the other, seemingly at random and still attempting to speak as he did so. The other, Heero, laughed a little, weakly, and said Duo’s name in a thoroughly unconvincing tone of protest. He did not even attempt to protest, however, when Duo’s lips found his and kissed him much more purposefully for a very long time.

Though this actually seemed far less intimate than some of their previous actions, Trowa really did turn away at this point. His eyes found Quatre, who was watching the former sleepers in a mixture of confusion, the underlying despair at the death they’d witnessed just a few minutes before, and a profoundly embarrassed interest at the sight of two men kissing. Trowa couldn’t help wondering what his thoughts on the subject were. Quatre did not look around at him, however, nor give any deliberate clue as to what was going through his head.

When the men’s kiss was finally finished, they returned to their fervent embrace and their murmuring. “I thought we were dead for sure,” Duo was saying.

“I almost feel like it can’t be real,” Heero replied.

“If it is a dream,” Duo said, “I don’t know what the Hell I’m going to do when I wake up.”

“It’s not a dream.”

“Oh, God, Heero…” And then they fell silent and just held each other tighter.

At length, though, Duo looked up from where he’d been nuzzling Heero’s shoulder and neck and said, “So what actually finished the spell? Did she get tired of us, or what?”

Heero drew back a little so as to make a gesture toward Trowa and Quatre that struck the former as very familiar. “They finished it.”

Duo, glancing in their direction, seemed to notice them for the first time despite the fact that he’d reacted specifically to their presence and assistance before. His face, already transported with joy, appeared, impossibly, to light up even farther. “You guys came back!”

“We did,” Trowa agreed, not entirely sure what to make of this.

At his somewhat blank tone, Duo laughed. Releasing Heero and getting to his feet, he pulled Heero up after him. “You don’t recognize me — us — do you?”

“We’ve…” Quatre’s voice was weak and confused, but he started again and got it all out. “We’ve been dreaming about you two…” Even in the midst of all he must be feeling, he said it like a placating offering, as if to make up for the recognition Duo wanted that he could not give.

“Have you?” Duo appeared startled, and there was something familiar about his almost exaggerated drawing back in surprise.

“Every night for the last year,” Quatre confirmed.

“Wow, really?” Duo was obviously amused and intrigued; his face was even more open than Quatre’s, and his engaging curiosity seemed familiar too. “What kind of dreams? What were we doing in them?”

“We’ve never been able to remember them when we wake up,” Quatre said, a little apologetically in response to Duo’s enthusiastic interest. “But when we saw you two sleeping in the courtyards, we knew it was you we’d been dreaming about.”

“Huh. All this time, and I never knew.” Duo looked from Quatre to Trowa. “But besides that, you really don’t recognize us?”

“Duo,” said Heero, “don’t tease them.” As a reproof it was not terribly functional; he might as well have been saying, Duo, I love you, with the voice he used. Then he turned to the others and added, in a suitably less adoring tone, a tone that Trowa knew, “We were the Beast: Duo at night, and I during the day.”

Quatre sank abruptly to his knees in the grass as if he simply had no strength left.

A moment later, Trowa joined him.

Of course they had been the Beast. Of course the Beast had been two people. Of course the familiarity about Heero and Duo here now was more than just a subconscious recognition of what Trowa had seen in his dreams. The still, self-contained manner in which Heero stood observing, the evidently boundless energy and interest with which Duo spoke to them — that was the Beast. Of course it had been ‘him’ that Trowa and Quatre had been dreaming about. This one simple explanation answered a host of questions, several of which Trowa hadn’t even known he’d been asking.

And it meant that their friend wasn’t — that their friends weren’t dead.

“God, Heero!” Duo, in taking his turn chastising his lover, used the same adoring tone Heero had. “Don’t spring it on them all at once or anything!” And he too dropped down into the grass again. “Are you guys all right?”

Quatre started to laugh, and its near-hysterical sound of relief and joy and surprise couldn’t have expressed more perfectly how Trowa felt as well. Then Quatre moved so abruptly that everyone else was startled, throwing his arms around Duo. “You’re alive,” he half choked. “You’re alive.”

Trowa was close enough to the two of them that the hand shooting out to drag him into the hug — so fast he couldn’t tell whose it was — had no difficulty in doing so, but Heero was still a few paces away. Not until Duo called to him in that same loving tone as before, “Heero, if you don’t get over here…” did he join them. Then everything was incoherent for a while as a lot of hugging and weeping and laughing and rejoicing took place.

Now that the previous misery had been cleared away, Trowa felt himself overwhelmed with happiness. His friends were not only alive, but free of the enchantment they’d been under for so many years — and free to be together again as they had obviously yearned to be for just as long. It was going to take a while to get used to the idea of the Beast being two different people, and Trowa still had a world of questions he wanted answered, but this ignorance, in contrast to what he and Quatre had been suffering in the palace all along, was one of anticipation rather than frustration.

And on a closer, more selfish note, Quatre… Quatre had said he loved him. If not for the prickle of damp grass on his legs and the smell of rain in the air and all the other little details his subconscious would probably have ignored in favor of emphasizing the main event, he would have been convinced he was dreaming.

Eventually they all settled down for what would probably be a fairly lengthy discussion, Heero and Duo with their backs to the stone dais and their hands clasped, and Trowa and Quatre opposite them in the grass. Duo, removing the grey cravat he wore under the blue-purple tunic they’d seen him sleeping in all along and beginning to attempt to clean up Heero’s face with it, opened the conversation with, “So how was your family? Everything going all right there?”

Trowa was already starting to do quite a bit of looking back at memories of the Beast with an eye to what time of day it had been (and, therefore, whether it had been Heero or Duo), and he thought he would only be doing this more and more often as time went by. Now he remembered that it had been nighttime when the Beast — Duo — had remarked that he hated himself for having taken Quatre from his family; Trowa supposed, then, that it only made sense fort Duo to ask about that first… but it still seemed a little odd to start out talking about the domestic affairs of a small-town family when there was magic and sorrow and mystery to discuss.

Evidently Quatre thought so too, for he laughed as he answered. “They’re all fine. Better than fine, actually; they’re doing very well now, thanks to the presents you–” his gaze shifted to Heero– “sent them last year.” He’d obviously been assigning times of day to his memories too.

“Wasn’t that nice of him to think of that?” Duo, abandoning his futile pursuit of wiping the drying blood from Heero’s face, ruffled his dark hair affectionately instead; this motion didn’t seem to make much difference to its overall state. Though Heero immediately raised his free hand to stop him, his little smile indicated that he wasn’t displeased with the praise.

“You sent presents too, though,” Quatre reminded Duo.

“Only after he did! I didn’t think of it first!”

“My father sends his thanks and good wishes,” continued Quatre with a chuckle.

In some surprise Heero wondered, “How much did you tell him about us?”

“Everything. My family,” Quatre reminded him with amused pride, “is made up of kind and reasonable people.”

“Oh, I want to meet them.” Duo started squirming in his excitement. “Oh, now I can meet them! Heero! We can meet Quatre’s family!”

Heero let go of Duo’s hand and snaked the arm around Duo’s body to clasp his waist instead, keeping him from rising to express his enthusiasm for the idea perhaps through dance. “Yes, we can,” he said quietly. Trowa got the feeling that Heero was every bit as eager for the circumstance as Duo was — just not as inclined to vocalize it — and had to smile. There was the placid daytime Beast Trowa remembered, the proverbial deep-running still water.

Quatre was blushing at the show of affection between their companions, and perhaps this more than anything else prompted Duo to hasten on with the conversation. “So tell me about–”

But Trowa interrupted him. “No. We’ll tell you whatever you want to know later, but right now I don’t think I can stand it. You two haven’t been able to talk about the magic that’s been going on around here, and Quatre and I have been dying to know for a year. It is definitely your turn.”

There were varying degrees of laughter from the other three. “He’s right,” Quatre admitted. “There are a hundred things I want to know.”

“Well, fine,” Duo said with a grin. “If you really think that’s more interesting than all your funny sisters.”

“I don’t know where we should start,” said Heero, looking thoughtful.

“How about–” Quatre began, and Trowa at the same moment said, “Tell us–”

They glanced at each other. It was almost the first time their eyes had met since their mutual confession, and Trowa thought there was a new depth to the way Quatre looked at him. There was certainly a deepening to the color of Quatre’s cheeks as their gazes locked. Trowa wanted more than almost anything in the world to get Quatre alone, but it still wasn’t the right time for that. For the moment he just gestured that Quatre should speak first.

So, clearing his throat slightly, Quatre turned back to the others (who might perhaps have been regarding this little exchange with interested looks) and said, “All right. What I want to know first is how you two managed to live as one person so convincingly. I mean, I always wondered about… well, I thought it was just that you had a lot of energy at night and were more tired during the day. You seemed strange and like you had two different natures, but it never even crossed my mind that you might actually be two different people!”

Heero and Duo were both nodding, and it was Heero that answered. “The transition — for me — happened at sunrise. It was like waking up from sleep. I would get a sort of report on what ‘I’ had done all night.” He said this in an almost questioning tone, as if asking Duo for confirmation that it had been the same for him.

Duo nodded more vigorously. “Yeah. I got so used to processing that information, first thing after when I ‘woke up’ at sunset, that it only took a second, even if Heero had done all sorts of stuff during the day. But it still took that second,” he added with a chuckle, “and you guys must have thought I was crazy, going blank like that whenever you were around at sunset.”

“I remember thinking at one point,” said Trowa, recollecting, “that you were distracted by watching the sun go down because it just meant one more day you’d spent under whatever enchantment it was.”

“There was some of that too,” Heero agreed quietly, darkly. Duo, who’d reciprocated the arm around the waist, squeezed him, at which Heero’s expression lightened immediately.

Quatre, blushing again (or perhaps still), asked, “So it was almost like you two were able to communicate that way? When you knew what the other one had done?”

Heero shook his head. “It was like reading a written account. Had supper with Quatre and Trowa; discussed Quatre’s family; jumped around in the children’s courtyard.” At this last, a fond little grin crept onto his face as he undoubtedly reflected on how charming his lover was. “It was more detailed than that, whenever there were details I might need to know in order to keep fooling you. But it was never… personal.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t like a memory,” Duo put in. “I didn’t actually see or hear what had happened; like he said, it was more like someone just telling me, ‘You did this and then you did that.'”

“That sounds awful,” Quatre murmured. His eyes had fallen to his hands, one of which was rubbing at the scratches on the other; they’d stopped bleeding, but Trowa wished he could take them and wash them and kiss all the little wounds. At the same time, he had to agree with Quatre’s assessment of the unfortunate condition of Heero and Duo over the long years. No wonder the Beast had seemed so overwhelmingly lonely at times; no wonder the atmosphere of the palace had been so desperately miserable.

Both of the men against the dais nodded again. “But!” Duo said more cheerfully, “we did find other ways to communicate.”

“Sometimes,” Heero muttered. “To a certain extent.”

“Messages in the dirt floor,” Trowa realized.

“That was my idea,” said Duo proudly. “There were a few benefits to having talons.” He wiggled his talon-free feet.

“It was very limited, though. There wasn’t exactly space for long letters.” Somewhat mimicking Duo, Heero lifted his free hand and flexed it, looking at it in a mixture of pensive recollection and fresh satisfaction. “But we couldn’t use pens. I tried for years. It just didn’t work.”

“You saw how well I handled a paintbrush.” Duo grinned at Trowa, who had to grin back.

“Those hands…” Heero was still staring at his newly-human appendage. “I will not miss those.”

“God, is there anything you will miss?” Duo wondered.

“That poem!” Quatre said at about the same moment. “That poem wasn’t for you to reread at all; you wanted Duo to read it.”

“Oh, you noticed that?” Heero smiled faintly, and ran a caressing hand over Duo’s arm. “He never had the patience to find anything he wanted to read in that library. So I would find things for him.”

“Sometimes shamelessly romantic things,” Duo elaborated, equally shameless. “He would dog-ear the pages just in case I might miss his point. You know I taught this guy to read in the first place? I never thought doing that would create…” He cleared his throat, obviously deviating from whatever word or phrase he’d originally intended, and finished instead, “someone who spent so much time in a library. Of course, back then I wasn’t really aware that libraries even existed.”

“Thank God you did teach me,” said Heero fervently. “I don’t think I could have survived this otherwise.”

“It’s a wonder you did,” Quatre murmured. Trowa nodded, and there followed a long moment of dark and pensive silence.

Finally Duo slowly shook his head. “Sometimes the idea of just jumping off the tower was… really nice. But I didn’t know what would happen to Heero if I did.”

Heero moved to clasp Duo fully in both arms, to murmur something to him that Trowa did not catch. Again, their interaction seemed so intensely intimate that Trowa’s eyes moved from them as if to give them some privacy. He found Quatre’s gaze meeting his again, saw that, once more, Quatre’s blush had deepened to a beautiful rose color. Not, Trowa reminded himself, that ‘rose color’ could ever again really function as a specific description after what he’d seen here.

Quatre smiled at him, and Trowa felt his heart beat faster. It hastened even more as Quatre tentatively reached out a hand and took one of Trowa’s. Neither Quatre’s blush nor Trowa’s increase in heart-rate diminished as skin met skin and slid into a handclasp Quatre then did not relinquish. For a long moment they just looked at each other. Trowa wanted so much to find some private place to talk to Quatre about everything in the world, to tell him again, now that he was free to do so, how much he loved him and always had. But he also wanted to hear more from Heero and Duo, and that still seemed as if it needed to come first. He returned Quatre’s smile and then returned his attention to their friends.

They seemed to have finished comforting each other, at least for the moment — there were undoubtedly years of comfort they would need to give and receive in order to recover from their ordeal, probably spanning the rest of their lives — and appeared ready to continue the conversation now. So Trowa took a deep breath and asked a question to get things moving again:

“You said that we somehow ended the spell?” He gestured slightly to Quatre with his head, since the hand closest to Quatre was still beautifully occupied.

“Oh, yes.” Heero seemed to be recollecting himself, and the pain that had previously darkened his face was clearing up. “Yes, you did. The spell–”

“Are you sure we should get into that?” Duo wore an expression of concern, but the extreme teasing sound of his voice completely belied it. “Quatre’s already blushing like a red apple.”

“I’m sure I can handle whatever you have to say,” was Quatre’s prompt response, which he managed to deliver with a fair approximation of coolness. He blushed harder, though, especially when Trowa squeezed his hand.

Duo laughed. “All right, if you’re sure…” At Quatre’s firm nod, he took up where he’d forced Heero to leave off. “The spell needed love to end it. But it couldn’t be just one-sided — Trowa — it had to be two people together. Since Heero and I weren’t ever together, we couldn’t end it ourselves. We were counting on you guys.”

Now Trowa was blushing a bit too. “So when you said you thought I ought to tell him…” Duo hadn’t been merely offering romantic advice; he’d been trying to solve a two-hundred-year-old problem and free himself and his lover from enchantment.

Duo let out a very Beast-like growl. “That was so frustrating! It looked to me like he loved you just fine, if you would only say something about it… There were a couple of times, actually, when it seemed like you guys got really close and then never actually managed it.”

Heero joined in with a shake of the head and, “I remember when I walked in on you two almost kissing in the kitchen. I thought I’d ruined everything.”

“What?” The madly-blushing Quatre was startled into speech. “When was that?”

Heero smiled. “You two were so drunk. I’m not surprised if you don’t remember it. Trowa talked to me in the hallway just after, and he could barely walk straight.”

“Oh.” Quatre sounded flustered. “No, I don’t remember that. At all. Did we…?”

Trowa shook his head, not to deny anything but to express that he really had no idea.

“You probably don’t remember the nonsense you were slurring at me either, then,” said Heero reminiscently.

“I don’t remember most of that day,” Trowa admitted, “but I believe you.”

“You thought I was after Quatre, didn’t you?”

Trowa grimaced a little.

“He was jealous for months,” Duo put in with a laugh. “Weren’t you, Trowa?”

“Were you?” Quatre turned to look at Trowa with wide eyes. “Why would you think…”

Again Trowa just shook his head.

Duo came to his defense with, “It makes a sort of sense; you had no idea that we were two people who already had each other, but you could tell we were half-dying of loneliness. I mean, it had been — how long do you think, Heero?”

“Seven years?” Heero suggested.

“Since what?” Trowa asked, glad to be apparently moving away from the topic of his irrational jealousy.

“Since anyone else found their way here,” said Heero.

Trowa and Quatre were immediately intensely interested. That was one of the things they’d wanted to know all along. They were also — at least Trowa was, and he assumed the kind-hearted Quatre must be as well — more than a little appalled at the idea of anyone, especially their friends, going without any kind of human contact for seven years. Of course it was actually better than what Trowa had hazily been envisioning — that is, two hundred years without any kind of human contact.

“We’ve actually had quite a few other guests over all this time; people would get lost in the forest and find their way here, and we’d always offer them food and a place to stay — for as long as they needed it, really, though most of them headed out in the morning.” Duo was idly picking with his free hand at the grass in which he sat, tossing the plucked blades in random directions as he spoke. “Actually, since it took people about three minutes to realize the place was magical, some of them weren’t as brave as you two and would just turn right around and head back into being lost in the forest as soon as they saw the lights.”

“How strange…” Quatre mused. “You’d think, if people routinely found this place, we would have heard of it at some point.”

“Well,” Duo shrugged, “it wasn’t what I’d really call ‘routinely.’ I mean, you guys have been here for a year and nobody else has come in that time. And isn’t there supposed to be an enchanted palace in just about every forest in the world?”

“That’s true, I guess. But people did sometimes stay for a while? Besides us?”

“In two hundred years it was bound to happen a few times. There was a pair of brothers — obnoxious guys, on the run from the law somewhere — who stayed for a while… and an old man who just wanted to rest who eventually died here… and a huntsman who was here for a couple of months…”

“Among others,” Heero added when he observed that Duo wasn’t going to keep listing their various guests.

“How many people made the same promise I did?” Quatre asked interestedly. “Picked roses and had to stay forever?”

“Nobody ever really stayed forever,” Duo replied, and at this he looked a little embarrassed, for some reason. “The old guy did die here, but he was dying already when he showed up. But, yeah, some people promised. But the magic only required that we either kill the person who picked the rose or get a promise from them that they’d stay for the rest of their life; it didn’t seem to have any effect after that. So if we decided to let someone go — which we always did after not too long: a month or so — or if, as a random example, someone went to visit their family and never came back, or if they just ran away, the magic wouldn’t really have any say in the matter at that point.”

Trowa wanted to ask about ‘the magic’ and the glaringly huge issue, entirely ignored thus far, of how Heero and Duo had gotten horns and a scorpion’s tail in the first place, but Quatre spoke too quickly for him. “We always meant to come back, I swear. I just put off setting out because–”

“Quatre, you don’t have to,” Heero broke in, quiet but pointed. “We knew when we sent you that it would be hard for you to leave your family a second time.”

“Yeah,” Duo agreed vigorously, “we’d already discussed the possibility of letting you go for a visit. I mean, as far as we ever could discuss anything. We were ready for you not to be able to make it back at all.”

“But you almost died! So how was letting us leave any different from jumping off the tower?”

“We didn’t know what the suicide of just one of us would have done to the other,” Heero answered quietly. “But if you two didn’t come back, we knew it would kill both of us. Of course we wanted you to come back. But if you didn’t… we were ready for that.”

Quatre just stared at him.

Duo stretched out a leg and poked Quatre’s knee with his toe. “Don’t look like that! It’s all over with now. Besides, we already thought about letting you off your promise entirely once before.”

If it was a distraction technique, it worked. “Did you?” Quatre wondered.

“When Trowa was sick,” Duo replied with a nod, “and nothing in any of those books was helping and he just kept getting worse… a couple more days and we’d have sent you for a doctor. God knows what would have come of that.”

“You would have done that for us even then?”

“I regretted ever making you stay here at all,” Heero said. “We’d never kept anyone as long as we kept you. I would have let you go after a few weeks like we always did with the others. But I saw how you two were. I thought you might be able to finish the spell. I hope you can forgive me for that…”

Trowa would have liked to assure Heero that there was nothing to forgive, but, in a situation where someone had consciously chosen to keep others captive in a miserable place purely for his own benefit (well, and, admittedly, that of his lover), the words would sound a bit foolish. So he just nodded in agreement when Quatre said earnestly, “Of course! We were hoping all along that we could do something to help you.”

Softly Heero replied, “Thank you.”

And into the following silence Trowa asked the question that had long been uppermost in his mind. “How did this all happen?”

Duo made a bitter sound, and his hand clenched into the grass it had been playing with in the shadow of the dais behind him. Heero sighed and leaned his head back against the stone. For a while nobody said anything.

In a sudden flash of inspiration Trowa spoke again. “It’s that woman who wanders around the palace, isn’t it? The one who looks like the statue in the entrance hall.”

Heavily Heero nodded, while Duo’s expression went downright murderous. And Heero said, “She’s a faery. She made this place, and put the spell on us. The other statue is of a king from two hundred years ago. She loved him.”

She loved him still, Trowa thought, if the look he and Quatre had once seen her giving the statue was any indication, though the man himself must be long dead.

“She loved him,” Heero repeated, “but he only saw her as a friend. She was content just to be with him and keep hoping… until she discovered that he was in love with a lord from his court. He tried to tell her what an important friend she was to him and how much he really did love her, even if it wasn’t the way she wanted…”

“Poor bastard,” Duo muttered. “Must be pretty damned uncomfortable to have a crazy faery in love with you.”

“She was hurt and shocked and disgusted,” Heero went on, taking one of Duo’s hands again. “Part of her felt betrayed and wanted to force herself on him and make things go the way she wanted…”

“I wish she just had,” Duo put in.

“Part of her felt sad that she wasn’t right for him, and wanted to understand and support the man she loved. But no part of her could bear to do anything that would hurt him.”

“So she just took it out on the next random couple of male lovers she could find,” said Duo, more bitterly than ever.

“Wait,” said the appalled Quatre. “You mean you didn’t do anything to her at all? You were just…”

“In the wrong place at the wrong time,” Heero said heavily.

“That place being our own home minding our own business,” Duo practically spat, “and that time being our first day there.”

“That’s horrifying,” said Trowa. “Just because you shared one trait with someone who hurt her…”

“And it sounds like he was doing his best not to hurt her!” Quatre agreed. “But even if he’d done it on purpose, it still had nothing to do with you two!”

“That’s the problem with faeries,” Duo answered, his tone an acerbic mockery of patient resignation. “If one of us does something in a bad moment, we can usually apologize for it afterwards. But if she gets angry and arbitrary, someone may end up suffering for two hundred years. Because who’s going to stop her?”

They all sat in silence for a moment, pondering the truth of this assessment. Faeries were rare and mysterious people with their own agendas, and for every story about a pauper turned into a prince there was another about a prince turned into a frog. Because Duo was right — who was going to stop it?

Quatre shivered slightly in a cool breeze that was picking up in the slowly-lengthening blue shadows as the sun moved toward the mountains before them. “So she did all of this,” he said, gesturing around. “She built this magical palace, turned you into a Beast, made sure you couldn’t leave, set up a spell that wouldn’t end until someone declared their love in front of you…”

“Killed everyone we knew,” added Duo in the same harsh mutter as before.

“What?!” Quatre and Trowa demanded simultaneously, aghast.

“I guess even a faery can’t just make an enormous enchanted palace out of nothing. She needed building materials. So she used some magic that was floating around here coincidentally to help her with the magical parts, and the local community — all the buildings and animals and people — for the rest. I don’t know exactly what she did with them, just that when she was magicking the palace into being we saw–”

Heero abruptly pulled Duo against him as if tacitly to advise or request that Duo not describe it. Duo turned to bury his face in Heero’s shoulder. Quietly Heero said, “Duo’s mother was…” He didn’t need to finish the thought.

After a long moment Duo said, “I’m all right.” And he did sound quite calm as he went on, “I’ll never forget. I’ll never forgive her. But after so long, I’ve learned to live with my own feelings about it.”

“So there was a whole community here?” Quatre wondered hesitantly, obviously wanting to know but unsure whether it was permissable to ask.

“Probably two hundred people,” was Heero’s brief answer.

Trowa frowned. “That’s a lot of people to just disappear…” One for every year Heero and Duo had spent here? “How did she…”

Heero was shaking his head. “I never asked her. I don’t know how she made things look from the outside.”

“But why did she do all these horrible things?” Quatre burst out. There were tears on his face. “Was she just lashing out? Did she think it would make that king love her? Or that she would feel better? What was she trying to accomplish by ruining so many lives?”

“I think it was some of all of that,” Heero replied sadly. “At first it was just about revenge against the first available victims, in the heat of a bad moment. Maybe even a sort of threat to the king she loved. I don’t think she kept up much contact with him after he broke her heart, though. But I think another reason she did it, and the reason she was around so much afterward instead of just having her revenge and moving on, was that it was also a test. She wanted to know whether it was possible that the man she loved could be happy in his choice, or whether he’d gotten himself into something that not only pushed her away but would also hurt him.

“Part of it was to punish us, yes. She pulled us apart and forced us to live forever without each other. But she watched us carefully to see how we would deal with that. And then there were the terms of the spell. She made it very clear that love was what would end it all, but she never said it had to be a man and a woman. Part of her, I think, was hoping one of us would fall in love with a woman and end the spell that way. Or maybe a man and a woman would come along and show us the way things are ‘supposed’ to be done. But another part of her was secretly hoping a couple of men would prove it was possible to be happy, to have real love like that as well.”

“Even after she stopped keeping track of the king?” Quatre wondered. “She was that fixated with the concept for that long?”

“I don’t know whether faeries perceive time the way we do,” Heero said thoughtfully. “But in any case, she’s… changed… over the years. She may have become more fixated than she was at first.”

“You can see Heero’s been pretty damned chatty with the lunatic who ruined our lives,” Duo muttered.

Heero looked a little hurt. “I just wanted to understand why she did it.”

Duo abruptly clung. “Oh, I didn’t mean I was upset with you or anything! I just never understood how you could bring yourself to talk to her so much.”

Trowa reflected that, given their process of obtaining knowledge about each other’s actions — Duo being aware that Heero had talked to the faery but not why he had or how he’d felt as he’d done so — this was quite an understandable attitude.

“She didn’t explain anything to us when she showed up and cast the spell,” Heero elaborated. “She just walked into our house and started ranting incoherently.”

“So in addition to being suddenly miserable and lonely,” said Quatre, “you were confused because you didn’t know why you were suddenly miserable and lonely.”

Heero nodded. “So I had to talk to her. I had to know why she’d done this to us, and what was going to happen. She wasn’t always around, and she didn’t want to talk to me at first, so it took me years to find out everything I’ve told you.”

“And then she got even crazier,” said Duo.

“It seemed like she…” Heero searched for words. “She’d always had two pretty distinct sets of thoughts and feelings about the various parts of the situation. As time went by she seemed to split herself in half along the line between them.”

“I think it was the magic she’d set up here,” Duo put in. “Changing back and forth between Heero and me had a sort of rhythm that she got into, and after a while she was changing back and forth too. Well, you’ve seen her — sometimes she’s one way, sometimes she’s practically the opposite. It took a while for me to notice, since I hardly ever talked to her and I only knew details about how Heero saw her when it was something I needed to know; but eventually it got through even to me that what I was sometimes talking to and what Heero was sometimes talking to almost weren’t the same person anymore. The version I eventually got had all the softness and gentleness and the sad eyes that almost made me feel sorry for her…” His face hardened. “But not quite.”

The next to speak was none of the four of them. Into the pensive silence that followed Duo’s strange words came a voice from behind Trowa and Quatre: harsh to the point of cruelty, unfamiliar but no trouble to identify.

“If you’re finished discussing me, stand up and face me.”

None of them had observed her approach, even with tall grass and hedge greenery that should have rustled with her passage, but magic had probably been involved to see to that, so it was no surprise. She looked as Trowa had seen her many times over the last year: dressed in an old-fashioned man’s tunic, this one black and gold, over pure white shirt and trousers and high black boots, her hair pulled up into tight braids that formed two swinging loops at the sides of her head. This was not the version Duo had eventually gotten. There was nothing to induce pity about her at this moment, nothing soft and sad. Certainly nothing gentle.

All four men were on their feet at once, not because she had commanded them to stand but in response to the threat she represented. Later, thought Trowa detachedly, assuming he survived this, he might be amused in looking back at this scene. Each of them seemed to want to protect the others; if there was to be some sort of spell cast against them, each of them wanted to take it in place of his friends and his lover — despite the fact that the faery undoubtedly wouldn’t have any problem enchanting all of them at once if she so desired. But the result of this was a clumsy shifting — almost a milling about, except more purposeful — as everyone tried to put himself between the faery and everyone else. And it was Duo that did manage to get in front of the rest of them by the simple tactic of moving several steps closer to the faery than any of the others had thought to.

The woman regarded them from behind the glass of her spectacles with contemptuous eyes, which came to rest finally on Duo’s clenched fists and the defiant expression he must have been wearing. “You think you know me,” she said in a voice made of sword edges. “You think talking to someone occasionally under circumstances like these is enough to make you understand her?”

“These circumstances are your fault,” Duo growled. “Don’t talk like we haven’t been doing this right.”

The faery’s lips curved into a vicious smile. “You haven’t done much of anything, right or wrong. You couldn’t even bring yourself to step off the tower and free your little friend to pursue something better.”

Trowa could not see Duo’s face from here, only his back bisected by the swinging braid, but it wasn’t difficult to guess, from the abrupt stiffening of frame, what his expression must be at this moment. There was no way of telling whether or not the faery was lying, but just the suggestion that the suicide Duo had contemplated would have freed Heero from the enchantment must be tearing him up inside.

Heero pushed past Trowa and Quatre in something of a rush, moving to just behind Duo. He reached out and took one of Duo’s hands in both of his, pulling the clenched fingers out of their fist and holding them curled around his own. There was something familiar about this, but Trowa didn’t have time to dwell on it. He found himself moving as well, almost unconsciously in response to an overwhelming desire to show solidarity in the face of their possible end, to where Heero and Duo stood. Onto the latter’s shoulder Trowa put one hand, and felt the other hand taken from behind by Quatre. Together they waited, all of them connected, for whatever would happen next or last.

Duo was shaking slightly, and from this angle Trowa could now see the pained, angry tears on his face. “You heartless monster,” he said, almost in a whisper.

The faery’s eyes flicked along the defiant line arrayed against her, and her lip curled. “I’m not the monster here.”

“Your spell is over.” Heero spoke quietly, but it was a tone of steel. “Let us go.”

“You think the end of one spell means I’m done with you?” She looked at him, then over at Trowa and Quatre with a stabbing brown gaze full of bitterness and evil intent. “You think you’ve proven a point, don’t you? You’ve proven nothing; you’ve only given me more to work with.”

Duo made an inarticulate sound of rage and protest, and jerked forward as if to attack the faery. But at her gesture — magical or just very pointed Trowa didn’t know — he jerked to a halt as if struck. And she went on. “I could turn you all into pigs, to match your hearts, but that wouldn’t teach you anything.” Her tone had all along been calculating and full of hatred, taut and purposeful like a strong cord that was somehow red-hot, but now it seemed to be unraveling a bit as emotionality overtook her. “You humans, who can’t even learn your lesson after two hundred years…”

“If by ‘learning our lesson’ you mean not loving people it’s perfectly acceptable to love,” Heero replied coolly, “you could give us two thousand years and we wouldn’t learn.”

“Two thousand years?” the faery echoed, and a manic light seemed to have come into her eyes. Trowa wanted to suggest quietly that perhaps Heero should refrain from giving her ideas, but found he could only watch the woman in apprehensive, almost hypnotized fascination and growing fear.

Again her gaze moved across their four faces, looking at men that had loved each other for over two centuries in spite of the separation and misery she had inflicted on them, at men that had stumbled upon this situation by accident and only declared their love this very day. Again she smiled, cruelly, pointedly, and yet with an expression on her face now that suggested something had spun off-balance and she’d suddenly lost touch with whatever rationality she’d originally been approaching this situation with.

She raised her hands.

Previous (Chapter XIII) | Chapter Index | Next (Chapter XV)

Obviously there was nothing visually interesting in this chapter that I didn’t want to spoil, so we got… hands. They look OK, I guess, if a little extremely boring.